Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Educating Humanists

Okay, guys, you have to read this article from The New York Times, "In Tough Times, the Humanities Must Justify Their Worth." It highlights a tension I detected early on throughout my education, though it articulates the problem much more clearly than I ever could.

I remember going through my high school years almost painfully aware that I was one of the few students at all interested in the humanities. My classes were full of Honors English students, but they were generally there purely to get college credits for their resumes when they applied to the Engineering programs at their top nine schools. Often, I was the only person who did any of the readings and discussions came down to what I thought and what the teacher thought.

While this might not appear to be a bad thing upon first glance, there was always the accompanying implication that to be "smart," a student had to excel at the sciences. If I were to pull up a list of the "Most Likely to Succeed" students throughout my high school career, they would all inevitably be students with a strong inclination towards Calculus and Physics, not philosophy or literature. In fact, there were no philosophy classes at my high school, and those of us who would have liked to take more AP humanities courses were just SOL.

When I reached the upper division lit courses at UCLA, my professors praised us for choosing a life "of ideas" over a life "of material wealth." It was understood that one could not be "successful" in today's culture with a humanities degree--unless one pursued an academic career. All of my classes, therefore, were taught in a way that was not meant to enlighten. Instead, we were prepared to take the GRE. While I learned many interesting things in school, I also learned many not-so-interesting things that I would be required to know to get into grad school.

(In addition, so much of what makes the humanities interesting has been lost as literary criticism has surpassed literature in grad school. In an attempt to rival the cut-and-dry, formulaic approach of what is "respectable" (i.e. math and science), literature has been quanitified into schools of thought, branches of criticism--not expanded with the exploration of more ideas. It is for this reason that I doubt I will ever pursue a Masters or Ph.D. in the field.)

Beyond the pressures present in the field, however, is the rapidly shrinking width of the field, as Patricia Cohen explores in the article link above:

"During the second half of the 20th century, as more and more Americans went on to college, a smaller and smaller percentage of those students devoted themselves to the humanities. The humanities’ share of college degrees is less than half of what it was during the heyday in the mid- to late ’60s, according to the Humanities Indicators Prototype, a new database recently released by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Currently they account for about 8 percent (about 110,000 students), a figure that has remained pretty stable for more than a decade. The low point for humanities degrees occurred during the bitter recession of the early 1980s."
Cohen ultimately concludes that, "The essence of a humanities education — reading the great literary and philosophical works and coming 'to grips with the question of what living is for' — may become 'a great luxury that many cannot afford.'" On the one hand, this is almost to be expected--as the middle classes disappear and the cost of living skyrockets, students must choose practicality over passions.
For example, of all my friends in high school, there was one whom I was absolutely convinced should have been a proefessional musician. He had instincts that the rest of us lacked, practiced for the joy of it, experimented when it would have been easier to stick the beaten trail, and he was good. I had another friend whom I felt should have gone into philosophy--he took ideas and arguments down to their bare bones and constructed them from there, he read voraciously, and he enjoyed debating points that others probably felt were irrelevant. Both of my friends went into engineering programs and would not consider any other way.

I, on the other hand, stuck to my idealistic guns and studied my passion. I took advantage of the inexpensive classes available at my community college and took 22-25 units a semester, when full time was classified as around 12 units. I took astronomy, music, history, philosophy, film history, sociology, psychology, and many science field courses. I did the best I could to make myself a Renaissance thinker.

I now work as a Receptionist.

That really isn't the point, however. We need people who are classically trained in how to think. For all of our scientific advancement (due to an emphasis on the sciences), we have yet to progress at all from a humanist or ethical standpoint. In today's world, there is no questioning of whether or not we should do something just because we can. These issues are boundless: stem cell research, cloning, in vitro fertilization, gene therapy, and so much more. Currently, the only people who object to these kinds of procedures do so from a conservative religious point of view, who claim they are against God' plan and that humans are trying to somehow subvert God's role in the universe.

What we need, however, are people who look at how these procedures affect us, all of us--people and animals and plants and the future of all of us. We can't expect scientists to do this. They are taught from day one to press the boundaries of the possible, to see if something can be done. The more we exclude the humanities from education, the less likely we are to progress from a moral standpoint.

In the words of Abraham Simpson, "I'm afraid of the future."

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Not-So-Gentle (Re)Viewer: Hamlet 2 (2008)

In my defense, when I originally decided to see Hamlet 2, I did not know that it is "from the co-writer of South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and Team America: World Police." Had I known that, I might not have chosen to see this movie.

All I can do now is try to make the world right again by persuading everyone I know to never watch this movie. It's what I would describe as: awful. Tedious. Mildly amusing in places, but not enough to make up for the sheer awfulness of the rest of the film.

The background of the story is about a high school teacher who decides to write a play called Hamlet 2 to save his drama program. I was curious as to how they would deal with the themes and characters of the original Hamlet, little suspecting that they would never even be addressed. Little is preserved from Hamlet other than character names; the premise of the play is that Hamlet finds a time machine and manages to go back in time to prevent all of the deaths in Elsinore. Next thing the audience knows, Jesus is running around to the theme song, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus." Though this is apparently supposed to criticize modern-day celebrity culture, it is impossible to forget that this was done ten years ago with much more flare (please see picture at right).

Anyway, don't waste your time or your money. You have been warned.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Disappearing Poetry

The New York Times had an interesting article yesterday entitled "The Great(ness) of Poetry" by David Orr. In it, Orr explores the modern definition of the word "great" when applied to poetry. He writes that "great" does not mean the same thing as "perfect," "superior," or even "sublime," and points out that, though the word "great" has a special significance in the world of poetry, it is difficult to pinpoint what, exactly, it means:

"What, then, do we assume greatness looks like? There is no one true answer to that question, no neat test or rule, since our unconscious assumptions are by nature unsystematic and occasionally contradictory. Generally speaking, though,
the style we have in mind tends to be grand, sober, sweeping — unapologetically authoritative and often overtly rhetorical."

He also argues that a poet must "look" great, meaning he or she must live a grand, exciting life that seems to make his or her poetry that much more important. Those who are exceptional poets but lack this je ne sais quoi are labeled "great with an asterisk," as though their lifestyle choices lessen the impact of their poetry to a certain degree.

Orr also points out the changing structure of the poetry world throughout the 20th century, its adoption by the middle class and subsequent lessening of "looking" great:
"Greatness isn’t simply a matter of potentially confusing concepts; it’s also a practical question about who gets to decide what about whom. Our assumptions about poetic greatness are therefore linked to the reputation-making structures of the poetry world — and changes in those structures can have peculiar effects on our thinking. For most of the 20th century, the poetry world resembled a country club. One had to know the right people; one had to study with the right mentors. The system began to change after the G.I. Bill was introduced (making a university-level poetic education possible for more people), and that change accelerated in the 1970s, as creative writing programs began to flourish. In 1975, there were 80 such programs; by 1992, there were more than 500, and the accumulated weight of all these credentialed poets began to put increasing pressure on poetry’s old system of personal relationships and behind-the-scenes logrolling. It would be a mistake to call today’s poetry world a transparent democracy (that whirring you hear is the sound of logs still busily being rolled), but it’s more democratic than it used to be — and far more middle class. It’s more of a guild now than a country club."
While I can't say definitively if the G.I. Bill really did make poetry more readily accessible to the middle classes, I can say this: I do not read contemporary poetry. I did not read contemporary poetry while at university. I only know of one person who appreciates contemporary poetry, and his preferences tend toward performance arts that seem more like jam sessions than poetry readings.

Does this mean I'm a philistine and all those I associate with are peasants? Possibly. But it is also noteworthy, I believe, that many of those I associate with, though they don't read contemporary poetry, write poetry--in some cases books and books of it. In my world, poetry has become about self-expression, not "greatness," not even about culture. With that in mind, it is easy to see why the "Great(ness) of Poetry" is diminishing; it is exploring the little day-to-day hurts in Everyman's life, not the grand mysteries of the universe. Rather than lamenting this fact, perhaps we should accept the fact that the motivation behind poetry has changed, is different than it once was, and therefore no longer needs to be "great."

Friday, February 20, 2009

Exit, Pursued By a Bear

"To philosophize is to learn how to die." -Cicero

The New York Times has had several articles recently about death and philosophy and the relationship between the two inspired, it seems, by a recently-published book by Simon Critchley, Book of Dead Philosophers. In it, Critchley explores the life-and-death stories of 150 philosophers, comparing how they lived their lives with the manners in which they died.

