Sense 8: A review By Heather Thayer

Last week I posted a video (which I’m posting again at the end of this review) and said that I wasn’t totally on board with Sense 8 yet. Well, Heather Thayer sent me that video and told me to keep watching, which is why I spent thirteen hours last week glued to the screen. The show is a slow start, but once it hooked me, it REALLY hooked me. Here’s Heather’s review!

Sense8 – Watch It, Be Confused, Fall in Love

Sense8 is the new Netflix show by the Wachowskis and J Michael Straczynski — the first season was posted on Friday, June 5.  It was stormy here that weekend, so I watched the whole thing in two days. Like all Wachowski productions it is fun to look at — sometimes beautiful almost to the point of being distracting.  At its core, the first season is simply a character study — the premise is that there are certain people, “sensates” (get it?) who can share thoughts, experience, knowledge etc within their cluster of eight, even though they are scattered all over the globe.  The show begins with a new cluster being created — a group of eight people who share the same puzzling vision that they each dismiss as a dream or hallucination. How it is that these people can sense each other and share experience is confusing (an attempt to fully explain later in the season would have been best left out of the script as it reeked of woo), but I was willing to go along with it because I wanted to see more of these characters.

Many early critics complained that the show is confusing, and that criticism has merit at the beginning. Netflix goofed by only providing the first three episodes to the preview critics when this show takes at least four episodes for the viewer to get invested.  For most of the season, each character just continues with her or his own life as if nothing has happened.  Granted, many of these characters are at individual crisis points in their own lives and it takes a while for them to figure out that what has happened is real and not a strange dream, but it would seem that suddenly being part of a collective with seven other people around the world would be . . . riveting.  But no, the show just keeps following each character in their individual story rather than following a collective narrative, and much of the first season is simply following eight separate stories about eight separate people.  What makes the show more confusing is that rather than using each episode to introduce one character in depth, as is customary in multiple-character dramas, we meet all of them all at once and follow all of them all at once. This makes it hard to keep the characters straight or to invest in the outcomes until nearly the fifth episode. While there are lots of action sequences (must every one of these people get into a fight?), very little of the action propels the overall narrative arc but is simply in service of a character’s individual story.

Yep, that’s a rocket launcher.

This show is built for binge watching because with so many stories to follow with little connecting arc, it would be (even more) difficult to follow if one left too much time between episodes.  This is a show where no episode could stand on its own — with eight characters to follow, each episode takes baby steps to move each of the eight stories forward.  That also makes it difficult to get hooked. But sticking with it produces rewards. As a good friend (okay, it was Carrie) said to me, “I was not that into it but then I kept thinking about it. It kind of sank into my head.” It’s that kind of show – initially confusing and slow, but with random beautiful moments that draw the viewer in gently.

They find the plot confusing, too.

As we get to know the characters better we start caring about their individual journeys and an overall arc begins to show up (evil corporation anyone?) with villains with mysterious motives. Some of our characters start to be in a danger that threatens the whole cluster and some of them know what is actually happening while others simply accept without understanding.  The characters get better at stepping in to help each other out, and by the end of the first season the cluster starts to work as a collective team.

There is something about the show that eventually becomes compelling but it takes time to just look at the scenery along the way.  There is one sequence where one character listens to a song and they all, where ever they are, sing along.  It is a long sequence that doesn’t do anything to move the plot, but it is a joyful moment that sticks with me and I find myself singing that song.  I like a show that will take time to create interesting moments just for the sake of delight, and in the end I found that I had fallen deeply for the characters and the show. I can’t stop thinking about it. And I want more.

Book Review: The Windflower, by Sharon and Tom Curtis

You need summer reading? I got yer summer reading right here, pal! Look no further than The Windflower, the craziest and swooniest romance you’ll ever read! I’ve written about it before, I’m sure, but darn it I’m gonna write about it again, because this is THE book you want to read this summer, on the beach, while drinking a margarita. This book is funny (SO FUNNY) and exciting and sexy – just what every summer needs. The book has gone through many printings, each with it’s own hideous cover. Just lie back and let the fuchsia happen.

The Windflower, which was originally published under the name “Laura London”, is wonderful because, among other things, it takes the romance tropes that were popular at the time and turns them upside down. The first line is a legend among romance readers: “Merry Patricia Wilding was sitting on a cobblestone wall, sketching three rutabagas and daydreaming about the unicorn.”

