movie: Roald Dahl’s The Witches (2020)

I recently assigned my Comp I class a book, movie, or television review, and then went looking online for examples of movie and TV show reviews, since I don’t so much specialize in those. I came across a review of a new production of one of my favorite childhood reads: Roald Dahl’s The Witches. (Dahl remains a favorite.) The TV channel who *exclusively* owns this movie offers a free trial, so off I went.

This version blends live-action and special effects to land in a place that is visually rich and simple at the same time. It’s rather beautiful (and often horrifying), but a little cartoonish. Anne Hathaway is the Grand High Witch, Octavia Spencer is Grandma, and Chris Rock narrates as the voice of the older version of the Boy; the Boy himself is played by Jahzir Bruno. The Grand High Witch has a vaguely Germanic accent (nope, wrong again). I found this movie visually pleasing, scary in all the right places, and generally a good, nostalgic return to the novel that I grew up with and loved so much. It matches the book fairly closely, with only a few variations. The pet mice from the book here become a single mouse with a backstory that the novel did not supply. And I regret that they cut the logical argument about (spoiler here; highlight to read white text) the fact that the witch-mice will be twice as dangerous as they were in womanly form, and thus will need to be swiftly dealt with as they were in the hotel, but I guess no one will miss that who doesn’t remember the novel. (The 1990 film version, which I have not seen, changed the ending. That, I don’t think I could forgive.)

What I most missed is one of my favorite details from the novel, although I think I may give it more significance than Dahl necessarily intended: all the ways that witches can disappear children, with examples, as told early in the story by Grandmother. I guess it would have been hard to put that in to a film version, and we get a parallel story instead, that of Grandma’s childhood friend Alice. It’s something I missed, though.

This film does bring race into the story in a way (as far as I know) entirely new to Dahl’s work, and I dug it. It’s just a bit under the surface, but the boy and his grandmother are Black, living in Alabama in the late 1960s, and the fancy seaside resort where they go to stay (and then encounter the massive coven of witches) is a former plantation. They are reminded that perhaps they don’t belong there – for class reasons, of course. The film makes no more of this, but there’s plenty to sit with, anyway.

Perhaps not a masterpiece of film, but a fine story to sink into for an evening. Good for nostalgia; makes me want to go back and read some Dahl all over again. I think I’d started with The BFG.


Rating: 6 drops.

The Book of Rabbits by Vince Trimboli

Disclosure: Vince is a colleague and a dear friend.


A slim poetry collection with a story at its center: Mary Toft was a young peasant woman in 18th-century England who became famous after she gave birth to more than 15 dead rabbits. The sensational story had doctors scratching their heads and the whole country riveted, until it was found to be a hoax. (This is a true story.) Throughout The Book of Rabbits, Trimboli pokes and prods at this history, questions of gender, womanhood, motherhood, class, family, agency… Some poems deal directly with the woman and the rabbits, while some approach its themes from more oblique angles, but the questions raised by Toft’s story are always present. Part of his concern is who gets to relate these events to us, centuries later. Toft herself was illiterate, at any rate in a time when women’s voices were not much valued.

A foreword by Nancy Lynée Woo gives some of this important background information on Toft’s story – I think the reader needs it – and also describes and assesses the collection some, in ways I found very helpful (because you know poetry still intimidates me). I’m a little tempted to just reprint her whole foreword here as a review, if that weren’t a copyright violation!

I love the variation of forms. There are a handful of haikus, some prose poems (some segmented), and some in different shapes on the page. There is no shortage of lovely, surprising, and thoughtful images: as Catherine Venable Moore states in a blurb on the back cover, “Rare is the poet who sees fire opals in a case of deli meats.” I puzzled over some poems, and I took advantage of having excellent access to the poet himself (Vince and I talk several times a week and sometimes daily) to ask some questions. A few poems included a pronoun whose antecedent was unclear; I considered possibilities and then asked. The author confirmed that that ambiguity was purposeful, as I suspected… I often appreciate syntactic ambiguity, but sometimes I’m not sure it’s intended. I figured it was here. “Some say this is the easiest part of being human,” Trimboli writes, in a section involving several actions; what is ‘this’? Ambiguities like this both thrill and unnerve me.

I’ve heard Vince read from this book a handful of times, so a number of these poems felt familiar, which doesn’t mean I’m not still grappling with what they mean. But I know that I love how he pushes against the gendered tensions of control, choice, and voice. There’s plenty to keep coming back to here, for someone like me who puzzles over poetry.

