Monthly Archives: March 2016

Women of the Silk

Remember when I mentioned that I’d been reading about lesbians in China in the 1920s?

A week ago I discussed my various reading moods and the fluffy books I read in February.  Once I finished Midnight Pearls, I started craving something with meat again.  I picked Women of the Silk by Gail Tsukiyama because I knew the person who gave it to me for Christmas has an excellent taste in meaty literature.  (Of course, half way through the book, I remembered that the person who gave it to me was actually not who I THOUGHT gave it to me and had in fact never read the book, but I loved this book and I’m so glad I made that mistake.)

The story starts in 1919 and shows the main character, Pei, as a child.  Within a few pages, Tsukiyama has painted the little farm she grows up on as well as its relationship to the broader society of rural China.  It immediately gives us a glimpse of what women’s lives are like, which will be very important as the story develops.

She portrays the struggles and expectations so well that the reader is hardly shocked, let alone mortified, when Pei’s father takes her to a girls’ house in the city and leaves her there without looking back.  There, Pei sets about fulfilling the words of the fortune-teller, who said she would love many but there would be “complications” so she would never marry.

(Spoiler alert: the complication is that she’s totally a lesbian.)

Pei and her sisters at the girls’ house face many challenges, including the “Japanese devils” who are beginning to invade their country, unfair working conditions in the silk factory, and just the general struggles that comes with growing up and, as she begins to notice the way people look and judge her, growing up different.  She learns to be independent from a young age and some of her sisters go through the “hair-braiding ceremony,” which is just as final as a wedding and signifies that they are going to move into the Sisters’ House and stay unmarried throughout their lives.

Through all of this, Pei’s relationship with Lin develops, touching and being touched by every aspect of their lives.  As their relationship grows, Lin takes Pei to her brother’s wedding and Pei lets Lin convince her to visit her parents one last time.

What I love most about their relationship is how naturally intimate it is.  There is one scene where a physical consummation is more implied than anything else, but from the beginning, there is no room for doubt about what they mean to one another.  When Lin’s family comes to discuss the possibility of her marriage and she decides to go through the hair-braiding ceremony instead, Pei immediately wants to do so as well.  They spend all their free time together, they discuss everything, and they encourage and reassure one another through all the changes in their lives.

The novel is filled with strong female characters, ones who make mistakes and do the best they can and always always always have their sisters’ backs.  Booklist described it as “a soft ring of feminism,” and it is definitely soothing like one.  While staying true to its historical nature, it also proves that strong women are not limited to a single time or place, and true love does not have to be declared but acted upon to exist.

I suggest you read it.  I suggest everyone read it.  The writing is beautiful, the story is moving, and the characters are vivid.  Basically, it’s going to be joining The Truth About Forever, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Things They Carried in whatever bag I pack whenever I leave my house for longer than a weekend.  It’s one of those books I hugged to my chest because I just wanted to absorb it into my heart.  It has found a place there and I will remember it for a long time to come.

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Zootopia

If you aren’t interested in seeing Zootopia, I don’t blame you.  I am a Disney addict and, based on the sloth scene alone, I intended to wait for the DVD.  However, after hearing more about it, I began to get curious and even a little excited.  Fast forward, I’ve seen it twice and will definitely be buying it once it’s on Blu-Ray.  Plus, I wouldn’t mind going a third time if anyone wants a buddy to see it with.

If you’re wondering why a 23-year-old is so enamoured with a Disney cartoon…you’re clearly new here and don’t know me at all, but I understand your skepticism.

On the most superficial level, this is the most adorable buddy-cop movie I’ve ever seen, partly because the characters are so well-formed.  Start with an unlikely pair, watch as they play off each other’s strengths and compensate for their weaknesses, and eventually learn to be friends, once they shed their prejudices.  Even the supporting characters learn and grow while maintaining their unique personalities.

