Weekend Miscellany: Reading, Writing, Renos, and Buffy

IMG_0332Why does it seem as if my days are more miscellaneous than usual lately? I suppose one cause is the relative lack of routine that comes with being on sabbatical. This week was also another busy one in the kitchen make-over that we began in April: we finally got the countertop installed on Monday, which meant that the final plumbing and electrical work could get done on Tuesday. Hooray for having a proper sink again! All that remains to be done is the wall tile and then some touch-up painting, so I’ve been moving our plates and cups and pots and pans into the cabinets and getting back to cooking regular meals. The whole project was a lot of work, especially for my husband (who basically did all the work of a general contractor, plus a remarkable amount of research into fixtures and appliances), and also quite a bit of disruption, but we managed better than we’d feared with our temporary kitchen set-up and somewhat ad hoc menus including several casseroles that I made and froze ahead of time. It is nice to be putting things to rights again — and especially to have everything in the kitchen all shiny and new and in perfect working order!

I didn’t get a lot of really focused work done this week as a result of the commotion and distractions. But I did finish up and submit one writing project, and that means I’ve cleared the deck for another one with an early June deadline. (As that’s a book review for a book I haven’t actually received yet, I’m getting a bit anxious about the timing — I read (and reread, and write) pretty slowly when I’m doing a formal review. On the other hand, there’s nothing more motivating than a looming due date!) I had a work-related meeting to go to on Thursday and used the rest of my time on campus to do some administrative chores, like completing my Annual Report. This is actually a good stock-taking exercise, and it’s interesting to look back at earlier ones to see not just what I’ve accomplished but how the nature of my accomplishments has changed over time. I’m an examiner for a PhD comprehensive exam that’s taking place next week, so the committee has also been finalizing exam questions.

As for my reading, well, it has mostly been quite desultory since I finished Unbroken. I started Aislinn Hunter’s The World Before Us and was liking it fine until it turned out to be inhabited by some kind of ghosts or spirits — I guess by the time I finish it I will be better able to grasp why they seemed like something the novel needed, but at this point they just seem a rather twee distraction.

conradI put that book aside to concentrate on my book club reading for Monday, Conrad’s The Secret Agent (which we chose as a good follow-up to Lessing’s The Good Terrorist. It’s funny: there are markings in my copy that suggest I read it once before (presumably for an undergraduate course, as it has my unmarried name on the flyleaf and) but I have absolutely no recollection of doing so, or of any of its details. Once I got going I found it quite engrossing. I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed Conrad’s style, which struck me as conspicuously Dickensian here, in its flourishes and its imagery as well as in its evocation of London’s crowded streets and peculiar characters. It seems much clearer here than in Lessing that there’s no sympathy to be had for those who plot destruction. I found myself wondering if it would even be possible to write a novel that takes the other point of view. Generalizing about “the novel” is always risky, of course, and I’m sure someone will set me straight (Tom, probably) with examples that make nonsense of this suggestion, but the novel seems so directed towards individuals — and certainly both Lessing and Conrad emphasize that terrorism requires thinking instead about abstractions. The same is true (isn’t it?) about war: its requirements are dehumanizing, which is precisely the tendency great war novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front resist. I can imagine a novel that makes a much stronger case for political revolution or violence than either The Good Terrorist or The Secret Agent, but it certainly would need radicals who don’t speak in empty slogans, or appear either ridiculous (as both Michaelis or Ossipon, in their own ways, do) or flat out terrifying, like the Professor.

buffyFinally, I’ve been giving Buffy the Vampire Slayer another try, as I needed another TV show to distract me on the treadmill. (As it has warmed up — somewhat, some days — I’m almost ready to start running outside again, though I’m a bit wary because I’m still struggling with leg and foot pain, diagnosed in the fall as a variety of tendinitis, and the switch to running on pavement last summer seems to have been one cause.) This is my third attempt at Buffy, and it’s motivated by knowing how many of my friends think the show is just great. I’m about 5 episodes into Season 1, which is three further than I’ve ever made it before, but I’m still really turned off by how cheesy the vampires (and other supernatural beings) are, by the hokey melodramatic plots about them, by the cliched dialogue (I realize some of it is tongue-in-cheek), and by the rest of the show basically seeming like a low-grade teen drama. I guess my question for Buffy fans is: does it change? or is this what it’s like, and I either have to get in the groove or go back to watching The West Wing for the fourth time? Maybe I’m just too earnest for its arch style, or too literal for its blood-sucking, shape-shifting gimmickry.

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23 Responses to Weekend Miscellany: Reading, Writing, Renos, and Buffy

  1. Buffy does change – I think most fans agree that season 1 is by far the weakest. It took me a few tries over the years to get into it too, and I only made it past the whole of the first season because I also had plenty of friends who loved it and who assured me that once I gave it a proper chance I would too. The show doesn’t come into its own until the second season, when it moves away from the monster-of-the-week plots and devotes more time to character development. I can’t guarantee the same will happen to you, but once I was hooked I was really hooked!

