January 19, 2017
I have some memories in the last year of sitting on the DC metro and skimming through my Twiter feed, seeing fascinating Jewish-Italian interest headlines crop up and thinking I should store them away for this feature. Except that I never did, instead preferring to do all of my compiling in the future. Thanks a lot, past self. 😛
But I feel pretty confident, after perusing JTA and Tablet Magazine, that I have the important stuff. Turns out that 2016 was an important year in Venetian Jewish history–it marked the 500th anniversary of the first Jewish ghetto! See a link to a feature about that down below, as well as some commemorative activities, including a staging of “The Merchant of Venice” with a cameo by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a judge!
Other fascinating historical and cultural pieces cropped up, too, to complement the usual and less savory amount of anti-Semitism, anti-Israel sentiment, Italian earthquake aftermath, and a continuing obsession with Hitler. Surely Mein Kampf entering the public domain didn’t help much with that one. 😛 But we also have stories about Italian museums showcasing the history of long-gone Jewish communities. A 13th century Torah scroll was repaired and returned to a synagogue in the northern town of Biella; it’s now thought to be the oldest scroll still in use. Speaking of the Torah, Tablet ran a fascinating article about a uniquely Italian focus on Jewish women in ritual life.
I included other personal essays from people with Jewish and Italian heritage, as well as information on famous novelist Elena Ferrante’s possible links to that community. Please feel free to add any other stories in the comments. So, without furtho ado!
January 3, 2017
First, thank you so much for my 1,470 views and 1,169 visitors in 2016. I know that I run a tiny operation here, but I appreciate you taking the time to stop by.
As you can see from the graphic, I’ve had visitors from around the world (including, unlisted, some countries in Africa and South America where just one person has dropped in, but I appreciate his/her contribution to my diversity! :P)
My most popular post, by far, continues to be my 2011 Rumplestiltskin and antisemitism entry. I’ve had mixed feelings about it ever since. First of all, I wrote it in response to the first episode of Once Upon a Time, a show that I still watch, and that obviously means something very different to me now than it did then.
My second reservation is about the click baity nature of it. I went for the dramatic title, and thus it paid off in views. It has also paid off, of course, in the occasional antisemitic comment.
I take pride in tackling issues on this blog with nuance and empathy, I hope. I’m not interested in extremism or taking sides or comment brawls. There’s been times in the past where I’ve definitely chosen a mundane subject line so as to deter this sort of drama. Of course, the flip side is that my numbers remain relatively small.
Unsurprisingly, my most popular entry from 2016 was A Reversal of Fortune: Sansa, Arya and Cersei in Game of Thrones Season Six. It pays to be writing about a popular tv show. 😛 But in fact, Game of Thrones is also my favorite thing on the air right now, and the chance to suss out my analysis once or twice after each season is very cathartic.
So I suppose one of my new year’s resolutions might be to take a little more of a risk. I don’t intend to be incendiary with my content, but perhaps a snappy title here or there might incur new visitors. I put a lot of work into this writing project, so maybe I should try to expand my reach a bit. Thank you, special thank yous, to people who leave likes and comments on my posts; that means a lot to me.
Happy 2017, everyone. I hope that you are renewing yourself in all of your creative endeavors.
December 11, 2016
I was expecting to have more shows and films to talk about in this winter 2016 pop culture wrap up, but I ended up covering a lot of that through my #NaNoBlogMo project last month. I also find that I have a lot to say about these two shows, particularly about the theme stated above, so let’s get started.
Once Upon a Time, season 6AI’ll be the first to admit that OUAT is not a prestige television show, and it has its share of narrative problems. The plot often twists on itself, creating maguffins and backstory contradictions in order to amp up the drama. But we all have our forms of escapism, and the strong ladies of this show do it for me. I don’t mean “strong” by way of kicking ass—though they often do—but “strong” in the way that they are front and center on the show, within complicated narratives that are about them as people, not some dude. This season, Emma is struggling with her moral compass and letting her loved ones in, as she senses a dark future ahead of her. Regina is fighting her darker half, which is now literally separated from her, and has trouble forgiving her sister her indiscretions. Snow White’s attempts to build a peaceful identity for herself are hindered by a new curse that she shares with Prince Charming.
And then there’s Belle, who is finally learning to stand up for herself. Obviously women aren’t the only ones with big roles on this show, and her husband, Mr. Gold, is our main antagonist. He’s kind of like a mob boss, keeping a brutal grip on his own power in town, while his wife has largely been clueless. But this year the blinders are off and she’s been awake for most of this half season, yay, and doing what she can to protect herself and her unborn child. She even succeeds at this when Gold literally has her locked up, through magic or other means. Plus, she’s a librarian who often relies on what she learns in books. Booyah. 😀
Ultimately this is a family friendly story, and Mr. Gold has enough dimension for maybe redemption to be possible. I’m a little wary about where they are leaving us before the hiatus, where out of nowhere, his mother pops up as an uber bad gal. Seems like a convenient way to distract Gold from atoning for his own sins. But I’m in this for the long haul, and expect to have some fun!
WestworldWestworld is also a story that puts women front and center in the form of the innocent rancher’s daughter, Dolores, and the cynical brothel madam, Maeve. They are robots, or “hosts,” in a western-style theme park designed for human guests, largely men, to be able to play out their darkest fantasies. That means, for Dolores and Maeve, that they are constantly victims of domestic abuse and sexual assault, with their minds seemingly wiped clean between encounters so that they can fit their designated roles.
It goes deeper than that, of course. Dolores’s arc this season takes her through a “maze,” a storyline that her creator made for her to confront her own inner consciousness. Maeve seems, in Hunger Games terms, to “know who the true enemy is;” she wakes up in a behind the scenes repair shop and manipulates some employees in an attempt to escape the park entirely.
