Fiction: “The Tea Rose” by Jennifer Donnelly

Tea RoseAs 2017 continued onward in its quick, Tower-of-Terror-esque descent into madness, I found myself turning more and more often to escapism. I stopped watching TV, for the most part, unless it was The Great British Bake Off or Bob’s Burgers for the umpteenth time. There is so much prestige TV drama I feel I should watch (American Crime Story: The Trial of O.J. Simpson, House of Cards*, any number of BBC historical dramas, Stranger Things, The Handmaid’s Tale, etc., etc., etc. – to the point where I almost need to do a TV Alaina’s Never Seen, but I can’t even get through Project X), but I kept sinking in to things that made me feel good.

*Remember, I read this book in August, pre-The Reckoning. I’m sure as shit not starting it now. I’m gonna wait for the last season to come out and y’all else can watch it and let me know if it’s worth getting through the Spacey years to see General Antiope kick ass, but if the fifth season’s not going to live up to my expectations, it can fuck right off.

Here’s how bad the state of the nation is when it comes to Alaina’s Entertainment Habits (please note, this is a very low factor in deciding the overall state of our nation, which is, to put bluntly, fucked): I started to rewatch 30 Rock, but I have fallen out of love with Jack Donaghy, because now when I see Alec Baldwin all I can think of is this –

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and it makes me sad. And a little nauseated.

SPEAKING OF SAD AND NAUSEATED, I was watching Two Weeks’ Notice (do NOT fucking tell me the title of the movie doesn’t have an apostrophe, IT NEEDS TO BE THERE) and enjoying the fuck out of it like normal – I love Sandra Bullock, and Hugh Grant is a fucking delight – and everything’s going well, Sandy’s given her titular notice and Hugh is being so fucking charming, and they’re at the ball and then –

the fucking asshole president is at the buffet.

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Hand to god, I pulled the blanket I was huddled underneath over my head and sang “LA LA LA LA LA” over and over again until the scene was done.

That motherfucker ruins everything he touches. He’s like Midas – fuckin’ wishes he was Midas – but with shit.

CLEARLY, I have not stopped with being emotional. But when it came to reading, I was turning away (for the most part) from mysteries and legal thrillers. I didn’t want to read about terrible things when the world was so terrible. Yes, Silent in the Grave was a mystery, but the characters had a lightness to them that their world wasn’t awful, like it would have been if I had gone with the next Rizzoli and Isles book, or the next Sara Paretsky, or … or whatever.

(Note from the Future: I will also experience this with the new Fall television season, where my favorite shows are The Good Place and … the Dynasty reboot. THE DYNASTY REBOOT, YOU GUYS, IT’S –

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IT’S FUCKING CRAZYPANTS AND I LOVE IT)

Also crazypants? The Tea Rose.

I thought The Tea Rose was going to be a high English melodramatic historical fiction. I was right, and yet so delightfully wrong at the same time.

If you want the Dynasty reboot in book form, then my dears, The Tea Rose is the book for you.

The Tea Rose begins in Whitechapel, London, 1888. Fiona Finnegan is a maid of seventeen years, working at Burton Tea as a tea packer. That is not a euphemism. Her father, Paddy, is a dockworker at Burton’s; her mother, Kate, a laundress; and she has an older brother named Charlie, a younger brother named Seamie, and a baby sister. The Finnegans live modestly, with a tenant in the form of Roddy O’Meara, a bobbie with the London Police Force. They are a very happy family.

Fiona is being courted by Joe Bristow, a “coster” in the market who grew up down the street from the Finnegans. A “coster” is the dude who stands next to the fruit and veg cart in a farmer’s market promoting the merchandise. Fiona and Joe are truly in love, and they become engaged. Fiona is a bit jealous of Millie Peterson, the fancy daughter of a wealthy grocer conglomerate; Millie is a terrible flirt, and Millie feels that she can steal Joe out from under Fiona’s nose.

Paddy is involved in starting a union down at the docks. But Burton doesn’t like the idea of a union, and decides to kill the union leader to kill the unionization talks. THAT SHIT REALLY HAPPENED, NOT JUST IN MELODRAMATIC NOVELS, BY THE WAY. Anyway, Paddy gets pushed off an I-beam and dies in the hospital, surrounded by his family.

The remaining Finnegans now struggle to get by. Joe accepts Millie’s dad’s job offer and takes a new job in the City. When he attends the Guy Fawkes party, Millie gets him drunk and date-rapes him. When Millie tells Joe that she’s pregnant (!), he sadly breaks things off with Fiona because it’s only right and proper to marry Millie and be a father to the baby.

And then the Finnegans have to take a lower-rent room. They move deeper into Whitechapel, and Kate and the baby become sick.

Fiona’s out somewhere – I think she tried to be a barmaid during this time, to earn more money – and Kate hears a ruckus in the hall of the apartment complex. She goes out to investigate, and –

Oh, y’all know that the Jack the Ripper killings are also known as the Whitechapel Murders, right?

So Kate gets murdered by Jack the Ripper –  not because she was a “lightskirt,” but because she was a witness. Fiona’s baby sister dies soon after from malnutrition and illness. Big brother Charlie, overcome with grief, goes to fight in a boxing match to earn money; a few days later his body washes up the shores of the Thames.

It’s now just Fiona and Seamie. She moves into Roddy O’Meara’s flat for a bit. Then she gets it into her head that Burton’s owes her family a settlement for Paddy’s accidental death. She marches herself over to Burton’s and manages to get into the office, where she overhears Burton himself talking his underling, Bowler Sheehan, about how easy it was to murder that union upstart Finnegan. Fiona hides near a conveniently open safe, and when Burton and Sheehan walk into the room, Fiona accuses them of murder and then runs out.  It’s not until she escapes back to Roddy’s flat that she realizes she had a stash of £500 in her fist.

She remembers that Paddy’s brother, Michael, runs a grocery in New York City. Plan in place, she wakes up Seamie, packs up their meager belongings, leaves a vague note for Roddy, and then she and Seamie board a train for Southampton.

Guys – that’s like, only the first third of the book. We haven’t even hit peak crazypants yet.

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I know.

So in Southampton, Fiona attempts to book steerage passage to New York for her and Seamie, but the boat’s full up for two weeks. She befriends a very nice young man named Nicholas Soames, who had booked first class passage for two for himself. He offers Fiona and Seamie room in his rooms, and offers to pretend to be her husband so no one would think twice. Fiona accepts, desperate to get to New York.

The good news is that Nicholas is actually as nice as he sounds. He’s a gay man, escaping from his terrible father who disowned him. He’s also mourning the death of his lover, Henri. He’s moving to New York to open an art gallery (Henri was an artist), and he grows to platonically love Fiona and she him. He’s a genuinely nice guy, you guys! It’s so rare but also very sweet!

[This is probably where you guys are going, “Hey, Alaina, how are you able to remember Nick’s lover’s name? Haven’t you spent the last few book reviews going ‘Man, I suck for not taking notes, this blows, sorry ‘bout this shitty review’?” YOU GUYS – I TOOK NOTES FOR THIS ONE

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I win.]

Fiona et. al. get through customs and Fiona finds her cousin Michael.

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Michael is mourning the loss of his wife through the classic coping mechanism of “drinking all of his problems away and not doing a great job of it.” His grocery has been foreclosed upon, his baby daughter is in the care of the upstairs neighbor, and he spends nearly every waking moment at the pub. It’s … it’s not a great look. Fiona takes her anger out on Michael’s flat, cleaning it from top to bottom and basically making it habitable again. Then she marches over to the bank and asks for a loan to reopen the grocery. She has great ideas, namely coupons and advertisements, but the bank manager thinks her ideas are stupid because they’re coming from a female mouth, and he dismisses her.

But! A millionaire entrepreneur and subway constructor (as in the first subway system, not like a Subway™ franchisee) William McClane overhears Fiona’s great ideas, and when she leaves the bank manager’s office, he goes in, tells the bank to give her the loan, and then goes out and give Fiona the good news.

[My headcanon (because I did not write down that part of the book) is that McClane goes into the office and, like Goldfinger in Goldfinger after Oddjob hat-slices the head off the statute, says something like “I own the bank.”

