Sunday round-up: friends & neighbors edition

Me & my best friend!

Howdy, friends!  It’s lovely, sunny, and warm, so I’m off on a run.  Here are some interesting tidbits I found elsewhere on the world-wide timewasting web for those of you not enjoying perfect autumn weather today:

  • Via RealClearBooks, Eleanor Barkhorn on “What Jeffrey Eugenidies Doesn’t Understand About Women,” after reading his new book, The Marriage Plot:  “There’s one way, however, in which [the protagonist] Madeleine defies believability: She has no true female friends. Yes, she has roommates and a sister with whom she once had ‘heavy’ emotional conversations, but these relationships are characterized more by spite than affection. And, sadly, The Marriage Plot is just the latest story to forget to give its heroine friends. There are countless other Madeleines in modern-day literature and film: smart, self-assured women who have all the trappings of contemporary womanhood except a group of friends to confide in.”  Have you noticed this about recent books and films?  I have to say that I hadn’t until Barkhorn pointed it out.  She concludes, “The great irony, of course, is that the old-fashioned, marriage-plot-bound books that Eugenides attempts to modernize in his new novel actually do a better job of portraying female friendship than The Marriage Plot.”  I think I may read this anyway–a library codex copy of the book, of course–because I’m a huge fan of “marriage plot” authors like Jane Austen and the many Brontes, but Barkhorn makes an interesting argument here.
  • Isn’t it cute when right-wing religious nuts start condemning each other to hell?  Robert Jeffress vs. Bill Donahue, plus all Catholics, Mormons, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims, of course.  Taking victimology to new heights, Anita Perry cries that her handsome husband Rick has been “brutalized . . . because of his faith.”  Mark my words:  the majority of Americans will not reward this kind of religious pride, which just stinks of hubris and un-neighborliness.  Even if they privately agree with him, Americans are fundamentally uncomfortable with the Jeffress style of public religious condemnation.
  • 1970s flashback:  Do any of you remember the sensational book Sybil, about the girl with multiple personality disorder?  Check out Laura Miller’s review of Debbie Nathan’s Sybil Exposed, which details the twisted relationship between “Sybil” (Shirley Ardell Mason) and her therapist, Dr. Cornelia Wilbur.  Mason had finally moved out of Wilbur’s house and had achieved her goal of becoming an art teacher and even a homeowner by the time Flora Rheta Schreiber published her sensational account of “Sybil’s” 16 personalities, but sadly the publicity for the book (and the fact that Schreiber disguised her case study pretty poorly) led Mason to flee her independent life and move back in with her therapist.   
  • John Judis actually reviews all 528 pages of Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men:  Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President.  He finds it trustworthy on balance and the annoying small errors the result of “the current practices of some large American publishers, who spend little time or money on copy-editing or fact-checking and rush books out without much editorial pressure. As far as I can tell, Suskind’s errors are not discrediting.”  His problem is with the “education of a President” part of the book, as Judis disagrees with Suskind’s optimistic conclusion that President Barack Obama “gets it” about what went wrong in his first two years, and mocks the President’s interest in “telling a story” with his presidency:  “In fact, Obama had run for president and governed on the basis of a story—a story he articulated in his Democratic convention keynote address in 2004—of an America that is not red, blue, white, black, or brown, but a ‘United States of America.’ This appeal resonated during the election, but as early as January 2009, when he was informed that Republicans as a bloc would oppose his stimulus program, he should have known that it had little basis in reality. He clung to it anyway. It governed his attitude toward Wall Street and toward the hard-line Republican opposition; and it led him to jeopardize his presidency and the country’s future. Yes, there was a failure of communication, but it was not because the President didn’t have a story. It was because the story was pure fiction. . . . Suskind may have set out to write a book about a president learning from his mistakes, but he may have ended up writing one about a failed presidency.”  His words, friends, not mine, so don’t get your panties in a bunch this weekend, m’kay?

11 thoughts on “Sunday round-up: friends & neighbors edition

  1. Gee, I though Perry was brutalized because he didn’t know what he was talking about. Is *that* what it means to be Christian?

    In my former job I would occasionally meet students who claimed to have MPD, and were therapists treating others; I came to think that MPD was a way of talking about shadow sides of the self, to use the Jungian language. Even creepier were the people who’d been abducted by aliens. It did make their lives more interesting, though!


  2. Susan, you know there’s a close relationship between an evangelical Christian background and belief that one has been abducted & probed by space aliens? So maybe that’s what the Perrys mean when they speak of being “brutalized?” (Or maybe this is something that Huntsman, Romney, Santorum, Gingrich, and the other non-evangelical Protestant candidates should start talking up as a reason to fear evangelical Protestants–they’re prey to a Manchurian Candidate scenario, only with space aliens!)


