le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Sunday, June 24, 2012

myths and the merlin conspiracy

I'm re-reading (for the zillionth time) The Merlin Conspiracy, because I don't have a to-read list going this summer. And I keep sighing over its wonderful complexity, and the huge range of myth and folklore Diana Wynne Jones manages to cram into that book.

I taught it in Myth & Folktale class, where it was either not read, or read and reviled by those philistines. It was crushing for me, because I always want my students to enjoy their readings; because I love DWJ and can't abide criticism of her books; and because it includes so many aspects of myth and folktale that we'd already talked about in class.

Some of the myth/folklore elements in the book, in no particular order:
  • Arthurian legend (The Merlin, the Count of Blest)
  • Welsh legend (Gwyn ap Nud)
  • British faerie beings (Little People, the invisible people, etc)
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth's Red and White Dragons myth (which, yes, is related to Arthurian legend, but is also its own thing)
  • flower lore (speedwell, mullein, purple vetch...)
  • city lore (Salisbury, Old Sarum, Manchester in a red dress)
  • totem or spirit animals
  • standard magic lore (earth magics, etc)
  • basic fairytale motifs (things happening in threes, especially the "rules" of the dark paths)
The abundance of magics and folklore in the book sometimes makes me think it's an even richer, more complex text than I already know it to be, as if perhaps somehow Diana Wynne Jones was able to work an actual spell into or with her book, that perhaps the combination of all those elements works like alchemy to produce something Else, something Other, something beyond the everyday alchemy of fiction and reading.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

NPR YA poll/survey

NPR is polling for best YA novels; leave your five top choices in comments (annoying login required; it's relatively quick and painless).

You can list an entire series as one choice (ie, Hunger Games trilogy), or just a single title from a series (Mockingjay).

I "voted" for Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness, My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger, Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta, I am the Messenger by Markus Zusak, and Hold Me Closer, Necromancer by Lish McBride. This is almost a random selection of the recent YA titles I love best; I couldn't pick an absolute top 5 of all time.

I think it would be awesome to do a bit of culture jamming and push some really fantastic titles through the poll, not just the most popular titles (ie, Twilight, Hunger Games). Chaos Walking would be my pick for culture-jamming title of choice, followed by I am the Messenger (based on personal preference and literary quality). But I'm curious to see the results of this survey, and I think everyone with an intelligent, informed opinion should vote.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Calm your nostalgia! Or, Aslan as giraffe

The always-brilliant Monica Edinger linked to this article in the Guardian today, yet another writer (Alison Flood) bemoaning the disappearance of (her) beloved childhood literature.
A new survey from the University of Worcester, conducted online on 500 children between the ages of seven and 14, has found that "classic children's literary heroes are dying out". Only 45% of the children questioned had heard of Alice in Wonderland and 8% of Mary Lennox. Nearly a fifth of the kids thought CS Lewis's wardrobe led to The Secret Garden, while 8% thought it led to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory; 10% thought Long John Silver was in Peter Pan and 18% thought Matilda lived in the Swiss Alps.
Actually, Long John Silver is in Peter Pan, at least referentially; he's referenced at least once, probably twice - as the Sea Cook. We also get a mention in PP of Flint, the old pirate captain of the Walrus, who terrorized everyone except Long John Silver. Then, of course, is the fact that Barrie was explicitly and cheerfully homage/imitating Stevenson's novel.

Alice, Treasure Island, the Secret Garden, Peter Pan are all well over 100 years old. What 100+ year-old novels are most adults still reading? Thomas Hardy fans, where are you?

According to the article, the survey reported that "18% of children thought Aslan was a giraffe," an idea which amuses Flood and delights me; Flood also writes that "I'm not going to worry that only 4% of the children had read Huckleberry Finn, and that the majority hadn't read Gulliver's Travels: those two books are classics, and just as suitable for adults."

