Books

Happy Galentine’s Day!

In which Emily celebrates finishing the end of Parks & Rec — as well as the impending arrival of the Feast of St. Valentine — by taking a moment to enjoy Galentine’s Day. In doing so, she has some feelings about the awesome lady spies and fabulous lady pilots in Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity.

By the middle of its second season, Parks & Rec had begun to find its feet. First, in “Greg Pikitis,” the show figured out how to mellow Leslie Knope into a likable human being while still giving her space to be the over-enthused, somewhat obsessive, manic government hummingbird that she is.

(Sidenote: The call-back to Greg Pikitis in the last season of Parks & Rec was one of the absolute best moments of the entire show.)

Then in “Hunting Trip,” Parks & Rec threw Andy and April at each other and watched the weirdest, silliest, most unlikely romantic relationship develop between an unspeakably cynical intern and a goofy, shoe-shining man-child.

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(Source: http://parksbinch.tumblr.com/post/139079734465)

But then, in episode 16 of season 2, Parks & Rec presented us with “Galentine’s Day” and, in so doing, completely confirmed its eternal place in my internal queue of comfort-food tv.


In the episode “Galentine’s Day” — Leslie Knope preempts Valentine’s Day to gather together her group of lady friends for an absolutely amazingly wonderful holiday.

“Every February 13, my lady friends and I leave our husbands and boyfriends at home, and we just come and kick it, breakfast-style. Ladies celebrating ladies. It’s like Lilith Fair. Minus the angst. Plus frittatas.”

A non-angsty Lilith Fair with breakfast food? Who could possibly want anything else?

As an episode, “Galentine’s Day” works because the aforementioned breakfast date motivates some weird hijinx around a Valentine’s Dance. But as a thesis statement of the preoccupations of Parks & Rec, “Galentine’s Day” works because it’s about optimism, multigenerational female friendship, and the fact that ladies liking ladies (whether romantically or not) is one of the coolest things ever. In a society that all too often wants us to decide which lady we like best in some made-up competition — do we like JLaw or TSwift? is Poehler better or is Fey? is Anne Hathaway cool or is Emily Blunt? — it feels fantastic to just revel in the waffles, affirmation, and friendship of Leslie’s annual Galentine’s Day celebration.

“Galentine’s Day” gets at what I love best about Parks and Rec: it’s about community and about female friendship. Both of these, the show posits, can be super weird and can steer our protagonists down some truly bizarre side-plots. But they are, fundamentally, powerful, positive forces that we should all seek to cultivate.

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With the relationships between Leslie, Ann, Donna, and April — as well as the brilliance of Galentine’s Day as a concept, Parks & Rec joins — for me at least — the pantheon of awesome pop culture about fabulous female friendship. And this year, in advance of Valentine’s Day and in honor of finding something delightful to celebrate when February days get slushy and cold and grumbly, I encourage you to take some time and celebrate Galentine’s Day.

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(Source: http://samanthapanther.tumblr.com/post/80228021888)


That’s not to say, of course, that you need to throw your own Galentine’s Day party or brunch. (Although that would be awesome.) But if you’ve got some spare time in the next week or so, why not wander over to that aforementioned pantheon of fabulous female friendships?

There’s something there for everyone. You could go canonical with Celia and Rosalind in As You Like It, whimsical with Anne and Diana in Anne of Green Gables, or mildly passive aggressive with Paris and Rory in Gilmore Girls. Perhaps you love Emma and Maggie in Playing House, or Abbi and Ilana in Broad City, or Elinor and Marianne in Sense and Sensibility. (Yes, I know that Elinor and Marianne are sisters. It still totally counts.)

Some of these pieces of media allow for queered readings between the ladies (Mallory Ortberg, for example, famously and only somewhat facetiously argued that Paris and Rory and the one true pairing of Gilmore Girls). Other are strictly platonic.

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But awesome media affirming female friendship is kind of the best. Especially when it’s cold and slushy outside and you need a metaphorical hug, cup of hot chocolate, and long girl talk. And that’s why this week I’m recommending that you take a break from your busy February life and dive into Elizabeth Wein’s FABULOUS Code Name Verity, in celebration of Galentine’s Day, female friendship, and WONDERFUL narrative storytelling.

Code Name Verity is partly a Scheherazade story, partly a Peter Pan story, and partly a WWII spy story. It’s about unreliable narrators, and about how we tell stories about our own lives, and about heroism. It’s also about kickass lady pilots who fight Nazis. (I am absolutely certain that the two ladies at the center of this book would be total BFFs with Peggy Carter.)

And with these two ladies, Elizabeth Wein tells a gorgeous, sad, and deeply felt story about female friendship.

“It’s like being in love, discovering your best friend.”

The friendship at the heart of Code Name Verity is TOTALLY one that you could read as queered. There’s totally lesbian subtext. But there’s also just a fantastic relationship between clever, brave ladies in WWII Britain. Regardless of whether or not you want to ship these ladies, Wein tells a stunning and ridiculously happy-making (but also heartbreakingly sad) story about the power of female friendship even in the darkest of situations. It’s a book about companionship, and about why we tell stories, and about hope. And in that, it might be the perfect companion to your Galentine’s Day celebration.

So take some time, this week, to think about the awesomeness of your favorite lady-friends. Even if you’re not a lady yourself, Galentine’s Day seems like a meaningfully bubbly sort of holiday. And if you need some new reading, I highly recommend that you check out Wein’s fabulous young adult novel about the British resistance in WWII. Happy Galentine’s Day, all!