I’m not sure I’ve ever watched a show that’s been so cynical about human nature. The guests come to the park, in their words, to find themselves, and at best they are hedonists, at worst they are psychopathic mass murderers. Maybe the worst of the worst are the parents, who insanely think it’s a good idea to bring their kids to the fringes of this place to fish and hike and camp out. Meanwhile, at the behind the scenes facility that keeps the park running, backstabbing runs rampant, and employees routinely throw physical tantrums or urinate on company property when things don’t go their way. Not to mention all of the murder cover-ups.
The outside world is described as a place where we have eradicated all diseases—except, it seems, for whatever killed Arnold’s son—and people live this meaningless existence where everything goes their way and nothing seems real. I suppose I can assume that “people” in this case are the ones who can afford to spend $40k a day in the park; war and poverty may still exist, but these self-absorbed rich folk perhaps write a philanthropic check, but generally just ignore all of that.
Westworld’s exposition, particularly around Dolores’s storyline, is incredibly clunky. It’s like the series was written merely to spawn conspiracy theories rather than tell a story in its own right; they went out of their way to be melodramatic and confusing about the time-hopping bit. Racist narratives involving Native American tribes, Confederate soldiers and Mexican freedom fighters exist on the sidelines to get characters from point A to point B. Presumably, this also fits into the guests’ needs for a stereotypical western experience.
One thing that kept me watching was how similar Dolores was to Sansa Stark in Game of Thrones. Both women started out innocent, and spent several episodes being abused by men. And both women give chilling speeches that strip away the power of two of their primary abusers—Ramsay Bolton in Sansa’s case and “The Man in Black” for Dolores. But I’m worried that the GoT showrunners might take Sansa in a similar direction to that which Dolores travels—basically giving her an extreme personality. She can either be innocent and pure, or ruthless and dark. In Sansa’s case, she’s pretty much run out of enemies. The people geographically closest to her now are her own family. “Dark Sansa” would not only be overly simplistic, she’d also be framed as being in the wrong.
But Dolores exists in a narrative of literal white hats and black hats. The humans are the bad guys, and the show doesn’t seem to question using violence against them. They are pretty much sadistic stick figures, after all.
Dolores may be here to start a revolution for the hosts, but her awakening was framed in terms of confronting her deepest self. This says to me that the show is saying that violence is her best option for self-enlightenment. She finally decides on “who she must become”—firing upon the park’s board members and embracing the murdering-psychopath-Wyatt storyline that Arnold gave her long ago. And no matter how self-directed Dolores’s actions might be in the finale, she certainly got there because the current park director, Robert Ford, egged her on. This doesn’t feel like full freedom for the character.
Not to mention the major conceit that Westworld is trying to pull off—because the humans are so one dimensionally evil, the revolution can never be real. In the real world, there are no sides that are completely white hat vs black hat. Real revolutions, even started for the noblest of causes, never end up completely pure; the quest for vengeance and power always brings corruption.
Maybe there is hope for a more humane future in the next season. Faced with the choice of leaving the park forever or reuniting with her daughter from a previous storyline, Maeve chooses the latter. This also feels very Hunger Games to me—that the best way to overcome a tragic past is to embrace your interpersonal relationships. Whether or not Maeve has achieved full consciousness I don’t know; I guess we’ll have to wait and see if Thandie Newton is ever seated across from herself. 😛
But here’s an unexpected high note in this season; I don’t know if the showrunners agree with me on this, but a conversation between Ford and Dolores seems to infer it. He shows her Michaelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” and points out that Gd appears out of a structure that looks like the human brain. Ergo, Ford says, “the divine gift,” eg consciousness, doesn’t come from a higher power, but from ourselves. Considering that consciousness means embracing violence, at least in the final episode, perhaps the show is giving a boon to religious people. Naysayers have often equated violence with following religion, but religious adherents—most of whom are women—aren’t naturally violent. The inclination to do violence comes out of a personal understanding of the world and one’s place in it. I may be way off course with what I’m “supposed” to take away from this show, but that’s what sticks out to me.
November 27, 2016
Note: I’m a little late with this one due to the Thanksgiving holiday. This is also one of those ideas that I thought up months ago, with the publication of this Mary Sue article, but the subject matter has evolved with time. Sensitive issues abound ahead, and I hope to tackle them with care.
I’ve been a huge fan of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time since I first read it in the 5th grade, and I was thrilled when I read about an adaptation being in the works. Yes, there was a tv adaptation in 2004, which sucked, and of which L’Engle herself said “I expected it to be bad, and it is.” But the screenplay for this new one is written by Jennifer Lee, who blew me away with her sibling relationship component in Frozen. It was enough to make me feel hopeful, as the Meg/Charles Wallace dynamic is undoubtedly my favorite part of the story.
It’s been a long time in the making, but news has been fast and furious of late. We have a release date—April 6, 2018—and lots of principal cast—Storm Reid as Meg, Oprah Winfrey as Mrs. Witch, Reese Witherspoon as Mrs. Whatsit, Mindy Kaling as Mrs. Who, Chris Pine as Dr. Alexander Murry, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Dr. Kate Murry, Levi Miller as Calvin O’Keefe, Zach Galifianakis as the Happy Medium and etc. They started principal photography earlier this month.
There’s no denying that this is an industry-driven project. One of the (*cough* numerous *cough cough*) things that I like about The Hunger Games film adaptations is that it was a passion project for indie studio producer Nina Jacobson, who then brought the rest of the team together. Game of Thrones, inspired by the A Song of Ice And Fire series, had a similar backstory, with producers David Benoiff and D.B. Weiss approaching author George R. R. Martin, who gave the OK to these two guys to get the ball rolling. But A Wrinkle In Time was snatched up by the monolith, Disney Studios in 2010. They hired Jennifer Lee in 2014 to take over for another screenwriter, then earlier this year, they finally found their director in Selma-famous Ava DuVernay. These big industry collaborations may run the risk of being a little more soulless. But on the other hand, I’m pretty happy with the Warner Brothers-backed Harry Potter films, so you never know.
But there were some things that gave me pause in the Mary Sue article that I linked above, or to take it back to its source, this multi-topic interview with the Los Angeles Magazine. Primarily that DuVernay isn’t a fan of viewing white-only fantasy adaptations like Lord of the Rings or The Chronicles of Narnia, and one of her biggest objectives with this film is to showcase people of color.
