Fantastical Field Trips and Childhood Nostalgia

The weird thing about being in my mid-20’s is that sometimes I feel very young, but sometimes I feel very old. I’m no longer a teenager or even that weird in-between of being a college student, but I’m just starting out being a “real” adult. Compared to people in their thirties or older, I still feel like I have a lot to learn, but I find myself saying “when I was a kid” way more often than I ever expected, because today’s kids have a completely different childhood than the one I remember. Book series that I outgrew before they ended have been long since forgotten (or, even more shockingly, are still going on); Olympic athletes are my age, some of them younger; and if you ask a kid today, Pluto has never been a planet and smartphones have always existed.

I’m not sure what got me started thinking about The Magic School Bus, but it’s definitely something that makes me feel old. It makes me feel even older to find out that the TV show ended in 1998 (I think I knew that at some point) and was rebooted with Ms. Frizzle’s sister as the teacher in 2017, or that there were new books released in 2006 and 2010 that I’ve never read!

I used to love The Magic School Bus. Not just the TV show, although I did love that. I think I must have watched my VHS tapes of the ocean food chain and solar system episodes about a thousand times. But you know me, I’m a huge bookworm. I loved the Magic School Bus books, too, especially the series of more advanced chapter books that came out in the early 2000’s – just when I was at the right age for them. My favorites were Dinosaur Detectives and The Great Shark Escape.

Between The Magic School Bus and The Magic Tree House, a lot of the science and history I learned as a kid was learned via eccentric time-traveling fictional ladies. I was well-aware that the stories were educational. But I was a teacher’s daughter, and “educational” was a good thing to me. I don’t know that most kids even realized how much they were learning. It was just fun to follow Ms. Frizzle and her class to all kinds of wacky places.

All this to say, I’m feeling nostalgic lately, and I had no idea you could buy Magic Schoolbus DVDs so affordably on Amazon.


A Skeptic Watches Star Wars: Part III

This past week, I watched The Force Awakens and Rogue One, two of the most recent Star Wars movies. They both had a very different feel from the originals as well as each other.

Rogue One is a gritty war story. It follows Jyn Erso, the daughter of the engineer who designed the Death Star, and Cassian Andor, a Rebel agent who is sent on a mission with her. In contrast with the original Star Wars movies, the Rebellion comes across much more ruthless and willing to go to unpleasant lengths to win. There’s the more extremist faction that is outright blowing up streets filled with civillians, but even the more reasonable faction is not above using a young woman to find and kill her father, while hiding from her what the true purpose of the mission is. I ended up not liking Rogue One very much. For a movie that tried so hard to emphasize that “rebellions are built on hope”, the picture it paints is such a bleak one. While they do successfully get the Death Star plans to the Rebels, they do so through what is essentially a suicide mission which not one main character survives. The battles seemed endless, the characters were missed opportunities with huge unexplored potential, and the world seemed so hopeless it’s almost impossible to believe in the hope the characters talk about – at least right up to the final scene, and by then it’s too little, too late.

It’s not a bad movie. The CGI is crisp and beautiful, the alien planets creative without being unbelievable, and the story gives more credibility and realism to A New Hope, explaining how they got to that point and just how much was sacrificed to give the Rebels a chance at victory. I won’t even try to judge whether it was a good Star Wars movie, one that stays true to the tone and spirit of the franchise. I’ve been pretty open about the fact that I’m watching these movies not as a fan but as a skeptic – someone who has never seen them before and never had much interest beyond mild curiosity. But I will say that to me, personally, it was one of my least favorites. It was slick, polished, and well-made, but it failed to hold my interest or win my sympathy.

The Force Awakens is almost exactly the opposite. It’s not a unique or original movie. The plot is almost exactly the same as the plot of A New Hope, which itself follows the same hero’s journey commonly seen in myth and fantasy. From a droid carrying critical information, to a backwater desert world, to a weapon capable of destroying whole planets, huge pieces of the plot are copied and pasted into a different part of the timeline, and even the new characters mirror the old ones in many ways. I can’t say I thought it was the objective best, and it was perhaps the least original. However, despite all that, I loved it. It might even be my favorite.

