Friday, November 30, 2007

In Fashion, Veritas

Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue, has been mocked and reviled for many reasons: her supposed impossible standards and bitchiness, as sent up so well in The Devil Wears Prada; her thinness, her lovelife, her liking for socialites, her crush on Roger Federer -- with which I have a sneaking sympathy.

I also have sympathy with something else she's said, which drew if not outright mockery at least an air of faint bemusement and is-she-serious. She said that if you looked through the pages of fashion, they would tell you what was going on in the world just as surely as if you looked through the back issues of, say, the NY Times.

It might not always be completely clear. But you can see the military influence in past seasons of fashion, new materials that mean new technologies or new imports or new concerns with organics, patterns of price and consumption revealing market fluctuation. Nostalgic/ironic Soviet kitsch is big now in Russia. And didn't I just post about greenness? Today I bought a little Christmas present for a friend, a purse/wallet made out of the Times and covered with clear plastic. So with eco-chic, we've reached a point at which looking through fashion also means looking through the Times. Prescient, isn't she?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Clash of the Titans

It was a long and convoluted thought process that put it into my head, but one of my favorite old Hollywood movies is Becket (1954). And it's a rare person who can even discuss this movie with me; come to think of it, I'm not sure I have ever found anyone else who has seen this movie. Maybe I'm not mentioning it at the right times.

It is a very faithful adaptation of a play by the great French playwright Jean Anouilh, which is in its turn an extravagantly unfaithful take on the historical events leading up to Thomas Becket's death and canonization. Anthony Quinn and Laurence Olivier starred in its English-language premiere; in the film, Peter O'Toole and Richard Burton light up the English countryside for miles around, helped by John Gielgud. Two of the greatest screen performances ever, as far as I'm concerned. Both were nominated for Best Actor and common talk at that time was that they split the vote and allowed Rex Harrison to sneak through for My Fair Lady.

Why hasn't it lasted? Oh, a lot of reasons: big period drama, next to no romance, very talky, very heavy on the discussions of religion, and the sheer damnable opacity of Becket's shift from Crown to Church. Not for everyone.

There are also some nice stories behind the making of the film. O'Toole and Burton apparently drank each other under the table regularly during filming, and they also supposedly switched roles right before filming started. Burton is so fantastic as the aggressive, wenching Henry VIII in Anne of a Thousand Days that you can well imagine him as a great Henry II, but O'Toole's high-strung explosiveness and raw neediness are almost painful to watch. Much as I love Burton and his legendary voice, this is probably O'Toole's show.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Begrudging applause

As you all know, I have been missing my late-night TV; in grad school, I got in the habit of taking my laptop to the futon with me and doing some light work while watching late-night.

After a hiatus, in which I watched movies or simply stayed at my desk, I went back to the futon and discovered that NBC has taken the inspired route of airing reruns of Leno -- oh, but not recent reruns. They've gone so far back into the vault that it's like watching a bemusing time capsule. Last night, Julia Roberts was on... to promote Pelican Brief. Jay's hair was gray and he was asking her all about Lyle Lovett, who she had just married.

I have to admit that they're fascinating to watch to see how fast our pop-cultural framework changes, something that always trips me up with my students. This is the Harry Potter generation. Just think, in a few short years we're going to be teaching students who grew up obsessed with Hannah Montana.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It ain't easy being...


Today I was chatting with a friend while happily honing his knives and listening to his dog's tag clink as it pattered around his feet, and I started yammering on about this article I had read in the NY Times about Chicago's new green alleys. The green alleys are made to drain rainwater and runoff back down into groundwater, and they will also keep temperatures more temperate, care for your children and do your taxes. This is the usual sense of green.

Then I suddenly realized I had just read another such green article in the Times, about green holiday gift-giving. This was a more peculiar article, because it started out with what you might expect: people giving homemade gifts from recycled objects, light bulbs, etc. But then it became an anti-capitalist mantra, with people volunteering for charity rather than giving gifts.

That happens to be green. But it's something that people used to do all the time and never think of calling green. It was more like "getting back the true holiday spirit" or "being unselfish" or thinking of the starving children in Africa while pushing your broccoli around your plate. So I ask you, a la Carrie Bradshaw, since when has green meant good?

