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Archive for September, 2012

Dangerous Beauty

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Dangerous Beauty is a 1998 film based on the book The Honest Courtesan by Margaret Rosenthal. It’s a biographical piece about the life of Veronica Franco (played by Catherine McCormack, who turns in an exquisite performance), who was a courtesan and poet in 16th century Venice. The movie had a very limited release at first, and even when it went into a broader release, it didn’t get a lot of attention or make much money.

It’s a film that provides plenty for a feminist movie lover to both love and hate. On the one hand, it depicts a rather Disneyesque, fairytale view of the institution of prostitution, rather like a more modern, and much better known movie, Pretty Woman. The male clients are charming and good looking, and the courtesans are not only appreciated for their beauty and skills in bed, but also for their talent, intelligence, and wit.

On the other hand, the movie clearly demonstrates the role of women as chattel, sold off in marriage contracts to old, rich men, if they’re lucky. Working at hard labor if they’re not. Late in the movie, in a short, but moving speech, Veronica’s friend Beatrice (Moira Kelley) pleads with Veronica to teach her daughter to be a courtesan when she’s old enough.

Beatrice has already seen her very young daughter being taught that a woman should have no voice. At the end she says, of the life her daughter will be expected to lead, “And when she dies, she’ll wonder why she obeyed all the rules of God and Country, for no biblical Hell could ever be worse than a state of perpetual inconsequence.”

But what I love so much very about Dangerous Beauty, and why it’s worth watching at least once, is how utterly beautiful it is. It’s one of the most visually sumptuous movies I’ve seen. The lighting is magical, the people are pretty, the costumes are fabulous, the sets are breathtaking. And then the score by George Fenton perfectly supports and reflects the visual splendor.

On the topic of pretty people, Jacqueline Bisset as Paola Franco, Veronica’s mother, lights up the screen. If anything, at the age of 54, she is more stunningly beautiful than ever. My biggest disappointment with the film is that she doesn’t have a larger role, because I could watch her, and listen to her talk, all day.

As with most really good films, the rest of the cast help elevate Dangerous Beauty to the best it can be. Rufus Sewell is handsome and believable as Marco, the man Veronica loves. Naomi Watts has a very small part as Marco’s wife, but gives a wonderful, understated performance. Oliver Platt is at turns amusing, then villainous, as Marco’s resentful, jealous cousin. And Fred Ward is dashing and charming as the uncle.

If anything mars the perfection of the movie, it could be said it’s the final long scene, in which Veronica faces the Inquisition. It’s over the top, and highly improbable in terms of historical accuracy. Yet still, it’s uplifting and moving anyway.

The final biographical notes at the end of the movie make it sound like the rest of Veronica’s life was a storybook affair, which fits the tone of the movie and provides a feel-good experience for movie-goers. But in fact, Veronica died, impoverished, at only 45 years of age.

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This summer I haven’t been reading as much as usual, distracted by watching streaming videos online and working on a couple big projects. Thus, I haven’t been keeping up with the monthly reading thread on the Amazon Kindle forum, and haven’t been writing about the books I’ve read.

So this is a catch-up Book Bits post, wherein I attempt to cover all the books I’ve read since the end of June. I may have forgotten some of the books I’ve read in that time, and my thoughts about the books won’t be as fresh as when I write while I’m reading. But here goes.

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There were three books that I started but did not finish:

I first mentioned Asphalt Jungle by WR Burnett in the June post. I mentioned then that the writing had problems, but that I like heist stories so was sticking with it. At about 40-50% I finally stopped reading. The story and characters just weren’t enough to get me past the funky writing. I tried to let my picky nature go and enjoy the book for what it was, but that wasn’t enough. I can see where a lot of people would like the book, but with so many other books waiting to be read I finally decided to move on.

Two or three years ago I purchased a bundle of The Doomsday Key and The Last Oracle by James Rollins for really cheap and finally got around to reading The Last Oracle. I had previously read The Judas Strain by Rollins and it was a fun romp, so was expecting the same thing again. But this time maybe I wasn’t in the right mood, or it’s just that this type of book really isn’t my thing. I read about 30% of it and decided that there were other things I’d rather be reading.

The other book I didn’t finish was a surprise to me. I have three books in the Sundered fantasy series by Michelle Sagara West. I got one of them free and the other two on sale after that, and I assumed it would be a series that I really liked, thus buying them before reading the first one.

But in July I started Into the Dark Lands and didn’t get very far. There is absolutely nothing I can point to that is wrong with the book, it simply didn’t grab me at all, so I ditched it. This is strictly a matter of personal taste, or maybe just not being in the right mood at the time. I’d like to give it another go in the future, though I pretty much never go back and give a book a second chance.

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Books that I read and finished:

Middle of Somewhere by Clifford Henderson. (Despite the name Clifford, the author is female.) It’s only $4.99 right now. This one should have been included in the June post, but got accidentally left out. This is a lesbian novel about a young woman who flees her home in California and sets out for the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival in an old, unreliable Thunderbird, which breaks down in a very small town in Texas.

There is a romance element in the novel, but I wouldn’t describe it as a romance. It’s a book about finding yourself and learning to appreciate people for who they are, despite being very different. There are a lot of interesting characters and this is the sort of story I really enjoy.

But it wasn’t as good as it could have been. I think the main issue is that the main character wasn’t terribly sympathetic to begin with, and didn’t quite show as much growth as one would expect in this type of book. The depiction of small town life is great though, and there are a couple mysteries taking place, and the book is worth reading for anyone interested.

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At the beginning of July I read Chasing Magic by Stacia Kane. It’s the fifth book in the Downside Ghosts series. This is an excellent newer urban fantasy series that is dark and gritty. The books have been on an accelerated publishing schedule, so even though there are five books, the first one only came out in 2009. I love this, because it means not waiting so long in between books!

Chasing Magic was a good, solid addition to the series. I haven’t felt let down by any of the books yet, though Kane does get too repetitive about Chess’s self-esteem issues. In addition to having drugged hordes acting like zombies, this one focuses quite a bit on Chess’s relationship to the Church, and how tentative it is now that she has disappointed her mentor.

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Next I read All the Paths of Shadow by Frank Tuttle. (Only $3.99.) I was introduced to Frank’s writing when one of his Markhat novellas was offered for free from the publisher when my Kindle was still new. Frank has been a regular on the Amazon Kindle boards, as a fellow Kindle owner, and he’s a heck of a funny guy. This shows in his fantasy writing, which is always clever, with interesting characters, and detailed world building.

I’ve read all the Markhat books, and All the Paths of Shadow is the first book in a new series about the mage Meralda. It was a bit slow in the middle, but overall a fun read. I believe it is considered YA fiction, so suitable for teens and adults alike.

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Next up was Kitty Steals the Show, the latest (10th book) in the Kitty Norville urban fantasy series by Carrie Vaughn. Vaughn’s books are sort of urban fantasy light, in that they are quick, fun reads that even with dire events happening, never feel too gritty. Normally I’d consider the lack of dark urgency in Vaughn’s writing to be a drawback, but the books are so enjoyable I gobble them up each time a new one comes out. This one furthers the vampire long game story arc and Kitty makes some new allies. A good addition to the series.

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The next week saw another release in another urban fantasy series I’m reading. This one was Gunmetal Magic in the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews. The first book in the series is Magic Bites. This is a series that only seems to get better with each book. I thought the first one was so-so, but the unique world building kept me interested enough to give the second book a chance, and now with five books, plus Gunmetal Magic, I’m hooked.

One of the things that I’ve really appreciated about the series is the friendship that has developed between Kate (the series main character), and Andrea, a shapeshifter. It’s unusual to find books with a strong friendship between two women when that isn’t the point of the novel, or when the friend isn’t just comic relief or a sidekick. Gunmetal Magic is a novel from Andrea’s POV and is an excellent addition to the series. It was especially fun to see Kate through Andrea’s eyes. I guess she’s a little crazier than we realized when reading books through Kate’s POV. Heh.

