Month: October 2014

Pop Culture Re-Read: His Fair Assassin

In which we reconsider and reevaluate a piece of pop culture. This week, Emily is inspired by the forthcoming release of Robin LaFevers’s novel Mortal Heart to re-read her earlier novels Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph. The three novels together will make up the His Fair Assassin Trilogy.

Lady-led YA fantasy novels are some of my favorite things ever. These books have magic, castles, knights, horses, faux-medievalism, quests, adventure, romance, and – most importantly – ladies taking names and kicking ass. I spent much of my young-adulthood basking in the glory of such women as Alanna of Tortall, Lyra Belacqua, and Eowyn of Rohan. (Okay – the last one wasn’t actually the star of her own novel, but she totally should have been.)

So it’s really no surprise that, when I read them for the first time last year, I absolutely loved Grave Mercy and Dark Triumph. And it’s been truly a delight to re-read them this time around. These are books about strong young women who rise above personal traumas to take up significant roles on the world stage. They’re novels about growing up, negotiating identity, and finding your place in the world. But also, they’re novels about super-powered, teenage nun assassins who get swept up in political intrigue in medieval Brittany (and who fall in love with kind and dashing gentlemen while doing so).

What’s not to love?

Anyway, LaFevers’s His Fair Assassin Trilogy focuses upon a group of young women who are trained at the convent of St. Mortain. The convent of St. Mortain is no conventional nunnery, though. Instead, it’s an institution that has simply reimagined a pagan god of death in the wake of Christianization of Europe. So essentially, its adherents are handmaidens of Death himself. Also, they have supernatural powers. In their training, these women make poisons, practice court intrigue, carry out the will of their saint, and complain about having to learn political history. Really, the convent scenes feel like what would have happened if Madame Pomfrey, Professor McGonagall, and Professor Binns had seceded from Hogwarts to form their own rival school of magic which only admitted women and which was based on an understanding of pre-Christian folklore and a determination to destroy the corrupting forces of society.

The nuns of St. Mortain’s convent aren’t mercenaries or random killers: rather, they’re assassins carrying out the justice (and mercy) of Death. It just so happens that at this particular historical moment, Death is on the side of Brittany in its border dispute with France. So the nuns are mostly working to defend the autonomy of a teenaged Breton duchess against a French regent and the many other powers that would like to take over the duchy.

Grave Mercy focuses upon Ismae, a peasant who embeds herself in the Breton court, gets embroiled in court intrigue, and foils a few coups. Dark Triumph, then, focuses on Ismae’s friend Sybella, a noble-born woman who is called upon to deal with a more specific evil within a certain wellborn family. Both women end up having to balance their own consciences against both the orders from the convent and the pressures from outside political powers. Ismae and Sybella kill bad guys, protect vulnerable women and disenfranchised groups, and end up figuring out that the world is a much more complicated place than their convent had taught them. But ultimately, each realizes that if she asserts her own agency and takes ownership of her own beliefs, she can better her world.

Part of the reason that these books are so fun is that LaFevers has some pretty killer world-building. LaFevers does an awesome job walking the reader through the folk superstition and Catholic hagiography that feed into the convent of St. Mortain and the pantheon of other pagan-gods-turned-Christian-saints. Her world is complex, but never confusing. Also, she’s the sort of author who writes historical fantasy and then includes a long endnote explaining which events have historical precedents and which characters she took from the historical records. She really does a fantastic job blending together these two worlds of super-powered assassin ladies and of border conflict in 1489 Brittany.

Additionally, the romances are delightful. A whole lot of lady-led young adult fantasy novels are sketched around a romantic arc, and LaFevers very much fits herself within genre expectations here. But there’s something so comfortable about a nice meet-cute in a medieval tavern. The romances could be potentially problematic, in that our heroines are seventeen-year-olds and each of them falls for an older man. But LaFevers does a wonderful job negotiating the power dynamics of these relationships so that they never feel remotely skeezy. Indeed, on a recent episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour, Petra Mayer of NPR Books said that the upcoming third book, Mortal Heart, has “the most marvelous modeling of consent that I’ve seen in young adult literature.” Our heroines fall in love with good men who recognize their agency as well as their general awesomeness.