With such vivid characters, you need an equally compelling world to put them in.  Zootopia was designed so creatively that each location is eye-catching and precise.  Watching the movie, you can tell that the artists really considered the problems that would affect day-to-day life for a city with so much biodiversity and addressed the issues, using open spaces, doors sized for every mammal, and boroughs with generated microclimates for animals that need certain conditions to live.

Once you’ve got characters and a setting, you need a story.  The mystery in this one is simple (it was intended for younger audiences after all), but still has enough twists to keep it interesting.  And for Zootopia, the mystery is only half the point.  The detective story serves as a window into the bigger problems the society faces, such as prejudices against predators and small mammals.  Or, as we know them in our own world, racism and sexism.

Judy Hopps is looked down on, no matter how hard she works, primarily because of her small stature.  Her size means she has to work twice as hard to get through the police academy, yet when she gets out, she still isn’t considered a “real cop” but more of a “token bunny.”  Alternately, Nick Wilde is a con artist, having learned years ago that no one will see him, a fox, as anything other than shifty and sly and untrustworthy.  Part of what brings them together is their status as “outsiders” in their world, but when the world seems to turn upside down, fear and prejudices threaten to separate even them.

In Zootopia, there becomes an “us” and a “them,” pitting the population against one another, and reaching across those lines is the only way both to solve the case and to move forward with their lives.  Even our protagonist has to learn to see beyond their fear and understand that DNA does not determine our character.  She also learns that making mistakes is okay, as long as you get up again.

(That being said, Shakira’s “Try Everything” from the movie is AMAZING and has been making me feel so much better this week.)

(For more random thoughts, follow me on Snapchat @wordsmith92 or Twitter @wordsmith_kari.)

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Fluff, or Easy Reading

There are a lot of ways I gauge how I’m doing emotionally, but the major one is how I feel about reading. I know it’s a bad day when nothing catches me, when I read ten pages of four different books and my brain still won’t quiet enough to listen, or else it pays so little attention that the words becoming meaningless and I reread paragraphs without understanding any better.

On the other hand, I know it’s a good day when I lust after the words. I can’t describe it any other way. I find something with meat and I get so excited that I can’t think about anything else. It doesn’t matter where I actually am because I disappear into the story, leaving my anxiety or sadness on the floor next to my shoes. It’s days like those I really understand why Scout says she doesn’t love reading, but those are also the days I love it like I love to breathe.

In the last year, it feels like there have been far more of the first kind of days than the latter, but the good news is that they aren’t all so extreme. There are days I wouldn’t start anything rich, but since I began a book the day before, I can coast on that excitement and continue to enjoy it. Then there are the times my mind refuses to settle down if I ask it to interpret symbolism or engage in something heavy, but if I am gentle with it, I can coax it into being read a simple story, like reading a child to sleep. These are the days I’m in the mood for something “light and fluffy.”

I just finished a month of being in that place, so I have several suggestions in case you (or your favorite bookworm) are ever in a similar mood.

  • Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella. I had a lot of feelings about this book. Audrey has crippling social anxiety and it has changed the lives of her entire family. But she is getting better, so when she meets Linus, her therapist encourages her to learn to socialize with someone outside her family again. This may not sound all that fluffy, but it is a YA novel, so the characters develop really quickly and easily and the romance is right from the beginning. It doesn’t sugarcoat how hard life is for her or ignore how medication is useful for mental illness, but all the good guys get a happy ending. She also highlights the difference between someone who hurts a person because they misunderstand the situation but is actually trying to help and someone who hurts a person and refuses to take responsibility for it. In the real world that can be much less cut-and-dry, but it sure feels good to read about.
  • Remembrance by Meg Cabot. I literally waited a year for this book. It’s the continuation of the Mediator series I grew up with, and it was nice to be reunited with those characters. If I had been in a different mood, I may have enjoyed it less because Emily was right: after four years, the characters SHOULD have grown up a little a more. Plus, despite the fact that Suze was working an unpaid internship, it felt like everything worked out a little too easily. But at the time, that was exactly what I needed, so I’m not going to complain now.
  • The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. This one was a little harder than the rest. There are a lot of Christian references and parallels, the language is older, AND my copy of the book was literally falling apart in my hands. But it’s a cute little story with some fun magic, plus its rules about what a prince or princess should and should not do are very sweet while still being empowering. The princess holds herself to a higher standard and the narrator applauds that as she is royalty. But when Curdie acts like a prince by refusing to rest until he has righted his wrong, the narrator credits him with that and calls him one, even though he’s a miner by trade.
  • Midnight Pearls by Debbie Viguié. This is part of the Once Upon a Time series, which I love because it gives fairy-tales a new twist. (No relation except WAY BETTER than the tv show of the same name.) This one is the story of the Little Mermaid, but focused more on friendship and family than romance.  It’s about figuring out who you are and trusting yourself, and it’s all jammed into a couple hundred magic-filled pages.  And in the end, like any good fluff book, the enemy is defeated and the heroes ride into the sunset to live happily ever after.

