Lewis and a Llama

There is a narrative device that I dearly love, but of which I have only found two clear instances. (No doubt there are many others, but these are the only ones I know of.) I’m going to talk about C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, which I have written about several times before, and The Emperor’s New Groove.
You wouldn’t think the latter was a subject for intense analysis, but you guys, this is what happens when your two-year-old wants to watch “Llama, New Groove!” all the time.
Either way, these two sources are so drastically different, it’s a bit of a comedy to talk about them together, but they both have brilliant examples of a self-deceived narrator slowly, accidentally telling themselves the truth.
The Stories, One Silly, One Grave
It is not the same as an unreliable narrator, because they are showing you the real story as it really happened BUT their feelings about the story change drastically. Basically, as they tell their story, they start to see where they were wrong about what was really happening. The very act of telling the story brings them to humility, and then to the truth.
-In Till We Have Faces, Orual starts her book as a testament against the gods, who she believes have wronged her, and caused all her woes. In The Emperor’s New Groove, Kuzco begins his narrative with a desire to explain why everything that has happened to him is everyone else’s fault. Importantly, as Orual blames the gods (who are shown to be right), Kuzco blames Pacha, who is also shown to be kind and right.
-Orual is (eventually) Queen of her land, and Kuzco is Emperor of his. Both have power and are the sole source for information in the story, so they get to tell it their way.
-Orual’s unbelief and selfishness cause great harm to everyone around her, soaking up their lives, while Kuzco’s selfishness is what sets off the whole plot and causes both friends and enemies to lash out against him.
-Even when the gods have shown themselves, Orual harbors bitter anger against them for quite some time. Even when Pacha has proved himself a good friend, Kuzco doubts him at the drop of a hat.
-THEN we get back to the beginning, because both narrative stories basically start in media res: Orual telling her story up until the end of her reign in Glome, having all but given up on understanding the intent of the gods, and Kuzco until he is alone and abandoned in the forest, having given up on ever returning to human form.
-THIS IS THE GOOD PART: They both essentially interrupt themselves and tell themselves what’s really going on. In The Emperor’s New Groove, it is a little more straightforward. Kuzco’s narrative voiceover proceeds with his initial treatise–blaming Yzma and Pacha for his situation–but the in-story Kuzco shouts back at him telling him to stop, and that the audience already saw what happened…implying that they know it’s all really Kuzco’s own fault.
In Till We Have Faces there is a separation in the narrative. Orual says that she has read back over everything she has written and feels very differently now than she did at the time. She experiences new compassion for those she had written off. She reevaluates her choices and her sense of self-justification.
“What began the change was the very writing itself. Let no one lightly set about such a work. Memory, once waked, will play the tyrant.”
“The change which the writing wrought in me (and of which I did not write) was only a beginning; only to prepare me for the gods’ surgery. They used my own pen to probe my wound.”
It’s like when we record our voice and then play it back: “Do I really sound like that?”
Or when we remember some intense argument we had with a loved one where we were world-class jerks, and can now acknowledge that, but at the time, we were so convinced of our own rightness.
The Point
I love this type of story because it shows real development, real change, and it matters so intensely in real life.
When we write our last testament–our great diatribe against whoever or whatever we blame–would we have the courage to tell the story in a way that will force us to reexamine our prejudices, our angers, our hates? Would we have the courage to question our original conclusions? Or do we rush past the story, hurry through the conflict, desperate to make sure we don’t see or hear or read anything with which we might be able to indict ourselves?
There are stories where characters gain pride and power, but this is a story of humility and surrender. It is a story of hearing our own voice and learning how we really sound, what we’re really saying.
Both Orual and Kuzco look their past selves right in the eye and tell them off. With Kuzco it’s easy because we, the audience, could see all along that he was wrong. But with Orual…there is plenty of room for us to agree with her anger, her lament, her grievance. Indeed the first person I recommended this book to came away with precisely that conclusion: everything that happened to her was so tragic and unfair.
But the point of that story is that maybe it’s not just Orual who isn’t seeing it right. It’s us. Maybe there was a window for us to make the right choice, to be kind in the face of meanness, or have belief in the face of grave doubt, but the window was narrow, and we were wrapped up in our own perspective, so when we saw it we hung back. And blamed everyone else.
“The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered…When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?”
For the characters in these stories, that had to be a face first lowered to the ground with humility, then lifted up with new and bright understanding.

