Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey

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There aren’t many fantasy worlds i would want to live in. Of course I would live in the Harry Potter universe. And in Star Wars. But Middle Earth seems like the kind of world where you could die from lockjaw. The Four Corners of Civilization (Kingkiller Chronicles) appears similarly bleak. As for Westeros…absolutely the hell not. But while reading Heidi Heilig’s Girl from Everywhere duology, all I could think about was living in the strange, exciting world she created.
Our hero Nix grows up roaming the seas on her dad’s ship. But The Temptation isn’t your normal boat. The Temptation is special. It can travel to any place and time, as long as there’s a map. Her father, the captain is desperate to return to Hawaii, 1868. Nix is afraid to. That’s where her mother died, just a few months after giving birth to her. If he succeeds, she worries, what would she become? Things get somehow even more complicated when the crew get tangled in a scheme to steal the King’s treasure and the American colonialist ploy to conquer the Kingdom of Hawaii.
This series is YA so of course there’s a love triangle, but there’s a twist. Our hero isn’t really trying to choose between men, she’s trying to choose between possible lives. In Hawaii, she meets the dashing and rich Blake Hart. He represents normalcy, living in a house, exploring one island and passing the years in chronological order. On the other side we have the rakish Kashmir, who travels time and space with her on her father’s ship, always on the hunt for a new adventure.
Even though the men in the story are well-drawn (Blake less so, but still) this series totally belongs to Nix. In The Girl from Everywhere, she learns to accept that her past made her who she is. But in The Ship Beyond Time, she understands her future is up to her.
This duology is truly excellent, and I would even recommend it to people who tend to steer clear of the YA genre. The series is intricate, brimming with diversity, and chock full of treats for the sci-fi, fantasy, cartography, mythology, and history nerd in all of us. I can’t wait to see what Heidi Heilig does next.

The Lancelot of the Revolutionary Set

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First let me get this out of the way…deep breath…EVERYONE GIVE IT UP FOR AMERICA’S FAVORITE FIGHTING FRENCHMAN!

lafayette1LAFAYETTE!

 

If you haven’t yet been indoctrinated into the cult of Broadway’s Hamilton…well there’s no time like the present.

Okay, then let’s move on.

His full name was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier and long before our French-bashing days of Freedom Fries, the Marquis de Lafayette was one of our first American superstars. At age 19 he defied his father-in-law and abandoned his wife and newborn child to sail the Atlantic and win glory fighting in the American Revolution (teenagers, amiright?). Although he was only given an honorary generalship as a way for American politicians to butter up the French aristocracy, he soon found a place for himself in George Washington’s army, leading battles and taking bullets.

This dude loved America, visiting the country he worked to free in 1824. He toured the only 24 states that existed at the time, delighting in the memorabilia with his likeness and partying like only an aging revolutionary could. Even from the beginning, he extolled the virtue of Americans, writing about our “simplicity of manners, a desire to oblige” and the “sweet equality…among everybody.” Which as author Sarah Vowell points out “in 1777, the kind of thing only a white guy could say.”

Cracks like that are a part of Vowell’s gift, an ability to demystify the long-dead revolutionaries we only know from regal marble sculptures and history books celebrating American exceptionalism. Vowell brings them back to earth, covering the doubts and petty jealousies that surrounded our Founding Fathers. She referred to them as “financially strapped terrorists,” sticklers about the whole “no taxation without representation” thing, but morally on board with hitting the French up for financial and military aid, raised by taxing French peasants into oblivion.

Vowell uses Lafayette as our ticket into the Revolution. Vowell tours that battles at White Plains and Yorktown, confronts Quakers’ complicated history with the battle of Brandywine, and most importantly, stops by the boyhood home of The Boss (hey, one of Springsteen’s relatives was a revolutionary soldier). But Vowell doesn’t keep this story in the past. Like most history, this affects the present too. The 2013 government shutdown threatened to ruin Vowell’s trips to Monticello and Yorktown, reminding her that “we the people haven’t agreed on much of anything.” She’s confronting our tendency to deify our Founders, and pointing out that discord has been embedded in America’s DNA since the start. Politicians conspired to fire General Washington, they argued bitterly about the place of slavery in this new land of the free and they didn’t even really like each other most of the time. Now the battles are about Obamacare and Russia.

