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“Ree nearly fell but would not let it happen in front of the law.”

[from the stabenow.com vaults, February 28, 2011]

I’m sorry Winter’s Bone didn’t take home any Oscars last night. It is a wonderful film.

The book the film was adapted from, Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell, is equally wonderful.

Ree Dolly’s father is due for a court hearing and he has signed over the family home as bond. Now he’s missing, and the cops tell his sixteen-year old daughter that their home is forfeit if he doesn’t show. Ree, sole support and care-giver of a mother who has slipped her leash on sanity and her two young brothers, sets out to find him among the meth dealers of the backwoods Ozarks. Every man and woman’s – and even the weather’s – hand is against her.

The characters live and breathe, as does the landscape, and the plot is only a cliche because it has worked every single time since Snidely Whiplash evicted Pauline. What moves me most is the language. Here are some samples.

When Ree first hears that Jessup has signed over her home against his court appearance:

Ree nearly fell but would not let it happen in front of the law. She heard thunder clapping between her ears and Beelzebub scratchin’ a fiddle. The boys and her and Mom would be dogs in the fields without this house. They would be dogs in the fields with Beelzebub scratchin’ out tunes and the boys’d have a hard hard shove toward unrelenting meanness and the roasting shed and she’d be stuck alongside them ’til steel door clanged shut and the flames rose. She’d never get away from her family as planned, off to the U.S. Army, where you got to travel with a gun and they made everybody help keep things clean. She’d never have only her own concerns to tote. She’d never have her own concerns.

There’s the stakes, in virtually biblical language, right there on page 15. Later, when we find out more about Ree’s mom, Woodrell writes of a woman we can only pity, never condemn:

Love and hate hold hands always so it made natural sense that they’d get confused by upset married folk in the wee hours once in a while and a nosebleed or a bruised breast might result. But it just seemed proof that a great foulness was afoot in the world when a no-strings roll in the hay with a stranger led to chipped teeth or cigarette burns on the wrist.

When Ree tells how Dollys are named, it sounds right out of Native culture in western Alaska, only a lot less hopeful and a lot more ominous:

…the great name of the Dollys was Milton, and at least two dozen Miltons moved about in Ree’s world. If you named a son Milton it was a decision that attempted to chart the life he’d live before he even stepped into it, for among Dollys the name carried expectations and history. Some names could rise to walk many paths in many directions, but Jessups, Arthurs, Haslams and Miltons were born to walk only the beaten Dolly path to the shadowed place, live and die in keeping with those bloodline customs fiercest held.

There is prose of that quality on every page of this lyrical little gem of a novel, and sixteen-year old Ree is one of the strongest and most admirable heroines I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. You should meet her, too.

Women Rejecting Marriage Proposals In Western Art History

From The Toast. Below are a few samples but you should definitely follow the link back to their original post for a belly laugh or two. Especially for the red tights guy.

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So, you’re a Chicago hit man…

GangsterlandGangsterland by Tod Goldberg

So, you’re a Chicago hit man and you have to shoot your way out of a situation that leaves multiple government employees dead. You think you’re going to be taken out by your boss because of this mess you made, and instead, he ships you to Las Vegas and a change of profession. As in…a rabbi.

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Star Wars vs. Avatar

[from the stabenow.com vaults, July 10, 2011]


Big conversation yesterday at knitting about Star Wars vs. Avatar. (Talking about the first Star Wars film, here.)

My main objection to Avatar is that there isn’t one quotable line in the whole shebang.

In a film speculated to have cost anywhere from $230 million (The New Yorker) to nearly $500 million (The New York Times), it seems like spending a couple of million on a decent writer wouldn’t have been a bad idea. Avatar is beautiful to look at, the new film tech is spectacular, it is unquestionably a game changer, definitely a, um, Star Wars moment in film history, but there is isn’t a single line in it to compare with

Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

or

Aren’t you a little short for a storm trooper?

or, hell, even

May the Force be with you.

Don’t get me wrong, I will forever revere James Cameron for Aliens

and Terminator 2

the sources of many great lines, like

They can bill me.

and

Anybody not wearing 2 million sunblock is gonna have a real bad day.

but there is nothing remotely approaching this caliber of dialogue in Avatar. Although at knitting yesterday Marian did remind me there was one memorable word.

Unobtanium.

Obvious, much?

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A Painting, A Lunar Module, and A Swamp

Today it’s the stories of a painting, a lunar module, and a swamp.

madamex1The first book is called Strapless by Deborah Davis. You’ve all seen the painting whether you know it or not, a voluptuous redhead in a black dress with a plunging neckline. It was Paris, where else, in the 1880s, the time known as La Belle Epoque, the beautiful era, a period of peace and prosperity in Western Europe, and a flourishing time for the arts. In Paris there dwelt two ex-patriate Americans, a young wife determined to use her beauty to become a leader of Parisian society, and a young painter determined to use her beauty to make his name in his profession.

She was Amelie Gautreau, he was John Singer Sargent, and the painting was “The Portrait of Madame X.” Displayed for the first time at the Paris Exhibition in 1884, it so scandalized Parisian society that it almost ruined him. It did ruin her.

Strapless is not only the story of a portrait, though, it is itself a portrait of a time and a place and the people who lived there. Opening the book is like stepping into a time machine. The portrait, which Singer had to buy back from the outraged husband, sat in Singer’s studio for thirty years, and now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. After reading this book, I had to go see it again.

apollo13Chariots for Apollo by Charles Pelligrino and Joshua Stoff is the story of the making of the lunar module, that section of the Apollo spaceship that landed on the moon, and it’s one of the best books ever written about the Apollo program. It begins with a brief history of man’s journey into space which includes social commentary, as in this passage on students in New York being instructed in nuclear holocaust avoidance: “…duck and cover…duck and cover…Who is laughing over there? Be quiet?…We must always remember that: no laughing during a nuclear holocaust…There, on the floor, at age eight, many children were beginning the believe that grown-ups were a little bit nuts. In a few years they would begin to say as much.”

The pride of the engineers who built the ten lunar modules shines through on every page, and their pride is fully justified when the ill-fated mission of Apollo 13 cannibalizes the lunar module to get home. Written with insider knowledge and wry humor, Chariots for Apollo also offers up life lessons like, “Never, never tap a fully loaded rocket with a screwdriver.” In 1960, sixty rocket scientists died in Russia when someone did.

evergladesThe Swamp by Michael Grunwald is a history of how first we dried out the Everglades and are now desperately trying to wet it down again to a reasonable facsimile of its former self. Grunwald has a gift for simile (“It had the panoramic sweep of a desert, except flooded, or a tundra, except melted, or a wheat field, except wild.”) and a good reporter’s nose for the political boondoggling, pork bellying and backroom dealing that form the Everglades’ prime crops, including what really happened in Florida in the 2000 election. Grunwald is an advocate for restoration, no doubt, but his eye is clear, his pen is sharp and he takes no prisoners. He’s not very nice to the Army Corps of Engineers, either, which, since I’m from Seldovia, makes me like him all the more.