Bad Ass Bitch

“She never forgets a slight, real or imagined. She takes caution for cowardice and dissent for defiance. And she is greedy. Greedy for power, for honor, for love.” – A Dance with Dragons

There are few certainties in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire series: a Stark will act with noble intentions, those who act nobly will be betrayed, and Tyrion Lannister will do something badass mother-fuckerish. One learns from the first novel to love characters at their own risk.

That love for characters is a very delicate line. Jamie Lannister, the cold-hearted warrior feared in A Game of Thrones, becomes beloved in A Storm of Swords. The ambitious treasurer Petyr Baelish goes from pitied to despised in a few short chapters. Sansa Stark, who inadvertently betrayed her loving father, gains reader sympathy as she gains wisdom. No matter the character, no matter the action, the reader can be certain their initial impression will not hold.

Save for Cersei Lannister, Queen Regent of the Seven Kingdoms. For she must always be reviled.

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A Song of Ice and Fire and the companion television series Game of Thrones borders on obsession among my friends and family. Only those who have not read or watched it remain normal. Naturally, there have been discussions and debates over the series’ direction.

One evening, there was a heated discussion over Sansa Stark. Did she deserve sympathy? There was obviously a little to drink and I’m sure the majority of people felt foolish for their contribution. I was struck, afterwards, that this conversation might not be duplicated for Cersei.

Sansa, in the first novel, acted in her own self-interest without regard for her family. But she is 11 when the series begins. There is reason to forgive the selfish actions of a child. As as the series continues her empathy grows. She is shown as redeemable.

Can Cersei, a grown woman who has committed great evil, be worthy of redemption?

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First, I’d like to argue that Cersei is not as evil or selfish as those around her. Yes, she was one of the key figures in the execution of Eddard Stark. She helped murder both her husband and former Hand of the King Jon Arryn. She is cruel to the Stark family, convinces the King to put down Sansa’s direwolf Lady . . . oh, and is complicit in paralyzing Bran Stark.

But Jamie Lannister, her twin and lover, is the one who pushes Bran out the window. He is known as a butcher and fierce warrior, the Kingslayer. Her father, Tywin, massacres Stark forces at a peaceful wedding party. And Tyrion (who I love with all my heart) singlehandedly and knowingly destroys the Greyjoy ships in the Battle of Blackwater Bay.

“But,”  you might reply, “There were all circumstances for each action. We ultimately understand why they committed their sins.”

I would counter, “But we are never given Cersei’s circumstances. Might we say the exact same if we were to hear her side?”

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I absolutely hate Anne Hathaway. I’ve hated her for years. This award season created a festering pustule in my stomach. Those bleached teeth and big eyes were everywhere.

Understand my joy when the world suddenly came against her. Her over-practiced and falsely-humble acceptance speech at the Oscars summoned vitriol from every corner of the country. Now, this sudden and loud rage was routinely questioned in the press. I can concede she does not hurt puppies or babies, probably recycles, pays fairly on her taxes, and has friends that genuinely like her. So, many in the press were asking, why the hell did we hate her?

In this article (http://www.salon.com/2013/02/26/anne_hathaway_hollywoods_most_polarizing_star/ ) from Salon, one reason may be that Anne Hathaway was openly ambitious. She wanted that Oscar and would not let anyone stand in her way. And to see an ambitious woman is unacceptable.

Now, I don’t hate Anne Hathaway because she’s ambitious. I hate her because she’s obnoxious and fake. To hate ambition in a woman is counter to equality. Why is it OK for a man to want an Oscar/CEO job/hot lady and openly pursue this goal, but is unacceptable if this person has a vagina?

Cersei’s ambition parallel to Catelyn’s. Both want their children to be safe, happy, and successful. Both are willing to go to outrageous lengths to ensure their well-being. Is Catelyn’s justified because Cersei is mother to the king?

In one tête-à-tête, Cersei mentions she wanted to be a knight when she was little. She had the heart of a warrior but unfortunately the body of a woman. Jamie, her other half, was able to live this life she desired. The only way she could fight was politically. Even then, Westeros is a land of men. She was only granted access to power because she married into it.