“After Dickinson and Adams had it out over the Olive Branch Petition, Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that he and Dickinson “are not to be on speaking terms.” How sad is it that this tiff sort of cheers me up? If two of the most distinguished, dedicated, and thoughtful public servants in the history of this republic could not find a way to agree to disagree, how can we expect the current crop of congressional blockheads to get along?” 

This book could have veered off into the adorkable, with all of Vowell’s tangents. But she keeps this ship righted. Fans of her earlier work know what to expect. This isn’t a dry history book about what these dead white dudes did. It’s about the founding of our country, and what it means to us today. Vowell closes her book by listing all of the American places named after Lafayette, including the park across the street from the White House, where protesters have camped out for at least a century. Anti-war activists, Students for a Free Tibet, white supremacists and early suffragettes have all stood in the park named for this man in awe of the potential of America’s burgeoning republic.

Paint it Black

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He was a wannabe gangster and a high school dropout who got tattoos, drank and smoked, and sold drugs on the streets of Jordan. His mother was so concerned, she sent him to Muslim self-help classes. There, Ahmad Fadil found a new path. By the time he was killed in a U.S. airstrike in 2006, Fadil-by then known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi- had lead a new terrorist insurgency in Iraq and Jordan that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths. That group was ISIS. It has cycled through different names and leaders, and it’s replaced al-Qaeda as the terrorist group most likely to radically remake the Middle East.

So maybe his mom should have realized that in the grand scheme of things, having a couple of beers wasn’t that big a deal.

I know that sounds flippant, but all I could think while reading Joby Warrick’s spectacular Black Flags: The Rise of Isis was “what if.” What if Zarqawi hadn’t found religion? What if Jordanian officials hadn’t released him from jail and enabled him to move to Afghanistan? What if the U.S. had stayed out of Iraq- or if they hadn’t bungled the invasion so terribly? Would we still be in the same position?

And could ISIS have existed without Zarqawi? I honestly don’t think so. He was a Charles Manson-like figure, a transformational man who inspired his followers to obey him without question. Early in the book, we meet a Jordanian doctor who visited the prison where Zarqawi was imprisoned in the 90s. He asked the prisoners who needed medical help. None of them answered. None of them even acknowledged him. Instead, they all turned to Zarqawi. The prisoners he nodded at got up from their beds and got treatment. The doctor says he remembered being afraid of the man who held total power over his peers.

Zarqawi was released from prison and made his way to Iraq, where he pledged his allegiance to a decidedly uninterested Osama Bin Laden. He was a nobody until then-Secretary of State Colin Powell named him as a Big Deal Terrorist during his infamous 2003 speech to the United Nations. The speech “transformed Zarqawi from an unknown jihadist to an international celebrity and the toast of the Islamist movement.” Money started pouring in. Recruits, ripe for radicalization following America’s epic mismanagement of the Iraq War, soon followed.

What separated Zarqawi from al-Qaeda leaders was his ruthlessness. His jihad was marked by a brutality that shocked even them. He didn’t limit his attacks to Americans. To him, anyone who didn’t follow his exact strain of Islam was an infidel and therefore fair targets in his deranged war. He beheaded Muslim Shiites and destroyed their mosques. At one point, al-Qaeda even wrote to him and asked him to turn it down. He said he didn’t answer to them, and continued the carnage.

