vocabulary lessons: The Fish in the Forest by Dale Stokes

If you’re interested: see other vocabulary lessons as well.


fish forestAs you know, I found the salmon’s story in The Fish in the Forest simply mesmerizing. I also learned a lot – and not just about salmon. Here are some vocabulary words I had to look up.

epiphytes attach to their host plants for support and as a means to reach more sunlight… but are traditionally classified as non-parasitic”: “There are epiphytic plants that grow on trunks and branches high in the forest canopy…”

relict, “a surviving species of an otherwise extinct group of organisms”: “The present salmon populations in the Pacific Northwest stem from relict populations that have been extant since the last ice age…” (I suspected a typo here for “relic” – this being a pre-publication proof edition, typos would not surprise. But no, I learned something new here. “Relict” is perfectly appropriate.)

trophically, “of or relating to nutrition”: “Even when not preying on salmon directly, humpbacks are linked to them trophically because they feed on fishes that compete with salmon for food.” Further explained a little later on within the book itself: “The troph in heterotroph and autotroph implies nourishment…” In other words, what we’re talking about here (in context) is organisms that are linked on the food chain, or the food web. They are trophically linked.(Another that looked like a possible typo; except that “tropically” would have made no sense in context!)

collocate, “to occur in conjunction with something”: “The other two races have overlapping ranges along the coast but seldom interact or collocate.”

semelparous, “reproducing or breeding only once in a lifetime” (or, to put it more bluntly, once they breed, they die): “Their life history of anadromy and semelparity transports millions of tons of salmon flesh into nutrient-poor freshwaters that then shape the entire Salmon Forest.”

gestalt, “the general quality or character of something”: “All living things possess a unique gestalt…”

I had previously come across the concept of anadromy (I don’t recall where) and looked it up (defined: “ascending rivers from the sea for breeding”); but finding it repeatedly in this book made me curious about the pronunciation of anadromous: “…the critical return to freshwater to spawn is called an anadromous life history…”

I like a good vocabulary lesson alongside a fine reading experience – don’t you? Or does reaching for the dictionary frustrate you?

vocabulary lessons: The Silent Woman by Janet Malcolm

If you’re so inclined, see other vocabulary lessons here.


silentAs I wrote yesterday, Janet Malcolm is nothing if not academic; and she expresses this in her vocabulary and allusions. I made no shortage of notes. Here are a few words and references that I took the time to explore further.

asperity: “…writing with the affectionate asperity of a sibling…”

Turandot: “presenting herself as a kind of Sphinx or Turandot before whom the various supplicants must appear…”

bathetic: “Plath, unable to eat or sleep, was running actual high fevers as well as figurative ones of jealous rage and bathetic self-pity,” and again, “…sinks deeper and deeper into bitter bathos…”

Cerberus: “Olwyn ran a small literary agency in addition to her work as Cerberus to the Plath estate.”

transferential misprision! “(In 1956) …relations between men and women were at a nadir of helpless transferential misprision.” She’s showing off now, isn’t she?

lability: “Plath’s recording of the calm stealing over her after she left Sassoon’s house, and of her sense of her entitlement to the pleasures of Paris, wonderfully evokes the lability of feeling for which youth is famous…”

Racine’s Phèdre: “Women are demon spirits in the poem. They’re Racine’s Phèdre.”

marmoreally: “…the letters we used to write one another in the 1950’s and 60’s on our manual Olivettis and Smith Coronas, so different from the marmoreally cool and smooth letters young people write one another today on their Macintoshes and IBMs.”

