Redux, Redux Part III cont’d.

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Here’s the final segment.

  • As I’ve noted elsewhere, “Serial” spawned “Undisclosed,” which is throwing up more and more doubt about Adnan Syed’s guilt as well as adding to the evidence of incompetence and corruption of the Baltimore-area police departments that investigated the case.
  • Larry has recovered (“Punctured Day”) from his multiple dog bites. Our dear friend Wendy fixed his Air Force ring, but we left the bite mark in the wedding band.
  • Grammar Day needs to be celebrated every day.
  • To my embarrassment, I haven’t finished The Woman in White. It’s taking far too long to arrive at a full resolution. A good editor could have trimmed it by one-third.
  • May finally brought the end of my speaking obligations. I remain amazed that with the rotten weather nothing was canceled.
  • My post on Sedition included the following: “These are not the Jane Austen conclusions in which it is clear that not much more of interest will happen to Lizzie Bennet or Emma Woodhouse. This does Annie a disservice because we never have a chance to see her in a new life.” Having read Longbourn and watched part of Death Comes to Pemberley I rescind that statement, at least in part. Lizzie and Darcy play roles in both of these works, but they are not starring roles. More on those Austen spin-offs at a later date.
  • The Scottish feline Baker of Baker & Taylor has taken up residence in my study. Who can resist?Baker

Reading ‘Alice’ in the US

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Azar Nafisi

Following on the post from yesterday. Azar Nafisi has a gift. She combines her deep understanding of literature with a foreigner’s take on Western culture, and adds an easy-to- swallow dose of the best of how to write composition.

She entrances regardless of her topic. Who could resist “Over the years I have often thought of Alice as my ideal reader”? That’s Alice of Wonderland and Looking Glass World. Nafisi opens with shrunken Alice the hooka smoking caterpillar. But the Adventures are so much more. According to Nafisi, Alice follows the rabbit because she “instinctively knows the danger of smugness, the desire for not just physical comfort but intellectual laziness.”

It is truly brilliant that she frames the reader’s search for meaning as the caterpillar’s question: “Who are you?” It’s not that we’re searching to know the book but rather to know ourselves through the words on the page.

Her insights into Alice’s quest for experience (Alice should watch Inside Out) draw on her life of beauty and intellect. It was replaced by horror from which she had to escape. Favorite quote:

Alice reminds us that it is not just at times of isolation, exile and danger, but also when life is stable and secure that you need wonderland. This is a lesson that has served me well over the years.

The image of the artist risking all inspires me to walk closer to the edge and maybe take a leap. We’ll see.

Nafisi’s other invaluable contribution to Western literature is her separateness from it. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, she slices through Russia, Britain, and the United States. Here, Alice joins the cast. Even with repeated readings of the Austen canon, I’d never noticed that the “villains” are “self-involved and conventional, imposing their choice and preferences on those around them.”

I can’t say that I’ve ever identified with Alice, except when she was thrilled at the reunion with her cat, but now I will look for parallels in our lives. Croquet anyone?

As in Reading Lolita, Nafisi includes episodes from her life before she fled her home country. The Alice skit her students mounted with proper decorum brought down the wrath of the authorities. Every one of us should rejoice that we can read these words out in the open, act them out if we desire, and criticize them.

I wish that Azar Nafisi taught literature somewhere near me. I’d take every one of her courses.

On ‘Reading Lolita in Tehran’

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Azar Nafisi has written a brilliant, insightful essay about the importance of fiction – it’s so much more than that and I’ll post a full commentary. In the meantime here’s my entry on her seminal work, reposted from the blog that Blue wiped out.

Nafisi gave her book the subtitle “A Memoir in Books,” but it is far more than that. It is a meditation on life at the end of the twentieth century for a people with a long heritage of literature and refinement whose leaders are driving them back into the Dark Ages. She frames her experience of the Iranian revolution with discussions of the fiction by three giants of Western literature: Vladimir Nabokov, Henry James, and Jane Austen. With Nabokov as her opening, Nafisi captures the hopefulness of the early days of the revolution when leftists felt they could rid themselves of the shah and institute a more equitable society. By the end, when she adds Austen’s heroines to the mix, Nafisi and her students have been forced to meet in secret. She is preparing to flee her beloved homeland because she can no longer tolerate the brutal laws being enforced by beatings, imprisonment, and death.

Though she uses the revolution as a backdrop, Nafisi makes clear within the first fifty pages that she is drawing no direct parallels between the creepy rapist Humbert Humbert and the ayatollah. Rather the exploration of Lolita allows these women trapped by a totalitarian regime to uncover their own feelings. The study of Nabokov, of Daisy Miller et al. and of Pride and Prejudice frees them in a great many ways and allows at least some of them to escape, either figuratively or literally.

Nafisi uses texts by other authors besides the three principals and in each case offers exquisite insight. She stirs in some Fitzgerald, Bellow, and a bit of Flaubert along the way. The discussion of these authors waxes among the half-dozen young women (and sometimes one young man) who had been her students at the university that she was forced to leave. They meet at her house and begin their discussion with A Thousand and One Nights. Here is what Nafisi says of the intent of her classes:

I formulated certain general questions … the most central of which was how these great works of imagination could help us in our present trapped situation as women. We were not looking for blueprints, for an easy solution, but we did hope to find a link between the open spaces the novels provided and the closed ones we were confined to.

The key to the book appears on page 224, where she discusses the inability of Catherine Sloper’s father to understand her. Henry James has created in this Washington Square character a man whom Nafisi says commits the “most unforgivable crime in fiction – blindness. … This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert to James to Nabokov and Bellow.” Their villains, she says, share the inability to understand their fellow creatures. I would add that several of Austen’s heroines also lack the quality but develop it as the narratives progress. And of course blindness defines the rulers that came to replace the shah. How much irony can one find in the fact that the chief censor lacked his eyesight?

From Nafisi’s discussions of empathy and detailed analysis of the novels, I gained affirmation of my own feelings as well: “The highest form of morality is not to feel at home in one’s own home.” Theodor Adorno was writing of country as home. He left Germany in the 1930s and did not return until after the war. I have felt the same about the United States since my teens and see no possibility that my views will change any time soon.

As Reading Lolita proceeds, the Iranian revolution expands its assault on personal freedoms. Women are forced to wear the veil and excluded from jobs outside the home, Nafisi says she feels “light and fictional, as if I were walking on air, as If I had been written into being and then erased in one quick swipe.” I understand how she feels, though the erasure usually feels slow and painful, not quick.

One of her students asks why tragedies such as Lolita and Madame Bovary make us happy. Nafisi essays an answer but finds it unsatisfactory. Here’s my answer: Honey, you women from Iran ain’t never heard the blues, the real gutbucket, down on your luck, down home blues, backed up by an acoustic guitar and maybe a harmonica. The music from the Delta always leaves the listener with a smile in her heart.

As I began to appreciate once more the brilliance of Nabokov and learn or re-learn Henry James (I’m a little weak on that score except for Washington Square and The Portrait of a Lady), I was most looking forward to the section on Jane Austen because of my adoration of her novels and because I know her works far better than those of James or Nabokov. I was disappointed that Nafisi spent so little time on Lizzie and Darcy and Emma and Mr. Knightley.

On the one hand I understood that circumstances Nafisi’s life had taken on larger and larger significance and that she was moving toward that inevitable decision to leave; on the other, I truly wanted more of “What would Jane have thought?” There was one brief discussion of the benefits of arranged marriages, even arranged “temporary” marriages. But they never did answer the most outrageous. I really don’t think an Islamic version of P&P would have opened, as one of the students claimed: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Muslim man, regardless of his fortune, must be in want of a nine-year-old virgin wife.” Nafisi never answers the question of what Austen would have thought of the idea of child brides.

But she redeems herself with a brilliant analysis of P&P as a “dance and digression.” I could picture the minuets and the less formal country-dances as Lizzie and Jane and Darcy and Bingley moved through their turns. I am glad, however, that I had read the novel before I encountered Nafisi’s insights. The pages following, too, contain some of the most passionate writing on the subject of the freedom to make choices.