 

 

 

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Not That You Asked: Mini Movie Reviews

So I don’t get to watch new (or any) movies very often. By the time I manage to get to a movie, all the buzz and hubbub is over. But I did watch a few movies lately…usually in 45 to 60 minute portions over the course of two nights. I can’t watch too much tv all in a row, I like to read right before bed, and the time between putting the kids to bed and putting ourselves to bed is rather short in the grand scheme of things.
So here are my thoughts (good and bad) on moves everyone else either decided not to watch a long time ago, or already watched and enjoyed and reviewed! No spoilers.
  1. Kubo and the Two Strings
My husband and I watched this on the recommendation of one of my brothers. He has a good eye for things, and an even better ear–a true music lover. It is no surprise that he loved and touted this fantastic movie about a boy who wields his power through music. And, I’m glad, because I loved it too.
This is a stunning stop-motion film that will have you asking “what on EARTH is going on?” while fully riveted to the screen. Kubo is the son of a mysteriously powerful and troubled woman. He tells the stories about his heroic dad and evil grandfather that she tells him, and he is such a…good-hearted character. In the era of anti-heroes, it is very refreshing. He loves his mother, takes care of her. He relishes telling stories and is full of creativity and joy. He longs for his family to be whole again.
There is sadness in this movie, but it is very beautiful. It may, due the unbelievable visual detail and complexity, make you question the sanity of stop-motion film-makers. Man, you gotta love something bad to put in that kind of time and slog through that much tedium.
But it was worth it, on this end. This is a gorgeous, sweet, weird, fun film.
  1. Dr. Strange
Let’s be plain here: I did not like this one. It was also meant to be a “visual feast” of a film, like Kubo, but a million CGI lights and colors and thingamajigs does not a beautiful movie make. There is usually an inverse relationship between how much CGI a movie has and how much I like it. It’s as if my brain just writes it all off as fake, and therefore doesn’t even register what it is supposed to be. It’s not CGI stuff altogether, but what feels like unnecessary or excessive CGI, like excessive explosions in an action film. It loses its meaning.
Maybe if the characters or storyline had been less generic, then the ultra-CGI-ness of it would not have been so irritating, because that was all that was left. People have mentioned that Dr. Strange is basically a Tony Stark knock-off, and nothing that stands out among the crowd, and I’m inclined to agree. The villain is also “intergalactic uber powerful purple baddie #47” and that just bores me. In Marvel’s attempts to make every single movie apocalyptic, they’ve made the Big Bad’s very, very dull and uncomplicated.
All in all, the movie seemed to rely more on the visuals (for which I did not care) than on characters or interesting plot. So unless you feel you have to watch it to keep up with your MCU cannon or whatever, I wouldn’t bother.
  1. The BFG
This one was a very pleasant surprise, especially since it too relied heavily on CGI characters and visuals. But this one got it right.
I have a weird thing about Roald Dahl. There is a sort of dark, mean, grotesque edge to a lot of his works, and I loathe anything to do with Willy Wonka so fiercely, I do not wish to go within ten miles of that book. My sisters had to but hum the oompa loompa song to send me into a horrified, hands-over-ears rage as a child. I still hate that movie despite my love for Gene Wilder.
But the two Dahl books I have read, I adore. Matilda…and the BFG. For all it’s talk of nasty snozzcumbers and giant blood-bottlers, the story is terribly sweet. I haven’t read it in quite some time so, while watching the movie, I kept questioning whether or not certain things did or did not happen in the book.
Turns out they kept pretty true to the story. The animation of the Big Friendly Giant himself was somehow really rich and humanized, so it just worked. His lumbering movements, and word-bungling were all just spot on, and I honestly didn’t believe that they could have got it right like that. I came in expecting it to be odd, or cringe-worthy, or Tim Burton-ish.
But it was simple, sweet, and lovely. The girl who played Sophie did very well, and it all came together just so. They did change the ending a bit, but all told, I quite liked it. Recommended.
  1. Hell or High Water
I LOVED this movie. I knew the basic premise–two brothers hit up banks in order to pay off debts on their land before the bank can claim it, and two Texas Rangers are assigned to their case. Thematically, the movie makes the point (almost too heavy-handedly) that it’s easy for banks to push struggling people off of their own land. Hard times. Easy, high-interest loans for desperate people. Bail Bonds. Etcetera.
There are a lot of things in this movie that are…just these sad little details: one of the brothers is of a very criminal nature, and does this job for the love of it. He messes things up, he makes it harder, and there both is and is not redemption for him (I cannot explain without spoiling). The two Texas Rangers have this weird, uncomfortable, antagonistic relationship. At first I thought it felt like forced banter, but later it just seemed like the Jeff Bridges character was so lonely and uncertain about his future that he antagonized the Gil Birmingham character, Ranger Alberto Parker, out of sheer desperation. Alberto did not banter back, because he was not lonely. He has a family, and work is not his whole like the way it was for the Bridges character. Just, a little thing, but it stuck with me. An imperfect relationship that never got fully resolved or bettered.
This movie made me like Chris Pine a lot more. He did a very good job in this.
But, now, onto the real reason I loved this movie so much. This movie so fully and viscerally places you in its setting. Now maybe this is just because my dad is from Texas, my mom a Kansas/Arizona mixture, and I’m from Oklahoma, but I could feel blazing hot summer on my skin and hear the bugs cracking, the cicadas humming. I could feel the wind, the open lonely road, the endless longing horizon of flat country, the dusty, half-empty downtowns of small towns. I could feel it so keenly it could almost make me cry.
There was this one scene, at the very end (no spoilers), where two characters are talking on a front porch. Usually in a scene like this, noises that could distract from the very important conversation taking place are deemphasized. Too much ambient sound and it’s going to draw away from the dialogue. Cicada snapping is a LOUD noise. Like little popper fireworks going off. But usually the sound editors wouldn’t allow that to be so loud on screen. They tone it down.
But in that last scene there was all this natural, very real, ambient noise and it was kinda loud. Almost, but not quite, distracting. But it just made the whole thing feel real to me. Homey, but in a sad way, because so much of it is roughed up, lonely, or abandoned. But man, I can just hear those cicadas and feel that warm dusk wind.
Did this film do for those not from my region what it did for me? I wonder. But I really, really liked it.

