We’ve Come This Far

Larsson girlI resisted this one for a long time.

A long time.

It got to the point where even my bookshelf was ashamed of me. Every time I’d peruse the titles to decide what to read next, I’d skip over the garish yellow-green spine as though to linger on it too long would turn me to stone. My reluctance was also reflected in the absence of its two sequels. No companions. Just The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo all by its lonesome several years past the point where anyone actually cared about it.

I’m not sure where my opposition came from. I’ve watched – and liked – both movie adaptations. I’m a fan of mysteries. I don’t have anything against Sweden. I knew people who thought the writing stunk, but not enough of them to dissuade me. I was also aware of the accusations of misogyny levied against author Stieg Larsson, but I figured if I could make it through American Psycho I could handle anything. (And, having seen the movies, I wasn’t necessarily sold on the misogyny charge in the first place.) More than anything, I think it just goes back to that boring old trait I have where if too many people like something, I figure it’s probably not worth checking out. My taste and the public’s rarely intersect, so whenever I hear that this book or that movie is the next big thing, I usually run screaming in the opposite direction.

So it was with some disappointment that I plucked The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo off the shelf as part of the 21st Century Bookshelf Deprivation Project.

Here’s the verdict: It’s not horrible.

But it’s also not good enough for me to spend much time on, especially considering that I’m probably the last person in the world to develop an opinion about it.

It is, however, probably worth addressing the two criticisms I mentioned earlier. As for the quality of Larsson’s writing, I don’t know if it’s his writing or the translation, but there’s no question that The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo features, without fear of hyperbole, the most graceless prose I’ve ever read. It’s a minor miracle that anyone makes it to the heart of the story – the decades-old murder mystery that embroils disgraced journalist Mikael Blomkvist and hacker wunderkind Lisbeth Salander– because to get there the reader has to wade through a turgid swamp of some of the most tedious passages ever rendered in the English language. It takes a hearty soul to bear these godawful descriptions of Swedish courts and corporations which are sometimes related in interminable paragraphs and other times – I guess for variety’s sake – in stilted dialogue that still runs without end but is witlessly broken up with superfluous “I see”s and “You don’t say”s. Things pick up when he gets to the mystery, but Larsson’s writing is never more than serviceable.

The misogyny question is trickier. I get where the accusations come from. I do. About a third of the way through the book, long before she actually meets Blomkvist and gets involved in the central mystery, Lisbeth Salander is subjected to a gruesome rape (redundant phrasing, I know) that really doesn’t have anything to do with the story. It serves, I suppose, as a way of revealing her inherent toughness and resilience, but the whole scene could be excised from the book without the risk of losing anything.

And yet.

Throughout the rest of the book, Salander is unequivocally the strongest character we encounter: smart, independent, resourceful, and generally better at everything than Blomkvist, our supposed protagonist. So does one scene where Salander is portrayed as the victim of a hideous crime – a crime, by the way, for which she absolutely gets revenge – outweigh the rest of the book where she’s clearly the best character in a story full of bad ones? Not for this reader, even though I’m sensitive to the treatment of women in pop culture (and, y’know, life), and I’ve written previously about how ill advised it is for men to think they have anything worth saying on the subject of rape. For me, the misogyny accusation just doesn’t wash, not when Salander is depicted as more honorable and worthy of emulation than all the men in the book combined.

And it’s Salander, by the way, that actually has me looking forward to reading the next two books in the series, despite that fact that doing so will subject me to more of Larsson’s tortured prose.


Current listening:

Mercury desert

Mercury Rev – Deserter’s Songs (1998)

Hide from the Sun

My mom used to get so frustrated with me.

She lived long enough to see me through ten years of teaching high school, four years of grad school, and the first two years of my college teaching career.  In all that time I only rarely volunteered any of my accomplishments.  This is the way I’ve always been.  People tell me I’m hard to get to know, and I don’t disagree with them.  It’s an unholy combination of Midwestern stoicism, introversion, and social anxiety that causes me to play my cards close to the vest.  It is, as much as anything, my overriding belief that there’s nothing about me that’s worth getting worked up about.  I try to keep my head down and do my thing.  There’s nothing remarkable about me.

