Wednesday, May 31, 2017

To Kill a Mockingbird

            Recently, I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird*. Not to be confused with Tequila Mockingbird—a book of cocktail recipes related to literary works that I highly recommend. Mix 3 ounces of grapefruit juice with 1.5 ounces of rye whiskey, and you have yourself a “Rye and Prejudice”.

            If you went through the American public school system, you’ve probably read this book. If you’ve read this book, you probably loved it. If you didn’t, you’re a monster.

            Fine, I take it back. No literary prejudices here-- Atticus Finch wouldn’t like that. In fact, because Atticus embodies integrity, courage, and righteousness, he doesn’t condone any kind of prejudice. Atticus—the parent of Scout (the narrator) and Jem—serves as the moral compass for the novel. Although he’s portrayed a little overly idealistic, I don’t mind. I like the pleasant portrait of a single father raising his kids to be thoughtful and kind despite societal pressures. Sue me!

            Harper Lee spends a long time carefully crafting the setting to show readers how the Maycomb townsfolk are stuck in their 1930s ways. Children inherit the sins and glories of their ancestors and they’re judged by the family name. So, racial biases—especially in rural Alabama—are particularly hard to shake off. When Atticus defends Tom Robinson, a black man, he’s asking a group of intransigent people to radically change their mindset. It goes without saying that this is not entirely well received.

            Telling the story from the perspective of a child (Scout) is ingenious. Scout observes the town and its enforced stereotypes about class, race, and gender through the lens of youthful innocence with a comical matter-of-fact voice. There is also a unique wisdom she possesses; she’s un*adult*erated by the cynicism that accompanies getting older. She has yet to witness a grown woman shitting on the subway. She hasn’t had to cope with the rising price of avocado. She’s pure.

            There are plenty of bases for discussion in To Kill a Mockingbird, as well as an array of interesting characters worth exploring, which is why the novel has found such success. A conversation about the compassion of Boo Radley—the town’s mysterious recluse—is just as lively and enriching as a chat about the severe pride of Mrs. Dubose—a mean, dying old lady. I think that Harper Lee gives us an assortment of characters to underscore that we’re all one and the same, trying our best. Just typing that sentence makes me nauseous, but she’s able to accomplish the thematic life lesson without being cheesy. Mmmm cheese.

            I’m not the first person to praise Harper Lee for her entertaining and poignant work, so I’m unashamedly adding myself to her list of admirers. While I never discourage reading at an early age, I’m sometimes uneasy with the idea of assigning “classic” literature to students, because I fear that they won’t be old enough or won’t care enough to appreciate them. I’ve always been a reader, but it wasn’t until I hit my twenties that I started to value books in a deep, three-dimensional way. Are we scaring off teenagers when we assign them Moby Dick? To Kill a Mockingbird is an exception. I think it’s an excellently written book, accessible to all ages, and a thought-provoking platform to jumpstart genuine dialogues about important, relevant subjects. Thus, To Kill a Mockingbird receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Lee, Harper. To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Hachette Book Group, 1960. Print.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Picture of Dorian Gray

            I’ll start by stating the obvious: the 21st century encourages vanity. Before there was Instagram, SnapChat filters, and waist training, we had Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray*.

            In the book, Dorian Gray goes from an idealistic youth to a ruthless man who will stop at nothing to maintain his boyish beauty. A talented artist, Basil Hallward, paints Dorian at his physical peak. Encouraged by the hedonism of a fellow aristocrat, Lord Henry, Dorian makes a pivotal wish for the face of the portrait to grow old in lieu of his own. His obsession with aesthetics spurs a moral decline that destroys himself and his companions.

            The structure is simple: portrait ages, person does not; however, Wilde animates the plot with lively dialogue and complex characters. Lord Henry isn’t supposed to be a good guy worth emulating, but I found him hilarious and poetic. Here are some words of wisdom from the Lord:
  • Lord Henry on aging: “We degenerate into hideous puppets, haunted by the memory of the passions of which we were too much afraid, and the exquisite temptations that we had not the courage to yield to.” (Wilde, 23)
  • Lord Henry on being virtuous and faithful: “…the people who love only once in their lives are really the shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either their lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination.” (Wilde, 45)
  • Lord Henry on rewinding time: “To get back my youth, I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be responsible.” (Wilde, 186).

