Sunday, April 30, 2006

You, yes, you.

So as you probably know by now, I have been obsessed with the scandal surrounding Harvard student Kaavya Viswanathan's book "How Opal Mehta got kissed, got wild, and got a life" for the past week. It's truly awesome. The gist of it, in case you have missed the hype or are not a YA book nerd like me, is that this Harvard sophomore published a book which was high on the NYtimes bestseller book, was optioned for a movie by Dreamworks even before its publication, and which apparently, according to recent news (and hence the scandal), jacks significant portions from previously published books "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings" by former Cosmo writer and novelist Anne McCafferty. (Here is a pretty comprehensive list of the most obviously copied passages. And yes, I think they were copied. There is no way that you can read McCafferty's books several times - which Viswanathan admitted to doing in high school - and be dumb enough to accidentally make your primary male character wear a T-shirt with the wrong day written on it.)

First of all, let me just say that I read the Sloppy First books years ago, and they are freaking awesome. (Let me also say that McCafferty recently published the third book in the series and it is not so awesome, but I will get to that.) Second, let me say that I was predisposed to hate Kaavya Viswanathan the second I read the profile about her on New York Times, and how she was such a promising young author. She's also annoying as hell. The evidence: her parents paid somewhere in the vicinity of $10,000 and $20,000 for a private college counselor for her. This counselor happened to be a published author, and she finagled some deal between Kaavya and the publisher Little, Brown. Then, Little, Brown handed over $500,000 in exchange for a two-book contract. Oh yes, and she is rich and she's pretty and she goes to Harvard. fjdkalfjdkfdjfklafjalfa. I think that sums it up. It's not surprising then, that every single news article written about her cleverly inserts the otherwise unused word, Schadenfreude (look it up), just because it's awesome to see the mighty fall.

Last week, I read that the publisher was going to pull her book from shelves (and remove all the plagiarized passages and republish it) and so of course I went out and bought it. I just finished reading it today, and so now I get to share my opinion.



The sad thing is, this book could have some potential, if, say, it wasn't stolen from Mean Girls combined with "Sloppy Firsts" and instead played up the sort of "Bend it Like Beckham" angle - contemporary Indian teenager dramedy. Seriously.

Fact: This book would probably never have been picked up if it weren't for the slightly unusual cultural angle. There are a million YA/chicklit novels out there that are almost all about white girls, at least all the ones I've heard of and all the ones I've seen made into movies (i.e. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Princess Diaries). I would venture to say that Indian culture is gaining ground in popular media, thanks to the aforementioned "Bend it Like Beckham" and moving on up through movies like "Bride and Prejudice." It's very in vogue, and I'm 100% sure that when Kaavya's college tutor pitched the idea of a young Indian Harvard student writing a chick-lit book, some publicist somewhere went nuts.

Fact: Viswanathan has said several times that her original script was somewhere along the lines of Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones," but that the publishing company (and packaging company, Alloy Entertainment) wanted to make it less "dark" and more "marketable." There's actually some speculation that the packaging company and its writers sat down with pages full of examples from "marketable" teen lit, and that it was their fault that so much of the book is stolen. Viswanathan did admit to "unintentially internalizing" (or possibly memorizing with her "photographic memory" - she claims she "never takes notes) the book and to reading it several times in high school, so I am pretty sure that the plagiarism was hers. However, all of that doesn't mean that she wasn't heavily influenced by Alloy Entertainment to steer the book in a certain direction.

My question would be if making it marketable didn't make it worse. People say that the "anxiety of influence" is at work in Viswanathan's "unintentional internalization" of McCafferty's book - I would suggest that it might be, in part, the anxiety of audience.

While I read "Opal Mehta" (or in the spirit of the book, HOMGKGWAGAL), the parts about her family or Indian neighborhood in New Jersey or her mom's "ladies who lunch" always intrigued me and came off quite naturally, whereas the other 99% of it reeked of trying too hard. There were usually about 10 brand names per page - like Viswanathan's research involved spending her entire advance at Bergdorf Goodman - and they creaked and rattled. I literally cringed every few pages, and if I had to read one more verbatim list of makeup names (not brands - NAMES, like lipstick names), I might have thrown the book in the middle of the road, except that I plan on hanging on to it in case original editions are ever worth money on Ebay.

Ironically, McCafferty's latest book, "Charmed Thirds," was also riddled with (and in my opinion sort of ruined by) poor examples of teen life, like when her heroine, Jessica, goes to a party in New York thrown by "Beautiful People for Democrats" or something like that and she describes her outfit, making sure to let all the readers know that she was wearing "kitten-heeled flip-flops." Which first of all is totally out of character because the Jessica Darling of the first two books wouldn't have been caught dead in such terrible shoes because she's too practical and too anti-social to concede that flip-flops and kitten heels belong together (which by the way, they don't). You just get the feeling that McCafferty realized that she was slightly out of touch with the way college kids live today, so she had a whole chat with people about Facebook and short-lived fashion faux pas and and then carefully inserted these clever marks of the age in her book wherever she could. (The first books she managed to escape this pitfall, I think because she made Jessica a fan of exclusively 80's music and movies, and therefore McCafferty was working with information from her own era.)

I'm sort of going off topic here, but suffice it to say that what made McCafferty's third book worse than her first two was exactly the same as what made Viswanathan's book suck in the first place (and isn't it ironic, don't you think?). And I think it's the anxiety of audience - of trying to "connect" with readers by dropping in pertinent details, instead of trying to connect by making a real, unique character or a strong, original plotline or writing subtle, good prose (like Prep for example). Basically what I'm thinking is this: Regardless of how good or bad Viswanathan's book was in the first place, there is no way it could have been improved by making it "marketable" - because that would mean taking out the few interesting cultural markers and adding in terrible references to OPI nail polish and designer jeans. And marketing is a product of the audience - designing something for its recipients, which, if not done extremely well, falls flat. The trick is to make something appealing but not stale and wooden, and, well, done, and Viswanathan (or her pals at Alloy Entertainment) failed to do that. Clearly, in more ways than one.

However that's what it comes down to - was Viswanathan writing this book because she wanted to write a great teen book, or was she writing it because that was the right thing to do, the Harvard thing to do, what people would expect her to do- to do everything, so much so that she may have overstepped her abilities and, subsequently, other boundaries as well. This is a girl who has always wanted to be an I-banker. Not a writer. What inspired her to focus on a new kind of success? I would suggest that she has the same problem as her heroine, Opal, who tries to become popular because she thinks that's what Harvard wants, and then in the process loses sight of everything (ok, not everything because in the end, even with all her slacking, it seems that she still manages to get every award her school offers and get into Harvard), before discovering in the end that maybe doing everything (being popular AND being smart AND welding a spice rack AND... you get the picture) is not the best way to go. There is a harsh lesson there and Opal learned it, sort of, in a haphazard, poorly written way. Maybe for Viswanathan, she's just not quite at the end of her story, and she hasn't learned her lesson yet - that it's better to be yourself, and write your own book while you're at it.

On the plus side, all of this means I can still write the Anne of Green Gables of the 90s, like I've always wanted to. None of you bitches better steal my idea.

Gawker's coverage (especially read "Indians on Indians")
A little bit about Alloy
"Book packaging" at Slate
Cool thoughts from Harvard kids (hopefully their own) - I especially like the one from Emma Lind, but I think the Xenophobia one is not so true)
McCafferty wins in sales!! (Thank God, because I still thought "Charmed Thirds" was better)
"Nothing less than an act of literary identity theft"
Original review at NYtimes
I love it
More about why people plagiarize (although I still think my theory is right on Kaavya)

Friday, April 28, 2006


This Tuesday in Sean's class, a man named John Cogan came to speak. I honestly hadn't ever heard of this person before, not surprisingly as I am a political ignoranus (as Ali G would say), but he is apparently a big deal. Here is why: he was on the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, and he's been named one of the top 6 most influential people in social security reform, and he's basically the kind of guy who can call up Dubya any ol' time and say hey, what up g. Admittedly this makes him... um, well... a Republican. However it was still really interesting to hear him speak since he's kind of way up there as far as determining our nation's public policy, and he may have a hand in how much money the government gives me when I'm old, so I won't totally knock him.

