My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

Review:

My Cousin Rachel - Daphne du Maurier

I thought to read this, my second du Maurier novel, after recently seeing the film adaptation with Rachel Weisz and Sam Claflin. The story balances upon the question of whether or not Rachel is a villain. I was interested to know if the novel might be more definitive about the answer, and it seems to me it is. (Also, I enjoyed reading Rebecca.)

Perhaps because I saw the film first, it felt more like a mystery than the novel. The novel illuminates even more the influence of perspective, as it’s written from Philip’s (English, young, male landowner) first person point of view. I was most engaged with the novel in those moments when I questioned his perspective and instead considered Rachel’s. I’ve started keeping a reading diary, and many of my notes focus on the ways in which Philip is ignorant: for example, he finds Rachel (like all women) to be mercurial and emotionally manipulative while he himself is often moody and simply ignorant of the effect his words and actions can have. Though almost 25, he’s childish, and like a child, grows churlish when his immaturity is pointed out to him.

I was also interested by the character of Louise, the daughter of Philip’s godfather. She’s clearly interested in marrying Philip, and the whole county, including Rachel, is behind the idea. Philip is resistant; he at first wants to remain a bachelor as his beloved cousin and guardian Ambrose was for so long. He’s also unused to the company of women and has a narrow view of them and marriage. What interested me most was that Louise is the first character to voice suspicions about Rachel; later in the story, at a key moment, she once again wonders about Rachel’s character and possible misdeeds. This novel is not one in which all the men or all the women are wrong; it’s more nuanced, thankfully.

My Cousin Rachel low-key critiques privileged male perspectives and women’s roles through its storytelling techniques. The writing and narrative are engaging as well, and I look forward to my next du Maurier.

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My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier

How About a No-Ratings Option?

Since Netflix announced it’s switching from five star to thumbs up/thumbs down ratings, there’s been a flurry of internet news and culture site articles reporting the change in the oddest of ways. These articles (google and read any three) explain the change, Netflix’s reasoning (increasing user ratings, which somehow translates to better ratings for its own programming, and better personal recommendations)…then, somewhere, shoehorn in the recent trolling of Amy Schumer’s The Leather Special.  It’s just dropped there like a mic, or briefly discussed as a “problem” with the current ratings system, though the connection is never explained.

In addition to giving reddit trolls the notoriety they thrive on–Schumer’s response on social media has derided not the trolls but those reporting it like it’s news–the illusion that they have real power (other than the power to annoy and make streaming and other pop culture sites feel like just another space hostile to women), none of these articles actually name the real problem, which is misogyny.

Acknowledging that I understand little when it comes to website algorithms, my first question about the new system is: How would a thumbs up/down system change trolling? Won’t it be just as easy to thumb down a title you want to trash? How will the “compatibility” factor affect a rating?

Additionally, I wonder what will happen with all the star ratings users have given over the years, including mine. Will they be “translated” into a thumbs up or down? What average star rating would constitute a thumbs up or down?

I took part in the survey Netflix used to assess the star rating system and possible alternatives. I can’t clearly recall all the questions or my responses, but even before the survey, I’d been thinking about ratings across various sites. I was excited when I read Netflix was overhauling its system and hoped for the best. I’ll give the new system a shot (I don’t have a choice, much like with the annoying music now playing when I highlight a title on my Xbox app or my inability to add a title to my streaming queue from the DVD site as I previously could), but what I really want is the option to turn off or hide ratings altogether, whether stars or thumbs up/down.

Netflix isn’t the only site where trolls target specific titles with a campaign of negative ratings. The Leather Special has been voted down on IMDb and Letterboxd as well, and Schumer’s book was targeted on Amazon. Women-driven films like 2016’s Ghostbusters were given low ratings before being released, and I noticed the same with the James Baldwin doc I Am Not Your Negro. Sometimes ratings “recover” after those who’ve actually seen/read and enjoyed the title contribute, but not fully (I Am Not Your Negro‘s rating is a 7/10 on IMDb, which is likely lower than it otherwise would be). I stopped using IMDb other than for show times precisely because I could no longer put up with that kind of bullshit. Though the site states some votes count more than others to avoid exactly this kind of problem, and they recently did away with the viper’s nests that were the discussion boards, it remains too hostile an environment for me to frequent.

Beyond trolling, I also wonder how useful ratings of any kind truly are to me as a viewer/reader. My reading and watching tastes are eclectic. I’m not denying that some suggestions are accurate, that the data gathered from my use of sites is useful–to the sites themselves. Having recently read Dexter Palmer’s novel Version Control, data as identity is on my mind. But if it’s profitable to corporations, I want to at least benefit from it myself.

