1984 … Again.

I work in a library. Every few days, we get a shipment of books in from other libraries. The shipments contain:

  • patron-requested books that we do not have in our collection
  • patron-requested books that we have in our collection, but are currently checked out
  • books that we have sent out for the patrons of other libraries that have returned.

Yesterday, I had the job of processing incoming books for our patrons. I processed five copies of 1984: three paperbacks, one hardcover and one audio book.  You may be thinking, “Five? That’s not a big deal.”

Well, it is. We are not a huge library. Normally, when we get multiple copies of a book, it’s in response to an order for one of the library’s many book clubs. And we only get deliveries one, two or (when the delivery service is operating like greased lightning …) three times a week.  All six of our copies are checked out. And this has been going on for the last few weeks. In the canon of dystopian/political / social science fiction, 1984 has stood the test of time and its circulation at libraries everywhere bears witness.

everyone-reads-1984

First edition cover, 1949

Has 1984 turned the American public into the largest, unorganized book club on planet Earth (even without a vigorous imprimatur from Oprah?) Are we really going to read or re-read 1984 and fancy ourselves free-thinkers because we are reading it?  Will we take the blamer’s point of view and eagerly look for Trumpism on every page? Or will we let the scales fall from our eyes in order to see how intensely we are affected by the cult of personality that permeates our media, our politics, our very  culture and that distracts us from the Inner Party and what they’re up to? (Look at the little pyramid diagram on the link for Inner Party—you could be looking at one of the charts from Robert Reich’s excellent Inequality for All !) Will we see ourselves as the unwitting members of the Outer Party that we have become?

What other dystopian classics clutter your night stand?  I  need to do a post on The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.  I saw three copies of that in the hold pile yesterday.

Perhaps we’ll all be saying “Atwoodian” before we know it.

George Orwell

As the body politic emerges from anguished stupefaction, Penguin has fired up the presses in order to churn out 75,000 new copies of 1984.  I work in a library, and we cannot keep this title on the shelf. Patrons request it as a cleanse of sorts…get the Kardashians out of the house, put a ban on Fox News (yes, even Chris Wallace) or MSNBC (yes, even Rachel Maddow), finish your latest Facebook rant, ignore Instagram and Snapchat and for heaven’s sake, eschew Twitter, make a cup of Orwellian tea and begin—“It was a bright day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

1984If we read or re-read 1984, will the scales fall from our eyes?  Will we begin to comprehend, as Dorothy Parker would say, this new “fresh hell”? Or will we recognize it for the stale hell that it is, the hell that has been grinding itself out since Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” got all its fingers broken by a big old hammer called “greed,” the hell that is furthered along by misuse of language and perception.

The big problem is that we live in a thinly disguised plutocracy, fronted by a meritocracy. The inexorable trudge towards the U.S.’s commitment to hand over the reins of power to large corporations and banks has been fast-tracked for decades (union degradation, bank deregulation, so-called “welfare reform”, for-profit prisons, massive sums of money in the political process, college too expensive to be borne, no universal health care and a widening gap in opportunity for all but the meritocracy and the plutocracy)  and we, the citizens of this country, are pointing the finger of blame at foes who are, in many cases, even more disenfranchised, marginalized and beaten down than we are. Unfortunately, the meritocracy is where the press and the media have been firmly ensconced since the JFK White House and it has taken Donald Trump, the antithesis of the magical Kennedys and the beautiful Obamas, to wake them up.

But are they awake?  Or just pissed off that the current denizen of the White House has given notice that he doesn’t need the meritocracy. If you look at his cabinet, he’s gone straight to the plutocracy.  “Alternative facts” could have come right from the pages of 1984 if Orwell had been into on-the-nose writing. Chris Hedges needs to start an end times journalism school and journalists must go back and scour their own reporting on all the issues mentioned above. They must stop schmoozing with power in order to obtain “access” and with each other for affirmation. They absolutely must get over the fact that Washington D.C. is not a place where they can comfortably live and move and have their being. It is a place they need to cover. Democracy (if it still has a pulse) depends on it.

The hour is late.  It fast approaches thirteen o’clock.

A Week of Coen Brothers

I am bleary-eyed from watching stuff that has come, both directly and indirectly, from the minds of Joel and Ethan Coen. Happily bleary-eyed.

1. Fargo—the television series

This FX series was created by Noah Hawley and is based on the iconic Academy Award winning film, Fargo. It stars Allison Tolman, Colin Hanks, Billy Bob Thorton and Martin Freeman and does justice to its cinematic progenitor. I suppose it would have to, since the Coen Brothers signed on as executive producers for the series.

So I checked out the series on DVD from my local public library.  From the moment my husband and I watched the first episode, we were hooked. We became Minnesotans.

I’d prepare a dinner for the mister and me and he’d say, “All right, then.  Let’s set ourselves down and watch the next episode of Fargo.”  And then I’d say, “Jeez, Lester Nygaard‘s in quite a pickle. How’s he gonna weasel his way outta this one?” And then my husband would say, “Well, you and me’s about to find out!” and he’d click the remote and I’d say, “You betcha we are!” as the kinda ominous cello music swells up on the sound system and the equally kinda ominous knitted menu comes up on the screen. “Pass the Uncle Pete’s, would’ya?” And we’d try to get the dinner eaten before the really grisly stuff starts happenin’.  Sometimes, we’d have to stop in mid-forkful.

Chief Bill Oswalt (Bob Odenkirk) comments to Deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) on her chart of the brutal homicides that have befallen Bemidji, Minnesota and beyond: “Nice collage. You take up basket weaving too in your downtime?”

 

If you are hemmin’ and hawin’ about watchin’ the television series on account of how seminal the movie is, take my word for it—you will NOT be disappointed.

2. Unbrokenthe movie (based on the book of the same title by Laura Hillenbrand)


Unbroken
is the biography of Olympic track athlete and World War II war hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini. Surprise number one: the biopic was directed by Angelina Jolie.  Surprise number two: Joel and Ethan Cohen wrote the screenplay. Surprise number three: As of today, Rotten Tomatoes has given Unbroken a barely fresh rating—51%.

Wait, what? (as Molly Solverson from Fargo would say.) I read the reviews after I watched the movie, and I just don’t get it. I really like Rotten Tomatoes and have based movie-going decisions on the site’s reviews.  A 70% plus freshness rating will prompt me to consider shelling out money at the local multiplex. After watching it on the small-ish screen, Unbroken turned out to be a movie I wished I’d seen at the theater.
Of course, I had to read some of the comments and I found myself annoyed. “Jolie’s sentimental direction is forceful rather than reflective, stiffly moving from one tribulation to another without pausing to reflect on what any of this actually means. Worse still, the film falls prey to almost all of the most grating bio-pic clichés, none of which helps us to ever really get inside Zamperini’s mind.” (full review here) orUnbroken is by no means a terrible film. Jolie is a solid director, her cast does good work and the narrative – shallow and conventional as it is – isn’t necessarily unengaging. It is, however, disappointingly safe; the sort of adequate time killer you won’t necessarily regret seeing, assuming you remember seeing it at all. ” (full review here.)

The general conce9780385742511_p0_v3_s1200x630nsus is that most RT reviewers wanted Jolie to explore the darker side of Louie Zamperini.  They wanted Zamperini to be less of a messianic archetype.  They wanted the Japanese to be more human; we did drop the atomic bomb on two major population centers, after all and that was so much worse than what Allied POWs suffered at the hands of the Japanese. At the outbreak of WWII, though, the development of the atomic bomb was over five years away. Japan and the USSR were the only countries involved in the global conflict that had not signed the 1929 Geneva Convention. Imperial Japan’s treatment of POWs was in violation of every single article of the Convention.  Every one.

In addition, the critics were put-off by the story of  Zamperini, found in the book but not in the movie.  After the war, he suffered from what is known today as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and alcohol abuse.  His wife, anxious to help him, urged him to accompany her to a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles in 1949.  There, he accepted Christ as his Savior, forgave his enemies and lived an exemplary life until he died in 2014 at the age of 97. You know—”shallow and conventional.” But it wasn’t in the movie!

I thought the movie did a masterful job of showing the humanity of the Japanese captors, even Zamperini’s arch-enemy, The Bird. The last image we see of The Bird at the Naoetsu POW camp in northern Japan is a sepia photograph of a frightened little child standing next to a stern man in a military uniform. The scenes that take place on the bombers are heart-stopping (good Lord, those B-24 Liberators were buckets of bolts!) and the forty-seven days lost at sea are gut-wrenching; every exchange between the three survivors and every scene of the ordeal is compelling. The prison-camp scenes may have been a little dragged out, but that wasn’t something I noticed the first time I watched Unbroken.  I watched it a second time with one of my grown children after reading the reviews, trying to jaundice my eye a bit to understand where the reviewers were coming from.  I still think this film is magnificent.

