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*Project Recap: For one year, I will read one book per month that I know nothing about that recommended to me by a stranger; friend; family member, or co-worker; and I will write about that experience.  God help us all.

A Mountain of Crumbs by Elena Gorokhova
Book #1, read during November, 2014

When I began A Mountain of Crumbs, I gleaned from the summary that it was a memoir about a Mountain of Crumbswoman living in Russia.  I’ll admit, the stupid American part of me knew the following about Russia: Putin; homophobia; I once worked with a Russian woman that I couldn’t stand, and I once worked with a Russian woman that I liked; it’s cold; and Sarah Palin can see it from her house (it never gets old!).

The book is indeed a memoir about the author’s childhood through early adulthood in post-Stalin Russia, and is a fascinating first-hand glimpse into an era and country so different from my own as a 30-something American who came of age in the late 20th century.  The author begins by laying the groundwork of her grandmother and mother’s lives in communist Russia under Stalin’s rule. Many writers often fall down the rabbit hold when describing a person’s history by delving out too much detail, which can disillusion the reader, but Gorokhova gives you just enough details to keep you interested.  You are introduced to strong women during WWII who scraped lice from wounds on the front and existed among such extreme poverty, whilst being trained as doctors and physicists.  Reading this seemed shockingly progressive for the status of women in the world in the early 1900s when women in America could barely vote, and this glaring discrepancy between capitalism and communism reflects Gorokhova’s own questioning of right and wrong throughout the book.  Growing up in a communist country filled Gorokhova’s youth with stories of war, extreme nationalism, and duty to country.  Her history lessons in grade school consisted of cautionary tales against hoarding food from your fellow comrade, sacrificing friend and family alike for the cause.  At first, I felt a sense of oppression on the author’s behalf that their thoughts and actions were so controlled by their government.  However, on further examination, the U.S. is in many ways not so dissimilar from that “other” country and time; for example, we still recite the Pledge of Allegiance where we reaffirm our devotion to the U.S. as children on a daily basis, which is not altogether different from the allegiances made in communist-Russia.

Adding to the content of the author’s life is how she expresses her experiences; though in first person, she writes with the voice of whatever age she is throughout any given period in the book.  When she’s a young child, she writes about her father and with only a young girl’s admiration, describes him as an invincible, larger than life character.  As she enters puberty, she romanticizes relationships with boys in her class with flowery fantasies bordering on the melodramatic that I could immediately pinpoint as the thoughts of a girl just entering her teenage years, mainly because my childhood was filled with those inclinations as well.  Concerning writing style, I found myself attracted to the way that Gorokhova uses restraint, dabbled with bits of the most sobering realities of early to mid 20th century Russian life, enveloped in an overall softness that lets you know that you’re in good hands with a narrator that is just trying to figure things out, as most of us are.

The experience of reading this book was (thankfully) pleasurable.  My life of what I know about Russia has expanded far beyond my opening paragraph, and I understand why it was recommended to me with such gusto.  Once my spouse told me that the reason he loves movies so much is that they let you experience other cultures and times, and this book does just that.  It also is a bridge of a book; it enables you to make connections between the then and now, and reduces the oh so tempting tendency to other people of disparate times and places.

Spotlight on Five Feminist-Minded Short Stories with Elements of Horror  

Joyce Carol Oates once so perfectly wrote, “One criterion for horror fiction is that we are compelled to read it swiftly, with a rising sense of dread, and so total a suspension of ordinary skepticism, we inhabit the material without question and virtually as its protagonist: we can see no way out except to go forward.”  It is this very reason that I so love the horror genre; it transports its reader to another world where one can observe, and be an entirely new entity, whether person, monster, witch, or troll.  When you combine horror with the feminist short story, you enter a whole new realm that’s even more terrifying than any Pinhead from Hellraiser or Damien from the Omen.  The horror delves into reality, where much can be hidden beneath the facade of such vanities as a life of wealth, the perfect marriage, or an idyllic community.

The tales below are a sampling of five feminist short stories that do indeed leave us with a “rising sense of dread” because sometimes, the horror is too personal.

