Monday, November 15, 2010

Tourists of History by Marita Sturken

Proposed subtitle: When Teddy Bears Attack

The US sucks.  One of the places we suck hardest is dealing with things in any sort of context.  Bible quotations and celeb interviews just to name a few.  And also horrible incidents of tragedy.

tourists cover

Another thing about Americans is that they like to consume things.  Stuff provides a barrier between the American and the scary, unknown world, or thoughts thereof.  After 9/11, instead of being encouraged to volunteer or reach out to their neighbors, or even join the military, Americans were pushed to buy things by their political leaders.  Buying things will save you; buying things will save us.  Guns, duct tape, bottled water.  Buy cell phones in case of an emergency, buy cars and houses to get out an economic depression.  Combine this mantra of consumption and consumerism with places of tragedy and what do you get?  Kitsch.

Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero is an important book, although so densely packed with ideas that it's difficult to easily grasp.  Instead of trying to summarize it (Sturken herself took over thirty pages to do so), it's probably better to give an example of how Sturken frames her argument--namely through teddy bears.

Teddy bears are symbols of innocence, childhood, and comfort.  At both the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Ground Zero, one can buy teddy bears inscribed with something like FDNY, their arms lifted "as if about to give the visitor a hug."  This fluffy little souvenir may seem harmless, even charming, but in fact it represents everything wrong with the way Americans interact with historic sites.  These little symbols of childhood suggest a healing that can only take place through infantilization of their owner--they are children's toys but they're made for adults, returning their owner to a naive mindset and allowing them to walk away with a child-like understanding of the site just visited and its historical context (which is to say, none).

Sturken also looks at other kitsch items like snow globes, the pink ribbon campaign, and the visual culture surrounding events like the OKC bombing and 9/11, all of which are fairly disgusting from the standpoint of morals and taste.

For the most part I agree with Sturken's argument.  For a long time I've been wondering to myself:  why the sudden obsession with zombies?  They've become a part of our popular culture, but who or what do they represent?  I think in part the answer lies in Sturken's book.  We have this morbid need to consume everything--tragedy, stories, video of the event, reenactments--on tv, on the internet, and in person.  Yet we're also encouraged very strongly not to give any of these things too much thought.  Have we become mindlessly insatiable in our gathering of memories and pursuit of "culture"?  My guess is Sturken would say yes.

Sturken's book is one I would definitely recommend if you have an interest in this sort of thing, but I can't help feeling that artists have been making this point much more elegantly and for a longer time than Sturken has.  "Windowsill" by Arcade Fire is pretty much Sturken's entire argument in a kick-ass four minute song.  You don't need to be an academic to notice what Sturken points out, you just have to be paying attention.

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Thursday, November 11, 2010

Jane by April Lindner

jane cover

What if Mr. Rochester was a rock star?

Indeed.  What if.  What if Jane Eyre was never written?  Where would we go to for our innocent-jeune-fille-makes-rich-grizzled-old-guy-fall-in-love-with-her plots?

Jane is an adaptation of Jane Eyre set in the modern-day, with Mr. Rochester played by been-there-done-that rock star, Nico Rathburn.  Orphan Jane Moore is forced to drop out of Sarah Lawrence after her parents die, and lands a pretty posh job as a nanny to Rathburn's daughter.  I won't summarize the book any further, because if you're at all familiar with Jane Eyre, there's no need.  You already know what happens.

I've read a few adaptations of Jane Eyre that tried to be more original--Jenna Starborn by Sharon Shinn leaps immediately to mind.  That novel was set in the future, and Rochester's secret in the attic was much more creatively adapted to the setting.  Another adaptation that was pretty good was Mary Stewart's Nine Coaches Waiting, which was less literal and had the heroine falling in love with the mysterious son of the grizzled estate owner.  But even though Jenna Starborn and Nine Coaches might have been more clever, as a piece of pure romantic escapism I didn't enjoy them a quarter as much as I enjoyed Jane.

The novel is distilled into highlights of Jane Eyre, like a movie (in fact, I kept thinking it would make a better movie than a book), and moves along pretty quickly.  The estate is still called Thornfield, there's still a nice housekeeper and a suspicious resident of the uppermost floor, and the whole book feels a little anachronistic.  There may be cell phones and the internet, but there are no TVs and the internets is used just a time or two.  Jane herself doesn't feel like a modern teenager, and it's easy to forget that's what she is--especially the teenager part.  She hasn't heard of a major rock star and only listens to classical music?  I don't listen to hip-hop, but I still know who Jay-Z and Timbaland are, you know what I'm saying?  Plus she doesn't believably think or behave like a nineteen-year-old, even a mature one; she's got way too much perspective.