Let me back up a minute to say that I’m kind of tilting at windmills here. I have absolutely no problem with the casting in A Wrinkle in Time. I’m totally down with the Murrys being portrayed as an interracial family. And anyone who has a problem with Meg and Charles Wallace not being seen as white Americans of Scottish ancestry, let me remind you that Levi Miller, who plays Calvin O’Keefe, isn’t Irish American either. But somehow popular opinion doesn’t seem to care as much about one white ethnic group playing another white ethnic group, vs the people of color question.
This is giving voice to the fact that the United States is comprised of more than one race of people. I understand and respect the power of that. But as A Wrinkle in Time fan, I feel some trepidation about the story not coming first. In most of DuVernay’s interviews that I’ve read, she focuses on the importance of having POC folks inspiring the action behind and in front of the camera, rather than what drew her to the magic of L’Engle’s world. I can’t help it—I’m a book snob. The main reason I’m interested in this film is in seeing a beloved story come to life.
We are in early days here—there’s still at least several weeks left of production, I’d think, then post production, and then a few months of promotion leading up to the film premiere—that’s plenty of time for DuVernay and the rest of the crew to talk about adapting the story, and it’s universal themes, as well. I’m just bringing this up because I’m grappling with the issue. I want to see more POC representation in movies, films and books. But there is more to any good story than the genetic makeup of the people involved. I hope that we also keep in mind that this is a tale about a young girl finding her voice, searching for her father and caring for her baby brother. I hope that we can see Meg build up a relationship with Calvin and learn from the three witches, and the issues they have to teach about humanity’s goodness and the fight against darkness. And as much as representation is important, the things I mentioned belong to everyone. Speaking as a Jew who feels close affinity to this book that takes inspiration from a liberal Christian mindset, this adaptation should ultimately transcend our ethnic and cultural differences.
Fantasy is an amorphous beast. So much of it, and I’d include Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia and even Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice And Fire take heavy inspiration from a dogmatically Christian and/or medieval European mindset. The Harry Potter books are largely based in the UK and rely heavily on European mythology, but there’s room to imagine a more diverse Wizarding World. The Hunger Games (which isn’t fantasy, but I always have to talk about it :P) deals specifically in issues of economic disparity, and more broadly in genocide, propaganda and war. Meanwhile, I’d loooooove to see Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series adapted to the big screen, which delves into Middle Eastern folklore for its magical worldbuilding. A few months ago, BookRiot published this list of middle grade fantasy with Black girl leads. Some of these stories seem to rely on specifically African inspiration, and others are more universal, but happen to feature a person of color. A Wrinkle in Time (which is technically labeled as “science fantasy”) is definitely more universal.
Ultimately, I don’t think that Storm Reid, say, will be playing “Black Meg”; she will be playing THE Meg, and if he work in 12 Years a Slave is any indication, she’ll be a great one. Now if only I could tesseract to April 2018! Alas.
November 19, 2016
Note: I went into this movie relatively blind. Definitely didn’t have on my Potter fangirl glasses. 😛 I knew for quite awhile that Eddie Redmayne would play Newt Scamander, and more recently I learned that the dark wizard, Gellert Grindelwald would be a concern. I’ve followed some of the big fandom stuff, like J.K. Rowling’s short stories about the establishment of Wizarding society in the Americas and the founding of the Ilvermorny school. They left me quite cold, not only because of her shallow appropriation of some Native American mythology but because the writing was so bland. And, like I wrote in my Cursed Child post back in August, a lot of the magic of the Potter series for me centers around British folklore in general and Hogwarts in specific. Still, after seeing the movie, I’m suddenly quite proud that I was sorted into the Thunderbird house. 😀
My overall consensus is that I liked the movie a lot. And it’ll probably grow in my estimation, I think, unlike Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, where at best I feel mixed about the narrative. Despite myself, and ignoring all of the Native American issues that are thankfully absent from this film, I’m ready to move the Wizarding World away from Hogwarts and into the Americas.
I don’t necessarily believe it’s a film that can stand on its own, without some knowledge of the original seven books. Particularly the last one, and the backstory about Gellert Grindelwald, which was pretty much washed over in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part One. Fantastic Beasts attempted to bring the audience up to speed with a montage at the beginning about the danger Grindelwald posed to Europe, but it’s not the same as a slow build up within the narrative.
The actual story of Fantastic Beasts involves Newt Scamander traveling to the United States in 1926 to set a native Thunderbird free in Arizona. But first he must disembark his steamer in New York, and invariably his suitcase of magical creatures causes a little havoc in the city. Adjacent to all of this, an Obscurus is terrorizing the area and threatening the secrecy of the Wizarding community. Already there’s an “anti-maj” group on the streets, the New Salem Philanthropic Society, or Second Salemers, which claims that dangerous witchcraft must be stopped. We follow some of their members around as well, as they weave into the main story.
Scamander meets up with some colorful characters on his own—bumbling but determined Portpentina “Tina”Goldstein (Katherine Waterson) who wants to reclaim her lost title of Auror for the Magical Congress of the United States, or MACUSA; bewildered but enchanted “no-maj” Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), who dreams of opening a bakery; and Tina’s sister, Queenie (Alison Sudol), who comes off as a little ditzy but is actually an accomplished Legilimens. She’s a mind reader, for those of you who haven’t kept up with Harry’s adventures since book five. 😛 Then there’s MACUSA’s Director of Magical Security, Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) and Second Salemer leader, Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), both of whom play shady characters and who rectify the wrong of these two British actors somehow being left out of the original 8 Potter films, hee.
Rowling is enchanting in her screenwriting debut. As always, I love the names, of course—from MACUSA President Seraphina Picquery (Carmen Ejojo) to Mary Lou’s adopted children, Credence (Ezra Miller) and Modesty (Faith Wood-Blagrove.) But the real magic is in the connections she draws to her original series. Anyone who has read Newt Scamander’s biography (or brushed up on it quite recently :P) realizes the significance of one of his companions. Graves, at one point, hands Credence a symbol of the Deathly Hallows, which hints his connection to Grindelwald. And it didn’t take long for me to link the Obscurus to the mysterious condition of Dumbledore’s younger sister, Ariana. In essence, Rowling has re-opened the most fascinating (no pun intended) mysteries that she peppered through the last published Potter novel.
