Thursday, August 11, 2005

Notes From A Vacation

--Worrying about your Mormon relatives qua Mormon is pointless; worrying about them as relatives, on the other hand, can prepare you for awkwardly affectionate overtures. I bowed my head for prayers, not making waves, and drank my coffee without ostentation or stealth: no questions, no hassle, no problem. When disappearing was necessary, a sketchpad gave a handy excuse. (Actually producing sketches turns out to be an important component to this plan.) As is the case with probably most family reunions, I discovered that there were many people more nervy about being there than I was: believers, vague believers, non-believers, whatever. Ah, families!

--If your reunion lasts more than two days, your potted responses to the dreaded questions "how's your dissertation going?" and "so what's next for you?" will no longer suffice. People will start to ask more pointed and specific questions, and you will start either to dither or to admit vulnerability. Unless you do know exactly what you're doing, I suppose, but then that would be you.

--It's true what they say about dry heat's being different. It fools you into thinking that it's safe to wander out without 45 spf. I have sunburn in the wierdest places.

--If you're ever in the Sierras, somewhat East of Sonora, there's a fantastic hike from Waterhouse Lake down to Pinecrest Lake. And I do mean down: I can still feel my quads, some four days later. Parts of the about eight-mile hike are marked, either with trails or with cairns, but you'll mostly be scrambling along glacier-sculpted granite or through manzanita. At three or four points along the river, you can stop and swim at pools with nature's own waterslides. Gear: hiking shoes with serious traction, lunch, water and iodine, mosquito repellent, and a swimsuit comfortable enough to hike in. Just don't wear expensive swimsuits: the granite isn't quite that smooth, and the algae tends to leave marks. Oh, and while dogs are permitted in this area, dogs with short legs who don't really like being hoisted around broken rock shouldn't take this hike.

--A screwdriver wielded by an amateur can destroy a lock without actually disabling it. The movies make it look so easy.

--If you've got a tight connection at an airport, your incoming flight is late, the airline switches gates on you at the last minute and doesn't inform you about it, and the only flights that get you near your destination are either a) much more expensive to get home from or b) the next day, the airline feels no responsibility either to help you get home or to put you up for the night. Don't expect them to feel any sympathy for the stranded passenger, either. Thanks, Continental!

--When a court or a counsellor orders that a teenager is not to be allowed to do anything or go anywhere without the direct supervision of a parent, that teenager's sense of alienation and isolation becomes objectively true. I understand the arguments about responsibility, etc., but could it really be true that the court order be so rigid as to prevent a wayward--but essentially good-natured--teen from going sailing with cousins and uncles and aunts for an afternoon? The world of possibility is closing in on one of my cousins, who is starting to believe that s/he isn't permitted to do anything but be bored and endure. I felt angry and helpless, and I'm a full-fledged adult, very much outside the affair; I can only wonder at what my adolescent cousin feels.

--Two books of interest. Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel. This novel turns around the relationship between a psychic, Alison, a massively overweight woman whose underclass childhood literally haunts her, and her assistant/manager, a grimly practical recent divorcee named Colette. What keeps you reading through the devastingly honest character-work is the ironic play between what the "punters" need to hear about life after death and what Alison experiences with the dead. The dead, according to Alison and her "sensitive" colleagues, the dead who linger around the living are those who have unfinished business--which makes them querulous, inclined to petty vengeances and futile quests, and generally unpleasant, when not actively malicious company. As much as I loved Mantel's first novel, A Greater Place of Safety, I recognized, once reading this novel, that the NYT books reviewer (way behind subscription) was right to say that that first book difuses the contained savage voice that caracterizes Mantel's recent work. As I recall, the NYT reviewer called A Place of Greater Safety a typical first novel in that it was "wise." I remember experiencing it as wise, but as much as I think that this book goes further and dares more, both in formal and psychological matters, I don't have it in me to chart a trajectory from the early historical novel to this latest one. Hilary Mantel, good on you.

