It has long been told in my family that James Herriot, the veterinarian-turned-author-of-veterinarian-exploits, All Creatures Great and Small, was from the same small English town as my mother’s father’s family. Thirsk sits a ways outside of York, in northern Yorkshire, in the north part of the country. When I visited with my mother and grandmother several years ago, we popped into the Herriot Museum in quaint downtown Thirsk—decided we didn’t want to pay admission—then walked up the way to the church where my grandparents were married and my relatives were buried.
Recently my mom mentioned that our family connection to James Herriot might be a little more solid than mutual residence. My great-grandmother, Gertrude Wombwell Hardy, was a larger-than-life character, short, solid, and thoroughly outgoing. (She did after all come from circus folk. “Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie.” Apparently this is for real.) She had two stubby Pekingese that were named—wait for it—Chinkie and Chummie. Who could have foretold that her granddaughter would someday marry a man of the East? (And that little Chinkie’s name would become* a racial slur. But I digress.)
*This verb contingent on your own theories of language, of course. Did it become one or was it always one? Yada.
Anyway, as my mom deduces, great grandmother Gertrude could only have taken her two darling dogs to the only veterinarian in town, Mr. James Herriot (real name: James Wight). Thirsk has grown today to a bustling metropolis of 5,000 people, but in the 1940s it was much smaller. Further, as my gran deduces—based on Herriot’s practice of simply fictionalizing his real life, his town, his townspeople in his books—one of his characters was probably based on Gertrude. I haven’t read his writing so I can’t say which one. My mom says she thinks Gertrude might have disappeared into a composite character of a wealthy woman who called her dog “Trickie-woo.”
My only familiarity with All Creatures Great and Small was the BBC series based on the books that ran from 1978 to 1990. This is still how I think of it.
But this is what my mom and gran deduce. Because Gertrude was quite a real-life character (“putting on airs,” as my gran described it), because she had five boys (“boisterous,” as my mom described them), and because the Hardys owned about fifty zillion (but less than ten) local businesses over the course of their professional life (including a milk bar, and a pub), Gertrude Wombwell Hardy could not have helped but left an impression on the local veterinarian. This is our evidence.
I like to picture that James Herriot knew my grandpa and his brothers when they were little boys, or when they drove fish and chip deliveries around town in their bike + sidecar setup as youths, but according to Wikipedia Herriot opened his practice in Thirsk in 1941, which was in the midst of World War II—and all five of the Hardy boys had entered the service. Sidney (No. 1) and Fred (No. 5) joined the Army; Bert (No. 3) and Geoff (No. 4) joined the Navy; and Dudley (No. 2, my grandfather) joined the Air Force as a truck driver. He never saw combat—was discouraged from becoming a pilot after seeing two men die in a fiery crash at his air strip. Lucky, then. Fred was evacuated at Dunkirk. Bert died in the sinking of the HMS Diamond in the Aegean Sea.
(Also lucky was my paternal grandfather, who with the rest of the barrack basketball team at his Arizona internment camp went to sign up for the war—once Japanese Americans were allowed– but was turned away because of an inner ear problem. Some of them died in Europe. The teleology of genealogy: Of course our forefathers had to survive to proliferate.)
This is my personal family literary history. This is the only famous author I can currently say I have connections to. (Besides knowing people who know Dave Eggers.) I guess it’s doubly romantic and exciting because it reminds me that my history extends outside of my own lived experience so snugly contained within the confines of California. And that my great grandmother might be in a book.
See title. ‘Nuff said.
…Okay, I’ll write a post anyway.
Like what is probably most women, I feel a special connection to Elizabeth Bennet, the heroine of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, and not just because we share a name, though that’s probably part of it. But also because she’s an amazing character in an amazing novel that remains amazing after 200 years of being read by everyone and their great-grandmothers.
Everyone knows that P& P is one of the most significant works in the Western literary canon. Film versions and countless fan fictions have spawned an Austenian cult that continues to grow every day, and its female fan contingent is matched at this point probably only by Twilight’s. (God help us.) As mentioned in an earlier blog post (following my very first Austen reading, Sense & Sensibility), I grew up in the shadow of Austen without ever really engaging her directly. I knew the stories, appreciated the romance, lived the period, but didn’t understand how her narratives were much more than proto-rom-coms, entertaining and fluffy and supplying us the Mr. Darcy archetype that’s fed the fantasies of five generations.
But, long story short, turns out she’s an awesome frigin writer. It’s much more than a rom-com. Her sentences are beautiful, complex. Her characters live and breathe, even underneath the veneer of befuddling nineteenth-century etiquette.
(The thing that always gets me: the scene where Darcy and Bingley return to visit the Bennet sisters after months of absence, and the awkward, unresolved histories between Bingley and Jane, Darcy and Elizabeth just hang in the air, and the way everyone just freakin stands there and doesn’t bring up a goddam thing. I mean, I know miscommunication remains a major element in modern romance, but how frustrating, how infuriating is the women’s complete lack of agency in maneuvering these relationships—and even, sometimes, the men’s likewise powerlessness! Everyone was sitting around with their hands tied. Instead of a love rival or a bad breakup or a job in another city or a departing airplane, society was the dreaded third party that was preventing these perfect couples from getting together. To think that something like your dumbass sister eloping would prevent all of you from ever making a good match! Fuck, dude.)
And one of my favorite things about P & P in particular is its wicked sense of humor. I’m always slightly dumbfounded when I actually find something written over a hundred years ago to be funny. A somewhat tangential anecdote from my college music history class:
Our professor was reading letters that a young, li’l genius Mozart (who, btw, was born only 19 years before Ms. Austen) wrote to his sister while he and his father were traveling Europe. He was describing their day (and here I must paraphrase): “You’ll never believe what happened today, dear sister. Father and I left this morning to go to so-and-so’s house. We were wandering all through the alleys of Vienna. We stopped and got a bite to eat. We met such-and-such in the street. We turned a corner. Finally, we arrived at the large door of the house. And do you know what happened next? We went in!… Anyway, I hope this finds you well…” Total smartass, right? He also made some fart jokes, if I remember correctly.
Back to P&P. Elizabeth is sharp, intelligent, and not afraid to call people on their shit, at least as much as that was possible under that stifling 19th-century etiquette I was talking about. And on top of that she’s funny. So is her father, who blatantly singles her out as his favorite (which makes up for the fact that she’s her idiot mother’s least favorite). One of their preferred joke-butts is Mr. Collins, a cousin who proposes marriage to Elizabeth and who is also a complete and total bore, who can’t shut up about how awesome his old-lady patron is. But Mrs. Bennet was hoping they’d be a match; and when she finds out Elizabeth refused Mr. Coll proposal, she’s furious and threatens to disown her. She brings the case before her husband.
Mr. Bennet, droll as ever, replies, “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents.—Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”
Later, after Jane accepts Mr. Bingley’s proposal, she wishes that Elizabeth would find a man who could make her just as happy.
Elizabeth replies, “If you were to give me forty such men, I never could be so happy as you. Till I have your disposition, your goodness, I never can have your happiness. No, no let me shift for myself; and, perhaps, if I have very good luck, I may meet with another Mr. Collins in time.” Zing!
Which brings me back to everyone’s favorite taciturn thousandaire bachelor, Mr. Darcy. What a stud. What a dreamboat. Basically, from the start, he seems like a jerk, he’s awkward, he’s entitled, he falls in love with Elizabeth, he makes a really bad first move (which, back then, was proposing marriage), then he makes up for looking like a jerk by being an all-around awesome guy for the rest of the book—including taking care of the whole sister-eloping mess and not taking credit for it. Everyone’s all like, “What? You’re into Mr. Darcy? We thought you hated him!” And Elizabeth is like, “I misjudged him. It was PREJUDICE.”* And this whole thing sets the stage for every other butting-heads-turned-perfect-match story that followed for the next two centuries.
*not actual quotes.
But in all seriousness, it’s a delightful, completely accessible romance between two well-written and complex characters, following a believable trajectory in a staidly exotic (or exotically staid) setting. The prejudgements, the misunderstandings, the social and familial constraints, the clipped and curt speeches masking profound emotions and desires– all make for an incredibly compelling narrative, one in which we are deeply sympathetic to Elizabeth’s situation. Just like Elizabeth, we find Mr. Collins ridiculous, we’re pissed at Lady Catherine, we’re taken in by Wickham, we can’t believe how nice Jane is to everyone. And most importantly we fall in love with Mr. Darcy.
Also, after reading (plain) Jane Eyre, I found it slightly reassuring to discover that both Darcy and Elizabeth are moderately attractive people. Does that make me shallow?
That’s my review of Jane Eyre, summed up in one sentence, vintage newspaper headline-style. I’ll elaborate, if you’ll be patient.
I’ve always loved the idea of the Brontës—three sisters who each wrote a classic novel and took on masculine pen names alliterative to their actual names, who all died tragically and romantically young before knowing real fame and recognition (Anne – 29, Emily – 30, Charlotte – 38).
As it happens, my mom and her family are from Yorkshire, England, shire of the famous moors and heather and gloomy countryside as seen in The Secret Garden and, more relevantly, Jane Eyre. When I visited the home country with my mom and my gran in 2005, we had a lot of tea, ate a lot of pasties, and saw a lot of sheep. We went to a series of adorable Yorkshire villages—Holmfirth and its yarn, Whitby and its boatyard, Skipton and its castle, Harrogate and its rain. And we also visited Haworth, home of the Brontë sisters and the Brontë Museum, tastefully situated in the old Brontë house and the family patriarch’s church.
Even then, I didn’t read a single Brontë (and have, as of now, still read only a single Brontë) until a couple months ago when I finally picked up Jane Eyre. Fittingly, it followed my first reading of Jane Austen, with whom I’ve always associated the Brontë sisters, if only for their gender, era, and reputational longevity. It also followed my viewing (on a tiny screen embedded in the back of an airplane seat) of the 2010 film adaptation of Jane Eyre, starring Mia Wasikowska and my celebrity boyfriend Michael Fassbender.* After years of picturing all 19th-century British middle-class women’s novels as high society romps and rom-coms with social dances set to tuneful Baroque quadrilles, I was pleasantly surprised to discover there was darkness and a decided lack of superficial beauty in this north country story.
*One buried, forgotten news story about a girlfriend who pressed charges against him for hitting her, later dropped, qualifies my every admiring statement; without knowing more about what happened, it’s like the Schrodinger’s Box of celebrity crushes, he’s simultaneously dreamy and a dealbreaker.
First of all, Jane is plain, and Rochester is ugly. Or to put it more conservatively, neither are handsome. This made me realize that I very rarely have to envision a female protagonist who is not at least marginally attractive, and a romantic interest who is likewise, and actually had some difficulty doing this.
Second, Jane’s life kinda sucks. She’s raised by her horrible aunt, tortured by a mischievous cousin, and eventually sent off to a girls’ school that basically starves its students. The film version dramatizes this more than the book, bringing to bear modern attitudes about child abuse– Jane herself keeps a fondness for the place in spite of it all– but it was definitely a harsh place to live, echoing Charlotte’s own experiences in boarding school.
When Jane is eighteen, she leaves Lowood after placing a classified advertising her services as a governess (a low-tech Craigslist, with no spammers). She finds herself the companion to a vain, silly little French girl—aptly evoking British attitudes towards French people, in general– who is the ward of the estate’s master, Edward Rochester.
Jane notices right away there’s something strange about this house– she hears laughing and shouts in the middle of the night, which the housekeeper blames on a servant named Grace Poole. Mr. Rochester is away most of the time; at one point, when he comes back, he is nearly burned alive in his bed by mysterious means. Jane saves him; he thanks her profusely for saving his life, and for good measure gives her a few of his piercing, stormy, furrowed gazes she comes to know and love.
Thus begins the story’s central romance. Rochester is in his late thirties, a rich man with seemingly his pick of attractive noblewomen, particularly one long-necked Blanche Ingram. Jane is his quiet, slight, ever-serious governess, the hired help, and only eighteen. Aren’t they the unlikely pair? Let’s break down the good, the bad, and the plain of this crazy relationship:
1) It’s an incredibly romantic idea, finding that someone who you thought was out of your reach—in this case, your richer, more worldly employer—has become completely enamored with you.
2) Rochester is interested in Jane not for her looks, but for her mind and her conversation. He falls in love with the way she challenges him and even teases him; it seems pretty clear that his attraction to her is not superficial.
1) I mean, he’s way older than her, so kinda ick? Though I’m realizing that a slew of favorite films, books, TV shows, and songs outside of Lolita consist of older man/teenage girl relationships (most recently I’ve been rewatching best-show-of-all-time “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and am like, wow, Buffy is like 16 years old when she first meets Angel and on top of that he’s not 20 like a normal statutory boyfriend, he’s like 240, which makes it even worse that he’s still into a teenage girl, right?)
2) Rochester is a little unbalanced. He’s hopelessly and desperately in love with Jane and turns borderline threatening when she leaves him. Fassbender portrayed this very well… hopefully because he’s a really good actor (truth) and not ’cause he’s really like that.
3) Here’s the spoiler: There’s a madwoman in the attic.
1) They’re both kinda plain?
So the haunted house aspect of the book is resolved when we find out that the strange noises, furtive goings-on, and occasional violent happenstances are all due to Rochester’s wife, a Creole woman from the West Indies (hey Said, here’s some empire-as-background!), who is locked up in the attic because she’s stark raving out of her mind. Jane doesn’t find out about the first wife until Rochester tries to marry Jane in the shortest, most depressing wedding ceremony ever.
We enter a kind of second part—or even, a very long interlude—when Jane flees the manor, and finds herself taken in by some distant relatives in a distant county. These cousins of hers include St. John, an annoyingly pious and self-satisfied minister whose dream is to dedicate himself to helping poor little lambs in India (empire-as-background, again).
After months of living in the same house, St. John—who is in lust with a pretty rich girl up the way—decides that he wants to take Jane as his wife. The other girl is only an earthly temptation, he says; and while he feels no attraction whatsoever to Jane, she’s good, smart, sturdy, and would make the perfect missionary’s wife. It’s all so sensible. Jane admires St. John deeply; but ultimately, she refuses his offer.
I don’t share Jane’s admiration. To me, St. John comes off as a sanctimonious ass. He’s domineering, distant, and selfless to the point of absolute selfishness. Given a choice between cold, imperious St. John and unbalanced, baggage-laden Rochester… well, I think Jane made the right choice. He’s at least the lesser of two evils.
For all of the downcast glances Jane makes around Rochester, for all of the words she never says out loud, for all the fact that she starts learning goddamn Hindi to please St. John, she is ultimately, for what it’s worth, a surprisingly strong, independent heroine.
When Jane makes up her mind to leave Thornfield after learning of Rochester’s wife, she comes up with this little piece of proto-self-validation, a kind of “don’t need no man” testimonial:
“…while he spoke my very conscience and reason turned traitor against me, and charged me with crime in resisting him. They spoke almost as loud as Feeling: and that clamoured wildly. ‘Oh, comply!’ it said. ‘Think of his misery; think of his danger—look at his state when left alone; remember his headlong nature; consider the recklessness following on despair—soothe him; save him; love him; tell him you love him and will be his. Who in the world cares for you? or who will be injured by what you do?’
“Still indomitable was the reply—‘I care for myself. The more solitary, the more friendless, the more unsustained I am, the more I will respect myself. I will keep the law given by God; sanctioned by man. I will hold to the principles received by me when I was sane, and not mad—as I am now… Preconceived opinions, foregone determinations, are all I have at this hour to stand by: there I plant my foot.” (403)
In 1847, I feel like this was a big deal. Plain single girl makes her own way, survives countless hardships, submits to no man, and acts on her own decisions. And ultimately, empowered, her own agent, she lives happily ever after with brooding old Mr. Rochester. Who, if he actually looked like Michael Fassbender, would not be so bad at all.
I’ve been going to Elephant Bar for years. It’s the Applebee’s of pseudo-Asian food of indeterminate origin: satisfying, unspectacular, and full of families on Saturday nights. I can’t count how many times I’ve enjoyed the plain teriyaki chicken and rice dish alongside an embarrassingly fruity cocktail, chatting with friends over the noise of crying children. For whatever reason—okay, an obvious one being that there are very few places to eat in Cupertino– I keep coming back.
So it was with great surprise that, on my last visit, I stopped, looked around, and said, “Holy shit. This place is an Orientalist wonderland.”
I can’t really say why I never noticed that before. Note that this realization came after three years spent getting a graduate degree in history, in a department where Edward Said is mentioned in everyday conversation (not to mention he’s painted on the front of our freaking bookstore!) and that, particularly in my exams semester, British empire was a huge focus and whatever hypersensitivity to empire nostalgia I already had during this time was undoubtedly heightened.
The giant elephant in the front of the restaurant: well, that’s unavoidable. The animal skin prints that sweep parts of the décor—zebra, giraffe, tiger—aren’t exactly subtle either. The turn-of-the-century, slow-sweeping fans brushing back and forth along the ceiling are a nice touch. They always remind me of the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. On this particular visit, however, I also finally noticed the late 19th-century-style European trunks with travel stickers reading “Zanzibar” and “Timbuktu” that serve as ambient decoration over some of the booths.