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I next read Daughter’s of the North by Sarah Hall, a dystopian novel set in England. The world has fallen apart due to economic collapse, and totalitarian regimes have taken over. The main character escapes from her city, in which the residents are little more than prisoners and work slaves, to seek out a rumored conclave of women still living free. This was a very good book, but it’s not for those who need a tidy, happy ending. It’s one of the better books I’ve read this year.

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Stranger in the Room by Amanda Kyle Williams was the next book I read. It’s the second book in the new Keye Street series. Street is a private detective, who once worked as an FBI profiler. I think I liked the first book a bit more, but this one was a solid read. Williams’ writing is a bit uneven at times, but Street is an intriguing and engaging character, and the books are entertaining.

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Sticking with mysteries, I then read Report for Murder by Val McDermid. I had been wanting to give McDermid a try for a long time, and when I saw that the first book in her Lindsay Gordon series was available for only $1.99 I snatched it up.

I have to say though that I was a little disappointed. I didn’t think Lindsay was that sympathetic or interesting of a character, and she develops a rocky romantic relationship with another woman who doesn’t really seem any more sympathetic. The two clash frequently, so it’s difficult to understand the attraction.

The writing also seemed rather flat to me, though it’s possible that’s merely due to a difference in style because of McDermid being a British author. The book is very British, which I did enjoy, and the mystery is well done. I’m not writing off the series completely. I may give the second book a chance in the future to see if I like it any better and want to continue, or instead might give the first book in one of her other series a try.

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Then I started on one of my lezzie book binges. I was house/cat sitting for my aunt in another city for ten days, which is like going on vacation for me. And my tradition is to read a stack of lesbian fiction while on vacation.

I started reading Dark Dreamer by Jennifer Fulton, which I bought when the price dropped to only $4.99.  However, the book has supernatural/ghost elements, and I realized that maybe reading such a book when I was staying alone in a strange house out in the country wasn’t such a good idea. I don’t know yet if the book actually gets spooky, I decided to put it aside before I found out! Heh. I’ll get back to it when I finish the book I’m currently reading, now that I’m safely back home again.

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So instead I read Turning the Page by Georgia Beers. It’s the fourth Beers novel I’ve read and I knew I was taking a bit of a risk because this is, if not her first book, at least one of her earliest ones. Her writing has improved a lot between then and now, and I’ve mentioned quite a bit that I’m a picky reader.

Like Thy Neighbor’s Wife, the writing in Turning the Page was awkward and unpolished in many ways. And Beers has a teeth-gnashingly annoying habit of constantly referring to her main character as “the redhead.” But even in her early books she does know how to create likeable characters in interesting situations and develop a believable romance. So in the end, while the book wasn’t that well written, it was an okay read.

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Next was a blast from my past with Return to Isis by Jean Stewart. I read it when it was first published in 1992 and it was one of my favorite lesbian novels at the time. It’s a science fantasy novel, taking place 100 years in the future from when it was written. Whitaker escapes from the repressive Elysium, where she’s been living as a spy, back to her home, a utopian all female community in Freeland. (The West Coast of what used to be the US.)

I hadn’t read the book in a very long time, so was curious if it would stand up to my current reading standards. It holds up surprisingly well I thought, and I very much enjoyed reading it again. There still isn’t much to choose from in the speculative fiction genre in lesbian fiction, so I recommend it to anyone with an interest in that sort of book. It’s part adventure, part thriller, and part romance.

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Next I read Retirement Plan, an unusual novel by Martha Miller. Lois and Sophie are a retired lesbian couple who decide to get into the assassination biz as a means to make some much needed money, who are also dealing with their adopted daughter Ruby, a convicted drug dealer/addict, coming back into their lives.

In the book, Miller takes an interesting approach by telling three parallel stories, using multiple points of view. In addition to Sophie and Lois’s story, there is Morgan Holiday, the homicide detective investigating the hits, along with having to deal with a new partner, her mother with Alzheimer’s, and discovering that she’s a lesbian. And there is also Celia Morning, one of Sophie and Lois’s clients, who becomes involved with a homeless girl.

