Monday, July 30, 2007
After having read Jeffrey Eugenides’ first novel, The Virgin Suicides, I was prepared for his sophomore effort, Middlesex. However, this delightful, titillating, sprawling saga of “the rollercoaster ride of a single gene through time” still managed to surprise me.
Middlesex tells the story of the Stephanides family, beginning in the mountains of Greece and spanning the globe -- the narrative jumps from Detroit to Berlin to San Francisco and back again. Our narrator and tour guide for this slightly fantastical journey is one Cal Stephanides, a fastidious and mysterious man in his early forties. Though he hides his past from those in his life, he is frank with the reader from the first sentence, “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.”
From that astonishing opening, Cal spins the tale of his former self, Calliope Helen Stephanides, her eccentric Greek family, and her shocking discovery in the midst of a heady coming-of-age. Though Calliope’s journey of self-discovery is wholly unique, her story expresses the pathos of sexual awakening and the confusion that comes with adolescence.
Eugenides is truly masterful in his writing, shifting seamlessly from Cal’s viewpoint to Calliope’s, and keeping us with him (or her) the entire time. It is easy to see why Middlesex was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. The Stephanides family is not one you’ll soon forget, even as you’re still reeling from the surreal events of their fraught history.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
A few headlines for social justice...
- Are farm subsidies causing obesity? Yes. US farm subsidies mostly go to big corporate farms that grow corn, making unhealthy food cheaper. Kim O'Donnell of the Washington Post suggests that we subsidize fruits and vegetables. Sounds like a good idea to me. I know, Nancy Pelosi already signed off on the Bill, but it's never too late register your dissent. Write your senator or congressperson.
- India elects its first female president! Granted, they are a parliamentary democracy, so the role of president is mostly symbolic, but still, pretty cool -- I hope she'll use her clout to improve the lot of women in India. Of course, not everyone is excited. But from a purely stats standpoint, Pratibha Patil is joining this proud list of women presidents and prime ministers. Who knows? Maybe the US will be next.
- Short on numbers for your next rally? Too busy to picket? Hire protesters!
What's going on? First question, is there a subversive anti-choice message going on here? As the trend grows, it's almost inevitably going to swing that way, unfortunately. But for all the backlash about the film Knocked Up being anti-choice propaganda, I don't think that's the case. I think we can thank the ultraconservative, sex-fearing MPAA for abortion and sexual issues' absence in contemporary American film (and if you haven't seen Kirby Dick's This Film Is Not Yet Rated, you oughta).
I think this trend elicits something different -- the bittersweet idealism of launching a baby into a crumbling world. I'm 25, and of all my friends and cousins, know no one having a kid. It's too awful out here. Even despite these troubled times, we're just too poor, too busy, have too many plans. So when we see other compassionate, intelligent, flawed people in those months before the little human lands, it's hard not to get sucked in, and put pessimism aside for a moment to nod to the potential of new life.
Monday, July 23, 2007
How could you not love the opening to Chang-rae Lee's PEN/Hemingway award-winning *Native Speaker,* in which narrator Henry Park's wife, having decided to take a break from their marriage, leaves him with a note calling him a "B+ student of life... yellow peril... traitor, [and] spy." Those first two insults are the best (if we're judging on cruelty and humor) but the latter two end up scuba-diving Henry into the cove of his Korean-American identity. It turns out he *is* a spy, at least by profession, and this theme of spying, of cultural mask-wearing, of between-ness, is at the heart of the novel and of Henry's shortcomings in life and marriage.
As the novel progresses, we learn about Henry's job in cultural espionage, going forward in time, while delving into his problematic marriage to beautiful, white, speach-therapist Lelia, going back. Henry's latest mission involves getting close to political up-and-comer John Kwang and taking notes on his activities for some unknown, but definitely shady, client, using their shared Korean heritage as bait. Henry, it seems, is quite good at his job, as his whole life has prepared him for this sort of obsequious fitting-in. The same characteristics that make him good at his job, however, seem to have annoyed Lelia to the point of her leaving to seek out one or more implied affairs in Europe. Henry's faults have also been compounded, we learn, by the death of their only son under a pile of neighborhood kids.
