...it's Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince as The Wasteland. Between my misspent youth reading Eliot and my misspent adulthood reading Rowling, I was completely undone.
...it's Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince as The Wasteland. Between my misspent youth reading Eliot and my misspent adulthood reading Rowling, I was completely undone.
If you have not read The Half Blood Prince through to the end, this post will have some spoilers. Also, if you are frum, this post does not pass basic standards for modesty, I'm linking to some sexy stuff so...if that would damage your good opinion of me or constitute a waste of time for you, don't read this. (Also, also, I am not a literary critic, I've totally forgotten how to even talk about reading.)
I know that the canon of English literature is full of anti-Semitic stereotyping. I have a variety of ways to respond to this. I have engaged The Merchant of Venice with Jewish teachers in secular classrooms who provided us with apologetic readings of Shylock. I have winced at Dickens, at Trollope, at Thackeray, at Henry James. I have read redemptive literary criticism of T. S. Eliot which didn't really redeem anything.
It has finally dawned on me that I am annoyed by J.K. Rowling's characterization of Severus Snape.
In Snape, Rowling has created a angry villain who has a hooked nose, greasy dark hair, sallow skin and glittering dark eyes, an inscrutable, sneering, untrustworthy double agent -- who hisses. I don't think Rowling was intentionally trading in anti-Semitic stereotyping. Does that sound funny after my litany of stereotypical adjectives? But I don't! I think those are general negative physical characteristics in Western culture, and that a person could use them without intending anything racist. It's just kind of pervasive. After all, Rowling does have at least two very minor characters among the student who actually have Jewish names (Anthony Goldstein in Ravenclaw house, Harry's acquaintance in the DA club, and possibly also Rose Zeller). At least one reader has pointed out that this is part of a concerted effort on JKR's part to show the diversity of present-day Britain. (Though hello, do you see a single Muslim name here? Are there no Pakistani immigrant wizards at Hogwarts?) Her intentions aside, Rowling's Snape does bum me out. What's with the languid movements and the hairy eyebrows and the general ickiness of her Snape? In the Half Blood Prince he's practically Judas ferchrissakes. (Or you could read it that way. At least you could at the end of book six, book seven might turn the whole thing on its head.)
This is only one of the many reasons that I have become infatuated with the incredible profusion of Harry Potter fan fiction. The internet is full of young women (and even some women my age) who are writing erotic stories about Severus Snape. Rowling may have written Snape to be unattractive, but there are a lot of fangirls out there who think a lanky, sneering, dark haired, sardonic, goth-looking man (with, thanks to the movies, Alan Rickman's incredible voice) is the most attractive thing ever.
I love reading erotic stories (this is the not tznius part) and in particular I enjoy the slash, which are stories about male/male character relationships. When I was the same age as most of the fangirls (late teens early 20s) I also loved gay male porn, but I thought I was a pervert, exploitative, sick, and on top of that, a bad feminist for liking it. These young women have formed a lightly teasing, silly and mutually supportive community of women who like to read and write about gay male sex. They even have a whole erotic vocabulary that I lacked. Like, I knew the word "angst" at 16 (as in "existential nausea") but did I know what "angsty" meant? No, because it didn't mean that in 1982 or whenever. Also "guh", I never had access to the word "guh."
Let me natter on a bit about the mutually supportive thing before I come back to Severus Snape. Much of the fan fiction is really truly crap, but I have found a lot of stories with literary merit. (Because I have been reading obsessively, frankly.) Sometimes these are very clever stories by young women who are just finishing high school or in college, or just after, and I figure "Oh, she's just getting started, this is going to be the beginning of a lot of good work for her." But I look at some of these stories and think, "Wow, she's my age and such a good writer, how can she waste her time creating these wonderful freebies for me out of someone else's characters?" I found a good answer here:
I've always been a writer.
Really. My first story, about an elf and a lost bear cub, was written when I was seven. My first attempt at a novel was written when I was sixteen. My first published work (The Thieves of Tharbad game supplement from Iron Crown Enterprises) came out when I was twenty-six, and one of my other game modules, The Scarlet Pimpernel, was in production when Steve Jackson Games was raided by the Secret Service in the early 1990s,* which means that there's probably a government file on me somewhere (and if they really want to spy on a divorced fortysomething, I hope they let me know so I can invite them in for tea and polite conversation).
Regardless…I stopped writing fiction about ten years ago for a variety of reasons: job loss, a relationship gone south, all the usual melodramatic, soul-sapping things that can happen on one's journey through life. I began writing fan fiction as a way to prime the creative pump, discovered LJ and the joys of Potterfic, and, well, people seem to like what I write.
