Tagged with " reading"
Dec 3, 2013 - Literature    No Comments

Midwinter Tales, Part the First

Every holiday clustered around the winter solstice is about pushing back the dark with the promise of light. And the tool they all use is story, whether it’s the Maccabees or the Nativity or the Unconquered Sun. Story is what we turn to for warmth in the darkest depths of winter. It passes the long nights, and carries us out of the cold to anywhere our imaginations can take us.

In honor of the tradition of midwinter tales, I decided that every evening in December, I’ll post a video of myself reading a bedtime story. Some of them, I’ll do live as a Hangout On-Air at 6pm CDT. Others, I’ll tape in advance and post in the evening.

Some of the stories will be quiet and peaceful. Some will be funny and rambunctious. All of them will be favorites, read many times to me or my sons. I really can’t wait to share these stories with you all.

I’ll also be including links to Amazon for each book, through an Affiliate link that gives a portion of the book’s cost to the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, an organization that seeks to put autistics in the room with policy makers and media so our voices are heard on the issues that affect us directly. You’re also welcome to stick something in the Tuition Fund here on the blog if you want to support this project.

gargoylesThe first night, I read God Bless the Gargoyles by Dav Pilkey. You can watch it here: Midwinter Tales, 1 Dec 2013(You’ll want to move the video forward to 2:57 where the story starts. I accidentally went live before I finished dinking around with technical stuff.)

 

littleoneThe second night, I read I Love You, Little One by Nancy Tafuri. You can watch it here: Midwinter Tales, 2 Dec 2013

Spread the word, and let folks with kids know there are free bedtime stories online–maybe it’ll buy them a few minutes of peace during this busy season. I hope you enjoy watching them as much as I enjoy reading.

Un-fair-y Tales

 

FTF 2013 button text popThis post is part of the Fairytale Fortnight, organized by fellow blogger The Book Rat and A Backwards Story. It’s a super cool idea, and there’ll be posts all over the web for two whole weeks, so I hope you come back for more here, and search out other interesting observations and book reviews as a part of the event!

*****

When I asked my sons about fairytales, they didn’t have much to say beyond, “We love them.” I wasn’t surprised–I’ve raised them on mythology and folklore of every kind since they were born. Fairy tales are an essential part of the narrative fabric we’ve woven around them for their whole lives.

I wasn’t surprised either that it’s the twisted modern retellings that particularly tickle their fancy. The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, The Frog Prince Continued…, and The Stinky Cheese Man are popular because of their humor as well as the subversive, topsy-turvy act of inverting classic story structures. Our boys are raised on satire like mother’s milk, so it’s natural that they’d prefer twisted tales to the straightforward ones.

When I asked if there were any lessons the fairytales taught them, though, both boys were at a bit of a loss. I mentioned how many parents of daughters worried that fairytales taught girls to wait for a man to solve their problems for them, and asked if that seemed right. (They’re quite the little feminists; of course they said it wasn’t right.)

But when I thought of the male characters in the revised fairytales of recent years that are designed to address that lack of feminine agency, I came up embarrassingly short of good lessons for boys. Current fairytale telling seems to operate on the idea that there’s a finite amount of power and smarts in the story, and if the women get more of it now, it has to happen at the expense of the men.

This certainly isn’t the only place in society that smart women are rising and smart men are falling in the media. My friend Amanda Valentine wrote a scathing post recently about how gendered entertainment and advertising–especially as it’s targeted at parents–does men an incredible disservice by portraying them all as bumbling idiots who shouldn’t be trusted with home or offspring.

Princess Fiona, Merida, and Rapunzel are smart, feisty, and entirely capable of their own liberation and defense in times of peril. Heroes, on the other hand, like Shrek, Merida’s father Fergus, and Flynn, the hero-rogue in Tangled, are to varying degrees incompetent, gullible, morally weak, and easily distracted from their goals, dependent on the women in their lives to keep them in line and out of trouble. The only male characters that go through real, multi-layered, character evolution in recent years are Beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and Hiccup in How To Train Your Dragon. Jack in the recent Jack the Giant-Killer is a fairly humble live-action hero whose love for the princess, at the very least, does not make him stupid. Shrek does go through some evolution, but seems to stumble his way from lesson to lesson, and seems weakened and henpecked by the end of the series.

My boys love that these stories are full of adventure and derring-do, and they honestly don’t care too much who’s doing the swashing and the buckling. They’re just as in love with Merida as they were with Shrek. I’m proud of the fact that they don’t see much difference among heroes of different genders. They buck the convention that “you can get a girl to see a boys’ movie, but you can never, not ever, get a boy to watch a girls’ movie.”

But I wish there were room between the domineering, Johnny-Come-Latelys of Charles Perrault and classic Disney, and the updated, apologist buffoons that Hollywood is serving up to boys like mine. They don’t want their fairytales to undergo a gory reversal toward the truly grim versions of Grimm’s. My ten-year-old understood that once parents felt the need to educate their kids that the outside world was a scary, unpredictable place, but when asked if boys still need brutal fairytales to teach that lesson, he replied with a snort, “Are you kidding? All you have to do to learn that is watch the news, for gods’ sakes.”

That’s how I feel too as his mother–no kid growing up today needs fantasy violence to learn that the world is dangerous. Fantasy can be safer and more meaningfully inclusive of rich, complex, powerful characters of both genders (or *gasp* fluid genders!) doing fun, adventurous things in challenging situations. Maybe then, we’d both be satisfied at last with a Happily Ever After.

Jul 3, 2012 - Sex Ed    3 Comments

50 Shades of Sex Ed

Even the Disney Channel kids are reading it!

