Heat and Light

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You may have noticed that maintaining this blog is a thing which sometimes I rock at, and sometimes I fail at. It should come as no surprise that I find it difficult to carve out time to reflect and to write – even to read, really – while traipsing around Europe.

Heat and Light was the second book I read for ANZ LitLovers’ Indigenous Literature Week, two weeks ago now (!). I managed somehow to cram it into a singe weekend, in between saying goodbye to England and hello to Holland, sitting on my great-aunts’ couch on a cloudy day, reading about sparkling sunshine and a possible future and people having to live with terrible truths.

Heat and Light is separated into three parts: Heat introduces a family, one by one, sharing their experiences and the way they fit into the world. I was struck by my own colourblindness: I could not forget that these characters were indigenous, and it occurred to me that if these characters’ identities hadn’t been as clearly defined as they were, I would have assumed they were white, and slipped into the stories without so much as a peep. As it was, I struggled to connect my comfortable, solidly-middle-class white-girl world with the world that van Neerven’s characters had to live in; to connect with the fact that these experiences were occurring, are occurring, just outside my periphery.

Water shows a possible future; one where a Prime Minister has been elected whose platform is the plight of the Indigenous population, but who herself is so removed from the problem that building an island to ship them off to seems like the perfect solution. Also in this future are strange, humanoid creatures springing from the islands that ring the Top End, with faces and voices and who are literally connected to the ground that they spring from. Van Neerven explores the mutability of sexuality when her protagonist falls in love with one of these creatures; Larapinta is delicate and feminine, but they are not female, do not have gender the way humans perceive it. Yet the protagonist falls in love with them, is attracted to them, anyway. I want to be flippant and say something about van Neerven taking pansexuality to a whole new level, but this love story is too tender to be treated so.

Light is the last section of the book; where perhaps Heat showed where its characters were coming from, Light shows where they are going; where they have the potential to go. Each story in Light is a moment hanging suspended in time; from here, the characters each have choices to make, futures which could be opening for them if they only turned in that direction. At the risk of sounding flowery, each moment in Light was like a pearl on a string, glinting in the sunlight, full of endless potential.

That’s the thing I love about short stories. Each of them is more than its parts, making you aware of the before and after, the unwritten, in a much more visceral way than anything longer ever does. Heat and Light is a beautiful book, and I’d easily recommend it is foy love short stories, Australian fiction, or simply a good read.

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Comic Book Mondays: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron

It may come as no surprise to you that each time a new movie arc is announced, I get really excited. I’m early enough in my comic reading that I tend to use the movies as inspiration for what to buy next, so when The Avengers: Age of Ultron was announced, I pretty much hopped on over to my local comic book store and bought the whole arc. Plus the Skottie Young edition of #1. Because it’s adorable.

So I read the comic version of Age of Ultron before seeing the movie, and while I knew it couldn’t possibly be the same – Wolverine being the copyright property of 20th Century Fox and Hank Pym not having been introduced yet – I had very high hopes for this movie. Very. High. Hopes.

Ultron is my favourite comic villain so far. He’s clever, he’s driven, and he’s in the internet. All of these things make him absolutely terrifying, and I spent most of the comics biting my lip, hoping to God that the good guys would succeed. They did, of course, but the road to success was littered with time travel and heart-wrenching battles.

The movie Ultron, however, is not very scary at all. Spoiler alert, but it took the Vision seconds to eradicate him from the internet and keep him out of there, and as visually arresting as it is, the army of Ultron-clones just wasn’t as scary as I think Joss Whedon intended it to be. Sure, the battle scenes were epic, and I loved the Maximoff twins, but Ultron was declawed with absolutely no trouble. And that made me really sad.

I get that time-travel is not something that the cinematic universe has yet (Benedict Cumberbatch, I’m looking at you for this one). I get that watching a guy mashing at a computer keyboard doesn’t exactly make for riveting cinema. But the parts where a disembodied Ultron took out a disembodied JARVIS were great, and when they introduced their unknown ally protecting the nuclear codes, my heart leapt in excitement. Surely it wouldn’t have been that much trouble to introduce just a little tension regarding Ultron’s biggest strength?

Having said all that, Age of Ultron is a solid movie, and I enjoyed it enough to see it twice at the cinema and another time since then. I love the character-building that we got from Wanda’s nightmare-thingy, I love Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (I s2g if Pietro doesn’t get miraculously revived the way Coulson did I will be seriously upset). I even enjoyed the “Language!” gag, though I do wonder about Cap being cast as an old man in a young man’s body. I’m sorry, but he’s not. He’s in the army. He would have used plenty of foul language in the war – probably still does, amongst his team.

I don’t love Age of Ultron the way I love The Avengers, but I think that’s okay. I had a high expectations of Age of Ultron, both as a fan of the preceeding films and as a budding comic book fan, and Ultron didn’t quite manage to meet them all. But that doesn’t dampen my excitement over the direction the Marvel Cinematic Universe is going in at all.

Blood

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The point of reading widely – of reading at all, really, but especially of reading widely – is to engage in as many experiences different to your own as possible. It’s why I joined the Queer Book Club this week, why I continue to read books from as many different countries and time periods as possible. But I never really properly appreciated the true value of wide reading until I participated in ANZ LitLovers’ 2015 Indigenous Literature Week.

I elected to read Tony Birch’s Blood, a novel I’d had on my bookcase since about 2012; and Ellen van Neerven’s Heat and Light, a collection of short stories that I hadn’t managed to get to for July’s Queer Book Club. I’m only a little way into Heat and Light, but I’m going to call it now and say that both of these books were wonderful, and so challenging in ways I’d never anticipated.

Blood is about Jesse and Rachel, and their life on and off the road with their mum Gwen, who can’t seem to keep a boyfriend or a job, but who for all her terrible decision-making skills loves her kids too much to be away from them. It’s about Jesse trying to find his place in a world where he’s only ever a visitor, and toying with the terrible choice between being free of his mum and leaving his little sister behind.

The book opens with Jesse in police custody, his custody officer trying to convince him to tell her what has happened. What follows is an account of his life, the decisions he’d made and the decisions Gwen has made that led their little misfit family to the point where the book begins. When I finished the book I actually had to go back and re-read the prologue a few times, just to be sure that I understood the way the books event’s progressed chronologically, because what actually happened was nothing like what I imagined had happened.

Jesse’s voice is brilliant, clear and eloquent but not overly sophisticated for the twelve-year-old he’s supposed to be. He describes places and situations in a way that rings true, and having driven around Australia a bit I had no trouble picturing the roadsides and landscapes they passed through. Jesse is also just rude enough to his sister and to Gwen that you never feel like he’s unreliable as a narrator – but I had the idea that if the book were to continue, the lies might just start to pour out.

I’m not sure whether it was because it’s a road trip novel, and that’s pretty much the way I’ve experienced Australia myself, but I really related to Blood on a level that surprised me. I could see the drying paddocks and small sleepy towns as they rolled past Gwen’s little car, imagine the sort of dilapidated houses the little family would stay in as the sorts of houses you see alone on the outskirts of a town. On some levels Blood talked about the Australia that I know, the one that I’ve experienced myself.

On the other hand, there are parts of Jesse’s experience that I couldn’t even begin to fathom. After all, the driving he did with Gwen and Rachel wasn’t a holiday, it was their whole life. Every time he was introduced to an adult that he came to trust, Gwen sent them away, looking for greener pastures. His father, a character who we never actually meet (for reasons that become apparent as Gwen moves from boyfriend to boyfriend without ever looking back), was an Aborigine, a fact which is only brought up a couple of times but which clearly affects the relationships he’s able to build with the people he meets.

Because it’s only mentioned once or twice, Jesse’s heritage is a subtle thing, but it made me uncomfortably aware of the ways in which I view society – the way I automatically cast every character I meet as white, usually with dark hair, and with emphasis on each event and action which demonstrates their intelligence – in other words, a reflection of the way I see myself. I was struck recently by a post I saw on the internet which stated that there is no truly open casting for film roles – if a character’s heritage isn’t explicitly stated, it’s assumed to be white, and so casting is only opened to white characters. It’s assumed that for a character to be something other than white – Aboriginal, Indian, Native American, Ethiopian – there needs to be a reason, something central to the story. The default character is white, and as much as I was disgusted by that idea when I read that post, that’s also how I read characters myself.

And that’s why I try to participate in things like ANZ LitLover’s Indigenous Literature Week – these events challenge the way we read, encouraging us to read better, more openly, with more consciousness of the way we see the world and all the characters in it.

Comic Book Mondays: Ant-Man

Marvel-Ant-Man-Banner-Poster

So I wanted to write about the Ant-Man movie because that’s what I do. I watch comic book movies, and then I squee about them, and then I blog about them. But the thing is, I don’t really have any strong feelings about Ant-Man. Maybe that’s just because I don’t have any strong feelings about Ant-Man himself.

The premise of the film is pretty standard comic book stuff – a scientist creates a technology which has the potential to change the world; he refuses to patent it because he’s sure it will be used for evil; then someone manages to recreate it and intends to sell it to the highest bidder.

I like Ant-Man because it stays true to the comic book origins of the Avengers as a team, adding depth to SHIELD’s background while not altering the fabric of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as it stands. By this, of course, I mean that Hank Pym and Janet van Dyne are in this universe crucial to the development of SHIELD, but by the present day, Hank Pym is an old man whose days of death-defying acts of heroism are beyond him.

Enter Scott Lang, the hero of this story and the man who takes up the Ant-Man mantle after Hank Pym. his story arc is very much of the redemption variety – he’s just gotten out of prison for theft, and is desperately trying to reintegrate into society so that he can pick up his relationship with his daughter, who is still young enough that she totally hero-worships her daddy.

I feel like Ant-Man can pretty much be summed up in this exchange:

Hank: I believe that everyone deserves a shot at redemption. Do you?

Scott: Absolutely. My days of breaking into places and stealing stuff are over. What do you want me to do?

Hank: I want you to break into a place and steal some stuff.

I particularly like the part where, after Hank Pym outlines the terrible consequences if their plan to steal the Pym Particles back, Scott’s immediate reaction is, “I think we should call the Avengers.” Good plan, Scotty. Too bad they’re too high-profile (or whatever).

I feel like every time Marvel debuts a new superhero, they ask us to have faith in them all over again. Here’s this actor, they say, you may have seen him before. He’s not super famous, but we think he’ll be the perfect Scott Lang. Trust us, they say. Okay, we say – I mean, we know by now that the teams working on these movies have as much love for the comics as we do. I wasn’t sure about Paul Rudd, hadn’t really seen him in anything, I don’t think, but I was totally sold by the end.

When I first walked out of the theatre, I wasn’t sure what I thought – Ant-Man wasn’t slapstick like Iron Man; it wasn’t earnest like Captain America: the First Avenger. Sure, the stakes were global-devastation huge, but that wasn’t why Scott Lang accepted the Ant-Man mantle. He didn’t feel a responsibility for the world, he felt a responsibility to pick his life up and be a good influence for his daughter. The fact that Hank Pym and Hope van Dyne (van Dyne? Van Dyne? help!) don’t have a great relationship, giving Hank Pym an element of genuine empathy with Scott Lang, was a great emotional thread that ran throughout the whole film, shrinking the scale to something more relatable than “Oh no, the world might end!”

I’m not sure how to wrap up this post. I enjoyed watching Ant-Man, but I didn’t walk out of the theatre gushing about it. Now every time I think about it, I like it even more. The feel of it is, immediately, quite different from other Marvel movies, but now that I’ve had time to adjust to it, I feel like that’s a strength rather than a weakness. I mean, we’re in Phase 3 now. We’ve been through enough in the MCU that we don’t need everything to be as grand as Phase 1 was.

How to be Both

HowToBeBoth

So the cool thing about this book is that it’s told in two parts. Well, actually, that’s not the cool thing – the cool thing is that two versions of How to be Both were published simultaneously, one version with one protagonist’s story first and the other swapped around.  It was pretty much left to chance how each reader would experience the book.

How to be Both is about George, a tomboyish teenage girl desperately trying to reconnect with her recently deceased mother through remembering a trip they took to Italy to see the works of the painter. It’s also about Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa, his life and works, and this strange boy who piques his curiosity by viewing and reviewing one of his portraits.

My thoughts on this book are twofold, because I read it in two parts. I got George’s story first, and as much as I enjoyed Smith’s writing and the story she was telling, it was really hard to get into. I think this was for two reasons: Firstly, I was in the midst of a really tough time, so I had trouble suspending my reality for long enough to really get comfortable in George’s head; Secondly, George was also going through a tough time, and it was really hard to relate to a character who was pretty much wandering around in a haze of grief, trying like crazy to make sense of a world that no longer had her mum in it.

George is constantly questioning the value of witness: one of the scenes that really stuck with me was how she stumbled across a pornographic film in which the girl didn’t appear to be having a good time, and so she swore to watch it every day in order to witness the girl’s suffering. On the other hand, her mum was paranoid that she was being watched, and George has inherited that paranoia.

One of the ways George tries to keep her mum’s memory alive is by travelling often to London to view del Cossa’s portrait of St Vincent Ferrer, remembering their trip to Italy to view the frescoes in the Hall of the Months at the Palazzo Schifanoia. It is through this that we see the connection between George and del Cossa: while George is viewing the painting, Francesco is viewing her. So we meet Francesco del Cossa, and learn about his life while he learns about George’s.

How to be Both spends much of its time drawing attention to the way we gender others. This is a thing we do constantly, without even thinking about it: breasts, girl. Long hair, most likely a girl. Hairy legs, boy. Short hair, most likely a boy. Francesco del Cossa, in this story, was born a girl, but such was her talent with colour and form that her parents disguised her as a boy to send her off to an apprenticeship; he spends the rest of his life identifying as male, and history identifies him as male as well. George is a girl, but her short hair and tomboyish clothes cause the artist to gender her as a boy, and so we only really know that she’s a girl because, for me anyway, I already had half a book telling me that she is.