Don't get me wrong; I'm all for greenness, and have always conserved everything. I got in a very long and complicated discussion about showering once in college. I grew up turning off the shower water while soaping; that is, you turn it on, wet your hair, turn it off, shampoo. Turn it on, rinse, turn it off, soap, turn it on, get out. Let me tell you right now, this takes some fortitude when your parents also believe strongly in conserving the central heating.

My friend's roommate from Slovakia had apparently grown up the same way, and somehow his roommate had found out and they had started talking about it -- perhaps his roommate had heard him. That's how my roommate at math camp found out about my showering habits, because she would keep thinking I was done with a very quick shower and then hear the water come back on.

A long discussion ensued; many found this exceedingly strange, but it's the same logic as turning off the tap while you brush the teeth. I decided that those who grew up where hot water took more work than just turning the dial were a whole lot more conservationist! Conserving work, coal, wood, whatever. It wasn't green, just practical.

In other words, being green now just means being not so luxuriously consumerist as most middle-class Americans take for granted. And therefore, with our true Puritan roots coming out, that self-denial must be good.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

As my brain rots...

I really am going to have to take a break that involves reading a more serious novel at some point. Somehow, reading for teaching doesn't help. I learned when I was consulting that if I don't read seriously for too long, I start feeling weird, literally as if my brain needs flossing.

One of my friends has been recommending Jasper Fforde for a while, and I got him to read on the elliptical. I started with the first one, The Eyre Affair. As you can tell, loaded with literary allusions, seeing as it's about a female literary detective who tracks down forgers, scammers, and literary characters come to life. Kind of a sci-fi meets female James Bond meets Haroun and the Sea of Stories meets romance. It's pretty good, but moving a bit slowly mid-book as it seeks to entangle you in the terribly clever intricacies of its plot. I don't know if I'll keep going on the series.

But I also happened upon some Sherlock Holmes stories. I've read a lot of these Doyle followers, and these are decidedly the best I've ever found. Donald Thomas is the author, and he's written many books, including a couple of Holmeses.

Princess fever

On an unrelated note, I read a Newsweek article about Disney's skillful marketing of its Princesses and how they're planning huge adult-targeted product lines: princess towels, princess weddings, princess honeymoons... And incidentally, Pocahontas and Mulan, who are practically action heroes compared to the others and are of course two of very few minorities, are not usually included -- no dresses, no crowns means no marketing.

Given this nausea-inducing deification of girlie values, I suddenly feel bad about wanting to see Enchanted. Netflix it is -- then I feel a little less like I'm giving the studios big money.

And by renting a DVD, I'll be giving even less than $.04 to the writers.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

The great jukebox in the sky

I have finally concluded my tour of Hugh Jackman's career highlights with a bootleg DVD of the Broadway musical The Boy From Oz. It's all Peter Allen's music, linked together by the warhorse device of a jukebox musical that tells of his showbiz rise and death. I didn't realize how many of his songs I knew, like "The best that you can do is fall in love," "Everything old is new again," and "I Honestly Love You." Unfortunately, if I tell you that this last is sung by a dead character dressed all in white, that pretty much sums up the problems of this musical.

A lousy, lousy book and poor characterization, leading to Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli being practically caricatures. Some of the most boring group choreography I've ever seen; I've seen better with non-dancers bobbing and kneeling in timed patterns. A "hidden" childhood trauma that "accounts" for Peter's emotional stuntedness. And a big splashy Radio Music Hall performance screaming out for a huge production number inexplicably done with next to no flair, though considering the rotten choreography, I can't imagine it could have gotten a lot better.

Against this, you have the songs themselves, some very good singers in the supporting cast, including a truly charming, cartwheeling, tap-dancing little boy playing young Peter (and probably getting beaten up on the playground, poor kid). And, of course, you have Hugh Jackman's sheer star power. He is a very good singer, a little uneven. He's at his best in the big power ballads and splashy numbers. Moves well, not exactly Gene Kelly. Who cares? You can't look away -- which is why the musical got by, since he's on stage most of the time.

Listening to the dead people sing, in two numbers. You would think they would have known to pull that stupid stunt once at most. One is Hugh Jackman's partner, who sings "I Honestly Love You" to him after he dies of AIDS. Could he not have sung it on his deathbed? I ask for so little.

