We saw the film version of this text at the Nightlight Cinema in Akron (full disclosure – it’s an amazing place, and you should check it out), and loved it.
- I read the novel a million years ago, and now I want to re-read it. James Baldwin gets smarter the more I rethink his legacy, and I’m guessing I’d have a much different take on it now.
- As part of what I don’t remember, I’m guessing that we spend a lot of time in the characters’ heads. The filmmaker – Barry Jenkins – spends a lot of time in extreme close-ups of the two main characters, moving back and forth between them in ways that enabled the actors to communicate mental states through facial expression. Those reactions are even more powerful as the camera moves between the two lovers in powerful ways.
- And make no bones about it – this is a love story, both between Tish and Fonny and within their families. The sacrifices that the family members take to try to get Fonny out of jail (on a charge for which he is clearly innocent but ends up agreeing to a plea on) are enormous, even if as Tish’s dad says “we have never had money, so why are we going to worry about that now?”
- The subtext of making this child a wanted, loved child is also powerful, and one that makes me wonder if – as in Moonlight – Jenkins is saying a bit of a screw you to white portrayals of black middle class life.
- I’m also fascinated by the portrayal of Fonny’s mom and sisters, people so desperate (I guess for white acceptance) that they turn their noses up at two kids who are obviously deeply in love, trying to survive despite a culture that tries to crush them at every turn. The representation of the good is not subtle in this film, and it’s interesting that this film (along with Black Panther, BlackKkKlansmen, and Sorry to Bother You) all did well at the box office – perhaps Hollywood’s avoidance of films that its execs don’t like doesn’t translate to actual attendance numbers.
- Finally, with the emphasis on voice in the films I mentioned in the last bullet, it’s nice to have a film that doesn’t have to dub over its characters speech patterns to make a point that white audiences hopefully get.
I re-read The Plot Against America for a class I’m teaching (original post is here), and I’m a little surprised by how different my reaction is to it this time. Of course, I’m now reading it after the first open gathering of Nazis I can remember in the United States since Skokie in 1977. Full disclosure on that, by the way – a friend of mine’s dad perhaps went to not-so-peacefully demonstrate and maybe punch a Nazi. I’m pretty sure he succeeded.
- This is an interesting twist on genre, one that I didn’t pay much attention to the first time: it’s an autobiography used to make an alternate history more personal. One of the flaws of alternate histories is that authors face a dilemma – do I rewrite the personal history of well-known historical figures, or do I invent fictional personas to allow me to make this a story and not an alternate history textbook? Folks have taken all kinds of different approaches of course, but Roth’s decision to rewrite his own history into this narrative gives the novel a intense, adolescent-boy perspective that feels very on the ground.
- From a craft perspective, I’m still in a little bit of shock that Roth tells what happens before he finishes the autobiographical part of the novel. I’m guessing that holding us as readers in suspense until the end was too much, and made the autobiographical portion more important than the larger chronology.
- The picture isn’t of or in the novel, of course, but it does feature the man who defeated FDR and ushered this in, Charles Lindbergh. I don’t think I’ll forget finding out that Lindbergh, who I always viewed as an American hero, turned out to be a fascist sympathizer. Not quite Santa-is-not-real, but still not fun.
- Roth’s ending doesn’t feel as contrived on this read, either – Nazis capturing the Lindbergh baby and holding him ransom (although not presented in the novel as anything but, perhaps, the fever nightmare of Roth’s Aunt Evelyn) while Lindbergh won the election based on his masculinity and his ability to keep the US out of WWII feels way more real now.
- What truly struck me on my re-read, though, was that I couldn’t stop turning the pages. I didn’t feel that way the first time, as I was trying to see if Roth was worth all the hype. I’m still not sure about that, but this novel and American Pastoral if nothing else made me rethink what I believe I know about fairly recent American history.
- Unfortunately, I know the motivating force for the page-turning frenzy this time: when I first read this the Charlottesville Nazi rally was still a month away, and Heather Heyer was still alive, and I couldn’t imagine a US president saying that there are very fine people on both sides, that a proto-fascist, homunculean piece of shit would be anywhere near a sitting president, let alone writing immigration policy speeches.
- Setting this novel in the time of WWII also let Roth avoid the problem of having to understand social media and its effects on our elections, an avoidance that I don’t blame him for undertaking.
Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We never meets my stereotypes of Russian literature, or even Russian scifi, which is a good thing I think. Zamyatin was trying to do something much different, and he definitely attained that, despite my fantasies of all that beautiful, tragic, poetic eastern European literature, scribbled furiously by candlelight. Dreams of the world turning towards social justice as playwrights getting elected as presidents might also pop into my head…
- Although this was purportedly a re-read for me I barely remember reading it the first time. I’m guessing that I read it anticipating robots, and perhaps didn’t pay as much attention to other elements as I should have.
- Zamyatin’s efforts to portray the cognitive and psychological processes of someone who has carefully conditioned from birth to believe in the power of the Benefactor (as he’s named in this novel) and rationality above all else are impressive.
- They are also not believable. Clearly a belief in the power of propaganda was stronger before it was tried wholeheartedly.
- Zamyatin also makes clear his belief that a wholehearted devotion to rationality necessitates a distrust and fear of nature and natural processes, so much so that Zamyatin has his characters show disgust if their features aren’t bland, hairless, and minimal (nose, lips, ears, etc.).
- There are some folks who think that Zamyatin becomes one of the first authors to describe robots, but from my reading I think it’s more accurate to say that he creates cyborgs. Citizens of the One State undergo brain surgery and other implants in order to become perfected, and those surgeries make them cyborgs.
- The ultimate goal of the Integral, the space ship that our narrator is the lead engineer on, is to bring reason to populations that exist beyond earth. Zamyatin’s anxiety about imperialism is both Soviet (western aggression and imperialism being a raison d’etre for the Soviets own imperialist tendencies), and a reversal of the usual sort of joy that goes into space operas of the time.
- Zamyatin is writing the anti-scientistic novel. There is no celebration of the joys of science and technology – instead, it’s made clear that science has severed us from much of what makes us human.
- They even have to schedule sex, and nothing says romance like needing to be sure to attempt to procreate between fifteen and sixteen hundred hours.
LeDuff is from Detroit, and after making a career in journalism he returns to the Detroit News to cover his hometown. He has collected the context of many of those stories here, and it’s a powerful and compelling read.
- LeDuff’s writing style and persona probably get on people’s nerves, and I get that. I was okay with his sort of Dashiell Hammett approach, mostly because he seemed very aware (or at least expressed that awareness in his writing) of his own flaws. He is despairing (and sort of disparaging) of reports, he is despairing of lots of the bad stuff of Detroit, he rips on politicians of all sorts, but he just as often rips on himself.
- He even does this in his marriage, making his wife out to be a way better person than he is. That gives him some props in my mind.
- I compare him to Hammett not because he’s writing fiction but because unlike Raymond Chandler he does not blame the woes of the world on gays and communists. Hammett always felt like he could not stand the wealthy elite who want only to day-trip or slum and then be protected from those who they come across.
- LeDuff clearly doesn’t much like big businessmen, but this book deals strictly with those who work on the ground, and he venerates firefighters in particular. He’s a little less sympathetic to cops, although he does show them often as hard workers who have equipment that is a joke. Detroit doesn’t seem to have benefited from the leftover military gear that seems to have infiltrated every other big city police force.
- So, as is probably pretty obvious, this book doesn’t see much hope for Detroit. I get that folks might be upset about that, as there are still many people trying to make the city work.
- My guess is that LeDuff wouldn’t argue with that. I think he thinks that people simply have the deck stacked against them because of all the corruption, folks skimming money so that they can get rich at the expense of those below them.
“Cult” is season seven of American Horror Story, and each season has been very different. After the attempt to make a meta-take on horror in season six (Roanoke), this one felt like a combination of The Purge and our current political scene.
- It was meant to feel like the (re)rise of nationalism in particular, and I guess we could view it as a cautionary tale of sorts, if we hadn’t already been there.
- The series works hard to make sure that everyone is inculcated in murder – character we don’t expect to do bad things do, and even the hero (this is not a spoiler) is not clean.
- That’s part of the joy of modern horror, of course – none of us are really clean, even if we may think that we are.
- It’s an even scarier fear when it feels like we are losing our political system as we watch.
