the story roundup

One of my go-to strategies when I’m not sure what to write about on my blog is to briefly review some of the stories (books, movies, plays, TV shows) I have watched or read over the past week or so. Let’s do that now.

  1. Man of La Mancha: Although I read Don Quixote once and thought it was pretty boring (sorry if it’s your favorite book or anything), until this past Saturday I had never seen this musical theatrical adaptation of the story, which hits the main points but, unlike Oliver! (a musical that I have mixed feelings about), doesn’t try to mitigate the dark parts of the source text, nor of the life of its author. The musical employs a frame narrative, with the Quixote story being told by Miguel de Cervantes himself, who has been imprisoned by the inquisition. The musical ends with Cervantes, who is played by the actor who plays Don Quixote, walking offstage to meet his fate, along with his servant, played by the actor who plays Sancho Panza. Bucking the cheerful Rodgers and Hammerstein stereotype that the term “musical” evokes for most people, this one ends on a bittersweet and inconclusive (yet wholly satisfying) note. In the production I saw, by a local theater company in a very small space, the Cervantes/Quixote actor, an older man who gave a fantastic performance, had tears standing in his eyes throughout almost the entire musical and actually running down his face during the major number “The Impossible Dream.” I’m not sure if the tears were because it was nearly the last performance of the run, because of the heartbreaking idealism of Quixote, or for some other reason I don’t know about, but I’ve never seen an actor so sincerely moved. I cried too. While the entire cast did a great job, I also want to mention the young man who played Sancho Panza–a skinny guy, which at first made me doubt the casting, since this character is iconically round. But the actor quickly made me warm up to his endearing interpretation of the lovable pessimist.
  2. The Walking Dead, season 9, episode 1: I have long thought it would be interesting, and hopeful, to watch a community of zombie apocalypse survivors emerge from crisis mode and begin to build a sustainable society. (In fact, I am writing a story about this very scenario.) So the first episode of this season, which featured characters growing crops, making fuel out of corn ethanol, and conducting inter-community trade, made me happy. Politics–not entirely harmonious–also loomed large in the episode, but politics have (has? Isn’t this one of those singular words that looks plural?) been happening since the very first season of TWD, and I think we are now beginning to see the characters develop a more thoughtful, less reactive approach to leadership (the Hilltop had an election) and negotiation. Maggie’s sudden and single-handed execution of Gregory was troubling (even though it was REALLY time to get rid of that lying snake, in my opinion), but I’m holding out hope that people will get on board with Michonne’s idea of a charter that will help govern community relations in this new society. But maybe I’m just being naive and Quixotic. 😉
  3. Assorted Dickens: Rarely does a week go by when I don’t have some sort of mystical communion with Charles Dickens, and this week was no different. In my composition classes, we analyzed the first chapter of A Tale of Two Cities as an example of all kinds of strategies, from semicolon use to comparison/contrast to topic sentences. At home, I tried watching a black-and-white miniseries of Barnaby Rudge, possibly Dickens’s most underrated novel, but the DVD kept freezing up, so I gave up in disgust. Now I’m watching the 1994 BBC version of Martin Chuzzlewit. Through all this, I’ve been reminded of Dickens’s absolute genius for creating memorable characters and the passion for social justice that permeates just about everything he writes. He’s amazing. I love him. That is all.

More Beauty and the Beast thoughts: Be my guest

Sorry, I just really wanted to use one of those cheesy thematic post titles that I told you last week I wasn’t going to use.  Before I move on to other topics (such as, possibly, another Fantastic Beasts post next week, since the Blu-Ray is coming out tomorrow!), I want to share a few more observations about Beauty and the Beast  (the live-action Disney adaptation released earlier this month, as if I needed to clarify that).

