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.

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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 InterfaithFamily.com (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.”

March 29, 2018

Spring 2018 Lesbian-Themed Pop Culture!

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 7:43 pm by chavalah

I can’t help but follow the trends. 😛 Lady love is hitting the landscape on the screen and on the page. Here’s a few pieces that I’m looking forward to consuming!

White Houses by Amy Bloom was released by Penguin Random House in February, and it chronicles the relationship between First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and prominent female reporter Lorena “Hick” Hickok. Historical fiction ahoy! It’s not Bloom’s first dip into the arena (for either historical or lesbian-themed fiction) but it’s certainly her most audacious. The writing might be fanciful but the characters were once real.

I’m rather intrigued to get a closer look at the life of Eleanor Roosevelt. And yet I’ve read two of Bloom’s other novels, which didn’t blow me away. But they weren’t awful, either, and she’s doing something a little new here. Maybe it’s time to give her another chance. Oy, there’s so much to read!

Speaking of which, these next two options are movie adaptations based on books I’ve already read. Well, I’m sort of fudging things a bit with this one. It’s the dramatization of the friendship and love affair between novelist Virginia Woolf and socialite Vita Sackville-West. Woolf, herself, wrote Orlando as a bit of a love letter to the other woman, but this movie, I believe, will be a more realist account of their relationship.

It’s currently in post-production and appears to be a rather small film…I hope that doesn’t keep it from coming across the pond! It’s due sometime this year, and I’m keeping my eye out.

Finally, this is another small production out of England, but it’ll be hitting US theaters in late April! It’s called Disobedience, based off of the award-winning novel of the same name by Naomi Alderman. It chronicles the relationship between a young wife and a female pariah from the Orthodox Jewish community in London.

I’m a little hesitant about this one because I loved the book (defenses up!) The trailer gives off the impression that the main conflict of the movie will be a current relationship between these two women. Perhaps that’s an odd thing to complain about in this blog entry that is celebrating relationships between women! 😛 But so much more is going on in the novel. And I’m constantly reminded that characters on the page can be more multi-faceted than characters on screen.

Still, I’m very taken with the acting abilities of my fellow Rachels. 😛 I’ll definitely be in the theater shortly after this movie opens, and I’ll be documenting my adaptation thoughts on my reading and writing blog!

I hope I’m coming off as facetious in this piece where I giggle about Lady Love. 😛 I’m serious about giving my kudos to lesbian relationships depicted in pop culture. Hopefully we’ll get a diverse set of stories into this particular type of sexuality. Onwards and upwards from here!

February 5, 2018

Retro TV: Revisiting “Six Feet Under”

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:08 pm by chavalah

“Six Feet Under” logo

I seem to be gearing up for my first season of tv-watching in 2018, or at least I’m trying to! 😛 Still no word from SyFy about season three of The Expanse. I think I’m forgoing Star Trek: Discovery on CBS All Access because I’m gonna splurge for Hulu and The Handmaid’s Tale instead. Expect a book-to-adaptation review on my reading/writing blog, soon!

I won’t be watching the Olympics, I know, it’s a shande, though I will return for season 7b of Once Upon a Time. So that just leaves my HBO regimen. The first show of interest to come on the air, this Sunday, is Here and Now, the newest project of Alan Ball.

When it comes to Alan Ball’s HBO projects, I have some unexplored feels. Not so much about True Blood, which I wrote about a few times on this blog (short version: I enjoyed that show, but it ended as a hot mess. :P) No, I’m thinking about Six Feet Under.

Exciting sidenote–another big event for me on Sunday is that an anthology where I’ll be published is having its launch event. 😀 So this is making me think about my “themes” in fiction, because I’m one of those pretentious writers who gets caught up in a certain idea. For me, it’s my fear of abandonment. There’s no greater abandonment, of course, than death.

Six Feet Under takes place around the Fisher family funeral home. Most episodes start with documenting the death of a guest star, which then lends itself to the storylines of the main cast. Much of the show has to do with the drama between the two brothers who run the joint–laid back man child, Nate Jr, and rigid and closeted (to begin with) gay man, David. We also delve into the lives of their mother, Ruth, their much younger sister, Claire, and their employee, Federico. Everyone’s also a bit haunted by the “ghost” of their patriarch, Nathaniel Sr, who dies in a car crash in the first episode.

I put “ghost” in quotation marks because this isn’t a literal poltergeist. The show is relatively neutral on the afterlife, preferring to focus on the here and now (ta da ching), and the dead appear as projections of the living. It’s a built in trick to deal with inner drama. 😛

Every now and then HBO airs a few episodes of Six Feet Under, and I get sucked in a little bit. I think that the strongest storylines revolve around Nate (Peter Krause) and David (Michael C Hall.) I also had a bit of a soft spot for Claire (Lauren Ambrose) who, though much different than me, was the same age. The show basically chronicled “our” high school and college years.

When the storylines stayed close to the family and business drama, I was hooked. But a couple of subplots went off the rails and became too melodramatic–the whole incidence of Nate’s wife’s disappearance and mysterious death, and David being kidnapped and abused. Those always kept me from getting fully engrossed in the series.

I’m also a little eyebrow archy the deaths depicted–they were almost always freak accidents or intentional killings. Statistics show that most of us in the US will die of heart failure or other afflictions in our advanced years, but most victims on the show were middle aged. I suppose I have to suspend disbelief and say that most of the Fisher clientele were elderly, but they showcased the more unusual cases to complement whatever was going on with the living people.

In a way, the show was a long treatise with how to deal with the advent of death. At the end of the first season, Nate gets a harrowing brain injury diagnosis, which he succumbs to near the end of the last season. It’s one of the only times that we get a “death montage” at the end, not beginning, of an episode. But otherwise, the presentation of Nate’s death is treated like everyone else’s. Before he dies, with David seated at his bedside, we go into this strange, psychological dreamscape with their father to probe how both of the men confront this concept.

A couple of episodes later the show ends with this future-reaching montage that depicts the deaths of all of the main characters. It always makes me tear up. It’s told from Claire’s perspective, as she literally drives through time while partaking in a cross country move. Here, most characters die of more natural causes, and I wonder if we had to see the entire show before we could appreciate the relatively normal lives and deaths of the Fishers et. al. (I also love the music and am freaked out that Claire lives to be 101. At least one of us will.)

Claire’s death depresses me to a degree because we don’t see any living family members around her (I assume Ball figured that would be distracting, seeing as she outlived all of the main cast.) Instead, we see a display of all of the pictures that she took of her family–a reminder that the finality of death cannot take away from the fullness of life. The overall show proved that for most of the characters, imho, even those who didn’t live the longest.

For more ruminations by Ball and the cast on the finale, click here. I’m going into Here and Now relatively unspoiled, though it looks like it’ll be closer in tone to Six Feet than to True Blood. Hoping it lives up.


This show isn’t airing any time soon, but I’ve also been niggling over Transparent. It’s rather obviously about a transgender and gay family, but it’s also about a Jewish family. When it comes to “Jewish,” Hollywood usually depicts one of two strands–very Orthodox or very Seinfeld. 😛 But this series is about a Reform family! Progressive (and still active) Judaism ahoy! I need to see this. I’m talking myself into it. My parents have an Amazon prime account… hmm. *wheels turning*

Hope my fellow TV nerds find something good to watch this year!

December 31, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi: The Old and The New

Posted in Pop Culture at 2:50 pm by chavalah

WARNING: SPOILERS TO FOLLOW

“It’s time for Luke Skywalker to have lines again.” 😛

I thought that I’d written a public review of “The Force Awakens” two years ago, but it turns out that I did not. Suffice to say…it left me cold. I realized, after I’d sussed out all of my feelings, that perhaps I now have greater empathy for the disappointment that “The Phantom Menace” inspired in so many fans. This was NOT where I wanted to see Star Wars go. I wanted to see Leia in political power, with perhaps Han by her side, and Luke training a new order of Jedi. I wanted the antagonistic threat to come from the fringes, rather than the new trilogy re-tooling old ground with the rebels still rebels and The First Order still the Empire. I wanted something more akin to the Expanded Universe novels (I know that some folks even wanted to see Thrawn as the big baddie) though I also respect that J.J. Abrams wanted to create something original. Insofar as “The Force Awakens” is original, that is. >:D #TeamShade

…actually, having watched “The Force Awakens” for the third time ever this weekend, I’m a little more forgiving of it. I suppose this is largely because after “The Last Jedi,” I feel more affiliation for the new characters. “The Last Jedi” on it’s own is–something else. It largely follows the same path as the originals. Overwhelmingly powerful bad guys have the beleaguered good guys on the run, but with a last minute infusion of hope the good guys can win…the battle if not the war. Some of the dialogue in Rey’s storyline is definitely lifted from Return of the Jedi. (Though no “I have a bad feeling about this.” 😮 What’s happening here?! :P) But there are parts of this movie that are different than anything we’ve ever seen before, too. The Resistance is more fractured than ever was the Rebel Alliance. And then there’s Luke, and his controversial story arc.

Below, I’ve divided the episode into two rough plotlines. Here’s one of very few structural problems with the movie—it was too long and a bit too convoluted to shift between that many people all of the time. I also found most of the visuals to be underwhelming. I know I’m not supposed to believe this, as a Star Wars fan, but man did the worlds of the prequels feel more alive to me. But hey—at least with this sequel trilogy, the humor actually lands, so. 😛 Oh, Jar Jar. We shall not speak of you again.

The Resistance Runs from The First Order

Plot objectives: show the Resistance as beleaguered underdogs, running from and falling to the menacing First Order fleet. Set up tension between Poe and leadership about how best to resolve this. Transitioning to Finn and Rose’s secret mission to find a code breaker, which ultimately fails but leads to a subplot about war profiteering. With their backs against the wall, reintroduce hope and a spark to inspire oppressed people everywhere.

