Tag Archive: Parenting

Jennifer Egan is an American author who’s novel “A Visit From the Goon Squad” won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. She’s also written numerous short fiction, many which have had their debuts in “The New York Times Magazine” which supplements a impressive literary career garnered about her since her debut novel, “Look at me” (2001). “The Keep” was her fourth novel and even if it is one of her more “lesser known novels” (i.e. remains in the shadow of “A Visit from the Goon Squad”) it was highly praised by critics upon its release. Before I review “The Keep”, it seems fair to point out that I haven’t read any of Ms. Egan’s other literary works. Therefore this review will only be a critique of “The Keep”, but not on Ms. Egan’s body of work as a whole. In fact, I plan on reading “A Visit from the Good Squad” when I get my hands on a copy.

“The Keep” contains two parallel stories. One tells the story of Danny who is desperate for a job. So he agrees to work on a project with his cousin, Howard. Despite his desperation, Danny finds Howard suspicious and feels awkward around him, due to a deadly prank Danny played on Howard when the two of them were children. At the same time we follow a prisoner named Ray, who attends a writing course run at the prison. He becomes fairly infatuated with the teacher, Holly, and makes it his mission to have the frail contact of holding her hand (as he puts it: “in here it’s as good as fucking her”). As the story unfolds we find out that the narrative about Danny and Howard is the story Ray is writing for the course in prison. The climax of this interwoven tale is us finding out that Ray worked alongside Howard and Danny, and killed Danny by shooting him.

As a whole novel, “The Keep” has an interesting concept. Unfortunately it is poorly paced; half of the novel is just Danny walking about the construction site of the hotel he and Howard are working on, whilst emptily fretting about his vacant life. In sum, vacuously fussing about an unfilled existence (no wonder it is a problem). The incident from both Howards and Danny’s childhood is only mentioned in the novels beginning and then forgotten till the very end of the novel. And even then it turns out that the incident didn’t really have any relevance to these character’s actions and conclusions in the middle of the novel.

Ray’s story is modestly better written than the other protagonists of this tale. However, the novel’s incurable flaw is not that it is dull and longer than it should have been, but resides within the clumsy and annoying ending.

The final chapter is told entirely from Holly’s point of view. In it, the reader learns that Holly has two daughters, a teenager named Meg and a small child named Gabby. She has been to rehab due to having a severe addiction to Crystal meth, as did her husband, Terry, the father of the two girls. Holly describes how she started taking drugs alongside her husband since she was “tired of being the cop” and wanted to have fun. This event occurred while she had two very young girls to look after. Instead of being the parent the girls could depend on, she decided to emotionally abandon them in the thick of addiction. It is of course true that Terry suspended his own responsibilities as a parent by becoming a drug addict but this addiction of the father rings hollow as a distraction point for Holly’s participation in the family trauma and neglect of the children . Simply put the reader is asked to deal lightly with the mother Holly’s embrace of the spiral of addiction and to feel no compunction to lay the life of the kids to one dysfunctional parent instead of two.

Jennifer Egan with “The Keep”

Holly lays out to the reader the path of her addiction, which cumulates at one point with a miscarriage, yet we never find Holly even lightly reflecting on how traumatizing the circle of addiction, indifference and abuse may have been for her children. Instead we are placed in a narration focusing only on the psychological wounds Holly supposedly has from her own bad decisions. The character of Holly lightly skips over the destruction’s of her interactions with the dependent and circles in a field of guilt only regarding herself.

In the final chapter of the novel, Holly is informed that Ray (who one will remember was in Holly’s Writing Course at the prison) has escaped. Holly hurries home to inform Meg and Gabby that they all will have to sleep in Meg’s room for the evening. Meg complains about the lack of privacy and confronts her mother with the statement lingering always about the addict: “as if you can protect us”. This commotion sends the younger child Gabby into despairing tears, wherein Holly snaps at her daughter: “Look what you’ve done, you little bitch!”. Though we are told that Holly hates herself for saying such a thing to her daughter, the actuality, as always, is that this is an internal whimper (she thinks it, not says it) of the character whose very presence means rejecting any external apology or self-judgments when there are others who should “take the blame”. Served as well in this small set-scene, though Holly calls her teenage daughter by sexist terms reserved for the most mean-spirited and mad amongst us, the author actually serves up Holly as failing to see that her daughter’s comment is not entirely unjustifiable.

