Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Creating Baby Feminists: Or How to Raise a Superhero Princess

Seriously, this tent is legit
Yesterday, my daughter turned 4 years old.  I had off work early and had been planning on taking her to the park or out to dinner, but all she wanted to do was stay home and have mac and cheese for dinner and play with her birthday present from me: a spaceship tent.  So that's what we did.  She wore her knight costume (because her astronaut costume might be too slippery inside, she said) and played in her spaceship tent all evening.  Her spaceship tent stood in the middle of her room decorated with Frozen stickers and Frozen sheets and Frozen posters.  Oh and a Star Wars poster.  And robots.  On Saturday we will have her big birthday party with all of her friends and her dad and my parents at a local children's museum.  She decided on a Ninja Turtles theme.  Lately she has
She likes Donatello
because he wears purple
gotten very interested in Ninja Turtles; she even dressed
as Donatello for Halloween, despite the fact that she can't sit through a whole episode of the actual cartoon since she thinks it is too scary.  A lot of things are scary to her.  She can't sit through pretty much any Disney movie with the exception of Frozen, Wall-E, and Toy Story 2 because she has an aversion to bad guys.  Cinderella: the mommy isn't nice, Tangled: the witch mommy isn't nice, Lion King: the bad lion is bad, Toy Story 1: Sid is scary and the toys in his room are scary, Beauty and the Beast: the wolves, Winnie the Pooh: bees (Seriously.  She doesn't like Winnie the Pooh because she is scared of bees).  On the other hand, she likes the original Star Wars just fine because Darth Vader is cool.  In fact she enjoys playing AS Darth Vader when we have lightsaber battles.  However, Empire Strikes back and Return of the Jedi are out because the Wampa and the Rancor are extremely scary to her.  If we watch those, we have to fast forward.  We can watch parts of How to Train Your Dragon but not all of it: Toothless is adorable, the other dragons not so much.  Despite all of this aversion to "bad guys," her preferred method of play is to have battles, to attack balloons with her knight sword, to pretend we are superheroes saving the day from the evil Loki (our cat, not the actual Marvel villain. Sometimes the cat plays the role of Lok-a-roid, a deadly asteroid that is attacking our space command).

Seriously, this movie
can't come soon enough
So why do I mention all this?  Because I have noticed through the course of talking to her and her play, that more often than not she plays as boy characters, except when she plays as Elsa.  Not because I believe she is experiencing any kind of gender identity issues or doesn't like being a girl, but because, just as I did when I was a kid, she finds the boy characters to be more interesting.  When she plays Big Hero 6 she wants to be Hiro and Baymax, not Go Go or Honey Lemon.  They were perfectly good "strong" characters, but they weren't the MAIN characters.  She has latched onto Frozen, to Elsa in particular like many little girls her age, I think because Elsa is truly the first female superhero to star in her own children's movie.  Think about it: can you think of another kid-friendly film that stars a woman who has superpowers?  Princess Leia is great and all but she doesn't have the Force (unless you are counting the now not-canon EU books).  Plus Princess Leia wasn't the star of the film.  In every other kid's movie, women with power are the villains: the witches, the evil fairies. 
Who WOULDN'T want to be
this badass bitch
Elsa was never truly a villain, simply a young woman with powers she couldn't control who eventually uses them for good.  And her power is cool!  She shoots ice from her fingers!  This readily translates to games of freeze tag!  Frozen is the PERFECT movie for little girls who want to have that feeling of power and strength that boys get playing Spider-Man or Batman or Superman or ANYTHING-man.  Which is why I think the new Wonder Woman movie and the Captain Marvel movie will be so important.  But they aren't enough.

Even at 4 my daughter has experienced our sexist culture.  She has been told by friends at school that certain things are "for boys," she has walked into the toy store and seen the separation of the gendered playthings, she has seen movies where women only serve as objects to be rescued (even though she doesn't particularly care for them).  There are two tacks that you can take to address this problem.  The first is denial. You can simply refuse to allow your children to watch princess movies, to limit their exposure to media in general, or to presume
Oh look, another boy off
on an adventure.
 that even worthy "classic" books and "quality" shows don't perpetuate our patriarchal culture.  But lets face it, most of your favorite "classic" children's books feature women more often than not in the role of mother and caretaker.  Not that there is anything wrong with being a mother, but if that is all your children are seeing then maybe you are "indoctrinating" them more than you know.  I sure as hell know that I would rather emulate the adventurous Peter Rabbit than be one of his demure, obedient sisters, even though they were rewarded.  The second option is to face reality, to acknowledge the fact that even if you never show a princess movie in your home that the IDEA of "princess" is so infused into our culture that exposure to the concept is inevitable.  You can deny a girl the right to princess crowns and pretty dresses all you want, but are you really taking the desire away?

