Thursday, December 31, 2009

Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Ring Out, Wild Bells": A Poem for New Year's Eve

"Ring Out, Wild Bells" (from In Memorium A.H.H)
Ring out, wild bells, to the wild sky,
The flying cloud, the frosty light:
The year is dying in the night;
Ring out, wild bells, and let him die.

Ring out the old, ring in the new,
Ring, happy bells, across the snow:
The year is going, let him go;
Ring out the false, ring in the true.

Ring out the grief that saps the mind,
For those that here we see no more;
Ring out the feud of rich and poor,
Ring in redress to all mankind.

Ring out a slowly dying cause,
And ancient forms of party strife;
Ring in the nobler modes of life,
With sweeter manners, purer laws.

Ring out the want, the care, the sin,
The faithless coldness of the times;
Ring out, ring out my mournful rhymes,
But ring the fuller minstrel in.

Ring out false pride in place and blood,
The civic slander and the spite;
Ring in the love of truth and right,
Ring in the common love of good.

Ring out old shapes of foul disease;
Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;
Ring out the thousand wars of old,
Ring in the thousand years of peace.

Ring in the valiant man and free,
The larger heart, the kindlier hand;
Ring out the darkness of the land,
Ring in the Christ that is to be.

While New Year's Eve is certainly a time for celebration, I have always had a greater fondness for New Year's Day. The idea of being able to make a fresh start holds enormous appeal, and a new year gives us the opportunity (at least in theory) to get rid of all of the problems and baggage from the previous year.

"Ring Out, Wild Bells" is perhaps the perfect poem to end the year. Besides calling to mind the sounds of celebration, it also reminds us the importance of ringing out the old, destructive tendencies that we have while replacing them with more benevolent behaviors and ideas.

Here's to 2010 - may it have a larger heart and a kindlier hand than the past year.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

More of My Favorite Christmas Songs (2009 Edition)

Despite my curmudgeonly ways, I love Christmas music. One of the greatest things about the iPod is that I can listen to Christmas music in public in the middle of summer without anyone looking at me strangely. Sadly, some of my most played songs on my iPod are Christmas songs. Here are a few more of my favorites:

"Joy to the World!" by The Butties

You don't think that the world needs a Beatles cover band? And that, if it should exist, it shouldn't be fronted by the guy who plays Ted on Scrubs? Just listen to this song and try not to smile.

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/ We Three Kings" by The Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan

I love this stripped-down mash-up of these two songs. Not only do they go together surprisingly well, but the bluesy tone taken by the singers and the musicians give it a quality that isn't often found in really good Christmas songs (usually, when Christmas songs take this route, it sounds like they are trying too hard to be cool).

"Another Christmas Song" by Stephen Colbert

No matter how many times I see the video or hear this song, I always crack up a little. Besides Colbert's manic joy, the lyrics are a delightfully metacognitive take on the commercial viability of Christmas songs. Colbert pleads with us to buy his song while including every Christmas cliche possible (sample lyric: "Chestnuts glisten on a silent night/ Sleigh bells kissin' by candlelight/ The tree is frozen, the winter's bright/ Who'd have thought the wise man looked so white?"). Genius.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Reader's Block

December is a time to prepare for the holidays, overdose on sugar, and reflect on the past year. Just taking a quick look at my blog and my LibraryThing pages, I've realized that I've been stuck in a reading rut this year. I haven't read as many books as I did last year; 2008's grand total, according to my tags at LibraryThing, was 72 books read, while 2009's is only at 59. Similarly, I haven't reviewed as many books this year on the blog. Although I know that we are supposed to focus on quality, not quantity, I feel like I'm having a bit of reader's block. This might be due, in part, to a big change in schedule (I've been reading a lot of academic texts this year for my dissertation, and I also started working with a new class), but I'm still a little bummed about it all.

Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to the Christmas break, and I'm hoping to do some more reviews in the new year. Maybe I'll even get inspired to procrastinate from my real work and knock out a review or two before the end of 2009 :)

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Nostalgia Critic's Top 12 Greatest Christmas Specials

I love the Nostalgia Critic. Even though he usually seems bitter and angry in his videos, he doesn't hesitate to give credit where credit is due (even if it is somewhat grudging). He also occasionally shows his softer side, as he does in his rundown of the top 12 greatest Christmas specials. Although I don't agree with all of them (I don't love A Christmas Story and I did not find Mickey's Christmas Carol moving), he mentions a lot of lesser-known specials that are certainly worth watching. So, without further ado, here is the video:

Friday, December 4, 2009

Christmas Love Songs for the Desperate and Needy

I have a soft spot for Christmas and romance, but I have never really thought of the two as natural partners. However, judging from the Christmas movies playing on Lifetime and ABC Family and the five million holiday-themed jewelry commercials in constant rotation, most people (or, at the very least, most people in charge of movies and marketing) think that Christmas is a romantic time of year. Perhaps this association explains the numerous Christmas songs that have to do with romance.

Done well, these songs can be very touching. Unfortunately, something that songwriters and singers have yet to learn is that, when combining romance and Christmas music, it is wise to tread with caution. Individually, Christmas carols and love songs must be handled with utmost care in order to keep from becoming cloyingly sweet or completely cheesy. When put together, this combination can be more dangerous than mixing bleach and ammonia and attempting to clean your unventilated bathroom. The over-the-top emotion and unabashed pathos that often accompany Christmas and romance can lead to a perfect storm of kitsch that leaves nothing but a few strands of tinsel in its wake.

There are many versions of the romantic Christmas song, but most annoying are the Christmas love songs that revolve around the intense desire to find true love (or, at the very least, get a holiday hook up). In most of these songs, the singer (or one of the singers) is alone, and the song acts as a desperate plea for love, company, and affection. Although this sounds like it has the potential to be effective, in most cases, it is just depressing or laughable. Here are some of the worst offenders:

"Baby It's Cold Outside"

"Baby It's Cold Outside" is perhaps the creepiest songs with this theme. It is, in essence, about a guy who is trying to convince/ coerce a woman to spend some more time with him. He gets some unexpected assistance in this quest by the weather. Emphasizing the unsettling thought that this song is about sexual harassment and/ or date rape is the girl's line: "Say, what's in this drink?" Although we are probably supposed to believe that she is referring to his excellent bar tending skills, I think I can safely say that, when most people hear this line, they are thinking that he slipped roofies into her cup of eggnog.
  • Worst Versions: While no version of this song is good (or even acceptable), the worst rendition is Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey's. Nick doesn't sound horrible, but Jessica's vocals are so bad that I am convinced Nick slipped some sort of sleeping pill (rather than a date-rape drug) into her drink in order to get her to shut up. Honorable mention for the worst cover of this song goes to Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton.
"Please Come Home for Christmas"

This song needs a dose of Prozac, stat! If you take away the music (which isn't half bad), what is left is the lyrical equivalent of a drunken voice mail message. Without too many vocal theatrics, this song is bearable and fills a niche for people who must deal with breakups during the holidays. However, when the singer becomes overwrought, the song takes a decided turn for the worst.
  • Worst Version: Jon Bon Jovi, without a doubt, has the most depressing and over-the-top version of this song. While the Charles Brown original is the perfect example of how "Please Come Home for Christmas" benefits from a straightforward interpretation, Bon Jovi opts to give it the the full Celine Dion/ Whitney Houston treatment. Be certain to watch the unintentionally hilarious music video, which features Bon Jovi making out with Cindy Crawford and smelling an abandoned Santa hat.
"What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?"

