movie: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (2019)

A few days of wifi access have yielded a few movies, beginning with this one. From Sundance to Netflix comes Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, a recent biopic about Ted Bundy.

Bundy was known to be a handsome guy, and here played by Zac Ephron, he comes off handsomer than in real life – I’d rate the real Bundy average, not remarkable, where Ephron is eye-catching. His long-term girlfriend Liz is played by Lily Collins. The movie is based on a book that the real-life Liz wrote: The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy by Elizabeth Kendall (a pseudonym). The movie takes Liz’s perspective at times, but at times gets well away from her, as she distances herself from Bundy during his incarceration and trials, and the film follows the courtroom drama and Bundy’s developing relationship with Carol Anne (Kaya Scodelario).

I have mixed feeling about the way Bundy was portrayed. I think the idea may have been to show the extreme creepiness of how truly everyday a serial killer can be: this is the guy next door, with arguably better-than-average good looks but otherwise unremarkable. That’s what is showed here, and that’s what’s so scary, right? But in showing how everyday (and charming and handsome) Bundy was, the film skirts the edges of the strange fandom of the gushing young women attending Bundy’s murder trial: we’re getting a little into hero worship. And that’s even creepier. This may be the trouble with telling a story like Bundy’s at all. Maybe we should be less obsessed with serial killers in the first place…

I watched the movie, though, and I have to say it was entertaining, or at least mesmerizing. Ephron’s cute; Liz is compelling, and I feel her pain. I think she could probably have used some more screen time, and somewhere I read the reasonable criticism that her decision to get sober is covered in a mere montage scene, in which she wordlessly throws away half-empty liquor bottles. For such a major life event, and for the movie’s arguable heroine (spoilers aside, she wrote the book that gave us the film, for dog’s sake), I think she may deserve more. But an engaging evening’s viewing, sure.


Rating: 5 butterflies.

guest review: Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Orlando (2019), from Pops

From Pops, from Bellingham’s Sylvia Center (formerly the iDiOM).

Sylvia Center for the Arts presents Orlando, by Sarah Ruhl in 2003 and directed by WWU professor Rich Brown, with five players on a spare stage. Woolf and the story are still mostly inscrutable to me, but the players and staging are wonderful, with multiple vignettes easily adequate to carry the story and action. This production is creatively played with humor and energy as the narrative speeds through centuries, while centered on Orlando personally.

It is a very physical interpretation with much movement, often choreographed like dance; passage of time is depicted by the actors furtively running in circles or helter-skelter in the small stage area. They may use each other for props like tables and chairs; small props emerge on cue from pockets or capes. Some minor wardrobe changes occur in the flow of staging. Ship voyages are inventively evoked by actors’ bodies locked together and swaying with the waves.

Karlee Foster as the androgynous Orlando is perfect, physically as well as in body language and expression. She is ruffled, wild and spirited, but also ruminates over social conventions; all of which is belied by a tranquil and well-groomed promotional studio photo. The 3-man chorus is excellent, and not mere backdrop; they serve as continuous narrators but each also plays at least one woman’s part. The fifth player is an exotic Sasha, Orlando’s lifelong icon of youthful love. Her ‘Romanian’ accent is nearly overdone and perplexing, but her irresistible effect on Orlando is intently, comically obvious.

Suiting the tale, Orlando passionately kisses each of many characters (and all players) at least once – or more! Other, intimate couplings are openly implied with inventive, chaste staging devices, like backlit silhouettes or covering capes. And, always fun, there is a Shakespearean play-within-a-play – of Shakespeare’s own Julius Caesar! (the murder of Cassius) It was delightful, lively entertainment; kudos to the venue, the company and the small arts community that continues to display actors of such craft and energy.

What fun this sounds like! I remain unsure of Woolf, and remember Orlando as daunting (I believe from the 1992 film) (then again, I was 10 in 1992, what do you expect). But this stage performance sounds delightful. Maybe that’s just my feeling about (well-produced) theatre in general. I am jealous; I’m not seeing more theatre these days…

Thanks, Pops!

Oxford American, issue 99: Kentucky Music Issue (winter 2017)

You can see further details or purchase this issue here, and I do recommend it.