The Giant WistariaCPG
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It’s shocking once you’ve finished The Giant Wistaria to realize that it was published in 1891, when it seems as if it were written not so long ago.  The story takes place during two time periods, the 1700s and the 1800s.  The former century begins with an English family and we’re dropped into the middle of the most scandalous of family dramas–their daughter has just given birth out of wedlock, and the parents are fleeing to England to escape any disgrace to their family name.

Fast toward to the late 1800s; the house from whence they fled is now decrepit and has been virtually swallowed by a gigantic wistaria vine.  A wealthy young couple and their friends happen by, completely enchanted by what they interpret as rustic charm, they assume that it must be haunted and rent it immediately.  As the three couples drink, eat and laugh, they describe the prospect of an eventful summer chock-full of ghosts that hopefully inhabit the house.  After the first evening, their fantasies come to fruition as half of the group awakens to find that they’ve had the same dream of a young woman with a mysterious bundle in her arms and a red cross around her neck.  They soon find that their collective dreams were more than a mere case of indigestion (to quote A Christmas Carol).

The Giant Wistaria is chilling for several reasons.  First off, the punch that is delivered is done so in only a few pages; not only is CPG a feminist, but she’s also a powerful storyteller and is able to intertwine the two seamlessly.  Another sobering facet of the story is the juxtaposition of the two time periods, the people who exist in each one, and finally, the full-circle of tragic events.  CPG was a master of collective human emotions and is able to make you feel guilty and sickened by indirectly referencing class and gender inequality.

FlanneryA Good Man is Hard to Find
Flannery O’Connor

I knew very little about Flannery O’Connor when this collection of short stories was recommended to me.  I knew that O’Connor was Irish Catholic, and that the stories were written in the mid-20th century.  Needless to say, as I finished the first story, which is also the namesake for my particular edition, I was completely taken aback.  “The person who suggested that I read this should have warned me!” I thought.  Like so many of the other stories in this article, it’s thrilling to read a gem so subversive that it still shocks nearly 70 years later.

As the story begins, we meet a family comprised of three young children, their mother and father, and the paternal grandmother.  Like many of O’Connor’s other writings, A Good Man is Hard to Find is set in the South, and as the family embarks on a road trip to Florida we learn that a murderer is on the loose by the nickname, “The Misfit.”   From start to finish, the grandmother is a pill.  She believes the past was best, children should be quiet, women should always be ladies, and her opinion is always right.  Basically, she’s the southern queen of unsolicited advice.  O’Connor is a master at tapping in on a personality type that annoys most people because they are in everyone’s lives in some form.  Because of that, we as readers are extended participants in this very long road trip.  In addition to being an expert character study, O’Connor takes us on a trip through 1940s/50s Georgia in the summer.  It’s hot and dusty with a killer on the loose.  They are alone on the road in a deserted part of the state where gas stations come only intermittently, setting a tone that leaves us unsure of our surroundings and insecure about the future.  As the trip goes on, the grandmother sends the family on a wild goose chase, seeking out physical proof of a misplaced memory.  This dirt detour sends the family into a downward spiral that puts them face to face with what the grandmother hoped to avoid from the outset–the Misfit.

At first read, A Good Man… could seem like nothing more than a story about an incredibly annoying grandmother and a gang of psychos.  However, this is one of those great stories that unfolds a multitude of onion-like layers that encompasses race, religion, class and poverty, region, crime, place in history, Civil Rights, and gender roles, amongst others.  However you choose to read this story, as one of good old fashioned murder, or a story of murder inextricably bound with issues of class, race and religion, you are left with comparable sense of dread, and maybe just a hint of schadenfreude as the grandmother finally gets her lips zipped.

The Joy of FuneralsAlix Strauss
Alix Strauss

The Joy of Funerals differs from the other titles in this round-up because it is a collection of short stories that end up connecting in the end, which also packs a great ah-ha as the tales come into the final braid.  Similar to Strauss’ most current book, Based Upon Availability, each story is unique in its own right, and the culmination of all the interlaced stories is an extra cherry on top.