At first glance, the singer sounds so utterly depressed that hating the song would be like kicking a puppy. Unlike the somewhat playful quality of "Baby It's Cold Outside" or the impassioned pleading in "Please Come Home for Christmas," the singer here seems to have abandoned all hope and sounds like he (or she) is one rejection away from doing something desperate. That said, this song seems awfully manipulative, and its blatant use of guilt to get a date on New Year's Eve makes me think that the singer isn't nearly as downtrodden as he or she tries to appear. Based on the lyrics, it is almost impossible to turn the singer down. In most cases, I can't see anyone rejecting a date request that includes the lines:
Maybe I'm crazy to suppose
I'd ever be the one you chose
Out of a thousand invitations
You'd receive

Ah, but in case I stand one little chance
Here comes the jackpot question in advance
What are you doing New Year's
New Year's Eve?
  • Worst Version: This probably has to go to the much maligned American Idol runner-up Clay Aiken. It isn't that I hate his voice, but his interpretation sounds much too cheery and smooth. Aiken emphasizes that fact that the phrase "What are you doing New Year's Eve?" is a pickup line you get from that insincere douche who's hitting on every girl at the bar. While this is more straightforward than the soulful pleading found in numerous other versions, it doesn't make the song any better.

Teaching Twilight: Should Teachers Use the Book in the Classroom?

When I attended the NCTE National Convention last month, I was very surprised at the number of breakout sessions that revolved around the idea of using Twilight in high school English classes. Most of the session descriptions noted that Twilight’s themes and literary devices could help students understand different aspects of more traditional literature. Additionally, lesson plans and articles, like this one by Jennifer Morrison, laud the series's merits.

Despite my intense dislike for the books, I wouldn’t have a problem mentioning them as a modern example certain literary themes and ideas, and I don’t want to prevent students from talking about them (if only for the hope that the students would look at the damn things critically rather than fawning over the characters).

However, while I can see teachers using Twilight to teach about the Byronic hero (or, in the case of Edward, the abusive, asshole, moronic hero) or literary allusions, I also believe that there are so many issues at hand when using these books. Beyond the horrible model that Bella presents for teenage girls and the other anti-Twilight sentiments I have already shared on this blog, here are a few more problems that could come with teaching this book to high school students:
  • Using a Twilight-heavy approach would inevitably alienate some students (not every teenager drinks the Twilight Kool-Aid). Most teenage boys (and some teenage girls) really don’t like the books, and I can’t see them getting too excited about classes completely dedicated to Twilight. While you might get some girls squeeing with delight at the fact that you mentioned Twilight in class, you will also get some kids rolling their eyes in disdain or mentally checking out so they don't have to hear more about this already overhyped book.
  • It might come off as condescending. We all know adults who try to be cool but end up being patronizing instead. Since I know that I would not be able to use Twilight on a long-term basis in my classroom without some obviously false enthusiasm (and some thinly veiled sarcasm), it is probably best that teachers who loathe this book stay away.
  • Just because they like it doesn’t mean that it’s any good. Beyond the bad prose, the ludicrous plots, and the awful, awful characters, I would have a hard time being able to use this book as any sort of model. Yes, teens love the books, and I can even see, to an extent, why they become so addicted to the series. However, history has shown that being popular and addicting does not equal being good.
  • Getting past the cult of Twilight could be very hard. Spending some time looking at this book critically could be fascinating, but some students might not be able to get past the blind adoration to acknowledge other people's genuine concerns. It is hard for many people (teenagers and adults alike) to understand and accept different views on an issue they feel passionately about and to not get overly critical or emotional when someone has a differing point of view. A quick look at the many Twilight forums and Amazon reviews shows that some of the fans do not tolerate any sort of criticism against the book, and trying to get a rationale discussion or debate about the book could lead to scary, scary places.
Please feel free to weigh in on this debate. Would you use Twilight in an average high school English classroom?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Reassessing Glee

Since Glee’s hiatus (because of the World Series) and return, I’ve been reflecting on the show and my initial thoughts on it. I loved the premiere episode, but I’ve found the following shows to be somewhat uneven. Some are really good (“Preggers” and “Showmance”) and some seem like filler at best (even guest stars Victor Garber, Josh Groban, and Debra Monk couldn’t save “Acafellas”). So where does all of this leave us and the show? Here is my rundown of the show’s best and worst features, in no particular order.

The Best:
  • The kids really are the best part of the show, and I really like how the characters are starting to develop. This is particularly true in the case of Quinn and Puck. Initially, it seemed like they were going to be the resident villains, but they have become more three-dimensional characters. Quinn’s struggle to deal with her baby drama has helped her move beyond the cheerleader queen persona found in the first episode, and Puck’s decision to join the glee club (and remain with it after the football coach gives a harsh but mercifully short ultimatum to the singing jocks) shows that he is more than a cougar-chasing teen. Now if only the rest of the characters (besides Rachel and Finn) could get more air time…
  • In the same vein, the show doesn’t shy away from making the characters very flawed. Even though many of the characters seem like they are pretty good people, they all say and do some horrible things.
  • The songs and performances are usually pretty good (if incredibly overproduced). My favorites so far include: “Sweet Caroline,” which Puck used to try and impress Rachel, Rachel’s version of “Take a Bow,” the mashup songs, both “It’s My Life/ Confessions” and “Halo/ Walking on Sunshine”
  • The guest stars have been great (so far). The list of cameos is impressive, but I doubt that Glee will become like Will & Grace or Friends in throwing on random guest stars at will. The stars that have appeared have been interesting characters, and Ryan Murphy seems to love taking actors known for their singing chops (see Josh Groban, Debra Monk, and Victor Garber) and not have them sing, which is actually kind of refreshing.
  • The show’s sly sense of humor and wit help elevate even the weaker episodes into something that is entertaining if not great. While Sue Sylvester probably gets the best lines out of anyone, Kurt and Artie also have some good moments.
  • Heather Morris, who plays functionally illiterate cheerleader Brittney, also deserves special mention for excellent comic timing. She does a lot with the minimal screen time that she gets. Plus she is an awesome dancer, which shouldn’t be surprising since she used to be a backup dancer for Beyonce.
Needs Improvement:
  • The show seems to try and divide the focus between the students and the adults. It would be much better if the adults were on the sidelines more, especially since the adults are pretty unsympathetic. While the students can do horrible things, at the very least we can partially excuse their behavior because they are supposed to be teenagers. The adults, on the other hand, have no real excuse beyond being crazy and stupid. Terry and her sister Kendra are complete shrews, Will is clueless and self-centered, and the other adults tend to be variations of stupid or utterly inappropriate.
  • Since the show has returned from hiatus, we are finally getting a chance to see students (besides Finn and Rachel) get more airtime, but the show still feels more focused on Finn and Rachel than anyone else (besides Will). It isn’t that I dislike either character; Finn is goofy and dim, but he has a good heart, and Rachel (and her portrayer, Lea Michele) is very talented. However, I would love to see the other characters fleshed out more. Even the show that was supposed to revolve around Artie (“Wheels”) didn’t really let us get a better sense of that character.
  • Enough with the baby/ pregnancy storylines. Quinn’s pregnancy is at least somewhat tolerable, but Terry’s fake pregnancy is excruciating, mostly because Terry seems like like a total bitch. The fake baby storyline also emphasizes Will’s utter idiocy and makes it very hard to sympathize with the character.
While I do have my quibbles with the show, the positives far outweigh the negatives. Now if only those damn pregnancy storylines would go away (and maybe take Terry and Kendra with them).

