Saturday, November 28, 2009

How You Can Tell Sarah's Key is Written by a Non-Jew

At my temple book club discussion of Sarah's Key last week, I realized exactly what was so disturbing about the ending of Sarah's Key (spoiler alert!). When I got to the part where the reader learns that Sarah committed suicide, it didn't ring true to me. That a woman who was so committed to surviving the Holocaust should then run her car into a tree as an adult seemed to ring false. A depressed, sad woman, given all that she experienced, ok, that I could see, but why should she have killed herself? It didn't seem statistically true. Yes, as one woman said at the book club, Primo Levi killed himself. But as another woman said, a Jewish author would not have had the Sarah character kill herself. Sarah's Key is a bestseller and is soon to be a movie filmed in France, with Helen Scott Thomas as the glamorous lead playing the modern-day French woman who uncovers Sarah's story. As Jordana Horn wrote in the Forward last week, speaking of Anne Frank, it's as if the world only likes a "dead Jew" in their Holocaust fiction.

It's also disturbing (by the way, I did like the book, in that it is a well-crafted story, and does not shy away from depicting French involvement in orchestrating the killing of Jews in the Holocaust) that the personal problems of the French journalist are given as much weight, as much gravitas, as Sarah's Shoah experiences, just by virtue of having the chapters alternate with Sarah's story.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Schlemiels in Contemporary Film and Fiction

I'm reading "The Schlemiel as Metaphor" by Sanford Pinsker right now. After seeing the Coen brother movie, "A Serious Man", a few weeks ago, I recognized the main character as a the classic "schlemiel" of Yiddish and contemporary Jewish literature. I'm reading Pinsker to find out the significance of this.

I do think that this helps explain the Coen brothers' inclusion of the Yiddish tale at the start of the film. I haven't seen any critics analyze the film in this way.

I think that beginning story, like the entire film, is a study on the "schlemiel" as well as an attempt to bring life back to the shtetl, which today's audience is unfamiliar with.

Pinsker writes that this schlemiel chracter came out of the Yiddish literature of the East European ghettos in the late nineteenth century. The "goals of the schlemiel, like those of the ghetto Jew, were primarily socioeconomic ones and his continual defeats forced him to view life from a bittersweet perspective. Thus his humor reflected the 'laughter through tears' philosophy of life..." And Pinsker writes about how the schlemiel reappears in contemporary American literature.

I see that husband in the fake-old Yiddish tale as a schlemiel--who takes the dybbuk's words at face value just as Gopnik does with the rabbis' advice---in both stories, it's the wife that rules that roost and has all the power. And Gopnik is the Cohen's take on the modern-day schlemiel.

Pinsker writes, "the schlemiel in contemporary literature is often the one who sees his problem, but no possible solution (Gopnik!). If the traditional schlemiel adapted an ironic posture to face a world he could neither beat nor quit, . . the modern schlemiel "liv[es] on the bare edge of things, embracing thoughts of failure at the same time he is committed to systems of success." The bare edge is that midwestern prairie on which "The Serious Man" is set.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Why Women Aren't Cooking

In his interesting cover story in the Sunday New York Times Magazine Michael Pollan asks, "But here’s what I don’t get: How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence — along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star — has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking."

Pollan notes that it's not just women working outside the home that have turned to food prepared outside the home, or processed foods, but stay-at-home moms, too. (There's an accepted presumption that it's women who should be doing the cooking; although he does write that when it comes to the popular act of grilling, men do more of it.)

Pollan has struck upon an interesting phenomenon. But my sense is that he isn't in touch with the pressures on modern mothers, with the feeling mothers have of never having enough time in the day to tend to their children and to themselves.

Pollan does offer several reasons for the decline in home-cooking:

"That decline has several causes: women working outside the home; food companies persuading Americans to let them do the cooking; and advances in technology that made it easier for them to do so. Cooking is no longer obligatory, and for many people, women especially, that has been a blessing. But perhaps a mixed blessing, to judge by the culture’s continuing, if not deepening, fascination with the subject. It has been easier for us to give up cooking than it has been to give up talking about it — and watching it."

But Pollan doesn't focus on what I think is at the heart of the reason for why women aren't cooking. He writes: "Curiously, the year Julia Child went on the air — 1963 — was the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique,” the book that taught millions of American women to regard housework, cooking included, as drudgery, indeed as a form of oppression. You may think of these two figures as antagonists, but that wouldn’t be quite right. They actually had a great deal in common, as Child’s biographer, Laura Shapiro, points out, and addressed the aspirations of many of the same women. Julia. . .tried to show the sort of women who read “The Feminine Mystique” that, far from oppressing them, the work of cooking approached in the proper spirit offered a kind of fulfillment and deserved an intelligent woman’s attention. (A man’s too.)"

