partly read

Isn't it wonderful to have the simple freedom of not finishing a book?  Okay, I recognize that some non-librarians have never experienced this form of freedom.  It's freedom from an odd guilt that, admittedly, only applies to the diligently bookish.  Then again, if you've never been a paid book reviewer, then you don't know the special hell that is I-must-finish-this-book-so-I-can-judiciously-and-fairly-trash-it.  On its own merits, of course, and without resorting to comparing it to other books you wish it had been.  Books make it or don't on their own terms, at least if you're reviewing books fairly, and it can be a total bear of a task to finish a bad book because you have to.

So, geek that I am, I revel in the freedom to not finish.  Happily, neither of the following books I didn't finish were books I had to review, just books I was interested in reading for pleasure.  And they both remain part-read.  Ah, freedom.

How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom

Chapter 1, titled The Essence of Pleasure, was great.  Bloom is a Yale psychologist, and he's making a complicated argument that pleasure is neither an entirely evolutionarily prescribed experience (though most of our pleasures attach somehow to pleasures that were, at some point, evolutionary:  food, sex, etc.) nor predominately a cultural experience (though our tastebuds are dramatically influenced by the flavors we grow up tasting).  Instead, it's a mix of both.  And he totally had me until chpt 2, when he launches a discussion of foodies by presenting a graphic story of cannibalism.  A few pages later he describes the visceral qualities of disgust, which, yes indeed, I had experienced earlier in the chapter.  I thought Bloom had misinterpreted Darwin's quotation, but thanks to Bloom himself contacting me, I realized that I was flat wrong.  Darwin was wondering at his own fellow Victorians for their physical sensitivities to verbal descriptions of eating strange foods.  Though Darwin seems surprised, it doesn't seem strange to me that the Victorians would have been more likely to have experienced "retching or actual vomiting from the mere idea of having partaken of any unusual food" (Darwin, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animal, p. 258) than people today.  Bloom quotes this slightly differently ("from having ingested") but the point is the same.  Still, I've seen gross-out sessions amongst 5th graders, college students, and at cocktail parties full of academics, so perhaps we're all that different today.  For instance, I was gagging reading his earlier cannibalism story, and I'm not a Victorian, nor am I the most sensitive person I've ever encountered (though I am sensitive).   To Victorians whose God could organize the creation of misleading fossils as a test of faith in divine order, it seems reasonable that moments when their own actions challenged that perceived divine order would result in visceral disgust.

Great first chapter!  I haven't actually returned this one to the library yet, and I feel that I owe Bloom a thorough read and fairer blog review, having made mistakes in my earlier post. 

Moo by Jane Smiley

This is a book that I know for a fact to be good, because people I trust have said so, but the narrative has left me stranded.  There's a host of characters in this book, such that one could argue that the real character is the imagined midwestern college campus and town that the characters all occupy.  Kids from farm towns going to school at the University, professors, administrators cutting deals with big money guys...  maybe it's a little too familiar, too close to home (Cope, one of those trusted readers, said it might be).  I found that there was only one character I liked, until she randomly slept with an administrator in the library and then lied about who she was.  I know I should be reading this as comedy, like the series Mad Men, where there are no saints and the point is that it's supposed to be amusing, but somehow I'm not amused.  The narrative creates compelling characters, but then the snippet-like chapters give you only the briefest glimpses into their lives, and then you're on to the next one.  Cecelia, my favorite character, looks like she's about to get into a relationship with Tim, but:  "...that wasn't working out either.  He was turning out to be one of those men whose interest diminished as they got to know you.  You got into this pattern of trying to be interesting by revealing more and more of yourself, like a salesman unpacking his sample bag, but the man, though he looked like he was smiling and paying attention, was really shaking his head internally--not that, not that either, no I don't think so, not today.  The temptation was to unpack everything, not exactly for that particular guy, but just to rise to the challenge, just to get the nod." (p. 117)  See, Smiley is really good.  Just quoting that passage makes me want to give the book another whirl.

Maybe I will.  If the point of freedom is choosing what you will, then I might just choose to change my mind again.

another movie

This movie is an old favorite, because the November paper has been submitted, the poster is done (I pick it up in an hour), and all but the one last student has their grades.  It's snowing outside, again, adding another layer to this coldest December on record, and I am sleeping for record periods of time, myself, as appropriate to the weather.