I warned you about the fuchsia!

Merry is the most ingenue-est ingenue that ever there was, so naturally she is drawn into international intrigue and subsequently kidnapped by pirates. She spends her first week or two on board the pirate ship crying, throwing up, and occasionally fainting, but by a third of the way through the book she’s learned how to fire a cannon because that’s the kind of book this is, and the pirates adore her. As the rather disgruntled Devon explains later, “Rand Morgan’s ‘devils’ would eat soot if she fed it them with her baby fingers. She was ill once, and they spent so much time weeping into their shirtsleeves that there wasn’t a dry bicep in the fo’c’sle.”

SO. MUCH. PURPLE.

The pirates are famed for being terrifying in all the old-school romance kinds of ways but as it turns out they are sweetie pies with a pet pig named Dennis. If the book has a weakness, it’s that the male hero, Devon, is probably the least interesting character – far less interesting than the character of Cat, who gives Merry some tough but consistent platonic love. The scene in which Cat explains the facts of life to Merry and they fight about vocabulary is only topped by an earlier, poignant scene in which Merry begs her maiden aunt for intel only to discover that her aunt doesn’t know what happens between men and women either. This book is constantly juggling whimsy, horror (I no longer wish to be stranded on a deserted island, at least, not if it has crocodiles), sadness, humor, and sexuality, and it’s astonishing that it gets the balance just right. Of course mileage will vary, but this book consistently ends up on romance readers’ lists of favs because all the elements provide an incredibly immersive and emotional reading experience.

This version is weirdly tasteful.

Merry and Devon fall madly in lust at once, of course, and in a twist in the rapey heroes of yore Devon does not rape Merry. He’s supposed to be a badass pirate lord so he threatens, but it quickly becomes obvious that if he harms Merry in any way the pirates will sic Dennis the Pig on him. Merry and Devon have a big misunderstanding, and she tries to escape a lot, and they make out constantly, and every now and then he leaves and whenever he returns she’s firing a cannon or keeping a pet octopus in a bucket or trying to escape in a leaky rowboat and bailing it out with her shoe. Merry is pretty cutesy but she’s also tough and resourceful, and she grows tremendously – it’s a joy to watch. Plus you really do have to root for someone who keeps an octopus as a pet, even if it’s only for a day.

Over at NPR, Sarah Wendell of Smart Bitches, Trashy Books has a great review in which she talks about the impact The Windflower has on readers.

The Windflower was out of print for years and romance readers who scored a copy protected it as though it was the crown jewels. It’s back in print, and yes, the cover is hideous:

Told you.

But the point is, the covers are horrible but the book is DIVINE. And did I mention funny? Every time I read the book I find a new favorite line and I’m not going to spoil a single one because I want you to read it yourself, yes, YOU! If you have any vacation this year, make this book part of it.

Between the Lines Book Club: Interviews with Jhumpa Lahiri

between the lines book club logo

Time for Between The Lines Book Club! Leave your comments about The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri below. Better yet, join us in Sacramento, CA tomorrow ( 6/2715). We meet at 10:30 AM at Arden Dimick Library, at 891 Watt Avenue, Sacramento, CA.

Note: next Friday I will not be posting as I’ll be enjoying Fourth of July weekend and bracing for San Diego Comic-Con. That cosplay won’t pack itself! We’ll be back here to talk about July’s pick, Orfeo, by Richard Powers, on Friday July 10.

The Lowland was a much-anticipated book and as such there are many interviews available with Lahiri. Here’s a selection:

The New Yorker has a fairly long interview with Lahiri in which she talks about the book. She also talks about a new experiment – writing in Italian., which is a relative new language for her:

But what I think I find really freeing about this strange, experimental, whatever-you-want-to-call-it phase is that I love the freedom of writing in an imperfect way. I feel what I felt as a child, when I was first learning how to write stories, when I was first writing stories, and I was first experiencing that pleasure of putting sentences on paper and the excitement that it would give me. I think as an adult I do still feel that excitement, but it’s different. Writing in another language is humbling. It’s so hard. How I explain it to people is that I feel as though I’ve tied my right hand behind my back on purpose and I’m writing with my left hand, and I recognize how much sloppier it is, how much more awkward it is, how much more out of control it is in a way. But I also love doing without so much. I feel that when I describe something in Italian I just have a very limited amount of resources. My toolbox is small. And I only have a certain amount of vocabulary. I have the grammar and I can make it all work in that way, but it’s much simpler as a result. It’s not the same process of writing in English, where I could choose from one of twenty-five different words to describe how the sky looks to me. I can’t do that in Italian. I might have two or three words. So it feels more direct, in a way, the process, because there’s a strange purity about it, even though it’s so imperfect.

