Divergent, Dystopias and Murderous Children

Veronica Roth’s Divergent was a good plane read that started boring me, conveniently, right at the end of both the first book and the plane ride. I don’t care enough about what happens next to actually read the sequels; I might care enough to look up their plots on Wikipedia, though it’s been three days and I haven’t bothered yet. The book did make me slightly more interested in the movie, because Shailene Woodley is a better actor than the protagonist deserves, and the book certainly left her a gaping void of character to fill however she chooses. (Ditto Kate Winslet and the book’s villain, who was the victim of some weirdly specific authorial body-shaming. I look forward to seeing Winslet portray a woman whose characterization begins with “wears glasses to look smart” and ends with “pudge around the middle” and “stretch marks on her thighs.”)

Despite the somewhat obvious Hunger Games comparisons, Divergent reminded me much more strongly of Lois Lowry’s The Giver, particularly in its description of the colorless, repressed “Abnegation” society that the heroine rejects. I was sorry when she left it to go jump on and off of buildings and trains (that apparently never bother stopping, in this city that has a large caste of menial laborers but doesn’t bother employing any of them as commuter rail conductors … but moving on, pun not really intended.)

Divergent made me miss The Giver, and its emphasis on the quiet, seemingly rational horrors that the best dystopias perpetrate. I’m so much more interested in the world-building in these types of books, in the theory of dystopias than in their often over-the-top effects. (It’s why the second Hunger Games installment is my favorite; it opens up the world that created the child-gladiator rituals and shows us how it works.) The setup and evolution of these once-ideal societies, and the bureaucratic souring of those ideals, is generally so much more interesting than the killing that results.  At the very least, the killing has to be earned by the world-building — and that is definitely where Divergent fell down the most for me.

I’ve read way too many contemporary YA books that kill characters easily and en masse, which makes it pretty hard to like the protagonists who shrug at the deaths and move on with their hero-ing. Hunger Games gets a pass, because whatever other flaws there are in the books, the murder of children is sold from the very first pages and doesn’t happen lightly. Even early Harry Potter did a good job with not killing kids cheaply or as window dressing, before its eventual devolution into mass casualties and death-by-curtains. But Divergent throws a few kids off a train and then progresses to sociopathic bullying, suicides and casual maiming, all of which are really just a backdrop for our heroine to score a boyfriend. By the time Roth progresses to brainwashing, gun battles with distant parents and friends dying casually, it was hard to see any of the violence having an impact on the narrator — and so the only impact it had on this reader was to make me stop reading.

Arrow: The Surprisingly Feminist Anti-Batman

I’m beyond sick of superheroes, and Batman generally bores me to tears, so I can’t quite explain how I came to start enjoying Arrow, the CW’s TV version of the Batman-esque Green Arrow character. (Broody billionaire with a playboy persona? Check. Parentally-inflected vigilante quest for Vengeance and/or Justice, circle all that apply? Check. Humorless-lawyer childhood sweetheart who sees the world in black and white, and who’s played by a willowy, brunette Katie? Yep, that too.) Then you add the CW’s Abercrombie-model definitions of attractiveness and required teen angst (the main character’s sister is in high school but somehow runs a bar, at which she employs her wrong-side-of-the-tracks boyfriend? Whatever you say, show!), and Arrow should be a forgettable mess.

And the first season kind of was. But I started watching the second season, after a whole bunch of TV critics and bloggers gave Arrow a Most Improved Series trophy, and I have to say – it’s a blast. Here’s why:

-Its pacing is insane. Arrow hurtles towards all kinds of reveals and showdowns that I’d expect other shows to spend a full season carefully, lovingly arranging. (Cf. this week’s episode - spoilers, obviously.) I think this is most of why Arrow overcomes my superhero fatigue - yeah, it has all those tiresomely quirky, poorly-motivated villains of the week, but it regularly spends as little time as necessary on them in favor of setting up its season-long arc and having its main characters interact.

-It’s surprisingly, if spottily, feminist. Arrow hasn’t been kind to all of its female characters; there’s a lady in the refrigerator of this season’s supervillain, and you have to pity poor childhood sweetheart Laurel, who’s gotten to bounce between self-righteousness, bitterness, depression and now (sigh) pill addiction and alcoholism. (The writers apparently attended a Pills: Instant!Characterization workshop with the Nashville writers.) But Arrow has also created some super-compelling women, from the wonderfully smart yet well-adjusted Felicity Smoak, who gets to be the show’s conscience as well as its main voice of sanity and humor, to Laurel’s sister Sara, who survived the island with main character Oliver and gets to be a vigilante in her own right.

