Saturday, June 18, 2011

Selah Saterstrom--The Meat and Spirit Plan

A poetic and fragmented novel, it follows a Mississippi girl from a very neglected home (one of the only scenes in which her mother appears is one in which her mother is admitting to being back on cocaine) to college, then to a special religious studies program in Scotland, and then back to Mississippi where she faces not only her mother’s death but comes close to her own.
The novel incorporates a lot of not only references to but quotes from heavy metal songs, especially by bands like Metallica, Judas Priest, and Iron Maiden.  Not only does this ground the novel in a particular pop cultural context, but I think the heavy metal undercurrent strengthens the novel’s themes of violence and mythicness.  The fragmentation of the prose along with the unlikely journey that the narrator makes work with these lyrics (all of which, especially those by bands like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, are especially good at expressing mythic violence) to produce what is often a dream-like—or at times, nightmare-like—narrative. 
This is the first time I can think of that I’ve read a southern novel that calls on heavy metal in this way—I’ve read plenty that use country music or bands like Skynyrd, but I’m surprised that there’s not more, as it seems a really useful vehicle/motif for this kind of southern sense of place.
 I'm really surprised that I've never read Saterstrom before now.  This was such an amazing book. I went ahead and ordered her other novel, because I though this was so well-executed--I won't say I enjoyed the book, as it was much too bleak for that.  There were some really hilarious moments, though, especially in the academic sections.  She totally skewers sad poet boys who talk way too much about Derrida in seminars, and I'm pretty sure she's poking fun at Donna Tartt at one point as well.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Vocabulary list

I already have a list I give out to my composition students of overused words and phrases--things like, "In the history of...", "Webster's dictionary defines ____ as...", "Only time will tell," or, weirdly enough, the word "truly." 

However, at Matt Dischinger's suggestion, I'm going to start a list of words here which appear frequently in critical writing but rarely anywhere else.  These are not specifically theory words, like "deconstruct" or "almost already," but regular words which get overused in criticism.

Matt's example was "bulwark."  What else is there?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Marilynne Robinson--Housekeeping

I've had this book since at least last spring, I think, when the gender studies reading group at UT was reading it.  I didn't get around to reading it then (I mean, it was right around the time of comps and the French translation test, I believe--I did nothing but study, read for Wharton class, and teach my "Inquiry into the American South" class that semester), and wish I had.  This would be a wonderful book to talk about with other people.

The prose is just beautiful.  There's a dreaminess to the novel, as throughout boundaries are blurred: thinking/dreaming, sanity/insanity, inside/outside, wet/dry, self/other, self/mother/sister, memory/present....

Especially after reading Kristeva, who connects the horror we feel at the abject with the blurring of boundaries, especially those between inside and outside (to Kristeva, particularly the inside and outside of the body),  it was particularly interesting to experience these blurred boundaries from the perspective of a character who, as not only an orphan but also as one who has been cut off from civilization in general.  Despite the efforts of the school principal, the town's women, and the sheriff to bring at least Ruth into their fold, Ruth and Sylvie keep themselves separate from town and civilization.

The beauty of her prose and the meditations on memory, the past, and the ghosts who surround us make me interested to read her other novels.  This one was short-listed for the Pulitzer, and apparently another one of the other ones actually did win the Pulitzer.  In my spare time.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Julia Kristeva--Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection

I've poked through this book before, but now I've finally read it all the way through.  As I ultimately want to write my dissertation on the figure of the ugly woman in southern literature, this idea of abjection is one I really need to wrap my head around as a way of figuring out just what I mean by the word "ugly."  

I didn't expect this would take quite so long to read.  As it's a translation from the French, Kristeva's work is like a lot of French feminism for me--dense and rewarding, but *slow going. *  I think it's partly because of the nature of French writing itself, with so many double meanings (différance, anyone?) and the attempt by the translator to use English to try to convey such things (as here, Leon Roudiez uses "scription" to convey a stronger form of ecriture).  Mon dieu!  Or rather, ma déesse!

I'm still not comfortable with theories which take the Oedipal triangle as their beginning, which much of French feminism seems to do.  However, what I did get from this reading was that Kristeva made the mother a more central figure in this drama and looked at the ramifications of this refocusing.  From what I understand, considering the centrality of the incest taboo in this way allows us to consider the meanings of what is considered abject.

Abjection is what is thrown away, what is on the outside.  In Kristeva's understanding, though, it is more complicated than that.  The abject blurs the lines between inside and outside (blood, excrement, the decay of dead bodies) which is what evokes this sense of horror we feel at the abject.  And yet, in its connection to the grotesque (in the carnivalesque, Bakhtinian sense of the word), there is a way in which the abject is connected to the sublime.  I'm intrigued by Kristeva's characterization of the abject as an apocalyptic thing, in contrast to the carnivalesque nature of the grotesque.  Apocalyptic laughter versus grotesque laughter. 

Quite a bit of the book focuses on the work of Céline, whom I've never read, so a lot of this was lost on me.  I'm hoping, though, that the combo of my copious outline along with this more informal writing will reinforce the important parts of the book.

I wanted to get this read first so that I could incorporate Kristeva's ideas into a rewrite of a paper on ugly women in Eudora Welty's "Curtain of Green" stories which I'd like to get done this summer.  First up, however, I need to finish the chapter I'm writing on a feminist reading of Neil Gaiman's stories in Who Killed Amanda Palmer, as well as a conference paper I had accepted for the fall on reading Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood along with the Ministry song "Jesus Built My Hotrod."  

However, next from my reading lists I've chosen Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping--after the dense theory, reading a (rather) recent American novel is delightful.

First post

I've got three reading lists for my comprehensive exams (well, two, plus the promise of a third) in addition to a reading list for an independent study I'm doing this fall.  While I've got binders to organize the formal notes and outlines I'm doing for these readings, I intend to use this blog to catch my less formal thoughts as I'm reading.  And anything else which catches my fancy.  Feel free to comment back or make suggestions or tell me that I shouldn't give it all up to go form a Kathleen Hanna tribute band.