Archive for the 'Books' Category

1001 Books To Read Before You Die List*

Because I am easing myself back in to doing work. The ones I’ve read are bolded; by my count I’ve read 91 of the 1,001 (which are by the way from this book), which isn’t bad but is less impressive when you remember that I was an English major so a bunch of them were assigned. Ones I’ve started but not finished (not necessarily because I didn’t want to in most cases) and/or read part of are in Italics. I took the list from here, via kottke; the whole thing is reproduced behind the fold so that if I ever have time to read novels again I’ll have some ideas. I bet I’d do better on the movies list.

*Which frankly seems overly weighted toward current fiction (there are 70 books from the last nine years, but only a couple hundred from the entire 19th century, which makes sense because the field has kind of been winnowed down there, based on what survived — I really think that historically the 19th and 20th century will be seen as the peak of the novel) and seems to have like every book by the big contemporary authors. I read Money and I’m glad I did, but I don’t want to read everything Martin Amis ever wrote, you know? Eh, it is flawed, but so are the general requirements of being well-read. Continue Reading »

Fortuitous Reading

From The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 by Michel Foucault, trans. Robert Hurley, pub. Vintage Books, pp. 71-72

Little J’s Public Disgrace
Dating a gay guy is one thing, but lying to your friends about sex is unforgivable.

Perhaps this production of the truth, intimidated though it was by the scientific model, multiplied, intensified, and even created its own intrinsic pleasures. It is often said that we have been incapable of imagining any new pleasures.

Blair Burlesquing It Up

We have at least invented a new kind of pleasure: pleasure in the truth of pleasure, the pleasure of knowing the truth, of discovering and exposing it, the fascination of seeing it and telling it, of captivating and capturing others by it, of confiding it in secret, of luring it out in the open–the specific pleasure of the true discourse on pleasure.

Blair Confesses

The most important elements of an erotic art linked to our knowledge about sexuality are no to be sought in the ideal, promised to us by medicine, of a healthy sexuality, nor in the humanist dream of a complete and flourishing, and certainly not in the lyricism of orgasm and the good feelings of bio-energy (these are but aspects of its normalizing utilization), but in this multiplication and intensification of pleasures connected to the production of the truth about sex.

Blair and Chuck

The learned volumes, written and read; the consultations and examinations; the anguish of answering questions and the delights of having one’s words interpreted; all the stories told to oneself and others, so much curiosity, so much scandal, so many confidences offered in the face of scandal, sustained–but not without trembling a little–by the obligation of truth; the profusion of secret fantasies and the dearly paid right to whisper them to whoever is able to hear them; in short, the formidable “pleasure of analysis” (in the widest sense of the latter term) which the West has been cleverly fostering for several centuries: all this constitutes something like the errant fragments of an erotic art that is secretly transmitted by confession and the science of sex.

Masked Ball

Must we conclude that our scientia sexualis is but an extraordinarily subtle form of ars erotica, and that it is Western, sublimated version of that seemingly lost tradition? Or must we suppose that all these pleasures are only the by-products of a sexual science, a bonus that compensates for its many stresses and strains?

Revealing

In any case, the hypothesis of a power of repression exerted on our society on sex for economic reasons appears to me quite inadequate if we are to explain this whole series of reinforcements and intensifications that our preliminary inquiry has discovered: a proliferation of discourses, carefully tailored to the requirements of power; the solidification of the sexual mosaic and the construction of devices capable not only of isolating it but of stimulating and provoking it, of forming it into focuses of attention, discourse, and pleasure; the mandatory production of confessions and the subsequent establishment of a system of legitimate knowledge and of an economy of manifold pleasures.

Chuck and a statue

We are dealing not nearly so much with a negative mechanism of an exclusion as with the operation of a subtle network of discourses, special knowledges, pleasures, and powers.

Truth or Dare

At issue is not a movement bent on pushing rude sex back into some obscure and inaccessible region, but on the contrary, a process that spreads it over the surface of things and bodies, arouses it, draws it out and bids it to speak, implants it in reality and enjoins it to tell the truth: an entire glittering sexual array, reflected in a myriad of discourses, the obstination of powers, and the interplay of knowledge and pleasure.