Each story is about how women, whether individually or in a group, deal with the grief they experience over the loss of a loved one in New York.  Strauss plunks us down smack dab into their lives by crafting mournful imagery and offering variety of well fleshed out characters.  Each character, in only a few pages, is described in such thorough detail that you feel like you not only really know them, but can completely empathize with what they are experiencing through their grief.  In one story, a woman burns a photograph of her husband and eats it on her breakfast cereal, and while reading it, you are eating the ashes with her–you can smell it, taste it and feel the loss as if you’ve been punched in the belly.  In another story, a woman’s behavior is so deceitful that it leaves the reader with a personal sense of betrayal, but also left me to unfortunately identify with the character’s insecurities.  To me, only a true master of art can make you identify with the flawed characters, al la the films Spring Breakers and Happiness.  Full disclosure, I found myself crying throughout the majority of the book because the stories are crafted in such a way that they strike the core of shared human experience with concern to love and loss.

Barbara GowdyWe So Seldom Look on Love
Barbara Gowdy

The short story collection, We So Seldom Look on Love is truly a forgotten treasure.  Reading it nearly seventeen years ago, it has remained implanted in my mind, and the physical book has stayed with me through every move of my life because of it.  The short story that I’d like to hopefully introduce you to, which is also the title for the book, is the reason why banned and challenged books are so important for the youth.  Decades ago, this creepy, gross and arguably offensive story exhilarated this gal as a fifteen-year-old and helped to make her the liberal bitch that she is today.

The story is told from the point-of-view of the main character as she reflects on her childhood as a blossoming necrophiliac and fast forwards to current day when she is publicly disgraced as her sexual proclivity becomes mainstream knowledge.  As a child, she realizes that her infatuation with dead animal corpses: the smell, the blood, their energy, et al, will prevent her from attracting and sustaining any form of friendship.  As she gets older, she accepts her sexual attraction to male corpses, admitting that she is unable to fall in love with any living man, and that plenty of corpses have broken her heart.  Naturally, she enters medical school as a means of gaining access to these potential and cadaverous love interests.  Though the idea of engaging in oral sex with dead tissue may seem unattractive to most of us, I give kudos to Gowdy for her character’s unflinching acceptance of her sexuality at so young of an age.  Teenage girls, and really, most women, have mixed emotions regarding their sexual bodies, and it’s refreshing to read about a young woman who doesn’t deny herself those inclinations.

The White CatJCOates
Joyce Carol Oates

The White Cat is one of those great stories where the plot may not be as it seems, and its interpretation can be fluid depending on its reader.  Ostensibly, we’re reading a tale about a WASP of a man, his younger wife, and their evil Persian cat, Miranda.  As we delve deeper into the mind of Julius Muir and his family life, the storyline thickens as we are fed bits of information that make Julius’ home life seem less than perfect, though he would have you think no other way.

It can be argued that the story is a portrait of the building and collapse, aka psychological break-down of the main character, Julius, and since much of it is from his point of view, it’s not exactly clear where the truth lies.  We are to believe that Miranda the cat is evil because of said evidence: “…as the cat grew older and more spoiled…it became evident that she did not…chose him.”  His subsequent reaction contains a crumb of hilarity as he reconciles that he will handle this situation by killing the cat because her ambivalence of him is an affront to this man who “knows who he is.”  Because Mr. Muir purchased the cat for his wife, he believes himself to be her sole master and therefore has the right to end her life since he brought her into being (at least into this own house).

As we read on, the facts become murky.  We wonder, what has happened for the past ten years?  There is no indication that their contemptuous relationship has built over the decade of co-habitation, and seems to be a relatively recent occurrence.  An occurrence that has also surfaced with the advent of his wife making more decisions independent of Julius, perhaps.  Is the quirky Persian evil, living to cause Mr. Muis a life of anguish?  Is he simply ignoring characteristics are inherent in the sometimes fickle feline species?  Or, is he attributing his wife’s human characteristics to his cat instead of facing up to his own troubled family life; a life that is seemingly so perfect in every way?

