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.

September 19, 2017

5777 in News of the Jews

Posted in Judaism at 10:06 pm by chavalah

I’d like to do a repeat, in a way, of this post from last year, but I don’t think I’ll be as thorough. Suffice to say that pretty much all of the contentious issues discussed there are still contentious issues.

Still, I have some stuff on my mind so I’ll divide into subheadings below. It’s largely a focus on the negative, but that’s often a good starting point for reflection and atonement, heh.

The United States

I’d like to touch on the increasingly polarized nature of U.S. politics and how this affects American Jews, perhaps more than any other cultural group. On the left, we have the issue of intersectional identity politics acting as a smokescreen for antisemitism, most prominently realized during the Chicago Dyke March and Chicago Slut Walk. On the right, we have actual neo-Nazis marching in the streets of Charlottesville, and the President acting as an apologist for them.

I’m in no way saying that these two extremes–verbal antisemitism and exclusion vs emulating the people responsible for Jewish genocide–are morally equivalent. But as a Leftist, a Zionist and a Jew, I certainly feel obligated to grapple with the former. You don’t talk with a neo-Nazi, with someone whose endgame is to push you into an oven. But as someone who cares about marginalized groups, here are my bullet points for certain segments of the Left.

  • Don’t let selective “intersectionality” boomerang until it resembles right wing censorship, with that division between which groups merit consideration and which don’t.
  • Whether you’re unknowingly co-opting supremacist slurs or not,
    hate is still hate.
  • Equating Israel with “white colonialism,” erases both the oppression of Jews and their right to self-determination, plus all of the non-Ashkenazi Israelis. (Not to mention that even calling Ashkenazi Jews “white,” given our history and sometimes present in Europe and the United States, isn’t a cut and dry issue, either.)
  • Realize that there’s more complexity in many human conflicts, and religious/cultural/ethnic identities, than white hats vs black hats, innocent angels vs mustache-twirling villains. “Patriarchy” and other means of oppression doesn’t just belong to one group.

I wonder, and assume that in more thoughtful corners of the Left, we realize that these toxins manifest, and must be dealt with, in all communities. You can’t talk with Nazis or other supremacy groups, but you should be able to talk with everyone else from varying backgrounds and perspectives. Empathy should be a big-tent idea.

The Personal

I need to back off of the vitriol that is the world of Facebook comments. At the very least so that I don’t have the same conversation with my mother over and over: “Mom, right wing Jews are calling me a Kapo again!” “Stop reading that crap!” 😛 I’m sure some extreme left-wing Jews are also spewing hate, but somehow I get more access to the other side. Some people who use their affinity for rightist politics and/or the current US administration to completely tar and feather other Jews. I’ve even seen the justification that neo-Nazis in Charlottesville are ok so long as their targeting “leftist Jews.” (Disclaimer: definitely an extremist fringe position!)

This isn’t the first time that Jews have allowed varying religious, political or cultural opinions lead to toxic nastiness, but it feels like virtual anonymity has led to a special type of trolling. Maybe I’m cynical in believing that they don’t actually want to communicate, but I don’t have the time or mental energy to get involved in all of that anyway. Best not to drink poison and look for more productive ways to spend my time.

Speaking of such, it’s time to acknowledge the larger, natural world and the havoc its wreaked on several communities lately in the US and abroad. As I enter the High Holidays, I need to find the means to donate.

The Israel

Speaking in my personal capacity as an American Jew, relations with y’all in the Israeli government have been difficult. 😛 Let’s go back to a bullet list.

Shana tova, everyone, and may we be inscribed in the Book of Life.

September 9, 2017

Sansa Stark and Samwell Tarly: The Art of Moving On in Life

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:38 pm by chavalah

You thought I’d said my piece about Game of Thrones season 7, didn’t you. 😛 Nope! This little bit has been niggling at me. Some of it rows over water tread in my last post, so I’ll try to be quick about it.

Sansa’s personal ultimatum to take action

Perhaps one of the most unfortunate things about season 7 is that it moved so fast that characters didn’t really have a chance to communicate meaningfully. This was a downfall, I think, in most quarters, but it made some sense Winterfell. The Three Eyed Raven Formerly Known as Bran feels psychologically distant from his old life and relationships. Arya and Sansa travel a more familiar road. They’re sisters with past baggage, traumatic journeys apart and a lack of skills to bridge that gap.

