wild times, and a reading

Posts have been continuing as normal here, but I just wanted to pause and acknowledge that the world is turning upside down and all is not “normal.” I’m safe, as much as anyone is these days I think, but I’m… disrupted and upset and frightened. The college where I teach held our last day of in-person classes on March 12, and then sent all students home from the dorms, took a few days’ break, and reopened with online classes on March 18. So, a semester and a half into my teaching career, I’ve been undertaking a new format. It’s been a bit hectic. I’m worried for my students. I’m readjusting to a life lived in my house, in my laptop, and in round-the-clock contact with Hops (he is thrilled).

just as long as we’re together

I am lucky and privileged to be as safe and secure as I am, which is not entirely, but better off than many. This post is not meant to be self-pitying. But I needed to pause, as I said, my usual programming to say: we are all topsy-turvy. If you still want book reviews, they will still be here twice a week. They do get a little harder to produce, though, I confess.

If you are like me and you’re luckier than most, think about what you can do to help. I like the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which supports booksellers in times of crisis. We want independent booksellers to survive! I’m also looking into options like the Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation and USBG National Charity Foundation for food & beverage service workers, whose work I so appreciate and who are mostly or entirely out of income just now. (Bars and restaurants have been closed in the state of West Virginia, and in many states and communities, and probably more will be closing; where they are allowed to be open, business is obviously slow.)

(I have loved some bars.)

If you can help someone else, do so. And obviously, please, isolate and take precautions – not just for yourself, but for others and for community.

And now, a reading. If you’re here, maybe, like me, you’ll appreciate a restorative by way of Paul Kingsnorth, whom I love. I find his truths to be beautifully expressed, painful, and exquisitely true. So “in the time of the great, strange plague,” here is “Finnegas” (h/t Pops for finding this). I find it comforting, and beautiful. “We should be saying: stories were the problem. We should be saying: no more stories, not from us.” (Shades of Savage Gods.) Read, and be safe. Book reviews will be back on Friday. Take care of each other. Thank you.

movie: Frequency (2000)

Another firefighter flick. (I can’t remember where I got this list.)

As the movie opens, Dennis Quaid is a hunky firefighter, Frank, in 1960s Queens. He has a good marriage with Julia, and a six-year-old son, John. Flash-forward some 30 years, and John (Jim Caviezel) has grown up to be a cop. He’s close to his mother. They both mourn his long-dead father.

Until the return of the rare (especially in NYC) aurora borealis, which shows up in both 1969 and 1999, coinciding with adult John’s discovery of his father’s old HAM radio. In a sci-fi twist, this allows Frank and adult John to talk to each other across the years. (There is mention of string theory and multiple dimensions to lend this mystery a touch of possibility.) It takes a bit of convincing, especially for Frank, to believe what’s happening, but the play-by-play John is able to give of the 1969 World Series (the Amazing Mets) clinches it. (That World Series will continue to signify throughout the movie.) You can guess what comes next: John is able to warn his father about the warehouse fire in which the latter dies. Now he doesn’t die. Hooray! Except… cue the butterfly effect.

Frank’s survival gives John a whole new set of memories in which his father was there for his adolescence and young adulthood. He’s kept the other memories, too: “I remember both. At the same time. It’s like waking up from a dream and you’re not sure what’s real. I remember you being here, but I also remember when you weren’t.” And now, of course, things start changing in John’s present. His girlfriend doesn’t know him. His mother is not at the phone number he has for her. John the homicide detective gets a new case that matches an old case, and the news just keeps getting worse. He and Frank, across the years and via nightly talks on the HAM radio, undertake to catch a serial killer, but as Frank points out, he’s a firefighter, not a cop. It’s possible that whatever they try will make things worse.

