Love, Simon is a film that Jasmine and I have been waiting to come out (so to speak) for a while and last Friday, we finally got to see it. We loved it and all it is doing for LGTB representation in media.
Love, Simon is a film that Jasmine and I have been waiting to come out (so to speak) for a while and last Friday, we finally got to see it. We loved it and all it is doing for LGTB representation in media.
After I returned back to Salem State after going home for Easter Weekend, Jasmine and I sat down to a double feature of Jesus Christ Superstar Live staring John Legend, an enjoyable and spectacular television performance of the groundbreaking Andrew Lloyd Weber musical which made me cry, and Lost Boys, a fun 80s vampire movie which made me throw up.
I started a Youtube series called J.A.R reviews where my friends Jasmine, Ashley, and I talk about the movies we watch together. My choice for our first video was Tulip Fever (2017) which was recently added to Netflixs.
Tulip Fever is set in 1630s Amsterdam during the “Tulip Mania,” when tulips, then an exotic novelty, caused the first recorded speculative bubble. Sophia (Alicia Viksander) a young woman married to a wealthy and much older merchant (Christophe Waltz) begins a risky affair with Jan (Dane Dehann) a painter hired to do her portrait. Meanwhile, Maria (Holliday Granger), Sophia’s servant, becomes pregnant and is separated from her lover. Sophia and Maria plot to pass off Maria’s baby as Sophia’s and Sophia and Jan speculate on the tulip marker in order to get money so they can run away together.
I am a huge fan of the art and aesthetics of 17th Century Holland and the production design of the movie looks straight out of the paintings of artists like Vermeer. It’s a beautiful looking film and its a shame it tells a love story I couldn’t bring myself to care about.
*** WARNING: SPOILERS***
Much of the first two books of the novel Clarissa or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson is taken up with letters written between the heroine, Clarissa Harlowe, and her best friend, Anna Howe. The contents of these letters frequently discuss the most complicated and important question that young women in the eighteenth century would have to deal with: who they should they marry?
Clarissa’s main conflict so far has been whether or not she should bow to family’s pressure to marry the rich but repulsive Rodger Solmes or accept the protection of the dashing but rakish Robert Lovelace. Rejecting or accepting suitors is one of the few areas where a gentile young woman like Clarissa had a say in their life and often that was not even the case. Marriages were arranged by your families and dictated by the demands of your position in society with the feelings of those involved given very little consideration. What Clarissa is going through is an extreme example of what many young women in the eighteenth century went through: pressure to marry someone they do not love or even like.
The central conceits of the story, which Richardson is trying to subvert, are the old adages that all girls want bad boys and a reformed rake makes the best husband. Clarissa insists that she was no particular interest in Lovelace but always comes to his defense when people bad mouth him. This shows the complexity and ambiguity of Richardson’s writing. Because the story is told through letters, Clarissa and Lovelace’s relationship has a “he said/she said” element to it. Despite her protestations that she is not attracted to Lovelace, we get a sense that she is lying to herself. Lovelace is a man who has seduced and ruined the reputation of many women while Clarissa is a woman of great virtue and integrity. She does not want to admit that she has fallen for Lovelace’s charms. Lovelace uses the implication that her love can reform him to try to woo Clarissa but we can tell that this is only a ploy. Anna Howe is being courted by the respectable and devoted but dull Mr. Hickman who she, proto Jane Austen heroine that she is, enjoys making the victim of her sharp tongue: “If a man is rash enough to woo me, he must take me as I am.” Hickman is the suitor encouraged by Anna’s mother and he is framed as a good man who would make a good husband.
Upper Class women like a Anna and Clarissa would never have to work or be able to pursue a career, so choosing a husband would be decision that would define the rest of their lives. Marrying a good man with a comfortable income would lead to a happy and stable life while the opposite could lead to a life of misery. Through the letters written by Anna and Clarissa, Richardson explores what makes a man a good suitor and how a girl should choose who to marry. Should she follow her heart or the demands and expectations of her family? Should she chose someone attractive and exciting like Lovelace or someone respectable and reliable like Hickman.
For months, I’ve been planning on visiting my brother, Tom, and his girlfriend, Gabi during my spring break. They moved to Brooklyn during the Fall and from what they’ve told me it looks like a cool place.
On Thursday, I took the 3:15pm train from South Station in Boston which arrived in New York’s Penn Station at 7:21pm, where Tom and Gabi picked me up. Gabi made reservations at this restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen called Bea, a great little place with a theme of black and white photographs and old movies.
I had the macaroni and cheese; Gabi had the margarita pizza with pancetta; Tom had the pork dumplings. We shared some of our food with each other and it was delicious. As I was going to the bathroom, they were playing La Bamba by Richie Valens, one of my favorite songs of the 1950s.
I would definitely recommend Bea. The decor, food, and music were all amazing.
Gabi got a text from her friend Eva, saying that she was going to perform to a bar in Brooklyn called “Flowers for all Occasions.” We took the subway to the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, where the bar is situated. “Flowers for all Occasions” is exactly the type of place I wanted to go to when I decided to go to Brooklyn: a weird little, hole-in-the-wall, hipster dive bar. It is decorated like an elementary school art classroom (silver foil, cardboard traffic cones, and paper mache monster heads on the ceiling; Christmas lights and splotches of paint on the walls), weird music is played, and it has the highest concentration of people with mullets that I’ve ever seen. It is an interesting place, very artsy and crazy and I would love to go back.
After breakfast on Friday, Tom, Gabi, and I took their dog, Tyson, for a walk in a cemetery near where they live. When we were done with the walk, Gabi and I took a train downtown to find the nearest TKTS kioks. Tom had work, so he and Tyson returned home. At TKTS, Gabi and I tried to figure out what show we wanted to see. We ruled out Anastasia, our first choice, because it was getting mediocre reviews. The tickets for Carousel, our second choice, were too expensive, so we decided to see Chicago. After getting our tickets and walking around for awhile trying to figure out what we were going to do, we stopped at an Au Bon Pain to get a snack and use the bathroom.
Tom and Gabi have another apartment that they rent through Air B&B and Gabi had to return home and it get ready for guests, so I crashed on the couch for about an hour, watching Youtube videos and cuddling with Tyson. When Gabi was done, we took the subway to the Greenwich Village area of Manhattan. We walked through Washington Square Park and under the Washington Square Arch.
Gabi had a gift card for a restaurant chain called Bareburger, so we went to one in Greenwich Village for lunch. I had a hotdog in a pretzel bun which was absolutely wonderful but the service at Bareburger was terrible. Our waitress was a total space case. After lunch, Gabi showed me this bookstore called “The Strand” which has racks and racks of every book you could possibly think of. I felt like Belle during that scene in Beauty and the Beast where the Beast gives her his massive library.
I bought A Game of Throne, the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, The Last Olympian, the last book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, some pins for my backpack, and a pair of Abraham Lincoln socks for my friend Jasmine.
Our next stop was a nail salon called “Think Pink” where Gabi got a manicure, then a consignment shop called “Beacon’s Closet” where I bought a pair of tights with a black seem a long the back which looks like stockings from the 1940s. Gabi was looking for a pair of shoes to wear with an outfit for a wedding and got these really nice black heels. We looked in an Urban Outfits until it was time for our six o’clock dinner reservation at a restaurant called Rosemary’s, where Gabi sometimes work. Rosemary’s is truly a gem; the food was fantastic and the service was exemplary. I had the rigatoni in marinara sauce and the tiramisu for dessert, both of which were wonderful.
Our tickets were for eight o’clock and we barely made it to the Ambassador Theater in time for the show. We walked in during the open number “All That Jazz.” I’ve seen the movie version of Chicago a number of times but I haven’t watched it in a while, so I’ve almost forgotten how good the music is. Gabi and I thought that the actress playing Roxie had great comedic timing but we didn’t much care for the actress playing Velma. The actor playing Amos, who sings “Mr. Cellophane” one of my favorite songs in the score, had the best voice in the main cast. One of the problems we had with this production was that we couldn’t always understand what the actors were saying. For the most part, we enjoyed Chicago.
I’ve been to New York City many times but I’ve usually left before five in the evening. One of my favorite things about this trip was that I was able to stay out fairly late and experience some of New York City’s nightlife. Today I talked to Gabi about the possibility of me returning again in May after this semester is over.
The Demigod Files is a book of short stories which takes place between The Battle of the Labyrinth (the penultimate book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series) and The Last Olympian (the series finale). It contains three different mini adventures that Percy and his friends had between the events of the main story: Percy Jackson and the Stolen Chariot (where Percy teams up with his rival Clarisse, daughter of Ares, to retrieve her father’s missing chariot), Percy Jackson and the Bronze Dragon (where Percy and his capture the flag team take on a threat to Camp Blood), and Percy Jackson and the Sword of Hades (where Percy, Nico, and Thalia are sent on sent on a mission by Persephone to find her husband Hades’s stolen sword).
My favorite was Percy Jackson and the Bronze Dragon. An important part of the story is the budding romance between Charles Beckendorf (son of Hephaestus) and Silena Beauregard (daughter of Aphrodite) which is meant as a foil to that of Percy and Annabeth. Beckendorf and Silena have been crushing on each other for several years and at the end, he finds the courage to ask her out the camp’s Fourth of July fireworks. Beckendorf drops some hints to Percy that Annabeth likes him which Percy, being the seaweed brain that he is, does not quite get. Annabeth asks Percy to the fireworks in passing while gloating that her team beat Percy’s in capture the flag, proving Beckendorf’s point and the point of nearly two decades worth of pop-punk love songs: when girls act bitchy and treat boys like crap, it means that they like them and boys can’t resist girls who are awful to them.
I wasn’t originally going to read The Demigod Files but since I usually do two books in a review and there are only five main books in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, so I decided to include this companion piece to make an even number. There is usually a jump of several months to a year between each book and this an interesting way fill in some of the gaps in the story. For example, Percy’s adventure with Persephone and the sword of Hades is mentioned in The Last Olympian.
As the war with Kronos escalates towards its climax, Percy finds time to spend with his friend Rachel, who complains that her father wants her to attend finishing school in the fall. This leads to the main problem I’ve had with Rachel as a character: Just when I start to like her or at least tolerate her, she does something to annoy me. Rachel is an artsy tomboy so finishing school is not her thing but can we as a society realize that the “you don’t have to act like a lady” message no longer applies since nobody is pressuring girls to act like ladies these days. In fact, I would argue the opposite.
Due to the pressure of supposedly being the demigod prophecized to save the world from Kronos, Percy enjoys spending time with Rachel because she allows him to feel like a normal kid for a while. He was he likes Rachel because she is less high maintenance than other girls (e.i. Annabeth). My reaction was thus:
When Beckendorf from Percy Jackson and the Bronze Dragon shows up to bring Percy along on another mission, Rachel has the audacity to kiss Percy before he goes. The opening scene of The Last Olympian is found in The Demigod Files as a sneak peek, so I had to suffer through this scene twice.
Beckendorf is killed during the mission, leaving his girl-friend Silena broken-hearted. Despite this tragedy, Camp Half-Blood prepares for its final battle with the forces of Kronos, who are sending the titan Typhon to destroy New York, and try to figure who among them is the spy that is feeding information to their enemies.
One of the most interesting parts of the book is when it goes deeper into the backstory of Nico Di Angelo. He and his sister Bianca are the half-blood children of Hades and Maria Di Angelo, the daughter of an Italian diplomat and grew up around World War II. Because of the two world wars, Zeus decided that half-blood children of the big three gods (Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades) were too powerful and swore off having any more children (Zeus and Poseidon ended up breaking their promise and that’s how Percy and Thalia came about) and that Nico and Bianca should be destroyed. Hades wanted to keep his children safe from both the war and Zeus’s attempts to kill them after their mother was killed in an explosion, and so sent them to live in the Lotus Hotel, where time moves much slower, hence why they’re both children sixty years later.
Hades and Persephone are the closest thing Greek mythology has to a happy and functional couple and are everyone’s mythological OTP, so it’s disappointing to hear that Hades screws around on Persephone from time to time during the six months of the year that she’s away.
Luke, the series’s main antagonist, is slowly being taken over as the host for the resurrected Kronos and is conflicted by the evil that is consuming him. Like with most bad boys, the only thing that can save him is the love of Miss Right. Despite everything, Annabeth has been sticking up for Luke and hoping to save him throughout the series because he was her big brother figure/ crush growing up. She admits to Percy that Luke visited her prior to the events of The Last Olympian and basically asked her to run away with him. I can’t tell what creeps me out more: the fact that Luke is the host for an evil titan or the fact that Luke is about twenty-three while Annabeth is sixteen. Hermes, Luke’s father, blames Annabeth for not “saving” his son. Luke redeems himself in the end by killing himself to prevent Kronos from returning.
Among the other casualties of the final battle is Silena, the bereaved girlfriend of Beckendorf, who is revealed to have been the spy in the half-blood ranks. She was seduced to the enemy side by Luke. Once Silena started going out with Beckendorf, Luke threatened to hurt him to keep her on his side. Silena also gets a redemption arc; she dies fighting for Camp Half-Blood during the final battle.
But the biggest priority of The Last Olympian: Percy and Annabeth must finally admit their feelings for each other and become a couple. Percy finally realizes that Annabeth loves him when she gets stabbed trying to protect him. As a reward for saving the world, Percy is offered immortality by his father but refuses because he wants to live a normal life (be with Annabeth). Rachel is chosen to become the next Oracle of Delphi which means that she has to remain a virgin, so she is removed as an obstacle. Annabeth is pretty much like:
The book ends with Percy and Annabeth officially becoming a couple and taking Beckendorf and Silena’s place as the camp sweet-hearts. I was fangirling so hard that I went and texted my friend Jasmine: “the Percabeth ship has sailed. This is not a drill.”
This will not be the end of my Percy Jackson reviews since I will be reading the sequel series Heros of Olympus next.
Roughly a month in my experience with Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, I can safely say I’m Percy Jackson trash. Lately, I’ve been in one of those moods where I don’t feel like doing much other than laying in bed, listening to pop music from ten years ago and reading fanfiction on Wattpad and that fanfiction has been exclusively Percy Jackson related. I’ve wasted plenty of time over the past few weeks watching fan videos on Youtube where people chose songs that remind them of the various characters or set clips from the movies to pop music. I’ve been told to stay far away from the film adaptations because they are terrible and from what I’ve seen in the videos, I imagine that they are each an hour and a half of Logan Lerman and Alexandra Daddario giving each other fuck-me-eyes.
The Titan’s Curse opens with Percy and his true companions Annabeth and Grover, along with their new friend Thalia (the daughter of Zeus who has spent the last two books as a pine tree) rescuing a brother and sister named Bianca and Nico Di Angelo, who are later revealed to the half-blood children of Hades. During this quest, our heroes have a run-in with the forces of Kronos, the titan who has been amassing an army of monsters and renegade half-bloods throughout the series in order to overthrow the Olympian gods. Percy and Co. are aided in the battle by the goddess Artemis and her band of huntresses but Annabeth is captured by the bad guys and held captive by Luke, the half-blood son of Hermes who has defected to Kronos’s side and serves as Percy’s main enemy. Later on, word gets to Camp Half-Blood that Artemis has gone missing while hunting a creature prophesied to be powerful enough to bring down the Olympians. Our Heroes, Percy, Thalia, Grover, Bianca, and Artemis’s lieutenant Zoë Nightshade (which is an awesome name by the way) set off to rescue Artemis and Annabeth, our distressed damsels.
I was a bit confused at one point in the story. One of the plot points is that Percy and Co. have to rescue Artemis and Annabeth by winter solstice because that’s when the villains are to perform a sacrifice. At first, I thought that Luke and the other bad guys were going to kill Annabeth as part of a virgin sacrifice. Annabeth’s virginity is brought up at several points in the story. Percy finds out that she is considering joining Artemis’s band of maiden huntresses and he takes it about as well as one would if they heard that their crush might take a vow of chastity. The title The Titan’s Curse refers to how Annabeth is tortured by having to take over Atlas’s burden of holding up the sky which nearly crushes her to death (which is nothing compared to how badly she’s crushing on Percy). Artemis chews Luke out for harming one of the maidens she is supposed to protect (b.t.w I’ve read several fanfics where Annabeth is raped by Luke). Because it is brought up that Annabeth is a maiden, I got the impression that a virgin sacrifice might be where the story is going but the intended sacrificial victim turns out to be a cute and seemingly harmless sea creature that Percy befriended earlier.
