Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Feelings--Nothing More than Feelings

I recently had an interesting conversation with a neuro-linguist* who was arguing that no one does anything or cares about anything that doesn't affect him or her directly in some way. We were discussing politics at the time, and his point was that the war in Iraq doesn't really affect me, so why do I care?

I, of course, took this to mean that the gentleman in question would have disagreed with John Donne's "No Man is an Island":

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

I therefore fired back, arguing that while my everday life is much the same now as it was before the U.S. invaded Iraq, I still care because it's wrong that atrocities are being carried out by our troops and against our troops in the name of "democracy." The problem, however, was that I was misunderstanding his argument. He wasn't arguing that I shouldn't care about the war in Iraq--instead, he wanted me to be explicitly clear with myself how I feel and why I care. It ultimately boiled down to this (which is, obviously, paraphrased, since it took me a little longer to come around to what he was actually saying vs. what I thought he was saying):
Him: How does the Iraq war actually affect your life?
Me: When I watch the news, it pisses me off. I get upset.
Him: All right, so it makes you feel upset.
Me: Well, yeah.
Him: Why do you watch the news, then, if it upsets you?
Me: Because I feel cut-off if I don't.
Him: So, for you, it's more important for you not to feel cut off, even if it does upset you?
Me: ... yeah.

Now, some of you might be wondering two things: (a) Why is this connection between feelings and actions important? and (b) Why am I telling you about it?

First of all, the neuro-linguist's point was that none of us does things because we think it's a good idea. We do things because we feel like doing them. I know it would be a good idea to eat less sugar. However, I often feel like eating sugar, so I do it even though I know it's not good for me. It's only because I feel like working out that I do it. Battered wives know it's a bad idea to stay with an abusive husband, but they feel hopeful that the husbands will change. Feelings, not knowledge or beliefs, determine actions.

And the reason that I'm sharing this with you is this: I read because I feel like it. I enjoy the reading process, I enjoy thinking and talking about it afterwards, I enjoy the feeling of knowing I've read one of the most important books/poems/plays in western history. The reason other people don't read is that they don't enjoy it--they don't get any feelings of satisfaction. If anything, they feel bored or frustrated.

My point is this: rather than sharing more reading-is-good-for-you-and-television-is-bad-for-you facts, I (and you) should try to encourage positive feelings in those who do read. We shouldn't reward children for reading--reading itself should be considered a reward, an indulgence, a treat. The problem is that this is probably mostly effective for children, since you can't go around giving positive reinforcements to adults without sounding at least a little bit condescending. Anyone have any ideas as to how to encourage other people to feel like actually picking up a book?____________________________________________________________________

*For those of you who aren't familiar with the tenets of neuro-linguistics, check out the ever-reliable wikipedia:

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Silk Stockings and Bare Legs: Class Struggles in Upton Sinclair's Oil!

Throughout Upton Sinclair's novel of class warfare, Oil!, Bunny Ross, son of an oil tycoon, struggles to reconcile his upbringing with his own views of the working class. The comparisons between the upper-classes and the lower-classes are both pointed and subtle, with one example of the latter being the role that silk stockings play in the lives of the rich and the poor; Sinclair deftly weaves in references to stockings to establish the role of finery in America in the 1920s.

A careful reader will observe that references to silk stockings draw stark comparisons between the rich and the poor, the bourgeioisie and the proletariat. When Mrs. Groarty, a woman hovering on the brink of wealth, wishes to cross this line, she purchases a fine dress and silk stockings:

"Mrs. Groarty had [...] been driven down-town for an evening gown of yellow satin. Now she felt embarrassed because there was not enough of it, either at the top where her arms and bosom came out, or below, where her fat calves were encased in embroidered silk stockings, so thin as to seem almost nothing. It was what 'they' were wearing, the saleswoman had assured her; and Mrs. Groarty was grimly set upon being one of 'them.'" (27)

These stockings, though they are described as "almost nothing," serve as a symbol of the tempatations of wealth and luxury. Mrs. Groarty, however, instead of being elevated by the acquisition of this symbol of wealth, is instead made to look ridiculous as she apes what "they" are wearing.

