Friday, December 6, 2013

24th Anniversary of the Ecole Polytechnique Massacre

24 years ago today, a man went to the engineering school at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. He separated women from men, and began shooting the women for being "feminists" (that is, he accused them of being feminists solely for majoring in a male-dominated field). 14 women were killed, 10 were injured; with 4 men also being injured in the crossfire, although they were not his targets.
It is not an event we hear much about in the U.S., but it is still a major event in Canada. Every year, at universities all over the country they hold remembrances, they have a moment of silence in their House of Commons. The event lead to galvanized grassroots organizations on women's rights, violence and gun safety; greater gun control laws; better police response during emergencies; and a government committee to study violence against women.

Required reading:


Nelson Mandela

There are rightly articles everywhere lionizing Nelson Mandela since his death yesterday. Others have said it much better, but his is a death that has hit me hard. The man was one of my heroes. He wasn't perfect by any means, but what he was able to achieve was absolutely monumental.
There are those who say he was a terrorist--interestingly those same people would probably in the next breath proclaim the rightness of resistance groups against the Nazis, even if said resistance groups targeted collaborators or were willing to risk citizen collateral damage. (Please note, I am not promoting violence, but South Africa was most definitely at war with its black citizens, and people do have a right to self-defense, and to resist against a tyrannical and oppressive regime.)
I've seen people complain that Mandela avoiding war/reprisals when he got out of prison was only doing the right thing and he shouldn't be lauded for that. Which ignores the situation: after 46 years of oppression, lack of the basic human rights, mass killings, mass torture, rape, kidnappings/disappearances caused by the police and government forces, those who resisted being imprisoned or having to flee into exile, and so on; it wasn't just doing the right thing to avoid violence. South Africa was absolutely on the brink of mass civil war. The right wing army was plotting to assassinate Mandela and re-institute apartheid. Black people were angry, wanting justice, wanting closure, wanting something for all those years of despair and heartache. And it is a testament not just to Mandela, but to all South Africans, that they managed to negotiate that transition peacefully. If it had been any other person other than Mandela leading, it is very very doubtful the outcome would have been so peaceful. Mandela came out of prison: renounced violence; instituted the truth and forgiveness trials (while still providing traditional prison terms to the worst of the lot); did as much as possible to heal the deep painful breaches between blacks and whites; and then stepped aside after his term was over, devoted his time to numerous charity causes and created a council of international elders to advise and work on issues like peace, climate change, poverty, and AIDS. And for all that, he absolutely is a hero, he absolutely does desire the praise and adulation.

Nelson Mandela's own words:
“where poverty exists, there is not true freedom. The world is hungry for action, not words. In this new century, millions of people in the world’s poorest countries—including South Africa—remain imprisoned, enslaved and in chains. They are trapped in the prison of poverty. It is time to set them free.”

"For to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others."

"If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner."
If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.
If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.

"I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps trying."

"Social equality is the only basis of human happiness."

"Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies."

"On my last day I want those who remain behind to say: 'The man who lies here has done his duty for his country and his people.'"

A list of articles to read on how the media tries to sanitize/downplay Mandela's radicalism, much as they have with Martin Luther King Jr:
Read/watch list on apartheid:
A list of YA/children's books on South Africa:
tribute from Bishop Desmond Tutu

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Spoken from the Heart and Speaking for Myself

Spoken from the Heart by Laura Bush is an weird autobiographical mix. The first half of the book, is all about Bush's childhood and early career as a schoolteacher and librarian. It goes into great detail about her life, personality, etc. The second part barely skims the surface of her later life, mostly just listing people and places, little insight into how she actually felt or handled being the First Lady. And certainly little insight into her husband's presidency, although of course she doesn't ever criticize any of his actions. The years in the governorship of Texas gets barely even a chapter.
And it's fine, it's readable, but not very memorable. Bush's pretty open about the car accident she was in near the end of high school; where she failed to stop at a stop sign (because teenage driver distracted by friends, because it was night and intersection not marked well) and t-boned another car, which killed the other driver. Who happened to be a friend from her high school. She is very open about how traumatic it was, and how much that event changed her. She talks about how she never went over to see the boy's parents, as she didn't think they'd want to see her, she left a few months later for college, etc. But that after having her kids, she realized that was incredibly wrong and she should have gone. Yet there's no explanation or reason given for why she didn't seek his parents out then. Was it that they both had passed on already? That she couldn't find out where they lived (which doesn't seem possible, surely once your husband is the president of the US, you could have tracked them down)? It never says why, just kind of leaves that hanging.
And there's a few places, during the presidency on her husband's policies (although she probably wisely mostly steers clear of wading into that mess), but also in her youth, of protesting too much. She declares that no girl at her high school ever drank. Even when she's talking about how the boys drank. And then at college, declares that not one of her friends from back home ever tried drugs at college. Which, I don't know, it could be true. But seems pretty unlikely.