My headcanon continues that William McClane is like, the great-great-grandfather of John McClane, and John’s dad probably ruined the company and lost all sorts of money which is why his son becomes a cop.]

The grocery store is open and it’s a big hit. I think McClane put an advertisement in the local paper, unbeknownst to Fiona? He did something, and he also shows up after opening night and takes her out on a date. They begin to court, and it’s cute, but Fiona realizes she still isn’t over Joe.

Oh, what’s going on with Joe? Because like a true soap opera, there are multiple plots. Joe never falls in love with Millie. And when he learns that Fiona has disappeared, he tries to figure out where she went, with the help of Roddy O’Meara. When Millie finds out, she gets super jealous, and her anger causes the baby to be born stillborn. I know. When the baby dies, Millie’s father forces Joe to divorce Millie and fires him from the Peterson’s grocery business.

Back to Fiona. She decides that, in an attempt to expand her business, she’s going to develop a tea to sell. She could recognize strains of tea from her days packing it at Burton’s (not a euphemism), and she finds a special tea blender and starts her own proprietary brand, which she calls TasTea.

Let me take a second here and get something off my chest. I fucking hate that name. There is no reason to have that second T capitalized. It looks like shit. It is like nails on a chalkboard to me.

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Having ranted, I am unable to come up with a better name, I just hate it.

Moving on. TasTea becomes a hit, and she expands her brand, adding new scents and flavors to the line. The tea becomes such a hit, she returns the grocery to (now sober) Michael’s responsibility and sets off to open a series of tea rooms. She purchases a beautiful, old yet rundown building and convinces the owner to sell the property to her, and she begins to fix it up to turn it into the first tea room, named The Tea Rose. Also, there’s room for an art gallery on the second floor, because she and Nicholas are still very good friends.

Meanwhile, she and William McClane have grown very close, and William proposes marriage. She accepts, even though a part of her is still in love with Joe. (Fiona also doesn’t know about Millie’s baby or Joe’s divorce.) William also expects that, once they’re married, she’ll find someone else to run her tea empire so she can move upstate with him and be a quiet married lady with no aspirations. That whole thing makes Fiona choke, but she doesn’t come right out and laugh in his face.

Because William’s son, Will Jr., is about to pull some shenanigans! (Oh, right, William McClane is a widower with a couple of adult children. He’s a lot older than Fiona, but it doesn’t really read.) Will Jr. has Congressional aspirations, and he’s worried what will happen to his career if his dad marries again and this time, to the merchant class. And yes, when I picture Will Jr., I see Paul Ryan at his utmost smarmiest. I hate my head sometimes.

So Will Jr. orchestrates a scandal – he learns that Nicholas sometimes goes to what we would today call gay bars, and organizes a raid, only to see Nicholas arrested. Fiona learns of Nicholas’s arrest, and at his hearing, pretends to be his fiancée so he’ll be cleared of the homosexuality charge. The judge, who is also Will Jr.’s best friend says, “okay, Nick can go, but you have to come back tomorrow and I’ll marry the two of you in my courtroom. If you don’t, I’ll know you’re lying and also that he’s gay, so you’ll both go to jail. Different jails.”

Nick protests, but doesn’t say that’s the stupidest thing a judge has ever done in a courtroom, but only because he didn’t have time to look up the entire history of the court system. Fiona agrees, because how else is she going to save her best friend? This solves everyone’s problems: Will Jr. can now successfully run for Congress because obviously Will Sr. can’t be a bigamist, Nick is safe, and Fiona can continue to grow her empire, unimpeded by a stupid man.

Nick does offer the marriage to be in name only, so Fiona might be able to find someone to love her physically. Fiona won’t hear of it, so they settle into a perfectly platonic marriage.

Meanwhile, what about Joe?? Joe took a small loan from his parents and started a door-to-door vegetable delivery service, so cooks and servants don’t have to spend an entire day to go to the market and stock up on produce that will go bad quickly. His business takes off, and over the years, he has turned it into a very successful high-end grocery store chain – like Whole Foods, but less snobby.

Years pass.

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Fiona’s business has also grown, and she’s responsible for numerous offshoots of **uuggghhh** TasTea. She’s also been investing a good amount of her profits into Burton’s Tea stock shares, in the hopes of becoming majority shareholder and then shutting Burton’s down as revenge for herself and her family.

Nicholas has been … okay. Because I probably didn’t mention it before, he is a gay man. And this is the 1890s. And while HIV/AIDS wasn’t a thing back then, syphilis sure was. In what is undoubtedly the saddest but also one of the loveliest moments in the entire novel (yes, I … I may have teared up, I’M NOT MAD AT ME), Nicholas dies.

Fiona goes over Nicholas’s will to discover … Nick was in line to a dukedom. Or would have been, if his father hadn’t disowned him. But also, Nick owned 30% of Burton Tea’s remaining shares! Which puts her over the majority!

(There’s a minor subplot about how Burton’s was beginning to fail and so in an effort to raise cash, Burton sold a portion of his personal shares to Nick’s Dad, who hid it in an account under Nick’s name… and now they’re the property of Fiona and they can’t get it back neener neener neener, but Nick’s Dad sues Fiona anyway oh this will be bad)

Fiona takes the next boat to London to force Nick’s Dad to drop his suit. With Roddy’s help, Nick’s Dad allows Fiona to retain the shares. (No, I didn’t write down what happened, it’s like the one thing I didn’t write down, leave me alone, read the book to find out).

Fiona marches over to Burton Tea, where there’s a shareholder’s meeting going on. Perfect timing, Fiona! She reveals herself as the majority shareholder and new owner of Burton’s. Burton goes mad and attacks her with a penknife. Roddy and Fiona’s lawyer attempts to catch him, but he runs away.

Fiona heals after a spell in hospital, moves into a house in London and one day, goes to visit the family cemetery. On her way back, she walks to the Thames and starts skipping stones, like she used to when she was a carefree girl in love with Joe. BUT JOE’S ALSO THERE! They meet again for the first time in over ten years, and they learn that Joe’s not married to Millie, and Fiona’s no longer married to Nicholas, and they immediately reconnect and admit that they love each other still, and become engaged again.

And the book still isn’t over! But it almost is, so I’m going to leave the finale to your reading pleasure.

The book is long. Goodreads says it’s almost 700 pages. So, 3,000-word long review aside, I know I left some stuff out. But I wouldn’t be a good reviewer (I mean, I’m not anyway, but you know what I mean) if I didn’t point out a couple of places that stood out to me.

There’s a point in the beginning of the book (heh, beginning, this thing I’m going to quote occurred on p. 106) where Joe is living in the City and Fiona hasn’t left London yet, but they’re separated, and this happens:

[Joe] rose from his chair, stoked the coals, and walked to the loo to wash up. He had to get some sleep. As he dried his face, he looked out of the bathroom window. The London sky was remarkably clear. Stars shown against the black night. He stared at one twinkling brightly. Did the same star shine down on her? he wondered. Was she maybe looking at it out of her window and thinking of him? He told the star he loved her, he told it to watch over her and keep her safe.  [p. 106]

Whoops, I mean this happens. (Sorry not sorry about the earworm, folks)

And then there’s this:

Nick had been stuffing himself with steamed mussels, sopping up their garlicky broth with hunks of crusty bread. [p. 188]

Dear god, do I love steamed mussels. I was reading this paragraph while on the bike at the gym, and I almost cried because all I could taste in my mouth were those little, garlic, winey morsels and I still had like twenty minutes to go and nowhere to get those mussels.

Now, Nick is eating those mussels in Paris, and just above that line, the narrator mentions Henri Toulouse-Latrec, and for about a second I thought that Nick’s Henri was actually Henri Toulouse-Latrec, and I stopped pedaling the bike and did this:

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This book has everything: tea, Jack the Ripper, syphilis, and high melodrama. It’s great to take your mind off the shitshow that’s currently playing on our TV screens and Twitter feeds.

And guess what? It’s a trilogy.

Andy-Dwyer-Shock

Grade for The Tea Rose: 3.5 stars

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Fiction: “The Queen of the Tearling” by Erika Johansen

queen of tearlingThis is an instance where the library actually came through. They have a table that displays new and notable titles, and The Invasion of the Tearling was on that table back in late April, early May. I picked up the book and learned almost instantly that the book in my hand was the second in a trilogy. I marched over to the Fiction shelves, already cursing the library’s inability to purchase the first book in a series, when, lo and behold, the first title, The Queen of the Tearling, was sitting on the shelf.