His goal ostensibly is to discover how philosophers "learn how to die," in Cicero's words. In an essay published on the 12th, "Death: Bad?", Jim Holt explores some of the views that argue that there is no reason to be afraid of death:

"There are three classic arguments, all derived from Epicurus and his follower Lucretius, that it is irrational to fear death. If death is annihilation, the first one goes, then there are no nasty post-death experiences to worry about. As Epicurus put it, where death is, I am not; where I am, death is not. The second says it does not matter whether you die young or old, for in either case you’ll be dead for an eternity. The third points out that your nonexistence after your death is merely the mirror image of your nonexistence before your birth. Why should you be any more disturbed by the one than by the other?"

Unlike Critchely, however, Holt takes a critical look at each of these arguments, finding each one of them to be weak at best:

"These arguments are invoked in Critchley’s book, but their logic goes unexamined. Unfortunately, all three are pretty lousy. The American philosopher Thomas Nagel, in his 1970 essay 'Death,' showed what was wrong with the first. Just because you don’t experience something as nasty, or indeed experience it at all, doesn’t mean it’s not bad for you. Suppose, Nagel says, an intelligent person has a brain injury that reduces him to the mental condition of a contented baby. Certainly this would be a grave misfortune for the person. Then is not the same true for death, where the loss is still more severe?

"The second argument is just as poor. It implies that John Keats’s demise at 25 was no more unfortunate than Tolstoy’s at 82, since both will be dead for an eternity anyway. The odd thing about this argument, as the (dead) English philosopher Bernard Williams noticed, is that it contradicts the first one. True, the amount of time you’re around to enjoy the goods of life doesn’t mathematically reduce the eternity of your death. But the amount of time you’re dead matters only if there’s something undesirable about being dead.

"The third argument, that your posthumous nonexistence is no more to be feared than your prenatal nonexistence, also fails. As Nagel observed, there is an important asymmetry between the two abysses that temporally flank your life. The time after you die is time of which your death deprives you. You might have lived longer. But you could not possibly have existed in the time before your birth. Had you been conceived earlier than you actually were, you would have had a different genetic identity. In other words, you would not be you."

Therefore, while the idea of finding a point of view that will allow us to be "philosophical" in the face death is certainly appealing, it is not necessarily all that practical. In addition, I do not link that a healthy fear of death is necessarily a bad thing as long as one doesn't stay indoors obsessing about it all day. Instead, I think a healthy fear of death makes one appreciate life, to the point that one will take full advantage of living as well as not taking any foolish risks. While constantly being afraid is a bad thing, I do not think fear in itself is negative in this case.

If you're interested, here's a link to the first chapter of Crickley's book, The Book of Dead Philosophers.


Let me just add one other thing about how Critchley envisions his own death: "Exit, purued by bear." That is just the sort of academic inside-joke that makes me want to grit my teeth because I feel Critchley is misusing the reference. (For those of you who don't know, Exit, pursued by a bear is the most famous Shakespearian stage direction. It appears in Winter's Tale and is the perfect example of deus ex machina, which is, "The god from the machine' used to refer to the appearance of gods by means of the mechane in tragedy. Also employed in a pejorative sense in modern literary criticism to refer to an improbable character or turn of events introduced by an author to resolve a difficult situation." Basically, Shakespeare threw a bear up on stage to kill of a character with whom he was finished.) Are you really telling me that Critchley wants the great Playwright in the Sky to get tired of his time on stage and kill him off with something that is both improbably and unpleasant?

100 Posts!

Well, folks, I've officially reached 100 posts. Looking back at the last eleven months, I'm amazed at how much I--and this blog--have changed. When I first started blogging, it was a way of projecting my thoughts onto the Internet, of making a difference in the world, no matter how small that difference might be.

Now, however, I find myself exploring scouring the Internet for interesting things to think about and write about. I'm reaching out of myself, now, rather than trying to draw others in to my own personal space (though I do occasionally have my moments).

Still, this seems like an appropriate time to look back at my last 100 posts and reflect on what I think my best moments were, whether or not they were particularly brilliant, mildly amusing, or just fun to write. I'll ignore the worst moments because this is my blog, damnit, and I'll write about what I want to write about.

