Thoughts on Carrie

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I have a strange relationship with death. We are long-distance enemies. Hateful pen pals. Despite having never been to a funeral, I worry about it more than is rational. Not my own mortality, that is, but that of the people around me.

The unknown of the experience of losing someone has built it up into my greatest fear. It can keep me up at night for no reason at all.

I’m not great at making friends so the ones I do have are obliged to outlive me. I’ve decided that no one’s allowed to die now. Not anyone I love. I’ve had a small taste of that and I didn’t much take to it.

When I say a small taste, I mean someone I love did die, but it was someone I didn’t know personally. Or directly, in person, having met. I missed that opportunity only two weeks ago. Nevertheless, I felt I knew her personally.

It feels personal.

The books she wrote and the words she spoke were so open that it seems impossible that I could know such intimate details of her life and not truly know her. She was so open. Not open in that friendly, arms-outstretched way that some people can be, but open in a way that went deeper, and darker. Carrie didn’t shy away from things that could make you uncomfortable. She didn’t dilute herself to put you at ease. She was just joyfully, heartbreakingly Carrie all the time.

Her final book, for instance, was the publication of a 40-year-old diary. If it’s edited, those edits are limited. It follows the pattern that Wishful Drinking, Shockaholic and Postcards from the Edge have laid out before it: an equation of startling honesty and self-deprecating humour. No one will ever prove so persistently that light can be drawn from even the darkest places.

As the media reported on news of her ill health on the 23rd, the phrasing – “massive heart attack” – felt so coarse. The word “massive” seemed the worst of it. It was as though those news sources sought to minimise hope amongst a group taught to hope against all odds. I couldn’t help myself.

A quote of hers kept in my mind:

 “You know the bad thing about being a survivor… You keep having to get yourself into difficult situations in order to show off your gift.”

Show off that gift just one more time for us, I kept thinking.

If anyone was going to survive 2016, surely it would be Carrie. Indomitable Carrie. She’d bounce back and joke about being described as “stable”, because that’s how she was. She drew light from even the darkest places. She’d probably write a book about it with a Star Wars pun for a title, and spend her recovery on Twitter, liking tweets that feature weird pictures of herself, Mark and Harrison while privately DMing fans words of comfort.

On Christmas Day, I unwrapped The Princess Diarist. I was given cards with Leia’s image emblazoned on them (“Tis the season to be rebels!”), and even a Han and Leia mouse mat that my mum had sweetly made up on Vistaprint. There was a lot of Carrie, in the most bittersweet of ways. She’s all over the gifts my best friends are yet to unwrap. With our shared love for our princess and our general, we’d made it through this shitty year together.

Perhaps it’s weird I got all the way to December before feeling like this.

Death has been everywhere this year, death and bad things. So many famous people died, it’s a small miracle that I, the perpetual fangirl, didn’t already feel buried in this strange and illegitimate grief. I felt sad every time, naturally, but also detached – by necessity. Sad things are happening at an ever more alarming rate but we hide out from those things, we separate ourselves, we try to keep our heads up and push on.

I’ve had my heart broken a few times and a few ways in 2016 but through it all, I took comfort in my newfound world of Star Wars. Now, to end the year on this new heartbreak feels especially cruel given that Carrie and her galaxy far, far away had been a comfort for most of it.

I miss her. I miss her all the time. I miss her in moments that she’d never have been in anyway. Isn’t that bizarre?

How strange an experience it is to lose a personal hero.

January in Books

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I always endeavour not to make New Year’s resolutions. Come on. They’re so mainstream and I’m so edgy. Actually, no. I just feel like they’re predestined to fail. It becomes the talk of February to discuss what a terrible job everyone’s done with whatever optimistic resolutions they made.

For 2016, though, I really wanted to make a conscious effort to read more books. I’m hoping that I can conclude each month with an informal roundup of my reading material. Thus far I have made my way through the books listed below, I’ve opened my Twitter up to recommendations and, on a 3am whim, I joined an online book club devoted to biographies about women. I’d call that a successful start.

Without further ado, I give you January’s selections…

 Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Taking on a book that could double as a doorstop is always a little intimidating but my escalating interest in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical persuaded me this was a must-read. After all, Hamilton’s life had to be pretty damn epic to warrant a three-hour Broadway musical. Assumption correct. The man is non-stop.

The biography opens with a prologue entitled ‘The Oldest Revolutionary War Widow’, introducing us to Hamilton’s wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, in the latter years of her life, before we meet the man himself. In a particularly moving quote, Chernow describes that,

 [Eliza] frequently grew melancholy and longed for a reunion with “her Hamilton,” as she invariably referred to him. “One night, I remember, she seemed sad and absent-minded and could not go to the parlor where there were visitors, but sat near the fire and played backgammon for a while,” said one caller. “When the game was done, she leaned back in her chair a long time with closed eyes, as if lost to all around her. There was a long silence, broken by the murmured words, ‘I am so tired. It is so long. I want to see Hamilton.’”

Doesn’t that just break your heart? It left me wondering what kind of a man can have inspired such devotion in Eliza, a devotion, it turned out, that was not exclusive to Eliza but extended to her father, her sisters, and Hamilton’s many friends and mentors. It seems as though everyone who encountered Hamilton either became a faithful admirer or a potent enemy. If there existed an in-between, it didn’t make the biography. There may not be a more polarising political figure from the period. However, Chernow does not choose an enemy to open and close this biographical epic, but the woman who perhaps loved Hamilton most of all. The story of Eliza’s later years swiftly leads the reader into the accounts of Alexander Hamilton’s turbulent childhood, where the genius of the man quickly begins to emerge against a bleak backdrop. It didn’t take long for me to catch onto the hype. If only the unfortunate Aaron Burr had too.

It struck me that Chernow’s narrative structure, or perhaps simply the chronological sequence of events in Hamilton’s life, reflects that of the two-act ‘Into The Woods’ model. We spend the first half in the fairytale of Hamilton – he goes from an impoverished orphan living in obscurity to a self-made hero of the American Revolution, the adoring husband to Eliza and George Washington’s right hand man – until the transition into the second half begins his undoing, where the truth of Hamilton’s vices and a more cynical reality come into play. His life, both public and private, is dismantled until – spoiler alert! – he’s staring death in the face as he stands facing his long-time rival Aaron Burr, duelling pistol in hand, in Weehawken, New Jersey on that fateful morning of July 12th, 1804.

It’s hard to be concise when reviewing the life of a man who was anything but. My overriding feeling when reading Chernow’s biography was one of contentment – that Eliza’s desperate hope to ensure her husband’s legacy has been fulfilled. One of the most poignant moments in the musical comes during ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ as Hamilton, whose preoccupation with his legacy has defined him, raps, “Legacy. What is a legacy? It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see. I wrote some notes at the beginning of a song someone will sing for me.” It leads neatly into the following song’s ultimate assertion: “You have no control: who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” In Carolyn G. Heilbrun’s book Writing a Woman’s Life, she notes that scholars have “lately written about how much of what passes as history is in fact evidence from the prevailing or established opinion of the age”. For so many years, it was Jefferson and a succession of Democratic-Republican leaders who controlled Hamilton’s narrative, painting him in the worst possible light. Two hundred years later, the Hamiltons are finally gifted a belated happy ending. Ron Chernow, an outstandingly comprehensive and devoted biographer, has recovered details of this impressive founding father’s many achievements that have laid the foundations to enable Alexander Hamilton’s success story to reach the masses.

As well as enriching the central Hamilton narrative with supplementary anecdotes, Ron Chernow’s biography offers fascinating nuggets about other characters such as Peggy Schuyler, Aaron Burr, Angelica Schuyler Church, George Washington, John Adams, Marquis de Lafayette and the Hamilton children. Simply put, it’s a must-read if you love the musical.

 Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

A friend suggested I read this in the wake of my sudden Star Wars enlightenment. I have to say, for a book that begins with a death, goes on to explore the dark side of celebrity, discusses drug addiction and bipolar, all before eventually concluding with PTSD, it’s a really funny read. That’s Carrie. (What a life!)

Reading Wishful Drinking was like sitting on the beach drinking cocktails, but in book form. It’s a short and sweet collection of memories from Carrie’s unusually eventful life. Now, I accept that “sweet” might seem an odd descriptor given the weight of many of the issues explored, but the openness with which every anecdote is retold makes you feel like you’re having a fun bonding sesh with your old bud Carrie Fisher. I didn’t even know I had an old bud Carrie Fisher! How thrilling. Now she’s chilling with me on this hot, sandy beach and telling me about growing up as the daughter of America’s sweethearts, and we’re laughing because, according to George Lucas, there’s no underwear in space, and she’s opening up to me about past loves and heartbreaks, and before I know it, the sun’s gone down and I’ve been so swept up in her stories that I haven’t even picked up my beach reading – except, oh wait, I’m not actually on a beach and I’ve been reading the whole time.

What I’m saying is, you’ll read this and like Carrie Fisher. If you don’t then, well, you’re weird and you don’t deserve to be Carrie Fisher’s beach bud.

(more…)

Never Seen Star Wars

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*whispering* There has been an awakening.

Quite a few years ago, there was a television series on the BBC that I remember my dad watching called “I’ve Never Seen Star Wars“. Celebrity guests would go on it with a list of experiences they’d never had, but these would all be things everyone has done. For example, were my friend Laura to go on it, she could put forward never having played Monopoly. The point, really, is that the epitome of these kinds of near-universal cultural experiences was considered to be Star Wars – hence the show’s title. Everybody’s seen a Star War, right?

Well, no. Not me. Or at least not until, at the ripe old age of 23, I finally relented. Anyone who’s seen my Twitter feed recently might find this hard to believe but, well, you know me: when I fall in love, it’s swift, wholehearted and usually with a heavily merchandised episodic narrative of some kind. In many ways, this was inevitable. Classic Jess.

My best friend Hannah and I were both unacquainted with the Star Wars universe, somehow reaching our twenties without ever having been indoctrinated. The two other friends who make up our friendship circle (or “squad”, as the kids are saying – and also us, to be fair, because that’s definitely our thread title) were Star Wars fans. Big ones. They were relentlessly shooting all kinds of alien terminology over our heads in fervent anticipation of The Force Awakens. When I say alien, I mean that literally – do you know what a tauntaun is?! And this was only a microcosm of the wider world. Everyone seemed to speak a language that we hadn’t yet learned. After endless indecipherable texts about The Force in our four-way group text, Hannah and I decided that we had to give it a go for the sake of our sanity.

Now, I can’t overstate how little I knew about Star Wars. You might assume that I went in with some base-level knowledge thanks to its ubiquity within popular culture, but let me review the entirety of my pre-viewing Star Wars knowledge:

  1. Leia’s cinnamon roll hair
  2. Darth Vader, iconic bad guy with voice-changer
  3. Gold bikini Leia (from that episode of Friends)
  4. “I am your father” and Luke’s eventual handlessness (remember the Toy Story parody?)
  5. Anakin hates sand (my friend Emma can’t get through 24 hours without doing her impression of Anakin Skywalker hating sand)
  6. Yoda-speak (because of Michael Scott)

This was the sum total of my Star Wars knowledge. When one of six things you know about a film is that the single female character is enslaved and forced to wear a bikini, I think it’s reasonable not to hold a whole lot of faith in said film. (Yes, in true Star Wars fashion, I had a bad feeling about this.)

As a woman, I struggle to enjoy narratives that don’t provide me with compelling, three-dimensional female characters. I don’t find it true of my world experience; therefore, it creates a barrier between the story and me. I want to feel excited and represented and emotionally invested. That’s why loving Leia was crucial for me. In A New Hope, rather than making doe-eyes at her rescuers, she is far more concerned with leading their escape and giving almost audible eye-rolls. The precise moment I knew she had won me over was, “Into the garbage chute, flyboy.” Leia is a straight-up badass, and yet the popular culture I’ve been exposed to had me imagining some helpless, sexualised damsel with pastry hair. I’m so frustrated and dismayed that the gold bikini was one of so few details I had known about this resilient, funny, resourceful character. Thankfully, I know better now.

I feel compelled to mention that my admiration for the princess-cum-general translates to real life. One of the best things to come out of this sudden Star Wars mania has been discovering the sharp, eccentric, emoji-filled mind of Carrie Fisher and her achingly short memoirs. If nothing else, it was worth discovering this long ago, far away galaxy for Carrie alone.

As for the boys… well, they are similarly delightful. Luke is as far from the antihero as you could likely get, and how refreshing! In an age where antiheroes have become so tediously de rigueur, I find myself desperate to root for any good, pure protagonists I can find. “Gritty” narratives make me weary. My heart leans towards the idealism of The West Wing, not the cynicism of House of Cards. I’m more Snow White than Walter White. And, predictably, a girl living on the light side, not the dark. A male lead with none of the machismo of your archetypal action hero, and possessing qualities more typically aligned with femininity, Luke is breath of fresh air.

And then there’s Han. My friends have admitted to me that they thought I wouldn’t like Han. …Is that possible? Who couldn’t love this hot mess? (Emphasis on the hot.) I mean, really, a total boob. Remember that scene in Jedi where he taps a Stormtrooper on the shoulder and then legs it? I’m in love. Given that, mostly to rankle my mother, I have exclusively referred to Harrison Ford as “Grumpy Curmudgeon Harrison Ford” for the last twenty years, discovering his infinite comedic talents was quite a revelation. I once nicknamed Hannah, my best friend, “Han Solo” and then worried it might be insulting, he might be a bad guy. What a fool I’ve been! Could anything be less insulting than being compared to Han Solo? Aside from the fact that young Harrison Ford is truly the peak of male attractiveness, Han is in every way – how shall I put this? – A MEGA BABE. And now those same friends who thought I’d hate him have to put up with a constant flurry of cute Han pictures in their inbox, making them wish I did. Poetic.

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Same, girl, same.

Once done with the Machete Order (IV, V, II, III, VI – I promise it works!), Hannah and I opted to see The Force Awakens the following day. I shan’t indulge in a dissertation-length love letter to The Force Awakens (I promise I could), but we loved it. The kind of love that they write musicals about. We left the cinema that day feeling giddy and energised. The biggest film in the world, by a thousand different measures, is also good. Good in terms of narrative, but also good in the plainest of terms: in the message it sends. The diversity of the new casting feels incredibly powerful given the film’s overwhelming financial success globally. Dare I begin to hope that other film franchises take note?

Though I can’t even begin to cover all of Episode VII’s many virtues (e.g. Finn’s everything; don’t even get me started), I was most profoundly moved by the presence of women, in major and minor roles, throughout the story. The scene between Leia and Rey, in particular, felt so unique, I found myself in shock. Surely a moment of pause to allow two women to embrace each other is unheard of in this genre? I can’t remember ever seeing it. And yet, there it was. A mother’s embrace. I’ve seen bro hugs aplenty in my time but this, this was something entirely new – and special.

In Rey, young girls finally have an action heroine deserving of their worship and it’s her movie. It’s Rey using the Force. It’s Rey’s story. Don’t let anyone convince you that these movies aren’t for girls. They are. Now more than ever.

Thank goodness the Force finally caught up with me.