Considering Trigger Warnings and Our Biggest Offense

trigger warnings

Even though it’s only been three years since I graduated from college, so much has changed. I read works like Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Atwood’s Oryx and Crake, Cruse’s Stock Rubber Baby, and Keat’s “Leda and The Swan,” and engaged with my peers in heated discussions about these books with topics on rape, sexual exploitation, race, and bigotry. When we signed up for these courses, we were expected to read the works and participate in class discussions. Professors didn’t warn us of the content (okay, they may have offhandedly said that we’d be hating the world for a week) but they did provide a syllabus listing what we would be reading. If we wanted to know anything further, we’d research it. I went in blind on all my assigned readings, never knowing what I would have to talk about or how it would affect me until my eyes found the words lying on the page. No one challenged the material even if they didn’t agree with it, not in an academic setting anyway. So much as changed.

Trigger warnings, the term originating from the psychological term ‘trigger’ that dates as far back as World War I but found digitally in the back alleys of the internet on feminist forums, are devices warning of explicit sexual violence or graphic material contained in a piece of literature. Lately everyone’s jumped on the band wagon of inserting ‘TW’ before everything’s written, when in truth is excessive and thoughtless; yet in the academic setting, where students are taught critical theories and are exposed to unnerving content to prepare them for the ‘real world,’ using trigger warnings is tricky since professors never know what might trigger someone, but we’re now witnessing students opposing material that they deem offensive for whatever personal reason, thus, raising complicated questions about learning, cultural sensitivity, and censorship in colleges and universities.

The use of trigger warnings are exaggerated due to misinformed definitions and purposes. TW are devices that anyone can use but don’t necessarily apply to everyone. They’re intended to alert people who have undergone significant trauma and experience physical symptoms that hinder their daily activity. The confusion arises in people’s understanding of people who have suffered trauma; most, unless they’ve personally witnessed it, don’t believe someone could experience physical symptoms when the issue is mental. Although there are cases where someone will be unable to engage with the material due to the severity of the trauma, TW are implemented to better aid in a person’s recovery and shouldn’t be treated as a permanent evasive approach.  Gradual exposure to the content may help combat the physiological symptoms. Trigger warnings enable those to prepare themselves to partake in rational discussions versus having their own intense experience impair them.

While inserting ‘TW’ is mostly innocuous (but frustrating to see used incorrectly,) there are some people who abuse the intention behind them for their own reasons, creating a sheltered culture of intolerance and privilege. One recent example of this occurred at Duke University where some of the freshmen students objected to reading Alison Blechdel’s Fun Home as it compromised their Christian beliefs, but as Dianna Anderson wrote, “one is a physiological response; the other is a choice in the practice of religious belief.” The Atlantic released an article “The Coddling of the American Mind,” which has been circulating and igniting the contentious debate of cultural sensitivity demonstrated in how much we apply TWs in our everyday lives or at how often we hear of students’ protests over written material. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt write on the ostensible “movement…arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense,” and applying the term microaggressions, defined as the verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or. unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their. Although a dubious and perhaps an exaggerated claim, the article does point to some less than romantic ideas about academia.

From an economic standpoint, universities and colleges are places of business that try to maintain a constant flow of revenue; they can’t run on lofty ideals alone. Governing education falls more upon administrators than the professors and one of the factors influencing administrations are the students, i.e. the customers. If enough students ban together to have material removed from the course, then the administration, even when the students’ protest are unfounded, will more than likely submit and have the professors pick another topic, with the professors, afraid they might lose their jobs, do little to pushback. What’s arguably needed now is some pushback. Classrooms provide the appropriate context to discuss diverse and complicated issues. The academics aren’t a hodgepodge of obstinacy but a place fostering worldly perception of challenging ideas and reinventing ideas of culture. Having your own beliefs is acceptable but obstructive when absorbing the material that could possibly enlighten us.

I imagine I will continue to see stories pop up of students banning together to have a novel removed from class because it offends them—but that action is offensive in itself.  None of these works like the ones above are easy to talk about, but I absorbed them with the kind of necessary discomfort that we hold in us, a kind of vague unknowing feeling that sounds like a reluctant ‘maybe’ and scares us  from ditching the life map and driving. Staying in our comfort zone is safe but self-restricting stunts intellectual growth and maturity. We shortchanged ourselves and others.

