And especially, Tyrion

November 26th, 2014

Do you have a Kindle? What do you think of it? (We’re getting to Tyrion, really.)

I only use mine for travel, because I tend to forget, instantly, anything I read on it. Straight into the memory hole it goes. Am I alone in this? Reading on a Kindle doesn’t involve the physical acts of handling a book, feeling the quality of the paper on your fingers, noting the typeface. You don’t put a well-loved Kindle book on a shelf in your home, where it sparks a brief recollection every time you see it. For me, anyway, physical engagement with a paper-and-ink book drives the language and ideas that much deeper into my mind.

It took me a while to figure this out. Now I only download public-domain classics and guilty-pleasure kinds of things, for the most part. I did read the “Game of Thrones” books on my Kindle, because one, I obviously wasn’t going to schlep 20 pounds of Machiavellian saga with me everywhere we went, and two, the HBO series keeps me from forgetting the story exists.

And while reading it, I remembered the existence of another book, one of my recent favorites, Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree, which lives on my Kindle and hence not in my memory.

Far From the Tree is about children who, as “apples,” do indeed fall “far from the tree,” by being fundamentally different from their parents in some crucial way. What is the nature of the difference, and how does it affect family relationships? Solomon writes about transgendered folks, the criminal children of law-abiding parents, prodigies, schizophrenics … and dwarfs.

So of course I had to reread that chapter. “All dwarfs are bastards in their fathers’ eyes,” says Tyrion. The first and most obvious tragedy of Tyrion’s life is his horrifying mistreatment at the hands of his family, followed by the sad fact that he is an exceptionally romantic and lustful man, with a face and body that does not inspire reciprocal feelings in the ladies.


This dude would do okay with the ladies. Peter Dinklage is handsome. Tyrion Lannister, per the books, is quite hideous: patchwork hair, mismatched eyes, and his battle wound didn’t sexily highlight his cheekbones, it halved his nose. The show also pulls way back on the extent of Sandor Clegane’s burn scars, but never mind. And don’t even get me started on those lame-ass “direwolves” cough*German shepherds*cough*.

Solomon doesn’t note this explicitly, but one of the fascinating aspects of the dwarf chapter is the extent to which dwarf bodies are associated with entertainment. From court jesters to P.T. Barnum to dwarf-tossing, dwarfs have been associated with show business, with laughter and clowning. I don’t think any other disability or physical difference has that association. Dwarfism is a highly visible difference without an accompanying disability*, which keeps dwarfs constantly on display without any moderating sympathy. Dwarfs live in the spotlight.

Many people like to be in the spotlight, of course, and people who spend a lot of time in it often get very, very good at being there, and it’s fun to do stuff you’re good at. This puts dwarfs who want an entertainment career on their own terms in a difficult position. Tyrion’s noble birth precludes him from becoming a court jester, a career he would have excelled at (trenchant and witty, he’s the Jon Stewart of Westeros). In the books, at least, he had become a good tumbler and floor gymnast, but his father believed such capers were beneath the dignity of a Lannister. (How can we even talk about dwarfs without prejudice when our very language is structured around concepts of big versus small, above versus below?) The loathsome Joffrey brings in dwarf clowns who “joust” while riding pigs and dogs to entertain his wedding guests, which sparks a brutal series of power plays between him and Tyrion.

An NPR story on Peter Dinklage reports: “‘He knows he has no skills with the sword,’ Dinklage says, ‘and this is a world that is really deeply violent. Military rules. He would not be able to survive in that world, given his own strength. So he beats people to the punchline — he’s entertaining.’”

Yet look how convoluted Tyrion’s relationship to his own “entertainingness” is. Tyrion is naturally witty. He becomes even more witty by being constantly in the spotlight. He uses his wit as a way to be accepted, to defuse conflict, to prove his value. At the same time he can’t allow that wit to make him seem even more amusingly inconsequential in the eyes of big people, he can’t allow himself to become merely “that funny little man” and nothing else. In the books, at least, Tyrion’s wit occasionally (more than occasionally) gets him in trouble, and the reader feels that this is to some extent the point. Tyrion’s tongue is his only weapon, and a truly good weapon poses some danger even to its owner.

This is part of the tyranny of prejudice–the way it causes people to second-guess their own nature. The self-consciousness that never goes away.

*Achondroplastic dwarfism, though not a disability per se, does come with a range of skeletal and organ vulnerabilities. That’s is part of the reason I’m on board with this theory–Tyrion must be part magical, or he’d be crippled if not dead from the various physical traumas he’s suffered.

“Game of Thrones” and looks-ism

November 20th, 2014

I did take the “Game of Thrones” books on my vacation, and enjoyed them greatly. Our vacation was a peripatetic one–Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Petrified Forest, Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Sedona, Prescott, Phoenix, Lake Havasu, Las Vegas–so it was nice to stay in one fictional world the entire time. While dragons and White Walkers had their appeal, what I primarily enjoyed was the books’ intense psychological realism.

“Game of Thrones”* is about playing the cards you get dealt in life. Except for its RenFest trappings, it’s not the slightest bit mythological or fantastic. It’s much more like “The Good Wife” or “Mad Men” at heart: people trying to assert their individuality and gain power in a world that may or may not welcome such efforts. (“I’m Daenerys Targaryen, and I want to smoke some marijuana.”)

One of the cards we get dealt in life is our physical appearance. Looks-ism and body discrimination is a major thing with me, as many of you know, and the way characters like the dwarf Tyrion or the sexually ambiguous Brienne of Tarth get treated will make your blood boil like R’hllor never dreamed. But there is so much more going on than simple discrimination against the different or ugly. Martin is wise enough, for example, to know that beauty intersects with power: Beauty can increase the power of a woman who is already privileged, like Cersei, but beauty is a terrible liability to women who have no power, like Sansa. Sansa, and Dany, are constantly being creeped on by men whom they have little choice but to tolerate. The ordinary-looking Arya, by contrast, can disguise herself as anything from a boy to a crippled beggar maid.

Our looks can advantage or disadvantage us in many ways:

Do you look like what you are?
Do you look like the other members of your family?
Do you look like many other people, or are you visually distinct?

The answers to these questions have life-changing power in the world of GoT, and in our world as well.

This is what I mean about looking like who you are:

Two pictures of me, surrounded by many, many awesome role models for me. I wrote about this on Already Pretty:

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about appearance privilege. As a moderately attractive, medium-sized, slender brown-haired white ladyperson, I have never been profiled maliciously. I have very rarely even been profiled inaccurately. My physical type is our culture’s default setting for the Smart Nice Girl. From Fern Arable to Laura Ingalls to Mary Richards to Veronica Sawyer to Coco Chanel to Liz Lemon, I have never lacked for positive images of women who looked like me. My appearance has made it easier, not harder, to be taken seriously as an intellectual, as a professional, as a member of my chosen religious community. Women who look like me are the girl next door, the sensible wife, the breaker of glass ceilings, the comedienne, the thinking man’s sex symbol. There is little-to-nothing about my appearance that anyone would take as physically or psychologically threatening.

I could be far more beautiful than I am, but I don’t think it would make life any easier. My husband is quite a nice-looking man, but no Chris Pratt, and for a science comedian? That’s fine. You don’t want Chris Pratt telling youwhat happened when they did an MRI on a dead salmon. You want him deeply misunderstanding the nature of the Grand Canyon.

(I, on the other hand, pretty much am April Ludgate, and she’s right. You just can’t be annoyed at the Grand Canyon, no matter how much you try. And notice that she is also a slender, pretty-not-gorgeous white-skinned brown-haired ladyperson like myself.)

A Halloween story from Miss Conduct

October 31st, 2014

I talk a lot about how art and pop culture give us narratives to shape our experience. A fair amount of recent research suggests that fiction can help empathy develop. But there are limits to how much stories can teach us to empathize, as my Halloween tale shows.

When I was in junior high I was an outcast and unpopular. In art class, some of the popular kids asked me to share a work table with them as a joke. I knew it was a joke, but accepted anyway, because no one else wanted to share with me, and because I had already learned the trick of accepting bullies’ “kindnesses” at face value, because you could often trap them into the role of the good guy and they wouldn’t be bright enough to escape it.

Near Halloween, “Carrie” was shown on television.

