Saturday, December 5, 2015

Jessica Jones is my Spirit Animal

I'm giving this post a subtitle:
AKA Why it's so Important that Jeri Hogarth is an Evil Dyke.
Hang on! I can explain.

First, some business. This article will be discussing the new Netflix original series Jessica Jones, featuring the Marvel superhero of that name. On November 20 Netflix premiered the entire first season of the series, to widespread critical acclaim and endless fangirl slobbering (half of that mine.) 

There have been many, many, many good reviews and articles written about the series so far. This one does a good job discussing the show in relation to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe, including the movies. This one is a beautifully done critical look at just the second episode of the season (I recommend keeping an eye on that blog and reading the articles on every episode). This is a powerful article all about how the show represents misogyny. I've read articles about how Jessica Jones discusses PTSD, why rape apologists need to watch the show (and what they can learn from it), and on and on and on.

Clearly, Jessica Jones is onto something.

This show means a lot of things to a lot of people. It means so very much to me. It's just so very brave in the way that it takes an unflinching look at a lot of very dark realities. But when I decided to write about the show, I thought I would focus on something Jessica Jones does quietly. Because in this particular instance, it's what isn't said that is so important.

I'm talking about Jeri Hogarth, of course.

The Jessica Jones character (and associated story) wasn't created for the Netflix series. She started as a comic book character, and, of course, the comic is where all the secondary characters first breathed life as well. Only some of the characters were a bit...tweaked...for the television show. When Jeri Hogarth was first conceived, his name was Jeryn Hogarth and he was a straight white male.

Why was Jeryn changed to Jeri for the netflix show? I don't know, and I don't care. What impresses me so much about the character, is the ways in which her different character traits are and aren't played up.

So let's take a moment and address Jeri Hogarth's character traits.

Aspects of Jeri Hogarth's character that are played up in the show:
  1. Cunning
  2. Narcissism
  3. Wealth & power
  4. Cutthroat lawyer-y-ness
  5. Intelligence
  6. Confidence
  7. Reluctant respect of Jessica Jones

Aspects of Jeri Hogarth's character that are NOT played up in the show:

  1. The fact that she's a lesbian

Seriously. Jeri Hogarth is a lesbian. Not only that, but during the season we see her having an affair with her secretary and dealing with the subsequent messy divorce from her wife. And despite all of that, the fact that she's a lesbian is not a topic of discussion. Her sexuality is not a plot in the storyline. How Jeri handles her business and her relationships is a plotline, but not the fact that she sleeps with women. Because why the fuck should it be?

It's 2015. Jeri Hogarth is not the first openly lesbian character in a TV show. But the writers of Jessica Jones managed to do something with this character that is so breathtaking and rare: they portrayed a powerful lesbian woman struggling with her personal life in a way that doesn't focus solely on the gender of her spouse.

 This is so important and so unusual that I want to make that point again, a different way:

Viewers of Jessica Jones watched Jeri Hogarth cheat on her wife, file for divorce, get attacked by her wife, and ultimately watch in horror as her mistress killed her wife, but the discussion was never about the fact that Wendy is a woman and has a vagina.

Ladies and gentleman, this is the way to write gay characters. As characters. Because when we see Jessica and Luke get it on, the discussion is about Jessica and Luke not about their genitals. That's fucking parity. And that's fucking beautiful.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Reading Jonathan Franzen, a Sort-Of Review of The Corrections

I'm always incredibly late to the party.

This year (2015) I finally read The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, a book that came out in 2001 and immediately took the Literary world by storm.

I didn't wait 14 years to read the book because I hadn't heard of it. I was aware of it. Books that are as successful and highly praised as The Corrections are difficult to ignore.

In fact, I thought about The Corrections a little too much for a book I intended never to read. I picked it up countless times at book stores and libraries, fingering the pages, eyes roaming the cover, thinking "Maybe? No." Before putting it back down.

I just couldn't bring myself to read it. Why? Because of 2 things I had read about the book and its author: (1) The Corrections is a literary masterpiece, and (2) Jonathan Franzen is a pompous windbag.

I have no idea if Mr. Franzen is as much of a douchebag as twitter asserts. Just for fun, I suggest you google "why the internet hates Jonathan Franzen" and read some of the articles that come up.

What follows is a review of sorts. It's not so much a review of The Corrections itself as it is a review of my experience of reading a Jonathan Franzen novel. (Oh yes, I'm that self-involved.) In list form, because lists.

(1) The cover of The Corrections is a case study in the culture war between literary fiction and genre fiction.

