Monthly Archives: October 2015

The Hedgehog Recommends: Spooky Stories for Halloween

“The Old Hall, Fairies by Moonlight; Spectres & Shades, Brownies and Banshees,” by John Anster Fitzgerald (c. 1875). Via Wikimedia Commons.

“The Old Hall, Fairies by Moonlight; Spectres & Shades, Brownies and Banshees,” by John Anster Fitzgerald (c. 1875). Via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s that time of year again: a weekend for spooky (or not-so-spooky) stories to be enjoyed with friends or, for the very brave, alone. We asked some Hedgehog Review editors, contributors, and friends to send in their recommendations for the book or movie to curl up with this weekend. Enjoy!

Let the Right One In
Forget all the overheated vampire movie stereotypes of sexy men in frilled shirts and virginal damsels in enticing décolletage. Rather, Tomas Alfredson’s 2008 film (based on the best-selling novel Låt den rätte komma in by John Ajvide Lindqvist) is more about the relationship between two loners in a suburban Swedish apartment building. Oskar is an alienated and bullied twelve-year-old boy. His friend Eli, the vampire, dresses oddly, smells funny, and is poignantly trapped by her predicament. Their assignation point is a jungle gym where they share a Rubik’s cube and discover their ability to communicate in Morse code. As their mutual trust grows, Oskar and Eli discover several, not always pleasant, truths about themselves. One of the most touching moments comes as Eli stands outside the door of Oskar’s apartment, unwilling to enter without his express consent—hence, the film’s title—an invitation that permits intimacy and respect and establishes that Eli will never victimize Oskar as his peers have. Intelligent, austere, mesmerizing, and, yes, horrific, this movie confirmed, for once, the critical hype it received and proved that it was indeed unlike any vampire movie ever made.—Leann Davis Alspaugh is managing editor of the Hedgehog Review.

Lolly Willowes: Or, the Loving Huntsman, Sylvia Townsend Warner
Lolly Willowes seems like it’s going to be the story of Laura, a nice girl who grows up and slips into an obscure and helpful spinsterhood, living with her brother’s family and helping to run his home. And it is that story, though if Laura is a spinster, it’s at least half because she has a habit of saying things like this to her beaus:

“If you are a were-wolf, and very likely you may be, for lots of people are without knowing, February, of all months, is the month when you are most likely to go out on a dark windy night and worry sheep.”

But Laura gets tired of being such a helpful member of her brother’s household, so she moves to the country. When her family follows her there, Laura … strikes a deal with the Devil to keep them away, sells her immortal soul, and becomes a witch. The book is worth it if only for the depiction of a Witches’ Sabbath, which newly witched Laura attends in the hopes of finding, at last, her sort of milieu; but finds instead she feels as out-of-place and awkward as ever. Witchery only solves so many problems.—B. D. McClay is associate editor of the Hedgehog Review.
Continue reading

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Impossible Wonder: A Reply to McWilliams

Gears from astronomical clock in Copenhagen. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Gears from astronomical clock in Copenhagen. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Sometimes I wake up in the morning
To…blue and yellow skies.
“God Knows I Tried,” Lana Del Rey

One evening, about fifteen years ago, I was waiting at a traffic light and staring absently at the sunset. It was a long light, and after I had stared at the same patch of sky for about a minute, I found myself mentally describing its color: “Yellowish-blue…” I was jolted out of my reverie. “Yellowish-blue? There’s no such thing. I mean green, right?” I stared again at the patch of sky. It was on the periphery of the sunset, where golden-yellow blended into the blue of the sky. I had done some painting. I had taken art lessons. I had a more than passing familiarity with the colors. And I knew that yellow and blue do not combine to make yellowish-blue. But hard as I looked, I could discern no green in the region. It was pure, smooth, yellowish-blue.