 

Reading Goals and Road Races

Reading Goals
So first of all, I made a list of five books I wanted to read in April (my first non-haul book haul) and I almost made it! I’m halfway through book five. Considering the circumstances (toddler entering solid “terrible twos” territory and 6-month-old having napping troubles) that’s nothing to sneeze at.
So I still haven’t finished The Brothers Karamazov and I’m halfway through Saddam’s Secrets by Georges Sada. So those will be my first two books for the month of May, and hopefully I will wrap them up quickly, and move on to the following four books that I pulled from my bookshelves. It may be tough because I’m doing some traveling this month (road trips with two kids and a wolf, not so easy), but I find that good habits beget good habits, so I’m going to keep this up as best I can. Then, when I finish off the books I already own, I might feel a bit more justified to buy new books here and again.
  1. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. I’ve had this on my shelves for a couple of years, and I’m in this perpetual state of really wanting to read it and not doing so. Well, now to it! It’s a modern classic, and supposedly very funny, so I’m looking forward to it because I don’t actually read a lot of humor, dark or otherwise, and that sounds very agreeable to me right now.
  2. Firehorse Girl, by Kay Honeyman. This is historical fiction (It’s YA, maybe?) about a young Chinese woman who immigrates to the United States. I know little more than that, but I love immigration stories, so I’m looking forward to it.
  3. A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O’Connor. Is exactly what it says on the tin. A dear friend recommended this to me. I don’t think I’ve ever actually read anything by Flannery O’Connor, but I’m expecting I’ll enjoy this one. It’s also very short, which is why I’m putting four books on this list instead of only three.
  4. Fool’s Talk, by Os Guinness. This book is about discussing Christian faith in a way that is meaningful and not “one-size-fits-all”, as well as approaching apologetics with intellectual finesse, acknowledging complexity. With a keen interest in apologetics and theology, and as a huge fan of C.S. Lewis (he is referenced in the jacket description), this title intrigued me, so we’ll see!
Road Races
So when I had my first son, I immediately signed up for a half-marathon and some obstacle races to set as goals for getting my strength and fitness back postpartum. I had a snag–an emergency surgery that put a damper on my training–but still managed to do the half-marathon and one of the obstacle races.
I decided to do the same thing this time. It’s tough to make this stuff happen with littles and with my husband’s very busy schedule, but we like to try and do it anyway. So, this last weekend, only six months postpartum, (and with help from my parents who came to visit!) my husband and I ran a rock’n’roll half marathon. It was a hot muggy day and there were a lot of people who had heat exhaustion, lots of people laid up on the side of the road getting medical help, because the heat was rather unseasonable, and the humidity was thick right of the bat.
Both my husband and I did about 20 minutes slower than our respective goals (so, I think, did everyone else), but we did complete the race! I had to do some walk/run intervals after mile ten, and I did not feel so good afterwards, but we made it.
I have another half marathon coming up in three weeks, after which I think I’ll just focus on speed and strength rather than distance. Then I’ve got an obstacle race in July. It helps to have these goals, to encourage myself to be disciplined in these areas, but it also helps to hold them loosely…not to get uptight if I don’t reach a certain time bracket, distance, or book number. I have to strike the balance to keep my head. So far, so good.
That being said, I do aim to fare better on race times and reading goals this month. Even if I only beat my last time by a handful of minutes, and make just it a few pages further in my reading goals, then I will be just that one step improved, the good habit etched just a bit deeper.