The mother has been an addict, and shown as not able, nor caring, for her children. And for this Meg’s anger isn’t without reason. That her mother then calls her by emotionally abusive, and sexually charged, names shows Holly has no real interest to face the trauma she has caused. To make matters worse, she complains about Meg not being sweet anymore and therefore likes Gabby better. At this point it is clear that Holly only sees her time as an out-of-control addict as something that has only been traumatic to her, not her children. Meg’s lack of sweetness seems to be a form of protecting herself. She has after all been clearly betrayed by both her parents. Holly ignores the fact that Meg perhaps has a reason to not trust her or have the energy to be kind. Holly comes off as a fairly self-centered parent. Her only saving quality as a parent is that she at least is clean of her drug dependency; even if Terry isn’t and has completely abandoned his children.

Unfortunately, Holly’s saving grace trait is ultimately lost in the narrative of the book when she gets a written script from Ray for the writer’s course she was giving at the prison. She reads it and remembers a conversation she had with Ray. Ray had told her he would send her the script he was working on, so that she could write a novel out of it. She says she can’t write, but he argues against it. Holly then remembers how she felt a connection to Ray after she lectured him about the first story he wrote for the class and during this exchange he engages her with a gaze. The narrative has this revelation pivot on the writing possibilities coming not from Ray beginning to write better texts for the class, mind you, but because he looked at her when she spoke.

After this odd memory, Holly is summoned to the police station since Chrystal meth is discovered in Holly’s household. Holly insists it is her husband’s Terry’s and the charges against her are suspended. After this Holly immediately decides to go looking for the convicted murderer Ray who is now free after his escape and living in Europe. Leaving her kids in the care of her mother Holly leaves for the Continent in a quest to reconnect with Ray. How we as readers are to bond with the evaded narrative justification of Holly seeking out, for her own development, the killer Ray on the immediate trauma of the drug bust on the children is left hanging and deferred in the tale. The confusion is heightened to the reader of this novel as we as now told that Holly has been sent Rays Story which is a recounting of the murder he has committed. Holly is confronted in the text with Ray stating in the story, and therefore to Holly, that he had no reason for the killing. His murder was empty and without reason. We find Holly as empty to the consequences of this statement as Ray is to the killing he performed. The Reader of Egan’s novel is confronted with the obvious: Ray is a highly dangerous and emotionally dead sociopath. Yet the narrative serves us up Holly who’s reactions and actions place Ray as a person who one, after all of the abandonment she has placed on those around her, is worth leaving her children for (even in the most emotionally stressful time).

Though the novel has Meg illustrated as flatly begging her mother to come back – we are positioned with Holly in this novel who bypasses this request all in favor of her “inner discovery” and still refuses (as does the novel) to think about the pain her daughter’s going through. “The Keep” ends with Holly arriving to the hotel Danny (the man Ray killed) and Howard worked on. She cries because she realizes she’ll never see Ray again and hangs around the hotel.
Intermixed with the slew of problems Egan’s” the Keep” entails we also find that the stance of the story wants us to sympathize with Ray and while we barely get to know him what is revealed in the text about his character is more disquieting than interesting. He comes off as perilous in the novel’s reveal, which makes Holly’s romantic interest in him seem obsessive, unhealthy and ultimately egocentric.

At last how can we not find Holly as the penultimate awful and emotionally abusive parent, which the narration of the novel gleefully glamorizes? This leads to the novel’s heart coming off as creepy and disturbing. Egan asks us to sympathize with characters that definitely don’t deserve the reader’s sympathy. No tragic events or psychological explanations are given to Ray to make his actions more human. No signs of self-reflection are given to Holly. So no sympathy can be given to the characters.