Some of my favorite poems are “This Is a Story About Poverty,” “Notes from a Field Trip to the Slaughterhouse,” “The Fourth Dream: Deus Ex Machina,” and of course a longtime favorite, “Haiku: Anatomy” (which confused a male undergraduate of mine this semester – naturally). I love lines like…

meats too rich for her purse

postpartum change purse

all pearls are traumas

fear is as much a part of hunger as the eating

And I think there’s a lot here to think about. Glad to know you, Vince.


Rating: 8 gossamer sacks.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds

Liz recommended this book to me (in the audio format) as an excellent, succinct, accessible history of racism (including its purposeful invention) and antiracism, and she was (as usual) right. This is an outstanding introduction to, or review of, the concepts of race and racism in this country, in the context of world history. It’s truly for everyone: those new to such a history will find it manageable, and those not new will learn something new or at least have that larger picture – race in America within world history – clarified in useful ways. The audiobook is just four hours long, and every minute of it is engrossing. I wholeheartedly second Liz’s recommendation.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You is a “remix” of Ibrim X. Kendi’s highly-regarded Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. It’s approximately half the length (300 vs. 600 pages). I have not read the latter, fuller version, but my father should be finishing it anytime, and he’s appreciative; perhaps he’ll give us a review to partner with this one. Tables of contents show that the content of each books lines up neatly; they do appear to be two versions of the same material, and I think it’s a real service to give both versions to the world. For this remix, Kendi is joined by young adult novelist Jason Reynolds, who also narrates the audio version (excepting the introduction, delivered by Kendi). It’s my impression that Reynolds does the remixing of Kendi’s original work, bringing his facility with younger readers. The book is labeled for ages 12 and up, but to characterize this as a book for younger readers is too limiting; it’s great for adults, too.

The opening chapter begins,

This is not a history book. I repeat, this is not a history book. At least not like the ones you’re used to reading in school. The ones that feel more like a list of dates (there will be some), with an occasional war here and there, a declaration (definitely gotta mention that), a constitution (that too), a court case or two, and, of course, the paragraph that’s read during Black History Month (Harriet! Rosa! Martin!). This isn’t that. This isn’t a history book. Or, at least, it’s not that kind of history book. Instead, what this is, is a book that contains history. A history directly connected to our lives as we live them right this minute. This is a present book.

And I want to start there because I’m interested in that characterization of what makes a history book. Between you and me, I would like to assert that this is a history book, but I get what the authors are up to here: for those younger readers (or for all of us!), they’re trying to distance themselves from the dry and boring history book, the traditional history book, that separates “history” from what matters in the here-and-now. I think this is a history book, in all the best ways – one for history books to emulate.

Having gotten that out of the way: five sections organize the broad scope of this history. They are organized by years. “Section 1: 1415-1728” opens with “The Story of the World’s First Racist.” (In Stamped From the Beginning [SFtB], Part I is titled “Cotton Mather.” He is not the world’s first racist – that title goes to Gomes Eanes de Zurara.) “Section 2: 1743-1826” corresponds to SFtB‘s “Thomas Jefferson.” “Section 3: 1826-1879” corresponds to William Lloyd Garrison; “Section 4: 1868-1963” is W.E.B. Du Bois, and “Section 5: 1963-Today” is Angela Davis. Those section headings from SFtB appeal to me. Obviously the date ranges handle more than the lives of each individual, but I appreciate the choice of an individual for each section of history, and of the progress of racism in America. Methodically, then, Kendi & Reynolds move through history from the 1400s, and Zurara’s invention of racism (in Europe), to the present day. They hit the highlights in terms of events, personalities, laws, cultural shifts, and theories of race and racism and antiracism, the intellectual arguments offered for why some people should be kept under the boots of other people. I love that they note the markers in media and art for racist thinking, too, commenting on the timing and context of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, To Kill a Mockingbird, Birth of a Nation, Tarzan, and Planet of the Apes. I’m a big fan of spotting the connections across (what we think of as) disparate threads of history and study: movies, literature, history. I think it deepens our understanding of each to see how they fit together.

I found Reynolds’s audio narration completely lovely, and would listen to anything else he reads.