And happy reading!

Consider the Footnote: On Narrative, Authority, and the Power of Digressions

In which Emily quotes Joan Didion, gets excited about Ada Lovelace, and is really pleased that she’s no longer in the Bismarckian morass of high school politics.

Footnotes are glorious things.

They’re elegantly spun sugar on the top of a fancy caramel-and-chocolate Dobos Torte. They’re perfectly blocked lacework on the edge of a beautifully hand-knit shawl. They’re gorgeously ornamental finishing touches to a lovingly crafted work of art.

They’re also the steady basso continuo of a Baroque aria. They’re the geometric precision of a Velazquez painting. They’re technical prowess and the nearly invisible foundation beneath glitteringly virtuosic performance.

In his excellent The Footnote: A Curious History, Anthony Grafton talks about becoming fascinated with footnotes and the way that they convey authority and expertise in modern academic writing. They are the solid foundation that shows careful thought and that lets you advance your wild new idea about Alice in Wonderland, or Hamlet, or nineteenth-century Prussia, or whatever it is that you have a lot of thoughts about. But footnotes are also deliciously ornamental pieces of whimsy and silliness, where serious scholars let their hair down a bit and indulge in playfulness or only semi-responsible speculation. And they’re places of literary play where GREAT modern writers like David Foster Wallace, Jorge Luis Borges, Susanna Clarke, Vladimir Nabokov, and Mark Z. Danielewski — as well as much earlier AWESOMELY WEIRD writers such as Edmund Spenser, Laurence Sterne, and Alexander Pope — mess with tone, realism, world-building, literary criticism, and the very nature of narrative writing in the first place.

(Of course, every occasionally over-committed grad student also will appreciate the way that footnotes can make it easier to hit a required minimum page count on a paper while indulging in digressions and straying a bit from one’s intended argument.)

Footnotes give authority, power, and foundation but also allow for the display of skill, artistry, and playfulness. They allow for digressions and speculation and personality. At their core, footnotes are digressive even as they represent an author’s act of winnowing. In this, they ask us to think about how we tell stories.


There’s a reason that we narrativize stuff. Our brains really like consuming events in linear, causal patterns. It’s like learning, for example, that WWI happened because of Bismarck and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. That’s a horribly simplistic summary, but it’s not wrong. And it’s simplified so that it can be easily consumed and internalized by generations of high school students who are kind of distracted by their own Bismarckian alliances about who sits next to whom and who likes/hates/has-a-crush-on whom. We winnow facts into narratives in order to make sense of our histories and our identities and indeed our world.

We do this sort of narrativizing all the time. Joan Didion has a great line at the opening of her essay “The White Album” about how “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Her point is about how we narrativize our own lives — as well as tell fictional stories. But seriously. We’re constantly telling stories about our histories, our lives, and our world, and in doing so, we’re constantly sidelining certain issues and ideas. We turn them into footnotes.


But when we tell those histories, those footnotes are still important. They’re where that historian proves that she’s got her facts right, where she builds credibility and authority, and where she hints that the situation is more complicated than she just made it out to be. Maybe she’s more irreverent in her footnotes, maybe she throws a little shade — or maybe she just gives you additional pieces of information to remind you that the world is more complicated that she just made it out to be. And that’s why I love footnotes: they do all sorts of weird and fascinating things with authority and with storytelling.

Fundamentally, footnotes allow historical narratives to stand (providing authority and citations) while also “well-actually”-ing the entire narrative project, reminding us constantly that the world mostly makes sense but that it is also infinitely complex and very very weird. They let us tell stories, but they also make us think about what it means to tell a story. They make us think about how we find Truth in stories and about what parts of the stories we choose to leave out.


In her stunningly clever The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage (which I briefly got excited about months ago but only recently got around to finishing), Sydney Padua does AMAZING things with her footnotes.

First off, because she’s working in a comics medium and is playing with the conventions of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century book market, Padua seems to be super aware of the placement of the footnote on the page. Using both footnotes and endnotes, she creates densely complicated stories which force you as the reader to be aware of the experience of reading in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily be otherwise.

What do you read first? Do you read all of the comics then the footnotes? Should you flip between the story and the endnotes or just read the whole story at once and then read all of the endnotes? Should you read the footnotes first? Will they spoil the comics? Padua makes her reader become self-consciously aware of how she’s constructing a story when she repeatedly interrupts whimsical alternate universe steampunky story with her footnotes and endnotes.

Then inside those footnotes, Padua complicates her story by including digressions, she provides citations of primary historical documents, and she clarifies when her fictionalized versions of Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace, George Eliot, and the entire nineteenth-century crew do something slightly anachronistic or ahistorical. Giving FASCINATING details about the weird lives of Victorians, Padua’s doing what footnotes do, and doing it excellently.

