Wednesday, March 04, 2015

What We Talk About When We Talk About Buffy

When I talk about Buffy, I always need to start by talking about how I don't want to talk about why I want to talk about Buffy.  Which is to say, I have this on-again, off-again obsession that is probably actually pretty unhealthy, and really is more like on-again, in-hibernation.  Ahem.

Anyway, let's not get into how I'm way too attached to this universe, and let's talk a little about the beginning of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 10

One thing I will say, each season of the comics has been very different.  Eight was okay right up until it went off the rails with the worst ending ever.  Nine was a little confusing, to be honest, but I liked pretty much everything it was doing--the tension around magic being gone, Giles being gone, Willow's distraction, Buffy's lack of focus.  The personal stuff felt very true to the Buffy I know, and I felt like it brought just the right amount of over-the-top-ness--unlike eight, they took advantage of the comics medium to make things big and impressive without causing our favorite characters to get lost in this strange, unfamiliar world.  It stayed focused on the people, even when they were saving the world.

Let's talk about art, though. I wish I could remember where I saw a blog post lately about whether you'd quit a comic over art; I will say that once I'm in, I'm in, but I won't even set foot inside if the art isn't to my liking.  In the same way that I won't read a book that's one long paragraph, even if it's beautiful and moving--form matters, and if I'm uncomfortable trying to consume the story, I'm not going to be able to enjoy it. 

The art in eight and nine was in a style I liked a lot, and most of the characters were recognizable--except for Buffy.  She looked more like Sarah Michelle Gellar from season one of the TV show; she did not have the look of the mature SMG, which meant she didn't look like Buffy.  It's like she was some alternate version of how young Buffy might have grown up.  It was getting annoying. 

This time out, they've switched things up, and the team that used to do Angel & Faith is now doing BtVS.  I don't like the art style as well--it's a bit more cartoony--but I do like that Buffy looks a bit more like I expect her to.  I feel like I'm able to match the character I imagine to the one I'm seeing.  So that's something.

Anyway, all this is to bring us back to volume 1 of this new season and my many feelings.  I'm conflicted.  I loved it and found it incredibly satisfying, but for those same reasons, it felt a little inauthentic.  It was funny--really funny, with lots of inside jokes and fast-talking quips, to the point where maybe it was a little too funny, a little too upbeat and casual.  I don't mind upbeat--it's the beginning of the season, I'm sure things will get miserable soon--but it could be seen as pandering.  I don't know--I LOVE the in-jokes, but catering to my fangirl is not a healthy way to conduct business.

That's really what's going on all over the place.  Buffy and Willow have a lovely girl-bonding moment, talking about guys and being together as a team again.  Buffy complains about her love life to Spike, who brushes her off, which is some great setup material.  Hell, Buffy and Spike are hanging out, partners in patrolling again.  Everyone's a family, close, talking, sharing things, happy. This is wonderful!  It's what you want!  It's what the fanfiction has been writing for years. 

Except it's not what the story is.  Think about it--from the beginning, if you look at Buffy as being about friendship, about bonding, even though that's true, most of it takes place in the spaces between the closeness.  For every movie night, there's a secret being withheld.  For every girl talk convo, one person's heart is breaking a little.  This is a story about being set apart from the people you love most, and how we're all kind of alone, even when we're on a team; in the best of moments, it's about how we can all work as a team, even though we're all really alone.

But there's no loneliness here.  There's casual intimacy, friendship, easy bonding.  It's like the Scooby gang as the cast of Friends, sitting in each other's laps instead of reaching across the divides between each other.

Here's the thing, though; I'm not complaining.  I cannot tell you how satisfying it was to see Dawn and Xander uncomfortable but trying to talk about it, Buffy and Willow not only being close but talking about how close they are, Spike swing Buffy off the back of that truck, and the big battlefield reunion.  The new characters--Billy, Anaheed--still promise to be around, but we've got the band back together.  Do you know just how much I wanted to get the band back together? 