  1. Last week I wrote about literacy, which crops up a number of times in the film, and I later posted on Facebook that the literacy issue is also an issue of wealth and poverty.  Many of Belle’s fellow townspeople would probably argue that they are too busy working to have time to read or even learn to read, and there’s also an access issue: clearly the town has a shortage of books and of educators (and the limited resources that do exist are allocated almost exclusively to boys).  Meanwhile, the Beast in his castle can afford a magnificent library and, as a member of the leisured class, has plenty of time to read the books it contains.  Maybe I’ve just read A Tale of Two Cities too many times, but the castle storming scene in this film had definite French Revolution overtones for me, especially when I remembered the Prince’s pre-curse ball we witnessed at the beginning of the film– lavish and luxurious almost to the point of being laughable, and very Marie Antoinette-style.  I don’t think the filmmakers were trying to make a political point necessarily–after all, the Beast isn’t really the bad guy, and it’s hard to pin down the exact time period (as it should be in a fairy tale)–but the contrast is definitely there.  Two more things to consider on this topic: a. The Enchantress is portrayed as an impoverished outcast.  b. On the other hand, it does appear that the Prince’s castle was a source of steady work for some people in the village.  We learn at the end of the film that both Mrs. Potts and Cogsworth were married to townspeople.
  2. If you’ve read my review of the Walt Disney World restaurant Be Our Guest, you know it really bothers me that in the original animated film, Belle doesn’t get to eat during that iconic song.  I argued that this results from the misguided idea that a fairytale princess could never be seen to eat because eating is somehow a coarse, unfeminine, embarrassing activity.  So I was happy to see that in the new film, Belle at least appears to be hungry (she frantically reaches for several dishes as they dance by), but disappointed that, in the end, she still doesn’t get to eat anything–and that she walks away from the table seemingly okay with that.
  3. Before the film was released, someone told me she’d heard that Belle has to save the Beast in the wolf attack scene.  This is not true.  The scene plays out almost identically to the parallel scene in the animated movie.  The Beast is perfectly capable of saving himself (he is a beast, after all), but Belle does have to help him get back to the castle.  So rather than an in-your-face attempt to make Belle a proper 21st-century feminist, this scene is actually a lovely example of two people caring for each other in a budding relationship (well, a relationship that’s about to bud).  Because Belle was already such a strong character in the animated version, there was really no need to update her to make her extra tough, so I’m glad there was no attempt to do so.  The reason Disney’s Belle is still one of my fictional role models is that she’s both brave and kind (like Disney’s 2015 Cinderella), capable and feminine.

Please continue to send me your thoughts about the movie!

Am I not smart anymore?

Here’s what I’m a little bummed about right now: I haven’t written what I consider a real blog post (primarily text, longer than a few lines, and not recycled) since “My month with Kenneth,” published on November 10.  When I think about writing an articulate, coherent post that has a meaningful message, I feel really tired.

For example, you need to have transitions in good writing.  Transitions are really hard to write!  (Maybe I need to lay off on my English 102 students.)  I don’t know how to transition into my next paragraph, so I’m just going to jump topics, if that’s okay with you.

There’s a difference between having ideas for writing and actually writing.  I experience the former all the time.  I have so many screenplay ideas in my head, I would probably have a good statistical probability of winning an Oscar if I actually wrote all of them and saw them made into movies.  Examples: Best Adapted Screenplay: Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, starring Tom Hiddleston and J. J. Feild (because the screenwriter gets to do the casting, obviously); Best Original Screenplay: Sam’s Home (there’s a pun in that title), a bittersweet comedy about a 30-ish guy with depression who’s had some setbacks and is now back living with his parents and working in the same Italian restaurant he worked at in high school (it sounds like it’s been done before, but I have fresh angles).

See, that paragraph was easy to write!  Because I didn’t have to put sentences together logically; I just used a lot of parentheses.

I used to be able to write really brilliant stuff.  The other day I was thinking about some of my best work: my master’s thesis about eating and bodies in George Eliot’s novels, the short story about Cain and Esau in a diner that I wrote in 2009, the paper I wrote on Moneyball and masculinity in a doctoral film class.  I’ve even written some blog posts that I’m pretty proud of.  (See my archives, at left.)  But now, this is the kind of writing I do every day: “Hey guys, we need to have a meeting about Topic X and Topic Y.  How does June 15 sound?”  After a day of writing that kind of stuff, I’m too mentally tired to write a blog post, or to actually start penning one of those screenplays (although I did read a couple of books on screenplay last summer), or (are you kidding me?) write something scholarly.

