Love Pray Eat

That’s right. I changed the order after reading Roger Ebert’s review the other day, a review that concludes like so:

The audience I joined was perhaps 80 percent female. I heard some sniffles and glimpsed some tears, and no wonder. “Eat Pray Love” is shameless wish-fulfillment, a Harlequin novel crossed with a mystic travelogue, and it mercifully reverses the life chronology of many people, which is Love Pray Eat.”

I haven’t seen the film, though I will, probably sometime next year on Netflix.  But I have read the book, twice. The first time I read it as a beach read when it came out in paperback in 2007 or so, mostly because of the Italy chapters (I was planning a trip to Italy), which I still like the best because of the descriptions of Rome, Venice and the yummy food (I, too, went on a quest for the perfect gelato, though if I ate as much as Gilbert ate, I, too, would have gained instead of lost weight. Yes, I lost weight in Italy–all that walking everywhere). 

The second time I read it was last week: I’m teaching a Memoir course this fall, and I’m anticipating at least a few students will ask me why I didn’t include Elizabeth Gilbert’s book on the syllabus.  (One student  already has emailed me about the book, interestingly.)

It reads better the second time, mostly because I’m already over the “she’s so full of herself” response that many readers have to the self she presents us (beautiful, talented woman with a book contract gets to travel the world and eventually meet Felipe, who seems to be a combination of the Old Spice Guy and Antonio Bandaras).

Or, maybe this time, just two weeks before I’m required on campus and the whirlwind of academic life begins again, I was just more willing to enjoy the ride.

I’ve spent  months reading dozens of autobiographies and memoirs in preparation for this class, and this one was one of the few (Under the Tuscan Sun comes close) that was such pure fantasy.   The Italian twins (one shy and scholarly; one more stereotypical Italian). The all-knowing yet still dripping in sarcasm Richard from Texas.  The Australian hotty who thinks e-mail is too impersonal. And, of course, Felipe, the Brazilian gem merchant who spends hours physically pleasuring our Elizabeth.  Add the lovingly detailed food of Italy, skim the Pray sections, pausing only when Richard’s name is mentioned, and leap to the sex in Bali and this is a great end-of-summer read.

In keeping with the romance/fantasy plot structure of the story (not that there’s anything wrong with that), our Elizabeth remains celibate for most of the book, with moments of sensual release through food in Italy, yoga and meditation in India, and finally, after months of such foreplay, including an aside on the sudden ineffectiveness of her usual masturbatory fantasies involving firemen or Bill Clinton, sex with our Antonio Bandaras/Old Spice man in Indonesia.

On NPR last week, I heard an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert where she discussed her new book, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage*, and while her marriage to Felipe (aka Antonio) sounds sweet, she had no problem admitting that he is, on a daily basis, quite boringly consistent.   

I’m guessing few students will ask me to add that one to the reading list.

*Time magazine’s Mary Pols has an interesting comparative analysis between Gilbert’s and Julie Powell’s (of Julia and Julia) books on marriage, preferring the more self destructive Powell to the tedious Gilbert–Powell’s is called Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat and Obsession).

On the (Introverted) Road


In a few days, I’ll be travelling, and my suitcases are out and ready to be stuffed with books (no, I do not have a Kindle or Ipad, so don’t ask), shoes, clothes. And deodorant: I hear it’s damned hot in that eastern part of the country.

For the first part of the trip, I’ll be solo: doing research, going to lectures, staying in a room of my own. After a week of introversion, deep thoughts and writing, only then do I meet up with hubby: we get a few transitional days at one of those boutique hotels in a big city I haven’t visited in 20 years before we do some couch surfing with family and friends. Near water.  I miss the ocean so much I can taste it. The water makes up for the couch surfing.

I’m so ready to go.

One of the great, and well documented, ironies of academia is that it’s a profession that attracts introverts interested in books, ideas, words and asks them to be extroverts excelling at public lecturing, group task forces, and facilitating other introverts. Then there’s the socializing, which I normally love, but that has become more of a burden lately than a pleasure: when did I get the reputation of always being available to go out, hangout, host gatherings, plan outings, “do things”?  How do I get out of this reputation? I mean, despite some modest extrovert tendencies that I must have inherited from the paternal side of my heritage absolutely unknown to me, I’m truly an introvert, but in the land of the power introvert, I stand out as a damned social butterfly.