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Since we’re entering into the summer TV doldrums here anyway, I may persist into season 2, then, based on yours and Theresa’s encouragement. If I’m still not hooked, at least I’ll know it’s not because I didn’t see the show at its best, or at least better.

  2. Theresa says:

    The kitchen remodel looks wonderful!

    Yes, I think Buffy does get better, especially in the 2nd season. But by now the visuals will look woefully out of date. Still, most of it was done tongue-in-cheek, so if you’re not enjoying it now, it may never draw you in. I like to comfort-watch The West Wing and Gilmore Girls.

    I’m still thinking about your recent review of Unbroken and your review of Life After Life, mostly in terms of how writers approach the subject of war. I would love to know what you think about A God in Ruins, which I still can’t get out of my mind.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I actually just finished a complete rewatch of Gilmore Girls! Looking forward to the next episode definitely helped motivate me to get on the treadmill.

      I will almost certainly read A God in Ruins. I do think Atkinson is a wonderful storyteller and stylist. I just wish she wouldn’t try to get fancier than that!

  3. Bill from PA says:

    I’ve read The Secret Agent twice; and think very highly of it, full of memorable images and incidents. I haven’t read much Conrad. I’m sure I went through The Secret Sharer and Heart of Darkness but don’t recall much of either – what I remember of the latter is mainly due to encountering frequent references to and commentary about it. In The Secret Agent I thought Conrad’s style felt clotted at time, without the smooth flow I find in Dickens; I recall having to re-read passages fairly often to get their exact sense.

    In regard to your comment about the novel not being sympathetic to the terrorists, it is perhaps relevant that I first read the book after it was favorably mentioned by Ted Kaczynski, in writings made public shortly after he was identified as the Unabomber. It seems he found in Conrad some inspiration for or confirmation of his actions, I thought most probably in the character of the Professor.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I agree about having to reread some passages: Conrad gets stilted in a way that Dickens never does, and uses expressions that aren’t entirely idiomatic (mostly because, according to the notes to my OUP edition, he was making assumptions about English idiom based on French).

      There is a kind of fanatical purity about the Professor, but I didn’t think Conrad presented him as someone admirable. I can see how he might (in a twisted way) be inspiring, though. Against his ruthlessness about blowing himself up (and anybody else close) we have the horror of Stevie’s body being collected with a shovel — which was dwelt on with such grim attention that it actually reminded me of the rather gallows humor of the Martin Beck novels. There’s nothing heroic or glorious about a death like that.

  4. Like you, I could never get into Buffy for many of the reasons you state. The cheesiness of the characterization and plots were a turn-off, as is the whole concept of vampire-ism. Couldn’t get beyond that to sustain interest into looking in further seasons.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      I don’t usually do vampires or really any supernatural stuff myself, not in reading or watching! I have read / heard enough about other layers of meaning in Buffy that I am at least still curious, anyway.

  5. Teresa says:

    I enjoy the first season of Buffy for what it is, but it’s not nearly as good as the later seasons. The monsters are less cheezy later on, and the drama has higher emotional stakes. I suggest skipping right to the finale of season 1 (which is pretty good and includes some significant plot developments) and then watching season 2. Most of the season 1 episodes are throwaways, and you’ll get a better sense of the show people admire from season 2.

    • Rohan says:

      I’m usually a compulsive completist, but with your encouragement to skip a bit (seconded by Tom, I see), I did jump forward a bit this morning — not to the S1 finale but to a later episode promising important revelations about Angel. I think that was a good one not to miss: it made everything a little more interesting!

      • I third this! When I’m introducing people to Buffy, I skip most if not all of Season 1, and several of the early episodes in Season 2. Things get a lot better in the early-to-mid second season, and then the third through fifth seasons are very strong.

      • Teresa says:

        Oh yes, I know which episode you mean. It is crucial, but I was thinking it was much earlier in the season. All the stuff you learn in that episode becomes really important for much of the next two seasons. A solid intro would be the first two eps, “Angel,” and “Prophesy Girl.” Jenny is right that it takes a little while for the second season to really kick in. But Spike and Dru are insanely enjoyable characters, much better villains than the Master.

        I’m with Tom on liking Season 6 the best, but that’s far from a universal view. That season tends to be either loved or hated, not much in between. But aside from seasons 1 and 7, I love almost the whole series. I have strong feelings about Buffy in general. My cat Anya is even named after a Buffy character.

  6. Professor Maitzen, I’m wondering if you’ve read Henry James’ The Princess Casamassima. If not, you might find it an interesting contrast to The Secret Agent and The Good Terrorist.

    • Rohan says:

      I haven’t read it but it does look like a really interesting one in this context. Maybe I can persuade my book club to choose it next. Or I guess I can just read it myself! Thank you for the suggestion. I am not a very good reader of James (speaking of stilted sentences…) but that’s as much from lack of practice as anything else, I’m sure.

