Bag Girl Reviews: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell.

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Sarah Vowell is an American historian and author known for her snarky and irreverent writing style and unconventional way of handling non-fiction prose. My father is an admirer of her and her work and that is how I am aware of it. When I decided to write my term paper on the Marquis de Lafayette and the beginnings of America’s relationship with France, I was reminded of this book and chose to use it as one of my sources. Vowell’s writing is unique among history books in that they have a much less formal and pedantic tone than is typically associated with the genre. Her books read more like Jack Kerouac’s On The Road than the history texts students are made to read in school. The structure of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is based around Vowell’s trips to sites associated with her subjects and she often goes into descriptions of the people and places she encounters on her excursions. As someone with a penchant for history related vacations, I find this format enjoyable.

Vowell begins the book with the question “How did the Marquis de Lafayette win over the stingiest, crankiest tax protestors in the history of the world?” The most fascinating question to ponder about this unlikeliest of founding fathers is why and how did a teenage French aristocrat end up becoming an important figure in the cause of American independence and wholeheartedly embraced, and was embraced by, a country so different from his own. Vowell’s central theme is what Lafayette, as one of America’s first national celebrities, was one of the few unifying figures in American history, which is riddled with social and political division.

During the research period for this book, Vowell visited a number of Lafayette related sites such as the Chateau de Chavaniac in the Auvergne region of France, Lafayette’s childhood home and the Brandywine Battle Site, where Lafayette fought his first battle as a general in the Continental Congress, and the sites of other battles where Lafayette fought such as Monmouth and Yorktown. Because Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is as much a travel narrative as a historical one, Vowell finds ways of incorporating these experiences into the narrative she is telling. Vowell describes her approach to history as thus “Having studied art history, as opposed to political history, I tend to incorporate found objects into my books,” she writes. “Just as Pablo Picasso glued a fragment of furniture onto the canvas of ‘Still Life With Chair Caning,’ I like to use whatever’s lying around to paint pictures of the past — traditional pigment like archival documents but also the added texture of whatever bibs and bobs I learn from looking out bus windows or chatting up the people I bump into on the road.” The final product is a hodgepodge of historical fact and amusing anecdote.

Vowell explores Lafayette as both a person and as symbol for both the Americans and the French of a relationship that was tense and complex from the beginning. Lafayette managed to form an alliance between two vastly different countries (the curmudgeonly and puritanical Americans and the haughty and effete French) which lasted over the centuries. He tried to use his revolutionary credentials to cool the worst excesses of the French Revolution but barely managed to get out of it with his head intact. In 1824, the sixty-seven year old Lafayette visited the now United States and was met with a superstar’s welcome. The 1824 American tour elicited the equivalent of a modern day media frenzy with crowds of thousands appearing to see the elderly Lafayette wherever he went. Entrepreneurs profited from the Lafayette mania through the very American phenomenon of commemorative souvenirs.

The title Vowell chose for her book Lafayette in the Somewhat United States refers to the main theme of the text, that Americans have been traditionally a divided people, broken up into a number of social, political, religious, and racial factions, and unwilling to cooperate and agree amongst themselves and other countries but Lafayette was one of the few things that united the American people and united them with France. Lafayette embraced America wholeheartedly and the feelings were mutual as the Lafayette mania of 1824 shows.

Almost as soon as the first Europeans arrived on North American soil, they began to squabble pettily with one another and their relationship with the outside world was marred by misunderstanding and outright xenophobia. The decision to break away from Europe and form their own society was much easier than coming to a consensus as to who should run that society and how it should be run. In today’s socio-political climate, the growing pains of the New United States feel familiar, relevant, and perhaps comforting. Viciousness, pettiness, and conflict are far from anything new in American political life and the country has gone through some nasty periods of strife but always come through it. One of the few things that can bring its diverse peoples with their diverse values together is a shared reverence for its founding fathers.

One of the things I find fascinating about studying the founding fathers, and I get the impression that Sarah Vowell does too, is that once you get past the image of wise and infallible sages that posterity created for them, you find that they are relatably flawed. Vowell enjoys affectionately taking her subjects down a peg. Washington and Lafayette were great men but even they had their shortcomings. Lafayette’s disobedience to the orders of the French government and departure for the Americas was the ultimate act of teenage petulance and rebellion and Washington was saddled with a position that no mere mortal could possibly handle without a lot of strain. We find stories of their outbursts and petty infighting interesting and amusing because such behavior is understandable and relatable. Who has not talked smack about someone they do not like.  

