- Buy a copy of my father’s book about a journalistic, humanitarian, muckraking adventure in the Jim Crow South. Ray Sprigle is a forgotten great of journalism, and he made a Black Like Me trip in 1948, before just about anyone was bothering to do anything about the country’s race problem, and when “enlightened” people thought the best solution was to keep things separate, but be more polite and “equal” about it. 30 Days a Black Man: The Forgotten Story that Exposed the Jim Crow South tells the tale of Sprigle, his guide John Wesley Dobbs, and other amazing, and sadly-forgotten characters. Read it!
Donate money so that my beloved friend Alexis can see! It’s the transhumanist future, baby, and legally blind people like Alexis can be helped by devices such as eSite. She needs to raise $15,000 and I promise, she’s worth it. (I mean, not to rank people or anything, but I have a pro-Alexis bias.)
I, three days unshowered, hair in what could generously be described as pigtails, skirt, looking like grimy 12-year-old. You, wearing a Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas shirt — I still haven’t read that.
Both of us, browsing Barnes and Noble on a Saturday night in the South Hills of Western, Pennsylvania.
You, with a gentle Pittsburgh accent as I pass by, “is that the mothman on your shirt?”
I, completely out of practice in the sometimes grand old of conversing with strangers, give some kind of affirmative.
And we briefly discuss the mothman, where the movie was filmed around here, and how the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette substitutes for The Washington Post in shots. I say I have been to the fest, and it’s well worth a journey down to Point Pleasant, WV for that generous a slice of Americana weirdness. We dance around that vital subject of real cryptids roaming about. I inquire as to whether you have read Fortean Times magazines, and you assure me you were just doing so. (I forget to ask you what’s on the cover, and whether it’s new, and where it might be on the shelves — because it tends to be appropriately elusive.)
You, saying you teach seventh grade history. I, saying I have thought of teaching some kind of history. You, affectionately saying your students are booger-eating monsters. You, saying they ask whether Greek Gods were real, and that you’ll be teaching an elective on myths next fall.
You, before I have a chance to respond enough on cryptids, history, or the fact that your tattoos are Nosferatu, a dodo, and a charming ghost, saying you’re sorry to bother me, and turn back to your books.
I, deeply unbothered, feel somehow we were just getting started. Do you know how a young girl waits to be appropriately complimented on her mothman tshirt? How uncreepy, casual, and friendly this approach is? How impossible it is to tell a strange man of indeterminate age that this is a sign that we should be bros? How bros is a ridiculous, parodic word to call it, but what else? So many men in the world with whom I wish to be bros. My mother had this same problem in her day. Men are men. You are not a man. Are you a creep? Are they a creep (only if you skirt is short, in my experience). You can’t just ask someone — anyone, but especially a man — to be your friend, to talk more, to revel in jumping past “pardon me, lovely weather” to “so, is the mothman real?” unless it just happens. And it won’t happen if you hesitate for even a moment of deathly politeness.
You, with the trappings of a yinzer, but the soul of a monster hunter concerned about historical accuracy, sorry to have pestered a stranger, turning away too soon.
Me, frustrated by my tongue rust, delighted to be reminded that folks like you are out there — and in here in Pennsylvania! — hoping we’ll meet again in another place, perhaps with more cryptid themes to help us along in our burgeoning friendship, which was clearly arranged for us by some winged, red-eyed mysteriously creature watching from on high.
Oh my God, Raymond Briggs, The Snowman was traumatic enough.
The chipper, addled senior citizens of Briggs’ short 1982 comic are aggressively out of touch. Jim Bloggs is cheerful and convinced that the government will save them from impending war, even if he has enough sense to take the prospect seriously. His worrywart wife Hilda thinks there’s time to reprimand her husband for swearing, and for messing up the house. There isn’t.
The preparation is careful and deliberate. Jim follows civil defense instructions to the letter. Except that he carefully builds an inner, fallout-proof sanctum in their house, but then fails to remember that they were supposed to stay inside it for 14 days.
What first appears to be goofy, can-do, learned it from the blitz spirit becomes sort of hamfisted and impossibly oblivious in time. Nobody could actually be this stupid, right?
However, after long, overly detailed build-up, the moment the bomb drops is amazing and nauseating, which is no small feat for a comic. The art is flawless. Pastoral home lived in by two round-faced seniors turns into grim and grimmer. Any aesthetic echos of The Snowman makes both comics much worse.
Yet, they’re both so dumb. Impossibly dumb, unless they are really simple folk. Yet, one can more easily imagine simple folk not trying as hard as Jim and Hilda do to survive. It’s like they almost would have made it, but no, they never had a chance.
