Tuesday, November 24, 2015

books I'm thankful for this year

Thanksgiving, aka The Best Holiday of All of Our Holidays, is almost upon us. Let's all take this moment to remember that Jimmy Kimmel sketch where Meghan Trainor hawked a fake Thanksgiving album:

But also! Also -- let's remember books read this year for which we are thankful. The following are my favorites for 2015 (so far). All these books have stuck with me in some positive way, and I'm glad I read all of them.

Murder by Candlelight: The Gruesome Slayings Behind Our Romance with the Macabre

I haven't written a review of this yet, but IMAGINE A BOOK that talks about Regency murders and links them up with how the culture around them reacted and it all culminates in the much-later Ripper murders and it all gives you a greater appreciation for the Romantics who you maybe have made fun of a lot in the past. I like this book.

I AM SO THANKFUL FOR SANDMAN. I'm on volume 8 in the series, and despite being in a state of decluttering my life and getting rid of what books I can, I know this is something I'm going to want on my shelves for a long time.

Then Comes Marriage
Robbie Kaplan's book about her journey with Edith Windsor to the Supreme Court that eventually led to federal recognition of LGBT marriages is one of my favorites of the whole year. I cried so damn much during this book. We needed something to remind us how hard this fight was and her book does exactly that. <3

Big Little Lies
You guys. I just love Liane Moriarty. It's so nice that her books exist. I haven't read The Husband's Secret yet, but I'll bet I will and I'll bet it feels real and human and funny, because that is how she writes.

The Hallowed Ones
Remember that time I read two Amish vampire novels? Because I do. It was awesome.

Revolutionary Summer: The Birth of American Independence
I still think about this book. Bonus points to PastAlice for asking a Hamilton question before that shit blew up. Joseph Ellis is a kickass author, and this book is short and to the point about the summer of 1776 and all the stuff that happened and set up the rest of the war. 

you boys are all silly.

East of West
East of West is one of the best comics I've read this year. It's probably my favorite right after Sandman, and that list includes Locke and Key, Chew, Black Widow, Sex Criminals, Bitch Planet, Fables, etc. Post-apocalyptic Western!

DO Y'ALL REMEMBER AQUARIUM? Because my review is entitled "Bring a crown of roses, for this book and I shall wed." I love Aquarium. I just looked at my review again so I could link to it and it made me want to read the book all over again. I barely care about fish, but I care about people and what they love and how they relate, so I love this book. 

King Mob
King Mob! I read Dickens's Barnaby Rudge this year, which was terrible, but also set during the London riots of 1780, so I read a book about the riots, and it was great. It also gave me a healthy fear of what rioters can do, because they pulled down prisons and it was terrifying.

My lovely 1872 lesbian vampire book! Carmilla should be requisite reading, y'all. It's so sympathetic to its seeming antagonist, and it predates Dracula, and it's short. Oh gosh, it's so swell.

Look at that. Those're all from this year and I love ALL of them and last year I had no idea. What stuff are we going to read next year that will make our lives that much better and give us an infinitesimally better understanding of our fellow humans? I'm immensely excited about this and by the scant reading time there is left for 2015. Let's all pick good things for December, and happy Thanksgiving, I love you all!

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Old Movies You Should Probably Just Watch Right Now

You know how sometimes you look at the You of 5, 10, 15 years ago and can sometimes barely recognize yourself? Or you think how the people who've met you in the years since that time have no idea that certain things used to be The Most Important to you?

From about ages 10 to 20, I was very, very into old movies. It started with PBS showing them when I lived out in the country and we only got seven channels because of some malarkey about satellite dishes not working out there.

They'd show them late, and that's how I first saw Bringing Up Baby, the classic Katharine Hepburn/Cary Grant comedy, and arguably their best. I also caught The Philadelphia Story that way, and both of these spawned a Katharine Hepburn obsession that culminated in my friend and me starting this community.

I STILL LOVE THESE MOVIES. But our culture has switched to Netflix, so I basically never see them. I am, however, reading a book about 19th century murders, and it reminded me of my brief but intense obsession with a terrible Bette Davis movie, which made me in turn want to make a list of random old movies I got obsessed with. You should watch all of them if you have not.