But my mom, like most moms, wasn’t so easily convinced of that.

When she was alive I’d mention any recognition or awards I got only in passing, or I’d let Wife of Monty take care of that once she was on the scene.  I just didn’t – and don’t – see the fuss.  But my mom would good-naturedly scold me once she’d learn about the teaching award or the publication or the grant and tell me that I need to be prouder of my accomplishments and publicize them.  I’ve tried to do better with that, partially to honor her memory, but also because Wife of Monty constantly reminds me that people want to hear about these things and celebrate them with me.  I don’t get it – and I’m not sure I agree – but I know when to yield to an unstoppable force.

So it was in that spirit that I turned to Facebook this afternoon to relate a conversation I had with one of my students.  At the end of class I shooed people out of the room citing a meeting I had to run to across campus.  One of my students said she didn’t want to keep me, but asked if we could walk and talk.  Never one to turn down the chance to feel like an actor in an Aaron Sorkin show, I obviously and immediately agreed.

It was a good talk (and walk).  She said she admired and respected the way I teach, the way class is structured, the way I facilitate discussion.  She asked if it was possible to teach high school that way because it didn’t look anything like what she experienced.  I assured her it was, that it takes time, but that’s true of anything worth doing in the classroom and that it took me five years to really feel like I knew what I was doing. She expressed anxiety at not becoming the teacher she wants to be, of not being good enough, of not living up to her own expectations for herself.  She ended the conversation by saying, “Help me teach the way you teach.”

It’s one of the best compliments I’ve received in my professional career.  My goal of course is to help my students find their own teaching voice, but I understand the desire to walk in the footsteps of the people who have come before us.  I owe an undeniable debt to some of my own teachers, so it would be silly of me to downplay the sense of pride that I could be one of those teachers to someone else.

So I turned, as we do these days, to Facebook.  I shared the quote, but because old habits die hard and I didn’t want to be seen as bragging, I undercut the story with a self-deprecating comment at the end – something about someone wanting an extension on the final project.  I hit “Post” and immediately felt remorse.  Here this student had come to me with honest concerns, paid me a genuine compliment, and I chose to diminish it with sarcasm.  It didn’t matter that she wouldn’t see the comment; it just felt disrespectful to the student and the honesty of the moment.

To course-correct, I edited the post to air some of what I’m writing now in abbreviated form.  I ended by admitting that even though I’m sarcastic by default, I feel immensely lucky to have the chance to do what I’m doing with my life.  What followed was a string of comments from current and former students telling me how much they appreciate my teaching.  And I started to feel worse.

Let me stress this: From the bottom of my heart, I appreciate each and every one of those compliments.  Any teacher will tell you that in a career where there isn’t a lot of instant gratification, that kind of feedback keeps us going.

But I deleted the entire post anyway.

It suddenly felt like I was fishing for compliments, that the edit I made to show love and respect for my profession had suddenly made it all about self-promotion – that I was being disingenuous in my gratitude, all to hear more about me me me.  Obliterating the entire exchange seemed like the best thing to do.

If you left a compliment for me earlier, remember: It’s not you, it’s me.  I don’t know how to take compliments, and the act of sharing them feels like I’m begging for more.  And this is something of a problem, my refusal to really be able to enjoy praise because I’m constantly filtering it through the consequences of sharing it with anyone else.

I know this doesn’t make any sense.  I love hearing teacher stories – successes and catastrophes alike, as well as the accolades my colleagues receive from their students  – and I’m sure I’m not alone in this.  But as soon as I open my mouth about my own teaching, the voice in the back of my head groans, “Great.  Not this guy again.”  For some reason the stuff I enjoy hearing from other people turns into a big existential crisis on a personal level.