What ratings do is (negatively) affect what I choose to watch and, sometimes, read. A title looks interesting or was recommended, but,  oh, it’s only got a two-star rating. Pass. Or, a title’s got five stars, so it should be awesome, but, eh, it didn’t meet expectations. Ratings (and the proliferation of online opinions) also turn me into a little critic; as I watch/read, I’m already writing a review in my mind or imagining what rating I’ll give it instead of, you know, engaging with the story. I can take responsibility for these habits, but helping to control them requires a degree of personalization most sites don’t offer.

When I look at reviews on Netflix, negative ones in particular, it becomes clear how stupid and unhelpful people’s gripes with films and shows can be. If the reviews are an indication of the reasoning behind low ratings then I’d rather not bother at all.

For consumers, ratings are supposed to help them find content they’re likely to enjoy and avoid what they’re less likely to enjoy. Viewers and readers have long used critics’ reviews and friends’ recommendations for these purposes and still do. Online ratings are like “word of mouth” on a large scale, except virtually none of these people are your friends, and, depending on the film/show/book, very few write like legit critics.

In the past, when I subscribed to Entertainment Weekly, I would sometimes abstain from reading a review of a film I was eager to see because a negative review would make me seek flaws. Sometimes I also just didn’t want my buzz harshed. Browsing films and books online, I can’t avoid seeing what a pile of crap others have found something to be, or, sometimes worse, how mediocre. When those ratings may not even reflect a film/show/book’s actual viewership/readership, why should I have to see them?

At the end of the day, my desire for a no-ratings option isn’t about rating accuracy or finding new content. It’s about agency and control over my own viewing/reading experience.

 

How About a No-Ratings Option?

Women March. I Write.

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The Women’s March on Washington, 1/21/17

Because I’ve been living under a rock  since the election (as in, not using Facebook or watching national news on television, though I’ve been FB-absent longer), I did not know about the Women’s March on Washington until it was happening. I’m especially aggravated with myself because of course there are sister marches across the country and around the world, and I could have participated here in Milwaukee. Instead, I watched a live stream, instantly on the verge of tears listening to the various speakers and seeing the crowd, an inspiring, comforting, empowering vision.

What could and can I do? I can write.

I teach at a women’s college and remind myself periodically how lucky I am to be working with women of various ages, backgrounds, and races. It is one way I consider myself to be contributing in some small but hopefully felt way to women’s lives, including my own. My college also has a history of activism; one of its core abilities is Effective Citizenship, and each year there’s a Community Day where students and staff participate in community service. Teaching mainly first year students, one of my responsibilities is to help make them aware of how they can become involved on campus. A representative from Student Services comes, and one of the things he talks about is opportunities to volunteer in the community. The past few years I’ve personally felt compelled to serve beyond teaching and kept a volunteer booklet for myself. Spring and summer are less busy times for me, and I hope to choose an organization and volunteer soon.

But before a teacher or volunteer, I am a writer. My poems are feminist, and I’ve been trying to get my manuscript/doctoral dissertation published for the past handful of years. I wonder if, in this post-Obama, pro-conservative climate, my writing might have a larger readership amongst the many who are angry, as I and my poetry are.

I’ve had newer poems waiting in the wings, but haven’t written anything in several months. The worldwide marches have given me a kick-in-the-pants, and with the live stream as accompaniment, I finally set about organizing some scattered notes for a poem or group of poems.

I don’t write overtly political poems, but I write what is otherwise silenced in me, either by my own fears or by others. I’ve been unsure how to go about my life in this new reality, but writing is one thing I can always do. Writing, sharing, reading, feeling less alone and frightened but never less angry.

Women March. I Write.

The Girls, Emma Cline

Review:

The Girls: A Novel - Emma Cline

Guy had been less interesting to the media, just a man doing what men had always done, but the girls were made mythic.

Why have the Manson murders made such a cultural impact, from 1969 to the present? Why do they fascinate us in a country with so many murders (or so much interest in them) there are now entire TV channels dedicated to true crime? One possible explanation is that, along with other events, like Altamont, the murders signaled the ending of an extended summer of love and of the counterculture, or showed us their dark underbelly, what happens when love is too devoted and social justice motivations are twisted. Another possibility is the unforgettable, crazed face of Manson himself.

But really, it’s the girls.

How could so many girls be held in such thrall as to murder on command? How could they kill a beautiful, young, pregnant starlet? Young women make familiar victims. When they become victimizers, it puzzles, shocks, and disturbs, as if rabbits suddenly turned into predators instead of prey. As the quote above mentions, a man killing is nothing new. A woman killing…unnatural, we think.

A strength of Emma Cline’s The Girls is that, though the girls flock around the Manson-like figure of Russell, it’s really the protagonist’s relationship with one of them, Suzanne, that takes center stage. As she notes of her meetings with Russell, I was eager for our encounters, eager to cement my place among them, as if doing what Suzanne did was a way of being with her. 

