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Book Review: What You See in the Dark – Manuel Muñoz

I wanted to love Manuel Muñoz’s What You See in the Dark, especially after thoroughly enjoying his earlier work Zigzagger, but I finished the novel wanting more. This is not to say that it isn’t a compelling read; I just think that the book thinks it is better than it actually is. It really gives off that vibe.

I added this to my summer reading list after seeing a conference presentation last spring that dealt with the cinematic aspects of the novel (honestly, the best aspect of the work). Little did I know that my Intel would tell me that the book will appear on one of my fall semester syllabuses (US Hispanic Feminism mas o menos). So I’m at least a little ahead of my reading for the upcoming semester. Score one for me.

What You See in the Dark is quite cinematic in nature and feels like an ode to the black-and-white era of Hollywood. Set in Bakersfield, the novel follows the Actress (Janet Leigh) and the Director (Alfred Hitchcock) as they film Pyscho. That provides half of the novel’s plot and proves to be the more compelling and engaging of the two narratives. The other story deals with a murder in the town that unfolds similarly to Psycho. I didn’t particularly care for the townspeople or their plight. To me, the bits about the Actress were the highlight. Muñoz is able to masterfully capture her feelings in and out of the film business. We see her internal struggle with her huge celebrity status and we are first-hand witnesses to her inner dialogue while filming Pyscho leading up to her preparations for the big shower scene, arguably the most famous scene in film history. Similarly to Zigzagger, Muñoz is able to properly convey the feelings, sentiments, and struggles of largely minority groups: women (even the Actress is underprivileged compared to her male counterparts), homosexuals, the poor, and Latin@s (and sometimes a combination of the categories – extra marginalization).

Regardless of how I feel about the novel itself, I do love the title – What You See in the Dark. Paired alongside the tragic looking woman on the green cover and we have a winning design. It made me more interested to read it. As I’ve mentioned earlier, the novel is quite cinematic in style and even content. The reader essentially becomes a voyeur into the lives of the Actress and the community of Bakersfield, CA. Charles Taylor proposes that “Psycho was the first film to suggest that what we saw in the dark, saw us.” This truly captures the essence of the novel. The reader is forced to consider the role he/she plays as a voyeur into these people’s lives. The townspeople notice every little thing that happens in public; nothing is secret or safe. Each character – Dan, Candy, Teresa, Arlene – is being watched by someone and we watch them. When Teresa hides the stolen shoes in the alley behind her work, Muñoz paints the scene in such a way that makes the reader feel like they are lurking around the corner, spying on her.

Essentially, Hitchcock’s film bleeds into the plot of the novel – a good employee steals something impulsively; a young woman is murdered; the son smothered by his mother; the slowly dying roadside motel. Nevertheless, Muñoz demonstrates how art bleeds into life more so with the way everyday life is changed by these actions. Just as Pyscho changed cinema (the star is killed early in the film, they show a toilet, that shower scene!), the murder and looming change in American cultural values will change Bakersfield as well.

I’d recommend What You See in the Dark if you’re looking for something different or something with a cinematic flair. It’s an engaging read. I think I just expected or wanted more from it. I wanted to love it, but I just liked it. Either way, I am definitely keeping an eye on Manuel Muñoz. Like I’ve said, Zigzagger was one of my favorite books from this summer. The man knows how to write. I’d also like to point out that Muñoz doesn’t rely on a publisher that caters to Hispanic writers. This is quite impressive given how difficult it is for Hispanic writers to get published by more “mainstream” publishing houses. Hopefully, we will see more of this in the future. In the meantime, we thankfully have Arte Público Press!

 

Show Me the Money! Venus Williams and the Fight for Pay Equity in Tennis

The first tennis match I remember watching was the 1998 Miami final between teenagers Venus Williams and Anna Kournikova. Immediately, I was enthralled with Venus. Everything about her was different than anything I ever thought tennis could or would be. She wore hundreds of multi-colored beads in her hair and ushered in Big-Babe Tennis as Mary Carillo soon dubbed it. 15 years later, I still am enamored by Venus, only now it has less to do with her brand of tennis and more to do with how she carries herself off the court. While she has won 7 Grand Slam singles titles, 13 doubles titles, 2 mixed doubles titles, and 4 Olympic Gold medals, her contributions off the court perhaps outweigh if not entirely eclipse her performance on it. She stands alongside Billie Jean King as one of tennis’ most influential ambassadors.

