Tag Archives: aging

Judging a cover by its book

Earlier this year, I started reading Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms trilogy. Each book is narrated by one of three sisters. I enjoyed The Mark of the Tala and The Tears of the Rose, and I finally have time to read The Talon of the Hawk, told by oldest sister Ursula. Seen through the eyes of her sisters, Princess Ursula has become my favorite character, so I’ve been looking forward to reading “her” book. Ursula is 30 years old, and in addition to being a mature adult, she’s not model-pretty either:

  • “I suppose I’m lucky not to be the oldest and least beautiful. Ursula, however, is our father’s heir and couldn’t care a whit for things such as prettiness.” (Andi, The Mark of the Tala, p.1)
  • “Ursula looked fine, too—make no mistake. Her ladies wouldn’t allow otherwise. She cleaned up well when she went to the trouble. But Ursula’s beauty is in the clear, firm lines of her jaw, the sharp eyes that miss nothing, her incisive intelligence.” (The Mark of the Tala, p.3)
  • “The eldest and heir to the High Throne of the Twelve Kingdoms, she looked more gaunt than ever. In the past, some might have called her passably attractive, in her hard-edged way, but not at this moment.” (Amelia, The Tears of the Rose, p.2)

Until I’ve read the book, I won’t know how Ursula describes herself, but according to the plot summary, Ursula is “a girl grudgingly honed to leadership, not beauty, to bear the sword and honor of the king.” After two books and that plot summary, I picture Ursula as a woman in her early thirties, thin but muscular, fairly ordinary overall in attractiveness, with a few strong features such as her eyes and her jawline, and who’s not inclined to fuss over her appearance unless her ladies (or her father) demand it.

Then I saw the cover:

Book cover: The Talon of the Hawk

I’m annoyed at myself for not hating it. If I’d seen this before reading the first two novels, I’d be interested in at least reading the plot summary to this one, which is what cover art is for. My reaction is exactly why publishers design covers like this. But this Ursula doesn’t look like someone who appears at formal court functions wearing her sword over her dress so that her men will see her as a soldier before they see her as a woman.

Now when the protagonist really is beautiful, I have no arguments with a cover that reflects that. Consider Ursula’s sister Amelia:

“The youngest, breathtakingly beautiful. They called her Glorianna’s avatar when she was born and started composing sonnets to her by the time she turned twelve. Hair the color of sunrise, eyes like twilight, skin like moonbeams.” (The Mark of the Tala, p.2)

And here’s what the publisher came up with:

Book cover: The Tears of the Rose

In The Tears of the Rose, Amelia is 20 years old. Her youth (really, her immaturity) and beauty are an important part of her story, and the cover art for The Tears of the Rose works well with that. But the cover art on The Talon of the Hawk makes it so that Amelia and Ursula look equally gorgeous and close in age, not ten years apart.

This is giving me cognitive dissonance. It’s like the author is saying Here’s my story about a woman who’s a competent, average-looking adult while the cover is saying Buy this book about a young, beautiful, sexy warrior princess. I’m not great at visualizing, and now when I read the book, no matter how many times Kennedy describes Ursula as average-looking and probably wearing something practical for battle, the image of a pretty woman in a studded tube top is what’s going to pop into my head. Come on, even Amelia’s gown has spaghetti straps!

This is a fairly dismal trend in publishing. Jane Ellsworth’s major problem in Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is that although she’s intelligent and magically gifted, she’s considered too plain to attract a husband. The cover depicts an ethereal young woman who would probably have no trouble getting married in Kowal’s alternative England. The original American cover for Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, a book about an African-American girl, featured a photo of a white girl. (After protest, the cover was changed.) But it’s demoralizing to realize that fantasy fiction about women older than 25 is deemed unlikely to sell unless it’s disguised. Being well over 25 myself, I’ve been looking for books with older heroines. Perhaps I could find them in general fiction or women’s fiction, but my favorite genre is fantasy. I had been thinking that maybe they just didn’t exist. Now I’m wondering if those books are out there—good!—but hidden behind deceptive covers. And how will I find them if that’s the case?