Clutching my head and shrieking (silently) - WHEN will people learn that Gulliver's Travels was never a children's book? And that Huck Finn isn't one, either?  I know there are Junior Illustrated Classics of both littering up the dwindling children's section of bookstores; this doesn't mean Gulliver and Huck are for children. Gulliver in particular is a complex social/political satire - an 18th century satire, written in 1725, one of the earliest English novels - why should anyone aged 14 or younger have read it? Only a child prodigy, or a prodigious reader, should be reading either book at such young ages, and even then, the complexity of both texts demands a breadth of knowledge and experience (both social and literary) that most younger readers just don't have.
Flood doesn't mind that these "just as suitable for adults" books aren't being read by kids, because "they won't be forgotten," (as if that's the most important thing?) But she wallows in nostalgia, and drags us along with her, in the next paragraph:
More depressing, though, is that some of the novels that defined my childhood, by Arthur Ransome (Swallows and Amazons), E Nesbit (The Railway Children) and LM Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables) are, according to the survey, scarcely read these days. Heidi, too, is fading into obscurity, apparently, and it makes me sad that children aren't being mesmerised, like I was, by the thought of the wind in the fir trees outside the grandfather's house...
Again, these are books that are close to 100 years old. Ransome's was published in 1930; Anne showed up in 1908, and The Railway Children right around 1900. There's not a thing wrong with old books - I myself adore them - but when I was a kid, probably not too many years off from Flood's childhood, I certainly wasn't reading 100-year-old books; I'd never even heard of E. Nesbit until I was in college. And I turned out just fine, better than fine, in fact, since I've been collecting degrees in English literature focusing on 100-year-old children's books.

Flood does redeem herself by writing, at the end, that "my feeling is that you can encourage kids to read, you can wave the books you loved in front of them in the hope they'll love them too, but in the end they'll find their own favourites."
I wish this had been the highlight of the article, instead of buried in the final paragraph. We seem to have this idea that if children now aren't having the childhoods we nostalgically remember/imagine for ourselves, then somehow they aren't doing it right. But memory is notoriously  faulty, and anyway - children's childhoods now aren't about us. It's not about our nostalgia or our favorite books. I see this over and over, in popular writing about children's literature especially; adults, parents, can't seem to get over themselves and their own childhood nostalgia. It's horribly unfair to actual children, and it's narcissistic to a revolting extreme.

Yes, so kids aren't daydreaming away in the secret garden - so what? that place is appallingly rife with classism and sexism. And what American can read those Yorkshire accents, anyway? I love Nesbit's books, and I delight in teaching them - The Magic City always goes over well. But I also love Lemony Snicket and The Lightning Thief, and there are tons of kids being mesmerized by them, right now, in precisely the same way that Flood was mesmerized by Heidi.

The classics aren't going anywhere; there are enough nerds and bookworms and bibliophiles and graduate students to keep the classics alive for decades to come. We don't need to lament that 21st century kids aren't lounging about, lost in the books of the 19th century; better to celebrate the books they are reading, and make sure that publishers, booksellers, schools, and libraries have access to - and make available to everyone - truly great new books for younger readers.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

How (not) to Read Racist Books to Your Kids

On Friday, the New York Times magazine section published a “Riff” piece titled “How to Read a Racist Book to Your Kid,” by Stephen Marche. The link has been passed around a bit on facebook and twitter, at least in the children’s lit/booknerd circles I move in (electronically, at any rate). I haven’t seen much discussion of the content of the piece, though, which surprises me; when I read it the first time, it set off all of skepticism sensors.

