skip to content or skip to search form

Author:

January Reading List

Edit because I just finished the last book on the list and it’s not yet February.

Mostly for my own use, though I’m happy to use comments to discuss anything on the list (or related recommendations), here are the books I remember reading this month. The theory is that this will become some sort of monthly ritual, but it’s easy to say that the first time around. I may give vague impressions of what I’ve read, but not necessarily. It’s really just so I have an archive and can feel like I’ve accomplished something, although it’s really nothing special, especially this time around.

The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis
Here Susan gets to show her prowess with her bow as well as her strength as a swimmer and everyone but Lucy has trouble seeing Aslan because they haven’t kept him at the front of their minds. Can you tell I’m still a bit bothered by how things turn out for Susan at the end of the series?

The Voyage of The Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
Still and always my favorite of the lot. When I was in high school I had a bracelet I wore on my upper arm, high enough that it wasn’t below the sleeve of my uniform blouse, to remind me not to be beastly like Eustace. I’m not sure it worked.

The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis
My favorite part is still the point near the end when the children and Prince Rilian and Puddleglum emerge into Narnia. While this might be one of the easiest to make into a movie since it’s basically a quest story, though the twists and turns will probably be tweaked and tightened, I’m not sure how successful the group that did the first movie would be at getting the wonder of fleeing from a destroyed world into Narnia and the way that twins and twists Jill and Eustace’s original descent into Narnia.

The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis
I still have a soft spot for Aravis, although I don’t generally like stories about spoiled girls. I was never as keen on the horse’s boy, although the horses were and are a lot of fun. I know there are a lot of complaints that Lewis is racist because he made the Calormenes Arabesque (and I mean that in an overstated, loopy way) and then showed a lot of bad ones, but I’m not totally sold on this. Am I being a hypocrite and patronizing if I say that I think he was just too sheltered to be more sophisticated about the way children talk and act or the way cultures work? I do really think he was going for a cultural distinction; in creating a land bereft of Narnia’s natural bounty, he ended up with a desert place without magic or magical creatures. I’m inclined to believe that the desert came first and the characterization of the Calormenes after because he imagined desert-dwellers to be like the Arabs he’d only read about in mistranslations of the Arabian Nights. Since we learn later that honest worship of the Calormene god Tash doesn’t keep believers out of Narnian heaven, I don’t think there’s any sort of Christian/Muslim dichotomy being set up here. Since Aravis is fully accepted in non-Calormene society not only as a full person but (eventually) royalty, it seems to me that what’s going on is an explanation that true nobility has to do more with goodness and right judgment than birth or breeding. But there’s also the Mary Sue aspect of all this world-building, because Narnia is really just totally awesome and other places, well, aren’t. And if Lewis seems to relish it a bit, again I chalk it up to his misplaced nuance or to having too small a (rigid) view of the world. Of course I also don’t think it’s a bad idea for people who are bothered by the way race and gender are handled in the Narnia books to give up on them or object; I just happen to keep reading and let things nag at me here. Elsewhere I’m not so forgiving.

The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis
Maybe the weirdest and scariest Narnia book, but the idea of the world between worlds is a great one.

The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis
Still sort of creepy, in part because everything happens so fast and remains so murky. It’s much easier to read as an adult than as a child, where I found it unsettling and puzzling. I’d rather it have been the story of the Calormene Emeth, who is faithful to his own god and therefore allowed to enter the afterlife-Narnia, because most of the other characters seem to be there mostly to tie up loose ends.

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin
Steven decided to get this after reading Pam Noles’s recent essay on race and the book at The Infinite Matrix. I wasn’t surprised by the resolution of the plot, but found it a pleasant, engaging story throughout, which sounds more patronizing than what I really want to say.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin
Much more to my liking, perhaps a sign that I’d overdone it on the young adult fantasy this month. I may try to write more on this later, about how much I enjoyed the way perceived gender issues played out and the way certain stereotypes persist into this future. I assumed at first that the narrator was a woman, which may be relevant. It was beautifully written story carried by strong voices, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Tombs of Atuan, Ursula K. Le Guin
Maybe I do have more sympathy than I’d expect for spoiled heroines, because Tehar/Arha was captivating both in her self-absorption and her gradual opening as her world widens. This is my favorite of the Earthsea books I’ve read so far, perhaps because it has the most prominent female character, but I think also because it stays in one place for much longer and while the world-building is excellent throughout, I enjoyed the depth I got to see in the small desert shrine.

The Farthest Shore, Ursula K. Le Guin
The last of her books we have. I liked both the quest aspect and the underlying story about losing and regaining humanity.