As much as I love history, I struggle with reading history books as do many people. The genre has a not totally undeserved reputation for being dry, intimidating, and unapproachable. This is why Sarah Vowell’s books come as a breath of fresh air. Her snarky, rambling prose filled with slang and pop culture references is the exact opposite of the textbooks I had to slog through for my history classes. I am also reading W.E Woodward’s biography of Lafayette as research for the term paper I am writing and saying that getting through the book is a chore to get through is putting it mildly. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States is an ideal book for people with an interest in history but struggle with five hundred page biographies filled with footnotes, annotations, and other appendices.

Vowell’s informal and irreverent writing style makes the book more accessible than those of her peers but does not feel dumbed down. Her prose has the feeling of a casual conversation with an intelligent, interesting, and eccentric person. The road trip format of Lafayette in the Somewhat United States I find enjoyable as someone who loves to travel and whose childhood family trips were to historic sites such as Gettysburg and Colonial Williamsburg. The text is cobbled together from both the highbrow discourse of historians and conversations with the random people one encounters during a road trip. This style is effective because it shows how history relates to the world outside of academia. Vowell enjoys taking digs at America’s intertwined reverence and ignorance of its own history. She is tackling a well known but not understood subject. Most people have a vague knowledge of the American Revolution or the Civil War but have little interest in studying deeper into the subjects.  Yet we trot out our god-like adoration of the founding generation each Fourth of July and the Civil War still evokes violent feelings even today. Historic sites are popular and lucrative tourist destinations yet no one seems to want to pay tax money for their upkeep.

I would recommend Lafayette in the Somewhat United States especially if you are interested in the Revolutionary War Era and or Franco-American relations.

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A Bag Girl Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving Traditions

Because I am a huge fan of Broadway, I have watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade for years because Broadway frequently features into the parade’s yearly lineup. Musical numbers from shows such as Wicked and Hairspray are some of the highlights from past parades I can remember off the top of my head. Broadway stars like Cheyenne Jackson and Jonathan Groff have also made appearances. You just have to shift through all the annoying talking heads and screaming crowds.

Today when I tuned into the parade, the first thing I saw was a filmed performance of a song from the musical Waitress which I was in and out of because I have no interest in Waitress.

Cue the usual giant balloons shaped like cartoon characters (Pikachu from Pokémon was always my favorite), marching bands, pop stars on floats, and two minutes of content before five minutes of commercials. As usual, I just want the talking heads to shut up. Imagine being a small town high school marching band or cheerleading team who finally makes it to the big time and their entire community tunes in the watch them, only to have two morons talk through it. People want to watch the parade not listen to idiots yammer about the parade.

Christopher Jackson from Hamilton made an appearance talking about a television show he’s on right now. Other Hamilton cast members Leslie Odom jr. and Mandy Gonzales also showed up. Odom was riding the Sesame Street float and Gonzales was also talking with the heads.

The month or so between Thanksgiving and Christmas is one of my favorite time of year and the arrival of Santa Claus at the end of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is the perfect way to kick off this most joyous of seasons. I confess that I felt rather emotional when Santa showed up this year.

As an unashamed dog lover, watching the National Dog Show is one of my best loved Thanksgiving traditions. My mom and I were squealing over how cute the dogs are.

My favorite in the hound group was a whippet named Anna. The announcer said all of the dogs in her litter were named after characters from Downton Abbey which was what made her my favorite. Anna took home the prize for the best hound dog.

My favorite herding dog was an Old English Sheepdog named Sofia and she won her category.

The dog I was rooting for in the working category was the Samoyed because that’s such a beautiful breed of dog but the Portuguese Water Dog won instead.

I was rooting for the West Highland White in the terrier group because my aunt owns a dog in that breed. Louis, the American Staffordshire Terrier won and I was glad of the because the announcer was talking about how Louis’s owner brings him to visit V.A. hospitals. Louis was ecstatic when he won and was jumping up and down.

Chevalier King Charles Spaniels and Japanese chins are among my favorite dog breeds, so I wanted either of them to win the Toy Category but I was also rooting for the Yorkshire terrier since another of my aunts owns one of them. The Brussels Griffon took home the prize.

My mom said that the Red and White Irish Setter was pretty and that one became my favorite in the Sporting Category. Mom then said that I should choose from the ones the show walking around the ring because those are the ones with the best chance of winning. So I choose the golden retriever because golden retrievers are perhaps my favorite dog breed, and this particular dog, Gunner, is also a therapy dog but the springer spaniel won.

My favorite non-sporting dogs were the Dalmatian, Seven, the Boston Terrier, Prince, and French bulldog, who won with the Dalmatian in second place.

Our two favorites to win best in show were Anna the Whippet and Babe the French Bulldog, who appeared to be the frontrunners and audience favorites but the Brussels Griffon, Newton, won best in show.