Classics are important for the view they give us of the time they were written in as well as the timeless message that rated it a spot in literary canon.  (Just never read On the Road.  I’m serious.)  Likewise, modern literature that forces you to ask questions and think deeply are valuable because it can change a person’s worldview and consequently their life.  But sometimes you just need something that’s going to make you happy, something soft and warm and easy.  There is no shame in reading something just for fun, and there is no harm in a feel-good piece of fluff either.

What’s your favorite book for “Easy-Reading?”

Come back Thursday to hear about a book with some meat.

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The Little Mermaid

Lately, I’ve been writing my blog posts at work and just typing them up later, but HOLY CRAP am I loving this book about Chinese lesbians in the 1920s, so all I did at work today was read…in my free time, I mean.  That being said, this post is going to be a bit off the cuff.

(Also, come by on March 31st to hear more about The Women of the Silk.  It’s fantastic.)

I went to see The Little Mermaid with some friends last week.  I didn’t originally realize it was a ballet, but I ended up enjoying it.  The costumes were breath-taking, from the adorable fish and turtles to the beautiful dresses during the castle scenes, except for the fact that the shoes squeaked on the stage.  The sets were interesting, using practical effects as well as a digital screen to simulate underwater scenes, plus an elaborate staging for the magnificent castle ballroom.

The Sea Witch was the best part of Act 1, and the show really began to shine when the little mermaid gained her legs.  When the ballerina was freed from her mermaid tail and began to dance, every other dancer highlighted her beautiful performance.  You could tell why she was the star.

Lately, I haven’t been losing myself in the performances like I used to.  It’s been a while since I’ve been to a show where I could forget everything else and just enjoy the story for a few hours.  It’s one of the reasons I want to get away for a while.  I’d like to be in a place where there aren’t a million things right outside the door (or in my purse) that I’m going to have to figure out how to deal with as soon as the show is over.  Right now, I just want to be free.  Which, really, is all Ariel ever wanted.  The prince was just a bonus.  I think, at least in the Disney version, if he had left her, she would still be happy with her legs.

Come back Thursday for more adventures with princesses.

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Book Club Thursday – Black History Month Edition

Since we’re playing catch-up here: I have been reading.  In February, I tried to stick to a theme, since it was Black History Month and there was  (and still is, to be honest) a serious lack of diversity on my bookshelves.  These were some of the books I picked to start closing that gap in my own reading life.

At Her Majesty’s Request by Walter Dean Meyers. Say what you will about juvenile biographies. They’re great for teaching children about people history books ignore. This one tells the story of an African princess taken to England and renamed Sarah (though her birth name has been lost to history). It tells of her rescue from a rival African king and how she grows up as the protégée of Queen Victoria. While remaining simple enough for its intended audience, it shows the horrors left in Africa from the European slave trade. It’s also very clear on the harmful effects on Sarah of her white teachers’ racism. Without preaching, he manages to combine “this is how it was back then” with “that doesn’t mean it was okay.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t realize Stowe was white until it was pointed out to me…and I got further in the book. I’m not going to fuss about the book too much, because it clearly did its job. It’s also a very feminist book for its time, as every female character is a strong character without being a Strong Female Character™. But it’s also a very problematic book. It becomes clear that the author is white as you see that she is often as concerned, if not more so, for what slave-holding has done to the masters as to the slaves. It also turns out that most of the slaves the reader is meant to sympathize with are “white-passing,” seeming to ask “Where do we draw the line?” instead of saying that slavery is wrong no matter how dark one’s skin is. Like I said, it did its job in its day, and for all I know, she could have done these things intentionally to reach even the most stubborn slavery-supporters. That doesn’t make it right, but it does make it an interesting snapshot of its day.

