Carry On Book Review

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Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl was one of my favorite reads in 2015. The main character, Cath, writes fanfiction for a fictional series of fantasy novels about a boy called Simon Snow and his roommate and arch-enemy Tyrannus Basilton Grimm-Pitch (aka Baz). In Fangirl, Simon and Baz are thinly disguised stand-ins for the characters of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy and fictional Cath writes slash fic about them much as real life Rowell wrote slash fic for the extremely popular Harry/Draco pairing from Harry Potter. (As of July 2015, Harry/Draco remains the most popular Harry Potter pairing and the 9th most popular pairing overall on An Archive of Our Own, with more than 11,000 fics dedicated to the pairing. More fics, in fact, than the next two most popular Harry Potter pairings – Harry/Snape and Remus/Sirius – combined.) However, Rowell apparently couldn’t get the characters of Simon and Baz out of her head, because she ended up writing Carry On.

Attempting to describe Carry On is a meta experience, to put it mildly. It takes place entirely during Simon and Baz’s final year at Watford School of Magicks, but it’s not intended to represent the final novel as written by fictional author Gemma Leslie in Fangirl. Nor (despite the title) is it supposed to be “Carry On, Simon,” Cath’s novel-length fanfiction about Simon’s final year at Watford. Carry On is explicitly Rainbow Rowell‘s take on the characters of Simon and Baz, not a fictional novel (or fanfic) by a fictional author brought to life. For that matter, Rowell didn’t just “file off the serial numbers” (a la Fifty Shades of Grey) of one of her Harry/Draco fanfics, either. Though they share some basic similarities, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the World of Mages of Simon Snow as laid out in Carry On are distinctly different. Yet at the same time, many aspects of the novel are clearly directly inspired by Harry Potter, Harry Potter fanfiction, or both.

I’ll let Aja Romano, herself once a BNF (Big Name Fan) in the Harry/Draco fandom, give you some examples:

Carry On utilizes so, so many of the plot points of Harry Potter. So many of the trappings of Potterdom are here: awkwardly backward wizarding customs; Simon’s mysterious parentage and a prophecy decreeing him the chosen one; the deadly forest and banal animal caretaker both inexplicably on school grounds; class hierarchy between the magicians and other magical creatures; Simon’s outsider status as the only “Normal”-born magician; his enmity with the aristocratic and sinister Baz, whose ancient and powerful family is at war with Simon’s equally powerful protector, the Mage; the presence of a strange figure called the Humdrum, which has apparently tried to kill Simon every year since he’s attended the Watford School of Magicks; and many more.

And Rowell goes even further: She directly engages with tropes that are a huge part of the fabric of Harry/Draco fandom. There’s a momentous handshake the moment they meet (only this time it’s Baz, not Simon, who hesitates); she gives Baz and Simon their own tower with a private suite, in a throwback to fandom’s penchant for inventing an “astronomy tower” in the castle suitable for snogging; she makes Baz a vampire in homage to a virtually endless amount of fanfiction in which Draco is a Veela or a vampire or otherwise possessed of a dangerous ability to exert a thrall over other people; she devotes a huge amount of attention to the moment when they switch to first-name basis, as countless H/D fics before her have done; Baz toys with the famous “Draco in leather pants” trope; Simon obsessively stalks Baz throughout their early years, seeking proof of what he believes is his evil nature, until their relationship subsides into something more mature and subdued—all while he exudes the righteous savior mentality that draws Baz to him long before his moral conflict about his own family and their penchant for war sets in.

All of this is the stuff of H/D fanfiction. It is the stuff I lived and breathed for years, returning to me in a new form.

But Rowell doesn’t just parrot these ideas. Instead she uses them to directly address countless criticisms that HP fans have leveled at the series over the years: Dumbledore’s mistreatment of Harry; the lack of significant characters of color; the lack of any queer characters at all; the lack of ambiguity between the “good” and “evil” Hogwarts houses and the pointlessness of labeling a child for life before they’ve even been through puberty; the misjudgments of Harry himself about the people around him; the lack of narrative agency given to characters ranging from Hagrid to Ginny Weasley. The tropes in Carry On are narrative versions of the criticisms I’ve leveled at Rowling’s texts for years, in everything from fanfics of my own to Tumblr tags (“I’ve got 99 problems and J.K. Rowling’s unintentional meta-narrative is all of them”).

I’m glad Aja brought up Rowling’s “unintentional meta-narrative,” because, for me, it was one of the most interesting points of comparison between Rowling’s series and Rowell’s novel. As Aja says, Rowell did “correct” some of the issues that I as an adult reader of Harry Potter had with the series. In particular, I was thrilled to get MAJOR CARRY ON SPOILER evil!Dumbledore, because I had huge issues with his character and relationship with Harry in the HP books and Rowell made the true creepiness of his aloof yet manipulative behavior very evident.

Making Simon and Baz canonically queer also made my slashy fangirl heart dance. Here’s Aja again:

Unlike actual slashfic, Carry On lacks the anxiety of proving itself. Because fanfiction exists in a direct relationship to its canon, it tends to carry the weight of an argument. Especially when that argument is a hard sell—like the idea that pairing the beloved hero in a gay relationship with his antagonistic rival would be the best thing for both of them—fanfic is always having to prove itself, over and over, not only as it exists in a culture that dismisses it, but as it exists in contradiction and often opposition to the word of the author.

In Fangirl, that anxiety was transferred directly to Cath herself, to the fangirl who worried her hobby wasn’t enough. That she wasn’t enough.

But at the end of that book, she’d come into her own, acknowledging that her fanfiction needed no justification—just as Rowell herself did somewhere along the way. The result is that Carry On doesn’t have that anxiety, that sense of urgency; and because it doesn’t have that anxiety, it has the luxury of unfolding the relationship between Simon and Baz as naturally and organically as the plot itself.

In other words, it has the luxury of being canon, of being taken for granted. Because after all, why shouldn’t our heroes be queer? Why shouldn’t it be a queer redemption narrative that saves us?

As a Harry/Draco fan, as someone who longed and argued for this very thing in fanfiction for years, seeing this narrative play out in the pages of Carry On, so familiar and yet so new, is inexpressibly meaningful and delightful—and even though I know fanfiction doesn’t need validation, it’s so, so deeply validating. It’s the stuff slash fangirl dreams are made of.

(By the way, Aja, if you find this, I’m sorry for quoting you so extensively here, but I agree with so much of what you said that I’d just have ended up paraphrasing you anyway, and you put things better than I would have.)

Although I was never much of a Harry/Draco shipper (my fondness for bickering couples notwithstanding, I’m not a huge Enemies To Lovers fan; I prefer Friends To Lovers), as a frequent slash shipper, I understand all too well “the anxiety of proving itself.” Some recent comments by Anthony and Joe Russo, the director of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, have sparked a lot of conversation in the Marvel fandom, particularly among Steve/Bucky shippers. A Tumblr user lamented:

What I hate about heteronormativity is that you will get the most mind-blowing, realistic, palpable chemistry between two characters of the same gender in a show and the writer/cast will bend over backwards to pretend it’s in the fans heads or make out it’s some amusing and impossible joke, yet you’ll get the dullest, most rubbish, forced, stilted ‘romance’ shoved in your face and be expected to just go with it because hey, it’s a man and a lady who are white and moderately attractive, of course it’s true love. Of bloody course.