It’s also apparent why Grindelwald would make a good, over-arching villain for a now five-movie series, given a certain duel with a famous wizard that he’s slated to fight in 1945. 😛 I imagine that Potter fans might look forward to this the way that Star Wars aficionados anticipated Anakin and Obi-Wan’s battle on the lava planet in Revenge of the Sith. Hopefully with less fannish backlash against the execution, hee.
But we don’t have to wait until the future for good characters—and good villains. Farrell plays Graves with the quiet manipulation of someone who looks like a friend but who uses people for his own means. Mary Lou Barebone is basically this story’s Delores Umbridge, an abuser who justifies hurting children due to her narrow-minded paranoia. Morton plays her with quivering efficiency.
I’ve always been a fan of Eddie Redmayne’s acting, and I was perhaps most emotionally affected when he pleaded with MACUSA to not hurt his harmless creatures. He reminded me strongly of Hagrid, another Hogwarts outcast who was more jittery around most people, and cared for misunderstood animals. Rowling’s big themes were on display here—the danger of the quest for supernatural power, and of “othering” the outcasts, whether human or animal, without making an effort to understand them.
Dan Folger also gave a great turn with some understated, goofy humor. I’m also partial to antsy but committed Tina Goldstein, who by the way sounds like a Jewish American witch to me, so—yup, claiming her. 😛
Some parts of the story didn’t unfold as well, in my estimation. We paid a little too much attention to the fraternal jealousy between the Shaw brothers, given their relative unimportance to the overall narrative. The “fantastic beasts” were cute bits of CGI, but I didn’t connect to them, the way that I did with Hedwig or Crookshanks or Buckbeak. I may have recognized some of the species names from the original Potter stories (or Newt Scamander’s textbook, which I own :P) but I don’t feel inclined to look too deeply into it. Apart from the thunderbird, hee.
The movie was directed by David Yates, who also did the last four Potter films, and Rowling’s script was adapted by Steve Kloves, who also adapted the novels for the big screen. James Newton Howard composed a score that linked this movie to the original series but also skipped off into magic of its own.
As I wrote above, I’m a Fantastic Beasts fan. If the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is to make up a franchise, this is definitely a direction that I’m interested in traveling. Already looking forward to the sequel, set to be in theatres this time next year! But for now, hee, mischief managed. 😛
November 12, 2016
Science Fiction Worldbuilding: How Some Significant Franchises View Government, and the Hero’s Place in the UniverseSecond installment of my #NaNoBlogMo project!
Note: I actually kept meaning to write this blog post since the summer, but more pertinent events kept bumping it down my list of topics. Perhaps it was foresight, because the contentious U.S. election has proven how differently various Americans view the country and their place in it. Though American politics aren’t a direct feature of what’s to follow, perhaps they inspired the creators and writers of these television shows, movies and books. Like all good science fiction, these franchises probe the diverse issues that come out of the conflagration of government, culture and war.
Also, warning: there will be spoilers. 😛
So back in July I saw Star Trek: Beyond in theatres, and I had a brief conversation afterwards with a Trekker friend (see, I’m getting better, guys, and not calling Star Trek fans “Trekkies” anymore. :P) She said that one of the major ways that the film deviated from the original essence of Trek was that the bad guy, Balthazar Edision aka Kroll (as played by Idris Elba) wasn’t “reformed” at the end to toe the party line. Edision was a former human captain who grew disillusioned with the Federation dogma to make peace with one’s enemies. In the movie he’s ultimately killed off, whereas according to Rodenberry’s vision, perhaps he’d realize the error of his ways and embrace a pluralistic, peaceful society. Talk about a utopia! 😛
I admit, I’m most familiar with the reboot movies and pretty vague on the original series. Such a vantage point might be made even more indefensible by the fact that most of the other franchises I’ll talk about wouldn’t have even gotten their feet off the ground if it weren’t for Star Trek. But that’s the way it is, and that’s the information I’m leveraging. I thought I’d take a look at various science fiction government systems, and how the “heroes” are supposed to fit into the broader narrative. There might be some truths in here about how human beings probe these issues in the real world.
And I’m also using this blog post to solidify my own excitement in a new(ish) book duology, The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers! I gave into temptation and bought the shiny, UK covers from Book Depository, which also means I got my hands on book two before it comes out in the States next March. 😀 Booyah.
Book one chronicles the voyage of an inter-species crew aboard a vessel that creates wormholes. It’s supposed to be character driven, so much so that on BookTube it’s not only popular with the “SFF” crowd but the literary buffs, too! Then, science fiction TV fans started comparing it not only to Firefly, but to my favorite show of all time, Farscape. I wonder what they mean by that! Will the worldbuilding resemble the stuff that I go into below? I hope to find out shortly, after NaNoWriMo ends!
Takes place around the 23rd century, when sovereign planets, including Earth, are governed by the United Federation of Planets. The planets are all semi-autonomous in how they govern their people, and the Federation exists as more of a United Nations construct. In order to be a member, your planet has to agree to live by the Utopian principles of universal liberty, rights and equality. The UFP is in charge of space exploration, where multi-species crews explore space and make peaceful contact with new worlds.
The “heroes” of most Star Trek media, as far as I can tell, are the crews of these space exploration ships. They believe in the mission of the UFP, although they are sometimes beset, in the reboot movies moreso, with various forms of conflict. Again, I’m not as familiar with most of the characters as I should be, but it appears that they are not super-human…or super-vulcan or what have you. 😛 Every species has its own strengths and weaknesses, but no one’s from Krypton or has been bitten by a radioactive spider. These are just folks, trying to get through their lives.