One of these is astronaut Karen Nyberg

I actively try to read my daughter my issues of Captain Marvel and Ms Marvel when they come in each month, I show
her pictures of female astronauts like Karen Nyberg, an engineer formerly on board the ISS, whose flowing blonde hair is so similar to her own, and I bring home books about inspiring women like Jane Goodall.  I do these things very consciously.  I do it because without taking the time to actively select books and videos about inspirational women, without actively "indoctrinating" my daughter into the idea that women can accomplish the same things as men even at this early age, she could very easily go through life passively indoctrinating herself into the idea that they can't.  There are several moments in my daughter's favorite book, Daredevil: the Daring Life of Betty Skelton, where
Seriously, go read this book
young Betty faced adversity and sexism in trying to pursue her dreams.  She got her pilot's license at 16 but could not fly as a commercial pilot because she was a woman.  Instead she became a stunt pilot and did her own thing.  She trained with the Mercury 7, but was denied the right to be an real astronaut because NASA wasn't ready for a woman astronaut yet.  The book ends on a positive note, with a mention of the women who did break the barrier, Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride, and with Betty in her later years, a confident older lady who drove a Corvette well into her 80s.  It is an amazing book and Betty lived a remarkable life.  It is an important book for girls like my daughter, too.

Trying to raise confident children is challenging regardless of gender, and much has been written about how too much of a "You can do anything, Billy" attitude has shaped a generation of young people whose aspirations outmatch their skills.  But I think the challenge of raising confident girls is unique.  Boys, by the very nature of our culture, will naturally fall into a belief that they can do anything.  In school we teach them about presidents, about kings, about soldiers, and heroes and revolutionaries.  They might spend a few days during their school career learning about notable women.  So yeah, I take it upon myself to make sure she knows about those women who came before her.  I make sure to tell her that women can do anything that men can.  I acknowledge the sexism that exists, I actively correct her when she tells me a blue shirt with a dinosaur on it is "for boys."  When my daughter tells me she wants to be an astronaut I tell her about all the wonderful women in NASA, but I also make sure to tell her how hard it is to get into space, and how few people really make it.  She will have to work really hard, she will have to do really well in science and math, and pass all sorts of tests.  Even if she is strong and smart she might not make it, but there are lots of things that she could do with her passions: work at NASA on the ground, work at a science museum, be an engineer.  I want her to be able to "reach for the stars" but I also don't want her to feel inadequacy if she doesn't make it there. Most of all I want her to be a feminist.  I want her to proudly be able to declare the simple idea that boys and girls should be afforded the same opportunities, I want her to one day say confidently to someone who would deny her, "yes I can."  And that doesn't mean I deny her the right to wear pink, the desire to be a princess too.  I simply make sure she knows she can be so much more.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

2014 - The Worst and Best Year of My Life

2014 has been a hell of a year.  By that I mean much of it was Hell.  I began the year realizing that my marriage was falling apart.  It didn't come as a surprise to me even though it did.  There had been problems in our relationship from the very beginning:  issues with trust, with emotional support, with the fundamentals of our personalities.  In truth we just weren't particularly compatible, but force of habit and a daughter and a house later had convinced me that all was well, or at least that it was worth preserving.  Part of the reason I clung so desperately onto this sinking ship was my own cultural perceptions, my own personal feelings about what a relationship was "supposed" to be.  Divorce, like abortion, certainly should be allowed, but it was something OTHER people did.  I had a vision of what my life was supposed to be: married, in a house, with a kid, going to PTA meetings, going on family vacations, buying a mini van, getting a dog and maybe another cat for good measure.  It was a version of a life that my parents lead, my parents who had been married for over 40 years.  It was the life of sitcom families and my friends.  Heck, most of my friends were already on their second kid.  10 years ago I never thought that I would live that kind of life.  10 years ago I was telling my mom that I didn't think I would ever get married, that I didn't think I would ever have children.  Then I met my ex and some kind of switch turned on.  All those things that I never thought I wanted before suddenly became so important.  After the birth of my daughter, this became even more true.  The notion of motherhood of what a mother should be or what a mother should do became so important to me.  I wanted to be the kind of mother that MY mother was to me.  I wanted to be the kind of mother who made Seders and planned birthdays and drove to softball practice, who was room mother or den mother or on the committee.  Even as I knew that my marriage was ultimately damaging to me psychologically, I was so terrified with the idea of being a SINGLE MOM that I tried to stave off the inevitable, convincing myself that all was well, that it was ok, that it was just a rough patch.

And then the hammer dropped in April and my husband of nearly 6 years asked me for a divorce.  In many ways, MANY many ways, I am glad he did.  I am glad he did because I would never have done it.  I was so afraid of what the future would be like alone, so convinced that people were just supposed to stay married even if they were unhappy for the sake of the kids, so unsure of my ability to find somebody new, so worried about how it would affect our daughter, so concerned about the financial impact on my life, that I may have remained married to him for years, perpetually unhappy, convinced that I really was.  How could I have been so convinced I was happy even though I wasn't?  Because before I met him I was clinically depressed.  I was on medication for depression and anxiety off and on for years.  The depression began in middle school with the constant bullying I suffered at the hands of my peers, and continued through college.  I had my friends and tried to get out some, but the deep seated unhappiness just wouldn't go away.  Sure I had fun and I went out, but in my heart I was just defeated.  After I graduated, I moved back home for a time, but most of my friends from high school weren't really my friends anymore and then just 6 months later I moved to San Jose for grad school, a town where I knew exactly nobody.  I was older and I wasn't living in a dorm and I didn't have all these crutches to make friends, and I was miserable.  There was a time when I first moved to San Jose, when I was living with this horrible roommate, that I barely left the house.  I felt perpetually self conscious about my body, perpetually down on myself because I had had quite a number of "hook ups" but nobody who had even asked me out on a proper date in years.  It was horrible. And then it slowly got better.  Here I stood 8.5 years later and I didn't feel that way anymore.  For the first time in my life I could look at myself in the mirror and see my squishy bits and not stress about them, I was in a job that didn't particularly pay me very well, but where I felt like I was making a real difference, I still didn't have too many friends but I enjoyed going out with them.  I wasn't clinically depressed.  Stressed?  Yes.  I was constantly stressed.  I was in a relationship where I didn't feel like I was being valued, where I didn't feel like my partner truly understood or supported me.  But I wasn't depressed anymore!!  It was better!!  It had been such a long time, long past my shitty brain could remember, that I had felt "good" that "not wanting to die," "not feeling like the weight of the world was crushing me and wanting to crawl into a little ball in a cave somewhere," felt fantastic!  I didn't feel good.  I felt like crap.  But feeling like crap sure as hell felt a lot better than "HORRIBLE." I would have continued to feel like crap for years because it felt better than what had come before.

When he told me he wanted the divorce I was angry.  Angry and terrified and sad.  I was angry at all the reasons that had driven us apart in the first place, angry at the life I could have lead.  For financial reasons and because I wasn't sure what the custody situation would be, I remained in our home for 3 months after we legally separated, living in the guest room in this sort of miserable limbo, uncertain how I could manage things financially, uncertain what the future would hold, festering in anger and resentment. Why HE didn't move into another room or move out, are arguments I have long since lost patience for, but which consumed my every waking moment for much of the summer.  In July I found an apartment and at the end of the month I moved out, and the custody was decided, and that was that.  And remarkably I discovered, quite surprisingly, that I could do it.  Once it was done and it had happened and there was nothing to be done for it, I realized that in truth it was the best thing that had ever happened to me.  For the first time in my life I was standing on my own two feet.  For the first time in my life I truly appreciated what I could do on my own, I realized the kind of person I could be.  For the first time in my life I could go out with people and hook up with people and not feel dirty or slutty but comfortable and confident in my sexuality.  For the first time in my life I realized the person I could be all along.

Here I stand today at the end of a year that has really tested me.  But at the end of the day it was for the best.  Because I say with no shame of seeming too boastful or self aggrandizing that I am a better person than I was this time last year.  I have gone from a person who was consumed with "shoulds" and "could haves" to someone who genuinely looks forward to the uncertainties.  I have gone from a person who felt she had to hide what she was thinking to make the peace or smooth things over to someone who has no qualms about being honest.  My bullshit tolerance has decreased considerably. I'm not as worried as I was even a month ago, and the worries decrease every day.  Not because the problems are going away but because I realize that they could be so much worse.  I have had friends this year who have had miscarriages, friends who have had medical problems, friends who have lost jobs, friends who have lost family members and friends.  I have lost my marriage.  I have lost the person I was closest to. I have lost the life I thought I was going to lead, the path I thought I was going on.  It seems like so much.  And yet... I'm happy.  I can say without equivocation that I am happy.  Not because my life is just the way I want it, not because I have everything, not because things are financially stable or comfortable, not because I have a significant other, not because I have a shiny new car or a shiny new life but because I'm happy.  Because I just am.  Because I feel happiness inside of me.  I used to think that things MADE you happy, whether they were people or something else you could hold or touch, or even things intangible.  Now I realize that nothing will "make" you happy, that happiness really is just a state of mind, as sappy and new-agey and bullshitty as that sounds. This happiness has been so strange and new and wonderful that a few months ago I even called my friend Dan and asked him if maybe I was manic, if maybe this happiness was just some illusion.  But it isn't.  This happiness is different than the kind of joy that you feel on your birthday with friends, or going to Disneyland, or high on a drug.  It is a happiness inside of me, a peace inside of me, a comfort I can't really describe. 

Another strange thing has happened to me along the way:  I have become more accepting, more understanding, as I have become happier. I'm accepting of my ex, of the way he is.  I'm not angry anymore.  He is the way he is and I am the way I am and I have just accepted that in a way that is profoundly relaxing and comforting.  Holding so much anger wasn't healthy for me.  Besides, what is the point of being angry, what good does it do?  Now I can direct my anger and frustration at the things that really matter: at injustices in the world, at things we can change, at our society in general.  I have tried to be more open this year, less judgmental.  Before I began shopping at the 99c store I used to subconsciously judge people who shopped at the 99c store.  Before I knew what it was to get into debt just to pay the bills each month, I used to judge people who were living outside their means.  Now I don't judge.  People get by the way they get by. I am not in poverty, not by any stretch of the imagination, but my change in financial circumstances has humbled me that's for damn sure.  And an odd thing is that I have given more to charity these past 6 months than I ever did before, which is not a humblebrag, just a statement of fact.  Even though I have less, I want to give more.  I had taken my life for granted before.  I was so consumed with my own dramas that it was impossible for me to look outside.  Now I see how easy it is for a life to change, how fast your life can go from something seemingly certain and steady, to something scary and unknown.  And I want to do more.  I want to give more.  I want to be more.  I want to try.