And I have so many things to say on the whole topic of the role of the First Lady. It's the highest unpaid, unelected position in the US. The First Lady is expected to have her own "policies' and "agendas," a huge staff (Hillary Rodham* said she had 50 people in the First Lady's office, I don't think Bush ever says how many she had), do domestic and international public goodwill tours, serve as hostess to all these events, redecorate/repair the White House, and so on. But again, not paid, not elected. And if the woman takes on too much of an interest in politics, she's castigated and pilloried for it (Eleanor Roosevelt, Mary Todd Lincoln, Rosalynn Carter, Hillary Rodham). But if she doesn't seem to show enough interest, she's mocked and derided for being too domestic/stand-offish/shy/etc (Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman, Laura Bush, Nancy Reagan). It's completely bogus. Could you imagine the shock and outrage if a First Lady decided that she wouldn't do these things? Or worse, if she continued on her own career while her husband were president? A First Lady who declared she would keep working during her husband's presidency would probably completely scuttle her husband's career.

*Hillary kept her birth name and never actually took Clinton's last name. When Bill Clinton was governor, his staff took it upon themselves to start adding Clinton to the end of her name to her documents or event programs or whatever. She fought it for a while, but eventually gave up.

It's such a contrast to then read a book like Speaking for Myself by Cherie Blair. She was the first prime minister's wife to work while her spouse was in office, as a barrister who specializes in human rights law. The Blairs were also the family with the youngest children while in office. And the British press never really knew what to make of her; she got into a few controversies for some things she said, especially for being perceived as an anti-monarchist, and for once getting the paper in her bathrobe (which, was pretty naive, it was their first or second morning in the Prime Minister's house, and you don't realize that there are going to be reporters staked outside? When the British press are some of the most invasive and aggressive anywhere? Come on.). While I have no real appreciation for her husband, I did find her book quite interesting.
As I say, the role of prime minister's wife is very different. First, she doesn't have a "title" like First Lady. Second, she has a staff of about 4, to help her keep her schedule, answer mail, and whatever else. But that's it, she doesn't need to set an "agenda" because she isn't a politician, she doesn't need to help plan events and dinners, or re-decorate the house, you know why? Because they have people who are paid to do those things. Amazing.

So anyway:

Spoken from the Heart: 2 stars out of 5
Speaking for Myself: 3 stars out of 5

Thursday, September 26, 2013

It's a Music Video Kind of Day

Although I actually really loved Zeppelin, I'm not a huge fan of this particular song because it's so over-done. But Heart absolutely nails it. And you know they've nailed it when they get a standing ovation from Zeppelin plus tears from Page. That's how a homage is done.

So I hate Miley Cyrus' songs. And I've been avoiding her newest. But this country version is fantastic. And I'll pretend it's the only one out there.

I don't know what it is about Cher, but she's one of those people that gets carte blanche from me. She shows up in a waist-length newspaper shredded wig that looks like Mustafa's mane, and I say oh Cher, I didn't know that was something I needed in my life till now. Let me treasure you some more. (but, not as dirty as that sounds) Just like this video of her entrance on David Letterman where she descends on a swing while My Country 'Tis of Thee plays (the second video in the article). Because somehow, that is perfect and everything I want about a Cher entrance.

A song that's apparently huge in The Netherlands right now. And I may have listened to this repeatedly since discovering it. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Good news Wednesday

Because I think we can all use it right now. 

Maternal deaths in the Republic of Congo have dropped 50% over the last ten years:

Violent crime at a historic low:

The Killers have a new song out:

Finally gaining some momentum lately in the move to get rid of the Washington football team's racist name:

Awesome children's librarian reads to an alligator:

This is really good, you should watch it:

And finally, this is one of my favorite satire pieces on celebrities and charities. It makes me laugh every time I read it:

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Bletchley Circle

This British miniseries isn't perfect, is a little slow, but great acting and one of the most subtly feminist movies I've seen in a while makes it so much worth your while. The series follows four women who worked at Bletchley Park during World War II, which was the group, mostly women (80% of those who worked at Bletchley were women), who worked on cracking the German codes. After the war, the four women have mostly returned to their old jobs, or else gotten married and quit work all together. Due to the Official Secrets Act, the women (and men) were forbidden to divulge what they did during the war--certainly couldn't use it on resumes to find other work, weren't even supposed to tell your spouses, or have the opportunity of finding others who had done the same job and connecting that way. Seven years after the war, the main character, Susan, is now married with two children. She is trying to fit into the housewife life, but she is bored and stifled. When a serial killer starts targeting local women, she decides that with her experience, she can help track the killer through his patterns and stop him. Susan goes to some of the other women she worked with at Bletchley: Millie, Jean and Lucy, and the four team up to stop the killer.
It deals with the themes of women being forced out of jobs they loved or forced into domesticity; the patronization and dismissal of those in authority because they are women, or because they can't cite their credentials; and also the dismissal of their husbands, who don't want to hear about it, don't care what they did in the war, don't care about their wives' interests. Which isn't to say that the male characters are all horrible misogynists or anything, but they are definitely products of their time. Moreover, the series regularly smashes the Bechdel test, and follows not one but four women. When in 2012, only 27% of speaking roles in movies went to women; and when the number of women directors, producers and screenwriters is falling alarmingly, we need movies and series like this. That don't just have one token female character, but have several full-formed women; who aren't perfect, but are complex human beings just like their male counterpoints found just about everywhere onscreen. And the good news is that apparently there is going to be a second Bletchley series next year.