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This movie is brilliant in so many ways, including its prescient snark. In unrelated developments, I rewatched part of J.J. Abrams’ 2009 reboot of Star Trek today. It’s not nearly as terrible as the sequel, but I’d forgotten the whole suspenseful set piece in which Kirk has to save Scotty after Scotty hilariously (…) beams himself into the engine room’s water pipes. And of course they are filled with inexplicable “chompy, crushy things,” for extra dramatic tension.

(Source: trekgate)

“I don’t really like talking about money.”

-Declaration halfway through an overheard lunch conversation between two friends, who otherwise discussed: shopping splurges, budgeting, jobs picked up and amount of income received from said jobs (bonus points for a use of the word “revenue” to describe wages from said jobs), affordability of local museum tickets, “financial independence” and if they have achieved it, dating and who picks up the tab on said dates, how frequently the significant others in question buy groceries, how to split the check for the lunch in progress, and how the restaurant’s cash-only policy affects the check-splitting negotiations.

Girls Guilt, Quitting Television and The Wire


This winter, I watched the approach of another season of Girls with a totally mature internal whine of, “Do I have to?” And yes, there’s the obvious answer: “Of course not, you crazy person – television is something you watch for entertainment and fascination with pop culture, so if something isn’t entertaining you, then just stop watching.” That doesn’t completely obviate the guilt I’ve mentioned I’ve had about not liking Girls, partly because I do think that Lena Dunham is extraordinarily talented and the violence of some of the hatred directed her way over Girls has sickened me.

That said, not liking the criticisms of something doesn’t translate into liking the thing itself. And Girls, for whatever reasons, hasn’t worked for me. Part of it is the somewhat-sour general worldview and tone of the show, which has gotten Dunham regularly compared to Larry David and Louis C.K. – two caustic sad sacks who I also find talented but not particularly my jam. I haven’t ever made it through a full season of either of their shows, even though I’ve admired the underlying cleverness and humor that both of those men manage. I made it through a full season of Girls, but then I fell behind on the second, and haven’t mustered the interest to get caught up for the third. So this isn’t a post about how I don’t like Girls; I’m not qualified to write a current version of that. It’s a post about why I’m trying to let myself off the hook for not investing more time trying to like it.

A lot of my Girls guilt is feminist guilt, the idea of wanting to support or at least care about a show that, on paper, cares about so many of the same things I care about in the television I watch. But compared to even just a few years ago, the options aren’t restricted to Girls or nothing. It’s starting to be a lot easier to find good television by and about women, depicting a variety of women’s experiences. And it’s easier to find a variety of kinds of television shows by and about women – so that if the Louis C.K.-style humor of social awkwardness isn’t my thing, there’s actually several other Prestige Dramas (The Good Wife, Orange Is the New Black), or a Serious Spy Show (The Americans), or a Silly Spy Show (Covert Affairs), or a smart sitcom (Parks & Rec), or a couple of outstandingly ambitious, if very different, sci-fi shows with multiple women leads (Orphan Black and Sleepy Hollow). Not to mention the many interesting women protagonists of Scandal, Grey’s Anatomy, Nashville, Elementary, Homeland, The Mindy Project, Downton Abbey

Some of my Girls guilt is also pop-culture relevance guilt, the desire to stay current with the TV that sparks all of the interesting criticism going on online. And Girls probably has one of the highest critic-to-viewer ratios out there. It was one of the two shows I immediately thought of when I read Anne Helen Petersen’s terrific “Dear Television” essay in praise of quitting television shows (“We need to be economical: there’s too much out there to love, so why spend time watching what you don’t?”). The other one, somewhat incongruously, was The Wire.

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Favorites (and parentheticals) of 2013: Books, TV, movies, travel

Most lingering book read: A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I admired more than I loved — but I admired it a lot, especially Jennifer Egan’s ability to write a September 11 in New York novel by deliberately not writing a September 11 in New York novel. That day wasn’t an obvious plot device for Egan; it wasn’t recreated directly on the page, it wasn’t something the characters overtly spent pages and pages responding to. It was an aside, a memory of a breakfast meeting a few days before the restaurant fell from the sky, or the reality of a regular commute home now distorted by the hole in lower Manhattan. Egan let the aftermath, rather than the cinematic trauma of an event all of her readers lived through themselves, shape the stories elegantly, subtly, ordinarily, in a way that reflected life after September 11 much more than any other work of fiction I’ve read or seen trying to depict that day or its fallout. (Ahem, Emperor’s Children. Let alone Extremely Loud and Incredibly Manipulative.)

Best TV discovery: Orphan Black. Runner-up props to The Lizzie Bennet Diaries, which got me binge-watching YouTube in a way few regular TV or Netflix series have done recently, and Sleepy Hollow, which I expected to take the Revolution/Flashforward/generic-Lost-clone route to boredom and banality, but which became something much stranger and sparkier than I expected. (I still don’t pay much attention during the monster scenes, but the Abbie-and-Ichabod Show is worth infinite fake-history flashbacks and rejected X-Files monster-of-the-week masks.)

Best TV stride-hitting: The Good Wife, ad infinitum. Conversely, I’m still waiting for Elementary to live up to its potential this season. Bringing Moriarty back (yay!) just to make her more vulnerable — and vulnerable due to her feminine roles as mother and Sherlock’s girlfriend (sigh) — emphatically doesn’t count. Nor does having Watson sleep with Sherlock’s semi-estranged brother, though Sherlock’s reaction to that development (and the general notes they’ve been repeatedly hitting about trust and emotional intimacy and need for soulmates and other relationshippy words between the characters) seems like a strange choice for a show whose creators keep on vowing that their leads will never hook up.  I’m mostly indifferent as to whether that happens, though it seems hard to write a sustained drama about two intelligent, attractive people becoming professional, intellectual and emotional partners without turning it into a romance (or having your audience do that for you. Speaking of characters named Sherlock.)

Most memorable movie: Probably Frances Ha, which I saw late and after reading much of the hype, but which still surprised and delighted me in a way that Girls has never managed (and yes, do I feel guilty for preferring a movie that’s directed and co-written by a man to the series directed and written by a woman. Then again, I only had to tolerate Frances for 85 minutes. I gave Lena Dunham that time several times over before giving up on her characters.) I think The Pretty One also deserved more attention for doing a similar coming-of-age, girl-to-womanhood story with more whimsy and a wider view of its characters’ worlds.

Favorite travel experience: Out of a year that included trips to LA, DC, Miami, Chicago and western Illinois, South Carolina, Italy and San Francisco, I probably most enjoyed the pure vacation of my two weeks in Italy. But the immediate turnaround to San Francisco was my third and best experience in that city, which felt dream-like in the picture-perfect early October sunshine (and under the influence of nine hours of accumulated jet lag). I was a better explorer this time, spending more time outside of the tourist-trap hotel areas and the work meetings of the financial district (though I learned that not changing clothes between the work meetings and the exploring can lead to lots of questions about why exactly you’re thrifting in the Mission “so dressed up,” in what I thought was business casual). And I’m still not nearly as “elite” a traveler as I would like to be, but 2013 was also the year that I had fun scratching at the door of how to become one.

I have so many questions about this strange, gross, bro-humor sign in the bathroom of the restaurant where I ate last night. I particularly like the “ew, cooties!” elision of tampons as “girl things” -from a writer who clearly took glee in naming condoms, hair balls, writing utensils (?) and enumerating every single type of “designer or regular underwear” he could name. (I presume that “grannies” count as “regular” and “g-strings” as “designer,” though being a lady who uses girl things, I remain unclear on the respective designations of boxers and briefs.)

I have so many questions about this strange, gross, bro-humor sign in the bathroom of the restaurant where I ate last night. I particularly like the “ew, cooties!” elision of tampons as “girl things” -from a writer who clearly took glee in naming condoms, hair balls, writing utensils (?) and enumerating every single type of “designer or regular underwear” he could name. (I presume that “grannies” count as “regular” and “g-strings” as “designer,” though being a lady who uses girl things, I remain unclear on the respective designations of boxers and briefs.)

Catching Fire and Katniss the knowing revolutionary


The good:

The movie made me realize how much Catching Fire is my favorite of the Hunger Games trilogy - it opens up the world of Panem and the greater political struggle beyond what happens to Katniss and her loved ones. To be fair, the first movie opened up that world too, more than the book did — but in Catching Fire, Katniss becomes more aware of the greater political stakes around her, and as our main point-of-view character, that’s important. The movie also did a much better job than the book did of making Katniss explicitly a rebel, someone who recognizes the consequences of defying the totalitarian government and who eventually chooses to do so anyway. Actually, this is more than “did a better job” - the movie breaks somewhat from the book’s characterization of Katniss as someone who persists in being willingly myopic about the bigger picture and is (understandably) focused on her short-term survival instead of long-term rebellion, even when her actions foment that bigger political movement.

Two scenes really made a difference in the movie. (Spoilers ahead.)

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"The matter will be forgotten by all of us … and history too, no doubt."

-The line in Reign that’s made me hoot with laughter the most, by handwaving away the entire existence of Mary, Queen of Scots’ purported brief engagement to a murderous, illegitimate Portuguese prince. Though it nearly tied with another line in the same episode, when one character spoke for all of us in the audience and our whiplash about said Portuguese prince’s one-episode switch from romantic hero to villain: “I don’t understand why he changed so quickly … [before] he seemed a whole other person.” Oh, show. I am watching out of some sort of residual childhood loyalty to Megan Follows and a Dorothy Dunnett-inspired interest in the time period, but if you’re going to have your own characters critique your plotlines, you need to get either much better or much more over-the-top campy very quickly.