On a plot level, the movie is A New Hope 2.0, but on a character level, it’s something totally unique. Both Rey and Finn come from unfortunate beginnings but refuse to let their circumstances in life control them. Rey, who was abandoned in the desert at a young age, has learned to survive and fend for herself, but she has not become cynical or hardened. This is her strength, and why Kylo Ren finds it so hard to turn her to the dark side: she holds onto hope like a lifeline and does not lose faith no matter how impossible her situation seems. She’s the sort of person who saves a droid from being destroyed for spare parts, lets it follow her home, and makes it her mission to return it to the Resistance when she realizes what’s at stake. Meanwhile, Finn is a former Stormtrooper who was brainwashed from a young age and trained to be a merciless killing machine, but rebels after being ordered to shoot at unarmed civilians. He turns out to be gentle, caring, and fiercely protective of those he considers friends. He doesn’t believe the First Order can be defeated and yet still finds the courage to go against them. Both characters are who they are not because of their circumstances but in spite of them, and they both seem a bit out of place, swept up in the story against their will and wanting to go their own ways, but eventually choosing to fight – not for the Resistance at first, but for each other.

Kylo Ren is essentially the opposite, someone who clearly should have been a hero: son of Han and Leia, trained by Luke Skywalker, and still “tempted” by the Light side even after choosing the Dark Side instead. It’s fascinating, in a way. The Dark Side is supposed to be seductive, difficult to resist, and nearly impossible to come back from. Yet Kylo Ren seems to view the Light side in much the same way and is willing to go to extreme lengths, even killing his own father, in order to resist it. In that way, he’s the exact opposite of Luke Skywalker in Return of the Jedi.

The framework of the story is a familiar one, but the pieces fall into place in new ways and for new reasons. Does it feel unrealistic for history to repeat itself so neatly? Yeah. It does. It did take me out of the story a little to constantly be going, “OK, so he’s sending the map away with a droid, just like Leia hiding the Death Star plans in R2D2”, and I’m sure that feeling would have been even stronger for longtime fans who have seen the original movie many times.

Like I said, it’s not a flawless movie. But in a way, I feel like the copied-and-pasted plot worked exactly as it was supposed to: providing a familiar framework for a new story, allowing the focus to be on developing the new characters and exploring the new time period. There were few surprises in the plot, but that just served to give the character-driven twists greater weight.


A Skeptic Watches Star Wars: Part II

Having now watched five Star Wars movies (the originals and two of the prequels – I skipped The Phantom Menace), I’ve discovered that my feelings on Star Wars vary so greatly from movie to movie it’s almost impossible to sum them up in one blog post.

There were times when I found myself on the edge of my seat, unable to look away. But there were also times I found myself rolling my eyes and checking the time about every fifteen minutes. The quality varied from movie to movie on so many levels that I really still can’t say whether I like or dislike Star Wars, only that I liked certain parts of it and definitely did not like others. It would be even harder to give an opinion on whether it’s good or worthwhile. But I will say that, for the most part, I found the original films to be better than the prequels; despite their more antiquated special effects, they have better acting, better-plotted stories, and are infinitely more believable. I also found the darker, more serious movies to be better than the light and funny ones, but that might just be a matter of personal preference.

When something is almost universally accepted to be The Best, I tend to raise a skeptical eyebrow.  This had better be good, I think to myself, if it’s going to live up to all that hype. But I find myself having to agree with the hype. The Empire Strikes Back is definitely, hands-down, the best Star Wars movie. The characters are deeper, the battles more meaningful, the moral decisions more complicated, and the stakes more personal than in any of the other Star Wars movies (excluding Luke’s storyline in Return of the Jedi). I loved seeing Leia have to make the decision to wait for Luke and Han Solo or lock the gates and protect the rebel base. I loved seeing Han’s old friend Lando have to choose between helping his friend or turning him over to the Empire to protect his city. I loved seeing Luke struggle to master Jedi training, although I have to admit I didn’t love Yoda. Even the Imperial officer who takes the blame for his troops’ failure lends a new layer of complexity to the story. While the Empire is still undeniably evil, one gets the feeling that its soldiers are – well, soldiers doing their duty, whose loyalty is to the wrong side, rather than evil in and of themselves. Everything in The Empire Strikes Back is handled with more thought, more gravity, and more careful consideration than in any of the other Star Wars movies I have watched. It’s on a completely different level. In fact, I have to wonder, if it hadn’t been one of the earliest ones, whether Star Wars would ever have become what it is now. Whether any more of the movies would have been made.

