“The East” at South By Southwest

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The 2013 SXSW film festival had its dramatic conclusion with “The East,” at the beautiful Paramount Theater in Austin, Texas a few weeks ago. The historic playhouse was packed with eager festival goers and giddy fans, at the ready with their cameras to snap a pic of Ellen Page and Alexander Skarsgard, the film’s stars, who were in attendance.

“The East” takes as its subject a group of anarchists who live in a fire-ravaged mansion with their charismatic leader, played by Mr. Skarsgard.  The group scavenges for food as a deliberate statement against capitalism and waste. They also perform acts of criminal mischief against unscrupulous corporations in a series of carefully planned “jams.”

Creative powerhouses Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij wrote the script after living with a group of freegan anarchists one summer. Based on some of the scenes in the movie, you shudder to think how much of this could be based on their actual experience.

Mr. Batmanglij  directed the film.  Marling played the lead role, setting a great example for other actors: If you don’t like the parts you are getting, why not write your own?

Ms. Marling plays an undercover agent who leaves behind her polished, professional persona to descend into a grungy underworld where she survives by her wits and top-flight skill set. She gains the group’s trust by completing a series of harrowing tasks. She performs surgery (of a sort) on a dying deer, and later, a human.

She submits to the group’s strange rituals. One involves everyone wearing straight jackets to dinner. Another is a glorified version of “Spin-the-Bottle.” It was hard to watch them take themselves so seriously as they performed these odd and  embarrassing  rituals. I thought they came across as sort of pathetic and ridiculous. So, when the agent begins to cross over into full sympathy with the group, I was left with nobody to root for.

The  cult leader, we learn,  was once wealthy from an inheritance.  He became disillusioned when people treated him differently because of his money. Cue the world’s smallest violin! (If there was more to his renunciation of society, I missed it.) He fails to make the case for why he should have rejected his enormous fortune in favor of a life of feral living. Has he never heard of philanthropy? There are creative solutions to the problem of having too much money, I imagine. Homelessness seems an odd choice given the possibilities.

I had an allergic reaction to Ellen Page’s character who abandons her education at an Ivy League school to join this group of anarchists. You want to tell her, “Do you have any idea how many people would kill for an Ivy League education?” But she throws it away to run with a group of phlegm and filth encrusted street urchins. It doesn’t add up. You suspect drugs, psychological frailty, brain damage.

During one of the group’s guerrilla actions, Ellen Page’s character confronts her father, a high ranking energy executive, about his company’s evil business practices. She despises her father, for personal reasons only hinted at. She ends up drugging him and knocking him out, at which point the group moves in to kidnap him. When he comes to, they force him into a lake where the company has been dumping toxic waste. The message is, corporations act like bullies and thugs, so why shouldn’t we? It doesn’t really seem like a mature emotional response to the world, but it is dramatic and makes for a relatively lively movie. I  worry, though, about the message it sends. I’d hate to think some teenager out there is saying, “Yeah, why bother to do the hard work of learning the political process, or being otherwise civically engaged, when you could act like a juvenile delinquent instead?”

“The East” reminded me of T.C. Boyle’s fantastic global warming and eco-activism farce, “A Friend of The Earth.”  There is a series of escalating actions by the radical activists in that book which culminate with members of the group setting fire to a forest.  The trees had been replanted by the lumber company after they had clear-cut it and it lacked the bio-diversity of the old-growth forest.   I’m deeply troubled by our ongoing plundering of natural resources and unrestrained pollution, but even I can see how insane it is to set fire to a forest as a way of making a statement about deforestation. The book showed how unchecked,  self-righteous anger can easily veer into absurdity.

Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral,” offers another unforgettable example of the archetype of the bright, well educated young person who rejects their own family and its financial success in favor of radical,  violent political activism. In that story, the daughter lives on the lam, like a stray dog, in a lean-to by the freeway.   She bombs the community post office, in an act of protest, (of what, I don’t remember)  consigning herself to a fugitive life.  Though she is on the run from the police for her treasonous act of murder, she wears a  medical mask so that she does not accidentally breathe in (and potentially harm) any living micro-organisms, as her “religion” dictates. We see, in all these works, the way a strong moral instinct, unmoored and unchecked, can go horribly awry.

The anarchists of “The East,” clearly believe themselves to be defenders of the innocent and punishers of the mighty. But it is hard to trust them or take them seriously when they live as they do. They hate their families, they hate capitalism, they hate commerce. They reject wealth, they reject industry, they reject medicine, they reject society and civilization. They embrace vengeance and violence. Where does such a world view lead? It’s hard to see a positive outcome with that sort of social orientation.

The final montage in “The East” offers a mere glimpse of where a more balanced, less destructive social consciousness might lead, but it isn’t fleshed-out enough to offer a compelling vision. Overall, the film left me unsettled, which is perhaps the point, to get people talking and arguing about these unresolved issues.

All in all, “The East,” is a fascinating, confounding, irritating, and mostly entertaining movie that I have not been able to get out of my head in the weeks since encountering it. I’ll be curious to see what others think about it once it has its official opening.

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Winter’s Bone

Speed kills. But first, it corrodes the mind, body, soul, the family and community. Winter’s Bone gives us a nearly lethal dose of life among the methed-out zombies who’d eat their young alive. This is a portrait of warped, violent criminals, ruined by addiction to a chemical substance that transforms men into monsters and women into used and useless husks.

Ree Dolly, the courageous heroine at the center of the story, summons a strength beyond her years to meet the crushing challenge before her. At 16, she is the head of the family. Her mother has lost her mind. Her father is a crank cooking fugitive from justice. She is left to handle the care of her mother and two little brothers alone. Her father has put their house up for bail money. Missing his upcoming court appearance will cost the whole family their home. They’d be forced to live outside, in a cave, like animals.

