What’s Making Me Happy: March 2016

March is my birth month, which means it’s time for new books and/or the means with which to acquire them (gift cards from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com, for example) to come into the house. I have more books on my shelves than I could read in my lifetime, and that isn’t even counting the ones I’ve already read but have enjoyed enough to keep on my shelves with the idea of revisiting them at some point. Yet I relish few things as much as acquiring new books. Judge me as you please, but I’d have it no other way. The ache of frustration I sometimes feel when I’m trying to choose a new book to read from among the hundreds is a blissful ache indeed. So first on my list of things making me happy this March (and every March, really) is my own vast but ever-expanding library.

More specific items:

The Girl With All the Gifts

I write quite a bit, here and elsewhere, about authors who do a fine job of creating active, interesting, and competent heroines. I say more when male authors do it because it takes me by pleasant surprise — although it really shouldn’t, since a hallmark of good writing is the ability to create compelling characters, and gifted writers, like good characters, come in all genders. Does creating female characters require some extra dash of skill and insight? How messed up are we if the answer is “yes”? Plenty of authors, both male and female, seem to have a hard time writing women. Sometimes they omit them from their stories or give them very minimal background roles. Other times they construct their roles and personalities from a box of stereotypical tropes. On occasion the resulting characters come across less as believable individuals than as wish-fulfillment fantasies, as in “I want to be her” or “I want to be with her.” Men have been the “default gender” for so many literary centuries that our thinking still suffers from it. We may be getting better, but our perception of the kinds of stories that can be told with and about female protagonists is still regrettably limited. There is still a small set number of things a female lead can do, whereas a male lead might do anything.

That’s why an author like M.R. Carey is a treasure. I knew he was one of the good guys since I’d read and enjoyed The City of Silk and Steel, a.k.a. The Steel Seraglio, which he co-wrote with his wife and daughter and which features one of the widest-ranging casts of female characters it has ever been my pleasure to read about. But then, that novel, alternate-history with a few fantastic elements, I might have picked up as a matter of course. The Girl With All the Gifts is a horror/thriller  set in a post-desolation England overrun with parasite-ridden cannibalistic “hungries,” not the kind of thing I’d normally choose if I hadn’t heard it praised by certain trusted sources.

Yet here Carey confirms my impression of him as outstanding with character, and three out of the five major characters in this novel happen to be female. Caroline Caldwell, the cold-hearted scientist out to discover the cure for the “hungry” affliction at any cost, could easily have been written as a man, but in this case the character whose gender isn’t dictated by the plot defaults to female. With Helen Justineau, the teacher, a gender-flip is less imaginable, yet she is a most intriguing woman, a part of a system she abhors, compromised by her own compassionate heart. The fulcrum around which the plot revolves is little Melanie. Sadly I can’t say too much about Melanie without veering into Spoiler territory, but she is adorably and painfully real, a genius but still very much a little girl. Despite her dire situation and the novel’s overall dark tone, she’s funny in surprising ways. The story she composes (ignoring the prescribed vocabulary list), in which a little girl saves a “beautiful, amazing woman” (an expy of her teacher Miss Justineau, whom she hero-worships) from being eaten by a monster, is an early highlight, and many readers might lose their hearts to Melanie at that very point.

I’m a little more than halfway through the book, and I can’t say how the story will finally play out. But my rooting interest in Melanie and her bond with Miss Justineau keeps me reading. This horror/thriller manages to be both frightening and heartwarming.

Supergirl.

No TV show should ever be judged by its pilot. If the pilot has noticeable, even glaring flaws, that just means the show has plenty of room to grow.

I can’t defend the pilot of Supergirl. It’s incredibly cheesy, and its characters, including the clumsy and desperate-to-please Kara Danvers and her cutting, tyrannical boss Cat Grant, seem to belong more to a mediocre big-screen romantic comedy than to an action-adventure TV show. Yet I was so hungry for a show with a super heroine as its lead character that my husband and I decided to keep watching in the hope that it would improve. And lo, it has! So much that it’s barely recognizable as the same show. Each episode has added new layers to its characters.

Kara may seem rather aggressively average in her civilian guise, but we the audience have been allowed to see and understand how she came to be that way, and Melissa Benoist brings such earnest charisma to the role that she reminds me at times of a female Carrot from Pratchett’s Discworld “Night’s Watch” novels. Cat Grant, too, has evolved far beyond the initial stereotype. She’s still the master of cutting quips, many of which are very funny indeed, but she does have an underlying core of integrity; so far in one season she’s shown more character than Calista Flockhart’s most famous role, Ally McBeal, ever displayed. Another big mark in the show’s favor is the bond between Kara and her foster sister Alex; I can’t help wishing more of the “normal” women in superheroes’ orbits were more like Alex, who shows on a regular basis that she doesn’t need supernatural powers to kick major butt. J’onn J’onz, the Martian Manhunter, my favorite character from the animated Justice League, plays a crucial and intriguing role here as well.

This show needs a Season 2, CBS. If this one dies while all the male superhero-led shows  go merrily on, I will be very peeved indeed.

 

 

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