Twisted by Jessica Zafra – Pumping irony since 1994

Houellebecq’s Submission is distressing, essential reading for these apocalyptic times

April 21, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Current Events

English translation by Lorin Stein. Available at National Bookstores, Php715.

While reading this insightful, disturbing piece about the French election on Sunday, I remembered that I had a copy of Michel Houellebecq’s novel Submission gathering dust on a shelf.

You’ve heard of Submission—the book and its author were on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the day gunmen entered the office of the magazine and killed eight people.

I find Houellebecq’s work repulsive, full of characters who have no convictions and pornographically-detailed sex scenes. And yet I’ve read Elementary Particles, Platform, The Map and the Territory, and now Submission all the way to the end. Man writes compelling prose, even if it causes queasiness. It’s supposed to be satire; I wish it were funny. In this case I wish it were funny and so far-out it could be dismissed as mere provocation.

Submission is set in Paris in 2022, on the eve of a general election. Its narrator is Francois, a professor at the Sorbonne and an expert on J.K. Huysmans (In Under Three Flags, Benedict Anderson writes that Huysmans’s novel Against Nature was a model for El Filibusterismo). Francois has no reason to live; he doesn’t even feel like sleeping with his students anymore. Then the election is held. The National Front of Marine Le Pen is the frontrunner. The Socialists are impotent.

To prevent the nativists from winning, the Socialists form an alliance with the newly-formed Muslim Brotherhood. A charming moderate Muslim named Ben- Abbes becomes president. France becomes an Islamic country and the French quickly fall in line. The Sorbonne is privatized and flush with petrodollars. Women can no longer teach. Families are given subsidies so women can stay home, raise their children and make more babies. Polygamy is legal. The European Union expands to include Egypt, Lebanon, North Africa. A new Roman Empire is in the works, a re-reconquista.

Francois, who believes in nothing and has nothing to hold on to, is offered a promotion, way more money, academic prestige, and young wives. The submission of the nation mirrors the submission of women.

Read it. I’m going to have a drink or three.

Calculated misery: How airlines turn your discomfort and aggravation into profits

April 19, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Traveling

Some airlines make the experience of flying so awful that you would pay extra to avoid the awfulness. In the words of the law professor who coined the term “calculated misery”:

…in order for fees to work, there needs be something worth paying to avoid. That necessitates, at some level, a strategy that can be described as “calculated misery.” Basic service, without fees, must be sufficiently degraded in order to make people want to pay to escape it. And that’s where the suffering begins.

Calculated misery

is the reversal of how we usually think about upgrades. Think of going to a restaurant and ordering a burger: Cheese and bacon usually cost extra, and many people will gladly pony up because the gooey cheese and crackling, salty bacon enhance the experience.

With the airline industry, it’s the opposite: You’re upgrading to avoid hell.

It’s like if a burger joint charged you for a patty of plain ground beef and a bun, then gave you the chance to make your burger more palatable by paying a seasoning fee, a medium-rare fee, and separate surcharges for lettuce, tomato, and onion. Or, in airline speak, a seat selection fee, a checked baggage fee, a wifi fee, a preboarding fee, an extra legroom fee, and so on.

In the airline industry, many services and amenities that used to be standard now qualify as an “upgrade.” Meanwhile, the “standard” experience is frequently so miserable that many people will pay to make it better.

Read the piece and shudder.

More: Why airlines overbook, and your rights as passengers.

Back-to-work links: Jerusalem cats, the Pope’s laundry, Salter, trashy movies, old book smells, and Prince’s death anniversary

April 17, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Cats, Health, Music

Holy Cats! Jerusalem’s strays and their unsung guardian

The Pope sponsors a free laundromat for the homeless

A brief history of the short story: James Salter

“Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” – Pauline Kael

How many of these 50 Trashy Movies Needs to See Before They Die have you seen?

A new, more rigorous study confirms: The more you use Facebook, the worse you feel.

Do you spend so much time on Facebook because you are depressed, or does spending so much time on Facebook make you depressed?

Rules of memory ‘beautifully’ rewritten

The brain makes two copies.

Old books actually smell like chocolate and coffee.

That explains so much.

Prince’s Death: One Year Later, Unsolved Mysteries

Fentanyl killed him.

Dinner with Isak Dinesen, Marilyn Monroe, and Carson McCullers

April 14, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies

With Marilyn’s then-husband, Arthur Miller. Read The Feminine Heroic in The Paris Review.

There’s a play in here.

Drogon is 5! This week he is The Oracle.

April 12, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Cats, Music

It’s Drogon’s birthday! (I assigned the date because I don’t know exactly when he was born—it’s also the birthday of Koosi, the first cat who adopted me.) Drogon likes sitting at windows and watching the outside world. Unlike our eldest cat Saffy who is antisocial, he enjoys visiting his human’s friends on their movie nights. These days he plays tag around the house with our new cat, Jacob.

Drogon is also a ferocious hunter, with skills he seldom gets to practice as an indoor cat. The other night I noticed him sitting in the bathroom for a long time, staring unblinkingly at the wall. The following morning there was a broken dish by the sink, books fallen off the table, and in the center of the room, a small cockroach corpse. All hail the fearless hunter!

In keeping with our tradition, we declare Drogon the Oracle and invite you to post your questions and wishes in Comments. No rush—he’ll answer them throughout the long weekend.

Here’s one of Drogon’s favorite musicians, Thundercat, who is inspired by his cat, Turbo Tron Over 9000 Baby Jesus Sally, Tron for short.

Weekly Report Cards 12 and 13: Sometimes you just want a solid, old-fashioned narrative

April 10, 2017 By: jessicazafra Category: Books, Movies


Life: B (See my review)

Ghost in the Shell: C. I never read the manga or saw the anime, so I did not fly into a rage over this live action adaptation by Rupert Sanders. But even I could see that casting Scarlett Johansson (so effective as a post-human character elsewhere) as a Japanese woman, even if her consciousness was occupying a synthetic body, was odd. She only speaks English to her boss, Takeshi Kitano, who only speaks to her in Japanese, and no one points out the strangeness. Maybe if the setting had not been Tokyo of the near-future. The production design is beautiful, even if the writing chews over philosophical problems tackled in greater depth in Blade Runner and elsewhere.

To Walk Invisible: B. How did three young women who lived in isolation in the middle of nowhere produce Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, and other spellbinding classics of Victorian literature? The Brontes are an argument for the shut-in life. This film by Sally Wainright, creator of the excellent British series Happy Valley, opens with little Charlotte, Emily and Anne creating imaginary worlds with their brother Branwell. Branwell, the only boy, was believed to be a genius. The family expected him to be a great writer and artist, but he was weak, became addicted to alcohol and opium, and often brought shame to the family. On the other hand, his dramas and afflictions shook up the quiet household and may have unleashed something in his three sisters. A fascinating study of a literary family, even if the ending makes it look like an ad for the Bronte Parsonage Museum.

Books: The Idiot by Elif Batuman and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Both abandoned at the halfway mark because while I admired their intelligence and craft, Batuman’s explorations of language and Saunders’s relentless wit, I was in the mood for a traditional narrative in which I root for the protagonist and something happens. Maybe when the weather isn’t so hot, humid and friendly to mucus.