Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Do as I Read, Not as I Do

Many of my friends have just finished applications to grad school and more are planning to apply in the future. Therefore, today's special bonus recommendation is a whole slew (where slew = 4; I believe it's a metric unit) of books that I've found useful as a neophyte teacher/researcher and as a long-time student. Perhaps, because I have only completed a master's and a few semesters of my PhD, these recommendations are not that weighty, but they helped me, and that's where I am, so maybe they will help you. I make no promises, only recommendations.

Note that for the purposes of this blog post, I define grad school as the process of studying for advanced degrees that prepare one for an academic career, not degrees such as law or medicine; I simply know very little about those degrees and I believe that the professional expectations surrounding those fields are very differently inculcated in students. This belief is based only on my exhaustive questioning of law student friends and my exhaustive review of Grey's Anatomy reruns.

So! On with today's recommendations!

1. Graduate Study for the Twenty-First Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities by Gregory Colón Semenza. If you want to go to grad school in the humanities, you need to read this book. Period. There is simply no excuse not to. Too many grad school "advice" books rely on vagaries and statements about Really Wanting Something; they paint the experience as some kind of self-discovery where moxie and pluck alone can lead to success.

Semenza will give you an even-handed assessment of what you need to do to survive. Too many books critical of the academe engage in hand-wringing and scare tactics. Again, Semenza's book is even-handed and lacks the shrill, easily dismissible tone of those other books that simply shriek at the reader about how doooooomed the academe is. He lays out, from application to job search, what can be expected and provides an explication of the professional expectations put upon grad students. When you're studying for an advanced degree in the humanities, you leave all clear-cut answers behind. The nice thing about this book is that it is almost infuriatingly prescriptive, and while you will likely not want to hear much of the advice he dispenses, one gets a strong sense that success will follow if you listen to his advice. If you read no other book about grad school, make it this one. This is the book I recommend to acquaintances interested in applying. I tell them this over and over and over and over (my recommendations seem to fall on deaf ears).

2. Learning Teaching by Jim Scrivener. Unfortunately this book is out of print, but used copies are fairly reasonable and it seems a new edition (ca. 2005, import) is available. It can also be borrowed from libraries. It is aimed at the person teaching English to adult speakers of other languages, but the basic teaching advice - from determining what "kind" of teacher one is, to diagrams showing how classroom dynamic is affected by desk arrangement, to suggestions for how to call on students with hand gestures other than pointing - is applicable to the young teaching assistant. For those who have never taught, this is an incredibly useful guide. It is straightforward, jargon-free, and accessible.

3. Ms. Mentor's New and Ever More Impeccable Advice for Women and Men in Academia Caveat: I have only read the earlier edition of this book, and I recommend it with liberal sprinklings of salt. I hate to say it, because I truly respect Ms. Mentor (a sob sister character invented by Emily Toth, whose column appears in The Chronicle of Higher Education) but the earlier edition of the book was grievously old-fashioned. Particularly infuriating was her recommendation that female academics (in 1997) refrain from riding bicycles. Really. However, Ms. Mentor is truly to be commended for building an academic career at a time when it was significantly more difficult for women to do so, and the book should be taken on its own terms; readers should understand that her struggles have necessarily informed her advice. And some of the tips are very valuable. She's at her best (at least in the older edition) when she's giving very specific tips such as on how to build a case for tenure and keep records. Certainly, at the very least this book gives remarkable and valuable insight into the experiences of the generation of academics likely to be teaching and advising incoming students, and that context alone is worth the price of admission (currently $11.54 for used copies on Amazon). Since the updated version deigns to include gentlemen as well, it may be even better; in fact, I bet it probably is. eta Ms. Mentor's channeler has informed me that the 2009 book is actually a completely new book, rather than a revision! I apologize to Ms. Mentor for this embarrassing mistake and implore readers to investigate this new offering.

4. What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?: Classroom Politics and "Bias" by Michael Bérubé. This book is more of a meditation on teaching than a discussion of "classroom bias" (an issue I find so patently ridiculous I can't not put it in quotes; if you want to know why, read the book). Bérubé does an excellent job of dismantling and discrediting the more well-known cases of "bias" while still describing, with compassion, his teaching experiences that have involved contentious political issues. He describes the day to day lifestyle of teaching and, more valuably, provides narratives of his experiences teaching. At times his rhetoric is incendiary and possibly alienating to those who truly believe that higher education in the United States is inherently "biased" but I doubt those people would read this. If they do, power to them.

The book lays out a significant number of classroom situations and how Bérubé dealt with them. At times, the examples come across as slightly self-congratulatory, but I appreciated them nonetheless. In today's world, where students seldom accept or respect the credentials of college instructors, it's important to respond to thornier classroom issues meaningfully and authoritatively. The book, as the cover states, defends the value of the liberal arts for all thinking humans- something that can never be done enough in our brain-dead, earnings-obsessed, dying culture. This book is useful for gauging the current atmosphere of the university for professors. It's not as needlessly negative and hopeless as other books I have read. Rather than screeching about the inevitable demise of the academe, Bérubé offers actual models for strategies to negotiate the times. And isn't that what the liberal arts are supposed to be about anyway?

on a side note, thanks so much to all of you who've been reading since we launched this blog! I am excited for 2010 and am hoping to make this blog even bigger then. You know, like, bigger as in more than ten readers. But the point is, I love the ten readers we have. And if you love our blog, please tell some friends! My New Year's resolution is to update more! Maybe Thom's is to update at all! Happy New Year! And finally, if you have something you think I should recommend, send it my way! Maybe we can also work out guest posts!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

suturing the gap

Today's recommendation is Tom Ford's first film A Single Man. I normally hate period pieces. I hate them because they are always about the time in which they were made (cf. Philip Rosen) and the details that are attenuated, or the characters, always scream LOOK! HERE WE ARE! JUST IN THE PAST! STANDING AROUND AND TALKING ABOUT MAJOR HISTORICAL EVENTS! LIKE WE DID! IN THE PAST! WHICH IS WHERE WE ARE BY THE WAY. BUT WITH PRESENT-DAY HAIRCUTS, THANK YOU VERY MUCH.

(Apologies to Philip Rosen, whose book Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory explains this far better than I ever could.

A major theme of A Single Man, as articulated by the characters, is letting go of the past, which works on a macro level because the film itself is an act of clinging to the past in its obsessive, beautiful rendering of a moment past. The shifting of the color palettes in the film, while unsubtle, drive home the point that at some moments the present becomes, well, presence (Cf. Lefebvre), and kept time and understood time align. The film follows a middle-aged English professor on the day he has decided to commit suicide, following the death of his lover some months prior.

Yet, as other reviewers have pointed out, this film is among the most thorough cinematic recreations of a time past. Does nostalgia color my perception here? Yes. I was not alive to see 1962, but I feel this has to be a more live and real depiction of life as it was lived than the glossy Mad Men, which constantly roots itself in its time by having the characters experience historical events and talk about them (caveat: I've only seen one episode; I didn't like it). Day to day life is often ignored in media depictions of the past. Everything is then-new and all characters in historic or period fiction seem to have a prescient understanding of what events define their era. One of the strengths of A Single Man is the ways in which the specificity of the time period is secondary; important world events are mere media background noise. The focus is on the person, in that moment, that just happened to be THAT moment, and the web of interactions he navigates on that day.

But other than theoretical blathering about this film, I'm recommending it for a slew of reasons. I haven't seen many films in the theater this year, but this is by far the best that I've seen.

* Everyone has already talked about Colin Firth's performance, so I'll put this on the list. All the performances in this film are superb.

* I personally found the depiction of 1960s academia engaging and hilarious. The office, the classroom, the students - it brought to life the halcyon days of Real Academic Freedom written about so often.

* Besides the incredible attention to detail, the film is beautiful - visually striking without the marketed, overbearing, slick appearance of mainstream Hollywood fare.

*As my friend Brandon Fibbs has pointed out, the score is beautiful.

* The story, obviously, is engaging on many levels. It's human and simple. It's really just about love and loss. But it also depicts the struggles of the GLBT minority in the 1960s in a way that relates to the ongoing fight for GLBT rights.