Odd Girl Out, Ann Bannon
Okay, rounding out the YA fantasy a bit is some lesbian pulp from the 50s! This one is left over from a class Steven took a few years ago, but I’d already read the sequel, I Am a Woman, from a legitimate pulp copy I’d found last fall. One of the most interesting unimportant details in this tale of sorority love was the revelation that the main character, Laura, does what we’d now call self-injury, pinching her arm until it bruises when she’s uncomfortable or needs to calm herself. The sex is, by my modern standards, not the least bit lurid and almost entirely elided, but the characters are strong and clear. I’m going to try to read the rest of the books featuring Beebo Brinker (and this wasn’t once since Laura doesn’t meet her until after she moves to New York at the end of the book) because they’re so fascinating as quasi-historical documents and as stories themselves. Last night’s trip to the county library let me find out that they don’t have any Bannon, but I haven’t yet looked at Cincinnati’s holdings. There’s still one more on the bedroom shelves that I can read before I have to start looking outside.

The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood
This one decidedly did not work for me. It tells the story of Odysseus’s famed wife Penelope from her perspective, backed by a chorus comprised of the maids who are hanged at the end of The Odyssey for having consorted with Penelope’s suitors. I’m a big fan of myth/fairy tale retellings, but I didn’t like the particular way Penelope’s voice was pulled out of time here to allow her to address and assess modernity and various readings of her story, although I like the idea. It was like some failed writing exercise, and the maids were much worse. Being a chorus meant having to put up with Dr. Seuss-level rhymes, blunt and dull, that I’d hate to hear put to music. Maybe it’s because I expected it to sound a bit more Greek or thought that Penelope at least would not believe in Homer, which is to say that perhaps I wanted it to be what I would make it if I wrote such a thing, but I found the whole thing (with the exception of a few sentences, one of them right out of The Odyssey) more frustrating and vapidly annoying than inspiring or entertaining.

Embarrassing content added here:
Eleven on Top, Janet Evanovich
I read the Stephanie Plum series because my parents do and my partner at work does, so it allows me to take part in conversations about how trashy the books are and how there are sometimes funny lines. That’s all true, but getting through this one took effort without much payoff and I think it will be the end of the line for me. At least I have plenty of informants who will let me know if the quality picks up in later books. At this point, there’s enough exposition that I won’t be missing much even if I do skip a few installments; I’m still not totally sure I read the tenth book or whether maybe I just read the dust jacket, but it’s not the kind of story where that makes a lot of difference, and that’s just the kind of story people who want to read it will want.

“Every woman loves a fascist”

As soon as I’d finished All-Star Superman #2, “Superman’s Forbidden Room,” I had pretty much the same eh, fine I guess reaction I’d had to the first issue. Yet the more I thought about it, the more intrigued I became.

First of all, when people were talking about this as a return to the Silver Age for Superman (a character I’ve never really felt compelled to follow anyway) I hadn’t really thought about how this meant that the “Superman is a dick” factor would be at the forefront. But wow, what an awful hero he is! It’s really kind of fun to watch him shrug off Lois’s complaint that it’s unfair that he lied to her for years and years because he’s too busy trying to micromanage her birthday dinner on his personal recreation (by which I’m not sure I mean “replica” or actual “whole object remade from the broken parts”) of The Titanic. I mean, even when she’s apparently crazy, she’s more reasonable than he is anywhere in the story.

Then there’s the Bluebeard aspect, both in Superman’s secret room and his magical key that only he can use. It makes me more sure that the first issue was an Icarus allusion, since in both cases flying into the sun can kill you but also lets you star in your own story as the guy who tried. I was going to say jokingly that issue 3 is going to feature Superman realizing that he has brothers but they’ve been turned into swans, except that this might not end up being far from the truth. After all, he’s pressuring Lois to slip into a supersuit and I can’t imagine that story’s going to end well! I sort of hope it doesn’t. I like how the cheery covers here are cloaking something darker. I said to Steven that I was going to laugh and laugh if Superman ended up dying, which is probably a lie, at least a little. I wouldn’t mind a Death of Superman done well, but DC has made a world (our world, I mean) where the Death of Superman is necessarily something ludicrous.

It sounds awful to say that I’m enjoying the story because Superman is, if not quite abusive, at least a real creep. It’s not that I want to see the mighty fall or insist on the infamous darkening of superhero universes, but it’s nice to see that as a man he’s not all that super at all. He’s got a world of fa├žades — a giant, empty mecha suit and his recreation of the space shuttle Columbia — to complement an emotional world in which he can’t love the woman he loves enough to let her know who he is. His fortress is staffed by robot simulacra of himself, it features a portal where he can converse with Supermen of the future, but how is Lois ever supposed to find a home here? She does realize that the problem is not just that she’ll someday be saggy and worn but that Superman has lied to her and deliberately undermined her self-image by taking joy in keeping this star reporter from ever proving her suspicions about his secret identity. But, he says, “Aren’t you happy your suspicions were right all along?” Aren’t you glad at least that you’ve still got your womanly intuition, Lois, not to mention your looks??

What she doesn’t know, or doesn’t know for sure, is that he’s still lying to her, not just by refusing to tell her he’s dying but by actively telling her that nothing’s wrong when she asks about repercussions from his jaunt into the sun. Oh, sure, he’s got the excuse of not wanting to spoil her birthday, but conveniently that means he doesn’t have to spoil his own control of every situation. I’m looking forward to finding out down the line whether there really was a mysterious gas making Lois overly suspicious or whether that’s just another in this string of convenient lies. Either way, it’s one of those “just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean no one’s following you” situations, and I can’t wait to see whether Lois is more perceptive than she realizes or whether she, like her man, will be willing to accept a life of lies because of the way it easily makes sense of a messy universe. At least we as readers get plenty of glimpses of the mess underneath, and that’s going to keep me coming back. That and a bastardy yet tragic dying Superman!