Parul Sehgal did an interview with Lahiri for Elle India in which Lahiri talks about her writing process:

The book begins: “East of the Tolly Club, after Deshapran Sashmal Road splits in two, there is a small mosque.” In that one sentence, we get the collision of British, Muslim and Hindu (and with the fork in the road, an echo of Robert Frost, and Lahiri’s New England roots), an intimation of how the brothers will take divergent paths, and inevitably, a little Lahiri family history. The Lowland is set in Tollygunge, her father’s neighborhood in Calcutta, where Naxalism set down strong roots, even attracting members of her family. The book brims with facts and local political lore – unusual for a writer who doesn’t identify herself as especially political. “I’m looking at the world a different way,” she says. “I’m trying to create people of all kinds and put them into situations, and it’s not my objective to have a message. I work from the inside out.”

To depict Naxalism from the inside out, she travelled to Calcutta to meet people who had been active in the movement. It was a turning point for the book, she says. “You realize the difference between someone who may vote a certain way or think that these objectives are right and reasonable, versus a person for whom these beliefs, this sense of justice is as essential as water or air. Even all these years later, they’re still burning with it.”

I thought this was a cute and poignant moment where she talks about understanding her parents better now that she’s moved to Rome:

But what’s also clear is that if Lahiri has moved away from using fiction to fathom her parents, life is teaching her what she wanted to know. Lahiri has been living in Rome for a year now, a city that, she says, shares Calcutta’s relaxed sociability. And she has found that fumbling with a foreign language, struggling with simple things – phone calls, putting her children in school—has helped her see her parents more clearly. Although she admits this confuses her mother a good deal. “She’s like, ‘Why do you have to be so far away from us? If you want to understand us, come over!’” Lahiri says, laughing.

The Lowland was a finalist for the National Book Award, and you can find an interview with her on their website.   In this interview, she reveals that she resisted writing the book for ten years:

I conceived of The Lowland before any of my other books were published. And so in a sense it’s the book I’ve been trying to write from the beginning. I think it’s a continuation, and perhaps a conclusion, of certain thematic preoccupations. I am also hopeful that it will lead to an aesthetic departure.

Wednesday Videos: Tatiana Maslany’s Got Your Back

WednesdayVideoLast weekend we had the season finale of Orphan Black. It left us with some questions, most notably, why can’t I find a fan tribute/parody video set to “Jesse’s Girl?” Make it happen, video people!

One of the great things about the show is how it deals with LGBTQIA issues – mostly by including well-rounded LGBTQIA characters and letting them do stuff. Here’s an interview with Tatiana Maslany, courtesy of GLAAD:

And on a lighter note, the parody video “Too Many Cooks” gets a parody of its own with “Too Many Clones.” Just keep watching the credits, trust me.

I WROTE A THING!

Actually what this should say is: I wrote a teeny tiny part of a thing! My essay “Uhura Shows Us How It’s Done” is included in the eBook version of The WisCon Chronicles Vol. 9: Intersections and Alliances, edited by May Anne Mohanraj.

WisCon is the world’s oldest feminist science fiction convention. Since 2007, Aqueduct Press has released an annual anthology of essays, commentary, and roundtable discussions relevant to the convention.  This year’s theme, “Intersections and Alliances”, is described thusly:

In this volume of The WisCon Chronicles, we find ourselves considering what it means to live at the intersections of various identities, some of them more privileged than others. We ask how we can function as good allies to each other in often challenging situations. We’re living through an intense time of social change, and a variety of questions arise as we have these often difficult conversations about feminism, race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, and more. Among them are questions about what leads to positive social change and how best to effect such change in our communities.

This collection is available as a paperback or as an eBook. Some of the material, including my essay and many others, is only available in the digital version. However, everyone who purchases the paperback will find a code in the front of the book that entitles them to a free digital copy.