As for Nico Rathburn, he's not a carbon copy of the original Mr. Rochester.  He's much nicer and laid back, and pretty much an all-around good guy.  His "temper" is occasionally mentioned, but I didn't see much evidence of it in the story.  As I wrote in my musical notes for this book, as a musician I imagine he's based off Bruce Springsteen: there's a quote from "Factory" on the dedication page, and Nico's songs, like Springsteen's, have a lot of references to streets and night and the kind of workingman's romanticism you find the Boss' songs.  Personality-wise, however, he's nothing like Springsteen (or any other great musician I've ever heard of), which is probably all for the best--Springsteen's old as dirt, not to mention a pretty weird dude.  Nor could I imagine Nico as a serious drug addict, although that was supposed to be the awful thing in his past that made him all broody.  Again, for the purposes of the book, this was probably for the best: a realistic crazy ex-coke head musician would be a hard sell as a romantic hero (although potentially awesome!).

And don't even get me started on the hit-you-over-the-head nature->sex metaphors.  Lordy lordy.

That being said, I did wildly enjoy this book.  Maybe I'm just a sucker for these types of plots, but I thought Jane and Nico had a lot of chemistry, and the way Nico comes to rely on Jane as not only a girlfriend but a true friend was a little obvious but sweet. 

Jane Eyre is about a woman who becomes independent and socially mobile by remaining true to herself and defying expectations of what a woman should do or be.  Jane is a fairy tale about a girl who marries a prince that just happens to have a crazy woman living in his attic.  It's a quick read--I finished it in a day--that's perfect when you're craving Jane Eyre, but don't have the energy to get mired in the whole 19th-century rigmarole.  And it's way better than any movie adaptation I've seen so far.

So, I definitely recommended this book for Jane Eyre fans.  But if you haven't read Jane Eyre, please don't read Jane first--the original is still soooooo much better.

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Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Musical Notes--Rock'n Roll Jane

musical notes

This week I read Jane by April Lindner, which is a twist Jane Eyre.  The twist?  Mr. Rochester is a ROCK STAR!  Well, naturally I have to do a musical notes for this.

(If you don't know, musical notes is a feature on my blog where I talk about music inspired by the book I've read.)

First off, do you have any idea how many songs are about someone named Jane?  A lot.  There's Hurricane Jane:

Lazy Line Painter Jane:

And Sweet Jane (the band in this one is really awesome; love the pornstaches!):

There's also Queen Jane Approximately, but apparently Bob Dylan doesn't allow videos of himself on the intrawebz, so you'll have to look that one up yourself.

To my mind, Mr. Rockstar is obviously inspired by Bruce Springsteen (at least musically), so the Boss worked its way into my playlists a lot this week:

You know Mr. Rockstar just has to write songs this romantic. Enjoy! And if you want to keep up with musical notes (including the ones I never post here), subscribe to me on YouTube.

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Sunday, November 7, 2010

Crescendo by Becca Fitzpatrick

crescendo cover

As you may recall, I liked Hush, Hush--not that I thought it was good, mind.  But it was enjoyable for the pure silliness of the nonsensical actions of the heroine, Nora; the misadventures of her bestie, Vee; and above all the ridiculous hero, Patch, who is kind of like the baby from Who Killed Rodger Rabbit, only with washboard abs and (I presume) no belly button.  In Crescendo, however, I began to believe that Patch was a delusion because Nora is obviously FREAKING CRAZY.

It all starts before the twenty page mark.  Nora's pawing her way all over Patch's totally hot bod, begging him never to leave her.  She presses a ring so hard into their hands it draws blood.  Suddenly he's all, "Babe, I gotta go," and she's like, "WHO ARE YOU SEEING?!?"  The next day, she finds out he was at the house of her arch-nemesis slash school slut, Marcie Millar.  Aha!  Nora knew she couldn't trust that playa playa. 

Patch comes over.  She confronts him.  Patch is like, "Okay, I know you and Marcie have issues, but let me explain to you why I was over there.  I had a very good reason."  Nora is all, "I don't want to hear it!  You never tell me what you're doing!  How can I trust someone who doesn't share things with me?  I think we should break up.  I never want to see you again!!!!!!11!!!!"

HMOKAY.  Patch takes her advice and leaves.  Nora starts sobbing.  Why does every man she's ever loved leave her?  Why won't Patch call and tell her what he was doing at Marcie's?  If only he would tell her!  WHY???

Now, this alone wouldn't have ruined the book for me.  I knew Nora and Patch were going to be separated early in the story, and I knew it would be ridonkulous.  But wash, rinse, and repeat this scene for a hundred and fifty pages and I seriously could not take it anymore.  It's like Nora is the model for The Psycho Girlfriend.  I actually felt sorry for Patch in this book, the little blighter.

Nora's conversations with Patch aren't the only incongruities of logic happening here.  You know that site where the grammar Nazi picks apart Twilight, Reasoning With Vampires?*  The writer of that should read this book.  She would have a freaking field day.  Fitzpatrick's prose is enough to make Stephenie Meyer look like Rousseau--there's tons of stuff that good editing should have caught.  Take this scene, for example:

I tossed the cell into my open purse at my feet and bowed my head into my hands.  My eye throbbed.  I was scared, alone, confused, and on the verge of crying uncontrollably.

"Maybe it's from Patch," Vee said.

Chere Nora: hellooooooo!  Did you catch that?  Vee is with you!  You're not alone, dinglebat!  Unless you were speaking in the existential sense of aloneness, in which case we're all alone and you're not special so STFU.

Anyway, there is a plot in this book.  You see, Nora's dad was murrrrdered before Hush, Hush started, and in Crescendo she searches for his killer.  I'll give you three guesses who the main suspect is.  There are also some new characters introduced, most specifically Scotty the Potty, who also happens to be a Nephilim.  The world is teeming with these Nephilim creatures, I tells ye (don't ask me to explain what Nephilim are or how they fit into this world, because Fitzpatrick never does, nor expounds more on the angel hierarchy or how it works). 

The book isn't completely terrible.  Honestly.  The second half is actually pretty entertaining, since Patch mostly stays out of it and Vee and Nora go off on their own adventures to discover Nora's father's killer.  But Nora is impossible to like or root for.  And even more than that and the nonsensicalness, there's a very disturbing anti-feminist tone in the book.  Nora believes "boys will be boys" (oddly following a strange prayer scene over store-bought lasagna, which kind of made me throw up in my mouth), can't listen to her own instincts (of course, she is a psycho), and essentially falls into every negative stereotype of femininity á la the Victorians you can think of.  If this book was published in 1950, it would fit right in.  As it is, it left me vaguely disgusted.

Crescendo is basically exactly like Hush, Hush--even down to the title that has nothing to do with the story--but it's longer and dumberer. In Hush, Hush, the question of what Patch wanted with Nora kept me reading, but in this book there's no big question to keep my attention, and so all the flaws in the book become glaring.  It's kind of like when you meet someone and at first they seem shallow but fun; then you hang you out with them for a bit longer and you realize they're not only shallow but kind of mean and a sexist to boot.  The chances that you're going to want to keep hanging out with them are pretty minimal, just like the probability that I will read the next book in this series.

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*Thank you for the link, Pam!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Interview with Thaisa Frank, author of Heidegger's Glasses

heidegger's glasses cover

Thaisa Frank, author of the fascinating Heidegger's Glasses, was kind enough to answer some of the questions I had for her at the end of the novel.  Don't forget you can enter to win a copy of the book at my review post (here)!  I know you will all want this book, especially after reading Thaisa's interview, so don't hesitate to enter.

Question 1:  As the book progresses, the letters from the dead become much more forceful and begin to speak of breaking out and disappearing. Is this because the cracks in the world are getting bigger?

Thaisa's Answer:  That’s a great way to link the metaphor of Hanussen’s globe and the changing letters! And in a sense that’s what was really happening as Germany continued to incur heavy losses in the war. It’s also the case that more and more prisoners began to rebel and find ways to exchange messages at the border between one barrack and another.

Q2:  What is the connection between furniture and bones?

Thaisa:  The Nazis deny making human furniture out of bones, but I’ve seen pictures of them. So the connection is quite literal. Metaphorically, of course, it has a lot of connections and probably brings into bold relief the attitude (prevalent in all holocausts) that the ‘other’ who is the object of murder and hatred isn’t really a person but an object.

Q3:  Who in the Compound has the least amount of guilt over the dead?

Thaisa:  Without question Dieter Stumpf who relishes séances and firmly believes that the Compound is on a serious mission to answer the dead.


  If this novel could be compared to a single painting (or, alternatively, the work of a single artist), which one would you pick?