This movie is kind of sappy, but I quite loved it. Seeing the father and the son be open and emotional with each other was darling, actually, even if a bit cheesy. Frequency‘s plot is not unfamiliar (think elements of Back to the Future, Sixth Sense, Ghost, It’s a Wonderful Life), and it uses some fairly transparent tools to manipulate my emotions, but I’m here for it: with a little willing suspension of disbelief, the tension was convincing, and the plot twists intriguing. There’s a bad guy, and there are a couple of clear good guys, and enough disturbance to put them in danger along the way. Most importantly, there are compelling relationships, and maybe that’s key to my enjoyment here. I found a user review on IMDB that says it perfectly: “There have certainly been better action/suspense/serial killer movies (the action scenes weren’t amazing, the story has some holes, and I thought the ending was a little cheesy), but the heart of the film is the relationship between Frank and John. I bought into that relationship fully, and that’s why I liked this film as much as I did.” Well put, UnclePaul.

Solidly worth the time. Also Dennis Quaid is hunky.

Rating: 7 cigarettes.

television: Agatha Christie’s Poirot

I have been thinking, again, about some wonderful memories that have helped to shape me. For starters, please go revisit this post, as I think about what a precious gift my Grammy gave me when she took me to see my first live Shakespeare production at a beautiful theatre in San Diego when I was ten. And just now, I’ve been remembering watching Poirot, perhaps Agatha Christie’s best-known detective, when I was a little girl with my mother. I recall vividly the art-deco entry sequence. I loved this show.

In my memory, this was an old show, but I see now that it began in 1987, when I was five years old. So by the time I was watching it it was not new releases, but still pretty recent. Well, I’ve just rediscovered the series thanks to a few different channels on Amazon Prime. There are now thirteen seasons, and thank goodness, because I can’t get enough.

The early seasons are what I remember from childhood. The tone is fairly lighthearted; the audience is invited to laugh gently at Poirot, who takes himself too seriously, and who is accompanied by the variously comic Miss Lemon (with her ridiculous hairstyle and her lovable passion for filing), Captain Hastings (“I say!”), and Scotland Yard’s over-serious Inspector Japp. This is the cast of characters I loved so much as a child, and I find them as remembered, but with more depth and nuance now that I’m a few years older. (Or maybe my memory just got vague.) It goes without saying that Poirot himself is played by David Suchet, my first Poirot and the only one I recognize; I have since encountered other iterations and they are all offensively wrong for the role in my eyes. What can I say; I’m loyal to my first experience? but I really think he is the portrayer. I am not alone. “Agatha Christie never saw David Suchet in the role but her grandson Mathew has commented: ‘Personally, I regret very much that she never saw David Suchet. I think that visually he is much the most convincing and perhaps he manages to convey to the viewer just enough of the irritation that we always associate with the perfectionist, to be convincing!'” (source)

note the twinkle in the eye and the little smile

I am sorry to say that after season eight, Miss Lemon, Captain Hastings, and Inspector Japp mysteriously disappear on us. Poirot is rather more alone from here, although he does gain (in season ten) a new butler, George, and a new friend, Ariadne Oliver, an irreverent mystery novelist who is always, always eating an apple. While Mrs. Oliver is good for a laugh or two, George does not provide much comic relief; neither of them replaces the original trio. The overall tone of the show has gotten less light, too. It feels a little bit, to me, as if the show has taken a step toward taking Poirot as seriously as he takes himself. I think the loss of tongue-in-cheek humor hurts. I love a good dark, grim, gritty mystery as much as anyone does, but having loved a slightly ridiculous Poirot I am less enamored of the darkly serious one. It is also somewhere in here that his Catholicism begins to play a role. I may misremember, but I feel like he used to be cynical about religion; now he is devout, always whispering over his beads. It’s not bad, but it’s different, and if my love for Poirot is much about nostalgia, I don’t like having my original version messed with.

we are getting more serious now

I’m very glad it keeps going, though. By the time I got to Murder on the Orient Express, near the end of season twelve, I was marveling at what wonderful storytelling Christie’s original was, for one thing, and at how glad I am to have this cinematic telling. The Catholicism is big in this one, and the darkness. Atmosphere, and the snowed-in backdrop, are very effectively done. It’s a grand story that I feel I’ve seen and read and heard in several formats by now, and this version does the whole thing justice. I’m so glad this production exists in the world; I feel lucky.

