April 16, 2018

Pesach in 5778: Wandering the Wilderness

Posted in Judaism at 10:39 pm by chavalah

My Passover care package this year. Now that the holiday is over, I can go to Panera! 😀

After my seder last year I wanted to keep going with a bang, but that’s not the way things turned out. I did go home for the first weekend of the holiday, but was largely busy with unrelated family stuff (if I squint hard enough, I can pretend that our activities paralleled the Exodus story. :P)

We ate some traditional food and my mom and I sort of hashed over the re-telling after everyone was gone for the night. I also forced her to listen to me recite some interesting-to-me passages from progressive Haggadot. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t feel too genuine or spiritual. I kept asking myself what would make my Passover experience better–how I could improve and feel like I’m doing some justice to this holiday. I don’t want to blindly follow rituals (though a little bit of incorporation is certainly welcome.) I’d like the chance to invite people over and discuss the meaning of oppression and wandering through the wilderness and the power of community, perhaps. I want to read passages from Jewish sources and novels and poetry and make everyone bring and discuss their own, like a school project. 😛

In essence, I realized over the first few days of Passover, I wanted something that I already have. Guided yet free-flowing conversation about intriguing narratives and themes–sounds a bit like my Jewish book club! :O So does this mean I’ve already found what I’m looking for? Or should I challenge myself to be more traditional, and step outside my comfort zone by offering myself as a “host” for a young professional seder? The local JCC is always seeking people to set those up.

I want my family. Passover remains, for me, the most difficult holiday in which to be a Jew on one’s own. Sitting quietly in shul just isn’t a big part of it, though the next week I did schlep into DC for the Shabbat service that fell on the eighth day. Before starting the Yizkor service for the deceased, Rabbi Alexander talked about resurrection and the song that Moses and Miriam sang at the Red Sea. He asked us to share with one another memories of our departed ones and music. And suddenly I found myself talking this other young woman who was at shul alone. I told her about this memory of playing “Greensleeves” for my mother’s mother, of blessed memory. She was visiting in Baltimore and she told me that it was her favorite song. I sounded it out on the piano and she twirled around like a ballerina.

Another fun aspect of this particular Shabbat–Cantor Brown led us in Passover melodies like Dayenu and Chad Gadya as we davened (prayed) part of the Amidah. And I realized that this is something else I could bring to my own practice, particularly with my mother–this love of song. I definitely need to get more comfortable with the Passover music. 😛

I’m not sure if I have a “point” to make with all of this, but here’s my best Pesach 5778 wrap up. #1: If you want to make something meaningful, then you have to be a leader and put in the effort. #2: You usually have most of what you’re looking for. You just have to piece it together.

I hope that all of you celebrating spring festivities had a meaningful one.


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!

January 22, 2018

2017: A Look Back at Jewish Italy

Posted in Italy, Judaism at 11:45 am by chavalah

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Depiction of Jewish communities in Italy

Before the month goes out, I’d like to start my year in blogging in the usual way! 😛 I’ve amassed a variety of news sources, mostly published to Tablet Magazine or JTA but there are some others too, that detail 2017 stories that pertain to Jews in Italy and/or Italy’s relationship with Jews. A couple of these stories are more broadly about Europe, but Italy is always mentioned specifically.

Common trends abound–leaders die, may their memories be for a blessing, the Italian Jewish community rallies in the face of national disasters, antisemitism is rife, yet so is communal solidarity. Some personal essays recount the Holocaust or controversial figures within it, some medieval Jewish ruins are unearthed, some communities in the south get a long overdue boost of Jewish culture. I’m especially excited about Sicily, as my nana was born there. She was Catholic, but I can consider the Sicilian Jews as my step family. 😛

One Italian congregation even joined the Reconstructionist movement, the small, largely American denomination that defined my childhood! :0 Most of Jewish practice in Italy is Orthodox, but perhaps the times are a-changin’.

In terms of sports and antisemitism, soccer aka football seems particularly toxic. But there’s an interesting proliferation of empathetic cycling stories, heh.