Yet, the inner strength required to wring dry the few extroverted tendencies I have has simply left me exhausted.

So I can’t wait to fly away, to a small town, where I can be literally alone for at least every evening and night, as long as I remember to hide that sliver of extroversion that lies within me. Because of course I’m going to be in a workshop with, you guessed it, other academics. And I fear that the overwhelming introversion auras will bring out the extrovert in me.

What sort of illness is that, the need to fill a void in group situations?

On another note, I’m sorry, Sybil, but yes, books are morally superior objects.

After days of agonizing, I’ve finally figured out the reading material I’ll be bringing on my grand tour.  I’ve downloaded a few “free” books to my Netbook (where Kindle for PC seems to work nicely)—classics by Austen and Alcott, mostly, in order to at least try this reading on a screen experience. And, for hard copies, I have a few weeks of the New Yorker, the last issue of Bookforum, and a few College English, TETYC, and Pedagogy issues to catch up on.  As for actual books, I tried to choose those that I don’t think I need to save, and that I can pass on as I travel.

Right now, I have the following as my short list, and since I cannot take them all, any advice would be helpful: Anita Shreve’s Testimony, Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, Ruth Ozeki’s All Over Creation, and Jayne Anne Phillips’ Lark and Termite, and, my old, falling apart copy of The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein.

While I’m gone, feel free to sneak over to some other academic bloggers who are also, if I may, probably introverted with a twist of extroversion: here and here, and here, here, here. A few actually have parties on their blogs. Sometimes with cheetos and scotch or those drinks with the umbrellas.

A Beach Read…

…if you like beaches with gray sand, lots of rocks, broken bottles, used condoms, hurricane-whipped waves, and rain.

I prefer picture postcard beaches  myself, but since I’m far from a beach, and this spring (summer is not until Monday, right?) has been what I’m calling “the grayest, coldest, wettest spring since I’ve lived in this town” (now 15 years), this book has been the perfect read for sitting on the sofa under a blanket,  wearing winter lounge wear (sweats), and cursing the weather while drinking lots of spiked tea.

Give it a chance: it’s one of those novels that has to gel, and when it does, wow. Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon.

But warning: this is NOT a light and uplifting read (not that I consider this  a bad thing).  It’s a novel about depressed people. Serious depressed. It’s a novel about identity theft that goes way beyond someone digging through your garbage for your credit card number. It’s a novel about obsession (not love obsession, naturally, because these characters are too messed up to ever fall in love).  It’s a novel that someone (like M. Night Shyamalan, or the Coen brothers, or recent Scorsese)  will want to make into a movie–for the ending alone.

The NYTimes compared the paranoid moments in the novel to those of the masterpiece of paranoia,  DeLillo’s White Noise. But unlike in DeLillo’s work, there are few humorous interludes.  Stephen King could have written it, but there are no clowns or dead children (ok, there are dead children but only off stage).

It’s a thriller, with some gore, but not that much. There are three pairs of characters who ultimately converge and it’s in that convergence where the gelling happens:

There is a high school history teacher and his student. A father and son. And twins. You gotta have twins in a thriller.

It’s not a beach read, but read it anyway.

I’m also still reading The Lonely Polygamist by Brian Udall.   The opening was so promising: father of 28, husband of 4 wives, comes home from a long drive and really, really has to pee. But, naturally, all the bathrooms in his big house are being used. Eventually, he finds his way into a storage closet with a bucket. Fun stuff. But now, it’s getting sluggish.  One of his sons has befriended what could only be an odd duck, though polite,  with a fondness for bombs.

Last summer, I read a slew of novels about middle aging males making it the summer of Andropause or Aging Lotharios.  This summer is turning out to be closer to the Summer of the Almost Apocalyptic Novel. Not quite, apocalyptic, since the end of the world characters are in the background rather than the foreground. But they are there.

Obviously, unless I wake up Monday and summer weather is finally here, I need some light and uplifting novel recommendations: any suggestions? 2006 edition

The latest meme going around, according to Profgrrrl,  who knows all, is to identify your earliest Amazon purchases.

