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bianca steele
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It’s come to my attention that Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is being bashed as anti-Catholic, and given that I adore Mantel’s novels, I’d like to come to her defense. Caveat: I’ve read only Wolf Hall, and not yet Bring Up the Bodies. I’ve seen only the first twenty or so minutes of the Masterpiece Theatre adaptation, and that only because I’d never seen Mark Rylance in action, nor in (as it were) trousers. But I’ve read all of her earlier novels except one. My understanding is that Mantel’s novel An Experiment in Love is largely autobiographical. That is, like her protagonist Carmel in that novel, she was born in England to a working-class Irish or Anglo-Irish family, was educated as a day student in a Catholic convent, and studied law at the University of London in the 1970s, when she dabbled in leftist politics and university Labour Party organizations. And further, that like Frances in Eight Months in Ghazzah Street, she travelled with her husband to Saudi Arabia and lived there for a time as an expatriate. As far as I know, she is still a woman of the left. I was unaware until today, clicking hyperlinks, that she no longer considers herself a Catholic. It is not something I would ever have gathered from her novels, and while her account of Tudor England is clearly sympathetic to the Protestant side, I can’t understand why it must be seen as anti-Catholic. The problem cannot be that More is depicted as... Continue reading
Posted Apr 28, 2015 at Bianca Steele
“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” I was watching a trailer online for Deep Web when my six year old daughter walked in. I don’t watch documentaries much and this one didn’t look especially interesting, but she disagreed. I’m not sure what to make of that, but here is an article (via the author’s blog at Crooked Timber) discussing how the Silk Road turned from libertarian paradise to bureaucratic prison state, in the way familiar from Animal Farm. Farrell’s discussion reminds me of the first season of The Tudors. The most interesting part of that show, I thought, was how it followed the court of Henry VIII as the power that initially was invested in the person of the King, Henry, gradually and inexorably was distributed to the figures around him, whether because they were his friends or because they could help him run the government in the grand fashion he’d been persuaded he deserved. The Tudors were the beginning of the end of absolute monarchy in England. Once they’d used personal power to accumulate that much power into the national government, the power itself turned against them, as it couldn’t be used effectively using the same means that had been able to gather it. (The novel Wolf Hall makes a somewhat related point.) In a similar way, the man known as “The Dread Pirate Roberts” eventually... Continue reading
Posted Feb 20, 2015 at Bianca Steele
Transcendance is worth watching but ultimately disappointing. The story tracks those left behind in the wake of a terrorist attack on every advanced AI facility in the country, except one. The lead scientist at that facility, Will Caster, is killed in a slower, more subtle way, one that leaves his wife and friend with time enough to use an untested method to upload his mind and memories into the system. The resulting personality alienates the friend but persuades the wife, Evelyn, also a scientist, that he is who he appears to be. The plot develops from there and from the fact that the terrorists are now looking for the two of them and for the circuit boards they’d stolen from the lab. “Will” decides to use his advanced intelligence and unlimited, Internet-enabled knowledge to remake the world. (First, he makes a killing in the stock market and finances a private hideaway where Ev can run his corporation. Then, he secretly develops the cure for every disease. After that, he uses access to this cure to control a private army.) This is, at its base, a simple science-fiction movie without a lot that could appeal to non-fans of the genre. There’s no standard non-SF plot that might engage viewers in a non-genre way. There’s not much action, not much in the way of character development except in their occupational roles (scientists, terrorists, cops), not much in the way of special effects. There’s no crime to be solved, none of the characters’... Continue reading
Posted Jan 27, 2015 at Bianca Steele
This post probably doesn’t need to be written. The world is already divided into people who like the musical of Les Misérables and people who don’t. I’ve already written a post about how I didn’t, and after seeing the movie version, I have not changed my mind. Though I have refreshed my memory. Interestingly, my husband liked it. In one way, that’s good, because it would be kind of a shame to make someone hate-watch a movie with you when it’s two and a half hours long and you’re pretty sure they will like it less than you do. (Really, I did believe the reviews when they said Short Cuts was good, and even though I don’t really love Raymond Carver, we had both liked The Player and I had every reason to believe the movie would not be the pits. In fact, I think we both might actually have liked it if it weren’t for the bikers sitting next to us who wouldn’t shut up. In fact, I think I would watch Short Cuts again. Really.) And it’s a good thing he didn’t see the play, because if he had liked it, I don’t think we’d be married today. Plus, if he hadn’t liked it, he wouldn’t have been willing to watch a two and a half hour film of it with me now. Les Misérables, the novel, is what, at least a thousand pages long? The standard way to adapt it for the screen, in the mid-twentieth century... Continue reading
