Friday, August 30, 2013

'You start a revolution one decision at a time, with each breath you take' - Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock

On his eighteenth birthday Leonard Peacock, four goodbye presents in tow, equips himself with his grandfather's P-38 WWII Nazi handgun and sets off for school to kill his best friend and then himself. Although I won't go into immense detail this analysis may contain spoilers - so if you're planning to read the book I wouldn't read on until you have. 

From the moment I started reading Matthew Quick's latest novel, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock (FMLP), I felt like this was a book that I'd want to read over and over again. The first few chapters are an acclimatisation process because with this kind of first-person narration you are literally trying to inhabit someone's skull - adapt to their thought-process, way-of-speaking and so on. I personally relish immersing myself in the mind of characters like Leonard, Charlie from The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Holden from the Catcher in the Rye. It's something that I find a lot of in 'young adult' literature - though not all good quality. You'll also find a similar experience in Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. These are narratives that specifically navigate, in some way, mental health and trauma. Third person narration can miss a trick in these situations. 

Any criticisms I have would be superficial and cosmetic - as well as a musing over the purpose of the 'Young Adult' genre. For example, the font is unnecessarily huge (from the point of view of quite serious subject matter) and the footnotes are a bit awkward to get used to at first. 
Jonathan Stevens makes some interesting points about Young Adult literature in The Alan Review ( It's a genre which has a kind of stigma attached to it - Stevens highlights the 'certain negative assumptions from critics', it is accused of being 'simplistic', 'chick-lit', not literary, and cut off from 'bidding' for 'spots in the canon'. It is a process of categorisation which sometimes does genuine disservice to the material, putting adult readers off and restricting the readership. I made a similar point in relation to The Hunger Games which, rather than being the 'next Twilight' (?!?!) is actually an accomplished, thought-provoking dystopian novel. FMLP is about the 'young adult' or teenage experience but it is certainly not limited to it. Much of what Leonard encounters and goes through is not exclusively 'teenage'. A teenager taking a gun to school is topical in the states but the kind of pain and motivation for his potential actions is universal in our society.  

Sona Charaipotra of Parade conducted an interview with Matthew Quick and asked whether his comfort zone lay in young adult fiction or adult fiction - he responded by saying he tries to 'write about people', to 'climb into their heads, whether they're 18 or 34'. The process is the same, regardless of marketing strategies so I don't think the adult market should be turned away from FMLP. (

One of the most crucial characters in the book is Herr Silverman, Leonard's high school Holocaust Studies teacher. 

'Most teachers refuse to close the door when they are alone with a student, saying it's against the law or something, which is pretty stupid. It's like everyone thinks teenagers are about to get raped every second of the day and that an open door can protect you. (It can't. how could it?) But Herr Silverman closes the door, which makes me trust him. He doesn't play by their rules, he plays by the right rules.' (115)

'We sort of lock eyes and I think about how Herr Silverman is the only person in my life who doesn't bullshit me, and is maybe the only one at my school who really cares whether I disappear or stick around.' (120)

Herr Silverman tells Leonard to call him if he ever thinks about taking his own life, and unbeknownst to him the simplest of his actions make the most profound difference. He certainly exceeds his 'professional' role but views it as extenuating circumstances. Which they are, even if it's probably easier to not get involved. Of all the people in Leonard's life he is the one to pick up the signals and act on them. In a GoodReads interview (, Quick was asked about Herr Silverman's role in Leonard's story and I think his response is very important:

"MQ: Whenever there is a school shooting, we ask what's wrong with schools, teachers, young people, and society at large—reasonable questions in the wake of tragedy. But as a former high school teacher who once counseled troubled teens on a daily basis, I find it upsetting that we don't ask what's going right in schools whenever a student in crisis is given the help he or she needs and doesn't end up committing an act of violence, which is every single day. Going above and beyond seldom results in praise or rewards for teachers, but many do it anyway. If you really care about teens and are willing to do the emotional work necessary to help them through the maturation process, there is no harder job than that of a high school teacher."

Leonard's neighbour, Walt, is also a key figure. He spends his days inside watching Humphrey Bogart movies but his constancy is clearly something that Leonard values and something he can't find in people his own age (Walt is a widower). They communicate through movie quotes, managing to say a lot to each other in a language they both understand but with a restricted nature that can also not reveal the full extent of what is going on in Leonard's mind. Leonard gives each present to the four people who have inspired him, in the smallest ways and even without knowing or caring - the ones who gave him moments of value. With his parents very much out of the picture emotionally (an absentee father and a horrifically narcissistic mother who spends her time away with her new boyfriend), Leonard is very much alone with his thoughts. His mother will not let him have therapy because she refuses to 'let any therapist blame his problems on her'. Which kind of sums up his family life. 

There are moments in this book that really stand out. Quick has masterfully created Leonard as character and as voice - his inner monologues contain things we would never admit we are thinking, or do not realise we have within us - he unleashes these built-up incisive and scything streams of perception. Sentence after sentence mounts into a pulsating sensation which is relentlessly honest and, at times, shocking. It's a kind of cathartic anger which is written in a tone and style that borders on charming and humorous in a dark sort of way. Dressed in what he calls his 'funeral suit' Leonard often joins the procession of commuters and 'suits' going to work each day. These people,  a vast collective - commuting every day and every night, for their whole lives. To Leonard, it is the most terrifying thing to observe.  He chooses one to follow, to discover if there is something to be optimistic about in the future. 

