Monthly Archives: May 2009

Pacify Me

            When I was pregnant with Zachary, I got my husband a book called The Expectant Father.  It was, as far as I could tell, the least offensive of the fathering books out there, a genre that seems to mostly consist of men saying, “Me manly man.  Me take care of baby!”  Because, really, we just didn’t need a book called My Boys Can Swim.

            My husband read a few pages of the book, but he mostly relied upon The Idiot’s Guide to Babies (or something like that).  He just isn’t a chest-thumping, football watching, beer drinking kind of guy, despite being absurdly strong (those of you who know him, please tell them I’m right.)  Hell, he was in a theater group in college where all the women’s parts were played by men.  Granted, he was on the set crew and his role largely consisted of carrying heavy objects around and ending up in the emergency room, but you get my point.  He wasn’t going to read a book for new dads that tried to claim all men like to bond over beer and spitting contests.  Although, he is always up for a good burping contest…

            So, when Chris Mancini’s Pacify Me: A Handbook for the Freaked-Out New Dad arrived in the mail, I took one look at the cover and thought, “Shit.  Beer bottles.  It’s another one of those books.”

            But, it’s not.  Chris is kind of a geek with a robot obsession.  And he makes Star Trek references.  He’s writing a book for the guys who didn’t major in Drink Yourself Silly at Frat Parties for all seven years of college.  Take for example his description of the preregistration paperwork you fill out before the baby is born, “which I swear came straight from the movieBrazil.  Which, FYI, I think they toss because when you get to the hospital, you will be filling it all out again anyway” (32).

            Yes, he does indeed reference Brazil.

            I kind of got the feeling reading this book that I would love to hang out with Chris, which is convenient because he lives here in L.A., but also confusing because he lives in here L.A., and I haven’t found all that many down-to-earth people in this city.  Then he made a Tastycakes reference and I thought, “Oh, he’s from Philly.  That explains it.”

            The book is funny.  Very, very funny but in a self-deprecating kind of way, like in his discussion of vomit.  For a time, the baby only threw up in his wife’s car, Mancini tells us.  “I was sure it was her driving.  She, however, disagreed rather loudly.  I don’t know why I even suggested it.  You know that voice in your head that says, ‘You really shouldn’t say that’ right before you say something?  Mine is broken” (104).  Don’t worry, my husband’s is, too.

            Now, don’t get me wrong.  This is not the book for clear advice on how to clip those itsy-bitsy fingernails.  It is mostly an honest and funny look at how normal men feel about the early stages of having and raising a baby.  And some of the advice he does give I disagree with.  When he talks about colic, for example, he does not mention that it could be reflux and the doctor can test for that.  And while I am not myself an attachment parent, I think those who are should probably skip his opinions on that particular practice.  But the book is funny, honest, and not over-the-top macho. 

            So, if you know a dude who has just become or is about to become a father, I have saved you the trouble of shopping for a Fathers’ Day gift.  And I’m not just saying that in hopes that Mancini will drop a shipment of Tastycakes by my house.

I am cross posting this between Wheels on the Bus and Edge of the Page since it is a book review but also relevant to parenting.  Which means that those of you who subscribe to both blogs just cleared two posts out of your RSS feed reader.  

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Learning to Read: Musing Monday

For my first Musing Monday, I would have liked to have written something new, but I covered this topic a couple of years ago at my other place, so here it is, slightly edited.  The topic is: Do you remember how you developed a love for reading? Was it from a particular person, or person(s)? Do you remember any books that you read, or were read to  you, as a young child? My answer:

On my fourth birthday, my aunt gave me the perfect present.  I have had thirty-five birthdays, and no present has yet outstripped what my aunt gave me the year I turned four (unless you count Zachary, who was born three weeks before my thirty-first birthday or Lilah, born two days before my thirty-fifth). 

The year I turned four, my aunt called to ask what I wanted for my birthday.  My answer was swift and certain.  “Dorothy.”  Then, my sister got on the phone to translate.  A few weeks later, it arrived.  It was faux leather-bound with gold leaf.  Throughout the text, there were color illustrations, the bold yellow of the brick road and the intense red of the poppies only slightly less enchanting than that dress on Glinda. 

Oh, the dress on Glinda.

I wanted it read to me all the time.  Anyone who had advanced beyond a rudimentary understanding of the alphabet was conscripted to sound out a chapter or two.  Over and over, until, within a month or two, I had pretty much memorized the entire book.  I suppose I had probably already begun to read, but I clearly remember pairing the words I knew in my head with the words I saw on the page and so learning to read from The Wizard of Oz

Once I could read, things got a little crazy.  Books, magazines, newspapers, words I did not understand, concepts I could not process.  Shampoo bottles, delivery trucks, billboards.  I was addicted, and there were fixes everywhere.

It was just in the nick of time.  A year later, my father remarried.  My stepmother took over the household, and I read.  She started hitting us, and I read.  She starved us; I read.  She took away my clothes, our food, our father; I read.  When the leisure time disappeared, I read at school or while dusting the books. 