            See! He’s such a glamorous, self-indulgent nut-job. I can just picture him lounging on a fainting chair, sipping champagne, and telling his friends how he hates their skincare regime.

            Wilde’s book is a timeless, foreboding reminder of what we’re capable of when we put pride above all else. As evidenced by the Lord Henry quotes, Wilde is a beautiful writer. His experience as a playwright informs his writing such that I was really able to picture The Picture of Dorian Gray in my head. If you’ve heard of Oscar Wilde but haven’t read any of his stuff, this is your chance! The Picture of Dorian Gray receives 5 out of 5 camel humps.

            Side note: the cover photo for my book is titled “Oscar Wilde in a Pensive Mood Sitting on a Divan During His Stay in America”, which is how all photos should be captioned.

*Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Trans. Richard Ellmann. New York: Bantam Classics, Inc., 1982. Print.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017


            In elementary school, I renamed my teachers mean things behind their backs if I didn’t like them. The librarian went from Mrs. Motival to Mrs. Mont-evil. The lunch monitor transformed from Mrs. Hoshibosh to Mrs. Hossy “Bossy”. Since then, I always pair the word bossy with a whistle and undercooked green beans.

            Tina Fey’s 2011 autobiography, Bossypants* makes no mention of soggy vegetables. Instead, Fey gifts us tales of the unique history that led to her successes today. She does so humbly (but not too humbly) and wittily.

            I’ll cut to the chase. Do you like Tina Fey? If the answer is no, you’ve obviously never seen Mean Girls. Go do that now. If the answer is yes, you will like this book. It will probably not be your favorite book in the world, but you will enjoy your reading adventure.

            Reasons why I’m partial to this book as a Fey-fan:

·      She graduated from UVA. I graduated from UVA. I feel famous by association. We get to read about her embarrassing encounters with collegiate men.
·      She has a great deal of experience in improv, and she drops nuggets of craft-related wisdom in the book.
·      She wrote for SNL when being a white middle-class woman counted as diversity in comedy. She unveils the grueling writing process for the show as well as some of the ensuing chaos. Surprisingly, she tells us quite a lot about Lorne Michaels, whom I envision as Wizard of Oz behind the creative curtain.
·      She created 30 Rock, which is a funny program. She tells us about the show’s development and some bloopery behind-the-scenes mishaps.
·      She holds an uncanny resemblance to an Alaskan Dodo bird, otherwise known as Sarah Palin. Fey returns to SNL as a routine guest during election season because of the likeness. Turns out, it’s not all accidental grandchildren and poor political platforms!

            Bossypants takes a generally lighthearted tone, but it’s not substance-less, because Fey leads an interesting, atypical life. She presents readers something about herself or her world in seriousness and then wraps it up with a clever one-liner. Her book = inspiration + insider information + comedic twist. I never lost myself in a fit of laughter, but I also don’t think that is her intent.

            Overall, Fey slays as a female in the comedy world but her autobiography is not worthy of a full 5-hump rating. I like hearing about her experiences, but—let’s get real—it’s not that difficult to talk about yourself. Bossypants receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Fey, Tina. Bossypants. New York: Little Stranger, Inc., 2011. Print

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

            Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?* No seriously. Who the hell is going to run the frog hospital if all the nurses keep kissing the frogs, resulting in warts rather than princes? Should we move to a single-payer lily pad system? None of this is pertinent to the novel but I think these are important questions to ask.

            Lorrie Moore’s second novel—Who Will Run the Frog Hospital—proves that she is a word sorceress. About six months ago, I reviewed her first novel, Anagrams. I noted that she consistently juggles wordplay and storyplay. For example, she plays with words to interject humor and convey some deeper truth. Additionally, she plays with stories, layering plots on top of each other and often showing readers a certain character in various forms. In Frog Hospital, we meet Berie Carr and follow two interwoven tracks: her childhood with her inseparable best girl friend and her adulthood with her strained marriage.

            My complaints and praises of her first novel similarly apply to her second. Sometimes her puns feel a touch contrived. Sometimes the integration of both eras is not as seamless as I’d prefer. Sometimes the main character slips through my fingers because she’s described more in relation to others than in her own right.

