Friday, December 27, 2013

The 10 Best Epistolary Novels

My love affair with the epistolary novel began with the discovery of the Dear America series - beautiful hardbacks with ribbon bookmarks and deckle-edged pages that were fictional diaries with young heroines set all over the United States from the first arrival of European settlers to the mid-twentieth century. Since then, I've sought out the best of the best epistolary novels. Here is the creme de la creme:

The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins
Wilkie Collins established many of the fundamental tenets of the detective novel in The Moonstone, which tells the story of a precious diamond, stolen from a Hindu temple, belonging to Rachel Verinder, a wealthy English heiress. The diamond is stolen from her on the night of her eighteenth birthday, unleashing a complex plot tracing the efforts of Rachel's lover, Franklin Blake, to recover the diamond and earn her hand in marriage. The Moonstone is extremely suspenseful and beautifully written.

The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins
Collins's other great masterwork is The Woman in White. Walter Hartwright meets a mysterious woman in white on his way to a position as a drawing master at Limmeridge House. Once arrived, he notices that his student bears an astonishing resemblance to the white-clad woman he met on his way. Widely considered the best of Collins's novels, this early work of detective fiction is also notable for its condemnation of laws that committed married women to a state of extreme financial dependence and vulnerability.

Catherine, Called Birdy - Karen Cushman
Set in thirteenth century England, this Newbery Honor winner is one of the few children's books that can truly be regarded as a feminist work. Catherine is the daughter of a minor English lord and at fourteen she is inundated with potential suitors, the lion's share old, ugly, and lecherous, but Catherine has more than a few tricks up her sleeve and is determined to avoid a state of uncomfortable matrimony. As historical fiction, the novel is wildly successful, painting a detailed and nuanced portrait of medieval life, from the food to religious practice, sanitary habits to dress.

The Sorrows of Young Werther - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Goethe was only 24 years old when he wrote his best known and most beloved work, a thinly veiled autobiographical novel depicting the tragic and unrequited love of Goethe's alter ego Werther for the beautiful and engaged Lotte. The book is acutely romantic, in every sense of the word. Goethe famously said, "It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him."

Letters from a Peruvian Woman - Francoise de Graffigny
Revolutionary in a number of ways, de Graffigny's critically renowned novel is about Zilia, an Incan princess kidnapped and brought to Paris, where she is viewed as an exotic curiosity. Zilia records her journey, from the terror of her first encounters with Europeans and the traumatic separation from her family, culture, and land, to a satire of French culture as seen from Zilia's point of view and her transformation into an independent and promising young authoress. Absolutely feminist and one of the earliest efforts at a sympathetic and humane portrayal of a non-European from a European author, this is one of the greatest novels ever written.

Les liaisons dangereuses - Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Laclos's novel is a salacious and deeply voyeuristic exploration of the sex lives of the French elite in the hedonistic days before the French Revolution brought the aristocracy (temporarily) to its knees. The perverse sexual intrigues of the Vicomte de Valmont and the Marquise de Merteuil still have the power to shock, when they don't titillate. The 1988 film version based on Christopher Hampton's theatrical adaptation is excellent.

The Screwtape Letters - C. S. Lewis
In Lewis's brilliant satiric work of Christian apologetics, morality is turned topsy-turvy in the world of Our Father Below. Senior demon Screwtape addresses his letters to junior demon Wormwood, who has been assigned the task of aiding a man known only as the Patient to his irrevocable damnation in opposition to the Enemy, as the denizens of Hell refer to God. Most modern editions include Screwtape Proposes a Toast, an after-dinner speech given by Screwtape at the Tempters' Training College for junior demons.

Anne of Windy Poplars - L. M. Montgomery
The fourth book in Montgomery's eight-book series about the adventures of Anne Shirley, this novel covers three years of Anne's life during which she teaches at a high school. Her letters are addressed to her fiance Gilbert Blythe, a medical student. Anne writes to Gilbert about the trials and tribulations of teaching in a small clannish town and dealing with Katherine Brooke, a deeply embittered fellow teacher. As warm, funny, unpretentious, and heartwarming as Anne of Green Gables

Frankenstein - Mary Shelley
Famously written for an informal contest to see who could write the best horror story, Frankenstein is one of the most influential books of all time, spawning dozens of films and theatrical adaptations, one of the first science fiction novels ever written, and also one of the most moving depictions of alienation and loneliness. An eccentric scientist named Victor Frankenstein becomes obsessed with discovering how to recreate life from dead tissues, but he rejects the creature he has brought to life, releasing him into an unfriendly and intolerant world.

