Sunday, December 23, 2018

Odds and ends and Hall of Shame: 2018

Odds and Ends: Honorable mentions

First the good news: I wanted to mention two books that didn't make my "best of 2018" list but that I nevertheless read and have been thinking about. The first is Ann Boyd Rioux's Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, a very heavily promoted bio/critical appreciation of Little Women. Partially it is on my mind because it--and Little Women--have come up this year so often on book discussion lists. Second, I was scheduled to interview Rioux about the book for Publishers Weekly, and in one of my big disappointments of the year, the interview was cancelled because of complicated promises the publisher had previously made to the The New York Times. But life goes on ...

I enjoyed this book, especially the first part, but thought the second half could have been condensed: we didn't really need every living female writer on the planet (it seemed) quoted saying Jo March influenced her to become a writer, and  the chapter comparing the book to Tom Sawyer and arguing it doesn't have the same stature because it's a girl's book was a misfire. Little Women is so much better --and different--than Tom Sawyer the comparison simply seemed, if on the surface reasonable, below the surface, bizarre.

Moving on, I recently read Ivy Compton Burnett's Manservants and Maidservants. This is not a best book, but a curious and interesting novel. Like Compton Burnett's other books (I understand) it is almost all dialogue. It exposes truths because of its stark format, and it emphasizes the subaltern in its focus on children and servants in a Victorian great house. Its portrait of the young boy Avery is compelling. It reminded me of Woolf's The Waves in being  much about childhood. Woolf's narrators are all portrayed through their stream-of-consciousness interiority while Compton Burnett's are primarily portrayed through exteriority in their dialogue, but both books also have a sense of stripping out conventional elements of the novel to try to arrive at core truths.

Switching gears completely, I also feel compelled this year to include a Hall of Shame that includes three movies and three books. I would never include a small film or small book that somehow misfired, but I include these because they won or were nominated for major awards in three cases, and in the other three have been either prominently or misleading  promoted. The fact that several of these works won very prominent awards should give us pause and make us think again about the value of awards: just because a movie or book has won multiple awards doesn't mean it is any good--or espousing anything good.

Hall of Shame Movies:

The Shape of Water: I did not blog about this movie, but could have. This  misogynist and homophobic film about shaping an abject handmaiden cleaning woman to be the fit mate of the ideal Adonis heterosexual man (who happens to be a water creature) incredibly won the Academy Award for Best Picture last year. Yes, dear reader, I know it is difficult to fully wrap our intellects around this. We thought for the last fifty years there has been something called a "women's movement" that penetrated into powerful male consciousnesses to some minute degree, at least with the idea that women were not put on this planet solely to service men. Well, if the election of a racist, misogynist buffoon over the most highly qualified presidential candidate in history weren't enough, and if #MeToo weren't enough, a movie about a woman being molded as a perfect helpmeet for a hetero male won the Academy Award. I am sure it was billed as a heartwarming and whimsical story of two outsiders, but that is not what it is about.  If it were truly about sympathy towards outsiders, it would not include the ritual humiliation of a woman and a gay man. The nasty government officials might want to destroy the water creature, but that doesn't make the water creature an "other."  The water creature is the True Man, the Noble Hero. Note, too, that at the end of the movie, the male creature does not, ala the Little Mermaid, come out of water with great pain to join his beloved. No, she must join him. She must be transformed to be part of his world. And this ideological nonsense was considered by Hollywood to be the year's best picture. One lesson from this: the Democrats, much as it horrifies me to say this, must not even dream of running a woman for president.

Phantom Thread: this misogynist exercise also was nominated for Best Picture. The mind does reel. Two hours of women fawning over and servicing the Great Man--what more would any woman want to do with her life?  Oh, but it was set in the 1950s, and what else did women want to do then? (The movie implicitly asks: Why did things ever change?) Did we really nominate this movie for Best Picture? If we want to honor Daniel Day Lewis, let's honor him, not the misogynist swan song film in which he plays a prima donna white alpha male. I blog about it here:

BlackkKlansman: It may be slightly harsh to "hall of shame" this film--and the ending redeemed it, imo (my husband disagrees), but Lee's sledgehammer approach to race, where racists are depicted utterly as buffoons, ignoring all the insidious, subtler forms of racism that are far more common and dangerous, got entirely too much air space and praise. A far better film (it's on my "best" list) is Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You.

Hall of Shame Books

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: This book won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal for Fiction, and was longlisted for the Booker,  among a long list of other awards. The problem is, it is not a very good book. I loved the idea of an alternative history in which the underground railway was a subway train, and I find intriguing the idea of mashing historical periods together, but this book is far too crudely executed. Again, like Spike Lee's film, it is a sledgehammer that replaces novelistic nuance with stock scenes and characters meant to evoke pre-packaged responses that really don't require any thought. It's boring--titillating, but fundamentally, intellectually boring and bereft. Whitehead can be a good writer--at least I remember John Henry Days as a good book--but my feeling reading this one was that he breezed through it with as little effort as possible. Its simply not well-imagined and doesn't do justice the problem of racism. So let's pile it with awards.

Women Who Write are Dangerous by Stefan Bollman. I debated whether to include this book, which I got for free, as it has not received big press (that I am aware of it), but when I saw it prominently displayed in not one but two bookstores, I thought this is not good. Then I saw on Amazon that it is misrepresented as by Bollman and Francine Prose. No doubt the publisher figured out it would be a good idea to add a woman's name to the credits. But Prose only wrote the introduction. So, what we are left with is a man, who apparently has no  qualifications to write such a book, let loose to pen snarky little entries about whatever woman writers happen to catch his fancy. He seems mostly interested in these writers' sexuality--but why not? What else are women on earth for?  This book should never have been published ... but ... see above.

Laura Thompson's Agatha Christie biography: I fell for the good press on this. This is one of the worst biographies ever, leading to the question of exactly what Thompson's reading comprehension skills are. Do not read this misinformed book. I dropped it a third of the way in, as it became increasingly evident that it was nothing more than Thompson's none-too-insightful ramblings.

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