Thursday, October 30, 2008

Mad Men: Would You Work With These People?

A little bit of fun eye candy for you from the good people at Television Without Pity.

Tomorrow is Halloween. My son is going trick-or-treating as Boba Fett and I am tagging along in black with a black velvet cape. Like anyone on the kiddie route is going to get me as Joan Holloway.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Apres aujourd'hui, le deluge

Basically after this afternoon, I am going to be very busy with grading midterm exams and assignments. I have annotated bibliographies coming in from three of my classes, midterm exams from two of them, and a hot batch of poems coming tomorrow. I'll be busy trying to get these graded for the rest of October. Midterm grades for the semester are due by October 31. Some young 'uns will be getting tricked instead of treated this year!

So what does this mean for the blog? Well, shorter entries, more focused on Mad Men. I missed the first run of "The Jet Set," because of malaise. I want to get back on the ball with the newest episode, which was awesome. So, I have to run and eat lunch, then teach my classes, then prep for the Weight Watchers meetings I'm leading this week, and get some knitting and sewing done. Ciao!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Reading Slumps--What do you do when you don't feel like reading?

Sassymonkey over at has a great post on "reader's slump." What do you do when you self-identify as a voracious reader, you have a pile of books to read, and yet, you don't feel like reading them?

I have felt this way at times, and for me the issue was if I felt like the reading was required in some way. In graduate school, I experienced slumps when I felt like all I was doing was reading, and the reading was someone else's idea, not mine. I got through it, but it was with mental temper tantrums.

Currently, I experience reading reluctance when it comes to student writing. If a paper or creative assignment is unbearably bad, for example, I just can't stop reading it the way I could put down an unengaging book or article. I have to finish it, and worse, think about it. I have to come up with at least one good thing to say, as well as carefully phrased criticisms that will help the student writer improve. This is more mentally exhausting than reading a well-written book about a difficult subject, such as the Teapot Dome scandal.

Also, and I hate to say this, since I started reading and reviewing books for my blog, I feel like it has transformed reading into a chore. When I pick out books for the library, the question behind my selections is usually, "Can I blog about this?" This transforms my style of reading. Normally, I am a very fast reader, but my retention is not always great. Now that I read with an eye to reviewing, I slow down my reading, so I can understand the book and come up with some sort of judgment about it. This takes time and effort, and thus reading starts to feel like a chore again.

If you blog about books, do you feel similiar? Does reading go from joy to chore, from escape to obligation?

There are times I say to myself, "I don't have to do this. I could quit blogging about books." But I won't quit, darn it! What does keep me going is the idea that someone reads my reviews. If you do read my reviews, please post and let me know what you think!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Mad Men: The Inheritance.

Nada. Nothing. Or not what you expected. Pete and his brother get nothing instead of the anticipated fortune. Pete is threatened by his ice-cold motherwith being disowned if he and Trudy consider adoption. Pete has the pleasure of telling her that her husband left her nothing, that he spent her money on other people. Ha ha ha.

Betty sees her father after his latest stroke. What does she inherit? In her dad's lapses of memory (and a really uncomfortable lapse of judgment), she inherits her mother's role as hostess and wife. She doesn't get the items that matter to her--her mother's portrait, the ottoman with the birds, the jardiniere--and complains that she needs to put her name on objects. Well, duh, Betty. People aren't mind readers; they can't give you what you want unless you tell them. Just like Don keeps asking you what he should say or do, but in that case, you're smart to withhold information and make him sweat.

Depending on whether she reconciles or not with Don, Betty may also inherit the mantle of head of household chez Draper. She has a talk with Helen Bishop (the divorcee and mother of creepy Glenn, Betty's prepubescent admirer) in which she admits that Don has moved out. They talk about the effect on the children, and Helen sighs, "The hardest part is realizing you're in charge." I think this is what Betty has been dodging. Being in charge means you are fully accountable to yourself and others, such as your children; it means making difficult decisions on your own. It means you can't lie about in your housecoat sipping red wine in the morning, feeling sorry for yourself because that's not helping your children's emotional development.

Speaking of children's emotional development, we have the return of Helen's son Glenn, older, unhappier and still stuck on Betty. As the two sip Cokes and watch cartoons, does he seem to be inheriting Don's role as head of the household? After all, he is wearing one of Don's T-shirts and Betty seems more concerned about Glenn's comfort than Don's. Betty seems more open and at ease with him than she does with her own children. I think she is touched by the idea that he has a crush on her, but I also think she would be definitely disturbed if she allowed herself to see that crush has a sexual component to it. It's cute and flattering when an eleven year-old boy says he wants to rescue you, but if you knew what he was fantasizing about doing with you. . . another Ewwww moment for Betty. I was definitely creeped out by his taking her hand and getting closer to her just before Carla returned with Sally and Bobby. Betty does the right thing, relegating Glenn to a child's role (he is supposed to go upstairs with Sally and Bobby to see the new train set) and calling Helen to come get her boy. Poor Glenn gets his heart broken, when he realizes Betty has betrayed him and returned him to his mother.