- The problem, though, is that the show has to work very hard to make us believe that ordinary people are capable of murder (and that the government will not strike back, hard). There is fairly recent historical evidence of course, but even that isn’t as cut-and-dried as we sometimes think.
- I guess that’s the problem with trying to draw lines to contemporary life too closely. Law and Order was able to do that with varying degrees of success, perhaps because they were not relying on our ability to believe in the supernatural, but it’s a tricky line.
Jean Twenge’s iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids (and way more) is one of the first books I have seen on the generation that follows the millennials. She uses the same style – a lot of her analysis comes in comparing Pew surveys that have been done for years and thus offer consistent data – that she did in looking at millennials, but she comes up with some clear differences.
- The fascination with generational divides is one I share, and her look at how to draw and why to these lines at the beginning of the book is a useful argument to make.
- She does not fall into the trap of assuming that technology is the biggest marker of difference. In my mind using technology as a marker is way too easy – developmentally I am absolutely certain that giving a 2 year old a smart device is a mistake, almost as much a mistake as those who see that same toddler manipulate the screen and remark on how “natural” such manipulation is, but tech is not the only major event that has happened to this generation, and we are early in their development anyway.
- That said, these technologies are experiments, ones of which we have no idea of their trajectory. To underestimate their impact would be dangerous as well…
- The general characteristics she draws – that this generation is worried about safety, individuality, and inequality – are ones that she provides a solid beginning of a case for.
- I also found useful her attempts to not judge these traits, nor does she put more weight on them than they can bear. This reticence on her part might strike folks as unfair, but she in particular argues that their desire for equality does not translate to an Occupy Now movement, but seems more generic and less action-inspiring. Those mass movements may yet come of course…
- Of course, she’s a millennial, so maybe she’s just indulging in the age-old tradition of mocking and bashing the next generation.
- She argues as well that while this generation talks about being non-judging of LGBTQ folks, they are also not interested in fighting for their rights.
- Of course we don’t know any of this for sure. The oldest iGenners are only in their early twenties. Anecdotally, at the marches and in the church I attend (which is social-justice-oriented), I see lots of iGeners…
- Her pop culture references are a wee bit cringe-worthy, although this effort to include pop culture seems increasingly to be a thing among academics outside of the cultural studies realm. I think she also gives them more meaning than they should have.
- This is not a good critique, but while I admire her trying to *not* do the easy thing and name this generation Gen Z or some other ridiculously easy name iGen sounds way too corporate to me.
I have not read Sharp Objects (I did read Gone Girl), but wow, Gillian Flynn is dark. We watched SO immediately after watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (review coming I swear), and it’s good to see the influence of Southern Gothic on new texts as Netflix and HBO look for ways to spend their money.
- The dreaminess of the camera movements, and the cinematography, is impressive. I occasionally found myself wondering how something that moved so slowly kept my attention so well (it did).
- Others have commented in reviews about the horror of watching men leer at a rape scene enacted by children in a recreation of a supposed Yankee war crime (Calhoun Day). The name alone shows what I’m guessing is Flynn’s offbeat sense of humor, since it reminds us of John C. Calhoun, the quintessential Southern aggressive defender of slavery (and thus white masculinity), and its revisiting of history is fairly fucking horrific in its painting of the Civil War as the War of Yankee Aggression and Imperialism.
- This scene though neatly fits the sweaty, sensuous, obsessive, and just plain wrong ways in which women, especially in places like rural Missouri, try to assert power.
- And that surprise both sets up more of the series and got me, I will admit.
- Interesting that a newspaper editor is a hero…it’s about time eh?
- I also can’t get over the amount of alcohol consumed, by nearly everyone. Camille’s at least honest in her alcoholism (for the most part).
- Her Otherness is made very clear visually in ways other than lots of drinking – she’s always fully covered in black (she has to cover her scars as well, those she’s given herself as she’s self-mutilator), she wears almost no make-up. and she seems to have no interest in driving a cool car even though as a crime reporter who comes from money she could probably afford one.
- The series also talks fairly directly about class and race. The Preakers are ridiculously wealthy because they own the hog rendering plant, and the series makes clear connections between the violence we instill on animals (and the cleaning up we do so that we don’t have to get our hands dirty) and the violence that emerges from us murderous monkeys.
- The cost becomes especially clear visually as we watch Patricia Clarkson (who plays Camille’s mom, Adora) verbally destroy her daughter (and others) constantly as she maintains her high social status. Clarkson is amazing in this, by the way (not that Amy Adams isn’t).
- There’s a lot more going on here – Camille routinely passes out or uses sex as a way to hide her pain, the father (and Camille’s stepfather) is about as passive and ridiculous a southern gentleman as one could imagine, the privileged children are almost caricatures in their awfulness, and the youngest daughter who Camille sort of saves (not a spoiler, don’t worry) is a study in learning from her mom…
- Not really a spoiler, but read this bullet point at your own risk: the solution is interesting because it’s sort of passive in a way that fits Camillle’s character (and previous solutions to her own problems). As we find out later in the mystery ending, it doesn’t really solve the problem…although a more active solution might well have torpedoed what we think is justice…
As if life isn’t short enough, I’m almost done with my re-read of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Toll the Hounds is book number eight…
- I often think of fantasy as an attempt to rewrite origins and ideals. Tolkien, for instance, wants to go back and rethink history from a time when kings could perhaps be convinced to be virtuous, the Good King imagined as a starting point from which our own culture can derive in a more just and humane way, one that cleaves closer to an image of a just and good godhead.
- A Song of Ice and Fire, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, attempts to revisit European culture by rethinking our relationship with the natural world. It starts at the Enlightenment, which is pretty bold on Martin’s part but not out of character…
- The MOBTF views this rewrite differently, which isn’t surprising. First, I think that Erikson and Esselmont’s universe starts its rewrite from the place in which humans create cultures, of any and all sorts. They’re not interested in only doing part of human history – instead, they often take us back to our Cromag roots. Talk about having large huevos…
- Secondly, their revisit looks at what we think of when we think of first principles. I’ve written an article on this look in terms of war (and whether or not it can be just, a cultural construction if there ever was one I think), but I always think of it as the MOBTF creates its incredibly complicated and sort of irreverent pantheon of gods.
- Authors definitely have obsessions. Tolkien feels very Catholic in his obsession with suffering, and Martin’s obsession with food highlights his fears that we are destroying the natural world. Erikson’s obsession seems to be with domiciles, whether for travelers or for of the common city variety. We do not see much in the way of farm houses (they’re occasionally destroyed as they sit in the path of war) but we do see lots of city apartments and mansions (and even a palace or two).
- My guess is that this has to do with the one first principle that they try to examine, which is the place of love alongside all the pain and misery and war and casual death. Erikson in particular isn’t sappy – he has children both do and suffer some horrific things – but he does occasionally portray a scene in which a stable family manages some peace and love.
- He also spends a lot of time on city life (which I think lends to the Dickens vibe I get from this series). I think I could write reams on this, but I’ll save it for my next post on a piece of non-fiction based in Detroit…
- This series has forced me to rethink how I read fantasy (and maybe more) – my normal process looks like this:
- I try to find the overlying theme (redemption, balance, etc.)
- I try to find the main concern – approaching fascism, with the only option being a good king, approaching planetary degradation caused by climate change, with the diminished presence of humans being the only option, etc.
- I try to find the origin point that the authors want to rewrite
- I’m pretty confident that none of these strategies work for this series (nor do they work for Jemisin)
Notes for this one take the form of a series of quoted passages. Short comments follow. Since I’m trying to keep these sort of short, another will follow shortly.
- Quote #1 – “show me a written history that makes sense and I will show you true fiction.” (66)
- Heh – Erikson perhaps doubts the-history-from-one-perspective that is the purview of most fantasy (and most history as we learn it).
- Quote #2 – “Memory fails. For ever doomed as we seek to fashion scenes, framed, each act described, reasoned and reasonable, irrational and mad, but somewhere beneath there must be the thick, solid sludge of motivation, of significance, of meaning – there must be. The alternative is…unacceptable” (196 – Duiker thinking about his failed attempts to write the story of the Chain of Dogs)
- So much of this series posits whatever forces of good that do exist as hopeless, doomed-to-fail bulwarks against chaos. Duiker represents Erikson’s desire to say how impossible accurate history is to write, an admission that always reminds me of the first season of The Wire, in which the ensemble that created and produced that series somehow made a bunch of arrests of drug lords and some of their most trusted lieutenants feels like an absolute failure.