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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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.

Hadestown Album Comparison

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I first discovered the folk opera Hadestown a couple of years ago when I was researching the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, one of the favorites, and found that there was a concept album based on this story. The album was available for listening on YouTube and I was instantly obsessed. Unlike your typical concept album, there are different singers playing the different characters in the story. It feels like the cast recording of a musical and my first thought was that there should be a stage production. Sure enough, there was one in New York but it came and went before I had the chance to see it. So I looked up everything I could find of the production online which was tantalizingly little. Then it was announced a few months ago that a cast recording was to be released and I quickly pre-ordered it off of iTunes and waited for the whole thing to be available with a track released every few weeks to wet my appetite.  

For the purpose of comparison, I am going to go through each track on both of the albums, some of which overlap, and give my thoughts on the story and how it plays out in each version. The original concept album will be referred to as “H” while the cast recording will be referred to as “C”.

C begins with a song called Road to Hell which sets up the setting: a vaguely Great Depression era American south or midwest cum mythological Greece. It also introduces some of the divine players in the story about to unfold, Hermes, the messenger god who acts at the show’s narrator, the Fates, who control the destiny of mortals, and Persephone, queen of the underworld and goddess of spring, and how a young mortal named Orpheus will try to cheat death because of love. H gets right into introducing the lovers Orpheus and Eurydice (Anaïs Mitchell, the songwriter behind Hadestown and Justin Vernon of the band Bon Iver). It’s first track, aptly titled Wedding Song, tells of how Orpheus and Eurydice wish to get married. Eurydice is concerned about how they are going to support themselves but the happy-go-lucky Orpheus assures her that everything will work out for them.

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Road to Hell introduces the story’s themes such as fate and undying love while Wedding Song sets up the struggles that our sweethearts, Orpheus and Eurydice, will face. As Road to Hell says “It was hard times,” which is bad news for our romantic poet Orpheus, who seems like the kind of guy who is very good at wooing a girl but is perhaps not as good at being a husband and provider.

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The second tracks of H and C paint different pictures of the world up above. Livin’ It Up On Top presents the world outside of Hadestown as fruitful, summery, and idyllic. Persephone feels stifled by her marriage to Hades and her life in Hadestown and only feels like she can be herself during the six months of the year she is allowed to spend with the living, who appear to be enjoying themselves greatly and appreciate nature’s bounty.

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While Epic I, which features in both versions, portrays the mortal world in a much bleaker light. Like Road to Hell, it provides the imagery of a railroad line, acting as a River Styx bringing people to the underworld or Hadestown, built by the lost souls who have come under Hades’s sway. The only alternative to starvation and poverty is body crushing drudgery and soul-crushing conformity in Hadestown. We also see Orpheus’s idealism in Livin’ It Up On Top. He values independence over money and is distrustful of those who take more than their fair share and seek to enrich themselves at the expense of others, an attitude which will later put him in conflict with Hades. Way Down Hadestown, which also appears in each version, shows that the world that characters live in is a tough one, so tough that people are willing to sell their souls to Hades to be able to survive.  We also begin to see a disconnect between Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus wants nothing to do with Hadestown and see it as a literal hell-hole but Eurydice is intrigued by its promise of a better life. 

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An interesting adaptation change is that Eurydice’s verses about how great things must be in Hadestown are sung by the fates in the C version, and Eurydice sings her line “Kinda makes you wonder how it feels” in response as if the fates are influencing her later decisions.

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In All I’ve Ever Known, we see that Eurydice’s life has seen a lot of hardship and her love for Orpheus has made her feel more optimistic. Much like in Wedding Song, Orpheus assures his lover that they can face anything as long as they are together. The world around them may be bleak and tough but their love is one of its few bright spots.

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The song Chant in C tracks the passage of time from idyllic summer to harsh winter as well as the souring of the two relationships we see in the story: Orpheus and Eurydice and Hades and Persephone. Hades tries his hardest to please his wayward wife with elaborate gestures but Persephone misses the simpler times back when they were first married and Eurydice is frustrated with Orpheus’s inability to provide for them.

