Back to School
Perhaps because I am so erudite and accomplished, no one ever suspects that I am a college dropout. Nevertheless, it’s true: When I left Bryn Mawr in 1994, I was a few credits shy of a bachelor’s degree. I assumed I’d get my diploma eventually, but I never would have believed that more than a decade would pass before I went back to school.
Well, I’m back now. As of spring semester, 2005, I am enrolled as an undergraduate at Central Michigan University. I’m taking Spanish and chemistry—which I need to finish my Bryn Mawr degree—and a James Joyce class—which is just for fun. So far, I’m having a swell time.
I took a look at my Bryn Mawr transcript when I was applying to CMU. My grades pretty much reflected my recollections of college: the same ecstatic highs and abysmal lows, the same juxtaposition of feverishly creative productivity and fearful catatonia. Probably because my mind is so large and so complex—and also because psychotropic medicine was not, in the early ‘90s, what it is today—I had some brain-related problems in my youth, problems that impacted negatively on my ability to get shit done. I was a superstar in the classes that I loved. However, I tended to avoid unappealing-but-required subjects like math and science—even when I was ostensibly taking classes in those subjects. Hence my failure to graduate.
I loved Bryn Mawr. I still love Bryn Mawr. Most of my favorite people are from there, and—even though my life there was often kind of freaked-out and miserable—it remains my model for paradise. Bryn Mawr is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a religion, and my dropout status was a source of spiritual despair for a long time.
When people ask me if not having a college diploma has been a problem for me, I know they’re talking about jobs and such, and, as far as that goes, it really hasn’t been—not much of a problem, anyway. What I don’t bother trying to explain is the way it has felt like failure on a cosmic scale, and how it cast a small but real shadow over my relationships with alums—people who are among my best friends in the world. I felt like I had belonged to something amazing and beautiful, and that I no longer did because I was a dropout. This existential anguish gave the idea of going back to school a desperate appeal, but it was also absolutely paralyzing.
It took my friend Griffin—my roommate in the co-ed dorm senior year—to help me get over the outcast feeling. A few years ago, he was talking about going to a Bryn Mawr reunion, and he wanted to know if I would go, too. I couldn’t even believe he was asking me. “Dude,” I said, “I can’t go to reunion.”
“Why not?” He was genuinely perplexed.
“Because I didn’t graduate.”
“Jessica,” he replied, kind but exasperated, “You have got to stop mentioning that. Nobody remembers that you didn’t graduate, and nobody cares.”
He was right, of course. I had never really believed that my college friends considered me a second-class citizen or anything; it was just that I felt slightly unworthy of their love. Once Griff pointed out that this was ridiculous, I was able to see going back to school as a practical problem rather than a spiritual one. But, by this time, I was far away from Bryn Mawr, working a full-time job, and on my way to something like a career. Lacking any immediately compelling reason to finish my degree, I figured I would do it when an immediately compelling reason presented itself.
Ultimately, it did—actually, two immediately compelling reasons presented themselves. First, I fell in love with a professor; as someone who takes education seriously, and, as someone who has absolute—bordering on ridiculous—faith in my abilities, Ted found it absurd that I didn’t have a college degree. It was more or less a condition of our marriage that I go back to school sooner rather than later.
The other reason was that I had finally encountered a need for a degree. After several very satisfying semesters of teaching (as a volunteer) at Community High in Ann Arbor, I realized that I want to be a teacher.
I was still a little nervous about going back to school. I was worried that I would, once again, fail the classes I failed back in the day. I was explaining this to Sarah Hand a couple of months ago and she assured me that college is awesomely easy the second time around. She has explained this to me many times, but, this time, I finally got it. I realized that I’m a grown-up now. I’ve had jobs. I know how to work hard, how to concentrate, how to get shit done. I also realized that I am living the secure and generally serene life of a happily married lady, rather than the somewhat more volatile existence of the post-adolescent. And, finally, I realized that, since I am currently childless, basically unemployed, and able to take classes for free at my husband’s university, I really have no practical excuse for not going to school. Upon arriving at this liberating set of revelations, I rushed to register for this semester.
That, then, is the inspirational story of how I dropped out of college and dropped back in again. I hope you learned a little something from it, something about never giving up, the triumph of the human spirit, etc. Now, I have to go—there’s a chemistry test tomorrow, and I need to study.
Soul Journey by Gillian Welch
“Miss Ohio”: possibly best song ever.