This is in direct contrast to the virtues of bare legs, which serve as a symbol of the happy and free poor: "Bunny knew: she was healthy and happy, sitting out there in the sun with her bare brown legs; it was the best thing in the world for her--far better than if her legs were covered with costly silk stockings" (101). Bunny recognizes the stockings as confining, but it is only the poor who are "freed" from the silken confines of stockings, unable to afford them, and Bunny innocently wonders why, if bare legs are so wonderful, "other women" need stockings at all.

Elsewhere in the book, stockings serve as temptations of another kind, adorning the ankles of prostitutes: "Bunny knew enough to realize that the women in the neighborhood of this camp who were open to adventures must be pretty well debauched after a year, so he had little interest in their glances or the trim silk-stockinged ankles they displayed" (229). While these women are not members of the bourgeioisie, they adopt a symbol of wealth while at the same time commodifying their bodies. In order to make money (a symbol of capitalism), they must sell their bodies, and silk stockings are all they get in return.

The novel's classic example of the commodification of the female body is, of course, Vee Tracy, the World's Darling: "She believed in her money; she had starved for it, sold herself, body and mind, for it, and she meant to hang onto it. Bunny's so-called 'radical movement' meant to her that other wanted to take it away" (398). The irony, however, is that, as a member of the lower-class who clawed her way to the top, Vee recognizes what stockings, symbols of property and material wealth, do to people:

"'My God!' exclaimed Bunny. 'What property does to people!'
"'To women exspecially,' said Vee. "It's too much for their nerves. I look at the old women I meet, and think, which of them do I want to be? And I say, Oh, my God! and jump into my car and drive fifty miles an hour to get away from my troubles, and from people who want to tell me theirs!'" (342-3)

While she recognizes this weakness "of nerves" in other people, however, she is absolutely blind to its impact in her own life; her escape from the idea of turning into a rich old woman is to "jump into [her] car," a 1920s symbol of wealth in its own right. She has completely assimilated the values of the bourgeioisie, becoming "nothing but a prostitute, and the fact that she's highly paid makes her all the more loathsome" (375). She is neither of the lower class nor of the upper class, instead trapped somewhere in the middle.

This class distinction is hammered home when a "red" meeting is invaded by the police and a little girl is thrown into a vat of boiling coffee, causing her stockings to stick to the skin of her legs in one of the most horrifyingly graphic scenes of the novel: "A little girl lay on the floor, screaming in agony, and some one was pulling off her stockings, and the raw flesh was coming with them" (530). Because the little girl tried through communism to appropriate the wealth of the upper class, she is punished by having not only her stockings but the skin of her bare legs ripped away. She is now without the symbol of either class--she has neither stockings nor "bare, brown legs," both having been taken from her.

Bunny recognizes this desire for material goods in the socialist movement, reproaching those around him for falling victims to the temptations of "imitation finery":

"I think one reason the movement suffers is that we haven't made the new moral standards that we need. Our own members, many of them, are personally weak; the women like to have silk stockings and look like the bourgeoisie, and their idea of freedom is to adopt the bad habits of the men. If the movement really meant enough to Socialists, they wouldn't have to sepnd money for tobacco, and booze, and imitation finery." (511)

Bunny expects his companions to reject what he sees as moral weaknesses, wanting them to instead choose "the movement" over symbols of the bourgeioisie.

Rachel Menzies, however, the woman with whom Bunny ultimately decides to share his life, has no aspirations toward the bourgeioisie: "[she] made no pretense at finery, but came to the university in black cotton stockings and a shirt-waist that did not match her skirt" (266). She rejects the opportunities and restrictions offered by silk stockings, instead choosing cotton stockings and plain clothing. It is this honesty and loyalty to her cause that at last brings her and Bunny together: "As he kissed her, there was mingled in his emotion the memory of how brave she had been, and how loyal, and ho honest; yes, it was worth while making a girl like that happy! To mingle love with those other emotions, that appeared to be safe!" (522) While Bunny is temporarily dazzled by Vee Tracy's brilliance, in the end he chooses Rachel and her cotton stockings.