'Tis the Season: What I'm Thankful for This Year

So this is a day late, but in light of the holidays (yesterday was Thanksgiving Day for us in the States), I think that a day late is forgivable. So what am I grateful for this year? I have a lot to be thankful for and I'm sure that my brain will forget some very important things, but let me give it a shot:
  • My jobs and bosses. While I know that a lot of people were having problems finding work this year, a few weeks ago I had the conundrum of trying to decide which jobs I wanted to do next semester, which is a nice (if somewhat guilt-inducing) dilemma to have.
  • My family. Even though they can be crazy, they are very supportive (even if my mom sometimes tells me that I could have been a real doctor for all of the time I've spent in school).
  • My proposal/ dissertation is slowly but surely starting to take shape (finally!).
  • Not working retail anymore. I have worked more Black Fridays and holidays than I care to remember. While the people I worked with were usually great, the customers were enough to make even the most optimistic people into complete Grinches.
One small side note regarding retail and Black Friday: although Black Friday can be a trying and crazy day in retail, it has been my experience that it is nothing compared to the day after Christmas. The day after Christmas will make you doubt mankind's innate goodness.

I've got to run and do some Christmas baking. Coming soon on the blog: another rundown on more of my favorite Christmas specials and songs plus my usual rant on the more annoying aspects of the holidays.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

More "Ragtime"

To get the full effect of the spine-tingling opening number, watch the original cast's performance from the 1998 Tony Awards. Even though the number is abridged (in the musical, it runs a full 10 minutes and introduces the main characters), it will give you a better sense of what on earth is going on. As an added bonus, you can play "Hey, isn't that...?" Besides Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell, the original cast featured Marin Mazzie and an incredibly young Lea Michele (long before she played Wendla in Spring Awakening or Rachel on Glee)

"Ragtime" Returns to Broadway

Ragtime, the musical based on E. L. Doctorow's novel, has returned to Broadway and has gotten rave reviews. The show revolves around the evolution of American society in the early 1900s, specifically the growing presence of African Americans and the influx of Eastern European immigrants. Like Doctorow's novel, this enormous set of changes is told by focusing on three families: a well-off WASP family in New Rochelle, an immigrant and his daughter, and an African American family.

While I am not 100% certain that the actors playing Coalhouse and Sarah will be able to erase the incredible performances of Brian Stokes Mitchell and Audra McDonald, who played the couple in the original show, overall this revival looks like it is definitely worth seeing. The show's core question of "What does it mean to live in America and to be an American?" remains timely. Like all good theatre (or books or other works of art), this musical helps us to take a step back and examine society and our role in it.

In addition to this, the score is actually quite good (even if most of the songs end the same way - with [in the words of Forbidden Broadway] "a really long note). Stephen Flaherty manages to capture the flavor of the period's music while also interweaving the different influences from African Americans and immigrants, thus creating a musical tapestry that mirrors the changes that were occurring in society. Need more convincing? Just check out this montage from the revival set to the final section of the opening number.

Instant Snow

When I lived in Tennessee, snow was a novelty, and even experiencing several winters in Boston hasn't completely killed my love of snow. However, despite a random flurry at the beginning of October, the weather has seemed unusually warm for Boston in November.

To get an instant snow fix and to get mentally in the spirit of the upcoming holiday season, I strongly recommend the SnowDays site, where you can create your own snowflakes and comment on other people's creations. It is an addictive way to kill some time, but be warned: you can lose hours making snowflakes (especially if you decide to get really intricate and try the hints and tricks found on Mister X's site).

Need a Snow Day?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

More Sesame Street Love

One of my favorite characters from Sesame Street was Ernie. In honor of Sesame Street's 40th anniversary, here are two of my favorite Ernie songs:

"I Don't Want to Live on the Moon"

"Imagine That"

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Happy Birthday, Sesame Street!

In case you were wondering why Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, and other Sesame Street characters have been gracing Google's main page, November 10 is the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. The internet is filled with articles, stories, and other tributes to this milestone. Among my favorites:
Growing up, Sesame Street was a favorite for my brother and me. Since there were only 4 channels available at the time, PBS was a popular station in our house, and we had a steady diet of Big Bird, Gordon, Maria, and the others. Although there are numerous Sesame Street memories and moments that I could single out, here are a few great ones (courtesy of YouTube):

Kermit Sings about Being Green

Mr. Hooper's Death

Ernie Sings about his Rubber Duckie

The Muppet Medley from Jim Henson's Memorial Service

I know that these aren't Sesame Street clips, but I think that the moment captures the true essence of what Sesame Street is about. It doesn't shy away from the sadder moments in life (such as the passing of Mr. Hooper), but it also provides comfort during these darker times.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Literary Halloween Costumes

I've never been a big fan of Halloween. As someone who doesn't like scary movies, haunted houses, or bothering strangers for candy, it has never been a holiday I could really enjoy. Added to that the fact that, as a student and a high school teacher, I usually ended up spending Halloween working on last-minute details for the fall musical and/ or spending quality time with the theatre's resident ghost, Halloween has always seemed more of a headache than anything else.

However, like the upcoming Christmas season, it has become impossible to escape. Just in case the omnipresent costume company and candy ads I have been assaulted with for the past month didn't jog my memory, this week I received an email from with poet-inspired costume ideas. These included Emily Dickinson (wear all white, pull your hair back, carry plastic flies to give to people), Edgar Allen Poe, and Walt Whitman. The website cheerily suggests that you might use these costumes to impress an English teacher or if going to a party with a literary theme (do they have costume parties with literary themes?).

While the entire thing struck me as kind of ludicrous, it also got me to think about what other poets and authors would lend themselves to good Halloween costumes. Unfortunately, outside a few select authors, such as William Shakespeare, Poe, and Dickinson, I couldn't think of a lot of authors who would be easily recognizable to the average person. When you stop and think about it, how many authors would you be able to recognize if given just a picture and no context?

Luckily, if you have your heart set on a literary Halloween costume, characters prove to be easier (and much more recognizable). Furthermore, even if you don't have a large costume budget or you waited until the last minute and the only things available at the local costume place are those awful Kate Gosselin wigs, here are a few more literary-themed ideas that would be easy to pull together if you have the right things in your closet:
  • Nancy Drew - I've always been a Nancy Drew fan girl, and since that she's been around since the 1930s, almost anything will work for her as long as its neat, preppy, and comes with red hair and a magnifying glass. If you have a lot of 1930s-style clothes (think pencil skirts, smart blouses, gloves, and hats), you could channel original recipe Nancy. On the other hand, if your clothes are more modern, there's always the latest film version of Nancy. Whatever you do, be certain to badger everyone with questions and be annoyingly perfect at everything you try. Bonus points if you can find a handsome guy with dark hair to be Nancy's "special friend" (that's what he is called in the original books) Ned Nickerson or a curvy blond and a tomboyish brunette to be Bess and George, Nancy's loyal sidekicks.
  • Daisy Buchanan - Okay, this one might be a little harder than Nancy Drew, since Daisy is a character set in the 1920s. However, if you can procure a 1920s-style white dress and you have a "voice full of money," then go for it.
  • Hester Prynne - While The Scarlet Letter is set in the 17th century, all you really need is a long black dress (or a dark blouse and a long skirt) with a lavishly decorated red "A" on the bodice. If you can get a black cape, a doll to represent Pearl, or a man to dress up as Dimmesdale, then so much the better. However, I do know that an accurate Hester Prynne costume isn't as sexy as you might like, so you could go with the Demi Moore version. It is pretty much the same, except you need a heaving bosom and some really bad acting to go along with the basic costume.
  • Mary Lennox - Although Alice from Alice in Wonderland is more recognizable, getting to be Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden would probably be more fun. Wear a drab neutral-colored dress (tans, browns, and greens are good) with a white pinafore and a sneer. Throw tantrums whenever things don't get your way and utter spells to amaze/ disturb those around you. Expect to be tamed by the love of your adopted family by the end of the night.
  • Carrie - If you have an old prom dress that you hate, this is the costume for you. Put on the prom dress and dowse yourself (hair, dress, everything) with fake blood (you can buy this at a costume store. You can also can make your own with corn syrup and food coloring, but know that this will be sticky and you might be stained for a few days). Try to keep your murderous, telekinetic powers under control until the night is over.
Men, never fear, here are some costume ideas for you:
  • The Monster from Frankenstein (Frankenstein is the name of the doctor, not the monster) - Put on ragged clothes and give yourself some fake bruises, scars, and stitches. If possible, try to give your skin a sickly-looking tinge.
  • Oedipus - Fashion a toga out of a white sheet. Use some artfully applied makeup to make it look like you gouged your eyes out. Prepare for a lot of unpleasant questions about your mom/ wife and your sisters/ daughters.
  • Edward Cullen (I never said that I liked these characters) - put on a lot of powder (face, baby, it doesn't really matter) or foundation to make yourself really pale. Then throw on some strategically placed body glitter, spike up your hair, put on some red lipstick, and forget how to smile. Be warned that most sane people will find this entire getup repellent.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