Holiday. Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant again! Holiday is a fantastic movie about a poor guy getting engaged to a rich girl, then falling for her sister (Hepburn). His whole schtick is he wants to go "on holiday" (get it?) and THEN get to work. So like, retire young, then start working. Since this film came out when the Great Depression was still going, it was not a huge success. There's a pretty great almost-kiss between Hepburn and Grant, though.

This is one of the only scenes really worth watching in the movie:

Random Harvest. Greer Garson! And also Ronald Colman, but I don't care about him! Ok, Greer Garson is not that well known in our time, which is a shame, because she is damn great. Random Harvest is about a man with amnesia who meets a woman (Garson), they get married, have a kid, then he has some OTHER amnesia incident where he forgets his new life with Garson and only remember his old life, where he's a big rich guy. Then she comes to work for him as his secretary and oh, it is so angsty and great.

My Favorite Wife. People liked the plot of My Favorite Wife so much, it got remade into another movie in the '60s with James Garner and Doris Day called Move Over, Darling. I highly enjoy both versions. So in this, Cary Grant is married to Irene Dunne, but she's been lost at sea for years, so he's finally going to remarry. Then, of course, she shows up on his wedding day right after they've gotten married and OH the confusion and chaos! Also Irene Dunne and Cary Grant kiss in this and not in their other big movie, The Awful Truth. Teenage Alice rated a lot of things by how much kissing they contained.

Stage Door. Holy. Shit. Stage Door. Ok, imagine a movie with a bunch of awesome comedic actresses of today, all living together in a boarding house. Because that was Stage Door and it is MAGNIFICENT. So, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Ann Miller, Lucille Ball, ETC are struggling actresses who all live in a theatrical boarding house together and spend their days hanging out and being hilarious. Lucille Ball is a tiny baby in this movie. It's got an overly dramatic subplot, but omg just talking about it makes me want to watch it again right now.

All This, and Heaven Too. This is the terrible Bette Davis movie! Ok, Bette Davis is a governess in 19th century France, and she works for Charles Boyer, who has a terrible clingy crazy wife. Bette Davis is calm and reasonable, so Charles Boyer is into her, but TERRIBLE CLINGY CRAZY WIFE ruins things, and omg, it's so great. It's based on a real case from France in the 1840s about a duke who was tried for murdering his wife. You can read about the case here and man. You should probably watch the movie. Then listen to the unconnected Florence + the Machine song, because both are A+.

Ok, there's also Desk Set, All About Eve, Ball of Fire, It Happened One Night, The Palm Beach Story, Libeled Lady, The Thin Man, The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Now Voyager, Blossoms in the Dust, WOMAN OF THE YEAR, In the Good Old Summertime, and so on for forever because old movies are great.

The viewings of these would go way up if Netflix would just acquire a bunch of good old movies, but for now, it's Desk Set ad infinitum for me. Which is actually kind of okay because Desk Set is one of the greatest movies ever made. Librarians versus the internet! In the 1950s! Fantastic.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How Books Can Save Us

As we have now seen for millennia, literature can be the sane voice of reason at times when anxiety, fear, and panic threaten to lead us into actions we might someday regret.

I have great amounts of love for also known as middle grade fiction. This genre has a special knack for stating an idea both succinctly and clearly. 

The recent tragedy in France made me think of a specific middle grade book series: Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. For those unfamiliar, it's semi-gothic, has a very particular and excellent prose style, and consists of 13 books, all about the three Baudelaire orphans.

The thing I remembered from the series is that in one of the later books, the Baudelaire siblings are met with a difficult decision: they can use underhanded tactics to capture one of the many villains out to get them, or...they can choose to not. Every. Other. Children's book I've read would have had no problem with them capturing a villain and using them as leverage to achieve their own ends, because obviously the protagonists' motives are purer than the dastardly villains', so we support what helps them win.

But the Baudelaires think this through. 

