Monday, June 8, 2009

Reflection: The Reader (Bernhard Schlink)

"Our word-driven, wordless contact" (187).

The Reader
is the debut novel from German author Bernhard Schlink which, as we all know, was recently made into a film starring Kate Winslet and Ralph Finnes. Perhaps seeing the film first somewhat tainted my reading experience, but the novel felt choppy to me in a way the film didn't. I definitely appreciate Schlink's play with genre (part love story, part court room drama, part meditation on the Holocaust) but at times it can feel like one is reading multiple texts instead of a cohesive narrative. Nevertheless, The Reader is an emotional experience both in it's examination of the legacy of traumatic historical events and in its representation of a tragic love story.

What I appreciate most about the novel is Schlink's exploration of multiple forms of eroticism. Though the sexual relationship between Michael Berg and Hanna Schmitz is brief, their connection continues through words in the form of the "books on tape" Michael sends Hanna in prison and the notes she sends back to him. Essentially, Schlink suggests that reading, or words function to form erotic connections between us. Or that our relationship with words can be an erotic relationship. Such an assertion demonstrates the extent to which Hanna lived experienced was in may ways empovrished by her illiteracy and causes us to question whether she was the aggressor in her role as a women's guard at Auschwitz, another victim of the Third Reich (albeit a different kind of victim than is normally represented within studies of the Holocaust), or both.

As a final note, I found it interesting that the film version played up Hanna's love for Chekov's The Lady With the Little Dog. While Chekov is mentioned as one of the authors that Michael reads for Hanna, the only book mentioned specifically by title is Homer's The Odyssey. I wonder why, then, the filmmakers wanted to emphasize this particular title.
Oh, neglectful I have been...

I am so awful at doing anything on a consistent basis. But I will try.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


I have literally been too crabby these past few days to post anything of substance. But I have some rants and reflections in mind and on the way...

I did recently (and finally) pick up a copy of Ernest J. Gaines's The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and my step-dad got me this little book called Everything I Learned In the White House: A Parody By George W. Bush, which when you open it up is completely blank!

Accurate and clever.

I am excited to teach some of Wendy Rose's poems to my students tomorrow, because I have intensely admired her work forever. Thank you Professor Nelson for introducing her to me as an undergraduate. Sometimes it's so bizarre to me that I'm now teaching texts I loved when I was a student.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Vacation Reading

Is it bad that all I can think about is what I want to read on my week-long vacation in April when I should be wholly focused on finishing my reading for my Ph.D. exam? Yes, I think so, but I can't help myself. And it's an excuse to buy new books. Though, do I ever really need an excuse? This is one of the dangerous things about being a graduate student--that you can always chalk your book purchases up to "research."

Here is a list of the potential vacation prospects thus far:

Something by Banana Yoshimoto--np?--Hard Boiled and Hard Luck?--Lizard?
The Host, Stephanie Meyer (Yes, I will admit to finding her work immensely entertaining albeit problematic)
A Mercy, Toni Morrison (I feel guilty for not having read this already)
The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa
The Reader, Bernhard Schlink (Oh, if only I had more time I would have read this one already)
The Angel Maker, Stefan Brijs (Because Meghan Tonjes talked about this on ProjectLifesize)
Revolutionary Road, Richard Yates (My Kate Winslet obsession is becoming more and more apparent...)
The Sparrow and Children of God, Mary Doria Russell (I love love love science fiction and my friend Carolyn recommended these)

Yes, I will probably spend my entire vacation reading and eating and laying on the beach and word-doodling in my journal. The last time I went on a proper vacation I read about ten books, so some insane number close to that. The list may get trashier and trashier as the date approaches, as my brain will probably be fried from doing so much research...

I literally just spilled green tea all over myself. This day needs to conclude!

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Reflection: Geek Love (Katherine Dunn)

Dunn's Geek Love is the story of the Binewskis, a family of sideshow freaks created via the pseudo-scientific experiments of parents and carnival managers Al and Lil. The novel is narrated from the perspective of Olympia/Oly Binewski (a hunchback, albino dwarf). Others characters include: Arty, the aqua boy who has flippers for hands, Elly and Iphy the musically-inclined siamese twins, and Chick, the Binewski's youngest child who possesses telekenetic powers. The narrative is propelled by Oly's attempts to reconnect with her daughter Miranda, who is "normal" despite the fact that she has a small tail. In attempting to rekindle her relationship with Miranda, Oly must inevitably narrate the rise and fall of the Binewski Fabulon, as the carnival is aptly named. Oly must also attempt to save Miranda from the predatory Miss Lick, a powerful business woman who seeks to transform beautiful women into freaks so that they will recognize their potential outside of being attractive to and for men. Interestingly, Miss Lick offers to pay for the removal of Miranda's tail, as this particularity, in fact, contributes to her erotic appeal. Also of interest is Arty, the aqua boy's creation of a cult of followers that seek to achieve spiritual enlightenment by transforming themselves into freaks via the process of slowly having their limbs amputated.