I often say to people when I’m telling them about this book that I’d have enjoyed it more if I had read the artist’s story first, as he’s connected to the girl through her artwork, and there are elements of her story that bleed through. Chronologically, I think my story was in order, but I would have quite enjoyed reading about the artist and this queer boy he was haunting, then picking up and seeing what motivated George’s actions, rather than the other way around.

As I’m writing this though, it occurs to me – if this was a standard book; if this book had been printed in one version and one version only – there’s no way it would have occurred to me that I would have enjoyed the story the other way around. The sheer possibility that I may have, though – that it was mere chance that led me to read the story in the order it was presented – that’s making me really think about what it was that made this book tick, and whether or not I might have related to it better in a different circumstance.

Comic Book Mondays: Civil War

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I’m a Captain America fangirl. This is a known fact about me. So knowing that, you can imagine how difficult it was for me to jump into Civil War – an event I had very high hopes for, given that it forms the premise of the next Captain America movie – and find that I actively, vigorously disagreed with the stance that Captain America took.

Civil War centres around the political debate regarding whether or not superheroes and mutants – superhumans, let’s call them – should be registered and given mandatory government training in order to be allowed to mingle with the regular-human public in their day-to-day lives. You get the impression that this debate has raged in the Marvel background for a long time before the tragedy that levels a primary school and kicks off Civil War takes place. But here it is – a group of low-level mutants are filming a reality TV show. They enrage some villains, and the fallout levels a primary school and kills dozens. The public, understandably, is furious, and the superhuman registration debate explodes.

In the midst of this, we have the superhumans we know and love. On the one hand, Iron Man, who wrestles with his own responsibility for public safety as a superhero and as an ex-weapons developer. On the other, Captain America, who for all he was developed as a weapon, has an impressive moral compass and respect for civilian life. Tony Stark believes that the safety of the many is more important than the comfort of the few, and is all for registration. Steve Rogers believes that the privacy of superhumans must be respected, and rejects registration out of hand.

Civil War puts the reader in the uncomfortable position of having their favourite duo – Cap and Shellhead – at odds for almost the whole event. Cap fights, and hides underground, gathering a collective of superhumans – both heroes and villains – who also disagree with registration. It’s a weird and uncomfortable feeling, having Cap in the role of Bad Guy, seeing what the science cohort does without Cap standing there saying, “Really, Tony? You think that’s a good idea?”

I read Civil War in about two days, I think. Two big chunks. The art was beautiful, the storyline gave me all the information without slowing down, I got to meet heaps of cool characters (like the Punisher; let me just say OMG); but best of all, I think, was that Civil War gave me an opportunity to really reflect on why Captain America – Steve Rogers, really – is one of my faves, and to understand that just because he is my fave doesn’t mean he’s perfect or that all of his ideas are good.

A Mother’s Disgrace

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I have this thing that memoirs should be about people with interesting lives. No; I think that the best memoirs are about people with interesting lives. I can’t decide if this one fits the bill. Robert Dessaix has had a fairly humdrum life, but out of that humdrum life has come a plethora of interesting ideas, and he seems to know it. His memoir, A Mother’s Disgrace, isn’t driven by his loving suburban upbringing or his years studying Russian in Moscow or even his reconnection, late in life, with the birth mother who gave him up as a baby. No, Dessaix’s memoir is driven by the thoughts and ideas that surround and connect these events, and that’s what makes it so interesting.

So he doesn’t detail the everyday existence of his happy nuclear family and their frankly ordinary lives. No, he talks about his father’s love of language, the way he’d sit on the porch with a pitcher of lemonade and a French-English dictionary, something he did for his whole life because he never quite grasped it. Then he talks about how his father’s love of language, love of words, led to his own close examination of language and syntax, the way that in creating his own private language (as children often do), Dessaix began from an early age to inspect words from all possible angles, to discover that even though they use the same words, the meaning construed in “I love you” and “I love pizza” are completely different, and entirely built on context – both syntactical and cultural.

The topics Dessaix covers in A Mother’s Disgrace are many and varied – smuggling Western culture into sixties Russia; the burgeoning Sydney gay scene of the seventies; inherited versus learned characteristics (after realising that he carried himself the same way that his half-brother, whom he’d never met, did), and much more. I can’t say it’s much as a memoir, but as a collection of thoughtful essays on a wide range of topics, inspired by the events of his life – it’s en excellent read, and worth a try if you’re the kind of shower thinker who’s ever wondered if you’d have turned out different if <insert differing circumstance here>.