Ree goes on a quest to find her father to bring him back, dead or alive. Along her journey she experiences unbelievable brutality at the hands of the elders she implores to help her find her father. Everyone tells her not to ask.  Among these crank cookers and sellers and users there is one big no-no. If you get caught, you can’t narc. If you do, you’ll pay with your life. That is the one iron clad commandment among these interlocking clans.

Ree’s dad has broken this covenant, and condemned his little family in the process. But Ree proves her mettle, standing strong and tough in the face of extreme violence, paying the debt for her father’s sin.

Winter’s Bone has a few glimmers of hope. A cousin saves the family from starvation with a meaty bone of venison. An uncle comes to bat at a critical moment. Her best friend Gail is a good person. But beyond the few torch bearers of goodness, you get the sense that we’re looking at a band of demons in a slice of hell, where humanity has been poisoned by a chemical dependency of the very worst sort.

Daniel Woodrell does write beautifully of the bitter-cold, winter-blasted landscape of the Ozarks. The sound of combat boots on ice. The thermodynamics of icy exhalations. The images Woodrell teases from the land blurs the line between poetry and prose. It’s a short book, but you take it slow, as you would a poem. Winter’s Bone is a poetic testament to the destructive power of a very bad drug, and the triumphant power of perseverance, goodness and love.

Are You My Mother? By Alison Bechdel

Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel portrays, in graphic novel format, the author’s attempt to come to terms with her fraught relationship with her mother.

We see mother and daughter, in the present, through phone calls and visits, and in the past, through flashback scenes from the author’s childhood.  She describes a game of pretend she remembers playing with her mother.  The little girl would pretend that her legs stopped working and her mother would play along, offering her an imaginary leg brace. She remembers the game very fondly and credits those moments with igniting her power of imagination and inspiring her writing career. Those are sweet memories, and you sense that there are more of them, buried under the resentment and hurt.

There’s no way around it, the mother is too blunt. She is forever hurting her daughter’s feelings with insensitive remarks. There is a telling scene where the daughter mentions the critic, Daniel Mendhelson, and the mother says, “Isn’t that the person who beat you out for that award?” The author captures the scene beautifully. I could see her slumped, rumpled body on the page and feel the mother’s pointed jabbing physically register in my own body.

The mother herself had artistic ambition, at one time, but she put it aside when she had children. Maybe that is the reason she is so stingy with the praise the author seems to long for, and never get. You can’t really blame the mom, though.  She’s tough, which is how she’s survived. The daughter is a lot more sensitive and easily wounded. That isn’t anybody’s fault, necessarily, it is just how it is. Mother and daughter love each other, but their personalities are so different. Still, you have to credit the two of them for trying. They talk every single day on the phone.

The author mentions feeling like she is parent to her mother, which when I read that, a little alarm went off inside me that said,  “Alert! Boilerplate psychobabble.” I can’t stand that sort of thing. Listen, there are interdependencies in all families. Modern therapy wants to pathologize those interdependencies. Modern therapy wants to blame your parent for whatever is wrong with you. But that is absolutely a losing game, in my opinion.

I do admire the way the author made an intellectual commitment to the analytic process, reading lots of books on theory and including several passages from her reading in the story. But the theories she describes, on Object-Relations, and others, though titillating, are hard to take seriously as any kind of natural law. The author seems to be reading these psychology models as though she were uncovering great truths. As a jaded psych major, I’m inclined to dismiss most of it as made up fluff. But I could look past the fluffiness if the process didn’t wind up being such an all-consuming, never ending project. There’s a two-page layout that shows the author in her therapist’s office and you can see a tree outside the window as it buds, flowers and drops its leaves through the seasons. Month after month, she keeps coming back for more, but toward what end?

The emotional world of the author seems mostly unchanged throughout the book. She’s stuck in a limbo state. Her mother exerts a tremendous power over her and she can’t seem to get a handle on that. She is fixated on this frustrating and unsatisfying relationship even to the detriment of her romantic relationships. She mentions the bouts of OCD that have troubled her since she was little. It seems almost like the fixation on her mom could be a manifestation of those obsessive patterns. Of course, we can all get stuck like that, obsessing over a relationship. Parents, exes, enemies. The brain can get stuck processing a troubled relationship over and over. Whether years of therapy is the answer, or pharmacalogical intervention,  hard, repeated exercise, or some artistic creation, the important thing is to get over the emotional hurdle.

In the end, she does have a breakthrough, she feels that she has been gotten out from under the oppressive, angsty weight of the relationship with her mom.  And when she gets there, you want to say, “Good! Now its time to move on.” (A message we all need to hear, myself very much included.)

In spite of the limited scope of the book, I still found it fascinating. I’m a big noobie to the graphic novel genre, but what I’ve seen of Alison Bechdel’s work, in this and in her earlier work Fun Home, I find mesmerizing. The graphic novel is such a great medium. There is so much it can do, and seemingly no realm, however esoteric or ethereal, that is beyond its reach.

The Group by Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy’s The Group is a book I think every college student in the country should read.  But I can’t make such a recommendation in good conscience without a confession and an apology. I have to admit, my mother gave me this book when I was a teenager and I didn’t give it a look.  I didn’t believe, at the time, that a group of girls from another eon would mean anything to me and so I said, “Thanks,” (for never understanding what I really needed, Mom!) and I put the book aside, forever. That was a serious gift and I’m sorry I was so unable to appreciate it at the time.

For my birthday this year my mother, still making her heroic efforts to help me make good reading choices,  gave me a gift certificate to my favorite book store here in Austin, Half Price Books. For a song,  I found a well-loved paperback copy of this stone cold classic. I read it eagerly, in long satisfying chunks. What a jewel. From the first page I was enchanted. Traveling with this group of young women as they take their place in the world makes for a very rich reading experience. This group of girls is refreshingly civic-minded, with a deep sense of duty, responsibility and integrity.

Work is of great importance to these young women. Whether they need the income or not, they begin their working lives as though it is their patriotic duty to step up and make a difference in their chosen field. One of the girls pursues a career in publishing. She reads manuscripts and writes short reviews. She’s ambitious and crafty. How can she get more books from her publisher? How can she forge a real opportunity for herself in the business? Her first job, despite her talent and diligence, ends with a patronizing pat on the head and the advice to get married. She’s chastened, but determined, and in fact finds a much better job almost immediately.

Her love life, cruelly, takes a less fortunate turn. She throws a nice party for her friends, to introduce them to her boyfriend, whom she hopes is on the verge of proposing to her. It’s evening, the guests have gone home and she’s ready for her beau to take her to dinner and pop the question, when she encounters, instead, the horrifying experience of date rape. She had no way of knowing this guy could do such a thing. McCarthy, without being gratuitous in her presentation about these facts of life, doesn’t hold back either in presenting the type of dangerous, treacherous experiences women have endured, throughout time.

In a bone chilling episode,  one of the girls is involuntarily committed by her husband. The man enlists the authorities, and has her locked up without telling her that is what he is doing. There is element of psychological torture and abuse here, as the husband leaves her in this limbo where, under duress and scared to death, she must prove her sanity. But she is already ensnared in the mental hospital bureaucracy and held under lock and key. It’s quite a scene to watch her try to maintain her composure in the midst of her incarceration. She can’t get too upset with the staff at the hospital or they’ll think she really is crazy and she has to show them she’s not. It is a very scary episode.   In a sickening scene the husband returns to the hospital, at his leisure, to sign the papers to let her go.

McCarthy segments this book in these exquisitely rendered chapters that, while interconnected, read almost as short stories. Each chapter focuses on a specific girl and how she navigates a particular passage. It’s a lovely device which illustrates the many facets of a women’s journey through life.  It is almost like listening to an album, with each chapter a different song, with its own deeply resonant chord, its own climax and heartrending conclusion.

It’s a very juicy book. I had to laugh when I started it, because you are not very far into this thing when there is a major sex scene. One of the girls meets someone who instantly seduces her. It’s a thrilling thing for her. Unfortunately, the guy wants to sleep with lots of women and he doesn’t want her to get attached, and naturally she does, leading to some heartbreak and humiliation.  But she gets engaged to someone else soon after. Just as she is about to marry, she breaks down in front of her mother, and admits she’s still hung up on this other guy. The mom actually encourages her to call the wedding off and go be with the guy she is still pining for.  It was a fascinating clash of moral reasoning. Mother and daughter both felt they knew the right course of action. The mother advocated the follow your heart way of life while the daughter, having graduated in the midst of the Great Depression, has a less romantic world view.  It took tremendous courage I thought, to stand up to her mother and to do what she thought was right, giving her loyalty to her soon to be husband, and not some cad on the side, as much as she liked him. If her heart is cleaved, well that’s the price she pays for getting swept up so fast in a casual affair.

Polly’s saga was, for me, the most moving of the whole group. She goes to work as a nurse and gets involved with a man who is divorcing his wife. He has a five-year-old child he goes to see once a week. He’s invited her to come on one of their outings together, but Polly feels it wouldn’t be right to have a relationship with the child until they are married. Over time, she becomes very jealous of the child and the ex-wife. She gets so upset she admits to “mentally slaying” them. When they break up, the girl is crushed, but she goes on stoically. She simply swears off love for all time.

Polly ends up living with her father, who suffers from manic-depression. But she can’t make enough to support them both. She tries to take a loan, but she sees the interest rate and knows there is something immoral about the transaction. She thinks about selling her crafts, to make extra money, but by doing the math she can see it could never really make a significant profit for her. Finally, she resorts to selling her blood. While she’s reclined on the gurney, needle in arm and growing fainter by the minute, one of the doctors she works with walks in. They have a deep, soul baring conversation. She tells him she’s been wounded in love. She confesses the burden of caring for her father. She tells the young doctor she plans never to have children for fear of passing on the “thin blood” of her line. The doctor, smiles, touching the bandage at her arm. He tells her he loves her and wants to marry. He’ll help her to take care of her father, at home. More grateful than dreamy-eyed-in-love, she agrees to marry and they go off to City Hall.  And to her surprise, live happily ever after.

One of the most interesting characters in this book is Norine, who is a Vassar grad like the others, but sits on the periphery of their group. She is a terrific foil. At a party she’s caught in a compromising position with a married friend. Norine tries to explain herself. For one thing, she tells the friend who has walked in on them, that her own husband doesn’t sleep with her. Asked if her conscience wasn’t bothered by sleeping with the married friend, she says that having a mistress is good for a man and that it helps him perform better with his wife.  Ever the anthropologist, Norine tells her friend that in other societies the arrangement is taken for granted.

Eventually, Norine leaves her husband and marries a very rich banker and has a child. Norine takes an approach to parenting that causes the  others to raise their eyebrows yet again. She sleeps beside her baby and uses a primitive hip sling. She advocates feeding on demand. It was remarkable, really, to see the ways that her parenting style had so much in common with the modern craze known as Attachment Parenting. And it was very interesting to see the way that the style clashed with the other mothers’ well informed, “scientifically proven” methods that were supposedly better. McCarthy perfectly captures the way modern, educated parents over-think the mechanics of raising children. For instance, there is an entire chapter devoted to breastfeeding. It makes for very tedious reading, I thought, but it captures the sort of mind-numbing effect that obsessing over feeding and sleep schedules can have. The scene also reflects the way society: husbands, doctors, nurses, mothers, friends all have such an opinion on how this childcare thing should be done. Just the idea that such a personal experience would be turned into a public, even political debate is absurd, and yet it is the reality, then as it is now.

The book ends on a dark note. The U.S. is on the verge of entering WWII. One of the friends has died, possibly of suicide. Not everyone survives their coming of age. But even with its dark shades, The Group is a glowing document of women asserting their finely hewn characters in the world- of work, love, family. The girls will inspire you with their example of living life with great energy, purpose, intelligence, warmth and passion.

A Hologram for the King

A Hologram for the King is a useful object with which to gently knock the heads of those who like to flap on about the demise of the physical book.  This book is so beautiful, in terms of its physical design, that it stands as a definitive, classy, counter-argument to the E-books-Are- the-Future-Crowd. The cover looks like embossed leather, but has a metallic sheen. You almost expect to find a secret lever under the cover that activates an actual hologram. The publishing house McSweeney’s, founded by the author, Dave Eggers, has given us a striking object which earns its place on your bookshelf.

A Hologram for the King is basically a business trip drama, such as the movies Lost in Translation and Up in the Air. Alan, 54, divorced and deeply in debt, travels to Saudi Arabia to give a demonstration of his company’s holographic telecommunications line. He and his team wait day after day for a meeting that keeps getting postponed in a seemingly endless loop. Jet lagged and disoriented,  the IT team lounges in a modular tent, the Arabian version of a conference center. The space is huge and empty as a locker. An outsized, alienating architecture. I saw the influence of J.G.Ballard in Eggers’ evocation of a totally man-made, denuded environment.

A Hologram reminded me of Philip Roth’s great novel of industrial history, American Pastoral. Where Roth used women’s gloves as an example of the decline of American industry, Eggers uses bicycles. Alan was once was an executive of Schwinn bicycles. He played a key role in getting the company to relocate its factories, more than once, causing terrible disruptions to the company operations. Schwinn, which Eggers notes that he researched for this book, can stand in for almost any American company whose cost-cutting and outsourcing were its undoing.

In one of the most incisive scenes in the book, Alan argues with his bank about a loan to start a new business. His credit rating, perfect for decades, has been permanently marred due to a Banana Republic credit card he applied for to get a small discount at the register. (Can you even complete a transaction in any mall across America without being asked if you’d like to open a credit card with the store?) He thought he’d closed the card out, but a small transactional fee remained unpaid and the bill was sent to collections. It’s a good example of the ways that regular consumers get screwed over by credit card companies. Who can keep up with the Byzantine terms of agreement for these evil little cards? I was pleased to see this wretched facet of our bank-based economy skewered with such precision in a contemporary novel. Hearing Alan try to reason with the bank employee was a painful reminder of  my own maddening relations with banks and other bureaucratic darlings such as health insurance companies. The people on the phone with whom Alan tries to reason are powerless to help him. They are all cogs in a rapacious, profit-seeking structure. “The age of machines holding dominion over man had come. This was the downfall of a nation and the triumph of systems designed to thwart all human contact, human reason, personal discretion and decision making.”

It’s a near-dystopian vision, with only a very small allowance of hope made for family and the faintest possibility of love.  A Hologram for the King kept me reading up to the end, in part, I think, because I enjoyed handling the craftily designed thing itself.  I jotted down notes along the margins and attached post-its to the pages. Occasionally the notes veered toward the frustrated, “Dull dialogue!” “Bad sex award!” But those are the criticisms of a fully engaged reader, reading a  fully engaging book.

 

Post Script: The New York Times Book Review interviewed the author and he had really smart things to say about reading and writing. Bottom line: Encourage, encourage, encourage. Save the criticism for later. Save the old classics for later, too. Great advice for teachers! Get kids hooked on reading, THEN hit them with the hard stuff. It doesn’t really work the other way around. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/books/review/dave-eggers-by-the-book.html

Texas City, 1947

Texas City, 1947 is the name of the searing, classic noir short story by James Lee Burke. It is also the nexus of one of the worst industrial accidents in American history. Nearly 600 people died and thousands more were maimed when two ships carrying ammonium nitrate collided off the Texas coast, flattening homes and producing huge clouds of smoke which asphyxiated the townspeople who came to see what had happened.  This catastrophe blows a hole through the fictional family at the heart of the story. The incident also serves as a symbol for the way the family, because of inter-personal conflicts, implodes before our eyes. The mother and father are like giant ships dangerously laden with explosive material. One bad move and it all blows up, leaving the survivors to scratch out a deformed existence, among the ruins.

Along the Gulf, big families and low-wage jobs keep people in a stagnant, perpetual state of poverty even in this so-called boom town. The mother works all day in a beer garden, and when she comes home there are no chicken nuggets to pop in the microwave. Feeding the kids means catching a bird in the yard and chopping its head off. The story opens with the mother, still in her bar maid uniform, holding a bloody, feathery mess,  surrounded by the writhing, flopping carcasses of half-dead chickens all around her. It’s hot, she’s tired and people at work have been talking- about her husband, and the crazy lady he’s been running around with. When the father finally comes home, later than he should have, with his shirt hanging out of his back pocket, it sets off a chemical chain reaction, that  engulfs them all.

Macho pride is, as always, a key ingredient in the recipe for destruction. His wife confronts him about his adultery, the kids within earshot, and his warped moral code holds that he must strike her to affirm his dominance and defend his honor, though it is he who has dishonored himself and the family. According to this chauvinistic world view, better he destroy the mother than humble himself and admit his fault. Better he destroy his children, by harming the mother, than suffer the indignity of being yelled at for his stupid and selfish crimes.  Later that night, the mother drives her car off a bridge and dies.

This is the classic fairy tale template. With the mother dead, and the father away at work, an “evil-stepmother” comes to take her place. She is a prostitute, or she was one at any rate, and she shuffles around the house in  curlers and a sweat stained blouse, carrying an overflowing ashtray of lipstick-smudged butts.  She makes the children work as slaves, punishing and humiliating them for minor transgressions. The little boy, from whose perspective the story is told, begs his father to make her leave. But she is the only one to take care of the kids while he is at work on the oil rig and he tells his son the kids must  look to her as their mother now. In a memorable image, he describes his heartsickness as the feeling of swarming mosquitoes, feeding on his heart, slowly draining it of blood.