In Sinclair's final vision of a perfect, class-free world, he writes: "Some day all those unlovely derricks will be gone, and so will the picket fence and the graves. There will be other girls with bare brown legs running over those hills, and they may grow up to be happier women, if men can find some way to chain the black and cruel demon which killed Ruth Watkins and her brother" (548). It is only be rejecting the instant wealth of oil and the silken bonds of stockings that America can move closer to a happier world.

75 Books Every Woman Should Read: The Complete List

So, my all-time favorite website, Jezebel (, posted a list of seventy-five books that every woman should read. You might say it's a list of books that everyone should read, but the website's tagline is "Celebrity, Sex, Fashion for Women. Without Airbrushing," so let's let it slide. It was actually written in response to an article on Esquire called "The 75 Books Every Man Should Read," so it makes sense with the backstory. I don't have too much to say about either list (there are some I like and some I don't like and some I haven't read on both lists), but it's interesting to compare-and-contrast the two.

For the arch-feminist list:

For the man's man list:

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My Dear Friend

So, a friend of mine wrote the following poem for me, and I wanted to share it. If anyone else writes anything that they'd like me to post, I'd be glad to publish it here.

To My Friend the Writer
by Chatty Cathy

Listen my dear friend
Good criticism you give
Don't Apologize.

Reading in a 21st Century World

I stumbled across an article from The Independent by John Walsh entitled, "Books special: Can intelligent literature survive in the digital age?" [1] Walsh explores the ramifications of the interplay between literature and technology, and he includes statements from eight "professionals" in the field.

While I am inclined to agree with many of Walsh's findings, he takes an all-too-biased view of the future of literature. For example, he quotes Nicholas Carr's Atlantic Monthly article "Is Google Making us Stupid?", pointing out that web surfing has taught us to be "power browsers," meaning that the average surfer will skim over websites, never staying at one site for long enough to "settle in." Instead, we require instant information in order for the site to hold our attention. (This is probably bad news for my little blog... I guess I'll never be Julia Allison after all. *Sigh*)

Walsh also quotes Sven Birkerts' 1994 study, "The Gutenberg Elegies: the Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age", which presented, "Brooksmith," a short story by Henry James, to a class of college undergraduates. "Birkerts found that, as watchers of TV and videos, 'they had difficulty slowing down enough to concentrate on prose of any density; they had problems with what they thought of as archaic diction, with allusions, with vocabulary that seemed "pretentious"; they were especially uncomfortable with indirect or interior passages, indeed with any deviations from straight plot; and they were put off by an ironic tone, because it flaunted superiority and made them feel they were missing something.'" Essentially, Birkerts found that it wasn't the length of books which turned students off; it was the entire nature of reading anything more advanced than a comic book. (See right--"Don't boo me, webhead"? I mean, really?)
Many of Walsh's professionals in the field, on the other hand, see the changing demand for reading material as merely another step in the evolution of literature. They seem to enthusaistically support the changing technology (as I would, too, if I were the Digital Publisher at Penguin, as one of the experts is). Walsh himself bemoans this impact of technology on literature, but he doesn't acknowledge the fact that technology has much to offer, as well. For example, he bemoans the 21st-century nano-second attention span, writing,
"In the days of the Enlightenment, when few books were published and people read for amusement in their leisure hours, the speed of thought, as expressed in books, could afford to be slow, proceeding from point to point in Augustanly balanced steps. Victorian prose substituted orotundity for harmony: readers would settle in for long evenings letting Barchester Towers or Our Mutual Friend wash over them. This was the period when, say, William Gladstone could tell friends, with every expectation of empathy, that he had stayed up all night to read The Woman in White."
All of this is more true than false, to be sure, but Walsh conveniently forgets that, according to some studies, the literacy rate in 1841 (four years after Queen Victoria took the throne) was around 57.4%. [2] Yes, William Gladstone might have been able to read all night to soak in the minute details of The Woman in White, but a large proportion of the population couldn't read at all, and of those who could read, many worked such long hours that it was only those who were independently wealthy who could wallow in their reading habits, anyway. In addition, books at that time were expensive to make, and only the wealthy or the emerging middle class could afford them in the first place.

