Tuesday, July 15, 2008

How the University Works

Some months ago, I was asked to review a book on this blog, which was an unusual request, but one about which I was enthusastic: Marc Bousquet's How the University Works. Bousquet now has a blog of the same name, one that I've been reading enthusastically for some weeks now. I have bookmarked his Academic Labor Bookshelf entry, and returned to it for some of my own work.

Anyway, I've been working my way through the book, and thought now might be a time to comment on it here in this space (especially since I've had that free copy of the book for several months). I might wryly note the funny little catch-22 with reviewing this book in this space: you know, a book on academic labor policies, being reviewed on a site where the labor can't be counted toward annual review, tenure, or compensation. But that's not a real critique, though--I am very much invested in the cycle of writing, reading, and responding in academia for its own sake. And what's more: Bousquet's got his sights set on labor abuses much more pervasive than a measly free review.

Anyway, let me start with the only thing that annoys me about the book: tone. Bousquet writes like a 60s radical. In many many ways, this is a good thing, particularly given the activism undertaken by the book. But for academic reading, I find it a troublesome rhetorical choice. The tone is often so sabre-rattling that I find myself looking for reasons to disagree, even when I already agree. I am deeply invested in understanding the politicized nature of the university, and in addressing the university itself as a site of activism, but the activist rhetoric of Bousquet's book throughout makes me feel defensive, even when I am not the object of his critique. This can be true of his online persona as well: quick to call less-than-helpful commenters
"trolls," combatative with even friendly voices, sharp in his retorts. It's not an ethos to which I personally respond particularly well, and he comes off sounding like a bully, even though he is consistently fighting for the underdog.

That little issue aside, I find the book itself to be a trenchant critique of an increasingly dire situation: the exploitation of labor by and through academe. Bousquet's general argument seems to be that the increasing corporatization of the university revolves around a particularly deleterious set of labor practices that has generally trended toward more middle-and upper-management practices in a growing stratum of administration on the one hand, and the increasing casualization of teaching labor on the other hand, companion trends that have specifically abusive effects on that very casualized labor, on students (who in some cases, may fall into both categories), and finally on tenured and tenurable faculty as well.

Some components of this system that Bousquet calls particular attention to include the following:
  • The smooth and steady transformation of teaching and education into "information delivery," and automation and commodification that at once seems to point us toward the boom of digital diploma mills, and at the same time exercises the same logic of uniformity that has made fast food such a profitable enterprise--less-skilled labor can deliver information without necessarily having the expertise, or the working conditions, to foster a thriving environment. This all adds up to less-empowered teachers (who for various reasons are given less control over curriculum), students (whose individual needs and skills are less-accounted for in the classroom), and graduates (who become too easily acculturated to accepting an "informatized" mode of citizenship.
  • The transformation of tenured faculty into management via "administration" often serves to reinforce the current climate of academic capitalism, rather than alleviate it, particularly because it underscores the complicity of academics forced to be "pragmatic" in advancing the claims of the inevitability and necessity of a corporate academy.
  • "Students who work,"a supremely exploited class of laborers both in the academy, and in corporations like UPS that partner with universities to create "job opportunities" that are so strenuous that they frequently make getting an education all but impossible. Bousquet's chapter on UPS reads like an Eric-Schlosser-style expose of the seedy underbelly of practices that universities unwittingly, and sometimes enthusiastically endorse. This chapter has been widely cited as among the most eye-opening, though having worked in a career center elsewhere when UPS came a-calling, I have seen all to well the "opportunity" they offer. I believe you can download a pdf of the chapter on Bousquet's site.
  • The casualization of graduate labor, particularly in composition classes, puts Writing Program Administrators (WPAs) in the position of lower management, exploiting graduate student labor under the guise of a certain kind of educational heroism. Bousquet has written about rhet/comp before, in Tenured Bosses and Disposable Teachers, and is a veteran of Graduate Caucus labor efforts. Though my sense is that he is a little uncharitable to the position of WPAs, tagging them with the ironic "heroic WPA" tag, he is dead on that the increasing disciplinarization of composition studies represents a move toward management science via teacher training. This has a double effect of making WPAs complicit in corporatization practices (by continually authorizing and implementing an information delivery model of education via casualized student, contract, and untenurable laborers), while at the same time guaranteeing their status as second-class faculty whose "discipline" is grounded "merely" in pedagogical praxis. I want to re-read this chapter more carefully, for my first reading of it struggled with tone issues, but his impulse toward organized labor strikes me (no pun intended) as a useful one.
  • The rhetoric of a meritocratic job market has encouraged those who do make the tenure track to distance themselves from freeway fliers, adjuncts, and contract labor, which in turn enables the university at large to effect the employment of those laborers at substandard conditions, clearly preferring less expensive teaching labor to quality teaching labor. The growth, then of the university's reliance on casualized labor continues to fuel the hiring crisis in the humanities, leaving the tenured faculty in the position of merely securing reputation, while passing off much of the (least desirable) teaching duties to less-empowered faculty.
It's a bleak picture generally, though Bousquet remains committed to the idea of organizing at all levels. While I am all for unionizing (and was briefly a part of that effort as a grad student), I wonder how far this will go toward dismantling this system. Bousquet, rightly, seems to think that it is at least a necessary step.