The next day the popular kids at my art table were talking about how scary it was, and how awfully Carrie had been treated. And how it was funny, because she wasn’t even ugly, they pointed out, Sissy Spacek was actually kind of cute, so it was weird that people would make fun and bully her.

I didn’t say a word.

And I haven’t told this story until now.

Happy Halloween. The monsters are due on Maple Street any minute.

“All About Emily” and acting natural

October 8th, 2014

This weekend I read Connie Willis’s novella “All About Emily,” a slight comedy of backstage intrigue, ambition, and … robots:

“Oh, dear.” Emily looked over at Dr. Oakes. “I knew I should have said I wanted to be an actress.” She turned back to me. “But I was afraid that might give the impression that I wanted your job, and of course I don’t. Artificials don’t want to take anyone’s job away from them.”

“Our artificials are designed solely to help humans,” Dr. Oakes said, “and to do only tasks that make humans’ jobs easier and more pleasant,” and this was obviously the company spiel. “They’re here to bring an end to those machines everyone hates—the self-service gas pump, the grocery store checkout machine, electronic devices no one can figure out how to program. Wouldn’t you rather have a nice young man fixing the bug in your laptop than a repair program? Or have a friendly, intelligent operator connect you to the person you need to talk to instead of trying to choose from a dozen options, none of which apply to your situation? Or—” he nodded at me, “tell you who starred in the original production of a musical rather than having to waste time looking it up on Google?”

“And you can do all that?” I asked Emily. “Pump gas and fix computers and spit out twenties?”

“Oh, no,” she said, her eyes wide. “I’m not programmed to do any of those things. I was designed to introduce artificials to the public.”

(You can read part of the story here.)

Connie Willis is one of my favorite authors for blending SF with 1940s screwball-comedy style banter. This novella isn’t great, but it’s a quick and entertaining read, and would possibly make a good stage play. Sometimes books and stories that are a little flat on the page come to wonderful life on stage or screen. Ms. Willis also predicts that “Chicago” will still be running in revival in 20 years, which strikes me as a safe bet. (Her chronology is a little dicey, but she has a good deal of fun predicting who and what will be lighting up Broadway in the near future.)

“All About Emily” is, of course, a takeoff on “All About Eve,” and the charming android Emily does ultimately decide she wants a stage career. Not as an actress, though, playing the messy heroines of Ibsen or Churchill. Emily wants to be a Rockette.

What else would a robot want to be? And yet, how unsatisfying would it be to watch the Rockettes and know that their illusion of inhuman perfection is no illusion? The whole point of the Rockettes is the uncanny spectacle of people behaving with the precision and uniformity of machines. Nobody would want to watch a robot Rockette.

A robot Medea, though? That might at least spark curiosity.

Theater, even at its most realistic, is not supposed to be indistinguishable from ordinary life. We want to be able to see a sliver of light between the actor and the character. We want to know what gap was bridged.

Stephen King is making Ebola worse

October 7th, 2014

Salon addresses Ebola panic:

Ebola, at least from the American perspective, is something like the great white shark. It’s dangerous, all right, but the odds that it’s going to get you are vanishingly small. Fear of large predators and fear of the plague are deeply encoded in human experience and handed down from our ancestors. Maybe an instinctive response is invoked that we can’t resist. But in both cases, the self-refueling cycle of media panic is an epidemic that’s almost certainly more destructive than the original phenomenon itself — and the fear is not really about what we claim it’s about.

Author Andrew O’Hehir identifies the usual suspects for our collective overreaction: cognitive biases honed by evolution, fear-mongering by Fox News and its ilk, and the fact that the Ebola epidemic fits neatly, oh, far too neatly, into the kinds of stories we’ve already learned to tell and read:

Indeed, I’d suggest that Ebola-panic (like shark-panic) is shaped and informed by fictional thrillers — in this case, yarns about civilization-destroying plagues and the zombie apocalypse and so forth. It also taps into our cultural narcissism and xenophobia, into the paranoid imperial perception that American civilization is the center of the world and also that it’s precariously balanced, and constantly under attack from dangerous outsiders. All it takes is a handful of African visitors with cardboard suitcases and undiagnosed infections, and next thing you know the cable goes out at Mom’s house and we have to eat the neighbors.