While these plots are intertwined beautifully on a thematic level, the marriage does tend to be more engaging in terms of its emotional connection to the reader--even to this reader for whom the themes of the novel hit close to home--because the connection between Lelia and Henry is filled with a type of intimate longing that is lacking in the relationship with John Kwang. Kwang's political intrigue lends the book forward movement and dramatic tension, but the real key to Henry's character lies in Lelia, and the key to the book comes from the same deep well of humor and cruel truth as her opening note. In their falling apart and coming together is the clash of race and love and identity and understanding, handled with a prose that, at its best, hits hard and fast and can leave you stopping for breath. It seemed to me, turning the pages, that the times I looked away were when I knew Lee had caught me, returning in my head to the net of words and truths it sometimes hurt to read. No lie.
Matthew Salesses is a Fringe reader and assistant fiction editor at Redivider Journal. Google him. Name your pets after him. Seriously. Read books that matter.
Saturday, July 21, 2007
I began reading Caramelo in early August of 2005, after my first year in Emerson's MFA program. Why do I remember the date with such accuracy? Because the book was so good that I waited to finish it before heading to the eye doctor about the blurry lines in my right eye, which turned out to be a detached retina.
Sandra Cisneros wrote her masterpiece over a period of ten years, and the time she took to craft the novel shows. Caramelo chronicles the lives of a boisterous family's annual journey to visit relatives (including "the awful grandmother") in Mexico City. Most of the book is told through the eyes of Lala, the youngest of seven, who is particularly curious about her father's relationship with his mother. Lala imagines herself into the awful grandmother's early life -- recounting her upbringing and marriage during the Mexican revolution.
Cisneros also embroiders the story with footnotes, musings about the Spanish language (why hot women are often called "mamis", for example -- how incestuous!), and historical information on Mexico, weaving a story as complex as the lace of the carmel-colored rebozo that the awful grandmother wears. Firmly grounded in the realist tradition, Caramelo somehow manages to get many generations solidly on the page -- a feat often likened to Allende's in The House of Spirits or Marquez's in One Hundred Years of Solitude -- and I think Cisneros deserves the excellence of this company. Her characters leap off the page and stay with you, even through a detached retina. A heartily-recommended read for anyone who wants something they won't be able to put down.
Wednesday, July 18, 2007
I read Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club for a nonfiction writing workshop – it was so good that I've since all but given up trying to write memoir.
Karr refers to the memoir as “a love letter to my less-than-perfect clan” in the introduction to the tenth anniversary edition—perhaps a bit of an understatement. Liars’ Club opens with Karr’s mother brandishing a kitchen knife at her two young daughters and continues to unfold as Karr lays bare every detail of her shocking childhood—from rape to alcoholism to mental illness, it’s all here.
What’s most astonishing about Liars' Club is the tenderness that infuses these incredible tales: Karr paints her family with a love that manages to surpass the gun-wielding, alcohol-soaked craziness that defined her young life. Instead of condemning this wild family, the reader comes away with an awe and respect for characters portrayed so honestly that we can’t help but feel as if we know them.
The book gets its name from the group of fishing buddies that would gather to tell tall tales with Karr’s father. Karr writes, “Just being out of the house with Daddy like this at Fisher’s lights me up enough for somebody to read by me.” It’s clear where Karr got her knack for knee-slapping, gut-wrenching, I-can’t-believe-it storytelling.
Reading this book will give you a strong appreciation for your own family, but you will also come away with a deeper understanding of what it means to love and forgive.
Jillian D’Urso is a second-year graduate student in the Publishing and Writing program at Emerson College. In her abundant spare time, she enjoys coffee, The Office, and 90s music.
Tuesday, July 17, 2007
The Good Student Discount terminates at age 25 or if female, at the time of marriage, whichever occurs first.
Um, excuse me? Do women automatically become more reckless once they get married, and should no longer get discounts? How come a male can get married and still get this discount until age 25? Can anyone help me here, because I can't come up with one plausible reason for this rule to be in effect. This is a well known insurance carrier, and should know better. Or their lawyers should. And the form was revised 12-12-2005!
Looking forward to hearing your thoughts...
