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“Slingbacks & Arrows: Chick Lit Comes of Age”

So, I have an article in the summer issue of Bitch magazine. It’s about the evolution of chick lit, and, in it, I offer a comparative review of Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes and The Anxiety of Everyday Objects by Aurelie Sheehan.

You’ll find a couple of excerpts from the article in the continuation of this post, but, if you want to read the whole thing, you have to buy Bitch. Better yet, subscribe: with your subscription, you’ll get $10 off Lunapads!

On Bergdorf Blondes

Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes[T]he central role of consumption—whether of Cosmopolitans or Jimmy Choos—is one of chick lit’s more pathological features. Love becomes just another commodity, more or less indistinguishable from a Lulu Guinness handbag. The tendency of chick-lit authors to assign the same narrative weight to such disparate and disproportionate phenomena as peep-toe pumps and marriage makes reading their stories as confounding as flipping through women’s magazines with their unsettling mix of relationship advice, fashion photography, and beauty advertorials.

An author seeking to build a better chick lit might decide to jettison the material goods in favor of real substance. Another author, however, might cry out, “But what about that Lulu Guinness handbag?” Plum Sykes, a contributing editor at Vogue, is the latter. If most chick lit is uncomfortably close to Glamour in content, Sykes’s debut novel is a Madison Avenue shopping spree in narrative form. Bergdorf Blondes delivers material pleasures in abundance without any confusing, contradictory, or distracting pretensions to meaning or art.

While Sykes borrows the basic shape of chick lit—the story concludes with the happy union of female protagonist and Prince Charming, but only after much slapstick and many failed amours—her novel is only barely about the love of a woman for a man. It is, fundamentally, a story about the love of a woman for Chloé jeans. And Bellinis. And oxygen facials. And private jets. In Bergdorf Blondes, the frills that typically adorn chick lit become the novel’s raison d’etre. The cover says it all, really: it’s set up like a board game, and the winner gets a big, pink Harry Winston engagement ring. There’s never any question whether the true object is marital bliss or the fat rock. Sure, a man is nice, but he’s just the means to an end or, at best, a cute accessory. In fact, the novel’s heroine, known only as “Moi,” sets out to find a PH—that’s “prospective husband”—when she realizes that being engaged does wonders for a girl’s complexion. A fiancé, it seems, is better than Botox.

Bergdorf Blondes isn’t just chick lit. It’s meta-chick lit, and the genre’s most objectionable traits are present in extravagant quantities in this novel. If chick lit’s obsession with high-end ephemera is one of its less laudable characteristics, what’s one to make of this catalog of vanities? Consider, for example Moi’s suicide attempt. After having a last meal of room-service mimosas and foie gras, she prepares a will in which she itemizes her clothes by designer and leaves her mother an appointment with a très exclusive hairdresser, and she writes a suicide note in which she compares a broken heart to “the humiliation of never being able to get a good table at Da Silvano again.” Then Moi turns her attention to truly important matters: her final outfit. She decides on a Paris Ritz bathrobe and rhinestone-encrusted Manolo Blahniks. As an earnest depiction of a contemporary young woman’s life, this is horrifying. But, thankfully, there’s nothing earnest about this novel, and, as satire, it’s pretty funny.

On The Anxiety of Everyday Objects

The Anxiety of Everyday Objects by Aurelie Sheehan

Winona is a filmmaker. She’s also the secretary at a law office, and she spends most of the novel figuring out which is the real—the most meaningful and rewarding—identity. Most of her tasks are routine and mindless, which leaves her plenty of time to compose movies in her head. And, as a secretary, she’s making substantially more money than she ever made as a waitress or “the assistant to the assistant at the bookstore.” But when an inspiring new female boss comes onto the scene, our heroine gets a raise and a promotion, and quickly becomes fully invested in a job that was only supposed to be a not-unpleasant way to pay the bills.

When Sheehan talks about clothes in her novel, it’s not to celebrate the bubbly fun of being a girl, it’s to reveal something important about her heroine. At the beginning of the novel, Winona’s workplace look is a disguise. It puts some physical and cognitive distance between her self and her job. As Winona begins to internalize her job, though, she starts to mimic her new boss’s elegant, businesslike style, and Sheehan offers a shrewd analysis of the relationship between appearance and personality. Winona’s cheekily prim dresses, itchy nylons, and fashionable but office-sensible shoes were secretary drag; her steel-gray silk scarf, on the other hand, is not ironic camouflage, but a corporate uniform. Winona herself is not unaware of the transformation and its significance. Before she decides to spend half an unexpected bonus on new clothes, she wonders, “Should artists covet silk pantsuits from places like Bonwit Teller?”

Sheehan does a good job of depicting the allure of professional success. She also understands the pleasures of a job well done, even when the job is only dubiously worth doing. To take satisfaction in one’s work, to find fulfillment, even: that’s the career ideal. But when the self and the job aren’t well-aligned, the pleasures of work can become a trap—one that’s difficult to avoid because work is difficult to avoid. Thus, when Winona finally leaves her position at the law office, she doesn’t leave to pursue her art full time; she leaves planning to look for work that’s less emotionally demanding, less potentially seductive—as the story draws to a close, she’s contemplating a job in a coffee shop.

July 29, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack

Wednesday Morning Shoe Report

I’ve wearing the same pair of flip-flops for days, as all my other shoes are packed up in boxes that I have not been able to locate among the sea of cardboard now overflowing the basement of my new home. So, this Wednesday morning, I turn from my own collection to look at an artifact from shoe history, the chopine.

16th c. chopine held at the Brooklyn MuseumChopines were platform shoes of the 16th and 17th centuries. They made their first appearance in Venice, and their popularity spread throughout much of Renaissance Europe. Some historians suggest that the fashion was inspired by Venetian trade with Asia. In an essay, Elizabeth Bernhardt compares the chopine to slippers worn by Chinese women with bound feet. There are some similarities between the two types of footwear: both styles exaggerated differences between the male and female gait, and, in their most extreme forms, both styles actually immobilized the wearer.

Chopines were worn by both noblewomen and prostitutes, and there is some scholarly disagreement about how chopines signified. The text describing a pair of chopines held by the Costume Institute at the Met notes that some historians have argued that the very highest chopines “were worn by courtesans to establish a highly visible public profile,” while some 17th-century sources suggest that a tall shoe indicated the high social status of its wearer.

As with any fashion, chopines had their detractors. In the 1600s section of Platform Diva, a site devoted to the history of the platform shoe, one learns that high heels were, like cosmetics and false teeth, equated with witchcraft by an act of Parliament in 1670. Any woman who lured a good British man into marriage with such foul trickery could find that marriage nullified.

July 28, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Tuesday Recipe: Deep-Fried Candy Bars with Pineapple

As soon as Ted and I started planning our nuptial hoedown, I started thinking about food—of course, I’m thinking about food much of the time, but this was thinking about food in a purposeful, as opposed to a day-dreamy, kind of way. I thought about foods that are traditional favorites in my family. I perused magazines and cookbooks. One recipe I adored as soon as I encountered it was Deep-Fried Candy Bars with Pineapple, from the “Trashy” chapter of Nigella Bites.

This recipe calls for a deep-fryer, an appliance not found in every contemporary home, but a good-sized stir-fry pan might work, too. I had planned to serve the candy bars with grilled pineapple; the grilled pineapple, however, was long gone by the time we got around to making this dish, so I’ll have to wait until next time (the next time i make this dish, not the next time I get married). It wasn’t easy to find Mounds bars—in fact, I don’t even know where my mom finally rustled some up—but it was totally worth it. The chocolate gets all melty, the coconut gets hot, and the crispy batter is a lovely complement to the sweet gooeyness of the candy.

approx. 2 quarts sunflower or other oil for deep frying
1 ripe pineapple
1 cup self-rising flour
about 1 cup soda water
8 fun-sized Mounds bars

Heat the oil in a deep-fat fryer to maximum heat.