Only Ever Yours, by Louise O’Neill

Only Ever YoursOnly a handful of books make me tremble and cringe and Louise O’Neill’s Only Ever Yours is now one of them. Compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Only Ever Yours is a YA dystopian novel about the subjugation of women, their sexuality, and their identity. The women are toxic, undermining, manipulative, narcissistic, insecure, and superficial and that’s only because they were designed this way and are otherwise known as eves—capitalization omitted intentionally. They’re artificially designed women since women are no longer born naturally. Yours feels unending of depravity and acerbic dialogue, with danger and destruction festering like a tumor, but it’s praiseworthy, evocative literature about femininity and gender inequality, nonetheless

Yours begins with freida, an eve who’s about to graduate to become a companion, a concubine, or a chastity. Eves attend a Ceremony to determine if they’re wife material, if they’re suited to a life of physically pleasing men, or if they’re a better fit to teach other future eves. But freida is more concerned about isabel, the #1 eve in the school and her best friend. Isabel suddenly distances herself at the beginning of their 16th year; she drastically falls in the rankings. To survive, freida latches onto the other top ten eves. Aimless and scared, freida herself becomes unraveled, losing weight, sleep, and her mind. Only when she meets Darwin, the #1 male in his class, that freida thinks she has a shot at a good life.

Yours is a subverted version of fairytales. There cannot be a happy ending because that would suggest that there was something right about this world when it’s already incredibly flawed. The politics and ideology of this absolute patriarchal world are long established and indoctrinated into the new generations. The damage to the eves’ psyche is extensive; they’re warped beyond repair. Unlike other YA dystopian novels where the protagonist saves the day or society revolts against the Totalitarian government, this YA dystopian is a bleak, unfavorable outcome to all women. Women aren’t permitted self-discovering or a moment of vulnerability because it may ruin their chances at happiness, which they’ve been fed (by men) to believe it’s in servicing men. They’ve been taught that the previous world, where men and women were allegedly treated as equals, was wrong. O’Neill’s resists the temptation to ostensibly write a favorable ending to preserve the notion that finding Mr. Right is still conforming to a patriarchal system denying women’s rights.

O’Neill captures with prose like butter on warm toast the significance of language and its correlation with gender roles and identity. Language is one of the most revealing trademarks in any culture especially when applied to gender roles. The one I like to bring up the most is how women are often referred to as ‘girls,’ when they are fully grown; however, referring to an adult man as a ‘boy’ is considered insulting or belittling. Yours reflects the derogatory language applied to eves that’s relevant in our culture. For example, the term ‘Feminist’ is seen as offensive in Yours. Too often this word in our culture is misinterpreted as a woman who hates men and is associated with stereotypes of domineering and bra-burning women; it means on a fundamental level a person that believes in gender equality. Yours represents the degradation of women’s value in how they omit capitalization from women’s names, not even considered proper nouns. Permissible to say, however, are ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ and even using the phrase ‘Fat Bitch’ is encouraged to keep an eve’s weight down. Negative reinforcement and shame are instruments used against eves to control them. Everything is tied to the language and circulated to maintain the patriarchy.

As for the characters, a few stand out in the bunch such as freida, isabel, megan, while the others blend together making it hard to differentiate between them, which obviously touches on another point. Personality—beside the chemically manic and barely tolerable vapid eves—is just another thing stripped from them, supplemented by the need to only please men. Freida is no different. Contained in her characterization is a powerful concern and want to appease everyone, the fear of disapproval puppeteering her body and severely influencing her choices. Dictating her choices from the start is her isolation from isabel, from her pack with the group, and from Darwin. She desperately seeks companionship, which in actuality is her need to wash out her latent insecurities and self-hate. So much of Yours, narrated by freida, laments the already troubling negative self-body notions we perpetuate and harsh criticism we throw at anyone’s body we deem flawed. Freida painfully reminds us of our own shortcomings as people and the damaging effects of the beauty industries exploiting this weakness, heavily suggested in Yours mantra, “there’s always room for improvement.” Freida’s counterparts, isabel and megan, exemplify the men’s ideals and embody their purpose. Although most of the novel conceals isabel’s story, megan is affront and mostly manipulative, and she knows it. She simply can’t help it. She was designed this way. All these women are victims of a world that deprives women of choice.

