60 Books In 2019 # 6: If Beale Street Could Talk By James Baldwin

I wish I’d read more Baldwin in school. I always liked what I did read, and If Beale Street Could Talk is not an exception there, but I was craving a classroom roundtable and some discussion questions to guide me as I worked my way through it this week.

But alas, my dear readers, I have neither, I just have you, so let’s talk about If Beale Street Could Talk, Baldwin’s bittersweet story of young lovers divided by circumstance and injustice. Tish and Fonny have loved one another as long as they can remember, not long after they agree to get married, Fonny is arrested for a rape he didn’t commit and Tish realizes that she’s pregnant.

What follows is two families trying desperately to break a chain that goes back generations and believing, in the face of failure after failure that they will succeed.

The book is beautiful. It’s straightforward and stunning and lovely, and heartbreaking all at once. Told entirely from Tish’s perspective it moves through time and memory as she does, jumping back and forth between her days trying to free Fonny, and their times together leading up to his arrest, ending with the birth of the child, after learning that he may never be getting out.

Baldwin’s work is really layered, telling stories about family and the black community and (often) the queer black community (though that isn’t the case this time.) I’m excited to deep dive on him over the coming this year. Also, to go see Barry Jenkins’s film version of Beale Street this weekend. (Also probably The Favourite! It’s art movie time!)

Up next is Memnoch The Devil by Anne Rice, because I have missed Lestat. Have you guys missed Lestat? I bet you have! (The first sentence of this book is, “I am the Vampire Lestat, but you know that.” I love him so much.)

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Thank You, Jonathan Larson

One of my arbitrary rules for myself is that I don’t seek out Rent on purpose. This isn’t because I don’t like Rent, it’s because I love and obsess about Rent so completely that all other thoughts, interests and delights become moot.

Rent is perfect. Rent is a trashfire. Rent is a phenomenon. Rent is overrated. Rent was a revolution. Rent was a mainstream sanitizing of the queer experience by a straight white dude. The thing that’s infuriating, I think, to non Rent-heads, is that the show is all of these things at once. It’s a mess. But as was made abundantly clear if you were anywhere near social media Sunday night, Rent is our mess, and we’ve all got a lot to say about it.

For me, Rent: Live (which wound up being mostly the taped dress rehearsal due to Brennin Hunt breaking his foot the night before.) was just a reminder of something very visceral, this show tatooed itself on my heart when I was 15, and so I will love it forever. (Not without criticism. It isn’t Les Mis which I refuse to examine critically.) But there’s too much emotion tied into it for me to turn my back completely. There’s too many late night diner renditions of “La Vie Boheme,” with friends. (We were a delight!) Too many karaoke duets to “Take Me Or Leave Me,” and “Another Day.” To many doodled “No Day But Today”‘s scrawled in notebooks. To many hours spent arguing whether OBC Mark and Roger, Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal were better than long time mainstays in the roles like Matt Caplan and Jeremy Kushnier. (I actually prefer Matt, who I’ve always called, “My Mark,” to Anthony, I saw Rent on Broadway 4 times, 3 of those, Matt was Mark. I prefer Adam to everyone though.)

There were plenty of moments in Sunday night’s broadcast that landed like a thud. When you know the show backwards and forwards, changes are jarring. Some of those really soared though. I’m madly in love with the ways, “Will I,” and “Seasons Of Love,” were redone. Especially “Seasons,” which is about remembering the good things in life in the face of imminent death, but has become a kind of treacly, feel good catch all out of context. Jordan Fisher’s Mark was adorable, Vanessa Hudgens continues to remind us all that Kenny Ortega did a really good job picking some top tier musical theater talent back in the day for High School Musical, and of course Brandon Victor Dixon brought the house down as Collins. (They were the MVPs, but also Keala Settle as the “Seasons” soloist and the rest of the cast was uniformly good.)

