Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (Volume 1)

One of my big resolutions for 2014 (and there are several) is to keep up with this blog, comprehensive exams be damned. The only problem, of course, is that I won’t be able to pick up a novel for at least 3 months, until said exams are comfortably in the rearview mirror of my academic career (such as it is). That leaves me with two choices: to review novels I’ve read in the past year and just didn’t have the time to write about; and to talk about other forms of creative media, like film and TV. (But really just film, because the only shows I follow are Scandal, Girls and The Newsroom, and God knows others have written more than enough on all three.) So this time, I’m going with Option Two.

My SO and I were in France over the Christmas holiday and, while visiting one of his old friends in Bordeaux, we saw a movie that’s slated for release in the US in March 2014—one that’s garnered quite a bit of . . . erotic intrigue already, in the way that borderline-pornographic films made by controversial Danish directors eager to wag fingers at the “prudishness” of Western culture are wont to do. Nymphomaniac, starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBeouf and Stellan Skarsgård, will be unveiled in two volumes, each a little more than 2 hours long, Kill Bill-style.* The uncut version is something like five-and-a-half-hours long, and parts of it were apparently unable to make it past the decency sensors of even countries like France. Considering that I thought von Trier’s penultimate film, Melancholia, was substantially less interesting than watching paint dry, I didn’t have high hopes for Nymphomaniac, but—quelle surprise—I can’t stop thinking about it, a week after the fact. It’s a fascinating movie, but, and this is an important caveat, also utterly ridiculous. I shall elucidate.   Continue reading

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Review: Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

gone-girl-book-cover-medGillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is nothing if not a good read, and it’s for precisely this reason that I hesitate to, well, read too much into it. The novel is artfully paced, different enough to know you’re not wasting your time but a familiar enough archetype that you also know the narrative won’t deviate from the “surprise” tropes and ambiguous endings that books of this sort feel they owe their readers. That said, I can almost guarantee you’ll languish in bed for hours, flipping pages as if your life depends on it. Gone Girl purports to be a thriller, of course, and a psychological character study, but there’s also just enough incisive social commentary to elevate the novel to good good. The nature of the plot ensures the book’s primary readers will most likely be women, and if those women are anything like me, they’ll crumple a few pages (or crack their Kindle screens) in some choice eureka moments when Flynn just hits the proverbial nail on the head.   Continue reading

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Review: The Sorrows of Young Werther, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

werther“Werther identifies himself with the madman, with the footman. As a reader, I can identify myself with Werther. Historically, thousands of subjects have done so, suffering, killing themselves, dressing, perfuming themselves, writing as if they were Werther (songs, poems, candy boxes, belt buckles, colognes à la Werther). A long chain of equivalences links all the lovers in the world.”  - Roland Barthes

In May, before I moved back to the United States from Germany, I made a four-day sojourn to Goethe’s hometown of Weimar, about 3 and a half hours east of Berlin. Weimar, of course, was the capital of Germany’s failed interwar democratic federation, chosen for its cultural history: Goethe lived and wrote there, as did Schiller; the Bauhaus movement was also founded there, and there’s a beautiful museum dedicated to it on Theaterplatz. Weimar is a delightful town with a fascinating history, though its beauty is tempered by the fact that one of the most notorious Nazi concentration camps, Buchenwald, was built just outside the city (the Soviets also used the camp for prisoners of war after the fall of the Third Reich.) I spent a few hours in Goethe’s house, ascending his grand staircase and wandering through his gardens, and finished The Sorrows of Young Werther several hours later at my guest house.   Continue reading

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The Academy

It’s September and I’m back to being a full-time graduate student, so posts/reviews will be intermittent (good thing I have a substantial backlog, because I’m not sure I’ll have the chance to read a book for “pleasure” until Christmas break. See you then, Junot Díaz’s This is How You Lose Her; Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall; and The Scarlet Letter.)

As for how I’m managing as a first-year (first-semester) PhD student? Barely. And yet, despite the no sleep and dense tomes on realist criticism, I still fervently want to be like the professors who are training me (someday. Fingers crossed.) In an attempt to make a little more sense of this experience—and, especially, of being a woman in academia—I recalled a piece in New York magazine published after that David Maraniss excerpt about Obama’s T.S.-Eliot-inspired youthful love letters was released in Vanity Fair. NYM‘s Daily Intel “began to wonder: What kind of grade would [Obama] have gotten for such T.S. Eliot analysis as ‘Eliot contains the same ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats. However, he retains a grounding in the social reality/order of his time’ and ‘Of course, the dichotomy he maintains is reactionary, but it’s due to a deep fatalism, not ignorance,’ a reading that was admittedly done without perusing the footnotes?” They ask two Columbia English professors, one male, one female. The results are as follows:

Male: “Considered as homework, I’d give the future President a B-minus. The reference to ‘an ecstatic vision which runs from Münzer to Yeats’ (besides confusing that and which) sounds impressive, but it’s more than a little opaque. . . . The allusion is forced and the connection specious. You get this a lot when students try too hard. . . . Mr. Obama’s grade suffers still further with awful phrases such as ‘he accedes to maintaining a separation.’ Classic undergraduatese. . . . Again, [his further analysis is] Eliot 101 stuff, but he seems to have paid attention in class.”