High School Musical, Heathers, Spring Awakening, and Young Broadway

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I recently discovered a Youtube channel called Musical Theater Mash which uploaded a video entitled “The High School Musical Conspiracy” whose thesis was that the High School Musical franchise, love it or hate it, made musical theater “cool” and brought it to a younger audience. I myself am a perfect example of the phenomenon that Musical Theater Mash illustrates. High School Musical came out when I was in elementary school, so I was the perfect age for it. This was around the time when I was getting interested in Broadway musicals and High School Musical was probably how a lot of kids my age became theater fans. We would move onto shows like Wicked, Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables which are the gateway drugs of the theater world.

Each age has its edgy and transgressive theater. The turn-of-the-center had Puccini’s La Boheme. The 1950s had Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and the 60s and 70s had Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar. The theater kids who were slightly older than me had Rent and Avenue Q. When the High School Musical age bracket hit their teens, the big shows were Next to Normal and America Idiot. We had just about missed Spring Awakening (which would make a brief resurgence in 2015 due to it short-lived revival) and a few holdovers from our predecessors, such as Rent and Wicked were still around along with perennial theater kid staples like Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables. The theater kid scene during my adolescence, roughly 2007-2014, was a time between times. It was after things like Rent, Avenue Q, and Spring Awakening, which we liked in spite of, perhaps because of, the fact that we were told that they were too adult for us, and before smash hits like Hamilton, and Dear Evan Hansen, a large portion of whose fan bases are made up of teens and young adults.

The conclusion of “The High School Musical Conspiracy” is that the most noteworthy musicals of the past several decades, such as Rent and Hamilton have been geared towards younger audiences and have themes like rebellion and dissatisfaction with society which resonate with adolescents and young adults and use a more contemporary style of music. I was fortunate enough to a part of the Itunes/Youtube generation and live a world where one can have access to the cast recording of shows they might otherwise never get to experience. It is much easier to search up bootlegs on Youtube than spend several hundred dollars on theater tickets. This has lead to the rise of cult hits like Bonnie and Clyde (which famously closed after a month) and Heathers (which never made it past off-Broadway). Most of their fanbases never got to see them live and only know about them through bootlegs and original cast recordings. Bootlegs are controversial in the theater world but it is strangely appropriate that these tales of youthful criminality be experienced through a technically illegal activity.

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Heathers and Spring Awakening are musicals that I experienced in similar ways. I started off by listening to a few of the songs before finally getting to see a bootleg several years later. They both have a dark tone and deal with the uglier side of being a teen. Spring Awakening is a melodramatic cautionary tale while Heathers finds sardonic humor in even its most messed up moments.

Both musicals take place in the past (Spring Awakening is set in 1891 while  Heathers is set in 1989) and are very much stories of their time yet speak to timeless issues that young people (Spring Awakening specifically focuses on burgeoning sexuality and overly strict parenting while Heathers is about clique and popularity culture and how psychologically damaging it can be). Veronica Sawyer and Melchior Gabor, the snarky, diary writing protagonists respectively, each directly or indirectly cause the deaths of several characters (Veronica and her boyfriend J.D. manage to off Heather Chandler, the head of the Heathers, and jerk jocks Ram and Kurt while Melchior is unable, despite his best efforts, to prevent his best friend Moritz’s suicide and gets his lover Wendla pregnant, leading to her death from a botched abortion). The two stories also share a theme of teenage suicide (Moritz commits suicide and Veronica and J.D.’s m.o is making the deaths of their victims look like suicides). 

The characters of Heathers are fortunate enough to live in a more permissive time (the late 1980s where premarital sex and booze and drug-fueled parties are facts of high school life) than the characters of Spring Awakening (the straight-laced, buttoned-up 1890s where such debauchery would have been unthinkable). But adults in both eras appear to be equally out of touch and hypocritical: the adults in Spring Awakening are cruel (the teachers) or at least overbearing (Frau Bergmann, Wendla’s mother, and Herr Stiefel, Moritz’s father) while their counterparts in Heathers are either abusive (Big Bud, J.D.’s father), self-serving (Miss Fleming, the flaky hippie English teacher), or absent (Mr. Sweeney and Mr. Kelly, Ram and Kurt’s fathers).  The few positive parental figures (Frau Gabor, Melchior’s mother, and the Sawyers, Veronica’s parents) are unable to prevent the tragedies which befall their children.

