Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Five

Another Friday, another five.

1. I don’t know where my time goes. Really. I’ve tried to be more conscientious this week. Each day, I’ve made a specific schedule. And each night, I’ve written down what I actually did that day. And I still can’t figure out how I manage to waste so much of each day.

I have one month left to write two 20-page literature reviews and a revised proposal. Not impossible, but I really need to get myself motivated and focused.

2. I also haven’t done any sailing again this week, despite perfect weather almost every day. I forget why I didn’t go on Monday. On Tuesday, I rode my bicycle to campus and was too worn out afterwards to go sailing. Wednesday, I wasn’t feeling well. Thursday, the weather was frustratingly iffy. We were supposed to have storms all day, but the rain came and went in brief bursts and then disappeared in the afternoon, leaving just a bunch of threatening clouds. I didn’t want to get to campus and find out that the lake was closed. Then today, I felt guilty about not having read enough for prelims, so I made myself spend the afternoon working.

3. I saw the cutest Boston Terrier puppy at the dog park today. He was only 4 months old and couldn’t have been more than 10 pounds. (I’ll leave aside my usual rant about how puppies shouldn’t be at the dog park until they are at least six months old.)

I want a new puppy so much. I’m still completely in love with Rowen. But she’s almost 5 years old, and she’s lost that spastic puppy energy. And I realize that a sane person would be happy that her dog has settled down to be a (mostly) calm, sweet-tempered companion. But I’ve never claimed to be sane.

Unfortunately, I have to be realistic. I barely have the time (or money) to care for Rowen. And having one dog in a condo with no yard is less than ideal; having two dogs cooped up all day would be unfair. Not to mention that I still haven’t given up on going into the field next year. I’ve convinced my parents to take Rowen while I’m gone, but no way I’ll be able to convince them to take on the care of two dogs.

4. I now have eight---eight!---little tomatoes growing on my balcony. Mornings are so much more exciting when I can look forward to checking on my plant to see if any new tomatoes have started and how big each one is getting.

Would it be totally weird to name the tomatoes?

5. I’m off to a wedding this weekend. And I decided that I can wear slacks.

Monday, July 27, 2009

On the Pile

I’ve gotten quite a bit of reading done in the past few weeks. Unfortunately, none of it has been particularly good and very little of it has been for my prelims.


* Gangleader for a Day by Sudhir Alladi Venkatesh. The author is a sociologist who, as a graduate student at the University of Chicago, took on a long-term ethnographic study of the role of gangs at a Chicago housing project. I’ve had this book on my to-read list for a while because there are so few “popular” ethnographies. I was disappointed, then, that Gang Leader for a Day is not so much an ethnography as a self-aggrandizing memoir. Venkatesh focuses primarily on reiterating how “groundbreaking” and “dangerous” his research was, and although I can understand his not wanting to get bogged down in a literature review in a book aimed at a general audience, I think he grossly misrepresents himself and his research by failing to place his work within the discipline. He also completely ignores those outside the discipline who have done outstanding in-depth reporting on the inner-city poor (such as David Simon and Jonathan Kozol). I do give Venkatesh credit for trying to get beyond the common tropes of inner-city poverty and violence, but I’m disappointed that he mostly uses his experience to bolster his own reputation as a “rogue” sociologist rather than to contribute to a very necessary public discussion.

* Towelhead by Alicia Erian. Another highly buzzed, but ultimately disappointing read. The story centers on a 13-year-old Lebanese-American girl who comes into her sexuality in a broken, unstable world where adults are at best unreliable, and often dangerous. The author tries to frame the girl’s coming-of-age within a post-9/11 milieu, but the issue of her cultural identity and how that plays into her individual development feels tagged on. Indeed, the girl herself feels incidental to the story. We learn almost nothing about her, apart from her sexual experience and victimization. Nor does she change in any significant way throughout the story.

I’m ashamed to admit that despite how terrible the story was, I stayed up late into the night reading with a lurid curiosity, akin to being sucked into a crime-show marathon: fascination of the abomination. And much like those crime shows, much of the book was merely shock for shock’s value, testing the limits of public morality. My participation in that test left me with a strong desire for a shower.

* I’ve been on a Laura Lippman binge. In the past few weeks, I’ve read Butchers Hill, the third book in the Tess Monaghan series, and the stand-alone Life Sentences. I’m finding, however, that Lippman might be best read in small doses spaced well apart. Otherwise the redundancies and limitations of her work becomes much too apparent. Part of what I enjoy about Lippman’s books are the Baltimore setting and the local flavor, but Lippman seems to assume that she has to re-explain that local flavor in every book. The history of Columbia (the section of Maryland, not the country or district) is fascinating. Once. I’ve now read it three times. I know from a marketing perspective, Lippman is smart to write each book as if it were a stand alone. But from a reader’s perspective, I’m annoyed with repetitive asides that bog down the narrative.