The tension between them, further stoked by Littlefinger, works decently well until the carve-your-face scene. I don’t care that Arya gave Sansa the dagger after her Hannibal Lecter spiel; there’s just no objective way that she isn’t lethally threatening there. In the next episode, Sansa apparently comes to the conclusion that her sister doesn’t want to kill her, but…why? Just because she doesn’t want to be Lady of Winterfell? Arya didn’t necessarily want to be Lord of the Twins, either, but she put on Walder Frey’s face when it suited her purposes.

Td;lr–I never wanted to get to the point where I thought that sibling resentment could lead to actual kinslaying murder plots, but the carve-your-face scene crossed that line. That’s not just Littlefinger pulling strings from the sidelines, though by the next episode the show wants you to think that it is. Then, sometime after her talk with him, Sansa decides to get a broader perspective by way of Bran, which Isaac Hampstead-Wright confirmed was filmed in an interview.

From this unseen point, and presumably some plotting with Arya as well, Sansa’s storyline moves towards a character-defining conclusion. We know that the Littlefinger trial is, in fact, predominately about her, because the scene starts with a closeup of her on the battlements where she’s preparing herself for this move, and it ends on her face after he’s dead.

It’s not so much that she hasn’t been acting with a sense of duty as Lady of Winterfell, where we’ve seen her preparing for the winter, meeting with northern lords and upholding Jon’s title, but this is the act that really costs her something. Even Arya seems to understand as much, asking her sister if she’s okay later.

Condemning Littlefinger to death is a game changer for Sansa. He may have been toxic to her, but he’s also the most long-standing relationship that she’s had since her father’s execution. He’s taught her lessons about how to survive the political arena, but now she must learn how to temper that with her own sense of self.

Since reuniting with Jon last season, Sansa’s goals have always been to take back Winterfell, to hold it for her family, and to help her brother prepare for the long night. Littlefinger, of course, is an anathema in all of this. He exists to sow chaos within people when Sansa’s goals, as implicated to her sister during their spats, is to work together. It was definitely time for the student to overtake the master. 😛

What I loved most about the trial scene is how Sansa turned Littlefinger’s psychology game against him. She can now read peoples’ motives–including his–to see what they’re really after. Yes, Sansa condemns Littlefinger to death, largely based on the evidence that Bran gave her. But on her own, she analyzed his reasons for sowing enmity between her and her sister.

Some of Sansa’s parting lines to Littlefinger are “When you brought me to Winterfell, you told me that there is no justice in this world unless we make it.” Back in season five this stood as the fusion between Sansa’s political acumen and her desire to return home. Since then, she also reclaimed her remaining family members and the power of her Stark name. The only string left to be cut was Littlefinger’s dangerous influence. Sansa no longer needs him as a crutch. He represented the traumas of her childhood. But now she has grown into her independent adult self as the Lady of Winterfell.


Sam’s library school experience makes mine look tame 😛

The most interesting thing about Sam this season is that he’s living out his dream. Take away the food slop and the chamber pots, and this is basically the title of “wizard,” which he told Jon that he coveted back in the first season. Before being sent to the Wall, Sam’s goal was to learn at the Citadel.

But instead he was sent North, and his life took a very different path. Though ultimately arriving at the Citadel, he’s outgrown his childish dreams. He used to imagine a life of just learning for the sake of learning, but now his mind has a more focused purpose. It’s not enough to bury your head in a book (chalk this up to another reason why I hate Westeros :P); a specific agenda must be adhered to. Namely that the White Walkers are coming and must be stopped.

The maesters exist in Sam’s former childlike state. They don’t care about the world beyond their ivory tower. So perhaps in the move most indicative of him growing up, Sam packs up and leaves them.

This is one of those moments when the show didn’t have enough time to fully explore emotional realities, but it also seems to imply that Sam found out about his father’s and brother’s deaths. His parting words to the Citadel actually belong to his father: “I’m tired of reading about the achievements of better men.” Randyll Tarly was a horrible father in almost every respect, but it does seem like he passed something down to his eldest son. Men (maybe people) of worth don’t hide from the world; they fight for something. Though unlike dear old dad, it seems like Sam is on the right side of history. 😛

August 31, 2017

Game of Thrones and the Truncated Season

Posted in Pop Culture at 11:21 pm by chavalah

WARNING: Spoilers for season seven of Game of Thrones to follow. Proceed at your own risk!