On the other end of the spectrum, I didn’t really have much patience for the pointless, endless battles of Attack of the Clones. The space battles in general were not my favorite part, but in Attack of the Clones they seemed endless and gratuitous, with no clear purpose in a larger narrative, broken up only by an awkward, forced-feeling love story that I wanted to buy into but really, really didn’t. I’m pretty sure, based on the release year and the little flashes of déjà vu I felt early on in the movie, that Attack of the Clones was the movie I mostly slept through as a kid. Looking back, I can understand why.

But beyond that, one of the things that bothered me the most, with the whole series but particularly the prequel movies, was how many things that should have been ethical dilemmas were glossed over. Sentient robots with distinct personalities are seen as property, to be sold, destroyed, or memory-wiped without a second thought. Tattooine is a haven for slave traders, bounty hunters, and all kinds of criminals, ruled over by the disgusting slug Jabba the Hutt. The prequel movies feature a cloned army, genetically engineered to be mindlessly obedient, which everyone in the Republic – including the most heroic of characters – is happy to accept. No attention is given to any of these things, except when they become inconvenient to the heroes. The galaxy is deeply flawed in ways that go far beyond the Empire’s control, and while that could be a good thing – giving more depth and realism to the setting – it’s not really explored and just feels like a series of missed opportunities and good characters condoning bad things.

I can’t help but wonder if one prequel movie might have worked better than a whole trilogy. I ended up feeling like Revenge of the Sith was all I really needed to know about Anakin Skywalker to explain both his fall to the Dark Side and his eventual decision to save his son’s life. He didn’t fit in among the Jedi and had trouble living by their code, giving up his emotions and personal attachments. He had lost his mother and was terrified of losing his wife, who he had married in secret. He turned to the Dark Side in order to save her, but his actions led to her death and the rise of the Empire. Cue the fight between Anakin and Obi-Wan and the final transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader. That alone would have made it all believable; there was really no need to see his younger days as a Jedi apprentice, or the beginnings of their romance, or the endless and pointless space battles of Attack of the Clones, much less its predecessor The Phantom Menace. (I can’t fairly criticize a movie I haven’t seen, and I won’t try to, although I’ve read enough reviews to know they are almost universally negative; it’s enough to say that I felt little loss from having skipped it in terms of understanding the rest of the story, and that even Attack of the Clones felt like unnecessary buildup and backstory for the third movie in the prequel trilogy.) I did end up liking Revenge of the Sith, better than Attack of the Clones at least, but I think a single prequel movie, mostly following the storyline of the third one and acknowledging more openly how messed up the galaxy was even before the rise of the Empire, could have been a much better option.

Return of the Jedi was a mixed bag. I wasn’t crazy about the Ewoks, the vicious teddy bear aliens who help to defeat the Empire. But Luke’s storyline alone was powerful enough to make the whole rest of the movie worthwhile. His decision not to fight – not to let himself be turned to the Dark Side – was a powerful moment, as was Darth Vader’s decision to save his son’s life, finally rejecting the Dark Side himself. There’s something to be said for a series that’s all about war and violence ending when the hero throws down his weapon and refuses to kill, and the huge number of parallels between Luke’s story and his father’s make for a powerful resolution. Luke is not only choosing to reject the Dark Side, he’s actively breaking the cycle by making a different choice than his father – and at the same time, he’s reminding Darth Vader of what he once stood for by declaring himself “a Jedi like my father before me”. I didn’t love Return of the Jedi, with its teddy bear aliens and icky slug monsters and repetitive threat in the form of a second Death Star, but I did love that particular sub-plot. Luke Skywalker, the character I described as the least interesting after watching A New Hope, at this point became the most compelling – and I definitely mean that in a good way.

In the end, I didn’t love everything about Star Wars, but there were parts of it that were definitely worthwhile. The Empire Strikes Back was undeniably a great movie, and I enjoyed at least certain aspects of both Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith. A New Hope was not a personal favorite, but it was certainly a respectable movie and was good enough to make me want to keep watching. The only one I really couldn’t stand was Attack of the Clones, and I certainly don’t want to judge the whole franchise by one disappointing movie.

In other news, I’m probably going to watch Rogue One and The Force Awakens this weekend, so I’ll be back with more thoughts on those once I’ve seen them.


