Wednesday, May 30, 2012

perspective (or something)

When I was seeking silver linings, I thought cancer would give me an ineffable, serene sense of perspective. I thought that, post-treatment, I would be able to face every small stupid crisis with, "I've been through worse!" or "This is a day without cancer, so it is a good day." (I also never quite gave up hope that radiation would give me superpowers.) Of course this has not always been the case. I am often just as prone to George Eliot's definition of youth as ever: thinking every crisis is the last simply because it is new.

This doesn't mean, fortunately, that I let small things ruin my mood for weeks at a time. But it does mean that, in the moment, the hyperbole soars as it ever did:

Friday night my bedroom was invaded by beetles (four). "Oh my god!" I shrieked, leaping about and bashing at shadows with a hand weight. "This is the worst thing that has ever happened!"

Saturday, after being outside with the dogs, I found a literal (and ENORMOUS) ant in my pants. Good thing I was inside at that point, and away from windows, because I did not know it was possible for someone to get naked that fast. "Aaaa!" I shrieked, flinging clothing across the room. "This is the worst thing that has ever happened!"

Monday, because I enjoy small-town life, I put festive bandannas on the dogs and headed out to see the Memorial Day parade. Halfway there, an Incident occurred with a malfunctioning poop bag, one of my favorite pairs of pants, and the entire town out on the streets to witness said incident. And I'm going to stand by the fact that getting dog shit on your pants, a mile from your house, in front of fifty people, might very well be the worst thing. I suppose I maintained perspective in that I did not plunge into the woods and hide there until darkness had fallen, or even scamper home. I had a water bottle, so I rinsed myself off, accepted the fact that a giant wet splotch near my groin was not a huge improvement, dignity-wise, and then said, "Well, what are you gonna do? Let's go see a parade!"

(Given that I thought nothing of saying this out loud to my dogs, it's possible that on the public-dignity scale I hadn't far to fall.)

Stories about dog poop! On your pants! huffs the imaginary easily-appalled reader I use to mock my oversharing. And you wonder why you're single! No, IEAR, I don't wonder that at all. I am single because of Flaws! Terrible, terrible flaws! Or because the next guy I'm going to date and I haven't met yet. 

The thing, you see, is that at no point have I felt that being single is the worst thing that has ever happened. Sure, there are days when I buy the Flaws! argument (why would a woman be single if she wasn't doing something terribly wrong, asks our society, and I am not immune to that), but even when I do, I don't think that my life is ruined because my terrible flaws have denied me a man. My life is pretty grand, except when there are beetles.

Is this perspective? Could be. Or it could just be that there was no way I was not going to blog about getting dog poop on my pants, no matter how much introspective stuff I had to add to justify the posting to myself.

I have been reading a lot of Walt Whitman and Greek tragedy. It makes me expansive and goofy at the same time. Clearly sometimes more the one than the other.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

God and the desert

Over the weekend I finished The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life, by James Martin, S.J. Alas, it is not a Jesuit guide to almost everything. It is a Jesuit guide to worshipping, written for people who are already practicing Catholics. In other words: preachy as balls.  

You may ask, why was I surprised by this? Well, I picked up the book after seeing Martin on the Colbert Report, where he came across as down-to-earth, thoughtful, and accepting. So I expected his book to be partially a history of St. Ignatius and partially like In the Spirit of Happiness, by the monks of New Skete. That book, although written by people who believe very passionately in a faith I don't share, is loving, useful, and doesn't proselytize. The monks are in fact very explicit about how their book is not designed to convert anyone or claim that any faith, or lack thereof, is better than another. Their creed can be summed up as, "You have a right to be happy, you should be kind to others, and you should get a dog." Amen. But this book was nothing like that.

Martin comes right out in the beginning and says he only wants atheists or agnostics to read his book if it converts them. I should have put it down after that, but I was curious to see how well he was going to sell that conversion. The answer is: not well. He should have started with the real-life applications of the Jesuit principles and done the hard-core prayer bits in the second half. Instead he starts with the prayer rituals, and the result is that for 170 pages the book's dry, pedantic, and dictatorial. I pushed through out of sheer stubbornness, and because the inserted quotes on many of the pages, from past Jesuits and/or poets (a lot of Gerard Manley Hopkins), pleased me aesthetically. I don't think you could pray a better prayer than Hopkins' "send my roots rain".   