Now a Tamed Lion

Since I did a health update last time, I’ll add now that apparently the reason I’ve felt yucky the whole last month is pneumonia, but I’m on a new antibiotic that seems to be turning things around. Still, expect a certain amount of radio silence.

We did go see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe a week or two ago. Steven had read the books in middle school or so, but I got to them much earlier, which I think is why they stuck so deep in me. In kindergarten, I could recite full pages from C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because I spent so much time poring over it and making sure my pictures of Mr. Tumnus and Lucy matched the descriptions. I’ve probably read it and my very favorite, The Voyage of The Dawn Treader 50+ times, if not far more than that. But I hadn’t read them recently, not since middle school or so for me, when I moved from believing that even if I Jesus made no sense to me I could understand the power of Aslan to deciding that it was all just stories and I was ready to read something new. After the movie, though, I decided to give them another shot. I was reading a book a night last week (in publication chronology) but I seem to have tapered off after The Silver Chair, since I know in my old opinion it was all downhill from there, especially into The Last Battle.

See, that’s where the gender problems get inescapable, or so it seemed to me. The Pevensie children are thrust into Narnia again because they’re dying on earth, but sister Susan is no longer with them. See, she’s now more interested in boys and stockings and lipstick than in the Narnian ideals of righteousness and stuff. (Here and throughout quotes are paraphrased, but correct to the best of my memory. Again, I plead sick and don’t want to have to flip through all those pages.) Apparently so much for “once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen in Narnia” when it comes to getting one last chance! I think it especially bothered me because in the setup to Dawn Treader it’s explained that Susan gets to accompany their parents to America because she’s pretty and not as smart as the other children and thus will gain more from the experience. See, that always bothered me. Shouldn’t Aslan grade on a curve if this is what we already know Susan’s like? That’s all the explanation there is, though, and that always nagged at me even though I wouldn’t say I’ve ever cared about lipstick or stockings or boys.

Nothing before that seemed too bad, though it was there. Father Christmas tells the girls in the first book that wars are ugly when women fight. Then there’s Eustace’s teetotaler, vegetarian parents in Dawn Treader, with his mother particularly singled out for being disappointed when he comes back from Narnia, where he’s had life-changing experiences, because now he’s just like an ordinary boy. In the ridiculous liberal parody school, Experiment House, that Jill and Eustace attend in The Silver Chair, the head of schools who allows bullying to go on in order to study bullies turns out in the last pages to be (gasp!) a woman, although she’s eventually shuffled off to Parliament where she won’t have any more negative effects on anyone. Maybe it’s because these books have been part of my life since before I could read that this comes across as more a cranky old uncle-figure complaining about kids (and schools) these days. I didn’t agree, but I found it easier to ignore those bits and focus on the parts I found less off-putting.

What I did find more off-putting was the way the movie dealt with such issues. This is very much Lucy’s story and there’s a reason, in Lewis’s rigid gender system, that this is a book dedicated to a young girl. It’s not really about the epic battle sequences, although I may just be saying this because they do nothing for me. More important are the personal transformations the children all go through in their adventure, and unfortunately if you’re going to have exciting times hiding from the wolves, you don’t have time for all that. It just seemed unbalanced to me, in a story about children thrown into a situation where they have to become adults, to depict this almost purely by how nobly they toss their heads when sparring or doing archery practice. And that’s not even mentioning the things the movie added. Now Mr. and Mrs. Beaver suddenly play out the smart mom/doofus dad dynamic common in bad sitcoms, and I don’t think talking animals had to be funny in quite the modern way they were. I don’t think the Susan/Peter dynamic was expressed well enough in the movie, either; they weren’t trying to be mom and dad, just to be leaders to the other children as best they could and with varying ideas about what would be best. Father Christmas’s line about why he doesn’t want Lucy and Susan to fight unless they absolutely must gets cleaned up, but then Peter forces Edmund to wear a woman’s coat, because nothing’s more humiliating than being like a girl! Ah, how times have changed in these 60 years!

This is all leaving aside the question of whether there’s a crypto-Christian story playing, which is certainly what Christian groups are being told. I’m not so sure. Yeah, Aslan sacrifices himself and then shows up again, but I think there’s more to Jesus than that. What we don’t hear until the very end of the movie is the refrain that runs through the book, Aslan is not a tame lion. The actors did their best to portray the awesomeness (in both the grand and terrifying sense) of the Great Lion, but the movie didn’t really bother with that. Weirder still is that only Aslan has to make meaningful sacrifices, and all his scarier moments are removed so that he can look better gilded. In one of my favorite scenes in the book, Lucy comes upon her dying brother Edmund as the battle is winding down and she gives him a drop of her healing fire flower potion. For a long, dreadful moment, nothing happens. Then Aslan tells her that she needs to move on to others, and she basically shushes him. He points out (loudly) that others may be dying because of her selfishness and at that she leaps up apologetically and heads out on her task. Edmund’s stern talking-to when he’s returned to Aslan’s camp is fiercer, too, as is the admonition that Peter needs to clean his sword. Maybe there are a lot of Christians who think that individuals don’t matter in the face of a god whose sacrifice has changed everything, but I’m pretty sure most of them go in for the “doing good works” side of things too. That’s the part, not the deeper magic from before the dawn of time, that seems compelling to me as a reader, though not as a viewer since it’s hardly anywhere to be seen.

