Saturday, September 6, 2014

The Martian, or Tony Stark Goes to Mars

I don't have a brain wired for scientific reasoning, but I'm endlessly fascinated by people who understand science and can explain it to me in a way that makes me almost think I can understand it, too. I put them in the same category as those individuals who roughhouse with wild hyenas.

Science, like hyenas, can never be tamed.

The six crewmates of Ares 3 are caught in a serious windstorm (sustained gusts of about 110 mph) on Sol 6 of their scientific mission to Mars. They’re forced to scrub the whole mission and flee the planet as the wind makes serious moves toward tipping the MAV (i.e., the Mars ascent vehicle, their only ticket off that godforsaken rock). As they’re shuffling their blind way toward the MAV, through the whipping wind and dust, Mark Watney (specialties: mechanical engineering and botany) is impaled by a wind-borne antenna and swept far away from the group. Presumed dead by his crew (and reasonably so), he's ultimately abandoned on Mars. The ensuing story is something like Castaway without the coconuts.
If the oxygenator breaks down, I’ll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I’ll die of thirst. If the Hab breaches, I’ll just kind of explode. If none of those things happen, I’ll eventually run out of food and starve to death.
So yeah. I’m f*****.
As Mark applies his wits and expertise toward the end goal of not becoming dead, he walks us through his adventures and misadventures via logs. He explains his methods in what should be an irritating amount of detail but is not, because tell me more about how you separated pure hydrogen from rocket fuel and then used it to make water and also how you took that whoozit and connected it to this whatsit to create an even handier doodad.

This is a literal fight for survival from beginning to end, and it's an incredibly tense read. It would be much less enjoyable without the levity that Andy Weil (through Mark) brings to every page (let's hope Ridley Scott doesn't run the movie adaptation through his Ultra-Serious Doom Machininator™ and squeeze all the humor out). It's a rare variety of person who can keep the jokes coming while alone on a barren planet that is actively trying to pop him like a blood-filled balloon—which kind of reminds me of this other guy I know.
“I admit it’s fatally dangerous,” Watney said.
“But consider this: I’d get to fly around like Iron Man.”

One more thing: That crew of six people? TWO of them are women. That is one more than the absolute bare minimum, which means this book about a to-this-day overwhelmingly male-dominated profession that centers on a white man stuck on Mars alone passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. All arguments against including real women in sci-fi are invalid for all time.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Alias Hook: Well, I didn't hate it

Fairy Tale Cleverly Retold is one of my favorite book flavors. And my first cartoon crush, aside from Robin Hood the (literal) fox, was Captain Hook. I like a man who wears a jaunty hat and creatively compensates for a crippling disability. But most important, he and I agree on one crucial point:

Peter Pan is an asshole.

Because you drug them with pixie dust

So when I heard about this retelling of the classic tale from Hook’s perspective, openly casting Pan as the villainous boy-child I’ve always known him to be and giving Hook a scrappy 30-something love interest in Stella Parrish (he deserves love, dammit), I couldn’t get my hands on it fast enough.

Unfortunately . . . it wasn’t all that good.

The explanations Lisa Jensen cooked up to make sense of a Neverland that can be a fantasy playground for children while simultaneously resembling the clock-like death arena from Catching Fire are well thought out and undeniably clever. And when she let herself get truly dark with her story, I was enthralled. “He finds them by their longing, stray boys for his tribe and girls to tell him stories.”

(I mean, they might. We don't know.)

But those few moments of delicious creepiness were couched in what often seemed like mediocre Pirates of the Caribbean fan fiction—with a voudon priestess on a Caribbean island and everything.

Jensen never seemed to find Captain Hook’s voice, and because of that, I could never see him as more than the sum of his parts. It was almost as if she were doing improv and someone in the audience shouted out, “You’re a Restoration-era pirate with a good English education and particular ideas about women. GO.”
You’d scarcely know her for a female, garbed in her plaid jacket, a glimpse of white shirttail peeking out over loose dark trousers. Her feet are scarcely clad in soft, useless satiny things that expose her toes and heels. And she is surely not Indian; her face and hands are pale, her hair brownish and dusty, not long and silky black, much less done up in pearls and powder, as was the fashion in my day. But I am scarcely reassured.

But speaking of those Indians, they're a high point in the book. Jensen succeeds where the Disney movie justand I think we can all agree on thiscompletely failed. The Indians in this Neverland are people. With lives. And motives. And a nuanced cultural context. Imagine that.