Thaisa:  This is a great question and although various artists came to mind intellectually (Munch and Kollwitz) a painting immediately occurred to me and I can’t find it. It’s a 20th century surreal painting in either the Whitney or the MOMA called (I think) The Sleepers. It’s a huge room without borders so you think it may extend infinitely and in this room, tucked in identical beds, are people who all look the same. Their eyes are open. The expressions in the eyes are amazing--the expressions of people who have a sense of dread yet hope it’s unfounded. This painting came to mind in a very visceral way. Intellectually it makes sense: All the characters in the book live with dread and have to deny it. And all the characters in the book are variously asleep (not conscious) and awake (very conscious.) Thanks for a great question. I’ll send you the reference if I can find it.

Me:  Are you thinking of The Sleepers III by George Tooker (above)?  Maybe someone has a better suggestion.

Q5: You make a lot of Classical references in the book. Are there any non-Classical allusions--to Nordic myths or folktales, for example?

Thaisa:  There are no references to fairy tales, but when I wrote it I drew on my sense of affinity with fairy tales--a sense of the magic of the imagination I’ve had ever since I was little.

If Kafka wrote the first great fairy tales of the modern age with The Trial, In the Penal Colony, and Metamorphosis, then I feel that World War II provides us with the second set of fairy tales. Because of the impeccable record-keeping by both perpetrators and victims, and because the suspense created by the escalation of the Final Solution was pitted against the invasion of the Russians and the Allies, WW II’s Holocaust has an almost novelistic, even mythic, quality. It also brings into bold relief how people can become absurdly enchanted in the presence of a belief shared by a group mind. This fairy-tale aspect can be used to great disadvantage to romanticize the war. But it can also be used to great advantage because it allows us to see WW II’s holocaust through a broad lens that leads us to the truth of all holocausts. Like all first drafts of fairy tales, this one is raw and unadorned: Take a look at the original Red Riding Hood in French. It’s ghoulish, grisly, and blatantly sexual. And even sanitized fairy tales for children involve abandonment, terror, and evil spells.

For all these reasons, I was drawn to the fairy-tale like environment of the Scribes. By using this as a pervasive backdrop, I was able to show parts of the Holocaust that were raw, ghoulish, and unpalatable, like Mengele’s experiments, a rape, an arrest, and an unanticipated murder.

Q6: What happened to Stumpf?

Thaisa:  Stumpf disappears with his crates of mail. This is something that Elie sees when she goes outside at night alone and smokes under cover of her scarf.

Q7: Would you describe your work as surrealism or magical realism?

Thaisa:  Thanks for asking and for making a distinction! These categories are often used interchangeably but there’s actually a big difference. Magic realism invariably involves a community of people who believe in some magical force that exists in the world (often contact with the dead, the ability to time travel, the appearance of angels, sometimes the belief in the totemic nature of objects.) Surrealism involves one, at the most two, improbable or impossible situations, and puts them into an ordinary world.

The world of magic realism is an extraordinary world where magic penetrates the ordinary. Surrealism, on the other hand, posits one absurd situation in a perfectly ordinary world. (A man wakes up transformed into a huge bug, or is accused of a crime he never committed and isn’t even named). The ordinary world is determined to proceed according to its plodding, often legalistic, ordinary laws. A Hundred Years of Solitude, by Marquez, is a good example of magic realism. People commune with the dead and can see their dreams. In The Trial, by Kafka, a man is accused of a crime he not only hasn’t committed, but which is never spelled out to him. He has nothing magic to resort to, but must appeal to the plodding legal system. This absurd situation shines a lens on the absurdity of the legal system.

Heidegger’s Glasses certainly touches upon a community that believes in the occult. But only a few characters in the book are part of that community, and the two protagonists are definitely not part of it. What becomes surreal is the premise that there are people who answer letters to the dead in an underground mine that has been converted into a romantic 19th-Century world, with a cobblestone street, gas lamps, and a canopy of sky that changes from night to day. This world is an absurd dream in the midst of a Germany’s failing war.

So I would say that I work in the tradition of surrealism.

Q8: There are a lot of codes in the novel--Lodenstein's father writes codes, and the Scribes create a secret language
called Dreamatoria. Was Heidegger's letter a code, or was he really that clueless?

Thaisa: One irony of the book is that we never see Heidegger’s letter to Asher Englehardt. The letter we see is Mikhail Solomon’s answer, which is supposed to be absurd. And we don’t know how clueless Heidegger was about the war. He was a romantic German: He wore lederhosen to class in the summer months and built a hut in the Black Forest. He allied with the Nazis resolve to return to the past, and then got upset with them for not doing it in a way he imagined. He helped some Jewish students escape and ignored others. (He shunned Carnap, a philosopher and colleague whose wife was Jewish, and then was miffed because Carnap wouldn’t talk to him after the war.) Heidegger was probably not so much clueless as totally dissociated.


