Archive | September, 2013

Movie Review: Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives

29 Sep

uncle boonmee


Uncle Boonmee has the reputation of a difficult film, but I did not really find it all that difficult at all–yes, it requires adjustment to watch, but no more than a sort of intellectual equivalent to adjusting to a dark room or 3d glasses.   A common complaint on the net is how slow the movie is, but that’s part of it–it’s like complaining that a Thanksgiving dinner is not as easy as ordering at Mcdonalds.

Uncle Boonmee is not a linear narrative, but it’s a narrative none-the-less, where Boonmee’s family joins him on his honey farm as he dies of kidney disease.   The closer he gets to death the more fantastic the story gets, blurring the lines between mundane and visionary.   In fact, the great theme of this movie is how the boundaries of all things are not clearly defined in reality.  It’s the human mind that makes distinctions between every day life and revelation.    So the slow progression which has ghosts and ape people show up and interact quite normally is more bizarre to our western minds than someone acting surprised and screaming or something.

This film does not have the camera being our “eyes” which is the way we are used to watching films.  Rather the film is meant to act as our mind, mimicking the action of thought itself, so of course ghosts show up, a story of a princess and a fish intrudes, one person is doing two opposite things at the same time.   While showing the lack of boundaries in the world, this film is showing us also how fallible the human mind is.   We cannot even begin to conceive half the things around us, yet we still label them as ordinary.

The last act of the movie is like a jolt, for after witnessing this death, we go back into the city which is filled with sights and sounds and noise, while also seeming a little sterile after all the nature imagery at the farm.   Nature here is threatening to people–even as they are part of nature, you see Jen (Boonmee’s sister-in-law) step on bugs quite deliberately, and the jungle at night filled with glowing eyes.   Nature is threatening because it’s a place of transformation, and humans are hardwired to want things to stay the same.   So the city is a blinking, skittering, land of distraction even as the spaces become less and less organic.

The movie leads to a bunch of questions which it refuses to answer–this is why some audiences get frustrated with this film.    As Uncle Boonmee recedes into nature, even with his fears of being forgotten, the movie does not say whether this is a tragedy or not.   Perhaps it’s a silly fear, because everybody and everything will be forgotten eventually.

What I must mention is how beautifully shot this film is.  There’s whole stretches where image after image just is so rich and beautiful, a huge feat for a movie that had no CGI.

I highly recommend this film, for those with an open mind.   If you’re looking for a popcorn flick this one is not for you.  If you’re looking for a thoughtful piece of art, you will be in for a treat.

Presidential Review: James Garfield

28 Sep

james garfield


Garfield is our second assassinated president, who died of gunshot wounds just 200 days after election.   There’s almost nothing to say about his accomplishments, because much of his presidency he was incapacitated.   Because of this, I’m not really going to look at his presidential legacy.  I do have an interesting question however–our country has had 4 assassinations in our history, two (Kennedy and Lincoln) have become huge American stories that nearly everyone knows and the other two (McKinley and Garfield) remaining obscure.   Why is that?   I’m going through the reasons why Garfield’s story has ended up in our history’s back pages.

1)   Garfield didn’t have time to endear himself to Americans.    Lincoln and Kennedy have very strong personalities that everybody knows.   Lincoln is noble and sad; Kennedy is young and glamorous.   While any president dying is a shame, Lincoln and Kennedy’s deaths have a ring of tragedy to them–both of these men were at the peak of their powers at the time of their deaths while Garfield hadn’t done anything but get himself elected.   Also, both Lincoln and Kennedy have big historic speeches and iconic imagery that precedes them, Garfield does not, in fact it’s very hard to find very many pictures of the man other than pretty simple portraits.

2)   Garfield doesn’t represent anything.   Lincoln and Kennedy both have a bunch of ideas that they represent.  Lincoln is connected to our ideas of freedom and equality, while Kennedy is of the innocence of a bygone age.   Also, people mark both deaths as the end of an era.   Garfield, however, doesn’t connect so well with any particular issue or feeling.  His campaign focused on the gold standard (hardly an emotional subject) and civil service reform.   He believed in racial equality, but considering the track record of other politicians of his era, you can’t really say he would have done anything on that topic at all.   He did have a long political record before his presidency which reveals him to be an average politician of his times–a bit more honest than most perhaps, but not strikingly so.