"Imagine Marley & Me but for Teens": Pitching Popular Young Adult Literature

Last week's New Yorker had an intriguing article on Alloy Entertainment, a leading book packaging company of popular young adult literature, including the Gossip Girl series and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Although it is nice for us to imagine that writers are suddenly struck by inspiration and write feverishly until all of their thoughts are on paper, this article quickly dispels us of this image. Instead, Alloy's approach is a more collaborative process, where people pitch book ideas in weekly development meetings. Some ideas are rejected, while others are fleshed out into a summary. The most promising ideas are given to a writer, who writes a sample chapter.

While any collaboration certainly has its merits and limitations, this article really underscores the calculation and sometimes profound lack of creativity that goes into these pitches. For instance, many of the pitches mentioned in the article have a basis in current events or films. From the sound of the article, it is like any previous idea, be it Knocked Up, Nancy Drew, or Chappaquiddick, could make for a potential YAL pitch.

This approach to getting books published isn't new (the Stratemeyer Syndicate did it with numerous book series, including Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys), but the process seems more than a little cynical. Maybe it is my naivete, but I'd like to think that teens deserve more than just an adolescent version of the latest hit film for adults or the most recent news story. On the other hand, many of the most interesting and intriguing works have a universal appeal that allow them to be remade or repackaged for teens.

With all of this said, check out the article and then try to come up with some creative (if nonsensical or perhaps borderline offensive) ideas for YAL book titles or pitches. My personal favorite for the worst idea in the article might just be I Did the President's Daughter, a pitch that mercifully failed.

October Madness

While October might not seem like a month prone to craziness, this particular October has been insane. Between the weather (it snowed last Sunday) to the workload (I turned in a second grant proposal today), things have been more than a little crazy. However, on the bright side, the weather seems to have returned to normal, and since the grant has been submitted, I can stop subsisting on caffeine and junk food. Now I just have to get through the rest of the semester...

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Movie Review: To Wong Foo

Recently (perhaps due, in part, to the untimely passing of Patrick Swayze last month), BET has been playing To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar. This movie follows three drag queens, played by Swayze (Vida), Wesley Snipes (Noxeema), and John Leguziamo (Chi-Chi), as they make their way to a drag queen pageant in California. They get harassed by a homophobic sheriff, their car breaks down in a small town, and hi jinks ensue.

While in the town, Vida and Noxeema help plan the Strawberry Social, find vintage 60's fashions, and give the women of the town a makeover. Vida befriends abused housewife Carol Ann and intervenes when Virgil, Carol Ann's husband, tries to beat her up again. Chi-Chi indulges in a crush but eventually does the right thing and sends the young man into the arms of Carol Ann's daughter, Bobbie Lee. Essentially the three of them (well, not so much Chi-Chi) revitalize the town.

On one hand, I know that this movie isn't particularly good. It is basically the poor man's The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. Also, the film student/ English major in me understands that:
  1. The script takes the magical Negro stereotype (where an African American character helps a white protagonist) and makes it about drag queens. The queens (especially Vida) are selfless individuals who try to make the best out of their given situation and help those around them. From beating up Virgil to giving Bobbie Lee tips on how to attract Bobby Ray, they are like fairy godmothers (Vida even makes a comment about this).
  2. The character of Noxeema is pretty one-dimensional, even by this movie's standards. Her main job is to act sassy and spout off one-liners.
  3. The movie seems to have some sort of personality disorder. It veers from serious (spousal abuse) to farcical in a blink of an eye.
  4. The ending, which wraps everything up in a pretty bow, is much too perfect.
In short, this is a movie that makes drag queens completely acceptable for middle America by portraying them as essentially sexless do-gooders who are there to help others.

Despite these issues, I really love this movie. In fact, I consider it my favorite Patrick Swayze film (sorry Dirty Dancing). Yes, it is cheese, but it is satisfying just the same. There is something very sweet and charming about it that makes my black and shriveled heart grow three times its normal size. Swayze is very effective in the role of Vida, a person who really wants to be loved for who she is, and Snipes makes the most of an underwritten role.

The supporting cast is also quite good, and the small moments are surprisingly touching. One of my favorites is when Jimmy Joe (yes, the names are all like this) asks Beatrice to dance, saying, "Miss Beatrice. I've waited 23 years to ask you this. May I have this dance?" and Beatrice (played by the great Blythe Danner), in a wonderfully understated line reading, accepts with a soft "Oh my gracious." Since my description cannot hope to compete with the actual scene, check out the first part of this clip:

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Because Hating on "Twilight" Never Gets Old

The Harvard Lampoon, the university's humor magazine (which has had such luminaries as Conan O'Brien on the writing staff), is releasing a parody of Twilight called Nightlight. According to the Entertainment Weekly website
Nightlight follows a “pale and klutzy” girl named Belle Goose, who moves to Switchblade, Oregon, and meets Edwart Mullen, a “super-hot computer nerd with zero interest in girls.” The vampire-obsessed Belle becomes convinced Edwart is one of the undead after witnessing events she considers otherworldly (”Edwart leaves his Tater Tots™ untouched at lunch! Edwart saves her from a flying snowball!”).
If Nightlight is half as hilarious as the synopsis above suggests, it should be awesome. And really, anything that mocks Twilight gets my support.

Also, just in case you were curious, here is the cover in all its glory:

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Banned Books Week: Won't Somebody Think of the Children?

It may surprise you (or not) that children's books are often challenged and/ or banned. According to the ALA's "Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2008," most of books are actually children's books or young adult literature. From picture books like And Tango Makes Three and Uncle Bobby's Wedding to YAL series like Gossip Girl, children's and adolescent literature seem to be lightning rods for controversy. Perhaps it is because parents (who reportedly lodged 56% of book challenges in 2008) become overzealous when trying to protect their kids, or maybe its because we as a society have a knee-jerk reaction of sheer hysteria when it comes to the very idea that something might be corrupting our youth (see Helen Lovejoy's plea above). Or maybe it is because some tend to underestimate children's and teenagers' ability to comprehend and deal with complex ideas.

Whatever the reasons, here is the ALA's top 10 list. Be certain to read some of them and see (or try to figure out) what all of the fuss is about.
  • And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
    Reasons: anti-ethnic, anti-family, homosexuality, religious viewpoint, and unsuited to age group
  • His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman
    Reasons: political viewpoint, religious viewpoint, and violence
  • TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Lauren Myracle
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  • Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
    Reasons: occult/satanism, religious viewpoint, and violence
  • Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
    Reasons: occult/satanism, offensive language, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit, and violence
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
    Reasons: drugs, homosexuality, nudity, offensive language, sexually explicit, suicide, and unsuited to age group
  • Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  • Uncle Bobby's Wedding, by Sarah S. Brannen
    Reasons: homosexuality and unsuited to age group
  • The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
    Reasons: offensive language, sexually explicit, and unsuited to age group
  • Flashcards of My Life, by Charise Mericle Harper
    Reasons: sexually explicit and unsuited to age group

Banned Books Week: Have You Hugged Your Librarian Today?

"And on the subject of burning books: I want to congratulate librarians, not famous for their physical strength or their powerful political connections or their great wealth, who, all over this country, have staunchly resisted anti-democratic bullies who have tried to remove certain books from their shelves, and have refused to reveal to thought police the names of persons who have checked out those titles.

So the America I loved still exists, if not in the White House or the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives or the media. The America I love still exists at the front desks of our public libraries."
- Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

God bless librarians. While they are often the butt of jokes (imagine the sour-faced spinster shushing teenagers in countless movies), they are also the ones who often stand up to people who try to challenge, ban, or restrict books. Besides that, most of them are extremely cool people who love books, love reading, and love sharing books with others.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Banned Books Week 2009

Today is the start of Banned Books Week 2009. To kick off the week, here is an awesome video done by the Gottesman Libraries at Columbia's Teachers College. It features the 100 most frequently banned books from 1900 - 2000.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Sorry I Haven't Posted in a While

I try to post at least once a week, but last week my efforts were thwarted because of the flu. Sadly, it has been five days, and I am still sick. For now, I have quarantined myself in my apartment and am drinking an absurd amount of water. Stupid flu...

Friday, September 4, 2009

Review: "10 Things I Hate About You"

I was very skeptical when I first heard that ABC Family was going to air a television series based on the movie 10 Things I Hate About You. I asked, "How can this possibly be any good?" Besides the fact that the movie was released 10 years ago and had an excellent cast and witty writing, how could a station owned by Disney do anything worth watching? And isn't this the same station that brought us the mawkish drama The Secret Life of the American Teenager?

However, after seeing several (okay, all) of the episodes, I am ready to eat a little crow and admit that I was wrong (at least about this series). While 10 Things is similar to the movie, the writers and producers have made things different enough to keep viewers on their toes and to make the characters and the situations more believable. For instance, Bianca and Kat are the new students, thus setting up an interesting dynamic. Kat is not angry over a failed relationship; instead, her status as a rebel comes from her political and social awareness. It isn't that she hates all men, it's just that, in her mind at least, she has better things to do than date and fawn over boys. Lindsey Shaw, the actress playing Kat, is sort of awesome; I'd actually take her over Julia Stiles any day (this is probably not saying much). She makes the character a believable, albeit angry and self-righteous, crusader, and her interactions with Larry Miller, reprising his role as Mr. Stratford from the film, are priceless. She also manages to have great chemistry with Meaghan Jeatte Martin (Bianca), and their relationship is very believable. Last, but certainly not least, she is able to generate a great deal of chemistry with Ethan Peck (Patrick), who is hot but doesn't have Heath Ledger's charm or charisma.

Bianca's character has undergone some minor but important changes as well. Rather than being the established princess of the high school, Bianca is a relative outsider and is desperately trying to work her way into the "in" crowd, which is ruled by Chastity, who manages to be bitchier and more sympathetic than she was in the movie. Aiding Bianca are Cameron, the geeky boy who adores her, and Joey, Chastity's rather dim and vain boyfriend.

With the exception of Cameron (we'll get to him later), this new dynamic really works. Not only is Bianca not the spoiled princess of the movie version, she is actually pretty darn likable, and her desire to become popular is much more easy to relate to than movie Bianca's place as queen bee. Furthermore, I love what they (whoever they refers to - the producers, the writers, etc) did with the character of Joey. No one can deny that the character of Joey in the movie was a complete jerk. However, new Joey (Joey 2.0 if you will) is actually a pretty good guy. Despite his good looks and his work as a model, he is definitely Chastity's doormat (or, if you prefer, he's the Jon to Chastity's Kate). Although he is ridiculously vain, he is obviously a good person underneath all of his hair product, and he has won me over because he wants to be a good friend to Bianca. Between helping Bianca stop her out-of-control party and standing up to a fellow student who wants to seduce her , Joey has proven to be an anomaly in the teen movie/ television world: he's the cute, popular, vain guy who actually has a heart.

Now for the less than great aspects of the show. Oh Cameron. I loved you when you were played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in the movie. You were funny and smart and obviously in love with Bianca without being creepy about it. Unfortunately, Cameron 2.0 is one of the weaker characters in the television series. His obsession with Bianca is creepy rather than endearing, and someone (the actor? the writers?) decided that he needed to be a complete dweeb rather than a normal teenage guy. Ethan Peck's take on Patrick is also lacking something. While Peck has a more formidable task than the rest of the cast since his character was originally played by the phenomenal Heath Ledger, we haven't gotten a chance to really see Patrick do anything besides smirk and talk in a very low voice.

All in all, 10 Things is a fun and mindless way to spend thirty minutes on Tuesday nights. Yes, it is pretty fluffy, but like the best brain candy, it is good-natured and provides instant uplift and some witty writing. The season finale is just around the corner, but if you haven't seen the show, you can watch full episodes on the ABC Family site.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Book Review: "Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don't Float: Classic Lit Signs on to Facebook"

"Rochester suggested a friend for Jane: his secret wife, Bertha. He thinks she may know Bertha too."

Given my interest in classic literature and my love-hate relationship with Facebook, I was immediately drawn to Sarah Schmelling's new book Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don't Float. The book, whose genesis is in a piece Schmelling did on McSweeney's Internet Tendency, reimagines various classics, such as Hamlet, Little Women, and Death of a Salesman, by juxtaposing their storylines in the world of Facebook updates. The result is an amusing (if somewhat repetitive) look at how many of the staples of Western literature would fit in the Facebook world.

The book's concept of shrinking literature into pithy updates a genuinely funny idea. Whether Hester Prynne is receiving her scarlet letter in the form of flair or Heathcliff (from Wuthering Heights) is adding "the Marrying Someone Out of Pure Spite" application, the mental image of reducing these famous literary moments into mere status updates or one-liners is very humorous. Interspersed with the summaries of these books are fitting ads (Little Women's features an ad for Jo's hair) and other mainstays of the Facebook world. Perhaps the funniest one is the "Are you a REAL MAN?" quiz, as taken by Ernest Hemingway, who scores a mere 40% and spends some time being very defensive about this slight. Schmelling also intersperses postings from various authors and characters into a given book, and so we get a glimpse at Hemingway's contentious relationship with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Scout Finch's comments on Holden Caulfield. Reading the book, it becomes obvious that Schmelling has a strong grasp not only of literature but of the various authors' lives.

Despite Schmelling's witty entries, this book isn't usually "laugh out loud" funny. Also, while the concept is great, the reality does become somewhat repetitious after a while. However, for lovers of literature, this is a novel (no pun intended) way of approaching the classics. It would also make a great book for English teachers, for it provides a fun and alternative way of thinking about tests and assignments. For instance, rather than the usual fill-in-the blanks or multiple choice question, imagine how fun (or at least how different) it would be to give students a page of these updates and asking them to fully explain them. If you love the classics (or you know someone who does), this is certainly a fun read. It might even make you fondly remember your high school and college survey of literature classes.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Book Review: "Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading"

When I first heard about Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading on NPR, I was very intrigued. The book, which is based from Lizzie Skurnick's articles on, bills itself as a "reading memoir," in which Skurnick and other female authors discuss their favorite young adult books from their teenage years. Since my research is looking at how adolescent girls respond to popular young adult literature, this book seemed a natural read for me. All signs pointed towards me liking the book. When I called my local bookstore to reserve a copy, the bookseller told me that it was sold out, which I took as a good sign. After finally securing the book, I entered it into LibraryThing and the "Will You Like It" function (a fun if often wrong predictor of book tastes) said that I would love the book. With all of these positive indicators, I picked up the book, curled up on my sofa, and started to read.

So were all of the signs right? Yes and no. On one hand, I found the book enjoyable, and the general idea is pretty inspired. On the other hand, there was many a time I wanted to hurl the book at the nearest wall or fling it from the subway in frustration. If it is possible to have a dysfunctional or schizophrenic relationship with a book, I have found it.

Let's start with the positives. Perhaps one of the most successful outcomes is that it inspired me to revisit some of the books mentioned. Most of the books discussed were published during the late 1960s to the early 1980s, which many consider the golden age of young adult literature. Not only did this period see a considerable increase in the number of YAL books for girls, but the quality of the books went up as well. Authors like Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary rose to fame during this time, and many of the books written during this period, like Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret, remain popular. Furthermore, Skurnick does not just talk about the most popular books or the most well-known authors. Instead, she manages to find a good balance between the immensely popular and the more obscure works. Her fond memories and obvious enthusiasm for her all of these books are palpable, and reading Shelf Discovery made me want to go out and read (or reread) the books Skurnick mentions.

The book's other notable strength is that it talks about a lot of the issues and characteristics that stand out to girls reading these books. Some of my favorite parts of the older YAL novels from my youth were the lush (bordering on pornographic) descriptions of the food and clothing. While I would never admit this strange obsession, Skurnick discusses it head-on. She also touches on the allure of dirty books, such as V.C. Andrews's Flowers in the Attic, thus alleviating a little bit of my Catholic guilt when I remember sneaking peeks of these books at the grocery check-out. Skurnick's willingness to address these topics shows her understanding of teen girls (and adult women) and their reading habits.

So far, so good. Based on the prior paragraphs, it sounds like the LibraryThing predictor was right on the money. However, despite the book's strengths, I often found it a maddening read because of the writing style. Besides YAL, this book showcases Skurnick's obvious love for CAPITAL letters and parenthetical phrases. While both of these things can be very effective in writing, particularly in less formal writing such as blog posts or magazine columns, it gets damn annoying when they keep popping up in a book. The closest metaphor I can come up with is that it is like getting together for drinks with a boisterous, opinionated friend. The evening starts off well enough; your friend is fairly coherent and her outbursts can be witty and humorous. However, after an hour or so, she is starting to make less sense, her stories are becoming increasingly disjointed, and her shouting is starting to give you a headache. Although this style does vividly show Skurnick's excitement for her topic, the asides and the words and phrases in all capital letters drove me batty (and made me itch for someone like Anne Fadiman to come and edit the hell out of this book). The excellent sections written by authors such as Meg Cabot and Cecily von Ziegesar only serve to showcase how aggravating Skurnick's style can be.

All in all, Shelf Discovery is a generally entertaining and occasionally enlightening book that will undoubtedly thrill women who remember their adolescent reading experiences fondly. If you can tolerate Skurnick's writing quirks, then I have no doubt that this book will be the perfect end-of-summer or Labor Day read for you to take to the beach. If you are like me and her style sometimes makes your teeth itch, then perhaps you can at least appreciate the effort and enjoy her more lucid sections.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Where Has the Summer Gone?

Looking at the calendar, I have just realized that classes start in less than two weeks! I don't know where the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer have gone, but fall is almost here. Consequently, in the next two weeks, I need to:
  • Go over the information and materials for the new class I am working with
  • Work on a minor grant proposal
  • Work on my official proposal for my dissertation
Can we reset everything back to the beginning of the month? Who's with me?

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Twilight (the Movie) - How Can Something This Bad Be This Boring?

As you may have noticed, there is no love lost between me and the Twilight series (you can read all about it here). Consequently, it took me a very long time to watch the movie. I only did so after a lot of coercion by my friends ("We'll make fun of it! And we can make up a drinking game!"). Although I was very hesitant, I agreed that we should make an afternoon of it and drink ourselves silly while watching the supposed acting of Kristen Stewart. Besides, terrible movies can be hysterical in their awfulness (watch Xanadu or Grease 2 and try not to laugh at the absurdity of it all). Given the hype and my hatred of Twilight, how the movie not be fun to mock?

Unfortunately, Twilight the movie took the place of The Skateboard Kid (a movie that involved a magic skateboard and looked like it was shot with a camcorder) as the worst movie I have ever seen. Copious amounts of alcohol and food couldn't make the movie entertaining (even on a kitschy level). With that said, the only way I would ever willingly watch this movie again is if I could watch it with the Rifftrax commentary. I don't know how these three gentlemen managed to watch this film enough to skewer it so thoroughly, but I must admit that they are stronger than I am. So, without further ado, here is the "Best of" the Rifftrax for Twilight.

Best of Rifftrax - Twilight

My favorite lines from the Rifftrax? Too many to count. However, here are some of the absolute gems:
  • That look is from the "Guy you alert the flight attendant about" collection.
  • (Referring to Bella): Come liven up our discussion with your bubbly personality.
  • (Regarding Edward/ Robert Pattinson): He combines the composure of George Costanza with the suaveness of David Schwimmer.
  • (Also regarding Edward): It's tough to look bad ass posing next to a Volvo.
  • (In response to Edward's assertion, "Nobody's going to believe you"): Quoting directly from the abusive guy's handbook there.
  • (About Kristen Stewart's stellar acting choices): Seriously, I don't know what emotion you're going for - you always just look nauseous.

To Kindle or Not to Kindle

I have tend to have a distrust for anything that is freakishly popular. My earliest memory of trying to buck convention by not jumping on the latest craze was in fourth grade when the New Kids on the Block hit the scene. After hearing the girls in my class rave about them nonstop, I found that I couldn't muster any enthusiasm for the group. This resistance was also present for the iPod frenzy (I didn't buy one until I moved and found myself without a means of listening to music away from my computer and radio) and the Facebook craze (I now belong to the site because of work, but I am still rather bitter about having a personal Facebook profile).

With all of this said, I have found myself simultaneously drawn to and repelled by the Amazon Kindle. This e-reader has an almost cult-like following, and judging by the reviews on the Amazon site as well as on other sites, people seem to love the device. They praise the fact that it allows for instant gratification (want a book at 3:00 am? Just use the Kindle's virtual store and away you go!) and that it gives readers the ability to carry around up to 1,500 books with them at all times. As someone who spends a lot of time eating in restaurants alone and riding the subway, both of these capabilities hold a great deal of appeal. Furthermore, being able to have virtual books would save me a lot of space problems. My small apartment is brimming with books, and the very thought of moving sends shivers up my spine and makes me pray for a job that will help cover the cost of my move.