So I very much recommend that you read / re-read these books and check out Mortal Heart when it’s released next week (on 11/4/14). Because, after all, who doesn’t want to read fantasy novels about female empowerment and (to paraphrase Petra Mayer) nuns kicking French ass?

Want similar recs?
Tamora Pierce’s Song of the Lioness Quartet. Alanna disguises herself as a boy because she wants to become a knight. Includes school-room drama, a dashing and flirtatious prince of thieves, a mystical cat, and a few fights against great world-destroying evils.

Kristin Cashore’s Graceling. Katsa is a noble-born lady with a supernatural gift for fighting and survival. She figures out how to put her powers to good use as she champions the underprivileged, rescues a princess, falls in love, and destroys a tyrant. (The companion novels to Graceling, Bitterblue and Fire, are also awesome.)

Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword. Lady Harry discovers that she has a mystical connection to a Lady Dragon-Slayer of eons past. (The prequel, The Hero and the Crown, focuses upon said Lady Dragon-Slayer and is quite wonderful too.)

Happy Reading!

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Pop Culture Re-Watch: Desk Set

In which we reconsider and reevaluate a piece of pop culture. This week, Kazia is inspired by her library school classes to re-watch a classic Hepburn-Tracy rom-com.

Here’s the thing. I am totally biased. My family has been watching Desk Set since I can remember. My dad and I are obsessed with what we have dubbed “The Sandwich Scene,” during which Tracy and Hepburn eat white bread sandwiches and we crave them desperately. Every. Single. Time.

This movie holds so much personal nostalgia for me and is probably (subconsciously) one of the reasons reference work has always seemed so delightful to me. BUT: beyond the bias of childhood nostalgia, Desk Set is a really superb and relevant film.

Bunny Watson (Katharine Hepburn) is the head reference librarian at the Federal Broadcasting Network’s corporate library. When a company merger, temporarily kept secret from employees, creates a need for more efficiency (in an already extremely efficient library), Richard Sumner (Spencer Tracy) is hired to subtly evaluate the library for the installation of an absolutely ginormous computing system called EMERAC.

Sumner quickly butts heads with Bunny and her three co-workers, who are justifiably anxious that EMERAC may make their jobs obsolete. However, Sumner quickly wins them over with his Spencer Tracy crankiness,

and their uneasy sparring turns cordial as they quickly become friends. Bunny’s dead-end relationship with her boss (network executive Mike Cutler, played by Gig Young) steadily becomes less and less important to her the longer Sumner sticks around, and since it’s a rom-com you can guess how the rest pans out.

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(Source: http://gingerrogerss.tumblr.com/post/87849929052/katharine-hepburn-singing-night-and-day-to)

So, here’s the thing. Desk Set definitely plays into its fair share of tired gendered librarian stereotypes: it features four lady librarians, all single and unlucky in love.

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(Source: http://judithsmutler.tumblr.com/post/30134644696/desk-set-1957

But the lady librarians in Desk Set are also so much more than their potential cat-lady futures. They’re incredibly bright, but not unbelievably so, and their intelligence and efficiency are never questioned by any of the men in the film. It’s also worth noting that they have a librarian showdown, in which the four reference librarians race to find the most accurate information faster than EMERAC.

Now, Desk Set may be the all-time greatest film featuring librarians (this is practically a scientific fact–see the librarian showdown) and a delightful romantic comedy. But it is as much a story about technology and change as it is a rom-com. In our contemporary culture,  which has integrated computers and digital technology into virtually every aspect of life, parts of Desk Set may feel silly or outdated. However, the questions that the film asks are the same questions we are asking in our digital-saturated age: Will technology make human employees obsolete? Is there a fundamental human element that technology cannot replace? Are humans and technology destined to be mortal enemies, or can they work in harmony for  a greater good? (Okay, maybe this is a little melodramatic, but the heart of the question remains true).

In library school, we frequently talk about the ways that technological changes and advancements will affect our profession. Our classes are lead by professors who are not digital natives, and their concerns about adapting to and evaluating technology permeate our discussions. Desk Set reflects these anxieties of digital non-natives, and while we may not be worried about computers the size of a small room, we are still worried about new technologies that are beginning to permeate our lives. At the end of the film, we learn that it was never actually a question of librarians vs. technology, Bunny vs. EMERAC; rather, the technology was intended all along to aid the real, living, breathing librarians and make their work even more efficient. Ultimately, Desk Set reassures those of us who may be uncomfortable with technological advancements (digital natives or not, librarians or not) that it is not actually a question of who will triumph, humanity or machinery.

It is a question of how we can utilize technology to make the work of humanity the most effective it can be. That’s a pretty good question to ask.

Watched it recently and want other recs?

If you want more Katharine Hepburn –

Holiday (1938). A self-made man (Cary Grant) goes to meet his fiance’s very wealthy family, only to fall for her black sheep sister (Katharine Hepburn) instead. Also featuring Doris Nolan, Lew Ayres, and Edward Everett Horton.

Bringing Up Baby (1938). A missing brontosaurus bone, a leopard, Cary Grant, and a screenplay written for expressly for Katharine Hepburn. What else do you need to know?

Or if you want more Spencer Tracy (or, let’s be honest, more Hepburn/Tracy) –

Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967). Classic film about how the political becomes personal when white liberalism is tested by interracial marriage. Sidney Poitier co-stars.

Adam’s Rib (1949). Hepburn and Tracy co-star as married lawyers working on opposite sides of a case. As one can imagine, tensions become quite high. Judy Holliday also co-stars.

And of course, the most classic Hepburn-Tracy film: Up

Happy watching!

Pop Culture Re-Watch: Rear Window

In which we reconsider and reevaluate a piece of pop culture. This week, Emily is inspired by the popularity of Gone Girl to re-watch a classic piece of cinematic suspense.

This weekend, always looking for a good excuse to have more Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly in my life, I re-watched Rear Window. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 film starts out as a rather laconic mystery but gradually turns into a suspense thriller. As the mystery builds, Hitchcock interrogates the medium of cinema and the voyeurism of the movie-watching experience.

L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (a slightly disheveled Jimmy Stewart) is a professional photographer who’s cooped up at home using a wheelchair while he recovers from a broken leg. Intensely bored by being stuck at home – and, apparently, without a library card, a pair of knitting needles, or anything else conducive to a more productive hobby – Jeff has decided to while away his seven-week-long sabbatical off work by staring out his window and watching his neighbors. As he follows the lives of his neighbors, he becomes convinced that one of them has murdered a woman, and he enlists his girlfriend Lisa (an utterly gorgeous Grace Kelly), nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), and war-buddy-turned-cop Tom Doyle (Wendell Corey) to solve the crime. It was absolutely a fun rewatch: I had only seen the film once before (and that was years ago) and I didn’t remember it very well, so it was really fun to just sit back and enjoy the story again!

So, I’m not going to say that this movie is perfect. Hitchcock is somewhat infamous for his problematic treatment of women – both in how his camera objectifies female characters and in how he personally persecuted some of his female actresses. And this movie absolutely has moments in which the camera very much gazes at the female body in a particularly patriarchal and possessive sort of way. I think it’s important to be aware that this is a film in which there’s a character who we only know as “Miss Torso” and in which Grace Kelly gets panned up at one point as the camera actually checks her out. But honestly, I think that Rear Window has far more merits than it has faults, and it’s an interesting enough movie that it absolutely deserves a re-watch.

