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Any Anxious Body

April 24, 2014

Any Anxious Body, by Chrissy Kolaya, is a volume of poetry that came to me directly from the poet. That was really nice (except she didn’t have enough ego to sign it), but it’s made me feel a little awkward talking about it– these feel like very personal poems. I finally gathered my courage after seeing what Serena at Savvy Verse and Wit and Kim at Sophisticated Dorkiness had to say.  The poems in the volume center on a family that has some basis in the poet’s own experience, as she uses notes her mother saved from her great-grandmother, who was worrying about how her survivors would manage to pay for her funeral. One of the poems, “Found,” says that she also left

“a twenty-page letter to her own four children, an attempt at explaining her life.

I hope after you read it

it will help you all
to understand me better

maybe not

you might not even like me anymore

I don’t know,

she wrote in textbook-perfect penmanship.”

You can see, perhaps, where some of the lack of ego comes from.

My favorite poem comes early in the volume. Entitled “Household Economics,” it tells a simple and perhaps—to some of us—ridiculous story. It made me think of my mother’s comment upon seeing a “reuse, recycle” sign that in her day, they re-used things a lot more than we do now, washing plastic wrap and aluminum foil, re-soling shoes, darning socks, repairing bicycles, re-webbing lawn chairs. She was a child during the Great Depression, as I imagine the mother in this poem to be:

His mother
was an aficionada

of rinsed
and reused

Were you to go hungry at night
it wasn’t
on her watch—

oatmeal in the meatloaf,
a hunk of government cheese,
some dough
fried over the stove.

At the picnic
years of abundance later
he finished his cabbage roll,
set his paper plate on the table,
plastic fork in hand,
tiny holes
through the Chinet—
a pattern
of a flower.

What are you doing?
asked his wife;
married in
from the good side of town.

should do it, too,
he tells her,

or she’ll wash them all
and use them tomorrow.


That night
she stood watch
as he went for the closets,
reaching deep into her hiding places
Sweet Lord,
how long have you had
this? –
holding out another,
then another
of her treasures,
silently egging him on.

Each thing they threw into the trash pile
she remembered
saving for good,
saving against want,
a little something
put away
just in case.

As the sun set,
he hauled six trash bags—
brittle wrapping paper,
tinfoil smoothed flat,
napkins from the bakery—
out to the garage.

And that night
as everyone slept but her,
she crept out to the garage
and saved it all again.

The mother gets the last word, here, but the poem seems to me to be about the kind of meanness that is not only unnecessarily snotty, but culturally hypocritical. We recycle, but we laugh at people we label “hoarders” because we think they’ll never use it all. Some of us amuse ourselves by imagining a zombie apocalypse, and yet few of us cultivate habits that could help us get through harder times. We teach our kids to plant vegetable gardens, but we have to read about how to prepare some of the vegetables, because we weren’t paying much attention when our parents asked us to help tie up the tomatoes or snap the beans. I like the way this poem takes a look at that, recounting it and making it resonate.

That’s the way with most of the poems in this volume. There’s not a lot to them beyond the surface, but the way they’re put together tells a story much bigger than looking at the individual pieces might lead you to expect.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

April 21, 2014

The only thing that detracted in the slightest from my immense pleasure in reading Special Topics in Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl, is that my paperback copy did not reprint the chapter titles at the top of each page, instead reprinting the title of the novel. I wanted the chapter titles up there so I could re-orient myself to the additional messages provided by the chapter titles on the few occasions where I had to put the novel down and do other things before I could come back to it.

The organizing principle of the novel—a syllabus—was well-nigh irresistible to me, especially because the opening chapter (first on the syllabus) is Othello. Shiveringly aware of that chapter title all the way through, I continued to read the rest of the novel with a suspicious eye on the male protagonist, the father of the narrator, Blue Van Meer. I adored the chapter in which Blue meets the mysterious older man she mentally casts as her Heathcliff, and it was in that chapter that I started to back off my suspicions about her father, who she entertainingly describes as
“a man who…never hesitated when it came to the verbs to get or to take. He was always getting something off the ground, his act together, his hands dirty, the show on the road, someone’s goat, the message, out more, on with things, lost, laid, away with murder. He was also always taking charge, the bull by the horns, back the night, something in stride, someone to the cleaners, a rain check, an ax to something, Manhattan.”