Lindsay-with-an-A's Top Ten Posts (so far):

I really enjoyed reading this book and was incredibly proud of myself for picking up on the stocking / bare leg imagery throughout the novel. It was subtle enough that at first I wondered if I was just projecting my own hatred of panty hose onto the book, but upon closer inspection (and a second reading), it coalesced in my mind. Sinclar's a genius.

2) Little Did He Know: Dramatic Irony in Stranger Than Fiction

This was fun to write, if only so I could tell people that I was writing a book report about a movie.

3) Rowling Determined to Wring Every Red Cent from Harry Potter...

Never let it be said that my distaste for Rowling's business dealings is discreet, subtle, or understated.

4) Laughter and Community in James Agee's A Death in the Family

See above description for #1, but replace: "stocking / bare leg" with "laughter"; "panty hose" with "groupthink"; and "Sinclair" with "Agee."

This was the first time I really decided that I didn't care what the literary community thought about literary fiction vs. genre fiction. I'm passably educated, somewhat intelligent, and entitled to my own opinion. Towanda!

6) Would the Real Cinderella Please Stand Up?

I would say this is just interesting. You might think I'm wrong, but please see #5 to determine if I care.

7) Can You Honestly Say You're Surprised?

Ernest Hemingway's mom used to dress him up like a girl. Enough said.

8) The Greatest Mark Twain Disappointment of My Life

This post was short, sweet, and to the point. It was also written to serve as a warning to those who try to do preliminary research before hiking up Jackass Hill, as most of the information available on-line is vague to the point of being misleadingly useless.

9) A Victorian in Vegas

The French Lieutenant's Woman tied in almost perfectly with many events that took place in my life at the time of reading it, and it was fun exploring one aspect in which it made me reflect so carefully on the world around me.

By the by, Chatty Cathy was lounging beside me by the pool when the sorority girls were irritating me so thoroughly, and she said the expression on my face was priceless. You'll probably be able to guess what it was like when you read this post.

10) The Best $40 You'll Ever Spend

Mmm... Keats.

The True Confessions of Lindsay-with-an-A

"O all you host of heaven! O earth! what else?
And shall I couple hell? O, fie! Hold, hold, my heart;
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up." --Hamlet, I.v

Just after sunset in the early evening of February 19, 2009, I found myself flipping through the well-worn pages of a paperback
Hamlet, the words resonating intimately in my mind. Though it had been years since I had read of the Danish prince, I was still familiar enough with the words that when I chose to read them out loud I didn't stumble over the archaic language. It was this man's writing that I had studied for years, had lived and breathed as I toiled at university. It was he who had long impressed me with a mixture of bawd and poetry, of slapstick and philosophy--he who had awed and amazed and inspired me.

In a flutter of anticipation I flipped the pages to the first scene in which Hamlet meets the Ghost, threw my arms around the text (my sweet companion for the evening), and disappeared into the foggy night. Then I rushed after young Hamlet, who had already begun to follow his father's spirit. A worried-looking Horatio, breathing heavily from his brief struggle with the prince, waited behind us.

Our little parade reached the other side of the platform in good order. There I became instantly agog at the teeming mass of tension that lay before me, psychology and philosophy and theology thick as the bristles on a brush. Everywhere I looked I saw mountains of ideas piled high. Oh yes, the smell of the page was intoxicating to one who sat for so long before a computer screen at work, wrestling with practical matters that required so little thought. All in all it was a most delicious setting. Indeed in some vague way I had the feeling that it had always been there for me...

As I read, however, I became aware of a niggling feeling of discontent, of some unhappiness brought to me along with the pleasure of the pages before me. Something was wrong, though I was not sure what it was. I did not realize what it was until I reached perhaps my favorite line of the scene, in which Hamlet turns to Horatio and sneers, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy." The young prince had drawn a line in the sand, a line between imagination and reason, between possibilities and the cold existence of a life without faith or hope. Always before I had known on which side of the line I stood.

