Monday, December 5, 2011

Anne McCaffrey

Scifi/Fantasy writer Anne McCaffrey died last week. She was one of the grand dames of the genre, and I've been thinking about her impact and her work since I heard the news. McCaffrey began writing in the 1950s and 60s as a kind of protest against the way women were depicted in science fiction. She was the first woman to win the Hugo in 1968, the first woman to win the Nebula in 1969, the two top prizes in science fiction; and The White Dragon was the first science fiction novel ever to land on the New York Times bestseller list. Her work may not be the best written or beloved by literary critics, but what I love about her work is that her characters, especially her female characters, are so real and fleshed out. There are occasional issues I have with her (like many other science fiction writers, her worlds are often lacking in diversity), but for the most part, I can expect entertaining solid reads.
Of course her Pern series was her most famous (and longest running, around 24 books), and they are definitely worth checking out. Although honestly I did start to lose interest in the later ones with her son as co-author. The Pern novels are set on another planet colonized by earth inhabitants in the distant future--they are cut off from the rest of the universe and as their technological instruments run down, they have no means to replace most of them, so they revert to a kind of medieval lifestyle. And there are dragons and people who have telepathic connections with them and a thing called Thread which falls from the sky and eats away at everything it touches, the dragons and their riders are the only thing that can combat it. Most of the series doesn't necessarily need to be read in any order, except for maybe the later ones from All The Weyrs of Pern on. Although if you want to read them in order, here's Wikipedia's chronological list:
McCaffrey herself apparently thought her novel The Ship Who Sang was her best one--which turned into a series about handicapped individuals who are hardwired into a ship's life support system, often their only chance of staying alive, and so they literally become the ship itself. Sadly, there's never been any films done of her novels, but there are rumors a Pern series may be in the works (although that was first supposed to happen in 2002, and then the network wanted to alter the series so much that it would have ended up a Buffy clone, and the director/writer cancel in protest and the rights reverted back to McCaffrey for a while). Hopefully it gets done, and done right--as we finally have the technology to do justice to the dragons and other fantastical elements.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Some good news

This week, Saudi Arabia has finally granted women the right to vote. In his speech making the announcement, King Abdullah declared,"Because we refuse to marginalise women in society in all roles that comply with sharia (Islamic law), we have decided, after deliberation with our senior ulama (clerics) and others... to involve women in the Shura Council as members, starting from the next term. Women will be able to run as candidates in the municipal election and will even have a right to vote." The kicker? The phrase "starting from next term," which means they are still barred from voting in the elections this week, and so they won't actually be able to vote until 2015. But still, it's a long time coming and worth celebrating.
Currently there are three countries which prohibit or limit women's voting in some way:
Lebanon - Partial suffrage. Proof of elementary education is required for women but not for men. Voting is compulsory for men but optional for women.
Brunei - No suffrage for women or men. Neither have had the right to vote or to stand for election since 1962 because the country is governed by an absolute monarchy.
Vatican City - No suffrage for women; while most men in the Vatican also lack the vote, all persons with suffrage in Papal conclaves (the Cardinals) are male.
(Bhutan did have a one vote per house rule which I believe was done away with in their new constitution which took effect in 2008. Although this vote applied to both men and women, in practice it limited many more women from voting than men. United Arab Emirates also had limited suffrage for women beginning in 2006, but was fully expanded by 2010.)

So women being able to vote in Saudi Arabia is great news. Unfortunately, women are still barred from driving there--the only country with such a ban (there is no religious written precedent for the rule). Two days after the voting news was announced, a woman was sentenced to ten lashes for driving a vehicle. The current set-up is that since a woman can't drive, the family must either employ a professional driver--which many families can't afford since it is costs around $300-400 a month to keep a full-time driver on stand-by for any errands needed; or else she must be driven by her husband or other close male relative. Again, it's costly since many men have also complained about it, and how the policy often forces them to leave work early to go pick up their wife somewhere (or else leave work to be the one to pick up children from school even though wife may not be working and would have time to do herself), as well as the daunting logistics of planning all the errands and whatever else may involve driving to coincide with whenever the husband is available. Supposedly women do sometimes drive out in the countryside, but any woman caught driving in the city is detained by police, sometimes for several days, and forced to sign a pledge that she won't drive again. Women have been working for at least 20 years in an attempt to get the ban revoked, but since June there is been an increase in women trying to flout the ban and bring attention to the unfair policy. In addition to the no driving rule, under Saudi's “guardianship system,” women need permission from a male family member to take a trip, to attend a university, to marry, and even to undergo certain surgeries. While those guardians are often fathers or husbands; if she has no father or husband, a woman's teenage son, younger brother, or uncle could be the one making her most important decisions for her.

And in other hail-worthy news, Kenya has become the latest country to ban female genital mutilation, including taking a child/woman out of the country with the intention of cutting her. What makes their law unique, is that it even prohibits people from making derogatory remarks about an uncut woman; and offenders may be subject to either a fine or jail time, or both.
Which is fantastic, since often in countries where FGM is practiced, a woman who has not been cut may be subject to public shunning, men refusing to consider her for marriage and so on. In June at the African Union summit, it was proposed that FGM be prohibited. At the time, several countries already had some form of legislation or proposed legislation against it (although enforcement may have varied): Benin, Ivory Coast, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Kenya, Central African Republic, Senegal, Chad, Tanzania, Togo and Uganda. In a total of nine countries (including some of those where it is illegal) an estimated 85% of all women undergo FGM: Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Mali, Sierra Leone, Somalia and Sudan.
Although the subject is intense, there are two excellent movies I recommend which deal with FGM. The first is Moolaade, about a woman who takes in young girls after they flee from their FGM ceremony and stands up to the village in refusing to let them be cut. The second is Desert Flower, based on the autobiography of Waris Dirie, a model from Somalia who was one of the first public figures to speak out against FGM beginning in 1997, and who became a UN Special Ambassador for the Elimination of Female Genital Mutilation.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Men banned from Turkey soccer game
Kind of an interesting story, in attempt to address soccer hooliganism and violence, Turkey has decreed that any sports team sanctioned for having unruly fans, all males over 12 will be banned for two games. So this week, Istanbul team Fenerbahce which had been sanctioned, played against team Manisapor. The stadium was filled with around 43,000 women and children under 12. I'm not sure what I think about the rule--I think it plays to the stereotype that women are less aggressive, more passive, nurturing, etc. And given that women have found a way to fight in wars for thousands of years, even if their society didn't allow it; and that women leaders have frequently led their countries during times of war, I'm just not sure if that stereotype is true. However, regardless of that, the sight of tens of thousands of women together showing so much team spirit is pretty awesome.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Made in Dagenham review