As a last note, it is worth saying that when done correctly, great literature has been done about prisoners. For example and as a recommendation, Tennessee Williams wrote a play about prisoners and their rights in his play “Not about Nightingales”.

Comedy can be a very powerful social tool. Through humor people can critique politics, point out hypocrisies in our cultures and people, or give us a means to observe the sociology of our beings. Satire is the most commonly known term for this form of comedy and many of the most famous “stand up” comedians tend to use this type of satirical humor. For example George Carlin, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, and Margaret Cho.

In the two videos, below, we can see the work of a couple brilliant comedians working with this satirical technique to confront important political and social issues in their comedic routines, and I will attempt to give a brief thought on what occurs within each of these satirical monologues.

Dave Chappelle is one of the most recognized African-American comedians in the US. He’s mostly known for the comedy sketch program “Chappelle’s Show”, which featured risqué humour as well as social commentary dressed in a mocking tone. He was also quite phenomenal while doing stand up. In this routine, he discusses how society views men who are victims of sexual violence.

Mr. Chappelle, definitively, hits the nail on the head in this routine. Men are expected to “man-up” after experiencing traumatic events, and are bizarrely anticipated to always be able to defend themselves. Men are constantly propelled to feeling shame if they don’t live up to these expectations. However, I don’t exactly agree with Mr. Chappelle that society is just super nice to female victims of sexual violence; there’s a lot of victim blaming there as well.

On an not-so-off note: regarding the topic of preventing sexual violence, check out these superb ads on the subject.

Maz Jobrani is a Iranian-born American comedian who is a part of the excellent comedy group “Axis of Evil”. In his unique satirical style, he critiques and explores subjects such as racism, Islamophobia, and on his own identity of being Iranian/American. Many of his routines excavate and evaluate Iranian, as well as American, politics. In the clip featured below, he talks about his of upbringing in the crux of “manhood”.

The monologue directly confronts the suppression of “weak” emotions that the male is “suppose” to suppress and ignore. Social norms operate often to curtail men in regard to entirely express emotions. Needless to say this suppression is not the greatest of ideas. It’s good that Mr. Jobrani satireizes such upbringing, but he does make an unfortunate implication in the very end. Pity, but still funny insight on the subject if one ignores the very last bit.

Hope these two clips gave you some good laughs, and raised some thoughts!

I recently, and finally, saw one of DreamWorks’ newest blockbusters, “Kung Fu Panda 2”, which according to Imdb is, since September this year, the biggest box office success for a film with a female director, that director being Jennifer Yuh. Ms. Yuh is one of the few women who have directed major animated blockbusters films, which I have mentioned in my older post “Rise of the Damsel”. I didn’t like the first “Kung Fu Panda” film, as a mentioned as well in my previous post. However I didn’t really explain why. I will do so here before reviewing the sequel: I strongly disliked that the panda Po was cast as the quintessential and main hero in the narrative arc of the story. His attitude in the story seemed to be that everything should just be handed to him, without working for it (as the other characters have done exclusively). He dreams of becoming a master of Kung Fu, but when he is given the chance to learn martial arts he doesn’t show up to classes or at least try to do anything (Spoiler!: until his teacher withholds food from him). I also disliked how Tigress, a fierce warrior who had devoted her whole life to Kung Fu, was pushed aside and replaced by the distracted Po merely because the storyline posits him as “destined to be the great heroic warrior”. It felt like the writers of the screenplay were stating that even if women (or anybody else for that matter) can be great fighters, men (as the chosen of society) are just automatically better (even if all common sense would say otherwise) because, hey, they are males after all. Luckily, the sequel gives a much better treatment of Tigress’ character and even Po’s character development handled in a much better fashion this time around. The villain is deliciously enjoyable and the animation is ten times better, as well as the themes brought up being a lot more interesting.

