15 August 2008

Progress Report

Life here at Mumpsimus Central continues on apace, despite the slow pace of posting. I finally got done all that I needed to do for Best American Fantasy 2008 and so now can begin trying to get organized for the next volume. I finished acting in a production of Taming of the Shrew that was fun and successful, and I enjoyed the irony of that being the show I appear in before teaching an introductory course in feminism this fall at Plymouth State (in The Riverside Shakespeare, Anne Barton makes the strongest case I've read for the play's subversive elements, but I'm still not really convinced). And I'm slowly getting organized with all of the tasks I have here at the house, though this has not been helped by the phone line getting hit by lightning, the lawn mower needing major service, etc.

In terms of reading, I've mostly been trying to prepare for my classes, sifting through gazillions (yes, that's a technical term) of essays and articles in search of ones to foist off on the feminism class -- I've collected well over 100 items, and am trying to determine which are most important and which are least -- a fun, if a bit overwhelming, process.

Yesterday I read Queer Theory, Gender Theory: An Instant Primer by Riki Wilchins, which I first learned about via Cheryl Morgan's excellent review essay about it. It's a readable and interesting book, good as a primer, though occasionally frustrating to anybody who's read a bit of Derrida and Foucault, since the use of their ideas is so simplistic, but I suppose that's a good counter to some of the tendencies of academics who have tried to write with the same sort of complexity as D&F but without much talent for it. Wilchins is better on Judith Butler's idea of performativity, but I may just think that because I'm less enamored of Butler than of Derrida and (especially) Foucault. I think Cheryl has given Wilchins short shrift on the concept of performativity -- I don't think Wilchins would deny that a person can have a strong sense of gender identity while also acknowledging that gender is performative and not essential (this is, as far as I can tell, why Wilchins devotes an entire chapter to race and critical race theory: race has a strong power over our sense of identity and many consequences for people's lives every day, but that doesn't mean we can't also point to the inadequacies of the concept of "race" and notice how the concept is constructed and enforced). But I don't think it's an important misreading (if it is even a misreading; I may be reading too much onto Wilchins's text to make it agree with my own feelings!), because so often the idea of performativity is used to suggest that a strong gender identity is something fanciful or easily discarded, or that transgender people are just pretending, and I'm glad Cheryl was able to attack that idea.

In any case, Queer Theory, Gender Theory is a clear and useful book to introduce people to important ideas about gender and its power in the world.

I had mentioned earlier that I was reading Nisi Shawl's Filter House for a Strange Horizons review, and might read Greg Bear's City at the End of Time for a review as well. I'm still intending to write about Filter House, but I won't review the Bear, since I managed to get 100 pages in and then just had to give up; I'm still quite fond of Bear's work in the 1980s and early 1990s, but the new novel is much too abstract and badly paced to hold my interest, and if I kept reading I'd just resent the whole thing. The Shawl collection is posing different difficulties -- what I've read so far is, alas, disappointing, though the fault may be more with my expectations than her writing: this is a book I very much want to like -- but the difficulties are ones I think I can write about, and, in any event, I'm hoping there will be a few stories among the ones remaining that work well for me.

I'm also still making my way through Meja Mwangi's novels, and enjoying them quite a bit. More on all that later.

A few days ago I got Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes and skimmed through parts of it. It got some press recently (under its British title, Excavating Kafka -- I don't know if there are differences beyond the title) for presenting information about and images from Kafka's collection of pornography. Hawes and his publisher are working hard to suggest that the book shatters all sort of myths, but aside from printing pictures of the porn (considerably less scandalous and disgusting than Hawes suggests -- I've seen worse in the art of the Greeks and Romans), Hawes doesn't seem to contribute much to the discussion that somebody who's read a bit about Kafka won't already know -- he's mostly attacking straw men. Worse, the narrative voice is so coy and grating that the book is nearly unreadable -- it's the voice of a teacher trying desperately to entertain an indifferent class, and only succeeding at shedding the last vestiges of his dignity.

Finally, my not-for-anybody-but-myself reading at the moment (always important when you have a lot of books to read for reviews or classes) is Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life by Julia Briggs, which is an extraordinary study of how Woolf wrote each of her books. It's the sort of book that will fascinate anybody interested in a writer's process, regardless of whether you've read all the books under discussion (I've pretty much read them all, but some of them not in over 10 years, when I took a Woolf course my senior year of college. But I even found the chapter on the one Woolf novel I've never read, Night and Day, compelling).