Another aspect of O’Neill’s novel resides in its gender discourse and criticism. Although Yours exists in a fictional world, several of what’s mentioned is all too familiar and upholds in our culture. Most of the eves are mindless caricatures, versions of stereotypes preconceived by men of what they believed was the ideal woman. Yours illustrates this by emphasizing a woman’s appearance as her only value compared to intellect, which the men prefer eves didn’t have. Eves essentially serve only three purposes, which Yours demonstrates in its Ceremony classifications. Everything boils down to a woman’s fertility or sexual performance. A chastity, a women not serving Man, is virtually useless. And while certainly many of these things may appear nonexistent, thinking we’ve evolved passed this, influences of patriarchy remain pervasive in our culture. Women (me) still don’t have complete medical authority over their bodies. Women (me) are still made to feel like pariahs when they abstain from having children. Walking down the street, women (me, again) are catcalled, and when they (me) argue at how uncomfortable it makes them, they’re (us) told their being ‘too sensitive,’ much like Yours does when one of the eves feels hurt. And when a woman is sexually assaulted, we still hear things like, ‘she was asking for it,’ see media circulating stories that make the rapist sympathetic, and the court rules in the rapist’s favor. Yes, Yours is an uncomfortable discussion on the treatment of women, but it’s one that’s necessary and worth having, not just for men but women. Identified in Yours is also the habit of women comparing themselves to others, making undercutting, snide remarks to mar each other’s self-esteem. Yours emphasizes disunity among women, even in Feminism with its tendency to overlook marginalized groups, referenced in the eves practically painting their face in white and a narrator who tries constantly to mask her brown skin. Of course, this is just more social commentary O’Neill adds about the beauty/modeling industry lacking diversity within their models and also the products they market.

I recommend Yours to anyone. If you’ve been shying away from books described as ‘Feministy,’ this is your chance to take the plunge. Although a disturbing, dark, unflinching horrific story, Yours pries our eyes open to discussions otherwise left unsaid, unnoticed, or not even known. Ignorance is not bliss; it’s a costly mistake.

My Week with Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, Part 7 (The Finale!)

harry potter and the deathly hallows

Of course there will be spoilers contained in my last post of “Harry Potter”, but, still, I will say it once more: Spoiler Alert: Do not read if you haven’t read any one of the “Harry Potter” novels.

Back in high school when everyone was reading the last Harry Potter book, my SIL, best friend at the time, had offhandedly redubbed it as Harry Potter and the Prolonged Camping Trip. I had no idea what she meant until now. She’s bloody right. Pages are dedicated to Harry, Hermione, and Ron camping in the woods while on the run. They’re busier sorting out their own problems than finding Horcruxes.  Some, like Ron—too preoccupied with his own bruised ego—just do nothing to advance the story along.

The Deathly Hallows is an accumulation of unsaid conversations finally surfacing. Harry’s unwavering loyalty to Dumbledore. Ron’s inferiority complex of his best friend. Hermione’s feelings for Ron. And to be brutally honest, the latter of the two are just exhausting, a banal romantic entanglement to remind us that Harry and Hermione are never ever going to happen.

The last book recounts our heroes’ aimless search for the Horcruxes, their misgivings towards each other, and the strength they find to persevere and overcome impossible odds. It’s also famously known as one of the most tragic books from the Harry Potter series with more beloved characters killed off than in a Joss Whedon series. Deathly Hallows is the series’ apogee, an emotional cutting, candescent piece that while struggles with pacing, is what the story deserves instead of what it needs.

Death Is Coming For You

Harry Potter is quite merciless at killing off some of its most intricate characters. I wasn’t harboring any delusions of everyone being safe from Rowling’s pen. Moreover, I expected a few deaths. Hedwig’s death, the first death in Deathly Hallows, signals the novel’s ruthlessness… and also the beginning of my own bawling. What can I say? I cry  at reading and watching people’s pets die. But more importantly, Hedwig’s death thematically represents a loss of innocence. She was one of the first gifts and a friend bestowed to Harry. Killing her was symbolic of Harry leaving behind his childhood (or, depending on your interpretation, thrusted into adulthood.) This is a reoccurring theme in all the Harry Potter novels, being that this is an epic, coming-of-age story.