  3. Some Austen scholar (a guy) gave this book a sort of B- grade in the NYT book review today, attributing its character developmental shortcomings mostly to generational issues among a (male) authorial cohort, but this triangulates interestingly with the only two things I learned about the book today, a) in said review (sample sentence): ” ‘They didn’t once ask if she had a boyfriend,’ Madeleine happily thinks about a couple of fellow aspirants who befriend her at an academic conference–yet it is all the novel asks.” And, b) an endpaper essay about the 1980s critical climate at Brown that supplies another sample sentence: “When Madeleine asked what the book was about [Derrida], she was given to understand by [her friend] Whitney that the idea of a book being ‘about’ something was exactly what this book was against, and that, if it was ‘about’ anything, then it was about the need to stop thinking of books as being about things…” Sooo, maybe the missing “friends” got lost in Ivy League theory-space? Just wondering.


  4. Wait a sec…if my memory serves me, in those “traditional” marriage plot books you mention–Austen, the Brontes–the heroines don’t really have any friends. In Austen’s books, Fanny Price and Anne Elliot are very isolated (though Anne has an older mentor, she doesn’t figure largely in the book as a character–more as a plot device); Elinor Dashwood and Elizabeth Bennett have close (but complicated) relationships with only one sister; Jane Eyre is remarkably, almost entirely, isolated. I haven’t read Eugenides, but maybe by making his heroine largely friendless, he’s picking up on an older generic feature of 19th-century marriage plot books?


  5. Read the whole Barkhorn essay, Canuck Down South. There are friends aplenty compared to her reading of Eugenides’s Madeline. (I haven’t read the book to compare them, and YMMV.)

    As I recall, Anne Elliott has a lot of friends in Persuasion–but the book is marked by her feeling that life has moved on for them in ways that it hasn’t for her.


  6. Okay, I’ve read the whole Barkhorn essay now–and I certainly have a different reading that she does of Austen and the Brontes: Jane Eyre’s childhood friend Helen is dead by the second part of the 3-part book; Elizabeth Bennett and Elinor Dashwood don’t confide much in their close relationships with their sisters (though the sisters confide in them); and, though, as you say, Anne Elliot is surrounded by people, she confides in no one (other characters appear to consider her a closer friend that she considers them to be). But, as you say, Historiann, YMMV…especially when discussing literature at this time of a Sunday night.


  7. Thanks, Canuck. Perhaps Barkhorn pushed the comparison to highlight the absence of female friendship in Eugenides’s book a little too far. I’ll have to check out the library codex version of his book in order to evaluate Barkhorn’s comparison.

    Still, I thought it was an interesting point about the absence of women’s friendships in contemporary books and films (especially vis-a-vis the Bechdel Test.)


  8. Elizabeth Bennett’s best friend is Charlotte Lucas. We don’t see much of their relationship in the book, but it is implied that up until the events of the book, they were close friends. I’ve always thought their relationship was an interesting portrayal of how you can grow apart from a friend without even noticing until something stressful comes up.

    Elinor and Elizabeth don’t confide as much in their sisters as their sisters confide in them, but this is because of aspects of their personalities. Both of them eventually regret not being more open.


  9. @CDS & Historiann: I don’t think the comparison was pushed too far. Part of it has to do with how we define and understand friendship. CDS mentions the idea of “confiding” in some one as evidence for close friendship. That is certainly true by modern standards, and but it doesn’t really work as a litmus test in Austen’s world. Austen’s characters are forever keeping things from each other; *privacy* of emotion and conflict, as well as communicating information indirectly, are key to the society she describes. Lucy in Sense and Sensibility is immediately suspect because she pours out her life story to a virtual stranger; she is “vulgar”. Remember this is the same plot wherein no one can ask Marianne whether or not she’s engaged because it’s viewed as indelicate or pushy. So even among the people you’re closest to, you don’t necessarily tell them everything, especially very personal things. My point is that friendship is constructed differently in Austen’s world than in ours; in my view, her books are full of friends and close relations (primarily though not exclusively women). And they (the heroines) are isolated, too, but that’s a significant component of Austen’s universe – women cannot travel, they live in small communities, they have fewer people in their lives. Have you ever heard Emma Thompson’s wonderful commentary on Sense and Sensibility? (On the DVD) She says she realized while making the movie how horribly stuck the women were. They just had to sit in the drawing room and wait while the world came to them. They lived in small worlds. They kept their own counsel while still maintaining close friendships.


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