OMFG

XOXO

when you try hard is when you die hard

In daily life music is usually part of other activities, from dancing to to housework to sex to gossip to dinner. In critical discourse it’s as if the only action going on when music is playing is the activity of evaluating music. The question becomes, “Is this good music to listen to while you’re making aesthetic judgements?” Which may explain what makes some bands critics’ darlings: Sonic Youth, for instance, is not great music to dance to, but it’s a terrific soundtrack for making aesthetic judgements. [...] Celine Dion, on the other hand, is lousy music to make aesthetic judgements to, but might be excellent for having a first kiss, or buying your grandma, or breaking down in tears.

It’s book review week!

I’ve been reading Carl Wilson’s 33 1/3 book about Celine Dion’s Let’s Talk About Love. I mentioned it a few weeks ago, but I’m really thrilled to report that the book really lived up to the hype. It’s remarkable because it’s such a tiny book and Wilson manages to do at least three distinct things:

  1. Explain Celine Dion to the kinds of people who like “music to make aesthetic judgements by.” He does a great job of tracing Celine’s specific Quebecois cultural context, her musical influences, her relationship to historical schmaltz, and also what makes her so good at what she does.
  2. A brief exegesis of the history of philosophies, from Kant to Bourdieu, basically in that we use our tastes to save up cultural capital.
  3. Bring his own experience as a critic (and person) into the book. It’s jarring and lovely to see a critic’s relationship to both the theoretical material and the object at hand being brought back to his own life and love and feelings and doubts.

I loved it because I’m sort of at a point where I get angry when I see any criticism of anything that assumes that people who like it must be stupid. Also because he winds up finding the feeling in “My Heart Will Go On” by relating it to Gilmore Girls, my TV kryptonite (You know the one with Michel’s dog’s funeral? And Zach plays “My Heart Will Go On”? And then Lorelai goes and breaks up with Christopher?).

It also really made me think about what taste means to me.

For me, it’s not about music, so much, but I’m in one of the few worlds where your taste in movies actually is something upon which you’re judged. I am completely on board with the premise that my tastes are informed by the cultural and social institutions and values that surround me, but it’s not really something I can do anything about. However, I realized I’m sort of an oddball in academia in that I really pride myself on liking basically every kind of movie and generally enjoying most movies that I watch. I even like torture porn! No one likes torture porn! (Okay, so that is totally my perverse desire to “rehabilitate” a culturally detested object, and that is absolutely a learned response. My reaction to those movies would have been way different five years ago. Maybe my gorno essay would have been better if I’d written it like Carl wrote his book? As a first-person oddyssey to unravel what the deal is with those movies that have everyone so pissed off.)

Wilson quotes Valery who says “Tastes are composed of a thousand distastes” and goes on to tell us that when he was 12, he liked “all kinds of music, except disco and country.”1 And, I do have a “but.” It’s right there in my About page on this blog: “I like movies of all kinds (except those in which someone bets someone else, My Fair Lady-style, that they can make someone over for some kind of annual formal ball, and then they fall in love/befriend with the makeoveree, and the makeoveree inevitably finds out about the whole cruel wager and then stutters “Tell me I was a bet”).” What I really mean by that “except” is really just “bad romantic comedies,” and you can bet your ass that is a distinction about cultural capital: I am saying certain very specific things about myself when I say this, things about my gender and how cool I am. I don’t think knowing this will make me enjoy things that I don’t enjoy, nor do I think there’s no room in the world for aesthetic judgements on a semi-objective level, but I guess it’s good that I know this.

PS It is impossible to hate Celine Dion after watching the highlight reel on fourfour. Impossible!

  1. Why is it always two genres? When I was that age, I liked everything but rap and country, both of which I — of course — love now.

Weekly Movies, not-actually-weekly edition

So I was in somewhat of a media blackout in Hawaii. I read the newspaper, but that was it for like a week.

It was great.

(I will at least have vacation pics up at some point, I promise.)

I did see some stuff in Toronto though.

