Monday, August 29, 2011

Book Review: Wolf Hall

Wolf Hall: A NovelWolf Hall: A Novel by Hilary Mantel (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2009. 604 pp)

Born in 1952, Hilary Mantel is a novelist, short story writer, and critic. Mantel began studying at the London School of Economics before transferring to the University of Sheffield where she graduated with a degree in jurisprudence. While employed as a social worker after her studies, Mantel began writing. After a decade of travel with her husband, Mantel published her first novel, Every Day is Mother’s Day, in 1985. On the heels of her first novel, Mantel found employment as a film critic for The Spectator. Over the course of her writing career, Mantel has won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for Fludd, the Sunday Express Book of the Year for A Place of Greater Safety, the Hawthornden Prize for An Experiment in Love, the MIND “Book of the Year” for Giving Up the Ghost, and the prestigious Man Booker Prize for Wolf Hall. In 2006, Mantel was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

A Consideration of Death

Whether we admit it or not, humanity holds a complicated relationship with death. It hovers as a dark cloud over life. When ignored, death feels abstract and distant; when considered, it ominously taps its fingers and reminds us that every second brings us one step closer to that point of no return.

Despite these feelings of dread, many simultaneously wish death on those who “deserve it”. When Obama announced the death of Osama Bin Laden, the Twitter-verse created two camps. On one side, people rejoiced in justice but mourned the loss of life. On the other, bloodlust boiled over as retribution found the light of day. For most in current times, this sort of death feels like just deserts.

Henry VIII from the Eyes of Cromwell

With these themes swirling through my mind, I read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. In this tome, Mantel exhaustively – in both senses of the word – chronicles the beginning stages of Henry VIII’s divorce from Catherine, separation from the Roman Catholic Church, and marriage to Anne Boleyn from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell.

The book begins with a young Cromwell receiving the brunt of his father’s unjust punishment. This passage sets the stage for what Thomas becomes – a self-starting lawyer who climbed the ranks of England.

Cromwell vs. More

As much as Wolf Hall tells the story of Cromwell’s connection to the monarchy, it also portrays the complicated relationship between Cromwell and Thomas More. Where Cromwell wryly plays the “royal game” yet understands the value of human decency, More lives under a principle-based philosophy at home and in court.

Archaic Justice

Although Mantel details the overarching storyline or the era superbly, my thoughts continuously wandered to the antiquated forms of justice presented throughout the book. Our counterparts from the middle ages carried a vast array of creative executions from burning at the stake and boiling people alive to beheading those fortunate enough for a relatively quick and painless end.

In an ironic passage, Mantel writes,

“What lodges in his mind, Thomas Cromwell’s, is that somebody makes these instruments of daily torture. Someone combs the horsehair into coarse tufts, knots them and chops the blunt ends, knowing that their purpose is to snap off under the skin and irritate it into weeping sores. Is it monks who make them, knotting and snipping in a fury of righteousness, chuckling at the thought of the pain they will cause to persons unknown? Are simple villagers paid – how, by the dozen? – for making flails with waxed knots? Does it keep farmworkers busy during the slow winter months? When the money for their honest labor is put into their hands, do the makers think of the hands that will pick up the product?

We don’t have to invite pain in, he thinks. It’s waiting for us: sooner rather than later. Ask the virgins of Rome.

He thinks, also, that people ought to be found better jobs” (72).

Theological Justice

Although this passage hints at Cromwell’s aversion to torturous devices, he remains an individual devoted to the law and therefore, to executing the guilty. But, Cromwell’s duty to the law pales in comparison to More’s senseless joy at the expense of the heretic:

“The word is that the Lord Chancellor has become a master in the twin arts of stretching and compressing the servants of God. When heretics are taken, he stands by at the Tower while the torture is applied. It is reported that in his gatehouse at Chelsea he keeps suspects in the stocks, while he preaches at them and harries them: the name of your printer, the name of the master of the ship that brought these books to England. They say he uses the whip, the manacles and the torment-frame they call Skeffington’s Daughter. It is a portable device, into which a man is folded, knees to chest, with a hoop of iron across his back; by means of a screw, the hoop is tightened until his ribs crack. It takes art to make sure the man does not suffocate: for if he does, everything he knows is lost” (244-245).

