I just finished reading Jan Guenther Braun’s 2008 novel Somewhere Else. Although the prose is a bit uneven in the first half of the book, reading it was one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had with literature. I felt physically uneasy while reading most of the book, which speaks to just how much it affected me (a good thing). I am still at a point where I am recovering from the reading experience, and thus don’t have much to say about the novel here other than that I strongly recommend it. It’s about a Mennonite teenager from Saskatchewan who leaves home because her family rejects her for being a lesbian and tries to find herself sexually and spiritually. I first got into Mennonite literature because it gave me narratives that helped me to understand myself and helped me realize that I needed to leave the Church rather than forcing myself to conform to its various oppressions, and after a long period of not reading Mennonite literature it is again reflecting myself back at me via the narratives of other queer Mennos.
Monthly Archives: September 2012
I saw Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film The Master last night, and while I’m still processing it, here are a few initial observations and reactions:
It is not as good as Boogie Nights, which has the memorable characters of The Master while also having a more engaging plot, but there is more nudity.
It might be as good as Magnolia, and is definitely better than Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood.
Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams all give outstanding performances. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a physical performance better than Phoenix’s in that his character is always a searing presence on the screen, and how his body (and especially his face) moves is more memorable and important than what he says. It is rare for me to feel that Hoffman gets overshadowed because he is my favorite actor, but in this film, he does. With that said, if Hoffman ever starts a cult, I will be powerless to resist joining. I used to think of Adams as Jim’s annoying girlfriend on the first season of The Office, but now I will think of her performance here. The quiet violence of her character (which erupts most memorably in a scene where she gives Hoffman a handjob after warning him never to let her find out that he is having sex with other women) is a nice contrast to the bravado of the men’s. The three performances are so good that they almost act as a detriment to the film itself, as the whole gets overshadowed by its parts.
About a month ago, I changed the cover photograph (to appropriate the Facebook term) of this blog, but I didn’t provide an explanation for the photo, so I thought I would do so now. I decided that it was necessary to have a photo of books from my personal library rather than continuing to use the WordPress photo (which was nice but generic) that had been there since the blog’s beginning. I then decided that I wanted the photograph to be authentic–a picture of the books as they are on the shelf instead of a hand-picked collection of my favorites–and I also wanted it to be visually interesting, if not also aesthetically pleasing. These criteria soon led to the decision that, although I primarily read fiction and it is my favorite genre, the photograph would have to be of one of my nonfiction shelves because I tend to have multiple books by fiction writers (when I like an author, I often read more [if not all] of their work, and because I am a book-buying addict I acquire the books rather than getting them from a library), and I wanted the photo to include as many different authors as possible. The photograph that I chose does include multiple books by two authors, but this is better than a picture of, say, a shelf that solely consists of works by Samuel R. Delany or Philip Roth. I settled on a photograph of the second shelf of my “general nonfiction” section, which includes a selection of books that do a pretty good job of representing the values, subjects, and ideas that are most important to me.
Here is a bit about each book in the photograph:
A History of Modern Latin America–This is one of my old college textbooks. I keep it around mostly for sentimental reasons. If I ever need to look up the date of Peru’s independence, it would be easier to do so online than to flip through the book, but it is important to me to have my Latino heritage (I am half Puerto Rican) represented in my library.
Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver–I used this book in two chapters of my dissertation, and it was one of the books that gave me the idea for my dissertation, so it is very important to me even though there is a good chance that I might never read it again.
Boy and Going Solo by Roald Dahl–Dahl’s two memoirs are vivid, engaging reads, especially Going Solo, which tells of his experiences in the R.A.F. during World War II. It is one of the best adventure stories I have ever read.
Heavenly Breakfast, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, The Motion of Light in Water (original edition), and 1984 by Samuel R. Delany–Delany is my favorite author, and I have all of his books except for The American Shore (which is quite rare). They are split between three shelves: one in the fiction section, which is all Delany, one at my office that contains all of his literary criticism, and the shelf in the photo with his other nonfiction.
Having Our Say by Sarah and Elizabeth Delany–This is a memoir by two of Samuel R. Delany’s aunts. I bought and read it because of my love for his work, but the book is quite good in its own right.
Memoirs of a Beatnik by Diane Di Prima–This is one of my favorite memoirs because I love reading about late-1950s/early 1960s New York City. I was happy that a Penguin paperback with its instantly-recognizable orange-and-white design made it into the photograph.
Sex for One by Betty Dodson–This is an excellent book about the importance of masturbation and sexual fantasy. Perhaps it belongs in the “gender studies” section of my library, though I’ve had it in “general nonfiction” for a while.
Autobiographies by Frederick Douglass–Douglass is one of my favorite African American authors to teach, so it makes me happy that his book made it into the photograph, albeit just barely. This edition was published by the Library of America, whose books I love.
Braun, Jan Guenther. Somewhere Else. Winnipeg: Arbeiter Ring, 2008.
A friend who knows that I like Stephen Beachy recommended this to me; apparently it’s another Mennonite novel dealing with queer issues. I will read it as soon as I have time, hopefully by the end of the week.
Califia, Pat. Public Sex: The Culture of Radical Sex. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Cleis, 2000.
I’ve been reading as much as I can about BDSM lately for an essay I’m working on, and Califia’s work has attained “classic” status in the field, which is why I bought this book. I’ve already begun reading it, and while some of it is dated, it still has some very relevant ideas. The dated stuff is interesting, too, and even encouraging in a way because it shows how much progress has been made in the past decade in the area of LGBT rights and sexual freedom in general.
Both of these books were bought via amazon.com, but both came from bookstores from outside of the U.S., which is worth noting. The Califia came from the U.K. (I forget where exactly, because I already threw away the packing slip and packaging), and the Braun came from Russell Books in Victoria, British Columbia. Hurray for independent bookstores, even if they are forced to rely on amazon to sell their wares.
As I sit in front of my computer on this lazy Sunday morning that has now meandered into the afternoon, these are three of the things I am thinking about while I procrastinate working on revisions to an essay:
I am glad that Manchester United finally converted a penalty kick after missing their last three, with Robin van Persie scoring against Liverpool earlier today. I haven’t watched the match yet (it was on at 6.30 a.m. this morning and I was out celebrating a friend’s birthday until 1.30, so I didn’t get up for it), and thus haven’t seen the apparently controversial foul that led to the penalty, but it is a huge relief that the kick was converted whether it was deserved or not.
One of my favorite activities is looking at someone’s books when I visit their home for the first time because it reminds me how beautiful books are as objects, and it also teaches me something about the person–it is a window into their mind’s life. I got to do this at the aforementioned birthday party last night. My friend’s library was too small for my liking (We are friends even though she is an ereader adherent. She’s even a librarian! She should know better!), but I judged it favorably nevertheless because her literary tastes are similar to mine (ha!), and it was clear that the books she did have were treasured objects.
Fall is my favorite season; I love the cooler temperatures and the way the light changes. There is nothing better than sitting on the couch reading and looking out the window at the turning leaves while smelling a hearty fall meal cooking. This evening I am going to make a pork-and-vegetable roast, which should provide some delicious aromas to accompany the reading I will do once I finish my writing for the day.
Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick: A Norton Critical Edition. 1851. Ed. Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2002.
I am thinking about teaching Moby-Dick in a literary criticism course in the spring, so I requested an exam copy of the Norton edition because it includes some critical essays on the novel. The first Norton rep I ever had (in Illinois) was super-stingy with exam copies, thus it always fills me with glee when my current rep here in Utah always happily fulfills my requests. This is the fifth different printing of the novel that I have acquired. If I teach it I’ll use either this edition or the Penguin edition. The Penguin edition is much more aesthetically pleasing with its classic black cover (see Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine for more on the beauty of Penguin paperbacks), but my students might find the Norton more useful.
—. Pierre, or the Ambiguities. 1852. Ed. Harrison Hayford, Hershel Parker, and G. Thomas Tanselle. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1995.
I’ve been looking for a copy of Pierre for a while in various used bookstores (i.e., it’s been on my radar for a while, but it hasn’t been an urgent need) because its portrayal of sexuality sounds intriguing. This evening I was at the Central Book Exchange in Salt Lake City looking for something else that they didn’t have, but they did have an almost new copy of Melville’s novel. There is some underlining (In ink! The previous owner was clearly a philistine.) in the first chapter, but otherwise it is in excellent condition.
I just read Salman Rushdie’s personal essay in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Yorker about the first few months of his life after the fatwa against his life was issued upon the publication of The Satanic Verses. It is a moving, heartbreaking text that makes one realize how much of a hero Rushdie was and is in his willingness to stand up for free speech, and to continue writing even though he knew that thousands of people hated him for it. Several bookstores were bombed in England for stocking the novel, so never let anyone tell you that literature is not political. The essay is essential reading for anyone who cares about literature.
I saw Rushdie read at the Barnes & Noble on the north end of Union Square in Manhattan in late 2002 or early 2003, and it was an amazing experience because even then there was the sense that he was risking his life to give us an evening of enjoyment. He had pre-signed copies of his newest book because it was too dangerous for him to meet readers personally to sign their copies, but he graciously took people’s (sometimes gratingly asinine) questions after the reading. About a year later I saw him standing outside of a bar smoking and talking with some friends (I can’t remember if he was actually smoking, or if he was just accompanying his acquaintances while they smoked, as this was soon after the City banned all smoking in restaurants), and it made me happy to see that he was able to have this moment of normalcy after everything he’d been through.
In my previous post I wrote about having a chess dream last night, and how I love chess’s material culture. Then this afternoon I ran across an article on grantland.com by Dave McKenna about a recent chess cheating scandal in Virginia (here is the link: http://www.grantland.com/story/_/id/8362701/the-evolution-cheating-chess). First off, regarding the scandal, in which a player used a computer that was supposedly just for keeping score to access a program that fed him moves, there is no reason that amateur players who do not have some form of physical disability that makes it difficult/impossible for them to write by hand should be allowed to use electronic scorekeeping devices rather than paper scoresheets. Secondly, what an odd coincidence that grantland.com should happen to publish its first ever article about chess on a day that I was already thinking about the game. I’ve written here before about how every once in a while I will encounter a subject or personage several times within a very short period of time, and this feels like the same kind of thing going on. Weird.
I had a vivid dream about playing in a chess tournament last night. I haven’t played in a tournament in nearly two years, which was the last time I even played a game. My life is much too busy these days to go back to playing chess because of the all-encompassing nature of my professional life, as being an academic is a 24/7 kind of job. When I am reading for fun I can always put the book down, and when I am watching sports I can always turn the television off, but chess is a hobby that quickly becomes an obsession and also fights for one’s attention all the time.
However, I do go through phases where I miss the game keenly. Sometimes I’ll find myself playing through a few moves in my head, but what I really miss is the material culture of the game. There is, of course, the rich print culture surrounding the game, which I am especially drawn to as a bibliophile. There is also the game equipment itself. I love being at a tournament and seeing the variety of sets, boards, and clocks in use. Not only is it aesthetically pleasing, but it also serves as an archeological history of the chess community because well-made sets last for decades, and the basic equipment never changes, so it’s not necessary to buy replacements unless one is a collector like me. I still have my first chess clock, a basic BHB analog from the mid-1990s that is still in perfect working order. I have a digital clock now, too, that I use for tournaments, but it is merely functional rather than beautiful. I also love wooden sets, and have three sets of wooden pieces and one wooden board along with two high quality folding cardboard boards, which are much nicer than the more common vinyl roll-up boards. Wooden pieces make the game more regal; one can be losing terribly and be reminded by the wooden pieces that it is still a beautiful game. Likewise, a win with a cheap plastic set, though ultimately satisfying, feels a little tawdry, too.
Smith, P.D. City: A Guidebook for the Urban Age. London: Bloomsbury, 2012.
I love cities! I am interested in how they are planned, how they function, and how they shape their inhabitants. I have recently begun to integrate this amateur interest into my literary scholarship, focusing on works/writers that are somehow urban. So when I heard about Smith’s book I decided it would provide me with some helpful background knowledge for this new interest.
Bought on amazon.com.
Smith, Zadie. NW. New York: Penguin, 2012.
I love Smith’s fiction, especially White Teeth and The Autograph Man, thus her new novel was a must-buy. My local bookstore, The King’s English, happened to be having a 35%-off sale yesterday, so it was a perfect time to pick NW up even though I won’t have time to read it for at least a month.