The reader knows. We know Jim and Hilda are sick long before they do. We know that the smell of roasted meat in the air isn’t barbecue. The chipper cluelessness of both of them is too much to believe or stand. And that’s the genius of it. The condemnation of doing your bit, the sympathy towards and gentle mocking of people who trust the government to not leave them in the post-apocalyptic lurch. Who assume that if you have the right checklist, nuclear war will be nothing but a bit of a bump in the road. We’ll tighten our belts and ration food for a time, but then we’ll be fine. Not so. Not so.
The end is so on the nose, it’s practically WarGames. You know, “strange game…the only way to win is not to play” as it applies to global thermonuclear war. It’s not hard to figure out the meaning of Hilda and Jim passing away from radiation sickness, while Jim quietly recites “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” He doesn’t know why that bit of stirring, stern, sincere poetry comes to mind. But we do.
I wrote a review of econ professor Russell Roberts’ newest book, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life. Check it out over at the Post-Gazette’s website:
A few years back, Russ Roberts, a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, co-produced a viral video which portrayed a rap battle between economists John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek.
It’s an amazingly well-crafted seven and a half minutes. Getting your economic knowledge from it is rather like getting advice on moral philosophy from the man who understood how nations get rich more than anyone else — that is, surprisingly effective.
Poor Adam Smith is known mostly for “The Wealth of Nations.” It’s a classic, albeit one that today is mostly written about, rather than read. Smith’s other work published in his lifetime was “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” It has been ignored. Even Mr. Roberts notes that he took years and years to tackle it, due to its 18th-century style and its seemingly irrelevant subject matter. What would Mr. Invisible Hand have to say about how human beings should live anyway? Shouldn’t he stick with detailing the specialization of the butcher and the baker? No.
While we’re here, you might as well watch this again:
Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Seminal sci-fi invasion fiction, legendarily terrifying — and really quite wonderful – radio play that launched Orson Welles’ career, War of the Worlds has crossed mediums, but never has it had a solid movie adaption. Steven Spielberg’s incredibly 9/11-y, starring Tom Cruise at the height of his weirdness version is a very frustrating example. Not because it’s a total wash, mind you, but because it’s incredible in spots, and then goes off a big cliff.
In April, Lindsay Ellis, your Nostalgia Chick (who is always a fun reviewer), correctly describes the movie’s gorgeous design, its kick-ass tripods (which Roger Ebert hated! But he’s wrong, damn it!) as well as its myriad flaws, as well as by contrast the mysteriously wonderful quality of the thousand-fold cheesier Independence Day. The latter movie has more character arc and more things actually change, it’s rather odd.
and part two:
Now some film-dorks are too cool for Spielberg, but I never understood that. (J.J. Abrams, on the other hand, is cold, derivative Spielberg and I hate him!). I also am incredibly susceptible to alien paranoia. I was scared of both The Blob and Mars Attacks! as a child, I watched and then cowered at The X-Files (still do in fact!), and I am only slightly ashamed of being 15 and scared to death of Signs when I saw it in the theater. (I shrieked out loud in one spot. I don’t believe I have done that before or since, and certainly not in a crowded theater.) So for all that, plus my fondness for the book and radio play, plus my undying love for Jurassic Park to this day, it seems like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds should be perfect. It is not.
This 2005 War of the Worlds, like the also watchable 1953 one, is incomplete as an adaptation of the book, first and foremost because it has been modernized and turned American. But the book is a rambling narrative itself. Our nameless describer of the horrors even swaps places with his brother for a time for no clear reason beyond faux-journalistic reasons that to describe, one must be there. Those scenes are only memorable because one of the two women with whom the brother flees is bracingly competent for 1898 fiction.
The famous ending is anti-climactic, because, well, the common cold does the invaders in. The whole thing is both early sci-fi, and invasion literature (a fascinating subgenre that seems really, really of the time and that time was like 50 years up to WWI and that’s all) and extremely anti-imperialist. Which is awesome. But big budget Hollywood alien pictures don’t want to end with germs saving the day. Spielberg, to his credit, gives us the classic ending without any final, tacked-on, grand battle.
I do wildly disagree with Spielberg about whether a movie set when the book was written would be boring. (Hell, such a version is on my secret list of movies I would make if money, skill, time, and nationality, were no object.) Nevertheless, though Spielberg’s WotW goes off a cliff I would say exactly when the annoying teenage son says “you’ve got to let me go, Dad” and then hits the ground and smashes into a fiery wreck when Tim Robbins appears to gnaw on the scenery, it’s worth watching and including in my Tuesday Apocalypse list. It is extremely flawed, but has just enough to it that I have rewatched it more than once, and am likely to be entranced (at least for a time) if it is on TV. And when I watch, I rant about how it could have been so good.
Why? Well, Ellis covers it aptly in her reviews above, but some of the scenes in Spielberg’s WotW are just so fucking good you want to pause the movie and just revel in their awfulness. I’ve previously mentioned in Tuesday Apocalypse, that the j nes se quoi dread is what makes a good apocalypse piece, be it cinema or book. Call it dread-porn, or something else, it needs to actually frighten me and it needs to be just so. I know it when I see or hear it.
The radio WoTW’s highest caliber moments of that are its use of dead air interrupting frantic, Herb Morrison-esque “reporting.” Spielberg’s opening shot when the tripods arise is as fantastic as Ellis says and has an element of this searched for quality. So do the scenes of grim panic when Cruise and the kids are carjacked (which is rare, since the humans are your enemy aspect is always least interesting in this kind of fiction, at least to optimist me). Hell, the pulling back camera shot of bodies floating downstream, and particularly the shot of an out of control train entirely ablaze are worth the price of admission (this is an expression we used to use in the pre-piracy days, children).
On the opposite side of that, the completely dull aliens themselves are not scary, even in the claustrophobic, derivative of the raptors chasing the kids in the kitchen in Jurassic Park scenes. How much less frightening they are in design, and in auditory exclamation than the tripods themselves, which look menacing and sound worse!
In spite of his couch-jumping, glib-accusing ways, the acting from Cruise circa 2004 is the most solid of the three characters that matter. Maybe I have a soft spot for jerk-dads, but Cruise is such a believable one here. My father is nicer than Cruise is portrayed as being, but he’s also not some softy, or some Alpha Hero. Desperate, flailing, terrified Cruise has no idea how to help his kids at the start of all this madness. But he never abandons them or freezes, he simply reacts in a human manner to completely insane happenings the best way he can. Later, post movie-cliff, he becomes a hair too action hero, but never completely. I believe him, is the main point. And that is rare in any end of the world fiction, particularly the alien invasion movie types. Most people are much too calm, and much too heroic, unless the are of the screaming, teaming masses.
Some downsides, or at least some oddly dated moments: the 9/11 nods are not subtle. There are missing flyers covering walls. There are (fair) questions from screeching Dakota Fanning asking whether the invaders are terrorists. There’s an alarming downed plane in our heroes’ yard (I can’t do plane crashes in movies, cannot do it). And most effectively disturbing of all is how Cruise is covered in dust as he staggers back into the house after the aliens first appear. His clueless children are clueless, and grab his arm and he flips out, then does so again when he stares shellshocked in the mirror and realizes that the gray matter that covers him must be made from people.
Now, as Ellis points out in her review, the worst, most hamfisted 9/11isms in the film are the teenage son’s desire to “get back at” the alien invaders. Which is a fair impulse, except, well, why would he have that need so desperately compared to any other character? Is he just a teenage moron? Why doesn’t he have the self-preservation to run the other way instead? He doesn’t because 2005 war in Afghanistan and Iraq parallels demand he doesn’t. His motivation is not clear, neither is his loathing of his father. Cruise is the only one with strong characterization, but even he doesn’t change much over the course of the movie. He starts off jerk-dad, and gets a little nicer and a little braver. But even jerk-dad never faltered in trying to rescue his kids.
Spielberg’s WoTW is worth a watch for some stunning scenes — the look and sound of the tripods, the tipping boat scene, the burning train, the morose darkness in shots that works, instead of making you wonder what happened to the color correction! – but it does remain oddly unsatisfying for how fabulously it begins.
And I still want my serious period piece with aliens, dammit.
Some years ago, I was in Borders when I saw this new cover for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter. I hated it on sight. Out of the Little House series of children’s books based on Ingalls Wilder’s childhood (and at least co-written by her daughter, libertarian Godmother Rose Wilder Lane!), only The First Four Years rivals this one for bleakness. Though still a children’s book, The Long Winter is basically about seven months of frozen hell in 1880s South Dakota. A memorable passage describes Laura being weak and stupid from hunger as, again, the snow piles outside endlessly and everything is grim and awful.
Now, the familiar to me Gareth Williams cover is also too sweet-looking for the fight for survival plot of the book. But at least it’s old, and it suggests a story that is older still — it is sweet, demure, and not 2014. (The first edition of the book might have had the best cover, actually. It feels dark.) The family of photo-real people laughing uproariously as they huddle in their cabin is weird. It is telling little 10-year-olds that yes, there’s nothing different in this book! You won’t even notice that it’s set 150 years ago. They are just. Like. You.
