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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

History in the Garden

I'm teaching a class on the suburbs right now, and we are on the literature/culture section. I really enjoyed picking out the novels, films, and shortstories for this class--I've read more Cheever, Updike, etc. than I ever thought that I would. As the class progresses, a theme seems to be emerging--the imperviousness of the suburbs to "the world" or historical events. Let me give an example: the reading/films in question consit of _The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit_, Cheever's "The Country Husband," Updike's _Rabbit Redux_, Levin's _Stepford Wives_, and Boyle's _Tortia Curtain_. In each of these works, suburbia resists history--whether it comes in the form of World War Two, the Civil Rights Movement, the Women's Movement, or mass immigration. I'm not saying that this was always the reality, but there is certainly a romanitc, almost pastoral sense that history can, and should, be avoided. The irony is, of course, that the suburbs were possible because of transportation technology and the organization of the building industry along mass production lines. The irony of the commuting train bringing Tom Rath or Francis Weed to their pastoral suburban retreat would not be lost on Leo Marx (or Ralph Waldo Emerson for that matter).

Posted by Catfish DuBois
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Monday, June 28, 2004

Summer Reading--Help!

This weekend was a working weekend for me. By Sunday afternoon, I was tired of grading, writing tests, and responding to student questions, so I went to the libary to lose myself in a book. For some reason, I was in the mood for a fantasy novel. Unfortunately, with the exceptions of Tolkien, I've never really read a fantasy novel that I liked. Even as a kid, I found Terry Brooks, David Eddings, and folks like that unsatisfying. I read them anyway because I had lots of free time, but by my midteens, I gave up fantasy reading altogether. Since then I've reread LOTR every five years or so and that has satisfied me. For the next few weeks, however, I have more free time than usual, all of which I cannot spend working, and I'm looking for a decent fantasy novel. It needn't be too deep (something along the lines of those Thomas Covenant Books would be fine), but I don't want a retread of LOTR. Any suggestions?

Posted by Catfish DuBois
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Sunday, June 27, 2004



Raise Up Your Glass, For Good King John

My copy of Shakespeare's collected works begins with the comedies, then goes into the history plays, and ends with the tragedies. I suppose I'm some sort of philistine for not really appreciating The Tempest, but I've decided to skip over the comedies and go right into the history plays. I have heard that many people don't like these, but so far I'm enjoying King John. It has politics and intrigue. The Bastard is a great character. Best of all, I can hear Katherine Hepburn's voice whenever Eleanor speaks. Does anyone know the reputation of this play? Why isn't it performed more often?

Posted by Catfish DuBois

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Thursday, June 24, 2004

Living Tradition

Slowing, I'm making my way through "the Tempest." I have to say that it is a bit unsatisfying, but perhaps that is because I prefer tragedy to comedy. As usual, I find that my battered copy of Shakespear's plays can't sustain my interest all by themselves, so I've begun to search for something outside of the text to make it meaningful. Reluctantly, I picked up Harold Bloom's _How to Read and Why_. I say reluctantly, because I've always found him rather tiresome as a public intellectual. Still, for the dedicated amateur, this book is a decent introduction to what he calls the "difficult pleasure" of reading. In fact, this describes Shakespeare's work pretty well. I have also found a pretty interesting blog (http://shakespearemag.blogspot.com/). It is interesting to see how the plays keep getting updated in a way that makes there performance a living tradition rather than simply antiquarianism. In some ways, the existence of this sort of tradition makes it irrelevant whether Shakespeare is overrated or not.


Posted by Catfish DuBois
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Wednesday, June 23, 2004

LOCKED IN

OK, my reading plans have been sidetracked a little by the unexpectedly immense amount of work that the class I'm teaching requires, but I have continued apace with my reading of _Grand Delusion_. Having progressed about 200 pages in the book, I'm going to back off of my prior assertion a bit. I'm still a bit bothered by the lack of any historiographical discussion in the text or the footnotes. I would even appreciate a bibliographic essay. Still, I've begun the appreciate the strength of the book. It is basically a blow by blow narrative of the the Government's policy making process in regard to Indochina. In particular, I'm intrigued by the argument that the Republican criticism of the Truman "loss of China" and the US participation in the Korean war hamstrung the Eisenhower administration in it's efforts to keep the French from pulling out of Indochina. The result was that the Republicans adopted the containment policy that they had campaigned against in 1952, despite the fact that they controlled the Presidency and both houses of Congress. I don'
t believe in historical analogies, but this does suggest some basic constraints that electoral politics imposes on the foriegn policy makers even after they win at the poles.