She also wrote as if ending slavery would fix every problem it created. At the end, most of the enslaved characters the story follows have been both freed and reunited with their families. The only enslaved character who doesn’t make it through the book becomes the plantation owner’s inspiration for freeing everyone else (none of whom want to go anywhere).

A Strong Right Arm: The Story of Mamie “Peanut” Johnson by Michelle Y. Green. This book actually belonged to my dad, which is no surprise really because it’s about baseball. Specifically, it’s another juvenile biography (he was an elementary school teacher) about one of only three women to play professional baseball. It showed how much harder she had to work to get there and the intersectionality of the racism and sexism she faced.
Green wrote the book in first person, taking on Mamie’s voice as she told the story. It gave it a personal touch and got to the root of “What sort of person achieves something like this?” There were a few lines that made the feminist in me cringe, about not being “like other girls,” but over all it’s about overcoming, and isn’t that something we can all get behind?

Celebrations by Maya Angelou. I had heard one Maya Angelou poem in my life (“Phenomenal Woman”), but that never stopped me from admiring her style and grace. I was so excited to find this book of her poetry and it did not disappoint. Angelou is one of those poets who truly understands how structure and rhythm can contribute to a poem’s meaning. Though the words were written a decade or more ago, her reflections on race and racism are as relevant as ever.

What’s your favorite book by a person of color?  Or your favorite story from Black History?

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Hill Yes

When things in your life aren’t going quite the way you want, it may be a good time to think about something bigger than yourself. Lucky for me, this particular heartbreak happened as election season was ramping up.

Usually, I’d wait until November to get involved. Blame it on The West Wing or the complete joke that is the current Republican selection, but lately I’ve been paying attention and I don’t like what I see. The Republican frontrunner is a racist, sexist bully whose primary selling point is “good at business,” which is even more stupid when you realize he’s actually had several businesses go bankrupt.

With that in mind, I’ve been watching the Democrat candidates. So last night when my sister invited me to a Clinton rally, I agreed.

My first thought was how absolutely thrilled Rory Gilmore would be right now, and if they don’t use this in the Gilmore Girls revival I will be very disappointed…almost as disappointed as I will be if she winds up with Dean.

Second, and still thinking of Rory, she was right. Clinton is a talented public speaker. She starts by knowing her audience. From the moment we walked in, we heard empowering music by young female artists, like Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” Everyone who stood on that stage, from the person whose job was to excite the crowd first to the educator introducing Clinton, was a woman.

When she started speaking, it was evident she knew what her audience wanted to hear. She spoke about issues of equality and fairness, speaking against restricting the right to vote and the gender wage gap. She talked about gun violence as an issue of child safety and the regulations she believed in as common sense measures, quoting statistics to suggest most Americans (and even most gun owners) agreed on these specific oversights. She placed most of her issues in the context of how they affect children, from the obvious education inequity to affordable health care. She also shared about her own granddaughter, showing how she could relate to her audience’s concerns.

The only time she referenced immigration was in regards to educating migrant children, which appeared not to be enough for the protestors in attendance. Their signs read “Education not Deportation” and “Stop Deporting Our Students.” I would have been interested to hear her response to that, but she never faltered from her script. She said that we need a dialog in this country, and choosing to address their concerns would have been encouraging precedent.

