January 31, 2011

The Ladies who Brunch

Yesterday, while brunching with my usual cohorts at our usual watering hole, several things decided to pop their heads onto the table over beers, bloody marys, and totally awesome waffles and French toast.

The first thing was a way of putting this horrible feeling that we are all going through over the uncertainty of our futures due to PhD applications being in the mail and decision letters on the horizon.  During a round of your average “how are you?”s, someone brought the topic up (it might have been me).  It was inevitable, right?  It’s at the back of all of our minds.  Getting us together and adding a little booze was only less likely to make us ignore the elephant in the room.  So someone said PhD applications, someone said decision letters, someone said job applications, and my friend (the husband of my other friend), ever-the-sage, piped up with this little gem:

“How is she doing?  Are you kidding?  She hasn’t finished a sentence in months!”

I stopped, gaped, briefly considered, and slowly realized how apt this description was.  I then attempted to launch into my own description of how I was doing, and wound up with a slew of started and re-started sentences and phrases not amounting to much of anything but a ball of stress and upset.

“See?”  He said, “Like that.”

Oh god.  It’s true.  It may even be the root of why all this is bothering me so much.  How can you live without knowing what the end of the sentence is?  We’ve begun it, surely, but now that things are out of our hands there is absolutely no way to complete it without someone inserting a word mad-lib-style… and all of our mad-lib buddies are in the bathroom, or checking their facebook in the other room, or on the phone with their moms for a family emergency, or otherwise detained in some fashion and unable to give us the crucial noun, verb, or color to continue!

We’re stuck mid-mad-lib!

Do you know how infuriating it is for an English major to be stuck mid-sentence?  In that pause space that Tim Curry adds as Frankenfurter when he says “I see you shiver with antici….” and the whole audience shouts “say it!  SAY IT!” before he finally outs with “…pation” and the crowd goes wild.  We’re ellipsis.  No, we’re not even ellipsis, ellipsis imply an interruption in the thought that will be filled with dramatic tension and indicates an omission in the text.  While the tension is there, the omission will not be forever.  Eventually it will be filled.  We’re stuck at sentence fragments.  We know the subject, but not the verb. 

How am I supposed to analyze a text if I don’t know the story?

This brief moment of panic aside, the waitress was a very inquisitive individual who started asking questions about who we were and what we did and, feeling the bravado of Winter Lager in my system, I boldly told her “we’re professors!”.  Yes, I know, it’s a stretch of the truth, but without time to explain what we really do it’s the best way to say what our passions are and what our careers will be.  She then started asking about our fields.  I pointed us out one by one; “Feminist” (aforementioned friend-wife-of-husband-friend), “Shakespearean” (yours truly), “Secular Critic” (actually not a lady, but he was late to brunch and thereby I don't feel too horrible about picking on him indiscriminately in this blog post). 

“And together we make the justice league!” The secular critic said.

…which really got me thinking, if we did make the justice league what would our powers be and what sorts of crimes would we solve?  Would we be the scourges of bad grammarians everywhere?  Copy-editing with iron quills?  Or would we be Defenders of the Text, like the lorax but speaking for books and authors whose words none can hear any longer without our help?  Or would we swoop in and rescue libraries from burning down and give away used books to poor children who didn’t have money to buy them?  Or would we just wear funny costumes and sit around a citadel all day talking about the awesome things we would get around to doing eventually but couldn’t because our reading loads were too much?

At this juncture, fretting about random punctuation marks was pushed to the back of my mind.  I was instead worried about my super hero ensemble and name.

I think “The Bardette” would suffice… or maybe “The Quillmistress”… and my icon would be a skull with a feather quill crossed over it and an open book emblazoned behind it… and my colors would probably be white and burgundy because white for “the sweet swan of Avon” and burgundy because every velvet or leather-bound Shakespeare volume I’ve ever seen was in burgundy and my primary weapon would be an iron-bound copy of the First Folio that I would use to bludgeon my assailants to death and I need to come up with a clever and punish catch phrase and…

…I like thinking about this a lot more than thinking about the space between ellipses.

January 28, 2011

Prospero’s Staff (no, this is not a euphemism)

I really should know better than this.  Apparently it’s been an eventful (if snowy) week in the land of academia because I had about five different ideas for posts I could write.  I finished another attack on the Common Reading Exam List (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court); I’ve had so many PhD-app-related thoughts whirring and churning that I’m pretty sure I’ve developed a stress-induce stomach ulcer; I still haven’t written you that afore-promised breakdown of the history of the English language; I would love to share some thoughts on my most recent personal project; I’ve found some exciting conferences to submit to for next year…

However, as I sat down to do a little writing for class, my little writing turned into something a bit too long and a bit too in-depth to keep to a private class discussion board.  I broke down again this semester and took another Shakespeare-related class and, as a result, I’ve been gleefully romping through my home-turf-playground.  I had to read The Tempest for class this week (along with criticism and I have to do some research and I may write a paper on it and, in the words of E.L. Doctorow, “life was suddenly wonderful and full of delicious possibility”).