If you don’t want to know GAME OF THRONES spoilers, stay away from The Raven Formerly Known As Brandon Stark. 😛

One of the things that concerned me the most about Game of Thrones season seven was how underwhelmed I felt by the central message of the show finally getting the spotlight. For years we watched these characters engage in countless political squabbles and all-out war, with the express message that the true war was to the far north.

Well, this season, most human subplots were snuffed out and an ever-growing band of characters went off to fight the army of the dead. And…it was boring. In episode 6, I found myself wondering if I’d rather watch Cersei Lannister shoot herself in the foot with a pointless political adversary, versus watching the Hound throw stones at wights.

I don’t always hate wights. I had a turnaround moment in season five, with the episode “Hardhome.” Usually I find the idea of zombie flicks to be inane, and was content to let the White Walkers plot sit in the back of my mind. But something about the execution of that episode, from the neverending cascade of the dead, to the Night King dispassionately reviving his newly slaughtered soldiers, to the surprise about Valyrian steel being a Walker killer, I felt like I got it. I could understand the threat of the dead, this force that’s going to kill you, going to kill everyone and everything no matter what.

But the big battle with the dead this year involved an hours-long standoff, the deaths of many a redshirt and the least popular named character, and some deus ex machina moments so that Jon could escape with his life. Dany’s arrival and the loss of her dragon at long last provided some emotional payoff, but it was too little, too late.

(Disregarding money, which I assume they ran out of) I rather wish that Weiss and Benoiff had given us a usual ten-episode season. I would have liked to elongate the human conflict between Cersei and Daenerys and their handful of allies because those character moments were so rich. Maybe we could have truncated the “grab a wight” scene so that it wouldn’t feel so ridiculous. Maybe it would have been okay for the Night King to stay in the back seat–until his undead dragon burned down the Wall at the end.

Not trying to be one of those nitpickers. I don’t sit here calculating the trajectory of raven flight to see how long it should take for news to travel, and I certainly have no trouble believing that the Night King could throw a javelin or rustle up some big chains. 😛 My concern is that the emotional payoff wasn’t there. Everything was so plot driven that many interactions felt shallow. And some arcs sacrificed genuine character development for cheap thrills. The one that disappointed me the most, of course, was in Winterfell.

Sansa (Sophie Turner) and Arya (Maisie Williams) reunite under a statue of their father

To start on a positive note, I appreciated that my fears while watching Westworld turned out to be unfounded. Well actually, I should have been concerned about something else.

I was nervous that Sansa might get the Dolores storyline this year–that the only way the showrunners could see her dealing with her past trauma was for her to to turn to constant violence. But the closest she came to that was to suggest disenfranchising a couple of kids with bad fathers; luckily, that idea got shot down. Otherwise, Sansa very much toed the party line. In one scene, Jon told a bunch of squabbling dudes that they’re on the same side “because we’re all breathing”; earlier in that episode, Sansa explained to Arya, “I’m sure cutting off heads is very satisfying, but that’s not the way you get people to work together.”

Yes, the Stark sisters (and brother!) were indeed reunited this season. I nearly had a conniption fit when Arya was on the king’s road, debating which way to go. 😛

Of course the reunion, despite a few hugs, wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Bran pretty much recused himself from the picture, but Arya and Sansa had too much past baggage behind them. Arya immediately brought up Sansa’s girlish appreciation for “nice things,” and recounted how, in childhood, she was punished for not being as ladylike as her sister. (Sidenote: in both the show and the books, we’re constantly bombarded with the idea that Sansa is the norm and Arya is the outsider, but we don’t actually see that play out. The story is far more interested in fighting and the allure of martial prowess than it is with singing or handwriting or playing the harp. I’m basically using this public forum to bump my frustration into something more useful–next NaNoWriMo, I’m thinking of a fantasy/fairy tale project that will focus more on the feminine arts. Anywho, back on topic now.)