And it shouldn’t be this way, for any of us.  We’re inarguably at a time when it’s more vital than ever for teachers to share the ways in which they seem to be making a difference.  The profession is under attack from all directions – politicians, the media, the wealthy – and the last thing we should do is double down on the destruction by attacking ourselves from within.  We should celebrate our successes and share the ways in which we grow from our failures instead of modestly (and figuratively) scuffing the toe of our shoe in the dirt and mumbling, “Aw, shucks,” when something goes our way.  I shy away from self-promotion (sez the guy writing the blog), but who else will promote our profession if not us?

And that’s the tension: balancing my natural inclination to just shut up and do my job with the feeling that I should do more to share good news about the profession and my role in it.  So I’m curious: For those in the audience who teach, how do you handle this issue?  Do you struggle with anything similar, or is this just my own anxious navel-gazing?  What do you do when you get recognition for your work?  And should all of us do more?


Current listening:

Love st

Love and Rockets – Self-titled (1989)

The Feast and the Famine

Stephen fromI’ve written so much elsewhere about my love for Stephen King that I steadfastly refuse to do it here.  It’s not just because I’m tired of my own enthusiasm, but because From a Buick 8 is such a tepid, by-the-numbers effort that my affection starts to look a little silly.

Reading this book – and thinking about King’s longevity – I couldn’t help but think in terms of my other great pop culture loves, music and film.  At some point we have to acknowledge that artists who’ve been around for 30+ years essentially get by on their past glories, and that if we appreciate their newest efforts, it’s rare that we love them in the way we love their earlier accomplishments.  Claiming to adore a 21st Century Stephen King novel is sort of like fawning over a new Rolling Stones album: it’s good that they’re still alive, but do we really want to compare Bridges to Babylon with Exile on Main St.?  I’ll dutifully see every film Woody Allen directs, but it’s pure folly to think Magic in the Moonlight can hold a candle to Annie Hall. That isn’t to say late-career artists can’t create a winner – Dylan being Example A – but it’s rare.  And so the question becomes: At what point do we stop letting nostalgia cloud our opinion of new works from tired artists?

And that’s sort of where I am with From a Buick 8. I don’t really fault King for recycling storylines after all this time – to continue the Stones metaphor, Keith Richards only has so many riffs in him – but I’m not sure there’s any way to look at a second haunted car novel as anything but creative fatigue.  In the Afterword, King describes how the idea came to him on a drive up the Eastern seaboard and how he then filtered it through his subsequent near-fatal accident, but it doesn’t do much to make the story seem fresh.

And that story?  A group of Pennsylvania State Troopers, headed up by chief Sandy Dearborn, talks to Ned, the 18-year-old son of a colleague who was recently killed by a hit-and-run driver, about the haunted car in their storage shed.  Resembling a 1953 Buick Roadmaster…


…the car was abandoned at a gas station by a mysterious driver and later appears to be the portal to another world.

It’s a book where, to be honest, not much happens.  The car spends the book in the shed, occasionally emitting blinding flashes of light … and, oh yeah, sucking unknowing people into its trunk and occasionally sending creatures from the other world to our own.  These arrivals look vaguely like things from our world  – a creepy bat, a creepy fish, creepy leaves – without actually being from our world, and they don’t live long once they’re here.  One of these sequences – a screaming humanoid thing arrives after an unusually violent light show – is the most effective scene in the book, a genuinely disturbing encounter that’s right in King’s wheelhouse.

But the rest of the book is more a story of how Ned’s father Curtis became obsessed with the car – or, maybe more importantly, how the car obsesses Curtis.  Structurally it’s sort of interesting, told mostly in flashback by the troopers, but their voices are largely indistinguishable (with the exception of Arky, a Michigan transplant who speaks in dem‘s and dere’s), and King’s folksy idioms seem clunkier than ever, bordering dangerously on Garrison Keillorisms.

It’s not even really a case where I can say, “Man, there’s a good story in here somewhere, but this isn’t it.”  It’s a goofy premise handled about as well as can be.  Fortunately, I’ve read a couple of King’s post-Buick 8 works, and it’s good to see that he would return, near as can be, to form.  11/22/63, especially, is close to prime King – his Match Point rather than his Scoop.