Posted Jan 18, 2015 at Bianca Steele
I wonder, every so often, about what fantasy and crossover writers think when they use magic in a story, and whether they think of it as a substitute for science, or as a rival for it. Recently I suddenly remembered a line from Pilgrimage, a collection of linked science fiction stories by Zenna Henderson. In the story “Gilead,” a human character says to his alien wife, “We turned to science. You turned to the Power.” That same character says, “Homesick, honey? So am I. For what this world could have been. Or maybe—God willing—what it may become.” Henderson’s stories depict the remnants of an advanced civilization that fled its home planet after it was destroyed (by natural causes, not by their own acts). Two groups of the refugees land in the American West and settle there. These aliens, known to themselves (in anthropologically sound fashion) as “The People,” possess an advanced society and powers unknown to us Earthlings (except for a handful of especially evolved persons who pop up, here and there). They have telepathy and telekinesis, can modify the weather, and have various other skills. They also find great personal meaning in our Earth Bible and reference it in telling their own stories. And they do not use Earth technology. The People have the following: personal shields that keep them dry and comfortable in any weather; clothes that can be repaired, lengthened, and shortened without sewing or cutting; the ability to fly, and thus to travel without automobiles; the... Continue reading
Posted Dec 12, 2014 at Bianca Steele
John Rogers seems to have the ability to make a show that panders to all my guilty pleasures, and this is another one. The Librarians seems to be perfect for a forty-something viewer who’s hungry for a little nostalgia for the glory days of E.R. (who knew Rebecca Romijn looked so much like Maria Bello?), and who’s saturated her mind in the world of The Magic Tree House (on which more soon). This is a silly show, in the Remington Steele-Hart to Hart vein, and it relies on mildly witty banter and jokes to make it entertaining. It’s not excessively coherent—the idea that a character could immediately intuit an entire worldwide conspiracy in one second is only slightly less believable than the idea that a different character could decode a five hundred year old cipher in ten. The proposition that King Arthur was a left-behind Roman Centurion is accepted as fact a bit quickly. The proposition that the most magical place in the British Isles is London, similarly (especially given that the alternative is Wales and Cornwall, where by most accounts the most likely candidate for Camelot was actually located, and which actually has a long tradition of being a center of magic in Britain). On the other hand, it was nice to see some “grounding” of the magic in traditional theory. (John Dee! Ley lines!) And it was nice to see an explicit contrast between magic and science. Too often stories about modern magic neglect to distinguish between them... Continue reading
Posted Dec 8, 2014 at Bianca Steele
I really loved this book. I liked it even though—unlike The Night Sessions, the last book by MacLeod I read—it contained no instances at all of the word “dinna.” One of the reasons I loved it is that I’ve read so much stuff like the book I discussed in my previous blog post, Codex (a fact for which its author bears no responsibility), novels I enjoyed but couldn’t quite buy, like The Historian and Bleeding Edge and Halting State. The Historian gave us a thoroughly modern, materialist-minded academic, and confronted her with the uncanny, in the form of a supernatural tradition that turns out to be literally real, and a vast element of evil that turns out to take a fully human form. An unnamed young woman, the historian of the tale, is essentially inducted into a secret society of vampire hunters, linked only by the fact that they’ve all been given the gift of an old book with a dragon on the cover, and aware of one another only through chance meetings. Decades may go by without their taking up abandoned or previously concluded vampire research, when suddenly they again receive the call. The Restoration Game, instead of shadowy, unnamed secret societies, has real government spooks: amateur assets of the British Crown, giving birth (literally) to a professional anthropologist reporting back to the CIA. She’s dating a Scottish socialist who works equally easily with a criminal smuggling drugs, porn, and tobacco behind the Iron Curtain, and a splinter-group cell... Continue reading