Daddy-Long-Legs - Jean Webster
Judy Abbott grows up at the John Grier Home, a tyrannically run orphanage, until she is fifteen, when an anonymous patron agrees to pay her way through college, provided that she write him monthly letters and make no attempt to discover the identity of her benefactor. The novel is gentle and funny and filled with witty pencil sketches. The 1919 film adaptation starring Mary Pickford is a wonderful adaptation and one of the most affecting of Pickford's many films.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Where Are the Strong Women in J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek"?

I knew nothing about Star Trek as a franchise before watching the 2009 movie, but I had heard a lot about why J.J. Abrams decided to tackle the project. He has said that he was attracted to the project because the female characters were "strong women." This phrase has become a favorite term in Hollywood and it's supposed to attract a female audience base, without uttering that most dreaded of dreaded words - feminism. Hollywood should be striving to provide us with strong female characters, but using the phrase doesn't make one-dimensional, one-note stereotypical female characters "strong." Nor does paying lip service to the female characters' intelligence or savvy, if those qualities aren't perceptible. I watched Star Trek in order to be entertained, but I was also hoping that I would see a rare sci-fi film with multi-dimensional, complex, and yes, strong female characters.

That's not what I saw. Of the four female characters, Kirke's mother is the first we meet. We learn two things about her - she loves her husband and she loves her new baby. That is all we ever get to know about her. Apparently, she has a job, but we are granted no insight into what sort of a person she is, what she wants, what she does, or anything else at all. It isn't possible to make a judgment call about how strong or weak she may be because her character simply has no depth or multi-dimensionality. Then there's Spock's mother (played by Winona Ryder!). We can intuit that she's fairly courageous, given that she's willing to marry someone of a different species and move to a different planet. Explicitly, we know merely that she loves her husband and son. Like Kirke's mother, Spock's mother lacks enough depth to really judge how strong or weak she is. Both of these characters fit into a stock character mold - the Loving Mother.

Of the younger generation, there are two female characters. There is Uhura and her green (literally - is that some sort of weird Star Trek thing?) roommate. The roommate appears in very few scenes and I'm not sure if we ever learn her name. In one scene, she hooks up with Kirke only to be interrupted by Uhura, and in the other she looks triumphantly at Uhura when she gets a better assignment than the smarter Uhura. From the dialogue, we learn that the roommate sleeps around - in other words, she's a "slut." The first scene has two purposes for the green roommate: 1) to show her as close to naked as possible and 2) to establish that Kirke is a stud even though he's having no success with Uhura. But that leaves this particular character in a highly cliche position: she's a slut and a bitch. It's the same misogynistic double standard we can't seem to shake as a culture. The green roommate sleeps around; she's a slut. Kirke sleeps around; he's a stud. The green roommate is competitive; she's a bitch. Kirke is competitive; he's macho - and he not only gets what he wants, but he's a hero.

Uhura is thus the only possible strong female character left. First of all, we're told that she's smart, but we see only one instance of her actually exercising her intelligence (unless telling Kirke to buzz off counts). It's also never even a possibility that she go on the more dangerous parts of the missions. Contrast that with the badassery we see from every major male character, even leaving Kirke and Spock out of the picture - the captain withstands torture and even though weak shoots the bad guys, Sulu turns out to be a whiz with a sword, 17-year-old (!) Pavel saves the hero and helps figure out battle plans, the Scotsman (MacDougray? MacDonald?) is so brilliant that he figures out some supposedly impossible beaming technology that saves the heroes. Uhura translates some stuff and her work is fairly unnecessary to the success or failure of the mission. While the male characters wear practical uniforms, Uhura and the other female characters wear miniskirts. And, completely unnecessarily, we see Uhura strip down to her underwear in one scene. I know Zoe Saldana is a beautiful woman, but that is pandering. Is Uhura weak? Not really. But neither is she a particularly strong character, except emotionally - the one kind of strength we as a culture are happy to consider female. In other words, the character of Uhura is a good girlfriend who does her job, but stays out of the fighting.

So, out of four female characters, we have two Mothers, one Slut, and one Good Girlfriend - nary a genuinely strong female character to be found. Part of the problem is that, for some utterly inexplicable reason, the film industry insists on considering science fiction as an inherently male-driven genre and thus caters to a male audience and alienates a female audience, thereby artificially enforcing their own misguided idea. (A similar process happens with romantic comedies, which cater to women and alienate men.) This is absurd. Give me a sci-fi movie with complex female characters in powerful roles, moving the plot forward and stepping in when heroic action is required, and I will totally be there. But at the very least, don't feed us this politically correct nonsense about "strong women" when it boils down to a smokescreen to cover the usual one-dimensional female bodies on display in their underwear.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

8 Great Guilty Pleasure Books

Whether your guilty pleasure is genre fiction, trash, or erotica, sometimes it's the only thing that will hit the spot. A steady diet of great classics and literary fiction can give you bookish indigestion if not peppered with the occasional guilty pleasure - here are eight books that are fast, fun, and sinfully delicious.

