November 25, 2019

Following One’s Path in “Frozen 2” (and some “His Dark Materials” at the end!)

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 8:57 pm by chavalah

fourth and final post of #NaNoBlogMo 2019!

Elsa et al on a brand new adventure!

On opening weekend, I decided to treat myself to Frozen 2, without my six year old niece in tow. 😛 I may have been the only adult in the audience without a kid attached (though this also meant that most of those folks were my age. :P)

I wasn’t sure what to make of a new Frozen. In pop culture land, it’s basically been ingrained in us that sequel=bad. The original Frozen did so many things right that it was difficult to see how an additional story could contribute to that.

But now, hours after leaving the theater, I’m struck by the fact that, although there’s some retcon worldbuilding in here, it fits the story, characters and themes very well. In fact I’d venture to say that Frozen 2 provides a stronger ending for Elsa than does Frozen 1.

Frozen 2 opens sometime in the near future, I’d think, after Frozen 1 ended. Things are mostly going well…except that Elsa hears a mysterious voice, which is tied to information that is revealed in the prologue. Oh, and also Kristoff is trying to gather up the nerve to propose to Anna.

The prologue takes place when Elsa and Anna are still very young, before the accident that separates them for awhile. Here, they are still playing gleefully together; Elsa is freezing their toys for an “enchanted forest” game, where the future queen imagines adventure and her younger sister imagines romantic happily ever afters. Enter their parents, who tell them of a real enchanted forest King Agnarr visited when he was just a prince. The people of Arendale made a peace treaty with the Northuldra people, who lived in said forest, with its magical powers. But during what was supposed to be a celebratory event, fighting broke out and the elements that controlled the forest disappeared and blanketed the area in an impenetrable fog. A mysterious stranger saved Prince Agnarr, but the king was killed. Queen Iduna ends the segment with a lullaby from her youth, which is of course foreshadowing to the plot.

Elsa battles her feelings about following the voice in “Into the Unknown”: “Are you here to distract me / So I make a big mistake? / Or are you someone out there / Who’s a little bit like me? / Who knows deep down / I’m not where I’m meant to be?” Ultimately, she unlocks the elements…which leads to an immediate problem as Arendele falls victim to earthquakes and everyone has to evacuate. Grand Pabbie and the trolls arrive for their cameo, and they encourage Elsa and company to go “into the unknown,” aka the now penetrable Enchanted Forest.

Suffice to say, with the help of the elements the Elsa crew uncovers the true reason for the unrest between Arendale and Northuldra, and the reasons why the elements disappeared. But like with the first film, the main conflict isn’t external; it’s driven by character misunderstandings. In the B plot, Kristoff keeps screwing up his proposal, though to be fair Anna should learn to stop taking statements so literally. 😛 And Elsa and Anna continue to clash when the queen wants to protect her sister by going it alone, and the princess wants to protect the queen by coming with her.

The film takes a big stand on sisters working together / spoiler alert. Speaking of spoilers, I also love Anna’s big hero song “The Next Best Thing,” about picking yourself up while experiencing grief.

Meanwhile, Olaf sings a cutesey, up tempo song, “When I Am Older,” which speaks to the youth (and maybe even those of us who aren’t quite so young anymore) about feeling out of place in a changing world.

Kristoff sings an electric ballad (with reindeer as his back up boys) called ”Lost in the Woods”, that I had some up and down feelings about. Basically, he starts it by questioning his relationship to Anna, when Anna is always busy chasing after Elsa. (Or more accurately, perhaps, leaving him behind in order to do so.) He ends with “But I’ll wait / for a sign/ that I’m your path / Cause you are mine…” To me, this almost sounded like giving Anna a pass for treating him poorly and/or not accepting the signs that she wasn’t as into this relationship as he was.

But Sven (who talked on his own for once!) framed it more as Kristoff needing to express his true feelings with this song, rather than hiding behind kookiness, and then his relationship with Anna could move forward. And granted, Anna apologized for her behavior later and…well, the spoiler for their ultimate relationship status isn’t shocking. 😛 (I’d forgotten they weren’t already married at the end of Frozen 1! Or maybe Once Upon a Time threw me, hee.)

And the way the story ended left all three of them in a stronger place, I think, than where they started. I’m trying to skirt around spoilers, but according to Grand Pabbie in both movies, Elsa’s magic has always been a little…much for her circumstances. In this movie, once Elsa embraces the unknown and sets past wrongs to rights, she finds a better place for herself, one that mitigates her past fear that she’s “not where I’m supposed to be.” Anna and Kristoff have to change accordingly as well.

Yes, it’s a children’s movie, but it’s firmly within the new camp of Disney. One with a broader scope on culture and history, one where relationships have to be formed in time (Frozen might be the first Disney movie to mock “instalove,” in fact…or maybe that was Enchanted, heh,) and one where relationships, rather than evil stepmothers and the like, take center stage. I didn’t even think Hans was that important to the central story of Frozen 1, and this movie’s villain is even less so. The drama in new Disney movies can come from within.

A Jewish Inspired Challenge to His Dark Materials

Spoilers for the entire book series!

It’s probably time to admit that I’m harboring a little bit of an obsession with His Dark Materials. 😛 Or at least this very specific part of His Dark Materials.

It’s too early to be thinking about all of this, and I’m reminded that I haven’t read the books in a long while. I wonder if some “purists” would inform me of how much I’m missing their true point here.

But the more I think about it, the more I believe that not only is Lord Asriel NOT the hero of the story, he’s the antihero. I mean, Mrs. Coulter is awful, too, we all know that, but he REALLY pushes my buttons. 😛

I dunno, maybe I’ve just wanted to stick it to James McAvoy ever since he played Leto II in Children of Dune, a similarly self-righteous character with a divine agenda. Maybe I’ve been listening to ”The Life of Roger Parslow” too often, and am reminded that, come sometime between December 22nd and December 23rd, His Dark Materials should show a scene of Lord Asriel inadvertently killing this young boy. Or maybe I want to stick it to Philip Pullman, and specifically his cornerstone of these books that organized religion is generally a mind-numbing tool to control the masses.

Because I think that Judaism would demand something more from Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter than the books do. If I remember correctly, in The Amber Spyglass, the final book of the trilogy, Asriel and Coulter sacrifice themselves in order to save their daughter, Lyra’s life. There are plot reasons for them to do this, of course, because Lyra is integral in ushering humanity into a new age. They are both also really shitty parents, and this, perhaps, is the most selfless thing they have ever done for their daughter.

In a Christian context, maybe this action is enough to redeem them, I don’t know. I do know that in Judaism, in order for Lord Asriel and Mrs Coulter to merit forgiveness, they must take on an additional step—the step of atonement.

And not just towards god, or towards the service of unseating corrupt, supernatural figures, as the case might be in this series. No, in Judaism, they would have to seek Lyra out directly, and apologize for their wrongdoing in order to find forgiveness. (A real apology, too, something where they fully acknowledge their past misdeeds.)

I know I’m focusing a lot on Lord Asriel when really, Mrs Coulrer has as much or more to atone for. Mrs Coulter doesn’t fully acknowledge her wrongdoing, both broadly and towards Lyra. But at the very least, she’s conflicted about her choices. Lord Asriel, on the other hand, is single-minded and largely unreflective about the actions he takes and how they affect those around him.

I get that this is a fairytale, and the fact that he is fighting for “the right cause” carries some extra weight. And yet, in his personal life, he’s a lot like the Magisterium. He created a false narrative for Lyra about her family history. And, out of all-encompassing self-interest, he never truly gives her what she needs. And this is all from BEFORE he murders her best friend in front of her.

So I’m sticking with my theory that Lord Asriel is, in fact, the antihero of His Dark Materials. And I can’t help but want to see some more nuanced character development for him in the adaptation, something where, if like Mrs. Coulter, he doesn’t feel existential angst about his decisions, he goes to Lyra before the end of his life, he gets down on his knees and he says he’s sorry for all of the pain he has caused her out of his own self-interest.