The film starts with giving us a brief back-story to the villain Lord Shen, a peacock and son to two powerful monarchs who ruled over Gongmen City. After the invention of Fireworks, Lord Shen sees the potential in the explosives for powerful weapons and uses this in his attempt to take over the whole of China and subjugate it to his will. However, Lord Shen learns from a prophecy that he will be defeated by a warrior of “black-and-white”, which leads to him nearly exterminating all Pandas. His parents, horrified by this act, banish him from the kingdom. Lord Shen leaves, swearing revenge. The film then focuses on Po, who is now a celebrity hero in his hometown and good friends with his fellow Kung Fu masters. However, his relationship with his father becomes troublesome when he finds out he’s adopted – which is no surprise to anyone else, considering he’s father is a goose and he’s a panda (a reoccurring joke which is peppered throughout the film). Po is struck with identity crises, but gets little time to resolve it as Po and his warrior friends must travel to Gongmen City to stop Lord Shen, who threatens Kung Fu with his new weapon.

The film addresses adoption and parent-child relationships well. Po’s father is loving and supportive and proud of his son, while Po on the other hand is confused about his emotions, constantly seeking out answers to his past. This makes Po act quite cold and diffident towards his affectionate father. Usually, in children’s films, the parents are portrayed as unreasonable and/or unable to understand their children, however in this film it is the child, Po, who is in the wrong here, not being able to appreciate the love he has gotten and still receives. Naturally, Po wants to know where he comes from and what his roots are and he is constantly bedeviled with worries that he might not have been loved by his “natural” parents prompting them to abandon him in his infancy. Po’s identity crisis is pretty well portrayed; the viewer can sympathize with his situation, but he’s unable to express his problems to others, which causes major problems during his and his friend’s mission to stop Lord Shen. My only complaint of the portrayal of this conflict is that the way Po resolves his problem is a little simple, and he never seems to realize how his attitude towards his adoptive father did, well… kind of sucked. But kudos to James Hong who voiced Mr. Ping the goose father, he did an excellent job capturing a loving and kind parent’s voice. Especially the scene where Mr. Ping tells Po how he ended up raising him as a son, which no doubt was one of the most heart-warming scenes in the film.

One of the overriding and major themes played with in “Kung Fu Panda 2” is usage of advanced weapons. The film is highly critical of the usage of these weapons of “mass destruction”. The message of the film seems to be against using gunpowder, which holds the position of a trope of the indiscriminate killing device, as a form of fighting, which is good admittedly in regard to our age of drones and cluster-bombs. However, the main critique seems to come from the idea that usage of weaponry eliminates martial arts. And here’s where I’m a little conflicted; I don’t believe in fire arms or other advanced weaponry which distance ourselves from our killings and destroy without consequence, and think it’s nice to see a film with a anti-weapon message with this in mind. But is it truly better to say martial arts are much better? The “karate” technique (which is staple action used in the movie) is still positioned as a battle technique and a way to, frankly, beat the crap out of each other? I am not sure saying that technological weapons are bad , but combat in the sense of “hand to hand” resolves the question of violence which is meant to be raised here. Then again, perhaps the film just wants to highlight the fact that weapons of mass scale and indeterminate distance cause a lot more meaningless damage and therefore are used in more “dirty”, unfair and brutal ways in battles, while martial arts are more about clean fights where one has to experience the person on who the violent act is done to. I don’t necessarily agree, since I often hope people could come to agreements by discussions and compromise, but I guess there are situations where that is not perhaps possible. (Interestingly, this is almost always the case in children’s films. Huh…)

Lord Shen, the evil power-hungry pale white peacock villain, is an excellent bad guy. Gary Oldman provides the voice for the mad bird and I have to say he has a real talent in voice acting. Lord Shen is sinister, arrogant and commits crimes pretty vicious for a children’s film. He’s unsettling and a master of manipulation, but also pretty funny at times. Mr. Oldman’s way of delivering his character is perfect and was a perfect casting. Also the design for Lord Shen was brilliant: a pale white peacock with grim red eyes that uses his feathers like sharp knives. According to Ms. Yuh, the character of Shen was extraordinarily difficult to animate and became like animating six characters all at once. Great work was beyond a doubt, and with good effect, put into Lord Shen’s design, for he was by far also the most beautifully animated character and it was a wondrous thrill to see the character in his fight sequences.