Some of the other deaths were some of the best, well-written pieces I’ve read in a while. The death of Dobbie and Fred were so eloquent that they gave me chills. But others did disappoint me, such is the case with the deaths of Remus and Tonks. While it was apparent that Remus was destined to die—his friends gone, his career in the gutter, and an unstable condition—I did wonder if perhaps he would survive after marrying Tonks and fathering a child. Still, every time we saw him in rags, blanch and thinning, he looked like he was wilting before us, similar to what happened to Sirius Black. At this point, I wanted the same fate for Remus, to go out in a blaze of glory, but unlike Sirius, the glory is a hollow death. He loses his life alongside his young wife Tonks, leaving behind a child he will never know.

But, thankfully, Harry was appointed Godparent…so… Harry will raise the boy…right? Right?? Seriously, if anyone knows, please tell me, because the ending didn’t seem to suggest that!

Hunting Horcruxes

Famous heirlooms. Voldemort’s hubris… How was this hard?

And reading through Ron’s inferiority complex caused a really loud sound that I couldn’t shut off. Oh, wait. That was my screaming at him.

Ron, the bane of my existence (and apparently Hermione, but she ends up marrying him so…)

The Bittersweet End of Severus Snape

The Deathly Hallows reveals the most about Severus Snape. Argued as the ultimate anti-hero, Snape, as I already knew, loved Lily Evans/Potter. They met when they were children right as Lily was discovering that she was a Witch. Even after being sorted into the four Hogwarts houses (eleven is really too young…), they continue as friends, but like any cliché, Snape falls into a bad crowd of future Death Eaters. When Snape regrettably calls Lily a Mudblood, their friendship dissolves. Lily starts dating James, and Snape joins the Death Eaters.

Several parts of this story are curious and most revealing about the character Snape. Despite loving Lily and being deeply ashamed at how he treated her, he remains in love with her while doing horrible deeds in the name of the Dark Lord. He only begins to repent when he discovers the prophecy and how Lily will lose her life protecting her child, thus, taking on the role as a double agent and later as Harry Potter’s secret protector. The real question that I always find myself asking though is this: why did he continue down a destructive path after what happened with Lily?

Snape demonstrates that he’s capable of feeling remorse (although it may only apply to Lily, Dumbledore, and Harry.) He recognizes when he’s made a mistake, but this isn’t enough to change him. More often, it’s usually not for anyone. It ends up being a life-changing event that reforms Snape into a person that still does horrible things but for the greater good—which is exactly what he wanted whether he knew it or not.

I used to think the life of Severus Snape was a tragic one, and it still is in retrospect. He wasn’t offered the chance to come clean or openly make amends with anyone, even with Harry, who Snape treated the worst; however, Snape’s last line tells us so much about who he was.

“Look…at…me…” he says in his dying breath. It’s quite the contrast to the movie’s version that attempts to redeem him and make him more sympathetic, but the book’s version succinctly summarizes who the character Severus Snape is. He’s tormented and destructive because he doesn’t see himself as anything else. He doesn’t forgive himself. Not ever. Snape isn’t spending his last breaths trying to confide in Harry or apologizing. That’s not his version of atonement. Snape doesn’t want to feel better. He interprets his mistakes too great to ever be forgiven, so he must suffer as much as he loved Lily.

He’s committed, that’s for sure.

Dumbledore’s Biography

I did say I wanted a biography…I just didn’t expect one to be published in the Harry Potter universe.

Dumbledore didn’t adopt his altruistic beliefs until later on after making a handful of mistakes. He was a know-it-all, genius wizard who couldn’t care less about his family. Awards, achievement, and the revolution of the wizarding world were the only things occupying his mind, that is, until the death of his sister, Ariana, who Dumbledore may have inadvertently killed during his altercation with his brother and friend, Grindelwald. Dumbledore never forgave himself, so much so he never pursued a position of high- ranking power. For him, his sister’s death sobered him. It taught him he couldn’t wield tremendous power. He lacked the mental discipline and humility, even though we’re lead to believe he’s the most humble professor considering the glut of power at his disposal. Even so, Rowling has removed most of the mystique surrounding the powerful wizard Dumbledore and greatly humanized him, something which I loved.

19 years later. . .and All Is Well.

If you’re not up to date on your Shakespearian references, the last three words will mean nothing to you, but if you are, then it should tickle your brain. It did for me anyway.