3)  Garfield’s Assassination was less dramatic.   Lincoln and Kennedy were both killed in public.  The first in a theatre, the second on a filmed motorcade.   Garfield was shot in the back at close range in a train station waiting room.   In fact, Guiteau–the assassin almost got away before the crowd knew what was going on.  Also while Lincoln and Kennedy died instantly, Garfield held on for months.    Guiteau peacefully went to jail, the court case being held until Garfield either recovered or died.   

4)  Garfield’s Assassination was not politically motivated.   Well, not in the sense of being connected to any social issue.   Guiteau was insane and thought he had earned a place in Garfield’s cabinet.    (He literally thought he had gotten Garfield elected even all he did was print out a speech in Garfield’s favor and handed them around, roughly equivalent to an ordinary person writing in favor of a nominee on their blog.)   After being refused, he killed the president.   He also said that God told him to kill the president.    

5) Garfield’s assassination has no mystery.  Lincoln and Kennedy’s assassins both died before coming to trial.   Guiteau not only lived but had a well publicized trial which showed him to be quite clearly insane, and also seeking notoriety.  Guiteau made little secret of his intentions before the assassination, sending letters to the white house, renting a cab to take him to jail afterwards, and taking a tour of the jailhouse to see where he would be staying days before the assassination.  He even chose to buy a pistol with ivory handles because they “would look better” in a museum.   There didn’t need to be any investigation to figure out who did it.    It says a lot that conspiracy theorists will look at Zackary Taylor’s death of illness before going to Garfield.

6)  Garfield’s assassination is marked by bumbling on almost all levels.   Garfield was shot just 14 years after Lincoln, so the idea of an assassination happening wasn’t unthinkable.     Guiteau had made multiple threats to many political figures.  His family was actively trying to get him locked up for insanity.   He let everybody around him know of his intentions, wrote letters ahead of time particularly one to General Sherman asking for protection from the mobs after the assassination.   He even stalked Garfield on at least one other occasion, but chose not to kill him because his wife was upset.   After Guiteau shot Garfield, he was apprehended by police who forgot to take away the gun away from him.   Beyond that, many historians think that Garfield could have survived the shooting if it hadn’t been for the doctors treating him.   They used no sterilization techniques in inspecting the wound, and went searching for the bullet where it wasn’t opening a second wound.   Alexander Graham Bell came in with a metal detector, however it didn’t work because it detected the metal springs in the bed.   In fact, Garfield was recovering up until the doctors started caring for him, and died of infection months later.     Such incompetence does not make for an inspiring story.

7)  Guiteau’s Trial was a circus.   If you think media firestorms over some trial is a new thing, Guiteau’s trial was all that and more.   Charles Guiteau got plenty of time to say his side of the story, and made it as attention seeking as possible, reciting poetry from the stand, sending out advertisements for a wife, fighting with his own lawyers, and generally ranting and raving.   Even at his execution Guiteau read a poem “Going to the Lordy” and performed a cakewalk.    The mood surrounding this was less of grief and more of hatred and morbid fascination.   Guiteau even published a book.    Guiteau seemed to get off on all this attention, and as the trial drew out his actions became bigger and more theatrical.   He wrote a play that had prominent members of politics and members of the trial and jury get sent to hell by God.    Because Guiteau was looking for fame, the tale tellers and movie makers are a bit hesitant to use this material, because it seems to be doing what he wanted (he had things saved for posterity for later, to be shown in museums and such.)  At the end, you get the impression reading all the documentation that Guiteau would have shot somebody, and this somebody just happened to be the president.

So there’s Garfield.  Of all our presidents, I can say he had the most painful death, slow with fevers, unable to take food, covered with abscesses.   The whole thing is just a touch too morbid and disturbing.    Next up:  Chester Arthur–the milquetoast president.

