When articles matter

I watchedLittle-Princess-book-cover a few minutes of the Shirley Temple adaptation of A Little Princess the other day and noticed that the version is actually called The Little Princess, unlike Burnett’s original. That slight edit is probably appropriate for a Shirley Temple vehicle, what with her being America’s singular little princess, but it’s certainly unfaithful to the spirit of the original book, which suggests that the power of imagination can make any little girl a princess. In spirit, A Little Princess isn’t all that dissimilar to Disney, although Burnett’s vision of universal royalty has to do more with politeness and largess than sparkly dresses and princes. (Come to think of it, princes don’t appear anywhere in the book.)

Here are a couple of quick examples:

  • “If I WAS a princess—a REAL princess,” she murmured, “I could scatter largess to the populace. But even if I am only a pretend princess, I can invent little things to do for people. Things like this. She was just as happy as if it was largess. I’ll pretend that to do things people like is scattering largess. I’ve scattered largess.”
  • “It’s true,” she said. “Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend I am a princess, so that I can try and behave like one.”
  • This used to interest and amuse her more than anything else; and queer and fanciful as it was, she found comfort in it and it was a good thing for her. While the thought held possession of her, she could not be made rude and malicious by the rudeness and malice of those about her. “A princess must be polite,” she said to herself.

As Sara convinces herself and others, including a stupid, fat girl unfortunately named Ermengarde and a scullery maid named Becky, it’s possible for anyone to imagine herself into a princess. In fact, the phrase “the Princess Sara”, with that key definite article, is most often used in mockery by people who don’t understand the imaginative possibilities of the word (Lavinia, Miss Minchin).

But there are limits to Burnett’s democratizing, indefinite vision of royalty: Sara’s inner nobility wins her diamond mines and a substitute father, while the scullery maid has to settle for being the personal servant to a near-princess.

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Progress is not yanking women around with hooks

RoustaboutElvisThe other night Chris and I watched about half of the 1964 Elvis (and Barbara Stanwyck) vehicle Roustabout. I had lots of thoughts about this movie (it doesn’t really hold up), but what really struck me was how women are very casually treated as men’s property. Here’s a list from just the first half hour:

  • The conflict is set up by Elvis driving his motorcycle alongside a car to sweet talk slash harass a girl riding with her dad. The only one who finds this inappropriate is the dad; Elvis, the girl, and the dad’s employer (Barbara Stanwyck) seem to find it perfectly normal  
  • Elvis abruptly and aggressively kisses the young female lead without any visible hint from her that she’d like to be kissed
  • Elvis and another carnival dude HILARIOUSLY steal towels from two women who are showering
  • A carnival game huckster snags a woman with the hook of his cane and forces her to listen to his pitch

None of these incidents is particularly threatening, and they’re all presented as light-hearted hijinks in a movie that, as far as I can tell, isn’t particularly interested in gender–which is exactly what I found so noteworthy. These are all microaggressions against the bodily (and mental) autonomy of women, presented in a completely casual and straightforward way that a mainstream movie today would never attempt. (The towel-stealing scene could easily show up in a teen movie, but the perpetrator wouldn’t be the movie’s protagonist, unless it was some sort of a reforming-the-rake narrative.)

It’s at least a little encouraging, particularly in a bad-news week, to know that, despite rape gifs and Twitter, I generally don’t have to see women pulled around by hooks unless I actively seek it out. 

Book Review: The Time in Between, Maria Duenas

the time in betweenMaria Duenas’s The Time in Between has a fantastic premise–a dressmaker who escapes from Franco’s Spain is recruited to be an English spy–and, from what I can tell, is deeply researched. The problem is the main character, who is buffeted by political and personal currents she doesn’t and chooses not to understand, and undergoes a maturation from naive young girl to self-assured spy that takes place almost exclusively through a wardrobe upgrade. As far as character arcs go that’s good enough, but it does mean that she spends most of her time in the book insisting that she can’t possibly do the thing that she then goes on to do. 