Reader, I grabbed it.

Note From the Future: Now, before you grab it, I should warn y’all: while I don’t think this review would be subject to any trigger warnings, this book would be. There are scenes involving sexual assault and sexual intercourse without consent, and scenes where rape is discussed. Violence is rampant as well. Even though I liked it, the book could trigger people, so I want y’all to know that up front.

The titular Queen of the Tearling is Kelsea Raleigh. The Tear is a ravaged country, operating centuries after something called The Crossing, where people crossed an ocean to found a better world. (Spoiler alert!: through clues in the text, we are to learn that the world Crossed from is our own! This is a book about the future!)

Since The Crossing, the rulers of the Tear have lived very short lives. I’m not sure what causes the short life expectancy (other than murder – none of the other rulers have died of old age); the Tear is supposed to be a utopia. But Queens don’t live very long. Kelsea’s mother, Queen Elyssa, sent Kelsea away to live with Barty and Carlin Glynn when Kelsea was very tiny, in the hopes of shielding Kelsea until she was of age to take the throne. Meanwhile, Elyssa’s brother, Thomas, was Prince Regent of the Tear, and he was pretty much an asshole. Can’t remember how Elyssa died, but it wasn’t pretty, I’m sure.

The story starts on Kelsea’s nineteenth birthday, when the Queen’s Guard arrives to bring Kelsea back to New London to ascend the throne. Kelsea is a plain girl, and headstrong, but she frets about being a good leader.

I can’t remember the full series of events that gets Kelsea to New London, but on her camping trip (essentially), she runs into a mysterious Robin Hood-type figure known as The Fetch. The Fetch was familiar with Kelsea’s mother, and says something that a) gives Kelsea faith in her confidence and learning, and also b) gives Kelsea a bit of a crush on The Fetch.

Kelsea had a bit of idolatry when it came to her mother, growing up. She wanted to be a good Queen, like Elyssa. But Kelsea quickly learns that Elyssa was not a great Queen.

During Elyssa’s reign, the neighboring country of Mortmesne, led by the Red Queen, attacks the Tear. And Elyssa’s only chance of survival for the Tear is to agree to a monthly shipment: a number of the Tear population to be sent to Mortmesne, where they will be used as slave labor and, in many cases, worse than slave labor. In Elyssa’s absence, Regent Thomas continued the Shipment, because it means there’s no war and he’s able to remain secluded in The Keep, surrounded by concubines.

When Kelsea arrives at New London, (I believe) she arrives on the same day as The Shipment is scheduled to leave. She stops the Shipment, against the advice of her Guard and other advisors – even when they tell her that a late shipment is cause for invasion from the Mort. She doesn’t care, because she can’t believe her mother would have done something like trade her people for safety.

The story alternates between Kelsea, the Red Queen wondering where Kelsea is, and a couple of other characters. There’s a subplot about the religious aspect of the Tear, a hyped-up form of ultra-conservative Catholicism known as The Arvath, and there are Fathers and a Pope-like figure, and Kelsea doesn’t truck with religion but she kinda has to as, y’know, Queen, so … Father Tyler and the Arvath play a slightly larger part in the second book (which I just finished reading, after Christmas, so … keep an eye out for that review in seven months?).

I had to read the Goodreads reviews (again, my notes are … not great. If I’m going to commit to being bad at this, I have to at least commit to taking better notes and not just jotting down character names and quotes) and … I forgot a lot about this book before reading the second one. I also apparently didn’t get the same feeling from a lot of the reviews, which haaaaated this book. I don’t know, I thought it was okay? People got really pissed that it was touted as a Hunger Games-meets-Game of Thrones and no, it’s not, but I still thought it was interesting.

Other reviews state that since the book is told through third person omniscience that we only see Kelsea reacting to things and not actually experiencing them, but other reviews complain that we see Kelsea thinking about things she’s about to react to first, and, to that I say, make up your mind? Either a character reacts with no thought process so we, the reader, have no idea what led the character to that reaction, or we see each thought racing through a character’s mind leading up to that reaction, which makes the reaction almost an afterthought or some other type of nonentity. You can’t have it both ways, readers! Pick one complaint and stick with it!

Oh shit, I never mentioned the sapphires! So Kelsea begins the story with one sapphire, the Tear Sapphire. I think it may have been one of those things that signify the person’s truly of regal birth? I don’t know. But Kelsea wears one and when she has it on it tries to protect her from shit. Like, it’ll burn when she gets pissed or something. She gets another one from somewhere – maybe the Fetch? – and when she puts the two on together (the jewels are on necklaces) she has super powerful magic. Like, “lay waste to an entire army outpost” powerful. (Oh shit, spoiler alert.)

The Red Queen is an awful person. She uses slaves for everything, including sex. She also talks with a demon or something in a fireplace, and in order to gain power she bleeds children dry. She’s kind of a monster. But she’s obsessed with Kelsea and getting the sapphires, so – next book?

Now, for all of the complaining people did on the interwebs about how stupid Kelsea is, I thought this was pretty smart, to be honest. She’s in the Keep, and getting ready for her bath with her lady’s maid, Andalie, nearby:

Andalie stood in her accustomed spot at the door of Kelsea’s chamber, holding out a clean towel. Kelsea had made it clear that she didn’t require help with her bath (her mind boggled at the sort of woman who would), but still, Andalie always seemed to know when to have things ready. [p. 255-256]

Halfway through her bath, Kelsea is attacked by an assassin. (This act brought a whole bunch of grousing from the Interwebs, wondering where the Queen’s Guard was at that point? They’d secured the area, dude!) And this happens:

“Lady?” It was Andalie. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Kelsea replied easily, steeling herself to feel the knife go in. “I’ll ring when it’s time to wash my hair.” [p. 259]

See? That’s … you gotta admit, that’s pretty smart. Kelsea knows that Andalie knows that Kelsea doesn’t need to have any help with her bath, but the assassin doesn’t know that. So that was a signal! I’m sorry I’m Alaina-splaining this, but I thought that was pretty smart for a nineteen-year-old.

And I thought Andalie was a very wise character. She also has a bit of the Sight, but it’s not overused. I really liked this conversation, where Andalie asks Kelsea about her crush on The Fetch:

Andalie shook her head, chuckling mirthlessly, then leaned down and murmured in Kelsea’s ear. “Who’s the man, Majesty? I’ve seen his face in your mind many times. The dark-haired man with the snake-charmer’s smile.”

Kelsea blushed. “No one.”

“Not no one.” Andalie grabbed a hang of hair over Kelsea’s left ear and sheared straight through it. “He means very much to you, this man, and I see shame covering all of those feelings.”

“So?”

“Did you choose to feel this way for this man?”

“No,” Kelsea admitted.

“One of the worst choices you could have made, no?”

Kelsea nodded, defeated.

“We don’t always choose, Majesty. We simply make the best choices we can once the deed is done.” [p. 352]

It’s like Andalie can look right into my teenaged soul from fifteen years ago! *quickly does math* oh god, twenty years ago. oh my god.

ANYWAY. At the end of the day (or May, when I finished reading this), I did like the book. I liked it enough to read the second book in the series within the same year. I liked it enough to recommend it to a friend for a Christmas present. It’s not quite a YA novel; there are some themes throughout the novel that are pretty violent and icky, and honestly, I’m going to go up to the top of this review and add a trigger warning for the novel, because that should go at the top and not the bottom. It is not as intimate as the Hunger Games trilogy, and while I’ve only read 200 pages of A Game of Thrones, I don’t think it comes close to that epic, either. But I liked it, and I hadn’t read YA in a while.

So, your mileage may vary, but I thought it was good.

