School, snow, freezing rain, ice; all the fun stuff.
Between the intro sessions and the MLK holiday, I’ve only taught 50 percent of my class periods over the last two weeks. One is going very well, the other is only OK, perhaps because I haven’t taught it in three years and I’m still feeling my way to a rhythm. They’re both set up the same way, with theoretical and abstract readings to provide a foundation, but I walk out of them feeling quite differently. Oh well, it’s the beginning and it’s me, not the students. The OK one will improve.
I forgot to mention that I’m the Director of Undergraduate Studies this semester. A colleague and I have split the work for the last two years and this is the last of it. I describe being DUS as comparable to being nibbled to death by ducks: there are rarely big crises, but there’s always something. So. Much. Email.
Nothing else I can really write about, just the usual meetings. My two regular seminars start up again this week and next, so that will provide a rhythm along with class times. I have some letters of recommendation to write and a bunch of research papers to write up comments on.
The Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl! I’m so happy for the team and the fans. They are a blast to watch, and it should be a great game. As a long-time 49ers fan as well I suppose I should be rooting for them, but it’s Chiefs all the way. Time to dig out our magnetic car logos and wear my logo wool varsity jacket.
One of my 2019 holds from the library came in, Javier Cercas’s latest “nonfiction novel” Lord of All the Dead. It’s a companion work to Soldiers of Salamis and so far it’s really good. I love his writing style, which is deceptively informal and feels unselfconscious, but the words and phrases are beautifully chosen. You notice how well it’s written almost after the fact.
I’m also continuing to work my way through The Steep Approach to Garbadale, which is starting to be work. Much as I love Banks, this is not his best novel by any stretch, and the audio format makes the digressions and quirks more apparent to me. I just hit a chapter where the breasts of not one but two women are described in detail and I was grateful to have a reason to stop listening for a while. I’ll keep going because it’s Banks, but I’m bummed he is yet another male author whose characters are obsessed with breasts over other body parts. I hadn’t noticed this is his other books, but then I’ve mostly been reading the M. novels up to now.
I’ve been reading the articles and some of the Twitter conversation on the Hype Book of 2020, American Dirt. It is so, so depressing to have the structure of the book-industrial complex laid out so clearly and uncompromisingly. I first heard of the book and the likelihood for pushback late last year, and when I looked up the author I discovered she had written a memoir about a tragic and complicated double-murder case that took place in St. Louis in the 1990s, in which her brother was both a victim and for a time a suspect. I haven’t read the book, partly because I avoid true crime books and partly because having seen so many stories about the events and the legal aftermath, the idea of reading a memoir that one reviewer described as having “an expertly paced narrative that reads like a novel” made me uncomfortable.
I wasn’t surprised that a “social issues” thriller written and marketed as a book-club book is so decidedly Not A Good Book in many of the usual ways we judge quality (although it is apparently “propulsive” and page-turning). But the fact that so much promotional money was thrown at it so crassly did come as something of a shock. It shouldn’t; this is the editor who acquired The Help, after all. But the machinery of promotion has been something to see. Two reviews, plus an interview, plus a featured excerpt in the NYT. Two reviews, plus a podcast episode in the Guardian. Reviews in every major and not so major newspaper that still reviews books. A three-course dinner complete with wine pairings to celebrate the book at BookExpo 2019 (where the dining table was festooned with barbed-wire-and-flower decorations). Not just an Oprah Book Club pick, but Oprah and the author are going to go to the border together! An interview on CBS This Morning with the author and Oprah, in which Oprah’s Best Friend™ Gayle King referred to legitimate criticism and outrage as “haterade.”
Oh, wait there’s more! This week I received an email invitation from my local, much-admired indie bookstore. The author of American Dirt is coming to town. And her event will be at the Ethical Society, no less, because they’re expecting a big crowd. You cannot make this shit up. The mind reels while the stomach churns.
If you ever doubted that white editors prefer to champion books about non-white people written by white people and the majority of white readers prefer to read those over books written from within a culture, this should provide all the confirmation needed. American Dirt is going to sell and sell and sell, just like The Help did. And of course there’s a film option; not only was the film option acquired during the writing process, the author took the producer’s advice on scenes and characterization while writing the book.
For me, it’s the final nail in the coffin of the idea that book sections do anything other than ride the hype train. Apropos of which, there was a long negative review of a widely praised collection of essays in the LRB’s most recent issue. Most of the chatter I saw was critical of the review, and I agree it wasn’t a great review (although I thought it made some excellent points as well), but the criticism that I found oddest was that the review was so late. It came a few months after the book’s publication, and this was deemed to be a flaw worth pointing out. I guess by hype train and Book Twitter standards it’s a sin, but last time I looked, books aren’t cartons of milk. You can read them and even review them without ill effects long after they’ve been published.
I still haven’t filled in my calendars, argh. And there’s so much going on that I really have to. And I need daily ToDo lists, which I have been avoiding.
I finished the Paris Loop cape/poncho and I’m pleased to say that it does not seem to look like a throw rug on me. I still need to weave in the ends, and I might block it a bit, but I think I like it.
This week is almost over, but I still have a few days to do my own stuff I hope. If the weather improves we’ll go for a day hike on Sunday. Which means I need to get my Monday classes prepped on Saturday. Blergh.