I’m so proud to be included in any format of this anthology. I certainly never thought that my name would be in a book along with among many other amazing people, Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemisin, and Samuel R. Delaney. I’m so humbled and proud to be part of the conversation happening in this book!  You can purchase the book in either format from Aqueduct Press here. Enjoy!

Book Review: Polar Star, by Martin Cruz Smith

Lately I’m reviewing a lot of old favorite books for this blog. This is because I just did the math, and in order to keep up with my writing/reviewing/ book club facilitation I apparently have to get to read a minimum of 12 – 14 books per month. It’s like the best grad school experience ever without the grades. Anyway, I’m concentrating on some old favorites for this blog.

I live in California and yesterday it got up to 104 degrees, which means it’s the perfect time to re-read Polar Star, by Martin Cruz Smith. Smith is most famous for Gorky Park, a mystery set in Moscow during the Soviet Era. Gorky Park is a classic for good reason, but I’ve always preferred the sequel, Polar Star, more than it’s predecessor or any of the series that followed, because Polar Star so clearly etches the details of a stark environment into the mind of the reader.

Due to the events of Gorky Park, our hero, Arkady Renko, is exiled to work on “the slime line” on The Polar Star, an arctic fishing vessel. Polar Star is not science fiction, but I suspect that many fans of science fiction will enjoy it, because the crew of the Polar Star lives in an environment so harsh that it might as will be the surface of the moon, and they are as isolated on their ship as any space crew. Of course someone dies, of course Renko is hell-bent on proving that it was murder and proving who did it, and of course this gets him in terrible trouble that involves his crewmates and the crew of an American vessel that is supposed to be working in partnership with the Soviet fishing fleet.

The joy of this book is the incredible atmosphere. The book takes place on the Bering Sea during a time when it is always dark or twilight grey. A small section of the book takes place in Alaska, in Dutch Harbor. The character of Renko is so profoundly politically doomed that he’s functionally a ghost, and he’s obsessed with solving mysteries but he also knows that there will never be justice. Renko floats through his life the way the boat floats on the water, with no hope of improving his lot. Yet the actions of the plot give the book a forward momentum, and the sharpness of the images keeps the reader alert (watch out for a spectacularly disgusting autopsy). Because Renko has nothing to lose, he pushes forward on his investigation doggedly, with a wry sense of humor that is as dry as possible.

I love the language in this book. Take a look:

“Out of the net and into the light spilled a flood of silver pollack, a whole school that had been caught en masse and dredged up like bright coins.”

“Some flaw in him led to futile connections.”

“With the next wave, he was up to his knees in freezing water, holding onto the net with one hand and with the other dragging Pavel from a kelp-like mass of plastic chafing hair…What struck Arkady was that Karp had never hesitated; he had moved with such speed that saving another man’s life seemed less an act of courage than a gymnast’s spin around a bar.”

“Dutch Harbor was surrounded by a green ring of cliffs covered by thick sub-arctic grasses. There were no trees, nothing bigger than a bush, but as the wind moved over the grass the effect was magical, as if the hills were a wave.”

“He had once known a pathologist who had claimed that Renko’s greatest talent lay not in escaping disastrous situations but only in complicating them.”

Polar Star will either depress you or uplift you, depending on how you feel about dogged investigators who have been sentenced to gut fish and who solve crimes even though the crimes will not be punished or recognized. For some reason Renko, who is quite depressed, always cheers me up. I believe it’s his tenacity that does it. He claims to be deeply cynical, and he sounds deeply cynical, yet clearly he holds to some ferocious ideals, and he pursues them with no hope of a reward, just because. Also, it’s 104 degrees outside and in Renko’s world it’s very, very cold. And I miss living in Alaska. I didn’t live in Dutch Harbor but I lived on similar tundra and I remember the wind making the ground look like a wave, and the tiny flowers. Ultimately, Polar Star finds great beauty in bleak things.

Between the Lines Book Club: The History Behind The Lowland

between the lines book club logoIn this month’s Between the Lines Book Club selection, The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri writes about two brothers who react very differently to turbulent political times in Calcutta. One leaves for America, where he goes to university. The other becomes a member of the Naxalite movement. It’s obvious from the context of the book what’s going on. Clearly the character is involved in a political movement driven by young people that is concerned with social injustice and that is willing to use violence. But the full history of the movement is fascinating. While I can’t give it full justice, here’s a brief overview.