  7. No, not me, not this time. I wonder if the novel is such an inherently humanistic form that the effect you describe is inevitable. Of course it is possible to write against this, but the result would be an explicit anti-novel, a rejection of the form.

    The great Russian novels of terrorism work in similar ways, I think – Crime and Punishment, The Devils, Petersburg, for example. So does The Man Who Was Thursday). You remember how Ann Patchett had to erase the murderous Maoist ideology of her terrorists for her novel to work. I suppose we need a novel written by an actual anarchist revolutionary for a good test. All of the writers I mentioned were, like Conrad, anti-anarchist.

    Years ago, when my sharp, knowledgeable book club read The Secret Agent, none of its members – NONE – knew that the anarchists of Conrad’s novel were historical, that their threat was real, that anarchists had murdered a Czar, a French President, and a US President, among others. The entire historic episode had slipped away. They read the novel as if it were purely a fantasy.

    Speaking of which, I second Teresa’s advice to skip ahead in Buffy. I also deny the claim that the characterization is ever cheesy. The special effects improve a bit as the budget grows, and more importantly the (young) actors get better. Sarah Michelle Gellar does some pretty subtle things by the end of the show.

    Like any fantasy story, the basic conceit is to literalize metaphors, and after the first season the show takes on some more difficult, complex metaphors, beyond “high school is hell.” It becomes a high grade teen drama. (Is it really more arch or less earnest than the fast-talking, pop culture obsessed Gilmore Girls?)

    A frustration that cannot be overcome without patience is that the great, influential innovation of Buffy was how stories were told over the course of a season, and in chunks within seasons, and no single show, or even a few shows, can demonstrate how this worked. This is why fans of the show are always placing scenes in “seasons” or talking about their favorite “season.” Mine is Season 6, easily, when Buffy becomes an adult. Long ways away.

    • Rohan says:

      There has been a recent spate of terrorist-themed novels post-9/11. I haven’t read any of them: I wonder what they do with this tension we’re hypothesizing between the form of the novel and the requirements of violent destruction.

      You’re right that Gilmore Girls can be very arch — but it’s got a strong core of serious (fraught, complicated, loving) family relationships and friendships. If the patter were all, I would not enjoy the show. (I feel somewhat the same about shoes/fashion/sex and Sex and the City, which to me has always been a show about friendship more than anything else.)

  8. johannes says:

    but rohan, the cheesiness is what makes it fun! although if you’re not really into vampires then buffy would be somewhat problematic. as someone who, too, came to buffy late – my vampire interests having lain dormant since the old hammer films of my teenage years and then being reawakened by the vampire diaries (which i ran out of patience with a few seasons in) – it was fun to discover buffy. but maybe you should try true blood?! now them is some serious vampires.

    • Rohan says:

      I’ve been working on the principle that it’s not really about vampires — or that at any rate vampires are to Buffy what horses and horse racing are to Dick Francis novels. I may be wrong about that! But if they are both a vehicle for the story and a metaphorical device, then maybe I don’t really have to be “into” vampires to enjoy the show?

      • johannes says:

        lol – that is such a literary critic’s reply. buffy is a vampire slayer! maybe you’re trying too hard? my partner too is a literary critic and watching buffy (and true blood) is when she gets to relax and forget her profession. 🙂 but yeah the other thing is : it’s just not everyone’s cup of tea, is all. i do enjoy your blog and musings. thank you.

      • Bill from PA says:

        “ghosts and vampires are never only about ghosts and vampires.” – Thomas C. Foster, How to Read Literature Like a Professor

        • johannes says:

          Thanks Bill! I rest my case 🙂 I am waiting for the second volume : How to watch TV just to enjoy yourself and relax after work so you don’t become a stresshead.

          • Rohan Maitzen says:

            Setting aside any unintended (I’m sure!) implication that I am a “stresshead” (is that like an egghead, only worse?), I’ll just point out that for some readers and viewers enjoyment and relaxation can actually involve something besides complete mental passivity! I bet your partner sometimes has ideas about what things in Buffy “really” mean or represent. Maybe you do too! But if not, that’s fine too.

            Buffy has been the subject of plenty of serious academic work. I’m morally certain that I’ll never contribute to it. But some of its insights might actually make watching Buffy more fun for me by helping me see what else is there — as some of the other comments here already have (like Tom’s about “high school is hell” — ha! I get that!) . I like that kind of reading-into-things: it makes it more interesting for me. If you don’t, it’s all good. I just resist the idea that probing a little, or not taking everything literally (as far as supernatural things can ever be taken literally, that is), is somehow anti-fun. I couldn’t go to work every day and teach Dickens or Wilkie Collins if I thought that!

  9. dollymix says:

    Buffy becomes less cheesy over time and much deeper as the characters evolve (while still having enough fun and levity to prevent it ever becoming a slog). The subject matter broadens significantly too. I would recommend at least watching through the second season, which is a significant step up in quality from the first. I’d argue that seasons 3, 5 and 6 are all better yet, but if you don’t like season 2 you can probably stop in good conscience.

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