(Well they should, because she is in fangirl parlance, "teh awesome." You know that I use the word parlance in everyday speech and that if I wrote fan fiction I would NOT have any trouble with the Snape diction issue, whereas I have to put "teh" in scare quotes.)
All these writers have created a giant creative writing workshop in which they support one another in discovering the elements of fiction, with a particular emphasis on characterization. They create writing assignments: whole websites devoted to one-hundred word pieces, or challenges based on a particular aspect of character. (Okay, sometimes a silly or smutty challenge, but still.) Unlike any college writing workshop I attended, the feedback somehow manages to be remarkably positive. Perhaps I am having one of those mistaken maternalist-feminist moments because I only read comments on stories that were actually good? In any case writers have "betas" who are essentially editors, who help with consistency and grammar and general readability. It's also incredibly cool that the internet is working this way, as my friend ASL said it would: providing a conduit through which the supposedly passive audience talks back to the providers of mass culture. The supposedly passive, almost entirely female audience made up of smart, somewhat isolated girls who like books.
Now to Snape: I am definitely in the camp of those who find him an attractive and multilayered character. Hey, I've had a thing for many a dark haired, bushy-eyebrowed, olive-skinned, big-nosed man. Even some who shared Snape's mean mouthiness and deep insecurity. It's true that I'm married now and my husband's nose and eyebrows are teh sexy and his personality is closer to the polite and solicitous Remus Lupin than to Snape's, but still.
I have seen many attempts to deal with Snape's ethnicity in the fan fic, since Rowling herself doesn't deal with it. One author decided Snape was Welsh. Another thought he must have a Bengali grandmother. (Snape makes Lupin Indian food, Balabusta is intrigued.) But several fan fiction writers have made Snape Jewish. I can't go back and link them all, oh my gosh, it's been weeks of cramming my head full of narishkeit. In one story I recall that the author had Snape reading the Mishnah while he waits, in BED, for Voldemort. Eww and eww and yucky feh. Another created a bizarre stereotypical Hanukah vacation for Snape during his years as a student at Hogwarts. The most positive and I think redemptive use of Snape's Jewishness is in these stories by ElliD, in which Snape is the son of a German Jewish refugee. She also has a longer sequence of stories in which Snape and Lupin have an affair with a backstory and every Hogwarts teacher has both religious and ethnic background.
In sum, and I have to stop writing this and go to bed already, Snape is a problem. He's less of a problem than he would be if Rowling had made him Jewish, but still, the more I think about it, the more I worry. Fan fiction provides a solution to some of this. It does even better at providing a solution to the problem of mass culture in general. It's a way for the readers to write back and engage the overwhelming popularity of these books.
What I made for Friday night dinner:
deconstructed peach/melon soup
sweet and sour lentils
plain rice noodles
amaranth greens with garlic
cucumber salad with sushi dressing from Moosewood New Basics
It has been three weeks since I blogged any cooking. I did make meals in that time, but I have been feeling unmotivated to cook and disinclined to write about it. I'm not as into my food as I have been, perhaps because of the heat. Even though it's August and we are finally getting the lovely tomatoes, eggplants, herbs, and fruit, I can barely get interested. Friday's cooking was particularly challenging. Only two burners on our stove are working. My mother-in-law was on her way. I tried to make my tapioca dessert and the tapioca balls somehow were both not cooking and were also sticking to the pot horribly. I got my friend's recipe for sweet and sour lentils and realized part way through that I only had some of what I needed to make it. I carried on and it was quite good in spite of everything.
I usually make a peach-cantelope soup: I peel the peaches and the melon, and purée them together, maybe add a splash of orange juice. I opened the melon, which I thought would have orange flesh. It was green. So I puréed the melon with half a Tazo mint tea bag, and then did the peaches separately. When it was time for the soup, I poured out the melon part and then drizzled in the peach purée. It was good, but the peaches were a bit tart.
It was my first time making amaranth greens. They were okay. The Asian eggplant I made with these special sweet long skinny pale purple eggplants and it was brilliant as usual. I had good farmer's market eggplants and greens and cucumbers.
We were invited out for a splendid meal at a friend's house on Saturday. Among the many delicacies was tomatillo guacamole, black bean and corn salad, homemade salsa cruda, polenta and a truly magnificent dessert. We had individual key lime pies. Oh gosh. The meringues had little peaks on them. I am really not immune to food, just to the food that I make! We were hanging out with good friends and I had some profound realizations. Like, for example, I have been feeling horrible guilt that I haven't spoken with this close friend of mine who moved away since she turned 40. I started to get hung up on how I had to get a present or a card because I hadn't done so, and it's an important birthday... my perfectionism was starting to hang me up. So today I phoned her.