Made in Dagenham (2010) is a film about the Dagenham, England strike of 1968. For those unfamiliar with the history of the strike, at the time, Ford Motors was the largest employer in England. The women at the Dagenham factory were sewing machinists (they pieced together the leather for the car seats mostly), and were classified by the union as unskilled workers, which meant that they were paid significantly less than men who did similar work--those men were classified as "semi-skilled" and ranked in a higher class of pay. The women were also paid less than the men in their same category, making even less than the janitors. They took their demands of a higher skill rating to the union and threatened strike if they were not given it. The union refused to take them seriously, so the 187 women walked out. And then women in other factories joined them. Eventually it shut Ford factories around England down completely, because they couldn't make the cars without the seats. The union at first did not support them, and they tried all sorts of tactics to undermine them and get them back to work. Eventually they came around and threw their support behind the women. After three weeks of striking, Barbara Castle, then Secretary of State for Employment and so far the only woman to have held the title First Secretary of State in Great Britain, met with the women to work out a solution--they were awarded 92% of the same pay as the men doing the same job (which was the most Ford would give at the time) and it also ended up leading to the passage of the Great Britain's Fair Pay Act in 1970, as well as Ford worldwide increasing their pay of their women workers.

The real Dagenham strikers

The movie is mostly about Rita O'Grady, who is a composite of a few of the leaders of the strike, played by Sally Hawkins. Miranda Richardson plays Barbara Castle, Bob Hoskins is the manager over the women and one of the few men in the factory who supports them (he states his reasons, saying that he was raised by a single mother, who worked a factory where she was paid half what the men were working her same position, and they had a hard struggle making ends meet and how wrong that was). The movie is very good, the acting solid--I haven't cared for Sally Hawkins in the few other movies I've seen with her, but I did enjoy her in this. The film does try balance being a kind of feel good movie and with some of the more sobering aspects--husbands/co-workers who may not have supported them, money issues and their families going without (although the union didn't support their decision, they did provide a very very small stipend to them while on strike, but not really enough to get by on), general sexism/misogyny, and a suicide. Sometimes that light/dark balance works, and sometimes it doesn't. Additionally, it doesn't delve enough into the characters' personalities or home lives or whatever, so you don't really get to know them all that well. However, despite the drawbacks, I think it is still a very good film, and worth seeing for the historical significance.
Comments on several film websites give the usual tedious complaint made any time there is a feminist film, that the men are one-dimensional and all villains (And yet, they don't seem to have a problem with women in "men's" films being one-dimensional and generally there just to provide sex or to make the guy's life miserable in some way. Go figure.). But that complaint is unwarranted here--yes there are men who don't support the women, notably the leader of their union and the Ford executives. But I would say out of those 4 men, really only the union leader is the "villain," and even so, he's far from a mustache twirling dark hatted caricature. But there is also the aforementioned Bob Hoskins character, and Sally Hawkins' husband's character--who begins the strike resenting what his wife is doing and being kind of a jerk about it to having a change of heart and supporting her. And yes the male characters are less developed, but as I mentioned earlier, all of the characters are slightly underdeveloped; and the movie isn't about the men and it is pretty common that the characters who are secondary or peripheral to the main plot don't get quite as developed as the main characters.
Film is rated R for some occasional language and one very brief non-graphic sex scene.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Reason #7143 why I love Portland

A local woman runs a kind of bookmobile on her bike for the homeless who can't get a library card because of a lack of address:

Monday, May 30, 2011

Victorian Lit

On to Part 2:

The Semi-Attached Couple and the Semi-Detached House by Emily Eden--Actually two novellas in one book. "The Semi-Detached House" is a fairly typical slightly sentimental Victorian story about a newlywed couple setting up their first home. However, what makes it memorable is the contrast of pairing it with "The Semi-Attached Couple," which is a darker story about a couple on the verge of separation that probably never should have married in the first place.

The Bondwoman's Narrative by Hannah Crofts--The manuscript for the book was just recently discovered and published in 2003 (read the introduction about finding the manuscript, which is pretty interesting itself), and is possibly the first novel written by an African American woman in the United States. The story follows a slave and her biracial mistress as they flee north when her mistress' identity is discovered.

Wilkie Collins--Collins is often credited with crediting the mystery novel, but he's often ignored when talking about the Victorian greats, which is a shame. His stories are very easy reads, and was one Victorian male authors who could create very believable three-dimensional heroines and was critical of the sexism they faced.
No Name--After their parents die, two sisters find out they were illegitimate and their inheritance passes to their uncle, who turns them out of the house gleefully. One sister will go to any means necessary to get revenge and get their inheritance back.
The Woman in White--A woman escapes from an asylum, and winds up with two sisters--one of the sisters and the escaped woman look identical to each other. Lots of intrigue, mistaken identity, secret brotherhoods, amnesia, etc.