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The desperate and vulnerable Eurydice is easy prey for Hades who is compared to rattlesnake going after a songbird. The imagery of a songbird paints Eurydice as flighty and unable to handle hardship since birds tend to fly away to a warmer climate during the winter.  Hey, Little Song Bird shows Hades luring Eurydice away from Orpheus and her hand to mouth existence. 

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When the Chips are Down is sung by the fates who are trying to convince Eurydice to accept Hades’s offer. In H they come across as mean girls who are mocking Eurydice for her bad life decisions whereas, in C, they are older and more cynical figures influencing the young and naive Eurydice to put her own survival ahead of everything else.

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The C version of Wait for Me features Orpheus looking for Eurydice and being chastised by Hermes for losing track of her. Orpheus convinces Hermes to give him directions on how to get to Hadestown and rescue Eurydice. Despite the hiccups in their relationship, Orpheus’s love for Eurydice is strong enough to see him through to Hell and back.

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Why We Build the Wall gives a closer look at how things operate in Hadestown. The lost souls who end up there are put to work building a wall that they are made to believe will keep out poverty and hardship. This song is in a call and response format with Hades drilling his followers in the tenants of his ideology: that they must build a wall around Hadestown to keep out those who wish to come in and take what they have. Sounds familiar?  The C version shows Eurydice going into Hades’s office and giving him her soul and possibly more. 

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In Our Lady of the Underground, Persephone undermines her husband’s operation by providing his employees with things that will help them forget about their drab existence at a secret speakeasy. This is set up earlier in Way Down Hadestown when Persephone mentions that she is bringing drugs and alcohol back with her to help her get through the winter. The crack in the wall mentioned by Persephone in Our Lady of the Underground is a representation of the flaws in the system that Persephone and Orpheus try to exploit.

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Eurydice begins to regret her decision to come to Hadestown and describes her journey there in Flowers (Eurydice’s Song), which features in H, using imagery suggestive of drug intoxication and being sexually assaulted. The vague nature of her memories of her previous life with Orpheus shows that they have begun to fade. C shows Eurydice’s realization that things in Hadestown are not all she expected in Way Down Hadestown II. Persephone and the fates mock her for her naivety and for getting conned by Hades out of her freedom and her life.

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The fates similarly mock Orpheus in Nothing Changes in H, by saying that he is foolish for believing he can cheat death and rescue Eurydice. This plays out differently in C, with Chant II, where Hades tells the recently arrived Orpheus that he was once an idealistic and romantic young man like him but learned that women are fickle and need to be placated with expensive things.

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Persephone has a similar talk with Eurydice about how she was once a young girl hungry for wealth but learned that love was more important. Hades asks Orpheus to sing him one last song before he destroys him. In H, this song is called If Its True, where Orpheus tries to gain Hades’s pity by singing of how hopeless he feels without Eurydice. C has him use a different tactic: reminding Hades of how he fell in love with Persephone and how all the wealth he has cannot compare with that love in Epic II, which appears later on in H.

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Each version gives us a scene where Hades pounders what do in the situation: either keep Eurydice and feel bad about it or let her go and look weak and undermine his power. H has a song called How Long where Persephone tries to persuade her husband to free Eurydice and let her be with Orpheus but he fears that doing so will make him lose his authority. In the C version, Word to the Wise, the fates get Hades to come to this conclusion, making them arguably the true villains of the story. Hades has one more trick left to play. He allows Orpheus to leave with Eurydice under the condition that he is not allowed to look back.

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Orpheus and Eurydice get a duet in C called Promises where they decide that despite everything that has happened, they still love each other and want to be together. The frequent use of the phrases “I do” and “I will” are reminiscent of wedding vows. Wait for Me has a reprise in C where Persephone is about to leave again for her spring and summer sojourn outside of Hadestown. She and Hades decide to give their marriage a second chance when she returns in the fall. Hades and Persephone are a foil to Orpheus and Eurydice. The mistakes they have made are ones that the younger couple should learn from. Both couples, despite the ups and downs they have gone through, have a strong love and a strong bond.