I'm still frustrated with things: I'm not sure where my career is going, I would love to sign up and take a class but I don't know how I would be able to given my custody and work schedules, I still don't have that many friends in the area and I'm not sure how to meet people (other than the folks I meet up with from dating sites).  And I still get sad: I got really sad in Orlando with my parents for a time because I realized it was the first family trip I had been on in 8 years without a major part of my family, there are still moments when I wake up to an empty apartment when my daughter is at her dad's that I feel lonely, there are times when I look at the happy families together at the library or at temple or just on the street and I miss the kind of family I had before.  But there is a difference now.  The difference now is that I like who I am.  The difference now is everybody feels sad or frustrated or challenged or angry sometimes and that's ok.  It will be ok.  That used to be a thing me and my ex would argue about.  I would be stressed and sad and overwhelmed and I would want him to just hold me and tell me everything was going to be ok and he wouldn't.  And I would get angry.  Because I NEEDED him to tell me it was going to be ok, because I was depending on him. And he should have, because that's just something that people do when they care about each other, but he's not that kind of person and that's just who he is, and that's ok too (as long as I don't have to be in a relationship with him). Now that I don't have anyone to tell it to me, now that I only have myself to lean on, I've learned to tell MYSELF that it will all be ok.  And it will.  Everything will be ok, as long as you have an open interpretation as to what "ok" means.  Ok to me means that I have a fantastic, bright, wonderful, remarkable daughter, I have parents who are supportive and loving and generous, I have friends who care about me, I have a cat who cuddles me even though he occasionally poops on the couch, I have a job that is rewarding even though it doesn't pay me particularly well, I have a new Star Wars movie and a Captain Marvel movie and a new season of Game of Thrones and a new book by Patrick Rothfuss that will come out some day, I have Comic Con to look forward to, I have all the places in the world I've never visited to see, I have books to read and places to go... I have living to do.  And I'm happy.  I'm happy to be given the opportunity to live.

So goodbye 2014.  You have been a bitch of a year.  There is so much pain and suffering and anger and fear and terrible things in this world, so many things that have happened that I could linger on, that could defeat me.  But I will not be defeated.  Because I am strong.  I am stronger than even I knew just 6 months ago.  I can do this.  So come on, 2015, give me your best shot. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Favorites of 2013

Favorites of 2013

So I don't really blog very often, because I just don't feel I need to.  But when it comes to Best of/ End of the Year lists, I feel like this is the only appropriate place to share them.

Favorite Books of 2013

This year I have read 65+ books.  Not as many as previous years, mostly because I spent my summer reading the unabridged Count of Monte Cristo which took a great deal of my time.  I read non fiction, fiction, children's books, comics.  Here are all my favorites in no particular order

I Am Malala
A remarkable book about a remarkable young girl.  It should be required reading in school.  

Blood Song
A tremendous work of fantasy.   On par with Rothfuss, Lynch and the like, it is engaging without being overly dark for dark's sake.  A brilliant new talent.

The most realistic depiction of New Adulthood that I have ever read.  Funny, warm, awkward.  Brilliant

My favorite comic of the year.  My favorite comic of all time.  Matt Fraction is just so brilliant with his writing and Aja just knocks it out of the park with his illustrations.  The comic book for people who have never read comics before.  The comic book for people who swore off "superheroes."  The comic for everyone.

 And the Mountains Echoed
Fantastic book about memory and loss from Hosseini.  Sweeping in its scope, but remaining intimate and small at the same time.

 The Black Count
Fascinating biography about a life forgotten by time.  Interesting discussion of race and culture.  As gripping as any adventure story, with an ending as tragic

 Ocean at the End of the Lane
Gaiman does it again.  Beautifully written, poetic, bizarre.  Love love love.

My second favorite comic.  Fantastic sci fi, great epic storytelling and gorgeous illustrations. 


Golem and the Jinni
Really stellar fantasy as well as remarkable look at 19th century American Jewry. Well executed writing, plotting and character development make this a real winner.

A different take on the superhero genre, a Young Adult book about a world where all super human characters are villains and the rest of the human population is subject to their whims.    Great world building in this one.

Favorite TV Shows of 2013

I watch a lot of TV.  A lot of it is crap.  There are a lot of shows I continue to watch despite their decline in quality, and other great shows I just haven't started to watch, but have been meaning to.  But this has been one of the best years ever of television.  The quality of most of these programs exceeds anything I've seen on the big screen.

Breaking Bad
One of the greatest shows of all time ended its run in the most spectacular way possible.  Tense, funny, thrilling, shocking, dark.  This show is just everything.  Gorgeously shot, the music is just spot on fantastic, marvelous acting all around.  It should win all the awards this year.  ALL. THE. AWARDS.   

I love this show so damn much.  When this show is on the air, I am just... happier.  Violent but so so funny, beautifully crafted details about Harlan County in general really make the setting a character in the show.  Patton Oswalt knocked it out of the park this year in his supporting role.  I can't wait for it to come back.

