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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Group

Mary McCarthy's The Group is an interesting book to read. One of the side-effects of reading older satires is that as our understanding of the world changes, so does our reaction to what is being satired. In some cases, it does not affect our interpretation of the book too much. I can read Pride and Prejudice without getting caught up in how unfair life and law was to women of that era, because Austen herself felt that way and made it clear in her writings. Other satires become dated very quickly, and we may end up disagreeing with the viewpoint that is doing the satirizing, and I really wish I could come up with an example right now but I can't (it'll come to me in the middle of the night, I'm sure).

McCarthy's book draws heavily on her time at Vassar and the years following to create a vignettes of seven women who graduate in 1933 and settle into their lives (well, six, really -- the seventh spends most of the book in Europe and functions more as a blank canvas on which the others project their insecurities). The women are, for the most part, overly confident and self-assured in the way only recent college graduates can be. They are filled with theories -- on politics, society, entertaining, marriage, raising children, living lives -- and are absolutely convinced their ways are the best ways. These theories, after all, come from the most current research and philosophies of the best colleges. The satire is driven by watching these women fail, succeed, change course, make mistakes, and generally muddle through life and love the same way all women do, regardless of the latest theories.

But there is a second level to the satire (and a shallower one), which is apparent to anyone reading the book now. Most of the theories the women cling to are just plain wrong. No, canned vegetables are not healthier and better tasting than fresh. Babies need to be nursed more often than every four hours, because breast milk is thinner than formula. Stalin did not really have the interests of the proletariat at heart. The humor in the book came not just from reading about these women who were so convinced they understood the world better than their parents (I hope I was never that arrogant), but also from seeing how much the world has changed since then, how much more we know now about certain things. Which caused me to wonder how much we think we know will seem hopelessly misguided or outdated or wrong 70 years from now.

McCarthy published the book in 1963, so it is highly likely she intended this dual level of satire; certainly enough had changed by then to make many of the notions the women held seem quaint. But I can't be fully sure how McCarthy expected us to react because so much has changed again. This is true of any novel, really -- novels are a product of their times, and we of ours, and our environment will will affect how we understand a book, no matter how we might think otherwise.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

One of the best things I did when I moved to this area two years ago was sign up for the CSA; for a flat fee I get a box of goodies every week from June through November. In addition to getting delicious local lettuces, carrots, tomatoes, etc., I've been introduced to stuff I could never find in a conventional supermarket.

Like kohlrabi. We got a couple of bulbs a few weeks ago, and one the weekend, as Beadhusband was grilling dinner and I was trying to find a vegetable to add to all the meat, I decided to try the kohlrabi. I sliced it into 1/4 inch think slices, brushed them with olive oil, sprinkled them with kosher salt, and put them on the grill for a few minutes. They were absolutely delicious. Last week we got gooseberries, which I had not had in ten years -- at a lunch in Boston with colleagues from work, we had gooseberry tarts for dessert. This time I decided to make gooseberry crumble. Unfortunately, the recipe was off, and the crumble part was powdery, but the berries were great.

The CSA has also gotten me to seek out farmer's markets to get more fabulous local produce. Yesterday I went with Beadboy2 and scored yellow carrots (I had heard carrots came in lots of different colors, but this was the first time I saw them) and a quart of sour cherries. The cherries were a particularly exciting find, because I have been searching for sour cherries ever since the Washington Post ran an article, with recipes, and proclaimed them superior to sweet cherries. These cherries are a bright, translucent red and are definitely tart (and delicious). Tonight I plan to make sour cherry brownies.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Bookmark Swap 2

I finally finished the last of the bookmarks last night, just in time to hand them in tonight (they are actually due next month, but I won't be able to make that class). For the most part I am pleased with the results, though I think some are better than others.
I like these three a lot. The first consists of cross stitch variations, and it is the most "regular" of the bunch, though that is fitting given the nature of the stitch. The middle one is the chain stitch one I discussed earlier. I really did not like the blue thread, so I ended up removing it and replacing it with more of the dark pink (what a pain that was). Had I more time, I would have gone in search of a different pink (ideally a purply one). The last is two related stitches -- the whipped spider web and the woven rose (both are built around an odd number of spokes. I really enjoyed this one, experimenting with different thread thicknesses and tensions.
Next up: 5 or 6 different leaf stitches. At this point I had to abandon my idea of only using one kind of stitch (and its variations) per bookmark, but at least the shapes offered a theme. I learned quite a few nifty stitches for this one, including the Vandyke stitch (the big orange leaf in the middle). The middle bookmark is just the stem stitch. By itself it looks nice, kind of minimalist, but here with the others it looks unfinished. The last is the running stitch one. As I said below, the only change I'd make is to get a better green thread.
The last trio: the first is also the first one I did, the feather stitch one, which I really like. The middle one was the last one, and having exhausted all the major stitch families I opted for laid stitch variations. It would look better if I had had the discipline to pencil in the grid before stitching. the last one is the blanket or buttonhole stitch. The way the different threads and stitches are layered over each other is the look I had originally wanted for all of the bookmarks, and I think this is my favorite. Also, I learned that a loosely and irregularly done blanket stitch on its side looks a lot like a feather stitch.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Bizarre Marketing Decisions, or, Why You Should Never Judge a Book by its Cover

I don't tend to read many romance novels, not because I disdain the genre, but because I have such a hard time finding books that I like. For whatever reason, I'm more skilled at identifying and avoiding dross in the mystery and scifi genres than in romance. Which is why I like Smart Bitches Trashy Books, and when, in one of the comment threads, I read about a romance novel with a "meta" twist, I immediately ordered it from Amazon: Hero Worship by Dawn Calvert.

Meet Andi. Tired of all the bad dates she has suffered, she decides one night to curl up with a regency romance containing a hero she considers to be her ideal man. One wish later, she is actually in the book, meeting this man. The problem? She's not the heroine, she's just a minor character (and a simpering, weak-willed one at that). The rest of the book is about her attempt to change the story so she gets the man, fighting both an author who has decided on another heroine and characters who don't want Andi rocking the boat. If she's lucky, Andi might even end up in another book with an author (like, say, Ms. Calvert) more supportive of her characters' wishes.

Hero Worship is a romance novel, so getting Andi together with her man is the main focus of the book. All the meta, break-the-fourth-wall stuff is just a (novel, heh) way to make that happen. But that doesn't change the fact that it is a neat concept which plays with that old lit-crit idea of who really "creates" a text -- the author? The reader? The characters? Throw in some Barthes and Foucault, maybe some Jauss, and you have the beginnings of a senior thesis.

So what book-cover did the publishers use to illustrate a text that touches on major lit-crit ideas?
I was floored when I first saw the cover. Not only does this cover not give any indication whatsoever of the unusual premise of the book, it doesn't even accurately represent the Regency setting; men of the early 19th century did not loll around naked very often; certainly there is no naked lolling in the book itself. At most, this cover indicates that the book is in the romance genre, but it does even that badly. Where are the watercolors? The windswept hair? The wild moors and rearing horses and swooning heroines? If the publishers wanted to ensure that people could identify at a glance this book as a romance novel (with no attention paid to its unusual elements, because who cares about the individual book itself), surely they could have gone whole hog and had a proper "clinch" cover. Instead, we get the torso of a not-very-interesting man staring blankly into the distance on a beige (beige!) background. FAIL.