Thursday night, I thought I’d get a start on my usual Friday Night Lists post, so I asked friends on Twitter for their suggestions of books that are sexier than 50 Shades of Grey. I freely admit that I haven’t read this bestseller–I’ve read enough excerpts to know that it’s terribly written Twilight fanfic that somehow made its way through the usually stringent publication process when many vastly superior stories sit in Kinko’s boxes, waiting for that big break. The only remarkable fact about it is that, for some reason, it’s now okay to read widely recognized soft porn on the train and at the post office. Not sure why this was the book to transgress that boundary, but there you have it.

The conversation on Twitter rapidly took a far more interesting turn, when I tweaked my question slightly. Rather than just telling me the title of a sexier book than 50 Shades, I asked for my tweeps’ first reading encounter with SexyTimes ™. A lot of these experiences–and certainly my first ones–were inadvertent, and they covered a much broader gamut than I would’ve expected.

These experiences also occupy a very specific point in time. I was born in the 1970s; as such, I’m a product of the first generation after the sexual revolution and Women’s Lib, but I learned about sex just before the scourge of AIDS changed everything again. I was married by the time video and pictures were easily available on the Internet; web sex was still text-based–Choose-Your-Own-Adventure porn. Sure, the porn industry was already established, and expanding the boundaries of technology, but with dial-up speeds measured in bauds not gigaHertz, print was still the dominant medium.

Forty years earlier, the books my generation learned about sex from would’ve been confiscated by the government as obscenity, if they even made it into print. And forty years later, I’m not even sure if kids other than mine look things up in books at all. In this unique window, we learned about sex between the pages of books and magazines, fiction and non-fiction, pictures and print.

By the time I started seventh grade, I’d already read Gone With The Wind, not to mention a metric ton of teen romances like Sweet Valley High. And frankly, I’d encountered sex scenes without really understanding much. Sex ed, of course, wasn’t worth much in the mid ’80s. That day the boys went and played dodgeball by themselves in gym class, the girls watched a movie featuring the Broadway cast of Annie, telling us about menstruation. As freshmen in high school, we learned words like “vagina” and “testes,” then watched a video of a baby being born, or what I like to call “abstinence education.”

But my real sexual education came courtesy of Harlequin. I found a postcard at the library that said, “Get Free Books!” Naturally, I mailed it in, and soon thereafter, six romance novels arrived in the mail. The first one I read was called The Marati Legacy, and it was about diving for sunken treasure and getting laid. I was riveted.

A lot more of the people I talked with stumbled into their sexual literacy more haphazardly. Scholastic school book fairs have a lot to answer for, apparently–what kind of responsible publisher markets V.C. Andrews books to pre-teens, really? And how many people have to be assaulted by relatives and paralyzed from the waist down before her ghostwriters end their reign of terror?! And otherwise non-sexy books, by authors like Stephen King and Anne McCaffrey, blindsided a number of us with Sudden SexyTimes. Other, more adult books, like Clan of the Cave Bear or Interview With The Vampire, were more openly sexual. Many of those scenes were awkward, horrifying, or weirdly allegorical, leaving kids more uncomfortable and confused than enlightened.

Others gained enlightenment from a crop of non-fiction sources. Many children of the ’70s found their hippie parents’ copies of Our Bodies, Ourselves; The Joy of Sex; or The Kama Sutra. I didn’t grow up in a household with those books, or with a father who had a stash of Playboy magazines hidden somewhere; I was the oldest kid, so there weren’t any brothers or older cousins with poorly hidden porn either. A lot of my friends did, though, and even those boys who were similarly deprived recall the erotic potential of National Geographic magazine.

Once we’d twigged on to the basics, though, every reference book could be mined for sexual information. The pages for Encyclopedia Britannia and Grey’s Anatomy entries on the male and female bodies were dog-eared, the anatomical drawings worn faint by the tracing of myriad fingers. Every dictionary had giggleworthy words, and when we’d inured ourselves to the humorous potential of the words in English, we started foreign language classes, with a whole new exotic set of dictionaries and titillating words.

Even the most conservative household still yielded shocking information. Never doubt the Bible itself as a font of sexual information, from graphic and bizarre scenes of rape, incest, and adultery, to the tender but unmistakable eroticism of Song of Songs. The King James Bible was slightly kid-proofed by the impenetrably archaic language, but the intellectually advanced and naturally curious couldn’t be kept at bay for long, and the ’80s brought a wave of new, more accessible translations that demystified many of those passages, even to adults who’d never realized the full implications of the Shakespearean English they’d heard from the lectern.

All in all, I think I may have actually been fortunate to have come to romance novels so early in my life. At least, by the time sex became real for me, I had learned to associate it with love and Happy Ever Afters, rather than cavedwellers or creepy clowns in the sewers.

Jun 3, 2012 - Literature    3 Comments

A Little Bit of This, A Little Bit of That: Reverb Broads Summer #1

I took part in an offshoot of the Reverb blogging projects, called Reverb Broads, last December. I really enjoyed the almost-spiritual discipline of writing something every day, and the community of other women I hooked into has lead to some incredibly fulfilling new friendships and a whole bunch of excellent reading. So I’m doing the summer iteration throughout June. If you’re enjoying the prompts and the posts they inspire, consider joining in the fun! 

Summer Broads 2012, Prompt 1: With what fictional character (book, movie, TV, etc.) do you most identify? Why? (by Kristen of Kristendom)

This one has two parts, and neither of them include Anne Shirley (Anne of Green Gables) like everyone else’s responses apparently do. :)

First, there are the characters I’d like to be like. They tend to be wildly intelligent, super useful, ultra competent women who stay calm in the most unimaginable situations. There’s Claire Fraser from Diana Gabaldon‘s Outlander novels. She starts out as a war nurse in World War II, then goes back in time to 1848 Scottish Rebellion (Bonnie Prince Charlie and all that). Once they think she’s not a whore who went out into the woods in her slip, she quickly ingratiates herself to the rebels with her useful medical skills. She picks up a hot redhead for her troubles (that much, at least I can live out), and generally rolls through major events of history with grace and aplomb.