Grade for The Queen of the Tearling: 3.5 stars

Non-Fiction: “All The President’s Men” by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

all the president's menThis was the title that originally brought me to the library for the first time in 2017. I mean, gee, I wonder why I’d want to learn more about Watergate? That time when the United States had a President that was actively encouraging crime and misdemeanors? The second-to-last time a President was impeached? (Some would argue, the last time a President was impeached for good reason?) The last time in history when elections were so blatantly manipulated? GEE, I WONDER WHY

I mean, there are other reasons. But the primary reason I decided to read All The President’s Men was because the DVD wasn’t available, and I couldn’t stream it on any of my platforms. The secondary reason is, much like Jake Tapper said recently on Late Night With Stephen Colbert, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it [often] rhymes.” (This quote, according to Google, has been attributed to Mark Twain.) So while Russiagate certainly may look like Watergate, it isn’t exactly the same thing.

(One could argue that Russiagate is inherently worse, and I would be one of those doing the arguing on that side, but again, I try very hard, you guys to keep politics out of this blog as much as possible. Having said that, this entry is going to be one of those times I try not so hard.)

Here’s another reason I was drawn to All The President’s Men: it is, at its heart, a story about reporting. And before I get into some key quotes, let me tell y’all about Spotlight.

Spotlight won Best Picture at the Oscars back in 2016, which, thank God, y’all, because its main contender that year was The fucking Revenant, and it has been almost three years but I am still fucking mad at that movie’s existence. Thankfully, I watched Spotlight first, and I loved it. But not for reasons you may think.

For those who may be unfamiliar with Spotlight, a brief overview: the movie talks about the Spotlight team of reporters, working for the Boston Globe. A team of four to five reporters with an editor in charge, they dig deep into investigative reporting: chase down leads, interview people, do research, the whole thing. It takes this team months to develop a story, and they do not publish anything until the information has been verified by multiple sources and the editor knows it is worthy of print. The story the team is working on in the movie is the bombshell that dropped in Boston back in 2001, about the massive coverup employed by the Catholic clergy in protecting priests who had molested children in their parish.

Boston is hugely Catholic. It shook the entire city. But additionally, victims came pouring out of the woodwork and the impact reverberated all the way back to the Vatican. It was a huge discovery. And it was accomplished by the sheer doggedness of the reporting team.

When I originally went to college, I wanted to go into communications: I wanted to be a journalist. I imagined myself reading the news (by the way, this is before Anchorman came out, so I can’t even say I was inspired by Veronica Corningstone). But I started college in September of 2001. Eleven days in, the entire face of news reporting changed overnight. News became 24-hour driven, and everything was breaking news. And I’m not talking about just the September 11 attacks and the aftermath. Even today, everything becomes breaking news. And the praise for long-form reporting is practically gone: if you don’t have a story right now goddammit, you don’t have a story. The news can’t wait for facts to be confirmed, and the news can’t wait for an entire story to be revealed before go time. Look at the unfortunate reporting circumstances around the death of Tom Petty; I saw on Twitter that he was dead, but when I checked the Washington Post, they stated he was in critical condition. But people can’t wait to fact-check anymore.

People also have a much shorter attention span nowadays, but that’s a different story altogether.

So I loved Spotlight because I really tuned into the love of the reporting that went into that story. I admit, I was one of the very lucky individuals who was far enough removed from the Church that I don’t have a personal story about a priest. But many of my friends did. Maybe not to them, but they heard about a thing happening and then a priest moving away and no one ever talking about the thing ever again. It was a hard film to watch for someone with those circumstances, and my heart goes out to each and every one of them. So when I say “oh my god, I loved Spotlight,” please know I’m coming at it from a much different angle than you may originally think.

Taking that into consideration, I was intrigued on what All The President’s Men would look like. Was it just reprints of the articles? Or was it the story behind the stories? (It was the latter.)

Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward were junior Metro reporters who happened to get assigned the story of a “third-rate burglary” that occurred on June 17, 1972. Woodward got the call at 9 a.m. that morning and was asked to cover it, and his first thought was that he was being returned to piddly-assed stories he used to cover. Little did he know what would unravel.

I’m not going to get into a lot of the plot (mainly because I copied some quotes almost seven months ago, and I can’t really recall a lot of the context); the book actually ends before Nixon’s resignation. Eventually, I’ll rent the DVD and do a tie-in to Movies Alaina’s Never Seen (I’d check to see if it’s on my List, but I’m writing this in a Word doc because I’m still without power following the massive wind storm from earlier this week) (Note From the Future: I just checked; it’s not on the list). But here are some quotes that really stuck with me, for one reason or another.

Early in the investigation, Woodward contacted Ken W. Clawson, deputy director of White House communications (Sam Seaborn on The West Wing) to discuss the address book in police inventory following the arrest of the Watergate burglars, which contained the name of Howard Hunt.

An hour later, Clawson called back to say that [Howard] Hunt had worked as a White House consultant on declassification of the Pentagon Papers and, more recently, on a narcotics intelligence project. Hunt had last been paid as a consultant on March 29, he said, and had not done any work for the White House since.

“I’ve looked into the matter very thoroughly, and I am convinced that neither Mr. Colson nor anyone else at the White House had any knowledge of, or participation in, this deplorable incident at the Democratic National Committee,” Clawson said.

The comment was unsolicited. [p. 24-25]

Seems innocuous, right? But when you’re a reporter and the person you’re asking information for just volunteers information like that (“Mr. Colson nor anyone else at the White House had any knowledge of, or participation in, this deplorable incident at the [DNC]”), chances are there’s a shade of someone protesting too much, methinks.

(“Also, there is NO COLLUSION!”)

Woodward and Bernstein investigated the burglars, and learned that one of them had a neat sum of $89,000 deposited into one of his bank accounts. They found other checks, one written out to Kenneth H. Dahlberg. Bernstein went to Miami to view the cashier’s check, and asked about the check.

The president knew Dahlberg only slightly as the owner of a winter home in Boca Raton, and as a director of a bank in Fort Lauderdale. That bank’s president was James Collins.

Yes, Collins said, Dahlberg was a director of the bank. As he was describing Dahlberg’s business interests, Collins paused and said, “I don’t know his exact title, but he headed the Midwestern campaign for President Nixon in 1968, that was my understanding.”

Bernstein asked him to please repeat the last statement. [p. 42]

Now, Bernstein’s on the phone at that point; but can’t you just see him sit up in his chair at the mention of the Nixon campaign, and ask disbelievingly, “Say that again”?

This is one of my favorite passages, because it gets to the heart of one of my favorite things: editing:

At about 11:00 p.m., he got another call from [Powell] Moore [Deputy press director of the Committee to Re-elect the President {CRP}, former White House aide], who had talked to John Mitchell [campaign director CRP, former Attorney General] and had a new statement:

There is absolutely no truth to the charges in the Post story. Neither Mr. Mitchell nor Mr. [Maurice H.] Stans [Finance Chairman, CRP; former Secretary of Commerce] has any knowledge of any disbursement from an alleged fund as described by the Post and neither of them controlled any committee expenditures while serving as government officials.

Bernstein studied the statement and underlined the soft spots. The charges in the Post story. What charges? Disbursement from an alleged fund as described by the Post. There was no denial of the fund’s existence, or that money had been disbursed, only of the way it was described. Neither of them controlled any committee expenditures. Technically correct. [Hugh W.] Sloan [Treasurer, CRP; former aide to H.R. Haldeman, White House Chief of Staff] had controlled the expenditures, Mitchell and Stans had only approved them.

It was the cleverest denial yet, Bernstein told Moore and tried to go over it with him. Moore wouldn’t play. [p. 104]

I know, there’s a lot of names in that paragraph. But look at the way Bernstein parses the White House’s denial of the story, and how much more the White House gives away in its denial! I would say that a certain White House could learn from such a response, but I don’t want them to learn how to be professional; it would almost make things that much worse.

(“If you want to get into a debate with a four-star Marine general, I think that that’s something highly inappropriate.”)

Oh, gee, I wonder why I decided to copy the entirety of this next quote, back in March, months before the Nazi uprising in Charlottesville, and also, the first proclamation of fake news, no, Donny, you didn’t make up the term, that was Clark McGregor, you asshole:

[[The following is all taken from a speech Clark MacGregor, John Mitchell’s successor as director of the Nixon campaign, makes at a press conference, trying to steer the tide from George McGovern, Democratic nominee for the President:]]

Lashing out wildly, George McGovern has compared the President of the United States to Adolf Hitler, the Republican Party to the Ku Klux Klan, and the United States Government to the Third Reich of Nazi Germany . . . .

