Sunday, December 16, 2012

I Recommend: 'Chely Wright: Wish Me Away' Film & 'The Casual Vacancy' Book

Jeff Dodge's Recommendations:

Chely Wright: Wish Me Away (on DVD)

(Image courtesy of Beverly Kopf & Bobbie Birleffi)

I'll be honest here: I had no idea who Chely Wright was before I found out about her documentary, Chely Wright: Wish Me Away. But I am so glad that I do know about her now and her personal story. She is the first country music artist to come out as gay. And she was pretty much shunned by the people in her own genre for it, the people that wholeheartedly embraced her before. And that is something that needs to change. Yes, we're making great progress in this country when it comes to equality and acceptance, but there are still people and groups who are still stuck in the middle ages. And it's sad to think about that.

In Chely's documentary, now out on DVD, there are home videos included throughout where she talks to the camera and is very raw and emotional as she goes through this process of coming out.

There are a couple quotes that stood out to me that I want to share. One man interviewed in the film says, "Fans are loyal to an artist until they feel betrayed. And that betrayal can come from behavior, beliefs or actions. That's when the loyalty goes." We've seen this in country music before with the Dixie Chicks. It's no secret that country music leans on the conservative end of the political spectrum. And when lead singer Natalie Maines criticized former President Bush, they had the rug ripped out from underneath them.

Another quote, by Cherie Combs, Chely's hair and makeup artist: "There's tons of other artists that are gay in Nashville, but they'll never say it. And you can just feel how everybody's very sexually repressed." And I guess this shouldn't surprise me--I'm sure there are some in country music that are in the closet, as elsewhere. It's becoming commonplace and not a big deal anymore for a celebrity to come out now. And because of that, it just goes to show how backwards-thinking Nashville still is with their stars; I hope to see the day when that changes.

There are moments in Wish Me Away that are deeply emotional and hard for us as viewers to watch. At one point, Chely talks about how she almost committed suicide, and even went so far as to put a gun in her mouth. I got emotional myself hearing her recount that.

Obviously, it's a big deal to go on TV and publicly come out. But I guess I never realized the extend to which they have to prepare for that moment. And I'm not talking about on an emotional level, though that's a huge part. No, I'm talking about the media training. Chely worked with people on how to word her answers so they came off a certain way and left a certain impression. You don't want to stumble around when doing something as important as this, and it amazed me to see what all went into that.

I don't want to go into every detail because I think you should experience it for yourself. Chely Wright: Wish Me Away is a powerful documentary that will leave you thinking about how far we still need to go in the equality movement (and a big part of it involves acceptance, as I've mentioned). Chely also has a book out, and I'm looking forward to reading that eventually. And now that I know her and her story, I'm also planning on checking out her music now as well.

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

(Image courtesy of Little, Brown)

As I'm sure you all know by now, The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling's first non-Harry Potter book ever. And it's a marked contrast to the wizarding world in that there's no magic whatsoever in the town of Pagford where this story is set. Everyone, then, are Muggles. And because there's no magic, I guess it's safe to say there's nothing here to have hope for. Doesn't that sound morbid? Well, that's because it is. There's really no happy storyline or character in The Casual Vacancy. But that doesn't mean you should just give up and not read it--I know there are many HP fans who started reading the book and have criticized it for that very reason. But I would side more with TIME's Lev Grossman and say that J.K. Rowling has given us a powerful novel and her writing is in brilliant form.

The term Casual Vacancy is described on the first page: "A casual vacancy is deemed to have occurred: (a) when a local councillor fails to make his declaration of acceptance of office within the proper time; or (b) when his notice of resignation is received; or (c) on the day of his death..." The latter pertaining to death is the relevant description to the story. Barry Fairbrother, who's on the Parish Councel, suddenly dies.

And that opens up a huge schism within the town between characters of all backgrounds. You've got your conservatives, your liberals, your Vernon Dursleys, your druggies, the poor, the rich, teens, adults--they're all there. And many characters initially seek to run for the vacant seat. There's not one main character here, unlike in Harry Potter. Instead, we go back and forth between the various teenagers and the various adults. And while it's the adults who are taking part in the election, the teens actually have far more importance and sway--I'll just leave it at that for those who haven't read the book yet.

There's one teen in particular, Krystal, who has really had such a tough life growing up, but you really want to root for her, and that's why it's hard to read some of the things that happen here. 
As I said, this ain't no Harry Potter. You've heard of the term sex, drugs and rock 'n roll? Well, that's all in this book. Teenagers having sex, doing drugs, one who cuts herself.

For those of you regulars to my blog, you know that I'm a political news junkie, and so I was really drawn into the political nature in this story. But what's interesting is that while everything is supposedly leading up to the election, that's not actually the climax; instead, there's a tragedy afterwards that makes for a very depressing ending (the same feeling you have throughout the book, actually). Now, as I've said, HP fans who have read this book have criticized it for being so depressing. But when you really stop to think about the story and characters that Rowling is presenting here, you can't really have a happy ending. And that's what makes it so powerful.

You look at the poor characters and what they're contributing (or not) to society, and you look at the middle class and rich folks and delve deep into their motives. Much of what Rowling has written can be related to what's happening in the real world right now, especially in the United States. I actually read this book in October, so the whole debate over the "rich vs. poor" during the election season with those saying the rich should pay their fair share and those saying the poor are just using the system because they're lazy made The Casual Vacancy hit home for me in terms of what the real issues are that we should be focusing on and making sure to improve.

There's a long quote on pages 60-61 that stood out to me while reading, that I'll try to trim down here. At one point, Howard (the Vernon Dursley of the story) is thinking about the look of the Fields, the run-down part of town where the poorer residents live, and we're given a description of how decrepit everything looks. Then: "He often asked rhetorically why they could not have organized and made the place over--what was stopping the residents from pooling their meager resources and buying a lawnmower between the lot of them?...There was stop them pulling themselves together as a community and tackling the dirt and the shabbiness; nothing to stop them cleaning themselves up and taking jobs; nothing at all. So Howard was forced to draw the conclusion that they were choosing, of their own free will, to live the way they lived, and that the estate's air of slightly threatening degradation was nothing more than a physical manifestation of ignorance and indolence." During the election we just had, this was a common way of thinking among Republicans. It brings up visions of the 99% vs. the 1%, Romney's 47% comment and the like.

Some HP fans bring up this question a lot: If this book were not written by J.K. Rowling, but rather by some other author who we weren't as drawn to as her, would we still have read it? And I'll be truthful and echo what they've said by saying no, I probably wouldn't have read The Casual Vacancy. I read it because I'm a huge fan of Rowling. And by reading this novel, I came away with the feeling that just because she's writing for adults here and just because there's no magic wands and no Hogwarts that the quality of her writing has not diminished in the slightest; in fact, I'd say it's even stronger, because she uses quite the vocabulary, some "big words," as they say. And it's very much a British novel--there are British terms that we in America don't use, like nappy (for a diaper) and fag (in this instance, it's not a homophobic slur, but a word that means cigarette). But even so, that's made me enjoy the writing even more, that she really went all out on making it authentically British--there's no watering down like Scholastic did with the early Potter books.

I know I've been going a while here, but I'd just like to finish by saying if you've read the mixed reviews and don't know if you should read it, just ignore the chatter, read it yourself and then make a judgment.

TV Watch Online (@TVWatchOnline)

Jeff Dodge Blog:
I Recommend [TV Edition]: 'Commander in Chief,' 'Revolution' & 'American Horror Story'

BuddyTV Articles (Articles I've written recently):
'Idol' Roundup: Randy Jackson Promo, Scotty McCreery's Christmas Music Video and More
'Idol' Roundup: Grammy Nominations, New Keith Urban Promo and More
'Glee': Listen to Songs from Episode 4.10, 'Glee, Actually'
'Glee' Videos: Sue Writes in Her Journal and Klaine Perform 'White Christmas'
'Idol' Roundup: Mariah Carey Rebukes Nicki Minaj During Auditions and More
'Idol' Roundup: Mariah Carey Calls Herself the 'Fairy Godmother' Judge and More

The BizzNiz Recaps (My X Factor recaps):
'The X Factor' USA Recap: Top 6 Perform / Top 6 Results
'The X Factor' USA Recap: Top 4 Perform / Top 4 Results

#1 Recommendations: Chely Wright: Wish Me Away & The Casual Vacancy

My next set of recommendations will be on A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, book 1) and the film Ruby Sparks, and reviews of Catfish: The TV Show and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey will follow soon after. Plus, get ready for my end-of-the-year list looking back on my top Recommendations of 2012.

Follow me on Twitter @TheJeffDodge. If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, feel free to tweet me, e-mail me or leave a comment below.

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