Monthly Archives: August 2014

The (No Doubt) Much-Anticipated Follow-Up on Boy, Snow, Bird

If you’re at all interested in film studies, gender studies, or both, I highly recommend taking a glance at Jack Halberstam’s article on The Silence of the Lambs. In the meantime, though, I’ll do my best to cut through the critical language and offer a (no doubt oversimplified) synopsis. “Skinflick” was written in part as a rebuttal to accusations of transphobia in The Silence of the Lambs’s depiction of Buffalo Bill. Halberstam argues that Buffalo Bill should not be read as transgendered, but rather as a kind of critique of the very notion of gender (or identity) as stable, internal, and unified:

Buffalo Bill kills for his clothes and emblematizes the ways in which gender is always posthuman, always a sewing job that stitches identity into a body bag. Skin, in this film, is identity itself rather than the surface of an interior identity. Buffalo Bill, in other words, is a limit case for gender, for identity, for humanness. He does not understand gender as inherent, innate; he reads it only as a surface effect, a representation, an external attribute engineered into identity (176)

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Book Review: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi

Note (contains spoilers): As you may or may not be aware, some readers have felt that the ending of Boy, Snow, Bird is transphobic. Try as I might, I couldn’t entirely make my own thoughts on this matter jibe with the rest of what I wanted to say in my review (which in and of itself may say something about the disjointed feel of the last 20 or so pages of the novel). In any case, I have largely elected to leave the ending of the book untouched in this review. Rest assured, though, that I plan on writing a follow-up post that will tackle the ending in more detail than anyone apart from myself would probably like.

Cross Angela Carter and Toni Morrison and you might get something like Boy, Snow, Bird—a very loose reworking of “Snow White” that uses the fairytale as the refracting lens through which ideas of everything from race to beauty to identity are filtered and destabilized. It’s an illustrious literary tradition, and it’s one that Helen Oyeyemi almost—almost—lives up to. But while the novel stumbles in its final pages, its missteps cannot entirely overshadow its nuanced portrait of familial relationships forged and broken in the crucible of mid-twentieth century race relations. Continue reading


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In Secret, and Other Serviceable Adaptations

At this point, it’s almost a truism to say that film adaptations are more successful when they’re faithful to the spirit rather than the letter of their source material. To be fair, there’s a certain amount of sense in this; strict adaptations can easily become slavish and unimaginative, sagging under the weight of excessive detail and too little concerned with finding a way to capture the work’s overall tone. And certainly, some excellent adaptations take significant liberties with the original text. In fact, one of my favorite adaptations entirely scraps Othello’s original script—always a dicey proposition when you’re dealing with Shakespeare—and moves the setting to present-day London. It works brilliantly, giving new urgency to questions of race and gender. Much as I love Shakespeare’s play, I think that this particular adaptation also serves an important purpose.

On the other hand, look at the words I’ve used to describe more by-the-book (literally) adaptations: strict, slavish, unimaginative. I think that sometimes we stack the deck unfairly against these safer adaptations, and I want to make a case for their existence. Continue reading

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Book Review: Secrecy by Rupert Thomson

If Secrecy’s winding streets, deadly conspiracies, and self-conscious aestheticism invite comparisons to Umberto Eco, its central conceit is that of Pygmalion and Galatea: a beautiful statue that is all but living in its vibrant sensuality. In Rupert Thomson’s latest novel, though, the relationship between eroticism and art acquires a distinctly dangerous edge as it intersects with passion, intrigue, and violent death in late seventeenth-century Florence.

Secrecy is a novel that lives up to its name, and it would be a shame to give away too much of its plot. Suffice it to say that it is the story of Gaetano Zummo, a sculptor whose macabre wax stylings have caught the eye of Cosimo III de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Florence. The Duke, however, has something quite different in mind when he commissions a statue; tormented by memories of his failed marriage to the callous and willful Marguerite-Louise of Orléans, Cosimo asks Zummo to fashion a woman for him—a “kind of Eve”—out of wax. Continue reading

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On Falling (Back) in Love with Books

I completed my MA at a relatively small school. For a university, it was very small; total enrollment hovers around 5,000. In many ways, the school’s size was an advantage; graduate programs are notorious breeding grounds for competition and resentment, but my program was so small that there was very little need to jockey for professorial attention.

The downside was that graduate-only seminars were thin on the ground. If you wanted to take more than one course in your subfield, you resigned yourself to enrolling in a few upper-level undergraduate courses—and it definitely felt like resignation. One of the first bits of student-to-student advice I received had to do with these mixed-level courses. It was, roughly, this: avoid them if you could, tolerate them for the independent research if you must, but don’t expect to get much out of the discussions. Continue reading

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Book Review: My Real Children by Jo Walton

Can the whole really be greater than the sum of its parts? That is the question I find myself returning to again and again when I think about My Real Children. Jo Walton’s latest novel is not without its problems, but its premise is so instantly compelling, its style so sparely elegant, its conclusion so sweetly poignant, that you want to forgive it its flaws.

But maybe that’s appropriate, because the question I began with is, in many ways, a question that the novel itself poses as it asks us to find meaning not so much in one life or another, but in two lives read in juxtaposition. The hook? Those two lives belong to the same person: Patricia Cowan, an elderly patient in a Lancaster nursing home. In one life, she is Trish, struggling to extricate herself from an unhappy marriage and increasingly involved in local politics. In the other, she is Pat, taking yearly trips to Italy with her partner Bee. In both lives, she is a mother, though to different sets of children. And in both lives, her personal triumphs and travails play out against a backdrop of world events that diverge from history as we know it. As Pat, she bears witness to intermittent nuclear attacks and the rise of social conservatism; as Trish, to the gradual victory of international cooperation and the slow expansion of rights for women, racial and ethnic minorities, and the LGBT community. Continue reading


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In Which I Defend The Intellectual Rigor and Social Significance of My Field of Choice

A few nights ago I met the husband of one of my mother’s friends from work. He is, in my mother’s words, something of a “Renaissance man.” He has a doctoral degree, but has previously worked as (among other things) a cop and a public school teacher. He also apparently knows a bit about literature, because our conversation began something as follows:

Him: How’s the job search going?

Me (jocular, with undercurrents of manic desperation): Oh, not especially well.

Him: I understand. You have a master’s in English literature, right?

Me (vaguely apologetic): Yeah.

Him: What was your subfield?

Me (picking my jaw up off the floor): Victorian.

So, yes, my first reaction to being asked about my specialty was absolute shock. My second reaction was to fight back (figurative) tears: tears of relief, that someone actually knew to ask that question, and tears of sadness that that surprised me. Meanwhile, the snob in me rejoiced and thought, “A kindred spirit!” Continue reading


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