Additionally, Mantel adds a socio-economic angle when she writes about the execution of a lowly nun:

“She has five days to live. The last person she will see as she climbs the ladder is her executioner, holding out his paw. If she cannot pay her way at the last, she may suffer longer than she needs. She had imagined how long it takes to burn, but not how long it takes to choke at the end of a rope. In England there is no mercy for the poor. You pay for everything, even a broken neck” (472).

Are We Much Different than 16th Century England?

Again, it is imperative to remind you that Wolf Hall contains much more than vivid scenes of execution. Yet over the course of reading this book, I found myself torn. It is easy to reject these acts of violence a priori

From our objective thrones in the 21st century, we rightly judge these acts of punishment to be barbaric.

But on the other hand, I want to know why humanity acted this way. Clearly, certain sections of humankind still view death in some shape or form as a just punishment. Are we really much different than 16th century England?

This question is much more complicated.

The Role of the Church

Clearly, the differences between 16th century England and current times are drastic. First, the view of the human body differs considerably. In the Tudor’s era, the Roman Catholic Church functioned as the sole distributor of grace in its jurisdiction. As such, many believed that salvation occurs only through the gracious actions of church leadership. Additionally, the Church believed that it, as the steward of God’s kingdom on earth, owned the bodies of the flock.

For this reason, those who question the authority of the church faced grave danger because they lived at a time where they had no legal possession of their body. In other words, the church – which carried the rights to the physical sacraments that saved the body – could decide to end a life for the sake of church unity.

Of course, such thoughts feel medieval and heinous, but they emerge from a worldview that considers unity under the one, holy, and catholic church to be the necessary requirements for salvation.

The Virtue of Dialogue and Competing Philosophies

Thus, while the easy analysis breaks down to a thank-God-we-don’t-do-that-anymore statement (if that statement is even true), a more in depth look allows us to profess thankfulness for allowing dialogue and competing philosophies to exist simultaneously.

Mantel’s Man-Booker-winning tome offers a comprehensive look at the political, theological, and romantic aspects of Henry VIII’s complicated monarchy. It provides a fresh perspective by telling the story through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell. Of the many facets running through the book, I found myself pondering the views of justice and violence during that time period. Of course, I am glad that we no longer execute citizens for theological disputes. But, I am more grateful for our ability to discuss conflicting views and live together despite our differences. Wolf Hall is well written and well worth your time.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Album Review: Little Hell

Little HellLittle Hell by City and Colour (Vagrant Records, 2011. 49 minutes)

Dallas Green – who performs under the ironic moniker, City and Colour – first entered the music scene with the post-hardcore Canadian band, Alexisonfire. Having already released two albums as a solo artist – Sometimes and Bring Me Your Love – Green has encountered considerable success in his native Canada. He has won a MuchMusic Video Award, Juno Awards for Alternative Album of the Year and Songwriter of the Year, and has been named artist of the year by Chart magazine.

Modus Operandi

Honestly, my critical modus operandi for music reviewing is based on structures, creative musicianship, and lyrics. If an artist exhibits strength in one area, I am able to enjoy the music. For example, I appreciate Bob Dylan’s lyrics while admitting that the rest of his music remains bland.

When it comes to evaluating Little Hell, Dallas Green produces decent lyrics, keeps a focused structure, but fails badly in its melodic creativity. Put simply, Little Hell contains fabulous verses and horrible choruses.

In Praise of Chorus

For most pop songs, the chorus anchors the composition. Its catchy and repetitive melody sticks in the listeners mind and engrains in them an infectious addiction to the song as a whole. Without a chorus, a pop song has no legs. After multiple months of review as I wavered between enjoyment and disinterest, City and Colour’s latest record falls short because of the chorus.  

Sadly, despite Dallas Green’s angelic voice carrying profound gravitas, Little Hell’s choruses sound verse-like. Without catchy passages, Little Hell never gets off the ground.

Joy and Pain

Lyrically, Dallas Green explores the joy and pain of the smallest aspects of life such as romantic relationships to the big picture issues such as the housing crisis.

Most personally, Green sings of the night terrors his wife experiences in his first single, “Fragile Bird.”

“These cold nightmares / They make her worse for wear / Lost in the dark / She’s got a heavy heart / And when she wakes / In a fragile state / She calls my name / Hoping that I’ll keep her safe”

On a wider level, Green sings during “Natural Disaster,”

“The pipes have long since seized / The windows are all boarded up / There’s no electricity / Flowing through these lifeless veins / Cracks are running down the walls / Where picture frames used to hang / A hint of heartbreak still lingers in the air / And weeds have choked the breathe out of it long ago”

Rock Band

While City and Colour differentiated itself from others by an Americana-influenced folksy songwriting, Little Hell finds Dallas Green plugging in the guitar and creating music with a full band.

With the aforementioned lack of inventive choruses, the full band tunes feel dull and lack the intricacy necessary to stand out amongst an ocean of rock bands.

However, the tune, “The Grand Optimist,” portrays Green in classic form. Exploring the virtues and vices of his parents that he sees present in his life, Green’s voice finds itself rooted in the earthen finger-picking of an acoustic guitar. By far, it is my favorite tune on the record.

Explore the Back Catalog

Little Hell is rather disappointing. Considering the beauty of his previous record, I expected big things from City and Colour’s latest release. Whether by a lack of focus or a lack of creativity, Dallas Green wrote poor choruses and sought innovation in a lazy manner. Therefore, I suggest passing on Little Hell and, instead, listening to Bring Me Your Love.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Book Review: 33 Revolutions per Minute

Dorian Lynskey is primarily a music writer for the Guardian. Previously, Lynskey worked as a freelancer for Q, The Word, Empire, Blender, and the Observer. 33 Revolutions per Minute is Lynskey’s first book. Read Lynskey’s blog at

A Pet Named Peeves

One of my wife’s biggest pet peeves occurs when I mumble meaningless words to the melody of a song. For her, if you don’t know the lyrics, don’t sing the song. I, sadly, find lyrics difficult to remember.

Since I play guitar, my ears focus on the music first. I can hum textured instrumental melodies much quicker than I can sing a chorus. In fact, sometimes lyrics aren’t necessary. Sigur Rós, one of my favorite bands, sings partly in Icelandic and partly in a made-up language with indiscernible results. I like them, first and foremost, for their beautiful musical melodies.

In short, my mind wanders more toward the composition and less toward the message.

The Lyric

This disposition, however, orients me away from a close understanding of an artist’s true message. Of course, many musicians let the music portray the message, but on the whole, the lyric provides a framework for a musician’s message. Some sing strictly about relationships, other lyricists yearn to escape these mortal coils, and a select few utilize the lyric for revolution.

Protest Songs

The protest song becomes the body of a countercultural dogma. With 33 Revolutions per Minute, Dorian Lynskey chronicles the history of the protest song, from Billie Holiday to Green Day. During these 70 years, the protest song exists as a counterweight to a rather tumultuous period in global politics.

With a storytelling style, Lynskey cites 33 songs – one per chapter – as the threads of the protest movement throughout the years.

Lynskey often interjects fun stories amongst the typically depressing battle protest singers engage with the status quo. Speaking of Country Joe McDonald, he writes,

“They returned to their hotel after the second concert on Saturday night, with Joe carrying a human skull, a gift from a fan. ‘I got into the elevator and this guy looked at me and said, “I fought in Vietnam for guys like you.” And he hit me once in the face and broke my nose. I remember thinking, “Throw the skull at him!” And then I thought, “No, it will break and I really like it”’” (101).

Additionally, Lynskey spends necessary time exegeting the famous moments in the history of music. Referencing Woodstock, he proclaims,

“Another key performance was Jimi Hendrix’s rendition of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ without a doubt the most eloquent instrumental protest song rock has ever produced. Hendrix didn’t so much cover the national anthem as napalm it, but the wrenching eloquence of his playing made it into a sonic Rorschach blot, allowing each listener to decide what it represented. He was either putting to the torch the failed experiment of America or evoking the birth pangs of a new, less pernicious brand of patriotism: either the Death Society of the beautiful shipwreck” (106).

