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.