30 Day Book Challenge: Day 5

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

30 Day Book Challenge: Day 5 - A book that makes you happy.

OK, I'm going to level with you and confess that this is and probably will be the hardest prompt for me. I've been thinking over the numerous books that I've read throughout my life, and I'm hard-pressed to think of one that makes me genuinely happy. I've mentioned my general literary focus in undergraduate and graduate school before, and as you can imagine, these books didn't make me happy. They engaged and challenged me. They taught me so much. They fueled my love of literature and intellectual curiosity. But they didn't make me happy.

Even the "for fun" books that I read these days don't really make me happy. I didn't discover a "for fun" genre that I really enjoy until maybe a year or two ago when I first picked up The Hunger Games and was like, "Young adult dystopian fiction it is." I'm not really sure why I like this genre so much (especially since there are a lot of truly awful books published in it), but I do, and I'm trying not to judge my preferences too harshly. I enjoy what I enjoy, and I want to give myself the freedom to just do that without overthinking and scrutinizing it to death. But again, even though I enjoy these books, they don't make me happy. Excited and curious and wanting to read more and find out what's going to happen next when the characters go a little bit deeper. But not happy.

That said, I think the book that has come closest to making me happy is Mindy Kaling's Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).

I hadn't really thought of myself as a Mindy Kaling fan until I watched a few episodes of The Mindy Project last year, and I found myself laughing at her honest, relatable, and truly laugh-out-loud funny approach to life (see here and here). I decided to read her book this summer when I wanted something fun and humorous, and this definitely fits the bill. While learning more about Mindy Kaling's life, professional career, and rise to fame, there are plenty of hilarious anecdotes and asides to keep you doubled over. What I find so incredibly funny about Mindy's brand of humor is how she captures something so hilarious and so true about the experience of being a woman. I don't relate to her in every story (I've grown pretty weary of celebrity gossip, and I'm especially uninterested in what Beyoncé and Jay-Z are up to these days), but so many times I found myself laughing and thinking, "Yep, I've totally thought that, too!"

Mindy's section on her time as a babysitter/nanny was particularly hilarious. I think that most women (and probably men) have worked as babysitters at some point in their lives, and I found Mindy's descriptions of life with kids-who-are-not-your-own-kids so funny that I couldn't help texting particularly hilarious passages to my husband. When she describes how much she enjoyed eating all of the kid-specific food and then getting caught and thanking her young charge for helping her cover up this fact, it brought me right back to my days as a babysitter. There's something interesting and kind of about funny about being entrusted with such adult responsibilities but not quite feeling like an adult yourself. There's freedom, but also the intense fear that the parents will come home and discover that you're "doing it wrong." And Mindy captures that perfectly. She's also totally right - kid food really is the best. 

Mindy's book is a fresh, funny, and relatable read. And yes, it made me happy. 

What I'm Watching: The Wolf of Wall Street

Monday, January 13, 2014

My husband and I like going to the movies. I know it's not everyone's favorite pastime, especially considering the ever-increasing price of movie tickets, but we really enjoy it. It's probably the English majors in us - we like to engage with and study as many cultural and artistic forms as we can, and even if we're just watching a silly comedy, more often than not, we will be able to have a lively discussion afterward. Movies keep us sharp and challenge us to think carefully and critically about the world and how it is represented on film. They're also really fun.

Unlike my husband, I usually don't read a lot of movie reviews, especially before seeing a film. I like to go in "fresh" whenever possible so that I can evaluate each movie on its own merits. I will usually have a sense of a movie before I see it, particularly when it's been incredibly hyped and is generating Oscar buzz (see American Hustle, which, by the way, is just awful and the only movie of 2013 that my husband and I seriously considered walking out of - but that's a story for another post). Given how much media attention The Wolf of Wall Street has been getting, I'm surprised that I was able to go into the movie knowing relatively little. I had seen the trailer exactly one time (only because I looked it up online), and I knew it starred Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill and was directed by Martin Scorsese. I had no idea who Jordan Belfort is, and it was only after seeing the trailer that I realized the film focused on Wall Street antics in the 1980s and 1990s, rather than on more recent events. I also had almost no knowledge of the film's more racy and controversial subject matter.

When I got out of the movie, I had a general feeling of "eh." It has the usual Scorsese stylings, which made it visually hypnotic and easy to become immersed in the film. Leonardo DiCaprio is a great actor, and he is charming and at times intoxicating onscreen. Jonah Hill is disgusting and utterly depraved throughout, but isn't that the point? In sum, I thought The Wolf of Wall Street was fine.

