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Archive: January 2006

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!

Updates List, No More!

No, I’m not really back to blogging yet. When will I be? We’ll see, we’ll see. Not blogging is too much fun! Anyway, FYI, don’t look for us on the comics-blog update list in the future, because soon we’ll no longer be updating on it.

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.