thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Archive for the ‘books’ Category

Bad Boyfriends and “The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.”

In books, feminism on June 23, 2014 at 12:07 pm

Sarah Todd

I was a little afraid to read The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. Adelle Waldman’s 2013 novel has a reputation for being unflinchingly honest about men’s attitudes towards women—or at least about the attitudes held by certain privileged intellectual men who inhabit Brooklyn and other hipster enclaves. Unflinching honesty in that particular realm sounded like it might be annoying. Or depressing. Or both.

“I guess if I learned about women what the book puts on display about men, I don’t know if I could function in some ways,” a male interviewer told Waldman last month.

I think it’s better to know what we’re dealing with than to be deceived,” Waldman replied.

What was inside this book? I wondered, all agog. Are all the sad young literary men actually just three hobgoblins standing on top of each others’ shoulders, bickering about the new sincerity? Do they poach baby unicorns and use their horns to trumpet explanations about neoliberalism and the brilliance of Louis C.K.?

As it turns out, Waldman’s bright, sharp comedy of manners is an invigorating rather than terrifying read. What’s more, I’m pretty sure the book does an enormous public service by describing the inner life of a dude who feels bad about hurting the women he dates—but not badly enough to stop doing it.

Men, Waldman’s novel makes clear, are only able to get away with treating women poorly because we live in a culture that dismisses close scrutiny of their behavior. Dating is seen as a trivial subject, the territory of light romantic comedies and books with tropical-colored covers. Who cares if a guy starts snapping at his girlfriend when she asks if he’s tired or whether he’d like eggs for breakfast? What’s the big deal if a dude pursues a woman for weeks only to do the fear-of-commitment dance when she finally agrees to go out with him?

The big deal, of course, is that misogyny often both underlies and excuses these kinds of romantic misdemeanors. And while Love Affairs is often funny, Waldman takes the patriarchal mores guiding the bad behavior of her titular character quite seriously. By peering into the moleskin-bound heart of the liberal chauvinist, she takes away his power. Read the rest of this entry »

Adapting Austen: Revisiting Mansfield Park (1999)

In adaptation, books, Film, Uncategorized on May 22, 2014 at 8:13 am

58678-mansfield-park

Sarah S.

For the last several years we’ve lived in the Ladies Republic of Austentonia. (I’ve given up trying to pitch Jane Austen’s merits to dudes; if you don’t like her or won’t try her, it’s your loss.) From books and movies reinterpreting Pride and Prejudice (Bridget Jones’ DiaryPride and Prejudice and Zombies) to explorations of fandom itself (The Jane Austen Book ClubAustenland) it seems that the original narrator of middle class morality has never been so popular.

Despite Austen’s sky high stock, only a couple of her offerings get the perennial treatment: EmmaSense and Sensibility, and, in particular, Pride and Prejudice. Film adaptations reflect this ranking, with no fewer than ten versions of P&P alone. The popularity of the Big Three makes sense because they best epitomize Austen’s plot of a plucky heroine surrounded by odd relatives who thrives despite constrained circumstancesThey’re the PowerPoint, Excel, and Word that offset Austen’s versions of Bing, Surface, and Windows Vista: Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park.

Persuasion? Too dreary.

Northanger? Too gothic.

And Mansfield? Too preachy.

Mansfield Park is particularly irritating, with a prudish prig for a heroine whose only hobby seems to be passing silent judgment on those around her and pining for her equally self-righteous cousin. By the time we get to the inevitable “happy ending” we can at least feel relief that Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram—those intolerable, intolerant jerk faces—aren’t going to spoil anyone else’s marital bliss (and that we don’t have to spend any more time with them). Mansfield Park clunks through moral quandaries and odd personalities without the combination of humor and empathy that make Pride and Prejudice, Emma, and Sense and Sensibility so successful.

But say you’re a filmmaker who rejects creating yet another iteration of the Big Three. Shall you venture into the stolid world of Persuasion‘s Ann Elliot or the weirdness of Northanger Abbey? Read the rest of this entry »

“I Don’t Think We Owe Anyone A Second Chance”: Katie Heaney on Dating and the Single Life

In books, Interview on March 17, 2014 at 5:18 am

Sarah T.

To go by most books about dating, being single is kind of like walking around with a glob of macaroni in your hair: embarrassing, unsightly and a departure from the natural state of affairs. Katie Heaney’s Never Have I Ever: My Life (So Far) Without a Date is a welcome antidote to these narratives. In her new memoir, Heaney chronicles spending the first 25 years of her life as a smart, funny, confident young woman who is at peace with her self-declared status as a “Bermuda Triangle” of romance.

“One of the great divides, I think, between people who date a lot and people who date never is that people who date never don’t understand putting up with ‘fine,'” Heaney writes. She’s had her share of crushes, make-outs and promising prospects that wind up fizzling, but in the end she’s holding out for way more than “fine”–and finding it in her relationships with her pals. Read on for Heaney’s thoughts on texting, wooing your friends, the most swoon-worthy Jane Austen character and why women shouldn’t feel obligated to go out with guys they don’t like that much.

I’ve been a fan of yours since you started writing for The Hairpin — “Reading Between the Texts” is not only hilarious but also super-cathartic as a reminder that dating is insane and so are people. Are those texts real? What about the conversations? Read the rest of this entry »

Lit Nerd Paradise: Review of Night Film

In books on October 28, 2013 at 6:00 am

Sarah S.

The enigma at the heart of Marisha Pessl’s sophomore novel, Night Film, is a dark, mysterious movie director. Stanislav Cordova seems part Kubrick, part Godard, part Hitchcock, part Herzog. The suicide of Cordova’s daughter becomes the catalyst that plunges disgraced journalist Scott McGrath deep into Cordova’s orbit. In trying to understand the girl’s death, McGrath and his sidekicks (a wannabe actress named Nora and a pretty-boy, drug dealer named Hopper) descend into Cordova’s world and much of the novel’s tension comes from wondering if they’ll solve the mystery and, even if they do, will they ever escape Cordova’s dark world. But for all that the novel explores film as an art form, and the troubling genius of the auteur, Night Film revels in literary references, jokes, and twists. As such, the novel embraces its Post-Modern bridging of genres (including insets of photographs, news articles, and webpages, as well as an app that reveals hidden content) while remaining deeply, playfully literary.