I am impressed to read that Suchet has played the entire Poirot canon by now! and “only slightly short of the target he had set himself of completing the entire canon before his 65th birthday.” (I’m using Wikipedia as a source; original interview here.) But I have the usual feeling of impending loss, as I finish season twelve and face the approaching end. Thank goodness there are so many stories in the world, yes? I hear Bosch is returning for a sixth season this spring…

Rating: 8 little gray cells, obviously.

I guess I rate television shows now too. What the heck.

museums: MFAH and the Holocaust Museum

Over the winter break I traveled home to Texas, and had a wonderful time with all the friends, restaurants, events… and a couple of great museum visits. Just some quick notes here.

Museum of Fine Arts Houston (photo credit)

With an old friend, I visited the Museum of Fine Arts Houston to see the new Norman Rockwell exhibit there. I learned a lot about him. We all know Rockwell in some way – his better-known images are in the fiber of American culture. But (of course) there’s more story there than I knew. For instance, I hadn’t realized that after forty-some years, he left the Saturday Evening Post at least in part for moral reasons: they forbid portrayals of Black Americans outside of service roles. It was the 1960s, and he needed to depict what was happening in the real world, including the Civil Rights Movement. Look published his work in that later era, including “The Problem We All Live With” (you know this one, if not by name: it features Ruby Bridges walking to school in New Orleans, flanked by U.S. Marshals and backgrounded by ugly graffiti and a thrown tomato). I saw some striking paintings from that later career, including one of Lincoln, and several portrayals of multiculturalism and interracial camaraderie.

In the earlier Post era, especially, Rockwell is accused of being overly optimistic, of depicting an America that is homey and happy and quaint. (He’s even inspired an eponym.) I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Optimistic? Yes. But I think he was always portraying real life, even if his images had a hopeful slant to them. There is the element of the everyday, of skinned knees and half-peeled potatoes, that feels more authentic than sentimental, not that there’s an absence of the latter. Also, he likes strong girls and women, which I appreciate (think “Outside the Principal’s Office,” which I’m very sorry was not a part of this exhibit). The attention to detail and to the everyday and the modest is what seems to me to have carried him into the civil rights subjects of his later work.

In telling my father about the Willie Gillis series, he shared that my great-uncle (my father’s namesake), who died in WWII, had sent home a series of his own cartoons of military life. I was thrilled to get to see some of these that he scanned over for me, and he gave permission for me to share one here. Not every soldier was a Norman Rockwell, but many of them recorded their lives in the same way, including one of my own family that I never got to meet.

my great-uncle’s wartime art

Rockwell’s four paintings portraying the Four Freedoms were present in several iterations, and I got to read about how they each came to be; they even have the jacket that was used for the “Freedom of Speech” painting (worn by his model). At the end of the exhibit, a small room was filled with photographs taken as part of a recent project, “For Freedoms.” These images reimagine Rockwell’s originals – the same scenes, same poses – but populate them with more diverse faces and bodies. Click the link and spend a few minutes. With all that I found powerful about this exhibit, this final small room was the part that moved me most, and made me feel really good.

In short, I found the Rockwell exhibit intriguing and moving, and was glad to learn more about the man.

