Happy Fourth of July



Things I love about the United States:

1. The regional, cultural, and bio-diversity

2. Apple pie

3. You have most of the NHL hockey teams*

4. The relatively inexpensive gas

5. The incredible national parks

6. A rich, fascinating, complex, painful, triumphant history that I’m really enjoying learning

7. Toni Morrison, Harper Lee, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman, Maya Angelou, Junot Diaz, Marilynne Robinson, Ernest Hemingway

8. American Netflix

9. The Supreme Court’s (long overdue but no less thrilling) ruling in favour of same-sex marriage

10. The American road trip (when you have 50 states to travel through it’s just more exciting – except maybe Nebraska, sorry NE)

* This point in no ways implies support for US Olympic hockey teams or the Boston Bruins.


Happy Canada Day

Happy Canada Day!


Things I miss about Canada:

1. ketchup chips

2. French

3. poutine (like real poutine, none of this grated mozzarella nonsense)

4. Canadian currency (why Americans make fun of Canadian currency is beyond me. It’s beautiful, colourful, the bills are easier to distinguish, coins are more convenient than $1 bills and I will fight anyone who says otherwise, and it’s plastic to it’s basically indestructible.)

5. hockey (both the sport and the fact that I can watch it on regular cable)

6. national elections that don’t last more than a few months

7. diversity (in my [anecdotal, regionally-specific] experience cultural diversity is celebrated more north of the border [though things are far from perfect])

8. Heritage Minutes (and quoting Heritage Minutes with people who get the reference and don’t just think I’m nuts – “But I’m sure he means the houses, the village!”)

9. the quintessentially Canadian music and comedy

10. Montreal bagels (New York bagels? Please.)

I Am A Bad Feminist

Over the weekend I read Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. It was equal parts affirming and educational and her essays inspired me to think of the ways that I am a “bad feminist.” Here is what I came up with – an incomplete, mostly serious, partly tongue-in-cheek list of the ways in which I am bad at feminism.

  1. I love high heels.
  2. I am skeptical of “manspreading.”  Having spent a lot of time on public transportation in the last 7 years (in 3 major cities – Denver, Montreal, Toronto) I have found that people taking up a lot of space doesn’t conform to a perceivable gender trend. In my experience women seemed just as likely to put their bag on the empty seat next to them as men were to spread their legs.
  3. I am guilty of enjoying dancing to music that includes misogynistic lyrics. I know it’s problematic and yet I can’t deny that it pumps me up when I jog and that it gets me dancing in my kitchen.
  4. I think the “for every dollar a man earns, a woman makes 78 cents” tagline is recycled and not useful.
  5. Feminist circles have been talking a lot about “manterrupting” and I feel embarrassed because a bad habit of mine (that I’m working on!) is interrupting people.
  6. I (sporadically) count calories. And don’t feel bad about it.
  7. I have never and will never burn my bra because they are expensive.
  8. I love plenty of TV shows, movies, and books that fail the Bechdel test.
  9. I have problems with the “body positive” movement.
  10. I am ignorant of the struggles of women of colour and the ways in which mainstream feminism has excluded them. This is something I’m actively working on but I am not excused.

Lest you misinterpret my list as me saying “I’m a feminist but not one of those feminists” let me be clear that the point of this list is to recognize that as a fallible human being I regularly fail to live up to my own ideals. It’s also to point out that the mainstream feminist narrative has been dominated by white, heterosexual, middle-class women and has often failed women of colour, transwomen, and poor women.

I am a bad feminist but I am a proud feminist committed to listening, learning, and advocating. In the words of the formidable Roxane Gay, “I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.”

Why I Don’t Care About the Historical Accuracy of Historical Fiction

When I was in elementary school, I bought the first two books in The Royal Diaries series at the Scholastic Book Fair. Each book is written like the fictional diary of a real-life royal figure as a young girl. The first book was written from the perspective of a young Elizabeth I and the second from the perspective of a teenage Cleopatra. The end of each book included historical notes on the book’s subject as well as historical photographs and drawings. I devoured the books and became instantly obsessed with both the series and historical fiction.