There are a few pretty myths that we Shakespeareans tell.  Fantasies that we can only sort-of prove.  To me, they are the fairy tales of our field; cardinal sticking points that we choose to believe because they make us feel better about the world and how it works.  Things that are based in fact (if only the smallest bit of it), but then diverge into wild and untamed fantasies that we like to repeat to ourselves before we go to sleep at night because they make us feel more secure and happy in what we study.  Things like the Mulberry tree that stands today behind what was once Shakespeare’s House in Stratford being planted by Shakespeare himself.  There’s one about Shakespeare leaving his wife the second-best bed in his will because that would have been their marriage bed (the best bed would have been the guest bed).  Or, my personal favorite, the so-called “lost years” (between 1585 and 1595 when we simply can’t account for our Bard as there are no records of any kind in which he appears) being when he learned the craft of acting by running away and joining the Elizabethan equivalent of the circus (a wandering group of players ousted from London by plague who had happened to come through Stratford round about the time Shakespeare disappears off the map).

One of these pretty falsehoods is about The Tempest.  We know that it was written late in Shakespeare’s career as a playwright (best guess for the date of its inscription being sometime between late 1610 and its first performance on Hallowmas night in 1611).  Many believe that The Tempest was Shakespeare’s farewell to the theatre and Prospero’s magic, by extension, to be a euphemism for theatre in general (this has been expanded to mean “art” over the years).  As Prospero bids adieu to his charms, so too it is said that Shakespeare did when he finally left London to re-join his family in Stratford.

I can understand the basis for this myth.  There are, in fact, two breath-taking speeches that most scholars cite as its source.  Both are in the fifth act; the first being 5.1.1984-2008 and ending with:

…this rough Magicke
I heere abiure: and when I haue requir'd
Some heauenly Musicke (which euen now I do)
To worke mine end vpon their Sences, that
This Ayrie-charme is for, I'le breake my staffe,
Bury it certaine fadomes in the earth,
And deeper then did euer Plummet sound
Ile drowne my booke.

The second speech is the epilogue, spoken by Prospero on a blank stage:

Now my Charmes are all ore-throwne,
And what strength I haue's mine owne.
Which is most faint: now 'tis true
I must be heere confinde by you,
Or sent to Naples, Let me not
Since I haue my Dukedome got,
And pardon'd the deceiuer, dwell
In this bare Island, by your Spell,
But release me from my bands
With the helpe of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours, my Sailes
Must fill, or else my proiect failes,
Which was to please: Now I want
Spirits to enforce: Art to inchant,
And my ending is despaire,
Vnlesse I be relieu'd by praier
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy it selfe, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your Indulgence set me free.

There are, of course, several other smaller instances of Prospero’s preparation to bid farewell to his magics.  The most famous and note-worthy of these is his remark at the end of the mask he has summoned to celebrate Ferdinand and Miranda’s wedding: “We are such stuff/ as dreams are made on, and our little life/ is rounded with a sleep.” (4.1.1826-39) meaning that actors within their parts are nothing more than “airy nothings” and must, inevitably, fade with the fantasy. 

While this is a pretty fairy tale and perhaps satisfactory to those straight-up booky types, as an actor/scholar I remain unconvinced. 

The metaphor seems apt on the surface, but let us first remember that Shakespeare was more than a playwright.  His involvement with the theatre and the stage spanned all angles from playwright to producer to actor.  There is no doubt that Prospero’s magic is the driving force of the play.  His control over Ariel, Caliban, the masks, the very weather itself precipitates and drives the action of The Tempest.  Without it, the play does not exist.  The courtly characters enter the world of The Tempest and unheedingly thereby submit themselves to Prospero’s magic.  Importantly, the world of The Tempest is not one which Prospero created, it is merely one which he can control.  This is not a position that either the actor or the playwright finds himself in.  The playwright is the creator of the theatre.  It all spawns from his fancy and imagination.  He is not the puppet-master, he is the god.  The actor is the ultimate submissive in the theatrical division of power.  Much less Prospero, the actor plays Ariel or Caliban and must bend to the whims of any and all above him in the power structure (director, producer, stage manager…).  It is a pretty fantasy that the actor holds any power at all in the creation of a theatrical piece.  While the actor is showcased within it, it is not his piece to control.

Important as well is that Prospero says goodbye to fairy land to return to a very real very courtly existence.  This begs a question which may or may not be answerable; to Shakespeare, what was real and what was fairy land?  Was the far-off dream of wife and children in Stratford his reality, or was it the daily grind of theatre work which provided his bread and butter?  Was it the things he knew he had but never saw or the things he saw every day?  What was fantastical, what was magic, and what was mundane?  Is it safe to assume that “THE MAGIC OF THE THEATRE” was what Shakespeare believed he could control with staff and book and a cushy, courtly existence what awaited him outside the boundaries of London?  I don’t think we can leap to this conclusion.  Art is magical, yes, but also utterly unpredictable and fickle; something which Prospero’s magic never proves to be.  It is the court within The Tempest which proves unreliable, not the wilderness. 