The Better I Know the Artist, the Better the Chapter

While the book, on the whole, remains interesting throughout, the artists of which I am a fan contained the most interesting sections. In particular, I found U2 especially fascinating.  Lynskey describes them:

“The members of U2 were never much good at being punks. Not enough vinegar. Coming together at school in Dublin in September 1976, they were, and remain, an alliance of divergent, though mutually sympathetic, personalities. Bono has the silver tongue of a raconteur, the taut, jabbing body language of a retired boxer, and the focused charisma of a politician, fervently convinced of the power of words to change minds. Guitarist the Edge is as still and softly spoken as a monk, except when his eyes crinkle slightly in concentration or mirth. Bassist Adam Clayton has the louche bearing of a disgraced aristocrat, and a perpetual air of mild and mysterious amusement. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. tends to lean forward with earnest intensity, punctuating his speech with apologetic grimaces: he is U2’s restraining anchor, the equal and opposite force to Bono’s grand gestures” (370).

Compared to many artists referenced in 33 Revolutions per Minute, U2 take a unique path. Where most are self-proclaimed Marxists or vigilant protestors, U2 find protest through faith:

“In 1978 they began holding Bible meetings, which the Edge compares to Rasta reasoning sessions ‘but without the weed.’ This gradually brought them into contact with a radical Christian group called Shalom, who believed in miracles and speaking in tongues. After Boy (1980), with its themes of faith and loss, the meetings became more intense and some Shalom members pressured Bono, the Edge, and Mullen to abandon U2 and devote themselves to the faith. Mullen left the meetings, while Bono and the Edge announced they were leaving the band. Their formidable manager Paul McGuinness put the counterargument: ‘Do you really think you’re going to be more effective by going back to your kind of normal lives? Or do you think taking this opportunity to be a great rock ‘n’ roll band is, in the long term, going to have more value?’ Bono and the Edge decided to distance themselves from Shalom, and reconcile their faith with their music” (371).

The Death of a Protest Artist

Of course, many musicians live and die by the political process. It all begins with the unquenching belief that a song will change the world; it ends with despair, pessimism, and, occasionally, death. Billy Bragg, a left wing activist and rock musician finds a balance when Lynskey interviews him,

“As he talks over a bowl of chips in a bookshop café, what seems unusual is not so much his unfussy eloquence as his unquashable optimism. Unlike many political songwriters, he does not sigh or wince at the memory of compromises and setbacks. He long ago accepted that political progress is won by inches, not leaps and bounds” (400).

Unapologetically Partisan

Although 33 Revolutions per Minute is an enjoyable read, it is not for everyone. First, it is unapologetically partisan. Those who acknowledge a right wing background will find frustration with Lynskey’s us-versus-them writing style especially evident when he states,

“Bush was, by some reckonings, the worst president the country had ever had: the architect of two interminable, unpopular wars, the man who allowed 2005’s Hurricane Katrina to become not just a tragedy but a national disgrace, and a divisive ideological bully” (522).

Those left-leaning individuals, though, will enjoy the book. With unabashed politics and excellent songwriting, most protest singers have furthered the industry in undisputable ways.

Will the Revolution Be Written?

For me, 33 Revolutions per Minute kept me entertained but seemed monotonous at times. While the cover suggests that each chapter is devoted to one song and one artist, Lynskey uses each chapter to discuss genres as a whole and their relationship to the political realm. Moreover, in an attempt to touch every genre interacting with politics, Lynskey elaborates on genres for which he writes with less enthusiasm.

Nevertheless, 33 Revolutions per Minute reminds me of lyrical value. Since I too often focus on the music instead of the lyric, Lynskey’s tome reminds me of the life-changing influence lyrics possess. While the politics don’t bother me, I am positive they will bother some. If you are a fan of music, lyrics, and the far left, I recommend this book.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Album Review: Gloss Drop

Gloss DropGloss Drop by Battles (Warp Records, 2011. 52 minutes)

Battles is an avant-garde rock band from New York City. Originally formed as an underground supergroup, each musician carried successful careers outside of the band being associated with groups such as Don Caballero, Lynx, and Helmet. The band began with Ian Williams on guitar, Dave Konopka on bass, John Stanier on drums, and Tyondai Braxton on vocals and guitar. The band released Mirrored, its first full length, in 2007 to glowing reviews. In 2010, Tyondai Braxton left Battles to work in solo projects. With a hole in the vocalist department, Battles recorded its second album, Gloss Drop, with stand-in singers. Gloss Drop peaked at 98 on the Billboard Charts.

Summer Camp

For many youths, summer means vacation. With unlimited time and idle hands, many parents judge summer camp as an excellent option to keep their children busy until school commences. These camps, with unbridled, optimistic counselors and a disconnection with the real world give children the opportunity to become a caricature of their normal selves.

The children’s talents and personality traits expand, blend, and take unique forms away from home. At summer camp, youth encounter flings, form meaningful connections with people they might never see again, and make assurances that no sane person could ever keep. The lovebirds promise marriage; the crazy kid vows to wear a mullet on the first day of school; and the artist rethinks creative influence.

Summer camp is an altered reality.

Battles: Musicians Recording for Musicians

Photo by Oliver Spall
For those unaware of the psychotic sounds of Battles, imagine a band of virtuosic musicians forming at summer camp. Not only through a unique sound, but also in presentation – drummer John Stanier performs with an 8-foot-high crash cymbal almost impossible to reach – Battles blends tight, almost house-like rhythms with tapping guitars and effects loops to create an otherworldly, circus-like sound.

Gloss Drop exists as a continuation of the basic formula first presented in Mirrored with the slight twist of a missing member. One signature portion of Mirrored was Tyondai Braxton’s signature effects-laden voice.

Without his vocals, Gloss Drop leans heavily on instrumental tracks only dipping into vocal-centric tunes four times in total.

Nevertheless, Gloss Drop remains imminently challenging. The timbres channeled through guitars, bass, drums, and keyboard are nothing short of extraordinary. Every note betrays the world-class talent behind the instruments. Clearly, Gloss Drop is a record by musicians for musicians.

Self-Aware Lyrics

Lyrically, Battles’ rotation of singers provide a dada-esque palate to compliment the sounds. The first single, “Ice Cream,” sung by Matias Aguayo, riddles in a foreign tongue,

“Dame un helado derritiéndose.”

Or with a quick Google translation, “Give me melting ice.” Of course, the lyrics provide no meaning outside of describing the sonic textures surrounding the words. Just like Mirrored’s hit single, “Atlas” proclaiming, “The singer is a crook,” “Ice Cream” offers meta lyrics that are self-aware of their existence within the song.

It’s all about the Music

More important than lyrics, however, are the sounds. For me, “Africastle” and “Futura” stick out as exemplary tunes. With heavy grooves, mind bending guitar riffs, and high energy, these songs contribute danceable rhythms and complex musicianship.

In all honesty, Gloss Drop is a difficult record; I doubt many recreational music listeners will find enjoyment in it. Truly, the album sounds like a group of musicians noodling during a summer camp. However, Gloss Drop offers a challenge for musicians. If you fancy yourself an artistic type, I believe Battles supplies enough merit to suit your fancy. With excellent musicianship and an out-of-this-world summer camp aesthetic, Gloss Drop is an excellent record.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Review: Fahrenheit 451

With over five hundred published works to his name, Ray Bradbury is one of the heavyweights in American literature during the 20th century. Born in Illinois, Bradbury’s family moved to California when he was thirteen. He graduated from Los Angeles High School and did not enter college. Drawn to writing from an early age, Bradbury attended the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society meeting many of the influential writers in the region. Bradbury began writing professionally by publishing stories in magazines. As his stories encountered praise, Bradbury began writing longer works. As the say, the rest is history. Bradbury’s best-known books are The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. For his contribution to literature worldwide, Bradbury received the National Book Foundation’s 2000 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters and the National Medal of Arts in 2004.

The Hedonist’s Paradox

Do you remember the last time you were happy? What caused it? Did a bonus alter your disposition? Did it occur during a sporting event? Were other people involved? When you got there, could you trace the steps that lead you to delight?

Speaking personally, the times I recognize as “happy” are untraceable, as if, in some serendipitous turn, joy occurs by accident. Likewise, the times that I have pursued happiness, it fleetingly disappears like a tuft of smoke.

This phenomenon – philosophically, known as the hedonist’s paradox – states that those pursuing happiness as an end never find it; yet, those pursuing other ends, inevitably find happiness.

In Flames

At its core, Fahrenheit 451 riffs around the value of happiness in society. Set in an unspecified future date, the book depicts the existential breakdown of fireman, Guy Montag.

In this era, firemen no longer extinguish fires; they set them. Operating under the guidelines of a distant authority, the sole purpose of the firemen is to exterminate books. Artfully detailing the job description, Bradbury writes,

“It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history” (3).

What Happens When You Throw Powdered Milk in the Bonfire?

The firemen spend little time considering the question, “Why?” For them, the job provides a level of prestige and carnal joy. What boy hasn’t spent a summer evening in front of the fire observing the many ways in which objects become consumed by the flames? Touching on these desires, Bradbury asserts,

“’What is there about fire that’s so lovely? No matter what age we are, what draws us to it?’ Beatty blew out the flame and lit it again. ‘It’s perpetual motion; the thing man wanted to invent but never did. Or almost perpetual motion. If you let it go on, it’d burn our lifetimes out. What is fire? It’s a mystery. Scientists give us gobbledegook about friction and molecules. But they don’t really know. Its real beauty is that it destroys responsibility and consequences. A problem gets too burdensome, then into the furnace with it’” (115).

Disagreement = Despair?

Montag, however, receives a large jolt when other characters asking him why he does what he does. His job is to burn books. But, why is it books? What makes a book worthy of burning?

While discussing these questions with his boss, Captain Beatty, Montag hears the party-line answer:

“’You know the law,’ said Beatty. ‘Where’s your common sense? None of those books agree with each other. You’ve been locked up here for years with a regular damned Tower of Babel. Snap out of it! The people in those books never lived. Come on now’” (38)!

Stated differently, books create unhappiness. With disagreement, society encounters despair through quarrel. Thus, in hope of asserting happiness in civilization, leadership removes choice; it deletes the “why.”

Why is Why Important?

Guy wants the “why.” He thinks, perhaps, that books provide the “why.” In this assumption, the rest of Fahrenheit 451 unfolds. Meeting a retired and underground professor, Montag hopes to save books. Yet, Faber – the professor – disagrees,

“It’s not books you need, it’s some of the things that once were in books. The same things could be in the ‘parlor families’ today. The same infinite detail and awareness could be projected through the radios and televisors, but are not. No, no, it’s not books at all you’re looking for! Take it where you can find it, in old phonograph records, old motion pictures, and in old friends; look for it in nature and look for it in yourself. Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us” (82-83).

A Victim of its Own Hype

Photo by Sarah Wynne
Despite its cult status, Fahrenheit 451 left me unsatisfied. While its novella length and easy prose allowed for a quick read, its content felt shallow. Although burning books supplies a shocking sub-thread to the narrative, it felt unbelievable. Of course book burnings have occurred throughout history, but forcibly burning books seems less believable than having books fade into obscurity as people focus on television instead of the printed word.

Furthermore, the characters never develop. As Guy meets people and interacts with them, his character functions only to keep the narrative flowing. Of course, he transforms as the story proceeds, but I never felt a connection with him.

In short, Fahrenheit 451 illustrates the hedonist’s paradox. Its culture pursues happiness and, in its self-medicated state, its citizens never comprehend that their happiness is false.

Montag asks the question, “why?” At its core, Fahrenheit 451 exists to remind us the importance of “why.” Remember to ask this question constantly. We all too easily forget “why” and just “do.” If we don’t know why, we may find ourselves acting in horrible ways.

