Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book Review: Deerskin

Robin McKinley's Deerskin has been haunting me for a while.

I first heard about it back in high school. I read and fell in love with a short story. I forget the name and author of that story and have thus been unable to find it again. But somehow the fact that it was inspired by a book called Deerskin stuck in my head. Over the years I've wanted to read it, but I've had a hard time finding it. Sometimes I got distracted by other books and simply forgot that this was the one I went to the bookstore to find. More often I looked and looked but couldn't find it. I considered ordering it online once or twice, but a part of me felt like that was cheating. I can't really explain that except to say that I'd lived with this book in the back of my head for so long that I felt like I needed to stumble on it naturally.

And I finally did.

Last weekend, after spending too long at the mall looking for a pair of jeans and failing to find a dress for my rehearsal dinner, I wandered into Barnes and Noble to recharge. I was browsing, not even intending to buy anything, when my eyes fell on Deerskin. I wasn't even in the right section of the store. The book had been mis-shelved. It was clearly a sign.

After I bought it, I found the strength to go to another store where I immediately found the perfect dress for my rehearsal dinner. Obviously a sign.

From what I've read over the years, Robin McKinley mostly retells fairy tails. Deerskin is a retelling of Donkeyskin, one of the darker, more twisted fairy-tales out there. Which is saying something.

The tale goes something like this:

Once upon a time there was a great king who married the most beautiful woman in the world. They were deeply in love, and under them the kingdom prospered, until one day the queen grew ill. Before she died, she made her husband promise that he would never marry again, unless he found a woman even more beautiful than herself, thinking this would ensure that the king never married again. Upon her death, the king fell into a deep grief.

The years passed, the king began to heal, and his daughter reached womanhood. It was soon apparent that she was at least as beautiful as her mother had been, if not more so. The king became obsessed and declared his intentions to marry his own daughter, fulfilling his promise to his first wife.

The princess sought to stave off this wedding by making increasingly difficult demands. A dress the color of the sky, a dress the shone like the moon, a dress as bright and terrible as the sun. Finally, the skin of her father's favorite donkey, which she used to disguise herself and escape her obsessive father.

Robin McKinley expands on this tale, building the suspense and horror and spending a lot of time on the after-effects of the king's treatment of his daughter and her slow healing process. Deerskin was a difficult book to read. There's rape and abuse, and the added horror of the king's subjects siding with him. The princess struggles mightily with PTSD after she escapes, and it takes her the rest of the book to come to terms with what happened to her.

But that's not to discount this book or this story, which was one of my favorites even when I didn't have a name to put to it. The princess suffers, but she also saves herself, something that's all too rare in those classic fairy tales. There's no knight in shining armor here, no gallant prince or kind woodsman to swoop in and rescue the princess. She escapes, and she learns how to take care of herself, relying on her own wit and courage. She ultimately finds a way to rebuild her shattered life and be happy again. It's the best kind of fairy tale.

She also doesn't need a man to save her from the dragon she encounters. Because she's just that awesome.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Let's Talk About Orphan Black

In preparation for the second season premiere next week, Kevin and I went back and re-watched the first season of Orphan Black. This may be my favorite show currently on the air, and I have high hopes that the second season maintains everything that was incredible about the first season. If you've never seen it, you should definitely remedy that (and you should not read the rest of this entry). There are only ten episodes, so there's plenty of time to catch up before the second season begins on Saturday.

The first and most obvious thing to praise about this show is the lead actress, Tatiana Maslaney. Maslaney does incredible work playing not one, but four main characters and three side characters. She's on the screen in almost every scene, interacts with the entire cast in various guises, and even interacts with herself in some incredible scenes that will make you wonder if she's actually a twin and not just a single actress.

The most amazing bits come when she plays one character pretending to be another. Whether it's uptight Allison pretending to be wild-child Sarah in front of Sarah's daughter, Kira, or damaged Helena barely putting up a front as Beth to cop to gain access to her computer, Maslaney knows these characters so well that it all seem effortless. She can even slip into different accents when a character feels pressure and make it seem like an accident.

What really made me fall in love with this show, though, is its unique examination of patriarchy and all the little ways the system has to keep women down and all the ways that can affect the women trying to live in this society. It's not the most intersectional examination of feminism - we're still focused on pretty, white women who have some privilege of their own. But it still does a good job of teasing out all sorts of aggresions, both micro and macro, and showing the importance of working together to achieve common goals and help with personal goals.

The clones in this story are all ultimately struggling for the same thing - agency. The two main antagonistic groups (both populated almost exclusively by men) are trying to take that from them. The church wants to simply kill all of the clones and be done with it, rid the world of what they view as an abomination. The neolutionists, who created the clones in the first place, monitor the clones closely. They claim it's for the clones own good, but their true intentions are almost certainly more nefarious. It's revealed in the finale that any freedom or privacy they offer is just a lie, a way to throw the clones off the scent so they can continue their work without interference.