Really, it’s as if Pessl wrote this novel with one gimlet eye on the kind of dreamy and romantic reader I have always tended to be, because next she disarms more of my suspicions about the father with a comparison of him to Blanche Dubois:
“I couldn’t help but feel that to call him out on this well-intentioned extravagance, to embarrass him, was sort of unnecessary and cruel—not unlike informing Blanch Debois that her arms looked flabby, her hair dry, and that she was dancing the polka dangerously close to the lamplight.”

The descriptions of the characters all have a virtuoso quality, and none more than this one of a high school boy: “He had an Orson Wellesian quality, Gerardepardieuian too: one suspected his large, slightly overweight frame smothered some kind of dark genius and after a twenty-minute shower he’d still reek of cigarettes.”

The central mystery of the novel revolves around a character named Hannah Schneider, a high school film teacher at the school where Blue spends her senior year, and a woman of mystery. She invites Blue and several other students over to her house once a week, and utterly beguiles each one of them. And Hannah is just as fascinating to adults as she is to the group of high school students. Seeing Hannah once with a strange man, Blue thinks “the man was mesmerized. He looked as if he couldn’t wait for her to garnish him with fresh bay leaves, slice him, pour him all over with gravy.”

In addition to the mounting tension of finding out who Hannah is and what happened to her, the way the story is told was a delight I wished would keep going on. When someone dies, Blue observes that “I hated when people participated in what Dad called “Sing-along Sorrow” (Everyone’s eager to mourn so long as it’s not their child who was decapitated in the car accident, not their husband stabbed by a gutter binger desperate for crack”).

One of the chief delights of the novel are the conversations between Blue and her father. Perhaps I like these because my father, a theater professor, liked inserting a few moments of bombastic lecture into a conversation with his daughter as well as the next man, certainly as well as Blue’s father does:
“Is man’s destiny determined by the vicissitudes of environment or free will? I argue that it is free will, because what we think, what we dwell upon in our heads, whether it be fears or dreams, has a direct effect upon the physical world. The more you think about your downfall, your ruin, the greater the likelihood that it will occur. And conversely, the more one thinks of victory, the more likely one will achieve it….’Obviously,’ he continued with a slow smile, ‘it’s a concept that has been bastardized of late in Western Culture, associated with the runny-nosed Why-Nots and How-Comes of self-help and PBS marathons that drone on into the wee hours, begging you to pledge money and in return, receive forty-two hours of meditation tapes one can chant to when one is mired in traffic. Yet visualization is a concept that was once considered not so frothy, dating back to….Even America’s most dashing leading man, the circus-educated Archibald Leach, understood it. He is quoted, in that funny little book we have, what is it, the—“
Talk of the Town: Hollywood Heroes Have Their Moment,” I chirped.
“Yes. He said, ‘I pretended to be somebody I wanted to be until I became that person. Or he became me.’ In the end, a man turns into what he thinks he is, however large or small.”

Many of their exchanges have a different feel, upon re-reading, but they delighted me the first time through, without even knowing the sub-text. For instance, I love the way Blue remembers her father’s set speech about the ending of an Italian movie entitled “L’Avventura;” he says it “has the sort of ellipsis ending most American audiences would rather undergo a root canal than be left with, not only because they loathe anything left to the imagination—we’re talking about a country that invented spandex—but also because they are a confident, self-assured nation. They know Family. They know Right from Wrong. They know God—many of them attest to daily chats with the man. And the idea that none of us can truly know anything at all—not the lives of our friends or family, not even ourselves—is a thought they’d rather be shot in the arm with their own semiautomatic rifle than face head-on.”

