Rachel, the Jewish character in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

September 8, 2015

There is a beautiful “Jewish moment” in “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” after Rachel Kushner (played by Olivia Cooke), the Jewish character, dies. People are “sitting Shiva” at her mother’s house after her funeral, and the scene starts off with a disembodied female voice chanting a perfectly accented Kaddish (mourner’s prayer). You never see who chants it, and there is no explanation as to what it is or why, for the uninitiated. It’s subtle, understated and effective, at least for those of us, the relatively small minority, who do understand the prayer.

This moment reflects the sort of care that “Me and Earl and Dying Girl” takes – mostly – with its story and its characters.  The Jewish stuff – such as it is – is handled with sensitivity and discretion.  But not all of the film has that approach.  In particular, as Richard Brody (writing for The New Yorker on 12 June 2015) and others point out, the character of Earl is badly written and badly placed in the story.

Perhaps I should not be so complimentary about Jewishness and this film.  Although I have not (yet) read the acclaimed original novel, in the original book, Greg – the main character – is Jewish (as is the original author, Jesse Andrews), and originally meets Rachel at Hebrew School.  So clearly, Andrews knows his “Jewish stuff”. Fascinating that he felt that (or was pressured into?) making his original story “less Jewish”.  It’s still a great story, Jesse (I loved the film), but I would have loved to see the screen version of the original novel.

Greg (played by Thomas Mann) and Rachel (Olivia Cooke) in a still from the film below.

Greg and Rachel in Me and Earl

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Joan Didion and the female imagination

March 4, 2012

Almost three years ago, I highlighted a great article by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic about the Stephenie Meyer “Twilight” books.

Well, Flanagan has surpassed herself in an article in the January/February 2012 issue of The Atlantic about Joan Didion – entitled “The Autumn of Joan Didion”.  Unlike so many news and cultural outlets these days, The Atlantic appears to make all of its content free online – and thus I, for one, am keen to support them as much as possible.  So buy their magazine (and then throw out the paper copy once you have finished with it – or better yet, pass it on to a close friend – and keep looking at the online links if you need to go back to it, as I am now) and patronise their advertisers. Keep them in business, please, with writers like this one.

I am not in the core Didion demographic, not being of the female persuasion, but I have always enjoyed her work (although not the recent efforts – more on those, perhaps, another time), particularly Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Play It As It Lays.  Here is one description by Flanagan:

Women who encountered Joan Didion when they were young received from her a way of being female and being writers that no one else could give them. She was our Hunter Thompson, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem was our Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. He gave the boys twisted pig-fuckers and quarts of tequila; she gave us quiet days in Malibu and flowers in our hair. “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold,” Thompson wrote. “All I ever did to that apartment was hang fifty yards of yellow theatrical silk across the bedroom windows, because I had some idea that the gold light would make me feel better,” Didion wrote. To not understand the way that those two statements would reverberate in the minds of, respectively, young men and young women is to not know very much at all about those types of creatures.

Or this:

Didion’s genius is that she understands what it is to be a girl on the cusp of womanhood, in that fragile, fleeting, emotional time that she explored in a way no one else ever has. Didion is, depending on the reader’s point of view, either an extraordinarily introspective or an extraordinarily narcissistic writer. As such, she is very much like her readers themselves.

But what makes Flanagan’s writing so memorable and touching is her interweaving of the personal with the cultural and the historical.  She (Flanagan) grew up in Berkeley, California, the daughter of the Chair of the UC Berkeley English Department.  Her description of the dinner which Didion attended at Flanagan’s house (Flanagan was 14 at the time) and Didion’s major lecture on the campus during that visit, is one of the best in recent English-language essay writing.  This was Flanagan’s view at the time:

I don’t like writers. I like Carly Simon and Elton John and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I like getting out of Berkeley altogether, driving through the Caldecott Tunnel and going to the Sunvalley Mall, where they have a food court, a movie theater, birds in cages, a Macy’s, a J. C. Penney, and a Sears. I am trying to make a life very different from the one I’m growing up in, which is filled with intellectuals and writers and passionate ideas about long-dead people. I’m growing up with people who take a dim view of America (many who come to dinner parties at our house hate America), but I love America, a place whose principal values and delights are on display at the Sunvalley Mall.

The personal, the political, the literary, the historical all combine here in an evocative and moving cultural memoir about female writers in America.


What Girls Want – Stephenie Meyer, Caitlin Flanagan and the “Twilight” series

March 28, 2009

As I write this, Stephenie Meyer has six of the top ten “bestsellers” in the Sydney Morning Herald list (supplied by Nielsen BookScan) published on Saturday 29th March 2008, in first, second, third, fourth, sixth and seventh places, with the book Twilight appearing twice (the “regular” edition in fourth place and the film tie-in in seventh place).  This may not be unprecedented (the Harry Potter books often monopolised the top places in this list in their time), but this has been going on for quite some time and speaks to a significant cultural phenomenon that I am not certain we all understand.  (Nielsen BookScan USA also lists Meyer’s books in fourth, fifth, sixth and ninth position.  BookScan New Zealand lists them in first, second, third, fourth, fifth and eighth position.)  The New York Times bestseller list, which appears to count things differently – there Meyer has her new The Host book in the hardcover list of fiction, none in the paperback trade fiction list, none in the paperback mass market list, but then grabs first place in the children’s “series” list – with 85 weeks and counting. 

Caitlin Flanagan, a feature writer for The Atlantic, has come closest to explaining the powerful appeal of Meyer’s Twilight saga.  In her article entitled “What Girls Want” (December 2008 issue, pp. 108-120), she provides one of the most interesting, nuanced, and beautifully written analyses of what teenage girls want – and get – from reading fiction, relating it to Judy Blume, Valley of the Dolls, Peyton Place, Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Prep and Catcher in the Rye.   Flanagan’s extensive review article draws from personal experience, self-knowledge and has a clarity of writing that is almost breath-taking at times.  Some quotes:

The salient fact of an adolescent girl’s existence is her need for a secret emotional life—one that she slips into during her sulks and silences, during her endless hours alone in her room, or even just when she’s gazing out the classroom window while all of Modern European History, or the niceties of the passé composé, sluice past her. This means that she is a creature designed for reading in a way no boy or man, or even grown woman, could ever be so exactly designed, because she is a creature whose most elemental psychological needs—to be undisturbed while she works out the big questions of her life, to be hidden from view while still in plain sight, to enter profoundly into the emotional lives of others—are met precisely by the act of reading.

And this:

It’s a page-turner that pops out a lurching, frightening ending I never saw coming. It’s also the first book that seemed at long last to rekindle something of the girl-reader in me. In fact, there were times when the novel—no work of literature, to be sure, no school for style; hugged mainly to the slender chests of very young teenage girls, whose regard for it is on a par with the regard with which just yesterday they held Hannah Montana—stirred something in me so long forgotten that I felt embarrassed by it. Reading the book, I sometimes experienced … (a) slingshot back to a world of sensation that, through sheer force of will and dutiful acceptance of life’s fortunes, I thought I had subdued. The Twilight series is not based on a true story, of course, but within it is the true story, the original one. Twilight centers on a boy who loves a girl so much that he refuses to defile her, and on a girl who loves him so dearly that she is desperate for him to do just that, even if the wages of the act are expulsion from her family and from everything she has ever known. We haven’t seen that tale in a girls’ book in a very long time. And it’s selling through the roof.

And this:

Years and years ago, when I was a young girl pressing myself into novels and baking my mother pretty birthday cakes, and writing down the 10 reasons I should be allowed to purchase and wear to the eighth-grade dance a pair of L’eggs panty hose, I knew that password. But one night a few years after that dance, I walked into a bedroom at a party and saw something I shouldn’t have, and a couple of months after that I unwisely accepted a ride to the beach from a boy I hardly knew, and then I was a college girl carrying a copy of Hartt’s History of Renaissance Art across campus and wondering whether I should take out a loan and go to graduate school, and somewhere along the way—not precisely on the day I got my first prescription for birth control, and not exactly on the afternoon I realized I had fallen out of love with one boy and had every right to take up with another—somewhere along the way, I lost the code. One day I was an intelligent girl who could pick up almost any bit of mass-market fiction that shed light on the mysteries of love and sex, and the practicalities by which one could merge the two, and read it with a matchless absorption. Valley of the Dolls had been so crucial in my life not because of its word to the wise about the inadvisability of mixing Seconal and Scotch, but for the three sentences that explained how to go about getting undressed before the first time you have sex: go into the bathroom, take your clothes off, and reemerge with a towel wrapped around yourself. One day I was that girl, and one day I was not, and from then on, if you wanted to tempt me to read a bit of trash fiction, I was going to need more compelling information than that.

For other articles by Caitlin Flanagan in the The Atlantic, click here.  For her New Yorker articles, click here.