So what's keeping me from jumping on the bandwagon and drinking the Kindle Kool-Aid? To be honest, all of this adulation makes me a little wary - anything that has had this much hype can't possibly live up to it, right? Although this skepticism has been wrong in the past (I love my iPod), I have a hard time embracing the idea of a Kindle. Here are my reasons, in no particular order:
  • The damn thing costs $299, which is a break from the original price tag of $359 for the Kindle 2. Besides that, newer books at Amazon's Kindle store cost around $9.99. While $9.99 is cheaper than buying a newly released book in hardcover, you can also buy a lot of books for $299. Furthermore, as a grad student, I don't exactly have $299 to spend on an e-reader plus extra money for the actual books.
  • I would live in constant fear of breaking it. Since my main reason for having it would be to read on the go, my hypothetical Kindle would spend a great deal of time being jostled around in my beat-up Lands' End tote. Even though the Amazon page shows the Kindle being dropped, I don't think that it could withstand the abuse I would put it through.
  • For my scholarly reading, I like being able to highlight and write in my books, and I can't imagine any technology being able to replicate doing these things.
  • I like actual bookstores. New bookstores allow you to grab a cup of coffee and browse for hours in different sections of the store. Old bookstores provide the opportunity for you to find hidden treasures (I purchased a used but pristine copy of a cookbook I have wanted for a while for 60% off of the cover price).
Right now, owning a Kindle isn't in my foreseeable future. While I might be able to get one down the road, I can't imagine spending that much money on a mono-tasking device. However, I'd be interested in getting other opinions on the matter. Please take a moment to take the poll and/ or to post a comment regarding e-readers.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Reexamining Literary Icons of My Youth

This week's New Yorker included two articles that discussed two iconic characters from my youth: Atticus Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird and Laura Ingalls Wilder, the supposed author of the Little House books. Both articles were well-written and informative, but I can't help but think that a little part of my childhood died when I put down the magazine.

It doesn't surprise me all that much that Wilder and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, come off as brusque and domineering, but I don't think that I will ever be able to re-read any of the Little House books without comparing the character of Laura (spunky, determined, hard-working, and curious) with my newly acquired knowledge of real life Laura (austere and unaffectionate). An added, and curious, layer of context is the revelation by Sarah Palin's sister that the only book she remembers Palin reading as a child was Little House on the Prairie. If that book is what shaped Palin into the person she is, perhaps it would be prudent to read it with some caution.

Malcolm Gladwell's article on Atticus Finch is even more problematic, at least in my mind. In it, Gladwell argues that Finch is not a true civil-rights activist but is someone who seeks accommodation by appealing to people's "hearts and minds" rather than true reform. Although I agree with Gladwell that Finch is not an activist in the Thurgood Marshall sense, I also think that the author tries too hard to rail against Finch's status as a heroic figure in American literature. However, Gladwell completely lost me in the final paragraph, in which he discusses Finch's decision to lie about Boo Radley's role in Bob Ewell's murder. Gladwell states:
“Scout,” Finch says to his daughter, after he and Sheriff Tate have cut their little side deal. “Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?”

Understand what? That her father and the Sheriff have decided to obstruct justice in the name of saving their beloved neighbor the burden of angel-food cake? Atticus Finch is faced with jurors who have one set of standards for white people like the Ewells and another set for black folk like Tom Robinson. His response is to adopt one set of standards for respectable whites like Boo Radley and another for white trash like Bob Ewell.
This final indictment of Finch suggests that Gladwell's worldview prevents him from understanding To Kill a Mockingbird's genius and subtlety. As a commenter to the article noted on Facebook, there is more to this problem than just cake. Rather, Radley's very existence is what is at stake. I suppose that Gladwell would like to think that he, and any activist worth his or her salt, would be the first to publicly commend Radley without a thought to the consequences. However, this view looks at the world in completely black or white terms, which is ironic considering the article's argument.

Ultimately, Gladwell wants justice and truth at any cost, while Finch demonstrates mercy, which to him is its own form of justice. Although both rationales have credence, in the end I would rather go with Finch's decision to spare Radley the terror of the spotlight than Gladwell's argument for blind justice.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Summer Reading, 2009 Edition

I can't believe that it is almost August, particularly since I don't feel like I have accomplished anything since summer started (other than the usual routine of classes and work). However, I have been able to do a lot of reading (scholarly and otherwise). Here are some of the best and worst books I have read for fun since the end of spring semester:

Beowulf on the Beach by Jack Murnighan - I read this book on the plane back from Nashville, and I found it enjoyable, even if it was a little uneven in places. Murnighan brings up some interesting points about the great books of western civilization, such as the parallelism found in the Bible. Furthermore, I like the argument that there are some passages in great books that need to be skipped. I remember getting into an argument with another English teacher who couldn't believe that my school didn't require students to read all of Walden. Looking back, I wish I had this book to use as my rebuttal.

Where the Girls Are by Susan J. Douglas - Okay, it is a bit of a stretch calling this "leisure reading" since I was planning on using this as part of my dissertation. While I didn't find anything that useful for my proposal or dissertation, Douglas's discussion and analysis of the portrayal of femininity in the media during the 1960s and 1970s was thought-provoking. Even when I didn't agree with her points, I had to acknowledge that she makes some convincing arguments.

The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs - This is my favorite book (so far) this summer. While I enjoyed Jacobs's first book, The Know-It-All, my very complicated relationship with religion made me reluctant to read The Year of Living Biblically, in which Jacobs chronicles the year he spent trying to follow all of the rules prescribed by the Bible. Luckily, Jacobs undertakes this seemingly overwhelming and somewhat provocative task with candor and humor. His honesty and open-minded approach to the experiment make this book accessible, informative, and entertaining, even for a skeptical person like me.

Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone by Douglas Brode and Carol Serling - The Twilight Zone (the original series, not the later incarnations) is a show that I almost always find entertaining and disturbing. This book looks at how Serling's views, foibles, and ideas helped shape and propel the various themes found in the show. Overall, the book was a good read, but it sometimes feels a little too reverent in its discussion of Serling, comparing his work with that of Frank Capra, William Shakespeare, and Edward R. Murrow. Although these comparisons are often justifiable, I got the impression that the authors were trying too hard to show Serling's genius and his considerable influence on television and American culture. In the end, perhaps letting Serling's work stand on its own would have allowed me to gain a better appreciation of it.

How to Read Like a Writer by Francine Prose - I really wanted to like this book, and I tried to read it numerous times. However, this is it. I officially give up. While Prose makes some valid points, I just couldn't connect with the book. There are so many other books about reading that I find more interesting and just as (if not more) informative that I can't justify spending anymore time trying to read How to Read Like a Writer.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Nostalgia Critic

I am obviously late to this party (what else is new), but last week I found the website That Guy with the Glasses and I have been hooked. I am particularly fond of the Nostalgia Critic, in which Douglas Walker (aka that guy with the glasses) "remembers it all so [we] don't have to." As the Nostalgia Critic, Walker discusses and reviews popular culture from the 1980s and 1990s, particularly television shows and movies that are geared towards kids.

Although he not-so-gently mocks much of what he reviews (most of it with good reason - you try saying something nice about the tv series Full House), he is usually very fair and will acknowledge when a show or movie actually has a good joke or a funny moment. However, the real reason to watch his videos is to see how he mercilessly skewers some of the most memorable moments from childhood. Consequently, Walker combines some of my favorite things: 1980s/ 1990s kiddie pop culture (The Animaniacs! Christmas specials! Addictive theme songs!), humor, and ranting. It. Is. AMAZING!!!

For those of you who are not familiar with Walker, the ultimate place to start is Walker's hilarious analysis/ rant on Titanic - The Animated Musical. While I don't think I could ever watch the actual movie (it is basically a blatant rip-off of the James Cameron film with a rapping dog and cheap animation), this clip may be one of the most hysterical things I have ever seen:

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Joys of Literal Music Videos

Thanks to the power of Facebook, I recently found out about the literal music video. While many of them are really bad (just try sitting through the literal versions of "Girlfriend" or "Bye, Bye, Bye" on YouTube), here are three of my favorites.

"Total Eclipse of the Heart" - this is a very screwy video, and even without the rewritten lyrics, it is pretty laughable.

"I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" - words can't even begin to describe how awesome this literal version is. Meatloaf watching the girl in the cup, the Kool-Aid man reference, the shot at Herbal Essences - all of it is mocked here for your listening and watching pleasure.

"Making Love Out of Nothing At All" - this may be my favorite one (it is a toss up between this and the Meatloaf video). Besides the delightfully bad 80's fashion, the singing is actually pretty good and the lyrics are very funny. However, the real winner is the hysterical imagined dialogue.

My favorite pieces of dialogue:
"I'll come back when you put on a shirt!"
"Stupid, stupid non-magic photo!"

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Book Review: Show Me How

I've always been a fan of "how-to" books. I'm not talking about relationship guides or self-help books; instead, I like the practical how-to books that give advice on everyday scenarios. The only drawback for most of these books is that some tend to be heavy on written instructions and light on helpful illustrations. While some things, like making lemonade or preparing a steak dinner for four, do not need a lot of visual aids, other things, such as tying a certain knot or french braiding hair, need illustrated instructions.

The answer to this problem came in the form of Show Me How. The book's cover says that it contains "Instructions for life from the everyday to the exotic." This subtitle holds true, as the book covers everything from style (applying make up, wearing a suit) to food and drink (making a variety of cocktails, using chopsticks) to leisure and recreation (hanging a hammock). However, what makes this book stand out from the myriad of how-to books is that all of the instructions are illustrated. Although this might seem like a small addition, it is a genius move on the part of the authors. Not only do the drawings provide a much-needed visual tool, they also add a healthy dose of humor and whimsy, two ingredients that are often missing in the dry, pragmatic world of the how-to book genre.

The colorful illustrations and helpful subject matter make Show Me How an excellent gift for people just starting out on their own, such newlyweds and recent college grads. Furthermore, the book's quirky appeal and large size would make it an unexpected, fun addition to a coffee table. Plus, it is much cooler and infinitely more practical than a hardcover tome featuring Anne Geddes photos.

Friday, July 10, 2009

"Web Site Story" from College Humor

Okay, you have to overlook the questionable lip-syncing and the somewhat flat ending. However, those issues aside, this is a pretty funny parody of West Side Story.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Book Review: Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels

Like many things in life, I have a love-hate relationship with romance novels. While some of them are cheesetastic fun (the covers and titles alone can be hysterical), there is also a certain amount of shame that overcomes me when I stop to look at them in the bookstore or pick one up at the library. Are they just porn for women? Aren't they all just the same predictable story over and over? And aren't the readers just bored, uneducated housewives in the Peg Bundy tradition?

In order to answer these questions and to give some loving mockery to the genre's more egregious tropes (the covers! the secret babies! the eeevilll mistresses!), Candy Tan and Sarah Wendell, the founders of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, have written Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches' Guide to Romance Novels. This book is an extension of the website, in that it mixes intelligent analysis, humorous asides, and a good deal of snark and profanity in its discussion of romance novels. It is not unlike a book co-written by an English professor and the late George Carlin, and I mean that in the best way. At the book's strongest points, it is funny, candid, honest, and thoughtful.

Ultimately, one of the best attributes about the book is that the authors challenge the popular stereotype of the romance novel reader. In contrast to the book's illustrations of a frumpy, sweat suit-wearing housewife, the authors contend that many intelligent women (with jobs and advanced degrees) read romance novels. As Wendell and Tan state, "We're smart women with sharp intellects and a love of discussion and debate. And one does not cancel out the other. Romance novels do not make you stupid." To further the argument, they even provide a list of reasons why smart women read romance. My favorite reason is that "happiness is good. Emo may be chic. Angst is undoubtedly chic. Happiness is definitely not chic. But happiness is good." If this isn't a great defense of the romance novel and the happy ending, I don't know what is.

Despite their assertions that romance novels can be enjoyable and that some romances can be very good, do not mistake Wendell and Tan for fan girls who see any and all romances as equal. Besides acknowledging that there are some spectacularly bad romance novels gracing the shelves of bookstores, the two authors often scathingly ridicule some of the genre's insane cliches. For instance, when deconstructing the romance novel hero, they devote some time to the alpha (or alphole) heroes who do things that are less than noble. Wendall and Tan go so far as to offer a list of despicable acts by actual romance heroes. These acts include deliberately raping the heroine for a variety of inane and complicated reasons (most of them involving a revenge scheme that would make Rube Goldberg's head spin).

The only part of the book that fell a little flat was the section on "Controversies, Scandals, and Not Being Nice." Although the chapter addresses many of the recent issues that plague romance novels and the romance industry, such as the distinct lack of minorities and the Cassie Edwards plagiarism scandal that SBTB uncovered, the chapter's tone is a little jarring when compared to the humorous feel of the rest of the book.

This small quibble aside, Beyond Heaving Bosoms is an enjoyable and enlightening look at romance novels and the people who read them. If you love to hate (or hate to love) romance, you should take the time to read this book. It might just give you a new outlook on the romance novel or it might give you the courage to take that book cover and read your romance in public, embarrassing cover and all. Either way, it will definitely change your view of the genre and give you a greater appreciation for the books and their readers.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

My Favorite Children's Books, Part I

Several days ago, the New York Times ran an op-ed column on one person's take on "The Best Kids' Books Ever." Although I found the list to be pretty good (I definitely agree with the inclusion of Anne of Green Gables and Charlotte's Web), but like the 2,000+ commenters to the article, I have my own suggestions. Here are a few of them, in no particular order:
  • The Wonderful Wizard of Oz - I haven't had the chance to read all of the books in Baum's Oz series, but this one is so magical and filled with possibility that I don't know if I want to read the remaining books for fear that they won't live up to the first book in the series.
  • Winnie-the-Pooh - Although Pooh and his friends are perhaps best known because of Disney's continued reinvention of them (does the world really need a series where Tigger and Pooh are detectives? Really?) , the original stories (and the first set of Pooh films) are surprisingly funny and sweet, with just a touch of sly humor in places to keep the entire experience from getting too saccharine.
  • Mary Poppins - The Mary Poppins books might come as a shock to those who are only familiar with the Disney film. Unlike sweet Julie Andrews, the literary version of Mary Poppins is far from sentimental or soft. In some instances, she is downright scary. However, she keeps her charges (and us) coming back. She still has magical adventures, but she is decidedly tarter (and more complex) than the film suggests.
  • The Ramona novels - I was a pretty obedient child, but I lived vicariously through Beverly Cleary's rambunctious heroine. Ramona Quimby was an accessible, realistic character who had problems that most children could relate to, such as worrying about her family's financial situation or trying to get along with her older sister. I sometimes revisit the Ramona books, and they always make me smile.
  • Love That Dog - Sharon Creech's book of verse manages to combine allusions to great works of poetry while also maintaining the pov of a reluctant poetry student. Funny, charming, and surprisingly moving, this book is the perfect book for any child (or teacher) struggling to get through poetry.