  1. 8 1/2 (Federico Fellini, ): I’m not going to write a whole long thing about 8 1/2, but I am mentioning it because I watched it on a plane. I generally equate plane movies with “terrible,” so it’s nice to see that I am a niche group someone is marketing to.
  2. Juno (Jason Reitman, 2007): Okay, so for the first half hour, I thought that I had made a horrible mistake. It’s so, so overwritten. JunoThe convenience store scene — “That ain’t no etch-a-sketch. This is one doodle that can’t be un-did, homeskillet.” — what? Then she tells her friend she’s pregnant on the phone and the girl utters one of the worst lines in the history of ever: “Honest to blog?” Ugh. Ooh, and also, all of Juno’s pop culture references were way too old for her. The Blair Witch Project was a media phenomenon in 1999. When Juno would have been 8 years old. No one’s that culturally with it when they’re 8 years old. Anyway, it kind of eventually won me over with the good acting and the sweet relief of characters having quiet moments, like when Juno sees Jennifer Garner’s character playing with a kid in the mall.
    I don’t really talk about actors’ performances a lot when I talk about movies, because I think it’s overemphasized in the press, etc., but I don’t think you can understate the importance of the ensemble in Juno: every actor was working really hard (but not trying really hard) and doing fabulous stuff. I’ve liked Ellen Page since Hard Candy and I’m glad she’s getting famous from this, and Michael Cera takes a character I would have hated had any other actor played him and actually makes him real and sympathetic and wonderful.
    Also, and I want to phrase this right, because I made fun of someone who had these complaints about Knocked Up1, but I don’t really know what to do with the way abortion was portrayed. Not like, she should have had an abortion. But now that “unplanned pregnancy movies” are a trend, they are kind of giving me pause. Individually, the handling of abortion in Knocked Up or Waitress or Juno isn’t bad — though Juno’s bugged me personally the most — but taken as three relatively successful, well-reviewed, newsworthy movies, it’s kind of sending a weird message, especially given the place American society is right now. None of these movies is particularly conservative in terms of its message, its filmmakers’ reputations, or even who it’s marketed to, but as a whole, it’s kind of…weird. I’m not sure what it means, if anything, all this baby-based energy, but like I said, it’s giving me pause.
  3. Sweeney Todd (Tim Burton, 2007): My official line on this is that I’m not really sure if it’s that great a movie, but that I really liked it. I thought Johnny Depp was freaking great, I’m not really sure that it was totally successful as a musical or even as a movie. My hypothetical essay would either be on how everyone in the movie (even the ethereally beautiful wife and daughter) was kind of funny looking, or on how hard Tim Burton worked to make it clear that the blonde women in the film are just these fungible markers for the male characters to act out their various crazy issues. I have never seen a character have less agency than Joanna does in this movie, and I have to think Burton did it on purpose for irony’s sake.
  4. Helvetica (Gary Hustwit, 2007): I really wanted to like this movie, because I think a lot of the issues it brings up about graphic design and ideology and society and the connotative versus denotative (or I guess purely graphical) elements of type were really interesting. Hustwit also clearly got a really diverse and impressive set of important designers to talk about their work and their philosophies, many of them really intelligently. Helvetica However, I thought a lot of it could have been better-presented. It seems to have been made with the assumption that its viewers would all know enough about design to know who all these people were and why their words had weight; I wish the filmmakers had done more to give us context. On the context note, I also wish they had made a bit more effort to talk larger social context. The designers weren’t particularly hermetic in their comments, but the film really didn’t do much to create a larger sense of historical (or even artistic or hell, architectural) context. Talking about architecture in particular would have been pretty on-point, given that I think the same kinds of art-commerce discussions happen there as in the design world. Finally, and maybe this is just me, but I really wish the film had been more self-reflective. There is a point to be made about the trendiness and fetishism inherent in the act of making a movie about a font, and it would certainly have been significant to the discussion they were having. I guess it was effective because it made me think a lot, but a lot of that thinking was about how the movie could have been more interesting. Alex said maybe it was a subject for a book, and I’m not sure he’s wrong.
  5. The TV Set (Jake Kasdan, 2006): This definitely wasn’t like, a significant achievement in film art, but it does have: a great cast (David Duchovny, Sigourney Weaver, and Judy Greer!) , a script that’s full of insidery TV industry fun, and a pretty dark core when you come down to it. Jake Kasdan, the director, is the Jake Kasdan who worked on Freaks and Geeks (definitely on my to-watch list if the strike keeps up, but I still have half a season of Dexter3 and The Wire to get through), so he’s working from experience. Definitely worth a rental, especially if you’re a TV nerd; it’s pretty harsh on networks.

So that’s it. I’m deciding what to order from Chapters with my $60 gift card. So far my list is:

  • Let’s Talk About Love by Carl Wilson
  • The Terror Dream by Susan Faludi

I am kind of torn between getting responsible books (either big things that I “should read” by people like Frederic Jameson or things that I would actually use for school) and getting fun books (novels? maybe Tree of Smoke? Harper’s really liked it).

