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Divergent and Suspension of Disbelief

October 15, 2014

(Contains the mildest of spoilers: that is, Beatrice’s unsurprising test results.  It’s on the back of the book, people.)

I finally, after many years of having it recommended to me and a movie being made and all that, read Divergent last week.  It is, if you haven’t heard, a dystopian young adult novel in which a girl, Beatrice, lives in a world where everyone is broken up into five factions based on a defining personality trait: Amity (Kindness), Dauntless (Bravery), Abnegation (Selflessness), Candor (Honesty), and Erudite (Intellectual).  A simple test defines you for the rest of your life: where you live, what you do.  Beatrice’s test, however, is inconclusive.  She is what’s called Divergent, and what that means for her and her society is developed throughout the first book in the series.

I went home this past weekend to see some friends for my birthday, and I said to one, “I’m finally reading Divergent.  I’m enjoying it, but the premise is RIDICULOUS.”

To which my friend replied: “It is, but I managed to suspend my disbelief.”

Me too.  I enjoyed the book a lot.  It’s a very impressive debut, as well as a good read.  I know some people have issues with it, but not wanting to get into spoiler territory, I felt that it all made sense as it was happening and that the characters acted appropriately.  But that’s besides the point.

Why did my friend and I both feel like we had to push past the lack of realism in the world to enjoy it?  After all, it’s just as odd of a premise as, say, The Giver.  A little research shows that adults–reviewers–found that premise ridiculous too.  But kids just delved into it.  They didn’t need to put their reality on the book.  I suppose we do.  You can find articles on how we’re a more sophisticated readership, and of course articles on how we certainly aren’t.  But I don’t think that’s it.  Is it generally or generationally, that we need things to be set in reality before we’re willing to let go into imagination?  My thirteen-year-old test subject—er, a friend’s granddaughter–who is a reader but not a voracious one did not bother with Divergent.  “It didn’t make any sense.  I put it down after a few pages.”  This literal kid wanted more.  She read the heck out Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, though.

Harry Potter, I should point out, is fantasy, but its foundation is the real world.  So it might count here.  It might not.

But dystopian novels–those super-popular things–I guess we’re looking for an extrapolation.  “Show us now, but everything is awful, and then show us how to fix it so that if things get worse, we feel like we could effect change.”  Tell us we’re not in our world, and we’re okay.  Tell us we are–Divergent, for example, is set in Future Chicago–and we want the realistic foundation.

I think it’s time to get over it, frankly.  It did me no favors to work to suspend disbelief so I could enjoy an otherwise enjoyable book.  That’s on me, not the book.  It’s fiction, for God’s sake.  Suspension of disbelief comes with the territory.  The first person narrative assumes the character is either writing in present time, or with a past view that somehow manages to capture everyone’s words exactly.  See?  We’re already suspending disbelief when we open up a book in the first person.  So to say, “But Divergent wasn’t REALISTIC enough!” is pretty ridiculous in itself.  I mean, I love superheroes.  I should know how to suspend disbelief like breathing: automatically.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I got the movie out from the library, and I’m thinking of watching it–and enjoying it for what it is.

Gone Girl, Book and Movie Reviews (spoilers in second part)

October 8, 2014

I’ll be very clear when I’m about to get into spoiler territory.

I recently read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn with a book club, and I loved every page of it.  It falls under the header of “psychological thriller,” but it makes other psychological thrillers look as if they’re barely skimming the surface of their characters.  Gone Girl keeps diving deeper and deeper into its characters and teaches us, at the end, no matter how much we’re told, we’ll never truly understand what goes on in another person’s head.  I found it immensely more satisfying than books that rely on the thrill the further the book goes on.

The book, if you haven’t already heard, is about Nick Dunne and his wife Amy, and alternates perspectives using first person, journal entries, and letters.  Amy disappears early on in the book.  As we learn more about Nick, we have to decide whether he’s a killer.  We watch public perception turn on him.  People who write about this book discuss Nancy Grace, and I don’t know who that is (so I hope I got her name right) but the idea of the media assigning guilt or innocence before a court case is well-known to the viewing audience.

The movie feels like we’re more stably with Nick than the head-delving we get in the book.  Amy’s journal entries in the book feel like journal entries, like Amy’s voice.  In the movie, they are very much flashbacks.  Ben Affleck’s Nick is almost perfect, and any lack in his performance is entirely the script’s fault, for while the script sticks close to the book, I don’t think it sticks closely enough.  So much is dropped for the screen, and I understand why and I can’t fault the changes; the movie stands without them.  But we lose something.

I wondered, coming out of this movie, if I could say one way or another whether it was good or not good.  I found I could not.  I was far too close to the source material.  This is why I don’t reread before movies.  I analyzed, rather than watched, the movie, and my enjoyment wasn’t lessened for it but I don’t think I could extrapolate from my experience what someone who hasn’t read the book will get from it.  This is why when I watch adaptations, I usually do so with my husband.  But the movie is getting a lot of praise, especially for Rosamund Pike as Amy.  Again, a performance that is almost perfect thanks to the script.  But I only know that because I’ve read the book.

Okay, you know what?  I’m out of things to say that wouldn’t ruin the experience of the book and movie.  Most of the things I have to say relate to the plot.  If you haven’t read it already, read it.  If you haven’t seen it already…maybe you should?  I can’t say.  I think so, though.  It’s quite beautiful, a little graphic, and twisted.

