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Archive for April, 2012

Decisions

Early this week, I sent NYU law school a deposit notifying them of my intent to enroll. While this decision is not totally 100% guaranteed to be final*, it is the clearest sense of a life-direction I have had since I earned my MA one year ago. This is both a decision in favor of NYU and one against my two clear alternatives: attendance at Columbia Law, and (very likely) acceptance of an offer to participate in the PhD program with the department of English Literature at Brandeis University.

In choosing between the two law schools, which are really quite similar, I was motivated especially by NYU’s very recent record of creating successful academics, by NYU’s incredible faculty in the field of Law and Philosophy, and especially by the not ungenerous scholarship they offered me. It was not, however, easy to give up Columbia’s beautiful campus and prestigious name. I like prestige, but I’m willing to admit that egotism is probably not a good reason to attend one school over the other.

The decision to reject Brandeis (or, rather, to withdraw my name from consideration on the “priority waitlist”–wherefrom Brandeis assured me actual admission to the program was, while not guaranteed, “very likely”) was a slower choice and in some ways a more difficult one. Since I first applied to PhD programs in 2009, and accepted a Master’s program at BU as consolation prize, it was my goal to become an English professor. This was partly because reading and writing about literature is maybe the only thing I have ever really excelled at (well, that and Minesweeper), and also because, especially at BU, I discovered that I could find some real personal fulfillment in the research, writing, lectures and class discussions that make up the day-to-day life of an academic. I like working in English, and I tend to like the people who share that work. There is a really great sense of community among scholars, and I enjoyed being even just peripherally a part of that. Even nine or ten months ago, I was looking at Law School as a second-choice alternative in case my applications for PhD work were once again rejected (as, indeed, most of them were).

Although I wouldn’t have applied to law school if I didn’t think I could find some satisfaction there, I think I really began to seriously consider attending after receiving my LSAT scores, when I realized that I might be able to access some of the higher ranking Law Schools from which it is possible not only to play the game of law, but to play it at the highest level, with some of the most interesting and influential people in the world as my peers and instructors. Reading indicated to me that legal academia is not a dry field to participate in, and that the employment prospects there are better–significantly better–than the wasteland that is the employment market for careers in the humanities. Conversations with friends currently in Law School, who retain a sense of optimism about their futures and have assured me that the law need not be the soul-crushing realm it has sometimes been portrayed as, and that law school itself can be a place of intellectual growth and productive academic inquiry, were likewise influential to me.

Time will tell if I have made a mistake–if I have, it is only three years of my life that will be wasted (well, and like a billion dollars for tuition, in spite of scholarship), rather than the five to eight it takes to get a PhD. And instead of spending those three years in Waltham, isolated from the wider world, I’ll be working and living in the middle of Greenwich Village, which I am told can be an interesting place. But I do not think I have made a mistake. I think I’ll do well in law, and I think I might even enjoy a great deal of it. I’ve found pleasure in dry academic work before, and the tangible real world application of the law will be a pleasant change from literature (now I’ll get to listen to “you’re an evil lawyer” jokes instead of “what are you going to do with that degree” jokes). Not to mention, I’ll be able to keep on using the purple NYU thermos they gave me at Admitted Students day. I like that thermos.

*At this point, I am on the waitlist at the University of Chicago, and am “held” at Harvard. Admission at either–especially the latter–would force me to reconsider my current course, regardless of deposits lost to other schools.

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The Snake Fight

The last weeks have been eventful. So eventful, in fact, that I haven’t had energy to communicate with the outside world. Now, however, I’m entering a blissful week-long period without any essays to grade, at least until the class finishes their final papers two Mondays hence. Sweet freedom. Will I start updating my blog again? Will I get back to studying my French* and reading my Stanley Cavell? Will I write a few more chapters of my zombie novel? Or will I waste all my new free time watching Season 2 of Downton Abbey?

We shall seeeee…

Also, this is fantastic: FAQ: The “Snake Fight” Portion Of Your Thesis Defense.

*I’m 100 pages into Harry Potter et le Prisonnier D’Azkaban, and it’s taken me over a month to get that far. My lessons in speed reading (another half-abandoned study) do not seem to apply to reading in a foreign language. I’m following a sort of organic learning curve in my studies, just like a French child might. Next stop after les sorciers is Gustave Flaubert.

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Or maybe the rodeo clowns. And taxes, man, taxes are the rodeo. I’ve tried riding the bull over the last week, but I think I’ve just been thrown and trampled. I’m only now finishing up what have been the most gruelingly complex sets of taxes I have ever done, and the hundreds of dollars I might have unnecessarily paid thanks to my own failure to understand the tax code is at this point less painful than the headache which has grown as a result of repeated attempts to reach said understanding.

Here is a short but good piece in last week’s New Yorker on additions made to the paperback edition of DFW’s The Pale King (which I have not read). I promise, it’s relevant.

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This post is brought to you by Ballast Stone Shiraz, from Australia (2009). It is a heavy, chocolatey wine with flavors of pepper and rich red fruit. It is very much what one expects from a good Australian Shiraz, and I think it’s just delicious. It’s also running at 15%, so I think “hearty” is an apt description.

I really enjoy movies. They don’t even have to be good movies, really; if there is just one character I like, or if the sword fights are well choreographed*, or if there are pretty shots of the natural world, I’m more than capable of enjoying myself. I am also a great lover of books (though with less time to read them than I would like), and I am always interested (sometimes in spite of myself) when books are adapted to film.

I think some books must be much more amenable to film than others. I’m not talking just about the difference between The Orchid Thief and Harry Potter, either. Plenty of legitimately popular novels, if faithfully adapted, would make pretty boring movies. This came to mind recently as I finished reading two extremely popular book trilogies, both of which are now being adapted into what cannot not become extremely popular movie trilogies.

The Hunger Games should make a good movie. Why wouldn’t it, with its reality show inspiration, action-movie violence, futuristic cities and broadly drawn main characters? The first book takes place primarily on television, which means that any time there is a risk of things getting boring, there is a man in an office somewhere ready to push a button and unleash a storm of fireballs or a pack of mutant wolves. More importantly, the lead character Katness Everdine (“may the odds be everdine your favor”) is, like Jason Bourne, a character who thinks through action: most of the time, she has no idea what she’s going to do until she does it (including in her most compelling move at the end of Book 3), which means both that we’re often surprised by her–since she is often surprised by herself–and that the director won’t be forced to work portraying a vivid interior life. By which I mean, most of the action in these books takes place in the form of events, not in the form of people thinking.

This doesn’t, of course, mean that the movie will be easy to market; there is some bleak stuff in those books, and (as I learned when I saw the movie adaptation of Watchment) bleak stuff has a way of becoming super bleak and horrifying when translated faithfully onto film. Nonetheless, these are cinematic books, and it stands to reason that they would make cinematic cinema.

Stieg Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy should not make such a good movie. It has compelling image in its bat-out-of-hell female lead, but it’s also a set of book in which the major plot points hinge on research done in a magazine office or in a cabin in the woods. Lizbeth Salander spends virtually ALL of Book 3 on a sick bed. I have a theory that some books read like they were written for film because many writers are just far more familiar with movies than they are with books.** Many fantasy books seem to be written by people more familiar with playing video games, with quests for hidden items and upgrades that come from the purchase of new weapons. Larsson’s books, on the other hand, are concerned with solving puzzles and researching historical archives. Both are more interesting to see on paper than in real life.

The same problem plagued Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, in which moviegoers were treated to the sight of long-haired Tom Hanks going from museum to church and thinking about things until “Aha!” he’s solved the puzzle! On to the next church/museum! The story was tedious enough that even the presence of Sir Ian McKellen was not quite enough to save the film.

