New York, New York Monday, Nov 27 2006 

PJ and I are off to New York today. We’ll be there until Friday. This is my first trip to the Big Apple, so I’m both looking forward to it and feeling nervous about it — new things and places always make me nervous.

I’ll be taking a break from blogging until the weekend. I hope to have a lot to post about when I get back!

The Last Time I Saw You: A Review Friday, Nov 24 2006 

I wanted to break through all of that. I wanted to tell and hear and you wanted to tell me too and so you did. I was the only one who heard, the only one you told and though you tried to forget I didn’t. I can’t. I won’t for both. A secret is a thing that we hold dear. This secret is the thing that holds us, dearie, still.

So says the narrator in “Aspects of the Novel,” one of the internal monologues cum short stories in Rebecca Brown’s new collection, The Last Time I Saw You, published by City Lights. Brown’s narrative voices hold on to the secrets of their pasts, holding onto their memories long after relationships have disintegrated, even when the accuracy or even truthfullness of those memories is questionable at best. The Last Time I Saw You is an innovative and captivating read. I highly recommend it.

Last Time I Saw You

I bought the book in Philadelphia earlier this month. I’ve been looking for a recent lesbian-authored text to teach in my next Lesbian and Gay Lit course. I have to admit that, although I had seen Rebecca Brown’s name before, I hadn’t read any of her works. The Last Time I Saw You is Brown’s 11th book. From what I’ve read online, The Gifts of the Body, a 1995 novels about a home-care worker who assists people with AIDS, is her most famous work to date. Reading The Last Time definitely makes me want to check out her previous work.

In each of the 12 stories, we observe the narrative voice’s viewpoint, often involving lost love. All of the stories are great, but a few stand out to me. The first one, “The Trenches,” is an engaging monologue about the innocence, if that’s even the right word, of childhood and its loss as one grows up. Indeed, the question of whether “innocence” is even the right way to describe the narrator’s childhood is the kind of questioning that Brown revels in throughout this collection. For her, identity, memory, and even love are unstable qualities, intangibles that can only be grasped at and never fully held or possessed.


What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up? Tuesday, Nov 21 2006 

Recently, I started reading Wayne Hoffman’s novel, Hard. Since I haven’t finished it yet, I don’t want to review it or even write too much about it now. But it’s raised a couple of issues for me that I thought I’d record and reflect on here.

The novel is (partly) about Moe Pearlman, a New Yorker who is on a crusade to preserve his right/opportunity to engage in promiscuous sex in various venues as a conservative mayor (in league with another crusading gay man) works to shut down all of the bathhouses, sex clubs, and adult theaters where Moe indulges his desires. So, in sum, it’s a book about the ethics of gay sexual freedom in an age where AIDS still exists but in which its power to frighten gay men and restrict their sexual activities seems to have waned.

My first thought about the book is how it obviously responds to Larry Kramer’s Faggots, a 1978 novel that criticizes 1970s gay male promiscuity. Even a cursory search demonstrates that Kramer has a vexed reputation in the gay community. He is often dimissed as simply anti-sex. In reviewing Hard, Christopher Bram explicitly compares these two novels and repeats the usual criticism of Kramer and his novel. I have to admit that I love Faggots and now teach it annually in my GLBT Lit course. It’s definitely not a simple novel, nor is it simply anti-sex, in my opinion.

Thinking about the relationship between these two novels made me think about teaching Hoffman’s novel as a response to Kramer’s. I think these two books would work well together, with Angels in America spliced in between. Teaching these three works together would raise interesting issues about sexual freedom, responsibility, relationships, and AIDS, just to name a few. The biggest drawback might be that each of these works is a little long, so it might become difficult to schedule them without taking time away from the lesbian authors I’d also want to teach in the class. (But that’s not an issue I have to think about now.)


Darkly Dreaming Dexter: A Review Sunday, Nov 19 2006 

I’m still reading the final book for the review essay I’m writing, but that hasn’t stopped me from reading books for fun too. This past week I read Jeff Lindsay’s 2004 novel Darkly Dreaming Dexter. I first became interested in the book because of the new Showtime series. Even though the series is really good, I can’t watch it — it gives me bad dreams. But I can totally read about the subject matter without much ill effect.

The novel is about Dexter, a lab technician for the Miami police department, who also happens to be a serial killer. He’s a “good” serial killer: he’s good at it and he only kills people who commit murder and get away with it, usually other serial killers.