Looks like I started a new account in 2006, because that’s as far back as my history goes.  (Perhaps before then I was dutifully going to the local independent bookstore in town, which closed in 2006, and though another has replaced it, I have obviously made much use of Amazon–and BN and Powells–since then).

My 2006 purchases included:

So what can we conclude about Annie’s reading in 2006? Well, clearly, as chair, she had murder, travel, pain and the apocalypse on the brain (I’ve decided that Little Women must have been for someone else since I own 3 versions of the novel, not one of them the tiny print, mass market kind).  Let that be a warning to her the next time she agrees to be chair.

Interim Blog Posting

I was once an “interim” Chair (also referred to as “acting” and then changed to just plain ole Chair once the gig was up and no one else wanted that particular piece of furniture as a title), so I’m well aware of how, well, unsatisfying the term “interim” is, and this “interim” posting is just that: an unsatisfying blip before the “real” posting (that one on how NOT to apply for a faculty position at a community college–it’s in the works, I just need to let it simmer–it’s quite snarky right now).

So, without further ado, here is the Interim Blog Posting, or Random Thoughts After Finally Submitting Winter Grades.

1. Best research paper topics this term:

  • How Technology Makes Us Lazy
  • What IS Lesbian Art?
  • Miracles DO, Miraculously, Exist
  • About Those Aging Supreme Court Justices

2.  With a huge wait list for my spring literature class already in the works, and three e-mails from students claiming that their spring breaks will be just a wee bit longer than the one the college so stupidly scheduled for only one week, Gina Barreca’s poem “This Class is Thoroughly Under Way”  is going to be posted on my website (along with the wonderfully witty Tom Waymen’s “Did I Miss Anything?” poem).

3. I asked my American Literature students to bring to class their favorite novels of all time (not telling them that one of the final exam question topics was to examine that work in the context of the works we had read this term).  What an incredible list of books ranging from The Brothers K to The Brothers Karamazov. Here’s an edited list: the students, while eating cookies, cuties, and chips, shared the book with the class and told us why it was their favorite (note that this was a class that was 75% men, with at least 8 Iraqi war vets, and students from 18-50 years of age–all of the male students chose male authors, and ditto for the women students–99% chose female authors, interestingly):

  • The Notebook
  • Siddhartha
  • Ladder of Years
  • The Hobbit
  • Red Storm Rising (2 votes)
  • Don Quixote
  • The Island of the Blue Dolphins
  • The Deathly Hallows
  • Pride and Prejudice (2 votes)
  • Count of Monte Cristo (2 votes)
  • Portrait in Sepia
  • The Giver
  • Cather in the Rye
  • The Devil Wears Prada
  • The Jungle Book
  • A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • A Confederacy of Dunces
  • The Magus
  • The Brothers K
  • Brothers Karamazov
  • On the Road

4. That same literature class: some students chose the final essay topic asking them to explain the value of studying literature in college, using the texts from our class as examples for their explanation.  And as a gift, I received over a dozen thoughtful responses, including many that discussed the idea of “empathy” as a value:  this surprised me since it hadn’t come up that much in class discussion, though I did share Azar Nafizi’s essay early in the term: it must have had a strong impact!

On a related note, Bill Benzon posted Alec Baldwin’s defense of acting to show us literary/humanities types what we could/should be doing in our own ongoing defense of the value of literary/humanities studies.

5. AFT’s National Survey of Part Time Faculty is out: now I need to read it. 

And finally,

6. It’s that time of year again: anyone have a recommendation for a contemporary novel that would appeal to a wide variety of community members, that is written by a writer who is not TOO famous yet, and preferably male?

Forthcoming, February 2010

As I whined about a few days, I am in the midst of grading.  I have 18 papers left, and, dear reader, my eyes literally hurt. My fingers are numb. My brain has rebelled. The essays are mostly fine, so at least I don’t have constant ogida.  The stress is mostly all of the other stuff I need to do (finish writing several projects; lecture/class prep; search committee business; working on my college’s blog–I’m an editor–etc etc etc).

I did manage to do other things this weekend (a department gathering at a local pub; running both mornings; chores; lunch with the hubby at yet another local pub).

