Thursday, February 9, 2012

Mary Reilly

by Clare MacGregor

Mary Reilly by Valerie Martin is a unique retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Mary Reilly was placed into service when she was a little girl as a means of keeping her out of the clutches of her abusive father. As a result of a vicious punishment at the hand of her father for breaking a tea cup, Mary’s physical scars are a constant reminder of her unhappy childhood. She finally thinks she has found a place that she can call home and be truly happy: working as a housemaid in the home of Dr. Henry Jekyll. Mary’s employer takes a sincere interest in her childhood and her father’s treatment of her. Gradually, Mary and Dr. Jekyll’s lives become more and more intertwined as Mary becomes his confidante and in some instances his personal messenger, much to the chagrin of Dr. Jekyll’s valet, Mr. Poole. The presence of Dr. Jekyll’s mysterious assistant, Edward Hyde, disturbs Mary further as Mr. Hyde’s personality and mannerisms resemble those of Mary’s father. Mary’s diary entries chronicle the bizarre and frightening course that Dr. Jekyll’s life takes as well as her own nightmares of the past and her concern for her employer’s well being. Mary is drawn into circumstances that she does not quite understand, but her loyalty to Dr. Jekyll will not let her abandon him as they are “both in this strange dream together”.
Though written 104 years after Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Mary Reilly is a perfect companion to the original story; filling in plot points that happened “off screen” in Stevenson’s novel. Mary Reilly would appeal to fans of historical fiction, mystery, and those who like reading alternative versions of classic literature.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Race and Relations in Londonstani

Spoiler Alert!: The biggest surprises of the novel are revealed in this post.
by Courtney Hilden

Londonstani by Gautam Malkani is the story of a young Sikh man named Jas, who, with his gang of Sikh and Hindi guy friends, is running a cell phone scam. After partnering with an older Indian man, Jas is mentored about dating and begins seeing a Muslim girl. The novel presents multiple ideas about race via the many characters, and when near the end of the novel it is revealed that although Jas is actually white and Sikh, the previous assumptions of the readers are upended. The sudden change is stunning, and although frustratingly late in the novel, it forces readers to reassess the ideas about race, gender, religious beliefs and other forms of identity the novel previously presented.
First, there is the issue of Jas's identity and the way it is presented to the reader at various times in the novel. Near the beginning of the novel, Jas self-identifies as Sikh. Later on, when talking about the character named Jaswinder, Jas says he was mad because "I'd got the nickname Jas." When Jas offers to share his nickname, Jaswinder tells him not to be stupid because "It's bad enough havin so many desis at school with the same fuckin nickname." The implication leads us to believe that Jas's full name is Jaswinder, though at the end of the novel it is revealed to be Jason. Jas's father is called a good Indian businessman. Jas has Indian friends and talks about what white people are like in way that indicates he does not see himself as one of them. Though Jas is obviously an unreliable narrator, the reader imagines almost the entire story with Jas being Sikh. Obviously, this comes into question when Jas's medical papers describe him as white and use a stereotypical old-school, elite British name. And although Jas calls himself Sikh, his identity is never completely clear, as his parents obviously do not see him as South Asian, saying that he is not one of them. Mr. Ashwood says that he was once a better person, implying that once he was not one of them. The following interpretation assumes that Jas is a white Sikh convert but one who is passing as South Asian amongst the South Asian community.
Identity is the major focus of the novel. The three sections of the novel are titled different and not necessarily politically correct names for South Asians. Much of the dialogue of the novel is peppered with identity terms, including the most often used one: coconut. A coconut, as the novel defines it, is someone who is brown on the outside and white on the inside, or put more accurately, a South Asian who acts white. Jas goes so far as to say that Arun is semi-coconut, which is to say someone who does not act white but is not truly South Asian either. Coconut gets thrown around frequently in the novel, which is interesting, since Jas himself is the opposite of a coconut: he is a white man who acts South Asian.
The novel presents an unflattering view of South Asian men, especially young South Asian men. The characters have various ugly faults, ones that reinforce ideas about how apparently dangerous and evil young South Asian men are. Ravi and Amit are homophobes, making jokes about Jas's sexuality, mocking men coded as gay at the gym and talking about how much they would like to see a skin magazine featuring Indian lesbians. The gang talks about women as objects, Ravi commenting about he will "get off wid as many fit gyals" as he wants and Sanjay explaining how his teeth are a "thong-removal system." Hardjit is aggressive and often violent. The gang defines their strength by their sexual prowess, Sanjay chastising Jas about his lack of sexual experience by saying he is "so pathetic you'd probably go limp if she let you do any more." The novel depicts the dominant view of South Asian men: they are violent and hateful and dangerous. The novel never subverts this racist perspective of them. The only male characters who make some effort at respecting women are Jas, who is actually white, and Arun, who is defined as being un-South Asian. Although Jas does not completely respect women, the two whitest characters are presented as the protectors of womanhood, a racist and patriarchal idea.
If this was not enough, Londonstani goes farther in its racist view of South Asian men: that they corrupt good white men like Jas. Mr. Ashwood comments several times that Jas was never like this before. And Jas himself often remarks about the time in his life before he was friends with these group. Near the end of the novel, Jas attempts to steal from his own father. His parents say that his friend are a bad influence on him, again, presenting the dominant view about the Other: that they are a menace to society and will hurt even supposedly good white boys, like Jas apparently was before he fell into this group.
Even the character who outwardly represents a model, both in the sense of being a model minority to white characters and a model to the Indian characters, turns out to be dangerous and violent. Sanjay is a slightly older, former student of Mr. Ashwood. Mr. Ashwood sets up Jas and the rest of the boys with Sanjay in an attempt to provide them with a positive role model, because he has a good education and a good job. He who is clearly meant to be a stereotypical model minority, with his fancy apartment, fast car, and cultural capital, but is really a gangster pulling a multi-country scam. He too turns out to be a corrupting force in Jas's life, manipulating him into stealing from his own father. There is no good male South Asian man in this entire novel. All of them are bad.
Economic forces also come into play in the novel. Ashwood discusses, among other things, his beliefs in socialism. But Sanjay the model minority is himself a capitalist, one who believes in "bling-bling urban youth culture." He cuts business deals, including one with Jas and his friends. Many of the characters use materialism through the luxury items they have, as a way of expressing power. Sanjay himself sees traditional work as a problem, using the problematic term "whore" to describe his work. Capitalism is criticized in the book as being the root of many of the problems in the South Asian community since it is a way for South Asians to assimilate into the larger, dominant culture, and Malkani sketches how problematic this connection is, but never goes farther than this.
Gender is also problematic displayed. Samira is the only major young woman in the novel. As a Muslim woman, she is expected to date and eventually marry a Muslim man, even though she spends a significant portion of the novel dating Jas. Samira's father is apparently okay with this, but her brothers are not. Samira is presented at the beginning of the novel as being beautiful, but Jas is surprised to learn she is a virgin, and although he respects her, the things that both his friend and later he himself say about her indicate their desire to control her. As a white man, he has the obvious power advantages over her, but as stated before, he is the only one who can apparently respect women, since his friends spend time discussing the sexual ways they would like to interact with her. Samira dates a white man and no one sees this as problematic, especially given that South Asian men are coded as less desirable within the novel. Meanwhile, the mothers of these young men are depicted as absolute harpies. They are shrill, ridiculous, petty, hysterical, manipulative and insensitive to everyone around them. They are constantly nagging their sons, to the point where one son actually kills himself. One mother constantly tries to control her future daughter-in-law's clothes and behavior. They emasculate their sons and husbands. They are miserable, and this too is never challenged. South Asians mothers are possibly the least likable characters in the novel, and this idea manages to be racist, misogynistic and ageist all at once.
Ultimately, the problem with Londonstani is that is presents a host of racist ideas about South Asians, which, considering the author's background, makes it an even more complicated issue about internalized hatred. While the novel does critically look at capitalism and its role in South Asian assimilation, the novel also presents stereotypes of South Asian men and women while depicting the one white character as being semi-heroic and understanding. The novel asks readers to have empathy for the white narrator, who has been wrongly influenced by South Asian thugs but is good-hearted enough to protect a South Asian woman who apparently cannot rely on men of her own race.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Horrible Bosses Deserves a Promotion