The Ingalls family wasn’t like you and I. I grew up homeschooled by libertarians. My parents’ home was initially in the country, but now it is almost suburbia. There is still a bubble of farmland, though. Not to mention my parents’ nearly 12 acres. All of that, and I still always knew my life wasn’t the same as the Ingalls. And that was the damn point. My life also wasn’t Caddie Woodlawn’s, or Anne Shirley’s, or the damn spoiled Boxcar Children’s. And that is why I wanted to read their stories of pioneer life, of being a dreamy Canadian orphan, or just living in a boxcar and cooking wonderful-sounding vegetable stew and getting all your dishes from the dump. I wanted to read about different lives — girls who hid escaped German soldiers, or little mischievous Scandinavian children going to school. Why would I want a heroine or hero who was too relatable? (This was another reason “playing house” baffled me. Building a fort was naturally different. And playing school was a novelty for me, but not most kids. What the hell was “house”?)
A libertarian railing against potentially-sensible marketing, yes I know it’s silly. And maybe tricking kids into reading historical fiction could lead to them liking history. But it itches at me to see this kind of thing, this laziness, and this belief that children can’t possible suspend disbelief enough to realize that there were times that were not now, and those times had people living in them who were very different in many ways.
(A version of this modernizing should be awful, but isn’t when you look up the history of it is the anti-corset/proto-feminist dialogue by Marmee in the 1994 Little Women film, as well as the anti-slave dialogue by Meg. You think it’s just an awkwardly shoe-horned in piece of 1990sness, so that the audiences won’t be totally bewildered and alienated by the archaic and pious characters. Turns out, the real Louisa May Alcott grew up in a family of radical intellectuals who palled around with Henry David Thoreau and were mad enlightened. Indeed, the reason the last half to last quarter of the book Little Women is so inferior to the beginning is that Alcott was reluctantly goaded by her publisher and fans to marry off the heroically spunky Jo. I like Little Women a lot, I yearn for the Little Women that might have existed in a different market, written by a more honest Alcott.)
Along these same lines, I didn’t even read the Babysitter’s Club books (mostly because their subject matter seemed unbelievably boring), but I was deeply annoyed when I read how they were to be updated for modern readers. Ten-year-old girls can’t be expected to understand that once there were not iPhones, but cordless phones. That there were, shit, I don’t know, scrunchies and those weird saddle-leggings, not jeggings and whatever the fuck tweens wear now in their hair. There were even typewriters for writing on instead of computers. Holy fuck, the children’s heads will explode if we keep that in.
Many kids are not going to spend their entire tween and teen years mooning about the past with aching fascination as I did. That’s fine. But is it necessary to coddle them too much when they’re faced with the reality that yes, these books are from the past? Is it necessary to remove mentions of perms, as they apparently did from the Babysitter’s Club books?
(It also disappoints me that the American Girl books and (painfully expensive) dolls have moved so far into modern, boring stories. The whole point was girls — from plain WWII-ready Molly, to sassy colonialist Felicity, to runaway slave Addy — who were from a different time in American history. Overly tidy history, life lessons, standing up for what you believe in, potentially-anachronistic girl power!)
Now, an ironic twist on this complaint is when books are misleadingly old-fashioned in their packaging. The paperback covers for L.M. Montgomery books are all thematically similar: raised lettering, cursive, beautiful heroines staring out to sea, or at something distant. They look soothingly pastoral, but also a bit soppy. And they’re not 1984, nor were they meant to be anything too hard or masculine or sad. But Montgomery, best known for Anne of Green Gables, does not have the reputation for wit — even sarcasm! — and poignancy that she deserves.
Anne Shirley of Green Gables was sweet and bouncy and carrot-red of hair, but Emily Byrd Starr, who only got three books to Anne’s eight, was a much more realistic heroine (though Anne did grow up to worry that her husband was cheating on her with a sexy blonde). An orphan like Anne (what star of childhood fantasy books isn’t?) Emily has writer ambitions. She has a creepy relationship with an older man who, Forever Young Adult is not kidding here, kind of grooms her to be his lover. She spends the entire third book in the series being horribly depressed in what feels like a relatively modern fashion. (Montgomery suffered from this as well, and it was recently revealed that she actually died of suicide in 1941).
And through it all, Emily is often funny. And though she writes romantic descriptions of the landscape that try my patience on occasion, Montgomery is an amusing narrator as well.
And you would never, ever think this if you looked at the covers of her books.
So, yes, romantic lady writers of the teens and ’20s are secret humorists, and pioneer days weren’t as jolly as they might seem. People — both fictional and real — were not the same as they are now, and neither was society, culture, technology, or expectations for certain individuals. Yet, in books that are 80 or 150 years old, you can kind a relatable, understandable, humorous, same kind of spark that exists in characters and in people today. That’s why both history and literature are magic and enough to save me from misanthropy forever more. But that also means folks should leave the damn ’80s perms alone, and marketers shouldn’t imply through a cheap, hacky cover that a seven month winter was just as much fun as sitting inside and watching the latest cat clip on Youtube.
Seriously, this was the winter Ingalls Wilder was writing about.
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