Further reading on the real Bletchley Park, which is pretty fascinating (unlike the movie Enigma...which was pretty boring):

4 stars out of 5

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Post-Apocalypse Beauty Pageant

In two post-apocalyptic series I've read, there was a kind of troubling way that beauty and disfigurement was dealt with. This isn't something solely confined to this genre, of course, but I felt like it was such a misstep and missed opportunity, especially because it's a main theme in these series, that I'll just focus on these two.
The first series is the Pure trilogy by Julianna Baggott. It takes place a decade or so after a series of bombs has gone off around the world(? maybe just U.S.). When the bombs exploded, people fused together with whatever they were holding or standing near. So the main character, who was 5 or 6 years old at the time, now has a doll's head for a hand. Her grandfather has a miniature fan lodged in his throat. The love interest has several live birds embedded in his back. Groups of people have fused into unrecognizable mass of arms/legs/heads. Those that fused with animals or the earth, have become mindless ravenous things that will kill and eat anything that crosses it. And so on. It's been about 15 years or so since the bombs, so the main character in the course of the series is now early 20s. There is a dome which was erected before the bombs went off, and the people in the domes are considered "pure," and weren't affected by the bombs, are considered superior; and the "pures" send out propaganda that one day, they will emerge and help fix everyone/everything. The main character has never seen any of these "pures," but is obsessed with getting her hand fixed and entering the dome. Despite every single person she knows being fused since the time she was around 5 years old, she constantly tries to hide her doll's head hand, and is horrified if anyone finds out what her fusion was. Despite her fusion being so incredibly minor, relatively speaking, as to be rather trivial compared to having living birds in your back, or having been fused onto a window pane or whatever other horrible hybrid and suffering constant pain because of it. Despite it being 15 years or so later, and having all that time to adjust.

The other series is the Birthmarked trilogy by Caragh O'Brien. This one has an environmental collapse with water/food/etc shortage, also with benevolent overlords who are perceived as superior in looks and intellect. The main character has a large birthmark (which is later revealed to actually be a burn) that covers much of one side of her face. She tries to arrange her hair to hide it, but it's still visible. She has incredibly low self-esteem, and is shocked, shocked I tell you, every single time it happens that someone doesn't run away screaming in horror. Despite the fact that no one has ever done so. Despite the fact that she has loving parents who tried to instill a sense of worth and self-esteem in her. Despite the fact that many of her immediate friends and neighbors accept her without a whole lot of comment. A few kids when she was younger teased or laughed at her, but otherwise, little to no bullying. No horror. No rejection. Additionally, almost every eligible man her age she runs across starts to fall in love with her. Seriously, over the course of just the first two books, she has three or four guys showing interest in her. And yet, she still obsesses almost on every page, about her scars, about her looks, about how horrible she must appear.

I realize that not everyone with obvious disability or disfigurement is going to accept that, and that my own issue is an invisible disability and so very different. And there are times with a disability that it ebbs and flows, sometimes you are dealing with it just fine, other times you're kicking against the pricks. But I think what bothers me about these series is that they could be about the main character coming to terms with what's happened to them. When there are so few obviously disfigured main characters, especially women, and especially that don't magically resolve itself within the course of the series; it could have been so different, and so much better. It could have been that the main character could have had a strong self-esteem in the first place. Or that the main character didn't have to obsess over beauty or her supposed lack thereof quite so much. Or even at all. Why does beauty have to be such a obsession at all, especially in a time and place when you're living with the effects of bomb radiation, little food/water/plants and every single other person you know is also disfigured; or when you're living in a land where the water and most plants have disappeared and even what little there is, is also in danger of disappearing? I don't know, it just seems like when you're in a constant struggle for survival, maybe there are other things worth obsessing over.  

Monday, June 10, 2013

Mirror Mirror (2012)

Not that I was expecting anything all that great from this movie, but such a massive massive fail.  Mostly in regards to the Prince, our supposed hero. So, the main story is the same, however, the dwarves that Snow White stays with are bandits rather than miners, and were forced out of their villages by the Queen's edicts. Snow White learns to fight from them. Which was really the only reason I watched it in the first place, looking for a Snow White who stood up for herself (well, that and it's about the only live actual version of Snow White that uses little people). I know that also happens in Snow White and the Huntsman, but the script and performances were all over the place in that one, and the dialogue often terrible, and so I didn't care for it.

When we first meet Prince Charming in Mirror Mirror, he gets attacked by bandits in the forest....those bandits turn out to be the dwarves, wearing stilts. The Prince repeatedly mocks the dwarves even after he's defeated: referring to them as children, as harmless, uses ableist slurs, how embarrassing/humiliating/wrong this was to get beaten by them. And then when he eventually gets free and reaches the Queen's castle, he lies (several times) about who attacked him, and builds his attackers up to enormous size and strength, because he can't have people knowing the truth.
The Prince once he's at the court, falls in with the Queen's party line, having absolutely no qualms about how opulent and frivolous her court is, despite seeing how how starved and mistreated her people are, and the severe punishments inflicted on them by her guards. He is so taken in, that he goes back out with her guards to attack the bandits; and that's where he fights with Snow White. And during the course of their fight, he spanks her repeatedly with his sword. Hilarious. Just hilarious. And tells her that girls can't fight, she should go back to her rightful place (doing girly things), etc.