I think Miller tried to cram too many full stories into a single novel, which made for uneven pacing and some choppy reading at times. But she doesn’t completely fail at the attempt. Retirement Plan is an interesting book, which raises a lot of morality questions, and despite so many POV characters and separate stories, still manages to provide a decent read.

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Right now I’m reading Lethal Affairs by Kim Baldwin and Xenia Alexiou. It’s the first book in the Elite Operatives series and was recommended to me by another reader on the Kindle forum a while back. The Elite Operatives are people raised from very young ages by a secret organization to undertake various missions, supposedly to make the world a better place. These missions frequently include assassination. The book requires a healthy ability to suspend disbelief, and it’s not that original. There are flavors of Alias and Dollhouse, though the book was published a year before Dollhouse first aired.

Still, it’s been an entertaining read so far. The novel has many POV characters, so the reader knows all sorts of things that the individual characters do not. The suspense comes from wondering who will uncover what info and when, and who is going to get away with what.

Update 9/28:

I finished Lethal Affairs. It did have one significant drawback, the dialogue was often rather atrocious, especially between the two female lead characters. It sort of read like a thirteen-year-old’s fantasy of what perfect lovy talk sounds like. In other words, cliche and not like people talking naturally.

Another teeny thing that bugged me was that it was mentioned more than once that Domino wears a thong for underwear. This is a woman who is trained to do mission ops, often of a lethal variety, and sleeps with her boots on when not in her own bed. I think some cotton Jockeys sound more in character! I know it’s a silly little thing, but sometimes it’s the little things that make us go “huh?” as readers.

Despite those, and a few other niggling things here and there, the book was a good read. The attraction between the women was believable. The plot was nicely layered and woven together with several different players moving things forward. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in this sort of book.

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I’ve been wanting to link to an article that author John Scalzi wrote on his blog back in July, but hadn’t gotten around to writing a good intro post. It turns out that Mitt Romney’s remarks made to a private group at a fund raising event earlier this year, and recently leaked on a secretly recorded video tape, provide the perfect springboard to Scalzi’s article.

If you read through the full transcript of Romney’s statements (you can find a copy here) there are dozens of comments to find fault with, and that prove just how out of touch Romney is with average Americans. But the one that I think bothers me the most, and that I keep coming back to in my head, is this, in reference to the 47%: “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

Seriously? Working families who don’t make enough annual income to pay income tax, and elderly people who have paid their way their entire lives and are now living on social security, don’t “take personal responsibility and care for their lives?” We aren’t talking about a nation of freeloaders here. We’re talking about average people whose worst offense is that they weren’t born into wealthy families or didn’t get the education needed to work in high-paying professions.

And let’s not forget that we’re also talking about the men and women who serve our country in the military. Romney would have you believe, with his 47% of the population comments, that our serving soldiers and veterans are people who think of themselves as victims and have a sense of entitlement. I can’t think of anything more insulting. For the record, I think they’re entitled to anything they can get from us for the sacrifices they make and have made*.

What Romney can’t seem to grasp is that every American both receives from the government and gives back to the government. It is not a sign of laziness or lack of personal integrity if no income tax is owed in any given year. Some people receive more help than others, but even the wealthiest in our country are eager recipients of government largesse.

All Americans pay taxes of some sort. If they don’t pay income tax they’re still paying sales taxes, payroll taxes, use taxes, etc. every single day. As an example, my phone company charges $13.00 per month for my landline, which is pretty reasonable if you ask me. But the problem is, once all the taxes are added I have to pay $23.00 per month for phone service. The Mitt Romneys of the world won’t even notice that $10 difference. But if you’re struggling because you’re only making minimum wage at your job, that extra $10 in monthly taxes is most definitely noticed. It’s painful.