So there has been a sea change since Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique." What's changed is that that generation of women who came of age in the years right after her book came out, the mothers and mothers-in-law of young marrieds today, did not become big cooks. Cooking and housework was not valued. So in large part their daughters did not learn to cook, and their sons not only did not learn to cook, but did not value home-cooked food. They prefer to eat out. So if their wives cook, their husbands don't appreciate the effort that went into it. And what woman wants to feel under-appreciated?

Pollan asks why we then turn to watching Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart and other TV chefs. Because we value work, and Ray and those like her are earning money by cooking--and that's valued by our society.

Another thing that he mentions but doesn't focus on is the great amount of mess produced by home-cooking. Cooking can be fun and pleasurable and give one a great feeling of accomplishment even if one's children and one's husband doesn't appreciate it as much as one would like. But cleaning up afterwards doesn't provide the same pleasures. If the woman is left with the task, she'll just feel even more under-appreciated.

I've seen plenty of gourmet-looking kitchens that are always spotlessly clean because the woman of the house doesn't cook. And who blames them? If their husbands prefers to order-in, it doesn't make sense for them to cook.

There's also the fact that stay-at-home moms spend a lot of time schlepping their kids to activities after school, so it's much less time-consuming to turn to prepared food.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Op-Ed on Judge Prohibiting Publication of Book Featuring an Aged Holden Caulfield

I just published an opinion piece on arguing that the district court judge should have found that a Swedish writer's novel was a fair use of Catcher in the Rye.
I ordered the book from Amazon UK last week. Seems a writer on Slate had the same idea. It does the beg the question of how much power the courts really have when one can so easily order a book through the Internet, which, in effect, overrides the judge's enjoining of the book in the U.S. I wonder if there are other examples of how the Internet, by breaking down traditional commerce borders between nations, has minimized courts' control over the enforcement of their rulings.

Monday, July 6, 2009

New TV show "Hung" and "the Body Guy"

I saw the first episode of "Hung" last night, and it reminded me of a conversation I had with Professor Peter Lehman, co-author with Susan Hunt of The Body Guy in the Movies.

Lehman's book describes the emergence of a new genre of films in the 90s that feature a character they term "the body guy". As he explains, "In these films, the body guy is frequently pitted against a mind guy, someone associated with the work of the mind, as opposed to the body, someone typically upper class or educated or a professional person, and the body guy is usually associated with the land or in an urban setting with blue collar work, and in this new genre of work there is an intensification of the sexuality of the body guy, who has a kind of sexual magic that is so powerful that he has the ability to awaken sexuality, and it is always a beautiful woman who is always married to or engaged to a mind guy who is inadequate to engage her, and she discovers this sexual magic the body guy who can fulfill her in a way her successful mind guy cannot."

The series "Hung" well-embodies this archetype. The lead is a school teacher whose wife has left him for a more successful dermatologist. His house (which is dwarfed by a snotty male lawyer's new McMansion next door) suffers significant damages in a fire and he is reduced to asking his ex-wife for a loan, but is turned down, so he has to live in a tent. He resorts to deciding that his skill or his gift is his large penis, and proceeds to try to figure out how to market himself.

Why are we seeing a rise in the "body guy"? As Lehman says, "What we see happening is a kind of something that’s very complicated now because we are living in a world where more and more power and real success for men lies for them in learning to develop their mind and to succeed with their mind and yet these films seem to send out an opposite kind of image that nothing is more powerful or enticing than the body and specifically the penis and this notion of male sexuality as defined by this kind of magical sexual performance that the 'body guy' can deliver, as if there is a belief out there that somehow if you become educated, if you are smart, if you are successful, that that takes you away form your sexuality in a way."

It's an attempt to assuage rising male anxieties about achieving financial success in today's economy.

Penis Imagery Rears its Head again in Recent Movies/TV

Last May I wrote on my blog and in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune about how images of penises were making their way into mainstream movies, mainly in ones by Judd Apatow, and how underlying this were a rise in male anxieties, hence the projection writ large of their penises on the big screen. I argued that we were seeing a transition from the "melodramatic" penis imagery of the 1990s, as coined by Professor Peter Lehman in his book "Running Scared," think of revelatory moments of penis imagery in "Boogie Nights" or "Madame Butterfly" to the casual revelation for laughs of the penis in movies like "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Harold and Kumar".

I'd argue that a rise in male anxieties due to the recession are at the heart of this increase in "casual" penis imagery in film and TV. Compare the frank relevation of bits of the actor's penis in the ending shots of "The Hangover" with the playful opening "peekaboo" montage shots of the opening credits of The Austin Powers movie, when obstructions keep getting in the way of the audience seeing Austin's penis.