Something I don’t understand: She says that novels have a democratic structure. Does she mean that only democratic societies can produce such works? I doubt it because otherwise we would not have War and Peace or the works of Victor Hugo, to give two obvious examples. She means, I think, that long-form fiction allows for a multiplicity of voices and points of view. Add to the many characters marching across the pages, the potential for a wide range of time and place within the pages of a single work and the reader can truly experience democracy even in the confines of a dark hallway with the percussion of bombs and scream of rescue vehicles roaring through the night.

I love little things about the book as much as the big ones: The playfulness with which Nafisi and her students use language – “upsilamba,” and “poshlust” – delighted the writer in me.

I also have a few minor quibbles, too: Henry James was born in 1843 so he was not “still very young” when he witnessed the Civil War. In fact he was older than many of the men who joined. And while I concur that Charlotte Brontë is a “perfectly good novelist” [p. 304], Austen is far more than that. She is a genius.

Family

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A fabulous afternoon with extended family, including two women for whom I babysat many years ago. They don’t live in the area so I only see them occasionally. The only depressing part – the son of one has enrolled in college. I’m feeling something unusual, which is old.

And no, those gorgeous women are not my relatives, as far as I know, and as much as I might wish it.

Watching ‘Faith’

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I experienced a first today by going to the movies at 10 a.m. Until this week I didn’t even know they showed movies at that hour. Obviously not many people do since there were only four of us in the theater.

Deb wanted to see Faith of Our Fathers so we journeyed to the early show. She had said it was a film about two young men trying to learn what happened to their fathers who died Vietnam when the children were tiny. I thought it might be of interest to the veterans’ writing group, but it doesn’t live up to its promise.

Faith runs two timelines. It alternates between the developing relationship between the sons, one a religious straight arrow, the other a mean good ol’ boy, except he doesn’t drink or smoke or swear, and scenes between their fathers as they slog through the jungle. It soon becomes obvious that each son mirrors his father’s personality. Praying and Bible reading begin to overwhelm and slow down the action.

The opening has too much expository “I’m your fiancée” and “You’re a postman” kind of dialogue. Comedy relieves some of the tedium, especially the fight scene narrated by an elderly gas station owner.

The concept is excellent. With a better script, Faith of Our Fathers could have been spectacular. Deb observed that it portrays a side of war not often shown. The soldiers are not all gung-ho, rah-rah, and the representation of their fear makes a palpable impact.

Otherwise, the production values leave much to be desired. Some of the makeup needs a serious overhaul, and there is one glaring scene in Vietnam where it is pouring rain, as the sun casts shadows in the underbrush.

Even at $5, the film isn’t worth the price. If it’s still of interest, wait till it comes out on video.

Redux, Redux, Part III

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A quick update: Inside Out has also appeared in commentary by a cognitive psychologist in Salon and psych profs in the NYTimes. (Check out “The Science of Inside Out,’ ” Review, p. 10). The praise continues.

I was supposed to start this back in April. Here is the beginning of the months in review.

  • Uber (“Uber Stupid”) continues to make enemies. I’m waiting for the first class action filed by people injured by the drivers.
  • Serial” keeps on giving with “Undisclosed,” which has improved its production values and continues to fascinate.
  • My alma mater’s headblindness (“Not Surprised Again” also continues.
  • The book Unbroken remains on the bestseller lists while the movie faded mercifully into the sunset.

To be continued.

What I Will See Again

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Inside Out has captured the national imagination. I’ve seen, heard, and read interviews in just about every bit of media I follow. There was the interview with the director, enthusiastic reviews, a game-show promo from Mindy Kaling, the voice of Disgust (love the eyelashes!), among other PR endeavors.

Then there was the interview with the science advisor. Because my knowledge of science falls below my knowledge of Old High German, I use Science Friday’s two hours a week to keep up with what’s happening. The program ranges the universe from the latest on stellar exploration to the microbes in our guts to the renegade goldfish the size of dinner plates swimming in Florida waters. It’s a huge compliment to the film that host Ira Flatow chose to devote a portion the June 26 program to a Disney movie that’s being marketed for kids. There I learned that the film efforts to plumb the emotions of adolescents began in the 1940s, plus some stuff that should prove valuable for understanding the development of the adolescent brain.