Posted by Catfish DuBois
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Monday, June 07, 2004

Original Quagmire

Finally, I'm reading Robert Mann's _A Grand Delusion: America's Descent into Vietnam_. I love these narrative histories. If they're done right, you get the sense of the decisions that people had to make in the past without the benefit of hindsight. In the past, I have thought that John Lukacs does a good job of showing the contingency of events in works like _The Duel_ despite his use of vague concepts like "character," which I usually find tiresome. So far (3 chapters in), I find Mann's book to be well written and engaging. Glancing at the footnotes, however, is not always reassuring. Like many journalists, he simply doesn't address the complicated historiography that exists. The bits about McCarthyism seem especially one dimensional. Still, the parts that I have read so far are prologues to his real story, so perhaps the research becomes more in depth as the book goes along.

Posted by Catfish DuBois
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Ghosts and Savages

The fourth book that I am reading is Steven Pinker's _The Blank Slate_. One chapter in, it looks like he is attacking a strawman. Still, my experience with "human nature" arguments in my graduate training was that they should be dismissed in favor of social constructionism. That is, when "human nature" was mentioned at all. Usually, there was an implicit assumption that questions having to do with human nature were not really the provenance of history so we didn't have to deal with them. Still, I waded through Judith Butler, so I feel obligated to get the other perspective. It always bothered me that gender studies that we read didn't really address evolutionary biology, even to refute it. In fact, after reading _Gender Trouble_ I concluded that being neither a philosopher, nor an evolutionary biologist, I was uniquely unqualified to judge Butler's arguments. Luckily, in my own research, whether sex is constructed or is natural doesn't come up since all of my subjects assumed that it was natural.

Posted by Catfish DuBois
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This is the Life We've Chosen

The third book that I have started is Dostoevsky's _Crime and Punishment_. Despite early undergraduate sucess in Russian History, I know little of the literature. Alas, this book was recommended by Carmelo Soprano's would-be psychiatrist in one of the early episodes (he refused to accept her "blood money"). The introduction by Joseph Frank that prefaces my copy of the novel was helpful in putting the novel in context, especially the insight into Dostoevsky's inovative use of third person perspective that is nonetheless attached to one central character. I'm excited about this one. Already in the first chapter, I'm impressed by Dostoevsky's description of what it's like to be cut off from other people--the self absorption, inappropriate responses to external events, and the eventual avoidance of acquaintances.

Posted by Catfish DuBois
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To Ebb, Hereditary Sloth Instructs Me

The second book that I'm reading is Shakespeare's "The Tempest." My knowledge of this play comes from Leo Marx's discussion of it in _The Machine in the Garden_, where Marx refers to it as the first bit of American Literature. To asuage my feelings of inadequacy in not being familiar with the classics, I'm trying to get through every Shakespeare play in the next year or so. We'll see.

Posted by Catfish DuBois
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Book One: The Old Testament

The first thing that I am trying to get through is the Old Testament. I was raised a Christian, so I'm familiar with this text, but I have always read it in the past as a proof text for doctrine--almost like an oracle where every passage is as important as every other. This time, I'm trying to read it as literature. To prevent getting bogged down in the boring bits in Leviticus or Numbers, I have decided to read three different books at once: one historic/mythological, one prophetic, and one poetic. I'm starting with Genesis, Psalms, and Isaiah. In some ways, Genesis is the most interesting, if most familiar. It strikes me how God is portrayed as being physically present--walking with, and talking with, and even contending with his people. Still, I'm familiar with most of these stories. What intrigues me the most so far is the first few chapters of Isaiah. I had hoped to read the Old Testament as a text in itself, but after reading a couple of chapters, I couldn't resist and dug up an old Lutheran Commentary. According to the authors, Isaiah is the Christian bible in miniature, divided into one chapter for every book of the bible. I'ld be interested to learn Isaiah's place in Judaism. Isaiah is also noteworthy as the prophet with the biggest vocabulary and already I have encountered several images like "beating swords in ploughshares" (of course I'm reading the King James Version). Next time I'll post a quote.

Posted by Catfish DuBois
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Books on My Shelf

One of my vices is beginning books and not finishing them, not because they are not interesting, but because there is something else that I just have to start reading. The upshot of this habit is that I have begun many of the classics, but the only time I finish them is when I'm on vacation and can devote enough time to finishing them before my interest wains (sic). But not this time! I have decided to read several books at once, a little at a time. If my theory is correct, I will also gain the added bonus of making comparisons between them.

Here's how it works: I read one or two chapters and then pick out a quote that grabs me (because it embodies an important point, or is simply poetic, funny, or clever). I'm going to try to post at least one quote a day. Of the five things that I'm reading, I out to be able to come up with one interesting passage.

Posted by Catfish DuBois
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