I complained a little about the battle already and I’m sure in the post-Lord of the Rings era we’re going to get many such showdowns, but this one struck me as almost dull. Again, it’s partly because the girls are absent. In the book, it’s the battle that’s left in the background (a sign that Lewis/Aslan now trust Edmund and Peter to play their roles without oversight?) with the waking of the statues as the key plot point. I loved the scene with Giant Rumblebuffin (not in the least because it brings back Lucy’s handkerchief a third time) and the little Christmas diners and the moment when Lucy finds the stone Mr. Tumnus in a niche upstairs and the other lion who leaps around telling everyone about his brotherhood with Aslan, who speaks of “us lions.” This is drama! This is weeping giants and a reminder that a battle isn’t decided only by those on the front lines (again, I think, a nod toward the Christians). Instead what we got were vaguely realistic falling rocks and charging polar bears, which I’m sure thrilled and excited plenty of viewers but seemed to me to be missing something. As becomes clearer in later books, part of what makes Narnia special is the talking animals, the naiads and dryads and so on. Should the moment of Narnian glory really be represented as one long beastly roar? Sure, we need to see Edmund go for the Witch’s wand rather than her head, but I really don’t care about in what order the centaurs went forth, and the archers and so on.

Then there was the Witch herself, who seemed to me pure sex almost to the point of overkill. She seemed scary because she was so weird, not because she was cold and dangerous. Sure, she would have killed Edmund, but even the moment she slaughters Aslan didn’t seem as intense and final as I thought it should have been. There wasn’t really the primal darkness I wanted to see, just the sense that she had an army of clones without personalities behind her willing to heed her every command. Maybe that’s a place where no movie could touch imagination, but it seemed the onset of spring melted her too instead of leaving her flushed with fury and desperate power.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the movie. I thought it was a lot of fun, and the 6 or so children sitting behind us (much quieter than their parents) seemed to enjoy it too. I told Steven just before the movie started, “Knit bloggers are trying to figure out how to make Lucy’s sweater, but I don’t think I’ll want to do that.” I was so, so wrong.

New Manga Thursday

It’s been almost two hours since I took my antibiotic, which means in another hour or so when I’m ready to lie down the horrible taste will start. It’s a side effect 7% of patients get, an awful metallic, chemical taste in my mouth that makes my mouth wet and itchy. I wake up at night (this is only day 3 of a 14-day regimen, after 3 weeks of awful sinus infection or something) and the taste keeps me from falling back asleep. I mention this not because I’m begging for sympathy. This is a small inconvenience, though a consuming one for me, and I’ll be done with it at the end of the two weeks. Instead it’s that I’m thinking about the indescribable, that I’m basically necessarily obsessed with this horrible taste I can’t describe or overpower with my mind. I just finished reading today’s manga haul, Death Note and Dragon Head and both of them deal with situations that are trying to humanize suffering in a way that’s easily readable.

Dragon Head, by Minetaro Mochizuki, was recommended indirectly by Bryan Lee O’Malley in the lovely interview> conducted by David Welsh last week, which I very much appreciate as I would have assumed it was not my thing otherwise. In this first volume of Dragon Head, a boy wakes up on the train bringing him home from his class trip only to realize that an apparent earthquake (it’s too early in the story for me to accept much outside as certain) has forced the tunnel to collapse and destroyed the train. He is the only survivor in his class, though he eventually finds another boy and a girl who have also managed to stay alive. What impressed me tonight was the way it portrayed trauma without unnecessary exposition, so while no panel is complete without shattered glass and blood, the survivors don’t talk much about what’s happened to them. When Seto awakes after being unconscious for several days, her first thought is that she needs to find a tampon, to deal with the blood flow that doesn’t threaten her life. (My immediate thought was yargh, toxic shock syndrome!, but perhaps she started her period while unconscious and hadn’t been wearing a tampon the whole time. Is this why manga’s considered comics for girls?)

None of the three can talk about the accident in terms that affect them, only explanations of what was heard on the radio. Or maybe they can talk, but not to each other. Lead character Teru has flashbacks or maybe just flights of imagination to life with his family, and after at first remembering nothing later claims he saw something just before the train entered the tunnel. Yet no one mentions what hurts, despite their many visible cuts and Seto’s sliced up knees. The third companion, volatile bullying victim Nobuo, at one point returns to them drenched in blood and what could anyone say? This is a wonderful representation of the unspeakable because it is so spare, so full of emptiness and shock. The students scream in their sleep, but all they can do for one another is acknowledge those screams without asking the reason. They understand their predicament, but can’t express how it feels to them not only because they’re with strangers but because they don’t have words for the feeling that there might be nothing out there for them but death or to dare express the pain they feel when thinking of all that might be lost to them forever.

