Monday, May 9, 2016

Bloodline by Claudia Gray: a Star Wars Novel

I needed this. 

Semi-official Star Wars holiday May 4th (May the Fourth be with you) was celebrated in its earliest hours by me by reading. I bought Claudia Gray's Bloodline on May 3rd, the day it came out, and read it in more or less one sitting. I started the book on the bus ride home, went straight from the bus stop to bed to read, and stayed in bed until finished. Clearly I was quite swept up!

Ok, I did pause to check the news; the big story was that Ted Cruz had dropped out of the race and the GOP was in chaos, which was a little surreal considering the book's material.

Now that I've had some time to reflect on this political thriller centered on Princess/Senator/General Leia Organa and its drastic reframing of the perceived pre-The Force Awakens timeline, I have some vaguely organized thoughts.

Warning: everything beyond "basic summary" is 100% spoilers.

Basic Summary

The government the Rebellion risked everything for has created a few decades of peace, but since the illness and retirement of leader Mon Motha, it has descended into indulgence, inaction, and partisan politics. It seems impossible to find a system of government that can continuously serve everyone well - just like real life!

Middle-aged Senator Leia Organa is disillusioned and plans to quit. But before she leaves government, she agrees to investigate a lead about a possible new crime boss. Soon she realizes that this new organization goes far beyond gambling and racketeering. Leia must assemble a team of her own staff and across-the-aisle allies to identify and stop this new threat - all while being haunted by memories of her villainous birth father, Darth Vader, and her noble adopted father, Bail Organa.

The novel by Claudia Gray takes ideas and guidelines from Lucasfilm creative executive Pablo Hidalgo and his team, senior editor Jennifer Heddle, and upcoming Episode VIII director Rian Johnson.

Spoilers ahead!

Politics and Characters

Leia: Gray has received lots of kudos for her characterization of Leia, and with good reason. Leia in Bloodline is a character we don't see often: a middle-aged, female action hero. She's tough, caring, but tired - she's been working for the good of the galaxy since her teen years, and has persevered in spite of multiple, devastating losses. Gray truly puts the destruction of Alderaan in its horrific context. She also makes clear how and why Leia and Luke share such different feelings regarding their late birth father, Darth Vader/Anakin Skywalker.

And Gray's take on the infamous "slave Leia" scene and Jabba the Hutt's death is amazing. It involves the nickname "Huttslayer" and the space version of "the weird part of YouTube."

The Senate: The politics in Bloodline are very on-point and believable. Reading about the partisan gridlock in the first few pages immediately brought John Boehner's teary face to mind, but the two "factions," the Centrists and Populists, aren't exactly carbon copies of America's Republicans and Democrats. The Centrists, while more Republican in nature (they love the military industrial complex and the death penalty), also want a strong central government. Meanwhile the Populists, although liberal, have more of a Republican "states' rights" stance.

Ransolm Casterfo: The snazzily dressed young Centrist and collector of Imperial artifacts strikes up a rivalry - and then friendship - with mature Populist Leia. While they never cross into "affair" territory, certain scenes had "Mrs. Robinson" playing in my head - especially their late-night video chat when Leia's in her housecoat and Ransolm's in his sweaty gym clothes. Hot damn. But seriously, although Ransolm was apparently cut from The Force Awakens, Gray has made him a breakout character here.

Here's to you, Senator Organa.

Lady Carise: Royalty-obsessed senator Lady Carise Sindian is gradually revealed to be the book's true villain, but even Leia doesn't know how far her scheming goes. A Centrist, Carise goads Ransolm into publicly revealing that Leia's father is Darth Vader (a fact not even Leia's son Ben knew), then has Ransolm disposed of. We learn that she is the senate contact for the First Order, the shadowy organization rising from the ashes of the Empire.

Will we eventually see Carise in the movies? Ben/Kylo Ren working alongside her biggest political enemy would definitely be another twist of the knife for Leia.

Korrie: Did you care about Korr Sella, the politician we saw two seconds of in The Force Awakens right when General Hux of the First Order blows up Hosnian Prime? Well, now you've gotten to know her as an optimistic teen intern. And she's dead. :(

Everyone is dead: And guess who else is dead by The Force Awakens? Pretty much everyone new you met in this book! The only pilots we see in both Bloodline and The Force Awakens are old-timer Nien Nunb and newbie "Snap" Wexley, so it seems safe to say that terminally ill Greer and wet-behind-the-ears Joph are both dead following some sort of The Fault in Our Star Wars romance. 

Unless scapegoated senator Ransolm escaped the death penalty he himself signed into law, he's dead too. Also gone with Hosnian Prime: all of Leia's politician friends and the statue of Bail Organa she was so proud of.

Dammit, Hux!


Bloodline, which is set 6-7 years before The Force Awakens, really shook up the timeline fans had generally assumed from the small hints the movie gave us. Here are the biggest revelations.

The marriage: Han and Leia are living apart, but still married and in love in Bloodline. So when they reunite in The Force Awakens, they haven't actually been separated for too long. Leia stating in the film that she lost both Han and Ben when she sent Ben away had audiences thinking their relationship had gone south much earlier.

Nobody likes you when you're 23: Most surprising to me was that at around age 23, Ben Solo is still Ben Solo - not Kylo Ren. We know Snoke has been "watching" Ben since birth, and most had assumed Ben had left his family for Snoke and led the second Jedi massacre in his teens. But no, in his early twenties, he's still safely with Uncle Luke - either because he actually came to like living with Luke, is waiting to betray Luke on Snoke's orders, or is under some sort of space conservatorship like a space Britney Spears.

Han and Leia asked me to babysit. Said they'd be back by 10.

What's in a name: That Ben has possibly been under Luke's guardianship from childhood (the script, novelization, and YA novelization of The Force Awakens all mention that the first time Han sees Ben grown up is on Starkiller) all the way to young adulthood got me thinking about his name. In the now-scrapped "Expanded Universe," Luke (and Mara Jade) had a son, Ben Skywalker, so it was surprising when that name was given in this new story to Han and Leia's son (who is basically Jacen Solo from the EU). Maybe the name Ben reflects that Luke has raised him?

Sorry, Crylo: Because really, Han and Leia have pretty much moved on from Ben by Bloodline. It's unclear when exactly things went wrong (we learn that Ben was once a happy, normal child with friends), but at some point Leia and Han decided that they "couldn't" parent Ben, sent him to Luke, and filled the hole by mentoring other kids (politics-minded youth for Leia, young pilots for Han). Communication with their son is sporadic, and they rarely discuss him even with each other. He's with Luke, and that's that.

If you see our son...ask him what his name is again.

The Jedi: There's zero mention of the Jedi Order we learned Luke created and Kylo Ren destroyed in The Force Awakens. We know Luke and Ben are traveling during Bloodline, but they seem to be on their own. Has Luke not started his new Jedi academy yet?

New possible order of events: Ben learns from the damn news that his grandpa was Darth Vader, freaks out because he links his parents' fear of his powers and sending him away with his heritage (he's not wrong), runs away from Luke to Snoke, becomes Kylo Ren, and returns briefly to destroy Luke's new Jedi school. And meanwhile, Rey...

Rey: We get nada on Rey, which actually tells us a lot about Rey. This book throws a huge wrench in the "Rey is Luke's daughter" idea. Pablo Hidalgo has confirmed on twitter that Rey has been on Jakku for awhile during Bloodline, so she wasn't brought there in the aftermath of the Jedi massacre and wasn't even ever at Luke's Jedi academy. Unless Rey is a daughter Luke doesn't know about, she's someone else's kid.

Although we now know (I think?) nothing like this speculated scene by Jenny Dolfen ever happened, it's still frickin' gorgeous.

TFW your parents don't want you and you learn your grandpa was evil from
space twitter but then Andy Serkis gives you your dead grandpa's head and
puts you in mangement. 

So, those are my thoughts and speculations. We only have to wait until December 2017 to maybe find out the answers to our questions! >:(

My childhood music box with two childhood treasures it stores
Not pictured: plastic horse with missing tail, Ben

Image info:
Note: promotional material
Leia: Wookieepedia
Korrie: Wookieepedia
Luke: Geek
Leia and Han: Disneyexaminer
Knights of Ren: ScreenRant
Leia and Han on lovely fairy music box: my own pic

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Charlotte Salomon: Life? or Theater?

Exhibition banner outside Musee Massena

I recently got back from a vacation, part of which was in Nice, France. One of my "must-do" items for the town was seeing the Musee Massena, a historic villa which is now a museum of Nice history, centering on the belle epoque. Artifacts include a crown of Empress Josephine. It's all very decadent.

The portrait gallery.

The museum also hosts rotating exhibits on the top floor. When my sister and I visited, the exhibit happened to be on Charlotte Salomon, an artist I'd never heard of before. Born in Berlin in 1917, the young painter was sent in 1938 by her father and stepmother to live with grandparents in the South of France, where they hoped she would be safe from the Nazis. While there, Salomon struggled with depression and its legacy in her family: her mother, grandmother, and other relatives had committed suicide. To survive, she decided to throw herself into an epic project: Leben? oder Theater?: Ein Singspiel (Life? or Theater?: A Song-Play), a collection of hundreds of paintings that form a narrative about depression, her family, art, her first love, and the specter of the Third Reich.

Suddenly, the riches in the rooms below lost their luster.

On display at Musee Massena

Salomon gave Leber? oder Theater? to a friend for safekeeping before being deported with her husband, Alexander Nagler, to Auschwitz, where she was killed. She was 26 years old and five months pregnant.

Her story is a gut-punch, especially when paired with her work. In her gouache paintings, one feels her joy for and dedication to art, her thrill of young love, her fear and resilience in the face of terrible odds.

My favorite from the show - Salomon practices her art

Salomon uses an alter ego, "Charlotte Kann," to tell her life story. The pieces displayed at the Musee Massena chronicle her early childhood; her grandmother's depression and suicide; her opera singer stepmother (Paula Salomon-Lindberg, called Paulinka in Leben? oder Theater?); her love affair with and artistic mentoring by her stepmother's vocal coach, Alfred Wolfsohn (called Amadeus Daberlohn); and her exile to France.

The show is full of striking images: a soul ascending to heaven and then descending to Earth for a visit, an open window after a suicide, Salomon diligently painting while surrounded by the bright objects of her study, lovers parting on a darkened street, and Nazis on parade - a vision sickeningly familiar to us by way of history books, but contemporary to her. Salomon's art has boldness and urgency.

What also struck me about the work was its format. With its mishmash of standalone paintings, pages with panels, and text, Leben? oder Theater? could certainly be called a graphic memoir, decades before Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, or even Harvey Pekar's American Splendor.

One of the pages on display at Musee Massena

Part of travel is the unpredictability of what you'll learn, and I'm grateful to have learned about Salomon.

Charlotte Salomon: Vie? ou Theatre? is at the Musee Massena until May 24, and Leben? oder Theater?'s permanent home is the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, which has made the entire work available online.

Three pages at Musee Massena

Image info:
Exterior of Musee Massena: my photo
Interior of Musee Massena: my photo
Painting of Nazis: my photo of the Massena exhibit
Painting of Salomon painting: WikiMedia Commons
Painting with panels: Jewish Historical Museum, image 4235
Series of three paintings: my photo of the Massena exhibit