The Aspern Papers: “I felt like the possessor of a great prize – the prize that the narrator of The Aspern Papers goes to such extreme lengths to try to get.” (I loved learning about this one. I may have to read it and reconsider Henry James.)

oriental, in this usage: “…I’ve also wasted a great deal of time being positively oriental in tact…” (quoted from a letter written by Olwyn Hughes to Anne Stevenson) I remain puzzled by this one; I could find no definition of oriental that made the least sense in this context. My mother the linguist, when consulted, suggested that maybe it’s a reference to a stereotypical behavior of the population of people sometimes referred to as “Orientals.” (This is not considered polite or politically correct usage.) That sounds like the best theory I can find…

Leonard Bast: “Butscher has figured as a kind of Leonard Bast in the community’s imagination – and, I should add, in his own.” From Forster – naturally.

exiguous: “…but as the house and food were nourishing, the memories were exiguous.”

Cyrano: “Cohen apparently forgave her for her rejection of his actual person and accepted his Cyrano role.” All I can figure is Cyrano de Bergerac, though I don’t entirely get the reference. Anyone care to elucidate?

verdigris, from Plath’s poem, Death & Co.: “The nude / Verdigris of the condor.” (I have looked this up repeatedly but can never keep straight which color is verdigris.)

seraphic: “…her head raised with a kind of seraphic expression…” Like a seraphim, of course.

immanence: “…dust that through the years had acquired almost a kind of objecthood, a sort of immanence.”

Whew. Keep the dictionary handy. Anything new to you here?

Alley Theatre presents Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

vanya

Husband was kind enough to accompany me to the theatre again, our second play at the Alley this year. (See Fool from a few months back.)

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike references Chekhov; but no familiarity with his work is required to enjoy this one. Vanya and Sonia are aging siblings – she’s adopted, they will remind you a few times – still living together in the family home, mostly bickering with one another and dissatisfied with their lives (particularly Sonia, who is casually mentioned as being bi-polar). Their sister Masha is a successful actor – less so on the stage, more so in the movies, particularly sexy slasher flicks; but she is aging, too, and feeling less secure about her sex appeal and professional future. When Masha comes to visit this time, she brings Spike: a much younger aspiring actor and a hot piece of male flesh inclined towards taking his clothes off. This habit is the source of some laughs, as everyone onstage is entranced by his beauty (Vanya as well as his sisters is attracted to men); but as Nina points out late in the play (I paraphrase): Spike is beautiful; it’s a shame about his personality.

Oh yes, Nina. The cast of six is rounded out by a beautiful young neighbor girl, Nina, also an aspiring actor and a huge fan of Masha’s; and the housekeeper, Cassandra. Cassandra is a real hit: like her Greek namesake, she is cursed to make predictions that are… often right, more or less; but that are disregarded. She is a strong personality and a great stage presence, and provides still more comic relief. The play is not short on laughs, in fact, despite some heavy subject matter: depression and late-life regrets; family dynamics; climate change and politics; a rapidly changing and-not-always-for-the-better world. I was struck by a line (again I paraphrase) about how there are now 900 (or some such number) television channels available, and you can always find a news channel that tells you what you already believe. Late in the final act we are treated to that classic, the play-within-a-play, written by Vanya and performed by Nina, which takes place in the post-climate-change-apocalypse, when humans are extinct.

It got a little long-winded here and there, I confess; I think Husband appreciated the fart jokes and lighter, always-accessible humor of Fool better than this one. There were some tangents. But I appreciated every one! I highly recommend this mashup of serious topics, comic relief, and plentiful references to literature and the arts. The actors were strong, too. I heard a few missed lines – just a few, just barely – but was still very impressed by the personalities. Cassandra and Sonia were real standouts; I was especially struck by the arc achieved by Sonia, from dumpy house-bound depressive through an exhilarating costume party to actually making plans to go out on a date. I cheered her on. And Spike’s portrayal in the near-nude was both hilarious and, yes, attractive.


Rating: 8 molecules.

habits passed along

As I’ve done in summers past, I was looking forward this summer to seeing some Shakespeare dramatized at Miller Outdoor Theatre, where we can sit outside under the stars and bring dogs & food & drink along, and all the performances are free. This is a summer activity I grew up with and still enjoy. Part of my tradition also involves reading or rereading the plays ahead of time so I’ll be ready to fully enjoy what I see. Therefore, I started checking the website for information on the Houston Shakespeare Festival early this summer, to see what plays they’d be putting on (there is always one comedy and one tragedy or history), with the intention of getting my hands on a copy of each if I didn’t already own them.