But the last section of her book BLEW me AWAY. Ada Lovelace kind of is a footnote to history, in a lot of ways. She’s the wildly non-literary daughter of Lord Byron who arguably theorized computer programming decades before the first computer. The Ada Lovelace of popular imagination, Padua notes, “was a supergenius mathematical prodigy and co-inventor of the computer.” At the same time, though, some Babbage scholars grumble that Ada Lovelace didn’t actually do any proto-computer-programming but rather has just become a cipher for the dreams of steampunk-loving feminists. In the last section of The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, the character of Ada Lovelace falls, Alice-in-Wonderland-like, into an alternate dimension. In this weird, metaphorized world, Lovelace finds herself literally followed around by a giant asterisk — because, as the footnote reminds us, “Anyone who has read more than a little about Ada Lovelace will become gradually aware of an asterisk that hovers over her status as ‘the first computer programmer.’” The point of this increasingly menacing asterisk, though, isn’t to explode our dreams about an awesome STEM-loving Victorian lady. Instead, as Lovelace finds herself first marginalized and then swelled up by the drawings themselves, Padua plays with the stickiness of narratives of history and the impossibility of ascertaining Historical Truth, even in the context of the eponymous mathematically inclined heroes of the book. Her footnote observes:

“Both of these competing cartoon Avas, Super-Lovelace and Nega-Lovelace, are constructed from the ambiguous jumble of letters, papers, contemporary descriptions, etc., etc., which are the far from mathematically precise stuff of history. A footnote hardly knows what to think!”

Padua doesn’t resolve the true nature of the historical partnership between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage, and she doesn’t firmly delineate which parts of computer programming owe their existence to Ada Lovelace. But in this final section, she draws upon Alice in Wonderland, abstract mathematics, and the materiality of the printed book in order to reflect upon the way that we narrativize and construct history — and the authority that we give to these narratives.

We’ll never know exactly what Ada Lovelace contributed to history. But that’s okay. Because, as footnotes remind us, the world is simultaneously cooler and weirder than we imagine.

In The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, Sydney Padua plays with the ornamentation, the self-reflexivity, the authority, the digressiveness, and the playfulness of footnotes. And I loved it. If you’ve made it this far through a post on why footnotes are cool, you owe it to yourself to check out her book.

Happy Reading (and Footnoting)!

The Venn Diagram of Our Fandoms is Basically Just a Circle: A PSA about The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

This week, Emily takes a brief hiatus from her ongoing Hamilton-related excitement (and, lets be honest, all of those grad school things she probably should be working on) to make sure that you know about the awesomeness that is Sydney Paduas The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

Okay, real talk. I’ve spent basically all of my pop-culture-related free time this week being excited about Hamilton. Because Hamilton SO rewards the attention that you pay to it. And is completely wonderful. I kind of had to talk myself out of writing a Ten-Fandom-Commandments-style blog for this week (with due apologies to both Biggie Smalls and Lin-Manuel Miranda). But I’ve already told you to go listen to Hamilton.

This week, then, I find myself thinking about why fandom is important and why we invest in it — thinking about the importance of sharing things we care about and finding community when we get super excited together about silly French accents and inside jokes and all of the minutiae of the pop culture properties that we love. At the same time, Hamilton’s also gotten me thinking about the awesomeness of stories that inject silliness, modernity, and a whole lot of energy into eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history. So today I want to briefly alert everyone to a phantasmagorically awesome (and amusingly nineteenth-century-history-centric) graphic novel that I’ve just started to read this week: Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.

There are very few things in this world that are cooler than steampunk-y alternate histories about kick-ass ladies in floral dresses having adventures and doing science. Especially when said alternate histories have a wickedly smart sense of humor, a high degree of research and footnoting, and a strong sense of the absurdity of Victorian life.

And, perhaps more importantly, when said alternate histories are about Ada Lovelace

*the SUPER smart daughter of Lord Byron who kind of invented computer programming*

and Charles Babbage

*the grumpy mathematician who basically invented the computer in the first place*

having lots of adventures.

I’ve only just begun reading Sydney Padua’s graphic novel The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage*: *The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (which is based on her webcomic), but golly it’s delightful.

Not only does Padua show us the aforementioned geek duo getting super excited about Analytical Engines and differential calculus, but she’s also being wonderfully geeky with period-specific title pages and wonderfully researched footnotes and endnotes that maintain the book’s sense of whimsy while also providing awesome historical context. (Holy Mary Wollstonecraft. This book definitely has fun with moments in which truth is stranger than fiction. Ada Lovelace as a child apparently had a math tutor who was so conservative that he didn’t believe in negative numbers. Who knew that was even a thing??)

I haven’t actually gotten very far in The Thrilling Adventures yet. So honestly, this is less a review than a PSA. Because I can’t tell you much about it yet. But this book lines up SO WELL with my fandoms and with the collective interests of TTLP, that I just had to make sure that everyone else knew that they should be reading this in all of their free time!

We may return to this book at greater length when either Kazia and I has a chance to actually finish reading Padua’s fab book. But in the meantime, remember to take some time this week to get unironically enthusiastic about something silly — and maybe check out Lovelace and Babbage while you’re doing it!

…Because having lengthy conversations about Romantic poets and steampunk and theoretical mathematics is always a fine way to spend an afternoon.

Happy Reading!

On Sexism and Lady Characters and Andrew Smith

Hey there–Kazia here!

So recently, rising star of YA Andrew Smith was interviewed for Vice and said a thing in response to their final question:

On the flip side, it sometimes seems like there isn’t much of a way into your books for female readers. Where are all the women in your work?

I was raised in a family with four boys, and I absolutely did not know anything about girls at all. I have a daughter now; she’s 17. When she was born, that was the first girl I ever had in my life. I consider myself completely ignorant to all things woman and female. I’m trying to be better though.

A lot of The Alex Crow is really about the failure of male societies. In all of the story threads, there are examples of male-dominated societies that make critical errors, whether it’s the army that Ariel falls in with at the beginning, or the refugee camp, or Camp Merrie-Seymour for boys, or the doomed arctic expedition, they’re all examples of male societies that think that they’re doing some kind of noble mission, and they’re failing miserably.

