Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Summer Reading, Part II

Although I started out my summer by reading a number of good books (Ex Libris, Final Salute, When You Are Engulfed in Flames), my reading jag has slowed down considerably. While the early part of my teaching assistant position lent itself to reading (I read while waiting for students to arrive at school and to pass a few spare minutes I might have), we are now in the death throes of the term, which translates into lots of paper grading and meetings.

My other obstacle is my comprehensive exam, which is looming in the not-too-distant future. While I enjoy reading literary criticism and educational research, I'm starting to overdose on too much theory and research. I have managed to read (and annotate by using highlighters and/ or Post-It Notes) six books in the past five days. This is progress, but I have another load to pick up from the library tomorrow.

However, as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would note, "behind the clouds is the sun still shining." If grading papers and reading research is the worst thing that is going to happen to me all summer (not counting the entire wisdom tooth extraction experience), then my life is certainly not bad. Furthermore, the Boston Public Library book sale is this weekend, which combines three of my favorite things (libraries, books, and bargain shopping) all in one place!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

So Very Tired...

I'm going to go ahead and apologize in advance for not posting a lot in the coming weeks. I've been working at the university as a teaching assistant for a summer term class, and I am supposed to take my comprehensive exam in less than a month. I am still going to try and post at least once a week, but to be perfectly honest, I will probably be spending more time frantically reading and/ or rocking myself in the corner.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Return of West Side Story

Ever since I heard about the revival of West Side Story, which is being directed by Arthur Laurents, I've been cautiously excited. As much as I love West Side Story, I've never seen a really excellent version of it. The movie wasn't great (at least from my perspective), and the two professional versions I saw were so bad they were laughable.

Perhaps one of the issues with reviving West Side Story has to do with its place in musical theatre history. Despite not garnering the Tony awards or the audiences of The Music Man when it first opened, WSS has become an indelible part of musical theatre. In addition to launching several legendary Broadway careers (including Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, and Chita Rivera), the show is often seen as the start of a new era of musical theatre, in which musicals could be darker and more entrenched in reality. There is no happy ending or waltz into the sunset. Even Rogers and Hammerstein's Carousel, which has a main characters who abuses his wife, is a walk in the park compared to West Side Story.

However, while the legend has made it part of the Broadway landscape, it is also part of the show's burden. When reviving the show, the question becomes: Do we want to take the show in a different direction or do we want to carefully recreate the original version, from the costumes to Jerome Robbins's excellent choreography? The problem with opting with a revisionist version is that the original is so entrenched in Broadway lore and memory that any changes may be viewed as sacrilegious. The problem with keeping exactly everything the same is that the show becomes a museum piece.

The New York Times just published a piece on the WSS revival, which will recreate Robbins's choreography but will make some very interesting changes that don't fit with many people's interpretations of the show. Mr. Laurents, who disparages both the film version and the 1980 Broadway revival, wants a grittier, harsher West Side Story. One of his more innovative ideas is to incorporate Spanish into the script. Part of the reasoning behind this is that Laurents wants to put the gangs on more equal territory. He mentions that, in the original staging, the Jets seem like the heroes while the Sharks are the interlopers. However, his partner saw a version in Columbia that was in Spanish and consequently transformed the show's power dynamic.

While I'm not sure about Mr. Laurents's assertion that the Jets seem like the heroes in the original version (they almost gang rape Anita), I am looking forward to this revival. In addition to it being very timely given the problems with teen gang violence and the tension over immigration, I'm hoping that this version is a little grittier and less idealized than other productions have been.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Legally Blonde, the Musical: The Search for the Next Elle Woods

