Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Marvellous Land of Oz

I've been re-reading some of my Oz books. When I was a little girl, our library had all 14 of the books about Oz written by L. Frank Baum, and the little cards in the back of them (our library books had little cards in the back of them! I miss those) had my name over and over and over again, from the painstakingly scrawled "Jennifer" to the whimsical, bubbly (and short-lived) "Jenni" to the terse and businesslike long-term-winner "Jen."

I. Loved. Those. Books.

I loved the idea that ordinary girls--Dorothy and after her Trot and Betsy Bobbin--could find themselves whisked suddenly away to another world. I adored the gender-bending Ozma. In retrospect, I believe I was very taken with a world in which all of the major powers for good and evil were women. Men tended to be either humbugs like the Wizard (who could only do magic he learned from Glinda) or ridiculous (like the threatening but ultimately comical Nome King). Women were magical, forces to be reckoned with. As an adult I can see the pitfalls of this, but as a child I loved all the women of Oz, from the selfish Princess Langwidere, who changes heads every day rather than hairstyles, to Red Reera the Yookoohoo, the isolationist witch.

I owned a copy of the first book. On the cover, it showed Dorothy and her companions coming to a place in the Yellow Brick Road where the road halted and gave way to a wide river. The party was getting ready to board a raft and try to cross to the unknown wilderness on the other side. On the cover, under the title, was a word that I found mystical and magical:


In my young mind, I was convinced that "unabridged" referred to that cover illustration and the difficulty of crossing that river. The river was unabridged, and if they could get beyond it who knew what wonders and perils awaited them? I loved that word. It seemed to breathe potentials and possibilities.

I wanted to live an unabridged life.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mary Oliver, "Goldenrod"

Is it terribly trite to like Mary Oliver's poetry? Possibly. Yet she manages to pull more than sheer cliche from the nature images she uses often enough to keep me loving her work.


On roadsides,
in fall fields,
in rumpy bunches,
saffron and orange and pale gold,

in little towers,
soft as mash,
sneeze-bringers and seed-bearers,
full of bees sand yellow beads and perfect flowerlets

and orange butterflies.
I don't suppose
much notice comes of it, except for honey,
and how it heartens the heart with its

blank blaze.
I don't suppose anything loves it, except, perhaps,
the rocky voids
filled by its dumb dazzle.

For myself,
I was just passing by, when the wind flared
and the blossoms rustled,
and the glittering pandemonium

leaned on me.
I was just minding my own business
when I found myself on their straw hillsides,
citron and butter-colored,

and was happy, and why not?
Are not the difficult labors of our lives
full of dark hours?
And what has consciousness come to anyway, so far,

that is better than these light-filled bodies?
All day
on their airy backbones
they toss in the wind,

they bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,
they rise in a stiff sweetness,
in the pure peace of giving
one's gold away.

Oh, so THAT'S what people hate about "Uncle Tom's Cabin"...

All right, I've gotten further into "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and one of the major reasons people dislike it has become clear to me. It can be summed up in three small words:

Eva St. Clair.

"Little Eva" is the daughter of the man Tom is eventually sold to. She's a little girl whose golden curls frame a perfectly seraphic face. She's adorable and sweet-tempered, and treats everyone, white or black, with perfect respect and dignity. The slaves all adore her and gather around to watch her pretty little face and hear her beautiful, angelic voice as she speaks of forgiveness and mercy.

I remember the story well enough to know she dies later, and a mean-spirited part of me is rather looking forward to it.

Her father, on the other hand, I rather like! He's a wastrel and cultivates a deliberate air of carelessness and frivolity, but it's framed as a man who loathes slavery and yet isn't quite strong-willed enough to actually struggle against the whole system he's so deeply implicated in. It torments him, but he just doesn't have the spirit to rebel, either, so he just hates it quietly and is cynical and ironic. When his Northern cousin says she doesn't feel his slaves are "strictly honest," he starts laughing: "O, cousin, that's too good--honest!--as if that's a thing to be expected! Honest!--why, of course, they arn'. Why should they be? What on earth is to make them so?" I like him much more than his perfect little daughter, I am forced to admit.

One passage struck me based on what I was talking about with Joss Whedon. St. Clair was in love with a Northern woman, but her family spread rumors that she was cheating on him and in a fit of pique he married a woman totally unsuited for him, only to find that his first love was true to him. But of course it was too late and his life was ruined. Stowe notes wryly:

"Of course, in a novel, people's hearts break, and they die, and that is the end of it; and in a story this is very convenient. But in real life we do not die when all that makes life bright dies to us. There is a most busy and important round of eating, drinking, dressing, walking, visiting, buying, selling, talking, reading, and all that makes up what is commonly called living, yet to be gone though."

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Over-Investment and Fiction

Joss Whedon--best known for "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Firefly," is something of a Geek God. Yet I've never watched anything by him! My geek cred has been damaged...

Well, during the last writer's strike, Whedon and some friends got together and produced a little three-part web drama they called "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog," just released in three installments last week. The conceit is that it's the video blog of a wannabe villain, Dr. Horrible.

As you can see, Dr. Horrible (he has a horribleness) is adorable. He's inept and rather sweet. He wants, more than anything, two things--1. an invitation to the Evil League of Evil and 2. To win the heart of the earnest young women who uses the laundromat next to him. There's singing! And goofiness!

