Victoria Jelinek


Plainsong by Kent Haruf

shoppingA small town community in the ‘heartlands’ of the USA is the setting for Plainsong and its rendering of the quintessentially American experience. Kent Haruf interweaves the stories of a lonely teacher, a pair of boys abandoned by their mother, a pregnant high school girl, and a couple of brittle old bachelor farmers as they undergo radical changes over the course of a year. With lyrical, eloquent prose that is richly nuanced, Haruf presents the steadfast courage of decent, troubled people getting on with their lives.

Weather and landscape set the quiet, observant mood of the narrative, while descriptions of rural existence are poetic invocations to the natural world. Haruf steers clear of sentimentality and melodrama, however. His beautifully imagined characters and the vivid depictions of their experiences, makes each of them seem non-fiction, which can evoke both heart-warming and heart-wrenching feelings (respectively) in the reader. Emotions that resonate long after one finishes the novel. This is a contemplative and compelling story about grief, loss, loneliness, and frustration, as well as kindness, love, benevolence, beauty, and what it means to be a family.



Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

indexThe concept of Frankenstein has invaded popular culture to the extent that even those that have never read the book have a vague sense of what it’s about – “a mad scientist who creates a monster!” This is essentially true, and given the multitudes of adaptations to film and TV, I, too, previously defined it thus. But it’s so much more. Frankenstein is about love, loss, identity, anger, betrayal, beauty, and ugliness. It is also very sad. There was a point when I thought I couldn’t continue reading it, but because it’s so beautifully written and so subtle in its complexity, I continued.

The novel begins with explorer Robert Walton searching for a new passage from Russia to the Pacific Ocean via the Arctic Ocean. After some time at sea, with their boat stuck in ice, the crew and Walton find Victor Frankenstein floating on an ice flow very near to death, and bring him aboard. Walton re tells the tragic story of Victor Frankenstein through a series of letters to his sister in England. Victor was a precocious child who grew up on the shores of Geneva in a wealthy and loving family. He leaves home for university, where he studies physical science and greatly impresses his fellow students and professors by his genius. Spurred on by ambition, Victor uses a combination of chemistry, alchemy, and electricity to create and re animate a dead body. Once the creature comes to life, Victor is overcome by guilt and runs away in fear and disgust. The monster wanders the countryside, repudiated and despised by all who see him. He eventually teaches himself to read and to understand language. One day, he discovers a notebook and letters that were lost by Victor. From these notes, the monster learns of his creation and decides to take revenge on his creator as a salve for the injury and sorrow that he has endured in isolation. His vengeance is horrible. Yet through a conversation with Victor in which the monster relates how his life has been and in which he appeals to him to make him a mate (which Victor refuses), one almost forgives the sorrow that he causes.

As the daughter of philosophers and advocates for women’s rights, Mary Shelley would have been exposed to sociological discussion throughout her life. When she wrote Frankenstein, the French Revolution had just ended and Europe was afraid that its ideas of liberty and equality might spread. Industrialization was just beginning, which would bring an end to the landed class and see a rise of the middle class. Alchemy and superstition had been discredited in favor of hard sciences. Shelley manifests these cultural events through the themes and motifs of Frankenstein: she is concerned with the invasion of technology into modern life; how knowledge and science is used for good or for evil purposes; the overwhelming power of nature, as well as its curative power; and the treatment of the poor or uneducated. At its heart, Shelley asks the reader to consider how we can control the knowledge we have so that it’s for the benefit of all of mankind. How far should advances in science and technology push the individual in terms of personal and spiritual growth? When does man become a slave to his machines? What constitutes a “good” life? Who is responsible for the most vulnerable in society? Provocative questions about the human condition posed almost 200 years ago that remain relevant today.

 



Dark Places by Gillian Flynn

Libby Day was seven when her mother and two sisters were murdered in their home in an attack dubbed by the press as “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” Libby and her then fifteen-year-old brother, Ben, survived, and it was Libby’s testimony that sent Ben to jail on a life sentence for the monstrous murders.

41x9l+9rpDL._SX302_BO1,204,203,200_As a youngster, Libby received a lot of money from strangers for having survived her ordeal (and for being cute). Twenty-five-years later, she’s broke, and hasn’t done anything with her life except grow angrier and more depressed. Then the Kill Club locates her. They’re a secret society obsessed with notorious murders, and they want to pump Libby for details because they believe Ben was wrongly convicted and want to find proof that will liberate him. In turn, Libby hopes to make a profit off of her tragic history. For a fee, she’ll reconnect with people associated with that night and her family at that time, and report her findings back to the club. When Libby begins this journey, she’s convinced her brother is guilty. But as her search takes her from decrepit Missouri strip clubs, to deserted Oklahoma tourist towns, and back to the site of the fatal killings, the inconceivable truth emerges, and Libby finds herself back where she started – running from a murderer.