The second half is better, albeit still proselytizing. In that half Martin talks about the real-life applications of poverty, chastity, and obedience. I actually liked his chapter on chastity: even if he's heavy-handed about how the only acceptable sex life is within a marriage, he is insightful about how our society devalues the love in non-sexual relationships, because so many of us (especially women) are taught that the only way to show love is to engage in sex, and that the only value our love has is in its sexual expression. It was refreshing to hear someone honoring the love between friends.

Unfortunately, other than in that chapter, I felt that this book was actively hostile toward me, and towards anyone who doesn't already subscribe to Catholicism or doesn't attend services regularly: there was no advice about finding a church which suits you, or incorporating religion into a life which didn't previously include it. It didn't honor any divergent beliefs, it didn't offer any way to use Jesuit teachings in your life without converting full-bore, and for all Martin's emphasis on "God meets you where you are," I came out of it feeling that if I sat down with Martin to talk theology and life choices I would get judged up one side and down the other. Again, to contrast with the monks of New Skete: I periodically return to In the Spirit of Happiness and always find something I can apply to my actual life and be more peaceful for it, and I'm often very tempted by the idea of a retreat at their monastery (or the adjoining convent). Disappointing. (Though not at all surprising that I identify more with Franciscans who raise dogs.)

Anyhoodle. I had to take frequent breaks from Martin, and in them I read The Judas Judge, by Michael McGarrity. McGarrity writes efficient little mysteries set in New Mexico; they're reminiscent of Tony Hillerman's work although without the glimpse into Native American culture. This was fine; I will probably have forgotten the plot in about a month. It made me miss the desert, though not as desperately as Hillerman does. Reading Hillerman is sometimes almost dangerous for me, because it makes me want to say, "Screw this oceanside living," throw the dogs in the car, and drive back to northern New Mexico, where the beauty is like nothing else on earth. As is the food.

I picked up another McGarrity after that, but the opening pages establish that our hero is on vacation and the book will be set in California. I was not in the mood for California, so I set that aside and chose instead Lone Star Swing, by Duncan McLean, a strange little travel memoir in which a Scotsman drives across Texas searching for the "true" sound of  1930s Texas swing. It was like an unpolished Bill Bryson book, and I mean "unpolished" not just in the sense that the pacing was uneven but that my copy had all sorts of typos and errors, almost as if it had been self-published, though that wasn't the case. McLean apparently writes edgy fiction, which I can believe given his attitude toward dialogue in his memoir: no quotation marks and very little punctuation. Needlessly pretentious. However, every time I was getting fed up with him he would drop in some perfectly Scottish humor and redeem himself. He does whine overmuch about the spaciousness of Texas and how tedious it is to drive across it; I have no fondness for that particular state, but some of us trapped in the I-95 corridor would give a lot to have empty desert highways at our disposal.

Now I am re-reading Antonia Fraser's The Six Wives of Henry VIII, basically because while watching "The Tudors" the constant historical inaccuracies are driving me crazy. There has been a lot of, "What? His sister Margaret married Lord Douglas of Scotland - I know that from Dorothy Dunnett," and "WHAT? Henry Fitzroy didn't die when he was three; he lived to his late teens," and so on. I can understand why they conflated both of Henry VIII's sisters into one character, but having his son die at age three just for pathos is very silly. And yet I am still watching! I do quite enjoy the casting of Cromwell. And hey, anything that gets me re-reading Dame Antonia can't be too bad. (Inaccurate. "The Tudors" is very bad.)

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

buff King Hal (aka "The Tudors")

"The Tudors" - wow. I expected it to be melodramatic, trashy, full of boobs and butts, and forcing me to wonder how the actress reacted to being told, "You're playing Mary Boleyn; you get six lines and a blowjob scene". I did not expect it to be going all Expert Guy on me.

It's one thing if you expect your viewers to enjoy trash (we wouldn't be here if I didn't!). It's even fine to believe that we don't know much about this period in English history (most of what I know is from Shakespeare* or Hilary Mantel). But to believe that we are too stupid to follow a basic plot without having everything spelled out for us is another thing. The best example so far: Norfolk is assigned to head the jury at Buckingham's trial for treason, and the king wants Buckingham to be found guilty. The king's lackey approaches Norfolk and gives him back his father's ring, which Henry VII took from Norfolk's father before executing him for treason.