"We're not in a pleasant situation," Violet said, and the eldest Baudelaire was right. It was not pleasant... But the least pleasant part of the situation wasn't the cold dirt, or the freezing winds, or even their own exhaustion as it grew later and the children dug deeper and deeper. The least pleasant part was the idea, shared by the two Baudelaires and their new friend, that they might be doing a villainous thing. The siblings were not sure if digging a deep pit to trap someone, in order to trade prisoners with a villain, was something that their parents would do.... As they looked at the villainous thing they had made, the three volunteers could not help wondering if they were villains, too, and this was the least pleasant feeling in the world.

If we act like villains, then we are villains. I'm not saying these people should not be stopped. But if we respond by determining to wipe them out and declare war and essentially meet unspeakable violence with unspeakable violence, we're not heroes. We become what they are.

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Time Fetch: Time is stolen! And also the world might end.

The Time Fetch is a delightful romp through ponderings of atoms, time, and Christmas cookies. 

I snatched it from someone's table at Book Expo America last year (me: "Can I take this?" guy: "um...maybe?" me: "ok cool" *takes it*) and it's been sitting on my shelf ever since. UNTIL NOW, when I read it and loved it.

So there are these little time-gnat/fairy things and they steal tiny bits of time. Not so you'd really notice. It's just that when time seems to go faster than normal and you are shocked it is already 2 o'clock, and how did that happen so quickly?--time-gnats. (note: they are not called time-gnats in the book, but it how they are best described)

like Crysta in Ferngully but way smaller
and also they eat time

At a certain time of year, namely, the solstice, they go back into their home (the time fetch), which is a little rock/walnut-type thing, and they wait to be picked up. But if someone disturbs the time fetch, like an idiot teenage boy named Edward who didn't do his homework assignment which was finding a certain type of rock and just picks up one from his aunt's garden instead, and the time-gnats subsequently get free, ALL HAVOC SHALL BREAK LOOSE AND THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT MAY END.

You can't just DO that.

This was really just a fun book. There's fun science, like the thought of how much SPACE there is between atoms, and it makes you do things like stick your tongue out and taste the air, which I do not recommend doing in view of your co-workers, but WHATEVER life is finite, and you should do you. 

It also changes perspectives a lot, so Edward's not really THE protagonist. It's him, and his classmates Feenix (girl), Danton (boy), and Brigit, and they're all great. There's also a fair amount of English mythology (like the Green Man! I love the Green Man) and some stuff with fairies and a kind of malevolent force, but not really the cliched kind you've come to expect from these sorts of books.

Science. Mythology. Memories of home, Christmas, and childhood. This book has all of that. So I'd probably read it and stuff if I were you.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Suffragette: "War is the only language men listen to."

I wasn't going to see Suffragette. When it was first announced, I was leap-in-the-air excited, and then as time passed and disappointing reports kept trickling in, that enthusiasm waned and waned until my only motivation for going was a friend asking + a dull desire to learn more about the British women's suffrage movement.

I'm extremely glad I saw it.

My expectations were The Lowest because most of the articles I've seen about Suffragette either commented on the whitewashing involved, or on the hideous PR debacle surrounding the Pankhurst quote "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave" t-shirts the cast was photographed wearing. (Does Pankhurst say this quote in the movie? Yes, but it's in context, and therefore not horrifying)

I have to do more reading to verify how accurate this portrayal of the situation was, but Suffragette gives an on-the-ground view of what the actions and consequences were for the everyday women involved in the suffrage movement in England. The film centers around Maud, played by Carey Mulligan, who works in a laundry, has a husband and son, and just wants to live her life. Circumstances surrounding her essentially sweep her into suffrage activism, beginning with accidentally being around a group of window-breakers.

Women would throw rocks at windows to gain attention for the movement, which you can at first dismiss with "Well, wanton destruction of property won't get you anywhere," but then you have to think, how silenced does an entire mass of people have to feel that they think this is their only option? How much frustration had to have been building for decades upon decades for Pankhurst to start issuing orders to blow up mailboxes, hang Votes for Women banners in government sessions before being arrested, and cut telephone lines (among many other activities)?

Remember that while America has its private-letter "Remember the ladies" line of Abigail Adams's in the 18th century, England has Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792. In 1792, Wollstonecraft is publicly denouncing the chauvinistic bullshit happening to women. And essentially nothing changes. At the time of the movie (1912), Maud has no rights to her child. A peer's wife has to plead with him to use her money to bail other suffrage activists out of jail (he says no). The rights women are fighting for are rights to live as humans.