Then there’s Mary Russell from Laurie R. King‘s series of the same name. Mary’s a precocious, bookish teenager when she meets Sherlock Holmes, and first becomes his apprentice in the art of detecting, and later, his wife. She’s easily as intelligent as he is, and though their life is anything but restful, their relationship could be described that way. She’s brilliant, a fast learner, and wicked cool in a crisis.

And, while I do have some reputation for functioning well in the face of disaster (hence the nickname Emergency Lass), I don’t have any illusions that I’m as cool as they are. Nor am I as consistently one personality as most characters. That’s not surprisingly–characters need to conform to predictable archetypes, and only evolve a modicum of complexity after a series is well under way. So, while this question left me at a sincere loss for days, the closest formula I can come up with is what follows.

A big part of me is Hermione Granger. I’m a bossy know-it-all witch, always eager to share what I’ve learned with other people. That’s why I’m happiest when I’m teaching–all that reading and study is zero fun if I’m not sharing it with someone else. I’d rather spend my vacation in the restricted section of the library, and I’m a bit befuddled by how little attention most people seem to be paying to, well, everything. I’m pretty sure there’s no problem in the world that can’t be solved with more reading. I’m also fiercely loyal to those I love, and willing to go to the mat (or the troll, or the Shrieking Shack, or the Ministry of Magic) for them.

But Hermione doesn’t cover my weird, unpredictable, impulsive side. For that, I turn to Delirium. She’s one of the Endless, a group of mythic archetypes that function as quasi-divinities/forces of nature in the classic graphic novel series The Sandman. Delirium hasn’t been quite right in the head since her brother Destruction, the big bluff protector of the bunch, split town. She wanders between her own reality and everyone else’s, and is fond of bizarre pronouncements and non sequiturs. At heart, though, she’s a little confused, a lot optimistic, and genuinely loves her family, imperfect though they are.

And her hair changes color with her moods, a power I sincerely covet. If only so I don’t have to touch up my roots.

The 3 Rs: Recommended Religion Reading

This list was so much harder than you’d think. I’ve read literally hundreds of books about religion and history over the past 15-20 years, so narrowing it down to a few essentials left me feeling like I was trying to find the most refreshing thimbleful of water in the river. The one “book” I wasn’t able to find in a linkable form to include is the current US Military Chaplain’s Handbook, but that’s a fascinating read. It appears to be primarily available in CD-ROM form, which makes sense, since it’s really a large collection of field manuals, devotionals, and other resources.

In the meantime, though, here are the best books I could think of for folks who may or may not have had an Intro to World Religions class in college at some point, but are otherwise not too informed about religion, even their own. Please, suggest your own books down in comments! I’ll have a list of movies that demonstrate important religious concepts or new perspectives that break our stereotypes for you next week.