After Zarqawi released a video showing his men beheading an American named Nick Berg (the first of many ISIS execution videos) the U.S. was determined to bring him down. They tried to humiliate him (showing a “blooper reel” of his recruitment videos). They raised the bounty to $25 million-the same as for Bin Laden. They devoted more of their resources to bringing Zarqawi down, and after a few years and some heartbreakingly near misses, they bombed his house. As they pulled his dying body out of the rubble, analysts thought that would be the end of his organization.

But they’re still around, like cockroaches. In 2014 they reemerged on the world stage as they became masters of chaos in western Iraq and Syria. It doesn’t make sense that they’re still around. Most of the popular support they initially cultivated has eroded. They’re butchering fellow Muslims, burning them alive and on tape. They’re “marrying” (raping) young girls. The rising death toll and poor conditions should have scared away foreign recruits. But there’s no sign of their movement losing steam.

This is where the book stumbles for me. While most of the book, detailing Zarqawi’s rise to power and the conditions that allowed for ISIS’s formation were engrossing and matter-of-fact, it loses momentum after his death. Part of that makes sense: it’s a lot easier to write about history than make predictions about the future. But Warrick’s section about the U.S. response to ISIS in Syria is vague. He covers the different arguments people made to Obama-arm the moderate insurgents, bomb Syria, stay out of it, etc. At times, he seemed to be judging the administration for the choices it made, while avoiding any editorialization about what they should have done. Most of his accounting of ISIS’s involvement in the Syria is fuzzy.  After hundreds of smart, detailed and analytical pages, it was disappointing for the book to sprint to the finish line. Maybe the book would have been better as a straight Zarqawi biography.

Having said that, Black Flags was a fascinating read. We’re sadly going to be hearing about these monsters for years to come, so you should educate yourself about their inception. Zarqawi’s horrific legacy isn’t going anywhere.

Vampires are immortal, but the rest of us have stuff to do.

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The Historian is like a cross between The Da Vinci Code and Dracula. It’s partially an update of Stoker’s classic tale, utilizing the scarier-than-fiction stories about Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes-the man upon whom Dracula’s legend is based. It’s also about a Robert Langdon-esque race to find priceless historical relics…before the bad guys get to them first. Throw in some father-daughter bonding, centuries-old secret societies waging quiet but brutal war and an old fashioned-love story, and you’ve got a pretty thick book.

If that sounds intriguing, you’ll probably like it. If not…it’s probably best to quit while you’re ahead.

In 1972 Amsterdam, a teenage girl discovered a strange letter in her father’s library:

My dear and unfortunate successor:

It is with regret that I imagine you, whoever you are, reading the account I must put down here. The regret is partly for myself — because I will surely be at least in trouble, maybe dead, or perhaps worse, if this is in your hands. But my regret is also for you, my yet-unknown friend, because only by someone who needs such vile information will this letter someday be read. If you are not my successor in some other sense, you will soon be my heir-and I feel sorrow at bequeathing to another human being my own, perhaps unbelievable, experience of evil. Why I myself inherited it I don’t know, but I hope to discover that fact, eventually-perhaps in the course of writing to you or perhaps in the course of further events.

When she showed the letter to her father, he becomes upset, but gradually and haltingly told her the truth.  The letter was written by his former professor. The professor became convinced that Vlad Tepes really was Dracula-that he was undead. Soon after vowing to hunt Vlad down, the professor disappeared. The father went looking for him, and was still traumatized by what he saw.

The Historian is about three interconnected stories: the professor, the father and the daughter. All of them went searching for Dracula, and all got way more than they bargained for (and yes, I’m being intentionally vague here). Our heroes travel all over the world in search for the next clue that will bring them closer to what they seek.

And boy, do they travel. Every chapter or so, they make it to a new location, only to be told their princess is in another castle. So they pack up and look again-in France, in Bulgaria, in Turkey, and on and on. At a hefty 704 pages, a lot of this book felt like treading water, like the author couldn’t think of a better way to get her characters where she needed them. Towards the end, I wondered if she was getting paid by the word, because why else was I being treated to pages upon pages of the migration patterns of 15th century monks?

I appreciated the work that clearly went into The Historian without actually liking it. It was too long. The writing could be overly-fluffy, and the dialogue unbelievable. One professor says “You show extraordinary insight into the nature of historical research, especially for one of your years.” Another, “Excellent questions, as usually, my young doubter.” It took me out of the story. The book uses letter writing to drive the plot, which can be a good narrative device. But these letters are insane…dozens of pages, full of inane and unnecessary details that no one would ever write about. And I’m aware that I’m complaining this vampire book wasn’t being realistic enough…BUT THIS VAMPIRE BOOK WASN’T BEING REALISTIC ENOUGH.

Ultimately, this book wasn’t terrible, but it did feel like a waste of time. If you want vampires, go read Dracula. If you want to know more about Tepes, read Vlad the Impaler. If you want adventure, go tackle The Lord of the Ringsagain. There’s really not much to take from The Historian.

“The Spy” a.k.a I’m Sick of Pretending I Like Paulo Coelho

 

My entire reading life, people seem to have gone out of their ways to sing the praises of Paulo Coehlo. Such a visionary, they say. You NEED to read “The Alchemist.” He’s am-ahh-zing, they say.

 


But here’s the deal. I did read “The Alchemist.” And it was fine. Good, even, although I didn’t quite get what all the fuss was about. Then I read “The Fifth Mountain.” Meh. And now I’ve read “The Spy” and I’m done. I’m over it. Dobby is a free elf, and she doesn’t care if you know that she doesn’t like Paulo Coelho. I think his work is boring, overly-simplistic and laden with metaphors so heavy they could sink ships.
“The Spy” is a fictionalized account of the (in)famous Mata Hari, an exotic dancer who was accused of being a German spy in World War I and executed by a French firing squad. It takes the form of a letter from Hari to her lawyer days before her execution.
The evidence against her was dubious at best but she she was a foreigner and a divorcee and was unapologetic about sleeping with officers of different nationalities. In life and in death she’s been mythologized, painted as a femme fatale or a feminist icon, synonymous with female sexual betrayal. There have been movies about her, plays about her, and even a ballet. And now Coelho has something to say about her.
And what he has to say isn’t very original. He paints Mata Hari as a liberated and vain woman in pursuit of money and power, even though there is considerable historical evidence that she only did what she did out of desperation. She was a singular figure, but in Coelho’s hands, she’s just another mouthpiece for his dime store philosophy. The book is filled with such insights as “honesty has a way of dissolving lies” and “when we don’t know where life is taking us, we are never lost.”
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Here’s the thing-she’s Mata fricken Hari. She’s a notorious woman, a famous enigma. How could she be so boring?! Instead of imbuing his protagonist with a personality, the author is more interested in cutesy cameos. She meets “a man called Freud-I can’t remember his first name.” She also talks to Picasso, “an ugly, wide-eyed impolite man who fancied himself one of the greats.”
It’s ironic that for all Mata Hari has come to represent for women’s liberation and self-expression, all she does in this book is serve as Coelho’s philosophical representative. And it’s infuriating that a woman who was abused by so many (her teacher, her husband, countless unnamed men, her adopted country) is a bystander in her own life story.

Carrie Fisher Died Drowning in Moonlight, Strangled by Her Own Bra

 

Carrie Fisher packed a lot of life in her 60 years on this planet. She was a princess who became a general, a murderous ex hellbent on getting revenge on her blues brother, and a single woman in New York dating a married man. She was a mental health advocate, and a script doctor who punched up movies like Sister Act, Hook, and even Star Wars: Episode One (but I won’t hold that against her).

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But someone has to pay for this

But especially in her later life, Carrie Fisher was a writer. In the wake of Fisher’s sudden death, her last memoir “The Princess Diarist” is a unexpectedly emotional read.
While her other memoir “Wishful Drinking” focused on her struggles with mental health, “The Princess Diarist” is about Fisher’s complicated relationship with fame. Being the famous progeny of two famous parents, Fisher thought she could handle fame. But as a star in her own right, she struggled.
It was a total coincidence, but I read this book the day Carrie Fisher died (I’m very very behind on reviews. In my defense, I didn’t feel like writing them). While grief and nostalgia where prevalent emotions, I spent a lot of the book pissed on her behalf. Even if you didn’t read the book, you know the salacious reveal: she and Harrison Ford had an on-set affair.
Before I knew any of the details, I was excited on her behalf. Banging one of the hottest man on earth in his ab.so.lute. prime?? Tell me everything! What that dick do, tho?

 

But the truth was a lot less fun. Carrie was a painfully naive and insecure 19-year-old. At George Lucas’s birthday party, the crew guys tease-flirted with her (“There’s our little princess without her buns!”) and got her drunk. After a couple of drinks, some of the guys surround her and try to hustle her out of the party. And then, like the swaggering hero I dreamed he’d be, Harrison Ford saved her. “Excuse me, gentleman,” he drawled, “but the lady doesn’t seem aware of what she wants.”
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But not so fast. Ford hustles Carrie into his car and starts making out with her. He’s 14 years older than her, married with kids. He JUST said that she was too trashed to make decisions. They go home together. And that’s how their affair starts. How romantic.
More than a third of the book is about their affair. He’s withholding, intimidating and monosyllabic. He barely talks to her on set or in bed. But she’s head over heels. That’s not hindsight, that’s in her diaries, published in the back half of the book. Her entries and poems aren’t about the set or other actors-they’re basically all about her Han Solo and how he wouldn’t love her back.
It seems unfair this book is Fisher’s last official word. She clearly grew up and stopped being the lovelorn teenager (and not to be petty, but her writing improved over the years. Those poems were rough). She stopped being a princess and became a general. I wish this wasn’t her final book, but I’m grateful she gave us one last gift.
In “Wishful Drinking” she talks about the first time she wore that iconic white dress:
George comes up to me the first day of filming and he takes one look at the dress and says, “You can’t wear a bra under that dress.”
So, I say, “Okay, I’ll bite. Why?”
And he says, “Because. . . there’s no underwear in space.”
What happens is you go to space and you become weightless. So far so good, right? But then your body expands??? But your bra doesn’t—so you get strangled by your own bra.
She goes on to say:
Now I think that this would make for a fantastic obit—so I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.

As you wish, Princess.

I Have a Lot of Feelings about “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child”

*Warning: this review features a LOT of Caps Lock and has a tendency to ramble. Buckle up*


Back in 2007, we all stumbled home from our midnight release parties and read the final Harry Potter book, racing against the sunrise, desperate to find out how it ended. We turned off our phones and chugged coffee, stopping only for reluctant bathroom breaks. Hours passed, and with three small words, the story that defined a generation ended: “All was well.”

Flash forward a decade. Turns out…all was not well.

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For those of you who don’t know, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is a play that takes place pretty much immediately after the epilogue from “The Deathly Hallows.” The play focuses on Harry’s youngest son, Albus Severus and his friendship with Scorpious Malfoy, son of Draco. The two bond over their struggles living under the shadows cast by their (in)famous fathers. Although not explicitly stated, I imagine they also both bonded over being saddled with those dumpster fire names. IS LIFE REALLY SO EASY, HARRY? YOU’RE GONNA NAME YOUR KID ALBUS SEVERUS?!? Yes, it has been 10 years and no, I’m still not over this. You done this kid wrong, Harry. How about Reubus Arthur Potter, you were named after the two men loved me without ulterior motives. Or Sirius Remus Potter, you were named for the uncles who would have loved to watch you grow up. But no, you’re going to go with Albus Severus? Cool.

AND DRACOOOOO–SCORPIOUS???

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Anyway.

