12 September 2012
It’s hard to know if critics of Naomi Wolf‘s Vagina: A New Biography, are writing/speaking with a straight face. So much of what I’ve read/heard on the subject has made me want to giggle. From Zoe Heller‘s review in the NY Review of Books:
To be sure, not every iteration of vagina pride represents an unambiguous advancement for the feminist cause.
The veneration of vaginas does not equal the veneration of women.
In order to achieve high orgasm [Wolf argues], women need to feel safe and protected. (Ideally, they will feel “uniquely valued” and “cherished.”) They need atmosphere (candlelight, attractive furnishings, dreamy gazes) and “unique preparatory tributes or gestures” (flowers, drawn baths). It also helps a lot, apparently, if their male partners address them as “Goddess.”
“Serotonin,” Wolf writes, “literally subdues the female voice, and dopamine literally raises it.” [...] Wolf literally does not understand the meaning of “literally” and her grasp of the scientific research she has read is pretty shaky too.
In their discussion on the New Yorker podcast, Judith Thurman and Ariel Levy discuss the book, and Levy’s review of it — repeating the expression “a happy vagina” upwards of 20 times.
I would like to take issue with the idea that we should all have a happy vagina [...] It’s nice to have a happy vagina, I would hope everybody could have a happy vagina, but there are many times in a woman’s life where hey, she doesn’t have a happy vagina. And if you make her think that this is the goal, that she should be devoting her energies instead of to getting her PhD, or getting a better job or taking care of whatever it is… she needs to have a happy vagina. She may not be able to have a happy vagina. There are all kinds of people who are not in line immediately for a happy vagina. (Thurman)
If [Fifty Shades of Grey] were not so obviously written by an English person, you would swear it was written by Naomi Wolf. (Levy)
Laugh, or cry?
I recommend both the Heller piece and the podcast — sharp, and highly entertaining.
4 November 2011
The Poetry Society of America and NY Botanical Garden present: Poem Forest by Jon Cotner, this weekend and next. Doesn’t this sound great?
A self-guided walk designed by Jon Cotner
New York Botanical Garden
Thain Forest | Sweetgum Trail 12-4:30 Nov 4-5, 11-12
Poem Forest gives festival visitors a new kind of poetry experience, as well as a new kind of walking experience. Poet-walker Jon Cotner has fused lines selected from 2500 years of nature poetry with Thain Forest’s autumnal landscape. At 15 spots along Sweetgum Trail, visitors will speak, sing, or variously engage with 15 lines that encourage them to see and sense more clearly, to inhabit the present more deeply, and to fill with enchantment over the course of this walking meditation. The original poets who composed the lines are explorers – observers, lovers – of nature. They address us from America and from around the globe: Chile, China, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Sweden.
14 October 2011
A convergence of things: reading/teaching Susan Choi‘s American Woman, watching Sidney Lumet‘s Running on Empty, listening to Ben Marcus read Kazuo Ishiguro‘s “A Village After Dark” on the New Yorker podcast. The title of this post is taken from the Ishiguro story, a dream-surrealist sort of story where a man revisits his past, is reminded of the (unspecified) activism of his youth, and confronts those whom he harmed or disregarded in those days.
Both Choi and Lumet also look at youthful activism – that is, an activism that embraced violence (in the 60s). The characters look back on what they did, who they were, how they justified their actions; consider whether they stand by their acts of “conscientious violence.” They consider, in short, whether they can be held accountable for what they did when they were very young.
Most of us haven’t planted bombs, but maybe we’ve naively or unknowingly – like Ishiguro’s Fletcher – ruined people’s lives. It’s a bit terrifying to think about how earnestly we move through each day, each season of our lives, deciding and acting (and not acting) and intuiting. I suppose that’s why it makes for such good literary/cinematic material…
19 September 2011
I appreciated Amy Sullivan‘s piece at TIME about questioning politicians on religion. She wrote in response to Bill Keller‘s NY Times column, in which he challenged journalists to ask “tougher” questions about candidates’ religious beliefs and practices. Sullivan urges journalists to ask not “tougher” questions, but more relevant and informed ones. Generally speaking, “liberal” journalists have less direct experience in, for example, evangelical or – particularly relevant this year – Mormon communities, and thus often ask questions that, in Sullivan’s words, “compar[e] religious believers to people who believe in space aliens, and refer[...] to evangelical Christian churches as ‘mysterious’ and ‘suspect.’”
For the first time, it seems a real-life political analysis may actually be more hopeful – less cynical – than a TV one. As an avid watcher of The West Wing, I would often lament real-life politics and wish for Aaron Sorkin‘s version; but in this case, I recall a (very good) episode about religion and campaigning, where the Republican candidate Arnie Vinick (played by Alan Alda) – a non-churchgoing John McCain straight-talking centrist type – says at a press conference: “If you ask candidates about religion, you’re just asking to be lied to.” Keep religion completely out of it, Sorkin seemed to be saying in this episode; it’s irrelevant, and always disingenuously presented besides. Sullivan is saying, Oh no, it’s very relevant, but not in the way that goofy gotcha questioning is trying to imply.
