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Discovering Chu-bu and Sheemish

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I have a book-owning problem, a logical consequence of the book-buying problem I had for ages. The book-buying problem was especially bad when I was in grad school in Iowa City: not only did I have to buy books for school, for fun I would wander into Prairie Lights Bookstore on my way home and see if there was anything interesting on the remainder table (and there almost always was).

The book-buying problem is pretty much under control these days; I get stuff from the library and only buy things I a) must have for a project or b) know I'll like because it's by a writer I love. The book-owning, though still a problem, is not as bad as it used to be, because I've been reading stuff on my shelves and realizing that I don't need to own a lot of it any more.

Sometimes this is a cause of distress, as when FINALLY I read Franny and Zooey after owning it for almost three decades, and realized I HATED it: pretentious prose, annoying characters, and not that much actual story. I hauled that book back and forth across the continent more than once, when I should have just started it one night and put it in a box the next morning to take to a used bookstore.


Fictional Empathy

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Among the many reasons I hate Henry James is this sentence from The Ambassadors:

A perpetual pair of glasses astride of this fine ridge, and a line, unusually deep and drawn, the prolonged pen-stroke of time, accompanying the curve of the moustache from nostril to chin, did something to complete the facial furniture that an attentive observer would have seen catalogued, on the spot, in the vision of the other party to Strether's appointment.

I read that sentence in the first few pages of the book, tried to deflect the horror of the phrase "facial furniture," failed, closed the book, and vowed that I would read no more Henry James, ever.

But I also hate James for what he did to Isabel Archer, his favorite protagonist and heroine of Portrait of a Lady,. He created the most interesting, appealing character he could--and then tried to see just how much he could ruin her life.

Turns out he could ruin it a lot.

It pisses me off. I take the whole thing very personally. OK, she's only a real fictional character, not a real human being, But who does that? Who, besides God, tries to see just how miserable he can make his own offspring?

The Fantasy Quartet of My Fantasies

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About a year and a half ago, I started reading a lot of young adult fiction. I had an idea for a YA novel of my own, and I was looking for models. But I also wanted to read a few nice efficient narratives, something that developed interesting characters and took them on a journey in 150 or 200 pages instead of 400. Most of all, I wanted to read something magical. By that I don't mean something along the lines of Harry Potter, which to me is thoroughly mundane even if it does have a few spells and flying broomsticks thrown in. (The most mundane thing about it is its morality: deception and cheating are fine if Harry does it, because Harry is Good, while deception and cheating are wrong if Harry's foes do it, because Harry's foes are Bad, which is why they're Harry's foes.) No, I wanted to be transported to a world beyond this one.

I was thoroughly out of the YA fiction loop, so got recommendations from friends with kids in junior high; I read a few blogs to see what others liked; I checked out what was selling well on Amazon.com. And I also just went to the library and looked at books with interesting covers and enthusiastic, respectable blurbs on the back. Which is how I found the Books of Pellinor by Alison Croggon.

I enjoyed this quartet--The Naming, The Riddle, The Crow and The Singing--so much when I read it in the spring of 2009 that I read it again this spring. Here's some of what makes it so good:

Story, Wikipedia, Story

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Eight or nine years ago I submitted an essay to Sunstone that began "One day my companion Sister Knight and I met a 'weird funky lady,' as I described her in my journal, who tried to explain to me her adoration of some reincarnated Buddhist monk." It did not begin "One day when I was a Mormon missionary, my assigned working partner or companion (to use the term we employed for said assigned working partners) Sister Knight and I met a 'weird funky lady,' as I described her in my journal (which I kept because doing so was a religious commandment I was obligated to obey because angels might some day quote from my journal if I said something inspiring), who tried to explain to me her adoration of some reincarnated Buddhist monk, a conversations many Mormon missionaries wouldn't have had because they generally talked to rather than listened to other people about religion."