But as I've had time to think more about this film, to ruminate on it and let it sit with me, the more angry I've become. I'm angry at Martin Scorsese, Leonard DiCaprio, and Hollywood for choosing to make this film, especially in the way that they did. I'm angry at Jordan Belfort who seems to, by and large, have gotten off with little more than a slap on the wrist. I'm angry at the people who sat in the theater with me and doubled over laughing as they watched a man, high out of his mind on Qualuudes, smash up his car and endanger other drivers, frighten his young daughter and pregnant wife with his out-of-control antics, and then snort cocaine in a desperate attempt to "sober up" enough to save his best friend's life after he chokes on a piece of turkey. But more than anything, I'm angry at myself.

There's a lot of criticism that has been written about The Wolf of Wall Street, but I think this Forbes article entitled "Did 'The Wolf of Wall Street' Con Martin Scorsese?" sums up my feelings about the film pretty well. After acknowledging that "Antics and debauchery are more visually appealing than heartbreak and despair," writer Loren Steffy points out:

But there’s a bigger problem with the film, as Joel Cohen, who prosecuted Jordan Belfort, points out:  the end is basically an ad for Belfort’s “motivational speaking” business. In other words, Belfort conned one of Hollywood’s best living directors into helping him launch his next scheme.
Belfort never cared about his victims, and the movie apparently doesn’t either.

What makes me so angry about this film is that it has contributed to the legend of Jordan Belfort. It is not enough that Mr. Belfort conned countless people out of their hard-earned money to bankroll his hedoistic lifestyle. Instead, he has taken his story, which is also the story of those countless people he defrauded, as well as of the legal experts who investigated his actions and brought him and his colleagues to trial, and used it to turn himself into a larger-than-life character. He is a personality, a legend, a mythical creature. And for what? Because he defrauded innocent people. I don't know when that became the stuff of legends, but it makes me angry that we live in a country that idolizes and singles out these kind of people, especially given how many of us have been hurt by the recent economic downturn.

Leonardo DiCaprio has been pretty outspoken that the film was meant to indict people like Jordan Belfort and their actions, and he claims that anyone who doesn't get that from The Wolf of Wall Street has simply misunderstood it. I could get into the whole author vs. audience issue (and I land pretty solidly on the side of the audience having an active role in determining the meaning of an artistic piece), but I won't. I'll just say that I don't think Leonardo DiCaprio's statements are unfair. First of all, if people don't "get it," maybe it's a problem with the film. It's also difficult to believe that this film is a strong indictment of Jordan Belfort when Leonardo DiCaprio has also specified that the victims were deliberately left out of the film:

We purposely didn’t show (Belfort’s) victims. We wanted the film to be a hypnotic ride the audience gets on so they get lost in this world and not see the destruction left in the wake of this giant ship of greed.

Call me crazy, but how can the film truly indict Jordan Belfort if it refuses to show the real people who were devastated by his actions? Yes, it may have broken the "hypnotic ride," but it also would have forced us to contend with the very real fact that our actions have consequences, especially when those actions are designed to deliberately and methodically prey on innocent people. But as in real life, it seems that the film lets Jordan Belfort off easy, choosing to aggrandize his life of debauchery and depravity, hoping that between Leonardo DiCaprio's charming speeches and the elements of his luxurious lifestyle, we will choose to indict him, even though The Wolf of Wall Street won't.

Every now and then, a movie will cross a moral line for me. Most people measure the morality of a movie against how much nudity, violence, and/or profanity it contains. I'm not too hung up on those things. For me, it comes down to the message, what the film is trying to do, rather than the number of f-bombs. And in that regard, The Wolf of Wall Street absolutely fails. In contributing to the legend of Jordan Belfort, in helping to ensure that his name lives on, this film has done something far more insidious than the display of hedonism that is on the film's surface and has upset so many viewers.

So I'm angry at myself. Angry that I paid $13 to see a movie that has contributed so successfully to the cult personality of Jordan Belfort. That because of me and my $13, more people know who he is, that I have helped to create and cultivate the legend of Jordan Belfort. I even feel guilty now, writing this piece that mentions him by name so many times.  Maybe in some small way, I'm still contributing, and that makes me sick. It's unthinkable that Jordan Belfort can take all of the horrible things that he has done and successfully reinvent himself as a motivational speaker and financial guru, and I can't believe that he got me and my $13 (not to mention, some of the biggest names in Hollywood) to help him do it.

