Monthly Archives: July 2017

Hilton Als – White Girls (2013)

WhiteGirlsWhile the collection of essays is titled White Girls, to simply call it a book about white girls both true and false. The subjects of these essays, Truman Capote, Michael Jackson, Eminem, and Richard Pryor are all ‘white girls’ in some respect, according to Als.

This collection was very dense and theoretical and I sometimes got lost amid all of Als writing. I understood what he was trying to do but for a general audience (Als is a staff writer for the New Yorker), if feel like readers might find themselves a bit in over their head. It’s not exactly theory, but it’s not far off.

Throughout his collection Als interweaves his own personal memoir and reflections on society with biographies of major cultural influences. Essentially as a gay black man, Als writes about other gay black men’s desires. “White Girls” are the absolute opposite of gay black men, yet the symbol with which they most identify with. It is within this paradigm that Als fits cultural icons into, treating them as the “White Girls” that he wishes he could be.

Its a worthwhile read for anyone studying culture in an extremely critical way. He takes notions of race and gender and upends them quite successfully. It’s dense and tough to get through at times, definitely not a beach read, but quite worth it if critical theory is your thing.

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I’d Rather Be A Murdress Than a Murderer

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Sarah Gordon as Grace Marks [Image Netflix]

Around four years ago I published my very first post. It was a book review of Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, one of my favourite books. Now a mini-series inspired by the book is coming out in September and I am so excited. So excited that I wrote a bit for MoviePilot about it. 

 

You can check out the piece and watch the trailer here.

Julie Kavanagh – The Girl Who Loved Camellias (2013)

16030646I’m not quite sure what compelled me to pick up this book. It tells the story of Marie Duplessis, one of the 19th century’s most well known courtesans from her difficult upbringing to her rise among the Paris elite. Made famous by her beauty, Duplessis’ story is much better known through the novel, play and opera that made her a cultural icon.

In her colourful biography, Kavanagh seeks to look at who Marie Duplessis actually was not the woman portrayed on the stage. Duplessis was much more calculating and manipulated that she is portrayed as. This will be disappointing to those readers looking to find some integrity behind Marie as her letters to various suitors and willingness to do anything to get ahead show that Marie was quite calculating and her one true love always remained money.

Kavanagh is actually quite sympathetic to Marie however using her hard upbringing as an explanation for her behavior later in life. The daughter of wretchedly poor peasants in Normandy, her father an alcoholic peddler, Marie’s early life was definitely not easy. After moving to the city and working as a laundress however Marie (formally Alphonsie) began to gain notoriety for her looks and realized she could make money and succeed being “kept” by another man. Her love of material good strong, Marie elected to this option.

This was a good book but I wish that Kavanagh had spent a bit more time setting the scene in 19th century Paris. I loved learning about Marie Duplessis but would have loved to know more about her historic context and the world of high class courtesans in Paris.

Lisa See – China Dolls (2014)

18404427In defining this book I would say that it was totally and wholly expected. It’s one of those historical fiction novels that you pick up in an airport for a pleasant, although unremarkable read. Maybe some will disagree with me, but there wasn’t anything in this book that really stood out for me; nothing took my breath away.

Essentially the book takes place in San Francisco’s Chinatown just before the United States enters the Second World War. Following three characters; Grace, a young Chinese girl from the mid-west who has run away from her abusive father; Helen, a young Chinese widow from a prominent family; and Ruby, a Japanese girl posing as Chinese, Lisa See tells a story of fame, female friendship, and betrayal set against a looming war. All three work as dancers at a nightclub each pursuing their own dreams, and quite unsurprisingly their lives are turned upside down when Pearl Harbour is bombed.

The characters were charming although one-dimensional, and it was easy to see where the story was going from the start. Maybe I’m asking a bit too much of the author or expect too much from the fiction that I read but overall this book was good, but nothing special.

John Krakauer – Under The Banner of Heaven (2003)

KrakauerReligious fanaticism is something that interests and intrigues many people because more often than not it is something so far outside their own experience. In his book, John Krakauer looks at radical Mormons who have done unspeakable things in the name of God specifically looking at the double murder committed by Ron and Dan Lafferty.

Krakauer manages to weave together a number of stories in his work; the history of the Mormon Church, the contentious battles over polygamy; the rise of more radical factions; and finally the details surrounding the brutal murder committed in 1984. The Mormon Church makes up a strange part of American history and had been a subject of persecution, mockery and ridicule. Krakauer sidesteps this and focuses on how dangerous religious fanatics can be, especially when they believe God has told them to murder.

While the chapters surrounding the history of the CHurch and competing ideologies were interesting I found myself most intrigued by the chapters dealing with the Lafferty’s defence. Ron Lafferty refused to plead insanity believing so firmly that God had ordered him to kill their sister-in-law Brenda and infant niece, Erica. This cause a lot of stir among the American public; how can you claim that someone who speaks to God is insane without condemning others (albeit others who do not kill) who claim the same thing.