Perhaps unaware to the general public, Venus’ efforts toward gender equality and equal pay have been one of the most important developments in the history of modern professional tennis. For years, Venus, alongside Billie Jean King and others, fought for equality and social change within a sport that was undeniably dated in its views towards women and men. Ultimately, in 2007, Wimbledon caught up with modern times and agreed to pay both its male and female champions equal prize money. The US Open and Australian Open had been doing this for years and popular opinion in and around the sport were urging the All England Club not to be on the wrong side of history. Even Tony Blair and UNESCO had been advocating for the change.

In truth, the gap between prize money had been more symbolic than anything. In 2006, Roger Federer received $1.17 million whereas Amelie Mauresmo received $1.117 million, or 95% of what Federer was paid. The Club’s supporters claimed that women played less than men did and that the men’s stars drew higher television ratings and were generally more marketable. Even though the men technically play “longer” matches, the difference in prize money was so little that it did not truly reflect the difference in games or sets played. This was about the club refusing to see women as equals to men.

In 2006, Venus provided the definitive move and push towards equal prize money. Williams said: “You should definitely see the merit in people getting paid or being treated equal as people, not on sex.” In a letter she wrote that was published in The Times, Venus argued:

I feel so strongly that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players.

I believe that athletes – especially female athletes in the world’s leading sport for women – should serve as role models. The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling. My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message.

Wimbledon has argued that women’s tennis is worth less for a variety of reasons; it says, for example, that because men play a best of five sets game they work harder for their prize money.

This argument just doesn’t make sense; first of all, women players would be happy to play five sets matches in grand slam tournaments.

Secondly, tennis is unique in the world of professional sports. No other sport has men and women competing for a grand slam championship on the same stage, at the same time. So in the eyes of the general public the men’s and women’s games have the same value.

Third, we enjoy huge and equal celebrity and are paid for the value we deliver to broadcasters and spectators, not the amount of time we spend on the stage. And, for the record, the ladies’ final at Wimbledon in 2005 lasted 45 minutes longer than the men’s.

Wimbledon has justified treating women as second class because we do more for the tournament. The argument goes that the top women – who are more likely also to play doubles matches than their male peers – earn more than the top men if you count singles, doubles and mixed doubles prize money. So the more we support the tournament, the more unequally we should be treated! But doubles and mixed doubles are separate events from the singles competition. Is Wimbledon suggesting that, if the top women withdrew from the doubles events, that then we would deserve equal prize money in singles? And how then does the All England Club explain why the pot of women’s doubles prize money is nearly £130,000 smaller than the men’s doubles prize money?

I intend to keep doing everything I can until Billie Jean’s original dream of equality is made real. It’s a shame that the name of the greatest tournament in tennis, an event that should be a positive symbol for the sport, is tarnished.

Poetically, Venus was the first beneficiary of Wimbledon’s equal prize money. In 2007, she received $1.41 million, the exact same amount as Roger Federer.

Why is this important to me? Venus’ fight for equal prize money in tennis was one of the first issues of gender equality that I closely followed as an adult. For years, I questioned the lack of equality within the sport. To be honest, I didn’t understand it. I had always valued women’s tennis and, for the better part of my “tennis life,” I was more interested in the women’s game than the men’s. Equality seemed a necessity to me.

Still, this issue does not appear to be over. Several male players have voiced their discontent over equal prize money, most notably Gilles Simon. While Simon mentioned the debate over the length of matches, he also focused on male tennis players’ perceived celebrity status. According to Simon, more fans watch men’s tennis because it is more “interesting.” By this logic, Simon should be paid less that Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer because he isn’t as well known. There are many faulty areas of Simon’s comments, but this one was my favorite. Thankfully, the majority of those in and around professional tennis believe in equal prize money and gender equality within the sport.