I’ve included all of this and more below; please feel free to add more stories in the comments. So, without further ado!

Read the rest of this entry »

December 31, 2017

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

Posted in Pop Culture at 2:50 pm by chavalah


“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

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?

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

October 30, 2017

Pet Bereavement

Posted in Judaism at 11:57 pm by chavalah

Happier times

Halloween approaches and I’m rounding out the first month, roughly, after the death of my cat, Leah. There’s so much good that I’ve been privy to as well, from the outpouring of support from my loved ones to some unrelated positive milestones in my life. But October was still a rough time.

On September 30, sitting in Yom Kippur services, I finally allowed myself to entertain the horrifying notion that my cat might be at the end of her life. She had only fallen sick, or at least noticeably so to me, during the Days of Awe. But I’d taken her to two appointments at the vet’s, had another one set up for an ultrasound, and I saw the look on the technician’s face when I explained to her what the vet had seen in Leah’s x-ray. On Tuesday, October 2, the day that I found her body, my mother was coaxing me on the phone home from work to accept this possibility.

Leah died within days of the anniversary of Chavalah, my childhood cat’s death. She also died days after a horrible mass shooting in Las Vegas, and during a time when several of my local cohort were anxiously awaiting an update from our friend in Puerto Rico (she was finally able to find a wifi connection, thank goodness). Yet my Facebook post announcing Leah’s passing was filled with love and support from all quarters. I truly feel very blessed.

My parents drove to Silver Spring from Baltimore that first night to take Leah’s body in preparation for burying her alongside the childhood cats. My sister stayed on the phone with me as I cried and babbled in confusion. When my three-year-old niece saw me a few days later she stayed by my side, complimented my hair and asked me how I was feeling.

But despite the fact that I’m surrounded by pet lovers online and off, the scope of my grief still feels unwieldy. For the first couple weeks, I scoured for virtual and in-person support groups but didn’t feel fully ready to own my feelings. I’m sure that anyone who has lost a pet feels some sort of guilt. I was spared the decision of putting Leah down, or having her die in a place that she hated, but her death was still so sudden. At 10 years old she was a senior cat, but just barely; Chavalah lived to be seven years older than her. Surely there was some sign that I’d missed, stupid ways in which I’d been distracted in the weeks and months leading up to her death. I’d failed as a cat guardian, maybe I’d even killed her. It’s taking time to learn how to forgive myself.

Naturally, I also feel the pull towards my faith. It felt awkward to be wrapped up in the end of Leah’s life during a holiday that is about human redemption. Leah (who I named after the biblical matriarch, similar to how I named Chavie, as well as this blog, after the 19th century Yiddish character) was not a Jew, but I am. Surely there’s a place within progressive Judaism to deal with the grief of losing non-humans. Yet I feel uncomfortable, and am not as involved with my synagogue as I could be. Shortly after Leah’s death the cantor emailed me as part of the flash choir to take part in Simchat Torah, but I declined. I didn’t have it in me to feel joyful.

I’m at a slightly better place now. I’m reading, preparing for NaNoWriMo, enjoying parts of life again. Now I’m guilty because I no longer expect to see Leah in the condo or need to play YouTube videos to make me fall asleep at night.

This weekend I’m finally going to an in-person bereavement session at the Montgomery County Humane Society. I’m hoping that it’ll be uplifting to be around other people who’ve recently experienced this type of pain. I’m curious about how they cope with grief, with time moving forward and the possibility of adopting new companions. I’ve found grief an impossible journey to go through alone, which is why I’m often talking about it in person and online. The bereavement group feels like a step out of quicksand and onto a solid path again.

I don’t know where this ends; in fact I’m not sure that applied to death and grief. I’m sure that I’ll ultimately contextualize Leah’s memory differently than I did Chavie’s, given the various differences in their circumstances. Leah and Chavie were two different cats, and I was a different guardian to each of them. But I want to thank those closest to me, those who checked in from afar, and those who checked in after several years, for being my support group. Grief is a strong emotion, but so too are love and compassion. I wish you all, humans and pets alike, the best going forward.

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