Rather than detail all the literary jokes and references (many of which I’m sure I missed), here are a few presented for your consideration:

Ashley Brett Cordova: The mysterious director’s daughter is beautiful, bold, a musical prodigy, a potential vessel of evil, and/or a victim of her father’s dark vision. Her name also inverts that of one of Ernest Hemingway’s most challenging heroines, Lady Brett Ashley of The Sun Also Rises. Both women are burdened by their beauty and both defy the limitations put on them by a restrictive society. And depending on your perspective, both ruin the men who swarm to them like moths to a flame becoming “Circes who turn men into swine.” Are both women witches (literally? metaphorically?) or victims of patriarchal systems?

“Do I Dare?” (*mild spoilers*): As the director’s personal motto, one which he forces on his children and acolytes alike, this phrase asks the individual how far she is willing to go to experience life and break out of social norms and expectations. It reminds the individual to avoid being safe, to ask when presented with any possibility, “Do I dare?”.

However, this phrase “Do I dare?” comes from the T. S. Eliot poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (which the novel informs the reader straight away). And “Prufrock” is no “suck out all the marrow of life” poem. Instead, it’s a modernist, anti-heroic examination of a person who lives perpetually by the rules, a weak man who doesn’t “dare” do much of anything. One of his final pleas comes down to “Do I dare eat a peach?”, even this simple act of sensual pleasure seeming beyond his abilities. Thus, Pessl’s use of “Do I dare?” as the Cordova motto might be a gross misstep on her part or, more compellingly, an intriguing ambiguity or misreading at the core of Cordova’s worldview.

The Heart of Darkness (*proper spoilers*): In significant ways, Night Film‘s Scott McGrath mirrors Marlow from Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (with Cordova as the enigmatic Kurtz). Both McGrath and Marlow narrate his story, and each details his fascination with a man who seems equal parts compelling and disturbing. Conrad’s Africa becomes Pessl’s world of Cordova cinema, not only the movies but also the estate in which Cordova lives and makes his films, The Peak. Both novels also comment on their historical moment, seeking to explore the savagery underneath society’s veneer of restraint, control, and respectability. And, of course, Heart of Darkness inspired Francis Ford Copolla’s masterful film Apocalypse Now, lending further credence between the literary-filmic connections in Night Film. Heart of Darkness ultimately seems Pessl’s greatest inspiration, her novel a post-modern retelling of Marlow’s tale.

Read the rest of this entry »

How Great is Gatsby? The Sarahs Respond

In adaptation, books, class, Film, gender, race on May 15, 2013 at 5:30 am

I love The Great Gatsby. It took several readings for me to appreciate its strange genius but now I’m hooked. It’s so rich and weird one can read it again and again and find a different perspective on the characters or an exquisitely beautiful passage. But it’s not a book that would seem to transfer well to film. But then again, nobody factored in Baz Luhrmann, who seemed a great choice to make an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s masterwork because you knew that’s what he would do—an adaptation—some heady filmic rendering of the novel, rather than an attempt to re-create the novel on screen. So how did Baz do? GLG’s Sarahs gathered their word-nerdery, film hats, and finest furs to find out.

***

Sarah S: I thought the movie was pretty interesting on both class and gender, albeit perhaps subtly enough that the average viewer might miss it. I also found any notion that it idealized that world sans critique completely stupid. I have more detailed thoughts but I’ll add them based on what you  think. What say you, Sarah T?

Sarah T: Yes I agree with you on both counts! On the gender front: People tend to hate Daisy because they think she’s just a blonde, glamorous, blank projection of men’s dreams. And she is a projection, but not just a projection. The problem isn’t that she has no personality, it’s that nobody sees Daisy–not Gatsby, not Tom, not even Nick, who prides himself on being observant. They’re all too busy being dazzled by that voice that sounds like money. (Good voice choice by Mulligan, by the way—low, musical, lilting, balmy as a summer day in Louisville.)

But as both Fitzgerald and this movie make clear, Daisy’s actually pretty complex. For one thing, she’s got this sly wit that she gets no credit for at all. (“Tom is getting very profound,” she says dryly after Tom goes on a ridiculous, racist rant. “He reads deep books with long words in them.”) And I loved that scene in the sweltering hotel room where we see how Daisy’s being ripped apart by two men who are each trying to control her, though Tom far more brutishly than Gatsby. I also like the image of the three-strand pearl necklaces that Tom gives to both Daisy and, later, to Myrtle–a handy symbol of the wealth and power that he uses to lure and trap women. That’s why Daisy tears them off when she tries to break off their engagement. Though it turns out that Gatsby is just as determined to use money to get to the girl of his dreams, too.

I also loved Jordan in this movie–so skeptical and breezy but with a new undercurrent of kindness that the book doesn’t give her. She came across as loyal to Daisy, compassionate toward Gatsby. And it’s clear how frustrated she is by Nick’s passivity, which is his greatest flaw, so good lookin’ out, Jordan.

Sarah S: There were a couple lovely scenes with Daisy when she realizes that Gatsby sees her as something to possess, a status symbol, just as Tom does. Gatsby might be nicer but that doesn’t change the essential fact. We see this when Daisy asks to go away and Gatsby insists they live out this public display of a fairytale. And then, as you mention, the room in the hotel when Daisy is literally repeating Gatsby’s words at his command (until she stops). (This scene is performed almost exactly as written in the novel.) The audience has this impression confirmed, too, when Gatsby watches Daisy prancing up his grand staircase and comments to Nick how glamorous she makes his house look. It’s almost as if she’s The Dude’s rug in that she “really ties the room together.” I found this a perfectly plausible way to represent Daisy based on the book and a nice way to push past Nick’s dismissal of her as vain and shallow. We still don’t have much access to Daisy but this twist, combined with Mulligan’s performance, gives us tantalizing glimpses, as if glimpsed through billowing curtains.