This year’s history is Henry IV, 1, which I requested from my local public library. The comedy is The Two Gentlemen of Verona, and I was pretty sure I owned a copy, since I saw it as a child with my grandparents in southern California. I went home to check, and sure enough, my 1964 “general readers” edition from the Folger Library was there on the shelf. I pulled it out and put it in the stack.

I was not prepared for the surprise I got when I opened it up, though. This note is taped into the inside cover:

photo 2 (1)
From my grandmother:

Dear Julie,

We’re planning to take you to this play while you’re with us (it’s an outdoor theater) and since it was written 400 years ago (+/-) the language is real strange to our ears and we thought you (and your parents?) might have fun reading it during your trip! It’s a lot more fun to see it ’cause there are no stage directions in the script so it’s hard to imagine all the action. It is a comedy – really kinda silly, I suppose. But I know you’ll enjoy it more if you’re a bit acquainted with the story…

Have a wonderful time & please give our love to all those nice sisters & cousins & all.

Can’t wait for your visit to us!

Love, Grammy & Pop

P.S. Please bring the book with you!

Can you just believe! This is the very copy provided by Grammy & Pop for me to read before seeing what I’m sure was my first Shakespeare performance ever; and I’ve still got it, and here I am however many years later, going back to see the same play and preparing for it in the same way, by rereading this very copy. It got me thinking about where I got these habits. Grammy puts it in this note in almost the exact way I put it to my friends: “this play will be a lot more enjoyable if you know a little bit about the story ahead of time.” I think I can see who I have to thank for my playgoing practices!

I’m wondering about the year, of course. You can see Grammy dated it with day, month and date – no year, but the day-to-date question, combined with her mention of our other travels that summer, put me at just past my 10th birthday for this event. I also found tucked away a ticket to an Astros game (at the Astrodome! against Philadelphia) from the following summer. And my father’s and grandmother’s memories put it around the same time, so I think we’ll call this my ten-year-old introduction to live performances of Shakespeare. (I might have read some before.)

astro
Finding this note inside this book was a real treat for several reasons. For one thing, it’s always nice to hear from my Grammy, who still sends me newspaper clippings with appended notes like this one! And I am looking forward all the more to seeing The Two Gentlemen of Verona performed this summer, because I’ll be thinking back to that summer more than 20 years ago. But most of all, I think it’s charming to consider where we get our habits from. I guess I’ve just always been a person who enjoyed theatre, and enjoyed reading the written drama beforehand; but of course nothing happens in a vacuum, so it’s really fun to see this clear indication of where I come from. Thanks, Grammy.

better to burn out than fade away?

As you know, I’ve recently begun reading Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. I started with the biographical note (unattributed), and the introduction, which is by Terry Tempest Williams, a friend of Stegner’s. These prepared me well: I began with just a hint of what the story was about, and felt like I got to know the author just a little. I like Williams, so that connection felt good, too. Before beginning to read the novel itself, I was reminded of Norman Maclean. The tone of voice in Williams’s short intro, and in the biographical note, is gentle and loving and matches the tone in which people write about Maclean. And it got me thinking about a very different sort of author.

Ernest Hemingway always thought of himself as a future famous writer, beginning when he was very small; his self-image was one step ahead of his actual place in the world, but he was never mistaken. He designed & intended his identity as the larger-than-life author-man archetype, and then he lived into that legend. (He convinced us to varying degrees, of course, but I don’t think we need argue that he didn’t live the story he’d written for himself.) He then died just shy of his 62nd birthday of a self-inflicted double-barreled shotgun blast to the head while his wife slept a few rooms over. His late years were tormented by mental illness, paranoia, and an increasing and overwhelming distress that he was failing to fulfill his potential. But all his life he fought his demons, and there’s plenty of evidence that suicide was on his mind many decades before he pulled the trigger.