The light changed, and I had to drive away from the sight. I knew the experience would stick with me. In fact it did, and not merely in my memory. Over the years, I found I could often see the mysterious yellowish-blue at edges of sunsets. Again and again, I would stare at the color, as if by sheer intensity of attention I might pass through the veil of unintelligibility. But I also savored these experiences—there was something transcendent about them. The luminous golden blue was a holy color. I was seeing the impossible, and it was wondrous.

But I told no one. I knew I had encountered an inexpressible thing, a thing one is not permitted to tell. And I knew how that conversation would inevitably go:

Me: “I need to tell you about something I saw.”
Conversational Victim: “Oh? Um, OK. Was it a crime or something? What did you see?”
Me: “I saw a man eat his own head.”
Conversational Victim: “…???”

You can substitute in any impossibility—”I saw a round square” or “I successfully added two and two and got five” or the genuine “I saw a color that was yellowish-blue without being green”—and the effect would be pretty much the same. “You’re a lunatic,” the concerned-looking interlocutor will think. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: October 23, 2015

hedgehog array logo_FLAT_72dpi[3]Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“Romantic Regimes,” Polina Aronson
“In the Regime of Choice, the no-man’s land of love—that minefield of unreturned calls, ambiguous emails, erased dating profiles and awkward silences—must be minimised. No more pondering ‘what if’ and ‘why’. No more tears. No more sweaty palms. No more suicides.”

“Welles Lettres,” A. S. Hamrah
“It’s been difficult to get beyond the mocking portrayals of Welles in part because so many critics and pop film historians have adopted Hollywood’s conformist notions of success. Welles’s story of uncompromising ambition and lack of concern for studio approval has functioned as a cautionary tale: a lesson in how not to succeed in show business.”

“Rembrandt,” John Berger
“Just outside Amsterdam there lives an old, well-known, and respected Dutch painter. He has worked hard throughout his life—but he has only produced, as far as the world knows, a few drawings and one large canvas which is in the National Museum. I went to see his second major work, a triptych of the war. We spoke of war, old age, the vocation of the painter. He opened the door of his studio to let me go in first. The huge canvases were white. After years of work he had that day calmly destroyed them.”

“The Last Paperback Intellectuals,” Andy Seal
“There remains too often an unexamined assumption that style and accessibility go hand in hand.”

“Humanism, Science, and the Radical Expansion of the Possible,” Marilynne Robinson
“There are so many works of the mind, so much humanity, that to disburden ourselves of our selves is an understandable temptation.”

Hedgehogs abroad:

“Evolution in the Classroom,” Jeff Guhin
“None of the creationists I worked with disliked science. Recently, I did fieldwork in two Sunni Muslim and two Evangelical Christian high schools in the New York City area, and while the majority in all four schools distrusted evolution, not a one disliked science, or even blamed it.”

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Being Right: The Legacy of Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau’s grave. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Thoreau’s grave. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In a recent New Yorker piece (“Pond Scum,” October 19), Kathryn Schulz takes a twenty-first-century hammer to a nineteenth-century nail, pounding Henry David Thoreau into submission. In addition to Thoreau’s supposed arrogance, self-righteousness, narcissism, parochialism, isolationism, and apparent embrace of every “ism” against humanity, there’s one particular flaw in Thoreau’s character that Schulz finds particularly galling: The man didn’t much care for coffee. “I cannot,” she writes, “idolize anyone who opposes coffee.”

It’s a fine quip, the kind that leavens so much of Schulz’s other work (I’m a fan of her book Being Wrong) and the kind that inspires me to retort, in equally playful fashion, that the sawdust and chicory-laden brew available in Thoreau’s day can’t fairly be compared to the tony aromatic blend that I assume perks Schulz to life every morning. Please, let us not become ahistorical about coffee!