In the end, Blue’s course of study reveals that “Lectures and Theories, all Tomes of Nonfiction, maybe they deserved the same gentle treatment as works of art; maybe they were human creations trying to shoulder a few terrors and joys of the world, composed at a certain place, at a certain time, to be pondered, frowned at, liked, loathed, and then one went to the gift shop and bought the postcard, put it in a shoe box high on a shelf.” And the final exam, well. Reading it is a wonderful experience in trying to put a postcard into an already-full shoebox, until the box topples and there, at the bottom, is a final essay question, inviting you to sit down in the mess and “take all the time you need.”

I don’t remember the last time I loved a novel this much. Maybe it was Infinite Jest, because that’s the last one I remember starting over from the beginning when the end came much too soon, and seeing everything differently because of my first reading. How many of you start over from the beginning when you can’t stand to leave a fictional world?

The Waste Land

April 17, 2014

Serena at Savvy Verse and Wit asked me if I would discuss “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot (when I asked for poems to discuss in my sixth blogoversary post). She said “I lose my focus in this poem every time.” I asked “isn’t it part of the point of “The Waste Land” that you lose your focus? One minute you’re lost in contemplation of the myth of Philomel and the next you’re repeating ‘what is that noise?’”

I thought of that exchange when I read about a piece by Tim Parks entitled “Where I’m Reading From” at So Many Books. Parks is a professional book reviewer, and his piece was originally published at the New York Review of Books Blog. Parks says that professional reviewers should each write “a brief account of how we came to hold the views we do on books.” It’s as if he’s been reading book blogs and discovering how endangered his paying work might be: “It’s now a commonplace that there is no “correct” reading of any book—we all find something different in a novel—yet little is said of particular readers and particular readings, and critics continue to offer interpretations they hope will be authoritative, even definitive.” I think book bloggers have played a part in making this a commonplace.

Although I think that the personal point of view is important, I don’t believe that anyone wants to read a biography first in order to read book reviews second–certainly not mine, and probably not one by a professional reviewer, either. I think that when biography has a place in book reviews, it’s in the context of the ideas the critic is interested in discussing. I often bring up an anecdote from my life to provide a perspective on what I’m reviewing, and occasionally get contrasting anecdotes in the comments, from people who have different perspectives.

Before 1922, when “The Waste Land” was published, educated people (a smaller group then than now) were expected to have read many of the same classical and literary works, and get references to the“Great Books” of western literature. Today, with the expansion of the literary canon to include more works by women and people from a wide variety of countries and cultures, no educated person can read everything. When we read “The Waste Land,” we can recognize that it is full of allusions (especially since the first edition of the poem was published with notes identifying the sources of all the allusions). In the present day, though, the effect of these allusions is to bring to mind bits of stories, the greatest hits of western culture, what Alexander Pope (in the 18th century) called “index-learning.”

The T.S. Eliot who was writing “The Waste Land” almost a hundred years ago worried that if the educated people weren’t required to read from the same list of  Great Books, we would have less ability to think great thoughts, that perhaps the ideas from the books we read would seem unrelated. I think this worry is one reason for the rise of the book blog—the urge to relate what we’ve read and record our ideas about one book so that when we read another, we can remember our previous thoughts about previous books.

Writers periodically mourn the death of form, the rise of free verse, the loss of some literary tradition or other. In “The Waste Land,” without tradition to structure our lives, we break down—in the section called “the game of chess,” the form of the poem breaks down as the speaker explores this idea. Right now, Parks and I (among others) think the 20th-century tradition of the “objective” book reviewer, paid by a newspaper or a magazine to say which books are worth reading and which ones aren’t, is starting to break down, partly because of the difficulty of establishing anything close to an “objective” point of view, and partly because there are simply way too many good books being published.

I don’t know about you, but there aren’t too many people I will pay for their opinions about books, no matter how objective they try to make them. Sometimes, to make a better system, we have to break down the old one, and this is what I see book blogs doing to the tradition of paid reviewers. Instead of trying to be objective and appeal to a large group of readers, we’re trying to acknowledge that reading is subjective and attract a small group of like-minded readers.

We could even think of each book blog as a response like Olaf’s in the ee cummings poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big.” Olaf doesn’t want to be a hero, but in the end he is “more brave than me: more blond than you.” To write down your response to what you’re reading is brave because of the way our responses continue to change as we learn more. It can make a blogger feel ignorant to look back on previous responses. Each one, though, is a piece of how we continue to make sense of our reading and our part in the world.