The privileges of brain building

It may be possible to grow older in our society while being oblivious to the cultural pressure that aging is Bad, but I’m not the person who will manage it. I counter the pressure by reading books on the topic. Given my tastes, these are usually psychology books, but the latest one came from the medical and psychiatry shelf: The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-aged Mind by Barbara Strauch. This is a good book if you’re looking for reassurance that all is not lost when you reach middle age. The author strikes a good balance between hard science and a conversational tone seasoned with the occasional personal anecdote. I doubt I’ll remember many of the specifics months from now—not because of my aging memory, but because I tend to race through all books and retain general impressions of them more than details—but it was an encouraging book, although not captivating.

The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-aged Mind by Barbara Strauch

The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: The Surprising Talents of the Middle-aged Mind by Barbara Strauch

The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain is divided into three sections. In the first section, Strauch talks about the ways in which the middle-aged brain shows improvement with age, and in the second section, she moves more into the science of how brains function. The third section is the closest this book gets to self-help, where Strauch presents what scientists think might strengthen the brain as it ages further. It’s this section, especially, that leaves me feeling frustrated as well as reassured. Now some suggestions have stronger support than others (most of this research was pretty new in 2010 when the book was first published), but the conclusion I’m reaching is that if you want a healthy brain in your old age, it helps to be healthy to begin with and have a certain level of socioeconomic resources at your disposal. Money can’t buy a resilient brain any more than it can buy happiness, but it can certainly make it easier for you to strengthen it yourself.

A few examples:

Education: Strauch looks at the relatively new-fangled concept of “cognitive reserve:” the idea that brains can bank resources that can cushion them in the future against the worst effects of aging, maybe even against Alzheimer’s disease. The size of the brain is one factor, and that’s out of your control. But regardless of brain size, scientists believe that education increases your cognitive reserve, and the more education, the better. Now, pause for a moment and consider all the possible obstacles to education. Maybe the organizations which are asking me to urge Congress to reduce student loan rates should argue that if more students can afford college today, there might be fewer cases of dementia decades from now.

Exercise: Well, you can tell where this is going when you see one chapter is called “Keep Moving and Keep Your Wits: Exercise Builds Brains.” We’re introduced to researchers who are concluding that exercise, especially aerobic exercise, stimulates the brain to produce new neurons. But aerobic exercise assumes some advantages on your part. You need to be physically able to jog, or walk briskly, or play tennis, or whatever your chosen form of exercise is. You need the time to do the exercise. You need a safe environment in which to do it. You may need equipment. Even the anecdote that opens the chapter, about a man participating in a study of how exercise affects the brain, mentions that he was “offered free gym membership as part of a research study.” Yes, that’d probably help too.

Mental stimuli: In addition to formal education, continuing to challenge your brain keeps it strong and healthy. Strauch reports that one neuroscientist found that people with complex jobs (often these are the ones where you work with people) were less likely to develop dementia than people who had repetitive jobs with machinery, like on an assembly line. But just because repetitive, dangerous work isn’t good for people doesn’t mean that those jobs will go away—we still want/need to have them done, and often it’s other human beings who have to do them.

Are these obstacles insurmountable? I’d like to say no, but I have enough advantages that most of these aren’t obstacles for me, so how would I know? I’m able-bodied enough to exercise. I was raised by parents who valued education above just about everything else in life and who were able to send me to the college of my choice. That college education got me a job that does offer some mental challenges and pays enough that I don’t have to take extra jobs to supplement my income. That, in turn, leaves me enough time to exercise and do stimulating leisure-time activities like blogging and reading books on middle-aged brains. All of this together, I can hope, will put me in a good position for the decades to come. But that’s me, and yes, that’s many other people with similar or greater advantages than I have, and no, there are no guarantees for any of us. But our chances sound better than many other people’s.

A television birthday

Much as I wish otherwise, Once Upon a Time is not great television. It holds my interest by being a reworking of fairy tales, and it’s a good program to knit to because I can ignore it when the knitting gets tricky without losing track of the plot. But I wish to give credit when appropriate. In this evening’s episode when Snow (or Mary Margaret, whatever we’re supposed to call her) opened her birthday present, she did so by ripping the gift wrap off, just like we do in real life. This may be the first time I’ve seen a present opened normally on TV. Usually a TV birthday present comes in a box with a separately-wrapped lid that can be opened and reopened as many times as needed until the scene is successfully completed. So congratulations to Once Upon a Time for daring to have a “realistically-wrapped” present!

