Today marks the Grand Final of the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, where 26 countries (out of 41 who entered) will throw it down onstage for the chance to be named Europe’s best new song of the year and also for the right to host the 2020 Contest. The Netherlands’ 🇳🇱 entry, “Arcade” by Duncan Laurence, is heavily favored to win, but it is far from having this Contest in the bag. It’ll be interesting to see who actually ends up taking this year’s title. But I’ve talked more than enough Eurovision in my last two posts.
This is about my latest finished object, a shawlette that I wanted to do as my Eurovision project to be done in time for tomorrow’s Grand Final. I got two cakes of the yarn I used for it as a sort of Valentine’s Day present to myself, but only ended up using one. (The other is currently being used to make an asymmetrical triangular shawl that I hope to eventually showcase here at some point.) And while I’ve documented some of the difficulties I had with the lace sections with this shawl on this blog, I did eventually work my way through them and I am proud to say that I now have a finished object that just got in one day before the deadline.
I actually finished the knitting portion of this project back in March, but I decided to hold off on it in order to focus on finishing the Bambina Baby Blanket (which is going well, I am just working on the border, and then it will be finished). Earlier this week, I decided to pin out my shawl to prepare it for steam blocking (as the yarn was a wool/acrylic blend).
My bedsheets were in need of a wash anyway, so I took the opportunity during my dad’s work week this week (when I wasn’t going to be sleeping in my bed anyway) to wash my sheets and block the shawl. The steam blocking went all right. The garter stitch along the long edge still curls a bit, but I like what it did to the drape of the lace.
Just a weaving in of the ends yesterday, and I was finally able to present my finished project.
Readers, I give you…LoveWave!
I decided to call this project “LoveWave” for two primary reasons: 1. I did this as my Eurovision project, and it is named after Armenia’s 🇦🇲 2016 entry, “LoveWave” by Iveta Mukuchyan, who is an Armenian-born singer primarily based out of Hamburg, Germany. The song itself finished 7th overall with 249 points, while that year’s Contest was won by Ukraine. And 2. This project’s name combines the pattern name, “Wavedeck” (which I will link to shortly) and the theme of the colorway’s name “Aphrodite”, which is named after the Ancient Greek goddess of love.
So, here are the details:
Pattern: Wavedeck by Kate Atherley (available as a free pattern at Knitty)
Yarn: Lion Brand Wool-Ease Cakes in “Aphrodite” (all the colorways in this line are named after figures in Ancient Greek mythology)
Needles: US # 6 and #7 circular (I used two different sizes because I purl looser than I knit, so the smaller needles were needed in order to keep my stockinette stitch even-looking, using the #6 needles for the purl rows)
My shawl ended up coming out to more of a shawlette size, but it’s perfect for Florida weather, especially when it gets a little cooler in the fall, and the wool in this yarn should do nicely in keeping my shoulders warm if needed.
Here are a few more pics of LoveWave in the Central Florida late afternoon spring sun.
Before I end this post, as always I try to provide a source for title references when I make them, and this is no different. Here is the music video for “LoveWave” by Iveta Mukuchyan.
When we last left off, I had just finished giving a pretty detailed rundown of what Eurovision is and how it works.
Now, it’s time to talk about my personal experience with it.
The Beginnings of an Obsession
The year is 2003. A year earlier, I had watched the very first season of American Idol and I had also been introduced to the wonders of the Internet within the last couple of years, although at that time I had kept my surfing to, primarily, a fan site dedicated to the actor Daniel Radcliffe, the Harry Potter fan site Mugglenet, and CBBC’s Newsround site (it was basically a news show for kids, but it was my primary source for news online at the time). And it was this exact picture that got my attention in the spring of that year, and it was on the Newsround website for a very dubious reason.
It was the British pop duo Jemini, made up of friends Gemma Abbey and Chris Cromby (in other words, “Gem and I”…get it?). I learned they had been selected to represent the United Kingdom at something called the Eurovision Song Contest with a song called “Cry Baby”, and ended up giving the U.K. its worst result ever: 26th and last place in the Grand Final, and it had failed to get a single vote on the leaderboard, scoring 0 points (or what is referred to in Eurovision fan circles as the dreaded nul points or nil points, both pronounced in French, although these terms are not officially used by the EBU). It was the first time the U.K. had ever finished last at the Contest and the first time the U.K. had failed to receive a single vote, and thus any points (although it has happened twice since then, in 2008 and 2010, and in both those instances the U.K. did receive votes.) Some blamed this on backlash against the U.K. getting involved with the U.S.-led Iraq War that year, but once I finally got a chance to actually watch the performance several years later, the more likely reason for Jemini’s last-place finish became pretty obvious and it had nothing to do with politics. Warning: your ears may be offended by this performance.
As you can hear, the singers (especially Gemma) sang way off-key, by the sound of things (to my ears) at least a half-step sharp.
The news of this duo was my first-ever introduction to Eurovision.
Fast-forward three years to 2006. I was 19 and I hear of this heavy metal band from Finland who had just qualified to the Final with a song called “Hard Rock Hallelujah”.
I remember watching video of the band’s semifinal performance and saying to myself, “This band has to win this year. Their song is too awesome.” The name of the band was Lordi, and as it turns out, they did in fact end up winning the 2006 Contest.
Over the next few years, Serbia 🇷🇸, Russia 🇷🇺, Norway 🇳🇴, and Germany 🇩🇪 all won (“Molitva” by Marija Serifović, “Believe” by Dima Bilan, “Fairytale” by Alexander Rybak, and “Satellite” by Lena, respectively), and the last Eurovision winner I had heard before my self-imposed sabbatical from anything to do with computers was Azerbaijan’s 🇦🇿 first and only winner to date, “Running Scared” by Ell & Nikki. Little did I know over those next few years, the Contest would produce a few gems.
