Tuesday, July 31, 2007

dipping my toes in: the Unread Authors Challenge

Found this Unread Authors challenge over at Sycorax Pine. It seems like fun stuff, so here are my picks for authors I've never read:

1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
2. Consuelo by George Sand
3. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
4. Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut
5. The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
6. On Beauty by Zadie Smith

I can't believe I've made it through high school and a dozen college English courses without reading Vonnegut. Can't wait to remedy the situation.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides)

"I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974."

Middlesex on Amazon

The narrator of this oh-so-cutely titled, Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel inhabits the middle ground between male and female. Raised by unknowing parents as a girl, Calliope Stephanides, now forty-one-year-old Cal Stephanides, narrates her girlhood and the history of the two generations before her, whose inbreeding resulted in her condition. "Sing now, O Muse, of the recessive mutation on my fifth chromosome!" Cal writes in the opening chapter. "Sing how it passed down through nine generations, gathering invisibly within the polluted pool of the Stephanides family." Evoking epic tradition, Eugenides tells a sweeping tale of a Greek family who come to rest in Michigan, but while anchored in a very old tradition he has an original and arresting take on gender.

In this epic, an individual comes to terms with a destiny written by forces greater than herself. But those forces are no longer supernatural or divine, or even societal; they're genetic.

While the romance and intrigue of Callie's ancestors are absorbing and intrinsic to the impact of the story, the real fireworks start when Calliope enters the fictional world. She shatters the boundaries that we unconsciously expect in characters; she can't be categorized or contextualized, despite the copious amount of backstory. No wonder her favorite place at school is a basement bathroom -- not only, as the narrator says, because on its graffitied walls "people wrote down what they couldn't say" but because it's a marginal space. Outside of boundaries, outside time.

At first I thought Eugenides' writing might be too precious (in the "Sing, O Muse" sentences quoted above, for example). But after the grandiosity of the opening chapter the prose style becomes less intrusive, though never lacking in a somewhat mannered musicality. In short it's along the lines of what you'd expect from an Oprah selection, but slightly more cerebral (and palatable). I wouldn't read this book for sheer joy in how it's written; more, to devour the food for thought contained in every action of Calliope's, every machination that brings about her birth and her discovery of herself.

Not only this, but Callie is a believable adolescent, tortured by all the usual angst of a coming-of-age novel, and burdened with more than sufficient material for an existential crisis. The understanding of humanity contained within this novel is deep -- the breadth of sexuality and love and fear that individuals experience. From the 1920s' New Woman and unabashed lesbian Sourmelina to the 1990s' Zora, an academically-minded exotic dancer with Androgen Insensitivity and deep distrust of men, characters -- particularly women -- seem to form almost a catalog of the varieties of sex and gender in the twentieth century. The machinery of the narrative isn't always invisible, and sometimes it's even a bit creaky, but Cal often draws back to look at that very machinery and give us meta-commentary on his storytelling. Everything fits together. Everything has brought Cal to where he is now. Middlesex weaves a story at once organic and self-conscious, circular and linear, masculine and feminine.

In Summary: Highly recommended; a fascinating, complex exploration of gender among other questions.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Knocked Up (2006)

"He's playing fetch. With my kids. He is treating my kids like they're dogs."

Knocked Up on IMDB

Not as roaringly funny as I thought the next movie by Judd Apatow would be, but I happen to think that humbly funny, hairy, bumbling Seth Rogen is just about the cutest thing to happen to movies since Haley Joel Osment. So I watched Knocked Up in romantic-comedy mode and was quite satisfied with it; it was kind of similar to the sweeter parts of The 40 Year Old Virgin. (BTW, how awesome is it that platform-shoes guy from the latter movie got a nice big part in Knocked Up?) Basically, TV personality Katherine Heigl and aimless pothead Seth Rogen have a one-night stand that, because of miscommunication and extreme drunkenness, has consequences that surprise them but naturally don't surprise those of us who know the title of the movie. For the sake of their baby, they try to get to know one another and fit the unplanned pregnancy into their lives.

Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd, as Heigl's sister and brother-in-law trapped in a picket-fence life and a marriage fraught with tension, play That Couple. You know, the one we each have in our lives: the people you look at and then shudder, thinking, "God, I can NOT end up like them." It's spot-on. It's also a little bit scary because lots of people do end up that way. But Leslie Mann's shrill, narcissistic character is even sympathetic at times, far outreaching the hateful (and common) "shrew" stereotype even as it becomes painfully obvious why her husband might have a hard time enjoying his marriage. She's also very, very funny. Funnier still: the other side of the tracks, where Seth Rogen's slacker buddies build their all-nude-scenes-for-every-hot-actress-ever website and hurl hilarious epithets like "late John Lennon" at their friend who's growing a beard on a dare.

By now it's totally unoriginal to pick out the birth scene as the most memorable of the movie. But all I can say is, Knocked Up may do for unsafe sex what Jaws did for swimming. I mean, seriously. Ouch.

On the other hand, I love the way Apatow can combine sweetness with ridiculously funny and explicit humor that takes nothing away from the humanity of the characters. Like, how to have sex with a pregnant woman: underused but extremely fertile material for comedy. In Knocked Up, sex is part of life, neither an empty source of crude humor nor a mystical thing that happens in soft lighting and fades to black. I wish they hadn't made Seth Rogen shave his back though (I can't remember where I read this), because it would have made him that much more real. Hairy dudes have hairy backs. Hollywood should embrace that!

But besides the funny, and besides the romantic-comedy story arc that underlies the plot, this film hits where it hurts for anyone who is, or has been, a lost twenty-something. There's a universal anxiety being tapped into, here, about growing up, sacking up, and taking responsibility for the direction of your life.

In Summary: See it! I laughed not only because it was funny as hell, but because it's impossible not to identify with the messy lives and endearing neuroses of the characters.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Ahem: A Throat-Clearing Post

Every year, I make a New Year's resolution to read a book every week. I tend to read two to three a month, distracted by my deep need for constant TV and movie fixes, and then catch up during vacation months.

The point of that little story is, media saturation is awesome. The most enjoyable part, though, is overanalyzing and complaining about it later. We all know in our hearts we could have written a better third season to Veronica Mars. So I'll be posting critiques of movies and books as I watch and read them, which happens with not inconsiderable frequency. I'll probably be mean. That's more fun.