Death, unsurprisingly, figures heavily in Death Note, too. Written by Tsugumi Ohba and drawn by Takeshi Obata, this is the story of teen genius Light, who finds a notebook dropped by a death god. By this third volume, he’s learned many of the rules of how to use this notebook to bring about the deaths of anyone whose name and face he knows, although he restricts himself largely to criminals in an attempt to form a better world. Now, though, he’s finally literally met his match, the young strategist who goes by the name L, as both become friends of a sort when starting college. Light knows L suspects him of being Kira (”Killer”), as this mysterious criminal-killer is known, and L has to be open about his suspicions in hopes of trapping Light into confessing. I’ve gotten to see death gods less motivated than Light’s now-constant companion who sit around playing cards and gossiping, paying no attention to the human deaths they inevitably bring to pass. What’s interesting is the extent to which Light (and, to some degree, L) have become equally callous, though still canny and alert. Death is little more than a line in a notebook to Light — at least if it stays far enough away from him! — and more compelling are the ways he uses deaths to get to L, whom he hopes to kill eventually, I suppose to preserve his freedom.

Here, too, the elisions are noteworthy not because they denote trauma so deep and intense that it can’t be expressed but instead its opposite, a world in which the only pain that matters is one’s own and even that can be worthwhile if it brings about a success in the power struggle between Light as Kira and L and the other members of the task force (including Light’s father) who hope to catch him. Finally in this volume we get to see something nagging at Light, when his own father has a heart attack that those outside (and Light in his public persona, convincing L of his innocence) think may have been the work of Kira. It’s not yet a vile taste in his mouth that he can’t shake, but suddenly death is something more than words on paper, more than cosmic justice. This is a manga I’d first picked up only in the last month or so, and I’m glad there was another volume available for me so soon, although now I’ll have to wait like everyone who got on at the beginning. I’m really looking forward to this entrance of ambiguity, if that’s what’s really happening. Is Light becoming a death god who can casually eat apples while thinking about the death he causes? There’s such a difference between this and the numbness of Dragon Head’s characters, and yet I wonder if they do come from the same instinctive recoil from the thought of death.

And here I am, not deathly ill, and thinking in meta terms not about death in my life or for me, but how it affects the paper people whose lives I follow while I’m in the bathtub. Is that proof of more of this trend? I can think about nausea and this taste that creeps up on me, but when they’re not there and I’m not hurting otherwise, my mortality doesn’t hang so heavily in every muscle. But this sounds so melodramatic, when my point is that neither manga is that. Instead they’re compelling looks at, well, looking at and looking away from the big human questions, but more than that too. They’re stories about young people figuring things out slowly and thinking they understand more than they do. Maybe there, too, I’d like to think this is something that interests me at their level because I’m not doing it enough myself.

beauty and faithfulness

Ooh, it’s another quick note on translation and comics! There’s a great preview of Hope Larson’s upcoming graphic novel Gray Horses at the Oni website, if you’re willing to click the images to get a good look. Young, French Noémie arrives in the pseudo-Chicago Onion City (with an appropriately Rutabaga Stories name, even) and considers her new environment as she moves through it.

Her thoughts are presented in French with an English translation, not something I think I’ve seen represented like this before. I love the organic flow of the words, more frames than subtitles as they snake in pairs around the images. I’m interested to see how this works through the rest of the book (though I’d be interested anyway) because I can read both languages and do feel myself reading more consciously because both are there. I can’t pay attention to just one because there’s an interplay between the two, nuances on each side.

As a personal aside, I don’t think I can still speak French, come up with sentences on my own, but I can read it pretty fluently and I don’t exactly translate as I read, just understand. I remember asking my Greek professor during the semester I was taking Latin, Greek and French (and one day a week all three back-to-back, which left me unable to understand any language by the end of the last class) whether if I kept with the classical languages I’d ever be able to lie in the bathtub and just read the way I did with my French, and he doubted it. But I also do (I should probably use a past tense verb here, actually) better with Greek and Latin if I read the sentences aloud or at least subvocalized them before translating, which doesn’t seem as necessary with French. The other languages I’ve studied have been with a focus on speaking rather than reading, and I never had any true fluency there.

But back to Gray Horses, it’s fascinating that Larson has moved from the dialogue-free and nearly wordless Salamander Dream to what seems from the previews to be a less-than-wordy book but where what language it has is doubled. I’m interested to find out what the reading experience is like for those who don’t read French (Steven, a hint!) because they, too, will have an awareness that what they’re getting is translation but a different one, one where the “original” is inaccessible. I feel this way when reading manga, but my eyes gloss over the holdover Japanese letters in sound effects and so on. I’m not sure if it’s as easy when there are familiar or seemingly familiar words and letters as in this story.