It was definitely an interesting book, and brought up a lot of questions surrounding just how tricky it is to persecute and hold religious fanatics accountable for their actions. Tragedy is always intriguing especially when it is so far outside our own experiences. For some however, this story probably hits quite close to home.

Suggested Listening: https://bitchmedia.org/article/popaganda-episode-cults

Why I Cried During Wonder Woman

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Princess Buttercup No More

 

This article also appears on Creators.Co

I went to see Wonder Woman the week that it was released and was immediately struck by how absolutely average it was. (Bear with me here). Superhero movies normally have a very prescribed formula, something that doesn’t appeal to me quite as much. Wonder Woman follows this formula through the origin, the journey and the final battle with a villain making it a very standard typical superhero movie. And that is what is so remarkable.

The fact that a female-driven movie followed the same structure and performed just as well as male-driven one is groundbreaking in and of itself. While there was a lot of hype surrounding the movie and a lot of wonderful reactions to it, the movie is largely entertaining and incredibly accessible to various audiences. Like other block buster action movies it seemed to drag at some parts but was overall satisfying. So why was I so emotionally wrecked by it?

I cried. A lot.

Looking online, this seems to be a common theme. Women are finding themselves emotional and crying during the battle scenes like when Robin Wright kicks total ass as Diana’s Aunt Hipployta or when Wonder Woman marches across No Man’s Land. There’s an emotional catharsis here. I doubt anyone would argue that Robin Wright’s character in House of Cards is not strong, she very clearly is, but it’s a different kind of strength. One that is more reserved though nonetheless important. There’s been a growth of these kinds of strong women in the media but there is something different about seeing females in positions of physical strength. I could have watched the Amazons fight all day.

There is the emotional catharsis of seeing women depicted in such a strong way and there is relief at how the movie is doing justice to the story; it lived up to the insanely high expectations set for it. For me, the most emotional part was seeing Diana as a young girl watching her Aunt and the other Amazons fight, wanting so desperately to be one of them. I was an emotional puddle thinking about the young girls who will see this movie and be inspired by these amazingly powerful women on the screen. It’s the same reason I get emotional when I see little girls dressed up as Rey or as characters from Ghostbusters. Representation matters and this movie shows why. In the wake of its release teachers and parents have shared their stories of young girls wanting to be Wonder Woman.

Diana is the perfect hero to accomplish what she does. She’s a fighter but she also stands for love and justice. They were a bit heavy handed with Wonder Woman’s message of “true love conquers all” and many reviewers complained about how saccharine it is. This message however, isn’t a bad one to be teaching young people, and is very true to the original Wonder Woman in the comic books. I keep hearing friends of mine complain about this and I’m tired of trying to defend it so I’ll just say that it didn’t bother me. (What did bother me was the character of Chief. It’s great to see a Native American actor represented on screen but the whole characterization was reductionist and made zero historical sense to me, but that is a whole other article. In the sequel, because there will be a sequel, let’s hope the demigod theories are confirmed).

I’m not, nor have I ever been, a huge superhero fan. Maybe if a movie like this had come out when I was younger I would have been. Not that I grew up in a barren wasteland devoid of any female role models. As I mentioned Anne Shirley was a heroine to me, as were the traditional “smart girls” like Hermione Granger and even Rory Gilmore to an extent. This speaks to my outlook on life and experience as an academic nerd. Not everyone is me and not all girls will relate to the same female characters that I did. It’s been said over and over, but I’ll say it again, representation matters and Wonder Woman is bringing us one step closer to a more well rounded pop culture environment for women and girls.

Elizabeth Abbott – The History of Celibacy (1999)

51W7SE0QGHLIn today’s world where we spend a majority of our time being exposed to sex whether through popular culture, advertising, or online dating apps, it’s easy to think of celibacy as something restricted to the past or the very religious. In her book however, Abbott traces the fascinating history of celibacy from biblical times through to the present day looking at the way that abstaining from sex has been used to both control and empower people.

She follows a rather traditional trajectory, looking at celibacy from the earliest days of human memory through its embracing by Christianity up to the present day. The first half of the book was a bit tedious for me, but only because I never found myself that interested in early modernity. For me the most interesting discussions were surrounding the 19th century modes of respectability for both men and women. Women were supposed to be chaste, but men also had to embody “masculine Christianity” balancing masculine impulses with Victorian respectability. She also discusses the 19th century movements in America started by Sylvester Graham and John Kellogg who used food to try and control (and diminish) libido.

She definitely spends more time exploratory chastity from a feminine perspective which is understandable given the way that history has played out, but I would have loved a bit more of a discussion on the masculine dimensions. After seeing Spotlight I was looking for more of a discussion of clerical celibacy, which took up only a small portion of the overall work.

The history of celibacy is a broad and very dense topic to attempt to explore in a single book. Each chapter of Abbot’s could have been a volume of work unto itself. This is a good overview and jumping off point for those looking to learn more about celibacy and the way it has been prevalent through history.