Years ago, I think I remember the ScapeCast referring to this show as a “dark Star Trek.” In Star Trek, human characters come together with other species, and are known to be intelligent and resourceful. In Farscape, our early 21st century hero, John Chrichton (Ben Browder), is thrust into a galaxy of distrustful aliens who are much more advanced than he is. Granted, that “distrustful” part goes away rather quickly, followed somewhat later by John’s naiveté. John is a fugitive, stuck on board a living ship with a bunch of escaped prisoners. There are two major ruling parties at play here—the human-like Peacekeepers and the lizard-like Scarrans. Each has built a fascist empire, and both are aligned with and/or subjugating other groups.
The Scarrans and the Peacekeepers are in a Cold War-esque standoff situation, and John inadvertently becomes a key player when alien forces frell (Farscape speak for you-know-what) with him, and implant coveted wormhole intelligence in his brain. But the story isn’t just about black hat aliens chasing our white hat hero across the universe. John and his crewmates grapple with the price of infamy and trauma, the desire for home and their evolving relationships. Thematically, the show probes the cost of violence and revenge, and the possibility that each of our steps may lead to alternate realities.
I love this show, but sometimes I think it stole Farscape’s thunder, because it came out around the same time and gained a cult status after a swift cancellation. Firefly takes place in the 25th century, after humans have colonized a new star system. Civil war breaks out between the central government, called the Alliance, and fringe elements called the Browncoats. We enter the scene after the Alliance has won, and we follow a rag tag crew of former Browncoats and other outsiders as they try to scrape by, living on a spaceship and largely committing petty crime for hire.
Empathizing, as we do, with these outsiders, the Alliance comes off as dictatorial and brutal. One of the main characters, River (Summer Glau) was taken from her family as a child and tortured into becoming a martial arts expert and a psychic. I tend to like “just folks” characters, and her superhero qualities kinda grate at me, but then I’m drawn into her trauma. I love me some female characters with good trauma (hello Katniss, my old friend…I’ve come to read Mockingjay again…. :P) Like with Farscape, there’s a lot of focus on interpersonal relationships, and the “villains” are often those who stand in the crew’s way of their objectives. This culminates in the movie, Serenity, when they are hunted down by an Alliance agent as played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. It ends on a Star Trek utopia note, with the agent seeing the error of his ways and leaving our heroes alone.
The Hunger Games
I mentioned Katniss, so you can’t expect me to leave out my favorite YA franchise, can you? 😛 Set in an unspecified future, in what’s left of North America after environmental disaster, Panem is a dystopia and a dictatorship. President Snow (Donald Sutherland) keeps the disenfranchised districts and privileged Capitol isolated from one another, particularly with a piece of propaganda called The Hunger Games. It’s an annual duel to the death between 24 teenagers, played out until one survivor remains. The Capitol citizens and some of the wealthier districts buy into the national narrative about honor and atonement; the rest understand it as a fear tactic. Rebellion’s been brewing underground for awhile, but it gets a certain push when Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) “wins” the Hunger Games.
There’s really no question that the lightning rod for the revolution would have to come from the Victors pool, seeing as they’re the only people whom the entire country would recognize. But Katniss is not imbued with superpowers like River; she’s just a girl with the unusual story of being from one of the poorest districts, and also being able to save her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). More to the point, she’s immediately swept up into dueling propaganda schemes, with the Capitol trying to showcase to the public that “she’s one of us,” and the Rebellion trying to fashion her into “the Mockingjay,” a symbol of freedom. Katniss wants to take down the brutal Capitol, but in the face of the ensuing war, author Suzanne Collins turns the story on its head. Members of the resistance become corrupted by vengeance, innocent Capitol citizens, including children, suffer, and the rebel leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore) embraces dictatorship. It’s a more complex approach to war and oppression than white hats and black hats. At the end of the day, this series touches me so thoroughly because it points to interpersonal relationships as being the light in any darkness.
November 5, 2016
Note: As part of my NaNoWriMo portfolio this year, I’ve decided to write weekly blog posts on Chava’s Footsteps. I’ve had a lot of ideas that I’ve wanted to get to, and this has basically morphed into my opinion pieces blog. Where else can I play cultural critic? 😉 To start with, I’m going to address a voting issue that has nothing to do with the U.S. elections. Definitely willing to pass that topic by! 😛
On November 1st, GoodReads unveiled the first round of their annual choice awards. It’s like the People’s Choice Awards but for books, and it spans a much larger range of material. I got particularly giddy because I’d actually read three of the titles spread across the numerous categories. I love GoodReads, and I’ve been paying close enough attention to the publishing world these past couple of years to at least have a little bit of familiarity with most of the fiction and some of the nonfic titles. But I mostly read backlist, and therefore can feel excluded from the big shindig at the end of the year.
The next day, BookRiot published an article about the lack of diversity in the Mystery & Thriller category, possibly the most popular genre of the modern age, since GR placed that link right after the vaulted literary fiction. This is the sort of opinion piece that opens the floodgates for reactionary “good literature should trump inclusion quotas” set, and those whose first concern is championing POC writers. The columnist, Jamie Canaves, took a cursory look at the guidelines GR put in place to determine the first round of nominees; particularly that the books have to have an average rating of 3.5 or higher, and they had to be published between November 16, 2015 and November 15, 2016. From there, GR staff “analyze statistics” and pick roughly 15 books per category. Voters have the option of writing in a nominee, and the top five books will be added to the semifinal round, regardless of average ratings, but based against GR statistics.
Presumably those “statistics” include the book’s popularity, but the site is rather vague about that. Canaves highlighted five books by POC authors that fit the average and date published criteria, but a commentator pointed out that most of her books have under 1,000 total ratings, and most of the GR choices have over 3,000. But this issue isn’t divorced from the problem of POC representation either—evidence has shown how the publishing industry promotes white authors the most, which of course leads to more people finding their books and adding them to GR.
It’s interesting to note the differences in categories as well. The groupings that I’m most familiar with—literary fiction, debut fiction, historical fiction, memoir and history—all tend to include POC and other minority voices. Different genres have different relationships to the idea of POC inclusion; for a contentious one, see what’s been going on these past few years concerning the science fiction and fantasy-centric Hugo Awards. GoodReads, therefore, is providing a useful look into the multi-faceted state of publishing today.