[…]
Using innuendo, third-person hearsay, unsubstantiated charges, anonymous sources and huge scare headlines, the Post has maliciously sought to give the appearance of a direct connection between the White House and the Watergate – a charge which the Post knows and half a dozen investigations have found to be false.

The hallmark of the Post’s campaign is hypocrisy – and its celebrated “double standard” is today visible for all to see.

Unproven charges by McGovern aides, or Senator Muskie [he was from Maine!], about alleged campaign disruptions that occurred more than six months ago are invariably given treatment normally accorded to declarations of war – while proven facts of opposition-incited disruptions of the President’s campaign are buried deep inside the paper. [p. 164]

Guys – history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure as hell rhymes.

Oh, hey, speaking of fake news – this is from one of the conversations Woodward had with Deep Throat, and this is Deep Throat talking about Nixon:

“Nixon was wild, shouting and hollering that ‘we can’t have it and we’re going to stop it, I don’t care how much it costs.’ His theory is that the news media have gone way too far and the trend has to be stopped – almost like he was talking about federal spending. He’s fixed on the subject and doesn’t care how much time it takes; he wants it done. To him, the question is no less than the very integrity of government and basic loyalty. He thinks the press is out to get him and therefore is disloyal; people who talk to the press are even worse – the enemies within, or something like that.” [p. 269]

Man … like, I don’t really have a pithy remark right here. I’m just going to play The Propellerhead’s “History Repeating” over and over again and cry into my bottle of water (it’s after 10 p.m. and I’m taking a short sabbatical from booze for no reason other than I want to).

This next quote is a good reminder that common sense should —

Okay, you want to know something sad? I was going to say “common sense should trump all else,” but I didn’t want to write the word ‘trump’. It’s a perfectly cromulent word*, but it fills me with such distaste to use it as it should.

Fuck you, Donny, for forcing a perfectly good word out of my vocabulary.

*Before I get back into the introduction for this next quote, I should remind you that I’m writing this in Word because I have no internet, but guys – Word recognizes ‘cromulent’ as a word! It’s not misspelled! HOLY SHIT, you guys, ‘cromulent’ has become cromulent!!

ANYWAY. This next quote is a good reminder that common sense should always come first:

[Woodward] recalled a lesson he had learned in his freshman year at Yale. The instructor had assigned the students to read some medieval documents that gave somewhat conflicting accounts of Henry IV’s famous visit to Canossa in 1077 to seek Pope Gregory’s forgiveness. According to all of them, the King had waited barefoot in the snow outside the Vatican for days. Woodward had pored over the documents, made notes and based his paper on the facts on which most accounts agreed. All the witnesses had Henry IV out there in the snow for days with his feet bare. The instructor had failed Woodward because he had not used common sense. No human being could stand for days barefoot in the snow and not have his feet freeze off, the instructor said. “The divine right of kings did not extend to overturning the laws of nature and common sense.” [p. 230-231]

The divine right of kings – or given rights of elected officials – should not extend to overturning laws of nature or common sense.

(“This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!”)

In conversation with an associate of John W. Dean III (Counsel to the President, and if you haven’t seen him recently on Full Frontal, you should), Bernstein learned that John D. Ehrlichman (Assistant to the President for Domestic Affairs) wanted to have some files “deep sixed”.

Bernstein was more shaken by all of this than by anything since June 17. It was the language and the context of Ehrlichman’s remark to Dean that troubled him. Just as if they were a couple of Mafiosi talking to each other in a restaurant, the President’s number-two assistant had said to the President’s consigliere: Hey, Joe, we gotta dump this stuff in the river before the boss gets hurt.

Howard Simons [managing editor of the Post] slouched in a chair, drawing deeply on a cigarette, the color gone from his face. “A director of the FBI destroying evidence? I never thought it could happen,” he said quietly. [p. 306-307]

HEY HOWARD – would you believe that an FBI director could be fired without notice and then that same FBI director would leak his unclassified memos to a friend so as to install a Special Counsel? Is that believable?!

This quote is how the book ends (and remember, this book was originally published on June 15, 1974; Nixon wouldn’t resign until August 9 of that year):

To those who will decide if he [Nixon] should be tried for “high crimes and misdemeanors” – the House of Representatives –
And to those who would sit in judgment at such a trial if the House impeaches – the Senate –
And to the man who would preside at such an impeachment trial – the Chief Justice of the United States, Warren Burger –
And to the nation …
The President said, “I want you to know that I have no intention whatever of ever walking away from the job that the American people elected me to do for the people of the United States.” [p. 336]

I meant to point out something before I talked about this last quote … OH. So, the version of the book I read back in March was probably originally published in 1974 – it was one of those library books with the generic cover, all one color, and the spine had the title printed on it but there was no imagery or dust jacket. It reminded me of every book I ever took out of the USM library, because the USM library probably hadn’t had any new purchases for it after the year I was born. But between then and now (probably some time in May, because I felt I’d need it again after the Fucktard’s first version of his own Saturday Night Massacre), I ordered a paperback copy off of Amazon. The version that came to me is the 40th Anniversary Edition, and it includes a short afterward written by Bernstein and Woodward. I’m not going to get into it fully, but the Afterward brings up the question posed by Senator Sam Ervin, chair of the Senate Watergate committee: “What was Watergate?”

Bernstein and Woodward attempt to answer that question here, albeit briefly. It wasn’t merely the burglary that occurred on June 17, 1972. And it wasn’t merely the cover-up and obstruction of justice the White House engaged in following the burglary. Bernstein and Woodward posit that Watergate consisted of the five wars Nixon waged while in office:

The war against the anti-war movement;
The war on the news media;
The war against the Democrats;
The war on the justice system;
and the war on history.

And without getting too deep into discussing the Afterward (which is well-written, and definitely worth your time), I leave you with this last quote from a well-placed CRP official, talking to Woodward:

The man seemed disaffected, disgusted with the White House and the tactics that had been used to re-elect the President. “If there was an honest and a dishonest way to do something,” he said, “and if both ways would get the same results, we picked the dishonest way … Now, tell me why anyone would do that.” [p. 265]

History doesn’t repeat itself, but by god, does it fucking rhyme.

Grade for All The President’s Men: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle

wrinkle in timeGood evening! I’m drunk. Trivia was earlier tonight, and I decided to go with gins and tonic as opposed to Pub Style brew, and … yeah. Good night. We lost, be tee dubs. We got trounced. So next week, I’m definitely going back to beer, because while the quinine in the tonic water may have settled my stomach (which has kind of been upset for an entire week), it did nothing for my intelligence. And my partner-in-trivia will be the first to admit that of the two of us, I’m the brains of the operation (he gets most of the sports stuff. Except for tonight, when we were off on the baseball strike by one year. BUT STILL), and when I’m not operating at 100% … it’s not pretty.  Great Odin’s Raven was not great tonight. We were Mediocre Odin’s Raven at best.

Anyhoodle. I decided, “hey, let me go home and bang out another review, because I’m so fucking behind, and why don’t I pour myself another gin and tonic while I’m at it because why the fuck not?”

… When did I add ABBA’s “S.O.S.” to my iTunes? the fuck?

SO I READ THIS BACK IN SEPTEMBER. I had just read the news about the movie adaptation, directed by Ava DuVernay, the director of Selma, and the amazing casting choices: Meg Murry played by Storm Reid! Gugu Mbatha-Raw (HOLY SHIT I SPELLED THAT RIGHT ON THE FIRST TRY WHILE DRUNK YESI’MAWESOME) as Mrs. Murry! Chris Pine as the missing Mr. Murry! I mean, the Casting Gods really came through on this one.

But that news was in September. And I was staring down the barrel of a flight and then an overnight train back to Maine so I could attend My Dear Friend Sarah’s bridal shower in D.C. (P.S.: Dear Friend Sarah: I want to apologize for my poor time management on that weekend – in retrospect, I should have just traded in both train tickets for JetBlue, but … hindsight. I won’t be making that mistake again. But I also want to thank you for your hospitality.) Anyway, I thought the weekend trip would be a great opportunity to revisit A Wrinkle in Time.