I was particularly intrigued about the argument that the sisters had in episode 5, where they disagreed about what to do about whiny lords (Sansa: listen to their complaints, Arya: behead them. :P) I thought the showrunners might be probing the fact that Arya was too changed by her past experiences to fully “come home.” These past several seasons she’d lived in a world of (pardon the pun) black and white–you’re either with her and alive, or against her and dead. But, as Sansa rightly points out, that’s not the way to bolster alliances in the face of The Great War of living against dead. What served Arya well on the road wouldn’t serve her in the diplomatic arena. Maybe this all hearkened back to the scene with Nymeria–the wolf couldn’t return to the world that once was, and neither could the girl.

But that’s not the rabbit hole that this arc ultimately went down. Littlefinger got involved, in his usual quest to break up alliances that don’t benefit him, and…plot got cloudy. He planted Sansa’s old letter to Robb for Arya to find, leading to ever-increasing escalation between the two girls. In the final moment, the show pulled a “gotcha!” moment where they united and turned on Littlefinger instead.

But what becomes abundantly clear is that we were missing out on some real scenes between the Stark siblings. Sometime off screen, the girls caught on to Littlefinger’s plan and devised their own attack strategy. In the great hall, Arya was not at all surprised when Sansa turned the tables on Baelish. In fact, their immediately preceding conversation about duty and protecting the family hinted to a common purpose.

So what’s real and what’s fake in the Stark sister interactions? Are we supposed to believe that all of their fights were just an elaborate ruse to put Littlefinger off his game? I’d posit that the confrontation scenes between Arya and Sansa felt real, particularly the one where Arya brings up Sansa’s letter to Robb. Alyssa Rosenberg wrote poignantly about this scene in her review of the penultimate episode:

Arya and Sansa’s disagreement about the letter Sansa wrote at Cersei’s behest so long ago is the most substantive of these disagreements about the past — about these moments when it’s impossible to make someone who wasn’t there understand what happened because you don’t understand it yourself. Though it doesn’t end in bloodshed, at least not this time, their exchange adds a visceral urgency to an idea that shows up in every storyline this episode. If you can’t make someone else understand the past, or if you refuse to interrogate the past, you can both end up victims of your misunderstanding.

Things got a little wonky when Arya confronted Sansa over the faces. She’s coming at her sister with a dagger, taunting her about cutting up her face, which from Sansa’s point of view might not seem all that different from this scene (warnings for gore.) What I’m saying is, unless Littlefinger put the Imperio Curse on Arya, there’s plenty of independent reasons for Sansa to feel threatened. And Arya certainly feels real resentment towards Sansa.

Somewhere off screen, the sisters resolved their differences, at least far enough to agree that Littlefinger was the bigger enemy. I think it would have been fair to let the audience see this, but like in Westworld, the show got too caught up in its maze of clunky plotting for the sake of melodrama. After several years of waiting for a genuine Stark reunion, what a disappointment. The end was great, the means…not so much.

But to conclude on a positive (if still controversial) note, unlike some other Sansa fans, I actually appreciated Bran bringing up her wedding ceremony. Of course it makes perfect sense for Sansa to be freaked out on several levels. But from Bran’s perspective, I think he was trying to tell her that she wasn’t alone in her darkest hour. He couldn’t save her, but he understood, and expressed remorse, for what was taken from her. Frankly, I think it’s the most emotional scene that we got from The Raven Formerly Known as Brandon Stark all season. Bran, perhaps more than any of his siblings, can’t fully “come home” again. Bittersweet reunions indeed.

July 18, 2017

Judaism and Nostalgia in Summer Blockbuster Movies

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 11:58 pm by chavalah

Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, charging into the fray

I’m not sure I’ll be going to the theater for any more blockbusters this summer. There’s the visually stunning Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets coming out this week, but my mind is already wrapped tightly around another story. 😛 (I also saw the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, too and my response is eh, cute. :P)

My interest in superhero franchises is almost nonexistent and DC properties rank lower in my mind than Marvel ones (this is probably my favorite clip of all time about Superman. And also from one of my favorite movies of all time, but I digress.) But like many other people, I took an interest in the new Wonder Woman movie. It was the first film of its kind in years with a female at the lead, and that female lead was Gal Gadot, a Jewish Israeli actress.