You might think that the book's cover art is fairly simple and innocuous, but you would be wrong. The picture is of an American family sitting down to what is presumably a holiday meal. The family is white and probably at least middle class, as evidenced by the Sunday best that the two young boys you can see are reluctantly wearing.

(I'm comfortable assuming that this is a holiday meal because of the gorgeous turkey that is proudly presented by the matriarch of the depicted family. Turkeys are understood as the cultural centerpiece of American holiday meals, despite the fact that not every family chooses to have one.)

Book covers are designed to entice readers to buy the book. In order to do so, they attempt to create a feeling of kinship between the readers and the book, as well as the book's author. The symbolism used in the cover art, therefore, is not accidental.

JONATHAN FRANZEN is emblazoned across the top third of the cover, in larger typeface than The Corrections. The picture of the family-at-holiday-mealtime takes up less than 25% of the cover space, and is pushed down to the bottom of the cover.

Between the title of the novel and the picture is a blurb from the New York Review of Books:

"You will laugh, wince, groan, weep, leave the table and maybe the country, promise to never go home again, and be reminded of why you read serious fiction in the first place."

Where to begin?
Setting the author's name in larger typeface than the book title suggests that the author is a larger draw than the book itself, and thus more important. So, from the outset the reader is being told that Jonathan Franzen is a Super Important Dude.

Mr. Franzen's  name is so large on the cover that it dwarfs the picture beneath it. But that's not all. The position of his name in relation to the picture, as well as the size of his name in relation to the picture, are both meaningful and problematic:  unless you're white, middle class, and exclusively read literary fiction, in which case this cover just reinforces your pre-existing world views.

But I'm not talking to those people.

This cover associates Jonathan Franzen, as an author and public figure, with the middle class, middle class culture, and middle class ideals. But, since his name lords it over the rest of the cover art, it also elevates him above those very people and ideals. He is both of the privileged class and better than the privileged class, and from his vaunted position, he is qualified to judge the rest of the people in it.

The blurb from the New York Review of Books serves to assure the reader that he/she has a place at the holiday table. He/she is being told explicitly that "yes. You are one of us." The reader is acknowledged to have a background similar to those in the picture (and, presumably, to that of Jonathan Franzen himself). The holiday meal depicted on the cover is referred to as Home. This book, therefore, is being presented as a shared experience.

But it's not just The Corrections that is being shared. Also implied as shared between the readers of the novel and the book's author is the middle class American experience, and all that that includes: material comfort, stability, an above-average education that includes college, parents that probably don't love each other but probably also don't beat you, and boredom.

Oh, and Serious Fiction. Mr. Franzen writes Serious Fiction and his readers and cohorts exclusively read it.

There are others, of course, who aren't invited to Mr. Franzen's shared literary experience. Those who are too poor, maybe, or too uneducated, to read Serious Fiction. Who are they? Readers of genre fiction, of course. And I am one of those people.

Hence my long-time reluctance to pick up and actually read The Corrections.

(2) I absolutely fucking loved The Corrections

I so hate to admit this, after having so thoroughly dissected the book's disgustingly elitist cover art. But it's true. It will likely end up on my end-of-year top ten list.

(3) I will likely read Mr. Franzen's newest and even more controversial novel Purity. 

Monday, October 12, 2015

31 Days of Halloween: Hellraiser

Well, I finally fucking did it. I watched Hellraiser.

In my first blog post of this month-long series in which I reviewed A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge, I told you all about how my boyfriend Brandon (aka Horror Movie Madness) and I spend the month of October. For us, October is full horror movie immersion month. You see, I'm horror movie deficient, and Brandon has decided he will cure me of that. 

It's fun, and I super enjoy it, but long ago I told Brandon I only had one rule: no Hellraiser.

"I will not watch Hellraiser," I told him all those years ago. "Not in a box, not with a fox. Not on a train, and not in the rain."

Brandon, being a kind and loving boyfriend, agreed to my terms. But he was curious, so he asked why. I explained to him that many years ago, in circumstances I can't remember, I stumbled into a room in which someone was watching the movie. I caught ten to fifteen seconds of it, and it scarred me for life.

It was that fucking chattering Cenobite. I saw him grab a woman by the head and shove his fingers in her mouth. It looked to me like he was attempting to rip her jaw off, or perhaps he was miming forced oral sex. I couldn't really say for sure which, but it turned my stomach.

Anyhow, fast-forward to today. This is our third year of October horror-movie lessons. I've already conquered the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and House of 1000 Corpses. I've seen most of the eighties slasher flicks and the classic seventies religious-cult movies. I thought it was time that I climb Mount Hellraiser and get it out of my system.