Bridget Jones's Diary - Helen Fielding
Fielding's novel is better than any other chick-lit out there, with the diary format lending itself well to the book's chatty tone. Bridget is deeply relatable, utterly flawed, prone to ridiculous disaster, and yet so charming and guileless that you believe she really could attract her Mr. Darcy and transition from Singleton to Smug Married - a legitimate everywoman. Though thank God, most of us don't have a mother like Bridget's. Enormous fun.

Dragon's Milk - Susan Fletcher
The first of Susan Fletcher's Dragon Chronicles, Dragon's Milk is intended for a young adult audience, but it's pure escapism for people of all ages. Kaeldra has the rare ability to communicate with dragons and as a result, she becomes entangled with a nest of baby dragons when the only cure for her foster-sister's illness is dragon's milk. As I've written before, children's fantasy tends to be better written and less bound to the conventions of the genre; Dragon's Milk is a strong example of that principle.

Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married - Marian Keyes
Marian Keyes is the queen of good chick-lit. Her novels are hilarious and though they're far from feminist, her sardonic sense of humor chips away at some of the more egregiously misogynistic aspects of the chick-lit genre. Lucy Sullivan, the heroine of this novel, is a mess - she's broke, all her boyfriends are jerks, her roommates are bitches, and her father's an alcoholic. A funny and un-embittered, if sometimes alcohol-soaked, paean to being single and female.

A Summer to Die - Lois Lowry
Lowry's first novel, written more than fifteen years before The Giver, is utterly melodramatic. The title is not an exaggeration. Meg is angry and confused when her perfect sister Molly becomes seriously ill and, unable to cope, she takes refuge in photography. Those who are squeamish, beware - this has the most graphic childbirth scene I've ever come across in a young adult novel (or any novel, for that matter). I loved this kind of misery-porn when I was a kid (and I kind of still do).

Truer Than True Romance - Jeanne Martinet
Using the original graphics from insanely misogynistic romance comics (published between the 40s and the 70s and all written by men), Jeanne Martinet rewrites the stories to better reflect both the wacky illustrations and actual romance, as lived by women. Titles include "Loving Gay Men!", "The Job from Hell!", and "My Heart Said Yes, But My Therapist Said No!" The perfect antidote for a romantic comedy binge.

Delta of Venus - Anais Nin
Forget Fifty Shades of Gray. No one tops Anais Nin when it comes to erotica. Her writing is gorgeous and gloriously gynic, inclusive of diverse forms of desire and unconstrained by phallocentric sexual norms. Nin was utterly fearless when it comes to dealing with taboo sexual subjects, from incest and pedophilia to voyeurism and homosexuality, and she was writing in the 1940s, when Alfred Kinsey's scientific study Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and its companion volume on female sexuality were being banned right and left as "pornography."

Divergent - Veronica Roth
As fast-paced as an action movie, Roth's super-violent dystopian young adult trilogy takes place in a futuristic Chicago where all of humanity has been divided into five factions, based upon virtues - Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. Tris, born into an Abnegation family, discovers that she is Divergent, that is, that she has conflicting traits and is not clearly aligned with any particular faction. Divergence is both a strength and a liability, especially as power struggles between the factions intensify. 

Jackaroo - Cynthia Voigt
Set in a pseudo-medieval kingdom, Jackaroo follows Gwyn, an innkeeper's daughter who doesn't believe in the legendary Jackaroo, a Robin Hood-like outlaw who aids the poor, until she is stranded in a remote cabin during a snowstorm with a handsome nobleman, whose clothing matches the descriptions of the legends. Gwyn is a vibrant character and her central conflict - she must choose to either marry or remain single for life - lends urgency to her coming of age story. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

No More Mobsters or Guidos, Please

Italian-Americans, as I've written about in a previous post, suffer from generally negative representations in American popular culture and especially in American cinema. In fact, a study conducted by the Italic Studies Institute in 2001 found that of the 1,220 American films produced since 1928 with Italian-American themes, no less than 40% depicted Italian-Americans as mobsters. While films like The Godfather, Good Fellas, and Mean Streets are well-known, critically acclaimed, and have saturated popular culture with images of Italian-American mafiosi, there are films out there with Italian-American protagonists that are neither mobsters, nor Guidos (a stereotype that has become all the more nasty and pervasive since Jersey Shore). You just have to look more closely to find them.