Emerging from a Hiatus
I went into a self-imposed sabbatical from computers and the internet that lasted about three years, from May 2012 to May 2015. It began right after Eurovision 2012 (but I didn’t follow it that year) and ended right after Eurovision 2015. During that time, though, I did hear about Conchita Wurst’s victory for Austria at Eurovision 2014 through The Graham Norton Show (yes, we know who Graham Norton is here in the States: his show airs weekly on BBC America, and he is thoroughly entertaining and sets up a fun environment for his guests). Graham even had Conchita come on as a musical guest on his show and, of course, Conchita brought down the house.
For those of you unfamiliar with Conchita, Conchita Wurst is the drag persona of Austrian singer Thomas “Tom” Neuwirth, who first rose to fame finishing second on an Idol-like show called Starmania (which is not an official Idols series in Austria; its run ended a decade ago and Austrians are currently allowed to compete on Germany’s version of the Idols format, Deutschland sucht den SuperStar). After some time spent in an Austrian boy band called Jetzt Anders! (which consisted of finalists from Starmania), Neuwirth re-emerged on the music scene as his drag persona, Conchita Wurst. Conchita was noted for being a “bearded lady” character, and after coming second in Austria’s national final in 2012, the Austrian broadcaster selected Conchita to represent Austria at Eurovision 2014 with the song “Rise Like a Phoenix”. After advancing to the Grand Final, the song won Eurovision 2014 with 290 points, marking Austria’s first win in nearly 50 years (its first victory was in 1966, “Merci, Chérie” by Udo Jürgens).
When I made my return to technology in 2015, Måns Zelmerlöw had just delivered Sweden 🇸🇪 its sixth Eurovision victory (now one win away from tying Ireland’s 🇮🇪 record of seven wins). The following year, I finally got to watch a Grand Final when Eurovision broadcast the first of three Grand Finals in the United States on the cable channel Logo, and I got to see Jamala win for Ukraine 🇺🇦, Salvador Sobral for Portugal 🇵🇹, and Netta win for Israel 🇮🇱. Sadly, it looks like Eurovision will not be broadcast on American television this year, but I hope the internet will provide a source for me to watch it anyway. Although American Eurovision fans are few and far between, we do come in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, and orientations. One of my favorite fan sites to go to is Wiwibloggs, which covers the Contest and its alumni year-round with correspondents from all over the world. I’ve also recently discovered a YouTuber named Alesia Michelle who has an entire channel dedicated to her love of Eurovision and I hope to get a chance to check out her videos in depth.
Eurovision’s Wackier Moments
Finally, I can’t go without mentioning some of the stranger performances and moments that have taken place in Eurovision’s history. While Eurovision was presented as a straightforward song competition for much of its history, in the last two decades, it has become known for being a visual spectacle (especially after the live orchestra was discontinued) in addition for the songs competing in it. Although one notable moment did come about before then: Bucks Fizz, Eurovision 1981. This moment is really best experienced in motion.
That infamous “skirt rip” caused quite a stir for the British pop group, but it ultimately helped the group win that year’s Contest with their song “Making Your Mind Up”, and the skirt rip is still considered an iconic moment in Eurovision history.
And some other memorably wacky moments in Eurovision history:
Montenegro’s Slavko Kalezić whipping his braid around while performing “Space” in 2017; sadly, he did not make the Final. He later tried out for The X Factor UK (after previously being a contestant on the Balkan version), getting cut at the Judges’ Houses stage.
Or German comedian Stefan Raab famously asking in joke German “Wadde hadde dudde da?” (“What is it that you there have?”) at Eurovision 2000 while in this getup:
A few years before Conchita’s victory, the Austrian rap duo Trackshittaz (yes, the EBU let them compete with that name, even though it technically contains a profanity) failed to advance from their semifinal in 2012 while telling us “Woki mit deim Popo”, which is colloquial Austrian German for “Shake Your Ass”, along with the accompanying booty shaking.
In 2010 a meme was born when Moldovan saxophonist Sergey Stepanov (one third of the group Sunstroke Project) made a few dance moves and became the Epic Sax Guy during their performance of “Run Away”…
…and then brought back his Epic Sax Mojo when Sunstroke Project returned for Moldova 🇲🇩 in 2017 with their song “Hey Mamma”…and made it all the way to 3rd place 🥉, giving Moldova its best Eurovision finish ever.
In 2014, Romania 🇷🇴 featured this as part of its performance of “Miracle” by Paula Seling and Ovi.
In 2012, the Buranovskiye Babushki (The Grannies from Buranovo) managed to touch Europe’s adorable granny nerve and got all the way to second place 🥈 with their song “Party for Everybody”, losing out to Loreen’s mesmerizing performance of “Euphoria”, which gave Sweden its fifth Eurovision win.
And one of my favorite joke acts was when Ireland 🇮🇪 sent a literal turkey 🦃 (actually, a puppet called Dustin the Turkey) to Eurovision 2008 and poked fun at the whole shebang (and Ireland’s more recent Eurovision flops after winning the Contest seven times, including a run of three consecutive wins in the 1990s) with “Irelande Douze Pointe”. True to Dustin’s name, the performance was a turkey (one of a few slang terms we use in the States to refer to a flop), and he failed to advance from the semifinal.
Who knows what memorable, crazy, or wacky moments we could be in for this year? The Grand Final is set to take place this Saturday.
The following post is quite long and detailed, but it is about something I have grown quite passionate about. So bear with me.