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So, if you’ve read the book and/or seen the movie, you can follow along.  If you haven’t, but you really like spoilers, let me lay it out for you: Amy’s disappearance is Amy’s doing.  This is as clear in the movie as it is in the book.  And movie Amy is quite the sociopath.  But she’s nowhere near the sick and twisted thing she is in the book.  Movie Nick never gets to have the layers and depth as book Nick, but in both, he cheats and he lies to everyone, even his beloved bff/twin sister Margo (Go).  But he’s not a killer.  Until the point where he could be.

First off, let me talk about the cast, specifically what I liked and what I didn’t.  The movie is so well-cast, you want to hug someone.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie so well-cast from the book.  Affleck, as I read in the comments of a review somewhere, has A Face You Want to Punch, and that works really well for Nick.  He’s the kind of guy you shouldn’t fall for, but you get why your best friend would, because he’s nice-looking and charming, but maybe there isn’t really that much there, and you shouldn’t pin your hopes on that.  Frankly, it made me a little more interested in Batfleck, because Nick is like the poor man’s Bruce Wayne.  (But not Batman.  Never, ever Batman.)

Pike as Amy is utterly wasted part of the time.  Movie Amy doesn’t have the depth that book Amy does, and Pike isn’t giving her all because Amy’s not allowed to be her all.  But God, when Pike is allowed to show you exactly who Amy is—her immediate transformation for Desi and, more important, that goddamn smile in the hospital room.  ONE SMILE, and you just want to hand her an Oscar.  That smile chilled my blood, and yet…it was so BEAUTIFUL, maybe we should just believe her…?  No, no, no, we can’t.  We never can.

Speaking of wasted, Desi.  Desi’s role is cut down so far to be almost nothing.  His mother is gone, which is too bad.  I didn’t feel like an extra couple of minutes would’ve hurt anything.  Neil Patrick Harris is a beautiful Desi, half-savior, half-nightmare, and he owns one or two scenes, but he never falls into Desi’s skin, in the way Pike doesn’t always feel like Amy.  (Pike’s Cool Girl isn’t cool enough for me.)  He doesn’t show us enough of Desi’s privilege, of Desi’s darkness.  The movie seems to posit that Amy, having been burned once, might just be…maybe…overreacting?  In the book, that is not true at all.

Next up: Tyler Perry as Tanner Bolt.  I’m sad to lose Bolt’s wife from the movie–again, A WHOLE MINUTE’s worth of information lost, really? is that necessary?–but this is the first movie that I’ve ever seen Tyler Perry in and I enjoyed every moment of him.  He made me smile.  I warmed to him, character and actor, immediately.  He charmed me–the way Amy should’ve charmed me, I guess.

Andie looks and acts like a teenager who thinks she’s an adult.  Good casting.

The parents weren’t recognizable to me and they’re serviceable in these parts, but again, cut so much.  We don’t get their intense love for one another.  Instead, they’re just this unit, which is important to the movie, but you lose the stress Amy’s under to feel like her marriage has to live up to theirs.  We also don’t get the deep, deep betrayal of the way they take Amy’s trust fund.

Carrie Coon’s Go is pretty much my new bff.  Loved her.  Every second of her.

Missi Pyle and Sela Ward as opposing journalists, underused but still so good.

Noelle, solid acting.

Nick’s dad, woefully underused.  How can we understand Nick’s struggle without his dad?

Patrick Fugit, I missed you so much!  I wanted to hug you through the screen.

Kim Dickens, the middle class Amy Adams, I always think you’re Amy Adams until you speak, and then I realize you aren’t.  You’re far too pretty to be playing Boney, but that’s okay because you’re very talented and made Rhonda your own.  Boney and Fugit get some extra time compared the book (look, it’s not SO much extra time that I remember his character’s name), and that’s fine with me because they deserve it.  You can’t not use these two, even if it detracts from our perspective.

Okay, that’s the cast.  Now, the plot and all that:

I was completely afraid that because Amy is crazy but not as crazy as in the book, people would miss what’s really going on.  Hell, Movie Bob wrote a whole article on how this movie will be misunderstood, and I think he’s right.  But he also got how crazy Amy was, and I was afraid that wasn’t going to translate to someone who hadn’t read the book.  But because movie Amy isn’t the same kind of crazy as book Amy, you end up getting different messages.  Movie Amy, it could be argued, was a damaged chick that marriage drove crazier.  Book Amy has been fucked up since the get-go.

We’re also given a sympathetic version of Amy that feels real early on.  I know that early Amy is a creation of crazy Amy, but the fact that she talks about the Amazing Amy books and how Amazing Amy one-upped her tells us early on that this Amy is going to be more open from the get-go.  We don’t get her true feelings on Amazing Amy until later.  Yes, she mopes a little in her journal over the things she tells Nick in the movie, but she doesn’t tell Nick this in real life.  Of course she doesn’t.  Her journal is supposed to be the “true” her, and real life Nick would never, ever get that much of her.

They also make Nick far more sympathetic.  He doesn’t always fail the treasure hunt miserably.  He doesn’t disappear for eight months after their first meeting, swearing he washed her number and was really upset about it.  He proposes cute during the Amazing Amy wedding book release, so sweet–whereas in the book he’d just run into her for the first time after that meeting eight months before.

We also don’t get, in this movie, anywhere near Nick’s self-awareness as he shows in the book.  This is pretty clear from the lack of voice-over when we find out about Andie, his student and girlfriend.  In the book, he apologizes in that douchey way that he’s living a cliche and he knows it, so it’s okay, right?  Because he knows it?  It isn’t, but it takes him a while to figure that out.

We lose the backstory on Amy’s dead siblings, all named Hope, and we never quite believe in the movie that killing herself is the option it might be in the book.

We also, sadly, get a truncated version of one of the most amazing quotes in fiction:

“Men always say that as the defining compliment, don’t they? She’s a cool girl. Being the Cool Girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes, and burping, who plays video games, drinks cheap beer, loves threesomes and anal sex, and jams hot dogs and hamburgers into her mouth like she’s hosting the world’s biggest culinary gang bang while somehow maintaining a size 2, because Cool Girls are above all hot. Hot and understanding. Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.

Men actually think this girl exists. Maybe they’re fooled because so many women are willing to pretend to be this girl. For a long time Cool Girl offended me. I used to see men – friends, coworkers, strangers – giddy over these awful pretender women, and I’d want to sit these men down and calmly say: You are not dating a woman, you are dating a woman who has watched too many movies written by socially awkward men who’d like to believe that this kind of woman exists and might kiss them. I’d want to grab the poor guy by his lapels or messenger bag and say: The bitch doesn’t really love chili dogs that much – no one loves chili dogs that much! And the Cool Girls are even more pathetic: They’re not even pretending to be the woman they want to be, they’re pretending to be the woman a man wants them to be. Oh, and if you’re not a Cool Girl, I beg you not to believe that your man doesn’t want the Cool Girl. It may be a slightly different version – maybe he’s a vegetarian, so Cool Girl loves seitan and is great with dogs; or maybe he’s a hipster artist, so Cool Girl is a tattooed, bespectacled nerd who loves comics. There are variations to the window dressing, but believe me, he wants Cool Girl, who is basically the girl who likes every fucking thing he likes and doesn’t ever complain. (How do you know you’re not Cool Girl? Because he says things like: “I like strong women.” If he says that to you, he will at some point fuck someone else. Because “I like strong women” is code for “I hate strong women.”)

I waited patient–years–for the pendulum to swing the other way, for men to start reading Jane Austen, learn how to knit, pretend to love cosmos, organize scrapbook parties, and make out with each other while we leer.  And then we’d say, Yeah, he’s a Cool Guy.

But it never happened.  Instead, women across the nation colluded in our degradation!  Pretty soon Cool Girl became the standard girl.  Men believed she existed–she wasn’t just a dreamgirl one in a million.  Every girl was supposed to be this year, and if you weren’t, then there was something wrong with you.”

We also get truncated versions of the treasure hunt notes.  We miss that extra layer of Nick being wooed by Amy.  We miss Nick realizing it and feeling trapped–loving what he hears, but knowing she’s playing him, and this is what sets up Go realizing that Nick doesn’t WANT to leave Amy at the end.  When she says it in the movie, you’re like, “Uh, really?”  But in the book, brilliant Amy has played him in such a way that he knows he’ll never be known this way again.  We can see how Andies, while ego-boosting, will eventually bore him.

And that’s the problem with this movie.  You take these things out and you’ve got a movie about marriage, except one of these people is a cheating douche, and the other is a sociopath.  That’s not half as interesting as the book, which is not about marriage but two sociopaths, who may or may not deserve each other; who may or may not destroy each other.

You are supposed to feel so sorry for movie Nick in that last scene, that sad-sack Nick, who ISN’T writing the book on his wife, just as she’s ferociously writing about him.  Amy “won.”  In the book, when Amy returns, Nick begs her to be as open to him as he is to her, he KNOWS her now, they can be themselves, they can be together, and Amy won’t do it.  She won’t drop her facade.  In the movie, the shower scene, she seems all too willing to give him everything.

I’ve seen Amy referred to in more than one place as “an MRA’s wet dream.”  The Mary Sue writes about it well here. What it’s too easy to miss in the movie is that the faked rapes are how women readers know Amy is a sociopath.  It’s one of the most appalling moments in the book, as a female reader, to see how far Amy is willing to go.  I mean, personally I can’t even imagine hitting a guy in the balls.  I just don’t know what that’s like, so I’ve never purposely done it.  Amy would find that “cute.”  And by “cute” I mean loathe-worthy.

Oh, and we lost her female victim too, which really just adds to that.  Really, we lose so much by losing Amy’s interaction with women.  We never see her with Go, and therefore never get to feel like Go’s got the right or wrong impression of her.  Which makes sense, as all the flashbacks are Amy’s perspective, but if you’re going to take out everything else, with her high school friend/stalker and her hatred of her NYC girlfriends, you’d think we’d at least get that.  Especially since we’re allowed to get more Boney time.

Still, we get Desi’s murder on-screen, and that’s a sight to behold.  I’m pretty sure I heard at least one gasp in the theater, but I was so busy immersed in the scene I couldn’t be sure.  We get to see things come to life that is the very reason we all go see adaptations in the first place: the creepy, closed-down mall; and Desi’s “lake house”; and The Sugar Kiss.

But honestly, if they’d put it all in, I wouldn’t have stirred from my seat.  I would’ve watched it all.  And I think the other people in the theater would have too.  And I would’ve left more content.  And Pike wouldn’t even have competition during the Oscars.