“The whole time I pretend I have mental telepathy. And with my mind only, I’ll say — or think? — to the target, 'Don’t do it. Don’t go to that job you hate. Do something you love today. Ride a rollercoaster. Swim in the ocean naked. Go to the airport and get on the next flight to anywhere just for the fun of it. Maybe stop a spinning globe with your finger and then plan a trip to that very spot; even if it’s in the middle of the ocean you can go by boat. Eat some type of ethnic food you’ve never even heard of. Stop a stranger and ask her to explain her greatest fears and her secret hopes and aspirations in detail and then tell her you care because she is a human being. Sit down on the sidewalk and make pictures with colorful chalk. Close your eyes and try to see the world with your nose—allow smells to be your vision. Catch up on your sleep. Call an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Roll up your pant legs and walk into the sea. See a foreign film. Feed squirrels. Do anything! Something! Because you start a revolution one decision at a time, with each breath you take. Just don’t go back to that miserable place you go every day. Show me it’s possible to be an adult and also be happy. Please. This is a free country. You don’t have to keep doing this if you don’t want to. You can do anything you want. Be anyone you want. That’s what they tell us at school, but if you keep getting on that train and going to the place you hate I’m going to start thinking the people at school are liars like the Nazis who told the Jews they were just being relocated to work factories. Don’t do that to us. Tell us the truth. If adulthood is working some death-camp job you hate for the rest of your life, divorcing your secretly criminal husband, being disappointed in your son, being stressed and miserable, and dating a poser and pretending he’s a hero when he’s really a lousy person and anyone can tell that just by shaking his slimy hand — if it doesn't get any better, I need to know right now. Just tell me. Spare me from some awful fucking fate. Please.” 

Woven into the narrative are chapters that are letters from future characters to Leonard. This revealed to be a process which Leonard started under Herr Silverman's tutelage - of writing letters from your future self - reasons to keep on going - telling you it will be worth it. Leonard sets his in a sort of post-apocalyptic future - with is kind of apt because his eighteenth birthday is built up as a personal apocalypse. They don't always offer him comfort but they are something - even if it only helps him to learn to value himself a little more.

Leonard's voice is captivating, frightening, and familiar. His story is moving for all that is unsaid and only implied.  There are some dramatic and traumatic revelations towards the end of the book, which are done subtly and sensitively but they are very heavy subject matter. The ending is open, there is little obvious resolution - but you can't ask things like this to resolve. It's not as straightforward as a happy ending, or even a definitive decision. The note it ends on is both bleak and heartbreaking but also optimistic. Leonard got through his birthday - even if only by accident, and that's a great ending for me - a small miracle. Each breath could be a revolution, literally, of life.Throughout the whole day he seems to be wishing, deep down, to wish him happy birthday - even if they don't know - to give him a reason not to do what he's planning to do.

"I'm trying to let him know what I'm about to do.
I'm hoping he can save me, even though I realize he can't.” 

The few decent people might be enough in the face of the 'ubermorons' but it's not certain. No one can really offer any reassurances. It's luck that Leonard survives but simultaneously a choice he is making if he gets through another day - even if he gets very little reward for doing so. Are his circumstances going to change? There's no promise of that. Is he going to get better? We don't know. There are no guarantees. But on his eighteenth birthday Leonard discovered he has a teacher who would go above and beyond for him and a neighbour who would miss him, and for that day - that's enough.

More quotes:

“There's a lot for you to live for. Good things are definitely in your future, Leonard. I'm sure of it. You have no idea how many interesting people you'll meet after high school's over. Your life partner, your best friend, the most wonderful person you'll ever know is sitting in some high school right now waiting to graduate and walk into your life - maybe even feeling all the same things you are, maybe even wondering about you, hoping that you're strong enough to make it to the future where you'll meet.” 

'Different is good. But different is hard. Believe me, I know.' (121)

'I realised that the truth doesn't matter most of the time, and when people have awful ideas about your identity, that's just the way it will stay no matter what you do.' (57)

N.B. Seamus Heaney, truly one of the great poets of all time, died today. His work will undoubtedly live on, not just as canonical works in our school textbooks but as affecting individual poems in their own right which can be come to at any stage in life. He will be missed.
To read a few go to

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Individual Life & it's Consequence - The Resurrection of 'Stoner' by John Williams

This book has quietly wandered through the years, deeply affecting those who have read it but perhaps too 'ordinary' in its subject matter to gain popular momentum. It's recent reissue by Vintage Books meant that I stumbled upon it quite by chance - having casually entering a Twitter competition which resulted in it being sent to me. I am glad it was.

John Williams' Stoner (1965) is a classic in the realist style. It follows the apparently unremarkable individual life, tracing its journey from birth to death. It has no 'plot' as such beyond this, no dramatic contrivances- it is subtle, unsentimental and yet deeply affecting because of it. It is written in a style that could be called stoical or objective - it is not heavily emotive in its prose and imagery but this stark stoicism resonates emotionally with the reader who invests in the character - one many may recognise as themselves. Stoner works as a professor in Medieval Literature at the University of Missouri for most of the novel. His life is marked by his relationships with others, failed ones as with his wife and daughter, a fellow faculty member and his protege, his dead friend, and more successful ones with his one other friend and a young woman who attends some of his classes.

William Stoner really comes to life during his university experience and the birth of consciousness he experiences at this time. He stays at this university, the University of Missouri, until his 'death in 1956'. In the opening paragraph his life is downplayed, his achievements seem to be being claimed by a descent into the anonymity that greets most after their death:

'He did not rise above the rank of assistant professor, and few students remembered him with any sharpness after they had taken his courses... Stoner's colleagues, who held him in no particular esteem when he was alive, speak of him rarely now; to the older ones, his name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves...' (3-4)

This paragraph lays out the key themes of the book, and those who find it off-putting can put it down at this point because they will probably not gain anything for it. Stoner stands for the human condition for the individual - caught in the throes of life, the fortunes and falls, the lack of recognition, the apparent mediocrity - you may wonder what the point is if this life seems to be so irrelevant. But it was a life lived, an individual who had to find meaning in himself when it failed with others. It is about the reader finding this meaning in the book and realising their importance in the scheme of things is itself perhaps unimportant. The character Stoner may not have impacted many people memorably, but there is still an impact to be had in an individual life immeasurable of the effect it has on others.

