Dear Committee Members
by Julie Schumacher
2014 • 192 pages • Doubleday
When we talk about well-rounded female characters, we often talk about allowing female characters to be unlikable. (Hell, we also talk about allowing female characters to look like actual human type women, which is such a broad category that it’s really amazing how often the mark is missed.) Even when female characters express unlikable traits (which, let’s be honest, are often considerable desirable or at least neutral traits in male characters), they’re often punished for it, by both the narrative and the audience. As much as I’ve been enjoying How Did This Get Made, their episode on A View to a Kill features the whole crew comparing Grace Jones’ superhumanly strong May Day to a shaved horse. It’s why Amy in Gone Girl is such polarizing; she may be, in a certain slant of light, a misogynist’s hysterical nightmare, but she gets to be selfish, hateful, cruel, violent, and dispassionate in a way few female characters are. (And the crowning glory: she gets away with it.)
But there is a B side to that argument, much shorter than the much more important single: why do we allow male characters to be unlikable? Specifically, why am I so often asked to sympathize with, idealize, or otherwise just plain tolerate male characters whose behavior is self-indulgent, passively cruel, and generally awful without any redeeming characteristics? I am fine with unlikable male characters in the abstract. I am, after all, quite an active fan of James Bond, the last three films of which franchise have been entirely about an already unstable man being built into a horrifically amoral monster. (And it’s so, so great.) Unlikable characters, as we’ve established, can be riveting and revelatory. What I’m taking issue with is when I am presented with unlikable male characters and told, by both the text and paratext, that I should like him.
Under the Banner of Heaven
by John Krakauer
2013 • 372 pages • Doubleday
To celebrate the Fourth of July this year, my local Alamo Drafthouse Cinema screened two films—Top Gun, which we’ve already been over, and a Quote-Along for Team America: World Police. Specifically, a Quote-Along for Team America: World Police’s tenth anniversary. I’ve never seen that movie, but watching the brief advertisement for the upcoming Quote-Along, I was instantly taken back to the political climate of the United States in the early aughts.
While the nostalgia wheel has turned to the nineties (which explains the amount of Sailor Moon and Xena: Warrior Princess I’ve been consuming) per its traditional twenty year delay, the aughts are finally far enough behind us to take a certain narrative shape. There’s even a new VH1 series, I Love the 2000s, to prove it. This is nothing new for history and nostalgia, but it is something new for me.
Top of the Rock by Warren Littlefield with T. R. Pearson
After this year’s Saturday Night Live finale, I fell in love with the show. When I discovered it was on Netflix, my world blew up—I determined to watch Saturday Night Live from 2001 on, in order to track the careers of several performers who have been on the show. (I’m picking up the backlog with the A. V. Club’s coverage of classic Saturday Night Live.) I’ve also determined that, once I’m done, I’ll catch up with the rest of the world and watch 30 Rock, as well as Parks and Recreation. Considering my newfound love for NBC comedies and my established love for oral histories, I snatched up Top of the Rock while browsing at the library without a second thought.
In Other Worlds by Margaret Atwood
Readers with long memories might recall that I attended one of Margaret Atwood’s Ellman lectures back in 2010, which was a fun experience—it’s always fantastic to see great authors talk about their work, and I enjoy the shadenfreude of wandering through college campuses much, much larger than mine. (I can wake up five minutes before class and still be on time! Well, I don’t, because I need food, exercise, and a shower before I am ready to face the day without regressing into a wombat, but the point still stands.) So when I heard that Atwood had expanded upon her lectures, themselves a pentinence for rejecting the label of science fiction, I was highly intrigued.
The Ecstasy of Influence by Jonathan Lethem
At the beginning of my reading career, I got a lot of recommendations from The New York Times, but that’s gone done in recent years, because I now have a thriving community of readers all around me tossing recommendations my way. But I still read the book section from time and time, and that’s where I found a review for The Ecstasy of Influence. I’d never heard of Jonathan Lethem in my life—although Motherless Brooklyn, one of his novels, sounds very familiar—but I’m always fond of authors examining “influence”, because it can lead to discussion about fannish experience, whether or not the author names them as such. As the summer began, I dove in—but I think I hit a roadblock pretty quickly…
Crane Spreads Wings by Susan Trott
As I’ve mentioned (as part of my book blogger origin story, coming to a comic book store near you soon), at least the first hundred or so book recommendations I wrote down came from Nancy Pearl’s book recommendation… well… books, Book Lust and More Book Lust. So far, she’s not steered me too wrong—I enjoyed All is Vanity and Lady into Fox, although I didn’t care for Beauty or Mirror, Mirror. But they were never boring. So after reading a lot of speculative fiction, I thought it was time to cleanse the palette with some light contemporary fiction. But when I said light, I didn’t mean insubstantial.
Pretty Girls in Little Boxes by Joan Ryan
Everything I know about sports (and figure skating in particular) I learned from Johnny Weir. Let’s face it; I was a bookish and spiteful child, of course I hated sports with a passion as a kid. So my first forays into actually appreciating sport (beyond my own appreciation for physical fitness, which is much different) was discovering who Johnny Weir was and investigating men’s figure skating in late high school and early college. But that really has nothing to do with today’s title; an editor at Autostraddle mentioned reading it on a plane ride and enjoying it, so I added it to the list. (I feel like I’ve been bringing the boring recommendation stories lately. Let’s hope this changes soon.)
All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz
I love watching fictional pretentious novelists get their comeuppance. (Not that I don’t like seeing actual pretentious novelists get their comeuppance, but it’s easier to gloat over the failings of a fictional character rather than a fellow human being.) Something about watching people who think there’s some sort of prerequisite to be called a writer and, most importantly, thinking their first novel’s first draft will become a runaway best seller makes me cackle in delight. Is it because I thought the same thing as a wee lass, or just because I know that the reality is so much different? I may never know. But I was delighted to discover that All is Vanity, an early Nancy Pearl recommendation on my list, dealt with such a novelist.
The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson
Much like The Resurrectionist, The Gargoyle is a contemporary novel I thought was set in the past. However, seeing as almost half of The Gargoyle is composed of historical fiction, I’m almost right. I think The Gargoyle may be one of the last recommendations I have from a trip to England in the past, gleaned from Waterstone’s throughout the land; in any case, the cover is certainly enthralling. (I’m a visual creature, I’ll never get over it.) Trapped on an airplane attempting to return home (Hartsfield-Jackson shut down for a few hours, mucking the entire United States up), I finished it all in one sitting- certainly a refreshing change of pace over a week of Ivanhoe!
Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson
I have to admit, I don’t like traveling. I’m very lucky in that I have plenty of opportunity to travel, what with being French-American and a pilot’s kid, but I always feel a little guilty that I, quite honestly, prefer exploring Georgia to exploring other countries. However, I adore the British. I maniacally TiVo’ed every episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus I could during middle school, I love British humor and television, and I even love their weirdly gregarious ducks. While this probably makes me a terrible Frank, I must say this–my mother is the one that introduced Notes from a Small Island to me, since she had it lying around the house since I was a wee lass. I finally rented it from my local library last week and finished it.