Monthly Archives: July 2012

The Best YouTube Sing-Along Ever

This is a video of Swedish Olympic handball star Isabelle Gullden (driving) and some other woman singing along (well, sort of–maybe “riffing on” is a better term) to Jason Derulo’s “Whatcha Say” in the car, and it is hilarious:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bemIK39WmLA

The video raises so many questions (perhaps all of which would be answered if I knew Swedish):

1. This is obviously premeditated. Whose idea was it? Is it some sort of weird marketing gimmick?

2. Why this song?

3. Who is the other woman, and shouldn’t she be driving her famous Olympian friend around instead of vice versa?

4. What does the hand motion that the women make every time they sing the chorus signify in Sweden? If it’s the same thing it signifies in the U.S., an additional question arises (pun intended!): Why are these women so dirty? (not that I have a problem with it)

5. Not a question, but an observation: the way Gullden is torn between totally rocking out like her friend and being a responsible  driver cracks me up! If this video is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

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Books Acquired Recently

Palahniuk, Chuck. Invisible Monsters Remix. New York: Norton, 2012.

I am teaching the first edition (1999) of this novel in my Introduction to Literature course this coming semester, which gave me an excuse to buy the Remix (it is essential research!), a version of the novel in its original form along with commentary by Palahniuk. Invisible Monsters is a fun book—I couldn’t put it down the first time I read it—and I am looking forward to experiencing it in a different incarnation.

Steinbeck, John. The Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights. 1976. New York: Penguin, 2008.

I have been looking for a copy of this book for around fifteen years in used bookstores. Steinbeck is an excellent storyteller and one of my favorite writers to read for fun, thus I’ve always thought that his retelling of the Arthurian legend would be worth reading. I did not realize that Penguin had reissued it, but discovered a new copy of the book (along with Palahniuk’s) when browsing in Dolly’s Bookstore in Park City, Utah, which I visited for the first time yesterday. I continue to be very impressed with the number of high-quality bookstores in Utah. It has the best bookstore scene I’ve ever encountered outside of New York City.

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Thoughts on Yogurt

Yogurt fascinates me. I don’t like eating it because it is just too weird, a bizarre amalgamation of other dairy products: part liquid like milk, part flowing solid like ice cream, part fermentation like cheese. But I really enjoy watching other people eat it because I get to observe someone interacting with the above odd qualities, which are visually fascinating. There is something comforting about the way a metal spoon clicks on a plastic yogurt container as one is scraping up the last few bites. It entrances me.

The epitome of the satisfying nature of this yogurt voyeurism is present in a scene from Stranger Than Fiction, where Dustin Hoffman’s character (who is always eating—one of my favorite running gags ever) is finishing his yogurt and gets a drop on his lip, which he quickly scoops off with his finger and sucks into his mouth. It is so viscerally physical and uninhibited as to be sublime.

(Incidentally, the portrayal of Hoffman’s character, an English professor, drives me nuts! He claims he is swamped that semester because he is teaching four classes as well as directing several dissertations [three, I think]. It is clear from this statement that the movie’s writer has no clue how academia works. First off, no legitimate Ph.D.-granting institution [i.e., real universities, not counting online for-profit “universities” such as the University of Phoenix] would have professors teaching four courses per semester. Secondly, someone with as large of an office as Hoffman has [completely lined with bookshelves!] who has taught the highly-specialized courses that he mentions teaching would be a full professor teaching two courses maximum, with at least one if not both being graduate seminars. This misrepresentation of academia is a problem in television and film in general, with Ross Geller on Friends being perhaps the most egregious example. Good Will Hunting is one of the rare examples which gets it mostly right.)

Avocado is another food which I love to watch people eat because of its texture. I used to hate it, but then I watched a housemate make a batch of guacamole, and it looked so good that I was compelled to try it. Avocado is now one of my favorite foods; I’m having some for lunch today.

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Thoughts on the Weekly Reader

The news that Scholastic is shutting down its Weekly Reader elementary school newspaper (read more about it here: http://schoolsofthought.blogs.cnn.com/2012/07/25/the-last-weekly-reader/?hpt=hp_bn13) signifies the loss of another piece of my childhood. We would read through it each week in class for several years of my elementary school career (I want to say third grade and fourth grade, and perhaps also second grade, but I’m not sure), and it was always an enjoyable diversion from regular class activities even though I remember being bored by most of its articles. It felt like a big deal that there was a newspaper being published for kids because it symbolized adults recognizing that our intellects were important and acknowledging that we cared about what was going on in the world, too. The physical nature of it, the fact that you could hold the Weekly Reader in your hands as proof of this recognition, meant something (and similar experiences still mean something–I loved print culture then and I still love it much more than digital culture).

