The Results Are In – 2015 Book Riot Read Harder Challenge

While I can’t say I loved every book I read for Book Riot’s 2015 Read Harder Challenge, I am certainly glad I did it. I’ve gained new strategies for finding books I will like, which was my ultimate goal. Below are short reviews of each book. There are 7 books preceded with *** – these are books I would heartily recommend to others.

If you’re interested in doing a similar challenge, Book Riot has their new list up for 2016:


The Icarus Girl  by Helen Oyeyemi – A book written by someone when they were under the age of 25
This was the first book I read for the challenge, and I was not disappointed. While I don’t think I will be rereading it, I enjoyed the mysticism and eerie blur between reality, truth, and the present moment. Helen does an amazing job of showcasing how our emotions can manifest in our minds and in our physical worlds. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who has enjoyed magical realism and who is entertained by mythologies outside of the western world.

Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut – A book written by someone when they were over the age of 65
I read this book near the end of the challenge, getting a little more disenchanted with the books I had read. I wanted to read a book by an author I knew I enjoyed, and so I found this book by Vonnegut, one of the last books he had written. It is equally as silly and full of quirky characters as the rest of his books I have read. I would mention to anyone considering reading the book that the big “unveiling” at the end is totally worth the wait. Few authors depict humankind in quite the same way or with quite as much truth as Vonnegut.

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemmingway – A collection of short stories (either by one person or an anthology by many people)
I will start out by saying that this was one of the harder categories for the book challenge as I generally dislike short stories. I remembered liking Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and so I thought I would give this a chance. But I hated it. I don’t think I recognized the overdone angst of how difficult it is to be a man in the highest of class of privilege nor any incredibly sexist attitudes towards women in The Sun Also Rises, but this collection of stories was utterly dripping with the #firstworldproblems #whitemanproblems and #idon’tunderstandprivelage hashtags that it was difficult to finish. Thankfully, it was short.

The Raven Girl by Audrey Niffeneger – A book published by an indie press
This graphic novel (possibly?) is pretty adorable. It’s basically a bedtime story for adults, complete with art and a moral that looks to the beauty within. I love Audrey Niffeneger’s writing, and I would recommend this to anyone looking for a short, enjoyable read that will truly pull you out of your own world and into one that is very different from your own.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky – A book by or about someone that identifies as LGBTQ
I enjoyed this book for its own merits. While I have to be in the mood to read books written in a pre-teen’s language, there were sparks of profound truths that were very enjoyable to read, especially as someone who grew up drawing different conclusions about friendships, relationships, and people that are just a hare outside of normal. However, as far as representing the LGBTQ genre, it wasn’t the best suggestion. While characters in the book are LGBTQ, the main character is not. Finding accessible LGBTQ books was pretty difficult (I tried to get most of these books from the library because $$) so if anyone has suggestions, or can lend me one, please let me know.

***The Circle by Dave Eggers – A book by a person whose gender is different from your own
(Golly gee whiz this was the most difficult category to fill! JK! But seriously…)
This is one of those books that gets better after you finish reading it. I’ve never encountered a book like this before, but I’m considering looking for more like it. I initially thought the book was unremarkable. Simple writing, simple characters, intriguing plot, fast pace. I normally judge books on their ability to depict real, whole human beings in a world  so articulately described I feel as though I could visit it. This book doesn’t achieve either of those goals, and while I didn’t like or truly “believe in” any of the characters, the plot is beyond-words relevant to our moral quarries with our blooming technology industry, specifically the line between knowledge and personal privacy. It has been so spooky to watch the technologies I deemed too invasive and futuristic in the book beginning to appear IRL. Please, read this book. Like I said, the pacing is good – you’ll be able to finish it at least within a week.

South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami – A book that takes place in Asia
I was super excited to read this book and am sad to say that I was completely underwhelmed. I have heard amazing things about Haruki Murakami, and having trained most of my life in Japanese martial arts and loving all (most) I have to learn about the culture, I was hoping my first foray into Japanese writing outside of haiku poetry would be fulfilling. However, the book is about much of what has been written to death about in the western world – disillusionment of the American Dream. Now, specifically, this book doesn’t have anything to do with the American Dream, but the main character’s disillusionment with what he expected out of life is exactly the same. From a cultural point of view, it seems that the American Dream has affected other cultures, but I don’t want to say that too firmly. I’m not giving up on Haruki Murakami, though – 1Q84 will be my next endeavor…

***Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor – A book by an author from Africa
I absolutely loved this book. For anyone familiar with the fantasy genre, this book will be something new. Set in a post-apocalyptic East Africa, this book tackles issues of female mutilation, genocide, blackness, women’s rights, the power of friendship, the fragility of the human body, and the draining nature of being a Warlock struggling to find a legitimate teacher (not kidding). The plot centers around a woman trying to save her life and her people, all of whom live and travel in the desert. Okorafor’s writing is incredibly powerful. I would recommend this book who isn’t afraid of honesty and brutality.