Besides, I always thought it was a little weird that I've read (and enjoyed) many of Clive Barker's novels and couldn't bring myself to watch the movie adaptation of his story that he, himself, directed.

So I watched Hellraiser today. And this is my assessment.

It was good.

Ha! I have more to say than that, of course. But just right off the bat: Hellraiser was exactly as scary as I expected, but not to the point where I couldn't enjoy Clive Barker's story. The man is just as much a genius of the genre as Stephen King, and I wouldn't say that lightly.

There are only a handful of characters in Hellraiser: Larry, a remarried widow of considerable financial means that derive from an unspecified origin; Larry's new wife Julia, his brother Frank; and his daughter Kirsty.

It's revealed early in the movie that Frank is a philandering cad who may or may not live off his brother's money, and who slept with Julia on the eve of her marriage to Larry. Frank is also, not surprisingly, the person who hunts down the demon-raising puzzle box and summons the Cenobites. They variously torture and pleasure him, as is their wont, and banish him to Hell-with-a-capitol-H.

When Larry cuts his hand and bleeds on the floor of their family home, the blood somehow nourishes Frank, who begins to rematerialize in his earthly form. Frank then reaches out to Julia, telling her that if she feeds him the blood of more innocents he would come back to life all they way. Julia, recalling their one wild rendezvous, agrees to help.

Time out.

This entire movie is predicated on the fact that Larry is apparently so boring in bed that his wife would literally kill random innocent people in order to once again fuck her brother-in-law. Good God. How sad.  Poor Larry is surrounded by horrible people. Except for Kirsty. She is eventually the one to re-banish Uncle Douchebag Frank to Hell and drive away the Cenobites. Of course, she didn't do any of that soon enough to save her father's life, but, oh well.

This is a Clive Barker story, remember. There may be a simple plot line but that leaves plenty of room for art, however terrifying it may be, and for psychology. 

A common theme throughout most of Barker's stories is the conflation of pleasure and pain, disgust and desire. Those themes are found throughout the movie. There are images of sexually-titillating fingers-in-mouths in the clips of Julia and Frank's One Wild Night early in the movie, images that are twisted and recreated later when Kirsty accidentally summons the Cenobites and Chatterer grabs her head and shoves his fingers down her throat.

As much as that scene disturbed me years ago (and again today), I was impressed by how it sort of bookended the earlier scene. It's like it put a ghoulish period on the end of that sentence.

I'm glad I watched Hellraiser. But, like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, I don't think I'll be watching it again.

I will leave you with this image, because it is cute, and cute conquers scary.

For another take on Hellraiser, read what Brandon thought of it!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

31 Days of Halloween! A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge

October is a special month for my boyfriend and I. Every year that we've lived together (3 so far) we have spent the month of October watching a slew of horror films. Because that's what you do when you're dating a man whose screen name is "HMMADNESS." (That stands for Horror Movie Madness in case you didn't figure it out.  

Right before our first October as a cohabitating couple, Brandon presented me with a truly ambitious list of some 60-odd flicks.

"We won't necessarily get through all off these," he said to me. "But I'd like to try to get to as many as we can."

See, I haven't seen a whole lot of horror movies in my life, and Brandon felt pretty strongly about educating me in this arena. My eyes wide, more than a little daunted, I said:

"Sure. Of course."

That first October, I watched the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and the original Halloween. I saw many if not most of the Friday the 13th series. And I made it through House of 1000 Corpses and Devil's Rejects, somehow. We watched some old, black-and-white horror and some cheesy independent horror. No, we didn't get through the whole list. But we did make a mighty dent in it. And Brandon succeeded in laying the foundation for my horror movie education.

At the end of our first October together, I was a sincere Jason fan, and I had a better idea of the kind of horror that gives me nightmares. 

Now, a couple years later, we're approaching October a little differently. Brandon is having me take a more active role in choosing which movies to watch. This year, we thought it would be fun to focus only on what is available through Netflix. That will make it more random, and open up more independent film possibilities.

First up, I chose A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge.

I have already seen some of the NOES flicks. I had taken my daughter Meredith to see the remake of the first movie in the theater when it came out. And, since Freddy is Brandon's favorite movie monster, he had already shown me the original NOES as well as the third film in the series and Freddy vs Jason. But he had avoided watching the second of the series with me, because he himself is NOT a fan of it. Like many people, he considers this film to be too much of a departure from the original story to really fit in well with the rest of the series.

