Friday, December 12, 2014

The Bechdel Test

Gender equality has always been an important issue to me. You see bias (of all types and directions) everywhere, but I feel infuriated when sexism sneaks up on me in what I hoped would be a relaxing read.

The Bechdel test is used for quickly assessing gender bias in a work of fiction, whether a novel, movie, play, television show, etc. It’s named for Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist who had one of her characters in a comic strip first express this idea. The test is very simple. If the story doesn’t meet three criteria, it should take a good look at how it represents women. The criteria are:

1.     There are at least two female characters... (Some interpretations of this test specify that the characters should be prominent enough to at least be named.)
2.     ...who speak to each other at some point during the story...
3.     ...about something other than a man.

My first reaction to this was: That’s all? Yet statistics on how many books, and especially how many movies, fail this test are shocking...which means we’re still reinforcing unvoiced messages that women don’t have or deserve a voice. Any woman, and I should hope most men, know women talk about plenty of other things besides men: non-romantic relationships (friends, family, co-workers), intellectual discussions, aspirations. The list is limitless. So why does the scope of women’s conversation in some stories feel so limited? 

A story can pass the Bechdel test and still contain sexist content or messages, but it's a fast, easy way to take stock of how frequently women are dismissed in fiction. So next time you read a book, see a play, or watch a movie keep in mind the Bechdel test. Even stories I've loved sometimes fail this. I rarely enjoy something without any female characters, but you would be surprised to count up how many feature only one prominent woman among a cast of men.

Friday, December 5, 2014


(review based on an advance reading copy)

The opening of this story had me nearly in tears as it fills in what this dog went through before finding his boy. Someone abandoned Haatchi, a huge Anatalion Shepherd, on railroad tracks where a train came along and hit him. Despite all odds, Haatchi survived, but he lost one’s of his back legs. After being bounced from temporary homes and different vets, the dog so many didn’t think would survive instead found a wonderful life with Owen. Due to a rare genetic disorder, young Owen hadn’t had an easy life either. He lives in almost constant pain with muscles that permanently tense, and the way people constantly stared and didn’t know what to say caused him to retreat into himself. Neither had a particularly good outlook ahead of them...until they found each other.  

My short review of this book would state that it features an amazing story that isn’t particularly well-written. Both Haatchi and Owen have had some excruciating experiences, but the way they uplift each other, not to mention their family’s unrelenting generosity and support, exemplify the phrase “heart-warming.” Apart from the horrifying incident that begins this story, time and again the people (and animals) featured in this book demonstrate determined optimism and dependable goodwill.

Sometimes with nonfiction, though, authors can be skilled at gathering information but not at conveying that information in an engaging way. The writing belabors points and meanders off on unnecessary tangents. In general, I preferred when the book focuses on Haatchi and Little B, those featured in the title, but there’s a whole chapter going into detail about Owen’s dad and stepmom’s wedding as well as frequent mentions throughout about what they post on social media. The focus swayed between Owen and Haatchi’s relationship specifically and an overall family biography. 

There are a lot of wonderful books out there about dogs changing people’s lives. As much as I indentify as a dog lover, I often avoid these books - since they usually feature either (or both) beginnings where the dog goes through ghastly trauma or endings that, well, remind you people live longer than dogs. HAATCHI AND LITTLE B, though, emphasizes that sad moments don't make a sad life.

Friday, November 28, 2014



GEOGRAPHY OF YOU AND ME is a sweet, smart young adult romance about when the right person is in the wrong place. Teenagers Lucy and Owen meet on a stopped elevator during a citywide blackout. Once free, they spend an unlikely, unexpected, and unforgettable night together. Before they even have a chance to explore the possibility of a relationship, life pulls them in different directions with Lucy moving to Europe and Owen embarking on a road trip with his father. Time ticks by as Lucy and Owen carry on with their separate lives, date other people, and barely keep in touch. Neither forgets about the other, though. Neither stops wondering and imagining.  

I love a good romance...but I’m a very critical romance reader. For starters, I can’t care about a relationship until I care about both characters as individuals. Lucy and Owen are both likable leads, hailing from very different backgrounds and yet finding that common ground. Owen’s mother recently died. Now Owen and his father are barely scraping by, both financially and emotionally. Lucy, on the other hand, has everything she could ever want financially, but her rich life is rather lonely. Her parents travel constantly, never taking her with them. I related to Lucy especially, since she’s a bookworm. I appreciated Smith’s portrayal of an introverted bibliophile. Lucy isn’t a social outcast; she chooses books and quiet over parties and popularity.

Though I found a few metaphors distractingly cheesy, for the most part I loved the writing. Smith crafts distinct, realistic voices for each character. Both dialogue and inner monologue feel natural whether we’re following Lucy or Owen. Also, while they’re mature teenagers, Lucy and Owen definitely feel young: uncertain what they want or what life has in store for them, brimming with emotions, and quick to act or speak on those emotions.