Rear Window is, fundamentally, a movie about going to the movies. A man with a camera watches snippets of other people’s lives and is able to comment upon them without being able to directly intervene in them (at least until the climax of the film). Jeff watches out the window, where he can see into the apartments of a half dozen or so of his neighbors. We never see into their apartments without also seeing the window frame and the surrounding wall, as the camera emphasizes Jeff’s separation from the action we’re watching. In fact, the framing ends up looking like the borders of movie or television screens. So we end up with this movie in which Jeff becomes fascinated by and drawn into the lives of strangers as he watches them off-and-on at a distance.

The camera work is also really fascinating from this meta level about movie-watching. Because, of course, if Jeff is watching his neighbors’ lives as if they were movies, we the audience are actually watching a movie and thus are ourselves implicated in these cycles of spectatorship and voyeurism. If Jeff’s a voyeur, then we’re no better. The film opens with a very slow pan across the walls and windows of the apartment buildings that Jeff spends the movie focused on. The pan, however, isn’t steady. Rather, the camera will pause and focus when movement or sound from the neighbors catches it’s attention. As the camera revolves, we find that it’s point of origin is right next to Jeff’s wheelchair but, since Jeff is asleep, the camera takes the opportunity to wander around his apartment and pause and zoom in on items of interest. In this almost-wordless silent opening series of camera pans, the camera stages the audience’s nosiness and interest in the private lives of others. We’re the spectators that the camera is indulging. It’s a super interesting opening that hints, I think, about the film’s greater preoccupation with the movies.

Throughout the film, then, Hitchcock keeps implicating his audience in the voyeuristic aspects of watching movies – and especially of watching his mystery-suspense movies. At a moment about halfway through the movie, when Jeff and Lisa have convinced themselves that perhaps there wasn’t a murder after all, they’re noticeably disappointed. Lisa comments, “You and me with long faces, plunged into despair because we find out a man didn’t kill his wife. We’re two of the most frightening ghouls I’ve ever known.” If Lisa and Jeff are disappointed because they got swept up in an adventure that now seems unfounded, the audience is no less ghoulish. Hitchcock makes his money off audiences rushing to see movies in which horrible people do horrible things to each other, but he isn’t letting us off the hook for treating crime spectatorship as entertainment.

But beyond the self-referential, meta-textual nature of the film, Rear Window absolutely holds up as a suspense film. Jeff and Lisa aren’t sure whether there’s a murderer under their noses – or across their backyard, as it were. As they try to piece the puzzle together – and as the very amazingly wonderful Grace-Kelly-as-Lisa puts herself in danger in order to get evidence – the movie is genuinely tense and scary. Rear Window is a claustrophobic sort of film – almost every shot comes from within the apartment that Jeff is stuck in – and that claustrophobia adds exponentially to the tension and suspense of the plot.

Of course, it’s impossible to talk about why this film’s good without mentioning the acting. Jimmy Stewart spends almost the entire movie acting from a wheelchair, and he’s wonderful at using small gestures and movements to great effect. He’s got enough charisma and class to play this deeply bored spectator without ever losing the audience’s sympathy. And then there’s Grace Kelly, who’s a socialite just itching for the chance to do her best Nancy Drew impression. She’s a kick-ass, charming, and witty lady, and she’s got moxie out the wazoo. Also, you know, she’s got gorgeous gowns (designed by Edith Head), and there’s something to be said for the way she inspires aspirational fantasies about owning that wardrobe.

At any rate, I very much do recommend re-watching Rear Window. It’s a classic of Hitchcock suspense, with fabulous performances, really fascinating camera work, and a clever subtext about the cinematic medium.

(Source: hollywoodmarcia.tumblr.com)

(Source: hollywoodmarcia.tumblr.com)

Watched it recently and want other recs?

For a great pastiche of Hitchcock tropes, check out Psych season 4, episode 16, “Mr. Yin Presents…,” in which a serial killer taunts Shawn Spencer and the gang with Hitchcock cliches. Psychic detective Shawn Spencer ends up taking the role of Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, seeing everything but powerless to stop events.