A lot of this plot is similar to the original series, just magnified. We’ve seen, before, how the rebels are martially outnumbered, but little distinct attention has been given to the idea of oppressed peoples. It’s certainly something that is very resonant, and often talked about in today’s political climate. “The Phantom Menace” actually touched upon the issue of slavery, too, but it was much more of a footnote.

But we also see the rebels as more fractured than ever, too, with a stunning change from protocol. In “A New Hope,” “The Return of the Jedi,” even “The Phantom Menace” and “The Force Awakens,” it’s standard procedure for the good guys to throw everything they have at a baddie ship, even when they lose most of their fighters along the way. Yet when Poe attempts to do it here, he gets shafted. 😮 Wha?? I mean frankly, I kinda agree with Leia on this one, but it’s certainly a change from her younger, more brash behavior. Maybe growing older, and living a life that seems rife with conflict, she’s grown more wary. I’ll always regret that we didn’t get more time with her character.

Instead, Leia is taken out of commission and Poe gets a new superior adversary, Admiral Holdo. I can only imagine that this is because the movie wanted to sow doubts in our heads about her trustworthiness. If it was Leia, we might tell Poe to stop acting like a cocky flyboy, but with Holdo it’s like…who is this lady? We, as the audience, know Poe better; perhaps we should stick with him.

And so Poe sends Finn and new character Rose to find a something something to save the day, yadda yadda, the real point is to take a look at the gauzy scum who got rich off of war profiteering, and for examples about how those in power abuse those without. Rose explains how she and her sister grew up on a mining colony that The First Order exploited for their military. Frankly I think this had more heart than Poe and Holdo arguing futilely, but we needed a reason to get them there.

A final new, and perhaps disquieting aspect of the Resistance–people actively decide to become suicide bombers. True, several people across all of the movies have died in the fight, and now we have “Rogue One” where Jyn and her allies are pretty much backed into a corner of self-sacrifice. It seems like a far more conscious choice, if not with Rose’s sister then definitely with Holdo. I suppose that until we see rebels aiming their bombs at First Order children, Gale Hawthrone style, I should just shrug it off. But then it’s like “The Last Jedi” is trying to have it’s cake and eat it, too, with Rose stopping Finn from doing another suicide run. Suddenly, it’s about how, paraphrasing, “we have to save what we love, not fight what we hate.” A-whaa? It’s a little late to take this particular high ground! Will Episode IX be focused less on military clashes and more on community building? At the very least we should get more character moments between folks, and I’m on board for that.

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa…the feels. :/

Jedi Dramaz

Plot objectives: explain why Luke has turned tail and run. Begin Rey’s training anyway. Open a connection between Rey and Kylo Ren so that they can test their backstories and intentions. Have Luke come to terms with things and pass on the reigns of the Jedi.

Some of the most originals-heavy material comes from this section. Rey tracks down Luke, the hermit Jedi Master, officially to bring him back into the fold, but really to learn about her affinity for the Force. She has a cave vision, kinda having to do with her parental drama, though I found it to be underwhelming. Worked much better in her scenes with Kylo Ren. And speaking of Kylo Ren, Rey leaves her training to go and rescue him. Now, in “An Empire Strikes Back,” Luke leaves his training to physically rescue his friends, Han and Leia. It takes awhile longer for him to try and save his father from the dark side, and frankly I felt that the Kylo/Rey stuff was a little rushed. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver have great chemistry, but they weren’t ready for The Crosswalk/Elevator Scene. 😛

Possibly unpopular sidenote–I never really liked explaining the draw to the dark side as “just because.” The struggle between your good and bad impulses should come from within yourself, not some external force. I think that’s what annoys me most about Kylo Ren’s journey; some of his dialogue about being pushed and pulled is way too esoteric. He needs more exploration of his interior motivations. Might I suggest something like this scene? Haters to the left, but I love it.

But my main issue with this plot is Luke. He’s always been my favorite character in Star Wars and–I’m ambivalent, feeling pushed and pulled myself. On the one hand, I love how he ties things back into the prequels, and points out that the Jedi grew corrupt under their own power. I also appreciate that he still has things to learn as a teacher. But there’s something so cynical about him running away because he thought that he failed. Maybe he could’ve been biding his time on that island, like Yoda but less kooky. 😛 Another ridiculous nitpick for me is that I kinda like how Mark Hamill plays the cranky, disillusioned old man, but also like Mark Hamill, I’m not sure how well it works for Luke Skywalker. Surely he could find a middle ground between “the Force should only belong to the Jedi” and “the Jedi need to end.”

And I’m also not sure what I think about the Jedi being so mythologized. If Luke’s been absent for so long, then why would he be the one to motivate the troops? Ultimately, he was largely a diversion—Rey saved the rebels while he took on his Obi-Wan mantle to be struck down and, presumably, brought back as a ghost in the next movie. (Sidenote—his death scene was pretty visually stunning. /feels) Apparently he’s regained his faith in what Jedi can be again, and he also repeated an annoying teacher line with both Rey and Kylo about how “everything you just said was wrong.” 😛 To me, I suppose this physical transition between Luke and Rey was the most visceral in showing how hope works. Otherwise, I think they were pretty heavy-handed about it in the dialogue, with Luke needing to restore the spark of hope, yadda yadda. I feel like they let actions speak for themselves more in the other movies.