I understand that SFtB is an excellent, deep, rich, dense study. I know I have a lot to learn from it, and I hope to get to it sooner than later. The work of a book like that is important. But I’m so grateful that Stamped exists, too. It’s a truly masterful achievement to make such a swath of history so accessible in just 300 pages, and there are some pretty involved theories and concepts expressed here in a package that I think anyone can grasp (again, it’s labeled for ages 12 and up). I think this book is likely to reach even more people than SFtB. As Liz suggested, I can realistically recommend this one to my first-year college students. This is a book for anyone and everyone. It proves, through history and observations and stories, that we are not living in a post-racial world; racism (and a caste system based upon race) is alive and well in this country and culture, even if it’s learned to disguise itself – that just makes it more important that we learn how to recognize it in its trickier forms. Stamped is the book to help us begin that work. Recommended for everyone.


Rating: 9 privileges.

A Silent Fury: The El Bordo Mine Fire by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

Having loved Yuri Herrera’s trilogy of novellas, I was excited to learn he had a new book out this year, his first nonfiction, and again translated by the outstanding Lisa Dillman. A Silent Fury is a slim history of a 100-years-ago tragedy in Herrera’s hometown of Pachuca, Hidalgo, in central Mexico. It is minimalist because records are minimal, but it is lyrical and powerful in its minimalism, and a righteous fury does shine through it. I’m ready to follow Herrera (and Dillman) anywhere.

The El Bordo mine, owned by a subsidiary of the United States Smelting, Refining and Mining Company, caught fire on March 10, 1920. Within hours, the company estimated that “no more than ten” men remained inside, and that they were certainly dead; they ordered all three mine shafts sealed. Six days later, when the mines was reopened, seven men came out alive. Some eighty-seven were dead.

The story is full of problems, horrors, holes. How did the fire start? When did the fire start? What made the company so sure there were no survivors (when they would turn out to be so horrifically wrong)? How many died because of their decision to seal the shafts? What responsibility does the company bear? (The appointed investigation would go out of its way to swear up and down that the company was blameless.) There exist almost no documents bearing the voices of mine workers, survivors of the fire, or families of those lost. Herrera pieces together what he can from a case file and a few news stories.

But there are also oral accounts, given by miners and their families, and it was through these that I learned about the fire: there are at least two crónicas, one by Félix Castillo, the other by José Luis Islas; and a novel by Rodolfo Benavides. All were written years afterwards.

This book, like those accounts, refuses the judicial truth that reduces this history to a file in the archive. But none of these words are mine.

Instead, Herrera writes, he reconstructs events using the accounts available, choosing the most credible version where there are several, and pointing out contradictions and omissions. “Silence is not the absence of history, it’s a history hidden beneath shapes that must be deciphered.” For me, then, this book is in part a commentary on what history is. There is certainly commentary; it is not literally true that none of these words are Herrera’s. Of the surviving seven miners who came out of the sealed shaft after six days, the company’s doctor and local officials agreed

that the miners were “in a perfect state of health and had no internal or external injuries,” save for the fact that a few were in “an advanced state of starvation.” They really said that: in a perfect state of health but starving to death. Rarely has a boss expressed so honestly what, in his opinion, the perfect worker is like.

We hear Herrera’s quiet (but not silent) anger again when he recounts the struggles of the family members of the dead miners, in a section titled “The Women’s Fire.” Wives, common-law wives, daughters, mothers, and grandmothers were asked to prove their relationships to the deceased, in order to qualify for compensation. “Every single one of the qualified witnesses called in to vouch for the truthfulness of their testimony was male.” This kind of simple sentence communicates a great deal of emotion.

Silence is a recurrent thread in this story. The title occurs verbatim in just one moment: in a photograph of the seven survivors, Herrera tells us that “they don’t look like they just escaped from hell… with the exception of one, the first man on the left, who seems to betray a silent fury: lips clamped together, brows arched. But, again, no one recorded what they thought or felt at that moment.”

I say again: they sealed the mine shafts on nearly one hundred men, for six days.

This book is deeply moving in its brevity, with a clear grasp of the power of white spaces, what is left unsaid – silence. Herrera is the right writer to probe this story again. It’s beautiful and heart-breaking.


Rating: 8 signatures.

Stillicide by Cynan Jones

This minimalist meditation on climate change and human choices offers stark realism, haunting characters and lovely lyricism.

Cynan Jones (Everything I Found on the Beach; Cove) beautifully reprises his distinctive voice and poignant themes in Stillicide, a novel of climate change and human relationships. This novella-length meditation excels in its thoughtful considerations, quietly lyrical language and memorable lines and characters.