Tonight, ESPN films will present a new documentary, as part of its Title IX series, based on Venus’ fight for equal prize money. Venus Vs. highlights the different hurdles and obstacles that Williams had to face throughout her career while focusing on her relationship with Wimbledon and its disproportion of prize money payouts. Director Ava DuVernay rightfully paints Venus as the feminist activist that she is, making gender equality at Wimbledon stand out as a constant factor in her motivation to succeed in the sport. As she became one of the greatest Wimbledon champions of all time, she found herself in a powerful position to serve as an ambassador to the game in which she could influence the future of women’s tennis.

On the 40th anniversary of Title IX, I am thrilled that ESPN is devoting much-needed prime time television to Venus’ fight as well as the other women involved in the series (The teaser trailer looks great!). Hopefully, this does not serve as simply a reminder of our nation’s recent history, but serves as a call-to-action in which gender equality remains a necessity in and out of the sports realm.

Reading in French

My Spanish students always hate reading assignments and reading comprehension sections on quizzes and exams. This is understandable to an extent. It can be a bit overwhelming at first when you see a paragraph or more in Spanish or any other language you are learning. Regardless if reading in your target language is difficult for you or not, it is quite rewarding and essential if you truly want to progress and advance to a higher level of language proficiency. That’s why we assign readings and that’s precisely why reading has been one of my primary focuses in relearning French.

It’s a bit more complicated for me. At the peak of my French ability, I was able to read French literature (for the most part). I took several undergraduate literature courses in French and I held my own with student’s who had been studying the language for far longer. Therefore, I unquestionably have more reading comprehension capability than a student starting from zero at the “same” level for example. Still, I can’t read at the same speed as I could 5 years ago; my vocabulary bank is smaller and, while I usually recognize verbs, I sometimes forget which of the more complicated tenses is being used. This creates a challenge on more challenging texts, but I’m positive that I can achieve a high level if I stay consistent in my studies and gradually increase the level and length of my readings.

As I’ve said in a previous post, I’ve been using Easy French Reader as a stepping stone. I bought this book years ago when I was still a true beginner student and I always fall back on it when I feel like I am forgetting the language. It is a three-part text that includes readings that gradually advance in level and content. The last part of the book contains actual French short stories. It can be a bit elementary in content at times, but that is something I have seen across a wide variety of texts in several languages. I try to read between one and two chapters a day and always out loud (unless my wife is home). I find that speaking while reading kills two birds with one stone. If you’re learning a language then it is imperative to speak! You wouldn’t believe the amount of my students who tell me they study in silence for an oral exam/interview. It makes no sense to me. You have to train your tongue and mouth to speak a foreign language. The more you speak the better you will be. Bottom line.

I’m also using No Nonsense Knowledge’s French Made Simple. This is an excellent book for those with some previous French knowledge, but need a refresher course. The book is set up into 40 5-6 page chapters with periodical review sections. Each chapter includes a dialogue and a reading and then there are tons of practice exercises that reuse the vocabulary and verbs while focusing on the chapter’s theme. The readings in this book have been very beneficial thus far as they reinforce lots of elementary level vocabulary and sentence structures while steadily advancing in length and difficulty. As I do with my other reading material, I read everything 1-2 times out loud or until I can comfortably say it.

These two books are great for an elementary/beginner level and should hold me over until the summer, but, ultimately, my goal is to be able to comfortably read at an advanced French level. I am going to test this based on one of my bucket list entries – Read the Harry Potter Series in French. I think I will realistically be able to start this by the fall. In 2009 I read through the series in Spanish and found it to be very beneficial. I already had a master’s degree in Hispanic Studies, but I learned tons of vocabulary from the books. I think I will take the same approach this time around. As I read through the books, I wrote down every word or phrase that I didn’t know and, after I had about 10 or so, I would make mini-flash cards or import the words into an Anki app on my phone (basically flashcards with an algorithm that greatly increases learning efficiency). By the time I was halfway through the second book, I more or less knew everything that I was reading. Naturally, my reading speed progressed as well. Also, by reading something I was extremely familiar with, I didn’t have to worry about understanding the content and I also didn’t feel rushed to finish the books (For instance, I would lock myself in my house until I finished each new release and this time I was a little more social). I am hoping that reading the series in French will offer a similar experience and truly amp up my reading proficiency. By the end of the series, I should be able to comfortably tackle more advanced pieces if I should ever want to do so. This idea can be applied to any children’s/young adult literature: Hunger Games, Roald Dahl, Twilight, etc.

Reading shouldn’t be overlooked. Many language students just want to be conversational in the target language, but reading offers tons of benefits. Paired with some grammar, listening activities, and conversations/speaking practice, reading is an essential part of the process. It also just happens to be one of the most rewarding. Every once in a while I will finish a novel in Spanish and think “wow, I just read a book in Spanish.” I couldn’t have dreamt of doing such a thing ten years ago. This makes it an incredibly rewarding and satisfying experience and worth the struggles and doubts.

James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace

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One of the best parts about living away from home has been the visitors we’ve received since moving to Houston nearly a year ago. The end result is frequent trips to El Tiempo because “New Orleans doesn’t have good Mexican food” (Truth, I think people are a bit dramatic, but El Tiempo is exceptionally delicious), tagging along for shopping trips (this gets old), and getting to experience all of the diverse things Houston has to offer (Visionary Art and Burping the Bayou!).

This summer our good friend Rachel is doing Montessori training in Houston and naturally we have adopted her as our pseudo-child. We’re not ready for kids, so Rachel is the perfect alternative at this stage in our life. We don’t have full custody, but we get to see her one or two nights a week. Last week we perused the galleries of the Museum of Fine Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art before shoveling frozen yogurt in our mouths as a reward for looking at art all night. This week, we took Rachel to one of Houston’s best kept secrets: James Turrell’s Twilight Epiphany Skyspace at Rice University. Even though Skyspace opened last year, we just discovered it at the beginning of the month, but it has quickly become one of our favorite spots to unwind after a long day.

Skyspace is incredibly thought-provoking, relaxing, tranquil, and easily one of the most peaceful places amidst the chaos that is Houston. My friends and family always ask me “What is it?” and I believe it is one of the things that one needs to experience firsthand. Pictures don’t do it justice. While it looks like a cross between a Native American burial ground and a UFO, it is actually an art/light installation that features a daily sunrise and sunset 40 minute light show. I’ve read some reviews on Yelp in which the people didn’t seem to “get” it, but it also appears they didn’t see the light show. Ladies and gents, you aren’t seeing Twilight Epiphany if you don’t see the show. Bottom line.

So, last night we grabbed a soy cappuccino and an iced vanilla latte at Starbucks, brought a blanket, and laid in the field next to Skyspace for almost an hour. It was the perfect way to spend a Thursday night with a good friend.

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Falling in love with French…again

For a while now I’ve loved French, but not been in love with it. I’ve not been a good lover these last few years.

While at Loyola I was forced to take four semesters of a second language due to being a Spanish major. I reluctantly chose to study French; I was going to get in and get out as quickly as possible. Thanks to Loyola’s inventive post-K scheduling, I was able to take both semesters of Elementary French in two 8 week sessions during the 2006 Spring I semester. Needless to say, it was intense and I loved it! I’m not sure how it happened though, but it did. I quickly grew to become a fully-fledged Francophile. I ended up dragging out my French education into a few classes short of a minor. I loved it and I was good! I actually could speak French pretty fluently. In fact, I probably spoke French better than I did Spanish. During my last semester of college, I went to Paris and had several lengthy conversations in French which was a surreal experience. I spoke effortless French when only 3 years prior I knew absolutely nothing in the language.

Around that time, I went digging through some old projects from elementary school and came across a book about myself – “All About Me” or something else of that nature – and was surprised and amazed to see that my 10 year old self had 5 goals for his life, a sort of bucket list. Looking back, that list is uncanny: “Speak French, Go to Paris, Get a doctorate, Become a professor, and Visit Sydney.” I still am taken back by my 10 year old self’s ability to predict the future when he probably had no earthly idea what getting a doctorate entailed nor did he know anyone who spoke a single word of French (Side note: my parents had been to Paris several times and I devoured their pictures and tourist books. I could see myself waltzing in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and eating snails at a chic little bistro on the Champs d’Élysée – I was a weird little boy. And I am fairly certain that the first pair of naked lady breasts I saw was in the program from the Lido – Showgirls!).