Marche’s introductory example of an Asterix comic he’s reading to his six-year-old is, perhaps, a flawed one to begin with: Asterix is a comic and, in my admittedly limited knowledge of European comics (and comics in general), it’s a general audience series, not a specifically kid-oriented one. But we’ll grant him that, and regardless of source, the question Marche’s six-year-old asks is a good one: “Why do the pirates have a gorilla?”
The “gorilla” is, of course, a racist representation of an “African.” Marche immediately fumbles the entire situation – he enumerates his possible responses thus:
“1) Explain that the gorilla is supposed to be a black person.
2) Try to explain the history of French colonialism...
3) Say, “I don’t know why the pirates have a gorilla” and flip to the next page”
Marche chooses the third choice, the “cowardly” one. I would buy an argument of readerly expediency, actually, in passing over the question, partly because of  the demands of story, but also because talking about racism is pretty important, and midway through a story may not be the ideal time for it. It also might be; it would depend, I think, on the child, the parent, and the situation (is this the last page before bedtime? Is the kid overwrought because of something that happened at school that day? Will introducing the topic now freak everyone out and be counterproductive?).
Marche notes his need to develop some kind of response, because “much of the great old children’s material, like so much of the great old adult material, is either racist to the core or at least has seriously racist bits.” Yep; that’s true. It’s also true that a lot of the new adult and child literature is racist or has seriously racist bits (The Help? The Secret Life of Bees? Virtually any book featuring a Native American?). Lots of new and old material is deeply sexist, and classist, and homophobic, too. But these are problems for another day, it seems, and Marche never mentions them at all.
Then things get weird. Marche explains that “some decisions are easy,” like Little Black Sambo, and Tintin in the Congo. “As parents, we know what to do with this stuff: Certainly never show it to young kids.” This decision, Marche tells us, is made even easier by the fact that the texts are “lousy.” There’s no real loss in never reading either, according to Marche. I can’t speak to the Tintin book, having never read it, but I’ll accept that Little Black Sambo is maybe not the most riveting, life-changing text I’ve ever read. I’m uncomfortable though with both Marche’s claim that these texts should “never” be shown to young kids, and his classification of some texts as lousy, and some as good. Literary value judgements are never ideology-free; there’s no natural order of Great Literature and Crummy Books, and everyone can see the distinction for themselves. Canon formation isn’t much of a hot topic in literary circles these days (I hope, anyway), but it’s worth emphasizing that, like history, canons are created by the “victors.” There’s a reason why so many dead white men populate literary anthologies, and it may, just may, have something to do with the fact that for hundreds and hundreds of years, the people with power in Western culture have been white men.
Marche moves on to more complex texts: “material that is otherwise excellent but contains significant racist passages. Michael Chabon recently wrote about negotiating (and ultimately eliminating) the racial epithets while reading “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” to his kids, following a painful and honest discussion about it with them. I admire his spirit of openness, but I have to admit I would never have had the stomach to imitate him — either in the willful alteration or the discussion about it.”
Michael Chabon, of whose books I have only read a few, is a good writer, but is also laboring under the misapprehension that he is the first person to have and raise children, and also has special wisdom related to having and raising children (hint: people have been successfully raising decent humans for literally thousands of years). I don’t know how old Chabon’s kids are, but I’m a smidge perplexed about reading Huck Finn out loud to them – if they are young enough that being read to is still acceptable practice (acceptable to them, I mean; it’s hard for me to picture teenagers willing to have their dad read to them), then they are probably too young to really get a grip on Huck Finn, which, despite having a child narrator/protagonist, is not a children’s book. It just isn’t. Twain is smart and sarcastic and speaks to a sophisticated reader; thematically, Huckleberry Finn requires a great deal of historical and social context of its modern reader, not to mention well-developed reading skills. It’s a hard book to read well, and part of reading well lies in understanding its complexity. So why Chabon chooses Huck Finn, when his local library is crammed with excellent fiction for children and young adults, is beyond me.
More disturbing is Marche’s admission that he couldn’t “stomach” the discussion and/or removal of the n-word from Huck. Really? You can’t stomach explaining to your child that this a word that has a very bad history, that means something not at all nice, and so you’re going to avoid saying it? Kids know the world is full of nastiness, and they also know there’s a huge list of things they’re not allowed to say; it’s why kids of a certain age glory in saying “poop!” and making butt jokes. But not being able to stomach explaining the racist history of a racist term – which can be done very simply – it’s a very bad word used to make black people feel terrible, and so we don’t say it – that is pathetic. Is it easier to stomach racism itself? 