As to class, I felt that Luhrmann did an excellent job showing the crassness of Gatsby’s display of wealth, a poor boy’s excessive fantasy of how the wealthy live. When Tom taunts him that he’ll never belong, it’s true, and we know it’s true. When Nick tells Gatsby that “they’re a rotten crowd,” he’s right and, again, Gatsby will never belong with them. Depending on how you think about it, it’s a rather pathetic consolation prize, their rottenness. I also thought the film nailed the “valley of ashes” and the desperate, awful lives of Myrtle and George. No wonder Myrtle embraces an exciting affair with a rich brute (rich being the only part she’s not used to); no wonder George wants to sell that coupé and head west.

One other small thing that struck me was how often intimate conversations went on with servants still in the room–and how uncomfortable this made me, the grossness of ignoring the other humans in the room. In Downton Abbey and the like the family don’t have serious conversations in front of “the help.” So this detail seemed like a really subtle way to drive home the class distinction.

Read the rest of this entry »

An Interview with Elizabeth Wein, Author of “Code Name Verity”

In books on April 1, 2013 at 10:41 am

codenamecoverElizabeth Wein has had quite a year. Since her World War II-era spy novel Code Name Verity came out last spring, it’s racked up young adult book awards right and left, as well as accolades from publications like The New York Times and NPR.

All that acclaim couldn’t go to a more deserving book: Code Name Verity is a ferocious, dazzling tale of the friendship between two young women who also happen to be ace British spies, and the courage they summon under terrible circumstances. I stayed up late into the night finishing the book all in one gulp, and the next day, I started reading it over again. After that, I still wasn’t ready to let go of the world Wein had created, so I sat down and emailed Wein herself–who graciously agreed to an email interview with Girls Like Giants. Read on for her thoughts on villains, best friends, facing your fears, and what learning to fly a plane taught her about feminism. –Sarah Todd

‘Verity’ (aka Queenie) and Maddie are such distinctive, vivid characters. Were they inspired by particular people you’ve known or read about?

The things they do were inspired by real people—I read a lot about women of the Special Operations Executive and the Air Transport Auxiliary when I was doing the research for CNV, and I made altered use of some of their experiences. But the characters of Queenie and Maddie are totally original and developed as the book developed. They really aren’t like anyone I know—they are just themselves.

Often books about female friendships seem to focus on the jealousies and tensions between women. But Queenie and Maddie’s love for each other is pure–maybe because they become friends during wartime and establish that baseline level of trust from the get-go. Do you have a best friend? What’s your own perspective on female friendships been?

I have had several best friends at different points in my life, and there has occasionally been some jealousy involved (Queenie and Maddie do actually admit that they are sometimes secretly jealous of each other, and Maddie now and then expresses her irritation out loud to Queenie). But basically I *love* having a best friend—several different people have filled that role at different times in my life. Writing CNV was partly a celebration of that. When my closest friends live far away, as they do now, I really miss that easy and close-knit interaction.

Although I wouldn’t say the friendship in CNV is based on any ONE of my friends, the development of Queenie and Maddie’s friendship was consciously patterned on my friendship with Amanda Banks, who was enrolled in the same PhD program as me (CNV is dedicated to her). At the time we lived about 100 miles apart and only got to see each other every couple of weeks, and we really lived for those brief meetings. Also, we were under a lot of stress studying for our PhD exams and struggling with some academic backstabbing issues in our department—add to the mix a dorm fire at 2 a.m. and the two of us having to usher all the undergraduates out from the fifth floor—it wasn’t wartime, but our friendship developed very quickly sunder stress, a small bit of danger, and in spite of physical distance. So you can maybe see the parallels. Read the rest of this entry »

Musing on the Aesthetics of Comedy, with an Assist from Louis

In books, Television on March 25, 2013 at 3:43 pm

Sarah S.

Several years ago, in a fiction writing and reading class, I signed my group up to read David Sedaris’ essay “Me Talk Pretty One Day.”  In this piece, Sedaris turns the frustration, even trauma of learning a foreign language into hilarity. Perhaps ironically, or at least incongruously, our discussion took place on a sunny day, just before the warmth turned to unpleasantness, sitting on a grassy quad under a cloudless sky. (Early summer in Utah is a spectacular thing.) When it came time for the group to discuss the piece, everyone roundly agreed that it was delightful…except for one person. Joel was classically handsome, traditionally masculine, a former high school football star who also worked as an assistant coach for the university team while working on his master’s degree—in English.

“I don’t get why everyone likes this so much,” he complained.

“Are you serious?” I asked, incredulous. “I think it’s brilliant.”

“Why?” he replied. “It’s just funny.”

“Exactly,” I said, finding myself at a loss for better words. “It’s so funny.”

Those words, “It’s just funny,” have haunted me ever since—in a quiet, low key kind of way—because I failed to really defend comedy. As I continued educating myself, I did find defenses of comedy, largely in psychological theories (Freud is fascinating on jokes) or cultural criticism. Both fields analyze what comedy does for us as individuals or as a society. As such, comedy is quite important from these perspectives.

I’ve also heard comedians unpacking comedy as craft. These include the recent double podcast conversation between Aisha Tyler and Kevin Smith or people on speaking about what they do on Inside the Actor’s Studio such as Tina Fey’s recent foray. Such discussions emphasize the thought and deliberateness that goes into creating comedy, elevating it to the same level of artistic creation as anything else.

But while I appreciate and agree with these kinds of analyses, they weren’t what I was ultimately looking for when I felt inclined to defend comedy.  In the end, I wanted to understand and convey something like an aesthetics of comedy. And in my admittedly limited knowledge, I have never heard anyone defending comedy purely as an artistic expression the way we talk about sonnets or jazz or Picasso paintings. Even still, my gut tells me that Sedaris is an important author, a talented author, worth considering as a serious artist. So the question lingered: What is the worth of something that’s “just funny”?

***

Read the rest of this entry »

The Days Are Gods: Interview with Liz Stephens

In books, environment, gender, race, Uncategorized on February 25, 2013 at 5:00 am

Sarah S.