On that evening in February, however, I realized I no longer did. Though I had taken so much delight from the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare for so long, it had been almost two years since I had cracked the binding on a single of book of his work. I was beginning to lose my ability to think critically, to write creatively, to explore new ideas with comfort. Worst of all, I was beginning to recognize all the signs of selling out that I would have once rejected so completely.
I had always promised myself that if I ever went back to school it would be for something that interested me--psychology or philosophy or theology--but I was now considering studying something practical and useful, business management or something of the like. It would help with my career, you see, and I was already paying off one liberal arts degree that would do little for me professionally. And while I had always revelled in reading books I either enjoyed at an escapist level or at an intellectual level, I was now considering reading books that would appeal to neither. They would help me with my career, you see, and what could it hurt to read The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People?

So when I reached my favorite line of Act I, Scene 4, I felt Hamlet's accusation to the depth of my soul. It didn't matter that Horatio would be the only character to survive the bloodbath in Denmark--perhaps due to his practicality? It didn't matter that I had always viewed Hamlet as melodramatic and prone to exaggeration. What mattered was that he had unknowingly highlighted in me the weakening of my resolve, the slow and steady selling out that marked the past year of my life. I had to put the book aside, unable to read any further, marvelling again at the genius of Bill Shakespeare, though the admiration was now tinged with resentment.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Not-So-Gentle (Re)Viewer: Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1992)

(Welcome to my first installment of "Not-So-Gentle Viewer," in which I review film adaptations of literature. I'm hoping this will morph into a semi-regular feature (a la "My Penpal"), and if any of you have film adaptations you particularly enjoy or want to talk about, let me know and we'll figure something out. Thanks! -- Lindsay-With-an-A)

Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights
is an adaptation that stays incredibly true to the original tale of the obsessive love between Heathcliff and Catherine. Anne Devlin's screenplay is almost word-for-word in many respects, straying very little from the tone and nature of the novel, and Ralph Fiennes (Heathcliff) and Janet McTear (Ellen Dean) handle the often-dramatic language with skill and feeling. Director Peter Kosminksy takes full advantage of the sweeping Moors of Yorkshire to add a drama and depth to the actors' performances that is missing from many of the interior scenes.

Perhaps the only weakness in the film comes from the possibly-miscast Binoche, who is not able to mask her Gallic roots throughout the movie, instead gallavanting about the English countryside with a slight French accent. In addition, while she bears up well beneath the emotionally heavy scenes, she does not quite pull off the carefree, spirited nature of Catherine in the lighter scenes, coming off as slightly ditzy rather than wild.

Fienne's performance, however, more than makes up for Binoche's inadequacies, and it worth watching the movie to see his performance alone. I would rate this film a B+.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Romance Novels: The Cure for Recession Depression?

I found a semi-interesting article in The Independent, "Romantic fiction: We're all heroine addicts now..." that argues--among other points--that romance novel sales have risen due to the nose-diving economy. It traces Mills & Boon, which seems to be to the UK what Harlequin is to the US. Probably the most interesting part of the article:

"It's not the first time that an interest in escapist romantic fiction has coincided with depressing times – even more fundamentally depressing than the annual arrival of Valentine's Day, that is. Mills & Boon was a general publisher, specialising in sports and crafts, when it launched in 1908. It started to focus on romance when it became clear that the public needed a lift during the Depression of the 1930s. During the Second World War, when paper was rationed, it received a rare pardon; the Publishers Association intervened and the Ministry of Supplies made an exception for Mills & Boon, so important was it to maintain the morale of women who were working for the war effort. "

I hesitate to be the one to point this out, but you know what's even cheaper than $2 romance novels? The library. Coincidentally, I've now decided that I've proven myself responsible enough to go to the library, so guess who hit the BBC DVDs this weekend? That'd be me!

Review: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

There seems to me be only two schools of thought possible regarding Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights--it is either a work of genius rivaling the canon of Shakespeare or it is just plain bad. I happen to believe it is the worst book I've read in a long time, made only worse by the fact that an entire group of people think that it's brilliant.

According to the very superficial web search I conducted, much of the praise heaped on Wuthering Heights is given to Bronte's characterization of Heathcliff, a villain purported to rival Iago in spite and malice. (This comparison seems misplaced, however, as Iago had very little motivation to be an asshole and Heathcliff has the power of a broken heart fueling his rampages across the moors.) In fact, I have no problem with the character of Heathcliff--he is consistent in his behavior and poses no real problems to the reader. He's a cruel man and so behaves in a cruel manner.