Compare that to today. We now have (in America) a 99% literacy rate, and books can be bought inexpensively or even borrowed from the library. Yes, Americans as a whole don't read, and those who do read inevitably read fluff, but is it really appropriate to point to the Victorian period as a model of intellectual perfection? Hardly.
In addition, there are many positives about changing technology. I will not argue that e-Books encourage reading the classics (because I'll admit that I can't force myself to read anything borderline-difficult on a computer screen of any kind), but it does expand access to the classics. Those who want to read will be able to. The problem isn't the technology; it's the readers--or the lack thereof.
I suppose that I'm on the fence as far as this issue goes. I agree that there are not enough readers in America (or the UK, where The Independent is published), but I'm not sure that there's any age that we can point to and say, "See? Everyone read James Joyce back then. Why can't we be more like them?" Instead, we must simply acknowledge that people are lazy. They aren't going to read if they don't feel like it. Our job, if we choose to accept it, is to try to ensure that Americans see the benefit in reading and choose to take the effort.
Works Cited:

Monday, September 15, 2008

An Alternative to Blogging...

I stumbled across a kind-of-cool website called "100 words," which gives writers a forum to write 100 words a day for a whole month, at the end of which the "batch" of 100-words-for-thirty-days is published. If a member misses even one day, the whole exercise is moot and s/he has to start again. It's what the editors call a "social tasking" website, a place for writers to come together to work and struggleas a group, since misery loves company.

The editor, Jeff Koyen, explains it thusly:
"This is an exercise in disciplined creativity. Writing exactly 100 words at a time -- not a single word more, not a single word less -- isn't as easy as it sounds. The word count may be arbitrary, but the motive is not. To borrow from Proust, the tyranny of rhyme often brings out the poet's best work. By working within a standardized form, the writer can concentrate on other matters."
Kind of a cool idea, right? I don't think that I could do it (I'm both too verbose and too undisciplined), but if someone else joins and pulls it off, let me know what you think of it. Here's the site:

Friday, September 12, 2008

My Penpal, David Catrow

About three months ago, I posted a short piece on the virtues of I Like Myself! by Karen Beaumont and David Catrow. About a week ago, I got a comment from a source who identified himself as Catrow's son (Catrow being the illustrator of the book). He told me I should write to Catrow on his website and I'd probably get a response back, since all emails went directly to the artist. So I followed his advice and here's the correspondence:


"This isn't really a request per sei, but I wanted to let you know that I think your work in I Like Myself! is changing the world for the better. I'm a huge fan of the book and have given copies of it to several children, both because of the positive message it sends and because the illustrations are so fun. (By the way, thank you for making the main character a little girl of color.) So long and God speed. Lindsay."

The Response:

"Thank you for those compliments-I love that book too-one of myfavorites as a matter of fact. as a kid, I always remember looking for"me" when I read. I hope everyone who reads me can eventually findthemselves in the pictures. best wishes and thank you. Sincerely, David C."

While I didn't get an autographed copy of the book (probably because I didn't ask for one), I can now semi-honestly claim that I'm penpals with one of the top children's illustrators in the industry. This got me to thinking... who else can I add to this list? Wouldn't it be awesome to have a pile of letters (or printed emails) of authors with whom I've made contact? Well, I think it would be. Unfortunately for me (and my fantasy penpal relationships), most of the authors I read are long dead. For example, I just finished a book by C.S. Lewis and I'm currently reading Upton Sinclair. Something tells me those two gentlemen would be exceedingly hard to get a hold of. Anyway, my new self-assigned project is to (a) read a book that was written by someone who is still alive, and (b) write an email that is so stirring (either through intellectual genius or unabashed ass-kissing) that the recipients or the recipients' secretaries just have to respond. Any suggestions for authors?