Pop Culture Friday–The Longest Ride with Royal Prisoners

27 Sep

1.   Lorde, “Royals.”:   Finally, a song that is about not wanting to be rich and famous and whatnot on the pop charts.   I don’t look at the charts for finding what I feel normally, they’re simply not catering to my demographic (though I don’t know exactly what my demographic would be, so good luck to the business world on that one).     I do know that there’s many who do not go for pop music for this very reason, it’s so often juvenile in the sense that the fantasy is all about having stuff.   Having stuff doesn’t make you happy, it’s all a mirage.  Interestingly, this song doesn’t go for the other extreme either–she’s not bragging about being ordinary, she just is able to be content to be ordinary, to be special to one person and that is all.   Lorde is not American, but she is responding to American music, and I find it fascinating that this song is on the same charts that have songs like Roar and Applause both of which are subtler materialistic anthems.  (But Roar is about finding your voice, you might say–the amount of product placement in the video alone will tell you it’s not.)   The minimal production really underscores the simplicity Lorde wants.

2.  Prisoners—Hooo, after all the stupid summer movies this one comes on like a smack to the face.   A grisly story about child abduction, an immensely complex plot (that I would have to understand better before being able to spoil), this movie sort of turns on its head the suburban horror thriller movie that comes up so often.   What is clear is the theme of being run by the monsters of this world will eventually turn you into one too.  While the exploration of this theme is a bit over-complicated and over-the-top, I appreciate this idea being out there.    I know that losing a child is the worst thing a person can have happen to them, but, letting the emotions of such a tragedy lead to violence, however justified, only locks you in your own hell in the end.   It’s terrible Karma, especially when people start jumping to conclusions and harm innocent people.

3.   Nicholas Sparks–The Longest Ride—The one true disappointment on this list.  Call this book the Notebook 2 and you wouldn’t be far off.  Yes the plot is a different excuse to patch together someone’s life (a 90 year old in a car crash) but at the same time it’s oh so much the same.   My problem with it is that it’s so mediocre and predictable, but people who love Sparks love this because it’s exactly what you’d expect.   I also find his stories to be a little manipulative, candying over difficulty in favor of sentiment.   I simply don’t find these works to be all that honest.   However, this is from someone who is not a Sparks fan at all, so I can’t say I’m the best one to check on for this one.

Well, America, you’ve really outdone yourself this time!   Even the Sparks book is somewhat inevitable, and I do admit there’s a certain fuzzy feelingness that some people are attracted to.  Maybe they read it after watching Prisoners–one time where I can see this security blanket of a book being really necessary.

Poetry Review: “The Warning” by Robert Creeley

23 Sep

Imagine, if you will, that you’re in some bar and a woman (or man or whatever your flavor is) attracts you hard.  I mean she is the stuff.  And though she’s gorgeous, it’s not just her looks, but she actually has personality and humor and everything you want.  It takes you a while to approach her, but when you finally do, you tell her:

“For love–I would/split open your head and put/ a candle in/behind the eyes.”

What you’d get as a reaction would not be swoony, but more of an ugh and probably a drink in your face.   This poem by Robert Creeley is deeply creepy.    This first seems more like a mass murderer’s expression of love if taken literally, but even as a metaphor–he’s basically saying that he will make her head into a lantern–a decorative object to have around the house.    For love, he would take this head and make it into a piece of grotesque art.   Also, there’s a distortion of the idea of getting into her head, and lighting up her eyes that would be romantic if not taken to such extremes.

“Love is dead in us/if we forget/the virtues of an amulet/and quick surprise.”

This second line is less grotesque and more puzzling.  Love is dead in us–well that carries over from the last stanza, but the two things that kill love is forgetting the virtues of an amulet and quick surprise.  The amulet could either be riches or talismanic protection.   Quick surprise?  I mean I’ve heard that love requires changes now and then to keep things from being dull, but the first line is beyond quick surprise and more like shock.  Also is the head at the beginning the amulet he’s talking about?

What’s interesting is that this reads like a couplet, exactly the sort of love message that would end a Shakespearean sonnet, but without all the other lines to give us some background.   Clearly this is written by someone who either doesn’t understand love, or understands it all too well–because he’s giving a fun house mirror version of the love platitudes we hear every day.   In western culture love is almost always universally praised as a beneficial thing, where there is only goodness and nothing else.   Creeley is showing how these same attitudes can be destructive, that love isn’t always a safe game.   Love can involve an idea of ownership, of inflicting harm, of obsession, and yes, you might say if you have those things you don’t have love, but if you listen to the top 40 and consider how deeply creepy the songs would be if they were actually expressed to someone on a personal level, you get the message.