I think I am a bit, just, uh, kinda depressed actually. What am I doing with my life, you know, that kind of stuff. In general I'm pretty cheerful but I am starting to feel that horrible inertia. I don't know how to describe "horrible inertia without total incapacitation, slight negative affect and a bit of sleeplessness, plus the same general feeling of anxiety as always." Not-exactly-depression-but-slightly-under-the -weather emotionally? Plus mosquito bites. I mean, I have been out of a job for months and I find that way stressful, plus the white racists in our neighborhood have a freaking HOTLINE NUMBER on the bottom of their anti-Semitic fliers. I mean that is hilarious in a very sick way. "Quick! I need to phone a racist anti-Semite RIGHT NOW! Where's the HOTLINE!" Plus we have a visit with my mom coming up.
Well I have more to say about this subject but I'll come back to it later.
For the two or three friends who have this blog on their RSS readers, I apologize. I am updating my categories and that is going to make it look like I am posting again and again. I do have a few new posts in mind to write as well. Anyway, sorry to get your hopes up that I am about to drop more pearls of wisdom. Love you buckets.
Rhen, a commenter from Israel, asked me for kubeh recipes. Kubeh, or kibbeh, is the name of the little meatballs, often torpedo shaped, that are made with a bulghur wheat crust and cuminy meat filling. They are a Syrian and Lebanese specialty. I am about as Ashkenazi as they come, so I don't have any special kibbeh insights! Nevertheless I am going to try to be as helpful as possible, because...I don't know. Once when I was in Israel, maybe a dozen years ago, I watched the children's TV program Zehu Zeh, and they did this extended schtick about creatures from outer space who crave kibbeh. (Or perhaps they pronounced it "kubeh.") It was sort of like the extended "egg salad so good you could plotz" device in the movie What's Up Tiger Lily but, you know, no Yiddish.
Anyway, this is a perfect opportunity for me to recommend a new cookbook.
Jennifer Abadi is my age, a New Yorker, and she wrote the book with her aging grandmother. The
grandmother died right before the book came out. It was really apposite for me to read this after my grandma's death this year. The book was a present from a friend of my parents who was thinning her cookbook collection and who also passed away shortly after she gave me the book. She was young, in her 60s, and I knew her pretty much my whole life.
The book also made me think of Walter Zenner, a sociologist who mainly studied the Syrian Jewish community in New York. He passed away in 2003. He was a professor at SUNY Albany and was friendly with my in-laws. I had learned a lot of the stuff about Syrian Jews in the book from a talk Walter gave at the Association for Jewish Studies at a session celebrating his life's work. It is really cool to read the same things he observed as a social scientist, in the voice of a 30-something Jewish woman who is an insider.
Maybe the Woody Allen movie title I should have cited was Love and Death. Food is nostalgic and it is almost always associated with loss. Okay okay, kibbeh is not one of those foods for me! It's just weird the the cookbooks can also be associated with loss!
Jennifer Abadi has a classic kibbeh recipe that she got from her familiy--she has a beef filling, a turkey filling and a vegetarian potato-spinach filling. I am not going to give you her recipe, because I think there is too much detail, it violates her copyright, and anyway you will like the book. She gives an alternate recipe for a kibbeh pie, which might be a good bet.
Claudia Roden also has a kibbeh recipe and many details in her Book of Jewish Food. The Syrian Jews call them kibbeh, the Iraqi and Kurdish Jews say kubba and the Egyptians call them kobeba. Claudia Roden says they are all about skill. It's not easy to mold the shells with your fingers and to stuff them without having them fall apart. If you are in Israel, you shouldn't be asking me, an Ashkenazi Jew in the States, for kibbeh advice. You should find your closest Syrian Jewish grandma and bring along a video camera and make a video for her family of people making kibbeh. I did find one of Claudia Roden's kibbeh recipes posted online on an Islamic website. You should also check out the kibbeh recipes on this page of Middle Eastern Jewish recipes of the Jewish-food.org site. I am sorry that I don't know enough about kubeh/kibbeh/kobeba to know which one to recommend. My guess is the Aleppo one since the Syrians think their food is the best. Like Hungarians -- right, DK?
(Hey, coolbeans, did you see that there is a zucchini SOUP recipe? Is that crazy or what? It sounds pretty good, though! Good for your zucchini collection. I'm sure it's still a live issue!)
I did some great cooking for Shabbat this week, but have been too obsessed with reading Harry Potter novels, and bizarrely, Harry Potter fan fiction, to blog it. (Since when do I like fan fiction? But suddenly, I'm really into it. Perhaps there is a jinx called fanis fictionis.) Also, crazed anti-Semites are leafletting my neighborhood with anti-Semitic propaganda, which is distractingly icky. Plus I am working on a grant proposal in a flailing about kind of way.
