“Georgia Lee” by Tom Waits

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Tom Waits  Mule Variations

I was listening to an old Tom Waits’ album recently–Mule Variations (1999). To be sure, Tom Waits is an acquired taste and is not for everyone. But he is a taste that I long ago acquired and enjoy each time I re-listen.

I once read  a comment under a YouTube video that “Tom Waits is a pint of Guinness in a Bud Lite world.” And that statement makes perfect sense to me. (Whoever said this, fair play to you. I can’t find it anywhere now to give you credit.)

Anyway, the album Mule Variations continues in the style that Waits had started back with the album Swordfishtrombone, It has that clanky, cacophonous junkyard sound throughout much of it, except for one song in particular, “Georgia Lee.”

And it is this song that I can’t get out of my head.

“Georgia Lee” is based on a true story. A young girl, Georgia Lee Moses, had dropped out of middle school and run away from home at 12 years of age. Her disabled mother was simply unable to handle her. Ten days after she ran away she was found murdered near the exit ramp of a highway. She was 12-years old. The case didn’t make many headlines, and the murderer was never found. The community knew of her situation, knew of her plight. And it let her down. 

I don’t want to imagine what her life was like on the streets. She was 12 years old. 

And this is Waits’ chorus:

Why wasn’t God watching?
Why wasn’t God listening?
Why wasn’t God there
For Georgia Lee?

Now, a lesser songwriter could have easily slipped into Hallmark-esque platitudes like “Why do bad things happen to good people” or decide on some soap-box philosophizing on the existence of god, the nature of evil, or the fall of innocence. 

But Waits’ doesn’t do that. Instead, he simply paints the picture, bleak and unforgiving as it is, and lets us figure it out. 

And then in the middle of the song comes the bridge: an invitation to play hide-and-seek, a care-free activity that should be available to any child, but wasn’t to Georgia Lee.

The song is a good one: a sad one, but a good one.  

Below is a nice version of the song from an album of female singers covering Tom Wait’s song. Give it a listen.

 

Book Review: The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

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Book cover for the Europa edition of The Days of Abandonment

A very good friend of mine—an Italian woman—has lately been going through a very rough patch in her marriage. These last few years have been filled with much drama and melodrama, with betrayals and reconciliations, with threats and recriminations, and with lots and lots of pain.

I know much of this because she is also a very good and honest writer, and, at times, I have been a sounding board/early reader for her essays as she finalizes them prior to sending them out. With these, I am a bad critic because I cannot separate the raw, emotional writing from the woman I know and care about. The quality of the writing seems secondary to the pain being displayed.  So I can’t focus on the writing as I should.

This was also the case when I first began Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Immediately, it too draws you in with the story of an intelligent woman–a writer–blindsided and abandoned by a careless husband. It too draws you in with the raw pain, the self-doubt, the self-incrimination of one who has been abandoned.

And Ferrante’s writing is such that we forget easily that this is all a fiction–we believe we are reading the true story of a real woman who is in pain and confusion and despair.

One April afternoon, right after lunch, my husband announced that he wanted to leave,” reads the very first sentence.

And thus Olga, the narrator, is demolished. Her sense of self-worth is destroyed, her understanding of her past is shakened, her hope for the future vaporized. And through Ferrante’s words we feel that abandonment greatly.

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Book cover for the audio-book edition of The Days of Abandonment

Like one grieving at a death, the narrator experiences all the varying emotions of loss: she is in turn defeated and determined, angry and frustrated, confused and clear-minded.  Besides the trauma of her husband’s leaving, she must also deal with the business of raising two children and running a household.

At times, Olga can also be quite funny in her frustration and anger. Once when she goes to the telephone offices to complain that her service has been cut off, she is told that all complaints must be phoned in. Where do I  go, she asks “if I want to spit in somebody’s face”? And her attacking her ex the first day she sees him in the street with his mistress is very funny–and satisfying.

There is a sex scene–one that ends prematurely and unsatisfyingly for Olga– in which Olga attempts to grasp some sense of self-worth, and while sad and pathetic, it also highlights Ferrante’s skill as a writer for it is well-written and unique and believable–never an easy thing to do when describing sex.

There are sick children and dying dogs and grumpy natives and the usual manipulations that accompany a formal separation between couples. And through it all we see Olga hit bottom, recover and then survive.

At one point, Olga says, “In order to write well, I need to go to the heart of every question, of a smaller, safer place. Eliminate the superfluous. Narrow the field. To write truly is to speak from the depths of the maternal womb.

And this is what Ferrante herself has done with her novel–she has stripped away the “superfluous,” she has asked the essential questions, and she has written from the very depths.

One reviewer wrote that The Days of Abandonment could have been written only by someone who has experienced the pain and despair of sudden separation, and implied that this is Ferrante’s own story.  I don’t know if that is true or not.

I do know that such an assumption is a critical fallacy, and it demeans the artistry that Ferrante possesses. The Days of Abandonment is a novel; it is a piece of fiction. Whether Ferrante has drawn on her own experiences or not does not matter. She has created a work of art that stands on its own.

Olga’s story is ours to read, to think about and to empathize with.  And in the process, she becomes someone we care about and worry about and celebrate with.

It is like having a good friend tell you her story.

The Days of Abandoment by Elena Ferrante
translated by Ann Goldstein
Europa editions, 2005

 

Movie Review: Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes) written and directed by Damien Szifron

A friend sent me a text the other day about a movie he had recently seen: Wild

Movie Poster for Wild Tales

Movie Poster for Wild Tales

Tales. His description was that it was “six vignettes on modern life and its frustrations.”  He later texted that he had been careful with choosing his words and with not wanting to be a spoiler but that “violence and vengeance” better captured the gist of the vignettes than “modern frustrations.” He also stated that he was going to go see it a second time the following weekend.

He was right in amending his description and in his decision to go see it a second time.

For it is a worthwhile film.

Written and directed by the young Argentinian filmmaker Damien Szifron and produced by the Almodovar brothers, Wild Tales is just that: Six wild stories about modern life pushed to the extreme.  An unhappy man takes vengeance on all the people in his past; a waitress is confronted with a customer who had ruined her father’s life; two men are caught up in road-rage gone to the extreme; an engineer fights against a DMV system that seems to indiscriminately tow cars; a wealthy man must deal with a world of bribery and corruption; and a wedding reception goes wonderfully wrong.

Seven characters from six of the "Wild Tales"

Seven characters from six of the “Wild Tales”

To give more detail would indeed be “spoiling” it, for much of the fun comes from the twists these tales take–twists that we probably saw coming, but that leave us incredulous that they did.

In each of these stories, there is frustration and violence and suppressed anger that we all can understand, and because of that, because of their vague familiarity, they become amusing. These tales are cartoonish episodes that seem all too real, and in our recognition of them we also find something that is both wince-evincing and laugh-inducing.

Of course, some of the narratives are better than others. One or two is a “one-liner”–a joke that is elaborately set up and then smacks us with the “aha” (or better yet the “oh no”) moment. And others are quite elaborate. But they all succeed. They all pull us in with their story–unique yet familiar.  The frustrations of modern life tempered by dreams of vengeance.

And if for nothing else, Wild Tales leaves us with one of the most memorable wedding receptions in film history.

Here’s the trailer for your enjoyment: