Sunday, November 30, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 254: Bernard Malamud, The Mourners (#254)

Bernard Malamud, "The Mourners" (1955) from Bernard Malamud: Novels and Stories of the 1940s & 50s:

The LoA headnote to this story talks about how Malamud wasn't just writing about Jews, but about the human experience--through Jews. And, look, Malamud even said as much, so that proves it, right?

Which feels a little odd as the intro to a story where one of the central interactions is one Jew asking another if he's a Jew or Hitler. See, Kessler is a horrible old man who started out as a horrible young man: he quarrels too much to hold a job (not such a problem with Social Security), is too dismissive to have any friendships with his neighbors, and, oh yeah, he abandoned and forgot his wife and children.

So when Kessler fights one more time with the janitor/super, the landlord Gruber decides to throw him out. Which, predictably, doesn't go quite as planned. Kessler refuses to move; and when he's thrown out physically, he doesn't move from the pile of his junk. (The LoA headnote makes a "Bartleby the Scrivener" comparison, understandably.) Eventually, his neighbors move him back in, and even Gruber is moved by some notion of something being mourned.

"Ah, Kessler! Ah, humanity!"

(Sorry for the "Bartleby" paraphrase, but it's a running joke since college to end long perorations with "Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!")

The big split between this and "Bartleby"--besides the super-Jewish characters and setting--is how the narrative wanders between characters. So we see the world from Gruber's POV, where everything is a disaster waiting to happen: take the stairs and you'll break your neck; buy an apartment building and the front will fall off; fight with a tenant and you'll have a stroke.

Alternately, we see the world only a little from Kessler's POV, getting more info about him rather than through him; though we do get a glimpse of him at the end, a man who has already faced all the disasters of the world--and brought them on himself.

Which may be why his question to Gruber--"Are you Hitler or a Jew?”--is both sensible and ridiculous. To Kessler, all disaster comes from outside and is part of history, unavoidable. At the same time, all this started because Kessler is a mean old man, not exactly an innocent.

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 253: Sheila Hibben, Eating American (#253) (Catching up)

Sheila Hibben, "Eating American" (1932) from American Food Writing: An Anthology With Classic Recipes:

Sheila Hibben was both food consultant to the Roosevelt White House (before the First Lady and Hibben parted ways) and a restaurant/food writer for the New Yorker. She was also (the LoA headnote tells us) an early proponent of local cuisine.

In this essay, "local" means American regional. As she says (paraphrased), we get all het up about the extinction of the grizzly but not about that other American classic: South Carolina Hoppin' John. She also takes aim at food corporatization, or at least at one radio skit advertising a non-bake pie.

It's a lot of fun to read this short and vivid essay, since Hibben really doesn't pull any punches or sugar-coat her feelings that, as Americans, we need to celebrate our American food. What a tragedy it would be to lose dumplings, she says, since this country was founded on and fueled by them.

As for the final page, a recipe for codfish cooked over salt pork, I don't really know what to say.

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 252: Philip Roth, You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings (#252) (Catching up)

Philip Roth, "You Can’t Tell a Man by the Song He Sings" (1959) from Philip Roth: Novels & Stories 1959–1962:

Here's where I tell you, with a palpably false nonchalant air, that I took a class taught by Philip Roth at Bard College. The topic: the novels of Philip Roth. At that time, it offended my sense of literary propriety to let an author both write the books and then provide commentary on them; but damn if I would let that chance slip by.

(Or, as one friend who didn't get into the class asked, "Did you play the Jew card in your application essay?" Yes, yes, I did. I oughta get something for six-hours a week in Hebrew school.)

And this story is very Rothian. He's not what you'd call a plot-driven writer. Most of his books revolve around very little incident and very much character examination. So here, our first incident is a guy cheating on a personality quiz, a comedy chestnut I've used myself. See, our ex-con and attempted-straight arrow Alberto is so tightly wound about trying to go straight, that he'll lie to do it.

And this event is key because... well, OK, it's not really key: it puts the narrator and Albie together, they end up as friends, and then... well, it's not like anything really big happens because of that friendship. At one point, the real straight arrow narrator gets sent to the principal's office, where he's confronted with his permanent record, which leads to a small thematic climax with this one teacher who got fired because he was a Communist.

Right, so, not a lot happens plot-wise: three kids and one teacher meet and interact in a number of scenes. But thematically and character-wise, it's a rich stew of repeating images and some fun writing. For instance, the narrator--while a super-straight arrow--is friends with the two ex-juvies, who are pretty different from each other.
Where Albie was a hippopotamus, an ox, Duke was reptilian. Me? I don’t know; it is easy to spot the animal in one’s fellows
Which is a sentence that oughter be tweeted.

(I don't know why, but something about reading New Jersey/New York fiction makes me want to avoid saying "ought to" instead of "oughta" and "oughter.")

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 251: Bryan Curtis, Friday Night Tykes (#251) (Catching up)

Bryan Curtis, "Friday Night Tykes" (2013) from Football: Great Writing about the National Sport:

I like to think of myself as an easy-going, live-and-let-live sort of person, but there are some substantial holes in that blanket statement. One of those holes is sports: I used to play and love soccer; I used to be a varsity fencer (foil); I loved playing ping pong at MakerSquare. (Check out my blog from then, which has a ping pong tag.)

And yet, reading Bryan Curtis's article about youth league football in Texas made my skin crawl. It's not that the youth league is committed to playing football, a sport that has a demonstrated negative effect on a statistically significant portion of pro athletes. (Although there is that.) It's not that the pretty conservative town/exurb of Allen raised taxes to build a large new stadium. (Although there is something there; would they have raised taxes to build something like a homeless or rape crisis shelter?)

It's really everything around the fetishization of football: the hero worship of little kids; the bleacher-parenting of adults pushing their kids--take this supplement, don't take no for an answer from the coach (or, presumably from anyone else); the toxic masculinity that makes parents upset to have a daughter (and then name her after a football coach).

See, here's the thing: I like competing in sports. I like pushing myself. I like playing in a team.

But when I'm not on the field, I get on with my life. Pushing kids into this world where this is the one thing that matters doesn't feel like the right way to build a sustainable society that values the right things.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 250: Edgar Allan Poe, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether (#250) (Catching up)

Edgar Allan Poe, "The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether" (1845) from Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry & Tales:

And so, following 12 solid weeks of learning web development, where I fell off my schedule, here I am hoping to catch up with the last four weeks of LoA stories. Luckily, my first story, back on the horse, is my good friend Poe.

Which reminds me of a story about Kafka: we tend to think of Kafka as very existential and dark and brooding. As--dare I say it?--Kafkaesque. But back in his day, Kafka would sometimes read his work to friends and have them rolling on the floor.

Poe tends to get a somewhat similar treatment: he's a Halloween author, whose stories of mad killers get brushed off once a year. Or, for those in grad school, he's one of the canon, who is constantly commenting on the American condition.

And so, the LoA headnote informs us that this story--about a lunatic asylum run by the lunatics--might be "a satire on democracy, an invective against abolitionism, or a parody of writing by Dickens and Willis—or, as seems quite possible, all of these."

Yes, OK, sure. (Though let's be clear about that Abolition reading and its problems: the asylum here is in the South (of France), so check; but all the weirdness of the house's inhabitants is explained away--incorrectly, but plausibly--as having to do with their Southernness and oldness. It's less a satire on a failed slave revolution than it might be a comment about how underclass people tend to mimic the upperclass.)

I'm not saying that there's nothing to be read into here. Only that we shouldn't miss the layers of humor: not just that the lunatics run the asylum, but that the observer--even when this is pointed out to him--still thinks that they might have a point.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Falling behind and Interstellar

Hello, blog! It's been a little while since I've been able to attend to you in the manner that you deserve. Perhaps you've noticed that I've skipped the last few weeks of Library of America Story of the Week Read-Alongs; or the last few weeks of Shower Awkward Comics.

Rest assured that I have tabs open with all the missed Stories of the Week; and I have several Shower Awkward photos I just need to comickify. (They come pre-awkwardified.)

But since I've neglected you for so long--and why? Because of this blog and this portfolio site and all the github repos--I wanted to add a little substance here, in the form of a super short review of Interstellar, the new Christopher Nolan film about black holes and family.

("Black holes and family--aren't you being redundant there?" Oh, you wag.)

The main thing I want to say about Interstellar is that it's very long; and very blunt with its symbolism ("love and gravity are the only things that can travel through time"); and chock-a-block full of people explaining the science behind things--but it's also pretty entertaining throughout. So there were times when I sort of sighed over how much time we take to set up a scene, or chuckled at how blunt the movie was, or wondered if anyone around me cared about what a wormhole would look like in three-dimensional space.

Sidebar: "A circle in three dimensions is a sphere," explains one scientist, completely forgetting cylinders and cones. You know what else a sphere might look like in two dimensions? A point, if that sphere touches the plane at only one point. See Flatland.

And yet, for all those issues that would seem to sink it, the film remained engaging and interesting and often humane and frequently beautiful.

I also want to hold Christopher Nolan up as a director whose primary relationship focus tends to be non-romantic. Sure, there's some romance in Inception and the Batman trilogy and here; but the real focus tends to be on parent-child relation.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Tell me to listen--I need it, sometimes.

Huh, I didn't have a "feminism" tag before now. That seems odd. Or maybe not so odd: I guess I haven't really talked about feminism all that much; and when I have, it's probably been couched in historical terms.

But, that aside, I am very interested in feminism, particularly over the last few years where I've noticed something of a backlash. Not that you have to be all that perceptive to notice a backlash when you have GamerGate and last year's Hugo Awards nominee debacle and everything else in the world.

Like that video that went around recently of a woman walking in NYC and getting harassed. Not just that people felt free to talk to her (when, honestly, they wouldn't have felt the same freedom with a man), but the implicit and often explicit calls for this person's attention as a right.

That video, and all this recent backlash, has bothered me.

I've heard some people say that men need to do a better job policing other men. That if I'm bothered, I should speak up about it. That I should tell my friends who do these things that they shouldn't. But, by and large, my friends don't do those things.

But the other night, I was talking with some friends about what it was like to be a woman developer; and my one friend (girl) made some comment about what it was like to be a woman or what other men were like and my other friend (guy) made a "but is it really like that?" sort of comment. Not hostile or totally dismissive. But dismissive enough for me to notice. And when he finished questioning and she finished explaining, I commented to this friend that over the last year or two, I've learned that listening without dismissing can be very powerful.

I'm not telling you this long story to hold myself up to praise for this very minor example of telling a male friend how he was going down a bad road; rather, I'm bringing it up because I still need to hear from people about how I can be better about these issues. Because I love to talk--and argue from the position of Devil's Advocate--so much, I need to be told to listen sometimes.