Until then, I will side with one particularly unhinged lady from the adaptation, who declares that Lord Asriel is A FAILURE OF A MAN, AND A FAILURE OF A FATHER. 😛

November 18, 2019

HBO’s Autumn 2019 Lineup Brings the New (Mostly) Meat!

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 8:32 am by chavalah

third post of #NaNoBlogMo 2019!

My preliminary inspiration for this post was to review the Catherine the Great miniseries, which ended last Monday. Now, I’m not so sure that it can carry a full entry. Besides, there’s plenty more tv that I want to comment on! Still a bit of an HBO junkie over here. 😛

Helen Mirren owning the room 😛

Catherine the Great

This four part miniseries co-produced with Sky Atlantic aired between October 21 and November 11 in the U.S. It covered about 30 years of history, and I think it bit off more than it could chew. Ever since Game of Thrones finished up, I’ve been thinking too much about the differences between “sociological” stories vs “psychological” stories. This miniseries was definitely psychological in nature. The main source of tension has to do with the romance between Catherine (Helen Mirren) and Grigory Potemkin (Jason Clarke.) These actors had great chemistry and could certainly command a screen together. But objectively, how much do I really care?

Catherine the Great ruled one of the most powerful empires of the 18th century world. She was responsible for a lot of Russian expansion, and enacted policies including the creation of the Pale of Settlement, where the majority of European Jews, including, most likely, my own ancestors, lived oppressed for generations. Granted, she was also seen as “liberal” for wanting to bring some protections to the Russian serfs. The general message of the miniseries seemed to be that Catherine tried to bring positive reform to her country, but was mostly stifled by misogynistic men, and erased from history by her vengeful son and heir, Emperor Paul I.

This is not to say that I think the narrative was lying to us; more like it was intensely focusing on a specific aspect of Catherine’s rule, given the time restrictions. They also did make ample room for Catherine’s controlling and distrustful nature in letting people close, lest she’d be forced to give up any of her power. It was just a strangely surreal experience, because beyond changing some of Helen Mirren’s hair and makeup, it hardly seemed like any time passed between episodes. Joseph Quinn, who played “Tsarevitch Paul,” aka the future emperor, looked like the same impetuous 20-something throughout, and Paul was supposed to be in his forties when he took the throne. The son who overthrew him five years later should have been nearing twenty, yet the actor, Felix Jamieson, appeared to be half that age.

Maybe my own bias is showing, because if I wanted a “psychological” examination of Catherine’s life, I’d prefer to explore the relationship with Paul rather than one of her lovers. I suppose it’s the tragedian in me who wonders about what would lead a son to brusquely step over his mother’s body, single-mindedly interested in her will while she lies dying on the floor. And a couple of the episodes did show scenes between Mirren and Quinn, where the Empress attempted to both reach out to and keep her offspring at a distance.

But what I really wanted was a “sociological” miniseries. Something that would pay the most attention to Catherine’s actions on the world stage. And not just grant a couple of quick, atmospheric scenes to wars with the Ottomans, negotiations with the Tatars and the building up of Sevastopol. Notably, all of these actions were directly undertaken by Potemkin, and not Catherine who spent the entire time in one of her palaces. So maybe it would have been a little antithetical to give that stuff more screen time.

And granted, if you want to see a dramatic, almost domestic love story played out by two incredible actors, then this is the place to be. I assume this is where the awards will land.


I wasn’t really planning on watching this series. And it’s a strange time to be commenting on it anyway, seeing as we still have another month to go of season one episodes. But it fits the theme of this post, so. 😛

Putting myself at odds with a lot of geek culture, I’m not much of a comics fan. I don’t like superheroes and supervillains, I don’t like human beings being delineated into “good” vs “evil.” Maybe I’m being too broad when I dismiss superhero movies for their popcorn violence, but to my mind, something like Game of Thrones FEELS more violent because it shows more of the physical and mental consequences, both in the short and the long term. It’s a much more integral part of the story, and to the development of complex characters and societies.

I don’t think there’s any argument that Watchmen pays heed to some social complexity. A series that it set in an alternate reality, it nevertheless starts with a real event–the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, which in Jewish history might be called a pogrom. It deals with issues such as the setup of repercussions for racial violence and the racist backlash that would follow, justice or lack thereof in police officers with hidden identities and masked vigilantes, and yes, there’s a godlike superhero on Mars, and his associate who stopped Armageddon, plus some raining squid. 😛 I haven’t read the Alan Moore comics, but what strikes me most about this adaptation is its decidedly American setting.

The specific plot, still taking place in Oklahoma but now moved up to the modern day, is that a police chief is killed. He may have been a secret KKK member, though on the surface it looks like white supremacists did the deed. The police have been on the offensive against the Seventh Kavalry, which has appropriated Rorshach’s (comic book character) writings to incite violence against minorities. It’s kind of an unnerving shift, given relations between minorities and police in the real U.S. Police continue to use violence in this world, but this time against the white supremacists and their families in “Nixonville.”

Our main character is Angela Abar (Regina King), a police officer whose recently-revealed grandfather (Louis Gossett, Jr.) is in the middle of challenging all of her personal and public perceptions on life. Elsewhere we have Lady Trieu (Hong Chau,) an enigmatic Vietnamese billionaire who so far feels like an odd racial stereotype for this show, Laurie Blake (Jean Smart,) formerly Silk Spectre of the comic book who is delighting me with her disdain for “superheroes,” and Adrian Veidt (Jeremy Irons), another comic book character who in canon committed mass genocide to prevent a larger nuclear catastrophe (said Armageddon). Now he’s busy torturing robot clones in a tableau that I think a more genuine critique of inhumanity than is Westworld (another unpopular opinion—I really hate that show! :P)

I’m not sure that Watchmen is entirely to my tastes either, given my hesitations with the comics-inspired projection of violence and morality. I also have feels about the alternative Spielberg film reference last night. But there is no doubt that the production values here are off the charts, and the story is downright compelling. Is it the next Game of Thrones? Who cares? It’s daring, thoughtful and relevant. I guess I’m hooked now!

Lord Asriel (James McAvoy), Lyra Belaqua (Dafne Keen) and Mrs Coulter (Ruth Wilson)

His Dark Materials

Speaking of “the next Game of Thrones, people of course look to HBO’s next fantasy franchise. But to answer the question—of course His Dark Materials is NOT the next GoT!

His Dark Materials is, in essence, a fairytale. It’s based in part on Paradise Lost, after all! And to completely contradict myself above, I love stories that deal in fairytales and mythology, even when they sometimes simplify people and events to archetypes. To be fair, they’re less violent than superhero movies, or if they are violent they might freak one out more because the violence is usually directed towards children.

I don’t really know how to get out all my thoughts on this one without spoiling the book series, or what I remember of it, more accurately. His Dark Materials is about Lyra Belaqua, an Eve-like figure whom author Philip Pullman sets out to see through to adulthood. But where Eve is judged harshly for eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Pullman celebrates this rite of passage.

Had to quirk my eyebrow a little bit at the San Diego Comic Con panel coverage, where the show’s executive producer, Jane Tranter, claimed that Pullman wasn’t writing against religion. That will be a more difficult line to defend when she’s adapting book three, I’d think, where there are corrupt angels obviously based off of Abrahamic mythology. The God question is a little more murky, but “the Authority” of the books does take on familiar aliases. Is it possible to claim that Pullman differentiates between people with beliefs and…what they believe in? Considering how nebulous belief is, and what a wide variety of exegesis sources that we religious folks have to delve into, then maybe.

As a quasi-religious person, or at the very least someone who identifies strongly with Jewish culture and history, maybe I shouldn’t be watching this. In fact I’m nervous to admit to admit my viewing habits to one or two Catholic friends. (Pullman names the oppressive, authoritarian regime of Lyra’s world after the Magisterium.) Though to be fair, guys, I remain unconvinced that anything in this adaptation can be as salacious towards Catholicism as The New Pope. 😛 I don’t think I understand Italian surrealism, heh.