Anthony Trollope--Another author that maybe isn't mentioned enough. Given my choice between Trollope and Dickens, I'd chose Trollope every time (but then, Dickens and I have serious issues). Although Trollope is more conservative than Collins in his views, his female characters are similarly developed, and much more developed than Dickens'.
Palliser novels--There are six novels total in the series and deal with politics and life in society, the politics part sounds dull, but quite honestly it is interesting, and it's more to do with the life of a politician and member of Parliament, rather than politics itself. They follow several characters and families, but one noble family in particular, a duke and duchess in an arranged marriage who are extremely unsuited for each other, but trying to make the best of it. The novels in order: Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn, The Eustace Diamonds, Phineas Redux, The Prime Minister, The Duke's Children.
Miss McKenzie--An older woman used to being ignored by everyone inherits a decent fortune, and suddenly has several suitors and is the center of attention.

Elizabeth Gaskell--Gaskell is becoming more popular with some recent successful BBC adaptations of her novels, and I think she's always been a staple in Great Britain, but I think she's not given enough attention over here in the States.
Ruth--Scandalous in its day for featuring an unwed mother who was not raped, coerced or forced. Of course, she does spend the rest of her life atoning for it. Still, worth reading for the sympathetic portrait of a "fallen woman."
Wives and Daughters--After her father remarries, a daughter has to deal with a shallow selfish stepmother, and a beautiful sophisticated stepsister. A small caveat, Gaskell died before she finished the book--she left notes on how she intended to finish it, and she was probably only a chapter or two away from the end. Don't let that deter you.
North and South--A young woman moves from the rural south to a factory town in the north, and tries to adjust while learning about unions, working conditions, the owners (and having one fall in love with her...).

The Lamplighter by Maria Susanna Cummins--Follows an abused and neglected orphan after she is taken from the streets at 8 by kindly strangers as she grows up and moves through society. (This was the second best-selling novel in the 1850s behind Uncle Tom's Cabin and caused Nathaniel Hawthorne's jealous bitter remark about how "America is now wholly given over to a d—d mob of scribbling women." Oh Hawthorne. Maybe if you weren't so darn dour, people would have bought your books.)

Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmore--a historical novel set in the 1600s during the end of Charles II's reign. A rural county is plagued by a large family of robbers, and the hero's father was killed by them. Yet in Romeo and Juliet fashion, he falls in love with a daughter of one of the band. Her family hates him because his father supposedly killed one of the robbers before he died.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Georgian and Regency lit

Quite a few of my favorite authors are pre-1900s. But when talking about Regency, Georgian or Victorian literature, there's only a handful of big names that get repeated over and over. And while there's certainly a reason they are still around and being read after all this time and some of those authors like Jane Austen, Louisa May Alcott or Charlotte Bronte are among my favorites, I thought I'd focus a two-parter post on some of my favorite lesser known authors from these time periods.

Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown--One of the first novels published in the United States, it features an intrepid heroine trying to figure out why everyone around her is hearing voices, and why her brother is acting so erratically . There's spontaneous human combustion, mass murder, and other gothic goodies. Brown was a early advocate of women's rights and follower of Mary Wollstonecraft's and William Godwin's, although he was more conscious of race and class than either of them, and most of his novels and writings deal with these themes.

Frances "Fanny" Burney--Burney wrote 4 novels, and several plays. For a while, she served as a lady in waiting to Queen Charlotte. If you've seen the movie the Madness of King George, there's a scene where King George is chasing after a lady in waiting and she's running away as they've been given orders not to talk to the king when he's not in his right mind...that was Fanny Burney. For some unknown reason though, they didn't name her in the film. (Burney also gives us one of the earliest accounts of a mastectomy in her published journals, also worth a was her own mastectomy from cancer, in the days before anesthetics, she was conscious during nearly the whole operation!) Anyway, Burney was a large influence on Jane Austen--many people hear that and read Burney expecting the same sort of overt sparkling humor or satire. And while Burney was definitely satirizing Georgian society, she was far gentler and subtler about it. She is also more typical of Georgian authors like Samuel Richardson in length--her novels are often well over 600 pages or more. The only one of her 4 books I didn't like was Camilla, so that one is not recommended.
Evelina--Probably my favorite of Burney's novels, a legitimate but unacknowledged young woman of an aristocrat who's spent her life in the country comes to London for her first season and makes one faux pas after another based on her naivete.
The Wanderer--A woman fleeing the French Revolution comes to England and tries several jobs to support herself. Unusual in that it deals sympathetically with a working class protagonist, and also a scathing criticism of England's treatment of foreigners (which accounted for very poor reviews and sales during Burney's life).
Cecilia--An heiress has an unusual condition to her inheritance in that her future husband has to take her last name or the inheritance reverts to another heir. She also has to deal with three guardians till she's of age--one who wants to try spend her fortune on his own family, one who is an extreme miser and won't let her touch any money, and one who is a pompous prig who thinks she's after his son for his fortune. Also rare in that it's one of the few Georgian novels that a young single woman lives in her own estate for a while (with a chaperone of course)--most other books of the period, even if the heiress has a perfectly suitable estate, she must go to live with with relatives.

Belinda by Maria Edgeworth--Another tale of a young woman making her way in society, who's interested in two men, one may be attached to another woman, another seems to have his own secret. Features a duel between two women, and controversial in its day for themes of interracial marriage.

Roxana by Daniel Defoe--This is a pretty uneven novel, so I hesitant recommending it, but for the first half, I loved it, and in some ways thought it was better than Moll Flanders (which I greatly enjoy, but am not reviewing since it's widely considered such a classic). However, it ends very abruptly, as if Defoe ran out of time, and there is a character that enters about halfway or two-thirds through the novel that annoys me to no end, and when she she meets an ill fate, I almost cheered....which I think was probably the opposite of what Defoe intended, and I've never been so annoyed by a character that I've actually been relieved by their demise. So all that being out of the way, the novel follows the rise and fall of a courtesan from entry into the courtesan life after being a proper virtuous wife, to later catching the eye of the prince and so on.

