December 16, 2018

Diving into Italian Television with “My Brilliant Friend,” Season One!

Posted in Italy, Pop Culture at 10:12 am by chavalah

Season One HBO Promo

Not to be self-centered or anything, but my first thought when I watched the trailer for My Brilliant Friend is that it was made for me. 😛 I immediately recognized Max Ricther’s recomposed Vivaldi in the teaser trailer. I loved the casting, particularly for the two leads, Lenu and Lila. And no critic I’ve read denies that Saverio Costanzo does not stray far from Elena Ferrante’s source material.

Perhaps that’s a little bit of a problem, though. My Brilliant Friend is the shortest of the Neopolitan novels and already it strained at the seams of the eight-part first season. (Each of the other, longer, books is also intended to be divied up into an eight-part adaptation.) Sonia Saraiya points out in her recap of episode three that in the book, Lila was much more invested in Lenu’s education even in middle school. And Hilary Kelly criticizes episode seven for removing Lenu’s proactive involvement in Lila’s relationship with Stefano (Giovanni Amura). The new seasons will have to find even more ways to commute and even excise certain plots.

But, as I alluded to, the soundtrack was already comfortably familiar (or dramatic. :P) And not only did Elisa Del Genio, Margherita Mazzucco, Ludovica Nasti and Gaia Girace look like Lenu and Lila, respectively, but they also acted exactly how I imagined. I was stunned when I realized how young and ebullient Gaia Girace, in particular, appears in real life.

So for me the character interactions, though more compressed than in the novel, rang true. I also liked some of the more retrospective moments. Particularly when middle aged Lenu (voiced by Alba Rohrwacher) projected epic classical confrontations, like that between Caesar and Pompey, onto the Solara/Caracci fireworks competition; or she criticized her neighbors’ simple-minded revelry at Lila’s wedding as “plebeian.” These moments are somewhat made for visual representation.

But it takes away in how it shifts the focus. There is something of a soap opera in the tv adaptation, where we are forced to pay attention to the various small dramas of the neighborhood. Sure, they figure into the novel as well, but from Lenu’s biased viewpoint. They are important in how they shape Lenu and Lila’s lives, not in how they play out in front of us.

Perhaps the show also allowed me to partially indulge in one of my own fantasies, too, where Lila and Lenu are slightly less competitive and somewhat more congenial. I still bristle at the stereotype of the “catfighting frenemies,” but Ferrante’s heroines are so much more than that. They are both struggling against their circumstances (perhaps Lenu’s are more internal and Lila’s are more external) in crafting their own identities.

Certainly the main storyline of the season, where Lila tries to escape the clutches of the brutish Marcello Solara (Elvis Esposito), plays well with an audience today. We are invested in the #metoo era, and patriarchal society, where Lila’s life is basically doled out by her father, jealous Fernando (Antonio Buonanno) and her brother, thin-skinned Rino (Gennaro De Stefano), is as unsavory as any dystopia. Lila is our type of badass heroine, but her badassery is much more than spitting out snarky lines or delivering an ass kicking (or knife threat.) She refuses to compromise herself for other people, and in turn expects that her compatriots will not compromise themselves either. When they do…well, I shouldn’t spoil the the next book/season. 😛

Lenu is a different sort of animal. Where Lila is a prodigy, Lenu’s excellent marks come from intelligence and a photographic memory. She doesn’t have many strong convictions about her life (excepting her crush on that arrogant jerkface, Nino Sarratore (Francesco Serpico)), and she often uses Lila as a mirror. I’d be curious as to how book readers viewed Lenu on screen. I think that overall I had less sympathy for her since we weren’t as privy to her interior monologue. Interestingly enough, it seems that Margherita Mazzucco had the same issue. In the documentary, My True Brilliant Friend, she expressed frustration with her character’s passivity and Lila-worship. Her experience might be even less sympathetic than ours, since presumably she wasn’t privy to the voiceovers while filming.

Overall I loved this viewing experience. I’d like to watch this season again, perhaps with my parents who have only watched the first three. My dad has limited familiarity with the books, but he’s taken with the dialect, which reminds him of his father. My grandfather grew up outside of Naples, in a much healthier home environment. 😛 I still have family in the Neapolitan area, and I’d love to reach out to them about this project. Also to my mother and sister, who read and enjoyed the books as well.

I could probably use a Lila to tighten up my prose, but in short: big thumbs up from me! I look forward to returning next year for season two. 😀


November 26, 2018

Revisiting “The Hunger Games” for the 10th Anniversary

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:56 pm by chavalah

The Hunger Games 10th anniversary covers

Fourth and final installment of #NaNoBlogMo 2018!

I read The Hunger Games series before the first movie came out, so admittedly the 10th anniversary of the franchise wasn’t high on my mind. But I still think about the series a whole lot, and I even voted for those books in the “Best of the Best” category in the GoodReads Choice Awards. So I figured it would be a good time to revisit Katniss Everdeen on this blog. 😛

When I heard that Scholastic was publishing a 10th anniversary box set of The Hunger Games series, it didn’t really peak my interest. I already have copies of the books, after all. But alas, I forgot to read the fine print. 😛 Not only would the novels be repackaged, but they would also include 50 pages of bonus material. 😮 Including the longest interview with author Suzanne Collins on the series ever! The New York Times published a small excerpt, and even though some of the information is common knowledge, there are enough nuggets here to make me twitch. Twitch twitch…

I don’t usually buy into these types of marketing ploys, but hey. 😛 Favorite series’ often get an exception.

Also in light of the 10th anniversary, Sabaa Tahir (who is currently writing another noteworthy young adult series) wrote in the Times about her relationship to Katniss. Her essay is largely about Katniss’s rage, and how her government underestimated her. The premise makes me pause, because I’m a fierce advocate of the fact that Katniss is not the superhero she pretends to be. One of the main criticisms of The Hunger Games—that the lead is a Mary Sue world savior type—is that readers fall into the propaganda. “The Girl on Fire,” “The Star-Crossed Lovers” and even “The Mockingjay” aren’t real. They are identities foisted onto Katniss by others in order to sell a narrative.

But I suppose it’s a little reductive to claim that Katniss wasn’t angry and that she didn’t take action. In her first games, she launches an ad hoc plan in order to force the Capitol to accept two victors. And in the Quarter Quell, though other actors set her down the path, in the heat of the moment it was her decision to blow out the force field. Her propos in District 13 were reactive but genuine.

Anger, particularly in young women, is often frowned upon. But doesn’t it also make an impression on the public stage? Look at Emma Gonzalez and Malala Yousafzai for examples of infamous angry girls. It makes sense that they might garner some attention and even celebrity. Their circumstances are unique in how they can express themselves publicly over well-known events. And Katniss, unlike these real life examples, doesn’t have a lot of competition on Panem’s state-run media outlets.

The major difference between the Capitol and the Resistance is how they package Katniss’s anger. The Capitol wants to deny it, and claim that her unusual actions in the Games is fueled by love for Peeta (a premise that is not entirely inaccurate, either.) The Resistance wants to channel it into war recruitment. Although the latter remains more true to Katniss’s emotions, it also simplifies them to make a point. Katniss’s real anger borders more and more on trauma as the story goes on, and is complicated by guilt over her actions in the games and Peeta’s more peaceful influence.

Tahir ends her essay with this rather bold statement, in light of the fact that Katniss will never be “fully healed” after war:

That is a hard truth, and it made me wonder: If Katniss knew what she would endure, would she still have fought? To me, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Her courage is sewn into her very bones. When the violence of the world knocks at her door, she must fight.

Is it really that simple? Many of Katniss’s decisions are fueled by the narrow desire to help those she loves, not a broader sense of altruism. She volunteers for the games in order to save Prim. She forces the issue with the berries, and even agrees to become the Mockingjay, out of a desire to save Peeta. When the Peacekeepers exact punitive measures on District 12, perhaps Katniss would have stayed off camera had Gale not been tied to the whipping post. Maybe she does react to broader injustice while in the field and witnessing the carnage there. There could be something inside of her that strives for survival in the face of oppression, like why she decided to go past city limits to hunt when her family was starving. When confronted with people who look up to her, she wants to help them. Maybe even her promise to kill President Snow is made out of some sort of loyalty to Joanna.

But even her ultimate decision to assassinate President Coin is selfish, isn’t it? Yes, she ultimately rids Panem of another child-murdering despot. But the reason she goes on this course is “for Prim.” Because Coin’s war tactics ended in the death of Katniss’s sister, and civilians from both sides of the conflict. I suppose I see Katniss as more self-absorbed than altruistic. Like many of the famous heroes of history, she felt the call of action due to specific circumstances in her life. So in answer to Tahir’s question, if Katniss had known what awaited her by the end of the war, I agree that she still would have felt compelled to do what she did…so long as someone(s) she loved was in danger.

Katniss never saw herself as a leader. She was simply a girl who wanted to live a quiet life at home. I suppose this circles back to why I identify with Katniss Everdeen. Not because she is righteously angry or because she’s a war hero. But because underneath of it all, she’s a stubborn little introvert who loves fiercely but selectively. She might fight for the world under extenuating circumstances, but her real drive is ultimately to be left off the grid, in privacy and peace.

Maybe the material in the 10th anniversary books will shed more light on how Suzanne Collins sees Katniss. But at the end of the day, all readers have the right to interpretation. The best stories, the ones that last, aren’t narrow in scope. They offer lots of ways to appreciate the material.

So glad to witness that The Hunger Games still has that spark after its first decade. 😀 Fire is catching!

November 18, 2018

The Multiple Storylines in “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”

Posted in Pop Culture at 2:21 pm by chavalah

Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) amasses a following

WARNING: Spoilers to follow for “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald!”

Third installment of #NaNoBlogMo 2018!

I was going to wait a week to write this review, but eh. I think I can swing it now, and I have a lot on my mind! Granted, this thing definitely deserves a rewatch and, like with most movies, I think I’ll like it better over time. I like it decently well now, at least as a fan who is well versed in this world and story. This installment is very much in the middle of bigger things. But I was also disappointed by some aspects.

I’ve seen this criticism online and repeated it often enough that now my friends are saying it—JK Rowling wrote a novel and then tried to cram it into a 2 and a half hour long movie. It’s somewhat similar to what happened with the original Harry Potter movies, except that in that case we had the books to provide greater reference and insight into the characters.

There were a lot of individual storylines going on in this movie. Grindelwald escaped from American custody and set up base in Paris. Newt is trying to get permission to leave the country (presumably to visit Tina), sidestep the painful relationships with his brother and former crush, and evade the Ministry (and possibly Dumbledore) who have their own plans for him. Tina is on a mission to find Credence, Credence is looking for his birth mother, Queenie wants to find a world where she can marry Jacob, and Jacob seems to want the first movie back again, with regards to the main foursome and their adventures. 😛 Leta, aka Newt’s first crush and Theseus’s fiancée, is carrying a big secret and Dumbledore, as always, is trying to position his human chess pieces in order to take down a dark wizard. There are also side characters with motivations that fit into these varying storylines.

The time constraints made most character arcs feel rushed. I suppose, to some extent, I should simply accept that six months happened off camera, and in that time Newt’s interest in Tina grew more obsessive, and Jacob started using endearments with Queenie. 😛 I was more on board than some with Credence being alive and Jacob overcoming the thunderbird’s obliviative potion because of small little tells in the first movie. But Queenie and Tina’s rift was explained in backstory. They didn’t even interact in the sparse scenes they had together. There were some indications, mostly unexplored, that Newt had received some sort of fame from his book. Newt and Tina oscillated between a deliberately obtuse, if funny, misunderstanding about where their relationship was, and propelling the plot forward in trying to find Credence. Nagini, who featured prominently in previews because of her shocking original series future and fan controversies surrounding it, mostly existed to hold Credence’s hand throughout this movie. There wasn’t enough time to say much about her own life, beyond her introductory scene.

Of course Credence’s heritage, and the ways that it tied into various other wizards, was deliberately confusing, and left my friends wanting to explore the Lestrange family tree. 😛 If Credence was thought to be the last of a pureblood line and Leta’s younger brother (which he wasn’t, but another baby was), then where did Bellatrix’s hubby and his bro come from? 😛 If we ignore the original series, it’s a tragic story and lends Leta some of the best emotional gravitas of this film. Her other half brother, Yusuf’s portion was exposition heavy, though it spoke to long-lasting human consequences of using Unforgiveable Curses. But it’s Zoe Kravitz (and Thea Lamb as teenage Leta) who steal the show with their grief and guilt.

The character who disappointed most was Tina, as I feared might be the case. Beyond giving Katherine Waterson a sleek, new makeover, the movie also had limited to no time to highlight her neurotically focused nature. One thing I liked about her and Newt is that they both seem to be caretakers. Newt cares for animals, both in this film and the last one. But though Tina reaches out to Credence individually in movie 1, she doesn’t ever talk to him in this one. Also, what’s the deal with her status in Paris? Is she there as an Auror under MACUSA’s direction, or, as seems to be the case when Queenie goes looking for her, has she gone rogue? Yet she’s easily able to enter the French Ministry later. I might be getting too nitpicky about this. 😛

But I think it’s fair criticism to point out that she doesn’t react at all when Credence, let alone her sister, joins Grindelwald. Hopefully Rowling will give her more room to reflect on that in the next movie. And speaking of Queenie’s defection, it made me want to rub my eyes out with sandpaper. How can you believe that this wizard who speaks of “othering” Muggles, would be cool with you marrying one? I’ve been kind of quiet about this, but I lamented that the girl was such a ditz in the first movie. 😛 Now she’s reminding me of certain lower class Americans who believe that a pampered billionaire mostly interested in keeping the money with his rich friends *cough cough* would have their best interests at heart.

This leads well into the issue of Grindelwald and charismatic populists. I know this is a contentious opinion, but I liked Johnny Depp’s performance. It’s possible that I set the bar too low with “not Jack Sparrow.” 😛 I thought he had flair without being too over the top. There was a rumination to his actions, even when condoning the worst, and a focus on empathetic messaging that made him more nuanced then Voldemort. Voldemort is a fairytale villain, and frankly most interesting in how he influences Harry. Grindelwald is meant to inspire hope, not fear. It’s not just Johnny that pulled this off, but also the flashback scenes with Dumbledore, whom I also think Jude Law nailed. But for having such minimal time with the characters, I think Dumbledore’s flashbacks, like Leta’s, brought out the human connections.

In hindsight, Grindelwald’s message of the dangerous ways of the non-magic populace was made palpable by foreshadowing footage of World War II. Perhaps it’s a bit on the nose, but Rowling’s parallels to real history show how whole populations can get swept up in hatred and violence. Juxtaposed against all of that is the promise of Dumbledore and Grindelwald’s epic duel of 1945 (at the end of the war,) which will require the breaking of their blood bond. Frankly I’m ok with it not being an unbreakable vow, because there’s something so much more personal about what we saw in the Mirror of Erised.

Perhaps the ultimate Credence heritage reveal is meant to break the confusing Lestrange conundrum by positing that “Aurelius” is the last of the Dumbledore line. (I’m going to take another digression to posit that Ezra Miller, so silly real life and so tormented in many of his roles, is the best actor here.) I think that some people are flummoxed at the introduction of another Dumbledore sibling, but it’s fair to point out, as folks did to Harry all throughout the last book, that the man was very private. It’s also possible, and I’m kind of turning this idea over in my head, that Grindelwald is lying to Credence, simply to get what he wants. He spoke point blank to his followers about laying the path to get the boy to join him. I guess we’ll find out how it goes in a few years! 😛

Some parting notes: I loved the geeky references to Nicholas Flamel and young Professor McGonagall, of course. 😛 I hope Leta stays dead because that felt tragic and earned. From Newt’s perspective, given that he is our hero, I guess, his endgame in this movie is that he can’t sit on the sidelines of history. Sometimes you have to take a side. And perhaps these were superfluous but I liked the flashbacks to the first movie, regarding Newt having to wrangle in some escaped circus creatures. Which also let Jacob shine with his humor, lol, and played into one of Rowling’s major themes about the cruelty inherent in labeling living creatures as “freaks.” There’s a lot going on in here!

In general, movie 2 is not as easy and contained as movie 1. 1927 Paris is never the aesthetic center of the story as was 1926 New York City. There wasn’t just one plot about Newt’s creatures and a couple of subplots about an obscurial and the creepy Barebones. Instead there are several balls in the air, and though Grindelwald’s rising popularity and Credence’s heritage are the main focus, every character had semi-realized personal aims. Casual fans won’t find this very accessible, but I think that Potterheads will appreciate its place in the broader story. It certainly had the feel of a “linking” episode. Time will tell how the full saga plays out. But in general, as much as I appreciate the special effects, the cinematography, acting, musical score and even the story, they won’t ever feel as expansive as novels. The Harry Potter books leave a lot to live up to.

November 10, 2018

Representational Drama and Authorial Intent in the Fantastic Beasts/Harry Potter Franchise

Posted in Pop Culture at 9:16 pm by chavalah

Claudia Kim as Nagini in “Fantastic Beasts and the Crimes of Grindelwald.”

Second installment of #NaNoBlogMo 2018!

We are less than a week away from the United States theatrical opening of Fantastic Beasts and the Crimes of Grindelwald, and drama has been stewing in this franchise before there were even Fantastic Beasts movies. (This is the second of five, which presumably will culminate in the books canon epic duel between Dumbledore and Grindelwald.) Here’s my review of movie one!