Or if you want more Hitchcock –

Notorious (1946). Cary Grant stars in this spy thriller as an American government agent who recruits Alicia Huberman (Ingrid Bergman) to seduce Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains). It’s a love triangle with Nazis, poisonings, and femmes fatale.

North by Northwest (1959). Microfilm, the United Nations, a crop duster, and Mount Rushmore all play key parts in this mistaken identity Cold War spy thriller starring Hitchcock favorites Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint.

Or if you want more Jimmy Stewart –

Harvey (1950). Jimmy Stewart plays loveable Elwood P. Dowd, a man who (much to the chagrin of his sister and niece) sees and befriends a 6 foot, 3 ½ inch invisible rabbit pooka named Harvey. Dowd’s incessant optimism is at constant odds with those around him, leading to a heartwarming and thought-provoking film about the nature of reality.

The Philadelphia Story (1940). Divorced socialites C. K. Dexter Haven (Cary Grant) and Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn) have always had a tempestuous relationship, but when Tracy decides to get remarried, Dexter not only invites himself to the wedding, but also two reporters from Spy Magazine (Jimmy Stewart and Ruth Hussey). A Much Ado About Nothing-type rom-com.

Or if you want more Grace Kelly –

High Society (1956). A musical remake of The Philadelphia Story starring Grace Kelly, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Celeste Holm (plus a bit part for Louis Armstrong)!

To Catch a Thief (1955). To the Lamp Post (and Hitchcock) favorites Cary Grant and Grace Kelly star in Hitchcock’s thriller about mistaken identity. John Robie (Grant) is a retired cat burglar attempting to clear his name by tracking down the new cat burglar in town, all while simultaneously seducing and being seduced by Grace Kelly’s Frances. The film ends with a costume ball, with costumes designed by Edith Head.

Can you tell that we really really like Cary Grant?

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Source: http://viviensleigh.tumblr.com/post/98016137819/his-girl-friday-1940

Happy watching!

Twelve Comics and Graphic Novels You Should Read Immediately

Kazia here! So this weekend I spent some quality time at the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo, a small, free, fantastic show in Cambridge with over a hundred exhibitors and some truly excellent panels. I spent most of my summer reading comics and graphic novels, so it was exciting to get to spend time with a community I’m slowly learning more about.

On that note, I thought I’d share some comics and graphic novels that I’ve read and adored recently. In past posts we’ve mentioned Lumberjanes, Hawkeye, and This One Summer, all of which are terribly difficult to not feature again here, but they say that variety is the spice of life, so:

1. Through the Woods: Holy Halloween, Batman! This book is so, so good. From the textured cover to the very last page, Emily Carroll delivers a terrifying, haunting set of five gorgeous comics. Only one of the five is an adaptation from one of her webcomics (His Face All Red), and if you’re looking to sample her work, I can’t recommend it enough in its webcomic form. The rest of the book is just as exquisite.

2. Ms. Marvel, issues 1-8: Kamala Khan struggles with her desire to both respect her parents and gain more independence, but this balance only gets trickier when she develops superpowers. Stepping into the shoes of Carol Danvers (formerly Ms. Marvel, now Captain Marvel), Kamala kicks butt, saves folks, and teams up with (and majorly fangirls over) Wolverine. Could you ask for much more?

(Source: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/marvel-comics-introduces-female-muslim-superhero.aspx?pageID=517&nID=57446&NewsCatID=381)
(Source: http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/marvel-comics-introduces-female-muslim-superhero.aspx?pageID=517&nID=57446&NewsCatID=381)

3. Sisters: Raina Telgemeier’s companion to Smile, Sisters tells the story of her family’s road trip (sans dad) to a family reunion the summer before Raina enters high school. As the road trip progresses, Raina flashes back over her relationship with her little sister Amara. Sisters perfectly encapsulates childhood sisterly love-hate relationships and broader family tensions, all while maintaining the heartwarming lightness for which Telgemeier’s graphic novels are so beloved.

