Wednesday, May 30, 2007

erc commencement issue

Of all of the rites and transitions I've undergone in my young life, graduating from Yale has been the most anti-climactic and the least affecting. I'm serious: I felt more changed after buying my first (unnecessary) training bra and going on my first date (a group outing to see Speed 2: Cruise Control). I felt more nostalgic when I left my first job, as a line cook at Bagel Nosh; I still experience fond recollections when I catch a whiff of fresh lox cream cheese.

It may be because the ceremony is stretched out over the span of several days, and because the events reeked of institutional self-glorification and money-mongering (see: Yale secretly sending advertisements for the 3 hour long commencement musical to my parents, leading my father to "surprise" us after dinner with pricey tickets) rather than a celebration of the students. When it comes down to it, erc loved Yale--the campus, the teachers, the classes--but she doesn't feel the need to celebrate that love by marching around the Yale Corporation Board for four hours and sitting through 500 allusions to Yale's "awesome relationship with China." By the time it was over, I felt like I had to graduate from graduation.

Yes, I've already used that line that many times.

Perhaps the highlight of the festivities is the Class Day Speech, which is given by a "famous" Yale alumnus who gets paid next to nil for flying to Crack Haven to "inspire" a crowd of over privileged kids wearing stupid hats (the bottom picture is of erc in her hat, a Salvation Army-enabled concoction). Regardless, you can see why Yale's repertoire is less than star-studded--vs, say, Harvard's tag-team of Bill Gates/Clinton.


This year, the speaker was Fareed Zakaria, the editor of Newsweek International and an all-purposes political pundit (it's safe to assume that 90% of the senior class has read that wiki entry I linked). The guy's on television, so he speaks articulately and eloquently; he opened by alluding to a Yale student's criticism of his selection as a speaker in the Daily News--a move swiped from Matthew Fox's speech at Columbia! Everyone seemed pretty impressed by his bland land-of-opportunity rhetoric, but the speech was pretty insubstantial. Apparently, this country's "open borders" can be analogized to keeping an open mind after graduation. Also, taxi drivers can teach you things, and America rocks and will keep on winning at everything.

I may or may not blog my cliche high school valedictory address, recently rediscovered with the recovery of files from my childhood computer, for your reading pleasure. Until then, here are some words of advice for future sons and daughters of Eli:

1. Don't shop astronomy courses when you're desperately seeking a
group IV, even if they have cool names like "Planets and Stars." They involve HUGE numbers. Plus the tiny ones that look like apostrophes.
2. Don't live in my apartment building/tenement, unless you enjoy water heaters from the 19th century, neighborhood halfway houses, and a basement dweller who blasts the theme from Star Wars at 4 am.

3. Don't trust the doctors at DUH. They want to harvest your organs for the Yale Sustainable Food Project.
4. Don't trust your Teaching Assistants. They want to use you as a paradigm of a student who they "reformed from a C- to a B paper."
5. Did you consider Stanford? It's not in New Haven...

Sunday, May 27, 2007

new web ideas

Riffing off of the overrated, largely unfunny website Overheard in New York, my hilarious friend Joe has devised a couple of permutations--Overheard in American Apparel, Overheard in Book Trader (the self-parodic art student-heavy cafe I work/live in)--over the years.

(Example--actually overheard in Book Trader yesterday)
Surly female employee: Isn't it funny that Joey from nsync's last name was Fatone? Because he really was the Fat one?

On that note, erc is already late for her Baccalaureawhocares ceremony, during which she is sure to "overhear" very little, as Yale students these days seem to be incapable of insights beyond "Oh my god, I'm totally afraid to graduate, everyone is so stupid everywhere else!"

Thursday, May 24, 2007

new gem on the internets

In a sea of long-winded mp3 blogs and grammatically unsavory foodie diaries, here's a brilliant concept: Every few days, this guy responds to a missed connection posting on craigslist (readers will remember erc's encounter with the website), using the same four words as a means of provocation.

Responses range from the polite to the indignant to the ebonic, but they are almost always misspelled, and always hilarious.

What other phrases come to mind? How about, "I know her--she's a dude, bro."

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

critics at large

A little less than a month ago, Michael Connelly--an author of mass market detective mysteries, the likes of which you'll find sandwiched between the 99 cent birthday cards and the frozen food section in your local Safeway--wrote a piece for the L.A. Times lamenting the recession of book reviews in prominent newspapers and magazines. Connelly contends that the publications' decision to print fewer reviews is masochistic, claiming that it contributes to the growing threat of obscurity that print media faces today. "The publishing industry has always relied on reviews and on the commentary of great critics in newspapers to champion the new voices of literature as well as regional and genre writing," he writes. "The reading public has gone to these venues to make discoveries. Now where will new voices be discovered?"

A few weeks later, the Times printed another piece about the "war of words" between established book reviewers and bloggers, a critical fracas arising from verbal blows between Michael Dirda, a "Pulitzer-Prize winning book critic" for the Washington Post and lit-blogger Edward Champion (with a name like that, one can only assume that he's also a lit-porn star).
"If you were an author," remarked Dirda, "would you want your book reviewed in the Washington Post and the New York Review of Books, or on a web site written by someone who uses the moniker NovelGobbler or Biogafriend?"

Finally, a couple of days ago, The Times--seriously, someone at this newspaper must have been moved from the Colin Farrell beat to this story--printed a horrible op-ed by RIchard Schickel, who is, in addition to being a professional critic, a professional a-hole: In an elitist tone, his article whines about the democratization of book reviewing (readers may remember erc whining about the democratization of television), claiming that the shift from printing critical analysis by writers with theoretical backgrounds to the academic "wasteland" of the blogosphere will engender the elimination of standards, and the death of intellectual literary reviewing. "
We need to see something other than flash, egotism and self-importance. We need to see their credential," he writes.

The principal trait shared by Connelly, Dirda, and Schickel, besides self-importance and an obvious hatred of this gosh-darn-newfangled technology, is a sense of paranoia--a fear of the effects that the changing shape of media will have on their work's relevance. Attributing the demise of reading to the rise of online media and blogging invokes a false relationship of causality: People will continue to write, and people will continue to read, but the way we write and read and think about books will change.

In evolutionary terms, those who adapt to this transformation (novelists who--like Connelly--take advantage of podcasts, web-based publicity, book clubs, etc) will benefit, and those critics who refuse to justify or modify their contributions to literary culture will face the big cut. Good, in-depth book reviews, ones that are additive rather than merely derivative, will still find an audience--erc, for example, regularly reads print content for the new york review of books, etc., only online. The only reviews that will be "replaced" by blogs will be those that fail to contribute anything that isn't offered by concise, smart blog posts.

As my friend Matt pointed out, Schickel's piece does touch on a legitimate problem that faces the democratization of publishing, an issue that I've taken to calling "the right to review." Possessing this right, however, seems to transcend categorical differences; a reviewer for salon.com probably offers more insight than a reporter for my home state's newspaper, the Arizona Republic. The dichotomy of standards, then, is not between diverse media, but between intelligent and unintelligent criticism. While I worried that youtube was lowering the standards for television, permitting unintelligent programming to filter into our brains, I don't think that book-blogging poses the same threat; because reading requires more cognitive effort than drooling in front of a fuzzy television screen, most people won't wend through bad criticism simply because it's online.

So when it comes to reviewing, the strongest--the most clearly written, the most interesting, and, in some cases, the more web-friendly--will survive unscathed. But the real winner is, of course, the reader, who emerges with a greater diversity of options, and a broader gateway to new and different types of fiction. In the evolutionary analogy, I guess erc is Darwin, the reader is DNA, and Richard Schickel is a dodo bird.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

pure brilliance

Matt: Remember when there used to be Magic Eye kiosks in the mall?
Mina: (laughs)
Matt: That's what I want to commission for my apartment: A portrait of myself, but done as a Magic Eye.

Friday, May 18, 2007

What would the Times' "Vows" Say?

Foreign Policy's list of the Top 100 Public Intellectuals is several months old--RIP Baudrillard--but it's still worth a look. Skepticism aside (Fukuyama over Zizek? Posner over Kristeva?), the most troubling aspect of the catalogue is, of course, the dearth of female names. Granted, some of these academics are probably women whose multi-syllabic, vowel-heavy names I can't identify as feminine. But still.

ERC has devised an innovative idea that will reignite a female intellectual renaissance: The return of the Boston Marriage, which is defined as follows:
"a marriage-like relationship between two women—"New Women" in the language of the time, women who were independent, not married, self-supporting (which sometimes meant living off inherited wealth or making a living as writers or other professional, educated careers)."
My first recommendation is that Martha Nussbaum and Elaine Scarry shack up. Barbara Johnson would provide a feasible, albeit less photogenic, alternative.

on the appeal of the academic novel

While riding the train back to New Haven yesterday, I finished Philip Roth’s The Human Stain, the second book I’ve read for pleasure as a quasi-college graduate (stay tuned--the Kimes family descends for commencement in two weeks). After reading American Pastoral, Goodbye Columbus, etc., I admit I think Roth is a phenomenal author—undoubtedly, one of the best living novelists—but this novel left me feeling intensely uneasy, and I’ve been wrestling with attempts to explain my dissatisfaction.

The simplest answer would be alienation. At its most basic level, The Human Stain is about an older professor (a classicist, no less) who has an affair with a younger woman; with the exception of Coetzee’s Disgrace, I’ve historically found myself drawn to, yet repelled, by the trope, which practically demands its own shelf at Borders. Contemporary fiction abounds with ambiguously named northeastern liberal arts universities teeming with professor-protagonists (professagonists?) who pursue adulterous or unorthodox affairs, which generally lead to disaster/self-discovery/awkward sex. As a younger, educated, female reader, I can’t help but find myself distanced from such narratives, which tend to demonize female academics, vaunting women who are, for lack of a better idiom, “in touch with nature”—females who have chosen raw sexuality, motherhood, or physical labor over the artifice and faux-masculinity of academia.

In The Human Stain, for example, we have Delphine Roux: a petite, brunette, young feminist scholar with an affinity for French post-structuralist theory (obviously, that hits a little too close to home), whose hated of the professagonist is motivated by sexual desire—Delphine really just wants a man to love her, you know? And on the other side of the campus, we have Faunia Farley, a veritable milkmaid.

Gender-based indignation would justify literary estrangement, to be sure, and a deep distrust of the male pen, but it’s not only males who craft such professagonistic (seriously, the ny review of books should credit the invention of this word to erc) narratives: Zadie Smith, for example, offers a similar plotline in On Beauty, even the unnatural academic/natural mother binary. Which leads me to consider the possibility that it wasn’t alienation that generated my unease upon reading The Human Stain, but identification—identification with a sentiment, rather than a character.

So what is this sentiment--the source of my love-hate relationship with the genre?

The Human Stain purports to be a novel about the pervasiveness of impurity—a “stain” that bleeds across class, gender, and sexual boundaries. The story of the male professor and the female janitor is sandwiched between Roth’s ill-fitting moralizing about the Clinton scandal; their fate isn’t an allegory, however, but an indictment, a narrative finger pointed at those who don’t believe in fallibility, who refuse to accept the universality of sin.

But this isn’t a novel about sin and forgiveness; it’s a novel about desperation, about the ever-widening gap between the natural and the artificial. It’s about a protagonist whose life is entirely constructed—who has spent his entire adult life pretending to be a different race--and, subsequently, desperately craves an experience that exists beyond the realm of representation, a relation that “just is.” This, I think, is the sentiment we relate to--the fear that the ivory tower shields us from other spheres of experience; that simulacra and cybernetics and semiotics, by destroying our faith in “the human condition," have segregated us from our humanity. The portrayal of this longing is I think, the reason why, as a “student,” I’m simultaneously repulsed and attracted to the existential crises of these “professagonists”: When reading a Robert Frost poem, one can derive great fulfillment from parsing the philosophical questions, but such analysis is inevitably accompanied by the fear that the recognition of the referent—the beauty of what “just is”—is lost in translation.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

promising light

Out here in Northern Virginia, or, as my dad would call it, the "sticks," the environment just isn't conducive to blogging. The internet blows--who would have thought that suburban families could learn how to secure their wireless?--my parents' imac isn't compatible with blogger, and my mom keeps distracting me with plates of freshly cut fruit.

Plus, I miss my normal font. I can't think with all dem serifs!

That said, in the tradition of Laurence Sterne, I will promise some "chapters" that I'm obviously not going to deliver on:

1. More wince-inducing images gleaned from erc's formerly untouched crypt of junior high photographs.
2. Some thoughts on the last two novels I read--The Master and Margarita and The Human Stain--and literary pleasure.
3. Some thoughts on online vs. paper book reviews, and a conversation I had with frequent-erc-commenter Matt about who has the "right to review."
4. A post about American Idol, which is basically all my parents and I discuss.

Keep on truckin,' readers. For now, I'll leave you with the most disgusting picture of all time.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

anthropology

Flipping through the catalog I received in the mail yesterday, came across:



















Think her outfit's from Anthropologie, too?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

death becomes her

I'll be the first to say it: this blog has been disappointing lately. Between the throw-away links to funny science articles, the admittedly lame regular installment idea, and the fact that I'm clearly investing more thought and effort into post titles than the posts themselves (some people procrastinate with youtube; erc puns), the thought-provoking posts in erc are growing few and far between.

In many ways, the Tristram Shandy comparison is inevitable. Like Laurence Sterne, erc promised to tell the story of elm rock city and digressed immediately; the "New Haven" gimmick has served as skeletal structure upon which I've hung my fully-fleshed opinions and ruminations. Like the novel, it's hard to tell where the narrator ends and the blog begins (this is what happens, naturally, when one uses the same acronymic moniker to refer to both herself and her body of work). Also like Tristram Shandy, erc was conceived with a morbid awareness of its own impending demise. In 20 days, I shall graduate, move to New York to begin my new job, and leave this fine city forever.

All great things, readers, must come to an end.

While the utter abandonment of erc isn't set in stone (as some have suggested, a simple name change might be in order), consider this as a turning point--a wake up call of sorts, like the beginning of the last trio of volumes in Sterne's book, when Tristram, confronted with his corporeal frailty and impending demise, flees through Europe. Time is precious, too precious to be wasted with links to funny animal stories (the title of that last one is a gem) and posts on topics appropriated from my studies. I fully intend to spend my final days at Yale squirreled away in my room with the shades drawn, blogging about new material like there's no tomorrow.

That said, time to finish reviewing Tristram Shandy for my last final exam.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

bliss

There are very few experiences as pleasurable as playing an album you haven't listened to since high school (when you used to keep it on constant rotation in your minivan's 6-deck CD player) and discovering that you still know all of the lyrics.

Friday, May 04, 2007

fowl play

People often ask me if I have any long term goals in journalism. I'm generally too lazy, or fearful rather, to put a great deal of thought into this question (Write for The New Yorker? Win a Pulitzer? Break a government scandal?), so I usually evade the question by muttering something about editing Cat Fancy or landing the Lindsay Lohan beat at Star.

From now on, when anyone asks me what sort of material I want to write and what level of journalistic proficiency I hope to achieve, I shall point them to this impeccable piece in the NY Times, "In Ducks, War of the Sexes Plays Out in Evolution of Genitalia." Because brilliant reporting is about securing brilliant quotes, like:

Gazing at the enormous organs, she asked herself a question that apparently no one had asked before.

“So what does the female look like?” she said. “Obviously you can’t have something like that without some place to put it in. You need a garage to park the car.”

For once, erc isn't being sarcastic--this is the greatest Times piece I've ever read. Although a word of advice to my readers: Unless you want to vomit, don't google image search for pictures of a "duck phallus" after reading the article. Not that I, um, looked for them.