I like reading “The Waste Land,” in the same way I enjoy reading any very complicated poem–for instance, a 17th-century “metaphysical” poem, because they’re like puzzles, and if you put together enough of their pieces, you can enjoy both the cleverness of the author and your own cleverness. If you get enough of the allusions in “The Waste Land,” you can enjoy Eliot’s cleverness and your own, for recognizing where they come from. If you want to feel especially clever, try a good line-by-line summary of “The Waste Land,” like the one on shmoop. All the detail is interesting, especially that the working title of the poem was “He Do the Police in Different Voices” after a bit of dialogue from Dickens (Our Mutual Friend) when the widow Betty Higden says of her adopted foundling son Sloppy, “You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.”

In the post-wasteland world, our voices matter. The way we see matters. The reason we’re looking matters. And so I think the details of our individual lives matter when we’re relating them to the books we’re encouraging others to read.

Update: for a contrasting point of view, read today’s post “The great art of criticism is to get oneself out of the way” at Wuthering Expectations.

Sailing to Byzantium

April 15, 2014

Grinnell’s Comedy Improv troupe was invited to Oberlin last weekend to take part in workshops and put on a performance, so Eleanor and five other students applied for funds and a car, but got only the funds. They borrowed a six-seater pickup truck from a friend and set off from Grinnell at 6 am on Friday morning. Little did they know that at 6 am the next morning, they would still be traveling.

In Chesterton, Indiana, south of Chicago, the pickup truck began smoking. Eleanor, who was driving, pulled it to the side of I-80, where they saw it was also leaking fluid. With the assistance of the Indiana state patrol and their feet, they got themselves off the highway and got the truck to a garage, where it was eventually determined that it was, essentially, dead. They called the student who had let them borrow it and she called her dead, who was unwilling to believe it would never run again and made plans to set out for Indiana.

The troupe’s next move was to call Hertz, who advertise that they will rent a car to students who are 21. This turned out to be a complete lie; they will not. They will, however, make a group of college students wait for three hours while they lead them on with promises of taking their money (by now I was quoting the bit from The Sure Thing when two college students are on the side of the road and she says “I have a credit card…but my dad said it was only for emergencies” and he looks at her, his face dripping with rain, and says “maybe one will come up”).

Finally, all six of them took a ride from a stranger (“he had a baby strapped to his chest, mom, how bad could he be?”) and went to the train station near Chesterton. They bought tickets to South Bend on a train leaving at 11 pm. In South Bend, at midnight, they had to find a way to go three miles to another train station. Luckily, they found a taxi they could all squeeze into, and they got to the Amtrak station, where they sat for hours, as the train was three hours late. Finally they arrived in Elyria, Ohio about 7 am, where friends from Oberlin picked them up and took them to campus.

The day of Improv workshops began. I drove up and met Eleanor and three other members of the troupe and took them to lunch. The other three had workshops at 2, but she hadn’t signed up for another until 4, so she and I sat outside in the sun on the first really warm spring day. At 6, Ron came up and we bought them pizza and walked over for the start of the show at 8:30. Walker, who goes to Oberlin, was tied up with rehearsal and then chess, so he was hoping to meet us by 10 pm, when the Grinnell troupe was scheduled to perform.

The show was wonderful—one of the most memorable groups did musical improv, breaking into song at certain points and making the lyrics rhyme. The Grinnell troupe was particularly good at a skit with two movie critics and the rest of the troupe acting out movies—especially when the critics paused the movie to talk about its deep significance. I was amused to find that a Minnesota accent is one of Eleanor’s character voice specialties.

Although the show was still going on, we left after the Grinnell troupe’s performance, when we found that Walker had indeed gotten there to see their half-hour segment. The four of us walked a little ways before Eleanor and Walker split off to go to his dorm room and then Ron split off to go to his car and drive home. I went into the Oberlin Inn, where I’d reserved a room so I could sleep for six hours and then drive five of the troupe members to Cleveland to catch the megabus scheduled for 7 am.