Norfolk understands what's being asked of him. So does the viewer. But then, as Norfolk turns to walk away, the lackey says, essentially, "You know, it would suck if we had to execute you. It would suck for you, I mean. Because you would be dead. Because the king would have executed you for not condemning Buckingham."

Norfolk gives the lackey pretty much the same look I was giving the television: duh.

Lackey: That would also suck for your son, right? If you were dead?

Dead Horse: STOP THAT

Also, even though we are shown someone saying, "There is Thomas Boleyn, ambassador to France, with his daughters Mary and Anne," we are not judged capable of connecting the two halves of that sentence, so the actor playing Thomas must later address his daughter by her full name and with a musical chord so emphatic it woke up my dogs:

Thomas: How was your day, ANNE BOLEYN?

Chord of Destiny: BWAAAAHMMM.

(What actually woke up the dogs was me saying, "Oh, COME ON.")

And, oh dear, Jonathan Rhys Meyers. I'll let the pretty boy thing go - apparently Henry VIII was rather dishy in his youth (yikes, maybe not) - but the man can't act. When he's called upon to express an emotion, all he can do is open his eyes really wide, which just makes him look insane:

Thomas More (Jeremy Northam in a sad hat): Sire, may I speak freely?

HVIII: [neutral face]

More: Perhaps going to war with France isn't the best idea?


More and myself: Whoa!

Later, HVIII says to More, of The Prince, "It was not as good as your book, Utopia." 

Chord of Awkward Exposition: PBBBBFFFTTT.

I was briefly very excited to see Sean Pertwee, but he dies in the first thirty seconds (literally; there was just enough time for me to say, "Sean Pertwee! Awesome!" before sixteen Frenchmen stab him to death). He's still the best thing about the first episode. I am told that it improves; we shall see.  

*And we all know what Shakespeare did with historical fact.

Monday, May 21, 2012

swords, sorcery, and quibbles

Over the weekend I finished A Storm of Swords, the third book in George R.R. Martin's "Game of Thrones" series. I don't often read fantasy, but when the "Game of Thrones" HBO series was in the making, two things happened. One is that many people started directing me to pictures of the dogs playing the direwolves, because they look uncannily like Darcy. Darcy, though, is taller; Claudio, who watches the show, says that they make the dogs look huge, but I saw a picture of one with its trainer, standing on its hind legs, and it was barely her height (I assume she was, at most, five foot eight). Darcy on his hind legs is taller than Claudio, who's six three.

(Yes, that was a gratuitous MY DOG IS BIGGER THAN THE ACTOR DOGS boast. There's a slight competitive streak on my mother's side of the family. You should hear me gripe about the annual local dog parade and how "Biggest" is based on weight, so the 200-pound mastiff always wins even though Darcy is both taller and longer. The prize is a blurry photo in the local paper with the owner's name usually misspelled, but it's the principle of the thing.)

The other thing is that I saw many reviews of the books comparing them to "The Wire". Now, I didn't always like "The Wire". In fact, I frequently didn't like it at all, but it was always maddeningly compelling.

And I knew I was going to eventually watch the series, because I'm much more willing to watch fantasy than read it (for heaven's sake, I watched Starz' "Camelot", which set new and amazing standards for terrible), so I decided to pick up the first book.

A hundred pages in, I knew the comparisons to "The Wire" were completely valid, because I got the same sensation of "damn it, now I have to commit to four more seasons five more books of this story that I don't actually like but which has utterly sucked me in". I inhaled that first book, despite my problems with it (mostly to do with the female characters, which I will discuss later). The second book I found pretty disappointing: it was, like all the others, over a thousand pages long, but the plot advanced maybe 300 pages' worth. So I took a long break before reading another.

This was kind of a mistake, since I had forgotten who the roughly five thousand supporting characters were. After a frustrating hour of trying to remember alliances or piece them together from the unhelpful list of characters at the back (it's sorted by house / alliance, not by character, so you have to already know which side someone's on: defeats the purpose entirely), I decided to just go with it, and soon I was back in the flow of things. A Storm of Swords was almost as enthralling, pacing-wise, as A Game of Thrones, and I certainly whipped through it a lot faster than I did A Clash of Kings.