The ending fell a little short of what I wanted, but I think Smith set quite the challenge for herself with this type of story. Young adult romances are particularly difficult, because authors struggle finding balance between that nice happily-ever-after feeling and “settling” their characters too young. Though not quite perfection, I think Smith found a fulfilling spot between frustratingly lacking closure and tying everything up too neatly.

Friday, November 21, 2014


(review based on an advance reading copy)

Recently I did a post about rating books and why I’m not particularly fond of simple 1-5 star systems, etc. WE WERE LIARS puts me in mind of yet another reason that I don’t thinks stars adequately summarize your reaction to a book: sometimes your rating fluctuates over the course of reading. How do you average that? After finishing WE WERE LIARS I would give it 5 out of 5 stars, but up until page 150 (out of 225) I would have given it only 2 or maybe 3.

WE WERE LIARS rewards you well if you stick with it, but - for me at least - wasn’t initially engaging. Numerous people raved, fanatically raved, about WE WERE LIARS to me (which might have set me up with overhyped expectations), but I found the book quite unexceptional until around page 150. (That’s two thirds of the way through the 225 page book.)

I went into WE WERE LIARS knowing next to nothing about the premise. Well, the marketing (including the blurb on back) doesn’t tell you much. In truth, this novel is probably a little more suspense orientated than my tastes run. I like to know what happened, because I care more about how the characters react. For the first two thirds, WE WERE LIARS focuses mostly on the mystery of not knowing what happened and it’s no coincidence that I only started investing after the big reveal.

So here’s how I would describe the premise: This story follows the teenager Cady (short for Cadence), and her rich, beautiful fa├žade of a family. Every summer the Sinclairs gather on their private island where Cady soaks up the company of her beloved cousins Mirren and Johnny, and steadily falls in love with their childhood family friend Gat. Except that was the past. Something happened one summer. Something that changed everything. All Cady knows is that something bad happened, she hit her head, and now she remembers very little from that summer at all, especially not whatever she’s sure she needs to remember. The first 150 pages of the book focus on introducing these characters and Cady’s search for answers. Honestly, I felt like most of that could have been cut.

Then Cady remembers, layer by layer, and suddenly I understood why people rave about this book. All that material I thought could have been cut immediately takes on new meaning with each additional memory. (I’m not one for re-reading books, but this is probably a good one to go back and re-read right away after finishing.) Themes that seemed perhaps underdeveloped snap into sharp focus. I connected both emotionally and intellectually and I kept turning over the story in mind after finishing the book.

WE WERE LIARS is incredibly worthy of discussion, so I wish I could say more, but - as the story is so slow to reveal anything - it would be giving away too much to even start talking themes or dropping hints by my choice of adjectives. Instead I’ll repeat that WE WERE LIARS well rewards those who stick with it.

Friday, November 14, 2014



Along the same lines as the Darwin awards, this book is perfect for comedy fans who enjoy laughing at the stupidity of others. Like, for example, the fleeing criminal who repeatedly called 911 during his high-speed chase so he could demand the operator have the police stop chasing him.

There’s a lot of overlap when it comes to categorizing these anecdotes. Some quick labels immediately pop to mind: crazy, high, unreasonable, and stupid. Now I don’t find stories about someone who obviously isn’t in their right mind doing something ridiculous particularly funny - too sad if you really think about it. And instances where someone is high are boring in my opinion, because, well, that’s what happens when you’re high - so no surprise. Then there are the unreasonable and or plain stupid 911 calls and, yeah, I find both of those types pretty amusing. Unreasonable like the woman who calls to say a snake bit her and asks the operator if the snake is poisonous; she doesn’t provide any actual description about the snake but grows increasingly frustrated that the operator can’t just tell her if it’s poisonous or not already. And stupid like the woman who calls in a biohazard team when she sets her mail down on her kitchen table and a letter promptly turns from yellow to brown. Turns out that’s what happens when you put a letter in coffee.

There’s also a fair number of people who need to hear the definition of “emergency”. Such as the person who called 911 when someone took a bite out of her sandwich. Or another man whose false teeth don’t quite fit, so he calls 911 for some assistance. Some people clearly think 911 is equivalent to 411, just another information service. Like the woman who calls 911 to ask when the fourth of July parade will start or the man who calls for some advice on navigating around dead stop traffic. More amusing, though, are those who think 911 is some kind of general public service for anyone and anything. One man called when he saw a snow plow in town to ask 911 to send the snow plow over to his house. Another couple called 911 to request fresh towels for their hotel room.

While reading is usually a solitary hobby, these kinds of books are fun to flip through with someone else. In all seriousness, though, I now have the utmost respect for 911 operators.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Magic Dress Complex

Today I want to discuss a personal pet peeve in stories (both literary and on screen): what I’m going to call The Magic Dress Complex. This complex advances the idea that personal growth for a woman comes from the outside. The Magic Dress Complex is when a heroine’s proactive steps for self-improvement consist primarily of finding the perfect dress (or outfit) for a special occasion or perhaps embarking on some grand full body makeover.

If you’ve seen movies, if you read, if you watch television, then I’m certain you’ve encountered The Magic Dress Complex. Think of all the plots that feature a grand makeover montage or pages upon pages of detail about a heroine’s new look. She gets the latest, cutting edge hairstyle. She finally puts on makeup. She has a manicure and a pedicure. If it’s a longer timeframe, maybe she hits the gym or devotedly diets until she slims down and firms up. She buys trendy, flattering new clothes. Oh, and shoes. What is a magic dress without magic shoes?

Now our heroine looks different, which means she is different. Now she can do what she couldn’t before. Now she will get everything she ever wanted.  The Magic Dress Complex implies that if a woman can sculpt herself into physical perfection then the rest of her life will fall into place. The Magic Dress Complex also implies that this change in appearance is the woman’s greatest accomplishment. (Emphasized by how these makeover sequences usually fall extremely close to, if not within, the story’s climax.)

I won’t dismiss the concept that an outward change can promote an internal one. Maybe a woman cuts her hair, because she’s feeling brave enough to take a risk. Her new hairstyle reminds her of her own bravery and bolsters her confidence. If she earns accolades she never did before, let’s say it’s her newfound confidence rather than the hair.

However, then look at the sheer number of these magical makeovers. And, yes, we do see them for men, too, but only a fraction as frequently. My issue isn’t with a physical difference (even one as simple as new clothes) empowering a woman; it’s how prevalent this magical makeover is as a woman’s gateway to discovering herself.  

The simple fact is that I want to see as many stories as possible about women who make a big change in their life...but it’s not their hair.

Monday, October 27, 2014



I went into this collection of short stories with no preconceptions, based on a recommendation alone. Honestly, I prefer that, when my reading experience is tainted with as few expectations as possible.

I have two favorites from the collection (and it didn’t escape my notice that the ones I enjoyed most are the ones staring a child and teenager respectively). In both “Computer Friendly” and “Nirvana High”, Gunn conceives futures that don’t feel so far fetched. “Computer Friendly” gave me chills when a classmate tells young Elizabeth that her parents are sending her to sleep because she’s defective and that way they can try again. The reader will likely be ahead of little Elizabeth in reaching conclusions, but it’s realistically painful watching someone so young look into and figure out her new friend’s unsettling words. “Nirvana High” stars teenage Barbara who has predictive powers but no control over the future she sees. The story opens with her vision that her favorite teacher will die trying to perform an advanced feat and then follows everyone’s reactions to the teacher’s death including the speculation about accident vs. suicide. The story features intriguing worldbuilding that suggests we’re only seeing the tip of the iceberg.

“Contact” feels both familiar and yet still original. As the title implies, it’s a first contact story where two cultures and, hence, perspectives collide, but each gains a subtle widening of their outlook from their interaction. I also really enjoyed “Spring Conditions”, a super creepy story where unexplainable things start happening on a couple’s ski trip. However, Gunn opens “Spring Conditions” with layered characters and then doesn’t do much to explore those layers, which naturally frustrated me as a character-fixated reader. I couldn’t help reading this story as a metaphor, though from the author’s note I’m not convinced that’s what she intended. Also the ending lacked power, kind of trickling off without feeling like an actual conclusion.

“Friends” is a weird and funny story that trivializes the dramatic and makes the absurdly fantastical mundane. I found “Coming to Terms”, about a dead father who wrote inscrutable notes in the margins of his books, underwhelmingly tantalizing. In other words, thought provoking, but Gunn doesn’t push those thoughts very far. There are also a few short, silly stories including “The Sock Story” and the satiric “Ideologically Labile Fruit Crisp”.  Perhaps merely due to its placement as the first story (not to mention featuring in the title), I had the impression that “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” is Gunn’s most popular work here. However, my reaction to that one was rather “meh”. It has potential, but I felt that potential wasn’t pushed hard enough to garner my interest.

As I’ve grazed against saying outright, I thought Gunn’s endings overall lacked power. I enjoyed most of these stories and especially liked a couple, but for almost all of them I felt some level of dissatisfaction with the end.

I also want to specify that science fiction readers are probably more likely to enjoy this collection than fantasy as Gunn’s stories lean in that direction.

As a side note, I liked William Gibson’s quote in the foreword on writing: “You must learn to overcome your very natural and appropriate revulsion for your own work.”