So how, as TT faculty, might we approach this? First, Bousquet notes, we must recognize that that even when we have the cushy TT positions, that this is our problem, too. He draws out the following postulates:
  1. We are not 'overproducing PhDs'; we are underproducing jobs.
  2. Cheap teaching is not a victimless crime.
  3. Casualization is an issue of racial, gendered, and class justice.
  4. Late capitalism doesn't just happen to the university; the university makes late capitalism happen. (40-44)
In the end, we must fight for the rights of our contingent faculty to organize, and exercise solidarity with those faculty, rather than treating them as pariahs, substandard teachers, or mere apprentices. And when we can, we must make decisions that decrease the casualization of contingent labor rather than increase it.

But don't take my word for it. Check out Bousquet's book, and try to look past the tone, which, for all I know, may be a necessary stance for him to take as one of too-few pro-labor voices crying out in the corporate-academic wilderness. It's an important cry.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Critical Pedagogies at Enculturation

Just to keep the ostensible focus of the blog on teaching, check out the new issue of the online journal Enculturation, focused on "Critical Pedagogies and Cultural Studies," and guest edited by Rachel Riedner, whose new book, co-authored with Kevin Mahoney, and entitled Democracies to Come: Rhetorical Action, Neoliberalism and Resistance Communities, currently graces my desk.

Classics and New Classics

Andi, over at AndiLit has just tagged me with a meme about reading the "classics" which in addition to being an interesting meme, dovetails with some things I've been thinking about lately in terms of canon formation, list-making, and book reading (as opposed to, umm, blog reading).

Anyway, Andi's meme goes like this:
1. What is the best classic you were “forced” to read in school (and why)?
2. What was the worst classic you were forced to endure (and why)?
3. Which classic should every student be required to read (and why)?
4. Which classic should be put to rest immediately (and why)?
5. **Bonus** Why do you think certain books become classics?

Of course, this meme is a trap, where no answer won't get me in some sort of indefensible territory, if for no other reason than it relies on the word "classic." But more on that below. In the meantime, I'll try to take this at face value, and just do the meme.

Best Classic: By "best," I think we're going with some sense of an eye-opening read, something that has both personal appeal and that ineffable quality, "literary merit." I'm going to go with T.S. Eliot's anthologized poetry if I can be that broad, and if, not, then "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." In generally, these poems hit me where it counts. I think I respond in particular to the call for difficulty that Eliot makes for modernist poetry, the idea that a poem might be like some sort of origami puzzle, or perhaps an unknot, one that comes to perfection by unfolding, or unraveling rather than folding or tying. "Prufrock" specifically also works on a level that I feel in a vaguely familiar way: that kind of isolation in a crowd that is a hallmark of modern angst resonated with the teenaged me in a way that nerdy teens often feel. That is not what I meant at all. That is not it at all. Apologies to: Hamlet, Mrs. Dalloway, Godot, Tristam Shandy, Cloud 9, Invisible Man, Malory's Morte D'Arthur, Trojan Women, Anne Sexton's Transformations, Angela Carter, Midnight's Children.

