Friday, September 26, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 85

~1~


I'm a big fan of reading.  I'm a big fan of reading books that affirm my beliefs, but I'm also a big fan of reading books that challenge my beliefs and stretch them in different directions.  I love sharing ideas and thoughts and seeing the world from a different angle, because I firmly believe that we can't learn and grow and progress if we never step outside our comfort zones, if who we currently are and what we current think about the world around us is never contradicted or questioned.

Every year, during the last full week of September, the American Library Association and the entire book community celebrate and highlight the importance of "the freedom to seek and express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular".  Lists circulate of books that are frequently challenged or banned and I always find several books on the list that I really enjoyed reading and found valuable.

~2~

So, for example, on this Buzzfeed list, I've read And Tango Makes Three and I thought the treatment of this true story was sweet and adorable with beautiful illustrations.

I read The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway in high school and was profoundly moved by the stark and evocative prose telling of pitiful old Santiago battling the magnificent marlin.

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich forced me to reconsider some of my prejudices and preconceived ideas about poverty and the poor.

Persepolis masterfully portrayed life as a young girl in Iran during the Islamic Revolution while distilling thousands of years of Persian and Iranian history into a readable narrative.

I was surprised by how touched I was by The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie.  The teenage protagonist's hopeful and optimistic view on life despite all the crap he'd been through was nothing less than inspiring.

And for Pete's sake, I put both Fahrenheit 451 and A Wrinkle in Time on the list of the most influential books in my life!

I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

The ALA compiles lists of the 10 most challenged books every year.  And the 100 most challenged books of the past two decades.  And the most frequently challenged authors.  There's a plethora of lists of "subversive material" here.

~3~

Listen to this 3-minute story on NPR about some frequently challenged comic books, particularly Captain Underpants, which topped the list of the most frequently challenged books in 2013 according to the ALA.  And make sure you check out the great graphic that illustrator/author Dav Pilkey drew specifically for Banned Books Week.

And just for fun, take a look at this guide to children's classics that might have you taking a second look at some cherished old favorites.

~4~

You can take the ACLU's banned books quiz here to see how rebellious of a reader you are.  I was only a "brave new bibliophile", but I have a lot more books to read...

And this quiz tells you which banned book you are.  Kinda of silly, but fun to see what turns up!  (I got Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller, which I haven't read, so I guess I'd better get on that.)

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Reviews: Mr. Monster & I Don't Want to Kill You by Dan Wells

These two books, the second and third in the John Cleaver series by Dan Wells, are sharing a review because they really ought to be read as a unit.  And it's just too hard to keep separate reviews spoiler-free, especially trying not to spoil anything from the first book..

I've mentioned before that horror is not my genre, so I was rather surprised that I was so drawn in to this series.  Please be forewarned, there are gruesome, stomach-turning passages describing torture, murder, and supernatural ickiness.  It's definitely not for everyone.

What makes these books so incredibly fascinating - enough for me to get past my general avoidance of the genre - is the deftness of the psychological portrait Dan draws of each of the characters, but especially John Cleaver himself.  John's sociopathy ironically makes him more aware of the mechanics of emotion than most people since he's had to consciously study feelings and emotional responses in order to mimic them well enough to function in normal society.  This awareness is his greatest tool fighting against the almost unfathomable killers he hunts.

It also aids his slow progression towards becoming more human, towards connecting with others, to realizing - almost to his surprise - that he "ha[s] a heart".
Humans aren't defined by death...and they're not defined by what they lack. They're defined by their connections.
I really hope this isn't the last we'll read about John Cleaver.  Dan leaves the third book leading in an intriguing direction with possibilities for a riveting ongoing series.

Trigger warning: As I mentioned above, there are gruesome, gory descriptions of torture, murder, and suicide in these books.  Read with caution.

Disclosure: Once again, in the interests of full disclosure, Dan and I knew each other during our freshman year of college.  Doesn't change my opinion of his books, though, to be honest, I probably wouldn't have picked them up in the first place if I didn't know the author.

********************************
Mr. Monster
by Dan Wells
ISBN: 9780765362377
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

********************************
I Don't Want to Kill You
by Dan Wells
ISBN: 9780765322494
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperbackebookaudiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 84

~1~

Sometimes when I'm having a rough day, I pull up pictures of adorable animals in ridiculous situations and suddenly, life doesn't seem quite so bad.

So here's "30 Cats and Dogs Losing the Battle Against Human Furniture".

