15 June 2018

A More Beautiful and Terrible History, by Jeanne Theoharis

The Preface to the book lays out its compelling thesis: that civil rights history has been sanitized, transformed into a "narrative of dreamy heroes and accidental heroines." (xiii) Radical critiques of structural inequality have been replaced with feel-good stories of individual heroism that furthermore place their struggle firmly in the past, allowing them to be safely celebrated in the present without threatening the status quo. Everyone is allowed to feel good about themselves for being part of a nation whose history includes such glorious heroism -- indeed, she says, such revisionism casts the movement as "an almost inevitable aspect of American democracy rather than as the outcome of Black organization." (x)  Theoharis offers a clear, compelling, evidence-laden explanation of how "the recounting of national histories is never separate from present day politics." (xi) -- one I will very likely assign to students in the future. What we need, she says, is more honest, uncomfortable history, so as to act more effectively in the present, to perceive current injustices and more effectively strategize how they can be overcome.

The book is frequently a blistering critique of the complacency wrought by a comfortable ignorance. To see the press, for instance, as a powerful instrument within the struggle is to overlook the fact that the press regularly did not cover -- and continues to ignore -- the various efforts of Black organizers, presenting protests as isolated incidents, the actions of an ungrateful populace. We frequently see movies as powerful political statements, but over and over, Theoharis shows us how films like Detroit or The Butler are guilty of the same kinds of misrepresentation. She is particularly excoriating in writing about how people in the North, in cities such as Boston or Detroit, congratulated themselves for open-mindedness, even as they enacted policies every bit as vicious as those in the supposedly more racist South. The book is a fascinating and truly eye-opening account, an absolutely necessary corrective to a history that is frequently invoked but rarely, we realize, engaged with in any meaningful way.

But it is also extremely repetitive, and structured in a somewhat befuddled way, such that it keeps doubling back to add another point to an earlier example, to remind us of how something discussed before is relevant here as well. I wondered, first, whether this was because it was written for a popular audience rather than an academic one, but then, whether this was a product of the author's anger and frustration.

One of the things that is really striking about the book -- and this could be because I listened to the audio version, and the narrator added a certain inflection, or it could be me projecting, but I really don't think so -- is that it radiates pure rage. How could it not, talking about Jeff Sessions touting his appreciation for Rosa Parks, or Trump's comments about Frederick Douglass "being recognized more and more"? Did you know that FBI training now includes a trip to the MLK Memorial in DC, where future agents pick a favorite quote to discuss? It's absolutely crazy-making. And then you layer on a discussion of how Black Lives Matter or Standing Rock activists are unfavorably compared to their predecessors, and you can see how someone with a detailed knowledge of the past would be inclined to LET ME JUST SAY THIS ONE MORE TIME IN CASE YOU MISSED IT BEFORE.

But I do also wonder about the differences between academic and mass-market non-fiction. I've been reading a lot more non-fiction in the last few years, mostly because there are things I want to learn about. Often as not, I find myself wishing they were more academic. I think people see the books for a general audience as being written with less jargon, in a more approachable style, but the writing often seems grating and flat to me (I *hated* Devil in the White City, for instance, even though the story was pretty cool, and a lot of Ghettoside came off as trite to my ears). What I really miss though, especially in a book like China's Second Continent, is an argument, or at very least, some active reflection. Less facts, more ideas! You'd think that such directness would be more typical of the mass-market works, and you do find it in more political writing (like this book, or The New Jim Crow), but it still seems more typical of academic books, to me. Admittedly, though, when I think of academic monographs, I do think of something dense (and I don't just mean the spacing on the page, though that honestly is probably part of it), that I can't just pick up and read casually. Whence this sense of weight, I wonder?

08 June 2018

A new plan

I started this blog when I was in graduate school. The idea was that it would help me prepare for my PhD exams by forcing me to write out some thoughts about every book on my list, something more overarching than the notes I was jotting down while reading. Plus, I figured it would be good for me to hone my skills as a critic by analyzing the various other things I read or watched (there has always been a part of me that yearned to have a regular column reviewing books or movies or maybe restaurants, though that always seemed harder.*). Blogs were the it thing back then, and I wanted to have one, but I was also very determined to have a specific agenda and strict parameters. No self-indulgent musings about my personal life (unless they were occasioned by a book I was reading)! No half-baked ideas about politics or society!