If we hate Cersei for her ambition, isn’t it the same as hating Anne Hathaway for hers? Shouldn’t we hate Anne Hathaway because she’s grown-up Rachael Berry?

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One quick note: it is wrong to hate Cersei for her infidelity. She gave birth to three children that were not the King’s. Let’s not forget the king was openly mourning his love Lyanna when he married Cersei. If there was a contest for how many bastards could be created in Westeros, King Robert won. Theirs was not a marriage of love. One could not be expected to be faithful if the other was not.

Yeah, the whole incestual sleeping-with-her-twin thing is pretty gross. I won’t argue with that.

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A reader can find many connections between the characters. Both Tyrion and Bran are conquering their disabilities. Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen discover power they never knew. Two sides of a coin, both finding conclusions through different means.

As stated above, there are some similarities between Cersei and Catelyn. But that’s the whole “mother” angle.

One argument could pair Cersei and Sansa. Both are women of the court, forced into relationships with men who despise them, controlled by forces out of their control. But I don’t see that link solidified.

Instead, it is my opinion that Cersei is simply a grown-up version of the beloved Arya Stark. How? Arya and Cersei are made from the same material. They both desired what they could not have: adventure, danger, a life beyond court and skirts. Had Arya followed the path intended for her, she would have been married off to some great man, had many babies, and most likely would have hated her life.

Arya’s path is obviously destroyed after the execution of Eddard Stark and the War of the Kings. She disguises herself as a boy, becomes a serf, an assassin, all the while seeing the whole of the country.

Cersei is Arya. We like Arya because she is brave, resourceful, clever, and noble. We’ve rarely seen Cersei as a child, only stories as told by Tyrion (who obviously despises her). There may have been the potential to be Arya in Cersei, just as it is likely Arya would have become Cersei when she grew up.

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I’ve not read book four and five. I assume Cersei does not spend those two books knitting or making brownies. I do not approve of what Cersei Lannister commits through the series. I simply want the context provided to the other characters. They are all evil until they are understood.

Except for Gregor Clegane. Dude is a hot pile of shit.

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I’m not going to open with a funny paragraph. Because I’m angry. Angry and uncomfortable. I read Fifty Shades of Grey and my life is worse for it.

Yes, that’s an exaggeration. I just don’t know how to convey my anger into words. My reaction to this book is similar to the recent North Carolina Same-Sex Marriage amendment.  I can only shake my head in complete confusion at how it succeeded.

For those of you who aren’t in the know, Grey is an erotic romance novel that has overtaken all female conversations. It revolves around Anastasia “Ana” Steele, a 20-something college grad, and Christian Grey, a rich hottie who entices Ana into a BDSM relationship. “BDSM” meaning “Bondage/Discipline/Sadomasochism”.

Ladies and gents- if you have mothers, they are reading this book.

Sorry. They have a Pinterest account and a copy of this book. They go out to coffee with their other mom friends and talk about the time Christian spanks Ana. And some of them – yes, it hurts to know this – have gone online in search of the toys listed in this book.

From a sociological view, the success of this book highlights reading anonymity with eReaders. A lot of respectable women (myself included) would be horrified to be seen in public with an erotic novel. I read mine from a borrowed iPad. Without a cover, no Fabio embracing a milkmaid, smut can be taken into public. The equivalent of men hiding porn in magazines (like Maxim).

But from a literary view . . . I don’t even . . .

There’s so much I could criticize.

-It’s origin: E.L. James began this series as Twilight fan-fiction. There are many characteristic parallels to the Bella and Edward characters (tastes, opinions, hesitations). Why there is not a lawsuit is beyond me.

-Writing: The characters speak as if quoting the thesaurus. Check out Vulture’s article for a much better explanation than I could ever craft.

-Descriptions: Instead of drawing us into this twisted world, it is simply stated that Christian’s apartment is “magnificent”, Ana’s best friend Kate is “gorgeous”, and there’s a lot of blues and reds in a boathouse scene. Simply telling me it’s a duck does nothing to the story.

-Characters: Not even going there, because there aren’t any.

-The Sex: Yes, this is an erotic novel. There is way too much sex. If someone were to continuously flick your ear, eventually you’d forget it was happening and move on with your life. It gets to a point where it gets boring. I wonder if James set a page limit. “I can only go 20 pages, and then I have to do something smutty.”