Dubliners by James Joyce
These stories improve immensely with repeated readings, and they’re pretty damn good the first time.
“Everyone This, Everyone That, Everyone Bafangool” by Seth Sonderling
“That’s who I want to be. Tina Turner encouraging a spastic child.”
The Aztec Empire at The Guggenheim
If you appreciate pottery that’s been distressed to look like flayed human skin, this show’s for you!
Ultra Bland by Lush
So nice for dry winter skin.
Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
Most besplattered recipe? Dal with Coconut Cream, page 304.
“Things I’d Probably Say if the Bush Administration Were Just a Weekly TV Show and I Were a Regular Viewer” by Eric Maierson
“They really expect us to believe that?”
What Is Beat? by The English Beat
Different but (Probably) Equal
I’m glad I didn’t bother to write anything about the kerfuffle surrounding Lawrence Summers’ recent statements about women in the sciences, because, had I actually written something, it would have looked a lot like Olivia Judson’s op-ed piece in last Sunday’s New York Times—that is, it would have looked a lot like it if I were an evolutionary biologist instead of a dilettantish social critic.
My initial response is usually skeptical when someone tries to analyze human behavior by using data gleaned from other members of the animal kingdom, but I find Judson’s observations of differences between the sexes and her interpretations of their meanings reasonable and persuasive. She acknowledges the historic, social cost of claims about the intrinsic—that is, “natural”—differences between men and women, while asserting that the voicing of provocative—even distasteful—questions is integral to the scientific process.
Hot Girl-on-Girl Action on Primetime TV
Night after night, I sit in front of the television (Ted and I just traded in my 13-incher for a Jumbotron; Lord, it’s glorious) and ask myself, “Where is all the hot girl-on-girl action? Don’t they know everything is better with hot girl-on-girl action? I’d watch The King of Queens if I thought there was any hope of pretty ladies kissing.” Then I sigh, and watch another rerun of SVU.
Thank goodness, it looks like The O.C. is moving in the right direction. Us Weekly broke the story that Marissa would be smooching on saucy bartender Alex in their December 27 issue, and I thought that last night might finally be the night. It was not, but scenes from next week suggest that it’s imminent.
While I certainly—obviously—look forward to the actual consummation, I have to say that the closing moments of last night’s show were sweetly sexy. There’s nothing more delicious than adolescent anticipation of action—no doubt you can still remember it like it was yesterday—and, with same-sex coupling, there’s an extra frisson. Here’s the thing: When a boy and a girl are sitting on the sofa, watching a late-night horror movie and sharing a blanket, 9 times out of 10, making out is a foregone conclusion. It’s going to happen; it’s just a matter of when. But, when it’s two chicks, who knows?
I’m not much of a fan of Mischa Barton (or Marissa, for that matter), but she did a fantastic job of projecting confused arousal and arousing confusion. With nothing more than wide-open eyes and a tilt of the head, she suggested a feverish interior dialogue: “Oh my God! Is Alex puttin’ the moves on me? Oh my God! Do I want her to put the moves on me! She’s turning her head. Is she going to kiss me! Oh my God! I am totally going to kiss her back! Oh, she’s just smiling at me. OK, well, maybe if I slide over a little, and lean towards her…”
Well, it was all very adorable, and delightful. I hope that The O.C. lets this relationship play out for more than one or two shocking episodes, and I hope that other shows take note. All I’m saying is, I watched the first episode of Medium, and that show would benefit mightily from some hot girl-on-girl action.
What Women Need: A Good Foundation and a Little Bit of Lipstick for Color. What Women Don’t Need: A Career in the Sciences.
My views on the differences between sex and gender, and between men and women, are complex and ever-evolving, and I have too much work to do right now to go into them here (if you’d like to see a random sampling of my thoughts, please check out the “Gender Studies” portion of this weblog.) So, I present without analysis two interesting items I read today: a New York Times article on statements about women and science made by Harvard’s president, and a commentary on a recent ruling in which the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that an employer can fire a female employee for not wearing makeup.
My Favorite Books of 2004
Madeleine Is Sleeping by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
One of this year’s finalists for the National Book Award, Madeleine Is Sleeping is a wonder—hypnotic, graceful, carnivalesque, and cruel. Sarah Shun-lien Bynum blends magical realism and fairy-tale tropes to craft a powerfully strange coming-of-age story, one in which the fanciful easily becomes the monstrous, the monstrous becomes beautiful, and violence is often indistinguishable from love.