Like the psychopathic killer in a horror film, Legally Blonde the Musical just won't die from my frame of mind. Despite (or perhaps because of) my dislike for the musical, I have been sporadically watching the reality television show on MTV. It is like a train wreck - I don't want to watch it, but due to my morbid fascination, I can't look away. Although it has some highlights (namely the forum dedicated to the show on TWOP.com and Seth Rudetsky's awesome video blogs deconstructing each episode), this show has called attention to some of the more irritating aspects of the show's creators, the show itself, and theatre in general:
  1. These people (the contestants, the judges, Haylie Duff) take the character of Elle Woods way too seriously. I have actually considered making a drinking game based on the show, where I would take a drink every time someone talks about how awesome Elle (the character) is or mentions the "spirit of Elle Woods." However, I quickly came to the conclusion that this would only lead to alcohol poisoning. This also begs the question: why is Elle so great?
  2. Despite the talk of the "spirit of Elle Woods" (the participants and judges invoke her name like she's a patron saint), this reality show illustrates the main reason why I got out of theatre: everyone in it loves to create behind-the-scenes drama. As a former stage manager, it gets old. Trust me.
  3. The show is very poorly constructed. As several over at the TWOP boards have mentioned, Heather Hach did a really poor job writing the show since Elle is on stage the entire time singing and running around. While the character is definitely not the most complex (the puppets in Avenue Q arguably have more meaningful emotional moments than she does), the fact that she's always doing something makes it an insane role.
  4. The songs in the musical aren't good, but they have an ear worm quality that ensures that you will never, EVER forget them if you have heard them once. Like "Memory" from Cats or anything by Frank Wildhorn, these songs will never go away (even if you try to erase them a la Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind).
  5. Is this musical seriously supposed to present a good role model for girls? Really? It is probably one of the most hypocritical shows ever, but it has been wrapped in a feel-good, quasi-sisterhood moral so some people might actually believe that it has a true moral center (it really doesn't).
You might be wondering - if I hate this musical so much, why do I spend some much time thinking about it? There are two likely reasons. One is that I tend to over-think almost everything. If I hate something, I can't just passively hate it. Instead, I will actively think of reasons why I hate it and devise ways to undermine it. The other reason is due to my dissertation topic. Since I am concerned with the portrayal of women in books popular with teenage girls, looking at pop culture isn't too far from my topic. That said, Elle better watch out - I may just completely deconstruct her once and for all...

Choose Your Own Adventure

As a child, I was not particularly adventurous. Besides being a bit of a wimp, my hometown wasn't exactly rife with opportunities to do a lot exciting (Wal-Mart was [and arguably still is] the most exciting place there). However, I did read the "Choose Your Own Adventure" books. Not only did they allow me to find treasure or escape from kidnappers, they also had a built-in "reset" button that let me go back and rethink any stupid mistakes I might have made. I also vaguely recall a "Choose Your Own Romance" book or two, which catered to the teen girl idea of romance. The only thing I truly remember is an episode where I could choose to eat calves' brains in order to impress a guy (he was an aspiring gourmet chef).

Recently, "Choose Your Own Adventure" books for adults have come onto the scene. NPR recently did a feature on You Are a Miserable Excuse for a Hero by Bob Powers. This book puts a more adult spin on the idea of trying to save the world (or, in this case, the girl). The basic plot is funny, but also relies on a number or moral choices that the reader needs to make. In short, you (a young man) have been called by kidnappers who are holding a girl you just went out with hostage. Now they are demanding ransom money for her return. You have two choices: you can ask your parents to loan you fifty thousand dollars or you can have sex with your ex-girlfriend. The choice is yours, but so is the responsibility for this choice.

If you are in a more... ahem... adult frame of mind, there is also Sins and Secrets, a book that was the joke of the bookstore I worked at. This book could also be subtitled "Choose Your Own Erotic Adventure" and is more than a little wrong. Besides the horrifically titled Thong on Fire, Sins and Secrets was probably one of the funniest and strangely conceived books I ran into while at the bookstore job. While my memories of this book are very vague, I do recall that it was a far cry from the tame "Choose Your Own Romance" books of my teenage years. In fact, some of the things described in Sins and Secrets would probably make eating calves' brains seem like no big deal.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

When Did I Become So Boring?

Last night, I had dinner, watched some television, and was asleep by 10:30. It is official - I need to get a life.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Book Review: Ex Libris

Although I liked The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, until recently I was unfamiliar with Anne Fadiman's essays. However, on a recent trip to the bookstore, one of the booksellers rhapsodized over Ex Libris, a collection of Fadiman's essays on books and reading. The bookseller's glowing description and excitement were almost tangible, and I found myself buying Ex Libris along with several other books. I found myself reading the book and finishing it three days after I started.