Because I had read this back when I was a kid, and now, all I could remember from it was “tesseract” — mainly because I’d joke that characters on TV shows would tesseract all over the place (see: Alias especially. No wonder I have problems with the space-time continuum!).

A Wrinkle In Time is the first book of a quintet starring Meg Murry, the elder daughter of scientists Mr. and Mrs. Murry. Her younger brother is Charles Wallace, quite precocious at age 5. Mr. Murry has been missing for some time, and Meg is feeling out of place in her family. Meg learns that Charles Wallace has befriended a strange old woman in their neighborhood, Mrs. Whatsit. Mrs. Whatsit informs Mrs. Murry that there is such a thing as a tesseract, which causes a reaction.

Meg becomes closer with high school student Calvin, who is sweet and feels like an outsider despite his popular status. One afternoon, Meg and Calvin follow Charles Wallace to Mrs. Whatsit’s house, where they meet Mrs. Whatsit’s housemate, Mrs. Who. Their other companion, Mrs. Which, who is pretty much incorporeal, tells Meg and Charles Wallace that the women will help the Murrys find their father.

The strange women help the children tesseract – essentially, jump through a wormhole, or, if you will, a wrinkle in time – to the planet Camazotz, which looks what I imagine North Korea to look like. The inhabitants of Camazotz are regimented in everything: all houses look the same, everyone acts the same, has the same schedule. The planet is run by a disembodied brain, called IT, which can control people through telepathy.

In his escapade, Charles Wallace becomes controlled by IT, and it takes all of Meg’s strength to overpower IT to rescue both her brother and her father. By being an outcast and, most importantly, by being capable of love – something IT does not have – she is able to rescue Charlies Wallace from IT. The reunited family – Meg, Charles Wallace, Mr. Murry, and Calvin, the newest member – return to Earth and reconnect with Mrs. Murry and the twins. (Meg is the oldest, then there are the twins, and then Charles Wallace. I did forget to mention that up higher, thank you. But — gin.)

Having reconnected with the book, I felt … underwhelmed. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have a cozy memory associated with A Wrinkle in Time. Not that I had bad memories – I just had no memories. Growing up, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s other series, about the Austen family. The series included the titles A Ring of Endless Light and The Arm of the Starfish. While I don’t remember anything about the first time I ever read A Wrinkle of Time, I distinctly remember having a nosebleed all over the Curtis Memorial Library’s copy of The Arm of the Starfish, and I’ll bet you ten American dollars that I can go into that library, find that same copy of the book, and find my faded blood still in it. (I wiped it up as best I could.)

My Dear Friend Sarah, however, stated that A Wrinkle in Time was one of her favorite books growing up. So while I still enjoyed my re-read of this book (Amtrak disasters bedamned) and while I’m quite looking forward to the upcoming film adaptation, I’m not sure I’m going to go forward with the series. I might.

I also feel bad that I’m not doing this book as great a service as I could. First of all, I read it seven months ago; and secondofly, while I’m no longer shithoused, or even really buzzed — no, I’m still slightly buzzed. And while I was drunk enough at the beginning of this review to think that drunk!reviewing would be a great idea!, and maybe that’s what’s been keeping my backlog from getting better, in … what’s the opposite of retrospect? In reflection, maybe I should have waited to write this when I was more sober.

But that may have been so far in the future that I may have had to read the book again, and I’m sorry, but I don’t have time for that.

Grade for A Wrinkle in Time: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “A Poisoned Season” by Tasha Alexander

Poisoned SeasonOh boy, WordPress updated their posting screen again. Let’s all cross our fingers and hope that this will work with Sydney the Ancient Laptop’s processors!

(For those not in the know, Sydney the Ancient Laptop is my Dell Inspiron 6400 that I bought in 2007. She still runs Windows XP and iTunes 10. She will eventually be upgraded, but I also don’t want to upgrade, because Sydney is still going … well, not “strong” anymore, but “crawling with a leg wound like Christophe Waltz’s character at the end of Spectre.” Determined to keep going, y’know?)

(Also-also, if anyone reading this wants to talk about Spectre, please reach out to me! I have many thoughts about it that I want to talk to people about!)

A Poisoned Season is the second book in the Lady Emily series, and I continue to love her and her mysteries. The first book was And Only to Deceive, wherein Lady Emily Ashton mourns the death of her husband and becomes friendly with Colin Hargreaves while solving the mystery of her husband’s murder. In A Poisoned Season, Lady Emily fully comes out of her mourning period, and the way that Society reacts to some of her habits and independent tendencies is horrifying to me, a modern reader.

For instance: now that Lady Emily has safely “mourned” her husband for a year, it might be time for her to start looking for another husband. As we learned in And Only to Deceive, Emily admired her husband but didn’t love him while they were married; she only came to love him after she discovered details about his affections towards her and his scholarly pursuits. She engages in friendly banter and the occasional kiss with Colin, but she’s not ready to marry again because she enjoys being her own woman.

Oh, WordPress’s New Posting Thingy: I am not liking you. Getting rid of the “post as thumbnail” option on pictures? Having to manually scroll the posting window down as I type more? I’m not sure I’m going to like this…

So anyway – Society wants Lady Emily to get married again, and even Colin wants to marry her, but she’s just too independent to want to get hitched again. Until she begins to realize that her house isn’t technically her house – it belongs to her husband, and when the heir to the dukedom or whatever it is comes of age, Emily’s going to be out on her ear.

In the midst of all of this soul-searching, there’s this dude who claims to be the missing heir of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette sneaking around throughout Society, trying to get people to believe him long enough to allow him to add to his Marie Antoinette tchotchke collection. Oh, and also, somebody died.

I feel like I’m giving this short shrift, and that’s not my intent. Maybe it’s because I finished reading this book like TWO FREAKING MONTHS AGO and can’t remember more of the details of the plot, or maybe it’s because it’s almost ten o’clock on a Sunday night and I have yet to take my shower and I may have gotten sucked into catching up on The Grinder, which oh my god, I did not know I could love Rob Lowe more after Sam Seaborne and Chris Traeger, but guess what guys? I DO.

ANYWAY, you don’t need to know about my night showering or newfound appreciation for Rob Lowe. I really like this series – Lady Emily is very smart and independent, she has a gentleman caller who loves her enough that even if she doesn’t agree to marry him later, she will still get his entire library, and much like I would be in this situation, the idea of receiving a personal library – look, there’s a reason my favorite Disney movie growing up was Beauty and the Beast, and it wasn’t because of the catchy showtunes. It was because the Beast gave Belle a FRICKIN’ LIBRARY. Find me a girl who grew up at the same time as me who liked to read that DIDN’T develop “getting a library as a gift” into a romantic ideal, and I will show you a cold-hearted bitch.

I think I got off track. And I’m also getting a headache. And I should really go to bed. But I’m on my last episode of The Grinder, and Jason Alexander is playing a director with a bigger Indiana Jones-fetish than me, so I’m going to wrap this up:

If you like strong women, Victorian Society dramas, and intelligent mysteries that also has a fun, romantic element, you should definitely start reading this series. I apologize that I couldn’t do this justice, but let’s look at it this way: I have a backlog of eight freaking books, and I kind of want to get caught up before the end of the year. It would be a novelty! And let’s be real: I’ll be rereading this series in a couple of years, probably, and then I’ll be able to do this review justice.

(Just like the Grinder.)

(Have I mentioned that Natalie Morales is in The Grinder? And that I love her because she played Wendy on The Middleman, which is an excellent show that everyone should watch?)

(Hey look, I got through an entire review without mentioning Hannibal — aw, shit.)

Grade for A Poisoned Season: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “Farewell, My Lovely” by Raymond Chandler

farewell my lovelyAfter The Cocktail Waitress, I decided to continue on my journey through some of the masters of pulp fiction. While I wouldn’t exactly call Raymond Chandler a “pulp” author – his stories are, generally speaking, regarded to aspire to a higher, more “literary,” echelon – – holy shit, Alaina, can you be more of an adjunct literary professor seeking tenure? Christ, I realize it’s 10:30 and you just took a cocktail of melatonin, Aleve, and Claritin, but come on, those aren’t supposed to interact in a way to make you sound like a fuckin’ snob.

Or like you grew up in Southie. Which you fucking didn’t.