* The narrative structure - filled with analepses - fleshes out and makes complicated and humane the characters' struggle; in another format, George could have become fairly unlikable. That the narrative itself doesn't remained moored in the diegetic present further reinforces the message that we experience time fluidly. What to make of that message? Do we or do we not live in the past? Does mediating any feeling or idea effectively freeze it in a moment and create some kind of temporal disjunct between the Now and the Then?

Obviously, I have been writing way too many stuffy final papers lately. So I'll just say that you should go out and see this movie RIGHT NOW.

In today's awful, hyper-kinetic, dreadful world, the act of watching cinema itself seems an act of the past; cinema is so firmly and popularly rooted in the ~20th century and often I think the present (or presence) has eclipsed it. Therefore, I recommend that you defy this downward/forward progression and see A Single Man.

To find out if this film is playing near you, click here!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Rebuilding fragmentary histories

Today's recommendation is Ken Smith's book Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970.
I discovered Archive.org in late 2001, when I first started college. Looking at Prelinger's online archive, I felt I had discovered something nobody else had ever, ever heard of. I was wrong about that, but the un-selfconsciously obsolescent world of early Cold War "mental hygiene" films was fascinating to me. The damaged films, the cracked audio, the forgotten and insignificant images, the ideology of conformity. The lost and skipped frames.

A few months later, from Googling around, I realized there was a BOOK about these films. That book is Ken Smith's Mental Hygiene: Better Living Through Classroom Films 1945-1970.

Now, flash-forward the better part of a decade. I'm working on a PhD and my dissertation subject will likely be those films. Even now, I cite Ken Smith on most of the work I do. Why?

First, this is virtually the only book written about so-called mental hygiene films. Many other works tangentially mention this subgenre or type of film, which constituted tens of thousands of works. But this is the only one that focuses on it in depth. Second, for a non-academic, Smith has done some absolutely exhaustive, breathtaking research. The book contains capsule summaries of several hundred of the most popular mental hygiene films as well as contemporaneous quotes from sources like Educational Screen and producers of these films. Third, Smith situates the summaries in an excellent historical overview. Fourth, he's just a good writer. I prefer this book to any number of dry academic texts. Smith conveys information in an accessible, entertaining way.

Also, there are pictures.

Like it or not, an entire generation of American students was forced to watch these films. They are a significant part of our culture and history - which is why I study them. As much as I love pretentious art films, they have little connection to the lives of The People (Whatever that is).

This book is great for people who are interested in 20th century American history, ephemera, educational history and history of educational media, new media discousres, and film history or aesthetics. I'd also recommend this book for anyone trying to research independently (which I guess would be most adjunct faculty), because it's a great example of significant research that came into being without, necessarily, institutional validation.

Although this book is not exhaustive and there's still lots to be researched (Mr. Smith: Thanks. That means I can continue with whatever it is I do), it's a wonderful place to start if you are interested in any of the above topics, which is why it's today's recommendation. Ken Smith has also written Junk English , Raw Deal: Horrible and Ironic Stories of Forgotten Americans, Junk English 2 and Ken's Guide to the Bible

all likely to be future Recommendations.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Birth Stories, Social Histories, and Master Narratives

Today's recommendation is The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler.

I read this book for the first time a few years ago. I picked it up on impulse in the bookstore and sat and read half of it. I was never particularly interested in adoption but the arrangement of personal narratives and preservation of voice within the book is so compelling that I couldn't resist. Originally based on a video installation piece, Fessler's work weaves together individual narratives to paint something akin to a cultural study. Rather than providing dry historical or social explanations for the vast difference readers will feel while reading her work, Fessler lets the multiplicity of the individuals paint the historic and social picture with very little framing - a masterful feat.

The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade is structured like a collection of birth stories. Everyone likes birth stories (Right? Maybe?) or at least understands them because they follow a roughly familiar plot that often ends happily ever after. But the stories in The Girls Who Went Away turn this "master narrative" on its head with wrenching and small differences. You could watch approximately the same story on TLC (dumbed significantly down, of course), but in this book the trajectories are different. I'm no expert - I don't have children and probably never will - but the compelling feature of birth stories, for me, is the inherently forward-looking impulse they have. Biologically, there are few features. The stories end joyfully in the same place. But the "birth stories" in this book begin from different places - disappointed or repressive parents, abusive high school boyfriends - a power differential. By and large, they continue in seclusion and end in grief and tragedy and longing. They are not forward looking; their narrative thrust ends in a vast unknown quantity of near infinitude. The only known quotient is the past. I guess it's this subversion of predicted narratives that interests me.

Even if it doesn't, The Girls Who Went Away is a sensitively and beautifully felt portrayal of a society that essentially no longer exists: A society in which it was acceptable and even preferred to send young girls away to give birth in seclusion rather than face single motherhood or let others know they were pregnant. We can't ignore that this society existed. Therefore, The Girls Who Went Away is an important book. And that is why it is today's recommendation.

Friday, November 27, 2009

ThanksKilling (2009)

Today's recommendation is the fabulous and hilarious 2009 horror movie parody ThanksKilling.

I was alerted to this piece of Cinematic Art by my friend Andrew, to whom I will forever be grateful. I don't even know how to describe ThanksKilling. It's about a group of caricatures of college students on their way home for Thanksgiving, a silly legend, and a foul-mouthed turkey puppet that kills people including, coincidentally, aforementioned college caricatures.

THANKSKILLING reminds me of early Bergman.

It's the best movie ever filmed in Heath, Ohio.
It's the best movie I've ever seen that featured terrible Jon Benet Ramsey jokes.
It's the best movie with a turkey-rape scene that I have watched recently.
Its metacommentary rivals that of some of the most theoretical stuff I have read recently.
It's the best horror movie with John Waters references that I've seen recently.

it is 66 minutes of pure hilarity, of yelling WTF at your TV (or computer or iPhone), of topless Pilgrims,

And that is why today's recommendation is Thankskilling. It is available on Amazon and you can also watch it streaming online through Netflix if you have Netflix.

Start a new Thanksgiving tradition! By that I don't mean turn into undead turkeys and kill people, but watch this movie every year.

Friday, November 20, 2009

if life seems jolly rotten, there's something you've forgotten!

Today's recommendation is Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America
. I believe this is the thinking person's book of the year.

My whole life, people have derided me for being "negative" and "pessimistic." Things that happened were dismissed as products of my "negative attitude." This ipso facto logic didn't run my life, but other people's explanation of it dominated it in a fairly upsetting way. Setbacks and tragedies were dismissed by others as mere results of my "negativity." Therefore, I was really interested in Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bright Sided.

Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America is a brilliant exploration of this new Calvinism, the entrenched and uniquely American ideology that explains bad things - like, say, cancer and job loss- away as the results of negative thinking. Ehrenreich, who holds a doctorate in cell biology, turned away from science to work in a career that helps the public; her work, in my opinion, serves this purpose.

I think this is one of the most important books you can read this year, to be honest. I'm not saying this because I'm a pessimist, I'm saying this because this is a well-researched, well-written, intelligent book that explores a unique cultural phenomenon and rationally argues about why it's so dangerous.

Ehrenreich examines several instances wherein the positive thinking fascism has caused dangerous, magical thinking. These examples range from the ridiculous and fairly tangential, like life coaches, to disturbing and upsetting, like the cancer patient online communities that ostracized Ehrenreich for her statement that she felt angry and helpless. While some of the examples seem cherry-picked and I wish she had gone into more detail with some of her more salient observations - such as the infantilizing of breast cancer patients - this book is one of the most important you can read. It expands what has become a useless dichotomy (positive vs. negative thinking) into a disturbing gradient of grays and asks not for despair, but for rational evaluation, and makes the compelling case that the culture of positive thinking has, ironically, extremely negative repercussions that affect all of us.

Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book. Obviously, this blog is becoming very popular. Also! If you want me to review and possibly recommend other things, why, I would be delighted! Email me!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

unnatural causes

Today's recommendation is the California Newsreel documentary Unnatural Causes, an important documentary that examines how social and economic inequality contributes to the declining life expectancy in the United States, to the decaying social fabric of our society, and many other things. It examines the interrelation of many factors: stress, biology, income, and rather than screeching banshees pointing fingers, the DVD takes a rationalist, biological point of view.

It is a disturbing, upsetting documentary, full of truths you probably don't want to face (or have wanted to avoid thinking about). However, it's one you need to see. It's one you are morally obligated to watch. It's one that examines the few choices we still have, although it may be too late.

The sad truth is, inequality IS making us sick. America is not tenable in its current, apocalyptic, amoral cancerous state of capitalism at all costs. If you don't believe me, watch this masterful 4 hour documentary, and then we'll talk.

The DVD is available only from their site, but here are some
unnatural causes products on amazon

Sunday, October 11, 2009


I am very happy that a woman (Herta Müller) won the Nobel Prize for Literature; however, I must admit that my favorite for some years has been Margaret Atwood. I would really like to see her win this award in her lifetime. Far too many people dismiss her books as soft-sci-fi or dark "chick lit." Those people have obviously never read her work.

When I was fourteen, I read The Handmaid's Tale and I spent almost a decade avoiding her books because I imagined they would not, could not possibly live up and I did not want to deal with that disappointment. When I was in Germany, I wanted to surround myself in English in my free time. To bathe in it. I tried to read German books but I longed for English. Is that weird? So I overcame my reluctance and read almost everything Atwood ever wrote. I hate overwrought food / eating consumption metaphors, but I really did "devour" them. Oryx and Crake, The Robber Bride, The Blind Assassin, Cat's Eye... I mean, I read them as fast as Deutsche Post could get them to me. I eventually had to sell them all back at the English bookshop in Berlin to keep my belongings light enough for the airline. The rounded characters, vaguely magical situations and deft, yet unpretentious language really struck a chord with me.

I hadn't been thinking about Atwood much lately, because all of my brain is supposed to be devoted to GRAD SCHOOL. But I was really pulling for her to win a Nobel and recently, I found myself in Borders. Being desperately poor and constantly swamped with stuff to get done, I rarely go into stores - they just make me feel bad - but I saw that she had written a new novel. One about a society in which evil corporations dominate society and own the government, poison citizens, and engineer violence.

No, wait! Actually it's fiction! A novel! About the not-too-distant future!

Although it's probably academic and professional suicide, I bought it and have been reading it. Shh. Don't tell.

Atwood's new book, The Year of the Flood is what I am recommending to you today. Speculative fiction is nearly always about the present, and while there's potential for The Year of the Flood to be heavy-handed and didactic, it's neither of those things. It's about a group of religious vegans (!) who anticipate a corporate-engineered plague.

It reads as engrossingly as any other engaging book about an unsettlingly similar setting, but what's drawing me in (I'm about halfway through) is its detailed ritual and the perfectly-imagined, yet flawed religion created in the Gardeners (who first appeared in Oryx & Crake). I am fascinated by religious culture (not so much by religion itself) and the heteroglossic narration adds dimension, criticism, and comfort to the Gardeners as the backstories are constructed: backstories upon backstories, nuanced and detailed, until the looming apocalypse seems like an after thought.

Like I said. I haven't finished reading it yet, but I recommend The Year of the Flood to you whole heartedly.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

magical thinking

Today's recommendation is not alienating your copyeditor enough such that they ruin your product launch, assuming you have one (a copyeditor) to begin with.

This week, the Red Cross is holding a book/media sale in my town. Because i have SO MUCH time to read things that are not assigned, I made a point to go out there. Support the Red Cross, right? I was mostly looking for ephemeral media.

I was not disappointed. While Thom was seriously looking at serious books, I frolicked over to the PLEASE TAKE THESE DVDs OFF OUR HANDS THEY ARE AN EMBARRASSMENT section and found myself face to face with this.

Look very carefully, dear readers. It says what you think it says.

Yep. that's right! "Kid's Walk" is egregious enough, but that tag line up there? With that charming, homemade attempt at copy editing? Someone actually thought this was a good idea. It is, in and of itself. Teach kids (or: "kid's")...how to walk! And inspire them! With a message telling them...

naturally, I had to purchase it. I have barely been able to keep my hands off it. I can't wait to watch it today and see what it tells me. CAN I DO IT?

Update soon!

Other home fitness products by this woman. Everyone has to make a living. especially me!

Friday, September 18, 2009


As we live out our daily lives in what may be the last gasps of the American empire, I am increasingly interested in East Germany, not just because I used to live there (briefly). This semester I am doing an independent study on East German documentaries: What does it mean to make a film about truth in a state where the state regulates truth (and how does that compare to our lives, where capitalism and the market regulate truth?) ? What does it mean to film and have a national film and television identity and suddenly have your identity canceled out by a few swift marks of the pen and a televised tearing down of a wall? I am peripherally familiar with the cultural and linguistic peculiarities of East Germany and Ostalgie and a country that no longer exists, but what of its visual rhetoric?

You may not realize it or even care but East Germany is so marginalized, both within Germany itself and within history. The way Americans understand it is the wall came down, happily ever after. The way most Germans understood it when I was there depended on what side of the scar of the wall you were on.

German film is marginalized to begin with. Even within Germany few people (that I met, anyway) had heard of Herzog, Fassbinder, etc. DEFA - that's East German state studio - film is even more marginalized. Stautde, Wolf, Carow, the names only serious Germanists or Eurocentric film scholars know.

So I was delighted that this book, edited by Sean Allen (whose name has an accent I'm too lazy to reproduced, apologies!) and John Sandford, like, totally exists. I got it because my friend's neighbor in Brooklyn threw it out. Seriously.

Defa: East German Cinema, 1946-1992

The book is not without flaws, but if you want to act like you know anything about DEFA film at cocktail parties, it is definitely Recommended. Therefore, it is today's recommendation.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

back and ready for...something.

Having overcome the various tribulations involved in naming furry freeloaders and HAND CANCER, I am ready once again, dear readers. to Recommend Something To You.

I rarely get a chance to read anything for fun when I am in the grasp of the semester, but I recently read Rapture Ready!: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture
by Daniel Radosh.

I am sort of obsessed with Christian pop culture. I am not a Christian nor do I have any interest in becoming one, but the bizarre grasp - you could say the stranglehold - the religion has on the culture, science, and politics of America fascinates me. So I'd wanted to read this book for a while and after only a small battle with my university's library (apparently they only have 1 copy and it's just for undergrads, WTF?) I was able to borrow a copy (but I strongly suggest you buy one through my Amazon store, because there's a recession going on, and I have a lot of student loans).

Radosh resists the trap of sneering intellectual contempt for the stuff he studies, even when I feel it's warranted, and for that he should really be commended. The book is organized as a series of adventures as he goes to a Christian rock festival, a "Jesus junk" convention, a Christian theme park in Florida, etc. While I was admittedly hoping for it to be more amusing than it was, Radosh has a lot more sympathy and empathy than was necessary.

Anyway, the Christian pop culture industry is insidious and worth $7 billion a year in America. If you ever wondered about the banalization of culture, about why well-organized groups throw a fit every time a film's released that has a bad word in it, this book goes a long way towards explaining why in an entertaining, accessible way. It is Recommended. Enjoy!

Also recommended: Hell House, 2001, a great documentary about Christian "hell houses". Entry to follow. Maybe. Depends how bad this semester eats me alive.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

let your kite fly! go to her!

Sorry for the delay, beloved blog readers. This week's excuse is I have a cyst in my hand & it's been causing a lot of pain (and insurance hassle) and I just haven't had the time to write without serious pain.

Today's recommendation, the third of this week's quintet of postwar German films, is Heiner Carow's

The Legend of Paul and Paula

I bet you've never seen an East German film. I bet you don't know anything about East Germany except that they used to have a wall and don't anymore but maybe once someone you knew was in Berlin and they brought you back a rock which they said was part of the wall; you may or may not believe them. You still know nothing about Germany.

This is your chance to learn something!