The American Dream is to work hard and succeed by virtue of that hard work. Attaining that dream is harder for some than others, because we don’t all start on a level playing field. But we’re brought up with the ideal that even those who have a lot stacked against them can make it. What is easily forgotten in all the stories used to sell people on the idea that the dream is possible, is that there really is no such thing as a self-made man or woman. We all receive help  along the way.

The help may come in the form of publicly funded schools, an inspiring teacher, getting an important first job through a well-connected parent, or food stamps, but every one of us has received help. We Americans love the myth of the self-made man, because it allows us to believe that anything is possible. But we all stand on the shoulders of those who have given us a helping hand, both public and private, even when we have worked hard and are responsible for much of our own success.

John Scalzi knows this, and wrote about it. Please read his article. It’s a great read on its own, but it’s even more fitting now in light of a man who wants to be president, but doesn’t get it. Who thinks he’s the personification of the American Dream of the self-made man, when in reality he’s had enormous help from both family and government to get to where he is.

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* As a tangent, yet related: Returning combat veterans have a jobless rate that is 35% higher than the rest of the American population. A bi-partisan jobs bill for veterans was written and expected to pass in congress. A good portion of the bill was written by Republicans in order to insure they got what they wanted and that the bill would pass without problems. But because we’re close to an election, it was more important to make sure the President doesn’t have any successes he can point to, and the bill was killed by the very Republicans who had helped to write it. Vets deserve our help, but way too often they don’t get it. Not because they don’t take personal responsibility, but because as a country we’re too cheap and too selfish.

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As I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve been following several court cases dealing with same-sex marriage over the last couple years. Aside from the Proposition 8 case from California, there are several DOMA (Defense of Marriage Act) challenges making their way through the courts.

At least one of them will likely be taken up by the Supreme Court in its next session. (The session starts in November and runs through June.) My prediction is that this time next year DOMA will be dead, declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

There are several interesting aspects of these cases, primarily centering around equal treatment under the law and level of scrutiny due gay and lesbian American citizens. But there is another aspect that should be of interest to a broader range people. That topic is federalism.

For the entire history of the United States, domestic law has been the domain of the states, including regulating what constitutes a legal marriage and who can legally marry. The federal government has always accepted state definitions, allowing for differences from state to state. It didn’t matter that there was a lack of uniformity, if a marriage was legal in the state, it was legal for federal purposes.

In the case of DOMA, the federal government took the unprecedented action of overriding state authority.  Under DOMA, a same-sex couple can be legally married in the eyes of their state, but they become unmarried in the eyes of the federal government. The two spouses are considered legal strangers. Aside from the messy and precarious legal situations this engenders for individual couples, this constitutes a federal challenge to state sovereignty.

This is important to our nation as a whole, because if the US Congress is allowed to intrude in this area that is normally off limits, there is nothing stopping them from intruding elsewhere in the future. So putting aside equality considerations, it would be dangerous for the Supreme Court to allow DOMA to stand for this reason alone.

What is ironic and confounding is that maintaining state sovereignty is normally an issue of great importance to conservatives. Yet it’s mostly conservatives who are throwing away one of their key values in favor of their desire to impose their version of morality on the nation.

Three states (New York, Vermont, and Connecticut) have filed an amicus brief in the Windsor case that very nicely lays out the federalism concern. It’s excellent reading for anyone even the least interested in the topic, and quite educational. I highly recommend giving it a look.

If you’re interested in following the court cases and other equality issues,  I recommend bookmarking prop8trialtracker.com. They post frequent updates, and it’s convenient to get all the important information in one spot on the web.

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In the interests of fairness, since I had mentioned the inquiry in my previous update, I thought I should post this. The University of Texas has completed their initial inquiry and determined there is no reason to conduct a formal investigation.

It’s important to point out that they were not looking into the study itself, but whether or not Mark Regnerus had engaged in misconduct.

So the University has cleared him of misconduct (probably rightly so), but that still leaves all the questions raised by a couple hundred social scientists regarding poor methodology and inappropriate conclusions on the table.

The University’s public statement can be read here.

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