The only reason I actually know this reference is subsequently from studying and writing on Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well, noted as one of Shakespeare’s problem plays but also considered a Comedy. Why it’s viewed as a problem play stems from its implicit content that doesn’t comply with the conventions of Shakespeare’s Comedy; it essentially deviates from the tropes of the genre. All’s Well That Ends Well contains several issues that many argue don’t fit the category of Comedy, shoehorning the two romantic partners together and carrying in its subtext egregious gender politics. To sum it up, it’s not a happy ending for all. In this play, the quote “All is well that ends well” tries to remedy the loose ends and fates of the other supporting characters almost like a comedic shrug; however, the phrase is harsher than we know. What happens, happens or That’s life. Sound familiar, right?

Besides the staggering death toll, several characters’ fates aren’t expounded upon in The Deathly Hallows, with the fate of some not necessarily happy. For instance, the ending of Remus’ son is problematic since he grew up more or less an orphan. Bill Weasley is permanently disfigured. Percy will forever carry with him the psychological trauma of Fred’s death. George lost his twin, who was like his other half. Draco Malfoy, considered an antagonist throughout the Harry Potter series is apparently redeemed despite almost killing a girl and Ron in the Half-Blood Prince. All things considered, there’s no room for celebration. So how does one go about ending a series that, for many, has been a source of happiness and comfort without euphorically washing out the story’s maturity and complexities?

The ending quote, “All is Well,” doesn’t gloss over any of the problems or somber moments. It pointedly and realistically addresses loss and grief and how time can temper these things but not expunge them from our emotional circuitry. It also identifies that not everything is perfect. Fair to say, if leaving Harry Potter with the feeling that everything is as it should be or believe it’s a happy ending, then we’ve blithely misread and overlooked the nuances of the last chapter.

As Harry, Ron, and Hermione send their kids off to Hogwarts, we know as well as they do that this moment is contributed from an amalgam of sacrifices, losses, and victories. There are things they’ll never be able to forget. Certainly things aren’t perfect and were not supposed to think they are, but we can say, that it’s better than the alternative.

The Harry Potter Blues and Final Thoughts

I’ve heard about this condition where people go into a catatonic book slump after reading Harry Potter, a void that just cannot be filled. While I am experiencing some reading lag, let me reaffirm that this has more to do with the holidays and a temporarily closed library than Harry Potter.

It’s been interesting reading the series. I’ve met and talked with some cool people and gleaned from our conversations that Harry Potter holds a special place in their hearts. It’s a token from their childhood and/or adolescent years. I get that. It just isn’t for me. I’m older, arguably more mature, but more so, I’m the kind of person who doesn’t carry keepsakes from her childhood. I couldn’t tell you what my favorite Barbie doll was. I had over a hundred drawing hung on the fridge, which have all been discarded. Awards and trophies are kept in closets or stuffed in draws. A sign of avoidance and/or repression? Possibly.

Harry Potter is special in the sense that it can touch so many people differently. I think of it like watching an eclipse: you have to use a pinhole to see it right and have to be in the right place and time. Maybe I didn’t see the eclipse right or maybe I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Who’s to say?

I read and enjoyed the series. I picked up several new things that I wouldn’t ordinarily find in other books because I don’t spend a lot of time reading series in general. Rowling created seven books that read cohesively while adapting to the aging characters, a huge undertaking and not often appreciated.

It’s hard to believe it’s been seven months since I first picked up the first book. And I would definitely be up to rereading the series after I’ve spent some time reading other books, writing about them, and continuing to write my own story. Then someday, I can revisit Hogwarts.

Thanks everyone for following, or for others, humoring this reading escapade.

If you missed Parts 1-6, I’ve included links below.

Hope you survive enjoy your holidays!

My Week with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer Stone, Part 1

My Week with Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets, Part 2

My Week with Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, Part 3

My Week with Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, Part 4

My Week with Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix, Part 5

My Week with Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince, Part 6

 

 

 

Post Book Hiatus: Ongoing

Hiatus

I hope everyone had a good holiday. Remember when I said that I would have a post ready by November 25? Yeah, that clearly didn’t happen. My brain short circuited several times this last week/weekend, what with the turkey, the family, and the cluster-fuck of people shopping along with maintaining a poor diet and exercise routine that extended for several days and eventually sent me spiraling down a deep, cavernous Low, which I’ve only recently recovered from. It wasn’t until Sunday that I realized, “oh, it’s Sunday…which usually proceeds sometime after Wednesday…”

Even if I had remembered, I wouldn’t have had anything to offer. I’m still chipping away at the lovely mess called ‘writing.’ The book review I originally wrote on Marie Lu’s The Rose Society was just plain awful. It sort of read like someone pumped with adrenaline who couldn’t muster anything except a cacophony of squeals and squeaks from a kid going to Disney world for the first time. I wouldn’t subject anyone to that kind of torture.