Note: As I finished this post, it became glaring that I did not include any women of color, or men.  The choice to leave out men this year was intentional, as they are the leaders in the horror short story realm.  However, it is a shortcoming of my own concerning the absence of women of other races besides Caucasian.  I’ve just honestly never read a short story by a woman of color that I would consider horror, but is something that I will actively seek out over the next year.

In 2013, I completed a year-long project titled, My Year of Water in which I saved all excess water for a year.  Since then, I’ve been itching for another project, and it’s time to unveil!

This will be my project: beginning November 5, 2014 and ending on November 5, 2015, I will read one book per month that I’ve never read, wanted to read, and probably have never heard of.  Some of them will be awful, some wonderful (hopefully) and all will certainly leave me with something to say.  The end-result of this project will be to learn something about myself, and the world around me by reading books that I wouldn’t choose myself.

I aim to read 12 books, both fiction and non-fiction and will post every month to report on each one.  Doesn’t sound too challenging?  Let’s just hope that I don’t get stuck with any Ann Coulter or Joel Osteen–it’ll be hell for both of us.

The methodology regarding the selection of the books is still being teased out.  Given that I work in a library, one method is to randomly walk through the library, reach out, and there’s my book.  Not very scientific, but it would work, namely with the fiction.  The problem with this “method” is that I know the Dewey numbers for the non-fiction, and therefore would know what general section I’m pulling from.

Before this kicks off, I’d like to invite anyone to recommend a book(s) to me to add to my list of my unknown books; just complete the form below.

I look forward to your recommendations!

 

Joan

Joan Rivers was a vivacious, inspirational and amazing woman.  I am missing her hard.  

Recently, I saw a commercial for Always menstrual products where they asked a variety of male and mostly adult female subjects to imitate running and throwing “like a girl.”  They all ran with arms flailing and threw as if they had jelly arms.  When they asked young girls to do the same, they all ran and threw with gumption and purpose.

(See video below)

http://youtu.be/XjJQBjWYDTs

Yes, Always is a corporate company out to sell pads and they created this video to do just that by making women feel empowered.  We’re here!  We’re women!  We get periods!  We can throw balls!  It’s a tricky mind game.  But, having said that, it did what it set out to do by creating a great video that placed a magnifying glass over commonly used sayings such as, “runs like a girl” and “throws like a girl.”  Given that nearly everyone had the same reaction to mimicking “a girl,” it’s safe to say that these sexist terms are completely embedded in American culture, and so much so that their meanings are culturally understood with no explanation.

Sexist language has so completely saturated our culture that it has become inherent without question in the daily dialogue of both men and women, starting with how we’re socialized from birth.  When I was in grade school, a fellow female classmate and I were throwing balls and me, coming from a family who put zero importance on sports, couldn’t throw for shit, while this other girl seemed to have a natural knack for throwing a football.  Over twenty years later now, I can still clearly recall her saying that she threw like a boy and my gut response even as a little girl was that it was ridiculous.  By saying that she was more like a boy, she was better than me, a girl, and that part of her was better because it was more like a trait that is traditionally perceived as more male.  Not only did she think she was better than girls, but there was a sense of shame in herself as a biologically born female, thinking that by being born a girl, she inherently could not throw a football.

This type of sexually exclusive language keeps women as second class citizens when spoken by men, and reinforced when spoken by women.  Here are a few choice examples of “hidden” sexisms that may have seeped into your daily dialogue and need to be addressed and eliminated from our conversations:

You’re a Pussy.  Here, the connotation is that you are acting like a woman, and the assumption is that women are inherently weak.  Who has “pussies”?  Being slang for vagina- obviously women.  Arguably, when the word “pussy” is used as a derogatory term, I doubt is that someone is being accused of acting soft and cuddly like a kitty cat.