Monday, July 16, 2007
The show is "reality" fare that follows Hugh Heffner's three girlfriends' lives in the Playboy mansion. Of course the reality presented does not resemble the reality I live in, but is strangely compelling nonetheless.
So why do I, a self-proclaimed strident feminist, get sucked in?
In a certain way, the very substance-less nature of the program appeals to me -- Kendra, Holly, and Bridget are doing exactly what popular culture tells our women to do:
- Define their value in relation to men;
- Consume, consume, consume;
- Spend a lot of time exercising, waxing bikini lines, putting on makeup, and vamping for men.
To watch the girls on screen is to see my psyche as I might be if I bought in to the standards of beauty and consumption that our culture elevates. For this reason, the show both fascinates me and sickens me.
On the other hand, the girls have each made shrewd calculations and sacrifices to get where she they are -- these are not ditzy girls who lucked into the gig. In the episode "My Bare Lady", Kendra goes out to buy real estate, talking about how her boob job was her "first investment", noting that it's paid off. Holly starts an internship with Playboy, and we see her willingness to be involved in the production of porn, which she views as a creative act that finally puts her where she wants to be: in the director's seat, while Bridget uses the show's fame to jump start her second career as a voice actress.
I don't mean to suggest that the series' approach is either degrading or empowering -- it seems as though both sensibilities are mixed together. The girls are the perfect product of our consumer-oriented and sex-obsessed culture, but they are also real women trying to make money and build names for themselves.. This paradox is what makes me watch.
Friday, July 13, 2007
The Husband Tries to Write to the Disappearing Wife.
On her blog, Jeannine says: "This is one of the few persona poems where I tried to write in a male voice, so it was a little risky for me."
I reckon it's good—potentially good for the poem, most def. good for the mind—to mess around with gender in this way. Seems like, now that the distinctions between genders are blurrier than ever, it should be easier for us to do. But having tried writing from the boys' side of things, I find it still does feel risky, or at least difficult. Brava!
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
I am please to announce that Fringe is now a tax-exempt public charity under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code.
This means that any donations you make are tax-deductible!
We are currently trying to raise money to cover our costs for AWP 2008 , as the price of a table at the book fair has jumped from $120 to $350 in just a year.
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
As a promotion for the Simpsons Movie, 7-11s around the country have been turned into Kwik-E-Marts. My first thought was "how cool," but after reading both Angry Asian Man's and Ultrabrown's blogs about the promotion, I'm not so sure. Both bloggers think the character of Apu is racist, or at least that the promotion focuses on the racist aspects of his character (Too Sense applauded the Simpsons for complicating Apu's character, but noted that the Kwik-E-Mart promotion included none of this complexity). One particular objection was that actual desi owners of stores participating in the promotion are having this racist caricature thrown in their faces -- they have to dress up in a uniform modeled after Apu's.
Well, color-me educated! As a clueless white chick, I didn't realize that many South Asian folks were offended by Apu. For all the other clueless white folks, here's why Apu is/might be racist(please add reasons I may have missed in the comments):
- He has a poorly done Hindi accent, and is voiced by a white dude. Some have likened this to white dudes who put on blackface for minstral shows. Desidreaming has an interesting post on this -- the discussion in the comments is also intriguing.
- His catchphrase, "Thank you, come again" has evidently been used to taunt Indian convenience store workers across America.
- The broken english on the signs in Kwik-E-Mart stores, or for that matter, on the show, is condescending and ignores the fact that many immigrants speak English well. In short, it's a cheap shot.
- Apu is the stereotype of the hardworking immigrant business owner.
Monday, July 9, 2007
To me, this is the voice of a woman who enjoys kick boxing as much as salsa dancing, reading postmodern fiction as much as shopping for party dresses, and creating great art as much as appreciating certain pop culture guilty pleasures (SexyBack, what?) She's the type of woman who will check her lipstick in the glass ceiling before smashing it with the stilettos she got on sale.
Who is this woman to you?
Friday, July 6, 2007
-J. Goodrich wrote a meaty article for The American Prospect about how the media portrays Republicans as the “Daddy Party” and Democrats as the “Mommy Party” by strategically using masculine and feminine terminology in their descriptions of candidates like Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton.