I especially appreciate Sullivan’s exhortation for journalists to learn, and use, the language of religion(s) more intelligently. She offers the examples of “devout” and being “called” (to a vocation in politics); both terms that she feels are lazily employed in political journalism.
You can listen to Sullivan talk with Bob Garfield at NPR’s On the Media here.
19 July 2011
If you listen to This American Life on NPR, you know that the show’s excellence lies in its storytelling, and its humanizing of complex issues. Well, they’ve done it again – here is a painfully accurate portrait of the natural gas drilling conflicts (“fracking”), from the perspective of several key stakeholders, in Pennsylvania. In the stories highlighted here, we see corporate profit vs public health, the ties between academic research and political power (i.e. funding), short-term vs long-term views on community wellness, and class conflict between local farmers and newcomers (usually urbanite transplants).
Despite all of the investigative pieces out there in the mainstream that question the health, environmental, financial, and social costs of hydrofracking, drilling goes forth with full force – somewhere in the realm of 100,000 wells to be drilled in the NY/PA region. (Governor Cuomo intends to lift the moratorium on fracking in NY state.)
My other posts on fracking here.
4 June 2011
I had just been thinking about re-reading – its value – when I came across this article at Open (via Bookforum’s Paper Trail). The article claims that most of us re-read as a “guilty pleasure” – for “the comfort of the same old story and the same old characters and the same old ending…” Hmm. The writer continues:
To pick up a yellowed, tattered copy of a Turgenev or a Tagore is almost a guilty pleasure today, one that has to be explained away by the need to rediscover old texts from new perspectives. But why pretend? I reread, not in search of new meanings in familiar words and sentences, but precisely to taste the old meaning all over again. In exactly the same way, every single time.
Well. I’d been thinking about this because I was running along the Hudson River path and (distracting myself from knee pain by) listening to “Selected Shorts”. The story was Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” which most of us have read at least twice by the time we graduate college. I was just about to fast forward through it (the next story was Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool”), but then I thought, Well, why not listen. The reader was the eminent Terrence Mann.
I was very glad that I decided to listen. The story really did strike me in new ways – as not only a traditional narrative of human psychology and guilt, but also a compelling consideration of the fluidity of wisdom, madness, and “nervousness” – a perspective that always intrigues me, as it subverts all conventional notions of morality and normality. It’s not exactly that I saw something new, but that I apprehended the layers somehow more clearly, and the implications of the ideas sunk in more deeply. What’s “crazy,” and who decides? (Regarding the timelessness of these ideas, there is a new book by Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test, that has been getting a lot of attention.)
Perhaps this is also an argument for “reading” literature in different formats – print, audio, etc. But the other thing I considered (as I hauled myself up an endless set of steps in Riverside Park) was how well Mann – whose reading was superb – had simply followed the rhythms inherent in the text itself. Consider the frenetic short sentence pacing in this passage:
… for many minutes the heart beat on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The old man was dead. I removed the bed and examined the corpse. Yes, he was stone, stone dead. I placed my hand upon the heart and held it there many minutes. There was no pulsation. He was stone dead. His eye would trouble me no more.
And the smoother, longer, compound sentences in this passage, which serves as a kind of stabilizing fermata, following the above:
If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the body. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence.
The acceleration and choppiness in this passage, which concludes this section:
I took up three planks from the flooring of the chamber, and deposited all between the scantlings. I then replaced the boards so cleverly so cunningly, that no human eye — not even his — could have detected anything wrong. There was nothing to wash out — no stain of any kind — no blood-spot whatever. I had been too wary for that.
I love the sounds, rhythms and absence of comma in “so cleverly so cunningly,” which feels like slipping over a waterfall.
The story in fact grabbed me anew from its first line - True! Nervous — very, very nervous I had been and am! But why will you say that I am mad? I actually laughed out loud listening to it – my very own mad nervousness escaping me.
So I think that this claim that we’re all “pretending” to see or experience something new when we re-read is rather thin. You’d have to be completely static in mind and soul for “exactly the same way, every single time,” which strikes me as virtually impossible.
6 May 2011
Ahhhhh, I am reading again.
It is a terrible feeling when reading – reading books, I mean – gets away from you, for whatever reason. I have read some excellent short stories this semester, and re-read many as well. Reading for the purpose of leading a class discussion is a particular kind of reading, and a good kind, don’t get me wrong; I dig deeper than I might otherwise, and I learn a great deal from it. But now I am reading again for influence, for life, for pleasure; wanderingly, hungrily; intellectually and emotionally; reading, as George Saunders put it, to be “undeniably changed.”
Just finished Kostolanyi’s Skylark (devoured, and want to go back and re-read large sections of it), and am just starting LP Hartley’s The Go-Between. Also read a beautiful, sad story called “The Anniversary” by the brilliant Nami Mun in the current issue of Granta.
Some books I will sink into over the summer: Claudine at School by Colette; American Woman by Susan Choi; The Summer Book by Tove Jansson; Golden Country by Jennifer Gilmore; Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag; Dead Souls by Gogol; and Alfred and Guinevere by James Schuyler. (I used to keep a “To Read” section on my “The Reading List” page, here, but it got to be overwhelming, and performance mentality/failure loomed when I saw how long that list grew and how little progress I was making.) I am also making my way through Wolf Hall, via an odd but interesting combination of audio and text.