The early professional reviews are tepid at best, but as an avid fangirl, I’m hardly an impartial observer. 😛 Like most Potterheads, I have a list of what I want to see, and some quibbles about what has been leaked so far.

I’m wary to start with quibbles, though. Ever since the Harry Potter books peaked at epic popularity, the line between reader demands and authorial vision has become blurred. Don’t get me wrong; I believe that when a piece of art, be it a book or a movie or etc, goes out into the world, readers are free, even required, to interpret what’s put in front of them. But when franchises become this infamous, I worry about the penchant for groupthink and drama. Maybe it comes down to this: I’m going to question J.K. Rowling for her choices, but I’m also going to question the fandom on why popular opinions exist. I will also unpack my own biases about what I want to see in the film.

Here’s one problem I have with (a vocal portion of) the Harry Potter fandom: they tend to see the story as a closed loop. I’m as guilty as anyone of throwing the word “canon” around, but as a writer myself, I try and remember that not everything Rowling dreamed up can actually make it onto the page. When Pottermore published her research, she wasn’t “ret-conning.” She was just admitting to the fact that creating the Wizarding World required more work than what fit into Harry Potter’s narrative. You, and I, might’ve come to our own conclusions about certain things, but that doesn’t make Rowling’s authorial legwork a sham.

This culminated in the reveal that Rowling saw Dumbledore as gay, and as having romantic feelings towards Grindelwald. Fandom opinions exploded, sometimes based on personal homophobia and sometimes based on that idea of “ret-conning.” One BookTube friend claimed that his opinion that Dumbeldore was straight was every bit as valid, though personally I see canon as more of a blank slate when it comes to Dumbledore’s sexuality. It doesn’t make sense to me that people can’t take a step back and realize that this issue, within the parameters of the Harry Potter novels and movies, is inconsequential. Would it make sense for a scene to exist where Dumbledore calls Harry to his office and reminisces over the details of his love life? I don’t think so!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I’m now worried that fans will get up in arms regarding this movie if Dumbledore’s feelings aren’t blatant. Maybe it’s personal preference, but I’d rather Dumbledore be nuanced than some sort of identity politics spokesperson.

The fandom has always had an uncomfortable relationship with LGBTQ+ representation, going way back to the introduction of Remus and Sirius. (Unpopular opinion time: I’m cool with seeing them as friends. In fact, I think that some of the insistence on imagining them as lovers stems from the fact that society, as a whole, doesn’t have an appreciation for the deep bonds of platonic friendship. That being said, if they’d turned out to be gay it would have made sense to me, too.)

But the most alarming LGBTQ+ complaint came after the first Fantastic Beasts movie. Some people were up in arms about the “gay baiting” regarding the relationship between Graves and Credence. I realize that identity representation is a legitimate concern, in that we want our media to reflect real life. But this particular focus was severely misguided, and it completely ignored the reality of the relationship on screen. This wasn’t about teasing the audience with undeclared homoeroticism. This was the portrayal of a conniving adult willfully manipulating a teenage boy in order to serve his agenda. Is it offensive? Absolutely. But much like Voldemort and Umbridge are offensive in their actions, that’s kind of the point.

The Crimes of Grindelwald big controversy veered off in a different direction. A trailer released in September revealed an Asian shape-shifting character named Nagini. That’s right—Rowling provided a stunning backstory for a Harry Potter character who hitherto was never presumed to be human!

This is leagues away from a sexuality reveal. Rowling claims that she always saw Nagini as a human trapped in snake form, hearkening back to Asian-inspired mythology. Again, many people are calling this a “ret-con,” but I don’t see the need to question Rowling’s assertion that she had this backstory in mind since writing the books. However, this opens up a far more complicated can of worms. As Helene Guldberg writes in Psychology Today:

Human beings, unlike other animals, are able to reflect on and make judgements about our own and others’ actions, and as a result we are able to make considered moral choices.

If Nagini was just a snake, she bears less culpability in joining up with Voldemort. Considering that Voldemort is the main antagonist of the Harry Potter series, and Rowling clearly wanted to explore the human fallacies that brings a man like this to power, this hidden identity does feel a bit like a gut punch. If Nagini, who, like Harry is now a human horcrux (amongst other things to the Dark Lord,) is that not significant enough to make part of the original story? This is too significant a moral quandary, even if rather separate from the main thrust of Harry Potter’s narrative arc.

Less murkily, I agree that casting a Korean actress in the role was a bad move. I believe that Rowling et al are trying to amp up diverse representation, but they stumbled into a shallow trope here. Namely that people of color serve as “magical helpmates” to the white cast. I get it, I get it—nearly everyone in this franchise is magical. 😛 But they are magical in normal, proscribed ways to the Wizarding world. They aren’t anomalies who are then shunted into simplistic, subservient roles.

I mean, even if Nagini does, as I assume she will, get a more complicated, human story arc in these new films, that doesn’t erase her complete one-dimensionality in the original story. But I’m going to try and pull myself out of this whirlpool now and address a smaller concern rife with my own personal bias—the representation of the Goldstein sisters.

I called them as Jewish in the last movie, and I’m sticking with it! 😛 JTA apparently extended that assumption to Jacob Kowalski— I’ll take him, too! But I really developed a soft spot for Tina Goldstein in the first movie. I’m already disappointed that she seems to have gotten a sleek makeover for the second. Much like when Emma Watson started highlighting her hair when she played Hermione, I say: alas. What’s wrong with some frazzled ladies? 😛

Which leads me to wonder if there will be actual Jewish representation in this film. Will the two (or three) characters publicly “come out”? Will there be reference to Jewish culture? Granted, the Goldstein sisters seem fully ensconced in the United States Wizarding society, which holds itself separate from the muggles—sorry, no-mags. But why can’t Jewish wizards and witches get together to throw a Chanukah party? A girl can dream. 😛

November 3, 2018

GoodReads Choice Awards 2018 Predictions and Standouts

Posted in Pop Culture at 6:50 pm by chavalah

Here’s to ten more years!

First installment of #NaNoBlogMo 2018!

Hello; welcome to NaNoWriMo and the beginning of the end-of-year awards season! 😛 The first round of the 2018 GoodReads Choice Awards concludes tomorrow, so get your vote in today! The semi-final round, buffed up with top write in contestants, goes from Oct 6-11. The final whittled down round opens on the 13th and runs for two weeks! Winner will be announced Dec. 4.

Last week I shared my picks for my favorite 2018 reads by category. Today, I take a look at the lists that GoodReads aggregated and I give my thoughts! I won’t be going through all the categories, so if favorite genres tells you a lot about a person, have at it. 😛

Predicted Winner: Still Me (Me Before You #3) by JoJo Moyes. Here’s where I get snooty. I’m not going to invoke that diminutive term chick lit, but this definitely strikes me as more plot-focused than character-focused. I kind of wish that GoodReads had a category solely reserved for literary fiction (this also plays into some of my feelings about more prestigious awards of late *cough cough*Man Booker *cough*) But this is Romance, so it’s veeeeeery popular.
Personal Interest: My pick is in this list: Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao. The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer would be a relatively close second. Of my non-reads, A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza sticks out. It’s a family drama (yeeees), and I’ve heard great things. Plus it has all the buzz of being a debut author writing for a debut imprint—headed by Sarah Jessica Parker!

Historical Fiction
Predicted Winner: The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. Man, her read numbers blow everyone else out of the water. I see her more or less in the same vein as JoJo Moyes.
Personal Interest: I wrote in a book for this round; assuming it doesn’t go anywhere, I’ll switch to The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin for the semifinal. Still think it’s the most Jewish book I’ve read all year, except for that predetermination conceit. 😛 I have two other titles on my Litsy TBR–The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar and Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. Former is a dual timeline story separated by centuries in the Middle East (sounds expansive and magical), and latter deals with Columbian violence from the 1990s (sounds informative and visceral).

Best Fantasy
Predicted Winner: Circe by Madeline Miller…though maybe its literary fiction fans won’t venture into the fantasy section. Don’t see why not, though. This statement makes me a hypocrite, but I don’t necessarily mind literary fiction with a genre fix in the genre fiction section, so long as the fantastical elements are worthy of it.
Personal Interest: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik is a Rumplestiltskin retelling featuring Jews, so it’ll definitely be one of my scifi September pics of the future. 😛 And I’m too intrigued by The Book of M by Peng Shepherd to put it off any longer. I bristled at it being called “literary dystopia” because it includes a magical element; placing it in Fantasy seals the deal for me.

Best of the Best
Since it’s the decade anniversary of the GoodReads Choice Awards, they hauled out all of their old winners to pit against each other! I voted for Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins, which after all I placed as my second favorite book of all time in a recent BookTube tag.