But the real kicker came with the finale. Finally moving into live mode, after the new cast sang through “Finale B,” (the overlapping of “Without You,” and “Life Support” reaching it’s breathtaking energetic conclusion with a projection of Jonathan Larson’s smiling face blessing the whole enterprise.) the chords of “Seasons Of Love” began anew, and the original Broadway cast ran onstage and my heart burst.

Even that raised my hackles in places. Idina sings the female solo? Why? (I know why! But seriously, world, she’s amazing and I love her, but we need to Let It Go!) Daphne and Fredi got to riff on the final, “measure your life,” but only Jesse got to sing out of the boys.  (Mostly I’d like to see Adam and Anthony, but also Wilson and Taye!) (Also, though, Jesse and Brandon singing together should be illegal. Nothing that beautiful should exist.)

As I meditated on this beautiful, perfect, stupid, problematic mess, I realized, that the thing about Rent, and why theater nerd kids love it so much, is that it is us. It’s an unlikely creature, optimistic and nihilistic, heartbreaking and silly, and refusing to be tamped down and shut up. The universe doesn’t seem to want Rent but we don’t care. Jonathan Larson died before he could really finish it. The movie crackles with possibility despite iffy choices all around. Rent: Live almost didn’t happen because of a star injury. People continue to take it apart and say it’s dated, but it persists.

So, Thank You, Jonathan Larson. Your last breaths have given a couple of generations of kids a way to articulate something that’s inside of them and that’s really worthwhile.

The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation! 

60 Books in 2019 #5: Circe By Madeline Miller

The stories of Ancient Greek myth aren’t new to me. I’ve loved them since childhood. One of the most checked out books, that I looked at over and over again was an illustrated encylopedia of gods and heroes. I played at being Athena in my imagination for ages. My long term obsession with retellings began with Disney’s Hercules. Revising myth to make it fit a new world is part of what’s fun about it.

I picked up Circe knowing at least something of an idea about what I was getting into. Circe, the daughter of Helios, lover of Odysseus, who turned sailors who dared trespass onto her island into hogs, is usually shown as the villainess, the femme fatale, the witch, beautiful, dangerous and merciless.

She’s the perfect character for a “the situation is much more nuanced than that,” retelling. And that’s what Miller gives us here. Circe is our narrator and our heroine. She is banished from her father’s halls to pay for the sin of kindness in comforting Prometheus, who stole fire from Olympus to give to mortals. She turns her Aiaia, her prison, into a paradise, but it is invaded by passerby, she is raped and she takes her revenge on men. She falls in love with one and that’s where the book gets good.

Once Odysseus exits, and the stories we know stop, after all, Greek myth kind of stagnates after Troy and the Odyssey. (The Romans take it from there.) But there, Circe bears the child conceived during Odysseus’s stay on her island. Eventually, Telemachus and Penelope come to her. The relationship and makeshift family the three of them form, eventually, is the heart of this book.

It’s episodic in nature, as most such revisions are, but gloriously so. Miller wrote a great book, and I’m looking forward to picking up more of hers, because I think she has a really fun perspective on these myths that I’ve loved since I was a child. (It was hard for me to see Athena as a villain though.)

Up next is If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. I’m planning on diving deep on Baldwin this year, so wish me luck.

Ready For Endgame: The Avengers

I remember when I first saw The Avengers I was underwhelmed. I’ve come to love it, really, but just, in that moment, I’d seen it all before. In my review of the movie, I laid out the ways director and writer Joss Whedon was playing his usual song in a new key here.

I understand that Cap relaying the battle plan was exciting and new to other people, but I’d seen Buffy do that six times. The iconic hero pose circle shot, which is wonderful was a more cinematic version of Angel’s “Let’s Go To Work,” final moment. (This single greatest end shot of a TV show ever.) Tony’s change of heart to fight the good fight alongside his friends had been handled by Mal Reynolds before.

So, while the novelty of The Avengers was lost on me, it’s that very profitability, the excellent execution of a formula I’m fond of, that’s made it hold up over the years, and my god, does it hold up.

The action is exciting, the team coming together, or not, is fabulous, the one liners delightful, and that final battle, is the stuff of legend.