However, I have Issues with these books. Chief among them is the portrayal of women. All the female characters are defined by their relationship to men: wives, mothers, daughters, sisters; and their actions are almost entirely driven by this (e.g., Catelyn Stark is a Mother and acts accordingly). Now, one could argue that Martin's world is centered on royalty and nobility, in which the dynastic usefulness of women is as wives, daughters, and mothers of men. But, crucially, this isn't a historical novel. Martin has written a world in which magic and dragons are real, so why does he need to draw his gender roles directly from fifteenth-century Europe? This is your own world, George! You can do whatever the hell you want! Why not have sons be the pawns in alliances, and have all girls trained in combat as a matter of course? Seriously, why not? There aren't any rules; you made your own world. Why are the gender roles in it the same that we've all seen a thousand times?

(Do not get me started on the female knight Brienne of Tarth; in the chapters featuring her, Martin cannot let two sentences go by without reminding the reader how ugly and unfeminine she is. We're expected to remember characters from two books and 2,000 pages ago, but between paragraphs we might have forgotten Brienne's loathsome appearance. Her shoulders are wider than Jaime Lannister's! Do you hear that, reader? Do you know how disgusting that makes her? Even when she's kicking some man's ass, let's mock her, because if she were a proper woman, she wouldn't be able to do that! And of course we have to eventually contrive a situation in which a man has to rescue her, because this ass-kicking cannot be allowed to go on. I made extremely frowny faces during these chapters.)

Another issue is that Martin is killing off his major characters without replacing them. There continue to be minor characters introduced in manner and number like unto the Catalogue of Ships, but none of them have been elevated to deserving their own chapters. Martin flits back and forth between chapters from different major characters' point of view, which are each titled with the name of said character. So we get CATELYN; JON; TYRION; JAIME (noticeably, not BRIENNE; she is a supporting player in Jaime's chapters); etc. Martin's gift as a writer, which is considerable, lies in ending each chapter with a cliffhanger and keeping you invested in each character's story. But by the end, he's killed off many characters whom I personally found more interesting than several of the ones he's left alive, and the points of view are narrowing. Instead of Characters 1-6 alternating chapters, you get just CHARACTER 1; CHARACTER 2; CHARACTER 1; and so on. And if you find CHARACTER 1 kind of a self-righteous bore, as I do, this isn't a great thing.

But of course Martin's shtick is Don't Get Too Attached, as the internet puts it. He'll kill off anyone, or any wolf. This is another cause of serious frowns chez Beatrice. Near the end of Storm of Swords the direwolf count (of six) stands at two dead, three missing, and one wounded. George R.R. Martin, you are not welcome around my dogs.  

Also, there is the sex. Because to be edgy (and worth HBO's time), fantasy must include lots of sex. And bad words about it. Now, I am not a prude*, but language matters. And by page seventy of this book the words "cock", "prick", and "cunt" had stopped meaning anything to me. "Cunt" is the most vile word I know - I often literally flinch when I encounter it, unless the context is something like Irishmen using it as a comma, à la "In Bruges" - and if you desensitize me to it, then you are using it too often. (I think Mantel used it once in Bring Up the Bodies. It rocked me back on my heels, as it was intended to.) At a certain point it seems childish: SEX! Did I mention SEX? Did I mention it's INCEST SEX? You know, George, I think you did.

I'll be waiting some before reading the next one, though that does create the risk of forgetting all the minor characters again. I'm okay with that. I find, for all my inability to put one of the books down while I'm reading them and the way they all end with cliffhangers, that I don't need to plunge right into the next one. It's still going to be there when I feel like it, and the fifth one is getting stink-tacular reviews (sounds like it has the Clash of Kings problem re: not advancing the plot), so no hurry to reach that one.

In conclusion:

*This is a lie.

fuck you, cancer

I don't know how many of you follow the links to the other blogs I read, but one of them is Written Off, the blog of a young woman who was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer at age 28. The cancer kept metastasizing, and her prognosis got worse and worse, but she was never anything but brave, humorous, and determined. She was planning her wedding to an amazing man; it was scheduled for late May.

The blog hadn't been updated since April 17, and I was worried. Today, I read the news that I had been expecting, even if I desperately wanted it not to be true. Ellie passed away on May 18. Her fiancé wrote the last post.