I’m always up for a story that focuses on a strong female character (mileage may vary on what that phrase means, but more on that later.) I was also charmed and disconcerted when my non-Jewish Wonder Woman-loving friends giddily linked to this article, say. For a brief period of time, it was like Israel could be just another place, privy to benign attraction whenever one of it’s people intersected with the broader world (and then this happened to bring me back to reality, which I suppose is even more incentive for me to live in Wonder Woman-land for a little while longer.)

The movie premise, as expected, didn’t really do much for me. DC superhero aficionados were thrilled that the cynical, bleak cast of recent Batman and Superman films had faded away to something more “old school” about a mega human choosing to fight the good fight. I’m not much of a fan of lauding fighting as an unquestionable good because I also don’t believe in a world of mustache-twirling villains (though–spoiler alert!–turns out that humans aren’t slaves to the villainous God of War after all, and are often willing participants in worldwide destruction.) I mean, this comes back to my antipathy with the superhero mythos; it doesn’t speak to me, or the issues that I like to see explored in speculative fiction. Star Wars and Harry Potter might have the “chosen one” and even a mustache-twirling villain or two, but those stories are told through the lens of fantasy, and their worlds and characters are much more developed, imho.

The human elements, as always, were the most compelling to me. Personally I think Gal Gadot and Chris Pine’s chemistry was a little hot and cold (I might be too nitpicky) but it’s obvious that she had to feel a connection to him in order to thereby be connected to all humans. The side characters weren’t developed past their archetypes, but still they stood as a reminder of a more complicated world. A world where, in 1918, a brown man fights because he can’t be an actor. And more intriguingly, a world where perhaps no group of humans are all good or all bad, because as we’re reminded, Native American Chief Napi’s people were oppressed by “good guy” Steve Trevor aka Chris Pine’s people. Yet here, in The Great War, they find common ground. That’s the optimistic message that I can get behind.

Since personally I don’t relate all that much to Wonder Woman’s kick ass physical skills (other than my mixed response to the idealized female Israeli sabra from the perspective of an American woman of the tribe, but that’s a whole other ball of wax), I’ll return to what I do connect to–Gal Gadot’s Jewishness. Among all the hoopla came a sudden controversy about whether or not Gal Gadot, and by extension all Ashkenazi Jews, are white. It’s a complicated mire, though perhaps I can distill my opinion succinctly–in considering the idea of “whiteness” as privilege, which I believe is its usual distinction, then Ashkenazi Jews have indeed been “white” in the US, Israel and elsewhere. They are certainly almost always perceived as white simply going by skin tone, unlike Judaism, which can’t always be “perceived” on sight. But Ashkenazi Jews have also been oppressed and seen as “non-white,” particularly in Europe. Gal Gadot’s own grandparents were Holocaust survivors, which means her own personal history is partially defined by persecution, marginalization and refugee status. Tl;dr–diverse representation, particularly along racial lines, is important; ethnic identity is complicated. And I wish that more people didn’t see things in simplistic terms, but maybe that’s what I get for wandering into a superhero movie. 😛

Though perhaps to end on a more conciliatory note, I’ll point out that the Nice Jewish Fangirls podcast pointed out that this whole “fight for justice” theme kind of fits in with the Jewish idea of tikkun olam, aka fixing the world. They’re big fans of the movie and have a lot of interesting stuff to say, so check them out!


Old fandom loves die hard

In far less critically acclaimed news, I also took a gander at the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie. I probably would have ignored it altogether if I didn’t ultimately get confirmation that Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly would be reprising their roles. But they were, and old fandom flames were re-ignited!