Fun fact: there do indeed exist white peacocks, whose colors apparently make them look quite elegant. White, however, is the color of death in Chinese culture; this is why having white feathers marked Lord Shen as the antagonist.

Gary Oldman wasn’t the only one doing impressive voice acting. Michelle Yeoh, who was brilliant as a strong warrior in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” (2000) and as one of the determined scientist in “Sunshine” (2007), did a great job on voicing Shen’s former nanny, Soothsayer, combining wise with comically caring. Angelina Jolie was, once again and much better utilized in this sequel, also an outstanding voice for Master Tigress, getting her character to seem both compassionate as well as in charge and sturdy. Kudos to both of these fine actors!

I will quickly give a thought to the films prevailing message regarding the quest and attainment of “Inner Peace”. I am usually quit skeptical of such philosophies, yet I found myself actually liking how inner peace was interpreted in this movie. Basically, what the writers seem to be elaborating in this concept was that a person should attempt to let go of anger and hostility and struggle and see things from a more positive angle in life. Without this one will end, on the perplexing road of existence, by being engulfed in a shallow and dysfunctional bitterness which wreaks havoc on oneself and others. This is what happens to Lord Shen, which ultimately results in a predetermined spiral to self-destruction. Po on the other hand is able to see that things from outside of resentment and, as a consequence, achieves inner peace making him able to function better as a person (meaning warrior in this case) and becoming more “human” in the journey.
Of course, it is sometimes good to be angry. But, who can argue, it is best not to let bitterness and anger control one’s person and life.

“Kung Fu Panda 2” was a pleasing movie experience. Worth a watch definitely.

Iain Banks is perhaps most famous for the novel”The Wasp Factory”, which was published in 1984 and was Banks literary debut. Banks, after “The Wasp Factory” has written several popular Science Fiction novels, along with his more “conventional fiction”, most notably these include The Culture Novels which deal with a future planetary society where machines have become conscience creatures and humans and machine-consciousnesses live side by side. The first book in the series is “The Player of Games” and he begins the slight alteration of his name in the science fiction literature with the inclusion of an “M” as middle initial.

“The Wasp Factory” tells the odd tale of 16 year old Frank. He lives on a small island with his father, spending his time in the strangely personal ritualistic killing of animals and grandiose pleasures of seeking prophecies from his Wasp Factory. The prophecies work through the dreadful trapping of a wasp into the terrible machinery of a clock prophecy machine. Inside the mechanism are many pathways the wasp can make its way through but all inevitably lead to death: one is where there is a small fire leads to a prolonged burning to death, another is filled with Franks urine which leads to a gruesome drowning and a third, of the many pathways to prophetic death, is a tunnel which leads the wasp to slow crushing. Frank believes he can foretell the future from what way the wasps will “choose” to die and the metaphors which surround the dreadful device of death. The novel begins with Frank receiving one of these steadfast and defining prophecies from this appalling engine of foretelling that informs him that his brother Eric will escape from the mental hospital has been sequestered in for years. This beginning sets the stage for a series of bizarre phone calls from Eric. The series of phone calls trigger in Frank remembrance of his earlier years when he went through a “phase” of early childhood spontaneity and detailed “play” in which he thought through and killed three playmates and relatives (one which is his other, younger brother Paul). Frank recalls his murders one by one while continuing his ritualistic and shamanistic killing of animals on the island. When Eric calls, Frank attempts to reason with his brother and figure out where he is hiding and his plans for making his way to the island, all the while keeping these calls a secret from his father and carrying out his own irrational agenda.