 Orange is the New Black
So fabulous to watch a show dominated by women.  Funny women, sad women, fat women, skinny women.  This show demonstrates that female characters can do so much more, can be so much more than the roles they are typically given.

This one was a total surprise.  I started watching thinking it would be a cheap Game of Thrones knock off or Xena-like syndicated fluff.  Instead I was rewarded with rich characters, beautifully shot episodes, and stories that really kept me engaged.

Game of Thrones
Having read the books, I was waiting for this season with much anticipation.  It certainly paid off in full.  The "Red Wedding" delivered, the acting was excellent, and the show moved the story along very well, covering a fair amount in such a dense book.  I particularly loved the Brianne/ Jaime scenes.  Really well done.

The best superhero show (live action) that has ever been on TV.  I think I can say that with no equivocation.  Those expecting light Smallville-esque frivolity are instead rewarded with interesting stories, some good character development (and some characters that could use some work, lets be honest ::cough:: Laurel ::cough::).  A show that proves that you can have fun while still going a little dark.

Favorite Movies of 2013

I have barely had a chance to get out of the movies this year.  I've rented a few, but I haven't seen any of the real award contenders at all.  Honestly I haven't even seen enough movies to make a list.  I liked Gravity.  I think Iron Man 3 was underrated.  Frozen was beautiful and This is the End was very very silly.  I fangirled the shit out of Thor: The Dark World. 


 Misc Favorites of 2013

Favorite Webcomic - Nimona
Sometimes light, sometimes very dark.  Noelle Stevenson really stretches what the medium can do

 Favorite Celebrity - Tom Hiddleston
This man can literally do no wrong.  He is perfect.  Just... too freaking perfect.  

This has been a really amazing year for me personally- I moved into my first house, I got to see my daughter grow into a real little person who can now use the potty all by herself, I got to visit Yosemite with my husband and see the stars on a perfectly clear night, I got to see my little brother graduate from college.  It has been a pretty stellar year. Bring on 2014

Monday, March 04, 2013



 Last week I listened to the Nerdist Podcast as frequently do, and Chris Hardwick was interviewing Neil Patrick Harris along with these two magicians I had never heard of, but who apparently had won all sorts of awards etc.  They were talking about their show "Nothing to Hide" at the Geffen Playhouse and their philosophy of magic etc.  I was enthralled.  I've been to the Magic Castle before and was incredibly impressed by the talent there, but what Derek DelGaudio and Helder Guimarães, these two previously unknown magicians, were talking about was something different from what I experienced there, something more immersive.  I'd never heard of magic actually telling a story, of a magic show as a sort of play with a narrative or a vision.

On Thursday evening on my way home from work I finished the podcast.  That night I made a decision: I would see this magic show.  I found tickets online for the show Sunday, I talked to my husband to see if he was interested in attending so we could find a babysitter.  He wasn't.  I sort of half-assed asked people if they wanted to come with me, but truly, if I'm being honest with myself, I actually WANTED to go alone.  I can't really explain my motivations behind this.  Maybe it was the fact that I do so few things as a bonafide adult that I wanted to do it on my own.  Maybe I just needed a break from the real world for a while.  Or maybe, and I think this is probably the most likely, I wanted to experience this moment by myself.  DelGaudio and Guimaraes talk a lot about moments in the podcast interview.  They discourage cell phone video not simply because they don't want their act to go online without their consent or knowledge, but because the experiences we have, the moments we have, particularly in a magic show, are ones that cannot be recaptured.  I've never heard of magic being talked about with this wabi sabi connotation before.  I wanted to experience it.  I wanted an experience that I would have that no one else could share, that could be mine.

On Sunday I drove down to LA and attended the most spectacular and wonderful magic show I have ever seen in my life.  The tricks/ effects themselves were nothing flashy, nothing showboating or false.  The show was simply a demonstration in pure talent.  It was like watching a virtuoso pianist.  Surely anyone could, in theory, accomplish what they did just as surely as anyone could play cello like Yo Yo Ma.  It was artistry pure and simple.  DelGaudio and Guimarães were charming, witty, engaging as performers and a sheer delight.  They involved multiple members of the audience for many of the tricks, and the 100 person seated room felt small and intimate from where I sat in the third row.

