Review: Mermaids in Paradise


Mermaids in Paradise


2014 • 304 pages • W.W. Norton & Company

Let me begin this review by popping up on my soapbox, whipping out my megaphone, and bellowing at the top of my lungs, “PUNCH UP, NOT DOWN.”

If there’s one thing I cannot stand in comedy, it’s cruelty. As much as I am enjoying my journey through early Saturday Night Live, sometimes I want to scream into a pillow. Like, for instance, when there’s a sketch that centers solely around screwing a blind black man out of a law scholarship to make a muddied point about how affirmative action is crap. I can see no comedic value in privileged groups mocking marginalized groups. (I do want to stress there’s a difference between this and internal, loving parody, a la Portlandia.)

But that’s the kind of comedy that runs rampant through Mermaids in Paradise, which is, I gather, meant to be a light comedic trifle about a honeymooning couple who discover mermaids at their Caribbean resort. It’s told from the perspective of Deb, who applies a patronizing and slightly cruel gloss to everything she sees.

For instance: during the lead-up to the wedding, Deb despairs of everything related to weddings, calling them infantile and pedophilic. (Of course, her analysis stops at side-eying women who like that kind of thing, instead of interrogating the system.) Her beloved Chip loves World of Warcraft, which she constantly points out as a huge problem and a major sacrifice that she’s made in the relationship. (It’s also really apparent Millet did no research for the handful of times Deb is describing what Chip is doing in the game, which begs the question—why not just invent a game if you’re just going to crap on it? It just ends up implying that Millet assumes her readers will similarly have never played such a game but have immediately dismissed it.) When an indigenous employee shows Deb and Chip to their rooms, Deb immediately starts rhapsodizing about the woman is “embodying a primordial womanly grace, with her darkish, gleaming complexion and earthen-toned sarong” (62). And there’s a “comedic” set piece centered around Janeane, a fellow vacationer, who clearly suffers from panic attacks, a non-specific anxiety disorder, and may have survived some sexual trauma. At a resort-wide dinner, she begins suffering a panic attack and her partner tries to soothe her, but the way he touches her arm re-triggers her. Hilarious!


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The Week in Review: June 28th, 2015

Seinfeld Apartment: Computer

I went to the Seinfeld Apartment pop-up yesterday. The wait was very long, as you can imagine, but I got to swan about the apartment, take photos, and otherwise soak in the dissonance of experiencing in three dimensions an apartment previously known to me in only two. And today is all about Pride, even if it literally rains on my parade. (Okay, it’s actually a march in New York, but whatever.)

I also was at ladybusiness this week, talking about Judi Dench’s M.

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At The Movies: 13 Going on 30 (2004)


13 Going on 30


2004 • 97 minutes • Columbia Pictures

Alright, let’s just go ahead and call it a theme week: it’s (Clare Confronts the Inevitable Fact She Coalesced Into an Almost Person in the) Aughts Week! Between this and Wednesday’s review of Ex Machina, I feel like I’m floating in the goo what made me. It’s not so much that I desperately miss the early aughts—Bush was president, the fashion was terrible, and I was still too dumb to realize I was queer—but rather that the nostalgia I derive from it feels a lot sharper than the secondhand nostalgia I huff off of eighties ephemera. Sure, it comes with a lot more sighing and a lot fewer gleeful air guitar riffs, but that’s kind of special, too.

Not that I ever actually watched 13 Going on 30 when it came out in theaters. I was busy floundering in the wake of the end of The Lord of the Rings, holding onto Pirates of the Caribbean for dear life. In fact, my only impression of this movie was a vague conviction that Andy Serkis was the romantic lead instead of Mark Ruffalo. (I MEAN WHY NOT? IT’S WHAT AMERICA WANTS!) Of course, all it took was hearing that it took place partly in the eighties to get me to actually watch it.

So, a summary, for those of you who weren’t teenage girls in the aughts (you lucky ducks, you missed out on the Legolas/Aragorn wars): in the eighties, Jenna is excited to celebrate her thirteenth birthday with a party attended by the coolest guys and girls in school, but embarrassed by her best friend, the deeply uncool Matty. Despite Matty’s thoughtful gift of a Jenna-inspired Dream House covered in mail-order wishing dust, she nonetheless insults him to impress the cool kids. But they end up playing a hideous prank on her, locking her in the closet. Crying, she wishes to be “thirty, flirty, and thriving” (a la an issue of her favorite magazine, Poise). The wishing dust grants her wish, and she wakes up as an adult—seventeen years later. With no memory of the intervening years, Jenna tries to navigate her adult life as best she can. She’s delighted to discover that she has an amazing apartment, a well-stocked walk-in closet, and a great job at Poise, but she’s devastated to find out she’s alienated from her family and her childhood best friend. Jenna sets out to thrive in her new life, as only a thirteen year old from the eighties can.

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Review: Ex Machina — The First Hundred Days


Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days
by by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris


2005 (originally published 2004 to 2005) • 136 pages • WildStorm

It is amazing how time passes. Every once in a while, I’m astonished to realize that it’s no longer the late aughts but 2015, but I usually have a pretty good grip on where I am. (Where am I? Feverishly waiting for Trainwreck to come out next month, that’s where I am.) It’s far more disorienting to read something from George W. Bush’s presidency and have that whole political and pop cultural climate come rushing back. It helps (or hinders) that the early aughts were my political and pop cultural awakening (thanks, The Daily Show and The Lord of the Rings), so it’s sort of realizing that you still know all the words to Liz Phair’s “Why Can’t I” even though you haven’t heard it in years.

That’s what it feels like reading Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris’ Ex Machina, because this series is so pointedly a response to the post-9/11 world that it brings you right back there, all the way back to 2004. Especially with the way the first issue ends—that, my friends, is what you call a hook.

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days collects the first five issues of Ex Machina, which follows New York Mayor Mitchell Hundred during his four years in office. Of course, Mitchell earned the post largely through his brief stint as the superhero the Great Machine, gifted with the ability to talk to and understand machines, a career that climaxed on 9/11. Despite his notoriety, however, Mitchell is much more dedicated to the law than to his superpowers as an agent of good. Now, if he could only get everyone to believe that on top of running the city that never sleeps during a hideous snow storm, resolve a controversial art piece at a local museum, and solve a string of seemingly connected murders…

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At The Movies: Three Amigos (1986)


¡Three Amigos!


1986 • 104 minutes • Orion Pictures

Friends, I have a confession—I don’t like Chevy Chase.

Due to the peculiar nature of my upbringing, I was never exposed to Chevy Chase beyond a short clip of National Lampoon’s Family Vacation on VH1’s I Love the 70s, while both I and VH1 were trying to chase the glory days of I Love the 80s. While Père McBride’s heyday was around the time Chase was white hot (an objective fact I hold in deep, deep suspicion), he vastly prefers John Candy to Chevy Chase. Even my Gen X brother never particularly seemed to respond to him. I only really starting knowing who he was when I started watching and loving Community. I think Chase does quite well as Pierce Hawthorne, as the role works around and finds a use for a lot of his comedic stylings that I don’t usually care for. (It’s a bit like how I have trouble with eighties movies telling me that Bill Murray’s asshole characters are endearing, but age up that snark and entitlement thirty years and it becomes achingly poignant.)

But watching and loving Community also brought me into contact with Chase’s towering sense of entitlement, which eventually left to a rift between showrunner Dan Harmon and Chase. I don’t particularly want to get into Chase’s personal life… although when he came back to host Saturday Night Live for the first time, he mocked Bill Murray for his supposedly small talent and his acne scars (so, too real for yours truly) to the degree that they got into a physical altercation that had to be broken up by John Belushi, that paragon of responsibility. Oh, and one time he slapped Rob Huebel across the face when Huebel was trying to tell him how much Chase had influenced him. It’s a credit to Huebel’s devotion to Chase that he considers it a funny story and not horrifyingly disillusioning. And he’s so sexist (he appears to honestly believe that women aren’t as funny as men, which WHAT) that mere exposure to him makes Jane Curtin’s eyes flicker so hard I’m afraid she might hurt herself. (Which would be a tragedy, because she is a national treasure. TREASURE!) The author is dead, yadda yadda, but when the author is such a colossal jerk, it’s hard not to notice.

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Review: Reading the Romance


Reading the Romance
by Janice Radway


1984 • 274 pages • University of North Carolina Press

In Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro’s conversation on genre, Gaiman recalls reading an essay by C.S. Lewis in which Lewis points out that the only people who seem to be unduly concerned with people reading escapist literature sound a lot like jailers. Gaiman is misremembering; it’s a Lewis essay (collected in On Stories), but the anecdote is actually Tolkien’s. Accusations of escapism have plagued the speculative fiction genre since… I’m gonna go with mid-century because we’ve had speculative fiction since the dawn of time. (Of course, nowadays it’s compounded by people complaining about speculative fiction isn’t escapist enough by being remotely inclusive. To quote MD Laclan, “if you think Star Trek is apolitical, I cannot help you.”) In fact, I’m struggling through Lydia Millet’s novel Mermaids in Paradise because the main character, whom I gather I am supposed to sympathize with, finds her husband’s fantasy gaming his only major flaw and expresses disgusted bafflement at his hobby. (She gets better, right? Right?) But speculative fiction is so hot right now, with the cultural ascendency of Marvel, Comic-Con, and the like. DC Studios’ woefully grim output is desperately trying to prove a point that we all already know: sf ain’t just for nerds anymore. (Actually, the secret is that we are all nerds for something in this beautiful life. But don’t tell Sadman.)

While speculative fiction is slowly and unevenly lurching to mainstream acceptance, however, its generic sister romance remains an eternal punching bag, even in the wake of the massively popular Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. (I always feel like I end up here, in this particular ditch, trying to defend certain parts of the Fifty Shades phenomenon while trying not to toss my cookies at its treatment of consent and implication that all kinksters are psychologically broken. Woof.) It’s a reputation the genre has suffered from ever since it coalesced into a neat marketing category, as we see in Janice Radway’s 1984 exploration of why women read romance, Reading the Romance.