Inside Out engages from start to finish. It’s only a kid movie on the most basic level. Kids will get the disruption in the life of Riley, the eleven-year-old girl whose family moves across the country because of her father’s job. The exploration of her boomerang emotions works as a coming of age tale, a quest (and voyage and return), tragedy, and comedy. It’s also “meta” with some snarky commentary on movie plots. The “dark night of the soul” sections had parents carting scared little kids out of the theater.

Though I identified most with Sadness, my favorite character is anger, voiced by Louis Black. After the Courant‘s Bob Englehart drew his take, I commented that L.B. would make a better justice.

This film will garner a bunch of awards and become part of the curriculum of many, many film schools. I will see it again, and probably again.

Leaving Stowe

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After breakfast and packing, we departed at 10:35 a.m. and rode through alternating sun and rain the entire way. Highlights/lowlights:

  • construction every few miles but no real delays
  • a bunch of young deer along the side of the highway, which made me think of the poor creature killed in Stowe.
  • I read a good chunk of The Woman in White but have not yet reached the halfway mark. It’s improving but the Rashomon effect grows tiresome.
  • We made good time and pulled into my driveway at 2 p.m.

Here are a few things I left out: the Hob Knob Inn lies at the western end of the tiny commercial strip. The location is ideal except for the necessity to pull out onto the curve of a busy main road. Otherwise it combines the best of hotel amenities, privacy and excellent service, with the intimacy of a B&B. Barbara, the owner, and her daughter, Kate, do everything to make their guests welcome. Kate’s two little boys, including one gi-normous two-year-old, add to the family atmosphere without being overly intrusive. The rooms offer all the basics, plus the best mattresses I’ve slept on since I can remember. We experienced only three problems, two of which are beyond the control of the inn. The Wi-Fi and cell phone service suck. We saw evidence of the magnitude of the problem as people circled parking lots and paced lawns with phones pressed to their ears or thumbs flying. I suspect the town’s location in the shadow of the mountain may be to blame. Conversely, the lack of water pressure can be rectified. I suspect a leak as there I heard a dripping sound in the wall for a few minutes after the water ran in the tub or toilet.

Beer and wine. Most of the wine I drank was basic California and OK. The best was the Santa Rita 120 Pinot Noir from Chile that I bought at the Cabot store. It delivered low alcohol, complex and smooth flavor. Update: This wine costs less in Connecticut. So much for the myth of low taxes in Vermont!

I also took more sips of beer than I have in years. The Crop’s Helles lacked the bitterness I associate with most beers, a good thing, with a clean aftertaste, also a good thing. Piecasso’s was Helles again (I think), while the Phoenix offering conjured up everything I dislike, including overpowering bitterness and worse, a weird metallic, floral aftertaste.

Great trip with fabulous traveling companions. Thank you, Lou, for being our chauffeur!

Stowe, Day Three

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A v. low-key day yesterday. Slept like a log. Sharon said she did, too. We went to breakfast with Deb, Tony and Lou having gone before. It was pouring, so Deb took the car from the motel at the top of the hill to the main building a couple of hundred feet away.

I had scrambled eggs, a piece of toast, and a bunch of fruit – honeydew and blueberries, plus more coffee. Gave away the sausage, which looked like some variation of Brown ‘n’ Serve. Then we drove down the hill to the little deli, where I was able to get a Times. Yipee!!! This edition has two pages of real estate in the back of the business section and I ‘m guessing there will be one or two local NYC stories in with the main news since there’s no Metro section. (Update: I was right).

Deb went to the farmers’ market, which was much reduced because of the continuing rain. She called Sharon and came to pick her up. They returned with sandwiches for the road, which Alex ate immediately. Deb brought me a spicy nut mix – yummy!

We hung around till two then went to see Inside Out, which I can’t recommend enough and will review separately.