Read and Boast III: Books You Shouldn't Bother To Boast About

For my final installment in the recommended reading lists, if someone should be currently preparing for a trip that will involve multiple layovers in multiple airports, attempting to break an addiction to television, or wanting to read something that is just generally entertaining, I've compiled a list of books I've read in the past that are good escapist reading. Generally, they're quick reads and don't require too much critical thinking, but they also stimulate the imagination, something TV and movies don't do. These are the books I'll pick up on a rainy Sunday afternoon when I just want to curl up with a cup of tea and relax. (The list is obviously skewed towards "women's fiction", but so what? I'm a woman, deal with it.) And so, without further ado, the lists:

Adams, Douglas. Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Yes, I agree that the movie was sub-par, and the BBC version was okay but hokey. This is the kind of book that is just fun to read, even if you aren't a particular fan of the science fiction genre, and it is very British in its sense of humor. (If you don't know what I mean, try watching the following shows to see if you get an idea: Monty Python's Flying Circus, Red Dwarf, and Spaced. Of course, you could just read it to get an idea.)

I also stumbled across an audio recording of the Hitchhiker's series done by Adams himself and he does an excellent job of reading his own work, which is good for long drives.

Austen, Jane. Persuasion.

I know that my placement of Jane Austen in the "fun" and not in the sort-of "literary" list will have some Austenphiles up in arms, but these are books that are made to be read casually. I've done close readings and even wrote a paper on the proto-feminist themes in Persuasion, but the books are much more enjoyable if you just relax with them.

And, yes, I know men hate them and are questioning why they would ever be on the "fun" list.
Again, here's the link to the book on google books:

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. Any of the Sherlock Holmes Series.
Some people will probably wonder whether a book written over a hundred years ago can even qualify as "fun," but what I enjoy most about Doyle's works is that the short, episodic nature of the stories requires very little of a time commitment. Plus, Holmes is such an interesting character that the stories have richness and depth. The only thing that is frustrating (and only if you particularly care) is that Dr. Watson is so dense that there is no possible way for the reader to solve the mysteries before Holmes has his big reveal.

Anyone who is a fan of the show House might like this series (since House is based on Holmes (Holmes=homes=houses=House)). I've also read a series by Laurie R. King that has a female main character who helps Holmes with his cases.

This book was extremely interesting, because it explores the most interesting (or at least the most scandalous) of the Eurpoean royalty stories. As an English major, it helped solidify both the orders of the monarchs as well as some of their more interesting traits. (It's always easier to understand literature if you have an idea of what was going politically at the time.)

It was a far easier way to get a dose of history without having to wade through a boring text book, believe you me.

McCafferey, Ann. The Harper Hall of Pern series.

This was my favorite fantasy series growing up, partly because it has a female main character and partly because music (one of my passions, for those of you who don't know) is so central to the plot. If you don't like fantasy, you won't like this, but if you don't dislike fantasy, you might.

Quick, Amanda. Wicked Widow.

Yes, I know, but what I like about Amanda Quick's work is that it takes place in the Victorian period (like Jane Austen's) but has actual action (unlike Austen's). Generally, the main character is an "old maid" with some unfashionably "unfeminine" profession or something like that, some mystery comes up, and she meets a tall-dark-handsome-stoic-etc gentleman.

It's my guilty pleasure. Hey, it's better than cocaine. Marginally.

Roberts, Nora. Homeport.

My mom teases me mercilessly for liking Nora Roberts--apparently if I studied Milton and Chaucer, I can't enjoy a little romantic suspense. (Or maybe I'm such a snob that she's surprised I'll admit to liking Nora Roberts. That's always possible, too, I guess). Roberts is one of the few bestselling "women's authors" I enjoy besides Amanda Quick (I can't stand many of the others like Janet Dailey (blech) or Danielle Steele (double blech)). The reason I like Nora Roberts in general, however, and this book in particular is that Roberts is very good at (a) making her characters believable, and (b) making the settings incredibly interesting.