The dichotomy presented by Prospero in his epilogue between “charms” which are overthrown and the strength which he relies upon within himself does not draw a direct and uncomplicated parallel to real-world biographical occurrence within Shakespeare’s life.  Prospero begs to be set free by the audience’s indulgence, but I remain unconvinced that Shakespeare felt tethered to the theatre.  Rather, wasn’t he tethered to his wife and children in Stratford?  Prospero speaks of sins that must be pardoned, Shakespeare’s sins lay not in the theatre, but rather with an all-but-forgotten family in the country. 

Little is straightforward about biographical literary criticism, and this is further complicated by authors whose biographies remain unclear.  While I do not object to this particular fairy story, I do object to any assertion that it is a steadfast truth.  We cannot grasp at airy nothings and harden them to brick.  Rather, we must see them, appreciate them, and allow our indulgence to set them free.

January 25, 2011

...And the Word was Good

Maybe I’ve just spent too long studying Shakespeare, but am I the only person who finds something contrary about an English Graduate Student who doesn’t believe in the sanctity of words?

This is a trouble I’ve run into repeatedly with a certain classmate of mine.  This individual seems to find no value in individual words.  I don’t mean definitions or bodies of texts or amalgamations of words that make sentences, but rather the value of an individual word to the precise meaning which an author intended.  The way a chosen word represents, irrefutably, something exact and definite which a writer means to convey. 

I find that this concept is something which beginning writers and amateur readers struggle with.  You remember how in your elementary writing class your teacher tried to get you to use words that packed a punch rather than boring, plain Jane, everyday words?  Something juicier than “she said” or “interesting”.  Something that better described exactly what you were trying to convey.  Beefing up (and narrowing down) one’s word choice makes a huge difference in one’s writing.  It creates more interesting and pointed writing which can better communicate thoughts and ideas about the scene one is attempting to convey.  For example, the fact that I used the pronoun “one” over “he”, “she” or “you” creates a more formalized tone to my writing.  This, in turn, lends authority to the sentence and, subconsciously, creates the illusion that I know what I am talking about (even in a completely hypothetical scenario in which I did not know anything about the subject which I was blogging on which, clearly, is not this case).

Similarly, a carefully trained reader must be conscious of an author’s vocabulary choice.  When reading, one must be aware that he is imbibing in a carefully crafted experience.  Like a fine chef, an author (and especially a well-respected and/or canonical author) chooses the words to put on the page with full awareness of what he is creating in his reader’s mind.  With so many words in the English language at his disposal, his conscious decision to use one word over any other must be noted and regarded as such; a conscious decision (unless of course one is reading a work in translation which brings further complications).  If a word is repeated, this must be noted as well.  A prime example (and my favorite by the by) is Petruchio’s “Kate” speech from Taming of the Shrew II.ii.1056-1065:

You lye in faith, for you are call'd plaine Kate,
And bony Kate, and sometimes Kate the curst:
But Kate, the prettiest Kate in Christendome,
Kate of Kate-hall, my super-daintie Kate,
For dainties are all Kates, and therefore Kate
Take this of me, Kate of my consolation,
Hearing thy mildnesse prais'd in euery Towne,
Thy vertues spoke of, and thy beautie sounded,
Yet not so deepely as to thee belongs,
My selfe am moou'd to woo thee for my wife.

Petruchio uses the word “Kate” eleven times during this speech.  Shakespeare, the Master of the English Language, our Bard on High who Invented More Words than God, repeated the same word ELEVEN times in as many lines.  The reader (and actor) MUST be sensitive to this.  Obviously in this instance the repetition is used for great comedic effect.  Double-entendres litter this speech, but there is something deeper going on here.  Petruchio uses the name which Katherine specifically told him not to use over and over again to dig at the fact that she has told him not to use it.  It is the beginning of their relationship and her “training” at his hand and sets the stage for everything which passes between them after this moment.  Without this repetition to the point of absurdity, their relationship would not be so immediately evident.  In a way, the eleven Kates foreshadow the entirety of the show.

Another example of such repetition can be found in Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.  The word “eye” (or a close derivative) is used within the work nineteen times.  Granted, this is a much smaller proportion of word to text than in the example above, but the same rules apply.  Coleridge was an educated man, a man who had many more synonyms for “eye” at his disposal than Shakespeare had for “Kate”, so why would he choose to use this word over and over again?  There are many answers to this question (a Romantic preoccupation with seeing and lenses, a theme about the human soul, a statement about perception), but there is absolutely no way that I can get at these themes without being sensitive to their gateway: repetition and word usage.  As a critical reader, this sensitivity is my responsibility and without it I cannot ask the questions that must be demanded of the text.  Without this sensitivity, there can be no literary criticism.

