Put Some Swash in That Buckle: Princesses, Brides, and the Story of Everything

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Farm boy! As you wish.

I think about “The Princess Bride” probably every day. I don’t especially care if that’s too much; it’s a pair of lungs to me now. So it was an unexpected loss of air to hear that its storyteller, William Goldman, recently passed away. I never knew this person, but his work was a joy that seeped into my own life.

My love for this movie (and the book that preceded it) is complete and all-encompassing. Its lines and ethos permeate all of my days – my need to rhyme with “peanut,” my knowledge to never get involved in a land war in Asia, my tendency to overuse the word “inconceivable” even in the most conceivable of situations. Buttercup and Westley gave me a love that’s as fun as it is deep. A sense of humor is key when dealing with the forces of evil. The Dread Pirate Roberts knows this.

I’m not sure of the precise moment “The Princess Bride” arrived in my life; like most lasting cultural touchstones, it seems to transcend origin and simply exist across planes of time. My existence has always been wrapped around a VHS tape that brought me this story. I know it came to my family’s house one Christmas, but I don’t remember its manger-like presence under the tree. My awareness came later. I’m not positive on when I first popped that tape into our tiny white TV unit, that moment of discovery. I do know I’ve never been the same.

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Inconceivable!
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

The yarn goes that Goldman famously said he wrote the original book because his two daughters had differing requests for story content: one wanted a princess, one wanted a bride. So a compound wonder was born. But the essence of “The Princess Bride” is neither of those things. It lovingly jabs at fantasy, revealing the skeleton behind our favorite stories. Goldman knew that stories help us move through the world, but they can be taken apart to build different things. That distinction lets us enjoy the Jell-O while poking holes in the mold.

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All right, now let’s see, where were we? Oh, yes. In the Pit of Despair.

This is was what “The Princess Bride” did. It both built a world and took it apart, peeking out from the scaffolding and winking. With the storytelling framed as a grandfather telling his sick grandchild a fairy tale, the skepticism interrupts once in a while to comment on any errant ridiculousness, lest we get too carried away with the treacle.

As the grandfather reads his story, we meet Buttercup – a farm girl who grows up to wear the best red dress ducats could buy – who lives in a country called Florin. She falls for farm boy Westley, whose “as you wish” lament/love proclamation is tattooed on my forehead. He must sail off to earn enough money for their marriage, but Buttercup later learns his ship was waylaid by the Dread Pirate Roberts. Devastated, she eventually agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck, because that is what one does in the throes of grief.

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No more rhymes now, I mean it. / Anybody want a peanut?

And so it goes, with Buttercup getting kidnapped by my favorite film trio ever: Vizzini the Sicilian crime lord, revenge-mad sword master Inigo Montoya, and lovable rhyming wrestler Fezzik. They soon discover they are being followed by a man in black. Across the sea and up the Cliffs of Insanity, the trio and Buttercup treat us to some fun banter (rhymes, screaming eels, etc.), but they can’t shake the mysterious man. We learn about Inigo’s obsession with getting revenge on the six-fingered man (“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”). The man in black manages to climb that cliff and catch up with them, wherein the first sword fight takes place. He bests the sword master, knocks out Fezzik, and outsmarts Vizzini (“Inconceivable!”) to flee with Buttercup. She, however, senses from his outfit that he’s the Dread Pirate Roberts, and shoves him down a crevasse for killing her beloved Westley. On the way down, he yells “as you wish,” so she flings herself after her true love. Oh, and Prince Humperdinck has been tracking Buttercup this whole time.

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Tyrone, you know how much I love watching you work. But I’ve got my country’s 500th anniversary to plan, my wedding to arrange, my wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it. I’m swamped!

You probably know all this by now. That is the power of “The Princess Bride” – even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, they made such a dent in popular culture that at least the most famous lines and scenes are generally familiar. I’ve steeped myself in it like so much tea that its ethos has, upon reflection, become my worldview. I also like to peek behind the scaffolding and poke at the structure of the known world, all while still enjoying the facade. Fairy tales have just as many princesses and noble steeds as they do evildoers and Rodents of Unusual Size. Balance in all things.

As such, the story doesn’t shy away from pain, and shows evil blossoming in various ways. It even measures suffering in sound. Prince Humperdinck sends Westley to the Pit of Despair, where he is tortured on a rack and his screams signal the amount of life leaving his body. “Life is pain, Highness,” Westley calmly says as he is reunited with Buttercup. Inigo lives with a past injustice eating away at his brain. This black vein reveals a closeness to Brothers Grimm-style fairy tales, where violence is as commonplace as magic. Those stories don’t gloss over gruesome punishments and dark passages. Neither does “The Princess Bride.”

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Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.

Even so, watching the movie is a life-affirming experience. I am a movie talker, which makes me an annoying presence at any form of film viewing. I must react in the moment to whatever I’m seeing on screen, whether for the first time or the Nth. This habit turns into full recitation with “The Princess Bride.” It’s less of a movie and more of an extended incantation for me now. I watch these scenes and speak these words and things are right. I will know something is truly wrong when I can’t spout off all its lines, pop a reference unnecessarily into any conversation and irk or confuse those around me. My form of a spell is the script of this movie – reciting it brings magic. I cut a path deeper into the woods every time I go back to it. It’s a form of reading out loud – always comforting while always a form of knowledge to reckon with.

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Mawage is what bwings us togeva today. Mawage, that bwessed awangement, that dweam wifin a dweam. And wuv – twue wuv – will fowwow you foweva. So tweasure your wuv…

And then there is true love (“Wuv, twue wuv.) Westley doesn’t fully die in the Pit of Despair because his heart is full of love for Buttercup. She enters the fire swamp because she is together with Westley again, and almost puts a dagger in her heart rather than marry Prince Humperdinck. The grandson may scoff at this cheesy throughline, but who doesn’t love a love story? One that doesn’t take itself too seriously but still brings the white horses in at the end.

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This is true love – you think this happens every day?

For this blessing, I give thanks: thank you, William Goldman, for bringing “The Princess Bride” into the world and helping build mine. Thank you for the indelible characters whose friendship is both a comic gift and a vessel for tragedy, and all the love that is true. Thank you for the darkness and the blinding light. For a kaleidoscope into love and beauty and pain and rhyming and all the things that make us human. Or at least, for this human, a story I can never get tired of – a forever lullaby.

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I don’t mean to pry, but you don’t by any chance happen to have six fingers on your right hand?

Book Time: October Titles

There There – Tommy Orange

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When Tommy Orange writes, speaks, or generally puts anything out into the universe, you should pay attention. Just the first dozen pages of “There There” are enough to jolt you to rapt observance – in that space alone, he lasers through centuries of wrongs against Native American people, across continents. Orange zeroes in on the contemporary urban space: “…nothing is original, everything comes from something that came before, which was once nothing. Everything is new and doomed. We ride buses, trains, and cars across, over, and under concrete plains. Being Indian has never been about returning to the land. The land is everywhere or nowhere.”

At the very least, here is a voice big enough for the Grand Canyon, booming and bitingly philosophical, yet precise enough to convey the particularities of people with both named and unnamed trauma.

In his debut novel, Orange follows a range of Native Americans through Oakland, California, as they converge on a powwow at the city’s Coliseum. He has created people who want to forget, discover, hide, be seen, who grieve but find ways to make it through the world, who have been ascribed a restricted identity by a country that still doesn’t let them create one for themselves.

Orange gives life to a wide array of characters struggling with these identities. At one point, one of them flies a drone into the open top of the Coliseum to take in the scene – Orange is a drone himself, a flyer who has only just begun to show what he can do.

Less – Andrew Sean Greer

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This is a jewel box of a book. Greer’s Arthur Less, an author approaching 50 and meandering into obscurity, decides to take a trip around the world to avoid thinking about the love he’s lost. When invited to the wedding of someone he loved for nine years, he decides to accept every other invitation but that – and sets off one of the most charming jet-sets in recent literature.

Greer takes Less from New York City to Mexico City, then Berlin, Morocco, Paris, India, and finally Japan. Each episode is a wonderfully realized portrait of a place, and another window into our hero. As Less travels, the narrator reveals more of his life and what he has thought of it. (The ending has a beautiful reveal in narrator identity; I don’t know if I’ve loved a tying-up trope more.) This man clearly holds Less in charming affection, and treats his foibles with smiling kindness.

Greer reaches into that well of insecurities we all house to some extent, and explores Less’ feeling that he has never been good enough for anyone, in literature or in love. In all of his globe-trotting adventures, Less stays grounded in his quiet grief for the man he lost, and his worries about being irrelevant. Greer steers clear of the black hole, however, and his humor and inability to play a sentence wrong buoy Less across continents.

During his last travel period in Japan, Less recalls a childhood trip to a museum with his mother. They saw a Japanese garden room together, in miniature through a scope, and Less has never felt such beauty again in his life. He gets the chance to visit the very room this model was based on, but gets laughably stuck in it. The book is also that garden room – we are looking into Less’ life, and Greer allows us to peer into his beautifully detailed places that hold special meaning.

Hits and Misses – Simon Rich

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Read this short story collection if you want to laugh for however long it takes. Rich takes fun, absurdist starting points (if Paul Revere’s horse told his side of the story, magic birthday candles, an incompetent and clueless court jester, a 1930s ghost starlet, etc.) and drolly spins out the tension from there.

Some might see the collection as so many cautionary parables of millennial non-woes, but there was also something timelessly funny about them to me. It’s simply fun to read about a man whose birthday party turns into an argument with himself at past ages (those magic candles) – Rich excels at these existential conversations, without being too preachy. It’s just funny bone-tickling to hear his take on jealousy with a fetus who writes a novel in the womb. It doesn’t matter the setup, I’ll always stick around for Rich’s stories. Whatever comes out of his brain – a TV writer who’s an actual dinosaur, a monk with comparison issues – the tale doesn’t disappoint. I’d like to see what he could do with a sci-fi comedy.

As Rich has Paul Revere’s uncelebrated horse lament, spiraling into despair: “I go from licking brewery puddles to licking distillery puddles to just licking whatever puddles I can find, like, who cares, get it in me” – I feel the same about these stories.

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

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When she starts having graphic, disturbing nightmares, a South Korean woman named Yeong-hye gives up meat and any other animal products completely. Her husband is the first to narrate this story, recounting the beginnings of Yeong-hye’s saga with cold tones of indifference. He only starts to notice who she might really be when her life’s routines start to affect how the world views him. He complains to her family, and violence ensues. Yeong-hye refuses to surrender her body to the rules of her family and society at large. She has a vision for her life – to live as a plant would, subsisting on light and water.

Yeong-hye ends up in an institution, visited only by her sister, who picks up the story for the final installment. Yeong-hye is essentially starving, seemingly destroying her body, but trying to free herself in the process. No matter where she turns, forces try to exert control over her mind and body, again, in violent fashion. Whether it’s her parents restraining her and attempting to force-feed her meat, her brother-in-law incorporating her body into a failed art piece, or the mental institution keeping her in a more human life vein, Yeong-hye is never truly seen or understood by those around her.

I had to lie down after reading this book. It is about war waged on a woman’s body, an allegory for societies that take no prisoners (most of them). Kang is like a butcher in her precise detailings of Yeong-hye’s bloody visions, the ones that lead her to turn her life into a quest no one else bothers to understand. These passages, and the descriptions of her institutionalized life, are so visceral as to be metallic-tasting, their physicality so intertwined with Yeong-hye’s inner life. She tries to soothe her visions through control of her own body, to seemingly disappear completely. Kang is foremost a keen observer of the mind’s workings, and the ways those can be policed and intercepted in so many forms.

Earl, Aerial

He was a boy in a plane.

It was 1945, and Earl Brindley took pictures in the sky. Of factories and formations, groups of hulking but graceful planes and the patterns of buildings they flew over.

My grandfather was a member of a ten-man crew flying B-17s over Europe in the last, bitter winter and spring of World War II. He was the radio operator, communicating the location of both his plane and the others in the formation. He would also have to man a rear-facing .50-caliber gun, and take photos on missions. So it was part of his job to document this war, and a changing face of combat.

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Earl’s outfit, the Eighth Air Force, was a new kind of operation. Instead of carrying out bombing missions at night, as was standard, they were to attack Germany during the day, open to counterattack by the Luftwaffe’s deadly forces. The B-17 was a new kind of bombing aircraft designed for these missions, meant to carry heavy loads over long distances. Boeing had worked to create this aerial battleship – its Vice President, Clairmont L. Egtvedt, described “searching for a flying dreadnought.” Upon seeing the B-17 on one of the first flights, a journalist dubbed it the “flying fortress.”

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Attacking by daylight would allow bomber crews more accuracy on their targets – railways, factories, and other war mechanisms of the enemy. To avoid the anti-aircraft guns, the B-17 had to be able to fly into the stratosphere. At these heights, crews endured combat conditions both common across military situations, but ratcheted up by the rigors of flight: extremely high altitude, cold like nowhere on earth, bombardment from all sides (fire from both anti-aircraft guns on the ground and fighter planes in the air), and incredible noise: all rammed into a reinforced steel cylinder rocketing through the sky. They flew into the unknown.

Continue reading “Earl, Aerial”

Book Time: September Titles

Lightning round!

The Incendiaries – R.O. Kwon

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Phoebe lost her mother, Will lost his faith. When they meet at college, these losses congeal into extremes. Kwon writes devastatingly well about manifested pain.

Normal People – Sally Rooney

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Rooney is my pick for the best chronicler of modern life. Nothing and everything happen in the truest, barest portrait of relationship I’ve read.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup – John Carreyrou

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This is a story that shakes your neck off your spine: a woman in Silicon Valley has an idea for better blood testing, but takes it to a dangerous level of deception, raising millions of dollars in funding while lying about the technology’s progress (or lack thereof), deceiving her board (which consisted of people like General James Mattis and Henry Kissinger), and terrorizing her employees. While she did a bad bad thing, there is also something thrilling/chilling about what Elizabeth Holmes was doing in the male-saturated tech world. 

The Ensemble – Aja Gabel

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Gabel explores how family and closeness play themselves out in a classical quartet – in each of the members’ individual lives, and the life of the group itself. I had high hopes for this book, but it wasn’t as satisfying a bouquet as the cover depicts. Still, it was worth it for the musical references alone.

Transcription – Kate Atkinson

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Read everything Atkinson gives you. “Transcription” probes the mundanities of war that mix with the overall drama, buoyed by a dry sense of humor.

Juliet, Naked – Nick Hornby

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In a long-term relationship with a man obsessed with former cult musician Tucker Crowe to the exclusion of almost everything else, Annie wonders if life has anything more to offer. I saw a movie poster for this before I read the book and couldn’t help but picture Ethan Hawke in the role of Tucker. I think it improved the experience.

Obsessed – Part 2: The Sloth is a Lonely Hunter

There is so much weirdness I think about all the time, varied and seemingly disparate things running through my mind. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)  I’ve always been inclined to dig further into the shiny bits and bobs that catch my eye, but what about when those things are…not too deep to begin with? For example, what stupid phrases could I caption every medieval painting in this gallery with? What happens when a stalagmite would rather be a stalactite? Why does pro tennis player John Isner appear both extremely boring and also evil as he is tall (6’10”)? I don’t shy away from this, as anyone I’ve ever talked to has learned. I’ve embraced the shallows. I’ll forever be drawn to what are perhaps life’s dumber moments, its lower brows, its cruise ship-caliber offerings. And I need an outlet for these preoccupations. This is part of a series of dispatches from the Mixed-up Files of Ms. Claire G. Brindley.

There are a lot of good things about the nature series “Planet Earth.” Sweeping earthly vistas. Important records of the world’s wonders. Dazzling sea creatures. Lizards that have to run from scary-fast snakes just to go to the beach. But my favorite part is less a visual smorgasbord of natural beauty and animal ingenuity and more a soap opera.  It’s trouble in paradise.

It’s the Islands episode of Planet Earth II. We’re on Escudo off the coast of Panama. Everything is beautiful and nothing hurts, except looking at the sky because it’s so dazzlingly blue. Enter the sloth (or “slooth” as David Attenborough intones). We’ll call him Slooth John B.

The camera swoops over the tiny island in all its jewel tones. Sunlight filters through neon-tropical green leaves and shimmers up waterways. David tells us we’ll see “the extreme lengths animals go to survive.” Here we have a variation on that theme: what happens when a man pygmy three-toed sloth loves a woman pygmy three-toed sloth very much? A special sloth hug? Let David tell you.

Continue reading “Obsessed – Part 2: The Sloth is a Lonely Hunter”

Book Time: August Titles

Didn’t quite reach my quota this month, but did spend some quality time with these pages.

Night School – Lee Child

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Let me tell you something about Jack Reacher. I am in deep, unapologetic love with this man. I will follow him wherever he goes, from tiny towns in American nowhere to more far-flung destinations, nod along as he breaks down every move in his fights against bad men. (Hand-to-hand combat comes up a lot.) Jack can devine the motives and next moves of any criminal just by which door he uses to exit the building. Everything is black and white and gray is a color reserved for mood-setting weather. He always eats in diners because of the sturdy coffee mugs and favorable calorie-to-cost ratio, and the fact that he usually uses them to either receive or stage missions, or take out a few criminals.

Jack is a 6’5”, 250-pound itinerant ex-military cop, moving through the world with one spartan outfit, a travel-size toothbrush, and a mean right hook. He’s basically a Viking: “I think ninety-nine of us grow up to love the campfire, and one grows up to hate it. Ninety-nine of us grow up to fear the howling wolf, and one grows up to envy it. And I’m that guy.” Did I mention Jack is the main character in an eponymous series by Lee Child? Well, I’m addicted.

Continue reading “Book Time: August Titles”

Obsessed – Part 1: The Peculiar Magic of George Washington Memes

There is so much weirdness I think about all the time, varied and seemingly disparate things running through my mind. (I am large, I contain multitudes.)  I’ve always been inclined to dig further into the shiny bits and bobs that catch my eye, but what about when those things are…not too deep to begin with? For example, what stupid phrases could I caption every medieval painting in this gallery with? What happens when a stalagmite would rather be a stalactite? Why does pro tennis player John Isner appear both extremely boring and also evil as he is tall (6’10”)? I don’t shy away from this, as anyone I’ve ever talked to has learned. I’ve embraced the shallows. I’ll forever be drawn to what are perhaps life’s dumber moments, its lower brows, its cruise ship-caliber offerings. And I need an outlet for these preoccupations. To borrow from one of my first obsessions, what follows the first in a series of dispatches from the Mixed-up Files of Ms. Claire G. Brindley.

I can’t learn about history without trying to insert a voice into historical figures’ heads. I can’t go to museums or landmarks without wanting to know what all the people involved were really thinking. Take when my sister and I recently went to Glensheen in Duluth, MN – we lost our minds making up things for the people in the old mansion’s paintings to say. (Try it sometime at a historic estate near you; it’ll really spice things up.) We probably remember so much more about the place’s history than we would have otherwise, albeit through a crazy lens of our own imaginings. This is why George Washington memes are so amusing and absorbing to me.

The internet tells me that these words in Comic Sans imposed on historical renderings of a certain Founding Father are called “Sassy George Washington.” Not what I’d prefer to call them – I like to think that these are the kinds of thoughts that went through the man’s brain as he commanded forces in the Revolutionary War, crossed the Delaware on a fancy barge, and struck epic poses for history. Through it all, he gets annoyed at his coworkers, has mad donut cravings, and he just wants to dance. So more like “George is just like us.”

In this world, Washington is a crabby man-child who would like some animal crackers and some peace. A vaunted figure is brought down a few pegs, but not to any detriment. (You can read more about how many enslaved people lived at Mount Vernon over the years for that.) Far from an idealized figurehead, he’s way more fun in these memes, a flawed human who could use a nap after ushering a new nation into the world. Midwifery is hard work, George would like you to know.

Continue reading “Obsessed – Part 1: The Peculiar Magic of George Washington Memes”