But basically this post is just a beginning, a placeholder. Someday I’ll hunt down the author at a convention and ask what language came first (if any) and how the words grew out of that, but for now I get to wait to read what I’m even more convinced is going to be a fascinating book.

“Anything I say can be held against me.”

Today I was thinking about a conference I attended as an undergrad, Performing Aristophanes. I really miss going to conferences and lectures and talking to visiting professors, but that’s not really the point. What I was thinking about was how difficult it is to translate humor. How can I make a joke that was relevant nearly 2500 years ago funny now while still leaving it in some way intact? What’s cultural-specific and what’s universal? This is something I think about a lot when reading manga, and I wish more manga translators/adapters kept blogs themselves, because I’d love to hear about the process.

I have a few examples, though I’m not going to be a good enough blogger to look up the page numbers or anything like that. In the first volume of Genshiken, the club welcomes a new otaku member with the chant, “One of us, one of us, one of us.” Is this because there’s a big Japanese market for Freaks or was there something else there originally? Since Japanese isn’t even on my list of languages to learn, I don’t think I’ll be finding out. Then there was, I think, the first volume of .hack//Legend of the Twilight, in which the main character, Shugo, was told he wasn’t even qualified to be an “assistant pig-keeper” in the online roleplaying game he was entering. Is this a Japanese Lloyd Alexander shout out or is the translator remembering his (the Tokyopop site doesn’t list any names, but I remember blaming Jake Forbes, perhaps unfairly) own childhood favorites?

There’s more than this, though. When the character called Osaka, after the town where she most recently lived, talks like she should be on The Sopranos in Azumanga Daioh, is this to denote class and ethnicity or could it be any funny accent? When the Chinese student in Negima uses pidgin English (presumably originally Japanese) I do feel kind of awkward about it because I can’t evaluate the extent to which she’s playing on ugly stereotypes. (And in that case I’m tending to believe that’s what’s going on, given that apparently Ken Akamatsu’s more famous book, Love Hina, features some sort of fictionalized Polynesian girl who is also a sort of ingenue/airhead figure.)

So how do you translate culture and context and depth? I was left wondering about this when we saw Syriana last weekend. I didn’t find the plot confusing, but was fascinated by some of the language choices. As far as I can tell, the considerable foreign language portions were under-translated (Farsi, Arabic, Urdu, French that I recall), perhaps because American audiences can’t keep up with long subtitles. You can tell that when a long string of text doesn’t lead to correspondingly long translations, something may be up, but I noticed something even more striking. At one point as Wasim, a young Pakistani man who has been working as a day laborer in the fictitious Persian Gulf state where much of the action takes place, is being pulled on a radical Islamic path in the madrasa he attends, the man instructing him and his friends goes on a tirade about how, basically, globalization is not solving the problems of modern life. I’m trying to phrase this so that I’m not paraphrasing the Islamist slogan “Islam is the answer,” but I do think that’s left implicit in the teacher’s repetition of “Qur’an” as a counterpoint to everything that isn’t making the students’ lives easier. And then he says something that is rendered as (more or less, because I know I don’t remember the predicate of the sentence, though I do know the subject), “The Christian world doesn’t help you.” But he didn’t say “the Christian world,” or at least didn’t exactly say it. He said “al-Harb,” meaning “Dar al-Harb, the house of war. He’s saying in much stronger terms than just breaking the world into Muslim and Christian spheres of influence that there’s a war going on and there are sides to be chosen, that the dichotomy is real and comprehensible. It was strong enough that it grabbed me in the theater and I elbowed Steven and told him to bother me later for details, but I wonder whether the language was strong enough for other viewers who didn’t know even enough Arabic to notice this. Obviously they still knew that Wasim was being wooed into a system where he was still a pawn, but well-fed and literate, Arabic-speaking. They understood that this was a lecture about the state of the world and the imperative the teacher felt for his brand of Islam, but is it only because they knew what kind of movie this was and because of the America we live in that they could tell what brand that was, know that there was a war on?

I don’t know how to answer questions like that. You can call this a hypertext movie, but in hypertext there are more links, you can keep another tab in your browser open to google what you don’t understand. It doesn’t really work like that if what you don’t understand is in Farsi, because where do you start? How do you know?

Maybe Syriana is more interesting to people like me who already ask questions like that, who appreciate the necessity of incompleteness in communication. Certainly it may resonate better with others like me who will recognize that its corporatespeak is awfully close to the real thing, or those who pick up on more religious references than I do, or people who know more about the flow of oil and LNG. For me, though, it worked as a movie and as a parable of sorts about corruption and complicity. I was able to tell the characters apart even though they were virtually all men (an ongoing problem) and I think the complexity of the plot was overrated by a lot of the critics I read. However, as I’ve commented, the complexity in the story was perhaps more than I can know.

“You have bewitched me, body and soul.”

(I suppose I’m back and I’d like to stay this way, though such an absence felt surprisingly good. I’m quite sick, too, so weirdness will probably be a result of that more than anything else. I have tons more knitting to post and other things I’ve been thinking about, but perhaps we should finally take ourselves off the Comic Weblog Update Page.)