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Elissa Sussman’s Five Favorite Feminist Fairy Tales (and STRAY Giveaway)

Happy Saturday, kittens! While I will be off taking in FlameCon, New York’s first queer comic con, I thought I’d leave you in the capable hands of Elissa Sussman. Elissa is the author of Stray, an amazing feminist fairy tale that actually, for once, features a character slowly coming to grips with the fact that she lives in a toxic patriarchy instead of being introduced battle-ready. The latter’s great, but the former is the process we all have to go through. I think it’s incredibly important to see stories about that process, especially for young adults. Oh, and it’s also super readable and engaging. Stray is part of a great tradition of feminist young adult fairy tales, so here’s Elissa with her five favorite feminist fairy tales.



My Five Favorite Feminist Fairy Tales
by Elissa Sussman

I love fairy tales and I love feminism, so when the two of them meet, I am one happy reader. Thankfully there are many wonderful and remarkable fairy tale retellings in YA, but because I also like alliteration, here are my top five.

Ash by Malinda Lo

Any fairy tale lover worth their salt should have Ash on their bookshelf. A sweet and magical retelling of Cinderella, Lo gives our little cinder girl a new love interest. Instead of the falling for the prince, Ash is enchanted by his huntress (and vice versa). With this simple little twist, the story of Cinderella is transformed and given new life.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

The Twelve Dancing Princesses is one of my favorite fairy tales and a story that has seen its fair share of revisions in the past few years, much to my delight. This version reimagines the story in 1920s New York, where the princesses are wealthy shut-ins who rebel against their tyrannical father by escaping his townhouse and spending their evenings dancing at jazz clubs. Sisterhood is at the center of this story and each of Valentine’s sisters have their own distinct personalities and reactions to the realization that their father intends to marry each of them off without their consent.

valentesixgunsnowwhiteSix Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente

A dazzling and lyrical retelling of Snow White, Valente takes the namesake of this character and turns it into a slur. For our protagonist is the daughter of a Crow mother and a white father, and Snow White is the name her stepmother mockingly calls her, a constant (and unnecessary) reminder of the girl’s otherness. It is only when Snow White escapes her father’s house that she begins to discover those like her, in this gritty Wild West version of the familiar tale.

Fairest by Gail Carson Levine

Another retelling of Snow White, which also looks at beauty and the power we give it. Levine’s Snow White, named Aza, is not beautiful, but she is a gifted singer with the ability to throw her voice. Throughout the story, Aza (and others) learn to redefine their idea of beauty and its necessity in the world, as Aza begins to accept and eventually love herself for who she is.

Deerskin by Robin McKinley

A favorite book of mine, it should be noted that this story (as well as the original fairy tale) is deeply rooted in violence and sexual assault and might be extremely triggering for some readers. Our protagonist experiences a great deal of trauma within the first half of the book, but with the help of her dog, Ash, and others, she is able to confront her father and begin to heal from the abuse she encountered at his hand.

Elissa has also authorized me to give away a hardcover copy of Stray with a little something extra. Let me know what your favorite feminist fairy tale (young adult or otherwise) is, and you’ll be entered for the drawing. The giveaway will run through June 26th; the winner will be contacted shortly thereafter. (So that weekend. I’m a one-woman enterprise, y’all know that.)

Review: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up


The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
by Marie Kondo and translated by Cathy Hirano


2014 (originally published 2011) • 224 pages • Ten Speed Press

Once, in college, I helped my mother clean out her garage. We waited until my father was assigned a long trip at work to don our nastiest utility clothes and get to work. We put on work gloves and dug through childhood toys I’d long forgotten, badminton sets missing their parts, a complete set of vintage soccer magazines that was also almost completely decomposed. We had to ask my mother’s neighbors if we could put our trash out with theirs, because it would otherwise overwhelm her lawn. I uncovered a box that turned out to be a shrine to my father’s childhood dog, complete with photos of my father’s family with the dog and a lock of the dog’s fur. When we were done, the garage looked wonderful—and then we put the overflow of my dad’s book collection in there so we could breathe in the house.

The point is, my parents like to hold onto things. It makes sense. My father grew up in a military family and became a military man himself, which meant that moving was a near-constant. And my mother immigrated to the United States with, from what I hear, a sundress and an encyclopedic knowledge of antiques to her new name. For them, their younger lives were characterized by the constant need to compromise on their possessions—what can survive the move to new housing? A new state? The move to France? The move back? The luxury of having a more or less permanent home where they never have to worry about that must be such a relief.

Having grown up in an environment like that, it took me a while to realize that I’m not like that and that’s okay. I do get sentimental about some objects—you will pry my Agnes Scott beer stein from my cold, dead hands, and then I will zombie-punch you in the face—but I feel emotionally and almost physically oppressed by having too many things around. To combat the oppression of accumulation, I regularly clean, recycle, and just throw out. I’ve had to become ruthless in my assessment of my material possessions.

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