I haven't seen any press on "The Hangover" mention the closing scenes, which are actually images saved on a digital camera of the leads' forgotten bachelor night in Las Vegas that we, the audience, are "allowed" to see before the characters delete them. Thrown in the midst of those largely benign images are a few jarring shots of Zach Galifianakis, playing Alan, getting a blow job from an older woman, with the head of his penis visible in some.

This is a movie about a bachelor night that is, of course, solely told from a male point of view, so the assumption is that the movie is intended for "the male gaze," for a quasi-adolescent male audience ready to laugh at male hijinks. But the fact is that many women make up the audience of this film. So to have these images forced on you at the end felt, to me, like a bit like an act of aggression: I didn't really want to see this actor's penis!

It's interesting that nude imagery of women in films, especially comedic ones like this film, are always of beautiful women, whose bodies flaunt a high level of perfection, while in contrast, here we see the genitalia of a not highly attractive actor, an average-looking guy. These images actually felt aggressive, as if it's the male psyche asserting itself, forcing the audience (the females in the audience?) to take a look at this ordinary guy's penis, (as opposed to say, the privates of Brad Pitt.

There was another moment in the movie when a penis is played for laughs, without any aggression, when the actor of Asian descent hops out from the trunk of a car without clothes on and we see a mess of pubic hair, no penis at all.

More later--thoughts on the new HBO show "Hung."

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

My Theory on Why Critics "Disgusted" by The Kindly Ones

And now I just read Sara Nelson's take on The Kindly Ones on the she writes, "I'm not knocking those readers who found his book rewarding (for my part, I gave up in disgust). But I can't shake the feeling that his novel, like [Britney Spear's] as-yet-untitled , unwritten memoir have more in common than might at first appear. They both lean toward prurience; their publishers are hoping for (and counting on) the seemingly bottomless American appetite for scandalous attitudes and behavior. But Spears' book, at least, "is what it is" -- a celebrity bio -- and may well sell to her fans. "The Kindly Ones," on the other hand, will suffer in the marketplace for its lack of transparency and its pretentions to art."

Like Kakutani, Nelson dislikes the book, finding it "disgust"ing. But what she actually objects to is the horrors of the Holocaust that Littell describes in detail--that's what is disgusting to her, not any prurience intrinsic to the fiction.

I find her comparison, her equation of the Holocaust and Spears, to be disgusting. And what she's saying doesn't make sense. An "American appetite for scandalous attitudes and behavior"? The whole point of the Kindly Ones is that it shows what really occurred in the Holocaust, the horrors that ordinary men are capable of inflicting on others in the name of peer pressure and career ambition--but Americans' don't have a bottomless appetite for imbibing books about this. The American appetite is bottomless for Shoah stories about hope and optimism (unless a celebrity tale of doom like Spears'). Nelson is very knowledgeable about publishing trends, but she should have finished the 900-page book before feeling competent to comment on it.

My Book Review in The Forward

Here is my book review of "The Kindly Ones," posted online tonight and in the paper edition this Friday.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Michiko Kakutani gets Holocaust book all wrong

First, I want to say I love Kakutani: she's always so perceptive, so incisive. So I was surprised to read her review last week of Jonathan Littell's new novel (newly translated from the French, that is) The Kindly Ones in the Times last week:

"The novel’s gushing fans, however, seem to have mistaken perversity for daring, pretension for ambition, an odious stunt for contrarian cleverness. Willfully sensationalistic and deliberately repellent, “The Kindly Ones” — the title is a reference to the Furies, otherwise known in Greek mythology as the Eumenides — is an overstuffed suitcase of a book, consisting of an endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens, intercut with an equally endless succession of scenes chronicling the narrator’s incestuous and sadomasochistic fantasies."

"An endless succession of scenes in which Jews are tortured, mutilated, shot, gassed or stuffed in ovens"--isn't that a description of much of the horrors Jews suffered in the Holocaust? Sounds like Kakutani doesn't want to read about that.

I have a review of the book coming out in The Forward next week. I write about how much of recent contemporary Holocaust fiction does not touch upon the reality of Jewish suffering in the Holocaust because it's as if readers don't want to read about it-they've been exposed to it enough, they want tellings of the Holocaust that are infused with hope, hence the likes of recent Hollywood film offerings. It's surprising that Kakutani falls into this camp.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Chicago Tribune op-ed today

The Tribune published my op-ed on imagery of women breast-feeding, which grew out of a blog post from last week.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

More Thoughts on Octo-Mom vs Tot-Mom

I'm reminded of a quote I read a while ago in the New York Times, by Susan J. Douglas, author of The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined Women. She said, 'We have a long history in this culture of mother blame. Media images of the 'bad mother' serve to police all mothers. We still have a virgin-whore binary in American pop culture, and this governs motherhood as well." This virgin-whore binary can be seen in the polar opposite archetypes of the two stories that are captivating us right now.