Film did a good job of tricking us in the beginning. They had Will’s young son, Henry (Brenton Thwaites), try to rescue his father from the curse of Davy Jones, only to be turned away. Obviously it was a set up for Henry to grow into a young man on a quest, but sadly that whole plot was sidelined. Instead, we were privy to the same tired jokes and slapstick humor involving Captain Jack’s (Johnny Depp) exploits, which already felt a little stale. We got a new magical maguffin, more overwrought Jack backstory (honestly, do we need to know the provenance of his hat?), a tepid romance with an underdeveloped character in Kaya Scodelario, and a completely flat attempt at an emotional arc for Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush.) Disregarding all of the contradictory information (like why was Will turning fishy if he was keeping up his end of the bargain?) why not just focus on the Turner drama?? Elizabeth didn’t even get any lines, and barely a walk on, after test audiences demanded her presence. Sigh. It was like Mark Hamill in The Force Awakens all over again. 😛

But beyond all of that, what I really wanted after a 10 year hiatus since movie three was a better, more romantic ending for Will and Elizabeth! And I got that! Well, kinda. There’s a little bit of an easter egg at the end, and…I won’t go into spoilers just in case Pirates 6 gets made. Guess that depends on box office numbers (I hear the movie made more of a splash overseas than here) and whether or not they can get Johnny back on board. Probably depends on which other celebrity he can share a cameo with. In this one, it was Paul McCartney. 😛

Either way I’m expecting it to be bad…but if Orlando and Keira are in it, you can bet your pirate monkeys I’m the sucker that Disney can cater to. :”> I’ll just go skulk off to the corner now.

But I’m going to take a little bit of a tougher stance with Disney regarding the recently released A Wrinkle In Time photos. (Now there’s a teaser trailer, too!) Storm Reid and Levi Miller look great as Meg and Calvin, but what’s with the three witches? I suppose it’s too much to ask for anything else from a slick Disney production, but their outfits are Hollywood glam. Not at all the awkward, frumpy attire of three bemused aliens stealing sheets from the line and pretending, badly, to fit in with humans. These pictures strip away the gritty realism from the book, alas. It’s not enough to make me not see the film (nor is the fact that Chris Pine looks his age, and not old enough to be the father of a teenager,) but I’m starting to think that this book can’t really be adapted. At least not by a corporation with all of their glitz and glamour. Alas. The film comes out in March 2018, and I still expect it to be much better than the 2003 mess, so there’s that. 😛 Huzzah.

June 25, 2017

Winter/Spring 2017 TV: (The Leftovers, The Young Pope, Big Little Lies, The Expanse)

Posted in Italy, Judaism, Pop Culture at 1:06 pm by chavalah

So much Christian content in my tv lately. Enough to make me wanna buy a subscription to The Jewish Channel. 😛

I’m a month later than last year in making this post, though the Game of Thrones schedule has changed, too, so I guess that’s my excuse. 😛

As is custom, HBO dominates most of my tv habits. Starting in February and ending earlier this month, I routinely watched their Sunday night 9 pm programming. And I have a little bit of a quibble. The male-centric stories–The Young Pope and The Leftovers revolve around dudes with god complexes, and are generally lauded as prestige television. The female-centric Big Little Lies is seen more like fluff. I’m not gonna leave that statement there without examining it more fully, but as a gut instinct it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Mixing my metaphors here. 😛

The Young Pope

I’ll start with my least favorite. Ultimately, I don’t think this show did much for me. I loved the chance to see Italy, insofar as it was presented, as the primary backdrop, I appreciated the chance to showcase non-US or UK actors like Silvio Orlando who played a compelling Cardinal, and I was particularly intrigued by Diane Keaton’s unusual turn as the taciturn Sister Mary.

Some people liked creator/director Paulo Sorrentino’s surreal style, but I found it to be a little grating. The premise seems to be somewhat twofold–a spoiled little boy is elected Pope, throws big tantrums and makes everybody’s lives hell because his parents abandoned him and now he has the power for global payback. Then, after a remarkably racist episode set in Africa, where he schools a fictitious, unnamed country in the merits of compassion and justice, he slowly takes his own lessons to heart. Having finally “grown up,” the series ends on an ambiguous note of–did he see his folks in the crowd while delivering a homily in Venice? (And did he survive said experience??)

It’s an annoying, egotistical conceit. Jude Law can’t just be playing a random dude with abandonment issues–he has to be THE POPE. The women in Big Little Lies are dealing with similarly big life issues like adultery, spousal abuse and rape, but none of them get to be High Priestess of Avalon. Which I suppose is also a remark on the lack of women in the highest echelons of most religions, but still–their problems aren’t seen as any bigger than the problems of any normal human.