Cut the top and bottom off the pineapple, and then quarter it vertically. Trim the woody core off each segment, and then lay it skin-side down, and slice the flesh in half lengthwise, stopping when you feel the skin. Then cut it across into slices and run the knife between the flesh of the fruit and the outer husk. The pineapple pieces should then come away easily. Squeeze the outer skin of the pineapple over the cut fruit to get every last bit of juice.

Measure the flour into the bowl, and whisk in ¾ cup of the soda water to make the batter, adding the rest of the water if the consistency is still too thick: you want this just thick enough to adhere easily. The best way to check is to turn a Mounds bar in it; if the batter sticks well enough, it's fine. I just use my fingers for this, but tongs work well, too.

Plunge the batter-blanketed Mounds in the hot oil and fry for about 3 minutes, until the batter’s puffed and golden. Remove to pieces of paper towel to absorb excess grease, then pile up on a plate to sit on the table alongside the cut-up pineapple.

July 27, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

The Perfect Language

As a religion major specializing in New Testament studies, I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the Gospel of Mark. It’s a puzzling text, full of paradox and ambiguity—that’s what drew me to it. As I tried to understand why, in this narrative, Jesus’s closest followers consistently misunderstand him, I decided that it was a linguistic problem: Jesus’s divine language was just too big for the all-too-human ears of Peter, James, John the brother of James, and the other lads. Essentially, they couldn’t pick up what he was laying down.

This led me to the conclusion that the Kingdom of God isn’t a temporal event, coming in the future, but a cognitive one, immediately available: Those who can both hear and understand Jesus’s message are in—right now and forever—and everybody else is out. The task of the reader of Mark’s good news, then, is to read until she understands. I thought of my thesis Wednesday, while I listened to an NPR story about the ability of babies to think abstractly.

Two researchers—Elizabeth Spelke of Harvard and Sue Hespos at Vanderbilt—used conceptual differences in English and Korean to explore the possibility of abstract thought in infants. At the heart of their study was this conceptual distinction: English uses prepositions like “on" and “in” to describe the relationship between two objects; Korean, on the other hand (to use a rather Anglophonic metaphor), distinguishes between objects that have a “loose fit” with another object and those that have a “tight fit". For an English-speaker, a cup sits on a table; for a Korean-speaker, the cup has a loose-fit relationship with the table. For an English-speaker, a pea is in a pod; for a Koreans-speaker, a pea has a tight-fit relationship with its pod.

So, anyway, these researchers found that babies raised in English-speaking homes were able to recognize the tight-fit/loose-fit dichotomy, while English-speaking grown-ups were not. (If you want to know more about the details of this study, listen to the NPR story or check out the July 22 issue of Nature.) Thus, in the words Spelke, “These findings suggest that humans possess a rich set of concepts before we learn language. Learning a particular language may lead us to favor some of these concepts over others, but the concepts already existed before we put them into words.”

This conclusion has interesting—possibly vital—implications for competing theories about language acquisition. According to one theory, language grows as a child grows, and we develop abstract thoughts only when we have attained the means to express them. Other linguists claim that the learning of language doesn't build cognitive abilities so much as it winnows them. In one model, language plants seeds that blossom into abstract thinking; in the other, language prunes away at the wild brush of the infant mind until well-tended shapes emerge, shapes that have meaning within that language. Obviously, this study supports the latter way of thinking.

I have always preferred that way of thinking myself, but it was only as I was listening to this NPR story that I understood why: In every creation myth, chaos precedes order. There may be, as in Genesis, a nothing before there is anything, but, even then, before there is anything, there is everything. Isn’t that the experience we all have, as we grow from wild children into social, rational beings but also again and again as we encounter existence at its most vast and overwhelming? Life, at its biggest moments, more often than not surpasses our ability to describe it. Love, grief, transcendence: These are states only poets can contain with words—and even then only provisionally—but we all can feel them. Our most intense experiences are the ones we are least able to articulate; they remain, nonetheless, true.