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H skips right to Doubt Comes In which appears at roughly the same point in each version. It’s the classic scene where Orpheus leads Eurydice out of the underworld, forbidden to look back upon her. The main difference in C is that part of Orpheus’s verses are sung by the fates, who are making Orpheus suspicious of Eurydice and begin to falter in his determination.

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C ends with a reprise of Road to Hell and H ends with a song called I  Raise My Cup to Him where Eurydice and Persephone toast Orpheus in a reverse eulogy, the dead praise and celebrate the living. Road to Hell II ends the story on a brighter note: spring returns and the love between Orpheus and Eurydice survived despite their separation. Those who are familiar with Greek Mythology will know that they will eventually be reunited in Elysium after Orpheus’s death.

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I would highly recommend both versions. The music is beautiful and poetic and the story is nuanced and compelling. But here’s a warning: it’s ending will destroy you emotionally. I think the stage production sounds very well done with all the performers doing a fantastic job. The actor who plays Orpheus, Damon Daunno, has a gorgeous voice and Amber Grey is hysterical as Persephone. Nabiyah Be, who plays Eurydice, is great as well though I prefer Anaïs Mitchell in the original concept album, whose honey and graham crackers voice gives the character a naive quality. I regret not being able to see this production live.

 

Bag Girl Reviews: Voyager by Diana Gabaldon

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I was first exposed to the Outlander series because my mom and my neighbor Michelle watched Starz television adaptation, a ritual to which I was cordially not invited. For this reason, I jokingly called Outlander their “mummy porn.”  Last summer I began renting episodes of season one through YouTube and was quickly hooked, so much so that I had my mom buy me the first two books, Outlander and Dragonfly in Amber.  The third in the series, Voyager, was among the books I received for Christmas and I had planned on reading it while I was on my Bermuda cruise, but was prevented to because Mom would not allow me to bring my tablet, which contains the audiobook I listen along with. So I continued reading it when I returned.

Voyager begins in 1968, twenty years after the end of Dragonfly in Amber. Surgeon Claire Randall travels to Scotland with her grown daughter Brianna and enlists the help of the young historian Roger Wakefield to find out what happened to Jamie Fraser, an eighteenth century Jacobite believed to have died at the battle of Culloden. Claire has spent the last twenty years with her reserved and scholarly previous husband Frank, now dead, but longs for Jamie, the man she married after a mysterious force drew her back in time two hundred years to eighteenth century Scotland and who is Brianna’s real father. With the help of Brianna and Roger, Claire is able to travel through the magical stone circle of Craigh Na Dun and return to her beloved Jamie but finds that her journey has only begun. After Jamie’s nephew, Ian is kidnapped by white slavers, the saga of Claire and Jamie brings us to the exotic and brutal world of colonial Jamaica.

Each of the Outlander novels are ambitious and expansive and Voyager is the most so, running in at over a thousand pages but is a page turner of the first class. Despite now being middle aged, Claire and Jamie still have their sizzling chemistry. The book is an enjoyable adventure, perfect for a voyage of your own.

Bag Girl Reviews: The Hamilton Affair by Elizabeth Cobbs

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In the wake of the smash hit Broadway musical Hamilton, several historical fiction novels have come out which tell the story of the revolutionary it couple Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler, a long overlooked founding mother now reinvented as the ultimate romantic heroine. The first of such books was The Hamilton Affair by author and historian Elizabeth Cobbs.

The story of Alexander Hamilton and Eliza Schuyler has all the ingredients for the perfect period romance: an unlikely couple including a dashing and ambitious hero clawing his way up from the bottom and a beautiful and spirited heroine from a wealthy family, a whirlwind wartime romance, and plenty of scandal and appearances from well known historical figures. But I admit that I could not get into The Hamilton Affair.  Many of the elements of the plot have their basis in historical fact but I did not enjoy them from a storytelling point of view.