Now that I have submitted and completed my applications for graduate school (yay!), I have nothing except time…sort of. Let’s just say that my free time has been spent catching up on other things that I’ve neglected…such as binge walking the premiere of Marvel’s Jessica Jones (it was amazzzzzing!), the new season of Once Upon A Time (kill Zelena for the greater good already!), Supergirl (verdict is still out on this show), and The Man in the High Castle (only two episodes but I like it so far). There’s also Anime like Owarimonogatari, Steins Gate, and other shows I’m screening at the moment. While I realize this is a lot of TV watching, I figure slacking off on my book reading for a week isn’t going to kill me, but it’ll be the death penalty if I continue to watch TV for the rest of my life, for my bones and brain.

What I can offer are updates on things to look forward to in the next several weeks, however.  Post will resume on Wednesday, December 9.

Coming Soon!!!

My Week with Harry Potter and The Half-Blood Prince Part 6

Trigger Warnings and Microaggressions

Book Review: Marie Lu’s The Rose Society

Book Review: Alison Brosh’s Hyperbole and Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened

 My Week with Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part 7

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Bird Box“It’s that time of year and what better way to celebrate the season with a book that will try its best to play tricks on you. No mind games (maybe a smidge), but when you’re not allowed to see anything, everything around you is your enemy,” is everything I would have wrote if I had published this BEFORE Halloween; yet, here we are, days after the best time of the year with a novel ripe for this breezy, chilly, foggy season.

Debuting last year, Josh Malerman’s Bird Box is a suspenseful, mysterious novel that’s an infectious read. You’re compelled to keep reading, whether it’s to learn more about a) the mysterious creatures that cause people to ‘erase’ themselves b) what happened four years that left Malorie, our female protagonist, the lone adult survivor in the house with her children Boy and Girl [not at all emotionally detached] c) if Malorie can survive long enough to reach her destination while blindfolded, her only defense against the creatures.

After a one-night stand, Malorie discovers that she is pregnant, and as it so happens, there’s a bigger catastrophic phenomenon sweeping the planet known as the Russian Report, thought to be where the phenomenon occurred. People go insane, sometimes committing murder, but always ending with the infected person committing suicide.

When the disease hits Alaska, Malorie along with her sister Shannon take refuge in their house, knowing that to survive, they must board up their house to prevent whatever it is that’s causing people to, as the media calls it, ‘self-destruct’. After Malorie’s sister dies, Malorie leaves to seek help at a house occupied by a few survivors. It becomes more apparent though that the people of this new world have lost more than the luxury of their sight.

In way of its narration, Malerman disperses with two time lines: four years after the Russian Report and the days leading up to Malorie’s pregnancy. Immediately, we are introduced to the chaos and horrors of the new world coinciding with her unexpected pregnancy (a not so subtle metaphor.) There’s rarely a moment to pause to consider anything for very long.

Malerman invents an intriguing yet isolating world. He takes the one aspect of everyday life that we take for granted and undermines our own security. Having read John Wyndam’s The Day of the Triffids, a global plague of blindness that infects anyone witness to the meteor shower, Malerman’s novel similarly evokes the chilling fear and helplessness, but unlike Triffids, Bird Box is more abstract; the creatures are never revealed and much about what happens to the world remains unanswered. Identifying and knowing what we’re afraid is one thing, but not having an idea of the monster’s shape or its thoughts is another. And this is assuming that there were creatures at all.

While Bird Box is not the most descriptive of novels considering its premise of taking refuge in a safe house and wearing a blindfold when going outside, it’s rapid firing sensory descriptors triggers just the right imagery and appropriate tension. The characters’ vulnerability is palpable when they’re feeling their way through the backyard or to a house next door. Without sight, the emotions are intensified, leaving a lot of the characters and their reactions to situations raw. Subsequently, Bird Box is left with the bare minimum, its characters skeletons and metaphors flimsy.

With its excellent pacing and its white-knuckling moments, Box inadvertently forgoes any real character development. Malorie, although undergoes significant trauma, is an observer, who oddly surfaces as the reluctant leader-drill-sergeant mother. This is not to belittle her experiences (her experience with giving birth made my insides and my vagina lurch: never, ever, EVER, having kids,) but the glut of character development is lost, which usually occurs in most post-apocalyptic stories when the circumstances of the new world subsume the plot and characters’ own lives. Auto drive sets in and characters’ ambitions are abandoned for survival. Malorie embodies this notion as does her housemates. To my disappointment, I can only describe each character with one word.