The novel is a complex character study and an evocative portrait of people on the fringe of society. Told in sporadic flashback, Libby narrates the present-day chapters in first person, while the flashback chapters are told in third-person, describing the actions and perspectives of several key characters on the days leading up to, and on the day that, the family was murdered. Libby is not a particularly likeable protagonist – she’s bitter, tough, and selfish. Even so, you root for her, and you’re sad about her horrifying childhood. Similarly, Ben isn’t particularly appealing – he’s awkward, shiftless, impressionable, and irrational. Like Libby, you feel immense sympathy for him. Each of the characters in the book are compelling, even if they’re not agreeable, and Flynn expertly weaves their stories together. The narrative is consistently developed, compelling, and absolutely suspenseful throughout (I had to resist reading the last chapters to find out how it ended!). The best aspect of this book, however, is in Flynn’s ability to create a vivid picture or a situation in a phrase or two, giving the reader a believable glimpse into a world we might never see otherwise.

This is an insightful, poignant, and well-written book. Its ability to affect its reader is also impressive. I was troubled for several days after finishing it – I found myself checking on my sleeping child in the night, hugging him more during the day, and double-checking that the front and back doors were locked when I went to bed. Would I read it again? Not for some years. Do I recommend reading it? An emphatic yes!

 

 

 

 



Covid-19, May 4, 2020

“All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Blaise Pascal

France decided to open up the schools in phases starting May 11th. The first to go back are elementary school kids. Our son is in the equivalent to third grade.

We received a form from our son’s teacher to fill out on Friday stating whether we’d return our child to school or not so that they could submit it to the Mayor’s office on Monday – today – to begin making plans for the rentrée. I opted to speak to the teacher about it to see what she thought (she rose exponentially in my estimation since quarantine). She said that not only are spaces limited, the same principles of the confinement remain: the objective is still to keep infection down in order to permit hospitals to tend to those who need help. That there are small children being left at home because they have a single parent who needs to work, or both parents work, or there are children whose parents can’t, or won’t, help the kids with their schoolwork. Reopening the school for little ones is an effort to help these kids and their parents. This sealed the deal for me. Yes, I’m anxious about working with a precocious single child at home. I’m worried about being able to work, and I also need time alone to replenish myself. With a small child at home, who doesn’t seem to be able to be autonomous unless he’s on a screen (watching TV, or a film, or playing an electronic game), which is, perhaps, normal, I don’t know, it’s incredibly disruptive for both my husband and me. We consequently argue about who does what and who has done more. (I often end up working after the boy and the man are in bed, going to bed very late, then waking up early when they wake up – I’m very tired…zzz…).

‘Kvetch’ aside, I feel relieved with our decision to keep our son home for the ‘bigger picture’ (in addition to what seems to be an unnecessary risk for the moment). I think the interesting element to this corona experience – the whole social phenomena’s we’re witnessing will be, I believe, written about sociologically for a long time to come (or until we humans make ourselves extinct), is that at the same time we’re isolated from each other, forced to distance physically from each other, we’re thinking about each other now more than ever. Or MUST think about each other now more than ever. We must work together to ensure the survival of our species, and the way to do that is to distance ourselves from others when possible. It’s not just ourselves and our own interests we’re thinking about for the first time in a long time. We’re being asked to consider everyone when limiting contacts, our potential exposure to the virus (with outings, errands, plans, etc.), washing hands. Even wearing a mask is a sign of consideration, a, “I’m helping YOU keep safe” sort-of-thing. It’s quite lovely, actually, when you think of it this way. It makes one feel less alone, more purposeful, and, arguably, reinforces the argument that humans are worth saving (perhaps).

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“Toutes les misères des hommes dérivent de ne pas pouvoir s’asseoir seuls dans une pièce calme.” Blaise Pascal

La France a décidé d’ouvrir les écoles par phases à partir du 11 mai. Les premiers à y retourner sont les enfants des écoles élémentaires. Notre fils est dans l’équivalent de la troisième année.