Despite my geeky infatuation with the GR awards, I’m really not too keen on most prizes in general. Minority voices have long been excluded in general, not because they’re universally worse writers than white men but because of societal bigotry. And for an English major (shame), I have a relatively cynical view about the nature of objectively “quality” literature. Or perhaps it’s because I’m an English major; therefore I’ve been taught to back my opinions with a thesis essay, and that mimicking another person’s arguments, word for word, is called plagiarism. I mean, if you were to poll every tenured English professor in the world, surely we’d find a small cache that believes William Shakespeare, say, is the pinnacle of literary excellence, and another small cache that believes him to be vastly overrated.
Who gets to decide what is “quality” literature in prizes anyway? With the Man Booker and the Nobel Prize in Literature, the decision is left to a very small group of individuals. Their tastes may vary widely from the majority of the involved literary public—like, say, when they nominate Bob Dylan for an award. 😛 Then there’s the populist votes like the GoodReads Choice Awards. With so many thousands of books coming out per year, our choices are already weighted towards whatever publishing chose to promote more heavily. This setup also demotes self-publishing or even small presses. The majority of the books on the ballot were published by the Big Five.
I’ll speed past the fact that the only books in contention are U.S. published, despite the fact that the GoodReads community is a global one, and move into user-generated problems. Even in accepting the ballot as it is, the voting is in no way fair. In a perfect world, of course, each voter would have at least read every book in the categories that interest them, but I presume that this is relatively rare. I voted in two categories—science fiction and YA fantasy and SF—and in each, I’d only read the book for which I cast my proverbial ballot. *hangs head* Other voters don’t read the books at all. I’ve seen YouTube videos where people go through category by category and pick a book based on their affiliation for a title or cover. Or, to bring it back to publishing, they vote for books that have been in the media.
At the end of the day, we all get different things out of awards, rather than something universally definitive. Like Canaves, I want to see a diversity in the selection, if for no other reason than to get recommendations that will provide me with a variety of different stories. I’m particularly interested in Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue (debut authors) and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi (historical fiction).
I also like the opportunity to make my voice heard, in however a biased way. I spend all year adding books to my GoodReads profile, editing records for accuracy and writing my reviews. /librarian pride/ I voted for The Last One by Alexandra Oliva and A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir because I enjoyed and wanted to promote them. I decided against voting for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in fantasy, because it’s lessened in my estimation since I first read it, and I like to be honest when casting my ballot for books I can get behind. Besides, as arguably the most popular book of the year worldwide, we all know that it’s gonna win anyway. 😛
So cast your votes, if you’re a member of the GR community and prizes don’t drive you crazy. The opening rounds close TOMORROW, so get on it! Semifinal rounds run between November 8 and 15, then the final round goes until the 27th. But I hope, with this and other literature awards, that you ultimately use them to pick up new books and continue to expand your mind. Happy reading!
October 11, 2016Jerusalem shooting victims, Levana Malichi and Yosef Kirme. May their memories be for a blessing.
Yom Kippur starts this evening, and in preparation I listened to the Unorthodox apologies podcast. They covered a lot of great ground, including how to make a good apology, and Georgetown’s efforts to reach out to the descendants of those they’ve wronged. But what caught my attention most was a barely expressed argument between two hosts of differing political views, about the nature of public shaming. Liel Leibowitz, who is basically the right of center voice of the show, posited the question whether public apologies meant anything anymore in this hypersensitive “politically correct” environment.
I wrote in my last post that I was concerned about some members of the Left using the idea of “identity politics” (NOT “political correctness,” which I’ll get to in a jiffy) to quiet or even shame voices of dissent about complex issues. But I’m more concerned about some members of the Right misusing the phrase “politically correct” so that they can play the victim card instead of holding themselves accountable to other people. Because one of the things we should all apologize for, imho, is not always treating others with respect, and that’s exactly what “political correctness” actually means.
This past week, the sensational news has revolved around a leaked recording of the Republican presidential candidate making statements about sexually assaulting women. He “apologized” for his past behavior, but those of us who have gone through the Days of Awe should understand that his apology isn’t genuine. Instead of focusing on his wrongdoing, he’s trying to shift negative attention to others.
Later, during the latest Presidential debate, he tried to dismiss his actions by saying “they’re just words” and words can’t harm us. I’ve heard this excuse from other people as well, and it seems like a poor way to try and sidestep the higher integrity of just treating people with respect. As a Jew, a reader and a writer, I know that words have power. The more society normalizes making hateful comments about people based on gender, race, religion, sexuality and etc, the more we live in a world without empathy. And then what’s the point of giving a fuck how we treat each other, physically or mentally? Maybe we Jews don’t need to worry about Yom Kippur, or the Book of Life.
What does it mean to hurt someone with words? Another example on my mind, albeit less serious than the issue of sexual assault, has to do with another sensational story from last week—the outing of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante’s real identity.
I’ve been a fan of Ferrante’s writing for years. And I know we live in a celebrity-obsessed culture, but I never wanted to know her identity. Perhaps I romanticized the ideal that an author could get away with being known more for her work than for her marketing. Either way, this public doxxing strikes me as remarkably petty, the work of a sleuth conflating “journalism” with carrying out a bit of a vendetta. He claimed that he resented Ferrante possibly using fictionalized elements in her memoir, but she’s a novelist, not a politician running for office. Why should his disagreement with her lawful actions justify infringing on her privacy? Why can’t Elena Ferrante be allowed to be successful on her own terms?
For me it comes down to entitlement—feeling entitled to infringe on someone’s privacy if you disagree with some of her decisions, or feeling entitled to use hateful words against others. Don’t downplay it by whining about “political correctness.” To truly apologize is to have humility, and to respect that we owe dignity to a world that is larger than ourselves. This is the lesson that I hope to take with me into 5777.
G’mar Chatimah Tova.
