Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Review: Franny and Zooey

Any book I read on my front stoop gets an automatic bump, because I like reading on my stoop and I don't do it as often as I should. I mention this because I read the bulk of Franny and Zooey out there and still hated it.

I borrowed the copy I read from my Mom, who mentioned when I picked it up that it had been one of her favorite books when she was younger. I remembered one of Salinger's other works, The Catcher in the Rye, as one of my childhood favorites, and had re-read it a few months before getting Franny and Zooey from Mom. I was really disappointed by Catcher. I found Holden Caulfield extremely irritating and his love shallow, and the story never seemed to go anywhere. I chalked this up to the book having spoken to me at a particular time of my life - I read it as a sophomore in high school - and tried to keep thinking about the good feeling of it that had existed before. When I read Franny and Zooey, I hoped that it would be more substantive but I had the same problems with it, and upon discussing this with Mom, she said she suspected she would feel the same way. Salinger seems to speak to a very particular attitude and worldview, and it seems to me that you need to be at a certain place in your life to appreciate it.

This realization actually dovetailed nicely with reading At Home In The World, because the same controlling, small-minded bullshit evident in Salinger's relationship with Joyce Maynard is what's disappointingly prevalent in Catcher and Franny. Salinger's self-imposed solitude obviously closed his world in around him and made him extremely sensitive to external influences, keeping him in a kind of eternal adolescence. It's why he wrote teenagers so accurately, but I'm somewhat loath to say this is a good thing. Teenagers need literature they can relate to, but I think it would be better to see well-written teenagers in a more productive context.

Salinger isn't untalented. You can't say he's a bad writer and be serious about it. I tried to figure out what the problem was, and I think what it comes down to is that he wastes some really gorgeous language on stories with no plot and utterly repugnant characters. There are wonderful phrases and descriptions in Franny and Zooey, but it's in the service of characters who spend too much time wrapped up in their own misery. The Glass family has had its tragedy and that understandably causes serious angst and despair, but the particular slice of their lives that we are shown in the book shows little but the family being foul to one another, taunting each other and condescending to each other. It's not a liberating embrace of grieving, it's the worst of tragic cruelty in the name of revenge.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Josie's Closet: Melissa Skeleton Shoes

I'm completely addicted to melissa shoes - this is my fourth pair of them and I just. cannot. stop. On the upside, they're made from recycled plastics, the byproducts of which are 100% cleaned, disposed of and used in-house, so I guess if I have to have a habit, it should be connected to a good...cause?

Shut up, it's what's letting me sleep at night.

Anyway, I got these fantastic shoes from Ideeli. They're a collaboration between melissa and Alexandre Herchcovitch, but I bought them because the rib-cage-esque toe box reminded me of Alexander McQueen's skeletal motifs and particularly the luggage collection he did with Samsonite. Yeah, that's where my brain went.
I love the sculptural molding that the plastic allows. I am particularly enamoured of the way the curve of my instep looks in shoes (this explains the number of d'orsay pumps I own), and I love the way this curves right with me on the outside.
They are long, but it's nice to have them in the plastic since I usually brutalize the tips of pointy shoes. I also hope this clears up some important questions for the people who always - always, always, always, WITHOUT CEASING - ask me if my pointy shoes hurt my feet because "your toes have to go up in there." For the eighty billionth time, the toes do not go all the way up. That is not how anatomy works.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

At Home In The World, by Joyce Maynard

I'm sure a lot of people come to Joyce Maynard's book At Home In The World looking for a sleazy inside scoop on the author's relationship with J.D. Salinger, but I came to it through The Lucy, who called it an amazing story. (I responded with a recommendation of George Weigel's Faith, Reason and the War Against Jihadism. It's what makes the relationship work.) I agree with that assessment, but it really has less to do with Salinger at all and more with Maynard's willingness to face up to the realities of being a teenager, a writer, and a human.

Maynard had an article published in the New York Times Magazine entitled "An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back At Life," which caught the eye of Salinger and touched off an extremely messed up relationship. However, Maynard's book is about much more than that relationship, and that's why it's so interesting. She grew up in a very disciplined family, where academic achievement was held above all and deep neuroses ran through the entire family tree. This upbringing left her feeling isolated and unsupported, setting the stage for Salinger's control of her life. Maynard seems to have been drawn to memoirs throughout her writing life, and in At Home, she documents her moment of realization: she wrote deeply, but never about the most painful realities of her life. I hope that writing At Home helped her realize that exploring those dark corners of one's life makes for some of the most interesting and most human writing available.

It's a sad book, really - Maynard struggles with an abusive relationship, an eating disorder, sexual dysfunction, mental health challenges - but it is beautifully written, and that skill makes it an important book, particularly for young women. It's so difficult to gauge your own feelings and emotions, and having this kind of raw insight into another person is invaluable. Maynard has done something very brave here, and I commend her for it - the result is top notch.

Monday, August 16, 2010

The Value of a College Education

I'm going to start a Political Theory Ph.D at Boston University in a month, and I eventually want to teach at the college level. There are two things that scare me about this situation. First, I am concerned that I won't be able to hack it in the program. I think this is mostly neurosis, and it would probably be worse if I wasn't a little scared. More importantly, I'm worried that I won't be able to cut it in the college environment. Not because I am afraid I'm not smart enough or won't have enough classroom presence, but because I'm not sure I'll be able to stand the kids who shouldn't and don't want to be in the classroom with me.

Pretty much every employer asks for a college degree now, which is a great idea as long as you don't think too hard about what a college degree is supposed to represent. Your major should not be arbitrary, it should be something you want to develop expertise in. A bachelor's degree is not a piece of paper certifying that you are now awesome at life. However, this is the read that many employers - and society at large - take on it, and this means that your major matters less and less, allowing for buy-a-degree programs like University of Phoenix and its cousins to spring up offering something much more like a B.A. in Life Awesomeness (though the actual awesomeness is frankly limited). I think that on some level these schools understand that, so they skew their programs toward something more like vocational training. The problem there is that vocational training doesn't require the same kind of school that academic training does, so the end result is of mashing together apples and oranges and calling them the same thing. Crosspollenization has its limits. It's nice of these schools to take the expense and time of training employees off of businesses, but that doesn't make it a legitimate academic pursuit.

You might not care about this distinction, and the "well why not get everyone through college" concept has its merits. The problem is, though, that the reason college degrees were desirable in the first place was because earning one was a badge of academic distinction. You now have a lot of kids in school who Just Want The Degree, and employers who Just Want The Degree, and neither party really cares about academic rigor. Weird, right? The idea of academic achievement - and the work required to obtain it - was so appealing that eventually it removed its own necessity.

The sad thing about the kids who Just Want The Degree (or the parents who push them into it) is that these kids might not be cut out for academic work, and this attitude makes it seem like that makes them dumb. I know a lot of stuff about political theory; my husband knows mainframes inside and out. That doesn't make either one of us smarter than the other, it makes us smart in different directions. But if our entire social posture is geared towards college, then the people who don't care about college and aren't good at it and ultimately can't hack it are going to feel left out and worthless, and that is crap, because the world needs as many different kinds of people as possible to make it go.

It's amazing to me that something so simple needs to be said, need different kinds of people. You need some people to debate big ideas, you need some people to fix your car. You need someone to fight your wars, and you need someone to cook food. A while back, I got into a minor squabble with a friend of mine and he gave me the whole "I didn't go to college but I make three times what everyone I know who went to college does" line, which is great and I do in fact believe him, but that is also possible because not everyone does what he does. If everyone does the same things, eventually it floods the market for that activity and devalues it. It works for everything - going to college, not going to college, whatever - and unless we realize that, academia and all the many fields beyond it are in serious trouble.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Makeup Is Easy: Don't It Make Your Brown Eyes Green

I'm starting to feel a little bit like an OPI nail polish titler at this point with the Makeup Is Easy posts, but I haven't really run out of horrible weird puns, so that's...good? Not sure. YOU DECIDE!!!!

In any case, you can see here that I went with a pretty basic green eye. I forewent the eye liner because I wasn't feeling up to it. I've been rocking the liquid liner lately because it hangs in there better in summertime, but it is kind of a process to get it so it doesn't look like you did your face with Sharpie. You can see how effective just a simple eyeshadow plus mascara can be, though:
I encourage any and all readers to just abandon foundation et al for day in the summer. It's just too much work to have it melt off midday and the odds of your skin looking better in summer are huge. A little sunshine - filtered through sunscreen - will cover all manner of sins. Don't sweat it and go with easy makeup that doesn't disappear.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Bonus Book Review Brought To You By Canada: The Hockey Sweater

So I'm sure you've all adjusted to my very well executed schedule of Wednesday book reviews (...snerk), but I HAVE to bust in with a review of my new favorite book. I came home on Thursday of last week and had a package from Amazon...but I had not ordered anything from Amazon! I opened it up and found this:
Now, let's be clear here. I love surprises (I'll be 30 in three years, people) and I love the Canadiens, so any surprise that involves adorable Habs-based books is going to be a win. I still did not know who it was from, so I harassed my friends via email and found out it was a gift from my favorite Canadian/Leafs fan/hockey player/Torontonian/lumberjack/kilt-wearer/nocturnal cuddler/wrestler, Ben! Ben is awesome, and was very nice after the USA-Canada game in the Olympics, all things considered. (He is wrong about Gretzky a lot, though.)

Anyway, this gift was a base level of awesome, but then - THEN! - I read it, and all my dreams came true, including several I didn't even know I had. The story is about a little boy who has a Rocket Richard jersey that he loves into oblivion. His mom orders him a replacement, but the store sends a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey. HORRORS! He wears it to a game, gets shunned by children AND adults, throws a temper tantrum, gets told to go to church to repent for his hockey tantrum, and then prays for revenge. I am spoiling this because a.) I think all of Canada has read it already and b.) it cannot be contained! Here are some of my favorite lines and plot points.
  • "Parents always want to punish their children and school is their most natural way of punishing us."
  • "My mother said: 'If you wear that old sweater, people are going to think we are poor!'"
  • "Dear Monsieur Eaton, Would you be so kind as to send me a Canadiens' hockey sweater for my son, Roch, who is ten years old and a little bit tall for his age? Docteur Robitaille thinks he is a little too thin. I am sending you three dollars. Please send me change if there is any. I hope your packing will be better than it was last time." Read: Mom is kind of a dick.
  • "Besides, the Toronto team was always being beaten by the Canadiens." Still true!
  • "Monsieur Eaton understands French perfectly, but he's English and he's going to be insulted because he likes the Maple Leafs." This is accompanied by a picture of Monsieur Eaton looking very Robber Baron-y.
  • "I jumped onto the ice [in my Maple Leafs jersey]...The captain came and told me to wait; he'd need me later, on defense." KID SHUNNING!
  • "[The ref giving me a too many men penalty] was too much! It was too unfair! 'This is persecution!' I shouted. 'It's just because of my blue sweater!'"
  • [The curate tells him that good boys keep their tempers and tells him to go pray for forgiveness.] "Wearing my Maple Leafs sweater I went to the church, where I prayed to God." *page turn* "I asked God to send me right away, a hundred million moths that would eat up my Toronto Maple Leafs sweater."
AMAZING, NO?? Buy yourself a copy immediately.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Proposition 8, Religion, Marriage, and the State

Proposition 8 was overturned last week, and though I am sure it will go to the Supreme Court (NB: No matter the decision from the of the bigger cases in US history will involve the name Schwartzenegger. That is madness.), seeing someone defend a national dedication to not persecuting people is reassuring. I have spent a lot of time worrying about the open vitriol that started in the Bush Administration and then ramped up to a whole new scary place when Obama was elected. Bigots seem to have much louder megaphones these days, and I'm not sure why we tolerate it. Proposition 8 seemed particularly mean-spirited to me. I do have my personal issues with gay marriage, which I'll discuss in a moment, but even beyond the arguments back and forth over the issue itself, the point of Proposition 8 seemed different - rather than a reasoned "this is not okay because it does not make sense in the context of our nation" discussion, it was a surly, brutish "no, you can't have this, you fucking GAYS. Go stand in the goddamn corner." I don't think that's what America is about and that anyone should be so proud of themselves for denying others the pursuit of happiness makes me feel ill. Judge Walker overturned the ban on gay marriage for all the right reasons within the context of a court of law, but in the process, he took the correct moral path. They're not the same, but in this case they happen to align.

Now, we should talk about gay marriage, because this debate isn't just about the pursuit of happiness. In my mind, the debate over gay marriage is the best argument for the separation of church and state we have ever seen in America. Marriage is at its core a religious rite, but over time, we have tied it to an array of legal privileges and connections. Being married now means you can inherit your loved one's possessions when they die, gain custody of their children, visit them in the hospital. This forces two problems - the state should not be able to direct the actions of the churches, and the churches should not be able to deny those legal privileges from citizens.

The best chance of resolving both problems, as far as I can see, is to create a new path to a marriage. Rather than getting a marriage license, couples of any kind could get a civil union, which would tie the legalities of their lives together. Keep the waiting period, and make it slightly more involved. I think a Justice of the Peace should probably preside over the union, not for that air of religiousness but in order to ask the questions on the table and to make sure the couple verbalizes what they’re about to do in a serious way. Words have power and declaring your connection is important – there’s a reason the simple pairing of “I” and “do” has so much significance. Then, if the couple chooses to pursue a marriage, they can do so, needing only the agreement of the church that will marry them. I think this is the most fair way to resolve the question we face.

Of course, this is all predicated on the idea that you want churches to be able to discriminate between kinds of couples. Allowing churches to do so does set sections of the Constitution at odds with other sections, to say nothing of the legal environment that has grown from that founding document. We find ourselves in the interesting position of having to choose which child we love best – Freedom of Religion or Equality. Equality has always been trying for us, and the intense battles fought for it, juxtaposed with the decline of serious religion, make it seem more important. It’s tempting to dismiss religion as old-fashioned, but to do so would be a serious mistake.

We’re wallowing in an era of mediocrity, shooting for “good enough” and limiting our dreams to cheap goals and small ideas. Almost everything comes down to the bottom line, to pure capitalism. The worst part of this is that capitalism has the potential to unlock the greatest achievements of humans – it allows those willing and able to push hard in the direction of their dreams to achieve wholly new accomplishments, and removes others’ power to repress their imagination. But there is a cost to capitalism, and we are realizing it now. Capitalism can also become weighed down with amusing the lowest common denominator, letting people make their fortunes on beautifully marketed waste at others’ expense. There’s nothing more than making money and spending it for so many people, and as religion’s influence withers, we lose our defense against this darker edge of capitalism, against our nighttime politics, and against the lazier tendencies of our souls. Religion – in any form – maintains a discussion about the things that go beyond today, this year, this life, this world. Considering that there may be forces beyond our human existence is an encouragement to be more than just a hunk of meat passing through time, and when religion is deemed important by politics (as it has been throughout history), we recognize that we must have room for influence, direction and responsibility to something beyond our own small world – even beyond the nation. Religion should not lead politics, but politics without room for religion is destined to decay.

Marriage, too, should not be discarded as a passé tradition. Marriage is a declaration to the earthly and spiritual worlds that the couple entering into it place their love above all things. Its religious nature allows people to declare that their union is as important as the spiritual world, and that it transcends their political and physical state. That’s not for nothing – it’s a big statement to make. If you are willing to make that statement about another human being, the love that inspires you to do so should trump any other rules you may find in your way. Marriage is about more than legalities.

Should churches be able to discriminate against gay couples? No, I don’t think so…I don’t think any human being or group should be able to keep anyone from pursuing happiness. However, I do think that the value of religions and of religious rites is such that it should be protected. A civil union should tend to the legal matters of tying two lives together. I think that the path I suggest may bolster membership in churches that do welcome gay partnerships, as people seek marriages after the union. John Locke speaks eloquently in his Letter Concerning Toleration of the effectiveness of religions; he explains that one cannot be saved by a faith they do not believe in, and as such, the state cannot possibly enforce a religion because religion should address the spiritual needs of its adherents. If your church does not have room for the great love of your life, how can it possibly care for your spiritual life as a whole?