I've read this book twice--most recently because I'm teaching it--and still don't concretely know how I feel about it. The premise of the book itself is extremely troubling--that Al essentially doses Lil with toxic substances in order to produce a horde of fantastically-bodied children that "can make a living just by being themselves." Or perhaps we as readers are supposed to suspend belief in the face of this troubling foundation and allow ourselves to be taken along on Dunn's narrative simp twister ride as she utilizes her freak characters as a means of exploring issues of power, normality, and physical appearance. Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that the freak characters do not neceesarily possess a more enlightened view on issues of oppression based on physical appearance and/or disability. Instead, the Fabulon has its own set of hierarchal relationships, and while Dunn reverses societal norms within the novel, in that "freak" becomes a desired identity, and "norm" an undesirable identity, she risks creating a reverse form of prejudice in which discrimination is allowable and acceptable. It appears as though Dunn maintains the categories of "freak" and "norm," merely reversing the power differentials between them as opposed to troubling these categories themselves.

Still, this unique novel is worth a read, if only for the fantastically unique characters and world that Dunn creates. Her dialogue and descriptions are stunning, going so far as to create her own lexicon and philosophy for the sideshow world she depicts. Becoming a finalist for a National Book Award, I wonder if Dunn anticipated the buzz that her novel generated. I have to wonder whether the popularity of the novel is based, in part, on the American public's continued fascination with all things freakish and abnormal. And after writing this book, Dunn has seemingly disappeared from the literary scene--perhaps because she was disturbed by the reception of her work? Or perhaps I'm just creating scenarios because I would like to see more from this most fascinating author.

Reflections Not Reviews

I prefer reflecting on books as opposed to reviewing them. Reviewing seems too formal. It's not like I have aspirations to be Michiko Kakutani, anyways. Reviews seem like judgments--coming down on the side of whether the work is good or bad, successful or unsuccessful. Reviews are supposed to be objective, but one of the best parts of reading is the personal emotional responses that the reading experience occasions within you. My reflections might even be rambles--unstructured, fragmented, spiraling, meandering thoughts. Do bear with me.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Review: Be In Want (Meghan Tonjes)

This is somewhat unrelated to reading, but I've been so inspired by Meghan Tonjes's debut album Be In Want that I wanted to write a review of it. Literature and music, for me anyways, are quite interconnected.

The review:

I’m In Want (of Meghan Tonjes)…

Be In Want is the debut release from Meghan Tonjes, an independent singer-songwriter based in Detroit, Michigan. A folk-pop collection of songs dealing with relationships, love, and self-love, Be In Want is musical medicine for the broken-hearted. “The End” (ironically the first track of the album) is a meditation on healing and moving on from a love lost. The humorous yet heartbreaking “She’ll Make You” is sung from the perspective of a woman in love with a man engaged to someone else. “Saved” reflects Tonjes’s experiences with close-minded people she encountered while attending a Christian university. The short interlude “Anthem” is a sexy and assertive declaration of desire, and “Be In Want,” the album’s title track, chronicles the frustrations of an almost-relationship. Tonjes’s lyrics are crafted with a poetic sensibility, her melodies are addictive, and her vocal delivery is stunning: like golden ribbons of honey swirled into strong black tea, simultaneously smoky and sweet.

Tonjes is also the founder of the revolutionary YouTube channel ProjectLifesize, a collaboration of kick-ass women giving voice to issues of body image and self-acceptance in a size-phobic world. Tonjes started the channel in response to negative comments she received on her personal YouTube channel regarding her weight. As opposed to being discouraged by the criticism she faced, she instead transformed this negativity into a positive force of change. In “Saved” she sarcastically tells her critics: “I want to learn how to hate / How to judge and to fear everything,” illustrating that hatred is a learned behavior that can be revised through activism and education. As an alternative to ignorance, she espouses the belief that, as she states in “Space Between,” “I’m to you as you are to me,” or that we are all intricately interconnected. Tonjes is funny, feisty, feminist, and unabashed in speaking the truths of her experience. Anyone who has felt like an outcast because of their weight, race, gender, or sexual orientation will connect with her message of acceptance and self-acceptance.

Whether listening to her album, viewing her personal YouTube channel where she performs original music and covers for her weekly “Request Tuesdays” (and actually makes Britney Spears songs sound good), or her collaborative project, Tonjes will have you in want of more. To paraphrase “She’ll Make You”: “Nothing’s gonna stop her now / No one’s gonna hold her down.”

Be In Want can be purchased from Tonjes’s website: or from iTunes.
Tonjes’s personal YouTube channel: