Book Review of A Thin Bright Line

Lucy Jane Bledsoe’s “A Thin Bright Light Line” is a relatively new book as it was published in 2016. Earlier this year I attended a conference and at one of the panels I went to,  Bledsoe did a reading of this book. I was immediately intrigued and after the panel I knew I had to get this book and read it as quickly as possible. It had been a while since I had been so hooked by just a few paragraphs of a novel.A Thin Bright Line

 

“A Thin Bright Line” is a fictitious work that follows the life of a real person and overall has a lot of truth in it. The main character is actually Bledsoe’s deceased aunt, Lucybelle Bledsoe. Lucybelle died in a fire when Bledsoe was a child and therefore she never knew much of her aunt. However, as an adult she became curious about who her aunt was and as she began to research, she stumbled across fascinating information. Lucybelle had worked for the government during the Cold War and was involved with research of ice cores. In addition to that revelation, Bledsoe discovered  her aunt was a lesbian and had been forced to hide that fact due to the time period.

The novel starts in Greenwich Village where Lucybelle is living with her longterm girlfriend, Phyllis. Lucybelle is approached one day by a strange man who knows a lot about her and offers her a significantly better job in Chicago. She refuses at first and returns to her home. However, she discovers that Phyllis is leaving her in order to marry one of their gay male friends. Phyllis felt that her theater career was suffering because of her unmarried status and she desperately wanted a family. Lucybelle is heartbroken and decides to take the job offer in Chicago. However, it is made clear to her that she can’t have any romantic relationships, and that if she does so, there will be repercussions. She is given a fabricated backstory where her husband died in the war and she is now a widow who is uninterested in relationships. She begins her job in Chicago and is an editor of scientific papers on ice cores. She then meets Stella, a woman who runs a taxi cab company with her longterm girlfriend. The two begin a whirlwind affair and fall deeply in love. This all comes to a halting crash when Stella’s girlfriend discovers the affair. Lucybelle is left once again with heartbreak.  She’s relocated to Lebanon, NH to continue research and is accompanied by three secretaries that she also works with. These three women are also lesbians and deeply closeted in order to avoid detection and the possibility of losing their jobs. In Lebanon, Lucybelle begins to write a novel and she falls in love with a researcher, Vera. The novel ends with the night that Lucybelle died in a fire. While the book ends before her death, readers are aware that it is the night she died as each day is marked with date.

I felt that this book was incredibly well written, with a strong plot and even stronger characters. Each character felt developed, unique and were given traits that made them feel real. They were all flawed in believable and very human ways.  Some were incredibly likable, and others were  irritating in a realistic manner.  The ensemble characters allowed for the story to really come to life and showed the diversity that has always existed. Emotions were particularly well developed within this story. By this, I mean that each of Lucybelle’s heartbreaks felt different. She was saddened each time but it was clear that they impacted her differently.  This added to the authenticity of the novel, as no two heartbreaks are the same. The wit infused throughout this novel was also a strength and highlight of it. There were some moments that were genuinely funny and Lucybelle was a sharp and clever character; her observations were frequently amusing and cutting. While this book features a lot of romance, I wouldn’t classify it in anyway as a romance novel. It’s following someone’s life and career, and romance simply happens to be a significant part of that. 

My only real criticism of the novel was that some parts felt as though they were unnecessary. This was particularly how I felt about Phyllis making a brief return in the second part of the book. It furthered the plot temporarily, but I felt as though the plot could have continued just fine without her interference. There was enough tension already without her coming back into Lucybelle’s life, especially because she exited it shortly after. I felt the same way when one of the secretaries repeatedly tried to create a relationship with Lucybelle and later had a large fight with her in front of their work colleagues. I understood that it was there for tension, but by that point, there was enough tension coming from other parts of the book. Occasionally these moments felt overwhelming and like there was simply too much going on at once.
Overall, I’m so happy that I read this book as I deeply enjoyed it. It was intriguing and I found myself consistently invested. I cared about the characters and what would happen to them.  This novel touched upon a lot of important topics,  the civil rights movement being one of them. Stella was black and this wasn’t something that was ignored; when her and Lucybelle were together, the difference in their treatment was made quite clear to the reader. I enjoyed reading a novel where an array of lesbian relationships were being depicted, and that while there was heartbreak, there were also many  loving and successful relationships as well.  I was also pleased to see issues such as having to be closeted being addressed within the narrative. I think that this is a novel that anyone could enjoy, but particularly those are who interested with history and the Cold War era, those who are interested in strong characters and people who like well written romances.