I’m amazed, again, at my enjoyment of this magazine, especially in its Southern Music issues, this one about Kentucky – and I was pleasantly surprised to see so many names I knew, both in contributing writers (a few associated with West Virginia Wesleyan) and in musicians. I shouldn’t put these mags off so long; I enjoy them so much.

I am reminded of past OA music issues, of course, and of The Poetics of American Song Lyrics. The liner notes, so to speak, in this music issue for the accompanying album of 27 tracks often expand into mini-essays not only describing the music but arguing for its place in history, its importance, its context… as when I read Poetics, I find myself recognizing something I’d been missing: music written of as the art form it can be. I haven’t found enough of this in the world, I guess. Also, of course, OA‘s concentration on the American South overlaps with my own concerns, and our musical tastes so far line up nicely too.

I am also astonished to see the same themes that plague my own mind and life keep recurring… it was one thing to find the theme of home-seeking in Matt Ferrence’s Appalachia North, which I am reading now, a book I chose for its relevance to my own obsessions. But the same themes turn up in Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, which I’m listening to on audio now (birthday present from my mom, thanks Mom)… and the music of Kentucky often as not approaches them too. Look at Harry Dean Stanton explicating “Cancion Mixteca”:

I see it as, when you’re truly at home there’s no more suffering… crying to get back to where you come from.

Maybe this is what’s so haunting and impossible about our (apparently universal) yearning for home: that we’re trying to get to place with no suffering, where everything is resolved. Talk about setting yourself up to be disappointed.

Or this:

Inoculated with a love of and fascination with her homeplace, Rachel Grimes became a student of its history.

Again I’m thinking of Appalachia North, Matt Ferrence’s research-rich investigation of his own home: work I aspire to do for mine. Partly I self-select (consciously and not) to expose myself to the media that I am likely to appreciate, of course. But doesn’t it also seem like we encounter things in groups or bunches? A new topic is suddenly all around us. I remember the first time I heard of the concept of a murder ballad. It was from a woman from Kentucky (of course), a fellow student in my MFA program. I was intrigued by the concept; and suddenly murder ballads were all around me. Again from this Kentucky album & magazine: the murder ballad “Pretty Polly,” which I can’t say for sure isn’t the first one I ever heard, sung by Amanda Jo on the dorm steps at dusk in West Virginia’s July, backlit by fireflies.

Perhaps I most loved the brief notes on each song included with the cd that comes with this magazine, those succinct reasons why King Kong’s “Me Hungry,” Freakwater’s “My Old Drunk Friend,” and Sarah Ogan Gunning’s “I’m Going to Organize, Baby Mine” join Loretta Lynn, the Everly Brothers and Les McCann. Reading these paragraphs and listening to the songs and making my own observations about the music and meaning is always the most special treat of an OA music issue. But there was so much I loved here: Jason Howard*’s “If God Had a Name,” about Joan Osborne’s influence on his own life and spirituality (I love the song, too). Jeffrey A. Keith’s study of the Appalshop*. John Thomason on John Prine’s Paradise. Ashley Bloom’s lovely essay “Fire in My Bones” on religion and reclaiming her body. Crystal Wilkinson’s story “Cleo, Cleo Black as Coal,” a piercing piece of fiction to cleanse the palate, except it’s more flavorful than any palate cleanser. John Jeremiah Sullivan’s “Death Rattle” was a remarkable piece of investigation, even anthropology. And of course, Silas House*’s gorgeous feature, quoted below. So much astonishingly lovely writing, throughout.

Zandria F. Robinson’s feature, “Border Wars,” confounded me some; sometimes I didn’t know what her sentences meant, although they were always lovely. I found myself both nodding emphatically along, and also sometimes disagreeing. It was an engaging piece of writing, and I guess any differences I felt with her drive home the point about shifting borders and differing definitions, and how they can divide us. If I didn’t always agree, I certainly respected and admired.

David Ramsey’s “Tuned Up in the Spirit,” about the Old Regular Baptists and their line-called music, gave me a little trouble as well. It was a bit too many pages of religion (perhaps without quite enough music) for my tastes. And when he notes that the Old Regulars forbid woman from leading songs, preaching, or taking part in church business, and then moves right along, I think, only a man could brush past that.