Life Mask by Emma Donoghue
I really don’t know of another author who combines erudition and entertainment quite like Emma Donoghue. Earlier this year, I devoted a whole week of blogging to this author and her work, and Life Mask remains one of the most satisfying novels I read in 2004.
Interview with Emma Donoghue, Part One
Interview with Emma Donoghue, Part Two
History of Beauty, edited by Umberto Eco
This is a captivating tour through Western civilization and the best of all possible coffee-table books: it’s full of big, glossy pictures that are either gorgeous or fascinating or both; it presents accessible-but-fascinating text in easy-to-browse chunks; and you’re sure to get something out of it every time you pick it up, whether it’s for a quick flip or a sustained read.
The Courage Consort by Michel Faber
The eponymous novella in this collection is one of the most memorable pieces of fiction I encountered this year. Michel Faber borrows images straight out of the Brothers Grimm and combines them with deftly rich characterizations to create a story that is funny, wise, touching, and full of surprises.
Interview with Michel Faber
Codex by Lev Grossman
During its inexplicably long run on the bestsellers list, The Da Vinci Code has garnered a lot of comparisons to The Name of the Rose. I read The Da Vinci Code and enjoyed it in an infuriating sort of way, which is to say that I could not stop reading it even though I wanted to very much. Dan Brown has clearly mastered the particular alchemy of the page-turner, but any novel that revolves around a Harvard "symbologist" is obviously complete bullshit. It has little of substance in common with the impossibly, playfully learned concoctions of Professor Eco. Codex, on the other hand, is a book that deserves all the accolades—and none of the reprobation—piled upon Brown’s breakthrough hit. It’s a wonderfully absorbing literary mystery—it’s reminiscent of another of my favorite novels, A.S. Byatt’s Possession—and, unlike The Name of the Rose, it won’t make you feel like an idiot or weep because you seem to have forgotten all the Latin you ever knew.
Interview with Lev Grossman
Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt
For most of his career so far, Stephen Greenblatt has been a champion of postmodernism. The gift of postmodernism is that it forces us to reexamine those things we regard as obviously true. In Will in the World, postmodernism gives Greenblatt license to turn the meager facts of Shakespeare’s life into a necessarily false but altogether believable character. The tragedy of postmodernism is that it leaves us with nothing but vertiginous uncertainties and endless contingencies. In this book, as in the shockingly graceful Hamlet in Purgatory, Greenblatt is working towards a synthesis of modernism, postmodernism, and an even older aesthetics, one still married to theology and philosophy.
The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
The Line of Beauty is a sex- and coke-fueled coming-of-age story set during the ’80s. It’s also a truly sumptuous read, an invitation to luxuriate in words and sentences, and it’s surprisingly uplifting. It is, finally, this year’s Booker Prize-winner, and my favorite book of 2004.
Firethorn by Sarah Micklem
This unabashedly feminist tale of swords and sorcery has the distinction of being the only science-fiction or fantasy novel I actually finished reading this year. Sarah Micklem’s debut is inventive, lyrical, and assured, and I’m really looking forward to the next two installments in this trilogy.
Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick
This is a sad, wise, satisfying novel full of incident and scholarship and surprises—epiphanies, even—narrated by a very observant, brilliantly dry protagonist, and Ozick’s writing is breathtaking: Each of her sentences seems as if it could not possibly be other than it is. Heir to the Glimmering World is an exquisite reading experience.
The Little White Car by Danuta de Rhodes
Who killed Princess Diana? The British Royal Family? MI6? Islamic extremists? No. Apparently, it was a slightly stoned, very drunk Parisian girl who took a wrong turn on the way home from her boyfriend’s apartment one fateful August night. The Little White Car is quite mad, surprisingly sweet, and very much fun.
The Anxiety of Everyday Objects by Aurelie Sheehan
This is a strange, delightful little book—funny and thought-provoking and surprising—and an assured debut novel from an award-winning writer of short fiction. Aurelie Sheehan conjures, among other things, a carefully observed portrait of what it means to see the world as an artist. She also offers a serious meditation on work—on the difference between a job and a vocation, on the varying psychic costs of hard-but-banal salaried gigs and easy-but-poorly-paid stints in food service—something one doesn’t come across much in novels with a female protagonist.