Holocaust Museum Houston (photo credit)

The next day, I took myself to Houston’s Holocaust Museum, which I think I last visited some 30 years ago. What to say about the Holocaust Museum? I think they’ve done a pretty good job with an unspeakable task, to communicate a history of massive scale and unthinkable cruelty and ugliness and hate… I also did some thinking about how the Holocaust is something we sort of just all know about, to some extent – except that I now know that not everyone does know, which is a piece of profound news I’m still processing, actually. I have some memory of discovering this topic for the first time, when I was a kid, in elementary school. In my memory, much of the horror was communicated in images, photographs that showed graphically what it looked like to starve to death. This museum did not rely on such graphic, upsetting images. Most of the photographs were of healthy families and children from before the war, with a note that this child was killed at age seven, etc. I think graphic images are powerful, on the one hand, because they viscerally communicate how bad things were. On the other hand, they run the risk of sensational “torture porn,” of the image itself and its shock value taking away from the message we most need to hear. I appreciate the Holocaust Museum’s approach here. Also, one notable exception: there was a video showing on a monitor, near the floor, pointed straight up at the ceiling, and in a tube, so you had to stand directly over it and look straight down – in a rather uncomfortable position. I couldn’t figure out why they’d use such a weird design, until I saw the content of the video. It was about the post-liberation coverage of the concentration camps, how Eisenhower had the media come in to record and show exactly what was there. It was that footage, of the bodies recovered near death. It was quite graphic, and very affecting, and upsetting; at that point, the physical discomfort of the position required to watch the video made sense. It felt like part of the effect. My theory is that this design is to keep small children from watching.

I also visited the Holocaust Museum’s exhibit of the Civil Rights photography of Danny Lyon, an exhibit on Dolores Huerta, and the art of Holocaust survivor Samuel Bak. It was a lot to take in, but it was all good. I was especially taken with Lyon’s photography of SNCC, the Freedom Riders, lunch counter sit-ins, MLK and Stokely Carmichael, among other landmarks. There was one, captioned something like “police officers pose at such-and-such place,” where six white cops stood around and sneered; one raised his middle finger, while another offered a crotch grab and full-body fuck-you posture. Speaking of graphic; the hate was visible. I kept thinking, I wonder where this man is now, who his children are, if they’re proud of their father.

The Holocaust Museum is no joy, even if the stories of resistance and rescue are moving. But it’s at least as important a history for us to see now as it has ever been, and I’m grateful this museum exists. I have been thinking about the balance, between graphic ugliness and truth about the horrors, and upliftingness of stories of resistance. I don’t know where the right balance lies, but I think they’re doing a pretty good job. I recommend this visit to everyone.

I find even the best museums exhausting, but I do love a good museum, and I’m glad to have had the chance to take in some such experiences while I was in Houston. Among other things, I saw some old friends, attended a great yoga class, ate at a whole pile of excellent restaurants… it’s perhaps more bittersweet every time I go back to my hometown, but I do love every visit, too.

comparative literature and lives, from Pops

The Living Mountain
Nan Shepherd (1945 / 1977)

Under the Sea Wind: A Naturalist’s Picture of Ocean Life
Rachel Carson (1941 / 1952)

I want to celebrate early – and timeless – work from two remarkable women naturalists of the 20th century. This is not really book reviewing; it is tribute to these two writers’ noteworthy similarities and differences, and appreciation of their early, largely disregarded success. The books came to me unintentionally, separately, and coincidentally; that’s always a fun thing.

As shown in these books, both authors were naturalists in the purist sense: keen observers of the more-than-human milieu around them, with a literary voice enabling them to describe what they saw, which appeared so differently to them than most people. Humans rarely feature; they appear only occasionally as natural background to the author’s higher interest in place, or other inhabitants.

While both show an informed ecological understanding of what they observe, such insight is rarely explicit; they ‘teach’ by example. Both prefer to rely on literal and figurative senses as a narrative lens, and the result on these pages, while different in style, is surprisingly similar in tone, feeling and impact. There is a sophistication to their form that impresses, especially for its time. Carson embraced the term ‘poetic prose’, which certainly applies to both.

They lived during the same era, against a backdrop of both constraint and change for women. They wrote the two works cited here within the same decade (1935-45); publication of each book was at least partially affected by the war. There is no suggestion they knew of each other.