Oh, hell, I can't resist. Here's from the last paragraphs:
There are terrorists in the ditches, knives clenched between their teeth. There are fundis hoarding fertilizer, there are fanatics brewing bombs on brown-field sites, and holy martyrs digging storage pits where fiends have melted into the soil. There are citadels underground, there are potholes and sunken shafts; there are secret chambers in the hearts of men, sometimes of women too. There are unlicensed workings and laboratories underground, mutants breeding in the tunnels; there are cannibal moo-cows and toxic bunnikins, and behind the drawn curtains of hospital wards there are bugs that eat the flesh.
But today we are going to Sevenoaks, by way of Junction 5: to see whom forture favors today.
Cannibal moo-cows and pragmatic travelling directions: thanks, Ms. Mantel, I think you got it right.

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, by Washington Post editor Steve Coll, with Griff Witte. Coll was South-Asia bureau chief for the Post between 1989-92, and this book reads as though he remembers all the classified mysteries from those days and is only now, and only with sources finally willing to explain, putting to rest some of those ambiguously reported stories.
This is not to say that the book isn't well-presented to the layperson--each chapter starts with an action-based tableau attached to a vividly described person, and all transitions into historical background are clearly signally--rather, one gets the sense that Coll is putting together pieces of recent history that have been hidden either in clandestine files or in obscure memoires to create a cohesive account of how Afghanistan a) fell into civil war, b) managed, with CIA (et al) involvement, to dissuade the Soviets, c) provided a fertile territory for Saudi fundamentalist billionaire bin Laden.
I haven't finished the book yet, but already I have that gut-dropping feeling that I get when I read authoritative history-writing.
Reasons to read this book: 1) its very careful description of Pakistan's involvement in and goals for Afghanistan, 2) its short overview of the history of Saudi Arabia, as a state founded by the conquests of a religiously inspired tribe, 3) its use of Soviet documentation (most fascinating to me, the seemingly near-photo-memories of an archivist who defected to the West) to detail the Kremlin's attempts to advise its puppet into gradualism and Gorbachov's machinations towards retreat.
Another reason to read this book is that it gives me, a screaming liberal, a reason to rethink my antagonism towards Rumsfield's "proxy war" in Afghanistan. I haven't quite thought my way through this yet, but Coll's invocations of the terrain and tribalism of Afghanistan have put some qualifiers on my if-it's-worth-fighting-it's-worth-putting-US-soldiers-at-risk thinking.

Another day, perhaps, for the compelling but in the end formulaic "serious novel" Josie and Jack by Kelly Braffet, for the much better than expected "vampire romance novel" by Laurell K. Hamilton, or for the well-framed but less-than-substantive "Lacanian-historical monograph" Monomania: The Flight From Everyday Life in Literature and Art, by Marina Van Zuylan.

--If you're at all interested in literature, lit-theory, or disciplines whose edges have been nibbled by lit-theory, you really should be checking out Michel Berube's "Theory Tuesdays." (Sorry about the accents.) The recent installment does a wonderful job with Althusser: it's just the right mix of skepticism and respect.

From a personal perspective: as over-the-top as Althusser's Ideological State Appartatuses are, from a reasoned, logical perspective, his extreme argument made quite an impression on me as a nineteen year-old recovering Mormon. I didn't believe his account--even as a teenager it seemed too extreme--yet his account of "interpellation" lingered. His strong-argument version of anti-humanism was the first I'd ever encountered; while he pissed my fervent and still-sentimental post-Mormon self off royally, his version of the "self" constructed under false consciousness was strong enough to rattle my assumptions.

Berube's post on Althusser and his guest-blogger John McGowan's post on the Nussbaum-Butler debate seem to skirt the crucial academic question about theory's influence on the discipline: what students and disciples make of it. Althusser, for me, was almost as much as a tonic as Nietzsche; Nussbaum's criticism of Butler I read largely as a statement of exasperation about barely digested PhD and MA theses, not as serious philosophical refutation.
My opinions aside, I must say that Berube's blog is presenting literary theory (and its genealogy) as best as can be done. If you're inclined to mock, please do first draw up a chair and spend some time trying to understand. Then, if you must, mock away.

--You can get a pack of cigarettes for 4 dollars in the California Central Valley! That's compared to $7 for the same brand in NYC. I'm pretty sure that the price of cigarette packs rises in California once one reaches the urban/suburban areas, but I don't know that for sure. Still, here I was thinking that California was the anti-cigarette avant-garde--thanks, Mike.

Enough for now. Ah, I perceive the poetry in the pollution! Ah, I'm hep to the high of the humidity! Oy--sooner or later, I'll cave and buy an AC unit.


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