While we’re saying nice things about fair representation of minorities, I also want to mention that feminism is in full effect throughout. The female characters (human and nonhuman) exhibit wisdom and agency and authority, and are more often cast in the role of rescuer than rescued.

BUT there was this one weird Victorian-morality-play deal that put a patriarchal fly in the ointment.

**The mildest of spoilers lies here.**

There’s a rule in the Neverland that innocent blood can never be shed, because that would upset the balance and destroy the land and everyone who lives in it; so the people/creatures of Neverland are pretty concerned that Pan might try to kill Stella for the crime of being an adult lady—that is, until she does adult-lady things with Captain Hook. “She is innocent no more, not as she was when she first arrived. . . . There are many ways to lose one’s innocence.” And so, because she had sex in the Neverland, Pan is free to stab her in the face with no long-term consequences to anyone’s way of life EXCEPT STELLA’S BECAUSE SHE WOULD BE DEAD.

**That's a really mild spoiler up there, so you should probably just go ahead and read it. OK I’ll wait.**

So in the end, I won’t say this book is a waste of time. It has some great moments, and I’m not sorry I read it. I just feel it’s my duty to warn you that you’ll have to muddle through a fair amount of Deep Thoughts With Hook, and this is what they look like:
Stella is my guiding star. Her body is my altar, my refuge. Her love is my life, and by God I will deserve her, coaxing the most wonderful music out of her that I have ever played, until we lose ourselves at last in the riotous swell of this love we make together.
That's my best advice.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week THE END: “I don’t think I was here at all.”

I’ve been concerned about Johanna all along, of course, but I wasn’t truly worried until she started doing Kenny’s bad speed (“even Shane McGowan from the Pogues won’t take it”—yikes) in a bathroom stall. It seemed to Johanna to be the only remedy for her unhappiness after an offended bass player threw his drink on her. It seemed to me to be another suppression of her Self.

And she’s been doing a lot of suppressing throughout this book. Really, whenever she’s not with John Kite or her family, she’s not so much building a certain kind of girl as pretending to be that girl already, at the expense of actually getting to know herself. This is what I meant when I said (somewhere . . . in someone’s comment section?) that faking it until you make it can be a dangerous game if you play it too enthusiastically.

When I look back through Johanna’s sexual adventures, beginning with The Kisser, she almost seems to disappear from the book in those places. There’s no room for her there.
The thought I can’t have is “I don’t want to do this”—because how do I know if I don’t want to do this? I’m still terra-forming me. I’m learning so many new things about me, every day. Perhaps this is the day I find I am secretly a masochist. (p. 259)

As it turns out

And that’s a common theme in Johanna’s coming-of-age story. Almost nothing she has done to date has been for herself, because it was the best thing for her. We can argue that she wanted to have lots of sex and decided she would do that, but in actual practice . . . what is she getting out of any of this?
“All my sex is done by me, and is silent.” (p. 262)
Those are not the words of a sexually empowered woman.

She is so out of touch with herself and so lacking in agency that she becomes one of those girls who drunkenly kisses another girl solely for the benefit of a male onlooker. And she nearly becomes one of those girls who engages in a threesome to gain said male’s approval (“I order myself to be OK with this”).

And the compromises extend to other areas of her life, too. Did you guys know that Johanna once had secret dreams of being an academic? No, and I’ll venture no one in her life did either, because this is the first time she’s lowered her façade enough even to think about an alternate path to the one she’s heading down full tilt:
In another world—where I had not run away from school to earn money—I would have gone there, I think. My mock-exam results were high enough, and I would have left Wolverhampton and entered that intellectual Gormenghast, where there are no boys standing on street corners shouting at you, no men threating to put an ax in your dog’s head. (p. 268)
Fortunately, the night of the almost-threesome and melancholy thoughts on the Path Not Taken was also the night when Johanna found her agency.
I feel excitingly . . . free. Things were going to happen to me last night that I did not like—and I stopped them. I have never prevented my own doom before! I have never stood in the path of certain unhappiness and told myself—lovingly, like a mother to myself—No! This unhappiness will not suit you! Turn around and go another way! (p. 279)
Oh THERE you are, Johanna.

And while that’s not the end of Johanna’s pain, it is the beginning of true self-discovery, helped along by a supportive family (thank you, Caitlin, for that companionable conversation between Johanna and her mum) and a gentle musician in a fur cape who has some growing up of his own to do.

This has been a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. YOU CAN HAVE THIS BOOK. Preorder it from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller. Imma go read it again now.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week 4: In which I hold forth on the subject of lady-plumbing

I’ve been relating a lot with Johanna throughout this book, but this week—this week she became my Patronus.

Here’s the thing, friends: Most women get 1 urinary tract or bladder infection (aka cystitis) in their lifetime, maybe a handful if they’re not careful. I’ve had . . . somewhere closer to 50?

I started getting them in my late teens, and anything could set one off. In college, I figured they were flaring up more often because I was drinking too much coffee and not enough water and getting so engrossed with my studies that I sometimes forgot to pee in a timely manner. And when I got married, hoo boy did I level up because of reasons—to monthly UTIs and even the occasional kidney infection. My mom tells me that the propensity for this affliction goes way back among the women in her family.


I feel as teenage werewolves must, the first time they explain the hereditary nature of lycanthropy to their adolescent peers, the night after something awful happened with the full moon and a friend’s cat.
"It’s passed down from my mother’s side," they would say, apologetically—collar still hanging from their mouth, displaying a small bell and a disc bearing the legend TIBBLES.
Caitlin, if you’re reading this, I have tried and failed for half my life to describe the very particular agony of such an infection, often to a concerned party on the other side of the bathroom door as I drink my 10th bottle of water and my legs go hopelessly tingly from sitting too long on the toilet. I have often considered investing in a cushioned, heated toilet seat. I started AND finished The Poisonwood Bible whilst sitting in a tub of scalding water. And I have never, ever, ever seen the humor in any of this, but I can't very well ignore it now, can I? Also, I can mark this passage and present the book to people by way of explanation before I disappear into the bathroom for 8 hours:
I begin my tinkle, and have the exciting chance to watch my face contort in sudden and total agony. HELLO. This piss is apparently made of boiling poison. Boiling poison, a billion Lilliputian arrows, and a wildly rotating whirligig, made of Satan's pinlike teeth.
Shhhh...pain is your home now.

I also really enjoyed the focus on Johanna and Krissi’s relationship in this section. When they hung out in Johanna’s room, bonding over music, it made me miss my brother. (Hi, Ryan, if you’re here! Sorry about when I talked about my bladder.) We never really had any discussions about music, as the elder Morrigan siblings do on this occasion, but some of my fondest memories of my brother come with a specific musical soundtrack: the day we hung out in his attic bedroom at my grandparents’ house, listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Rage Against the Machine and feeling grievously misunderstood; the times I snuck in to clean his room while he was out (cleaning is my love language, yo), singing along to his copy of No Doubt’s Tragic Kingdom or Green Day’s Dookie; any number of occasions that warranted our top-of-the-lungs belting of songs by a Star Wars theme band called Twin Sister (WE DON’T SERVE YOUR KIND HERE, WE DON’T SERVE YOUR KIND).

But aside from these two points of personal significance that I spent all my time talking about this week, Johanna was really busy in this section getting her first kiss and then kissing all the kisses, pretending to be sexually liberated, writing brazen letters to John Kite (who's still wonderful, BY the way), making poignant statements about the nature of cynicism and the most important aspect of sex (“You get a whole person to yourself, for the first time since you were a baby. Someone who is looking at you—just you—and thinking about you, and wanting you, and you haven’t even had to lie at the bottom of the stairs and pretend you’re dead to get them to do it.”), making oblivious comments to her obviously gay brother about the Bee Gees being so gay and how if there were any gay people in Wolverhampton they would probably be shot . . . very busy INDEED.

All that’s left now is to finish the book, and I simultaneously cannot wait and am so sad to see it end.

This continues to be a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. Look, you. Stop mucking about and preorder the book from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller.

Monday, July 28, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week 3: “A chrysalis is hung in the dark.”

This week's low came when the hammer finally dropped and the Morrigan family’s benefits were suspended pending an investigation into their situation. This can only mean that their meddling neighbor took it upon herself to report Dadda for washing the car that one day.

Oh the damage wrought by misguided do-gooders

The family income will drop by 11 percent until the powers that be determine whether they qualify for continued assistance.
Eleven percent is not very much—but, when you are very poor, it may form the bedrock of your survival.
And now you are standing on so much less than you were before. You are unstable. You are liable to fall.
Johanna reminded her parents that she'll be getting some money from the reviews she’s written and can help supplement that deficit. But the elder Morrigans put on their Responsible Parent hats and insisted that she open a savings account and put aside half of everything she earns (“You don’t know what’s going to happen in the future, Johanna”). This was a redeeming moment for Johanna’s parents and further evidence, I think, that they're just people, trying to do their best and occasionally succeeding.

As for the high, Johanna’s trip to Dublin to interview John Kite was a doozy.

Let's DO.