High Fidelity
Was it the tail end of the John Cusak era or the start of the Jack Black era, or both?   Nick Hornby's novels are great, and this movie adaptation is sweet and funny and set in a grungy part of Chicago.  John Cusak plays the screwup boyfriend Rob who has just been dumped.  He wallows in pity arranged as Top Five lists, mirroring his obsession with music.  He owns a little record store, where he has two employees who he hired part-time years ago, but they show up every day.  There's the timid guy Dick and the nonstop clown Barry (Jack Black, who is obviously improvising some of his own material into the script.)  I don't really like those movies where Black plays the main character, but here he is brilliant, adding spice to Cusak's stew of self-pity.  Rob has just been dumped by Laura, but over a course of several sets of Top Five lists, including Top Five Breakups, we learn that he, well, kind of completely deserved it for being a total asshole.  Even Rob comes to understand this, amazingly enough, after he revisits the other women on his Top Five Breakups list.  It does seem to help that he and Laura's friend Liz (played as only a sister could by Joan Cusak) comes by to scream at Rob ("you fucking asshole") very briefly, pointedly, and effectively.  It's a story of immature self-absorption overcome, narcissism faced and wrestled to the ground, the search for the new and improved girlfriend put to rest for good when Rob nixes the mixed tape he was making for the petite redhead music critic.  When Laura's father dies, Rob goes to the funeral, and begins with an apology.  That's basically what Laura needed to hear.  This is not typically romantic, not in any inspirational way, but oddly enough it is loving in a meaningful way, because it's a story of two people who decide to grow together when they could have grown apart.   

Hornby's novels-made-movies have been parodied by British comedians Mitchell and Webb with the track "Nick Hornby Epiphany" from That Mitchell & Webb Sound (disc 2).  And here's a list of great quotes from the movie:  http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0146882/quotes.  And don't miss The Beta Band... the song Dry the Rain from the soundtrack is great.

movies lately

When you're reading 143 applications for work, it's not blog material.  Same goes for grading final papers.  So here are some great moves and shows I've seen lately instead on these cold, dark winter nights.

The Lives of Others
Set in Communist East Berlin prior to the fall of the wall, the story follows an investigation by a high-ranking security officer who is looking to a group of artists to find communist traitors.  He sets up 24-hour bugging and live monitoring of the apartment when a playwright and actress live together.  At first, he is dedicated to finding and reporting anything traitorous.  But then something unexpected gradually happens, and we see the man begin to feel compassion for the people he is spending most of his days monitoring.  He gathers evidence, but does not turn it in.  He begins to fake the transcripts of the monitored conversations, editing out the damning content.  As we see more of his life, we begin to realize how lonely he is, having no other relationships besides paranoid ones at his workplace.  It's disconcerting and heartrending at once, and when he realizes that his entire operation is the result of a government official's attempted affair with the actress, he loses all stomach for hurting his subjects.  In the end, he saves them by hiding an incriminating typewriter, an act that reveals his existence to the playwright.  A warm, sentimental ending where hidden camaraderies are revealed would dull the sharp edge of this tale.  After the fall of the wall, the playwright eventually discovers the records of his monitoring, and dedicates his book to the security officer to who saved his life, but they never meet or speak.

Man on Wire
The young Frenchman who walked between the twin towers was a singularly gifted person, a person who was born with and cultivated an extraordinary gift for walking the high wire.  But this documentary lays to rest any easy presumptions that such a gift for balance on the wire signifies a gift for internal steadiness or emotional balance.  We see the preparations in detail, from multiple perspectives, and the filmmakers do a great job of splicing interviews so that even though you know from the start what happens, there's great suspense throughout.  The charismatic figure who leads a group of young Europeans and Americans in pulling off this and several other feats of daring is a complicated figure, full of both inspiring joy and insipid self-absorption.  The most poignant moment is the moment when it all falls apart, right after the great feat has been accomplished.  Rather than celebrate with his girlfriend and their amazing team, he accepts the offer of a stranger to have sex immediately after coming down from the towers.  While you see his passion for the pleasure, you also feel its hollowness in this moment.  His friends simply describe the dissolution of the group.  I was left with a sense of appreciation for wonderful, miraculous things that inevitably come to an end at the very moment of their culmination.  This is deeply honest film making.