As to the whitewashing charge, in What did the suffragette movement in Britain really look like?, Dr Sumita Mukherjee says the women's suffrage movement in Britain was “very different from the American case or the Australian case or the New Zealand case, because although there were ethnic minorities in Britain at that time, there wasn’t the same scale or the same questions of citizenship as there were in other countries.”

While yes, there should have been at least some damn Indian suffragette extras in the scenes, America is particularly sensitive to an all-white suffrage portrayal because of our own erasure of minorities from the battle for women's suffrage. There was a large African-American contingent of suffragists in the U.S., but you have probably not heard of them, because, as historian Lisa Tetrault says, women's history gets so little space, more than two names associated with suffrage becomes too much for people. While you may in fact have heard of Sojourner Truth, there's Ida B. Wells, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Mary Church Terrell, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, Nannie Burroughs, and many others. But that's America's story.

Suffragette does an excellent job of pulling the focus from the upper and upper middle class women of the movement back to the working class. These are the women with no power, with no voice, who were risking their entire lives to make things better for themselves, their daughters, and the women of the future. They lost their jobs, their families, suffered force-feeding in a dank prison, beatings in the street by policemen, all because they felt the government had given them no other option.

Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst only appears for about five minutes, which honestly, I thought was the right amount of time. You were seeing Pankhurst from Maud's perspective. They have to sneak her out of the building she gives a balcony speech from because the police were trying to arrest her (this actually happened), and just before jumping into a car, she gives Maud some encouragement: "Never surrender. Never give up." 

This is exactly what you should see from a transcendent historical figure in a historical film. A flash and they're gone. You are getting the same view of her the thousands of women following her had. 

Helena Bonham Carter plays a character named Edith Ellyn, who is fascinating, but not real. She is heavily based on Edith Garrud though, who was famous for teaching suffrage fighters jiu-jitsu. (please see the comic Suffrajitsu and also this). And of course, Emily Wilding Davison is in it, who was extremely real.

I'm glad I saw it. It's given me more of an understanding of why women in England felt they had to resort to activities we in America never did, and an appreciation for the sacrifices made by those who fought.

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Creation of Patriarchy, Part II: Leslie Knope GIF Edition

Continuing on with Gerda Lerner's The Creation of Patriarchy, her 1986 attempt to discover how we arrived at the current patriarchal system that OPPRESSES OUR VERY SOULS and does things like make the default character on Grand Theft Auto a dude with no lady option unless you log into your online account, which is bullshit. It also does a lot of other things, most of which are very important. The Grand Theft Auto one was maybe not the most important. But it came up this weekend. So there we are.

Lerner's book is really hard and I am here to read it for you and give you nice quotey bits that make you feel like you've learned something.

Chapter 2 is "A Working Hypothesis." This begins with:

The basic assumption with which we must start any theorizing about the past is that men and women built civilization jointly.

She basically says that yes, man probably hunted, and woman was "the inventor of clay and woven vessels, by means of which the tribe's surpluses could be saved for lean times," and basically that while having children generally made women not be able to roam far on hunting trips, "[h]er skills must have been as manifold as those of man and certainly as essential."

There's a kind of hilarious theoretical bit where she says that while in "civilized society," girls have a hard time with ego formation, i.e. society tells us boys are better pretty much 24/7,  in "primitive society," she thinks boys had a more difficult time because of their fear and awe of the mother and of things like menstruation that make women seem to have "a sense of participation in the mystic powers of the universe." 

Lerner also talks about why women were exchanged between tribes instead of men, and unsurprisingly, her idea is that women have a greater ability to add to the tribe's numbers. Because of babies. They would also be less likely to be violent: 

Men would be capable of violence against members of the strange tribe; with their experience in hunting and long distance travel they might easily escape and then return as warriors to seek vengeance.
Like this, but...for dudes.

One of my favorite things Lerner says in here is one that counteracts a sort of feminist cliché:
"I suggest that abandoning the search for an empowering past--the search for matriarchy--is the first step in the right direction. The creation of compensatory myths of the distant past will not emancipate women in the present and future."

