Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Review: Linger Awhile

In a rare opportunity (provided by a trans-Atlantic flight), I actually read a brand new book -- Russell Hoban's Linger Awhile. I love Hoban's novel Riddley Walker, which I found an excuse to teach again this semester, so I was looking forward to reading this new one. It has a fun premise, smashing together Frankenstein, Dracula, DNA, cloning and classic Westerns. It's a bit slight, but entertaining -- if a little too flavored by an old man's sexual nostalgia (Hoban's 82 now). There's a lot sly word play, and you'll never look at frogs the same way again. While it's not up to his best, it is definitely fun and kept me entertained, sometimes laughing out loud.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Review: Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World

We were looking forward to seeing this; Brooks' usually reliable self-deprecating humor seemed to be a good risk for our movie dollars to take a break during the first hectic week of classes. It didn't help that just before the film started the otherwise empty theatre suddenly livened up with, as it turned out, a guy who laughed uproariously at everything Brooks said for the first part of the film and a couple who left behind a huge pile of detritus from their loud snacking during the film, clearly banking on the fact that someone else would clean up after them. Pigs.

The film starts out with a funny scene, Brooks meeting with a clearly unimpressed Penny Marshall to audition for the Stewart role in a remake of Harvey. A discouraged Brooks returns home to find his eBay-addicted wife greeting him with a letter from the State Department -- after some initial fears about what it might be, of course it turns out to be an invitation to spearhead a foray into India and Pakistan to, well, you can guess from the title. Brooks' nebbish (ironically named Albert Brooks, too) initially dreads the very idea -- particularly the 500 page report -- but gets persuaded by the thoughts of a Freedom medal ("the good one").

Of course, the aim of this is to show the self-involved ego-centrism of Americans with regard to the Muslim world. There is a lot of humor in Brooks' misadventures as he finds the cushy life to which he is accustomed harder to obtain and himself at sea among the plethora of languages and cultures of India. Unfortunately, he and the film never get beyond that. When one of his State Dept adjuncts reminds him of Lenny Bruce's edict, "Know your audience," you hope -- as Gene noted -- that the film will finally turn around, but it doesn't.

The film makes all the same errors that Brooks' clueless comedian does: using the beauty of India as a kind of colorful backdrop, but showing no interest beyond the superficial decoration. Just as Brooks' character missed the Taj Mahal because he's too busy obsessing about his own impending failure (the running joke about progress on the 500 pages report provides a slim but chuckle-worthy touchstone), the film fails to engage with the South Asian world in any significant way. The voice of India is reduced to the local assistant, Maya, who seems to have been chosen in large part because of her European looks and Keane eyes. The tantalising implications of her name (and her relationship with her Iranian boyfriend) never develop. Similarly, the end credits don't even cite the performers of the Indian music, only the two or three Western songs. Just as Brooks' character returns home no wiser (although perhaps leaving an international incident in his wake), the film too seems to shrug its metaphorical shoulders and leave the question unknowable and the people, presumably, inscrutable. In the end, I'm not sure what Brooks thought the film would do -- but I do know it didn't do it, unless he really did intend to leave the audience with a vague sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction. It is possible...

Thursday, January 19, 2006

First Week of Classes

Overheard outside my office as I sipped my soup: "That was my Brit Lit professor from last semester. She was crazy good." I think it was a compliment...

Monday, January 16, 2006

Wandering Around London

All right, one more post to cover the England trip -- I should be working on things for the first day of classes tomorrow. But of course it's more fun to write:

Tuesdey ended up being book shopping day. I figured I needed to check out the other branch of Quinto (half price sale!) but when I got to Leicester Square I found they were closed until 2pm. However, I always have a back-up plan, so I went to Watkins and found a good book on English mythological roots. It's funny too that in two of the books I ended up buying by the end of the day, characters retraced a lot of the same footsteps I made, including one in Russell Hoban's new book who looks in the windows of Watkins.

Wandering idly, I decided on a whim (and with the need for a bathroom break) to go to the Portrait Gallery and enjoyed looking around. I didn't realize Clive Barker had work hanging in such a venerable institute until I ran across his portrait of Peter Blake. There's a new photo of Kate Bush, too, and recent Nobel prize winner Harold Pinter has an interesting portrait, right next to Jonathan Miller's.

When I left the gallery, Quinto was open -- and crowded! You pretty much had to crawl across bodies to get to the back, but that ended up being fortunate, because squashed up against the shelves as a couple tried to work their way forward, I saw a copy of Stenton's Anglo Saxon England for 5 pounds (then half off, yay!). After extricating myself from the press, I hit a couple more stores on my way back up Charing Cross Road. Once I hit Tottenham Court Road, I took the tube back out to Nottinghill Gate to the always wonderful Book & Comic Exchange, then it was back to Brad & Liz's to enjoy all my purchases.

My last day was spent enjoyably lunching with Roger Sabin in Clapham Common (thanks!) and then joining UConn pal John Sexton at Blackfriars Pub for a few Guinesses. Good thing Ealing Broadway has a restroom -- it's a long ride back to the westside after a couple pints!

What a wonderful dinner Liz made for my last evening in London -- mmmmm! And how unbelievably kind to get up so early and drive me to Gatwick in the cold morning frost and fog (which was lovely, even if it did delay the flight a little). But there isn't much that makes a ten hour flight enjoyable -- and then there was the whole lost luggage... So it was even better to see Gene's smiling face when at last I got out of the endless lines for customs and luggage. And nice to be asleep that night in my own bed with Gene beside me and Kipper curled up by my feet (refusing to move). I think Maggie even came in once during the night, but I may have only dreamed it.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Sequential Adventures

I was lucky enough to stay in London with our friends Brad & Liz and their daughter Sophie. So much nicer to be in a home rather than a sterile, generic hotel room. Besides, it offers me a chance to indoctrinate Sophie into the ways of Sanrio and share a lot of laughs with her parents. I got a good night's sleep and took my time going out in the morning after rush hour was over (love that Oyster card!). My only real work was to renew my British Library card. That done, I considered doing some work in the library, but then remembered I was supposed to be on vacation.