After giving some more examples – the excised black centaur-slave in the “Pastoral” sequence of Disney’s Fantasia, Pippi Longstocking, the Oompa-Loompas – Marche drops this staggering set of ideas: 
We rewrite the past to serve the needs of the present. The clarity of history is its great advantage.”
“The clarity of history”?  Whose history is so clear? History is deeply muddy, murky, and endlessly complex.  Perhaps Marche means something more like “hindsight” than “history,” though frankly that’s problematic too.  Equally troubling is his blithe statement that we rewrite the past to serve the needs of the present. I’m not at all comfortable with this; we’re already a culture that can’t seem to remember more than a few years back. I am continually appalled by my students’ (and lots of other people’s) lack of historical knowledge. It isn’t just dates and names and facts; history is context. It’s being able to look at a set of historical events, and make connections, and relate those to the present moment – to say, because that happened, and had those effects, we have this idea/institution/etc now. My students, when I ask them why we should know history, default to that gross cliché about not repeating history’s mistakes. This is faulty thinking, and whoever came up with that truism should be placed inside permanent weaselpants. Removing racist images from children’s books doesn’t remove racism; it removes the memory of racism. It removes the context for a whole slew of practices and problems we deal with every day now. 
Marche moves on, pointing out the discussions about the colonialism inherent in the Babar books (which books I loved as a kid; what stuck with me about them was their French-ness, not their colonialist elephant policies). For Marche, the Babar books are boring, and also, “My son won’t be turned into a more effective colonist by stories of elephants riding elevators.” Again, he picks and chooses with his examples. Racism – cartoons of “gorilla” Africans – is Bad; quiet colonialism isn’t a problem. To be fair to Marche, his child will be made a more effective colonist by the endless repetition of American exceptionalism that one encounters virtually everywhere in the United States; but the problems of Babar are still there.
Star Wars is more interesting than dull old Babar, but also alarming for Marche, who is clearly a weak man: “The conundrum is how to explain to your kids that Jar Jar and Watto are stereotypes without first introducing the stereotypes that you are hoping to negate.”
If Marche thinks that somehow he’s going to be able to avoid introducing stereotypes to his kids, he’s going to be a very sad and surprised man. Those stereotypes are everywhere. They are a part of history, and erasing them from kids’ movies and books isn’t going to mean they never happened and don’t have effects today.  Far better to explain the problems of the stereotypes at the moment the child discovers those stereotypes exist, then to come years after the fact to trying to explain why those things are problematic. Some you can let go, for expediency’s sake – the example of the “Italian” grocer-monster in Monsters Inc; he’s a walk-on (or squelch on, since he’s tantacular) character who only appears that one time, very very briefly. If the kid questions it, explain. If the kid starts using that mock Italian accent, put an end to it right away. Simple as that.
“Stereotypes are part of what children want from stories, which of course connects to what we all want from stories: simplification.”
Oh lord. Where to start with this? Marche offers no support for his assertion about stereotypes and simplification, and simultaneously reveals the narrowness of his own thinking. Simplification is what he wants from stories? Well, have at it, Mr. Marche. I myself prefer my stories to be knotty and complex and perplexing and troubling. A simplified world is a false world, whether it’s in comic books or novels or film. There are types, as in archetypes, and tropes, in fiction all over the place, and those are useful placeholders for general experiences (I don’t say universal, because what can that even mean? ). These don’t need to be stereotypes – the princess in the tower can be anyone or anything – she can be an Ogre or a boy or a fancy blonde who loves pretty things.  
To assume that children – and everyone else – want both stereotypes and simplification is  to do a huge disservice to people everywhere.  
But Marche is already a lost cause, I suspect; he winds down with:
 “That familiar and insoluble knot of moral difficulty is infinitely complicated by the fact that I’m sharing it with a child. I don’t want to explain the human gorilla and all the chains of horror that went into that caricature because I’m afraid of the follow-up questions. Recently as I was laying down ant traps against the annual spring invasion, my son asked me, “Do ants have souls?” I didn’t have a good answer for that. What is he going to ask when I explain that for 400 years, white people took black people from their homes in Africa, carried them across the ocean in chains, beat them to death as they worked to produce sugar and cotton, separated them from their children and felt entitled to do so because of the difference in the color of their skin? Whatever he asks next, I’m pretty sure I won’t have an adequate reply.”