…Okay, so I’d probably watch it again right now if someone paid for my movie ticket.  Just don’t ask me if it was good.

WIB: Sept 21-27

September 29, 2014
ravenboys

I think there’s something funky going on with the latest Goodreads app update.  I feel like I’m missing a book, but I just tested it with the last book I didn’t see on my list and that was an error on my end, so maybe I’m just being scatterbrained.

So I guess I read three books last week.  They were all by Maggie Stiefvater.  First was The Raven Boys; the second was a sequel to Raven Boys, The Dream Thieves; and third was the last Wolves of Mercy Falls book, Forever.  I had been recommended both series for a long time before I eventually got to them–it was only because I met Stiefvater and got an ARC at BEA for her new companion book to the Wolves series, Sinner, that I tracked the books down, being told that I “could read it alone,” “should at least read the first book,” and “can’t read it without the entire series.”  Sigh.  But, you know, I was going to anyway, so I started with Shiver, and moved on to Linger, and then Forever was taking a while to get to me so I decided to switch over to The Raven Boys.

Evvvveryone kept telling me how much better The Raven Boys series is than Wolves, but even after the second book, I wasn’t seeing it.  What I was beginning to see, though, were patterns.

Stiefvater trips up on pacing and is not great with plotting either.  Her talent is writing these great characters that you want to spend time with, who do very interesting things and have interesting things happen to them.  She writes strong, smart young women who take care of the adults around them.  She writes boys from damaged to delicate, and sometimes both, and it’s hard not to like them, and sometimes downright difficult not to fall in love with them.  She writes people like people.

But I can’t say that The Raven Boys is a stronger series than Wolves for two reasons: Stiefvater is getting too far into her own head at times.  Characters start to say things that make sense to her but not the reader.  They act consistently, but there’s still that sense that the author is making a connection she’s forgotten to tell the reader about.  The other is that with Wolves, the plot is weak, and that’s okay.  With The Raven Boys, the plot is bigger than the characters, but it’s poorly paced, and that weakens it.  And I can’t tell if this is just a pacing issue, but her endings are terribly rushed, like she took it too much to heart that she’s supposed to speed everything up until you’re left with a jumble of final actions that tumble past you while you’re trying to enjoy the books.

Blue is the daughter of psychics, and she feels like life has handed her a bum hand: she strengthens the powers of those around her, but that IS her power.  She lives with a mess of family members and family friends (that Stiefvater often forgets exists) and tries to stay practical.  She can’t see the future, but it can be told to her, and it has, many times: if she kisses her true love, he’ll die.

So…she’s like Rogue if she never once took off the gloves, I guess.

The book begins with her seeing the ghost of someone who will die within the year, which she’s never done before, and her psychic aunt tells her that’s because he’s either her true love or someone whose murder she has something to do with.  Hey, maybe both.

The guy ends up being Richard Gansey, Gansey to his friends, Dick to his family and acquaintances.  He’s a kid with more money than he knows what to do with, which is fine because he has an expensive hobby: find a dead Welsh king, ask him for a boon.  This has brought him to Blue’s town, where there are ley lines that might line up with where the king’s body was taken after his death.  While in town, he goes to a second-rate boarding school where he meets the damaged Rowan and the damaged Adam.  Add in another student named Noah, and they’re an odd-talking, oddly-described bunch that I guess is supposed to be slowly revealing but comes off more utterly wtf-is-going-on-here.

The first book has so many good things going for it but the villain is weak tea, I had no idea what was going on with Rowan all the time, and the “twist” toward the end is obvious at the very beginning of the book.  And I’m bad with twists, usually!

The second book, The Dream Thieves, has a weirder and equally weak tea villain.  He’s stronger in terms of power, but mostly just acts like a sulky child and unless homophobia=latent homosexuality like it’s 1989, I wasn’t really sure enough of his motivations–perhaps because our glimpses into Rowan were so fleeting in the first book and so very present-day in the second.  More interesting was a character called Mr. Gray; he is so fantastic, and I loved every page he was on.  The romance was a little odd, given the romance in the first book, and felt a little forced.

Forever, on the other hand, is as consistent as the rest of the Wolves books, and ends the trilogy mostly successfully, barring minor pacing issues.  There’s a bit of a “isn’t that convenient?” going on with the resolution that frustrated me (so…you can tell THAT adult, but none of the others?  ever?), but I didn’t mind so much.  The Raven Boys books were a good read in between to lower my expectations a bit, sad to say.

But I did enjoy all three books, I swear!  I would recommend them, but not necessarily to anyone who isn’t a big YA reader.

Next up: well, I’ll probably do some backwib, but as of this week?  Lovecraft, Strout, and Sinner.

Gotham’s pilot was pretty pilot-y

September 26, 2014

[Spoilers abound]

I will be the first person to admit that I am incapable of separating Gotham from the source material.  I spent so much time going, “Squee! Tiny Selina!” and “Squee! Tiny Ivy!” and “Squee!  Montoya!” and “Squee! Crispus Allen!” and “Squee! Penguin!” and “Squee! Riddler!” that I could not tell you if the episode itself was any good.  I can tell you what things I liked and didn’t like, though, because that’s how I roll.