I didn't know Ellie personally. I'm not sure I ever even commented on her blog. But this makes me so angry and heartbroken. I lost a relative to cancer far too young some years ago, and even when I knew her doctors had told her there was nothing more to be done, even when her parents had moved in with her and her husband to prepare for the end, I didn't believe she could actually die. She was so young, she had two small children, and she was so funny. Since she was older than I, her existence had always been a part of my life, even if I sometimes didn't see her more than once a year. How could that just be taken away? I imagine that Ellie's family and friends felt the same way, even as the inevitable became obvious.

Fuck you, cancer. Fuck you for taking that away. Fuck you for not letting this brave, intelligent woman see her wedding or her 30th birthday. Fuck you for everything you've taken from my family and my friends, and for the fact that even if I don't see you again for the rest of my life you'll always be the monster under the bed at two in the morning. Fuck you for those five minutes I always lingered in my car in the Mt. Auburn parking garage, not wanting to go inside for radiation, because once I walked through those doors I was a cancer patient, and the weight and terror of that was almost more than I could bear.

It's not fair. It simply isn't fair. I hate this disease more than I can say.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

bluff King Hal, and a dude who was full of many expert beans

Finished Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. It follows up Wolf Hall, which told the story of Thomas Cromwell's rise to power under Henry VIII. Wolf Hall focused on the downfall of Cardinal Wolsey and Cromwell's part in Henry setting aside his first wife for Anne Boleyn. In Bring Up the Bodies, Henry has tired of Anne and fallen in love with Jane Seymour, and it is once again Cromwell's job to smooth the way.

This book is insanely good. You need to read Wolf Hall first, no question; this is a leaner, quicker book and doesn't waste time filling in forgetful readers. I spent a fair amount of time on Wikipedia, I confess, because I was too eager to read this to set aside the time for re-reading Wolf Hall in its entirety. I may do that now, though, because I am so hungry for more of Mantel's prose. It's very crisp, with lots of sentence fragments, not an extraneous word to be found, and pinpoint-perfect descriptions and metaphors. I wish I could articulate how I feel reading an author who has such a breathtaking control over language, but that feeling mostly shows itself in frantic gestures and saying, "Aaaaaa! SO GOOD!"

The description of Anne's execution had the hairs all over my body rising; even though we are getting it from Cromwell's point of view, and he has no sympathy for Anne, I felt as if I were being led to the block. Terrifyingly immediate. I remember feeling the same way about family deaths in Wolf Hall - it's almost too much, how close she brings you.

After reading Wolf Hall, I ambushed everyone I know with, "READ THIS READ THIS READ IT," and I feel the same way about the sequel. READ IT. And there will be a third! Hooray!

And, on the subject of Henry VIII, are we ready for the Henry VIII Expert Guy story? It is the best.  

In 2004, I drove to Canada to see a performance of Shakespeare's Henry VIII. It was nine hours each way, but I was determined to see all the plays in the canon before I turned thirty (and I did!), and no one ever does Henry VIII. For good reason: it's pretty bad. They did what they could with the play; the actress playing Katherine was astounding and Buckingham hit his big speech out of the park. It was still far from great.   

The important part here is that I was sitting in front of an Expert Guy. He was there with his wife and another couple, and all three hung on his every pontification, which was clearly why he had chosen them as companions. At intermission he decided to fill them in on the English history of the time period. Let me stress that this is not my area of expertise. However, even I know that the daughter of Henry and Katherine did not grow up to be Mary, Queen of Scots. When he informed his companions that she did, I raised my eyebrows, but kept on reading my book. I don't confront strangers about things like that.

But then his wife asked, "What happens to Katherine?" and he responded, with total authority, "Oh, Katherine has been beheaded already; that's why she didn't appear at the end of the last act." And I could not help myself. I turned around and said, very politely and helpfully, "Actually, Katherine dies of natural causes, as we'll see in the second half of the play."

He would not admit he was wrong. We argued for five minutes about this, and by "argued" I mean that for five minutes he said, "She was beheaded," and I responded, "No, she wasn't," and then he said, "Yes, she was beheaded," again. Eventually people from my row started turning around and backing me up. The man sitting beside me tried to give Expert Guy a graceful way out, by acknowledging that Katherine Howard was, in fact, beheaded, and he probably just mixed up his Katherines. He wouldn't take the out. No Expert Guy worth his salt is going to admit, in front of his wife and friends, that a young woman knows something he doesn't.