Next morning, in the dark, five very sleepy college students gathered punctually at 5:45 am at my car and we set out for Cleveland. I made it to the street corner specified with no wrong turns, and they got all their bags out of the back and began waiting for the bus. It was 10 am before a bus to Chicago appeared, and they had almost given up hope, talking of a “cursed” trip. We rebooked their connecting bus from Chicago to Iowa City and they set off. And then…nothing else went wrong. The rescheduled bus left Chicago at the time advertised. It arrived in Iowa City as scheduled. A friend was there to pick them up and drive them the last hour back to Grinnell. They got back at 12:30 am central time.

That is their story. I ended up spending most of the weekend on a college campus that is not my own (Ron and I drove up and back on Friday night to take Walker and two of his friends to dinner as planned, even though the other six we’d invited were still en route—this was during the time of the Hertz trick, so Ron spent a while during dinner talking on the phone to an implacable Hertz representative).

Parents are easily identified around a college campus, usually the older people paying for dinner or trying to find a parking space. On Saturday I spent my time strolling around campus thinking of the first few lines of the Yeats poem “Sailing to Byzantium”:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
–Those dying generations—at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enameling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

On a campus where hardly anyone knows me, I feel the “tattered coat upon a stick” line. That’s all the gorgeous young people can see, except for the couple that are fond of me and a few others that I’ve met. It’s not like walking around the college campus where I work, where the students know what I do and don’t necessarily associate me primarily with physical appearance.

It’s good to get back to my house, which now feels a bit like Byzantium–a place out of time–to me. The kids observe this every time they come home—they say it’s like home never changes, like the time they’ve spent away hasn’t affected their first sight of it.

Now it feels that way to me, too. Here, I don’t feel so fastened to a dying animal. I can think my thoughts with less regard to the physical, the pace of the traveler, the requirements of the rest of the world.

I’ve read “Sailing to Byzantium” since I was in college myself, but I’ve never understood the ending of the poem so well until now.

Fan Phenomena: Supernatural

April 10, 2014

I got an e-mail from Intellect Books offering to send me a copy of Fan Phenomena: Supernatural, a book of essays edited by Fangasm authors Lynn Zubernis and Katherine Larsen, so I said yes, even though I hardly ever read those e-mails, much less respond affirmatively! In this case, I’m glad I did.

I read the whole book the day it came. I had a cold, and it was nice to spend the evening sitting with a cat on my lap and reading to the end. I did stop at one point and play a few of the YouTube videos listed at the end of the essay about a woman who makes Supernatural fan videos, which made it an unexpectedly interactive book experience.

When I sat down to write about the book, I realized that I hadn’t dog-eared any of the pages, the usual way I mark a page I want to say something about. Well, there’s something wonderful about immersing yourself in what you read the first time through.

Looking at the book a second time, I realize that one of the things I like about it is that each article has an introductory paragraph set off in bold. This is a bit of the introductory paragraph for Lynn and Katherine’s general introduction: “Supernatural….Creator Eric Kripke was inspired by Kerouac’s On The Road…putting his heroes…in search of the urban legends that fascinated him. The series attracted a passionate fan base…which tapped into the zeitgeist of the moment, reflecting global fears of terrorism with its themes of fighting unseen evil.”
How succinctly they sum up the appeal!

The book includes an article on how someone uses the show to teach a college-level course on “Media and Cultural Studies,” one on the changing definition of what the heroes consider a “monster,” one on the Supernatural fandom and social media (which necessarily traces trends in social media from 2005, when the show first aired, to the present), one on how the network encourages the idea of the “supernatural family,” one on how the Winchester mission (“saving people, hunting things”) has been the inspiration for cast, crew, and fans to participate in charity projects, and one on the cinematography of the show.

After I read the article about the woman who makes fan videos with clips from the show, I watched a few of them and they were pleasant enough, although I’m not sure I understand the appeal of taking scenes from an ongoing story and making a 2-3 minute moody or comic pastiche.

Two of the articles are by cast members (both of whom play angels on the show): Richard Speight, Jr., who comments on the roles of cast members and fans at Supernatural conventions, and Misha Collins, who discusses how his life changed as a result of being on the show. Misha, entertaining as ever, writes the best introduction:
“When Lynn and Kathy first asked me to contribute a chapter to this book, I said, ‘No way! Leave me alone!’ and threatened to take out a restraining order against them. But when I learned that they were willing to pay me more money than most people make in a lifetime to jot down a couple of pages, I said ‘yes!’ and then qualified that with, ‘but it isn’t about the money, I’m writing from the heart for the love of the fans.’ I also asked Lynn and Kathy to flash me Mardi Gras-style—which, happily, they did.”

Misha also makes some good points through comic exaggeration: “I’m largely in a position where fantasies are projected onto me. People like to imagine that I’m like the character I play on TV, or that I’m secretly screwing Jensen in my trailer, or that I am somehow a perfect man or that I’m an unselfconscious maverick. And while I am, in fact, perfect, not all of the other stuff is true.”

My favorite article is “I See What You Did There: SPN and the Fourth Wall” by Lisa Macklem, mostly because this is one of the things I love most about the show. She discusses the meta-episode entitled “The French Mistake” in which “actors Padalecki and Ackles play characters Sam and Dean portraying actors Padalecki and Ackles.” She gives examples of self-parody and insider jokes, a few of which I’d missed. And she deepens my appreciation for my very favorite episode, “Changing Channels.”

If you love Supernatural, you’ll love this book. If you haven’t watched Supernatural, you can’t love it yet.

Let It Go

April 9, 2014

Every few years I go from being sedentary and eating everything I want to walking more and paying attention to portion sizes. I do this with reading and writing, too—I cycle from reading more and saying less about it to saying more of what I think and reading less–at least less of what I think might be important and weighty (always I am rereading). Often the cycles correspond, in that I read less of the heavy stuff when I’m trying to become less heavy.

Recently I had a conversation about this with seven of my closest friends, all women, all in their forties and fifties, and each likely to respond to any conversational venture about weight with what she is currently doing to control hers. That’s what’s acceptable when women talk about weight. What I wanted to find out is if anyone else had experienced the feeling of looking bigger than ever to others while, paradoxically, feeling smaller. When things get to feeling out of control (work projects fall apart, the center of the family cannot hold while the kids are off at college), I get bigger to try to meet the need, and yet as I look bigger to others, I feel (and often get treated) like an ever-shrinking percentage of person. I find myself singing the “Let It Go” song from Frozen like it’s about empowerment, when for me it’s about trying to ignore the fact that the cold really bothers me (anyway).

My friends hadn’t experienced the paradox of feeling psychically smaller as they got physically bigger, but they did observe that yo-yo dieting is like being on a hamster wheel, and agreed that intelligence and willpower are not always enough to get a person off the wheel. One said
“I think intelligence has nothing to do with hamster wheels. If it did, we’d just get off them as soon as we realized we were spending all this energy to stay in the same place. Maybe the assumption that intelligence has anything to do with the hamster wheel is another dimension of the snare that keeps us on the hamster wheel in the first place…..In my house we refer to them as dead hamster wheels: every time it comes around the little dead hamster thumps around inside it.”

Oh, I said, so I need to stop necromancing the hamster.

Sometimes, it seems, it’s better not to think too much about what you’re doing. To really let go, it might be better to live an unexamined life, as in this William Empson poem:

Let It Go

It is this deep blankness is the real thing strange.
The more things happen to you the more you can’t
Tell or remember even what they were.

The contradictions cover such a range.
The talk would talk and go so far aslant.
You don’t want madhouse and the whole thing there.

Certainly “the contradictions cover such a range” and the talk often goes “far aslant,” so probably it’s better not to talk about weight in polite company; perhaps that’s part of why we normally don’t. If we examine our reasons for doing everything, when do we have time to get anything done?

The process of getting myself off the dead hamster wheel will probably mean I’m looking for less of the kind of fiction that makes me reflective. For some of us, at least, “the more things happen to you” in fiction, “the more you can’t tell” whether they’re in fiction or in real life. So I need some escapist reading suggestions. Something to take me out of myself. Something to enable more “deep blankness.” Perhaps something that doesn’t include too many references to food.