My clearest memory of the Weekly Reader is an article before the 1988 election which explained who the two big-party candidates were and included a ballot that you could cut out in order to have a mini-election in class. Being able to vote was so exciting! I voted for Dukakis, but as was the case in the actual election, Bush won in a landslide, something like 22-9. In hindsight, this landslide seems especially surprising because it was a class of third-graders in the Bronx! The fact that many of us had heard of Bush because he was vice president (I remember arguing that this was an unfair advantage for him), but had not heard of Dukakis swayed the vote. I voted for Dukakis because I knew my parents were voting for him.

It is sad that the Weekly Reader will be no more. What were cooler than the Weekly Reader, though, and are really only associated with it in my mind because they were printed on the same flimsy, full-color newsprint, were the Scholastic book order forms that would come four or five times a year. It was so much fun to look through the four-page catalogues for new titles and figure out whether I had enough money saved from my allowance to buy a book or two (the times when I had spent my money on other things [usually baseball cards] and couldn’t afford anything were sad, indeed). During my first few years of elementary school, the books (virtually all paperbacks) were usually $2.00 or less, then they became slightly more expensive in the upper grades when we had graduated to chapter books. I remember buying novelizations of films such as Superman 4: The Quest for Peace and Back to the Future 2, and a volume that included both Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story which I still have. You would cut out the order form, fill it out, and give it to the teacher in an envelope along with your money (often a smorgasbord of coins), and the books would arrive in about a month, which was long enough to have almost forgot about them, thus making the day when they arrived super-exciting, like a surprise Christmas. The teacher would always wait until the end of the day to hand them out, and the  anticipation would be excruciating. I don’t really know any elementary school children these days, but I hope that they still have this wonderful experience.

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Some Thoughts on Edgar Allan Poe

Yesterday a friend of mine posted this hilarious cartoon on Facebook: http://i.imgur.com/rlEZr.png. Any time you can combine Edgar Allan Poe and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” you have to do it. I’ve been thinking about the cartoon and chuckling all day, which in turn got me thinking about Poe in general, and how he keeps inserting himself into my life at random intervals. I enjoy his work, though I would not consider him one of my “favorite” authors, but my history with him is longer than my history with any other non-children’s author aside from C.S. Lewis. Here is a brief recounting of some of that history.

My first encounter with Poe was via his famous poem “The Raven.” I don’t remember when I discovered this poem—presumably in school—but I knew it by 1989 when it featured in the first Simpsons Halloween special, with James Earl Jones narrating and the Bart-headed raven saying “eat my shorts” instead of “nevermore.”

The second encounter with Poe which comes to mind is reading a book of his short stories for eighth-grade English. The stories were cool because of their creepiness, but I got a 72 (or maybe a 74? Anyway, pretty abysmal) percent on the exam that covered them, so didn’t revisit the book for years afterward because it was associated with bad memories. However, I still have it, and just now noticed that it is edited by Vincent Price! Classic. And only $4.95 new.

A third strong Poe memory comes from the tail end of my sophomore year of high school. I was in Stratford, Ontario on a school trip to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (which was a surreal experience, but that is a story for another post). The plays were in the evening, thus we were spending the day browsing Stratford’s shops. I came across a small bookstore and decided to go inside and look for a collection of Poe’s poetry. (Why Poe? Why poetry? I don’t remember my reasons; it was like an unexplainable craving.) This is the earliest instance I can remember of that lovely phenomenon of going into a bookstore wanting a specific book and finding it when you were not sure that you would (Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited are two other examples of this happy synchronicity that I have experienced). In this case, I didn’t even know whether the book I wanted even existed, but there it was, “The Raven” and Other Favorite Poems, for only $1.00.

My fourth major Poe memory, and really the last time I thought about him extensively until this weekend (I taught “Annabel Lee” this past semester, but made my students do the thinking about it), is from three or four years ago when I was playing chess with a friend and he observed that in successful attacks the threat of a crushing move is often stronger and more decisive than its actual execution. He compared this to the threat present in “The Purloined Letter,” where the threat of blackmail resulting from the stolen letter is so strong that those who look for it are out of their heads to the point where they miss that it is on the desk, out in the open. I suppose I must add Poe to that ever-increasing mental list of authors that I need to re-read.