Through the step-mother years, I let myself go with Beverly Cleary.  Through the years with my grandparents, with Judy Blume and Isaac Bashevis Singer.  Through the Aunt years, with Tennessee Williams, Jane Austin, Douglas Adams, Sidney Sheldon, and Margaret Mitchell.  Through flight delays, bad boyfriends, skipped classes, social failures.  Waiting for the fry cook to get my order up, sitting in waiting rooms, dripping with sweat on the elliptical.  Through Octavia Butler, James Baldwin, Wendy Wasserstein, Paula Vogel, and one short fling with James Joyce (long book, short fling).  Through fertility treatment, pregnancy, breastfeeding.

Reading is portable, good for the soul, and as cheap as a library card, but it is bad for the eyes. Every year, my prescription got worse, till the optometrist had to call in reinforcements each time I lost a contact lens.  I couldn’t see my own feet in the shower, but I was sure ready for the verbal section on all those standardized tests.

My children, too, seem to have learned there is incredible comfort in books.  One day, I left toddler Benjamin along in the living room.  After a few minutes, I got a little nervous, because there was no banging, shouting, or squealing going on.  I peeked my head back in.  My little 14 month old was sitting in the middle of the floor with “Quack Quack,” a book he adored due to his waterfowl obsession.  He had it open to the page with the sheep and was reading it to himself.  “Baaaaah,” he said softly.

I quietly backed out of the room.  No one likes to be disturbed in the middle of a good book.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Apologies in advance; I cannot figure out how to get my Mac to put an accent over the letter I.

            Junot Diaz is all about the footnotes in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, because his narrator would not think of sending his readers out to face the world without his rather unique approach to Dominican history.  He informs us of important bits of information such as the fact that the dictator, Trujillo, was “also known as “El Jefe, The Failed Cattle Thief, and Fuckface” (2).  Good to know. 

            These historical tidbits become important to the text, as really all good footnotes are, or they wouldn’t be there in the first place.  What first read as amusing asides eventually weave into the plot, and a reader would be ill-advised to skip any of the footnotes.  Plus, they are funny as hell.  The narrator has a complex voice, part street colloquial, part Spanish, part SAT words.  A fly kid who uses words like “bitches” to refer to women partly ironically, partly seriously, and partly ironically about being part ironic and part serious.  The footnotes do heavy lifting to construct the layers of this voice, setting up his authority as a dude telling the truth with the facts to back him up, but doing so while farting in the direction of uptight historians who probably have poles up their asses.

            My favorite footnote comes a third of the way through the text.  It is worth quoting in full:

In my first draft, Samana was actually Jarabacoa, but then my girl Leonie, resident expert on all things Domo, pointed out that there are no beaches in Jarabacoa.  Beautiful rivers but no beaches.  Leionie was also the one who informed me that the perrito (see first paragraphs of chapter one, “GhettoNerd at the End of the World”) wasn’t popularized until the late eighties, early nineties, but that was one detail I couldn’t change, just liked the image too much.  Forgive me, historians of popular dance, forgive me! 132

Now, what are we supposed to do with a narrator who sets himself up with all sorts of gossipy historical footnotes only to blithely undercut himself like that?  We throw up our hands and settle in for the ride, is what.

            One hundred and fifty pages later, in the text, we get “A Note From Your Author,” shortly after he introduces a the character Ybon, an aging protitute:

I know what Negroes are going to say.  Look, he’s writing Suburban Tropical now.  A puta and she’s not an underage snort-addicted mess.  Not believable.  Should I go down to the Feria and pick me up a more representative model?  Would it be better if I turned Ybon into this other puta I know, Jahyra, a friend and a neighbor in Villa Juana, who still lives in one of those old-style pink wooden houses with the zinc roof? … But then I’d be lying.  I know I’ve thrown a lot of fantasy and sci-fi into the mix, but this is supposed to be a true account of the Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. 284-5

In other words, he’s totally toying with us, people.  It’s not one of those annoying books that forever reminds you that the narrator is unreliable.  No, it’s a book that amuses itself with the fact that the narrator is unreliable.

            This is not to say that the book is flighty.  It is a serious book, but it has a sense of humor about itself.  The footnotes, for example, are real notes, with actual helpful information, but they are also ironic because they are written in a decidedly un-academic voice, but you never get the sense that Diaz is admiring his own irony.  Rather, he is wry about his wryness. 

            There is, of course, much more that I could write about in this book; those Pulitzer people knew what they were doing with this one.  But, so much has already been written by other people, and if you actually haven’t read this one yet, I don’t want to include any spoilers.  That’s going to be a running theme around here – I am going to talk about books in a way that doesn’t negate the need for you to read them if, by some chance, your teacher is planning a reading quiz tomorrow morning.

Sexing the Cherry redux and kitchen remodels

           “Gotta love this seventies bathroom,” my new neighbor said, as she showed me around the house she had purchased from her parents.

            “Hey now, this is definitely an early eighties bathroom,” I replied.  And I was right.  I’m usually right about the era of kitchen and bathroom remodels, and I specialize in those done between 1981 and 1986.  There is something about kitchens and bathrooms done in that period that just screams Cyndi Lauper at me.  I cannot always put my finger on how, but I know when a contractor did the work while listening to Toni Basil singing “Mickey.”