That was a really fantastic day. But she’s fallen HARD for this man who’s really just a motherless boy and still perhaps a little too old for her. And we don’t yet know whether he’s interested in her the same way she’s interested in him. Or if we even want him to be. Because as sincere as he seems (“Duchess, this is one of those great afternoons where you make a friend for life, isn’t it? We just seem to be . . . a lot the same.”), he’s not the picture of stability and that fur coat probably smells not-good.

But I think the most important thing about him as he relates to Johanna’s story is that he’s the type of person who allows others to be just who they are. And Johanna is getting drunk on that, because she’s not used to that level of acceptance, to the idea of someone (a man, no less) being unreservedly delighted by who she is.
John Kite was the first person I’d ever met who made me feel normal. That when I talked "too much," it was not the point where you walked away, going, "You’re weird, Johanna," or "Shut up, Johanna,”—but that that was when the conversation actually got good. The more ridiculous things I said—the more astonishing things I confessed—the more he roared with laughter, or slapped the table and said: "That is exactly how it is, you outrageous item."
I felt some of Johanna's giddiness as I was reading that chapter because it took me back to my own youth, when I was equally starved for male attention and uncertain whether I was even acceptable to the opposite sex. I know how much a day like that would have meant to me then.

I also remember how much of a naïve idiot I was at her age, and I’m in constant amazement that my crippling insecurity, paired with a naturally trusting nature, didn’t land me in a shallow grave before I reached adulthood.

What comes to mind is one particular concert I went to when I was about 16. There was no stage, so the band were on the same level as the audience, and we were all just standing in a circle around them. I was front and center on the inner ring of that circle, and the guitarist/singer, during an instrumental portion of one of the songs, showboated around a little and landed directly in front of me, where he lingered for quite some time, pressed right up against me, his front to my front. I remember that he looked me straight in the eye the whole time he was standing there, and the back of his pick hand as he played the guitar was quite literally in my crotch. But instead of recoiling at being singled out for a ritual groping by a man in his mid-20s who was a complete stranger to me, I was flattered. The sweaty musician had picked me.

The thing about hearts for eyes is that they impair your vision.

After the show, I somehow ended up in the band’s RV. (I KNOW.) But in an absurd twist of fate, in their offstage lives these guys were sober vegans and perfect gentlemen. They sat me at the pull-down table with a pile of potatoes and a knife. They (literally) armed me against a threat I hadn’t even registered.

So Past Me and Present Me are arguing with each other as I read Johanna’s adventures in Dublin and London, in pubs and at parties. I understand both sides of that coin now. Sure, every night out seems brimming with excitement and possibilities. But I see a little too much of my foolish streak in her. And then there's this:
I have made my notes, now, you see, on how to build a girl, and put her out in the world. Everyone drinks. Everyone smokes. . . . You come into a room and say things, like you’re in a play. You fake it till you make it. You discuss sex like it’s a game. You have adventures. You don’t quote musicals. Whatever everyone else is doing, you do that. You say things to be heard, rather than to be right.

Just hoping for the best at this point
This continues to be a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. Are you convinced you need this book? Of course you are. Preorder from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller.

Monday, July 21, 2014

How to Build a Girl Week 2: “They’re making new kinds of girls in America.” YEAH they are.

This week’s reading brought us additional disheartening information about life in the Morrigan house, but also FEMINISM.

Johanna told us about her parents’ issues, but now we’re beginning to see the bare facts for ourselves, without the benefit of a green Instagram filter (joke stolen from Rayna).

Mrs. Morrigan isn’t too deeply ensconced in her postpartum stupor to interject a remark or three on Johanna’s weight, comparing her, in her all-black wardrobe, to a big fat crow and quipping that she doesn’t need drugs because she has a whole plate of sausage rolls. In front of company she says these things. To a 14-year-old girl with body-image issues.

Got the whole negative self-talk thing covered, thanks.

And those of us who delighted in Johanna’s dad last week had a particularly hard go of it this week. He is, in fact, deserving of the benefits he receives. It doesn’t even seem like he’s gaming the system now that we can see how severe his injuries were. And the fall that broke his body changed his personality as well. It made him bitter over unachieved goals and mean on the days when the pain is the worst. And while I can pity him for the unexpected turn his life took, I mostly pity his kids, who have to navigate around the landmine plunked down in front of their TV.

But Dadda is there. And although his advice has been harsh, it’s gotten Johanna off her arse and into action at two critical moments in her life already. This last time, the message came loud and clear from a place of anger and frustration (probably because he was thinking of himself and his unobtained dreams…and worrying that she’d repeat his mistakes), but he’s right. If you want to be a writer, then stop talking and start writing. If you want to reinvent yourself, then get to it already.