The show is very well-cast.  Donal Logue is a great Bullock, younger than we’ve ever seen him before but you can immediately see the man he’ll become, especially if Gordon inspires him to the right side of the tracks.  Great Alfred, great Penguin, and Selina is so spot-on that I could just watch a camera follow her for 43 minutes a week.  I’d heard Jada Pinkett Smith “chewed the scenery” as Fish Mooney, but I disagree.  I thought she did an excellent job, especially as a character made up for the show.  You really want to see more of her, and where her ambition will lead.

On the more negative side of the casting: Nygma, I felt, looked too much like Penguin except in close-up or side view (that nose!), but he gave off that desperate need for attention that the character needs.  And once again, we’ve got a really boring lead in Ben McKenzie.  I was hoping we were past the “the hero is the most uninteresting person on the show” phase, but I guess not.  He was pretty blah, I have to say.  I get that Gordon doesn’t have all the charisma in the world or anything, but a little would be nice.  That time he put the moves on his fiancee?  Awkward.

Big, big like: Barbara Keane basically getting 52-era Kate Kane’s back story.  Wealthy socialite?  Check.  (I mean, did you see that apartment?  How put together she was?)  Used to be with Montoya and hid it?  Check.  This is like, intro Kate from Rucka’s run, but blonde and called Barbara.  Interesting stuff.  (My husband hates it, but I don’t care.  The chick has a thing for cops, okay?  Makes sense to me.)

Big dislike: What was up with some of the script?  It was almost like someone said, “Use SAT words; teach those kids watching something.”  The thing is, they’re so shoehorned in.  Allen says something like “Just keeping things collegial.”  Okay, so if he’s Big Word Guy, I can deal with that, but then Gordon calls Bullock “lackadaisical” and practically trips on the word.  I feel like there were two other instances too, of Big Word Syndrome, but I can’t recall them exactly.  I just remember cringing a bit.

Like: the feel.  It’s not quite Everytime, but it’s close.

Like: the impeccable politeness of tiny Bruce Wayne.

Like: the characterization of Alfred as not being as stiff-upper-lip-and-stiff-everything-else that we get, but not as “how are you even a butler?” as Michael Caine.

Dislike: I could’ve lived without seeing Bruce’s parents die AGAIN.  I think it’s time to either skip it, or do it differently.

Like: That the killer didn’t have to shoot the Waynes, but he did.  Mysterious!

Dislike: That everything felt more like set-up than plot.  It was almost boring if you didn’t have things to squee over.  I think a part of that was McKenzie’s performance though.

I’m definitely going to keep watching.  Pilots are pilots, and some pilots need to be more pilot-y than others, and honestly?  The only way I wouldn’t be watching this show is if it were Adam West-cheesy.  Nothing against the West; it was my favorite when I was very very little.  I’m just not into Batman-cheese anymore.  Actually, a combo like The Brave and the Bold wouldn’t work for me either.  I really can’t bring myself to care about a half-cheesy Batman either.  So, let me rephrase:  As long as they’re keeping it pretty dark, I’m in.  Unless they just can’t figure out how to sustain a prequel.  It could happen.

Is Community the show that Big Bang Theory should be?

September 25, 2014

Short answer: sort of.

Abed is akin to Sheldon, but he’s all big eyes and adorkable sweetness and not horrible sexist slut-shaming.  When something goes over Abed’s head, there’s no cruel joke on Abed.  The humor’s in the scenario.

When Annie/Leia gets a quick crush on Abed/Han at the end of the second season, it’s not played for a “women who like sex! ha!” pile of jokes like the entire Sheldon/Amy relationship.  Also, I like how it highlights how when you’re young, you sometimes crush on aspects more than people.

I like that the people in Community recognize exactly what they are, but that’s not comparable to Big Bang because the latter is a group of people who are relatively the same age, and it’s not the same.  But the characters are much more self-aware, and invested in their dynamic and friendship.

However, one thing is sticking out at me three and a half seasons in: there are still no geek girls.

Like, nowhere.  Troy and Abed aren’t even looking for girls who share their interests, because TV and movies perpetuate the myth that we don’t exist.

It’s a great show so far, but I’m really hoping that as it progresses, so do the writers with geek-girl visibility.

Four Children’s Books that Defined My Relationship with School

September 15, 2014

Once upon a time, I was The Smart Kid.  I have a good memory and, since regurgitation is a huge part of school success, I was good at school.  I was also a really big reader, the stereotypical kid who hid a novel behind a textbook.  (How did they always know?)  When you read a lot, and also can memorize, you end up picking up on a lot of stuff.  I have some nice stories of middle school in between the stories of mean girl bullying (mine and other people’s; it was pretty much across the board where I went).  One is that a teacher once threw me the keys to his car when I knew the definition of “somnambulist.”  He said, “If anyone knows what THIS word means, I’ll give you my car!”  We loved his car, because it was a RABBIT.  We had very specific requirements for cars to be cool in eighth grade.  The only reason I knew the word was because I’d been reading Dean Koontz’s Strangers, which has a somnambulist in it.  I remembered the word being in the book, I got the definition right, I got the keys–even though I did have to give them back later.  I did, however, just have to use spellcheck for the spelling of somnambulist.   I’m smart, not a genius.  I have a good memory, not a great one.