Here are a few of the lines I marked, usually in noticing how they speak to my own home-seeking.

This faculty, to be attuned to one’s surroundings and the ways in which they’re unique, to be rooted in the local, to be of a certain place – no matter if one permanently leaves it, like Richard Hell, or stays forever, like Rachel Grimes – is an elemental theme running through [this issue].

From Deputy Editor Maxwell George’s introduction to “The Music of Kentucky.”

Ronni Lundy quotes Dwight Yoakum:

…you have to break the ties to be yourself, and then you see how much those ties meant to you, so you try to put them back. Only you can’t really do it. You can’t do either all the way. But that’s where the story is, right? That place in the middle, isn’t that where it’s art?

This quotation means a great deal to Lundy, too – it gives her the title of her piece on Yoakum, “That Place in the Middle.”

From House’s inspired essay “Watershed,” on the Phipps Family:

There are many Appalachias, but this one is much like most of the rural places in the region: a wound, a poem, a contradiction – none of them easily defined, all of them complex, taut with history and culture that most people never bother to study or understand before passing judgment. Like most places in American, it’s a place of poverty and wealth, of education and ignorance…

And of course, you know what I’m going to say next, that all of this is true of most places in America. A wound, a poem, a contradiction. (I wish I’d written that.)

John Jeremiah Sullivan writing about the jawbone as a musical instrument, and its roots in slavery:

Slaveholders could forbid them the guitar, the banjo, the fiddle, everything. They might even embargo wire and string. But it’s not as easy to take away denuded animal bones. And while those were ready to hand, so was rhythm. That’s how hard it is to kill music.

That’s how hard it is to kill art.

In other words, forget it.

Forget it. This stuff is gold. Get all the Oxford American music issues you can.


Rating: 9 stays out of a man’s shirt collar.

*Recognize these names? From Hillbilly.

The Plover by Brian Doyle (audio)

And no thinking on this trip, either, he said to the gull floating over the stern. No recriminations and ruminations. No logs and journals and literary pretensions neither. Thinking can only, like the boat, proceed forward.

Thank goodness for Brian Doyle. I had been in a bit of a blue funk and looked for something cheerful to pick me up; a Brian Doyle novel was just the thing, I thought, and I was right.

Based on Martin Marten and Mink River, I foolishly thought the plover in this story would be an actual plover – a bird. Ha! No, the Plover is a boat. (And to be fair, the protagonist of Mink River turned out to be a crow.) Classically, for Doyle, we open with epigraphs: from Robert Louis Stevenson, George Harrison, and Annie Dillard. (Perfect.) Then we plunge right in and meet our protagonist, an eccentric fellow (aren’t they all) named Declan O’Donnell. An Irishman (read here with an accent) who hails from the Oregon coast and a fractured family, he’s invested himself totally in a small trawler he calls the Plover for perfect reasons. He’s “edited” her by, among other things, fitting a small mast and sails; and he heads off from Oregon, intending “west and then west.”

Declan is explicitly trying to escape humankind and all their “emotional complications… expectations and illusions… analysis and explications.” But of course, he is immediately joined (page 1) by a gull, to whom he holds forth at length: we already suspect he enjoys having the company. And the comedy of the book is in all the passengers he takes on: the narrative tells us that the census reaches over one thousand, if we count barnacles, but it also at one point reaches seven human beings. Declan is in fact a more social creature than he aspires to be, and that’s the central storyline here: Macmillan’s blurb calls it “the story of a cold man melting,” and I think that’s not too far off, although I might amend to call it the melting of a man who tried to be cold. Declan has had some trauma in his life, and his reaction is to try and shut himself off. He fails, and that’s one of the joys of this book.

