Underworld: Awakening and the great gender swap

I finally caught up with Underworld: Awakening, a movie I'd put off seeing because I liked the first two Underworld films so much. Although technically the fourth in the series, chronologically it follows the second (the third was a totally unnecessary prequel), and picks up the story of Kate Beckinsale's Selene after the events of Underworld: Evolutions. Why, if I'm Read more

Blade Runner: crocodile tears in rain?

I'll say up front: this is totally fanboy rambling.  Take it as such. In Ridley Scott's classic film Blade Runner, evil corporate head Elton Tyrell explains to hero Rick Deckard how the Nexus 6 replicants, the closest the company's come to true human beings, have emotional issues since they're born fully adult and live only four years. Tyrell: We began to Read more

High Hopes: is talent finite?

This weekend, I finally listened to High Hopes, the most recent Bruce Springsteen album. Yes, it came out on January 14, and I bought it then, but I hadn't listened to it. There  were many times when I listened to a new Springsteen album multiple times on its release day, and almost exclusively for days after that. But something's happened to Read more

Some thoughts on a Star Trek rewatch

  My oldest son and I just finished watching the first season of the original Star Trek series. We watched the episodes in "production order," meaning the order in which they were filmed. That way, we could see the growth of the show, the way the actors find their characters, and how the Enterprise itself is more and more developed. Read more

Writing on demand for MY BLOODY VALENTINE

Every writer has at least one weakness, something they don't do as well as they'd like. They know it, and their readers know it. Raymond Chandler knew he didn't do plots well, which is why the structures of his novels a) don't bear up to scrutiny, and b) are often cribbed from his previous short stories. Of course, what Read more

Underworld: Awakening and the great gender swap

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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I finally caught up with Underworld: Awakening, a movie I’d put off seeing because I liked the first two Underworld films so much. Although technically the fourth in the series, chronologically it follows the second (the third was a totally unnecessary prequel), and picks up the story of Kate Beckinsale’s Selene after the events of Underworld: Evolutions.

Why, if I’m such a fan of the series, wasn’t I there opening night? Mainly because of the history of genre threequels.

The litany of sucky third films in SF/Fantasy franchises is legendary: Superman III, Batman Forever, Spider-Man 3, X-Men 3: The Last Stand, Men in Black 3, The Dark Knight Rises. Each of them built on the artistic and commercial success of the previous two films by coming up with shallow, convoluted and ultimately awful continuations. It doesn’t seem to matter if new creative blood came in, or if the same hands continued the series. Something about third films just spells disaster.

Underworld: Awakening isn’t a classic, but it’s a lot better than the mainstream reviewers (who also hated the others) would have you believe. It’s short (89 minutes according to the blu-ray box), and the absence of Scott Speedman’s Michael as a major character throws the story askew. Director Len Wiseman has been replaced by  Måns Mårlind and Björn Stein , two Swedes who apparently directed on alternate days (hey, whatever works).

But it preserves the most crucial thing about the first two films: Selene is the template for the total gender reversal of the male action hero. All those Hollywood nabobs who can’t seem to get a handle on how to approach Wonder Woman need look no farther than here.

I first wrote about this in an earlier blog post, but in Underworld: Awakening the ideas are developed in surprisingly new ways. Selene discovers that she’s a mother: Eve (India Eisley), her twelve-year-old daughter, was born while the humans had Selene in suspended animation. For Selene to suddenly be confronted with motherhood is a fairly brilliant step, and it’s handled very well. It allows her to be even more vicious than before, because now it’s not just her own life she’s fighting to preserve.

Maternity does not interfere with kickassery.

Maternity does not interfere with kickassery.