…now I must eat crow, because the final conversation between Luke and Leia, which was purely philosophical, is what made me cry. :/ Granted, a lot of that had to do with the fact that this will be the last time that we see the actors, as well as the characters, together. Mark Hamill surely had no idea how poignant his “no one ever leaves us” line would be when he said it. None of us did, but in light of what happened to Carrie Fisher, may her memory be for a blessing, it’s what we needed to hear.


Stray observations:

  • I’ll always be bummed by how little we got to see Leia use the Force, and that’s why I’m giving a complete pass to her space walk. Also, that scene where Luke re-connected himself to the Force and they call out to each other…THE FEELS!
  • I’d kinda love for Finn and Rey to be very close friends without being lovers (though this is Star Wars, and romance has always been part of it.) Either way, I’m expecting Kylo Ren to attack start attacking Rey through her relationships.
  • Man am I glad that Snoke (who I always want to call Snopes) is dead…talk about BORING! Though he did lay down what sounds like a prophecy–big time dark force user (Kylo) vs big time light force user (Rey.) I’m not sure where they’re going with this because the movie is also keen on saying “let go of the past”–er, mighty strong words for the 9th Star Wars film in a never-ending franchise. 😛 But since the actors have chemistry, I’m here for it. I expect that this will replace my Skywalker family drama feels. 😦
  • Kylo Ren and General Hux have the feel of two emo fanboys competing to be lead guitarist in a Linkin Park cover band. 😛 I’m slowly growing to enjoy the comedy, but in terms of imperial scariness, it’s enough to make a girl miss Admiral Tarkin!
  • Billie Lourd better be in Episode IX (I’m sure she will be) and man do the cinnamon buns look good on her. 😛
  • Holdo, shockingly, tells the Resistance “god speed” rather than the traditional “May the Force be with you”—a-whaa? I’m assuming they’re not gunning for a message about religious diversity in Star Wars, so I guess it was an oversight. That’s what took my dad out of the story the most.
  • I feel sorry for Poe’s situation, but I don’t really like him as a character. It’s that cocky flyboy bit…in all honesty, *awkward, unpopular opinion cough* I’m not much of a Han fangirl, either. It’s always been a bit about Luke and Leia for me. I suppose, despite my other issues with “The Last Jedi”, it’ll stick with me for that.

November 26, 2017

A WRINKLE IN TIME, Political Leanings and Stories for Young Girls Today

Posted in Pop Culture at 8:19 am by chavalah

Fourth and final installment in my 2017 #NaNoBlogMo project!

Storm Reid as Meg Murry

My second Chris Pine post this month is a lot more on point. 😛 It involves his new movie, A Wrinkle in Time. The new trailer just dropped on November 19!

So there are plenty of little Jewish girls who fall for Christian fantasies. 😛 THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA and THE LORD OF THE RINGS are pretty big regardless of gender. But ever since I was 11 years old, my personal fave was Madeliene L’Engle’s A WRINKLE IN TIME. To be fair, there is something of a universalist appeal to the novel, like the part where Jesus is named alongside secular people and other religious figures like the Buddha, something that more conservative Christian groups have railed against. But the whole good vs evil theme, complete with the witches as guardian angels, is pretty stark. It might be a little too simplistic and without nuance for my adult tastes, but then I remind myself of what drew me to the story as a child—the characters. Meg, Charles Wallace, Calvin, Dr. Murry, even the witches are all good folks, and they are all flawed. They make mistakes and they grow from them.

Just recently I’ve come to realize something that is perhaps obvious—some libertarians take the book as an inspirational text. L’Engle does, after all, make a strong case against a Big Brother Is Watching sort of Soviet-style groupthink, and the novel came out during the height of the Cold War. Though apparently, according to L’Engle’s granddaughter, she cut out a three-page segment that alluded to the dangers of a both dictatorships and excessive security measures in democratic countries…perhaps something akin to a Muslim ban or building a large border wall. 😛 Either way, the book wasn’t meant to be a simple allegory.

Politics is a fraught subject, and to jump back to my last post, briefly, I think my inspiration for it got a little lost in the shuffle. Star Trek is predicated, in part, upon the idea of complete racial equality in government, and it seems obvious to me that we can’t get to that point if there isn’t at least civil protest in this age concerning police brutality against Black men. So I felt a little bit of a disconnect when some social conservatives on Facebook complained about the Discovery cast supporting people who “bend the knee.” In this case, however, though I’m not libertarian myself, I understand why this novel might appeal to them. I, myself, reading this book as a 5th grade assignment, equated the novel’s oppressive conformity to something even more universal than communism—grade school. OK, that’s a little cheeky, but there is also some truth to it–I’ll let Angus explain it to you. As an adult I started calling my condo board Camazotz after they decreed that none of us could have welcome mats or too many external decorations, so let’s hope none of them stumble across this blog, teehee.