            On the other hand, her second novel evinces her growth as a storyteller. Frog Hospital is relatively short (150 pages) and Moore is more deliberate about what she includes. Like Benna in Anagrams, Berie is a tortured soul and we desperately want to know more about her life. Even though I enjoyed reading about Benna, there’s something about seeing Berie’s childhood so vividly that helps me understand why she is the way she is in her adult life. She felt repressed by the idea of “innocence” as a child, so she revolted. As a woman, she mourns her loss of innocence and reflects on how her loud, youthful choices led to her current troubled relationship.

            Moore is incredibly lyrical in her writing—it’s as if she’s writing a poem that actually makes sense. Unlike Murakami, her metaphors serve to clarify and help us make sense of the world in a more profound way. I presume that even the title is a metaphor: a query for how she can salvage the wreckage of her life.

            As aforementioned, I love her voice as a novelist, but I recognize areas of improvement. I will absolutely continue reading her, and I recommend her work on a rainy day. Overall, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? receives 4 out of 5 camel humps.

*Moore, Lorrie. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? New York: Warner Books, 1994. Print.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Men Explain Things to Me

            I first cracked open Men Explain Things to Me* on the subway. I traveled one stop and then looked out the window picturesquely, as one does. I saw an Aerie untouched ad posted in the station, and someone had graffitied “pussy rape” right next to this girl’s vagina. When people say that books like these are whiny or that feminists have a stick up their butt, all it takes is a functional pair of eyes and ears to prove them wrong.

            Look, I regularly shave my armpits, and I seamlessly fit every female stereotype about wine, but I call myself a feminist, because I believe that at its core, “Feminism…is the radical notion that women are people” (Solnit, 152). White men have had it made for centuries. That’s not to say that every white male has had it made, but on the whole, their lot is the best of the barrel. Going forward, I think that white men should still totally strive to have it made, but not at the expense of other races or genders. Let’s all have it made.

            White men are not intrinsically better or more capable; history has shaped the availability of resources to certain groups of people, and that has a longstanding effect on our social spheres today. It’s easy to keep your head in the sand with this sort of thing—especially when it doesn’t affect you—but it’s not ethically or practically a great move.

            Women constitute 50% of the population; it’s astounding to me when we’re not treated as such. To be honest, I haven’t experienced much sexism firsthand. I know that so many women have, and I’m incredibly lucky to have men in my life who defy statistics. That being said, I am offended (and potentially, in the future, affected) by certain political maneuvers performed by males who frankly have no idea what they’re talking about. No, I’m not necessarily referring to pro-life agendas (which I believe are much more complicated); I’m talking about Republican politicians who say things like, “‘If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut the whole thing down.’” (Solnit, 13). Of note, members of both parties criticized his language, but the fact that a seemingly intelligent public figure said something this absurd is no less concerning. People genuinely believe that garbage, and that’s a problem.

            Rape is a central topic to Solnit’s assortment of essays. She throws out incisive statistics, horrifying anecdotes, and perceptive solutions to gender issues. It’s not like she thinks all women are God’s gift to the world. She acknowledges, “Of course, women are capable of all sorts of unpleasantness, and there are violent crimes by women, but the so-called war of the sexes is extraordinarily lopsided when it comes to actual violence” (Solnit, 33). This is a fact, backed up by actual numbers. It’s confusing to me when men try and contort such blatant history. Women are routinely victims of domestic violence—how is this ever subject to convolution?

            Men Explain Things to Me is not a novel in which tone-deaf men dully describe certain topics to women. Instead, Solnit’s book combines seven of her essays related to the feminist movement. From a literary perspective, not every one of these essays is pertinent. At the very least, they don’t all get to the point in a way that I believe is structurally necessary with a collection such as this. Some essays prove Solnit’s general skills as a writer more than they service the message as a whole. She has a very valuable viewpoint on the subject, but the edition I own has some distractions that render it less effective. There are asides about writing and the creative process that, while I find interesting, aren’t relevant to the topic at hand.

            Still, in its entirety, Solnit’s work hits readers hard. It’s easy for women like me—who are surrounded by supportive men—to celebrate in our contentedness. But, as Solnit claims, “finding ways to appreciate advances without embracing complacency is a delicate task” (Solnit, 144). Oppressive patriarchy can express itself insidiously and patronizingly, and I agree with Solnit that, “The battle for women to be treated like human beings with rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of involvement in cultural and political arenas continues” (Solnit, 14). Overall, partially due to its hit-or-miss structure and partially due to its warranted incendiary writing, Men Explain Things to Me receives 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Solnit, Rebecca. Men Explain Things to Me. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2014. Print.