So, you may have heard me mention something called “Eurovision” on here from time to time. For my readers outside the USA and North America, most are probably thinking, “So, it’s no big deal, it happens every year and it’s just a part of our cultural zeitgeist.” But I imagine many of you in the U.S. and Canada are like, “What the hell is she talking about?”
Well, this year’s Contest is beginning with today’s first semifinal, and I feel like now is a good time as ever to talk about what has become my biggest pop culture obsession since…well, the obsession it’s overtaken in recent years, American Idol. Actually, the Idols format itself owes a lot to Eurovision. But before I talk about Eurovision’s effect on me, here’s a primer on the Contest itself (and since Eurovision’s full name is the Eurovision Song Contest, I always capitalize “Contest” when referring to Eurovision directly).
Eurovision: A Primer for North Americans
In order to understand the Eurovision phenomenon, we must first look at its roots, and there are two important factors behind the genesis of Eurovision: World War II and Sanremo. Europe was left heavily damaged both physically and emotionally after the horrors of World War II and in the decade following the war was looking for a way to heal and come together. In early 1955, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), based out of Switzerland, held a meeting in Monaco and came up with an idea based off of Italy’s Sanremo Music Festival (which had been founded a few years earlier in 1951), where different countries around Europe would submit original songs and then perform them in one big contest to be simulcast live across Europe (remember, the first artificial satellite was not launched until 1957, so television transmissions by satellite were a long way off; in the early days the EBU would rely on microwave transmission for the Eurovision broadcasts). In October 1955, the idea was brought to a wider vote from the full EBU, and it was approved, with the first Eurovision Song Contest Grand Prix (as it was known in English then) to be held in spring 1956 in Lugano, Switzerland 🇨🇭.
The inaugural Contest was held on 24 May 1956, with seven countries taking part: host nation Switzerland 🇨🇭, the Netherlands 🇳🇱, Germany (more specifically, West Germany; Germany would not compete as a unified state for the first time until 1991) 🇩🇪, Belgium 🇧🇪, France 🇫🇷, Luxembourg 🇱🇺, and Italy 🇮🇹. For this Contest only, each country submitted two songs. After all the songs were performed, two jurors from each country cast a vote for their favorite song (although it has always been against the rules for a country to vote for itself), and the song that got the most votes was crowned the winner. This ultimately went to the song “Refrain” by Lys Assia of Switzerland 🇨🇭 (who actually sang both of Switzerland’s entries that year, although not all participating countries were required to send just one singer). And even though the winning song was in French, Lys was actually a native German speaker, from the German-speaking Canton of Aargau (her other entry was sung in German). We don’t know the full results of the 1956 Contest, as only the winner was announced, but the 1956 Contest was enough of a success that a second Contest took place in 1957, and has been held every spring since then.
Beginning with the 1957 Contest, each participating country submitted just one song. Although the rules of the Contest have varied over the years, the basic rules are as follows:
Countries in the EBU are eligible to participate (and do not necessarily need to be located in Europe, which is why countries like Turkey 🇹🇷, Israel 🇮🇱, and even Morocco 🇲🇦 have been allowed to participate), although the EBU does reserve the right to invite Associate Members to participate if it so chooses (which is why Australia 🇦🇺 has been allowed to participate since 2015; Kazakhstan 🇰🇿 is also an Associate Member but has only competed in Junior Eurovision to date).
Each participating country submits only one song.
All participating songs must be completely original (with no interpolations or samples of other existing songs); have no profanity, religious, commercial, or political content; and may not be released publicly/commercially before 1 September of the year preceding the Contest.
Songs must be no longer than three minutes in length (instituted in 1958 after Italy’s 1957 entry, “Corde della mia chitarra” by Nunzio Gallo, lasted 5 minutes, 9 seconds). However, there is no rule limiting how short a song can be. (Finland’s 2015 entry, “Aina mun pittää”, holds the current record for shortest-ever Eurovision entry, clocking in at 1 minute, 27 seconds.)
All participating songs must have vocals. (The 1995 winner, “Nocturne” by Secret Garden from Norway 🇳🇴, was mostly instrumental, but got around this rule by having vocals at the very beginning and the very end.)
Lyrics can be in any language, including artificial languages, but this has not always been the case. From 1956-1965 and from 1973-1976, there was no restriction on language, but from 1966-1972 and again from 1977-1998 entries were required to be performed in one of the participating country’s national languages. In 1999, the national language rule was lifted for good, and since then, only two winning songs have been performed completely in a language other than English: “Molitva” (Serbia 🇷🇸 2007, Serbian) and “Amar pelos dois” (Portugal 🇵🇹 2017, Portuguese).
All vocals must be sung live, no live instruments allowed (instrumentalists must mime to a backing track; this has been the case since the live orchestra was dropped in the late 1990s; prior to that, each country provided its own conductor to conduct the live orchestra for their entry; interestingly enough, Sanremo still uses a live orchestra in its festival).
No more than six performers (including singers, backing vocalists, instrumentalists, and dancers) are allowed onstage during their Eurovision performance.
Performers must be at least 16 years of age on the date of the Contest (also called the “Sandra Kim Rule”, named after the Belgian singer who won the 1986 Contest who, despite singing she was 15 in her song “J’aime la vie”, was later revealed to be just 13; this rule wasn’t instituted until 1990, after it was revealed that two performers in the 1989 Contest were just 11 and 12 years old). Since 2003, though, the EBU has held a separate Contest for kids aged 9-14 called the Junior Eurovision Song Contest.
Five to six countries each year automatically qualify for the Grand Final: the host nation (if not one of the “Big Five”) and the five biggest financial contributors to the EBU, or the so-called “Big Five”: Germany 🇩🇪, France 🇫🇷, Spain 🇪🇸, Italy 🇮🇹, and the United Kingdom 🇬🇧. All other countries must participate in one of two Semifinals, where the 10 countries with the most votes/points qualify to the Grand Final. Each of the automatic qualifiers is required to broadcast and vote in one of the two Semifinals (along with the countries participating in each semifinal). All participating countries (regardless of qualification to the Final) vote in the Grand Final.
The winning country gets the right of first refusal to host the following year’s Contest, but is not obligated to do so. (This was common after this was first established in the late 1950s, but the most recent time a winning country declined to host the following year’s Contest was 1980, when reigning champ Israel 🇮🇱 withdrew from the 1980 Contest after winning both 1978 and 1979, citing financial strains from hosting the 1979 Contest and the coinciding of the date of the 1980 Contest with the Israeli version of Memorial Day, which is always a very somber day in Israeli culture. The 1980 Contest was awarded to The Hague, Netherlands.)
And while the voting system has varied over the years, it basically works as follows, using the rules of the current voting system implemented in 2016:
There are currently two sets of votes cast by each country: the Jury vote (which is cast by five member juries of music professionals representing each participating country) and the Televote (which is cast by members of the viewing public either via telephone, text message, or through the official Eurovision app in each participating country, with the exception of San Marino; San Marino uses 100% Jury voting because it has no independent phone system due to its small size and thus piggybacks off of the Italian phone network). In the event of a televoting failure, a separate eight-member backup jury is used.
Each country cannot vote for itself.
The jurors rank all remaining songs (other than their own country’s) in order from first (for their top-ranked song) to last, with the top 10 songs getting points from that particular jury. The songs are allocated points based on rank from that Jury: 10th gets 1 point, 9th gets 2 points, 8th gets 3 points, 7th gets 4 points, 6th gets 5 points, 5th gets 6 points, 4th gets 7 points, 3rd gets 8 points, 2nd gets 10 points, and the top ranked song gets 12 points. (The 12 points, in a throwback to when results were announced in English and French, is often referred to as a douze points or “DOOZ PWAHN” and even now will typically see the host announce the 12 points for each country in the Grand Final in French; for example, the Netherlands getting 12 points from a Jury would be announced as “Pays-Bas douze points!” in French.)
The Televote points from each country are awarded in the same manner, using the televoting percentage ranks to determine which ten countries receive points from that particular country. The same points for ranks apply as the ones used in the Jury voting, with the country winning a particular country’s televote getting 12 points (for example, if the Netherlands won the televote in Germany, Netherlands would get 12 points from Germany in the televote).
The Jury points are presented individually in the Grand Final, with a spokesperson announcing each country’s 12 points while the rest of the points given by that particular country’s Jury are automatically added on the leaderboard in real time. For example, Eurovision 1978 winner Izhar Cohen (who gave Israel 🇮🇱 its first victory with “A-Ba-Ni-Bi”, which is from the Bet/Hebrew “Pig Latin” for “I Love You”, ani ohev otach, which reads in Bet as a-ba-ni-bi o-bo-he-bevo-bo-ta-bach) will be presenting Israel’s Jury points during the 2019 Grand Final.
The Televoting points are presented aggregately (or in total) in the Grand Final; from 2016-2018 this was done in order from fewest televoting points to most, but for this year will be presented in the same order as the participating countries finished in the Jury voting, from fewest to most.
The country with the most overall points wins the Contest. (And is not required to win either set of voting; in 2016, Australia won the Jury vote and Russia won the televote, but both countries finished much lower in the other set of votes…this ended up giving the 2016 Contest to Ukraine, who had finished second in both sets of votes and got the highest total score.)
And there are tiebreaker procedures in place in case of a tie. (This was instituted after the 1969 Contest ended in a four-way tie for the win, and no tiebreaker, which resulted in four winners: the UK 🇬🇧, Spain 🇪🇸, France 🇫🇷, and the Netherlands 🇳🇱. A tiebreaker has since only been used to settle a tie for first once, in 1991 between Sweden 🇸🇪 and France 🇫🇷, which was eventually awarded to Sweden, although the tiebreaker used for that Contest is no longer in use, which relied on counting on the number of votes worth 12 points each of the tied countries received and on downward if still tied. The current tiebreaker procedure begins by determining which of the tied countries received more overall votes, or how many countries actually awarded points to each of the tied countries.)
Eurovision’s Cultural Impact
Eurovision, in its six decades of existence, has sort of become the entertainment world’s version of both the Super Bowl and the World Cup. It’s always been a source of light entertainment (which was desperately needed in the wake of World War II), and as technology and cultural tastes have evolved, it has also acquired a reputation for being camp (corny, kitschy, and a bit cheesy) and has acquired quite a following in Europe’s LGBTQ+ community, so much to the point that it is sometimes nicknamed the “Gay Olympics”, but still has a bit of a family-friendly vibe as well due to the songs being relatively clean in subject matter.
Eurovision has proven to be a launching pad for many internationally known acts throughout the decades of its existence. In fact, it only took two years after the first Contest for one of the songs to cross over into international popularity, including in the United States. Following the 1958 Contest, Domenico Modugno of Italy 🇮🇹 released his Eurovision entry, the third-placed “Nel blu dipinto di blu”, as a single internationally, including in the United States. It debuted at #54 on the very first Billboard Hot 100, and jumped to #2 the following week. In its third week on the chart, it dethroned the very first Hot 100 #1, “Poor Little Fool” by Ricky Nelson, and began its reign of five non-consecutive weeks at #1. To date, it is the only Italian language song to have topped the chart. So many covers have been made of the song over the years, that it is now popularly referred to by the first word of its chorus, “Volare”.
In the years since, many artists have become internationally known since appearing in or even winning Eurovision, including:
Lulu (won for the U.K. in 1969 with “Boom Bang-a-Bang”, also had a number one hit in the States with “To Sir, With Love”)
Olivia Newton-John (represented the U.K. in 1974, finishing fourth; she would go on to have several Top 40 hits and number one singles in the United States, including “Hopelessly Devoted to You”, “I Honestly Love You”, “You’re the One That I Want” from the Grease soundtrack, “Physical”, “Magic” from the Xanadu soundtrack, and “Have You Never Been Mellow”)
ABBA (who had a top 10 hit with their Eurovision winner “Waterloo” and several top 40 hits, capped off with the #1 hit “Dancing Queen”; they are also the only Eurovision act to have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, as part of the Class of 2010, thanks in no small part to the strength of Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus’ songwriting partnership)
Céline Dion (who won the 1988 Contest representing Switzerland, despite being Canadian, with the song “Ne partez pas sans moi” in the closest non-tie finish in Eurovision history by finishing just one point ahead of the U.K.’s entry; she has gone on to have tremendous success in both the English language and Francophone markets, has amassed four #1 singles on the Hot 100 and a bunch of top 40 hits, and also is about to conclude the second of two hugely successful residencies in Las Vegas that have lasted a total of about 14 years)
Not to mention artists that have become known as Eurovision legends for memorable and/or multiple appearances in the Contest:
Dana International (who won for Israel in 1998 with the song “Diva” and became the first transgender performer to win the Contest; Dana identifies as female, transitioned in the early 1990s and received her gender confirmation surgery in 1992)
Verka Serduchka (the drag persona of Ukrainian comedian Andriy Danylko, who gave Ukraine a runner-up finish at Eurovision 2007 with the song “Dancing Lasha Tambai”, with only Serbia finishing ahead of the song)
Johnny Logan (the only person to win Eurovision three times, all representing Ireland: his first victory was as a performer with “What’s Another Year?” in 1980, his second as a performer/songwriter with “Hold Me Now” in 1987, and his third victory came as a songwriter for “Why Me?” in 1992, sung by Linda Martin)
Lena Meyer-Landrut (or simply Lena; she won representing Germany in 2010 with “Satellite”, and then opted to defend her championship in 2011 with the song “Taken By a Stranger”, being the first to do so since Corry Brokken of the Netherlands in 1958…Lena finished 10th in her second shot, much better than Corry’s last place finish in 1958)
Eurovision’s status as a major pop culture event and its evolution from song festival to music’s equivalent of the Super Bowl is an interesting study in how pop culture has evolved in the last six decades.
Stay tuned for a post all about my personal experience in becoming a Eurovision fan and why it’s become such an important part of my own pop culture consciousness; all that and more in Part Two!
I initially started drafting this post solely as a review of The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand, with the full intention of taking my time to read the next physical book in my reading list, Looking for Alaska by John Green before reviewing that book. But then something incredible happened: I ended up finishing Alaska in a matter of days. Crazy how I follow up a book that took me months to read with one that took me just three days of reading to finish (four days total, I took that Sunday off). So this post will instead compare and contrast my reading experiences with both books.
First, a little bit about each book.
It took me four and a half months and several fits and starts, but last month I finally managed to finish The Fountainhead. This was the second time I’ve read or studied an Ayn Rand work, the first being when my freshman English honors class studied Anthem, although frankly I don’t remember much about reading it back then, as was the case with a lot of books I remember studying for high school English. I remember touching upon how my experience with high school English classes affected my love of reading, in that it turned me off from reading books for several years into my twenties, and it wasn’t until my late twenties that I started reading books again on a somewhat regular basis. (If you want to read about it, check out this post from 2017.) If I get the opportunity, though, I am considering revisiting Anthem, which is considerably shorter than The Fountainhead, and even possibly reading Atlas Shrugged, which is much longer. I figure, I might as well complete the Ayn Rand Trifecta.
So, first of all, what is The Fountainhead all about? And why is it called The Fountainhead anyway if there’s no mention whatsoever of anything to do with a fountain? First of all, the book’s title actually refers to the book’s protagonist, Howard Roark, and his role as the “source” (or “fountainhead”) of the ideas that Rand is trying to put forward in her novel. It’s important to note that Ayn Rand thought of herself as a philosopher more than anything else, and her books were her way of perpetuating her ideas, most specifically a philosophy called “Objectivism”, which basically says (among a bunch of other things) that the individual is superior to the collective and that one’s purpose in life is to pursue their own happiness, to which she felt laissez-faire capitalism was the best way to achieve that goal. (It is worth noting that Rand was born and raised in pre-Revolutionary Russia and her middle class family was greatly affected by the Revolution, at times nearly starving, and she was almost forced out of her university studies because of her family’s status as part of the bourgeoisie, so she saw the effects of communist rule firsthand before immigrating to the United States in the 1920s.) While much of Ayn Rand’s thinking and writing is heavily associated with the political (which was always a part of her personality, even going so far as to engage in political debates with her friend Olga Nabokova, sister of writer Vladimir Nabokov, at the age of ten), The Fountainhead is actually one of Rand’s least political works. It sows the seeds of what would become her philosophy of objectivism, but these ideas wouldn’t be fully expanded upon until the publication of her other most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged.
The Fountainhead‘s plot spans nearly two decades, beginning with a 22-year-old Howard Roark being expelled from architectural school the same day his rival, Peter Keating, graduates with top honors…all because Howard dared to buck years, maybe even centuries of architectural tradition that claimed that Classical architecture 🏛 should be front and center of any building designed by any self-respecting architect. I could summarize the entire plot here, but it is so long and complex that it would fill up a ton of space here, and I mainly just want to talk about my experience reading it. This YouTube video actually does a really good job of summarizing the plot and is worth the view if you don’t want to read the book yourself.
Looking for Alaska
Unlike Ayn Rand, I had never read any of John Green’s books before tackling this one. I had known that a couple of his books were made into movies, but most of my knowledge of him came from what I had seen of him in his and his brother Hank’s Crash Course videos on YouTube. I later found out that the Green brothers had grown up in Florida, which was pretty cool. I have seen every single episode of Crash Course Literature released so far, and I must say that there are quite a few books John has covered on there that have made me go, “I so wanna read that now” (like Slaughterhouse-Five and One Hundred Years of Solitude, both of which have been added to my Book Bucket List).
Looking for Alaska tells the story from the point of view of a 16-year-old named Miles Halter (based on John Green himself at that same age) who transfers from a public high school in Florida to a private boarding school in Alabama (again, John Green did something very similar at that age). He meets a motley crew of people there that become his friends (including the title girl, Alaska Young), and they end up in a bunch of misadventures until a tragic accident halfway through the school year changes everything, leaving Miles (also known by his nickname, “Pudge”, given ironically because of his tall, skinny build) to question a lot of things spiritually and philosophically and wondering why what had happened, happened. There are no traditional chapters, but the book is divided into “___ days before” and “__ days after”, beginning 136 days before the accident, and ending 136 days after.
My Reading Experiences
So what can I say about my experience reading The Fountainhead? Well, it wasn’t an easy effort for sure. This novel’s genre is best defined as “philosophical fiction”. Many of the characters speak in very philosophical or intellectual terms and mannerisms (especially Howard Roark, Dominique Francon, and Ellsworth Toohey) and do not engage much in casual conversation. Conversations in this novel have a purpose and Ayn Rand does not waste time in getting her ideas across through her characters. (Think sort of like Ernest Hemingway, but writing a philosophical treatise instead of about masculine adventures.) While this novel is not quite as political in nature as her later work, Atlas Shrugged, there are still seeds of its relevance in political circles, especially in the book’s final part, titled “Howard Roark”. (Each part is titled after the central figure in that part’s plot: “Peter Keating”, “Ellsworth Toohey”, “Gail Wynand”, and “Howard Roark”.) Roark’s speech in his criminal trial after he blows up a housing project he had designed for Keating and whose design had been altered against Roark’s wishes lays the groundwork for the Objectivism philosophy that would be explored more in-depth in Atlas Shrugged (which, again, I have not read, but I am aware of its reputation and have some basic knowledge of the novel and its plot). The reading experience itself was a bit on the difficult side and often came in fits and starts. It was sometimes a test of patience that eventually paid off once I got to the final part of the book, but I did occasionally go weeks without reading it. Starting War and Peace at the start of 2019 was one reason, but at times the narrative seemed to progress so slowly that I had to back off from it for a little while. The third part, “Gail Wynand”, was the shortest part of the book, but it strangely took me the longest to read. And Wynand also seemed to be the most interesting character in the book because he came from such humble roots and probably understood Roark’s struggles the best out of any of them, but he ends up betraying Roark by allowing himself to bow to Roark’s enemies in the media (including Ellsworth Toohey), although Wynand does get some slight revenge on Toohey at the end. Rand’s characters are written very much in black and white terms of who they are and what they stand for. Nobody (save for maybe Wynand before he turns on Roark) has a moral gray area, they’re either treated as good (Roark, Dominique) or evil (Toohey). At times, War and Peace seemed more interesting and The Fountainhead ended up falling to the wayside, but earlier in March I made a determination to myself to finish it, which I eventually did.
In contrast, Looking for Alaska was a much smoother read and the conversations between characters are much more realistic and along the lines of what you’d expect from mischievous, somewhat geeky teenagers. Where Ayn Rand tries to expand upon ideas, John Green makes the reader invest themselves intellectually and emotionally into this coming-of-age story. He writes with an intention for the reader to empathize with and relate to his characters. He doesn’t waste much time on backstory or ideas and instead focuses on moving his story’s plot along. Green’s writing style is very much narrative, while Rand’s writing style attempts to give personification to ideas, almost like a sociopolitical Aesop’s fable, except she’s pointing us toward a philosophical concept rather than a moral.
All in all, you couldn’t come across two more different styles of writing when it comes to comparing John Green and Ayn Rand. Then again, the two writers have two completely different motivations for why and how they write.
Ayn Rand saw her writing as a way of getting her personal ideas across to a more mainstream audience; she was a woman of ideas and saw her fiction writing as a way to personify those ideas and put them into action. Personally, I find her ideas too idealistic to ever work in the real world the way she intended them to (as hard as those politicians she influenced try to put them into action like they have for the last three or four decades). But she was a woman who believed strongly in what she believed in and made it her life’s work to spread her gospel as far and wide as possible (ironically, given the religious language I just used, Ayn Rand was a very staunch atheist and made her characters in The Fountainhead atheists as well; I have a feeling if she knew how much the politicians she inspired had completely kowtowed to the religious lobby in these last few decades, she’d absolutely be spinning in her grave).
John Green, on the other hand, is a storyteller. The overall purpose of his writing in Looking for Alaska is to tell a story, in this case how meeting and tragically losing a person emotionally, philosophically, and spiritually affects the character who narrates it, Miles Halter. He does not seek to put forth an idea or a philosophical stance, but rather explore the personal growth of a character or characters. The Fountainhead is narrative as well, exploring the growth of Howard Roark, but the story is seemingly secondary to Roark actually attaining his goal of attaining complete and total freedom as an architect (although the plot’s points contribute to his character growth). Roark’s attaining his goal is essentially a personification of Rand’s philosophy, her ideas put into action.
It took me about a month of on-and-off writing to come up with this post, as at times I had a difficult time figuring out how to translate my thoughts into something writable. But I think I’ve dived as thoroughly into these books as I can, and I hope you (the reader) at least find all of this interesting.
So, this past Sunday, most of the country…actually, probably most of the world plunged into Game of Thrones mania with the premiere of the show’s eighth and final season.
I was not one of them. In fact, I spent most of the evening watching American Idol for the first time in about three weeks because it was the season’s first week of viewer voting. (Admittedly, the ABC version of the show hasn’t interested me as much as the original Fox version of the show, but that’s also because in the year the show spent away from television, Eurovision song selection season and the ensuing Contest ended up becoming my new music television obsession…and it’s one that has been around over six decades. Oh, the beauty of the Internet and YouTube. With the 2019 Contest coming up next month, perhaps I’ll write about my Eurovision obsession a bit more in detail as the Contest draws closer.) Once Idol wrapped up for the evening, I turned the channel to ESPN and watched the tail end of a game that one of my favorite teams, the Atlanta Braves, ended up winning over the New York Mets. I did not watch Game of Thrones, and I feel no less of a person for choosing not to watch.
In fact, I have something to admit: I have never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones. In fact, I have actually watched more episodes of Breaking Bad than I have of Game of Thrones (all of season 1, and the first four episodes of season 2, in fact, my dad recently discovered this show after his co-workers were raving about it, so I may return to watching Breaking Bad eventually). I have even had old friends beg me to watch it through Facebook…and I briefly considered it, but then I remembered the reasons why I didn’t care to watch it in the first place.
So, here are the various reasons why I have chosen not to watch Game of Thrones.
For most of the show’s run, we did not have HBO. For many years, our house had satellite TV, and the cost of subscribing to premium cable channels like HBO (which broadcasts Game of Thrones) was way too much to justify subscribing to it in the first place. When we switched back to cable last year, the way the subscription packages were set up, HBO was included along with the sports and niche channels we like to watch, so we ended up getting HBO for the first time in about 6 years. I have nothing against HBO itself, in fact, I enjoy watching Real Time with Bill Maher and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. (It should come to no surprise that my politics are a bit left of center, which is one reason I find Maher entertaining, but he is also willing to call out fellow liberals when they screw up, too…not a lot of liberal people do that, and I find it refreshing.) The last time we had HBO, The Newsroom was airing and Veep and Girls had begun their runs, and I watched the first seasons of just about all of them. Then we dropped HBO, so I didn’t get into Game of Thrones in the first place.
Fantasy has never been a favorite genre of mine to begin with. My Harry Potter fandom has been (much like the Mongols) the exception rather than the rule. One of my closest guy friends growing up loved reading fantasy novels that often had wizards and dragons on the covers, not far from the subject matter concerning the Song of Ice and Fire series (which is the book series Game of Thrones is adapted from, being named after the first book, A Game of Thrones). I haven’t seen him since our graduation day 14 years ago, but I imagine he would absolutely love the show because it would have been right up his alley in terms of what fiction he liked. Unfortunately, I was never really into that type of literature. The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings bored me. Discovering Harry Potter at the age I did (about 11 or 12 years old) was unusual, but I think I got into it because Harry was about the same age I was when I first started reading the first book in the series. Age wise, he and his friends were characters I could relate to, not otherworldly characters like hobbits and dwarves and elves 🧝♀️. Since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I have gotten exactly two fantasy novels: A Game of Thrones (whose issues I have with I will get to shortly) and Children of Blood and Bone (a more recent novel written by Nigerian-American author Tomi Adeyeme that is set in West Africa, where her family is from, and combines elements of the fantasy genre with her family’s Yoruba culture; I plan on reading this one a little later in the year). Those of you reading probably have seen by now that I tend to go more for dystopian fiction, classics, and books that challenge me mentally. I don’t particularly stick to one genre when I read. In fact, in recent years I’ve adapted a mantra from food and travel expert Andrew Zimmern that sums up my reading philosophy perfectly: If it looks good, read it! (Andrew’s version goes, “If it looks good, eat it!”) I go by what interests me.
Frankly, the content of A Game of Thrones disturbed me…really disturbed me. I did try to read the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones, about three or four years ago. The format of the book confused me a bit, as there weren’t traditional chapters telling a linear story, but rather sections focusing on a different character, with multiple storylines that were hard to follow and difficult for a casual reader (who doesn’t read fantasy on a regular basis) to get into. What ended up absolutely disturbing me, though, was the amount of sexual content involving young teenagers, especially Daenarys/Dany, who is thirteen years old at the start of A Game of Thrones (I had no clue if her age was retconned to an older age for the TV series, but I imagined it was, as standards & practices at HBO would’ve likely had a problem with it had Dany remained 13 for the TV series; a quick googling confirmed this). For one, Dany is basically forced into being a child bride, getting married off to Khal Drogo toprovide an army for Dany’s brother. Although married, the sex acts that Dany performs with her husband would frankly result in arrests, prison time, and having to register as a sex offender in our realworld. It basically amounts to child rape, which is incredibly disgusting and incredibly illegal. Apparently in the series, she was aged up to 17 (which is still weird, but closer to a legal age of consent), but the fact that George R. R. Martin came up with these scenes involving a thirteen-year-old in these books, no matter how close to medieval culture or custom they might be, makes me seriously wonder what he was thinking when he wrote those scenes all those years ago. He could have easily aged up some of these characters in his books, but he didn’t. And that disturbs me. And it’s something I cannot clear from my mind. Needless to say, I never finished the book.
So, needless to say, I have no plans to watch the final season of Game of Thrones. And I have friends who absolutely love the series. Honestly, I don’t feel like I’ve missed out on anything by choosing not to watch it. I’ve always felt a little weird about expressing my opinions on a water cooler show like this, but sometimes you end up being that person who could care less about the water cooler show of the moment. I guess now is my time to be that person.
This greeting comes from Switzerland, where a lady in one of my Ravelry groups currently lives, and this is apparently how you say Happy Birthday in colloquial Swiss German. It amuses me just as much as “Hippie bird day, two ewes” does.
So, last Sunday was my birthday and I have now turned 32. Do I feel any different from 31? Not really. It just means I’m the same age Sally Albright (played by Meg Ryan) is when she has her meltdown over her ex Joe getting engaged and ends up seeking comfort in the arms of her longtime friend Harry Burns (played by Billy Crystal) in When Harry Met Sally…, one of my favorite romantic comedies of all time. What the heck, I’ll include the scene.
So, I didn’t get any presents or anything. That’s okay, I wasn’t expecting anything anyway. I did get lots of birthday wishes from all over the Internet, though, from the ladies I’ve gotten to know through Ravelry (who come from places like Canada and Maine and Sweden and even the aforementioned Switzerland) to those on Instagram, to my old longtime friends that I keep in touch with via Facebook, to those who enjoy seeing my posts on Tumblr. But the very first person to wish me a happy birthday was the most important one, my dad. A couple of years ago, he forgot to wish me a happy birthday on the day until I reminded him that evening (in all fairness, though, he does tend to feel tired after his work week, and it was a Friday, the second of his three usual days off). When he realized what happened, he ended up feeling upset about it (even though I wasn’t particularly offended by it), and since then he always makes sure to wish me a happy birthday.
I did treat myself, though. When I went grocery shopping the week before, I decided to get a small pack of Stella Artois Cidre (because it’s a Belgian company, they use the French spelling of cider instead of the English one). I wanted to get Angry Orchard (which is American hard cider), but they only had it in rosé, not original. It wasn’t bad at all, it was like tart apple juice with a beer aftertaste.
I apologize for not posting much this month, but it’s not for a lack of effort. I’ve been drafting at least a couple of different posts in addition to this one, but they just haven’t gotten to the point where they feel finished enough for me to publish. Life’s been very uneventful since The Bambina was born this month. We haven’t met her yet, but my brother has been sending my dad pictures of her, and no surprise, my brother has another Mini-Me. Actually, The Bambina looks even more like my brother did as a newborn than her sister R did! I’ve also started back up on her baby blanket, with about 43 squares left to go.
I hope to be a bit more active in April than I was this month.
I’m gonna keep it short and sweet, but my new baby niece was born at 6:11 pm Eastern time this evening (Friday, March 1st), and she weighed 8 pounds, 3 ounces at her birth. She only stayed in a couple of days past her due date (which was February 27th), but the doctors decided to induce labor on my sister-in-law earlier this afternoon. All told, this was a much shorter labor than my sister-in-law had with her first baby, R (which was an overnight labor resulting in a 10:00 am birth), but as far as I know (at least from my brother’s text updates he’s been sending to my dad) mother and baby are doing well.
She does have a name, but I’ve decided not to share it publicly in order to protect her family’s privacy. However, it does start with an R (just like her big sister), so I’ve opted to continue referring to my younger niece as “The Bambina” (which comes from the Italian word for child, bambino, but since this is a girl I’m referring to, she gets the feminine form of it…after all, she is 1/8 Sicilian, since my brother and I have 1/4 Sicilian ancestry through our maternal grandmother), while my older niece will simply be “R”. Bambina does have a different middle initial from her big sister, R.M. (while her big sister is R.A.).
Finally, I’m not the only living person in my family with a March birthday anymore! (Well, my late maternal uncle had a March birthday, but he died back in 2014. His was six days after mine.) My birthday and The Bambina’s are 23 days apart (so, just a little over three weeks). And both of us were born after induced labors, too! (My birth was an induced labor because I ended up staying in two weeks past my due date, which was supposed to be March 10th. They ended up inducing labor on my mother at around 7:00 am on March 24th, and I was born about seven and a half hours later. The only complication I had related to my birth was mild jaundice, which I think they ended up treating with light therapy, and it went away relatively quickly.)
I’m so glad my Bambina is finally here!
EDIT: I wanted to feature a song here for this special occasion. I heard this song playing during the season 4 finale of Fuller House when Kimmy Gibbler was giving birth to the baby she was carrying for Stephanie Tanner and Jimmy Gibbler (Kimmy’s brother) as a surrogate (since Stephanie wasn’t able to have children naturally on her own), and it’s kinda stuck with me. So, in honor of The Bambina’s arrival, here is “The Circle Game” by Joni Mitchell.
All reviews are my honest opinion on books I've read by request or inclination. Whether purchased by me or provided by author or a rep, all opinions are my own and I receive no compensation of any kind. My reviews may be revealing, but they will not spoil your enjoyment of the book.
Going on thirty, going back to college, working two jobs, why not start a blog too? Library Science student blogging about my college life and journey to become a librarian. I’ll also be sharing my reviews on books I’m reading in my personal life as well as for school. Happy Reading!