Worst Classic: Andi called Middlemarch her "best" and I'd be tempted to put it here, but mostly because on an affective level, I'd be tempted to put many many Victorian novels, particularly the big romances, in this slot. I find many of them to be the literary equivalent of drinking sand. I know not all Victorian lit follows this way, and much of it has to do with how it was taught to me, but still, Great Expectations, Bleak House, Wuthering Heights, Vanity Fair, could all go here for me. And although I really really want to break convention and go a different direction with this choice, it's another Victorian novel that gets the "worst" designation" from me: Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South. I still feel terrible about this, because I recognize that there's really interesting stuff going on in these novels, stuff with gender and class and morality. The two Dickens novels particularly fall into that "teeming with Life" sort of novel that I adore in contemporary fiction. But alas, you'd have to ply me with a lot of, what? chocolate, good cheese, bread, wine, maybe even cash, to get me to re-read the Gaskell book assigned by my Brit Lit II professor. And as someone who now teaches a lot of Brit Lit II, I can assure my students that I will not make them read Gaskell. Other nominees: Pamela, Women in Love, George Bernard Shaw,

Mandatory Classic: How can I not say Hamlet? Although I don't feel it in my gut the same way I do, say, "Prufrock," the combination of poetry, introspection, madness, playfulness, theatricality, and Yorick's skull add up to something pretty effin' awesome. And if not for the merit of the play alone, how else could I teach the Rushdie story "Yorick" or Stoppard's R&G, or even Heiner Muller's Hamletmachine? The point is, this is maybe a mandatory text because of its combination of actual quality, and cultural capital.

Put it to rest: Well, I find it hard to justify D.H. Lawrence anymore (sorry to the particular reader who I know does a lot with Lawrence). And I'm not sure what benefit comes from reading Alexander Pope, either. But in general, as someone who does cultural studies of texts as artifacts of culture, rather than as the pinnacle of culture, I'm not one for excluding texts, even those I really despise reading myself.

On why: Listen, we all know that canon formation has as much to do with politics as it does with aesthetics. To claim that I like modernist texts because they're difficult is virtually tantamount to professing fascism. And even I notice the preponderance of white guys on this meme, which suggests for this reader the persistence of canonicity despite the successful break-in of many heretofore marginal subjectivities in syllabi around the academy. And let's not kid ourselves about the role of sales here. One may note that William Blake sold hardly a copy in his day, but he sure sells like hotcakes today. What makes a classic? There's no easy answer, except that it can be only be explained by a careful calculus of politics, commerce, history, culture, and literary technique, itself a category that can't be separated from the other notions.

This all gets me to something else that's been sticking in my craw for a couple of weeks. I may have mentioned that despite all of my pretensions, I read nothing so faithfully as Entertainment Weekly. (I know!) Anyway, a few weeks ago, for their 1000th issue, they released an issue of lists of "New Classics" from the past 25 years. Now I'm sure this generated loads of letters, and it probably sold some copies, because really, who doesn't love subjective ranking lists? But I got my knickers in a particular twist by their books list, mostly because I couldn't possible figure out what the criteria would have been. Sales? Popularity? Name recognition in the US? "Quality?" Let's just look at the top ten for clues:
1. The Road , Cormac McCarthy (2006)
2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, J.K. Rowling (2000)
3. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
4. The Liars' Club, Mary Karr (1995)
5. American Pastoral, Philip Roth (1997)
6. Mystic River, Dennis Lehane (2001)
7. Maus, Art Spiegelman (1986/1991)
8. Selected Stories, Alice Munro (1996)
9. Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier (1997)
10. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (1997)

OK, so what we see here are some perhaps obvious choices from a scholarly standpoint Toni Morrison, Philip Roth and Art Spiegelman are all solid choices, hard to argue with. Cormac McCarthy may also be pretty hard to argue with as being on the list, though I suspect that the position at the top has more to do with cultural currency than anything. In 20 years would it be near the top? who can say?

