Thursday, June 26, 2008

Meme 123 & The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher

Previously, I noted my ignorance of Googlisms. Well, it appears that I'm also ignorant about Internet memes (and, as a folklorist, I should really be ashamed to admit that on several levels).

I've certainly received and participated in Internet memes without knowing that they had a name (again, "Duh, isn't that the exact experience students have in an intro to folklore class?"). But, unsurprisingly, the Wikipedia entry linked above is woefully insufficient.

So, if someone could explain Internet memes to me more thoroughly, I'd appreciate it. And tell me how they get their this the techno-nerd-savvy version of knowing the tale-type number of Little Red Riding Hood? (AT333, BTW.)

Anyway, here's "meme 123," which I stumbled across recently, and which the rest of you probably have known about for years:

1) Pick up the nearest book.
2) Open it to page 123.
3) Find the fifth sentence.
4) Post the next three sentences.
5) Pass the meme on to five more people, and acknowledge the person who tagged you.

At the moment, I'm reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale. It's a terrific work of non-fiction that the author has structured like a classic English country-house mystery, since the case she describes here--the gruesome 1860 murder of a three-year old boy--was, in fact, the real-life prototype of that genre. (She does a great job of showing how later 19th-century detective novels borrow elements of the case, thus prolonging its notoriety.)

So, here's what's on page 123:

"In its influential editorial on the Road Hill murder, the Morning Post alluded to this case: 'That it should be a child [who killed Saville] would be incredible if Eugenie Plummer had not taught us to what length the wicked precocity of of some children will extend.' Eugenie's precocity was sexual, but it also rested in her cool deceit, her composure under pressure, the containment and channeling of her disturbance into bare lies. If newspaper readers had been horrified to find a clergyman convicted of sexually molesting a child in 1859, they must have been even more disturbed, a year later, to find the situation had been turned upside down to revel the child as the agent of evil, a creature who had undone a man's life with her lewd imaginings."

Oh, those wacky Victorians! (Hmm--there are strings of phrases in that excerpt that are likely to bring in a lot of unfortunate traffic. Ah well.)

Anyway, that passage both gives a taste of the text and doesn't do it justice. While I will say that Summerscale does get bogged down in documentation in some places (do we really need so many quotes from contemporary newspapers and letters?), for the most part, she accomplishes a difficult feat: putting together a text that is gripping, suspenseful, and scholarly all at once.

Monday, June 23, 2008

My Dad's Studebakers

One of my clearest childhood memories of playing in the old barn on the northern Ohio farm where I grew up was the '53 Studebaker Commander Coupe that my parents used to drive about the time when they were married. The Studebaker sat parked in there, the trunk always partly ajar, bent so it wouldn't really close. When we moved off the farm in 1979, my dad towed the car to our new place, but he couldn't garage it, and it sat out in the weather for about 20 or 25 years, and ended up in not very good shape.

When he retired, though, one of his presents to himself was a restoration of that car, or one just like it. Famously designed by Raymond Loewy, the '53 coupe is supposedly one of the most beautiful cars ever manufactured (as even Wikipedia will tell you), and the one my dad has now is a beauty. It looks like it's new.

At a Studebaker meet, in the meantime, he bought a 1960 Studebaker Lark, and he and my mom tooled around town in it for a few years, until he sold it on eBay. Last fall, he bought a gigantic old 1955 President (he calls it a Landcruiser) four-door. It, too, had been sitting in a field for a bunch of years, and he's working to put it back in running order, to have something for daily driving, I guess. A couple of times (in March, and last week), I've lent a hand to a bit of the work, helping to rebuild the front suspension, pulling on the torque wrench. He pretty much just tells me what to do and I do it.

I once asked my dad: if Studebaker was one of the auto industry's "Big Four," how come they stopped making cars? With typical bluntness, he said "Because they weren't one of the Big Three." He's owned more Studebakers since they stopped building them than he did when they were a going concern, but that's what I like about this story. There he is, enjoying retirement, but still working with his hands, taking something that others might see as obsolete, and bringing it to life.

Wasted irony du jour

So, I was in the weight room at the gym this morning, which was (unusually) populated almost exclusively by women, when I suddenly realized that "Killing Me Softly" was playing on the radio that gets blasted in there. And then Little Miss Anorexia walked by (seriously, there are some youngsters in there that I want to hold down and feed soup to).

Yeah, it was the Fugee's hip-hop version of Roberta Flack's original...but still: if you needed evidence that we're living in a post-feminist world, there it was.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Broken record

You may recall my previous rant about Knocked Up's easy dismissal of abortion as a valid choice for women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant (and, in that film, anyway, pregnant by Josh Rogan's appalling character, no less). So, a caveat: read no further if you don't want to hear more on that topic.