Current listening:

House spy

The House of Love – A Spy in the House of Love (1990)

No Money in My Pocket

Denis nobodyI’ve never been a gambler.  Even when I lived in California, basically a four-hour stone’s throw from Vegas, gambling has never appealed to me.  Maybe because I’ve never had much money to throw away, or maybe because I never felt like I was so lacking something that it would necessitate that kind of risk.  It also probably helps that I’m not much of a risk-taker in general, nor do I have an addictive personality.  The thought of throwing money away in the hope of winning more money has never made a lot of sense to me when I could just as easily take the money I have to the record store.

(Also a factor: social anxiety that generally prevents me from dealing with strangers, such as card dealers [is that what they’re called?] and other gamblers.)

There are a few minor exceptions.  Slots in Vegas with Wife of Monty (then-Girlfriend of Monty) and again more recently in New Orleans.  And my biggest score: On a ferry across the English Channel the summer after I graduated from high school, I inserted a £1 coin in a slot machine and miraculously scored a £50 return.  Maybe that’s why I’ve never been a gambler.  I decided at age 18 to quit while I was ahead.

Despite (or actually, maybe because of) this aversion to risk-taking I’ve always been drawn to stories of gamblers.  Not necessarily literal gamblers (Rounders was good and all, but I didn’t need to see it a second time), but stories about those who take the risks I don’t. If it’s a movie about a con swearing to do one more big job before he quits the life forever, I’m in.  Or if it’s a movie that involves assembling a team for a heist and every member of the team has a specialty, that’s my jam.  I could watch Steven Soderbergh’s version of Ocean’s Eleven until my eyes bleed, and the same holds true of the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of No Country for Old Men, even though the risks involved in those two stories are very, very different.

It’s appropriate that I mention the Coen Brothers, because Denis Johnson’s Nobody Move resembles nothing so much as a Coen Brothers script waiting to be filmed.  It is, admittedly, a minor work from Johnson, the author who gave us the masterful, elegiac, National Book Award-winning Tree of Smoke.  Nobody Move, an experiment in noir fiction, reads like a goofabout, a post-Tree of Smoke palate cleanser before moving on to bigger and better things.

That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable.  It’s immensely enjoyable, a breezy, fast-paced read about double- and triple-crosses, scams and cons, tough guys and no-nonsense broads, and characters described in beautifully succinct language that communicates volumes: “He wasn’t wearing a Hawaiian shirt at the moment but undoubtedly possessed several.”

The plot is almost beside the point.  Suffice to say it involves several unlikable people (including Luntz, a guy who sings in a barbershop quartet, and Juarez, a gangster who has a thing for cooking and eating his victims’ testicles) trying to con each other out of $2.3 million.  There’s also Anita, Luntz’s accidental companion and the catalyst for the book’s scam; Gambol, Juarez’s right-hand-assassin and fellow gonad afficionado; Mary, a Gulf War veteran who stitches people up for the bad guys; and a hat-wearing guy known only as the Tall Man (who’s actually only 5’8″).  But they’re all risk-takers, gamblers, to one degree or another – from Luntz, who kicks the story into motion by shooting Gambol in the leg, to Anita, who’s trying to double-cross her ex-husband and a corrupt judge, to Juarez, who makes his living by exploiting the misfortunes of others.  None of them are nice, but I often find that “not nice” is more fun.

But really, the joy of this book is the joy Johnson clearly takes in playing with tough-guy tropes.  You come for the mystery, but you stay for hard-boiled exchanges like this one between Luntz and Anita:

‘What’s on TV?’ he said. ‘I usually watch in the daytime.’

‘No. Really?’

‘I get up late and just stay in bed and burn the daylight down.’

‘A night person.’

‘That’s right, yeah. I blend in better that way.’

‘Not the outdoor type.’

‘My idea of a health trip is switching to menthols and getting a tan,’ he said. ‘I don’t like push-ups, sit-ups, ex cetera. Et cetera, I mean.’ He’d been corrected in this several times, but always forgot.