Liz Stephens needed to get out of Los Angeles so she packed up her husband and her dogs and moved to…Wellsville, UT. She moved ostensibly for grad school but found she learned as much from diving into local history, her Mormon neighbors, the animals she raised and gave away and the ones who died, as she learned in books and classes. In her lovely, meditative memoir, The Days Are Gods, Stephens tells about white teenagers dressed up as Indians, a French kid who spends his summer on a Dude Ranch, surprise goats, and discovering how going to a non-trivially alien place helped her discover (or become or transition or whatever) into her adult self.

Stephens received her PhD in creative nonfiction from Ohio University. Her work has been featured in Brevity, South Dakota Review, Western American Literature, and Fourth Genre. She received the Western Literature Association’s Frederick Manfred Award and was a finalist for the Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction Award. She’s equally talented at making a cup of earl grey tea and a mean mint julep. She will stop to ogle or coo over any animal in the vicinity, especially dogs. She can parallel park like a boss.

book-cover-for-sidebar

You can buy The Days Are Gods from University of Nebraska Press or from Amazon. You can also find out more about Liz Stephens and her work on her website, thedaysaregods.com. After you finish reading this interview and buy her book, be sure to read her devastating essay “Ten Years I’ll Never Get Back.”

***

SS: Okay, let’s just start out with a big one: At one point you write about the sight of a grey barn on a mountainside: “I’ve seen that movie, the one with the barn in the mountains. I’ve read that book, the one with the treacherous winter. And now I am really there.” Now that you’ve lived in Utah and returned for visits, spent 4+ years in Ohio, and returned to Los Angeles (not to mention written and re-written this book), is there an essentiality to “the West” or is it—always and forever—artifice? Or narrative? Or dream?

LS: I think the West is like a celebrity who when interviewed says, “You know, there’s me, and then there’s capital letter Brad Pitt”—or whoever—the distinction of course being that from inside one experience you know a thing, and then culturally there is this mystical entity fed by a whole culture’s desires. Cultural values I wanted to attribute to the West exclusively were demonstrably true of Ohio as well: tractor derbies are good fun, and you should keep your business at the local feed shop or they will close and you will be screwed some day in the future when you need them. Neighbors are, like fences, worth investing time in. Being a college professor living in the country is not the same as being a grounds keeper at the campus and driving in to work, and none of you are going to be able to pretend it is. It’s a wise idea, that you suggest in your own question that the West may be a narrative. It is. If you tell your life in a big epic way, those are the features you feature in your surroundings, no matter who you are or your line of work. If you keep stories small and close to the home, you value that in your narrative of your own life. You describe your region in which that life plays out accordingly. Sometimes the West is simply the line of box stores you are most familiar with, with a really long snowy season.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Dating Obsession

In books, fashion, feminism, gender, reality TV, Television on January 9, 2013 at 1:42 pm

Chelsea H.

The summer before my junior year of college, I worked at a family-owned business that sold paint, spas, and above ground pools.  Strange combination, I know.  The owner of the store and I got along  well: he was a good boss, he and his wife paid well, and sometimes he shared a beer or two in the back with his employees after closing.  It was a great summer job.  But it, like my then-single situation, wasn’t to last.  My boss, for one, was determined to change the latter.  He told me once that I was “too great a person to be alone.”  He then advocated that, if I wasn’t finding men to date in my classes at school, I should look elsewhere.  I pointed out that the bar scene was not really my thing.  He asked “don’t you buy food?  There are men at the grocery store.  Don’t you do laundry?  There are men at laundrymats!”  I noted, always the pragmatist, that with laundry machines in my garage, I wasn’t about to sacrifice my quarters just to find a boyfriend.  I would rather save them for a soda machine.  Quarters, that is, not a boyfriend.

But his comments made me think.  Yes, I was single.  Yes, admittedly, I was lonely.  But why did being a great person mean I ought to be half of a couple?  Couldn’t I be just as great being just me?  And why is it “just” me?

Why not – me – ?

That fall, I met the man who became my husband.  And I have to admit, I can’t imagine being alone again.  I love our partnership.  I would feel lost without him.  But that’s because we’ve grown together and learned to rely on each other in a way that makes both of us more, not collapses us into co-dependent halves.  I accept, but do not love, when people ask me where my “other half” is.  I love living with, spending time with, and traveling with this man, but that doesn’t mean I have to be with him constantly, and his is not the only relationship I feel desirous of cultivating.  As society would see me, I’m ridiculously heteronormative.  And that makes me fit in perfectly.  Because society demands perfectly paired coupledom.  And though I recognize that this is not the only state of being in which individual human beings can be content, it is the most accepted, the most belabored, and the most advertised.  And I think this is a problematic, stagnant way of thought that stigmatizes and discriminates.  It’s a too-expected, too-relied upon binary we need to break.  I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite being in a happy relationship saying coupledom is a bad thing.  It’s not a bad thing.  It’s just not the only thing.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Top 5 Things I Learned from Pop Culture in 2012

In books, music videos, Television on December 29, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Sarah T.

1. Acclimate yourself to rejection as soon as possible.

That way, the fear of getting turned down never prevents you from doing anything. Accomplishing this is easy. Just start asking for what you want, and people will start telling you no. It works for everything: job applications, dating, carbon tax proposals, writing pitches, conferences, ordering very popular dishes at too-busy restaurants. The great trick of rejection is that it’s not so bad. The way your skin grows calluses to protect the parts of you that work the hardest, the word no helps you build vast reserves of Leslie Knope-ism–the bright eyed, bulldozer-ish determination to follow through on every good idea.

Sometimes you’ll decide you need to find a different way to reach the same goal. Sleazeball councilmember trying to sandbag your dog park? Fill his backyard with puppies. Behind in the polls? Don’t go negative; beat your opponent by contrasting his words with your own. Sometimes you still won’t get what you want, which by the alchemy of enduring rebuff just becomes more fuel for your fire. And sometimes your efforts will pay off, in which case the only thing to do is to take in the win the way Leslie Knope would. “I just said let’s get to work,” she tells her co-workers moments after a victory. “How else do people enjoy things?”