The Legend of Paul & Paula is about 2 people named, for real, Paul and Paula. Paul is a successful military officer who marries the daughter of carnies because, hey, it's a socialist utopia now. He should bring her up, his colleagues say, and she shows a lot of cleavage. Improve her mind. Paula is a charwoman with two children from two different men who is weighing a marriage proposal to marry herself up to a nice (old) tire salesman with a dacha. Incongruously and intercut, old buildings are imploded, making way for the glorious, classless future of a unified DDR, a slouching and silent third character in the film. The shots of demolishing buildings function as sorts of intertitles within the film.

Paul & Paula is about failed relationships and failed government systems. It's about fate, in a way. It's about the peculiar German taxonomy of fairy tales & legends and how they are transmuted into and animate the otherwise grim and lifeless Plattenbauen of 1970s east Germany. Paul and Paula are less fleshed out characters than they are symbols, functioning human widgets in a complicated moral drama. Maybe.

This is a movie about social class in the classless utopia of the DDR. It comes to troubling conclusions - our bleeding liberal hearts recoil at the notion that, say, Paul's vulgar wife is the way she is because of some social Darwinism, although I suppose our collective minds, indoctrinated from birth into American determinism, agree with the socialist critique.

Paul & Paula also features some AWESOME tunes by an East German band called Puhdys. When I was teaching in East Germany, my colleagues were amazed I had heard of the band.

As you can imagine, the government censors did not love this film, and they loved it even less because it played for a period of time before they realized it was like, all political and shit.

So, in order to become more worldly, I Recommend that you watch The Legend of Paul & Paula. The DVD is available both on Amazon & through Netflix.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Overtheorized and underseen: "The oppressed accuse you"

Today's recommendation, the second in this week's quintet of postwar German films, is

Helma Sanders-Brahms'

Germany, Pale Mother

I'm not going to get into tokenism here & point out ZOMG FEMALE DIRECTOR, though i guess i just did. This film has been unfairly derided as one of the most depressing ever made. To which I say: How nice that you can concern yourself with such first-world problems.

What most people know about this film is that it is vaguely about Sanders-Brahms' mother, and that it is a Metaphor (deliberate capitals) for Germany. Hence the title, which is from the (extremely fine) Brecht poem. The story is narrated by a daughter, who exists both outside and within the narrative. She tells the story of her parents' courtship, which exists in a mordantly idyllic Germany and has milestones that occur along the backdrop of The War (deliberate capitals): a wedding during a declaration of war, childbirth during bombing, postwar marital divide.

But this isn't about the story, and the point of the story as a film is that it could be millions of families' stories, because it's about Germany's story (cf O Deutschland, Bleiche Mutter!). The structure of the film's narrative is what has always fascinated me. On the one hand it's straightforward and linear; on the other, it's elliptical and puzzling and raises questions: How can Lene's daughter narrate when she doesn't exist yet, and what does that imply about narrative? What is at stake when Sanders-Brahms integrates newsreel footage and cuts it so that it seems like old newsreel subjects are interacting with the fictional characters; how are we to interpret that within the context of historiography and New German Cinema? The film itself reminds me of the narrative structure of Willa Cather's My Antonia, a composite narrative that picks up and subsumes other narratives, structures, and texts, to create a female narrated and female-centered narrative within a male-dominated space; Germany, Pale Mother does the same thing in its integration of The Robber Bridegroom (Grimm) and the Brecht Poem

Finally, watching the film nearly 30 years after it was made, how would it be different now, in an ostensibly reunited Germany?

I obviously don't propose answers to these questions; I'm just a hack trying to fluff my ego with a blog. But I think this film is really overlooked; the only people who are even aware of it are either humorless intellectuals who ignore the life in it or laypeople who didn't seem to appreciate it very much. I Recommend it to you from the midpoint of those viewpoints and hope that you find middle ground. It's a sad film, a tragic one, but one that fights for and affirms life in every frame, and I hope you watch it accordingly.

Monday, July 13, 2009

everything else is pure theory

This week's theme will be Postwar German Movies That I Recommend to You.
I used to live in Germany. I studied German for so many years I lost count. Allegedly, my PhD minor is Germanic studies. I study like, movies and shit. For my PhD. So I feel somewhat qualified to do this.

The first of this week's quintet of recommendations is

Tom Tykwer's

Run Lola Run

I realize this is pretty hackneyed, but bear with me. I think people only understand Run Lola Run as an MTV-generation music video, but I'm hoping you'll come around to the way I see it.

It isn't merely a much more fun way to introduce yourself to Berlin on foot than reading an excruciating travel guide: Lola Rennt is a philosophical examination of what I understand epistemology to be. The slick style is off putting for some, but I see the media/medium as the message , a vehicle used to deliver an important statement about the multiplicity of truths, the possibility of concurrent realities, the notion of infinite possibility

I think Lola Rennt is a good movie to watch for those who are learning German (the language), because you get to see everything 3 times, however minimal the dialogue is. As my German teacher in high school said, "There's truth in all 3 iterations of this film." That statement introduced to me the notion of concurrent truth. Maybe I was a little slow.

Unlike some of the German films I'll be talking about in the upcoming days, Lola Rennt is relatively happy and deals only peripherally with the huge, horrifying, all-caps concepts overshadowing German life and film, at least the way we understand them in the USA: WORLD WAR II and EAST/WEST DIVIDE.

I was introduced to this film at a young age, so maybe it's heavy handed. I'm not watching it again to write this post. Maybe it wouldn't hold up. Maybe it seems blatant and obvious. I recall being about 18 and finding it really profound that Tykwer shot the scenes on film of Lola & Manni but everything of everyone else on video, so it would seem less real.

And you know what, I mean, I still find that pretty profound. What can I say. I'm a philistine at heart.

Therefore, I recommend Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt) to you.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

in the fragile beauty we froze: let go let go let go let go!

The last shall be the first. I wrote this first , but the final album I'm Recommending to you is


Phil Ochs' Rehearsals For Retirement

I came pretty close to writing a 33 1/3 book about it this year (shortlisted, not quite good enough but thanks for trying, story of my life), and I still really want to write a book about this album. (Aside: If you know anyone, if you are a publisher, if you know stuff other than sketchy sleazy publish-yourself opportunities and if you've got anything for me other than worthless, hastily-Googled assvice, please get in touch.)

Anyway, this is about the album. Not my pitiful attempts to make something of myself.

So. Let me talk about this album in the only ways I know how.

By the time he made this album, Ochs had this idea that each song should be a self-contained narrative. Like a movie. The word I"d choose to sum up this album is cinematic. And within that, this album uses different cinematic modes, shifting frenetically between tragedy, comedy, farce, jump cuts, a switch between styles that reminds me of the Nighttown part of Ulysses or early Godard. Songs shift styles between 70s B-comic Western and historic tragedy, between war drama and musical comedy.

It isn't frenetic or schizophrenic, it's a deliberate evocation, an intentional signifying that demonstrates a mastery over different cultural styles. By the time Ochs had made this album, sneering critics had dismissed him as a bipolar alcoholic. It's my project to change the hegemonic narrative of his life, to change the way you think of him, if you think of him at all. Most just dismiss him as an inferior contemporary of Dylan's, a sad sack bipolar alcoholic who couldn't take the switch to electric and killed himself. You are wrong. This blog post will not attempt to address this biographical disservice (that's, uh, what the book was supposed to be about, because the two biographies of Ochs have been pretty lacking; mine would have been both critical and AWESOME). At the time of Rehearsals, Ochs was a multi-movie-a-day filmgoer. I often wonder how living to and through the age of MTV would have affected him and his work and I feel sad all over again that he died so young.

I thought about doing this blog post track by track, lugubriously analyzing each song, but it just doesn't work that way, not today, not on an already tl;dr post on an album that's so important to me, not already risking criticism on something where I just can't deal with it.

Rehearsals is seamless misery and rage, frustration from beginning to end. I could give you a note by note analysis. But I won't. I thought about elliptically writing impressions, but that was a little too precious for a blog post.