By contrast, Norman Maclean lived to be 87 (and published 2 very important books and a number of essays). Wallace Stegner lived to be 84 (and published 28 books). In their art they both exude a sense of calm, and in late life commanded a quiet, loving respect in their peers and, in death, in their survivors that Hemingway does not. So my question is this. Would Hemingway have chosen for himself a long life, a quiet, respected, accomplished old age, surrounded by contentment? Or would he have joined Kurt Cobain in quoting the Neil Young lyric, that it’s “better to burn out than fade away”?

San Diego Opera presents The Masked Ball

A few weeks ago, I was happy to be able to fly out to southern California to visit my Grammy and be her guest at the San Diego Opera for their production of The Masked Ball, a Verdi opera that I was unfamiliar with. (This is not surprising; I’m not a big opera fan.) It goes without saying that I was there to see my Grammy more than to see the opera, but the opera was rather good, too. First, Grammy had clipped a review for me by the local (San Diego) arts critic James Chute. Anyone could read this piece and see that it is a glowing review; but Grammy informs me that apparently Chute is a spectacularly tough critic, ripping apart even the good shows, so that context adds considerably to the power of his positive remarks.

Therefore, I went into the performance with a little less trepidation than I might have had. Recall that I have had difficulty appreciating opera in the past and had in fact mostly sworn off it. Well, I found the plot fairly strong and interesting, and rather tragic a la Shakespeare, as in: if only these people had talked to each other first! Or turned around and looked behind them! Ah well. The costumes were sumptuous and appropriate; the sets were fine (more on that in a moment). The singing was absolutely glorious – not my style, perhaps, but if I step back to gain a little perspective, there’s no question that what these folks can do with their voices is astounding and impressive. There was a small Korean-American woman who played a young man and sang such outrageous soprano, a very fun staccato part, that I was charmed. Indeed all the singing was very very good.

The acting is, again, not in my favorite style because it is so dramatic; but I believe that’s the operatic style, and I think it was well done. My biggest beef with the whole experience was its pacing and length; to be quite honest I found it painful right toward the end and wished I were elsewhere. This was a three-hour event with two intermissions, so three equal parts of pretty precisely an hour apiece. I could handle much more than that if it were anything but opera; but in this case I found it trying. As I keep repeating, this is an issue of my personal taste rather than how well the whole show was done. In fact, I can’t find anything to complain about from an objective standpoint. I’m just (still) not an opera person.

Where I am a philistine, though, my Grammy is a very experienced and worthy judge of the opera; she has held season tickets for gosh knows how many seasons in how many cities, and has attended overseas as well; she has a music degree and makes a fine critic. She judged this to be a near-perfect performance, with her one small concern being that the stage sets were not imaginative; she says she’s seen them done better (can’t recall if she saw this opera performed in an earlier San Diego rendition, or in Houston). It seems true to me, too, that this opera was traditional, in its sets, costumes, and performance; but traditions are not always bad.


Ratings:

To my personal tastes, this opera might earn a scant 3 or 4 herbs from the gallows – but that would be high for an opera, wouldn’t it! From a more objective view, though, I think it deserves at least 8. You be the judge.

My visit with Grammy? Absolutely ten old photographs, every time.

my beautiful Grammy with her first grandchild (that's me)

my beautiful Grammy with her first grandchild (that’s me)

Alley Theatre presents Fool

Husband and I attended the opening “preview” night of Fool at the Alley Theatre last week. I love the theatre (don’t go nearly often enough), while Husband is… forbearing. So I try to take him to plays that he will enjoy. (The Lieutenant of Inishmore was a big hit.) For this season, he chose Fool and Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (the latter coming up).