More seriously: it’s clear that Snow doesn’t like birthday celebrations, not even anything as simple as Charming (or David, whatever we’re supposed to call him) making breakfast for her. We learn in this episode that her mother died on her birthday, so her discomfort is understandable. But when he asked her about it, I was thinking, Because regardless of what the culture was like in the Enchanted Forest, you now live in a society where no woman is supposed to admit to any birthday after her 29th. Heck, it probably wasn’t much better back home—we’ve hardly seen any characters there older than 30-something, and most of the ones we have seen were evil. And sure, Snow has ended up about the same age as her daughter, which most women here can’t manage (darn lack of magic!), but do you really need to ask why she’s not ecstatic that it’s her birthday?

Maybe I need to start knitting to programs that inspire no thinking whatsoever. 🙂

Autumnal reading

I don’t do summer reading as such. Yes, I read during the summer, but since I choose whatever comes to hand, that’s no different than what I read during the rest of the year. But over the past several years, my autumnal reading has developed distinct characteristics. I have a tendency to read about serious topics such as aging and death in the fall (which why I’m calling this autumnal reading rather than fall reading: it’s not because I’m trying to sound British, but because “autumnal” sounds a bit more funereal to me than “fall” does). Fall inspires this in many people—it’s the fall movies that are Oscar contenders; summer movies are more “just for fun”—but I never expected it to show up in my reading list.

Pile of books with maple leaf

It started innocuously enough in 2007. Having read James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling at the end of that summer, I wanted to read something else of his. Although Hillman has written on many subjects, the next book of his that I happened to find in a used book store was A Terrible Love of War, and I was eager enough to start reading it right away, which meant it became autumnal reading. It was certainly relevant to my developing autumnal reading theme as it is an exploration of why we say we abhor war and want peace, but act as if we believed the opposite.

One book does not a trend make, of course. The following year, I hadn’t made any conscious choice to tackle somber themes in my autumnal reading; again, it just happened. I had bought the anthology For Keeps: Women Tell the Truth About Their Bodies, Growing Older, and Acceptance as a Christmas present for a friend, and I’d done so absurdly early. So here was this book, just lying there in my apartment. Now, never mind that many books lie around my apartment unread for years on end, the fact that this book was guaranteed to leave in the near future drew my attention to it. And sure, I probably could have borrowed it back from the friend to read it. But no, I decided to read it as gently as possible before passing it on, which meant that I read it during the fall of 2008.

By 2009, having definitely reached midlife, I approached it as I approach all major life changes: I set out to read about it. This meant I filled the fall and early winter with In the Ever After: Fairy Tales and the Second Half of Life and Once Upon a Midlife by Allen B. Chinen, and Navigating Midlife: Using Typology as a Guide by Eleanor S. Corlett. (Perhaps there are more standard books for learning about midlife, but my reading tastes dictate a slightly more offbeat take on the subject.) Even though I had an entire spring and summer to work with, somehow I ended up reading those books during the fall.

Last year? Sacred Dying: Creating Rituals for Embracing the End of Life by Megory Anderson, a book I wish had existed back when my parents and aunt died and which I highly recommend to just about anyone having to deal with death. 2010 also brought me The Poetry of War by James Anderson Winn and Faith and Magick in the Armed Forces: A Handbook for Pagans in the Military by Stefani Elizabeth Barner. I also read Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life by James Hollis that year, but in May. Maybe reading it out of season is why I didn’t like it as much as the others!

Although the unseasonably warm weather has meant that autumn really hasn’t felt all that much like autumn this year, my current reading continues the theme: Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals by Thomas Moore. It’ll carry me through the better part of another week, after which I haven’t decided what to read next. Perhaps a quick, shallow book to cleanse the palate, so to speak, and then another book on midlife. Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr looks interesting…

At first, it was just coincidental. Now, I find myself saving my “gloom and doom” books for fall. It seems counter-intuitive that reading about death, aging, and/or war as leaves are falling, temperatures are dropping, and days are getting shorter would be a pleasant experience, but it is, somehow. It all fits.

Tron: Legacy

[Contains spoilers.]

Dear Disney,

Having recently seen Tron: Legacy, I find myself with some questions, and I was hoping you could answer them.