But we’re not going to talk about that. I mean, we have. In the past. When I’ve written about The Avengers. Today, I don’t want to talk about that. I want to talk about Phil Coulson.

Phil Coulson was created for The MCU, meant to be a one off quick way to introduce SHIELD in Iron Man, he really took off when Jon Favreau liked working with Clark Gregg. Gregg was a long time Marvel fanboy and took the job at his wife’s (Jennifer Grey. They are my favorite C-List celebrity couple!) urging, saying when else was he going to get a job like this?  I’m a big fan of Gregg’s, because he’s in the Aaron Sorkin Repertory Company, and I’m convinced it’s that experience that convinced Whedon to make him the lynch pin here. The, “you lack conviction,” speech is straight out of the West Wing playbook. (Frankly, part of what I’ve always loved about Whedon is that he’s like Sorkin, but uses magic in his stories instead of patriotism.)

I was one of those people who was wrecked by Coulson’s death. All Whedon fans have their one that they’ll never forgiven him for. And I’ve gotten emotional over others. (I’m not made of stone, the phrase, “I am a leaf on the wind,” makes me gasp sadly. I too wish we had lived to see Winifred Berkle avenged, and Anya’s death in Xander’s arms is a real heartbreaker)  But Coulson is mine. (Yes he came back! But that took a while!)

Anyway,  Coulson, who’d already had some standout moments in the previous movies, really shines here before his death at Loki’s hands. His familiar banter with Pepper (I love that they were pals. Seriously.), his giddiness at Cap, his familiarity with Thor, it’s all of it hitting just the right notes.

I miss Phil Coulson. I mean, as much as anyone can miss a character that never really went anywhere, but I sort of fell out on Agents Of SHIELD a few years ago, I might catch up someday, but I have so many superhero shows to watch, and not all of them shitty WB relics or luke warm adaptations of my favorite comics characters either.

The Avengers is a stunning acheivement in franchise storytelling. What comes directly after is uh…less essential. Next week, we take on Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. One is a delightful action movie throwback that I love, the other, I got kinda bored and watched a bunch of Lonely Island Videos in the middle of.  Guess which is which!

FOMO, Fyre, and Not Being Those People

I’m a rich white kid from suburban New Jersey. I was raised by professional, college grad parents, (who were both children of college grads) who paid for me to attend a prestigious Catholic Prep School, and then pursue a liberal arts degree at a small Jesuit University.

The best thing about that?  (Besides the obvious societal privileges and stability etc.) It allowed me to become the freewheeling weirdo that you’ve all come to know, but there are traces of the chubby sad middle schooler who just wanted to fit in left in my psyche. She’ll always be there, sitting in her swim team mandated speedo one piece watching the thin, “popular” girls flirt with boys, unsure if she missed something.

She was screaming, as we watched this week’s dueling documentaries, Fyre Fraud on Hulu and Fyre on Netlfix. Mostly, though, saying the thing that I was also thinking, “MY GOD, we could have been one of those assholes!”

Anyway, that was the baggage that I brought to this story, that made me literally sigh loudly and then tweet, “I hate everyone who’s involved in this.”

Well, I don’t hate the Bahamian locals who lost their shirts and credibility because a bunch of white people (and Ja Rule) came down and threw cash at them and them promised more. And I sympathize the anger of the people scammed out of their money and brought to the empty field full of tents or whatever. (But that dude who’s friends pissed on tents so that they wouldn’t have neighbors? WTF?) (And the guy who spearheaded the lawsuit, who uses his full name including IV in his twitter handle, like, no. And I say this as a 3rd of my name herself, and with cousins that go by “Biff” and “Tripp!”)

But I hate JaRule, I hate everyone at Fuck Jerry media, (even poor Orin Aks, who became the fall guy.), I hate the promoters and event coordinators who went along with everything, I hate the fucking “influencers” who tweeted and promoted the festival without making sure that everything was cool, and most of all I hate Billy Goddamned McFarland, and all the fratty shit heads like him, who made me feel small and marginalized and irrelevant all my life. Who run their scams from air while the people I know sacrifice their hearts and souls and free time to bring the art and joy to the world.