I really enjoyed writing it, and then something strange happened. I was having a hard time with my academic writing, feeling increasingly blocked and frustrated, and then I happened upon some guide for getting un-stuck in your research that discussed writing anxiety. It was really eye-opening, because that was absolutely what I had, and I hadn't even realized it. One of the things that the guide pointed out was that many people who are anxious about their academic writing have no problems doing all kinds of other writing. Why not try to channel that same joy and productivity into your work, the book suggested. A great idea, but I ended up doing the opposite, and became totally self-conscious and constipated about blogging, too. And then I modeled for myself the whole miserable cycle of writing anxiety, with guilt and self-recrimination and mounting insecurity and everything. What fun.

But now I'm starting to come out from under the rock again. For one thing, I increasingly recognize that I like blogs. I have long enjoyed the one written by Mimi Smartypants, whom I have never met, but she lives in Chicago and I think maybe I always imagine that we will somehow meet and become friends. And then there are these people whom I admire and adore who write blogs at varying levels of seriousness and frequency (like this one and this one and this one), and their stuff is totally delightful and fascinating. For another, I've been enthralled by amazing essays written by academics in various forums that have a more personal, intimate angle (like this and this and this). And I've thought, I want to do that.

It's scary. Honestly, even writing this post is kind of scary. It feels embarrassing and self-aggrandizing and unseemly. It might be all of those things. But if I'm capable of being utterly shameless in many contexts where I find that many people (usually women) I know are completely hamstrung with embarrassment,** maybe I can channel some of that sang froid in this direction.

So, a new plan. I'm going to try to loosen up and let myself be exploratory (ie, half-baked and/or straight up dumb) and experimental (ie, incoherent and/or ridiculous). I'm not going full blogger yet -- I still want to retain a link, however tenuous, to things I'm reading/watching/listening to. But maybe it will stray a little (or a lot). And, perhaps more importantly (for my process, anyhow), I might post about things I'm in the middle of, rather than waiting until I've finished and Had Some Thoughts. I always tell my students that writing is a process of thought, not a record of it. I know that, and I've been reminded of it over and over and over as I curse myself for putting off writing until I have some kind of idea, meanwhile slowly losing all the ideas I was actually having but never worked out in writing -- but it's so, so hard. So I'm going to try to make myself do it here, in hopes that it will get easier, and that I'll get better at it. I think that doing it on computer and publicly will help produce the kind of writing that I'm interested in (I've tried keeping a diary -- ahem, journal -- and it doesn't work the same way, it seems). And perhaps people will read it and leave comments or somehow respond, and that might be nice too. We shall see.

(I love footnotes, I cannot think without footnotes)

* I briefly had a gig writing reviews of soups from various restaurants for a website. The only payment was the free soup, and the reviews had to be positive. It was reasonably fun, but I ran out of adjectives pretty quickly. I did, however, have a food blog, about bacon and pork-related things (I'll have you know that I started it before bacon was cool.). It did stray into the somewhat more personal, but also garnered a somewhat alarming amount of attention. I regularly received bacon-related products in the mail to review. But I really didn't care enough about it. Then I moved to Turkey, where pork was verboten, and the whole thing sort of petered out.
I totally forgot that I apparently also had a restaurant blog. It never amounted to much. It really is harder for me, apparently, despite loving food and restaurants and being opinionated.

** A short list includes breastfeeding in public, licking off the plate in fancy restaurants, helping myself to seconds and thirds or to the last bite on a communal plate, changing in front of others, asking questions, breaking rules, appearing in public looking like a mess thanks to being rather clueless about make-up and too broke and lazy for elaborate grooming...  Yes, most of this is certainly due to privilege. I try to use my powers for good (I'm not saying that flippantly). 

02 January 2018

My favorites from 2017

I didn't read anything by Barbara Pym this year! That must be the nagging emptiness I was feeling...

