29 October 2011

Alice Sebold's "The Lovely Bones"

The 2002 cover.
This book has touched many readers in a profound and personal way. When it debuted in hardcover in 2002, every member of my family picked up their own copy based on rave reviews, TV blurbs, personal anecdotes from fellow readers, etc. For some reason I didn't follow suit and get my own, I was too busy thinking about other things at the time (college, probably).

My mother had a copy, my brother had a copy, and my sister had a copy. I don't remember my Mom and brother's specific reactions to the book, but I know they were positive. What I do remember is my sister's reaction to it. The book appealed to her emotions based on the relationship between the sisters: Susie, who is deceased, and Lindsey, who lives on without her (and in a way, for her).

 Based on my own sister's reaction alone, I knew at some point I needed to read this book: does she see us in it? Is the love the sisters share for each other like ours? Is the sisterly relationship between the girls something she and I have, or something we should aspire to?
With all of those questions floating around in my brain, somehow I still didn't pick it up and read it. Even when the film came out in 2009 I didn't pick up the book. I saw the movie last year when it was available on demand, and only then did I go...Hmm. Maybe I should just read the book. This was because I didn't care for the film. I thought it was trying to be two separate movies--a meditation on life, death, and family, and then a crime thriller--and just didn't pull it off. I figured the book would unite the two styles, and anything it had to say about death, family, life, and the afterlife, would touch me on a personal, emotional level just as it did my family.

I tried to read the book right after the movie and stopped after the first few chapters...I just ran out of steam. And this was before my father died that year, so it wasn't because I was particularly sensitive to the subject of death...I just couldn't get through the book.

So here it is, October 2011, and now I can say that I've read The Lovely Bones from cover to cover (hooray for it being assigned for school). And when I was finished, the first thing I thought was: Is there something wrong with me? Because this book appealed to so many people, and I didn't get emotionally attached to it or profoundly touched by it on any level. It was well-written with some lovely turns of phrase and ideas behind it, but in the end, for me, it was a book where not a whole lot happened.

And I don't want to be negative about this book, I really don't...I want to like it very badly! But...

The book felt like Susie's afterlife to me, except without the cute dogs or Evensong or nice weather or intake counselors and gazebos.  As in: This book feels like an eternity. Or Purgatory. As in: I am detached from the world and characters inside this book, and I keep trying to connect with it somehow, but I can't, so I'm relegated to just watching what happens passively and in silence. 

And maybe this was the author's goal, for the reader to experience how Susie's afterlife affects her; so we are in Susie's shoes throughout and we have to deal with the disconnect just like she does since she died. The problem is, as a reader, I don't like being passive, I don't like being disconnected, I don't like wandering around and watching the world pass by me. So even though this book is well-written and we truly get a sense of what it's like to be in Susie's predicament, I didn't want to be in Susie's predicament. This is probably why it was so hard for me to get through this novel on the whole.

I disliked Susie's mother and never felt sympathy for her, and I sniffed her affair with Len miles and miles away; when Butch later says "fuck you" to her, I thought, "Hell yeah! You've got it right!"  I never got the feeling that Susie's mother left the family to deal with her grief; it always seemed like her mother was stuck in the land of regret, wishing she never became a mom, and when the family unraveled at Susie's death, she took the opportunity to leave and live as a non-parent under the guise of that grief. I can't believe she had the audacity to send postcards to her kids at every place she visited: "Hello, I'm in Dayton. Ohio's state bird is the cardinal." "Reached the Mississippi last night at sunset. It certainly is a big river" (Sebold 220). If I was her daughter, I'd hate her more and more with every postcard, because to me, it would feel like she's rubbing it in my face that she's free to travel and do whatever she wants, and sorry, I'm living life and having fun and you can't come with me! So, you bet I was pissed off when she came back in the story after the father's heart trouble, and things seemed sort of okay between all of them. Except Buckley. Thank you for saying what I feel to your mother. 

To be honest, I didn't get into the other characters at all, either. Lindsey and Samuel are probably the only ones I liked "watching," because their relationship seemed picture-perfect despite all the crap life throws at the Salmons (although I do think it's a little weird that Susie watched them have sex for the first time). Grandma Lynn is a hoot, so I guess I'll add her to my "like list." Susie's father was a good enough man but I didn't care about him; I didn't care about the Singhs or Ruth or anyone else. And I actually didn't like reading anything Susie learned about Mr. Harvey...because I didn't want to have sympathy for him, or try and learn anything to justify (lay the foundations) for his actions. I didn't want to hear Susie tell us that Harvey tried to stop himself from killing people by killing animals, and I didn't want her to fill us in on Harvey's crazy Mom and Dad. It didn't matter to me, because it still never revealed motive, but instead just a behavioral pattern, which still didn't matter because the guy was a murderer.  And the case to get him caught just didn't hold my interest...it went cold. Like a lot of murder cases in real life.