Summerblood

I have summer in my blood, and it’s only April. This makes everything brighter, and I cherish this time when it happens each year. A good portion of my energy and enthusiasm seems to hibernate over the winter, and around this time each year, it wakes up with a jolt.
Now I’ve read of what it’s like to have Seasonal Affective Disorder, so I don’t know that this is that per se, mostly because the actual winter “low” is so subtle, and comes over so gradually, that I don’t usually notice it. What I DO notice is how abruptly the winter skin sheds. It usually just takes a few days of consistent sunny warmth, where the nights don’t even get all that cold, and where I have been outside and physically active.
And all of a sudden, like a shot, I’m awake. All of my blood is awake. Everything is joy and summer and shimmer and climbing and running and singing out loud. I want to start all the projects, do all the chores, hike all the mountains, cook all those recipes I’ve never tried, and climb all the rooftops.
This happens every year, like clockwork, and it is so strong an noticeable an experience that you would think I would remember that it was going to happen. But I almost never do. Suddenly, mid-spring, I’m zipping around like the world is my oyster and I haven’t the faintest idea why. Then, it occurs to me, it’s been warm and sunny for a few days on end. I’ve shaken off the groggy winter coat and I feel lighter and faster and stronger.
The thing is, I never realize that I was groggy and sluggish until that moment that the sun suddenly burns off the fog. Then I think “Is this what I’m really like? Well I can do ANYTHING. I’m Peter Pan. I’m sheer joy!”
This summerblooded high doesn’t last at such intensity for very long, but it does settle into a happier, more engaged, more energetic pattern for so long as the heat lasts. I love it. I have always been a summer creature. When I think about my childhood, the whole memory feels like summer on my skin. Me and my five siblings running around wild and free and slightly dangerous (you see, when you have six kids, you just can’t afford to be a helicopter parent. It doesn’t work). River sand. Crawdads. Sweet gumball trees. Running to the library, or to the gas station to buy candy. Swimming at the city public pool, so full of kids you can barely move. Walking to the McDonalds to buy fries for the sole purpose of getting those little monopoly stickers. Shooting arrows into the city’s sandy riverbed when the Arkansas was low (which I probably should not have done, because I think I lost an arrow that way).
Does it sound like I’m from either the 50’s or a small town? Well, not so. I’m from a decent-sized city, and from the 80’s and 90’s. But my summers were a bit old-fashioned, maybe.
So, I’m starting to feel awake. And I love that feeling.

The Everlasting Trope: Bad Trope Edition

Even bad tropes, the ones we can all agree are pretty weak or even actively horrible, have an origin. Now, one might say, why bother discussing the reason behind a bad trope? They’re just bad!
Because there’s a reason behind everything, and it is always worth questioning and investigating. We study history, the good and the bad, we want to know why scientific innovations happen, but we also want to know why war broke out. So it actually does matter why a bad trope exists. Because most “bad tropes,” like many a bad thing, are good ideas gone wrong.
The Trope
That little explanation out of the way, the trope I want to talk about today is the dreaded “not like other girls” trope. It’s where the author, whether in the mouths of other characters or in the mouth of the protagonist, is constantly telling you that she is not like all those other girls, with the clear connotation that all those other girls are worthless and stupid.
Common elements/facts regarding this trope:
-it is found most commonly in Young Adult books. Love YA or hate it, it is prime breeding ground for this trope since it consists exclusively of teenagers (the natural age for such comparisons to one’s peers), and is dominated by girls over boys which…
-it is girls, as far as I can tell, not boys so much. You may see that once in a while (“he felt so different from the other boys”), but it’s not as commonly seen as the “not like other girls” spiel. Not by a long shot.
-it usually implies several assumptions: that other girls are shallow and boring and stupid, but our girl is deep, and bright, and clever. That all girls are The Plastics in Mean Girls or want to be them, but our girl doesn’t even care about all that, and has vast and meaningful interests.
-it often inadvertently isolates the character from meaningful relationships with other girls/women.
-sometimes it is told from the mouth of a love interest, wherein he is the one telling everyone else that she is “not like other girls,” in which case there is more complexity, because attraction can put a unique light on someone, but which ought to be proved to partly due to that sheen of attraction within the narrative.
The Why
Let’s start with the obvious: this is usually a device designed to make our heroine seem special and unique, to draw us in and make us admire or empathize with her, for perhaps we, at times, have felt that we were “not like other girls.” (more on that in a moment).
The author is rarely if ever intentionally denigrating other women in order to lift their heroine up, but that is what almost always happens. Frankly, this is usually a result of laziness, as are most failed or bad trope usages: the author wants to show us how wonderful and interesting their girl is, but rather than doing so by showing who the heroine is in and of herself, the author shows us who she is only by comparison to others.
I think this happens because we so often (and so foolishly) compare ourselves to others. Some may compare beauty or wealth–that is more stereotypically seen in books and movies–but most of us actually compare our wit, our intelligence, our charm, our savvy, our sense, our unique interests, our strengths and weaknesses. This is just as unwise, but, strangely, doesn’t get the same bad rap as comparing the surface material.
That is why this trope fails: it seeks to make a pond seem deep by making everyone else into puddles, rather than allowing that everyone has their hidden depths even if we cant always see them right away.
Some people are smarter, some are more creative, some are prettier, some are stronger (physically or emotionally). Sometimes you may feel you are surrounded by geniuses, sometimes by idiots. This is perfectly reasonable to depict, but not to accept as unfiltered reality.
All this to say, perhaps even more than authorial laziness, this is manifested from our own personal insecurity. But, since it is a bit presumptuous to speak on behalf of anyone but myself, I will use myself as an example and we’ll see if it applies elsewhere.
I often felt like I was “not like other girls” growing up. Well, honestly, I thought I was not like pretty much anything. Not in a particularly good way. Not in a particularly bad way. “It’s just that I am what I am, and I’m me!!!” would sum it up pretty nicely (in case you’re wondering that’s a line from the Peter Pan musical stage play…Peter Pan was the sole source of all my childhood goals). I found myself terribly fascinating and if others found my “fascinating” qualities obnoxious or ridiculous, it made no never mind to me!
Of course, as I grew older, I found that I often misjudged people…assumed shallowness where there was depth, assumed frivolity where there was real joy. I learned that the ways in which I was “not like other girls” so that “other girl” was also not like me! And that was marvelous. We were both deliciously not like each other!
I can do nothing–NOTHING–in the realm of clothes, make-up, and other pretty-making things. Whatever wire in the brain connects all that stuff–the ability to even just match basic colors or do decor, for instance–I just don’t have it. AT ALL. I do not own makeup, not because I think it is silly or bad, but just because I have no interest and no understanding of it. I wouldn’t know what to do with it. But I admire people who apply their artistic talents, and do these things I cannot understand, and they do it with ease and creativity. I have learned to genuinely enjoy the things about others that are “not like me.”
I was never a very gentle-natured child. I was rough and loud and difficult. But I have learned to appreciate people who are quiet and kind and gentle. I love to argue. I have learned (am learning) to appreciate people who know how to make peace.
You get the idea.
The fallacy of “not like other girls” is its inherent implication that the other girls are of less worth, or are less interesting. Furthermore, the “not-likeness” is often in the form of looking down on girls who like traditionally girly things, in favor of a girl who likes traditionally boyish things: a hierarchy of what is valuable is therein implied. This is particularly surprising because you see this trope written by women far more so than by men. Riddle me that.
Redemption:
Not all bad tropes are redeemable but I can think of two instances in which this one can work.
  1. Anne of Green Gables pulled this off. Anne was a strange girl to the people in Avonlea, and it was not surprising because she had a bizarre upbringing, and had never felt the social pressure to be or behave a certain way, so she felt a little freer in her words and imagination. Sometimes L.M. Montgomery succumbed to making the other girls seem “lesser” but she wrote many, many wonderful friends for Anne whom Anne loved and respected and who had their own quirks and their own lives. Ruby Gillis, for instances, started out as a bubble-headed boy-crazy girl…but in Anne of the Island, that was explored a little further, albeit in a tragic way. If your girl is a bit bonkers because of a very different upbringing, that can work very well indeed, but it doesn’t necessitate shallowing everyone else’s waters to show that.
  2. When people are in like or in love, they are going to see the person they are interested in on a bit of a pedestal. My husband thought I was “not like other girls” when he was first interested in me, partly because he was interested in me. So long as the rose-colored classes don’t cover everyone’s eyes, this is perfectly understandable.
Anyhow, that is why I think this trope exists. We are apt to compare ourselves, and we sometimes impart this to our characters and, as we all know, this does not serve to flesh them out, it serves to flatten them and everyone else around them.

Non-haul Book Haul

So, in those moments when I’ve just put both kids down for a nap and I’m exhausted, but shouldn’t nap because I have things to do, but also don’t quite have the energy to do those things at the moment, I sometimes wile away a bit of time watching Booktube videos. While much of Booktube seems to focus chiefly on YA books (not my usual genre) I just really love watching people discuss books. And I like watching their book hauls too. It gets me so excited about reading.
It reminds me of when I was a kid. We lived a brisk 10-15 minute walk from a small local library in my home city and, of summers, we would go there and just stack our arms with all we could carry, and walk home…we would grab more than a 10 year old could reasonably get through in the two-week time period. But, either way, I would walk home and show my mom each and every one of the books I got with the same giddy excitement I recognize in many booktuber’s eyes as they do their book hauls: the books they bought, received as ARCs, or were given as gifts.
Of course, it made me want to go to a library or a used books store or ANYWHERE and stack books high up to my chin. But since the library is not the most convenient trip to take at the moment, and one cannot just buy books willy-nilly, I decided to do the practical thing and do a monthly “haul” of my own bookshelves. I have quite a number on my shelves that I have not read, and I am going to pretend each month that they are brand new books (which, in the meaningful sense, they are!).
Moreover I am going to present my “haul” to my husband, who will probably smile and roll his eyes a little and say “I already knew you had that book” or “You’ve already told me about that book.” However silly that may seem (and it is undoubtedly silly) it actually does give me that fresh, just-got-back-from-the-library excitement. Plus, it’s motivation to get through more books in a month than I’d originally intended.
And, although I have just said that this is silly, maybe it’s not quite so silly, because I am reminded of something C.S. Lewis said–I think it was in Surprised by Joy–about the thrill of those brown paper packages which contained new and exciting books. This is a time-tried pleasure, clearly. It’s hard not to get excited. Of course, there have been books I was giddy for that ended up being extremely disappointing, but there have also been books I picked up with a shrug and casual interest that ended up making me cry, or sticking with me for years and years.
So here ’tis. I scanned my shelves and picked these books for the month of April. (I am still reading The Brothers Karamazov, The Republic of Fear, and المجتمع العراقي throughout, bit by bit, until I finish them).
  1. Three Parts Dead, by Max Gladstone: I’ve heard good things about this and, while I am NOT a fan of urban fantasy, I’m going to give it a shot.
  2. The Slave, by Isaac Bashevis Singer: Historical fictions set in 17th century Poland about a “devout captive Jew who falls in love with his master’s daughter.” I know nothing else. Found it for 3 dollars in an airport years ago, then never read it.
  3. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley: Classic dystopian about the way in which empty pleasure and distraction can tyrannize and destroy quite as thoroughly as force, violence, or war. Always wanted to read it, so now I will. If I like it–well, and even if I don’t–I have another Huxley on my shelf from years ago.
  4. Saddam’s Secrets, by Georges Sada: From the front cover “How an Iraqi General defied and survived Saddam Hussein.” Was a gift from friends, signed by the author.
  5. Letters to Malcom, Chiefly on Prayer, by C.S. Lewis: My favorite author, and a book of his I have not read. Enough said : )
If I can get into the groove of doing this every month while simultaneously reading the big ones in the background (Middlemarch comes after B. Karamazov!) then I will have worked my way through much of my own shelves and far outstripped my current goodreads goal!

Things Beloved: Monsoon Wedding

Monsoon Wedding is one of my all-time favorite movies. I have surely seen it more than a dozen times, and I’ll likely see it many more…and I’m going to tell you why, because this is some good storytelling.
For those who have never seen or even heard of this movie, it is, at first glance, exactly what it says on the tin. The only daughter of a wealthy-but-actually-having-money-troubles Punjabi family is getting married–an arranged marriage–and the whole extended family is coming into town for all the sundry wedding-related events. Sounds simple, but it’s so much more than that.
There are several main threads followed throughout the story (SPOILERS: all of them):
-The mother and father of the bride are stressed and tense and are feeling disconnected from one another.
-The bride, Aditi, has a former lover (a married man) she can’t let go of
-Two of the young relatives (from different sides) have a flirtation.
-Aditi’s little brother is not interested in school or things stereotypically masculine and this creates conflict with his parents.
-PK Dubey, wedding organizer, and Alice, who is a maid at the house, have a subtle romance between them.
-Most importantly, the story of Ria, Aliya, and the Uncle (Tej) and what happened to Ria in the past. We’ll get back to this.
This last thread is the heart and soul of the story, in my opinion, and has wrung tears from me before. But I will explain why the whole story is beautiful to me.
The Story Threads
I’m going to focus mostly on Ria, but I want to give a few good nuggets about each thread.
  1. Aditi’s parents, Lalit and Pimmi: One of the most beautiful scenes in this movie is after a terrible, terrible revelation, Lalit (the father) is at a loss. He feels a failure and he is confused. He breaks down. Every time before when Pimmi reached out to him, he was too tired or too distracted. They’ve been at odds. But now he reaches out to her, seeks comfort from her. “I’m falling Pimmi,” he says. And she helps hold him up. And, in that action, she too is comforted because she is able to offer strength and comfort when it is most needed.
  2. Aditi might actually be my least favorite character for all that she is the bride of the titular wedding, but that’s okay, because the narrative acknowledges her immaturity. She is having an affair with a married man and she clearly doesn’t know what she wants out of life. There are subtle hints that she is a bit shallow and has a lot of growing up to do. The best part of her storyline is when she realizes that being “the other woman” and trusting a man who is willing to betray his own wife are two of the stupidest things imaginable. And then, she takes a daring step and is honest with her husband-to-be: “I don’t want to start something new based on deceit and lies.” She makes a first step towards real growth then, and gives her new marriage a much stronger foundation. I also appreciate how realistic it is that her fiance flies into a rage, at first, because he is deeply offended: but he is able to check himself and realize how much courage it took for Aditi to be honest with so much at risk.
  3. The two young loves, Ayesha and Rahul, are part of a very minor plot, but the final result is that Rahul has to learn, in very minor fashion, a lesson best summed up by the following quote “Oh darling, you have to be standing up in order to even fall…’only brave warriors fall from their horses in battle; how can kneeling cowards know what a fall is?”
  4. Aditi’s little brother gives up on doing the thing he loves (he wants to dance in the item number) and it is clear that he regrets it. This storyline is unresolved, but this makes sense as he is still young, and can still learn to both be responsible while still enjoying the things he loves.
  5. PK Dubey and Alice are sort of handled as the “downstairs” people of the story, if this were Downton Abbey, but their story is beautifully, sweetly told. Dubey is a little ridiculous, and Alice from Bihar is the calm, quiet, reasonable one. Perhaps the most poignant scene with them is when they get married soaking wet in the monsoon rains, under a little marigold umbrella with just a few fellow working friends in attendance–quickly contrasted by the huge, lavish wedding put on by the family for the daughter. I think it is so easy for everyone to assume that the stereotypical lavish wedding they’ve seen in all the Bollywood movies is all there is to see or know about. They forget that perhaps not everyone can or will have such a wedding. But then, of course, Dubey and Alice are invited into the tent to celebrate at the end, and it all ends with dancing.
  6. RIA!!!!!!! This movie is really about Ria. What happens to her and how she deals with it, and how the family deals with it–this is what this movie is really all about. Ria deserves her own heading.
Ria
So it is clear from early on that Ria has some discomfort with Tej Uncle. She freezes up when he enters the room. She is not happy, as one might expect, when he offers to pay for her education. She turns into a plank of wood when he touches her. But she says nothing, and the viewer does not know for some time what the problem is. Not until Ria finds Tej Uncle chatting with Aliya, who is about nine years old, do you begin to guess the problem. Tej Uncle is not to be trusted.
Ria’s heart stops when she sees Tej Uncle alone in a room with little Aliya. You can see it in her eyes: deep, deep dread for fear that something has happened and for fear that you have failed to stop it.
After a moment’s fearful pause, Ria bursts into the room, glaring at Tej Uncle and berating Aliya for being in that room. She breathes a desperate sigh of relief when Aliya explains she simply asked for Tej Uncle to reach something from a high shelf.