Now, I missed a lot of the most intense internet (inter)action regarding this interview–including Smith’s apparent departure from the Twitterverse–but it seems to me that the YA world is divided into two camps: “His writing of women is misogynistic and sexist. This is problematic and should be critiqued!” and “I’ve met him/am friends with him and he’s such a sweet guy! He’s a good guy. Don’t bully him!!”

It’s important to note that these two things aren’t mutually exclusive, as others have already noted. You can be a good person and say or write shitty things, but those things should be interrogated. It’s not about tearing apart an individual–it’s about critiquing the way that an individual’s comments fit into a larger culture–in this case, one of patriarchal sexism.

Here is the thing, though, the thing that Smith (and plenty of others) seem to be missing: characters are meant to be people and people are human. Gender is an aspect of being human, but it is not the ONLY aspect of being human. I’ve only read Grasshopper Jungle, but I know that Smith can write fascinating, complexly human characters because he did so both with GJ’s protagonist Austin and his best friend/sort-of love interest Robbie. Shann, Austin’s girlfriend, is also a human–but a human who happens to be a cis woman. She’s a flat, two-dimensional character (as are the rest of the women in GJ), and although Austin says he loves her just as frequently as he mentions his affection for Robbie, we literally know nothing about Shann besides that she is a vessel for Austin’s sperm. Attempting to show the failures of patriarchal societies (as Smith notes above) does not negate the necessity to write women characters as human beings, rather than objects for men’s sexuality and procreative desires. Yet, as valiant critic Kelly Jensen notes, SOMEHOW, humongous praying mantises “who fuck a lot and depressed cryogenic crows are in Smith’s wheelhouse of experience, but women are far too beyond the realm of comprehension.” It’s a terrifyingly on-point criticism that points to the luxury of being a male author in a patriarchal society. Although there have been a handful of people who have critiqued the sexism in Smith’s novels (check out the comments on this post from Someday My Printz Will Come for a strong debate about the women in GJ, including some more rad comments from Jensen), unfortunately these critiques have rarely had any staying power in the YA community.

Here’s to hoping this time it sticks for longer.

Wishful-Thinking Media Part Two: Or, Why Can’t It Be Summer??

Hello there–Kazia here!

Although my home region of the Northeast is expected to reach a balmy 45 degrees this week, I, like Emily, can’t help but daydream of summer. Emily’s superb choices for her favorite summery media inspired me to ponder my own media picks that reminds me of that most ideal season.

1. Lilo and Stitch. Disney’s 2002 classic follows Stitch (AKA Experiment 626) as he escapes from the Galactic Federation and lands on Kaua’i in Hawaii. He quickly gets adopted as a pet by the difficult, passionate, and eccentric Lilo, a young Hawaiian girl being raised by her older sister. Their relationship soon grows into a classic Disney friendship that tugs at the heartstrings of all who witness it. With gorgeous scenes of surfing, beaches, and island life, Lilo and Stitch is the perfect movie to watch while waiting for the ice to melt (plus, it’s a great story about identity, outsiderness, and family, which is great for any season)!

2. Flora and the Flamingo. My poor, poor friends and family could not stop me from raving about this exquisite wordless picture book for the entirety of last year. Molly Idle, a former Dreamworks animator, expresses so much movement and emotion with her lovely illustrations of an eager young girl in a literal and figurative dance of friendship with a hesitant flamingo. The rhythm of the text is that of a ballet or waltz, and it’s easy to hear the music of their dance. Idle’s warm color palette, soft lines, and surprising turn-down flaps add to the warmth of this Caldecott honor book.

3. Anna and the French Kiss/Lola and the Boy Next Door. Romance seems to be a quintessential staple of all things summer, so a sure way to feel the theoretical summer breeze is to curl up with a good crush-worthy read. Look no further than these two novels by Stephanie Perkins! Anna and the French Kiss features a boarding school in Paris, a lady protagonist hoping to be a film critic, and an extremely cute French-English-American boy. Lola and the Boy Next Door features a costume designing protagonist with a flare for the expressive (she wants to go to prom as Marie Antoinette) and an inventor boy-next-door who is gangly and named Cricket. Both feature cute boys (and cute girls, although the romances are totally straight), slow-burning romance that feels real, and lady protagonists who want romance but aren’t defined by it.

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(Sources: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/71N-hAxibZL.jpg and http://www.stephanieperkins.com/images/LolaBoyNextDoorSmall.jpg)

4. The Diviners. Sometimes, the most summery thing is not descriptions of beaches and hot, sunny days, but rather a thick, thick book filled with a dynamic cast of characters and horrifying supernatural creatures and ridiculous 1920’s slang. Such is The Diviners, the thoroughly entertaining first book in Libba Bray’s series, which follows teenage flapper Evie O’Neill as she assists her uncle (who is a curator at the Museum of American Folklore, Superstition, and the Occult in New York City, a museum I desperately wish were real) and attempts to use her strange supernatural power to catch a murderer. Clocking in at around 600 pages, it’s the bee’s knees!

5. I Capture the Castle. Cassandra Mortmain is the perfect narrator to distract you from the cold. Written as Cassandra’s journal, the first novel by Dodie Smith (of One Hundred and One Dalmatians fame) follows the extremely eccentric Mortmain family as they attempt to survive and thrive in a crumbling castle in the English countryside during the 1930s. With a breezy and unsettled feeling, Cassandra “captures” not only herself but those around her, including her artistic and moody family, the live-in sort-of servant who pines for her, and the two wealthy American brothers who move in essentially next door and catch the eyes of both Mortmain sisters. Cassandra’s voice may be the most strongly realized I’ve ever read, and her journal is like a window into a world of gently crumbling nostalgia.