I was selected for one of the hallmark pieces, which involved a Eng Bottle an "Impossible bottle" in which a pack of playing cards has been painstakingly crafted inside a glass jar, similar to how a ship in a bottle is assembled.  The whole back of the stage during the entire performance is filled with rows upon rows of these bottles.  After tossing a sock monkey into the audience and asking audience members to toss it again and again, eventually the adorable monkey landed in my lap.  There were some witty exchanges at which I became very giggly and nervous as I am wont to do on the occasion of being in the spotlight (though I was at my seat).  They asked me if there was anyone that I could call tomorrow, anyone without prior knowledge that I was attending the performance.  After a brief hesitation I said my Grandma Estelle (I had posted I was going to the show on Facebook, it actually took me a moment to figure out who didn't know I was going). I was instructed to call her and tell her I had a dream, a strange dream in which all that was about to occur had occured from the sock monkey to the chubby Bob's Big Boy impersonator and the Portuguese Muppet on stage.  Then I was asked to name a card.  Often times people pick common cards, the queen of hearts, the ace of spades, they explained.  I had the whole deck to choose from.  I picked the 2 of hearts.  I can't say why I picked the two of hearts.  Did they force me with subliminal suggestion or did the card just occur to me?  I don't have the slightest idea.  They made some sexual innuendo about picking that particular card with relation to my grandmother.  They teased and played and asked if I was certain that that was the particular card I wanted.  Then they asked me to pick an Eng Bottle on the wall.   Any one I wished.  I chose one on the third shelf on the second to last row, the fourth bottle over.  Again, was this forced?  Was there a particular reason I chose that bottle?  I don't know.  DelGaudio proceeded to pick up the bottle, bring it over to the small table that was in the middle of the stage, place the bottle in a plastic bag, smash the bottle with a hammer and pull out a deck of cards.  Guimarães opened the deck right in front of me.  He fanned the deck right in front of me, backs showing. One card was facing the opposite direction.  It was the 2 of hearts.  After a hearty applause he asked if that was enough to impress me.  Then he lifted the card and turned it around.  On the back of the card in thick sharpie was my grandmother's name "ESTELLE" written in bold letters.  I was dumbfounded.  Forcing decks, hiding cards in fruit or something, all that I've seen.  But when in gods name had someone had time to write in sharpie my grandmother's name?  I didn't write her name on the card so they couldn't have had it palmed the whole time.  No one ever left my sight, no hands were out of view.  Perhaps if it were something like a tear or a sticker it could have been done to the card covertly, but a name written in sharpie?

That is the only trick I will describe in detail.  They ran through many semi familiar card tricks with new twists. The entire thing was phenomenal.  Beautifully executed, charming, delightful.  Like watching Ricky Jay in his classic 52 assistants special.  A moment that I will never experience again.  That I can only capture in a single image.  A single word. 


Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Things That I Read

Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption
by Laura Hillenbrand

Grade: A

It is not often that I read nonfiction, but when I do by and large I'll read biographies, particularly those of people with whom I have a passing knowledge or fascination, or "adventure" stories: Lost City of Z, Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, Over the Edge of the World, etc. Every once and a while I'll chance upon something wonderful, something completely unexpected. In the case of Unbroken it started on a bored Saturday night at home with nothing to watch on TV. I turned on Netflix on Demand and browsed my queue and decided on a film that looked interesting based on the premise, but which had not appeared on my radar, despite the fact that it featured several major Hollywood actors (Colin Farrell and Ed Harris) and came out only two years ago. The film was called The Way Back, directed by Peter Weir, and it told the grueling "true" story of an escape from a Siberian prison camp. The movie was overall well acted and entertaining, though it suffered from certain narrative shortcomings and failed to live up to some of the quality last seen in Weir's Master and Commander, one of my personal favorites. The plot was intriguing enough, though, that I wanted to read a bit more about this "true story." Unfortunately, when I did a bit of research I learned that the book Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, on which the film was based, has been frequently derided by scholars as being almost entirely fabricated. I decided against reading it for that reason. However, browsing on Amazon I saw a number of recommended titles based on my interest in the film, among them Unbroken: A World War II story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand. The blurb mentioned something about a downed aircraft and survival aboard a raft, so I thought I was starting a modern day Robinson Crusoe sort of story, which was perfectly fine with me. Given my long list of books to actually read in print, I decided to check out the audio read by the estimable Edward Herman, whose voice you have probably heard over countless stock film reels of aircraft on the History Channel.

Little did I know that when I picked up this book on a whim, I would be discovering a story more fascinating than any major Hollywood film I've seen in the past 5 years. Louis Zamperini was a troubled young son of Italian immigrant parents living in Torrence, California when he discovered he had a gift for running. This passion would lead him all the way to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. When the war began he became a bombardier, taking part in a crucial raid on Wake atoll among other endeavors. Then his plane was shot down and he survived aboard a life raft, fending off sharks and eating raw bird meat. And that is not even halfway through the book. The trials that this man had to endure are worthy of Job. Internment in a series of brutal Japanese prison camps resulted in horrific mental anguish, and some of the atrocities committed by guards are stomach churning. "Unbroken" is certainly not a read for the faint of heart. The whole of Zamperini's story I will not spoil here. In fact, I am really glad that I decided to listen to the audiobook because it prevented me from reading ahead to find out what happened next. I also made a conscious decision not to Google Zamp's name so I wouldn't know what was going to happen to him, which of his friends would make it out of the war unscathed, etc.