The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
I heard this was a wonderful mystery book, and though I can't compare the two I can say that the movie version was spectacularly suspenseful.  Scenes of rape, torture, and images of ravaged bodies make this tough viewing for the sensitive (as in: me) but the characters are worth it. Set and made in Sweden, an investigative journalist convicted of libel has 6 months before serving his sentence, and during the interim he's hired by an old man to investigate the 40-year-old murder of his niece.  He was framed, but this is not a simple story of redemption, though that comes in the end.  The story is about the evil that can exist in families, passed on from generation to generation, and the old man's complex extended family is tough to track.  But the girl who helps him, first by hacking his computer and cracking a code about a series of murders, is a fierce character in herself.  She's out on parole and being sexually abused (and then tortured) by her parole officer, and though she can get even and does (another harrowing scene), it's not enough.  She gets drawn into solving the puzzle of the 40-year-old case alongside the journalist.  The two have a tender but distant relationship; you get the sense that she has sex with him because he is kind and because she needs to feel something other than pain.  He, meanwhile, falls in love with her and is doomed to be disappointed.  But they do solve the mystery, leading to one small, poignant family reunion amidst the larger dysfunction.  And the bad guys all get their due, every last one of them.  That's satisfying in its own right.

Battlestar Galactica
Maybe I should wait until I've seen the whole series, but we're 3 seasons into it, and I think this is one of the best imagined sci-fi shows or movies I've seen.  There are creepy twists in the first few seasons, as some of the "humans" who escaped the cylon attack on the planet of Caprica turn out to be cylons themselves.  For awhile, Ben noted that I was really excellent at the spot-the-cylon game; (spoiler) I pegged the weirdly clean-cut PR guy the minute he appeared onscreen.  So while the plot is a crazy joy ride, it's the characters that get me (isnt' it always?).  Kara/Starbuck is so tough and fragile, loyal and deeply dishonorable.  Laura Roslin is a fabulous leader who has real imperfections and makes real errors.  Characters like the Chief are forced to question their humanity as they wrestle with their emotions for specific cylons.  And who wouldn't love to hate Baltar, betrayer of the human race and the ultimate self-serving narcissist?  The puzzle of what his interactions with the blond cylon actually are has been solved at this point in the series, but for the first two seasons it was one of the more intriguing mysteries.  With mysteries to solve (including the bigger quest for human survival) and plots to follow, there's so much to appreciate about this series.  And I couldn't be happier that Ben and I are watching the whole thing together (hi Ben!) as he wraps up his first semester of art school of putting his own tech skills to aesthetic purposes, with a successful painting robot and reality-tv-related installation.


*****


Sometimes I write epiphanies here, simply because it's an easy place for me to access later.  This is one of those.

In a great conversation with Heather, at lunch on Friday, I was finally able to articulate what I dislike about what Danielle calls "new age gangsters."  I do value nurturing in myself and others, and I value knowing how to care for myself, and there are real things to be taken from resources that touch on those topics (such as, for me, Sark's fun and honest books).  But I have serious problems with two particular aspects of what I see as "new age."  First, people blame the victims.  They use magical thinking to presume that, for instance, if a person is victimized, they must have brought it on themselves with their attitudes, as this website details related to rape and sexual abuse.  I've actually heard a Hay-House-sponsored podcast that blamed the Iraq war on the mental/emotional attitudes of the Iraq people, as sick and twisted as that sounds.  Second, this way of thinking encourages terrible emotional boundaries.  It must become impossible to hear other's perspectives or accept the variety that life entails if you're constantly internally busy constructing a positive reality.  New age gangsters turn this outward, feeling entitled to judge (and presume) others' emotional lives or mental states and prescribe affirmations if they don't seem "positive" enough.  It's an inversion of the old 19th century "cult of true womanhood;"* now women learn (from new age books/cds) that they can and should use their intuition to police the emotional states of others.  It's just about as neighborly as Foucault's panopticon.

Real healing doesn't come in a neat package.  The raw and furious rant can be just as healing as the happy and polite affirmation.  Coldness and distance make breathing room for inventing new ways of living that forced optimism can suffocate.  Cultural norms already dictate that women control their bodies, weight, tempers, tongues... all to be "good."  How deeply sad that women opt in to controlling their own thoughts and emotions rather than reaching for acceptance of all the wonder and horror and compassion for others.

*a nod to Barbara Welter