Unfortunately, Schulz has done more than condemn the beverage preference of a man known as the father (or at least legal guardian) of environmentalism, transcendentalism, and abolitionism. She’s undertaken a coordinated assault on the gentleman’s character, not to mention his political philosophy and historical legacy. The best thing that can be said about Schulz’s casting of Thoreau as a “thoroughgoing misanthrope” is that her skepticism of the man is obscured by overstatement. Continue reading

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Dispatches from Today’s Youth Culture: New Uses and Abuses of Social Invisibility

freaks geeks cool kidsFrom 1997–99—just before social media erupted on the scene—I studied American teenagers and reported the results in Freaks, Geeks, and Cool Kids (2004). Fifteen years later, I did a follow-up study to see what changes have occurred in teenage culture. I will highlight some of the findings and their implications in a series of short essays. The first considered how technology and social media have created new struggles to gain social visibility. This one  focuses on how these technologies have enabled new kinds of social invisibility.

You can read all the essays in this series here.

In previous generations students often conducted illicit communications by passing paper notes. This was a risky business; adults could often spot such behavior and confiscate the note and even make it public. Cell phones and text messages have made such communications harder to detect and police. Students claim that popular teenagers send a message every five to ten minutes. No student of earlier days could get away with passing that many paper notes. Today’s teenagers are nearly unanimous in reporting that students generally ignore the rules intended to discourage cell-phone use:

  • “Matt said the existence of these rules does not actually stop his friends or any other students from using their phones.”
  • “… Julie’s group does not usually follow the rules about technology use …”
  • “Alex said there were no strict rules governing cell phone use in school. He said some teachers will attempt to implement no texting rules in class, but they rarely are followed by students.”

One teacher attempted to deal with the problem by allowing students to have a couple of two- minute phone breaks during his fifty-minute classes. This apparently reduced the texting during other times in the period.

These new forms of communication create a whole additional realm of discourse that occurs simultaneously with classroom activity. Of course students have typically talked and gossiped during lunch periods, between classes, and in other blocks of  “free time,” but calling, texting, and messaging are now becoming a 24/7 activity. It is unclear whether this actually affects how well students master the curriculum. Continue reading

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The Hedgehog’s Array: October 16, 2015

hedgehog array logo_FLAT_72dpi[3]Noteworthy reads from the last week:

“The New Guilded Age,” Nathan Schneider
“After some years engaged in varied forms of entrepreneurship, they were trying to figure out what forms of organization would best suit their peers’ shifting working conditions. Neither unions nor chambers of commerce seemed suited to a generation that increasingly can’t count on having a fixed place of work. The Reverend Leng Lim, a minister and executive coach who lives across the street from the nuns, suggested that Chavez and his compatriots consider looking into guilds.”

“Raiders of the Lost Web,” Adrienne LaFrance
“You can’t count on the web, okay? It’s unstable. You have to know this.”

“Danny Meyer Is Eliminating All Tipping at His Restaurants,” Ryan Sutton
“In an ideal world, eliminating tipping would be an easy matter of moving money from one bucket to another, with restaurants simply having to raise menu prices by 15 to 20 percent to make up for what patrons would have left as a gratuity.”

“Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology,” Elaine Ayers
“Mosses and hepatics, in the nineteenth century as now, were—perhaps unsurprisingly—relatively unpopular plants.”

“Fashioning Normal,” Esmé Weijun Wang“My talk for the clinic is one that I adjust for a variety of audiences: students, patients, doctors. It begins with this line: ‘It was winter in my sophomore year at a prestigious university.’ That phrase, prestigious university, is there to underscore my kempt hair, the silk dress, my makeup, the dignified shoes.”

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Sluttery and Shakespeare

From Swynfen Jervis’s A Dictionary of the Language of Shakspeare [sic] (1868)

From Swynfen Jervis’s A Dictionary of the Language of Shakspeare [sic] (1868)

In one of my favorite novels, Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (1952), a chic lady anthropologist declares to Mildred, the spinster heroine, “I’m such a slut.” Helena, the anthropologist in question, means that she is untidy, in the same way that the fashion writer Katharine Whitehorn would use the term about eleven years later in a column for the Observer:

Anyone in doubt, however, can ask herself the following questions. Have you ever taken anything back out of the dirty laundry basket because it had become, relatively, the cleaner thing? How many things are there, at this moment, in the wrong rooms—cups in the study, boots in the kitchen—and how many of them are on the floor of the wrong room?