Who was your target demographic for this film? “Guys” was a no-brainer, but what age range? I’ve been trying to figure it out, but the clues go in all directions. Legacy, the title of the movie itself, sounds like a topic for us middle-aged and older viewers, the ones likely to remember Tron. What kind of world have we shaped, how will our kids remember us—you touched on those questions if only briefly. Although Sam Flynn has all the spiffy action scenes and gets the girl, Kevin Flynn haunts the movie well before his reappearance and what plot there is really does center on him and the results of his deeds and decisions all those years ago: a son, an evil alter-ego, a virtual world he helped create—all of it boiling down to Kevin’s identity disk, the sum total of who he is on The Grid and the key to victory for whoever can claim it. But then again, Sam Flynn is 27, he’s presumably the protagonist, and he’s being paired up with a woman who is whatever the computer equivalent is of 20-something. They’re supposed to be the characters the younger members of the audience identify with, right? The whole bit with sexy women in skintight bodysuits doesn’t tell me anything; they’re designed to appeal to any straight man who’s made it past puberty.

Overall, I’m a bit lost as to why you made a sequel to a movie that’s almost thirty years old and then were a bit stingy with the backstory. Based on a completely non-scientific random sampling of WordPress blogs, I could say that most people hadn’t seen Tron. For those people, the movie’s title won’t make a lot of sense, which isn’t an auspicious beginning. Even when we find out Tron’s fate, he ends up on the periphery of a movie that’s named after him. (Okay, he wasn’t the real star of the original film either, but he got significant screen time.) And despite my critical tone, folks, I do understand your dilemma. A program, like a dragon, may live forever, but not so little boys: Bruce Boxleitner has aged just as Jeff Bridges did. Using all the tricks of modern cinema to make one character look forever young could maybe slip by; doing it to two characters  would’ve been pushing it.

Also, why include Edward Dillinger? Seriously, only those of us who saw Tron will have any idea as to what his connection to ENCOM is, and there’s no description of his father despite the elder Dillinger’s key role in Tron. But then, having gone to all the trouble to create this character, you fail to use him beyond a few throwaway lines at the start of the film. Since you named the film Tron: Legacy, I can only assume that inheritance, father/son relationships, etc. are a theme you wished to explore. There were several directions you could go, what with having both Kevin Flynn’s son and Ed Dillinger’s son needing to come to terms with their fathers’ legacies. Having two sons to work with, you could have looked at different choices. And yet, you dodged the entire issue. It’s a option, yes, I’m just curious as to why you chose it.

Indeed, since a lot of the trouble with this movie is the rough transition between it and the original, why make a sequel at all? Why not remake Tron instead? Of course, remakes are a challenge in their own right. Some, like the current True Grit, earn great reviews but it’s true that many of them don’t. (I will itemize my complaints about Race to Witch Mountain under separate cover if I can ever bring myself to watch it again. But even then, the remake idea, however imperfectly realized, was still better than a thirty-years-delayed sequel to the two previous Witch Mountain films.)

I suppose what it all boils down to is this: why did you pour millions into special effects, salaries, promotion, and so on, and let it all go out with a less-than-stellar plot and writing? Certainly yours is not the only film I could ask this about; Avatar is an infamous example of this problem. I mean, wouldn’t good writing benefit you in the end? Does it cost more than bad writing, or something? See, I just saw your movie Tangled. I’m considering buying it when it comes out. Now overall, I think Avatar is much more impressive visually, but Tangled was the better-written movie. The thought of buying Avatar has never crossed my mind. Unfortunately for your bottom line, however minute that unfortune, I have no intentions of buying Tron: Legacy either. If it had had a plot to match its special effects, it might also be up for serious buying consideration. Just saying.

I went into Tron: Legacy with high expectations for the special effects, low expectations for the story itself, and that’s pretty much how it played out. I really did hope I’d like this movie more than I did, although I would’ve regretted not seeing it. Anyway, any light you can cast on these questions would be most appreciated. Thank you.



P.S. Thank you for eventually making it clear what the relationship was between Kevin Flynn and Quorra. I was having nasty thoughts that he’d created a little male-fantasy program to ease his loneliness through the years, and I never wanted to think of Flynn in that way. Nor did it seem like something normally associated with your brand. Clarifying their relationship did improve my opinion of the film.