-One thing about Ana: I hope your Subconscious and Inner Goddess get food poisoning and diarrhea at the same time.

There are much better erotic novels out there, I assume. Ones with better plots, ones with more intense sex, and probably some with both. I’ve heard a lot about Anne Rice’s Sleeping Beauty trilogy. I’m most likely going to look into it, if I can bravely purchase it and carry it around.

The only reason to read it is to understand the conversations. So, when your best girlfriend says with a giggle she bought ben wa balls, you know what it is.

Do not look up ben wa balls.

Rating: if I could light an iPad that didn’t belong to me on fire, I would.

Summary (from Amazon):

When literature student Anastasia Steele goes to interview young entrepreneur Christian Grey, she encounters a man who is beautiful, brilliant, and intimidating. The unworldly, innocent Ana is startled to realize she wants this man and, despite his enigmatic reserve, finds she is desperate to get close to him. Unable to resist Ana’s quiet beauty, wit, and independent spirit, Grey admits he wants her, too—but on his own terms.
 
Shocked yet thrilled by Grey’s singular erotic tastes, Ana hesitates. For all the trappings of success—his multinational businesses, his vast wealth, his loving family—Grey is a man tormented by demons and consumed by the need to control. When the couple embarks on a daring, passionately physical affair, Ana discovers Christian Grey’s secrets and explores her own dark desires.

Erotic, amusing, and deeply moving, the Fifty Shades Trilogy is a tale that will obsess you, possess you, and stay with you forever.

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape is a favorite movie I often forget about. It’s never the first one mentioned when asked. My most common response when the movie is mentioned is, “Oh my god, I love that movie!” But I don’t own it.

Which is fitting for poor ol’ Gilbert Grape. At first glance, he doesn’t shine. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of this quiet kid, rotting in a small town and weighed down by so much drama, is both minimalist and expressive. That DiCaprio kid got all the (deserved) attention for his role, but Depp is what binds this depressing movie together.

I didn’t know this was a book. This revelation makes Depp’s performance even more amazing.

Because Peter Hedges’s Gilbert is boiling under his skin. He’s angry. He’s horny. And he is straining to keep his emotions in check. Those releases (occurring in both the book and film) are destructive and hurtful (striking his brother out of frustration, letting neighbor children gawk at his morbidly-obese reclusive mother). It makes the Gilbert I remember repulsive, and ultimately more human. I became disappointed, even repulsed, at times with him.

That’s the point. Here’s is a character study of a simple guy in a simple town who can’t figure life or himself out.

Many times, the first-person POV novel is really just a lazy narration of actions. It is what the narrator wants the outside world to know, many times self-edited. This narration is ugly. The edition that I read is an advance readers’ copy. I noted many typos (“to” instead of “too”, “by” instead of “bye”). It is my suspicion, not having read a published version, this is intentional. Gilbert is a guy without pretensions. The reader will learn everything about him because he can’t say it.

This is a movie that must be paired with the book. There are changes, to be sure. Specifically, the girl of his obsessions (Becky) is aged almost five years in the movie. She’s 16 in the novel. Again, repulsive until Gilbert’s realization that she is in control of her decisions and the relationship. More than her paramour. And though I’m a major fan of Juliette Lewis, I wonder how that age difference would have gone over for the film crowd.

So, though the movie ranks on my “Forgotten” list, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape also ranks on my “Best Adaptation” list.

Here’s a metaphor for you: books are like booze.

Some are like wine- best enjoyed with friends while debating the hotness of Michael Fassbender. Some are like Jell-o shots- quick, effective, with just a hint of slutty. And some are like a fine scotch- best enjoyed slowly. Preferably by a fireplace. I guess. I’ve never had scotch. It doesn’t mix well with orange juice and grenadine.

Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is the very latter. And as I’ve already stated above, I’m not a scotch person. Once the spine or bottle is cracked open, I’m not putting it down until I pass out.

This behemoth of a non-fiction epic covers, as the title states, an alternative look at what happened between Columbus and 9/11. His thesis is clear- capitalism has continually and repeatedly destroyed those outside of power. 688 pages of genocide, slavery, oppression, and corruption.