Posted Dec 4, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Over the summer and into the fall, I’ve done a fair amount of reading for pleasure, and have had too many books queued up to write anything about them, and more time, it feels like, to write down my thoughts, than to condense them into anything I could post. Hopefully, I’ll be putting up some of the backlog over the next few months. I was reading Citadel, a novel by Kate Mosse in which the characters are searching for a Roman-era codex, when I was reminded that I had Lev Grossman’s early novel, Codex, on my to-read-someday list. I’d read and enjoyed The Magicians and its two sequels and was curious to read what Grossman had written that was more based in everyday reality. Codex his first book, but it’s the earliest one that’s still in print. Anyone taking on the task of writing about Lev Grossman’s novels has to take into consideration the fact that he himself has written quite strong words on the inadvisability of ever writing negatively about anyone’s book. I think by now, however, the staid and occasionally dully stolid narrative style of the Magicians trilogy, especially in the earliest-written of them, is broadly enough known that anyone glossing over it will lose credibility. Codex itself received almost uniformly positive reviews when it came out, probably due in part to the innovative way it wove then-recent literary theory into the narrative. But not surprisingly—especially given the author’s own statements—Codex isn’t quite as accomplished as it could... Continue reading
Posted Nov 30, 2014 at Bianca Steele
I was watching a movie called “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” the other day. I remembered seeing it in a theater, and I remembered buying a dress a few months later (in 1992 or 1993) and finding that the only one that fit me looked awfully like one Winona Ryder wore in that movie (the high-necked collar and cut-out obviated neck and shoulder fitting problems). I thought it was directed by Kenneth Branagh, and watched it for a while, fruitfully, with this misimpression in mind, but the director was Francis Ford Coppola. (Branagh did a Frankenstein adaptation about the same time. Scorsese, again using Ryder, did Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. It was the best of times and the worst of times for filming nineteenth-century novels. Poor Merchant and Ivory have a lot to answer for.) I don’t think I left the movie theater thinking, “That was one of the worst movies I ever saw,” though maybe I did. What’s certain is that the movie has aged badly, and not because it’s difficult now to take the major actors (Ryder and Keanu Reeves) seriously, or that Anthony Hopkins seems to be in a different film altogether some of the time, and that movie is a running commentary on his own role in The Silence of the Lambs. It owes something to David Lynch’s Dune, I think, and there are rather too many scenes that suggest someone was watching Star Trek (TOS), stoned, for the first time, having no previous exposure to... Continue reading
Posted Nov 6, 2014 at Bianca Steele
This weekend I visited Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to see the Jamie Wyeth show. I had thought of skipping it, but my five year old wanted to see the picture of the dog that’s used in the show’s advertising. I knew a fair amount about Jamie Wyeth already. He’s not that well-known outside of the Philadelphia area, but he represents the third generation of an artistic family, the most highly thought of probably being his father, Andrew Wyeth, whose painting, Christina’s World, is held by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. If you live in Philadelphia, every now and then you’ll read a story about the Wyeth family. I remember reading one as a kid, possibly in a magazine aimed at students. Jamie Wyeth’s most famous paintings are probably his posthumous portrait of President Kennedy and a painting of his wife driving a pony cart into the woods, but he’s not as well-known or well-regarded as his father, and both of them paint in a realist style that is not at all the fashion in the art world generally. It was a little surprising that the MFA would do a show about him. Jamie Wyeth does not seem to have a significant presence in the nation’s major art museums. The curator does do a good job explaining why she thinks the show is significant, though, and I ended up wondering whether my sense that Wyeth is “minor,” at best, was misguided and snobbish. Why is he taken less seriously... Continue reading
Posted Oct 7, 2014 at Bianca Steele
In both Her and Ruby Sparks (which I discussed last year), a man suddenly discovers that there’s a woman living in his house, whom he hadn’t—to his knowledge—invited in. In both of these films, the woman eventually leaves. In both, there’s an extreme power mismatch. In Ruby Sparks, the power differential is much worse than in Her: Calvin, the writer-protagonist of the film, conjures Ruby out of thin air, simply by writing about her, and throughout the entire film, he is able to dictate her actions and her personality, simply by writing what he wants on his typewriter. She can only helplessly attempt to resolve the cognitive dissonance his changes produce, and make up stuff to fill in the blanks. Eventually, Calvin’s misuse of Ruby descends to serious abuse. When I was thinking about how these two films are similar, I was struck by how much they, on the contrary, differ from Truly, Madly, Deeply or Don De Lillo’s The Body Artist. In both those stories, a person appears unexpectedly, and uninvited, and refuses to leave. In those stories, the house belongs to the woman, and it’s a man who suddenly appears. In both, he asks something of her, which she’s not prepared to give, but refuses to go away. But in both those stories, the man turns out to be the ghost of her husband. She had thought that when he died, she would be alone. She turns out to have been mistaken. He is going to hang around... Continue reading
Posted Sep 15, 2014 at Bianca Steele
I saw Being John Malkovich when it was originally released, more than fifteen years ago (in the now-defunct Harvard Square Cinema, in the days when we used to drive to the city for dinner and a movie), and as I remember it, I really enjoyed it. Over time, I became less and less able to watch it. Partly, I spent too much time discussing it with other people; it was one of those strange occasions when discussing a book or a movie with others makes it seem less, rather than more, appealing. It’s possible to see Her as a rewriting of themes from Being John Malkovich, in more conventional narrative terms. And it’s really pretty good. I think. If I don’t think about it too much. One thing: The software thing doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense taken literally. An operating system just doesn’t do the same things OS1/Samantha is supposed to do. What the software is, is an adaptive interface, like the paperclip guy Microsoft tried to get people to use a few years back. It’s true that Apple, in particular, has always promoted a kind of fuzzy view of things, where the Finder tends to stand in for, or to be more interesting and important than, the MacOS proper. And it’s true that for the past several years, the user interface has been very closely associated with the OS itself: see the way Microsoft changed the look-and-feel very drastically with Vista, and with Windows 7, and then... Continue reading
Posted Sep 8, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Eric Rauchway at Crooked Timber has a post about Jill Lepore’s takedown of the idea of disruption, popularized by Clayton Christenson. I’d clicked through to the article, from different places, a handful of times, without ever finishing it, but it’s worth reading. This article, recommended by Phil Edwards, is interesting, especially if you follow its embedded links, but has a different emphasis. As Rauchway notes, Lepore presents two arguments: one, that “disruption” has become a buzzword that’s being applied in too many places where it’s actually irrelevant, and another, that the concept of disruption is flawed on its own terms. Lepore’s essay is good, but I’m not convinced by her attempt to refute Christenson’s work. Her argument depends on finding logical flaws and flaws in interpreting sources, without attempting to really grapple with the argument itself. She takes Christenson’s writing on its own, without taking account of what it’s actually trying to do and the other work it’s responding to. Business research can be frustrating and follows its own rules for sourcing—I’ve seen scholarly books that, where you might expect to find a primary source, you find a series of hyped-up articles from business weeklies instead—but before criticizing that research, it seems like it would be worthwhile to try to understand what it’s trying to do. A big part of Lepore’s argument is that Christenson repeatedly identifies firms as having failed, when Lepore’s research shows easily that they had not. I think there’s a disagreement on definitions here, and that... Continue reading
Posted Jun 26, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Greenberg, which appeared in 2010, directed by Noah Baumbach and co-written by Baumbach and Jennifer Jason Leigh, was both like and unlike what I expected from reading the reviews, and I both liked and was unsure about it, though less unsure than I was about Baumbach’s previous The Squid and the Whale. The uncertainty isn’t necessarily a mark against it, either. I’ve found that I’m harder on movies than I am on books, largely, I think, because I care about books more, and take them more seriously. I enjoy watching films, and when they’re good I can enjoy them as art, but I don’t expect them to be good enough to count, at least for me, as “art” in some complimentary sense. So, somehow, when they approach that complimentary sense of “art,” I feel compelled to look for the reasons why the effect is really a fake, and why the movie is just a bit of fluff after all. Whereas with novels, for the most part, I expect more from them and I work harder to fit the flaws into some larger scheme of sense-making. That’s just a fact about me, and which form—movie or book—I feel most affinity for. It isn’t a fact about whether books are better than movies, or vice versa, whether eternally or at this moment in time. But so Greenberg, I found both enjoyable and thought-provoking—though not really in an intense way that would make me think it was a masterpiece—though, again, when I think... Continue reading
Posted Jun 22, 2014 at Bianca Steele
A while back, I wrote a couple of posts about the movie version of Revolutionary Road, based on the trailer—which looked awful—and articles about the book. I final saw the movie a few years ago, and thought it was okay, a little theatrical. I started to write a post about it a couple of times, but never got very far, and I seem by now to have lost my notes. But I’ve finally read the novel, now, and it is, at one and the same time, much better than the movie, and no better than you’d expect. The film had a clockwork-strict act structure and a strong tinge of theatricality, as if the performances had been intended for the stage. The critique of America that it makes, like the language in which it makes it, also gives off a whiff of the Off-Broadway theater. Kate Winslet is physically all wrong for the part of April Wheeler, who should be all angles and narrowness, a blonde Katherine—not Audrey—Hepburn. I cannot forgive the scene in which she’s lit to resemble Hillary Clinton, as if that somehow would give the story a larger, and true, relevance. Michael Stuhlbarg Shannon is also miscast as the tall, blond schizophrenic math professor, John Givings. Leonardo Di Caprio, as Frank Wheeler, is physically fine, and demonstrates a sense of who he’s going to be as an adult actor, but there’s still a menacing sense of emotional immaturity in a grown man’s body, that he is literally the... Continue reading
Posted Jun 17, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Hi Lee, thanks for the comment. I wanted to look at the book again before replying, but I didn't really get a chance to. It's too bad you don't remember the debate/encounter (are you sure it was after 1977 and involved Maslow, he died in 1970) because if you did you could write something about it. One thing Grogan's book doesn't have is gripping narrative. As for Rogers, I think she generally implies that by the 1975 APH conference he'd about had it with humanistic psychology. He was one of those resisting its "growing anti-intellectualism." And she does discuss his differences with Maslow's approach early on--I got the sense she had more sympathy for Rogers--but doesn't say a lot about either of their thought in detail. I actually knew almost nothing about Rogers before I read the book except that someone (Ted Nelson, I think) compared the computer program Eliza to a nondirective Rogerian therapist.
Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Modern Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self, developed from a doctoral dissertation by Jessica Grogan, is an academic history of Abraham Maslow, and of the development in psychology he pioneered, known as humanistic psychology. Many people are aware of Maslow through the popularization of his “hierarchy of needs,” which describes human needs as a progression: once physical needs are met and no longer represent a challenge to the individual, then emotional and social, and eventually artistic and spiritual needs can be addressed. Maslow was concerned to move the study of psychology past a preoccupation with the lower levels, which he saw as contributing to an overemphasis on social integration and conformity, and toward a study of how to bring out the absolute best in people. But in addition to Maslow, other fairly famous figures, including Carl Rogers and Rollo May, were integral to the movement and helped to shape it. The book begins with a one-chapter history of American psychology in the middle of the twentieth century. This draws on longer works but offers an interesting interpretation—tied to the limitations of both neo-Freudianism and what she describes as a scientistic over-emphasis on quantification, with the emphasis of both on the pathological individual psychology; and on the limitations of 1950s ideology with its emphasis on conformity. Abraham Maslow wanted to introduce ideas about personal liberation into that mix. After the history of psychology overview, the book settles into narrative mode. As a narrative, it’s not... Continue reading
Posted May 26, 2014 at Bianca Steele
If the previous chapters were sometimes essayistic, the last chapter, a summing-up of Ehrenreich’s argument, really is an essay. A book that was structured along the same lines as this one chapter could have been really interesting. But while the earlier, factual chapters had a nice, flowing essayistic tone (which worked especially well in the audiobook format), this one feels choppy and superficial, and skates much too quickly from one topic to the next one. There’s more here about what Ehrenreich thinks it means to be reasonable: to know science and use the scientific method; to understand that all animals survive through vigilance and being alert to danger; to check our conclusions and beliefs with others; to be alert to the fact that the world doesn’t care about us or our feelings; to stop thinking “positive” is a synonym for “good.” People in Stalinist countries could be imprisoned for failing to be positive enough. Though people who are depressed don’t know how to distinguish the truth about the world from how they feel about things, that is, they don’t understand that emotion isn’t true, the same holds for people who are always positive. Also, we should not keep examining our thoughts and readjusting them whenever we find they make us feel negative about something in the world. This sounds good but doesn’t survive a moment’s further thought. The audiobook format makes it impossible to check Ehrenreich’s own sources, but it’s plain that she’s selected a tremendous number of books and... Continue reading
Posted May 18, 2014 at Bianca Steele