Well, that 10 year old boy would be ashamed of his 27 year old version. Sure, I’m still working towards that goal of a PhD and Tenure-Track Professorship. I’ve been to Paris 3 times and just visited Sydney on my honeymoon. But here is the embarrassing part – I’ve fallen into the trap of a former language learner in my post-undergraduate years. Distant from the comfy confines of a college classroom, I stopped progressing and started losing my French. Now, thankfully I put in a lot of hard work to learn the language so it has not left me that quickly. When I went to Nice with my friend Karlee, I was able to converse in French with the security guard telling us we could not sleep on the airport floor. I was also able to order croissants with no problem. Hooray!

But since then, I have really let myself down. To be honest, I’m not that out of the loop. I understood Serena Williams’ French Open victory speech in French. Ten points for Ravenclaw! But in no way should Serena be out Frenching me!

However, I must thank my dear Serena for providing that pivotal spark to get me back in the swing of things and make Sallie Mae proud! The last few weeks I have been devoting between 30 minutes to an hour each day to relearn this language. La langue plus belle du monde! That one! It is remarkable the progress I have made in just 2 weeks. I found a great not-a-textbook textbook at Half-Price Books (I was anniversary shopping and bought myself 3 books and the wife 0 books – Fail!) called “French Made Simple.” It is terrific and I highly recommend it to anyone learning a major language (They have Spanish, German, and English versions). I do all of the lessons out loud and write everything out as well so I am able to get optimal practice. I’ve paired this with a great reading book – “Easy French Reader.” As with my other book, I read everything out loud and repeat anything that doesn’t come out fluently. Lastly, I have found some great Podcasts on iTunes- Learn French with Daily Podcast and Learn French by Podcast. I try to listen to one Podcast a day so that I can increase my listening comprehension for my next trip to France or Canada (eh!). And lastly, I still use Benny the Polyglot as inspiration and for his unique “language hacks”  (www.fluentin3months.com/).

In the end, I’ve been amazed at the amount of French I have been able to relearn in such a short period of time. It’s been an exciting experience in the nerdiest of ways and has stirred up many memories of my travels and French classes I took at Loyola with Madame Kornovich and Madame Mabe. It really gives me hope for the future knowing that I can do it and that if I play my cards right then I can even achieve a higher level of French communication. Honestly, I just want to read the Harry Potter series in French which is on my adult bucket list!

Hamming it up in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France in 2009

Hamming it up in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France in 2009

1st Anniversary

Today marks Kayla and I’s first wedding anniversary. Time has flown and it is incredible to look back at the past year and think of all the memories we’ve had. A year in and we are still having an unspoken war about which way the toilet paper needs to face. At times I want to rip the toilet paper holder off of the wall and hurl it across the room while my best John McEnroe impression: “YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!!!” But, thankfully, anytime I am at the brink of getting “ejected” to the bird room, I remember that the person who put the toilet paper in that (wrong) direction is my wife and I can’t help but feel incredibly lucky to have married her. Sometimes when I dance and sing around the apartment on nights that are not a designated Performance Night I feel like a prize idiot, but then I instantly remember that Kayla actually likes that about me even though my family thinks it is “weird” (Ok, it is really weird.). This makes me feel lucky to have landed such a great partner. She “gets” me.

I love you, Kayla!

Now hurry home so we can celebrate with some old cake and Game of Thrones!

Sharing our love for visionary art

Sharing our love for visionary art at the Orange Show

Our First Christmas Tree

Our First Christmas Tree

Honeymoon in Federation Square, Melbourne
Honeymoon in Federation Square, Melbourne

With our Australian love child on our honeymoon

With our Australian love child on our honeymoon

Summer “Break”

One thing I have learned while being a PhD student is that summer “break” is a myth. Everyone seems to think I get a nice 3 month chunk of my year to lounge by the pool, peruse the aisles of Half-Price Books, listen to Greek music and the occasional ABBA guilty pleasure hit at Agora, and learn some sick roller dancing moves from the Montrose Roller Blader, but it isn’t that glamorous, folks. Ok, I spend a good bit of time at Agora (and I don’t mind the ABBA!), but I’m busy researching, studying, reading, and trying (and probably failing) to learn German. And you know what? I love it!

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