Wednesday, June 29, 2016

My Girl/Bridge to Terabithia

The other day while I was in Portland, I stopped into a vintage boutique. I love vintage fashion, though I don’t think I can pull it off most of the time. I also love vintage accessories: hats, gloves, handkerchiefs, and jewelry. I ended up buying a vintage mood ring; that’s something I know I can work with. I had one when I was a teen, though who knows where it ended up. When I was a teen, the 70’s styles like peasant tops and flared pants and platform shoes had come back in style. Plus, like any 90’s girl knows, we also had Vada Sultenfuss to thank for mood ring awareness.

My husband has an amazing ability of recollection, and he remembers vividly the TV trailers for the movie My Girl because they enticed the audience with the tagline “Mac is back!”. Macaulay Culkin had shot to stardom with Home Alone, and My Girl was his first film following it. He remembers begging his mother to go see it in the theaters, but she told him that the movie didn’t seem like it was going to be like Home Alone, but kind of sad, like Bridge to Terabithia. Which it is, almost exactly.
In Bridge to Terabithia, we have the protagonist Jess, who feels alienated from his father.”it made Jess ache inside to watch his dad grab the little ones to his shoulder, or lean down and hug them. It seemed to him that he had been thought too big for that since the day he was born” ( 19-20).  In My Girl, we get a glimpse of Vada’s relationship with her father (played aptly by Dan Aykroyd) when she says that she thinks she has cancer, and he asks her to pass the mayonnaise. Growing up in a funeral home with her widowed father, she sees that most of his attention to given to the dead and the grieving, so we can assume that her preoccupation with deadly diseases is her way of seeking his attention.

Jess meets the new girl in town, Leslie, and becomes friends with her. Jess gets a window into a relationship he’s never had when he sees Leslie working alongside her father, fixing up their new house. “She loved being needed by her father. She was learning, she related glowingly at recess, to “understand” her father” (86). Similarly,  Vada looks longingly at Thomas’s mother, who is asking him about his chores and wiping away his milk mustache; she is watching an interaction she knows she will never have.

So we have two protagonists, who have a best friend of the opposite sex, and an inability to relate to their own parents. Oh, and let’s not forget that they both have crushes on teachers, too. Jess receives some of the individual attention he’s starved for at home from his music teacher Miss Edmunds, and Vada enrolls in a summer poetry class to nurse her school-girl crush on her teacher Mr. Bixler Can anyone watch the scene where she sings to her class photo, where a heart has been drawn around the teacher’s face without cracking a smile?

Then of course comes the inevitable tragedy.

While playing in the woods alone, Leslie swings on a rope over the water. The rope snaps, and after hitting her head, Leslie drowns. Her sudden death sends Jess reeling. “he ran until he was stumbling, but he kept on, afraid to stop” (132). Likewise, after Vada loses her treasured mood ring in the woods, Thomas goes looking for it alone, and stumbles into some angry bees, who sting him. His allergy to bees dooms him, and Vada loses her only friend.

Death is the passageway for these narratives, but I’m not talking about Leslie and Thomas J flying up to Heaven. Death is the passageway that allows Jess and Vada to develop a closer connection to their respective fathers. Following Leslie’s sudden death, Jess’s father displays a tenderness for his son that he never had before. As Jess runs, desperate to escape reality, his father follows in his truck. “He picked Jess up in his arms as though he were a baby”. Vada also chooses to run away from reality, darting out the door at the funeral. When she comes home that night, she is able to talk to her father, and he really listens to her.

Of course the ending can’t follow the death of a child so soon. The readers/audience crave closure, and reassurance that our protagonists are going to be okay. It’s not just about closure, it’s about growth. Vada attends one last poetry class, in which she reads aloud a poem she wrote in honor of Thomas J. And Jess begins construction on a bridge to the titular land that he and Leslie created.

A few years back, I was lucky enough to meet Katherine Paterson. She is one of the nicest authors I’ve met. The line to get her signature was incredibly long, and snaked around the auditorium. It was slow-going too, but that’s only because she was talking to each person who wanted her signature. Not just the usual “Hi, how are you, thank you” business either; my husband ended up talking football with her! We asked her if she’d ever seen the movie My Girl, and she said she hadn’t. I wonder if she would think they stole her idea, or if this is an old idea, and the two retellings of it that I’m familiar with just happen to be relatively close in their times.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Titanic: The Exhibition

 A couple of weeks ago, I heard that the Portland Science Center would be exhibiting artifacts from the Titanic. I knew right away I had to go because I've always been interested in this story from history. Even before the 1997 film came out, I would read about it in my history books and try to absorb the immense impact this tragedy must have had on the world back then, and how its story has since been told.

First, I must address the radio commercial I heard advertising the exhibit. It wasnn't from the museum itself, it was from a company called Seacoast Deals, which works with local businesses to provide discounts for shows, attractions and products. It was a typical radio ad, with a booming, excited voice urging us to "Come see the Titanic exhibit!" and I just don't equate a cheesy, hyper voice with artificial excitement with a human tragedy. It was the same kind of voice that someone would use to advertise a new 3D movie or a water park, not a museum exhibit.

It was amazing to view the artifacts knowing that they'd been 
unseen, over two miles beneath the ocean's surface for 90 years.

I was also a little appalled at the way museum visitors are posed in front of a green screen upon entering the exhibit. When we visited the National Football Museum in Cleveland in November, we used a couple props and posed in front of a green screen to create a souvenir photo. Doing the same thing for a museum exhibit showcasing the possessions of people who perished in one of the worst accidents in history felt really strange. We didn't want to cause a scene to the guy taking the photos, after all he's just doing his job, but we didn't even bother looking at the photos. We didn't come to the exhibit to make our own memories, we came so that we could learn more about the memories of the people on board.

I have to admit that the mechanical artifacts didn't really interest me as much; lumps of coal, gears and other various machinery bits only emphasize the core of the conflict: our blind faith in technology/engineering. As humans we are incredibly self-centered and we think that if we work hard enough or design something complex enough that nothing could possibly triumph over it. We often forget how powerful nature can be.

The artifacts that I think most people were interested in were the ones that had a human aspect to them because they seem to have a voice, seem to tell the story not of the ship but of the passengers.

 These artifacts were toiletries, including a brush, comb, toothpaste jar cover and even a soap container that had soap in it.

These artifacts were personal belongings, either brought from home or purchased on a shopping excursion. The figurine up front is thought to be a souvinier  from Holland.

This case contained some remnants of a little girl's tea set. A reminder of all the children who were on board, and a sorrowful metaphor representing the loss they suffered: either their lives or their innocence. I wonder how the ones who survived must have coped with the horrible scenes they witnessed that night.

I was taken with this story, about the the perfume maker Adolphe Saalfeld, who was traveling from his home in Manchester, England to New York in order to try selling his products there. I first read about this particular story in the book The Hollow, a paranormal romance story by Jessica Verday.

And being the classic film amateur that I am, I was already aware of the significance of the passenger named Dorothy Gibson. Gibson was a film actress, and following the sinking, she starred in a film called Saved From the Titanic, in which she wore the stained evening gown she had actually worn the night of the sinking. The film was released only a month after the tragedy, which just proves that profiting from the  tragedy has history as long and sordid as the ship itself.

You can find stills of the film, however the film was lost in a fire.

I took this photo of a gentleman's calling card because not only was he from Buffalo, NY, but the city's name is misspelled on the card.

Overall, I really enjoyed the exhibit. There was some background music playing in the building but I didn't mind it because it helped to cover up some of the murmured conversations people were having. 

The exhibit ends and leads you straight into the gift shop. I'm not really sure who feels the need for a piggy bank shaped like an iceberg or a t-shirt that says "Iceberg right ahead!", or why anyone would actually spend money on the 'souvinier' photo, but the people ahead of us were looking at the different backgrounds available for their smiling faces to be superimposed on.