2. There will always be someone shinier than you.

Someone more famous and successful. More blonde. More likely to be invited to sing at President Obama’s inaugural ball. Say your brand of talent doesn’t have quite that same sparkly blockbuster razmatazz. The best thing in the world to do, should you find yourself in a position similar to Solange Knowles, is to not even try to be like Beyonce. Instead, she’s quietly and impossibly cool, edgy and offbeat in her bright orange zoot suits, crooning in a crowded shuttle bus her sister would probably never ride. From Solange’s gorgeous cloud of natural hair to the easy way she dives into the pool fully clothed, “Losing You” showed the world how comfortable she was in her own skin. Of course her music made a splash this year: When you act like yourself, the right people find you. And those who don’t miss out on one sweet dance party.

Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Year-End Picks: Sarah S’s Favorite Books, TV Shows, and Songs

In books, music videos, Television on December 21, 2012 at 10:27 am

Sarah S.

Books

A Dance With Dragons, George R. R. Martin: The segmented plots of Westeros and beyond weave back together in book 5 of the Song of Ice and Fire series. The gang’s together again, so to speak, or at least all the members who’ve made it out alive. Writer faster, George! Write like the wind!

Bossy Pants, Tina Fey: Fey’s self-deprecation does not mask her confidence. Her funny, interesting memoir feels like a sneak peek into the life of the woman we all want to be when we grow up.

Blood, Bones, and Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton: Beautiful. Gritty. Raw. If you live in NYC, I hope you eat at Prune. Wherever you live, I hope you’ll read Gabrielle Hamilton’s exquisite memoir.

The End of Men, Hannah Rosen: I hesitate to call this book one of the year’s “best” but it’s undoubtedly one of the most fascinating.

TV Shows

True Blood: All good things must come to an end, but summers are going to be dry indeed once True Blood goes off the air. This last season had imperfections, including the painfully boring werewolf plot and the heinous Iraq storyline. On the other hand, we did learn a lot about the Authority (at last!), Eric became one of the most interesting and developed characters on the show, Sookie’s charm returned since Eric/Bill’s imprisonment and actress Anna Paquin’s pregnancy forced the character to interact again with her friends and not just mope around in cute dresses/naked. Last, the season took a flailing character—Tara—paired her with one of the series’ best supporters—Pam—and fireworks ensued. True to form, we are left with more questions than answers, especially since Bill has transformed into an evil vampire blood god or whatever. In terms of the unending love triangle, I would say that Eric’s chances are looking up. Oh, and if you are not yet convinced, I have two words: Russell. Edgington.

Boardwalk Empire: There are many ways to revitalize a struggling show, one riddled with complaints about style over substance. However, Boardwalk Empire took an unorthodox approach by ending season 2 with the killing of a major character. Season 3 opened a year and a half later and the audience had to play catch up as we watched Nucky, haunted by his actions, becoming more and more of a monster. Nucky’s development ricocheted out to the rest of the characters—from his wife, Margaret; his brother, Eli; and his “colleagues” Arnold Rothstein, Owen Slater, and Chalky White. Last, we were treated to one bad-ass baddie in Bobby Canavale’s Gyp Rosetti and the lovely development of Richard Harrow. Boardwalk’s always been an actor’s show and this season allowed its cast to shine, showing that—wonder of wonders—Steve Buscemi can anchor a series, Canavale deserves way more work, and that if you give actors meaty roles they will tear into them with gusto.

Sons of Anarchy: Last season I feared that my beloved Sons had jumped their motorcycles right over that eponymous shark. Instead, they brought on Jimmy Smits, complicated Tara and Jax and their relationship, killed off a major character (*sniffle* Opie), surrounded us with baddies yet never let them detract from the real conflict within the club, and revitalized Gemma. In a conversation to be continued, we officially need to come up with a term for shows that seem like they’re about the jump the shark but that—like SOA—do not.

Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Year-End Picks: Chelsea B’s Top TV Shows, Songs, and Books of 2012

In books, music videos, reality TV, Television on December 20, 2012 at 6:51 am

Top 5 Songs for Singing Along

“Hold On” by Alabama Shakes

“Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen (duh)

“Some Nights” by fun.

“Feel the Love” by Rudimental featuring John Newman

“Super Rich Kids” by Frank Ocean

Top 5 Reality Shows About Love

Here Comes Honey Boo Boo 

Real Housewives of Atlanta

Keeping Up with the Kardashians

Jersey Shore

Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta Read the rest of this entry »

GLG Year-End Picks: Librarians Vote On the Top YA Books of 2012

In books, YA on December 19, 2012 at 2:30 pm

There are a lot of benefits to being friends with a librarian. She can show you the insane(ly awesome) Excel spreadsheet she keeps of all the books she wants to read in her lifetime, which she updates constantly and color-codes according to how much she likes a given book! She can explain to you how the Dewey Decimal system works! And when you ask her to recommend some of the best young adult books of 2012, she can send out her librarian bat signal to a ginormous listserv and compile the votes of over 70 different young adult librarians.

Big thanks to my pal Samantha for her help, and to the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) book group in particular. Y’all are amazing.

And so, without further ado, here are the 2012 young adult books that garnered the most votes from librarians who Know What They’re Talking About. Whether you’re in the mood for a World War II spy novel mind-bender, a funny-sad-smart tale about teenagers living with cancer, or a story about coming of age and coming out, there’s a YA book here for you (or for your favorite young’un). Let us know your own picks in the comments!

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

From The New York Times: “The Fault in Our Stars” is all the more heart-rending for its bluntness about the medical realities of cancer. There are harrowing descriptions of pain, shame, anger and bodily fluids of every type. It is a narrative without rainbows or flamingoes; there are no magical summer snowstorms. Instead, Hazel has to lug a portable oxygen tank with her wherever she goes, and Gus has a prosthetic leg. Their friend Isaac is missing an eye and later goes blind. These unpleasant details do nothing to diminish the romance; in Green’s hands, they only make it more moving. He shows us true love — two teenagers helping and accepting each other through the most humiliating physical and emotional ordeals — and it is far more romantic than any sunset on the beach.