But the other kids thought I was a genius, I guess lacking a real one.  Well, maybe this one kid, but he was kind of a jerk about it, and I wasn’t.  In French class–memorizing!–I got to give makeup tests outside the classroom so the teacher didn’t have to find another time to do it.  Sometimes I helped the kids taking the tests, because learning a new language is hard.  Once I got past the memorization part, when I had to UNDERSTAND, I quit taking French, in part–and I only realized this years and years later–because my English grammar was so lacking that I had nothing to connect it to with French.  I liked helping people.  I still do; that’s why I’m a librarian.

When I got to high school, though, there was always this feeling I was letting people down.  Not just my mom, although I was certainly doing that, but my classmates.  I was learning to use my smarts to skate through classes with a B- or C+ when I could’ve applied myself and gotten As, but 1) I didn’t realize that because I was so used to thinking of using my smarts as being the most potential I could achieve and 2) I liked reading fiction more than I liked learning.  I went to a pretty nice school where almost everyone was headed to college, and most of the kids couldn’t understand why I was wasting my time, why I wasn’t in AP and/or Honors, why I didn’t CARE about school.  After all, I was so good at it, and naturally too.  So why did I scribble my homework down at the last minute, if I did it at all?  Why did I rely on tests to get me through?  And, the weirdest part, why did I leave the classroom through the window?  Why did I argue with the teachers so much?

I think I confused them when I went from bookworm to rebel.  They expected me to stay that one way, and instead I was an administrator’s nightmare and most of my classmates couldn’t figure out how and when that had happened.  Most of the teachers liked me, but found me “difficult.”  I was a know-it-all, and I knew that the system was stupid.  Actually, I still think most of the system is stupid, but at least I’ve got some distance now.  I suppose that makes me more authoritative.

Part of it was that I had hit puberty.  Acting out the storylines in books was far more interesting than Algebra especially since, like most big readers, I thought I must be a disaster at math.  (As an adult, I realize that my math skills are average, maybe slightly better than that.  I did well in my college math courses, but some of that was my memory–I actually remembered knowing all this stuff, even though I had been out of school for a decade!  Go, my brain!)  Part of it was that I had a lot in common with my mother, who was a feminist in a time when feminist was a thing you were by default, and something you were because you were passed over for promotion again and watched the under-qualified and incompetent guy get the job instead and you lived the unfairness of it.  My mother was big on righting wrongs, and school was full of wrongs.  It started when I little and got pneumonia right before winter break, as I would end up getting pneumonia almost every year of my life until high school.  I asked to see the nurse, and the substitute teacher said, “You just have cabin fever.”  I was five or six.  I didn’t know what cabin fever was, but I had an idea from her tone that it was something stupid, like believing in unicorns.  When my mother took me to the doctor and–surprise!–I had pneumonia, so she called the school and told them what a jerk the sub had been.  I was a few days late back from vacation–also common, since I was sick a lot–and my mother told them my doctor explicitly said that I couldn’t go out for recess.  It was too cold and I was too likely to relapse.  Sooooo they sent me outside the first day.  I told her after school, and she called again. The next day they put me next to the main doors, so every time someone walked in or out for lunch or to drop off something for their kid or to be dropped off after a morning doctor’s appointment, I got the whoosh of cold air.  My mother didn’t like that either.  On the third day, I was put in a conference room.  It was pretty lonely in there.

Then we had more health-related nonsense in my next elementary school.  As a kid, my reaction to foods with a lot of sodium was to feel feverish.  But I had no sign of a fever, so almost every day, I’d have my plastic Thermos of Lipton soup, and almost every afternoon, I’d feel like I had a fever.  Since fevers usually meant pneumonia, bronchitis, or something along those lines, I went to the nurse.  She was sure I was faking it.  My mother, knowing I was never a faker, finally figured this one out with the help of my doctor.  I had to wait until after school to have my soup.

I never really did warm to any school nurse until my daughter reached high school.  The less said about my high school nurses, the better, but I will never forget their fake-sympathy after two years of being jerks to me.  Ugh.  If there was one thing I hated more than a broken system that no one seemed to be willing to fix, it was phonies.  (And yet I still hated Holden Caulfield.  Go figure.)

There were a lot of other stories I could relate but I think you can sort of see how I got to the point where I didn’t like this system and I wanted it and the people involved in it to change, although I liked the social aspects of school and I did like learning most of the time.  I just preferred to learn by picking stuff up from fiction.  In books, as in life, teachers could be awesome or suspect, so my favorite books where school plays a big part aren’t the ones where a teacher helps a down-and-out class reach their potential, or someone puts on an amazing school play, or other positive things (although I read and enjoyed those too especially, for a while, novelizations of “teacher” movies I wouldn’t see for years, like Stand & Deliver and Dead Poets’ Society).  My favorites were the ones where teachers can be unfair, administrators are the enemy, and sometimes things just don’t make any sense.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar is an exercise in surrealism.  The school is built up instead of out, there’s a missing floor, and I think one of the students is actually a dead fish.  But the book captures that out-of-control, we-run-the-madhouse feel of children trapped in a system they can’t understand, because the system makes no sense.

Wow, as an adult, I’m seeing a lot in this book I never have before.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle pits heroine Meg against the administrator Mr. Jenkins, a dandruffy, unhappy man who didn’t understand Meg and didn’t want to try.  Later, I would acquire a copy of The Wind in the Door, where Mr. Jenkins plays a larger role, gets to know the children, and Meg must learn to love him for his faults, and I felt cheated.  But it was probably the right thing to write.  Mr. Jenkins gets to be a person too.