RECOMMENDED READINGS FOR THE RELIGIOUSLY CURIOUS

  1. Prothero, Stephen, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs To Know–And Doesn’t. (HarperOne, 2008) This book makes a powerful case that understanding the major world religions–including the reality of Christianity–is absolutely critical for social progress, international security, and continued democracy. Prothero has a new book, God Is Not One, that I haven’t read yet, but profiles in more depth eight of the world’s major faiths.
  2. Livingston, James, Anatomy of the Sacred, Sixth Edition. (Prentice Hall, 2008) This is the textbook I used for my most recent course on religious theory. It fits pretty well with my approach of looking at different facets of religious behavior and belief, and filling in variations on those themes from a wide variety of historical and contemporary religions. Because it’s a college textbook, it costs a stupid amount of money; on the other hand, used copies abound.
  3. Eastman, Roger, The Ways of Religion: An Introduction to the Major Traditions. (OUP, 1999) I don’t use other people’s anthologies of primary sources, for the most part–I pull together a much more diverse selection of my own devising than any I’ve ever found in print, both for religion and history classes. But if I had to pick one for a religious studies class, I’d go with this one every time. It’s by far the most diverse, and the excerpts are nice and long (relatively speaking, to the rest of the field). If you haven’t ever heard the voices of faiths other than yours, I cannot possibly stress how important it is for everyone to read the actual sources themselves.
  4. Meredith, Hickman, Rogers, and Kirkby, The Usborne Encyclopedia of World Religions: Internet-Linked. (Usborne, 2010) This is a “kids’” book, but like everything Usborne does, it’s a hell of a lot more informative than anything you’ll encounter in the vast majority of mainstream media. It’s also lavishly illustrated, something that’s really important as you try to wrap your head around new and foreign faiths, and it’s Internet-linked to all sorts of extra articles, pictures, and videos. This may actually be the very best place to start if you’ve never taken a course on world religion. NB: The link is to the book listing on the UK Usborne Publishing page, but Usborne books are available here in the States too, both through home distributors (think Tupperware, but with awesome books instead of burping plastic) and, increasingly, in retail outlets.
  5. Matlins, Stuart, and Arthur Magida, How to Be a Perfect Stranger: The Essential Religious Etiquette Handbook, Fifth Edition. (Skylight Paths, 2010) This may be one of the coolest books around. Religion by religion, sect by sect, it gives you the basic etiquette to guarantee you don’t embarrass yourself at religious ceremonies of any stripe. Practically speaking, it’s awesome if you’ve got a diverse group of friends who do things like get married, give birth, or die, but it’s also a fascinating read cover-to-cover, and should be considered for the bookshelf of any graduate or world traveller.
  6. Swami Tapasyananda (trans.), Srimad Bhagavad Gita. (Sri Ramakrishna Math, 2003) You may have picked up a free copy of the Gita from a table on your college campus, but this is the edition of the essential (if not only) Hindu holy book recommended by a very smart and learned Krishnavite friend. It’s part scripture, part epic poem, part philosophical treatise, but it sums up with passion and poetry some of the most compelling concepts of Hinduism.
  7. Kornfield, Jack, A Path With Heart: A Guide Through the Perils and Promises of Religious Life. (Bantam, 1993) This is a wonderfully simple introduction to Western Buddhism, especially the core concepts of mindfulness, compassion toward all living things, our attachments to the material world, and the practice of meditation. Western Buddhism certainly isn’t the same as all the Asian variants, but this explains those central ideas in a way that sets the reader up well to make more far-reaching inquiries.
  8. Robinson, George, Essential Judaism: A Complete Guide to Beliefs, Customs & Rituals. (Atria, 2001) I have it on very good authority (from an honest-to-goodness Jewish school teacher!) that this is one of the most popular texts for people new to the Jewish faith; it’s even used as a textbook in conversion classes. I need to pick up a copy myself, come to think of it.
  9. Beard, North, and Price (eds.), Religions of Rome (2 vol.). (Cambridge University Press, 1998) This is a very scholarly two-volume set–the first volume is synthesis and analysis of the religious landscape of the Roman Empire at its height, and the second is full of annotated primary sources (inscriptions, imperial proclamations, legends, and rituals). It’s geared toward the expert reader, but if you want to get a clear view of exactly how much like every other Mediterranean mystery cult Christianity was, and how fundamentally weird that was in the history of human religious practice, there’s no better starting place.
  10. Wansbrough, Henry (ed.), The New Jerusalem Bible (Doubleday, 1999) My Latin and Roman History teacher calls this the “Scholar’s Bible.” The translation is directly from the original Hebrew and Greek by some of the best biblical experts in the world. It’s not the easiest version to read, but it’s probably the closest to the original text as we’re going to get.
  11. Crossan, John Dominic, The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus. (HarperOne, 1999) I can’t recommend against any of Crossan’s work, but this one’s particularly good at highlighting the historical truth that Christianity was not founded by Jesus, but about Jesus, by lots of other people. Crossan is one of the leading experts on the historical Jesus, and this book does an excellent job of demonstrating the real horse race Christianity was in for its survival, and how unlikely in many ways it was to have been the faith that came out on top.
  12. Pagels, Elaine, The Gnostic Gospels. (Vintage, 1989) The discovery of the Nag Hammadi gospels in the 1940s revolutionized our understanding of Christianity in the decades following the life of Jesus. Most Christians get a very tidy, unified history of the development of the faith’s core principles–even the compilation of the Bible–when the truth is very far from that. We knew other gospels existed, but until the Nag Hammadi texts, we only knew them based on what more orthodox critics said about them. This book tells us about the Gospels of Thomas and Mary Magdalene, among others, and illuminates the radically different interpretations of Jesus’ life and message among his own followers.
  13. Pagels, Elaine, The Origin of Satan: How Christians Demonized Jews, Pagans, and Heretics. (Vintage, 1996) Pagels is another historian whom it’s hard to go wrong with, much like Crossan, when it comes to the history of early Christianity. I also recommend this particular book, though, because it highlights the point at which Christianity was no longer the outcast under attack, but the dominant power that could attack others, even other kinds of Christians whose beliefs weren’t officially endorsed. It also helps us understand the anti-Semitic foundations of Christianity that reverberate into the present day.
  14. Aslan, Reza, No God But God (Updated Edition): The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. (Random House, 2011) The absolute best book on Islam I’ve ever read. You get it all–history, culture, faith, practice, conflict, poetry, mysticism, expansion, controversy. Aslan’s analysis is unflinching. I wish more universities would make this their freshman read as students come into the collegiate world.
  15. Armstrong, Karen, A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (Ballantine, 1994) Armstrong is one of the world’s most respected experts on world religion, and she makes it incredibly accessible for regular readers. She’s written dozens of books, on many different faiths, but I wish more people read this one so they could see the full extent to which the Abrahamic religions are interdependent and similar. Armstrong is also doing great work with her non-profit foundation Charter for Compassion, which promotes understanding and dialogue among people of all faiths.
  16. Comte-Sponville, Andre, and Nancy Huston, The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality. (Penguin, 2008) This slim volume is surprisingly full of simple, elegant wisdom. Don’t let the title mislead you, though–this book isn’t out to convert anyone away from believing in gods or religion. Instead, it blends science, philosophy, humanism, and history to prove that there’s immense mystery and majesty in what and where humans are, even before we try to understand the unknowable.

 

Pride and Prejudice

My nine-year-old son Connor finishes the partial hospitalization program that saved his life this spring on Friday. He’ll return to school, and his beloved friends and teachers and staff, for the last eleven days of the year. It’ll be a lovely reunion–he’s determined to surprise them on Tuesday–and he’ll get to show off the amazing new self-control and trigger management he’s developed, in a manageable, boundaried time period.

As part of his evaluation and treatment in the program, Connor was tested on a wide battery of skills and scales. Most irritating of these tests was a tear-your-hair-out boring attention test that required TWELVE FULL MINUTES of participation to determine a baseline. We laughed at the irony of his twice quitting an attention test because it bored him, but as soon as he tried it with someone to tell him to keep going, the test revealed no attention span issues.

Connor's first-place winning science fair project this year, about predicting compressive strength of materials based on their atomic structure.

Equally unsurprising to us were the results of his IQ test. He scored 136. Now, officially, there’s no “cutoff” for “genius level” anymore in the updated IQ scoring, but 136 puts him into the 99th Percentile for kids his age. In other words, only one percent of nine-year-olds score higher than that. His vocabulary and reading level is that of a 12th grader. According to a new study, that’s two grades higher than the average of the U.S. Congress.