BUT of course I'm not here to actually talk about him, but rather about me. What else is new?

I had read articles by Cogan about his big plans for personal accounts as an absolute necessity to save Social Security. In case you don't know even as much as I do about this, the gist of the idea is that one of the models (Model 2) of the President's Commission had optional personal accounts, whereby workers could divert up to 4% of their Social Security payroll tax each month to a personal investment fund of some kind (which they would choose from a set of pre-determined options). The reasoning behind this idea is primarly that it would change the Social Security so that instead of being pay-as-you-go (the revenues from Social Security payroll taxes are constantly being paid out to beneficiaries, so there is no investment, just "tax and transfer" of the money), it would mean that at least some Social Security money came from a plain old investment, like an IRA or a 401(k). That way instead of just moving money in and out, there would be a sort of "reserve." Part of this is to correct the fact that the current Social Security "trust fund" (a surplus of money that Social Security is currently bringing in, but won't be for long) is not actually a trust fund - it's a room in West Virginia where a filing cabinet contains a whole lot of bond certificates "representing" Social Security money, which in actuality has been spent on other general things like student loans or bombs or what have you. Cogan's argument is that personal accounts would effectively take that bogus trust fund money and put it in real investments and KEEP it in Social Security money instead of letting the government blow it all on unrelated items. Not to mention that the average return from stocks and things that personal accounts would get is higher than whatever interest accumulates on the current Social Security, so in theory with a personal account you would get more (even if it wasn't much more) than you would with standard Social Security.

Cogan's other argument for personal accounts is one that he got, actually, from a conversation with Pat Moynihan sometime in the 80s. The idea here is that since most lower-income workers don't invest or have the opportunity to invest in things like IRAs and 401(k)s (because after Social Security taxes, they don't have any disposable income that can be diverted away form living expenses and into long-term investments), this would give them an opportunity they never had before. The idea was that it would decrease this class's dependence on traditional Social Security and give them a chance to save.

Sorry, that was a long-winded explanation and probably a simplification. The point is: I kept thinking to myself, if personal accounts are such a great idea, and if they have this wonderful, democratizing and Democratic (in the party sense of the word) effect of improving retirement savings among the lowest-income people, then why aren't they mandatory? (The short answer is, because when the President commissioned the Commission, one of his requirements for their solution was optional personal accounts, not mandatory ones.)

This was a question that plagued me through Cogan's entire talk. And I kept wanting to ask it. But I didn't. Because I felt like it must have been a dumb question.

The urge to ask the question got stronger as Cogan talked about how education was absolutely necessary to get anyone to use the personal accounts, given how people are afraid of taking risks, how it's easier to inertly stay in traditional Social Security, and given how choosing a fund or whatever to put your personal account in would be baffling and confusing. And I was still sitting there thinking to myself, if it needs so much education, and if you are talking about the 1/3 of workers who have never invested in anything, then what makes you think anyone would use them?

Finally in the last 5 minutes of the class, Sean asked him the same question. Boy, do I feel stupid.

I guess that's the point though - I feel stupid outside of my comfort zone. I would have had no qualms asking a question in an English seminar, but I didn't even dare to raise my hand in an Economics class. It's sort of sad, really. Stanford is supposed to be this wonderful, multidisciplinary school, where you get a cross-section of everything. Boy do I wish. I, and every other "fuzzy" I know, wiggled our way out of real science (and as my experience with this economics class is teaching me, social science) into the easiest, least scientific, and therefore least useful classes on campus, as long as they filled the General Ed requirements. And that leaves us, graduates of one of the best schools (if not the best school) in the country, completely fucking clueless about real life, real policy, and real politics. What good does that do?