Finally I played my trump card. "Look," I said, "in a few minutes Katherine is going to walk on stage again, and talk about how ill she is, and then someone else will come on stage and tell us that she has died from her illness. Trust me. It's going to happen."

His back was against the wall. "Well," he huffed, "maybe that happens in the play. But in real life she was beheaded." And as I drew breath to contest that, he looked down his nose, inflated his chins, and in the world's most condescending voice uttered what immediately became my favorite quote of all time: "You may not know this, but Shakespeare played fast and loose with historical fact."

I had no response. Not then, not ever. When someone has said something that balls-out amazing, what can you do but just sit back and bask in it?

Several people from my row, who did not feel like basking in it, said, in unison, "SHE WASN'T BEHEADED!" And then the lights started flashing for the end of intermission. Expert Guy and I did not speak again.

But wait! There are two things which make this story even better.

One is that the other couple with Expert Guy and his wife had been avidly observing the argument, including its conclusion. They were also, as far as I could tell, watching the play. As we were all walking out afterwards, the wife turned to her husband and said, "That's so awful, that he had Katherine beheaded even though she was so sick!"

The other thing, though I did not learn this until later, is that: guess who popularized the phrase "fast and loose"? Shakespeare. You SEE why I love this story beyond all measure? It was like the perfect storm.

P.S. Speaking of playing fast and loose with historical fact: if you think the trash-fest "The Tudors" did not just get bumped to the top of my queue, you overestimate me greatly.

Monday, May 14, 2012

weekend reading and general snobbery

Over the weekend I finished Auraria, by Tim Westover, my Early Reviewers book. It was tough going. Our protagonist, James Holtzclaw, journeys to a town in Georgia in the (I think) nineteenth century to buy the land up from all the townsfolk so his boss can build a dam and a pleasure resort. He discovers that Auraria is intensely magical, although the magic doesn't follow any consistent rules or form a coherent mythos. One ghost is invisible and only called "Mr. Bad Thing"; one ghost takes corporeal form and retains his mortal identity; maidens descend from the moon to bathe in the streams (and are described as looking exactly like the creatures in "Avatar"); there's a sort of Grecian nymph living on earth who serves the maidens and also the earth itself... and that's barely the tip of the iceberg. Anything Westover could think of, in it goes. This is one of the most cluttered books I've ever encountered.

The story lost me sooner rather than later because Holtzclaw accepts all of this, immediately, no matter whether it be the sky raining peaches or meeting a headless man at the crossroads. That made so little sense, and Holtzclaw is so lacking in personality, that it all became just a list of Magical Things, one after another. And it goes on and on and on. The book's in three parts: the first is Holtzclaw buying up the land, the second is the building of the dam, the third is the story of the pleasure resort. But each part is just the paper on which the list of Magical Things is written, and I was sick of that list halfway through the first part. I finished the book, but it was a major slog and I did not enjoy it.  

Trivia fact: Westover is an award-winning author... in Esperanto. No, I don't know what to do with that either.

After that, disgruntled, I picked up All the Colors of Darkness, by Peter Robinson, hoping that it would make up for the previous, irritating entry in the Alan Banks series. It did, and with the exception of one issue which I address below, it was most satisfying. The mystery is engrossing and full of red herrings (and the ending is left ambiguous); the characters are realistic; no one gets needlessly shamed. Perfect Sunday afternoon reading.

The issue? Well, I am well aware that I am a miserable snob when it comes to the particular classics that shaped my early life. I can be talking to someone who I know, for a fact, is smarter than I, but if it comes up that they don't know who Uriah Heep is, part of my brain is going to think, Are you still in contact with your wolf mother? Which is ridiculous. Plenty of very well-read, intelligent people simply have not followed the same literary path I have. Plenty of them might reasonably think wolf-related thoughts of me when they find I haven't read Proust, or China Miéville, or whichever authors shaped their early lives. Despite what my solipsism wants to believe, it's not all Dickens and Shakespeare, for everyone.

And yet. And yet. Please tell me - I hear my grandfather speaking through me from the grave here - please tell me that we have not reached the point of being unable to assume that readers know the plot of Othello. I can't stand to believe that we are so lost as all that. But Peter Robinson believes it, and so when he writes a book featuring the plot of Othello as a major reference, we get something ugly.