Ironically, Nadya Suleman seems to have been trying to approach some idealized notion of the "good mother," of the mother who sacrifices all for her many children. But she took this idea too far, and it backfired on her. Suleman eerily has been trying to physically and psychically emulate Angelina Jolie, who herself has successfully co-opted the "good mother" image, adopting children of different races and ethnicities, one African, two Asian, so that she has become an uber-mother, which has changed her image from the punk girl who in 2000 kissed her brother at the Academy Awards and wore the blood of Billy Bob Thorton around her neck, making her more popular with the masses, especially women, than she was before she projected this image.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Our 'Recent' Obsession with Motherhood--Octo-Mom vs the Tot-Mom

Something struck me in the five days I recuperated from my C-section two weeks ago, lying prostrate on the hospital bed, breast-feeding at all hours of the day and night, and trapped before a beautiful flat-screen TV that only played a few channels.

The cable TV talking-heads seemed obsessed with just two big stories (besides playing footage of Obama and the state of the economy), two stories that captivated the emotions and the schadenfreude of the nation, both stories about mothers, each with their own cable-given nickname: Nadya Suleman, the Octo-Mom, or the octuplets story, and the Tot-Mom, Casey Marie Anthony, who allegedly killed her own daughter, Caylee.

Every nightly Nancy Grace show was about the Tot-Mom, Grace's voice wreaking with anguish and disgust that this mother, whom we all know is guilty, Grace came right out and said, would kill her own daughter. Of course, this represents the worst image or archetype of a mother: a mother who shows no remorse for killing her daughter, who seems to want to steal the limelight away from images of her beautiful doe-eyed toddler, who wants to the shine spotlight on her own young self.

But then the complete polar opposite--the Octo-Mom, is just as universally reviled. Here's a woman who would not contemplate aborting a fetus, instead bringing eight embryos to term (OK, she only thought she was carrying seven) and yet this very pro-life decision is universally scorned. Most of my women friends comment on the selfishness of her decision, that taxpayers have to foot the bill for the health-care of her premature infants, though in another light, one could her view as purely self-less, thinking only of her children, though no one thinks of her in this way. She professes to want to be this uber-mother, who takes time to be with each of her 14 children each day, to think only of their needs--just today she said on TV that she hasn't had sex in eight years, and won't have a boyfriends till her youngest (all 8 of them) is 18. Sounds like a mother who is thinking of her children's needs not her own, right? But I'm sure this statement will be scorned, too, and it surely does come off as sounding strange, off-the-deep-end. But these two opposite archetypes of motherhood that are captivating the nation say something about the imagery of motherhood in America today, and the balancing act we moms find ourselves in, the predicament of how much do we devote to our children while also fulfilling ourselves, not losing ourselves. Here are two women, opposites in their approach to mothering (yes, one is allegedly a killer, which is obviously far from the norm) but both seem to have lost themselves, and their hold on reality, in their path towards or during motherhood. In a way, I feel for both of them.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Selma Hayek's Heroic Breastfeeding

I just gave birth to my third child, a girl, last Tuesday, so my days are a blur of breastfeeding and baby care-taking. This story of Selma Hayek breast-feeding a starving baby in Sierra Leone struck a personal and political chord. What's interesting is that Facebook just a few weeks ago banned all photos of women breast-feeding, which prompted thousands of women to send in shots of themselves breast-feeding their babies as a protest. (Surely the fact that the video of Hayek breastfeeding this infant is being downloaded by the thousands and is being shown on TV is partly due to the commercial beauty and sex appeal of Hayek; the women uploading their personal pics to Facebook are, let us say, not as 'airbrushed'.) Hayek mentions in the Time article that she wanted to combat the perception in Africa on the part of men that women who are breast-feeding cannot be sexual. It seems this cultural bias in Africa is not so far off from cultural perceptions here in the U.S. which prompted the Facebook ban--a perception that the female breast is per se sexual, and cannot have a function apart from its sexual one, the female breast as existing only for male sexual arousal. It's an ingrained notion, in all cultures, a partriarchal conceit, that women cannot be multi-functional, maternal and sexual at the same time, a bundle of amazing contradictions in the same body, in the same breast.

Yet I will not be posting any pictures of myself breastfeeding baby Maya to my Facebook page anytime soon.