Does this mean that my creativity is sapped, that my argumentation skills have significantly waned, that my vocabulary has shrunk, or–as my title sadly suggests–that I’m just not smart anymore?

Or, is one of these three more optimistic things true (I know; “things” is a weak noun)?

  1. I just have to set aside time for writing, as Daniel Silvia has told me in How to Write a Lot.  Perhaps I was lucky in the past and was frequently struck with inspiration, but I shouldn’t expect that to be par for the course (ugh, cliche!).  Maybe if I actually sat down and said, “I’m going to write now,” I would come up with something brilliant.
  2. I can still write pretty decent prose–I mean, I’m writing this post!
  3. The “Hey guys” emails, the comments I write on my students’ papers, the Instagram photo captions–maybe those are actually just as brilliant as those old papers and stories I’m really proud of.  They’re just different kinds of brilliance for different contexts.  Maybe?

my continuing Dickens obsession

I have an ongoing love for Charles Dickens, but my devotion sometimes hits these especially high peaks, and I’ve been on one of them for the past couple of weeks.  I finished reading A Tale of Two Cities last weekend (see my last post for an earlier observation), and I read A Christmas Carol yesterday and today.  (Of course, this wasn’t my first time through either book.)  I can’t wait to lead a discussion of Carol at the Liberty University Bookstore on December 2.  In the meantime, I’ve engaged in two particularly nerdy expressions of my love for Charles.  Please enjoy.

1. The story of Jerricho Cotchery.  I’ll try to make the frame narrative short: I’m eating out with two of my work colleagues, and there’s a Thursday night football game on TV.  One of us mentions McSweeney’s delightful piece called “NFL Players Whose Names Sound Vaguely Dickensian.”  Later I look up at the game and notice Jerricho Cotchery, who catches my eye because he’s a former Steeler (current Panther).  I realize that if Jerricho Cotchery were in a Dickens novel, he would definitely be a Methodist minister.  He would have a lean and starved appearance, and his ears would stick out from his head at exaggerated angles.  When he preached, his voice would take on a ranting cadence.  Then my co-worker/friend Kristen and I rapidly concoct a plot in which Dickens attempts, unusually for him, to sympathize with a Methodist minister.  I wish I’d written down some notes from this impromptu creative session, but I do remember that Jerricho Cotchery is in love with a happy, useful, and modest young parishioner named Evangeline, and that in the past he did some undefined injustice to Oliver Twist, for which he now feels horribly remorseful.  I hope to return to this story at some point, so if you have any good ideas for Jerricho, let me know in the comments.

2. The Sydney Carton playlist.  I’m really obsessed with A Tale of Two Cities right now.  I went so far as to make a Spotify playlist for Sydney Carton, and it’s a far, far better playlist than I have ever made.  (Actually, it’s my first Spotify playlist.)  You should be able to find it by searching “Sydney Carton.”  If you find a 10-song playlist by Tess Stockslager, you’ve got it.  Here’s your guide to the songs: The first four are anthems for a wasted/purposeless life, with a particular emphasis on songs about drinking, because–let’s face it, friends–Sydney is an alcoholic.  The next three songs are about unrequited love and/or heartbreak; I think it’s pretty clear why those are on there.  (As Lucie says at one point, “He has a heart he very, very seldom reveals, and . . . there are deep wounds in it. . . . I have seen it bleeding.”)  The next two are about people deciding they don’t want to waste their lives anymore; this corresponds to that point in ATOTC when Sydney starts hanging out with the Darnays in the evening instead of with his stupid boss/”friend”/enabler Stryver.  And the last song is about what Sydney wants to do, and finally succeeds in doing, for Lucie and her family.

So, put on the playlist, and get ready to dance, then cry, then dance again, then cry again.  Or, put on the playlist and read A Tale of Two Cities.  And while you’re at it, don’t forget about Jerricho Cotchery.