by Jon James

Horrible Bosses starts off with a cast rock-solid enough to sink a body with. Kevin Spacey, Jennifer Aniston, and Colin Farrell star as three supervisors despicable enough to lead average men Nick (Jason Bateman), Dale (Charlie Day), and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) to consider homicide. Spacey shines brightest, playing a manipulative, demanding, white-collar company president who would probably make a pregnant woman work until her water broke and then bill her for carpet cleaning. Aniston delivers a sex-addicted, extorting dentist that makes you really start to see the advantages of Novocain over nitrous gas. Colin Farrell kicks it up with a sleazy, coked-up, chemical-waste-disposal-company heir that would personally dump DDT right into a lake if it would save him ten bucks for more blow. The morbidly-inclined employees bring a synergy that’s not unlike the (original) Three Stooges, if they had turned into a manhunting trio. Day steals the show with a whiny, dim-witted but lovable incompetent that is straight out of his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia character, only slightly less malefic. Bateman’s character is also similar to the role he’s known for in Arrested Development, but minus the family holding him together. Sudeikis’ womanizing character leaves something to be desired, though whether that is the actor’s fault or is just a universal trait of Jung’s ancient archetype “Himbo” is hard to say. The three play off each other well, though, and their chemistry really drives the humor part of this dark comedy.
Jamie Foxx also shows up, as a heavily tattooed “murder consultant” whose name would have more asterisks than letters if it were printed here. The character is used to make a few jabs at the racial ignorance and stereotyping that is still present in well-meaning middle class white men, but the character himself stands out as being just slightly more absurd than the other characters, like a mime corpse in a clown hearse. As with many movies with all-male leads,the movie’s next big jokes revolve around homophobic humor. A few of the scenes were funny and contributed to the development of the plot, such as when a urophilic gigolo shows up instead of a hitman, but mostly the jokes are passe and only distract from the tension-comedy waltz that fuels the movie. The pacing is well-orchestrated and effective, culminating in a plot climax that coincides with, well, another sort of climax. The humor and suspense develop up to this point is unrelenting, without a slow moment, and managing to generally avoid the awkward comedy motif that has been in vogue since The Office started airing in the U.S. The plot itself is driven by a decent degree of unexpected twists without falling back on various unjustified dei ex machina. In the meantime, Horrible Bosses manages to take some jabs at such cultural absurdities as movie piracy, outsourcing, stereotyping, and male sexual harassment, while keeping the jokes light and nondistracting.
In all, Horrible Bosses uses its A-list cast well, and revisits the Shakespearean art of balancing comedy and drama. Most of the jokes are fresh, with the exception of a bit of stale homophobic and chauvinistic humor, for which the creators should be berated. But if you’re looking for a refreshing comedy and don’t mind plenty of justification for an R rating, Horrible Bosses is worth a shot.

Thursday, August 18, 2011


by Clare MacGregor

Drood by Dan Simmons is a story of friendship, deceit, madness, and mystery. The narrator, Wilkie Collins, a friend and collaborator of Charles Dickens, begins the tale in the year 1865, recounting the Staplehurst railway accident and the aftermath of the accident. During the accident Dickens encounters a mysterious man by the name of Drood. Deeply intrigued by this phantom-like man Charles Dickens discovers Drood’s whereabouts and insists that Collins come along with him when he visits Undertown. Reluctantly, Collins goes with him, but is only permitted to go so far. Days after this night-time visit to Undertown, Wilkie Collins meets a police officer who enlists him to act as an informant regarding the man named Drood. Drood’s influence seeps deeper and deeper into Wilkie Collins’s life and imagination, but it’s not only Drood who haunts Willkie Collins’s mind, Willkie is convinced that there is another Willkie, one who looks just like him, but is not him, who begins making additions to whatever story or play Wilkie Collins is currently working on. At first Collins is infuriated that “the other Wilkie” who is contributing to the stories while Collins is sleeping; but as things progress Collins begins to rely on his doppelganger more and more. One evening while Dickens is visiting, Collins hears Dickens, Drood, and the doppelganger of himself conspiring against him. As Dickens health begins to decline, Drood assigns the task of writing his biography (a tasks once entrusted to Dickens) to Collins. He adamantly refuses, but Drood will not be dissuaded. Already obsessed with Drood, Collins’s mind and life begins to increasingly overflow with paranoia. A few days before Dickens suffers a stroke, he reveals a secret about Drood.
Drood will appeal to fans of historical fiction, thrillers, mystery, horror, and fans of the movie/play Amadeus as Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins have a Salieri/Mozart-like friendship.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Amulet: The Stonekeeper

Spoiler Alert!: Most of the big reveals in this story are given away in this review.
by Courtney Hilden

Amulet: The Stonekeeper is the first book in a graphic novel series that follows Emily and her brother Navin as they struggle to rescue their mom, who has been taken by a tentacled monster. Despite the overly-used premise and nods to other fantasy stories, this first part of the Amulet story manages to feel fresh.
The story opens up on a family vacation, one that ends in tragedy after a car crash kills Emily and Navin's father. Because of his death, their mother moves them both to their ancestral home, which has an opening to a mystical world that Great-Grandfather Silas (still somehow alive) was running with the help of an amulet. Similar to the titled ring in The Lord of the Rings, the amulet's power comes with serious, personal drawbacks, but to save her mother, Emily decides to wield its power. Great-grandfather's gang of helpers, including a bunny-like Misket, help Emily and Navin, and the story ends before readers can know if their mom survives.
The artwork is stunningly cinematic, especially in their color choices and background detail. The monsters feel new, with a strangely combination of the Halloween ghouls of Invader Zim and the many characters, good and bad, from Hayao Miyazaki. The children, Emily and Navin, are perfect cartoon characters, both simple and expressive. (The series is now in the process of being made into a movie, and given the fantastic art, this is not surprising.)
It is also nice that the main hero is Emily and not a young man. So often in fantasy stories that are written for both genders the hero is male. Often, female characters play small roles or ones that confine them to feminine roles (as mothers, nurturers, or even in Avatar: The Last Airbender, where the main female character, despite considerable power, was the one doing most of the cooking and laundry.) Here, Emily is a character who is without an disadvantage that could be coded as "womanly." She is tying to save her last living parent and take care of her younger brother, a role that could have easily been male, but here, thankfully, is not. It is time both young girls and boys read a story about a real girl, one who is brave and well-intentioned but imperfect, and this looks like a great series to do so with.

Monday, July 18, 2011

The Green Lantern

Spoiler Alert!: Some of the best and juiciest bits of the movie are revealed in this review.

