Saturday, May 13, 2017

#CBR9 Review #09: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

With the recent release of television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, I made a realization: I am a Canadian who has never read anything by Margaret Atwood before. And she a national treasure!!! You’d think I would have at least come across something in my school curriculum, especially given that I even studied English as my minor in university. Really the only prominent Canadian author I had as assigned reading was Alice Munro. That seems… odd to me. But in any case, here we are now, and boy was it a treat to have a forward by Atwood herself regarding this novel in the digital edition I ended up with. Most specifically, her discussion of how the control of women is one of the most important and prominent features in oppressive societies/when one group wants to stifle the other. And what a great time to read this novel, given the current political climate today, and also being at a point in my own life wherein I can recognize and relate to a lot of the gender-issues presented therein: were I younger, a lot more of it may have gone over my head. Because we aren’t supposed to think of this stuff, are we? We are supposed to take what we are given and be grateful, right? Well, maybe that’s a bit dramatic. Or maybe… not?? Hmmmm.

But let’s dive in. Spoilers are to follow, both in description of the novel’s events, as well as subsequent discussion:

The Handmaid’s Tale follows the narration of a woman known only to us as Offred, in a not-so-far-off future dystopian society wherein women are divided into categories based on their status, ability to have children, following/faith in the new government, etc. Offred is a handmaid, who is essentially the property of a man we only know as the Commander, and his wife, Serena Joy. Offred’s purpose is to have a child for the family, as fertility rates in this new world have decreased dramatically (due to various toxicities in the world). We follow Offred as she recounts the beginnings of this new world, her life being trained as a handmaid, finding allies amongst her fellow women and the stirrings of a rebellion, and trying to find new connections in this world where her every move is so closely monitored and restricted. Offred used to have a husband and a child, and she desperately clings to memories of them, and of her freedoms that perhaps at the time she took for granted. As time goes on Offred starts taking risks in order to learn information about her family and friends, to survive, and even to just find a connection and intimacy with another person: did you know that we can be starved for affection, human interaction, and even touch? Such rigidity and oppression can rob people of these extremely human facets of life.

It’s a scary world, and leaves us with somewhat of an ambiguous ending, and the scariest part of it all is that it doesn’t read like fantasy at all, not like some of the other popular dystopian novels today: there is no crazy technology or magic, it’s all so real and draws upon such real issues and emotions. An absolute gut-punch, thinking about how this novel relates so well to today, to the issues facing women everywhere in the world. Control of our bodies and our choices to have children? Check. Women’s inability to work and vote in some places? Check. Men thinking they know what’s best for women? Yep. People telling women that we should be grateful for all that we have when we are being mistreated or oppressed in some way, because others out there have it worse? Got that here too. Oh, but we shouldn’t complain about anything, should we? Because everything is a product of the choices we have made in our lives, right?

Speaking of which, that is just one of the important and prominent themes to be found in this novel: the subject of blaming the victim/oppressed for the position that they are in. We see this first and foremost with the character of Janine, another handmaid during her training, being told she is a disgusting woman who is at fault for everything that happened to her during her life. How often do we see the first line of defense in assault cases being to discredit the victim by asking what they were wearing, were they drinking, etc etc? Mhm.

We also see another instance of the oppressed being told it is their own fault/choice to be in the position they are in through Offred, saying that the sex she has with the Commander is not rape, as she chose this position as a handmaid. But is that really true? Her choice was to do this or to clean up toxic wastes and essentially die within a few years? I have heard too many stories of women who didn’t really want to have sex but felt pressured to, and so they said yes, when really they wanted to say no. And then they blame themselves for feeling confused or not right afterwards, because they said yes, right? Even though they felt like they had to for whatever reason. But if there is pressure or an ultimatum, etc, is that yes really valid?

Related to this idea of Offred making choices as available to her in her state of oppression, we see the subject of what people are willing to put up with or put themselves through in order to survive. Offred makes the choice to be a handmaiden rather than go to the “colonies”. She makes the choice to be a vessel for another, while others would see this position as degrading. We also see women choosing to be “jezebels” or sterilized prostitutes for the high-status men, including Offred’s best friend, Moira, who is a lesbian woman: she chooses to allow her body to be used by men, just so she can stay alive and not go to the colonies. Other people would prefer death. Everyone defines rock bottom differently, and everyone is willing to accept different levels of fate in order to keep living.

And then there are those women who choose to go against their fellow women: those women who scapegoat in order to keep their positions and possibly get ahead. Also those women who choose the position of “Aunts”, which means that they have some power and control over the other women, teaching them how to act according to the new rules of society and punishing those who don’t. I feel as if in our world, women are so often pit against each other, whether for the purpose of male attention, status, or power. Betrayal can happen for any of these reasons, and when the stakes are so high in the world of this novel, that betrayal can seem all the more stinging. Because of this idea that anyone can give you away or turn against you just for their own survival, there is a loneliness found in novel (as in life) as women are constantly considered rivals. Offred has difficulty connecting to other women, and yet so much strength can also be found in the coalition of women: it is a powerful thing, and it feels to me that women are made to fight amongst themselves in order to stay where they are and not push ahead. The reason we are where we are today is because women banded together to fight for our rights. Yet even then, these women were scorned for being too loud, too pushy, not “real” women who followed all the prescribed gender roles. Why are they not happy with what they have? (We see that sentiment presented in The Handmaid’s Tale as well, how lucky the handmaids are to live where they are with all the privileges they have, how could they ask for anything more?). This is why I love the movement I see in young girls today, trying to be supportive of one another: we need to stand together in order to move ahead.

But speaking of moving ahead, I think I will now speak to the ending of the novel. I got a little confused regarding the extra historical notes and whether this was really a part of the story as my e-reader was being odd and sort of split up the sections in an weird way?? The core story of The Handmaid’s Tale ends in an ambiguous fashion, and it’s an absolute gut-punch: what happened to Offred after the story? Was she on her way to freedom or something worse? That uncertainty is so terrifying and is such a great ending. The whole story is also presented in such a beautiful and intimate way, as though Offred is recording her story just for the sake of recording it, and we just happen to be the one who is being shared with. Kind of like how Valerie writes her story in V for Vendetta, unsure if anyone will read it, but hopeful that one day someone will learn all that she has been through. This makes the whole thing feel very personal in a way, and stopping with Offred’s uncertain ending makes the whole thing even more gut-wrenching as she is cut off and you can’t be clear what this means for the women who just shared her whole life with you. You really could just stop there. But then there were the historical notes, presented as a part of a lecture on Offred’s story at a later date, after being found recorded on a number of tapes years later.

These notes sort of take away from the uncertainty of the ending in some ways, as we can deduce that Offred was found or taken to some kind of underground safe-haven and therefore able to recount her story. It also takes away from the intimate feeling gained from reading her story: now I know that I am not the recipient of her personal story as chosen by fate, but that everyone has now heard it and scrutinized it. But there is something to be said for having this later discussion/talk regarding her tapes: that is, we are able to see reflected the way in which people view history, saying “how could people let this happen?”, all while ignoring how their own world is evolving and could very well do the same thing again. We get to see people doubting her story as if it is just some kind of hoax or way to present the old government in a particular way. But I think of all the other personal documents we have found over time and made stories of/used as actual pieces of history (most iconic of all, the diary of Anne Frank), and wonder if we scrutinized these in the same manner, questions if it was even real at all. Such is nature, isn’t it, to always question the validity of what someone is saying? Particularly when it comes to not wanting to believe something that might confirm our own faults and misdoings. Ultimately, I’m a bit conflicted about the historical notes at the end of the book.

I do wonder, however, what a male’s perspective might be on this book? I say this because I know plenty of women who have read it over the years, but cannot personally think of single man who has. What would they think of Offred’s life and thoughts regarding her situation? I cannot help but think of that Pajiba post a while back regarding Things Men Don’t Realize Women Fear and how maybe some of the little intricacies might go over a few heads, while other parts would stand out more that didn’t for me? I mean, we all read things from our own personal viewpoints and places in life, so I feel like there might be some differences to be found. I think of this specifically because of the parts of the book wherein the Commander is taking Offred out for the night, and to him it almost seems like a game, but to her, she is risking her life. Or how even Offred’s husband responded to her not being about to work at first, versus her own reaction. There are some things that men just… don’t get. Because they haven’t experienced life from a female perspective. (Yes yes, not all men fall into that generalized category, but those aren’t the men I’m talking about here, is it? I’m talking about the ones that DON’T GET IT, which unfortunately is far too many).

All in all, I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be phenomenal. At first I was worried that maybe it had been hyped up too much and I would be disappointed (as has happened to me with a lot of books, movies, etc) or that given how I’ve heard a lot of people call it a “classic” the language and writing might be hard to get into (once again, something that has happened to me quite a few times with other books) but ultimately I loved it, given everything that it stirred in my brain: it made me think of a lot of different issues present in the world today, all of which are important. As a novel, it is both entertaining but also profound: the odd simple line here or there just jumped out and struck me. I would love to revisit this again in the future, to see if as I grow older I feel things differently about it, or even begin to notice different things that I didn’t pay much attention to the first time through.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, April 20, 2017

#CBR9 Review #08: Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I went into this book without a single piece of information regarding what it was about: it was an impulse digital rental based on the fact that I was preeeeeetty sure I had heard the name of the novel before (or maybe because of the movie which I just realized also exists??). And that's it. Yet, despite no expectations, it was still totally not what I expected, in terms of subject matter, writing style, etc. How is that possible? In any case, I found myself struggling to begin reading this one, but then things got easier as it all started rolling along. I wouldn't say I loved it, but it's not bad. Let's dive in:

The Remains of the Day follows a butler in a decent sized English house named Stevens, as he makes his way through the countryside on a little holiday, in an attempt to gain some more help from the household in the form of an old housekeeper, Miss Kenton. The two had previously worked together under the employment of one Lord Darlington, who had been host to many English aristocrats as well as German officers, etc during the time of WWII. As Stevens makes his way to visit Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), we see many flashbacks of Lord Darlington, and different incidents between Miss Kenton and Stevens during their time together. Through these tales, we see many themes emerge such as that of dignity, what makes a great butler, poise, how some people never show their true feelings, and how many feel that they are not qualified to have opinions on matters that they really should as it affects them greatly. All in all, there is a lot going on in terms of relationship politics as well as the politics of the time.

But speaking of time, something I had difficulty with in this book was really determining what time-period certain events were, how old characters were at any given point in the story, etc etc. Perhaps this is because I was not paying close enough attention at times? Stevens would go on lengthy tangents all over the place bringing up various people and events that would ultimately unwind back to the present day, but there was a bit of jumping around to follow that I got lost in at one point during reading.

Anyhow, at it's core, The Remains of the Day centers on a theme of looking back, and how events of the past has led us to where we are. Miss Kenton and Stevens clearly have affection for one another (got those Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes from Downton Abbey vibes, y'all), but there is a sense that opportunities were missed, and perhaps had certain moments gone a different way, things could have ended up far differently than they did. Isn't that just the way lots of people go through life? Thinking about what could have been and so holding on to the past, when the future still lays ahead of them? Because of this central theme, the end of the novel does hold both a bit of a melancholic but also hopeful tone. It's quite subtle and beautiful, and yet sometimes these subtleties throughout the novel were hard to pick up on for me, until really the very end.