If Heidegger's Glasses is made into a movie, who do you want to play Lodenstein?

Thaisa: Wow! This is every writer’s private delusion. But since you’ve asked…. I’ve always seen this as a German movie, in which case I would like Matthias Habich, who played the father in “Nowhere in Africa” to play Lodenstein. He has a combination of rigidity and softness that appeals to me. I consider Brad Pitt to be about the best male actor in America now, but I don’t think he quite fits the role. Maybe the newly-incarnated Leonardo Dicaprio---newly-incarnated in that it seemed that he could really act in Revolutionary Road.

Q10: What's your next project?

Thaisa:  I’m finishing a new collection of short stories that I allowed to languish when I wrote Heidegger’s Glasses. But I am--and have been--working on something new. The most I can say is that it doesn’t take place in the past--hence it’s not historical. And I’m experimenting with a somewhat different voice.

Thank you so much for absolutely great interview, Thaisa!  Your answers definitely added to the story for me!  And Leo's cute, but maybe not quite Teutonic enough to play Lodenstein. ;)

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Heidegger's Glasses by Thaisa Frank

heidegger's glasses cover

Meet us by the woods
Wait for us by the gate
If you want to know

We wandered 'neath
A sky of stars, now fixed
And you are lonely
Come quickly

Past the shoes, the fence
The trees, the holes,
The fires, the jewelry
We are waiting

The paths in the woods
Made us more lost than before
But we have found the end
And we'll meet you*

In a secret bunker in WWII Germany, a fake sun and fake stars shine on a strange world, where Scribes answer letters from the dead.  Everything seems stable, until the Scribes are called upon to answer a letter from someone who's among the living.  How can they possibly respond to such a request?  What will happen when those who speak to the dead call upon the living?

This is an absolutely fascinating novel.  It's all about death, but is so oddly charming that it's not depressing--perturbing and uncanny at times, certainly; but unlike what one would expect from a book about the last months of WWII, it leaves the reader with a sense of peace rather than desolation.

The novel is also very smart and capable of rewarding both those who want a quick read, and those who want to dig into a story with greater depth.  I was enthralled by the classical symbolism in the text--as Heidegger says, "Nothing like the Greeks."  The letters from people in work camps ring through the narrative like a Greek chorus, or souls floating in the river Acheron.  The compound itself is like a Purgatory or a gateway into the underworld. 

And what would the Underworld be without a Persephone?  Here the role is filled by the character of Elie Schacten, who brings life to the compound by sneaking out to get food and clothes, and helping refugees escape to Holland.  Elie is a mysterious character with two names, many questions about her past, and a compelling personality that makes everyone fall in love with her.

There's also Elie's lover and the Obërst of the compound, Gerhardt Lodenstein.  I love Lodenstein!  He is totally the hero of the story.  He travels into hell (Auschwitz) to rescue two souls and bring them back into the land of the living.  Or at least the Compound, which is close enough.  His character is also the one that seems to go through the largest personal journey during the course of the book.

I remember hearing once that The Reader was about how the generation after WWII dealt with the guilt of the Holocaust.  A similar thing is true of this book:  it's about the ways people deal with the weight of death during war--whether it's survivor's guilt or the guilt of having killed someone.

All of this may make Heidegger's Glasses sound like a very heavy read, but it isn't--it goes by very quickly and feels slightly fanciful.  I don't know if there were actual Scribes who answered letters from the dead for Goebbels, or an actual Compound--but it could have happened, even though it's completely insane.

The plot is fairly thin and doesn't even get going until around page 100, and I thought the wrap-up was a little weak and left a lot of unanswered questions, but this book isn't really about the plot--it's about the world of the Compound and the people who inhabit it.  Overall I thought Heidegger's Glasses was completely recommendable.  I'm so excited for people to read this novel because there's so much in it to discuss and think about and connect with--and at the same time it's so creative and different.  I have the feeling Heidegger's Glasses will have a lot of imitators and even more admirers.

If you like historical fiction and magical realism at all, I highly recommend this novel. And don't forget to come back tomorrow for an interview with the author!

*Please excuse my poor attempt at poetry.

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Wednesday, November 3, 2010

November Library Loot

Library Loot is a weekly event co-hosted by Claire from The Captive Reader and Marg from The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader that encourages bloggers to share the books they’ve checked out from the library.

Here's my Library Loot for November:


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