The title of the chapter is, “How Positive Thinking Destroyed the Economy," but this chapter isn’t really about the causes of the financial crisis. Only a few aspects of the crisis are mentioned: primarily, people taking out mortgages they ultimately couldn’t afford, and brokers putting “buy” recommendations on bad securities. (Previous installments were here: ch. 1, ch. 2, ch. 3, ch. 4, ch. 5, ch. 6.) The chapter begins with a lengthy description of the economic situation before the crash, with what’s more recently become known as the discussion of increasing inequality. Some of this repeats information mentioned earlier in the book. This time, however, the focus is on the worsening situation for the bottom 80% of earners, rather than on the difficult times salesmen are facing. Thus, the discussion of worsening inequality feeds into the paradox that, while working and middle class people were actually doing less well, they were simultaneously turning to positive-thinking nostrums that told them they could have anything they wanted. Ehrenreich tells that people who knew perfectly well that they did not truly qualify for a mortgage could be encouraged by a pastor to consider the possibility of a miracle—that they might get a loan in spite of a poor credit score. She quotes from a few theologians who blame this kind of thing (lots of people buying houses and other luxury goods that they actually couldn’t afford) on Pentecostal preachers like Joel Osteen, or on The Secret. Another lengthy story tells of brokers who... Continue reading
Posted May 5, 2014 at Bianca Steele
I kind of liked this movie, which is an adaptation of a comic book that sets the traditional Sherlock Holmes story in a science fiction, steampunk milieu. I like science fiction but I don’t really like comics much, and this (directed by Guy Ritchie, starring Robert Downey, Jr., as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson) definitely is different. The first of Ritchie’s Holmes movies was admittedly pretty dumb, with Holmes wrestling or boxing in the mud and turning out to have the strength of a superhero, and a derivative plot, about secret societies and cults, that was already tired when it was new. But the end, with a fight scene on the girders and cranes of an unfinished skyscraper, was very cool. The sequel has even more of this kind of thing. The movie, really, is about buildings . . . buildings and landscapes. It uses a kind of light that’s not ordinarily seen on film. Ritchie shoots the battle scenes, especially, almost as a sequence of still frames, with comic book effects substituting for ultra-graphic realism. I stopped reading comics, in part, because after reading a few of each series, all I wanted to find out was more of the backstory. I felt like the comics would lure readers in with the promise of getting a glimpse of the world that was behind the basic storyline, and only occasionally pay off. In A Game of Shadows, the backstory or worldbuilding isn’t as totally present as it might be in... Continue reading
Posted May 3, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Chapter 6 of Ehrenreich’s book covers the movement in academic and clinical psychology to incorporate ideas about positive thinking and happiness into research. (Previous installments were here: ch. 1, ch. 2, ch. 3, ch. 4, ch. 5.) I’m torn about this chapter. It doesn’t really say anything I don’t know. And of what I do know, or thought I knew, about half of what it says, is said in a way that’s almost unpersuasive enough to actually persuade me of the opposite. It’s really a perfectly fine chapter, for what it is. It has the feel of magazine journalism. It’s framed around Ehrenreich’s interviews with Martin Seligman (also the coiner of the term “learned helplessness”). Ehrenreich dramatizes her meetings with Seligman, his choosiness as to the location of their interview, his grumpiness, his difficulty explaining things so that a non-expert can understand, and so on. It’s hard to explain just why it’s disappointing. Let’s start with the new information it will plausibly provide for a great many people: The positive thought movement has a counterpart in university psychology departments. Martin Seligman is one of its most important practitioners. As president of the APA, in 1997, he made it his mission to promote research on positive thinking and happiness. There had been no interest in positive thinking or well-being in psychology before that point (this ought to be qualified, I think), and like most other people, most psychologists thought of Norman Vincent Peale when they thought of that kind of thing—traditionally,... Continue reading
Posted Apr 30, 2014 at Bianca Steele
I’ve been thinking for a while about the civil war novel The Killer Angels as science fiction. (Two earlier posts on the novel are here: on military strategy, and on differences between the novel and the film.) That may not be surprising. The Killer Angels was written by Michael Shaara, who had been writing science fiction for decades. (Shaara seems to have been exploring thoughts about his own recently diagnosed heart disease in the character of General Robert E. Lee. He died thirteen years after The Killer Angels was published.) Now that I’ve started reading Felix Gilman’s half-Wild West, half-Steampunk science fiction novel, The Half-Made World (Crooked Timber ran a discussion of it about a year ago but haven’t put up a link to the archive yet), I’m certain of it. The Half-Made World describes an imaginary version of earth in which the civilized lands—much older than any city in North America, a fantasy version of Northern Europe—lie to the north, with the uncivilized or unmade worlds in “the West” (as in Boston, where the North End lies to the southwest of East Boston, I suppose). As areas become settled, they are described increasingly not as “unmade” but as “half-made,” yet this opens them up to invasion by the new, violent forces of Line, with its locomotive-like engines and regimented bureaucratic cities, and Gun, with its uncontrollable madmen. Both Line and Gun derive their power from forces that not only seem, but are, supernatural: forces that exist only in the... Continue reading