And it doesn’t come at the expense of her character. Selene still occupies the role in the narrative that has traditionally belonged to male characters. She has agency, self-determination and the defining decisions in the plot. She saves and rescues both female and male characters, the latter filling the traditional “girl” role. Nowhere is that more clear than in a brief scene where Selene tells the handsome, studly young vampire David (Theo James) that she’s leaving with Eve to continue the fight elsewhere. He begs, “Take me with you,” a line that’s so traditionally a woman’s that it should jar us out of the moment. But because Selene has been established so well, and is handled so consistently, it passes seamlessly, and only later do you realize how extraordinary it really is.

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In the Underworld universe, the damsels in distress have five o’clock shadow.

As long as this continues–as long as Underworld continues its trend of total gender reversal without making that the whole point of the story, and thus going from entertainment to didacticism–I’ll continue being a fan. And I’ll continue pointing to it as the least likely, but most accomplished, feminist action series around.

Blade Runner: crocodile tears in rain?

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

I’ll say up front: this is totally fanboy rambling.  Take it as such.

In Ridley Scott’s classic film Blade Runner, evil corporate head Elton Tyrell explains to hero Rick Deckard how the Nexus 6 replicants, the closest the company’s come to true human beings, have emotional issues since they’re born fully adult and live only four years.

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Joe Turkel as Tyrell.

Tyrell: We began to recognize in them a strange obsession. After all, they are emotionally inexperienced, with only a few years in which to store up the experiences which you and I take for granted. If we gift them with a past, we create a cushion or a pillow for their emotions, and consequently, we can control them better.

Deckard: Memories. You’re talking about memories.

This is established through the character of Rachel, a replicant who believes she’s a human being.

Now, flash forward to the end of the film, to Roy Batty’s famous speech (written by actor Rutger Hauer).

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Rutger Hauer as Batty.

Batty: I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time… like tears in rain.

This is justly considered one of the highlights of SF cinema, and one of the great bits of cinema dialogue, period.  It points up the tragedy of the replicants, doomed to short and terrible lives.

Except…

Tyrell says they give the Nexus 6 memory cushions.

Roy Batty is a Nexus 6.

So…what if these memories never really happened?  

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Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh) and Deckard (Harrison Ford).

In Deckard’s briefing, Bryant says about Batty, “Combat model. Optimum self-sufficiency.”  What better memories to implant in a replicant destined for combat than thoughts of other battles he’s won, or at least survived.  What if Batty has never seen actual combat, but only believes he has?  And that reinforces the parallel stories of Deckard and Batty, especially given what Deckard finds out about himself when he sees Gaff’s final gift outside his apartment.

I have no idea if anyone else has ever noticed this, but it struck me this morning.  Any obsessive Blade Runner fans out there?  Leave your two cents in the comments.

 

 

High Hopes: is talent finite?

Posted on by Alex in Bruce Springsteen, creativity, fans, Horror Films, John Carpenter, music, old people, pop culture, release date, tennessee | 11 Comments

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This weekend, I finally listened to High Hopes, the most recent Bruce Springsteen album. Yes, it came out on January 14, and I bought it then, but I hadn’t listened to it. There  were many times when I listened to a new Springsteen album multiple times on its release day, and almost exclusively for days after that.

But something’s happened to Bruce. Or to me.

I should say that I’ve been a Springsteen fan since I first heard “Rosalita” as a twelve-year-old back in Tennessee. I was in college when Born in the USA made him a superstar, and I’ve seen him in concert multiple times, with the E Street Band, the ’92 “alternate” band, the Sessions Band, and as a solo performer. I own all his legitimate releases, and a fair stack of bootlegs.

And yet…

His last album, 2012′s Wrecking Ball, was the first time I felt like he was singing at me instead of to me, or for me. The new Celtic and overt gospel influences couldn’t disguise that these songs just lacked…something. And the re-recording of “Land of Hopes and Dreams,” released in a definitive version on the Live in New York City album in 2000, was simply unnecessary, as if he needed something to fill out the album (I’m not saying this was the case, just that, to me as a listener, it felt that way).

And now we get High Hopes.