And yes, two men kiss, Peter's called a fag (in a loving way, kind of, by his blustering manager), he rubs all up against some one-night-stand lover. I do wonder if any families or conservatives ever walked out! I remember hearing tales of people walking out of Rent.

This musical lasted a year on Broadway and closed when Jackman's contract was up, of course. He wanted it to go on and apparently particularly wanted Ewan McGregor to take his place. McGregor is another one of these multi-talented men I hate to love, and he's done a musical in the West End (and Moulin Rouge). He and Robbie Williams both turned it down. The problem was that they needed a big star to keep it going, but Jackman is so damn brilliant and engaging that it would have been a thankless task to follow his Tony-winning performance; the ensemble is not enough to keep it going, nor is the musical and staging. Not to mention that it looks like an exhausting role.

Well, I still greatly regret that I never saw it on Broadway, but if Jackman ever makes his Carousel movie post-writers-strike, I'm there.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

You've got to be kidding me!

I see that Hillary Clinton, Mrs. It Takes a Village, has decided that childhood isn't so important after all, or rather that Obama's childhood isn't, since his life abroad will apparently not help him with any perspective on foreign policy whatsoever.

Now I'm not saying that anyone who lives abroad necessarily gets a useful perspective, but discounting it altogether is just the kind of emphatic statement that Hillary never manages to make when it's about something important, like, say, her stance on any issue of any note.

Today's post title is a quote of the greatest American male tennis player, that lovable John McEnroe, whose podcast with Borg and Federer I am about to listen to instead of going to sleep.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The digital tree of life

Being completely dissertated out for the moment, I took a break tonight to watch Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, which I had been planning to see when it was released in the theater years ago, but got scared off by bad reviews.

And being quite prepared to tear my hair, reproach Darren, and sigh in exasperation, I was... surprised! It is a good movie! Perfectly comprehensible, I think, and gorgeous, well-acted, minimalist writing (I suppose that could be a negative). I think people must have been just put off by the science-fictionnness of it all, with all the experimentation on animals, time traveling, and three storylines in different time periods (though there's a bit of a catch to that last). I won't spoil anything by telling you that, essentially, Hugh Jackman is always chasing after an antidote to death for the sake of his beloved, Rachel Weisz.

What it ends up being is a beautiful fable about accepting death, and perhaps it might have gotten better reviews and even been a better movie by centering just a little more on the modern couple, in which Jackman is a scientist and Weisz is his wife, dying of cancer. But to hell with reviews, it's an interesting film.

And although the extras about the making of the movie are a little slow and pretentious, with eerie music, they're absolutely fascinating from the point of view of filmmaking. (I have them running even as I'm typing this.) To watch Jackman gagging and convulsing while surrounded by ten huge dudes with cameras, light reflecting boards, mikes, etc., in the middle of a half a set, is to see a total lack of inhibition. I've watched behind-the-scenes before, and probably the best known ones are the LOTR extras. But those were amazing because they showed how detailed a job WETA did, while here I've mostly been marveling at just how little the actors knew of it until it was finished in post-production.

Actually, it's almost destroying that gorgeous movie for me, seeing poor Rachel Weisz do take after take with a lens six inches from her nose.

I like it.

OK, quick carping about kidnapping Mayan mythology helter-skelter... but...

I like it.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

What's on the list?

I avoided one of my miserable wandering tours of the library today just by dropping off my books and heading straight to the gym to read what I had, like it or not -- another 'women's fic' book, this one about the events leading to Pope's Rape of the Lock. I always liked Pope.

But someday, when I finish this chapter and pause to read for real again (i.e., not at gym), I had better prepare myself for an efficient library trip. What am I going to read?

Monica Arac de Nyeko is a name that's come up. I like reading modern foreign literature, and African lit is perpetually overlooked.

Junot Diaz just gave a talk here that I couldn't go to, so I think Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.

Denis Johnson(?)'s Tree of Smoke about the Vietnam War. I got that one to try to read it on the treadmill, and boy, was that a mistake.

Some Harold Pinter.

That'll do for now. I could use some good nonfiction as well, but don't have anything in mind. Took a look at Freakonomics but decided that I already knew that crappy apartments were described as 'charming.' Maybe some history?

Time for Rushdie's East, West (need to prep lesson plan). What's on your list?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Beyonce in dreads?