I think the difficulties I had were partially to do with Kazuo Ishiguro's writing style being a bit different than what I'm used to: I almost backed out of this one early on as the writing is very particular to convey the specific manner of Stevens, which is indeed very stiff and proper at all times. Now, this is great in conveying what the character is like, but this stiffness does come off as a bit closed-off and too professional at times (despite being written in a personal journal or something of the like). This is why sometimes visual mediums are great for this kind of thing, as you can see posturing, body language, sly glances, etc (one of the reasons why I adore the 2006 movie adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, as it really helped me get into the relationships and characters a bit more than when I had previously read the novel). Though, perhaps this is more of a personal issue, in that I just needed to get used to the writing and therefore it was a bit harder to pick up on it's subtleties than say, with a manner I am more familiar with.

All in all, I would say that this novel didn't have a strong start for me, as I struggled a bit to get into it, but the ending was quite nice and drew on more emotions and connected with me more than the rest of the novel did. There wasn't really a big climactic moment, so the whole thing kind of passed along at one pace with a pretty constant mood, and some distinction or variety there may have been nice for the pace and overall experience of the novel. That being said, it is a decent read, and does hit on some feelings that I think a lot of people experience in our world, more or less in terms of regret from the past, and the inability to get past this to work on the future. I mean, I even experience this from time to time and I am only in my twenties! So for all that, The Remains of the Day is a solid middle-ground read for me.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, April 13, 2017

#CBR9 Review #07: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

This one started out strong and intriguing, but rather than growing as time went on, it ultimately got a bit muddy throughout the second half. Overall, the tone of this collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett is quick-witted and quirky, and would you expect anything else? However, it ultimately didn’t quite live up to the potential I felt was established within the beginning of the novel.

Good Omens is centered on the apocalypse, which is to be brought about by the antichrist. But things are amok, as the child that was supposed to be planted within one particular family in order to begin the apocalypse actually ends up with another, and therefore lacks in any demonic or angelic influence throughout his life. But regardless of where he is, heaven and hell want a war, and everyone is trying to figure out just how to stop it, including a young witch whose ancestor made incredibly accurate prophecies as to how things would turn out during this apocalyptic showdown.

Now this sounds pretty serious, but the whole switcheroo is actually quite funny, as well as the strange prophecies and way all the characters come to connect to one another, including some neat personifications of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (in this version, Pestilence being replaced by Pollution). But when I say all the characters, this leads me to one of the biggest issues of this novel, which is that there are just too many. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy novels and stories with a lot of characters, but the problem I found here was that they don’t all seem to be really necessary or to truly fit together within the same story. A little trimming of extraneous storylines that they suddenly had to wrap up could have been a benefit, as it wouldn’t feel like loose-ends were just suddenly being shuffled in to make sure everything was covered.

In terms of storyline, I found myself very engrossed and interested in the first half of the novel. There was some serious potential set up, with a lot of quick-witted humor and absurdity. This fun tone managed to continue throughout the novel, yet the second half really fell short for me personally after such a strong beginning. The whole second half seemed to be creating such a long and dramatic buildup to… a conclusion that felt like nothing. Like they teased a battle or some kind of conflict and yet there was just talk then, “Everything is cool, see ya later.” You know how in the last Twilight novel they prepare for a big battle, then just talk for a few minutes about the battle and everyone goes home without there actually being a fight? Yeah. It felt kind of like that to me. It’s not like a big showdown is really necessary in every story, but with just such a long period of time building up to this one event, you’d think there would be more to it, you know?

I mean, there are definitely some intriguing themes present in Good Omens regarding humanity, the absurdity of the way of the world, the concept of fate, etc, but these are almost overshadowed by the continued attempts to be quirky and witty over coherent. However I want to give a seriously big shoutout to my favourite line in the book, which was, “Most books on witchcraft will tell you that witches work naked. This is because most books on witchcraft are written by men.” I actually stopped and sent that bit to my friends because I loved it so much!

So, overall, I’m not really sure about Good Omens. I was interested while I was reading, but also… not??? It’s a mixed bag. I can definitely see others liking it given that it’s pretty quick-witted throughout, but it just failed to completely hold my attention the entire way to the end.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Friday, March 31, 2017

#CBR9 Review #4-6: The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson

Including: Mistborn, The Well of Ascension, and The Hero of Ages

A back-to-back read through of the three novels in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy (as a part of a bigger series and world created by the author). This trilogy presents a world with many of the seeming aspects of what would be considered “high fantasy”, but without as much of the convolution and excessiveness what sometimes comes with those types of epics. That is not to say that there aren’t many characters (there are, but it’s a good amount), or that the world itself that is created feels too small or not real enough, but everything seems to fall into place very nicely and is followed without much difficulty or needing to go back and re-study any events, locations, or characters. It may have also helped that I pounded through these three novels back to back, but still! There is enough mysticism and magic to make it interesting, but also a set of logic and rules to the magic which makes things not feel too fanciful (save for maybe an incident or item here and there).

But what is it about? Mistborn begins with a young girl named Vin, who is living as a street urchin within a city of the Final Empire. This land is governed by a man known as the “Lord Ruler”, who has ruled for over a thousand years, and is basically a god of this land who orchestrates almost everything. There is an intense class-divide between the nobility and the common folk (known as the “Skaa”), many of whom work on plantations and are severely mistreated by noble overlords. Vin herself is skaa, but she is recruited to a team of skaa/half-nobles, etc, (led by a charismatic man named Kelsier, who I 100% pictured as Oscar Isaac, and you can fight me about it, I picture almost every lead male as Oscar Isaac nowadays) that have a plot to overthrow the Lord Ruler who has been acting as a tyrant over the land for centuries. Nothing goes without him knowing or approving, and in fact, the people and technology have hardly progressed at all over the course of the Lord Ruler’s rule, which is part of his overall plan, no doubt. There is a prophecy about a “Hero of Ages” one day taking over and saving the world from a deep, dark power within it, and this band of misfits thinks they can get the ball rolling to overthrow the current government. Oh, and of course, it doesn’t hurt that a lot of the members on the team are known as “Mistings” who each have a certain ability when they ingest and “burn” a particular type of metal in their stomach. All, of course, except for Vin and Kelsier, who are able to use all types of metals for all the available abilities; they are therefore known as “Mistborn”. These Mistborn are decedents of the nobility, and as such, many of the nobility in the Finale Empire also possess these talents. In any case, this first novel follows Kelsier and his crew as they try to overthrow the empire, as well as Vin while she comes to learn of her new skills through Kelsier’s mentorship.