Longing for a protector, the boy begins to project his fantasies of the perfect mother onto his fifth-grade teacher, a nun. She is nicer than the other sisters at school. She respects them as individuals, not as subjects in a petty kingdom. She picks up on the neglect and abuse the boy and his siblings are suffering and calls the step-mother, who tells the nun to sod off.  Finally, a social worker makes a visit to the house. The social worker falls under the step-mother’s seductive spell, and he fails to detect, or act on, the abusive situation in front of him.

When the boy becomes too ill to attend school, Sister walks  miles from her convent to his home, and back again, to bring him his books and lessons. This is one of many acts of heroism she performs. The father has placed a lucky charm, meant to ward off the evil spirits, according to Creole tradition, around the boy’s neck. When the nun finds this amulet, she is furious. She can’t abide this dangerous superstition. The boy needs a doctor, not a lucky charm, for God’s sake.  I thought it was so interesting and refreshing to see the nun defending  the role of science over superstition in this story. She is a grounded, reality-based figure with zero tolerance for nonsense. This passage was a wonderful reminder to me of the Catholic mission to care for the sick.

The boy, ever more in love with this surrogate mother, “built like a fire hydrant” with “silver thread” on her lip, notices a chink in her normally imperturbable edifice. It comes to light that her brother, an alcoholic, has killed a child from behind the wheel of his car. Sister misses days, then weeks of school. A newspaper article circulates around town, with the shocking news that Sister had helped her fugitive brother hide. The boy is understandably terrified of losing her, and when she returns, he asks her, desperately, if they are going to put her away. Much about her moral character is revealed when she says, with grave disgust, that the police aren’t interested in her, and that her brother will be spared, “Not because he is a sick man, but because the child he killed was Negro.”

When the Texas City port explosion occurs, and the father fails to come home, it is assumed he is one of the many workers killed, burned beyond recognition. The children are left alone, with the increasingly violent and unstable step-mother, and the children consider the possibility of killing her. In an echo of the explosion, they set fire to the room where she is passed out drunk.

The heroic nun, inhabiting a moral space outside the bounds of law, rushes in, again, to protect the children, doing what she feels she must do, and what she alone can do. She covers the kids’ criminal tracks, sweeping up the spent matches and putting the presiding sheriff in his place, wielding her moral saber, at great risk to herself, to protect the children from the arm of the law that would destroy them.

Such interesting timing that I picked up this story about this heroic nun, at the exact moment my blood is boiling over the recent religious/political battle over contraception in the Catholic Church. Every thing in my body and mind just revolts at the sight of powerful religious leaders passing laws, both doctrinal and legislative, that aim to control women’s sexuality and reproduction. It bothers me so deeply, that I’ve renounced, in my heart, the church which has been, in the past, a safe harbor for my wandering spirit. Seeing the religious leadership affirm such a controlling, paternalistic and anti-scientific position has resulted in my complete estrangement from this institution. The idea that a cloistered, closeted, celibate bishop, or even worse, a political candidate, would somehow be in a position to proclaim the purpose of sex to me and other women of childbearing age should be laughably absurd on the face of it, were it not for the very real power these men wield over the lives of millions, or should I say, billions.

But this story reminds me, in my disillusionment, to look for the agents of mercy, working behind the scenes of the official, corrupt, gold-encrusted edifice of the church;  the selfless many who work, under the radar, with the world as it is, on the front lines, and not in some la-la land divorced from reality atop a ludicrous throne. I’d like to think that even in a Catholic run hospital, there are those who would defy official doctrine, to provide the poor, whom they are bound to serve, with the means to take control of their own reproduction, in situations in which very little else may be under their control. I’ll try to hold on to the vision of this sister warrior, as a counterpoint to the recent, grotesque display of male dominance in our religious and political power houses. Amen.

A Few of My Favorite Picture Books

Maurice Sendak, that lovable curmudgeon,  tells us in an interview with Stephen Colbert that most children’s books are, “abysmal.” It is a scathing assessment, but not an unwarranted one. He tips his hat to Dr.Seuss and to the Curious George books, but beyond that has nothing good to say about the state of children’s literature.  There are times I find myself in agreement with this bleak view.   However, as we all know from our diligent reading of modern parenting books, positive reinforcement works best in eliciting good behavior. In that spirit of positivity I’ve compiled a list of what I think are some of the best children’s books that stand up to repeated readings and the test of time. They offer, I think, a great example of what books for young children can accomplish.
Over in the Ocean In a Coral Reef by Marianne Berkes with illustrations by Jeanette Canyon is one of the most remarkable books in our entire collection. Written in verse and sung to the tune of Over in the Meadow, this is a book to hook the young reader into text.   Nothing captures the attention of young children like music, especially singing, by a teacher, caregiver or parent.  No wonder nursery rhymes have persisted through the generations. Long before brain imaging could pinpoint the specific neural pathways music blazes in our brains, mothers sang to their children to transmit the structure and pattern of language. Children’s books which utilize this basic, ancient learning mechanism do the budding reader a great service.
What distinguishes Over in the Ocean, in addition to the catchy rhyming verse, is the phenomenal artwork. Polymer clay, in the hands of artist Jeannette Canyon, conveys texture, color and shape in ways that no other material can.  Water is rendered in swirling, bubbling patterns of green and blue. Ms. Canyon uses a food processor to create the rocky, pebbly surface of the coral reef.  Other pieces are pressed using shells, creating interesting, realistic textures. A giant mother octopus sprawls across the page, revealing hundreds of intricately shaded and patterned suction cups. Her offspring squirts a cloud of jet black ink. All in polymer clay!
This book is the product of meticulous effort, and close observation of marine life. The reader gets a lesson in science, language and (very early) math. There are several more titles, by this author/illustrator team and others in this excellent series by Dawn Publications, a terrific resource for nature based books including the environmental education classic, Sharing Nature with Children, by Joseph Cornell.