Pete's bizarre conversation with Peggy: he still totally digs her. She's the only person he can confide all his socially unacceptable thoughts and weird fantasies to. I think he hopes to reignite that disturbing, yet powerful chemistry between them, so he can fully be himself with another human being. It's like he thinks the more shocking the confession, the more Peggy will bond with him. I could see this going to some strange extremes:

Pete: Peggy, I just pierced my genitalia with 600 pins.
Peggy (a moment of shock and disgust then a polite social mask of stunned
Pete: The funny thing is, it doesn't hurt. Well, it does, but
it's also pleasurable. Kind of like the stinging you get after pulling off
a scab. You know that feeling, right?
Peggy: (with her firm social smile)No, I don't pick scabs.
Pete: You should. It makes you feel alive because you feel
pain, yet pleasure in the tingling. Just like I'm feeling now.
Peggy: (the disapproving, you've-gone-too-far-now, mister face and tone):
This isn't appropriate to talk about at work.
Pete (crushed, sneering): It's so easy for you.

Peggy, on the other hand, is done with him. She handles him just like she handled Father Gill when he got too pushy about personal matters in "A Night to Remember"; polite parries to keep the weirdness at bay. Unfortunately, this means no burn-up-the-office hot sex between Elisabeth Moss and Vincent Kartheiser, which is a waste of some perfectly smoking chemistry.

So what did you think of this episode of Mad Men? Let me know!

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Mad Men: WWJD, What Would Joan Do?

Earlier this week, I almost lost it in the world literature class I was teaching. I wanted to give my students advice on how to improve their oral presentations. The first thing I told them was that they needed to give me a written version of their report right after they finished presenting it. This led a student to state that I hadn't made that clear in the syllabus. So I showed them where I stated that requirement in the syllabus. The student wouldn't give up; she said it wasn't clear that I wanted an essay and that's why she thought she could hand in her notecards as a "written form." I was exasperated because I had explained what I meant by written form the first day of class, the day I had students sign up for topics, and I have office hours, an mail address and an office phone number so they can contact me if they have any questions about an assignment before turning it in. Even after stating this, I had another student ask, "Do you mean a printout of our PowerPoint slides?" No. Another student griped, "So you want us to do another paper." No, I want you to transcribe your presentation into an essay form, not to write on a new topic or do new research. The student who started this kerfluffle still persisted in saying that the directions still weren't clear and that I hadn't stated there would be a penalty for turning in the written form late. Good God, I was this close to calling them all idiots. These weren't first-year students. They are sophomores and juniors, in the honors program at our university, no less. One student did state that he felt my instructions were clear, and that as young adults and honors students, they had a responsibility to pay attention, read the syllabus, and ask for clarification before completing work. But he was the only one. I cut class short because I was about to get loud and sarcastic. Later, after I vented with a couple of colleagues, I cooled down, wrote some very clear instructions that I posted on our class's web page, and still felt uneasy. That's when I asked myself: What would Joan have done?

I thought about how authoritatively Joan Holloway moves throughout the office. She not only has control of the secretaries, but she also keeps the men in line. Think back to the recent storyline involving her and Don Draper's new secretary, Jane. Joan has no problem informing Jane to dress more appropriately, and she tartly informs the ogling men "to pitch their tents elsewhere." Then I think of how well she handled Jane after she and the men had snuck into Bertram's office to see the painting. Jane lies twice (badly) and Joan doesn't back down. She makes it very clear that Jane has crossed a line. The closest she comes to losing it is when she suddenly decides to fire Jane, but even then her anger is controlled. Her decision was emotional, spontaneous and questionable, but she delivered it with icy control.

Then there's the great confrontation scene between Jane and Joan, when Jane has returned back on Monday, despite being fired. Again, cold, controlled anger as Joan asks Jane what she is doing there. Jane starts off terrified, but gains confidence as she not only implies Roger saved her job but he has confided in Jane that Joan is known for emotional outbursts. A nasty little dig. Fortunately, Joan does not lose it (thus falling into Jane's trap and proving her exagerration of Roger's statement to be true), but coolly lets Jane know she knows what the situation is. On some message boards, people thought Joan was going to give Roger an earful, but I don't think so. First, their relationship has been over for almost two years; Joan doesn't have that hold over Roger anymore, so he won't listen. Also, Joan is the model of discretion and self-sufficiency. Unlike Jane, she won't run to somebody to fix the problem.

So what could I have learned from Joan?

First, stay cool. When that student brought up all the legalistic squirming about the syllabus, I should have not engaged in extended rationalization and explanation. I should have said it was on the syllabus, if she had had questions she should have brought them up before her presentation, and if she still had a problem she could see me after class about it.

Stay on track and control the conversation. When the instigator tried to make it sound as if she were speaking for the class, I should have reminded them I already described what I wanted, it was their responsibility to pay attention and read the syllabus, and they had ways of contacting me if they had questions. Then I should have shut that line of discussion down, and moved on to the next piece of advice (which I never got to). Instead, I felt blindsided, exasperated and I talked too long and too much, which leads to

Keep it short, sweetie. A nonacademic friend had to remind me of this. As an English professor and writer who delights in language, I can pile it on. I make metaphors, try three different rephrases of the same statement, invent insults, etc. I needed to keep it short and simple and stop repeating myself. If they didn't get it the first and second time, there's little reason to believe they'd get it the third and fourth.

Don't let them see you sweat. Sometimes a calculated display of anger works, but in this case I hadn't planned on getting angry. I should have stayed calm and cool. I could feel my heart racing, I could hear my voice getting louder and tighter, and I knew I needed to leave or I would get nasty. Bad idea.