Both musicals follow High School Musical’s lead: a story about teenagers set in a high school about the pressure to conform to society’s expectations feature recognizable teenage types and un-understanding parents. High School Musical, as insufferable as it is another over the age of twelve, may have contributed something positive to the world: the rise of musicals like Spring Awakening, American Idiot, Heathers, and Dear Evan Hansen.

Heathers film and musical: a Bag Girl Comparison

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I have an unfortunate habit of discovering popular culture too late, especially when it comes to musicals. I discovered Rent and Spring Awakening in 2007, when both musicals were set to close, Bonnie and Clyde in 2014, two years after that musical met its demise, and Pierre, Natasha, and the Great Comet of 1812 last summer when it was on its way out. 2014 was also when I fell down the dark, scary rabbit hole that is tumblr. Some of the people I followed were talking about a musical version of the 1989 cult hit Heathers that was playing off-Broadway. Heathers is a sort of edgier proto Mean Girls, an immensely quotable look at teenage girl drama. A black comedy which satirizes high school popularity culture and how people sensationalize and glamorize youth related tragedies such as teen suicide and school shootings.

Veronica Sawyer (played by Winona Ryder in the 1989 film and Barrett Wilbert Weed in the musical) is on the outs with her group of friends, the most popular clique at her high school, known as the Heathers, when she meets J.D. (Christian Slater and Ryan McCartan respectively) an edgy outsider with plans to end the tyranny of the Heathers and their ilk. Veronica and J.D’s m.o. is dispatching their victims and making it look a suicide. The film’s dark comedy comes for the extreme behavior of its characters and how the community reacts to the supposed suicides of Heather Chandler (the head of the Heathers) and Ram and Kurt (two ass hole jocks) are treated in a shallow, overblown way. These students who were hated while alive are deified after their deaths and Miss Fleming, the school’s flakey English teacher uses these events as an excuse for touchy-feely “togetherness”. Heathers mocks how something as tragic as teenage suicide is rebranded as a trendy cultural phenomenon, exemplified in how there is an in-universe hit song called Teenage Suicide: Don’t Do It, a catchy new wave tune by a fictional group called Big Fun.

This is a film that I discovered at precisely the right time. I was in eighth grade and in the middle of the closest thing I had to an edgy outsider phase. This was a dark period in my life and I was bullied a bit but the kids who were my tormentors were the punk kids that no one liked rather than the popular ones. When I got to High School, the kids who would be the stereotypical populars were cordial to me. I pretty much flew under the radar during my teen years; indifferent to the world and it was indifferent to me. Heathers is a movie I have always enjoyed though I would not say it’s one of my favorites.

Heathers the musical follows the plot of the movie fairly closely with a few changes. It’s opening number Beautiful shows how Veronica fell in with the Heathers, events which happened in the past by the beginning of the movie. It is mentioned in Beautiful that Veronica is senior in high school while in the movie she’s a junior. The party where Veronica runs afoul of Heather Chandler is thrown by Ram and Kurt rather than being held at a college. This is also the scene of the humiliation of Martha Dunnstock (an obese minor character in the film who is promoted to Veronica’s former best friend in the musical). In the following scene, the movie has J.D climb in through Veronica’s Bedroom window and they have their first sexual encounter in the backyard. The musical has Veronica climb through J.D.’s window and they have sex in his bedroom in the both hilarious and romantic Dead Girl Walking.  The second act funeral for Ram and Kurt, who J.D and Veronica made people think were romantically involved with each other and killed themselves in a suicide pact, features their fathers confessing to being in a homosexual relationship with each other and sharing a public kiss.

Barrett Wilbert Weed as Veronica comes across as more dorky and awkward than her screen counterpart played by Winona Ryder. Ryan McCartan as J.D seems more fanatically earnest than how Christian Slater’s slick and sarcastic performance portrays the character.  J.D appears as a more sympathetic character in this version. His death at the end due to throwing himself in Veronica’s place onto a bomb he had previously intended to use to blow up the school appears as a redemptive act.

The musical’s 80s rock-inspired score is well done and goes from being highly comic to being achingly tragic and romantic, often at the same time. I would recommend it, especially if you are a fan of the original movie. If you have not seen the movie, then I would recommend that as well.

Bag Girl Halloween Special: A Review of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe and An Evening in Salem

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During November and December of 2010, I spent a good amount of time in Boston for follow up doctor’s appointments after being released from Children’s Hospital following my second and third heart surgeries. Near Children’s Hospital is a Barnes and Noble, where my mom poked around while waiting for the next doctor’s appointment. Barnes and Noble sells composite volumes of the works of a number of authors with elaborate leather bound covers ( I received one which contains the novels of Jane Austen that Christmas) one of which is called The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe, which I purchased during one of the many Barnes and Noble gift cards I received as get-well-soon presents. In honor of Halloween, I decided to pull out this book and read through its highlights.