I purchased one postcard, which I sent to someone.

I don't know if I'd go to another Titanic exhibit, but it did rekindle my desire for knowledge about it.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Evil Shenanigans of Nazi Ghosts (in Maine)

I managed to knock out another book during my shift at the beach yesterday. I decided on another Dan Poblocki book since I enjoyed The Book of Bad Things so much. This one was also pretty good, but it didn't seem to have the same kind of mystery. I found myself making some pretty accurate predictions about where the story was going.

There's an old house, alone on an island, a bad storm at sea, and two young sleuths who discover that during WWII some Nazi soldiers were successful in getting on the island.

The Nazis are long gone, but their vengeful spirits remained in the area, and they manage to possess some of the people who are staying on the island for a wedding, leading to all kinds of evil shenanigans.

The island is fictional, but it's said to be off the coast of Maine, and I like books that take place around my home because it's easy to relate and just kind of slip into the story.

Eventually Eli and Josie, the two young sleuths, figure out why their family members suddenly begin speaking German to each other, and Josie finds a hidden room that once belonged to a young girl. I saw the Nazi spirit possession coming a mile away, BUT I will say that I did not expect  an entire Nazi U-Boat to be resurrected, and for all the characters to witness an event of such supernatural power. Often in horror stories, the supernatural phenomena is witnessed by one or a few central characters, and the others are disbelievers who only serve to highlight the conflict.

Nothing that really made me ooohhh or ahhhhh, but historical fiction horror is always fun to read.

Dan Poblocki's next book comes out in August, and the cover is a departure from the usual ones:

It has a more modern, creepypasta kind of vibe than the past ones, which show a transparent ghost figure against a muted, sepia-tone like background. I'm looking forward to August.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Death by Dumpster Diving

Tonight at my beach job I managed to read another book in completion. Since I'm going to be writing guest blog posts for the Horror Wrietrs Association new YA blog, I decided I need to ramp up my horror reading some more. Today before I left the library I selected a few books that I thought might grab my attention, and the first one I tried was a winner.

I'd read a couple of Dan Poblocki's other books like The Nightmarys and The Ghost of Graylock, but I  hadn't attempted this one yet because it mentions zombies, and the only zombies I like are ones that dance.

Don't pretend you're not singing the song, now.

I'm really more of an old-fashioned girl when it comes to my creeps and chills; I like ghosts. Witch stuff can be kinda fun and serial killers and slasher stuff is fine, but I've never been able to get into monsters and zombies.

Luckily, The Book of Bad Things because has a ghost element. But I'd be lying if I said that was the part that drew me in.

Cassidy, the young protagonist is a city kid who spends her summers in the countryside with a host family that she's come to view as a home. The town had an eccentric woman who was known to hoard things, and after her death, as her house is emptied of all her eccentric possessions, some of the people in town take it upon themselves to snag a few souvenirs. That's right- they go dumpster diving!

What could be more perfect for me than a horror story that features dumpster divers?!

However, the treasures that the people take do not truly belong to them; they belong to someone, or rather, something, else. And it demands that they be returned. 

The book was a pretty easy read, at just shy of 250 pages. And the horror is pretty straightforward, which is also something I like.  I like my horror straight-up, not bogged down with complex mysteries and conspiracies. I read horror because I like feeling scared, so it annoys me when I have to spend alot of energy just trying to figure out why I should be scared.

Speaking of being scared, the title of the book is derived from Cassidy's journal. After a scary experience in her New York City apartment home, she begins writing down all the things in the world that she finds frightening as a way to understand herself and her feelings. If you understand something, it's not as scary. Among some typical supernatural fears like zombies and hauntings, she also records some happenings/fears that are typical. For example, she writes about her fear of abandonment, and her fear of intruders, as well as her fear of nightmares.