Steven and I watched Pride & Prejudice a few weeks ago now, I suppose, although I’d watched it on my own a week before that and I finished rereading the book this weekend. I’d read it first when I was 10 or so and it seemed so alien, less because of the social machinations than the love, I suspect. I may not understand what love feels like now, but certainly didn’t then when I expected I’d grow up to be a writer who lived alone with cats and perhaps foster children. The joke’s on me, I suppose, since everyone who’s dropped by here has seen how much writing I do, though at least there is now a cat.

At any rate, before seeing the movie or embarking on the novel again, I’d read Rachel Hartman’s lovely posts about the place of Romanticism and her detailed thoughts post-viewing. I haven’t seen any of the other Pride and Prejudice adaptations and don’t imagine I will. (The much-beloved Colin Firth seemed like such a square-headed, lumpy creep in Love Actually and made no impression in the dreadful recent The Importance of Being Earnest, the only two times I’ve ever seen him.) Oh, and I have to add that the North American ending wouldn’t be so bad if there weren’t dialogue, but there decidedly is. Ack.

Where I’m going with this is that in Rachel’s second post she complained about some of the goofy, sappy choices in the movie, particularly when Lizzy and Darcy are dancing and all of a sudden ooooh, they’re the only couple in the room. And when you put it like that, yes, gag, but I was going to argue it’s something I’d accept in shôjo manga and that’s why I allowed it here. It’s been a progress for me, first allowing superheroes to work as metaphors for mundane life, then learning to see the angry scowls in Nana as perfectly normal and understandable, finally ending up not minding in my movie romances when the scene ends as the heroine blows out her candle. And while there’s probably something to the argument that Pride & Prejudice is a Bollywood film, I think I’d have been on equally strong ground explaining that it’s got shôjo elements, moments when emotions get so strong they skew reality. But then I remember that before I called that shôjo I called it focalization.

Rachel touches on this, too, that in the book (and, apparently, prior conversions to film) when Lizzy meets Darcy again after having rejected his unexpected offer of marriage (in part because she’d found him insufferably self-absorbed and antisocial) only to find him a changed man, open, generous, shy. It seems that many readers want this moment, want to see that love has changed Darcy, and that’s not quite there in this current version. While I wouldn’t say that’s not the case in the novel, what’s more apparent to me is that love has changed Lizzy and that she’s the focalized(/focalizing) character. While it’s not a first-person book, much of what we see is swayed by her eyes, which is part of the reason her father is a fuller character even though her mother gets more “airtime.” While the movie uses an even more distant third-person setup, I think the effect is the same. We get to see one of Lizzy’s dreams, including the reddish look of light from within her closed eyes, but less literal is the way the world melts away when she and Darcy dance or becomes an unchanging cage when she has rejected his love. If I were still 10, this might bother me because I’d doubt love was like that. I do doubt that a bit, I guess, but I think life is like that, with moments of excitement or pain we capture and turn into metaphors, and I thought the movie handled it beautifully.

And after all that is it still important to note that I covet Lizzy’s coats? I like Keira Knightley to begin with and I did believe her as Lizzy, giggles and raised eyebrows and lewd stares at nude statues’ privy parts and all. And while I don’t look the least bit like her and probably couldn’t pull it off, I keep hoping this is going to jump-start some sort of fashion trend and those boots and coats will be readily available (and maybe not too popular so they’ll end up on clearance and I can buy them myself). Then you could draw me with tiny dot eyes and a huge, huge smile.

Kiri (and a little more)

I take off tomorrow for my grandparents’ home, so I’ll be gone for the rest of the week. It will be interesting to see how I get by without regular internet access! Steven will still be around and, I hope, posting some of the thoughts he’s been talking about with me lately.

In addition to being helpful, I should have some time for reading and I’m bringing a knitting project with me, hoping I’ll pass through airport security with my needles. When I come back, though, I can promise at least one comics post. Tonight I finally found the notes I’d taken for Art Spiegelman’s first post-9/11/01 lecture, which he discusses in the introduction to In the Shadow of No Towers. (I probably shouldn’t have let Tom Spurgeon publish something so conversational and rough, but basically all that I said stands.) So that’s something I will accomplish, but I’ve accomplished more than just cleaning and packing this weekend.

Rose wearing the Kiri shawl I finally finished a shawl for my grandmother, Polly Outhwaite’s Kiri (free PDF format pattern). I had been working on this in early summer but put it aside when I was having trouble with my arm and only picked it up again in the last week to get it finished. The pattern was easy to follow and memorize and I think it makes a lovely shawl. This is yarn that my grandmother gave me, some sort of mohair blend I think in a pale, mottled brown. I think these cones I got are remnants from a closed knitting mill, but I’ll ask about them when I see her. She used to knit blankets from them and while I have the pattern she used, I’ve been sticking to smaller projects, shawls, scarves, and soon a sweater.