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Josie's Closet: Teal Carlos Santana Sandals

I have a couple pair of Carlos Santana shoes...

...yes, that Carlos Santana. No, I don't get it either. [NB: Yes, I am aware there is better Santana out there, but those clips are notably lacking in foxy, foxy Rob Thomas.] Anyway, as I was saying, I have a couple pairs of his shoes and I don't know what madness translates smokin' guitar into some of the best womens shoes on the market, but whatever it is, I like it. I recently picked up these sandals and as usual, they are a marvel of beauty and comfort.
Let's get real about my feet here for a minute - they are somewhat problematic. My pinkie toes roll in, my toenails have weird shapes and perhaps most importantly, they're size tens, which apparently means "nun shoes" to the fashion industry. These shoes make my feet look great, and that's the best part of all.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Steig Larsson's Millennium Trilogy (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo)

I was going to start this review with a synopsis of each installment before moving on to the discussion I ACTUALLY wanted to have, but I am deathly afraid of giving away any details that would spoil the book or deprive you of the wonderful experience of discovering Larsson's great characters and story, so I'm going to link you to each book's Amazon page for synopses.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl Who Played With Fire

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest

These books are wonderful for their skillful plotting and fully realized characters. Even minor characters are so well drawn that they are perfectly clear, even from their places on the sidelines. The background goes deep enough to be interesting and the action is swift and full of intrigue. The latter two books - Fire and Hornets Nest - almost read like one larger book, because the stories are clearly linked; the third is all consequence of the second. This makes Tattoo an ideal starting point, as it establishes the main characters in the context of a stand-mostly-alone mystery. These are great books, particularly for summer, and I can't recommend them enough. I particularly enjoyed Fire, which is the first book since I read Democracy in America (I know, shut up) that kept me up to a completely unreasonable hour, unable to stop reading. (How's that for a topical swing? Things that enrapture Josie: political theory and Swedes.)

So here's what I'd actually like to discuss: Steig Larsson's feminist bona fides. Lisbeth Salander, the titular Girl, is a thrilling character type to see in a contemporary book - she is fiercely independent and supremely competent, and she protects herself from danger when no one else will or can. She also inhabits a very specific kind of "crazy," which is always a tricky designation for a woman. Rather than getting the more misogynist implications that usually come with "feminine crazy," Salander is clearly placed in the ranks of what tends to be the masculine concept of crazy - eccentricity, mad genius, etc. That's a fairly big deal. I can tell you, as someone who has been on the receiving end of Crazy Bitch, that the difference between most people calling a woman crazy and calling a man crazy is a very specific gap, and the former tends to carry a silent "doesn't know her place." Larsson has several other strong female characters - Erika Berger, Harriet Vanger, and a host of minor characters - but Salander is the focus and the most distinctive woman. Most critics and casual readers have declared Salander a feminist character and Larsson a feminist author on the strength of Salander alone, only bolstered by the others (including male characters who clearly respect the women who surround them).

The problem arises with the brutal scenes of abuse - sexual and otherwise - in the stories. Sexual themes run throughout, and there are several disturbing scenes of rape and other sexual abuses. These scenes are such drivers that they form an integral part of the narrative. The problem is the almost pornographic quality of these scenes. I don't think you can feel anything but sympathy and anger for the victims of the attacks, but in the best case they tread dangerously close to being voyeuristic and in the worst case, pure exploitation. This raises a real question of whether or not the female characters in Larsson's books are as strong as they seem. No matter how powerful they may be, these scenes are constant reminders that they CAN be dominated, and can be defeated.