The same is true of a rampant disregard for an accepted or implied definition of a word.  Unless there is strong textual evidence that an author either lacked a contemporarily understood term (such as Freud’s inability to use the word “gender” in his “Three Essays on Sexuality” and instead used the word “sex”) or meant to use a word in a way very different from how it would commonly be understood, we as readers have a responsibility to respect the author’s choice in vocabulary and use it to argue our points rather than twist it to our whims.  Statements such as “I don’t think he meant to use this word” or “I take this word to mean (insert archaic and unrelated OED definition here)” are demeaning to both the text and its author.  It’s like staging Hamlet on the moon; imposing yourself upon a text with no textual backing is arrogant and unseemly.  I, for one, have absolutely no patience for this sort of critical discourse.  Why should I care what you think over what the author is actually telling me?  Find some textual evidence, then let’s talk about meaning.  Until then, please keep your opinion to yourself because frankly, Miss Scarlet, I don’t give a damn.

Find some respect for the language and authors that both you and I have chosen to study.  Until then, shape up or ship out.

January 21, 2011

A War Story

Ladies and Gentlemen, another winner off the Common Reading Exam List.

I find that I’ve been going through cycles with these works.  Most of the time, my selection of what to read next is influenced by several random factors: which time period from the list do I feel most lacking in?  Which work and/or author piques my interest at any given moment?  Have any of these works been brought up recently in conversation/class/the media?  Which title intrigues me the most?

One is always bound to like certain literature over others.  We all have taste.  Certain things appeal to us, certain things do not.  My waves of “love it” “hate it” could be influenced by any (or none of) the above factors.  I like to think of it like karma; here, you read something awful, then have a few good books before jumping into the fray of something that will feel like self-flagellation for a thousand pages or more (Doris Lessing, I’m looking at you).

By far my weakest section of the exam list is the modern section.  Incidentally, this is also the section which has been bolstered the least by my classes.  It’s probably a statement on the classes I chose to take over anything else (at this juncture, I’ll be an Eighteenth Century gal before you blink an eye thanks to the ever-wonderful best professor in the world).  In any case, I picked up Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods for a few reasons: I had actually purchased it (so I felt that I had to read it), it was from the modern section of the list, and it was a whippy three-hundred page slip of a thing.

And oh man. 

The novel is a purposefully fragmented account of the disappearance of fictional politician John Wade and his wife, Kathy.  It is told in chapters alternating between hypotheses about how the disappearance may have occurred, bits of evidence from subsequent trials/investigations, narrated bits of the couple’s life in the past as well as their life in the book’s “now”.  It is also one of the most noteworthy literary attempts to deal with Vietnam.

O’Brien was a Vietnam vet and his book downright screams of themes also present in Slaughterhouse Five, another account of war, its dangers, and an author trying to cope with the inhumanity of it.  The two novels are scarily similar in many ways.  O’Brien was a Vietnam vet present at the massacre of My Lai.  His tour ended in 1970.  In the Lake of the Woods deals heavily with the My Lai Massacre and was published in 1994, twenty-four years after O’Brien’s tour ended.  Vonnegut was a World War II vet and witnessed the fire bombing of Dresden while a prisoner in the city.  He was repatriated in 1945 and did not publish Slaughterhouse Five (which, surprise surprise, deals heavily with the Fire Bombing of Dresden) until 1969 (twenty-four years after his tour ended). 

Beyond these cosmetic similarities, the two novels are structured in nearly identical fashions.  Both are purposefully disjointed accounts of events which may or may not have any sense to them.  Both claim, up front, that there is no sense to be made from the contents of their pages.  Both remain unresolved in the minds of readers as they similarly provide no resolution to us.  Both struggle with the meaning of life-within-war and the humanity (or lack thereof) innately involved in the waging of a war.  Both are obsessed with the concept of losing something essential to one’s humanity and the inability to retrieve it after the war.  Both feature empty shells of people trying their hardest to go on with their lives despite the fact that they simply cannot reconcile what it is that they are missing post-war. 

Both beg us to re-examine ourselves and declare what it is that we couldn’t live without.  To witness the horrors and atrocities that Billy Pilgrim and John Wade have witnessed and committed is to sacrifice something essential of ourselves.  What is that something?  Where, within our souls, are the parts that make us human?  What would we lose that could make food taste bland and love become an empty word?

And are we to pity or condemn these “heroes”?  To me, this is a major point of divergence between the two stories.  I have always sympathized with Billy Pilgrim, though I know others find him whiny and his apathy difficult to stand.  The more I learned about John Wade, the less I liked him.  Like other characters in the book, I constantly felt that he was trying to pull the wool over my eyes (despite a quasi-omniscient narrator).  I did not trust him.  The narrative seems to pit the reader against him, attempting to sway us to some nefarious conclusion about him (though it is difficult to determine what, precisely, that is).  Even armed with this knowledge, I still found myself not wanting to sympathize entirely with him.  Bottom line: he was creepy.

The similarities between these two novels document the important creative process which seems to accompany the artistic processing of any great calamity.  It makes me wonder if a study of literature wouldn’t prove fruitful to the treatment of PTSD patients.  Through literature, we are allowed an (albeit obstructed) point of view into an author’s mind.  That point of view, it seems, could prove invaluable to helping those going through a similar situation. 