Ex Libris, which is Latin for "from the books of," is an incredibly fitting title for these essays. Since these essays are about books, this collection is literally "from the books of" Anne Fadiman. On the other hand, if you (like I) are not familiar with Latin, it is a seemingly incomprehensible title that has a slight whiff of intellectual superiority. This is not unlike the book itself. While Fadiman jokes about her family's prowess at academic minutiae, obsessive need to proofread menus, signs, and other books, and attempts to one-up each other finding esoteric words, I got (perhaps incorrectly) the feeling that behind the gentle self-mockery is a sense of self-satisfaction. Regardless of the difficulty of the question, the prices on the menu, or the obscurity of the words, the family prevails. Fadiman's acknowledgment that her family's eccentricities are annoying (at least to other people) seems to carry with it a great deal of pride (in a less literary work, the phrase "with great power comes great responsibility" would undoubtedly show up in regards to her family's intellectual gifts and the world's inability to fully comprehend them).

If I sound affronted by Fadiman's essays, please know that I mention these things with the knowledge of my own sense of both my academic snobbery and my shortcomings. As a lover of literature and learning, I wish that I had the discipline to create a book categorization system as compulsive as the one Fadiman describes. I too get annoyed at the more egregious typos and mistakes I see on signs. I share some of Fadiman's dispositions, particularly in terms of how to treat books (she encourages interacting with them, annotating them, and even occasionally using them to the point of destruction) and her obsession with literary meals. However, I also realize that I am not a grammar or style savant (readers of this blog will be able to attest to this) nor do I have the wherewithal to presume and correct everyone else's spelling and diction mistakes. Consequently, when I notice the aura of intellectual smugness in Ex Libris, perhaps I am just acknowledging my own smugness and my inability to completely embrace it.

With all of that said, it is a compulsively readable book. It is a thought-provoking collection of essays that causes the reader to reflect on his or her own relationship with books and compare it (favorably or unfavorably) with Fadiman's. Furthermore, even if I do get a bit of an inferiority complex with faced with Fadiman's academic quirks and compulsions, they also make me feel a little bit more normal (especially when I cringe upon seeing misused possessives).

Book Review: I Know You're Out There

I'm a sucker for essay collections and memoirs, particularly of the humorous bent. Given my steady diet of David Sedaris, Anne Fadiman, and NPR's "This I Believe" series, it shouldn't come as any surprise that I eventually stumbled upon Michael Beaumier's I Know You're Out There: Private Longings, Public Humiliations and Other Tales from the Personals. In this collection of essays, Beaumier mines his experiences as a personals editor at a Chicago newspaper for both humor and poignancy and manages to find both. Interspersed with stories of his family and his own ailing relationship, Beaumier's work is both funny and sentimental.

If this sounds like the description of a Sedaris book, I completely understand. There are certain similarities between the two authors: both are essayists that concentrate on life's minutiae, both have and write about their somewhat dysfunctional families (Sedaris's seems to win for having more dysfunction), both tend to mix humor and introspection. However, there are some notable differences between Sedaris's and Beaumier's writings. Unlike Sedaris, whose essays are usually full of his witty, dry humor, Beaumier tends to have a harder time skewering his subjects. While some of them seems like easy targets (the married woman who puts in personal ads, the prisoner looking for a companion), Beaumier tends to instill each of them with a quiet dignity that wouldn't be found in Sedaris's essays.

Consequently, Beaumier's writing sometimes defaults to sentimentality (occasionally with a touch of bathos). His failed relationship with his boyfriend as well some of his essays about his clients sometimes turn into a figurative group hug. However, if he does tend to be a little maudlin in places, he is also scathingly funny in others. For instance, his attempts to play matchmaker (literally and figuratively) often have disastrously hilarious results.

While I Know You're Out There is a little uneven, it is still an enjoyable book, particularly if you are having problems with your love life. On a rather random note, this book was one of my first "staff recommendations" when I worked at the bookstore. While some of my "staff selects" didn't do so well (Then She Found Me didn't sell one copy), I Know You're Out There was so popular that they kept it on the recommendations wall for several months after I left.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Summer Reading: So Many Books, So Little Time

Between book store remainder sales and BookMooch, I've found that I have amassed an absurd number of books to read for fun. While I should be reading in preparation for my dissertation, I have found myself alternating between reading research for my upcoming lit review and reading other things.

While I wasn't a fan of Harold Bloom's How to Read and Why or Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer, I thoroughly enjoyed Thomas C. Foster's How to Read Literature Like a Professor. While I found Bloom's and Prose's books to be a little dry (I didn't make it through Prose's book), Foster's writing is interesting and informative. His writing is able to convey the necessary ideas while also being entertaining. Moreover, while his writing is very accessible, you never get the sense that he is speaking down to his audience. Foster recently came out with a new book, How to Read Novels Like a Professor. It is currently sitting on my nightstand, and I am looking forward to reading it.