Show them who is boss. This can make me uncomfortable because sometimes students do raise legitimate concerns and sometimes professors do act tyranically and unfairly. But as a general rule, I do think I am a fair and accomodating professor. If I make a mistake, I admit it, fix it and move on. But I have to remember that this is my classroom; I have proven myself throughout my undergraduate and graduate courses, my job interviews, my tenure process, and my conference and publishing record. These students have to prove to me that they are worthy of being called honors students, and that they are capable of doing the work.
Make them sweat. Remember how terrified Jane looked when Joan came right at her? She knew she would have to explain her presence to her. Joan was furious at seeing her, but she didn't lose control. I need to keep calm and turn the tables on these students. Generally, I don't call on students in class; I let them volunteer to speak. But only two or three students in this course speak up regularly, so I think I'm going to call on the quieter ones. If anyone complains about the "unfairness" of this, I'll state that it is perfectly fair for me to assume that they have read the material andthey are prepared to answer a question about it. After all, they are honors students, aren't they?
Do you find yourself wondering what certain characters from Mad Men would do in real-life situations? Do you find yourself using them as models for how(not) to behave? Let me know!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

National Sewing Month Ends; Coat Progress Continues

Today, we bid adieu to National Sewing Month, but I have just barely begun work on the Soho Coat. I have cut out the pattern pieces and have marked all but the front and the sleeves. I might be able to squeeze in a couple of hours of work on it this week, but I'm not sure. After all, Halloween will be coming up, and my son and I still don't have costumes yet. We're thinking Mario and Luigi. . . .
What are you sewing for Halloween?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Mad Men: Six Month Leave

"Six Month Leave" seemed to me like a pause to take a breath after the dynamic past two episodes, "A Night to Remember" and "The Golden Violin." But it's not only a release of tension; it's also gathering up the energy to set us up for some more powerful developments in the lives of the characters.

(photo courtesy of

For example, after all the recent focus on the women, we have a boy's night out that reveals how the men at Sterling Cooper react to the loss or threatened loss of what defines them as men. First, loss of a job. Freddy Rumson is being let go in the nicest possible way because he has crossed the line when it comes to liquor consumption. Roger and Don send Freddy off in a haze of booze and illegal gambling. Freddy's own sense of loss--"what will I be without my job?" he asks--isn't taken seriously by either men. A sense of impending doom seems to engulf Freddy as a taxicab takes him home, possibly to a long suicide of alcoholism.

Then there's the discussion of Don's personal situation, living apart from his family. Roger claims he's been where Don is now, and all it takes is "the grand gesture"--I assume, a tearful apology, a false promise, some nice jewelry or a trip--to get back in Betty's good graces. Don's admission of no sadness but relief instead, could be either real or macho posturing, but it seems to floor Roger. It's as if Don has opened up the possibility that one doesn't have to stay married at all, and as we know about Roger, he can't tolerate the comfort and familiarity of marriage. He's all about the chase. So Roger stupidly uses Don's early morning ramblings to justify leaving Mona for Jane. Jane! of all people! Foolish man, invigorated by the chase and novelty-- he is only setting himself up for a series of marriages to pretty young things who will suck him dry.

We are given some historical context to set the date (August 1962)in people's reactions to Marilyn Monroe's death: The teariest women are those who see their looks as a major asset. Jane snivels about never taking pills and gets sympathy from other secretaries. Joan, more reflective and closer to Monroe in age, takes a moment to lie down in Roger's office. She sees Monroe as a victim of men's fantasies and exploitation, eventually discarded by them when they were bored. During this scene with Roger, I thought of the "Happy Birthday Mr. President" footage--Monroe is almost scary in her ghostliness and breathless, catatonic state. Think of the flurry of books and documentaries about the rumors of a Kennedy conspiracy to kill her before she talked and stage it like a suicide--is Joan prescient in her statement about the world destroying Monroe?

I also vividly recall Peggy's clear-eyed assessment of Pete after hearing about Freddy being let go. When he explains to her that this is how business is done and how people advance, you can see her thinking, "yes, that's true." But when he lays his hand on her shoulder just a touch too long, you can see the revulsion flicker across her face. It's like she is thinking "One time that would have turned me on, but now it feels disgusting." Elisabeth Moss is a very thoughtful actress; you have a sense of a real intelligence behind those eyes, even when she (as Peggy) is trying to hide her thoughts and feelings.

Back on the home front, a depressed Betty sets up her horsey friend Sara Beth and the young guy Arthur at lunch: I see that as spiteful payback for Sara Beth going on about her devoted albeit boring husband, her sexy dreams of Arthur, and how Betty is so lucky because Don is so perfect. The setup also allows Betty not to divulge her own tenuous marital situation during a friendly lunch. I loved how mechanically she moves about the kitchen as Sally and Bobby make cookies, and how she takes the phone off the hook without any hesitation so her friends can't find out why she hasn't shown up. There's something evil and also pathetic about setting Sara Beth and Arthur up for a possible affair; it's cruel to put them in a scenario in which they will make the wrong choice, but it also shows how she can't get at the person she wants to hurt most: Don. So she's given up on kicking Bobby and now she's manipulating other people into punishing situations instead.

Finally, there's the encounter between Don and Betty when he brings the kids back home. He asks her repeatedly what she wants and she won't tell him. I don't know whose side I'm on at this point. On the one hand, I want Betty to drop the passive-aggressive approach and tell Don how things will be from now on. On the other, I know--and I think Betty knows, hence the refusal to say what she wants--that Don isn't asking because he really cares about what Betty wants. He just wants a set of instructions to follow so he can keep his facade of the perfect family life intact. If Betty were to tell him, "I'll take you back on these conditions: home every night by 6pm, a babysitter every Friday so we can go to the movies, free 24-hour access to your desk, and you in nothing but briefs doing yardwork every Saturday," he would accept it, because he could follow the directions without any real emotional commitment. But Betty won't give him such an easy way back home.