April 7, 2014

I meant to wait, I really did, but it turns out I had no willpower. I started reading Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell, as soon as I’d finished reading Eleanor & Park, and it was just as good. It struck me as less original, though, because it reminds me an awful lot of Pamela Dean’s novel Tam Lin, with the small college setting, the girl who is intensely caught up in what she reads, and the mysterious boys who are not what they seem.  The implicit comparison this set up in my head between writing fanfic (as Rowell’s protagonist Cath does) and reading so much early modern literature that you feel like everything in your life relates to it (as Dean’s protagonist does) made me identify with Cath when I might not have otherwise, seeing as how she’s the age of my kids and writes fic about “Simon Snow,” a very Harry-Potter-like character.

I like the way Rowell makes it clear that Simon Snow is not Harry Potter, by including chapters from the fictitious Simon Snow books and by having Cath’s friend Levi, in a discussion about the way Cath writes Simon and his roommate Baz as if they love each other, say “It’s hard for me to get my head around. It’s like hearing that Harry Potter is gay. Or Encyclopedia Brown.”

The relationship between Cath and her father is fun (and it reminds me of the relationship between Janet and her father in Tam Lin). The father designs ad campaigns, and when they have a conversation about one of the products, this is what they say:
“It’s revolting,” he said. “It’s like dog food for people. Maybe that’s what we should have pitched…’Do you secretly want to eat dog food? Does the smell of it make your mouth water?’”
Cath joined in, in her best announcer’s voice: “Is the only thing keeping you from eating dog food the fear that your neighbors will notice all the cans–and realize that you don’t have a dog?”

I most identify with Cath when she decides she doesn’t want to take the kind of creative writing class that would prepare her to “write books about decline and desolation in rural America.” And when she tries to go talk to the professor and can’t quite get to her office:
“This was Cath’s third time back in Andrews Hall since she got her grades back.
The first two times, she’d walked in one end of the building and walked straight through to the door on the other side.
This time was already better. This time, she’d stopped to use the bathroom….
maybe she’d just change her concentration from Creative Writing to Renaissance Lit; that would be useful in the real world, a head full of sonnets and Christ imagery. If you study something that nobody cares about, does that mean everyone will leave you alone?”

I identify with the way Cath shows emotion: “in no circumstance would Cath ever run squealing down the hall into his arms. But she did her version of that—she smiled tensely and looked away.”

I don’t identify with the way Cath deals with her mother, who left when she and her twin sister, Wren, were only 8 years old, but I love her bravery the first time she sees her mother, ten years later, when Wren is in the hospital and they have this conversation:
“Don’t make this about me,” Laura hissed. “You obviously don’t want me here.”
“I’m making it about me,” Cath said. It’s not my job to want you or not want you. It’s not my job to earn you.”
“Cather”—Laura’s mouth and fists were tight—“I’ve reached out to you. I’ve tried.”
“You’re my mother,” Cath said. Her fists were even tighter. “Try harder.”

I also like the way Cath can see things clearly, like what’s put Wren in the hospital: “Wren was out of control. She was the worst kind of out of control—the kind that thinks it’s just fine, thanks.”

Most of all, I love Levi. Near the end of the novel, when Cath and Wren are getting along better, Cath and Levi have fallen in love, and Wren is dating a friend of Levi’s, he has the audacity to suggest a double date and he and Cath have this exchange:
“Maybe we should go on lots of double dates,” Cath said, “and then we can get married on the same day in a double ceremony, in matching dresses, and the four of us will light the unity candle all at the same time.”
“Pfft,” Levi said. “I’m picking out my own dress.”

They are a good couple. And there are three happy endings: one for Cath, one for Simon Snow, and one for English literature, which looks like it’s going to get more from Cath than fanfic, at the end of this novel.

I’m glad I’ve lived long enough to see being a “fan” become respectable. It feels to me the way some of my friends feel about being a “nerd” or a “geek” becoming respectable—like this is something I’ve always done and now there’s a name for it, and other people are admitting they do it.

Are you a fan? What do you get all fangirlish over?


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