Even the title track has been released before, back in 1995 as part of the Blood Brothers documentary package. “American Skin (41 Shots)” was part of the same Live in New York City album mentioned above, and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” was the title track of his Grammy-winning 1995 album. So right off the bat, there are three songs that we’ve heard before in landmark original versions. Yes, these are new versions, livened up by Tom (Rage in the Machine) Morello’s guitar solos, and certainly there’s no lack of commitment to the performances. But it’s also the equivalent of hearing stories we already know instead of new ones.

Which leads to the question: what’s the point of the album?

My friend Melissa Olson, author of Dead Spots and Trail of Dead, once said that she thought some artists might just have a finite amount of art in them. This was apropos of director John Carpenter, whose work has certainly showed a decline, although I remain a fan (yes, even of his most recent film The Ward). I would never have thought this of Bruce, but perhaps it’s the case. Maybe the Boss has reached artistic retirement age. Certainly his last couple of concert tours have been more about preaching to the choir than converting new followers, a celebration of past glory days (heh) more than a forging of new ones. And maybe, at 64, that’s to be expected. But I’d hoped to follow him into the twilight with the same fervor I felt when he led me into adulthood.

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Filmmaker John Carpenter. Does he have any mojo left?

And, since I’m not exactly young myself (nor old, I should add), I wonder with each new book if the same thing might happen to me. I don’t want to keep going past my sell-by date, artistically speaking. But will I know when I reach it?

So what do you think? Is there a finite amount of creativity and art in every artist?

Some thoughts on a Star Trek rewatch

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

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My oldest son and I just finished watching the first season of the original Star Trek series. We watched the episodes in “production order,” meaning the order in which they were filmed. That way, we could see the growth of the show, the way the actors find their characters, and how the Enterprise itself is more and more developed. Here, then, are some observations.

1) William Shatner hits the ground running as Kirk.

It takes most actors a while to find their characters. Leonard Nimoy doesn’t really nail Spock until several episodes in, which is understandable since no one had ever quite done a character like that before. But Shatner is the Kirk we know and love from his first episode, “Where No Man Has Gone Before.”

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The most surprising thing I noticed this time through the first season is how often Kirk loses his temper in a crisis. It’s never an explosion of violent anger, but he snaps at his people a lot. To his credit, he also (usually) immediately apologizes, but for the first time I got the sense that serving with Kirk might not be that much fun.

2)  The Enterprise was not always terribly thought out.

In “The Enemy Within,” Mr. Sulu and his team are stuck on a planet’s surface by a transporter malfunction, in danger of freezing to death. Subsequent episodes reveal that the Enterprise has a fleet of shuttlecraft (they first show up in “The Galileo Seven”), yet apparently at this point no one had thought of them, because simply flying down and picking them up is never mentioned as an option.

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3) Hi-def does the show no real favors.

We watched the episodes on blu-ray, which includes the option for new CGI effects shots. I’m ambivalent about them; they don’t bother me, and they let “modern” viewers (like my son) get into the show without the jarringly grainy, old-school effects. But the non-effects shots are not tweaked. Wrinkles on the paper bridge screen inserts jump out at you, there are obvious stray threads on the costumes, and you can occasionally see Kirk’s command chair shake when someone walks nearby on the bridge.

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This is supposed to be Kirk and Khan. How bad was TV reception back then?

But by far the most egregious thing are the stuntmen. In many fight scenes, Shatner and company are replaced in long shots by professionals; in the 1960s, when TVs were smaller and broadcast signals were analog, this probably wasn’t too noticeable.  But on big-screen TVs, in 1080p, there’s simply no missing it.

And finally,

4) The crew of the Enterprise are adults.

This may seem obvious, but I’m not talking about biological age. There’s an inherent maturity to the characters, in their responses and dilemmas, that marks them as grown-ups. Each of them has chosen their career in Starfleet because they believe in what they do, and want to do it to the best of their abilities. There are few slackers in Roddenberry’s Trek, no corruption in high places, and even when characters disagree and lose their tempers, they do so as adults. Even Kirk’s notorious way with the ladies isn’t depicted as anything immature; he simply likes women and is willing to spend time with them, but only when his job allows. In the whole first season, he has only one real romance; the cliche womanizing Kirk doesn’t show up until much later in the series. Contrast this with the immature, entitled “bro” Kirk of JJ Abrams’ films, who may chronologically be an adult but displays the emotional life of a seventeen-year-old.

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I’m glad my son wants to watch Star Trek; I’m looking forward to starting season 2 with him. It’ll be interesting to see if his opinions match mine (his favorites from season 1 are “Shore Leave” and “The Devil in the Dark,” both respectable choices).

Writing on demand for MY BLOODY VALENTINE

Posted on by Alex in anthology, eBook sale, Firefly Witch, short stories, writers, writing | 2 Comments

Every writer has at least one weakness, something they don’t do as well as they’d like. They know it, and their readers know it. Raymond Chandler knew he didn’t do plots well, which is why the structures of his novels a) don’t bear up to scrutiny, and b) are often cribbed from his previous short stories. Of course, what he did do well, he did so well that no one minded what he couldn’t do. As critic Robin Wood famously said, “who cares who killed Owen Taylor?”*

My problem has always been writing on demand.

By that, I mean responding when someone says, “Write a story about dogs,” or, “Write a story set in Montana.” My own skills don’t work that way; I need time to puzzle over ideas and let them develop organically. I have no problem writing about dogs, or Montana, or even dogs in Montana. But I need time to work my way into it on my own.

Which is why, whenever I get asked to contribute to an anthology, I try to do it. Because the only way over these sticking points is through them.

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When the editors of My Bloody Valentine said they needed a story a) of about 15,000 words, b) about love, and c) with the opening words, “Love hurts,” I was intrigued, and a little intimidated. When they told me how quickly they needed it, I was a lot intimidated.

Beyond the problems I mentioned above, there was a third issue: I’d never written anything that clocked in at 15,000 words. My short stories average between 3-7K words, and my novels at around 90K. 50K is novella territory, new ground for me. As Stephen King says, the novella is “an ill-defined and disreputable literary banana republic.”

But the folks doing the anthology were the same one who publish my “Firefly Witch” stories, so I felt I owed them an honest shot. And I decided that I’d make this a Firefly Witch story as well, so that at least I’d be working with characters I knew.

I thought about the stories I’d written about these characters, and what aspects of them I hadn’t explored so far. I realized I’d often mentioned that Tanna taught college, but hadn’t really shown her functioning as a teacher. With that as a starting point, I wrote about an investigation into a haunting that doesn’t go as planned, and as I wrote, the rest of the characters filled out the plot and gave me plenty of material to work with. It was a near thing–I think I hit the deadline on the day, and my word count was just…barely…15K, but it worked. The editors liked it and picked it for the anthology.

And you can read that story, “Tantrabobus,” along with seven other stories from a variety of writers and genres, in the ebook anthology My Bloody Valentine, available now from Story Vault. You can get it from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. for only $2.99 for a limited time. And if you do pick it up, please leave an honest review at the site of your choice!

*for the record, it’s a plot point from The Big Sleep, and it’s never really clear.  The only explanation that even works is that Taylor committed suicide, which makes about as much sense in context as it does right here.

Help fund Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae

Posted on by Alex in faeries, folk music, fundraiser, Hum and the Shiver, music, tennessee, Tufa, Wisp of a Thing, writers | 1 Comment

One of the best perks about being a writer is that you get to meet other artists. Most of them are fellow writers, but I’m lucky enough to also count visual artists, filmmakers, and musicians among my friends. I’ve connected with many of them through art, either theirs or mine, as well as through social gatherings like conventions and workshops.