And then there's the Queen. Of course she retains her jealous obsessive nature. No attempted motive for why she does what she does (unlike Snow White and the Huntsman, which however badly and problematically done, tries to give the Queen a back story of being abused and hurt by the men in her life, so she decides to exact revenge on other men). There's this weird awful scene of the Queen getting ready for the ball; and she undergoes a beauty treatment, where birds literally poop right on her face, she gets stung in the lips by numerous bees, maggots/worms eating her dead skin to exfoliate, and other gross things. I have no idea what the scene is supposed to be; if it's a commentary on the horrible things in beauty products, it fails. If it's supposed to be a commentary on a vanity obsessed culture where people will undergo gross and dangerous procedures to look beautiful, it fails. It's just gross, no exploration or commentary here.
And as obnoxious as Julia Roberts looked in the trailer, bless her for trying. It's like she realized how terrible the film was, and decided to chew the scenery for all she was worth to try and entertain herself. And she manages to be about the only bright spot in a bevy of bad performances. Even Nathan Lane just gave up and played dead....when another actor manages to out-ham Lane, you know something is wrong.
Finally, the ending. We've got our horrible Prince marrying Snow White (despite him finally coming over to the people's side with Snow White, there's never any really change or growth in his character--he certainly never really apologizes to all and sundry for being such a jerk). Snow White actually has been slightly sympathetic to this point--although she does know how brutal the Queen is to her people, and does nothing about it for years. Even once she escapes and lives in the forest, she still really doesn't do anything to help her own people for quite a while. At least in the other Snow White film, Snow White has been locked up in a tower for years and so has no idea what is going on outside and what her people are going through. And then when she does escape, becomes the figurehead of a rebellion against the Queen. So anyway, back to Mirror Mirror, it's their wedding, and Snow White's father has come back (instead of dying he had been turned to a beast by the Queen); and the Queen shows up in disguise. With a poisoned apple. And our supposed heroine smilingly forces the Queen to eat the poisoned apple herself to commit suicide. At which point a joyful Bollywood song begins playing and everyone dances on the Queen's figurative grave and the end. (Don't ask me about the song, for some reason Disney loves to end with a song that is jarringly out of step with the rest of the movie.)

1 star out of 5

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Problem with Urban Fantasy

Urban fantasy is one of my favorite genres. It's like crack candy, and I keep getting sucked into 10 book series when my reading list is already out of control and I have plenty of other stuff to read. The reason I enjoy it is that, unlike most high/epic fantasy novels (especially from earlier than about 10-15 years ago), the women are the main characters in urban fantasy, they're part of the action and driving the story.
However, the main problems I have with urban fantasy are two-fold. The first is that the main character is often a special snowflake--she's some kind of Chosen One, the one with some amazing or unique ability and there's no one like her in the world. Which would be ok on occasion, but when you see it over and over in just about every series, it's a little eye-rolling. These women are often kickbutt warriors (and can take out 20 men on their own, but yet they're 5'2" and 90 pounds), but going along with that, they're often the only women in a man's world. They very rarely have any female friends, any women they do come across, there's usually jealousy or antagonism, or "thank god I'm not like them." Which is internalized misogyny and obnoxious.
The other issue I have is an even bigger one. It's the men, the love interests. For some infallible reason, urban fantasy is absolutely rife with controlling, jealous, domineering, abusive, homicidal raging, stalking "heroes." Inevitably, the heroine hates or is terrified of the hero at first, but then they're falling into bed together and we're supposed to be charmed and swooning over it. No thank you.
Although there are far worse offenders out there, one of the ones that really upsets me is the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. The thing is, I absolutely love Kate as a character, I enjoy the world-building, enjoy that she has more than one female friend, and I like many of the secondary characters. But Curran, the hero has ruined it for me. I've just finished the 4th book, and I have absolutely no desire to go on. He's got worse as the series goes on. He breaks into her apartment several times before they ever start dating; he flies into a jealous rage if a man stands too close to Kate, whether or not they are interested in her at all, and when a man does actually take Kate on a date, again, this is before she even starts dating Curran, Curran goes and destroys a garage full of expensive cars that the other man owns. Kate spends the first two books intimidated and frightened of Curran; he manipulates her repeatedly and tries to force her into doing whatever he wants if that doesn't work; flies into rages if Kate gets into a dangerous situation (never mind that her freaking job for much much longer than she has known Curran is working as a knight, solving dangerous crimes, and has been training for these situations since she was all of 5 years old, and that she is has incredibly powerful magic); has resorted to physically picking her up and locking her in a room to "keep her safe." He's constantly telling her what to do, wants her to quit her job, stop working, and stay put in his house. It's disgusting and I feel like I've fallen into a 1950s wormhole. And the absolute worst part is, as I say, there are far worse heroes out there. How and why did this become sexy?

So then, are there urban fantasy series that aren't quit that bad? Yes--the first is the Jane Yellowrock series by Faith Hunter. Jane is a Cherokee shapeshifter. 6' tall, and an enforcer, that is, she kills vampires for a living, so is an awesome fighter (and I love that she's not a tiny waif). Although there is some occasional alpha maleness, and occasional annoyance in that her animal likes that (long story); Jane refuses to put up with any stalking/controlling/abusiveness in the shape of romance. And continues on, awesomely often saving the lives of the men around her. Also awesome, she has a female best friend who is often important to the plot, Jane is a godmother to her friend's children, and she rarely sees herself in competition with other women, just because they're women.
The other series is the world of the Lupi series by Eileen Wilks. There is also the occasional alpha male thing here, and frustratingly, the whole trope about how women have never been werewolves and the whole pack dominance thing, which is not remotely how a real wolf pack works--which could be a whole other post about how sexist just the werewolves tropes are in urban fantasy. However, despite the werewolves often being rather patronizing to the women (who are part of their packs in that they are sisters, daughters, etc, but still not werewolves); they do not abuse, intimidate, or try to control them. And the main character, Lily, who can sense and negate the magic around her, is a FBI agent. Her boyfriend is a werewolf alpha, but again, no attempts on his part to dominate her or force her into submission like most of the other werewolf books. And Lily often horrifies other werewolves by merrily going about her FBI, no-nonsense, taking charge way, including towards her boyfriend. As in the Jane Yellowrock series, Lily has a female friend, although they don't necessarily start out that way at the beginning of the series; and there are other important women characters. Also, the werewolves' mythology is that they have a patron goddess who created them, and through the series, they fight for her against a dark goddess. So having the two most powerful beings in this universe as female is pretty cool.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Dear Netflix