Does Marche have any beliefs or ideas of his own? Does he have his own set of values? Why doesn’t he have answers to these questions, which he should have in some form anyway, simply as a human in the world. DO ants have souls? Well, do you believe in God? What kind? Do you want your kid believing that? Why not tell the truth – “I don’t know” ? Being able to say you don’t know something is hugely meaningful; it is okay to say I don’t know. It’s okay to not have made up your mind. It’s okay to say: Well, a lot of people have been wondering that same thing for a really long time. No one has really come to a conclusion. Or you could do this: Gosh, kiddo, that’s an interesting question – what do YOU think? Or: Why do you ask that? 
Marche’s inability to face up to the reality of history, in the form of slavery and systemic racism, is a shocking failure, and he should be embarrassed to admit it. Yes: it’s a brutal history. It’s appalling. Even a small kid will see that it’s not nice to take people away from their home and work them to death. You don’t need to do a whole lot of explaining there, because many kids, provided they’ve been raised in halfway decent homes, will see the obvious, glaring injustice of it all. You don’t need to give all the details; you don’t need to explain the southern economy, the demands of cotton-growing, the clamor for sugar that drove the West Indian slave trade. What do you say to your kid when Martin Luther King Junior day comes around? Or Christmas, or Passover, or whatever you celebrate? You face up to history, the good and the bad. You say: well, you know how for a long time black people weren’t treated very well? Dr. King worked very very hard with a lot of other people to make sure that black people were treated better. There – you get both the grim and the glory of history, in one short response. 
Finally, Marche cops out completely – this essay never does tell us how to read racist books to kids. It dithers around Marche’s pathetic feelings about passively reading racist books to his kid without intervening (perhaps we’re meant to intuit the how-to from Marche’s total failure to handle the situation).  His big conclusion is as appalling as the rest of the article: “I want to shelter the past too. I’m embarrassed for humanity at all this nonsense, and I don’t want to submit the world to the complete and perfect judgment of an innocent.
We all need to grow up, I know. Me, the moviemakers, the audience. The only person who seems mature enough for the situation is the 6-year old. All he sees is a gorilla with some pirates.
Again, where to start? Who wants to shelter the past? Yeah, humanity has been one big embarrassment to itself since it began. It’s also had a few successes – Beethoven, and Shakespeare, and whoever invented the printing press in China, and the Indian mathematicians and astronomers, and the Muslim leaders of the translation movement. But being embarrassed by history and therefore sticking your head in the sand is just about the most irresponsible thing you can do, whether as a parent or as a plain old human being. 
Leaving aside my eye-rolling over Marche’s use of “an innocent” to describe his six-year-old, his dismissal of racism, colonialism, sexism, oppression, power disparity, war, violence, anger, hatred as “all this nonsense” is in itself an act of oppression and racism. The nonsense is in pretending that we can all smile and sing Kumbaya as if all of history hadn’t happened. It’s a staggeringly white response, as well – Marche identifies himself as such with his admission of “white liberal guilt” – and, I venture, a male response as well. People speaking from positions of privilege can dismiss centuries of oppression of others as “nonsense.” It’s not nonsense for the kids who get shot because of walking down the street while being black; it’s not nonsense for the women who get blamed for being raped; it’s not nonsense for the people being surveilled and suspected simply because they are brown. 
Taking the kid’s seeing the pirates and gorilla as a sign of “maturity” is a false move, as well, and a dangerous one that smacks of the deeply flawed idea that we all just need to grow up and get over this race business. Perhaps Marche is one of these people who doesn’t “see” race. I wouldn’t be surprised; he seems committed to willful obliviousness. What the kid is seeing is the 20th century relics of centuries of colonialism and racism. Pretending he isn’t seeing that is a lie. Pretending you don’t need to address it is also a lie. Marche says that Asterix is too much a part of his own childhood for him to not pass it on to his son (because, of course, your kid’s childhood is really all about you, and your nostalgia). He’s also passing on willful oblivion.
One of the mottos of the producers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – modeled after  Margaret McFarland’s saying – is that attitudes are caught, not taught. If you’ve been modeling nonracist behavior and attitudes around your kid, she will catch them. She doesn’t need to know the date of the first slave ship’s arrival in the new world, or a lesson/sermon on racism; she will have already acquired sensitivity and antiracist ideas from you. She’ll continue to acquire those ideas – children aren’t dumb, they just haven’t had as much education and experience as adults – and she will figure out that the gorilla is a black man. If you’ve done your job right – outside of book-reading time – she will be appalled by the realization. And she’ll know – because, if you’ve done your job right, she’ll have a sense of history – that this is one way white people used to think about black people, that it’s wrong, that people are working now to make sure no one treats anyone like that ever again. 
But to pretend you don’t know, to hedge, to lie, to “shield” your child from reality – that perpetuates privilege and ignorance in the worst possible way. No black child gets to be shielded from racism; why should Marche’s white son be any different?  