No, my problem with Wuthering Heights is with one of the female leads--Catherine Earnshaw/Linton. Though she professes love for Heathcliff, she marries another man, is surprised when Heathcliff leaves town for three years as a result, goes crazy when he comes home again, dies, and then proceeds to haunt him. She's erratic and unstable, as inconsistent as Heathcliff is consistent. The problem comes in because she serves as one of the anchors of the story--for being absent for much of the novel, she plays a very important role in determining how the other characters behave even after her death.

This shifting anchor, in my opinion, weakens the novel's stability as a work of fiction. Furthermore, the story is funnelled through two very unstable narrators (Mr. Lockwood, a pompous London gentleman with little common sense) and Nellie Dean (a woman who seems to know what is right but is unable to stand by her convictions), which made the book a chore to read and a relief to finish.
In the words of George Barnet Smith in 1873, Wuthering Heights is "perhaps one of the most unpleasant novels ever written." The only good thing I can say about having read it is now I don't have to ever again.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Something Old, Nothing New

"There is nothing new except what has been forgotten." --Marie Antoinette

Does anyone else occasionally get depressed by this idea, or is it just me?

Even if one could create something really creative that really says something, chances are it wouldn't get published in a world where the author of Eat, Pray, Love is considered a genius, if only by herself. There are intellectual, academic, and publishing trends to consider, as well, and anything that falls outside of what is currently considered fashionable is just SOL.


(Ignore me, I'm recovering from a strange one-day virus that may be wreaking havoc with my usually-healthy supply of hope and faith in the goodwill of men, which is probably what's making me channel the emo. I should be fully recovered soon.)

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Death of Genius

I recently stumbled across an interesting article that some of you might want to glance at: TED: Eat, Pray, Love Author on How We Kill Geniuses. It explores Elizabeth Gilbert's views of "genius" and the humanist emphasis on the artist with which we currently view said genius. (Disclaimer: let me state here for the record that I have never read Eat, Pray, Love and do not intend to as it does not sound like my cup of tea. That is not to say that it isn't good, just that I have yet to decide to pick it up.)

In tracing the history of the word "genius," it might be best if we went back to Roman mythology, in which Genius was on of the pantheon of Roman Gods. Its meaning morphed over time to represent the male energy of the family unit--one's ancestors serving as a kind of proto-guardian angel. [1] Genius, in this case, was an external force that influenced one's life for the better.

Fast-forward to the 18th century in which literary theory and criticism began to flower, and the term began to take on a different meaning due to a renewed interest in the sublime and the part it played in men's lives. Poets suddenly took on the role of verbalizing the collective subconcious, driven by "genius," a force outside their own control. (Comparisons of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson were especially notable in this argument, with many arguing that Ben Jonson had skill but Shakespeare had genius.)

It would not be until Freud's argument that this poetic ferver stemmed from the subconcious that genius was attributed to the artist alone. Suddenly, everything the artist created was his and his alone. According to Gilbert, this view is dangerous because
"'Allowing somebody ... to believe that he or she is ... the essence and the source of all divine, creative, unknowable, internal mystery is just like a smidge of too much responsibility to put on one fragile human psyche. [...] It's like asking somebody to swallow the sun. It just completely warps and distorts egos, and it creates all of these unnatural expectations about performance. I think the pressure of that has been killing off our artists for the last 500 years.'"
While I would argue that "500 years" is a bit of an exaggeration (as it wasn't until the Romantic period that artists (or at least writers) became warped, in my humble opinion), her point may have validity. On the other hand, many of her arguments are based on her own experience writing Eat, Pray, Love, and while it was a bestseller, I've never heard anyone else label her a "genius," so it may be a bit presumptive for her to refer to herself as one. She almost seems like one of those kids who gives himself a nickname and then expects others to call him by it.

I also suspect that she may be trying to lower expectations for Eat, Pray, Love II.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Cogito, Ergo Sum

As though we needed any more proof that I am a nerd, I am happy to say that I've become the proud mama of two fishies that I have named after French philosophers: a brilliant red betta I've named in honor of the "Father of Modern Philosophy," René Descartes, and a little sucker fish named Voltaire.