First, what this book isn’t. It isn’t an omniscient picture of a Manson Family-like group or of the fictionalized murders, though certainly you get an idea of the former through the lens of the first-person narrator, Evie, who is a temporary fixture at their farm. Evie learns the details of the murders through the media, like everyone else, but we’re only given snapshots, disturbing but not too graphic. If you want a play-by-play of the real thing with gory details, google it or read Helter Skelter. That’s not this novel’s focus or raison d’etre.

It’s also not a sweeping portrait of America in the ’60s. I’ve seen some readers complaining that there isn’t enough of this or that, mostly the sorts of things we’ve come to associate with that period whether we lived at that time or not: counterculture, protests, hippies, Vietnam. Those things are mentioned, and Russell preaches love and the ills of money while getting it where he can via the girls, but the book’s not a history lesson (also, many forget that the majority of Americans did not participate in the counterculture or oppose the war in Vietnam). Evie is a fourteen-year-old girl; she’s not oblivious to larger goings-on, but they’re not as important as her feelings and desires and her immediate situation and environment.

If anything, The Girls is a coming of age story. It’s split between Evie as a grown, older woman in the present and as a teenager in 1969, with a focus on the latter. She’s become a caregiver but seems isolated. A run-in with an old friend’s son and his girlfriend dredges up the past and reminds her what it feels like to be paid attention to. Evie comes to realize little has changed when it comes to the dynamics of young men and women, and it’s a lens through which she sees herself in the past (and vice versa, her experiences in the past shedding light on her present observations). Her friend’s son knows she was a part of “that cult,” and his and his girlfriend’s questions prompt her to consider how and why she didn’t become a murderer herself.

As a fourteen year-old, Evie’s life is familiar: she has a best friend, divorced parents, longs for the attentions of her friend’s older brother. A fight with her friend and a disintegrating relationship with her mother (whom Evie blames for the divorce, as so many girls blame their mothers and pardon their fathers) leads her to help one of the girls she’d seen from the farm when they encounter each other at a pharmacy. Evie is immediately drawn to Suzanne; it’s the book’s opening scene. Evie begins spending time at the farm with Suzanne and the others, mostly girls, and eventually is introduced to their charismatic leader, Russell.

What follows mirrors what most know of the Manson Family: drugs, sex, communal living, a man who knows how to play to girls’ insecurities to get what he wants. Russell knows a man from a popular rock band and wants a record deal; Evie becomes a sort of gift or bribe in those efforts, which ultimately fall through and culminate in violence.

Evie knows only so much about the other girls and their backgrounds, including Suzanne. She herself is conscious of her cleanliness and nice neighborhood, where she spends less and less time (her mother thinks she’s with her friend), and of the boarding school she’s being sent to at summer’s end. But she finds some measure of acceptance at the farm, and the feeling of belonging (and Suzanne’s attention) is intoxicating.

I highlighted more passages in this book than in any other e-book I’ve read. Cline has so many smart and revealing observations about girlhood (or girl into womanhood), and her prose is sharp and unique. I wouldn’t be surprised if she wrote poetry as well. In terms of her writing style, YMMV (your mileage may vary); I’ve seen some put off by it. I ate it up (in contrast, I couldn’t even finish the sample for Fates and Furies the language was so cloying to me). It’s isn’t overwhelming or flowery, just consistently startling. If you read the opening, you’ll immediately have an idea of the book’s prose and tone and whether or not it appeals to you.

There’s a reason the book’s description references The Virgin Suicides. Like that novel, there appears to be a mystery in need of solving, but there are no pat answers. Instead of the boys’ perspective, as in Suicides, we have that of a young girl who was there. The Girls is clear about how and why Evie became who she is instead of someone else, and it’s a line as fine as a thread, which is the most disturbing of all. The question isn’t “Why those girls?” It’s “Why not me?”

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The Girls, Emma Cline

Miss Jessica Jones

jessica-jones-header

(Forgive the silly title; for some reason, every time I watched an episode, the Rolling Stones’ “Miss Amanda Jones” came to mind, and then the movie Some Kind of Wonderful. It was a whole thing. #associations)

Some things to know about me that are relevant to these thoughts on Marvel’s Jessica Jones: The whole superhero explosion exhausts me. I’ve essentially abstained from watching the endless parade of adaptations and sequels, movies and TV both (the last superhero thing I willingly watched and enjoyed was Guardians of the Galaxy). Also, my reading of superhero comic book canon is light. You won’t see complaints about the show as an adaptation. Even if I did read more, I believe that every version of a text needs to work on its own as whatever it is (a book, a movie, a TV show, etc.). Easter eggs are cool; assuming my knowledge is not (nor the unnecessary crossover, as when Claire from Daredevil shows up).

One last thing: it’s not just–or even really–the saturation. It’s the lack of women superheroes put center stage.

When Jessica Jones arrived on Netflix, I thought, Okay, I could check that out. When I read it was not like other superhero fare, I moved it up the queue. When I quickly understood that it was TV noir, I was on fucking board.

Continue reading “Miss Jessica Jones”

Miss Jessica Jones