Check out the cat in the hangers and the dog in the hammock.

~2~

And here's "25 Unlucky Cats Whose Curiosity Has Gotten Them Completely Stuck".

#2, #4, and #11 had me in stitches, and the look on #10's face - priceless!

~3~

I love "24 Ways Your Day Could Be Ruined By Cuteness".

Especially #12, #16, and oh-my-goodness #20!

~4~

And for good measure, we have our very own, in-house/outdoor adorableness named Scrimper:


I feel better already.  Don't you? :)

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 83

~1~

So I did that facebook challenge to list 10 books that have been influential in my life and this is what I came up with (in no particular order):

1. The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis
2. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
3. Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury
4. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
5. Far from the Tree by Andrew Solomon
6. Animal Farm and 1984 by George Orwell
7. Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
8. Night by Elie Wiesel
9. The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan
10. Project Conversion by Andrew Bowen
11. The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens
12. The Princess Bride by William Goldman

I didn't include scriptures - they're just a given - and yes, there are more than 10. I refuse to be bound by silly facebook chain posting rules.

(And then I kept thinking of more books I should have included, like Come Be My Light by Mother Teresa, The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, and Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey...I could keep going...)

~2~

Looking at the list I compiled, I thought it was interesting how pretty much all of the fiction books I included are fantasy and science fiction.  Fantasy and sci-fi were definitely my first literary loves.

So this list of "21 Books That Changed Science Fiction and Fantasy Forever" caught my eye.  H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, J.R.R. Tolkien, Vonnegut, Le Guin, and then a few I wasn't familiar with that I get to add to my to-read list!  Can't wait!

~3~

I recently ran across "'We Have Always Fought': Challenging the 'Women, Cattle, and Slaves' Narrative" by Kameron Hurley.
Half the world is full of women, but it’s rare to hear a narrative that doesn’t speak of women as the people who have things done to them instead of the people who do things. More often, women are talked about as a man’s daughter. A man’s wife...
...women did all sorts of things we think they didn’t do. In the middle ages, they were doctors and sheriffs. In Greece they were… oh, sod it. Listen. Foz Meadows does a better job with all the linky-links, for those who desire “proof.” Let’s just put it this way: if you think there’s a thing – anything – women didn’t do in the past, you’re wrong. Women – now and then – even made a habit of peeing standing up. They wore dildos. So even things the funny-ha-ha folks immediately raise a hand to say, like: “It’s impossible women did X!” Well. They did it.
I loved reading that when the skeletons of Viking warriors were closely examined, it was discovered that between a third and a half of them were women.  It's time to let go of some of our preconceptions of what women did in the past and perhaps even let it inform our ideas of what women can do today.

~4~

One of the links in the quote above takes you to this great article also about the wide variety of roles women have played throughout history and linking it to modern fantasy and science fiction writing.
Time and again, we see fans and creators alike defending the primacy of homogeneous – which is to say, overwhelmingly white, straight and male – stories on the grounds that anything else would be intrinsically unrealistic...But what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?
This article contains a wealth of documented examples of things we "just know" didn't really happen in history.  Makes for hours of fascinating and educational reading.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Book Review: Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

I have always admired Nelson Mandela for his commitment to freedom and equality, as well as for enduring so many years of unjust imprisonment without succumbing to bitterness and anger.  After reading his 600+ page autobiography, I'm even more in awe of this man who sacrificed so much for what he believed and maintained an incredible optimism throughout the hardships.