“The Wasp Factory” is a breath-taking reading experience, even if the story is disturbing. Franks calm and matter-of-factly narration of violence and murder is chilling. The narrative violence is also quite surrealistic in the underlining of Franks claim that he committed his first two murders under the age of ten. Even if the book is very grisly, Banks is also able to add a dark and light humor to the disturbing narrative. Eric’s maniacal phone calls to Frank are strangely hilarious and a conundrum of language and sense. Much like his brother, Eric is unjustly and absurdly cruel to animals. And we find out fairly early that Eric was been committed and shipped off to the mental institution for setting dogs on fire. Why Eric has been doing this is later revealed in the book.

“The Wasp Factory” deals with many interesting themes. One is its critique of human superstition. Franks obsession with his prophecies and the rituals in which he mercilessly tortures animals is a sharp attack on the horrors and absurdities engendered in “magical” thinking which requires of its followers and believers the most ridiculous and absurd of things. Banks points out that believing fanatically in the magical, the irrational, the unjustified and the illogical, without the application of thought, human reason and moral concern, can be that which is most dangerous for us and our societies. Another major theme attacked by Banks is the grounds of deception and the language of the lie. Here Banks is particularly and especially focusing on the lies of parents lying to their children and those under their care. Franks father keeps many, dark secrets from Frank which bares unbelievable and dire consequences.

But the most interesting theme explored in this novel is gender. At this point I will reveal a major spoiler, so be warned! If you decide that you want to skip the spoiler, scroll down to the last passage and read only that.
Frank is an extreme misogynist. He considers women to be, as he puts it, one of his greatest enemies:

“My greatest enemies are women and the sea. These things I hate. Women because they are weak and stupid and live in the shadows of men and are nothing compared to them”.

Frank later in the novel continues his ruthless bashing of the female gender by saying:

“Women, I know from watching hundreds – maybe thousands- of films and television programs, cannot withstand really major things happening to them; they get raped, or their loved ones die ,and they go to pieces, go crazy and commit suicide or just pine away until they die ”.

He proudly claims that men are good at killing and strong because of this. Frank bathes in male chauvinism, seeing women as the stereotypically “weaker sex”. Frank can’t find anything redeeming in the entire class of women. Nothing. His misogyny, however, backfires on him in the end of the novel, when Frank realizes he himself is actually a female. Frank is actually a woman who has just been secretly fed male hormones and has been nurtured as one of the gendered male clan. Franks father has experimented on Frank to see if he could change him/her into a male without him/her realizing it and so he/she has been told that his/her penis was bitten off by a dog when he/she was a toddler and therefore had nothing “down there”. At the end of the novel, when Frank is confronted with his/her supposed biological gender he/she is horrified and cannot accept this fact. Frank cannot accept himself as a woman, but in the oddity of her/his psyche it is because he/she thinks of themselves as ” good at killing” which would, in the strange logic of the ritualistic sex and death, crush the idea that women were weak and men the strong ones.

Frank turns out to be a woman that hates women. It is ironic to remember his hate speeches of women only to discover he himself has an XX chromosome.

“The Wasp Factory” bravely states, by the narrative mechanism of Franks ideology being crushed by his true identity, that we as humans always think we know where the line of femininity and masculinity are drawn, but in the end it is impossible to say how women are and men are and is a function of our cultures and our families. Since all humans are individuals what we are is human and not gender.
When “The Wasp Factory” was re-published on its 25th anniversary in 2009, it came out with an edition that featured a new preface by Iain Banks. It is interesting to read what his goal was when he wrote “The Wasp Factory”:

“…it was suppose to be a pro-feminist, anti-military work, satirizing religion and commenting on the way we’re shaped by our surroundings and upbringings and usual skewed information we’re presented with by those in power”.

These were Banks intentions and targets in the work of the Wasp Factory and he succeeded perfectly in reaching his goals! Few authors in my opinion have done such a well job on getting this still important and contentious “message” across to the reader with such force and clarity. “The Wasp Factory” is a work that is so good it hurts.