Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

24 hours in and I’m already addicted as hell.

I joined Pinterest before I really knew what it was, and it only took a few minutes for the format to suck me in. Thus far in the digital age I’ve avoided iPhones and all their apps, Farmville, Words With Friends, Twitter, and plenty of other time-wasting online activities. Sure, I check Facebook several times a day, but I rarely spend more than a few minutes actively engaging with the site. But with Pinterest, I think I finally get it. I see how people could spend half their lives online.

What is it, exactly? Well, it’s virtual scrapbooking. With a community that somehow manages to feel small, even when it’s huge (Pinterest crossed the 10 million user mark faster than any standalone site in history, a fact that has plenty of people paying attention). Basically, it allows you to display stuff you like in categories called “pinboards”. Other people can like your stuff, or re-pin it. You can comment on each other’s stuff.

This might all sound incredibly mundane and fluffy, but Pinterest appeals to a very primal desire (for me, at least): to share things you like. I could talk for hours about books, food, movies, or even buildings that I love. And I could listen rapt for hours while someone else talked about what they loved. Pinterest lets me do both of those things with a huge group of people.

Admittedly, most online traffic represents fluffy pursuits–gaming, posting photos of food and cats, arguing over who could beat Han Solo in a fight. But for some reason arguing about sports or movies is just “online activity,” whereas sharing stuff and talking about it–especially when that stuff includes clothes, weddings, and food–is “girly” (which for plenty of people equals “dumb”). Among the boards that I’ve looked at so far, about 1% of material is related to weddings, but you wouldn’t guess that from this chartThis article represented Pinterest’s growth with a fucking hairdryer. Apparently when 80% of your traffic is female, you’re a) full of white dress-obsessed airheads, b) an endless source of snark for more “serious” internet users, and c) unable to be taken seriously as an online force.

The snarkers can snark all they want, but as Jezebel points out, “Pinterest drives more traffic than YouTube, Reddit, Google+, LinkedIn and MySpace.” And it doesn’t take a genius to see that the site isn’t just an innocuous indie effort at community–every pin equals money for Pinterest and the product manufacturers whose products are getting pinned and re-pinned. Like Facebook, Pinterest’s users generate free advertising just by sharing what they like.

But I like Pinterest so, so much more. I know it’s a marketing gimmick, and I know that by using it I’m basically just turning myself into a free billboard. But I am in love. Hopelessly. The concept is beautiful in its simplicity, as Jezebel goes on to say: “(Pinterest) seems to have identified what women want from the internet by simply allowing women to identify what they want. Period.” The online universe can snicker about Pinterest’s girly-ness all it wants, but it’d be foolish to ignore it.

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Anne McCaffrey, 1926-2011

I wanted to be Menolly. Or at least I longed for a few pet fire lizards to call my own.

Menolly was braver than I ever felt as a teenager–after being told “no” time and time again, she kept going anyway.

In the case of Killashandra Ree, I just wanted her job. Who wouldn’t want to make a fortune singing to rocks on a hostile planet? Re-reading Crystal Singer recently, I was surprised to discover that Killashandra was a lot less likeable than I remembered–she kept whining about how everyone was invading her privacy and seemed to have a very, very high opinion of her talents. But she was nobody’s sidekick, she never needed rescuing, and she flew spaceships in mach storms. And when she had casual sex it was no big deal.

I only ever read three of Anne McCaffrey’s books–Dragonsong, Dragonsinger, and Crystal Singer–but they were enough to impact my life and reading habits for years to come. Like a lot of other confused teenage girls, I found solace in the struggles of McCaffrey’s mostly female protagonists. They might be battling monsters on distant planets, but they were fully-fleshed human beings, and they felt like kindred spirits.

“Harper, your song has a sorrowful sound,
Though the tune was written as gay.
Your voice is sad and your hands are slow
And your eye meeting mine turns away.”


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Readers who’ve been waiting for China Mieville to return to the levels of brilliance he displayed in Perdido Street Station and The Scar can rejoice. Embassytown may be his best work yet.

A plot summary doesn’t really do the story justice, but here are the basics: in a human city on a planet at the edge of the known universe, the native Ariekei, who have two mouths each, speak a double-tongued language that is inseparable from thought. Instead of “Hello, how are you,” an Ariekes would say “Hello / How are you” (imagine the “Hello” positioned above the “How are you”, like a fraction). Humans cannot mimic Ariekei speech because they have only one mouth, and the Ariekei perceive recordings of their Language only as meaningless noise. Without thought behind it, Language does not exist. Thus special Ambassadors, pairs of electronically linked humans who function almost as a single unit, are the only ones who can communicate with the Ariekei, whose planet is a valuable source of hybrid machine-organic technology.

Crucially, the Ariekei are incapable of lying, or of abstract thought. Similes must first be staged in real life. Humans are often asked to “perform a simile,” becoming a living part of Language in order to make abstraction possible. The narrator, Avice, is as a child asked to be bruised and eat what is given to her. From that moment, she is invoked whenever the Ariekei want to argue that something is “like the girl who was hurt and ate what was given to her”.

I’ll stop there, because one of the true joys of Embassytown is its many revelations, not only of plot but of the nature of language (and Language) itself. Suffice it to say that at some point something goes terribly wrong, and the novel alternates between life-and-death tension and the fundamental question of what language is.  The salvation of the entire planet ultimately depends not on some epic space-battle between humans and aliens, but on a linguistic revolution.

With Embassytown, Mieville pulls off the rare feat of creating a difficult, multi-layered story that requires the reader’s full attention AND spinning an endlessly entertaining yarn. It takes a little while for things to get going (something I also found to be true of The Scar), but the payoff is immense.

There are so many small things that are wonderful about Embassytown, things that weren’t even really necessary to the backbone of the story but that make it all the more vivid and pleasurable. The narrator, Avice, is a rare find in science fiction: a female protagonist who exhibits no overtly feminine or masculine characteristics. Her ambiguous / polyamorous sexuality fits right in with those around her, and though she’s driven by a basic desire to do the right thing, she frequently acts in her own self-interest. Though other characters are not quite as multi-faceted, many unique and flawed personalities come through–even that of a humanoid robot, who Avice counts as one of her best friends.

Appropriately for a novel about the nature of language, China Mieville’s virtuoso word skills are on full display here. The introduction of dozens of new words and concepts from the very beginning of the novel can be overwhelming at times, but it adds to the flavor of the story, in which language dissembles as much as it clarifies. There are passages of great beauty that rival the best of any modern genre.

I read the last hundred pages of Embassytown with my heart in my throat, not only because of the impending climax of the story (though that was gripping), but because, admittedly, I was terrified that the novel would crash and burn. China Mieville has a habit of creating fascinating worlds or concepts, developing a narrative, and then being unable to bring the narrative and the concept to a satisfying end (this was especially evident in The City and The City). But this time, he gets it right, right up until the last words. Though the second half of the novel at times focuses more on good old-fashioned suspense than on the deeper questions about language, the incredibly satisfying conclusion manages to tie the story together, remain complex, AND address difficult questions about language all in one go.

I don’t want to say that Embassytown is much more than science fiction, a somewhat backhanded compliment that has been thrown at Mieville and other writers who’ve taken the form in bold new directions. Embassytown is great literature and great science fiction. But it also transcends genre. It’s a work of grand ideas and mundane human / alien concerns, a story that takes us to the edges of the universe but forces us to repeatedly look inward, at the language that we take for granted that is in fact a rare, miraculous gift.

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Reimagining Japan (Not)

UPDATE: In response to Brian Salsberg’s comment below, I’ve deleted the original content of this post. I wrote that post on a whim and realized later that it’s really not a good idea for me to post impressions or criticisms of a book I haven’t read. I trust Contemporary Japanese Literature’s assessment of the book, but I’m not going to make any of my own judgments until I’ve read it.

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It’s amazing how people think they can understand an entire country just by reading a book about it.

I certainly felt that way at one time. Before moving to Japan for the first time in 2000 I got hold of as many books as I could–most of them written by non-Japanese authors. By the time I was done I was sure I had the whole country figured out. No physical contact. No bringing your wife to office parties. Doctors are rough and unsympathetic. Take your shoes off and wear slippers (except on tatami mats, and except in bathrooms, where you wear bathroom slippers).

Most of it was bullshit.

Sure, anyone who’s lived in Japan for a few years can give you some basic tips on etiquette and what to expect. But this idea that you can gain a comprehensive understanding of 120 million people by reading a book–a claim that a lot of these books seemed to make–is ridiculous. These days the only real advice I give people is to expect the unexpected. And to take your shoes off. That rule still holds.

At a recent conference panel on foreign media responses to the March 11 quake and tsunami, one professor said he was disappointed that foreign impressions of Japan don’t seem to have evolved much beyond The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (still considered a valuable book by many, but written in the 1940s by an anthropologist who had famously never been to Japan). More than 60 years after that book’s publication we again learned that…the Japanese are stoic. They value group unity over individual freedom. They’re very polite. They didn’t loot  (not really true) because they’re inherently more civilized.

Sadly, a lot of books on Japan written during the 1990s–and still read by many people looking for insider knowledge of Japan–aren’t any better. Non-Japanese writers seem determined to keep stereotypes alive, even the ones that carry very little weight.

One problem is that so many of these books were written by men who seemed to be doing double duty as cultural advisers and pick-up artists. Slipped in between tips on eating and renting an apartment are all sorts of observations about the charmingness of Japanese women and recommendations for the best places to find girls. I remember being horrified at one author’s descriptions of sneaking a camera into a mixed-bathing onsen to take covert photos of nude women (which he described with a sort of “boys will be boys” attitude).

By far the worst example of this kind of book was Rex Shelley’s Culture Shock! Japan, which was, unfortunately, the book that my English language school gave me when I first arrived back in 2000. Rex seemed to think that a) everyone who was coming to Japan was male, b) they all had annoying wives who had to be placated on a regular basis, and c) no one coming to Japan would actually like it here, they would just suffer through the backwardness to make their money, have their sex and get the hell out. (This seems to be the message of a lot of guides to doing business in Japan–get in, make your money, have your sex and get the hell out.) In the case of Culture Shock! Japan, all of Rex’s examples of cultural faux pas and how to deal with them basically centered around the “What to do when your wife screws things up yet again” premise. Nice.

Another depressing look into contemporary Japanese culture–one that masqueraded as hip, edgy reading–was Karl Taro Greenfeld’s 1995 Speed Tribes: Days and Nights With Japan’s Next Generation, a collection of essays on Japanese subcultures. While I’ll give Greenfeld credit for moving away from the usual portraits of Japan as a conformist society of suited drones, he really just replaced one set of stereotypes with another. Speed Tribes billed itself as a look at the “real” Japan, but the book felt more like it was reveling in the dregs of society, presenting violent gangsters, ditzy club girls, ultra-nationalists, and porn film directors as the most authentic Japanese out there. Greenfeld also seemed to genuinely loathe his subjects–his narration in each chapter dripped with sarcasm and contempt. At one point he just stopped pulling his punches altogether, saying of Tokyo suburbanites, “Think of them as leeches sucking the city dry.” At the end of the book anyone could be forgiven for thinking that Japan is filled to the brim only with violent, miserable, self-centered people.

So what are the Books That Don’t Suck, then? For women coming to live in Japan, I always highly recommend Caroline Pover’s Being a Broad in Japan, one of the few how-to guides written by and for women. In general I’d just say avoid any book that claims to explain Japan in full. Only time can do that–way more time than most of us have on earth.

Next up: Fictional Books Set in Japan That Kind of Suck. Really just an excuse for me to rant about Memoirs of a Geisha.

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“Why can’t I write something that will awaken the dead?”

So writes Patti Smith near the end of Just Kids, the memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe that can’t really be classified as a memoir. Smith doesn’t so much chronicle as paint, scrapbook, and weave. Her book is like the bizarre but beautiful collages she and Mapplethorpe  create in their tiny hotel rooms and apartments–hodgepodge, arresting, and possessing the ability to elevate the mundane to the sublime.

Smith may not awaken the dead with her book, but she is an expert conjurer–of young love, of New York on the brink of discovery and possibility, of the Chelsea Hotel and the days in which one might run into Salvador Dali and Janis Joplin in the lobby in the same day. She had come to New York just out of high school determined to be an artist but with no idea how. Her chance meeting with Robert Mapplethorpe led to a years-long collaboration that moved between romantic and platonic love but was always intense and intimate. As Smith describes it, the two of them fell asleep in each other’s arms after their first long night together and after that never really left each other’s side except to go to work.

The road to fame for both of them–through photography for Mapplethorpe, through punk music, visual art and poetry for Smith–was a long and winding one. Throughout it all, they remained determined to “live for art and art alone.” They were destitute–Smith describes the pain and frustration she felt when, after scrounging together fifty-five cents for a Horn and Hardart Automat sandwich, she arrived only to discover that the price had been raised to sixty-five cents. (The subsequent story of how Allen Ginsburg then bought her the sandwich because he mistook her for a “pretty boy” is one of the book’s many gems.) Mapplethorpe and Smith worked only enough to pay rent and eat (and were frequently unable to do both), devoting the rest of their time to writing, drawing, and just playing with whatever artistic medium struck their fancy. It would take years of collages, poems, paintings, sketches, and polaroids before Mapplethorpe would have his first successful photography exhibition and Smith would release her groundbreaking album Horses.

Smith and Mapplethorpe saw beauty in the everyday. With their very limited money they scoured New York’s used bookstores and thrift shops for pieces of fabric, plastic, metal, and glass that would become haunting collages and the beginnings of Mapplethorpe’s famous photo aesthetic (his longtime lover and patron, Sam Wagstaff, called Mapplethorpe’s signature backgrounds “a black you can get lost in.”). Much of Just Kids consists of loving descriptions of random objects–a collage of words. Reading the book and then walking in a shopping mall, every plastic flower, every cotton scarf, every tacky rubber rain hat seems to possess some new artistic soul. Smith truly lets the reader see, if only fleetingly and with a squint, through an artist’s eyes.

Beyond its moving glimpse into the lives of uncompromising artists and rebels in a New York that is at once utterly believable and too romantic to be real, Just Kids is an amazing piece of writing. Some have commented that Smith’s recollections are probably more poetry than fact, but the distinction doesn’t seem to matter. A non-linear story that focuses more on images and impressions than actual events is perhaps the only way Smith and Mapplethorpe’s story could have been told.

Just Kids is also a reminder that great art takes time and patience. Knowing how the story ends–that Mapplethorpe became a respected and controversial photographer, and Smith the godmother of punk–the journey can be maddening. They both struggle with their artistic voices, with the messages they want to convey, with what medium will convey it best. At times they just seem to be adrift. But every misstep and chance encounter ultimately leads them to their particular brand of greatness. Mapplethorpe is given a cheap camera by a friend and initially takes pictures because he can no longer afford to buy magazines. Smith is not a musician but comes to punk through poetry readings accompanied by a piano. Today we scoff at the idea of “finding yourself,” but that was exactly what Smith and Mapplethorpe were doing. In an era when academia in particular seems so keen to make the educational process faster and more efficient, eliminating the valuable time that every creative talent needs to stumble and discover, Smith and Mapplethorpe’s stories deserve our attention.

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(image courtesy of japaneseliterature.wordpress.com)

A love affair with youth is hardly unique to Japan.  Anti-aging is a multi-billion dollar business in the U.S., where public figures are mocked for appearing old and the (supposedly) virginal adolescent is the hottest moneymaker in the pop music industry.  Beauty is youth, and youth is beauty, on both sides of the Pacific.

That said, the “youth is everything” feeling has always hit me much harder in Japan–maybe because by Japanese standards I was already old (23) by the time I got here.  Maybe it’s the fact that, rather than appearing sultry, most female models and starlets are photographed peace-signing and winking at the camera like eight-year-olds.  Maybe it’s the pervasiveness of kawaii culture–high-pitched voices, signs drawn in cuddly cartoon form, adults carrying Hello Kitty bags–that can make you feel as if you’re in a surreal, city-sized elementary school.  People in Japan–well, mostly women–not only pay billions of yen annually to look *youthful,* they seem to cultivate a childlike personality well into their twenties, thirties, and even forties.

The problem?  Well, there are a ton of problems with this, but let’s start with just one: what is considered “youthful” (and therefor beautiful, sexy, marketable, etc) is getting a lot younger.  Like, pre-adolescent young.

The New York Times recently examined the popularity of “junior idol” videos and other Japanese media that depict pre-pubescent girls in sexual situations.  One popular video features 13-year-old model Akari Iinuma making popcorn in a maid costume, dancing around in a white bikini, and playing with a beach ball while being hosed down with water.  Some junior idol photo books and DVDs feature models as young as 6.

The outrage that many U.S. residents might feel at such overt sexualization of pre-adolescent girls rings a little hollow when you consider the popularity of TV shows like Little Miss Perfect and Toddlers and Tiaras–which, when you get right down to it, are essentially one-hour blocks of little girls dancing around in bikinis.  Or the popularity of teen idols like Miley Cyrus and (ten or so years ago) Britney Spears, who are / were marketed as a kind of innocent child / sultry vixen combo.  In a way, I almost find the Japanese approach refreshing–at least the country doesn’t feign shock when an obsession with youth, virginity, and innocence is taken to the level of child porn.

Japan has long had a reputation for being lax when it comes to enforcing child pornography laws.  It’s illegal to distribute child porn, but not to possess it.  Arrests and prosecution are rare.  But when it comes to “real” child pornography–photographic depictions of minors in sexual situations–at least there are laws in place.  Until now, though, Japan’s multi-billion dollar manga industry has been exempt from these laws, given that illustrations of sexual acts are deemed “simulated pornography” and thus are not subject to the same laws governing photography and film.

That may change soon, though.  Partially inspired by overseas criticism of the graphic, underage sex that is commonplace in manga, the Tokyo metropolitan government is considering a law that would restrict manga content that features sex between minors.  Major manga publishers are against the law and are threatening to boycott a major annual manga convention if it goes through.  Publishers and creators argue that there are “no victims in manga” and that regulating illustrated content in the same way as photography or film is ridiculous.

I agree that the law is a bad one–it’s vague, confusing, and doesn’t really seem to know how to determine what kind of content would be unacceptable (how do you tell when a line-drawn character is underage?).  It’s also oddly cautious–rather than banning underage sex comics outright, it just prohibits their sale to minors (though manga publishers argue that such a ban would discourage risk-averse publishers and booksellers from handling the material at all).  And the minute Tokyo governor and all-around misogynist / racist asshat Shintaro Ishihara started throwing around the “only perverts read these things” argument, I suddenly became a lot more sympathetic to the publishers.

But I’m not sure I buy the “no victims in manga” argument, in the same way that I don’t completely buy the “no victims in hostessing” argument.  While eliminating depictions of underage sex in manga probably isn’t the answer (and may not even be possible), the blatant sexualization of pre-pubescent girls has plenty of negative consequences. The problem isn’t that such sexualization is “perverted”–trying to define and eliminate “perverted” content in any context is always a recipe for disaster.  The problem is that millions of visual media consumers are being bombarded with a fairly uniform and narrow image of female attractiveness–one that’s physically tiny, submissive, naive, and somewhere between the ages of 8 and 13. Those who don’t fit the model can either feel ugly and undesirable or spend obscene amounts of time and money trying to change themselves.

Japan’s attitude toward child pornography–especially of the “real” variety–definitely needs to change.  But as with just about any social problem, regulation is only half the answer.  Education and dialogue are more essential.  Rather than enacting a vague and most likely ineffective law,  Japan needs to have a serious conversation about its obsession with pre-pubescent girls, something that moves beyond a “sho ga nai” (can’t be helped) mentality to a serious questioning of where this obsession comes from, what its potential consequences are, and how real-life young girls should respond to it.  Change won’t happen overnight, but addressing the issue in a mature fashion, with the participation of people from many sides of the debate, would be a good first step.

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Amy Chua’s “Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior” piece in the Wall Street Journal, nicely timed to coincide with the publication of her book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has generated an amazing amount of impassioned reaction on the web.  Chua’s defenders (some of whom were raised in homes similar to the one she describes) say that she has some good points.  “Western” parents have become too permissive, resulting in children who are lazy, unfocused, and unrealistically assuming that the outside world will treat them as “special” just for being themselves.  I’ll admit that a small number–a very small number–of Chua’s parenting techniques (mainly, pushing your children to succeed and believing in the possibility of their success) are grounded in good intentions.

Overall, though, I was horrified.

The main reasons for shock and disgust have been well covered by other blogs–the high rates of suicide and depression among Asian-Americans (particularly Asian-American women), Chua’s self-congratulatory tone as she describes what plenty of psychologists would define as child abuse, her graphic descriptions of piano practice that seem to border on the farcical.  I personally am not a) Asian-American or b) a parent, and so I won’t be responding to Chua’s article from those perspectives.  But I suppose the piece really hit a nerve with me because, while I have never (thank God) experienced the kind of parenting she describes, I have seen its results in my classrooms.

I have seen countless students buckling under the pressure to be perfect–more specifically, to fit a ridiculously narrow model of perfection enforced by their parents.  As Cynthia Liu of Technorati points out, this is perhaps the most damaging element of Chua’s parenting philosophy: it defines success in incredibly narrow ways.  Are we really to believe that every child who isn’t a musical virtuoso or who doesn’t pursue a career in medicine or science is a failure?  Why must the success that parents like Chua violently shove their children toward be defined in such narrow terms?

In the same way that I’m sickened by the slashing and burning of humanities departments at universities across the country, I’m also sickened by a parenting ideology that teaches children that creative talents are a waste of time.  Parents like Chua, who pay the tuition at major universities and thus have a lot of power in determining which departments survive,  do more harm than they realize when they refuse to pay for arts and literature classes.   They contribute to an overall system that sees the creative arts as impractical and unnecessary, resulting  in the dissolution of more than a few arts and humanities departments.  Amy Chua forces her daughters to play musical instruments, but only, it seems, to instill in them a sense of discipline and the value of hard work–she doesn’t want them to be professional musicians. She boasts that she never let her daughters participate in a school play.  Does she really think there’s nothing valuable to be learned from participating in a group creative effort, even one that doesn’t involve three hours of grueling practice per day?

As I’ve written before, it breaks my heart to encounter students who are talented writers, artists, or dancers–but whose  parents won’t let them take any of those classes because they’re a “waste of money.”  In my adult life I’ve encountered plenty of doctors and business people who desperately wanted to pursue a creative career, but their parents wouldn’t pay for anything other than a “practical” degree.  Some of them managed to defy parental expectations and follow their dreams (a goal that Chua derides in an interview with the Globe and Mail), but I imagine plenty of them are still suffering with the reality of being forced into a profession that they never really had any passion for.

I’m happy that Chua’s article has inspired so much rage and indignation, because it’s part of a larger conversation that needs to be had.  That conversation concerns parenting attitudes that preach a rigid and narrow model of perfection, that justify verbal and physical abuse of children who don’t fit that model, and that de-value the creative arts.  This parenting model, regardless of culture or ethnicity, needs to die.

UPDATE: Chua has done a considerable amount of backpedaling since the posting of the original WSJ article, saying on The Today Show that her book is really more about “her own transformation as a mother” and that “there are many ways to be a good parent.”  Still, she seems to contradict herself a lot in various interviews, one minute saying that super-strict parenting is best and the next minute saying that she feels she was too strict.  Regardless, I’d say there are still plenty of people who support the style of parenting that she describes in the WSJ article, and I still say it needs to die.

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It’s always fascinating to view an American pop culture phenomenon through another country’s eyes.  At the moment I’m sitting in on a Tsukuba University undergraduate course on the theme of gender and American film / TV, with a focus on teen-centered drama.  For several weeks the students have been giving presentations on Twilight, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Ten Things I Hate About You.  A lot of the focus has been on language–technically the class has an English language component, so the students often choose a few interesting phrases and break down their meaning.  Beyond that, I’ve been intrigued by the themes and characters they’ve chosen to focus on.  Here are a few examples:

1. Prom.  They’re obsessed with prom.  Which isn’t surprising, given the quasi-religious status that prom usually has in teen movies and TV shows.  Viewing it from outside the U.S., it must seem like the single most important event in any teenager’s life.  In Kuala Lumpur I had a conversation with a Malaysian man who told me that it was his impression that all American girls lost their virginity on prom night, and that after that their lives were a crazy sex free-for all (I don’t know what the prom-virginity-loss statistics are, but my guess is that by prom age a lot of teenagers have already crossed the v-line, depending on your definition of “virginity”).  Growing up, I remember prom having a sort of unearthly quality about it, something so magical that it seemed impossible that I might actually participate in it one day.  This American Life recently ran a story about a small town that for years has been broadcasting the local prom–the red-carpet arrivals of the couples, the dancing, the after-prom parties–on the local news channel.  Talk about building up expectations.

In reality (as I gently tried to explain to the students), prom for me was just one random night out of many.  Sure, it was fun, but not exactly a rite of passage.  I wore a dress that I would never wear again (looking at the photos, I think most of my girlfriends would say the same).  I had a boyfriend to go with, but he hated to dance, so I didn’t do much of that.  I was voted “Most Likely to Win An Oscar,” which was fun.  It kind of had the feeling of kids playing dress-up, maybe not so different from the Japanese tradition of seijinshiki (coming-of-age day), where 20-year-olds officially become “adults” and wear elaborate kimono.

The students in the class had some really interesting insights into various film & TV depictions of prom.  They pointed out that in Ten Things I Hate About You, an heirloom pearl necklace plays an important role in determining who’s the “pure” character.  For the Twilight movie prom scene, they noted that Bella, imagined as an anti-girly, anti-prom type, was allowed to maintain her dignity by going to prom in a dress with sneakers.

Apparently these two ARE capable of smiling.


Mixed into all this was a clear fascination with prom as a concept.  One student even had a Japanese book that I’m dying to read called “Everything You Need to Know About American High Schools,” which explained things like football, cheerleading, cliques, etc.  It’s kind of weird to see the humdrum life you lived turned into an object of anthropological fascination, but I guess a lot of American teenagers are just as fascinated by Japanese high schools.

2. Teenage slang.  Another thing I had to explain to the students: real-life American teenagers are not nearly as clever as their film and TV counterparts.  I’m not saying that teenagers are dumb–they’re not–but judging by my own not-too-distant teenage experience, the last thing I ever felt was linguistically clever or witty.  In movies and TV shows created for teenagers–as in teen magazines–the language is a bizarre construct: adults writing in a way that tries to sound teenager-ish, but that usually comes off as just a little too polished.  And man, explaining teenage slang to non-native speakers is HARD.  Students would often take five or ten minutes just to analyze a few words.  Example: from Ten Things I Hate About You, two dudes checking out the girls:  “Hey, virgin alert.  There’s your favorite.”  Or from Twilight, when Bella’s friend is asking her if it’s weird that a guy they both like is asking her to the prom, and Bella responds, “No, not weird at all.  Zero weirdness.”  Just explaining the very loaded nature of the word “virgin,” or the phenomenon of turning adjectives into nouns by adding a “ness” to them eats up plenty of time.

3. Fashion.  When you most likely attended a high school where everyone had to wear a uniform, the subject of fashion and how it divides teenagers into groups is a source of endless discussion.  Again, I had to explain that teenagers in movies and tv are a lot more expensively dressed than your average American teen, but still, the varieties of styles and the cliques they identify are pretty endless.  This also prompted an interesting discussion of goth vs. emo (a term the students had never heard), and how the goth vs. emo authenticity battle seemed to mirror a lot of the fashion clique battles in Japan (goth, gothic lolita, rococco, visual kei, gyaru, yamamba, etc.)