September 26, 2016
Rosh Hashanah, my favorite holiday, will soon be upon us. It’s a time to reflect and change, rejuvenate and grow, as individuals and as a community.
This blog post is part of my way of doing that. It’s in no way a conclusive list of any and all world events that affected the Jews, but they are the ones that touch me the most personally. I’ve divided this entry into four parts—three broader events, and one that pertains more to my own life.
Black Lives Matter/Israeli “Genocide”
Definitely a significant issue for our community this year. On August 1, a coalition or organizations dedicated to the Black Lives Matter movement published a platform of demands to the U.S. government, including the end of financial aid to Israel, citing it’s “genocide” of Palestinian people. Reaction was swift across the Jewish world, with too many sources to cite here. Tablet Magazine, in my humble opinion, did an amiable job of collecting varied reactions from a variety of sources, including a call to the Jewish community to participate more fully in BLM activism before criticizing the movement.
The one that uplifted me most at the time came from T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. While praising BLM for their needed advocacy in defending Black lives, and also the lives of Palestinians under occupation, they question BLM’s controversial ally, the BDS movement, and they criticize the one-sided outlook on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. They say:
The military occupation does not rise to the level of genocide—a term defined as “the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” While we agree that the occupation violates the human rights of Palestinians, and has caused too many deaths, the Israeli government is not carrying out a plan intended to wipe out the Palestinians. There is no basis for comparing this situation to the genocides of the 20th century, such as those in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, or Armenia, or the Nazi Holocaust in Europe, each of which constituted a calculated plan to destroy specific groups, and each of which killed hundreds of thousands to millions of people. The Black Lives Matter platform also does not address the use of violence by some Palestinians, including the rocket attacks against civilians that Human Rights Watch has classified as a war crime. One can vigorously oppose occupation without resorting to terms such as “genocide,” and without ignoring the human rights violations of terrorist groups such as Hamas.
Like many Jews, I am a staunch progressive who wants to create safe spaces for marginalized groups. I am depressed that for some members of the Left playing the Identity Politics game, it is now ok to ignore the centuries of European and Middle Eastern antisemitism that have shaped the Jewish reality, especially in Israel. They have instead relabeled us as “white colonialists.” But that doesn’t negate the absolute necessity in standing up for Black lives. Black people have been systematically discriminated against ever since arriving in this country; every time I’ve tried to craft this piece over the past few weeks, I was accounting for the latest unarmed Black casualty of the U.S. police. We cannot forget these people.
I hope we can strive for more universal empathy in the future. That is more or less the theme of this entire post.
Israeli Government Attitude Towards Progressive Judaism/Women
Sometimes it seems like whenever Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech in English, he’s either talking to the Obama administration or to the American Jewish community with promises about reigning in the Israeli Orthodox Rabbinate. 😛 It’s probably not that simple, but there’s a good possibility!
The United States and Israel make up the vast majority of the world’s Jewish population. Although American Jews are primarily from a progressive strain—Reform or Conservative (Conservative being named in response to the Reform movement :P)—Israel is presided over by the Orthodox Rabbinate. There is no civil marriage ceremony in Israel. The Rabbinate often denies conversions performed in other countries, including by the Orthodox. Earlier this year, the Knesset passed a bill to bar the non-Orthodox from using mikvahs for said conversions.
A group I’ve been intrigued by for these past several years is Women of the Wall. Like most Jewish movements, they suffered a schism in beliefs and have more or less separated into two WOW organizations. The main one wants the Israeli government to grant them a mixed-gender space of worship at the Kotel, Judaism’s holiest site. (The “traditional” one wants to be able to practice in a progressive way in the women’s section in the existing prayer area. This would also allow them to include Orthodox women, who would not feel comfortable praying in a mixed-gender space. That’s what the women do now—performing bat mitzvahs, reading from the Torah, singing and etc—all things banned by the Orthodox establishment. The leaders are often arrested and their religious items confiscated.)
WOW has been involved in legal battles in Israel for years, which culminated in early 2016 when the government promised to create an egalitarian prayer space. But due to pressure from Orthodox organizations this hasn’t happened yet and earlier this month, the Israeli Supreme Court took the government to task.
The Jewish Women’s Archive also dedicated a podcast episode to this topic. I find myself in tears, particularly when male “allies,” to use a contemporary term, pray with the women or pass them a Torah over the partition. Maybe “the problem” isn’t that simple, with so many competing ways to be a Jew, but there’s something so harrowing about Jewish women being heckled and assaulted when they pray. Not by the gentiles this time, but by their fellow Jews.
Polling statistics seem to favor a pluralistic approach to Judaism…hopefully year by year we can expect more tolerance and less bull-headedness.
Reconstructionist Intermarried Rabbis Controversy
Some news from one of the smallest Jewish denominations (existing somewhere between the Reform and Conservative strands, though honestly these lines between progressive movements are starting to blur. Except, perhaps, in this issue.) Shortly after High Holidays last year, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College announced that it would allow admittance of rabbinical students in interfaith relationships, claiming:
Why have we taken this step? We no longer want to prevent very wonderful and engaged Jewish leaders from becoming rabbis. After years of study, research, and discussion with many members of the Reconstructionist community, we have concluded that the status of a rabbinical student’s partner is not a reliable measure of the student’s commitment to Judaism—or lack thereof. Nor does it undermine their passion for creating meaningful Judaism and bringing us closer to a just world. The issue of Jews intermarrying is no longer something we want to fight or police; we want to welcome Jews and the people who love us to join us in the very difficult project of bringing meaning, justice, and hope into our world.
But as of April last year, according to JTA, 19 rabbis have chosen to leave the Reconstructionist movement over this and other issues. According to a spokesperson for the newly formed Beit Kaplan—the Rabbinic Partnership for Jewish Peoplehood, She said the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College’s recent decision to permit intermarried rabbis, which made it the only denomination outside Secular Humanistic Judaism and Renewal to do so, “muddled the definition of what it means for a rabbi to have a Jewish family.” (We are getting into smaller and smaller denominations here, and moving away from the Orthodox/Reform/Conservative movements practiced by most of the world’s religious Jewry.)