I'm not reading as much these days, which is because I'm working almost nonstop on my dissertation. That's why there's so much about musicals lately; just do the youtube search and let them play while I switch back to Word.

I just stumbled on the oddest bit of musical news from July, that Beyonce was in talks with Disney to star in a film version of Tim Rice and Elton John's Aida. You might know this best from the single released off the preview, Elton John and Leann Rimes' "Written in the Stars." I am somewhat flabbergasted and yet it's perfectly logical, because I suppose Beyonce wants to make musicals, and she needs either a musical that the studios are willing to cast colorblind or one with a black female lead. Among the latter, Aida is pretty far up there, and it allows for a lot of Beyonce looking regal and gorgeous.

Not the greatest of musicals, which explains the flabbergastedness -- it took 10 years for Rent to get to film, by which time the actors were all in their thirties, and I haven't heard anything about Wicked being made into a film. So I would think that either Beyonce signs, or it doesn't get made. The other jaw-dropping part of the article was that Christina Aguilera might play the other female lead, Amneris; I hope that's not the case unless Aguilera has unsuspected acting chops, because that character needs to be funny with unexpected flashes of depth.

I speak authoritatively because I actually saw this musical on Broadway years ago, and was lucky enough to get to see it with Adam Pascal, Roger from Rent. He was also the original Radames in this one and came back at the end of the run, which is when I saw him. I wonder if he'd be in the movie too? The cast was fantastic--Felicia Finley played the Aguilera role.

I'm all for musicals being made, and I like Beyonce, so here's hoping it gets made. I bet she's hoping not to be overshadowed by another Jennifer Hudson. I also wonder frankly what she'd look like in the film. Aida in the musical is a Nubian princess, and she was always played on Broadway by a very dark-skinned actress with dreads, cornrows, or a close crop, the better to contrast with the -- I'm not kidding -- all-blond Egyptians. Beyonce's hair is going to have to go!

Women's film and theater


Just watched the trailer for The Other Boleyn Girl, which I had not realized was scripted by Peter Morgan, writer of The Queen and Frost/Nixon. How did he come up with witty banter like this sack of crap? "I'd know [a great man] if he were before me." "Do you see one here?" "Looking. Found one."

My ears are bleeding already. I suppose a really great actress could do something ominous and flirtatious with those lines, but for all that the media has been ramming Natalie Portman down my throat as a Great Actress since the day she was born, I still haven't forgiven her for the ear-bleeding, pencil-through-the-eye moments she gave the world in Star Wars I, II, and III.

Well, the movie looks lavishly costumed and setted, not to mention that it co-stars the winsome Scarlett Johanssen and hulky Eric Bana, so plug your ears and sit back. Comes out in February.
I've been YouTubeing the musical Wicked as well. Didn't realize that this was also about female solidarity, but the two witches are best friends and enemies. I guess this is more or less a constant fascination in the arts, but between all the sisterhoods on one side and bromances on the other, I'm starting to feel like calling people 'friends' is pretty lackluster.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Women's fiction?

Not chick lit, exactly, but you know those books I'm talking about: books about famous historical or mythological women, or often the overlooked daughter, sister, or wife of a historical, mythological, or fictional hero. Sometimes borderline bodice rippers, sometimes more philosophical, these books have pretensions to being serious literature that a half a moment of examination will deconstruct. Ahab’s Wife springs to mind, as does The Red Tent (I'll get in trouble for that one, as I know many people liked it), a wanna-be Red Tent about David’s first wife, which I can’t remember the title of at the moment, Leonardo's Swans, Lizst's Kiss... The Other Boleyn Girl, which I mentioned the other day, is a prime example, as is almost everything that Philippa Gregory writes.

These books are all rescue fiction, telling us the stories of these strong, fierce, overlooked women, whose stories are amazingly similar across time periods and countries. Almost leads you to believe that they’re a reflection of the society they’re being written in, doesn’t it? I notice an almost pathological focus on the love/hate relationships among women, particularly sisters—The Other Boleyn Girl sledgehammers this theme, as does the book I just finished on the elliptical today, Nefertiti, which is really about Nefertiti’s younger half-sister. Anyone who was once a tweenage girl being stabbed in the back by other tweenage girls trying to be cool probably has to admit the partial truth of this, regardless of any wave of feminism. Add in the detailed description of clothing, jewelry, face paint, etc., and really, all you have is chick lit dressed up in historical sheep’s clothing.