In a way I guess it's good I never did get to do the 33 1/3 book because all I can do is stamp my foot and make vague gestures and say, fuck recommendations, I demand that you listen to this album NOW NOW NOW because it's so essential and so passionate and sad and angry and summarizes so perfectly an important time at the brink of American politics and culture, and at the same time, it summarizes a beautiful crisis moment in one man's life. Yet it's not exploitation. It's someone screaming into a void. It's someone screaming into a void and reassembling the echoes, reassembling the reflections, in a desperate and futile attempt to make someone understand - a last-ditch effort.

So, please, I implore you, I beg you, I demand that you listen to Rehearsals for Retirement.

This album has been the constant that's followed my entire adult life. A heavy and beautiful burden. Of course it's underrated. Of course it's forgotten. Of course it's overlooked and underappreciated by sneering rock critics, but I think it's one of the greatest albums ever made.

Therefore, I Recommend it to you.

So, that concludes this already-delayed project (and, thanks for sticking with me, if you did). It was good to get out of my comfort zone and make myself do this (almost) every day after putting it off for a week. And now I will flee back to my comfort zone.

Next week, in a transparent attempt to vaguely cash in on the Bruno craze, I will attempt to Recommend to you 5 Postwar German films.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

why when you know you should go is it so hard to leave

Today's recommendation, the fourth of our quintet of out-of-date and probably un-hip album recommendations,


Christine Fellows'
Paper Anniversary

As you'll recall yesterday, I used to live in Germany. But eventually in 2006, I came back to the US to do a master's at what I will refer to as a large, private university in lower Manhattan. An incredible confluence of bad luck and shit circumstances convened such that around the time of September 30th, 2006, I was recovering from a quadruple wisdom tooth extraction not covered by my incredibly expensive student health insurance, I was moving, I was living off student loans, and my computer had crashed yet again, losing the majority of my music and writing. I needed the Mountain Goats show at the Bowery Ballroom. I dragged myself there after moving all day. I remember I was standing there in so much pain my knees kept buckling.

That is how I was introduced to Christine Fellows' music. I lack, and am not sure I want to develop, the real critical vocabulary to talk about her voice, which struck me as uniquely beautiful without being affected and pretentious (cough johanna newsom cough). It reminded me of all I had wanted to become during the years & years I had seriously studied voice. The lyrics of her songs were simple, yet evocative and vivid. Like The Mountain Goats, places I'd never been and people I wasn't sure were real suddenly felt real and familiar to me.

At one point during her set, her husband, Jon K. Samson (back to 2009: whom I recently saw play at Zoop! II) sang a glorious arrangement of a Cortazar poem with her. Shit. Cortazar?! Someday I will recommend Cortazar to you guys, too, but...not only was it Cortazar, one of my favorite writers, but it was one of my favorite Cortazar poems ever: "Instructions on how to dissect a ground owl."

I had been shaking before, and maybe I'll chalk it up to the painkillers, but I was crying. It was gorgeous. It was honestly one of the best live music performances I had ever seen.

A few weeks later, once I had my computer situation straightened out and I was done moving, I bought Paper Anniversary off iTunes. At the time, you have to understand that was a huge freaking purchase for me. During the long cerebral autumn of 2006, Fellows' modified jazz chords kept me company. Stories and sketches of places that were unfamiliar and yet terribly familiar filled my consciousness as I stood, alone among packed strangers, on the Q and the B and the 2 and the 3. The rain fell; life seemed sad and beautiful. Slightly askew, time.... marched on, with a minimalist piano accompaniment and the hint of a cat purr.

I feel the need to assure you that my intention in posting these recommendations was not a self-aggrandizing memoir, though that is what it is becoming.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

we've got stars in our eyes tonight.

Today's recommendation, the third of this quintet of recommendations, is

The Mountain Goats' Full Force Galesburg

I'm not picking out a favorite or best Mountain Goats album here. I'm just Recommending this one because once upon a time, and a very miserable time it was, I lived all alone in a tiny German village on the Polish border and this album was, for whatever reason, how I stayed sane. I'm not sure this post is even really about the album, but please, you're here to listen to me bloviate, aren't you?

You remember periods in your life in associative ways: In those days I would read such-and-such book. You use the progressive tense: I was listening, I was reading, I was doing.

But it is only recent technology that has made music iterative in this way: In those days, using my newfangled refurbished 2nd generation iPod that already looked obsolescent, I would walk around every day and listen to Full Force Galesburg over and over and over. Specifically, and mostly, I would listen and re-listen to "Maize Stalk Drinking Blood" and "Evening in Stalingrad," which seemed so eerily apropos to my situation and surroundings. As late summer turned to fall and I should have been inside, I would walk around until my fingers were numb.

The album was and became like a collection of short stories that quickly became dog-eared and annotated, as I walked around in the cool air (sometimes for the hell of it I would walk to Poland, just to be able to say that I had). The language constructed my understanding of a world that made very little sense. The sparseness of the guitar and John Darnielle's vocals matched perfectly the minimalist, depressing Soviet-bloc buildings, many of which were slowly being reclaimed by squatters, by graffiti artists, or by nature.

I have never been to Galesburg, and I don't know the dogs. But I do know that the infinite sky seemed so much bigger and so much more magical and bearable when the music took me there. The loneliness I felt seemed holy somehow, like there was a portal linking the German border to it.

Mountain Goats fans - a notoriously insular and at times even elitist group - may disagree with this assessment, but I don't care. I don't want to argue about the nuances of split 7 inches or unreleased cassettes or talk about my record collection or discuss this album in the context of a discography. I just want to speak about why I recommend this album to you because it's so important to me. Maybe it will be important to you.

Therefore, I recommend Full Force Galesburg to you.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

all i could want is silver & spinning out from your arms.

The second of this week's (or last week's, I guess) quintet of recommended albums is

Neutral Milk Hotel's On Avery Island.

yeah, that's right. Not In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. I love that one, too, but everyone recommends that, and I'm still Building An Audience on this blog, and honestly, over the past few years I have listened to On Avery Island way more. So I am here to disagree with virtually every Music Critic Ever (because I'm not one, right?) and tell you that this is Tuesday, and today's Recommendation is On Avery Island, and you only get one recommendation a day from me if that, so forget about everything else and just hear me out for the next 300-500 words.

What's the difference? I think most people dismiss On Avery Island as early sketches for In the Aeroplane over the Sea. On Avery Island, was that their early stuff? Why are they against sex and who the hell is Pree? What's the difference? it just starts with a different pronoun, right?

Oh, you are so fucking wrong. I wish I could contemptuously end the blog post right here, but now I have to explain myself.

Plus, in case you're counting, I think I'm now 2 for 2 for dropping F bombs in these recommendations this week, which means this blog is so never getting on my department's blog roll.

Oh well.

Anyway. On Avery Island is strange and wonderful and refreshing and nearly forgotten. It incorporates found sound and ephemera in a way that In the Aeroplane simply doesn't. Where In the Aeroplane Over the Sea has at least developed a secondary hegemonic narrative in the endless dissections thereof, On Avery Island has stayed mysterious, and I'm going to keep it that way. On Avery Island is elliptical and vague and not tied to linear interpretations.

For those of us who came to On Avery island late, it's impossible to understand On Avery Island without the overshadowing behemoth that is In the Aeroplane over the Sea (and, ya know, just typing that out every time is kind of precious & infuriating, and I love that album). On Avery Island is visceral and reactionary and angry, a collage of sounds and voices and moods that range from elegaic to frustrated to despairing to vulnerable. Sounds twist and are distorted in unexpected ways; voices of the everyday mingle with the sounds and voices of musicians and thus become the sounds and voices of musicians. It's a very populist album.

But On Avery Island is neither mere chaos nor mere aural self-indulgence. It is not mere trial runs for melodies and lyrics that would be reused later with In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. It stands on its own as its own ideas. It is its own masterwork that has been overshadowed by the more accessible and more talked-about In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. Therefore, I Recommend On Avery Island to you.