Still, one can’t engage in every conversation or issue. In campaigning (as in life) picking your battles is an important skill. Besides knowing her audience and her issues, Clinton also knew who her enemy was. She made one comment about why Bernie’s plan to make college free wouldn’t work. Otherwise, despite the fact that he’s the one she faces in the North Carolina primary today, she focused on the merits of Democratic leadership over Republican. While she is ambitious, stating she wants half a billion solar panels by the end of her first term and listing a larger goal for the end of her second, she recognizes she might not be the nominee and that there is something larger at stake. She recognizes that any of the Democrats running would be better for the country than one of the Republican candidates and puts the best for the country above personal victory.

In all the chaos, I keep noticing this little girl across the room.  She’s waving a “Vote for Hillary” sign, holding it as high as she can reach.  She can’t be much older than my cousin Cora.  Watching her, I start to tear up a little as the magnitude of this event hits me all over again.

There is no reason that a woman can’t be president, except of course that no woman ever has been.  Tell a little boy that he can grow up to be president and he can immediately conjure role models to follow: Washington, Lincoln, right on up to Bush and Obama.  Tell a little girl she could be president one day, and she thinks…well, ok.  If you say so.  I guess anything’s possible.

But here we have a woman who is getting closer and closer to the White House.  People are throwing around the words “Madame President” and wondering what we’ll call Bill (the First Husband?  the First Gentleman?).  This is a country where women (white women, to be specific) are still making 75 cents to every dollar a white man makes, where women are supposed to be happy that they have rights like voting and driving (because that’s more than the women in some countries have) and we ignore the fact that one in five women are sexually assaulted in their lifetime, that women are subject to catcalling on the street and are supposed to ignore it or take it as a compliment (and sometimes ignoring it just makes the problem worse).  We ignore how often women are killed or raped in media, how often they are used as prizes for the male characters or their trauma is viewed in the ways it affects the men they’re with (I am SO looking at you, Age of Ultron).  Have women come a long way in this country?  Absolutely.  But there is still a long way to go, and putting a woman in the highest office in the country – what many call “the leader of the free world” – would show girls that they really can do anything they put their minds to.

I’m not saying I agree with all of her politics, I’m not even saying I voted for her in the primary today, but you know…as scared as the Republican nominees may make me, the fact that I have her as an option makes me feel better about the way our country is headed overall.

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Thinking Out Loud

One of the reasons Inside Out is such an important movie is the message that no one is supposed to be happy all the time.  Denying your feelings is more harmful than sadness itself.

I felt a lot of difficult things in February.  I wasn’t writing because I didn’t have anything to say about them, except when drinking, but alcohol and the internet have never been a good combination.  (Hell, I have enough problems combining alcohol and a big mouth.)

Yesterday, I went to dinner with a good friend and had a long talk with my favorite bartender, and she reminded me of something else.  While everything you’re feeling is valid and you should let yourself feel them, you also have to separate them from reality.

The sun will come up tomorrow.  Maybe you’ll feel better, maybe you won’t, but it is not the end of the world and it is not the end of you.  It will pass and you will still be standing.

In the meantime, you take your happiness where you can get it.

For me this week, it’s in old friends, new possibilities, and the following playlist.  These songs are making me feel stronger in the face of my struggle and more optimistic about what this new chapter may hold for me.

  1. “Follow Your Arrow” – Kacey Musgraves
  2. “No More Wasted Time” – LaChanze and the cast of If/Then
  3. “Fight Song” – Rachel Platten
  4. “Wait for It” – Leslie Odom Jr. and the cast of Hamilton
  5. “What If” – Idina Menzel and the cast of If/Then
  6. “Born to Fly” – Sara Evans
  7. “Amy aka Spent Gladiator” – The Mountain Goats
  8. “Fly” – Maddie & Tae
  9. “Southern Comfort Zone” – Brad Paisley
  10. “Wide Open” – Jason Aldean

Or the whole playlist is here.  Basically they’re songs about the different paths life can take.  Recently, I thought the path I was on was clear and well-defined.  I thought I knew what was next.  And then something happened that knocked me down and muddied the path.  I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but maybe that’s okay.  I’m looking ahead and I like my options.

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