March 29, 2012

Poem in Your Pocket Day

But I couldn't find a poem that expresses right now better than this.

March 27, 2012

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

I'm intrigued by this new book by Jonathan Haidt, which has been reviewed extensively over the past week. Haidt was a partisan liberal who now considers himself more of an independent. In this book, he tries to explain our political views as expressions of our values and group identities.

I'm wary of the lengths to which he might take this idea. There are good values on both right and left. But not all political views come from a healthy place. There are conservatives railing about the importance of self-sufficiency while actually depending on others to an egregious degree. There are liberals railing about the scourge of poverty while actually living a life of complete self-indulgence. In both cases people are using political views to shape a vain self-image: how they'd like to be perceived (tough bootstrapper, man of conscience) rather than how they are.

And we can't ignore the ignorance and bigotry that gets expressed in politics either. If 50 percent of the population in a southern state believe that Obama is a Muslim, they are not expressing values that are different from but equally valid to their opponents. They are embracing a lie that is intended to injure. And if a conservative stalwart says "I'm sick of hearing about the gays all the time," there's something beyond a healthy respect for tradition going on. And if a person goes on Twitter and says she's mad that the character of Ru in The Hunger Games movie is played by a black girl, it may come out of very instinctual tribal defensiveness but it's an instinct that cannot be allowed to flourish unexamined if you want to be considered a good person. So how much of partisanship is "good people" defending equally valid values, and how much is good people pitted against people who are actually bad?

Haidt rightly trumpets the importance of intellectual openness, what he calls "ideological diversity." Being in conversation with people who think differently than you is the only way to find truth because your ideological opponents will search for contradictory evidence in a way you never will. Point granted. But what if one ideology is inherently more open to contradictory evidence and the other is rabidly closed off to it? Liberalism has its shibboleths and blind creeds, but it seems to me closer to the kind of intellectual openness that Haidt prizes. One impressive exception to the rule: the conservative atheist Christopher Hitchens, who impressed not because he was an atheist but because he was a conservative who insisted on the freedom of the smorgasbord rather than committing to the whole prix-fixe feast.

March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games Movie

There's lots to love about the Hunger Games movie, above all the perfect casting and a screenplay that condenses the novel skillfully. There were other artistic touches that were even more unexpected.

One was the respect with which the director approached the audience and the subtlety that allowed. For example, at the Reaping ceremony, the Capital officials speak as if it's all great fun and sporting. When the camera cuts to the reaction shot of the District 12 citizens, their faces are unwaveringly serious and tense. But there's no rolling of eyes, sneers, or muttered comments to smack the viewer upside the head with the contrast between the rhetoric and the reality. This kind of scene occurs several times in the first half of the movie, and the director never gives in to the temptation of the cheap reaction shot.

Another nice touch was the amount of quietness in the film. Like the last Harry Potter movie, there were so many scenes of silence or near-silence. Between the chatter of smart-aleck comments, the constant manipulations of soundtracks, and the ever-growing fear of boring the audience that most movies evince, this constitutes a real act of courage on the part of the moviemakers.

March 23, 2012

"Paul's Case"

I'm editing a wonderful set of essays on Willa Cather this week and came across this passage from Cather's short story "Paul's Case." It describes the moment of the protagonist's death, with a killer last clause:

"He felt something strike his chest, and that his body was being thrown swiftly through the air, on and on, immeasurably far and fast, while his limbs were gently relaxed. Then, because the picture making mechanism was crushed, the disturbing visions flashed into black, and Paul dropped back into the immense design of things."

March 22, 2012

TV Crime Dramas

Every once in a while I'd like to see the vic's family member NOT say "Susie is a phenomenal juggler. . . [looking away with tears in their eyes] . . . was a phenomenal juggler."

March 19, 2012

Agatha Christie and Indian Independence

Last week's Masterpiece Mystery was an adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel Why Didn't They Ask Evans? The story features Miss Marple, along with a set of characters that is frequent in Christie's whodunits: a culprit whose bitterness over an old wrong has twisted him or her into madness and murder, and a victim or target who was either directly or tangentially responsible for the wrongdoing.

There is a sense in these books and adaptations that, while we certainly disapprove of wrongdoing, one shouldn't let oneself become obsessed to the point of revenge, that such a thing is sad and often unfair to the perpetrators who, at this later date, may be shown to be remorseful or even ignorant of the original crime.

I wonder if Christie's attraction to this theme is partly a subconscious reaction to the end of the British imperial age and the fear of violent revenge by former colonies like India. A nervous "Can't we all let bygones be bygones?" fluttering beneath the surface.

March 16, 2012

The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer and the Present of YA Lit

So I'm reading this YA novel and enjoying it. It's standard fare: teenage girl is "plain" but attracts the attention of the most handsome, charismatic boy at school, along with the devotion of a more normal, sweet guy. She's battling intense personal situations (a move to a different state, the death of three friends in a mysterious accident, an alpha girl who harasses her). Many YA authors try to distance themselves from Twilight, but the differences are often superficial: their heroines may cuss, have a cynical sense of humor, or be extra "feisty." But, below the surface, the structural similarities, even in novels like The Hunger Games, are solid: the two adoring suitors, the girl heroine who tends to be querulous (she protests, he smirks), the constant sacrificial gestures on the part of both..

It's funny to think that, one day, this whole fantasy / apocalyptic / supernatural romance genre will be passe and NO ONE will be writing them for years and year to come (until the genre comes back, as they always do). When I was a teenager, it was all uber-realistic tales of divorce and protagonists who were vulnerable and not always up for what life was throwing at them. People tend to have two reactions to strong trends:  get ahead of the curve and look down their noses at them, or embrace them and the communal enjoyment of a cultural moment. I'm in the latter group, for sure.