Theater and science bump up against each other in all kinds of ways, and one of those ways is understanding the psychological science of storytelling. Humans are a narrative species, we put everything in story form–but reality is under no obligation to actually unwind itself like a well-told tale. In real life events may occur that do not foretell, call back to, or symbolize anything at all. They just happen.

Storytelling can be crucial to good science, but one thing science does is to slap us out of that storifying instinct, and give us a way to demonstrate reality to other people besides telling stories about it. Artists tell. Scientists show.

I’m struggling now to have a rational response to the Ebola crisis. Practically every friend I have has posted the NPR “You’re Not Going to Get Ebola Already” graph:

… and I believe it, I really do.

But if there were going to be a zombie apocalypse … this is what the beginning of it would look like.

I’m a Stephen King fan going back years, see, and what people who think they don’t like Stephen King don’t realize is how utterly mundane and realistic his work is. Until the werewolves show up. But until then, it’s ordinary people living ordinary lives. A New England couple, say, who are doing basically okay, although she’s a little bored in her career and he’s coming off a big project and feeling burned out and they’ve both got some eldercare worries hanging over their heads and are planning a vacation in the Southwest to recharge their relationship.

And as he’s digging out from a mountain of licensing agreements and P&L statements and she’s looking up dude ranches in Flagstaff, they see the headlines and video clips from Africa … and then the quieter news of one patient identified in Dallas … and an editorial in the nation’s paper of record about what “virologists are loath to discuss openly but are definitely discussing in private.”

This is exactly how Stephen King would write it.

And stories fit in my head better than statistics. I don’t have to behave irrationally, and I can despise the fearmongering and xenophobia that people are bringing to this situation, but I can’t respond to it as though I haven’t spent decades reading and watching stories that began exactly like this.

Art will always have unintended consequences. Stephen King is a great humanitarian, a good writer, and by all accounts one hell of a mensch. But he’s taught us how horror looks–not in a Transylvanian castle, but in a Somerville three-decker. He’s taught us to see the terror in the everyday, he’s pulled it out of the gothic tradition and pushed it into comedies of manners and coming-of-age tales. So that now, when we see some loose thread of worry, it’s so easy to imagine pulling it until the entire garment of our comfortable-if-annoying middle-class lives unravels.

The etiquette of talking about geeky things

September 3rd, 2014

I love this article from io9 on the seven deadly sins of talking about pop culture, from “non-consensual spoilers” to “letting random controversies get in the way of judging the work on its own merits.” Number six, “Not recognizing that pop culture has real-world meanings,” is my favorite:

Even if a story takes place 1000 years in the future on another planet, it’s still talking about the here and now, to some extent. It’s still commenting on our society and our institutions, and it’s in dialogue with other works created beforehand. Some people enjoy geeking out about the implications of a piece of pop culture, or picking apart the ways that something is flawed or problematic. And some people don’t necessarily enjoy doing that, but feel a need to do so because it’s a pervasive piece of pop culture that is speaking to or about them in a way that they need to address. So it’s a “sin” to deny other people’s right to analyze and criticize pop culture–particularly when they’re commenting on how it deals with race or gender or sexuality. In particular, it’s weird to tell people not to overthink something because “it’s just a movie”–we’re geeks, overthinking is what we do. And saying that mindless, uncritical appreciation is the only way to engage with mainstream culture is tantamount to saying that we should recognize no difference between, say, The Empire Strikes Back and The Phantom Menace. They’re both Star Wars movies, they both have explosions, and there are cool set pieces in both — but the moment you start thinking critically, you notice some differences between them.

I’ve never understood why attempts to analyze pop culture make some people viscerally angry. I don’t like sports, but I don’t wade into the comments section of sports blogs and angrily demand why everyone has to analyze the game to death. Sports are important–not to me, but to a lot of people. And some people enhance their enjoyment by analyzing and critiquing how the game could have been played different, or better. It’s not hard to understand that. I think everyone understands that, when it comes to sports. Why do people react so differently when it’s movies and books that other people want to critique?