Water is rare and sought after. A water train has replaced the old pipeline to bring this commodity into cities, which are resented by the surrounding countryside. The train is armed: “Deer. Dog. Man. If it was still alive and present when the water load passed, the defence guns of the train would fire automatically.” In the opening chapter, a marksman stands by as additional security, life and death in his hands. Meanwhile, the authorities plan to replace the water train with a new and wider corridor, to drag an iceberg overland into the city. “A gash cut through the city,” this will displace many residents; protestors gather.

The subsequent chapters focus on different characters and their perspectives. A construction worker for the new iceberg path wonders if his work is for good or ill, and contemplates the work of his partner, who makes flowers from refuse to plant “in the cracks of the kerbs.” A young nurse contemplates an affair; an older nurse lies dying. A boy chases a stray dog through the streets. An elderly couple on the coast refuses to move inland even as they see the future approaching. These perspectives note where the natural world still gleams in a city increasingly dry and dusty–aphids, butterflies, the rare deer, “sparrows and pigeons, as if from nowhere.” A professor finds evidence of an endangered species in the iceberg’s path, and with it hope: “A dragonfly could stop an iceberg. For a while at least.” Many of these characters remain nameless, so that even in their specificity they stand in for a larger human experience, and the effect is that this thirsty world is a little blurred.

Stillicide is a sobering consideration of a possible near future, and a moving work of fiction. Jones is easy to appreciate also for his writing, for the poetry in “the contained clatter of the runnelled rain.” The marksman guarding the water train, where the novel both begins and ends, drives home questions about what to value and protect, and when to let go. This is a quiet masterpiece of language, imagination and grim possibility.


This review originally ran in the October 26, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 drops of water.

Stella by Takis Würger, trans. by Liesl Schillinger

Disclosure: I was sent an advanced reader’s copy of this book for review, originally intended for Shelf Awareness.


Takis Würger imagines a relationship between an inoffensive, rather boring young Swiss man and a German Jewish woman in 1942 Berlin. Friedrich is Würger’s fiction, but the young woman he meets as Kristin is a real historical figure. As a novel, Stella might have worked out in its handling of the troubled love affair, which deals with the layers of mystery and (dis)honesty we wrap ourselves in, set within a developing, expanding, horrifying Holocaust. But this story is too intertwined with those horrors, without adequately dealing with them, and I was left disturbed and unable to recommend it.

The novel opens in Friedrich’s privileged but lonely childhood, his father mostly absent and his mother drunk and abusive. As Hitler rises to power in Germany – a place that is both geographically nearby and psychically distant to the child – his mother, German by birth, is excited, eventually to the point that she leaves her family to go to Munich and cheer the Nazis on. Friedrich, now a young man, decides he wants to see Berlin. He is curious, detached, like a tourist. He notes that the cook in his childhood household – who was kind to him when his mother was not – is Jewish, but seems unmoved.

In Berlin, Friedrich explores, halfheartedly studying drawing; he is bored, until he meets Kristin: she models for his drawing class, she tutors in Latin, she sings in a nightclub. He’s enchanted. She comes to live with him in his hotel room, but remains mysterious; she goes out alone during the days. Eventually she confesses that her name is really Stella, and she is the daughter of “three-day Jews,” who attend synagogue only three holidays per year. This deepens her mystery but does not solve it. Friedrich gradually comes to understand that her freedom to move around Berlin is continually purchased by her betrayal of other Jews in the city. He feels something about this, but the reader feels that he does not feel enough.

The digest-style injections of 1942 current events, month by month, are a wise choice; they keep us rooted in the wider world and horrors of this setting, when Friedrich is in real danger of forgetting them.

Stella has a tone of listlessness or ennui, of not quite caring enough. The publisher’s copy presents this as “a tortured love story against the backdrop of wartime Berlin [that] powerfully explores questions of naiveté, young love, betrayal, and the horrors of history.” As a consideration of young love, it could have been moderately successful. But the use of that backdrop makes me very uncomfortable. To wield the power of the Holocaust to tell such an uninspired story as this one feels inappropriate. That the narrator loves a woman who causes perhaps hundreds of deaths feels like something that should have been dealt with in some way. The heavy moral questions aren’t addressed at all. I don’t necessarily need for Stella’s character to have been wholly condemned; to make her situation complex and make the reader grapple with that would have been a literary feat. But that’s not attempted. It’s just a facet of her life that is brushed over like her hairstyle and her Latin tutoring gig. I don’t think the novel lives up to the weight of its context; I think it might be exploitative. I’m not able to recommend it.