‘You’re cute enough,’ she said, ‘but you got a sissy body.’

‘Didn’t you know that?’


‘That it’s et cetera, not ex cetera.’

‘Yeah, man, I did.  I just didn’t feel like embarrassing you,’ she said, and headed for the bathroom.

When she came out he told her, ‘I watched you going to the shower and I almost thought I could break down crying.’

‘Oh,’ she said.

‘Come here.’ She sat beside him, both of them naked, and he kissed her, and the temperature felt better. ‘I’d like to try it sober.’

‘Can we wait till after breakfast, when I’m not hung over?’

‘Sure. Let’s go downstairs. What are we having?’


Like Vonnegut’s writing, this simple, unadorned prose is remarkably difficult to pull off – it may be easy to fake, but it’s so, so hard to stick the landing.  Johnson makes it look easy, though, even if I suppose the book as a whole is kinda sorta just aping Elmore Leonard.  It’s not going to change your life, but it might brighten your day.  I’ll take it.


Current listening:

Foo one

Foo Fighters – One by One (2002)

Some Things You Don’t Get Back

HotelOne of my most revelatory professional discoveries is also stupidly simple.  It’s this, courtesy of Bob Probst: Reading is a selfish venture.

It is. Of course it is. I’m disappointed in myself for not realizing it earlier, because it’s a principle – probably one of the top two or three – that guides my work with pre-service English teachers, and it would’ve transformed the way I taught English in high school.  I was reminded of the selfishness of the reading enterprise as I made my way through John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, more on which in a couple minutes.

Here’s why it’s important to consider the solipsistic nature of reading, especially for the teachers in my audience.  We read, let’s say 99% of the time, for our own reasons and purposes.  We certainly do this when we read for pleasure, but even professional reading is done for specific personal reasons.  I pick up a novel to get lost in the characters, to savor the author’s use of language, to find myself carried along by plot and conflict; when I conduct research for an article I’m writing, my personal reasons look very different, but the act of scouring journals and other texts for salient information is also highly personal, and how it looks depends on what I’m writing.  In both cases, I’m reading for my reasons, and this holds true for just about everyone, no matter what they read.

School is the only place where people are regularly called on to read for external reasons over which they have no control.  They want to score well on the quiz, write the paper, contribute to the discussion – and the parameters for success on all those activities are probably set by the teacher.   In my experience, students are rarely encouraged to read for their own purposes, which is a direct contradiction of the way people read in the world outside of and beyond school.  We read what interests us – or, if we’re not sure if something interests us, we bring our own experience and knowledge to bear on the text in an effort to make meaning of it.

And so it was for me with The Hotel New Hampshire.

(As a side note, this is, of course, where the Common Core State Standards get reading completely wrong.  In the English standards’  slavish adherence to “the four corners of the page” and standards author David Coleman’s desire that students not access  their prior knowledge and history – essentially asking students to come to the text as a blank slate, which precisely no one ever does – the selfish aspect of reading is left entirely out of the equation.  By focusing completely on providing textual evidence for whatever superficial task the teacher has mandated, student choice is eliminated completely.  We’re asking students to read in complete defiance of what we know about how people read, which means most of the reading tasks they’re asked to complete in school are completely artificial, and with very little transfer to the way we read outside of school. It’s asinine.)

Back to The Hotel New Hampshire, and from here on in I tread lightly.

I enjoyed the book, but it’s problematic for a lot of reasons, touching as it does on anti-Semitism, adolescent sexuality, incest, prostitution, terrorism, and rape, all while somehow being laugh-out-loud funny. It details the exploits of the Berry family – mainly father Win and his children Frank, Franny, John (who narrates the book), and Lily – and the three hotels they own (in New Hampshire, Vienna, and Maine) over the course of twentyish years.  The last item in that lengthy list of the book’s sensitive subjects hangs over everything after Franny is raped in high school by several boys, and it’s tempting to read it as the catalyst for much of what develops later between her and John.