Saturday, June 16, 2012

the formless white void

Because I kept missing important news about things related to China Miéville, I set up a google alert on his name. A few days ago - just after I myself finished reading it - I got an alert for a review of Railsea. Normally, I don't seek out blog reviews of things, unless I have a very specific reason for it, but in this case I had just finished the book and was curious about another's take on it. So I clicked through and read quite an excellent poststructuralist "review"/analysis of the novel, one which organized and tidied up a lot of my as-yet-abstract senses about the book, and presented them in a far more intelligent fashion than I could. It was a relief, in some ways, to read that kind of write-up so soon after reading the novel itself; I don't feel, any more, the need to go back and tear through Railsea again to try to figure out what it's doing. Of course I have my own opinions and ideas about the novel, but the "literary salvage" idea that tomcat elaborates satisfies my need for critical analysis right now.

The Railsea review is, of course, wonderfully well-written and insightful, but as I scrolled through (looking for other books he discussed that I'd actually read), I came to one about The Very Hungry Caterpillar.  It's ingenious. It made me laugh - partly because I so rarely think about picture books in a deeply critical-analytical way - partly because of the tone of the criticism, and partly because of the defamiliarization that it forced. As tomcat notes in comments, it's not a "joke" review (although it is hilarious at the same time it's brilliant, a literary-critical feat that not many can match, though James Kincaid does a nice job) - you really can read The Very Hungry Caterpillar precisely as he does. [regardless of your critical orientation, it's a very odd book. I feel like I have a vague memory of once either hearing, or seeing on a conference program, a talk about TVHC and food/disordered eating books for younger readers...]. In the main, I'm used to thinking of TVHC as one of the mainstream classics, a book that I probably sold dozens of times when I worked at the bookstore - that, and Goodnight Moon, and The Runaway Bunny are really go-to baby gift books.
I am not used to thinking of The Very Hungry Caterpillar as 
"a phantasmagoric bodyshock horror story that focuses on the tenets of extreme gluttony and one creature’s psycho-compulsive desire to consume the world around him.  Taking cues from Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft, The Very Hungry Caterpillar’s conception of horror isn’t a hyperbolic focus on blood and viscera, nor is it concerned with gothic notions of ghosts or death: rather, the anathema is an internalised grotesque; it is the body itself that is to be feared, treacherous from the inside and predisposed to intense bloating, mutation and the eventual emergence of the literal monster from within."

I love the idea of this book as horror, or even a kind of quasi-gothic horror (I suppose one could make a decent case for the gothic, particularly around the issue of the cocoon), as heir to Lovecraft and Poe. I love thinking about "the protagonist’s hidden and difficult past."  I especially love the discussion of the formless white void (with accompanying illustration embedded in the blogpost; for some reason, that strikes me as the final touch, a bit of extravagant flair that both sends up and performs a certain kind of textual analysis.

It's a great analysis of the book (which, as I noted earlier, is rather weird), and highly, highly recommended. For people outside of "the academy," or people who didn't major in english or philosophy, it will probably read as humor. Partially, unfortunately, I think that reaction speaks to our cultural inability to take children's texts seriously enough to warrant serious literary analysis. It's part of why I find it amusing; I myself, invested as I am in the serious, scholarly study of children's literature and culture, have never thought of the Caterpillar as anything but "just a caterpillar," "just a picture book." In fact, there is no such thing as a book that is "just" anything; all texts are complex and polyvalent, and can give rise to any number of readings (some more convincing than others).
I am not sure I wholeheartedly endorse tomcat's reading of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, but I am very certainly glad that I read it.
I suggest you go do the same.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

contre le sexisme

Obviously, and as the very title of this list points out, lists of anything are subjective. But I want to spend a minute explaining why I growled over

I agree with some of his choices - I haven't read them all, which I do not mind admitting; for instance, The Da Vinci Code and The Lovely Bones didn't deserve that much press. I like The lovely bones, but it was just okay, not truly great. And I'll agree with any list that points out the utter unreadability of Finnegans Wake.

But this one made me mad.

6. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

When the first world problems hashtag first showed up, I was kind of pleased to see people recognizing that their griping was privileged; bitching about the 20 seconds it takes to boot up your computer is hardly a real problem, especially when you consider non-first-world problems, like no clean water, infanticide, genocide, hunger, poverty, etc. Of course, like everything else, it's morphed into a cliche that doesn't force us to think at all - it's the anti-defamiliarization (or enstrangement, as my translation of Shklovsky insisted upon using).