4. Relish: Lucy Knisley’s food-based memoir looks back at important moments from her childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood through the lens of food: what she was eating or cooking and how those dishes corresponded to her emotional state and community. If it sounds pretentious, it certainly doesn’t feel it. It’s a truly lovely read. Plus, there are bonus recipes interspersed throughout the memoir with illustrated instructions.

5. Boxers (and Saints): Gene Luen Yang’s pair of historical graphic novels follow two individuals involved in the Boxer Rebellion: Little Bao, the leader of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist (Boxers), and Vibiana, a converted Christian (Saints). Both have visions of past leaders who reflect and shape their ideologies as their struggles come to a head: Little Bao sees and embodies Ch’in Shih-huang, the first emperor of China, while Vibiana draws inspiration from her visions of Joan of Arc. Their stories interweave and become interdependent throughout the two graphic novels. While I found much of the content about the lady characters to be troubling and I strongly preferred Boxers, I’m still puzzling out whether this is intentional by Yang or if this is my personal preference. Either way, both Boxers & Saints provide a careful and emotional look at the personal tolls of a violent conflict.

6. Saga, volume 1: Written by Brian K. Vaughan and drawn by Fiona Staples, Saga tells the story of Alana and Marko, soldiers from opposite sides of a destructive interplanetary war. When the story opens they have fallen in love and are on the run from their respective armies, Alana having just given birth to their baby – who turns out to be the narrator of the story. This epic includes but is not limited to: robot royalty, a spider-woman bounty hunter, a forest of rocket-ship trees, spunky ghosts, and a lie-detector cat. Note: this has adult content, so reader discretion advised!

7. Tomboy: Liz Prince’s new memoir wrestles with her personal experience coming of age with a gender identity that does not fit societal expectations. Thoughtful and heartwarming, Liz details how her tomboy identity shaped her understanding of gender and her relationships with friends and boyfriends. Spare black-and-white line drawings compliment the intimate, personal story – definitely a must-read!

8. Princeless, Book 1: Save Yourself: While perhaps a little overt in its ideological push, Princeless is a much-needed comic that plays with the fairy tale genre in fun and progressive ways. The first volume of Princeless, which collects the first four issues of the comic, tells the story of Princess Adrienne, joined by her guard dragon Sparky and her friend Bedelia, who rebelliously quests to free herself and her sisters from their tower-waiting fate. Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin aren’t afraid to address tired sexist and racist tropes head-on.

9. March: Book One: Collaborating with Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell, Congressman John Lewis recounts his experience growing up in the south and his involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. A slim but powerful volume, this is a moving first act in the memoir of an important figure peacefully fighting for justice.

(Source: http://www.topshelfcomix.com/catalog/march/760)
(Source: http://www.topshelfcomix.com/catalog/march/760)

10. The Adventures of Superhero Girl: Superhero Girl is struggling between balancing the job for which she has a calling (superheroing!) and making money. The Adventures of Superhero Girl is lighthearted and endearing, and her attempts to balance valuable work with general adulting and feeling valued by others is one with which many a young adult can identify.

You can read it all online here, but I totally recommend it in book form.

11. Captain Marvel, Volume 1: In Pursuit of Flight

Aviators. Avengers. Aliens. WASPs. NASA. Time travel. Enough said.

12. Nimona: Noelle Stevenson’s webcomic just ended last week, and although it won’t be released in bound form until next May, now is the perfect time to read the completed story for free on the interwebs! In case you weren’t convinced by sneaky mentions of Noelle Stevenson in every blog post thus far, you should be aware that two of the main characters are named Lord Ballister Blackheart and Sir Ambrosious Goldenloin. They may have totally dated and then gotten super angsty, and by may have, I mean they totally did. And if that wasn’t enough convincing, there is science and explosions and identity crises and shapeshifting.

Happy reading!