Rose showing the size of the Kiri shawl I used U.S. #7 needles and with such thin yarn the finished product is practically weightless when it’s worn. It’s about 58 inches along the top edge, 29 inches along the central spine that hangs down. I think each side has 11 points along the edge. I could have blocked it bigger, but my grandmother is not as tall as I am and I think this size will be sufficient. I blocked the shawl by soaking it and then pinning it out to the proper dimensions (I ran a piece of yarn through the top horizontal edge to keep it straight) and shape. Since I finished knitting at 11 last night, I ended up making adjustments until midnight and while exhausted, which probably wasn’t the best state of affairs.

detail of Kiri leaf lace pattern I do think it’s a lovely shawl, light and delicate. I like the repeated leaf pattern that covers it, especially in a light, natural color like this one (although my striped tank top detracts from any simplicity). I think it will be a welcome gift and it has the added advantage of looking more complex than it is. I would recommend this pattern to a first-time lace knitter and it can be expanded to a variety of sizes, from a tiny kerchief to a huge shawl. Mine is midsized, about what you would apparently get with two skeins of Kidsilk Haze, but I think it’s a good size for my purposes, and by this time tomorrow I’ll know!

Dare to Know

I bought Rex Libris because it seemed so rare to find a comic with a truly funny pun in its title. I should have read the fine print.

Rose Vess pointed out much of what I would have said about the labored whimsy of the story and its annoying commentary track. (I’m still sort of weirded out and excited that the comics blogosphere is big enough to sustain two Roses.) I mean, even “Rex Libris” stops being a funny name when it’s the name of an actual Roman. Steven didn’t make it through the parody letter from the editor section on the inside front cover because he was so annoyed by the inconsistencies and bad punctuation. I would have written that off as characterization or part of the joke except that it’s pretty clearly not.

And then there’s the front cover, from which I derive my title. See, this is a comic so portentous it even has an epigraph: Sapare Aude. And I looked at that and said, “Wait, shouldn’t that be Sapere?” and then didn’t trust myself because my Latin was inadequate well before it got rusty, so I went on with life. But it nagged at me and I googled it and sure enough you get some hits with their spelling, but that’s why using a dictionary is a good idea, because there’s plenty of information about the meaning and derivation of Sapere aude, “dare to know.”

And I know this is a rant I’ve gone into many times before, but I still think it’s sort of insulting to be expected to appreciate something on an intellectual level if the writers can’t bother to learn how to use commas. Why have a Latin motto if it’s not even in Latin? But more importantly, who’s in charge? I assume Slave Labor can’t afford to have someone proofread the comics before the script gets matched up with the art for the final project or even in large text areas like the “Barry’s Brain” segment. Despite the library focus of the title, it’s not clear that the creator wanted to spend too much time in real libraries or with real librarians in creating it. So here I am left frustrated again that there isn’t any expectation of quality or consistency in even the mechanics of writing. Sure, Brian Michael Bendis got to wherever he is on the current hot writers list without being able to string more than two sentences together coherently and without drastic misspellings, but at least Marvel can offer him an effective spellchecker. I don’t think I would have liked the story in Rex Libris any more had James Turner had this luxury, but it certainly would have made me less annoyed and bitter than I am now.

Minisweater elegans

Rose wearing her minisweaterIt’s sweater time again, although this is the last garment I’ll be showing for a while. This is the minisweater designed by Stefanie Japel. I think I began on 1 September and ended 5 September or something like that, and I worked on several other projects at the same time. I deviated from the pattern quite a bit, but that’s sort of the point with this setup. Instead of worsted weight yarn I used very nearly all of two skeins of Araucania Nature Wool Chunky in a variegated bright green. The body was knit on U.S. size 7 needles with the garter stitch edges done on U.S. 4 needles.

detail of minisweater back

I used yarnover increases to make decorative eyelets along the raglan seams. I made straight raglan sleeves, omitting the puffed portion, and threw in a few short rows. The sleeves are also not as long as the ones in the original pattern because I was running out of yarn. I think I got through 5 rows before starting the garter stitch border. I made two more sets of increases on the body after separating the stitches that make up the arms, although this may not have been a great idea as the back is just a tiny bit loose. The button also wants to come undone, so I may end up taking it out and moving it so the fronts have more overlap where they meet, which would then tighten up the extra space in the back.

detail of minisweater front

And here is the front with its button closure. Moving the button would give me slightly more coverage, although coverage clearly isn’t really the point of this design. Because it’s wool and knit much less loosely than the garment in the pattern, it seems very warm and should be a great coverup to let me keep wearing tank tops into the fall. The fabric is very fuzzy but doesn’t seem to be pilling and doesn’t leave fluff on my clothes. And I chose a red button on purpose, because I had a theme for this sweater and that theme was TURTLE.

Rose\'s turtle, FoucaultThis is Foucault, my six-year-old red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans). He doesn’t actually live in the sink, but I was scrubbing out his tank tonight and figured this was a good opportunity for a photo shoot. Since he’s a mature turtle, his shell is fairly dark now, but I like the combination of various greens and a spot of red and used a color scheme more reminiscent of his looks as a hatchling. I don’t think he’ll get the following that some comics bloggers’ pets have, but that’s okay. Being a turtle, he values his privacy.