Stoner's life changes when he attends university to study Agriculture, intending to return to work on the family farm, and takes a module in literature. This is the moment of awakening, a point where he realises there is meaning to be found even if he never finds it himself. Williams writes such beautiful passages which are moderately harrowing in their clarity. At his mother's funeral, the language used as Stoner contemplates the impact of his parents' lives is unsentimental in itself and yet very powerful through its use of lists and repetition. The words are even derived from the semantic field of agriculture, describing simultaneously their lives and the business and process of farming - equating them. Stoner looks 'across the land in the direction of the farm where he had been born, where his mother and father had spent their years. He thought of the cost exacted, year after year, by the soil; and it remained as it had been -- a little more barren, perhaps, a little more frugal of increase. Nothing had changed. Their lives had been expended in cheerless labor, their wills broken, their intelligences numbered. Now they were in the earth to which they had given their lives; and slowly, year by year, the earth would take them... finally it would consume the last vestiges of their substances. And they would become a meaningless part of that stubborn earth to which they had long ago given themselves.' (108)

Stoner has such reflections about his own life later in the book - I would call them life crises but they are hardly described in a way that justifies the term. Everything is calmly, objectively relayed - both by virtue of Williams's style and the third person realist narrative. Stoner sometimes feels 'that he was a kind of vegetable', longing even for 'pain' to 'pierce him' and 'bring him alive'. (179) He also seems very self-aware as a character - he recognises that the question of whether 'his were worth the living' is a question which comes to 'all men at one time or another'. It is an 'impersonal' question, one that comes from 'the accretion of his years, from the density of accident and circumstance... he took a grim and ironic pleasure from the possibility that what little learning he had managed to acquire had led him to this knowledge; that in the long run all things, even the learning that let him know this, were futile and empty, and at last diminished into a nothingness they did not alter.' (179) This 'grim and ironic pleasure' is characteristic of Stoner - he does not seem to despair, or emote in a very forthcoming way. The narrative is not explicitly cathartic in this sense.

The ways in which this book is a fictional biography lend themselves to the evolution of the character over a lifetime - it traces the subtle nuances of day-to-day life, in marriage, in career, in aging. Every reflection is earnt. Stoner experiences that 'dissociation' from self, that feeling of observing himself as is if 'he were an oddly familiar stranger doing the oddly familiar things that he had to do' (181). It is his wife, Edith, who partly engineers this numbness in her cruel routine, one which encourages such dissociation from family and self.

Stoner is also a historical novel. Williams sets it to coincide over time with both World Wars, the Great Depression and various atrocities and hardships of the twentieth century. Stoner the character, and his way of perceiving the world, the kind of dulled emoting in the novel, is intrinsically linked to the state of affairs and circumstance around him. The war years are described as 'a driving and nearly unendurable storm' through which Stoner goes with 'his head down, his jaw locked, his mind fixed upon the next step', with a sense of 'stoical endurance' (245) yet also an inevitable sense of being disturbed. He is both drawn to and repulsed by the Holocaust, finding within himself a 'capacity for violence he did not know he had'. He feels dissociated, yearning for 'involvement', wishing for 'the taste of death, the bitter joy of destruction, the feel of blood... he felt both shame and pride, and over it all a bitter disappointment, in himself and in the time and circumstance that made him possible.'(245)

Mel Livatino, in his essay 'Revaluation: A Sadness Unto the Bone: John Williams's Stoner', writes about how Stoner is essentially 'a novel about university... writing the novel in the early sixties, Williams saw that the university was already starting to become the mouthpiece of political correctness'. This can be seen in the tensions between Stoner and his department chairman, Lomax, who is sensitive about his physical afflictions and those of his student protege, whom Stoner fails. Stoner is not the Keating of Dead Poet's Society, as Livatino points out, he 'does not love his students' and his reasons for loving literature are tied to 'how it has transformed his life from dumbness to consciousness'. Stoner is not heroic in the ways you may expect in a novel or a film. He is a hero for 'the reader who comes to know him... because against all odds he has overcome his parents' mute existence and against all obstacles nurtured a lifelong passion for matters of the mind and heart... he has prevailed in making himself into a superb teacher despite bored students, a repressive department chairman and his own innate muteness... he is a hero because he endures with decency and patience an impossible wife who is set against him from the outset and a daughter whose life turns tragic... the reader wants to scream into the pages of the novel 'Get out!'... and Stoner is destroyed - but he is not defeated' (Livatino).

I wanted to use Livatino's words because his essay, this part in particular, is so beautifully written and lists these reasons so poetically and emotionally. I found reading Livatino's essay quite cathartic in processing aspects of the novel. It is true that the reader longs for Stoner to escape from his life, his marriage - they long for his affair to continue, for him to enjoy those moments of happiness with Katherine - even for him to take his daughter and run but in so many ways he is held in chains, even by his own nature. The novel is tragic in some ways, perhaps individual existence often is, but Livatino sees it as 'happy in the sense the Stoics would have understood that word, for, against all the harm that comes his way, Stoner prevails in his integrity as a man, a teacher, a scholar, a husband, and finally as a human being of noble dimensions'. For all it's beauty Livatino's style is slightly hyperbolic, perhaps in reaction to the muted-ness of Williams's prose. There are also ways to criticise Stoner - the strength of the character is that he fails in many of the ways individuals do, he is passive at moments and drained by what goes on around him but he is certainly admirable for the reasons Livatino has given.

What's remarkable about this novel is that it was one of the most compelling books I've read even though on the surface it is just a fairly factual fictional chronicling of one man's fairly ordinary life. But alot of those terms seem redundant anyway. There is so much to admire in Williams's craft and I'm sure I will get more from it each time I read this book. It has relevance for every individual trying to make their way in the world, particularly the academic one. It is for the people who give and give, for the sake of something more than a thanks they will not receive.