Jonathan Franzen‘s recent New Yorker essay about individualism and the origins/ evolution of the novel (and, perhaps most controversially, about David Foster Wallace‘s suicide) has me thinking about reading as “pleasure” versus reading as “work.” The reading and writing of (English) novels en masse coincided, as Franzen notes, with the “dramatic increase in leisure”; but here I am, along with others who have chosen the writer’s vocation, thinking of both as (quite difficult) work. Somewhere herein lie the roots of why the majority of writers will never make their living off their writing. We live, it would seem, in a culture where work and pleasure are not “supposed” to overlap.
28 February 2011
Among Mavis Gallant‘s endless, stunning talents, she has a gift for rendering the genius of childhood. It’s fascinating to me that women like Gallant and Elizabeth Bowen – neither of whom had children – have such deep insight into the inner lives of children and the ways in which they absorb adult existence around them.
The children of their fiction are clearly victims of adult flabbiness, vanity, and broken-heartedness; but these child-characters transform their own fragilities into mental strength and acuity, while they are also haunted by a poignant loneliness. In a sense, all Gallant’s stories are about the making of an artist.
Unconsciously, everyone under the age of ten knows everything. Under-ten can come into a room and sense at once everything felt, kept silent, held back in the way of love, hate, and desire, though he may not have the right words for such sentiments. It is part of the clairvoyant immunity to hypocrisy we are born with and that vanishes just before puberty.
The wisdom of Gallant’s retrospective narrators is in rendering – often humorously – adults’ failure to recognize all that the child sees and knows, treating the child essentially like an idiot; as if the adult world is actually, in any meaningful way, set off from the child’s.
“Linnet, if you don’t sit down I’m afraid you will have to go to your room.” ”If” and “I’m afraid” meant there was plenty of margin. Later: “Wouldn’t you be happier if you just went to bed?” [...] Presently, “Down, I said, sit down; did you hear what I’ve just said to you? I said, sit down, down.” There came a point like convergent lines finally meeting where orders to dogs and instruction to children were given in the same voice. (from “The Doctor”)
I’m only just beginning to make my way through Gallant’s oeuvre. Her stories are immensely gratifying, profoundly nourishing on the level of language and narrative and emotion and intellect – never sacrificing any one of these for a moment. I’m also interested in Gallant’s life – the ways in which her life and art cross and overlay in a helix-like dance. It seems to me that she could never have written these stories had she lived any other life, which, by all accounts, has been one of staunch autonomy; the inner and outer solitary-ness of the exile.
Here is a radio interview with Gallant from 2004 at NPR.
26 February 2011
If you live in New York, try to get to the “Painters & Poets” exhibit at Tibor de Nagy Gallery on Fifth Ave at 56th Street. It closes on March 5. I’ll write more about it soon.
From the gallery Web site:
The Tibor de Nagy Gallery marks its 60th anniversary with “Tibor de Nagy Gallery Painters and Poets,” an exhibition celebrating the gallery’s pivotal role in launching the New York School of Poets and fostering a new collaborative ethos among poets and painters in post-War New York. The exhibit focuses on the gallery’s first two decades, the 1950s and ‘60s, when its vibrant, salon-like atmosphere and director John Bernard Myers’ passion for both art and poetry gave birth to these unique partnerships.
The show features paintings by Helen Frankenthaler, Alfred Leslie, Trevor Winkfield, Nell Blaine, Joe Brainard, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, Jane Freilicher and Fairfield Porter; poetry collections published by the gallery’s imprint, Tibor de Nagy Editions, and featuring work by Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, John Ashbery, Barbara Guest and others, with illustrations by Tibor de Nagy artists; photographs and films by Rudy Burckhardt; letters, announcement cards and other ephemera; and archival photographs of leading cultural figures of the day by John Gruen and Fred McDarrah.
And here is Peter Schjeldahl on the show from the New Yorker.
29 September 2010
In case you hadn’t heard, a new production of The Great Gatsby, “Gatz,” has opened at The Public Theater in New York. It is an 8-hour production, staged in a contemporary-ish office setting, featuring every word of the original text. Listen to Rebecca Mead and actor Scott Shepherd talk about it at the New Yorker. A notable revelation from Shepherd, having performed the text a few hundred times to date: that memorable, lyrical ending that we all know and love originally contained a typo. Instead of “orgastic,” the text read “orgiastic.” Oh, dear. For all of you who read Gatsby in high school, in particular, this may come as quite a shock/disappointment…
18 June 2010
If you love both music and books and don’t yet know about largeheartedboy.com, you’re in for a treat. Music recs, book recs, free downloads of new releases, “Best of” lists — all curated by ravenous reader and music-listener David Gutowski.
Today my music playlist for Long for This World is featured in LHB’s Book Notes. This was very fun to write and has inspired me to re-ignite my music explorations, which were stuck on pause for a while. Thanks to David for inviting me to participate.