-South Dakota state rep Joel Dykstra has entered the race for the Republican nomination to the senate, according to this article in The Hill. Dykstra is known to pro-choice activists as the man who called “rape and incest” a buzzword:
"I think 'rape and incest' is a buzzword. It's a bit of a throwaway line and not everybody who says that really understands what that means. How are you going to define that?” --South Dakota state Rep. Joel Dykstra (R-Lincoln County) on why the state legislature didn't include those exceptions in its abortion ban, April 20, 2006.
-Money Magazine’s Senior Editor Marlys Harris advised women to marry into money in order to get rich.
“Work hard, take risks, maybe build your own business. That's the traditional route to financial success. Of course, there's another highly traditional path to acquiring wealth that isn't talked about quite as much these days: Marry money.”
“To worm your way into a billionaire's business, and eventually his heart, you need the right career. An M.B.A. will give you the most flexibility.”.
Funny how so much can happen while you’re off celebrating this wonderful nation.
Thursday, July 5, 2007
At the end of a long, lovely day yesterday, I, my boyfriend, and another couple sat in the yard, remarking on how we’d had the perfect Fourth of July – we’d canoed a river all day, complete with a small American flag stuck to the head of one of the canoes, then headed back to the house for grilled steak tips and corn on the cob. Then we lit sparklers (the few we could get lit, that is, as they were old enough to have been in a forgotten corner of the garage). Proud Americans celebrating Independence Day – absolutely.
It’s hard not to think about our government when we think about being American; after all, it was the form of government we choose when we grabbed our independence from the British that made us different - revolutionary. When we celebrate the Fourth of July, we celebrate revolution.
Too bad we’re not really revolutionary anymore.
It makes me a bit sad to think that our most American of holidays is marked by barbecuing a few hamburgers, watching a few fireworks, waving a flag or two. Perhaps we make some big purchases during Fourth of July *blowout* sales. Maybe watch a show on Thomas Jefferson on the History Channel. It’s our culture, and we’re proud of it, but I wish Americanism had less to do with consumerism. And unfortunately it’s the consumerism that we’re so well known for. That, and our deplorable foreign policies.
I hope this is just my cynicism showing through, and that the country is filled with hopeful Americans who can and will make a significant difference in our world. If you’re out there, tell me about what you’re doing, and I’ll light a sparkler in your honor.
Oh, and if you’re looking for a good place to rent a canoe in eastern Massachusetts, check out the Foote Brothers’ Canoes – floating through the wilds in a self-powered craft is a good way to channel your inner-colonial American.
Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Since I'm about to start an intense grad program in journalism, I've been making the best of my time by reading fiction at every opportunity. And since I've spent most of my life reading (and appreciating) the white dudes, I decided to only read non-white dudes for pleasure reading for the next year or two. And what better place to turn than the Fringe Pool?
I recently finished Kiran Desai's The Inheritance of Loss. And wow, this was a beautifully written book set in the tumultuous area of northern India. The main narrative belongs to Sai, an orphaned Indian girl who lives with her eccentric grandfather, an ex-judge. Almost equal narrative time is given to her Grandfather, their cook, and the cook's son. At times, these perspective shifts were frustrating, breaking up the fluidity of the narrative, especially since the plot lines didn't interact so much as develop the major theme of the book -- post-colonialism.
In particular, Desai is concerned with the emotional toll of colonialism, which she approaches through various takes on immigration -- the isolation that Bidu, the cook's son, feels as an illegal immigrant, coupled with his father's alternating sorrow and joy that his son is in America. Similarly, Sai's grandfather recounts his past, the way that his English education made him a misfit at home and abroad, and in doing so, made him close his heart to love and compassion. Set against the backdrop of alienation, Sai's story -- that of a young girl's first heartbreak -- puts the rest into perspective.
This incredibly complex web of plot lines and narratives left me in awe; I am still sorting through my feelings. I cannot say that it was a happy book, for the story revealed a seamy underbelly to immigration in the US, as well as the emotional toll that colonialism continues to take on India. After putting the book down, I had one of those wonderful post-art-experience-exhalations that let me know I had absorbed something rich and complicated. If you want an easy beach read, skip this one, but if you want a contemplative book full of characters and issues that stay with you long after you've put it down, read on!