Monday, May 19, 2008

Paper writing

When I was in college, and then grad school, the most stressful, as well as most useful, periods were the paper times. They were usually due the week of midterms and finals. My strategy was generally to wait until the last minute possible to write the paper although I read and researched early on and up until the last minute. Then, I would pull an all-nighter with one page per one hour. The long papers, those that were 20 pages or over in length, required at least a couple of nights.

What does it say about my geekiness that I miss paper writing? I have neither the time nor the leisure to research a novel thoroughly now. The paper writing process forced me, as a student, to try to coalesce impressions, thoughts, ideas about a book, a writer, and the time period. I've done a few reviews but I don't find it as satisfying. There's the length limitation as well as the fact that book reviews, if they are to be published in most formats, are generally about contemporary writers.

Right now, I am not thinking much about specific contemporary writers. My head is floating amidst canonical writers such as Henry James, Shakespeare, Proust, the Ancient Greeks, and some philosophers. Most of all, I would like to write about Henry James, to think about Henry James in writing about him and his books. I am reminded again of Colm Toibin's tremendous novel about James. James' genius of writing, but even more importantly, his understanding of human beings are unparalleled. There is the important French influence: Flaubert, Balzac, Maupaussant. As with the French Naturalists, James is not sentimental. However, there is a generosity.

It's something to think about, that generosity and how that is different than sentimentality.

Friday, May 16, 2008


I started reading Swann's Way in the translation by Lydia Davis a couple of months ago, and am meandering very slowly through it. Part of the reason for my slowness is because there is only one volume that is translated by Davis, and I fear that the other volumes will be...not necessarily inferior, but just different in tone. And so far, I am enjoying her translation very much.

I am now in the section dealing explicitly with Swann, and I feel rather bereft at leaving Combray behind. Even though the pace picks up in the portion dealing with Swann's love life, the slow and meditative texture of Combray, that feeling of Proust shifting through every little piece of memory, is not as present in the Swann in Love section. Even though the movement through the Combray section seems natural enough, in retrospect, one marvels at the amount of art and precision that went into weaving memories and intersecting lives through two different walking paths through Combray.

I was particularly moved by the story of the bourgeois piano teacher whose greatest pride was his daughter only to pretend that she wasn't holding lesbian intrigues, what was then considered a moral failing, and even more moved by the daughter trying to believe in her depraved nature as she recognized the grief she had brought to her father. It points to one of Proust's greatnesses, his gentleness in pinpointing a person's foibles, the sexual failings that are so human in each of us. While the piano teacher's daughter has a specific failing relating to gender orientation, yet, in the nature of desire, passion, and a very specifically sexual desire, her failure is part of a larger tapestry of human flaws that are revealed in the way each character construes their sexual desire for the other, the one.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Stuff White People Like

A couple of months ago, several of my friends sent me a link to the blog, Stuff White People Like, which has since gone viral and will soon be out as a book. While the friends who sent me the link accompanied the link with words such as: "Ohmigod. Hysterical." "This is the funniest thing ever.": I found myself unamused, and, yes, offended.

The conventional wisdom has it that critics of the blog are not getting the humor, or are too close to being the kind of white person portrayed on Christian Lander's blog. I don't necessarily discount that, but I think it's worth examining further into the issue, or at least for me since I find myself rather deeply disturbed by the blog in a way that I cannot pinpoint.

First off, a short list of biographical details about Christian Lander:
1) He is a 29 year old white male.
2) He is originally from Toronto Canada, studied at McGill, and then went onto grad school somewhere in America's Midwest where he learned to resent the two coast Americans who thought of the Midwest as not-them (the us and them construct).
3) He now lives in LA, as part of "us", and works as an internet writer.
4) One can find him on Amazon where he writes about a MP3 player that is not an Ipod, because it's important to his sense of alternative hipster, to not own an Ipod but a nice MP3 player. His wish list includes a history of bicycle, a book on learning to dress for permanent fashion for men, along with assorted geeky computer games, and graphic novels, particularly by Adrian Tomine.

So, basically, he sounds like half my Jewish male friends in New York, except he's not Jewish and doesn't have a nasally accent nor an off the wall sense of outrageous humor. Instead, his humor is rather gentle.

And perhaps that's what I initially didn't understand about the popularity of his blog. I thought: okay, done that, thought that.

And I don't find the humor offensive, as it is rather infused with Canadian politeness. However, I am offended by the idea of the blog. Here's the way I am reading it in terms of power and race:

1) Lander is parodying the humor of black comedians (latino comedians and asian american comedians are basically following the same path black comedians pioneered), which is to use racial stereotypes, claim it, and therefore subvert the power dynamics of race. However, Lander as part of the mainstream power that be, white male working in the tech industry, can only reaffirm the current power dynamic by assuring white people of their privileges.

In writing about white people who go to liberal arts schools, who have black friends, who go to eat at "ethnic restaurants", isn't he basically claiming power? Ethnic and race comedians have been making fun of what they have and therefore, don't have. Besides the continual nonsense about affirmative action, what can a decently well-employed professional white person say he doesn't have in this country? (Although I did go to one party in Boston where one WASP woman told me about the lack of warmth in her family. Oh, and I suppose, along with everyone else, he can complain about the lack of a democratic government.)

2) Is Lander skewering the alternative hipster or gently mocking, and therefore loving his own kind? Overall, I am inclined to say he's loving his own kind. The worst his kind has done in his posts is have an inclination to fall for Asian chicks and be not fully learned. Otherwise, they seem like a conscientious group of people who recycle, ride bicycles, ride Prius, have ethical and intellectual goals....what's not to like about them?

3) In defining a certain sect of traits and claiming it for white people, where does that leave the rest of us who recycle, go to do grad school in the humanities, and ride bicycles? This might sound rather harmless, but it's actually quite pernicious. Tiger Woods supposedly said to Will Smith when Smith was doing Legend of Bagger Vance something along the lines of how much he, Woods, had done to get black people in golf noticed and Smith had to go play a black caddy. For decades, white people have been laying claim to different facets of culture, including all of high culture, a great deal of sports such as tennis, golf, gymnastics, figure skating. It's only in the last couple of decades that minorities have finally broken into those sports. When I went to college to study English, I was mocked by both my high school advisor as well as certain professors in my college department.

4) Perhaps this is what offends me most of all. As someone who has had to struggle for my privileges as a non-white person, who has had to pay a great deal of debt in order to attend college at a liberal arts college and then grad school, it's offensive to watch someone take their privileges as a white middle-class person and mock it. It's a little bit of a "screw you" while eating food right in front of a homeless person and making sure the homeless person is watching.

5) Finally, take some lessons from the great Jewish comedians. People like Sarah Silverman and Jerry Seinfeld because they are outrageous comedians, not because they are gently loving their own kind and reaffirming status.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Kumar recites a poem

In the new Harold and Kumar movie, Kumar recites this fantastic poem which had me and my friends laughing so loudly and hard that I only caught half the poem. Here it is as found on the web:

The Square Root of 3

I’m sure that I will always be
A lonely number like root three

The three is all that’s good and right,
Why must my three keep out of sight
Beneath the vicious square root sign,
I wish instead I were a nine

For nine could thwart this evil trick,
with just some quick arithmetic

I know I’ll never see the sun, as 1.7321
Such is my reality, a sad irrationality

When hark! What is this I see,
Another square root of a three

As quietly co-waltzing by,
Together now we multiply
To form a number we prefer,
Rejoicing as an integer

We break free from our mortal bonds
With the wave of magic wands

Our square root signs become unglued
Your love for me has been renewed