The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann Wyss--So, although countless movie adaptations have been made of this, but I'm not sure how much it actually gets read anymore. The story is surely known to everyone, but a family emigrating to Indonesia gets shipwrecked by themselves and survives for several years on a tropical deserted island. And the Disney movie totally did a disservice to Jenny's character (well, her whole storyline was butchered to make her a damsel in distress and have the boys fight over her), but she actually had survived by herself on another island for 3 years thank you very much and had built her own tree house and everything.

And I know I said I wouldn't be dealing with the big names, but if you're a Jane Austen fan and haven't read her short stories (generally published together as Lesser or Minor Works, sometimes with Northanger Abbey or Lady Susan, the last novel she was working on and didn't finish), you are missing out. These are stories, poems and novel fragments she wrote when she was younger, and they are absolutely hilarious.

For further reading, Mothers of the Novel by Dale Spender is a great resource on European women authors who originated the novel form. She focuses on 100 that were writing before Austen. It's out of print right now, but pretty easy to find through inter-library loan or selling very cheaply on Amazon.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Hunger Games

So there's this little trilogy you might have heard of called The Hunger Games? It's only being hailed everywhere like the Second Coming of Young Adult literature or like it's single-handedly created the dystopia/post-apocalyptic YA novel. And I'm not saying it's not good, but I am saying it doesn't live up to its hype. (There are major spoilers for the end of the series, if you haven't read it, skip to the end of the post for other book recommendations.)

Katniss has been touted as this wonderful kick-butt feminist role model, but I disagree. Yes, she is kick-butt for the first two books. However, she's mostly reactive, almost never proactive, except for choosing to go in her sister's place to the Hunger Games. In everything else, she's reacting to situations, events and circumstances everyone else creates for her or around her. Katniss is also manipulative, although I can't necessarily find fault with it, since it's to keep herself and her friends alive; and the boy she manipulates is excessively clingy, as well as entitled for lack of a better word. Although he and Katniss have barely ever spoken to each other in their lives, he announces on TV his love for her, and while a lot of people claim something like that is sweet; someone who makes such a public announcement (especially without finding out even tentatively how the other person feels) is essentially power playing his partner. Trying to play on someone's sympathy or embarrassment to say yes if love isn't strong enough and make sure that she/he won't back out of saying no because it's in such a public arena. That's not sweet, that's just as manipulative as what she does to him (pretending to love in in exchange for gifts from sponsors of the game).
Additionally, after the audience starts (somewhat inexplicably) rooting for Katniss as an icon of rebellion against the Capital, Katniss moans and complains endlessly about it. At first I could understand and even sympathize--I mean I wouldn't want that kind of adulation either, but then in the last book when she finally agrees to be the "Mockingjay" and the mascot of the revolution; I had zero tolerance for her whining and avoiding whatever involvement she could in planning and activities. After you take on a responsibility, that's when you put on your big girl pants and you do the job, no matter how much you hate it.
And finally, Katniss spends the last book either in the hospital (seriously she's in the hospital for at least half or more of the book) or otherwise sidelined for some reason, and misses every single major plot event but one because of her forced inactivity. Why would Collins write her main character out of every major event in the climax of the story? It's just bad story-telling, not to mention it makes Katniss incredibly passive in the last book. Katniss also spends the last book crying, weeping, hiding in closets, and generally angsting about. I get that after going through two Hunger Games with lots of death and having to kill people she'd be suffering from PTSD. But yet, her entire district is bombed and 2/3 of the people die, don't you think that the remaining people in her district are also suffering from some form of PTSD from seeing most of their family and friends bombed to death right in from of them and just barely escaping? And yet the district carries on and they are volunteering as soldiers or helping plan the revolution or whatever else they can do? Or what of Finnick and Johanna, who were not only in two Hunger Games as well like Katniss, but were also tortured for several weeks which was far worse than anything she went through; and it turns out that Finnick at least, as well as other Hunger Game contestants, were used as child prostitutes by the Capital? Again, far worse than Katniss' problems. And although the two of them are obviously messed up, when there is a chance to help, they step up without being asked, even if they may not be emotionally or physically ready for it.
But then there's the epilogue to the final book, that ghastly horrible epilogue. Collins in the last book does that thing that so many YA writers do when they've created a love triangle with two generally suitable love interests and the protagonist. Rather than letting the main character choose between the two love interests as they are, the author turns one of the love interests into a jerk or worse, without any warning or previous evidence to support it, as an easy way to get the protagonist out of the triangle. So anyway, after getting rid of Gale (who was a much better fit for Katniss than Peeta and far far more interesting), Katniss winds up with Peeta even though she doesn't love him, and has never loved him as more than a friend. In the epilogue Katniss settles on Peeta just because he's there, not because she loves him and marries him. Both she and Peeta 20 years later still broken and tortured from their experiences. Katniss never wanted any children throughout the series, but in the epilogue, Peeta pressures her for 15 years and she finally gives in and they have two children. And although she loves her children, she feels fear and pain when she looks at them. Why are YA writers so insistent on hetero-normative endings and making sure that the woman ends paired/married off with babies or engagements or above all making her relationship throughout the book the total sum of her existence (hello Twilight, I'm looking at you and all other YA book obsessive relationships like you)? The love triangle in the Hunger Games isn't necessarily so central to the plot like a lot of these others, but why the need to have a triangle in the first place, and then the forced "happily ever after" with marriage and babies no matter what, even if it goes against what the character feels or wants? A truly revolutionary ending would have been Katniss not just settling for either boy that she didn't truly love or not having children she didn't want, and working out her issues on her own.

So ranting over, here are some books with similar themes that I think are better done than the Hunger Games (sticking mostly with Young Adult novels):

Dystopias and Post-apocalyptic novels:
-Tomorrow When the War Began series by John Marsden--A coalition of nameless countries invades Australia, and a group of teens backpacking in the outback avoid the takeover and internment of their town. Despite such a storyline, Marsden avoids the Red Dawn/patriotic furor territory for the most part. The series follows the group from average rural teens to guerrilla fighters and a realistic view of the psychological effects of such actions on the teens.
-Emergence by David Palmer--After a bio-nuclear plague wipes out most of the world, 11 year old Candy looks for other survivors and learns she is the next step in the evolution of humans.
-The Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner--When sun flares made most of the middle section of earth uninhabitable, a group of gifted children are put through a series of sadistic trials by a government group in the hopes of finding leaders among them that will find a solution to the world's problems.
-The Tripods series by John Christopher--possibly one of the earliest YA dystopias. After aliens invade Earth, they control the world's population by putting a cap on each person after they reach puberty which controls their thoughts and emotions. Will and his friends are able to negate the effects of their caps and fight against their oppressors.
Libyrinth by Pearl North--set thousands of years in the future on another planet, there is a kind of war between the Libyrarians who refuse to teach the masses to read, and the Singers who believe written words are evil. Haly, the heroine, is a Libyrarian, but can also "hear" a book without opening it; she is captured by Singers who believe she can help them destroy the Libyrarians.
Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness--Todd lives on a planet where men's and animal's thoughts are audible to everyone around them. He's been told that all the human women on the planet were killed by germ warfare just after he was born, but then he meets a girl his age, and they forced to flee once she's discovered; and Todd struggles to reconcile life on the outside of his town with what he's been taught his whole life.

Kick-butt heroines:
Warrior Princess trilogy by Frewin Jones--Set in Wales during the Saxon invasions, Branwen is chosen by the ancient Gods to lead her people's fight against the Saxons.
The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley--Two different women lead their countries against forces of darkness, fight dragons and learn to control their magical abilities.
Devil's Kiss and Dark Goddess by Sarwat Chadda--Bilquis is the youngest and only female Knight Templar, in modern day London as the Templars fight against demons, werewolves and other supernatural baddies.
Rampant by Diana Peterfreund--Astrid comes from one of 12 legendary maternal clans that used to hunt unicorns (not the cute cuddly kind, but these unicorns are instead venomous, meat-eating and aggressive). Thought to be extinct for over a hundred years, unicorns suddenly start showing up again in modern day, and Astrid reluctantly joins the newly reopened warrior training academy.
Graceling/Fire by Kristin Cashore--Katsa lives in a world where people are "graced" by certain abilities at birth. Her ability is fighting, and her uncle king uses her as an assassin and bully. To combat the wrong he has her do, she starts a secret council to right wrongs, and in the process tries to save the daughter of a king who can make anyone believe or do anything he says.
Song of the Lioness series by Tamora Pierce--A young woman takes her twin brother's place to train as a knight instead of going into the convent.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Our Imperfect Union

(Some minor language in the video. His phrase about the "interesting thing about April 27th" could be that in 2010 on that date is when Malcolm X's killer was paroled. It is also the date when apartheid in South Africa officially ended with the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994.)
Immediately after Pres Obama releases his birth certificate, Trump then starts in on President Obama's university records, not satisfied even then; and how now Obama needs to release those records because clearly he's hiding something by not releasing his transcripts, essentially claiming Obama could have only gotten into an Ivy League school because of affirmative action...which doesn't explain how he graduated from said school magna cum laude. These people were not satisfied that Obama had already released his short form birth certificate in 2008. That the state of Hawaii when all of this nonsense began, was quite liberal with copying and distributing birth certificates of Obama's because they had so many requests for it. They finally got so overwhelmed that they had to change the law last year prohibiting duplicate or repetitive requests for birth certificates. A few years ago, The Onion (satire news site) had an article that would be funny if it weren't so on the mark it makes me want to cry a bit, about the "afterbirthers" movement who wanted Obama to produce his baby placenta, "To this day, the American people have not seen a cervical mucus plug, let alone one that has been signed and notarized by a state-certified Hawaiian health official. If the president was indeed born in the manner in which he claims, then where is his gestation sac?"
Whatever you think of Obama's politics or track record as a president is irrelevant, what happened yesterday was a tragedy and degrading to our entire country that we let it happen. It was racism pure and simple, and we are all diminished by it.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

In Honor of Diane Wynne Jones

Young adult fantasy author Diane Wynne Jones died today from a long bout of lung cancer. If you have never read her Howl's Moving Castle series, get thee to a library now friend. And if you haven't read the series, well, maybe stop reading now, because this post contains a lot of spoilers.

Howl's Moving Castle may possibly be one of my favorite young adult books. And Sophie and Howl one of my favorite couples. At the beginning of the book, Sophie is a meek, down-trodden older sister working in the family hat shop she doesn't particularly like, but feels like she has to keep working there to allow her younger sisters to realize their dreams (one sister is a witch, the other a baker). Out of the blue, the infamous Witch of the Waste, hereafter known as WotW, comes in one day, and puts a curse on Sophie, turning her into an old woman. It takes Sophie most of the book it learn why, but it turns out that Sophie is also a witch with great potential, the WotW felt she was a threat, which is why she cursed Sophie. Sophie takes the opportunity to leave the job she hates. Sophie also uses her curse as a freedom to finally break free and to say and do the things she has been thinking to been to scared to say. She winds up at Howl's castle (the castle has doors that led to several countries, hence the name of the book), Howl is supposedly a hideous wizard who eats young women's hearts. It turns out Howl isn't quite that bad, but he is a total drama king, always overreacting, pouting, kind of self-absorbed, cynical, a total coward; and yet somehow awesome, endearing and underneath it a really good person. He tolerates Sophie muscling into his castle surprisingly well and Sophie refuses to put up with his dramatics and hysterics, and eventually it's love (Howl can see through the curse and knows Sophie is a young woman). Anyway, it's a fantastic book, funny, very well written, and highly entertaining. There are two loosely related sequels--Castle in the Air and House of Many Ways, although Sophie and Howl aren't the main characters in either and only show up about halfway through.

Studio Ghibli did an animated adaptation of the book, which was highly lauded, as most everything by Ghibli is; but unfortunately, in this case, they got it wrong. Ghibli is usually pretty good with potrayals of women, especially when compared to Disney or Pixar. However, the plot was changed quite a bit, and some of those changes completely reduced or took away whatever power the women had in the book.
So, in the film they left out the sisters completely. Sophie's sister Lettie, the witch, when she finds out that Sophie is an old woman and working for Howl, sends a dog (who, in a somewhat involved and lengthy plot, is a human wizard who was turned into a dog) protected by charms to Sophie to try to protect her from the bad wizard Howl. Lettie also at the end, when there is a battle brewing with the WotW, comes to help however she can.
And then after this epic battle Howl and the WotW in the film, the WotW is totally defeated and she is stripped of her power. But no, that's not enough. She is also stripped of her memory, having absolutely no clue who or what she was before; and stripped of her personality, so she becomes this harmless sweet old granny. So harmless and sweet in fact, that Howl and Sophie take her in to the castle to live with them. In the book, she's killed, but at least she retains her power and her memory and isn't stripped of everything that makes her her before she goes.
So one of the things that Sophie can do in the book is talk to things and make them live or grow. When making hats, she would talk to them, and the things she would say would translate to those who wore the hat--making them look younger, marry a rich man, have good luck, etc. She inadvertently brings a scarecrow to life by talking to it, and it begins to follow her about; the wizard/dog her sister sends to protect her knows that Sophie has the power to free him, and he really takes to her. Well, in the film, at the end, both scarecrow and dog are made human, and declare they were following Sophie because they loved her! So we go from the motive being because of her power, to being nothing more than a stereotypical romance. Oh, and in the book, the wizard/dog loves her sister, not Sophie.
But the largest insult is that in the film, Sophie is not a witch, she has no magical powers whatsoever. And this is the biggest loss and changes the plot and themes in a massive way. So much of what happens in the book is because of Sophie's powers. While they left her a sassy old woman, it isn't enough to make up for what they took away from her. The book is about Sophie growing not just as a person, but growing in her power and strength; finding courage and facing off against the WotW's demon; realizing she can shape her own destiny; and helping Howl, as well as several others, get out of a multitude of curses and other jams. Bad form Ghibli.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Time to crack open the canon

This story is slightly old news now, but at the beginning of the year, Vida, an organization for women in literary arts, published statistics on women authors reviewed in publications, as well as who's doing the reviewing. The statistics are dismal, but perhaps not terribly surprising.

What is more surprising however, is some of the nonsense that came from the magazine editors featured in it. In an article published in the Guardian (The full article here:, Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, said "And while women are heavy readers, we know they are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.
The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books," Stothard continued. "Without making a fetish of having 50/50 contributors, we do have a lot of reviewers of both sexes and from all over the world. You have to keep an eye on it but I suspect we have a better story to tell than others." (emphasis mine)

So you get that? Even though women buy something like 80-85% of all fiction, it's not the Important or Right kind of fiction. We all know that women flock to mindless drivel in fiction right? *heavy sarcasm* And trying to even the disparity in the authors reviewed or the critics reviewing or even just to point it out is making a fetish out of it?

Way back in 1929, Virginia Woolf published A Room of One's Own. In it, she says: "Speaking crudely, football and sport are important; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes, 'trivial.' And those values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop--everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists." It makes me furious that we are still dealing with this mentality over 80 years later. That although we are finally accepting more views into the literary canon, women's and POC's viewpoints are still considered alternative. Alternative, not essential, less Important, of less Worth, or less Substantial than that of the male privileged set.

And then John Freeman, the editor of Granta magazine, said "While numbers and graphs like this are helpful," he said, "conspiracy theories are not, because we have to ask a deeper question, which is how gendered are our notions of storytelling? I have been on mostly women-run prize committees which questioned their own feminist bona fides and then voted for the men's books." So again it's a conspiracy to point out disparities in our world and to maybe try to do something about them. And gee John, maybe the women ended up voting for the men's books because women are told from birth that their interests, their hobbies, their books aren't as Important as men's. Even the most feminist woman can't get away from internalizing to some extent that conflict and some of the misogyny. In the end, Anne Bronte said it beautifully and simply, "If a book is a good book it is for both men and women." Maybe it's time for the privileged male to finally take off his blinders and crack wide open the canon, and realize that if women and minorities have been slipping inside another's head/skin when they read books, watch film, look at paintings/photographs/sculptures, etc, because they've had to learn how, being othered or erased completely by the white male; that privileged males can learn to slip inside another's head as well. And see that another's story has just as much merit and worth. I have faith that they are smart enough to be able to do it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


One of my favorite authors, Patricia Briggs, was in town this week doing a book signing. I had planned to go for a few weeks. I have never been to a book signing, and if any authors I like come into town, I generally don't find out until after the fact and have missed it. So anyway, I was extremely excited. If you look at my Strong Women booklist, every book Briggs has written is on there. She's an incredibly good solid fantasy writer, and I haven't read any book by her I haven't liked (obviously). I also love her heroines. Although they are often the "kick-butt" variety, Briggs avoids a lot of the traps many other authors fall into with kick-butt heroines. She doesn't have a 95 pound woman who can take on any opponent and win every single time, no matter how outmatched she might be or how many foes she might be fighting (although I do think a woman with training and skill can certainly take on a man bigger than her and overpower him, sometimes it just gets ridiculous in these books--it's a 5 foot woman against 20 thugs a foot and a half taller with far more weapons/skills/odds in their favor...yet somehow she always wins) . She doesn't have her heroine obnoxiously right all the time, and use that as an excuse not to listen to any other character ever, and so on. Her heroines are strong, fully three-dimensional and independent; but they're also human, and they get hurt and are sometimes vulnerable and they actually show emotions other than anger or aggression, and they love and trust and need others. They may push themselves to the limit or sometimes get in over their heads in a fight; but they are also smart enough that if there is an ally who is stronger/smarter/better skilled, they will step aside and let that person take over if necessary.
So what happened? Well, the book signing on a Tuesday an hour after I got off work. Mondays and Tuesdays are extremely long days at work for me, so by the time I get off on Tuesday night, I'm generally in a lot of pain physically with the chronic stuff all flared up. And then I had a massive migraine starting by the time I got off work Tuesday. And blah blah blah pity party, there was just no way I could go stand in line for who knows how long to see her. So boo. She does live in Washington, so maybe next book release, she'll be by the area again?

Although in other news, another author I absolutely love, Jasper Fforde, who writes the Thursday Next series, is going to be doing a book signing on Monday. (Seriously, we never get of my favorite authors in town, and then two back to back, what's going on?) And I'll actually have a few hours to recover between work and when this one starts, so crossing my fingers, maybe I'll actually make this one.

Friday, February 11, 2011

And There was Much Rejoicing

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has finally ceded power after 18 days of protests. The doomers and the nay-sayers are still on about possible war with Israel, or the Muslim Brotherhood taking over and enforcing a Taliban-like government, chaos, anarchy, dogs and cats living together....but they just need to hold their breath for just a little while, because right now, right now the Egyptian people have done the impossible. For the first time in a few thousand years, they have peacefully overthrown a dictator by the sheer volume of their cries for justice, freedom, and rights. And that my friends, is a feat that needs to be celebrated by the world, just as we need to celebrate what happened in Tunisia.

Triumph as Mubarak quits - Middle East - Al Jazeera English

Here's the tail-end of Pres. Obama's statement released today:
And above all, we saw a new generation emerge—a generation that uses their own creativity and talent and technology to call for a government that represented their hopes and not their fears; a government that is responsive to their boundless aspirations. One Egyptian put it simply: Most people have discovered in the last few days…that they are worth something, and this cannot be taken away from them anymore, ever.

This is the power of human dignity, and it can never be denied. Egyptians have inspired us, and they’ve done so by putting the lie to the idea that justice is best gained through violence. For in Egypt, it was the moral force of nonviolence—not terrorism, not mindless killing—but nonviolence, moral force that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.

And while the sights and sounds that we heard were entirely Egyptian, we can’t help but hear the echoes of history—echoes from Germans tearing down a wall, Indonesian students taking to the streets, Gandhi leading his people down the path of justice.

As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, “There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.” Those were the cries that came from Tahrir Square, and the entire world has taken note.

Today belongs to the people of Egypt, and the American people are moved by these scenes in Cairo and across Egypt because of who we are as a people and the kind of world that we want our children to grow up in.

The word Tahrir means liberation. It is a word that speaks to that something in our souls that cries out for freedom. And forevermore it will remind us of the Egyptian people—of what they did, of the things that they stood for, and how they changed their country, and in doing so changed the world.

UPDATED 2/14/11: Had to share this cool article:

Now that President Hosni Mubarak has been swept out of office, the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Sqaure are sweeping the city clean. Literally.

The pro-democracy protesters who have called Tahrir Square home for the past 18 days are now cleaning house: sweeping the streets, scrubbing graffiti off walls and bridges, clearing burned cars and garbage and generally trying to restore the city to order.

Volunteers repainted black and white striped street curbs around a monument by the Egyptian Museum, which had been on the front line in street battles between Mubarak's foes and supporters. Police were starting to move barricades and trying to restore vehicle traffic at Tahrir Square, where many protesters vowed to remain, CNN reported.

"We're taking care of the square, and then we'll clean up the whole country," Mohammed El Tayeb said while standing amid the volunteer cleaning crews sweeping up Tahrir Square. "This is a beautiful country. Now it's ours and we're going to take care of it."

Across the crowded square, young men walked with paper signs taped to their chests that read: "Sorry for the disturbance, we're building Egypt." After days of protests that had such names as the "Day of Rage" and "Day of Millions," today's gathering was called the "Day of Cleaning," AOL News said.

Sherif Assaf, 27, a Microsoft employee who showed up with a broom, said the massive and spontaneous clean-up effort, like the protests, had been organised by word of mouth, text messages and social networking websites, Agence France Presse reported.

"We want to prove to the world that we are a very civilised and great nation. We were protesting for political change. Now that we’ve started to change politically, the people themselves are going to change," he told AFP.

As CNN aptly noted, it’s a sign that Cairo and the rest of the country are ready to rebuild and get back to work while the country formulates a plan for governance.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Impossible by Nancy Werlin

Impossible is a young adult fantasy based on the folk ballad "Scarborough Fair." In this retelling, Lucy finds out she comes from a line of women cursed by the elfin king to get pregnant (in Lucy's case, the elfin king possesses the body of her prom date and rapes her) at 18, and if they can't complete the 3 impossible tasks in the ballad before the child is born, they will go insane and become the king's consort forever. The premise was interesting....but yet, it was really kind of troubling. On top of really awkward dialogue and cheesy romance, the troubling part is the handling of Lucy's pregnancy and her marriage to her boyfriend while still a high school senior. The book completely fetishizes her pregnancy--after a tiny bit of morning sickness she's this glowing madonna who never has the slightest bit of discomfort or doubt about being a teen mother. Additionally the kids' marriage is complete bliss--they never fight, never have money issues, never have studying or grade issues, they only take cat naps at night so they can watch the other person sleeping because they just can't bear to miss one single moment apart (and yet can still be able to do work and school adequately the next day and Lucy do it pregnant?). Although it throws in a very brief, things were a little hard to juggle with high school and money and everything once the baby came, it was way too little and way too unconvincing after such this grand rosy picture of teen marriage and pregnancy as perfect and blissful. Additionally, there's this really nauseating bit where her boyfriend tells her she should marry him so her baby will carry his name essentially so it won't be a bastard. I kept rereading that conversation in shock and flipping to the copyright date to make sure this book was actually just written in 2008 and not 40 years ago.
The writing itself wasn't bad, and despite my distaste, it did keep me reading. But ultimately, it was far too slow building up to things. Lucy doesn't fully find out about the curse until almost halfway through the book, even though the rape and pregnancy happen at the beginning. And then it still takes forever to get started on the three impossible tasks. So all in all, I would give this one a pass.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Jasmine Revolution and the Days of Anger