There are so many joys, although also much trauma. Declan’s best friend, Piko, is one of Doyle’s exuberant characters – “he had legally changed his name for a while to an adjective, he played the flügelhorn in a jazz band that deliberately played only such events as weddings between Lutherans and Presbyterians and baptisms of babies named for animals, and he had once flensed a whale by himself, over the course of three weeks, on the beach, living in a tiny blue tent about the high tide line. He was one of those guys who seemed electrified by everyone and everything, the kind of guy who totally lit up when he saw a sparrow-hawk helicoptering over a corn shock, the kind of guy who liked every kid he ever met and every kid liked him… But he had been wounded by a storm, this guy, his little daughter hit by a bus driver when she was five years old waiting for the kindergarten bus, and his light was dimmed.” Pippa, the daughter, cannot move except for a possibly meaningless fluttering of her hands; she cannot speak except to make possibly meaningless squeaks and coos that sound like bird sounds. But she has a rich inner life. (Spoiler: Piko and Pippa will become passengers and crew on the Plover.) Both Piko and Pippa are very Doylesque characters: peculiar, delightful, brimming, wounded. There are more of these in the book – a Doyle novel is made of such characters. Again: just what I needed.

So Declan explores the world, becoming increasingly reluctant to set foot on land. He cares for his boat and weathers storms. He picks up passengers and rails against their very presence, but still they come on. He and his growing crew-family have a conflict with another ship and its ill-intending captain, but everything comes out well in the end. As the small, green, red-sailed Plover swells in population, tensions rise, but so does the incidence of miracles. Doyle is unafraid to take his whimsical characters to the brink of death and then snatch them, in unlikely fashion, back. Once you’ve made peace with this inclination (and I have), it’s great fun.

Declan is a devoted reader of the Irish author and orator Edmund Burke, who is much quoted here, along with a reference or two to Robert Louis Stevenson (upon whom Doyle would base a later book). Through these outside voices, through Declan’s own and the wise voices of his friends and comrades (including one very quirky minister for fisheries and marine resources and foreign affairs), The Plover is a novel of philosophy as well as the story of one plucky little boat and its captain.

David Drummond’s reading feels perfect to me. I love the many different voices, accents, rhythms he plays. Pippa’s exuberance, Declan’s grumpy Irish lilt, the minister’s volubility and interesting speech patterns, and so much more. (Somebody should write a paper on the minister’s word coinages.) A good narrator makes all the difference, and I’m so glad we got a good one here.

Doyle’s usual strengths are all present. Characters and story are brimming and bubbling with good cheer even in the face of significant and imaginative tragedy. Sentences are often long, convoluted, and performative of their content. Details are numerous and precise and bizarre. Nothing has changed; this man is a near-perfect novelist, for this reader. I’m still so sad he’s gone.


Rating: 8 crucial silences between notes.

Author interview: Michele Filgate

Following my review of What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About, here’s Michele Filgate: One of the Most Important Things Writing Can Do.


Michele Filgate is a contributing editor at Literary Hub and a former board member of the National Book Critics Circle. She teaches creative nonfiction for the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, Catapult and Stanford Continuing Studies, and is the founder of the Red Ink literary series. Filgate is an M.F.A. student at New York University, where she is the recipient of the Stein Fellowship. What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence is available from Simon & Schuster.

photo: Sylvie Rosokoff

You spent more than a decade working on the essay for Longreads that was the seed for this book.

I started writing this essay when I was an undergraduate at the University of New Hampshire, and I really thought I was writing about my stepfather abusing me. It took me many years to realize that what I was actually trying to write about was the fracture that abuse caused in my relationship with my mother. When you experience something traumatic, it can take many years to unpack. I finally had this breakthrough that the piece was really about my mother. I went to the Tin House summer workshop one year, where I studied with Jo Ann Beard, who is one of my biggest influences as a writer. Her instruction and my classmates in that workshop really helped me figure out how to put this piece together and how to make it work.

The essay came out in Longreads in October 2017, right when the Weinstein story broke and the #metoo movement took off. It was kind of wild to have the most painful thing I’ve ever written published right at a moment in our culture when we were revealing these stories that people had kept hidden for so long. It was a relief to feel like I was not alone.

How did it feel to publish such personal details?

It was terrifying at first. I did not tell my mom about the essay because our relationship was already so complicated. I didn’t want to hurt my mom; that was never my intention. And people who read the essay have told me they can read the love and longing, more than anger. It’s not about anger. It’s about wanting to have a relationship with my mom that I don’t have.