I remember when I was applying to college and I was drawn to the stringent, evil General Ed requirements of schools like University of Chicago and Columbia, not because I didn't want to be a total fool upon graduating, but because I wanted to learn all that stuff. I still do, and taking this class is reminding me of that (not to mention my obsessive daily reading of the New York Times and various other online publications that remind me how much more I need to, and want to learn). But I wish I'd been forced to remember that earlier - to remember how I wanted to be able to converse easily about any topic, instead of letting myself get paralyzed by the fear of looking stupid. After all, it's not exactly a total lack of knowledge or understanding we're talking about. I understand, at least generally, the whole personal accounts thing (even if I don't quite have an opinion on it yet). I clearly knew just enough to be able to roughly explain it in this blog entry. But in class, I was too afraid that my understanding was imaginary to actually test it. And that's how you really learn.

I guess the moral of the story here is never to be afraid to ask a question, something I clearly could have summed up in an easy cliche (which I won't bother to repeat). But also the moral is that if you want to know something about everything, you have to leave your comfort zone and take chances or else it won't work. You have to take risks. (Perhaps I need as much education about the benefits of taking risks as that bottom 1/3 of income workers do.) But it's worth it.

Incidentally, the answer to the question is, it doesn't have to be mandatory, but you can make it a default, and then most people will do it anyway. (And it's more politically viable.)

Look at me! I'm smart!

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Kill me now.

Someone with a license plate frame that reads "Life is fragile, Handle with Prayer" is parked in MY PARKING SPACE outside my apartment.

Ain't no fun...

If my homies can't hang in the 1st class lounge with me.

Someday I want to be bad-ass enough to be able to go throw duty-free whiskey ALL OVER THE EFFING PLACE.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Sweet Sixteen! (in MTV theme song voice)

NYTimes article about "My Super Sweet 16." BRILLIANT as always. Sadly I missed the first episode last week because I haven't been paying attention, but I am looking forward to these Indian sisters. Here is a key quote:

"We both want to lose three pounds," said Priya, who received a Mercedes convertible and an assortment of diamond jewelry for her birthday. Her sister's graduation gift package included a Bentley, diamonds and two homes in India.

"I was really surprised," Divya said, "because I was only expecting a Bentley and one house."

Damn, girl.

These kids are like one step below Paris Hilton. By current reality tv celebrity/heir(ess) standards they should definitely be spending their time getting drunk and crashing cars in LA with the Laguna Beach kids, who look like country bumpkins in comparison to the My Super Sweet 16 crowd.

There is a reason people think America is headed for a fall. But I kind of love it.

A Moratorium on Peanut Consumption

Maybe Ricker Dining (the first peanut-free college dining hall in the country!) had it right.

Last night, I went to the Nuthouse with Santiago. Didn't drink much, but I ate about 58493 peanuts. Now I feel disgusting, like peanuts are staging a sit-in in my stomach. It's like that urban legend about gum sitting in your stomach for 7 years if you swallow it... only with peanuts.

They may be staging some kind of political movement in my tummy but I can fight back. No more peanuts! Peanuts BAAAAAAAAAD.

P.S. This is why I love the Nut (among other reasons): WHEN IS THIS SIGN FROM, 1974?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Sleep Languages!

Is it wrong that I want this book?

and, just because I am still lame and still like internet tests even when, as in this case, they are wrong:

I am a paper dolls!
Find your own pose!

Narrow Escape

I have this plain brown turtleneck that I actually really like. The problem is that while it's clearly cold-weather clothing, it's really thin fabric (not a sweater) and so I can't wear it without a jacket. And the easiest, most fashionable jacket I have to wear with it is my brown corduroy blazer, which is almost the exact same shade of brown. And makes me look like Annie Hall or her counterpart, Diane Keaton, on a bad day. The problem is I always seem to forget about that until it's too late and then I end up on the street looking like a bad ad from the 80s.

I'm proud to report that I escaped that fate today by grabbing, instead of the brown blazer, my red coat from my backseat as I left my car to walk to work. Booyakasha.