Really Netflix? The Countess, a movie about Elizabeth Bathory, the most prolific female serial killer in recorded history, a woman who allegedly killed over 650 people, mostly women; this is the movie you're recommending as a "romantic foreign movie?" You've got a pretty twisted notion of romance.

I suppose I shouldn't be surprised though. You do classic the Twilight movies as having a "strong female lead"...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Equal: Women Reshape American Law by Fred Strebeigh

Now, don't let the subtitle deter you. I had this on my to-read list forever, and kept looking at it and thinking "boring," and moving on to something else. Well, sisters and brothers, I was wrong. Equal is a fascinating look at the women, both lawyers and judges, who fought for women's rights starting in the 1970s, and some of their landmark cases.
The book is broken into five sections: Scrutiny, Pregnancy, Lawyering, Harassment and Violence. The first section is on the preliminary fight to get discrimination by sex outlawed. And I knew that Ruth Bader Ginsberg was awesome, and that she had brought many important discrimination cases to court, but I didn't realize just how awesome she was. Hers was the first successful case where the Supreme Court declared that discrimination due to sex was illegal. And, contrary to the incorrect belief that feminists are only out to make life better for women, she also fought to end practices that discriminated against men because of their sex (such as men not being able to collect the same caretaker Social Security benefits as women, not being considered a dependent for military benefits/housing, or not being able to get the same widow/widower tax deductions as women).
There are other awesome stories, such as Catherine McKinnon's role in getting sexual harassment cases passed. Or the women staffers working for Joe Biden and the women judges who helped push the VAWA act through Congress. Or the women who fought deeply entrenched discrimination within law firms. Or how when the Supreme Court decided it was in fact legal to discriminate against pregnant women, women then galvanized into action and got the Pregnancy Discrimination Act passed. And so on.
Basically, read it. It's interesting, well-written, and doesn't get too bogged down with legalese for those of us that don't know much about the inner-workings of the law. And it's also interesting for how appalling the arguments used for discrimination against women were, and also just how recent they were. (Of course, they're still happening with how extremely conservative the right has become...)

4 stars out of 5

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Call the Midwife

Another series that you should get on watching already. This is a BBC series, based on a series of memoirs by Jennifer Worth, about her experiences working as a midwife in the 1950s in London's very poor East End. The main character comes from a fairly well-off family, and has never been exposed to such poverty or conditions before. What I love about her though, is that while she may occasionally express her horror or dismay or ignorance/naivety about the lives of her patients; when it's pointed out to her that her privilege is showing, or that she needs to open her mind, she does just that. She's not perfect, but she tries to learn from her mistakes.
Jenny Lee, as she's called in the series, works for a nursing convent, along with 3 other midwives: Chummy (who is kind of socially awkward and clumsy, comes from a wealthy and prominent family), Trixie (rather a partier), and Cynthia (quiet and probably the most mature). With all their differences, and being fairly young and fairly new to practice; they are all competent and caring midwives. They board at the convent, and so in addition to the series focusing on the midwives and mothers, you also have the nuns. Although there are more nuns in the convent that we see sporadically, only 4 are involved in the clinic. It's a rare female-centered and female-oriented cast and plot. There are a few recurring male characters who are just as three-dimensional as the women, but the focus is always on the midwives. In Great Britain, it was one of the most widely watched shows in recent history. Take that studios that talk about how "women's films" are risky or don't bring in viewers (and then every time there is a huge hit starring a woman, their minds are blown, but it's just a fluke anyway, so they'll just go right back to catering to men ages 18-34).
Because of the poverty, and because of the unavailability/stigma of birth control at the time, the cases are often sobering. The first episode has a woman who began having children when she was 14, and was pregnant with her 25th child. And rant hat on, she is from Spain, her husband doesn't know Spanish, and she doesn't know English; it sounds like as sound as soon as she had one child, she was pregnant with another, so they've been married roughly 25-30 years or so. In all that time, her husband never bothered to learn Spanish or teach her English? Despite the fact that she can't communicate with anyone outside of her children? Ugh. Another case has a woman giving birth on the same day that her daughter gets married, or other moms who are giving birth in their 40s and having complications/feeling too old to be having children. However, all is not gloomy. There is a lot of humor, and the relationships between the women are comfortable and teasing. Season 1 just came out on DVD, and I think Season 2 is playing now on PBS.