Perhaps the episode that held the most promise for me was the penultimate one, where we follow Cardinal Gutierrez (Javier Cámara) to New York where he’s arrived to apprehend a pedophile priest. We meet the priest, who of course was abused himself as a child, and also an obese sickly woman whom Gutierrez is counseling. They had the promise of being compelling characters but we spent so little time with them, and Sorrentino made so much out of melodramatic music and vague flashbacks that they ultimately felt more like caricatures.

As a Jew, I admit that the saints and miracle-workers that populated this story just aren’t my bag, baby, so maybe it’s a subjective disconnect. I found this show to be disjointed and underwhelming in theme. Holding out hope that maybe HBO will pick up another Italian project in the future–well, there’s “season two” of this, The New Pope, but I’m not sure I’ll watch. Meh.

Big Little Lies

Based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, there’s no doubt that this story is a little bit fluffy. Or maybe it’s a matter of perspective; I haven’t read the book myself, but my mother found it to be relatively beach ready after getting through the harrowing Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.

I think that a lot of this has to do with format and setting. The format is very plot based; we start with a murder, so the question of “whodunnit?” (also “who’s the victim?”) looms large over the narrative. It’s a puzzle to be solved, which sometimes eclipses the natural progression of the character arcs. A last minute shocker reveal about two seeming strangers with an shared past proves very convenient. Also, the story takes place in a rich suburb of Monterey, and despite any real world issues, we’re constantly reminded of the privilege and frivolity that pervades these peoples’ lives. Plus, there is so much gossip and backstabbing that after awhile, I really wanted to put somebody’s eye out.

The ending is also a little pat, with all of the main characters, some of them enemies, coming together to say goodbye to the murder investigation with a picnic on the beach. Didn’t really feel deserved.

I was intrigued with how they handled the spousal abuse storyline. I’m used to the one-dimensional Lifetime approach, where an innocent woman is duped by a sadistic man who shows his true colors when it’s too late. Here, Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård have built a more complicated set of rituals and denials around what’s happening. Meanwhile the therapist calls bullshit, so the show isn’t excusing said abuse. It just feels more real–all the way down to how it affects their seemingly oblivious kids.

Shailene Woodley gives a tense and masterful performance as the vulnerable single mother and rape victim of the story, to the point that I could barely recognize her in scenes with her antagonist, Laura Dern (who also played Woodley’s own doting mother in The Fault in Our Stars. Talk about some dissociation! :P) And speaking of Woodley, her Divergent co-star Zoë Kravitz, also gets to play with a more complicated role as Reese Witherspoon’s sorta rival.

Oh, Reese. 😛 From the trailers I was afraid that her character would be the Regina George of the bunch, but actually she’s far more layered. Jealous and possessive, Type A driven, definitely flawed–and depressed about her college-aged daughter moving physically and emotionally away from her. I liked the idea that her marriage is on the rocks because she and her husband have different sexual needs and general drives, and I was disappointed when the show introduced the affair subplot. Alas.

Still, I found this to be an enjoyable miniseries. And more refreshing than male gods–we focus on the lives of female humans. 😛 I’d like more of this, please.

The Leftovers

Loosely based on the Tom Perrotta novel, The Leftovers is probably the most thoughtful, best realized show on this list (and I say this while deeply disliking aspects! :P) But in touching how abandonment and loss of faith touch a particular set of people, it’s quite powerful.

I’ve written in some depth about season one and season two, though I’ll have to rehash some bits in order to come to terms with the final season.

Quick recap: 2% of the world’s population disappears and the show revolves, sorta, around the 98% of leftovers trying to make sense of it all. I say “sorta” because in season two, I came to terms with the fact that this isn’t a maxmist story about how everyone deals, but rather a very minimalist one about a how a small sliver of familiar middle class white Christian folks deal with it. (Departure is a very flimsy cover for “Rapture.”) On the plus side, I do love delving deep into a few characters. So this season I made my peace with the Kevin=messiah mishegas, because at least his surreal journeys to the afterlife were funny, and I liked how the Australian character, Grace (Lindsay Duncan) related to that hoe down.

I’m still disappointed in all of the dropped threads–like the tense relationship between Jill (Margaret Qualley) and Laurie (Amy Brennerman), the mother who abandoned her in season one. Last season was unique for bringing in a fully realized African American family, the Murphys, but this season they were incredibly sidelined. And more generally, I dislike how the drama on this show is always pushed TO THE MAX, like how Kevin, Sr. (Scott Glenn) can’t even ask a random guy for directions without said guy setting himself on fire.

