Culture Update 6/5/2012

Here’s what’s on the agenda:

Book of last/this Week: Last week, I was immersed in Alison Bechdel’s new comic drama, Are You My Mother?. In three words: not too impressed. The artwork is great, but the meta-narrative utterly failed to engross me. I was very excited about the prospect of learning more about Bechdel’s quietly stern, detached, literary mother, whom we first encounter in her previous book Fun Home. And perhaps, like a good majority of fans, I too made the mistake of assuming this book would be a Fun Home Part 2, another piercing, relatively straightforward exposure of an extremely intelligent yet very flawed and even negligent parent of the author.

Instead, I was treated to page after page of psychodynamic obsession. As I student of history (my undergrad minor), psychoanalytic theory and its origins are utterly fascinating to me. As a student of psychology (my undergrad major and original career path), with more cognitive, and yes, perhaps even behavioral leanings, I have nothing but impatience for Bechdel’s naive, unmitigated belief in the clinical merits of psychoanalysis. So to encounter (repeatedly) entire blocks of text from the works of the likes of Alice Miller and Donald Winnicott, coupled with Bechdel’s constant extolling of the veracity of their theories, was dull at best and maddening at worst. Personally I would have preferred more Woolf and Rich to Miller and Winnicott. But mostly, I would have been drawn to more about Helen Bechdel and less about Alison’s therapy sessions about Helen.

I’m currently working on the last quarter of Augustus: A Novel. I was surprised to discover that this novel is made up of fictional letters and journal entries (based on historical facts) of various people close to (or enemies of) Julius Caesar’s deified successor. We are not privy to Augustus’ own perspective, adding to the distinct aura of aloofness absolute power brings. To be frank, I didn’t expect to enjoy it nearly as much as I currently am. And I was happy to discover that I could indeed follow along with most of the historical events portrayed, such as the death of Caesar, the intrigues involving the big names (Mark Anthony, Cicero, Brutus) as well as those less famous (Marcus Agrippa, Gaius Maecenas, Marcus Lepidus), and the sea battle at Actium which lead to Cleopatra’s demise. With references to Virgil, Ovid, and Strabo thrown in, this book is an unpretentious smorgasbord of history which reads swiftly, fierce and gentle by turns.

Coming Soon:

I’ve decided to give Coelho another shot (given he lost my respect with the sentimental mess I found in The Pilgrimage). I did enjoy The Alchemist, and I’m intrigued to read a tale about seemingly improbable suicide. Following that theme, this may soon follow:

DVD of the Week: Considering the bookvalanche I just dropped, I’ll keep this short. I watched the first of two episodes of the DVD Stephen Hawking And the Theory of Everything. General impressions: more of a mini Hawking bio than a discussion of physics for the first 20 mins. However, I was delighted by the visual representation of the curvature of space around a massive object (e.g. the curvature formed around the Sun, explaining Earth’s rotation around it). This first episode was a bit too basic for me; I’m no physicist, but even I was already aware that the theories we use to discuss phenomena on a massive scale, such as in regard to planets (like relativity) clash with the theories we use to explain the miniscule (enter quantum mechanics). I’m hoping episode two will go into more detail about how Hawking has striven to reconcile such differences.

Discussion of the Week: Slate’s Culture Gabfest (which I wrote about in my last post) mentioned two articles discussing the differences between literary fiction and genre fiction. The first I haven’t read, but it’s in the New Yorker titled “Easy Writers”, by Arthur Krystal. The second is quite good, a piece by Lev Grossman written for TIME Entertainment. The questions both articles grapple with: Is there a clear distinction between these two types of fiction, or has the line dividing them been blurred? What constitutes a “guilty pleasure” and what constitutes good literature? Are the two mutually exclusive? This is a topic of unending interest to me, so once I have read both of these pieces and do some more research, I will bring the subject back with a vengeance.

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