So I am grateful, and hungry for more. I have what I want, and I'm going to glut myself on it.  But I can't help thinking that it's not quite what I expected, and wondering where it's going next.  I suppose, if Joss Whedon is still involved, even if only at the top level, I don't have to worry about things staying too happy for too long.  Probably they're setting me up for someone important to get killed.

Probably I could live with that

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Things I Never Thought I'd Like This Much: Celebrity Autobiography

I've read my share of these--Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Bossypants, Yes, Please!--and I usually find them mildly amusing, but not quite interesting enough to write about.  I mean, they're usually comedians, and they usually had pretty standard childhoods, and through drive plus skill plus luck, they end up famous, but really, they're just like everyone else.  And, while they're funny, they're mostly not prose writers (they are mostly TV writers, because apparently that's what I read), and so while the books are funny, they're meant for delivery.  This is why I mostly listen to them as audiobooks.

There's never quite enough personal connection, never quite enough dirt.  These are people writing books because it's a good career move--they're funny, people will buy it, it'll boost their visibility.  Which is fine, but it also means that they're not actually doing it because they have something to say about their lives; they're doing it because they want to talk about something, and the material available to them is their lives.  And because people are curious.  But you also don't want to alienate people, so you get the best stories about other stars, and you hear how warm and gracious and funny everyone is.

Now, having listed all these things out, I can tell you why Neil Patrick Harris's Choose Your Own Autobiography is the best celebrity autobiography I've read. 

1) His childhood gets interesting really fast.  He was in a movie with Whoopi Goldberg when he was like 14.  Also Doogie Howser.  His adolescence contains some good anecdotes that are unlike the ones my friends have to tell.

2) I won't say he's not afraid to talk trash, because he only dishes dirt on a few people, none of them A-listers.  But he does have some stories of exactly the People magazine level of trash that you want to hear--the child actor club scene in the early '90s, when Shannen Doherty was terrorizing drunk club kids and Scott Caan was in some kind of gang.  He drops enough bits about bad directors, uncomfortable sitcom sets, and Dustin Diamond to make it more salacious than a lot of people.

3) His personal story of coming out, both to himself and to the world, is really touching and honest.  Again, it's not like he delves into deep psychological territory, but he talks about the false starts, about why it was hard and what he struggled with, and he's quite vulnerable and honest about these things.  This is the kind of story I like to read even if I don't already like the guy who's telling it.

4) He just seems adorable.  He loves magic and Disney and the Muppets.  When he talks about going to Disney World, he seems honestly as excited by it as Mike gets.  And the fact that he gets the star treatment there (of course)--he's humble and grateful and cheerful about it.  That's a hard tone to capture, believe me.

5) Finally, and I hate to say this, I think he's partly able to be more open about all these things because he's a dude.  It feels like a feminist betrayal to like this book more than the ones I listed above because of this: it's less bridge-burny for a guy to be honest about these things, to tell the behind-the-scenes dirty stuff, than it is for a woman to do this.  Which gives him the freedom to give me this book that I really love.

Oh, and this doesn't need a number, but the man can write.  I'm laughing out loud, reading passages out to people.  He's witty, verbally adept, and an efficient storyteller.  This book is so damned funny.

So a shout out to my best girl, Brenda--thank you SO MUCH!  This was the best spontaneous, for-no-reason gift I've ever gotten.  It's so perfect!

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Opportunity: Get Books!

You probably want this Humble Bundle from Subterranean Press, which I know because I do.  Did.  I bought it. 

If you don't know the deal with the Humble Bundle, it's basically a deal where you get a whole batch of stuff on a pay-what-you-want basis.  If you pay more than the average, you get a whole bunch more books. 

The reason I wanted it was because two books that I had already decided to purchase were on there: a collection of the short works of KJ Parker, Academic Exercises, and a collection called The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, by Barry Hughart.  I haven't read either one, but I've just fallen for KJ Parker after Jenny's recommendation, and Aarti highly recommends Barry Hughart.

There's also a bunch of other fantasy and sci fi material--novellas, collections, books, and even a collection of John Scalzi's blog posts.  I'm interested in about three-quarters of the contents, but just the two I linked to here were worth what I paid, by far.