Excerpt from My Bitch Review
Empress of the Last Days by Jane Stevenson
What if Britain’s queen was not the septuagenarian descendent of the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha—a woman whose face is well-known from postage stamps and tourist tchotchkes—but an unknown, young, black botanist born and raised in Barbados? That is the compelling and quietly spectacular scenario Jane Stevenson considers in her latest novel. This is the final work in a trilogy that began with The Winter Queen and continued with The Shadow King, and it’s a masterpiece of coolly provocative storytelling.
Interview with Jane Stevenson
Bergdorf Blondes by Plum Sykes
Look, I know that almost nobody besides me liked this book—or wrote about liking it, anyway. I also know that some interviewers found Plum Sykes to be a bit off-putting. I found her generous and charming when I talked to her, though, and I hazard to suggest that if you read books for a living you would know just how irredeemably shitty books can be. Bergdorf Blondes is not perfect. Sykes, bless her heart, is not a born novelist, and her book would have benefited mightily from a vigorous editorial scrubbing. Nevertheless, the novel is often entertaining and it features that rarest of rare birds in chick lit: a heroine without major body-image problems. Golly, that was refreshing. This giddy little roman à clef is also blessedly free of any wishy-washy self-help crap, which cannot be said of 99.9% of "women’s fiction."
Interview with Plum Sykes
Excerpt from My Bitch Review
My Favorite Books of 2004: The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty is a coming-of-age story set during the ‘80s, when Britain was ruled by a conservative government and coke-snorting yuppies. It’s also this year’s Booker Prize-winner, and my favorite book of 2004.
The novel’s protagonist is Nick Guest, a young man who escapes his middle-class background through charm and good connections. Just out of Oxford, he moves in with the wealthy, newly-powerful family of his best friend. In this world but not of it, a devotee of Henry James, Nick is both enchanted by his lavish surroundings and dryly skeptical of them. Venturing forth from his borrowed room in a posh neighborhood, he begins to explore London’s gay scene, finally realizing a desire that had only ever been gorgeous, distant abstraction. His first romance is an adorable adolescent interlude with a sweetly bluff civil servant, but, as the novel progresses, Nick becomes blithely promiscuous. He also does a lot—a lot—of cocaine. The stimulant does nothing to diminish Nick’s powers of observation and expression, though—indeed, it seems to improve them. In one scene, Hollinghurst writes that
Nick loved the way the coke took off the blur of champagne, claret, Sauternes, and more champagne. It totted up the points and carried them over as credit in a new account of pleasure. It brought clarity, like a cure—almost, at first, like sobriety.
The reader knows, of course, that the carefree sex and drugs won’t go on forever, and that AIDS will transform Nick and nearly everyone he knows. This comedy of manners ends with a surprising—and sincerely uplifting—blend of light and shadow.
A self-described aesthete, Nick is infatuated with beauty. His gentle obsession is never cynical, but, throughout most of the novel, it’s marred by the inevitable stupidity of youth. His overdeveloped but immature sensibility causes him to mistake aesthetic satisfaction for love, and to value art more than life. Nick likes his experiences mediated—he enjoys the memory of his first sexual encounter more than the act itself—and the novel is suffused with a kind of immediately wistfulness, an elegiac appreciation of the moment just passed.
This tone is appropriate to the moment that Hollinghurst is describing, the moment when AIDS becomes a fact of life for gay men. Nick’s confrontations with mortality run parallel to a scandal for the Feddens, and Nick is ultimately ejected from their crumbling Eden just as he outgrows his own charming but fundamentally stupid innocence. By the novel’s end, he has enough soul to see not just the delightful beauty of the beautiful, but the almost unbearable beauty of everything.
Nick is a captivating character, and an ideal medium for his author. Hollinghurst take’s his hero’s experiences and turns them into velvety-rich and impeccably nuanced language. When, for example, the author compares Wani (Nick’s languidly magnificent lover) to “John the Baptist painted for a boy-loving pope,” I was compelled to pause for a moment and sigh. This is truly sumptuous reading, an invitation to luxuriate in words and sentences.
The story unfolds through a series of set pieces—pristinely depicted, wryly hilarious portraits of privilege, excess, and hypocrisy. Margaret Thatcher is the oft mentioned—but never named—genius of this narrative universe, and her appearance at a party thrown by the Fedden’s serves as a sort of fulcrum for the novel. This extended vignette is Hollinghurst’s virtuoso turn, the place where all the discordant and ultimately irreconcilable elements of the world he has created harmonize. When Nick—gay, very high, an intellectual wastrel—asks the Iron Lady to dance and she accepts, Hollinghurst perfectly communicates the scene’s absurdity, irony, and unexpected grace.