But then other choices suggest a kind of nod toward other elements: Mystic River is widely regarded as a sublime example of a certain kind of genre fiction, and indeed, it may merely be marketing that has kept it off of academic reading lists (we are blinkered in our own ways). I don't know, though: I haven't read it. While I cringe at the inclusion of Cold Mountain, it seems to be here as a nod toward the massive best seller, and they can't really put The Da Vinci Code this high (as it is, it's in the 90s). The Murakami is a hip choice, international and edgy at once. The Potter choice speaks to all kinds of things, including audience appeal, and sales, though why they'd simply choose one book (when they list Pullman's superior His Dark Materials together) is baffling. Willow assures me that The Liar's Club is all kinds of influential, and really initiated the big memoir push, though I have never heard of it. Give me Didion or Eggers or Lauren Slater or W.G. Sebald any day. The Munro collection is a brave choice, and a welcome one I think: short fiction is under-discussed generally, and Munroe is about as good as it gets. The list attends nicely to short fiction, too, with George Saunders, Raymond Carver, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Lorrie Moore all appearing.

I am more surprised by what's missing on the list. Besides Indian-American Lahiri, there are no Indian novelists on the list, which means that none of the literary output of Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Kiran Desai, Anita Desai, or Bharati Mukherjee is stronger than, say, Jon Stewart's American: The Book, Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic, or that Dan Brown book, let alone Cold Mountain or The Lovely Bones (#34).

There's also, as far as I can tell, nothing from Africa at all. Forget Ben Okri's Booker-prize winning The Famished Road, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's The Purple Hibiscus, or Chinua Achebe's Anthills of the Savannah, but even the ahem, less-threatening (cough White cough) J.M. Coetzee or Nadine Gordimer aren't here.

Nor is Like Water for Chocolate, or anything by Orhan Pamuk, or Jeanette Winterson, or Julian Barnes, or Paul Auster, or... or... or...

And let's not even talk about genre. Because by books, we mean, generally, prose. Novels, Short stories, memoir, and to a lesser degree other kinds of non-fiction. No poetry counts. And let's not even begin to talk about the wretched theatre list. I can't even be bothered.

Sigh. So anyway, a new meme: Best books of prose narrative of the last 25 years--that I've read. Which means that many exclusions can be chalked up to the fact that I haven't read them yet. We'll see if anyone picks it up.

Anyway, the rules:
1. Read the Entertainment Weekly List of New Classics:
2. Make a list of 10 or 20 or 25 of the best books of prose narrative (which excludes things like Fast Food Nation, which EW includes) you've read written since 1983.
3. Put it on your blog.
4. Boldface the authors not appearing on EW's top 100. Italicize the authors who appear with a different book.
5. Tag people if you want.