Overall, this book kept me wanting to return to it, despite how disgusted or appalled I may have been with its subject matter.  I even pondered trading in my read-at-the-gym non-literary fantasy novel for it a few times… though concluded that while I could read on the stationary bike, I definitely could not take notes, and read, and cycle at the same time.  Maybe that’ll be a trick for next time.

Rating: A Real Page-Turner.

January 19, 2011

In Springtime (the only pretty ringtime)

 Yesterday was my first day of school for Spring 2011.  Once more into the breach.  The first week of class is a peculiar experience spiced with all manner of conflicting emotions which waft through it like the daintiest of storm clouds.

First and foremost: WHERE DID MY WINTER BREAK GO!?  It seemed like such a long time period when I was looking forward to it like the light at the end of the tunnel of books and papers.  I didn’t get a break at all!  What did I even do with myself?!  Oh…. Right… wrote that one errant paper, celebrated holidays with my family, put together publication and conference proposals (not as many as last year, but still), worked, took weekend trips, read as much as I was motivated to for the MRE, cooked, slept, karaoked my little heart out…. Damn.  I guess this isn’t some trick of the cosmos or a time vortex caused by errant Time Lords.


Then there’s the excitement.  A new semester is a fresh start in a lot of ways.  Even though I’ve had two out of three of my professors before, even though I am going to be continuing the same ideological work that I have already begun, there’s new books, new notebooks, new pens and pencils, new theory, new classes, and new authors to explore and analyze.  It’s like opening up the doors to a new playground; your playmates by and large remain the same, and the same type of equipment is available to you, but there’s a new set-up and some new toys to tinker with.  Have I mentioned the new books?  The beginning of a semester is the only time when I feel justified in spending several hundred dollars in one go on books.  And oh man… do I love books.

There is also this feeling of tension upon walking into a brand new class.  The classroom dynamic for any given course is entirely different depending on the professor, the students, their backgrounds, and their relative interests in the topic at hand.  Prepping for the first day of class is like arming to step onto a battlefield for the first time not even knowing if the fight will ever begin.  You must prepare for any given situation.  Like a boyscout.  Or a good hitch-hiker.  Know where you towel is, and don’t panic.  There’s also a certain degree of feeling one’s way through things, a tentativeness about what you should and should not say and what that will spur from other students in the class (or the professor).  What hot buttons should you press?  Which should you avoid?  What will set them into a downward spiral of ranting?  What will spur interesting conversation?  Any good tactician knows that there are things you should show up front and there are things you should keep to yourself.  Secret weapons.  What should be yours in this class?  Your area of expertise is almost always written on your sleeve, but that most recent paper you wrote may be a good option… or the influential bit of theory that you have been contesting in your mind for the past few weeks….  In any case, chose wisely.  The course of your entire semester may remain in the balance.

Then, of course, there is the mental checklist.  As you glance down the syllabus for the first time you can begin to see how your semester will play out.  Where will you be busy?  Where will you have time to relax for a bit?  What other events do you have planned surrounding the dates before you that should influence your decision in when you should give oral seminar presentations?  What do you need to accomplish this semester?  When you have read everything that is before you, what will you really take away from it?

This semester, for me, is a big deal.  It’s my last semester of my MA.  It’s the semester in which I have to take my Master’s Reading Exam (March 21 and 22… shudder).  It’s the semester in which I discover what the next year or two (or seven) of my life will hold.  It’s a semester in flux, with very specific dates and deadlines which must be met in order to proceed with whatever it is that I’m going to do with myself in the near future.  So many questions, not so many answers, and it’s only the second day of class.

One thing is for certain: they’ll be seeing a lot more of my face at the gym and the bar.  Because really, what can life bring this semester that a good workout, a beer, and writing an emo poem or two cure?

January 14, 2011

Podcast: A Sing-Along Blog

Since my fabulous brother-the-film-maker is on the same coast as I am (and we're at a family wedding this weekend), we're going to make it another podcast week.  Click here to check it out!

And (in case you are of the last vestiges of internet-people who haven't seen it), here's a link to Dr. Horrible on youtube.



January 12, 2011

Puerto Rican Love

As the winter break winds draws to a close, I’m busy attacking the Common Reading Exam List with a vengeance.  Last week, I got through passages from the Bible, three Nathaniel Hawthorne short stories (“My Kinsman, Major Molineux”, “The Minister’s Black Veil”, “The Maypole of Merry Mount”), and Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”.  This week already, I veritably blew through Jesus Colon’s A Puerto Rican in New York and Other Sketches.

This is miraculous in several respects: the first being that I had absolutely no inclination to read the book based solely upon the title.  Criticism founded in any singular nationality is not something that I do, it’s not something that I’m comfortable with, and overall it represents a plethora of literary fields that I just do not connect to in any way, shape or form.  The closest I’ve come to any nationalist reading has been Irish literature, and that’s only because of a summer spent living in Dublin and my deep-seated adoration of Wilde and Yeats.  The title of this piece put me off; I have found by and large that any book based in a precept of national identity is just something I simply cannot relate to.  As a result, I find such books drab, boring, and perhaps not pointless but certainly without a point that I care to read about.

This book was gifted to me for my birthday, so even more than the other items on my CRE list, I felt obligated to read it.

And I have to say, I’m so glad that I did.

Jesus Colon came to New York from Puerto Rico as a stowaway in 1918.  He weathered some difficult times as one might imagine, but for that (if his writing is any indication of his actual temperament) never lost the spark of intellect, humor, and national identity that this book is steeped with.  It is noteworthy in that it is the first book-length work on the subject of Puerto Ricans in America to appear in English.  The vast majority of the book was written during the 1950s and it wasn’t published until 1961.  It is written in a series of short sketches (ranging in length from one page to seven pages), some of which appeared in print in various periodicals which Colon wrote for but most of which were never seen in print until the book’s publication.

Noteworthy to me is the amount of wit and humor in what could easily turn into a sob fest (not without reason, mind you, I’m not trying to trivialize the plight of the immigrant worker).  Colon’s style is light and quick.  Like a fencer, he never beats a point over the head.  He will touch and go, leaving you understanding, but still thinking.  He is subtle while remaining explicit and that is another part of what I love so much about this book.  I don’t feel talked down to, I don’t feel preached at, rather I feel taught.  He is educational without being didactic and entertaining without being trivializing.

I also connect with Colon as a person.  Colon paints himself as an educated man caught in a world set to minimize him.  He lovingly embellishes details of himself as a reader/writer/man that any not-so-closeted literary geek will connect to.  Things like feeling not fully dressed without a book tucked under his arm, his love for reading in the bath (and his method of doing so), and being able to recite Don Quixote because of his nostalgic childhood connection with the text appeal to me as a book nerd.  Things like his sneaky usage of his wife’s decorative bathroom towels, his examination of the practice of singing in the shower, his propensity to spend his day off riding the bus lines to their very last stop then journeying back on another bus, and his hesitancy to liken a woman to “a goddess” because he has never seen one appeal to me as a human being. 

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of the novel, to me, is entrenched in an incident which occurs at the book’s very beginning.  In Puerto Rico, cigar-factory workers would hire a man to read to them as they rolled cigars.  This man, called the Reader, would often be more of a performer than a straight reciter.  He would act out important passages of the books, commit them to memory verbatim, and perform them for the workers throughout the day.  Colon admits that, despite the years which separate him from his childhood in Puerto Rico, he can still hear the voice of the Reader reciting key passages to him from famous works of literature.  These books, these recitations, seem keystones in Colon’s interest in literature.  They are his first exposure to books (at least as presented in A Puerto Rican…) and he admits, “I can still see that window and listen to that voice reading from the adventures of Don Quixote or the miseries and persecution suffered by Jean Valjean, books and characters that will be remembered many years after the latest ‘whodunit’ has been read and forgotten” (12).  The performance, suffused in Colon’s bones, stayed with him over any contemporary work he read for himself.  It made the literature longer-lasting to him and provided scaffolding for the rest of Colon’s literary career.

To me, this is utterly indicative of the power of literature in performance.  You can read a book, certainly, but how long will that book remain with you?  How long will that reading be called into your memory?  Unless you are among the lucky percentage of the population with photographic recollection, chances are it is not that first reading which will stick but rather subsequent readings and conversations that occur from it.  On the other hand, you can go see a play.  A performance.  Something that can (and will) never be repeated in exactly the same way again, and how long will that remain with you?  A truly memorable performance is easier to digest, more suffusing, and easier to remember than a truly memorable read.  Colon’s experience stands testament to this. 

Overall, if you are at all interested in old New York, equal rights, Puerto Ricans, the labor movement, writing, reading, or just good literature, you should really give this book a go.  It’s a two-hundred-page-slip-of-a-thing divided into perfectly digestible bite-size bits, so it’s an ideal commuting buddy, bed-side book, or on-the-go-waiting-for-random-things read. 

Rating: I will cheat on the bard.

Works Cited

Colon, Jesus.  A Puerto Rican in New York And Other Sketches.  New York: International Publishers (2002).  Print.

January 7, 2011

Dirty Words

So have you guys heard about the new “N-Word Free Version” of Huckleberry Finn? Apparently Twain Scholar Alan Gribben (editor of the volume) got sick and tired of changing the word “nigger” to “slave” when he read the book aloud to his students, so he just went through with a red pen and adjusted it in the text. NewSouth thought this was a great idea and so the edition was born. Having already made a media splash as you can imagine (Publisher’s Weekly, CNN, Editor’s Weekly, and The New York Times being among  more reputable sources), the book is currently available for kindle via amazon and is set to be on regular shelves February 1st.

What do I have to say about this?

Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cock-sucker, Mother-fucker and Tits.

There, are we better now? Seriously, folks? We’re back to censoring literature? Never mind that the so-called “N Word” has a huge impact on the way audiences (of the time or modern) read the book, never mind that it opens a door to critical theory otherwise inaccessible to us, never mind that the average rapper can use the word about fifteen times a second and nobody seems to care. Nope. This is clearly a word too dirty, too scandalous, too dark (forgive the pun) to be used in our college classrooms.