And sometimes, these connections turn into something you never expected.

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In May of 2013, I first met the members of the band Tuatha Dea. Having written two novels about the Tufa, a race of musicians descended from Old World faeries and currently living in Appalachia, you can imagine my surprise at finding a band named after the fae (known in some circles as the “Tuatha De Danaan,” a.k.a. the “Children of Dana”), based in Appalachia (Gatlinburg, TN, to be precise), who perform the kind of Celtic-influenced music I always imagined my Tufa might play. There’s luck, then there’s serendipity, then there’s just plain astounding coincidence. I think meeting this band was a little bit of all three.

But that’s not the best thing. After reading my books, they came to me with an astounding proposition: they wanted to do an EP of original songs based on my Tufa series, titled Tufa Tales: Appalachian Fae.

I couldn’t turn down a chance to hear what this band–and they’re a great band–might do with this idea. So I gave the project my blessing. And I have no stake in this; the band is doing it entirely independently. I’m like everyone else, just waiting to hear what they come up with.

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And this is where you can help. To finance the CD, they’re running an IndieGoGo campaign. As with all such crowd funding, any amount is helpful. So if you like my novels, and you ever wondered what a modern Tufa band might sound like, then please consider helping Tuatha Dea get this project off the ground.

You can find out more about the project here. Watch the video, learn about the band, and consider helping out.

Oh, and you should definitely go to ReverbNation and check out their music. In fact, the song “Hypocritical Mass,” that you can stream from this site, might just turn up in a future Tufa novel….

And here’s a rough live version of their song, “The Hum and the Shiver,” that will be on the CD.

The Secrets of Writing Action Scenes

Posted on by Alex in Eddie LaCrosse, writers, writing | 8 Comments

200px-HeirToTheEmpireBack in 1991, Timothy Zahn rejuvenated the Star Wars franchise with Heir to the Empire, the first new, non-comic Star Wars tale since the end of the first trilogy. Like every SW fan, I devoured it, but I remember thinking that although Zahn nailed the characters, he totally blew the battle scenes. The reason was simple: what takes seconds to show in film can take pages to describe in prose. By trying to replicate the action of the movies, he created those vast blocks of gray text that readers skim, violating one of Elmore Leonard’s prime rules: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”

When I began to write the Eddie LaCrosse novels, I remembered how I’d felt about Zahn’s action scenes, and so thought about how I wanted to do mine. It took a while, but I finally realized the obvious thing about action scenes in prose: they have the same job as everything else. They have to advance the plot, and reveal character. If they don’t do at least one of these things, then they’re extraneous at best, boring at worst. And readers will skip them.

There’s a lot of action–fights, chases, even occasionally battles–in the Eddie LaCrosse novels. The point of view helps a lot: everything is in first-person, so there’s no question of what perspective to emphasize. If Eddie doesn’t experience it, it doesn’t get mentioned.

But Eddie is also a very specific character. He’s experienced, but he’s a bit past his prime, and he tends to either win his fights very quickly, or choose not to fight at all if he thinks he’s overmatched. Because he’s seen so much, he often compares his current fight with something from his past, often employing techniques that worked before. When I write an action scene, I have to keep all this in mind.

Further, there are the physical sensations of the fight. The muscles used to swing a sword, or to parry a blow, are specific and, to most of us, a bit unusual. I’ve taken fencing and sword-fighting classes to get an idea of how it feels, and yes, at times I act out what I’m about to write to see if there’s some interesting detail I might have overlooked. Luckily my office is on the third floor, so the neighbors don’t have to see me jumping around.