I assume everyone has read Fahrenheit 451. For me, reading this book fulfills my desires to complete the canon of classic 20th century American literature. Honestly, I think the hype of this book gracing the lists of great American literature contributed to my disappointment in the book. Nevertheless, I understand its value and recommend Fahrenheit 451.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Film Review: Rabbit Hole

Rabbit HoleRabbit Hole directed by John Cameron Mitchell (Olympus Pictures, Blossom Films, and Odd Lot Entertainment, PG-13, 91 minutes)

Starring Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart, and Dianne Wiest.

The Past Events of a Suffering Family

Although I rarely discuss it, I lost my older sister when I was nine years old. Due to complications at her birth and negligent medical practice, she ended up brain damaged and bed ridden for her short life.

Such a loss changes you at the core. Honestly, I think I was young enough to not fully understand the ramifications, but I see how the event has changed me. In many ways, I’m the oldest child and have assumed all the stereotypes involved with that title. Yet, biologically, I am a middle child. Even more, as I grow closer to new friends and acquaintances, the time inevitably comes when I must explain that I had an older sister.

I remember, for years, how difficult it was for my parents to function on her birthday. Since she died during the Christmas season, our holiday festivities carried an added weight of a missing family member. While losing a sibling is difficult, the loss of a child is beyond my comprehension.

Spiraling Down the Rabbit Hole

At its core, Rabbit Hole focuses on the acute suffering felt by parents who have recently lost a child. Becca (Nicole Kidman) and Howie Corbett (Aaron Eckhart) find themselves at a crossroads. With the death of their four-year-old son lingering, everyday tasks carry immense weight. Understanding the importance of distance in grief, their friends are unsure about when to reconnect. The neighbors extend grace through invitations to shared meals but the thought of rehashing feelings to another individual is like reliving a horror movie. Becca’s mother, Nat (Dianne Wiest), attempts a route of understanding since her son – and Becca’s brother – died of a drug overdose in his early thirties.

Overcoming Pain?

In separate ways, Becca and Howie try to medicate the pain. Howie believes that a support group provides the answer to their problems. Amongst a group of understanding peers, Howie has faith that healing will come quickly. In the privacy of his home, Howie replays on his smart phone, the only video left of his son, holding on for dear life that last glimpse of the joy of his offspring.

Becca, however, believes that her suffering is exclusive. Without a job, her days are spent in a home where every crevice reminds her of son lost too soon. The support group that offers grace to her husband suffocates her. Since most attendees of the group lean on a sovereign creator, Becca’s atheistic tendencies alienate her from the group. Instead, Becca seeks reconciliation with the teenager whose car accidentally struck the fatal blow on the four-year-old child.

A Portrait of Suffering

Rabbit Hole focuses on the many facets of suffering. It can pull relationship apart and it can assist in pulling a couple back together. What is clearly depicted, though, is the singular and solitary nature of suffering in the wake of losing a child. This movie is by no means entertaining. Its weight sticks with you long after the credits roll.

Bringing it Home

Nevertheless, its perspective on suffering points me back to the year when I lost my sister. In some way, Rabbit Hole gives me an ever-so-slight look into the world my parents encountered after my sister passed.

In many ways, Rabbit Hole gives me evidence about the resolve my parents showed in those times. While many split under the pressure, my parents held strong, are happily married to this day, and raised two excellent children (as far as I can tell).

Rabbit Hole is well acted and well produced. However, one must approach it understanding the weight of its subject matter. If you know you have a soft spot for the suffering of a family, this movie might be too much to bear. However, if you are a fan of solid scripts, acting, and production, Rabbit Hole is worth your time.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Book Review: Bright's Passage

Bright's Passage: A NovelBright’s Passage: A Novel by Josh Ritter (New York: Dial Press, 2011. 208 pp)

Hailing from Moscow, Idaho, Josh Ritter is best known as a critically acclaimed singer-songwriter. With his songs containing distinctive narrative lyrics, a jump to full-length fiction offered the natural next step. A graduate of Oberlin College with a self-created major of “American History through Narrative Folk Music,” Ritter launched his career in Ireland with the help of Glen Hansard and the Frames. While on a recent tour, Ritter began writing Bright’s Passage and after significant edits, released it with Dial Press on June 28, 2011. Currently, Ritter lives in Brooklyn.