But I did read a lot of really terrific books. Usually when I sit down to compile these lists, I find that it actually isn't that hard to settle on a top 10 out of everything I've read. This time I almost gave up and decided to do a top 20. How could I possibly have a top 10 that didn't include A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I would unhesitatingly rank as one of the most important formal innovations in novelistic form of the last 15 years? Well, because while it may well have been one of the best works I read, when you get down to the awful business of quantifying your love, you find that you might have just a smidgin more of it for something like a slender little novella by Arthur Schnitzler, perhaps because you read it at just the right moment, or because something about its particular droll voice endeared it to you in a special way, or because I love Schnitzler, and there is a particular thrill in reading a new book by someone whose work you adore and finding that it delights you just as much as their other books. On the other hand, while A Little Life completely undid me emotionally in a way that very few fictions have, reflecting back on it I found that it didn't leave as much of a trace as I might have expected (unlike Yanagihara's People in the Trees, whose meditations on science and modernity still echo occasionally through my mind).

I was thinking to myself that my list this year had a lot more contemporary authors than have graced it in previous years, but when I actually checked, this proved to be incorrect (for 2015 and 2014; apparently I didn't make a list in 2016. Really, self? Ugh.). I think the illusion was produced in part by the fact that I fully expect that works by some of the authors listed below will appear in my favorites list next year -- I'm really looking forward to reading Jesmyn Ward's Sing Unburied, Sing and Marie NDiaye's My Heart Hemmed In, for instance. And I recently finished Yuri Herrera's Kingdom Cons, and while I didn't love it as much as Signs, it further entrenched my sense that Herrera is one of the more interesting writers working today, and someone I'll definitely be keeping an eye on. I guess I actually read a pretty good amount of contemporary writing, and it's nice to be reminded that there are great new books coming out all the time.

Without further ado, alphabetically by title, my top 10 favorite books of 2017:

Ladivine, by Marie NDiaye -- Haunting, raw, slightly surreal; I was mesmerized by the gorgeous prose (beautifully rendered by Jordan Stump's phenomenal translation).

Late Fame, by Arthur Schnitzler -- I have a great weakness for Schnitzler, and this melancholic, humorous little meditation on art, aging, and celebrity was no exception.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders -- This dazzling multi-vocal novel has all the emotional power of Saunders' short fiction. A riveting, playful exploration of the mythos of American history that resonates with some of the more painful conversations happening in contemporary culture in really interesting ways.

Manual for Cleaning Women, by Lucia Berlin -- These stories are every bit as good as everyone says they are. Wrenching but also, often, very funny, or sweet. Read them.

Notes on a Foreign Country, by Suzy Hansen -- Few books so fully live up to the promise of travel literature. Seeking to better understand Turkey, Hansen discovers, instead, America; the legacies of its foreign policy, and how they figure into American identity. Revelatory.

Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler -- I don't even usually like sci-fi, but wow. In a year when everyone was really excited by the dystopian visions of The Handmaid's Tale, 1984, and The Power (which I'm almost done with), it was this novel that seemed the most terrifyingly to me like a prescient vision of an increasingly probable future.

Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Yuri Herrera -- A mesmerizing modernization of the epic form played out on the US-Mexican border.

Stone Butch Blues, by Leslie Feinberg -- Brave and beautiful, this is an important work of historical testimony, but also a powerful, searching exploration of gender identity.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie -- Absolutely stunning. Moving, wry, tender, intricate.

You Should Have Left, by Daniel Kehlmann -- I was absolutely delighted by the delicious terrors of this little book, which reminded me of Danielewski's House of Leaves (another favorite) in its visceral rendering of a mind-bendingly horrifying premise.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan; Men We Reaped, by Jesmyn Ward; A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara; The Door, by Magda Szabo; 10:04 by Ben Lerner; A Greater Music, by Bae Suah; Not One Day, by Anne Garreta; Vengeance is Mine, All Others Pay Cash, by Eka Kurniawan; A Horse Walks into a Bar, by David Grossman; The Iliac Crest, by Cristina Rivera Garza.

17 June 2017

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

Yanagihara's People in the Trees was one of the best books I read last year, so I had been looking forward to this. I had been forewarned, thankfully, of how devastating it was going to be, which is -- maximally. The best comparison I can think of is the film (I haven't read the book, though I suspect it's comparable) The Piano Teacher. It is brutal and awful and very very difficult. It completely unzips you emotionally. Is it worth it?