Female: “President Obama shows himself to be a sensitive reader of Eliot’s great poem The Waste Land. . . . It is a poem of local brilliance and intensities, to which Obama responds with appropriate personal intensity. . . . I was surprised to find him admiring Eliot’s own conservatism. . . . I guess it shows the power of great poetry to have some sway in the real world. In sum, though I cannot grade such a short piece, I would praise it for its insights and sensitivity [and] would encourage the president to develop his ideas with close reading.”

So on the one hand, we’ve got: snarky, intellectual-er than thou, and doler of backhanded compliments. On the other: encouraging, unpretentious and seemingly invested in her students’ success—and in a “student” who isn’t even her student (and is also President of the United States). This, my friends, pretty much says it all.

Of course, I’m studying political science, so it’s different. But also kind of the same.

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Review: A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, by Samantha Power

Samantha Power’s 2002 book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction, must have been quite an undertaking. The book recaps not just the US response to the genocides of the twentieth century (the Turkish massacres of Armenians; the Holocaust; the Cambodian killing fields; the gassing of the Kurdish minority in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; the Serb-sponsored ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in 1993; the Rwandan genocide; and Serbia’s mass murder of Kosovars in 1999), but also charts the laborious process of US ratification of the UN Genocide Convention and the political coincidences that enabled movement on international humanitarian law (Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated trip to Bitburg Cemetery, for example). Power is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, serves on President Obama’s National Security Council (incidentally, she was the one who resigned from Obama’s 2008 campaign staff after referring to Hillary Clinton as a “monster”), and served as a war correspondent in Bosnia when the UN-protected “safe area” of Srebrenica fell to Bosnian-Serb General Radko Mladic and his forces. In other words, her credentials are airtight, and her book is fascinating, heartbreaking and highly informative. It’s clearly intended as a call to arms, a no-holds-barred defense of humanitarian intervention and US recognition of and compliance with international law. And while I was essentially on her side already, she certainly lays out a compelling case here.   Continue reading

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Review: The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton

Edith Wharton, while not British herself, is usually placed firmly in the camp of Victorian novelists like Jane Austen, George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë, but her books twist the genre in one crucial way: Wharton doesn’t like happy endings. No joyful proposal announcements or wedding parties to wrap everything up and vindicate all those long years of female suffering. All the Victorian novelists attacked convention, but Wharton really took it out on her characters. The Age of Innocence was, by Wharton’s own contention, meant to serve as an apologia of sorts for The House of Mirth, in which the beautiful Lily Bart is ruined, and killed, by ultimately meaningless social pressures. In Innocence—and I suppose I should include a spoiler alert, though the story is likely old hat to most readers—protagonist Newland Archer chooses his responsibility to his pregnant wife, May Welland, over his ardor for May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has left Europe and her philandering husband to return in ignominy to New York. After an almost completely chaste courtship, Newland hurriedly plans to leave May for Ellen and follow his true love to France, until he is stymied by the news of his unborn son. It is Ellen, really, who makes the “responsible” choice, permitting Newland to “act” through inaction. Newland doesn’t stay; he simply doesn’t go.   Continue reading

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Review: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

Well, I finally read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, the “controversial” 2009 memoir by Amy Chua, a Yale Law professor married to another Yale Law professor, who raised two daughters, Sophia and Louisa (Lulu), the “Chinese way.” (Chua’s husband, for what it’s worth, is Jewish.) Unless you’ve been living on Pluto, you know Chua got a lot of flack for her tough-love, no-nonsense, achievement-above-all-else approach to parenting, embracing tactics that included threatening to burn Sophia’s stuffed animals if the next run-through at the piano wasn’t perfect; crumpling up birthday cards she deemed insufficiently thoughtful, tossing them in her daughters’ faces and demanding they try again; refusing to let either girl attend a sleepover or a playdate; demanding perfect grades “in every subject except gym and drama”; and calling Sophia “garbage,” the way Chua’s own father once reprimanded his daughter in their native Hokkien Chinese. “But it didn’t damage my self-esteem or anything like that,” Chua is quick to assure her more liberal-minded (read: Western) readers.   Continue reading

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