Quotes and further reflections:

'In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.' 194

'In his extreme youth Stoner had thought of love as an absolute state of being to which, if one were lucky, one might find access; in his maturity he had decided it was the heaven of a false religion. toward which one ought to gaze with an amused disbelief, a gently familiar contempt, and an embarrassed nostalgia. now in his middle age he began to know that i was neither a state of grace nor an illusion; he saw it as a human act of becoming, a condition that was invented and modified by moment and day by day, by the will and the intelligence and the heart'. 195

The following quote sums up why Stoner is such a remarkable character, in my opinion. For someone who received so little, he never stopped giving.
'It occurred to him that he was nearly sixty years old and that he ought to be beyond the force of such passion, of such love. But he was not beyond it, he knew, and would never be. Beneath the numbness, the indifference, the removal, it was there, intense and steady; it had always been there. In his youth he had given it freely, without thought; he had given it to the knowledge that had been revealed to him-- how many years ago?-by Archer Sloane; he had given it to Edith, in those first blind foolish days of his courtship and marriage; and before. He had, in odd ways, given it to every moment of his life, and had perhaps given it most fully when he was unaware of his giving. It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance' 150

He 'saw the sickness of the world... saw hatred and suspicion become a kind of madness that swept across the land like a swift plague; he saw young men go again to war, marching eagerly to a senseless doom, as if in the echo of a nightmare. and the pity and sadness he felt were so old, so much a part of his age, that he seemed to himself nearly untouched' 251

Stoner understands and accepts the kind of contradictions inherent in individual life. The discrepancy between wish and reality. The sheer effort and the tragic failures which still did not defeat him and his ability to think and process and reflect:
'He contemplated the failure that his life must appear to be. He had wanted friendship and the closeness of friendship that might hold him in the race of mankind; he had had two friends, one of whom had died senselessly before he was known, the other of whom had now withdrawn so distantly into the ranks of the living... he had wanted the singleness and the still connected passion of marriage; he had had that too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality... and he had wanted to be a teacher, and he had become one; yet he knew, he had always known, that for most of his life he had been an indifferent one. He had dreamed of a kind of integrity, of a kind of purity that was entire; he had found compromise and the assaulting diversion of triviality. He had conceived wisdom, and at the end of the long years he had found ignorance' 275

In this post I have cited:
1. Revaluation: A Sadness Unto the Bone: John Williams’s Stoner
Mel Livatino
Sewanee Review, Volume 118, Number 3, Summer 2010, pp. 417-422 (Article)
Published by The Johns Hopkins University Press
DOI: 10.1353/sew.2010.0008

Thursday, June 27, 2013

'He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky... and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is' : The Great Gatsby, Existentialism and Entropy

“To turn the death agony into a gorgeous dance” - this is F Scott Fitzgerald’s greatest achievement according to Charles Thomas Samuels in his essay ‘The Greatness of Gatsby’.

For The Great Gatsby is a far darker existential novel than it may first appear, and yet it communicates its story lyrically with bursts of colour and vibrancy.

Death lies beneath every surface in the novel. Gatsby and Myrtle are the literal casualties, but it is nineteen-twenties American society which claims the rest. Perhaps they are not really living at all, only playing at it. One of the most startling and symbolic passages in the book is the beginning of chapter two. After an upbeat start full of yearning and idealism, there comes a stunning literary portrait of the bitter reality. This is the ‘valley of ashes’, a ‘fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat… where ashes takes the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke… ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air’(29). The image of the men, ‘already crumbling’, becoming dust, outlines the insignificance of the lives lead in this portrayal of society. Ashes, dust, powder, grey, smoke – this is the landscape where dreams die, however brightly and briefly they may shine nearby in New York and West Egg. Over it all presides the ‘eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg’, the ever watchful advertisement, a false God of the age. Samuels expresses the idea of ‘atrophy’, the ‘wasting away of self as one grows into the world of sex and money and time’. The whole lifestyle is spectacularly entropic.
Daisy is the space onto which Gatsby projects everything he once knew and desired. She is the green light, the first rapture, the single moment that he cannot recapture. Nick makes some important observations concerning Daisy’s allure in the opening pages. He notes her charming yet seductive qualities – the rumour that her ‘murmur was only to make people lean toward her’ (15), and the way she looked into his face ‘promising that there was no one in the world she so much wanted to see’. (15) But like the watchful eyes of Dr Eckleburg, she is a false promise. She is highly emotive, impulsive and her speech is often hyperbolic. For example, upon reuniting with Nick she proclaims: ‘I’m p-paralysed with happiness’. Perhaps her most famous line is about the birth of her child: ‘I’m glad it’s a girl. And I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’ (24) - a surprising piece of social criticism coming from her. She lets slip her intelligence and that sensitivity that she works so hard to conceal. Her world does not value these qualities in women. To be a fool is easier. She balks at Gatsby’s desire for drastic commitment – she runs from tension and confrontation. Pleasure comes quickly to the fool but does not last.

There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy had tumbled short of his dreams – not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything... No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man can store up in his ghostly heart. (103)

Nick recognises that the real Daisy can never live up to the fantasy and is ultimately unworthy of it. 

‘I wouldn’t ask too much of her,’ I ventured.‘You can’t repeat the past.’
‘Can’t repeat the past?’ He cried incredulously. ‘Why of course you can!’ He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand. (117)

Nick passively watches as it unravels before him, as if to stop Gatsby’s dreaming, to stifle his capacity for wonder, would be a crime.

He talked a lot about the past, and I gathered that he wanted to recover something, some idea of himself, perhaps, that had gone into loving Daisy. His life had been confused and disordered since then, but if he could once return to a certain starting place and go over it all slowly, he could find out what that thing was. (117)

Gatsby’s pursuit of Daisy is as much about recovering his own sense of solid identity as about starting a life with her. The idea he has of her is his only constant in his new life. He is almost surprised that her child actually exists, a factor his creation did not account for. Even then he does not give up, though it is suggested he begins to realise the futility of his ambition. 

‘Her voice is full of money.’ He said suddenly. That was it. I’d never understood it before. (126)

Gatsby is the ultimate outsider in East Egg. He is ‘new money’, rising through unconventional (bootlegging) means rather than through inheritance. He tries to traverse class boundaries and is literally shot down for it. Hence, he can make such observations as above and command Nick’s admiration:

‘They’re a rotten crowd I shouted across the lawn. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’ (160)

That is my favourite line in the book. Perhaps because it seems to be the only real compliment bestowed upon Gatsby’s character in the novel up to that point and it is the biggest possible. He takes the blame for the crash that kills Myrtle, sacrificing himself in a way that no one else could even conceive of. He makes all of the effort that the ‘aristocracy’ have never had to and in the end it is all for nothing. Nick narrates a particularly lyrical passage as Gatsby awaits Daisy’s phone call:

I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come, and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream... A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about… like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees. (168)

The imagery of the valley of ashes is revived in the moments before Gatsby’s death. Nick imagines him having an existential epiphany – recognising the world’s indifference to man’s dreams – the ‘unfamiliar sky’, the ‘grotesque’ rose, the ‘frightening leaves’, where dreams are breathed by ghosts and never linger more than a moment before they are recycled and die again.
In many ways Gatsby is as much Nick’s creation as Daisy is Gatsby’s. He is elevated beyond reality but perhaps is more deserving of it than Daisy.

But characters like Tom Buchanan are not wholly unsympathetic – he is a product of his environment and truly believes that Gatsby ‘ran over Myrtle like you’d run over a dog and never even stopped his car’. Nick recognises that what Tom ‘had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’ (186)

The climactic tragedy is cemented in the fact that only one other person attends Gatsby’s funeral, everyone else is hasty to disconnect themselves - even those Gatsby trusted and love. Nick’s desperation to get somebody for his friend is heart-breaking. For all he has given, Gatsby receives nothing. He will always be alone at the dock, arm outstretched toward the light.

I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.(188)

Gatsby's greatness lies in the reckless dedication he shows in longing for something greater than himself even if failure is inevitable. He embodies the American Dream but falls prey to its ultimate corruption, its disintegrating nobility.

I firmly believe this is one of the great American novels. Many scholars have written on this but one of the best I have read is by Kenneth Eble, who claims ‘a greatness of theme’. This is the way in which Fitzgerald illuminates past and present, also using the ‘power of myth to convey meaning independent of time, place and the particulars of the narrative’. I would say that Gatsby will always have relevance because it reflects on the human condition in a highly symbolic way – for human beings will always dream and always seek self-improvement; they will always suffer from delusions and many will continue to strive even in the face of indifference. 

Now some words on the FILM (2013) – especially based on responses to the specifics of Baz Luhrmann's style:

It’s like going to a Picasso exhibition and expecting to get a realist portrait.

I knew what I was expecting so I was not disappointed. That does not mean I did not absolutely loathe some bits. The garish, Disney-world aesthetic going on at the parties and Gatsby’s house – the tacky, unsubtle scenes near the beginning at Tom’s city apartment. Tobey Maguire’s ineptness in general. The smack-you-in-the-face heightened visual representations of imagery that was more seriously and subtly symbolic in the book.

But despite all this I still kind of got what I wanted. Which is Fitzgerald’s prose. Literally. In true Luhrmann style passages you witness words unfolding across the screen across the screen, the dialogue is nearly exactly accurate – every important line is held up for worship. The thing that would completely put me off an adaptation of a book like this would be the loss of a sense of the prose, a sacrificing of the specific mechanics of a line. So it was beautiful to me that this adaptation loyally stuck to its source material.

I loved the various different arrangements of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Young and Beautiful’. ( It recurred throughout as jazz, piano solo, orchestral swelling, haunting echo.  There is an eerie gravity to her voice which radiates through the screen and captures the grimness and the aspiration in the decadence displayed.

DiCaprio grew into Gatsby through the film, particularly in the second half. He mastered the character’s repressed pain and concealed insecurities. Carey Mulligan was also excellent. She was not the Daisy many might recognise from the book – she is much more human. She inhabited her character so fully so as to make her more sympathetic, which I actually liked. There is a simple and quiet beauty about her and the way she can at times seem as if she’s made of porcelain, and at others completely vivaciously alive.

Though I did not necessarily like the scenes of Nick in the asylum, I understood what they were trying to do in framing the story and I think it ultimately made sense. The main omission I noticed was Gatsby’s father, who is the sole person to attend the funeral in the book. Obviously they cannot include everything but his presence did serve to cement Gatsby’s fullness as a character with a real family and history in the book.

Monday, March 18, 2013

'What is any ocean but a multitude of drops?' - Cloud Atlas

I think the score encapsulates everything that the film is:
One of the comments says it is 'one of the most beautiful pieces of music in the history of cinema' and I have to agree. The Cloud Atlas Sextet and its core melody, for me, brings to mind one word: wonder. It is sad, joyful and intimidating all in one. It is so simple - swelling and lapsing and swelling again. The film - and the book- are unique experiences. To film the unfilmable - to show the unshowable. That was the goal.

The scope of the film is so huge that you kind of have to accept that there will be elements you may not like about it - but the coming together of the whole is orchestrated so beautifully and that's what the music symbolises for me. You have to recognise that there are six genres in one film here so you can take what you like.

The scope of the book is equally mind boggling and you really have to read it without stopping and with a clear head to grasp it. And then read it again. And again. Author David Mitchell has accomplished an incredible structural and literary feat. Six interlocking stories. Connecting over time and space. The overall message is that individual lives do have significance. An individual drop can cast ripples through the whole.

Ben Whishaw as Robert Frobisher
The casting was so important - especially when each actor has to play multiple roles. Doona Bae and Ben Whishaw, principally Sonmi 451 and Robert Frobisher, were perfect and unforgettable. This is acting as an art form. It's a shame that the cinematography, score and some of the acting in this film was shunned by the Oscars.

Susan Sarandon credits those behind the film (Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Andy Wachowski) as being 'so brave to take on so much'. The following featurette is brilliant - really shows the sheer ambition and the aim to push 'cinematic boundaries':

Doona Bae as 'Sonmi 451'
Because really, its so precariously balanced, such a cinematic risk -  it could have gone so wrong - and it has polarised critics - but I found each component story to be so engaging. I was surprised, though I suppose I shouldn't have been, by how graphic it was - especially with sex and violence. Some bits are hard to watch so if you're squeamish it may not be your choice of viewing but the essence of the film supersedes all that. Sadly the film has also been poorly marketed - particularly in the US, which is a shame considering it's scale and what went into it.

The following synopsis gives a useful basic dissection of the key elements of the film.
(credit to
"The time lines and genres are split as follows; 1849 - historical narrative, 1936: drama/romance, 1973: mystery/action, 2012: dark comedy, 2144: sci-fi and 2321 and 2346: post-apocalyptic. In each of these stories we meet various characters, played by the same ensemble cast whose lives and experiences ripple throughout past and future and are somehow connected. This is a movie made on a truly lavish scope and despite its multiple parallel storylines manages to flow seamlessly blending strong storytelling with brain teasing plots and characters providing a beautiful mess. This movie will not be for everyone due to its length and complexity, but the multiple narratives are so engaging it should be viewed at least once if not several times."

I will outline the key characters and storylines without giving away too many spoilers:
- Adam Ewing (South Pacific Ocean 1849) - an American lawyer who develops a bond with a stow away slave, while being tended by Dr Henry Goose for an (apparent/suspicious) illness.
- Robert Frobisher (Cambridge and Edinburgh, 1936) - a bisexual composer and musician, goes to work as an amanuensis to Vyvyan Ayrs, an elderly composer. Reads Ewing's Pacific Journal.
- Luisa Rey (San Francisco, 1973) - a journalist who is tipped off about a conspiracy involving a new nuclear reactor and whose safety is compromised by this knowledge and her pursuit of the truth. Hears Frobisher's symphony.
- Timothy Cavendish (UK 2012) - a publisher, 65 years old who is tricked by his brother into a nursing home and has to try and escape. He reads the manuscript of a novel based on Luisa Rey and writes an autobiographical screenplay.
- Sonmi 451 (Neo Seoul, Korea,  2144) - genetically-engineered fabricant/clone. Her story is recounted in an interview prior to her exectution. Watches the film of Cavendish's adventure. She recounts how she was rescued by Commander Hae-Joo Chang so she could tell her story, revealing the horrors of consumer exploitation in an effort to change the system.
- Zachry (The Big Island, 2321) - lives in a primitive post-apocalyptic society. The tribesmen view Sonmi as a goddess. Goes with a Prescient called Meronym to search for a communications station and to save his wife. Hunted by the Kona tribe.

In the film all 6 stories are framed in a final 7th, which is an extension of Zachry's story as he tells them all to his grandchildren on another planet. The book makes it easier to appreciate the narrative structuring of each individual story as they are all told in different ways which can only be implied in the film. Ewing's journal, Frobisher's letters to his lover, Sixsmith, Sonmi 451's interview transcript are all stylistically distinct which is a novel experience for the reader. It's kind of refreshing - I'm not sure if the same format but with a consistent narrative mode of voice would have held my attention. All, excepting Luisa Rey, are first person narrative or variations thereof. There are elements of dystopia, mundane reality and thriller which all merge into a beautiful and thought provoking unity of human experience. Mitchell takes simple tenets of genres - abolition, slavery, individual vs corporation, consumerism, sexuality, corruption, exploitation - and creates a vast entity which is so complex yet so simple. Because it is done well. We are left asking: is there order or chaos? Or simply ordered chaos?

The film is meticulous and intricate in every detail - a two second clip of the title of a book or its author is significant in linking the whole. Each image is deliberate, each drop casts a ripple. So whether you liked it or not - you have to admire the craft and sheer vision of, firstly the author, and then the cinematic endeavour undergone by the Wachowski's and Tom Tykwer. These are people who had a vision, an impossible vision - one they have seen through to the end with integrity, creativity and care. The end product may not be consistently perfect, but it is affecting and thought-provoking, with flashes of brilliance, and will stay with you long after the end credits.


Robert Frobisher:  My dearest Sixsmith, I shot myself through the roof of my mouth this morning, with Vyvyan Ayrs' Luger. A true suicide is a paced disciplined certainty. People pontificate, 'suicide is a coward's act'. Couldn't be further from the truth. Suicide takes tremendous courage.

Archivist: Remember this is not an interrogation or a trial. Your version of the truth is all that matters.
Sonmi-451: Truth is singular. It's 'versions' are mistruths. 

Timothy Cavendish: Wе сrоѕѕ аnd rесrоѕѕ оur оld trасkѕ lіkе fіgurе ѕkаtеrѕ. Αnd јuѕt аѕ Ι wаѕ rеаdіng а nеw ѕubmіѕѕіоn, а роwеrful deja-vu rаn thrоugh my bоnеѕ. Ι hаd bееn thеrе bеfоrе. Αnоthеr lіfеtіmе аgо.

Sonmi 451: 'Οur lіvеѕ аrе nоt оur оwn. Frоm wоmb tо tоmb, wе аrе bоund tо оthеrѕ, pаѕt аnd рrеѕеnt. Αnd by еасh сrіmе, аnd еvеry kіndnеѕѕ, we bіrth оur futurе.'

Isaac Sachs:  Belief, like fear or love, is a force to be understood as we understand the theory of relativity, and principles of uncertainty. Phenomena that determine the course of our lives. Yesterday, my life was headed in one direction. Today, it is headed in another. Yesterday, I believe I would never have done what I did today. These forces that often remake time and space, they can shape and alter who we imagine ourself to be, begin long before we are born, and continue after we perish. Our lives and our choices, like quantum trajectories, are understood moment to moment, at each point of intersection, each encounter, suggest a new potential direction.

Robert Frobisher: The Atlas, I believe, is the only thing I have done in my life that has value. But I know I could not have written it, if I hadn't met you. There are whole movements in the Atlas that I wrote imagining us, meeting again and again, in different lives and different ages.

Robert Frobisher: My life extends far beyond the limitations of me.

Robert Frobisher: I believe there is another world waiting for us, Sixsmith. A better world. And I'll be waiting for you there.

Haskell Moore: Adam. Listen to me. For the sake of my grandson, if not your own. There is a natural order to this world, and those who try to upend it do not fare well. This movement will never survive. If you join them, you and your entire family will be shunned. At best, you exist as pariah, to be spat on and beaten. At worst, lynched or crucified.
Haskell Moore: And for what? For what? No matter what you do, it will never amount to anything more than a single drop in a limitless ocean.
Adam Ewing: What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

A (sort-of) Oscar Preview: Silver (hopefully) to Gold & More Zero Than Hero

Bear with me because this jumble of a preview isn't exactly going to be objective or terribly well informed because:

a) I haven't seen all of the films nominated


b) It's my opinion based on my thoughts and my experiences


c) I'm not much of a film critic. I go for certain things - like strong character portrayals, a good story, whether its thought-provoking etc.