I borrow a plot synopsis from the Alley’s website, since it’s rather perfect, and it’s what convinced Husband to be my date:

In Theresa Rebeck’s new comedy, Fool, two kings get together and place a wager on their fools – a jester competition, and the funniest one gets to keep his head. Two evil minions have a lot to say about this, but not as much as the kitchen wench. And what’s the queen been up to all night? A dramatical comical farcical tragical play about power, love and laughter, set in a medieval kitchen.

What you don’t get from this is playwright Rebeck’s reason for concocting this plot. According to the playbill, these silly, heartfelt jesters; the competitive pseudo-camaraderie of the servant class; the evil kings & their evil underlords; and the conniving queen, are all based on her experience in a very nasty corporate world. For me, this added a layer of interest to the story.

This was a highly enjoyable dramatic presentation. The jesters, and all the players, were freaking hilarious. We literally laughed out loud through a lot of it, which is not the norm even in comedic theatre, in my experience. It was also rather intelligent and heartfelt; I really enjoyed the characters and their conflicts. On top of it all, there was some very Shakespearean cross-dressing gender confusion, and while gender confusions may be comedic low-hanging fruit, they are also funny. And served well here.

I love the Alley because it is smallish, intimate, and not so formal that us informal people feel uncomfortable. Husband and I were on the front row (although way off to one side), so we were very close to the actors. It was a near-flawless performance – a stagehand walked onstage handling props when we think the lights should have been off, ah well – and the actors were in top form. We had a great time and left together laughing. More of the same, please.


Rating: 8 farts.

on author access

I have done some author interviews, as you may have noticed. I did a handful for a podcast, which was an interesting opportunity that I enjoyed but which came to be a little more work, and stress, than I was looking for in an unpaid gig – although many thanks again to Chris at Critical Wit for the chance, which was great while it lasted! And I do the occasional interview for the Maximum Shelf special editions of Shelf Awareness. For the former, I got to choose my own subjects; for the latter, they are assigned to me. When I go to choose interview subjects, I am looking firstly for authors whose books appeal to me (obviously), and nextly for authors that look like they would talk to me – that look like I could get access to them. Reasonably enough, debut authors who aren’t getting ALL the attention in the world are more likely to take the time to talk to little old me than are the Micheal Connellys of the business. (Not to pick on Connelly and for the record, I never asked him for an interview.) A good measure of this is, when I look at their website, does the “contact me” link take me to the author’s email address? or does it say something like “for speaking opportunities, contact the publicist at xxx and for interview requests, contact the whomever at xxx”? The first instance makes for a far better chance of somebody small-time, like myself, getting access.

But when I’m assigned an author interview at Shelf Awareness, I’m guaranteed access, even to the big authors, because the author (or his/her team) has agreed to the special issue in advance. It does promote the upcoming book, you know. So I get the assignment and I get connected with the author or some representative of the author – a publicist, an agent, or somebody with the publishing company. And when we’re both ready, I get set up with the author him/herself. This is easier for me because I don’t have to go seeking access; and it’s presumably easier for the author, for whom usually an appointment is set up and he/she just has to be available by phone or email at the agreed upon time.

So it was surprising when I had a different experience, some time ago. (I am posting this experience well removed, timing-wise, from the incident in question, to preserve this author’s anonymity. And I am calling this author Jane, and making her a woman because I’ve interviewed more women than men and that seems to help preserve anonymity, as well.) I got the book; I read the book; I wrote my review and my interview questions; and I was in touch with Jane’s representative (listed as a “cataloging coordinator” at the publishing company), who asked for an estimated time frame for when I’d be ready for the interview. I gave this estimate, and right about on time, emailed the representative again that I was ready to set up an appointment. As always, I offered the option to do the interview by phone (to be recorded and then transcribed), or by email (no transcription necessary, and more convenient for all parties, but less likely to get off-the-cuff, conversational answers). And that’s when things went south. This author’s representative said, ok, great! so this is what we’ll do: I’ll send you a list of questions you can ask Jane, and you can pick from that list. Um, no. That’s actually not an interview at all; that’s a press release. It’s not like I was going to ask hard or antagonistic questions – c’mon. I passed this issue along to my “boss” for this project, who agreed with my rejection of this option, and followed up with the publisher herself.