4 stars out of 5

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Creative people changing the world

(Billboard in Lima generates water through reverse osmosis)

(Teenage girls in Nigeria create an electricity generator that uses urine)

(Teenage girl creates software program that accurately and noninvasively diagnoses breast cancer)

Thursday, February 14, 2013

The House at Tyneford by Natasha Solomons

Or, alternately, Why I Have Trouble With Historical Fiction, Especially of The Upper Class/Servant Kind. Which is also why I can't deal with shows like Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs, much of Merchant Ivory's later stuff and so on. Because they're about these beautiful rich disaffected people and their beautiful rich problems and aren't they just like us? And no one is particularly likeable, and the servants, if they are more than backdrop, are usually shown to be totally loyal and devoted and wax on about how they're so kindly by the rich folk. And if they aren't loyal and devoted and waxing on, they're evil and scheming and getting their just rewards in the end for Getting Out of Their Place. Because apparently we all long for a time when everyone knew their place and it was a simpler world where people could be as sexist, racist, and elitest as they wanted without repercussions and wah political correctness doesn't let me get away with being a dirtbag anymore.
And generally if there's a romance between the upstairs and downstairs, isn't the upstairs so progressive and magnanimous and amazing for falling in love with a mere servant? And all I can think about is how the upstairs is being a total ass, not even trying to understand the bad situation they are putting the servant in, constantly putting them at risk for being kicked out, constantly in trouble for shirking their duties, which causes them to get even more duties as if they aren't overworked enough already, etc; because when the relationship goes south, as it totally will because you know upstairs isn't going to really risk getting disinherited over marrying a servant, they're totally going to screw the servant over and they'll never get a job in that field again and their reputation will be shot and thanks a lot for your momentary dabble in the lower classes but couldn't you have been a little more discreet about it or done it with someone outside if your own house?

So The House at Tyneford, about a girl from a wealthy "avant-garde" family that's totally perfect in every way and she's spoiled and cosseted and irritatingly immature for her age. It's Vienna at the start of WWII, and the family is Jewish. She's sent away to England for safety, and ends up as chambermaid for a manor in the country, despite never having done anything remotely related to housework before. She's so special and charming and loveable (despite her constantly complaining for pages and pages about how she didn't get the family's looks, and she's plain and chubby, how she's immature and inexperienced and of course she does; because how could we ever have a book where the heroine actually likes herself? That way lies in madness.) that the heir of the house falls in love with does his father. Which is awkward and kind of icky. I couldn't stand either the girl or the heir; and got about 150 pages in, and then just started skipping around and finally gave up. But apparently the heir dies in war, and she marries the father but doesn't get the house (the government takes it), which is naturally a complete tragedy. So there, now you don't have to read it.

Friday, February 8, 2013

To Boost Your Faith in Humanity

An article about an awesome group Bikers Against Child Abuse, motorcyclists that have banded together to help abused children feel safe, provide emotional support and therapy, and will stand guard at the child's school, home or court case if they feel threatened by their abuser. It's long, but so worth it. (All bikers go through a criminal background check, given workshop training over a year period on how to help the children, and the bikers are always in pairs so that no biker is ever alone with a child.)

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Mustn't Grumble and the larger issue

I just finished a travel book called Mustn't Grumble (and it's really hard to type Mustn't, I keep wanting to add 's instead of 't) by Joe Bennett. So, standard travelogue about this guy who was originally from England, but has lived away for a few decades, and the book is his experience back in England traveling the country after 20 years away. The writing isn't bad, but there is a major problem that I have with the book; and that is that Bennett likes to describe the people he comes across. Fair enough. But every time he describes a group of young 12-13 girls, and that's far more often than you'd think; he makes some sort of gross sexual commentary. About how these girls are dressed like hookers/prostitutes, about how the boys their age look like they're 9 and the girls look like they're 16 and developed and breasty or whatever. Every damn time. Add onto this about how he comes across a high school cheerleading/gymnastic competition and he feels "arrestable" watching it. Or a time he's walking a rather deserted trail behind a woman, and he's "incapable of acting normal" or incapable of proving he's not "pervy" and it ends with the woman literally running in fear from him.
Am I saying the author's a pervert? Not really. But if you can't refrain from slut-shaming pre-teen girls, it's time to just shut up. And really, if you make a connection at all about how a pre-teen reminds you of a prostitute, that is being creepy. How about instead of shaming the girls for buying into society's message that their worth is in their looks or sexuality; you save your scorn for stores that sell crotchless underwear to 7-10 year old girls  ( Or how we slap clothes on our girls starting from infancy saying something about their looks or sexually related ("heartbreaker," "little cutie," "juicy," "flirt," "I'm too sexy for ____," or onesies with nipple tassels or the headless torso of a woman in a bikini--really they exist, "I'm with the MILF," "All My Mom Wanted was a Backrub," "I'm what happened in Vegas."). Or how stores/clothes designers carry mini versions of adult wear for girls from toddlers on up, like tight leather pants, tight miniskirts, off the shoulder shirts or high heeled shoes. Or how photographers shoot young models in sexually suggestive poses, like Dakota Fanning with a bottle of perfume shaped like a big flower between her legs, to toddlers and pre-teens posed like pinup models. Or how it then carries over to a Facebook page like "12 Year Old Sluts" where the posters would trawl through Facebook pages to post pictures pre-teen girls have posted on their own pages so that they could mock, insult and shame them for being "slutty" and "hos" and "hookers." Or how it carries over to an 11 year old getting gang-raped by 20 guys over a period of a few days, and everyone in the town, as well as reporters and lawyers say she had it coming ( there have been a few cases recently of girls this young getting gang raped in a few countries with people standing around watching it or it being recorded and put online). Or girls getting burned to death in a school fire in Saudi Arabia because they weren't allowed out of the building without their veils, despite veils being required in Islam only for those of marriageable age. Or girls/women getting shot, raped, beaten or having acid thrown on them for going unveiled, going to school, working outside the home; girls getting forced into marriage before puberty, or FGM perpetuated because women's sexuality will be out of control otherwise, etc. Or the epidemic of eating disorders, cutting, depression, suicides among teen girls because they've internalized already the ideas that they will never be enough.
And it carries over into adulthood, with sexist ads, movies and tv shows all based around how a woman looks (car ads, cleaning ads, sitcoms, gross-out/sex comedies, when a woman is there to be eye candy or merely serve as the girlfriend/wife with no personality or interests of her own, or how only 30% of speaking roles last year in film went to women). Or how 1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted in her life. Or how a woman gets beaten by a partner every 9 seconds in the US. Or how politicians and judges saying that a woman can't get pregnant from rape (if your logic is based literally on a medieval understanding of how biology works and that understanding's been debunked for a few hundred years; and if even people in your own party are telling everyone to take a 24 hour period to think about what they're going to say before ever uttering the word rape; your party may have serious issues). Or how only 3% of reported rapists ever serve jail time. Or how the Violence Against Women Act doesn't get passed because they tried to expand it to include more services for LGBT and Native American women...and apparently we can't have that (despite Native American women getting sexually assaulted at 2.5 times the national average; and 86% of those attacks come from non-Native men, and because of jurisdiction issues on reservations, crimes committed by a non-native on a reservation can't be prosecuted by tribal police. It has to be either FBI or state police, and the odds of that happening are extremely slim. And also despite violence against LGBT women largely going unreported or un-prosecuted because of stigmas against them and fear of retaliations.). And the list goes on and on. So Mr Bennett, how about instead of slut-shaming or blaming the victim who is too young to fully understand the implications of the messages she's internalizing, you think twice. And then go after someone who deserves it.

