Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Thousand Acres

This is not a part of The Great American Read's checklist but I think it should be. Jane Smiley won a Pulitzer Prize for this in 1992 for fiction by an American author preferably dealing with American life. It's not a happy story, nor is this the first time I've read it. I told another parent at a school event that this was one of my favorite books and she said she couldn't believe anyone would read it more than once. Funny enough, the first time I read it I was so rocked by the main "reveal" that chapters later when an act of violence was initiated by one of the main characters against the other, I completely missed it. It's also possible that I was sleep-deprived, but in any case, I was happy to catch it the second time around. 

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

You may or may not already know that this novel is pretty closely based upon Shakespeare's tragedy, King Lear, but you definitely don't need to have read it to appreciate this book. Smiley's work tends to focus around farms and families, and the dynamics of both elements are expertly examined here. In more of a re-imagining than an adaptation, Smiley's tale somewhat defies Shakespeare's--it's still the story of a powerful man divvying up his land, it's still a tragedy, but this book takes its time in explaining why its characters do what they do. If the takeaway from King Lear is SPOILED CHILDREN BECOME GREEDY ADULTS, the main message from this book is perhaps, POWERFUL MEN ARE OFTEN ALLOWED TO BE AS TERRIBLE AS THEY LIKE (and yes, in this case it's very).

Told from eldest daughter Ginny's perspective, the story focuses on the decline of her family after patriarch Larry Cook bequeaths his beloved thousand acres of prime Iowa farmland to Ginny and her two sisters, Rose and Caroline. Worth mentioning is the fact that Mother Cook has been gone for some time, having died when Caroline was just a child, and that Ginny and Rose share responsibility in caring for Larry in addition to their own families. Unfortunately, the big acreage giveaway doesn't go exactly as Larry intends--his fierce pride is wounded when Caroline hesitates to accept her share. With the entire town standing by, Larry writes his youngest daughter off entirely; her acres go to Ginny and Rose, relationships become strained as a result, and on and on it goes. Larry becomes sullen and combative, infighting breaks out among the sisters and their husbands, and disturbing memories are resurrected, suggesting that Larry Cook wasn't the husband and father everyone thought he was (or maybe he was but everyone just got used to looking the other way). 

The experience of reading this novel was a little different this time around because I'm so much older now, and my patience as a reader has been lengthened and inspired by my experience as a writer. I love the bits where nothing is happening but descriptions of the land or the explanations of farm procedures that some might
find monotonous. My father wasn't a farmer but my mother's people were, and we lived on a farm for the first ten years of my life. Trust me, the upkeep of paint on farm buildings, the length of the grass, and the condition of the animals and their enclosures were no small details when it came to a farmer's (or farm wife or daughter's) responsibilities. After we moved to town I picked rock, rogued and detassled corn, and rode the bean bar just like every child of hard-ass parents in Olivia, Minnesota did. Even now, years later, it resonates. 

So much of the telling of this story is wrapped in the language of the work being done, that even something as serious as a death in the family (through our eyes as readers as well as Ginny's) can't be separated from the chores that surrounded it and continued after its acknowledgement: 

"It must have been about six. Ty had eaten his breakfast and headed for the hog pens. I had been upstairs making the beds, so I didn't see the sheriff's car go by, but when I went outside with the blankets to hang them on the line for the day, I saw Rose stumbling up the road. That was the oddest thing, how she didn't seem to know where she was going. I was so struck by the strangeness of it that I didn't go out to meet her, but let her come. . . 

She'd been making muffins. The milk and eggs and butter were in the bowl of the mixer. The flour was half measured in the sifter. A green apple and a measuring cup lay on the floor where she'd dropped them or knocked them. I picked them up and finished making the muffins."

It's a story about work and secrets and grudges. Very German, yet very womanist, as our alignment is always with Ginny; Ginny's perceptions, Ginny's reactions, Ginny's redemption. If you enjoy Shakespearean tragedies or heavy family dramas with descriptive language and reflection, you will likely enjoy this novel. At 399 pages it is a bit of an investment, but if you put the time in and finish you'll be in perfect shape to tackle another series of Smiley family struggles in The Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age.  

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Thoughts on violence and empathy in Marvel's The Punisher

I initially set out just to review a television series; what ended up happening was a lot broader than I could have imagined. I still don't have any firm answers, but much of what facilitated my curiosity in how the violence was used in this show stemmed at least in part from how I have reacted positively to what I considered to be personally relevant (fictional) violence in the past--the primal rage that guided the actions of Kill Bill's Beatrix Kiddo. When each of my children was born, I felt such a fierce, protective love for them that I completely understood the idea that a mother could react with violence at someone's harming her kids; even though I don't think I would be able to hurt someone who hurt my child, I think it would occur to me to do so and thus I found Tarantino's acknowledgement of it validating. Over the top and again, acknowledged through fiction, but validating. I don't know if this series can achieve the same kind of validation for those who may find it personally relevant, and I don't think I could, in good faith, ask someone who might find it personally relevant to watch it. 

In any case, I suppose if Ebert can review The Human Centipede, I can review this.