Spoilers ahead, for the novels following Mistborn, though they will be minor:

The second novel, The Well of Ascension, therefore, follows the aftermath of the first book. Vin continuing to get stronger and more skilled than many other Mistborns (she is apparently very small and doesn’t seem very intimidating and yet, is one of the most powerful members of the crew). After the first novel, there is a lot of uncertainty about what happens now, and many other nobles and families want to gain power for themselves. After one battle, the crew must prepare for war, but now they have gained some noble allies (including a gentle love interest for miss Vin, named Elend).

As these battles and the uncertainty of who is to rule continues, more damage can be seen being done in the world, as the Lord Ruler’s power and specific controls over things (some of them positive to keep the world running) start falling short, and we come to learn of a greater, more threatening power that may in fact cause the end of the entire Final Empire. The third novel, The Hero of Ages, thereby focuses on the group of characters as they try to learn about and defeat this new and elusive power that they didn’t even realize they had set free during the course of their other plans.

What is great about these novels, is the thought that went into the overall plot; it doesn’t have too many odd deviations, and there is some trickery but it never feels like a boasting, “haha! You were FOOLED!” being aimed at the audience (*side-eyes the writers of ‘Sherlock’ as they jack off to their own cleverness at writing*). There are twists and surprises, but for the most part everything seems to make sense, or at least have some kind of reason behind it. This is also largely due to Sanderson developing rules and logic to his “magic” as presented in the form of Allomancy and burning metals in the body. There are things that can and cannot be done, as well as extensions of these powers still being learned, yet still following particular rules and having limits.

Another positive about this series is that the characters do feel like real people who are all different and have strengths and flaws. However, some of them seem to progress and grow more than others, while some seem to stay the same to the point where they are almost caricatures of themselves. The strongest characters, however, are three of the main ones, in Vin, Elend, and a terrisman named Sazed, all of whom confront and deal with internal conflicts, and have different layers inherent in them, as derived from their very diverse upbringings and history. For instance, Elend is forced to change his nature based on the situations he is placed into, and Vin who has grown up to be hard and untrusting comes to find trust and also to accept a feminine side to herself which she had previously seen as perhaps a bit frivolous. That is a great thing about Vin, in that she is somewhat of your more “masculine” and stoic female hero, hardened by life, yet she still indulges in more typically “feminine” things which a lot of female heros will shirk or shy away from. And not to mention that Elend and Vin are essentially placed on the same level of power and importance with one another, each trusting the other to do what they think to be the right thing, which is great to see in relationships being presented for people, as it really creates a great sense of equality and not one partner domineering over the other (something that I sometimes find to be lacking in a lot of fictional relationships today, which… I don’t know, maybe doesn’t always send the right message?). I mean, the only thing I could maybe disparage about the main characters is that they perhaps take to things a little too easily (they are extra strong, extra good at learning their skills without really having to try much, etc etc) which can sometimes get annoying in characters today, but here it didn’t really detract that much for it to be a big issue for me (unlike my reaction to Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, where it actually got on my nerves after a while).

I did worry, however about one thing in regards to Vin… SPOILER WARNING!!

That is, when the crew is learning about the Lord Ruler, they believe they are reading his story, but the one prophesized to be the savior actually had his place taken by someone else at the last second. After spending so much time watching Vin’s journey into being a hero, I was scared for a hot minute that as a parallel to the Lord Ruler’s story, someone else was going to swoop in and take her place and glory. Ie, some man was going to take this lady-hero’s heroic moment (possibly Elend or another minor character, Spook, who had a pretty interesting arc in the third novel). But all was good. I mean… there is some stuff with Sazed at the end, but we all know that Vin is the star here, hence her position on the front of the novels.


Overall, I very much enjoyed this Mistborn trilogy, and would definitely be interested in reading more from Brandon Sanderson’s series. Though I maybe just need a little break in-between with something else before I jump back in. (I’d hate to grow tired of it, after all, which I find sometimes happens when I keep reading the same series back-to-back for too long). Definitely worth a read, if you haven’t picked these ones up already!

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Soft Heroes are the True Heroes and I Will Fight for Them

People who hate on "soft" heroes in movies/series are the worst. You know the ones: the people (particularly men) who watch an action or adventure movie but complain that Frodo Baggins is too "girly" or Luke Skywalker is too "winy and weak". There is a preference and trend in action movies for the hero to be super stoic (with some exceptions: ie, Deadpool), super macho, and hyper-masculine. They have no fear and are therefore seen as brave and heroic. But I would argue that being fearless is not true bravery: bravery is when you act and go through with things despite your fear. How can you be brave if you are never afraid and are always confident that you will win or make it to the other side? Being uncertain, but still choosing to act and do the right thing is what makes someone brave. And it is for this reason, that I absolutely adore the "softer" heroes that so often get put down in favor of your more typical macho hero, because these are the ones that show true compassion and seem more human and relatable at the end of the day. I mean, the literal point of the character of Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon is that he is small and not as adept as the other Vikings, and yet he is the hero because of his ability to think outside the box and form connections with the dragons, rather than running in guns blazing: heroism comes in many forms, and can be achieved in many ways, not just by punching your way through a problem. 

I lost my mind at this point of the movie, I am WEAK and it's BEAUTIFUL.

Hey, don't get me wrong, I love the big burly action man in a lot of things too. The Fast and the Furious series is one of my favourite action franchises, but if I'm being honest with myself, I connect more to the gentler type of hero in most things. And so, here is my ode to the soft action hero. The true heroes. Let's take a look:

Just a couple of guys... being dudes... amiright?
What are the biggest complaints that you hear about Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings trilogy? That they are too small, weak, they need help to finish their task, are too girly (or in some cases you hear the words "pansy" or "gay" thrown around like insults). They are not the typical heroes, but is that not the point of their characters? Frodo is chosen to carry the ring because he is just any other guy: "I will take the ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way." He is willing to take it, even though he is not experienced, and he is chosen by the fellowship simply because he is unassuming in stature but big in heart. The others choose to help him, and in the end we see that this story is not about being the biggest and strongest person in order to fulfill the task, but by being willing, and by joining together with others. Is this story not about brothers in war? When Frodo needs Sam to help him at the end, this shows us that sometimes we need others and together we can find strength. We all hate that guy on the sports team who seems to forget his teammates are there, so why would be scorn a hero who does the same or doesn't admit when they might need a hand? People always say that there is a bravery in asking for help in this world that tells us to just saddle up and do things without complaining (particularly when it comes to mental health), so I like seeing this reflected in our stories and in our heroes as well. Not to mention that Sam and Frodo are two grown men who are shown being affectionate, hugging, and clearly loving each other without throwing in some kind of "no homo" or "just a couple of bros" phrase? This shouldn't be so astounding and yet, it is. (Because masculinity is fragile when it comes to showing affection for your bros, didn't you know that that's obviously gay? *cue the eyeroll*)

My friend told me I was Luke Skywalker. True.
What are the biggest complaints we hear about Luke Skywalker in Star Wars? He is whiny (which, admittedly, he is a little bit, but aren't we all?), he's too emotional (like his father before him?), he is--once again-- seen as weak. But that's the beauty of Luke Skywalker: he connects with people, and people love him. He's a great guy who wants to do the right thing, and when faced with his father at the end, he continues to appeal to him and forgive him throughout their interactions, despite that fact that they are physically engaged in a fight. We often see the hero do a quick little "you don't have to do this" speech and then give up, but Luke doesn't: he continues to tell his father that he doesn't want to hurt him, that he understands. And it's because of this, that he effectively saves everyone, as his father ultimately comes to perform the final act of destruction in the Empire. Why do emotions and compassion have to be considered weaknesses, when the reality is that they can lead us to connecting with and understanding those who oppose us? 

Those are just two examples for now, but there are even a few modern heroes that appear to be the super macho and hyper-masculine type, yet still manage to shows signs of this softness that I want to see more of. Matt Murdock may be considered "the man without fear" in Daredevil, but in the Netflix series, we see him straight up crying because he's in a fight with his best friend. How often do you see things like that in action stories? Steve Rogers may go through a huge physical transformation in Captain America, but once again, his character was chosen to become Captain America not because of his stoicism, but because of his heart and want to do the right thing, despite that fact that he may not be able to do it; it's truly something when someone is willing to get into a fight for someone's honor when they know they will probably lose. Because really, is it brave or just machoism when a guy gets into a fight that he knows he will win and can therefore show off his skills in? Steve Rogers continues to be himself, even after his transformation, choosing to let himself get hurt by his best friend, in the chance that he may find his way back to his mind. That part of The Winter Soldier messed me up, y'all. And you KNOW that in The First Avenger, even if he was still "Little Steve" and hadn't gone through the transformation, the second he heard Bucky was captured, he would have walked to Austria to save him without any special enhancement. That's the kind of guy he is. That's why I love him.

I've been speaking so far about this trend of looking down on the gentler male heroes, but don't think this action hero trend doesn't extend to women as well: in most cases, in order to be a female hero, the woman has to shirk most aspects of femininity and also be seen as "hard" and unemotional. You've heard the joke about how a lot of dystopian YA books nowadays focus on a girl who "punches things and changes the world?" Yeah. I'm talking about that. You want examples? I got your examples:
- Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games is the epitome of stoicism, mistrust in emotion, and dislike of the feminine. Okay, so the big dresses she has to wear for the pageantry of the Hunger Games she partially dislikes because they are impractical, but still, there is a distancing from typical femininity which makes her accepted and presented as the action hero. 
- Tris in the Divergent series (not unlike Steve Rogers) is small and unassuming, but has to learn to become hard and fight in order to become the hero of her own tale. 
- Natasha Romanoff shows a bit of vulnerability while being captured by scary men at the beginning of The Avengers, but this is all an act to get information. She drops this persona like the flip of a switch and just uses it for manipulation. Because she'd never really be afraid of a bunch of men, right? Because tough women never experience that feeling, hahaHA!
- Alice in the Resident Evil franchise, as well as Selene in the Underworld series are hardly characters: they are machines made for punching and kicking, all while looking sexy doing it. 

In fact, I have a hard time thinking of a lot of examples of female action characters or heroes who don't just use femininity or do "girly" things as a part of an act or costume. One that does come to mind, however, is Isabelle Lightwood in Shadowhunters (the show, not the books it's based off, as that's a whole other can of worms), who chooses to dress sexy and in heels, stating that anything a Shadowhunter can do, she can do in heels. And that's great --yet also impractical and I'm scared for her ankles-- but there is still this feeling that the femininity is being weaponized in a sense, and not just there because, well, she's a girl who likes these things. Your sharp eyeliner and lipstick doesn't have to be warpaint, your heels don't have to stab men, and your thighs don't need to crush men's skulls. We don't need to twist the things that we like that are seen as feminine into hard, violent metaphors in order for them to be respected, or for us to be respected for liking them. I wear lipstick because I look good in it, you fools!