Tie all these pan-African and –Indian elements together with Elephant Bar’s commitment to serving pan-(East)Asian-infused cuisine and you have—tah dah!—an Orientalist wonderland, just like I said. It’s a campy, Disneyish mixture of the exotic with cavalier disregard for specific geographies. The trunks definitively indicate that the overarching tie-in to this mish-mash of “the Rest” (see: Niall Ferguson, below) is the pan-British Empire.
Elephant Bar is by no means the only establishment to capitalize on our collective British imperial nostalgia. There’s this colonial African-themed wedding that made headlines last year for its callous obliviousness, down to hiring black servants to fill the colonial-era black-servant-costumes. And in Victoria, British Columbia for a graduate conference about (aptly) race, I got the chance to visit the landmark Fairmont Empress hotel in downtown Victoria. Now, Victoria is a beautiful remnant of British hegemony, in some ways Britishier than Britain, still celebrating tea time and replete with Queen Victoria statue and British colonial buildings and even slightly, slightly British accents. Inside the Empress, past the gorgeous tea room that’s a must-do for tourists, across from the Authentic Native Art store, there is the absolute centerpiece of Orientalist fantasy—the Bengal Lounge.
Its name emblazoned across a gong-like hanging sign. Slow-sweeping British-in-India style fans brushing the ceiling. A complete tiger skin plastered over the fireplace. It was a place of great diversion for me and my fellow conferencers, at the same time that it was, of course, slightly horrifying. Orientalist and nostalgic to the very core.
What’s most striking to me about the brand of imperial nostalgia exemplified by Elephant Bar and the Bengal Lounge and other such places isn’t that it’s pervasive or offensive or wrong. It’s that it’s so, well, nostalgic.
I recognize and welcome it even as I conscientiously object to it. There’s something warm and familiar about the trappings of British society in the tropical jungles of India and Africa– the giant, sticker-laden trunks, the loose cotton dresses, the pith helmets. That’s because, culturally, this setting is interwoven into some of our most beloved literature and film classics and thus into our collective historical fantasy. As hard as I try, I can’t help but associate good memories with this setting, even though I never lived it, even though I recognize it as a dark time/phenomenon in the history of human and global interaction.
In The Secret Garden, Mary has spent her whole childhood in India, born to Britisher parents in the Empire’s Crown Jewel. Her neglectful socialite parents are lost in a cholera outbreak in their colonial home early on in the book, which is the reason Mary is sent to live with a distant relation on the Yorkshire moors (where she discovers the titular landscaping).
In The Jungle Book—well, in almost any Rudyard Kipling book—we’re in deepest India. More notably for my childhood, the 1994 Disney live-action “reimagining” of the story casts a 20-year-old Mowgli against a British colonial presence which involves him falling in love with a British officer’s daughter (Lena Headey) and becoming the love rival of another officer (Cary Elwes). Notably, Indian native Mowgli is played by Chinese-American actor Jason Scott Lee.
In Disney’s Tarzan, we’re in 19th-century Africa, where a white man orphaned by jungle cats and raised by apes is discovered by a British professor’s daughter, who he subsequently falls in love with. Tarzan is wild, raised in the primitive African jungle setting, and their romance holds undertones of the savage meeting the “civilized man.
In The Mummy, we’re in 1920s Egypt, at the time in a state of limbo regarding independence from Britain (achieved in 1922 but conditional until 1936). Swashbuckling American adventurer O’Connell and half-Egyptian love interest Evie unleash a mummy’s curse and enlist the help of memorable characters like WWI RAF veteran Winston, now a tottering hard-drinking regular at a Cairo bar, who puts his adorable pilot’s cap and goggles back on to fly them in his biplane over the dunes to the mummy’s lost city. Notably, the major Egyptian characters are played by an Israeli (Oded Fehr), a South African (Arnold Vosloo), an Indian (Erick Avari), an Irish American (Kevin J. O’Connor), and a Venezuelan (Patricia Velazquez). Non-major Egyptian characters either perish from pressurized salt booby traps or join the boils-ridden “Imhotep”-chanting mob.
In Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom, the second installment of the 1980s trilogy (let’s discount Crystal Skull, shall we?), we visit colonial India alongside the intrepid American archaeologist-adventurer. Plenty of people have already complained about the problematic racial representations in this film—mostly the centerpiece of barbaric Indian devil-worshipers who serve as the villains. It’s the 1930s, but we don’t see too many Britishers, so not a huge representation of imperial nostalgia. But definitely Orientalist.
In the Adventureland area in Disneyland, next to the Indiana Jones ride (which creates a new story for the franchise vaguely reminiscent but wholly separate from Temple of Doom), the Jungle Cruise takes you down a simulated Zambezi or Congo or somesuch to see exotic African animals and a few savage natives (all animatronic of course), proctored by humorous guides in khaki shorts. The Bazaar sells kitschy souvenirs like rain sticks and plush monkeys and safari gear. Aladdin’s Dinner Show sits next to the Enchanted Tiki Room. The former Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse now belongs to Tarzan.
In Heart of Darkness, the reader is struck with the same fear and wonder as the narrator Marlowe as his riverboat plunges deeper and deeper into darkest Africa, as he represents a structured British civilization slowly slipping away. Strange sounds reverberate from the trees at night; mute savages lay dying in groves; animalistic fury seems to sit just beneath the surface of every native worker. Terror and madness only await the British man who ventures that deep into the continent. This terror and madness is recast into the Vietnamese jungles for Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and, maybe a little bit (but with more of a dry heat), into Iraq for Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.