Happy puddle-jumping and icicle-dodging!

Wishful-Thinking Media Part One: Or, Why Can’t It Be Summer??

Hi there — Emily here!

So basically, it’s finally March, and Kazia and I are thoroughly sick of winter. Kazia lives in the Northeast, where she’s been getting bizarre amounts of snow, and I live in the Upper Midwest, where there have been FAR too many days when the high is below zero. Snow is pretty and all, and I love a good reason to wear a knit hat and a warm wool sweater, but it’s March and we’re both officially over winter. So for the next two weeks, Kazia and I are curating some of our favorite summery media.

This week, then, I’m thinking about some of my favorite pop culture that has nothing to do with snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes. Some of these are actually about summertime, while others just seem to like the perfect sort of media to binge on a long July afternoon on the beach — or an air-conditioned June morning — or a cross-country road trip with the windows down in August.

1. Calvin and Hobbes. Okay, I’m assuming that everyone already knows about the brilliance that is Bill Watterson’s comic strip about a six-year-old boy and his tiger best friend. (Although if you’ve somehow not read this yet, have you got some amazing times ahead of you!) But between Calvin’s love for the excitement and possibility that is summer vacation, and my love for spending lazy summer afternoons reading collections of Calvin and Hobbes books, I had to include this smart, philosophical, and silly comic strip about growing up and retaining your wonder for the little things.

2. Carbon Leaf. What’s a long summer road trip without this alt / folk / Celtic-influenced rock band from Virginia? They’re just delightful.

3. Chuck. When Buy More employee and chronic underachiever Chuck Bartowski accidentally gets a spy-network supercomputer downloaded into his brain, he gets recruited by the NSA and the CIA to take part in wacky hi-jinx and foil the inevitable big bads. It’s silly, nerdy fun.

4. Phineas and Ferb. It’s the ultimate Disney cartoon about two stepbrothers (and the requisite platypus secret agent) looking for ways to amuse themselves on summer vacation, complete with a delightfully self-aware formulaic episode structure, catchy musical numbers, more references to Stanley Kubrick than might be expected from a kid’s cartoon, and an awesome theme song by Bowling for Soup.

5. Harry Potter. Finally, though, nothing says summer (to our generation, at least) like Harry Potter. Summer used to be the time when we stayed up til midnight at Harry Potter launch parties at our local book stores. It was — and still is — the time when we read the series over and over again, and listen to the audio books (narrated by either the fantastic Stephen Fry or the even more fantastic Jim Dale) on road trips and lazy days at the beach. Harry can never wait for summer to end so that he can get back to Hogwarts, but for me at least, Harry Potter is the perfect summer media. (Perhaps it’s time to pull out my copy of The Half-Blood Prince to weather my ways through the long winter!)

Happy Snow Shoveling!

What I’ve Been Reading When I Should Have Been Doing Homework

Hey there–Kazia here!

As a graduate student studying children’s literature, I really never lack something to read. On my easiest week in my program, I’ve had just one novel to read (although it certainly wasn’t easy), and on my toughest weeks, I’ve had six. Over winter break, there were 22 novels I was supposed to read before the semester started.  So it’s quite the guilty pleasure for me to avoid doing my homework by squeezing out time to (*gasp*) read something off the syllabus! The absurd number of snow days we’ve had in North East have provided good excuses to avoid my homework and catch up on some fun reading. So, since mid-January, here’s what I’ve been reading when I should have been doing homework:

Last semester, I became really interested in the role of women in science fiction and steampunk texts that examine some aspect of Darwinism, degeneration, and (male) scientists meddling with nature, so as soon as I had a spare moment I picked up The Island of Doctor Moreau. Wells’s petite 1896 novel follows a shipwrecked Edward Prendick as he is taken to a secluded island run by Doctor Moreau, a notorious “scientist” who vivisects animals to create human-like creatures (which, by the way, was an idea that Wells liked toying with). Thoroughly creepy and mildly nauseating, it’s a quick and thought-provoking read!

My fascination with Moreau led me to tear through The Madman’s Daughter, the first book in Megan Shepherd’s YA series starring Juliet Moreau, the daughter of the notorious Doctor. A prequel to Wells’s story, the book follows Juliet as she deals with the repercussions of the scandal caused by her (now absent) father’s rumored experiments. Destitute and desperate, she decides to journey to her father to learn if the rumors circling around English society are true. There’s a delicious love triangle (which, surprisingly, works), a super gothic aesthetic, a plausibly feisty and complex protagonist, surprising plot twists, and lots of big questions about humanity and ethics. There are two more books in the series (based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein, respectively), and I can’t wait to have the opportunity to pick them up.

Veering slightly away from this theme but without straying too far, I’ve been reading Marvel’s Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (I’ve read the first volume and have the next two sitting in my TBR pile). While visiting his uncle, tween Miles Morales is bitten by a thoroughly horrendous radioactive spider (courtesy of–surprise!–Norman Osborn). While attempting to adjust to life at a new charter school, he simultaneously attempts to adjust to his new powers and, after Peter Parker’s death, he decides to take up the mantle of Spider-Man. Miles is a thoroughly compelling character, both as Spider-Man and his regular teenage self, and I’m looking forward to making my way through the rest of his story. (And keep your fingers crossed for Miles to be the new Spider-Man in the MCU!)