“Her Aching Heart” and the science of romance (novels)

July 21st, 2014

Last night I dreamed I went to Central Square Theater again …

… because “Her Aching Heart” was so darn funny the first time (Globe review here). Aimee Rose Ranger and Lynn Guerra play modern-day urbanistas cautiously falling in love with each other while reading a gothic romance about a tempestuous English lady and the innocent peasant girl who sparks her affections. Only the occasional phone call or song hint at the present moment–most of the show is dedicated to the two actresses playing all the parts in the lesbian bodice-ripper. (Aimee’s bluff, rapey Lord Rothermere and Lynn’s palsied Granny, full of incomprehensible forest wisdom and whole-body tics, were my favorites.) Yes, I know it sounds stupidly complicated, but it’s not, really. If you liked the movie parodies Carol Burnett used to do, you’ll like this.


(Lynn Guerra and Aimee Rose Ranger in “Her Aching Heart,” A.R. Sinclair photography)

The romance parody in “Her Aching Heart” inspired me to dig up my dissertation, which was on the psychology of literary genre. I was curious to know if people had expectations about stories that went beyond surface characteristics (e.g., if it’s in the future, it’s science fiction, if there’s a murder, it’s a mystery). I asked participants to rate 10 different genres, including romance, classics, science fiction, and fantasy, across 16 different dimensions.

Here’s a graph showing how “romance” (in red, natch) differs in people’s imagination from ordinary fiction (in black):

People perceive romance as dumber, basically–I said that in a fancier way in the actual dissertation, of course, but I think my advisers knew what I meant. Romance is seen as more predictable, simpler, upbeat, emotional, and fantasy-based than regular fiction: It’s written for money and read for fun. No wonder it’s so delightfully easy to parody! We don’t even feel bad about making fun of romance novelists, because we assume as long as they’re making bank they don’t care about critical opinion.

I did my dissertation in 2002, and I wonder how “romance” would be defined in today’s imagination. That’s the tricky bit about trying to scientifically study a cultural phenomenon like literary genre–it keeps changing on you. In 2002, I would occasionally encounter people who didn’t know what “genre” meant, because it was still a lit-crit term, and wasn’t how iTunes and Amazon and Netflix preferred to organize your content and sell you more. Romance-wise, 2002 was before “Twilight” and “50 Shades of Gray” and “The Fault in Our Stars.” Would these dark offerings lead college students today to rate romance as a more pessimistic, complicated (if not intellectual) genre?

Of apes and Alzheimer’s

August 8th, 2011

Mr. Improbable and I saw “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” last night, and enjoyed it greatly. For one thing, it does a marvelous job of allowing viewers to fulfill their fantasies of what they would do if they had the strength and flexibility of a chimpanzee. If you’ve ever daydreamed during a staff meeting of leaping aboard the conference table, ululating, pounding your chest, crashing through the windows and heading for the hills — and I know I’m not the only one, people — this is your movie.

It’s also, once you get past the science fiction and special effects, a fairly poignant look at life in the sandwich generation. The human protagonist, biochemist Will Rodman (yes, I know) lives with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. When Will’s research on a cure for Alzheimer’s is halted, he winds up adopting a baby chimp from the drug trials.

Of course, it’s Will’s experiments that ultimately lead to the rise of the apes (as well as the most hilariously blunt and effective elevator pitch in the history of venture capital, when Will, riding the lift with his boss, announces, “I injected my father with it. It works.”). But Will, despite the phallic determination of his name, is no ego-driven mad scientist. He is motivated by love more than money, power, or even knowledge: he wants his beloved father, a classical pianist and Shakespeare scholar, back. And he wants to protect his adopted “child,” Caesar. In the meantime, it would be nice if he could get his boss off his back, and find time to romance his live-in girlfriend.

Sound familiar? Will is pressed from every direction, and criticized no matter what he does. Look at James Franco’s face when the home-health aide angrily tells him his father should be in a facility. When the veterinarian points out that Caesar won’t stay a juvenile forever. He knows. He is doing his damnedest as a caretaker, and he knows he is failing. He’s not the son, the father, the lover, the scientist he wants to be. Every choice entails a sacrifice — not only the big choices, like “do I inject my father with the experimental drug,” but the little ones, like “do I look my lover in the eye when she is talking, or do I scan the room to make sure Dad and Caesar aren’t in trouble?” And he makes wrong choices, and decisions with all kinds of unintended consequences.

And he loses his father anyway, despite his best efforts, like all of us do.

And his “child” gets involved with drugs, and radical politics, and finds a group of friends that Will can’t relate to. Maybe it was his fault for being too involved with his father, and his career. Maybe it was inevitable.

We do our best for those we love, and we pray to God that our best efforts won’t somehow make things dreadfully, dreadfully worse.

And we hope we’re praying to a God who looks like us.

More thoughts on werewolves …

December 9th, 2010

Part of the reason werewolves don’t get a lot of love, I suspect, is that they’re harder to work with in film or television. It’s hard to go full lupine. As this rather interesting article from the Onion’s AV Club points out, dogs are not good actors, and wolves are even worse. So producers usually go for a sort of wolf-ape hybrid thing with makeup and prosthetics, which never looks very good.

More than that, though, I think that lycanthropy is, oddly, a little too mundane to catch on as the next occult craze. Werewolves are neither superior to humans, like vampires, nor inferior, like zombies. They are simply different. They have a condition. They have time-management issues. Werewolves are probably really into Spoon Theory.

Somehow, I was reminded of all this when a friend of mine Tweeted, “One great benefit of being deaf is being able to shut out the cellphone blabbermouth behind me. I just take off my processors.”

I replied, “There’s a thin line between disability and superpower, isn’t there?”

And that’s kind of the story with werewolves. It’s a superpower sometimes, and a disability at other times. Being a blonde with symmetrical and childlike features may get you out of a traffic ticket, but will probably make it harder to be taken seriously in your career. Having Asperger’s syndrome makes figuring people out harder, but fixing their computers easier. Parents have the awesome power to create life – and then become hostages to fate forever after.

Zombies are all the other drivers in a rush-hour gridlock. Zombies are the people who write comments in response to YouTube videos. Zombies are the people you see on television at those rallies, the ones you disagree with.

Vampires are your insurance company, raising your rates for an accident for which you weren’t at fault. Vampires are your late-night drunk-dialing ex. Vampires are hidden fees, the person behind you who darts into the newly opened checkout lane, that guy at the bar who refuses to believe that you really do want to drink a martini and read The Economist in peace.

Werewolves are afraid of embarrassing themselves in company. Werewolves wake up thinking, “I don’t believe I did that.” Werewolves can be great in emergencies, but daily life poses greater challenges to them. Werewolves wake up every day not knowing if they have a superpower, or a disability.

Werewolves are us.

Are werewolves the next anything?

December 9th, 2010

In case you haven’t noticed, vampires and zombies are big these days. Really big. AMC’s “The Walking Dead” is the latest manifestation, and a fairly good one it is, too. (Although, as with “True Blood,” the show has garnered its share of critics who are willing to suspend disbelief on the question of vampires, witches, maenads, and were-panthers, but are fussily irritated at the inauthenticity of the actors’ Southern accents.)

Do you think werewolves are ever going to get their chance in the spotlight? I wonder.

Supernatural creatures work as metaphors. Vampires are superior to humans, but dependent upon them. They are takers, and a taker can serve as a metaphor for so many things: a decadent aristocracy, a demanding lover, an exploitative boss, a too-needy parent. (In “True Blood,” boy-next-door Hoyt is torn between his vampire girlfriend Jessica, who literally feeds on his blood with his joyous consent, and his controlling mother, who symbolically sucks the life out of him.)

Zombies are humans with no brains, and … well, you can kind of see how that could go in a lot of different directions. There’s a fundamental horror to the notion of facing another human being who can’t be reasoned with, whose motives are not fathomable to the normal mind. I’d submit that this is to a large extent the state of our political discourse today: both the left and the right seem convinced that the other side is brainwashed, unthinking, moved only by instinct and hunger.

So. Werewolves. What do they symbolize? What are they a meta for? And why don’t they ever seem to ride the wave of pop-culture glory as their supernatural colleagues do?

Happy Thanksgiving

November 23rd, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Good luck with that.

The ConductMom is in town for Thanksgiving, so posting may be light over the holiday weekend. But I’m always eager to hear from you. On the other blog, we’re talking holiday cards. What are your opinions?