What are you waiting for?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Halfway Post: Ancillary Justice

There is so much going on here, I can't wait till the end to write about it.

I mean, I always hate waiting till the end, and I think in some ways that's a failure on my part because it demonstrates a reluctance to engage my critical facilities in deconstructing the work I've just completed.  But let's be honest: when I write a review after I've finished the book, I end up writing about the book; if I write it while I'm reading, I write about my reaction to the book, which I fully admit is what I want to write about, so I guess that works out okay.

Anyway, reading this one for my NEWEST book club, which is at work, and it's so much fun to read something everyone around me is reading and talk about it.  Although it's also crazymaking when you're both talking about how shocked you are, and you have to hedge, like, I'm at the part on the bridge.  Are you there yet?  Oh, I'm way past there!

On the subject of work book club, I will have more to say, but on the subject of Ann Leckie's Ancillary Justice, let's dive in.

First (and this will be interesting in a book club setting, especially a new one), this is the kind of science fiction that non-scifi readers are talking about when they say they don't know how to read scifi.  This is a book that starts out deep in complicated world-building and lets you sort out what's going on, and you will be a good 20% of the way through the book (sorry, I don't do page numbers anymore) before you get your feet under you.  It's okay, it's still a fun ride, but if you don't trust the author to carry you through, it can cause serious floundering.  People who don't know how to read for clues about things like technology, social order, and alien life forms are going to get lost fairly easily; this is not for beginners.

Second, because it's obvious and very talked-about: the gender thing.  I feel like there are so many layers to my reaction to this.  First, from a strictly theoretical point of view, I love it. It takes all these cultural assumption--a lot of which you don't even know you have--and turns them on their heads.  You see, the Radch (the race of the ruling empire) has no gender.  It's not perfectly clear (yet), but it's implied that they have sexes, but their language lacks gender.  The narrator, being a native speaker, uses "she" for everyone, except in conversation, where she struggles to identify genders correctly.

Beneath the cool level of challenging the reader's assumption and adding to the flavor of this alien world (and mind), you get the layer on which it affects the narrative, which is also fascinating.  Because not all the characters we encounter are from genderless cultures, and so there are sometimes things going on below the surface that our first person narrator might not be fully grasping, and that we get to sort out.

Besides which, there's the level on which it challenges you within the narrative, which is tied up with the ways it challenges your notions of how you think about gender yourself.  At first, I found myself parsing every scene carefully to see if I was able to tell the gender of the people Breq was encountering.  This character has a beard: male.  This other person referred to that kid as a girl.  But the very act of doing this makes you examine why you're doing it--does it matter whether Seivarden is male or female?  She's an officer in the Radch, kind of obnoxious, completely helpless, whatever, but does maleness matter, especially if her own culture says it doesn't?

Well, but then you get an interaction where she's advising a cousin who's new to the military about social standing and romantic relationships, and it just feels very different if you cast her as male vs. female.  And when Lt. Awn has a romantic interlude, it crosses your mind to wonder what gender means to these two people.  And when Awn--young, thoughtful, and liberal-minded--is having an interaction with an older, I-think-male religious leader in an occupied city, I can't help but feel that the complicated power plays that are going on in that scene get more complicated when you add the religious leader's read of Awn's gender, whether it's male or female.  Watching myself watch these interactions was fascinating.

I feel like this is what I've heard most about regarding this book, and it's complicated and fascinating--but it's such a small part of things.  It's just there, perfectly crafted and running right through the narrative with a thousand other complicated things.

Good lord, like slavery and bodily autonomy.  You see, once there was a ship called the Justice of Toren, which had its own artificial intelligence, and which was embodied not only in the physical ship itself, but in its ancillaries--individual bodies that had once been people, but whom, for one reason or another, had been killed or taken or destroyed, and whose bodies are now--let's call it reanimated, though that's not quite right--for the use of the ship.

Justice of Toren is a troop ship, and most of the troops she carries are human (well, Radch).  But each deck of the ship--each century of troops--has a set of servant bodies.  So the first portion we meet is One Esk, whose mind is part of Justice of Toren's mind, but is also its own.  And this character--One Esk, or Justice of Toren, or whatever you call it--is this amazing character who is artificially intelligent, obedient, and only exists to serve, but has her own sense of morality, of humor, of self.  It's so complicated, and so beautiful.

I think what I love most about Breq--the identity our narrator has taken and the easiest name to use--is that she's so kind and generous with everyone, even when they're kind of awful, even when she's angry or frustrated or horrified.  She's got this pragmatism coupled with what seems like a deeply settled optimism, and an unflagging sense of herself that lets her be patient with those around her, whether they deserve it or not.

Are you confused yet?  Would it turn you upside down if I say that the narrative jumps between times--primarily two, but with little bits of other memories thrown in for fun?  Should I start talking about colonialism, or slavery, or how the lieutenants treat her?  Should I talk about body ownership, or loyalty based on affection vs. duty?

And I'd like to point out, NONE of this is the plot.  I mean, I'm talking JUST about the world building here; I haven't even started in on the ideas of power and status and imperialism and...and...and...

This book is dense.  And amazing.  And I'm only halfway through.  I am having an absolute blast here--all the amazing reviews I've read have been totally right.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

These Walls

I thought I had never heard of Nova Ren Suma before I got The Walls Around Us from Netgalley.  Turns out I actually acquired her Imaginary Girls ages ago, but (as with so, so, SO many other books) hadn't actually read it yet.  Bump another one to the top of the list, I guess; I very much feel like I need to read more.

This is not a book that hits you over the head with its elaborate complexities or fancy gimmicks.  After you settle into the two alternating stories, you might think it was straightforward.  It's the kind of craftsmanship that sneaks up on you, under your radar.  My thoughts on the book have been stewing in the days since I finished it, and they feel richer for it. 

On the topmost layer, we have two stories, two point of view characters.  One is a wealthy high school senior who is a successful ballet dancer, headed for Julliard.  She's preparing for her final show at her old school, thinking about absent friends.  The other is an inmate at a correctional facility for violent teenage girls. We meet her on the night that the locks malfunction and the doors open and the girls find themselves suddenly, mysteriously loose.  Two very different situations, different characters.  Both--competitive ballerina, teenaged inmate--fascinating worlds to enter in their own right.

Soon, we find the connection; the ballerina is Vee, whose best friend, Ori, has been sent to prison.  We learn bits about how this happen over the course of the book, mostly from Vee, almost in spite of herself.  She is a master compartmentalizer.

In the prison, much of the story seems to be told in the first person plural, although we do have only one narrator--Amber, who has been inside for ages and watches everything with a kind of detachment.  But she speaks sometimes of herself--her crime, her separation from the other girls--and sometimes for all the girls--"us," the forty two inmates as a chorus of what it is like to be powerless, to be hopeless, to be without freedom. 

What unfolds in both stories is not only what happened, but the characters that made this possible--mean girls, selfishness disguised as friendship, the danger of both hoping and failing to hope.  Vee visits the prison grounds for the first time since Ori was sent away; Amber meets Ori when she comes to the prison.  It's the delicate construction of these characters, who are complicated and vulnerable and very flawed, that really lifts this novel.

I've put in some effort not to spoil things here; there are several reveals, some of which were very clear to me from early on, some of which I found surprising.  None of them, though, was a big page-turner moment.  In fact, this book contained two of my favorite things you can put into a book: an understandable and believable look inside the head of someone who treats other people badly, and twists that reveal themselves to the reader gradually, by directing your suspicions and controlling your understanding until you realize you've known for a while what the author has finally told you.

I don't know that this is a book for everyone--it's not fast or flashy, at all.  But if you go in for character studies and creepy, saddish, atmospheric stories, highly recommended.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Truth Bomb: Anne's House of Dreams

I read so much this week, but I also went to the Smithsonian and took care of a kindergartener with a stomach virus, so I didn't have much time to blog.  There will be SO MUCH catching up this week.