Homeport is good (in my opinion) because it focuses on art and art history--the main character is a scientist who dates bronzes and Renaissance art is almost another character in the book. So even though you're reading a fluffy romantic suspense (gasp! A bronze has been stolen and there's murder!), you're also getting a taste for a field you might know nothing about.

It's my other guilty pleasure. I feel so much better having come clean about it. Admitting you have a problem is the first step toward recovery, right?

Wodehouse, P.G. Any of the Jeeves and Wooster books.

Like Sherlock Holmes, the Jeeves and Wooster series was originally written as a recurring series, so it has short, fun and easy-to-read stories bundled together in collections. The narrator, Bertie Wooster, is a 1920s dandy and is hilarious, both in his utter obliviousness and his rhetoric. (My favorite line so far in any of the stories is "Bally pirates!"... guess you had to be there.)

Anyway, I enjoy both reading these stories and listening to them in audio form, and they were one of the only things that got me through my cross-country drive by myself when I moved from California to Colorado. Try this series if you like things that are British or if you like things that are funny. There's a very funny BBC screen adaptation of the series from the late-80s featuring Hugh Laurie (recently of House fame) and Stephen Fry (probably most notable recently in V for Vendetta).

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Would the Real Cinderella Please Stand Up?

I've already introduced the idea of fairy tales serving as morally-enriching stories that serve to teach children the difference between good and bad. It is almost impossible for kids today to grow up without learning fairy tales, whether that is from a book their parents read to them just before bed or if it from Disney Animated Classics. It is interesting, therefore, to look at the history of a specific fairy tale and see how its meaning and message has changed over time--after all, we are teaching our children these stories (and what is good or bad) often without any thought as to what it means for them as creatures of morality.

It can be argued that the most popular fairy tale is (by far) Cinderella. Check out the Google trends ( for fairy tales (pale blue is Cinderlla, red is Jack and the Beanstalk, yellow is Rapunzel, green is Snow White, and dark blue is Sleeping Beauty). It's easy to tell that Google searches for Cinderella far out-number searches for other fairy tales. I believe part of this fascination stems from its rags-to-riches theme, the idea that anyone can become anything (which is appealing to nearly everyone). This story has been subtly changed over time, however, with its final message today differing quite a bit from its message of years past.

The earliest recorded version of Cinderella comes to us from ninth-century-China, written down by Tuan Ch'eng-shih. Instead of the nearly-cliche fairy godmother figure, however, Tuan Ch'eng-shih's version employs a magical fish. Yeh-shen, our plucky heroine, uses her wits throughout the story and clearly revels in her cleverness; much like our modern-day Cinderella, she is identified at the end of the story by her tiny golden shoes (which makes sense in a culture that values small feet to the point of binding them). [2] It is important to note, however, that Yen-shen is no shrinking violet; she is tough, brave, and clever, and is decribed as being "'good at making pottery on the wheel." [4] The story emphasizes the importance of thinking for oneself and taking action on those thoughts.

The story of Cinderella didn't make its debut in Europe until the 17th Century when Italian Giambattista Basile's "La Gatta Cenerentola" ("Cat Cinderella") was published in Naples in 1634. In this version, the heroine complains of her evil step-mother to her governess, who tells the girl, "When your father leaves the house, tell your step–mother you would like one of the ragged old dresses she keeps in the big chest. She'll open the chest and say, 'Hold the lid.' While she is rummaging around inside, you must let the lid fall suddenly so that it breaks her neck. When she is dead, beg your father to take me for his wife, and then we shall both be happy." [4] When Zezolla, our Cinderella figure, has done this, the governess reveals that she has six daughters of her own and treats the girl even worse than the first stepmother did. The story continues in a fairly-familiar vein, but it was written with in a very adult tone, with double entendres that made it both popular and inappropriate for children, but it should be noted that Zezolla is, again, incredibly clever.