Around 50 recent books I've read that are better than Cold Mountain, in no particular order
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Zadie Smith: White Teeth
  • Arundhati Roy: The God of Small Things
  • J. M. Coetzee: Disgrace, Foe
  • Jeanette Winterson: Written on the Body, Sexing the Cherry, The Passion
  • Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid's Tale, The Blind Assassin
  • E.L. Doctorow: City of God
  • George Saunders: Pastoralia
  • Angela Carter: Nights at the Circus, Wise Children, Burning your Boats (which is cheating since this story collection includes The Bloody Chamber which is older than 25 years)
  • Michael Cunningham: The Hours
  • Dave Eggers : A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
  • Toni Morrison: Beloved
  • Art Spiegelman: Maus
  • Phillip Pullman: His Dark Materials
  • Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible
  • Salman Rushdie: Shame, Haroun and the Sea of Stories
  • Don Delillo: White Noise, Mao II
  • Laura Esquivel: Like Water for Chocolate
  • David Markson: This is Not a Novel
  • WG Sebald: Austerlitz
  • Maxine Hong Kingston: The Woman Warrior
  • Tim OBrien: The Things They Carried
  • Jhumpa Lahiri: Interpreter of Maladies
  • Julia Alvarez: How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents
  • Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections
  • Michael Chabon: Kavalier and Clay
  • Neil Gaiman: American Gods
  • Julian Barnes: A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters
  • Harry Crews: Body
  • Andrew Holleran: Dancer from the Dance
  • David Lodge: Small World
  • Suzan-Lori Parks: Getting Mother's Body
  • Arthur Phillips: Prague
  • JK Rowling: The Harry Potter Series
  • Lorrie Moore: Birds of America
  • AS Byatt: The Biographer's Tale
  • Umberto Eco: The Island of the Day Before
  • Nick Hornby: How to Be Good
  • Jamaica Kincaid: Annie John
  • PD James: The Children of Men
  • Alan Kurzweil: The Case of Curiosities, The Grand Complication
  • Gregory Maguire: Wicked
  • Howard Norman: The Museum Guard
  • Ruth Ozeki: My Year of Meats
  • Sarah Pritchard: Lately
  • Kurt Vonnegut : Hocus Pocus

A final note: In that issue is a short graphic memoir piece by Alison Bechdel (who appears on the list) whose narrative of her own reading life suggests that the best way to keep people from reading "the classics" is to put them on the list. She apparently preferred Harriet the Spy.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

For the Kitten

When Willow and I met, she had two cats, Ziggy and The Kitten. Even after The Kitten was fully grown, she remained The Kitten. Mostly white with a smoky grey tail and ears, The Kitten was subdued, elegant, and excellent companionship for the lap when you were ill. She loved nothing more than to curl up in a perfect circle inside the large, robin-egg blue box that once held our crystal Tiffany cake plate, a wedding gift from Willow's best friend.

When Willow and I moved in together, I brought Molly along, at that point, a mere yearling. Molly was both territorial and protective of her Daddy. She could do nothing about Ziggy (who has spent most of his life around the 23-lb. mark), but the Kitten she terrorized, often waiting on the litter box hood to attack The Kitten as she emerged from her necessaries. As you might imagine, this caused the Kitten to avoid the litter box, favoring instead, in no particular order, a backpack full of student papers, several pairs of shoes, a laptop bag complete with laptop, and many many plastic shopping bags.

So we had to find a new home for The Kitten. Willow's best friend (she of the Tiffany blue box, natch) took her in, and The Kitten soon made her and her husband into true devotees. When Willow and I would visit, the Kitten generally snubbed us.

Well, sadly, some five or six years after sending her on, the Kitten curled up in her last warm circle, and was put to sleep to help alleviate ailments too numerous and undignified to mention. Ziggy (that beast) and Molly (that brazen hussy, at least to The Kitten) live on with us. But even though Ihaven't seen the Kitten in years now, I miss her quite a bit.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

An Online Honor; or, Biting the Hand

I recently received an email notifying my that this here blog had been listed on someone's Top 100 blogs by liberal arts professors. Woo Hoo! Top 100!

Now, I'm a sucker for baseless accolades, but this little blog isn't updated frequently enough, nor proofread rigorously enough, to warrant any actual accolades. Having some good readers who seem to think I'm interesting from time to time has always been enough. Heck, I've never even been tagged in one of those "Five Thinking Bloggers" memes--I probably wouldn't even tag myself.

So that was nice email to get! I'm in good company, with Jo(e), and Claire Potter, and Bardiac, and lots of others.

But wait a minute? Where is Dr. Crazy on this list? Flavia? Oso Raro? Dr. Virago? All top notch bloggers, who, frankly, I'd read well before I'd find my way to this blog. What kind of methodology is being used here? Who are these Top-100 listmakers, anyway?