While it was fascinating to learn more about Mandela's early formative years - how he became the freedom fighter he was - I was completely captivated by his retelling of his trial and incarceration.  His dignified attitude and continued commitment to freedom were inspiring.  "Prison," he says, "was a kind of crucible that tested a man's character.  Some men, under the pressure of incarceration, showed true mettle, while others revealed themselves as less than what they had appeared to be."  Mandela was one of those refined by the "pressure of incarceration" and his unshakable faith in basic human decency, even among those who would be seen as his enemies, is evidence.
I always tried to be decent to the warders in my section; hostility was self-defeating.  There was no point in having a permanent enemy among the warders.  It was ANC [African National Congress] policy to try to educate all people, even our enemies: we believed that all men, even prison service warders, were capable of change, and we did our utmost to try to sway them.
Despite all of his accomplishments, there is a wistful strain that runs through the book whenever he talks about his family, who he said "paid a terrible price, perhaps too dear a price for my commitment."
I wondered--not for the first time--whether one was ever justified in neglecting the welfare of one's own family in order to fight for the welfare of others. Can there be anything more important than looking after one's aging mother?  Is politics merely a pretext for shirking one's responsibilities, an excuse for not being able to provide in the way one wanted?
While he was in prison, separated from his family for more than two decades, his mother died, his oldest son died, his wife Winnie and other family members were harassed constantly.  In May 1984, he was finally allowed to be in the same room as his wife during a scheduled visit, and for the first time in twenty-one years he was able to touch, hold, and kiss her.
It seems to be the destiny of freedom fighters to have unstable personal lives.  When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family.  That has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made...To be the father of a nation is a great honor, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy.  But it was a joy I had far too little of.
The adjustment to life after prison, rejoining a world that had moved on socially, technologically, and personally without him, was a challenge of course, but again, Mandela embraced the positive.  For example, "Television had shrunk the world, and had in the process become a great weapon for eradicating ignorance and promoting democracy."  This brings to mind the power of social media today and the opportunities it presents to spur real change.

There's far too much in Long Walk to Freedom to even come close to touching on in this review, and it was not a quick read at all, but I am glad to have a better understanding of this extraordinary man.  He left the world a better place, and made great personal sacrifices to do so, because he truly believed that, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary in his own life and country, people are good at heart.
I never lost hope that this great transformation would occur...because of the courage of the ordinary men and women of my country.  I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there is mercy and generosity. No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.  Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going.  Man's goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.
**********************************
Long Walk to Freedom
by Nelson Mandela
ISBN: 9780316323543
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcoverpaperback, audiobook, ebook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

Friday, September 5, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 82

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I love, love, love this picture of my boys.


Wednesday was the first day of school (at least for the older two)!  Evan starts kindergarten on Monday, but couldn't resist photobombing.  There was some first-day nervousness, so we cranked up the Bon Jovi and danced all morning to get the boys pumped up.  And it worked!  They both had great first days of school.

And then Josh threw up at 3:30 Thursday morning.  So his second and third days of school have been spent at home, in bed.

~2~
The stories in this article, "The Forsaken: A Rising Number of Homeless Gay Teens Are Being Cast Out by Religious Families", broke my heart. This is not okay:
Highly religious parents are significantly more likely than their less-religious counterparts to reject their children for being gay – a finding that social-service workers believe goes a long way toward explaining why LGBT people make up roughly five percent of the youth population overall, but an estimated 40 percent of the homeless-youth population.
I appreciate Elder Quentin L. Cook's comments on the official Church website MormonsandGays.org:
As a church, nobody should be more loving and compassionate. Let us be at the forefront in terms of expressing love, compassion and outreach. Let’s not have families exclude or be disrespectful of those who choose a different lifestyle as a result of their feelings about their own gender.
We can do better.  We have to do better.

~3~

And another article that broke my heart this week: "The Sad Truth about Bullying at Church".
Church is supposed to be a safe place where we love one another—which is why encountering bullying in the ward is often bewildering to parents of bullied children. We don’t want to force our children into a situation where they are mocked, belittled, and humiliated, but we want them to go to Sunday School and Seminary.
Bullying is never ok - in any setting - but especially at church, where everyone should feel loved, wanted, and welcomed, and where everyone is supposed to be trying to be more like Christ.

After reading the linked article, I'd invite you to consider what you can personally do to make your place of worship more welcoming to everyone, particularly those who may be struggling or feel left out, even if they are difficult or challenging or have a hard time with social skills.  

Please don't assume that they're all right or that someone else will be their friend.  They may be desperately in need of what only you can offer.  Please reach out.  You could literally change or save a life.

~4~

A simple saying has stuck with me for decades since I first heard it.  It's been attributed to Plato, Philo, and Ian McLaren, and has been tweaked from the old English vocabulary to its present form:
Be kind, 
for everyone you meet 
is fighting 
a hard battle.

We literally have no idea what may be happening in someone else's life.  They could have just lost their job, or broken up with someone, or left the hospital after a long illness.  They could be contemplating suicide, or mourning the death of a dear friend.  And a small act of kindness can help them through a tough time.  Can you imagine what a better world this would be if everyone truly lived this principle and actively sought out ways to ease others' burdens?

Please, be kind.  And then look for ways to be kinder.

Friday, August 29, 2014

The Friday Four, Part 81

~1~

Anita Sarkeesian has released the next video in her "Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games" series!  This one, "Women as Background Decoration, Part 2",  is a continuation of the last one, but further explores how women are used as objects and perpetual victims of violence, most often perpetrated by males.

MAJOR content warning for depictions of violence, particularly against women, and language.



~2~

In the video games Sarkeesian critiques here, women are rarely shown to be autonomous individuals, and are often depicted as vulnerable victims of violence, but not in a sensitive way meant to raise awareness of a serious issue.
On a shallow surface level, these vignettes seem to contextualize violence against women in a negative light; however, these narratives are never really about the abused women in question. Instead depictions of female pain and victimhood are flippantly summoned to serve as sideshow attractions in storylines about other things altogether.
She describes a scene that plays repeatedly in one particular video game, where a man approaches a woman on the street and they have an argument about her leaving him. If the player intervenes too early, he scares the would-be attacker off, failing the mission and receiving no points. If the player intervenes during a specific 10-second timeframe, the player can rescue the woman by killing her attacker. If the player is too late, the woman is killed and the player can hunt down her fleeing murderer. The game does not provide any other options. Players can't call for medical help, administer first aid, or even check on the woman.
...these female characters exist to be assaulted in order to give the player something to do, a reason to chase down the bad guy, exact vigilante justice on him and gain the allotted experience points. After which the women are casually discarded, forgotten by the game and its characters.
These scenes serve no real purpose in the plot other than to let the audience know that the perpetrators are truly deplorable monsters...It’s a lazy shorthand for “evil” meant to further motivate the protagonist to take the villain down and help justify the excessive violence committed by the player in these games.
And here's the kicker:
These women and their bodies are sacrificed in the name of infusing “mature themes” into gaming stories. But there is nothing “mature” about flippantly evoking shades of female trauma. It ends up sensationalizing an issue which is painfully familiar to a large percentage of women on this planet while also normalizing and trivializing their experiences.
~3~


While some games are more "gleeful" about their depictions of violence against women then others, simply avoiding the direct glorification of violence is not sufficient.
There is a clear difference between replicating something and critiquing it. It’s not enough to simply present misery as miserable and exploitation as exploitative. Reproduction is not, in and of itself, a critical commentary. A critique must actually center on characters exploring, challenging, changing or struggling with oppressive social systems.
But the game stories we've been discussing in this episode do not center or focus on women’s struggles, women’s perseverance or women’s survival in the face of oppression. Nor are these narratives seriously interested in any sort of critical analysis or exploration of the emotional ramifications of violence against women on either a cultural or an interpersonal level.
The truth is that these games do not expose some kind of “gritty reality” of women’s lives or sexual trauma, but instead sanitize violence against women and make it comfortably consumable.
~4~

Pop culture, including video games, has a powerful influence.  It's never "just for fun"; there's always a message.
We must remember that games don’t just entertain. Intentional or not, they always express a set of values, and present us with concepts of normalcy. So what do games that casually rely on depictions of female victimhood tell us about women vis-a-vis their place in society?
Well, the pattern of utilizing women as background decoration works to reinforce the myth that women are naturally fated to be objectified, vulnerable, and perpetually victimized by male violence. These games also tend to frame misogyny and sexual exploitation as an everlasting fact of life, as something inescapable and unchangeable.
Sarkeesian points out that one of the responses she hears most often when she critiques violence against women in video games is that the games wouldn't be "realistic" without it. That's rather an ironic statement to make in games that include so many "realistic" features like "multiple lives, superpowers, health regeneration, and the ability to carry dozens of weapons and items in a massive invisible backpack", not to mention occasionally fantastical creatures like dragons and ogres.  So we can imagine worlds where all of those things are possible, but a world without violence against women is too far out of the realm of "realism" to suspend our disbelief?  That's the saddest commentary I've heard about our society in a long time.

But Sarkeesian ends on a hopeful note:
The truth is that objectification and sexual violence are neither normal nor inevitable. We do not have to accept them as some kind of necessary cultural backdrop in our media stories. Contrary to popular belief, the system of patriarchy has not existed for all of history across all time and all cultures. And as such it can be changed. It is possible to imagine fictional worlds, even of the dark, twisted dystopian variety, where the oppression and exploitation of women is not framed as something expected and inevitable.
When we see fictional universes challenging or even transcending systemic gender oppression, it subverts the dominant paradigm within our collective consciousness, and helps make a more just society feel possible, tangible and within reach.