This kid is staggeringly intelligent. Which comes as news to absolutely no one who’s ever met him. I feel far less proud than affirmed. These scores only quantify the bar that we’ve always felt we have to rise to as his parents. The doctor who evaluated him repeatedly emphasized how unusual Connor’s mind really is–the words “exceptional,” “exceed,” and “excellent” appear frequently throughout the write-up, and he urges several times that Connor receive gifted and talented services.

What did shock us in this evaluation was the statement that immediately followed the quantitative elements: “Connor indicates that he enjoys role-play games, which I would strongly advise against, given how these activities can result in him being more obsessed with fantasy than reality. Connor should be devoting his time and effort to normal activities socially, recreationally, and athletically that would be pursued by a nine-year-old.” Further down, he returns to this point: “Repeatedly, I witness children like Connor becoming consumed with fantasy and role-playing games, derailing their social and emotional development and ignoring ‘normal’ endeavors. The result is a pattern of unusual or atypical interests that ultimately are not shared by their peers, causing them to be viewed as unusual, odd, or atypical and, therefore, contributing to social rejection and emotional alienation.”

My first reaction was, “Holy crap, he thinks geeks are pathetic.”

I saw the Darling Husband’s hackles rise as he read, though he channeled it into humor, since the therapist who gave us the papers wasn’t the one who did the evaluation. Instead, he suggested that they give the doctor a call and tell him what Connor’s dad does for a living.

We shared a laugh at the time, with Connor in the room and unaware of what the papers said, but we were shocked and bothered by the obvious bias in the evaluation, and how utterly dissonant it was with both of our life experiences. How could anyone think such a wonderful hobby was destructive and alienating?

For both of us, fantasy literature and roleplaying games were the ultimate sandbox, an environment finally big enough for the universes our minds could imagine. Sci-fi and fantasy, both in prose and comic books, gave us colorful and expansive vocabularies that challenged us, in the days of stultifying spelling tests and reading assignments that left us cold. Games gave us math problems we wanted to do. They gave us new friends at home and around the world, hours of solo and group entertainment, and eventually, roleplaying games gave us each other. They are our hobby, and our work, and now our legacy to our children.

We understood the doctor’s concern that, if Connor was only into media far beyond his peers’ comprehension, he’d have no common interests with them. But what’s “normal” for a nine-year-old? Chess? No, no chance of obsession there (ahem, paging Bobby Fischer). Baseball? Just what he needs to stay away from unsociable statistics (or not). Guns? That can’t possibly turn out badly. In fact, I’d like someone to tell me what subjects are, in fact, more normal for a nine-year-old American boy in 2012 than heroes, monsters, superheroes, Star Wars, LEGO, and XBox games?

Sure, we’ve known our share of people who couldn’t function well socially in contexts that excluded their primary enthusiasm. Every joke refers to a D&D stat, or a video game plot, or a Monty Python sketch. Every anecdote ties back to a Star Trek episode. And yes, autistic kids get fixated and study the everlasting hell out of what they like. Some days, it’s all they can talk about, and that can be off-putting to other kids who don’t have the sheer bloodyminded endurance they do. But that’s not the vast majority of today’s geeks and gamers, and it’s certainly not Connor.

Connor got a make-your-own sonic screwdriver kit for Christmas. He may have been pleased.

Cam and I will take some credit for keeping his interests wide. Every time he finishes a book, movie, or TV series he’s thoroughly enjoyed, we’ve got three new things racked and ready to suggest. So you liked Star Wars, did you, kid? Here, meet this guy called Indiana Jones. Muppets tickled your fancy? Fantastic–watch this Wallace and Gromit short. Harry Potter and Doctor Who are pretty awesome, aren’t they? Let me tell you about my friends Sherlock Holmes and Lewis Carroll. And the same lack of inhibition that sometimes leads Connor to say tactless or oblivious things allows his passion and enthusiasm for his favorite things to bubble over giddily, and it’s absolutely irresistible. He’s a trendsetter among his peers. They don’t tell him he’s weird for liking what he likes–they want to know what’s got him so excited.

I know the kids around him won’t always be as forgiving of his differences. But the age when that happens was exactly when Cam and I found roleplaying games, and we weren’t alone. Neither will he be. In fact, he’s likely to be in demand as a creative, versatile gamemaster with deft control of rules and narrative, and a bag full of hacks and tricks. Heavens know, he’s learning at the feet of The Master.

We want to let this doctor know that we respect his experience and knowledge, but in this area, he’s got it flat wrong. Games knit society closer together. Connor’s entire existence, and his loving home, come from the power of those stitches. His whole life, since before he was even born, he’s been on the receiving end of love and support from the friends we’ve made through games. He’s already discovered the delight and the challenge in them, and he’s learning social skills in a safe, welcoming environment, in the community of gamers.

How on earth could he grow up healthier without all that?

Before the Ballot: Friday Night Lists

Every presidential election year, I assign myself a whole pile of relevant non-fiction books as my Election Year Reading List. Some of them are topical; some are great political, sociological, or economic minds; and some are just strong liberal voices that clarify the values that motivate me to pick up my clipboard and get to work. I thought I’d share this year’s reading list, and a few important pieces that are still relevant from the ’08 list.

I’m putting this list in the order I’ve read them so far; those I’ve read will be marked with asterisks. Totally at random, the order of #2-5 has worked out very serendipitously, so if you decide to read these, let me recommend that order. I’ve already made quite a dent in this year’s list, so I could use a few more suggestions to fill it out through November, especially in specific issues of foreign affairs. I’m also always willing to read different points of view, so long as they’re rational, fact-based, and not overly polemical. You can leave your recommendations in comments, or friend me on Goodreads so we can see each other’s lists.