I ran a small private event for 8 years. I scraped the bottom of the barrel, asking for donations and fundraising. I upfront told people I couldn’t pay them, that this was volunteer and never drew a salary of my own. The tiny bit of money we did make got donated to charity. I did it because I love theater, and I like hanging out with my friends.

And speaking of my friends, we need to talk about FOMO. “Fear Of Missing Out,” is described as the driving factor of the Millenial generation. (Here I thought our driving factor was that we couldn’t get good jobs right out of school, were crippled by student debt and something about avocado toast.) Am I glad the term FOMO exists? Sure, it’s nice to have a name for that feeling of, “Aww mann, my friends are doing something fun and I have to work,” or, “DUDE! That bachelorette party is the same day as that friend’s baby’s Christening! NOW I HAVE TO PICK WHICH OF THESE WONDERFUL OCCASIONS I WANT TO BE A PART OF!” (That second one is happening to me in a month, not just a weirdly specific hypothetical.) But it’s not a driving factor in my life, or even my social life. I gave up on caring what the cool kids were doing sometime after my sophomore year at college when I actually hung out with said cool kids and found them unfathomably dull. (Lovely, often kind, but MY GOD, all you people do is drink beer and listen to Dave Matthews Band? You don’t even have sing-a-longs or drunkenly rewatch Star Wars? How do you live like this?) I like parties, of pretty much all kinds. I throw an elaborate theme party for my birthday every year. I go to clubs after conventions or when I’m out with a group of people and we want to dance. I hit bars with live music (usually more my speed than the clubs), I hang out around dinner tables eating a meal and chat or talk deeply about culture or politics. I like concerts if the band is in a genre I’m into. (I don’t even have to know the band that well…) I love a wedding or formal event of similar style.

But I don’t spend my weekends wondering if somewhere, someone is having more fun than I am. They probably are. I’m pretty boring. But I wouldn’t trade my boring, basic fun for other fun. While I’m sure Hailey Baldwin-Bieber and Bella Hadid have lots of fun jetskiing around private islands or whatever, but have they ever sat around a beach house all day while it rained drinking a case of rose and watching a cult musical? Or scarfed soup dumplings while in full cosplay? Probably not, and they’re missing out!

The documentaries themselves are well made, entertaining and made me think a lot. I’ve been thinking about my consumption a lot in general.

60 Books In 2019 #4: The Golem and The Jinni by Helene Wecker

My grandpa, Grampy, we called him, passed away this weekend. Which means I’ll always remember The Golem And The Jinni, which I kept thinking, “he’d have loved this book,” as I read through it.

“It was a fine day that we came to this country,” was a favorite saying of Grampy’s, he’d affect a brogue, an accent that never quite suited him the way his natural Manhattan flat vowels and nasally tones did. But he was right, of course. America has been unfathomably good to our family, and frankly, to our people. My background is primarily New York Irish, (not to be confused with Boston or Chicago Irish, the culture is a bit different.) with smatterings of German, British and Jewish.

The children of immigrants, yearning always for both America and home. And The Golem And The Jinni is about that, and so much more. A Golem, a being of clay, created by Jewish mysticism, and Jinni, a demon of fire, from the deserts of Syria, find themselves in the great city of immigrants, New York, and find each other.

This is a wonderful book. It’s the closest I’ve seen to American Magical realism in a while. (I always hold up Shoeless Joe and it’s adaptation Field Of Dreams as the best examples.) Chava, the golem, and Ahmad, the Jinni, are magical beings in the very real Manhattan of the 1890’s, Chava making her way as a baker in the Jewish community of the Lower East Side, taken in by a kind retired rabbi and his activist nephew, Ahmad working as a silversmith in the Syrian community, lost in a time and place he finds exasperating and stifling.

In the end both realize there is a great deal of the old that needs to be given up, to make a new home, the knowledge forgone, but the worthwhileness of the new place, freed from old bounds.

It was a fine day we came to this country. Home should never be forgotten though, and I’m grateful to have family that’s centered so much of who we are around that connection to home.

Anyway, this book is awesome.

Up next is Circe by Madeline Miller. I know it was like the book in 2018, so I’m only a little behind on this one. (Seriously, y’all, I’m trying.)

Ready For Endgame: Thor And Captain America: The First Avenger

There are certain movies that are very hard for me to separate from the first time I saw them. These are usually because of the people I saw them with, or because I saw them as a kid. But with Thor and  Captain America: The First Avenger, it’s really because of timing.

People might not remember that these movies came out within months of each other, when The Avengers was a certainty but still a whisper. And everyone was still scoffing at them. “Right, like a Thor movie is going to work.” And because I was getting ready to finish my English Lit degree, I even added, “what is Kenneth Branagh doing?” (The film nerd in me was less skeptical about Joe Johnston because I’d grown up with The Rocketeer, and that the guy who made that was making a Captain America movie made perfect sense to me.)

But there’s something about these movies and the way that they act as a doorway for the MCU and the fact that they came out the summer I finished college that feels kind of perfect to me. There’s of course my epic, “Glen literally pulled Chrissy and me out of a bar at the end of a bar crawl to go see it,” Thor story. He was pissed as hell, because we hadn’t told him we were going on the crawl, his words, “I’d have gotten tickets for tomorrow if I’d known this was your plan.” Of course our very cogent response was, “PFFFF, we’re not that drunk! Let’s get pretzels, and HOLY SHIT THAT IS ONE HOT MAN RIGHT THERE ON THE MOVIE SCREEN!” I told this story in my toast at their wedding. I left out the hot man parts. The fact that these two people are parents now brings me such joy.

Captain America, I saw with my friend Lisa, which was the first time we’d hung out since graduation. I then saw it like 5 more times, because I wasn’t really working that summer, so had a bunch of spare time. It was what cemented Cap as my Marvel Guy. (At the time Batman was still my DC guy. I hadn’t fully fallen for Dick yet.) And whenever I go back and look at Phase 1, I realize it’s still the movie that I’ve watched the most. (Iron Man is close behind, btw.)

Anyway, my personal experience of these films aside, they’re both solid, and deeply enjoyable. Thor especially, is a treat. I think people tend to forget how charming it is. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston are all in on Thor and Loki from their first moments on screen, and while it’s small scale is probably because no one was sure if this whole thing was going to work, it’s in the movie’s favor that it gets a quiet intimate scene where Thor explains the nine realms to Jane on a rooftop, or Thor and Selvig getting drunk together, or Sif, Loki and The Warriors Three sitting beside a fire discussing Thor’s banishment. Branagh uses his Shakespearian ear perfectly in these scenes, letting them breath and the actors relish in their ridiculous dialog, and melodramatic plots.

 The MCU in general is a miracle of casting but Captain America: The First Avenger might be the most clean example of this. Everyone in this movie is pitch perfect for it’s throwback tone. None more so than Hayley Atwell and Chris Evans though. Dear lord are they magical. Peggy Carter and Steve Rogers might be the only two love interests I’ve ever cosplayed BOTH of, because I love them both so much. (Having cut my hair again, I might bring Peggy back this year…) But seriously, there’s so much about this movie that’s absolutely right, that I have trouble not smiling.

I’ve written literally thousands of words about The MCU, and it’s hard to explain though, that the reason is because of these two movies and the people I was hanging out with at the time being so excited for them. I seriously doubt I’d have gone to see them in the theater if it weren’t for these folks, which is why it’s very hard for me to separate the movies themselves, which are great, by the way, from the experience of watching them for the first time. So I fail as a critic in this essay, because I’m too attached. (Also, if I’m frank, I watched them on a Saturday afternoon and I’ve had some wine, and I’m a little buzzy. Blogging is all about honesty right?)

Next week we talk about The Avengers, which, if you’ll recall was the first movie I ever reviewed here on The Fangirl’s Dilemma, and that was 10 years ago and that is disgusting.