What does it all boil down to? Well, I suppose that British imperial nostalgia is burrowed into my very being. I was raised on the stuff, indoctrinated by 19th-century British authors and the 20th-century filmmakers who adapted their stories and the theme parks and theme restaurants who used their accoutrements as décor. I am guilty of British imperial nostalgia, even as I am critical of British empire.
This brings us to the very obvious point that, even as one is critical of empire, one cannot reject everything that occurred under empire. These were people’s lives—these were people’s lived experiences—these were generations of people, centuries of culture, centuries of innovation and production and literature and art and philosophy and knowledge.
Now don’t go all Niall Ferguson on me. Just because you accept that the cultural remnants of British empire are not completely without value (depending, of course, on how they are executed—most new recreations of empire are inherently problematic, but we’re obviously not going to disavow The Jungle Book) does not mean you promote and defend the very idea of British empire, nor promote and defend its modern-day inheritors (for Ferguson, American empire). As Ferguson so astutely points out in Empire, British empire brought plenty of “good” things to the world: liberty, Common Law, Protestantism, the English language, and team sports. Where would we be without these things? We’d probably be fine. But at the same time we don’t know what we would be. That’s the unavoidable, tragic, true point. It happened. And it forever altered the trajectory of global history. And it gave us a past to be nostalgic about, willingly or not.
I feel like, regardless of how I try to rationalize it, my British imperial nostalgia will continue to be tempered by a guilt that will, ultimately, result in an extreme ambivalence. So I won’t be boycotting Elephant Bar just yet. Empire is problematic. But empire happened.
Subtitled: America must be especially beautiful to people from other countries, but does it mean the same thing to them? Also, what’s the true meaning of the roadside attraction?
Four years ago my friends and I went to see Neil Gaiman speak at a local high school. He was charming, funny, and erudite, as I expected him to be, and as he continues to be on Twitter (1.7 million followers! What!). He showed us a sneak preview of the film adaptation of his children’s novel Coraline (a totally enchanting movie if you haven’t seen it). He read from his newest children’s novel, The Graveyard Book. I bought a signed copy.
Neil Gaiman is British, but lives in Minnesota, of all places– not New York or Los Angeles, but Minnesota. To me, that means he must know, and maybe love, America, because Minnesota is too remote and not-Britain to be ambivalent about. It’s the American heartland forgoodnesssake. I’ve always found that interesting, and American Gods, I feel, gives me a little more insight into how that residential paradox works.
American Gods is kind of a slow burn of a novel. I actually bought it for my boyfriend, on one of my first trips to Borderlands in the Mission (a totally enchanting sci-fi/fantasy bookstore on Valencia if you haven’t been there), because I knew he’d been wanting to read it. He started it, never finished it, said nothing was happening. It’s true that most of the story feels like a preparation for some big event (a war between the gods, incidentally), but after you stop waiting for the war to start, I think you can appreciate the burning.
Our hero is named Shadow, and he’s just gotten out of prison. There’s something special about Shadow that, being inside his head most of the time, we never completely understand. He doesn’t talk much, he doesn’t moralize much, he’s good in a fight and he accepts jobs from strange, potentially sinister men that he’s just met. But we know, from the little choices he makes, that he’s a good person anyway.
Part of Shadow’s disconnectedness from the world is because of the years he spent in prison. Part of it is because, right after he is released, his wife is killed in a car accident along with his best friend, who she had been having an affair with. So he starts his post-prison life in a kind of vacuum. No connections, no home, nothing and no one to care or live for.
He falls into a weird work relationship with a man he meets on the plane home, an older, bearded gentleman by the name of Wednesday. At this point, if you know anything about Norse mythology, you know who the guy’s supposed to be. I mean, the name of the book has gods in it! But while we might know who Wednesday is, we don’t really know what he’s up to—just that it has to do with a war, a coming storm (oldest metaphor in the book, am I right?!? e.g. “there’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne”), that it’s taking place in America. Also, that it has to do with the gods of the Old World (including the Old New World) and the gods of the millennium (read: technology, drugs, tabloids, etc).
Add to this the fact that Shadow is being followed around by his dead wife, and the fact that the small town Wednesday stashes him in between jobs is hiding a dark child-abducting secret, and there’s enough to keep your reading interest even if the storm takes forever to come.
One of my favorite touches in the novel is the way Neil Gaiman makes subtle observations about the American landscape. It’s something I like to do too, when I’m on the road: observe all the little idiosyncrasies, from road signs to billboards to store windows to restaurant decorations. When I feel like I’ve seen something special, that couldn’t be anywhere else in the world, it’s like a little, private victory to add to my collection.
The epic nature of the mythological landscape feels special because it’s grounded in the real America. It feels like all of these places really exist, and that Neil Gaiman has probably been to them. It makes the book feel bigger than itself.
“They spent the night in a Super 8 motel south of La Crosse.” (234)
“They ate their Christmas lunch late in the afternoon in a hall-like family restaurant in northern central Wisconsin. Shadow picked cheerlessly at the dry turkey, jam-sweet red lumps of cranberry sauce, tough-as-wood roasted potatoes, and violently green canned beans… [The waitress] wore a bright red-and-green skirt edged with glittering silver tinsel.” (234)
“Main Street, which they were on, was a pretty street, even at night, and it looked old-fashioned in the best sense of the word—as if, for a hundred years, people had been caring for that street and they had not been in a hurry to lose anything they liked.” (252)
“In America everything goes on forever, said a voice in the back of his head. The 1950s lasted for a thousand years. You have all the time in the world.” (537)
On my road trip, I was everywhere looking for the real America. I thought I might find it in those same types of ephemera: signs, windows, décor. Nevada and southern Utah felt, in passing, like home—strip malls, gas stations, highways and Starbucks. And home for me isn’t special; it’s where I live, it’s home. I thought I found it, for a little bit, on Route 66 in Arizona. But I realized that to an extent, the tourist kitsch of Williams and Seligman were parodies of the real America, created in dialectic response to the expectations people have when they arrive. Looking at the droves of European tourists, I wondered if they could tell the difference. Of course, maybe all this time I’ve been living in the real America, and I’m the one who can’t tell the difference.