So we approached this viewing as something of a lark. I looked forward to what I had heard would be a lot of unintended homosexual innuendo, and we prepared to drink whenever one of the characters made fun of Jessie and whenever someone died or we got a glimpse of Freddy's claw.

And you know what? We did laugh at what turned out to be a TON of unintentionally silly dialogue ("Are you mounting her nightly?" For real? What high school guy talks like that??). And there were moments when I was honestly confused about what the movie was trying to convey (I'm looking at you, spontaneously combusting parakeets), but all in all I really liked Freddy's Revenge.

I liked Freddy's Revenge for a very specific reason: it managed to be a fun slasher flick even while it broke every convention of slasher flicks. That's not a small feat.

Freddy's Revenge came out in 1985. At the time, Friday the 13th and Halloween dominated the horror market. They were--and still are--beloved slasher flicks that not only follow slasher flick conventions, they helped to create them.

You can say these with me because we all know them:
(1) The final girl is always the good girl (defined generally as the one who doesn't get laid on screen)
(2) Teenage debauchery is mandatory, and
(3) Teenage debauchery leads to murder and mayhem
(4) Parents? Whoever heard of parents?

I'm sure there are more. And I'm sure there are more nuanced versions of the ones I presented, But I'm not HMMADNESS.

What Freddy's Revenge does is say "FUCK YOU!" to these conventions. And it doesn't suffer cinematically for doing so.

For starters, the "Final Girl" in Freddy's Revenge is a guy, Jessie, who is possessed by Freddy Krueger and made to kill his friends and coach (and very nearly his sister). That, alone, is a bold gesture and is largely responsible for the movie's reputation for homosexual innuendo.

Jessie has a girlfriend, of course: Lisa, who is both smarter and stronger-willed than he. And since she manages to stop Freddy-working-through-Jessie from killing her it can be argue that she is ALSO the final girl. But even that would be a break from convention. What other slasher flick had two final girls?

Also, there is next to no teenage debauchery in Freddy's Revenge. Lisa throws a party in the movie, and that sets the scene for most, but not all, of the slashing. But the joke is, her parents are home, and are actually PRESENT at the party for most of it. No one gets laid, although Jessie and Lisa do some heavy petting. That, though, is interrupted when Jessie feels Freddy start to come out. The viewer knows Freddy is starting to come out because Jessie's tongue turns black and grows about six inches.

Elongated, disgusting tongues seem to be a recurring theme in NOES movies. What the hell is up with that??

Anyway, the movie ends with Freddy banished, Jessie alive but with a notable case of PTSD, and Lisa seemingly none the worse for her close encounter of the nightmare kind.

I give Freddy's Revenge a 7 out of 10.

I really did like it. It's not the work of cinematic genius that the first and third movies are, but it's a lot of fun. And I cannot overstate how brave I think it was for the writers and director to make the decision to NOT follow the genre's conventions. At the time, Jason was it. He was everything. And it would have been a lot easier for them to make Freddy a Jason copycat. Why not? Wes Craven was not a part of the team anymore, and they certainly weren't scared to make creative decisions that did NOT follow his vision (attempting to bring Freddy out of the dream world and into reality).

But they didn't. They followed their own rules and made a slasher film that was its own unique product, and, I felt, a lot of fun.

Now go read Brandon's take here.

Or watch this 30-minute fan-made film featuring Freddy taking on the Ghostbusters. (Please forgive the Jared cameo. This was made before we all knew the awful truth about him.)

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Athena, the Wrestling Goddess takes the NeXT Step

(Scroll to the bottom of the post to read about Athena's NXT debut!)

(I wrote this in September of 2015 as an homage to Athena when she announced she was making the move up from the indy wrestling scene to NXT.)

Sound of knuckles rapping on a door.

"Good evening, sir." I flash the bewildered stranger a winning smile. "Can you spare a moment? I'd like to tell you about The Goddess?"

He scowls, then:

Sound of door slamming in my face.

"I'm not a pagan!" I shout. "I'm talking about the Wrestling Goddess."

The door opens. Half of a man's face is visible through the opening. 

I smile. "Let me tell you about how the Wrestling Goddess has changed my life."

Athena, aka The Wrestling Goddess, wrestled at the very first wrestling show I ever attended: The Show Goes on in February of 2012, a presentation of Anarchy Championship Wrestling in Live Oak, Texas. That was also the very first wrestling show I ever saw, as I had previously never watched professional wrestling in any form or through any media. It hadn't been long since I (finally) finished my master's degree. I fancied myself an academic. I fancied myself a lot of things, actually, but a pro-wrestling fan was not one of them.