Maybe it all hits a little close to home because efforts to censor my man Will have been attempted since he wrote and performed his plays back in Elizabethan England. If we can learn anything from history about literature it is that censorship simply doesn’t work. All it does is create a stir and cause quizzical students to wonder what exactly it is that they are missing and look up the real version of the book anyway. If an author, especially an author as celebrated as Twain, meant to use another word, he would have. It wasn’t like he didn’t have a grip on the English language. It wasn’t like he didn’t have Gribben’s alternative (the word “slave”) at his disposal. If he had meant the book to be read a different way, he would have written it differently. And we, as readers, need to respect that.

Gribben’s argument is that “nigger” was an acceptable slang word of Twain’s time whereas it is a shock to enlightened twenty-first century readers. It is needlessly vulgar and offensive to a modern audience and serves to turn readers away from the book rather than arousing critical interest. But isn’t any work of art a statement of the time in which it was written? Calling Twain a racist is like calling Austen an anti-feminist. How can these writers ascribe to beliefs that weren’t birthed until after their respective deaths? Would you re-write Mansfield Park to empower its women simply because the way they are treated by the men is shocking to a modern audience? Nobody would even think of it. Proverbial individual would be tarred, feathered, shot then stoned by the collective members of JASNA before he could say “Fanny Price”. So why, if we treat our literature as history, do contemporary editors feel the need to re-write it?

Failure to impress upon a class the importance of “The N Word” in reading Huckleberry Finn is a matter of bad teaching, not a matter of a book that needs to be changed. Just because it doesn’t fit into your neat little lesson plan does not give you license to change the literature. I respect your scholarship, Dr. Gribben, but how would you have ever written critical inquiries into Twain’s work if some editor had gone messing about with it before you even got your hands on it? Your book offends me, good sir, to the point where I feel the need to fling expletives in your face until they become unimpassioned words because, really, those words are only given power by those who chose to do so. By taking the words away, you are merely lending them more credence as something to be offended by.

Fuck this shit.

January 6, 2011

Out of Tune, Sir

So I’ve been reading.  A lot.  Since I’m not in classes, I’ve been using my usual “for-class reading” time to instead get a jump on that looming exam.  This entry, however, is not about reading.  It’s not about literature.  Heck, it’s not even about theatre.

I don’t tend to think of myself as a feminist and at times I even consider myself an anti-feminist.  However, in the past year or so, I’ve realized that I actually have fairly strong convictions about gender relations.  I don’t like to categorize these convictions which is why I’ve spent so long avoiding the “feminist” label, and I don’t generally like to talk about them either because I do have such a hard time categorizing them.

However.  Something happened to me last night that has set me on a downward spiral of righteous estrogen rage and I feel like I need to share it.

A couple buddies and I are what you may call karaoke connoisseurs.  Several times a week, we head out to follow a local karaoke DJ (who we’ve since made friends with) about her rounds.  Throughout this process, we’ve met her other regulars as well as bartenders, managers, waiters, and just random people.  We tend to bring the thunder with our karaoke; all of us are theatre people of one variety of another so karaoke is a really our excuse to perform.  We rehearse.  We plan.  We dance.  It turns into a quasi-impromptu show on a semi-regular basis and tends to draw a large crowd of onlookers anywhere we go.  This, in turn, means that the venues love us.  We increase their customer base and we keep things fun for everyone (oh and we’re polite and good tippers). 

Last night we were out in a classier area of New Jersey at what we jokingly refer to as “the local dive bar”.  It’s actually a fairly upscale pub/restaurant with an art gallery in the back.  I don’t know why they decided to incorporate karaoke into all of this, I guess they figured that on Wednesdays their clientele wasn’t exactly going to suffer…. Even from some of the horror-stories-with-a-mic that we’ve seen.

So we were sitting at the bar, drinking, singing, and having an over-all good night out, when an (obviously) very drunk guy sidles up next to me.  He had all the capacity for subtlety of a brick wall.  When I noticed that he was edging closer, I edged away.  This continued comically until I realized I had nowhere else to edge, and turned my back to him.  Apparently this wasn’t enough of a signal as he tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he could buy me a drink.  Now let me get one thing straight.  I’m not opposed to someone buying me a drink the same way I’m not opposed to someone opening doors for me or holding my chair out so that I can be seated.  I like old-fashioned things and I like gentlemen.  However, if someone respectfully offers to buy me a drink, and I respectfully decline, in my opinion that should be the end of things.  I’m not Caesar with the crown, I have nothing to prove by saying “no” multiple times before giving in, a word to the wise: in cases like these “no” really means “no”.

Here is where the rage began.  After saying “no” very kindly and thanking him for the offer before trying to turn back to my friends, he caught me by the arm and said “why not?”  Okay, he was drunk, apparently kindness wasn’t what he was looking for.  At this point I felt utterly justified in using a bit more force to make my point.  I said, as bluntly as I could without being mean, “Because I don’t want you to buy me a drink.” before turning to my crowd.