The Cat Ate My Gymsuit by Paula Danziger gave us the wonderful Ms. Finney, and the awful parents and administrators who don’t like her unorthodox teaching methods, despite how well they work.  This book broke my heart, both for Ms. Finney’s story and the main character, Marcie, dealing with her weight and her unhappy home life.

Finally, there’s Dicey’s Song by Cynthia Voigt.  The second Dicey book in the Tillerman Cycle, this one features an unusual kid trying to navigate a normal life and failing miserably.  She’s accused by one teacher of plagiarizing and fails an assignment from a home ec teacher even though her answers about living within a budget are correct–she knows because she fed her siblings after her mother abandoned them.  But Dicey’s pride gets in the way of her being able to articulate the unfairness of these situations.  At least in the first one, we have Dicey’s friend Mina to speak for her, in a wonderful scene that made me want to literally stand up and cheer.  It still does.  My inner child still rails at school and teacher unfairness, it seems.

Later, I would add Annie on My Mind to this list, a YA book by Nancy Garden about a lesbian struggling with a conservative administration, and of course there’s that scene in Anne of Green Gables where her teacher refuses to spell her name with an E!  Oh, and the Evil Principal from the Losing Christina series!  It’s so funny that I almost always read about teachers being the bad guys, and yet until I was in high school, I wanted to be a teacher myself.  I guess I liked the challenge.

WIB: Aug 31-Sept 6

September 11, 2014
fikry

I’m working in multiple directions to make sure I don’t forget too much about books by the time I post them, like I’ve been doing lately.

It could work!

First I read Linger, the second book in Maggie Stiefvater’s The Wolves of Mercy Falls series.  I got the “companion” book/4th book? at BEA, and I’ve heard so many good things about her writing.  This series and her Raven Boys books.  So I picked up the first two books.  The problem was, they stunk.  No, I mean, they actually smelled, leading me to write this post.  The second wasn’t as bad as the first, thankfully, so I read it a bit quicker.  It’s not as intense as the first book, and that’s okay with me, but I didn’t feel like it was filled with filler, either, which is nice.  The books are progressing, adding interesting characters, and the end–yeah, that hurt.  I usually find that when an author writes multiple perspectives, you still see everyone the same, but like Richelle Mead in Gameboard of the Gods, how the characters see each other skews how we see them.  Grace narrating is not the same as Sam narrating and telling us about Grace.  I’ll discuss the series’s premise when I talk about the first book soon, but I think it’s enough to say here that the second book is good on its own, and makes me excited for the third book.

Then I tried reading Larry Niven’s Ringworld for my speculative fiction book club.  That did not happen.  I made it until the rape joke around page 144 and I couldn’t take it anymore.  As I’ve said before, rape references don’t usually bother me, but it was just the icing on the cake for me quitting this book–and I don’t like cake.  I can handle sexism, and expect it from a book that was published in 1970.  I don’t mind the whole woman-child thing that was popular back then, or the focus on barely-legal girls that shows up with several authors.  I don’t even mind that the only woman in the book to the point that I read, Teela, was a giggling moron who brought nothing to the excursion but “luck.”  I don’t mind technobabble.  But put all these together with an extremely high level of technobabble, throw in a casual rape joke from the lead, and I’m out.

Finally, I read The Storied Life of AJ Fikry for another of my book clubs.  The best word to describe it is charming.  It’s Gabrielle Zevin’s little book of book-love, and I was with her for every page, through every little turn and big turn and cliche she turned on her head and cliche that was so well done that didn’t feel like a cliche anymore.  AJ Fikry is a crabby, snobby bookstore owner whose curmudgeony attitude would make you guess his age at twice what it is.  In another author’s hands, he’d be quirky for the sake of quirky, as would all the other characters, but he never falls down that pit.  When bad things happen to him, you feel bad.  When good things happen to him, you feel good.  This is a quick, short read that’s structured like a short story in many ways, and its literary references sneak up on you.  It was given the thumbs-up by every person in the book club.  I’m excited to see what her young adult books are like, if this is her adult offering.

Next up: either March or August, who knows?

Board Games I Love #1: Quiddler

September 10, 2014
quiddler

I realize that I’ve got a lot of book posting to do, but for the past couple years I’ve been really getting into board games and board game groups.  My board game group back home got me through my husband being in boot camp, and I miss the friends I made there all the time.  I <3 you guys!  But I’ve got a good group going on here too.  I <3 you guys!

In this time, I’ve played party games and “adult” games, word games and strategy games.  I thought I’d use the nights where I’m just not up for a big review post and talk about a game I like.  I’m using the BoardGameGeek.com definition for board game, which also includes card-based games like the one I’m about to discuss.

I’m going to start with a word game because that seems the most appropriate for this blog.

Quiddler is basically word rummy.  You play progressive hands, 3 cards to 10, and make words and acquire points.  What I really like about it is that it’s a word game for people who aren’t great spellers, because you can use short words as well as long without taking a penalty.  In fact, you can even gain a bonus for it, as “longest word” and “most words” both net you an extra ten points.  So even little guys just learning their words can potentially do well in the game.  (For emerging readers, I would suggest maybe playing with house rules like “two- and three-letter words only” or something like that.)