Posted Apr 27, 2014 at Bianca Steele
Chapter 5 of Bright-Sided is about positive thinking’s influence in contemporary religion. (Previous installments were here: ch. 1, ch. 2, ch. 3, ch. 4.) The best part of the chapter is again the part that gets into the expected Ehrenreich territory of economics. She shows how pastors who incorporate positive thinking into their churches have been pushed into thinking of those churches as corporations. They’ve been compelled to think of congregants, and potential congregants as customers. They’ve imbibed a marketing orientation that tells them to make their services, their buildings, and their music unthreatening and familiar. They’ve abandoned European standards of beauty in favor of bland business modernism, and hard pews in favor of plush stadium seating. They’ve come to think of themselves as CEOs, and as people who ought to be socializing with CEOs. Thus, they were infected by CEOs’ promotion of positive thinking. This is interesting, though again I thought it was the most interesting topics that were handled most briefly. Slightly less interesting is her discussions of how corporate positive thinking methods have infiltrated the university and the nonprofit sector, and of how some corporations—Amway, presumably, is one example—are even incorporating the positive-thought churches’ practices and turning into something cultlike, themselves. But this all comes at the end of the chapter and almost feels like an afterthought. The bulk of the chapter is about Joel Osteen and his church. As you’d expect, Ehrenreich does give a secular critique here. She doesn’t like Osteen’s self-aggrandizement. She doesn’t like... Continue reading
Posted Apr 23, 2014 at Bianca Steele
When I ask myself why I haven’t written any movie roundups lately, the fact that I can’t remember most of the movies I’ve seen in the past few months gives me a reason why. Things have looked up just a little. I rented Citizen Kane, which I’ve seen a couple of times already, and although it wasn’t as visually striking as I’d remembered it on the big screen, it held up pretty well. I saw Silver Linings Playbook, which I found pretty unimpressive: funny dialogue, with totally inappropriate delivery. It should have been like Russell’s earlier Flirting with Disaster but instead it was a generic Hollywood drama. I have no idea why (okay, actually, we all know why) Jennifer Lawrence was cast against Bradley Cooper instead of Julia Stiles, who’s actually the right age for the part, since there was nothing in the script at all about his dating a woman so much younger than he was. And I wouldn’t have been paying attention to the accents if I hadn’t read about how bad they were, but it’s amusing that everyone noticed Lawrence supposedly mispronounces “King of Prussia Mall” (she pronounces the “f”) but no one noticed that she calls the Schuylkill Expressway, not the “Schuylkill” or the “Expressway” or the "turnpike," but “the 76.” As if Filuffya were in California. And thinking about that suggests the question, why would a woman describing the horrifically traumatic death of her husband specifically name not only what store he was shopping at... Continue reading
Posted Apr 21, 2014 at Bianca Steele
This chapter is about the links between positive thinking and the motivation industry. We’re all familiar with the various inspirational posters and tchotchkes that remind us to have a good attitude, in the silliest cases smarmily so, and Ehrenreich shows how their sale is big business. This is one of the best chapters in the book. (Previous posts are here: ch. 1, ch. 2, ch. 3.) The previous chapter had ended with the biography of Norman Vincent Peale, a Christian minister who preached positive thinking to an audience of largely salesmen. Ehrenreich explains how the lonely, unstructured life of the salesman made its practitioners doubt themselves and put them in need of the kind of emotional support Peale’s books (and more recent inspirational tapes) provide. Their need to make potential customers like them made them easy targets for ideas about the importance of building up their own self-confidence. Here, we get a very quick, breezy narrative of the history of management thought in America: the MBA based in technocratic thought and informal best practices gave way to the tyranny of the stock market and the financial services industry. Several years after the events she describes, they don’t seem to have become part of our common knowledge, and this section is useful. Then the book becomes what one might have expected from the author of Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch. Ehrenreich describes, sympathetically, how the changes in the economy have suddenly made everyone’s lives as precarious as those of... Continue reading
Posted Apr 18, 2014 at Bianca Steele