She also seems unable to make decisions for herself. Here’s a typical example:

“But for that we had to wait a few weeks yet, or six or seven. And over that time, things happened that–yet again–transformed the course of my life forever.”

“Things happen” to Sira; she doesn’t make them happen. There’s a rather obvious analogy being drawn here between sewing and nation-building: stitching together fabric into a dress, stitching together shifting alliances into a nation, and so forth, which works reasonably well except that, by this logic, Sira is the one being dressed rather than the one making the dresses. When we get to the end and find her resolving “to stop going blindly down the paths that other people had set for me”, we wonder why that’s not the book Duenas wrote.

(I say “we” but really I mean “I”–this book has been a bestseller in Spain, has a miniseries on Hulu, and seems to be a runaway hit on Amazon. YMMV.)

What made the book interesting to me was Duenas’s choice to repeatedly skip over large chunks of story. More than once, the I-narrator (Sira) will jump ahead a few days or even weeks in the story, sometimes then giving us the backstory and then sometimes not. Since the book is already quite long, the point of these gaps is probably in part to hurry along to the more exciting sequences, like a truly nerve-wracking trip to sell illegal guns or the escape from some assassins on a train–Duenas is excellent at creating tension–but the effect is curious given the book’s title. In fact, we continually skip over the time in between, which are the moments when Sira actually makes decisions, like the choice to accept a spy mission that propels the narrative forward once again.

In other words, we skip over the actions that bring the story into being, which I think is what gives the narrative its somewhat distanced feeling of retrospection. It’s more of a historical than an individual voice, one that suggests we can’t ever quite plumb the personal choices that bring the historical into being. The time in between is both the time that matters and the time that, to this narrator, is non-narratable–which is, perhaps, the difference between history and historical fiction, and why The Time in Between is uncomfortably poised between both.  

Other Reviews

  • Kirkus, which calls it a Horatio Alger story wrapped in a lace mantilla, which I think is inaccurate–the primary feature of a Horatio Alger story is will and conviction, both of which Sira seems to lack
  • Publisher’s Weekly, calling Duenas a writer to watch–probably true; this book hits all the right book-club notes and I would definitely recommend it to a certain type of reader

Book Review: This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, Ann Patchett

This-is-a-Happy-MarriageAnn Patchett’s collection of essays, The Story of a Happy Marriage, at first seems to lack a certain coherence that you would want in a collection of essays, which she acknowledges in the introduction with the reasonable explanation that, for years, she supported her novel-writing by simply writing whatever other people wanted her to write in whatever style they wanted.

Upon closer investigation, however, it turns out that Patchett’s essays do have a consistent underlying theme: the experience of being herself, whether or not that experience is particularly interesting or thoughtful. Take, for example, her essay about learning to love opera. In it, we learn almost nothing about why she likes opera, but we do learn about her desire to “collect” it:

What chance did I have for proficiency when there was so much I hadn’t seen?

The second season of Met simulcasts was for me a breakthrough in the language I so desperately wanted to speak.

A real opera fan, the kind who is born into it, revels in obscurity. They are choking on Carmen. … Remedial fans like myself who have long lived with the burden of limited access are always playing catch-up. In the past, when I was out of town and had the chance to see an opera, I would choose, say Madama Butterfly over Prokofiev’s Love for Three Oranges, because I was trying to lay down the bedrock of my education. (I still haven’t seen Rigoletto, for heaven’s sake!)

But who can blame her? The essay was written for Vogue, exactly the sort of publication that would be interested in someone’s account of trying on–wearing, so to speak–a cultural experience unavailable to the general public.  

At times Patchett does approach self-awareness. In another essay about–of course–learning to be a writer, she remembers one of her teachers telling her to be smarter:

He told me I was a good writer, that I would never get any substantial criticism from the other students in the class because my stories were polished and well put together. But then he told me I was shallow, that I skated along the surface, being clever. He said if I wanted to be a better writer, I was the only person who could push myself to do it. It was up to me to challenge myself, to be vigilant about finding the places in my own work where I was just getting by.