The Diviners by Libba Bray

From The Plain Dealer: Pity poor 17-year-old Evie O’Neill. It’s 1926 and she’s stuck in Zenith, Ohio, a thudding bore of a town where her mother is secretary of the Women’s Temperance Society. Pretty Evie has a taste for giggle water and adventure. She’s also got a talent for divining other people’s secrets.

This girl is bound for trouble.

Codename Verity by Elizabeth Wein

From The New York Times: “Code Name Verity,” by Elizabeth Wein, is a fiendishly plotted mind game of a novel, the kind you have to read twice. The first time you just devour the story of girl-pilot-and-girl-spy friendship and the thrill of flying a plane and the horrors of Nazi torture and the bravery of French Resistance fighters and you force yourself to slow down, but you don’t want to, because you’re terrified these beautiful, vibrant characters are doomed. The second time, you read more slowly, proving to yourself that yes, the clues were there all along for you to solve the giant puzzle you weren’t even aware was constructed around you, and it takes focus and attention to catch all the little references to the fact that nothing is what you thought. Especially while you’re bawling your eyes out. Read the rest of this entry »

GLG’s 2012 Picks: Brian’s Top 3 Books

In books, dystopian literature, misogyny on December 18, 2012 at 9:56 am

brian psi

The books I was most surprised by this year—Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Secret Confessions of a Justified Sinner—are8 and 188 years old, respectively. But here are some of my favorites from the last year (and a half, sorry).

Ernest Cline – Ready Player One

The future sucks. So people stay inside, create avatars, and log into OASIS, an enormous virtual world—think Second Life if it was fun. The simulation’s eccentric, dead creator James Halliday has hidden a number of easter eggs inside, and so those with the requisite time, resources, and encyclopedic knowledge of the 1980’s pop culture Halliday loved search for them. These ‘gunters’ compete or cooperate in their quest to win the game, billions of dollars, and control of OASIS itself, now threatened by a corporate takeover. The plot follows Parzival, a high school kid from one of the teetering ‘stacks’ of trailer homes inhabited by the residents of 2044 Oklahoma City, and his online friends/rivals (frivals?) Aech and Art3mis. Together they obsess over the minutiae and meanings of the Duran Duran lyrics, Dungeons & Dragons modules, and John Hughes movies presumably also loved by first time author Cline (and many of his readers, including this one). Ready Player One was certainly the most joyous book I’ve picked up this year, even if I couldn’t shake the feeling that on some level it was always pandering to me. When it works—and it does more often than not—it’s because Cline makes an unabashed claim for the value—nay necessity—ofhit records and bad television. Artifacts of pop culture, like OASIS itself, provide an escape from our problems and those of the big bad world outside. But their playful scribbles, adorning our inner landscapes, also make us: building us up and breaking us down and giving each other things to share and argue about and just overall making life, well, livable.

Halloween Eve Cover

Brandon Montclare & Amy Reeder – Halloween Eve

I have already written a little about DC Comics’ 52 relaunch and some of its representations, so now I’ll shovel out some coal for their increasingly puzzling relationship with their female creators. It’s already been something of a dark December, with the great Gail Simone relieved of her duties as writer of Batgirl, and the killer Karen Berger—arguably the most important comics editor of the past 25 years—has announced her departure from the Vertigo imprint that she created and ran. Earlier in the year, the amazing Amy Reeder was forced off of Batwoman apparently at the behest of its new writer, J.H. Williams [alliterative deleted].

Shortly afterwards, Reeder (art) and Brandon Montclare (words) financed Halloween Eve through Kickstarter, and had it published by creator-owned Image Comics just in time for the holiday. The comic is a retelling of A Christmas Carol, with the titular Eve as the Scrooge of Samhain: she works in a popular costume shop but hates Halloween, dressing up, and unseriousness generally. Forced to work late the night before the big night, she is startled to find that the costumes are coming to life. They whisk her away to Halloween Land where Eve discovers the real reason for the season… which after a couple of reads is still somewhat unclear: at 40 pages, Halloween Eve is long for a single issue of an ongoing, but rather short for a self-contained work, and so the character relationships and development has to occur very quickly. Montclare’s script works within these limitations, but the book largely relies on Reeder’s art and layouts to tell its story. Luckily, while Halloween Eve is not as strong as the best issues of their collaboration on Madame Xanadu, it is neverthelesss a fantastic showcase for Reeder. Eve herself is a wonderfully realized character, and the monsters and demons that populate the other realm are perfect subjects for her (somewhat-manga influenced) art style: does anyone draw more expressive, almost three-dimensional eyes?

I should also say that there are depressingly few mainstream comics with black women as protagonists, so let’s hope that Halloween Eve’s success can help address this inbalance. Finally, at $3.99 this was the value of the year, pick up a few for next year’s All Hallow’s Read.

John Scalzi – Redshirts

Sci-fi author Scalzi probably received more attention for his blog than for his novels in 2012. His piece “Straight White Male: The Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is,” –which used the form and rhetoric of video games to explain privilege and how it operates without actually using the p-word—generated  thousands of comments, shares, tweets, reblogs, hatEmails, and  academic attention. In July he initiated a minor war with CNN contributor Joe Peacock over an opinion piece about how cosplayers—primarily women—weren’t ‘real’ geeks. Comic book artist Tony Harris made a similar post later in the year, which Scalzi also obliterated. (A brief aside for those unfamiliar with one of 2012’s most irritating trends, the best response to the ‘fake geek girl’ manplaint is still albinwonderland’s video, also a response to Harris).