So even before we brush upon the idea of a film adaptation, there certainly is a lot of room in this novel for various interpretations. But there are some benchmarks of which, as a book lover, I am particularly possessive. I’ve talked in some other blog entries about my concerns about the Disney film, and I thought I would continue with that here. Though I’ll predicate the following with a bit of a disclaimer—I don’t think that this book can be adapted.

The primary reason that I believe this is because of the character, Charles Wallace. He is a five-year-old child prodigy and although Meg is at the center of the story, he is the reason that the witches come to Earth. I haven’t seen Deric McCabe, who plays Charles Wallace, say any lines in any of the trailers and frankly that doesn’t surprise me. I think that it might be an impossible role to fill, unless perhaps we could go back in time and snatch up Isaac Hempstead-Wright, aka Bran Stark from Game of Thrones. 😛 And even he was too old when that show started!

So fine, the movie witches might, in fact, be a lot more interested in Meg than they are in Charles Wallace if I go by what Oprah’s Mrs. Which. (Sidenote: Oprah is generally a fine actor, but it’s disconcerting for her to have so many lines in these trailers. It’s a little heavy-handed.) Mrs. Which implores Meg to “be a warrior,” and this will probably be my most ideological quibble with the movie. And even there I am being a bit nitpicky, because L’Engle’s text certainly refers to “a grand and exciting battle” being waged across the universe and how Earth has some great “fighters” (where the Jesus and Buddha and others quote comes from.) But these “fighters” are religious figures, artists and academics, not your typical warriors. That word shifts the focus towards something aggressive, and away from the book concepts of creativity, intellect and love.

And I’m not sure I can blame director Ava DuVernay, writer Jennifer Lee or even Disney, exactly, because it’s been a trend in recent years, to cast young girls as aggressive, physical heroines. That’s certainly not how I, growing up in the ’90s, viewed Meg. But maybe Storm Reid’s Meg will be more akin to my beloved Katniss from The Hunger Games: she looks like a one-dimensional action figure, but there is actually something deeper going on in the narrative. Already, I’m excited for Reid’s scenes with Chris Pine. I do think that we might miss out on some of the brother/sister dynamics, because really canon Charles Wallace cannot be played, but we might get more of the father/daughter relationship. Eeee!


So yeah, expect a review of that movie in March! I’ll probably post it to my reading and writing blog since I’ll be comparing the adaptation to the book. But stay tuned, right here, next month, for my review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi! And next #NaNoBlogMo, I’ll most likely be reviewing the new Harry Potter film, which now has a name: Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald! Raising my geek flag high. 😀

November 19, 2017

The Complicated Legacy Around STAR TREK

Posted in Pop Culture at 8:15 am by chavalah

Third installment in my 2017 #NaNoBlogMo project.

STAR TREK: DISCOVERY, hiding behind a paywall 😛

Fun fact—these next two blog entries both involve Chris Pine. 😛 He’s far less central in this first one, though. He’s just my jumping off point for understanding Star Trek because (I know—shame, shame)—I’m most familiar with his movies.

Like many other science fiction and fantasy fans, I watched the pilot for the newest Trek tv show, Star Trek: Discovery and have been waffling on buying into the CBS All Access bit. I’m just wary of the fact that I’d be paying for this service when I’m only interested in one show; I have the same pop culture dilemma when it comes to The Hamdmaid’s Tale and Hulu. I feel like an old lady as I gripe about missing the old and dependable way for acquiring my moving pictures. 😛

But everywhere I go online, people are whining about the subscription service. Apparently few of us know what to do with this. Meanwhile the show has been renewed for a second season after receiving 83% positive reviews from critics, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Yet whenever I see a news story on Facebook about these developments, it’s always accompanied by several angry face reactions.

Sifting through the comments I’ve come to realize that some Star Trek fans aren’t just mad about the new expense. They’re also upset about the general direction of the franchise’s newest iteration, which I’ll get into later. I’ve also seen a lot of indignation and complaints about the fact that some of the Discovery cast and crew took a knee on premiere night in protest of police brutality against African American men.

Here’s the irony of being a speculative fiction fan. I love science fiction and fantasy for expanding my mind and letting me see real issues and themes in new ways. But I’m still surprised by the idea that socially conservative folks find something in Star Trek. I know that I should tread carefully. I’m not actually that familiar with the franchise. When it comes to all of the past tv shows I’ve only seen an episode here or there.

But I understand the impetus behind Star Trek. I understand that Gene Rodenberry wanted to imagine a future where Asian American men and African American women and (and women in general! Plus Jewish Vulcans) could have a seat at the table…or a spot in command of the Enterprise. 😛 I think my favorite story in the making-of-Star Trek archive will always be how Martin Luther King, Jr encouraged Nichelle Nicholls (aka Lt. Uhura) to stay on the show because of the important work she was doing for the advancement of Black people. According to Nicholls, Dr. King told her, “You are marching. You are reflecting what we are fighting for.”

Dr. King wasn’t naïve. He marched, spoke and died so that the United States could pass civil rights legislation to protect African Americans. But he knew that wasn’t the end of racist violence and discrimination. At the risk of voyaging into hubris, I’ll state that I fully believe that Dr. King, were he still with us, would be kneeling with Colin Kaepernick and the new Star Trek employees.

But not everyone feels that way. Some people apparently believe that Dr. King’s work ended in the ’60s and that current political movements are hiding more nefarious ends. And in all honesty, I don’t know what Gene Rodenberry would have believed. I’m wondering if any of his biographies address this point. Was he one of those people who didn’t “see color”? His future vision—and perhaps that of fans who are angry at “take a knee”—is that we should ignore race altogether.

Personally, I think that is a short sighted approach. In the time since we arrived on this planet, we haven’t been able to shake xenophobia. What magic pill would the United Federation of Planets offer to make us forget this all too human trait? I think that people, and organizations, can strive to be good, but we are flawed. Our society will always carry forward some forms of discrimination against others because we don’t know how not to, as the “bend a knee” movement proves. And even if we could rid all of it from “the system,” we can’t rid it all from the human heart.

So I guess maybe it’s me who struggles with the ideology behind Star Trek. Even moving past the ubiquity of discrimination and hatred, I don’t believe that most human conflicts devolve into a simple good vs bad. Therein lies the structural problem that many fans seem to have with Star Trek: Discovery. The main characters aren’t always squarely in the morally justified camp. And the show, apparently, is pretty dark and serious.

(Side note—many people on Facebook are recommending The Orville to watch instead…but ever since I heard that it’s Seth MacFarlane’s project, I’m just wondering how he can adapt The Mustache Song for outer space. :P)

We can blame Game of Thrones for that, probably. 😛 Since the brutal fantasy series took hold of pop culture consciousness, much of TV drama exists in a sea of gritty realism. I’m trying to remember my favorite show of all time, Farscape (which definitely wouldn’t have been possible without Trek.) The first few seasons, which aired in the early 2000s, handled space chases and vendettas with a little bit of a lighter touch. But as time went on and the show became more serialized, the tone got much darker; it included post traumatic stress and drug use in its final season. Maybe that’s why the show was cancelled; the details of that have always been a little bit fuzzy to me. But such darkness would not merit the red flag in today’s day and age.

I feel so conditioned to fall for the dark and the brooding now that it’s good to remind myself for my love of Farscape and the much kookier Xena: Warrior Princess. Maybe I should watch some older renditions of Star Trek, too.

But at the end of the day, my gut calls out for Discovery. And for The Handmaid’s Tale. Hey—when the world is dark and serious, hope shines out all the more. Maybe it’s time that I abandon old systems, just because they’re comfortable, and go out and make this happen.


Addendum: Concerning staying abreast of science fiction and fantasy television news, I’ve been poking around the Tuning Into SciFi TV podcast again. It’s the brain child of some former Farscape podcasters, and there’s some great (if overwhelming) content on here. Genre-loving friends and family—take note! I already do all of this obsessive behavior books; I can’t handle television, too! Oh, the problems of a pop culture addict. 😛 Their listeners can’t stop talking about the inconvenience of subscriber services, either.

November 11, 2017

New Bookstore Branches and Celebrity Signings!

Posted in Pop Culture at 1:59 pm by chavalah

Second installment in my 2017 #NaNoBlogMo project.

Feeding my book signature appetite 😛

Yesterday afternoon I trekked over to the newly revitalized District Wharf in Southwest Washington, DC. It’s the type of place that I think I’d find absolutely charming, were a few more of the storefronts open and the temperature a little higher than freezing. 😛 But otherwise, I think that I need to build up my list of cool places to take out of town guests!

One store that has opened, and is now heavily promoting itself, is the newest branch of Politics & Prose. On Friday evening, they booked Jackson Galaxy, who was on tour and talking about his new cat care book (co-authored with Mikel Delgado), Total Cat Mojo: Everything You Need to Know to Care for Your Favorite Feline Friend.

It was a little foolhardy for Politics & Prose to schedule this event for the new place when their flagship store is so much bigger. I got to the venue about two hours early and already people were claiming their chairs. By the time the presentation started, it was a head to head traffic jam throughout the entire store.

Galaxy gave a prepared through personal speech, where he called on various types of cat guardians and shelter and humane society workers to raise their hands. He talked briefly about his history of getting involved with the species and learning their behaviors, in a segment laced with jokes and laughs. Finally, we folded up our chairs and assembled into a long and somewhat messy book signing line. Luckily I was sitting close to where he set up shop with his pen, so I got to the front of the line within 20 minutes or so.