Monday, July 6, 2009

where is waged the daily strife.

wow, thanks for all those cat name suggestions, gentle blog readers.
I'm being sarcastic. As usual I can only count on Asa for things I ask for on the Internet.
You want to know what i decided to name him? I'll tell you on Friday so you keep reading. HA.

ok. so now i shall commence with the album recommendation project previously scheduled for last week.

The first album of this quintet of recommendations is

John Vanderslice's Cellar Door.

As a *vague airquotes* "film scholar* (and, let me qualify that: by scholar, I mean, master's degree, current PhD student, once had prestigious fellowship to go overseas and do something with film, forthcoming non-blog publications, the kind that smell gloriously of bookbinding glue, the kind you only put on your CV, cuz you sure don't get paid, please, oh please for a moment avert your eyes to the TipJar; by vague I mean: well who cares), I guess I just have an affinity for narrative, cinematic music.


I bought this album after seeing JV open for the Mountain Goats in Florida in 2004. At the time, I was heavily involved in reading apocalyptic things about peak oil, Katherine Harris was my representative, and I watched my country re-elect George W. Bush (Dear America: Why?). The song "Pale Horse" spoke to me in a way that nothing else really had before, and when I voted for the first time, I wrote in John Darnielle and John Vanderslice as president & vice president, respectively; I held my breath and waited for the apocalypse. I moved to Europe a few months later.

I still don't trust Diebold.

Anyway anyway:

What I liked about it (Cellar Door, I mean, wasn't that the subject of this post?) was that it was more than a soundtrack and more than fan fiction. The tracks on "Cellar Door" are translations, transliterations, interpretations and workings-with of filmic texts ("and much, much more!"). Although the best thing about it is that it's elliptical and open-ended, Cellar Door features songs that are loosely about Wild Strawberries, Mulholland Drive, Requiem for a Dream (the book or the movie? I do not know, but I hope it's the movie; I really hated that book), Percy Bysshe Shelley's "The Mask of Anarchy" and others I'm probably too much of a philistine to know. Or others that are more subtle and can refer to any one of several texts.

The result is a hypertextual, nodal album that situates itself within and between all of these texts.

The entire album, as I interpret it, is about the act of translating and working with one text to produce another. As I see it, this is the paradox of creation in the Modern and postmodern ages (I don't know why I capitalize Modern but not postmodern, either). Have we reached a critical mass of creation? Is there nothing left to create but creations about creation (oh god, does that explain fanfiction) ? Is that what all creation is anyway? A spinning off of inspiration, but now we are only inspired by an ever-growing array of other texts?

Anyway. Cellar freaking Door, guys. John Vanderslice really is the friendliest guy in the music industry, not that I know that many guys in the music industry.

Cellar Door!

Plus, it just has some fucking good beats. I Recommend it to you!

Tuesday, June 30, 2009


by this upcoming, apparently we meant next.

something came up.

something small with 4 feet and a proportionally shockingly loud voice that was found under a tree.

something small & helpless that needed a home.

Thus, today's recommendation is helping me name this freaking orphan.

I have a few ideas of my own, but I like to utilize 21st century technology when it comes to naming the freeloaders who live with me.

Monday, June 29, 2009

we recommend this upcoming week to you

I thought about giving some structure to this blog, because my life lacks it lately. Therefore, this upcoming week - loosely defined, temporally speaking - I'm going to re-recommend and revisit some albums that I'd, you know, like, recommend to you and stuff.

I don't really consider myself a music writer in the traditional sense. That's the purview of my better half and everyone I know.

But lately I feel pretty discouraged by academia and academic film / media writing, so I'll escape back to my old reasoning, which is that the best writing, all good writing, has a natural rhythm, cadence, and tone to it which relates it so closely to music that there's no real difference, if there's anything good about either of them. That's media, that's patterns. That's light on a screen, that's narrative - that's stories; that's chiaroscuro lighting; that's all art. It doesn't matter by what medium you call it or what studio you enter.

Wow, that was pretentious.

I might have synesthesia.

Firefox doesn't know that word.


I'm not really an album person.


I suppose I am a dreaded, hated "millennial" in that until I discovered Ye Olde Internet, music, or what I understood music to be, did not affect my life much. Music was the crap on the radio that the really dumb kids at school listened to; even I could tell, at the age of 13, that top 40 was contrived by corporations and nothing was spontaneous or populist.

I grew up in a town with no book store and no record store.

It was a town 100% devoid of any culture whatsoever, like a mark of pride, or maybe the mark of the beast. The town library had shelves & shelves of purple prose romance novels, but not one book by Faulkner. Everyone there knew who I was, because, in a crazy bizarro version of the village idiot, I was the Village Smart Person. I am not saying that to be smug or arrogant. i am saying that because that's how it was.

We did have a mall. It grew and grew, like a cancer, a crazy, gauche, grotesque microcosm of America, or maybe because i'm from The Real Amerikkka or something.

I went away to college; now that mall has to be visible from space. There's an Olive Garden there now. And a Borders, even. That is the most unthinkable milestone I could think of, for the town in which I grew up (note deliberate lack of use of term "hometown") to suddenly have a place where you can just walk in and buy a book, culture as handed down from the executive suites of corporate conglomerates. Oh, and a latte. Crazy. I don't know what the other three horsemen are.



It was only when, in the cold basement of the McMansion of my adolescence that I began to devote hours of my life to hunting down songs with 2400 baud spears that I discovered things other than the pabulum given me by post-apocalyptic, post-Reagan corporate homogenized culture. So like my attention span, my understanding of the concept of the album was post-haste assembled, not quite natural. It was really only in college that I began listening to music as discrete albums or wholes. Perhaps it is a mark of my uselessness as a human being, my place in time and history as a member of the most post-apocalyptic generation. The fact that despite my many useless degrees, I still honestly cannot afford to download albums from iTunes or buy them in stores.

Therefore, this week's selections will reflect that, so I ask you - discerning blog readers of excruciating taste! - to bear with me a little bit; I grew up in the cultural equivalent of like Ethiopia or something.

Thus, so this week I'm going to try to revisit, from a purely textual standpoint - because honestly, most music writing annoys me (sorry, everyone I know. YOUR writing is okay) - 5 albums that I Recommend To You (TM). The reason this is different is because:

1. They're not new albums
2. I don't think I'm coming at it from a typical-music-writing-perspective
3. I need to tell myself this because I have nothing else going for me right now
4. As a failure of the music education system, despite ?9? years of music education, I don't know the right ways to use music terms to talk about music anyway and I know just enough to want to die after reading the first 5 pages of Music Theory for Dummies.

That was a really long introduction, wasn't it?

So, I think I'll leave it at that.


Thus, right now's recommendation is that You Tune in later (what the hell do you say on a blog? Blog in later? Eyeball in later? Focus your gnat-like attention span in later?) for the first recommendation.

I may forget about this whole thing by Wednesday, but, again, in the repurposed words of Will Sheff, put to better use by my better half, its flaws are what made us have fun, right?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

if you mean something, say something

Today's recommendation is a more abstract, abstruse one, but it'll suffice.

Today's recommendation is linguistic accountability.

This is an umbrella term I'm using to refer to a whole host of things. Not just proper spelling & grammar, which I'm all for, despite the fact that i embrace change in language & I appreciate language in all forms. I mean, I recommend that you defy the creeping trend of infantilism and entitlement that is apparent even in spoken English.

To wit, two of my biggest annoyances:

It is believed that it's perfectly common & acceptable to say, "I'm going to school to get such-and-such degree."

I disagree. Despite what my students think, you are not a customer when you enroll in an academic institution (unless it's one of those buy-a-degree, fly-by-night, for-profit schools that advertise on websites). You are WORKING on a degree. You are EARNING it. If you cannot understand the semantic distinction, then in my estimation, at least, you imply don't deserve the degree.

This is not just my grumpy, overworked grad student self showing.

I find it kind of off-putting that people my age and older refer to themselves as kids, as boys, as girls. In a society as schizophrenic as ours, in a society as hyper concerned with the sexualization of children and as terrified of pedophiles as ours, this seems a curious phenomenon. Yeah, 30 is the new 12 or something, but step up. You're not a kid. I realize that it's a bit stilted and words like "woman" and "Man" come with their own baggage, but if you're old enough to get married, to vote, to reproduce, to get drafted for a war you don't believe in, you are old enough to refer to yourself using the word that properly describes you, no matter how immature you are.