In a very real sense Athena, The Wrestling Goddess, changed all of that.

I was introduced to a lot of talented wrestlers at that first show, and I witnessed a lot of very good matches, but it was Athena who made a lasting impression on me. Here was a beautiful, powerful, and eminently talented young woman who commanded respect both from the fans and the other athletes. I was hugely impressed, and, three years later, I continue to be.

I have recently learned that Athena is moving on. She won't be The Wrestling Goddess anymore. What she will be called I don't yet know. (Update: Athena is now known as Ember Moon!) What I do know is that she will still be making an impact in the wrestling world, she will still have the respect and admiration of wrestling fans, and she will always be The Wrestling Goddess in my heart.

That's all I really wanted to say. Pretty soon the whole world will be talking about Athena. Except, of course, they will be calling her by whatever name she's been given. I guess I just wanted to have my say about the Athena I've known before her transformation is complete.

Now I'm going to turn this retrospective over to my boyfriend Brandon, the man who turned me on to professional wrestling in general and The Wrestling Goddess in particular. He has a lot more to say about Athena than me, mostly because he has had the good fortune to watch her in action for several more years than I have. He's also very historically minded. He is going to tell you a whole bunch about Athena's rise to the top of the indy wrestling scene here in Texas, with a special focus on her work in Anarchy Championship Wrestling. ACW is the company that reignited Brandon's childhood love of professional wrestling, and it also played a huge role in shaping the wrestler that The Wrestling Goddess has become.

Without any further ado, please visit Brandon's blog Pinned Down Plus and read all about Athena's colorful and extraordinary career as an indy wrestler in Texas. I'm sure you will enjoy it! While you're there read some of his interviews with other wrestlers on the scene. (Go! Click! Read!)

Update: It has been reported that Athena has made her official NXT debut! She wrestled October 10 2015 at an untelevised live event in Winter Haven, Florida apparently under her actual name, Adrienne Reese. Read more here. 

Update to the update! Ember Moon is set to make her televised, official NXT debut at #NXTTakeoverBrooklyn on August 20, 2016!!

You can follow the wrestler formerly known as Athena on twitter @WWEEmberMoon

Sunday, July 26, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Go Set a Watchman AND To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

All right, my literary-minded friends, it's time. Not only am I about to throw down my thoughts on one of the most beloved American novels of all time, I'm also going to weigh in on what was probably the most anticipated literary release since the seventh installment of the Harry Potter series.

I'm about to review BOTH To Kill a Mockingbird AND Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee.

I'm going to start with the book that I and most others read first, To Kill a Mockingbird. But before I dive in I'd like to say a few words about what my review will and will NOT do:

(1) My review will discuss the singular and comparative literary merits of both of Lee's novels,
(2) My review will discuss the positions of both novels within the cultural and socio-political landscape of the U.S. in general and the South in particular,
(3) My review will not speculate about the sudden emergence of Harper Lee's first novel, Go Set a Watchman, and what that might mean. In my opinion, far too much has already been written about how and why this book has suddenly come to light. (This is the most recent article I've read on the subject. It's also the one I find the most interesting.) Many of the 1000+ reviews on the novel's Amazon page touch on the controversy.

I'm not here to talk about the controversy. I don't have anything meaningful to add to that argument, and, more importantly, I feel it is irrelevant. To Kill a Mockingbird is more than just a literary masterpiece: it is an important American cultural artifact. And Go Set a Watchman, in addition to its own merits, adds to Mockingbird's legacy.

Here we go!
I didn't read Mockingbird--ever, in my life--until earlier this month. According to my running list of Books I Read in 2015 I finished the novel on July 7, and if my memory serves it took me about three days to read it. 

Before you ask, yes I read it in advance of the July 14 release of Go Set a Watchman.

I feel I was probably one of the last--if not THE last--Americans over the age of 30 who had not read Mockingbird. Unlike many I wasn't required to read the book in high school, and though I have always been an avid reader it just never occurred to me to read Harper Lee's book.

 I grew up in Silicon Valley in California in the 80s and 90s completely unaware that racism continued (and continues) to be a reality. As a child I was surrounded by people of every hue and ethnicity, and every linguistic and religious background imaginable. To me, people were people and that was that. If there were divisions to be drawn (and I felt that was mostly unnecessary) than I would have put those dividing lines between the Haves and the Have Nots. I grew up poor and the older I got the more keenly I felt the differences between me and the children of means. Other than that, though, why categorize people at all?

For those (and other) reasons, I simply wasn't interested in a book I knew to be about Southern racism set in the 50s. Southern racism wasn't my or California's problem, especially since I believed it to be, like slavery, a thing of the past.
Gregory Peck depicts Atticus Finch in the film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird

Boy was I wrong! I moved to Pennsylvania in 1994 at the age of 18. I settled in State College, which is the home of Penn State's Nittany Lions and was also the site, the week before I arrived, of a cross burning at the home of a local black family. 

A cross burning. In 1994. At first, I was too shocked to be horrified or angry. I said to my friends: "That still happens? That's so old school!"

And then came the anonymous death threats to the president of Penn State's Black Student's Union, which said something to the effect of: "This is a white school in a white state in a white nation and by God it will stay that way."

My naive world view was shattered. Many years later I moved to Tennessee, and it was there I realized that although the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow are over, when it comes to race relations in America, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I lived in Middle Tennessee for about twelve year, first in Nashville and later in Murfreesboro, which is about an hour's drive from Pulaski, the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan. The football team of Middle Tennessee State University, where I received a BS in sociology and an MS in mass communication, is called the Blue Raiders and many buildings on campus are named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, celebrated confederate general and founding KKK member. 

In fact, there is an infamous statue of Forrest off I-65 outside Nashville that is surrounded by U.S., Tennessee, and confederate flags. 

I could go on and on. The fact of the matter is, though much of the nation views slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow as issues of our distant past, they remain right at the forefront of Southern memory. (By way of example, read this news article from Memphis about contentions surrounding his gravesite and a different commemorative statue.) And for the first time in my life, I was learning that there are very real divisions between people in our country. And there are still a whole lot of otherwise normal, well-mannered people who don't view all people the same.

So I'm glad that I waited until now to read To Kill a Mockingbird. Because a lot of it would have been lost on me if I read it before living in the South.

As a piece of literature, Mockingbird is genius. Told from the point of view of a young girl (Scout is poised to start school at the beginning of the novel), the tone manages to capture the innocence of childhood and yet remain mature enough to be accessible to readers. Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, the narrator of the book, thinks like a kid and speaks like a kid (as the excerpt below will show) but somehow Lee manages to impart the grander points of the book anyway.

Enjoying a summer twilight with their neighbor Miss Maudie, Scout asked her about the reclusive Boo Radley:

"'Miss Maudie,' I said one evening, 'do you think Boo Radley's still alive?'
"'His name's Arthur and he's alive,' she said. She was rocking slowly in her big oak chair. 'Do you smell my mimosa?' It's like angels' breath in the evening.'
"'Yessum. How do you know?'
"'Know what, child?'
"'That B--Mr. Arthur's still alive?'
"'What a morbid question. But I suppose it's a morbid subject. I know he's alive, Jean Louise, because I haven't seen him carried out yet.'
"'Maybe he died and they stuffed him up the chimney.
"'Where did you get such a notion?'
"'That's what Jem said he thought they did.'
"'S-ss-ss. He gets more like Jack Finch every day.'"

Can't you picture that scene? Can't you feel the sultry summer heat and smell Miss Maudie's mimosas? It's simply elegant prose.

Scout, Atticus, and Jem Finch from the film adaptation

But I chose to recount this scene for another reason: Scout Finch, as I have said, is the narrator of Mockingbird, and her central preoccupation throughout the story is Boo Radley. It's not racism. But ask anyone who has read the book what it's about, and they'll say "Racism." They might say Tom Robinson or the trial or Atticus Finch. The name Boo Radley may even be mentioned, but no one would claim that the story is about HIM. That is the genius of this book: the grand points, the themes that your English teachers yammer on and on about, are woven throughout an innocent and seemingly unrelated narrative. So what you end up with is a complete novel that manages to be BOTH a slice of Americana AND a politically charged tale. Nothing is lost, nothing is sacrificed, and nothing is rammed down the reader's throat.

And that, friends and book lovers, is why To Kill a Mockingbird will forever be known as a far greater work than Go Set a Watchman.

Assuming this "new" novel's provenance is true (though not everyone does. the July 27 2015 issue of the New Yorker makes an interesting argument for why it may not be) Watchman is the first draft of the first novel young Harper Lee ever wrote. It's the rough material out of which Mockingbird was forged. Given that, her writing is DAMN GOOD. Anyone who has ever written anything knows how bad first drafts typically are. First drafts are GARBAGE. In one of my own first drafts I killed the same character TWICE. I've read some pretty mean things said about the literary quality of Watchman, but it's not typical-first-draft bad. It's not kill-the-same-character-twice bad. It's simply not as good as Mockingbird. 

But you know what? Nothing but Mockingbird is as good as Mockingbird. So calm down, angry literary critics.

Even so, much of Harper Lee's famously artful prose is evident in Watchman, particularly in the first half. The novel opens with Scout (now the adult Jean Louise) on the train back to Maycomb County from her new home in New York:

"She had told the conductor not to forget to let her off, and because the conductor was an elderly man, she anticipated his joke: he would rush at Maycomb Junction like a bat out off hell and stop the train a quarter of a mile past the little station, then when he bade her goodbye he would say he was sorry, he almost forgot. Trains changed; conductors never did. Being funny at flag stops with young ladies was a mark of the profession, and Atticus, who predict the actions of every conductor from New Orleans to Cincinnati, would be waiting accordingly not six steps away from her point of debarkation."

Except, this time, Atticus was not there to meet her. Instead Hank, her childhood friend and sometime suitor, was waiting a quarter mile back, on the platform at the train station, and had to run to meet her. 

And there's your foreshadowing.

While Mockingbird was a Great American Novel that had a lot to say about Southern Racism, Watchman is a "novel" that seeks to make a point about racism. I put the word "novel" in quotes not to deride Watchman, because I enjoyed it and find it a worthy read, but because it simply cannot stand on its own.

In a very real sense, in order to understand and care about the events and characters in Go Set a Watchman, you must have first read To Kill a Mockingbird. I will link again here to the New Yorker article because they explain this better than I ever could. Suffice it to say, with the exception of Hank, who didn't appear in Mockingbird, the main players in Watchman aren't actually introduced to the reader. Rather, the text reads and feels like a return to Maycomb, which serves to place the reader firmly in Scout's shoes.

That is the strength of Watchman. The reader experiences the same shock and betrayal that Scout does. As her Uncle Jack says, Scout had deified her father, and so had we. She needed to see him as a man, and so did we. Atticus Finch IS a man: good, but flawed.

In the decades since Mockingbird was published, Atticus Finch has grown to eclipse superstar literary status. As a character, he has always been more than a man, but as a cultural artifact, he has become more than a character. He is a symbol for equality, for justice, and for a sort of quiet, respectable fairness held in the face of defiant opposition. Recall the way in which Atticus quietly held his ground when confronted by the mob that sought to kill Tom Robinson before his trial. He didn't shout at the mob, and he didn't threaten them, though they threatened HIM. All he did was hold his ground and the mob eventually thought better of its plan.

Cultural memory would have readers believe that it was the force of Atticus Finch's egalitarian personality that stopped the mob from killing Tom Robinson that night. But a re-read of Mockingbird will remind Atticus's apologists that the following morning he had this to say of an individual in the mob:

"'Mr. Cunningham's basically a good man,' he said, 'he just has his blind spots along with the rest of us.'
"Jem spoke. 'Don't call that a blind spot. He'da killed you last night when he first went there.'
"'He might have hurt me a little,' Atticus conceded, 'but son, you'll understand folks a little better when you're older. A mob's always made up of people, no matter what.'"

That scene curiously foreshadows an event in Watchman, when Scout discovers that he father and Hank have joined the Maycomb County Citizens' Council, a group composed of nearly every white man in Maycomb, and which existed entirely to oppose desegregation. Scout reeled when she discovered this, as did the rest of America upon the release of Watchman. (Read this People magazine article about the family who changed their infant son's name from Atticus to Luke after reading the book.)

Go Set a Watchman,  in my opinion, makes an even bigger and more nuanced point than To Kill a Mockingbird did. Where Mockingbird told Americans that racism exists and it's bad, Watchman asserts that racism not only exists--it's woven into the fabric of all of our lives. In Mockingbird, racism was something that existed outside of people who didn't agree with it. It could be fought against in court. In Watchman, racism is an integral part of the structure of our society. As Uncle Jack explains to an exasperated Scout, it has historical precedent in feudal England. It is foundational and cannot be changed without upsetting everything. 

When Scout argues that the time had come to do what's right by Negroes, Atticus counters that she doesn't know or mean what she says:

"'I mean every word of it.'
"'Then let's put this on a practical basis right now. Do you want Negroes by the carload in our schools and churches and theaters? Do you want them in our world?'
"'They're people aren't they? We were quite willing to import them when they made money for us.'"

I think that exchange is as good example as any to demonstrate that Watchman is a novel that exists to make a point. Harper Lee had something to say about Southern Racism, and she sort of wrapped a story around the thing. That's why Mockingbird is a better story.