I’ll Teach My Dog 100 Words, by Michael Firth is a perfect book for teaching reading. The book is filled with short phrases and accompanying illustrations by Go Dog Go! author/illustrator P.D. Eastman. The illustrations aid the beginning reader, helping bridge the gap between struggle and success. The narrator issues short commands to his (adorable) doggie, such as, “Cut the grass! Comb your hair! Wag your tail and shake a leg!”  The dog demonstrates each command, assisting the young reader and giving a boost of confidence.  I remember seeing a big leap in my son’s reading fluency with this book. If  I had the power to do so, I would put a copy of this book in every preschool and  kindergarten classroom in the country. This is the kind of book a child could pick up on their own and teach themselves to read. Originally published in 1973, I’ll Teach My Dog 100 Words has appeared more recently as a board book in a slightly shortened format.  Nearly every title in the  Bright and Early  series is top notch, but this one stands out as a particularly good.

Maybe You Should Fly a Jet! Maybe You Should Be a Vet! by Theo. LeSieg, the sometime pen name of Theodore Geisel, AKA Dr.Seuss is an awesome early reader. The Seussian words and phrases combined with winning illustrations by Michael Smollin match up clearly and succinctly, giving beginning readers enough clues so that they can grasp the words with ease. Even more importantly, the book lists a ton of fun jobs kids might want to pursue someday. “Would you like to be an actor? Would you like to run a tractor? Like to drive a taxicab? Or run a big computer lab?” I’ve read this book aloud in classrooms and kids get really excited thinking about different jobs they would like to do. They all want to do everything.

He Bear, She Bear
, by Stan and Jan Berenstain shares the same concept. “You could be a doctor, make folks well. Teach kids how to add and spell.” Little bears might, “fix a clock, paint a door, build a house, have a store.” These are useful words that convey lots of meaning. Concrete actions and words help children make sense of reading and their world.  The non-sexist tone of the story encourages all kinds of active careers for boys and girls and it holds up very well to this day, almost 40 years after publication.
Each of these books makes use of children’s natural affinity for rhythm and rhyme.  I notice that many newly published children’s books abandon structured, rhyming prose and take a more free-form approach to language. It’s the equivalent of tossing the kid in the deep end of the pool and hoping for the best.  In terms of the concepts and ideas in many recent books, the abstract takes precedence over the concrete and specific.  Rather than focus our attention on experiences to which children can relate and aspire, newer, trendier books try to impress us with the cleverness of the author. Often the book is laden with odd jokes aimed over the heads of the kids at the parents. The sniggering collusion between author and parent is not the highest ideal to which children’s literature should aim. It ought to be about helping children understand themselves, their world, and above all words, which are the key to unlocking a lifetime of learning. It is hard to believe that many new books for children have no words. For that unfortunate trend, appropriately, I have no words.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

By Shirley Jackson


Scratchboard comix artist Thomas Ott does a brilliant job evoking the serene psychosis of Shirley Jackson’s, “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.” The unsettling black and white sketch depicts a crowd gawking in subdued horror at the odd pair, in a scene reminiscent of Shirley Jackson’s best known work, her classic short story, “The Lottery.”

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” shares some of the same themes as, “The Lottery.”  Think ostracism, hazing, murder. I was reminded of the Brian De Palma movie version of Stephen King’s “Carrie.”  The mousy, subtly menacing girl on the cover even looks a little like Sissy Spacek, as she appeared to spectacular effect in the movie.

Shirley Jackson wrote “We Have Always Lived in the Castle,” in 1961 yet only the faintest traces of modernity slip into the narrative, a passing car a gentle reminder of what century it is.   Gothic Victorian tropes are leveraged heavily, to suitably spooky effect. Grand old homes and grand old families are depicted in an advanced state of decay. Though skeletons lurk in every closet, propriety still reigns, or tries to reign, the ever-fraying  “Old Lace” of decorum  a sort of fig-leaf to hide the violent, chaotic, poisonous impulses that lurk just beneath the surface of our selves and our society.

Jonathan Lethem writes an excellent introduction giving interesting background on Ms. Jackson’s fraught relationship with the townspeople in the college town where she lived.  “(I)t was her fate, as an eccentric newcomer in a staid, insular village, to absorb the reflexive anti-Semitism and anti-intellectualism felt by the townspeople toward the college,” Lethem writes. “The hostility of the villagers helped shape Jackson’s art.” Suddenly, the recurrent themes of persecution make sense.

Lethem goes on to link the book to “midcentury’s crypto-feminist wave of child-as-devil tales The Bad Seed and Rosemary’s Baby, and the sister-horror film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.” I’ve never thought of any of those stories as feminist, necessarily, but that is something interesting to ponder. I’d also never considered Carrie as a feminist work, but one could make the case that she is part of a fine tradition of victim turned avenging angel, which does have a feminist flavor, and I mean that as a compliment.

Of Human Bondage

This timeless coming-of-age novel dissects, in visceral detail, the agonies and humiliations of unrequited love. Cupid really does a number on Philip Carey who falls desperately in love with a churlish tea server named Mildred. Here is a woman of no apparent redeeming quality. There is no reason why Philip should love Mildred and that is precisely the point. Love is unreasonable. Love is blind.

Mildred lets Philip take her to dinner and a show, but it’s only out of boredom and a lack of better options. When she gets a marriage proposal from a man of greater means, she casually tosses Philip aside and runs away with her new beau.

It would be easy to judge Mildred for her pathological self-centeredness and for her blunt, heartless rejection of Philip. But I don’t think we’re meant to blame her for the state of affairs. She is simply acting in accordance with the immutable laws of love and attraction. Love cannot be willed into existence, nor can it be argued away. Love is a sub-conscious process that is fully out of our control.

To illustrate the point, Maugham places Philip on the other side of the equation earlier in the novel. He has a fling with an older, more experienced woman and is shocked when he discovers she’s developed real feelings for him. He cuts her off abruptly. The woman is crushed, but further involvement is unthinkable to him, so what is he supposed to do? Maugham seems to suggest that there is nothing to be done about it. The nature of love, especially first, unrequited love, is brutal. There is no way around it. Mildred’s cruel treatment of Philip merely highlights the fact.

After the shock and awe of Mildred’s departure wears off, Philip is able to pull himself together and he settles into a comfortable relationship with a warm, maternal woman who loves him unconditionally. Happy ending? Not quite. The moment Mildred reappears in his life, broke, homeless and pregnant, Philip runs to her, as much in love as ever, leaving his dear Nora in the dust.

You’d think Mildred, in her condition, would be ready to settle down with Philip. And for a time, she does. They keep house together and make arrangements for after the baby comes. He introduces her to his best friend and, do I even need to say what happens next? This final betrayal unlocks the chains of love that had shackled Philip for so long. He is finally out from under the crushing weight of love that had burdened him.

Of Human Bondage conveys, with startling immediacy, the ways in which romantic obsession can overwhelm our better judgment. Love trumps reason, common sense, even common decency. It’s a force of nature, our wits no match for its engulfing flames, and there is nothing to do but hope you come out the other side in one piece.

Continental Drift

Continental Drift charts the downward mobility of a handful of unfortunate souls in the early 1980’s, amid the shrieking death-cries of late capitalism.

Bob Dubois is a blue-collar radiator repairman. He works his dull job and supports his wife and kids. To take the edge off the day he visits a bar near his work and enjoys the warm affections of another woman. Life is relatively stable, if a bit dreary. Anyway, one night he snaps. It’s a combination of a few factors. Mostly he is feeling guilty about sleeping with his girlfriend when he should have been buying ice skates for his daughter. He’s upset that the skates are so expensive and he’s mad that the store is closing and that he’ll be coming home empty-handed without so much as an alibi. So he throws a fit, and starts punching the windshield of his car until he smashes it in an over-the-top meltdown. It was hard for me to work up much sympathy for the man. I wanted to grab him by the shirt and say, “Why are you acting like such an immature little brat? Get a grip!”

He comes home, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and somehow convinces his wife that what they need to do is make a fresh start in a new state. Bob remembers a summer he spent working on a boat, on the Florida coast and he feels that if he could just get back there, he’d find himself and the happiness that eludes him. Dreams of wealth and leisure glitter temptingly on the horizon.

The ease with which Bob and his wife sell their house and quit their jobs revealed a bit of datedness to the book, I thought. Selling a home in today’s treacherous real estate market would be drama enough to fill these pages. It garners barely a mention here. Walking away from a steady job of 20 years, with two children to support, comes across as far more reckless than courageous. Job security like that doesn’t exist anymore, so tossing it away seems unforgivably wasteful. You get the sense of people heading straight off a cliff, whether they know it or not.

But off they go. Of course, the moment the family arrives in their new home, it becomes apparent that their fantasies of the easy life have little bearing on reality. Bob’s brother has given him a job managing one of the liquor stores he owns, but it pays barely enough to pay for their shabby trailer home. The brother is a boorish character upon whom the entire family is now dependent. He’s a quintessential 1980’s man, ruled by a crude, materialistic ethos. There is an unbearable scene in which his wife describes buying a boat, on a lark, as a surprise birthday present for her husband. The couple is dripping with money and it is obvious to everyone but Bob that the man is involved in a serious drug running operation. His ever-expanding business empire looks more and more like a money-laundering scheme as time goes on. Beneath the shiny surfaces of “success” lies a dank world of corruption, greed and doom.

A dislocating culture shock unsettles Bob when his brother forces him to keep a gun behind the register. He wants nothing to do with the thing, but it isn’t long before he finds occasion to fire it, in an unthinkable break with his former self. Claustrophobia, paranoia and fear hang about the characters like a sickening, choking fog, yielding predictably terrible results. Adrenaline is always high, and the characters are always on the cusp or in the throes of catastrophe.

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The Last Werewolf

Fuckkilleat. Fuckkilleat. This is the biological imperative every werewolf must heed. But after two hundred years of this routine, world-weary werewolf Jake Marlowe has had enough. Enough of the full moon gore-fests, enough of his unrelenting sex drive, enough of the inescapable guilt and shame that attend the life of the half man/ half beast. He’s the last of his species, and good riddance as far as he’s concerned.

He was happy once. He married a vivacious, romantic-ideal of a woman and they were deeply in love. Then he ate her. Tooth and claw and a few hundred years to ponder the meaning of it all. He’s condemned to a life of near-eternal damnation; condemned by his own, inescapable nature.

Philosophical, theological and literary references roll right off the narrator’s lycanthropic tongue.  But in spite of the intellectual titillation, The Last Werewolf hits you with gut-pummeling force. Imagine Rocky Balboa, down in the meat locker, slugging away at a hulking carcass of muscle and bone. This is tough, sinewy prose to tear your teeth into.

Be forewarned, Mr.Duncan serves up very hearty portions of sex and violence. Lots of explicit, illicit sex. Animal sex. Decapitation, disembowelment, severed arteries gushing blood, the works. The Last Werewolf veers into pornographic territory from time to time, but occasionally animal physicality propels the action into a realm of spiritual transcendence. “…the sudden plunge tore us out of our bodies and for an unmeasurable moment returned us to the thing that wasn’t God but the aspect of him that was ours, and in which infinitely generous archetype there was neither her nor me but only the rapture that calls you home to unity with the sweetest song and painlessly burns away the straps and buckles of the suffering self.”