Again: today's recommendation is LINGUISTIC ACCOUNTABILITY.

If you practice this - if give yourself over to the simple act of speaking in a way that reflects not entitlement but responsibility & accountability, I believe that it will come across in your actions. Everyone is scared of responsibility, but I think that maybe words come first. By uttering it, one gets used to the idea. By getting used to the idea, you become accountable. Right?

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

when you're ready to hear a message

This summer is full of trendy, self-improving things in my tiny social circle*: Infinite Jest (My pretense is showing: I've already read most of it and will read it later at my own damn pace, minus book marks - mostly cuz my cat broke my printer - once I'm done reading Anna Karenina [What? no online book club of hipsters reading that with me? I'll solider on somehow]), camping trips with indie rock bands, and best of all, going vegetarian. I like to think I'm just a trendsetter.

Because my ego is fragile and I have so little else going for me, I would like to point out that I have been vegetarian since I was 18. Not that it's a contest. But, I feel I have a little bit of cred to recommend the following to my newly cruelty-free friends and anyone else is interest. Those of you making this change, I am so proud of you!

Confession: I have a complicated relationship with my own vegetarianism. I see it as a lifestyle, not a diet; an ethos, not a trendy choice; a continuum and a belief system, not a bumper sticker. I kind of hate talking about it. I hate having The Vegetarian Conversation with mouth-breathers. (This is what they say; i usually just seethe: "Are you AGAINST cruelty to animals? So what do you like eat? Don't you think God put animals on earth for us to kill? Don't you think PLANTS have feelings? haw haw haw. What about all the animals that die when you harvest vegetables? MMM MEAT AREN'T YOU HUNGRY GODDAMN LIBERAL PINKO etc.") I hate arguing in general. So please respect that, and read the following recommendations, and be patient because some of them are kind of hurr-durr:

1. Reducing meat consumption. Even if you feel you need to consume flesh to justify your humanity / masculinity / American-ness, the most compelling argument against meat consumption is environmental. I was an environmentalist before it was trendy. True story: I got in trouble in 3rd grade for petitioning my school principal to ask him to start a recycling program. Yes, really, and it was all my own idea. So I feel my investment in this issue is a little deeper than the people who just saw the Al Gore movie a few years ago and jumped on the bandwagon; I'm not knocking their commitment and I'd rather have trendy commitment based on cynical green product marketing (someday I'll post about Green Products and the purchase of a "green" lifestyle and it affinities to church indulgences; it'll be a 95 theses kind of post) than no commitment, but this has been something that has literally dominated my entire life. Maybe that's an assy, alienating thing to say. But anyway. It disappoints me when vegetarian activists mumble something incoherent about mollusks having the right to vote or all life being preshus or something. The facts are, factory farming produces more carbon emissions than cars. 90% of sea fish are gone from overfishing. The horrifying, bloated American lifestyle is unsustainable and unnatural. If you think it's impossible for you to cut out dead flesh, then just cut down. Until 20 years or so ago, it was unheard of to consume the portions and quantity of meat and dairy that Americans consume. If you want your children to have any kind of world at all to live in, or any children to have any kind of world at all to live in, stop eating so many dead things. Period. I am truly not interested in your biased rebuttals. There is absolutely no justification or reason for the bloated, inexcusable, disgusting American lifestyle we exploit and it's time for us ALL to cut back, and not just because suddenly, many people are as poor as I've always been.

2. Check out some interesting ethnic, traditionally vegetarian cuisines. It will make you a more interesting and worldly person, and help you support local businesses. My one renegade friend who went on this camping trip and didn't go veg (but, interestingly enough, did not exploit animals by petting them unsolicited - I salute you, sir!) mentioned something interesting about getting bored by meatless choices. Therefore, I'd encourage my recently vegetarian friends to try new things to reduce the chances of recidivism. Sure, you can eat PB&J (totally vegan, right?) every day, but unless you live where I do, there are lots of options for new things to try. Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Middle Eastern restaurants usually have many vegetarian options, and if you're not like me, and you have a real job, those are usually good places to go for lunch. So I hear.

3. This is the really obvious one. Try cookbooks or new recipes. When I first became a vegetarian in college, I got The Starving Students' Vegetarian Cookbook (at least I think it was that one. What I liked about it was that it assumed no fancy materials, ingredients, skills, or cookware, which was good because I had no actual kitchen. Everything was easy to make and after a while, fairly personalizable. Granted, I am a terrible cook. Kitchens burst into flames at the mere sight of me, which is a super power that would probably be a lot more profitable than this blog if I could just harness it & then lease it to the government. Anyway, it wasn't condescending like, "Here, kiddy, help in the kitchen. Do you know what a vegetable is? Now color!" but it wasn't snobby, either. Even if you're not a student, it's a good place to start. Seriously. Otherwise, try the Internet! I know! Imagine that, telling a person reading a blog to look on the Internet! For information! What am I thinking! That Internet thing has exploded recently; there are lots of sites with recipes that you can use to make food. You can use food to be less hungry. Whoa. This blog is full of life-changing revelations. Note the tip jar, people.
All vegan recipes
All Recipes.com. I have helpfully linked to the Vegetarian section.

4. Stick together. It really helped me in college that most of my friends were vegetarians (When I was in high school, I tried to go vegetarian but went back after a few months partly because I didn't know anyone else who was vegetarian; I also got really sick - not related to vegetarianism though). In my tiny liberal arts college paradise, vegetarianism was just the socially acceptable thing to do. We cooked together in the common kitchen. We went grocery shopping and scanned ingredient lists together. We became waiter's worst nightmares together (ouch, that sentence parses painfully). I'm not saying to abandon your carnivorous friends, or evangelize them, but I think it's a lot easier to make this change if you do it with someone, or hang out with someone who has been in this for a while. Two minds are better than one. It's easier to collaborate and be creative and notice things when you have two minds and two sets of eyes. This may seem obvious, but YOU try reading all the ingredients in Rice A Roni on a Saturday morning in a busy grocery store.

. 5. Be a self-advocate. I have problems with this myself. It's always awkward when some loud dude (it's always a dude. Sorry) engages me in "conversation" and yells at me and tries to make me feel like shit for my sincerely held beliefs or thinks that he can convince me that vegetables have feelings or some nonsense. I hate arguing. I truly do. I also feel bad going to restaurants and making extra work for people by asking if there's chicken stock in soup, if there's gelatin in desserts, if there's rennet in cheese. But if everyone self-advocates unapologetically, maybe society will wake up and realize that just as it's totally normal & acceptable to provide tons of information for the 1 person in 10,000 who will have an allergic reaction, they should stop rolling their eyes and being judgmental towards the hundreds more who adopt a lifestyle of lesser cruelty and realize that maybe it's important to know what is in the food they're selling or even putting in their body.

I know there's tons of cruelty & exploitation inherent in simply living in America or any other first-world country. I am racked with guilt on a daily basis because I live a stupid, pointless, elitist intellectual life while people are dying and I just sit here and pontificate while people die preventable deaths, and I rethink my choices constantly. I don't claim to know the answers or even the questions. I don't claim this cleanses me of original guilt. But it makes me feel better. That's all I can do, I guess.

Coming up some other time when I feel like it: Parallels between cruelty-free lifestyles and evangelical Christianity.

If it's even still necessary.

My real, succinct recommendation today is be kind, loving, and reduce how much you hurt all living things.. You'd be surprised just how necessary it is that we remind each other of this.

*I'm using this term lightly, because I currently live in academic exile 700 miles away from everyone I consider a close friend, and I only see them a few times a year anyway. It's more of a retinal image than a circle, a concept. The circle is not unbroken.

Monday, June 22, 2009


Today's recommendation from me is a double-whammy. As in, two for the price of one. Yes, two recommendations. And since the recommendations are free to begin with, this all works out to an EXCEEDINGLY GOOD DEAL.

