What The Radical is Reading This Weekend: Ice-Breaker Edition

February 5, 2011, 3:00 pm

Lenin subscribes to Pravda:  so why don’t you?

It’s not that I actually have any time to read, since I am also writing, teaching, and most days, trying to figure out how to release one of our cars from snow and ice.  But:

Just in case you thought there was nothing new to say about Mad Men, here comes Daniel Mendelsohn in the most recent New York Review of Books.  In “The Mad Men Account” a seemingly needless review of the series occasioned by the upcoming release of Season 4 on DVD, Mendelsohn comes up with one key insight that is worth the price of admission.  Like Historiann, Mendelsohn is not a fan, but admits that he is drawn to the series anyway for “deeper, almost irrational reasons[.]“  He sees it as all style and no substance, and he isn’t a fan of the style.  But, as he points out, vast numbers of people love to Mad Men themselves:  look at the number of people using Mad Men avatars on their Facebook pages.  Mattel and Brooks Brothers, among others, have produced tie-ins to the show, and the keen observer of mass consumer culture may have noted subtler shifts in design that aren’t tie-ins but that scream “Mad Men!” all the same.

The pay dirt is at the end of the article, where Mendelsohn focuses on the only truly complex characters in the series, the children, specifically Sally Draper and Glen, a judgmental neighborhood boy who exudes a hinky, unnerving adult sexuality.  First focused on Betty Draper, wife of mad man Don, Glen has, by season 4, shifted his intense focus and inexplicable need to Sally.  The two children’s attraction to each other is clearly less sexual than, well, intellectual, which is also weirdly out of place in a show in which the adult characters rarely show any understanding of their own motivations for action.  “It’s only when you realize that the most important ‘eye’—and ‘I’—in Mad Men belong to the watchful if often uncomprehending children,” Mendelsohn writes, “rather than to the badly behaved and often caricatured adults, that the show’s special appeal comes into focus.” As he concludes,

The point of identification is, in the end, not Don but Sally, not Betty but Glen: the watching, hopeful, and so often disillusioned children who would grow up to be this program’s audience, watching their younger selves watch their parents screw up.

Hence both the show’s serious failings and its strong appeal. If so much of Mad Men is curiously opaque, all inexplicable exteriors and posturing, it occurs to you that this is, after all, how the adult world often looks to children; whatever its blankness, that world, as recreated in the show, feels somehow real to those of us who were kids back then. As for the appeal: Who, after all, can resist the fantasy of seeing what your parents were like before you were born, or when you were still little—too little to understand what the deal was with them, something we can only do now, in hindsight? And who, after having that privileged view, would want to dismiss the lives they led and world they inhabited as trivial—as passing fads, moments of madness? Who would still want to bash them, instead of telling them that we know they were bad but that now we forgive them?


Shoveling snow and breaking ice gives you even more time….to listen to audible books.  This week it has been Allen Shawn’s Twin:  A Memoir (Viking, 2010).  You’re thinking, “So many bad memoirs, so little time,” right?  I admit that I did not love Shawn’s first book, Wish I Could Be There:  Notes From A Phobic Life (2007), an account of his agoraphobia that was at once illuminating and too opaque about what he really thought about the relationship between the organic and psychological sources of disabilities like his.  Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times loved Twin, which struck me as a good sign (read her elegant review), so I gave it a shot and think it’s fantastic, on so many levels.  My favorite theme among many?  That Shawn’s father had two intimate relationships and households for forty years; that both parents managed to separate this phenomenon in their minds from the trauma of having a severely disabled child; and that Allen’s mother aggressively represented their family as “normal” and “just like the Kennedys” to a psychiatrist.   In one of the final chapters of the book, Shawn explores why William Shawn’s polyamory might have worked well enough for both of his parents, evoking well how a wife who did not wish to share her husband, but had little power in the relationship and a morbid fear of social exposure, might have been persuaded that this was her best option. Although I have not yet heard this book mentioned in the same sentence as the phrase “disability studies,” it is an outstanding primary account of the reverberating appearance of both genius and mental disability in a single family, as well as the tension between diagnosis and who a mentally disabled person “is.”

Looking for some blogs to break the endless recycling of news about the popular uprising in Egypt and around the region?  Try Tabsir:  Insight on Islam and the Middle East, a group of “scholars concerned about stereotypes, misinformation and propaganda spread in the media and academic forums on Islam and the Middle East.” You probably already read Juan Cole’s Informed Comment.  But who has the url for a feminist blog coming out of Egypt or Tunis that is written in English, or is not of the “global feminist” variety that tries to cover so much it can’t cover any part of the work, or any event, in a sustained way?  Forward it to me and I’ll post it to the blog roll. I keep seeing women in the streets, but I keep hearing what men think:  it would be fun to reverse that from time to time.

Feministe will put your d!ck in a box:  In an interesting new twist, this go-to feminist blog features its most sexist commentary and asks you to judge its quality.  Go here to vote for your favorite troll!

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