Fake it till yow make it, kidder.

Now that Johanna is entering the boys’ club of music journalism, she’s becoming more aware of gender dynamics in the outside world. Despite growing up with Krissi (“He is on the bed knitting himself a bobble hat whilst listening to an Agatha Christie audiotape from the library. A big, pale boy hunched over a tiny pair of needles. Krissi becomes very angry when you tell him that knitting is for girls.”), she knows there are certain places where women don’t feel welcome (also some places where a bold chapeau isn’t appreciated, but that’s not till later). Her first visit to the record store confirms that notion.

No worries, though. Mouthy American lady-rockers to the rescue.
All my life, I’ve thought that if I couldn’t say anything boys found interesting, I might as well shut up. But now I realize there was that whole other, invisible half of the world—girls—that I could speak to instead. A whole other half equally silent and frustrated, just waiting to be given the smallest starting signal—the tiniest starter culture—and they would explode into words, and song, and action, and relieved, euphoric cries of “Me too! I feel this too!”

And it may be due to this revelation—courtesy of Courtney Love and Bikini Kill and Riot Grrrl—that Johanna is able to hold her own during her first meeting with the men of Disc & Music Echo in their office that is “essentially built out of trousers, confidence, and testicles.”

Things are leaving off fairly well for Dolly Wilde this week. Let’s all enjoy it while it lasts.

This continues to be a readalong hosted by Emily at As the Crowe Flies (and Reads!) and made possible by the lovely people at HarperCollins. Are you convinced you need this book? Of course you are. Preorder from Odyssey Books or your favorite indie bookseller.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

We Learn Nothing: “I’ve demonstrated an impressive resilience in the face of valuable life lessons.”

My first introduction to Tim Kreider was on a book podcast where he was the guest author. Right away he told a story about a performance art exhibit he attended at the MOMA. The piece featured a live, nude woman, and the art made eye contact with passers-by, probably to send a message about the power of gaze. Well Tim was no match for it, and he fled the exhibit. But on his second visit, he decided he would not quail and planted himself in front of the art, making eye contact with the model for 20 minutes. This connection was broken only when she stepped down to be replaced by a different model. In this interview, Tim said he felt as though he knew the woman intimately after that experience, better than he would if they had gone on a date, which led to a conversation about the inherently empty nature of first-date conversations.

A noble pursuit.

I paused the podcast and put his book on hold at the library. I could tell that Tim was, as the protagonist of Sara Levine’s Treasure Island!!! might put it, “a noticing kind of person.” And I wanted to see what else he had noticed.

We Learn Nothing is a collection of essays intermixed with occasional cartoons (Tim’s also a satirical cartoonist). There’s no theme per se, but each essay begins on the premise of a personal anecdote and then almost imperceptibly pans out to reveal a larger, shared human experience.

One of my favorites, “When They’re Not Assholes,” starts out as Tim’s fairly predictable jaunt crashing a Tea Party rally (“At first glance, the crowd at the Tax Day rally unhelpfully confirmed all my snottiest liberal stereotypes about conservatives.”) but ends up as an insightful analysis of the enmity between two political extremes.
Red and Blue bash each other with the hysterical homophobia of the closeted because we recognize in each other our most loathed secret selves. We’re the Red States’ feckless, ineffectual, faggy compassionate side that they like to think they’ve successfully quashed, just as they . . . are our more credulous and aggressive selves, whom we’re too inhibited to own up to. . . . We are one another’s political Shadows. We may hate each other, but let’s at least quit pretending we hate hating each other; we love hating each other.

Taking on a completely different subject, “An Insult to the Brain” provides a literary analysis of The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, interweaves that with a mother/son story, and concludes it all with a boy-and-his-dog moment that made the backs of my eyeballs prickly.

And the other essays diverge just as widely as these two in their subject matter.

This book found me right in the middle of a season where interacting with those I don’t agree with is so distressing that I flinch at exchanges that could make me a more informed and compassionate person. Either my emotions get in the way of my reasoning skills or I have one too many drinks and make a spectacular argument that no one hears because bars are NOISY and drunk people don’t usually care about birth control in more than just the immediate sense that it might come in handy in a few hours. (What? No . . . that didn’t just happen to me. I like to be specific with my examples, is all.)

I didn't always agree with Tim Kreider, but I could always relate with him. AND I was able to discuss portions of his Tea Party essay with my politically conservative mother without either of us yelling or crying.

Right. Good. Baby steps.