Once upon a time, people believed in a perfect language—the language Adam and Eve spoke, the language before the Babel Tower fell, the language in which the thing corresponded perfectly to its sign. Once upon a time, people believed that a child raised without hearing the debased, fragmented tongue of his own time and place would speak that language. The search for that primal mind has produced legendarily tragic results. But what if it belongs to us all, what if each of us retains the latent, neglected potentiality to comprehend fullness? What if we all have ears big enough to hear the language of God?

July 23, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (3) | TrackBack

Wednesday Morning Shoe Report

Kitten-heel sandals with leather flowers by Prada

As soon as I found the dress I would wear to my nuptial cocktail party, I knew that I wanted sandals with flowers on them. After much searching, I discovered the shoes of my dreams on eBay. They’re Prada, and they’re spectacular. I believe it’s obvious from this photo that I was very excited about them. The details of the that evening are a little fuzzy, but I imagine I showed them to a number of people just as I am showing them to my pal Griffin here.

I realize that this photo doesn’t tell you a whole lot about the shoes, though, so please allow me to describe them: They have a kitten heel, and they’re decorated with wonderfully realistic leather flowers, leaves, and blades of grass. They’re sweet and slightly wild, and I felt like a fertility goddess wearing them.

July 21, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Wedding Planner: A Few Things I Had to Keep Telling Myself

Here are a few things I had to keep telling myself as I scrambled to pull together the final pieces of the nuptial fête Ted and I threw last weekend:


  1. Everything that really needs to get done will get done. Throughout the wedding planning process, I had two to-do lists—one on a piece of paper, the other one playing on a constant loop in my head. The incessant repetition of the latter often made me feel like I had an infinite number of chores to complete in a few days. Whenever I felt myself tumbling into the abyss, I returned to the finite, rock-solid reality of the paper list and starting crossing off little, detail-oriented tasks that really were not essential. Then I would tell myself, in a calm, interior voice, that all the really necessary tasks would get done, simply because they must. In the end, everything important did, in fact, get done, and I even found time to get my eyebrows waxed.

  2. Friends and family are eager to help. I did much of the wedding planning and preparation by myself, and sometimes I felt a little overwhelmed. Again and again, I was soothed by the revelation that my friends and family would be happy to do anything I asked them to do. My parents and my sister did a whole lot of work, but I also had a fleet of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and chums ready to pitch in as soon as I called them. I felt very lucky, and deeply grateful.

  3. At least a few things will go wrong, and it won’t really matter. I really never expected the big day to be perfect. I wasn’t even striving for perfection. I did take considerable effort to make everything as nice as it could be, but I also prepared myself to accept the inevitable vicissitudes with good cheer. In the end, not much went wrong. It rained during the picnic, so my vision of everyone lounging on blankets in the sun was not to be, but we had a shelter. It turns out that the hotel where I made arrangements for out-of-town guests to stay was not exactly four-star; at first, I was horrified to discover this—truly, I turned cold with panic—but my friends are a plucky bunch, and the unhappy accommodations didn’t seem to impinge on their ability to have a swell time. These were really the only major shortcomings in an otherwise excellent event, and, in the final analysis, they didn’t matter that much.

  4. It’s all about people, not decorations, food, weather, etc. Often, when I felt myself losing it over some tiny detail, I would pause to remember that the details were just that—details. Ted and I were throwing a party so that we could celebrate our marriage and embark on our new life together with everyone we loved around us, and that’s what we did. It was awesome to be able to bring old friends together again, and to introduce people from different places and times in our lives to each other. Even though I’m glad we were able to include the little touches that make an event charming, it would have been a special occasion even without them.

