Monthly Archives: January 2013

Two Recent Publications

I’ve recently had two publications appear online. The first is a review of Michael Moon’s book Darger’s Resources, which appears in both the print and electronic versions of the Rocky Mountain Review, the journal of the Rocky Mountain Modern Language association. The electronic version is here.

The second is an essay on Miriam Toews’s Summer of My Amazing Luck in the Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing, which is here.

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Fifty Shades of Grey

I just finished reading E L James’s bestselling romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey because one of my students is writing his senior thesis on it. It isn’t horrible, and is worth reading as sociological research. I had heard that the writing was atrocious, but aside from James’s overuse of the words “jeez” and “crap” and the frequent misstep of having her American characters use English idioms, it’s no worse than any other romance novel.

Fifty Shades has gained notoriety in part because of its depiction of BDSM. While its general description of the BDSM scene (especially the Dom/sub contract) is accurate, I would not classify it as a BDSM novel in the way that Molly Weatherfield’s, Claire Thompson’s, or Pauline Réage’s books are. Rather, BDSM is used to titillate the reader, but the novel’s ultimate view of it is a conventional, close-minded one, as Christian is portrayed as both an ineffective Dom and a demented freak, and the protagonist Anastasia is unable to accept her submissive side. She is a strong character–I don’t see much merit in the criticism of her or the novel as sexist (I think this criticism comes from a misunderstanding of the Dom/sub dynamic, in which it is actually the sub who has all the power, as the novel states. As third-wave feminism teaches us, if a woman gets pleasure from being a sub, there is nothing wrong with or degrading about it. However, this critique is valid in that I don’t think the book would be as successful if it involved a female Dom and a male sub, but this is a problem with sexist readers, not with Fifty Shades itself)–but she isn’t ever able to accept herself; she is too worried about societal conventions. I had hoped that Fifty Shades‘s popularity might be a signal of increasingly liberal attitudes toward sexuality in the general reading public, but there’s nothing that questions the status quo in it.

Aside from being sexually milquetoastish, Fifty Shades is also plagued by homophobic and racist elements. Christian’s reaction to Anastasia’s question of whether he is gay or not and the subsequent references to this exchange clearly imply that there is something that is somehow lesser about being gay. But the treatment of the character José is the most offensive aspect of the book. He is first portrayed as the stereotypical Latino comic relief, and then as a Don Juan-esque sexual predator. The stock nature of the novel’s secondary characters is mostly benign, but in this instance is cringe-worthy.

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Brief Thoughts on the Baseball Hall of Fame

The Baseball Hall of Fame announced today that no new members were elected from the players’ ballot. Jonah Keri has an excellent column here about why this result is ridiculous, but not catastrophic. As a Mets fan, I was all ready to write an outraged post if Mike Piazza didn’t get elected, but since no one else got elected, either, I can’t really complain.

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Books Acquired Recently: Strand Edition

On New Year’s Day I visited the Strand Bookstore at the corner of 12th Street and Broadway in New York City. The Strand is my favorite place in the world; visiting it is a necessary experience for any book lover able to afford a trip to New York. I used to live within walking distance of it, and visit every time I am in the city. I hadn’t been to it since February 2011, which was the longest amount of time I’d been away since I first shopped there. I bought so much that I couldn’t fit it all in my suitcase and had to ship most of the books to myself. I was waiting for all of them to arrive here in Utah before writing about them.

Baker, Nicholson. The Everlasting Story of Nory. 1998. New York: Vintage, 1999.

Baker is one of my favorite writers, and this is the only one of his novels that I didn’t have. I read it on the plane home yesterday and it was a light, fun read, though not as good as his other books.

Calvino, Italo. If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. 1979. Trans. William Weaver. Orlando: Harcourt, 1981.

This book was recently recommended to me by a colleague.

Danielewski, Mark Z. The Fifty Year Sword. New York: Pantheon, 2012.

I really enjoy the infusion of visual elements in Danielewski’s writing (which itself is so-so). This book is stimulating as an object: it includes Danielewski’s usual printed flights of fancy, and its dust jacket is riddled with pinholes that make the book look like it has chicken pox.

Houellebecq, Michel. Platform. 2001. Trans. Frank Wynne. New York: Vintage, 2004.

I’ve been meaning to read Houellebecq for a while because of my interest in fiction about sex. This was (perhaps surprisingly) the only one of his books in stock.