In keeping with the speech bubbles of comics, my other (not)guilty pleasure is Mo Willems’s Elephant & Piggie series of easy readers. I read I Will Surprise My Friend! for one of my classes this semester, and now I can’t stop reading this completely adorable and heartwarming series (I mean, this almost counts as homework, right?). I’ve heard many a person claim that Mo Willems (of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus fame) is “the Dr. Seuss of this generation,”

and although I was previously unwilling to consider that claim, I’m now pretty much on board. His books are smart, deceptively simple, charming, and funny, and perfect for anyone (of any age) looking for some cheer. I’m particularly partial to Waiting Is Not Easy, My Friend is Sad, and We Are In A Book!

Happy reading (and procrastinating)!

Welcome to the ’60s (and ’50s): A Mid-Century Obsession

Hello there-Kazia here!

Sometimes, if you’re anything like me, cultural interpretations of an era will take hold of your imagination and grip furiously, refusing to let go. In recent weeks, I’ve found my interest rekindling in the 1950s and 1960s. The middle of the 20th century is often portrayed in two ways: either idyllic and romantic, or miserable and horrendous. What I’ve been most interested in, though, are the pieces of media that manage to straddle those lines so carefully, managing to mixing together a concoction of style, ennui, melancholy, and glamour that makes these years so fascinating. Despite my mild obsession with these decades, I have yet to put my finger on exactly what makes an era that was fairly terrible for anyone who wasn’t a straight, cis, white, Christian, abled, middle or upper class man so addictively intriguing, but I think that the contrast between the ideal presented both in that time and now (the perfect nuclear family, yada yada) and the actuality of lived experiences, is completely compelling. I’ve been especially interested in the experiences of (unfortunately, at the moment, white) women who are attempting to negotiate their place in a culture that has little respect for them.  In my fascination with these stories for the past month or so (although it stems back several years to a class I took my junior year of college), I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about three particular pieces of media that have particularly struck a chord.

After reading The Bell Jar several years ago, I was drawn to other media that present a complicated view of the ‘50s and ‘60s. An obvious choice was The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962 (2000). Plath has such beautiful, honest prose that so deeply understands what it is to be a young (white, privileged) woman in a patriarchal society, and her descriptions of feeling melancholy and lonely in a sea of people are deeply perceptive. It’s perfect for picking up occasionally and working through slowly—her short, vignette-like entries make it a fascinating read both for browsing and for cover-to-cover perusal.

Seeking more voices of women (although in this case fictional), I watched Mona Lisa Smile (2003). Mona Lisa Smile follows Katherine Watson (Julia Roberts), a new art history professor at the highly conservative Wellesley College in the early 1950s. Mona Lisa Smile traces Katherine’s struggle to gain respect from her students (the main cohort is played by Kirsten Dunst, Julia Styles, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and Ginnifer Goodwin) and help them to deconstruct the world in which they live as she simultaneously attempts to find her place in a culture that is disinterested in women who are looking for a path different than being a housewife. It’s a slightly less grim and distinctly more feminist counterpart to The Dead Poet’s Society and The History Boys. Although cheesy and mildly preachy at times (although what teacher/student movie isn’t?), the film does a strong job of showing that there is no one way to live a feminist and fulfilled life. And, like all movies about life-changing teachers, the ending gives you all the feels.

Of course, Mad Men (2007-present) may be the quintessential piece of media focusing on the middle of the century.  This month I’ve marathoned the last 3 ½ seasons with what can only be described as feverish obsession. Although the cast of characters is primarily made up of men with every privilege listed previously, the show has incredibly compelling white women characters and, although they are relegated to frustratingly small roles, women of color. There has been much cultural debate about whether Mad Men seeks to interrogate or reinforce issues of social identity and privilege. While Mad Men is clearly not a perfect show, it does an applaudable job of glamorizing some aspects of the 50s and 60s (*cough* the GORGEOUS costumes) without condoning the blatant racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism that its characters often profess. While many critics have applauded the show for its historical accuracy, many have taken issue with its representation (or lack thereof) of people of color, queer people, and women. These are all completely valid (and, when you learn the history, disappointingly on point) arguments about representation in Mad Men. But the show compellingly shows the complicated intersections of individual identity and larger power structures, and the ways that individuals can simultaneously reinforce and be trapped by existing power structures. Plus,

everyone

looks

really,

really

good

while doing it.

 

Ten Pop Culture Knit Picks

Hi there – Emily here!

When it’s cold and snowy and all-too-wintery outside, all I want to do is stay in my warm apartment and knit cozy things. Sweaters, blankets, scarves, socks – even cute little hand-made stuffed animals – all make January seem more cheerful. As I’ve been sitting around knitting this week surrounded by mounds of fluffy purple, orange, and particularly gorgeous blue wool, I got thinking about my favorite knitting media.