While both traveled internationally, they lived on different continents. The focus of their attention in the natural world rarely overlapped, even while the results of their inspiration bore similar fruit on the page. Carson was a committed author and trained biologist; Shepherd, always ‘only’ a writer, and more introspective. Early writing success met Carson, followed later by greater success and international impact; Shepherd’s writing was only fully appreciated late in life, and even then mostly limited to her region.

Nan Shepherd was born (1893) and lived always within walking distance of the Cairngorm massif in Scotland’s central highlands – and walk she did, across every ridge and through every valley of her cherished place. Always a poet, sometimes an essayist, she had a brief burst of minor publication before she finished writing The Living Mountain in 1945 at age 52.

For various reasons – post-war disruption, intervention by a mentor, some factors perhaps inexplicable – the book was not published. Only in 1977 was the original manuscript revived by the author and publisher (4 years before her death); it immediately gained attention regionally. Largely due to ‘discovery’ and ardent promotion by Robert Macfarlane, it has belatedly become a classic. The Scottish five-pound note now displays her image, with a quotation.

Shepherd’s subject here is explicitly The Living Mountain, which she embraced passionately her entire life. Her brief Foreword in 1977 testifies to her continued attention to that place. While the narrative draws from her experience over decades, it is organized into 12 chapter categories of her choosing, from Water, to Plants, to Being.

Her focus never strays beyond its boundary of geography, shaped by water. But her meaning for ‘the living mountain’ encompasses everything about it: rocks and water; clouds and winds; plants and insects; large and small; above ground and below; its impact on the psyche. Implicitly, this is an ecological view. Her language is intimate, lyrical and dense – all, matching her perception of the subject. Yet her voice is calming & humble, conveying her affinity for Buddhism. There is likely nothing else in print resembling her work here.

Macfarlane’s introduction in the 2011 edition runs to 28 pages including three pages of footnotes. This is a superlative essay in itself (of course, one might say), partially because Macfarlane himself roamed these hills as a youth, and even today. But mostly this is his own tribute to Shepherd, as we hear her on these pages. As he says, this is “a formidably difficult book to describe.” I would agree, and say that about both books.

Rachel Carson was born more than a decade after Shepherd, in rural Pennsylvania. Even though she grew up land-locked her reading inspired an interest in the ocean. So it is unsurprising that the sea informed both her early interest in writing, and eventual degree in aquatic biology. Significantly, her early work in articles led to mentoring by a Dutch children’s author, who encouraged her simple, direct, descriptive writing style, which is so effective later.

Under the Sea Wind was her first book, published in 1941 at age 34. (Two subsequent books now comprise her ‘Sea Trilogy’: The Sea Around Us, and The Edge of the Sea.) While initial publication met with critical success, sales and popularity were dampened by the war. When The Sea Around Us became a bestseller in 1951, the earlier book was rediscovered and the next year also became a bestseller.

Under the Sea Wind is organized into 15 chapters, divided 5-7-3 into three sections, or ‘Books.’ Each Book is a theme that ties together its chapters in loose narrative; yet all three also naturally connect in a general sense, and comprise a generic year’s cycle.

Carson’s sightline in this book covers the broad western hemisphere, especially the western Atlantic, encompassing ocean and sea; shoreline and river; marine and freshwater; birds and fish; whales and sand fleas. Yet, on a given page, her attention is particular species, and even individuals of a species, which she sometimes assigns a proper noun. One can imagine children of a certain maturity devouring some passages; and adults of a certain proclivity cherishing its entirety.

The magic of her ecological view is how her ‘narrative’ seamlessly and endlessly follows one organism to the next, taking as a thread a trophic food chain, or an expansive migration path, or intricate inter-species symbiosis. But she rarely resorts to such jargon, any global perspective, or stated scientific facts. She simply knits together, piece by piece, story by story, an appreciation of this connected web of life.

