Monday, October 20, 2014

Music Monday: I Am Mountain Review




     I'm no stranger to the latest controversies concerning Michael Gungor's break from orthodox Christianity, in favour of a more palatable theology. Gungor's philosophy of music is a fine one, and the frustration he's had with the Christian music genre is something I can sympathize with: Christians are a difficult audience to please, and an artist shouldn't have to worry about pleasing anyone. However, it's sad to hear him not only reject orthodox theology, but also question the intelligence of anyone who holds to it. Judgement tends to be a two-way street it seems. All that said, I'm going to stay away from the topic as much as possible and just review this album for what it is: probably the best work Gungor has ever done.

     I Am Mountain opens with the title track, a strong, beautiful intro, celebrating the duality of man. There are few songs written by Christian musicians (if you still count Gungor among this number) which are dedicated to celebrating the physical beauties of human existence, and this entire album makes a point at doing exactly that. I Am Mountain finds beauty in both the smallness and significance of humanity: the complexities of being both physical and spiritual.

"Momentary carbon stories
From the ashes, filled with Holy Ghost"

     This track is followed by the strange, but beautiful number Beat of Her Heart. One of the best qualities of this album is how Gungor managed to pull together various genres and textures and make them work as a collective whole. While I Am Mountain is pretty standard indie anthem fare, Beat of Her Heart is completely different. This song recounts the tragic Greek tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, and is reminiscent of old-time mediaeval court song, while also sounding oddly Western.  Long Way Off is light, upbeat sounding pop that is anything but light in content. It speaks of the fleeting wisdom of man in all areas: science, philosophy and faith. It's a song that questions everything, and commits to nothing, working well with Michael Gungor's aversion to the idea of absolute truth. Wandering sung by Michael Gungor's wife Lisa, exclusively in auto-tune, is hauntingly beautiful, followed by Let it Go which combines synth-rock with 70s disco. Wayward and Torn is a folk, soul number, bringing to mind The Civil Wars meets The Lone Ranger-theme. God and Country is a brash, purposely antagonistic anti-gun and anti-war statement, that will get a few nods from pacifists and make no friends among gun-lobbyists. While Gungor's tactlessness brings a smile, a touch of subtlety would have worked better. It's hard not to cringe at finishing lines "those who live by the gun, die by the gun." I mean, what are you trying to say exactly? Nothing like a little edited Jesus to give your social issue some credibility. Hither and Yon is a transitional piece to Yesternite, a complex, inner turmoil of an individual wrestling with his spirituality. At first Gungor's vocals are accompanied by gentle classical guitar, and slowly strings, percussion and synth add more and more layers beneath the main theme, picking up pace and intensity as the author's turmoil becomes increasingly desperate. It's a song which could very well have ended in chaos, but Gungor times each element just right. In short, it's experimental song writing at it's best. The Best Part is simpler and more stripped down. Finally and Upside Down send the album off in a return to standard indie. 

     I have always appreciated Gungor as artists. It's so difficult not to enjoy and revel in art this good and this beautiful. I Am Mountain is frankly, a gorgeous latest effort from the group. It has moments of real honest emotion, exploration of faith, and the celebration of the physical as God created it. However, it is difficult not be disappointed in the souls behind the music. Disappointed may not be best word...sad, sad is the only word for it.  But there is truth in all art, whether Gungor intended to or not, there is orthodox truth woven amongst his songs. Michael Gungor is a brilliant song writer who has a chip on his shoulder against orthodox Christians. Perhaps the best course of action would be to engage, not stone? 



Tuesday, October 14, 2014

An Editorial: Is Augustus Waters a Manic Pixie Character?

 Note: This post contains spoilers of novel and movie adaptation of "The Fault in Our Stars" by John Green



    
     As a reader, I have a somewhat complicated relationship with the Young Adult genre. On one hand, I'm of the opinion that most YA novels are just repetitions of the same tropes and characters, with different settings, titles, and variations of the same dystopian/supernatural world. On the other hand, I can't help but fall victim to these tropes, even though I know I'm being ensnared by less-than worthy hooks. I can't help but be charmed by the first person narratives of the Tris/Katniss/Mia's of these YA universes, because they're just ordinary, relatable girls like meeeee!! I could totally be any of these girls/women and so could any of you out there!!! Young or old, we all want to overcome our insecurities, save the world, and fall in love with, and have all our needs met by a mysterious, handsome, powerful man, who may or may not be a vampire. So I get what the authors of most YA novels are doing: writing what they know sells. This is my complicated relationship with the YA genre; I reluctantly love what I actually despise. Now that I think about it, this is the exact premise of a YA love story.