But I'm glad that I read Watchman and I'm glad that it came out when it did. Within the literary universe of To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman, Jean Louise Finch had to grow up and realize that racism tainted every part of her life, her family, and her beloved Maycomb County. And within American culture, we all have had to grow up and realize that racism taints ALL of our history and ALL of our present. Whether or not individuals, like me, grew up naively assuming it was a thing of the past and Not Our Problems.

Atticus says something in Mockingbird that is curiously prescient. I read it in the breakroom of my workplace and cried out loud when I did. Decades after the book's publication, it could not be more relevant:

"Atticus was speaking so quietly his last word crashed on our ears. I looked up, and his face was vehement. 'There's nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who'll take advantage of a Negro's ignorance. Don't fool yourselves--it's all adding up and one of these days we're going to pay the bill for it.'"

Saturday, July 25, 2015

The Dog Days of Summer

"Calpurnia listened. 'I know it's February, Miss Eula May, but I know a mad dog when I see one. Please ma'am hurry!'"

-- To Kill a Mockingbird

A lot has been said, surmised, and written about the scene in Harper Lee's classic novel in which old Tim Johnson, beloved neighborhood dog, is found to have gone "mad" (rabid) and is shot dead by Atticus Finch in front of his shocked children. Atticus, once hailed as the best shot in the entire county, is not a gun owner and has never handled a firearm in front of his family. Atticus Finch is a gentleman.

Ahem. Well. That is a discussion for another time and place. Here we will focus on the interesting and unexplained insistence in the novel that dogs do not, as a rule, "go mad" in the winter time.

Having grown up in cities with generally well-funded animal control departments, I have been fortunate enough to have never seen a rabid dog. I do know that rabies is passed from one infected dog, bat, or human to another through contact with bodily fluids, usually via bites. So when I read this scene in Mockingbird my first thought was: "What the hell does the season have to do with the presence of a rabid dog?"

My second thought was: "Oh my God! Is the notion that dogs only go mad in the heat of the summer the meaning behind the phrase dog days of summer? If so, is To Kill a Mockingbird the origin of that phrase?"

Short answers: sort of, and no. According to Wikipedia, the phrase originated way before Harper Lee was even born and had more to do with astronomy than anything else. But the sentiment behind the saying remains the same, generations later. From an 1813 poem:

Dog Days were popularly believed to be an evil time "the Sea boiled, the Wine turned sour, Dogs grew mad...

Mad dogs just need to be loved.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

SEW THERE! Lesson One: Threading

Before I embarked on this journey of sewing and self-discovery, I had never touched a sewing machine. Like, ever. 

I could recognize a spool of thread, most of the time. At least, I could differentiate one from, say, a lava lamp.

NOT a lava lamp.

So before I could begin any really cool projects I had to figure out how to actually use my machine.

I have a Singer One machine. I've named her Dolores. She's pretty and responds well to gentle touches. 

Meet Dolores

Dolores came with an instructional CD that probably would have been helpful, had it not been for the horrible sound quality of the recording. When I watched it, all I could hear was the background music. The person demonstrating the machine sounded like she was at least ten miles away and whispering into a wind.

So I searched YouTube and found a WEALTH of helpful instructional videos. One hour and two videos later, I had wound my first bobbin!!


Check out the helpful videos:

I watched the top video first, several times, while going through the motions on Dolores. It's a good video, and the woman demonstrating the process is clear and patient, but there was something I just wasn't getting because I could never make the bobbin wind properly. Every time I tried, the thread wound around the metal shaft beneath the bobbin instead of on the bobbin itself.

Then I watched the second video, and it all became clear. The woman in the second video did everything the woman in the first video did, with one imperative addition: she made sure to state several times that you must thread the thread through the hole in the bobbin from the inside out NOT the outside in. That's what I had been doing wrong!!

Maybe this is obvious to everyone else in the world, but it wasn't obvious to me. I watched the second video a couple of times before I successfully wound my first bobbin, and then I looked over the "Quick Start" guide that had come packed in with Dolores. The guide offered step-by-step, illustrated instructions on how to wind the bobbin and thread the needle. Now, armed with the knowledge that you must thread the thread through the hole in the bobbin from the inside out, it was clear that that was indeed what the guide's illustration indicated. When I looked at the same drawing before I knew that, however, I couldn't tell.

This is why, in the preface to this blog series I've named Sew There!, I mentioned that I'm not very good at following directions. I'm just not.

I quit that night with one bobbin wound. I didn't want to push my luck. Threading the needle would have to wait until my second sit-down with Dolores.

NOT a spool of thread

Stay tuned for Lesson Two and EVEN MORE sewing adventures! SEW THERE! will continue!!