The cards themselves are lovely, with the font reminiscent of the Book of Kells, and printed on each is a letter or digraph and its point value.  You use the cards to make words of two or more letters, and when you can use every card you go “out” by placing your cards face up on the table.  Even if you end up with the cards QU, Q, and Z for your first hand, it’s not a big deal, because your score can never go in the negatives; you just take zero points for the round.  Like rummy (whichever rummy; I can’t remember which is which after all these years), you may draw the top card of the deck or discard pile, and must discard one of your own.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought I was out, but then realized I had to discard.  Oops.

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Sometimes the words combinations end up being hilarious.

For word lovers, the game can be very quick.  After years of playing Scrabble with my friends online and off, I can pretty much take any small combination and immediately tear them down into parts.  Not everyone can do this, though, and they play a bit slower.  When we play Quiddler, we always help each other out no matter who’s in the lead.

To me, Quiddler will always remind me of the weekend of my wedding.  We had such a great time playing it during the downtime between events.

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The Quiddler Crew, October 2010

I highly recommend the game for pretty much everyone.  I’ve never met anyone who actively disliked it, and I’ve met several people who want to play nothing else after they’ve been introduced to it.

WIB: Feb 23-Mar 1

September 8, 2014

Ooh, look at me, making it to another month.

Five books in a week!  What is this craziness?

First I read True Blood: Shake for Me, which I couldn’t figure out the time period, then probably spoiled myself, but I can’t even remember because it’s been so long, so why am I reading this comic book anyway?  One story was better than the other, and at this point I couldn’t tell you which was which.  Maybe the second story was a bit confusing?  I think that’s what it was.  I kind of miss watching True Blood, but not enough to find someone with the DVDs.  So.

Next was Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate “I don’t understand your hair” DiCamillo.  (I don’t understand her hair, okay?  I can’t tell if it’s Southern big and white-blonde or gray or what.  Maybe she’s hedging her bets?  I have no idea what’s going on there.)  For a book about a superpowered squirrel, you’d think I’d have a better time, but I never love anything this woman writes.  I barely even like it.  I find almost everything she writes to be a slog, and afterward I’m like, “Winn-Dixie?  Eh.”  “Desperaux?  Eh.”  This is my third book by her, I think, and I’m done.  I’m just done with her.  I don’t like the way she writes. I don’t mind the big words–because some smart kids fixate on big words–and I don’t mind the cutesy or the sap, but there’s something else I hate and until I’m reading it, I completely forget what it is because I leave every book with the impression “Eh.”  And that’s it, which is why I’ve read more than two of her books.  But no more!

Mo Willems is pretty much my favorite children’s author right now, so when a neighbor offered to lend me a copy of his “grown-up” book, You Can Never Find a Rickshaw When It Monsoons: The World on One Cartoon a Day.  I guess this is a book you give your Brooklyn hipster who has a little kid.  It’s not bad, but it really is just a little sketch a day, and not all of them have much depth.  If I were not grossed out by the idea of a “bathroom book,” this might be a good choice.  Oh right, and also: the boobs are weird.  No wonder he sticks to kids’ books.

James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me is a must-read.  Even if you don’t always agree with him, it’s important that at least the introduction of this book is read.  In school.  Loewen takes a selection of high school American history books and shows how they are biased, shows how they lay out American history as a progressive series of “wins” that inspire patriotism.  It is incredibly eye-opening, especially the part on textbook “writers,” who are often there only to revise and aren’t experts in the field.  yeah, if I was going to go with a non-fiction must-read for the year, this is it.

Finally, I reread the last of the “middle” Jennifer Crusie books, Bet Me.

Next up: Rainbow Rowell! David Levithan!

WIB: Feb 16-22

September 7, 2014
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I’m going to call Julianna Baggott’s Pure the biggest let-down of the year.  I don’t care what else I read, nothing will be this much of a disappointment.  After truly enjoying the first two books–the story of a society where people inside the dome live perfect little lives, and people outside the dome are living in the world’s most horrifying apocalypse (seriously, bomb that attaches things to other things is worse than zombies)–this book made me want to scream.  I’m surprised I even finished it.  The writing is terrible.  Was it always this terrible?  The characters thinks the same thing so many times in every scene they’re in for the first third of the book.  It’s so repetitive I was pretty sure I was reading a first draft.  And then there was something else too; I want to say question marks.  There are SO MANY questions marks in the third-person narration.  It was as if the author wasn’t even sure what she was doing.  I also want to say there’s either too many times where you’re told sort of what happens and then it jumps backward, or–it’s all very fuzzy by now, but at the time I was enraged.

Also, the ending was bad.

Seriously, that book annoyed me on too many levels.  It took days and days for me to read in a series where the other books had been devoured in a day or two.

Next, I read The Phantom Tollbooth, which everyone forever had wanted me to read, especially my kid and/or husband, so I did, and it was really good.  I would’ve liked it better when I was a kid, though.  I felt that it was easy to see why it was as good as an adult, but that’s not the same as truly enjoying it, you know?

Finally, I read Dreams of the Golden Age, a sequel or companion or whatever you want to call it to Carrie Vaughn’s After the Golden Age.  Vaughn hits her stride here and Dreams is a much better book in terms of pacing and characterization.  The story follows the daughter of the first book’s lead, and we’re not just following a good story, we’re also seeing the former lead relegated to Mom, and Control Freak, and that was fascinating without taking away from Anna’s narrative.  Is the book more teen-friendly, YA-like?  Sure.  But it flows so much better than After, and I really enjoyed it.

Next up: I want to like Kate DiCamillo, but I never do.

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