I've written a whole post about the Silver Linings Playbook - both the book and the film - and this is definitely my favourite film of the year by a mile. It would be so deserving of Best Adapted Screenplay as it gives credit to the astonishingly careful and brilliant transition from book to film. David O. Russell has brought out each character, in all their dark and quotidian glory. This is coming from a narrative which was originally quite restricted in terms of accessing other characters outside of Pat. That's not a criticism of the book - it was absolutely designed to be situated inside Pat's fascinating and complicated mind. The film maintains this kind of feeling but a combination of directing, scripting and just brilliant performances means the other characters make just as much of an impact.

Any one of them could win in the four categories those actors are nominated in, though I am pretty certain Daniel Day Lewis will get Best Actor. Robert De Niro has nothing to prove to anyone. He is Robert De Niro. Jacki Weaver too, in a way her character is more understated than the others but is so crucial to the dynamic - maintaining a balance amidst the chaos. I've never taken  Bradley Cooper seriously before but he was very good as Pat and made me take notice. Jennifer Lawrence is just astounding - I have more praise for her than I can articulate. She dominated the screen with emotional maturity, vulnerability and ingenuity. She's just been perfect in every role she's played.

The more I look at the candidates for Best Director, the more I despair that Ben Affleck isn't there. I know he has been in some questionable films - but most of the things he's written/produced have been excellent - Good Will Hunting, Gone Baby Gone etc. With Argo he has excelled as a director. Really excelled. Even when you know the outcome the film is so intense and gripping, giving the context at the beginning and with some great shots of the storming of the embassy. I only realised how tense I was when I burst into tears when they finally made it - there was such a sense of relief. It's a great story too - I know it's inevitably biased and inaccurate in places, but there's no denying that the concept and success of the 'best bad idea' that they had is a marvel. Obviously the film also benefits from distance - it's been made some time after the actual events - when information had properly been released and when it is possible for people to dispute the presentation. We can take it or leave it.

I wish Zero Dark Thirty had taken a leaf out of this book. If there's one film that I hope does not win tomorrow night than it's this one. The editing isn't bad - the cinematography's okay but the screenplay and everything else is just bad. The controversy over the torture scenes has kind of overshadowed the many other things that were wrong with this film. I don't think it condones torture but I think it's extremely problematic how it claims to tell 'truth' when its such a recent event and kind of ongoing. A much better and more complex film could have been made in the future - after a period of time where perhaps more information could be revealed without so much secrecy and uncertainty.

I will try to summarise the film:

'They blew this up. And this. Then a few years later they blew this up. And that. Let's kill the bad guys.'
There. It wasn't thoughtfully done. Yes they created tension, yes they built the set well but it wasn't an engaging or thought provoking film. It was all: protect the motherland - heroic America - take out the enemies bla bla bla.  I have nothing against Jessica Chastain but she didn't convince me at all. I don't know whether I was disappointed by how the character was written - or the casting - or the acting or all of these but it didn't work. It wasn't engaging. She looks so fragile and it's not a very deep or engaging character study. I know I've said engaging 100 times in this paragraph but it's a pretty big issue. When she says: 'I'm the motherfucker who found this place' I laughed. I don't think I was meant to. I didn't buy it. Her appearance is too perfect - it's hard to take her seriously even as an action hero. Unfortunately the whole thing just felt like a 'cashing in'. It also makes Pakistan seem the root of all evil. It's a shallow and simplistic addressing of issues and events which kind of need to be addressed more intelligently and thoughtfully. That kind of character study does have potential but it's got to go deeper. It can't just be unbrushed hair and slightly more ferocious mouse clicking and random expletives.

This time I don't really think Jessica Chastain should be in contention in the Best Actress category. I haven't seen Beasts of the Southern Wild so can't judge Quvenzhane Wallis and this is all pretty much just my opinion based on what I've seen. I really hope that Jennifer Lawrence gets the Oscar. Basically for all the work she's done in her career - but especially Silver Linings Playbook. My other personal favourite is Naomi Watts - I thought she should have got a nomination for King Kong because she managed to make me believe in the bond between her and a CGI gorilla which, while she was acting, she had to imagine was there. She single-handedly created an emotional relationship with air. In The Impossible she is equally emotionally devastating though obviously in a very different way. Tom Holland, who played her eldest son was incredible too. They carried the film and made the story so vivid and real and heart-wrenching. It was very hard to watch - and that's the way it should have been. Again, I know there's controversy over casting but I thought it was a very powerful film and I know alot went into it. I haven't seen Amour but I know about Emanuelle Riva and she is captivating even in the 30 second clips I have seen. So Lawrence is my choice but I would deem Riva and Watts worthy winners too.

I enjoyed Les Miserables, as much for its ambition as for the film itself. I struggled with some of the casting but it was generally well acted and well sung. I know alot of people are rooting for it but it's not my personal favourite or choice. Anne Hathaway looks to be favourite for Supporting Actress though, and she obviously put everything into the role and I respect that. Have heard from a reliable source that Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman put in great performances in The Master so I will investigate that one soon. Rate both very highly anyway. I'm a bit wary of Tarantino so haven't seen Django, also haven't seen the Life of Pi but have read the book and will give it a watch when it's out on DVD.

Anyway, would love to hear your own thoughts on those nominated and those who weren't!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Silver Linings Playbook (Book & Film) - 'This is what I believe to be true'

“Dr. Patel: Pat, you have to have a strategy.
Pat: I hate my illness and I want to control it. This is what I believe to be true: You have to do everything you can and if you stay positive you have a shot at a silver lining." 
– Silver Linings Playbook (Film)

I finished reading Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick last night. The book is narrated by bipolar protagonist Pat Peoples in a way not dissimilar to the obsessive self-awareness of Charlie in The Perks of Being a Wallflower. One of the devices used by Quick to give Pat a distinctive voice is repetition – of phrases, ideas, even whole paragraphs, highlighting his obsessive focus.