Most of what I loved about the style and fluidity doesn’t compensate for its clumsy symbolism, i.e., the bird box. While the image itself is spectacular, Malorie and the children under a canopy of mad birds, there’s hardly anything else. Even the bird imagery, which potentially has several meanings, feels awkward. It’s the one part of the novel that feels out of place. Usually I love when a novel’s title finds its way onto the pages, yet this may be a rare instance when I wish it had just stayed as the book’s title. It ends up being more literal than a metaphor.

Box had only two viable conclusions, which is something I usually don’t enjoy.  This is very much a novel about survival, testing one’s limitations, and what part of your humanity are you willing to discard. With few surprises, Bird Box is still entertaining and creepy and will fill up your afternoon with excitement; however, if you’re susceptible to these kinds of stories (like me), do yourself a favor and keep it away from your nightstand before going to bed. One of the last few passages of the books is one that’ll haunt anyone with a reproductive system.

Just saying.

Book Nerd Problems: Living With Too Many Books (And NOT Enough Room!)

book clutter

In my apartment, I approximately have eleven shelves dedicated solely to books. Of course there are other unofficial areas where my books take up space. The dining room table. The window sills. The dresser. The rotunda. The closet. I even took a page from Rory Gilmore and kept books stashed under my bed. I lived in a space virtually dominated by books and while this ostensibly is a book hermit’s paradise; it wasn’t mine. Soon I discovered that most of the books I owned were books that I didn’t like, that were passed on to me by relatives and friends, or were books I said I would get around to reading but never did. Letting these kind of books reside in your home, especially if you live in a small place like mine, is no way to live or for that matter, is one of the worst thing you can do with your books.

I get it. We all want that expansive library in our someday house. We want books wall-to-wall in our tinted Victorian house in the woods next to a serene lake, but I can honestly say that after donating the books that I didn’t feel anything for or that didn’t do anything for me that my someday Beauty and the Beast library will copiously have all the books that I love. So why do so many of us hold onto books that we’re indifferent to? Is rampant consumerism to blame?

Many of us when we purchase our books, whether it’s from a book store, online, or a thrift store, are making a financial investment. One or two books maybe doesn’t add up, but when you’re buying a book on a weekly basis, you’re spending as much as you would if you were to buy a Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte everyday, and that’s assuming that you have enough will power to only buy one book. I don’t even have to mention how crazy expensive book hauls can be if you’re not shopping smart. For many of us, we’re not discarding books because of their price.

Letting go of our books can be very hard. We’re sentimental about them. Reading stories is candy to us and books are obviously a gateway to the candy factory. So when it comes to letting go of a certain book, it triggers the emergency brake in our hearts. At one time, we emotionally invested ourselves in that particular book and just as book veterans know, there are no guarantees. Some books just weren’t meant to be.

Yet when it comes to letting that book go, we fight like hell to keep it. We suddenly morph into social workers and lawyers advocating for the book’s refuge.

The excuses vary. With me, the sheer volume of books was a front I liked to have in my place. It acted as castle, my armor. Without the mass of books, I tended to feel vulnerable. I thought without the books around me, I wouldn’t have anything to go to when I sunk into a Low or when I had nothing to preoccupy my mind. To spare you from a rather long psychoanalysis session, I learned that I simply didn’t need all those books. Even when I suffer a Low, or when I wanted a new book to read, I rarely every reached out to my book shelf. When I did, it was to pick up a book that I loved. Any other time, I’d go to the library. Keeping every book you’ve ever purchased or found may seem impressive to the naked eye, but what are those books actually doing besides taking up space?

What’s more is the problem with keeping the books you dislike or the ones you’ll probably never read. It’s a disservice to books. It’s their purpose to be read and not just one time, but again and again. Keeping these kinds of books significantly hinders this process.

So do them a favor. Donate them. Free up some room in your living quarters. And there are plenty of folks and organizations who’ll be glad to take them.

It’s time to take a hard look at yourself and your books. This last weekend, I donated forty books to a local organization. I’m not saying it was easy sifting through my books, determining which should stay and which should go. These included the books I didn’t like, relative/friend pawned-off books, and books I know I’ll never get around to reading. If the urge does arise, there’s no need to panic. I can always go to the library.