This state of constant surveillance and fear affects all of our clones (women) if different ways. Helena was recruited by the church as a child where she was taught that she was special. She was told that she was the original and has internalized the message that she's not like the other clones (women). This allows the church to manipulate and use her for their own ends. It's only through her bond to Sarah that she begins to shake their influence, although she's ultimately too far gone to save. Going forward, I have to assume that Rachel is a variation on this same model. She's working with the neolutionists, and I can only assume that she has also internalized a sense of being different and, more importantly, better than the other clones.

The other three main clones are only just becoming aware of these structures that seek to control their lives. They all react to the news differently, and they all fight against the system in different ways. But it's important to note that they find strength in working together. That the Neolutionists ultimately achieve their victory at the end of the season by driving wedges in between these women and feeding on their more selfish motivations.

Cosima is arguably the most well-adjusted of the trio. She's a scientist, and she reacts to the knowledge that she's a clone by seeking more knowledge. She learns about Dr Leekie and the Neolutionists and looks for opportunities to learn more about them. Cosima is sure that if she can just arm herself with enough knowledge, she can find her way out of the maze. If she asks enough questions, she'll find the answer that sets her free. But that's not how it works. All she ultimately discovers is how thoroughly trapped she is, and how hopeless the entire situation is.

Allison, my personal favorite, reacts in almost the opposite way. When Allison's world gets turned upside down, she starts falling to pieces. She's all about control, and the sense that she's losing control, or worse, that she was never in control to begin with, she does not handle it well. Allison lashes out at everyone as she tries to figure out how to regain her sense of normalcy. She ultimately decides that privacy is more important than freedom and signs a deal with Dr Leekie to get her life back the way it was. Unbeknownst to her, her life is exactly as it was before, complete with monitored activities and secret, invasive medical exams. I almost can't wait for her to discover that she was duped. Her rage is already a force to be reckoned with, and when she finally figures out who to focus it on there should be some serious fireworks.

Finally we have Sarah, arguably the protagonist of the show. Sarah has trust issues, and learning that she was a science experiment does nothing to help this. She's just as angry as Allison, just as curious as Cosima, but she's got years of experience to help her stay a step ahead of the neolutionists. Unfortunately, she can't do it alone. While she still has her brother Felix, standing ever faithfully by her side, the loss of her daughter could very well send her into a self-destructive spiral she can't pull out of.

What I love is that none of these women can take down the bad guys by themselves. Their strengths and weaknesses balance each other out. Cosima's level headed rationalism helps Sarah and Allison stay grounded while their rage reminds her to get angry. Sarah's trust issues make Cosima properly wary of Delphine, and Allison's motherly instincts help Sarah see that she needs to do the best thing for her daughter, not just for herself. The three of them are going to need to figure out a way to work together again if they have any hope of breaking free from the shackles of the neolutionists. It'll be great to see them go head to head with Rachel and learn how she was recruited (or raised).

I'm really looking forward to the second season, which should build on these themes of teamwork, individual agency, and the oppression of patriarchal systems. And also more of Maslaney being jaw-droppingly amazing. Here's hoping for a second season that's even better than the first.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Book Review: Small Favor

In the tenth book of The Dresden Files, Harry agrees to do a small favor for someone and quickly finds himself in way over his head. Meanwhile the main plot of the series is just treading water while everyone gets moved into place.

I really don't expect a lot from The Dresden Files. They're like popcorn action movies. Something that's entertaining, but that I don't really think too hard about. The plots are convoluted but not necessarily complicated. There are a ton of characters - both allies and enemies of Harry. But keeping them all straight is what the internet is for. And I definitely kept my tablet close at hand so I could keep looking things up while I read this.

This book brought back a lot of characters from the past. Both faerie courts are in play, as are the Denarians and the Knights of the Cross. The Archive shows up, along with a warden, Thomas, and the ever-present Murphy. It almost felt like an attempt to reintroduce a bunch of these characters and tease out their alliances in preparation for the climax that I know is coming in the next book or two.

In the meantime, this book was fun. There was snappy dialogue and lots of action and cameos by nearly all of the characters I've come to care about over the course of the series. Exactly what I want when I pick up a book in this series. Just some light, zippy entertainment. The Dresden Files may not be the greatest series ever written, but it's not the worst either, and this installment was a fine example. It's nice knowing that even ten books in, Butcher can still churn out entertaining, action-packed stories that don't feel like retreads of everything that's come before.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Mileposts on the Road to Adulthood

About a week after my twelfth birthday I was standing in my empty bedroom. The furniture I'd owned since I graduated to a big girl bed was downstairs in a moving truck, waiting to be taken to my mom's rental home. The new bedroom set I'd picked out with my dad a few weeks earlier hadn't arrived yet. I traced the butterfly pattern around the wall and declared myself an adult

When I got my driver's license, the first thing I did was take myself for a long drive through the winding mountain roads that led from my dad's house to my mom's house. I put in my Britney CD, turned the volume all the way up, and reveled in my new-found freedom.