I am of a torn mind about this. My parents chose to raise me as Reconstructionist, in large part because they were the most open to intermarried families in the 1980s. If Reconstructionists claim that my parent’s choice to marry outside of the faith doesn’t preclude our family from being Jewish, then shouldn’t the same be said for rabbis? Or do even progressive movements have a line we cannot cross, lest we lose our sense of identity?
I’d really love to talk to Reconstructionists from all perspectives about this issue, actually. No easy answers.
Personal dealings with antisemitism
Being a Jewish blogger on the internet, one is inevitably prone to receive antisemitic, trolling comments. My operation here is quite small, and I’m fortunate to be insulated from regular abuse. The last comment came in late July, in response to this post from several years ago. I suppose that I gave it a rather provocative title. 😛 It concerns the character of Rumplestiltskin in the tv show Once Upon a Time, though as the program has become more original (just started its sixth season!) my opinions, of course, have changed. Though I still think it’s worth analyzing the antisemitic undertones of the original fairytale character.
This latest troll tried to shame me about my wish in seeing actress Ginnifer Goodwin, an identified and practicing Jew, at least from public discourse, play a Jewish character. She claimed that I was a disgrace to “my people,” or some such nonsense. Basically because she disagreed with me on one of my opinions, she felt justified in hating on all Jews.
The only thing I can do is move beyond this. In the words of the Amidah, as translated by the Conservative movement: Open my heart to your Torah so that I may pursue your Mitzvot. Frustrate the designs of those who plot evil against me; make nothing of their schemes.
The future is in our hands now. L’shanah tova, and may we be inscribed in the Book of Life.
August 28, 2016
Like many fans, perhaps my first reaction is trepidation. What does new Harry Potter content mean? And will it destroy the magic of the original seven books?
I suppose that’s a rather irrational concern. It’s not like Rowling can take a time turner and erase the publication of Harry’s Hogwarts adventures and his showdown with Voldemort (though if you know the plot of that play… :P) New content, no matter how straining and mediocre, will not take my memories of midnight release parties and all-day reading binges, or connecting with people for years over the love of this story.
We’ve been asking to live at Hogwarts forever, and in many ways that’s exactly what we’ve gotten. The movie studios are now a tourist attraction. Theme parks have cropped up in Florida and California. There’s toys, collectibles, games—I have, among other things, a plush golden snitch and Harry Potter Clue. 😛 Pottermore was the website dedicated to Rowling’s storyboarding behind the scenes, which has now culminated in these more accessible ebooks. Even in the middle of writing her original series, she produced some paraphernalia–Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander, now the inspiration for the new movies; and Quidditch Through the Ages by Kennilworthy Whisp.
So, it’s a franchise. In the most cynical sense, it’s about making Potter into a never-ending, money-grabbing brand. But for mega-fans, it’s about making the fantasy more real, because the Wizarding World is about more than Harry Potter. It’s a place with lasting value on its own. That’s why J.R.R. Tolkien wrote The Silmarillion, which has nothing to do with the adventures of Bilbo Baggins or the Fellowship of the Ring. In fact it’s a lot like Rowling’s Tales of Beedle the Bard; it’s the mythology that fuels their cultures.
Still, you have to be dedicated. It’s a lot easier to see the Potter series as self-contained; to deal with it on its surface rather than deal with the man behind the curtain. I admit, I didn’t get too far into Pottermore because of the time drain. I’m kinda looking forward to the ebooks; information delivered much more simply.
Some of the magic dimmed for me when Rowling started releasing backstory to complement the first Fantastic Beasts movie. That meant that she had to imagine how magic would work in North America. The writing has been dull and the content offensive to a Native American tribe. Even without all of that mishegas, I have mixed feelings. As much as I want the Wizarding World to be the Wizarding World, and not just the UK and Europe, so much of the inspiration for the originals comes from British folklore and the Western canon of literature. Surely anything with origins in other places would feel very different, and that’s never been the focus of the series. It’s not even the focus of the Fantastic Beasts, films, which appear to be fantasy adventures about a Brit in 1920s New York. I’d rather keep non-Western magic with non-Western writers, methinks.
I actually went into Cursed Child with a bit of optimism. Harry’s life, after all, is safe territory, isn’t it? I certainly adored the original novels. Reactions from fans have been mixed, at best. After writing my review, I think I’ve found the equilibrium of accepting that the plot is full of holes but the Potter themes—finding light in the darkness by working together, and choosing the right path over the easy path—still rang true. I’d like to think that was Rowling’s contribution to the play that was largely penned by Jack Thorne. Definitely had a bit of a different feel, and not just because it was stage directions rather than vivid description. My favorite reviews of Cursed Child are actually discussions; check out the BookRiot Podcast and the Slate Audio Book Club.
I don’t know if I should go any further without acknowledging that Potter fans have also generated a lot of content about their beloved series—from fanfiction to fan films; international Quidditch teams to Wizard Rock bands. Then, making the biggest impact on the real world, we have the HP Alliance. Any huge fandom has a little bit of a natural aversion to franchise, methinks, because once a story expands, it inevitably becomes less of the thing that enticed the first fans in the first place. And yes, new installments could be of subpar quality. 😛
Harry Potter is here to stay. I believe that it will be a touchstone for children’s-to-YA fantasy to last the ages (it certainly reinvigorated the genre in publishing) the way that Star Trek and Star Wars are for adult science fiction and fantasy. For my part, I think I’m done with the story of the Boy Who Lived. Sorry, Harry, but nothing can top your prophetic hero’s journey that defined the original seven books. I am still interested in expanding the Wizarding World, Hogwarts lore in particular, though I’ll likely take anything that strays into other cultural territory with a grain of salt. I also want to check out more fan-produced material, because I know from convention panels and midnight release parties that there’s nothing quite so magical as Potterheads geeking out together. How far will canonized Potter material stretch into the future? I can’t say. But I’m on my broomstick and I’m ready for the ride.