And by the time you’re finished and done, your shelves may look a bit naked, but now you have the space again to fill them up with the books you really love.

Likeable Characters: Does it Matter?

Unlikeable characters picIn Paula Hawkins Girl on the Train, almost every character falls under the category of unlikeable. Gillian Flynn’s characters in Gone Girl and Dark Places evokes a similar, chronic umbrage that even their worst personality traits and immoral choices cannot compensate for; yet, after the chaos of voluntarily dropping ourselves into these characters’ circumstances along with knowing the well-founded and pitiful reason for these characters being who they are, the vast majority of readers cannot pull themselves away from the all consuming discussion: were the characters likeable?

I was dismissive of this topic at first and never put much emphasis in it. I still consider it a short-sighted way to gauge a book’s merit, and I think it can act as a form of discrimination, especially when people use the scapegoat of not liking  a book because they weren’t able to identify with any of the characters. When did we start treating these characters like celebrity friends?

Our purpose in reading has changed. Although why we read has its own myriad of answers, reading still cultivates a feeling of empathy, but when we remove the likeability from our characters, it seems to affect how we read the text. People usually don’t feel as generous or sympathetic toward a character doing terrible things regardless if people are well informed of the character’s motivations and circumstances, which says a mouthful of what people are willing to spare in terms of compassion.

Then again, reading isn’t just satisfying our own moral compasses and egos but a way to study the spectrum of humanity. As anyone who happens to turn on the morning news or has had their share of hardships, we can be hollow, cruel, and vicious creatures, which can be difficult for many to read. Some days leave you feeling like a hopeless cynic who wants to do nothing but hermit. And while you can gain so much from being exposed to this material, it’s not what a majority of people want to read. As the Guardian writes, people have an “appetite for easy, unthreatening fiction.”

In the last few years, our culture has undergone economic changes. Despite the recession, people are still significantly more well off than they would have been fifty years ago. Finances, health, and well-being have increased, which subsequently, has fostered a belief, attributed much to the new generation, that places an emphasis on self-worth. Millennials want to do work that is fulfilling. They want to know that the work they’re doing is making a difference somehow, but they also want to know that they’re not going to spend every waking hour in an office doing a monotonous job, not after the sobering realization that a perfect education cannot promise anything. People are still seeking employment. Some are working for positions they’re overqualified with salaries below minimum wage. Our healthcare system has problems and isn’t as affordable despite its name. Even though things are improving, several people are still struggling.  There’s a tendency to forgo the challenging books with unlikeable character and prefer characters they can relate to and inspire them. It’s a healthier way to self-medicate. Having a likeable character in a story isn’t necessarily bad in terms of characterization, but as Claire Messud puts it after a reporter blithely asked her about a certain prickly female character in her book, “[People] read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘Is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘Is this character alive?’”

Our criteria and rhetoric has become heavily biased in terms of how we rate and appreciate characters in books. In a society that already has in place a double standard system, with unlikeable female character tending to be judged more than their male counterparts, our own impartiality limits our exposure and engenders the prolonged problems of not having enough diverse characters.

The other issue stemming from only generating the likeable characters will result in trite material. As Zoe Heller argues, “to insist that the fault always lies with our shortcomings as readers is to attribute to literature an infallibility it does not possess.”  A likeable character is a pleasing person and we’re essentially creating a nice version of Frankenstein’s monster that is an aesthetically, well-behaved, non-ambiguous character. If we seek fault, then it’s part of the travesty of not wanting to find mix-matched parts to assemble.

Whether we like or dislike a character shouldn’t affect our final verdict. It’s actually distracting us from having more meaningful, complicated discussions. This is not to say that you should kill your feelings just yet. They’re a great plateau to jump off from that can lead into the more thought-provoking conversations.

If we simply regard a character based on our overall impression of them, we can easily end up being misinformed and end up misunderstanding the people in our own lives. Characters are, of course, fictional, contrived from the inner creative circuitry of the writer’s mind. If nothing else, we can find more than just entertainment injected into the ink: we can find ourselves, people, strangers, another world, the new, the ugly, secrets, and lies.

Post Blog Post: If you think I’m exaggerating or aren’t taking me seriously about the scrutiny of female characters, just Google: unlikeable characters in books. Then click on ‘Images.’