My first problem with the story is the portrayal of Eliza and her sister Angelica. Eliza starts off as an outdoorsy tomboy who is uninterested in what is expected of an upper-class eighteenth-century girl. Her real life counterpart was said to be something of a tomboy and enjoyed being outdoors but was also skilled in everything a colonial woman was supposed to know such as sewing and housekeeping.  I have no problem with a girl being a tomboy but it’s a cheap and cliched way of making a female character from a different time period seem down to earth and relatable to modern audiences. In contrast, her older sister Angelica is portrayed as a vain and pretentious ninny who is only interested in finding a husband. Eliza is jealous of her beauty and charm and is dismissive of her. Angelica is used as a foil to Eliza in both The Hamilton Affair and Hamilton. While Eliza in Hamilton is gentle and demure, Angelica is feisty and outspoken. While Eliza in The Hamilton Affair is sensible and down-to-earth, Angelica is vain and flighty. Although both sisters were very different in real-life (Eliza was domestic and unpretentious and Angelica was a glamorous social butterfly) they were very close all their lives. One of the things that I appreciate about Hamilton is that though Angelica and Eliza are presented as foils and both love the same man, they are not pitted against each other; Angelica chooses her relationship with her sister over her feelings for Alexander. Angelica is not my favorite of the Schuyler sisters (I think her character in Hamilton is overrated and find Eliza more interesting), I think she deserves better than she gets in The Hamilton Affair.

The second problem is that I know and do like what is going to happen. Those who are familiar with Hamilton will know that the title character cheats on his wife with the younger, hotter Maria Reynolds. This is a part of the story I usually like to skip over because I am rooting for Alexander and Eliza as a couple. I am not interested in Alexander’s so called moral dilemma and do not feel sorry for him one bit when his life falls apart because of it.

And finally, I do not like how easily Alexander is let off for what he did. The Hamilton Affair excuses his infidelity with the old “he’s only human” justification. Eliza eventually gets over it, though she is tempted by an Iroquois Indian man she had a crush on as a teenager,  and it’s framed as she needs to be the better person and forgive rather than he needs to do something to earn her forgiveness. The book buys into the idea that men cannot control their baser urges and women should be “the better person” and forgive them when they err and god forbid they give the cheating son of a bitch a taste of his own medicine . That may have been how people in this time period though but it annoys me from a modern perspective. For a woman like Eliza, sticking with her husband and patching things up with him would have been her best and most realistic option but I imagine that doing so isn’t easy. Forgiving and moving on is not as easy as simply getting over it.  While in Hamilton, Eliza symbolically cuts her philandering husband out of her life by burning the letters she wrote to him, thus erasing all the proof of her feelings for him. When their son, Philip, dies in a duel, this shared tragedy brings them back together. Alexander has to suffer to earn his wife’s forgiveness, which is more satisfying from a narrative standpoint.

I imagine that some people might enjoy The Hamilton Affair if they are not as puritanical and judgmental as I am when it comes to adultery but I think that it pales in comparison to the musical it is riding on the coattails of.

Bag Girl Reviews: Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Without a Country by Kathyrn Lasky

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Growing up, Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country was an entry in the Royal Diaries series that I always wanted to read but never got a chance to. When I reread Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles last fall, I decided to purchase Queen Without a Country off of Amazon. 

Eleven-year-old Mary Stuart believes that she is destined to rule three countries. By birth, she is Queen of Scotland and she is arranged to marry the heir to the French throne, the frail but good natured Francis. Those around her say that she has a better claim to the English throne than its current occupant. But being a beautiful young royal growing up in the renaissance French court is not the fairy tale one might imagine. Mary and her loyal clique of ladies in waiting, all named Mary (this gets a little confusing at times, I can understand why Reign changed this but did they have to give them such preposterous names as Lola, Greer, Kenna, and Aylee) have to deal with spies and political intrigue, a pedophilic music teacher, and Mary’s treacherous and prickly mother-in-law to be, Catherine de Medici.