A different version of story would be later collected by the Brothers Grimm, who recorded it in their1812 publication of 86 fairy tales, Kinder- und Hausmärchen (Children's and Household Tales). [1] This version, known as "Aschenputtel" ("Ash Girl"), while a children's story, shows no hint of either a pumpkin carriage or a fairy godmother: "The heroine plants a tree on her mother's grave from which all of the magical help appears in the form of a white dove and gifts. At the end, the stepsisters' eyes are pecked by birds from the tree to punish them for their cruelty." [3] It is the heroine's strength of heart and faith that are rewarded in this version of the story.

The version that is most like what most modern-day readers are familiar with originated with Charles Perrault's 1697 story Contes de ma Mere L'Oye. This is where the tropes of the fairy godmother, the pumpkin carriage, the glass slippers, and the animal servants came from. [2] It is important to note, however, that Perrault's aim was to teach girls how to become ladies by emphasizing the "morals" of beauty and grace, and his Cinderella was neither clever nor brave but instead waited to be rescued from her horrible fate.

Unfortunately, it was this Cinderella that set the precedent for the character American children grow up with. In yet another argument for Walt Disney being Satan's representative on earth, Jane Yolen argues that it was Disney's Golden Press Book that

"set the new pattern for America's Cinderella. The book's text is coy and condescending. (Sample: 'And her best friends of all were — guess who — the mice!')The illustrations are poor cartoons. And Cinderella herself is a disaster. She cowers as her sisters rip her homemade ballgown to shreds. Not even homemade by Cinderella, but by the mice and birds.) She answers her stepmother with whines and pleadings. She is a sorry excuse for a heroine, pitiable and useless. She cannot perform even a simple action to save herself, though she is warned by her friends, the mice. She does not hear them because she is 'off in a world of dreams.' Cinderella begs, she whimpers, and at last has to be rescued by — guess who — the mice!" [4]
Cinderella does not earn her rags-to-riches story, she is just pretty enough to receive it. The story essentially teaches young girls that if they are pretty and quiet, a man will come by sooner or later to give their horrible lives meaning. It is clear to even the most casual observer that the story's original message of resourcefulness rewarded has been subverted and perverted to encourage helplessness and whining in an ultimately anti-feminist figure. Is this what we want to teach our daughters? I mean, really?

Works Cited:

[1] Ashlimann, D.L. "Grimm Brothers' Home Page." Accessed at 8 September 2008.

[2] "Charles Perrault." Accessed 5 September, 2008.

[3] Heiner, Heidi Anne. "History of Cinderella." SurLaLune Fairy Tales. Accessed 5 September, 2008.

[4] Wildling, Terri. "Cinderella: Ashes, Blood, and the Slipper of Glass." Accessed 5 September, 2008.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Political Rhetoric

I had a discussion with a woman this weekend who said that she enjoyed Senator Obama's nomination acceptance speech last week at the DNC because he was speaking "to" the people, not "at" the people. Apparently, she feels that Obama's vocabulary is too high-falutin' for most Americans, and this was the first time she felt in tune with what he was saying.

Now, I realize that I'm better-read than the average American, and I also realize that I take advantage of the breadth of the English language more than the average American. Even if that were not the case, however, the idea of a politician deliberately "dumbing down" his or her language so that the lowest common denominator can understand it makes me uncomfortable. Should we ennable ignorance, or should we encourage the lowest to rise? If we refuse to use only single-syllable words, can we expect the average American to use context and the dictionary to understand words they wouldn't otherwise?

Think about this--the most famous of all American speeches is undoubtedly the Gettysburg Address, delivered by Abraham Lincoln on November 19, 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The language of the Address is beautiful and sweeping, monumental in its elegance. Lincoln wasn't speaking down to anyone, and the speech has survived the test of time:

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

"Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

"But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Martin Luther King, Jr. also used lofty language, his taking a decidedly more Biblical feel, and his "I Have a Dream Speech" has also remained in the public mind for decades after his death. For example, read this and tell me if you think it's pretentious in its refusal to use only single-syllable words:

"But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

"We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone."