The one female protagonist in an action series that I can think of is Buffy Summers, who is unapologetically girly because she wants to be, and this is not seen as softness or weakness, and is also not turned into a weapon. Also, shoutout to Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, who may not not be an "action hero" but is also girl, soft, and emotional, but also strong in her own way. She works her butt off to get into law school and fights to be respected despite her image, but never compromises or tones herself down in any way in order to fit in. She is a true icon. 

Or as Sarah Michelle Geller's character in Scooby Doo says, "I love being a girl".

I guess what I'm really getting at here with everything, is a question as to why everything has to be so hard and unemotional, in order to be considered strong. I personally think that our emotions and our ability to feel, express, and deal with them give us strength. Stop punching your way through all of life's problems. Sure, muscles and physical ability can help to be a hero in some situations, but that is not all that makes one. 

And so I want to leave off talking about one of my favourite protagonists/heroes that I've seen in recent years. One that many may consider to be too soft and not good enough to be a real hero. And that is Finn from the new Star Wars trilogy/The Force Awakens. I recently told some people that my favourite of all the Star Wars films was Episode 7, and they were confused. Among a few other reasons I listed, one of the biggest things that made that film for me was the character of Finn: Finn is a true hero, a breath of fresh air, and a ball of sunshine, all rolled into one. And yet, I feel like his character is not loved or appreciated as much as it could be. Frontrunners for favourite characters in that film were Rey, BB-8, and I've even had a lot of my friends thirsting over Kylo Ren (y'all, really? Oscar Isaac is RIGHT THERE!). But Finn? He's not up there. Don't get me wrong, I adore Rey and Poe and BB-8 and all the other characters, but there is something really special about Finn. And yet what I often hear about him is that he's too goofy, doesn't know what he's doing, complains that "there are no black storm troopers" (which... is the absolute dumbest thing people had issues with, I swear), freaks out at things and gets emotional too easily, etc etc. But these are a lot of the reasons why I love him and think he really is a hero for this franchise, and just in general.

Faced by an old friend calling him a traitor, he doesn't back down.
"But why, Lisa? Why do you think these things?" Ummm, have you SEEN my sweet precious angel, Finn? Is that not reason enough? Oh, you want some real discussion. Okay, well let's begin with the first thing, and that is that he is raised from childhood to be a mindless drone who follows orders and kills. He is not given the option to be afraid because he is supposed to just do what he is told and that is that. Yet, he defects from the First Order, because he doesn't like what he sees. He becomes a traitor to those he grew up with, and risks everything trying to get out. He is terrified, but does it anyway. Even later in the film, Han Solo asks him is he's ready for something, and he says, "Hello no." But is he going to do it anyways? Of course he is. Because he is BRAVE, and does what he needs to despite his fears. Do you think he could have ever admit that as a Storm Trooper? No way, he would have been told to not admit any fear or weakness, and to just do as commanded. Do you know how hard it would be to go against everything you've been trained and essentially wired to do since birth? It would be extremely difficult, and yet, here Finn is, doing just that. 

Furthermore, you would think that being raised as a Storm Trooper for the First Order, he would have to have a certain emotional distance between himself and his comrades, growing up in an environment where they are basically soldiers who could die at any minute. And yet, the death of a friend at the beginning seriously affects him. He let's it touch him and shape his next move. He grows attached to new people in his life in an instant, despite this probably being counterintuitive in the world he grew up in. He loves Rey and Poe, and is devastated when he loses his new friend who gave him a real name, as well as the girl who was taken by those he so badly wanted to run away from at the beginning. He is a friend first, and is there for the people he cares about, without thinking twice. Is it scary to let yourself connect so deeply to people so quickly, especially given the climate of the world at the time they live? Absolutely. But he does it anyways. Additionally, similarly to Frodo, Finn often has no idea what he is doing, but he steps up to the plate anyways. Because he knows someone has to do something, so why not him? We can't just let things slide and say that it's someone else's problem because we are scared or confused. We may need help with things, but that doesn't mean we should just walk away for someone else to clean up the mess. 

"Keep it, it suits you..."

Finally, there is a lightness to Finn's personality that you don't often see with other action heroes or protagonists. Everyone who is near him falls in love with him, and he exudes light. Also, he is goofy and funny, but in a seemingly more genuine way that is really connected to his emotions, rather than to a "comedy for dominance" stance. Now you probably wonder what I mean by that. Think of Deadpool, a character that I love who is deeply flawed but also very funny. Yet, the way he expresses humour is very different from the humour we get from Finn, whose lightness comes more from his emotions and true reactions to things. Deadpool's comedy is blatant and crafted in a way that makes him the funniest, snarkiest guy in the room (in the movie, especially). You also see that with other heroes and their deadpan or sassy comments: it's a power move. The assertion that "I'm cleverer and funnier and wittier than you are". And while I love funny people and humour in a lot of these movies (because not everything has to be so serious all the time), the presentation of Finn in a manner of being a genuine goofball is not only gentler, but also refreshing. It's a serious world with serious issues, but there can still be some light found in it. 

Consequently, I love Finn, and I wish we had more heroes like him. And I hear you wondering, "but Lisa, does any of this really matter what we see in movies and stories?" Well, probably not. But I can't help but think about the fact that with these depictions, there is this idea that you can't be heroic or idolized without being a big, muscly man who doesn't show his emotions. But where in our world do these situations really come into play? There are other ways to be heroes, which involves being compassionate, doing things despite being afraid, and standing up for what is right regardless of our physical abilities. And there is nothing inherently wrong with femininity and compassion, so why are these things being seen as weaknesses, or things that we need to get rid of in order to be strong? Why are we calling people weak and lame when they are getting the job done, just because they don't fulfill some prescribed notion of manhood and what makes a hero? Isn't the phrase, "not all heroes wear capes?" I don't know, guys I'm just tired of people taking a dump on the people and characters who are gentle, yet show you can still be strong in other ways. There's a beauty in that, and I think the world needs more of it these days. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

#CBR9 Review #03: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

This book is… heavy. Having seen the film a number of years ago, I obviously knew the main progression of the story, but having so much more added detail and insight into the mind of Eva made the gut-punch at the end all the more devastating (I have no idea how I could have forgotten it!).

We Need to Talk About Kevin is comprised of a series of letters that a woman named Eva is writing to her husband, some time after their son commit mass-murder at his high-school. So obviously, while the subject was pertinent at the time of writing the book (early 2000s), it continues to be so today, what with more and more tragedies occurring almost every day. The main focus of Eva’s letters follows the path of her life wherein she decided she wanted to be a mother, and her response to the event of having her son, as well as her relationship with him and the apparent personalities she saw in her son. Being from Eva’s perspective, we see her struggle with issues of guilt as she never really forms a strong attachment to her son, as well as some instances of perhaps shifting the blame elsewhere in that no one else quite noticed her son’s behaviors and true being except her. Other subjects that come to surface, albeit briefly, are the issues of the accessibility of weapons, as well as the prescribing of attachment disorders to children (which of course, can definitely influence people as they grow in life), though these are not truly the main focus of the novel. It is a deep psychological look at the aftermath of tragedy and trying to make some sort of sense of things, when perhaps maybe some of these incidents don’t entirely make sense at the end of the day.

In the first couple of chapters I had a bit of an uphill battle in getting used to the writing style presented by the author, and the voice of Eva came off as a bit pretentious at the beginning (which definitely comes into play as the whole thing goes on). In fact, about the first 2/3 of the novel are quite slowly paced, and it was a bit of a struggle for me to get into (I actually took a bit of a break about half way through and read something else in-between, as things seemed to be dragging a bit, but also being focused on such heavy subject matter I needed a quick breather). By the end, however, I was engrossed, and asking some of the same questions as Eva as she struggled with her parenting and wondering what to do both before and after her son’s act. It is an interesting look at how sometimes we may struggle to bond with and love people that we know we should, or how some people never see the true self of certain people.

Overall, despite some struggles at the beginning, We Need to Talk About Kevin was a great read. It was definitely quite intense at times, which made things a bit difficult to read, especially given the number of school shootings and tragedies in the news today. But ultimately, not quite like anything else I’ve read before, and sure to remain in my mind for quite a while.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Monday, January 30, 2017

#CBR9 Review #02: Something Like Summer by Jay Bell

I had high hopes for this book, given the positive reviews I’d seen for it and the fact that, despite being a part of the LGBT+ “genre” the first line is “this is not a coming out story.” Now, I know I’ve talked about this subject before, and I know that these types of stories are important and can be very powerful, especially when speaking of individual’s real struggles and experiences, but man am I tired. Especially with the LGBT+ genre of movies: I’m drawn to these stories and they resonate with me because I myself identify as LGBT+, but 90% of this genre absolutely sucks (also why can’t LGBT+ romances be considered a part of the “regular” genres anyways? What, if a main character is gay or trans and deals with some of these issues but the book/film is simply filed under “romance” or “action” this is somehow misleading to the average audience? Nah). It’s all just struggles and pain and unhappiness and hyper sexuality, and I’m tired tired tired. I don't want to just accept what I'm given anymore. There has to be more. Being told that this was the first novel in a series that covers an “epic romance” I thought, maybe it will touch on some LGBT+ issues, but inevitably be like any other romance story, but unique to these two characters. Alas, I was very very disappointed, both with the story, how certain aspects are presented, and also the writing itself left a lot to be desired.

Something Like Summer is the first novel in Jay Bell’s “Something Like” series, which apparently is a collection of adjacent stories to this one, but from the perspectives of different characters (for example, the next novel covers most of the same timeframe as Something Like Summer, but from the position of the character Tim, who I will describe shortly, and later it focuses on a character named Jace, whose story begins before this one but then overlaps into the same timeline with the characters). The main character of focus is a teenager named Ben, who is openly gay in Texas in the late 90s. So of course, right off the bat, things are a little different, but not too too far removed in some senses. In any case, Ben forms a fascination with a new boy at school, named Tim. Tim is a popular, jock type, and after a seeming meet-cute, the two end up spending a lot of time together. And, well, eventually become an item. Kind of. It starts off mostly as sex, but ultimately they consider themselves boyfriends even though Tim refuses to admit that he is gay despite Ben pushing him to do so (he does reluctantly concede to the term bisexual), and Tim is still incredibly closeted with everyone around him. Hey, the teenage years are hard and they have issues, which ultimately lead to a breakup. We catch up with Ben a few years later, now in college and with a new boyfriend, Jace, who ends up being long-term. Of course, Tim somehow comes back in the picture, and we continue on over the years as Ben and Jace traverse their relationship, with Tim coming in and out at certain points. I won’t divulge too much, but there are obviously lingering feelings between Ben and Tim, and I know it’s hard to get over people if you don’t have full closure but… I don’t know. This didn’t seem as natural to me as it could have been. You know how love-triangles go, where somehow something happens so that the person in the middle doesn’t have to “choose” or somehow things work out in a way that just seems a little too laid out? In any case, who do you think Ben ends up with in the end?

A lot of the reviews I saw said that this book was incredibly emotion-inducing, and given how I tend to be an absolute emotional wreck and I figured I would at the very least be touched by some moments, but I just wasn’t at all. For a couple of reasons:

1)   The characters suck. I mean this to say that while some of the secondary characters were likable, they were not well-rounded at all and honestly seemed like one-note the whole time. As for the main characters, the only likeable one was JAce, but really, he seemed almost too perfect. Too kind, understanding, and forgiving. He was a bit older than Tim and Ben, therefore maybe making him more “wise” and “mature”, but it got to be a bit much at times. There wasn’t too much depth there. Ben and Tim, on the other hand: super unlikable and manipulative. Yet we are supposed to connect with them and feel for them somehow? There are ways to write unlikable characters that are still interesting or charismatic enough that you still kind of root for them, but this isn’t it. Ben, way too pushy and expecting too much of everyone; not understanding at all and also super fickle. He has a friend named Allison, and honestly never really seems to be there for her or to truly be her friend. She just shows herself when it’s convenient for Ben or the story. And then we have Tim, who I never understood what Ben saw in him besides a physical attraction. Ben tries to explain it later but there’s nothing there. Tim seems to take advantage of Ben’s giving nature and is also super pushy and crosses lines when he knows Ben is in a committed relationship. “But there’s another side to him”. Really? Is there? He paints and that means he’s artistique and deep? It’s not skeezy that when he’s in his 20s we see him dating a teenager? Nope, not feeling any of them.

2)   The writing was inconsistent, skipping over what should have been important conversations in dialogue (“and then we discussed this and this is how it went and how things ended up”. Um… what?), and also skipping ahead in time in order to cover ground in a way that didn’t seem entirely natural or like the previous section had really had it’s closure. There wasn’t enough for me to grab onto. Not even any quotes that I remember that stood out or resonated with me. It all seemed too matter-of-fact despite trying to take on more emotional and human topics such as love and identity. Something was lacking.

3)   Something that bothers me in a lot of LGBT+ literature and films is a preoccupation with sex. A lot of the time, it almost seems hyper-sexualized and/or fetishistic. This is a problem for me because it then often makes LGBT+ lives seem inherently NSFW or not appropriate for children, but hey guys, you know that there are LGBT+ kids, right? While sex is definitely a part of our lives as humans, that isn’t all there is. And in Something Like Summer, strong emotional connections are trying to be established, but it’s glossed over for more of a focus on the sexual interactions taking place, or that seems to the the main emphasis of the relationships in some ways (especially with Ben and Tim when they meet again later in life, during their college years). I don’t know, y’all, the whole thing seemed to put too much stock into the sexual relationships being the basis of something more. And this occurred even after both Tim and Ben described doing sexual things with other straight boys during their younger years, as though it was just what gay boys did, a part of their job to get people off. I don’t know, but everything together just left a bad taste in my mouth.

Ultimately, I did not like Something Like Summer. At all. As it began, I gave it the benefit of the doubt and kept going until the end. But I was supremely underwhelmed by everything, particularly how the ending played out. I mean, it was worth a shot to see if it could be a new series I might want to get into, but at the end of the day, I just can’t see myself sitting through any more. Especially not if I have to focus on Tim and his perspective in the next novel, considering how much I disliked his character and never understood what the big deal about him was. “But Lisa, maybe seeing things from his point of view will make you understand or like him more?” Mmm, I’m going to pass. There are so many more other books and series I would much rather try out. It didn’t take long to get through, though, so that’s a plus. Buuuut, that’s about it.

(Also I have been informed that the first book of this series is going to be made into a film, and upon finding images of the initial posters for his as I was looking for a photo of the book cover to add here, I must say it looks cheap and atrocious. The photo-shopping and editing is so bad that it looks almost like a porno. Or kind of like how Chuck Tingle’s book covers look! I know y’all know what I mean.)

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]

Monday, January 9, 2017

#CBR9 Review #01: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

A new year, and new books to read and review! Yaaay!

This book was a part of one of the CBR group discussions last year, or the year before, wasn’t it? I knew it sounded familiar but alas, had not gotten around to it until now. I’ll be honest I had no idea what Station Eleven was about when I started to read it, but I received it as a gift from a friend and I must say, she did a great job choosing something that she thought I would like! It looks like quite a few other people have enjoyed it, too. But let us dive in, shall we?

Station Eleven begins with the death of an actor on stage. From there, a deadly flu takes out the majority of the population of earth, and we are left viewing the lives of the survivors. Those we encounter, however, are all somehow connected to this public figure whose death preceded these events. While most zombie/illness outbreak movies and stories that I have seen tend to focus on the immediate downfall or just a few weeks after, Station Eleven deals with not just when everything started falling apart, but years later as people start to find their groove and develop a new, albeit smaller and simpler world. And when I say years, I mean years: 20 years later when there are children growing up who have never experienced the world before the flu. It begs the question of how lives are differently affected by the world having experienced it or not, or even simply knowing about it or not. 

Another difference which really set Station Eleven apart for me in terms of other outbreak/post-apocalyptic stories is that this one is not focused on the violence and technical hardship of the lives (though there are some aspects of that present), but it is a more emotional look at the individuals and how they have responded to the world now: those who want to find others for connection, who want to keep the arts going for their passions, those who want to rebuild, and those who want to control. Since years have passed, some of the violence and initial turmoil has died down and people are now really coming into how their lives will be for the time being. It’s an intimate look at how different lives are interconnected and how people all handle trauma, disaster, and even the general events of life so differently. 

There is a really effective balance between darkness and light in this book: a gentleness, but also an honesty of emotion? The only thing that I can really complain about is that a few of the characters almost seemed extraneous, or that they were going to play much bigger parts than they did? At least, in my mind that is what it felt like. In all honesty, even though I had no idea what this book was going to be about, I ended up enjoying it immensely. There is pain, but also hope, and I absolutely love that.

[Be sure to visit the Cannonball Read main site!]