Archive for the ‘Periodicals’ Category

Been a Long Time Gone

Tuesday, March 13th, 2012

Nelly, it’s been ages. And I have time only for dribbles:

1) I was fascinated by the NYT Magazine cover story on Sunday, about 18 girls in the same town struck by the same twitching/ticcing condition. I don’t want to ruin it for you (read it!), but the thing I am most struck by is the cultural resistance to acknowledging feelings and what that resistance can wreak. Especially since . . .

2) In preparation for the new season of Mad Men, I’ve been reading old recaps over at T.Lo, and they’re always going on about how different it was in the 60’s, when everybody had secrets and so many things simply couldn’t be spoken. True enough, and yet it seems that at least in one American town, the gestalt still refuses to acknowledge and support normal human suffering. And that doesn’t seem good for anyone.

3) There’s a quote in the NYT article that goes something like this: “It’s not psychological, it’s neurological.” Setting aside the fact that no disease should be shameful either way, I thought to myself, “And . . . how are those different?” Our feelings live in our nervous system, right? Same-same? People hate to be told that “It’s all in your head.” But isn’t everything we experience, pretty much, in our heads?

4) The rains have come. Late and probably far too few, but we need them, and I’m happy for all the dry-mouthed living beings in Northern California. On the other hand, we have a leaking skylight. 7 years ago when we moved into our previous house, John redid the roof and put in beautiful, non-leaking skylights. 3 months ago we moved into this house, which needs a new roof and has an old, leaking skylight. Alas.

5) Speaking of husbands: We’ve been together 10 years! Not married for that long, but together. Our anniversary was in January, but we’re just now able to celebrate. Next week we head to Wilbur Hot Springs for 5 days of what we hope will be pure ease and comfort—baths, naps, food, walks, and back to the baths. Yum.

6) Said husband is also having a birthday (Thursday! Send him lovies!), and it’s a sign of the times that I didn’t order his presents until today. By which I mean, a) home renovation and b) 10 years. I think at a certain point, material presents lose most of their importance or even interest, and the daily loving connection overshadows any other kind of gesture you can make. Even “I love you,” which is always worth saying (and hearing), can’t hold a candle to the living evidence of that love. Or so I’m thinking today.

The Problem of Sympathy

Friday, February 17th, 2012

Did anyone else read Jonathan Franzen’s latest piece in The New Yorker, about the purported problem of sympathy in Edith Wharton?

I confess to not having made it through the entire thing, largely out of pique rage. Franzen lost me the moment he asserted that, and I quote, “[Wharton] wasn’t pretty.” Really? I mean . . . all he had to do was say that she wasn’t considered pretty, acknowledging in a single word the caprice of the concept of beauty and its inextricability from time/place/culture/viewer, and I’d have been fine. Instead, we get his Voice of Masculine Authority condemning her appearance as though it were universally accepted fact.

It makes me want to punch him. Which, if you know anything about my lengthy one-sided relationship with Franzen, you know is how I feel about him approximately half the time.

Anyway, that was my first snag. He goes on to discuss the aforementioned “problem of sympathy” in Wharton, which I’ve never felt. As in, how is Lily Bart not sympathetic, whether she’s considered beautiful or not (and she is)? Bart has depressingly few options in life and only one tool to use—the beauty—which as she ages is losing its caché. She’s trying as hard as she can to get what she needs and, ultimately, failing. It never even occurred to me not to feel for her.

(I can’t speak for The Age of Innocence or Ethan Frome, having read them at too tender an age to remember much.)

At any rate, here’s what’s fascinating to me about Franzen’s having chosen this topic: His writing is often accused of the same problem. When Freedom came out, you heard people everywhere complaining about its characters, and how they supposedly weren’t important (as if “importance”—what is that code for, even?—had ever been connected to sympathy), and how nobody wanted to hear middle-class white people whine about their “issues.”