Well, to me, yes, it was. I am pretty squeamish about violence and cruelty in books/movies. I quit watching Game of Thrones, and walked out of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I can handle atrocity better in books, but I refuse, for instance, to read anything else by Gillian Flynn after reading Dark Places. So it's not like I'm a glutton for punishment, or immune to the emotional suffering that these kinds of things inflict. I'm pretty highly vulnerable to it, so if I'm going to subject myself, there needs to be serious payoff.

I started this blogpost intending to muse on the curious fact that this kind of grueling tale seems increasingly popular, both in "high" culture (Knausgaard, Ferrante) and in more mainstream stuff, but I don't really have anything to say about that, at least not yet. I am interested in what makes the calculus of cost/benefit pay off, ie, why I found this book genuinely rewarding and pleasurable, as opposed to my intense hatred for what to me seems like the torture porn of a lot of comparatively milder things. But I guess I don't want to delve that deeply into my own psyche, at least not publicly, in that way right now, aside from a few remarks. I will say though, that I think that People in the Trees produces that suffering more purposefully than A Little Life does. By this I mean that in the earlier novel, the awfulness is more clearly in the service of a broader reflection on modernity, science, and forms of knowledge, which to many may seem more noble and justifiable than what this later book, I think, is doing.

A Little Life has been called the Great Gay American Novel, an important Bildungsroman, and a powerful portrayal of (gay male) friendships. All of those descriptions seem pretty wrong-headed to me.* Actually, this is arguably one of the novel's flaws -- it seems to start out intending to be one of those things, but after a few hundred pages, it changes its mind and does something else entirely. Instead, it becomes a fairly relentless and intense story of trauma and recovery (or lack thereof). What makes it so incredible to me, I guess, is that it's a remarkable, uncannily accurate portrayal of self-loathing, but more specifically, of the ways it can exist within the confines of a relationship that is wonderfully warm and intimate. In other words, it's about how devastatingly awful human affective attachments can be, but also how absolutely marvelous -- both utter hell and something akin to grace.

This is not exactly a recommendation. I can't recommend this novel, not only because it is in fact flawed in many ways (it's too long, too lurid, and too idealistic), but also because I can't in good conscience advocate that anyone subject themselves to it. But I also cannot help enthusiastically telling you that I absolutely loved it.

* Tanya Agathocleous has a really interesting and smart reading of it in relation to those descriptors, and to queer futurity, though be forewarned that it is very heavy on spoilers, so best saved for after reading the novel, or for after resolutely deciding not to read it: https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/life-narrative-end-times/

15 April 2017


The less you know about Colossal going into it, the better. Which is to say that if you haven't seen it, you should maybe stop reading now and come back when you have, though what I have to say about it doesn't contain any actual spoilers. It's just that it's a creative and unexpected movie that continuously keeps you guessing, and the surprise element is one of its great pleasures (as many people have noted, Anne Hathaway's performance is another one). I don't intend to review the movie overall so much as to get out a few of the things I've been muddling over since seeing it (and try, again, to be better about keeping this blog).

One of the things that I really appreciated about the movie is that it represents both the pleasures and the pitfalls of heavy drinking with genuine nuance. Unlike Trainwreck, which admits that staying up late and getting drunk can be awfully fun but ultimately insists that the heroine get rid of all the booze in her possession in order to be redeemed*, Colossal acknowledges the damage alcohol can wreak, and the need for limits, while also criticizing the tendency to moralize those limits (and highlighting the gendered ways that such moralizing tends to play out). It doesn't offer a simple solution - the movie's final scene is brilliantly ambiguous in this regard - and I love it for that. 

Overall, this is a really satisfying female-empowerment story. It treads a very fine line between showing you some of the ways in which sexism structures the main character's experiences without letting it dictate the narrative arc, or effectively disempower her altogether. Sometimes, arguably, this means bending away from realism. But it's so welcome and so satisfying to see a woman winning in a way that doesn't feel blatantly idealistic and contrived. This means that sometimes she doesn't win. This also means that sometimes what it means to win turns out to be something other than you (have been taught by Hollywood to) expect. That's how life works. It's refreshing to see a film that gets that.