So, I said hello to the Beowulf manuscript and took a peek at the Nobel exhibit which featured artifacts and films. I saw some interesting things like a film on Rabindranath Tagore and Selma Lagerlöf's shoes. Afterward I wandered with the vague idea of checking out the hotel we'll be using for the UHD London program in May -- it's very conveniently located between Tavistock Square and Russell Square.

Once I was in Russell Square, how could I pass up a visit to Quinto Books? Particularly once I saw the HALF PRICE banners in the windows. Pity I could only find one book to buy. Made a quick stop in Atlantis, but only bought one book there, too. Then I wandered down to the National Gallery to see the medieval paintings (and see whether "their eyes followed me around the room"). But I also checked out a new exhibit by Tom Hunter called "Living in Hell" which featured his photos mixing Hackney, tabloid headlines and old Masters' works. Very compelling. Then it was back on the train to the west side for dinner and more relaxing.

I should really be finishing that last syllabus, so more later...

Friday, January 13, 2006

And did those feet in recent time...

Back from Britain with a cough, a limp, and -- as of a few minutes ago -- my luggage at last. Things were much better going than returning, which is always the case I suppose. It is much more fun to be going on a trip than coming back to work (and the semester starts Tuesday). The trip didn't seem propitious at first; step one was having the buckle come off my only pair of shoes as I went through security. Good thing for that travel sewing kit. I'm not much with a needle, but it was enough to keep it on for the rest of the journey. After my tailoring in the departure lounge, I decided I needed a drink (in hopes it would make me sleepy, too) so I had a martini before going to the gate. When I got to the gate, they said "you've had a seat change" which annoyed me because I had an aisle seat and didn't want to change. One of the staff took me aside in the jetway and said in a low voice "oh, we've been trying to find you" and suddenly I thought of what horrible news they might have for me, but it was only to tell me that I was being moved up to business first and that they'd appreciate my not mentioning it to my seat mates, "some of who paid three or four thousand dollars for their seats." Well -- I can say I did really enjoy my free champagne, duck dinner, and wide seat that opened up nearly flat for sleeping. Least jet lag ever!

Into Gatwick in the morning, onto a Thameslink to King's Cross and then the train to Cambridge. The countryside was still green and as we left London, a light snow began to fall and it was quite lovely. Once in town, there was just a short bus ride to the center of town and Emmanuel College at Cambridge University. I checked in at the porter's cottage and made my way across the quad to my room near the library (in the US such a dorm room would have at least four students). I tried to nap for an hour or so but was too jangly to sleep. Then I went off to explore and had some dinner at Nando's. I slept well the first night, which turned out to be an anomaly.

The conference started in the morning with a full English breakfast (yum) and jumped right into sessions. As a small conference, it was possible to see everything (no overlapping panels). I didn't give my paper until the second day; it seemed to go over well and I got some nice compliments and a request for a copy. It was nice to wander around the university in between meetings although I hardly remembered to take pictures (most of the time). The best, though, was Sunday morning when we got a special tour of King's College Chapel. It has quite an impressive setting. We got detailed information about the glass and architecture and a chance to go behind the velvet ropes and sit in the fellows' seats. Then we were told one of the the fellows, William Burgwinkle, (who was also a plenary speaker at the conference) would take those of us who were willing up on the roof. He emphasized that it was entirely our own choice (and risk).

As many of you know, I am terrified of heights, but when would an opportunity like this come my way again?

So I joined the group which hung around for a few minutes while they tried to locate the guy who had the key to the little door at the back of the chapel (he had gone to lunch). He came back and handed over the most wonderful big skeleton key and an assortment of torches (flashlights) as there were no lights on the stairs. It was an old stone stairwell, steps worn to curves with a rope to hang onto as we went round and round, up and up. When we finally got up to the top of the ceiling and took a little break to walk along the stones which form the gothic arches of the top of the chapel. There were a couple of holes to peek through and see the floor of the building a looooong way down. I took a picture from the narrow walkway around the ceiling level.

Then it was up to the roof -- quite a view! It was cloudy and overcast, and yet the view was magnificent. I can only imagine what it would have been like on a clear summer day. You can see what care was taken with the building -- there is a green man on the back of the spire which is really only visible from the roof. I wasn't brave enough to climb all the way to the apex but I did go up the ladder and take this picture.

Then it was time to pack up and leave (a few hours later than I planned). It was an exhausting weekend (for some reason I couldn't sleep very well, waking up at three or four each morning) and I was eager to get to London and collapse at Brad & Liz's house. More on that (and more adventures) tomorrow.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006


Yes, barely back a few days -- just long enough to shake off this cold -- and I am on my way again. This time I'm off to Cambridge and London (always a favorite destination). This will be my first visit to Cambridge, so I am excited.

I'll be attending the Gender & Medieval Studies Conference to give a paper on the Anglo-Saxon poem Juliana. I'll be staying in college too, which ought to be interesting. You'll find some lovely pictures of Emmanuel College here [look for the "Gallery" link]. And certainly there are plenty of things to see if they are open during the break. While I was disappointed to find that the Footlights Club does not have a physical location at Cambridge anymore, there's still a venerable history to soak up in the environs.

Well, back to work --