Review Roundup: The Dark Tower Movie (Jake Chambers IS NOT Tyler Marshall), Spider-Man: Homecoming (or: Spider-Man: Brofest) and The House of the Spirits (… no sarcasm about this one.)

I could do individual posts on each of these things but I didn’t get a chance to post last week and if I get too behind on the things I want to write about I’ll never get back to them – so. A little bit of a roundup here.

The Dark Tower Movie – Jack Chambers IS NOT Tyler Marshall

Y’all, I have a Dark Tower quote (“there are other worlds than these”) tattooed on my right forearm. You could say I’m kind of attached to this story. Fortunately I know enough to be highly skeptical about any attempt to translate it into film. As excited as I was about the casting and as much as I flailed when the pictures of Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey in costume were released (because I knew those two would knock their roles out of the park even if I wasn’t happy with the script) I never believed that they’d really do it. Not really. And then it became clear that what they were filming was … a sort of alternate version of the story which, had they done it well, could’ve been perfectly valid within the bounds of the story, but I didn’t trust that they’d do it well.

And they didn’t.

Sometimes these things just make so little sense – who sat at a meeting and said “It isn’t enough that the Tower holds the entire universe together – it isn’t enough that the universe would just cease to be without the Tower – there have to be MONSTERS. MONSTERS I TELL YOU.”

And who said “this movie ought to be all about the relationship between Jake and Roland, except that story gets pretty messy, and we don’t want the kid to die even a single time … hey, the kid in Black House gets rescued, maybe we could steal some of his story.” Because I really think they took Tyler Marshall’s story and imposed it onto Jake – Tyler was the powerful psychic who could’ve brought down the Tower, not Jake. Devar-Toi was not a horrorshow of kids strapped into chairs – the place in the movie seemed far more similar to The Big Combination in Black House. And while I like Black House, IT IS NOT THE SAME STORY. That movie was not a story about Roland and Jake in a different timeline. That movie was not about Roland or Jake. I’m not quite sure what that movie was, other than a hot mess.

I will say my excitement about the cast was well founded – Idris and Matthew were both brilliant, and both of them had moments where they really shone through despite the script. I really liked the kid playing Jake; he would’ve been even better if he’d been able to play ACTUAL JAKE THE WAY JAKE IS ACTUALLY FUCKING WRITTEN. Same with Idris – god he would’ve been amazing playing ACTUAL ROLAND. AUGH.

But like I said, I expected this going in, so I wasn’t surprised – really, just frustrated, because that was so much wasted potential. They could’ve done such a cool thing, and they didn’t. Maybe one day someone will get ahold of this story and make a full-fledged high-budget cable or Netflix or Amazon TV series out of it because that’s the only way that it’s going to work. Until then, I’m pretty relieved that the line I have tattooed on my arm – which is one of the central lines of the story – wasn’t ever uttered in the mess of a movie.

Spider-Man: Homecoming / Spider-Man: Brofest

Here’s the thing – I’m a Marvel movie fangirl. I see all of them. I always love them. They’re so much fun, I love how they all interconnect, the characters are lovable and hilarious and frequently pull my heartstrings. It’s a geeky franchise done right. And Spider-Man was all of those things – it was fun, it had just the right amount of Tony to keep him involved without letting him take over Peter’s story, it set up a world for a new franchise that has a lot of potential … but I just couldn’t get past the fact that this was, I think, the worst Marvel Studios has ever done as far as having any female characters that actually get to fucking do something.

Yes, they set up Michelle and she’s going to be awesome in future movies but did she really have to stay so far in the background in this one? The character in the movie that interested me the most and they didn’t let her do a single damned thing. There’s no reason that she couldn’t have gotten into some adventure with Ned to help support Peter – something. Marvel is usually so much better about this – I’ve been thinking about it and I can’t come up with an example of any of the Marvel Studios movies that has such a low level of participation by female characters.