Somewhere in the summer between high school and college I accidentally stayed out all night with a guy I had almost dated a few years earlier. I stumbled home as the sun was rising and entered the kitchen to find my dad brewing coffee. He wasn't happy, but I was eighteen. I was moving out soon. There wasn't any punishment he could inflict on me, and we both knew it.

On my twentieth birthday I had a bit of a breakdown. There was a huge party happening, one that actually had very little to do with my birthday. I sat against a wall in shock as the clock rolled past midnight, and I wondered if I'd be able to handle trading in part of my identity. Was I ready to be a twenty-something instead of a dumb teen?

The final Harry Potter book came out shortly after I turned twenty-one. I read it in a few days, tucking it in between other things I had to do. It wasn't quite like The Goblet of Fire, which I read in a single sitting while my dad put food in front of me so I wouldn't starve. But it was as close as I could come to replicating that experience now that I had other responsibilities. When I finished the book I, along with an entire generation, bid goodbye to my childhood. Harry was an adult, and so was I.

Graduation is a bittersweet time for everyone. I was so glad school was over, ecstatic to be done with homework and tests. I was devastated that my boyfriend and I were breaking up. I was terrified that I didn't have a job lined up. Not knowing what came next, I spent three days driving from LA to Denver all by myself, listening to the Dixie Chicks and sobbing the entire time. So much for wide open spaces.

I was cleaning my small apartment, like I did every Saturday morning when I locked onto my gaze in the bathroom mirror. For a second I didn't recognize myself, and I spent a few moments staring at my reflection. Here I was, spending the weekend scrubbing my toilet. I had a job and an apartment. I was paying my bills and taking care of myself. Was this adulthood? Had I really made it?

There's nothing quite like being responsible for another life. My head was killing me, but the dog needed to be walked. So I rolled out of bed, pulled on a pair of pants, and took her to the park. Amazingly enough I felt a lot better when I got home than I had expected to. Responsibility had trumped my hangover in more ways than one.

The moments that I feel like an accomplished, confident adult come more frequently. They're also becoming more mundane. It's forgoing just one more episode of television because I really should wash the dishes first. Waking up to dog shit on the carpet and starting to clean with barely a grumble. Doing research in order to make informed decisions about my money.

The moments that I'm sure I'll find out it was all just a big joke come less frequently, though I've stopped hoping that they'll just disappear altogether. Is that another sign of maturity?

We're at a happy hour with my work colleagues when I find myself talking to my boss's boss. He mentions that he's heard great things about me, and my fiance smiles and says "She's a smart girl". I wait until we get home to correct him. I know it was meant as a compliment, but I'm a woman. It's taken me too long to feel comfortable claiming that label for myself, and now that I do no one is going to take it away from me.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On Being an Active Alumna

By the time I graduated from Mudd, I was completely burnt out. I hadn't wanted to be there for most of my last semester, and all I could think about was getting out and never going back.

That mindset stayed with me for a long time. While most of my friends returned to campus to visit at least once in our first year out of college, I didn't even consider it. I avoided calls and emails, moved without officially changing my address so the college wouldn't know where to send me stuff, and refused to go to Alumni Weekend. I wanted nothing to do with the college or any of the people there.

Eventually, that feeling began to fade. I reconnected with a lot of the friends I made at Mudd. Kevin and I brought Halloweiner to the East Coast, and we started traveling to see other Mudders. I began to look forward to the five year reunion and finally gave Mudd my current mailing address. It helped that I was finally enjoying career success, a lot of which I could attribute to my education at Mudd. It also helped that, as an alumna, the president's sweeping changes at the school started to make a lot more sense.

Recently, I started to become more active as a Mudd Alumni. We went to a dinner a few weeks back where we heard about some of the current goings-on at Mudd. The panel included a couple of professors and a couple of current students. I didn't really learn anything new, but it was nice to be reminded of the reasons I fell in love with Mudd in the first place and spent four mostly great years of my life there.

This past weekend I attended a college fair as an alumna representative to speak to prospective students about how great Mudd was. I ended up working with an older alumnus, one who had veered away from science and into law. We had very little in common other than Mudd, but it was still fun to reminisce about the school with someone who had a an experience that was so different and still very similar to my own.