  5. Everyone is going to have a great time. This was my wedding-planning mantra, really, the fundamental truth to which I clung as I potted herbs for centerpieces and searched for cornichons and got a little lost on the way to my bachelorette party. Even if a few things didn’t turn out quite the way I had dreamed of them, it just wouldn’t matter, I assured myself: Everyone would still have fun. As far as I could tell, everyone did. I know I did, and Ted did, too.


July 19, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

The Wedding Planner: The Big Day

Invitation

July 17, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Public Service Announcement: Tori Spelling’s Wedding

A lot of people have arrived at this blog in search of photos of and other information about Tori Spelling’s wedding. Regrettably, this is not because I actually have photos of the happy event, nor is it because I have any insider dish on the occasion—hell, I didn’t even send a gift. Rather, the hapless searchers have stumbled upon my site because I mentioned the former Miss Spelling’s charity lap dance in close proximity to postings about my own nuptials.

I feel bad about this. Surely, it must be disappointing to arrive here, confused and disoriented, hopelessly longing for photos to Tori’s gown—designed by the bride (it came to her in a dream) in cooperation with Badgley Mischka—and revealing tidbits about the festivities. So, I have searched everyday for photos, to satisfy my own curiosity—Beverly Hills 90210 was an important part of my life for many years—but also to serve the similarly voyeuristic souls who find their way to this blog.

Tori and CharlieSometimes, the Internet lets us down. Search though I might, there was nary a photo to be gawked at. Then, just this past Saturday, I was standing in a checkout line when I saw it—the cover of the July 19 issue of People magazine. Of course I bought it, but, as it turns out, the contents of People magazine is only available online to subscribers, and there is just one, tiny, unrevealing photo of Tori and Charlie on their homepage (I have reproduced it here, without permission, obvs.)

So, in the interest of posterity—and anyone who don’t make it to a newsstand before this issue is history—I offer the following verbal depiction of Tori Spelling’s wedding gown…
It’s a column of white, beaded lace, with an empire waist and cap sleeves. The underdress comes to a deep V at the base of the bodice, but a panel of lace combines with the cap sleeves to create a square neckline and to somewhat obscure Tori’s truly disturbing, alarmingly cavernous cleavage (Seriously, it has long been my opinion that Tori Shanian née Spelling has the most frightening breasts in Hollywood. You can’t just slap huge tits on a size-2 frame. Couldn’t her father afford a plastic surgeon of subtlety and finesse? Truly, Tori’s breasts have kept me awake at night.)

Her veil was a short, simple bit of lace, attached to her hair with some not-so-simple jewels by Neil Lane. The reporter assigned to this event reiterates Tori’s assertion that this is a 1920s, “Gatsy-esque” look, but, personally, I don’t see it. Surely, any flapper worth her beads would wed in a drop-waisted gown with a bound bosom?

What else? Tori’s bouquet—as near as I can tell—was white peonies and baby’s breath. The bridesmaids wore pink gowns by Thread that mimicked the shape of the bride’s. Ian Ziering, Jennie Garth, Jason Priestley, and Tiffani Thiessen were in attendance. Luke Perry, Gabrielle Carteris , Shannen Doherty, and Brian Austin Green were not. There was a champagne fountain, and, truly, if I could afford one nouveau-riche bibelot at my own nuptial fête, it would be the champagne fountain—symbol of generous hospitality supported by limitless wealth. Instead, I will satisfy myself and my guests with kegs of beer, boxes of wine, and bottomless barrels of love.

July 13, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Naked

Last Thursday night, I dreamt that I went to work naked.

Dreams of public nudity are common and I’ve had them all my life. Typically, I’m naked at school, and such dreams are quite similar to those other classics of the anxiety variety: dreams in which I have forgotten my locker combination or find myself hideously unprepared for a test.

This dream was different, though, in that I was unperturbed by my nakedness. I arrived at the office just in time for a meeting, and, as I prepared to take my seat at a table already filled with colleagues, I removed my overcoat to discover that I was naked beneath it. My reaction wasn’t horror or extreme mortification. It was, rather, mild bemusement: “Huh. How about that?” I thought to myself, “I seem to be naked.”