I’m giving a lecture in the class in a couple of weeks entitled “Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the Concept of the Gender Outlaw,” which I’m really looking forward to (partially because it’s on a subject that I almost never get to talk about in an academic sense, partially because it allows me to show clips of Johnny Weir, and mainly because it’s BUFFY!!!).  Who of course would have dispensed with pouty Edward in a nanosecond.  Though really, has there ever been a cheerily optimistic male vampire character?

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I really will get started on that second dissertation chapter soon.  I mean it.  But in the meantime, I’ve been reading and watching a lot of good stuff–some old, some new.  So if you need some new reading or viewing material, here are some of my recommendations.


1. The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver.  Best book I’ve read in a long, long time.  Kingsolver’s prose is like music that you don’t want to ever stop listening to.  I’ve loved all of her books, but with this one–a piece of historical fiction set partially in the Mexican home of Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, and in a small town during the McCarthy era– she reaches amazing levels of complexity and depth.  I had many a late night with this book  and found my mouth falling open more than a few times.

2. Room, Emma Donoghue.  Another “unputdownable” read, to the point where I was actually reading it on the escalator between train stations (apologies to all the salarymen I bumped into).  If you buy it, don’t read the back cover–it gives too much away.  A story told entirely from the POV of a five-year-old boy who has never known any world other than the 11-by-11 foot room he was born in.  The middle section in particular gripped me so hard I had to sit down post-escalator ride and take a few deep breaths.

3.  Norwegian Wood, Murakami Haruki.  Embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t read this one till recently, so I picked it up right before seeing the movie (reviewed in a previous post).  I’ve never been a huge fan of Murakami’s novels–I think his style works better in short story format–but this one was an exception.  You can tell that he’s kind of getting his feet, establishing a lot of the tropes that would become standard in his later books.  Like the movie, it could have been just a melodrama about teen suicide and lost love, but the prose and the rawness of the emotion somehow elevate it.

4. Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood.  No one creates a sense of impending dread like Margaret Atwood.  In The Handmaid’s Tale she laid out a nightmare vision of an ultra-right-wing future, and in these two books she imagines a not-too-distant world decimated by climate change and essentially run by corporations rather than governments.  Oryx & Crake tells the story from one man’s point of view, and then The Year of the Flood brilliantly retells the same story from three female points of view.  Atwood has called her work “speculative fiction” (rather than science fiction), and while the books are mesmerizing, their depiction of an all-too-near, horribly screwed up future can make you want to shoot yourself.


1. “M,” Fritz Lang.  Yet another one that I’m embarrassed not to have seen.  I was a bit reluctant, because quite frankly I had trouble making it through “Metropolis,” but “M” is as gripping as any modern murder mystery.  And it’s beautifully crafted, with plenty of fascinating performances and some interesting insights into the nature of evil and justice.

2. “Monsters,” Gareth Edwards.  Thank God–an extremely well-made, low-budget movie about aliens that doesn’t use shaky-cam!  Edwards goes in a slightly different direction with his shoestring budget–the movie doesn’t look like a documentary at all and makes the most of natural scenery and the strong performances of its two leads.  I also just love the story of how it got made–Edwards took his two actors and a digital camera through Mexico & Central America and asked locals to play every other part in the movie (something you really wouldn’t guess from watching it).  He created all the special effects on his own computer (check out the amazing software he uses at about the 5-minute mark in this video).  The result is a great movie that’s also surprisingly moving.

3.  “The Secret of Kells,” Tomm Moore & Nora Twomey.  I could have watched this one on mute, because the hand-drawn, 2-D animation was so gorgeous, but that would have been a mistake, because the music and the story are also beautiful.  Technically I guess it’s for kids, but it’s a lot smarter and darker than your usual kid fare.  And during a time when humanities programs seem to be falling like dominoes in favor of more ‘practical’ pursuits, it has a really powerful message about the lasting value of art.

4. “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” Niels Arden Oplev.  Noomi Rapace is awesome, and Lisbeth Salander is one of the coolest kick-ass ladies to come along since Sigourney Weaver in Aliens.


I heart Jen Kwok times ten:


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