“Naxalites” refers to members of several different Communist groups in India. They have a Maoist ideology and continue to be active today in both legal and illegal forms. The term “Naxalite” comes from the West Bengali village of Naxalbari. In 1967, a group split off from the Communist Party and initiated an uprising in Naxalbari with the goal of redistributing land to the landless. Initially, the group attracted Indian peasants and urban intellectuals. They took much of their guidance form “The Historic Eight Documents”, written by Charu Majumdar. Their goal was to overthrow the Indian State. They were no fans of the Soviet Union, believing that the Soviet Union had lost track of true communism. In the 1970s the group split into factions, but remained active.

The segment of history most relevant to this month’s book club pick, The Lowland, involves Naxalite activity in West Bengal in the early 1970’s. From my old pal, Wikipedia (I’m not proud):

Around 1971 the Naxalites gained a strong presence among the radical sections of the student movement in Calcutta.[20] Students left school to join the Naxalites. Majumdar, to entice more students into his organisation, declared that revolutionary warfare was to take place not only in the rural areas as before, but everywhere and spontaneously. Thus Majumdar declared an “annihilation line”, a dictum that Naxalites should assassinate individual “class enemies” (such as landlords, businessmen, university teachers, police officers, politicians of the right and left) and others.[21][22]

The chief minister, Siddhartha Shankar Ray of the Congress Party, instituted strong counter-measures against the Naxalites. The West Bengal police fought back to stop the Naxalites. The house of Somen Mitra, the Congress MLA of Sealdah, was allegedly turned into a torture chamber where Naxals were incarcerated illegally by police and the Congress cadres. CPI-M cadres were also involved in the “state terror”. After suffering losses and facing the public rejection of Majumdar’s “annihilation line”, the Naxalites alleged human rights violations by the West Bengal police, who responded that the state was effectively fighting a civil war and that democratic pleasantries had no place in a war, especially when the opponent did not fight within the norms of democracy and civility.[15]

Large sections of the Naxal movement began to question Majumdar’s leadership. In 1971 the CPI(ML) was split, as the Satyanarayan Singh revolted against Majumdar’s leadership. In 1972 Majumdar was arrested by the police and died in Alipore Jail. His death accelerated the fragmentation of the movement.

In July 1971, Indira Gandhi took advantage of President’s rule to mobilise the Indian Army against the Naxalites and launched a colossal combined army and police counter-insurgency operation, termed “Operation Steeplechase,” killing hundreds of Naxalites and imprisoning more than 20,000 suspects and cadres, including senior leaders.[23] The paramilitary forces and a brigade of para commandos also participated in Operation Steeplechase. The operation was choreographed in October 1969, and J.F.R. Jacob was enjoined by Govind Narain, the Home Secretary of India, that “there should be no publicity and no records” and Jacob’s request to receive the orders in writing was also denied by Sam Manekshaw.[24]

Thousands of people have died as part of Naxalite insurgency or during Naxalite-sponsoered assassinations or other violent actions. Most Naxalite groups are considered terrorist groups. Like many such groups, they continue to appeal to the most marginalized, impoverished members of society. Brittanica.com sums up the situation today:

Naxalite groups generally have claimed to represent the poorest and most socially marginalized members of Indian society (notably tribal peoples and Dalits [formerly untouchables]) and to adhere to the Maoist doctrine of sustained peasant-led revolution. For decades they have waged guerrilla warfare against such targets as landlords, businesspeople, politicians, and security forces, and they have disrupted infrastructure by damaging transportation, communication, and power lines. In the process, they often have been able to establish bases of operation in remote forested areas. Naxalite groups have come to control large territories in many of the states of eastern India—notably Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Orissa, and West Bengal—and their influence has spread even wider beyond those areas. Often Naxalite groups have taken over governing functions and provided social services within areas under their control, although they also have been accused of using harsh enforcement tactics.

If you are in the Sacramento area, be sure to join us on June 27, 2015 at Arden Dimick Library at 10:30AM for coffee, pastries, and discussion about The Lowland, a book that eloquently and compassionately describes why a intelligent and well-educated man might devote his life to this cause, without flinching from the violence practiced by the group or from the violence of the Indian State at the time.