I'm also really angry that so many people aren't talking about the rape scene, but that's a whole other issue.

Other enlightening articles about The Wolf of Wall Street: "An Open Letter to 'The Wolf of Wall Street' and The Wolf Himself" and "The Real Belfort Story Missing from 'Wolf' Movie."    

30 Day Book Challenge: Day 4

Friday, January 10, 2014

30 Day Book Challenge: Day 4 - Favorite book of your favorite series.

This is a hard one! I loved so many of these books because they were each so different. Some of the ones that have stuck with me the longest are those that don't center around a well-defined and precise historical moment (like "the Titanic"), but rather, capture an aspect of history and a certain way of life that I didn't really understand or know much about. Two titles in particular that stand out are Dreams in the Golden Country: The Diary of Zipporah Feldman, a Jewish Immigrant Girl and West to a Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi, New York to Idaho Territory

But I think my absolute favorite is Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie: The Oregon Trail Diary of Hattie Campbell.

As a child, I went through a "prairie girl" phase. I consumed everything that I could about "prairie" life, I was an ardent fan of the Little House on the Prairie Books (I even watched some of the TV episodes and movies), and I dressed up as a "prairie girl" for Halloween when I was in third grade, complete with a homemade bonnet and wooden basket. I also really enjoyed the Oregon Trail computer game and cannot count the number of times that I lost a member of my party to that dreaded thief in the night: dysentery. Even now, I can still hear the strange little sound the computer would make when another person came down with that awful illness.

I read Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie in the midst of my "prairie girl" hay day, and I loved it. As with each book in the Dear America series, I learned so much and was completely swept away by the story. There is a lot of heartache, loss, and sorrow in this book, and I cried every time I read it. I felt like I knew Hattie and her traveling companions, and their struggles and successes were my own. This is definitely one of the sadder and more serious books in the Dear America series (a lot of people die), but I was a pretty serious child and enjoyed that this book engaged me on such a deep and meaningful emotional level. I think that's why I loved the series as a whole so much. Plus, the main character's name is Hattie! It's so old-fashioned and fun, and she is just one of the many Harriets I have become obsessed with during my life (Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Wilson, Harriet Beecher Stowe).

30 Day Book Challenge: Day 3

Thursday, January 9, 2014

30 Day Book Challenge: Day 3 - Your favorite series.

I actually haven't read too many book series as an adult.  Sure I love the Harry Potter series, but that seems kind of obvious and easy.  Plus, I've had a sort of rocky relationship with Harry Potter, and it was only this past year, when I decided to reread the entire series, that I discovered how much I do actually enjoy these books. J.K. Rowling is a pretty masterful storyteller, and when I reread the first installment, I was reminded of just how much fun reading a good book can be.  I've also read a fair amount of dystopian young adult series (The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, Matched), but besides the Divergent series, I can't really say that I enjoyed any of these as a whole. By and large, I found that most of these series got less interesting and less engaging as they went on and ended in pretty unsatisfying ways. Divergent is definitely an exception, and while the series has its flaws, I think it's an engaging, fast-paced, and engrossing read that explores a number of in-depth and compelling issues. I also cannot wait for the film to be released in March - I think it has the potential to translate really well onscreen. Plus, Kate Winslet is playing the bad guy. She is going to be amazing!

I think the book series I enjoyed most were the ones I read as a child. I won't go as far back as my Berenstein Bear days (though how good were those books?). I read so many great series during my childhood (Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie), but I think my favorite is the Dear America series.

I still remember getting my first Dear America book. It was a birthday present from my aunt, uncle, and cousins (I think I was ten or eleven), and they gave me The Winter of Red Snow: The Revolutionary War Diary of Abigail Jane Stewart. For those of you who aren't familiar with the Dear America series, these books were written as diaries by young women who lived through specific important historical moments: the Revolutionary War, slavery, the Civil War, the Oregon Trail, the Titanic, World War II, and the May Flower. I consumed these books as a child. I learned so much about history through these books (especially since each contained a lengthy historical note at the end), and I loved that they centered around compelling and complicated young women, many of whom faced numerous struggles, difficulties, and oppression. The books dealt with various important issues, such as race, gender, religion, immigration, and education, but they all managed to capture how each of these young girls still managed to grow up, finding joy, laughing, and discovering their place in the world, despite the often uncertainty and fluidity of their situations. In addition, I really enjoyed the diary conceit, as it offered a very intimate perspective on what life was like during these important historical moments.