Part of me wishes that I’d gotten a picture with him, for this blog if for nothing else, but that’s never been my custom at author signings. Suffice to say, this signature is what I came for. That, and the chance to tell Jackson Galaxy my prepared mini-speech: “My cat Leah died last month. Thank you for teaching me about her.”

He looked touched by my words, or at least I hope that he did. When I confirmed that I was currently without a cat, he adjoined “hopefully not for long.” It was a mix of his desire to see animals saved from shelters, I believe, and maybe the understanding that most of us kitty people can’t be companionless for too long. Actually, the humane society from where I adopted Leah (formerly the Washington Animal Rescue League, in part) also had a table set up during the signing. So I made sure to tell the volunteers about their former resident and ask about current adoption practices.

I don’t watch a lot of reality tv; in fact, I’m pretty ambivalent about the whole enterprise. But somehow the Animal Planet’s “My Cat From Hell” got in under the radar. It’s basically a broadcast of Galaxy’s consultation business for cat guardians who are at the ends of their leashes. Sometimes I indulge in my Jerry Springer side—I might not be the best cat guardian ever, but at least I’m doing better than that guy!. More often, I’m convinced that I am that guy. Why couldn’t I get Leah to play with dangly toys or stop scratching the door frames?

Other times, I try to take a more productive approach. I labeled Leah as a bush dweller because she rarely got onto high places of her own volition, and was much more comfortable hanging in cabinet drawers. 😛 We did the slow blink a few times. I looked out for signs when she wanted my company and when I should leave her alone. Maybe I didn’t always abide by those indicators, heh.

I am also drawn to Jackson’s persona—this bald, tattoo-covered guy who is actually a big cat cuddler. And I appreciate his brand of identifying issues and behaviors with simple terms and life goals, even if, as a fiction writer, I prefer to complicate these things. 😛 The whole “cat mojo” brand is his philosophy that a cat desires to hunt, catch, kill, eat, groom, sleep. If you can get your cat’s life to mimic that schedule, then the cat should most likely be happy and confident.

I’m not ready to adopt just yet, but I do know that the day is coming. Right before I adopted Leah I bought a couple of cat books and now I feel like I must upgrade. My relationship with the show, My Cat From Hell has mostly been about fleeting anxieties and observations. Now that Galaxy has written his advice down in book form, I hope to make comprehensive choices about what I should do for my next cat. I know that I shouldn’t blame myself for what happened to Leah (for more on that topic, click here), and that, to be blunt about it, death comes for all of us. But instead of walking a tightrope of guesses as a guardian, I want to be on solid ground. I suppose that I want to boost my own confidence, too.


Books are a wonderful and multi-faceted tool for opening your mind and expanding your horizons. And with that transition underway here is some follow up from last week’s post: the GoodReaads Choice semifinals are open and running! Cast your votes for your favorite books of 2017 up until tomorrow! (Then, the final round runs from the 14th to the 27th where each category will be shaved to just five books…before one book will rule them all. 😛 Well, per category.)

The previous round, aka the opening round, included the option of write-ins, with the most popular of those being added to the official ballot. I’m thrilled to see another pick from my TBR up for best fiction–Young Jane Young by Gabrielle Zevin! This reminded me that I myself could have written in my votes last time, and I’ve even gathered some eligible contenders below:

In Fiction: All The Rivers by Dorit Rabinyan and translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen
In Memoir & Autobiography: The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis
And in Science Fiction: The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

Speak of being proactive! What type of GoodReads-loving book nerd am I anyway. *hangs head* Ah well, there’s always next year. And meanwhile, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor continues to advance in Young Adult Fantasy! Booyah!

November 4, 2017

GoodReads Choice Awards and My Big Scramble

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:24 pm by chavalah

First installment in my 2017 #NaNoBlogMo project!

Let the games begin!

My favorite online awards show is upon us again! Early this month, GoodReads unveiled their first round of Choice nominees. The opening rounds ends tomorrow, where you can vote, in several categories, for your favorite of 15 titles per genre, or you can nominate your own. GoodReads will then add the most popular write-ins to the ballot, and the semifinal round of voting will commence until November 12. The final round, which will shave each category to ten contestants, allows voting until the 27th. Then the definitive winners will be announced on December 5.

Since I’ve started becoming more of a geek for book news a couple of years back, I keep hoping for a transformation in my relationship with popular reading. And I suppose that has come to pass, because I recognize many of the books in my favorite genres. Several of them are on my tbr, aka “to be read” list. But ultimately, I’ve only actually finished one of them! Once a predominately backlist reader, always a predominately backlist reader, I guess. 😛

Still, it would be nice to be more “in the know” the next time these awards roll around. I don’t believe in voting unless I’ve actually read and enjoyed the book in question. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t ruminate about my favorite genres! I thought I’d take this time to highlight the books that interest me most, and the ones that I think, given podcast listening and BookTube viewing, might actually win.

Fiction/ Historical Fiction/ Fantasy/ Science Fiction/ Debut GoodReads Author/ Young Adult Fiction/ Young Adult Fantasy/ Nonfiction

Fiction
My TBR: The Leavers by Lisa Ko. I got a copy signed at the National Book Festival in September! It’s a story, in part, about the juxtaposition of identities—the main character was abandoned by his Chinese national/undocumented immigrant mother, and later adopted by a well-to-do white, American couple. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. Similar themes—even ethnicity-wise! It involves the attempted adoption of a Chinese American baby by a white family in a planned community. But alas, I still have to read Ng’s Everything I Never Told You! I have a physical copy on my shelf. 😛

Predicted Winner: Of the ones I’ve heard a significant deal about, I’d go for Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jessmyn Ward. It’s currently in contention for the National Book Award and has been nominated for a handful of others, too. Ward’s last book, an anthology on race relations that she edited, came out just last year. But going by the number of reads, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman is ahead by a mile.

Historical Fiction
My TBR: Following similar themes here. I’m very intrigued by the Koreans-in-Japan theme of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee. It’s always useful to see how bigotry manifests in other places and amongst other people. But alas, I have her earlier novel, Free Food for Millionaires, unread on my shelf! Also of interest on the list: Salt Houses by Hala Alyan. I remember being in a bookstore in Kansas with my aunts, debating buying it, but I was in an austere mood about purchasing hardbacks at the time. 😛 Still, I read so much fiction about Israel from a Jewish perspective; it’s time to turn my attention to a Palestinian experience. I listened to Alyan read a segment and the writing seems strong.

Predicted Winner: I’ve never heard of the book that has the most ratings, Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark T. Sullivan (so much for my cred!) But Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders also has high numbers and it just won the Man Booker Prize. Why not another?

Fantasy
My TBR: The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin. I just finished The Obelisk Gate! I’m a little iffy on Jemisin’s depiction of violence; I don’t like when it (sometimes) goes unquestioned. I also feel like the character, Nassun, is a little bit too much of an undeserving chosen one with her fast-growing powers. That being said, the worldbuilding is fascinating and I’m very taken with Jemisin’s writing style. I think her narrative choices link her world to our fundamental understanding of fantasy as myth and folklore. And of course, there’s great commentary on the cost of societal bigotry.

Predicted Winner: Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology has the most reads, but J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them screenplay is very close behind! Plus, I have faith in the Harry Potter fandom to turn up. 😛

Science Fiction
My TBR: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi and Provenance by Ann Leckie. I’m tentatively trying to find space societies in books that remind me of my favorite TV shows. Scalzi’s book chronicles a multi-planet empire built by pseudo-scientific travel, and Leckie’s leans more towards swashbuckling, it seems, with the protagonist breaking a thief out of jail in an attempt to save her planet from interstellar conflict. I keep hoping that the DC Library will order the audiobooks on Overdrive, but alas they aren’t listening to me! 😦

Predicted Winner: I would have gone with Artemis by Andy Weir, given the extreme popularity of his earlier The Martian, but the numbers don’t support it! Book 6 in The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey is at the top, which I suppose makes sense given the TV show. Fandom rules in SFF, so I think this might win.

Debut GoodReads Author
My TBR: The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker. Out of the slew of literary fiction that I noted at the beginning of the year, this title seems to be going somewhere! It’s about two childhood friends who struggle, then succeed, then contend with relationship drama, around the skill of making animated films. Pretty sure this has been compared to one of my favorite books, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer.

Predicted Winner: I didn’t even have to check the numbers for this one; I already knew that The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas would top the list. New York Times bestseller and soon to be made into a movie, this YA novel chronicles a Black girl who witnesses the fatal shooting of her unarmed friend by the police. Talk about cultural relevance.

Young Adult Fiction
My TBR: The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. Why? Well, see above.

Predicted Winner: Same.

Young Adult Fantasy
My TBR: PICK: Finally, we get to the book that I actually read! 😀 Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor is a high fantasy novel about the aftermath of a grand coup. A huge citadel blocks the sky in the mysterious city of Weep, where humans are still haunted by the vicious, repelled gods, and four of the godspawn children are still secretly alive. Beyond teasing out the worldbuilding, I think Taylor does an excellent job in writing characters with complicated motivations, where we can truly grapple with questions of victimhood and villainy. Looking forward to book two!

Predicted TBR: Already, I was going to go with A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas. I hear this series talked about all the time, and Maas is a bit of a GoodReads darling (she even has another book on this list!) Then I checked the numbers, and—yeah, they completely dwarf the competition. This one’s in the bag.


Nonfiction is almost completely alien terrain and I’d have no idea where to start with making predictions (other than by counting the read numbers. :P) But in the spirit of trying to expand my mind, I went into a couple of categories and picked out books that interested me. Will I actually get to reading them? *awkward whistling* Small steps here. 😛

Nonfiction: From Here to Eternity: Traveling the World to Find the Good Death by Caitlin Doughty

Memoir and Autobiography: What Happened by Hilary Rodham Clinton

History and Biography: Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger

Science and Technology: Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong—and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story by Angela Saini

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