While I was at the bookstore buying Foster's book, the bookseller enthusiastically recommended Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman. Since one of my favorite books from a class I TA'd during my master's program was Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I decided to give Ex Libris a try. I am currently halfway through the book, and while I have not had the same rhapsodizing experience as the bookseller, I am really enjoying it. Although some of Fadiman's ideas are completely different than mine (she is very particular about how to arrange her books and she loves the romanticism of people who aspire to greatness only to fall short), I like her writing style. Today, with a book credit I had from Borders, I actually picked up another book of essays by Fadiman, ensuring that I will spend more on books than food this month.

Lest you think I am only reading essays and nonfiction (even though that is usually the case), I am also reading The Portable Dorothy Parker. While I was somewhat familiar with Parker's writing before (most notably her scathing assessment of Katherine Hepburn's performance: "She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B"), I hadn't actually read a lot of her work before. What I appreciate about Parker's short stories is that she is witty, honest, and refreshingly unsentimental. The only problem with this book is that it is a trifle large. Unlike the Fadiman collections or Foster's new book, The Portable Dorothy Parker isn't all that portable.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Musical/ Movie Recommendation: 1776

In preparation for Independence Day, I thought that discussing a movie that celebrates, somewhat inaccurately, the signing of the Declaration of Independence might be an interesting way of remembering our forefathers. 1776 (the musical, not the book by David McCullough) certainly has its detractors (I've spoken to theatre people who hate this musical with a burning passion), yet I have a great fondness for it. While movies and musicals based on any historical event are a risky venture (we know, for instance, that the Titanic is going to sink and that the Japanese will bomb Pearl Harbor), one of 1776's greatest strengths is that it builds suspense in such a way that the outcome does not seem completely guaranteed, despite the evidence to the contrary.

With a book by Peter Stone and songs by Sherman Edwards (who was once a high school history teacher), 1776 tells the story of John Adams and the other members of the Continental Congress, who engage in a heated debate regarding the validity and necessity of declaring the United States' independence from England. While this may not sound like a riveting story or a strong premise for a musical, it is surprisingly witty, charming, and sincere without becoming overly maudlin or sentimental. There is physical humor (two members of the Congress start fencing with their walking sticks), verbal sparring (Adams angrily shouts "This is a revolution, dammit! We're going to have to offend somebody!), and some surprisingly emotional songs (the powerful "Molasses to Rum to Slaves").

One of the musical's greatest strengths is that it refrains from portraying the founding fathers as a stuffy and humorless lot nor does it try to deify them. Instead, it shows their personalities and foibles; John Adams is "obnoxious and disliked" (there's even a song about it) and Thomas Jefferson yearns for his wife. Furthermore, the musical asks us to consider the problem that slavery and the slave trade presents, especially within a revolution that stakes its identity in the notion that "all men are created equal."

This is not to say that the musical is without its flaws. As I said earlier, some people hate this musical/ movie. There are stretches in both stage show and movie that don't have songs, which can make the plot seem to crawl. Then, of course, are the problems of historical inaccuracies, which would probably make any history purists writhe in agony. The most of egregious of these, Thomas Jefferson's declaration that he has freed his slaves, is particularly troubling given what we think we know about him and Sally Hemmings.

Nevertheless, in terms of remembering the importance of the Declaration of Independence and introducing it to students, it is not bad at all. An added bonus in the film is the presence of almost the entire original Broadway cast, led by William Daniels (better known to a certain generation as either Mr. Feeny of Boy Meets World or Kit the car from Knight Rider) as John Adams. While the musical/ movie may not convince anyone of the greatness of musical theatre, it can pretty much ensure that you will never look at the American Revolution in quite the same way again.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

I'm Becoming a Misanthrope...

And I really don't like it. I've also found that it is very hard to will myself out of a bad mood, regardless of everything I've tried (relaxing, listening to happy music, internet window shopping, etc.). Besides the general insanity of working during summer term at the university (in which they try to cover an entire semester's worth of material and experiences in a few short weeks), other seemingly trivial occurrences are putting me in an extremely bad mood and are causing me to wonder if people are evil. From the fact that no one would even offer a man with crutches a seat on the "T" today to the general existence of Tila Tequila, I'm starting to doubt the idea that people are inherently good and kind.

I hope that this intense dislike (borderline hatred) of mankind is temporary. This much anger and disgust cannot be healthy.