I have more ambivalent feelings about the way that South Korea figures in to the movie as an uneasy combination of symbol and real place. It literally becomes an arena for (white) Americans to work out their issues, and sustains massive damage in the process. An elegant metaphor for actual political/economic/affective processes, but is the film critiquing them or repeating them? A bit of both? I do think that the movie insists upon South Korea's tangible reality as an actual place with actual people, and not just a tragedy that you see on tv, in important ways. I think that the monster movie aspect is loving homage and thoughtful hybrid rather than cultural appropriation. But I also want to hear what other smart people think about it (especially people of color), and I don't think it's my place to make a firm pronouncement on the matter. To my surprise, a brief google search turned up nothing (well, for some reason, it did turn up a lot of articles about the Gilmore Girls, which I haven't seen but I gather has some very problematic representations of Asians). I will probably be considered a killjoy for even raising the question when the movie is doing such awesome things re: gender, but them's the breaks. 

In the meantime though, you should totally go see the movie. It's not perfect or even mind-blowingly amazing (there's a whole other conversation to be had about how weirdly passive the minor characters are - like, I get that they're minor, but they are so blatantly without agency that it kind of boggles the mind), but, like Bad Moms, which I unfortunately didn't write about here, it's one of those rare movies that seems to be imagining someone like me as the audience while still being relatively mainstream. So go give it some money.

* There were a lot of things that I liked about that movie, but it turns out that that's what stuck with me, and apparently I can't forgive it.

31 December 2016

My Favorite Books of 2016

I am a great fan of Best Of lists, though I prefer the more expansive to the purportedly authoritative, and I'm always frustrated by how rarely translated or indie press works are included, or how small the lists are when they are - here are two good exceptions, one of indie presses, one of translations. Mine is slightly different, in that it's a list of the things that I most loved of books I read, and is not limited to things published this year.

So, without further ado, my 10 favorite things I read in 2016 (listed in the order in which I encountered them):

--A House of My Own, Sandra Cisneros
--The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli, Translated by Christina McSweeney
--The People in the Trees, Hanya Yanagihara
--Here, Richard McGuire
--Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Simon Armitage
--The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
--Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, Ross Gay
--Killing and Dying, Adrien Tomine
--Little Labors, Rivka Galchen

--Beauty is a Wound, Eka Kurniawan, translated by Annie Tucker
--Brown Girl Dreaming, Jacqueline Woodson
--The Seven Good Years, Etgar Keret, translated by Sondra Silverston, Miriam Shlesinger, Jessica Cohen, Anthony Berris
--Scheherazade Goes West, Fatema Mernissi
--The Moor's Account, Laila Lalami

...and I reread Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf, and it's still one of my all-time favorites.

19 August 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout

In the middle of the novel, the main character shows a writer some pages of her work, and the writer comments on them, thereby providing us with a neat explanation of what the book that we have been reading has been doing all this time. Very clever, if a little heavy-handed, and it did make me appreciate what are essentially long scenes of conversation between a woman and her mother a bit more.

  Still, the story never really got to me on an emotional level. I didn't quite believe in any of these people. And it seemed a bit unbalanced, occasionally wandering into other plot-lines or reflections (Lucy's relationship to her husband, to a friend, her development as a writer) that often felt tangential and undeveloped.

It was interesting to read this so soon after finishing The Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls' memoir of growing up extremely poor, with parents who were willfully disconnected from society, and had, shall we say, a peculiar approach to raising children. My Name is Lucy Barton features a main character who seems to have come from a similarly traumatic and difficult childhood -- although her parents don't seem to have particularly outlandish notions of raising free spirits, they are extremely poor, and occasionally treat their children in ways that will strike most readers as shocking. Walls mostly writes about her past, without saying a lot about how she eventually broke away from her parents, or what happened to her afterwards, or how she interacts with them now. Lucy Barton, on the other hand, is chronicling several days of conversation with her mother as a way of obliquely shedding light on the past, and implicitly considering the kind of relationship they have, and can have, in the present. Very different approaches, and they complement each other in curious ways.