Vendredi, nous avons reçu un formulaire de l’enseignant de notre fils indiquant si nous devions retourner notre enfant à l’école ou non afin qu’il puisse le soumettre au bureau du maire lundi – aujourd’hui – pour commencer à planifier la rentrée. J’ai choisi d’en parler au enseignante pour voir ce qu’elle en pensait (elle a augmenté de façon exponentielle à mon avis depuis la confinement). Elle a dit que non seulement les espaces sont limités, mais les mêmes principes de confinement demeurent: l’objectif est toujours de limiter l’infection afin de permettre aux hôpitaux de soigner ceux qui ont besoin d’aide. Qu’il y a des petits enfants à la maison parce qu’ils ont un parent seul qui doit travailler, ou les deux parents travaillent, ou qu’il y a des enfants dont les parents ne peuvent pas, où ne vont pas, aider les enfants dans leurs devoirs. La réouverture de l’école pour les tout-petits est un effort pour aider ces enfants et leurs parents. Cela a scellé l’accord pour moi. Oui, je suis impatient de travailler avec un enfant célibataire précoce à la maison. Je suis inquiet de pouvoir travailler et j’ai aussi besoin des temps tout seul pour me reconstituer. Avec un petit enfant à la maison, qui ne semble pas capable d’être autonome à moins d’être sur un écran (regarder la télévision, un film ou jouer à un jeu électronique), ce qui est peut-être normal, je ne sais pas , c’est incroyablement perturbant pour mon mari et moi. Par conséquent, nous discutons de qui fait quoi et qui a fait plus. (Je finis souvent par travailler après que le garçon et l’homme soient au lit, se couchant très tard, puis se réveillant tôt quand ils se réveillent – je suis très fatigué … zzz …).

«Kvetch» ​​mis à part, je me sens soulagé de notre décision de garder notre fils à la maison pour la «vue d’ensemble» (en plus de ce qui semble être un risque inutile pour le moment). Je pense que l’élément intéressant de cette expérience corona – l’ensemble des phénomènes sociaux auxquels nous assistons sera, je crois, écrit sur le plan sociologique pendant longtemps à venir (ou jusqu’à ce que nous, les humains, nous nous éteignions), c’est qu’en même temps nous ‘nous sommes isolés les uns des autres, forcés de s’éloigner physiquement les uns des autres, nous pensons plus que jamais les uns aux autres. Ou DOIT penser les uns aux autres maintenant plus que jamais. Nous devons travailler ensemble pour assurer la survie de notre espèce, et la façon de le faire est de nous éloigner des autres lorsque cela est possible. Ce n’est pas seulement nous-mêmes et nos propres intérêts auxquels nous pensons pour la première fois depuis longtemps. On nous demande de tenir compte de tout le monde lors de la limitation des contacts, de notre exposition potentielle au virus (avec sorties, courses, projets, etc.), du lavage des mains. Même le port d’un masque est un signe de considération, une sorte de chose «je t’aide à rester en sécurité». C’est plutôt joli, en fait, quand on y pense de cette façon. Cela fait que l’on se sent moins seul, plus résolu et, sans doute, renforce l’argument selon lequel les humains valent la peine d’être sauvés (peut-être).

 



37°2 le matin: Version Integral (Betty Blue: Director’s Cut)

Zorg, a handyman, is living a peaceful life in rural France, working diligently and writing in his spare time. Then Betty, a vivacious and unpredictable woman, walks into his life. Initially, her wild ways are fun and spontaneous and Zorg falls in love with her, but Betty’s behavior slowly gets out of control as she spirals into insanity.

indexThe film opens on a shot that creeps up on a couple making love on a bed – their sweating intimacy is contrasted by a voiceover telling us that they’ve only known each other a week. Every moment of Jean-Jacques Beineix’s film carries the seal of its country of origin as well as the era in which it was made. Only in the 1980’s could such a tragic film be created with such a visually-gorgeous-but-empty style. Only in France could a story of passionate love open so erotically. Only in France could a film’s tone be misogynist, seeming to blame Betty’s insanity on the inherent ‘madness’ of the female of the species, and yet seem authentic.

Betty’s descent into insanity and destruction is well paced and compelling. Beatrice Dalle (Betty) didn’t make another film worth noting again, but this film alone was enough to make her an icon of late 20th century cinema – this fact, as well as the insight into the French psyche this film gives the viewer, makes this film one to see even years after it was first released.

 



Arrested Development

The third season of Netflix’s series Ozark was recently released and everyone is talking about it and whether a fourth season will be greenlit. I’m keen because Jason Bateman executive produced it, is directing and starring in the series, and he’s fantastic and talented. An extra boon is that the brilliant and wry Laura Linney co-stars. I always liked Bateman, but he won my admiration through the TV series Arrested Development, so I thought to revisit this work of genius in case you’ve already binge watched season three of Ozark.

arrested devpt

Arrested Development is based on the radically dysfunctional family Bluth (fictional of course). It’s more subversive than Modern Family (btw, I like Modern Family very much). Each season of this brilliant sit-com was always in danger of cancellation despite numerous awards, including several Emmy’s. But this didn’t stop creator Mitchell Hurwitz and the rest of the team (inclusive of Ron Howard, who is its narrator) from defying the usual crowd-pleasing antics of the genre. It made them more satirical and absurd as though they had nothing to lose. The show flouts political correctness as it takes clever and humorous swipes at everything in contemporary society: the comfort of family; the general incompetence of businessmen, inclusive of the television and movie industries (the narrator critiques the art of narration during an episode); war, via “mama’s boy” Buster Bluth’s progression in the US army; and the flawed things we all do to get through our day. One of my favorite episodes includes the montaged intervention for alcoholic mother Lucille Bluth, which turns into “one of the Bluth family’s better parties.” There are running gags about self-absorption, repressed sexually, physical shame, fecklessness, and naiveté. At the center of it all is Michael Bluth, played by Jason Bateman, whose dry, self-effacing wit and deadpan comic delivery, are ideally displayed here.