P.P.S. No Yori? And you killed off Lora? That leaves Quorra and Gem as the only significant female characters in the movie, and calling Gem “significant” is pushing it.


[As with any discussion of a movie or book, there’s always the possibility that something I say might be considered a spoiler.]

I saw Tangled, Disney’s take on “Rapunzel,” a few days ago.  As it turns out, birthdays and aging help move the plot along, so it was entirely appropriate that I saw this movie on my birthday. It was the best kind of children’s movie: one that an adult can enjoy, and I noticed that I wasn’t the only woman in the audience unaccompanied by children. I didn’t see a male of any age in the audience. That’s not surprising, given the movie, but really, they’re missing out on something. And the movie got a PG rating. Wow. I didn’t know the Disney princess movies were allowed to get anything stronger than a G, although I think the end of the film was just fine the way it was and would’ve been insipid if it had been softened to G standards.

I suppose it’s the mark of a good film that you keep thinking about it after you’ve left the theatre. In my case, thinking about a film often leads to me analyzing it to the point of sounding like I hated seeing it. Not true. In the days after I saw Avatar, there was so little there beyond the (absolutely gorgeous) surface that there was nothing for me to think about at all. I thought Tangled was doing well in the beauty department as well. Oh sure, Rapunzel herself is pretty, but it’s other things, like how the flowers looked in her hair or the rough surface of the cast iron skillet or the sight of all the lanterns rising over the water, that left me thinking maybe I’ll buy this when it comes out on DVD. But anyway, as the days pass, a few points have come to mind about the film, probably none of which Disney intended me to think of.

The Penal Code

It’s a good thing Rapunzel went out, had her adventure, and learned a little about the nastier side of life. She’ll need that experience when she becomes queen years from now. After all, as we can infer from the film, this kingdom has a death penalty for theft and no guaranteed right to a trial, fair or otherwise. Presumably Flynn will be working to modify those laws. I know, I know—for drama’s sake, you need a threat to Flynn that children can understand instantly, and the prospect of a trial followed by several years of imprisonment is a little hard to convey symbolically. Nor can you have a hero who’s committed the sorts of crimes that often receive the death penalty: who wants to see Rapunzel fall in love with a murderer? Now despite the lack of constitutional protection, all the subjects appear reasonably happy and healthy, and the king and queen seem quite nice and not like power-crazed despots. But if Gothel had survived to see Rapunzel’s return to the kingdom, what would the penalty have been for kidnapping the heir apparent? Probably something that would’ve cost the film that PG rating.

Under Mother’s (and Father’s) Watchful Eye

Oddly, even though she was confined to a tower for the better part of eighteen years, Rapunzel may have been freer there than after she returned home. For whatever reason, it sounds like Gothel gave her a fairly well-rounded education and didn’t really care how she spent her days as long as it didn’t damage her hair and she didn’t leave the tower. Yet everything I’ve ever read suggests that the life of a princess is terribly constrained. She’d probably get to continue painting—and I’m guessing she won’t miss the housework—but what if she enjoyed cooking? And no more wild adventures! Only days after she’s laid eyes on a man and she’s fallen in love with one who happens to be on a ream’s worth of wanted posters . . . yes, that’ll reassure her parents no end. Gothel locked Rapunzel in a tower because she didn’t want to lose her personal fountain of youth, but after having lost their child for years, what are the chances that the king and queen will ever let her out of the castle without an armed guard ?

The Aging Dilemma

Admittedly, if you’ve just spent an entire film using the fear of aging as the villain’s primary motivation, then you probably want to depict aging as a scary thing. But would it have been so bad to make the queen look old enough to be her mother rather than her older sister? Yes, a delicate streak of white in her hair would probably have been too much to ask, although I think it could have worked as something to show that the queen—the good mother—wasn’t insanely terrified of what clearly pushed Gothel—the bad mother—over the edge. I suppose my seeing this on my birthday didn’t help matters. I figure the queen might be semi-close to me in age. I assure you, I do not look that young. Honestly, they didn’t have to make her look like a fairy godmother (what passes for a positive view of feminine aging in a Disney movie), just not like she was in her twenties.