It was really scary to release this story that I’d been carrying with me for so many years in print. I felt nauseated, terrified, sad, anxious, all of those negative emotions… but as I kept hearing from strangers who read the piece–who had similar stories to tell–a funny thing happened. I started to feel a sense of relief, of unburdening myself. By putting this story out there I was able to help other people feel less alone, which I think is one of the most important things writing can do.

How did the anthology happen?

So many people responded to the title of my essay, “What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About,” that it just felt right to put together an anthology. Everyone–no matter how close they are with their mother, or if they’ve never even met their mother, or their mother is no longer alive–has something that they can’t talk about with their mother. I’d already been thinking of doing an anthology. Because of the essay going viral and having the response it did–it was shared by Lidia Yuknavitch, Anne Lamott, Rebecca Solnit, so many writers I admire on social media–I felt like, okay, there’s momentum here. I think this is a book.

Before I got a book deal, I reached out to writers I admire and asked them if they’d be willing to contribute original essays. Everything I’ve been doing in my career so far has led up to this point. I was an indy bookseller for many years; I ran events at RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., McNally Jackson in Manhattan and Community Bookstore in Brooklyn; and then, after I left bookselling, I joined the board of the National Book Critics Circle. I’ve been a voracious reader and literary citizen for many years, and I have my own literary series, Red Ink, that’s dedicated to women writers. This was the kind of work I’d already been doing, making these connections, and so it was wonderful to be able to put together a book featuring so many writers I really respect.

What did you learn in the process of collecting, editing and organizing these essays?

It felt like such a privilege to be able to work with some of my favorite writers. I learned that this topic is not an easy one for anyone. Some writers I’d originally signed up for the book had to drop out. And some people realized they weren’t ready to write about their moms. It made me feel less alone, because this is a sensitive topic for so many people. That was kind of eye-opening to me. I’m not the only one who finds this a tricky thing to do. It was interesting to me that it’s even tricky for people who are close with their mothers. How do you capture someone you are so close to, and make it interesting for other people?

Is this a book with a cause?

Definitely, yes. If this can inspire people to have conversations with their moms that they haven’t been able to have, then I will feel like this book is worth it. And it’s already happened with one of the contributors in this book. Nayomi Munaweera wrote a piece about growing up with a mentally ill mother, and she sent it to her mom, and told her it was going to be coming out in a book. Her mother wrote back such a wonderful e-mail that we ended up including it as the postscript. So after her essay in the book is this really beautiful e-mail from her mom that demonstrates her love and how proud she is of Nayomi for writing this piece.

That right there is the cause for this book: breaking the silence, as the subtitle suggests. Silence can be toxic. I think this book will help a lot of people learn how to have those conversations in their own lives, or feel less alone.


This interview originally ran in the May 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.

The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984 by Dorian Lynskey

This funny, wise, well-researched study sits at the intersection of biography of Orwell’s life, literary criticism of 1984 and social commentary on literature’s role in life.

Dorian Lynskey (33 Revolutions Per Minute) takes a close look at an ubiquitous classic with The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell’s 1984. The novel was a sensation and a controversy when it was published in 1949; again as the year 1984 approached and passed; again in recent years, and at every time in between. Lynskey sets out to examine its ancestry in utopian and dystopian literatures, in Orwell’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War and wartime Great Britain, and the political and cultural responses it’s drawn.

Lynskey spends much time contextualizing outside material: he devotes whole chapters to the literary works of Edward Bellamy, H.G. Wells and Yevgeny Zamyatin. Orwell’s service in the Spanish Civil War, his relationships with other writers and his personal and professional history necessarily figure as background material in Part One of The Ministry of Truth.