The warning here too is that love creates monsters.  Love will not always bring out the best sides of people.  Love can harm.  Now I’m not saying that this will always happen, but love brings out risk, because you aren’t seeing with clear eyes and your feelings  are all irrational.  What will happen when the stars go out in your eyes and you see the other as they actually are.  Will you then want to cut off their head?  It happens.

Pop Culture: Lady Gaga, “Applause”

22 Sep



Ok, so I just did Katy Perry, and I have to follow-up with Lady Gaga’s single which came out at the same time.   Hell, I should have started with this one because love it or loathe it, Lady Gaga’s single is far more interesting than Katy Perry’s bland Chicken Soup from the Soul lyrics.

Now I’m not a diehard Lady Gaga fan, but I really like her because she managed to make something interesting out of pop culture at a time where it was a teenage wasteland.    She also doesn’t cater to teenagers or frat boys.   On top of that she really knows how to use internet culture better than just about anybody in the entertainment industry.   Also, your tolerance for Lady Gaga depends on how self-aware you think she is.  I think she’s incredibly self-aware, but if you think she’s some pop star who just gets off by acting weird, you’ll find her irritating in a hurry.

People complain that she’s pretentious and narcissistic, and I respond with that by saying, of course she is.  It’s not as if she’s been hiding these facets of herself, in fact she’s putting them right in center stage in “applause” sort of to get it out of the way.  (For heaven’s sake, she emerges from a magic hat with a peacock tail.)  She’s pretentious and narcissistic because she’s human, and most humans have aspects of this other than saints and masochists.  When healthily directed these things can create good art, and that’s what she’s encouraging.  She’s speaking to the inner drama geek that lives inside us, not the inner drama queen.

Also, I question the narcissism when seeing the video.  The applause here isn’t exactly comfortable.  We see people mechanically clapping, we see Lady Gaga in a cage in rags, alone on a mattress shaking like a junkie, with her head on a bird, holding a giant bouquet that’s about to crush her while dragging her leg behind her, her grabbing onto the edge of a stage to hang on rather than be blown away…in fact I think this video shows how difficult to remain artistically credible with an audience while keeping yourself together.  (The abundance of celebrity meltdowns would attest to this.)

Also what she’s going for is a Warholesque show for those who feel alienated by pop culture where she is the art.   I think she succeeds–this song has more energy than anything I have heard in months and also it doesn’t sound like a bunch of processed product.  She’s not interested in trying to talk to those who aren’t already predisposed to listen, and she makes people to go to her space to appreciate her.   Also, need I mention how hard this woman works?  This video is her trying to make something significant, not sell hamburgers.  She certainly isn’t going to allow you to feel comfortable, maybe that’s why she has so many haters, while roar panders to what audiences want to hear, Lady Gaga–no.  She won’t do that.   She respects you too much to do that, and respects herself too much too.

I’m actually thrilled she’s back, even though the song sounds very gaga-esque, it sounds like a blast of fresh air, it’s fun.   I’d better go before I morph into a fanboy.

Pop Culture–Katy Perry, “Roar”

21 Sep

katy perry


I don’t understand Katy Perry.   Ok, well I understand what she’s doing, but I don’t understand why she’s so big.   I looked at her website and it seems like tween girls are the ones who follow her, which makes sense…I guess….?   The biggest thing about her music is how banal it is.    Also, have you noticed that she’s slowly morphing into a boobier version of Courtney Cox?

So this song is trying really hard to be a “you-go-girl” anthem, with the singer once being held down by “you” but now she’s going to “ROAR.”    The lyrics are filled with every cliche imaginable: she’s got the “eye of the tiger” she “is the champion” “she stood for nothing, so she fell for everything.”  It’s sort of like an empowerment song written with the mentality of a thirteen year old cheerleader.   Now I’m not looking at this as art, because though I think Katy Perry is talented I don’t consider this song crafted for any expressive purpose.  It is product, pure and simple, and what I find interesting is what it’s trying to do.

One thing I notice is how many songs by female artists catering themselves to teenage girls is how prevalent the break-up song is.   If you think about it, why would a grown woman like Katy Perry be in a relationship in the first place that “held her down.”   Why would two adults be involved in a relationship where one had to be held down?   The truth is that this song is not about romantic relationships at all.

Roar is catering to the Twilight crowd.  Tweens don’t primarily feel held down by their pre-romantic relationships.  They feel held down by their parents.  So we’re into adolescent fantasy.   “You used to hold me down, tell me what to do, but now I’m going to have my own voice and do what I want.”   The video underlines this because what does Katy Perry do after she moves to the jungle with this new power?  She paints elephant’s toenails, she makes a flower skirt, she makes the island into a big giant multi-species sleepover.

The other group that gets into twilight is middle-aged women, and this has to do with mid-life crisis stuff.   Not much is said about mid-life crises for women, we’re accustomed to the male cliche centered around getting stupid cars and being around bimbos.  It’s amazing how similar it is for women–after spending half their life doing things for other people (their family), suddenly they’re left with adult children, and they go back to an adolescent place emotionally.   Not because they feel the same as they did with their parents, but because it’s the last time they really thought about themselves.   It’s  a starting point for growth.   I also think that middle aged adults reach for that adolescent mindset because it seems so much simpler than the complexities of being a middle-aged–they both have to do with finding direction, and that’s one of the hardest parts of being human.

That being said, Roar really plays to the broadest, most generic, least threatening aspect of this sort of thinking.  This is not a song that someone will really inspire someone into  being strong and changing the world.  This is a song that inspires adults into having a spa day or buying a new pair of shoes because “you deserve it.”   So while I don’t think it’s message is bad, I don’t think it’s one that  goes any deeper than a makeup commercial.  (How much do you want to bet that there will be a Clairol commercial that will say something like “release your inner roar.”)

Art Review–Q Confucius by Zheng Huan

18 Sep



It’s hard to tell in this image, but this sculpture of Confucius is way bigger than a human being, demanding the viewer to look up and be shrunk in comparison.    There’s something of this image that strikes me–partially because of his benign expression,   he truly comes off as Buddah-like.    Also all of the trappings that would have marked him from a bygone era are stripped away making him look almost shockingly modern.  He really wouldn’t look out of place in modern society.

The sculpture really creates a sense of humility and joy just by being in its presence–a great benevolent personality looking at us like we are mildly amusing, but also gently.   And oh how human he looks, you can see the creases of his ears and his flesh seems palpable.   It’s a far cry from the stone images of religious figures we normally get.

What’s brilliant here is that Confucius becomes his own symbol–he was never about reaching Nirvana, or getting beyond life–he was about a well ordered society and a well ordered life, nothing more.   Such simple ambition was/is revolutionary–it’s what allowed such a massive country as China to be able to function as a society and a culture.

And then there’s the ambiguity–is he bathing, or is he sinking?   He seems to be at rest, but the water-line is a little to high, we do not see his arms–is he stuck?  And following this frame of thinking, how do old traditions fit into the modern world?  Are we so full of pride that we think that beliefs that have existed for thousands of years through endless cycles of change are suddenly defunct just because we have computers and cars and advertising?  Are these common things enough to unwind Confucius’s common-sense wisdom.

Perhaps this is why Confucius is smiling.  He knows better than that.  Yes the trappings of life may have changed, but humans are essentially the same as they always were, and the ways for a stable life have not altered one iota.

Poetry Reading: Sharon Olds “I Could Not Tell”

16 Sep

I’ve always liked Sharon Olds.  Well I never knew Sharon Olds, but I always liked her poetry.  She’s the first poet I read as a young adult where I said “Yes, this is what poetry is right now.”  Before her, I had mostly studied the famous old poets, and while they certainly have their pleasures, one of them isn’t hearing someone from your own time speaking directly to you.

I could not tell I had jumped off that bus,
that bus in motion, with my child in my arms,
because I did not know it. I believed my own story: 
I had fallen, or the bus had started up
when I had one foot in the air.

We start with ambiguity.   By “I could not tell” did she mean that she didn’t know, or she could  not say?   Isn’t it funny that the same three words can mean such entirely different things with no change in them at all.    She goes between both meanings–she could not tell because she didn’t know it, but she also could not tell because she believed her own story—that it was an accident.    What we have here is a mother who is going back to a scary event–a close shave–that frightened her.   We have the sort of self talk that would happen after a woman stepped out of a moving bus.

I would not remember the tightening of my jaw, 
the irk that I’d missed my stop, the step out 
into the air, the clear child
gazing about her in the air as I plunged
to one knee on the street, scraped it, twisted it, 
the bus skidding to a stop, the driver
jumping out, my daughter laughing
Do it again.

We have all the things she would not remember–again, would not remember could mean that she will have no memory, or that she would not choose to remember.   In fact, it seems like she finds it hard to forget–a moment that is incredibly clear in her memory.   There is an incredible amount of guilt here, yet this a universal sort of guilt–of getting distracted and almost courting disaster.   Yes, she got hurt.

I have never done it 
again, I have been very careful.
I have kept an eye on that nice young mother
who lightly leapt
off the moving vehicle
onto the stopped street, her life
in her hands, her life’s life in her hands. 

I have never done it—yes she goes on to say…again, but it’s a distancing mechanism.   She watches herself like she’s another person, one who will possibly do destructive things if not kept an eye on.

There’s two things that become abundantly clear.  Having children changes things–it makes a person responsible for things that are not in their control.   I have the sense that if she didn’t have her daughter with her, she would have felt this scenario extremely differently–that she came close to hurting the most precious thing in her life, that’s what causes this reaction.

Also, it’s a metaphor–I don’t know if it’s a warning exactly, but it’s about those moments that we are not paying attention, that if something as precious as your child or a loved one gets hurt because of that inattention, the guilt will well up, and you’ll feel as bad as if you had lept out of the bus on purpose.   It really messes with the head.   And while loving your child that much is a good thing, at the same time it’s something of a burden.   The other thing that strikes me is the complete ignorance of the child to the mother’s injury.  She does not understand it.  She does not understand the love either, for her it’s a given, as part of her environment as air.  It’s not a good or bad thing, it just is.

And perhaps this incident was the sort of thing that the speaker realized the strength of this connection.  Our feelings towards others are like sleeping watchdogs–completely unobtrusive until someone disturbs them, and then they come out barking.  And they certainly are more than capable of biting their  masters.  And that’s the other thing we cannot tell, we cannot tell when these things are going to happen, and we cannot tell them to others because words aren’t big enough to hold them.

Albums worth listening to: We Become Ourselves by Rebekka Karijord

14 Sep


I discovered Rebekkah Karijord when in a music slump, looking for something new that had that spark, that urgency.  Most popular music is rather bland at the moment, and I was weary of my old standbys.   So you can’t imagine how delighted I was when I ran across Karijord when I was just random browsing.

It’s incredibly difficult to make music that is positive without it coming across as flaky.  There’s a sort of cliched sort of  happiness that pops up in music from time to time, that as an expressive medium, doesn’t ring true.   So while I say her music is very optimistic, I don’t want you to think of music for housewives to pop pills to.

No.  Her music is therapeutic, the sound of healing.  It helps that her voice is siren-like, even crystalline with just enough soul to make her sound like a human and not inhuman.   The funny thing is though her voice is incredibly distinctive, she reminds me of great female artists–a little bit Joni Mitchell, a little bit Emmylou Harris, a little bit Kate Bush, a little bit Natalie Merchant–but she’s more than all these influences.

Her music rolls over like ocean waves, the background instrumentation ranging from spare to lush swells back to spare again.   Her lyrics parallel this, coming from a very deep place each rise and fall of emotion ever so gently counterpointing the melodies.   It comes across as speaking to a friend late into the night about deepest dreams, desires, and revelations.

“Long night walks.

Making out to bad old songs and endless calls

How I longed to figure you out.

We felt distance without knowing why.

If I ever have a son I’ll teach him it’s ok to cry.

In silence, let’s dance here for awhile and try to see the world with each others eyes.”

There’s an aching beauty here,  She is speaking through the whole album of our incredible desire to connect with others, how we so often fall short, and the lovely moments when we actually succeed.   In We Become Ourselves Karijord expresses our separation from others as being an externalization of our separation from ourselves, and the journey we all must take to become whole.

The album is immaculately constructed–starting with “Prayer’ and ending with “The Hope Muscle” if that gives you an idea of the sort of journey she intends.   In the middle we have “Ode to What Was Lost”   “Use My Body When it’s Still Young,” “Bandages,” and other songs indicating healing and growth.   This album is the calm after the storm, for those who have survived disaster.

“Use my words to make you feel safe.”  Karijord sings.   I can’t think of any album better suited for that use.

Book Review: Ross Poldark by Winston Graham

9 Sep



Hoo-Boy, I was in the mood for an intergenerational historical epic, and I got waaaaaaay more than I bargained for with Ross Poldark.   Honestly, it’s both terrible and terrific at the same time in a way I can’t quite define.

To give you some background, this series of books were started in the ’40’s by Winston Graham, the same man who would write the book for Marnie of all things.   So what this book was designed for was escapism right after WWII.  If you remember, London in particular was under near constant bombing through the war, and even right after the war there was a great deal of rebuilding to do.   Shortages still happened, and people needed stuff to distract them.

In a way, this book makes sense.  It’s set in a far away time, so there’s not a whiff of the current issues at hand, many of the characters are humorous, it’s very pro-England, while also being critical of social issues that were no longer issues.

Also the people live pretty terribly.  Maybe it was comforting to watch people dealing with desperate poverty, I don’t know, but other than the nobles, everyone is uniformly dirty, ignorant, and barely scraping to get by.   So in no way is this book nostalgic for the 1780s, never showing the world as glamorous at all.

So basically the historical pretext is that Ross Poldark is returning to Cornwall after serving some years in the American War of Independence.    It’s actually fascinating, as an American, to see things from the point of view of the other side.   England at the time, if this book is to be trusted, was in the middle of a sort of crisis of confidence, just like America had after Vietnam.

So Ross is disappointed to find that the woman he wanted to marry, Elizabeth, is going to marry his cousin.   So far, the common start to every historical romance ever made.   After this hoo-boy, the story just goes everywhere and nowhere.   The pacing is extremely odd–either staying completely still or racing ahead at a pace in such a herky-jerky way that it reminds me of a scratched DVD.

We’ve got four main plot threads.   First, we’ve got the opening-the-mine story which is by far the boringest.   It goes into excruciating detail on the funding, running, and growth of Poldark’s mine.  In fact the worst part of this book is even when something happens, instead of following up on it, we immediately have to go to Ross’s plans for a mine, or Ross raising money for the mine, or the status of the mine.  Don’t get me wrong, mining was very important to the area historically, but at the same time, it would be like reading Gone With the WInd and just after the burning of Atlanta, we have to go through the history and economics of cotton growing for 10 pages.    Heck, the mine isn’t even functional by the end of the book, and we still get to hear pages and pages about it.

The second story is more interesting–the Jim and Ginny Carter misery thread.   Jim is a miner who’s out of work because he’s got weak lungs.   Ginny is a pretty girl who’s being followed by a creeper.   Jim and Ginny get married, and then the creeper sneaks into their home and stabs Ginny and her newborn baby.  The creeper then jumps out of an upstairs window to his death.   Ginny and the baby survive, though Ginny is less happy than before.  Jim takes to poaching to feed his family.  He gets caught, and not only sentenced to two years of  hard labor, but also they find out that he is dying of tuberculosis.   From here, this story tapers off, with Jim in prison, Ginny now is the house maid, so that’s ok I guess.

Then we get into the Ross/Francis/Elizabeth love triangle.   The first half of the book is mainly about this, and it’s strictly romance novel stuff—Ross thought that he would marry Elizabeth, but Elizabeth is marrying his cousin Francis instead.   Ross had been gone so long that it was quite natural really.  So Ross and Francis get in a fight in a mine and strand themselves there over having a pissing match over Elizabeth.  Elizabeth tries to stay just good friends, but Ross pushes himself, so he gets banned.   They make up once Ross gets married, but at this point she pressures him to get Francis under control–as Francis is gambling and supposedly hanging out with other women.   At first this story is relatively uninteresting, but by the end, how Elizabeth turns out, a little cold, very unhappy, and finding only happiness in her child, shows that she’s a much different person than Ross initially imagined she was.  She’s also so dedicated to her child that she doesn’t sleep with her husband, intimating that this is tied up to the whole Francis roaming thing.   At first I was ready to damn Ross for not getting involved, but Elizabeth’s insistence does seem a bit pushy.  Also I’m reminded of the best advice my father ever gave me, which is don’t get involved in other people’s love lives–it only causes strain.

Finally, the best, and craziest bit, is Demelza.  Ross first meets Demelza when her dog (which is annoyingly cute) is being teased, Annie-style, in the city.  He takes her in, noticing that she’s abused by her drunken father.  Then he proceeds to strip her and hose her off in his backyard, and then we get pages of describing bug removal (ewwww).  Ok, so not only is this scene a bit creepy (why couldn’t he have had the lady servant do the washing), it’s kind of mean, Ross taking no mind to the girl’s nakedness and how she tries to cover herself up.   Despite this, Ross is entirely uninterested in Demelza–at first.   When she comes of age (thank god), Demelza realizes that her father intends to have her back home, so she seduces Ross while wearing his mother’s nightie.   (Yes, you heard that right).   Apparently he realized his desire at this point and they marry.

The main conflict from this point on is how Demelza will fit in with the elite since she’s come from the bottom.   She has a good deal worrying about dirty underpants.   Anyway, she goes to the Poldark’s ancestral home and is a raging success after singing a love ballad, a dirty shanty song, and getting in some drag-queen style conversation with the jealous ladies.  Also she’s pregnant and gets rousingly drunk.

Finally there’s one other small story, about Ross’s cousin Verity, who fell  in love with a sea captain, despite the fact that he threw his last wife down the stairs in a drunken rage and killed her.  Naturally, her father is against this.   Ross tries to plot around it–and it ends up in a big brawl and the Captain wanders off to lick his wounds.  Verity starts to fade.   Demelza who has grown fond of Verity starts plotting to get them together again with some of the craziest abuse-logic I have ever heard.

“I know Verity was not born to be an old maid, dryin’ up and shrivellin’  while she looks to someone else’s house an’ children. She’d rather take the risk of being wed to a man who couldn’t contain his liquor.”

Yep folks, it’s better to be married to a drunk killer than to be single.  It’s THAT BAD.   And while I can give Verity some credence, as she believes that the captain has reformed, what if he hasn’t.  According to Demelza that STILL would be better than being left alone.

And then there’s this gem:  “If you love someone, tesn’t a few bruises on the back that are going to count.  It’s whether that other one loves you in return.  If he do, then he can only hurt your body.  He can’t hurt your heart.”   This is wrong on so many levels I can’t even begin to fathom how to begin.   I know that Demelza came from an abusive home that she was so afraid of that she slept with her master instead of even chancing the return.  She also didn’t trust her father’s reformation, noting that he could go back to his old state at any time.   So how her experience informs her speech on this is beyond me.  Also, this sets her relationship with Ross (who is the “Daddy” in the relationship) in a thoroughly creepy light.  He doesn’t beat her–though he threatens to a couple of times, not very seriously–he is very much the man of the house who she has to ask permission for things and sneak behind his back if she deems it necessary.

Besides the pacing problems, the story has VERY stilted dialogue that doesn’t sound realistic at all,  the comedy bits are either cute or not very funny, and the view of the book on classes is rather opaque.  The book is clear that the poor should be treated better and is in favor of social movement.  However, it is not arguing that the division between the gentry and common folk should be any different than it is.  The poor should be husbanded better, that’s all.

Despite these issues, hell, because of these problems, this book is a surprisingly satisfying read (even if you’ll feel a little gross for it afterwards.)   I was shocked to get that post book zen state after finishing this because at the time I was mostly scratching my head and gawking at gender relations that are mercifully behind us.    If you want to read something good-bad I’d say give it a go, but I can’t go so far as to recommend it.