Oh! Look at their front page (well, you can't, for I haven't linked them)! It's all "unbiased" reviews and ads for online universities, particularly of the for-profit variety. Oh yes, there are a couple thrown in there with bricks-and-mortar reputations, University of Maryland, Cornell. U of M, though, has an online campus that may or my not be for-profit, but it certainly advertises like one. Couldn't say about Cornell. Alongside these august institutions, though, are DeVry, U of Phoenix, and Walden University. Hmmm.

So where do these Top 100 awards I've been included in fall into the mission of this honorific-bestowing site? Wait a minute. There's no link to this list on the main page at all. In fact, the post seems to have been back-date-stamped to 2005, so as to appear nowhere near the front page! Buried, if you will, so that liberal arts blogging isn't confused with the actual mission of the website.

So how do I, an erstwhile critic of the corporatization of the American academy, feel about this inclusion?

Not good. First off, I don't like the association with for-profit education. I don't know enough about it to form a definite opinion, but my instinct is that it abuses academic labor, fosters substandard learning experiences, and is generally vulnerable to undue corporate influence on actual learning. Perhaps not in all cases, but almost certainly in many. No thanks.

But what really sticks in my craw, is that this list seems to be an advertising tactic: "honoring" humanities bloggers, is really just a cheap trick to generate links to a site that shills a kind of education that few-to-none of us work in, and probably few-to-none of us support with any kind of enthusiasm (though perhaps I should speak for myself).

You'll probably see some links up around the blogosophere about this "honor," but I'll decline to link, thanks. I don't advertise on this space, even in exchange for flattery. We'll see how long I stay on the list, in fact.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Pop Culture I'm Consuming

Instead of spending more time boring you with the virtually baseless sense of dread about my career that I seem to be harboring (for those who care, it's almost certainly a displaced sense of dread from other, more typical anxieties that Freud would have plenty to say about), I thought I'd blog about some of the fluffy pop culture material I am consuming (late to the party in some cases, but still), and enjoying.

The is, while I was pretty on top of the pop culture game before kids, the munchkins now occupy much of the time otherwise devotable to TV, films, and what have you. I remember that when I was at my last position and commuting via subway, that I had a thought one day, riding up the escalator as the kids neared their first birthday: that a year prior, I recalled having a Radiohead song stuck in my brain, and hoping that I'd be a cool dad who had infants and still listened to indie post-rock soundscapes, but jammed in my head that day a year later, I had "C is for Cookie."

So with what time I've had left after Sesame Street soundtracks and Backyardigans episodes (which I'll confess to enjoying as much as the kids do), here's the grown-up fare I've had time for this summer.

  • Slings and Arrows: This three-season, 18 episode Canadian tv show, now on dvd, follows three seasons of a fictional Canadian Shakespeare company. The show is wonderful: knowing about the workings of a decent sized regional company, thoughtful and funny about actors, and really quite in love with its Shakespearean material, this birthday gift from Willow has been a highlight of my tv watching. In fact, since Top Chef ended a few weeks ago (Yay Stephanie!), it's the only scripted tv I've watched.
There's plenty to love: for Willow, it's the loving treatment of, in the first season, Hamlet, which she taught for several years to AP high schoolers, and of which she has memorized large chunks. The television show actually stages modestly sized bits of the text, and has the mad-genius actor-director actually rooting around the text in the way that working actors do, which is to me quite interesting and thoughtful.

For me, I enjoy the theatre-company politics of donors and artistic visions and bad wine. The company I worked with was never this big, but many of those same concerns trickled down in their own way, and feel quite familiar. Plus, it co-stars, and is co-written, by Mark McKinney of Kids in the Hall, and any time a former Kid surfaces, I'm happy. Anyway, if you don't know this series, it's well worth a Netflix order.

  • On the music front, another birthday present, this time a big iTunes gift card, has me listening to even more new-to-me music. I'm still listening to the new REM in pretty heavy rotation, and I still quite like it, but I also can't quite shake the feeling that Stipe is now as much a skilled poseur as an actual rock star (I know, I'm making a very fine distinction), which I posted about earlier and really maybe I'm just seeing the footwork show a bit--but the lyric "Kick-it out on the dance floor like you just don't care" from the oddly titled "Man-Sized Wreath" just doesn't feel right coming from the almost-50 Stipe. I find much more telling (and endearing) the funny moment in the non-album track "Redhead Walking" when Stipe gives a little, high pitched rock-n-roll screech "Ow!" and then laughs, "oh, that hurt." But by and large, listenable, good material from a band I've always liked, even loved.