While Descartes seems to have settled into the biodome that is my glass bowl fairly well, I'm a little worried about Voltaire. He refuses to eat the algae chips I bought him and there isn't enough algae on the inside of the bowl to sustain a living creature. If he dies, maybe I'll get a guppy and name it Hobbes, after the man who wrote that life is "nasty, brutish, and short."

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Jane Austen, Pastiche Leeches, and Zombies

After finishing my previous post, I was thinking about the many Jane Austen adaptations, sequels, completions, and pastiches there are in the world--there is a whole sungenre of Jane Austen fan fiction widely available on-line as well. I've read several published Austen sequels and spin-offs, some good, some bad, but they are all universally appealing upon first sight, if only because they offer the opportunity to explore a new story line written in the style of a most beloved author.

I've written in the past about Sanditon (which seems to improve over time, becoming better and better in memory) and The Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict (which seems to get worse over time. I originally gave it a rating C+, but I most certainly wouldn't give it that anymore. Memories of the bad parts seem to outweigh memories of the good parts when eight months have passed). Both of these are examples of fairly creative explorations of the Jane Austen world, but I've read several others as well:

Mr. Darcy Takes A Wife, by Linda Berdoll

Mr. Darcy Takes A Wife is a sequel of Pride and Prejudice that traces Mr. and Mrs. Darcy's life after the wedding. Both this book and its sequel (Days and Nights at Pemberley) are very well-written, with the Victorian voice staying to true to Jane Austen's for the most part. The story lines are also extremely satisfying as far as plot goes (which seems to be rare). Plot twists abound, most notably the revelation that --SPOILER ALERT-- Mr. Wickham is actually Mr. Darcy's illegitimate half-brother. Gasp!

What many reviews won't tell you is that a large part of this book is essentially erotica, and while it isn't written badly, it is an almost never-ending fuckfest, complete with as many Victorian euphimisms for penis as possible. To give Berdoll the credit due her, she wrote this book with exactly this goal in mind, so it should be counted as nothing if not a success. That is, it is written with the intention of finally satisfying all the long-repressed Mr. Darcy fantasies that are apparently wide-ranging and raunchy. You've been warned, but even if you don't appreciate the borderline-pornographic scenes, the book is very good.

Overall, I would give the book a B, which is good--the only Austenian writer good enough to get an A is Jane Austen herself.

Mr. Darcy's Diary, by Amanda Grange

If I had to describe this book in one word, I would say: boring. If I had to describe it in two words, I would say: extremely boring. I could have written this book when I was in seventh grade as Grange apparently just took the dialogue from the original story, re-wrote it from Darcy's point of view, and added several extra scenes to explain the shotgun wedding between Lydia Bennet and Mr. Wickham. It is written in first-person (as it is ostensibly a journal), but the first third of the book focuses exclusively on Mr. Bingley's relationship with Jane. Why the hell would Darcy care that much about Mr. Bingley, to the point that he's keeping a diary to record the events of the other man's courtship?

In addition, the characters of both Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet are left completely flat and undeveloped, while the author fleshes out Mr. Bingley almost to the point of ridiculousness. In it, Bingley is painted as a reknowned flirt who is leading the kind Jane on and Darcy simply must do something to save her from Bingley's advances, little realizing that Bingley actually loves her. The whole thing reeked of rewriting history, as I always thought Mr. Darcy made it exceedingly clear in P&P that he was attempting to protect his friend, not his friend's beloved.

I would give this book a solid D and recommend that you never read it.

And finally, one that I haven't read as it is coming April 15, 2009, to a bookstore near you: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith.

"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies features the original text of Jane Austen's beloved novel with all-new scenes of bone-crunching zombie action. As our story opens, a mysterious plague has fallen upon the quiet English village of Meryton—and the dead are returning to life! Feisty heroine Elizabeth Bennet is determined to wipe out the zombie menace, but she's soon distracted by the arrival of the haughty and arrogant Mr. Darcy. What ensues is a delightful comedy of manners with plenty of civilized sparring between the two young lovers—and even more violent sparring on the blood-soaked battlefield as Elizabeth wages war against hordes of flesh-eating undead. Complete with 20 illustrations in the style of C. E. Brock (the original illustrator of Pride and Prejudice), this insanely funny expanded edition will introduce Jane Austen's classic novel to new legions of fans."

It promises to be nothing if not entertaining!
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