Sharon and Alex left right afterward. Lou, Deb, Tony, and I made our way to Phoenix Table and Bar. Deb had seen a sign for oysters during our walk on Saturday. Lou and Alex visited that evening, discovering the bargain price of a dollar each from 5 to 6 p.m. Phoenix advertised itself as a mélange of Mexico and Japan, though it wasn’t obvious except in the minimalist decorations accented with bright colors. Perhaps the motorcycle on the wall speaks to the Japanese influence?

Tony had mac and cheese, while the rest of us scarfed down a plate of excellent calamari, eighteen oysters, and salads. Mine was touted as kale, but contained more shredded red and green cabbage, plus a generous application of avocado and pistachios.

From there we returned to the Crop where Lou and Tony had popcorn. We flashed back to the exchange on Friday between Alex and Deb in which he tried to explain to her how to remove a mound of powdery cheese from popcorn using a separate bowl and a napkin. He finally had to demonstrate.

Returned to the Inn for a quiet evening with the newspaper and then more of The Woman in White.

Stowe, Day Two

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By 7:30 a.m. Deb, Sharon, Alex, and I were on the path. We walked for twenty minutes more or less paralleling a stream, next to woods and fields with corn that looked stunted. (I heard a broadcast later confirming my observation.) The air was fresh and clean and cool. Breakfast consisted of oatmeal and toast and fruit with yogurt. There were also muffins of various sorts. Then we hied it off for Deb’s competition in the Senior Games in South Burlington, fast after we left the back roads because she was afraid we’d be late. Got there with two minutes to spare.

She participated in the disc and won a medal. Yay! We met an eighty-one-year-old woman who was competing in eight events. She started running when she was sixty, so there’s hope for me. She looked maybe seventy. The biggest mystery: how she managed to keep her hair looking perfect in the heat. Also met a woman who didn’t look like she met the minimum age requirement of fifty. She’s a triathlete and was throwing the disc for the first time. I’ve never seen an athlete giggle so much. The meet official and the rest of the competitors were coaching her. She did OK considering she had no upper body strength.

We moved to the jav area, and while we waited I ran a quick 1.5 miles around the high school and along the bike path, which was OK except for the noisy four-lane highway a few paces away. The jav competition got hustled along because players had begun arriving for a baseball game. Deb medaled again. Double Yay! Observation: These folks take maximum advantage of the playing fields. While we were waiting, I checked in with Marcia, who was thrilled at the USSC ruling. Then we waited and waited for Deb to collect her medals.

We tried to go into Burlington, but there was no parking so we returned to Stowe and had lunch at Piecasso, (as in pizza pie). I had a divine spinach/artichoke soup and a Greek salad wrap, which I finished in the evening. Forgot to mention that yesterday’s meal at the Crop was mixed greens and grilled salmon, which stayed on the grill about thirty seconds too long but was otherwise good. I should have skipped the dreadful Subway sandwich later in the evening.

Alex, Sharon, Deb, and I went for a walk after lunch, taking the opposite direction from the morning’s walk. Deb and Sharon turned back after a bit. Alex and I figured we walked at least four miles, maybe more. We would have kept going if bugs hadn’t made an  appearance. The path combines the best of  locales for hikers and bikers in spring and summer and fall along with cross-country in the winter. There were gaggles of families including lots of little kids to dodge. Our route also offered frequent views of the stream with people trying to tube in six inches of rapids, plus a couple of fisher folk.

Alex and Lou went for a bike ride when we returned. I showered and tried to go into the swimming pool. My toes said the water temp had not reached fifty. I eased in long enough to say I did and then fled.   Instead Tony and I went in the hot tub, which was warm but only had good jets on one side. Hung out afterward, snacking on cheese, crackers, and a bit of the wine I had brought.

Found Vermont Public Radio. It was playing “American Routes” at 10 p.m., featuring Johnnie Allan and swamp pop so I turned it off.

Of the three vacation spots – Placid, Hampton Beach, and Stowe – I like this one best. It’s closer and less commercial than Placid and less hectic than H.B. Plus, I’m not partial to shore resorts anyway, having grown up in one. I’ll definitely return to this one.