My first recommendation is participating in Infinite Summer. Of course, those who read my other blog already know about this (and are probably wishing I would shut up about it), but Infinite Summer is a kind of virtual, online reading group, a communal project with the goal of slogging through David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest during the summer. Yes, all 980 pages plus 100 pages of footnotes. It started yesterday, but you can totally catch up.

Infinite Jest is a book I had been meaning to read for quite some time. Haven't we all, really? But that is about as far as many people go with it. I am firmly convinced that a large portion of its reputation is due to the cliché of pseudo-intellectual hipsters who continually see fit to namedrop the novel and discuss its importance and influence without having actually read it. To me, this project is at least partially about destroying this image with which the novel has been saddled. It's about not being the stereotypical pseudo-intellectual who skims Wikipedia entries for a faint grasp on a book so that one can name-drop it in conversation. It's about setting an achievable goal and turning it into a small but not insignificant personal success. It's about following through on things. 

Speaking of following through on things, that is the topic of the second recommendation: knowing when to say when. I am overextended and overwhelmed and exhausted right now. I have too much on my plate:
  • Infinite Summer
  • various other books I had intended to read this summer
  • preparing for the impending semester
  • my goddamn job
  • packing things to move out of my apartment by July 31
  • At least 2 cds worth of cover songs to record as thank you gifts for the autism walk
  • An entire EP to write and record
  • artwork for these two projects
  • the increasing demands of Its Flaws Were What Made Us Have Fun, which appears to be developing the beginning of what could almost be considered an audience.
  • a few other stressors of a more personal and private nature that I will not be discussing here.
The point of all this is to say that I am going to be taking a temporary break from writing recommendations on this blog. A hiatus. As you can see, I do have a lot I am dealing with right now, and I think that the pressure implicit in a blog like this to produce content daily, as well as the irrational guilt I feel whenever I don't produce anything, has taken its toll on me and only caused more stress and anxiety. I know that I often joke about plans as being promises to be broken, but I don't like breaking promises, and therefore, I am not making these promises. Maybe I will be able to resume posting after I've moved out of this apartment; time will tell.

In the meantime, though, I do intend to follow through on Infinite Summer, and I hope you do, too. Not to push the other blog again, but I have posted links to some valuable resources and tips over there. Until next time, have a great (Infinite) summer.

hungry hearts, hungry minds

I really like the strange tension involved in a recommendation blog that: 1. Has no consistent audience and 2. Leads to nobody actually experiencing my recommendations.

It's almost Borgesian, so before I break out my eye patch, I'll recommend you something that totally exists!

So today's recommendation is listening to me blather more about Anzia Yezierska in my characteristically clumsy way, because I totally had a really, really frustratingly great entry written in a notebook that's in a suitcase I haven't seen for 6 days and am, apparently, not supposed to mention here.

Please, send a hairbrush, or something.

Anyway. Yezierska.

I'm going to talk more about "Where Lovers Dream," and I'm going to avoid, hopefully, the blather that has always annoyed me about how critics have discussed it in the past. I will also hopefully not exceed my own attention span in my eagerness to post this.

Much of my *vague pretentious air quotes* research involves historiography. The narrative cultures construct about history and how it changes over time. Part of my fascination with this story involves its own historiography, the way it exists in two separate times and discusses them without it being heavily linked to stereotypes regarding discrete times and years.

This story starts with a simple, nearly postmodern fragment: "For years I was saying to myself - just so you will act when you meet him. Just so you will stand. So you will look on him. These words you will say to him."

As we used to say in happier days, in classrooms overlooking the sea discussing books, let's unpack that.

It's a pretty intriguing opening for a story that, again, has been dismissed as token, pat example of Jewish-American pulp writing in the early 20th century.

These sentences work in several ways, and that's stunningly elegant. On the one hand the speaker is referring, literally, to how she had planned for years to speak "just so" to the unnamed him (we learn later that it is the man she almost married, who rejected her because her family was poor). On the other hand, we can emphasize the just. JUST so you will stand. JUST so you will act. JUST so you will speak. These words you will say to him. It's almost an epigraph, a performance. A rehearsed litany, perhaps. Left with nothing else, able to represent herself with nothing else, the speaker unfolds her tale, building a space wherein she had once dreamed with words, evoking their power to construct nationality, identity, and social class.

She is at once external and internal to this time: she speaks from a space completely divorced from the space and time she had once built with the love she had had; yet the memory and nostalgia for it allows her to construct this space / time (diegesis) fully and vividly. Without fetishizing the poverty, without simplifying the problematics of young love, Yezierksa

Of course, nothing that happy is sustainable in America - that's really the larger message in her work (a collection of one of Yezierska's short stories is called "How I found America"; like much of her work, you can read it in 2 ways).

Perhaps some of the reason I find such affinity with Yezierska is the intellectual tradition of voluntary poverty from which she comes; her father was a Talmudic scholar who was supported by the village. The character of the non-working intellectual holy man father is a recurring one in her stories.

As someone who is desperately indebted to the life of the mind (and I mean that financially, not emotionally or anything), I guess I relate more and more every day.

Anyway, so that's your daily dose of my Yezierska evangelism. Will I write more tomorrow? Will I recommend something else? Heck, will THOM recommend something? Only time will tell! Tune in tomorrow for more!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

the lost "beautifulness"

N.b.: Concepts in this post are adapted from an essay I wrote in 2005, which won "honorable mention" in an essay contest in Florida, actual title of which I have now forgotten; I like to think some concepts and phrasings have improved in the ensuing 4 years, 2 continents, and graduate degrees..

Today's recommendation is hiring me to write a postmodern, fanciful movie about the passionate, brutal life and equally passionate, brutal texts of Anzia Yezierska.

I know, that's an egocentric mouthful, but KEEP READING.

I do not even really know how to pronounce her name. I came across Anzia Yezierska's short fictions in a course I took on women writers in college. Tokenism. She was the token Jewish-American writer; we read the only story most people do read by her, "Where Lovers Dream," which is fortunate, because it's her best. What struck me was not the tokenism, not the non-standard English, but the way time was softened and constructed as a place, the interplay between nostalgia and temporality. What kept me reading was the love story; I had just had my heart broken. What shattered my soul into a thousand pieces and made me say to myself, "This is absolutely brilliant" was the recursiveness of the story, the circular, nearly Borgesian narrative that ended where it began, creating a neat, circular narrative that never really ends and by dint of that, makes a stunning and innovative statement about feminist constructions of time.


I looked her up and was surprised to discover that this writer with the unproncounceable name also had an unknown birth date. think about that for a second. You think of your life as a discrete ray, a line beginning with a definite point. You have, maybe, a shoebox under your bed with cards and mementos. You know what was in the top 40 the week you were born. What of your identity would be shattered to not even know the year? I realize that's how people lived for much of human history, but it unsettled me. And it made me wonder how, if at all, this affected her writing. Her stories are filled with a confessional, nearly atavistic textual scream to the reader, an attempt to connect in a language that wasn't even her native one. Most critics have dismissed her writing as brainless prattle for immigrants, okay to demonstrate a certain mode of non-standard English writing in a certain place and time.

Also, she was driven out of her ancestral family home by the Cossacks. That image really stuck with me.

My senior thesis in college was largely about Yezierska. My senior thesis was a mess, in part because I got so lost in her texts and her life. Every story seemed a desperate, angry wail to the reader. The words were simple, but urgent.


Also, apparently while she was at Teachers' College of Columbia in New York City, she had an affair with John Dewey (yeah, THAT John Dewey) and the rumors are that he fathered her (only) child.


I don't care if I'm wrong. This is where the movie I want to screen-play-with comes in.

Can you imagine? Can you even imagine? Cossacks! Turn of the century ghettos! Fetishization of poverty is so trendy right now (see: this year's Oscars); so are crazy writers. This will make a fortune.

I am slightly sarcastic.

I am totally serious.

I will cry if you don't run out RIGHT NOW and read her stuff.

I've been editing this entry for a week (i had it all written much more elegantly in a notebook that ended up in a particularly ill-fated suitcase), so I'm just going to post this now).