Review: Vox by Christina Dalcher

Vox by Christina Dalcher was an airport purchase and an easy read.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed to speak more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial—this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her. This is just the beginning. Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard. But this is not the end. For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

My thoughts (as always, spoilers may abound):
This book is Atwood-lite. The most interesting aspect of the story for me was around Stephen (the main character’s teenage son) and his education and re-education. When he gets on board with the new regime, his arguments for being “Pure” – though to the reader wrong and wholly without compassion – sound rational while letting him feel important and superior. Of course this would be appealing to a teenage boy. It’s uncomfortable and frustrating to read him mimicking the doctrine he’s been fed, but it’s also very believable. His journey to broaden his mind and consider that he had been wrong also feels honest, if rushed.

Otherwise, I found the potential message of “treat everyone with kindness and respect” was mostly lost beneath a message of “don’t forget to vote” and “beware the people who use religion to make policy” and “pay attention to the eroding of your rights” and, uncomfortably, “most men are either hateful or weak.” I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt on that last one and say it was not the author’s but the protagonist’s opinion. Jean’s position is understandable in her restricted life, but narrow and simplified like Stephen’s views. And though we do get examples of varying types of “good” men by book’s end, I’m not sure Jean grows to notice the variety.

Anyway, pretty good novel, rushed ending, distinct characters, emotionally charged, worth a read.

What’s next?

By this time last year, I was almost done culling all the committees from my calendar.

I had thought contributing to those groups would make me happy, or at least make me feel like a good person, but it didn’t. Instead, I felt drained and uninspired. I felt removed from the charities I was supporting and smothered by the childish infighting among people who were supposedly present to give back to the community. I learned – not quickly, but eventually – that volunteers aren’t always compassionate, board members aren’t always competent, and adults aren’t always as mature as the average 7th grader. I learned to dread my committee meetings with a stomach-turning, lung-strangling anxiety. I learned that doing something “good” can feel shockingly bad.

So I stopped. I gracefully left everything (after completing significant milestones and transitioning my role to replacements; I’m not a monster). When I was free, it took a little while to enjoy the space to breathe, the space to think about the difference between having a full life and having a fulfilling life.

With Jenn’s help, I tried to figure out what I want(ed) and what I am(was) passionate about. My success was limited. The only target I could settle on with certainty was running. I wanted to run a marathon. Had wanted to for years. Had put it off knowing if I was making excuses for why I shouldn’t do it, then I shouldn’t do it. But I wasn’t making excuses any longer. In fact, I had cleared my schedule, and I needed something to feel good about.

I could write pages and pages on my marathon training – already have, in fact – but for the purposes of this post, all you need to know is from November 2016 when I decided to run, to February 2017 when I started my for realz training, to May when I (re-)injured my knee and had to change my marathon plans, to June when I started over, to September 23 when I completed my first full marathon ever in effing Grand Forks, North Dakota of all places… I did feel good. I felt purposeful and strong and accomplished. Even during the abject shittiness of my injury, I was driven to meet my goal.

And then, about three days after it was over, I felt lost. Aimless.

And stupid.

Obviously, while I spent my year running in temperatures that ranged from -25 to +30 degrees (that’s -13 to +86 degrees for you nonsensical Americans. Seriously. Fahrenheit is bonkers), while I spent hours curating my running playlist and vetting audio books, while I got lost on lonely, marshy trails at the cabin and took too many left turns in the maze of identical houses in the new development down Henderson Highway, I should have also been asking myself the question, “what’s next?”

But I didn’t do that.

I didn’t ask myself “what’s next?” until about three days after the marathon was over, when I was already in “next.” And I didn’t have an answer.

The next creative renaissance

I watched the film “Genius” yesterday, which follows the relationship between famed editor (as much as an editor can be noticed) Maxwell Perkins and literary great Thomas Wolfe. I enjoyed the movie, more for Colin Firth’s overall performance and the sheer energy of Jude Law’s manic frenzy than for the story itself. The Hemingway and Fitzgerald cameos added a sprinkle of intrigue, though the script suffers a bit from introducing a gun and then never using it. That’s not a metaphor, by the way.

I was thinking about the art, music, architecture and literature being created in the generation of this movie. How big players like Hemingway and Picasso would gather in salons in Paris and drink and create and live an artist’s destructive, thrilling life. When will the next creative renaissance take place? Has it happened, and I missed it? Or is it happening now, in the craft beer markets of Portland or the or the El Sistema classrooms of Venezuela or the guerilla performances of Russian punk rock protesters?

Maxwell Perkins had the gift of recognizing the genius of writers who would resonate through a century, and the power of helping them succeed, but how many among us have the clarity and foresight to do the same with our contemporaries?

How’s that for a Monday morning musing.

The bad stuff is easier to believe. You ever notice that?

The excellent among you will recognize that quote from Pretty Woman. It’s a movie I still have to like because Julia Roberts is tremendous. Honestly, she just seems so nice. Like what I assume Tom Hanks is like. Okay, enough celebrity worship.

Every once in a while, I think about this line – the truth of it. Do we go looking for profundity in ’90’s romantic comedies? Likely no (at least, I don’t. I’m sure there’s a course of study out there somewhere dedicated to just that).

Honestly, I didn’t even remember that it was from Pretty Woman – Google helped me with that – but who cares? If I remembered it, it means J.F. Lawton, the movie’s writer, captured something that resonates beyond the context of the screenplay. Insecurity. Though some of his other choices are… ludicrously rose-coloured is the nicest way to put it.

Let the boring girls get lucky for once

buffy-homecomingI read an article recently on the topic of luck. More specifically, how we tend to under-represent the influence of luck on our own successes, tending to attribute them wholly to our own hard work and perseverance and downplaying the factors over which we have no control.

Then, when watching a dancing movie, High Strung, I was caught up in this topic again.

You see, dancing movies (and other similar feel-good sports or competition movies) often follow the tale of an underdog, overlooked because of socioeconomic factors or other constraining demographics, who gets the chance to have all of his/her dreams come true (and, of course, find love). How lucky the leads are.

But today I wasn’t focusing on the bitchy prima ballerina (why can’t the best dancer be nice for once… or at least vaguely polite), or the POC best friend (who could be amazing if she just tried a little harder and dropped her attitude/stopped partying), or even the innocent, girl-next-door beauty overwhelmed by the “big city” and the higher expectations of her demanding (but secretly supportive) teachers. No. Today I was thinking about the other dozen girls in that ballet class. The ones who’ve been at the ballet school for years, who are always on time for class, who are never kicked out of class, who don’t sleep with their choreographers or party on the eve of significant auditions, who choose healthy, supportive relationships, and who work hard every day for their dreams and thus have never needed a redemptive montage. You know. The unlucky girls.

Where are their moments in the spotlight? Where are their kisses on stage? Where are their contracts and scholarships and standing ovations?

Look, I know their stories are boring. But a part of me craves their successes instead. In the Buffy vs. Cordelia Homecoming episode, where there was a tie for homecoming queen, and **spoilers** neither Buffy nor Cordelia were the winners… that was somehow satisfying. Thinking, “those other girls must’ve run excellent campaigns; good for them.” It’s so believable. And hopeful.

Sometimes the hard-working actors in the background should win, whether or not we’re cheering for them. Let’s let the boring girls get lucky for once.

Writing on a theme

I tend to begin blindly. That is, I write and let the start of the story flow from the first passing whim. From there,  if I like what I’ve begun, I continue with a story more thoughtfully constructed–with characters and plot moving toward planned moments and, eventually, a conclusion.

If there is a theme in the writing that springs from this process, it is discovered rather than expressed. In some cases, this discovery is unwelcome. I find that I’m promoting a viewpoint in which I don’t believe, and I have to rethink the message. But that is all the work of editing. Rarely, if ever, have I begun writing with a theme (or a moral, or a message) in mind and let the story come out of that exploration. The reason, in all its patheticness, is probably that I’ve never had an issue, a position, a commitment to an idea unpopular, controversial or important enough to be the sole fuel of my writing. Until recently.

In the last few months, I’ve been thinking deeply about compassion. The power of it. The perceived weakness of it.

When I was growing up, I was frequently called “sensitive” and it had a meaning that carried the heavy deficiencies of fragility and naivety. My mother told me recently that her greatest fear for me – once my personality began to develop – was that I would be debilitated by my “sensitivity,” that I would be unable to function for my feeling for others, and that I would choose partners who were broken and bad for me, because I could see the good in them through the damage. What’s a parent to do when a child that should be happy for herself, hurts for others?

When I saw ugliness and injustice being imposed on those around me, I was not supposed to be appalled by it. My happiness was a condition of my calm, clean life. Others had less of everything – food, love, stability, comfort – so I had better be happy! (Like any loving beings, my parents wanted to give me all the good, and fix or shield me from all the bad. They wanted me to be blissful, and who could dare fault them for that?)

But I felt as much of the unfairness of my privilege as is possible, and I understood the inconsistency and horror of being told to feel blessed by the luck of my draw. Why must I always be joyful by comparison? Why shouldn’t I be devastated by the inequality of my lot, just because I had the more enviable share? Why should I be branded with the back-handed “sensitive,” when that emotional sensibility is a symptom of desirable traits like sincerity, empathy, and kindness?

There was a large part of me that went unacknowledged. A toughness, or rather, a resilience. People who cry (or should I say, women, particularly young women, who cry) don’t get the benefit of being believed strong. My family feared I would be crippled by my emotions, but emotions are not a weakness. Not necessarily. Emotions can provide drive and purpose, especially when born out of compassion. Compassion. There it is. The most powerful force in the world.

There is so much I want to say about compassion. How it is the most underrated and essential personality trait. How it differs starkly from “synonyms” like mercy and charity. How it could be the only thing besides religious bribery and familial guilt that makes someone into a good person…

And so, for the first time, I have a theme worth expressing in my writing.

Something new

I was away in Australia for a few weeks, readers. That was neato. I made some detailed notes, and I’m planning on trying my hand at travel writing in a more robust way now that I’ve gone somewhere of interest. 

In other news, I’m posting this while on the bus. Ain’t technology grand? Someone just walked on smelling deeply of skunk, which I find strange for February in a metropolitan area. Anyway…

I’m going to try something new tonight. I’m going to listen to an audiobook. I’ve been read to before by live humans, but this is something different. Why now, you ask? Well, I’m flagging in my running again and listening to mysteries is apparently a real boost. (I just haven’t been able to get into season 2 of “Zombies Run.”)

Wish me luck!