Anywho! I guess the truth is, and maybe it’s because it’s been awhile since I read the series and I’ve only seen the book one film adaptation, that the religious criticism doesn’t interest me as much. What has always grabbed me—big spoiler alert here—is Lyra’s relationship with her parents.

I think it’s something, frankly, that interests me more than it did Pullman. I waded through three books, largely hoping for a scene where Lyra would have to reunite with her father especially, whom I don’t think she saw in person after he murdered her friend, Roger. I’m not sure if Lord Asriel gets let off the hook by the story because he’s anti-Authority, but like all Great Men, his greatness comes at a huge cost to others.

Then there’s Lyra’s mother, whom at this point in the tv show isn’t officially known, but methinks Mrs. Coulter broadcasts the relationship loud and clear. Mrs. Coulter is an overtly bad person who sacrifices the lives of many children to achieve her own desires. She also might be the most compelling character on the show, as played by Ruth Wilson with obvious parallels to Lena Headey’s Cersei Lannister. There’s an element of masochism in her delivery, which we can see clearly by the way she treats her daemon…peoples’ souls in Lyra’s world are personified externally by animals.

James McAvoy also holds his own as the driven Lord Asriel who appeared briefly in his “niece’s” adoring orbit, and is now back in the north trying to open up new worlds and lessen the power of the Magisterium. I’m liking Dafne Keen as Lyra as well, though her character has been altered somewhat. In the books she’s more impulsive and her daemon, Pan, advises restraint. So far on the show it seems to be the other way around. A small quibble, perhaps, seeing that Pan IS Lyra.

I may have to return to this blog later to review the whole season when it wraps up in late December. We haven’t even gotten to see Lin-Manuel Miranda as Texan aeronaut Lee Scorsby yet! 😛 And I’m sure there’s lots to say on the bigger themes, too. I’m already ruminating over the daemons of the Magisterium men.

But once again, I’ll probably get wrapped up in Lyra’s parents. In the world of fairytales, parents are usually the evil, omnipotent enemy, aren’t they? Certainly more transfixing for me than Pullman’s idea of “God.” Kinda hoping these three actors get more face time in the adaptation than they did past book one.


The only second season in this post! Succession, the satirical comedy-drama about a dystopian media conglomerate family. It’s somewhat cathartic because of reasons. 😛

This season starts with former golden boy, Kendall (Jeremy Strong) in a low place. For people who dislike the character, you get to see a lot of him being a stepped-upon yes-man to his dad, Logan, (Brian Cox,) who may be the only reason Kendall isn’t awaiting a manslaughter trial. If anything, Kendall appears to be the most sympathetic member of his family, because sometimes he experiences actual guilt.

Elsewhere, this is predominately the season of Siobhan (Sarah Snook.) Her father successfully lures her away from politics by promising her the company, then proceeds to play a lot of cat and mouse with her because, much like Catherine the Great, he’s not really keen to give up power. Shiv is an interesting mix of progressive sensibilities juxtaposed against a lack of emotional maturity. Like most members of her family, she snarks her way through everything and seems surprised when those around her—even her husband, Tom (Matthew Macfayden)—might prefer something more raw and genuine. Though, to be fair, Tom himself is a power-hungry bully. Seriously, this is the best show for schadenfreude. 😛

I think the biggest misstep might’ve been with Holly Hunter’s character, Rhea. Formerly employed by a rival family, she’s drawn to be Logan’s CEO because of his drive, then she leaves the company due to its scandals? What she tells Logan, basically, is that she isn’t sure he believes in anything. But that seemed patently obvious to me from the beginning!

I do think this show has more of a heart that I’ve let on, though. Maybe it’s the haunting score, or the fact that you can’t spend this much time with characters without seeing some of their humanity, no matter how they might try to hide it. Either way, it’s still great fun. And I probably shouldn’t admit to my attraction towards Shiv in her pantsuits, but there we go. Rawr.

The Righteous Gemstones

This was my first time watching a Danny McBride show, and I didn’t know what I was getting into! Frankly, I was expecting something a little more raunchy and silly. And although these aspects are present in his comedy about a televangelist family and their proverbial empire, there’s also a lot of heart.

Season one starts in a dark place—Jesse Gemstone (McBride) is being blackmailed by his own son regarding a sex tape. Jesse’s character can more or less be summed up as a self-absorbed megalomaniac. But with time, he actually grows as a character and atones for his mistakes.

It’s very similar, in a way, to Succession, because it’s about a dysfunctional, American family with way too much power. It’s fun to watch them squirm, and heartening to see them grow.

There’s a lot of other interesting characters beyond Jesse, perhaps especially his sister, Judy, who is played hilariously by Edi Patterson. So too is their uncle, “Baby Billy” Freeman (Walton Goggins) who seems the least capable of change and ergo a repeat antagonist.

The matriarch, deceased Aimee-Leigh (Jennifer Nettles) is a bit of a fridged trope. She’s the ghost in the room when it comes to probing her family to be more human. And the weakest part of the series was probably the lackluster subplot about the Gemstones forcing Rev. Seasons (Dermot Mulroney) out of business. But the relationships that matter most are the ones at home—even if said home is an ostentatious compound. 😛 I think the show is best when it focuses on the family. Looking forward to season two!

November 9, 2019

GoodReads Choice Awards 2019: Predictions and Standouts

Posted in Pop Culture at 8:51 am by chavalah

Shooting lines this year! 😛

Second post of #NaNoBlogMo 2019!

As always, the publication of the opening round of the 2019 GoodReads Choice Awards makes me want to quit my job and stay home all day reading the buzzy books I’ve been hearing about all year. I got to a few of these, though, with good-to-mixed feelings. More on the specifics below!

The first round closes TOMORROW, so make sure to get your votes in! This is the time when you can write in your own options per each category, so take advantage. Here’s the list of what I voted for this year.

The semifinal round, buffed up with top write in contestants, runs from November 12-17, and the final round runs between November 19 and December 2. Winners will be announced on December 10.

So take a deep dive with me, into analyzing several of this years’ categories and their preliminary contenders.

Predicted Winner: I usually guess based on how many ratings each book has, and oh boy Normal People by Sally Rooney blows everything else out of the water! Even The Testaments by Margaret Atwood! I dunno, maybe being a nominee for multiple literary awards last year means more than being the co-winner of the Booker Award this year? For my part, I read The Testaments but don’t think it’s good enough to earn my vote.
Personal Interest: This is the big category for me! I wanna read Fleischman Is In Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner for my “Jewish Fiction Published in 2019” list (and because it’s generating a lot of buzz generally.) And—I swear this is true–A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum and Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane are the top two books that caught my interest from this year’s Book of the Month lists. And finally, why haven’t I read Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout yet? :/ I loved it’s predecessor, Olive Kitteridge. Alas.

Mystery & Thriller
Predicted Winner: I guess I’m going with The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides because it has the most ratings by far. But part of me wants to stick with My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite because it’s the one I’ve heard the most about in my own literary circles. Made it to the longlists for the Booker, the Women’s Prize, and most importantly, the BookTube Prize! 😀
Personal Interest: Honestly, this category isn’t usually my wheelhouse…but I did just so happen to read a book on here. :0 It’s Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok! I liked the book well enough…but is it good enough, in my mind, to cast my vote? I can’t help but notice that another book I’ve been wanting to read, Miracle Creek by Angie Kim, is also on this list. I remember hearing her talk about it at the Gaithersburg Book Festival. So I went ahead and put in a hold at my library! I figure I can read it in early December, and then decide which of these two should have my hand! Hopefully they’re both still in the running at that time. 😛

Historical Fiction
Predicted Winner: I have to go with Daisy Jones and the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid. It has the most ratings by far, and I also remember when it absolutely swept BookTube off its proverbial feet.
Personal Interest: I’ll go for a twofer. The first, The Dutch House by Anne Patchett, speaks to my love of quiet family drama. Plus I’ve been looking for an excuse to read an Anne Patchett book. 😛 The second, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, is about a far-reaching institution that adversely affected my nation on the public scale.

Predicted Winner: If I were to go off of my feelings supplied by BookTube, I’d go with The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern. So many people in my literary circles are excited about the idea of a Night Circus sequel (I wasn’t as much of a fan myself.) But it has so few ratings! Am I to assume that a horde of literary fiction fans will swarm the fantasy section and vote for this (as is what happened last year with Circe by Madeleine Miller?) Maybe, but it seems much more likely that Nora Roberts’ romance fans will swoop in to deign Of Blood and Bone the winner. It already has one of the highest rankings!
Personal Interest: My personal pick for winner made the official opening round–The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon. I’m hoping it sticks the landing. 😀

Science Fiction
Predicted Winner:, Pierce Brown seems to own this category, going off of past winners, and his book, Dark Age, the fifth book in the Red Rising saga, is in the running this year.
Personal Interest: I’ll probably end up voting for A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine in the next round. I also enjoyed To Be Taught, If Fortunate by Becky Chambers, which I just finished. But—two things when it comes to me and speculative fiction. I like novels better than novellas here, where there is more time to expand the world. Also, I’m far more intrigued by the soft sciences (like probing culture in a future world) than the hard sciences (like probing how to get humans to survive in deep space.) I think I’m more of a “social science” fiction fan, really, than a hard science fiction fan.

Predicated Winner: I’m going to go ahead and say Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan For Embracing and Achieving Your Goals by Rachel Hollis. Has a lot of ratings already, and there’s something that’s too enticing about self-help and motivational books. They’re not in my area of interest when it comes to nonfiction, but I think it might be the most popular subgenre.
Personal Interest: I already talked about Maybe You Should Talk to Someone: A Therapist, Her Therapist, and Our Lives Revealed by Lori Gottlieb, in this recent video. Yay for the de-stigmatization of therapy!!! Other than that, the ones that stick out to me are Three Women by Lisa Taddeo, about the sex lives of three representative American women, and She Said: Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story That Helped Ignite A Movement by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, about what it took to get #metoo with regards to Harvey Weinstein off the ground.

Memoir & Autobiography
Predicted Winner: Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive by Stephanie Land, because it has the most ratings. Certainly a socially significant topic, too, about a profession that is generally viewed as a poverty trap.
Personal Interest: I didn’t vote for it when I had the option to write something else in, but I’m pretty sure in the next round I will stick with Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love by Dani Shapiro. I still think she dropped the ball in some areas, but there’s no denying that this is an ambitious and thought-provoking memoir on many fronts. Otherwise, I’m interested in Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden, which is about issues of intersectionality and touches upon her Jewish ancestry, among other things. Plus it made the shortlist for the 2019 Reading Women Awards in nonfiction!

Debut Novel
Predicted Winner: Once again, The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides has more ratings than any other book, by a lot. Seems like ample evidence that the mystery and thriller genre reigns supreme in popularity.
Personal Interest: Plenty of other books I’ve already talked about are here, including A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum, Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner and Miracle Creek by Angie Kim. Kind of surprised that A Memory Called Empire didn’t make the cut—it did so for best science fiction, after all—but I guess GoodReads could only cram so many debuts into the category!

Young Adult Fantasy
Predicted Winner: There’s no new Sarah J Maas novel on the docket this year. But another popular YA author waits in the wings…I’m predicting this year’s prize will go to Queen of Air and Darkness by Cassandra Clare.
Personal Interest: …but maybe my personal fave, The Wicked King by Holly Black, will take the gold? It has the most ratings, after all. But if I were to go browsing for another YA fantasy series to try…Sorcery of Thons by Margaret Rogerson sounds intriguing. I like the focus on libraries.

Picture Books
Predicted Winner: Going by the ratings, The Good Egg by Jory John and illustrated by Pete Oswald is slated to win. It’s also the one that intrigues me the most, since it’s the sequel to The Bad Seed. That one was one of my niece’s favorites back in the day!
Personal Interest: Here are some other ones that stick out to me: Vacation for Dexter! by Lindsay Ward because it’s about dinosaurs and my niece loves dinosaurs, It’s Not Hansel and Gretel by Josh Funk and illustrations by Edwardian Taylor because my niece loves fairytales but this one attempts to flip the script, and Pirates Don’t Go to Kindergarten! by Lisa Robinson and illustrated by Eda Kaban because my niece is in kindergarten. I’m guessing you can sense the theme here. 😛

November 3, 2019

Hunger Games Prequel: My Biggest Book Release of 2020

Posted in Pop Culture at 6:22 pm by chavalah

Cover reveal!

First post of #NaNoBlogMo 2019!

There’s little more, in terms of bookish news, that’s in my “wheelhouse” than the continuation of The Hunger Games series. There’s little more that can get me nervous, too. The more a series goes on, the greater the likelihood that it will crash and burn. Add on a global helping of hype, and it’s like the series is balancing on a tightrope over a sea of glass.

But I’m pretty optimistic about this prequel, which is officially titled The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and is coming out in May. And yes, I know I just went through a relative disappointment with [my review] The Testaments by Margaret Atwood (which nonetheless went on to co-win the Booker Prize.)

In my recent review of The Handmaid’s Tale season 3, I wrote about my disappointment in the easy heroics and shoddy worldbuilding. I was hoping Atwood would take us away from June’s story and give us a broader perspective on Gilead. Instead—spoiler alert!—it focused on June’s two daughters from the show, as well as Aunt Lydia. The characters were believable enough, though I don’t think the testimonial style aided authentic character growth within the story.

More disturbingly, though we were now hob-knobbing with significant revolutionaries and government figures, I still couldn’t believe in the world. A handful of aunts seemed to be directly responsible for the “wellbeing” of most women, from Daughters to Wives to Handmaids, in their district. And the interplay between Aunt Lydia and Commander Judd didn’t convince me that Gilead had an infrastructure that extended beyond Boston.

So maybe I should be worried about Songbirds (seems like an appropriate nickname, and it certainly aligns with the originals since I’m pretty sure the songbirds are mockingjays anyway.) Like with The Handmaid’s Tale, this is a story about a dystopian future and taking down a totalitarian government after all. But there are also already some things in place that makes it a stronger story.

First of all, The Hunger Games already has more robust worldbuilding. The entire premise from book one is that “tributes” across all districts of Panem come together to participate in the main event of the story. Like with Offred in her neighborhood in The Handmaid’s Tale, we know how Katniss spends her days in District 12. But we also know how the Capitol gathers all of its resources from across Panem, and more significantly, how it controls its population through the propaganda generated by each Hunger Games and all of its celebrity-style aftermath.

It’s also worth noting that Songbirds is a prequel, not a sequel, so Suzanne Collins will not be adding to more stories she already wrapped up. The premise takes place 65 years before the third Quarter Quell, so there’s no Katniss, no Peeta, and not even a Haymitch or a Mags (the oldest Victor in the original series, who “won” the 11th Hunger Games.) According to the Scholastic press release, this is the “reconstruction” period, ten years after the war that put the Capitol forces in power, referred to as “the Dark Days.” Collins says “With this book, I wanted to explore the state of nature, who we are, and what we perceive is required for our survival.” I am Here. For. This.

Yes, it makes me pause that apparently Songbirds starts in exactly the same place as The Hunger Games does—on the morning of the reaping. I don’t know if we will be following tributes into the arena; either way their experiences will be significantly different than Katniss and Peeta’s first Games, I’d think. At least in terms of the aftermath. I can’t help but hope we get to follow characters with different types of societal roles.

The title speaks to a sense of significant historical events. “Ballad” first referred to ancient storytelling, where bards would relay information through narrative poems, often dramatic in nature (think Homer). Already lyrical, as history progressed the idea of ballads evolved into songs.

We know from the original series that the Capitol used mechanically engineered jabberjays to spy on the rebellion, which then fed the birds false information. Released into the wild, the jabberjays mated with mockingbirds to create “mockingjays,” which can mimic human melodies if not full conversations. Hence why I conflated “mockingjays” and “songbirds” earlier. As for “snakes,” well I have nothing concrete, but it sounds slimy, doesn’t it? Snakes often represent something underhanded in literature—think of the snake’s role in the Garden of Eden. President Snow’s bids for power were certainly underhanded, to say the least, but he should be too young in the prequel to be a serious threat. I wouldn’t rule out similar behavior in his predecessor though.

And of course Lionsgate is all up in this, ready to generate another hit by returning to The Hunger Games franchise. Again, there’s no reason for me to be too cynical. I like—to put it mildly—what they did with those four films. More than aping the books, they were also able to add some perspective. Since the visual medium wasn’t portrayed from inside Katniss’s head, we were able to jump to folks like Snow, Coin and Plutarch separately, and gain a more comprehensive understanding of their political machinations.

But Lionsgate, on its own, is a company. I’m still not thrilled with the idea of their “Hunger Games theme park” (though I suppose I partook in similar HG-themed attractions at San Diego Comic Con. :/) I’d feel much better if Nina Jacobson took the reins again, since it was her devotion to the original trilogy that started the adaptation train, and faithfully transcribed the books’ messages about disenfranchisement, propaganda and war. Then again, it seems like Francis Lawrence, who directed three of the four HG films, is in talks to reprise that role, so things are looking up!

But back to the book. 😛 See, I’m too emotionally invested to just be happy about it…or to stay away from a long, rambling blog post. I don’t know if this “standalone” novel will remain a standalone or become part of a larger series. Collins isn’t exactly following the author marketing rulebook about continuing her brand. Excepting a picture book in 2013, she hasn’t published anything since the Hunger Games trilogy. Whatever her plans from yesteryear, the massive success of her YA series certainly altered her trajectory.

I’d like to think she’s a more thoughtful writer than many others in the YA speculative genre. She isn’t just here to entertain; she’s here to talk to kids about war. The Hunger Games, as YA fiction, is her most complex offering. And it still befuddles many critics, who speak disparagingly of the love story or Katniss’s “superhero” arc without understanding that there are two narratives in play—the propaganda that the Capitol and Rebellion are broadcasting vs the evolving, muddled reality between the characters.

What narrative tricks will Collins bring to bear in Songbirds, I wonder? I can’t hardly wait to find out! When I wrote about The Hunger Games last nanoblogmo, I figured I may have to accept that there wouldn’t be another opportunity to do so for awhile. So at the very least, I’m glad for new geeky, fandom content. 😀 I’m back in business, baby! Fire is catching.

October 24, 2019

My picks for the 2019 GoodReads Choice Awards!

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 9:17 pm by chavalah

Behold, the TOME that is my fantasy pick!

The 2019 GoodReads Choice Awards should go live around a week from now, methinks! This peoples’ choice-style awards honors several book genres on the Internet’s most popular literary social media platform.

Yes, it’s a popularity contest. 😛 And no, I (and I assume most people) haven’t read anywhere near a majority of books published in 2019. But this is still a good chance to shout out what we love!

The first round should allow for write-in contenders in each category. Here’s what I’ll be nominating when the polls open! Note: all links except for the picture book lead to my reviews.

And fyi, I will be back in this space for #NaNoBlogMo in early November, starting things off with my thoughts on the 15 contestants chosen by the GoodReads staff. Stay tuned!

The Falconer by Dana Czapnik
More acerbic than my usual taste, but this Gen X coming-of-age story impressed me with memorable characters, genuine interactions and a compelling setting.

Historical Fiction
Tidelands by Philippa Gregory
English civil war might be challenging some class and religious norms, but it’s the same old BS for women at the bottom of the totem pole. I loved this deep dive into the life of rural 16th century midwife Alinor Reeky, and am looking forward to following her family in the next installment!

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon
Gender-bent St. George and the Dragon in a fully realized epic fantasy world. Diverse in geography, race and ideology, rich in mythology, this story features lots of characters (especially women!) facing an earth-shattering threat from different angles. I know “stand-alone” is the big thing in SFF these days, but I could “stand” for some more! 😛

Science Fiction
Atlas Alone by Emma Newman
Back on track after a slightly less impressive third book; this installment follows Dee and deals heavily in questions of emotional health and revenge. And yes, there are generation ships and crazy future tech. 😛 The future of humanity might be bleak, but what it is to be human in these troubling times is deeply explored in all of its complexity. Now, all that’s left is to loop back to that planet humans are heading for, RIGHT? Still hoping for news of a book five!

Debut Author
A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine
I call this more of an “issues” novel than a “character” novel, though I think the more accepted terms are “sociological” vs “psychological.” Set in space but based off of the Byzantine Empire, we follow Mahit, the ambassador from some nowhere space station, to Teixcalaan, “the heart of civilization.” I think why this one works for me better than other “issues” novels is that it’s about competing cultures.

YA Fantasy
The Wicked King by Holly Black
Alas, I don’t think I’ll get to the finale of the series this year, though it’s due to be published next month! Book two of The Folk of the Air series does not suffer from lagging middle syndrome. Twists, turns and drama a-plenty as mortal Jude does what she can to gain power within a faerie realm that sees her as a weakling. Great characters, worth the investment!

Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah Lipstadt
A breath of fresh air for anyone who has fallen down the rancid rabbit hole that is modern day social media. I suppose that’s a strange way to look at a book on antisemitism. But through the conceit of writing letters to a colleague and a student, historian Deborah Lipstadt clears away all of the excuses, defenses and paranoia that mask today’s permutations of one of the world’s longest standing systematic prejudices.

The Art of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari
This might be my most reaching nomination. I was certainly drawn to this book in part due to the author’s award-winning debut short story collection. In this essayistic memoir, we see some of the inspiration for said stories. Tsabari covers the loss of her father, her wanderlust and fear of commitment, and what it means to be a Mizrahi Jew in Israel and the rest of the world. She’s poignant and thoughtful on both the micro and macro levels. I hope she continues to write!

Picture Book
The Evil Princess vs The Brave Knight by Jennifer L. Holm and Matthew Holm
I got this book signed for my niece at the National Book Festival! 😀 It concerns a brother and a sister who can’t get along, juxtaposed to a fantastical play setting that should be familiar to most kids. Also written by a sister and brother duo for an extra sense of authenticity! 😛

September 30, 2019

Embarking on a New Journey in 5780

Posted in Judaism at 7:58 am by chavalah

It’s Rosh Hashanah in the new year of 5780, and this is usually the time when I post my “news of the Jews” segment. The world continues to spit out a lot of the content that catches my attention, from not one but two dicey Israeli elections, Women’s March shenanigans, and increased hate crimes against Jews in diaspora including the largest antisemitic attack on American soil. Hard to believe all that was all such recent past. JTA has an end-of-year breakdown on these topics and more.

I’ve also dissected such issues recently on this blog, particularly in my February post on the BDS movement. So maybe I feel less need to take a deep dive into the muck again. I’m letting Deborah Lipstadt take over part of that for me, as she calmly and rationally dissects all of this bubbling tsuris in my current read, Antisemitism: Here and Now.

Instead I’m more focused on my ongoing “personal” goals, which in large part have to do with dissociating from the extremist opinions and general toxicity prevalent on social media (spoiler alert: as of 5779, I failed. :/) My plan has been to try and gravitate towards in-person communal Jewish expression, both religious and cultural, through my synagogue. But in reality, most of my yiddish (and non-Ashkenazi) keit continues to come from the books I read/ JewishDC experiences I chronicle (yay) and the Internet I peruse (not so yay. Though I still love you, Zioness and The Promised Podcast.)

I’m hoping that will change in 5780. And this year I’m doing more than “hope”–I signed up for something significant through my synagogue. If all goes according to plan, I will be going to the Jewish state as part Adas in Israel next June.

I first heard about this opportunity at the synagogue’s Passover seder (which, sidenote: this is the most difficult major holiday in which to be a Jewish loner.) So the announcement of an unprecedented adult (and family) ten-day trip felt like inspiration. This could be the chance to get back to Israel, the land with which I commune indirectly through books and Internet crazies, and the chance to grow closer to my synagogue community.

I’m currently in the process of seeing if I qualify for any financial aid–or I will be, after the High Holidays. Unlike Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are great holidays for loner Jews, since they require a great deal of self-reflection (as well as one-to-one outreach about past mistakes.) I hope those of you celebrating have a meaningful experience. L’shana tovah tikvatevu, and may we all be inscribed in the Book of Life.

August 31, 2019

Handmaid’s Tale Season 3: I Don’t Know How To Quit You!

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:24 pm by chavalah

Has June (Elizabeth Moss) been tasked by a divine power to bring down Gilead, thus why she has so much plot armor? 😛

SPOILERS for all aired episodes of the The Handmaid’s Tale

The Handmaid’s Tale season 3 is a story of diminishing returns. Everything in this article rings true to me. (Except the custody subplot…I like how Gilead handled that from a showcasing propaganda standpoint.) But my fears from last year bore fruit. And yet…I’m still kind of in love with this show! 😛 And also this song by Mazzy Star, which I’ve been listening to for years. ❤

Though I had a weird relationship to the Hulu original this year. I binge watched episodes in a handful of installments. I didn't keep up with any of the recaps or discussions as the episodes aired. I also didn't pay much attention to any behind the scenes commentary, besides the showrunner revealing that June will never die. Which, sigh, I’d find much less problematic if she stopped doing life-defying things! 😛

I feel like I should put a caveat in here, because of course folks are comparing June’s “revolution” to that of Katniss in The Hunger Games series. Sigh. I wish people would probe those books/films a little deeper. Then they might realize that “The Mockingjay” was foisted on Katniss by a government attempting to use her for propaganda. This wasn’t, in fact, a rambo story of Katniss defying all odds. She was largely manipulated by both the Capitol and the Resistance up until the very end.

But here’s the ways I’ve made my peace with some aspects of June’s character arc. Maybe I’m reaching, and I’m certainly relying on simplistic historical parallels. But here I go.

June’s “save the stolen children of Gilead” endgame was a Joan of Arc moment. What I mean is that Joan of Arc claimed to have received visions, and meanwhile, as the doctor said, June’s mind had atrophied after months of almost total seclusion at Natalie’s bedside. Those two conditions seem similar to me. No fully rational person would become so gung ho about such a crazy, audacious plan.

But there is something rather Harriet Tubman about the whole thing, right? The visuals were especially strong when June was leading children through the woods and hiding from Gilead’s minions. So I dunno. Maybe some heroics are justified by history.

And it’s worth noting that June didn’t act completely alone. She had a network of Marthas behind her and, perhaps most importantly, a “sympathetic” Commander. I like the way the show probed Lawrence’s disillusion with the monster he helped to create. The problem is that they used him as a short cut for worldbuilding–he was a (rather controversial) Strong Man who could just get things done.

Maybe it’s my interest in villains that keeps me invested here. 😛 I loved Aunt Lydia’s backstory. I felt like I could understand where she was coming from–and how she equated that young mother with handmaids–without condoning her actions. And I’m still probably a number one Waterfords fan. If I were to rewatch season 3 (another pet peeve–I dislike the sound quality on my computer, waaah,) I think I’d focus more on Fred and Serena’s romance.

But man is it good to see them brought low. Especially Fred, of course, and the fact that Serena had a hand in it made it all the more delicious. 😛 So much for their romance! As usual when threatened, Fred turns into a coward and a bully. I’m glad Canada and what’s left of the U.S. decided to take action against Serena, too–she shouldn’t be completely off the hook for her complicity–but the way Fred went about setting her up, goading his captors and still sneering Mrs. Waterford as if he owned her–ugh, I love to hate him. At least when Serena betrayed Fred, it was because she loved Nichole! In general I think I’m more sympathetic to Serena’s maternal instincts than are most viewers. But she did have a relationship with the baby last season.

The Fred scene that sticks out to me the most–or maybe the scene that sticks out to me the most all season, granted it came in the last episode–is his confrontation with Luke. It’s basically his Game of Thrones Ramsay moment, from when Ramsay tells Sansa “I’m part of you now.” It’s less powerful, because Fred says it to Luke, not June. But the message is the same, and maybe it gives me a little bit of hope that The Handmaid’s Tale hasn’t lost all sense of nuance. Gilead isn’t something that can be overcome by a badass hero’s journey. In fact, perhaps all of June’s violence this season can be seen as a character loss, not a character gain. At least that’s how I see it.

But otherwise, the show could feel warped and melodramatic for all of this focus on making June worth following for another season. There was so much possibility in Canada, like Emily attempting to acclimate to life as a refugee, and Moira and Luke being parents to June’s daughter. We saw promising leads, but they didn’t go very far.

And Natalie’s portrayal certainly didn’t do the show any favors regarding their depiction of women of color. Natalie’s whole arc, from “drinking the Gilead koolaid” to cracking under the pressure of being ostracized, was so obviously put in place for June’s benefit. Though speaking of objectification, the whole hospital scenario–where she was being kept alive solely for the sake of her unborn child–was chilling in a contemporary way. I’m reminded of how some “pro-life” rhetoric sees women as little more than incubators.

But bring on season four! What new trials will June face? Will she finally–or ever–make it to Canada? My Nuremberg fantasy–where the Waterfords are put on trial for crimes against humanity–seems closer than ever, even if Gilead is still standing. Maybe it’ll be enough for me if Rita gets to tell her former bosses what she really thinks to their self-righteous faces. 😛

All this being said, what I’m really looking forward to is the Booker-nominated sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale the novel–The Testaments, out in just a few weeks! I’m hoping that Margaret Atwood does not continue with Offred’s story. Not so much because I think of the show’s June as canon, but because Atwood has a real chance to expand this world. Hopefully we can get back to probing the cost of totalitarianism, rather than getting wrapped up in one badass character.

July 31, 2019

HBO’s Summer 2019 Lineup: Lots of Dire Straits

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:00 pm by chavalah

Main cast for the UK dystopian series “Years and Years”

Got to thinking as I turned on HBO in this post-Game of Thrones reality, where do we go from here? Well, why not the end of the world? 😛

My favorite summer viewing experience, purely because I’m a masochist, has to be Years and Years. A British near-future dystopia, it focuses on where the events of 2019 might lead us for the next 15 years. It aired in the UK earlier than it did here–before they got their own real life controversial, right-wing Prime Minister.

On the show we are following populist Vivian Rook, played chillingly by Emma Thompson. In 2019 she’s just another nutjob spouting off nonsense on tv; ten years later she’s on Downing Street. But the narrative isn’t really about her; she’s just the monster in the closet. The main characters are the Lyons family, though they seem to be more of a cross-section of British society than they are blood relations. They come from varying races, sexual orientations, able-bodiness and financial situations. They had a little bit of familial backstory to give them some dimension, but for the most part they’re here to react to external forces.

The real crux of the plot comes in 2024. Donald Trump, in the last day of his second term, lobs a nuclear weapon at a Chinese military island. The world doesn’t blow up, but a chain of events is set in motion. One character is exposed to radiation from the explosion. Others lose jobs and financial security after much of the world levies sanctions against the US and banks collapse. The most nuanced and heart-rending story has to do with xenophobia and immigration restrictions. Ultimately, these unwanted residents are put into secret concentration camps.

The show puts concentration camps into their earliest historical context. Although the United States, arguably, is the worst villain of Years and Years, Vivian Rook points out that the British operated the first concentration camps in early 20th century South Africa. In reviving them on home shores, she hopes to secretly kill undocumented immigrants through overcrowding and disease.

The final episode or two of this six-part series strives a little too far into simplistic heroics, imho. And the Lyons family is directly involved in all of it, despite a halfhearted attempt to claim that a broader array of uprisings took place.

Most dystopia is about confronting the present rather than predicting the future–see concentration camps. But some of the commentary is a bit too on the nose. Eg, one of Vivian Rook’s press conferences sounds cribbed, word for word, from a Donald Trump template, from allegations of sexual assault to hidden income taxes.

The Lyons family comments on and interacts to the plot throughout the years, perhaps sounding more like a collection of think pieces than a real family at dinner. But they had some touching moments as well, from the hate-to-love relationship between daughter-in-law Celeste and the family matriarch Muriel to the epic romance between Daniel and Viktor. There were some funny moments in the worldbuilding as well, including two half-brothers named Steven/Stephen and the Leaning Tower of Pisa finally falling down. 😛

Some parting thoughts: perhaps what I appreciate the most about Years and Years is its honest portrayal of revenge. Revenge is not some noble quest. Instead its a poison that destroys lives.

And the final storyline has to deal with advancing technology, and particularly, transhumanism. It was a little too sweeping and general for my tastes, and ultimately used to advance plot. It never really tackled the question–can a human life exist online? This whole thing makes me miss Caprica and their ponderings.

“Chernobyl” HBO poster

I remain an HBO junkie, so here are brief thoughts on other recent broadcasts.

Chernobyl Speaking of nuclear destruction, we can also travel to the past for that! This five-part miniseries documented the Soviet disaster of 1986. As the story went on, it started to feel both heroic and the inverse of heroism. It was heroic because individuals put their lives on the line to contain catastrophic damage. But it wasn’t necessarily a story about the world coming together. The Soviet Union cared more about guarding its secrets than saving lives. And although the explosion was an accident, I can’t help but think that a nuclear facility has one over-arching purpose–to destroy one’s enemies. Still, a moving drama.

Euphoria To return to Years and Years for a moment, creator and baby boomer Russell T. Davies had his millenials comment often about how they missed those days in their twenties when world news didn’t terrify them. I don’t know about boomers (or perhaps UK millenials) but I’ve been terrified by world news since at least 9/11. I think that sentiment speaks more to the showrunner. With Euphoria, which is vaguely based off of an Israeli show, millennial showrunner Sam Levinson reimagines his own drug problems in Generation Z. In fact, all of the kids in his drama are royally screwed up, despite evidence that things aren’t really that bad. Maybe instead of Gen Xers growing terrified for their kids in the here and now, baby boomers should feel retroactively nervous for what millenials got up to 20 years ago. 😛 Overall, I find this show to be more dramatic than substantial. But I see myself in the obsessively euphoric relationship between Rue and Jules.

Big Little Lies Season 2 mostly focused on fallout, from Bonnie’s post-trauma to Madeline’s post-infidelity. Jane learned how to open up to a romantic partner. Renata hilariously lost her shit half the time. I grew to hate Meryl Streep’s reactionary character. I was still intrigued by Celeste’s complicated relationship to her spousal abuse. But (and this is true of Euphoria as well) I grew sick and tired of flashbacks and inner narratives taking over the action.

Gentleman Jack Though I was swooning at the “marriage” at the end of season one, I appreciate that this portrayal of (real Victorian) Anne Lister is–complex. She’s an advocate for the rights of wealthy women but is less accepting of the rights of the poorer classes. (I’m fond of her clashes with her sister on the subject.) When it comes to courting ladies, she falls into many of the behaviors common to the gender she dresses as; she oggles strangers in public and manipulates possible lovers to get her way. Her “wife” (another historical person), Ann Walker, is also needy and manipulative. So why root for these two? Well, I think they make each other better people. And besides, I could do with a little romance on tv. Looking forward to seeing them again in season 2!

June 30, 2019

Game of Sansa: An In Depth Look at Sansa Stark in GOT and ASOIAF

Posted in Pop Culture at 8:43 pm by chavalah

Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark at the end of the tv series

“Be gentle on a night like this and you’ll have treasons popping up all about you like mushrooms after a hard rain. The only way to keep your people loyal is to make certain they fear you more than they do the enemy.”

“I will remember, Your Grace,” Sansa said, though she had always heard that love was a surer route to the people’s loyalty than fear. If I am ever a queen, I’ll make them love me.

A Clash of Kings, George R. R. Martin

In my last post, I tried to maintain a sense of objectivity, and not get caught up in singular character arcs on Game of Thrones. But enough of that nonsense. 😛

I was going to write this anyway, since Sansa is THE ONLY QUEEN I’D BEND MY KNEE TO. 😛 But perhaps it’s even appropriate in the world of cultural commentary to focus on Sansa who, after all, is the only female ruler of season 8 who didn’t devolve into tyranny. I’m sure she won’t be a perfect queen. She’s a touch too cynical for the North, and being granted power in her own right is different than fighting for survival against the whims of Ramsay Bolton or King’s Landing ciphers. But on the other hand, as I’ve been fond of saying, Sansa is the only character thus far who cares about the damn grain. Throughout seasons 7 and 8, she was constantly planning for the long-term survival of her people. And she did so through forging alliances, not waging war. (A slight oversimplification, to be sure, but one of my favorite lines from season 7 was “I’m sure that cutting off heads is very satisfying, but that’s not the way to get people to work together.”)

Show Sansa is the epitome of the story for me, if not quite that way in the books. Namely, Show Sansa is one of the people who fights for the people. She supports war when threatened, but not out of megalomania or revenge. She mostly works for a better future–for herself and for the North.

Book Sansa hasn’t been given nearly this much agency so far. And as much as I like that her kindness is more fleshed out, and her feminine traits are more represented on the page, there is no doubt that things go better for Sansa on the show. Even down to her siblings’ warging abilities being downplayed. Is it possible that Sansa’s broken link with her direwolf, Lady, means she can never truly be of the North–or a Stark–again? That’s certainly not the way it went down on HBO. Show Sansa got to go home. She even got to have a respected voice in public discourse. Whatever her flaws when she was young, she overcame them.

Being a Sansa fan means I almost had an inverted experience with Game of Thrones. Most people seem to love the early seasons and not think too highly of the latter ones. Granted, the first seasons had strengths regarding pacing and nuanced character interactions that the last ones often lacked. But in terms of Sansa, she was allowed to grow past her book limitations once there were no more books to adapt, whereas in the first few seasons her role was truncated. Her canon fear at the altercation between Arya and Joffrey in book 1 came off as bitchiness in season 1. She had no long, drawn out escape plan with Ser Dontos, or scenes of kindness with the commonfolk. Her naivete was vastly overplayed in season 3.
And she barely even got to sing her hymn at the Battle of Blackwater! This is my favorite fan version, far exceeding what they put in the show.

On the opposite side of the coin, her marriage to Tyrion was much more amiable on the show, and it led to an interesting alliance in the last season. In season 4 she took her own action with The Lysa Situation rather than deferring to Littlefinger’s lead like she did in A Storm of Swords. Ultimately, years later, she bested the sleaze at his own game. I have trouble believing she could do that in canon, though some book fans seem to expect it. Maybe when she’s older? She is still only 13 on paper, after all.

Substituting Sansa for Jeyne Poole as Ramsay’s wife meant Sansa got more screen time–but also more trauma than she’s seen thus far in the books. For my part, though I wish the rape wasn’t played up at the end of the episode like shock value, I don’t think it was wrong to point out that Westerosi norms give space for this type of abuse. I also don’t think it was a betrayal of Sansa’s character for her to find trouble even after she’d grown so much because of The Lysa Situation. Real life isn’t like a series of building blocks with one achievement stacked on top of another. People stumble and still make mistakes sometimes. Somewhat relatedly, although I personally find repugnant Sansa’s assertion to the Hound in season 8 that men like Ramsay helped strengthen her, I can’t deny that some abuse victims see things that way. Especially, I’d think, in culture like Westeros where there are so few protections for the downtrodden.