Other than that, I didn’t get very many presents for Christmas. My parents’ main present was a lavish family trip to Hawaii, but they felt the need to buy me a DVD player as well, despite the fact that I already own a DVD player. So I exchanged it for an apple green iPod Shuffle.

Oh, and Alex bought be a glorious KitchenAid mixer in cobalt blue (on sale, thank goodness). I haven’t baked anything with it yet, but expect endless amateur closeups of cookies and airily whipped cakes in the near future. FYI.

1 Which I still think was a really good movie and, moreover, a really terrible example around which to centre a discussion about sexism in comedy. Apatow certainly doesn’t get it right 100%, but the movie is clearly trying and I feel like the way the edges show is a good thing, and I think that’s what people are responding to.2
2 I should totally write an essay about Knocked Up and reception. I think it would be good.
3 OMG did you guys read that Michael C. Hall is dating Jennifer Carpenter who plays his sister are a couple?! It would be weird and confusing to play siblings with someone you are sexing. Or to sex someone who plays your sister.

Weekly Movies, October 15-21

Now that I have begun my new “get up in the morning and spend several hours working in the office school provides me” initiative, I will hopefully be able to catch up on all my movie watching.

  1. Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932): This was convenient after watching the amazing Black Caesar. There are lots of plot parallels. This is one of those movies where you can really see the internal industry censorship (and actually the external government censorship — movies weren’t considered protected speech until the 1950s) working! And it is awesome for that reason. If the word “overdetermined” didn’t exist, someone would have to make it up for this movie. I love when moralizing characters from the community actually point at me. Also, how there is lots of moralizing about gun control, but none about the more obvious gangster-prevention step of repealing Prohibition.
  2. Invincible (Werner Herzog, 2001): This is really…interesting. It is about a Jewish strongman who works with a Nazi clairvoyant in the early 1930s. It’s super-fascinating in the way it stages a lot of Weimar-era stuff: I kept thinking about Kracauer and “The Mass Ornament” and all that stuff.
  3. The Lives of Others (Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, 2006): This definitely benefited from a second viewing. The first time I saw it, I as expecting a different movie, and I definitely watched from a “perverse” point of view: I found the Stasi perative protagonist really creepy and I kept rooting for him to get caught, even though that meant I was rooting for the State, not for the loveable playwright with the awakening political consciousness. That was not really the point of the movie, which is about how people survive in a totalitarian state and about the transformative power of art, but it doesn’t let artists off the hook in terms of political engagement. It is really kind of nice. I think we were supposed to take the creepiness as part of the condition of living in a surveillance society. Apparently it’s a pretty unrealistic movie, in terms of what it was actually like in the GDR, but that’s never really bothered me before, and if anything makes the whole thing more interesting. It’s like filmically trying to recuperate the lingering lack of trust and whatnot that characterized East German life. Or something. As an intriguing “otherwise unrelated German films have something in common besides a complex relationship to the past” note, both this and Invincible feature a character playing a piece of music on the piano as a pivotal, emotional moment.
  4. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977): While I totally get why people like this movie, I fail to understand why it has this privileged position of sacredness for so many people. It’s really not a very good movie in many, many respects. It’s slow to start, the acting is horrible, the pace is kind of plodding. I was really looking forward to watching it again (even the crappy updated version that school had on DVD1) but man, it was really boring right until the last half hour, when there is a big fight with airplanes. I know that Star Wars is a classic of cult/fandom-friendly films because of the time it takes to build its story world (a perspective I owe mostly to Henry Jenkins), and further that a lot of the pleasure of Star Wars comes from nostalgia, but honestly? All I see is some slow storytelling, some exceptionalism, and an embarrassingly obvious psychoanalytic reading of Luke’s ability to get his “missile” in the “hole” in the Death Star’s defenses. Sorry, nerdy dudes my age. I like lots of things that are culty or campy or bad but that are enjoyable anyway, but Star Wars just doesn’t do it for me anymore.
  5. Detour (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1945): I know that she was supposed to be unlikeable to the point of ridiculousness, but my favourite character in this was Vera, the shrill woman who Al — who “accidentally” killed a dude and stole all his money — picks up and totally controls him by threatening to sell him out to the police. And is dying of consumption maybe. She is awesomely feisty, if the scratchmarks she left on the dead dude (who implies that he tried to rape her) are any indication. That’s what we in the biz call “reading against the grain.” I am feeling contrarian this week.