688 pages of soul-crushing misery.

This book is frequently used as a companion to American history courses. Read about awesome Superman-of-awesome Thomas Jefferson in the school-issued book, then use Zinn’s text to learn about his slaves and real meaning behind “We the people”. And that is, in my opinion, the best way to read this text.

It was a mistake to read it as fast as I did, even though it took almost two months. By the time I reached the Reconstruction, I had become numb to his lessons. “Wow, they got their asses handed to them” is all I could muster post-WWI.

Not that I’m not glad I read it! A People’s History provided a lot of pondering topics. Chapter 23, “The Coming Revolt of the Guards” must be read. Absolutely. It is probably the most coherent road-map to the 21st Century. You will be doing yourself a disservice to ignore it.

However, do not fall victim to my hubris. This is not the longest book I’ve read. But I would have done myself a favor to take a chapter at a time and spread it over a year or two. And that will be my plan when I re-read it in 10 years.

Recommendation: You’ll only hurt yourself if you don’t buy a copy.

From the inside cover: “A classic since its original landmark publication in 1980, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is the first scholarly work to tell America’s story from the bottom up – from the point of view of, and in the words of, America’s women, factory workers, African Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers. From Columbus to the Revolution to slavery and the Civil War – from World War II to the election of George W. Bush and the “War on Terror” – A People’s History of the United States is an important and necessary contribution to a complete and balanced understanding of American history.

Oh, snap.

I like books that make me feel stupid. The moment you shut the cover, that stunned stillness feels amazing. Maybe you learned something; maybe your mind has been blown and is slowly recombining. Still, it’s always appreciated.

What I’m really saying is I really liked A Visit From the Goon Squad and that Jennifer Egan is sort of amazing. Homegirl won a Pulitzer and it was deserved. I plan on checking out her other works. They’re working on an HBO series based on the book which . . . I’m conflicted about.

This isn’t the type of novel I can see working as a series, or even a movie. This story of Bennie and Sasha, two people with a long list of troubles, rarely involves them directly. It spans brief moments from the 1960s to an undetermined date in the mid 21st century, but in an order other than linear. I’m sure if someone super smart were hired to adapt, they’d do a passable job. But this is a novel that is meant to be read, not written for any sort of screen.

Even though the best chapter was written in Powerpoint.

Seriously. I heard there were graphs involved in Goon Squad before I read it, and wasn’t sure what to make of it. A young girl keeps a visual diary. How does that work? And then this page came up:

Totally didn't take this from my camera phone

See! Smart people!

Time is a bitch, and Goon Squad doesn’t pull any punches. Not one person ends the novel content or sure of their place in the world. A few die. Almost every character commits to “selling out”. And marriage is portrayed in the most unflattering light I’ve come upon (which might mean it’s the most truthful). You could say the characters’ sense of resolve despite their pain is the message. But all I’m going to say is this is a really touching book and I quite enjoyed it.

And I really hope they don’t go forward with the HBO show. I mean, it isn’t necessary.

When asked what mysteries occupy his mind throughout the day, Stephen Hawking had only one answer: “Women.” The inner workings of the female mind baffle this insanely smart man. To which I respond, “Get over yourself, Hawking.”

First off, let’s agree the complexities of the mind are not split between genders. I know plenty of women who couldn’t power a flashlight off their wattage. And second of all, I spot a paradox. What if women aren’t overly-complex, but men are expected to keep it simple? Focusing on the inner psyche is a very selfish act. But in a culture that values men who speak little and feel less, there is pressure to turn off or tune out.

It is what struck me in Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides, apart from the demand that he write more books. For those not in the know, The Virgin Suicides is a  recollection of the Lisbon girls, five sisters who, over the course of the year, kill themselves. The boys of the neighborhood look back to that year, piecing together the “whats”, “whens”, “whos”, and “hows”, searching for the “why”.

This group of boys- men recalling the story- are haunted by the Lisbon girls’ suicides. Though they have married, have kids and mortgages, coach baseball teams and attend office parties, it becomes the defacto conversation whenever two or more of them are in the same room.

They focus so much on “why did they do it”, the more important question is never asked: “Why does it matter so much to us?”