And yes, it’s thrown into even more sharp relief by the fact that I saw Wonder Woman not long ago. The thing is, I wanted Marvel to get there first with the female hero lead. They didn’t. They’re working on Captain Marvel but that’s going to be a while. Usually, though, they’ve got some ladies up in there, doing shit. Even if it’s not Gamora or Black Widow kicking ass it’s Jane doing science or Pepper holding shit together – something. So the lack in this one was so striking to me. Guys, come on. There’s just no excuse. Marvel excels at movies that expertly juggle a lot of characters doing a lot of different things – they absolutely could’ve given at least one woman more of an active role. Even if the movie didn’t pass The Bechdel Test (and some Marvel movies do!), they could’ve done better. There’s no reason they couldn’t have done better.

I’m not in a fight with Marvel – I still love them and I’m wicked stoked about Ragnarok and Black Panther, this one just let me down a little.

The House of the Spirits

This week I finished reading The House of the Spirits, which covered Read Harder 2017 challenge #4 – Read a book set in Central or South America, written by a Central or South American author.

This was a beautiful book with a scope that manages to be epic (it tells the story of three generations of women) without ever losing its center or distancing itself too much. It takes place in Chile and made me want to learn more about Chilean history. The latter part of the story covers the revolution in the seventies and listening to this audiobook in parallel with the news from Venezuela lately was a bit on the creepy side. People unable to find food in the grocery stores, political opponents being disappeared – knowing that these parts of the novel are based on history is one thing; knowing that these same things are happening in the world right now is another. It really made me want to understand more about the histories and trajectories of South America; there’s so much I don’t know. One more thing on the “Things Jess Wants To Learn” pile.

Storywise, what makes or breaks most books for me is whether the characters draw me in, and this book absolutely succeeded on that front. I loved how complex they all were. I loved Clara – how do you not love Clara? – but there were times when I wanted to grab her and shake her. She was so brilliant and insightful but she let so many things slide without doing anything to change them; she so frequently checked out instead of acting. I adored Alba and identified with her the most. I despised Esteban but couldn’t help but feel empathy for him at the end, which seems to be exactly what Allende intended; I love the message of humanity, the unavoidable cycle of hurt and violence but the importance of love and forgiveness and healing that she brings to the ending. Yet another author I’ve tried for the first time through this challenge that I intend to return to.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Last week I finished reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I’m trucking my way through Book Riot’s Read Harder 2017 Challenge – I’ve completed 13 of 24 now – this book fulfilled Challenge #9, Read A Book You’ve Read Before.

I read this book for the first time when I was a teenager – I don’t remember exactly how old I was; maybe 13 or 14. There were elements of the book that really stuck with me, parts of the characters that never left me, but I remembered very little about the details of the plot and the themes. What I did remember was just enough to make me realize that there was probably quite a bit that I hadn’t fully understood when I was a young teenager. Lordy was that ever true.

(There’s a bit spoilery bit but I’ve got it behind an accordion!)

First off, my young teenage self completely missed all the queerness in this book. Even Singer, whose queerness is most obvious, went completely over my head at that age. I don’t know if she intended to portray this character as literally gay and in love with Antonapoulos (this certainly could be the case – given what I’ve now read about her personal life it would make sense for her to identify with a character experiencing completely unrequited queer love) or if their friendship was meant to be more of a metaphor, but maybe that doesn’t actually matter. Singer’s complete obsession with Antonapoulos – to the point where he did in his own mind to Antonapoulos exactly what most other characters in the book endlessly did to him, projecting onto him the qualities that he wanted most to see – is certainly queer af, even if she didn’t intend for it to be literally sexual in nature.

Big Spoilery Bit

Although there were a good handful of details about this book that I remembered – mostly about Mick; as a young teenager she was the one I identified with the most – I managed to completely forget that Singer dies. I might has well have been reading the book for the first time when I got to that part – when he realizes that Antonapoulos is dead I was thinking how terrible it was going to be for him and trying to remember how he manages to survive it, because some part of my mind expected that if he in fact hadn’t survived it that surely I would’ve remembered that. Nope.

