Between the Lines Book Club: Emma, By Jane Austen

between the lines book club logoReady for a light romance for Valentine’s Day, with some pointed comments about gender, relationships, manner, and class?  This month in Between the Lines Book Club we are reading Emma, by Jane Austen.  If you’d like to join us in person, we’ll meet live at Arden Dimick Library, in Sacramento, CA, at 10:30AM on February 28, 2015.

Emma is a classic novel about a young woman who believes herself to be a wonderful matchmaker but who is, in fact, completely clueless about matters of the heart.  Jane Austen wrote of the novel, “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like.”  Despite this prediction, Emma is Austen’s best-loved novel aside from Pride and Prejudice.  Emma is young, smart, beautiful, and rich, and finds herself with not much to do.  She settles on matchmaking as an occupation, which is a disaster as Emma knows nothing of her own heart or anyone else’s.  Hilarity ensues.

You can join us online here or in person on February 28th.  Enjoy!

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Wednesday Videos: Muppet’s Bohemian Rhapsody

WednesdayVideoI grew up in a town without much to do so my high school friends and I used to drive around all night singing along to the radio and whatever CDs we had in the car.  We always, always had Bohemian Rhapsody.  ALWAYS.

So you can imagine my delight that the Muppets covered it.  I thought it was absolutely horrifying until it got to Animal going, “Mama?  MAMA!!!” and then I was cracking up.  You’re welcome, or maybe I’m sorry!

 

An Interview with Elyse Discher

unnamedElyse Discher is one of my fellow reviewers at Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, where she write about romance, romantic suspense, and knitting.  See that cowl in her photo?  she made that.  She made me one too, mine is purple.  Contain your jealousy.

I asked Elyse about her experiences with fandom, and here’s what she has to say about growing up isolated and then finding community:

Were you always a big reader?  Was there any reading that you felt you couldn’t share?

I was always a big reader. I grew up in a house with a lot of books, and my mom was a reader, so it was just something that I naturally fell into. Somewhere around 5th grade I transitioned out of junior books and into adult books. I read all of my mom’s Michael Crichton and Kinsey Milhone books over the summer. This was also around the time I discovered Sci-Fi and Fantasy. I started reading SF/F around the time my family life was in upheaval. I was looking for escape, and the farther away I could get, the better. I became very interested in Star Wars, and I read the Timothy Zahn and Kevin J. Anderson novels voraciously.

What were you into growing up, and how have your interests changed?

As a girl in 5th or 6th grade, I absolutely would not share that I was really interested in Sci-fi. I already felt like an outsider–I was very small, I was nerdy and I was shy. I loved Star Wars and I liked Star Trek and I read some epic fantasy, but I would not bring those books to school. The idea that my peers would see me reading them was mortifying.
This was way before nerd was chic. Girls my age, in my area, were supposed to be into boys and horses and makeup, and none of that interested me at all. I also didn’t get boobs till I was almost 20, I swear. I felt like a little kid hanging around with girls who were much more savvy and developed than me. I’d rather talk about Star Trek The Next Generation than what the boys in our class were doing.
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Were you able to share your interests when you were a kid, or did you feel like an outsider?  

It was a very isolated experience. I had friends, and we had common interests, but even they didn’t know about my interest in sci-fi. There was no one I could talk to about it. When I hit high school, Buffy the Vampire Slayer came out and some of my friends were really interested in that too. It was really the first time I could talk to my peers about this stuff. We’d call each other immediately after each new episode to discuss. It was the first time I had an opportunity to share an interest like that with my friends.
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How do you think fandom has changed with the advent of the internet?

With the internet you can reach out and find people who share the same interests you have–that was available to me as a kid. I’m sure there were message boards out there, but I was too young to really use the internet that way yet. I think the big shock for me as I got older was that there were tons of other women who were interested in these things. I had convinced myself that I was fairly unusual. I have a friend whose daughter is very into anime. I see her talking to her friends on Facebook and other social media about the anime fandoms she loves. I really wish that sense of community was available to me when I was younger because I think it would have done a lot to bolster my confidence.
That said, not being able to escape into the internet was probably beneficial too. I am sad that I felt compelled to hide my interests, but I think that if I had the forums that are available to me today, I might have used it as an excuse not to socialize int he way I needed to learn to. As an adult, I’m incredibly grateful for all the awesome people I’ve met online who I can discuss romance novels or knitting or anything with. I think for me the concept of a fandom, as an adult, is kind of like a knitting circle. We all come together to discuss a common interest and participate in it, but we wind up discussing our jobs, kids, vacations, etc. It becomes a broader social experience. It’s made me realize that I can talk to someone on the other side of the world, and they have the same basic experiences I do. It’s very affirming.
I still read sci fi and fantasy but I’ve turned to reading more romance novels and mysteries–especially historical mysteries. Smart Bitches introduced me to a community of AWESOME romance readers and writers. I also love to knit and sites like Ravelry are a God send. So is Twitter; people are awesome at offering advice.