I always get a kick out of when I find surprisingly adult elements in books intended for children, such as Signor Marcellini, the music master who comes onto Mary Fleming, the real life counterpart to Reign’s Lola. One needs to keep in mind that Mary and her ladies are supposed to around eleven or twelve and girls in the sixteenth century were considered sexually mature around that age so that by the standards of the time, Signor Marcellini would not be considered a pedophile.  

Like I said with Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles, this book is meant for elementary and middle school aged readers and comes across as somewhat juvenile to me at this point in my life, but I probably would have enjoyed when I was younger. The setting of the highly refined sixteenth-century French court is fascinating and like with Reign, it is meant to be escapism. Many young girls enjoyed fantasizing about being a beautiful princess, wearing gorgeous clothes, and having exciting things happen to you, I know I did. And if there is a historical setting, all the better.  

Bag Girl Reviews: Reign Season 4

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Perhaps the most egregious television shows I can think of is the C.W series Reign, based on the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. The story lines are cliched and melodramatic and give only the slightest nod to the history it is supposed to be based on, the acting is hoaky and terrible, the costumes range from looking like tacky prom dresses to looking like school play costumes. It’s characters behave like your typical C.W style spoiled brats and it’s thin veneer of political drama comes second to bed hopping and petulant rivalries. But the strangest thing is that I got caught up in the show and have a strange soft spot for it.  It is my guiltiest of guilty pleasures. As an aspiring writer and a  lover of history who appreciates historical accuracy and artistic integrity, enjoying this pandering trash makes me feel like a hypocrite. If shows like Downton Abbey, Poldark, and Outlander are like a fine chocolate truffle, Reign is the television equivalent of eating a dozen pixie stixs. You know it is crap and bad for you and that there are better things out there, but sometimes you just need the hollow rush.

In this final season, Mary, Queen of Scots (Adelaide Kane) struggles to find her footing as the Catholic ruler of Protestant Scotland and makes a politically advantageous to Lord Darnley (Will Kemp) who tries to undermine her authority as queen. Her rivalry with Elizabeth I of England (Rachel Skarsten) escalates to an outright grudge match. Meanwhile back in France, Catherine de Medici (Megan Follows) tries to protect her increasingly unstable son Charles IX (Spencer MacPherson).

Poor Adelaide Kane is completely out of her depth as Mary, Queen of Scots. She is trying to be a dignified and queenly figure but comes across more as an overindulged little girl. Rachel Skarsten reads as more of a Regina George style alpha bitch in the role of Elizabeth I than the brilliant and pragmatic politician Elizabeth really was. Both are presented as strong, independent women in a man’s world but, in reality, are little more than the bitchy combatants in a soap opera catfight.

The best performance is given by Megan Follows as Catherine de Medici who is brilliant and steals the show.

There are a lot of bad things you can say about Reign. It is silly fluff and emblematic of the shallowness of the entertainment industry, mostly in how it thinks it needs to sacrifice authenticity in order to pander to the lowest common denominator. My opinion is that if you are going to make a film or television series involving some sort of history, the people who are most likely going to watch it are those who are interested in history, and you should not alienate that demographic. There is a terrible misconception that history is boring and not relevant to people today and this is not a mid set we should encourage or pander to. I find that history is fascinating enough without being turned into a costume ball version of Pretty Little Liars.

Bag Girl Reviews: Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution by Caroline Weber

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If  Marie Antoinette’s legacy is as anything, it is as a fashion icon and a symbol of luxury and decadence. Her name and image has been used to conjure up visions of girly excess: cake, shoes, and elaborate and towering hairstyles. In her own time, France’s doomed last queen used her style choices to forge her own identity, which Caroline Weber explores in her book Queen of Fashion: What Marie Antoinette Wore To The Revolution.