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden – A book that is by or about someone from an indigenous culture (Native Americans, Aboriginals, etc.)
I was excited to read this book for several reasons: 1) The main characters were Native American; 2) Those Native Americans lived in Canada, not the US; and 3) The main characters fought in WWI, a war I feel is rarely depicted, and few people intimately know details about it. The plot traverses through time, centering on a friendship between two Native American boys and one of those boy’s aunts. It spans two generations and the slow cultural appropriation of Native American culture in their homeland while contrasting the behaviors and beliefs of Native American and western cultures, addressing what it means to be a man and woman in each. The writing is masterful, and the story is illuminating. I would recommend this book to anyone of any age.

***The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot – A microhistory
I’m not sure if this book is technically a microhistory, as it borders on being a biography, but I believe that is more due to the nature of the subject – HELA cells – than the genre itself. Regardless, I believe this should be required reading. Rebecca Skloot weaves together the history of African Americans during the early to mid 1900’s in the United States with the history of medical scientific research. From privacy, to permission, to explanation of treatment, we learn about the violation of Henrietta’s body and the moral quarry in using the HELA cells and resulting medical knowledge gained without her consent. Furthermore, Skloot shows us how race relations and lack of civil rights has affected the black communities. Definitely worth a read.

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie – A Young Adult novel
I considered using this book as the one for the category two up, but once I read it, I decided to use it for YA literature because not all YA literature is great. It’s rare to find a YA book written for a YA audience that can also capture adult audiences. This is one of those books. The main character’s life realizations, personal acceptances, and honest emotionality truly make this book worthwhile and relatable to all ages. As a YA novel, it is also fairly quick to finish, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself teary eyed at certain points throughout the book.

The Book of Strange New Things by Michael Faber A sci-fi novel 
While I like sci-fi media, I would not consider myself a well-read sci-fi reader. However, I have many friends who are, and having seen a lot of praise for this book in a lot of places, I thought I would pick it up. I was immediately captured by the writing. While the pacing isn’t fast, it is consistent and engaging, and the writing borders on prose, though it is very readable. My only critique is that it is a little long – I believe the author could have cut many pages from the middle and still have the same effect on readers. However, the story is still so well told that it is also fine as is. And while this book is obviously sci-fi, it is also remarkably human. For anyone who finds the whole genre of sci-fi a little off-putting or weird, this would be a good first book.

The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks – A romance novel
As a disclaimer, I know this wouldn’t be considered a typical romance novel. And while I find romance novels amusing and have perused many in the bookstore for kicks and giggles, I wasn’t interested in devoting time to one, especially since there are so many, and getting a good recommendation proved to be difficult. So I chose an incredibly popular book to see what all of the fuss was about. It was fine. It reminded me of what I considered love and romance to be as a teenager (ie, comparatively bland), and I have since become enamored with stories of real people and complex love stories. So, if you need something to occupy you on a plane ride but can’t really focus on that type of journey, I would recommend this book.

***A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain  by Robert Olen Butler – A National Book Award, Man Booker Prize or Pulitzer Prize winner from the last decade
This category was eye-opening in two ways: 1) I actually liked all (but one) of these short stories, and that is a first, and 2) I am definitely a book snob. To begin with point one, I was shocked that I liked this book so much. I judged the book by its cover and its title, all things that I like, but none of which really relate to any of the stories (except for the one I didn’t like, which is the title of the book as well). The author seemed to intrinsically understand the different struggles of Vietnamese immigrants both male and female and portrayed them equally throughout the collection. The writing was beautiful and insightful. This is definitely a book I will recommend to anyone of any age. To point two, I had a difficult time finding interesting and well-written books with recommendations in other genres, but I have since used these awards as a guide for new books and have yet to be disappointed. While it’s difficult to also find books written by women who have female characters, I still use it as a reliable resource for a quality book. Apparently, I’m a snob.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesy – A book that is a retelling of a classic story (fairytale, Shakespearian play, classic novel, etc.)
I struggled to find a book in this category that I could stick with, as I started many, but this one captured my attention. I love Jane Eyre for many reasons – the main character, the sleepy-yet-engaging-and-persistent writing style, and the level of emotional intelligence Charlotte Brontë portrayed in her novel. Margot Livesy effortlessly captured all of these qualities. You know when you read a good book, and you want to read it again, but you know the experience won’t be as amazing because you already know what happens? Well, this book is literally like re-reading Jane Eyre, except you DON’T know what happens. For any Jane Eyre fanatics, this book will make you very, very happy.

The Graveyard Story by Neil Gaiman – An audiobook
I was expecting this to be a painstaking experience, and it was anything but. Neil Gaiman is not only a great writer but also a skilled story teller. I read/listened to this book on my hour long drives to visit friends and was engaged the entire time. Even thought it’s a children’s book, it was absolutely incredible. If possible, the details of this book have stuck with me more strongly than the details of most of the other books on this list, and I’m typically terrible at retaining information audibly if I am unable to take notes on it. I have listened to it twice, in fact, and hope to listen to it again. I don’t think this experience is entirely due to it being an audiobook either – hoping that I would relive this experience, I tried listening to another book on tape, and it was nowhere near the same. That said, I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to break the mold of books on tape.

Haiku, The Poetry of Zen, published by Hyperion – A collection of poetry
This category was a bit daunting. I consider poetry to be incredibly personalized and intimate, making it very difficult to just randomly find one that can be impactful for yourself. So, I chickened out and picked a collection of haiku, my favorite poetry style and one that I have studied, so I knew I would enjoy it. And I did. It was everything I expected, and now I have a collection of traditional haiku at my fingertips. #noregrets

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd – A book that someone else has recommended to you 
I get a lot of recommendations, so I used this category as a catch-all. This was the first book I read for my book club, so it was a recommendation by several people, and it was a good read. It falls into the genre of historical fiction, based on the lives of slave holders and slaves at the start of dissent in the United States. It was told specifically from the perspective of different female characters and their disdain for slavery – both black and white. In most media about this time period, we have the perspectives of white men and their savior complex (not to be harsh, but really…) so this was a refreshing look at the struggles and consequences of freeing slaves. For anyone who would like a more nuanced understanding of this time in US history, I recommend this book, and I recommend reading the post-script as well.

Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco – A book that was originally published in another language
I only made it through this book because my friend recommended it and loves it. I thought that my studies in the Knight’s Templar and a little of the occult that comes with it would make this book an interesting read, but it was incredibly difficult for me to move beyond the machismo, academic pretension, and the mostly unwarranted angst from all of the male characters in this book. (Although I should just say “characters” as there weren’t really any female characters of note or import, except for those that served to fulfill the sexual needs of the main characters and were given as much attention.) If you REALLY like the occult theories surrounding the Knight’s Templar, and you don’t mind reading dense, prose-like writing that doesn’t stop for several hundred pages and somehow seems to praise itself, you would enjoy this book. The writing style is certainly masterful, but I can’t say the same for anything else.

***The Wormworld Saga Daniel Lieski – A graphic novel, a graphic memoir or a collection of comics of any kind
I wanted to read Mouse for this genre, but given my reading commitments at the time, I settled for something a bit shorter. Let me start with that cliché saying of “a picture is worth a thousand words.” With that in mind, the art for this story is phenomenal, and does just as much of the storytelling if not moreso than the writing itself. If you’re unfamiliar with online graphic novels, typically they are done in strips, with boxes telling different stories. You click from webpage to webpage as the story progresses. But The Wormworld Saga is one long tapestry of a chapter. Aside from being breathtaking, you literally feel like you are falling into the world of the story as you progress. This a great story for anyone who appreciates good art and storytelling.

Shockaholic by Carrie Fisher – A book that you would consider a guilty pleasure
This was a difficult genre for me as I don’t feel like I have many desires to read a book others may consider a guilty pleasure. I am not this way with other forms of media, but I do have some fairly high standards set in order for me to read a book. That said, I figured this book would be easy and entertaining, which is also something people consider a guilty pleasure to be. I was right in my assumption, though I do feel like her first novel, Wishful Drinking, was better. But if you’re looking for something honest and funny and need some encouragement to be vulnerable, this is a good book to turn to.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll – A book published before 1850 
To be honest, I struggle with the writing styles in this period, and so I looked for something weird and short, which is definitely Alice in Wonderland. I think I would have enjoyed it more if I was under the influence of something while I was reading it, so I may try it again. But it was just very strange, and not in a way that I consider interesting. This is coming from someone who enjoys postmodern writing. So, read it if you want, but I would suggest being affected while doing so.

***Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – A book published this year
I like this category because I had a very difficult time picking just one book. This will serve as a good strategy in the future if I am in need of a book I want to read. (Actually, the sci-fi book was also recently published. I couldn’t help myself.) I was excited for this book for two reasons: 1) It was written from the perspective that mainstream media rarely represents – a black girl, and 2) It was written as poetry, but not the dense, metaphor-driven type, more like spoken word poetry on paper. The author chose the perfect medium to relate her tale. Sometimes your standard novel format just doesn’t do a story justice, and I believe that would have been the case for this story. I wish that more authors experimented with storytelling and form. Beautifully done.

***Daring Greatly by Brené Brown – A self-improvement book
I am wary of this genre in general, and while I have since come across other titles that seem like they could be a good read, I wanted to stick with someone I knew would be good. Brené Brown did not disappoint. I literally want to buy a box of this book and just randomly give them to friends whom I think could benefit from its lessons. Her writing is so relatable that anyone can read it and understand the words (in fact, it’s almost too relatable, in that I feel it’s a little wordy, but…editing choices and all.) While the concepts are trickier to understand, Brené has a knack for breaking down complex emotional responses into an easily comprehendible explanation.


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Gain Freedom and Peace in Relationships: A Glimpse Into Nonviolent Communication

“Any tool that enhances communication has profound effects in terms of how people can learn from each other and how they can achieve the kind of freedoms that they’re interested in,” Bill Gates once said when speaking about the advancements of technology. And while technology has allowed more communication and more learning, I also think this quote can be applied to communication techniques that are employed in everyday conversation, when using technology to communicate, and when trying to navigate issues in our personal relationships. Successful communication does allow for us to learn about others, but it also provides freedom of self, expression, and desire as well as a deeper commitment to trust.

As someone who has always been interested in understanding how my thoughts and emotions work and how others deconstruct their own ideas about the world and themselves, I was naturally interested in the field of Nonviolent Communication (NVC). Kelsey, a good friend of mine, began investigating this field and soon started his own practice as a “coach” to others wishing to improve communication within their relationships. Since I always assume I have something to learn and in the effort of supporting my dear friend, I decided to sign up for coaching sessions with him to learn about this new method of understanding others and ourselves. To be honest, it was and continues to be a far more enlightening experience than I was expecting, and I am exceedingly grateful for it.

Nonviolent Communication sounds fairly straightforward, and it is: NVC strives to help us figure out how to peacefully and productively communicate with others in a way that doesn’t place blame, guilt, shame, or anything negative on either party. This might sound like a familiar goal of many communication techniques; however, the approach of NVC is much different than other communication sessions I’ve taken, and that includes three summers of Resident Assistant training as well as customer service training at my current job.

Here’s how NVC is different from other communication strategies:

  1. It requires a lot more thinking and introspection.
  2. It requires a lot more vulnerability, as it requires you to confront your fears.
  3. It requires specificity.
  4. It requires trust.

These requirements help us truly understand our convictions. Most communication strategies strive for connecting with the roots of our emotional discomfort but ultimately fall short for one reason or another. I find NVC so successful because it utilizes strategies that depend upon a greater reliance on honesty and introspection that other communication strategies lack. What I’ve learned through NVC is that we may often have emotionally charged conversations because we don’t necessarily understand the true base of our concerns. NVC helps us recognize exactly what our fears are around a situation and note that our anger, frustration, or negative emotions toward another person usually arise because we care a lot about that other person and our relationship with them. (So I finally understand what “there’s a thin line between love and hate” means.) NVC encourages us to overcome that fear and that negativity by peacefully approaching whomever we are in conflict with and using nonviolent, or rather, calm, cool, collected, and compassionate speech to discuss the situation. I understand how ambiguous this may sound, so let me give you an example of something I covered during one of my sessions with Kelsey.

I recalled a time where I felt betrayed by one of my friends whom I considered to be one of my best. In a complicated twist of events, she had befriended the new girlfriend of my ex, the one with whom my boyfriend had been cheating on me with for some time. I believe she did so because her boyfriend was good friends with my ex, and in an effort not to sour her relationship with her lover, she befriended the other girl while still kind of being friendly to me. I assumed that when the other girl said negative things about me (I know she hated me), she would nod along and agree instead of standing up for my character. I didn’t want to be friends with someone like that, so I just stopped hanging out with her, and she didn’t seem to mind. She never talked to me about the relationship fiasco, consoled me, or seemed to care about my situation at all.

Since that time, I just kept telling myself, “Good riddance,” as she had proved to me that she wasn’t really a true friend. On one hand, I felt like I dodged a bullet, but on the other hand, I was hurt. Instead of confronting her about it (as I imagined I would be upset and she would be dismissive) I decided to let it go.