Fireman, Policeman, Mailman, Ballboy.  (The ballboy is a shout-out to tennis season.  I’d like to hear someone tell Martina Navratilova that she was only “hitting like a man.”) Using sexually exclusive language makes “he,” or men, the norm.  Let’s face it, it starts with the basic fundamentals of most major world religions as God as “Him.”  These texts have also been written by only men who felt it necessary to make a man, the image of themselves, not their wife, mothers or daughters, the “great equalizer.”  I’ve heard disagreement about this, that man refers to all people, kind of like “actor.”  If this is the case, then changing He to She as a “gender neutral” phrase would work, right?  The solution to this is ending these exclusive words with the gender neutral suffix, person.

Like a Little Girl.  Similar to throw like, this insult is thrown around ad nauseam, and literally means you are acting weak and whiny.  Don’t think this is insulting?  Have you ever heard “like a little boy”?  Yeah, me neither, and as a librarian in a public building, I have seen little boys freak the fuck out and not one scream was dissimilar to the sound of a little girl’s cries.

He/She Has Some Balls.  Being tough is synonymous with being a man, who presumably has testicles.  Most of us have even seen the Sex and the City episode where Steve feels like less of a man after surviving testicular cancer and wants to buy the biggest fake balls that money can buy.  Luckily, the phrase “that takes ovaries” has become increasingly popular, but I prefer the good old gender neutral, “spine.”

Some other choice phrases include: boys will be boys; man up; act like a man; he has some big balls, and so forth.  To some, these may seem nit-pickey, but to a woman, whose credibility and existence on this earth are put into question with a single mindless utterance, there are volumes in the mindful, the carefully chosen turn-of-phrase that aids in neutralizing the sexisms in our daily discourse.

 

Feel free to add your own idioms in the comments below!

Happy Chicago Pride Day! 

Rita Mae Brown

“I think the reward for conformity is that everyone likes you except yourself.”

Rita Mae Brown

Exploring Feminisms sat down with director Michael Glover Smith to discuss his forthcoming feature length film, Cool Apocalypse.  This is Smith’s fourth film to date, ranging from a tobacco-slinging thief, a misguided folk singer, a cigar salesperson who stumbles onto a murder plot, to finally, a 24-hour tale that takes the viewer on a journey through the gamut of relationship ups and downs.

                                            

JM: Tell me, what is your new film about and how did you come up with the title, Cool Apocalypse?

MGS: The film is about the relationships between two 20-something couples: Paul and Julie meet and go on their first date, while Claudio and Tess, who’ve been together for years, finally break up for good. All of these characters interact with each other over the course of a single summer day in Chicago.  It’s probably best categorized as a drama but I hope it’s also funny in a realistic way – the way that life can be funny.

“Cool apocalypse” was a phrase I had read a long time ago and I always wanted to use it as the title for something.  I like it as an ironic juxtaposition of words: we think of an “apocalypse” as something that is very hot and loud and obvious, but “cool” implies the opposite of that: that it might happen with a whimper instead of a bang.  When I came up with the idea for this film, I thought the title fit.

JM: Are we to assume the obvious, that the “cool” refers to the coming together of a couple, and the “apocalypse” is the breaking up?  Or could it be read another way, that out of apocalyptic chaos comes calm, like the calm after a storm, and we are to assume that the break-up of the couple will allow for positive transformation?

MGS: As far as the title goes, however you want to interpret it is fine. It’s like coming up with the name of a band: ultimately, I just think it has a nice ring to it.

JM: Where did you get your inspiration for the script?  Was it culled from memories of your 20s, or is it informed by your life now, in your upper 30s and expressed through 20 somethings?

MGS: It’s a combination of both of those things. All of the characters are amalgamations of different people that I’ve known in my 20s and 30s. I take aspects of people I’ve known (including myself, of course), and things that people I’ve known have said, and then spread them around among all of the characters. And then some things are just made up out of thin air. My philosophy is that if I feel like something fits, I’ll use it.