And what are you grateful for this year? I think, in 2010 in particular, I’m very grateful that I’ve continued to get to know and deepen my relationship with my extended family, and also that Mr. Improbable and I seem to have survived the recession with our odd little careers more or less intact.

On Thanksgiving Day, we’re going to go see the Harry Potter movie. So … which Harry Potter character is your favorite, or whom would you play, if there were some community-theater version of the show? I think I’d be Minerva McGonnigle. I know she’s supposed to be in her early 70s, but I think that’s too old … I’ve always thought of the character as being in her 40s or 50s. (If they cast American actors, I’d put either Michelle Forbes or Katey Sagal in the role.)

Talk with me, talk amongst yourselves, talk with your mouth full — Happy Thanksgiving!

The psychology of stories

October 19th, 2010

On the Emily Rooney show today, I talked about stories: the story of “Mad Men,” the storytelling initiative at Central Square Theater, the stories drunken garden club ladies told a research psychologist back in 1976. (I’ll get a link up to the show as soon as possible.)

All these things — the kinds of stories we like to read, hear, or watch; the power of storytelling to build community and identity; the kinds of stories we tell about ourselves — are under the general umbrella of “narrative psychology.” For those of you who are interested, here are some recent articles of note on psychology and stories:

This study attempts to categorize people by their media preferences. The critiques in the comments are spot on: this is a very psychology-focused study, and disregards the whole field of media and communication research. Still, I do find it interesting — in my own dissertation, I tried to link up personality traits and reading preferences.

This New York Times article looks at recent research in how people tell the stories of their lives. We are willing to admit our faults, but need to believe we are continually improving.

Attempts to give an evolutionary explanation for storytelling are often embarrassingly bad stories themselves, but I liked this quite a bit.

This isn’t a study of narrative psychology per se, but of experimental philosophy. However, it’s about the use of stories to get at people’s moral intuitions (focusing more on the paradoxical nature of those intuitions than on the methodological problems of “trolleyology”).

Happy reading!

Mystery blog

August 25th, 2010

It’s quite clear what the blog is, I mean; it’s a blog about mystery fiction. I know some of my readers are fans — or even if not, many of you are all-around book people who enjoy a good review on its own merits. So check out Only Detect, which offers triweekly reviews of a variety of mystery novels, and a good blogroll, all against a tastefully retro wood-paneling background.

Best books of 2009, part II

January 20th, 2010

… and my further top five from 2009 (I’m enjoying your recommendations too, folks!)

6. The American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld. I reviewed this here.

7. Rebuilt by Michael Chorost. See, here we go with that description problem again … this is a memoir by a man who got a cochlear implant at age 30. Yaaaaaawn. But it is, in fact, a brilliant, funny, honest and compassionate look at what it means to be a social being, the difference between hearing and listening, and the nature of relationships.

8. Still Woman Enough by Loretta Lynn with Patsi Bale Cox. I’d planned to write about Loretta Lynn’s second autobiography — the one she wrote after her husband died, when she could really tell the truth — when I first read it, but shortly after that, the Roman Polanski scandal broke and I couldn’t, because I couldn’t wrap my head around Ms. Lynn’s marriage at age 13. Months after I’ve read the book, I still don’t know what to make of it. Ms. Lynn’s intelligence and ignorance are both on astonishing display as she recounts her improbable life.

9. Guns, Germs, & Steel by Jared Diamond. Yes, finally, like the rest of the world, I read this classic of “Why Everything Is the Way It Is and Not Some Other Way Entirely, and by the Way It Has Nothing to Do with Race.” Good book, although a number of folks in one of my chats mentioned that it’s fairly repetitious, which indeed it was.

10. Under the Dome by Stephen King. I said I liked King on a wide canvas? Here, he gives himself an entire Maine town to characterize — and kill. It’s no spoiler to say that 300 pages in, I was already beginning to wonder if enough people would survive to finish the 1,000+-page novel. Whatever your politics, the first 400 pages or so after “the dome” of the title descends will make you angry — either by reminding you of the Bush administration, or by painting an unfair picture of it. Then the action kicks in. Don’t make any social plans after you hit page 600 or so.

Your reading recommendations

January 19th, 2010

…. and what were some of the best books you read in 2009 — fiction or non-?