My other favorite thing that Neil Gaiman does in American Gods is meditate on the nature and power of belief. The “gods” that are featured in the story are less like big-G gods who control the winds and the oceans and the fates of men, and more like beliefs made manifest who strengthen and weaken with people’s changing faith in them. To that extent, it’s unclear if these “gods” retain the core essence and identity of the actual god, or if they’re more an image, a shadow, a representation. (A question I had after the book: if these Old World gods were brought over by immigrants to America, is there a different, similar copy that remains in the Old World?)
Ancient mythology is referenced and re-lived, as when Shadow agrees to hang from the tree of life—Yggsdrasil or its Virginian farmland equivalent– for nine days and nine nights, something Odin does in Norse myth. Meanwhile, the Egyptian god Anubis works at a mortuary and eats slices of organs from the bodies he embalms.
But even more interesting, to me, was the way American mythology was identified and lived. The gods Shadow runs with are stronger, able to puncture dimensional fields, only from locations of deep significance. In America, these are tourist traps in remote places, where people make pilgrimage every vacation season. Most prominently:
1) The House on the Rock near Spring Green, Wisconsin, is where Shadow first witnesses the supernatural powers of the gods he is accompanying. They walk the tree-lined, Victorian-themed Streets of Yesterday, purchase fortunes from a machine using branded House on the Rock coin tokens, and ride an antique carousel to the strains of a slightly off-key Strauss waltz, which transports them to a separate dimension where they hold their godly council.
2) The center of the United States near Lebanon, Kansas, is where the Old gods hold a ceasefire meeting with the New, because neither has much power there—it’s a place of “negative sacredness”. This point was determined to be the U.S.’s geographic center in early 20th century, though the plaque had to be erected a few miles from the exact spot because a farmer didn’t want it on his land. The monument and the park and the hotel were meant to attract tourists, but never really did. Thus, the lack of power.
3) Rock City near Chattanooga, Tennessee, is where the final showdown takes place. The gods do battle over this mountain lookout that also has animatronic attractions and a seven-state vantage point.
I really like Gaiman’s ideas: that people’s beliefs have power, that places have power, that whether it’s a totemic and totalizing religion like Christianity, or an unshakeable positivistic belief in science; whether it’s fairy tales or animism or origins stories; or whether it’s just a lifestyle, a set of behaviors, an absorption in modern technology; it all means something because it requires some kind of faith, and because we are always searching someway somehow for something transcendent.
“The paradigms were shifting. He could feel it. The old world, a world of infinite vastness and illimitable resources and future, was being confronted by something else—a web of energy, of opinions, of gulfs.
“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe. And then they will not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjurations. People populate the darkness; with ghosts, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe: and it is that belief, that rock-solid belief, that makes things happen.” (536)
Note: Rumors that this will be an HBO series as early as next year. Confirmation?
Let’s start this off: Yes, I watch America’s Next Top Model. It’s so entertaining. I love it. The format is concise, the pictures are easy to judge and alternately beautiful or terrible, and the girls are from all different backgrounds and their inevitable clashes make for awesome TV. Let’s just start off by buying into this basic premise, that I watch this ridiculous show.
Now we can continue. So this past season was marketed as “British Invasion,” meaning half of the contestants were from Britain (and had previously competed on Britain’s Next Top Model) and half were from America (and had never competed). On average I liked the British girls about 95% more than the Americans, and not just to be contrary but because they were honestly funnier and cuter and more interesting than the “Yanks,” but that’s neither here nor there.
Amidst all the manufactured competition between Britain and America, which included repeatedly dividing them into teams along national lines and having them wear flag-print lipstick (to really gross effect), there were a few much more interesting things going on that had less to do with nationality and more with race. Despite the fact that two white contestants ended up in the finale, the show had a fair representation of black contestants as well as one Native American (much-hyped as “the first in Top Model history” for the two episodes she lasted). But inevitably some questionable shit went down, some of which has been nagging at me, so I want to break it down for you into a Top 3 countdown.
3) Mariah as Pocahontas. The very first challenge involved all of the girls dressing up as a historic figure from their (two) respective countries. “Historic” was taken pretty liberally, as characters ranged from George Washington to John Lennon to Michelle Obama to Princess Di. For the most part, the girls’ roles traversed racial and gender lines, but guess who (token) Native American girl Mariah was assigned! No, really, guess. You’ll get it right.
POCAHONTAS. Obvi. So she’s there, jumping on a trampoline in fringe, doing her best model-y Pocahontas. It’s ridiculous, but it’s not the worst part. At the judging, her picture was a little lifeless, and the judges gave her an especially harsh critique and almost sent her home because (I’m paraphrasing) she should know how to do Pocahontas because she’s Native American. What this means (what a lot of modeling speak means!) I have no idea, and why little 18-year-old Mariah from Pendleton, Oregon doing a modeling competition in 2012 should be any better than any of the other girls at channeling a 17th-century Powhatan princess, while jumping on a trampoline, is completely lost on me. I’m pretty sure the judges had only ever met one Native American, and they’d also only ever heard of one other Native American, and so the two just kind of, you know, made sense together and must be, kind of, pretty much the same thing.
2) Analiese in bananas. Perky presenter-type Analiese from England makes it to the final three, the last black girl standing (as she herself points out), and along with fellow finalists Sophie and Laura (both white) is sent out on go-sees with designers around Hong Kong. One particularly zany designer whose name I forget, and who happens to be white (British? Australian?) has the girls walk in his costumes; and they really are costumes, in the sense that they’re theatrical and ridiculous. He takes one look at blond Sophie and says, “I’m seeing Marie Antoinette,” and gives her a giant 18th-century gown to wear and walk in. Later, Laura is dressed in a red-sequined dress that he likens to a disco ball.
What does Analiese get? Basically, a fuzzyish bikini to which dangly plush bananas are attached. She’s psyched, she loves it, she gives a great walk, he loves her, he thinks she’s great, he books her. All of this is fine, except, what? What the hell kind of costume is this? I don’t know if it was supposed to be Neanderthal, or native, or jungle set piece, but whatever it was, it was certainly a far cry from what the other girls were dressed in, and in the worst kind of way. I’m willing to bet that whatever this zany Anglo HK-based designer was “seeing” was rooted in some kind of unconscious sartorial-cum-historical/cultural-institutional racism.
1) Kyle as the girl next door. Finally, my favorite not-favorite moment. A Swedish guy who does branding advice for a living comes in to help the girls develop their individual “brands.” To see how audiences react to their brands (e.g. “regal,” “youthful,” “rock ‘n’ roll”), they are each assigned to do an informal 30-second commercial talking about some silly product. Then, they are surprised to find out their commercials are being shown to a focus group, and the girls, along with delightfully over-the-top gender-bending series staple Miss Jay, watch the focus group from another room.
A few of the girls clearly did a good job, including Alisha, one of my favorites, a dark-skinned long-legged girl from South London. A few clearly didn’t, including Kyle, one of my least favorites, a bland dark-blond girl from Texas, whose delivery was stiff and uncharismatic, though well-enunciated. But here’s what the (American, mostly-white) focus group had to say:
On Kyle: “Love her. She’s great. She’s got this great girl-next-door look.”
On Alisha: “I don’t like her, uh…. African accent.”
(Note: Alisha is from South London. She has a South London accent.)
After that last statement, there was visible, audible shock in the models’ room. Alisha’s jaw drops, and Miss Jay utters something in surprise, and no one seems to know what to say. The focus group then votes on their favorites, and one of the top three is Kyle. (Lest you think these focus folk are flat-out racists, they also chose Analiese for their top three, who as noted before is perky and cute and also has actual presenter experience.)
Later, tensions break out between the models. (This sentence is necessary in any Top Model recap.) Ebony and Alisha can’t help but point out that Kyle didn’t do that well, but was still chosen by the focus group. Race isn’t explicitly mentioned, but there is clearly resentment around this idea of who can be a “girl next door.” Kyle, feeling attacked, breaks down and cries and says she wants to go home. Yes, this is typically how Top Model fights go.
What Kyle doesn’t understand is that Ebony and Alisha had a point. While she didn’t do anything wrong, personally, she also didn’t do anything right that merited her advantage over those girls (or, at least, Alisha; Ebony’s commercial was pretty bad). That’s kind of how the P-word works (rhymes with “divilege”). Being a “girl-next-door”—and hence, automatically likable– is an available option only to certain girls. Unfortunately, that’s also kind of how branding and marketing work, so in a really sad way the focus group also had a point, depending what your ultimate goal is. To perpetuate the system or not to perpetuate the system?
Honorable Mention: Not a racist moment, but just a nice honest moment that I appreciated. The models are paired up with young girls who have been bullied, to work together on an anti-bullying PSA. Alisha’s little girl, who has tan skin and curly dark brown hair, says she doesn’t feel pretty, and Alisha asks, whyever not? The girl says her hair, her eyes, her skin are the wrong color. Alisha gets emotional, saying she has felt the same way, but never to let that get you down because you are beautiful. Empowerment, encouragement, etcetera. (Camera zooms in on tears like sharks to blood in the water.)
And I understood too, because there was a point in my childhood where I sincerely wished that I had white skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, because that’s what I thought beauty was. There are ethnic Barbies, but you always know what Barbie is supposed to look like. While it was never a deep-seated issue for me, it still came up, and it could definitely be addressed more often to help divorce our notions of beauty from ethnic chauvinism, for both girls and women. Though admittedly, if we want to start getting into our notions of beauty, there’s a lot more there that needs to be fixed, even right here on Top Model…but one thing at a time, right okay.
This was my first Jane Austen, my first official Jane Austen, though before you gasp in horror I would add that that I’ve watched lots of the movies (!). In particular, my mom watched the “Pride & Prejudice” miniseries starring Colin Firth as the Ultimate Mr. Darcy (didn’t he even play a Darcy-inspired character in Bridget Jones’s Diary named Darcy? what!) throughout my childhood so I feel like I’ve kinda known the world all my life.
I started with Sense & Sensibility because I thought it would be way too cliché to start with Pride & Prejudice, plus I already knew the P & P story. The entirety of my familiarity with S & S was catching the end of the Ang Lee film version on cable, once– so yes, I did know who ends up with who, but other than that, totally in the dark.
And I loved it, and I loved her writing, and I loved the way the story unfolded like a circa 2000 romantic comedy, albeit with less technology, more rigid social constraints, and a good deal more eloquence. It combines the silly desperation and empathic heartbreak of, say, “He’s Just Not That Into You,” with the utterly romantic setting of the early 19th-century lower upper class Austenian English countryside. I mean, really, throw a high collar and a pair of well-placed sideburns on a guy and his attractiveness exponentially increases, with an average attractiveness rate significantly higher than your average turn-of-the-millennium flannel-wearing rom-com romantic interest (Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, modern-day Colin Firth < James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Darcy-day Colin Firth. I blame this on the Darcy Complex, which modern Western-thinking women continue to inherit from their mothers.)
To see what I mean, look at these three photos. Tell me the third one doesn’t disappoint you a little bit.
For all its rommy commyness, though, Jane Austen wasn’t just writing some entertaining chick lit. Her books make commentary on class—usually the social boundaries that confine women of limited means and lower status than the men they wish to marry. There’s often some stuffy old woman looking down a wrinkled nose at our heroine (Lady Catherine in P & P, Mrs. Ferrars in S & S—speaking of, Ms. Austen was certainly a fan of the dual alliterative title!). The skill of her writing is undeniable, the unfolding of her marriage plot captivating to the very end. Her sympathetic characters are sympathetic, her villains alternately vain or cold-hearted or vacuous.
And the humor is subtle but much of it remains funny. Here’s the stylings of my favorite comedic duo from S & S, Mr. and Mrs. Palmer. Mr. Palmer’s last line here is my new favorite insult.
“How charming it will be,” said Charlotte, “when he is in Parliament! — won’t it? How I shall laugh! It will be so ridiculous to see all his letters directed to him with an M.P.– But do you know, he says, he will never frank for me? He declares he won’t. Don’t you, Mr. Palmer?”
Mr. Palmer took no notice of her.
“He cannot bear writing, you know,” she continued– “he says it is quite shocking.”
“No,” said he, “I never said any thing so irrational. Don’t palm all your abuses of language upon me.” (122)
Writing in the 19th century, by the way, was no joke. The conventions of the British style, with its strange phrases (“I’m monstrous tired”), run-on sentences kept alive by proliferations of commas, and over-the-top gentility in speech and letter-writing, are a constant source of amazement to me. Even Lucy Steele, described as “illiterate,” seems to write quite a letter, albeit one whose literary stylings Elinor looks down her own nose at (even the socially unfortunate heroine is guilty of the prejudices of class).
But the juiciest thing about it, for me, the thing that kept me turning pages, was the romantic comedy angle, bolstered by my empathy for the two main characters, Elinor and Marianne. If Sense & Sensibility were to be updated for 21st-century Hollywood—like Emma and Shakespeare have been before it*—it would absolutely have to involve Marianne texting—and it would go something like this.
*Emma = Clueless (1995). The Taming of the Shrew = 10 Things I Hate About You (1999).
MY SCRIPT PITCH: Sense & Sensibility & Sex & the City
The story concerns Elinor Dashwood, early 20s, interior designer, living in tony New York/L.A./San Francisco suburb of the Hamptons/Calabasas/Los Altos Hills with late teens sister Marianne (world literature major at Vassar/UCLA/Berkeley) and their completely uninteresting younger sister Margaret. They also live with an overdramatic comic-relief mother.
Cut out of their inheritance by their dolt half-brother John, an investment banker, and his terrible socialite wife Fanny, they downsize to a mission-style cottage guest house in the neighboring tony suburb of Chappaqua/Glendale/Palo Alto on the back part of retired record producer Sir John’s lot. He spends his time living off his royalties and throwing parties for rich neighbors and minor celebrities.
Sir John and his vapid legal-assistant-turned-stay-at-home-mom wife Middie constantly invite the Dashwoods to their parties, where Middie spends her time fawning over her bratty kids as they throw around their high-concept sustainable wooden toys. They meet Colonel Brandon, a rich bachelor venture capitalist, and the Steeles, two dumb sisters who went to public school and basically write in Tweetspeak.
Marianne starts dating a grad school dropout named Willoughby who she met at the gym. Meanwhile, Elinor can’t figure out what’s going on between her and her good friend Edward, a trust fund baby who spends all his time trying to find himself. They keep meeting for coffee. Are they dating or what??
Willoughby and Marianne go on “break” when he moves to the city, for an internship he says. She feels like they’ll get back together when he’s done; sort of an unspoken agreement that only Marianne knows about.
THEN, Sir John’s good-natured but silly mother-in-law invites the sisters to stay at her penthouse apartment in Manhattan/Beverly Hills/Pacific Heights over the holidays. Excited to finally be in the city, Marianne texts Willoughby nonstop, asking to see him, but gets no reply. Later, when she spots him at a club downtown with another girl, she’s heartbroken and shuts herself in her room with chocolate ice cream and soap operas for two weeks.
Meanwhile, Elinor finds out that Edward is NOT single; that he has been dating Lucy Steele, who is clearly his intellectual inferior and doesn’t even like the same books he and Elinor like, so what on earth do they talk about?? But Elinor just says she’s happy for him and cries alone in her car to a Phil Collins soundtrack. It isn’t until later that she finds out Edward was only dating Lucy because of a bet he made in high school with his football jock friend over whether he could turn her into prom queen. Or something. They break up.
Lucy ends up dating Edward’s self-absorbed younger brother (he hasn’t been cut off by his mother, unlike Edward, so he’s got the dough. Plus he’s in a rock band). And Edward finally tells Elinor he was into her the entire time! They kiss. Then run holding hands through Times Square/Santa Monica Pier/the Golden Gate Bridge.
SUBPLOT: Marianne thought Colonel Brandon was old (“he remembers the ‘80s!”) and boring until he kept showing up places and doing super nice stuff for them. When Willoughby turns out to be a total jerk, she slowly starts to see Brandon in a new light. (Camera catches long gazes from across crowded rooms where gaze-ee is speaking smilingly with friends in slightly slow motion and warm acoustic guitar music plays.) Then, super nicest of all, Brandon gives Edward a half a million to fund his start-up idea, which, after being cut out of his trust fund by his terrible mother, gives Edward enough to move in with Elinor in a humble one-bedroom in Brooklyn/West Hollywood/Berkeley. And helps him find himself. Last scene, Marianne finally agrees to go on a date with Brandon.*
*Note: Make sure to cast actors in which the age difference isn’t too creepy. 17 and 35 wouldn’t quite cut it in today’s world. Although, actually, 18 and 36 would and has (see: Sleepy Hollow, Once). Hrm.
Oh wait I forgot I’m not actually making a romantic comedy.