Pop culture is filled with knitters. From clever ladies…

…to ruthless ladies…

…to particularly intelligent dogs…

a whole lot of modern pop culture depicts characters who like to knit. Knitting fulfills a lot of different rhetorical functions in pop culture: sometimes it signals old-time-y comfort; sometimes, when characters take the time to make things for each other, it’s a marker for close personal relationships; sometimes it’s purely practical — or even somewhat laughable. But regardless of the thematic importance of knitting in particular examples of media today, some knitting-centric pop culture just makes me just long to buy more yarn and start a new project. So this week, I want to reflect on some of my favorite pieces of knitting media. (For the purposes of this list, knitting media does not include pop-culture-INSPIRED projects, although a quick search of tumblr, pinterest, or etsy will serve up truly overwhelming amounts of those.) Here, then, are some of my favorite pieces of pop culture that make me want to knit:

1. Doctor Who – There are few pieces of pop-culture-related knitwear more iconic than Tom Baker’s impractical but awesome ten-foot-long scarf. Also, knitting a ten-foot-long scarf seems like the perfect project to undertake while getting sucked into binge-watching the classic BBC show about a time-travelling alien traversing the cosmos with his friends and companions. Who needs practical garments when you have more than three decades of silly science fiction to catch up on? (Amy Pond’s delightful Christmas sweater deserves an honorable mention for awesomeness.)

2. Pushing Daisies – Holy Zooey Deschanel’s ukulele, Batman! We’ve mentioned before just how extraordinarily adorable and twee Pushing Daisies is. Pie shop owner Ned can bring the dead back to life by touching them, and throughout the show he teams up with private investigator (and stress-knitter) Emerson Cod to use his particular gift in order to solve murders. Emerson Cod avoids knitting in public but, as the Narrator notes, “he often left the house with the needles in his pocket, should the opportunity to rib-stitch a ski cap present itself.” That is a sentiment with which I can wholeheartedly sympathize.

3. Gilmore Girls – Okay, we admit that we’ve been talking A LOT about Gilmore Girls ever since it showed up on Netflix this fall. But season seven has a whole episode based on a town-wide knit-a-thon. “Knit People Knit” celebrates the joy of getting together with your friends and lots of skeins of yarn for an afternoon of crafting which manages to be simultaneously lazy and productive. It’s glorious.

4. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – At the beginning of each episode of the iconic children’s television show, Mister Rogers enters the room, takes off his sport coat, and puts on a cardigan sweater. Each of those sweaters was hand-knit by his mother (and one now hangs in the Smithsonian). Fred Rogers’ sweaters look comfortable, warm, and made with love. In turn, the act of changing into the sweater at the start of each episode signals an entrance into the gentle, whimsical space of Mister Rogers’ neighborhood.

5. Breakfast at Tiffany’s – In the 1961 Audrey Hepburn film based on Truman Capote’s novella, Holly Golightly is a naive society girl — and a charming but perhaps inept knitter. When her neighbor / love interest Fred comments upon her current knitting project, she confesses:  “Actually I’m a little nervous about it. Jose brought up the blueprints for a new ranch house he’s building. I have this strange feeling that maybe the blueprints and my knitting instructions got switched. I mean, it isn’t impossible that I’m knitting a ranch house!” While I imagine that few of us have ever managed to switch a ranch house for a sweater, Holly’s concern about her ability to recognize her knitted product is certainly a familiar feeling! I recommend putting on Breakfast at Tiffany’s to feel better about your own knitting prowess the next time you turn your yarn stash into one big nest of tangles.

6. Outlander – Since it came on the air in the summer, the new Starz drama about a World War II nurse who finds herself in eighteenth-century Scotland has attracted some very well-earned attention for its gorgeous knitwear. Claire’s sweaters, shawls, and shrugs look just as cozy and inviting as does her Highlander lover.

7. The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins’s dystopian YA novels and the films based off of them might not seem like the most obvious pick for cozy, warm knitting media, but have you SEEN Katniss’s cowl/scarf/shawl/sweater/wrap thing? It’s the perfect one-shoulder accessory for the kick-ass lady archer in your life.

8. Penelope – Christina Ricci plays Penelope, a woman cursed to have a pig’s snout for a nose in this whimsical romantic comedy. Penelope has been hidden away all her life for fear that she will be reviled for her looks. So when she decides to experience life and venture into the “real” world, she wears a particularly stunning scarf to cover her face. Although the film hinges on her coming to accept herself and leave off her scarf (and, you know, fall in love with James McAvoy), the scarf itself is rather fabulous, and I can imagine few afternoons better than one spent knitting yourself a Penelope scarf while watching Penelope over again.

9. Firefly – In a mid-season episode from the beloved one-season Joss Whedon show about a ragtag group of space cowboys (more or less), dangerous mercenary Jayne Cobb receives a package from his mother: a homemade hat and a letter. The hat isn’t actually a particularly attractive garment but it’s the thought that counts when Jayne pulls on the hat, inspiring countless Firefly fans to do the same. After all, as the ship’s pilot, Wash, observes, “Man walks down the street in that hat, people know he’s not afraid of anything.”

(Emily’s birthday gift to her sister last year. It’s a cunning hat.)

(Emily’s birthday gift to her sister last year. It’s a cunning hat.)

10. Harry Potter – The wizarding world is rife with knitwear. Albus Dumbledore reads knitting patterns while recruiting Defense Against the Dark Arts professors, Hermione Granger knits clothing for house elves, and Molly Weasley is stunningly amazing enough to produce a sweater for each of her seven children (and Harry!) every year for Christmas. You know you want a Weasley sweater. And a Hogwarts scarf. And a house elf tea cozy / hat.

Happy Knitting!