Those of us who read the Harry Potter books as they came out must remember the brutal agony of waiting. Waiting the years between releases. A lot of us flocked to the internet. With no new Harry on the horizon, people wrote their own stories about him. I loved reading Hogwarts fanfiction. Some of it was terrible (I’m looking at you, Snape/Hermione shippers). Some of it was great. Most of it was boring. And that’s what “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” reminds me of-fanfiction-mediocre fanfiction, given a veneer of legitimacy.

This play was written by Jack Thorne. Although Rowling is credited with the story, I had a hard time seeing her hand in this play. These characters I knew and loved-Ron, Harry, and Hermione-all seemed like faint shadows of themselves, as if they were conjured with the Resurrection Stone. It’s like Thorne watched a couple of the movies and thought, “Yeah, I got this.” Harry is now an overworked Ministry official who is a stranger to his own son-something book Harry would never allow to happen. Ron helps run the family joke shop and he…tells jokes. That’s about all he does. Once again, I’ll shout it from the rooftops: JUSTICE FOR RON.

Hermione is now the Minister of Magic. That is legitimately awesome. I want a spin off where she just does magic politics. Just go full West Wing as she does walk and talks all around the wizarding world. SOMEONE MAKE THIS HAPPEN.
We are now at the point where it is impossible to talk about this play talking spoilers. So if you’re waiting to see the show…

As Albus enters his first year at Hogwarts, he’s plagued by his father’s legacy. Sorted into Slytherin, terrible at Quidditch, mediocre at magic, he becomes angry and withdrawn (so…a teenager, then?). After overhearing a conversation between Harry and Amos Diggory, Albus decides to go back in time and save Cedric Diggory. He and Scorpio steal a Time Turner to return to the Triwizard Tournament. IF THAT PLOT SOUNDS FAMILIAR, IT’S BECAUSE THEY DO ALMOST THE SAME THING IN THE HARRY POTTER MUSICAL YES THEY STOLE THIS PLOT FROM THE HARRY POTTER MUSICAL AND IF YOU HAVEN’T WATCHED THAT YET, CLOSE THIS REVIEW AND GET YE TO YOUTUBE.

Albus and Scorpious are joined by Delphi, a young woman claiming to be Amos Diggory’s niece. In fact she is Voldermort’s daughter. BTW, Voldermort and Bellatrix:

This was a very ridiculous part of the story

Every decision they make in the past affects their present. Some of those changes are ridiculous. Commiserations to Cedric Diggory. Yes they save his life, only to commit a flat-out character assassination, turning him from the kind and honest Hogwarts Champion to a Death Eater.

By the way, I could probably write an entire thesis on the feminism in Cursed Child. The original series featured all types of women-brainiacs, athletes, dreamers, mothers, psychopaths. No matter what kind of women they were, they were their own person. In this play, they fade like an old photograph. Ginny Weasley exists only for Harry to monologue at. And Hermione? My sweet, bucktoothed, DGAF feminist kween? Yeah, she’s the Minister of Magic, but she spends most of her time nagging Harry to do his damn job. And in an alternate reality, one where she and Ron don’t marry, she turns into an evil shrew, a lady Snape who torments Hogwarts students. Like, come on guys. Hermione is such a badass bitch that McGonagall petitioned the Ministry to give her a Time Turner when she was 13! So she could take extra classes! I love her and Ron together, but she would NOT turn into an evil monster because he married Padma Patil.

I don’t want to act like this play was terrible. It had a lot of good moments. Scorpious was adorable and totally hilarious. His friendship with Albus was heartwarming (even though I spent the whole play thinking the pair was so far in the closet they were practically in Narnia). Just from reading it, I can tell it would be amazing to see live.

To sum up: I liked revisiting this world, but the play was ultimately inconsequential. It was…nice. It was a quick, light read. But it wasn’t Harry Potter.

ALSO, MOANING MYRTLE’S FULL NAME IS MYRTLE ELIZABETH WARREN!!? WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS.

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