One of the effects that the book had on me is that I now want to visit the Hoover Dam since it is one of the stops that Percy and Co. make on their quest. There’s a running joke about how dam sounds like damn (“I have to go the dam bathroom” and “Let’s go to the dam snack bar and get some dam burritos.”). The Hoover Dam is also where Percy meets Rachel, a girl who can see beyond the “mist” which prevents mortals from being able to see monsters and other mythological stuff and will become more important in later books. We also get to meet Annabeth’s father, Professor Chase, a military history buff (like my own except my dad is into the Civil War while he is into World War I) who gets an awesome scene where he swoops in to the rescue the kids in a World War I Sopwith Camel airplane.
The previously mentioned Rachel returns again at the beginning of The Battle of the Labyrinth, the fourth book in the series when Percy finds out that she is set to attend the same high as him and the two of them take on some epousi cheerleaders. Annabeth is threatened by the presence of Percy’s new artsy, red-headed friend. My feelings about Rachel can be described as this: she seems like a cool person and has an awesome name and I don’t want to hate her but she needs to go away and let Percabeth (my OTP) be together.
Kronos’s forces are planning on using Daedalus’s labyrinth to launch a sneak attack on Camp Half-Blood and to have Daedalus build a host body for Kronos. Percy, Annabeth, Grover, and Nico (who still has a beef with Percy from when his sister Bianca was killed in the last book) descend into the labyrinth to find Daedalus before Kronos’s cronies can get to him. Among their stops along the way is Hephaestus’s forge (underneath Mount St. Helen’s), where Percy and Annabeth share their first kiss and Percy is shot out of a volcano. He ends up on the island of Ogygia where he is nursed by to help by the nymph Calypso (the brunette Veronica to Annabeth’s blond Betty and Rachel’s redheaded Cheryl Blossom). Like with Odysseus before him, Calypso develops feelings for Percy and offers him immortality if he should stay with her. It is implied that Percy’s sojourn at Ogygia is one of the obstacles that Aphrodite promised that she would put in the way of Percy and Annabeth’s love when she encountered Percy in the last book. But Percy returns to his friends to his their quest. Another of their stops on their trip through the labyrinth is an encounter with the sphinx, which is a hilarious dig at America’s standardized test system.
The Battle of the Labyrinth has a definite environmental message. Grover has been searching for the missing god Pan throughout the past three books. Pan appears towards the end of the book but he is sickly and dying because the wilderness he is supposed to protect is disappearing. When Pan dies, he passes on his spirit to Grover and the rest of the group and gives them the task of protecting what is left of the wild.
The series is really starting to get juicy and interest and I can’t wait to see what happens next.
A common theme in my reviews is my ability to be unfashionably late when it comes to culture and media. Today’s case in point: Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. My history with these books goes back a decade to when I was twelve. The middle school I went to would give each of the students a book at the end of each school year to read during summer vacation; the summer between sixth and seventh grade the book was The Lightning Thief, the first book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. I started reading it but never finished for some reason probably because my twelve-year-old self was uninterested because the protagonist was a boy and there was no romance or pretty dresses. Flash forward ten years: In recent months, one of the people I follow on Pinterest has been pinning a lot of Percy Jackson related content which grabbed my attention and piqued my interest in the series. I then found an audiobook of The Lightning Thief on Youtube and had it on while I was doing work.
Strange things have been happening to troubled, twelve-year-old Percy Jackson, culminating in him killing his literal harpy of math teacher during a field trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After a run-in with some more monsters during a family vacation to Montauk New York, Percy finds himself at Camp Half-Blood, a training camp for the demigod children of Greek gods and claimed as the son of Poseidon, one of the three most powerful Olympians. When Zeus’s lightning bolt is stolen and Percy is framed for the theft, he must travel cross-country to find the stolen lightning bolt and return it back to Olympus with the help of Annabeth Chase, daughter of Athena and the requisite haughty, know-it-all token girl/future love interest, and Grover, the satyr assigned to look after Percy and be the book’s comic relief.