In other news, there were a couple of excerpts of Carl Wilson’s 33 1/3 book Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste posted online. I have never bought a 33 1/3 book because I am not that kind of hipster-aspirational pretentious (I am other kinds, don’t get me wrong), but this one seems really interesting. In that it’s a piece, not about the album itself, but about confronting critical issues of “taste,” which I think is super-interesting.

1 While I’m on it: who cares if Han or Greedo shoots first? I realize that it is supposed to reveal something about his character, and the revision represents Lucas sanitizing their childhood memories, but watching it now, it is two seconds in a two-hour movie. A two-hour movie for kids. Who cares? That’s right, I said it.

“Guys like that do not like Star Trek.” “Wars!”

So today I was reading the thread about Becoming Jane on Pandagon, and this one lady linked to her own hilarious parody of said movie.

Maggie Judy Smith Dench:

Hello Austen! I am a cruel and haughty and one-dimensional snob, but I do lament that it is my misfortune to not be very funnym either. Miss Austen, there’s a prettyish sort of wilderness over there.

Jane:

Stop! I must take a moment to crib your writing in a cheap gesture towards my observational talent. [writes it down] Okay, done! Heave, bosom, heave.

I LOLed, and as pleased she thoroughly encapsulated my sadness that what I’d hoped would be an Austen-esque story about Austen, wherein Jane herself has to navigate the restrictive social milieu she was so famous for satirizing was actually a story of how a girl can’t possibly a good writer until she has “experienced life,” and by life, I mean “a penis.”

So I thought, like I do, “What a great blog! I will read some other posts and see if they are as funny and insightful.” And lo, there was a post on Tina Fey. She was responding to criticism of the piece she — the blogger — had written for Bitch that I had really not enjoyed at the time, but kind of just passed over. She basically says that she gets Tina Fey’s comedy, she just perceives it as failing.

But I don’t think she does. To wit, her description of one episode of 30 Rock, “The C-Word”:

But I keep coming back to Fey’s character. In one episode called “The C-word,” Liz gets called a–you know–by a male underling. She fears she’s become a too-demanding boss, bakes treats for her staff as an apology, and promptly loses all authority. After an angry speech and subsequent collapse in exhaustion, the message has been hammered home: women can’t handle authority.

Okay, see, I literally saw the exact opposite thing in that episode. See, she’s a woman boss in a man’s world, so when she tells an underling to do something he doesn’t want to do, he responds by calling her a cunt — reducing her to nothing more than a sex organ in a classic “keeping women in power down” move. Liz feels guilty for being mean — because women are totally socialized to always be nice — and tries to be a nice boss by baking goodies (woo traditional domesticity!) and letting her employees take advantage of her easygoingness. This obviously doesn’t work and she winds up going back to being a bitch.

In other words, this was a pretty clever, spare depiction of a woman personally dealing with the double bind that women in positions of authority (especially in a male-dominated field) have to deal with, and losing in a way, because women always lose. That’s what a double bind is. When the show ended I am pretty sure I said something like “I can’t believe they got all that in there! It was all feminist, but it didn’t actually explain anything! It was lovable on several different levels! I can’t believe it’s actually on TV, it’s so good! Every week this show gets more awesome!”

So, what is it? How can two avowed feminists see such complete opposite things in the same 22 minutes of TV? Is 30 Rock that hard to understand? Am I crazy? I don’t think I am. Initially, when I started writing this, I was going to say something about how maybe the show is more polysemous than I’d assumed, but I don’t think it really is. Obviously since it’s satire, the show’s values aren’t on the surface, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. And the “some people don’t understand it and are just like ‘haha female incompetence’” argument doesn’t fly for me. It’s like saying Jonathan Swift may not have meant what he wrote about eating babies, but maybe he shouldn’t have written about eating babies anyway, because maybe some people wouldn’t get it and think that eating babies was a good idea. It bugs because generally the people who complain about stuff like this (and I’m not just thinking of 30 Rock, I’m thinking of that Vanity Fair cover with Tony Soprano and the naked lady) are the same people who also complain when pop culture plays to the lowest common denominator.