In the course of the first two parts, he gets Penny to notice him, only to lose her to the smarmy and loathesome "hero" Captain Hammer (who has a tendency to beat up and/or give wedgies to Dr. Horrible). The Evil League of Evil invites him to join--but first he must murder someone to prove his villain status. Despite feeling like killing "isn't his style," he decides to make an exception in the case of Captain Hammer and sets out at the end of Act II to kill him.

So far so good! In fact, so far so excellent! It was funny and disarming and adorable, and I was so rooting for Dr. Horrible, although I was pretty sure he'd have a change of heart and maybe stick to petty villainy and win Penny's heart. I'd had a pretty bad couple of days and when I saw Part III up I was like, "Thank goodness, something that will make me happy to see."

And in Part III, he attacks Captain Hammer at a dedication ceremony, Captain Hammer grabs his weapon from him and tries to shoot him with it, the weapon blows up at random and Penny is killed by shrapnel. Now he's killed someone, so he's allowed into the Evil League of Evil and he becomes a full-fledged arch-villain in a montage showing him ruling with an iron fist. The story ends with him singing that now that he has the world in his command, he feels... "...nothing." The last shot is of him staring bleakly, blankly into the camera.


Apparently, based on other people's reactions, if I had known Joss Whedon better I could have avoided the worst of the shock. But this kind of bait-and-switch seems fundamentally unfair, somehow. There was no foreshadowing of it, no warning, it was as if Whedon just set out to create a likeable character in a situation that made us root for him--and then laughed and smashed the whole contraption to the ground. It seemed oddly contemptuous from a man supposedly famed for being humane and witty. And it victimized the female character (she dies hoping Captain Hammer will save her, which is pretty damn stupid since she just watched him gloating he was going to murder someone and then running away after getting scratched by shrapnel)--also an odd move for a man known for his feminist sensibility.

All in all, Whedon, I'm not impressed. I'm impressed (if chagrined) by my ability to get into a nicely-told story and empathize with the character, but I end up feeling pretty stupid and used, frankly. I was about ready to swear off all fiction this afternoon--it all seems a rigged game where the author's just mocking you beyond the pages of the book. If you take the characters more seriously than the author does, the message seems to be, you're the idiot when you feel badly that bad things happen. I felt like a real tool, and I'm not really recovered yet. Not really the results I was hoping for from this little Web drama.

*heavy sigh* I am apparently painfully un-hip...

Monday, July 14, 2008

"Uncle Tom's Cabin"

One of the things I appreciate most about my parents is that they always encouraged me to read books that widened my horizons, as a kid growing up in rural Maine. It was, alas, an encouragement doomed to some level of failure. Books with protaganists outside of my range of experience were more unintelligible to me than the fantasy that was my default reading. I remember being mystified by "Harriet the Spy"--the main character walked to her friends' houses? How was this possible? I had no idea what a "city block" or a "park" was, and the idea of having a nanny was simply gibberish. "Roll of Thunder, Hear my Cry" was much less comprehensible to me than the Oz books. I simply have to hope that some of it stayed with me by...osmosis or something.

I remember my father encouraging me to read "Uncle Tom's Cabin" when I was in fifth grade. I know I read it, but I'm re-reading it now and it's all new to me. But it's good. The introduction of the new edition I'm reading is quite dismissive of the book, sending it off rather with a pat on its head for trying hard but ultimately failing to be fair to the slave experience. And yes, Stowe tends to dwell a great deal on the "simple, childlike nature" of most black people. I assume this is a natural result of attempting to appeal to an audience that probably isn't going to take well to images of really, really pissed-off slaves.

And of her main characters, the escaped slave George, is proud and bitter and quite ferocious in his denunciation of the United States, declaring he is no citizen of America and has no need to abide by its laws. He intends to fight being re-taken to his death or the deaths of others. He's pretty glorious, actually, and not simple and child-like at all.

I also feel rather like Uncle Tom gets rather a bad rap in history. His name has become synonymous with an African-American who cheerfully colludes with the system, and yet he's anything but. Admittedly, he does refuse to run away when his owner sells him--but not because he's faithful to his master, but because the deal was either Tom or all the other slaves on the plantation. He's doing it to save everyone else he cares about, not because he's fond of his Master (although, mind you, he is also that).

And although Tom is very religious and Stowe comes from a very religious background, Christianity isn't presented as some kind of sentimental cure-all. George is bitterly dismissive of Christianity, and everyone other than Tom has their outbursts of how no God could ever allow something as horrible as this to happen. Maybe the most interesting passage is when Eliza and her child make it to the other side of the Ohio River and are helped by a farmer, who is moved by her plight. Stowe says something like "Obviously this was an unlettered man; if he had more Bible learning as the learned classes have, he would have known it was wrong to help an escaped slave." Strong words for the sister of an renowned preacher...

Anyway, I have had reason lately to be appalled by how little I know of the "Peculiar Institution" of American slavery, so I've been trying to fill in the gaps. It's horrifying but oddly uplighting reading. The indomitable human spirit finds a way to survive and resist.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

First Post!

Tinkering around with this formatting. Thought I'd try to embed one of those widget-thingies I've heard about here. :) is an interesting service that syncs up with your iPod and keeps track of what you listened to over time. Is it a willing embrace of the Panopticon? Perhaps. But it's also really cool to see your musical tastes tracked like that.

I've been listening to Bruce Springsteen's "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" a lot lately. His voice is so well-suited for protest music it's uncanny. Of course, he's been singing protest music for decades, the people who badly misinterpret "Born in the U.S.A." notwithstanding...

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