The fair was at an IB school, so the students we met were all very smart, and most of them had heard of Mudd. Unfortunately they also seemed to be so concerned with numbers and test scores that it felt like they glossing over the things that I found so special about Mudd. Then again, that's mostly the culture we live in today, where SAT scores seem to matter more than anything else. I lost count of the number of times I had to explain that IB students didn't get special treatment or consideration in the application process because there were just so many of them, that they probably wouldn't be able to test out of any classes, that they could expect to be among intellectual peers (and left unsaid was that this experience would be so much more important than continuing on as the smartest person in the room).

There was one girl who seemed like a perfect fit, though. And perhaps out of the 20 or 30 students I talked to, one who seemed like a good fit was the best I could really hope for. She was smart, interested in computer science, but also passionate about music. She hung around and asked deeper questions about the culture and opportunities at Mudd. Meeting her reminded me of myself ten years ago, and I really hope that she applies and gets in.

I'm more excited about Mudd now than I have been since I first started there. A lot of that is having enough time and distance from the school to appreciate everything it did for me. Part of it is seeing President Klawe in the news and learning about all the cool things she's doing at Mudd, particularly for women in computer science. And part of it is getting actively involved again. I don't know when I'll have time to go to another college fair, but I definitely think it's something that I want to do again.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Final Details

The wedding's getting really close. I'm at a point now where I'm oscillating between feeling on top of everything and freaking out because I remembered something we forgot.

Honestly, we're in a good place and almost everything is taken care of or soon will be. But we only have one more functional weekend before the wedding (the other has been taken over by Easter-related revelry), which makes it feel like it's a lot closer than it is.

Most of what's left is reporting final guest counts and paying the vendors. We'll take care of the florist and the cake this week and I believe we have to pay the venue/caterer next week. We've finalized the times for everything and figured out the seating chart. We finally bought a guest book and found some place cards.

The to-do list isn't terribly long anymore. However, everything left still feels pretty major. We need to fill out all the place cards, which can be done while watching TV one evening. I have my final dress fitting tonight, after which I think I can take the dress home.

We also need to finalize the playlist for the reception. It's maybe half done at this point. I didn't realize how hard it can be to fill a few hours with music. If you have any suggestions for songs, let us know. I think we still need about an hour's worth of music. Maybe more. We also need to acquire most of the songs.

The final bit is the ceremony. We found some readings, and we figured out the legal side of things. But the ceremony itself is still largely a mystery. Without any religious doctrine to fall back on, we need to figure everything out ourselves. This is proving harder than I thought it would be, and we're mostly not thinking about it at this point. Maybe we can just improvise the whole thing?

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Book Review: Little House in the Big Woods

The reading challenge for April was to revisit a book from your childhood. It was immediately obvious that I needed to read Little House in the Big Woods, which is one of the first books I really remember reading. It was definitely my first favorite book. Returning to it makes it even more obvious how much this book shaped me as a person and a reader.

Looking at my reading habits now, it probably seems strange that my early reading experiences weren't more influenced by an iconic fantasy book. The truth is that I didn't really become interested in fantasy until high school, when I wanted a more drastic escape from reality. My first love was historical fiction, particularly fiction about early America. I gobbled up the American Girl books, along with books like Naya Nuki, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. But it all began with Laura Ingalls and her little house.

This book is less of a cohesive story and more of a series of vignettes that illustrate a year in the life of a family who is mostly self-sufficient. They hunt and grow their own food, only trading for specialties like salt and fancy sugar. They make their own soap and cheese and clothing. The nearest people - nearly all blood relatives - can be visited but it typically requires a full day to travel, visit, and return home. Filtered through the memory of five-year-old Laura, this life seems far more idyllic than it probably was.

But it's that sense that latched on to my soul. Fully half of the book takes place in winter, which was probably a harsh and miserable time. Here it's presented as snug and cozy. Punctuated by celebrations of Christmas and the maple syrup dance made possible by the sugar snow, winter is a time to celebrate, relax, and enjoy the comfort of your family. There's work to do, but it's not nearly as demanding or time-consuming as the work required by warmer weather. My enduring love for winter was very likely inspired by this book.

I was also surprised to discover that this book uses the stories-within-stories format (one of my favorites) to relay information about Laura's relatives. These stories typically come with their own morals, the most frequent one being to respect your parents. But those lessons aren't shoe-horned in the way they are in Little Woman, so the book feels less preachy overall.

Going back to Little House in the Big Woods was a lot of fun. I'm a little sad that I never got as invested in the rest of the series as I did in this book, which I read over and over. From here I basically skipped ahead to The Long Winter and only returned to the stories in the middle once I was older. By that time they weren't able to hold quite the same sway over me as the first book. Knowing what I now do about Laura's father's financial struggles and the reasons for their frequent moves puts a bit of a damper on the series overall. Still, it's nice to know that I can always go back to the big woods and rose-tinted world it presents; even if I can't stay there long.