So when he shoots himself it seemed maybe like even more of a gut punch than it would have otherwise, because I hadn’t even considered that that was what was coming. And it was so fucking heartbreaking – this man is so revered by people who don’t even know, really, anything about his truth. They infuse him with their own truth and don’t have even the slightest clue about what he really lives for. He’s surrounded by all of these people who come to him for meaning, but once Antonapoulous is gone – a man that I don’t believe even particularly cared about him or thought about him when he wasn’t there – he just can’t go on. He’s given meaning to all of these people without even trying or understanding how, and can’t live without taking meaning from a man that probably would’ve never noticed had he stopped visiting. This book seems infused with people’s inability to succeed at taking mutual meaning from each other.

It really speaks to how little I understood about Singer that I didn’t remember his death after the first reading, because now I can’t stop thinking about it; it’s definitely the most potent part of the story to me.

I also love how she used Biff to play with gender identity and I wonder if he would be a trans character if the story were retold today.

I still love Mick and her story is still gripping and one that I can identify with, but it’s interesting how as a young teenager she seemed by far like the most important, fascinating character to me, and while the years haven’t caused her to lose any ground in my mind, the other characters have risen up to that same level now that I can grasp them more fully.

The grappling she does with racial issues and the story of Portia, Dr. Copeland and their family is pretty astounding given that the novel was written by a 23 year old in 1940. The way both Dr. Copeland and Blount wrestle with desires for justice and activism that are way ahead of their time, and how that drive ends up pushing both of them away from other people, seems particularly relevant today.

There’s a lot about this book that amazes me given her age when she wrote it. This is a woman who had a very profound understanding of humanity at a very young age. I definitely want to go back and read the rest of her work. Along with the work of Octavia Butler and Zora Neale Hurston.

I’m definitely not planning on trying to complete the entire Read Harder challenge in 2018 – I might take some ideas from it for my reading for the year but I want the freedom to pursue some of the authors that the 2017 challenge has introduced me to without having to think about whether I can fit them into a challenge. I first started with the 2017 challenge to encourage myself to read books I might not have gotten around to otherwise and broaden my reading horizons, and given that it’s resulting in not only a ton of new favorites from what I’m reading this year but a ton of Audible wish list items for 2018, I think it’s succeeding pretty damned well.

Watership Down and Activism – Bunnies and Borders?

I finished Watership Down today – after a few fairly intense books it was a nice change of pace; not that it doesn’t have an intensity of its own, and some particularly fierce parts, but it also had some good folk-tale-telling and charming British rabbit drama.

I had wondered if it would work for me or if it would be one of those books that just doesn’t resonate with you if you don’t first come to it at a younger age. I’m sure that if I’d read it or had it read to me when I was a kid or young adult it would’ve had that extra layer of potency that stories only have when you encounter them at a young age, but it was absolutely affecting.

I loved Hazel – there was something particularly moving about how he started the book without any ambition at all to become a chief rabbit – and in fact he never actually developed that ambition, he just stepped into the role when it became clear that it was needed. He was a rabbit who did what was needed, without fuss or fanfare. He just did it.

I also loved Hyzenthlay, though she didn’t have as much to do as I would’ve liked – I hadn’t really expected a strong, sensible female character to be in the mix, so I was pleasantly surprised when she entered the story.

The willingness of the rabbits to leave behind what they knew in order to find, build and fight for something better also resonated with me. It definitely isn’t a tidy parallel for immigration – the rabbits were forming their own, completely new, society, rather than joining an existing one. But it’s not hard lately to get me thinking about the journeys of people who leave their lives behind in order to find, build and fight for something better.

Listening to Pod Save the People teaches me so much with every episode – and makes me think so much. Recently he talked about how many families that include undocumented people face the need to establish plans for their children – what to do if they get deported. Which of course they would – it’s just one of the many things that hadn’t occurred to me. I can’t even imagine.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is how, while my form of social action is volunteerism and education more than protest, I’m open to doing more protest as well – but I listen to someone like DeRay, who has engaged in so much protest and has gotten arrested for it multiple times, and I think, you know, for the most part, the kinds of protest opportunities that come up in my town are pretty unlikely to result in me getting arrested – a vaguely hipsterish white woman in her late 30s at some big “March for … ” event or even at a Planned Parenthood protest probably isn’t super likely to end up spending any time in jail. I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, but it’s not something I’ve particularly felt any trepidation about.