So, Redshirts. Scalzi’s latest novel is a loving satire of Star Trek, in which three new junior crewmembers of the U.U. Intrepid discover that lower-ranked officers are dying off with alarming frequency: disintegrated by weapons fire, mauled by killer robots, eaten by space oozes, etc. Meanwhile, the bridge crew seem to live charmed lives, healing from devastating injuries overnight and surviving attacks that would emulsify ensigns and liquefy second lieutenants. Naturally, there is a conspiracy afoot, but not the kind that the characters and most readers expect. There is a highly metafictional plot twist about halfway through, after which much of the gallows humor fades and the book becomes something else entirely. Some readers will likely not follow the leap that Scalzi makes here, his attempt to go for bigger emotions in the book’s “three codas.” I’m of course a super sappy emo kid, but a couple of the endings made me cry. If Frankenstein asked us what responsibility the creator has for their created; Redshirts raises (or perhaps lowers) the stakes by suggesting that even fictional creations deserve our respect and care: these literary lives, too, are worthwhile, and we should not be so quick to discard them (or subject them to lazily-written transporter accidents).

Brian Psiropoulos is a dad and PhD candidate in English literature. He likes stuff, especially gothic Victorian novels, superhero comics, and video games. Also tennis.

Ladies First: Five Fairly Recent Books by Women, About Women

In books, Uncategorized on November 29, 2012 at 9:42 pm

Sarah T.

Although the subjects of the novels below range from coming of age to coming to America, all five have two things in common: They’re written by women, and they center on female characters. What books by women and/or about women have you been perusing?

A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore

Moore’s coming-of-age novel is set in a post-9/11 Midwestern college town. I read it on a Metro North train and I was really into it. So into it, in fact, that I got off one station before my transfer in a haze of which-world-am-I-in confusion. Then, as the doors shut, I realized that I was still an hour away from my final destination. As the train pulled away, I had two additional revelations: I had left my phone on the seat, and this was the last train of the night. I was fully marooned.

“I guess I live here now,” I thought. I trudged down to the taxi stand to start a new life for myself. Now here I am, a happy resident of Brewster, NY. No, $90 later I got home. But the point of this story is: Moore is very absorbing, especially if you like puns. People in her books are always verbally jousting with each other, no matter how unhappy or confused they are. Even when two characters don’t like each other very much, they can usually cease hostilities long enough to bond over a good homophone. It’s Moore’s way of telling us how lonely her characters are. In her universe, puns are the way that people grasp for connection.

The novel’s narrator, Tassie, is a smart college student cut off even from the people she loves most. One of the novel’s key plot points hinges on an email from her beloved brother, who writes asking for advice on a major life decision. Not only doesn’t Tassie write back, she never even reads the email. She doesn’t understand why herself. But the isolation that courses through the book provides the explanation: The vulnerability of her brother’s email, and the prospect of taking responsibility for another person, was too much for Tassie to bear. People turn away from intimacy throughout the book. The decision seems almost sensible, given that nobody is who they say they are–not  Tassie’s Brazilian boyfriend, nor the white couple who hire her as a nanny for their adorable, bi-racial adoptive daughter Mary-Emma. Self-deception runs deep too. Their liberal college town, which prides itself on being the kind of enlightened place where you can protest wars and buy organic kohlrabi all in one go, reveals a racist underbelly.

Needless to say, this is a sad book. You kind of hear “Eleanor Rigby” playing on repeat as you read it. But Moore makes sure you don’t drown in melancholy: there are still bowls of fresh strawberries with balsamic vinaigrette, the joy of discovering Simone de Beauvoir, art etched into the foam of cappuccinos. The book recognizes the balancing power of ordinary consolations, even as it suggests–steely-eyed–that they’re not enough.  Read the rest of this entry »

The End of Men: And the Rise of Intense Conversation

In books, class, feminism, gender, misogyny, Uncategorized on November 19, 2012 at 6:18 am

Sarah S.

Men are over. O-V-E-R. Or so says Hanna Rosin—journalist, author, founder of Slate’s woman-centric blog “Double X,” and mother to a son she worries about and a daughter that thrives. In The End of Men: And the Rise of Women, Rosin claims that patriarchy is deader than J.R. Women have won, men are in decline, and the only reason we (women, men, Americans, global citizens, etc.) don’t recognize this fact is because the reality is far from the egalitarian utopia our second-wave foremothers promised.

Rosin’s premise incited quite the conversation among feminists, including Stephanie Coontz, who takes umbrage at the notion that women’s successes equal men’s decline, and Emily Blazelon and Liz Schwartz, who defend Rosin’s premise and methodology. Regardless of where one falls on this issue (or one’s gender), it’s an important conversation to have for several reasons.

One, it makes feminists quite uncomfortable; if women have actually “won,” and the world is still a cultural cesspool riddled with inequality, then are women just replacing their male overlords? Is a matriarchy doomed to be just as distasteful as a patriarchy?

Second, if newly dominant women dislike the world we see, what do we do about it? How can we take this newfound power out for a spin and see what it can do for universal equality and global improvement? If nothing else, how can we avoid turning the men that we love—husbands, sons, partners, brothers, gay boyfriends—into a new underclass?

Third, are Rosin and her ilk dead wrong? Does Rosin selectively order information in such a way as to make her case while not accounting for real and ongoing gender inequality? Further, does she account enough for race, ethnicity, class, and sexuality in her assessment?

These and other questions are so important that I was excited to have a conversation with members of Girls Like Giants about the book. Alas, most of our crew were too busy dominating the world to read and respond to the book in a timely manner. So the weighty task of leading this discussion fell to me—your humble narrator and hopeful guide.

I would have liked to have had that conversation in order to get into the nuances of Rosin’s argument. Are her uses of individual stories distractingly manipulative or competent ways to humanize the discussion? How about examples from her own biography—honest or smug? And why oh why did she allow a desire to provoke controversy overcrow arguments against such an inflammatory, ultimately lousy title? But beyond these rhetorical choices, Rosin’s main point matters to any thinking person as she articulates a profound, unshakeable shift in the makeup of our world.

However, I don’t want to just review the book or to give a rundown of my thoughts on it. If nothing else, I’m too conflicted by the argument, and frustrated by Rosin’s way of making it, to venture an objective opinion. I thought that, instead, I would briefly summarize each chapter of the book and then open it up for discussion. I’ve also included a series of links at the bottom that highlight some of the conversation that’s gone on surrounding Rosin’s work. After reading the following, what say you? Have we really reached “the end of men”?