I'm going to start with the easy post, though, which is mostly a reblog: Anne's House of Dreams

I think I've come to the end of my recent Anne Shirley reread; I only just barely managed to read Anne of Ingleside one time (on my honeymoon, how gloomy is that), and it's all about being old, and how the Anne we loved and her whimsical past are things of childhood meant to be packed away.  We're supposed to warm to the new generation of imaginative adventures that her children are having, but since Anne spends the first chapter of the book chuckling condescendingly at her childhood self, I'd rather leave her alone with her matronly woes, thank you very much.


But here we have the culmination of Anne and Gilbert's relationship, which of course we've all been waiting for.  Unlike so many romantic payoffs, we get a whole book of our lovers being married and happy together!  Yay!  Except there's so little of it.  I think this is the book where I most noticed the tell-not-show thing that Montgomery does, because there are long walks and long talks that are hardly described; I am told the impression they leave but not of their substance. 

Anne and Gil are comradely, but she spends a weird amount of time fishing for compliments, and there's very little sense of partnership here.  I almost didn't realize what was missing until the end when they're discussing the need for a bigger house, and Anne is lamenting leaving their beloved but tiny starter home--she knows it's necessary, but makes Gilbert talk her into it.  I mean, I've done that, but there's no sense that they're making a decision together, and it just made me realize that they don't appear to be in anything together.

I went looking for opinions on this subject, and I came across this blogger's feelings of betrayal at how Anne's writing abilities are so thoroughly blown off in this book.  And she makes great points, both about how much I hated that, and about how Anne as a True Writer is not as present in the text as you might think.  (Of course, for that Montgomery has given us Emily, so we're all set with that.)

I want to respond to her post (which is a few years old so I'm doing it here instead of there) that there's a broader dismissal of Anne's intellectual life that upsets me here.  When Gilbert and Captain Jim have long discussions about philosophy and important matters, Anne sometimes listens and sometimes goes for a walk on the beach.  WHAT?!?  She lives outside of town, so she's not even really involved in the goings-on of the community--basically, as I said in my last post, she goes from running a large high school to running a small house and teasing Gilbert into telling her how pretty she is. 

What it comes down to, I think, is that Montgomery has much better insight into the internal lives of children than adults.  Maybe it's a constraint of the genre--she couldn't talk about the complexities of the things Anne really might be feeling.  She couldn't talk about the limitations of being a housewife, of how it was anything but rewarding; she had to dance around pregnancy, and only relate the parts of Anne's experience of miscarriage that would be appropriate for a young child almost 100 years ago to hear.  That doesn't leave you with much depth.  Whatever grown-up Anne is thinking, Montgomery didn't--or couldn't--put it in the book.

I'm going to believe that.  I'm going to choose to think that Anne became an adult the same way I did--by dribs and drabs, and half-faking it, and still confused and frustrated and inspired, though less impulsive and moody.  I like this imaginary Anne better. 

And I'll let you know if I end up diving too deep into the world of AoGG fan fic. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Sweet Sugar

TL;DR - Cheryl Strayed is amazing.

I read Wild recently, and I loved it, and I can't wait to see the movie.  This brought me around to wanting to read Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a compilation of advice from her Dear Sugar column at the Rumpus.  I read the column when it was active, and I liked it but didn't love it.  Her advice is very internal, very much about encouraging people to be their best selves.  It felt vague and mushy to me; wasn't my favorite.

But after Wild blew me away, I decided I needed to go back to her advice. And it was well worth it; I don't know if I'm more mature emotionally or as a reader or if it's just having it all in one place, but this was such an amazing compilation. 

I love advice.  I love both the problems (drama!) and the solutions (tidy wrap-up!).  This is not advice that pays off in helping you to envision the end of each story by giving the asker a map of how to behave and others' likely responses.  This is more like what I'm looking for at this point in my life--advice on how to be a good person.  It's about how to take the messiness that is living and focus it, channel it toward something that is good and meaningful to you. 

Honestly, I don't know if I'm going to be a different person after this, but reading these essays, I believe I can.  Which is a really wonderful feeling. 

Cheryl Strayed, all the way.