2012 ELECTION YEAR READING LIST

*1. Hostile Takeover: How Big Money and Corruption Conquered Our Government–and How We Take It Back by David SirotaSirota, a progressive radio fixture,  offers a good basic primer of how money affects every branch of the government, from local to federal, and suggests some common-sense, achievable solutions to reverse that trend.

*2.  Tear Down This Myth: How The Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future by Will Bunch. This book by Bunch, the Philadelphia Daily News senior (and former political) writer and Huffington Post columnist, sets out to remind its readers of the realities of Ronald Reagan’s background, politics, and actions as president, untangling him from the distortions the man and his record have been subjected to in recent canonization efforts. The book’s definitely critical of Reagan, but the history review is good, and serves to point out just how far left of today’s conservatives Reagan really was.

*3.  Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America by Matt Taibbi. The Rolling Stone columnist delves deep into the mechanisms and psychopathic personalities that led directly to the 2008 economic meltdown. Taibbi’s wacky, profane style keeps the economic explanations from being dry, and he’s got a real knack for capturing characters that make you want to tear your hair out.

*4.  Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power by Rachel Maddow. Headliner on the MSNBC primetime line-up, Maddow‘s first book puts her ferocious intelligence on display as she traces the transition of the US military from the all-volunteer force of WWII, through the Vietman Era, into the privatized professional military with its overused, sequestered backbone of soldiers of today. She ends with a few good actions to begin reversing this trend toward permanent war.

*5.  With Liberty and Justice For Some: How the Law Is Used to Destroy Equality and Protect the Powerful by Glenn Greenwald. The tightest-written and most persuasive book I’ve read in a long time, Greenwald, a widely respected Salon.com contributor, lays bare the subversion of our justice system to protect the social, political, and economic elites from the reach of the law.

6.  The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. I think the racial disparities within our justice system, and the private for-profit incarceration industry, comprise one of the most important issues in American society today. I saw Michelle Alexander, a professor of law at Ohio State and a Huffington Post contributor, speak on Melissa Harris-Perry’s show, and I’m braced for a hard, harrowing, eye-opening read.

7.  End This Depression Now! by Paul Krugman. A New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize winner in Economics, Krugman is the hero and standard-bearer for modern Keynesians. I trust his analysis without reservation, and I’m very interested to see his prescriptions for the short- and long-term changes that our economy needs.

8.  Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unexpected Resurgence of the American Right by Thomas Frank. I loved Frank‘s earlier book (see later, in the best of ’08 list), and I’ve heard him speak on the current one on NPR a few times. He’s got a way with case studies and relating them to broader trends, and the examples of “broke” billionaires and the trappings of that culture I’ve heard him talk about just blew my mind. I expect this book to be funnyhorrorsad.

9.  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt. I first encountered Haidt, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, on The Colbert Report, and I’m wildly intrigued by his work on identifying the psychological underpinnings that make political and religious zealots so similar.

10.  Chasing Ghosts: Failures and Facades in Iraq: A Soldier’s Perspective by Paul Rieckhoff. I respect the hell out of Rieckhoff, a retired Army specialist and one of the founders of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. I’ve read a lot of about the wars and today’s military by civilians, but I always want to get a balanced view, and I’m looking forward to his smart insights.

11.  Beyond Outrage: What has gone wrong with our economy and our democracy, and how to fix it by Robert Reich. Reich, Clinton’s former Secretary of Labor and a current professor of economics at UC Berkeley, dazzles me with his talent for condensing complex facts into easily understandable patterns. He’s a good Keynesian too, like Krugman, but add in his expertise on labor history and government experience, and you’ve got an expert I’ll always stop to watch/hear/read.

12.  The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperity by Jeffrey D. Sachs. I heard Sachs, a professor of health policy and management and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, speak on MPR, and I spent most of the hour with goosebumps from his smart, impassioned argument for the restoration of the real American values that made us great in the 20th century. After all the previous books help me get a grip on the scope and details of many problems we currently face, I’ll be ready for his strong restatement of our core values.

13.  Back To Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy by Bill Clinton. Similar to Sachs’ book, but obviously from a very different perspective, Clinton‘s most recent book should offer lots of good suggestions for how to get the country back on track. His work at the Clinton Foundation is on the cutting edge of new global solutions, so I’ll be creating my Debate Watchword Bingo score cards from the key issues he highlights.

THE BEST OF MY 2008 ELECTION YEAR READING LIST

Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill. This exhaustive work by Scahill, a journalist who reports on US foreign policy for media outlets like The Nation and Democracy Now!, ripped the lid off the world of private contractors in the Iraq War with his exhaustive, shocking expose. It’s impossible to understand our current foreign policy without understanding the role of privatization post-9/11, and this book is as relevant now as it ever was.

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein. This book made a huge splash for a very good reason–Klein exposed the practices and policies that make people and nations very rich by whipping up fake disasters that turn into real ones. I’m so glad to have read this before terms like “shortselling” and “credit default swaps” came on the market. It also gave me an entirely new perspective on the tumultuous history of South America.

What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America by Thomas Frank. If you’ve ever wondered why Red States are SO RED, despite policies by their elected politicians that seem determined to destroy the very middle-class, salt-of-the-earth workers who elect them year after year, this is your book. Frank demonstrates with grace and humor the ways in which conservatives have tapped into good heartland values and twisted them into bogeymen and puppet strings that work way too well for anyone’s comfort.

The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria. Don’t let the title put your back up. Zakaria–columnist,editor-in-chief of Newsweek International, and host of the only dedicated foreign affairs TV news shows today–provides a great, crunchy exploration of the ways in which countries like India and China have moved into modern positions of global power, following very different paths than the one America took. His analysis of global trends is really second to none.

Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War by Andrew Bacevich. Written by a retired Army career officer, now professor of international relations at Boston University and Huffington Post columnist, this book would be great to read alongside Rachel Maddow’s newer contribution. Bacevich also explores the ways in which the war industry pushes us to engage in conflicts around the world that are actually against our national self-interest.

 

May 11, 2012 - Literature    No Comments

Fun with Guest Posting!

So, one of my best friends in the whole wide world has an awesome new blog called Reads4Tweens. Amanda Valentine started R4T to give parents of precocious pre-teens a resource for honest, spoiler-filled reviews of kids’ and YA literature. While these kids can read far beyond their grade level, a lot of those books contain themes and events that they might not be prepared to confront, at least not without the help of a parent.

One of those themes is death. In fact, death comes up in kids’ lit a whole lot more than anyone would expect. Some of those deaths are so pointless, or such obvious mechanics for propping up saggy plot details, that Amanda ran a Gratuitous Deaths Week at R4T. But, by way of countering the truly egregious examples, I offered up a guest post about a shocking, but well-done and important, death in one of the all-time great YA lit series, Anne of Green Gables.

You can read my post here, and while you’re there, be sure to take a look around–the whole site is full of great stuff! Also, if you’ve ever got a subject you’d like my particular take on, feel free to propose it as a topic for a guest post. I’ll link your blog from mine, and all that so-called “optimization” will take place!

Apr 13, 2012 - AV Club    1 Comment

Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, Part III

So, Friday Night Lists is a good intention, and even after this last installment of my Dinner Guests series, I’ll be keeping it up (so suggest topics for lists you’d like to see!), but here’s the thing about Friday night: If I’ve been singlemomming since oh-dark-early Thursday morning, my Friday night “WOO HOO” excitement is sneaking an ice cream bar over the kitchen sink before crashing into bed at 8.30. (More on this subject in another post.)

This list was perhaps the hardest of all three to write, because some of my favorite characters from film or fiction just wouldn’t make good dinner guests or conversationalists. I mean, need I cite passages of Katniss’ table conversation, or post the video of Denethor eating? (Not that I like Denethor, just to be clear.) But that’s why you won’t find Gamera on my list, much as I love him. Other favorite characters are not included because I would prefer to host them in more intimate settings (I’m looking at you, Frank N. Furter).

I’ve included pictures of those characters for which there are photos/clips or official pictures from things like dust jackets. In a couple of cases, though, with book characters, I’ve chosen not to post a picture. I’m a really visual reader, and I prefer to keep my pictures in my head uncontaminated by other people’s faces as long as possible.

As always with my Friday Night Lists, please add your own in comments!

MY FICTIONAL GUESTS

  • Barbara Gordon: daughter of Police Commissioner James Gordon; Batgirl; Oracle. Her evolution just takes her from one powerful female rolemodel to another. (Batman)
  • Death: one of The Endless. Her gentle manner is an aspect of the most inescapable of all fates that both frightens and comforts. (The Sandman)
  • Dr. Sheldon Cooper: theoretical physicist; super-genius. Some may find him abrasive, insulting, and annoying. I just find him familiar. Plus, I want to see my next guest make his eye twitch. (The Big Bang Theory
  • Harry Dresden: wizard-for-hire. One of my best friends, Jim Butcher, invented this wry, embattled, deeply human character, and plopped him in a high-wire act of a life. I just want to feed the man one good, homecooked meal without someone shooting at him. (The Dresden Files)
  • Iorek Byrnison: king of the Panserbjorne. I’m sure he’s a lovely conversationalist, especially with the voice of Sir Ian McKellan, but I mostly just want to cuddle with him. (His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman)
  • Jamie & Claire Fraser: Scottish rebel, American colonist; WWII nurse, time-traveller, healer, surgeon. One of my two favorite couples in all literature. It’s hard to explain, but I hunger for news of them like they’re family. (Outlander by Diana Gabaldon)
  • Jed Bartlet: president of the United States. He’s the president every liberal dreams of; it helps that he gets his lines from Aaron Sorkin and his gravitas from Martin Sheen. (The West Wing)
  • Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes: detectives. My other favorite couple in literature. A man of boggling intellect, the more recent incarnation with a strong, smart wife and partner only makes him more interesting. While my first Holmesian love will always be Doyle’s erratic, exuberant, brilliant misanthrope, I I think I may like Laurie King’s older, steadier, but just as adventurous and insightful version. (Mary Russell novels by Laurie R. King)
  • Phineas & Ferb: brilliant inventor kids. Just because I want to see what they’d come up with for dessert, and how it would disappear before their mom arrived. (Phineas & Ferb)
  • Diana Bishop: historian; witch. She embodies the dichotomy of science and magic, power and restraint, reason and passion. I want to read manuscripts and cast spells with her. (A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness)
  • The 10th Doctor: Time Lord; explorer. My favorite Doctor for so many reasons. I’d have him to dinner just to give the man a rest from all the running. (Doctor Who)
Mar 14, 2012 - Literature, World Religions    2 Comments

Some Facts About Fantasy

Connor, Cam, and I snuck off to see John Carter this weekend. Griffin, refusing to fall in with the family-wide cinephilia, couldn’t care less about the whole theater experience; he downright hates 3D movies–they give him horrible headaches. So we unceremoniously dumped him at a friend’s house, and the three of us reveled in two hours of pulpy fantasy goodness.

Reviewers have widely panned the movie as a “big-budget fiasco” and “the year’s first mega-disaster.” A few, like RopeOfSilicon.com’s Brad Brevet, not only took the movie at its popcorny fun face value, but also put the movie’s influences in the correct order–when the Guardian claimed that director Andrew Stanton must have pitched Disney with “Star Wars meets Avatar,” that reviewer made the same error as someone claiming that The Beatles were just rip-offs of Oasis. Brevet explains, “Throughout the history of cinema several sci-fi films have been inspired by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Burroughs created the character of John Carter in 1912 and his stories have influenced a generation of filmmakers including George Lucas, James Cameron and Steven Spielberg. So if you see bits of Star WarsAvatar and Indiana Jones inside John Carter don’t be surprised.” And, as a parent, this film adaptation passes the most important test–it had Connor scouring the shelves of our local Half Price Books so he could read the Barsoom series for himself.

This certainly isn’t the first time in recent years that a book or movie seems to have gotten the short end of the critical stick, just for being science fiction or fantasy. When George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire was adapted as an HBO miniseries last year, NYT critic Ginia Bellafante turned her nose up at “the universe of dwarfs, armor, wenches, braids, loincloth,” and suggested that “normal” women would never choose to read or watch such a series, thus triggering righteous floods of nerdrage.

Bellafante (mostly) got away with these statements because fantasy has been increasingly marginalized in Western culture since the Enlightenment, relegated primarily to juvenile literature. No, obviously I’m not saying that only children read fantasy–duh, I read fantasy, folks. But part of why adults who read fantasy find themselves as the butt of abuse or jokes is because fantasy is something society expects us to outgrow. Think about one of the most common insulting stereotypes levied at sci-fi/fantasy fans: that they never leave home, never grow up, never get out of their parents’ basement.

[WARNING: I'm about to go all pedagogical on you here. I'll provide links where I can, but it's not meant to be a research paper.]

The secret about fantasy that most folks don’t know is that it was the most popular form of literature for centuries before the Enlightenment. “How could that be?” you may ask. “Wasn’t the pre-modern period dominated by the Catholic Church?” Yes, but here’s the twist–the Church was the primary purveyor of fantasy literature throughout the Middle Ages. They delivered it in the form of hagiography, or the genre of writing known as Saints’ Lives. Sure, these stories of good and righteous models of Christian values were important teaching tools for Church history and theological principals to a largely illiterate population, but if it had been all morals and no miracles, medieval listeners would’ve zoned out like the rest of us do during lectures.

This mosaic depicts the martyrdom of St Edmund: (top L) surviving total perforation; (top R) Danes searching for the missing head; (bottom L) wolf guarding Ed's head; (bottom R) followers discover a restored and uncorrupted body upon translation of relics

Instead, Church writers folded in fantasy elements that modern readers would easily recognize: superhuman strength and endurance, monstrous beasts, mysterious lands, cosmic convergences, even the walking dead. For instance, Saints Anthony of Padua and Francis Xavier, among many others, were said to have bilocated, or appeared in two places at the same time, and Saint Collette foretold the future. When Saint Edmund was beheaded by the Danes, some versions of his Saint’s Life say that the head rolled away into the underbrush of a nearby forest, and was only found when his devoted subjects followed the howls of a wolf and found the animal calmly guarding the head from other predators. In other versions, it’s Edmund’s own decapitated body that plucks the missing head from its hiding place.

Even in this Christian icon, notice that the bowl of fire is the most prominent of Saint Brigid's symbols.

Woodcut depicting St Brendan and his companions celebrating Easter Mass on the whale's back. Yes, we now know that whales don't look like that.

Irish monks in particular, with their country’s millenia-old tradition of fantastical tales of heroes and holy men, had a knack for writing the most wildly imaginative and popular Saints’ Lives. Saint Brigit’s Life carries over many elements from the stories of the pre-Christian fire goddess of the same name, such as an unextinguishable flame at her abbey in Kildare. In tales of her auspicious youth, it’s said that Brigit’s mother had left her in a cradle at home, while she went out to gather sheep. From a distance, she saw a pillar of fire pluming through the roof of the house; panicked, she ran back, only to find the column of flame originating in baby Brigit’s crib, where the child lay happy and unharmed. Saint Brendan’s Voyages (Navigatio Sancti Brendani) included aspects of all great classical voyage literature, such as the Odyssey and the Aenaid. On his way, he encounters a sea monster, various devils, and magical animals. At one point, far out at sea, he wishes aloud that he and his companions could celebrate Easter Mass on solid land. A whale surfaced near their boat, and allowed Brendan and company to hold their services on its back.

Don’t fall for the old trope about the “Dark Ages” and how ignorant and gullible medieval people were, to believe stories like these. There were active debates about the nature of the allegory playing out in these stories, even as they were recopied and retold all across Europe. Medieval listeners could read the subtext in Saints’ Lives as easily as modern fantasy reader can pick up the underlying references and messages in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Hagiographers (writers of Saints’ Lives) included fantastic miracles, not just for entertainment value, but also to demonstrate an important Christian belief–that, through God, anything is possible.

As science developed and evidence-based explanations replaced the old myths and stories by which we interpreted how the world around us worked, miracles and magic gradually retreated from the realm of plausibility (though, to be completely fair, for the vast majority of the population, science was just as impenetrable a mystery as magic). Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic is a detailed, dense, and deeply researched guide to that transition; I can’t recommend it highly enough. Those who accepted tales of the unnatural in defiance of apparent laws of the universe were thought of as gullible, and it was assumed that only people who had no experience of the world–the uneducated lower classes and children–could appreciate or believe fantasy stories.

The need for escapism, though, never went away, and many of the greatest works of modern fantasy were written in (or in response to) periods of social tension, war, and economic hardship. We don’t believe in Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom any more than Tolkien believed in orcs, or medieval readers believed in Brendan’s sea monster. But a good story can make a bad situation better, even if only for the hours you spend in a darkened theater or sunk in a book. It’s no surprise that, following 9/11 and the economic crash, we’re suddenly awash in brilliant, compelling fantasy that both pays homage to and breaks down motifs that spring directly from pre-Christian mythology and medieval hagiography. And if it’s good for nothing more than a popcorn-munching, visually appealing (helloooo, Taylor Kitsch and Lynn Collins) brain break…well, we’re just following in our ancestors’ fantastic footsteps.

 

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