As a member of the rigidly formal and etiquette controlled court of Versailles, Marie Antoinette’s clothing choices were limited. She was expected to lead a shy and retiring life and let a de Pompadour or du Barry hog the limelight, but this was not diva queen bee Antoinette’s style. With the help of the pioneering fashion designer Rose Bertin and her trusty hairdresser, Monsieur Léonard, Marie Antoinette created her own iconic look which provoked outrage as well as legions of imitators. Weber describes each of the fashion trends that Marie Antoinette helped launch, from the fabulously gaudy pouf to the scandalously revealing chemise à la reine, and how her reign as “queen of fashion” coincided with the birth of what we would know as France’s couture industry.

For someone of Marie Antoinette’s status, what you wore was political as well as personal. To wear an elaborate court costume complete with tower pouf, was to be seen as frivolous and uncaring about the plight of the poor; the powder which covered the wigs of the aristocracy was said to be made from flour stolen from hungry peasants. On the other hand, wearing a chemise à la reine and frolicking like a Rousseau inspired Shepherdess was seen as behaving in way which was unseemly for a queen and anti-french; the muslin from which a chemise à la reine was made being a foreign import. Colors, trimmings, and accessories were loaded with meanings which you ignored at your peril. Marie Antoinette, and her instantly recognizable wardrobe, were a fixture of both the burgeoning fashion press and seditious political pamphlets and cartoons. Her poufs and chemises became to epitomize all that was wrong with her and the world she represented.

Caroline Weber has an obvious enjoyment of both history and fashion which comes across in the book, which is well written and engaging, as side from a couple of language ticks which bugged me for some reason. She over uses the words “sartorial” and “ci-devant”; if you were to take a drink every time those phrases appear, you would quickly pass out.

Bag Girl Reviews: Farewell My Queen

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Since I’ve been on kind of a Marie Antoinette kick this summer, I decided to revisit a film I’ve heard a good deal about and first watched about a year ago. What inspired me to check it out was that Frock Flicks did a review of it this week and talked about the “creative liberties” taken with its costumes and plot.

Based on a novel of the same name by Chantal Thomas, Farewell My Queen follows Sidonie Laborde (Léa Seydoux) on the eve of the French Revolution and the final days of life at the Palace of Versailles. Sidonie works as a reader to Queen Marie Antoinette (Diane Kruger), to whom she is fanatically devoted. The Queen enlists Sidonie in a plot to help her hated favorite, the Duchess de Polignac (Virginie Ledoyen), flee the country.

Farewell My Queen is wonderfully atmospheric and goes into depth about the intricacies of life at Versailles. As a reader or lectrice, Sidonie is pretty much a servant who works behind the scenes and does not live in the luxury we associate with the fabled palace. She is an unimportant bit player in court life and her purpose as character is to provide a point of view for the plot’s events and the trials faced by Marie Antoinette. This is what is known as an Ishmael, a Watson, or a p.o.v. character, a character through whose eyes we see a more compelling central figure.

One of the film’s most controversial additions is the relationship between Marie Antoinette and the Duchess de Polignac, who are shown to have a romantic, if not sexual, bond. Historians have long speculated about the nature of the intense connection between Marie Antoinette and her close friends the Duchess de Polignac and the Princess de Lamballe. Jean-Jacques Rousseau set the fashion for passionate, quasi-romantic friendships between women with his novel Julie ou La Nouvelle Heloise and the queen, princess, and duchess may have been simply following this trend, or so suggests Antonia Fraser. Frock Flicks criticized how in one scene, Marie Antoinette frankly tells Sidonie that she is “attracted” to de Polignac, saying that it was simply too frank for a person living in the 18th century, when homosexual and lesbian intercourse was illegal and modern notions of sexual orientation did not exist. Marie Antoinette often compliments Sidonie’s youthful beauty and is implied to be attracted to her as well. Unfortunately, cinema tends to use female same sex relationships simply for the purpose of male titillation. Farewell My Queen uses girl on girl sexual tension but does not go all the way with it. 

I would recommend watching Farewell My Queen, if only to get a different perspective on the well-known Marie Antoinette story.