The last several weeks, I've been following events in Tunisia, and now in Egypt especially, alternately cheering and crying. And if you don't know what's going on across the Middle East and North Africa right now, what rock do you live under?
I did a study abroad in 1997 in Israel, Jordan and Egypt. And since then, I've desperately longed to go back. Despite not having learned the language (my semester was only 2 months, if I did the longer semester, we would have been required to take either Arabic or Hebrew), it felt very much like home. I'm sure it helped that I went during a time when it was very stable and peaceful--it was pretty soon after I went that the second Intifada broke out and there was a series of bombings at tourist sites in Egypt.
Anyway, back to current events. For those who don't know what's been happening, here's my very amateur understanding of events. It all started in Tunisia in mid-December. Tunisia is/was ranked one of the most repressive and corrupt nations, ranked something like 141 out of 167 countries, and is also very poor. It's been run by Zine El Abidine Ben Ali since 1987, who's family liked (in addition to the whole repressive and dictatorial rule thing) to buy up villas, private jets, keep pet tigers, etc while the rest of the country barely made ends meet. So in December, an unemployed college graduate was selling fruits and vegetables trying to make money, and was arrested for not having a license to sell in the market. He set himself on fire in protest and later died. That was the catalyst, and it sparked a series of mostly peaceful protests over all of Tunisia for 4 weeks which finally led to Ben Ali fleeing the country. The army has stepped in to command the country with the agreement that elections will be held in 60 days. has a good series of blog posts detailing events throughout the "Jasmine Revolution."
And from there, it has sent a shock wave throughout the whole area. Oppressed and poverty-stricken people in other countries saying wait, if they were able to rise up and get rid of their bad leaders, maybe we can to. Protests carrying on the Jasmine Revolution, sometimes calling for a "Day of Anger" or "Day or Rage," have going on in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, but the largest have been in Egypt.
Egypt isn't far ahead of Tunisia on the corruption or repression scale and is poorer than Tunisia is. Hosni Mubarak has been president of Egypt since 1981 and is extremely autocratic and unpopular; but essentially, Egypt has been under martial law since way back to 1967. Tunisia has been cited as the Egyptians' inspiration, as well as the beating of young man to death by the police in June 2010 for refusing to pay them a bribe. is a really good article for current updates to the Egyptian situation all in one place throughout the week-long protests.
The president has tried to quell the protests by shutting down the internet, this also happened in Tunisia. The people have found some way around it and still managed to use Twitter or Facebook or whatever else to organize the protests. One report talked about how they had organized the protesters to come in waves every half hour or so. But what's also troubling in addition to the internet shutdowns, is that there are reports that the Egyptian police are apparently specifically targeting journalists to try to silence them; several BBC journalists and others in the area have reported being beaten and arrested.
And since coverage about women in all of these protests is often non-existent (despite the fact that women were very active in the Tunisian protests and a woman, Tawakul Karman, is one of the main leaders in the Yemen protests, there's a great series of photographs on Egyptian women out there taking part as well:!/album.php?fbid=493689677675&id=586357675&aid=268523.
There are rumors that the study abroad group I went with was in Egypt, Luxor specifically (about 450 miles from Cairo) when the protests started, and since flights have been suspended, they haven't been able to get out of the country. Since protests are going on all over Egypt, it isn't necessarily a comforting thing that they aren't in Cairo, although Cairo is certainly the epicenter. Generally, the group would take a flight from Cairo to and from Luxor, and then a flight from Cairo to/from Jerusalem, since the group was headquartered in Jerusalem. Supposedly they are hoping to be able to take a bus from Luxor out of the country someplace. Here's hoping they are successful.
There's a lot of rhetoric against the Muslim Brotherhood, a large political party in Egypt and what might happen if they gain control if Mubarak is forced out. Again, I'm not an expert, but from what I've read, although the Brotherhood has used violence in the past and although they are allies with Hamas, they have moved away from violence in the last few decades. Additionally, the Brotherhood is against al-Qaeda and has been almost since it's (al-Qaeda's) conception. So there's really no chance of the two forming any kind of alliance. But finally, this series of protests is not in any way being affiliated to one party, in fact, it's mostly secular and the Brotherhood hasn't really been involved until after it was on for three or four days, and then only offering tepid support at best. If the Brotherhood were to win control, there is no doubt that relations with Israel would not continue on the same terms, so that is definitely a concern. As I say, the Brotherhood is pro-Hamas and very much for a separate Palestine state, so that would be a big issue between the Egypt and Israel were the Brotherhood to gain control. I know Washington DC feels like a dictator committing human rights violations at home but keeping peace with other countries is better than war. I can't feel like that's the right answer, but I don't really know how we get to the right answer when both choices seem like bad ones. Anyway.

In the end, my hopes and prayers are that all protesting against autocrat and repressive regimes will succeed in forming a government of their own choosing and that this will not turn out to be aborted attempts like Burma 2007 where the government(s) succeeds in cracking down even harder; that there will not be a power vacuum in which one dictator is exchanged for another; and above all that the situation does not disintegrate into war or anarchy.

The blogger as an infant in Cairo (back in the dark ages before digital cameras)