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Book Acquired Recently: Amy Abugo Ongiri’s Spectacular Blackness

Ongiri, Amy Abugo. Spectacular Blackness: The Cultural Politics of the Black Power Movement and the Search for a Black Aesthetic. Charlottesville: U of Virginia P, 2010.

One of my research interests within African American literature is the Black Arts Movement, which has been mostly ignored by critics until recent years. Most texts from the movement are electric, enjoyable to read because of their energy and their commitment to political change. I bought Ongiri’s book because of this interest.

Bought on amazon.com.

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Nicholson Baker’s U and I

Nicholson Baker’s 1991 long essay U and I on his obsession with John Updike is rife with the smooth, profoundly observational prose which make him one of my favorite fiction writers, though it is also marred by two deficiencies which make it my second-least favorite book of his that I’ve read. (My least favorite is still Room Temperature [which he was completing while writing U and I] because, though the writing is beautiful like his three best works, The Mezzanine, Vox, and The Anthologist in some order, I just don’t care about the premise [a man holding his baby and thinking] because I am not going to have children.)

The first is that Baker claims that women and homosexual men are somehow better suited to writing novels than heterosexual men (and I keep hearing that phrase as “heterosexual white men,” which is hard not to do when thinking of Updike, but to Baker’s credit he doesn’t make that a part of his ridiculous equation). He does admit that he expects to be pilloried for this “sexual determinism,” but mentions it because it is one of the reasons he loves Updike—Updike shows him that heterosexual guys can write fiction, too (137). However, this idea is so, frankly, offensive (1991, everybody!), that it takes away from Baker’s argument that Updike is a genius rather than strengthening it because Baker immediately becomes a less likable persona. The last thing I want to hear as a queer Puerto Rican is how badly heterosexual males have it, especially when the vast majority of authors that have been taught in literature classes (especially when Baker would have been in college) are male.

The second is that it becomes apparent by the end of the book that a significant part of Baker’s motivation for writing it is his own insecurities as a writer. He is haunted by the question of whether he is or will be as good as Updike (for the record, twenty years on I think he’s better than Updike, and I sometimes teach his books while never teaching Updike’s), and while it is legitimate for him to ask this question, it is not one I am interested in reading about because all writers, myself included, have a version of this anxiety. Am I good at all? Is this just a waste of time? Et cetera. Perhaps this element of the book is less onerous to non-writer readers.

Nevertheless, with those two important exceptions, there are some delightful elements of U and I. Here are a few of my favorites:

There is a brief discussion of masturbating to Updike’s sex scenes (19). Baker says that he has not, though he knows people who have. I must admit that one of the elements of Updike’s work which first drew me to him was the eroticism included in his fiction because he happened to be one of the first writers I encountered who wrote openly about sex (the description of the bikinied teenager in his short story “A&P” [which I did, indeed, teach once myself]—so hot when I found it in high school). But fifteen years later his work is laughably vanilla to my jaded tastes.

There are several moments when Baker makes comments about book culture that are delicious. This is my favorite aspect of his writing: it is clear that he loves books as objects as much as I do, and thus pays attention to his interactions with them. For instance, he mentions that in college he would throw the dust jackets of his hardcovers away, wanting them to look like the unjacketed books in college libraries (29). I seriously considered doing this when I was in college, too! But I am now very glad that I never started this practice, and hope that Baker has stopped it. Dust jackets are fun to look at because they vary so widely, and they make finding books on the shelf much easier. Baker also mentions accumulating different editions of books he already has when he encounters them in used bookstores, as I do. Here is his sublime description of the Franklin Library edition of Updike’s Rabbit, Run: “The padded, bright red binding was somewhat more reminiscent of a comfortable corner booth at an all-night, all-vinyl coffee shop” (36). There is also a passage where Baker describes removing the price sticker from books and then putting “it back on because it is a piece of information I will always want to have” (73). Aside from old price stickers on the occasional used book that I acquire, I hate price stickers and always remove them, but I appreciate Baker’s desire to know as much about the object as possible, to remember the individual volume’s history (how much was a copy of Madame Bovary going for in year X?).

Baker observes that “[b]ooks and life interpenetrate” (125), which is exactly correct, and is why reading books is so necessary and enjoyable. They teach us about life and how to live it better. This is why I love Baker’s fiction so much; his ability to observe the minutia of life (including our physical interactions with books) and show its importance is unparalleled.

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