            Personally, I think domestic architecture in general took a nosedive in the eighties.  I know I’m the first to say such things, but the early McMansion movement does little for me.  The fact is that people can tell when most houses were built or remodeled just by looking at them.  Everyone has his or her own preference.  Clearly, I have a thing for the mid-1920s, given that our last two houses were built in 1928 and 1926.

            I am able, however, to appreciate houses of other eras, provided they have some merits beyond being just archetypes of their periods.  Not myself a big fan of houses from the 1950s, but there are many of the period that are well-designed and well-built.  The problem with most ordinary houses built in the 1980s is that all they had going for them at the time was that they were new.

            Now they are just dated.

            That is my long and absurdly convoluted way of saying that I am down with literature being reflective of its period or being part of a new movement.  But if all the book has to say for itself is that it is new and flashy, it is going to become dated, much like the house with hollow doors and floors that sag under the weight of book cases.

            My friend ABF commented on yesterday’s post on Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry:

Sexing the Cherry was published in 1989, before Butler’s Gender Trouble (1990), before Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet (1991), before Bhabha’s The Location of Culture (1994), and only two years after Spivak’s In Other Worlds (1987). I know you weren’t being literal about how Winterson wrote her novel, and I’m not saying you should like it, but it is worth noting that it came out when the fields of postcolonial theory, gender studies, and queer theory were themselves undergoing transformative changes or in fact just coming into existence. What seems like a “paint-by-the-numbers” text now would not have seemed that way in 1989, or at least not because of its engagement with theories of gender, sexuality, and postcoloniality.

He is right (because he always is); Winterson’s book was part of a movement.  I wouldn’t say she started the movement, although I am not a historian of the period, because given the dates, it was all being written at more or less the same time.  Nonetheless, yes, her novel was a part of that recharting, and as such was fresh and new at the time.

            Kind of like that 1982 kitchen with the white cabinets and the Corian countertops.

            My issue is not with her selling theory as fiction.  Some of my favorite writers also wrote theory (is that like saying “some of my best friends are black?”).  Henry James always had his panties in a bunch trying to figure out what the hell he was doing with his work, and he wrote essay after essay trying to explain the fine art of fiction.

            Winterson just seems so damned impressed with herself.

            And that’s the crux of my issue.  Go on, write theory, write fiction, or write fiction that is theory.  But, if you are going to write a novel that is steeped deeply in theory, do not do so with the answers already in mind. 

            Sexing the Cherry, to my reading, comes to teach me something.  She has an agenda and she already knows the answers.  That’s all well and good when you are making an argument in a theoretical essay, but it has no place in fiction that is supposed to be groundbreaking.  If your fiction is also theory, then I want to see you working through things, questioning and challenging.  I don’t want to feel like you already know and are deigning to share that knowledge with me.  (This is not how I feel about all fiction, but fiction that is also theory, which Winterson basically is as a part of a certain postcolonial movement.)  If you start with a checklist of points you want to hit, then your product comes to me as finished, with nothing for me to add in my reading.  So why should I bother?

            I’m not arguing that she didn’t do good work or that there haven’t been strong, positive reverberations from that period.  But the book?  Eh. 

I do not want this to be a blog that only people with graduate degrees in English can participate in.  I promise, that’s not the direction we are going here, even if these first two posts feel that way.  I want to hear from everyone who has something to say about books.  Please, please, feel free to argue.  That’s sort of the point.

Sexing the Cherry

Some theory derives from thoughtful interrogation of texts or the world or somesuch.  Edward Said, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault – they all read deeply and their writing led others to think intensely about good stuff like identity construction or the postcolonial condition or why Henry James was probably gay.  Much as I bitched and moaned about reading that theory, it opened up my approach to life and – more importantly – to literature.

But, then there are those fiction writers who you could swear read way too much theory before they wrote.  They write these books that make you wonder, “Was this author intentionally trying to write something post-modern?”  Sexing the Cherry is one of those books.  It’s a paint-by-numbers postcolonial text that leads me to believe Jeanette Winterson composed it with a volume on Homi Bhabha by her side.

It’s as though she had a checklist of appropriate postcolonial themes.  Gender-bending?  Check: there’s the requisite princess who marries a woman disguised as a prince.  Fluid sexuality?  Check: the prostitutes are screwing the nuns and the men all come in to stick it to corpses in the brothel.  Colonial power echoing in today’s corporate structure?  Check: modern mercury in the river is cleverly juxtaposed with seventeenth-century prudes who try to stifle women and sexuality.

We’re all supposed to feel wicked smaht because we can follow Winterson’s pace and point of view shifts.  Look!  Bright, shiny language!  Words are the star attraction, except, of course, it’s really the author who is front and center.  When Jordan, a seventeenth-century man on a quest for a dancer who doesn’t exist, joins a street cleaner who captures old conversations floating above the city, we are supposed to all faint with excitement over our ability to decode Winterson’s point about words leaving a trace.  Well done!  We’re all so much smarter than Oprah’s book club readers!

Someone really ought to tell Jeanette Winterson that she’s not half so clever as she thinks she is.