  • I'm also still listening to Andrew Bird, and bought an earlier album called something like "The Mysterious Production of Eggs" which is good, though I like the more recent album better. I also bought an album by Jolie Holland, formerly of the Be Good Tanyas, who, now solo, is spinning out some great drawly, southern gothic folk stuff that's great on hot, humid summer nights. And I bought some songs by Over the Rhine, which are nice, but have neither the edge of someone like Holland, or the lyricism of a band like Hem, who remain in pretty high rotation for me.

  • But the new obsession for me is The New Pornographers, whose work has always been on the edges of my radar, as I quite like Neko Case solo, but I've been listening to Twin Cinema from 2005 and Challengers from 2007 obsessively this past month for reasons I can't quite explain. All thre reviews about them say most of what I want to say, but there's also something about their 70'sesque power pop that is kind of like mainlining nostalgia, pure and undiluted and blissful, in a way I can't quite put my finger on. My parents never listened to bands that are claimed as NP influences like T.Rex, and I didn't either, but the whole album just feels like the kind of grownup 1978 that swirled around me as a child but I never understood. I dunno. But I like it a lot.

  • Haven't seen any movies this summer, aside from Iron Man in May (meh. fine. whatever). Willow will want to see the Dark Knight movie soon, and I kinda wouldn't mind seeing Get Smart, but summer movies haven't really been revving my engine lately.

  • Willow and I have been, finally, belatedly, working our way through Harry Potter and the Highly Guessable Plot Device this summer, and I have to say, now on chapter 15, I don't like it. Some background: Willow and I have read every word of the HP series aloud to one another. It started as a kind of bedtime story thing when #3 was just released, as the mania was really beginning, and just continued on. #6 took us ages, since the kids were in the picture, but we thought we'd be better about #7. But then two things happened. First, I actually started having nightmares when we'd read the book just before bed. This is actually not uncommon for me. I dream pretty vividly about narratives I read or watch just before sleep. I once had conspiracy nightmare about Project Runway, of all things. I had to stop watching Heroes because of Sylar nightmares. So Voldemort nightmares were unsurprising, though I hadn't had them for the previous books.

The second thing was that somewhere around chapter 4, I had one of these nightmares turn into the kind of half-sleeping obsessing about something that sometimes sends me upstairs to write at 3 in the morning. That was when I figured out the actual big plot device, and the abundance of spoilers since have confirmed my theory. So basically, a lot of the fun mystery is gone.

But here's the thing, even though the plot is kind of a foregone conclusion, we've returned to it a year later, and the suspense is still really eating at me. The kind of low-hanging dread really just gives me no pleasure. In short, I have no tolerance for dramatic irony. I hate horror films of all kind. Suspense thrillers make me so antsy that I am annoying to watch them with. I paced through the entirety of the neo-noir movie Bound. I regularly have to get up and leave the room for mildly suspenseful moments in otherwise non-suspenseful shows and movies (especially when someone has obviously screwed up and is clearly about to get caught). So the Death-eaters-are-right-around-the-corner dread of this final book is kind of ruining it for me. Plus, the inventive magic that helped me enjoy the first several have kind of turned into a latinate gunplay, with faux-erudite chants accompanied by purple blasts from magic wands seems like laser blasters from Star Wars as much as anything. We'll probably soldier it out, continuing to read aloud, but mostly because it's just too much down to leave unfinished.

  • Finally, my favorite pop culture to consume this time of year is Wimbledon. The white togs, the big serves, the bad teeth of Andy Murray, the beleaguered dominance of Roger Federer, the strangely shy smile of Venus Williams (see also: big serves). I'm in heaven.