So, this is a placeholder posting, identifying more for myself than for anyone else what postings are potentially forthcoming next month:

  • Mary McCarthy’s 1963 best selling novel, The Group, has been reprinted by Virago Press: I’ve been reading the latest re-views and recently reread the novel, and I have oodles of reflection: who would have thunk it?
  • I finally started using the little Nike/Ipod thingy that tracks my distance and speed when running.  It’s no GPS device, so it’s undoubtedly not entirely accurate, but I’ve got to say that I’m even more motivated to run each morning than even when I was only mildly obsessed pre-Nike/Ipod thingy (note: I actually do not wear Nike running shoes–so this posting will also be a review of the many pouches available to the anti-establishment running shoe wearers). 
  • Amazon has made Kindle software available to PC users: I’ve downloaded a slew of “free” e-books (Alcott, Austen, etc) to test out on my Netbook.
  • The trials, tribulations, and joys of teaching Chopin’s The Awakening in a general ed. survey class where male students outnumber women students (a novel that is on a dream high school reading list that Dr. Crazy has started, but not on very many actual high school reading lists, like Quills, mostly because it’s a beautiful novel about SEX).

Salinger, Phoebe and Me

NPR reports that J.D. Salinger died at age 91.

I named my first cat Phoebe, after Holden Caulfield’s
sister.  I’ve met cats named Esme, too (love that
character), and two friends of mine met, wooed and
married due, in part, to a shared love of Catcher in the
: they named their first born Holden.

I have a fondness for the novel, probably because I only attempted to “teach” it once (in an upper division American Novel class): it went well, with a class of mostly 20-30somethings, most of whom hadn’t read it before (interestingly).  One woman in the class was in her 60s, and she related to the book more than all of us: she focused on Holden’s grief, and her perspective (she was the only one in the room who was alive during the late 40s/early 50s) added to our discussion in so many ways.

So Salinger the recluse is dead. Soon we’ll all be wondering/hoping that he has a few novels hidden away that will soon be shared?

[Here are some of his  The New Yorker stories.]

A Sunday Meditation on Faith and Fiction

Yes, I should be grading (30something more research papers to go) or Christmas shopping or cleaning, but a girl needs a break, so I drank a little vino and read my new New Yorker last night while in the background Jimmy Stewart did his thing on that movie, you know the one.

I skimmed most of the issue, though I read about Roman Polanski and the rape he got away with for 30 years, which got me thinking about being 13 again, which reminded me of the grad student I’m working with who is writing about teen chick lit focused on teen girls who are psychologically or physically damaged in some way (books with titles such as Cut, as well as that old standby, Go Ask Alice).

So it wasn’t exactly a “light” and “leisurely” night of goofing off.

Then I read this story. This story may be the antidote to my failed attempt at Infinite Jest this summer. David Foster Wallace’s “All That” is in this week’s New Yorker.  A seminary student tells the story of a toy his parents gave him when he was 5 years old, or so, a story that reflects his first recognition of his own religious faith or “impulse” as he calls it. 

Having very shaky, if nonexistent, faith myself, I’m surprisingly a sucker for literary stories that depict characters who struggle with such feelings.  I adore A Prayer for Owen Meany,  the latter stories of Raymond Carver, most of Flannery O’Connor’s stories. I’ve read everything Mary Gordon has written since I was a teenager, and then the same with Mary McCarthy and Alice McDermott. And no, I don’t just read Catholics and ex-Catholics: Anne Lamott (her essays, not her fiction) and Marilynne Robinson are my Presbyterian writers.  And don’t forget the Jews: when I was growing up on Long Island I read Chaim Potok’s novels (anyone remember The Chosen?), of course Anne Frank, and later Philip Roth, Rebecca Goldstein, and much later, Dara Horn and Allegra Goodman.

There’s more, but you get the picture.

Most of these writers (with some exceptions) depict young people going through either a crisis of faith, or a struggle with a religious institution or figure, or, less commonly, recognizing the rarity of their own innate belief in a higher power–which puts them at odds with the secular world around them.