Upon waking Friday morning, I remembered this unusual nocturnal vision and considered what it might mean. I suspected that it was connected to the fact that I had recently quit my job and that Friday was my last day at work.

I consulted my favorite dream dictionary—there was no entry for “naked,” but I found what I was looking for under the more decorous “nude”—and this is what I read:

Dropping the facade, attitudes or feelings we may mask our real emotions with in everyday life—a child may scream if someone it dislikes gets near it, but an adult will probably tolerate the nearness, or refrain from expressing displeasure; desire to be seen for what one is; revealing one’s true nature.

I’ve worked in an office for something like six years now, and, if I were to anthropomorphize corporate culture, it would be a big, loud, imposing alpha male with shiny shoes and expensive but unpleasant aftershave—exactly the kind of person I dislike immediately on an atomic level, the kind of person who makes me shy and fret and narrow my eyes and flare my nostrils and pull away before I realize I’m being rude. As I contemplate this characterization, my dream begins to make a lot of sense.

This is not to say that I have not loved and admired many of my co-workers, and it’s not that I don’t appreciate the experience and opportunities my years with my former company afforded me. As jobs go, it was an awesome job. I got to write about books for a living, and I got to talk to some cool authors (many of my favorite and most recent interviews are available on my work blog). It’s just that a corporate environment is, ultimately, not an altogether healthy one for me. I am not, for example, skilled at thinking as a group—my soul shrivels a little everytime I hear the words “let’s brainstorm.” (My erstwhile co-worker Uncle Grambo can tell you about the time I was chastised—in front of our whole department—for my tendency to critique during these “anything goes!” sessions.) I have made significant adjustments to my professional personality over the years, and I believe that most of these changes were positive. I learned to be a little more sophisticated and a little less blunt, a little more reflective and a little less reactive. However, as of my last yearly performance review, I realized that I had changed about as much as I’m willing to—any further modification of my behavior would impinge upon my actual self.

I’ve been so busy, trying to get my last few assignments done and taking care of the momentous changes in my personal life, that it didn’t truly hit me until Friday morning that I had really quit my job, that, come Monday, I wouldn’t have to be anywhere in particular at 9 a.m. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, practically giddy, as I imagined a future in which I have the luxury of discovering if I can make a life—and a living—by reveling in my true nature.

July 12, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Wedding Planner: Unmentionables Update

In a recent post, I described the difficulty I've had finding a bra or bra-like device to wear under my wedding-reception evening gown. By the end of my little tale of foundation-garment woe, I was preparing myself for the alarming possibility of going braless. Not only has this topic generated some helpful suggestions and supportive (pun not intended, but I'm leaving it anyway) comments from friends, but it also earned me a place in the Breast Freedom Forum.

Given that this anecdote has provoked so much interest, I believe that a follow-up is in order.

I will not, as it turns out, be a braless bride at my wedding reception. I was quite nervous about this anyway, and when I mentioned the idea to the seamstress who's altering my dress, she looked horrified. It's not that she's prudish—all indications are that she is a swinging, sophisticated lady—it's just that my bosom is, in truth, bounteous. The seamstress was concerned that I could not possibly be comfortable, physically or socially, sans brassiere. She was determined to help me find a solution.

My dress is leaf green, and it happened that the bra I had worn to the fitting was a complementary chartreuse. The seamstress made the radical suggestion of sewing the bra into the dress. This would require raising the back of this backless gown a bit to hide the horizontal strap, but, at this point, I was willing to forego a little bit of glamour in back for the secure support I so desired in front. Having relinquished the bra I had been wearing so that it could be added to my dress, I had nothing but a t-shirt containing my breasts for the journey from the seamstress's house to my own; given how naked I felt during that brief, private drive, I believe I made the right choice.

In closing, I feel I must clear up some confusion on a related point: I was not braless on my wedding day, either. I was, in fact, wearing a very nice little strapless number by Wacoal.

July 8, 2004 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack