Tuesday, September 28, 2010

First Week of Classes

This here is one of the classrooms I teach in this quarter. It's currently empty, but four times a week, it is full of sophomore college students learning to write (we hope). This Fall, I will be teaching three classes at two universities five days a week, sometimes twice a day. It could be so much worse. I could be adjuncting at more than two schools, or I could be working my rear off without all the awesome and necessary benefits that one of my current jobs provides.

Being "off the tenure track" (for now, knock wood) makes me interested in organizations like the Coalition on the Academic Workforce (CAW). The title of CAW's "issue brief" has odd liturgical echoes: "One Faculty Serving All Students." Nevertheless, the document contains important points like
All faculty members need to receive compensation and institutional support and recognition commensurate with their status as professionals.
All long-term faculty members need to be fully enfranchised to participate in the work and life of the department and institution.
Hmmm. Yes, I think I can get behind these statements. I have been contingent labor for universities in my metropolis for three years (I'm just beginning my fourth). I have been invited to only one faculty meeting. Some terms, I have to ask those among my friends whom I, Professor Pinocchio, like to call "real professors" (e.g. they have proven worthy of tenure-track appointments at the local research university) to check books out from their institution's amazing library for me, so that I can pursue my research--the very research I need to be doing to stay competitive on the job market. Enfranchisement, fair and dependable compensation, full participation and recognition are a few of the things we dream of.

But I did not begin this blog entry to rant; I love one of the courses I designed for this term. It takes up themes of food literacy and social justice and involves readings by Raj Patel, John Robbins, Michael Pollan, J. A. Brillat-Savarin, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Stephanie Black's stunning documentary Life and Debt. More ins-and-outs of the course in future posts, unless I'm too busy cooking, commenting on student papers, and sending off job applications for the tenure-track position I long for.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Peanut Allergy Kills Marriage Dead

Spoiler Alert!
The New York Times review of Adam Ross’s debut novel Mr. Peanut garnered my interest immediately. I was one of the fortunate firsts to reserve the Seattle Public Library’s brand new copy, and now I’ve finished reading it. The book seems to be an answer to my query about literary representations or challenges to the institution of marriage in contemporary American literature.

When I first began reading Ross’s novel, I thought the prose was dazzling, in spite of the fact that Mr. Peanut’s take on marriage is so twisted that I kept flipping to the back flap of the book jacket to re-assess the author bio-blurb which affirms that Ross is married. In a moment of readerly faux pas, I wondered if the book’s rendition of marriage represents in any way Ross’s own marital experience. All the husbands in the book fantasize, at some point, about murdering their wives… when the husbands are not off philandering, that is. All the wives in the book feel invisible and ignored and taken for granted. Now that I think about it, this is a pretty conventional take on marriage. Is this how far we’ve progressed in how we imagine traditional marriage? Adultery and unhappy housewives?

The form of the novel gestures at postmodern cleverness, but doesn’t quite achieve it. Still, I quite admire the efforts here. The plot folds in on itself like the Mobius strip that is so thematic. It begins as a conventional detective story with split frames: flashbacks to David and Alice’s marriage interspersed with police interrogation of David following Alice’s death. David is a video game designer; the plot flirts dangerously with the concept of the avatar, likening this alter-ego to the Escher tessellation of the white man and the black gnome. But David is also struggling to write a novel, a plot device—more of a gimmick actually—that feels inauthentic, even though, by the end, we learn that it is the very device that structures the entire novel. Resulting passages about the difficulty of writing through the long middle of the story, or overcoming writers’ block, or ignoring the interruptions of communal living, sound like Ross himself reflecting on the difficulty of finishing Mr. Peanut. Adam Ross and his alter-ego David Pepin could consult any women novelist, journalist or academic to learn how to finish a book despite constant interruptions by spouse, children, household management, and full- or part-time job.

And that brings me to one of my main critiques of the novel. The experience of marriage represented in the book is entirely that of the husband. Ross seems quite capable of creating fairly sensitive interiority for his male characters, but not for his female characters. If I had a nickel for every time one of the wives did or said something that was, from the narrator’s perspective, mysterious, cruel, impenetrable (yes, pun) or inscrutable… Like all the husbands in the book, the author is incapable of (and uninterested in?) unpacking female psychology. Meanwhile, the husbands all seem wounded, a little like Mr. Dombey, that jerk. And despite that these husbands are being jerks (they’re all potential wife-killers, remember?), the reader is sickly persuaded to sympathize with them. Why won’t Hastroll’s wife get out of bed? Why is Pepin’s wife so cold? Why does Sheppard’s wife run off to stay at her father’s house? Wives can be so mean.

On top of being husband-centric, the book is relentlessly heternormative. Not a single queer in the story. And it portrays marriage as an inevitability. As the Film Studies professor character announces to his undergraduate class, "'we're all criminals anyway, aren't we? You aren't yet, of course, because you're young and unmarried, whereas I've been married for years and regularly dream of murder!'"We are all either married or not-married-yet. The institution defines us, even in the negative. But isn’t fiction for imagining things that are not necessarily real yet? And by imagining them, and circulating these fictions and thereby transforming the readers’ perceptions and beliefs, doesn’t fiction help change how things are? Adam Ross, you’ve let me down. But maybe my expectations of realist/domestic novels are too high to begin with. (Ok, speculative fiction, I'll give you another chance.) While this book confirms for me that heterosexual marital failure remains standard literary fare, I want to further explore contemporary American fictions of marriage: where are the literary challenges to the legal institution? Where is the great and groundbreaking Gay Marriage Novel, for example?

More than anything, the book expresses the sadness and absurdity that marriage entails--surely this depiction signifies the imminent demise of the institution? The book re-kills the fantasy of the soul mate. Towards the end of the book, it occurs to the main character "that you could be married to any number of people, that you were simply trading on what you were willing to give and take, on whatever good came with the bad. And it was also a sad truth that you might not be equipped for certain kinds of ease or happiness." This cannot be a revelation to most of us.

In closing, it's getting towards bedtime, and I identified with this particular example of dazzling prose:
Hannah needed her sleep--eight solid hours--and she protected it fiercely, was in a bad, bad way if it was interfered with; if she stayed up too late the deprivation wrote a check that irritability cashed the next day.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Home-stay Non Tian

Here is a tian.
A tian is a layered casserole.
Wait, maybe it's not: my tian does not look like this tian at all.
It turns out a tian is more gratin than casserole.
According to Larousse Gastronomique, a tian is an earthenware, ovenproof dish from Provence used to prepare all kinds of gratin dishes, which are also called tian.

I made this non tian while living at someone else's house, taking care of their pets and garden. These lovely absent people happened to have a cookbook I've been drooling over, Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. My tian is a rough approximation of a recipe in Bittman's Bible, using ingredients I happened already to have: an enormous eggplant, a couple small zucchini, a can of plum tomatoes, lots of garlic, and a juicy local sweet onion... plus fresh thyme and oregano from the home-stay yard.

After salting the slices of eggplant for a long time (to sweat out the bitter juices), I assembled the layers.

I added more layers.

I baked it in a 350-degree oven for about 45 minutes. Twice, I interrupted the tian's slow-slow cooking to press the layers down in the pan. I completed the meal with pesto pasta.

There was a small dog staring at me while I ate, and a poison dart frog absolutely ignoring me. (I failed to photograph the cat, two ducks and two chickens). I did not share my meal with them. The dog might have liked it, but the frog is on a strict wingless fruit fly diet.