It's a good thing the essay didn't begin with the second sentence I offer above, because that sentence sucks. But if I had submitted that particularly essay to a mainstream secular journal whose readers weren't necessarily familiar with Mormonism, I would have felt obligated to provide lots of background and context--maybe not in the first sentence, but certainly SOMEWHERE in the essay. Whereas I knew that as soon as a Mormon audience was informed that I had a companion named Sister Knight, readers would assume, correctly, that I was a woman somewhere in my 20s who had elected to serve a mission.

Despite or perhaps because of their self-proclaimed and cherished status as a peculiar people, Mormons hate to be misunderstood. As a result, when they talk about their religion, they explain A LOT. Sometimes--perhaps usually--they explain TO EXCESS.

Two groups especially prone to excessive explanations are missionaries and Mormon writers.

In a recent comment, Parker asked me if I'd read a story entitle "Calling and Election" currently posted on a Mormon website known as the Red Brick Store. He asked for my response, so I offered one.

And then I kept thinking about the story.

I called the story "craven," and while I knew that was the right term, I had a hard time pinpointing why. But I think I've got it now.

A couple of commenters call attention to the fact that the story is based on the story of Job. It's pretty obvious: this Lucifer character, the way the protagonist's life is thrown into chaos, the three false friends who think they're comforting him.

Armistice Day

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Something about me that sometimes surprises people is that I have an obsession with both military history and war literature. And I always observe Veterans Day, however unobtrusively--it actually does arouse reverence in me.

As you may or may not know, Veterans Day was originally Armistice Day, commemorating the day in 1918 when the Great War, as it was known at the time ended, at 11 a.m. on November 11. Thus, even though Veterans Day honors veterans of all wars, it has a special tie to World War I. Today is the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I.

The Guardian is honoring that tie today with some interesting features: a set of photos of writers from the Great War and the works they produced, a couple of less familiar poems about the war, and a link to the First World War Digital Archives. They're all worth checking out, as is this NY Times editorial on the various ways Armistice Day is still recognized.

P.S. My favorite text about the Great War is Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter, which deals not only with the war but with the horrific flu epidemic that followed it. The final paragraph never fails to move me to tears.

About two weeks ago, I posted something on What Literary Critics Actually Do, saying I'd follow up on the topic because I had more to say. I actually have said more; I wrote a couple more blog entries; I just haven't gotten around to posting them.

But turns out there's no real need to explain what it is I as a literary critic do, because I have followed the author (which I also sort of am, in a non-Foucauldian sense), and died.

That's right, the literary critic is dead. And who killed her? Cultural studies, that evil creation of second-rate thinkers and writers tired of being considered second-rate! This according to some British academic named Ronan McDonald. Though, according to a discussion on Salon, bloggers have to be blamed as well, because their democratic impulse, their arrogant assumption that their preferences in literature should matter enough to them to express them from time to time, have helped keep her dead. Oh yeah, I've also been told a time or two that Oprah helped as well, with her book club, getting publishers to paste a sticker on some books and not others, so that the sticker-bearing books are seen as special when they might not really be. Naughty cultural studies! Naughty bloggers! Naughty, naughty Oprah!

I admit, I haven't read the book announcing all this, The Death of the Critic by Ronan McDonald. All I've read is the blurb on Amazon, which reads

McDonald argues that crowing blog-based citizen opinionistas, triumphant over shrinking print media coverage of books are simply kicking a dead horse; the lit critic, it seems, was killed already by the an out-of-control sense of cultural relativism, which has over the 20th century wormed its way into literature programs, engendering artistic and aesthetic relativism. McDonald contends that the idea of artistic expression's equanimity, and the subsequent equanimity of opinion regarding that expression, has marginalized the important and difficult work of honestly evaluating artistic worth. Emphasizing literature, his specialty, McDonald illustrates how trendy efforts to make art more scientific, more academic or more cultural ultimately undermine its role as art, making it more difficult (if not impossible) to consider with the language of art. McDonald illustrates how specific movements-including romanticism, fin-de-siecle and radical aesthetic individualism-have obscured and in some cases removed entirely those traditional standards of value. A daring, but fitting, comparison between aesthetics and ethics shows how standards may be relative but are never irrelevant; McDonald's cogent, largely convincing attempt to pin the critic's murder on relativism is sure to raise eyebrows among academics, though it doesn't do much to instill hope of the critic's resurrection.