So, has anyone out there seen either Fargo or Unbroken?  What did you think of Fargo‘s “trueness” to the 1996 motion picture—has creator Noah Hawley done it justice?  And can you believe the Coens wrote the screenplay for Unbroken?  Could you see any of the signature Coen dark humor?  Post your comments—I’d love to hear from you.

On Writing Zombie Fiction

Why are zombies so fascinating?

I didn’t want to be fascinated by them, but I started watching the AMC series The Walking Dead, and I was hooked. Then I found out my thirty-year-old son loves zombie fiction.  He’s a bottom-feeding reader of zombie lore.  “I read it all, Ma. If it’s free or cheap on Amazon, I’m all over it.” He’s also an ultra runner, so I got this idea to write him a zombie novel for his birthday.  What could be better: unsuspecting ultra runners wearing teeny shorts, compression socks, brightly colored footwear, sports bras and hydration packs being set upon by flesh-seeking, animated corpses at around the 85K point of a 100K?

I started with research.  World War Z by Max Brooks was my go-to textbook on the zombie apocalypse.  The work of the author Jonathan Maberry of the young adult Rot & Ruin series became another component in my education. And The New Dead: A Zombie Anthology compiled by Christopher Golden was a genre-bending, permission-granting sort of book that opened my mind to the possibilities inherent in zombie fiction. I even talked to a family friend, a cardiologist, who helped me sketch out how fictional microbes could hijack a nervous system, invade the brain-stem and set up a “scaffolding” of sorts in order to exploit a corpse as a vector. (Oooh—I got goosebumps just typing that!)

Of course, my son’s birthday came and went (he was thirty in November of 2014) and I was nowhere near done with the zombie novel.  The zombie novel took on a shambling, milky-eyed, teeth-gnashing, gut-strung life of its own.

Zombies chasing ultra runners isn’t really a plot. It’s a cool scene, but it isn’t a story.

So now I have all these characters who are leading me around by the nose, but boy-oh-boy—are they beating out a story! The working title is The Dead Don’t Sweat (thank you Sarah, Mark and Chris of the Windsor Writers Critique Group) and the setting is the post-zombie-apocalypse Pacific northwest from Hardy Bay on Vancouver Island down to Willamette Pass in Oregon. The GIO (Global Infestation and Occupation) has been over for ten years, but a hideously traumatized antagonist seeks to reintroduce shamblers (my term for Z) into the only place on earth that isn’t run by a military junta—the Pacific Northwest Protectorate. The main protagonist is a friar who heads up the newest branch of the Franciscans, the Burying Brothers.  They  have a nice, long Latin name, but I won’t bore you with it here. The old ski resort at Willamette Pass has become an enormous, tiered cemetery overseen by the Brothers. The former ski lodge, now the friary, is the starting point for the annual Waldo Remembrance 100K. This hugely-attended ultra marathon is the scene for a madman’s vengeful plot as the characters converge from all corners of the Protectorate.  Some come to race, some come to bury the dead and still others come to fulfill the vengeance-fueled maxim that “no one gets to start over.”

The character based on my son is called Mungo “Go” MacIsaac.  He started as the protagonist, but now he’s a lovable secondary character.

So, this thing has become a work of exploration for me.  Life, death, more death, the exploitation of the dead, childhood trauma, the theology of the body, the nature of grace, madness and, of course, family values.

I went to the 4th Annual Writer’s Weekend at the Mark Twain House April 17-19.  On Friday evening, Julia Pistell, the organizer, interviewed podcasters and publishing professionals Michael Kindness and Ann Kingman, founders of BooksontheNightstand.com. Ann recommended The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. It piqued my interest NOT just because of the recommendation, but because she said (and I’m paraphrasing here …) “As a work of science fiction, it exceeds its genre.”  She added, “Think Jesuits in space.” Michael recommended one of his favorite genre-exceeding surprises: the aforementioned World War Z by Max Brooks.

Coincidence?  Why, yes—the very definition of one! A remarkable concurrence of book recommendations without apparent causal connection. And if I were looking for signs to press on with this thing, I’d say these were some dang good signs and I’ll take ’em!

Peace, world.