The inciting incident of this season, set seven years after “The Departure,” is that Reverend Matt (Christopher Eccleston) promises that a great Noah-like flood will come, and only Messiah Kevin (Justin Theroux) can save them. The cast ends up in Australia because Nora, Kevin’s girlfriend (Carrie Coon) wants to expose a fraud where some scientists are claiming they can send survivors to where the Departed went. Equally as likely, she wants to hitch a ride to her Departed children.

So I’ve made my peace with the Christian elements, but then this year they go off and appropriate different religious observances. In “Crazy Whitefella Thinking,” Kevin, Sr. hops around Australia recording aboriginal songs because he’s sure they will stop the flood. We get very little insight into the cultures of these real tribes. Then, in “It’s a Matt Matt, Matt World,” the show uses some Yom Kippur liturgy to bolster Matt’s character arc. Don’t get me wrong; he’s one of the more complicated characters on the show (egotistical yet vulnerable. Plus he gets a goodbye scene with his sister, Nora, in the finale that I’m desperate to have reproduced on Game of Thrones before the White Walkers kill the remaining Stark children /wibble). But obviously that liturgy is meant for a very different, very somber, very community-oriented purpose than Matt’s personal tsuris.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that Nora is my favorite character, and so the final scene is a real winner for me. One thing that I think The Leftovers does exceedingly well is dole out character-enlightening monologues. Nora’s final monologue, all about the need for and fragility of human connections, gave me major Mockingjay finale vibes. Also, her description of “the Departed” land made me desperate to reread Station Eleven. I think it’s still on my dad’s nightstand. 😛

So I dunno, if the destination and many parts of the journey are an indication, then this is the best show on here. I’m definitely glad that I stuck with it; was an interesting, if bumpy, ride.

Admittedly, I’m a sucker for taglines like this.

The Expanse

Shockingly enough, I turned away from HBO for a brief period of time–and to the SyFy Channel! 😮 I hadn’t really watched them since they were the SciFi Channel! 😛

OK, so I tried this show last year and gave up halfway through season one. I didn’t find it to be that compelling, and I think the reason for that was because of the framing story–a noir detective search for a missing girl. The girl, Julie, (Florence Faivre) wasn’t a character in her own right, but rather a spark to set off the plot. Basically: a few hundred years into the future, humans on Earth and Mars are locked in combat, and our fellows living in the asteroid belt are caught in the middle. But there’s a sudden new, scary weapon of mass destruction (discovered at the end of the Julie arc), and most of our main characters, a Firefly-like crew of diverse folks, have to speak truth to power.

But in season two the plot is in motion, and I could focus on the consequences and the other characters. We are introduced to Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams) who has a rather age-worn character arc of being a militant who has to reassess her values when she finds out that her planet’s government isn’t as noble as she’d like to believe. But at least it’s her arc; she isn’t just part of someone else’s.

I also really liked the budding romance between Jim (Steven Strait) and Naomi (Dominique Tipper), even when I shouldn’t have because Jim’s in the midst of the standard “good boy exposed to bad situations, losing his moral compass” bit. But the end of season two ends on a far more ethically ambiguous note for both of them.

One of the reasons I wanted to watch the show in the first place was because of Shohreh Aghdashloo, who plays a shrewd Earth diplomat. She seems like a far more complicated character this year, so yay. And finally, I’m a sucker for a geeky, botanist dad (Terry Chen) trying to save his young daughter. Goes without saying that this show already has a refreshingly diverse cast.

Ultimately I’m not sure that the characters transcend the roles assigned to them by the needs of the plot, but I love the themes of this show. How much does allegiance to home planet (or Belt) define you? Where is the line between right and wrong? We might be stepping into very Game of Thrones territory here, where the consequences of war far outstrip the players.

This is based on an ongoing series of science fiction books by James S.A. Corey; one of several options that I’m quibbling about starting. Time to get out my hashtag–#SoMuchToRead! Am I a bad book nerd if I just let the television show tell the story to me? :/ Alas. It’ll be back on air sometime in 2018.

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