Patchett is certainly a clever and well-educated writer, but her writing overwhelmingly gives the impression of a facile and superficial intelligence–not that she couldn’t be smarter but that, as this quotation suggests, no one has ever quite pushed her enough. Take State of Wonder, the only one of Patchett’s novels that I’ve read, under slight duress for a book group. (I started Bel Canto years ago but couldn’t get through more than a few pages. At the time I figured it was my fault.)

Coming in with low expectations, I liked State of Wonder more than I thought it would but found that it relied on a whole slew of uninterrogated shorthand (jungle/ race/ fertility/ etc) and was annoyingly focused around a glib and obvious set piece at–what else?–an opera house in the middle of a jungle that simultaneously called up Fitzcarraldo, The Heart of Darkness, and Orpheus and Eurydice without adding much to the conversation: exactly the kind of clever, shallow intertextuality that offers the appearance of meaning without the substance.

I don’t want to come down too hard on Ann Patchett. She’s a talented, skillful writer who provides something with great resonance to many people, which is precisely what I found most interesting about her essays: how resolutely, emphatically middlebrow they are, how they seem calculated to please the NPR-listening, just-educated-enough audience to whom she sells books. To appropriate a phrase, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, like Patchett’s other books and, I suppose, like Patchett herself is basic–well put together, inoffensive, fond of borrowed thought, and best read with a pumpkin spice latte, while wearing a scarf, in front of a fireplace.


The Fault in our Families

I read The Fault in Our Stars this weekend, primarily from about 5.30-7.30 A.M. on Saturday morning while Abby was still sleeping, for once in her life. I did cry a lot thinking about what it would be like to have my child die of cancer, but it mostly irritated me, probably because I could see that I would have been its target audience about fifteen to twenty years ago, when, like the kids in the book, I was convinced I was smarter and savvier than the adults around me.

Aside from the ridiculously tone-deaf dialogue, here’s my major gripe: neither of the main characters have siblings. Not a big deal? Narratively, a very big deal: giving a couple of cancer-ridden teenagers siblings would be to admit that, just maybe, someone else might love them more, know them better, and have more claim on their final days or weeks than the teenager who’s known them for all of a few months.

There’s a moment when–spoiler alert, but you know how this ends, right?–Augustus is dying, and his grown half-sisters show up to fawn over him. Hazel gets all mentally snippy about them calling him “our” Gus as though they’ve taken possession of him, but COME ON HAZEL. Just because they’re grown-ups doesn’t mean they don’t know how to love–and if Augustus had siblings living at home, we might have to accept that their grief would overshadow hers.

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Slutting around

This is a really, really quick post to point out something that struck me in my daily perusal of Slate.com the other day, in “A New Study on Slut-Shaming Finds That Rich Girls Are the Worst.” The title is deliberately provocative in the usual Slate way, of course, since the article is actually about the fact that “slut” doesn’t correlate much with actual sexual behavior. Instead, Amanda Hess says, 

the system was more about policing women’s looks, fashion, and conversational styles than criticizing the notches on their bedposts. And the vagueness and ubiquity of the term “slut” on campus allowed these women to effectively police each other without denying themselves actual sex. The higher-class women defined “respectable femininity” as a “polite, accommodating, demure style often performed by the white middle class,” what one woman described as “the preppy, classy, good girl.” These were women with “parent-funded credit cards” who wore “expensive MAC-brand purple eye shadow” instead of drugstore brands and—instead of working jobs—“had time to go tanning, get their hair done, do their nails, shop, and keep up with fashion trends.” 

What’s great about this, and what I wish Hess had pointed out, is that this is exactly what slut used to mean. I’m going to quote Wikipedia because I have a a lot of deadlines this week, and I just want to get this out of my head and onto paper (“paper”):

Although the ultimate origin of the word “slut” is unknown, it first appeared in Middle English in 1402 as slutte (AHD), with the meaning “a dirty, untidy, or slovenly woman”. Even earlier, Geoffrey Chaucer used the word sluttish (c. 1386) to describe a slovenly man; however, later uses appear almost exclusively associated with women. … Another early meaning was “kitchen maid or drudge” (c. 1450), a meaning retained as late as the 18th century, when hard knots of dough found in bread were referred to as “slut’s pennies”.