What’s so powerful about Wallace’s story (besides its “voice”: the character’s voice, deliberately un-intellectual, is exceptionally affecting) is  the man describing his childhood feelings of ecstasy as physical sensations, analogous to the physical and random but intense moments of love he felt with his parents.  The story ends with two long  nearly unquotable paragraphs (the last sentence of the story is parenthetically rich 25 lines long) that (perhaps not entirely successfully) leave us with two images the young man remembers, images that the reader assumes will restore the faith that is momentarily failing him as an adult. I’ll quote from one of them, since I think this quote can work for those who haven’t read the story yet.  By this point in the story, the reader is well aware that the boy is unusual, and he explicitly tells us that the voices he heard as a child in his head were not a sign of mental illness, but a concrete, physical manifestation of his own religious experience as a child: 

Since I have been known to write such long, parenthetical sentences, I have some affection for them, so part of my reaction to the above is aesthetic and personal.  But for me, the only way I can truly “get” religious belief is to have it explained to me in such a physical, visceral way.

And while it may not be exactly the same thing (depending on one’s definition of belief) that scene in American Beauty with the plastic bag floating, dancing in the wind which controls it, but doesn’t, comes to mind: no, it’s certainly not a film about religious belief, but that empty bag is begging to be filled by something.

Sherman Alexie Makes Me Laugh

A few weeks ago, Sherman Alexie came to campus; every once in a while, especially this week, buried in grading, I remember something he said, and I giggle.

For those unfamiliar with Alexie, he is a Spokane Indian writer, one of the now canonical Native American Writers (even reprinted in the Norton Anthology).  And he’s one of those writers who refuses to be constrained by one genre: he writes poems, short stories, essays, novels, plays, screenplays, young adult books, stand up comedy routines, and, it seems, wickedly funny blog-like postings.

Needless to say, I’m a fan.

I’ve taught several of his works for years in Intro to Fiction, American Lit Surveys, and Native American Lit courses (Lone Ranger, Indian Killer,  Reservation Blues, Smoke Signals, various poems and short fiction and essays), and I’ve read nearly all of them (not loved them all, but I have read them all).  The young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, caused quite the stir in several small towns where parents tried to have it banned (for the one paragraph masturbation scene, NOT from the rest of the book, which portrays a racist white small town and dysfunctional families on an Indian reservation).

Not that Alexie’s works haven’t been controversial before True Diary: he’s fairly hostile to both Indians and Whites who deny reality, and he doesn’t shy away from the  alcoholism among some Indians both on and off reservations. From his very post-modern novel The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven:

When a glass sits on a table here people don’t wonder if it’s half full or half empty. They just hope it’s good beer.

At the halfway point of any drunken night, there is a moment when an Indian realizes he cannot turn back toward tradition and that he has no map to guide him toward the future.

Anyway, Alexie came to our town and instead of what could have been a standard author reading he did a stand up comedy routine. I’ve been hearing about these routines for years (he refuses to record them; in fact, he yelled at one poor student who he caught recording him).  Journalist Tim Egan described the 6’2″ Alexie as he entered the stage in a Seattle bookstore in 1997, acting like a drunken Indian, then posing as an Indian warrior.  Finally, as the audience shifted around uncomfortably during the silence, Alexie turns to his mostly white audience and says:

“White people only like Indians if we’re warriors or guardians of the earth! Have any of you ever been to a reservation? A guest house is a rusted car up on blocks out behind a H.U.D. trailer.”

[nervous laughter]

“And what’s with all these sensitive New Age guys beating drums in the woods, trying to be Indians? Hey, Indians gave that up a hundred years ago. Now we’re sitting on the couch with the remote.”

His in-your-face sense of humor hasn’t changed.

This time, again talking to a mostly white audience of faculty, students, and community members (with a sizable contingent of Native Americans also attending), Alexie riffed wildly, sans notes, with timing that Seinfeld would envy, on the following:

  • Taking the ipod from one of the teens in the audience, he proceeded to both mock and praise the poor kid’s selections, noting that he needed to add that rocking chick from his own youth, Joan Jett, and he needed to learn how to mix a tape for his girlfriend–so much more time consuming and heartfelt than the just burning a cd.
  • A tear-inducing bit on what happens once a plane lands and everyone gets up at once, sticking their asses in each others’ faces, pulling down luggage onto people’s toes, opening their cell phones and having exactly the SAME conversations: “Hi. We just landed. No, we are still on the run way. I don’t know for how much longer. Wait, I think someone up front just moved. No. Just some luggage fell down. Yes, we are still on the run way.”
  • And another truly hysterical story about his father, in his cups, telling a 7 year old Sherman (“Junior”) to gather all his friends because he wanted to tell them about sex.  Let’s just say the tag line is “just flick it”.