The kinds of protests where you know going in that getting arrested is a distinct possibility haven’t been a part of my experience as of yet, which has made me think, what would I be willing to get arrested for? What kind of protest would I go to even if I thought I could potentially end up in trouble for it?

The Hispanic center that I volunteer for serves a population that includes undocumented people. I don’t know, among my students, who is documented and who isn’t – one student has told me about the process he went through to become a citizen so I know his situation, and I’m always glad to learn more about their experiences when they want to talk but it’s certainly not something I ask them about. These are people I spend time with a couple times a week and who have become friends, and I know that some of them live with the possibility of being deported.

If ICE came to the center? If I were in a position where I could either stand up for my students or step aside? I hope that I’d be willing to get arrested for that. Mostly I hope that it never happens, but it could, and I hope that I’d be up to it. I’ve never even gotten a speeding ticket – the thought of getting arrested terrifies me. Sitting here writing a blog post it’s easy to say that yes, of course I’d stand up – and I hope that that’s true.

One a recent episode DeRay talked about how he doesn’t want to protest, he doesn’t want to get arrested, he’s done what was necessary – and, it’s a theme, I have so much admiration for people who just do what needs to be done. I hope I could do what was necessary, too.

(Did I just bring this full circle by comparing one of the things I admire about DeRay to what I admired about Hazel? I think I did.)

Parable of the Sower

I finished reading Parable of the Sower this week; I’d chosen to read that next because I wanted something as different as possible from Catch 22 to help cleanse my palate, and it certainly did the trick.

I loved Kindred and I’d heard nothing but positive things about this one, so I knew I’d love it – what I didn’t realize was how current and relevant it would be. It was published in 1993 (is that really almost 25 years ago? Really?) and the wastelandish future it paints takes place in the 2020s – startlingly close to where we are now. And she clearly made a conscious choice that she wanted to write a future that, even in 1993, didn’t feel too distant. If she’d wanted to create more separation she would’ve set it far more than 30 years in the future.

Now, right around the corner from the dates she’s writing about, it barely feels distant at all. The world has a post-apocalyptic feel but there’s no actual apocalypse; the world has gone to hell largely as a result of climate change. Water is scarce, people are clannish, mistrustful and violent and the United States is faring particularly badly. Racism is rampant, slavery is becoming more and more commonplace and the only people able to live safely are the extremely rich.

So not exactly an escapist novel, but hey, Book Riot didn’t call this the Read Easier challenge, did it? And I did love it – Lauren is a wonderful character; I definitely identified with her struggle between being realistic and wanting to protect her own, but also wanting to be open to opportunities to help others, even when doing so might be a risk. Not that I face any actual danger in trying to help people, but I relate to the mental back-and-forth of thinking that the world is a catastrophe and people are a fucking mess and to think otherwise would be naive – but also being determined to not let that keep you from seeing, fighting for and trying to protect the good in the world.

I’ve already bought the audiobook of the sequel and have it downloaded to my phone – I might not get to it until 2018 because I’m determined to complete every single Read Harder challenge with an individual book by the end of 2017, so anything that doesn’t fit into the challenge is getting nudged to 2018. I’m looking forward to it though – I want to know more about Lauren’s journey and the future of her religion, Earthseed, which actually prompted me to ask Google whether anyone actually practices Earthseed (turns out yes – at least one belief system partially based on Earthseed and one site meant to round up practitioners of fully Book of the Living-based Earthseed, though it seems like it might not be very active). Unsurprisingly, it seems to attract hippie pagany progressive folks.

I might not be ready to jump right into an oddball spiritual community, but I do love the ideas – God is change. Shape God. I’m not sure how well the belief system as a whole would translate to reality, but there are parts of it that are definitely going to stick with my extremely patchworky sense of spirituality. It wouldn’t be the first time that concepts from fictional religion or mythology made their way into the fabric of my beliefs; hell, I’ve got “there are other worlds than these” tattooed on my arm. Ka is a wheel. See the turtle, ain’t he keen – all things serve the fuckin’ beam.

