Saturday, June 25, 2016

A rocky start

Two years ago my sister got me one of the Serenity graphic novels as a Christmas present. Unfortunately it was the 4th in the series. Fortunately I have access to a wonderful comic shop and bought myself issues 1-3 for Christmas and have finally gotten around to reading Serenity: Those Left Behind, the first issue in the series.

It's okay?

The Firefly universe is an interesting animal. Each new piece of it is messy. The show itself was cancelled after only a single season, the movie was a bit slapdash and ended up not getting a very good box office response, and the comic books are competently made but shallow in comparison to the show.

I already know that the fourth issue has a good story so I'm not too concerned that the first issue wasn't great - clearly somewhere in between the publishing of those two arcs the writers found their footing and decided what kind of story they were going to tell, and that's really what's missing out of issue one.

In the comic we're reintroduced to all the characters that Firefly fans already know - so it's actually a great entry point for people who want to read a sci-fi/western comic but haven't seen the show or movie. But if you have seen anything else in the 'verse it drags on a bit. The story does give a bit more background into the war that Malcolm Reynolds was a part of, and does a decent job of explaining why he's such a kind scoundrel sort of character.

But I only read it about a week ago and can't remember the central conflict, which is a bit of a problem. That tells me this story was generic. I know there was a dude who wanted to kill Mal but I'm still not really sure what the backstory on that is. I know there's a spacebattle that takes place within ships left behind after a different spacebattle. All in all this wasn't a particularly great book. It looked good, it did give us the story of what happened to Shepard and Inara between Firefly and Serenity, but that's about all it does.

Too bad, but at least I know it got better (and I have two more of the books sitting on my TBR shelf to cement my opinions).

     - Alli

Story: Joss Whedon and Brett Matthews. Script: Brett Matthews. Art: Will Conrad. Colors: Laura
     Martin. Letters: Michael Heisler. Cover art: Adam Hughes. Serenity Firefly Class 03-K64: Those
     Left Behind
. Dark Horse Books. Milwaukie: Oregon. 2012. (2007)

Finding the light

How do people look for books to read? It's an interesting question and an interesting suite of answers have been created in response. Book clubs have been around forever, trade paperbacks usually have a few pages of recommended reading available from the same publisher and author, Goodreads has sprung up and began offering suggestions based on your previously-read and well-reviewed books.

There are just a whole bunch of books that I should have read that I haven't and it makes me sad. I read a lot of things that are related to the content I'm interested in - you hear about a lot of sci-fi authors when you're the kind of person who reads a lot of sci-fi, Amazon recommends physics books to people who read physics books, and Goodreads is always happy to tell you about new works by writers you've read. But what if you haven't read something, what if a wonderful book is wholly unconnected to your typical sphere of interests?

I've been running into that issue a lot in the last few months. It started with The Color Purple. It was an amazing book, a beautiful book, a book that told a story I needed to read, but it was a book I'd never picked up or had recommended to me until I found it at a dollar store and said "well, why not?" That got me thinking about the types of authors I read and who were recommended to me: here's a hint, they're good writers but they are part of a very specific and very privileged group. That's when I decided that I was going to read more marginalized authors. I wanted to read the stories that women and queers and people of color and disabled folks had to tell. I wanted to see what group that aren't put front and center by publishers have to say.

And it's been largely marvelous.

I'm bringing this up because once again I've read a book that I'm angry I hadn't read before.

Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun is fucking wonderful. The characters pop off the page and inhabit the spaces in your mind. It's a play, not a novel, so of course character is important but the level of consideration Hansberry wrote into the stage directions and character descriptions makes these particular images seem whole and real. They are tragic and funny and so goddamned powerful that it takes your breath away.

In the introduction there's a brief discussion about how frustrating it is that Hansberry's characters from the 50s are so relevant in the late 80s and I'll simply echo that and say that it's tremendously upsetting that this struggling black family is still such an apt portrait today. Housing discrimination, natural hair, the role of women, the availability of work, the importance of education, and the structure of the family are all major points explored in the play and what Hansberry has to say about them is still at the heart of many arguments you hear in America today. I wish this was only a story of yesteryear, a trip back into a more bigoted time, but it is unfortunately a picture of challenges that black women and families still face in the US.

It's also beautiful and triumphant. Hansberry's play is so successful because it doesn't trap her characters, it allows her to showcase their bold refusal to accept the bigotry they're faced with. They're allowed to find their light and stand proud instead of shriveling, to grow as people full of hope.

I wish that I'd read this book a long time ago. It's beautiful and I'm happy to have had the opportunity to experience it.

     - Alli

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Vintage Books. New York: New York. 1988. (1958).

Of monsters or men


Hunter S. Thompson, for all that I adore him, was a hot mess. He got himself into dangerous messes on a regular basis, dabbled in a terrifying array of interesting chemicals, and was fascinatingly glib about the things he was exposed to.

Hell's Angels is Thompson's nonfiction novel about the titular motorcycle gang and his year's experience of hovering in the sidelines of their subculture. It's played fairly straight, certainly seeming to be more factual and realistic than the author's adventures in Fear and Loathing, and that makes it all the more disconcerting.

To be totally honest I don't know all that much about motorcycle gangs. There are plenty of clubs on the up-and-up in my area, and I know a large number of cyclists and try to give them lots of room to pass on the freeways (especially because California is the only state that still allows lane-splitting and too many Californians don't know that and try to cut cyclists off, which endangers the riders and the drivers around them); a member of the Vagos lived around the corner from me a couple of years ago but has since been convicted of dealing meth. Motorcycles are a part of my life, but not a big part, and motorcycle gangs are a very, very small part of the background of that - they seem almost quaint, like something that belongs to another time.

Which makes Hell's Angels, a book that documents the explosion to prominence of the gang, a very interesting read. It's a stark contrast with the reality that I'm living - the world that Thompson illustrates is one in which the Angels are roaring hellions whose name drives a cold spike of fear through the hearts of good, red-blooded Americans. But the most I've heard about them in the last few years is when they show up to block WBC protestors from military funerals. It's a marked contrast that leaves me with more questions than anything else. Thompson paints a picture of the group that shows mostly poor, uneducated, petty criminals who have an incredibly casual attitude toward rape and some aggressive racism hovering in the background - but of course it was written by a man who was in some ways a petty criminal in a time that had a very casual attitude toward certain kinds of rape and was aggressively racist.

There was a lot that I found repugnant here, both in the subject matter and its presentation. I can't see adults having sex with minors as anything other than rape, even if the minor claimed to consent (and especially when we're discussing large age differences and gang bangs); there's a thread of contempt for women in general that was off-putting and seems fairly common in Thompson's more bombastic moments; the kind of racism described in the Angels is revolting but made perplexing by the authorial voice that seems to be almost as bad to modern eyes (the tone used in discussions of the Watts Riots is similar to the racist tone that surrounded last year's Baltimore protests after the death of Freddie Gray, and we're well past the time that "negro" is an acceptable term for blacks). I suppose you can dismiss those issues as a product of the time, and certainly it's true that racism and sexism were more open and obvious in the 1960s than they are today.

Other than those (significant) issues the book is an entertaining and well-crafted story with much more depth than you might expect from such an author on such a subject. Thompson's discomfort with the Angels is palpable but he's as drawn to them as the reader is to his story. There's a tremendous amount of sympathy in the book, as well as a good deal of humor (largely directed at the "panic" surrounding what was realistically a small motorcycle gang), and Thompson was a good writer, whatever other criticisms you can pin on him. The work is well crafted, full of unique voices and arranged in an atemporal, shifting structure that makes the plot seem like a dream forming from nothingness.

I'm very impressed with the technical craft of the book as well as Thompson's big brass balls for hanging out with the Hell's Angels long enough to get it written. I'm less impressed with some of the more unpleasant aspects of the culture it illustrates, though it does serve as a beautiful example of the fact that "the good old days" weren't really all that great.

     - Alli

Thompson, Hunter S. Hell's Angels. Ballantine Books. New York: New York. 1996. (1966).

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Direct to camera

Ever since Deadpool hit theaters my friends and family have been trying to convince me to see it. It's not that I didn't want to see it, or that I thought I wouldn't like it, it's just that movies take time and planning and frequently all I want to do with my downtime is veg out online or read.

So my sister basically forced me to watch Deadpool last Tuesday on our family hangout night and I enjoyed it enormously.

I thought it was hilarious, exciting, erotic, and just all-in-all a splendid romp. Except for one thing.

Spoilers - in case you care or haven't seen the movie or know nothing about the character.

Wade's whole conflict is that he's ugly? Really? That's why he doesn't tell Vanessa, the woman who loves him and whom he desperately loves, that he's still alive and can't be killed by cancer? Are you fucking kidding me?

Ryan Reynolds is an incredibly attractive man, with great cheekbones and a winning smile and delightful abs. I can understand that a person who is very attractive would be upset by no longer being conventionally attractive, and would go through a period of mourning and depression, but holy shit, the way this is handled is so fucked up.

I happen to know a man who was very badly burned in a car accident a long time ago. I don't mean to be unkind to him when I say that his skin bears a strong resemblance to Deadpool's post-mutation skin. He's a kind and lovely man who has a happy family and a good life. His scars don't enter the equation, he's a great guy - but I'm certain he gets looks from people who don't know him, I'm certain he's had to explain his scars to a lot of people, and I'm certain he's been called a freak. For a huge, big-budget movie to reinforce that scarring is unacceptable and that being physically beautiful is important is somewhat staggering. The amount of attention paid to Deadpool's appearance and the horror at his scarring is profoundly disconcerting in a world where real people exist in their day-to-day lives with more severe injuries and less superheroic outcomes.

This is so bizarre to me. Wade no longer has cancer and is functionally immortal, but won't return to a woman who is convinced he's dead because he's worried about how he looks? I mean he makes a point of leaving so she won't have to watch him deteriorate because of his cancer, he wants her to remember him how he was. CAN WE TAKE A MOMENT TO REFLECT ON HOW FUCKED UP THAT IS? There are thousands of people in the world who are currently dying of cancer. It's hard and it's horrible and it is, yes, ugly. But that in no way means it's the responsibility of people with metastatic cancer to spare healthy people the pain of being around them, and to imply that it is noble to do so is pretty gross.

I've heard lots of people talk about how progressive Deadpool is, and there's a lot going for the movie in that way. The writers were very careful to be respectful to women in general and female sex workers in particular, but there's an awful lot of ableist assumptions about health and wellness and wholeness floating right on the surface that I've not heard anyone talking about.

Like, I enjoyed the movie - I thought it was very funny and exciting to watch. But I was not expecting that sort of aggressively ableist thinking from a film that so many laud as a new kind of progressive action movie.