     Regardless, I do think there are some novels which are misrepresented, simply because they fall into this genre. Not all YA novels have the intellectual merit of a pineapple. Some are actually trying to say something. In my opinion, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, is one of these books. I understand that many people, reviewers and actual people-I know alike, are completely indifferent to, or totally hate Green's very popular novel about a couple young, cancer patients who fall in love. I understand not everyone loves this book, and that's okay. I completely don't get it, but it's okay(...okay!!). The major complaint about The Fault in Our Stars which keeps coming up in reviews and conversations with friends, surrounds the character of Augustus Waters. The objection/accusation to his character (particularly with Ansel Elgort's portrayal in the movie version) usually has to do with his being a male version of the "manic pixie dream girl."



     This term, was originally coined by Nathan Rabin in his 2007 review of Cameron Crowe's film Elizabethtown (side note: the opening of the all too self aware film version of The Fault almost echoes this article in describing what this story is not). The term basically describes the sexist archetype that "exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." Since then the term has found a foothold in the minds and vocabulary of pop-culture. In accusing Augustus Waters in The Fault of being the male embodiment of a manic pixie, one is accusing him of being less of a character than a sexist archetype in reverse, that only exists to enlighten our female protagonist-Hazel Grace Lancastor- to the beauty of life and the enjoyment of such. This accusation is not totally unfounded, as it could be used to describe any male lead in the female-led array of characters in most YA novels. Ansel Elgort's somewhat over-the-top performance in the film version, only added fuel to the flame. So do they have a point? Is Augustus (aka: Gus) really a character or is he merely an archetype? In my opinion, to reduce the character of Gus to such, ignores the complexities and insecurities assigned to him, as well as the overall themes of the novel itself.

      If I could fault this novel in any way, it would be the fact that our teenage protagonists Hazel and Gus (or any other characters for that matter) don't really speak like any teenagers I know. Rather, they sound more like writers themselves. This hamartia (see what I did there?) fades into insignificance when you begin to see the tough life that these two individuals lead. Gus is a seemingly recovered cancer patient, who lost his leg to his disease, and Hazel has a pair of lungs "that suck at being lungs" due to her terminal cancer, and she is condemned to dragging around an oxygen tank for the rest of her short life. If there's one thing the book gets right, its the realistic portrayal of the hell that is cancer, and the depiction of the sub-culture that develops around those that suffer from it. So it's fine that our teenagers don't sound like normal teenagers, because they aren't normal teenagers.



    Gus, at first glance is a perfect example of manic pixie-ism. What with his ridiculous metaphors involving cigarettes, and his constant positivity, his irrepressible humour, and his-riding up in a limo to fulfill the dreams of our female character (total addition by the film for some reason). He is a little bit of a clique. However, Gus isn't so much of an archetype as he wants to be one. Gus' whole hang-up is he wants to be remembered. He wants to be the hero. His whole mantra of being on "a roller coaster that only goes up my friend" is a paper-thin facade covering his biggest fear: oblivion. While, Hazel's problem is the childish fear that the lives of the people who love her begin and end with her, Gus fears that they won't. He wants and needs to be important and remembered and to make his mark on the world.

"The oblivion fear is...fear that I won't be able to give anything in exchange for my life. If you don't live a life in service of a greater good, you've gotta at lest die a death in service of a great good, you know? And I fear that I won't get wither a life or death that means anything"

 This is why his favourite book and movies revolve around big, grand swooping heroic acts, this is why he wants to bring Hazel to Amsterdam, and this why the return of his cancer is such a blow to him. Gus is the more idealistic of the two, while Hazel is much more grounded. For Gus, his life isn't significant unless it's in service of something, while for Hazel her life is significant simply because it's all she gets.

"It's really mean of you to say that the only lives that matter are the ones that are lived for something or die for something. That's a really mean things to say to me" 

     Gus seems like a teenage girl fantasy because he's created a fantasy in himself. His ambitions and ideals are fantastic ones. It's not an accident that John Green (who is an atheist) wrote Gus to be the only one of the two who believes in some sort of a god and and hopes for an afterlife. These beliefs take their place quite comfortably with Gus' other notions about life and death. 

     There is a significant history to the character of Gus which was left out of the film version: a shame because it's heavily revealing. This history revolves around Gus' previous relationship with a brain cancer victim. This almost abusive relationship with a girl going out of her mind, is very telling when analyzing Gus' character. His insistence on staying with her is mostly motivated by guilt, but also (although he never says so) by his need to be a hero and a rescuer. This history is also the reason Gus stares at and later approaches Hazel in support group. Hazel closely resembles this previous girlfriend in appearance and Gus is immediately drawn to her.

     Gus appears and sounds confident, but he has his insecurities. These mostly surround his missing leg. Although he jokes and laughs off his physical deficiencies, in his moments of vulnerability (like in the hotel room with Hazel) you see his confidence in himself falter. The film version of The Fault sadly condenses these moments, it being literally a condensed version of the source material, as all adaptations are. However, the film leaves enough in to show the layers to Gus' character. The most telling is the parking lot scene, one of the most effective scenes in the movie. Gus's facade breaks down in front of us, as he is forced by his disease to come to terms with his own limitations.



     Another obstacle to the idea that Gus is just a fantasy for our protagonist is that instead of Gus saving Hazel, Hazel in some ways, saves him. She is the one who breaks through his need to be remembered. It is enough that she and the people who loved him best remember him. Hazel has her own flaws to overcome, but she grows and develops mostly without Gus' help. It could be said that Hazel is deeply aware of who Gus really is, even at the beginning of their relationship, which would be an explanation to her obsessive concern with hurting him. Gus may be every girls fantasy, but that fantasy like any, breaks down when life gets hard. This is true in the book and this is true in life.

     In this discussion, it worth asking the question is it really a good idea to start labeling written characters as manic pixie dreams at all? Nathan Rabin later went on to bitterly regret ever inventing the term (read here), saying the use of such a term became part of the problem it was intended to prevent. Taking characters, beloved by others, and labeling them as nothing more than sexist manifestations is indeed sexist in and of itself. In some sense it's a term which has had it's meaning diluted by overuse. It is also worth mentioning that John Green himself hates the term, even writing whole novels to the issue (read here).

     Whether or not Augustus Waters is a fully fledged, well written character is not for me to decide. It's strictly a reader decision. That's the great thing about books, movies or any other art form for that matter. It's what you take away from it that counts. In the hearts of many readers, Augustus and Hazel are teachers in positivity in the midst of suffering, and while popularity does not a good novel make, it isn't for naught. For me, both Gus and Hazel are engaging, witty, interesting, and deeply flawed characters, which should be the goal of any novelist in creating character. They, like any live person cannot be limited by labels or tropes. It is my opinion, that Gus is not a manic pixie character, and I'm not sure I have the right to apply the phrase to anyone: alive or fictional.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Music Monday: Be Okay

     It's a Monday and I'm sending you the little piece of happiness that's been in my headphones the past week. I very recently discovered Oh Honey, and I wish I had known of this song sooner because it would have been my go to summer anthem. Better late then never I suppose! Enjoy!

Monday, September 29, 2014

Music Monday: Happy National Coffee Day

     What the heck?! I had no idea today was National Coffee Day guys! I know right! I'm pretty sure my blood is caffeinated by now, and I totally missed a day celebrating my favourite pastime.  Oh well! I'll have to get me a pumpkin-spiced latte to celebrate later.

I don't have any new reviews for you, but I decided to post my favourite coffee themed song; Falling in Love in a Coffee Shop by Landon Pigg. It's basically an ode to every hipster girl's fantasy of being noticed by a cute guy in a coffee shop, while having to do absolutely nothing except look great drinking coffee. Yes please and thank you! Although I have to say, Landon Pigg looks more like the creepy stalker in the music video, but the fantasy stands! Bring on the Manic Pixie Dream Boys! I'll be waiting patiently with my Highlander Grogg...anyone?!


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Summer Reading Challenge: Me Talk Pretty One Day

     So put a crown on my head and call me queen! To do penance for my transgressions, I went above and beyond these past two weeks. Not only did I finish The Giver by Lois Lowry, but I finished the whole series! I read The Giver, Gathering Blue, Messanger, and Son! This series is beyond good. I will say they are all pretty compact which is why I managed to read all of them in two weeks. At first, the books seem like individual short stories, set in a dystopian world. Lowry slowly connects these stories and characters in a strange, unified tale, rife with symbolism and allegory. I would definitely recommend these books. I haven't seen the film adaptation of The Giver but judging on the trailer, after reading the book, I would say it lacks the depth and sophistication of Lowry's original work, but I will try my best to remain neutral and reserve judgement. It's going to be hard though, because I'm already head-over-heels-in-love with these books, and I'm going to be very difficult to please indeed!




      For the next two weeks, I'm going to be reading a series of essays and short stories, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. I'm very excited to begin! 

I would love to know if any of you are reading anything at the moment, and if you have any recommendations. Maybe they might find their ways onto my next list. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

My Sister Is a College Graduate!

   

     Friday was my baby sister's college graduation! My sister Abby graduated the University of Limerick with a degree in Voice & Dance. Did I mention my sister is a dancer? A pretty dang good one too. I of course couldn't attend, what with my being in Wisconsinland, but a big sister couldn't be more proud. I thought I'd post pictures of my hautie family on the big day. Forgive me if I crow too loud but hey, these are my favourite humans in the whole world!


Yay!


Yeah these hauties are related to me :)


The fellow spawn




Abby's graduation dress was absolutely stunning! She's always been a babe! I'm so proud of her smarts, talent, and beauty (inside and out). Congratulations sis! Wish I could have been there to celebrate with you. Just so you know, I drove my co-workers crazy singing your praises all day Friday!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

I'm Just Thankful for a Dollar Store

      I don't want to come across as depressing, but I have to be honest with you, I've had a pretty wretched week. And I don't want to sound ungrateful, but this summer has been a strange let down. God has been very good, I know. He's given me a great job with Shepherds Ministries: a job where I'm helping others, and a job which comes with accommodation attached (for a displaced, foreign student that's a pretty sweet deal), and because of this I have at least some of my independence without being a burden to some family somewhere. There's a lot to be thankful for- really there is- and I am...but sometimes it's hard be. It sounds terrible, but it is. With my 25th birthday approaching fast, it's hard not to ask "is this all there is?" and  "ok when is my real life going to start?".

     Last week, I learned some rather distressing news, which could potentially keep me stationary much longer than I wanted or anticipated. Suffice to say, it kind of sent me into a downward spiral of confusion, and depression. While I know, I KNOW God's truth: that He will not forsake me, He hasn't left me, He has a plan; I couldn't grasp onto that truth for the life of me, and really believe it. I started to feel an overpowering idea: God doesn't love me anymore. God has left me alone.


     It is terrible to believe, even for a moment, such a odious lie. It is terrible to see it on the screen in front of me now. What a terrifying, alienating thought. How devastating to the soul it would be if true. With all the Bible education I've had, you would think I could snap out of the lie, but I couldn't. For a day I couldn't grasp onto truth. This summer, my job has tested my patience like never before, all too often I end up spending my free time alone, and church hasn't been an option. All summer, loneliness, and sin I can't seem to conquer have, for the most part been my constant companions. Last week, while discouraging, was merely an accumulation of many things. And it led me to believe that my heavenly Father had given up on me entirely.

      Slowly this week, truth has been coming back to me, not all at once, but bit by bit. What a reminder that I am not all brain, but also soul, and emotion. This part can take over reason, and I am no exception (I'm not exactly a- wear my heart on my sleeve-kind of girl). 

     This brings me to today. Over the course of the summer, construction of some sort has been ongoing across from my workplace/dwelling. It turns out to be a new dollar store. A bit of embarrassing Leah-trivia for you: I don't drive. That is to say I can't drive. It's the price I pay for being a professional wanderer. I usually catch a ride to the nearest Walmart, or I walk to the local grocery shop. This is a bit of a walk, but the weather is usually suitable. In the back of my mind though I've been wondering how I'm going to make the walk when the snow starts to fall. I figured my Walmart runs would have to do, and I would have to do without some things immediately.

       Today I checked out the stock of the new store which is a convenient, few feet away from my front door. It's not exactly a grocery store, but I can pick up a lot of essentials, without having to wait for someone else's schedule to clear. It may sound silly to you but I stood in that store today, and thankfulness just washed over me like a flood. It seemed like God built this store just for me. God hasn't abandoned me! He built me a store! For nothing more than mere convenience: not need. After all these tuition fees and loans, it wasn't my education that led me to truth today. God reminded me of basic truths with a convenience. It's silly, and small, but all I know is that today, I'm just thankful for a dollar store. 

"We give thanks to you, Oh God; and we give thanks for your name is near. We recount your wondrous deeds" Psalm 75:1

For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving, abounding in steadfast love to all who call upon you. Give ear, Oh Lord, to my prayer; listen to my plea for grace. In the day of trouble I call upon you, for you answer me" Psalm 86:5-7 




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