 

A Thin Bright Line

Lucy Jane Bledsoe

323 pages. Published by the University of Wisconsin Press. Hardcover $26.95

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Thoughts on the Bald Soprano

I wasn’t sure what to expect with this production of the Bald Soprano as it is a show that allows for a variety of interpretations. When I went to the theater, I was completely unsure of what direction this show would go in. I absolutely adore the script and really enjoy just how absurd of a show it is and the ways in which in points out the absurdity of the mundane. However, it’s a show that can be produced in so many different ways. The entire thing could have been done in the deadpan fashion that the Martins portrayed upon their introduction, or it could have been played up for laughs and the comedic aspects of the show could have been really accentuated. There isn’t really a wrong a way to direct this show because it’s an absurdist play. No matter how it is portrayed and what decisions the actors or directors make, the show will always be absurd.

I was excited to see what way that UMF would take this show and overall found myself greatly enjoying the interpretation and production. I found the play comedic as I read it, but didn’t necessarily walk away from the reading viewing it as a comedic show overall. However, the show was directed in quite a humorous way. I think I found the show to have its funniest moment when the Martins and Smiths are gossiping about the man bending over to tie his shoe. Now, when I was reading the play, this moment didn’t really grasp my attention. It didn’t stand out to me and I didn’t really take the time to look more in depth at that moment. In the show, this moment stood out much more to me and the absurdity of gossip became glaringly clear. These were grown people giggling and gushing over a moment that had nothing to do with them and had no impact upon them. This moment felt so clear to me in the play and I thought it was well directed and acted. It truly highlighted the ways in which gossip is part of everyday life and seen as natural, and is so incredibly absurd as well.

I think the choice to switch over from an overexaggerated English setting to the more familiar American setting was a choice that worked well. It freed up the actors from having to use accents and put the show into a setting that was more familiar for audience members. Moments where terms like “bloody” were used, did admittedly make me question the setting briefly. Overall though, I think the setting change worked incredibly well. I think that the more familiar setting allowed for the show to become even more unfamiliar and confusing for the audience. Usually when an audience leaves a theater there is some sort of moral to be left with or a rather clear type of feeling. That isn’t the case at all with the Bald Soprano. This show doesn’t leave audience members feeling one specific and defined way. Some people left that show loving it and feeling thoroughly amused. Others left the theater and felt frustrated by the lack of clearness throughout the show. That’s part of the point of this show and that’s something that I personally really enjoy.

I was glad for the oppurtunity to see the show on stage. There were certainly aspects that I had trouble visualizing when I was reading the script and it was nice to see the show come to life. I feel like getting the chance to read the script and see the show at the same time was highly beneficial. It gave me a higher level of understanding about the show and also made it so that I was more invested within the play. I think having both read and seen the play allowed for me to make more connections than I otherwise would have. Instead of just brushing it all off as absurdity, I was able to recognize that this show acts as a commentary on the absurdity of everyday life.

 

 

Queer Theory and Buffy the Vampire Slayer

As we watched the “Angel” episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I became increasingly sure that there was a lot to be done with queer theory with this episode in particular. While there were certainly aspects of feminist theory, and the uncanny and unhomely within this episode I found myself primarily focused upon the threads of queer theory that I was seeing.

Angel is a vampire, but he is also one with a soul and with the ability to feel remorse for his actions. He is introduced as a handsome, older man who appears to be ‘normal’. His presence is a non-threatening one and he even helps save Buffy from a situation that was quickly going downhill. He seems to have assimilated almost perfectly to the human world and passes as human with ease. While he still needs to drink blood and needs to be invited in order to enter a home, he works hard to repress his inner urges and desires. The photo below is how Angel typically looks and further proves just how ‘normal’ he appears to be.

Image result for angel buffy the vampire slayer

He has a soul and a conscience but his inner desires are still there. They don’t go away because he has assimilated. He tries to be as human as possible and when Darla enters his makeshift home, she calls him out on this. She talks about how different he is from when they first met and how hard he is trying to be human. She mocks him for living above ground and even says that he will never be human. No matter how hard he tries, Angel will always be “the other”. To this, Angel responds with something along the lines of him not being like vampires either. This acts as a blatant denial of he is at the fundamental and most basic level. Furthermore, when Angel does act upon his inner desires, his entire face shifts. The angelic exterior is replaced with something foreign and unwelcome. This happens two times in the episode, once when he kisses Buffy and secondly when he is near Buffy’s bleeding mother. It seems important, and noncoinciedental,  that both times he shifts are related to moments of  repressed physical desire.

There are few different ways in which this relates to queer theory. Firstly, there is the fact that in Buffy the Vampire Slayer there are humans and there are vampires. The vampires are the “other” and are met with suspicion and viewed as threatening. As the “other” vampires aren’t the norm and most ‘people’ are assumed to be human. This is similar to heteronormativity and the ways in which people are assumed to be straight until it is proven otherwise. As Parker states, “compulsory heterosexuality refers to the impression, explicit or implicit, that people should be heterosexual or else something is wrong with them.” (Parker 187) If we apply this thinking to Buffy, we can see that there are explicit and implicit ideas that people should be human and that if they aren’t, they are a problem.  I recognize that it might seem like a stretch, but there is a longstanding history of vampires/werewolves and paranormal creatures in general acting as metaphors for homosexuality or representing the struggles that lgbtq+ individuals face. It doesn’t seem completely out of the question that this would be the case in Buffy.

Furthermore, there is the fact that much of this episode is about Angel’s repression of desires, yearning to assimilate and the shift that happens when he acts upon or is faced with physical desire. These all directly relate to queer theory as a significant part of queer theory is “thinking about the way that, across history, cultures have understood or repressed queer acts, enacted queer identities, or abused or denied the existence of queer people.” (Parker 185) Within this episode, there is the clear repression of queer acts and the denial of one’s own identity as well as abuse regarding identity.

There is also the literary closet within this episode. Angel’s apartment is a dark and rather dingy place where he is completely isolated. It is also where he stores the blood that he needs to drink in order to survive. His apartment acts as the literary closet particularly because the closet acts as a way for people “[to] keep their queer desires private rather than public.” (Parker 201) It is only here that he can feed. His desires can only exist within this private place away from the outside world.

While the actual plot of the episode involves the heterosexual relationship between Buffy and Angel, there are a variety of aspects about the episode that lead to a queer reading of it. This episode contains so much repression, denial, inner desires that can’t be acted upon, and these are all so heavily intertwined with queer theory.

Ornamental Cookery

Roland Barthes essay, “Ornamental Cookery” focuses on the magazine Elle and the images of food that it publishes. The images are “openly dream-like” and  “never show the dishes except from a high angle, as objects once near and inaccessible.” (79)  The images of food that are published are beautiful and are intended to appear as perfection. This is evident by the “obvious endeavor to glaze surfaces, to round them off, to bury the good, under the even sediment of sauces, creams, icing and jellies.” (78)

While food itself is natural and essential for the survival of humans, Barthes seems to take issue with the way that food is presented within these magazines. The food appears to be less natural and its connection to nature is severed when ornamentation becomes so prevalent. Examples of this include “sticking shrimps in a lemons, making a chicken look pink, [and] serving grapefruit hot.”(79) These dishes all seem to defy nature in a sense, as they  are a way of changing something that perhaps didn’t need to be changed.

This is by no means a trend that has died out. The essay’s focus on the perfection of food made me think of the way that food is advertised and all the tricks that are used in order to get the best photo and capture the “concept” of the meal, more so than the actual meal itself.  The video below shows some of the advertising techniques used within the food industry and seems highly relevant to what Barthes was discussing. These techniques are used in order to to achieve perfection. Ice cream would melt, so mashed potatoes become the photographed product. Glue takes the place of milk in order to prevent the cereal from becoming soggy. Beauty is achieved by replacing the natural product with another. This connects to what Barthes was saying about the relationship between food and nature being severed. Milk is more natural than glue and yet it is glue that is used to advertise the product.

The second significant issue that Barthes take with ornamental cookery in Elle is the way that it is often marketed towards small-income communities and that these communities likely don’t have the extra money to make the meals that they are being showed pictures of. The complexity and expensiveness of a meal are directly related and this relation isn’t knowledge or taken into account within the magazine. The meals being depicted in the beautiful and dreamy photos aren’t accessible for many people and are instead “the recipe of fancy partridges.” (80)

This issue is also one that arises with the way food is advertised. No matter how hard someone tries, it is highly unlikely that their finished product will look as appealing as the one portrayed in the commercial.  The “fake” product is simply better looking than the real one and the image and idea being conveyed aren’t accessible to the viewer. The issue of accessibility is also linked to economic status, as mentioned earlier. Elle had this picture published at one point and the article that accompanied it was about hosting an Italian dinner party. Image result for elle food This is a full course meal and there are a variety of elements to it. This isn’t a meal that can be easily accomplished nor is it one that can be put together at a low cost. Every component of this meal would quickly add up and be out of many people’s price range for a single dinner. This meal is inaccessible to so many people and doesn’t make sense if the magazine is truly read in many low-income communities. The photo is well angled and a wonderful shot. The viewer is given a wonderful perspective and yet, this meal is so out of reach. This meal exists in a world where there are “mythical economics” and every element and aspect of the meal and photo supports that idea.