Friday, April 14, 2006


So for those of you who do not know, I am now obsessssssed with cooking a kosher for Passover meal. This does not mean I am using separate dishes, clearing my house of chametz, or buying meat that was properly slaughtered. I do not think so. However I did make kosher-for-Passover brownies last night (which tasted quite good!) and I plan on making more meals this weekend. In the spirit of Dan I would like to post the menu here:


Hot and Sour Matzo Ball Soup (Chinese style)
Spiced Braised Lamb with Carrots and Spinach
Vegetables Roasted with Rosemary and Thyme
Kosher brownies with chocolate icing

Other potential dishes, dates TBA:
Roasted Salmon with garlic and dill
Braised Chicken in sweet Red (Manischewitz) Wine sauce
Matzo Scallion pancakes
Soup with Miniature Chive Matzo Balls, celery, and carrots

Mm I'm getting hungry just thinking about it!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Lido Deck

I should clarify that I have never been on a cruise. It sounds amazing though... a week of sun, sleep, sex, sloppy drunkenness, sloth, and sweet, sweet gluttony.

Like my alliteration?

At any rate, today is a cruise day. A Lido Deck day. The kind of day where, if I had no work, which of course I do, I would go out on the grass somewhere on campus (where I do not live) with a margarita, sunglasses, a bathing suit (actually probably not a bathing suit, but at the very least a skirt or bermuda shorts) and a stereo. The kind of day that inspired us to buy a slip-n-slide my freshman year - that caused Laurel and me to be late to Human Sexuality every day because we had to walk leisurely in the hot sun from golf to Jamba Juice on the way to class. The kind of day where 7 people will pile into a tiny Corolla, sweating and sticky, just because they want a Slurpee and there is only one car available. A lie-out-in-the-grass-and-read day.

But instead, it seems to be a work-day. A stay inside in the suffocating air conditioning, almost cold enough indoors for a space heater, half-work and then procrastinate because it should be a cruise day.

Adult living SUCKS.

I tried to post this yesterday...

I AM a Bookslut. Perhaps more accurately I am a Bookslut slut. I love that site. And now that Trent of "Pink is the new blog" has moved to LA and stopped posting before noon my time, I need some new reading material for the morning at work.

Thus, Bookslut. Today, via that site, I found this article, which is kind of interesting even if it's a little ridiculously radical. However, I can't resist quoting this part:

Is pornography always wrong in MacKinnon's view? "If you actually think about it," she says, "what is sexual between people is, up close, not particularly visible. Therefore you have to do things to it to make it acceptable by a camera. So already there's an intrusion. Most people, when they are having an intimate experience, don't have someone hanging out with a camera there. And if there is someone hanging out with a camera, what is most intimate about that experience and most equal between the people is not accessible to that camera.

"If you've got that material being sold, there are people who are not intimate to the experience who are experiencing it. How equal is that? Your sex is being bought by somebody over there. You're now a thing in relation to people experiencing you sexually. How equal is that?"

But surely lesbian and gay porn at least eludes such criticisms? MacKinnon disagrees. "There's a good book by Christopher Kendal which studies the real content of gay male pornography and the children who are violated to make it as well as the men who are used in the industry. I recommend it." How about lesbian pornography - made for, by and about lesbians? MacKinnon says most of it is "sold in liquor stores and mostly it is men who are its consumers".

"Some of it is about a real aspiration to recapture women's sexuality for women, no doubt," she concedes. "The fact is that the materials themselves in general are about the use of women for sex and when women are being used for sex that is about a male-dominant model of sex, whether men are doing it or not. It's not biological. It's about sex roles. Anyone can play them."

I hate to be one of those close-minded girls who resists men's attraction to porn - I recognize that it's a thing guys like, or feel compelled to watch occasionally, or feel mildly interested/amused by in other cases. I won't go so far as to say that it should be banned - free speech and all that, and I don't exactly consider it hate speech. I guess the way I look at it is, porn is the sexual equivalent of Ali G without irony. And without irony, isn't it sort of terrifying? And if it's being propagated throughout the world, the images and roles that "anyone can play" (and that means mild-mannered, non-rapist type men, the way I conceive of them, MacKinnon aside), then doesn't that mean it's something to be concerned about?