A Skeptic Watches Star Wars

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I sat down to watch Star Wars: A New Hope. I’m pretty much new to Star Wars – or, at least, I was until a few days ago. It’s not that I’m completely ignorant. Characters like Han Solo, Darth Vader, and Princess Leia, iconic props like lightsabers, and lines like “the force is strong with this one” permeate our culture in such a way that it’s almost impossible not to be aware of them. I even went to see a Star Wars movie once, when I was a little kid, but I fell asleep about halfway through and don’t really remember much, except robots and things blowing up. Based on the timing, it would have been one of the prequels, but I’m honestly not sure which.

So I guess what I’m getting at is that I’m not a Star Wars fan. Not by a long shot. Maybe it was the recent release of The Last Jedi and all the hype that came with that, or maybe because the kids at school talk about it so much. I like to be aware of the things the kids are passionate about – the books they’re reading, the movies they like. But anyway, I guess I was curious. So I caved in. I bought A New Hope on iTunes and watched it. And to my surprise, I found that I already knew the story.

No, I don’t just mean that I recognized some of those iconic bits of pop culture I was talking about earlier. I did, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. Rather, the storyline itself – the story of a poor farm boy with a great destiny caught up in an epic battle of good vs. evil – is one that I know well. It’s the basis of most fantasy stories, and beyond that, it’s an archetypal hero’s journey.

Although Star Wars is science fiction, it’s definitely soft science fiction, more concerned with adventures on alien planets than explaining how the actual science works. In a way, it almost feels more like a fantasy story set in space, with its mystical ideas surrounding the Force, a magic-like power that its hero learns to use. The movie itself, which begins with “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away”, seems self-aware of this genre-blending and embraces it. The story is filled with knights wielding swords (OK, lightsabers), a space princess, a heroic quest, and an emperor whose evil empire spans an entire galaxy, alongside the more typical science fiction elements such as spaceships, aliens, and sentient robots.

I’m not complaining about the space fantasy aspects of it. In fact, that was probably what I enjoyed the most. I happen to love seeing an old story revisited in a way that makes it feel new. If Star Wars reminded me of anything, it was probably the Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer, a series of retold fairy tales set in a futuristic dystopia. Rapunzel is trapped in a satellite, Cinderella is a cyborg who loses her foot on the palace stairs, and so on. I happen to love the Lunar Chronicles, so I definitely mean that as a compliment. In both the Lunar Chronicles and Star Wars, the fantasy archetypes occasionally clash with the science fiction setting, but it’s interesting to see all the ways they meld together, and the ways that the setting changes the archetypes.

Princess Leia was without a doubt my favorite character. I was expecting a damsel in distress, a passive victim for Luke Skywalker and Han Solo to rescue, but what I got was a fierce young woman who defies her captors, thinks quickly under fire, cares deeply for her cause, and improvises an escape plan once she realizes her rescuers don’t have one. Leia is awesome, and my only disappointment is that she had so little to do in this movie, spending much of it as a prisoner on the Death Star and then on the ground while the battle unfolds in space. I feel sure I would have liked it much better if she was the main character.

The actual protagonist, Luke Skywalker, was in my opinion the least interesting character in the movie. I’m sure I’ve offended somebody, and I’m sorry, but I just have to say it. He’s a classic fantasy hero in a science fiction setting, and that’s an interesting premise, but he has very little depth. He’s a wide-eyed idealist with a good moral compass. He wants to see the galaxy and be a hero. He wants to train with Obi-Wan and become a Jedi, but feels duty-bound to stay home until the Empire conveniently destroys his uncle’s farm. None of those are bad things to say about the hero of a movie franchise, but on their own, without any further character development, they’re clichés. I’m truly hoping that Luke becomes a more compelling protagonist in future movies, because at this point, I really can’t make myself care about him.

The actual plot also feels kind of cookie-cutter, but as I’ve said before, the setting is enough to make up for that. I actually find cookie-cutter plots far more tolerable than flat characters, especially if the characters and setting are interesting. And yes, the idea of a hero-in-training, a roguish anti-hero, a wise mentor, and a princess in distress teaming up to fight an evil empire sounds very, very cliché. If it had been set in a classic medieval fantasy setting, it would have been utterly boring and unoriginal. It still didn’t really hook me in an edge-of-my-seat, can’t-wait-to-see-what-happens kind of way, but the outer space setting certainly helped.