What Literary Critics Actually Do

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Over on Letters from a Broad, there’s a discussion about individual tastes in literature, and how to think about things when personal tastes violate the received wisdom and authority of experts in literature--people with PhDs. The discussion really upset me, not because anyone said anything particularly insulting or offensive--on the contrary, many comments were quite astute--but because it made me confront, more forcefully than anything has for a long time, that most people don’t understand in the slightest what I do. They don’t understand academia in the humanities; they don’t understand the way literary scholars approach the study of literature; they don’t understand the way literature is taught or the rationale for it.

It’s not like this is necessarily anybody's fault; relatively few people get PhDs in English, so why should the rest of the world understand what it’s like to do that? The grueling hours involved in being a grad student and teaching freshman comp (which is the primary way graduate studies in English are funded), the sheer drudgery of grading paper after paper (many of which are heartbreakingly bad), aren’t the least bit glamorous, so you can’t blame people for not wanting to hear more about the whole business. And in order to get a PhD, you have to study something in such depth that sometimes you can’t even explain easily your specialty to grad students focusing on other periods or genres of literature.

A Typical Kid Picking Her Nose

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Via Figleaf’s Real Adult Sex, I have learned about a way of depicting young girls as sexualized known as “lolicon,” a bastardization of “lolita complex,” which (I am not making this up) “has a nicer ring to it than pedophile."

I have three things to say.

1. GROSS.

2. Ditto to everything Figleaf says in his response to the topic.

3. Have any of those people proclaiming their interest in lolicon ever read Nabokov’s damn book? Because it doesn’t make sex with a budding pubescent (a.k.a. nymphet) particularly appealing.

Latter Gay Gaze

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My friend Troy hates the movie Latter Days--just hates it. A year or two ago at Sunstone when he and I were hanging out, I mentioned that I liked it; he countered that he despised it. “What do you think is so bad?” I asked.

“You mean, besides the script, the plot, the acting and the direction?” he replied.

I didn’t respond, except to shrug. Yes, the movie has problems. There are elements of the script that really bug me. There are elements to the plot I find predictable and cliched. There are performances I find really weak.

But I still like it. I liked it enough to buy a copy for myself and to give a copy as a gift to someone else. I liked it well enough to listen to the commentary.

One major reason I like it is that as far as I’m concerned, it’s about the only movie I’ve ever seen to get a mission right--I would argue it gives a more accurate depiction of a mission even than God’s Army, which I found thoroughly annoying and lame. (Don’t ask me why, because I don’t remember much about it aside from the fact that they make the new guy lug his suitcase around while they go tracting, which I’m fairly certain would never happen; that the main character goes back to BYU, dates and MARRIES his English TA while she's still his teacher (a BYU alum can correct me if I'm wrong, but I rather suspect the administration wouldn't be cool with that) and that the movie ends with her bringing him a cup of tea and sitting down at his feet to adore him; and that Richard Dutcher, who was about 40, plays a missionary of about 30 who dies quietly in his sleep from an inoperable brain tumor with no suffering or puking his guts out or whatever, so much so that no one even knows he's sick. I hate on principle all movies where people die quietly in their sleep from inoperable brain tumors. Anyway, aside from all that, I found the movie so vacuous and forgettable that I can’t remember what happened, and so can’t really tell you why I hated it in detail, though I think the reasons I’ve already listed constitute solid ground.)

But back to Latter Days. I like it for moments. There’s a moment where one elder grabs another and says, “I’m going to hit you, elder, and it’s going to hurt.” Pretty much. I liked it for Steve Sandvoss, the guy who plays the gay missionary--he has a sweetness and a decency I found both sympathetic and genuine, and it reminded me of the elders I liked best on my mission--some were really good young men.

But the thing I like best about it is the sex scene.

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