First of all, there's Marty - a charming drama starring Ernest Borgnine about an Italian-American butcher living with his mother in the Bronx who meets and falls in love with a young schoolteacher at a dance. The film won the Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Writing awards at the Oscars that year, beating out The Rose Tattoo, another film about Italian-Americans, starring Anna Magnani and Burt Lancaster (whose Italian accent is, shall we say, notta so putty). Anna Magnani brings her usual vibrancy and depth to her performance in this adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play, but the film suffers from the severe miscasting of Lancaster, usually so good, who is simply out of his depth. 1955 could have been a landmark year for Italian-Americans in film, but neither of these films, depicting Italian-Americans as sympathetic protagonists, neither criminals nor spaghetti-slinging restaurant managers, made a deep impression on the way audiences thought, and think, of Italian-Americans.

In the 70s, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and Martin Scorsese were making it big as major players in the film industry, their careers spurred forward by mafia-themed movies. However, in Serpico, Al Pacino, in his first film after The Godfather, plays an Italian-American, who speaks dialect with his mother, based on Frank Serpico, the real-life policeman whose refusal to cooperate with corruption in the police department created a major inquiry and a crackdown on corrupt cops. Pacino doesn't play Serpico as a put-upon hero, though his actions are heroic and his courage quite remarkable, but rather as a deeply complex and not necessarily likable man who refuses to give up on his youthful idealization of the police. For Italian-Americans, the portrayal of one of our own as a law-abiding, courageous cop is a welcome breath of fresh air.

The most successful films about Italian-Americans, besides mob movies, are undoubtedly comedies. The two most prominent, Moonstruck and My Cousin Vinny, were both big hits and are genuinely warm, funny films that do reflect a lot of the great things about Italian-American culture that make us proud to be who we are. But best of all is Martin Scorsese's brilliant, wonderful, delightful Italianamerican, a documentary starring his parents, a film that says more about Italian-American culture in 49 minutes than all the mob movies stuck together. The problem remains however that Italian-Americans can't catch a break, on either the silver or small screen. For every Marty, there are dozens of The Godfather; for every Frank Serpico, there are dozens of Pauly D. There's a reason why 74% of Americans assume that all Italian-Americans have mob connections, even though less than 1% of us do. Until we start seeing more dynamic, diverse, and honest representations of the Italian-American people, these stereotypes will continue to define us in the eyes of others.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Liking "12 Years a Slave" Does Not Make You a Morally Superior Person

One of the most common comments on Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, both from the press and from the general public, is that it's morally obligatory to watch this film. Now, there's no doubt that 12 Years a Slave is one of the only American films ever made to deal with the horrifying realities of slavery in a truthful and unvarnished way, while there are dozens, if not hundreds, of films that glorify the Old South and paint a rosy picture of happy Mammies and content cotton-pickers, from The Birth of a Nation to Gone with the Wind, Judge Priest to Jezebel. Taking an honest look at one of the ugliest stains on our history is absolutely a positive. Considering oneself morally superior for praising the film and because one empathizes with Chiwetel Ejiofer's character Solomon Northup - not a positive. Not at all. And yet, I've encountered this smug self-satisfaction all over the place.

The first issue is that empathy does not mean experience. In a recent interview, a journalist asked Mark Wahlberg about the rigor of his training for Lone Survivor, a film about Navy SEALS in Afghanistan, and Wahlberg responded with an extended rant. Though the press generally concentrated on the aggressive tenor of the rant, Wahlberg was making a really good point, one that both the people who make the movies and the people who watch the movies should take to heart. Wahlberg was basically saying that pretending to go through brutal experiences, like an extremely dangerous and high-stakes military undertaking, can't come close to the real experience. Movies like Lone Survivor and 12 Years a Slave are brutal viewing, but they can't come anywhere close, either for the actors or the audience, to what the people these characters are based on actually suffered.

The fact that we feel empathy for these characters isn't a testament to our own moral judgment; rather, it's a testament to the efforts of the filmmakers, actors, editors, cinematographers, etc. who have produced a film that compels us to feel empathy. It's easy today to say that slavery was wrong because it's part of the past, and so, films that deal with that subject matter are asking us to reflect, not to take action. That reflection is worthwhile and can have concrete and positive results. But, it's a little too easy to take the moral high ground when these difficult situations are, in the present, purely hypothetical. I might believe that I would have strenuously disagreed with slavery, as I do today, had I been alive in 1841, but I can't know that. No one can. Projecting ourselves into a complex moral reality of the past is merely a thought experiment.

So, let's stop congratulating ourselves on liking 12 Years a Slave for its politics and insisting that watching the film is an expression of those politics. Let's start talking about the film itself.