My Favorite Lip Glosses of 2004: Runway by Smashbox
There are many ways to fall in love. You might, for example, experience the joy of finally finding your dream boy or girl, the precise person for whom you’ve long been searching. Or you might discover the wondrous delight of the surprisingly perfect partner—someone you never knew you needed until you found him, and now you can’t imagine how you ever lived without him.
The first time I tried on Smashbox Lip Gloss in Runway, I felt the latter sensation. This lip gloss completes me. It’s not an everyday kind of thing—it’s certainly more mistress than wife—but, when I do wear it, I have the awesome confidence and je ne sais quois that only a perfect lip color can provide. It’s an unlikely shade—a sort of chocolaty purple, deeper than any gloss has a right to be. It’s kind of punk-rock, kind of silent-movie glamorous, and it is absolutely my favorite lip gloss of 2004—perhaps my favorite lip gloss of all time.
I got it as part of a set, and it looks like Smashbox has discontinued it, but it appears to be available at Nordstrom. Get it while you can, ladies.
My Favorite Books of 2004: Will in the World by Stephen Greenblatt
In his elegantly appreciative review of Hamlet in Purgatory, Robert Alter noted that Stephen Greenblatt—a critic, scholar, and practitioner of New Historicism—had “quietly stepped away” from the literary movement he helped to create. Greenblatt’s earlier work used the theories of Michel Foucault to reveal the latent sociopolitical content of Renaissance theater—particularly the plays of William Shakespeare. Hamlet in Purgatory, though, was a brilliant, breathtaking meditation on loss, longing, and art. Greenblatt didn’t just reject the slippery meanings and aesthetic insensitivity of postmodernism: He made a gently passionate, very convincing case for universal truths.
Will in the World is infused with the same humanity, wonder, and creative insight that informed Hamlet in Purgatory. In it, Greenblatt tries to illuminate the intimate experience and inner life of the English language’s most celebrated writer, and, in doing so, he seeks to understand the enduring vitality of Shakespeare’s words. This is a sort of biography, and Shakespeare is a notoriously reluctant subject. Prodigiously prolific in his public life, the playwright left next to nothing behind of his personal life. One of the things that makes this book such a pleasure to read is that Greenblatt doesn’t just present the results of diligent and sometimes inspired research; he also takes a few educated guesses. This is, perhaps, the most pleasingly postmodern aspect of the book: Knowing that a full and final portrait of Shakespeare is impossible, Greenblatt takes the liberty of imagining his subject, of turning Shakespeare into a believable character—one who is necessarily false but, paradoxically, more true than a purely factual creation could have been.
Greenblatt is emboldened to do this, I think, because of discoveries he made in Hamlet in Purgatory. Greenblatt can imagine Shakespeare, and Shakespeare can write plays and poems that still resonate, because both draw on eternal and immutable facts of the human condition. Love, desire, grief, despair: While each of us might experience these states differently, there’s a sort of Platonic universality to their most profound expression. Shakespeare’s genius, Greenblatt argues, is to create a conduit of words—of characters, of narratives—for these ineffable, fundamental truths.
I read Will in the World in October and November. That was a good time to contemplate verities, to turn my attention to what lasts. The gift of postmodernism is that it forces us to reexamine the things we take for granted—common knowledge, common wisdom, common sense. The tragedy of postmodernism is that it leaves us with nothing but vertiginous uncertainties and endless contingencies. The beauty of Greenblatt’s current work is that he’s moving towards a synthesis of modernism, postmodernism, and an even older aesthetics, one still married to theology and philosophy. It’s as if Greenblatt, in the process of deconstructing Shakespeare, discovered that Shakespeare is, in fact, indestructible—just as all true and real things are.
My Favorite Lip Glosses of 2004: Lip Shimmer by Burt’s Bees
I am crazy about this stuff. Rich with lanolin and cocoa butter, it’s very emollient, and peppermint oil gives it a delicious little tingle. It goes on nice and smooth, and the shimmer is charmingly subtle. I have it in Watermelon, but I’m definitely picking up another shade or two the next time I’m at my local hippie grocery store.