In this particular case, the Russos have been more respectful of slash fans than implied by this statement (which was general, not referring specifically to the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Captain America films), even stating that while they personally regard Steve and Bucky’s relationship as “two brothers,” they encourage others to interpret it however they want and do not intend to explicitly define it within the films. At the same time, however, they have stated that “we can only keep Cap romantically uninvolved for so long.” Thanks to the unbalanced gender ratio of Marvel’s films, that leaves a rather limited selection of female characters that Cap even could fall in love with. Assuming they don’t introduce a new character or somehow make Peggy young again, there are precisely four, by my count: Sharon Carter (the most likely candidate, due to their history in the comics, but not without problems due to the ick factor of her blood relationship with Peggy), Natasha Romanoff (unlikely – the Russos themselves have stated Steve and Natasha’s relationship is platonic in the films, plus she’s supposed to be mooning over Bruce for reasons understandable only to Joss Whedon and her romantic history in the comics is much stronger with Bucky), Maria Hill (to be honest, I’d prefer this over either of the first two), or Wanda Maximoff (I’d prefer this, too, but it’s probably unlikely due to her history with Vision in the comics.) Steve and Natasha’s relationship is the only one of the four that comes even remotely close to the deep intimacy that Steve and Bucky share. Even his relationship with Peggy, as much as I love it, was fleeting by comparison – a few years, tops, versus a lifetime of familiarity. And yet I guarantee you, the possibility of making Steve romantically involved with Bucky was never given a moment of serious consideration by Marvel Studios.

From a financial perspective, ignoring Steve and Bucky’s chemistry and making them “brothers” rather than lovers is unquestionably a good decision. Two of the biggest markets – Russia and China – might go so far as to ban the film if it has gay themes. But from a storytelling perspective, is it really?

Comics Alliance made a very salient point:

[I]f Bucky Barnes were a woman, this would be a love story, played out with all the same narrative beats. If Peggy were the brainwashed assassin kept frozen through the decades, this movie would definitely end in a kiss. Everything about the love, pain, and intimacy of the Steve/Bucky relationship on the big screen is typical of a romance, and that’s something fans are right to respond to — something the filmmakers may even be playing into, though surely not with any formal sign-off from Disney.

[…] Imagine this; if we lived in a world that had no hang-ups about same-sex relationships, no hate, no prejudice towards the idea of two men or two women together; do you doubt for a second that this movie would actually be a romance?

If everything else about this movie were the same, but we were different, wouldn’t it make sense for Steve and Bucky to kiss?

This movie looks about as gay as it’s allowed to be. One day we’ll get a movie like it that’s actually gay enough.

Anyway, suffice to say that as a slash fangirl, I’m used to having to “prove” my preferred ships and I’m long past the point where I expect (or even necessarily want) my shipping preferences to be validated by canon. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t really wonderful when they are! So thanks, Rainbow Rowell. Maybe you can do Sirius/Remus next? 😉

Nice as it was to have some of my issues with the Harry Potter series “corrected” in Carry On, it also had a bit of an unintentional meta-narrative. One, incidentally, that is shared by some of the Harry/Draco fics I’ve read, and which was one of the reasons I could never really get into the ship. In order to make Draco anything other than a racist git, many Harry/Draco shippers end up making him sort of right about some things. In Carry On, evil!Dumbledore wanted a revolution, particularly in the treatment of certain other magical species. Powerful Mage families like Baz’s opposed his reforms. While the methods evil!Dumbledore used to accomplish his goals were obviously wrong, the goals themselves seemed fairly admirable to me. Unfortunately, it’s not really made clear that the traditionalist elements won’t just roll back the reforms after evil!Dumbledore is defeated. Baz himself seems to make peace with the fact that he’s alive as a vampire when his very traditional mother literally killed herself rather than become one but there’s not really any indication that the rest of the World of Mages has come to a similar peace with the existence of other magical creatures. So while I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to call the book “problematic” as certain corners of fandom are wont to do, I think the meta narrative could have been better considered in what is otherwise a largely progressive story.

In addition to issues specific to the Harry Potter series, Rowell also took on some common yet stupid Chosen One tropes. One that stood out to me was Agatha Wellbelove’s decision to break up with Simon near the start of the book. The hero is supposed to get the girl, but Agatha doesn’t want to be “the prize at the end” and she tells Simon as much to his face when she dumps him. You go, girl! Many people seem to have found Agatha annoying and I did myself as several points, especially when she was mooning around after Baz mainly in an effort to horrify her parents (which Baz called her out on, go Baz), but overall I thought she was a good character. Not good in the sense of admirable,  necessarily – she is undeniably selfish and cowardly – but realistic. I liked her ending (especially the way she chose to honor Ebb) a lot.

In fact, the ending (meta-narrative issues notwithstanding) was excellent in general. One of the themes through much of the book was how dehumanizing it is to be “the Chosen One” and be seen always for what you’ve done or are supposed to do rather than who you are. I really liked that Rowell dealt with the aftermath of both the dehumanization Simon experienced and the trauma he (and his friends) went through. No jumping 15 years into the future to see the adorable next generation – Simon and his friends are actually shown having to learn to cope with what they’ve been through. There’s even therapy involved!

Finally, I wanted to put in a good word for the magic system, which is all about the power of words – literally. In Simon’s world, spells are phrases, and their power waxes and wanes with their popularity in the Normal world. For example, “up, up, and away” is a levitating spell, “ladybird, ladybird, fly away home” gets used to turn away an unwelcome visitor, and “these aren’t the droids you are looking for” gets used to conceal something in plain sight. I thought it was clever and fun.

So, to sum up, I thought Carry On did a lot of things very well and some other things not so well. It never grabbed me the way that the Harry Potter series did (from the very first sentence even) and it’s pretty unlikely that I’ll end up devoting a couple years of my life to the fandom, as I did for Harry Potter. I missed Rowling’s whimsical touch and she had six more books to develop characters and relationships, so they felt more fully fleshed. However, I still found it a very enjoyable read, with some great lines and much to love in the characters. (Penny was my favorite.)

My rating: (3.5 / 5)

Last Will and Testament Book Review

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My m/m romance phase isn’t out of my system, but with it temporarily being satisfied by the millions upon millions of words of free Stucky slash fic on AO3, I decided to try poking around the New Adult genre a little to see if anything caught my fancy. I mention the Stucky because my decision to read Last Will and Testament was sort of inspired by a cute Stucky modern AU fic called Breadth Requirements with a really fun, snarky dynamic between a college student and a TA. (You don’t need to be familiar with the Captain America films to understand the fic, by the way.)  So I kind of thought of that when I saw that Last Will and Testament also featured a student/TA romance.

Our heroine, 18 year old college sophomore Lizzie Brandt, was a valedictorian back in high school, but hasn’t adjusted well to college life and has allowed her grades and attendance to slip while she parties and hooks up with the wrong guys. Then her life is turned upside-down when her parents are killed in a car accident and she becomes the sole guardian of her 13 and 7 year old brothers. She has to get her life back on track, fast, and begins to rely increasingly on the help of her Byzantine History TA, Connor Lawson.

Despite the grief and hardship Lizzie undergoes on her way to turning her life back around, this is a pretty light and enjoyable read, with a sweet (and yes, often snarky) romance. Despite some kind of annoying (for Lizzie and the reader) mixed messages early on due to his misgivings about starting a relationship with a student, Connor is a fundamentally good guy and it’s nice to see a nerd get the girl. It took me a little longer to warm up to Lizzie (knowingly hooking up with another girl’s boyfriend – even if the girl is a psychotic bitch – is a major turn-off for me), but she really did try hard to step up for her brothers, despite some bumps along the way.

Bonus points for representation: Lizzie is biracial (half-Filipino) and her friend Frankie seems to identify as pansexual. Speaking of Frankie, I also liked that Lizzie had two really close and supportive female friends, which helped offset the overly stereotypical subplot about Lizzie’s hook-up partner’s psychotic bitch of a girlfriend.

My rating: (3 / 5)

Criminal Minds Series Review

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I started watching Criminal Minds on the recommendation of a friend. Despite the fact that I love mysteries and crime dramas, it took a little bit of persuading, because Criminal Minds follows the  FBI’s (real but fictionalized) Behavioral Analysis Unit – profilers – a group that deals frequently with criminals who are the sickest of the sick: serial killers, serial rapists, pedophiles, etc. Quite frankly, I was afraid the show would give me nightmares, and this turned out to be a totally legitimate fear, because it has given me nightmares on multiple occasions and to this day there are certain episodes I can’t rewatch because they’re just too horrible.

Despite this, I ended up really enjoying the show and watched it until partway through the 6th season. I broke up with it rather reluctantly and still sometimes think about going back and picking it up again, but so far have not. I stopped watching because I thought there was a noticeable decline in the quality of the cases starting in season 5 and there started to be too many arcs I didn’t like (spoilers, click to view): fridging Hotch’s wife, for example, and the whole thing with Prentiss.

I remember the show as a whole pretty fondly, however. Most of the cases were interesting and well-written, but what really made the show great was the team dynamics. Though I was never a huge fan of Gideon, I adored the rest of the team. Penelope Garcia, the team’s hacker, is probably my favorite, because she is adorable, but it’s such a tough call, because Prentiss! Morgan! JJ! Reid! Hotch! I love them all so much, and they work so well together as a team that it’s hard to separate them in my head.

One of the things that helped persuade me to give the show a shot despite my apprehension about how well I’d be able to handle the nature of the cases was several excellent meta posts by fans and I wanted to quote a bit from a post by Synecdochic for you, because it’s totally true and also part of what makes even the most nightmarish episodes in this show bearable, at least one time:

For a show that’s about the horrible things that human beings can do to each other, it reinforces — over and over and — that even victims (especially victims) still have agency. The victims who fight are the victims who win. The victims who give up and lie down to die are the ones who don’t make it. One of the most awesome statements that keeps running through the whole show is that even when there are things you can’t control, even when horrible things are being done to you, you do still have power — even if you might have to squint to see it — because the person who’s doing it needs something from his or her victim, and that gives the victim power. Part of what the show is trying to do, I think, is trying to show the watchers that when you only have a little bit of power in a situation, you can still use it. No matter how bad the situation is.

This is an incredibly powerful message, and not just if you happen to get snagged off the street by a serial killer.

A couple other meta posts I recommend were written by the SFF writer Elizabeth Bear, who’s also a fan of the show. This one discusses thematic elements in the show, and this one discusses some of the very interesting things the show did with gender expectations in the early seasons, including its tendency to cast male characters in traditionally “feminine” roles and female characters in traditionally “masculine” ones and then play against type even then. For example:

Mom and Dad. Because if the team is a family (and they are, complete with sibling spats and looking out for little brother) then Mom and Dad are the two senior supervisory agents in charge of the zoo. And again, they are totally cast against type. Because Hotch [Thomas Gibson] is a three-piece-suit and wingtips, marksman-qualified, stern, unsmiling, ambitious piece of work. And Gideon [Mandy Patinkin] is soft-spoken, manipulative, casually dressed in soft colors, with a cluttered office full of pictures of the children he’s helped save.

Gideon is Dad and Hotch is Mom.

Anyway, all three meta posts are thoughtful and interesting and I hope they’ll inspire you to check the show out as much as they did me, because when it was good, it was really good.

My rating: (4 / 5)

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Hawaii Five-0, Season 1 Review

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This reboot of the classic 70’s show Hawaii Five-O had major issues with excessive product placement and glamorizing police brutality from the start, but it was fun enough to overlook the problems for awhile. Unfortunately, towards the end of season one, there were several plot developments that annoyed me to the point that I never returned to the show for season two and season one remains the only season of the show that I’ve watched.

But, issues aside, Hawaii Five-0 really was fun, and there were a couple episodes that rank pretty high on my list of most entertaining individual episodes of television that I’ve ever seen, so if you’re looking for some slick, shiny, action-packed entertainment, you could do a heck of a lot worse. The eye candy is also ridiculous. The Hawaiian scenery is so gorgeous that it might as well be an advertisement for the Hawaiian tourism bureau, and the cast….

Well, let’s just all thank God for Alex O’Loughlin’s willingness to take off his shirt and leave it at that. Daniel Dae Kim, Scott Caan, and Grace Park round out the main cast and they aren’t exactly painful to look at either.

As someone who loves a good Bickering Couple, the relationship between O’Loughlin’s Steve McGarrett and Scott Caan’s Danny “Danno” Williams was also a major highlight of the show. It only takes a couple episodes for them to go from wanting to punch each other in the face to full-on heterosexual life partnerhood, complete with Danno drawing hearts in the air at Steve as he’s being taken away after an injury. I am not even kidding. Watch this:

It’s worth watching the show for their carguments alone. In fact, their bromance was so blindingly obvious even CBS got in on the fun:

My rating: (3.5 / 5)

Water Movie Review

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One of the most horrifying films I’ve ever seen. I saw in an arthouse theater soon after it came out in 2005 and haven’t seen it since, but I still feel physically ill when I remember certain scenes.