If you ever get a chance to see Alexie, I highly recommend it (his routine on the Kindle–he hates it–has caused waves in the Internets). But better yet, read his works.

The Long and Ashy Road

Despite my ongoing interest in Oprah and her book club (you read it here first: she’ll return to it with a vengeance once she has her own cable network), I did not read her 2007 book selection, the Pulizer prize winning Cormac McCarthy novel The Road, until this weekend.  During Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house (where we ate a lovely, very non-Americana dinner of beef bourguignon a la Julia Child) the hostess begged us to read it so she could talk about it with others.  My friend (a Henry James scholar and now administrator—but don’t hold that against her) thought the novel so haunting, so emotionally affecting, that she read it twice (this despite it being about ¼ the length of a typical James novel).

So I picked up the novel on Friday and finished it (between grading, socializing, cleaning, etc) this morning.  And she is right: it IS haunting (it takes place post some sort of natural disaster, though those who felt the ash of Mount Saint Helen’s eruption in 1980 might have an idea). It also teeters on bad Hemingway in the sparseness of its language (this quote from the novel is  from Jennifer Egan’s glowing review in Slate comparing the McCarthy’s moral vision to Hemingway’s):

After they discover a basement full of human prisoners who will be used for food, the boy asks his father, (aka “the man”—similar to Hemingway’s the man and the girl in “Hills Like White Elephants”):

 We wouldn’t ever eat anybody, would we?
No. Of course not.
Even if we were starving?
We’re starving now.
You said we weren’t.
I said we weren’t dying. I didn’t say we weren’t starving.
But we wouldn’t.
No. We wouldn’t.
No matter what.
No. No matter what.
Because we’re the good guys.
And we’re carrying the fire.
And we’re carrying the fire. Yes.

But, once I got over that, and just allowed the simple sentences to work their incantatory magic (and just as in good Hemingway, they do), I was hooked.

The story of a father and son in search of food and survival, and some more good guys, years after the world was practically destroyed, where the few humans left have either become more fully godlike, thus empathetic and altruistic, or more fully human (and thus selfish, self serving, desperate), with a few sort of tottering in between.  The boy provides the moral compass in the story, reminding his father to retain what little humanity he has left. The father is a biblical figure, and if I knew the bible better I’d be able to figure out which one (the person who originally owned my used copy of the book had some wonderful annotations, pointing out references to Yeats and the prophet Elijah, but I’m not sure I buy the father as the Christ figure: the boy has more of Christ in him).

So yes, it’s the basic post-apocalyptic novel, though without aliens, just alienated humans.  I can imagine Hemingway’s Jake and Brett as the father and mother, and the child a throwback to those pre WWII times (she has a minor role in the novel, though it looks like, with Charlize Theron in the role, the mother has a much bigger role in the film). It’s one of those novels that will be discussed in Faith and Fiction classes alongside Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (with its father and son travelling by foot in the post-Civil War south). It’s one of those novels that would work nicely with many a Hemingway novel: although for Hemingway, grace is in keeping a stiff upper lip, while for McCarthy, grace is in keeping the fire and light of compassion within lit, a much more optimistic moral, though also one that I can’t imagine films well.

And the novel has flaws: it’s painful and horrific at times to read (though for me, the style of the writing mitigates the horror, which in itself is a bit of a horror if you think about it), but despite their months-long travel with each day being darn similar to the next, I still found it engrossing. Luckily, I’ve avoided most commentary on the novel, so I didn’t know exactly how it would end. I suspect there are those who would argue that the ending is contrived, and contradictory (I’m being deliberately vague here for those who haven’t read it), but it also provides the reader with the necessary catharsis after the long, tense journey.

But I couldn’t help the little voice in my head echoing the last line in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”