At this point, one of the guys in my crew came over to valiantly rescue me from the situation.  He put his arm around me and starting emitting “she’s mine” signals like they were going out of style.  This particular friend is a long-time buddy of mine so the signals happened to be mostly fabricated (his girl friend was also sitting right there at the time and fully endorsed his assistance in my plight).  After about ten minutes of this, aforementioned creep grabbed his coat and made a pit-stop at the men’s room (where, incidentally, due to the acoustics of the restaurant you can hear everything anyone says at my end of the bar as though those people were standing right next to you so I’m certain he heard the resulting conversation that I had with the bartender, my friends and the other regulars who, also due to funny acoustics, had had a front-row seat for the entire exchange even over the Japanese guy fulfilling racial stereotypes loudly next to us and were thoroughly amused by the entire situation) before leaving the bar.

So here’s what bugs me.  Why is it that my word isn’t good enough for Mister Crown Royal?  Why is it that I have to justify my kindly-stated denial of his offer in such a way as to please him before he will leave me alone?  Why isn’t my honest opinion enough to get the jerk away from me, but instead I need a man to step in to validate my refusal?  The age of the little house-wife is long past, women have the vote and can perform any job a man can perform, why is my clear language not strong enough for mister testosterone? 

I think what bothers me about it is the unstated implication that A) I, as a woman, don’t know what’s good for me and thereby my word can’t be trusted and B) my worth in the situation is less than that of a man because it takes a man’s presence to shake the other man.  We don’t live in the jungle.  I’m not anyone’s territory.  I shouldn’t have to be treated like a member of some dominant male’s pack to keep another rogue from stalking around and trying to perform drunken mating dances in my face.  Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to my friend for interceding on my behalf (and would ask any male friend to do the same in that situation), but the fact that he (or anyone else) has to really grinds my gears.  I, as a single woman, should not have to worry about going out and getting a drink with friends without being harassed by men who won’t leave me alone simply because there is not another man there to claim me.

What is it about our society that encourages this pushy kind of behavior?  If I had been a man and he a woman, would it have taken another woman to bail me out or would he just have accepted that I was being straightforward, honest, and really did not want his company?  Do we teach the men of our world to act this way because women lie, or because they don’t really know what they want?  How chauvinistic have we, as a society become?  And what are we teaching our children about gender roles when they can watch this sort of thing play out on TV in any given sit-com?  Are confident, strong women doomed to be the butt of the joke because clearly they can’t say no and clearly they just aren’t aware of their own feelings enough to understand why they can’t say no?  And what makes a guy cocky enough to think he’s something special anyway?  It’s the same machismo mentality that makes men think gay guys are going to root them out of any room somehow and hit on them to make them uncomfortable…. No, you are not God’s gift to man (or woman).  Get over yourself.

In any event, I’m seriously considering writing a pamphlet about this to hand to the next drunken loser who attempts to shove his unwanted advances in my empty beverage glass.  Take this, read it, understand it, and then maybe we’ll have something to talk about. 

…But only if you’re cute.

January 3, 2011

Podcast: Jack Black as Jonathan Swift?

A new and special treat for you all today; the first ever Podcast of the Black Swan with a special guest star!  Click here to have a listen.

Also, since I do seem to be doing quite a bit of reviewing, I have devised the following rating system so that we can have a short-hand about how much I hate what I am currently reading/watching.

I’ll Cheat on the Bard – This is awesome.  It is beyond awesome.  It’s like if Shakespeare wrote Lord of the Rings and somehow came back to life as a non-brains-eating zombie to do a stage production of it at the Swan Theatre starring Ian McKellon, Erol Flynn, Johnny Depp, Catherine Zeta Jones and Meryl Streep all, somehow, in the prime of their lives because of some fantastic time-traveling device which he then gifts to me along with a bagillion dollars from a long-building royalties fund with which to build my theatre.

A Real Page-Turner – Good show, good show.  I thoroughly enjoyed it, I was entertained, I may even fall in love with it if it takes me out to a nice dinner and demonstrates both an ability to dance and an in-depth knowledge of fine wine.

Check It out of the Library – Not bad.  It’s missing something, but it’s not bad.  I wasn’t entirely enthused, but did not feel as though I wasted my time and money.  I would probably ditch it at the least chance of something better, but I would definitely at least give it a shot on a night when I had nothing better to do.

Balderdash and Lies – I really didn’t like it.  I didn’t hate it, I can’t muster that much energy in regards to it, but man… find a better option, there are plenty out there.

Sparkly Vampires – I hate this piece.  Hate it.  It may go on my list of things that are on loop in my own personal hell along with Billy Joel’s “she got a way”.

Burn it – My disgust for this piece keeps me up nights.  There is a deep-seated loathing for it that burns within me whenever it is brought into conversation.  My world is better for pretending that it does not, and never did, exist.  I would rather be gagged with a spoon by Alexander Pope when he was in one of his particularly vindictive woman-hating moods, then have him perform a root canal on me with Eighteenth century technology than see this again.