March 14, 2012

Tell Me Something

Two young men and an attractive, slightly older woman go on a spontaneous road trip. There's lots of sex, lots of cursing, lots of drinking and pot, lots of FUN. Y Tu Mama Tambien was one of the best movies of 2002. called it "one of the handful of great erotic films the movies have given us" (Charles Taylor). Rolling Stone's Peter Travers called it a "hot-blooded, haunting and wildly erotic film [that] revels in the pleasures of the flesh."  And there's no counting the critics who called it "sexy" and "sensual."

But how can a movie be one of the great erotic films if, amid all the coupling and tension and release, the female character, Luisa, never once has an orgasm? The boys are popping themselves blind, but Luisa, the object of their fantasies and lusts, gets NOTHING. In a movie that celebrates sexual pleasure, why was it so important to deny even one little orgasm to this woman? As great as this movie is, and as forward-thinking as its makers may be, its refusal, refusal, to allow it is baffling and disturbing.

One of the many things I liked about Breaking Dawn Part I is its respect and portrayal of female desire. Bella and Edward have a deal that she will marry him in order to have sex on their honeymoon, but in the book it happens only once, despite her pleadings. In the movie, the screenwriter has Edward cave to her desire, which felt so much more healthy to me. Critics often miss the deeply feminist nature of her desires and their gradual, incremental fulfillment, which are really at the heart of the Twilight stories.

March 12, 2012

The Artist

What's amazing about this film is that it captures all of the delights of the silent film era while being completely postmodern.

March 9, 2012

Smile When the Raindrops Fall, by Brian Anthony

This title stands in for all of the amazing film books that Scarecrow Press has published over the years. Working on this book, I learned of the brilliant silent comedian Charley Chase and was lucky enough to see his most famous film, Limousine Love, at a film series a few years later, during which I laughed my tush off.

March 8, 2012

Three Golden Ages, by Alf J. Mapp

This book was produced by another editor, but it has always intrigued me. The subtitle is Discovering the Creative Secrets of Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan England, and America's Founding. I can't vouch for the book, having never read it, but one of Mapp's theses intrigues me: that communities made up of lots of small, relatively equal small business owners produce the best cultures.

March 7, 2012

The Salem Witch Trials, by Marilynne K. Roach

This is my last week as a production editor at the Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group. So I thought I'd round out the week with posts on favorite books that I've worked on during my 15 years there.

My hands-down favorite is The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, by Marilynne K. Roach. Roach gives chronology of events over about a five-year period. The chronology approach is ingenious because you get details on what exactly happened, not just a summary or interpretation. And, most important, Roach gives an unparalleled sense of what life was like for occupants of a small town in the 1600s: their fears, their mindset, the physical reality of their lives, and more.

Find it on Amazon HERE.

March 6, 2012

Happy Mass Effect 3 Day

I was introduced to the happy world of gaming by my friend Kim Smith. Today, one of Kim's favorite games, Mass Effect, comes out with its third installment. The gaming community is run through with the same sociological issues as the rest of the world, but there are signs of progress. Here, Kim writes about the newly released trailer for Mass Effect 3:

* * *

In honor of Mass Effect 3 Launch Day, I give you this:

The money shot comes around 2:25, when you see two women leading the army in Earth's defense (fully clothed, no less). If it were two men, you'd think nothing of it. If it were a man and a woman, you'd think, "Well, that's cool." But two women? That's unheard of in video games, let alone a gritty, sci-fi shooter. Hell, that might be unheard of in most of pop culture.

While politicians chip away at women's rights, with Mass Effect 3, BioWare has rebooted the default female Commander Shepard (aka FemShep), giving her a unique visual texture and body animations (thus avoiding those awkward moments when she sits in a little black dress with legs splayed a la Sharon Stone). They've released not one, but two FemShep trailers, and the game disc case features a reversible cover (FemShep on one side, DudeShep on the other).

All this comes on the heels of last year's Dragon Age 2, possibly the most LGBT-friendly video game ever produced by a mainstream developer. BioWare . . . making the world a more inclusive place one video game at a time.

Now if only they weren't all so damn white . . .

March 5, 2012


Yesterday as I was matching my husband's laundered socks together, and rolling them in that distinct ball to put them away, I wondered how long people have been doing that "sock ball" maneuver. For all I know, some Kentish housewife was doing the exact same thing 600 years ago, though I suppose it would have been "hosen" or some such thing.

It reminded me of a book that I have on my shelf but haven't read yet:  Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America by David Hackett Fischer. It traces the migration to colonial America of people from four distinct geographical regions in England and the lasting cultural impact their home culture had on their new lands.

March 2, 2012

Shilling: Me

The Little Patuxent Review is a regional arts journal published twice a year. Their winter issue on the theme of social justice just came out. Click HERE to find my essay on the theme of social justice in the visual arts on their website.

March 1, 2012

The Mirror Unreliable Narrator

We all know about the unreliable narrator: the narrator in a novel who is hiding secrets. There's Humbert Humbert in Lolita, Hercule Poirot's sidekick in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and Barbara Covett (so close to cover, covert) in What Was She Thinking (Notes on a Scandal) (Judi Dench player in the movie).

Equally intriguing is the narrator who is hiding another secret: their innate goodness. They start out with the word "ASS" practically tattooed on their forehead, and only slowly, through the course of long observation, do we see chinks in the armor of their assitude. The protagonist of Jo Nesbo's Headhunters is just one such narrator.