Matthew Quick
Having been released from a psychiatric hospital Pat is hopelessly set on reuniting with his (ex)wife Nikki. During the years he has been in the ‘bad place’, we find out Nikki has divorced him and taken out a restraining order. This is because of the incident which resulted in his institutionalisation – where he violently lost control when he caught her cheating. This is slowly revealed throughout the book as Quick subtly de-constructs the illusion of Nikki in Pat’s narrative. As a character she never physically enters the narrative, she is endlessly talked about but conspicuously absent, heightening the on-going futility of Pat’s ambitions. A lot of the novel is Pat regaining suppressed memories – whereas in the film it is more about him facing what he already knows.

Pat sees his life as a movie and is insistent there will be a happy ending, making excuses for any bad event or evidence contrary to his beliefs as a difficult moment before this inevitability – a final twist before redemption. When he gets home he begins his own course of self-improvement, including intensive gym routines and working through the reading list for the school Nikki teaches at. Quick includes Pat’s opinions on each book, The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms, which is actually very effective in showing Pat’s inability to cope with the endings and how he, perhaps subconsciously, misreads them to suit his own perspective. 

Jennifer Lawrence. 2 Oscar Nominations at the age of 22
Tiffany is the depressed young widow who spiralled out of control following her husband’s accidental death and offers to be a channel of communication, via letter, between Pat and Nikki. This may seem like a predictable formula but it’s actually sensitively and cleverly executed. Nikki is absent – never really there – so instead it is a kind of therapeutic lie. In the book, Pat almost reacts violently when he discovers Tiffany’s deception but in the film he is shown to have reached a stage where it doesn't bother him anymore. He has grown and is on the way to accepting and appreciating what others have had to do for him. His friendship with Tiffany is mutually beneficial especially when she enlists his help with a dancing project – which has all the criteria which would normally make me cringe – but the emotional vulnerability and comedic talent of Jennifer Lawrence just makes it fun and captivating to watch.

Because the book is narrated in this moderately obsessive first person narrative, Pat imposes himself very heavily and the other characters are specifically focalised through him.Tiffany is absent for a lot of the book, in terms of dialogue and action in the narrative, but it is her very imposing presence in the film which really establishes a successful and complex dynamic. As a quartet, Robert DeNiro, Jacki Weaver, Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper are exceptional in the way they all interact with each other and each characters individuality comes to the fore. 

Jacki Weaver and Robert DeNiro
The film is different because meticulous, objective attention is paid to each detail of the parents’ behaviour. DeNiro, as Pat’s father, is implied to be obsessive compulsive and his behaviour and moods arbitrarily governed by the results of his favourite American Football team, the Eagles. There’s even an interesting parallel between father and son since Pat Sr. was banned from the Eagles stadium for assaulting another fan – it’s a thin line between who gets the stigma of being institutionalised and who is excused. Weaver, meanwhile, is the neglected but optimistic wife who tries to hold the family together while also being extremely emotionally fragile herself.  

I’m sure there are those who will find it very easy to be cynical about this film. I know the term romantic comedy is often used derogatorily and suggests the same old formulas and characters merely carried along by the same old plot – but the characters are  too complex to fall prey to that in this film and those who revert to that criticism perhaps need to think harder about the journey. There are also those, I’m sure, who will feel that it stigmatises mental illness or misrepresents it – but this story never claims to be about mental illness. It has emotionally flawed characters who struggle honestly with their own manifestations of it and their individual circumstances. (Who is anyone to claim that an individual story is being misrepresented when it is entirely subjective?) There were moments early in the film where I feared it might become too much – when Pat has episodes – and make a bit of a spectacle of it but it really settles into itself as the movie progresses. Maybe it could be argued the ending is predictable – but again it is what all the characters have to overcome and accept that makes it actually very rewarding to watch and think about. It is about finding a strategy and acceptance, not a simple getting better but a way to cope healthily. The film could have fallen into numerous clichés by making the dance competition centre stage – and it is prominent in the film but in a really hilarious endearing way. Unlike in the book, a lot depends on the result but not something unrealistic like winning against the odds – just doing their best and hoping for a silver lining. It could be argued the dance and bets were a contrived way to move to hollywood resolution but there is detail in every character portrayal that makes it mean more than that. 
Bradley Cooper

The fact is the film has garnered much critical acclaim – it’s a contender in eight categories for the Oscars – has already picked up critics’ awards and audience favourite at festivals and its thoroughly deserved. It’s funny, moving and layered. I think it’s a brilliant adaptation of the book – it is nominated for best adapted screenplay – because it’s paid such close attention to each character and brought each to the fore in very specific and important ways. There are slight plot differences but they add rather than detract – they’re not arbitrary decisions for dramatic effect, they are strategically designed to suit the characters and the direction. Compared to the other players in the Best Picture category Silver Linings had a small budget and I think the people involved are genuinely pleasantly surprised by the attention it has received.

Both book and film are ultimately endearing because they are genuine. Quick should be commended for the very careful and genuine way in which he creates a character like Pat. In award season there are films strategically released with very obvious Oscar pretensions but this is something different and if it can pick up even more awards it will be very deserved in its own right. Audiences and critics have taken notice for genuine reasons – enjoyment, empathy, heart but also brilliant writing, interesting characters and exceptional acting. 

“Life is not a PG feel-good movie. Real life often ends badly. Literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still possible for us to endure nobly.” ― Tiffany (as Nikki) - Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook

“Life is hard, and children have to be told how hard life can be…So they will be sympathetic to others. So they will understand that some people have it harder than they do and that a trip through this world can be a wildly different experience, depending on what chemicals are raging through one’s mind.” ― Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook

“I am practicing being kind over being right.” ― Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook

It's also worth checking out the soundtrack as the changing tones in the film are really enhanced by the song choices and compositions - here are a couple: - 'Always Alright' - Alabama Shakes - 'Girl from the North Country' - Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash