Review | The Queens of Animation, Nathalia Holt

QueensOfAnimationThe Queens of Animation is the fascinating history of women animators and storytellers who worked at Disney at a time when most women were relegated to inking and colouring men’s work. Nathalia Holt has a vibrant and engaging narrative style, which delves right into the minds and hearts of the women she writes about, and makes their experiences come to life.

As a lifelong Disney fan, it was troubling to see how sexist Walt Disney and his company were. Holt shares the story of Brenda, a talented artist and animator who went to school with Walt, and whose soft-spoken demeanour made it especially challenging to survive as the sole woman in a story department filled with loud and sometimes obnoxious men. For example, story development meetings were designed for extroverted staff members, where ideas are shared and everyone shouts down everyone else to give their unfiltered opinions on the idea.

Once, during a particularly intense meeting where co-workers critiqued Brenda’s idea, she ran to her office to escape — and instead of giving her the space she clearly needed, her male co-workers, including Walt, actually ran after her to demand she return to the meeting. It’s a horrifying experience, and it’s a sign of Brenda’s strength that she made it all the way to her office before breaking down. Worse, Walt is then quoted as saying that this display of emotion (read: weakness) was a prime example of why he didn’t like hiring women. Not because his other staff were unable to adjust their approach to Brenda’s gentler personality, but because Brenda (and presumably other women) ‘couldn’t handle it.’ Even worse, years later for reasons that I don’t think we ever learn, Brenda comes back from a holiday to find someone else in her office, and that’s how she learns she’s been fired. As Holt points out, her old schoolmate Walt didn’t even have the decency to fire her to her face.

Even more extroverted women found the work environment challenging. One, who was young, often had to fend off unwanted advances from co-workers, and coped by sketching herself running away from an oversized, leering Mickey Mouse. When the second woman (after Brenda) was hired to join the story department, the guard refused to let her in, and even after she entered, her co-workers refused to sit with her. When she looked for Brenda, hoping to find a friend in the only other woman in the department, Brenda was nowhere in sight — because she’d come to hate story meetings and did her best to avoid them. And later, even as more and more women came to work in Disney animation, their efforts were often unacknowledged, so that each new generation of women came to think they were among the first.

Holt also shares the story of Mary, a talented artist known for her watercolour style work. She managed to get a job at Disney because her husband worked there, but her talent made her a favourite of Walt’s, which then led to jealousy and resentment from her co-workers, including her husband. At one point, Walt personally invites her to a highly coveted work trip, and her husband practically throws a tantrum because his wife got to go and he didn’t. Mary’s one of the few women in this book where we get a much deeper sense of her life beyond her work at Disney, and Holt paints us a heartbreaking portrait of Mary’s unhappy marriage.

I love how Holt highlights how important female friendships were for the women who worked at Disney, and how challenging it was sometimes when broader issues challenged those friendships. One example is the animators’ strike in the mid-20th century, where a pair of animators who were close friends found themselves on opposite sides on the strike. They also happened to be roommates, and so went in to work together every morning, with one of them joining the picket line and the other crossing it. Holt does a good job in showing how even those who didn’t strike were likely aware of the injustices the strikers were fighting against, but they were too scared of losing their jobs to join the picket line.

It’s a troubling, at times rage-inducing, history, and I’m just happy that this book finally turns a well-deserved spotlight on these women’s work. Thankfully, the book ends on a happy note, with the story of Frozen, which was the first Disney animated feature film written, directed and led by women. I loved reading about the sister summit that the film’s team organized, where women throughout the company came together to share stories about sisterhood and their loving-and-complicated relationships with their sisters. I remember watching Frozen with my sister, and how much we both related to Elsa and Anna’s relationship. Thanks to this book, I know now that that’s largely because of the women of Disney sharing their own experiences of sisterhood, and more importantly, because of the team of Frozen listening to these experiences, and bringing them to life in Elsa and Anna.

There’s likely a long way to go for Disney — and to be fair, lots of other companies — to be truly inclusive for women. Hopefully, books like this help begin to bridge that divide, and raise awareness of how much women have been doing for years, and how much their accomplishments have been minimized in favour of their male colleagues.

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Thank you to the publisher for an e-galley in exchange for an honest review.

Favourite Books of 2019

 

2019 was a good year for books. Long-time faves Andrew Pyper and Sandhya Menon hit it out of the park again with their releases this year. I finally got around to trying N.K. Jemisin, and was completely blown away by The Broken Earth trilogy. And a couple of books I got as gifts last Christmas (Bibliophile and Brother) were so good they made it on my Best-Of list all the way back in January.

So, in the order I read them, the books that I absolutely loved this year are as follows:

1. Bibiliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany by Jane Mount

A beautiful, illustrated love letter to books and the people who love reading. There are lists and illustrations of beloved novels, and through it all is just an underlying sense of a shared love for reading and for the sheer loveliness of books.

2. Brother by David Chariandy

Such a beautiful, heartwarming and heartbreaking book, about a pair of brothers from a Trinidadian immigrant family in Scarborough. I absolutely loved the relationship between Francis and Michael, and it was heartbreaking to see the harsh realities they had to deal with.

3. The Homecoming by Andrew Pyper

I came for an Agatha Christie-style mystery about an estranged family dealing with the family patriarch’s will, I stayed for the truly creepy, messed up twists that Andrew Pyper is known for. I love that the story turns out to be more science fiction than supernatural. And I especially love that at the heart of all its truly scary plot threads is a drama about family, and our very human need to love and be loved.

4. The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth Trilogy # 1) by N.K. Jemisin

N.K. Jemisin has created such a rich, layered, complex world that I don’t even know how to begin talking about this trilogy. On the surface, there are beings made of rocks and humans with the power to manipulate the earth, and the trilogy is about one woman’s quest to find her daughter.

But beyond that, there’s also so much about family, friendship and survival, and the very contemporary reality that we humans are really messing this planet up and now have to contend with the consequences. The Fifth Season was my personal favourite of the trilogy, I think because the world was still so new to me, and every page was a discovery, but throughout all three books, N.K. Jemisin blew my mind over and over again.

I came into this trilogy completely cold, and I recommend doing the same. It can feel confusing at times, but it’s so worth sticking with it. Trust the author to bring it all together in a way that’s messy and raw and so incredibly good.

5. Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

N.K. Jemisin is a tough act to follow, but when the library only has so many copies of her Broken Earth trilogy and you’re super impatient for a fantasy fix, the good news is, you discover authors like Guy Gavriel Kay.

Tigana is about a land so oppressed that even their name is erased from public knowledge. Former residents are the only ones who can say the name, but outsiders are unable to understand it when they do. Cultural erasure is a violent act, and I love that Kay drills it down all the way into the level of generational memory.

6. There’s Something About Sweetie by Sandhya Menon

Sweetie is the YA romance I wish I could have read when I was younger. Menon finds the perfect (to me) balance with her plus-size heroine, where Sweetie is kick-ass and confident in her body but still has to contend with fatphobia from others, including her own mother. Her romance with Ashish is just adorable, and I loved seeing them fall in love with each other.

7. How to Hack a Heartbreak by Kristin Rockaway

A fun, feel-good, kick-ass, girl power romantic comedy. I thought Mel’s romance with Alex was sweet, but more importantly, I absolutely loved how Mel’s women friends all banded together to help her get the app she developed off the ground. It’s pure hell to the yeah girl power energy, Sex and the City for the #MeToo era. It’s a great read for women in tech and women longing for change in the online dating world, and just overall a fun read.

8. The Farm by Joanne Ramos

I thought this was going to be another Handmaid’s Tale-type dystopia, but it’s really more a character study than anything. Unlike many dystopias that have a direct call to action, The Farm invites us to linger with these characters and immerse ourselves in their experiences.

I love that the main character Jane is a Filipina immigrant to America, and a single mother. This leads to her joining what is basically a baby-making farm for rich white people to make a better, more financially stable future for her daughter. The novel explores realities like how white surrogates are perceived to have more value than brown or Black ones and how even among surrogates there are inequalities of privilege. I also love that the villain, the farm’s Chinese-American director Mae, is also constrianed by racism and sexism in her climbing of the corporate ladder.

9. What a Woman Needs by Caroline Linden

The chemistry between the leads is fantastic. I love their constant battle of wills before they get to know each other better. The mystery subplot is a bit less fleshed out, but Charlotte and Stuart are incredible together, and I love how their relationship progressed.

10. SLAY by Brittney Morris

So powerful, about a Black teen who develops an online game that celebrates Black culture and becomes a safe space for Black gamers around the world. I love Kiera and Cicada. I love that the Black culture references within Slay are international and not just American (e.g. Fufu – look it up). I love that the game is played by such a broad diversity of people from around the world (e.g. Cicada is French).

This book was incredibly powerful to me, an adult Asian-Canadian woman. I can only imagine how much more this book will resonate with Black readers, and especially teen girls who can see themselves in Kiera’s shoes.

11. Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space by Amanda Leduc

I’m not disabled, but I’ve always been a chubby kid and am now a plus-size woman, and I related SO HARD to Leduc’s thesis that fairy tales allow only certain types of bodies to be granted happy endings. Leduc also raises many good points on the trope of transformation in fairy tales and superhero stories, and the message therein that you must “overcome” your less-than-“perfect” body to get your happily ever after. There’s a lot of emphasis on “overcoming” your own obstacle, and considerably less emphasis on the role that a supportive community can play in making your world better overall.

I read the e-galley, and wished so hard that I could mark the e-galley up, because there were so many brilliant passages throughout. I can only imagine the impact this book could have on disabled readers who’ve grown up with the same fairy tales. It’s out in February 2020.

12. The Awakening of Miss Henley by Julia Justiss

I love the way Emma and Theo’s relationship developed, and the witty dialogue reminded me a lot of Jane Austen’s writing.

13. Pride, Prejudice and other Flavors by Sonali Dev

I love the Raje family and the relationships amongst the “Animal Farm” cousins, I love the complex emotional stuff Sonali Dev brought into the characters’ back stories, and I love how real both Trisha and DJ are. I also love the descriptions of Trisha’s reactions to DJ’s cooking — *I* want to taste his cooking now!

Review | Out of the Blue, Jan Wong

13276594._SY475_Out of the Blue is a powerful and moving memoir of workplace depression. More importantly, it’s also a deeply troubling glimpse into the cold, sometimes ineffective support from corporate Employee Assistance Programs (EAP).

Jan Wong shares her experiences as a journalist with the Globe and Mail. She enjoyed covering hard-hitting stories and was used to engaging with controversial issues, so when an article she wrote on a school shooting in Montreal met with major public backlash, she had no idea things would get as bad as they did. First, and rather graciously in my mind, she prefaces her account by admitting that she writes about her experiences with supervisors and colleagues through the filter of having been battling major depression at the time, and that some of the things people said to her back then ended up seeming not as harsh when she looked back at it years later.

Then she tells us, with heartbreaking candour, about how isolated she felt when she read the Globe and Mail’s fairly politic (read: lukewarm) response to the backlash against her. When she receives a death threat and experiences massive anxiety over it, they do offer her some time off, but the rest of her story shows the unfortunate perception in many work places that a mental health experience is a single episode that can be ‘solved’ with a mini-break.

Jan had the nominal support from her EAP (provided by Manulife), but as her time away from work continues to lengthen and with there being no defined end date in sight, the system slowly begins to withdraw its support. Suddenly, along with dealing with depression and anxiety, Jan also had to constantly ask her doctor to provide her with documentation of her condition and also to take test after psychological test to prove that she had a legitimate medical requirement for the paid time off. Not only was she dealing with the stress over the death threats and the isolation from her peers, but she also had to deal with the stress over all the paperwork she had to complete in order to continue receiving EAP support. She writes about how her EAP case worker flat-out told her she wasn’t depressed, and how she had to seek reassurance from her doctor that she still was, indeed, depressed. (As context, the psychological test her EAP had her take later confirmed that she was indeed depressed, and that the EAP case worker was dispensing a medical diagnosis that frankly had no basis in fact.)

This book made me angry, and it also flat-out broke my heart. It’s easy to lay the blame solely at the Globe and Mail or on Manulife, for how they responded to Jan’s mental health crisis, but even more troubling is that this is possibly the situation in many other companies and many other EAP programs across Canada. And given how many people are precariously employed, it’s especially troubling to imagine all those who are working but don’t receive benefits, and don’t even have the limited access to resources that Jan managed to receive.

Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking moments is when Jan realizes she actually wants the doctors to conclude that she has depression. Because otherwise, that would mean that there isn’t a quantifiable / manageable reason for the struggles she was going through. And because otherwise, the EAP case worker and other people who have subtly hinted that they thought she was faking would be proven right.

Equally heartbreaking is when the doctor recommends Jan goes on a trip to improve her mental health. The trip gives Jan some much needed distance from home and from her workplace, and does actually succeed in making her feel good. Until it is used against her at work, with the rather uninformed logic that if she was well enough to go on a holiday, she should clearly be well enough to get back to work. It hurts to see something that could cause such happiness and provide such relief from the symptoms of depression used as a weapon, and I felt for her so much when I read about that.

This book also raises awareness about how depression can be very situational. Many of us are aware of post-partum depression, and also of depression that comes and goes with no defined reason, and I think it’s important to also be aware of the experience Jan had with depression, where it was very much triggered by a specific incident, and very much exacerbated by a particular work environment. The book does end on a happy, hopeful note, as Jan does eventually escape from the situation that kept her under such stress for such a long time.

Overall, Out of the Blue is not an easy read, but it is a powerful one. And it raises a lot of questions about how companies can better support employees dealing with mental health situations.

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Thank you to Gooselane for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.