Which boiled my blood. Because a) Every single human being has a story and is therefore interesting, full stop, and b) In the second chapter of the book [SPOILER ALERT] Patty is raped, and much of the book is about her inability to deal with that rape. And from her parents’ chillingly blasé and self-protective response to that rape, we know that she hasn’t been given much fortification in life; put another way, as a child she didn’t receive real love or support, so as an adult she doesn’t know how to accept them. It’s surprising, actually, that she copes as well as she does.

The thing is, I find Franzen’s characters, in Freedom and in The Corrections, immensely sympathetic. I find his narrative voice unbelievably generous; his love for his characters seems to spill over the page. I would say, in fact, that I find those two novels more loving and compassionate than almost anything else I have read. And folks, I have read a lot.

That’s why it’s so bizarre (and a source of amusement to my friend Ted—hello, Ted!) that I tend to find Franzen himself insufferable. In this I am far from alone, I know. He seems unable to give an interview without coming off as a self-satisfied prig, and lately he’s been saying nutty things about how the Internet is destroying the world. (Even his claim that nobody with an Internet connection writes good fiction is just so patently false.)

I can never quite put them together, these two extremes. It’s as though Franzen reserves every last morsel of his heart for his fiction and, once spent there, has nothing left to give anything else—or doesn’t want to, anyway.


Malcolm Gladwell

Monday, May 16th, 2011

Has anyone else been reading the “Innovation” issue of The New Yorker? And has anyone else developed the wee-est smidge of resistance toward Malcolm Gladwell?

I have to say, first, that I’ve been a Gladwell fan for a long time. I’ve read most of his books, and they’re fascinating. He has such a gift for telling a story, and also for putting together a clear case based on surprising research. I love the way he builds suspense. And didn’t he sort of invent a genre—the lay person’s academic survey? Over the years, Gladwell has connected me with all kinds of ideas that I’ve been happy to investigate.

But . . . he keeps doing the same. Exact. Thing. Maybe once you’ve invented a literary form, which is by no means easy or common, you get to keep doing that thing forever. But it has come to feel smug and formulaic. As in:

1) Open with story.

(Optional 1a): Surprise! Hero of story is a famous person.

2) Pan back to show more to the story than first presented, including childhood or past experience of hero.

3) Cite example of something else working in the same way.

4) Name paradigm.

5) Return to story anew, this time applying the paradigm we have just learned and named to hero’s story.

6) Where is hero now?

7) Clever ending.

In this most recent article, I absolutely knew what his surprise final line was going to be, at least 5 paragraphs back.

I’ve also come to suspect Gladwell’s work, because I’ve seen more than a few cogent responses to it, including a discrediting of John Gottman’s work (in Laurie Abraham’s lovely book), on which much of Blink is based. In other words, Gladwell’s arguments can sometimes be based on faulty research—we don’t know, after all, how closely he’s looking at the science. You could argue that so long as he’s using basic standards to evaluate research (peer review, university support, etc.), we have to give him the benefit of the doubt, and I agree. Yet more and more I tend to feel that Gladwell isn’t providing the entire picture.

So when I read his recent piece in The New Yorker, on the invention and evolution of the computer mouse, I didn’t quite trust it. It made sense to me, sure. And I liked the ultimate point about how hard it can be to fish the truly promising ideas out of a sea of inventions—though isn’t that kind of obvious? But I just kept thinking, is this the entire story?

I suppose I have lost my Gladwell innocence.

Or maybe, in the words of G.B. Shaw, I have learned something, which always feels like losing something.


Sunday, April 17th, 2011

I wrote a long piece about the recent Franzen article in The New Yorker which takes, as its main topic, the suicide of David Foster Wallace. And then I got a queasy feeling about intruding in a very private tragedy that has been made public in uncomfortable ways (including, arguably, in Franzen’s article), so I removed it from the blog. But I’m still interested in having the discussion. If you are, too, email me and I’ll send it along.

Monday, Monday

Monday, February 28th, 2011

Newsflash: The Academy Awards matter even less when you’re felting.

Rat-wrangling adds a dimension, too.