You can bet those Early Modern kitchen maids weren’t wearing purple M.A.C. eyeshadow on their trips to the tanning salon. 


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Currently Reading

Print Books:

Religion in Human Evolution, Robert N. Bellah

This one is not getting read. It’s a shame, since it seems brilliant or, at the least, magisterial–but it’s a gajillion pages long and Bellah is afflicted with the kind of academese that makes me mentally rewrite every sentence and really bogs down the reading process. 

My Long Trip Home, Mark Whitaker

I’m reading this for my research into memoirs, one of my least favorite genres. Biographies of ordinary folks, yes; personal memoirs, no. (Really, who has the necessary distance and introspection to write compellingly about himself?) This one, however, is enjoyable so far. Whitaker is a journalist and reports like one, and his parents’ story has that appealing extraordinary-ordinaries paradox. 

The Stranger’s Child, Alan Holinghurst

This one is for my book club and thus will be read one way or another. I tore through the first half before getting derailed; when they said it was Jamesian, they weren’t kidding. Plus, after reading James Wood’s hilariously biting and accurate review in The New Yorker, I don’t feel a pressing need to actually finish the book myself.

One is also strongly reminded of Atonement, a book I like better and better in retrospect. (When I first read it, I didn’t think much of –spoiler alert–unreliable narrators.)

Kindle Book:

Anna Karenina

Can you believe I’ve never read it? I haven’t, but I know how it ends. I have the feeling this is the kind of book that rewards extended bouts of reading rather than five minutes here and there while waiting in line at the bank, but such is full-time life. It is, unsurprisingly, brilliant, and makes me fall in love with nineteenth-century literature all over again. 

Audio Book:

Marmee & Louisa, Eve LaPlante

I just started this today and am settling in to have a great time with it. It showed up randomly when I was browsing for audiobooks at my library website, and, since I basically grew up on Little Women and have an intense dislike of Transcendentalist masculinity, I figured it would be right up my alley. So far it is, although the author–no doubt addressing a different imagined audience–argues a bit tediously for the importance of studying Louisa May Alcott’s mother. Obviously she’s an important figure in her daughter’s life; anyone who’s read Alcott’s books would know how obsessed she was with mothers and mothering. As am I! 


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Emily Anthes, Frankenstein’s Cat

Here, kitty kitty.

There’s not much to dislike about this painstakingly innocuous book, although there’s not much to feel strongly about either way–which is also essentially Anthes’s thesis: biotechnology is neither good nor bad; it’s a tool, and, as with any tool, we ought to think carefully about how we wield it.

Fair enough, and awfully hard to object to or muster up much enthusiasm about. Most disappointingly for me, Anthes never makes good on her allusion to Frankenstein. That’s a shame, because exploring in more depth the history of human objections to interspecies meddling might have given her argument more teeth, if only by introducing a coherent interlocutor. As it is, we never quite get a sense of the naysayers she’s addressing, aside from a little hemming and hawing from bioethicists and letter-writing whack-jobs.

Here’s an excellent example of style and content:

What’s more, genes from different species sometimes mingle in the natural world. Animals occasionally pursue torrid interspecies affairs, giving us ligers and tigons and zorses. (Oh my!) Different species of bacteria can spontaneously swap DNA in the wild, or transfer novel genes into insects, worms, and other animals … We can change animals faster and in more profound ways than nature does on its own, but the point is that there’s nothing inherently sacred about a species’s genome–it’s an amorphous, ever-changing thing.

Anthes’s main point here is that human genetic modification is not inherently different from “natural” genetic modification because species aren’t actually genetically discrete. But she deflates this bracing and necessary corrective with the punchy, coy language of an extended blog post. It’s almost as though she’s trying to head off criticism of the book’s science through gee-whiz wonder directed at innocuous targets: wirelessly controlled cockroaches, GloFish, and robo-rats, all of which get more genuine enthusiasm than the more useful but also more controversial possibilities of, say, using animals to produce medicines.

