Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Alice Hoffman Freaks Out, and Plus Her Book is Bad

Yesterday, angry author Alice Hoffman used Twitter to publish a reviewer's phone number and (misspelled) email address. She encouraged her followers to "tell [the reviewer] off," after reviewer Roberta Silman published a lukewarm review of Hoffman's most recent book, The Story Sisters, in the Boston Globe. Instructing followers to "Tell her what u think of snarky critics," Hoffman caused eyebrows around the twitterverse to raise a few languid millimeters, as the book world vaguely pondered whether reviewers should really be punished for saying what they think.

Their conclusion: No, they should not. After receiving some flack for her tweet, Hoffman tried to turn this tantrum into a principled stance, saying, "Girls are taught to be gracious and keep their mouths shut. We don't have to. And we writers don't have to say nothing when someone tries to destroy us." Uh, yeah.

In an incredibly synchronous coincidence, I just yesterday finished reading Alice Hoffman's novel Here on Earth. Do I dare tell you exactly how I feel about this book? Will my phone number be posted on Twitter tomorrow, beside an impassioned call to action?

I did not like Here on Earth. I only picked it up because my brain somehow crossed wires and I thought I was picking up an Angela Carter book. Carter wrote The Infernal Desire Machines of Dr. Hoffman. She is not, as I now know, related in any way to Alice Hoffman. I had never read Alice Hoffman before.

Here on Earth is a romance novel dressed up as literary chick-lit. Its central character is an unlikeable woman whose choices are dense and reprehensible, and whose family and friends are only slightly less loathsome. Switching through point-of-view characters with irritating frequency and loping along in an uncomfortable present tense, the book spirals outward away from an increasingly irrational and self-destructive heroine as if the plot is mirroring the reader's desire to get out of her unsavory story. Several times in the book, young characters are told that they just don't know anything about love. Maybe my failure to connect with this novel is a result of a similar misunderstanding.

Or maybe it's because of lines like this: "He can spend hours watching a wounded cedar beetle and weep over its rare beauty, as well as its agony." Or this: "He knows what can happen to any man who won't let go of his pain." These lines were written without sarcasm about two different male characters, and they're not even the ones we're *supposed* to hate! Maybe it's because of the close attention paid to sweaters and cookies. Ultimately, though, I didn't buy the violence, the pain, the delusions, or even the love.

The Boston Globe said about Here on Earth: "A sound addition to an impressive body of work." I wonder if that reviewer would have been called out on Twitter, had it been around back in 1997 when Here on Earth was published? Because all that reviewer really said was, "Alice Hoffman has written another of many books." And sometimes, if you're trying to be nice, that's all you can really say.

UPDATE: Alice Hoffman's twitter account is no longer. However, Gawker has screen caps.

Here's a list of the people I referenced in the article if you want to follow them on Twitter:

Alice Hoffman @alicehof (deleted? suspended? torn down in a fit of rage?)

Ron Charles, Washington Post Writer: @roncharles

Islinda, outraged fan: @darkonfire

Thanks to Maud Newton who retweeted it: @maudnewton

Thanks to Susannah Breslin who sent it to me: @reversecowpie

And this is me: @lostcheerio

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Reading Wickett's Remedy in the Time of Swine Flu

You think you've got it bad?

Myla Goldberg's novel, Wickett's Remedy, begins pleasantly enough, as a quaint period piece about a young girl in the early 20th century, escaping South Boston to experience big city life as a shop girl selling men's shirts. Lydia Kilkenny finds love, gets married to a medical student, and sets up house. The narrative is augmented by marginal notes in the point of view of ancillary characters, and newspaper articles and editorial letters from the time, and other snatches of dialogue.

Then the Spanish Influenza happens. The book stops being cute, derails itself from a nice little plot about a ghetto girl who conquers the world, and heads into dark and dangerous territory. Now the marginal notes, the newspaper articles, and disembodied dialogues and unexplained bits of correspondence become sinister, threatening, and the main character, who had seemed a little too sweet, too plucky, too dear, is now our only hope. The book was extremely moving, after things got dire. Once I got to the awful part, I could hardly put it down. The multiplicity of voices becomes part of the story itself, as if the only way the unfairness, the starkness, the confusion of the times could be portrayed is through this fragmentation of the narrative.