Now, by that, do I mean the clothing of a sheep that existed in history, or sheep-shaped clothing that existed in history?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


Over the weekend, I watched my second Woody Allen film ever, and I only watched it because I was renewing my Branagh kick. Yup, Celebrity, the black-and-white film about a New York writer who observes, craves, and wrecks all chance at celebrity. It was chiefly mentioned for Leonardo DiCaprio's appearance as a spoiled brat of a hotel-wrecking supermegamoviestar. But I also remember reading reviews of Branagh's performance that all featured the word 'frightening.' It is indeed completely terrifying, because he's so Allen-like that it's positively uncanny -- a stammering, bumbling, fumbling, pathetic wreck of a man. From the hyperarticulate Gilderoy Lockhart or Henry V to this character, you can never fault Branagh for his technical skill. Not even in Wild, Wild West.

The movie is too episodic in the beginning, but stay with it and it really gets going in the second half as Branagh wrecks his life and ex-wife Judy Davis builds up hers. If you ever find yourself reading a few too many tabloids or celebrity blogs, just watch this movie, which will cure you of all longing for celebrity in two hours. For that alone, it's probably worth the rental!

Monday, November 12, 2007

Find Your Quail

Right now, I'm happily listening to "Find Your Grail" from Monty Python's Spamalot over and over and over again. YouTube rocks.

So does Sara Ramirez. She's an amazing singer. Pity she's being wasted on Grey's Anatomy now, but that whole show has jumped so many sharks that... I can't come up with anything suitably hyperbolic to finish this sentence.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Atonement trailer!

Finally watched the trailer for Atonement! You can see it here.

I love this novel (Ian McEwan again). Can't discuss it terribly well without giving away far too much, but the hook goes something like this: 13-year-old Briony accuses her older sister Cecilia's lower-class boyfriend Robbie of a terrible crime, and spends the rest of her life trying to... atone. The novel has several different tones and points of view... all great, but I did spend quite a bit of time arguing about the earliest section with my friend, who found 13-year-old Briony 'unrealistic.' Why, because we're all so logical at any age that we can expect all 13-year-olds to sound like... what? (I'm still unconvinced, clearly.)

This movie has been getting great buzz, with Keira Knightley (Cecilia) already tipped for another Best Actress nomination. Romola Garai, who I liked so much in As You Like It, is the older Briony, and Vanessa Redgrave is the very old Briony. That character's getting some good acting. The trailer does look good, so I am now officially excited.

But can I be totally superficial for two points? One being that Knightley coming out of a fountain in a wet dress is just scary. I don't want to be one of these women who bitterly castigates other women for being too thin, but I do hope that no young girl thinks she should try to look like that. The other being that while James MacAvoy (Robbie) is a very good actor, I unfortunately cannot get the image of him as Faun Tumnus from Narnia out of my head. And not just Tumnus -- Tumnus wearing green spandex pants with dots on them so his goat legs can be CGI-ed in later.

Frost/Nixon; Morgan/Howard

Tiny whimper.

I've just learned -- having apparently blocked it out when looking on the imdb page in the past -- that Ron Howard is directing the film version of Frost/Nixon. Directed, rather, since it has gone into post-production (shooting started right after the Broadway run ended).

Some of you know that I was stark raving mad about this play in August, and still am really. I saw it on Broadway twice, the first time from quite high up and the second time just two days before the end of the run, from front row center. Both times were fantastic for totally different reasons; from high up, I could appreciate the blocking and lighting and get a better sense of the audience reaction, while in the front row I could see beads of sweat and also see through the blackouts to watch the actors setting themselves up for the next reveal, which was technically fascinating. It is a great play about David Frost, the TV journalist, and Nixon coming together to do an interview post-Watergate and post-resignation. The play's tension revolves around the fact that both men see this as one last chance at the spotlight, with Frost's career in disarray and Nixon's quite obviously on the rocks. No need to tell you who wins.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that it was an intensely gripping 100+ minutes (no intermission). Nixon's summation of their divergent personalities, playboy and pigheaded fighter, is devastating in its simplicity: "You don't know how fortunate that makes you." Beautifully written and some of the greatest stage acting I've certainly ever seen. Frank Langella and Michael Sheen are reprising their roles. The lesser roles will be taken by Hollywood fodder rather than the stage players, which is to be expected. Sam Rockwell takes the narrator's role, which the first time I saw it was played by Remy Auberjonois, son of Rene Auberjonois from one or the the other of the Star Treks, but who I'm embarrassed to say I know chiefly as Frasier Crane's professor.

Right. Whimpering. The reason I'm whimpering just a little, and very quietly, is that Peter Morgan wrote this play (you might know him best from writing The Queen). I must have asininely assumed that Stephen Frears would be directing. But from what I've just googled, that apparently was never even an option; there was a lot of jockeying, Howard was very keen on doing it and doing it now, and Morgan wanted it made and out before the Bush administration leaves. Now, not having seen the Da Vinci Code, I feel no fear when I hear that Howard is directing a film. Actually, I figure that it will be solidly entertaining, well knit, dramatically gripping. But I never expect true greatness. And for me, Frost/Nixon was one of those experiences -- twice -- in which the entire world around you disappears. I was kind of hoping to have it on DVD.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

No Prestige

Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johanssen, and David Bowie. That's all the advertising the Prestige really needed, or so you would have thought. It more or less flopped in the wake of the Illusionist, which featured Ed Norton, Jessica Biel, Paul Giamatti, and Rufus Sewell. Two beautifully pedigreed magician films. I liked the Illusionist quite a bit, but I wasn't throwing bouquets at it. Now, Prestige... aimed higher and fell harder, I think. It might have been more interesting if I hadn't figured out the movie less than halfway through, which left me sitting hopefully on my futon, waiting for some crazy other twist that I hadn't figured out. There wasn't one. The title of my post comes from the formula for illusions given in the film, which says that the setup is the pledge, the disappearance is the turn, but that the trick is nothing without that final reappearance, the prestige. Well, this movie tried to follow that formula, but if you know what the prestige is and the whole movie is about showing you how it happens, then where's the magic?

Probably in the character development, which it could have used a touch more of. The acting was fine, but you basically have to take it on trust that Hugh Jackman's wife's death precipitates a lifelong obsession; it's not developed in any interesting way. Oh, and not to be snippy, but I'd like to see Scarlett Johanssen sharpen up those British consonants a bit more in The Other Boleyn Girl, in which she's playing the eponymous heroine.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Alas, poor Oprah

It's going to be a bit of a winding road here at the start. Stay with me.

One of my profs, of all people, pointed me towards the NY Times article on Jessica Seinfeld, who apparently was always a little hated by those in the know, was recently accused of plagiarizing her cookbook, and thanked Oprah by sending her somewhere from $10,000-$20,000 in designer shoes as a thanks for appearing on Oprah's show.

Blog commentary on that last groused about Oprah's shameless delight in this ridiculous extravagance, the same kind of consumer delight that makes millions of women feel that they have to rush out and consume in order to feel as powerful as Oprah. I haven't seen anything positing it against two of Oprah's more recent big events, though.

When popping over to YouTube to watch a little more of Hugh Jackman hosting the Tonys (I am really that girl in your college hallway who listened to the same song all the time), I saw some new feature about Oprah on YouTube, something about her favorites or... I don't know, I couldn't be bothered to look. On the other hand, you also can't get away from coverage of this sexual abuse case in Oprah's South African school for girls. I don't know what the general opinion of this is, but I've seen Oprah as quoted from saying everything from 'responsibility rests with me' to 'I didn't do anything wrong.' No doubt Oprah's faithful will rally to her, fueled by reports that she wept for a whole half hour (poor thing) when she heard about the charges. No doubt they will also want her shoes and watch her uploaded videos.

I don't know what to make of Oprah, to be honest. I never quite have. On the one hand, her rise has been astronomically impressive. She does good things -- lots of charity, lots of healthy living shows, lots of nice books. I enjoy the show. Dr. Oz has taught me a lot. But her aim square at a certain segment of the population with huge aspirations towards more material comfort seems by bypass those who can't possibly afford Christian Louboutin shoes, and those are the ones she affects to love the best.