Uh, ANYWAY. Basically, Raymond Chandler and his works occasionally get grouped into the “detective novel” genre and not necessarily “pulp” – pulp implies a more lurid tone, more explicit; more sex and violence. Philip Marlowe tends to be on the more restrained side of the equation.

You’ll hopefully remember that my first foray into the world of pulp fiction was a brilliant film by one of the best directors of our generation. I’m referring to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, written and directed by Shane Black. (Oh, did you think — no, that would be incorrect. I haven’t seen that movie yet.) If you haven’t had a chance to watch this masterpiece, please set some time aside in the near future to do so. I promise: you will not be disappointed. It takes place at Christmas, even – you can kick off the season with a bang!

DISCLAIMER: As the calendar has not even approached Halloween as of this writing, PLEASE DO NOT START CHRISTMAS EARLY.

What does this movie – starring Robert Downey Jr., in case I forgot to lead with that – have to do with Raymond Chandler and the beginnings of pulp fiction? The plot of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang follows Harry Lockhart (RDJ), a two-bit thief who gets mixed up in a seedy Hollywood murder mystery, as well as a missing persons case. Strung throughout the plot of the movie is the fact that the femme fatale, Harmony, had a childhood obsession with a pulp series starring detective Johnny Gossamer. The dialogue is very hard-boiled, there’s a slight Chinatown element to one aspect of the plot (think Faye Dunaway’s character), and as Harry is fond of telling his private detective mentor, Perry: the detective always starts out with two cases, but by the end of the book, boom — it’s the same fucking case.

Another relationship that Kiss Kiss Bang Bang has with Farewell, My Lovely? All the act breaks in the movie are titled, and they’re all titled after Raymond Chandler novels. I believe Farewell, My Lovely may be Day 2, but I wouldn’t swear to it in a court of law. It’s been a while since I’ve watched the movie.

Okay, the melatonin just kicked in. Let’s kick this into high gear.

Philip Marlowe is the private detective that stars in Raymond Chandler’s world. He inhabits Los Angeles in the late 1930s, early 1940s, and if you’re picturing Humphrey Bogart in the role, you would be correct, because Humphrey Bogart played Marlowe in the adaptation of The Big Sleep. Ooh, which I have on DVD now! YES. ANYWAY. Marlowe begins Farewell, My Lovely by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. This time, he gets (almost literally) dragged into a bar fight by a paroled convict named Moose Malloy. Moose is looking for his lost love, Little Velma, who used to be a singer at the bar where he and Marlowe run into each other. Only the gin joint where she used to warble dried up, and she didn’t leave any crumbs behind her.

(I’d say I was sorry for that last sentence, but y’all know that I really enjoyed that.)

When no one knows what happened to Velma, Moose starts shooting up the place, then runs off in the kerfuffle, leaving Marlowe to explain what happened and why he was connected to the whole thing when the cops show up. Nulty, a cop who isn’t lucky enough to be only two days away from retirement (based on his attitude), practically shanghais Marlowe into doing his footwork for him. While Marlowe is searching for leads in the middle of nothing, he gets a call to be a bodyguard for a fellow who needs to run out of town and drop a ransom in exchange for a very valuable necklace, belonging to his (the fellow’s) lady-friend. And in this instance I actually mean friend, because the fellow happens to be gay. Marlowe agrees because Nulty’s not actually paying him squat for trying to find a lead on Moose, and everything would have gone okay except for the fact that the whole drop was a setup, Marlowe gets beaned on the head and the fellow gets dead.

As the two cases intersect and become the same fucking case, Marlowe meets two women – one becomes almost his Girl Friday, someone he almost sees himself getting serious over. The other is a classic femme fatale, full of sex and mysteries. Throughout the course of his case(s), Marlowe gets kidnapped, knocked unconscious, drugged, involved with a fake psychic, shot at, and almost drowns. But throughout everything he perseveres, because Marlowe belongs to that most rare of breeds of man: the honest kind. Keep in mind that Nulty’s not paying him, and that Marlowe hasn’t been paid for his bodyguarding work from the fellow, because the fellow is now most certainly dead. He doesn’t have any other reason to pursue either of these cases except for his curiosity and sense of justice. He may not always play the white knight (as evidenced by the deal he cuts with a shady mayor at the end of the book), but his intentions are always of the good.

It should be noted that, as the book was written in the 1940s, you will experience a fair amount of racist and derogatory terminology. So, spoiler alert, I guess.

Marlowe doesn’t have grand aspirations in his life; he’s not looking to make a name for himself, or to climb a political ladder. He’s just searching for truth and justice in a very dark and underhanded corner of our world, using the resources he had available to him while still hoping for an easier outcome:

I needed a drink, I needed a lot of life insurance, I needed a vacation, I needed a home in the country. What I had was a coat, a hat and a gun. I put them on and went out of the room. [p. 238]

When the going gets tough, Marlowe puts his gun in his shoulder holster, his hat on his head, and his feet out the door. He does what needs to be done because in his town, no one else will.

Grade for Farewell, My Lovely: 3.5 stars

Fiction: “Hannibal” by Thomas Harris

hannibalSo, similar to my (latest) “review” of Red Dragon, this won’t be a review of the book I read, but more like … well, I’ve realized that while everyone I know is aware of my vast love for Hannibal, many of them seem to be stymied as to the reasons why I love it so much. So, this will be me trying to put those emotions into words.

There are some movies that I love that I remember seeing for the first time, quite vividly. I’ve talked about this in relation to books I’ve read, but the same can be said for films. An example: I had taped Sunset Blvd. off of AMC when I was in high school, but never got the chance to watch it until I went to college. So one night, I couldn’t sleep, and I popped the VHS into my tiny combo TV/VCR unit, and I watched it in the dark. And I mean, three-in-the-morning dark. I may have had my Christmas lights on that I had hung under my roommate’s top bunk for lighting, but I doubt it. To this day, I cannot watch Sunset Blvd. in anything but pitch blackness. I think Billy Wilder would agree with me in that it’s not a movie made for daylight.

So having said that, I do not have a vivid memory for the first time I ever watched The Silence of the Lambs. I had to have watched it for the first time when I was in high school, because I remember doing impersonations of the “fava beans and a nice Chianti” line in drama club, but other than that … no recollection.

I do remember seeing Hannibal when it came out because my best friend Kerri and I went to see it at the movie theater, and I still remember leaning over during the Pazzi murder scene and whispering, “They’re using the blue filter there because — ”  I can’t remember why; she and I and Amelia had been taking Film Studies as an elective, and at one point we knew what all of the different color filters signified. Not anymore!

I also know I watched Manhunter, the first film adaptation of Hannibal Lecter, itself an adaptation of Red Dragon, at least twice because William Petersen played Will Graham in that movie and I was addicted to CSI: Original Flavor for about three years when it was first on.

So by the time I was a sophomore in college, I’d read all three novels – Red Dragon, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal — and I’d watched three movies: Manhunter, The Silence of the Lambs, and Hannibal. And … that’s it. I certainly don’t recall being obsessed with them or the characters by any means; I certainly don’t remember purchasing six posters for Silence of the Lambs and leaving them in my parents’ basement – it doesn’t seem like something I would have done! By the time 2003, 2004 rolled around, my latest obsession at that point was Arrested Development, so .. I still say a murder wizard planted those posters, Dad.

Fast-foward about ten years later, and almost without warning, Alaina gets sucked into and then becomes obsessed with this “reboot” of Hannibal. What, in God’s name, happened?

Well – storytelling happened.

See, [see?] before Hannibal premiered in 2013, here’s what anyone could say about the life of Dr. Hannibal Lecter:

  • When we meet him in Red Dragon, he has been behind bars for at least three years.
  • We know he was nicknamed “Hannibal the Cannibal” in the press for gruesome murders and cannibalizing.
  • We know that Will Graham was responsible for his capture.
  • We know that Hannibal nearly killed Will during said capture.
  • We know that Hannibal was a psychiatrist at one point, and because he still writes for medical journals and has insight into the sociopathic brain, Will goes to see Dr. Lecter in trying to capture the Red Dragon serial killer.
  • There is tension between Will and Dr. Lecter; the reader is left to assume it’s merely due to the fact that Will caught him.
  • Approximately seven years later (? – I might be wrong about that), Jack Crawford sends his new trainee Clarice Starling to ask Hannibal for help on the Buffalo Bill serial killings.
  • Hannibal helps her, but at the cost of Clarice telling Hannibal about her past and secret fears.
  • Hannibal escapes custody and moves to Italy.
  • In Hannibal, we learn about another one of Hannibal’s victims: Mason Verger, who has offered a reward for capturing Hannibal alive so he can kill him
  • Hannibal returns from Italy and, in a weird confluence and sequence of events, ends up kidnapping Clarice who has been suspended indefinitely from the FBI, and then brainwashes her into loving him, and they spend the rest of their lives happily ever after … ?

Even if people are only familiar with the Silence of the Lambs plot, we know that Hannibal is in jail and as far as we can tell, has always been in jail.

The TV show Hannibal? Shows him out of jail.

Shows him as a practicing psychiatrist. With actual patients.

Shows him as a chef. A cannibal chef.

everything is people

The show basically says “Look, we know Hannibal’s going to end up in jail; you know that Hannibal’s going to end up in jail. But how did he get there? What exactly did he do to end up in that hospital? How did Will find out? Why doesn’t Will really want to go ask Lecter for help with the Red Dragon case, because it feels like there should be more there?” and then the show gives those answers to us and they are glorious and more than we could have ever imagined

Look, dramatic irony is my favorite irony – that’s when we the audience know what is going to happen but the characters do not. We know how Romeo & Juliet is going to end, but Romeo & Juliet do not. As famous blogger Cleolinda Jones is fond of saying, “The people in ______ don’t know they’re in ______.”  This can be used for Dracula and for Hannibal.

We know that the protein scramble Hannibal makes for Will on their first date breakfast meeting contains human lung sausage, but Will doesn’t. So if we’re identifying with Will, we become horrified on his behalf. YOU’RE EATING PEOPLE, you yell at the TV.

And then, we become curious – when is Will going to figure all this out?? When does everyone realize not only that Hannibal is the Chesapeake Ripper, but that he’s serving the Ripper’s victims up literally on silver trays? What is Will’s face going to look like when he realizes that not only is Hannibal a cannibal, but that it fucking rhymes? Who copyrights the phrase “Hannibal the Cannibal”?

I mean, Chilton, obvi. He’s the only jackass with the inbred jackassery to go ahead and copyright the fucking phrase. Goddamit Chilton.

(also – the show made us sympathize with Dr. Frederick Chilton, which is an IMPOSSIBLE task. So, kudos, and keep fighting, Fred!)

Bryan Fuller et. al .are taking something so familiar and turning it on its ear. We know where the landmarkers are – Will catches Hannibal, Hannibal guts him with a linoleum knife, Hanni goes to jail, Will recuperates, fast-forward to the Red Dragon escapade – but we don’t know how we’re going to get there. It’s like, we know we’re going to Disney World, but we’re going to drive all across Canada and back first. Wait, that’s not the best analogy. Because what the writers also did was throw in actual quotes and concepts from the books waaay before they’re supposed to happen.

Ex: In the book Red Dragon, Hannibal sends a letter to Will, telling him he (Will) shouldn’t feel bad about killing Garrett Jacob Hobbs, as God kills people all the time. This letter arrives at Will’s fingertips years after the Hobbs case; in fact, in the book, the case has maybe all of three paragraphs given over to it. In the book, Hannibal is taunting Will, because that’s all Hannibal does to Will.

In the first season of Hannibal, the Garrett Jacob Hobbs case is the first one that Will and Hannibal are pulled into together. Because yes, Hannibal is helping Will and the FBI catch the Minnesota Shrike. Except Hannibal (again, quoting the brilliant Cleolinda Jones), is the WORST AT HELPING, and copycats Hobbs’s kills because he was curious as to what would happen. (It’s a long story.) But Will still shoots Hobbs dead in Hobbs’s kitchen, and in the show, it’s episode 2 where Will is in not-therapy with Dr. Lecter, and Dr. Lecter gives him this piece of wisdom in an effort to absolve Will of his guilt of killing Hobbs. Is Lecter still taunting Will? A bit, but under the guise of concerned therapist. He wants Will to trust him so he can turn him into an acolyte in the future.

So many moments I can point at to illustrate the concept of taking something old and making it new, or winking at the audience. Or just having fun with the whole thing – my favorite scene in the entire series, hands down, is when Hannibal is planning a dinner party, and he has a Rolodex of business cards, and a box of recipes. And he’ll pick a business card, kill that person, and take what he needs for his recipe. In between the killings (which we do not see), we flash back and forth between the FBI’s lab, wherein the lab techs are talking about how these six or seven victims are all missing certain organs, and we flash to Hannibal’s kitchen where he’s preparing and vacuum-sealing said organs.

“Intestines were the only organs missing from this body?”
“Yes, so we’re either looking for someone with short bowels, or the Ripper’s making sausage.”
CUT TO: Hannibal making sausage

You guys, I die every time I watch that scene. It’s priceless.

And if we’re talking about black humor, how about that time when there was a live bird inside a corpse which was stuck inside of a dead horse, and that bird when it came out was a freaking starling

Plus the show has beautiful cinematography and the actors are amazing. Bryan Fuller loves playing with gender and race, so in the show, Jack Crawford is now played by Laurence Fishburne. Dr. Alan Bloom becomes Dr. Alana Bloom, who has feelings for both Will and Hannibal. Freddie Lounds is now short for Fredericka Lounds, and she is AMAZING. Bryan’s said in interviews that if he had been able to get the rights to the Silence of the Lambs characters, he wanted to cast a person of color as Clarice, to see how that upbringing would affect the characterization.

It’s so smart, and wonderful, and what I really enjoyed doing re-reading Red Dragon and Hannibal this summer was to see where the writers were able to take scenes or dialogue or narration from the source material and honor it in a completely new way. Plus, this was probably the first TV show where I’ve actually been intrigued by the idea of being scared.

I mean, look, I don’t watch horror movies. I hate them. And while I’ve watched sci-fi horroresque shows, the highest on those lists are going to be The X-Files and Buffy in terms of grossness and being scared for characters. But I came into both of those shows late – I started watching The X-Files in season 5, practically, and the only episode of Buffy I watched when it aired for the first time was “Chosen.” (That’s the series finale; everything else I watched on DVD or FX reruns.) But with Hannibal, it was clear that things weren’t always going to be what they seemed, so I never knew when or if someone was going to die.

In Red Dragon, Freddie Lounds dies. And he dies horrifically. In Hannibal the show, Freddie is now Ms. Lounds, and Bryan Fuller did not want to see that level of violence against a woman. (He’s been very adamant about that as well – not using sexual violence as plot devices. God bless you, Bryan.) So that entire episode, I was all, “WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN? WHO’S — IS — HOW –” and then WHEN THE VICTIM WAS ANNOUNCED I WAS SHOCKED BECAUSE I DID NOT SEE THAT CHOICE COMING AND IT WAS … AND THE PERSON’S NOT EVEN DEAD

*flails*

I am so glad I watched that episode at my house in the woods by myself, because if I had watched it with people near me, the cops would have been called expecting me to have been murdered.

Okay, two thousand words later, and I still don’t think I did my feelings justice. I was just so impressed with how someone can take such well-known stories and characters, elevate their surroundings and actions to such a wonderful level of art and taste, and yet remain true to the spirit of the source material. I mean, yes, it’s a show about a serial killer. Yes, it’s a show about a cannibal. Yes, people die in grisly ways that we actually get to see on network TV at times, to the utter amazement of me. (YOU CAN SHOW HIS LIPS GETTING BITTEN OFF BUT YOU BLUR A BUTTCRACK ON A RENAISSANCE PAINTING? COME ON, NBC)

But I didn’t watch it for the gore, or the blood, or the violence. I didn’t even watch it for the black humor – that was a wonderful bonus. I watched it because I was so amazed at how something so indelible on pop culture could be reinterpreted and re-imagined into something so breathtakingly new.

And I’m going to miss the fuck out of my crazy cannibal murder husbands show.

Grade for Hannibal, the book: 3.5 stars
Grade for Hannibal, the TV show: ∞ stars

(that symbol is infinity. infinity stars.)