There’s a great French film from 1998, The Dreamlife of Angels, made by a guy named Erick Zonca. It was his first film — even though he was in his early 40s when he made it — and it’s about the friendship between two women in their early 20s. When I first saw it I thought, “This clearly represents a point-of-view on people in their 20s that was made by someone who’s older and wiser.” I hope that people have a similar reaction to my film — that they can sense that it wasn’t made by someone who is the same age as the characters. There have been a lot of low-budget indie films in recent years about “aimless twentysomethings” where the style and structure of the films also feel aimless. I want the style and structure of our movie to feel formal and elegant – but then also have spontaneous, naturalistic performances within that structure.

JM:  It’s interesting that you’ve taken personal details from your friends and from your own life.  I would think that it would help to make the experiences and dialogue more relatable, as opposed to it all merely being created out of thin air.  Sometimes, I watch films directed by men and find myself screaming out, “this would never happen in real life!” especially when it comes to parts for women written and directed by men–obviously most often in movies with sex scenes.

By writing for characters who are twenty years younger though, does it risk feeling inauthentic due to the experiences/dialogue seeming incongruous to what a typical 20 something year old may have experienced, or does it hope to serve as a cautionary tale to 20 year olds- learning from the mistakes that others have made when they were their age? Who do you envision as your prospective audience for this film?  Is it meant for people in their 20s specifically?

MGS: One of the things I tried hard to do in writing this script was to create interesting and realistic female characters. I think that the experience of being married and living with a woman for years has allowed me to be better at doing that. I don’t think, however, that the film risks being inauthentic just because the characters are younger than I am. As a filmmaker, I think I tend to be more interested in the aspects of relationships that are universal and timeless (rather than in, say, making pop culture references that might be specific to young people today) – so I hope that people of all ages will be able to relate to it. Having said that, I’m also looking forward to working very closely with the actors and allowing them some dramatic license with the dialogue. During auditions, for instance, I told one actress to put the dialogue in her own words. So instead of saying, “I really like your shoes,” she said, “Those are some sick-ass shoes.” What she said was way better than what I had written and so I consequently changed the line in the script.

JM: Do you think that actresses improvising their own lines, and again, the dialogue that you take from your own personal life, will help to make the characters more life-like and relatable, as opposed to the typical Hollywood drama or rom-com, a la Zooey Deschanel, Kate Hudson, and Kristen Wiig characters where they still fit so predictably into the same box?Mike on Catastrophe

MGS: Exactly. We’re going for the opposite of formula, the opposite of cliche. I hope that when people see my film they say, “These are the kind of people I know in real life but who I never see in the movies.”

Michael Smith (left) on the set of his last film, The Catastrophe

JM: I once heard you say that you have to separate the art from the artist (I believe we were discussing the homophobe who wrote Ender’s Game).  Given that so much of the script is taken directly from your personal life, wouldn’t you say that in this case, the art cannot be separated from the artist?

MGS: Ha! Not really. In my opinion, this film will be successful if people see it and then, when it’s over, talk about what they think it says about the world. Ideally, viewers will leave the movie wanting to talk about people, emotions and relationships – not what they perceive to be the personality or the point-of-view of the author.

JM: But you can admit that the characters – their experiences and emotions – are manifestations of your own experiences, and therefore the POV of you, the director, is inherent throughout the film?

MGS: Yes, but I would say that the film is personal, not autobiographical. To me there is a crucial difference between those things. I’m not interested in making the kind of art that is like an extension of my diary.

JM: How does Cool Apocalypse differ from your other three films?

MGS: I think everything I’ve done before this was the work of an amateur. Before, I was making movies to learn how to make movies. Cool Apocalypse is the first film I’ve made where I feel like a professional. In particular, I’m very excited about collaborating closely with the actors this time. Even something as simple as having the actors improvise during the auditions – that’s not something I would have had the confidence to do before. But it’s something I now look forward to continuing with throughout the entire process of rehearsing and shooting this film. We are going to treat each scene like a little one-act play and just go over every little moment again and again until everything feels authentic.

JM: When can we expect to see this film on the big screen?

MGS: We finish shooting in late August and then we’ll work on post-production throughout the fall. I hope to have it ready for a film festival premiere in early 2015.

JM: Awesome, I can’t wait to see it!  And who knows?  Maybe we’ll have to do a He Said/She Said after it premieres…

 

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