The writing is absolutely riveting and listening to the audio gave me a sense of urgency and captivated me utterly. I spent several lunch breaks just sitting in my car so I could hear the rest of the story. Truly, it was that good. I learned fascinating details about World War II, life in Japan, the Olympics, and post war America that were completely new to me. Zamperini, as Hillenbrand describes him, is a true American hero. Not a perfect man by any measure, but a man whose drive and fortitude are enviable, almost super-human. One brief note on the latter chapters in the story. While I am not a religious person, Zamperini's eventual coming to Christ seemed a genuine expression of gratitude and faith. Though I do not believe in God myself, I can only say that his faith and strength astound me, and seem a natural result from his ordeal. "Unbroken" is one of the best books I have read in ages. It was deeply affecting and engaging and I cannot recommended enough. I do actually hope that they make it into a film, because I think a great director could do a lot with his story. Given Hillenbrand's track record (see: Seabiscuit) it is altogether likely that somebody has optioned it already. I certainly hope that if a film is made, they truly do justice to the impossible life of this man.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Things That I Read

This Week: Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor

Rating: B+

It seems like every year a book comes around and reviewers call it "The next Harry Potter." I think what they mean is the next big phenomenon to catch on, though many of these books like the Percy Jackson series have similar premises (magical type school, mysterious villains, etc). Akata Witch is very much in this vein, but it is so delightfully original that I think it stands alone as a novel, not simply "the next best thing." I will admit at the outset that I know next to nothing about Nigerian culture, though I am a fan of books that explore any kind of mythology from American Gods to Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. I started to read this book knowing only that it was set in Africa, received favorable reviews, and was "Harry Potterish." It is so much more than that.

Sunny is the albino daughter of Nigerian parents who moved to the United States before she was born. When she was 9 they returned to Nigeria and Sunny, who had always struggled to fit in due to her physical differences, faced a new kind of torment: not quite African, not quite American, not quite Black. She never feels as though she is a part of any nation, any world. But there is more to Sunny than she knows. She is a Leopard Person, one who can work juju and communicate with the spirit realm. She is befriended by Orlu and Chichi, who bring her to Leopard Knocks, the center of West African magic, to meet Anatov, a scholar. From now on Sunny must live a double life, hide her magic from her family, and discover her true inner potential. Meanwhile a killer of children is on the loose and his ties to Sunny are closer than she wants to know. The realization of abilities, camaraderie found in a group of friends, tutelage under a teacher, and menacing evil force are tropes found in everything from to Percy Jackson to Harry Potter or Star Wars, but the differences from these works are striking. Whereas one might read Harry Potter and wonder at the negligence on the part of the professors at Hogwarts, the adults in Akata Witch make it clear that they willfully put the lives of others in danger, that people can be expendable to achieve a greater goal, and that there can be severe punishment if rules are not obeyed. Professor McGonagall might deduct points from Gryffindor but you don't see Neville Longbottom getting caned. Dolores Umbridge may have inflicted pain on her students, but she was considered a villain, unlike the scholars of Leopard Knocks. You hear about Voldemort killing people, but not brutally cutting them up and eating them. Sunny faces sexism and discrimination even among the Leopard people and this is considered normal and if not acceptable, at least par for the course. I found the treatment of women, or rather, the open and honest discussion about the way women are treated in certain African communities, particularly interesting and something rarely dealt with in Young Adult fiction. The system of magic, or juju, is equally unique and fascinating, as is the monetary reward in the form of chittim earned when one attains levels of knowledge. The characters are interesting and while not always likeable, believable.

My major complaint about the book was that it seemed to wrap up too quickly. In many ways I wish this book, at a scant 349 pages, were Harry Potterish in length. The battle with the "big bad" was far too short and I felt the narrative ended too abruptly. I am hoping that by leaving the story with an open ending that there will be sequels so that the author can go into more detail into the world she has created. Little time is spent in any one place, so unlike in Harry Potter, I never felt that I could really inhabit Leopard Knocks or see the interior of the Obi Library.

Overall though I was incredibly impressed with this book and want to read everything the author has written. I am also so pleased to have discovered a fantasy book for children/ Young Adults that has a female protagonist of color (though, come to think of it, it is the lack of color that distinguishes Sunny most of all). With so many fantasies based on European mythology or feudal kingdoms, I think it is important for children and teens to see that there are other systems of magic and other cultures to explore. I really enjoyed Breadcrumbs last year, but even though the protagonist was of Indian heritage (albeit adopted by a white family), there was nothing of that culture in the storyline. Akata Witch on the other hand is very much an African book about African/ African-American people with issues of race and culture playing prominent roles, but will appeal to all people of of all nationalities and backgrounds. It is a testament to Nnedi Okorafor's skills as a writer that she makes a foreign culture seem accessible as she does. Not only a wonderful read, but a book that I can recommend to a lot of our library patrons. Fantastic.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Best Of 2011

Its that time of the year when people do "Best-of" lists and I thought I might as well jump on the bandwagon.

Top 5 movies of the year

I saw 22 movies released in 2011 (in theaters and on DVD)