Dark Jenny cover

It’s also important to remember that things we might see in TV and the movies don’t always go that way in real life. For example, in Dark Jenny, Eddie punches somebody in anger, and it messes up his hand for the rest of the book. This was inspired by the incident of director Howard Hawks punching Ernest Hemingway: “I hit Hemingway, and I broke the whole back of my hand.” (Joseph McBride, Hawks on Hawks, p. 37.)  My own experience with punches is thankfully limited to adolescence, but I do remember that it hurt, something that you don’t see or read about in most fight scenes.*

A personal peeve of mine is the idea that someone can be harmlessly “knocked out,” often more than once, with no long-term consequences. A quick pop to the head and that’s it; you wake up later, perhaps with a bit of a headache but otherwise none the worse for wear. That is, frankly, bullshit. As the recent NFL controversy has shown, repeated blows to the head accrue damage over time; just look at Muhammed Ali these days, for another example. If your hero gets clocked more than once, you need to think about what that means beyond a simple plot point. As an example, in Burn Me Deadly, Eddie is beaten up and knocked out at the start of the book, and spends a fair bit of time recovering.

So those are some aspects of my approach to writing action scenes. What action scenes do you like, and which ones ring false? And thanks to @INCspotlight for suggesting this topic on Twitter.

*the only other time I recall seeing this in a movie was in the original M*A*S*H, when Trapper John (Elliot Gould) hits Frank Burns (Robert Duvall) and clearly hurts his hand.

Tropology: Heroes and Girlfriends

Posted on by Alex in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

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It’s a common trope in novel series that the tough-guy hero who solves mysteries and kicks ass will get a new love interest each time out. The gold standard, of course, is James Bond, who often gets several new women in every book or movie. But it goes all the way back to The Odyssey, in which Odysseus manages to rack up time with both Circe and Calypso as he works his way back home to Penelope. Even Philip Marlowe, the greatest literary detective of all, sarcasms his way through a bevy of ladies until, in the unfinished novel Poodle Springs, he finally decides to marry one.

"YOLO, Odysseus. YOLO."

“YOLO, Odysseus. YOLO.”

When I created Eddie LaCrosse, I had two choices: I could make him a womanizer, like these others (although perhaps more in the tradition of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee, who was always up front with his lady friends about what they could expect from him); or I could give him a steady partner, a wife or a girlfriend who would be a constant throughout the series.

The James Bond model is attractive, especially as wish-fulfillment. The idea of having the most beautiful girls in the world available with merely a glance is a teenage boy’s dream. And that, ultimately, is the problem: it’s a boy’s view of relationships, a glorification of immaturity. But it’s also the standard trope in detective fiction, which is one of the genres the Eddie LaCrosse novels embody. Luckily, though, it’s not the only trope.

Nick and Nora Charles, of Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, are brilliant, funny, and most important, totally devoted to each other. Each makes crucial discoveries toward solving the mystery of what happened to Clyde Wynant (the actual “thin man” of the title), but most importantly, Hammett shows how much they simply love each other’s company. Spenser and Susan, from Robert B. Parker’s series, mirror the creator’s experiences with his wife (even splitting up at a time when the Parkers were struggling), eventually becoming one of the series’ solid, unshakable relationships, and a big reason readers kept coming back.

"Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws."

“You got a type?”
“Only you, darling. Lanky brunettes with wicked jaws.”

And that’s ultimately the trope I decided to use.

In the first Eddie LaCrosse novel, The Sword-Edged Blonde, Liz Dumont is introduced at the end, although she has ties to the earlier story (you’ll have to read the book to find out what they are). In the second book, Burn Me Deadly, she becomes a full-fledged main character, and she’s there in supporting roles in both Dark Jenny and Wake of the Bloody Angel. Now, in the newest novel, He Drank, and Saw the Spider, she’s back to prominence as a major force in the story, right there beside Eddie with her own share of quips, compassion and action.

I adore Liz. I think she’s funny, sexy, and exactly the kind of woman any man would want at his side. I try to make it clear that Eddie adores her, too, and would never do anything to jeopardize the relationship (which limits me in telling stories where he might meet a new love interest, but as Dark Jenny  showed, there are always work-arounds).

Still, there are issues. Foremost is the Joss Whedon/George RR Martin gambit, the idea that at any point I could kill Liz off as a way to motivate Eddie. That’s a Women in Refrigerators trope; nothing supposedly motivates a hero like revenge for the death of a loved one (or even just a liked one, as in the film version of The Avengers). But beyond any gender issues, that also strikes me as a sign of immature storytelling, as much a wish fulfillment as James Bond’s sexual conquests.

So that’s why I’ve frequently, and publicly, promised my readers this: that Liz will never die simply to motivate Eddie. She will not be killed by the villains, she will not die tragically saving Eddie’s life, and she will certainly not be stuffed in the secondary-world equivalent of a refrigerator for him to gruesomely find. I don’t want readers who, like me, find Liz delightful company to ever dread my next book.

So when you read He Drank, and Saw the Spider, I hope among other things that you enjoy hanging out with Eddie and Liz.  I like them both, I like writing them together, and I hope that comes through.

 

Guest blog: Melissa Banigan on new anthology

Posted on by Alex in fundraiser, guest blog, writers, writing | 1 Comment

Author and friend Melissa Banigan is creating an amazing anthology called Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self. I’ve invited her to talk about it here, and at the end is information about how you can contribute.–A.B.

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For many months, I’ve veered away from writing adult and middle grade fiction dystopian and fantasy novels to focus on editing an anthology of non-fiction advice letters for teen girls called Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self. Written by fifty women of different cultures living in countries around the world, the collection of letters, once completed and published, will serve as a guidebook for young women entering womanhood.

Fellow writers have been asking: why edit a non-fiction anthology by women for girls? Why not stick to fiction? The answer is simple: I see a lot of parallels between the poverty, suffering and inequality found in dystopian fiction and the real-life stories of women living right here in our world.

Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, tells of a future North America in which women have been stripped of their rights by a totalitarian Christian theocracy. After a revolution in which a movement called the “Sons of Jacob” takes power, the novel’s main protagonist, a woman named Offred, is forbidden to read, no longer allowed governance of her own finances, and is taken from her family to be given as a concubine (“handmaid”) for reproductive purposes to a commander of the movement.

Unfortunately, real-life North America, despite making long, feminist strides, also allows woman to be oppressed. Economically, women still make much less than men, and are discriminated against daily in both their professional and personal lives. Women and family health is not supported by all government health programs and insurance companies, the media sexualizes rather than empowers females, rapists and sexual offenders are often punished less than criminals who harm animals, and beauty has become so wrapped up with many girls’ notions of self-worth that diseases such as anorexia have become almost normalized.

Gender inequality isn’t just a North American problem, but global. In many nations, females are subjected to genital mutilation, are forced to marry while still young girls, and are sold in the sex trade. Poverty disproportionally affects women and children, and war and genocide, while equally affecting men, women and children, leaves more women than men to pick up the pieces, often with no governmental or societal support.

Melissa Banigan and her daughter.

Melissa Banigan and her daughter.

Fortunately, where there are victims, there are heroes. I’m finding more and more women who are showing society how true heroes are formed. In both fiction and real life, the formula is this: heroes don’t singlehandedly save the world by welding weapons and winning wars, but on their keen empathetic abilities and willingness to nurture as they collaborate with others.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen, a totally badass, bow and arrow-toting teenage girl, gets thrown into a horrific, bloody game, but survives because rather than only looking out for her own interests, she forms alliances with other young people. Indeed, because of the partnership she forms with one of these people, she is later shown mercy by a boy who, inspired by her compassion, saves her life. The lesson? Compassion and empathy are contagious. People who embody these ideals, even when faced with adversity, can, and will, change the world. Recently, through my work on the Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self anthology, I’ve met many such individuals.

Ponheary Ly, for example, a Cambodian woman who survived the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, submitted a letter to Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self about how she’s since created a foundation that helps thousands of Cambodian children return to school. And Terri O’Connell, a woman born with gender identity disorder who, even while facing discrimination, has become a motorcar racing champion with over 500 races and NASCAR experience under her belt, has done tremendous work in leading the charge against bullying, domestic and gender violence. Jennifer Tress, an author who was told by her husband that the reason he cheated on her was because she “wasn’t pretty enough,” started an entire movement questioning what it means to be beautiful. None of these women did it alone: they shared their vision with others.

My vision for the Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self anthology is that by having teen girls and young women around the world learn how fifty women have overcome adversity, that they will then be inspired to fight the good fight – not with steel, but with words and by forming strong, empathetic relationships.

Help support Advice to My Thirteen-Year-Old Self! Read more about the project and contribute to a time-sensitive crowdsourcing campaign that will enable the anthology to be finished by April. Even a dollar helps!

Book Review: Belushi a Biography

Posted on by Alex in music, reviews, writing | 1 Comment

A lot of people probably don’t remember John Belushi, but he accomplished the rare trifecta of simultaneously having the number one TV show (“Saturday Night Live”), number one movie (National Lampoon’s Animal House) and number one album (“Briefcase Full of Blues” by the Blues Brothers). He remains a unique figure in American popular culture, both for the way he lived and the way he died.

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I was a college freshman when he passed away from a drug overdose in 1982. My whole idea of college, in fact, was formed by Animal House, and I did the best I could to live up to that, to my detriment. I even dated a girl who named her dog Belushi, which she shortened to “Booshy” (one reason we quit dating).

So Belushi, beyond his skill as a performer, represented something to me and my generation. Each generation has a similar tragic icon, from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain, but those figures always seemed to end up on pedestals; Belushi, on the other hand, seemed to be someone you could approach if you happened to encounter him. Dan Aykroyd called him, “America’s guest.”

In 1984, two years after Belushi’s death, Bob Woodward–half of Woodward and Bernstein, of All the President’s Men fame–wrote Wired: the Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi. It painted a vivid picture of late 70s/early 80s drug use among celebrities, and pissed off pretty much everyone involved in Belushi’s life. That’s understandable: it focused on everything but the things that made Belushi memorable. Still, it’s a great book as a time capsule, and Woodward managed to get the cooperation of everyone involved in Belushi’s life. (If you can find it, there’s also a movie version, starring Michael Chiklis of “The Shield” as Belushi; it’s not good by any means, but it’s the kind of surreal disaster that has its own entertainment value.)

In 1990, Belushi’s wife Judy wrote the touching memoir Samurai Widow, about life after her husband’s death. And “The Best of John Belushi,” from his years on Saturday Night Live, is a great DVD primer on what made him a star in the first place.

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But if you want to know what Belushi was like, and why his loss was indeed a tragedy, you need to seek out the 2005 coffee table book Belushi. It consists entirely of comments and interviews with people who knew him, from his family to co-stars. In fact, the only notable absence is Robert De Niro, who saw Belushi on his last day. It’s also loaded with terrific photos. I’ve had it on my shelf for a couple of years, but I’ve tap-danced around it, because I was pretty sure of the effect it would have. But over these Christmas holidays, I finally read it.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great book. But it’s not an easy book, if you’re old enough to remember Belushi in life.

Doom hangs over it from the start, both because the reader knows what’s coming, and so do most of the commenters. It makes the memories of Belushi’s talent and performances that much more touching and vivid. And that’s where this book exceeds Wired: you do get a sense of the mess Belushi made of his life, and the cost to those around him, but you also understand why it mattered, both to them and to the world at large. It dwells far more on his talent and good qualities than it does his flaws. And it accomplishes the thing tragic biography always should: you miss him when he’s gone. You feel his loss the way you would someone you actually knew.

I was in tears by the time I finished. I cried for the loss of this unique talent, for the pain of those around him, and for the time in my own life that he symbolized and encapsulated.

And then I watched The Blues Brothers.