Literary critic Douglas E. Winter argues that horror is is not a genre, it's an emotion. It's not about ghosts or zombies or curses, it's about the manipulation of our emotions. This is why people are afraid of things like spiders. Spiders are commonplace almost everywhere in the world. They're not a mystery, and many of them aren't even poisonous (at least in the US), and yet so many people are terrified of them. Why? I guess because they feel disgust or because we've been conditioned to fear them or maybe because they're seen as a threat to our health/safety/life. 

It's really hard to talk someone out of a fear. You can point out every logical reason in the world why someone should not fear a spider or a bat or a clown or whatever, but if they already have the fear, then there's a good chance they're going to keep having it. They may learn to cope with it, but they're not simply going to "get over it." That's why I really liked the theme of Cassidy's writing being her catharsis: "The notebook and pen had protected her from the darkness that lived inside her." 

I'm a pretty good writer, which is good because I might need to use that skill to exorcise any bad spirits that are hiding out in my roadside/dumpster finds. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Riding in Cars with Boys: book vs. movie

I wrote last week about how much reading I get done at my summer job. I'm happy to report again that I read another book on my ever-expanding list. I got this book a couple years ago because I love the movie, and I wanted to be able to compare and contrast the two, because comparing book and film versions of the same story is one of my joys in life.

Riding in Cars with Boys, Beverly Donofrio's memoir of her teenage pregnancy and her quest for education and success that followed the failure of her teenage marriage was the basis for the 2001 movie. Drew Barrymore portrays Donofrio, and I think the casting is spot-on because of the wild child reputation that Barrymore earned for herself. Just like the real Beverly, who mellowed as she got older, and more adapted to her role as a mother, and more focused on furthering her education, Barrymore also grew into herself and seems comfortable with the place she has carved out for herself in Hollywood.

One thing that's good about watching a movie before reading the book is that I don't have to concoct physical descriptions of the characters in my imagination because I can picture the actors in their roles. Of course this works best if you like the movie and the casting decisions.

I did enjoy the book and although there were some changes in the cast of characters for the film rendition, I think that the decision to cut some of the characters was probably beneficial. With a reduced cast of characters, the story is more streamlined and the audience can focus their attention on the central conflict, and develop a bond with those characters that are most important to the central narrative.

In case you're wondering about which characters didn't make it onto the screen, here's a few: Bev's golden boy older brother, and one of her younger sisters. She also has a number of friends and acquaintances that weave in and out of her life, while the film emphasizes her relationship with her BFF Fay.

Also worth noting is the creation of a character for the movie that's nowhere to be found in the book.

Tommy, Bev's lovable loser highschool buddy who seems to be nursing a crush on her, never appeared in the text.

I couldn't find much about this character so I don't know who is responsible for creating him or what the motivation may have been. From what I read, it seemed that creating a character like this, who yearned for her attention back in highschool while she was busy chasing the bad boys and then becomes attractive and enjoys the education and lifestyle that Bev desires, would highlight the vast difference in how her life turned out.  

highschool Tommy:
post-collegiate Tommy:

Tommy is portrayed by a young and adorable Peter Facinelli. I just recently binge watched Nurse Jackie on Netflix, so it was nice to see him pre-Coop.

I found alot of lack-luster reviews for the film, but I've always enjoyed it. The character of her loser husband Ray is more pathetic in the book, probably because he lacks the charm of Steve Zahn. The book was an easy read; just a couple of hours. The language is accessible and the storyline isn't a huge departure from contemporary YA books. I would recommend the memoir for a YA audience, but I wish the film wasn't so dated. Even though the story takes place in the 60's and 70's, the actors that are cast are all typical of the 90's and early 2000's (RIP Brittany Murphy), so I think getting teens to watch the movie to accompany the reading might be hard sell.

If I ever see my dream of leading a teenage girl book/movie discussion club, I'd put this duo on the list. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Meant for Me

I found this little sign today on my usual thrift store circuit. It's tie dye canvas over a wooden frame.