Re-reading Ender’s Game: Racism, blogging and video games

I loved Ender’s Game the first time I read it, as a pre-Internet pre-teen without any knowledge of Orson Scott Card’s bizarre and homophobic vitriol. I even liked the first sequel, before the second one convinced me that maybe some stories were better off as one-shots. Then I found out about Card’s personal beliefs, and mentally classed the book with early Mel Gibson movies and other entertainment I feel vaguely guilty about liking. But as the new, rather-joyless-looking movie adaptation arrived, I decided to reread Ender’s Game, to see how much of what I liked about it remained and how much I could pick up on Card’s prejudices as an adult reader. The short answers: Not as much as I remembered, and more than I expected! First of all…

1) Surprise N-word: Orson Scott Card, would you like some racism to go along with your homophobia? I read an old copy of the book, an early printing that includes a part where, in some routine trash-talking, Ender calls his friend Alai by the n-word, and then jokes about how his great-great-grandfather would have sold Alai’s grandfather to another slaveowner for not liking that term. Kids these days!

“And Shen.”

“That little slanty-eyed butt-wiggler?”

Ender decided that Alai was joking. “Hey, we can’t all be niggers.”

Alai grinned. “My grandpa would’ve killed you for that.”

“My great great grandpa would have sold him first.”

Card edited that exchange in later editions, but apparently not because he’d regretted using the word or even realized that maybe having your white, super-genius, messiah-like hero use racial epithets and joke about slavery isn’t a great way to develop a sympathetic protagonist. No, according to Orson Scott Card, “prudes” forced his hand.

 “Even as the old obscenities dealing with sex and excrement were unleashed upon the public, new obscenities moved from the realm of the merely indecorous to the sinful. What f* and s* (and worse words) had once been, now n* has become. And, just as there were prudes who screamed in outrage and demanded that any work containing those old bad words must be banned, so we have a new group of prudes making identical demands about works containing the new bad word,” he wrote in 2000, in response to a question about why he had edited that passage. (Card begins that answer by comparing himself to Shakespeare, which gives you an idea of the rest. He also goes onto to assert that truly sophisticated readers would understand that Ender’s racism was really about teaching Alai tolerance and rebuking his friend for being racist about Asian people – an argument which requires a whole separate critical takedown.)

2) The invention of blogging: Forget the Big Twist. The parts I most remembered from the book over the years, and the parts I was most impressed by, were Card’s prescient depiction of political blogging and the influence that Internet writers would have on world events. Okay, maybe Matt Drudge or Nick Denton haven’t become world dictators, as Ender’s blogger/psychopath brother Peter eventually does. But I was very impressed at how Card, in my memory, predicted the rise and the influence of personality-driven online writers, who become famous based largely on their (carefully-calculated) inflammatory rhetoric. When I went back to reread Ender’s Game, I was most looking forward to spending time with Peter and sister Valentine, who make themselves famous by getting into anonymous online debates with each other.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Peter/Valentine/blogging plotline takes up about half a chapter, plus a few lines towards the end for plot resolution and sequel setup. I don’t know what it says that throwaway subplots formed my most enduring memories of the book, but it’s not a great recommendation.

3) Video games are about as interesting to read about as they are to watch other people playing. Ender’s Game is a very readable book, which is a big accomplishment considering its reliance on poorly-described virtual combat. The “battle simulations,” first at Ender’s school and later when he’s tricked into destroying the enemy’s homeworld, were pretty opaque to me during this re-read – I finished those scenes with no real visual of what the children gladiators actually accomplished or physically did during the battles. It was much easier to visualize the arenas in the Hunger Games books, for example, or the Quidditch matches in the Harry Potter books. I think Suzanne Collins and J.K. Rowling had a bit of an advantage over Card, in that both of them described battles that were more in the physical world than the video games that make up so much of Ender’s Game. But world-building or big-picture description of any sort isn’t a strength of Card’s – there’s a slapdash civil war shoved into the book’s resolution, between superpowers that have never been clearly delineated. And it’s a problem when you do choose to set a book in what is essentially a series of video game championships and then can’t describe them clearly enough for a reader to do much more than skim for dialogue and outcome.

4) The Big Twist makes no sense. When your main character is a tactical genius, the best strategic mind in generations and the savior of the human race, it rather strains credulity that he can’t figure out when he’s fighting actual battles against an actual enemy. Especially when he’s purportedly hoodwinked by a couple of bumbling mid-level military guys and the washed-up war veteran version of Rip Van Winkle.