Part Two covers the world’s reaction to 1984, all the way through the election of the Unites States’ 45th president. In 1984, the novel surfaced not only in documentaries and articles, but also in a comedy sketch by Steve Martin and Jeff Goldblum, in carpet advertisements, on Cheers and in Charlie Brown–Lynskey writes that it “had mutated from a novel into a meme.” He refers to Margaret Atwood, Rebecca Solnit, Neil Postman and Orwell’s son, Richard Blair. He covers some of the books’ various interpretations: Atwood features as the “most prominent advocate” of the Appendix Theory, which asserts that 1984‘s Appendix, covering Newspeak from a date apparently far beyond 1984, “is a text within the world of the novel, with an unidentified author,” thereby offering a decisive reading.

This wide-ranging and thorough study requires a careful and patient reader. Even one familiar with both Orwell’s work and early communist and socialist histories will need to read closely. Lynskey offers his own appendix: a chapter-by-chapter précis of 1984, which is recommended for everyone. The requisite attention will be well rewarded, as The Ministry of Truth is not only enthralling and research-rich, but often laugh-out-loud funny. When 1984‘s American publishers wrote to J. Edgar Hoover hoping for a back-cover endorsement, Lynskey writes, “Hoover declined the request and instead opened a file on Orwell.” Lynskey’s voice is impassioned and self-aware, and he has an eye for the absurd (as any student of Orwell’s should).

Among Lynskey’s conclusions is that 1984 is “a vessel into which anyone could pour their own version of the future.” Too often it has been mistaken for a prophecy (and critics then argue about how successful it has been in that regard), rather than understood as Orwell intended: to offer a possible future as motivation to work against that possibility. Lynskey argues that such persistent and diverse misreadings are possible because the novel leaves room to become essentially whatever the reader wants it to be, or most fears. This is part of why 1984 remains as forceful and compelling as ever. The Ministry of Truth is a necessary guide.


This review originally ran in the May 3, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 lies.

Lanny by Max Porter

This novel about family, the power of the woods and the creative spirit, centered on a special young boy, will charm any reader.

Following his decorated first novel, Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, Max Porter again takes his reader into a weird and magical world with Lanny. Similarly short, lyric and mysterious, this touching story is partner but not sequel.

Lanny’s mum and dad have moved to a village not far from London, “fewer than fifty redbrick cottages, a pub, a church.” Lanny’s dad commutes into the city while his mum works on writing her murder thriller. Lanny goes to school and plays in the woods, singing, fairy-like and joyful; he is “young and ancient all at once, a mirror and a key,” “stinking of pine trees and other nice things.” He “says strange and wonderful things, mumblings, puzzling things for a child to say.” There is also an old man in the village named Pete, an artist who works with natural materials and was once famous in London. He describes himself as a “miserable solitary bastard” but is actually caring and sensitive; he becomes the closest friend Lanny’s family has in town.

And then there is Dead Papa Toothwort, a legend and an enigma, tied up in trees and leaves and related to the green men carved in old churches in this part of the world. When the book opens, he is waking “from his standing nap an acre wide.” As a force, it is unclear whether Dead Papa Toothwort is good or evil; he is associated with death as well as seasonal renewal. “He wants to kill things, so he sings… his grin takes a sticky hour.” “He loves it when a lamb gets stuck being born.” And he is obsessed with Lanny.

The whole village, in a way, revolves around Lanny–especially after misfortune strikes. His dad feels overwhelmed by his son’s specialness (“What or who is supposed to manage and regulate Lanny and his gifts? Oh f*ck, it’s us”); his needs are simpler, related to work, food and sex. The boy’s mum is closer to Lanny’s dreamworld, “the type of person who is that little bit more akin to the weather than most.” After agreeing to give him art lessons, Pete finds a surprising new friend in the young boy. The rest of the human population follows this preoccupation–and always there is Dead Papa Toothwort, listening.

What begins as a sweet revolution of three adult lives (mum, dad, Pete) around the boy turns sinister in the novel’s second of three parts; resolution comes in the third. Often a stream-of-consciousness style leaves the reader a bit off-kilter, but this is suited to Lanny’s dreamlike setting: trust in the story will be rewarded. Porter’s prose is undeniably gorgeous. “Mile-wide slabs of rain romp across the valley… palette-knife smears of bad weather rush past.” These elements in combination are every bit as imaginative, compelling and magical as Lanny himself.


This review originally ran in the April 25, 2019 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 mutterings.
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