Hughes, Langston. Not Without Laughter. 1930. New York: Scribner, 1995.

I love Hughes’s poetry, but haven’t read any of his fiction, thus I was happy to buy this volume when I saw it on sale for only $5.95.

Pamuk, Orhan. The Museum of Innocence. 2008. Trans. Maureen Freely. London: Faber, 2010.

I recently read about this book, which has a corresponding museum curated by Pamuk in Istanbul.

Wallace, David Foster. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men. 1999. New York: Back Bay, 2000.

—. Girl With Curious Hair. New York: Norton, 1989.

—. Oblivion. 2004. New York: Back Bay, 2005.

I love Wallace’s writing, and was happy that the Strand had all three of his short story collections in stock.

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Books Acquired Recently: MLA Edition

Today I made my long-anticipated visit to the MLA Convention book fair. I acquired five books and ordered several more that will be shipped to me, which I will write about once I receive them. All of the books interest me, but the fact that I got several of them at a discount made them irresistable. I noticed that the majority of the publisher representatives at the fair were women, and especially younger women who looked to be in their twenties. This trend was especially pronounced in representatives from commercial publishers. My perhaps cynical thought upon making this observation was “this is where excess English majors end up.” But that’s not quite fair. I suppose that the job would be a fascinating and even enjoyable one. On the one hand it’s just being a cashier, but on the other, it involves travel and the opportunity to meet lots of people.

The books that I acquired at MLA with the view of downtown Boston from my hotel room window in the background.

The books that I acquired at MLA with the view of downtown Boston from my hotel room window in the background.

Barnes, Julian. The Sense of an Ending. 2011. New York: Vintage, 2012.

I’ve heard good things about Barnes’s work and read a laudatory review of this novel when it was published in hardcover, thus I was happy to buy the paperback for only $3.00.

Holland, Sharon Patricia. The Erotic Life of Racism. Durham: Duke UP, 2012.

This book’s blurb begins “A major intervention in the fields of critical race theory, black feminism, and queer theory….” Boom. I was sold right there. (Yes, I realize that I am a total nerd.) Duke University Press publishes so many yummy books about queerness and about race that it was very difficult to restrain myself from buying many more of their books. There was a history of the concept of the orgasm that was especially tempting to me, but I was able to resist.

Iversen, Kristen. Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats. New York: Crown, 2012.

The publisher was giving hardcover copies away for free, and Iversen was there to sign them, so I picked one up. It looks somewhat interesting–it is about her childhood growing up in one of the classified towns the U.S. government set up in the 1940s and 1950s for nuclear weapons research and development. I’m not sure how I as an author would feel about my publisher giving my books away for free while making me sit there and watch. Does the publisher think no one will buy them, and so this is a PR-friendly way of getting rid of them? Do they think the book is so good that they can give it away to professors because we’ll all want to assign it in our classes? I admit to being confused by this promotion.

Olds, Sharon. Stag’s Leap. New York: Knopf, 2012.

I love Olds’s poetry and was able to buy her latest collection for only $3.00. This price makes me happy, but it is also a shame to pay so little for something so valuable as poetry.

Scott-Heron, Gil. The Last Holiday: A Memoir. New York: Grove, 2012.

I’ve been fascinated by Scott-Heron since I heard his two most famous songs/poems, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Whitey on the Moon” back in high school. His art is so wise, and yet he struggled with an addiction to heroin up until the time of his death. Getting the opportunity to learn more about this paradox alone makes the book worth the $5.00 I paid for it.


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I am currently at the MLA Convention in Boston. MLA is always a fun time; it’s a total geek-fest. While the various sessions are interesting, people watching is my favorite convention activity (aside from browsing at the book fair, of course). I love that eighty percent of the attendees–including myself–are dressed in black, I love the multitude of nerdy glasses, I love the vibe of slight social awkwardness that people exude, I love the covert badge-checking that goes on, I love the diverse range of ages represented, I love playing a guessing game with myself about why each person is at the conference–presenter? interviewee? observer?

One trend I’ve noticed this year which was not nearly as pronounced when I attended two years ago (or, indeed, even when I went to Rocky Mountain MLA three months ago) is that many people read their papers directly from their laptops rather than from a paper copy. This possibility would never occur to me. I am just that old school.

I’ll write more in the next day or so once I get a chance to visit the book fair, which does not open until tomorrow.

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