Nevertheless, I am happy to be a Jew at this moment, at whatever it is o'clock in the morning, because I just got an email from this amazingly cool blogger. I can't believe that there is someone out there reading Yiddish books on the names of vegetables and blogging about schav. Plus she sent me her Yiddish-inflected vegetarian Pesach survival guide. I am in lurve.
We finally took my two year old to see March of the Penguins. We went to the movie theater after his nap, with an insulated bag full of snacks (grapes, cucumber slices and cheddar cheese). We bought popcorn and bottled water, and sat in the middle of the theater.
Amazingly, my son was able to sit through the whole picture. He did switch laps a few times. He was very excited about the movie. As soon as the penguins appeared on the screen, he began saying "Penguins! Penguins!" and didn't stop for about 20 minutes, maybe longer. Then there was a lull, in which he just watched and ate treats. Then the egg appeared, and he started exclaiming "Egg! Egg!" and then was quiet again until the chicks. The chicks excited him the most, he commented on them and on their parents feeding them, as he does at home. But then, for him, the most exciting part was looking behind him and seeing the movie on the surface of the window of the projectionist's booth! After the picture was over, we asked the projectionist to let us see how the movie works, and he graciously showed us. How much my son understood I don't know, but it was neat.
Let me also tell you something about the movie, especially to my reader Beth who has to wait until it comes out on DVD to see it. As you probably have gathered, it's a scripted documentary about emperor penguins mating and raising young in Antarctica. The film, a full-length feature at 80 minutes, has great pacing. It felt short! The penguins are beautiful, getting to watch them walk and slide over the landscape was incredible. The film editor managed to capture both the sense of the birds' nobility and grace and how comic and cute they are.
Probably the most beautiful thing to watch was the mating dance. The emperors bow to each other, and caress each other with their beaks and heads, before they mate. It looked stylized but also affectionate, if that makes sense. I couldn't tell if I was anthropomorphizing the birds or whether they have the emotions we ascribe to them. It's really hard to raise penguin chicks, there are so many opportunities to screw it up. After the mothers lay their eggs, they have to transfer them to the father's feet. If they fail, the egg will freeze quickly. The cries of the penguins who made this mistake sounded disappointed, they looked sad. Penguin chicks, once they hatch, are similarly vulnerable. The filmmaker captured a mother whose chick had frozen during a blizzard, who then tried to steal another mother's chick. The bereft mother's cries of grief, and then the way that the other mothers prevented her from stealing the chick--it felt biblical to me.
We are definitely going to buy this on DVD because I hope there will be more information about how they made the film. There were some shots of the camera crew in the credits, but not nearly enough.
I don't know if my son will stay infatuated with penguins but I am definitely hooked. I am not the most perfectly religious person, but seeing beautiful things in the natural world brings out my inner believer. The penguins are brave and noble and they cooperate in community, they love each other, they stick together in a crisis. They also fight with each other, slapping each other with their flippers and yelling in their honking voices. They walk funny and they have sweetly funny faces. Yes, yes, just like my people.
For Friday night dinner we had lentil soup with Indian spices, which I made a little too salty but was still pretty good. I also improvised a cauliflower dish with dry roasted shallots, store-bought peanut sauce and coconut milk and green beans, and we had boxed couscous.
For Shabbat lunch I decided to try to make a Claudia Roden-style stuffed squash recipe, using the special Lebanese squash my husband bought at the farmer's market. It looked great going into the pot. I hollowed out the whole squash using an apple corer, and stuffed them with a rice and chickpea mixture, flavored with chopped tomato, fresh mint, and cinnamon. I covered the squash with a sweet and sour tomato sauce, also from Claudia Roden's new Book of Middle Eastern Food. I turned the crockpot on low and let it cook from right before candlelighting until lunchtime.
It was terrible. I have a few guesses why. The main one is, the squash doesn't taste like zucchini. It was so bland and unpleasantly chewy. It was probably also a mistake to use the crockpot. We threw away the leftovers.
The rest of the lunch was pretty good. We had French bread from a local bakery instead of challah, and store-bought baked tofu. I made sunomono from a Mollie Katzen recipe (from Still Life with Menu.) You take mung bean thread noodles, soak them in boiling water, and then dress them in soy sauce, sugar, salt, and rice vinegar, and chill them until very cold. Right before serving you add peeled, sliced cucumbers. It's cool to make and refreshing to eat. I like cooking with bean threads in the hot summer. I also made a big salad with purple cabbage, two kinds of lettuce, artichoke hearts, thawed frozen organic haricot verts. We also had a good amount of leftover cauliflower.
All together, not the best cooking I've ever done, but we ate okay. My friend D. said he made a great stufffed squash, inspired by my squash of last week. Maybe he will give me the recipe.