The crucial culmination of this is when Tej Uncle offers to take Aliya for a drive during one of the wedding events because she is tired and cranky, Ria rushes to stop him, stepping in front of the car. The courage it takes for her to do this is tremendous. Still more courage is required for her to admit to Lalit, her Uncle who raised her, that Tej Uncle molested her as a child, so that they will get him away from Aliya.
It is because everyone else loves and trusts this man that this is almost insurmountably difficult for Ria. No one wants to believe her because it means accusing someone they have thought of as family. Someone they have known for so, so long. Someone who has gotten them out of desperate financial straits before.
Lalit doesn’t know what to do. He is torn between his dear friend (Tej Uncle) and Ria. Ria leaves the wedding event, feeling abandoned by those she loves most, suspecting (reasonably) that they will want to just brush the whole thing under the rug.
And they almost do.
Ria comes back because Lalit begs her to, but you can see she is in turmoil. She is made to sit near to and take family photographs with the man who molested her. He is getting away with it, even though now (because of his attempts to target Aliya) they know Ria is telling the truth.
Finally they go to honor the deceased, Ria’s father. You see her terrible sorrow as she places a smudge of red paint on his old photograph.
Lalit cannot take it anymore. He sees her hurt. He loves her. He sees what he must do. He cannot allow a man who harmed Ria to carry on as if nothing has happened, nor pretend to honor Ria’s father in front of her very face.
He stops Tej Uncle and orders him to leave. And it is so, so hard for him to do this. He is very much beholden to this man. That is what makes it powerful. Now it is easy to say that that is what he should have done in the first place, but in the context, if you have empathy, you can see that what he is doing takes courage as well. “These are my children,” he says. “And I will protect them even from myself if I have to.”
It isn’t a fight. Lalit just quietly stands his ground and makes that man leave.
You see the love and gratitude in Ria’s eyes in that moment. She is worth the breaking of deep ties, she is worth losing face, losing security, losing comfort. She is worth all that to her family. The joyfulness she exhibits at the final wedding scene is that of someone finally freed from a great horror. She is safe. She is loved. She has hope for the future (The newly arrived and handsome Umang, perhaps?)
Other points of interest:
Family
Obviously this movie is about family. Ria giving Aditi advice. Lalit and Pimmi’s love for their daughter and their niece. Their complicated love for their son who is not living up to their expectations, whom they do not fully understand. Mothers, Fathers, Daughters, Sons, friends, family, all coming together to celebrate.
Realism Bollywood 
The director, Mira Nair, said that she wanted to make her own version of a Bollywood film. If you watch Bollywood films, you will be familiar with the more typical aspects, mainly the impromptu dancing and singing, item numbers, and the occasional fantasy sequence. This film is not a musical, however, and nothing happens in it that would not happen in real life. But, oh so cleverly, there is a great deal of dancing and singing, and even a few moments that feel like a fantasy sequence.
-A hired singer sings during the henna painting ceremony
-The family, jokingly, sings half a song at the dinner table
-One of the family members is asked to sing as they sit on the ground during the Sangeet
-Ayesha practices a dance number with Varun (Aditi’s little brother) for the Sangeet
-Ayesha performs the “item number” with Rahul and, eventually, the whole crowd, joining her on the dance floor.
-When Dubey eats marigolds, marigold leaves are falling in a haze, and the music and cinematography gives the impression of something magical happening.
Music
This film’s soundtrack is fantastic. Just a perfect mixture, somehow.
Little, Subtle Things
I do not profess to know very much about Indian culture broadly, or Punjabi culture specifically, and rest assured this movie is not “educational”: what I mean is that this is a beautiful story, rich in nuances, not designed to be “Indian culture 101” for those curious to learn. However, by the nature of being such a good story, and so well-grounded (and by virtue of my having watched this film SO MANY TIMES) there are little cultural things to be gleaned and appreciated.
Alice is from Bihar. Where is Bihar? What is unique about that region?
Lalit challenges Dubey’s cost assessment by saying, hey, look, “I’m not an NRI” (Non-resident Indian). What are the cultural perceptions about residents vs. NRIs?
The beautiful things Pimmi has been collecting for Aditi’s wedding since she was born.
The Verma (main family’s) very fine house which feels like an estate versus PK Dubey’s smaller, much less modern house…very different styles of living, and also interesting to observe, because Dubey is notedly not poor, yet might seem so to Western eyes.
All the traditions and ceremonies…some, admittedly, with the sheen rubbed off of them because of all the personal turmoil and real conflict.
Ria and her Bengali friend arguing about the stereotypes of their respective regions.
And so much more. But it’s just naturally there, and the story is so full and so very much alive with details.
Joy
There is certainly sorrow to be had in this movie, but the joy is present to, and I might as well tell you that it wins the day.