I suppose that the idea of taking any religion as actual factual truth – as the big-ass one-and-only – is just so unimaginable to me that incorporating bits from fiction doesn’t seem at all odd. To me, they’re all stories – stories that help us figure out the world as we experience it, and the ones that speak to me are the ones that encourage us to be kind to each other, but maybe to watch our backs at the same time. The ones that don’t put a deity out there as a micromanager or a problem solver. The ones that recognize that we get ourselves into – and have to figure out how to get ourselves out of – our own damned messes, but that give us some tools to help us find our own North Star. God is change. Shape god.

Catch 22 – Or, jj’s cultural lens can only see so far

I’ve been working on Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder Challenge this year (I’m on track to finish by the end of the year!) and I’ve read several books that I might not have read (or at least gotten around to for a while) otherwise. Many of them I’ve loved – one, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is now one of my all-time favorites. Maybe at the end of the challenge I’ll do a wrap-up list, but they’ve all been thought provoking, most have been highly engaging and I’m glad to have read all of them.

This is the first one that I’ve disliked – and rather vehemently disliked at that. I’m still glad that I read it – it’s a classic for a reason and it’s definitely given me a lot to think about. The way it was constructed is way ahead of its time and it makes a lot of points that I agree with philosophically. There were even a few parts that managed to emotionally engage me (not many, but I can’t say that I wasn’t affected at all by the story). I get why it’s important. I get why it’s culturally relevant. This doesn’t change the fact that my personal response to it was not a positive one.

On a surface level, the humor was hit and miss for me. At times it was clever and hilarious but the extended (so, so extended) Who’s-On-First-ish sequences got old fast. I also found the book really difficult to invest in emotionally, and for me that’s such a crucial part of reading a novel. If I don’t care about the characters there’s only so engaged I get, and it was extremely difficult for me to care about the characters in Catch 22. Most of them seemed to be there to make a point rather than to portray a person.

There were a few characters that got to be people, at least in part – Yossarian and the Chaplain, mainly; few other characters struck me as more than conceits or plot devices. And here’s where we get to the part that I had the hardest time with – none of the women get to be people, not even a little bit.

And it’s not just that the women characters are one-dimensional, it’s that the entire book is rampantly misogynistic. Blah blah blah product of its time blah blah blah lens of cultural context blah blah blah – yes, okay, I get it. I can detach myself enough to say that yes, as I said, I get why this book is important/relevant. I can’t detach myself enough to not find the misogyny repulsive, nor would I want to.

The misogyny is so thoroughly shot through the book that I’m not going to try to call out every example, I’ll just mention the ones that angered me the most. The most revolting scene was the sexual assault of Nurse Duckett that is played off as boys-will-be-boys shenanigans. The assault itself isn’t written in a “she secretly enjoyed it” manner – at the end of the encounter the nurse is frightened and crying – and to me this makes the handling of the assault as an amusing prank even more horrible. It would be bad enough if the author somehow thought that a woman might enjoy this treatment, but instead he acknowledges that it was highly distressing to her and he doesn’t seem to care in the slightest. The fact that Nurse Duckett (whose only personality characteristic that we ever really learn about is how much she loves attention from men) later ends up having an affair with Yossarian (at least until she decides he’s an obstacle towards her marrying a doctor, any doctor) makes it even worse.

I also can’t get over “Nately’s Whore,” who never even gets a damned name of her own, and who goes from being thoroughly disdainful of Nately to falling madly in love with him for no apparent reason (the narrative claims it’s because she finally got a good night’s sleep) other than that it’s convenient for the plot for her to do so.

I keep thinking of the definition of feminism as “the radical notion that women are people.” Women aren’t people in this book. They’re objects, playthings, distractions and plot devices. And my tolerance for that shit is really not high. So yes, I’m glad I read this book, because it’s a piece of cultural history that I’ve now experienced. I’m proud of myself for sticking it out and finishing it. I’m exceptionally glad that I’m done with it now, and I will never read it again.

I’m now going to rebound by reading something just about as far from Catch 22 as I can imagine – Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, which I’m going to read to fulfill challenge #19, read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey. That ought to help me shake it off.