My penchant for reading historical fiction has followed me into adulthood (I turned 26 last week so I guess I have to grudgingly admit that I’m now technically an adult). I love that the genre allows me to explore historical time periods in a way that is fun and accessible. I love learning about history this way and yet I don’t care about historical accuracy in historical fiction. Don’t get me wrong, authors who can weave the relatively un-embellished facts into a compelling narrative should be recognized for their monstrous achievement (bonus points for you, Hilary Mantel). But authors who take creative liberties, even sweeping ones, should not be condemned (I got your back, Philippa Gregory).

So why don’t I care about the historical accuracy of historical fiction?

1. Historical fiction is educational

I learn a ton from reading historical fiction. I have had a weakness for Tudor-era England ever since I read Elizabeth I: Red Rose of the House of Tudor, England, 1544, the first book in The Royal Diaries series. At age 10 I could recite the names of all the wives of Henry VIII, their children, and their fates. I knew that Catherine of Aragon’s parents were Isabel and Ferdinand and that they sent Christopher Columbus on the journey during which he discovered America and I had a decent understanding of the English Reformation for an elementary school kid. I knew all of this not because I was especially bright or because I was learning it in school. I learned it all through reading. I doubt I would have picked up any of the non-fiction books on Tudor history that I’ve read as an adult if I hadn’t been introduced to the era or its characters through fiction.

Although I’ve long outgrown The Royal Diaries series, I continue to learn history from historical fiction as I’m introduced to new places, people, and time periods and inspired to learn more about them.

2. Historical fiction rescues interesting characters from obscurity

Many historical fiction novels elevate supporting characters to starring roles. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, for instance, offers a fresh perspective on the drama of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn by telling the story from her sister’s perspective. The relatively minimal historical record on such figures means that in order to develop them into well-rounded characters authors must do some inventing. Staying within the confines of established history means that these characters are either presented as shallow caricatures or ignored altogether. I doubt either of these sad alternatives appeal to readers or history buffs.

3. Fact-checking historical fiction is fun (or am I just super nerdy?)

I happen to think that historical fiction is best paired with historical non-fiction. Having an understanding of the facts, at least as historians understand them, enriches the historical fiction reading experience because it allows the reader to spot when the author is adding their own flavour to history. Historical reality in tact, a reader can then venture confidently into the gray areas of history and chew on the food for thought provided by the author. Also, there is something delightful about fact-checking what seems like an impossible detail only to discover that truth really is stranger than fiction.

If nothing else, nerds like me may enjoy the ego boost derived from the uncovering of historical anomalies in fiction.This gives us a chance to bust out our interesting trivia at appropriate (and sometimes inappropriate) moments. Did you know that despite making a menstrual tent the symbolically important setting her book The Red Tent author Anita Diamant acknowledges that there is no historical evidence to suggest that they even existed in ancient Israel/Iraq?

4. Historical fiction is fiction

The purpose of imagining the motivations behind historical figures’ choices is not merely an exercise is examining or re-examining history but also an exploration of human nature. Sure, unlike other genres, historical fiction more obviously derives inspiration from real events and real people but fundamentally historical fiction has more in common with its fictional counterparts than with history books. Evaluating its quality according to its historical accuracy then, rather than its literary merit, is nonsensical and boring. If historical fiction was meant to be completely historically accurate it would be shelved in the non-fiction section.

We love books because we love great writing, interesting characters, thoughtful commentary of human nature, intriguing plots, and, perhaps above all, imagination. I read historical fiction not because of its strict adherence to historical fact, but because of its loyalty to these significantly more important criteria.

House of Cards Review

* Spoilers below

Frank Underwood is a bad president. And I don’t mean he’s a bad president because he manipulated and murdered his way into the Oval Office. I mean he’s bad at governing. Season 2 of House of Cards left us with Frank achieving his ultimate goal. Having ruthlessly climbed the political ladder all the way up to the Vice-Presidency, Frank succeeded in manipulating the president into resigning and became the unelected Leader of the Free World.  Season 2 ended with Kevin Spacey looking directly into the camera in sinister triumph and rapping sharply on the desk (a signature of his) before the screen went black. It was a breathtaking moment but as the credits rolled you couldn’t help but wonder “What’s next?” Frank has, after all, realized his greatest ambition. Where would he go from here?

