"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Thursday, May 31, 2012


There have already been almost three weeks of post-graduate life and almost three weeks of summer. It feels like a long time and no time at all, of course. Time warps weirdly in transitional moments because you don't really know what to tack it onto yet.

So far, my summer has consisted mostly of nature and books, which is a great start. I'm busy as ever, it feels, but I'm dotting the next few months with weekends and weeks here and there that will feature nothing but grass and trees and my two feet. And between those dots, I'm trying to squeeze in lots of long stretches of story time, which, since I don't have my entire brain to devote to it, draws mostly on other people's stories. I've read three books since graduating and am half-way through two more, which feels great. All of them simply for pleasure, except that it turns out one will be on my course reading list next year.

And by the way, I don't think I've mentioned it before - but now it's a bit ridiculous, because I've known for months, but anyway - I'm moving to the UK next year for to get a master's degree. I'm afraid that you all missed the initial excitement, but you can still catch the new upswing in excitement that began soon after graduating. Suddenly it feels real and I have a pile of things that I will take to England and I have a plane ticket and I have many many wonderful plans.

But there's still a few more weeks of summer in California left to enjoy - and to put to productive use. Being me, I have a lot of projects that I want to get done. Including writing some more on this blog. Expect some book reviews coming your way soon. In the meantime, the sun is shining and the errands are waiting to be attended to, so off I go for now.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Review: Damsels in Distress

This is a really late review that I planned to write two weeks ago, but then graduation happened and moving back home happened and here I am now finally sitting down to reflect on this very odd, but ultimately pleasing movie.

The only real parallel I can think of to this film's style of satire is Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall. And in fact both Waugh and Whit Stillman seem particularly galvanized to poke fun at the education system in their respective countries and times - and the faults they reveal about them do not differ that significantly. That is to say that the undergraduates at Seven Oaks College are just as silly and absurd and totally uninterested in actually learning anything in school as Waugh's marvelous bunch of teachers and schoolboys.

This movie, though, is particularly focused on the many and diverse dilemmas of young women at college. It deals with issues like mental illness, sex, friendship, and identity, but all with a very unsettling kind of humor that makes you unsure whether to laugh or offer a serious, sympathetic shake of your head.

Ironically, for a movie that uses title cards to announce new scenes, it absolutely refuses to give you any of the usual signposts - the ones we learn to recognize and follow without even noticing them, the ones that define our interpretations of a character and cue our emotional reactions. Even the timing of scene endings is odd. Through the whole movie, I was constantly surprised by the moments on which Stillman chose to end his scenes, and the new scenes that followed.

For a while, this was somewhat disturbing. But after watching the movie all the way through and thinking about it for a couple of weeks, I've come to really admire Stillman for choosing to disregard convention in every thread of this movie.

The characters seemed at first to be caricatures, and at a certain point I gave up on finding any sane person in the whole movie. It turns out I was right, but the prevalence of insanity eventually turned even the oddest, most absurd characters into sympathetic people. I hesitate a little to say it, but these characters felt more real than the most psychologically dissected protagonist of any modern drama.

Because instead of explaining Violet's OCD or Fred/Charlie's identity crisis or Frank's crippling stupidity, the movie simply presents you with these damaged, multi-layered, sometimes tragic and sometimes hilarious characters, as life presents you with equally complex and incomprehensible people. In real life, you don't get revelatory back stories or cues about who's going to end up with whom or who's going to crack under the pressure of being human or who's going to find a happy ending, if anyone ever does.

 There's something both unsettling and deeply comforting about this movie, both for regular people and for storytellers. It shows that you can break all the rules and still come out with something good, maybe even better. It's not a flashy, presumptuous movie. It probably won't have much popularity because it's not easy to watch, but I wholeheartedly recommend it. Even if you don't fall in love with the characters or sympathize with the unique challenges of East Coast college life, it's fun to take a break from formulaic summer blockbusters and get your assumptions shaken up a little bit.

It'll also give you a whole new appreciation of rainbows.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Recommendation: "Would you date a Disney Prince?"

A quick recommendation of things about the internet:

Just watched a video by Carrie Hope Fletcher, in which she expresses more succinctly than any fairy tale theorist I've read why fairy tale gender politics are bad. Link here:

"Would you date a Disney Prince?"

And while you're at it, go ahead and check out her other videos. She's cool.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Semester Book Recap

Just thought I'd recap some of the books I read this semester for class, since it's often tempting to just look at a book in the context of a specific course without really considering it on it's own.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali
This takes the form of an old-fashioned novel, very long, spanning many decades, with a large cast of characters. Specifically, it's a variation on the adulterous wife plot of, for example, Anna Karenina or Middlemarch. But all of this in the context of Bangladeshi immigrants in London.
Not necessarily a book I'd pull off the shelf on a whim, although the cover is really beautiful, but I was pretty happy with it. It's a first novel and maybe drags on a bit too long, and it certainly lacked any of the insight on human nature that some of the classic long character novels achieve so beautifully. I also didn't really get attached to the heroine, Nazneen, which is a bit of a problem in this kind of book, I think. All in all, though, a good read and I'd recommend it for someone who likes a novel you can sink your teeth into but won't necessarily stay with you too long after you finish. A more substantial version of a summer book, I suppose.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
This was a second read, and I already really liked the book the first time around. This time, I got a better appreciation of some aspects of it, in particular the use of the travel metaphor and the weaving together of different times and places in the narrative. It's a really remarkable study in psychology and history and national culture, and I'm looking forward to reading more of Ishiguro's work. I have Never Let Me Go at home and plan to read it this summer, I think. I've been waiting to see the movie until after I read the book. Incidentally, the film of The Remains of the Day is very good, too, and as I was reading Miss Kenton's scenes, I was especially struck at how brilliant a casting Emma Thompson was for the role.

Dubliners by James Joyce
Didn't get to reading all of the stories, just the ones required for class, although I intended to take the opportunity to read the whole book. The stories I read, I liked. They're very short and need lots of unpacking, which makes them so fun to read for a class. In writing about them, I felt I could really indulge in reading between the lines. It's like Joyce was writing with an audience of literary scholars in mind. I suspect the overall impact of the book, with the arc of all the stories, is even more impressive, so someday I'll have to get back to it. I'm not really in the mood or state of mind for Joyce right now, though, so it'll have to wait.

A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
I always forget how amazing Woolf is, and then I read something of hers again and it always blows me away. She has in droves the insight that a book like Brick Lane lacks. This book was so exciting in the way that it expressed perfectly so many great ideas, and also very sobering in the way that it seemed to resonate very well with contemporary reality. Particulars aside, the issues she brings up didn't feel dated or obsolete at all. Things I read in this book earlier this semester have kept popping back up in my mind in relation to other texts and experiences. It's really a must for anyone interested in writing or feminist issues, and besides that it's just a beautiful book.