This year, I haven't had too many opportunities to see some of the smaller releases. I hear The Artist is amazing. Maybe I'll catch that on DVD. Attack the Block is like number 1 on my Netflix queue but there's a long wait. I'll probably see War Horse eventually. Harry Potter for me was the best film I saw this year because it was the culmination of everything that I've been waiting to see in a Harry Potter movie. Action, emotional impact (OMG when Snape died I lost it). Obviously, sentimentality played a big role in the inclusion of this movie, and of The Muppets as well. With both movies I had extremely high expectations going in and was very pleased that they were met (which hasn't always been the case with movies I've waited for ex: Where the Wild Things Are). The Muppets was just a delight. It was an essential Muppet film in that it combined earnestness with humor without being too crass or too saccharine. It was definitely a movie more for the audience who grew up with Muppets than from the new generation, but I don't have a problem with that. Hugo was the movie that surprised me. I really enjoyed the book "The Invention of Hugo Cabret" by Brian Selznick (great year for him. See my review of Wonderstruck below) and in reading it I was struck by how easily it could be adapted to film. When Sasha Baron Cohen was cast, I was really uncertain (hated him in Sweeney Todd) but he didn't ruin it. Scorsese did a fabulous job directing and I appreciated the 3-D when I normally think it superfluous. The young actors of this film did an excellent job capturing the spirit of the story and I have high hopes for Asa Butterfield. I have to say I was similarly impressed with the young actors in Super 8, though it didn't make the cut. It is very difficult to find young actors who are able to portray such realistic vulnerability so well. 13 Assassins was just all out crazy awesome. I loved the action, I loved the crazy convoluted set pieces, I loved it. So hard to make great period action films, and this is how you do it right. Drive was an interesting one. It was heavily stylized and very "80s" in its score and vibe. I really enjoyed it, though. I thought it was very much like a samurai movie or a classic western. Ryan Gosling, who I had never really thought of in any way before, really impressed me with his subtle acting.

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

2. Hugo

3. The Muppets

4. 13 Assassins

5. Drive

Top 5 books of the year

This year I read 38 books.

Despite my love for Patrick Rothfuss, Ernest Cline just blew it out of the park for me so I had to put him at number 1. Ready Player One was just so original and funny and brilliant. It also really played into the geek sensibility and reminded me of many memories from my adolescence. Wise Man's Fear wasn't as good as Name of the Wind, certainly. It didn't give me that same tingle of excitement, that same desire to tell everyone I know about it. Still it was magnificent storytelling. I'd say it was on par with one of the middle Harry Potter books in terms of quality, which is still far and away better than most. The Night Circus was lovely and charming. Very Gaiman by way of Suzanna Clarke with some Audrey Niffenegger thrown in for good measure. Original and beautifully realized, I found it lacking only in the incomprehensible nature of the characters. Certainly it is their nature to be unknowable, but I didn't feel emotionally invested. Reading the book was like watching a gorgeous silent movie where the visuals were everything. A Map of Time I reviewed on here previously. It was delightful and unique. A definite winner. Both Breadcrumbs and Wonderstruck are children's books, and definite Newbery contenders. Breadcrumbs is a wonderful modern fantasy that combines both emotional realistic storytelling and fantastically realized otherworldliness in its retelling of the classic tale of the Snow Queen. Wonderstruck, despite its name, is not a fantasy at all but rather a beautifully moving story of memory and loss told in Brian Selznick's unique style combining illustration and the written word similar to what he did with "Hugo." Emotional and powerful, and particularly well researched, it is a must read for any children's literature fans. Not featured on the list was "A Dance With Dragons" which was a slog. I enjoyed the first three books in the Song of Ice and Fire, but ADWD and A Feast For Crows were both disappointments.

1. Ready Player One

2. Wise Man's Fear

3. The Night Circus

4. The Map of Time

5. Breadcrumbs/ Wonderstruck

Top 5 Television Shows of the year

I watch a ton of TV. Most of it not very good.

After knocking A Dance With Dragons, its time to gush praise on Game of Thrones. SUCH a good show. Finally fantasy has come to television in a real way. Not fairy tales, not urban paranormal fantasy with sexy vampires, but good old fashioned swords and sorcery. Bring it! Great actors on the show, particularly Peter Dinkledge who I've loved since I saw The Station Agent. I'm so excited for the next few years of the show, seeing on screen what I've read, but I worry that A) George R.R. Martin won't finish the series fast enough for the creation of the show and B) that the trying parts of the books will be just as trying onscreen. We will have to see. Community I adore. I only place it second because this Fall's season hasn't been as strong as the past. However, I can't geek out about it enough. I nearly bought an Inspector Spacetime shirt. Please keep this show going. Its the best comedy on TV. Justified... wow. What a show. If you are sad there was never a 4th season of Deadwood, just watch Justified. Brilliant acting, great directing, funny funny scripts. Margo Martindale was superb this past season in a guest spot. Love Walter Goggins. Good stuff. Doctor Who just hasn't impressed me that much this season, though it is still a fav. I feel like they are trying to cram too much in to too little time. I wish they took their time with some of the major plot developments rather than having these rushed feeling season or mid season finales where too much happens. Still I enjoy Matt Smith as the Doctor and look forward to the new season. Downton Abbey is the oddball of the bunch but I really enjoyed it so much. Delightful acting and very well written. I thought for the longest time it was actually an adaptation of some novel and I went to find it only to discover that it is an original story. That impressed me even more, because it felt so richly developed. Almost on the list was the NBC comedy "Up All Night." It is the most realistic portrayal of new parenthood I've ever seen on TV. The writing is really spot on. As it hasn't even completed a whole season I'll give it a little more time to put it on the list. Modern Family I still find hilarious as well. Also a fan of Psych and White Collar and Burn Notice... it was tough only picking 5 shows since I watch so many.

1. Game of Thrones

2. Community

3. Justified

4. Doctor Who

5. Downton Abbey

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