To be honest, I wouldn't actually care so much about pornography if its gender-imbalance hadn't been inherited by our Puritanical, male-dominated, sexually repressed culture that we have inherited from the coldhearted Brits and sturdy Scots in the 17th century. Et cetera. It is all very complicated. I tend to believe that at least part of the reason for inequal gender roles and male-dominated creepy porn is the lack of sexual openness in the United States. At least, that is how I conceive of porn having more than its desired effect - warping brains or at the very least teasing them into believing that women should be like porn stars. If only women were allowed to act like sexual beings to begin with - than maybe they would no longer be portrayed as overblown caricatures in men's fantasies.

Donnovan, who is awesome, and sort of a mentor to me, does a lot of work on how gender roles in the media screw with people's heads. I wonder which screws people up worse - and which kind of person. Are men more affected by porn in their conception of human relationships, and are women more affected by crap TV shows like Dawson's Creek and fairy tales like Cinderella? (Why is it that fairy tales are portrayed as female fantasies, anyway? Most of them were originally written by men. I think part of the reason is that today, fairy tales = Disney, and Disney has made a fortune off of its line of "princesses." But perhaps more deeply, fairy tales were all originally written by men, so perhaps you can argue that the princess-being-rescued-by-the-handsome-prince plot is actually a representation of a male fantasy about dominance and strength.) And which is more detrimental to equal gender relationships?

Just some things I’'m thinking about today.

Monday, April 10, 2006


This is a cool article about Kepler's in Menlo Park and how it shut down and then reopened. Shades of You've Got Mail - although my mom will remind me it's actually shades of The Shop Around the Corner.

I remember a cute bookstore (overpriced but cute, with a great paper-doll selection) in Whittier that shut down when I was a kid. If only Whittier had half the energy and dedication to overpriced culture that Palo Alto/Menlo Park had. Makes me feel bad for buying Amazon (not to mention the fact that they're Republican).

Thanks to Bookslut for the link.

Sunday, April 09, 2006


An article about abortion law in El Salvador printed in the NYTimes magazine this week shows just what a nation that outlaws abortion would be like (and IS). I never think much about the actual realities of a "pro-life nation" - my arguments in favor of choice are usually esoteric and principle-based. But this article managed to shock me a little bit, reminding me how important this issue is and just how tangible and relevant.

Scary/interesting excerpts:

"Today, Article 1 of El Salvador's constitution declares that the prime directive of government is to protect life from the "very moment of conception." The penal code detailing the Crimes Against the Life of Human Beings in the First Stages of Development provides stiff penalties: the abortion provider, whether a medical doctor or a back-alley practitioner, faces 6 to 12 years in prison. The woman herself can get 2 to 8 years. Anyone who helps her can get 2 to 5 years. Additionally, judges have ruled that if the fetus was viable, a charge of aggravated homicide can be brought, and the penalty for the woman can be 30 to 50 years in prison."

"'Yes, we sometimes call doctors from the Forensic Institute to do a pelvic exam,' Tópez said, referring to the nation's main forensic lab, 'and we ask them to document lacerations or any evidence such as cuts or a perforated uterus.' In other words, if the suspicions of the patient's doctor are not conclusive enough, then in that initial 72-hour period, a forensic doctor can legally conduct a separate search of the crime scene....In the event that the woman's illegal abortion went badly and the doctors have to perform a hysterectomy, then the uterus is sent to the Forensic Institute, where the government's doctors analyze it and retain custody of her uterus as evidence against her."

"Doctors in El Salvador now understand that it is their legal duty to report any woman suspected of having had an abortion. Abortion rights advocates point out that Salvadoran law also spells out a conflicting responsibility: the doctor's duty to keep the patient's medical information confidential."

"According to Sara Valdés, the director of the Hospital de Maternidad, women coming to her hospital with ectopic pregnancies cannot be operated on until fetal death or a rupture of the fallopian tube. 'That is our policy,' Valdés told me. She was plainly in torment about the subject. 'That is the law,' she said. 'The D.A.'s office told us that this was the law.'"