The relaxed pace; the embracing language; the sense of peacefulness amidst natural turbulence; the reassurance in understanding how things work – both books display these things, and commend themselves to sympathetic readers.

movie: Brokeback Mountain (2005)

I just recently rewatched this movie, which I saw when it first came out, and appreciated. I’m quite blown away. This is masterful understatement. Emotions run fast and deep; Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar are men’s men in a classic sense, macho, physical, and (in Ennis’s case) of few words; they are also lovers. There is a rough physicality to their affection, as in the scene when Jack shows up at Ennis’s apartment after four years apart. It’s a deeply sexy, sensual movie, perhaps more movingly so because of how different this love and sex is from what we’re accustomed to seeing in romance movies.

And it’s a very romantic movie, in several senses. For one thing, there is the romantic relationship at its center; but there’s also the romanticism of ranching and rodeoing and the gorgeous scenery and harsh weather of the Montana mountains. (Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are gorgeous, too.) I think the power of the film is in part in the overturning of expectations about romance (in both those meanings) and about who we expect Jack and Ennis to be. To put a point on it, we don’t expect cowboys to be gay, and we don’t expect gay men to be rough-and-tumble, macho-masculine cowboys. Those are stereotypes, and Brokeback Mountain is here to dispel them. But that makes it sound didactic when in fact it’s anything but that: it’s deeply beautiful, starkly painful, and at every point feels true.

I have dim memories of enjoying the Annie Proulx story this movie is based on, but perhaps because I saw the movie first, my standard remains this cinematic, visceral, visual version.

I could watch this movie over and over again.

Rating: 10 hats.

movie: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (2019)

There’s a movie version out of We Have Always Lived in the Castle! Boy, rereading that review was interesting. This blog was still pretty young back in 2011. I cringe a bit at the thought that I didn’t know the book yet, and didn’t make the Shirley Jackson connection; but that’s what life is, is a learning process. Everything you ever know, you at one time didn’t know yet! (Don’t make fun of beginners!) Also, it’s interesting to note that now the big Shirley Jackson reference is not “The Lottery” but The Haunting of Hill House, since it’s recently been made into a successful TV series. My students this coming semester will be reading “The Lottery,” of course.

First note: the movie is scarier than the book was. I recall (and it seems from my review) that the book was more spooky or creepy than outright frightening. Well, the movie is not straight horror, in the sense that there are no jump scares; but I was more upset by the things that lurk in the night. For one thing (spoiler follows here in white text, highlight to read): Cousin Charles reads as physically threatening, as in he assaults each sister in turn in what might be a sexual fashion, which I don’t recall happening in the book.

Reviews are mixed. Some reviewers found the tone of the movie off; others felt there wasn’t enough substance, or something like that. I found it to be quite a successful adaptation, and wonder if some of the criticisms aren’t missing the point, or if things I’m calling positive were what most bothered those reviewers. For example, it’s true that the aesthetic of the movie is bright and colorful – not at all matching its content. Constance is forcefully cheerful, with a bright Stepford smile; she almost seems drugged (and her pupils are dilated – how’d they do that? give her eye drops?). This contributes to a weirdly upbeat vibe, even though it’s patently faked, and often in extreme contrast to the conflicts taking places around Constance. It’s odd, but not I think by accident. Each character – weirdo Merrikat; forced-chipper, porcelain-beautiful Constance; increasingly angry Charles; and poor unbalanced Uncle Julian – delivers their own lines in varying forms of deadpan; each believes their own reality. It’s most disturbing, and that is absolutely the point.

There is a trailer here, which on the one hand gives a good impression of visuals and atmosphere, but on the other hand maybe you should go in without having seen so much of it? Maybe the latter; I’m glad I went in more or less blind.

It has been eight years since I read the book, which undoubtedly helps, but I’m inclined to say that as far as book-to-movie adaptations go, this one was quite good and less likely to frustrate the book’s fans than most. Full credit for capturing the feel of the original; great visuals and a hair-raising effect, even without your traditional horror movie’s jump scares. I’m looking forward to reading “The Lottery” with my undergrads now.

Rating: 7 pies.
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