Science Fiction
Predicted Winner: Iron Gold (Red Rising #4) by Pierce Brown. A science fiction heavyweight. His previous book in this series won the award last year!
Personal Interest: I’m expecting my pick, Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers to make it to the semifinal round. Otherwise, I think it’s time I pick up Red Clocks by Leni Zumas. I was worried, when I first learned about it, that it would be a lukewarm Handmaid’s Tale copycat. But now I hear great things.

Memoir and Autobiography
Predicted Winner: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership by James Comey. This one doesn’t have the most amount of reads, but I figured I’d put my money on a Trump-related book.
Personal Interest: See, I was gonna vote in this category until I remembered that If All the Seas Were Ink by Ilana Kurshan was no longer eligible! 😦 I love me some Jewish lady memoirs, but in an effort to branch out I’ll say that Educated by Tara Westover has caught my eye. It’s about her survivalist upbringing to western “liberation,” complete with accounts of physical and mental abuse. But I hear she never paints her family or their beliefs as one-dimensional villains. Sounds like a well-rounded person with lessons to teach. (I made a pun! :P)

History and Biography
Predicted Winner: Burracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” by Zora Neale Hurston. Scifi for the nonfiction club; a famous literary author from yesteryear “returns from the dead” with a new book!
Personal Interest: Again, I mostly focus on Jewish themes in this genre. But if I were to branch out, I’d go for The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King (love him…Fred Rogers, that is,) and The Woman’s Hour: The Great Fight to Win the Vote by Elaine F. Weiss (sisters are doin’ it for themseeeeelves! Seriously, American ladies, come Tuesday and go out and vote!)

Debut Author
Predicted Winner: The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn. Once again, the read numbers dwarf the competition. I guess Mystery and Thriller is giving Romance a run for its money!
Personal Interest: Unpopular opinion time…I read Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi and thought it was just ok. So I’m sticking with The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar, Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras and A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. Why? See above.

Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy
Predicted Winner: A Court of Frost and Starlight by Sarah J. Maas because the author owns this category. 😛
Personal Interest: I’m sticking with my pick, A Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir. I also read Obsidio by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, but book three of The Illuminae Files suffered from diminishing returns, imho. Other than that, I have an ARC of The Cruel Prince by Holly Black that I really should get to! I’m curious to read into this fairy phenomenon, and even some adult fiction BookTubers appreciate this novel.

Picture Books
Predicted Winner: A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo by Jill Twiss (and John Oliver.) This’ll rack in the votes for reasons not necessarily related to children’s literature. 😛
Personal Interest: I’m really only in this for my niece. 😛 I’d go for We Don’t Eat Our Classmates by Ryan T. Higgins because she loves dinosaurs. But seems a little too macabre for her sensibilities. Petra by Marianna Coppo, on the other hand, looks both creative (a rock as the protagonist!) and uplifting.

And now I’m geeked out (for this week, anyway. :P) I love making these posts because I get to think critically about what’s out there, and squee over new possibilities! Happy reading everyone!

October 30, 2018

My Picks for the 2018 GoodReads Choice Awards!

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 10:16 pm by chavalah

My 2018 picks in fantasy and science fiction.

Before I begin, rest in peace and baruch dayan emet to the victims of two recent terrorist attacks on American soil–Maurice Stallard and Vickie Lee Jones in Jeffersontown, KY, and Joyce Feinberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, Cecil Rosenthal, David Rosenthal, Bernice Simon, Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger at the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. The latter constituted the worst US antisemitic attack in history. Wishing my people a refuah shleimah. I’m proud to be here on this blog promoting the wealth and beauty of Jewish religion and culture.

I waited so long to write this that the Choice Awards opening round is now live! Alas! My objective for this blog post is to point out books that I’d like to nominate this year. Some will be on the lists and some won’t. We can write in votes until November 4!

Like many people, I think I’m kinda rigging the system. I’m not voting in every category, but there’s no way that I’ve read a majority (or even minority) of the books published in 2018. In some genres, I’ve only read one! We all know that the most well-known books (*cough* Fear by Bob Woodward in nonfiction *cough cough*) will end up the winners.

That being said, I view these awards as a way to show support for the books I’ve loved, not as a test of comparisons. I’ll go to the big frou frou awards for that. 😛 On GoodReads, I (and I hope you will join me) just want to shout out my love of reading! So here we go! My picks! Links lead to my reviews, except for the graphic novel and the picture book.

Girls Burn Brigher by Shobha Rao. A harrowing but beautiful novel about friendship, and the cost of misogyny and destitution: the ways they can break you but also what can lift you up.

Historical Fiction:
Eternal Life by Dara Horn. A retrospective on motherhood, Jewish history from the female lens, and the meaning of life.

Fire Dance by Ilana C. Myer. Lyrical and evocative, this sequel to Last Song Before Night takes our protagonist to a new city with strange magic and hidden schemes.

Science Fiction:
Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. Chronicles the lives of humans–and aliens–associated with the Exodan Fleet which left a dying Earth–and asks what its purpose is once its found safe harbor.

History and Biography:
Jews on the Frontier: Religion and Mobility in Nineteenth-Century America by Shari Rabin. Positing that freedom of mobility and loosening of religious organizations defined the American Jewish experience of the age–and onward.

Graphic Novels and Comics:
Grace for Gus by Harry Bliss. I got this for my niece, but I think my adult relatives were more enamored with the detailed pictures paying tribute to New York City and current events!

Debut Author:
Beneath the Haunting Sea by Joanna Ruth Meyer. I’m probably “cheating” here more than anywhere else because I know this author, but I looked forward to reading her YA fantasy for years and she didn’t disappoint!

Young Adult Fantasy:
A Reaper at the Gates by Sabaa Tahir. Though I didn’t find the third book to be as explosive for the characters as A Torch Against the Night, the politics are revving up and the magic is growing much stronger!

Picture Books:
Black Bird, Yellow Sun by Steve Light. I bought this for my infant nephew, and my sister sent pictorial proof that he was taken by the colors and imagery!

I’ll be back this weekend where I’ll “NaNoBlogMo” my thoughts on the GoodReads generated lists! Happy reading!

August 9, 2018

My Top Four Experiences from 2018 San Diego Comic-Con!

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 9:25 pm by chavalah

I was so busy trying to get an artsy shot in the exhibition hall that I didn’t even notice these lovely ladies from Harper Collins smiling at me!

Another year of San Diego Comic-Con has come and gone. And I was there–attending for my third time! SDCC is one of the biggest conventions in the world, and tons of entertainment media has already covered the highlights. But they mostly focus on big industry news from the movie and television studios.

My Comic-Con experience is a lot quieter. But just as fun and meaningful for a fan girl! 😛 I’ve chronicled my four favorite experiences from the four days that I attended the con. Getting geared up for my next trip to geek capital!

#1) Hitting the Bookish Exhibition Hall
My experience in the exhibition hall of previous years has been fleeting. The area is so packed with everything from big industry funhouses to smaller sellers that it attracts some major crowds. But this year I had a mission–stake out the big five publishers! I have a booktube channel and bookstagram account to honor, and they had free books to hand out! 😛 I got soooo many free books (here’s my haul!) basically from any bookish booth I could find. …I miiiight have broken my SDCC custom bag on the very first day. :/ Will that stop me from going so crazy in the exhibition hall next time? Wait and see!

#2) Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog Viewing
This is a regular staple for me, both at SDCC and with the local DC-area Browncoats. There’s a couple of things that make this year extra special, though. First of all, it’s the ten-year anniversary (Joss Whedon, Felicia Day and Nathan Fillion were in town for the reunion!) I didn’t actually see that in person, but I did stick around for Dr. Horrible’s Unofficial Singalong Sequel. I was rather impressed with how the amateur production team handled the material. Their songs started out mimicking the originals but then turned into something new. And the characters grew a bit as well–meaning that Penny finally got to tell off Captain Hammer and Dr. Horrible for their macho BS. 😀 So much power of fandom here…from singing and reacting to the original, to banding together to create something new. As Dr. Horrible says, “the status is NOT quo…” we’re changing it!

#3) Harry Potter 20th Anniversary Poster
I usually try to stay away from anything having to do with getting an autograph. They tend to be ridiculously expensive and tickets sell out well in advance anyway. But I was tentatively perusing the Unofficial San Diego Comic-Con Blog when I came across this announcement. It was for an exclusive Harry Potter poster celebrating the 20th anniversary, no tickets required! We just had to show up half an hour beforehand to get in line. Of course, this is Comic-Con and no one showed up at the last minute. We were circling the Sails Pavilion like vultures, trying to stay a step ahead (no pun intended) of the events staff whose job was to keep everyone moving. With so many people in attendance, we could easily cause a traffic jam. But when they announced the opening of the line, a mass of people swooped in so fast that it merited its own sound effect. 😛 Scholastic was extra kind to all of us as we waited for the big event. Not only were we promised a signed edition of the exclusive poster (three of the illustrators were waiting with pens in hands), but we also got a commemorative tote bag, pin, and another expansive poster from Brian Selznick! Indie bookstore Mysterious Galaxy was also selling Potter books, so I decided to shell out the cash. I purchased the second illustrated edition since Jim Kay was on hand! It was like winning the jackpot!