The interesting thing – and what prompted me to think carefully about the inherent selfishness of reading – is how I homed in on Franny’s rape as the book’s defining event even though it isn’t really about rape or misogyny or even, broadly, gender politics.  It’s certainly part of the book’s tapestry, but if I said this was a book about rape, I’d be lying.

And yet.

The treatment of women in our culture has been on my mind lately due to the recent video of the woman being sexually harassed on the streets of New York and the misogynist cowards behind Gamergate and the threats levied against critic Anita Sarkeesian and the necessity of #YesAllWomen.   It’s the Hobby Lobby decision and the GOP’s rejection of equal pay for women and even yesterday’s exceedingly lame conference focusing on “men’s issues” on the campus where I teach. If the autumn of 2014 taught us anything, it’s that men, as the saying goes, are pigs.

So I was already sensitive to this subject, and I felt anything but optimistic about the direction in which I saw Irving heading.  It seems spectacularly foolhardy to think a man has anything worth saying about rape, but to make it one of the key events of a novel had all the makings of a Hindenburg-style disaster.  Because of the way I was already attuned to the issue, I was perhaps more prepared to trace its development than any of the other problems Irving presents us with.

There’s one big reason why I think Irving’s handling of this most sensitive issue ultimately works: it’s nuanced.  That seems counterintuitive when dealing with an issue like rape, so I should probably clarify that it’s the aftermath of the rape that’s nuanced.  The crime itself is never seen as anything other than the brutal act it is, but Irving’s characters resist convenient responses.  Franny, as the victim, somehow manages to be the strongest character in the book – she refuses to see herself as a victim, claiming that while, yes, she was physically assaulted, the rapists never touched her emotionally, never got to, as she puts it, “the me in me” – while continuing to write letters to one of her assailants for years after the attack because she was in love with him at the time.

In Vienna, the family meets Susie, a fellow rape survivor (who also dresses as a bear, which is too convoluted a backstory to discuss here), who says that Franny’s response is  ridiculous.  According to Susie, Franny’s blithe refusal to see herself as a victim indicates a refusal to deal with the crime itself, and by not attacking her assailants at the time, “she sacrificed her own integrity.”  The problem with this view, John the narrator realizes, is the fact that it reflects Susie’s own refusal to acknowledge that everyone is different, everyone processes trauma differently, and that by demanding Franny handle her rape in the same way Susie dealt with hers, she’s robbing Franny of her individual authenticity:

Even before she started talking to Franny, I could see how desperately important this woman’s private unhappiness was to her, and how – in her mind – the only credible reaction to the event of rape was hers. That someone else might have responded differently to a similar abuse only meant to her that the abuse couldn’t possibly have been the same.

‘People are like that,’ Iowa Bob would have said. ‘They need to make their own worst experiences universal. It gives them a kind of support.’

And who can blame them?  It is just infuriating to argue with someone like that; because of an experience that has denied them their humanity, they go around denying another kind of humanity in others, which is the truth of human variety – it stands alongside our sameness.

And this seems to me to be what the book is all about: simultaneously glorying in human difference while also realizing the problems it causes.  Is that the definitive answer of what Irving is going for with The Hotel New Hampshire?  Probably not.  There are, as I said earlier, many other issues at play in the book, and that’s without mentioning how the book examines the idea of family: what it is, how it starts, what holds it all together, how it handles loss, and so on.  There are many angles from which a reader can make sense of The Hotel New Hampshire, but I, rightly or wrongly, made sense of it through the lens of Irving’s sensitive handling of the aftermath of rape.  And that’s because I, recently dismayed at the preponderance of misogyny in our culture, selfishly (and in defiance of the Common Core)  took ownership of my own reading.

The Hotel New Hampshire is so rich that it invites these kind of readings, and to reduce it, as I sort of have, to a book only about rape, is to do it a disservice.  The strongest thing working in its favor is that I could read it multiple times and see an entirely different story each time.


Current listening:

Stevie Wonder Talking Book HIGH RESOLUTION COVER ART

Stevie Wonder – Talking Book (1972)