As already mentioned, she definitely thinks there were egalitarian (or egalitarianish) societies in the past.

Chapter 3 is "The Stand-In Wife and Pawn" and I was not that into this chapter, other than the fact it informed me we have letters from women in Mesopotamia complaining to their fathers about their husbands. That's pretty great. She says there's some evidence women were scribes back in the day in Mesopotamian culture, but then they got shuttled to weaving and having babies and stuff. If the babies were men, they could be scribes. And their mothers could be very happy for them.

Chapter 4 is "The Woman Slave" and was pretty hard to read, mostly because she goes into theories as to how slavery might have developed, and guess what, it involves raping women. While she of course doesn't go into graphic detail about this, having to think about the thousands of years this has been going on in basically every culture ever and how it probably provided the model for oppressing entire classes of humans, which in turn led to widespread slavery -- that's a giant bummer.

Lerner states that humans' "new" ideas usually consist of "a new ordering of past experience," so when they saw that women could be entirely dominated after they put them into a position where they were totally dependent on their husband/tribe leader/whomever, they realized you can do that to just humans if you get them in right situation. 

For those hoping we can find out why things are like this, i.e. why the patriarchy dominates, Lerner has this depressing news:

If we remember that we are here describing a historical period in which even formal law codes have not yet been written, we can begin to appreciate how deeply rooted patriarchal gender definitions are in Western civilization. The matrix of patriarchal relations between the sexes was already firmly in place before economic and political developments fully institutionalized the state and long before the ideology of patriarchy was developed.

BEFORE FORMAL LAW CODES HAD BEEN WRITTEN, we had the patriarchal structure. Do you know how long it's taken women to climb up from that and be able to make a living on their own, not having to defer their life choices to their fathers, husbands, etc? And it's not even for all women! There are tons and tons in our 2015 world who still have to do that, and that is bullshit.

She also points out that class oppression cannot be considered the same for men and women, because with women, oppression almost certainly means sexual exploitation, whereas this is much much less of a certainty for men. Lerner looks at the Bible and how the wives of the patriarchs just offer up their handmaids to their husbands to have children for them. There's no consent there. It's just assumed they are owned. 


Identifying the problem helps us fix the problem. Calling patriarchy by its name means it's one of many options, and one we don't have to live with. I'm looking forward to the rest of this book.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Curious Wine by Katherine V. Forrest: Ladies lovin' ladies

We don't talk about lesbian literature enough. Because in the grand scheme of things, there isn't a lot of it. But Curious Wine, originally published in 1983 by Naiad Press, was one of the bigger 1980s lesbian novels.

Katherine V. Forrest is mainly known for her lesbian detective series, starring policewoman Kate Delafield, but Curious Wine and An Emergence of Green are her big standalone novels.

This book is the gayest. A bunch of ladies sitting around a cabin, talking about Emily Dickinson. Then two of them lez out. Theeee end.

But for reals though, Forrest's books are very much of their time, and you've gotta take this book for what it is if you're going to enjoy it. If you read it in 2015, it comes off extremely dated and very reactionary to the culture of the time. Suffice it to say, in both of Forrest's standalone novels, there's an evil male and a rape scene that reaffirms one of the women's decision to be with another woman.

No...no it's not.

Reading LGBT books from before the last decade or so is a revelatory experience because you have these basically "Intro to Lesbianism" books where the main characters start out seemingly straight and then realize they're really, really into ladies. Because the authors were fighting so hard against societal ideas, room for subtlety is not there. 

There's a scene in Curious Wine where Diana, the main character, leaves the cabin in Lake Tahoe and goes to a local casino. She's upset about her feelings for Lane, the other woman, and promptly gets hit on by a man, who she seems to be attracted to. "Oh! They're gonna make her bi!" I said excitedly. But NOPE because he is the cause of the aforementioned rape scene and now she knows men are evil and women are really who you should be with.

This is one of my favorite lines:

And she lived in San Francisco, a city with many women who wanted other women.

Ahahahahahahaha. Excellent. This book is silly.