If you want to read more by Elyse, I highly recommend her amazing, powerful essay for Smart Bitches about how reading romance helps her deal with chronic pain.

Book Review: The Shadow Hero, by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Lieu

cover of The Shadow HeroThe Shadow Hero is absolutely delightful.  It’s funny, sexy, exciting, and sometimes very sad.  It’s inspiring.  It’s everything a superhero comic should be, completely with the important question of what a superhero should do with his power.

In the 1940’s, there was a superhero in comics named The Green Turtle.  He was drawn by an Asian American man named Chu Hing.  Supposedly, Hing wanted The Green Turtle to be Chinese, but the publisher wanted him to be Caucasian.  Consequently, The Green Turtle never got an origin story, and he was always drawn so that the reader couldn’t see his face.  His ethnicity was a mystery.

In The Shadow Hero, The Green Turtle is re-created as a boy whose parents emigrated to America from China.  The boy, Hank, likes working in the family store with his father, but his mother has bigger dreams.  When his mom meets an American superhero, she decides Hank should be one too. She tries many things to get him superpowers (having lab animals bite him, tripping him so that he falls into toxic waste) but the only result is that Hank develops skin that glows a bright pink under certain conditions.  Then Ma realizes that Hank could be a superhero without powers, and she forces him to learn to fight.

Hank doesn’t take being a superhero seriously until his family run afoul of the local crime boss.  Suddenly Hank has a family secret to carry that comes with a real super power (he can’t be shot).  He has a mission for vengeance, and a determination to seek justice despite the power of the boss and the corruption in the police system.  With the hope of one good cop, his Mom, and a turtle spirit, he has to take down the local crime boss and still make time to take the boss’s daughter out to dinner.

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I loved everything about this comic – the art, the sense of place, the tone which shifts from comic to tragic and back, the action, and the cultural details.  The afterword has fascinating details about the original Green Turtle and one of the early Green Turtle issues.  If you are interested in diversity in comics, that afterword alone makes the book worth picking up.  This would be a better review if I had more nuanced things to say besides “I loved it”, but really, it was just tons of fun and very, very well done in art and writing.  Am running off now to the library card catalog to get more comics by these guys.  I picked this up on a whim and I’ve never had a happier surprise.

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Between the Lines Book Club: Little Failure and the History of Jewish Emigration From Russia

between the lines book club logoLittle Failure is a tragicomic memoir about Gary Shteyngart’s childhood.  He grew up in Leningrad and moves, with his Jewish parents, to America in 1979.

In the early 1970’s, the U.S.S.R. was firmly entrenched in a Cold War with the U.S.A., and leaving the U.S.S.R. was very difficult.  In 1974, the Jackson-Vanik Amendment stated that only nations that allowed their citizens to emigrate would be awarded “most favored nation” status.  Initially, the U.S.R.R became even more restrictive in terms of immigration, in protest to the pressure from the United States.  Following the Six Day War, the Soviet Union began granting more visas to Jews who want dot immigrate to Israel.  The peak years of immigration during this period were 1969-1973.  While many Jews went directly to Israel, others, known as “drop-outs”, would get as far as a transit center in Europe and then apply for US refugee visas.  In the 1980’s, Mikhail Gorbachev allowed unlimited Jewish emigration for the first time.

Today, it’s difficult to count the number of Russian Jewish immigrants in the US, because not everyone agrees on who should be counted.  According to an article on Forward.com, by Paul Berger, there are anywhere from roughly 750,000 Russian-speaking Jews in the US to 500,000.  Experts estimate that 6% to 12% of Jewish people in America come from the former U.S.S.R.  Berger quotes Sam Kliger as saying, “By any account, the number of Russian-speaking Jews in the United States now probably exceeds those of Russia and Ukraine combined.  New York today is populated by more Russian Jews than any other place in the world.”

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Gary Shetyngart’s father’s family, 1940s, Ukraine

 

Guest Post! No Need for Subtext: Queer Characters in Science Fiction and Fantasy

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Today’s guest post is from Holland, who asked to have only her first name used.  Thank you, Holland, for this great post which has added many titles to my to-be-read list!

Let’s start this off by establishing that I am a huge nerd. A good 90% of my book collection is science fiction and fantasy, and has been since I was old enough to pick my own books from the library.  I love the exciting stories where the only limitation is the author’s imagination. But there is one glaring problem that I see when I look at science fiction and fantasy: where are the queer people?

 

It’s getting better, but few and far-between are the books that pass what I consider the queer equivalent of the Bechdel test: one LGBTQA character, who has a name, at least a minor role in the story, and a character trait beyond ‘isn’t straight’ or ‘isn’t cis’.  Part of that is due to censorship – until relatively recently, putting queer characters in a book was seen as unmarketable, or risking being classified as erotica, as if those are the only stories we are allowed to have a part in.  Things are changing for the better, however, and so I’ve chosen today to talk about a few authors whose works do pass the aforementioned test, and do so with flying colors.