Pop Culture That Makes Us Want to Cook (and Eat)

As we look towards our own Thanksgiving celebrations with friends and family, we’ve gotten thinking about food in pop culture. Thanksgiving has a huge presence in pop culture, and TV all weekend will be focused on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, football games, and marathons of cheesy movies leading into the holiday season. We love all of these aspects of Thanksgiving-y pop culture, but as we prepare for our own Thanksgiving feasts and try to motivate ourselves to plan ambitious menus, we wanted to look at at pop culture that makes us hungry! Here, then, are ten things that are making us want to cook and eat this holiday season:

1. Pushing Daisies

Ned can bring the dead back to life (temporarily, at least) by touching them. He’s also a pie-maker and runs The Pie-Hole, the twee-est of all the twee restaurants in the history of television. Although episodes of Pushing Daisies inevitably pull Ned away from his pie shop so that he can solve weirdly quirky crimes with an eccentric cast of supporting characters, it’s easy to forget about the mystery and just get distracted by the utter gorgeousness of those pies.

(Source: http://vanishingpointchronicles.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/pushing-daisies.jpg)

2. If You Give A Moose a Muffin

“If you give a moose a muffin,” Laura Numeroff notes, “he’ll want some jam to go with it.” Thus begins Numeroff’s circular tale of a distractible moose and his quest for dessert. One of many in a series (If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, If You Give a Cat a Cupcake, etc.), If You Give a Moose a Muffin is particularly hard to resist with Felicia Bond’s cozy autumnal illustrations.

(Source: http://www.harpercollinschildrens.com/harperchildrensImages/isbn/large/7/9780060244057.jpg)

3. Ratatouille

Ratatouille is, in so many ways, a love-letter to good cooking. The climactic scene, in which dour restaurant critic Anton Ego is transported back to fond memories of his childhood by a simple dish of ratatouille, is just so incredibly happy-making. Throughout, with scenes of busy restaurant life and with Remy fantasizing about good food as bursts of color and light, the Pixar team presents an incredibly sensory and gorgeous depiction of both cooking and eating.

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(Source: http://maelstrommist.tumblr.com/post/103403952637)

4. Redwall

A community of woodland creatures lives in an abbey in the midst of Mossflower Woods in Brian Jacques’s long-running series. Each book involves heroic journeys, quests, kidnappings, and sieges as the abbey-dwellers inevitably come into conflict with rogue vermin. Each book, however, also includes a number of woodland feasts, with food so lovingly described that it inspired a cookbook. With Deeper’n’Ever Turnip’n’Tater’n’Beetroot Pie, a bowl of Hotroot Soup, and a nice glass of Dandelion Cordial, who wouldn’t want to sit down to a Redwall feast?

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(Source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/3/34/GreatRedwallFeast.jpg/200px-GreatRedwallFeast.jpg)

5. Parks and Recreation

“We have to remember what’s important in life: friends, waffles, work. Or waffles, friends, work. Doesn’t matter, but work is third,” Leslie Knope states. That Leslie Knope – who prides herself in caring about her friends over all other things – can waffle (see what I did there?) between friends and breakfast food shows her dedication to delicious meals. The love that characters on Parks and Rec feel for food knows no bounds, whether it’s Leslie’s passion for waffles and whipped cream, Ron’s obsession with meat, or Ben’s adoration for calzones.

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(Source: http://thelittlesnicketlass.tumblr.com/post/85421387002/why-would-anybody-ever-eat-anything-besides)

6. Harry Potter

J.K. Rowling’s descriptions of meals that spring up in the Great Hall, butterbeer in the Three Broomsticks, and Mrs. Weasley’s home-cooked meals have no rival.

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(Source: http://unworthyofmyname.tumblr.com/post/18509385701)  

7. Relish

Although we’ve talked about Relish before, this list would be incomplete without another shout-out to Lucy Knisley’s food memoir. Knisley’s descriptions of meals and her beautifully illustrated recipes are sure to make any reader head to the kitchen.

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(Source: https://tothelamppost.files.wordpress.com/2014/11/b2563-relishscan.jpg)

8. Gilmore Girls – A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving

Rory and Lorelai Gilmore are notorious for their eating habits. A huge amount of the action of the show centers around food-related locations: Luke’s Diner, Lorelai’s parents’ house for Friday Night dinners (so much drama!), or Sookie’s kitchen at the Inn. Although the Gilmore girls may be able to consume inhuman amounts of food in virtually every episode, far and away the most impressive episode is “A Deep-Fried Korean Thanksgiving” in which the Gilmore girls navigate the tricky world of Thanksgiving dinner-hopping. It’s impossible not get hungry while watching this (or any other) episode!

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(Source: http://chickenfingerkid.tumblr.com/post/36075186237/ready-for-thanksgiving)

9. The Lord of the Rings

Sam Gamgee is often figured as the comic-relief-with-a-heart-of-gold in The Lord of the Rings (both Tolkien’s books and Jackson’s films). But there’s something so incredibly noble about his determination to cook crispy bacon on Weathertop and to find some nice conies outside of Mordor. After all, what’s the point of going on a world-saving quest if you can’t still plan to make a nice dinner?

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(Source: http://maelstrommist.tumblr.com/post/103403580782)

10. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving

When the Peanuts gang is left alone to fend for themselves for Thanksgiving dinner, Charlie Brown makes a feast of toast, pretzels, popcorn, and jelly beans. Once we get over our ambition to make cakes worthy of Gilmore Girls’s Sookie St. James, waffles worthy of Parks and Rec’s Leslie Knope, and French comfort food worthy of Ratatouille’s Remy the rat, it’s nice to at least assure ourselves of our ability to make a feast equal to that of Charlie Brown and his friends.

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(Source: http://maelstrommist.tumblr.com/post/103403736062/shefadestoblack-we-should-just-be-thankful-for)

Happy Eating!