OK--for those of you still with me: so, I saw Juno on DVD last week. And actually, I liked it very much. For all I'd heard and read about how "unrealistic" Ellen Page's character is--too clever, too articulate, too flip--I found her to be a composite of many of the smart, witty, cynical girls I knew in high school. It's an idealized composite, I'll admit, but still realistic: Juno's naivete about the adoptive couple's faltering relationship and her denial of her own emotional investment cast her seeming worldliness in its proper context. She is, after all, still just 16.

But--and it's a big but, as usual--again, the abortion option gets dismissed a little too handily. Granted, the film at least gives a bit more screen time to Juno's struggle with this decision, and it doesn't romanticize unanticipated motherhood the way Knocked Up does. But all it takes for Juno to decide to go ahead and carry the pregnancy to full term and give the baby up for adoption is the news that fetuses have fingernails, a fact passed on to her by the lone protester--a high-school classmate--outside the abortion clinic.

Of course, the whole point of "pro-choice" is that it is a choice, regardless of what decision any individual makes in the end. But both Knocked Up and Juno fail to address the fact that such choices are also deeply influenced by other concerns--namely, the financial stability of the pregnant woman. Both Katherine Heigl's character and Juno are white, upper-middle class women, the former with a successful career (and presumably, a lucrative salary) and the latter with a supportive family. It's easy for Juno to find an affluent couple to adopt her baby and pay the medical expenses of her pregnancy because she's white, smart, and attractive.

But not every woman who finds herself in this situation has all of those advantages, all of which make it vastly easier to "choose" to have the baby--and both films imply that that is the only moral choice to make. Poor girls who get "knocked up" and get abortions become, in effect, second-class citizens, those who exercised their "right to choose," but made a sad, unfortunate choice that--thank god!--nice, middle-class girls from good families don't have to make.

I get that if either of these characters "chose" to have abortions, we wouldn't have a movie to watch. (Which, in the case of Knocked Up, would be no tragedy.) But there's a disturbing double-standard at work here: abortion is OK if you have absolutely no other options, but you should still feel really bad about it, because of course the "right" thing to do is to have the baby.

There's so much liberal anxiety these days about what will happen if John McCain gets elected and fills the Supreme Court with "activist" conservative justices, and what that will mean for the future of Roe v. Wade in particular. But films like Knocked Up and Juno suggest that as a culture, we really need to reexamine our personal attitudes about abortion. If we're so freaking ambivalent about how valid a "choice" abortion really is, how effectively can we defend it?

Friday, June 20, 2008

Auction days

As Rose can tell you, I get a smile on my face (if only a small one) every time I hear a real auctioneer do his (or her) thing. It's a comforting sound to me, believe it or not, and I must have spent an awful lot of days as a child listening to the sound of an auction in progress (my folks have long been collectors and dealers in antiques). More than once, I know, I fell asleep to the sound of an auctioneer's song.

So, earlier this week, I spent a day at an auction with my parents for the first time in fifteen or twenty years, probably. They're retired now (from both their day jobs and the active antique dealing), but they still are collectors (one never recovers from that, I think), and they have the joy of having a little money to spend at auctions. And I even got a chance to buy a couple of lots at the auction (ooh--I bought a copy of the OED, and promptly gave it to my dad, since I already had one).

It was an exhausting day, I have to admit, and a powerful reminder that real, live-in-person auctions are a whole different deal than eBay (which has recently announced it's getting out of the "Live auction" business entirely). A lot of time sitting or standing while stuff you really don't care about is being sold, punctuated by a few brief moments of spending money, in potentially large quantities. And my folks filled the back of their station wagon with boxes of glass, which made them happy, I think.

And I had fun, too: if part of the attraction of collecting is the thrill of the chase, auctions are where that chase is configured as a contest--although it's not a sport. But you can literally spend a few dollars and feel like a winner. And I did.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Do YAs read YA lit?

In my new job I'm regularly teaching a class on young-adult literature, which I'd taught a few times previously, but which is a topic that I'm no expert about. So, this past year I've spent a lot of time catching up on the world of YA lit, and I have to say that for the most part, I've been pleasantly surprised at what's out there.

But I really need to befriend some teachers and librarians, and possibly some actual teenagers (yikes), to find out if YAs actually read YA lit.

Most reviews, of course, are written by adults, and while I've had a few anecdotal reports from students about what they've read and--from those who are in the local schools preparing to be teachers themselves--what they know their students are reading, I suspect that the acclaimed and award-winning texts aren't necessarily those that kids read. I read too many papers about how much my students loved "The Babysitters Club" series and its ilk as teenagers to imagine that much has changed.

And I have read enough this year to realize that some "great," "award-winning" YA lit doesn't quite stand up to critical scrutiny. For example, Lois Lowry's The Giver, which I enjoyed, but read with the constant thought that "this could really have been a great novel if it were about a hundred pages longer," and if it addressed some of the nagging questions that an adult reader brings to it, namely how reproduction happens in this dystopia.

Of course, you can't really talk about the mechanics of reproduction in a text for 9-12 year olds (or so it's assumed). And that's who the book is written for. So are my adult critiques even valid, when I'm not the intended audience?

But I have come across a few things that I'd recommend not only to readers of the age group for whom they're intended, but for adults as well. They're just good books by any standard.

So, in the spirit of summer reading clubs, here are a few books that you can easily plow through in one (or two) afternoons after swimming lessons. In no particular order:

Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its sequel, Roderick Rules by Jeff Kinney. The journals (it's not his fault his mom bought him a book with the word DIARY on the cover in huge letters) of Greg Heffley, the eponymous wimpy kid. They contain his musings about middle school, "the dumbest idea ever invented." There's a lot of satire here that adults who survived the experience will enjoy, but the books also do an amazing job of characterizing Greg, who is both endearing and loathsome in the way that only a middle-schooler can be.

Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins. A ethereally written novel about that adolescent summer I suspect everyone has in which nothing and everything happens--when the depth of the world opens up to you and you're not cynical enough to run in the other direction yet.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Don mentioned this book as one of his favorites of 2007, and it's becoming one of my favorites of 2008. Narrated by the very sympathetic voice of death, it follows the experiences of young Leisel Meminger (the book thief) in Munich during WW II.

Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse. A novel in prose poems about one girl's life in the Oklahoma panhandle during the Dust Bowl. The poems are spare but incredibly evocative.

Godless by Pete Hautman. Weird smart kids without much to do during a small-town summer invent a religion whose god is the town water tower. This proves to be an entertaining diversion until, as inevitably happens with any religion, one person becomes a fundamentalist fanatic, a splinter group forms and reinterprets the sacred text, and the tests to prove one's faith get increasingly dangerous.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Gordon Ramsay and Me

I'm pretty sure I first saw Gordon Ramsay on tv in the UK, on an old episode of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares; I know I first saw Gordon Ramsay's F-Word (it's "food" by the way) while staying in London, waiting through a Saturday night stayover, because (believe it or not) three more nights in London was still cheaper than a quicker return flight.

Anyway, as Rose can tell you, I've become a big fan--at least of his UK shows. Unlike me, perhaps, Ramsay is famous for being abrasive, if not abusive; he's a regular user of strong language and an in-your-face advocate of his passions. He appears regularly (maybe too much so) on BBC America, and Rose can always tell when I'm watching his show by the frequent bleeps which carry throughout the house, even if the rest of the soundtrack does not.

He's had a couple of stints on American tv, too, I should point out: on Hell's Kitchen and an American version of Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares. But on American tv he's regularly edited to emphasize the abrasiveness: the yelling, the cursing, the unbending expectations. All that is there in the BBC shows, too, but in the British programs you see another side as well, one perfectly capable of being nurturing and nice, as well as obnoxious. He's much more human on British tv, I think, and I've always suspected that it's the complexity of how both sides fit together that makes him a star on British tv, and a failure on American.

The difference is a comment on the reality of reality tv, of course: but it's also a comment on what Americans seem to want, or what the networks want us to want.

But if you like food and you hate the Food Network, you could do worse than watch Ramsay.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Behind the curve, as usual

OK, so y'all have probably long ago heard about "Googlisms." Or so I gather after going to a lecture the other day where the person introducing the speaker said "I found some Googlisms on [speaker's] name--I'm sure everyone's used it before" and I had that familiar feeling that, once again, I'm far more behind technologically than I ever imagined.

Fortunately, this is a no-brainer. I'm reminded of a freeware application I had years ago that would generate all the possible anagrams for any name or phrase you typed in. My favorite anagram for my own name was "a seamy hoary wrath," and Tom's best result was "the Fed's bathroom."

Among my favorite Googlisms:
hathaway is one more victim of cheap labor
hathaway is aware that any song recorded will stay with her a lifetime
hathaway is somewhat limited
hathaway is clearly abandoning realpolitik and seeking a moralistic scapegoat
hathaway is on a buying binge
hathaway is watching her own cinderella story unfold
hathaway is the only remaining heir to the throne
hathaway is auroramud's patron saint
hathaway is a diva
hathaway is always in the kitchen
hathaway is still getting her bearings around the press but she was at least willing to let it all down in front of our tape recorders

For an amusing five minutes, try it out! BTW, there are a million online anagram generators, if you have another few minutes to waste: here's one.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

In case you need a visual...

In his last post, Tom asked you to "picture [him], some twenty-five years earlier, trying in [his] own quietly desperate way to develop some sort of individual identity."

Well, if you're not inclined to come up with an image on your own, here's one for you. Isn't he cute, in that 80s "I'm trying to look like a member of Flock of Seagulls" kind of way?

BTW, I got an "e-vite" today to my 25th high-school reunion next month. I don't know which is scarier: the fact that it's been 25 years, or the fact that they managed to track me down.