And lastly...I don't know. Don't get me going on the whole Ruth/Ray/Susie thing. That didn't ring authentic to me on any level. I didn't buy it in the movie, either.

Wow! There we go. That was an emotional response!! Sorry, I stand corrected. I guess it did speak to my emotions. But I was looking for kind of a happy, warm fuzzy feeling like, "I'm glad to be alive. I do hope I have a long and happy life, just like Susie tells us at the end. I love my family, I'm so happy, la la la. And there's hope for when we die, even though no one wants to die."  I didn't feel anything like that. I didn't feel what my sister felt when she read the book, either.  I felt happy I finished the book on the second try, and that I finished so I could post about it.


Sebold, Alice. The Lovely Bones: A Novel. Boston: Little, Brown, 2002. Print.

22 October 2011

Alejandro Amenábar's "The Others"

The 2001 poster.
As of writing this, I can't believe this film was made ten years ago. Where did the time go? Ten years ago I graduated high school and became a college freshman. And yes, ten years ago I went to the movie theater and saw this film.

It's memorable enough that I very well knew the ending when I watched this again for my Horror genre class, and there were even some visual images that I thought I'd shelved that came back to me right when I sat through the opening credits.

It's a great ghost movie, very stylish, very good with pacing, very atmospheric, and very, very pretty to look at. 

If anything, the film reminds me of an old-fashioned play, and I mean this as a compliment. The movie has an antiquated feel to it anyway, given the time period (1945, Jersey-The Channel Islands) and the illustrious old manor house and lands in which the movie's set. But something about the structure and pacing reminds me of 19th century theater, as well as the visuals and even the character mannerisms and dialogue.

Visually, the film seems tinted with gray and sepia, and lit by gaslight (technically lit by candles and oil lamps) which helps with the antiqued look. The musical score enhances this (composed by Alejandro Amenábar, who also wrote and directed the film) with its hints of Romanticism and emotionalism...the strings are a wonderful effect, particularly the cello when it's played in the higher octaves. Very beautiful, and melodramatic (in a good way).

And now here's a mystery for all of you....I'm embarrassed that I haven't found the answer to this, considering I have a background in theater and play writing....

I've spent hours and hours looking up a very specific narrative device used in 19th century theater and melodramas regarding exposition. I have not found the term yet and it's driving me crazy because I feel that The Others employs this technique to a degree, which contributes to its classic feel.

Here goes--

In older theater of the time, the most common form of narrative exposition is provided by secondary characters, namely of the lower social classes, like servants or housekeepers or tutors. They nonchalantly have a conversation where they gossip about the major characters, and therefore very obviously inform the audience everything they need to know before the major characters show up on stage (an example of this device--see Act One of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler).

There is a magical little term for this type of narrative device and it eludes me! I've looked in all my theater books and I can't find it...arrgh!  

Anyway, in The Others, the three servants, led by Bertha Mills, often have scenes that function as little asides...they don't always serve as exposition or explanation, but they sometimes they're there just to reinforce that there's more to the story than meets the eye. 

You know, sections where they cut to servants from the main action just so we can hear things like "Mr. Tuttle, I've reached the end of my tether. Uncover the graves" or other phrases along the lines of biding time, or waiting for the moment to reveal the truth, or having patience, etc. etc. Or casual remarks about the state of the house and their Mistress's sanity/ability to uncover the truth, and how the children are doing. The use of this device really works for the film's style, and I appreciate it...especially since (SPOILER) the servants are actually from the 19th century. See how that works?

And probably most of all, you've got good old-fashioned Christianity/Catholicism in the mix. Yes, there are still Christians and Catholics in this world who practice and believe, but for the most part we've embraced secularism, or are at least trending that way. God and the Afterlife aren't so embedded in the daily lives of the populace as it has been in the past...so the dialogue regarding Limbo and Purgatory and Damnation in this sense helps with the authenticity of the film to its time period as well as contributing to the classic, old-fashioned style it displays so well.

I think this film holds up over time. As with all movies that center on a big "aha!" twist ending, once you learn the twist, it may lose its punch, but on the whole this movie can weather repeat viewings. There's great, emotional performances (I have a soft spot for Nicole Kidman's character when she breaks down to her husband about the war that "had nothing to do with us!"), great atmosphere and tension, and again, the film is visually stunning.  

Work Cited:

The Others. Dir. Alejandro Amenábar. Perf. Nicole Kidman. Miramax/Lionsgate Films, 2001. Streamed through Netflix 19 October 2011.