The Raven and Annabel Lee are Poe’s best-known poems and both deal with lost love and untimely death. Deceased loved ones show up a lot in Poe’s work and are a case of art imitating life since Poe’s beloved wife Virginia died young. He is quoted as saying “the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetic topic in the world.” The narrator of The Raven is sunk in grief and depression following the death of his sweetheart/wife Lenore. The name Lenore is frequently used to rhyme with “Nevermore” the raven’s reply to each of the narrator’s questions about God and life after death, and the repetitious use of these two words is used to show how the narrator is constantly reminded that Lenore is “Nevermore” or dead. The poem’s frequent use of onomonopias such as “knock” and “croak” make it a poem meant to be read aloud and perfect for a dramatic reading.  Premature death to illness (most frequently tuberculosis) was all too familiar to Poe and his nineteenth-century contemporaries who were passionate mourners. Annabel Lee epitomizes the almost necrophilic reverence with which deceased women are treated in Poe’s writing. Its narrator sees their dead sweetheart as an angelic and heavenly figure and treats her seaside tomb as a shrine. Lenore in The Raven is characterized as a seraphimal presence in a similar way that Annabel Lee is. Women appear in the Poe oeuvre as distant, celestial, forever young and beautiful objects to be pined for and worshipped almost as a saint. Death does not separate a lover from the object of their affection but rather increases his ardor for her.

The Tell-Tale Heart is another of Poe’s works that desire an aloud reading for the reader to get its full effect. It is similar in structure to The Raven: the narrator of both pieces is haunted by an event in the past (the death of Lenore; the murder of the old man) and both rely heavily on sound (the knocking and croaking of the raven; the beating of the old man’s heart). The ending of The Tell-Tale Heart masterfully builds up to its climax at a tempo which resembles an accelerating pulse as the narrator is driven to confess their crime. Like the raven symbolizes grief and lost love, the beating heart represents the narrator’s insanity (is the sound there or is it all in their head?) and guilt (the narrator cannot bear this guilt any longer and releases this burden by confessing to their crime).

Untimely death from disease was an unfortunate and inescapable reality of nineteenth-century life. In The Masque of the Red Death, a prince and his courtiers try to escape from a plague by secluding themselves inside the prince’s lavish mountain castle, where they try to forget about the horrors going on in the outside world by partying. The castle contains a loud, booming clock which startles and dumbfounds the guests whenever it marks the hours. When the clock strikes midnight, a red shrouded figure wearing with a skull face appears, representing the disease which the partygoers seek to avoid and are later killed by. Death appears in Poe’s writing as an unavoidable and inevitable part of life. It will get you in the end, no matter how rich and privileged you are, and it’s only a matter of time.

The themes found throughout Poe’s work such as madness, the inevitability of death and decay come into place in The Fall of the House of Usher. It’s narrator is called to visit his childhood friend Roderick Usher at his dilapidated ancestral mansion. Roderick and his sister Madeline are the last of their family line and Roderick is deeply depressed because Madeline is wasting away from a chronic illness and becomes more and more paranoid and insane until he has a mental breakdown and believes that the recently deceased Madeline was buried alive. The title The Fall of the House of Usher has a double meaning: the Usher family ancestral mansion collapses in on itself at the end of the story and with the deaths of Roderick and Madeline, the Usher family bloodline is extinct. We are given the impression that it is the corruption of Usher family (Madeline is sickly and Roderick is insane) has eaten away at the family legacy and its collapse is inevitable.

Jasmine and I took the three o’clock shuttle into downtown Salem and walked to Salem Cinema. Downtown was crowded and alive with people dressed up in a variety of costumes. At four o’clock, Jasmine and I attended a screening of a documentary called The History of Halloween. The documentary was interesting but I found it a bit silly and pandering. Jasmine was upset by the fact that people in the middle ages used to cull black cats because they thought they were bad luck. This is one of the factors which led to the outbreak of the bubonic plague. After the movie, we watched to look in these Wiccan shops that Jasmine likes but Coven’s Cottage was closed and there was a line to get into Hex. Walking through the downtown area, we saw someone dressed up as Pennywise from It, a man playing Tom Petty songs on his guitar, and what Jasmine refers to as “religious freaks” who were berating people for their sinful ways. Jasmine and I wanted to end our evening by getting drinks at Rockefeller’s but the wait there was forty-five minute to an hour long wait, so we ended up being home by six when most people were starting to go out for the evening.

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I finished up the evening by watching the 1964 film version of The Masque of the Red Death starring Vincent Price.