 

As a young queer teen from a conservative family in the semi-rural Midwest, an environment where queer people just weren’t talked about, the local library didn’t exactly have a LGBT section.  They had a smattering of teen books – the ever-classic Annie on My Mind and a few forgettable books that read more like Lifetime Original Movies than anything I was interested in. I was nerdy, female, non gender-conforming, and desperately alone, and it was hard enough finding books with female protagonists. I needed science fiction and fantasy for the escapism and inspiration they provided – I just wondered where people like me fit into it.

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One of the major changes came in 2005, when Tamora Pierce’s The Will of the Empress came out and Daja Kisubo, a character who we’d been with for 8 books already, came out as queer, though her own identity was still in flux, aside from knowing she liked women. For fifteen-year-old me, that was a bombshell. Here was one of my favorite authors, writing a character – an established character, especially – as something other than straight! It felt validating in a way I can hardly describe – I was surrounded by messages that told me what I was was wrong, that I should just try harder to be straight. Daja’s “coming out” made me feel that much more bolstered, especially since Daja had been my favorite ever since starting the series. The series also includes two women who are in a devoted relationship to each other, and who act as sort of co-mothers to the quartet of young adults we follow through the series. We also see queer characters in her other books – the Provost’s Dog series has a gay cop dating a genderqueer artist, both of whom are major characters in the second book and are integral to helping the heroine survive, and are free of problematic stereotypes.

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John Scalzi has never had a queer character as the main protagonist of a book, but he gives them a good share of POV time.  The first time I encountered this was in The Android’s Dream, which is still my gateway book for people who swear they don’t like science fiction. It’s a fast-paced book that’s at times a mystery, a military drama, and a deep yet hilarious reflection on the nature of life – in other words, it’s a book by John Scalzi.  In it are two characters, Archie and Sam.  Each of them is a fully-fleshed out character with motivations and traits in their own right, but they’re also a couple. And while we don’t even find out they’re a couple until ¾ through the book, since each of them have been pursuing their own related missions for most of the story, it makes so much sense and the strength of their relationship gives the characters added motive as to why they are so dedicated to their cause.  In the Old Man’s War series, the protagonist, John Perry, finds an unexpected best friend in theoretical physicist-turned-soldier Alan Rosenthal, who is also gay. It’s a defining characteristic of him, but it’s not his only defining characteristic, and that’s what I look for in books: representation without it feeling like tokenism.

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And speaking of representation without tokenism, we come to my favorite author on this list, Seanan McGuire.  Everything she has written has queer characters! I repeat, everything she has written has queer characters.  I know of no other author who has done this.  While I could probably write an entire article on her genius, now is neither the time nor the place. Still, I want to make clear that she is lightyears ahead of where most other authors are in terms of representation. When I asked about this at her most recent signing, she said that she felt it was part of being a decent human being, and her queer characters are some of the most fleshed-out I’ve  ever seen.  The Hugo-Nominated short story In Sea-Salt Tears, set in her urban fantasy Toby Daye series, centers on the relationship between two bisexual women and the cultural and personal forces that both bring them together and tear them apart.  She has canonically stated that most of the fae in the Tobyverse are bi, and it’s not just an informed trait, either – we see onscreen queer relationships.

 

In her novel Indexing, we also see one of the best-written trans characters I’ve seen in fiction. There is not a problematic trope to be found – Gerry is who he is, and no amount of memetic incursions by cisnormative fairy tales are going to tell him otherwise.  Her Velveteen vs books also include a transgender superheroine, The Princess, who is the physical embodiment of the fairytale princess archetype, as well as a lesbian couple whose relationship is poignant and brilliantly-executed. Her works under her open pseudonym Mira Grant are just as awesome, with queer characters in every book.  She’s also going to be editing the forthcoming anthology Queers Destroy Science Fiction, an anthology of short stories by queer authors.

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I have every hope that things will continue to get better.  While researching this article, I was introduced to the works of Tanya Huff, who has been bumped up on my reading list. Malinda Lo’s Ash, a lesbian retelling of Cinderella, is literally next on my reading list, thanks to a chance find at Half-Price Books.  Diane Duane, one of my favorite authors, has announced that her next book, Games Wizards Play, will feature queer characters: some we’d already met, who were getting things sorted out and hadn’t come out yet, and some new ones, and I am super stoked for that.

 

The future is getting brighter, and with it, I hope we’ll be seeing more and more queer characters in science fiction and fantasy.  In the meanwhile, all the authors mentioned in this article are enthusiastically recommended, and I look forward to seeing what this new year has in store.


Holland is a PhD student by day, CrossingsCon treasurer by night and can be found at geekhyena.tumblr.com.  She lives in the Bay Area of California, where she lives in an apartment that is slowly being taken over by books, Gundam models, and supplies for making pumpkin bread.  Check out the fundraiser for CrossingsCon at https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/crossingscon-2016