As it turns out, his sociopathic rise to the top might have been the easy part of President Underwood. No longer able to pull strings from behind the scenes, Underwood finds himself unable to enact any of his desired policies including a ludicrous jobs program that would gut social security. Presumably as president he can no longer coerce his opponents into submission leaving him hapless in a way that we’ve never seen him before.

But fear not House of Cards fans, Season 3 is still filled with power struggles and drama. It’s just that this time around it’s not Frank and Claire against the world, it’s Frank and Claire against themselves. And it looks like they’ve finally each met their match. Until this season, Frank and Claire were presented as a the ultimate power couple. A union of two equally ambitious forces whose marriage was more mutually beneficial political arrangement than fairy-tale romance. Previous seasons emphasized the interdependence of Frank and Claire so the turmoil between the two in Season 3 represented not just an intimate portrait of an unusual marriage but also a crumbling alliance that could significantly alter American and global politics.

The inward focus of Season 3, combined with the tedium of watching Frank try to govern, made the season a slower, less gripping build than its predecessors. It was a great season for Claire fans, however, as the consistently fantastic Robin Wright was granted much screen time. Claire spends much of the season struggling to get her political career off the ground and realizing that her relationship with Frank is not nearly as equal as she had thought. There were several moments when she breaks away from their alliance and in my apartment these moments had us high-fiving in support of “Team Claire.” Sure she isn’t weighed down by quite the same constraints as the President but so often in Season 3 Claire shined while Frank fumbled.

In fact, it was a great season for interesting women. Jackie Sharp returns with both ambition and vulnerability. Heather Dunbar is introduced as a powerhouse that poses a legitimate threat to Frank partly because she may prove to be equally ruthless. The thing a like best about House of Cards is the idea that as much fun as it’s been watching Frank climb to the top, it will be equally delightful to watch his downfall. And if Claire, Jackie, and Heather are the forces that topple his carefully stacked house of cards, well that’s even better.

Oscars Wrap Up

I watched the Oscars last night (obviously) and was eager to see what impact the virtual #AskHerMore campaign might have on the red carpet. I watched Robin Roberts and company on ABC and was impressed by their coverage. They mentioned the campaign explicitly which was fine but more importantly Roberts et al. asked women great questions about their films. Julianne Moore, for instance, had a great moment where she made important points about the subject of her film, Alzeihmer’s disease.

Honestly, I don’t mind that women on the red carpet are asked about their dresses. Even a fashion amateur like myself can enjoy seeing all the gorgeous dresses and chatting with her friends about which ones we liked and disliked. That’s part of red carpet tradition and there isn’t anything inherently wrong with it. It’s also good to have designers and their work are acknowledged. The need for #AskHerMore arose, however, when red carpet Q&A’s ventured into the realm of the absurd (see the cringe-inducing mani-cam from last year) and downright sexist. Common examples being that men seem more likely to be asked questions about their film or their character development while women are more likely to be asked about their wardrobe, hair or how they manage a work-family balance (though men with families are rarely asked the same question). It was great to see ABC break away from that trend last night, it made me really happy.

What made me less happy was some of the online snark about #AskHerMore. Some derided the campaign by suggesting that it was silly to expect thorough responses to complex questions in the frantic red carpet environment. This skepticism prompted me to Tweet this:

Plus, I think the success of #AskHerMore last night demonstrated that it is possible to ask thoughtful questions and receive a brief but insightful reply.

Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. The Oscars themselves were flat and while I generally find Neil Patrick Harris to be positively charming his jokes didn’t work and the atmosphere felt stiff. He made some valiant attempts to call out the Academy for its depressing lack of diversity but the impact just wasn’t there.

There were some great individual moments though. More than once Oscar recipients refused to be played off by the orchestra which was awesome. There were some truly touching speeches especially by The Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore. Lady Gaga reminded the world that she is a phenomenal singer and Julie Andrews made a surprise appearance. Common and John Legend’s performance of “Glory” was beautiful and a great moment to acknowledge the under-appreciated (at least by the Academy) Selma. And this gif of Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez reacting to Patricia Arquette’s call for wage equality is everything.

While last night might have been my favourite Oscar’s red carpet so far, the ceremony left much to be desired. Here’s hoping next year’s awards are less white and more fun.