by Courtney Hilden

With all the superhero movies made in recent years, like Batman, Spiderman and Ironman, the competition for the high-flying, mutant-spider-bitten, and spandex wearing can be tough. And yet, The Green Lantern, a lesser-known superhero, gets a decent movie.
The story picks up with Hal Jordan, a hotshot pilot, who, since he is being played by Ryan Reynolds, puts the hot in "hotshot." At work, he flies suicidally in an effort to beat drone planes, and it is a Pyrrhic victory: he beats the planes, but in the process, loses his company a government contract, and half of the employees will be fired. His ex-girlfriend, his boss, also worries about his safety, since his own father also died while flying.
Despite all this, The Green Lantern is never as dark or brooding as Batman or the later Spiderman movies. Instead, there's something wild about this character, something recklessly stupid. He shows up to his ex's in full costume, risking her discovering his identity (which takes her all of a minute to uncover.) And although he decides to save Earth solo, he does so in a way that almost destroys his life. Hal Jordan is a go-for-broke kind of character, and there's something refreshing about someone who does not brood about his decisions before or after. He simply does.
The true knockout performance in this movie is not Ryan Reynolds, although he delivers and understands his character. Peter Sarsgaard's Hector Hammond is quite possibly the most Shakespearean villain ever on screen. He is constantly being criticized and passive aggressively pushed around by his father, he is in the thankless job of a university professor and he never got the girl, and at the first hint of power he decides to use it on murdering his own father. (The writers smartly decided to concentrate the story of Hector's poor relations with his father instead of his rejection at the hands of the one female character.) Hector becomes literally bloated with his new-found power, and turns into a Frankenstein's monster of his own and his father's making: he is pitiable and evil at the same time. Sarsgaard balances these perfectly, never laying it on too thick. And his screams of pain are heartbreakingly tortured. The singer/screamers of metal bands work years to perfect their howls, and none of those come to the ones that Sarsgaard delivers.
Lastly, Mark Strong as Sinestro gives a solid performance as well. Strong is better known for playing intense enemies in movies and television shows across the pond. Strong's best characters were ones with rage bubbling beneath their surfaces. Strong does a slight turn here; instead of rage, his Sinestro is fierce, but in a subtle, strangely nurturing way. If there is going to be a second movie (and honestly, I am not opposed to the idea), then let's hope we get to see more of Strong and Reynolds together, saving the world.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Heavier Than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain

by Courtney Hilden
Heavier than Heaven: A Biography of Kurt Cobain by Charles R. Cross, covers the life and infamous times of the well-loved musician. The book charts the struggles within his family, his adolescent stints as both homeless and creative, his lovers (some of whom are famous in their own right), and, of course, the explosive band he served as frontman for, Nirvana.
The most difficult things about biographies is the tone. The feelings of the biographer inevitably come out, and usually this is either admiration or hatred, with little in-between. Cross manages to avoid writing a hagiography, but it is still a mostly admirable view of Cobain, and, depending on your view of Cobain, may or may not have been deserved.
Cross gives all sorts of interesting, and often surprising, details about Cobain. Cobain, famous for jumping into drum sets, destroying sets, and yes, smashing guitars, drove like "a little old lady" in the words of his bandmates, to the point where they often did not want him to drive.
Despite being fairly long, there were multiple parts of the book that begged for more details. As a teenager, Cobain became a born-again Christian while living with and befriending other born-again Christians. Given that Cobain seemed, at the least, agnostic later on in life, and famously covered Christian songs, this section of his story deserves more research, especially given that a clear reason for his falling out with Christianity never is explained.
The book focuses mostly on Cobain, but his relationships with his bandmates is only glanced at. The book does spend time discussing Chad Channing's split from the band, and how it was handled relatively maturely by Cobain and his fellow bandmate and best friend, Krist Novoselic. Minimal time is spent on Cobain's relationship with Novoselic and less on Dave Grohl, who, among other things, was Cobain's roommate.
The book also comes with a collection of black and white photos of Cobain. One of the things missing is photos of his art, which was Cobain's other great creative expression. As a fan (yes, yes, I will admit that I am really a fan of Nirvana), this could easily be a whole other book, probably in coffeebook style.
The most fascinating thing about Cobain was actually the women around him. Cobain struggled with his relationship with his mother, who Cobain seems to have seen as what we would now call a cougar, but was also put in impossibly difficult situations, with at least one unwanted pregnancy and an abusive husband. (Not Cobain's father but stepfather.) Cobain's younger sister is a lesbian, and this was almost entirely brushed over. Cobain's girlfriends, Tracy Marander, Tobi Vail, Mary Lou Lord, Courtney Love, were all interesting in their own right. The later three were all musicians themselves; Vail was a member of the seminal Bikini Kill and Love famously fronted Hole; Lord was a folk singer. Marander in particular sacrificed for Cobain, economically supporting him when Cobain was out of work. It is too bad that there are not books (or in some cases, more) about these women, who unfortunately, have become footnotes in Cobain's life and not the full people they obviously are, though this is through no fault of Cross.
For a fan, Heavier than Heaven is a must read. The less interested in Nirvana, though, the less interested most readers would be in this book.