This is a decent introductory book, but I came away feeling that I hadn’t learned much beyond a few anecdotes. The one moment that generated a spark of excitement was this, which in modified form I used to say to undergrads:

Repugnance may be a good spark for public dialogue, but it shouldn’t be a substitute for it. Acting in an ethical manner sometimes requires rising above raw emotion … an emotional reaction [shouldn’t be] a replacement for moral and ethical reasoning.

Feeling may be first, but, pace e. e. cummings, it certainly shouldn’t be last.

Other Reviews


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Seriously, let it go

disney-frozen_elsa-wideEveryone (and by everyone, I mean a small portion of the Internet) is going on and on about whether Disney movies, and specifically Frozen, and even more specifically “Let It Go,” are secretly pro-gay propaganda. To which I say: obviously they are, if by “pro-gay propaganda” you mean that they forward a generically digestible message of self-acceptance and self-actualization.

The problem with insisting that “Let It Go” is a coming-out anthem is that, as an interpretive move, it replicates the errors of undergraduate literary criticism by insisting that texts are encoded messages that can be unlocked with a secret key, like a treasure map or a cipher. Even a mediocre-but-catchy Disney song is more complex than that. Personally, I find it more compelling as an expression of puberty–moving from the trope of virginal and untouched childhood to the so-called “natural” rhythms of womanhood (“I am one with the wind and rain”, and so on), but I’m certainly not going to deny anyone their interpretation.

Instead, I would suggest that reading Disney movies as pro-gay is just a little tired. It’s much more interesting to turn the analogy around–to reverse the vehicle and tenor–and say that “gayness” is the dominant trope of 21st century America. Thanks to a long tradition of American Protestantism, we’ve been conditioned to value a radical individualism that insists each person has a unique soul and a special set of gifts (a “talent,” in the Biblical language of Milton; a “power” in the language of today’s oh-so-popular superhero movies). In fact, by denying her family in order to live true to her own principles and values, Elsa is actually performing the radical severance that Christianity requires: “And every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” In the logic of the movie, she’s mistaken, but I think the comparison stands. 

“Let It Go” might be a coming-out anthem, but only because it uses the tropes of coming out as shorthand for self-acceptance. It certainly says something about contemporary culture–both religious and not–that sexual behavior is the most available way to represent being true to one’s self.

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An engaged audience is a disengaged public

Chris asked me the other night what I thought the opening of House of Cards was telling us, and in fact I think the credits are telling us quite a lot. They’re crystal clear and sped up: we see cars flashing through the capitol’s arteries, clouds contracting and expanding across the sky, trees quivering, day turning into night.

It’s a hyperreality that, taken together, reads as a distancing mechanism. It aestheticizes the show, stripping meaning from the content of the scenes in just the same way that the show itself does. As more than one critic has pointed out, the people of House of Cards are more like chess pieces than characters: agents without agency, pieces the writers move around in order to simulate the prestige dramas of cable networks in the same way that the House Whip moves magnets back and forth to signal the shifting allegiances of a political body concerned with power rather than efficacy, with form rather than content.

House of Cards is a show for generation willing to be outraged but not to act out that outrage. It’s designed to provoke audience engagement, which is precisely the opposite of political engagement. We discuss the political machinations and policies on comment boards and at wine parties instead of discussing actual politics, not apathetic but disenfranchised. Policymic has concluded that we’re not a democracy; House of Cards proves it.

In fact, we could say that House of Cards represents a certain kind of hollowing out: it removes the core of the prestige dramas it strives to imitate, creating a simulacrum of a show rather than the show itself. In a post-industrial America, with a hollowed-out middle class, a hollowed-out economy, and a hollowed-out infrastructure, House of Cards might not the kind of TV show we need, but it’s certainly the kind we deserve.

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