I just don’t see what this girl sees when she calls Tina Fey as “the Valedictorian who wants to be the popular girl,” I see Fey as getting that it’s unfair that the Valedictorian is valued less than the popular girl, and I see her as really brave for letting the joke be on her. There’s lots of comedy that makes people more comfortable with stereotypes, but 30 Rock’s not it. (Seriously, Tracy Morgan is supposed to make people comfortable?) This is the kind of face-value reading that gives feminist criticism a bad name. Also, I’m not going to pretend that Mean Girls was a great stride for feminism, but come on, having Lindsay Lohan play a mathlete is at least a tiny little baby step.

Weekly Movies, July 16-23 (The Week of Harry Potter)

  1. Baby Face (Alfred E. Green, 1933): TCM showed the full version of this, one of the last pre-Code movies — it apparently got people so mad that they started actually applying the Production Code. It’s kind of great. Barbara Stanwyck (never hotter) is this young girl whose dad runs a speakeasy and pimps her out, then she gets away with him and learns (via Nietzshe, of all places) that she should use her womanly power to get what she wants from life. So she does: they use “St. Louis Blues” to indicate that she is sexing up various business guys in order to get better jobs and stay out of trouble. The thing that’s awesome about it is how little guilt she feels and how jauntily it’s paced. Good times.
  2. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (David Yates, 2007): I thought this was totally one of the best movies, movie wise. Yates tightened up a lot of the lagging and the Harry Potter’s Boring Angst that plagued the book, and did a fantastic job with the banally evil Dolores Umbridge. I really thought he got the tone of the book right.
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón, 2004): After OotP, I decided I should go back and watch the middle couple of movies, which I missed. I wanted to like this one way more than I did. I hated the children’s choir right at the beginning, when they get to Hogwarts. It’s obviously better than the first two movies — and I love climax with the Time Turner, but I felt like it took too long to get there.
  4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Mike Newell, 2005): Honestly, this book had some of the weakest and some of the best bits in the series, and it turned into one of the best movies, for sure. The stakes are high, you get a way bigger sense of the non-wizarding world, and I loved the short version of “Harry and Ron don’t understand girls.” In general, I think the movies are really well-cast, which is nice, because they don’t always make it clear who everyone is or what’s going on. I don’t think they’re incomprehensible, but I was talking to a friend who saw OotP, but didn’t know the whole series or the books really well and he said there were moments when he assumed things had been more fleshed out in the book.
  5. Hairspray (John Waters, 1988): Love. I missed the beginning, it was on TV when I got home from the bar on Friday, but I think I got most of it. I just kept thinking about how much the new version (which I don’t plan on seeing) will suck: what made this movie good was Tracy’s unerring optimism in contrast with the fact that most of the Baltimore in the movie looked like kind of a shithole and no one was really as conventionally attractive as that creepy High School Musical kid. This was way more upbeat and less confrontational than most John Waters movies, but it still had that kind of unpolished thing, plus the clever camp, not the bad Hollywood camp.
  6. The Princess Diaries (Garry Marshall, 2001): On “The Wonderful World of Disney” and I just couldn’t look away. I don’t have any huge commentary on it or anything, but I did find Ann Hathaway’s performance really charming. I liked how relatively little of the plot revolved around silly misunderstandings, and everything was more or less centred around the character’s figuring out who she was. So it was well-constructed, and charming.

Oh, I also read the last Harry Potter book; I am a casual fan, not a manic one, but I figured it would be really hard to avoid reading what had happened and also, everyone else in the world is talking about Harry Potter, why not just go with it? Moderately (but vaguely) spoilersome thoughts inside. Continue Reading »

Harry Potter and the Shifting Paradigm

(Please note, if this is horribly written, it’s because there are roofers at my house, banging around the roof and the deck and everywhere, SO LOUD and irregular. I am running away as soon as I finish my coffee.)

I was really pleased to read Amanda from Pandagon’s rejoinder to the “Harry Potter is bad literature, adults who read kids’ books are stupid” snobby book critic editorial. This is basically that not everyone has the luxury to spend time contemplating Serious Literature.

But what I find more interesting about this passage is that his friends say they simply don’t have time to read and contemplate Serious Fiction. I say to take them at their word—Americans work more hours and have less leisure and make money than we have in the past, which leaves very little time for the leisurely reading of novels. An 800 page book of Serious Fiction—which I love, mind you, so I’m not picking on the pleasures of it—takes much, much longer to read than it takes to breeze through a Harry Potter book. If people are turning to Harry Potter, it’s because they want to have the joys of reading a narrative within the time that’s been allotted to them in our capitalist society to read.