The Punisher (2017)
starring: Jon Bernthal, Amber Rose Revah, 
Ben Barnes
creator: Steve Lightfoot

"After the murder of his family, Marine veteran Frank Castle became a vigilante known as "The Punisher" with only one goal in mind, to avenge them." (summary by IMDB).

Shane Walsh: The Good Bad Guy

I came to this series the way I've come to a lot of recent ones, through Jeffrey Dean Morgan's Twitter recommendations. I haven't read many graphic series, but the one I have experience with (Kirkman's TWD) put me in a good position to at least approach this show with curiosity. Fans of the television series already know Jon Bernthal as the ill-fated Shane Walsh from The Walking Dead, and if you were left wanting more from him, this show delivers it and then some. 

This is not to say that this is a program for everyone, even fans of the Marvel Universe, it's really not. It's very explicit. No superpowers, no magic stones, and no real optimism to speak of, it's a mostly plausible tale of government corruption and military trauma and is presented in a raw, unapologetic way. To be completely honest, this show might be the most violent thing I've ever seen on television to date in the form(s) of gun violence, hand-to-hand fighting, stabbings, torture, military combat, assassination, vehicular assault, and terrorist-motivated explosions. 

The story takes you through a combat veteran's active duty experiences, the murder of his wife and children, the continuing corruption of the government agencies that sanctioned these events, and the difficulty many other veterans have in reconciling their past military actions with their current civilian lives.

Can a show with all this still be a worthwhile experience? It really depends. My initial responses were either a firm "no" or a somewhat wavering "maybe." If you enjoy Marvel comics but can't handle extreme violence, then no. Definitely not. If you've experienced any of the previously described violent acts firsthand, then also no. If you're able to stomach it and to put the violence in its context, then maybe. There are a few supporting plot lines that do a little in providing slightly positive challenges for the narrative such as a member-organized support group for veterans, another insider-ally who has faked his own death to protect his family, and an Iranian-American Homeland Security officer who takes on her own department and several others in order to uncover the corruption and abuse that Frank is avenging. It's hard to know how much is too much with a topic like this given the fact that our troops' time in Afghanistan hasn't really ended yet; presenting a fictional situation in the middle of a very real, ongoing conflict comes off as crossing a lot of lines, no matter how comic-book loyal or over the top they tried to keep it, however, it does accomplish a level of empathy for our servicemen and women and builds awareness that more is needed in order to support them throughout their service. 

Speaking to the technique of the series of course seems a little dismissive after working out all of my complicated feelings about the fact that this even exists as a work of art, but I think still think it matters. Overall I found the experience of this show to be a combination of something like the procedural feel of Kathryn Bigelow (such as in The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty) meeting the more reality-based aesthetics and violence of Quentin Tarantino (such as Inglourious Basterds or The Hateful Eight). 

Bernthal's portrayal of the character was very much downplayed; he seemed quiet and sullen for his deliveries suggesting a cold, controlled, beaten-down kind of soldier, which he absolutely was. It almost felt like he put a lot of TWD's Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) into his lines, doing them as straightly as an Englishman portraying a Southern boy would do. 

The music was extremely well-matched to the dark content of the narrative and many times included driving percussion and sweeping chord progressions to set the tone for danger as well as jarring, electric guitar chords to herald Frank's entrance into situations and to present him as a threat, a badass, and ultimately the victor in every situaton. The opening credits introduction (shown below) is really quite good but don't be fooled by the folksy guitar--things are bad and get much, much worse. It's hard to know what else to say. I can't really recommend it, but should you take it on, just tread lightly and look into the pillow once you hear the metal guitar or the skull shirt comes onto the scene.

I had a "Who is this for," and "Who shouldn't watch this" all written out and ready but I deleted it. Just proceed with caution and know your limits. 

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Great American Read

Because I felt like I needed a few more things to do over here.

The Great American Read is a couple of things, a television series about favorite American novels hosted by Meredith Vieira on PBS that airs Tuesday, May 22, and also a sort of endurance challenge of reading, complete with a printable checklist, whose entries will provide the focus of the series. It would seem logical that I would be more excited for the series given that my focus is after all television, but that's not the case.

It's the list. Remember how I posted a few months ago that I had been waiting my entire life for the geography map and flag quizzes on Sporcle? I've been waiting equally long for someone to do something like this on a mainstream scale with books because it's my firm belief that Americans need to read more fiction. Granted, some of the selections that made it to this list are going to be a huge challenge for me to take seriously (I won't name names but rhymes with Knee Bell Sames)
but just like that time I asked you, my lovely constant readers, to shoot me your ideas for the WORST FILM EVER MADE project--GOD that was painful--I'm committed to finishing this to the end. In looking down the list I see titles that I've read before (some multiple times), titles that have always intimidated me, series I never finished, and some that I've never picked up. Nonetheless, this is an IN-IT-TO-WIN-IT situation and we're doing them all, book by book (or as Anne Lamott said, "Bird by Bird.").

Moving alphabetically (per the checklist) the first up is Orwell's 1984.
See you there?
See you there.