Are these signs of aging? Or just . . . enlightenment?

I will admit to love, love, loving Anne Hathaway’s blue dress, which the Internet tells me is Armani Privé. What is privé—private? Yeah, I guess now that the grubby, value-deflating masses have gotten their hands on regular old Armani, Giorgio had to do something to reinstate brand exclusivity.

I’m sure when I debut my first felt collection and Target asks me to do a budget line, I’ll have to come up with something special for the elite, too. It happens!

Speaking of the elite, I would like to publicly declare my distaste for San Francisco Magazine. Try as I might, I cannot prevent KQED from sending me this shameless society rag. And . . . puh! I spit upon it!

I remember when I was doing a little a la carte journalism in St. Louis, and the alt weekly shared offices with the city mag, and I therefore one day found myself pitching articles to the magazine’s (awesome) Managing Editor. And she nixed and neighed and noped and nahhed, and then finally she sighed and said, “Melissa, St. Louis Magazine is for rich people.”


Same dealio with San Francisco Magazine, except they do their own editorial fashion, which for whatever reason translates into making up the models to look like mannequins or dead people. Which is not merely offensive but done. In case they didn’t know.

And then this issue! Has an article! About Mike Daisey’s show on Apple! Which we saw at the Berkeley Rep—which John, in fact, saw twice. And . . . gaaaaah. Because whereas the point of Daisey’s brave and difficult show is to expose the wrenchingly disturbing labor practices in the Chinese factories where Apple products are made, San Francisco Magazine has decided that the show is about gossip, and more particularly about Steve Jobs’ capricious personality.

It’s as though the suffering of hundreds of thousands of Chinese people is a blink in the consciousness, whereas the fact that Steve Jobs might suddenly fire someone who says the wrong thing is front-page news.

Ew, San Francisco Magazine. EW.

I’d like to end by thanking Hayao Miyazaki, whose films I’m just beginning to make my way through. My Neighbor Totoro is such a delight. And Howl’s Moving Castle, while ultimately silly, is gorgeous and has a very rich first hour.

Pixar, could you please take some notes? Perhaps beginning, middling, and ending with adventurous, sympathetic female heroes of all ages?

Today’s Tirade

Thursday, May 20th, 2010

This morning after I had finished bitching to John about the intellectual dishonesty, incoherence, anti-feminism, and unacknowledged condescension in the latest issue of Atlantic Monthly, I finished with this: “And that’s today’s tirade.”

“That’s a great name for a blog,” he said.

I know.

For now, it’ll have to suffice as a new category.

Anyway, you can imagine my thrill when the excellent Andi Zeisler of Bitch Magazine decided to weigh in on one of the writers whose Atlantic article I had just read: muddled anti-feminist and pretend-fact maker-upper Caitlin Flanagan. (Hiss.) Zeisler gives Flanagan a well-deserved Douchebag Decree award. Hallelujah!

While I’m tirade-ing, I’d like to give Honorable Douchebag Mention to James Parker for his commentary on Lady Gaga, which while offering some keen insights on Gaga’s style is tonally contemptuous in a way it never acknowledges. Nobody has to like La Gaga—but if you hate her, please explain.

And don’t pretend that fancy-pants cultural critique (of which I’m a fan) protects you from emotional involvement. It doesn’t. [See: Four years at Yale.]

Plus Parker ends with the cheap trick of pronouncing Gaga the “end of pop,” which is so obviously wrong (pop is never over) it can’t be meant to mean anything.

Atlantic Monthly! Writing has to mean something. You can’t just throw a bunch of unconnected and contradictory darts at a board. Or, you can, but that’s dadaism, and it’s not what you’re going for.

New editor, anyone?

More NYer Love

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

Since we all can agree the world revolves around me, I think it won’t come as a surprise that The New Yorker chose this week’s edition—arriving mere minutes after my previous post!—to publish exactly the kind of article I love and admire.

(Also of note in this issue: Both features, the humor piece, and the short story are by women, which means the entire top half of the TOC is swimming in estrogen. It’s a fresh breath of ahh!)

The article is reporter Janet Malcolm’s 30-page (!) piece on a riveting murder trial in Queens. The title: “Iphigenia in Forest Hills.” Thrilling! I’d never have been able to get a title like that past any editors I’ve worked for, but at the NYer, you’re allowed to refer to Greek mythology—even slightly obscure Greek mythology. (Here’s to you, Mrs. Marek, my genius 10th-grade English teacher, for syllabizing both Sophocles’ and Anouilh’s Antigone.)

Anyway, while I was a little surprised by Malcolm’s insertion of self into the article—there’s a fair amount of commentary about what it was like to sit through a weeks-long murder trial, and at one point she does something that has the potential to affect the verdict—I also enjoyed it. I’m always hoping for that sort of thing in reportage, since I think objectivity is a pose and an illusion. Shocking, right?  I’m the first person to notice!

The trial itself is both enraging (bastard judge doesn’t give defendant a fair trial) and beguiling (defendant probably did it—but how could she?), so there’s much to mull.

It reminds me of this piece, even more enraging as a miscarriage of justice but far less morally ambiguous in its outcome. As a piece of journalism, also top-notch.

New Yorker, I love you. Please never die.

Grumpy Magazine Screed

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

Why is there only one New Yorker? As in, why is there only one general interest magazine in which the writing is reliably strong and the topics consistently both relevant and entertaining?

I’m always trying to find another. I tried Harper’s for years, but a) they’ve never heard of women; and b) they’re interested almost exclusively in politics and war. It’s pretty astonishing: Every few years, I try another issue, hoping that things have changed. They haven’t.

Just look at the TOC! Bylines are men, men, men. Topics are war, war, war. For the record, I’ll say that I recognize that the world is awash in politics and war, and as a responsible citizen I am supposed to have a basic grasp of same. I do. I get it on NPR.

And given that I’m already doing whatever I’m going to be doing by way of activism (i.e., voting, some emailing, and contributing to causes I care about), I humbly posit that more information entering my already-rattled nervous system isn’t going to improve anything for anyone.

Then there’s the Atlantic, which seems like it should be the answer, but never is. Why is the Atlantic so boring? Why are its articles often incoherent? (Did you read the latest OMG OBESITY ALARMISM cover story? Wha?) Why is its fiction—at least in the latest fiction supplement—so grim? There’s something weird going on in editorial there. Something anti-Melissa-y.

I am a fan of The Sun, with reservations. It’s pretty one-noted. I like that one note, which is deeply felt emotional and personal exploration, usually landing at grief/wonder. But issue after issue of that tends to result in a mega-blur.

And, in addition to mockably titled environmental magazines like Home Power and Earth Island Journal, John gets Wired, which we both read cringe-ingly, absorbing the technolust and corporate cheerleading while sometimes being authentically interested in the topic.

Readers, help me out. Which magazines do you read?

Dwell: For Rich People

Friday, October 9th, 2009

I have this problem with Dwell magazine, also known as My Monthly Dose of Covetousness. I want nearly everything in it, especially the sleekly modern, architecturally inventive homes with soaring glass, rich wood, and minimalist furniture. (They always have clever nooks, too. I am a sucker for clever nooks.) Problem: I am not a rich person.

This month as I was paging through the issue, I had this thought: They should have warnings in this magazine. Every few pages, there should be some sort of caveat. Example: This home is for rich people. Following page: You are not a rich person. Next one: It is not wise for you to imagine owning this home. A few pages later: That will only cause you pain. Tear-out insert: Sorry, but it’s true. Couple of pages later: Really. Totally true. Inside of back cover: No matter what you are currently thinking.

Those warnings wouldn’t work, though. For whatever reason, I persist in the fantasy that I will some day design and build (with the help of an architect and, you know, John) a custom modern home in a lush green landscape. For this reason, I have every issue of Dwell I’ve received stacked in a bookcase in the entryway of our home. For ideas.