I love that this novel (and the series) turns the typical detective novel on its head. The detective is not a police officer or a little old lady who enjoys gossip or a fussy Belgian; he’s a killer who’s been trained by his foster father to channel his dark energy for good. (I should say that I love these sorts of novels; it’s kind of like my fascination with watching documentaries about snakes: I hate snakes, I know I’m going to have nightmares after watching a snake documentary, but if I see one on tv I can’t help but become entralled by the horror. That’s what reading really bloody contemporary crime fiction is like for me!)

Over the course of the novel, Dexter meets his match, the ice truck killer who kills and dismembers prostitutes and leaves a special calling card: he drains their bodies of blood before dismembering them. Seeing him as an artist, Dexter is torn about whether he should pursue this killer and stop him or join him. Overall, this novel is fast-paced, the characters are drawn well, and it’s suspenseful and engrossing; I could hardly put it down. I really liked it.

Since it is now a series, I do want to compare the two just enough to say that the series, which is based on the book, is not an exact adaptation. That would have been little more than a made for tv movie. Here are the opening credits for the series; I think they’re brilliant. They make breakfast seem so disgusting!

The series adds characters and subplots while subtracting other elements, most notably a real sense of Dexter’s love of killing and mental instability. In the novel, he suspensefully totters on the edge of the rules his foster father made for him; on tv, he’s a likeable good guy who lives by a fairly clear creed. I like the series and wish I could watch it without any side effects, but I think they lose something by making Dexter, played wonderfully by Michael C. Hall, so likeable.

The book is both more suspenseful and more straightforward than the series. It’s not quite as good as Patricia Cornwell‘s first couple of Kay Scarpetta novels, but it’s definitely a good read, if you’re into that sort of thing.

Writing Recommendation Letters Friday, Nov 17 2006 

It’s recommendation season, and I’m swamped with letters to write. In general, I like writing these letters about as much as I like grading (ugh!). It’s not a genre of writing that we’re really trained in. Plus, sometimes I end up writing letters for students that I’m not totally behind, which is difficult, since I don’t want to lie and say a student is wonderful if I really think that s/he is only mediocre. But I’m a sucker that way; I find it difficult to say no, especially if I feel that I’m someone’s last resort.

But this year is different. All of the people I’m writing for — 3 MA or former MA students and 5 or 6 undergraduates — are all students I believe in, which perhaps makes it all the more difficult. I want to write them each the best letter I can, because I really think they deserve to go on to a graduate program. I certainly don’t want to be the reason one of them doesn’t get to do what s/he wants to do.

As I write these particular letters, however, I find myself getting into a funk, especially as I write some of the undergraduates’ recommendations. There’s a group of them that I’m really quite fond of, and now they’re all graduating. For the first time, I feel the cyclical nature of being a professor: every few years, a new crop of undergraduates show up, stick around for a while, and then graduate.


Philadelphia Museums, Among Others Tuesday, Nov 14 2006 

One last Philadelphia post. While PJ and I were in Philly last week, I had the opportunity to visit a couple of non-eighteenth-century-related museums. I’ve been wanting to write a little about museums in general, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to post my thoughts on museums in general and the Philadelphia Art Museum, the African American Museum in Philadelphia, and one or two other museums in particular.

I love museums. Art museums, science museums, historical museums. It doesn’t matter. But not all museums are created equally. Some really work, and some don’t. Maybe it’s obvious, but it seems to me that a museum should educate its patrons about its subject(s). I not only want to see great art and artifacts; I also want to be able to learn more about the ones that strike my fancy. For me, a museum is successful when I leave wanting to read more about something I say in it, an artist, a particular painting, or a historical event. When PJ and I visited Spain last summer, for example, I came away from the Museo del Prado wanting to know more about the work of Diego Velazquez, so I bought a book about his work from the museum’s store, which I read on the plane back. Since then, I’ve also watched a documentary on his painting “The Rokeby Venus,” which I’ve since seen at the National Gallery in London.

My two favorite museums thus far are the the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco and the National Portrait Gallery in London. I’ve always had a tendency to love Asian art. As a budding gay teen, for example, I dreamed of someday decorating my bedroom in a Japanese motif. I now love House of Flying Daggers, which is Chinese, of course. And I’ve started collecting images of Ganesh (mostly postcards and photos of sculptures in museums). So, when PJ and I were in SF last May, I went to the Asian Art Museum while he was at a conference. I had never been to a museum dedicated exclusively to Asian art. It was wonderful. It has excellent holdings from each nationality/ethnic group. And I felt genuinely educated about the works and their historical contexts. I bought two books there: The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco: Selected Works and A Curious Affair: The Fascination between East and West, a book about a special exhibit on five centuries of interaction between Asian countries and the west.