It's perfect.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Teen Romance and Taming the Old West

One of the things I love most about my summer job at the beach is all the time I have to read. Even though the gatehouse has wi-fi, I try to take advantage of the hours of child-free time to enjoy new, or old books. It's hard for me to become engrossed in a book when I've got a mischeivous little monkey roaming around. This past Saturday I managed to knock out a few new reads.
This is a YA book that some generous person on the Maine library listserv offered up. At our school library, we made our new YA section a priority this year in our collection development in order to accommodate the middle-schoolers who are older, more mature (if there is such a thing in middle school!) and read at higher lexile levels. The romance in the story is pretty typical for a YA book: a girl who doesn't think she's beautiful but who is actually stunning, which she finds out when the not-so-bad boy with smoldering good looks falls in love with her and tells her so following her realization that the superficially cute guy she had formerly had a crush on is a shallow jerk. But what won me over was the main storyline, in which  Darcy sees her family and home fall apart, and rekindles a relationship with her loving hippie Uncle, who owns a thrift store. She discovers that there's alot of soul and substance to be found when one looks beyond the world of prep school and McMansions. A message I hold dear.

Okay, okay, I admit it. Up until very recently, I had never read Old Yeller.  I also have yet to see the Disney film. I never sought this story out because I already knew what happened- thanks to Friends

But, it was one of those books that I was always ashamed to admit I hadn't read, and we recently withdrew our dog-eared (ha- get it?) old hardcover version, and I have a major weakness for vintage books, so I knew it was inevitable. It's only 158 pages so it was a quick read. I definitely understand why it's become a classic; the descriptions of 19th century Texas are straight-forward, yet evoke a sentimentality for our heritage, much like the Laura Ingalls Wilder books do. And the story about the yellow dog that caused trouble, but melts your heart with his antics and his undying loyalty is obviously the hook. Old Yeller is the original Marley and Me. The part that brings anyone, even the Magnum PI himself, to tears, is actually much less drawn out than I'd always assumed. I guess because as a society we are so used to the way that films over-dramatize the books they depict I had expected this scene in the book to have a much bigger build-up, but it happens immediately after Old Yeller defeats the wolf, and is described very matter-of-factly, with very little emotion seeping through. Despite the story's tear-jerker reputation, it actually does end on a positive note.

Which brings me to the book's sequel, Savage Sam. Since this book is about Old Yeller's descendent pup, I picked it up afterwards expecting another story about the relationship between a boy and his dog. I could not have been more wrong. This book should have been titled WE HATE INJUNS AND ALL THE RED DEVILS SHOULD DIE! It amazes me how little of the story actually involves the title character, because most of the story focuses on the  kidnapping of Travis, his little brother Arliss and their friend Lisbeth by Indians. The text is peppered with derogatory descriptions and the illustrations that accompany that chapter pages aren't much better.

As a historian I am well aware of the effect of presentism on readers when we engage historical fiction, but the emphasis on the "injuns" and "heathens" was actually making me a little uncomfortable. In Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, she describes the Indians and relates her mother's distrust of them, but those instances are woven into the narrative of westward expansion, and while they may be viewed as offensive in the 21st century, they were typical attitudes in the 19th century, and not that unusual in the early 20th century either, when her first book was published. Savage Sam was published in 1962, about 30 years after Little House in the Big Woods, and with much worse depictions of Native Americans, so it's not really surprising to me that it hasn't achieved the same kind of celebrity as the original story as others like it; I think we like to imagine that in the 60's, an era of revolution of equal rights, that our mindset had evolved alot more than it actually did.

Obviously, we have progressed quite a bit since then, and even Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt knows it:

I wish I had listened to Phoebe Buffay on the ultimate fate of Old Yeller: "He doesn't have rabies, he has BABIES!"

It's much nicer than "Well, he does have babies right before his beloved boy shoots him in the head and one of those babies searches day and night for injuns to fight."

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Like mother, like son

Just needed to post this picture of my little boy, proudly donning his own tie-dye ensemble.

He is also proudly playing with the cat's food and bowl.