Oh yea, the book. 1 star out of 5

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Wow, this is big

"Senior U. S. defense officials say Pentagon chief Leon Panetta is removing the military's ban on women serving in combat, opening hundreds of thousands of front-line positions and potentially elite commando jobs after more than a decade at war.
The groundbreaking move recommended by the Joint Chiefs of Staff overturns a 1994 rule banning women from being assigned to smaller ground combat units. Panetta's decision gives the military services until January 2016 to seek special exceptions if they believe any positions must remain closed to women." 
Last year they opened up 14,500 positions to women and removed the ban from allowing women to live in combat zones. It's big because women in the military have already been serving in combat zones with the way modern warfare works; but because of the prohibitions, they aren't allowed to do the same duties or get paid the same as their male colleagues. I realize there's still some controversy about women serving in combat, but if they're already essentially serving in combat because of grey zones, and doing it well, it's about time they were recognized for doing so.
And for the record, I don't see the problem with extending the draft to both men and women; I mean, I do in the sense that I don't like our military industrial machine and would like a significant scale-back on our military and for us to stop with the chest-beating and banner-waving that leads to unjust wars. But I don't in the sense that women have served in combat for thousands of years. Sometimes openly, sometimes in secret; and I think if they do choose to serve in the military, any restrictions on where they can serve are wrong. And for all the talk about how the different physical tests for men and women are causing a weak military, blah blah blah; but upper arm strength and taller height didn't exactly win us the war in Vietnam where the people were shorter and skinnier on average than the American soldiers (many of those Vietnamese soldiers just so happened to be women by the way). A small number of countries already do extend the draft to both men and women and have been doing that for some time. Even if this ban were still in effect I would support the draft being extended to both, countries like Israel, Cuba and others draft both genders and may have prohibitions on where women can serve; so the women drafted were still serving, but in a different capacity.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), chair of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, and a member of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, released the following statement on Panetta's decision: "This is an historic step for equality and for recognizing the role women have, and will continue to play, in the defense of our nation. From the streets of Iraqi cities to rural villages in Afghanistan, time and again women have proven capable of serving honorably and bravely. In fact, it's important to remember that in recent wars that lacked any true front lines, thousands of women already spent their days in combat situations serving side-by-side with their fellow male servicemembers. I commend Secretary Panetta and the Joint Chiefs of Staff for their decision and look forward to working with them on quickly implementing the end of this ban."

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

2012 in Review

According to Goodreads, I read 276 books in 2012. Which actually isn't true...I only put the highlights on Goodreads, and keep everything on a spreadsheet. The real number is 410 books read in 2012, which actually isn't even my record, that would be the 451 I read in 2010. I regret nothing. I rated only 5 books in 2012 with 5 stars, while rating 14 books with 1 star, 84 books with 2 stars, and I think that's my record number of 1 and 2 star reviews. It was a cranky year in reading apparently. I think because I go through periods of trying to broaden my reading, which is probably weird, because I already read just about everything anyway. So currently I've been trying to read the Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners, "best" modern books adapted to movies, "best" mysteries, and a few genres that I might not normally read much out of. I've found some good stuff this way, and I don't force myself to finish a book I'm not enjoying--which is usually why the majority of my books are usually 2 stars or above. I probably start but abandon at least a third more or perhaps even double more of the total I finish. So what gets a 1 star? Usually it's that the writing is good enough to keep me going, but I don't like the plot/characters; or else it was good up until a horrible ending (Bitterbynde trilogy I'm still so mad at you 10 years later). And for 5 star reviews, those are generally just as rare, I'm more likely to give 4 stars--a 5 star is a book that if I don't own I immediately want to go out and buy it so that I can handle it lovingly and stare at it creepily in my library. 4 stars are books that were very good, and I'll probably read again, but I don't necessarily need to hug them daily.
It looks like I read the most books in the "other" category--which I think is mostly random nonfiction that wasn't history, like health and current affairs or travelogues and possibly fiction genres that didn't go anyway? (I don't know, Goodreads classification is weird.) Biography, history and young adult followed, in that order. The longest book I read was My Soul has Grown Deep ed. by John Edgar Wideman at 1280 pages. Although truthfully this was a collection of several early African American memoirs and I'd read a few of them before, so I didn't read it cover to cover. But I did read the majority, so it counts.

As for movies, I watched 186 in 2012 (since I don't get any TV stations, I watch TV shows on DVDs, so I count them in with my movie watching), which is the fewest since I started keeping track. 53 movies got 1 star reviews--I'm a lot more lenient about finishing a movie I don't like vs finishing a book I don't, probably because of the time factor. 27 movies got 4 or 5 star reviews. I also keep track of which country the movie is from, surprisingly France topped the foreign language list, followed by India, then China--it's weird, since I started keeping track of the movies I watch (only since 2009, where I've been keeping track of books since 2001), France keeps popping up in my top three most watched foreign language countries almost every year. But if you were to ask me what I watch the most, I'd always say India, China, Iran & maybe Japan. I don't know how France keeps sneaking in there. Actually, never mind, looking through the movie list, it looks like many of these are movies set in a former French colony, and if it's a situation where several countries are listed as having made the film, I'll put the the first one listed down, which is usually the funding country. So France sneaks in on a technicality.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Gabby by Mark Kelly & Gabrielle Giffords

So, I felt like a total grinch when rating this on Goodreads/Amazon. The vast majority of the reviews are four and five stars, and then I come along with my two star review and crap all over it. Figuratively speaking. The issue is definitely not the woman herself or her story. Even before the shooting (and isn't it kind of torture/misery porn how we like to define people by their tragedies?), she was a remarkable woman. A young democrat representative elected in Arizona, one of the most conservative states in the U.S.; a woman who moved to elect John Lewis as Speaker of the House (and if you don't know who John Lewis is,, he's a national treasure and even though she was the only one to vote for him, it was a beautiful way to show him honor and respect); who was passionate about helping her state/district and making a difference in Washington. So what's the issue?

Well, it's the book itself. And the writing. And her husband's involvement, or perhaps over-involvement. The book bills itself as the biography of Gabrielle Giffords...but that's not really true. It's the biography of Gabrielle Giffords and Mark Kelly. And while most biographies will devote portions to a spouse, this one devoted a good half of the entire book, at least, possibly even more than that, to Mark Kelly. And you know what, I'm sure he's an interesting guy. Astronaut, first astronaut to have a brother as an astronaut, his biography would be interesting. But this isn't his biography. Or at least, it claims otherwise. So it's misleading. And there are tangents that I find kind of inappropriate, like Kelly complaining about NASA and the way things are run--again, I might find that interesting in a book about Mark Kelly, or a book about NASA, and I have no doubt that things aren't perfect at NASA...but to complain, in more than one place about your employer/former employer, in a book supposedly about your wife. Yea, really not the time or the place. Same with how Kelly takes us through his whole career and various jobs he had before NASA...again, not about you dude.
And the setup of the book was odd--each chapter usually starts with the day of the shooting, generally something about how Kelly heard about it, or where they were taking Giffords, her in surgery, etc. And then it will do a flashback to either of their childhoods, or their marriage or either of their careers. But it doesn't actually get to the shooting itself until over 170 pages into the book. If it were a straight chronological story, it would make perfect sense; but where every single chapter starts out on the day of the shooting, it just seems really odd to take that long to get to the event itself. Like this poor attempt to prolong it or create tension where none is needed.
But finally my issue is the title. And I know this may just be me being a overly sensitive feminist, but I don't think so. So Gabby is Gabrielle Giffords' childhood nickname. However, she was always very adamant that it was a nickname only to be used by her family. In any professional setting, or with anyone outside of the family, she always corrected them if they tried to call her Gabby. She felt it infantilized or patronized her for others to use that diminutive. Which is why it's really baffling to me that Mark Kelly would choose to title her biography that way. Especially because this is a woman with a brain injury, who at the time the book was written could barely speak more than a few words, who was having to relearn everything she had once known. So she's already in a sense infantilized, and then you choose a title which only reinforces that? I don't know, it feels kind of wrong.

2 stars out of 5

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A New Year's Walk

The weekend of New Years, sister E and her husband J and I went up to Mt Hood for a few nights. We went snow hiking at Government Camp. It's a little known fact that Hood and I have a love affair going, and the only hard thing about winters in the Northwest is that the mountains are never out so you can go for a few months without ever seeing them. And that is discouraging. But when she breaks through and you see her...all is right with the world.  (Mountains being out is probably only a phrase used here, meaning there aren't any clouds so you can actually see them.)