The narrative sputters through a handful of very standard action-movie sequences. Gunmen, walkie talkies. Spy vs. spy stuff. Nothing you haven’t seen in a hundred thousand action thrillers. Half a dozen characters fade in and out of the narrative, dutifully marking plot points, weaving loose ends, leaving little trace in the imagination.

A few bit players do make brief, memorable turns, like the music executive in his secluded “sub-Frank Lloyd Wright pad,” an immaculate space of “elephantine white” upholstery, and floor to ceiling windows. You just know the guy is dead meat.

A satirical tone buoys the frequent grotesqueries. Normally I have almost zero tolerance for graphic violence, but there is an almost comical, “Shawn of the Dead” quality about this book that lends a levity to the darkest gallows humor. “Nothing like the blood and meat of the young,” the werewolf confesses. “You can taste the audacity of hope.” A fitting parable for these grisly times.

There are also moments of quiet devastation. Werewolves can’t have children. When Jake breaks the news to his mate, he observes the way the news registers in her body. “I felt it go into her, find the place already there for it.” It is as if, within an instant, time has slowed down, like a replayed clip of a terrible sports accident. A haunting ache for children, unborn children, recurs throughout the story. Even our obnoxious music big-wig flashes, in his last moments of consciousness, that he’d wished for son he could teach music. That longing lends The Last Werewolf a tender underside that makes you want to hold the book to your chest.

The ivory pages, curlicue italics, and red-tipped edges give the book an antique aura. Its almost as if you really have unearthed the centuries old diary of a werewolf. E-books are wonderfully convenient, but the physical book, when designed as well as this, is a very special thing. So, take The Last Werewolf under the covers and cuddle up- if you dare. This is passionate, energetic writing worth savoring.

Swamplandia!

Ghost lovers, abandoned theme parks and teenage alligator wranglers. These are just a few of the many odd delights the amazingly talented Karen Russell conjures in the masterful Southern Gothic, Swamplandia! Not since Geek Love has a novel painted such a luscious portrait of family life in the rich, seedy underground of B-rated, sideshow entertainment.

The swampy smell of decay sticks to these pages. Dreams spoil in the unforgiving sun. People die, cruelly young, or else linger indefinitely in a limbo of demented obsolescence. Supernatural forces lurk in the margins. It is a treacherous journey into the dark heart of the Sunshine State; the sparkling jewels of Ms. Russel’s simile-studded prose, the only light to see.

American Pastoral

American Pastoral is a rise and fall of civilization story. Our hero, “The Swede,” is an idealized, all-American success story. He’s a brilliant high school athlete, and the cherished son of an immigrant family. He builds a factory from the ground up, making women’s gloves, from a time when women wore gloves. He marries a

beauty queen. They buy a comfortable house just outside of town and they have a daughter.

 His factory soldiers on through the battering waves of American industrial history. Race riots rage in the streets and the Swede just keeps going, keeping his small band of employees working. His wife goes on to own and operate a cattle ranch. Work and enterprise are the saving forces, the noble pursuits.
Meanwhile, their daughter grows up to be a kind of deranged political activist. She falls under some radical influences and gradually adopts a fully unhinged philosophy that has her bombing government buildings and going on the run. She ends up in a squalid lean-to, in a no-man’s land under a freeway. Her teeth are rotted and her face is covered in accordance with an obscure religious sect she subscribes to. It’s not a pretty picture.

The book ends on a dark note, with the American dream defiled. It leaves a bitter taste.

Millennium People

Protest is one of the central themes of the book, and it is presented in an exaggerated, absurdist manner. An animal rights protest at a cat show results in a convention center’s worth of terrorized animals pissing in unison. The scene crystallizes (at least for me) the questionable utility of direct action protest. (Not at all sure this was the author’s intent, but this is what I took from it as it confirms my own feelings about the misplaced anger, insufferable self-righteousness, and outright chaos that results from this kind of political action.)

From there, the story becomes more and more absurd as an entire neighborhood of affluent suburbanites abandon their gated community, abdicating their civic responsibilities and setting fire to cultural meccas for the energizing jolt it gives them. A poorly articulated philosophy is thrown about here and there to justify the actions, but it is the thrill of destruction that is the true motivator.

I was reminded of one of my all time favorite books, “Friend of the Earth” by T.C. Boyle. There is a similar thread in that book of the vaguely unsatisfied but otherwise upstanding individual giving themselves to an activist cause and going completely off the deep end with it. Violence and destruction (for a good cause!) offer the means to a new and improved identity for the disaffected man. When the environmental activists in “Friend of the Earth” actually set fire to a second growth forest to stress the importance of their philosophical purity, the absurdity of extremism is laid bare. (The parallels with the Tea Party and their idiotic insistence on “No New Taxes Ever” spring easily to mind.)

The terrorist tactics of the characters in “Millenium People” also bring to mind the recent horrors in Norway. Though much has been made of the ideology of the shooter, I feel like the violence itself is the most relevant issue, as it is for me in this book. Who cares what “reason” people use to justify their violence and vigilantism? It shouldn’t matter, because taking up arms and wreaking havoc is morally indefensible. All the discussion and parsing of various manifestos of mass murderers obscures the only relevant issue which is the violence itself. What I take away from this book is the idea of mindless protest dressed up as something noble, and getting quickly out of hand.

The Long Goodbye

I pictured this story in cinematic detail; black and white, with the the occassional flash of a pale green gimlet or blood red manicure. The dialogue is razor sharp. Marlowe is the master of the put-down punchline. Quick-draw sarcasm and withering retorts are his forte, which, along with piercing intuition and intelligence, keep him just above the fray. If he takes a personal interest in a case he’s tenacious in tracking down the truth, however inconvenient the truth may be. The scenarios are preposterous, and the plot devices obvious, but that does not detract from the pleasure of watching the detective heed his own conscience, do right by a friend, and uncover the dirty laundry and lies of the filthy rich in Los Angeles at the mid-century.