Still, I'd recommend Life Sentences. The "mystery" at the center is contrived and the resolution is tacked on, but Lippman offers interesting observations on race, memory, and storytelling. Indeed, the book would have been much stronger if Lippman had left out the mystery---which served only as a cheap plot device---and focused solely on the fallout of the main character's memoir.

* Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. One day I will learn not to trust the hype. Sharp Objects is yet another well-reviewed, popular novel that sublimates the story for the sake of quirk. The narrator---yet another “complex” female character who I find unbearably self-centered and pathologically idealized---returns to her small, southern home town, and the quirky people who populate it, to report on a possible serial killer who targets spunky, “complex” girls. In doing so, the narrator must confront her own damaged childhood and its lingering scars. Which she mostly accomplishes through binge drinking and destructive sex.

I’m very curious how we’ve come to this cultural moment in which being a “real” woman equates to being self-destructive. It’s almost as if, in attempting to rectify the 1940s/50s image of the “hysterical” woman, we’ve merely swapped stereotypes, so that being non-pathological is itself a pathology. Or is instead an example of the hegemony absorbing resistance: See, liberated women are weak, vulnerable, prone to self-destructive behavior and mental illness. But now it’s by their own choice!

I’ve also read various books and articles on colonialism, medical missionaries, and foreign development for my prelims, as well as a selection of colorful board books and Dr. Seuss stories. I will recommend, for children and adults, Bashful Bob and Doleful Dolinda by Margaret Atwood. Read it aloud for the full experience.

Now Reading

* City of Thieves by David Benioff. So far, it is living up to its hype.

* Voluntary Madness by Norah Vincent.

And re-reading On Writing Well by William Zinsser after realizing that my own writing is suffering from overexposure to bad prose.

On Deck

* The Wish Maker by Ali Sethi.

* Where the Stress Falls by Susan Sontag.

* The Night of the Gun by David Carr.

* Beowulf, trans. by Seamus Heaney.

And maybe I'll pull one of Kozol's books off my shelf to remind myself that intelligent analysis and good writing are not mutually exclusive.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Five

I'm back in Madison and back to regular access to a high-speed Internet line, so I'm back to Friday Five.

1. I'm so proud of myself. I finally---finally!---cleaned out the suitcases full of old clothes that I've lugged from Virginia to Pennsylvania to Texas and then to Wisconsin but never unpacked because (1) the clothes are several sizes too small and/or (2) I don't actually like them anymore. Seriously, I had three suitcases filled with clothes that I haven't worn for at least a year---some for as many as five years. Instead, I now have three garbage bags full of clothes to go to Goodwill and another nearly full bag of trash. Woohoo!

I did keep a couple of items that I really like. Perhaps they'll give me some incentive to lose this weight.

Next project: Finding the bottom of my desk. And maybe finally setting up the printer and scanner that I got from my father back in January (hand-me-downs after he got an upgraded combo).

2. I'm a little worried that by saying this, I'll jinx it: But my balcony garden is going great! My upside-down tomato plant has grown big and bushy and has six---six!---little tomatoes so far, ranging in size from a pea to a golf ball. My basil, chive, and sage plants are also doing well. I was able to get enough from my basil plant to make homemade pesto (yummy!). I think I'll pick up a couple more plants at the farmers' market this weekend. I'd really like to get cilantro, but I haven't been able to find it. Perhaps tarragon and parsley . . .

Do any of you know how to dry herbs for storing?

3. Unfortunately, work on my prelims and proposals has not been as successful. I'm completely devoid of motivation. For almost three years, I've complained about not being able to work on my own research, and now that I can, I've lost interest. I've extended one of my deadlines twice already, and I think my co-advisor is getting a bit irked. Fortunately my advisor and third committee member have been out of the country for most of the summer, so they haven't yet noticed how badly I've been slacking. But I'll have to face up to them soon enough.

4. Sailing---well, that's been mixed results. I've finished the lessons on the tech boats (small, single-sail vessels about the size of a Sunfish sailboat) and have my light rating, which means I can take the boat out by myself on days when the wind is less than 15 mph. So now I need to get out on the boat to practice a bit before I move on to the next set of lessons.

But . . . I hate the tech boat. With a burning passion. It's tiny and unstable; I'm large and clumsy. As a result, I come back from each excursion covered in bruises and abrasions. And sore as hell from squatting for tacks and jibes.

The weather has also been less than cooperative. The wind is either dead or too strong. Or worse, variable.

So I haven't been sailing as much as I had planned or hoped. But I hope to get out a few times next week. If I can pass up to the next level, I can get back in the sloop, which is about twice the size of the tech and a lot more stable (and a lot easier to launch!).

5. A question: Is it appropriate to wear a pants suit to an evening wedding? I'm going to a wedding next weekend, and as noted above, my legs are covered ankle to hip in large bruises and scrapes. Of course, this assumes that I can find a pants suit in the next week that is both affordable and attractive.