Sunday, September 12, 2004

Hey all! I’ve got an unprecedented three--count ‘em, three--items for y’all today. So let’s get started, shall we?

By the bye, I’ve given up on the “Genre” classification. I never know what to write.

Book: The Arm of the Starfish
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Original Publishing Date: 1965

You probably know Madeleine L’Engle best from A Wrinkle in Time, and that may well get blogged one of these days too; it’s an old favorite. This book actually has as minor characters Calvin O’Keefe and Meg Murray . . . although they’re adults, and married (yes, to each other), with a veritable stable of offspring. But they’re not the real focus of the book.

The main character, Adam Eddington, is another old favorite, mostly because of the next book down. In this one, he’s a sixteen-year-old student looking forward to a summer working for a famous marine biologist before heading off to college. Exciting? Yep. A huge chance to learn? You bet. Dangerous?

Oh yeah.

To poor Adam’s astonishment, he is tossed willy-nilly into a world of international intrigue that he has no clue how to deal with . . . except he has to, because from the moment he meets gorgeous Carolyn “Kali” Cutter in the airport, he’s in a game that doesn’t have a back door out. And he has to decide what side he’s on, because another thing this game doesn’t have is a fence to sit on.

This isn’t my favorite Madeleine book, because Adam’s initial waffling annoys me. Maybe it was because I know who the bad guys were right from the off. I don’t know if that’s because I knew them from another book, or if it’s just that obvious. But Adam is genuinely confused, and he genuinely does his best to work things out and do the right thing. He starts out the book feeling arrogantly grown-up and cosmopolitan, (he’s going to Berkeley after the summer; apparently a wunderkind. Cripes, remember when people could still do that?) and discovers in the course of the book, that being grown-up has way more duties and responsibilities than maybe anyone is prepared for. (Preach it, sistah Madeleine. This grown-up thing sucks.)

One last note: if you’re expecting more visits to Camazotz and tessering, forget about it. This is a book rooted firmly in our world, which is dangerous and terrifying enough for anybody.

Book: A Ring of Endless Light
Author: Madeleine L’Engle
Original Publishing Date: 1980

This is a deeply special book to me, because whenever someone in my life dies, I re-read it to get a handle on death. Because that’s exactly what Vicky Austin, the main character, is struggling to do. The book starts out with the funeral for the sudden death of a family friend, and it goes from there. Vicky feels surrounded by death every day, from news of horrendous accidents in the paper to her own grandfather’s slow death of leukemia to a sorta-kinda-ex-flame who’s just attempted suicide. (More on Zachary Gray later.)

The huge story question--and it is a huge one--is, can Vicky come to understand and accept death, and still be able to celebrate life?

To really confuse her (like she wasn’t already), she’s suddenly got three guys to juggle. Leo, the son of the family friend who died, makes it pretty clear he wants to be more than a friend. Unfortunately for him, he’s nobody’s Prince Charming, least of all Vicky’s. She describes him as a basset hound at one point (not unkindly), and that pretty much sums it up. Then there’s Zachary Gray, who is sophisticated, gorgeous, and more than a little bipolar. As noted above, he’s recovering from an attempt at suicide, and over and over again tells Vicky that she’s the only thing keeping him wanting to live. Which is a horrible thing to tell anyone. And then there’s Adam Eddington, back again, one summer after the events of The Arm of the Starfish. On the outside, he seems way steadier than Zachary. But even he’s messed up in his own quiet way, still struggling with the events of the earlier book, and pushing Vicky away every time things start to get more than friendly.

The only place Vicky feels at peace and in control is with the dolphins. They’re Adam’s special project (marine biology, remember?) and he’s exploring human/dolphin communication. He recruits unscientific Vicky to help him out, and she succeeds beyond his wildest expectations--and hers. Playing and working with them, she’s able to forget about the confusion and difficulties in the rest of her life.

But death lurks in the background, and it’s not going to go away.

As noted above, this is a special book to me. Vicky’s romantic, poetic nature echoes my own in some ways, and her horror over death and struggle to fit it into life have helped me to come to terms with things in my own life. It’s not a typically plotted book--sometimes it seems to meander--but that’s because the story question is so amorphous and philosophical. It’s not a terribly light read. Sit down with this one for the first time.

Oh, and DO NOT--repeat, DO NOT--watch the horrible Disney adaptation. Quite aside from the fact that they have Mischa Barton as Vicky (arggh! Did they not read the book? Vicky is a normal girl!), they absolutely butchered the story. With a hacksaw. They made it about the dolphins. Jeezus christ!

And neither Adam nor Zachary are remotely as cute as they should be, unless you really go in for that middle-school look. Eurgh. Did they even read it???

Movie: O Brother Where Art Thou
Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Original Release Date: 2000

I first wanted to watch this movie because it’s based on Homer’s Odyssey and I’m a gigantic dork. But I fell in love with its random humor, its fascinating sepia-toned photography that evokes the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, and most of all, the music. I’m still a bluegrass lover.

Slick-talkin’ Ulysses Everett McGill has four days to get to his family home before a flood washes away the treasure he’s got stashed. He takes with him his chain-mates, hard-edged Pete and sweet-hearted Delmar, and they bumble their way across 1930’s Mississippi, going through about fifteen cars, lots of money, and meeting some of the strangest people you’ll ever be privileged to view on screen, including a crew of white-sheeted Christians on their way to be saved in the river, another crew of white-sheeted Christians performing a lynch-mob, some “sy-renes” washing their scanties in a creek, a guitar player who’s sold his soul to the devil, and a one-eyed Bible salesman.

Joel and Ethan Coen use both the sepia photography and the bluegrass music to evoke the Great Depression. Unlike musicals, where the characters burst into song for no apparent reason, these characters (usually) have a fairly good and logical reason for gettin’ tuneful. Most if not all of the songs are traditional bluegrass spiritual songs (even “A Man of Constant Sorrow”, which I could have sworn had been written for this because it fits so well). As my friend and I reminded each other so often during the movie, don’t look for logic. Just go with the story, which creates its own logic.

By the way, how much do I love it that the only people Ulysses McGill can’t outtalk are his own wife and daughters?

Suggested drinking game: take a slug for every time you recognize a reference to the Odyssey, Homer, or the ancient world. Unless you’ve got a really hard head, you’ll be under the table by the time Ulysses refers to himself as “the damn paterfamilias.”

Wow! That's it for today, folks. I got books to read and movies to watch. And there's this rumor about homework . . . I'm hoping it turns out false.