Literary Songwriting

As a musician and an avid music fan, Josh Ritter’s albums have graced my playlists for the last half decade. When I heard he was writing a novel, my interest piqued since his songs have always felt like short novellas. With much joy, I attended Josh Ritter’s book reading at Elliot Bay Book Company.


During the reading, Ritter elaborated on some of his topical obsessions. One of the themes Ritter constantly considers is angelology.

At one point, Ritter commented facetiously that when angels arrive, they always encourage people to be not afraid. Yet, an angel appearance causes immense levels of fear! In Ritter’s novel, Bright’s Passage, he elaborates,

“’You hear me, Henry Bright.’ The voice was very close to his ear in the blackness.
‘Yes,’ he said finally. Then, ‘Who are you?’
‘I am an angel, Henry Bright, be not afraid.’
‘I am.’ His throat was tight with fear and the words came out with a cracked, whistling sound. ‘I am afraid’” (97).

The word “angel” comes from the Greek word “angelos” meaning messenger. Before its use in the New Testament, angelos was used primarily in terrestrial terms. Yet, with its constant use in the gospels, angelos encounters a spiritual sense as the Greek word became a term for God’s spiritual messengers.

However, what is clear in the history of angelos is that whenever an angel shows up, something important happens.

A Brief Synopsis

Ritter’s obsession with angels provides the bedrock for Bright’s Passage. Set in the aftermath of World War I, the book’s protagonist, Henry Bright, is a veteran returning from an ugly war where probability suggests he should not have survived.

Led by an angel manifested in Bright’s horse, Henry marries his childhood sweetheart and together they conceive what the angel proclaims is “the future king of heaven.”

Describing the newborn, Ritter pens,

“The baby boy wriggled in his arms, a warm, wet mass, softer than a goat and hairier than a rabbit kit” (3).

As the story unfolds, Bright’s Passage depicts the classic chase scene narrative where his antagonistic father-in-law pursues Bright through a West Virginia wildfire.

World War I

Interposed through this narrative are flashbacks to Bright’s time in World War I. Relying heavily on the grim features of warfare, Ritter paints a horrific picture of the front:

“Mud and water and the stumps of trees. In every direction that was all there was. Bodies fell, but the trees died standing up. Nightly they were crucified upon themselves by the zip and whine of machine guns, their leaves corroded by gas, their branches and trunks hacked for kindling, some roots cut by entrenching tools, others drowned by the ceaseless, steady dripping of blood and rain” (13).

The Purpose of Piety in the Face of Carnage

While the story unfolds in West Virginia as the angel leads Bright away from his father-in-law, the literary core of the novel questions the piety of God in the wake of World War I’s carnage. In the course of a conversation between the angel and Henry Bright, Ritter exclaims,

“’What wreckage this King has wrought.’
Bright took the lemon away and spoke softly. ‘Not now.’
‘A new King must be found. This one has soaked the world in blood. He has allowed War to become so terrible that it can kill all of mankind. No King of Heaven has ever allowed War to become so powerful’” (122).

Josh Ritter
For better or worse, Bright’s Passage explores the relationship between religion and warfare. Sadly, religions carries a checkered past of blood lust and implicit in the pages of Bright’s Passage is a critique of religion’s influence on society.

Of course, Ritter’s observations carry some weight but they are not new condemnations. Many have used the horrors of religious warfare as a proof text against the veracity of religion. In my mind, the problem of war runs deeper than creed and confession. Religious and atheistic regimes alike provide evidence for the depravity of man.

Humanity and the Divine

Having Ritter’s obsession with angelology take center stage, Bright’s Passage forces the reader to interact with the spiritual realm. Is the self-proclaimed angel really divine? Does the angel have Henry Bright’s interests in mind? Could the angel be a figment of Bright’s imagination? If so, is the protagonist mentally unstable? The history of literature references angels often. What does that say about human culture?

An Honest Appraisal

Ritter’s first voyage into the literary realm is a success. On the surface, Bright’s Passage is an entertaining novel with compelling characters; underneath the storyline, Ritter weaves the threads of an essay against religious institutions and just warfare.

If you are a fan of historical fiction and want an easy read with some depth, I highly recommend Bright’s Passage.