The Queen: A Review Monday, Nov 13 2006 

While we were in Philadelphia, PJ and I saw Stephen Frears’s The Queen starring Helen Mirren. I’ve loved Helen Mirren at least since I saw her in Where Angels Fear to Tread. She is also great in Prime Suspect 3, The Madness of King George, Gosford Park, and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. Mirren’s performance in The Queen is no exception: she’s brilliant.

The Queen explores the royal family’s response to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997, a response predicated on tradition and decorum, and juxtaposes it with that of the country’s new prime minister, Tony Blair, played by Michael Sheen, who has been elected to “modernize” the country. Filling out the primary cast of characters are James Cromwell as Prince Philip, Sylvia Syms as the Queen Mother, Alex Jennings as Prince Charles, and Helen McCrory as Cherie Blair.

A Granada production, the movie seems a little made-for-tv at times. The film’s point and its depiction of some of the royals stand out as good examples of this. First, over the course of the movie, Mirren’s Queen Elizabeth must learn to surrender some of her WWII-era notions of the sovereign’s duties, and Sheen’s Blair (and his Labour ministers) must learn to respect the traditional role of the monarchy. While this might be oversimplifying the movie’s point just a bit, it’s only just a bit. I was expecting something a little more complex.


Eighteenth-Century Philadelphia Sunday, Nov 12 2006 

PJ and I got back from Philadelphia yesterday evening. Since he was busy at his conference most of the time we were there, my goal was to check out a few museums and other attractions around the city.

This was the fourth time I’ve visited Philadelphia since 2000. My first visit was to present a paper at the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. The conference organizers emphasized how many eighteenth-century-related sites there are to see in Philly, but I didn’t actually see many of them while I was at that conference. In 2003, PJ and I went to Philly for vacation. We spent most of that trip seeing Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, Benjamin Franklin sites, and the Philadelphia Art Museum. In 2004, we went back for a meeting of the North American Conference for British Studies. We were there with a couple of friends, so we spent most of our time on that trip hanging out with them.

So, I wanted to take the opportunity to see more of the eighteenth-century sites and to learn more about eighteenth-century Philadelphia on this trip. I didn’t get to see everything I wanted — I had a habit of showing up when things were closed or when a long line of school children had just lined up at the door. But I go a little taste of eighteenth-century Philadelphia, and I know what I want to see when I go back.

Benjamin Franklin (1785)One of my first stops was the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, which has a very good, if small, museum. I especially enjoyed seeing works by members of the Peale family. Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) and his brother James Peale (1749-1831) were painters. Charles Willson Peale studied under British painter Benjamin West and then taught his brother and several of his children to paint. These children included Raphaelle Peale, Rembrandt Peale, Rubens Peale, Titian Peale, and Angelica Kauffman Peale. His portrait of Benjamin Franklin in 1785 (right) is just one of his famous portraits, a genre in which he excelled. This painting is on display at the PAFA. Rembrandt Peale become one of the most important American painters of the early nineteenth century.


Philly Wednesday, Nov 8 2006 

PJ and I are off to Philadelphia until Saturday. He’s presenting at the Society for the Study of American Women Writers Conference. I’m just tagging along to visit Philly again. I hope to blog about my touristing when I get back.

Until then, happy Democratic election victory!

Performing Blackness on English Stages Monday, Nov 6 2006 

I just finished reading Virginia Mason Vaughan’s Performing Blackness on English Stages, 1500-1800, another work on the list of books I’m reviewing. This book examines instances of blackface on the English stage from the late Medieval period through the eighteenth century. Overall, it’s a good book. I especially like its early description of how early modern actors (and eventually actresses) ‘blackened’ themselves by using makeup composed of burnt cork or coal or by wearing a mask on stage.

Since I am reviewing it formally in my review essay to be published next year (presumably), I will again leave the details of a formal review to that essay. Instead, I’d like to reflect briefly on how this book has gotten me thinking about my next graduate course. I’d like to teach a course specifically on Restoration literature, focusing exclusively on 1660 to 1688. I’d also like for about half of readings for this course to be comprised of plays, since the Restoration is mostly known for its drama.

Reading Performing Blackness on English Stages reminds me a bit of Cynthia Lowenthal’s Performing Identities on the Restoration Stage, an excellent book published by Southern Illinois University Press in 2003. I’m struck by how I’d like to incorporate more of the issues raised by these studies in my class. Of particular interest to me at the moment is race and how the theater could allow Restoration society to try out its constructions of race and see if they worked. I’m also interested in doing more with religion, depictions of Islam in particular.


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