Author: octosquawk

A Culture in Trouble

“The book is about what goes on in the lives of real people when the industrial economy goes south. It’s about reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible. It’s about a culture that increasingly encourages social decay instead of counteracting it.”

–J.D. Vance


I get where Vance is coming from. He realizes there is a certain amount of victimization in the attitude of the community he grew up in. Vance has the unique perspective of someone who is both a primary witness and a detached observer.

These communities sprang up around industrial centers, thrived, settled, and stubbornly resisted their atrophy. And certainly Vance is right about the unworthy way his people have dealt with the loss of prosperity. Many of them who fell down decided not to get up. Vance is harsh when he says that is not the kind of people their fathers and grandfathers were.

I think Vance realizes something that isn’t apparent to outsiders, that his people will only get up for a fight. And so he doesn’t pull his punches. He lays the blame squarely on their shoulders, because he wants them mad. He wants them mad enough to get up and raise their fists. They fought their way into the earth for coal and steel, and he wants them to fight their way out.

Their is a profound pride to tight-knit communities. Some might say these people should simply pack up and move wherever they can find economic security. But it means severing ties that go back several generations. There is a very real fear that if they leave behind their community, they will also leave behind their identity. Deep down that is what they love most, rich or poor, rain or shine: their history.



To Be Or Not To Be Cora


Would I kill to gain freedom? It’s easy to say yes from the safety of my computer desk. There’s likely a breaking point for us all, a set of conditions that once met, would trigger violent flashback. These conditions are different for everyone, obviously. But since it’s all hypothetical, I absolutely would. Who didn’t cheer when Tarantino’s Django went on a murderous rampage against his oppressors? It was brutal but righteous, and the aggressors deserved what they got.

But let’s be realistic, most people in a situation like Cora’s from The Underground Railroad would simply go with the flow, and probably wouldn’t be dreaming of freedom so much as wishing to be left alone. Most people find it difficult to uproot their lives to somewhere without a support system, entirely dependent on the charity of others. It simply isn’t feasible. Add to that an element of mortal danger, and it’s rather demotivating.

Tangentially, the word freedom is often misused. We use it in place of the word liberty, and the two have very different meanings. To use an example: If one were placed in a jail cell, they have the liberty to do anything within the confines of that cell. Dance, scream, beat one’s head against the wall…

Conversely, freedom is one’s ability to exercise(or not) their given liberties. A prisoner has lost the liberty to drive down the highway, but they are free to dream about the trip. They can take our liberties, but they can’t take our freedom.

The Drive Behind: All the Light We Cannot See

On one hand, Doerr’s novel is all about its powerless characters being swept along by the tide of WWII. Readers are not privy to the lives of Germany’s leaders, or France’s government. Instead we see Werner’s orphanage, and Marie-Laure’s museum, and their story is what they can hold onto as the landscape is torn apart.

On the other hand, the plot drives everything. There would be no story without the war, and the characters’ lives would not warrant recounting.

There is one example that stands out:

“In the absolute blackness, his vision is webbed with a thousand traveling wisps of red and blue. Flames? Phantoms? They lick along the floor, then rise to the ceiling, glowing strangely, serenely. “Are we dead?” he shouts into the dark. “Have we died?””

This moment is filled with suspense, and yet it ends when most authors would linger. To paraphrase Doerr: If a character pulls out a gun and shoots someone, that’s surprise. If a character pulls out a gun and leaves it on the table through the meal, that’s suspense. When you know what’s going to happen, it creates tension.

The above quote seems to fail in that regard, and easily makes the argument that the novel is plot driven. We know Werner doesn’t die because Doerr doesn’t stick around to solve the mystery.

The plot must move forward, even when the characters are terrified.


Living in Nazi Germany?

Old Poster

Living in an ideologically oppressive society:

I’m not going to compare Nazi Germany to modern-day America. It’s offensive to even imply that our civilization remotely resembles that one. You can dislike our politics, you can dislike our president, but we get to vote on these things, and we’ve yet to see state-sanctioned genocide. There’s this mindset that things are the worst they’ve ever been, and the U.S. is unraveling as we speak. You know why this idea is floating around? Because it sells papers. We live in a culture where if you’re not part of the offended, you’re one of the offensive. Welcome to free speech. The right to get angry about anything, alongside the right to do nothing about our culture’s problems. “Don’t give that homeless guy a nickel, he’ll probably spend it on booze.” You know you’ve heard that one.

The fact is, 99% of us would probably go along with whatever screwed-up ideology our Gov’t came up with, had we lived in Nazi Germany. The alternative would be becoming an enemy of the state. In Doerr’s novel, the only reason Werner wasn’t killed was because he kept his mouth shut, and because he was useful to those in power.


My favorite scene(or song, rather, since we can’t view the actual musical) was Yorktown. It had a solid revolutionary vibe that was exciting. Although it spends a lot of time on the introductions of key characters, the musical seems to require it. None of the characters, as far as the pictures go, are iconic enough to be able to identify them by sight. This section of lyrics was particularly good:

To my brother’s revolutionary covenant
I’m runnin’ with the Sons of Liberty and I am lovin’ it!
See, that’s what happens when you up against the ruffians
We in the shit now, somebody gotta shovel it!”

The pattern of speech, while awkward on paper, works with the musical style. This song really amps up just before the chorus:

“We negotiate the terms of surrender
I see George Washington smile
We escort their men out of Yorktown
They stagger home single file

Tens of thousands of people flood the streets
There are screams and church bells ringing
And as our fallen foes retreat
I hear the drinking song they’re singing…”

When listening to the song, you can hear excitement in the performers’ voices as this song reaches a crescendo.

Perhaps you can see that I have less to say about Hamilton, and that’s because the most important element is missing: the actors. We can hear the music and get a peek at Hamilton’s creative architecture from the hardcover book, but the action is absent.

I have seen the musical Cats several times at different ages, and what always struck me as essential to the performance were the actors’ personalities peeking through cracks in the facade. The actors know when the exciting parts are coming, and their enjoyment while delivering that to an audience is every bit as essential as the lyrics. This is one piece of theater I would recommend, but one piece of literature that I wouldn’t.

An unassignmented post

Research Assistant job – cool.

Self-motivated – cool.

Accountability via trust and results – cool.

Last-minute proposal for academic essay panel – moderate stress levels.

Last-minute proposal for academic essay I don’t have time to research – sleep-disrupting stress levels.

I managed to write a convincing and seemingly knowledgeable abstract proposal on a topic i haven’t had time to research. It’s one of the more stressful things I’ve had to do academically, all while imagining myself reading this essay in front of a roomful of attentive minds…

I heard a story about an undergrad who wrote her essay on the importance of some author’s use of punctuation, and how it affected the meaning of their novel. At the end, someone more researched stood up and asked, “but what do you think about the fact [author]’s editor was the one who put all that punctuation in for him?”


Revision of In-Class Essay on Kirsty Logan’s “The Rental Heart”

The voice in Kirsty Logan’s “The Rental Heart” is a vignette of personal transformation wherein the speaker grows from victim into willing participant in the game of love. “Rental” implies a certain amount of premeditated impermanence, an admission that these instruments of love(and thus the partners) are not to last.

“The problems came when the hearts got old and scratched: shreds of the past got caught in the dents…”

This passage is a nod to the addictive excitement new relationships inspire, and a veiled explanation of the speaker’s habit of discarding hearts and losing lovers. The stand-in organs are unreliable as substitutes.

“…the parts of me that I wanted to give to Anna were long gone, down the gutters of the city…”

The speaker chooses imagery that shows their broken heart as something that belongs in the gutter: it is no longer a functioning instrument, but a piece of detritus that is flushed away. The metaphor sets the speaker up as a broken thing as well, aiding the sense that the speaker is a victim.

The addiction to the love game soon follows:

“…the heart rental guy started to greet me by name. He gave me a bulk discount…”

The speaker’s implication is that there has been a transition from victimization to willing and frequent participant.

At the end of the story, the speaker relinquishes the impermanent sense of the relationship by removing the defective rental heart. We discover it does not hold any traces of the woman Grace.

“…but I hadn’t wanted to return it, to lose the image of Grace…no picture of Grace, no strands of her hair, no shine of memories, no declarations.”

The speaker, within the confines of the story’s fiction, transforms from willing participant in a charade, to willing participant in love. The speaker acknowledges their desire to drop the last shred of their sense of impermanence, and engage fully with the woman Grace, as well as with their own emotions.