So let's take our deep breath, and see what happens when this show exhales on this thread, shall we?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Hate Your Job? Read Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres

Do you ever fantasize about life in a Victorian country house? When you read Jane Eyre, did you imagine yourself in Jane's place, the plain little governess who wins the heart of her rich and handsome employer? Did you think being a governess could be romantic? Well, you won't after reading Ruth Brandon's book, Governess: The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres.

Brandon's study of the lives of English governesses over the span of a century (from the late eighteenth century to 1869, the establishment of Girton College for women at Cambridge Universty) reveals the snobbery, poverty and uncertainty that plagued the lives of women who taught the children of the wealthy and middle-class. Brandon's case studies include some famous governesses (the early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Lord Byron's lover, Claire Claremont, and Anna Leonowens of The King and I fame) as well as more typical examples of genteel women who fell on hard times and had to support themselves.

Governesses generally came from respectable families who had fallen on hard times; they were the women who had failed to find a husband. Entering a well-to-do family to teach and look after the children was one of the few respectable options available to educated young women in desperate circumstances. Governesses were in an amiguous position in English society--they weren't members of the serving class, but they had to earn their living working for their social equals. Despite their education and respectable background, governesses were generally regarded as both pitiable and threatening.

"Pitiable" is self-explanatory; often poorly paid and socially isolated, governesses were the young ladies whose families had fallen from financial grace or who had failed in the marriage market. "Threatening" is a little more complicated, and yet Brandon makes a compelling case for how nineteenth-century English society's disdain for the governess concealed anxiety about the very existence of working single women. If, as Victorian values dictated, women were meant to complement men as their helpmates and mothers to their children, what about the surplus of middle- and upper-middle-class single women? (Apparently working-class single women worked and no one felt too threatened by that.) The educated single woman hired to educate one's daughters could be seen as a harbinger of their fate if one lost one's fortune or failed to find decent husbands for them. No wonder relations between the governess and her employers often were strained and chilly.

In describing the lives of famous and unknown governesses, Brandon creates a narrative arc that shows how the limited education for women perpetuated itself through the practice of hiring a live-in teacher for one's children, usually daughters. Most governesses were versed in English history and grammar, fashionable modern languages, some math, geography, and especially music and needlework. This was the education of a "young lady" meant to snare a husband and adorn his household, not to compete with men in the professional marketplace. Brandon sees the effort of feminist reformers like Emily Davies to establish a college for women that was equal to that of men as the beginning of the end for the governess.

What struck me most as I read Governess was how much women's work was devalued, even as many women supported parents and siblings through governessing. Because the governess often lived with her employers, room and board was not an issue, so many sent their wages back to support widowed mothers, younger siblings, or even put brothers through school and establish them in a profession. Many governesses retired with almost nothing, and some of them had to deal with ungrateful male relatives who did not return the favor done for them. It's depressing to see how families assumed the governess was working for their benefit and not for her own; of course Nelly's wages should go to Tom's education instead of her own pleasure or future. For all the cultural revulsion over women working, many genteel families on hard times had no qualms about living off the earnings of their unmarried sisters and daughters.

Governess reveals the drab underbelly of the wish-fulfillment scenario of Jane Eyre and shows what could have been the possible fate of some of Jane Austen's heroines if they had not made happy marriages. I know that when I start getting down about my job, I'll remind myself it could be worse: I could be teaching French to the youngest Kardashian sisters.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mad Men on NPR's Fresh Air!

I love Terry Gross and her interviews on NPR's Fresh Air! And it's especially sweet when she interviews Matthew Wiener, Jon Hamm (Don Draper) and John Slattery (Roger Sterling) about Mad Men. Enjoy this interview.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Yay for Mad Men

Mad Men, my favorite scripted show, won the Emmy for best drama and Matthew Wiener won for best screenwriting! Yay! Last night's episode was a rerun of "Three Sundays," an excellent episode from this season. Check out Basket of Kisses for more details. Also, enjoy this pretty photo of the cast and crew of Mad Men at last night's Emmy awards, courtesy of the New York Times.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Fiction: The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein

The Painter from Shanghai (Historical Fiction) is an atmospheric and enthralling debut novel by Jennifer Cody Epstein. If you have never thought about twentieth-century Chinese art,or the effect of politics on artistic expression, this book will have you pondering these and wanting to learn more. Based on the life of Pan Yuliang, a woman painter who overcame prostitution and sexism to become one of the most respected artists of pre-Communist China, The Painter from Shanghai depicts Madame Pan as a woman who struggles with her shameful past and culture's sexism. In one pivotal scene, Yuliang makes a breakthrough about her adolescence in a brothel and her current difficulty with painting nudes:

And yet studying her model again now, Yulian suddenly realizes that her
troubles, then and now, arise from her own failure to see skin as either more or
less than itself; to see it outside of a spectrum of pain. In her old life
it was a liability, a soft surface waiting for wounds. As such at the
academy it inspires not creative passion but a wave of remembered
revulsion. And in both places she's been unable--hard as she might try--to
see it as beautiful. . . She thinks of Jinling, not in death, as she was the
last time Yuliang saw her, but in those impossibly early days when Yuliang first
began to attend to her. Before she fully understood a body's worth in
monetary terms, and could value it only in the currency of beauty. She
thinks of the way Jinling's skin had looked early in the morning. Sheened
in perspiration, stretched out in sheer joy. Limned in the early light of
a sunrise.

When Pan Yuliang recovers this sense of the body's beauty, she is able to
improve the quality of her nudes. You can see samples of Pan Yuliang's
paintings on Jennifer Cody Epstein's website. Madame Pan travels to France during the 1920s on a painting fellowship and returns to a China that has been wracked by revolution and Japanese imperialism. The last section of the novel takes place in 1936Nanjing, just before the horrible invasion. A new approach to the arts dictates that art must celebrate the common people and revolutionary ideals, and Pan Yuliang's last exhibit is a victim of this zeal. She flees to Paris, and never returns to China.

Anchoring the tale of Pan Yuliang's artistic growth is her marriage to Pan Zanhua, a custom's collector. Epstein sketches a sympathetic portrayal of a man who is caught between Western-style ideals and conservative Chinese values regarding marriage. Marriage to Pan Zanhua simultaneously frees Yuliang--from prostitution, illiteracy, and financial stress--but keeps her in the loving, possessive grip of a man faced with his own struggle to keep his wife close to his side while allowing her the freedom to travel for her art and safety.

I strongly recommend the Painter from Shanghai for its ability to capture the complexity of twentieth-century Chinese history, the artist's creative process, and last but not least, the character of a woman who faced so much adversity and overcame it to pursue her calling to paint.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Book Review: Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop


Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China is so much more than a record of Fuchsia Dunlop's eating experience in China. It is a travel narrative, a coming-of-age story, a recipe collection, and a record of how China has changed within the past fifteen yearsDunlop, a British journalist who specializes in Chinese culture and food, first went to China in 1992 and returned on a research fellowship in 1994. It was at Sichuan University that she realized her true calling was cookery and food, not foreign policy, and she became the first Westerner to study at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine. She is the author of two well-received cookbooks, Land of Plenty (2002) and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook , and she includes some of her favorite Chinese recipes in chapters of Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper.

The theme of Dunlop's book seems to be the omnivourous approach of the Chinese to eating. As she points out, Westerners are fascinated and repulsed by stories of Chinese recipes for dogs, animal penises, lizards and insects. Early in her travels, Dunlop vowed to herself that she would broaden her culinary horizons and try anything that her eager Chinese hosts would offer her, no matter how surprising or potentially disgusting it would seem to her upper-middle class British sensibilities. By the time, she has returned to England at her memoir's end, she can view a caterpillar in the same way as a native Chinese: not as a contaminant on her salad, but as a possibly tasty addition.

I can see where the "gross out" factor might turn prospective readers off to the book, or to the Chinese as a people, but Dunlop sees this as a trait of curiousity and resourcefulness, a willingness to take pleasure in certain aspects of food (its mouth feel, its preparation) that Western cuisines limit to the safe and obvious. Along the way, not only does Dunlop's palate change, but also China. The pet food scare of 2007 that had many Americans wondering about the safety of Chinese-made products is just the tip of the iceberg for "a professional omnivore" like Dunlop:

In the old days, in Sichuan, my hunger was a free and joyful thing.
The food before me was fresh, free-range, and wholesome, and I wanted to
devour it all. But in the last ten or fifteen years China has changed beyond all
recognition. I've seen the sewer-like rivers,the suppurating sores oflakes. I've read the newspaper reports;breathedthe toxic air and drunk the dirty water. And I've eaten far too much meat from endangered species. In China I have to throw all my principles to the wind if I am to continue in my vow of eating everything.

Fortunately, a trip to Hangzhou Province in eastern China revives Dunlop's love affair with China, as it points to a hopeful future of a more thoughtful approach to food production and consumption. Dunlop shows that China is far from monolithic; different provinces have different climates and histories that shape their cuisines. Sichuan cuisine is a playful, flirtatious "spice girl" who uses its famous pepper to charm, while Hunan is a fire-breathing peasant who piles on the chiles in its cooking. Coincidentally, Hunan Province is the birthplace of Mao Zedong.

Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper piqued my own latent interest in Chinese food and culture. While I only have access to Chinese-American buffets in my own neck of the woods, Dunlop's book has inspired me to check out her earlier cookbooks as well as some other favorites.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Mad Men: A Night to Remember

As I mentioned last week, AMC's Mad Men is appointment TV for me. This week's theme seemed to be: "Mad Men's Female Leads and the Men Who Cluelessly Take Advantage of Them." Let's review, shall we?

This week, Father John Gill (played by Colin Hanks) reappears and tries to coax Peggy back into the life of the parish by asking her to do some pro bono work for the Catholic Youth Organization dance. Peggy designs a flyer and then Father Gill asks her to meet with the dance chairs, who come up with some clueless criticisms, which means that Peggy must alter the flyer.

Moment of high comedy: Peggy asks if she may speak with Father Gill in private after the meeting, and one of the church ladies suddenly remembers she would like to speak to Father Gill, too. He politely puts her off. This is funny to me, because it doesn't matter what denomination you're in, the priest/minister/rabbi/ etc, is always the center of attention and competition among some female church members.

Peggy tells Father Gill that she expected him to back her up in this meeting because she knows more than the church ladies about how to advertise the dance. As the priest, if he had asserted that Peggy knew what she was doing, the church ladies would have acquiesced to Peggy's original design. I liked how firm she was about this. After all, she is doing the work for free, and as she tells him, she has been busy at work and is very tired.

Finally, when Father Gill comes to pick up the new copies, he tries to get her to talk about what is keeping her from taking the Holy Eucharist and participating more in the parish community. Peggy politely parries his attempts to get her to talk about her pregnancy, but he strikes a nerve when he asks if she thinks if she is unworthy of God's forgiveness and love. She seems genuinely rattled before she recovers. Our final shot of her is alone in her bathtub, looking shocked and devastated.

I didn't like Gill's attempt to turn Peggy's office into a confessional, but I could see him trying to reach her in the one place he can find her. After all, Peggy is not going to wander into the confessional any time soon. I think Gill also realized that he had fumbled in his attempt at pastoral counseling. To me, that's why the shot of him taking out his guitar and singing "Early in the Morning" was poignant. He's trying to do the right thing, he sees that he's not doing well at it, and he wants God to show him how to best reach Peggy.

Joan: When Harry Crane needs some help reading scripts to avoid troublesome placement of commercials, Joan is sent to find him a "girl" to help out. She actually ends up reading the scripts and is pleased to see that something novel and exciting will happen in As The World Turns--a patient will wake up out of a coma!! Her fiance the doctor is amused by this, but tells her that she shouldn't be reading these scripts; she should be watching her stories with a box of bon bons in her lap. This is only Clueless Male #1 in Joan's story. Later, she makes a brilliant pitch to Harry's clients that makes them think about buying air time in a different way. But does that get her the job as Harry's assistant? No, of course not. Instead he hires a new guy, whom he expects Joan to train. Harry becomes Clueless Male #2, and then Joan has to teach Clueless Male #3. Christina Hendricks does a brilliant job showing Joan's gradual awareness that she has found a "man's job" she enjoys and excels at, as well as her disappointment under her facade of agreeability.

Joan seems to have hoisted herself on her own petard in this situation. She has made it clear to Peggy that she has never wanted to be a copywriter or take on a man's job, and she has made a big deal out of her engagement ring. Yet, just when she has done excellent work that may have gained her a new position, no one considers her for it, because a) she's a woman and a secretary, and b) she has seemed content with her role as office manager. I loved the last shot of her, massaging her shoulder where her bra strap has dug into her shoulder. It captures a sense of how she has willingly constrained herself into a limited role that she is only beginning to find a burden.

Betty: Oh, Betty, what a crappy few weeks this has been for you. First, Jimmy Barrett making you see the light about Don and his philandering ways. Then, being used as an experiment in marketing by your husband with your dinner party and choice of Heineken beer. Finally, Don's insistence that he hasn't had an affair with Bobbie Barrett, that he loves you, that he says he loves you all the time (which he doesn't) and that he doesn't want to lose all this (the house, the kids, the trophy wife for public functions). Don thinks he knows you because he can predict that you would be an ideal customer for a foreign beer, but he doesn't know what you really want--to be loved for yourself and respected in your marriage and home. No wonder you've taken to drinking in the late morning and sending the kids to bed at ridiculously early times.

Moment of high comedy #1: Roger Sterling's introduction of Duck Phillips to Crab Colson: "Crab, Duck. Duck, Crab."

Moment of high comedy #2: Don's grimace as he sits down at the dinner party. Earlier, Betty had destroyed a wobbly chair, possibly out of frustration at Don's slackening off on preparing for the party. Was he given the less comfortable replacement out of spite?

Moment of awesome thematic coherence:
Betty's big epiphany in this episode comes at the end, when she sits down to read a magazine while the children watch Father Knows Best. The camera cuts to the TV screen where we see the youngest son pout about how his "girlfriend" has betrayed him. How does he know this? Because he saw her in the soda shop, with "another boy at the end of MY straw." Then a cut to the Utz potato chip commercial with Jimmy Barrett insisting he isn't nuts, and would he lie to you about the goodness of Utz? That does it for Betty and she calls Don and tells him NOT to come home, she does NOT want to see him.

Why is this so awesome? Because earlier in the episode, Harry, the head of broadcasting operations, had been reamed by Duck because of a poorly placed ad. That is why Harry needed someone (Joan) to read scripts to identify potential placement issues. As he told Joan, "if there's a kid pushing his dinner away in disgust, we can't have Gorton's Fish Sticks." To anyone else watching TV that day, there would have been no connection between infidelity and Utz potato chips. But to Betty, even only half-engaged with the show, the ad brought back everything about Don's infidelity and dishonesty. Thus the decision.

Wondering who the heck I'm talking about? Catch up on last season:

Let me know what you think of last night's episode! Please!!!!

Friday, September 12, 2008

John Irving and the Nashville Public Library

Here's some book-related news for today:

John Irving to receive Nashville Public Library Literary Award

Now off to prepare excerpts of The Ramayana of Valmiki for my World Literature class.
Below are some of my favorite Irving novels. I especially loved The Cider House Rules.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

September is National Sewing Month!

In honor of this being National Sewing Month, I'm going to begin work on a pattern that I have had for over two years. It is a Sewing Workshop pattern, the Soho Coat. I'm making it in red microfiber so I have a cheery red raincoat with a hood. I hate toting around umbrellas along with all my other bundles, so that's why I chose this pattern.

I didn't work on it because of other time commitments (primarily work and my discovery of knitting), but this gives me something dressier to wear on rainy days. I figure if I give myself an hour a day, I can make progress on this and have something snazzy to wear when it rains.

Behind Every Great Man is a Maligned Woman: Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife

A professor of mine once described Germaine Greer as the clever girl in class who liked to say shocking things. In Shakespeare's Wife, Greer challenges the predominant view of Shakespeare scholars who believe that Ann Hathaway was a desparate older woman who entrapped young William Shakespeare into a marriage that he was only too happy to distance himself from when he went to London to try his luck as an actor and playwright. Greer, best known for such feminist works as The Female Eunuch and Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet, paints an alternate portrait of Ann Hathaway Shakespeare as a capable and enterprising wife and mother who may have been just too good for her dreamy poet husband.

Greer does good old-fashioned archival research, going through sixteenth- and seventeenth-century wills, lawsuits, and other documents to give a vivid, realistic picture of life among the farmers and tradesmen of Stratford-on-Avon. She does this to debunk the suppositions and received opinion about Ann Shakespeare held dear by other (mostly male) Shakespeare and Renaissance scholars about Ann as the barely tolerated bane of the Bard's existence. Greer shows that a lot of this negative image of Ann as an illiterate country wench/seductress stems from these critics' own attitudes towards the wives of great men. Somehow, it's almost always the wife's fault: Milton's first wife didn't agree with his politics, so she must have been proud and flighty. Thackeray's wife became mentally ill, so she must have been an embarassment and burden to him. Byron's wife was a prig because she liked math and couldn't tolerate the rumours of his affair with his half-sister. Greer shows that the Hathaways and their kin around Stanford were actually practical, fairly successful farmers, and that the Shakespeares may have had pretensions to grandeur that William's father couldn't live up to because of his declining fortunes. Furthermore, she shows that William attended grammar school, but was not listed as an apprentice to any tradesman in the records; sounds like a bright boy raised to think of himself as a gentleman who couldn't or wouldn't sully his hands with trade. Why not marry into the Hathaways, who were financially better off than his own family?

While Shakespeare was away, Greer paints a picture of a sensible woman, to all purposes, a single parent to young children. She combs through contemporary records to show how Ann might have supported herself and her family while her husband was barely making a living in London. She also shows that despite the distance between them, Shakespeare did not despise his wife; if anything, evidence in his plays seem to point to a man who feels slightly guilty about his absences from Ann, while celebrating the constancy of misunderstood or abandoned wives.

What I love about Greer's style is her accessibility and even sardonic zingers. Some of the descriptions of wills, Vicar's court reports, etc. can get overwhelming, but they help build her case that archival evidence does not support the traditional view of Ann Shakespeare. A picture of an English country town shifting from agriculture to manufacturing, as well as becoming more puritanical emerges, and these people's daily lives reveal a lot more complexity than we might assume.

Frankly, I admire the kind of scholarship Greer does. She could have constructed some sloppy theoretical argument about her subject and sold it on the power of her name, but she gets into the archives, digs about and presents a persuasive case for reimagining the woman behind the Bard.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Mad Men is Appointment TV for Me

Last night's episode "The Gold Violin" revealed some more about main and minor characters, all having to do with facades versus ugly realities. As Ken Cosgrove said about the story he showed Sal, "It's (the gold violin he saw that inspired his short story) perfect in every way, but it can't play music." People and things look perfect in every way, but they can't fulfill their basic functions.

Don is being ushered into a greater realm of power with his invitation to join the Board of Directors of the new Museum of Early American Art, but he's an imposter. As we learn in the opening scene, Don started his new life as a used car salesman and a woman from the real Don Draper's past looks him up and bitterly realizes he is the not the man she is looking for. Significantly, this flashback is framed by Don debating about a new car in a Cadillac showroon; he decides against the car, as he apparently feels he doesn't have the right to it. It's only after Cooper spells out the advantages of Don's increased social position that Don returns to the dealership to buy the Caddy. Don looks like the epitome of a successful (possibly upper-class) white male with wealth and social prestige, but he knows it doesn't belong to him. He got to where he is by a lie, and, as we've seen in the past few episodes with Bobbie and Jimmy Barrett, through whoring himself out to Bobbie. Jimmy's angry reveal that he knows Don has been sleeping with Bobbie hits Don as hard as when he learned from Bobbie that he has a reputation for sleeping around.

Sal and Kitty's marriage is also perfect-looking in every way, except it lacks the sexual connection even bad marriages are based upon. Sal is genuinely kind to Kitty and you can see he has real guilt about her unhappiness about the dinner with Ken, but he just doesn't feel for her the way he is attracted to Ken. Sarah Drew as Kitty Romano is adorable; when Sal tries to comfort her, I really wanted him to cup her face between his hands and soothe her with kisses. All she gets is a kiss on the cheek. She's figuring out that something is wrong, but I don't think she has the worldliness to realize that her husband is gay. The next day, when Ken remarks that Sal and Kitty's marriage is something he pictures for himself, you can see Sal's discomfort and eagerness to end the conversation. He knows his marriage is a fake and the fact that he fooled someone else makes him miserable instead of pleased at how well he has hidden his real sexual interest.