Watching Arrested Development is time well spent any way you look at it, but especially during our period of confinement.

 

 

 

 

 



British Writer Pens The Best Description Of Trump I’ve Read

This post was published by Michael Stevenson*, aka Dai Bando, Johnny Foreigner, Monsieur Pas De Merde, a blogger of French and British culture. It was some time ago, but I feel that as Trump becomes increasingly dangerous and cruel, and the world – a veritable mess – longs for (reasonable) American leadership, it’s worth looking at this piece again in order to both appreciate great writing as well as to consider, yet again, how fundamentally distasteful Trump is as a human being.

 

British Writer Pens The Best Description Of Trump I’ve Read

 

Someone on Quora asked “Why do some British people not like Donald Trump?” Nate White, an articulate and witty writer from England wrote the following response:

A few things spring to mind.   Trump lacks certain qualities which the British traditionally esteem. For instance, he has no class, no charm, no coolness, no credibility, no compassion, no wit, no warmth, no wisdom, no subtlety, no sensitivity, no self-awareness, no humility, no honour and no grace – all qualities, funnily enough, with which his predecessor Mr. Obama was generously blessed. So for us, the stark contrast does rather throw Trump’s limitations into embarrassingly sharp relief.

Plus, we like a laugh. And while Trump may be laughable, he has never once said anything wry, witty or even faintly amusing – not once, ever. I don’t say that rhetorically, I mean it quite literally: not once, not ever. And that fact is particularly disturbing to the British sensibility – for us, to lack humour is almost inhuman.

But with Trump, it’s a fact. He doesn’t even seem to understand what a joke is – his idea of a joke is a crass comment, an illiterate insult, a casual act of cruelty.

Trump is a troll. And like all trolls, he is never funny and he never laughs; he only crows or jeers.   And scarily, he doesn’t just talk in crude, witless insults – he actually thinks in them. His mind is a simple bot-like algorithm of petty prejudices and knee-jerk nastiness.

There is never any under-layer of irony, complexity, nuance or depth. It’s all surface.   Some Americans might see this as refreshingly upfront. Well, we don’t. We see it as having no inner world, no soul.   And in Britain we traditionally side with David, not Goliath. All our heroes are plucky underdogs: Robin Hood, Dick Whittington, Oliver Twist. Trump is neither plucky, nor an underdog. He is the exact opposite of that. He’s not even a spoiled rich-boy, or a greedy fat-cat.   He’s more a fat white slug. A Jabba the Hutt of privilege.


And worse, he is that most unforgivable of all things to the British: a bully. That is, except when he is among bullies; then he suddenly transforms into a snivelling sidekick instead.   There are unspoken rules to this stuff – the Queensberry rules of basic decency – and he breaks them all. He punches downwards – which a gentleman should, would, could never do – and every blow he aims is below the belt. He particularly likes to kick the vulnerable or voiceless – and he kicks them when they are down.

So the fact that a significant minority – perhaps a third – of Americans look at what he does, listen to what he says, and then think ‘Yeah, he seems like my kind of guy’ is a matter of some confusion and no little distress to British people, given that:
• Americans are supposed to be nicer than us, and mostly are.
• You don’t need a particularly keen eye for detail to spot a few flaws in the man.

This last point is what especially confuses and dismays British people, and many other people too; his faults seem pretty bloody hard to miss. After all, it’s impossible to read a single tweet, or hear him speak a sentence or two, without staring deep into the abyss. He turns being artless into an art form; he is a Picasso of pettiness; a Shakespeare of shit. His faults are fractal: even his flaws have flaws, and so on ad infinitum. God knows there have always been stupid people in the world, and plenty of nasty people too. But rarely has stupidity been so nasty, or nastiness so stupid.   He makes Nixon look trustworthy and George W look smart. In fact, if Frankenstein decided to make a monster assembled entirely from human flaws – he would make a Trump.

And a remorseful Doctor Frankenstein would clutch out big clumpfuls of hair and scream in anguish: ‘My God… what… have… I… created? If being a twat was a TV show, Trump would be the boxed set.

 

* https://pasdemerde.com/2019/10/18/british-writer-pens-the-best-description-of-trump-ive-read/