Rating: 3 random billy goats.

A Million Aunties by Alecia McKenzie

After a great loss, a man returns to his mother’s homeland of Jamaica in this stunning novel of love, loss, grief, healing, art, identity, family and home.

Jamaican author Alecia McKenzie (Sweetheart) offers her readers delightful characters and thoughtful themes in A Million Aunties.

Chris seems to be running from something when he arrives in the Jamaican village of Port Segovia from New York City. In the opening chapter, “How to Paint Flowers,” his grief is gradually revealed: a woman, Lidia, now gone; Chris’s dark paintings; the impulse now toward light, as if to make up for what is lost. His friend and agent, Stephen, has sent him to Auntie Della in Port Segovia, promising, “You’ll have anything and everything you want. The whole range of tropical beauties: hibiscus, bird of paradise, bougainvillea.” Della owns a local nursery.

Just as readers settle into Chris’s pain and paintings, McKenzie shifts the focus. Chapter two is told from the point of view of Chris’s father, aging in Brooklyn. He worries about his son and their frayed relationship. Other chapters focus on other characters: Chris’s agent, Stephen, Jamaican by birth, who lives in New York; their friend Féliciane, a French artist who works with found objects; Uncle Alton, a painter in Kingston; Miss Pretty, Port Segovia’s local eccentric, who walks all day long in a fur coat. Chris was born in the United States, to a Black man from Alabama and a Jamaican woman. His father remembers first meeting her, and noting “the arrogance and confidence of growing up as a majority. The shortsightedness of it.”

Chris and Della are the heart of this story, but the kaleidoscope of other perspectives enriches it. Chris begins to heal from the loss of Lidia and even reconsider his relationship with his father, with the help of a new auntie and a broadening view of the world. The myriad characters offer a textured background to this central story. From rural Jamaica to New York City, Paris and the Firenzes of Alabama and Italy (Chris: “Firenze was always Firenze, never Florence”), and across generations, they share common threads: art, flowers, love, loss. “Painting flowers is political action,” Chris’s best-remembered teacher used to say. Now this seems to be all he can do for Lidia, who rearranged her life to devote it to flowers.

Stephen’s relationship with Auntie Della offers perhaps the novel’s central theme of human connection, built families: “In his most morbid moments, he sometimes thought: lose a mother, gain a million aunties.” A Million Aunties is an exquisite novel about beauty and pain, and what binds us together. Through captivating character studies, quiet lovely writing and deceptively simple storytelling, McKenzie illuminates basic commonalities and rethinks what family and home mean.


This review originally ran in the October 22, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 heaped plates.

Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America by Elliot Jaspin

I came to this book from the podcast series “Seeing White,” where Elliot Jaspin spoke briefly about one of the cases handled in his book. I made a note of the title and got it through the college where I teach, via interlibrary loan. I love interlibrary loan. The subject of Buried in the Bitter Water is the instances in American history where a community has run its Black residents out of town. This is a very specific kind of occurrence, as Jaspin lays out in his fascinating introduction. I think it’s worth telling that story, of how this project began.

In the late 1990s, Jaspin visits a small town in northwest Arkansas. He observes that, despite a history of Black residents, he doesn’t see any in the present time. He asks and is told that “the Klan keeps them out.” Using census data over the last century, he goes looking for counties where the Black population shows a sudden drop – the standard he uses is a drop of fifty percent in a decade. He begins with Southern states but expands his search to include “thirty-one states in the South, Midwest, and Mid-Atlantic where I thought I would be most likely to find racial cleansings.” (I wonder what he missed in the remaining nineteen states!) Census data, at least at the time of his research, was only available by county, so that’s the unit of measurement he uses, while speculating that he’s probably missing instances involving smaller communities – towns, villages. Having identified counties with suspicious numbers, he cross-checks contemporary newspaper records, and indeed he finds stories like those in Berryville, Arkansas (where he’s visiting at the start of this story) and Corbin, Kentucky (which was the story featured on “Seeing White”).