Finally, poor Betty. She thought she had Don on a tight leash; she thought Jimmy called her at home to invite her to the shindig at the Stork Club because he liked looking at and flattering her with his blatant corny shtick. She didn't know he was planning to let her in on Bobbie and Don's affair and to get some jilted-partner revenge nookie. When she rejects him and his insinuations, it fuels Jimmy to confront Don and let him know that now that he has gotten Jimmy everything he wanted, he is done with him and calls him garbage for sleeping with another man's wife. To add insult to injury, Jimmy lets Don know that sleeping with Bobby is not a difficult feat. This was the first time in the Barrett storyline that I actually had some sympathy for Jimmy. When he told Betty that he had been standing behind guys like Don all his life, I got a glimpse into the short, nerdy, but viciously funny outsider he must have been as a teen.

Betty's final comment to Jimmy that "you people are crass and vulgar" has stirred up controversy about her intention on many message boards. Was she referring to Jews or "show people"? I believe she brilliantly used the phrase "you people" to have it both ways; Jimmy is touchy about anti-semitism, but Betty can deny that and say she meant comedians or show business people. Either way, it's a great dig that really hurts him.

Moment of high comedy: The conversation between Cooper and Harry about Cooper's new Rothko painting. Harry has agonized about the painting as a litmus test to reveal to Cooper whether he is a philistine or sychophant. He tries to get a feel for Cooper's response by asking, "What do you think it means?" Cooper states in a mock-touched voice, "I don't know. No one's ever asked me that before. . . maybe because it's none of their business!" Great moment. Then, when Cooper puts Harry in his place as a numbers man who shouldn't worry about aesthetics, he lets him in on the real secret: he bought the Rothko for its appreciation value.

Moment of hotness: John Slattery as Roger Sterling comforting the recently fired Jane. As he assures her that she can return to Sterling Cooper on Monday and everything will be okay, he stares at her. We all know he and Christine Hendricks, who plays his ex-mistress Joan, have great chemistry. But this gaze got me too. Frankly, John Slattery could stare at a stuffed animal and I'd have to fan at myself.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Sunday Fun-Ferrets at Play

A change of pace from yesterday's heavy post. This was posted by Ferretocious on YouTube.

I am fascinated by ferrets. They seem like sweet-natured rambunctious two-year olds. Unfortunately, like two year-olds, they seem to get into everything. I don't know if I could ferret-proof my condo well enough to keep them from getting lost or hurt. So I virtually enjoy them.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Old Bedfellows: Big Oil and the Republican Party

If you are interested in what role America's energy problem will play in this year's election, you need to read Laton McCartney's The Teapot Dome Scandal: How Big Oil Bought the Hardng White House and Tried to Steal the Country. Granted, it focuses on events that occurred over 80 years ago, but the story of how a few wealthy oilmen bought Warren G. Harding the Republican nomination in 1920 resonates during this year's election.
According to Maccartney's book, President Warren G. Harding let his new Secretary of the Interior take over the Navy's oil reserves and open them up for leasing and bidding to only a few cronies. Some smaller oil companies heard about this and complained about the apparent fishiness of the deal. A Congessional hearing was begun and despite Republican hostility, national apathy, and the wealth and deceptiveness of several of the defendants, the Secretary of the Interior was indicted, convicted and sent to prison, while some of the oilmen were acquitted. Other low-level players in the scandal lost their positions or fortunes, or even their lives.
Okay, so why does this matter now? Well, McCain changed his mind about no drilling in areas such as the ANWR; now it' the quickest way to lower prices and our dependence on foreign oil. This apparently occurred after he received a campaign contribution of over a million dollars from big oil interests. He's also chosen Sarah Palin, who supports drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve, as his running mate. Although both claim that their energy policy includes looking at alternate sources, their emphasis on drilling ASAP reveals their real policy. It sounds like this:
Ask yourself: who benefits from drilling in these reserves? Supposedly the American people (like you think Big Oil is going to drop its prices now that it has tested how much we will endure?), Alaska, of course, and most definitely the major oil companies. You know, the same people who made such a timely and generous contribution to McCain's election. If McCain is elected President, he bears careful watching when it comes to energy policy. As Mccartney's book shows, so much of the dirty dealing in the Teapot Dome Scandal went on under the American public's radar, simply because the oil barons literally had bags and suitcases of money to buy many Republican politicians' cooperation and silence.
So read The Teapot Dome Scandal. Mccartney writes clearly and makes a complicated, potentially dry topic engrossing and understandable. He focuses on the main characters and they live again, just as hypocritical, greedy, deluded and ambitious as they were eighty years ago. The Teapot Dome Scandal reads less like history and more like a political thriller, with plenty of sordid details revealing how long the Republican Party and Big Oil have been bedfellows.
Already read Mccartney's book? Share your thoughts about it here, especially in the light of our coming election.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Kroger Owns Me

I admit it. I am Kroger's bitch. It all started with the spring’s ridiculous rise in gas prices. Kroger has ways you can save with your Kroger Plus Shopper’s Card: you get three cents off per gallon any time, ten cents off when you have used your Kroger Plus card to buy $100 in groceries, and fifteen cents off per gallon when you use your Kroger Rewards credit card. During the summer, with regular unleaded hovering at four dollars per gallon, I gave in.
Before all this, I’d separate my shopping: I’d get some stuff at Kroger, some at Publix, some at Target, some at Wal-Mart. Now, I get it all at Kroger, unless it’s not available there or I can get it at a better price elsewhere. Gotta get up to $100 in groceries, you know. I haven’t totally given in to the Man; I still go to the Farmer's Market or a roadside vendor for my seasonal veggies and fruit, but when it comes to toilet paper, I know exactly where I’m getting it.