Water was written and directed by Deepa Mehta, a native of Amritsar, Punjab, India who now lives in Canada. It is set in India in 1938, during the rise of Gandhi, but mostly follows the life of a 7 year old child bride who is widowed and sent by her family to live for the rest of her life in an ashram (house of prayer) with other widows. The women are desperately poor and survive by begging and, it turns out, by prostituting the younger and prettier members of the ashram to wealthy men. Starting in childhood.

It does end on a slightly more hopeful note than most of the rest of the film, but overall, it is very hard to watch. Nevertheless, I do recommend watching Water if you can safely do so without triggering yourself. Not only is it a beautifully made and well-acted film, it’s also a very powerful and important one. Call me a bleeding heart, but I think it’s important for those of us with comfortable Western lives to be aware of the struggles of people in general and women in particular in more superstitious and unforgiving times and places. The plight of poor widows in India remains dire. If you feel inspired to try and help, check out The Loomba Foundation and similar charities.

Little Big Man Movie Review

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Back in my college days, I once had to write a paper on exactly what Little Big Man gets right and wrong about Cheyenne life. There was quite a bit of both, as I recall. Despite its flaws, however, I think Little Big Man deserves a lot of credit for being one of the first films to give a sympathetic portrayal of American Indians and their cultures, and more importantly, to give a human portrayal of American Indians and their cultures. The Indian characters experience the same depth and range of human emotions as the white characters, and include both “good” and “bad” characters. In contrast to their frequent portrayal in many earlier films as stern, bloodthirsty, and savage and in many later ones as solemn, mystical, and wise, the Indians of Little Big Man even have senses of humor!

Despite several prominent Cheyenne characters, the film itself does follow a white man named Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) who is captured as a boy and raised by the Cheyenne. Crabb takes a somewhat Forrest Gump-like path through all aspects of Wild West society, from being “saved” by a fire-and-brimstone preacher after being re-captured from the Cheyenne to becoming a snake oil salesman, gunslinger, drunk, and muleskinner for one General George Armstrong Custer. The real historical events depicted (again, with varying degrees of accuracy) in the film include the Washita Massacre, the death of Wild Bill Hickok, and the Battle of Little Bighorn.

It’s an entertaining, well-acted, and frequently hilarious movie, but hard-hitting in its depiction of the genocidal campaign against the Cheyenne and their fellow Plains tribes, and you may want to keep a hanky handy for certain scenes.

Note: This film shouldn’t be confused for a biography of the historical Little Big Man, an Oglala Lakota.

My rating: (3.5 / 5)

Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron Movie Review

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My kids both love Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, an adventure story about a Kiger mustang stallion in the Wild West, but my feelings are a bit more mixed. Speaking as a bleeding heart liberal tree hugger whose sympathies align almost entirely with the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, and other tribes of the Great Plains in histories of the Plains Indian Wars of the 19th century, this film is way too overbearing with its Indians=good, white people=bad message. No subtlety or nuance whatsoever.  It also suffers from rather overwrought narration that strays too often from the sentimental to the sappy and maudlin.

That said, it’s an enjoyable adventure story, especially for young horse lovers like my kids, and the animation is absolutely gorgeous. I consider it worth watching for the beautiful landscape art alone.

My rating: (3 / 5)

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Children of the River Book Review

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Children of the River is another of my favorite YA romance novels. It tells the story of a Cambodian refugee girl named Sundara who escapes from the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge with her aunt and uncle and flees to America. I’m ashamed to say that before reading it for the first time around age 14 or 15, I knew almost nothing about Cambodia, and nothing at all about Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, who were responsible for the death of up to 2 million Cambodians between 1975 and 1979, so it was a very eye-opening book for me. In addition to information about the Cambodian genocide, the novel also has many interesting details about Cambodian customs and traditions, as well as a nuanced depiction of the struggle many immigrants face between preserving their own unique cultures and blending in with mainstream American society.