Goldberg illuminates a world of which I had absolutely no knowledge, no experience. One third of the world's population was infected with this flu. The mortality rate was 10%. That meant that more than 3% of the world's population died of this disease. Seventeen million in India. Six hundred thousand in the US. The most gruesome fact of the pandemic was that the disease killed strong young adults more effectively than the old or young, because the stronger your immune system the more violently the disease came on. Truly horrific. And the things that happened on the Navy ships. Goldberg hints at horrors, via snatches of dialogue and reports, that defy belief.

I highly recommend Wickett's Remedy to anyone who has been loudly panicking about the swine flu, has felt themselves put upon and afflicted by this outbreak, or has been walking around in a face mask. The things Goldberg will show you will make your life in 2009 seem like a paradise of health and vigor.

Friday, June 26, 2009

How to Compete for a Woman with Twilight's Edward Cullen

The coat is key.

As we all know, Edward Cullen, dark and dangerous (but not too dangerous!) star of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, has ruined women on regular guys for the next ten years. (Read this: Ten ways Twilight has ruined a generation of high school girlfriends.) Merciful creature that I am, I have some tips for the victims of this literary vampire, who has sucked away your chances for getting a prom date and left you feeling fleshy and inadequate.

1. Purchase a pea coat. After that, if you feel okay, get some pants that actually fit. Wear them together at the same time. If you have anything in your wardrobe in any shade of red, green, or yellow, push it to the back and don't touch it again.

2. Tell a girl you're bad, very very bad. Then never do anything even remotely bad.

3. Get your hair off your face. Purchase mud, shellac, cream, pomade, or wax but *not* hairspray. Squeeze your product into your hands, and then grab at your head as if it's causing you agonizing pain. Continue to clutch your skull until all your hair is pointing away from your forehead. For style reference, check out Brandon and Dylan from Beverly Hills, 90210 circa 1992. No more Disney Channel shag.

4. If you can't think of anything to say to a girl, just glare at her. Never explain anything. Say almost nothing at all. If she asks you what you're thinking, put your arm around her and look away.

5. Imagine the expression you'd have on your face if someone stabbed you with a pencil in the gallbladder, spleen, pancreas or pyloric valve (any other dark, secret, unlocatable place in your abdomen will do). This should now become your default expression.

6. Your excuse for not doing anything should be that you want to too much. As in, you couldn't call because you wanted to *too much.* You couldn't wait for her because you wanted to *too much.*

7. Refuse to do anything physical with your girl, and only relent when pressed to extremes. At each base, you must stop yourself and her from going farther at least three times (claiming, of course, to want her too much).

8. Don't hum, laugh, punch other guys, or behave in any way that could be perceived as happy, relaxed, or lively. Instead, hold a book in your hand and stare off into the distance, maybe about half a football field away.

9. Never think of or mention football again, except if you're using it as a reference point for your distracted, tortured staring. Do not participate in sports, no, not even baseball unless you are an actual vampire.

10. Lead with your forehead. You should always be able to see a little bit of your eyebrow hair as you are peering out from under your brow. This is particularly true if you're attempting a smile. And your smile should always say, "I'm full, but I could eat more" and never "I'm happy" or "That's funny" or "Do you like me?"

Now, there are some lengths to which you should not go to bag a Twilighter. DO NOT:

1. Attempt to run up a tree.

2. Take off your shirt.

3. Wear lipstick.

4. Pretend you can type blood by sight.

5. Jump off a building.

6. Engage in warfare with a rogue vampire.

7. Take her to meet your family.

8. Attempt to stop a speeding car with your body.

9. Drive like you're immortal.

10. Eat a raw deer.

Good luck! Happy hunting, regular guys!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ten Ways Twilight Has Ruined a Generation of High School Girlfriends

Your girlfriend is mine.

It used to be hard to get a date in high school. Now, thanks to Twilight, it's got to be damn near impossible. What Mr. Darcy did for husbands, Edward Cullen is doing for boyfriends, and another generation of women is losing interest in the happy jocks while musing over the dark-haired, troubled guy with all that anguish in his eyes.

Edward Cullen is the fictional teen vampire / Byronic anti-hero in Twilight that seduces awkward, brainy heroine Bella Swan. The characters in the book bump around school and rainy Washington, being moody and misunderstanding each other, as Bella and Edward fall in love. Then there are mean vampires, and then more love.

So what makes Edward the Vampire Fantasy Boyfriend such a PR problem for real life teens who just want to get a date to take to dinner and hang out with at the prom? What do the girls see in those black gold eyes?

10. The reason Edward rejects you initially is because he loves you *too much*.

9. Edward has super powers like running superfast and walking up trees, which he can perform while carrying you, making you feel very small and thin.

8. He's strong as an ox but physically effeminate and beautiful, looks great in a full face of makeup.

7. He can save you from speeding SUVs and vampires and thugs without sweating. If a real boy saved you from a thug he'd probably rehash the whole event in front of his friends forty times, but Edward just wanders off.

6. When he's being cryptic, and you push him to explain himself, it just makes him like you *even more.* Real boys tend to have to get off the phone when this happens.

5. When he's moody, it's because he wants to eat people, not because he's about to break up with you.

4. He can read everyone else's mind, but yours is a total mystery.

3. At the beach, his skin turns into diamonds. Real boys turn red and blotchy.

2. He's immortal. Real boys can be killed by almost anything.

And the number one reason that Edward Cullen has ruined things for average teenage boys:

1. He is overcome with deep, torturous lust for you, but he can never, never act on it, or you will die.

Edward Cullen is the safe boyfriend. He will never make you actually take your pants off, but he will constantly reassure you that he only wants to ravage you.

What does this mean? Teenage girls don't actually want to be ravaged. They want to be desired but not deflowered, that they want to be constantly, urgently threatened with intercourse, but never have to experience it. Edward will never, ever satisfy himself with Bella, because doing so would kill her. Let me make you a metaphor map: Loss of virginity = death. Edward = impotent. Therefore the perfect teen boyfriend.

So what's a regular guy to do, in the face of this kind of competition? Now that the movie's out, even the illiterate girls have Edward as a measuring stick for male perfection.

Next time, I'll give you ten ways that regular, average boys can compete with Edward Cullen, using sneaky tactics and clever ploys instead of actual vampirism.

From Susannah's "A Photo a Day," June 22, 2009

Shut up, Barbie.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Ten Words to Make You Sound Smart in a Book Discussion

Try to impress Jacques Derrida.

Here are ten words to stock your conversational arsenal that will make you sound like you spent six years in a PhD program reading Derrida and Joyce and drinking absinthe. Warning: With the wrong audience, you might end up punched in the face or wearing your underwear outside your pants involuntarily. Use at your discretion.

1. Hegemony: This word describes a stronger group inflicting its self-serving ideas on a weaker group, while making the weaker group believe these ideas are awesome. Hegemony is pretty much a cuss word, for book nuts. Example: "This is a total hegemony, man!"

2. Proust: Proust is a fiction writer, and gay, and French, and dead. Those are the facts you need. His most famous work was over 3000 pages long. It's about the nature of memory and art, and no one except his mother has ever read it all. You can say it contains whatever character or plot twist you wish, and never be contradicted.

3. Deconstructionism: Contrary to popular use, "deconstruct" does not mean the opposite of construct. It actually means to reduce a written work to its most basic assumptions and then show how those assumptions are paradoxical and therefore meaningless. Instead of good vs. evil, it's neither. This is not a synonym for "analyze." Sorry, Sean Hannity.

Marcel Proust is scintillated by your discourse.

4. Hermeneutics: This word means the study of ways to find meaning in a text. There are a million ways to go about finding meaning, all predicated on the idea that it can be found. Believe it or not, there are people who believe that hermeneutics and meaning are stupid and boring. For serious rockstar points, publically discard hermaneutics and everything it implies.

5. Post-colonialism: At some point in the 20th century, the world decided that making colonies was bad, and that reading any native literature from a colonized country as "cute" and saying "It's neat how they keep writing things down!" was also bad. So we had to develop a new term for our new enlightened way of interacting with this type of discourse. Post-colonialism means "after the colonizers decided the colonized might actually have something to say."

6. Foucault: Foucault is a philosopher, and gay, and French, and dead. He wrote in a very smartypants manner about a bunch of stuff, including how there is no truth or meaning, no way to interpret discourse. He was super-against hermeneutics. In fact, if you want to disagree with something that ends in -ic or -ism, you can probably cite Foucault.

7. French Feminism: French feminists invented the idea of a female kind of writing, "ecriture feminine" which is super-sexy and completely different from phallocentric male discourse. French feminists believed women should write about women, and their bodies. If you use the phrase "writing the body" you will get knowing nods from male friends and phone numbers from the girls.

You fail to convince Heidegger.

8. Joycean: James Joyce's catalog is varied and deep, which means that "Joycean" can go in front of any noun you want, including "Joycean monologue" and "Joycean symbolism" and "Joycean analogy" and even "Joycean discourse."

9. Heterogeneous: Heterogeneity is good because diversity is good. Therefore the word "homogeneous" is bad, just like hegemony is bad. Note: None of these words can be properly applied to milk. Just political movements, world populations, ideas, and granola.

10. Discourse: Use this word in place of any synonym for language. Any chunk of words, spoken or written, can be discourse. Do not ever, under any circumstances, call words "words" or sentences "sentences." Try "heterogenous discursive units." For bonus points, find three places I've used the word "discourse" in this very article, just trying to sound smart!

So, have we learned anything today? Did you know all of this already? What's your favorite word to use in a book group?

For more info: There is a lot more info. But do you really want it?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Blogging is Dead. Long Live Blogging.

Is it just me or does blogging these days seem tragically onerous? It's a little bit like living in a cabin in the woods, all by yourself. Your cabin may have been built with your own hands, and may be a cabin you're really very proud of, but ultimately it's a cabin that no one ever sees. It's just so far out in the woods, you know? No one sees the brick path you laid, the planters you filled with geraniums, the really neat pot hangers. No one sees your blog either.

It's lonely in the cabin. A person starts to feel like the only person in the woods. So we all come out to the lodge or the campfire, and we start chatting with the other mountain dwellers. Of course, when you're sitting around the campfire, you can't pontificate for hours on the state of your geranium planters. You have to keep it brief, keep it entertaining. That's Twitter. That's Facebook. That's Tumblr. Meet me at the campfire. I'll listen to what you have to say for thirty seconds at a time.

Here's the reality: I'm no longer visiting your blog. Well, that's not entirely true. I'm no longer visiting your blog just to visit. I will read your blog posts if one of these three conditions is met:

1. You tweet or Facebook a link to it that attracts my attention.
2. It appears in my reader, in which case I read it there, in my reader.
3. It turns up in a google search for something specific I want to know.

I don't care about your awesome page layout.
I don't care about your 18 inch blogroll.
I don't even care about your tag cloud.

No, not at all.

I do care, deeply, about your ability to write 140 words at a time in Twitter. I care about your ability to post funny or interesting Facebook updates. I care about your blog posts too, insofar as they fit into my reader, uniformly formatted with all the other posts by bloggers with which I've categorized you. I care about the words you write, but I no longer care about the context in which you write them. And really, I want to say to you, and to myself -- enough blogging. If you can say it in 140 words, you should. No more "What we did today." No more "Here's a funny anecdote." No more "Have you ever wondered about this question?" None of those things merit a blog post any more, and I'm not traipsing all the way out to your cabin to read that! Say it in 140 characters, right here at the campfire, or don't say it. Sorry!

It sounds extreme, and obviously, I'm not entirely done with blogging myself. So what kinds of things can I *not* say in 140 words? What topics do I actually feel justified blogging about, and what blog posts will I still trudge out to your blog to read?

1. Something that's long and funny.
2. Something that's long and useful.
3. Something that's long and contentious.

I might also blog something that's full of pictures, but it must also be either funny, useful, or contentious. Otherwise I can just Tweet or Facebook a link to the Flickr set.

That's really it.

Does this mean that we no longer have the attention span for blogs? Am I now supposed to say something wan and dire about the decay of this or that, or the disintegration of blah blah blah?

No. Because the writing isn't gone. The text isn't even really shorter. It's just that the internet has become more modular. Instead of the context of your layout, your blogroll, your About Me, your profile, your color scheme and the rest of it, you now exist in a larger context. You are now in the context of whatever feed that brings you to my screen. You are adjacent to everyone else. You are without context.

This isn't the decay of anything. It is a literary evolution. Now more than ever, content is king. The blog posts that people do write and pay attention to are less like journals, less like casual diaries, and more like articles -- meaty and complex. The blogs that survive Twitter and Tumblr and will be the ones with actual content that's accummulated into a body of work with merit. For the rest of the blogging population, Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Flickr, and Friendfeed will more than suffice. This is a good thing, people. While "Blogging" may be alive and well, "blogging" is dead. Face(book) it: It's just not worth posting the small stuff anymore.

Tweeting this post? Here's a short URL: http://bit.ly/ry1o8