Finally, every American has heard at least part of JFK's "Ask not what your country can do for you" speech:

"We dare not tempt them with weakness. For only when our arms are sufficient beyond doubt can we be certain beyond doubt that they will never be employed.

"But neither can two great and powerful groups of nations take comfort from our present course - both sides overburdened by the cost of modern weapons, both rightly alarmed by the steady spread of the deadly atom, yet both racing to alter that uncertain balance of terror that stays the hand of mankind's final war.
"So let us begin anew--remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof. Let us never negotiate out of fear. But let us never fear to negotiate."
Over the course of the last 18 months, Obama has been compared to Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and JFK. So I guess my question is, is it better for him to speak down to the American people, or to speak at the top of their heads as they're looking down on themselves? Can complex issues such as policy and foreign affairs be boiled down to "you're either with us or against us" as it has been for the last eight years?* Or is it reasonable to expect Americans to raise their own standards for themselves, take some responsibility for their own ignorance, and try to understand ideas and language that are not and cannot be inherently simple?

*I am not arguing that "high-falutin'" language is always appropriate, nor am I arguing that it can take the place of real policy. Hitler was one of the most dynamic speakers in Europe, but he was also a fascist--not really a good combination. "Yes We Can" is a battle cry, not an economic policy, and the Will.I.Am video that was circulating could be contrued as propaganda, as it doesn't say much, though it does use beautiful, sweeping, poetic language. Don't know what I'm talking about? Here it is: It takes both policy and language to make a difference.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Of, From, and About Literature: Literary Music

Many people might initially resist the idea of an entire genre of music called "literary music," but I've recently decided that the descriptor is entirely appropriate though a bit tricky to define. One definition of literary music might be music that draws directly from literature. Perhaps the first example of this type of literary music that I came across was Loreena McKennitt's "The Highwayman," which is an abridged version of Tennyson's poem of the same name put to music. There are any number of songs inspired by literature, creativity spawning creativity in a circle of inspiration. Broadway musicals do this all the time, and many of my favorite musicals were originally novels (Les Miserables, Jekyll and Hyde, The Scarlet Pimpernel) as well as some of my least favorite ones (Dracula, Jane Eyre).

A second type of literary music would be music that is about literature, rather than from it, if that makes sense to anyone. ("Paperback Writer" by the Beatles, anyone?) This would include songs that are about authors, the writing process, etc. In my experience, music of this type is using writing as a metaphor for life in general.

The final type of literary music is, in my opinion, less pervasive as well as more difficult to define. This would be music that is neither from literature nor about it, but of it. This would be music that is distinctly "literary" in its approach to story telling and rhyme schemes, that has a higher level of vocabulary, that reads like a poem when it's not put to music. Suffice it to say, it may be difficult to identify if a song fits in this category, but it isn't as hard to tell if a song doesn't belong. If a song rhymes "you," "too," "do," and "you," it probably doesn't qualify. ("It's tearin' up my heart when I'm with you, / But when we are apart, I feel it too, / And no matter what I do / I feel the pain... with or without you" is not exactly literary.)

My favorite example of this kind of music is by The Decemberists, a folk-rock band from Portland, Oregon. The songwriter for this band, Colin Meloy, was an English major, and his songs are about under-dog characters (chimney sweeps, pirates, and failed athletes) and tell a real story. Meloy employs complex rhymes and meter so the songs, even if you are just reading the lyrics, scan like poems. For example, here's one of the verses from the song "We Goth Go Down Together": "Meet me on my vast veranda / My sweet, untouched Miranda / And while the seagulls are crying / We fall but our souls are flying." If I could write music, I would want it to be like this. As it is, The Decemberists are one of my favorite bands to play on my guitar. You should listen to them if you don't already. (Here's their website:

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