Kelsey helped me realize, however, that talking to my friend didn’t have to be volatile, and that it could actually be peaceable and constructive. He helped me define what was bothering me and helped me recognize that I still held a lot of care for my friend. Using this newfound information, he demonstrated a way that I could have approached my friend, which recognized the possible discomfort both parties might be feeling and acknowledged that I couldn’t know what was going on for my friend. It ended with a request to talk openly about how I felt and to listen to how she felt so that both of us could try to come to an agreement that would preserve the relationship that I cherished and that hopefully she cherished as well.

What Kelsey’s method required was being far more upfront about everything I knew to be going on at the moment, which also meant recognition of the other person’s feelings. Setting the ground for where a conversation may be going before it gets started is far less threatening than saying “I’d like to talk to you. I feel hurt by…”. It’s far less accusatory and far more productive. But it was only doable because I had practiced honest introspection with Kelsey as my guide.

What I like so much about NVC is that it opens up a new form of communication that relies on deep honesty and committing to resolution instead of committing to blame and demanding apologies. I learn more about my needs and discomforts, which sometimes helps me overcome situations I have felt dissatisfied with without even confronting anyone about it. Also, as someone who will avoid confrontation like the plague, NVC introduced me to a far less volatile communication practice that focuses on exercising empathy for everyone involved. NVC is a strong tool to learn how to understand others, but it is also a strong tool for regaining freedom—freedom to ask for what we need, freedom to find solutions to our miseries, and freedom from internal suffering.

For anyone struggling with communication, I definitely suggest checking out NVC. If you’re interested in coaching sessions, please feel free to email me or Kelsey through his website.

Or, if you’re interested in using NVC techniques in terms of leadership, Kelsey and three other coaches are starting a 10-month long Thrive From Within Leadership Immersion Program that will train compassionate conscious leaders and visionaries in eliminating self-doubt and creating effective change for social change and transformation. Screening for prospective students will take place in the form of Compassionate Leadership Discovery Sessions (1-on-1 coaching calls) until the program starts to gauge interest in program. Seriously a cool idea.

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Disney’s Frozen: Does Confidence Have To Mean Being Sexy?

Frozen has topped, or at least tied, Tangled as my favorite Disney movie. Disney breaking Disney stereotypes is always encouraging to watch, and the story of true sisterhood, bravery, and search for individuality not only sends a good message to young girls but to all people, young, old, male, and female alike. (Not to mention, this movie passes the Bechdel test within the first ten minutes and throughout the rest of the film.) One of the most controversial topics that has arisen about the film is Elsa’s change in dress during the hit song, “Let It Go.” Many people felt discouraged with the change of appearance, as if Elsa’s newfound confidence unnecessarily needed to coincide with dressing sexily (dress with a slit, lower cut on the top, form-fitting, etc), and while I think this reaction has merit, I think it also brings up a controversial topic in feminism dealing with sexuality and confidence.

Feminist thought struggles with what being a confident woman looks like. Some women want to dress sexily and wear makeup and feel that that type of appearance boosts their confidence, whereas other women feel that dressing sexily and wearing makeup ultimately means that men are the main recipient of their appearance and not themselves. Feminists worry that dressing sexily means they will be viewed as objects rather than individual women with more than a body in which they feel confident. People often ask (especially in cases of victim shaming rape victims): Why would you dress sexily if you didn’t want the attention of men? I myself choose not to wear makeup, as I think women are beautiful without it. But my opinion on makeup and dress recently changed in a conversation I had with an old friend and roommate.

My roommate and I discussed the purpose of makeup. While I thought it a ploy for the makeup industry to make money and that women use it mainly to cover up insecurities about their own beauty, my friend reassured me that she wore makeup, as she said, for herself. She liked to play with new looks because she liked changing the way she looked. It was a way for her to express herself, not to cover up an insecurity. I had never thought of makeup in this way, but it makes a lot of sense, even for me. I dress more simply and tend to have a less flashy style than most people I know, so in this sense, it makes sense that I don’t like wearing a lot of makeup. So when the controversy about the length of the slit on Elsa’s dress arose, I remembered this conversation and applied it to clothing as well.

As someone who considers herself a fairly avid feminist, I experienced an intriguing struggle between my hardened feminist views and Elsa’s portrayal when she was finally breaking free of social obligation and expectations. At first, my initial inclination was that yes, Disney, while having done an admirable job breaking it’s own stereotypes, slipped up in regard to Elsa’s transformation. However, after reconsidering the conversation I had with my roommate, I had a change of heart. Elsa’s dress, while sexy, is still far more modest than many red carpet dresses I’ve seen and doesn’t even flash cleavage or a garter. What’s more, she didn’t reform to please a man or in front of men—she reformed for herself alone. At this point in the story, she was planning on living by herself, if not for the rest of her life, then for a long time to come. In the way my roommate wears her makeup, Elsa designed her dress—for herself. In addition, wearing something even slightly revealing and form-fitting necessitates a certain comfortableness in one’s own body, something that teenage girls transitioning into women often struggle to obtain. Also, as my boyfriend astutely pointed out, her less modest dress is in rebellion to the way her parents wanted her to be—covered up, as she was constantly reminded: “Conceal, don’t feel.” I would think it only natural that, finally finding freedom, she would want to feel as free as possible. Also, the way Elsa shakes her hips isn’t to be sexy; it’s to feel confident—Elsa isn’t performing for anyone; she’s finally accepting who she is. What’s even more, the only person to comment on her appearance is her sister Anna—no male ever shows romantic interest in Elsa, the most provocatively dressed of the two sisters, and yet Anna receives far more male attention even though she’s fully dressed the whole movie. While I understand where the initial bereavement about Elsa’s change in appearance comes from, I don’t think it’s applicable in Frozen. In fact, I think it’s empowering—Elsa takes back the stereotype of sexy woman = evil = confidence = worth and changes it to my appearance = me.

To further combat the notion that Frozen in any way supports the idea that being sexy is the only way to get a man, all one has to do is look at Anna. She doesn’t dress sexily ever, and she doesn’t really have a personality that I would describe as stereotypically sexy, but she’s the one with the male suitors. She’s klutzy, but also determined, perhaps naively trusting, but brave. Not to mention, she takes responsibility for her sister and goes to extreme lengths to save her because she loves her. She’s determinedly optimistic and happy, and if you want my opinion, I think it’s her complex personality that her male suitors are attracted to, not her body.

I think that women are so fed up with seeing women become loved / confident as a result of becoming sexy that this trope seemed like a natural fit for Elsa. Grease, for instance, is a prime example of how a female character isn’t really worthy of a long relationship until she turns into a “bad girl” and dresses sexily. That trope is SO OLD but also so normalized. It’s nice that I can now say—wait. We can second-guess our judgment about sexy clothing because we are taking sexy back. In Frozen, we have a budding woman becoming who she is for herself and by herself, accepting herself for what she is and who she will and wants to be. That is a beautiful thing.

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The Hunger Games: Catching Fire passes the Bechdel Test! And yet…

DISCLAIMER: I LOVED this movie. I really, really did.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, on top of having a superb female lead, also passes the Bechdel test! There are more than two women in it (many with names), and two of those named females talk to each other about something other than a man! I find that most movies nowadays pass the first part of this test—having two female characters that are named—and sometimes those females talk to each other. The last requirement, however, is usually the least met—talking about something other than men. To clarify, I’m not saying that movies that don’t pass the Bechdel test are bad (Batman: The Dark Knight is one of my favorite movies of all times). I’m applying the Bechdel test to Catching Fire because it does have a female lead and is, in many regards, a huge step forward in the representation of women in the media:

  1. The female lead isn’t primarily concerned about her emotional relationships with the two main males who are in love with her (Peeta and Gale)—in fact, those males are far more emotionally invested in her than she is in them. What a flip.
  2. She sacrificed herself for her sister.
  3. She’s not defined by her looks and actually dislikes fashion. (Not that women should dislike fashion, just that that’s not the norm.)
  4. She’s leading a political movement.
  5. She’s really good at hunting, generally considered a man’s skill.
  6. She can definitely take care of herself.
  7. Even when Joanna strips in the elevator, it’s not done to be sexy, it’s done to assert power. She’s not strip-teasing; she’s saying: I am held by no rules.

And there’s more. But I feel like I could literally write a book on how Catching Fire and Katniss improve the representation of women in the media. It’s really wonderful.

But before we go over the moon about how great it is, let’s examine Catching Fire through the Bechdel test. We have many named female characters (yay!). Yet, in the movie, Katniss only speaks with two of them one-on-one (i.e., without a male’s presence) in one scene each, and  only one of those conversations doesn’t focus on a male. In the beginning of the movie, Primrose assures Katniss that she can take care of herself and their mother while Katniss goes on the Victory Tour. It’s a poignant and important point in the film. The second time Katniss talks with another female—Joanna—about Peeta. I like the culmination of their discussion, that “Love is weird,” as usually love is depicted as this magical thing that happens between a man and woman and consumes the two of them in bliss. I felt like this discussion was more realistic, but it was still about a male (and it’s a little off topic of my main point). So while it was important on some level, it didn’t move along the plot or define any character development.

All of the serious discussions and major plot moving conversations are had with men: Gale, Peeta, Haymitch, Snow, Plutarch, and Cinna. For a very female-power-centric movie, there are a LOT of conversations with males. These are great conversations, and Katniss remains strong and true in all of them. While I think she does a great job, and I’m in no way saying this part of my analysis makes the film bad or even weak, it still sparks these questions:

  1. Why couldn’t any of those male characters have been female? What is so intrinsic about those characters that requires them to be men? Even Peeta or Gale could have been female—Katniss doesn’t have to be straight (nor they).
  2. Why couldn’t she have been “stuck with” Joanna instead of Finnick?
  3. Why couldn’t she have had a longer conversation with Prim?
  4. Why couldn’t her mother have been of stronger mettle? Why was her life so drastically affected by the death of her husband that she was incapable of recovery?

Why did they take out Madge Undersee? (the governor’s daughter)
There was plenty of room for more female characters, but they weren’t there. Does this make me hate the movie? No. I love it. I just still see the effects of female representation in the media on a movie that doesn’t even have stereotypically represented females in it.

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Movie Score Review: Disney’s Brave

Though I have always appreciated the music in movies, I never listened with a critical ear the way I do now. Since I took Music in Film in college, I am always keen to analyze a score’s role in the movie. After a semester of study, I decided that the score should enhance the movie, usually by supporting plot themes and character development. Some celebrated composers do this well, and some are even known among the masses–John Williams, Danny Elfman, and Hans Zimmer, to name a few. Thus, I came to equate a good score with musical themes and development in a style that matched that of the film. This ideology has held true–until I watched Disney’s Brave, composed by a fairly new name in the music world, Patrick Doyle. I now find myself wishing to be back in Professor Meyer’s classroom, discussing the quality of the score from Disney’s new princess movie.
The first time I watched Brave, I had been more interested in analyzing how the storytellers would depict this female hero’s journey. (You might notice from my other writing endeavors that I have a penchant for critiquing women’s portrayal in the media.) However, I remember loving the score. I had originally fell in love with one of the title songs, “Touch the Sky” by Julie Fowlis, and found that I desperately needed to own it. Too impatient to wait for a CD to be released, I flew to to buy the song and was happily surprised to find the entire score was only $2.99. Needless to say, I eagerly downloaded the full score without regret and listened to it immediately.

And then I didn’t stop listening to it. I related so fully to Julie Fowlis’ song that I played it on repeat for days, and as I made my daily drive to work, I found more and more that I wanted to listen to the score. Initially, I was listening for musical themes–after all, I remembered thinking the score served the movie well, and so it must have themes. But it didn’t. And I didn’t understand why I liked it. So I learned to listen differently.

I found that well-placed dynamics and thoughtful instrumental use narrated the plot just as effectively as musical themes and development, which intrigued me. Doyle chose instruments with a variance of quality and timbre. For the softer and eerie moments, the reedy sound of the flute took precedence; in moments of high tension, blaring horns and rhythmic drumming drove the scene. In transition between the two, Doyle often crescendos subtly, as if trying to surprise the audience with a fortissimo drum break. In addition, as with all effective scores, Doyle masterfully composed sound that enhanced each moment on screen. There’s no question that Doyle clearly executed his vision for the movie’s score.

Yet, despite having no musical themes, the score is surprisingly cohesive. After all, I’ve heard plenty of scores that don’t solidly support the movie (the new Green Lantern and Prometheus come to mind). But Brave’s score works. The more I listened to the music, I began to notice that the minor chords that prevail in the Scottish folksong that the mother sings seemed to be mirrored in the score. Though I don’t have perfect pitch, I would bet that Doyle (purposefully) scatters the chords from “My Love is on the High Seas” artfully about the film. Even though the themes aren’t exactly the same, Doyle’s music emulates the structure and sentiment of the Scottish folksong, and the timbre of the persistent reedy flute harkens to the timbre of the female singer.

Perhaps it is this striking similitude that provides some musical cohesion, or perhaps Doyle bound his score together with ancient Gaelic magic. Regardless, I rank this score as one of the most skillful and engaging of any I’ve heard and possibly the most intriguing. Even if you haven’t seen the movie, if you listen to the score, you’ll still be able to feel the progression of some old story still sung on the Scottish highlands. If music can so easily enrapture our emotions, perhaps composers don’t need themes to convey the struggles in a hero’s journey.

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That Theater Degree Isn’t As Useless As You Think

If anyone ever said that they were majoring in theater, everyone always says, “Oh, that’s nice,” with this look on their faces that says, “You’re wasting your education.” Though I didn’t major in theater, I did participate in theater for most of my life, and in my first 1.7 years after graduating college, I’ve found real-life practicality from my lessons in the theater. I could go through a long list of praise, but I’m going to focus specifically on improv and specifically on a game that teaches skills for the business world as well as our own personal worlds.