A word on language: Jaspin writes that the term ‘ethnic cleansings’ was coined in the early 1990s by Croatians fleeing Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. He acknowledges that it is problematic in its assumption that a place is ‘cleaner’ without an out-of-favor ethnic group, but concludes that it’s okay because it was coined by its victims. I’m not terribly comfortable with that, myself, but I appreciate that he at least considers the question. I feel like it at least needs “scare quotes” (if not a better term, please?), and I’ll use them in this review, as in: Elliot Jaspin has done some important original research on “racial cleansings” in American history.

And he has. For the book, he identifies a dozen of the “very worst” cases, and tells those stories in twelve chapters. In many cases he’s interviewed local residents, descendants of those residents who were run out of town, or even survivors. It’s part of the book’s thesis that these histories have never before been told, and based on Jaspin’s research I believe that to be true. So his work is important – this is primary research beginning to tell a story of American history that we absolutely need to get on the record. The case studies are predictably horrifying.

But they’re hard to read for another reason, too. Back to those problems of language. Buried in the Bitter Waters was published in 2007, but it feels older than that because Jaspin frequently makes errors in sensitivity. This is important research, but it’s important how we write it up, too. For one thing, he uses ‘black’ as a noun throughout, for people: the blacks lived here, the blacks did this and that. I’m pretty sure it’s been a part of social justice training since before 2007 that we should refer to people as people: Black employees of the mine, Black students in the school, Black people, as opposed to simply ‘blacks,’ which reduces them to perceived race and nothing else. This usage is all over every page of the book, and it grated at me, and affected my ability to concentrate on the stories Jaspin was telling. Now, 2007 was a long time ago in wokeness terms, and I’m trying to be patient with Jaspin, but I found this hard to take. He also makes a common error in naming the race of Black people, while other characters in the history might just be men, women, people. (We are left to assume that they’re white. It’s not always clear.)

It gets worse: a county is noted to have “lynched their own black seven years earlier,” a line which makes me shudder. And “if young Charles Stinnett had not decided to rob the spinster Emma Lovett, there might still be a black community in Boone County, Arkansas.” I am positive we knew what victim blaming looked like in 2007, and this is an excellent example of it. What made the white residents of Boone County run their Black neighbors out of town was not the alleged crime of an individual Black man. It was the white residents’ racism. Later, the six-day trial, conviction, and sentencing to death of Charles Stinnett is referred to (by Jaspin) as “speedy justice.” In reference to events in the early 2000s he writes that “a century earlier, segregation, disenfranchisement, and racial cleansings had established a white man’s country.” I would like to point out that this country was established as a white man’s country well before the early 1900s – in fact, before it was a country, the earliest white settlers were working to establish it as such, more than four centuries ago.

I’m not trying to pick on Jaspin, who I think is well-meaning, and earnest in his search for truth and justice. But I think it’s an important feature of this book that he doesn’t address all the baggage he brings up, including his own. We’re all on our own paths of discovery, hopefully all moving toward ever better awareness of social justice, and that process is never finished. I don’t know it all or get it all right, certainly. We have to keep learning; thinking we’re done with it is the easiest way to stop learning. I’m not here to crucify Jaspin for what he got wrong in 2007, but it’s part of my review of this book that he got a lot wrong, in how he writes about Black people and how he assesses the results of his research. His work is a contribution to research in this field, and future historians will consult it and add to it – and I hope rewrite it in better and clearer terms, soon. It’s only been thirteen years, but it’s time.

Jaspin details his twelve chosen case studies of ‘racial cleansings’ in eight states. They are hard to read, both for the right reasons (because this history is shameful and disturbing) and because I often cringed at Jaspin’s terms. He makes some astute points about the factors at play here, obviously including racism but also including, for example, economic factors, and capitalism’s successful pitting of poor white workers against poor Black ones. He finishes with a lengthy conclusion that felt a bit out of place for me: he tells the story of how this material was intended for the newspaper chain he worked for, but it got edited to death and/or left unused, because the chain included the Atlanta paper that badly mishandled its coverage of Klan activity in north Georgia in the 1980s, which is part of the continuing story of the ‘racial cleansing’ that took place there. (Whew.) This detailed story of a failure of journalistic integrity struck me as a little off-topic, and a little personal for the author, in ways that didn’t necessarily serve the broader goals of the book. (The related point is that we’re still not doing the self-examination of history that we need to do, which is valid. But it gets a bit wide of the mark, in my reading.)

Final assessment? This was a complicated one for me. I appreciate Jaspin’s introduction, in which he details his discovery of this phenomenon, and his research methods. (Note the limited capabilities of internet research in the late 1990s and early 2000s.) I think his primary research into under- or unexamined ‘racial cleansings’ is deeply important to the field of American history. The scholarship in this book is significant, and will bear further study. I’m glad for Jaspin’s contributions. But I’m also bothered by the shortcomings in his language, and his occasional failure to question the given narrative. I think the next scholar to take up this work can and should do better.


Rating: 5 times words matter.

movie: The Dark Divide (2020)

Click that beautiful image to enlarge. Go ahead. Isn’t it lovely?

This film is definitely visually pleasing, but that’s not all it has to offer. The Dark Divide is based on a Robert Michael Pyle book, Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide. I have not read this book, but I have it on my shelf, and I know that I appreciate Bob Pyle’s writing. (Small disclosure, I guess: I’ve met Bob a few times.) A film based on a memoir by a writer I admire is always a solid bet. Plus, a small part is played by somebody else I admire.

Patterson Hood is more or less as niche as Bob Pyle, I guess, and it’s just downright fun that they’ve ended up in a project together, certainly in part because Patterson now lives in the same Pacific Northwest region. At any rate, this was enough to bring me in.

The story is this. Bob Pyle is an academic, lepidopterist and writer, portrayed here as pretty bumbling and goofy. His beloved wife Thea is dying of cancer, and his colleagues are ribbing him about this great butterfly hunting expedition he talks about but never undertakes. Shortly after losing Thea, he gets a grant from the Guggenheim to actually do it: hike from route 12 in southern Washington state, over Mt. Adams to the Columbia Gorge, seeking butterflies (and moths) along the way. It’s intended to be a 30-day trip. “You’ve been camping before, right?” ask Bob’s colleagues. “Cub scouts, or…?” They’re being a little mean, actually, especially in light of the Thea situation, but the viewer has to admit that Bob is unconvincing as a backcountry hiker. (Because I barely-a-little-bit know Bob, and like him, I was a little sorry to see him made fun of. But then, he wrote the book.)

The film follows Bob’s hike through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest (aka the dark divide), with flashbacks to life with Thea. There is not a ton of dialog, because for much of the time Bob is alone. He talks to himself a little (less than one might expect), and he occasionally meets with other humans, although this rarely turns out to be a good thing. As a ranger tells him when he asks about Bigfoot: “If you were one of them, wouldn’t you hide from us? I know I would.”

It’s a charmingly simple story. Beautiful scenery, elemental challenges (bear, food, water, weather, gravity at cliff’s edge), stark human grief, scant dialog. Look at these stunning views, consider the horror of losing one’s life partner. See the rare endangered species, howl for help from the bottom of a cave. An encounter with a crew of loggers encapsulates some conflicts – a bit simplified, but effective. There are some logical or factual goofs, like the fact that Bob seems to carry a solitary quart-sized water bottle (Nalgene, of course), and we never see him refill it (except when the rangers do so for him). But this isn’t meant to be hyperrealism, nor a how-to-backpack guide (seriously, don’t use this movie as a how-to).

Visually stunning, thoughtful, poignant, funny, honest, and a decent introduction to the Bob Pyle character. Recommended.


Rating: 8 hoots.

television: a new discovery

It’s been a weird year.

Say it again: it’s been a weird year.

I made a post to this effect at about this time last year. The trend continues: I’ve been watching television. (I still don’t own a television, but technology has allowed me to become a TV-viewer on my little laptop; wonders never cease.) I still find this so strange. And I struggle somewhat with the stigma I was taught as a kid: that is, that television is tooth-rotting junk food, while books are healthy and nourishing. Well, there may be something more passive about watching, while reading requires a bit more reader participation. There’s no coincidence in this compliment to one of my favorite shows: “They required a level of attention from viewers of The Wire not normally demanded by television shows… but a level of attention a step closer to the level you might have to apply to reading a book.”* But also, as Liz points out (I paraphrase): “Television was junk when you were a kid. But in the last 15 years or so, they’ve figured out how to make some really good television. And you’ve been watching good television.” And you know what? I have been. There is some astonishingly good television out there.

It’s not normal for me to feel this involved with a television show. But on the other hand, it’s not all that unusual for me to feel really involved with a fictional world, with plot and characters invented by impressive creative minds. And it’s been really exciting to discover a whole new medium for exploring story and character. Not that I entirely had all the craft elements of writing under control! but there’s so much more to watch out for, no pun intended, on the screen. The pure writing alone, from plot construction to lines of dialog to stage direction, is a whole course of study; then there’s the acting, the sound and scenery, and the cinematography. I’m sort of reeling at all of this. I’m a little tempted to sign up for another graduate degree in how to pick apart a television show. (Not really. Maybe a little.)

I’m not sure what’s led me in this direction, toward the screen. I definitely think the pandemic and shutdown and isolation and increasingly depressive news of the world have played a role, but again, I started watching last year. The bad world out there has just pushed me further. I’ve also noticed that in my reading, I crave lightness and fiction to leaven the important but unpleasant reality I take in. But when my favorite novels of the year include Sun a Fun Age, Leave the World Behind and The Prettiest Star, maybe I don’t skew as ‘light’ as I claim to. Maybe it’s just that I’ve finally found a new-to-me medium, and I was ready for it. At any rate, there are whole worlds out there. When television is done well, those worlds are thrilling and enthralling and worthy of all the time and attention I have to offer.

Case in point is definitely The Wire, a piece of creative work I can scarcely wrap my head around after two full viewings – thanks as always to Liz, who not only told me to watch it in the first place, but then sent along a great piece of criticism. The above *quotation comes from “Why The Wire is one of the Most Brilliant TV Shows Ever,” which is spoiler-free, and a better review than I feel able to write. I will say that this show is not only visually appealing, extremely witty and funny, but also very very smart, and tackles the kinds of Big Issues that I like to see tackled in fiction. I’ll watch it again.

My television obsession of the year is Shameless (the US version). Early in pandemic shutdown, I started watching this show and got hooked. This scrappy, resourceful, problematic, crazy-but-real family just got inside my head and my heart, with their struggles and their relationships which are both strong and messy, and their colorful southside Chicago setting. It’s absolutely a comedy and absolutely a heart-rending drama, and it runs for ten seasons, with season 11 delayed by the pandemic but now filming, and set to be the last. I am most in love with the relationship between Ian and Mickey, but many characters’ arcs strike me as nuanced and engrossing. This is less a perfect show than The Wire; there are errors and inconsistencies, but I still find it completely compelling. And while it’s less serious, too, there is no shortage of Big Issues – mental illness, addiction, sexual assault, poverty, tolerance, love – which are here presented as simply the backdrop facts of life, rather than problems to be solved as on The Wire. This is another show I’d take a master course on.

My love for Shameless character Mickey Milkovich led me to seek more work by the actor who portrays him, Noel Fisher, which led me to other shows and movies, many of them good – The Booth at the End, The Riches, The Long Road Home – but most remarkably, The Red Line. This series of just eight episodes begins with the shooting of an unarmed Black man by a white cop, and just keeps adding in the Big Issues from there. It’s jam-packed with them, in fact, which could be seen as a liability, especially in less capable hands (these are very capable hands – Ava DuVernay is a producer); but I decided it felt rather like life, in which we are indeed surrounded by Big Issues that we don’t get to fully untangle. (I was also charmed by a matter-of-fact background element: one of our protagonists has a BFF who is non-binary in their gender identity and uses the pronouns they/them. I expected this would become another Issue but no, it’s just a fact of life. Which is part of what representation means. Hat tip.) A little more time would have been great, to see these stories more deeply explored, but I’m very impressed by what is here.

Finally, Orphan Black is a mind-blowing story and set of characters, including some of those loving, messy, built-family relationships I love as in Shameless. It’s addictive in many ways, but what I can’t miss mentioning is that a whole slew of characters are played by a single actor. Some of these characters then play each other within the show, so that the completely masterful superstar Tatiana Maslany not only plays Sarah and Allison (and others) but also Allison pretending to be Sarah, etc. It’s the big bad world against our heroine, iconoclastic rebel Sarah Manning; episodes and seasons keep twisting and riffing on that basic plot structure in a way that might be tiresome, if there weren’t so much imagination in the twists and riffs, and humor and love (and completely genius secondary characters like Sarah’s sidekick Felix). I was bereft when I finished the final season.

Liz tells me there’s plenty more great television for me to catch up on. What a world. I wouldn’t say Noel Fisher’s body of work makes up for what’s going on out there in the real world, but it’s pretty thrilling to continue to discover works of creativity that change the way I think and feel. Thank goodness. Keep ’em coming.

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