In the end, I do think that Larsson is a feminist, but in a specific way. Whenever you talk about feminism, you have to weed out what you're actually talking about - what wave, what section, what swath - and this is no less true in consideration of Larsson's excellent trilogy. Feminism, fundamentally, is about equal opportunity. Not preferential treatment, though it can be about that. Not punitive damages, though it can be about that. At its core, it's about women having the chances to direct their lives and make their own choices...regardless of the outcome. It's having the chance to try something and succeed OR fail. It's not a guarantee. I think that Larsson's feminism strikes at this core - his women can control the world around them, but they can also be dragged through the mud.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

You Should Be Watching Suicide Blonde

I wish I could remember how I came across Suicide Blonde's Tumblr, but I can't. What I can tell you is that you should be watching it. She has a wonderful eye for art, photography and composition and I've been spending a lot of time paging through her almost 2000 pages of Tumblr.

There are a couple photographers she features frequently who I don't really like because I find their work either trite, faux-shocking and misogynistic (Terry Richardson) or just plain "yeah okay, but why?" and vaguely misogynistic (Ellen von Unwerth), but I know that there are plenty of people who like those two photographers' work and have made my peace with it. (Okay, perhaps not with Terry Richardson. I do not find his talent significant enough to counterbalance his general grossness, misogyny and relentless need to put himself into the frame. Also, sexually problematic. [Also also: Tavi Gevinson is spectacular.])

Here's a sampling of some favorites of mine.

Monday, August 2, 2010

"Josie, You Should Get a Kindle": In Defense of the Physical Act of Reading Books

I posted this picture from Suicide Blonde's tumblr on Facebook the other day with a note saying that I'd probably create a glorious little hideout like this if left to my own devices. It inspired one of my friends to mention what has become a common theme in my life - the idea that I should consider a Kindle.
This is not a bad idea, and neither this friend nor any of the myriad people who have suggested it before her should think I am upset over the suggestion, because I have considered buying a Kindle, particularly for travel. When I went to Florida this year, I left Worcester with four books and V magazine and came back with V Magazine, Vanity Fair (apparently what I really want out of my periodicals is the 22nd letter of the alphabet), and nine books, one of which was an 1947 copy of Thackeray's Vanity Fair. That is ridiculous, frankly, and heavy. A Kindle would significantly lighten the load and solve two of my biggest air travel problems: the complete crap that most airport bookstores stock, and the wonkiness of those little lights on the airplane that never quite light your pages the way you want them to. I might get one some day, but I'm not in a rush and it won't ever replace the ridiculous number of books I already have and will continue to accumulate.

There is something to the physical act of reading that appeals to me. I don't think I need to explain the appeal of older or more luxurious bindings - there's nothing quite like turning wonderful thick pages holding clear black printing in a really top notch binding. I was recently at the home of a friend who has a stunning collection of old volumes, all bound in leather with embossing and gilding and all kinds of magic, and whenever I've been there, there's something that happens to my heart and I have to remind myself, Kindergarden-style, to keep my hands to myself and not touch the art. There is a visual and tactile appeal to well bound books that doesn't need elaboration for people with hands and eyeballs. For me personally, reading actual books lets me go back and reference things if I need to. I find I can usually remember about where in a book the information I want to go back to is, and I can't do the same with electronic writings.

Most of all, I think that turning actual pages is important. There's a whole vein of nervousness about the overuse of technology that is also in play here, but I do think that having to turn pages in a book is an important part of being truly immersed in a story. It seems to me that your emotional mind tends to operate constantly and independent from your academic mind, almost as white noise for your conscious life. In that split second it takes to turn the page, your conscious mind takes a break and your emotional mind carries on with the feeling of the story. These repeated moments allow you to broaden and deepen your experience with the book, and maybe for your mind to wander off to connect the book in your hands with all the books that came before it, or the songs you've heard, or the films you watched.

Now, it's possible I'm just talking out of my neck here. I'm not a psychologist nor do I have any kind of scientific proof to back this idea up, but I do know what happens when I read, and doing so on a computer or other electronic device changes that. That's why even if I do buy a Kindle, or a Nook, or an iPad, or whatever, I'll still have my books, no matter how much of a pain it is to move them or how many bookcases I overload. I can't imagine a literary life without standing touching the covers and pages, and standing in the bookstore smelling the paper and glue. I can't imagine that life without having that same immersion - that's what made me stay up until midnight in elementary school reading The Secret Garden and Nancy Drew books, and what keeps me up with Montesquieu and Nabokov today.