But I think it's used here far too dismissively, to devalue the work that The Bell Jar does. Plath's novel is quite an interesting representation of late adolescence as experienced by a female.  It's hard not to take Beauchamp's inclusion and scanty "analysis" of the book as sexist, or at least stemming from deeply entrenched male privilege. If The Bell Jar is overrated because of first-world problems, then so should be Catcher in the Rye, which is sort of the mirror-image twin of The Bell Jar.  I would guess that the reason Catcher  is left off the list is the maleness of Holden, an adolescent character with whom a great many young men identify. Plath's story, in The Bell Jar, unfolds in a different way because she is female, because she is female at a particular time and place. Men, alas, still haven't been taught to read from female perspectives in the way women have learned to view male perspectives. So I imagine that parts of Esther's narrative feel fiddly or pointless or unsubstantial, because of their femaleness.

The other objection, of course, to #firstworldproblems in regard to The Bell Jar is that it is essentially Plath's autobiography; it's a story of depression and mental illness written by a woman who committed suicide by putting her head in an oven (which has always seemed particularly grisly to me as a mode of suicide). Catcher is a mental illness story as well; despite his class status and other privileges, Holden is one depressed young fellow. It's callous beyond belief to relegate depression and mental illness to "first world problem" status. It's like claiming cancer to be a first world problem, or perhaps more accurately, the illness and side effects of chemotherapy to be a first world problem.

The convergence of the female's narrative and the mental illness narrative in The Bell Jar is clearly too much for Beauchamp. He's entitled to his opinions, of course, even the ones that come from positions of ignorance or privilege, and I'm entitled to point out the privilege of those opinions.

Monday, June 11, 2012

I call dibs

Two quick ideas, neither developed at all, for future papers. I'm staking my claim NOW on these, so nobody gank my ideas while I'm writing this dissertation. Pretty sure that invoking copyright on paper topics via blogpost is a surefire, failproof, legally-watertight way to protect one's intellectual property. [/sarcasm]

Abandoned libraries. Book 9 of the Series of Unfortunate Events, the title of which has thoroughly escaped me, and Margaret Mahy's Maddigan's Fantasia. There are probably more, but these are the two that keep popping up in my brain.

Salvage/junk/trash.  Railsea, Trash, Shipbreaker, The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm. Likewise, bound to be more, but these three loom in my brain.

What about them?, you might say, Where's your thesis statement?

The "so what?" for both of these is still being processed in my mental black box. I have no doubt I'll be doing something utterly unrelated - driving, maybe, or scooping the litterbox, or wandering through target - when the "so what" will float up to the surface.

Still. Abandoned libraries. Trash/salvage.  There's something there. What can I make with it?

Friday, June 08, 2012

autotune the neighborhood

The entire internet has sent me the link to this video, which is a pretty great autotune of clips from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. I'm always happy to see Mister Rogers getting some attention these days - he and his program deserve it. I especially like this because, though it may be a bit hokey, I like the metaphor of the garden of your mind/imagination. This may be because I love gardens, or it may just be because it's a good metaphor.

I think the queer subtext of the program is especially conspicuous in this video, which also makes me happy.

And, as always, check out the comments on youtube (this is not a thing I say often). I think the user comments for videos of Mister Rogers are fascinating in their sincerity, their affective honesty, and - perhaps most of all - their general kindness/civility. Very, very few people get weird or nasty in comments about Mister Rogers, and as the internet has shown us over and over and over, people get weird and nasty about everything, all the time. Yet Mister Rogers - even in autotune form - manages to suspend the nastiness and pettiness.

Attitudes are caught, not taught - it's one of the program's philosophical catchphrases. You can see the contagious nature of Mister Rogers' kindness in the youtube commenters' responses.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

A Diana Wynne Jones Alphabet

In response to alphabooks, I started thinking about characters with names beginning with some of the more obscure letters of the alphabet, which led me (naturally, since most things do) to Diana Wynne Jones. I got to thinking some more, and I've decided to try to make an alphabet of characters (place names in a pinch *if I have to*) from her books.s i

There are, of course, plenty of names I could have chosen for a lot of the letters; I tried to have some representative distribution across books. "X" is my major failure - I can't think of an X name. And my other rule for myself was: NO PEEKING. No looking in books - this is all from memory. So if there's an X, even an obscure one, it isn't lodged in my memory accessibly enough.
it was fun to compile. I may play with similar lists in the future, simply as a kind of game to relax my brain after pummeling it to do dissertation work.

Chrestomanci (of course!)
Howl (obviously!)
Vivian Smith/ Venturus/Vierran (so many V-names, which is unusual; I had to include a few)
Xanadu structures in The Merlin Conspiracy (I can NOT think of any X names - suggestions?)
Zenobia Bailey