Of course, as a literary critic, I also found her involvement in the James Frey case rather odd;
most critics I know didn't much care about the whole fiction vs. memoir vs. autobiography controversy, except for the truth in advertising principle, because we know that autobiography and history are always-already (sorry) so convoluted and fictionalized. But there's another case where Oprah swung wildly from 'I don't care' to 'you liar,' and that one was distinctly a case of caving to a media frenzy that she could not control.

Sorry, no big payoff to this set of musings. She is a triumphant bundle of contradictions. But it did cross my mind that I just can't imagine what is going to happen to Oprah's empire of taste as she gets older and slower, let alone when she passes on. I think it'll take me until the void appears to really judge her legacy.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The heat of a thousand suns

Finally finished Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns last night, a tale of domestic abuse in Afghanistan that will make your hair curl and your liberal conscience groan, but all the while you won't be able to put it down. I like Hosseini's writing, I really do, although his heartwrenching moments do get a little manufactured. 1) Depressing or disappointing episode. 2) Long wait. 3) Bring episode up again in a quick, unexpected allusion. 4) Stand back and watch the waterworks.

But he writes so well, particularly in his descriptive passages, that I'm inclined to forgive the vaguely mechanical quality, which might also be a function of the very looping plot. It focuses on two women: Mariam, an illegitimate child who grows up isolated and worshiping her wealthy and Westernized father, and the much-younger Laila, a gorgeous, petted and liberally educated child with a happy family. The Soviet invasion and other assorted disasters that Afghanistan endured combine to trap these two in exactly the same miserable situation, however. I won't spoil the plot twists for you, except to say that it is not a walk in the park.

This book, unlike Hosseini's previous hit, The Kite Runner, takes us up to the present day in full gory detail (KR focused more on the past, as I recall), and that's the part that makes me groan. I don't doubt in the least that Hosseini is depicting the Afghanistan he knows
and clearly loves, and nobody could expect anything but a thoroughly depressing narrative from that. But I do worry about the uses to which the novel can then be put, as in "look how screwed up this country was; clearly we need to invade and fix it." (Not that anyone is worried about fixing Afghanistan these days.) In particular, Suns includes an abusive husband calculated to fulfill all evil stereotypes of Islamic gender relations, and he is rendered so vividly that the loving, supportive husbands also depicted don't balance him out at all.

Hosseini also suffers from Peter Jackson syndrome, the need to have ending after weepy ending in quick succession.

Still, a thoroughly good read, and one I'd recommend, because it clearly has been vexing me. And as you all know, the one thing I love even more than a book I fall in love with is a book that I can carp about until the sun goes down. Or a thousand of them.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Top of the world, Ma!

It's been an exhausting day over on the tennis blog, with the news of Martina Hingis' retirement and positive cocaine test at Wimbledon. But I can summon up the energy for a post here.

The Enola Gay pilot died today. I ought to look up his name, but why bother, when I don't know the names of any of the tens of thousands of Japanese he killed? I never knew much about him, except that he was so well brainwashed that he never regretted even for a moment having been the one to drop the bomb on Hiroshima (he didn't fly over Nagasaki). He was proud of how well the plan was executed.

It's probably best for that man's sake that he was, because otherwise he would have had one hell of a miserable life--and really, can you imagine the higher-ups sitting around a table picking a human weapon for the job? Interestingly enough, I read in his obit that he did have a crew, and presumably there were multiple crew members who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, too. But this guy became the poster boy for the atomic bomb. I wonder what's happened to those others. ("Call him drunken Ira Hayes, he won't answer any more...")

Look, WWII is a war we look back on as a well-justified war, in contrast to this one, and it needed to end. But dropping nuclear weapons is nothing, I repeat nothing, that a so-called civilized nation should be proud of. And there's no doubt that racism made dropping those two bombs easier than it would have been over Germany. Rather, no doubt in my mind; there was controversy again over a Smithsonian exhibit in '95 or so, with the pilot and other groups protesting that it showed too much sympathy for the Japanese (those whining, dead, maimed, cancer-riddled bastards) and, this more reasonably, underestimated the aggression of the Japanese government and possible American casualties in an invasion of Japan. I guess no matter how often we try to flagellate ourselves with the notion that governments aren't people, it doesn't sink in.

Oh, and the Enola Gay? Named after his mom, apparently.

I was thinking to buy my mom a spa visit for Christmas.