I carefully saved my money so that I could buy every Dear America book that I could find, and in a few years, I had amassed some 15 or so titles. What amazes me, though, is that the original series contained more than 35 books (my ten-year-old brain is exploding!).  The series was relaunched in 2010, and since then, it has added even more titles. In addition, the Dear America series is unique in that the books are written by different authors, and in doing so, it really succeeds in capturing a diverse array of voices and perspectives.

More than anything, though, these books just made me excited about reading. Whenever I picked up a new installment, I couldn't wait to get lost in its pages. Each book managed to engage me in a different way, and reading was always fun. These books contained stories that I wanted to hear, and every time I sat down with one, I couldn't wait to find out what happened next. As a kid, that was what made reading so special and magical for me and why reading was and still is one of my favorite things to do.

30 Day Book Challenge: Day 2

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

30 Day Book Challenge: Day 2 - A book you have read more than three times.

I have read Great Expectations by Charles Dickens exactly three times: once in high school and twice in college. (In graduate school, my nineteenth century European literature professor decided to change things up and had us read Oliver Twist instead.) I imagine that the writer of this prompt anticipated that people would choose a book that they enjoyed so much that they have read it multiple times. But I don't generally re-read books outside of academic settings. If I am assigned a book in class, even if I've read it before, I will re-read it. 

I chose Great Expectations over other books that I have read three times, though, because I really do enjoy it and have gotten something different out of it each time I have read it. In fact, I would venture to say that my reading experience has gotten better each time. My most recent reading of this book was indisputably my favorite, even though it was my last semester of college, this was one of the books I was reading as I was scrambling to finish my Honors Thesis, and I had decided not to write on it for my final paper (and thus, probably should have either not read it at all or merely skimmed it). But I'm glad that I read it, and I was reminded why I love this book so much, despite so many people groaning and rolling their eyes when it is once again assigned. 

As I mentioned in my previous post, I enjoy books that work on two levels, and this one definitely succeeds in that respect for me. The story of Pip always engages and intrigues me, and even now, five years since I last read his narrative, I find myself wanting to return to his pages and become engrossed in his world. Dickens is largely regarded as a master storyteller, and he is in his element in this book.  

More importantly, though, Great Expectations contends with numerous important issues, such as the sense of self and how we construct identity, what happens when we learn something that changes how we view our pasts and ourselves, the struggle to grow up and become your own person, and the difficulty of letting go of our perceptions of ourselves and others. These are distinctly human struggles, things that many (if not all) of us contend with in our search for personhood and finding our place in the world. I know that many others don't enjoy or resonate with Pip's narrative, but I find his earnestness and very human struggle to be compelling and engaging.

On my last reading of Great Expectations, I was most intrigued by issues surrounding Pip as a narrator. Like I said, I was writing my thesis at the time, and while the text I was focusing on (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl) was very different from Great Expectations, I was dealing with issues that can be found in both. I have always been interested in how individuals construct narratives about their lives, particularly in how they employ fiction in moments where they might not otherwise feel able to speak. Pip as a narrator has always fascinated me, from the moment he names himself in the opening paragraph to the different versions of himself we see throughout the book. Pip the narrator is aware of himself as an older, wiser man who knows the end of story, but throughout the book, he struggles to try to recapture and recreate his younger, less knowledgeable selves. For me, this exacerbates all of the issues and problems of narrative that I find so fascinating, and Great Expectations makes me question our notion of historical, factual narrative. Narrative, it seems, can never capture; rather, it can only recapture and recreate, and I have to wonder whether narrative can ever truly get away from fiction. The fact that Great Expectations is itself a work of fiction only makes all of these questions and issues more fascinating to me. 

Great Expectations is a rich, intimate, and meditative book that always challenges me intellectually and offers me something new, both as an academically minded individual and as a person. While it may not be the more exciting A Tale of Two Cities that many people often cite as their favorite Dickens novel, I do wish that more people took the time to explore the depth and complexity of this novel and its narrator. In writing this post, I'm reminded of how much I enjoy and have to learn from this book and Dickens as a writer, and I wonder if it's time for me to return to Great Expectations and his other works that have spent far too long on my "to-read" list.
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