#4) The Psychology of Shipping Panel
This happened to be the last panel that I attended, and I think I went out on a high note. A team of psychologists and doctoral students from Marshall University shared intel from their study on favorite fandom ships and what they say about the shippers. I don’t tend to “ship” characters romantically very often, but the concept does give me the fuzzy feels of being involved in fandom. Sure, it’s pretty silly to feel so attached to the lives of popular fictional characters, but it is a method of camaraderie after all. You can always find someone who “ships” the same pairing that you do! 😛 But more interestingly, perhaps, this psychological research tried to pinpoint the different types of relationships, and ergo why specific people are drawn to specific ones. Suddenly this is about understanding ourselves more than it is about something imaginary! 😛 I long to see the full report–alas, trying to explain the ins and outs to lay people in under an hour turned to confusion at times–but I don’t think that’s in the cards. They are interested in new subjects for further research, so maybe I will be getting in touch! I’d like to be included as one of the fans of science fiction/fantasy pop culture! And in heartening news…the Katniss/Peeta ship is still going strong. 😀 #TeamEverlark

Bonus Note
I didn’t attend this panel, but apparently it made enough of a splash for JTA to notice it. In “Art During the Holocaust,” Ruth Goldschmiedova Sax, a survivor, spoke of her experiences in the camps, and also how Nazis used comics as antisemitic propaganda. Meanwhile, in the United States, predominantly Jewish comics used the art form to speak against the Nazi regime, which other panelists expanded upon. I decided to skip this in order to stay in a lighter head space, but man do I feel like I missed out on something important. Tangentially, during downtime at the Con, I was reading Nadja Spiegelman’s memoir, I’m Supposed to Protect You From All This. It’s intergenerational conversation style sorta hues to her father’s infamous Holocaust graphic novel, Maus. So maybe I did take part, in a way. 🙂

July 17, 2018

Me Vs Popular Opinions: Seasons 2 of “Westworld” and “The Handmaid’s Tale”

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:47 pm by chavalah

Warning: Spoilers–and Controversial Opinions on Beloved Television Shows–to Follow

The last year of American prestige (and other certain genres) of television recently lined up for consideration for the 2018 Emmys Awards. Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale both raked up a fair few nominations…but I gotta say, I think my favorite show of the year has been The Expanse. Had a rocky start in the first season, perhaps, but it’s something great now. Too bad the Emmys don’t award classic science fiction *dramatic sigh*

One might infer from that last paragraph that I didn’t like Westworld or The Handmaid’s Tale, but you’d only be half right. 😛 The Handmaid’s Tale has its flaws, particularly it’s tight focus on just a few characters that detracts from worldbuilding and leaves the narrative chasing its own tail a bit of the time. But it also probes so many deep and meaningful questions about the nuances of human nature. As for Westworld, once you read creator Jonathan Nolan’s facile view of humanity, you realize that there’s nothing substantial there. I’m a cynic myself, and I have a message for Nolan and his co-creator Lisa Joy: take a chill pill.

Tl;dr–my ratings go as follows: The Expanse: A, The Handmaid’s Tale: B, and Westworld: D (the acting and production values save it from a complete fail.)

Westworld: “You’re Saying That Humans Can’t Change At All?”

The Logan computer program (Ben Barnes) shows Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) and Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) how humans are too simple for robot brains

So, quick recap: brutalized robots gaining sentience means gory retribution for humans. But what’s next for the mechanical folks? Can they escape their island prison? Maybe–through a twisty, turny, multi-timeline game where they try and find “the door.” Why multiple timelines? Well, every bad show needs its gimmick. 😛

I disliked both seasons of Westworld, because shocker moments (The Man in Black and William are the same person in different timelines! Non-glasses Bernard faked his confusion all season in order to mask that he knew that Charlotte was actually a Delores-bot!) don’t a narrative make. I suppose it’s unsurprising that Westworld eschews traditional narrative, with that season two finale image of simplistic human stories being “reduced” to books in a library. It’s a shame, really, this anti-literary take which doesn’t realize that just because stories have a beginning, middle and end means that they’re lacking in complexity.

I could also tell you, from the moment that Delores (Evan Rachel Wood) picked up that gun and started shooting people at the end of last season, that she’d turn into a villainous vigilante. She was basically William (Ed Harris/Jimmi Simpson) in robot form (“I want to dominate this world,” “real life comes from suffering”), which, topically, I could maybe excuse. Delores had been beaten, raped and killed by that man on and off for 30 years. It’s somewhat natural for victims to start taking on the behaviors of their abusers. But at the end of the day her character is too bombastic for nuance.

William’s characterization is the most ridiculous. Like with Delores, his personality drives are too archetypal to be human. This season, the penultimate episode found him wandering around like a Shakespeare villain, bemoaning “the stain” that darkened his psyche, but that’s not how real people view themselves. Granted, Josephine Livingstone wrote this intriguing article about how Ford (Anthony Hopkins), Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and Delores map to characters in “The Tempest.” So maybe Westworld would work if the production were a lot smaller and more fantastical in tone. (Meanwhile, since the showrunners are so fond of overwrought Shakespearean references, I’m curious about why they’ve avoided the most obvious parallel–to “Titus Andronicus,” the Bard’s most bloody and cynical of plays, about the fall of the Roman Empire. The Julie Taymor adaptation even stars Anthony Hopkins! :P)

One comparison that I definitely think is overstated is that between Westworld and Game of Thrones. Yes, HBO’s flagship show contains sudden reversals of fate, as is the purview of war and backstabbing. But everyone’s motivations are completely on the level. The primary mystery of the show, Jon Snow’s parentage and what that means in the broader arena, largely takes a backseat to his learning to deal with that chip on his shoulder, his journeys with “the wildlings” changing his perceptions on geopolitical conflict, and how that influences his rise (and fall) as Lord Commander and King of the North. If Jon were a Westworld character, all he’d do is bemoan his bastard status and quote “Hamlet,” I assume, while we get whiplash from jumping between twelve vaguely defined timelines until the writers get tired of it and reveal his mother inside of a well known robot. 😛 Sorry, I just don’t have much faith here.

Speaking of a lack of faith, now we get to the meat of the showrunners’ philosophical argument–that humans are facile and incapable of change. I’ll let Matt Goldberg explain why that’s droll:

Even if you agree with the fact that humans are relatively simple creatures, the notion that people don’t change is utterly ridiculous. There are some people who do, and some people who don’t. As people grow older, they become more fixed in their ways, and others change drastically. Broad generalizations make for easy drama, but Westworld never makes its case, simply taking the view of a snotty Sociology 101 student. But the fact that people change is a core facet of humanity, and one of the reasons we have conflicts and our relationships change. Additionally, some aspects of us change and others remain the same. To view it as binary is to miss the nuances of humanity.

Their argument is further derailed by their own storytelling in season two, where Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman) gets involved in a relationship with Maeve (Thandie Newton.) Now, for all of season one and part of season two, he was exactly like all of the other Delos employees–basically a toddler with tourtette’s syndrome. But do the showrunners really expect me to believe that he hasn’t changed when he’s sitting at Maeve’s bedside, and choking out the words, “I don’t know if you can hear me. I never meant for any of this to happen. You don’t deserve this…I’m sorry.” And yet he still turned her in because of the threat the robots posed to humans. Later, cowed by the torture he helped to inflict, he sacrifices himself for her. It seems like despite themselves, the showrunners proved that real, developed humans are complex.

Maeve’s basic storyline–the search for her daughter–was one of the only strong parts of the season. She also uttered my favorite, and most poignant line: “revenge is just another tool in their arsenal, darling.” I wasn’t thrilled by her superpower mind control, but even I have to admit that it fits into the parameters of Westworld worldbuilding. I was far less impressed by Shogun World–partly because watered down replicas in a gory setting don’t do it for me–but also because, like so much else on the Westworld, they were a tease. They didn’t really submit anything substantial to the show. Unpopular opinion time, but I also wasn’t taken with the episode “Kiksuya” (even my fellow haters seemed to love that. :P) But for all of the beautiful execution, it was exposition-heavy and the character beats felt unearned. I bet few of us even remembered Akecheta’s (Zahn McClarnon) wife’s name after the hour was over.

And my final few nitpicks. I know that I’m supposed to be quaking in my boots at the comparison between Delos spying on guests and Facebook cataloging our digital information, but Westworld still feels too ridiculous to me. Yes, Delos can steal intel about you–if a)you’re a billionaire and b)you spend your time raping and killing robots. But more egregious is how the show teased us that William’s secret plans were OH SO ORIGINAL. Uh…he wanted robots to gain sentience and humans to live forever. Those ideas have been around longer than any of us have been alive. Westworld…I think you’ve been inside your murder park for too long. It’s time to check in with reality.

The Handmaid’s Tale: “In another life, maybe we could have been colleagues. In this one, we’re heretics.”

Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) and June’s (Elizabeth Moss) relationship took a surprisingly congenial turn for part of the season

The Handmaid’s Tale is not a perfect show. The tight focus on June (Elizabeth Moss) leaves the broader Gilead worldbuilding a little hazy. Critics have rightly pointed out the blind spots, particularly with regards to how race is categorized in this fundamentalist world. I have a feeling that the showrunners focus on LGBTQ+ issues more because they can draw a stark line in the sand–Gilead is homophobic in a way that it can’t be racist and yet sustain a diverse cast. It’s a lazy cop out, but so much of their energy is spent on close character drama.

And as we move away from Offred’s journey in the Margaret Atwood book, we come across another problem as well–how can we keep June at the center of the story while maintaining dramatic tension? Season two, which mapped her pregnancy, contained three separate escape attempts on her part. Personally, I like the idea that there’s no magical cakewalk to Canada–it makes the totalitarian threat more real. But we also can’t see the same push and pull happen over and over again. The ending leaves things…ambiguous.

I’ve been debating what I think about curtain call of season two ever since it streamed. I know I hate that June referred to her baby as “Nicole” rather than “Holly;” not only does it diminish her own agency, but it’s a stupid move because the authorities would know this baby as “Nicole,” too. I’m more mixed on June’s decision to let Emily (Alexis Bledel) take the baby, and stay in Gilead herself to save her older daughter. The impetus makes perfect sense. In fact, they foreshadowed it in her first escape attempt when she felt so guilty about leaving the girl. But it carries the possibility of turning June into a superhero who can beat impossible odds and save the day. A couple of episodes ago, I cheered when Moss pointed out that June’s second escape attempt failed because “she isn’t Wonder Woman.” Last year I cheered when Luke (O.T. Fagbenle) was pulled back from playing Rambo and dashing back into the dangerous fray after his wife and daughter. I’m probably treating this development more optimistically than I should, because so far I’ve been moved by this show.

A lot of critics project the issues brought up in The Handmaid’s Tale to those afflicting America right now. I try and stay away from making direct comparisons unless the situation demands it–like the week when June was reunited with Hannah (Jordana Blake) and the U.S. was reeling from a new governmental policy of separating the children of undocumented immigrants from their parents. But sometimes, I find the comparisons to be unfortunate. The insistence of seeing the show as a straight up allegory for the United States under the current administration means that you’re not judging it on its own, artistic merits. And then we get think pieces like this one, where the author demands if the show wants us to feel sorry for “Ivanka Trump.” But Serena (Yvonne Strahovski) isn’t Ivanka Trump; you’ve just made yourself an excuse to not engage with the fictional character created for the story.

When the season began, critics complained about how the only violence we saw was woman-on-woman. But by the end of the shebang, when Fred (Joseph Fiennes) proved himself the top abuser in the Waterford household, more criticism came about making Serena “sympathetic.” I find this similar to how writers like the one above dismissed how liberals throw around the word “Nazi” for any conservative thinker. If you want a black and white world, like Westworld, where all villains are irredeemable, then watch William bemoaning his stained soul. The Handmaid’s Tale embraces complexity–meaning that no “side” is always in the right, and no villain is always in the wrong. Serena didn’t singlehandedly create Gilead, though she bears some culpability. And her motives weren’t sadism, but (however misguided) concern for the future of humanity.

Most importantly, however, seeing people like Serena and Eden (Sydney Sweeney) as the victims of Gilead proves the cruelty of the system. Patriarchy doesn’t just hurt the outsiders, it hurts everyone. And Serena’s (amazingly acted) journey is obviously about this semi-fundamentalist woman getting the wool lifted off of her eyes. I can’t wait to see her again in season three, wherever the road leads.

I brought up Eden, the shortlived wife of June’s lover, Nick (Max Minghella) for a reason. For the most part, the critics of this show are heavily “woke” to issues of prejudice against women. Therefore I was surprised by how much they distrusted this teenage girl. Granted, there were a couple of instances where the show set up situations to make her seem dangerous (though the “how” is a little more murky. Complain to Serena? Serena wouldn’t let Eden publicly air dirty laundry–too dangerous to all of them). But those are the only times when I doubted Eden; meanwhile, other critics were constantly predicting that she’d betray “the good guys” in a dozen melodramatic ways.

At the end of the day, however, Eden was proved to be a simple, kindhearted girl just looking for love. After her tragic end, writer Emma Gray grappled with the meaning of this:

In both Gilead and our world, teen girls are alternately dismissed and feared. They are silly fangirls, lovestruck fools, narcissistic selfie takers too young to be truly listened to. And yet, despite the fact that teen girls are constantly belittled and condescended to, they are still considered a threat. Their knees and shoulders can destroy entire school days for their male peers. They can take down behemoth brands with their fickle preferences. They can tempt older men into falling in love with and assaulting them. And if one deigns to explore her sexuality, she is labeled, as the commander labels Eden, a “slut,” a woman “swept up in her own selfish lust.”

I became “woke” to the widespread derisiveness towards feminine, domestic girls with Sansa Stark in ASOIAF/Game of Thrones. I can only hope that Eden’s story shines the light for more people.

This season is roughly divided into two parts, with an suicide bombing exploding down the middle. (Another thing I love about The Handmaid’s Tale–the showrunners don’t just let the suicide bombing be a “good” thing. They spend ample time thinking about the handmaids who lost their lives, and their relations in Gilead and Canada who grieved them. Anywho.) At first I thought that Fred might die in said bombing. It seemed to map to Atwood’s vision, where he was accused by higher ranking commanders of being too “liberal,” and then being “purged” early from the system. Instead, his main antagonist, Commander Pryce (Robert Curtis Brown) died and Fred became more powerful. Now it was the women in his household who challenged Fred by acting with their own agency. Fiennes had a great season himself, as he let Fred’s true colors rise to the surface.

Fred is the sort of villain that William might have been if he was more human. Both men live in fantasy worlds, but Fred uses his privilege to pretend that he’s a good man. He’s not a rapist; he’s making a moral society! He offers “Offred” pictures–and visits!–with her daughter! Until mid-season, he’s more soft-spoken and less temperamental than his wife. But that’s only when things are going his way. When he feels threatened, he resorts to violence and outwardly expressed misogyny.

Gilead is built on excuses and fantasy. When June works with Serena to protect herself within the patriarchy’s confines, she wonders if more vengeful and unbending Emily would forgive her for it. (Sidenote: I’m really hoping that Emily makes it to Canada, and we get to see more of her and underutilized Moira (Samira Wiley) battle their PTSD. Anywho.) I was struck by the scene where Aunt Lydia (Ann Dowd) got into June’s head by pointing out that she’d inadvertently killed a man by asking for his help to escape. On an ethical level, of course it’s not June’s fault that she reached out for help to escape tyranny. But the world is not a simple place with simple choices. June does bear some responsibility for his death and that’s the psychological power of Gilead. It makes you culpable. Or else it makes you a martyr. Maybe a terrorist.

Is The Handmaid’s Tale as bleak as people say? I dunno, as a cynic I’m used to finding light in the darkness. One of the bullshit philosophies that Westworld espouses is that suffering makes one human. The Handmaid’s Tale knows the truth. When we were in the colonies, we saw just how dehumanized people were by their suffering. But they could reclaim their humanity–by daring to focus on love, and fostering relationships. One of the middle episodes focuses on a marriage between two women–officiated by a rabbi! 😮 Finally, a clue as to what happened to Jews in the show’s Gilead. :/ Even bitter, defeated Emily ultimately understood the power in that.

Sooner or later we may have to expand beyond Gilead to get a fuller picture of how the world is responding to this totalitarian regime. Personally, I harbor a fantasy where the final season is given over to something akin to the Nuremberg Trials. All I know is that I trust the message of this show–the themes and the characters–in a way that I’ve never trusted Westworld. It’s never given me any incentive to, after all. I’ll be back on Hulu next year to watch season three of The Handmaid’s Tale. Dunno about the other one.

Some parting notes–Kudos, again, to the show for depicting the reality of female experiences–that birth looked arduous and painful! Anywho. I really felt for Nick, with Eden, though it was stupid of him to keep her at an emotional distance. But what was his alternative? Lie–play mind games–with this child bride? Would that even be fair to him, let alone to her?

I still have that scene from the second episode stuck in my head when June finds out how “The Boston Globe” employees were executed. Amazing editing there. On a victorious note, I got some foreshadowing vibes from the flashback scene where young June and her mom watched women burn the names of their rapists. The show followed through in the finale when June hit Fred with the message on her wall. GUH. June’s mother, Holly (Cherry Jones) was also in my favorite scene of season two. It’s when June is remembering driving with her mother and singing along to Gwen Stefani…really has little to do with the show itself, and more to do with my feelings towards my own mother. But that’s the strength of the narrative, really. It’s about a dystopian society–but it’s also about the complicated people who lived before and during it. That’s what makes this show worth a return trip.

June 30, 2018

“The Expanse” Season 3 and a Michael Chabon Addendum

Posted in Interfaith, Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:46 pm by chavalah

Broader Jewish Inclusion, Not Exodus

Chabon singin’ / wikipedia

Last month I was pretty glib in denouncing Michael Chabon’s graduation speech at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. But in seriously reading the thing, it’s not fair for me to get away with a mic drop. His words aren’t quite so self righteous as I made them out to be, as he grapples with legitimate violence and cruelty that comes out of some “separatist” ideologies of Judaism.

I do still think that he’s being alarmist. The vast majority of Jews, particularly in America, add more to their identities than the religion alone. Just check out any wikipedia page of a celebrity with Jewish heritage.

Intermarriage numbers are around 50%, and as the child of intermarried Jews and the family member to even more of them, you bet I’m peeved when my co-religionists calling it a plague. But this also furthers my resentment of the fetishization of intermarriage, too. Chabon lauds people like me as “mongrels and hybrids and creoles,” but he’s never had to stand in front of a group of Modern Orthodox Jews who look at him like he’s an alien until he explains, “no, it’s my mother who’s Jewish.” Like the award-winning novelist, I’d like to eradicate this dangerous form of wall-building (and especially to stop dismissing Jews of patrilineal descent!) But I wish he’d acknowledge the reality for intermarried Jews and their descendants before turning us into some banner for his cause.

Edmund Case, the founder of (disclaimer: I’ve written articles for them…also, Case is coming out with a book in 2019?! *adds to tbr*) posits the message of inclusion rather than exodus thusly:

We need to broaden our thinking about heirs to Jewish tradition and include not only those who are born Jewish or Jews by choice, but those who are in relationships with Jews. We need to adapt our concept of Jewish “people” to a broader Jewish “community” that includes everyone who is Jewishly engaged – Jews, their partners from different faith backgrounds and their children – to welcome and include all of those people as heirs to our valuable heritage.

To that end, I’d also add the Jews of Color out there. Chabon told the graduates directly: “Find room in the Jewish community for all those who want to share in our traditions.” Why dismiss Jewish pride as the purview of terrorists like Baruch Goldstein, instead of expanding it to include Jews in All Hues, Kulanu and etc? People like Shoshana Nambi, who’s studying to be the first female rabbi from Uganda? (Kol HaKavod!!) Not to mention all of the “traditional” Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews who celebrate Jewish heritage but also respect and engage with others.

Finally, Chabon says, “It seemed to me then, sitting at my brother and sister-in-law’s table, that Judaism had survived for so long not because of its famous tradition but rather because of its mutability, its flexibility, its adherents’ capacity not just to behave but to feel as though they have always been what they never were before.” I’d like to find a middle ground. Change doesn’t come out of nothing; one has to engage with tradition to find it. And change for change’s sake is as reductive as blindly following rituals. The real “wall” is to be unquestioning about it all. Sometimes “divisions” are necessary. The Shabbes distinction between the “sacred” and the “profane” dictates a day of rest and reflection so that we don’t run ourselves into the ground with unquestioned work. And every time we confront human rights issues means drawing lines in the sand. Chabon has come out strongly against the Occupation in the West Bank. Hopefully, heeding his own words about flexibility, he’s empathetic to both sides while being unflappable about abuses.

I think I’ll end it there, having done, I believe, this subject a little more justice than I did in May. Now, speaking as a Jew with a decidedly un-Jewish interest… 😛

“The Expanse”…Expands in Season 3// SPOILERS!

Final season on SyFy!

Header fail. 😛 But I still think the synopsis holds up. Tl;dr–I’m still catching up on seasons one and two of “The Expanse.” I watched the first few episodes when they aired and wasn’t impressed by a few things. I (wrongfully) thought that Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) was a one-dimensional bad guy. But I think I had more of a point when it came to the Miller/Julie storyline. Gavia Baker-Whitelaw explains it well on the Daily Dot:

Miller’s initial storyline was genre-savvy, but not in the Buffy sense. Tracking the missing heiress Julie Mao (Florence Faivre) across a bustling space station, he was a noir cliché: a grizzled, morally ambiguous white guy in a trilby hat, increasingly obsessed with a young woman he’d never met. Beautiful missing-or-dead girls have motivated many a male antihero over the years, offering a kind of romantic mystery without requiring a real relationship. Julie Mao was the face of the show, her body floating through space on the season 1 posters and home release, but she wasn’t really a character.

All of that had changed when I randomly came across a mid-season 2 episode a year later. Bobby Draper (Frankie Adams) felt like the new Julie, but she was actually at the forefront of her story. It was all about how she was a gung-ho, nationalistic marine, but when she’s used as a pawn she starts to question the superiors who had defined her reality. This also led her to become part of the broader plot, a “Game of Thrones”-esque conceit, where the warring human politics aren’t actually as important as the supernatural lurking in the background. Well, on “The Expanse” maybe it’s even worse because humans are messing with it and causing all sorts of destruction.

That leads us into the first part of season 3, where our main (I’d argue) protagonists, a “Firefly”-like crew of misfits on board their ship, the Rocinante, are trying to save a friend’s daughter. Some nefarious scientists are trying to inject her with “the supernatural” element, the protomolecule, in order to make a weapon. They also get entwined into the Earth/Mars/Belt warfare plot, cos people can’t seem to leave them alone. 😛

Some of the audience don’t seem to like the political storyline, which is generally about the fissures between Earth, Mars, and the underrepresented people who live on space stations in the asteroid belt, mining resources for “the inners.” Much of the first half of this season’s storyline revolved around Avasarala trying to stop a war that her colleague, Sadavir Errinwright (Shawn Doyle) is keen to start for the good of Earth. He’s thwarted in part by a new character, Rev. Dr. Anna Volovodov (Elizabeth Mitchell), who offers a refreshingly human take on a religious character for a scifi show. She’s earnest, perhaps a little naive, also moral and driven. Errinwright and Avasarala are traditional politicians–often conniving but also driven by genuine ideology, not greed. Anywho, part one of the season ends with Errinwright’s arrest and the Roci friend is reunited with his daughter.

The second half is a bit of a game changer, with the war called off and everyone working together because the protomolecule is creating “a ring” in space on its own. I appreciate how the show isn’t afraid to take risks and alter course, but I do think that it messes a bit with the pacing. Something like six months passed between two episodes, and we’re supposed to feel the tension concerning the long absence of one of the Roci crew. But only a few weeks later, real time, she realized her mistake in leaving and charted a course back.

Still, this show hits me in the gut with character feels. I’m not usually much of a shipper, but Holden (Steven Strait)/Naomi (Dominique Tipper) pushes all my buttons. It’s like watching John/Aeryn on “Farscape” again (except that I was a bad fan and sometimes I shipped John with Chiana. :P) They’re just two lost souls from different cultures trying to find some love and a fresh start…*wistful sigh* Well, another reason why “Nolden” reminds me of J/A is that I’ve heard evidence of grown men shipping them too, hee. Yeah, I could watch the season three finale on repeat solely for the lovey dovey stuff.

OK, I’m being a little glib. Holden and Naomi have more going on in their personal arcs than their sexy, sexy romance (seriously *wipes brow*) but this show also does relationships well. The second part of the season focuses on the part distrustful, part respectful push and pull between two Belter leaders, Drummer (Cara Gee) and Ashford (special guest star David Strathairn!) I was a little iffy on Ashford’s antagonistic turn in the finale, but then again the stakes were high and people make stupid decisions when they’re afraid. I’m also a fan of Drummer’s surly “I don’t get what you see in him” attitude with Naomi re: Holden. 😛 She’s sort of the biggest badass in the room (in the finale she refused to let her broken spine get the best of her and walked around on mechanical legs), which is usually a turn off for me, but in her case, I’ll allow it.

Same, too, for Bobby, who at least uses her brain as much as her brawn, and it looks like she’s defected from the Martians (again?) at the end of the season? Not sure. Also a little unsure about the new relationship between Anna and Roci crew member Amos (Wes Chatham.) He’s the brutal, unscrupulous sort of watch dog character that, again, usually turns me off, though I’m contractually bound to be in Chatham’s corner for life since he’s a “Hunger Games” actor. 😛 And he brings a certain…soft determination? to his character’s convictions, which maybe makes him a good fit for Anna after all. On the surface it seems like he should find her self-righteously idealistic and naive, but instead he’s taken a shine to her. I was also a little underwhelmed by “the revenge plot” of Julie’s sister, Clarissa Mao (Nadine Nicole) but it looks like she’s along for the ride in season four, too.

I love the diversity of the cast, and all of the science, though I don’t really understand it. 😛 And since I’m still ignorant of some stuff that happened in previous seasons (I’ll be caught up next year!) I’m sure I’m missing some deeper nuance. But one of the things that intrigued me most in the second half was the reappearance of Miller (Thomas Jane)–who died in season two! 😮 He appears as an apparition to Holden, but it’s not really him; it’s more like the protomolecule is trying to find the best way to communicate with our main character. This reminded me a bit of a scene near the end of one of my favorite movies, “Contact,” where the aliens speak to Jodie Foster’s character by impersonating her dad. It’s certainly a bit weird and intrusive, but something big is going on underneath the surface. Can’t wait for the next season, Amazon! 😀

May 31, 2018

Thoughts on some Jewish American Writers, Anne Frank, and a OUAT Coda

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:45 pm by chavalah

Philip Roth, probably peeved at something from the American Jewish community

The other week my mother commented to me how surprised she was by the outpouring of think pieces dedicated to Philip Roth’s passing–not knowing that I intended to add my own. 😛

Philip Roth died at 85 years old on May 22, 2018, Z”L. I may be leaning into something too caustic here, but what irony that it’s the same year that the Nobel Prize for Literature won’t be awarded. Well played.

Roth has been on my periphery as I’m someone who’s invested in the Jewish literary world. I’ve read two of his novels–The Ghost Writer, which annoyed me, and Portnoy’s Complaint, which I loathed. Still, I’ve been gearing myself up to give his collection another try. I’m considering a reading project for the future where I choose from winners of the National Jewish Book Award, so for Roth that would be Goodbye Columbus, The Human Stain and another of the Zuckerman alter-ego books.

The Men Who Love Philip Roth* have told me that I should focus on his later material rather than his earlier stuff. It’s a little more political, slightly more removed from himself (though I’m under the impression that Roth rarely removed himself from the center of his work), and generally less offensive to my lady feels. TMWLPR explain that for them, Portnoy’s Complaint was a sexual and philosophical awakening into what it means to be a man.

I’m not knocking on that, even though I still believe Portnoy’s Complaint to be garbage. I’ll leave the constant and unexplored sexual abuse out of it, and ask how many writers could get away with a main character who never changes and is surrounded by a bunch of cardboard cutout stereotypes? Only one whom the literary establishment has decided is nevertheless a genius, I suppose.

Dara Horn might have the right of it (surprise surprise, the think piece I agree the most with was penned by a woman):

Philip Roth’s works are only curious about Philip Roth. Of course, most writers lead with characters like themselves, and for Roth’s contemporary Jewish readers, his warts-and-all portrayal of people like himself was an honor, inviting them into American literature. But that was the outer limit of Roth’s imagination. His strength lay in those brilliantly rendered characters and voices like his. His weakness was that those voices denigrated just about everyone else.

But I’m allowing myself to move away from empathy for The Men Who Love Philip Roth. Because, like them, I’ve identified writers who prodded my own thoughts about sexuality and what it means to be a woman/person. The first writer I had this experience with is Anne Frank. (And if anyone is writing chiefly about herself, well, obviously she’s a diarist.)

I’ve actually documented the experience of reading Frank’s sexual exploration when I was 14 years old myself. And I’ve monitored, with trepidation, the recent reveal of some hidden, racier pages in Frank’s diary. I’m just very defensive about Anne, okay? Especially in the face of our lewd, “gotcha!” culture, which likes to snicker over corrupted innocence.

Then again, maybe it’s a good thing, as this article brings up in a statement from the Anne Frank House:

“Over the decades Anne has grown to become the worldwide symbol of the Holocaust, and Anne the girl has increasingly faded into the background. These—literally—uncovered texts bring the inquisitive and in many respects precocious teenager back into the foreground.”

One thing that Frank definitely wanted for herself was to become a professional writer. It’s impossible to parse if that would have happened had she lived, or how her outlook might have changed after her experiences in the camps. Survival, after all, is only one variable of what would have been Anne Frank’s life. Still, I would have loved to see her as a towering literary figure in adulthood. Imagine what it would have been like to speak of her in the same circles as Philip Roth. Roth himself imagined Frank as an adult in The Ghost Writer, but only from the outside–she existed as a projection for the male characters. Her only real act of agency was to decide to erase herself. I certainly hope that the reality wouldn’t be so bleak. But sadly, we’re only stuck with our reality, where Frank didn’t live to be 16.

Still, to think more optimistically, as Frank herself tried to do in her diary, she did become a famous writer. I’ve been thinking for awhile about what books I might like to reread (though generally I’m overwhelmed by how many exist that I haven’t read for the first time!) The Diary of Anne Frank is definitely near the top of my list.

Though I’m not sure if I’d identify so closely with Frank’s sexual musings, now that I’m no longer 14. As an adult, I find myself drawn to Meg Wolitzer’s novels for that purpose. Her female characters have experiences, sexual and otherwise, that run the gamut of what I’ve had, want to have or will never have. But they’re still very relateable.

Anne, I saw as more of a peer, despite the fact that she was born 54 years before me. Wolitzer is a few years younger than my mother, and in my head I’ve slanted her a bit into “the mentor” role. (Especially appropriate now that she’s probed the boomer-to-millennial mentor experience in her latest, The Female Persuasion!)

I’m three books away from having read her entire backlist. So I guess, MWLPH, that she is my Philip Roth. I hope that as time goes on, my fellow bibliophiles cement talk of her contributions to the literary world.

*Yes, there’s been more than one whose approached me, though their outlook is pretty uniform


In other Jewish American writer news, Michael Chabon is making headlines again after his controversial graduation speech at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. I’m not going to touch on his Israeli criticism here; it’s been widely covered elsewhere. I’m not even going to touch on his antagonistic attitude towards religion, though it does dovetail into what got my goat. 😛

I mean ostensibly, I started this blog to grapple with what it means to be a Jew from an interfaith family. And here strides in Chabon, declaring that inmarriage is “a ghetto of two.”

I’m the last person to spit on intermarriage. My parents are intermarried, after all, and I’d rather not forfeit my own life.

But I hate this brand of self-righteousness in dictating what other people should or shouldn’t look for in a marriage. There’s plenty of reasons why Jews should marry other Jews–shared interests and lifestyle choices, for one. Less tsuris over the religious identities of your children. Mutual respect for Judaism’s spiritual, cultural and historical contributions to the world. It’s a step into a larger community, not a retreat into a ghetto.

I’d assume that Chabon didn’t use this forum to air dirty laundry about his own Jewish wife, Ayelet Waldman, but this is a strange counterpoint to her own remarks that landed her in controversy.

I’m not here to pass judgment on anyone’s relationship, but if I were to get snippy about something…why is marriage often understood to be the end all, be all of everything? Particularly for those of us who are single, of course, but even for those in wedded matrimony, you can nurture other relationships. I wouldn’t exchange my Jewish and non-Jewish friends for anything. And if there’s anything that I’d like to rail against, it’s how romance is seen as uber-important, and friendships are often undervalued.

Farewell, Storybrooke.

This last bit doesn’t really fit with the others, but I couldn’t let May go by without bidding farewell to the ABC tv show, “Once Upon A Time.” OUAT was special for it’s focus on several female leads with strong storylines. It’s a show that got more convoluted with time, and this season, which became the final season, served as a reboot of sorts. I still stand by what I wrote last year about how I wish the show had ended. Season seven was overstuffed with new characters, thinly drawn storylines, and some shoddy time travel mischief. And while I’m complaining, I rather wish that “the wish realm” had stayed the sort of place where our real characters could confront their inner demons. Actually, that’s what it turned into for with Rumple, Henry and Regina for the last couple of episodes, and the show was better for it.

I still love the show’s central theme about hope conquering darkness. I can put up with a lot of magic-power opaqueness if that tenant is upheld. I also love that with Alice and Robin, the show finally gave us the fleshed out, same sex relationship that it had been promising. Of course, not all promises could be realized by the end, which is why we got a throwaway line about Lily’s revealed parentage. 😛

It was definitely time for OUAT to retire, but I’ll miss my weekly sojourn in front of the television, my chats with friends, and listening to the unofficial Once podcast. It’s been a good seven years. And remember the most powerful thing anyone can have: “Hope. Believing in even the possibility of a happy ending is a very powerful thing.”

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