Could you try on clothes in any shop, any time, without worrying about your underclothes? And how, if at all, do you clean your nails? Honest answers should tell you, once and for all, whether you are one of us: the miserable, optimistic, misunderstood race of sluts.

But is Helena also being a little cute about this, and deliberately using “slut” in a somewhat archaic way? Re-reading the novel, I found it hard to tell. She certainly spends a lot of her time in the scene sharply distinguishing herself from Mildred—that while Mildred is frumpy, probably stupid, unmarried, and probably taking up more than her fair share of space, Helena is glamorous, intellectual, married, and can’t be expected to buy her own toilet paper (she uses Mildred’s instead). She will mention in their next conversation that she is thinking of leaving her husband for another man—so she wants Mildred to think of her as someone at least slightly above conventional sexual mores.

There are ways to get closer to answering this question, like studying the newspapers around 1952 for uses of “slut,” consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, or looking through other Pym novels to see if other characters use it. Wikipedia also informs me that “slut” in the untidy sense pops up in Bridget Jones’s Diary—so to problems of temporal shifts in meaning, we can add the differences between American English and British English.

What we can tell is that it has always meant both things. Even Katharine Whitehorn uses it both ways. (And many words for an untidy woman also imply promiscuity: See “slattern.”) So it will depend a little on what you want to think of Helena—if she is an intentionally malicious person, or just a careless one. Since I dislike Helena, toilet-paper leech that she is, I suspect her of cuteness; but I can admit that the evidence is thin, and that perhaps after this blog post comes up I will get a nice email informing me that this question is not really ambiguous at all if you, like the email writer, are a scholar of mid-twentieth-century English spinster literature. Continue reading

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Reclaiming Connections

Woman texting in coffee shop. The JH Photography via Flickr.

Sherry Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation, explores the damaging effect that our dependence on technology is having on face-to-face interactions. Joe Davis, the publisher of the Hedgehog Review, also recently wrote a piece on this same topic (you can read his insights here). As a “plugged-in” (or perpetually distracted) college kid, I found many of Turkle’s conclusions of special interest. Turkle reports a “40 percent decline in empathy among college students.” She links this decline to a growing fear of solitude. According to Turkle, my peers and I simply can’t stand sitting alone with our thoughts, and it’s hurting our capacity for intimacy.

Jonathan Franzen, back in the spotlight surrounding the release of his new novel Purity, has also taken note of Turkle’s findings. In his 2002 essay collection How To Be Alone, he wrote, “Technological consumerism is an infernal machine.”  Franzen echoes that line in his recent review of Turkle’s book, writing, “Digital technology is capitalism in hyperdrive, injecting its logic of consumption and promotion, of monetization and efficiency, into every waking minute.” Franzen has long embraced this extreme position as a technology naysayer. Here, he notes the negative impact of market pressures on our obsession with screens. We’ve already seen colleges shift their allotment of financial resources based on the trendy consumerism of their students, building up cafeterias and athletic facilities. Now, Turkle suggests, the entitlement to comfort and satisfaction has seeped into the gadgets we carry around, and is having a negative effect on how we treat each other. Texting, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, and group-messaging apps compete for the time and emotional capital of students, at the expense of focused study and even basic conversational skills.

Most of the Hedgehog Review readership may feel that Turkle is addressing only college students. “But no, no, no,” say Turkle and Franzen: These are still areas of concern for everyone, especially in situations where we are struggling to listen attentively and to build the necessary foundations for interpersonal connection. For example, the failure of family conversation at mealtimes looks like this, according to Turkle:

Parents give their children phones. Children can’t get their parents’ attention away from their phones, so children take refuge in their own devices. Then, parents use their children’s absorption with phones as permission to have their own phones out as much as they wish.

Continue reading

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