It used to be the case that when a director turned a book into a movie–even a really beloved book–certain artistic liberties would be made.  Since The Lord of the Rings, however, I feel like there has been a sort of boom in hyper-faithful movie adaptations, maybe especially in the genres directed toward geeks and children◊. One of the interesting results of this phenomenon (or maybe just an interesting result of film adaptations in general) is that elements that are strengths in the novel (ie. nonlinear narrative, de-centered storylines, long passages of interior monologue) go on to become confusing or boring in the movies.

But then, sometimes movies that should be boring go on to be really good. And sometimes movies that should be really good go on to be boring. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I’ve heard, is a pretty enjoyable film. This may have something to do with the fact that it is directed by David Fincher, a man who really knows what he’s doing.

There are books currently being adapted to film which should, probably, make really good movies. Ender’s Game comes to mind (although the last fifty pages or so will be tricky). Then there are movies like Cloud Atlas which seem so poorly suited for adaptation that they are even more interesting. Six separate stories with dramatically different tones and only minimal over relation to each other; that sounds like a challenge to adapt.

*Actually, my love for exciting swordfight choreography deserves a blog post of its own. That post will probably consist almost entirely of clips from Zhang Yimou films and The Princess Bride and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Especially this one: 

**I’m certainly not exempt from this rule. My novel-in-progress is a zombie story (and were Zombies even a thing before Night of the Living Dead?), and one of the main characters is an actress (or rather, was an actress before the apocalypse, back when they still had, you know, movies).

◊ And is it a point against them or in their favor that these most quirky and obsessive sets of fans are so absurdly rigorous in their demands for filmmakers? Why don’t the Bronte fans fly off the handle whenever a new version of Wuthering Heights is made? (Experiment: cast a black woman as Jane Eyre, and see what happens on twitter)

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Two critics

Readers of literature are making appearances in the news this week. Readers of the news would do well to check out the following:

First,  Sam Sacks has an outstanding essay on Sir Frank Kermode in Open Letters Monthly. Kermode is precisely the type of critic I most admire and aspire to emulate: a wide-ranging thinker who was master of many critical techniques but slave of none. I don’t think there is any critic now working, except for maybe Helen Vendler, who consistently makes such revelatory observations with so little pomp. Sacks does a great job of capturing the intelligence and wit and also the humility of Kermode’s writing.

Second, contemporaneous celebrity expatriate Susan Sontag has also been popping up around the internet, in anticipation of the release of the middle volume of her journals and notebooks*. Christine Smallwood reads this volume for Bookforum, and while her judgements are maybe a little bit… judgemental… they’re also incisive and timely and certainly valid–just as Sontag’s always were.

 

* It’s a crime against the internet that Sontag never had a blog. This compilation is titled “As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980.” The New York Times published several excerpts last Sunday, among them the following amusing set of lists:

“On Licorice, Bach, Jews and Penknives

Things I like: fires, Venice, tequila, sunsets, babies, silent films, heights, coarse salt, top hats, large long- haired dogs, ship models, cinnamon, goose down quilts, pocket watches, the smell of newly mown grass, linen, Bach, Louis XIII furniture, sushi, microscopes, large rooms, boots, drinking water, maple sugar candy.

Things I dislike: sleeping in an apartment alone, cold weather, couples, football games, swimming, anchovies, mustaches, cats, umbrellas, being photographed, the taste of licorice, washing my hair (or having it washed), wearing a wristwatch, giving a lecture, cigars, writing letters, taking showers, Robert Frost, German food.

Things I like: ivory, sweaters, architectural drawings, urinating, pizza (the Roman bread), staying in hotels, paper clips, the color blue, leather belts, making lists, wagon-lits, paying bills, caves, watching ice-skating, asking questions, taking taxis, Benin art, green apples, office furniture, Jews, eucalyptus trees, penknives, aphorisms, hands.

Things I dislike: television, baked beans, hirsute men, paperback books, standing, card games, dirty or disorderly apartments, flat pillows, being in the sun, Ezra Pound, freckles, violence in movies, having drops put in my eyes, meatloaf, painted nails, suicide, licking envelopes, ketchup, traversins [“bolsters”], nose drops, Coca-Cola, alcoholics, taking photographs.”

 

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