This begun a process. My boss and myself eventually communicated with no fewer than 4 people at the publisher: a Cataloging Coordinator, a Director of Advertising and Promotion, an Associate Director of Publicity, and a Publicity Assistant. The cataloging coordinator also referenced the opinions of an editor and a marketing director who apparently weighed in as well. There was a great deal of concern that author Jane (a fairly well established one, with several bestsellers to her name) just couldn’t possibly talk with me, or couldn’t possibly be asked questions that did not come from an approved list. (They did ask for my questions in advance, and I willingly provided them.)

After dealing with these 4-6 folks over a period of weeks, we did finally end up scheduling an interview with the hallowed Jane – a full 7 weeks after my original interview request, which had been preceded by a 2-week notice of my upcoming need for the interview, which was preceded by the original agreement between publisher and my boss. By this time, boss and myself were thoroughly aggravated with the process and all the players involved, including poor Jane, who we realized may very well have no knowledge of any of these goings-on. In fact, as it turns out in the end, she is very active and friendly via social media, and was so friendly and easy-going in the eventual interview that I’m 100% certain that she was innocent in these proceedings.

I had read nearly a dozen books since I’d read Jane’s, which was less than ideal for the interview, with my memory fading somewhat. And I worried that I would have trouble being friendly with her after all the trouble her people had given me – although that turned out to be easier than expected, because she was a peach. Things came out okay in the end; but just barely, and at a certain cost in terms of hairs pulled out by my boss and myself in the two months (plus) that the entire process took. And poor Jane to this day doesn’t know this story, I feel sure; if she reads this blog post (unlikely) I don’t know that she’ll recognize herself.

Should I have told her? I certainly feel that she’s being poorly served by a team that blackened her name with such unprofessional communications with an organization in her industry who was essentially on her side – trying to help her sell her book. I’m assuming they have some sort of mandate to not harass this well-established author – to not give out her home number to anybody who wants it, for example (obviously). But they handled my boss and myself badly.

I didn’t tell Jane this story, because she was just trying to get through this interview and get back to whatever she had going on on the afternoon in question. No hard feelings towards her in the end. But I wanted to share with you the interesting range of experiences I’ve had in interviewing authors… I’ve never encountered one who was less than friendly, professional, and gracious. But this publicity team seemed determined to shoot itself in the foot. How outrageous do you find these events? And for other book bloggers out there – what are your experiences trying to get access to authors? When I was pursuing my own interviews (cold calling), I never even bothered with anyone who looked unattainable. Maybe I’m a coward, but I didn’t want to have to beg, or bother anyone who didn’t want to deal with me. If it’s this hard when agreed to in advance…

movie: Jack Reacher

To review: I love Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels (no matter how far-fetched); like many “Reacher Creatures,” I was upset to learn that Tom Cruise would be playing him on the big screen. Where Reacher is something like 6’6″ and a looming giant and blonde, Cruise is short-ish and dark-haired. Plus I don’t really like Tom Cruise all that much. Husband is with me on all counts.

therefore this is a little insulting

therefore this is a little insulting

For these reasons we had made a point of not watching this movie up to now; Husband turned it down as the free movie on an airplane last year. But then came a quiet night at home when his channel-surfing was making my teeth grind, and it was free via some sort of movie-playing widget on the television (this is not my area of expertise), so what the hell.

Jack Reacher is based on the Reacher novel One Shot, set in Philly, in which an ex-army guy named Barr is accused in an apparent open-and-shut case: six shots were fired from a sniper rifle in a parking garage, and five civilians lay dead. Barr won’t speak to the police except to ask for Jack Reacher. Retired army cop Reacher is impossible to find, but lucky for the cops, shows up on his own to look into the case. Teamed up with Barr’s defense attorney – despite being rather convinced of Barr’s guilt himself – Reacher investigates, and finds (naturally) that things are more complex than they appear. In fact, there is a conspiracy, something Reacher’s fans will be familiar with. For that matter, Reacher’s fans will recognize all the elements: intrigue – problems with authority – fistfights and gunfights and ex-military camaraderie – explosive final scenes.

I had few and minor quibbles, and my reading of One Shot was so long ago that I didn’t fuss over digressions from the original plot. And despite a slight antipathy for Tom Cruise, Husband and I were both able to sort of …let that go and get into the movie. In other words, I had some hesitations but ended up enjoying this movie more than expected. Reacher’s pithy wit translated well to the screen, and the suspense and action were there and pretty solid – in spite of a totally ridiculous car chase (I mean REALLY ridiculous. besides which, in the books, Reacher is a self-acknowledged poor driver and rarely does it). I especially appreciated the moment when the Marine recognizes Reacher from his shooting skills, and that scene does come from the book.

Conclusion: I had concerns going in, but I confess I enjoyed this film. Cruise was tolerable; the humor, wit, action and suspense were all there; the plot is not to be argued with (says this Reacher fan). Touche, Tom Cruise.


Rating: 7 shots fired.

movie: Urban Cowboy

Husband was dismayed to learn that I hadn’t seen Urban Cowboy, set in my hometown and rather iconic; it stars the nightclub Gilley’s and is mentioned in one of my favorite songs by one of my favorite bands. My excuse is (as usual) that I’m not real good with pop culture; also, this movie is older than I am.

winger

So we put it on. Urban Cowboy is set at the beginning of the 1980’s, when young Bud Davis leaves his family on the farm and heads into Houston (actually, Pasadena, a dirty oil-refining suburb) to look for a job. He starts off by staying with an aunt and uncle; the latter works at the refinery and gets Bud a job. They also take him to the local, Gilley’s, a honky-tonk nightclub that was at the time the largest nightclub of any kind in the world (according to Guinness, says the Texas State Historical Society and others). There he immediately falls into the kind of lifestyle his mom back home probably worried about: drinking hard every night of the week and showing up to work hungover; and meeting Sissy, a beautiful, flirtatious youngster with whom he is quickly entangled. They drink, fight, get married. She wants to ride the new mechanical bull set up at Gilley’s, but he doesn’t want her to. So she goes behind his back and learns to ride it from a dangerous ex-con.

Bluffing, out of spite at one another, and both hoping the other will blink, Bud and Sissy take up with other people: she with the ex-con bull rider, he with a rich girl from “the city” of Houston with a fetish for “cowboys.” (One notes that Bud doesn’t really qualify, as he works at an oil refinery and like Sissy, rides only a mechanical bull, not the real kind.) The big “rodeo” at Gilley’s will culminate in Bud versus the ex-con on the bull, and will put back together again the couple we’ve been rooting for.

I have mixed feelings. The iconic Houston skyline (minus many buildings I know) and time-and-place details, not least Gilley’s itself (famous, but like this movie, before my time), were great fun. Bud and Sissy have a certain Sid-and-Nancy ugly rightness about them that feels good in some twisted way; they’re a symbol of good Southern cowboy coupledom that some part of me responds to. But the misogyny was too much for me. Sissy gets hit, only a little by Bud (the “good” guy) and a lot by her ex-con; then Bud comes in and saves the day, because he hit her less often and less hard and so we should… feel good about this? Yes, another time (and culture), I get that; but there’s only so much wife-beating I can stomach and still come away calling this a feel-good film.

For visuals, including Sissy’s shockingly sexy bull ride, I’d give this a better-than-average score, if only for its historic and cultural value. For its actual values, it loses points for the pit it put in my stomach. John Travolta and Debra Winger are nice to look at, though.

travolta


Rating: 5 rides.
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