The battle scenes weren’t really my cup of tea, but that’s probably because this isn’t the kind of thing I usually watch. While I do like both science fiction and fantasy, I’m one of those weird people who thinks fight scenes are the least interesting part of movies. However, I will say that there wasn’t as much pointless violence as I expected. Just about every battle or fight did serve a purpose in the story, even if a few of them went on longer than I would have liked.

Besides that, I found that I had a hard time taking the story’s antagonists seriously. I’m sure the Stormtoopers’ armor probably looked slick and futuristic at the time, but I just kept thinking it looked like it was made out of plastic and seemed to be about as effective. And Darth Vader just didn’t scare me the way I expected him to. I think what it comes down to is that the image of Darth Vader is so iconic it’s familiar even to non-Star Wars fans. I’ve seen him on t-shirts, backpacks, notebooks, kids’ tennis shoes, and just about anything else you can imagine. I feel like the fact that it’s so familiar takes the edge off the creepy factor.

I’m definitely not saying I hated the movie. But I’m also not saying I loved it, or thought it was the greatest cinematic masterpiece of all time. I know it was a huge game-changer in the history of movie-making and a beloved classic for many people. To someone like me – someone looking at it through an outsider’s skeptical lens – it couldn’t possibly mean the same thing it meant to its first fans, or to those who grew up with it.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a Star Wars fan in the way that I’m a Harry Potter fan, but I do feel that I now have a greater appreciation for Star Wars and a greater understanding of what it’s all about. Now I know that there is a story worth telling in Star Wars, and one that I found surprisingly familiar in ways that go beyond lightsabers and iconic characters. I do plan on continuing to watch at least a few of the other Star Wars movies, so I’ll probably update soon with more of my thoughts as I explore more of the series.

My Poetry · Uncategorized

Cosmic Dance

This really isn’t book-related, but I wrote this poem a few days ago, and since the eclipse was today I figured I might as well share it.

They chase each other
Through the vast expanse of space
Marking day and night

When the sun goes down
A shining silver lantern
Hangs among the stars

In the glaring light
Of day it fades, outshone by
The sun’s golden rays

Endless cosmic dance
Sun and moon meet and perform
A vanishing act

A circle of fire
In a darkened daytime sky
Blotting out the sun

Artwork · Uncategorized

Faceless Shakespeare: Ophelia


When I first got the idea for these faceless Shakespeare pictures, I thought I’d do the iconic hand-holding-skull image for Hamlet. And maybe I still will. But it was Ophelia’s scene with the flowers that really captured my imagination, and as I looked into historical interpretations of Ophelia, I was … surprised. I hadn’t imagined her smiling and dressed in white, lingering casually by the stream or lying in it peacefully as if simply taking a nap. In my mind, she was somber, distracted, and desperate. And since she just lost her father, it never crossed my mind that she wouldn’t be wearing black in those scenes. So, here’s my Ophelia. It’s not how the character is usually drawn, but the beauty of literature – and especially plays – is that each person can bring their own perspective and interpret the story in their own way.


Troilus & Cressida: Act II

Isn’t it amazing how a different adaptation can completely change the story? So far, all the basic, easily-recognizable elements of the Trojan War are there: Agamemnon leads the Greeks, Ulysses comes up with clever schemes, Hector defends Troy, Achilles sits in his tent refusing to fight, and Cassandra wails out prophecies of doom. But in the details, it couldn’t be more different from the version portrayed in The Iliad.

Homer’s Achilles had very specific reasons for refusing to fight, which Shakespeare never mentions, making him come across as lazy and perhaps cowardly. The Greeks in general are painted as an unpleasant group, especially Ajax, who is more-or-less a mindless brute. In contrast, the Trojans are civilized and rational, but they too seem more human than their classical counterparts. For example, Hector seems to be losing his patience with the war, and is willing to give Helen back to the Greeks; it was also mentioned in Act I that he was angry with his wife and “struck his armourer”. Rather than idealized heroes, Shakespeare’s characters are flawed men, tainted by years of war.

I’m hardly the first person to point that out. Troilus and Cressida has even been described as a satire of classical, idealized heroes. That makes a lot of sense, but I think it’s also worth pointing out that flawed heroes are typical of Shakespeare, especially in the tragedies. Romeo and Juliet are foolish teenagers in love, Othello is gullible and prone to jealousy, King Lear falls for his daughters’ false flattery, and so on. The difference is that here, the source material portrayed these men as infallible heroes, while Shakespeare emphasizes their shortcomings.

On a different note, the title characters have yet to share a scene together.