Read the rest of this entry »

Choose Your Own Adventure: Talking “Treasure Island!!!” with Sara Levine

In books on August 28, 2012 at 6:00 am

Sarah T.

“When had I ever dreamed a scheme? When had I ever done a foolish, over-bold act? When had I ever, like Jim Hawkins, broke from my friends, raced for the beach, stolen a boat, killed a man, or eliminated an obstacle that stood in the way of my getting a hunk of gold?”

With those words, the unnamed 25-year-old protagonist of Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! decides to change course. Inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s timeless tale, she’s determined to shake off the shackles of her suburban life — though not by leaving the suburbs. Instead, she pursues the Core Values of BOLDNESS, RESOLUTION, INDEPENDENCE, and HORN-BLOWING while navigating her day job at The Pet Library and an assortment of friends and family confused by her single-minded passion for a classic of boy’s adventure fiction.

Of course, there are bound to be a few hiccups along the path of any grand adventure. In the narrator’s case, these include embezzlement, an extremely annoying parrot, moving back in with her parents, encounters with poison, and even a stabbing. No matter: she keeps her head up throughout Levine’s laugh-out-loud satire.

Filled with love for a coming-of-age novel that’s less about lessons learned than lessons–boldly!–refused, I asked Levine to talk about her acclaimed debut. Grab your nearest bottle of rum and read on for her thoughts on the Core Values of Little Women, how book reception seems to differ for male and female authors, and the American desire for self-reinvention.

The narrator wants so badly to learn capital-L Lessons from Treasure Island. Her take-aways are questionable and her execution of the Core Values is decidedly slapdash—embezzling, negligent parrot-parenting, etc. But I think a lot of bookworms can relate to the feeling of wanting the books we love to tell us how to live. Is that too much pressure to put on a paperback? And are there books that have inspired a Treasure Island level of devotion in you?

 No book has inspired that level of devotion in me. I can’t imagine committing to a single book with such fervor.  But I’m well aware of my tendency to hope that something—not necessarily a book, but an object, or a practice—will have the power to change my life. And I’m interested in the American obsession with re-inventing selfhood.  Remodel your living room, redo your wardrobe, make a new you!  Why do we always think it’s possible, even desirable, to start over? 

The Core Values the narrator decides to live her life by are boldness, resolution, independence, and horn-blowing. Does that last one mean tooting your own horn (something at which the narrator excels) or taking up the euphonium?

Yes, blowing your own horn means saying what you do well.  But let’s not rule out euphonium lessons for any of the ladies. I understand the solo euphonium repertoire has expanded dramatically in recent years.  It’s no longer necessary to be an ensemble player.

Several of the Treasure Island!!! reviews I read (all of which were very admiring!) praised the book for putting such an unsympathetic character at the center. But I kind of loved her. She’s selfish and oblivious and misguided, sure, and she hurts the people who care about her. But I also found her wild over-confidence and single-mindedness endearing, especially as the cracks in her armor start to show. Am I a patsy?

You are not a patsy.  You are a spiritually evolved human being. Do you know the Buddhist parable of the poisoned tree?  When we encounter a mean, selfish, off-kilter person, most of us want to get away as quickly as possible.  Others, like yourself, they can witness the mess and not run away screaming.  I commend you for approaching the dregs of humanity with compassion and amusement. I apologize if I sound as if I am speaking from a mountaintop.

Relatedly, your self-interview at The Nervous Breakdown brings up the specter of the autobiographical question. (“How much you have in common with your narrator?”) But nobody as un-self-aware as the narrator ever could have written her. Did it surprise you that people were asking that question?

Thanks.  It did surprise me, though probably it shouldn’t have.  People usually write first novels based on their own lives, and it would be ridiculous to expect people to do any homework on me. But I was taken aback by a number of people who failed to see the gap between me and the narrator.  They seemed ill equipped to read the voice. I keep hearing their morally indignant sputters: “She thinks she’s being bold, but really she’s being self-centered!”  Tell me something I don’t know, girlfriend.  And then there was the interviewer who asked me point-blank if I had ever worked in a pet store.      Read the rest of this entry »

Interview: Author Leigh Stein Sends a “Dispatch From the Future”

In books on July 24, 2012 at 9:47 am

Sarah T.

The future is notoriously hard to predict, but it’s a safe bet that it holds big things for Leigh Stein. The 27-year-old poet and novelist has published two witty, wonderful books in the last year alone. Her first, The Fallback Plan, is a coming-of-age novel about a college graduate spending a confused summer at home in the suburbs.  In her new book of poems, Dispatch from the Future, Stein plays fast and loose with the rules of time and space, not to mention poetic conventions — all to dazzling effect.

Beneath Dispatch‘s irreverent wisecracks and pop culture references are big concerns:  love, loneliness, revenge, freedom, endless choice. Stein has a knack for asking real humdingers of questions. “What’s the future/of your emergency?” is a funny way for an operator to answer the phone, but it’s also a puzzle anyone who’s ever gotten themselves out of a bad situation has had to solve.

Girls Like Giants’ questions aren’t nearly as mull-worthy; luckily, Stein agreed to an email interview anyway. Read on for her thoughts on The Bachelorette as poetic muse, why writing a novel is like working in the mines, and how to win back your ex-boyfriend after he leaves you for a Lithuanian model.

The opening poem in Dispatch from the Future warns, “If you read this book sequentially, / bad things may happen to you, but only as bad / as the things that would have happened to you anyway.” But it also warns that not reading sequentially will feel like being on a sunken pirate ship. For me, this was kind of like watching the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz point both ways, which was an awesome and trippy way to enter into your book. How did you want your readers to go about reading your poems?

What a great question! The first section of Dispatch is very inspired by the Choose Your Own Adventure series, and instead of preparing people for what they typically would expect from a book of poetry, I wanted to prepare people for a dangerous adventure. Of course you can read the book sequentially (and I ordered the poems intentionally) but the pleasure of reading a poetry collection is getting to jump around, just as you would in a CYOA book, where finishing the book means risking death. Read the rest of this entry »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 144 other followers