It’s also a very sweet romance. Four years after her escape from Cambodia, Sundara falls in love with an American boy named Jonathan, which creates new complications in her life, as Cambodian culture practices arranged marriage and good Cambodian girls like Sundara are not supposed to go on dates. (Especially not with non-Cambodian boys.) Sundara and Jonathan are both changed by their relationship, and the book has a very satisfying conclusion.

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

3 Idiots Movie Review

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3 Idiots was recommended to my husband by some Indian and Pakistani coworkers. It was a huge hit in India and is one of the highest grossing Bollywood films ever.

I was a little wary at first because some of the promotional material made it look alarmingly like an Indian Dumb and Dumber, but it’s really not. The story follows two college friends about 10 years after their graduation as they are trying to find a third friend (Ranchoddas Shamaldas Chanchad, aka “Rancho), who has disappeared in the intervening years. The search is interspersed with flashbacks from the exploits of the three friends in engineering school. 3 Idiots is both entertaining story and social commentary about the immense pressure placed on Indian youth by their families and education system, which results in a high rate of suicide. Though Rancho loves engineering passionately, one of his friends really wants to become a wildlife photographer, and the third is under so much pressure from his impoverished family to make something of himself that he nearly flunks out from the stress. The three have an ongoing rivalry with another student who has no talent for engineering but memorizes the textbooks and sucks up to teachers.

3 Idiots is more of a mix of different genres and styles than a typical Hollywood film, which takes a little getting used to. There’s a rather good review on Amazon that covers it better than I could, I think:

Indian film […] is kitchen sink filmmaking, throwing together themes and plots from many diverse genres to create tales of epic scope (this one is nearly three hours long). These sagas whipsaw the viewer back and forth from farcical parody to ghastly tragedy to musical fantasy to weepy melodrama to toilet humor to social protest to romantic comedy. The plots are frequently Byzantine in their complexity and the characters hopelessly unrealistic. As in the Hindu epic Ramayana, they are better thought of as caricatures of love, wisdom, heroism, foolishness, envy, ambition, and other traits.

Though the ride can be dizzying (and the balance between the wacky hijinks of the friends and the serious social commentary embedded in the story results in some nasty cases of mood whiplash at several points), the result is a film that is both funny and moving, and yes, occasionally ridiculous. (The birth scene!!! o_O) The actors seemed like they were having a lot of fun, which always helps with a film like this, and although I was initially kind of side-eyeing the attempt to pass 40-something Aamir Khan (who also starred in my previous foray into Bollywood: Lagaan) off as a college student, I have to admit he’s a really enjoyable actor to watch and he did a great job with the role of Rancho.

Something that struck me watching Khan’s performance was how whole-heartedly he threw himself into the role. It’s possible this is common in Indian film-making (my limited experience with Bollywood films makes it hard to judge) but I have a hard time picturing a Hollywood star of Khan’s caliber allowing himself to appear as ridiculous as Khan does at many points in this film, unless he’s specifically a comedian like Robin Williams or Adam Sandler. Aamir Khan is one of the biggest stars in India, with many “serious” roles under his belt, yet here he is, bugging out his eyes and waggling his tongue like a 4 year old making faces! For example, the supremely silly (and ear-wormy) love song (mild spoilers):

To be honest, I kind of liked it. Some Hollywood stars guard their dignity a little TOO closely and end up just playing the same role over and over because they’re too scared to leave their comfort zone. I prefer a little more versatility.

Based on this film, I’m also guessing that Indian culture doesn’t have nearly as big a taboo against grown men crying as American culture (unfortunately) does – I lost count of how many times Khan and his co-stars teared up with sadness, joy, and everything in between. Again, it was kind of refreshing – men should be able to cry without being branded sissies or wimps.

My rating: (3.5 / 5)

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Bend It Like Beckham Movie Review

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Bend It Like Beckham became a pretty much instant feel-good classic when it was released and remains funny and charming more than 10 years later. It’s a great girl power film as well.

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

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