The prime suspect in the case of the missing lightning bolt is Hades and our three heroes travel to Los Angeles where the entrance to the underworld is fronted by what looks like a record company (cue record companies steal souls jokes). But Hades turns out to be a red herring since the culprit is revealed to be Ares, god of war, acting under the instigation of Kronos the titan, which was a relief since I think that Hades gets a bad rap enough as it is. I enjoyed the adventures that Percy and co. have during their quest such as an encounter with Medusa and a reference to the Lotus Eaters segment of the Odyssey (it takes place in a luxurious Los Vegas resort because of course, it world; Waking Up In Vegas by Katy Perry was playing in my head). The character of Percy Jackson is entertaining and likable; Rick Riordan’s first-person narrative perfectly captures the voice of a smart-ass twelve-year-old boy.
The Sea of Monsters picks up a year after the beginning of The Lightning Thief. After a run in with some dodgeball playing, cannibal giants, Percy Jackson and his new friend Tyson return to Camp Half-Blood which is in trouble because the magical pine tree (known as Thalia’s Tree because it marks the spot where a girl named Thalia died trying to protect the camp) that creates a protective field around its borders has been poisoned and is dying. The only thing that can heal Thalia’s Tree is the mythical golden fleece which can be found on an island in the sea of monsters (the Bermuda Triangle), guarded by the cyclops Polyphemus of The Odyssey fame. Percy has been having dreams telling him that his friend Grover is being held captive by Polyphemus and finds out that he has a half-brother, Tyson, who is revealed to have been a cyclops, therefore another son of Poseidon, all along. Despite the fact that the quest to go to the Sea Monsters has been assigned to their rival Clarisse, the daughter of Ares, Percy, Annabeth, and Tyson set out to find the golden fleece and rescue Grover.
One of my favorite stops on this quest is when Percy and Co. join forces with Clarisse, who has commandeered a resurrected Civil War ironclad manned by undead Confederate soldiers, who are hostile towards Percy because he’s a northerner, which I got a kick out of because my father is a Civil War buff. Percy and Annabeth later on wind up on the island of the sorceress Circe, where Percy is turned into a guinea pig (Odysseus’s men are turned into pigs by Circe in the Odyssey and Circe says that she switched to guinea pigs because they are cleaner and easier to manage) and Circe tries to recruit Annabeth as her apprentice. The two escape from the island by stealing the Queen Anne’s Revenge (Blackbeard and his crew are among Circe’s captives), which is pretty awesome if you ask me. The Sea of Monsters is another enjoyable adventure.
Reading the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series made me wonder which Greek God would be my parent if I turned out to be a demigod. I took five “Which Greek God are You” quizzes and “Camp Half-Blood Parentage” tests online and four out of five came up as Athena which fits because blondness, bookishness, and stubbornness are notable traits of mine and those I share with Annabeth, the series’s heroine (one mark in its favor is that it is one of the few stories where the blonde girl is smart). But with my luck, it could also be Hestia, who is the goddess of the hearth and home who spends her days at home tending the sacred fire of Mount Olympus which sounds like a typical day in my life when I’m not away at school except my sacred fire is my house telephone.
What often surprises me about the tween fiction genre is the harshness of the worlds its authors create, especially when you look at how negligent the adult characters looking after the very young protagonists are. The administration of Camp Half-Blood is a prime example of this. A directorship position at the camp is used as a punishment (Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, was sentenced to be head of the camp as punishment for chasing after one of his father Zeus’s old girlfriends; this leads to another question: how could the gods possibly think that leaving Dionysus in charge of a group of children would be a good idea?), so those in charge have little interest in the well being of their charges. Only Chiron, the centaur who acts as a mentor and trainer for the main characters, seems to have the best interest of the campers in mind. The most morally questionable occurrence at Camp Half-Blood is the sending of teenagers and pre-teens on life-risking quests. My suspension of disbelief is taxed the most by the fact that Percy and his companions are saving the world at an age when I was lucky if my parents let me go to Friendly’s by myself. It makes me wonder if my twelve or thirteen-year-old self could have handled a task such as retrieving and returning a stolen lightning bolt or gold fleece if the need ever arose.
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.