For one year, they watched the deterioration of a family. They witnessed the youngest (Cecelia, more an observer than a participant in the world) impale herself on a decorative fence. They watched as the Lisbon family tried their best to move on and ultimately fail. The brief firecrackers of the girls’ rebellion, viewed through curtains and binoculars. And in the novel’s climax, they stand in the darkened Lisbon house while the remaining sisters end their lives. Their childhood game of Peeping Tom evolved into obsession, then fetish, and ultimately a mystery.

So, why do these grown men cling to the story, keep trophies and recorded interviews of other observers or participants stored in a treehouse?

I call it the Rapunzel syndrome, which came to my attention through Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women. Some men, she posits, seek out damaged women. Not to put them together or help them recover. It is a desire to be the white hat and rescue the damsel in distress. Pick up the shards of glass, wipe away the tears, and use up the supply of band-aids.

Again, I hate generalizations. But I do find it an intriguing thought. And very fitting when applied to The Virgin Suicides. The idea of escape, freeing the girls from their parents’ “prison”, is brought up several times through the story. They envision their travels post-jailbreak. As the novel nears the climax, when the girls ask for the boys to join them at midnight, this fantasy nears realization.

It’s my belief the girls didn’t want rescue. That the boys simply offered their help too late. It is not for the boys, or the reader, to understand why they did it. Suicide is a complex and selfish decision. There is always the need to blame it on environment, mindset, chemicals . . . sometimes, it cannot be explained.

But in the mind of the boys, there had to have been a reason. Because they failed the girls. Rapunzel needed her handsome prince to save her, but he wasn’t there in time.

Rating: AMAZING

From the back cover: “First published in 1993, The Virgin Suicides announced the arrival of a major new American novelist. In a quiet suburb of Detroit, the five Lisbon sisters – beautiful, eccentric, and obsessively watched by the neighborhood boys – commit suicide one by one over the course of a single year. As the boys observe them from afar, transfixed, they piece together the mystery of the family’s fatal melancholy, in this hypnotic and unforgettable novel of adolescent love, disquiet, and death. Jeffery Eugenides evokes the emotions of youth with haunting sensitivity and dark humor and creates a coming-of-age story unlike any of our time.”

In theory, Salt: A World History is everything I want in a book. Pedantic musings on food float my boat. So do historic discourses on obscure topics. If that wasn’t enough, the cover features a quote from Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain could tell me to hack off my baby finger and mail it to Janet Reno, and I’d think it was an excellent idea.

Imagine my displeasure when Salt didn’t float my boat. Nope, just buoyancy this time.

Salt is not that interesting of a subject. And author Mark Kurlansky doesn’t really spice the subject up (haha, see what I did there?) Anecdotes about our ancestors and this once-precious substance are presented in a disjointed fashion. Almost as if the text were to be presented as bullet points, but a last-minute editor intervention changed that. It’s not to say Kurlansky didn’t do his homework. The research is very impressive. Unlike other historic authors, he expands his research outside the European continent.

Where Kurlansky does succeed is on the human specifics. His chapter “Salt and the Great Soul” illustrates salt importance in Mahatma Gandhi’s protests. By picking up salt pieces from the sandy beaches of India, Gandhi violated British Empire law and was arrested (harvesting Indian salt was forbidden as it competed with British Cheshire salt). In “Red Salt”, the history of Tabasco sauce and its very interesting compelling creator, Edmund McIlhenny, are the focus of the post-Civil War South.

Had the book paid more attention to these stories instead of briefly connected bites of facts (sauerkraut became a French delicacy; soy sauce’s origin is in fermented fish sauce), it might not have taken me one month to read this book.

Still, if Kulansky makes a similar book about cheese, I’m definitely buying. Because it’s a book about cheese. And cheese is great.

Rating: eh, you could do worse.

Back Cover: Until about 100 years ago, when modern geology revealed its prevalence, salt was one of the world’s most sought-after commodities. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires and inspired revolutions. Populated by colorful characters and filled with fascinating details, Mark Kurlansky’s kaleidoscopic and illuminating history is a multilayered masterpiece that blends economic, scientific, political, religious, and culinary records into a rich and memorable tale.