But man oh man. Her ensuing relationship with Theon, where the two of them saved each other? Her fealty to Brienne and her reunion with Jon, which was undoubtedly the most emotional scene on the show for me? This Gandalf the White moment (ok, maybe I’m overdoing it) when she provides the Nights of the Vale for the Battle of the Bastards? I mean, part of me rebels against the fact that she has to be that much of a badass to merit attention, but such is Game of Thrones. The larger conflict has always involved war, so acts of heroism on the battlefield come with their own clout. (On the opposite side of the coin, Sansa gave into vengeance when she murdered Ramsay with his dogs. But if ever there was an understandable act of cruelty, then it’s that one.)

Notwithstanding the “gotcha” moments of the Winterfell season 7 plot, I love how Sansa finally freed herself from Littlefinger. And finally (tada-ching!) season 8. Sansa’s coldness towards Daenerys could be seen as overly aggressive–except that it was mirrored in the rest of the Northmen and bore fruit when Dany turned out to not have their best interests at heart. Was it perhaps a bit foreshadowing that Sansa saw the Dragon Queen’s flaws? Perhaps–and I’m on record in the last post that I wish Dany’s progression had been more nuanced this year. But I also think that Sansa adopted the North’s wariness for outsiders. Along with a healthy dose of skepticism about people who desire the Iron Throne.

So who is Sansa Stark throughout the series? She begins as a young, naive, bratty girl who wants to leave her past behind (and alas, has little of her canonical kindness or romanticism.) She suffers horrible losses and endures brutal but thorough lessons on how to survive tyrants. When she leaves King’s Landing, she uses those skills to make herself an active player in the game, and perseveres even as she suffers more hardships. She reunites with her family, having realized the pettiness of wanting to separate from her roots, but Adult Sansa also learns to use her own voice. And when given power she does what few of her contemporaries do–puts the survival of her people first.

Sansa is not your stereotypical badass fantasy hero. Her strengths, both learned and cultivated, are quieter–cunning and empathy. She’s largely underappreciated and also largely needed to make a better world. But most importantly, perhaps shockingly, she’s the most like us. Most of us aren’t going to battle every adversity with a sword and assassinate all of our enemies. Most of us won’t be the most powerful person in the room, and we’ll have to work hard for what we do get. But hopefully we know what it is to survive–even when we’re fumbling on our way.

May 27, 2019

A Focus on Legacy and Culture Following the Final Season of “Game of Thrones”

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:27 pm by chavalah

WARNING: Spoilers for Season 8 of “Game of Thrones”

Who will sit on that stupid throne? 😛

When showrunners David Benoiff and D.B. Weiss (often short-handed to “David and Dan”) took on the reigns of Game of Thrones they didn’t want the show to end the way of Lost or The Sopranos, with fans debating the finale for years to come. They took steps towards close-looped directness about the important narrative arcs. But they forgot to shield themselves from one thing….becoming the biggest zeitgeist of worldwide pop culture.

That’s what I think about in regards to most season 8 criticism, how impossible it would be for any ending to live up to cultural demand. Everyone has dreamed up their own endgames for their favorite characters, or epic battle scenes that even this budget can’t touch. Even more poignantly, the show isn’t really about the show anymore. It’s about all the chatter around the show–dozens of celebrity news articles that crop up even about a misplaced coffee cup on set. And David and Dan have no control over that–I mean, sure, someone effed up with the coffee cup. 😛 But they can’t control that most of the Game of Thrones phenomenon centers around people ruminating over Game of Thrones, not what actually happens on screen.

The published speculation and water cooler recaps that brought many people into the fold who might have otherwise ignored GoT gave the audience a sense of participation. It’s the era we live in, where all news is disseminated on social media, and ergo social. Why else do we have a well-stocked online petition demanding a redo of this huge production that was season 8? David and Dan could account for narrative mistakes, but not the onslaught of manning the most infamous television show during an age of hyper-connectivity over the internet.

This isn’t to say that David and Dan’s season was perfect. I’m just trying to keep this in mind as I assess the story based on the narrative and the hype around the show. It’s as crazy to say that the season was “all bad” as it is it was “all good.” Ultimately, I believe the weaknesses of the narrative had to do with making these last two seasons too short.

The two major plotlines of season 8 consisted of wrapping up the threat the Night King; and finding out who, of any of the remaining contestants, would ultimately sit on the Iron Throne. I came to respect that the show dispatched the Night King first. No matter Martin’s message about the undead in the books, this was always a weaker part on screen. Better to get back to the interpersonal conflict. But I also think it should have been Jon who killed the big baddie. Arya may not have been a “Mary Sue,” but I don’t like doing things out of shock value, which is more or less how Benoiff described the decision in a behind the scenes clip. Yes, they’d built up to this for a few years, but what about Jon’s resurrection? Surely, in an episode as apocalyptic as this one, we needed a messiah. The other characters who died were clearly adhering to well-worn redemption arcs. The slow-mo music and acting at the end–a significant departure from David and Dan’s usual way of depicting action–seemed to imply that this battle was more metaphorical than physical. It asked the question of the main characters: who are you in the face of death?

But at the end of the day, this is a small quibble. It’s not like I can’t believe that Jon was detained and Arya has the skills to do the deed. A bigger problem is Daenerys’s story arc. And this is where my “needed longer seasons” criticism comes in.

My metaphor for the Dany story arc was that I could see it on the horizon, but I needed more time to get there. Obviously, the seeds were laid in early. From the end of season one, Dany spoke in terms of conquest and vengeance. In that vein, it was a good thing that she had her “white savior surf” moment at the end of season three, because it played into real-world issues about champions and cultures they set forth to “liberate.” The problem is that Westeros–for Dany and within the story–is much different than Essos. I’m in agreement with Abigail Nussbaum’s twitter analysis. The show should have focused more on Dany’s political failures–the dissociation of having to see Westerosis as allies rather than followers. When they put their minds to it, GoT does politics well. We just needed more of an arc.

This probably means that David and Dan would have had to tone down on some of the special effects, and filter that money towards more interpersonal scenes. Notwithstanding that the two dragons flying by the moon is probably the best approximation of epic fantasy I’ve ever seen on television, I wish the show hadn’t been so much about such thrills. For several years they were promising us bigger, more epic battles; this strategy ignores some of the real magic of the narrative. Namely the gradual character development.

But the most important thing to me is the themes, and here is where Game of Thrones nailed it. The battle against the undead, as well as the battle against the dangerous living, both end on a note of triumph for humanity. Yes, the endings aren’t “happily ever after,” (and yes, I wish Bran had played a more active role in the season before being named King. Though I’m a big fan of that reminder that a knowledge of history and memory is important for any kingdom.) But the people who survived actually care about making the world a better place. Even if they poo-pooed democracy. 😛

I think this show has gotten an unfair rap for nihilism. And in that wake, some fans embrace that nihilism. The countdown to and duration of season 8 was littered with scoreboard tallies predicting “shocker” twists, as well as rankings of likely character deaths. It was like watching the citizens of the Capitol place bets on the kids in The Hunger Games. Granted, Game of Thrones is fiction (as is The Hunger Games, though not to the people inside the story. Propaganda makes it seem to the citizens of the Capitol that these kids, and their real humanity, doesn’t matter.) But like those Capitol folks, who send survival gifts to their favorites, are we not trying to impact the story from the sidelines? Don’t some of us ignore characters and plots entirely, and only demand more and more gore leading to a single victor?

Game of Thrones is far more nuanced than that. It’s often dark, but only because it accurately depicts the price of war. Characters we love make horrible decisions–or vice versa–because people are complicated. And there’s no real winning in terms of being a conqueror. The closest we can come to victory is compromise.

I’m indebted to this show for bringing the complex world and personalities of this book series to life. It wasn’t perfect, but one can’t watch the behind-the-scenes documentary and not see all the heart. That certainly makes it worth it to me.

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