You all know my annoyance with this by now, surely. You know that when suddenly otherwise well-read characters (one of them an English major, no less!) are saying, "No, I haven't read Othello since high school, and I have forgotten everything about it including the villain's name, why don't you give me the Cliffs Notes right here," I start frothing. We're not talking King John or Pericles here, for pity's sake! Spare me! And the four-page infodump from the English-major character (who nonetheless needed a plot refresher, ARGH) on how the play is really about the power of language and persuasion... YOU DON'T SAY. Please, Robinson, get your Jasper Fforde on and tell me more!

Grrr. Anyway, I know that this brings out the worst in me. ("What do you mean, there are people who haven't already studied Othello's subtext to death in liberal-arts-college honors seminars? What wretched peasants.") But if Robinson felt compelled to handle it this way, he could have done a less clumsy job of it. Say, have one character not know the literary reference, as opposed to all of them; and get the subtext part across through a scene in which two intelligent people who have just seen the play discuss the staging chosen for that performance, as opposed to the scene he wrote, in which one of those intelligent people lectures the other like he's never heard of Shakespeare, even though they have just come from said performance. The awkwardness of it all was what really got me.

On a happier note, I have started Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall, and I cannot put it down. It's much shorter than Wolf Hall (300-some pages as opposed to 600) and feels far less dense. Some of this is due to the fact that most of the main characters have already been introduced, and BUtB is covering a shorter time frame. But I am just whipping through it, to the extent that one can whip through Mantel's language combined with complicated political maneuvering, and loving it madly.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

heave away, haul away

This past week I re-read Eric Jay Dolin's Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America. Despite the weird recurring punctuation typos (I need a job as an editor, seriously), it is a pretty amazing book. He spends some time at the end talking about a 1922 movie set in the 1870s and filmed in New Bedford: "Down to the Sea in Ships". Intrigued, I queued that baby up. It arrived last night.

Ten minutes in, I said, "This movie is awesome, in a hilarious silent-film way! Why doesn't New Bedford host showings of it all the time?"

Fifteen minutes in, our villain is introduced, wearing a kimono and carrying a fan. His "partner in nefarious schemes" tempts him with the heroine's beauty.

Me: "Oh dude, that man is not interested in the ladies."

A series of jaw-dropping title cards inform us that the kimono is actually because the villain's Terrible Secret (which he's not doing a very good job of hiding, then) is his Asian ancestry. Except, believe you me, they do not use the words "Asian ancestry".

Me: "Oooohhhh dear. That's why New Bedford doesn't host showings of this movie."

Meanwhile, a 17-year-old Clara Bow is bounding around playing twelve. She gets in a slap-fight with a ten-year-old boy that lasts, literally, five minutes. I fast-forwarded through it and it still went on forever. At one point he clearly lands an actual smack, and Clara Bow is pissed.

The heroine, Clara Bow's older sister, is played in mincing mime, except for one moment when she realizes her crush has returned home from college (apparently he spent about fifteen years there, judging by his age, but he is pretty hardy) and the actress puts her hands on her waist and exhales a huge breath, with puckered lips, psyching herself up. It's a two-second scene and its realism is so unlike anything else the actress is asked to do that I had to go back and watch it several times. The whole rest of their courtship is the mincing mime stuff and title cards telling us he's saying, "Golly, miss, don't cry!" but the actors visibly dig each other, so it's sweet. (I discovered this morning that they actually married after the movie, and stayed married for the rest of their lives. Awwww.)

We get a flashback to them playing as (admittedly adorable) children that lasts ten minutes. At the end of it both children are crying what are absolutely real tears. I imagine the director probably slapped them, or had Clara Bow do it.

But if it was tough to be a child actor in the 1920s, it was worse to be a whale. The plot thickens to blubber-point when our hero is refused the heroine's hand because her crabby Quaker dad will not let her marry a man who has not harpooned a whale (from my Melville, I know that the harpooners were very rarely white men, so this seems like the perfect excuse for a young Quaker lady to bring a strapping African home and be like, "Ha ha, Dad, get out of this one"). So he goes down to the docks, intending to sign on to a whaling ship. The villain, who is nefariously stroking a small image of Buddha (seriously), has him kidnapped and... put on a whaling ship. The thwarting! Oh, wait.   

According to Dolin, they took a real whaleship out (the Wanderer) and the actors learned how to handle it from the remaining whalemen in New Bedford. And, during the shoot, they harpooned an actual whale and rendered it on-board. Those scenes are fascinating, both in that you can see how they did the work and in that the star of the movie is flailing around in real blubber, but also disturbing.

The plot thickens further! There's a mutiny and a mutiny-on-the-mutineers and Clara Bow has stowed away in the hold, periodically emerging to slap people, and meanwhile back in New Bedford, Quaker Dad is having manipulative heart attacks whenever his daughter says she doesn't want to marry the villain (who earlier showed her father a letter saying, "The bearer has totally harpooned a whale").

Heroine: "But Dad, he's weird and creepy and Buddhist -"  

Dad: "Ack thrash DYING!"

Heroine: "Again? Geez, Dad, fine. Just let me have an awkward interaction with my Native American nanny, who is dressed like Pocahontas, and then put on my enormous wedding bonnet." 

Meanwhile, at sea, the ship is under our hero's control. He is now officially a "boatsteerer", which also apparently means harpooner (one doesn't wear sleeves when harpooning, so the movie at this point gets kind of racy). They are heading back to New Bedford when they come across whales, and decide to lower for them. And this is the cool part of the movie, even if it's tainted by the knowledge that the director probably said, "Oh, and if you actually manage to kill one, that would be great."

No CGI in 1922. They lower real whaleboats into the middle of a shoal of real whales and go at it. The cameramen following in boats got a shout-out in the opening credits, as well they should. And their lead actor is right there in the prow; it's not a stuntman, and according to Dolin the actor did his own harpooning. It's a pretty incredible scene. Side note: many of the extras in the whaleboats, who I assume were actual whalemen, are African-American.

The whale is achieved, and they head home. Not a moment too soon, as our heroine is going to the Meeting House to wed the villain. She drags out the Quaker "wait until the spirit moves you" bit as long as she can, while our hero is running through the streets of New Bedford in a monsoon and falling down a lot (he also stops to get in a fistfight with somebody, but due to the darkness I hadn't the faintest idea whom; I'm going to assume it's Clara Bow). He arrives at the Meeting House in the nick of time and, to my utter delight, breaks through a window instead of stepping three feet to his left and using the door. The villain heads for the door, since he presumably has mastered the use of handles (that's wily Orientalism for you), but vigilante Quakers tackle him. There's a fairly hot kiss and an epilogue showing that Quaker Dad is happy because a grandson has been produced from our hero's harpoon-worthy loins.

In conclusion: so offensive! But also strangely awesome.

P.S. Of course the internet has a clip of the slap fight, although you would need to watch it for five straight minutes to get the full effect. I have not been able to find a picture of the wedding bonnet, though, which is a shame; that thing was the size of an ottoman. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

weekend items

I enjoy the list format, so you may be seeing a lot of that on this blog. This is a completely tedious post and I apologize in advance for that.

1. The woman across the street is also a lady living alone with dogs. Friday morning I was putting out the recycling and she was taking out one of her dogs, and we were both wearing purple velour pants. "Look at us in our finery!" she said.

2. Later that day Claudio and I had our divorce court date. It was almost entirely painless. At no point were either of our names pronounced correctly, and after the fifth or sixth mispronunciation I started to get a case of the solemn-occasion-inappropriate-giggles.

3. Once you accept that your landscaping aspirations have leveled out at "less crappy", facing your crappy yard is much less intimidating. I hacked at the foliage somewhat and it does, in fact, look less crappy. I'm from the desert! I'm not used to grass that reaches Heart of Darkness levels in two weeks.

4. I decided, in a blaze of misguided domestic ambition, to strip the paint off the kitchen cabinets and either leave the wood, if there is decent wood beneath, or paint them a color which is not Sea Foam. I did strip one, and it turns out that there is decent wood below, so the plan is to strip them all and re-finish the wood. This is a ridiculous undertaking for someone who has never done anything like it before, but I'm committed now. It also led to this conversation at Home Depot:

Me: I am looking for the product that strips paint from wood. I don't know what it's called.

Home Depot employee: ... Stripper.

Me: As usual, I have overthought things.

5. I finished The Duke's Children, the final novel in the Palliser series. It is very melancholy.

6. I then read Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne. Also very melancholy, but very informative and fascinating. I can recommend it.

7. Now I have to decide if I am actually going to re-read Wolf Hall in preparation for its sequel, or just study the relevant timelines on Wikipedia. Slothful book blogger! No biscuit!