But I think I get why so many critics who spend their time reading Serious Literature are baffled by Harry Potter’s popularity. As someone who does have the luxury to spend time contemplating Serious Literature, I totally get that Rowling’s prose is often…kind of bad. Her phrasing is often clunky and it often feels as though she seems obligated to inform us of every event in Harry Potter’s life, even if no one really cares whether he or Ron won at the chess game they played over their totally uneventful Christmas break. I find myself kind of nodding when I read these columns because they’re right, as Serious Literature, Rowling is a failure.

But she’s a really rich, really popular failure, whose books are beloved by millions. Clearly those millions are unwashed idiots who don’t know what’s good for them. Or, you know, maybe the Harry Potter books are so popular because they appeal to a different literacy. In responding to the critical panning of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Henry Jenkins asserts that POTC’s appeal is in world-building storytelling: “…in many ways, the film’s heart is not in telling a classical linear story. This film wants to explore a world and much of its complexity emerges from the fact that we have been able to accumulate and master more information about that world through the first two films.” To my mind, that argument works even better with Harry Potter. Rowling may not be the most artful crafter of prose, but the appeal to most fans (including me) isn’t in that aspect of the writing: it’s in the wealth of detail, the richness and intricacy of the world created in the book (and which is expanded with each installment), in the way she makes sure that even tertiary characters have arcs, and the sense that there’s a whole lot more happening on the edges of the story.

Maybe it’s just because I’m an academic, and for me it’s more about interpretation than evaluation, but I think there’s a lot more to be gained by looking at the ways readers do engage with a popular text and the kinds of intelligence it engages than by pretending millions of people are engaged in some kind of bizarre self-delusion and incapable of making their own choices about entertainment.

Good ol’ building and loan pal

“We should go to the good bookstore. They’re having a sale. 30% off film books!”

Alex is trying to cheer me up, because I lost $20 and I am sad. It’s really not the end of the world, but I hate feeling irresponsible.

As I walk to the (typically) tiny film section, the first thing I see is this:

Uh

My day is saved! Then I open it up to see how much it costs, and I see this:

!

!!!* Continue Reading »

Not so resolute

Oh I totally didn’t do a 2006 best-of list! I like lists. This is for my own posterity, not because I think anyone cares about my bloggerly critical greatness. Best album: I got really lax with the new music this year, so my opinion doesn’t count for much, but The Body, The Blood, The Machine by The Thermals is my favourite new album in like, forever

Best Books I read (for fun): Oh, this is so hard! Turn, Magic Wheel by Dawn Powell, Heat by Bill, Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, and Atonement by Ian MacEwan all made huge impressions; I also really liked White Teeth, in the compulsive-reading way, but it didn’t blow my mind

Best movies: Again, there’s lots of stuff I haven’t seen that counts for 2006. Stranger Than Fiction, Little Miss Sunshine, and Tristram Shandy would almost definitely be on the list, as would Brick, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and maybe Shortbus but I still have high hopes for Children of Men

Best TV: Easy. Veronica Mars, Battlestar Galactica, Project Runway, the end of Arrested Development, The Office. No special order.

I don’t really hold with New Year’s Resolutions as an idea, because you know, if you want to do something you will do it, and if you kind of like the idea of doing something, you will resolve to do it on New Year’s Day and then do it really regularly for a couple of months before you slowly peter out and then give up, because it turned out to be hard and/or not that fun.

In our travels this Christmas, Alex and I ate a lot of terrible food. The result is: Alex and I feel kind of terrible now. I’m pretty sure I’ve put on weight and I just generally am revolted by the idea of heavy meals involving meat and cake, which are both normally things that I like very much. Between the insane essay-writing of early December, and the eating orgy of later December, I’ve decided I need a break. I was already planning on trying out one new recipe a week (because of the bounty of cookbooks I received for Christmas), but I have now further decided that for the next little while (by which I mean like, two weeks or something), that new recipe will be meat-free. As will all my eating. I went veggie for a month in second year, and by the end I was desperately craving chicken, but I was living in res and relying on the meal hall’s definition of “meat-free alternatives” for like, half my meals. I already don’t eat much meat, so I am re-trying the experiment now that I cook for myself.

Actually, I am already ahead on my one-recipe-a-week deal: Continue Reading »

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