I always used to hate improv lessons. I was never that funny, and it seemed like no one ever had the same sense of humor as me. Even though I participated in all kinds of art–music, theater, writing, etc.—I found that my creativity stalled when I was on the stage for improv–until I learned how to play the game called, “Yes! And…” at the Denver Center Theater Academy. The purpose of this particular game is to teach actors how to go with the flow onstage, to let go of any blocks, or the “No!” tendency we all seem to have. Even if you’ve never done improv, I bet you can relate to having that “No!” feeling when things don’t go the way you plan.

Usually in improv, the first sentence sets the scene, like “Man, it is freezing here on the moon. Did you bring a sweater?” The second sentence sets the relationship between the actors, like, “Yes, love, and I brought yours too. I managed to fit it all in with the space suits.” It’s important to establish setting and relationship right off the bat so that the audience has a clear sense of what’s going on and the actors define the tools of their environment. Now unless you’re an actor, you probably didn’t notice this in the dialogue: Actor 2 did not contradict Actor 1. Actor 2 essentially said, “Yes! And” before the rest of the sentence. Actor 2 accepted the scene on the moon and that it was cold. Think of how stagnant it would have appeared if the scene went like this:

Actor 1: “Man, it’s freezing here on the moon. Did you bring a sweater?”
Actor 2: “Dude, we’re not on the moon–this is just the beach. Are you drunk?”

And then the only “funny” thing that happens is that Actor 1 looks stupid. And then the scene comes to an abrupt halt, pulls out the map, decides on a new direction, and turns around. And when you see it a million times, it’s not that funny, and that awkward lostness is just plain uncomfortable to watch.

But think about what happens when the second actor accepts the scene and pushes it forward, like with the game “Yes! And…”

Actor 1: “Crap. There’s a tornado coming, and I can’t find the batteries.”
Actor 2: “Yes! And we’ll have to tell the troops. But I do have anti-alien venom medication in case we get bitten.”
Actor 1: “Yes! And I guess we’ll have to brave our way to the convenient store for those batteries.”
Actor 2: “Yes! And I hope they have Twinkies. You know what they say about Twinkies, right?”

You get the idea. No matter how crazy the previous statement, the actor MUST go with it. Forget the probability factor or if actor 1 liked the scene or if s/he saw a different direction for the piece. It’s not up to one actor. It’s up to the both of them. They both surrender control to the unknown.

Now think of a real-life situation. I’m sure all of you reading this can think of at least one moment in which something didn’t go as planned.

You’re on your way to work and you get a flat tire.
You’re on the way to the airport when a blizzard hits.
You asked someone out and they said no.
Your friend snapped at you for something that wasn’t your fault.
Your spouse let you down.

In our culture, we’re all really good at getting bogged down in the situation. “Why did this happen to me? What did I do wrong? I’m going to tweet about it so people know what I’m going through–hopefully they’ll say I don’t deserve this!” But what we all really suck at is saying, “Yes, my tire popped. And now, I’m going to get it fixed.” Improv teaches us to accept what happens and forces us to think of what’s happening next, what’s happening now. I guess you could say, “Yes, my tire popped. And now I’m the poorest, saddest person in the world,” but in the spirit of improv, we’re supposed to think of what comes next, working past those all-too-natural mental blocks. Yes, something bad happened. Now, how are you going to react to it? It’s happened, and there’s no going back. The only thing you can do is move forward.

So, theater might not teach me how to code in Java, but it does teach me how to react spontaneously without letting it affect my entire day. It taught me how to live in the moment, to recognize that every future action could be a positive, even if a past action was not. It taught me to live in the moment because the audience doesn’t care if someone forgot their line–they care that the scene keeps moving. The world doesn’t care if your proposal didn’t go as planned; the working world cares that you continue to do something, hopefully in an effort to continue to impress. Improvisation isn’t just something for actors under intensely bright stage lights–it’s a skill from which everyone can benefit. It’s called acceptance. It’s called making the best of a bad situation. It’s called working with what you have. It’s called optimism. It’s okay to learn from mistakes, but move forward growing, knowing that bad happenings are learning experiences and not a reflection on your entire person or business.

Now tell me, which other major teaches you how to practice such coping skills?

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The Second Issue of aBeautyMag is Here!

I’m sure you’ve been missing my writing, so here’s a place where you can read a whole bunch all at once:

Also, if you don’t like my writing, you should write for my magazine, and then you can read your beautiful voice online! Send all topic ideas to abeautymag [at]

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