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Archive: July 2006

seeing darkly

Steven and I saw A Scanner Darkly 10 days or so ago and then I read the book on Saturday. I have a lot to say about them, but I’ve already written a version of this post on the livejournal I’ve been keeping. I want it here because it’s more this kind of material than what I’ve been writing there and also because I have very similar things to say about V for Vendetta and it will be easier to say them if I can just link back here.

“Everybody bangs me.” She amended that. “Tries to, anyhow. That’s what it’s like to be a chick.” (14)

So I read A Scanner Darkly on Saturday and watched the adaptation the weekend before, and Steven was right that it was a remarkably faithful adaptation (and I’m sure I never doubted him!). Sure, the movie’s been beefed up with more foreshadowing (possibly, as Steven suggested to me, because some of the twists were things Dick made up as he went along) and a few nods to the fact that it’s being released in 2006, not the late 70s. So instead of phone booths there are cellphones. There’s no word about a Communist conspiracy, but there’s also no real surprise in Big Government colluding with Big Business.

Most interesting to me, though, is that while the movie is still about ostensibly straight, white men, that almost doesn’t matter. Sure, as in the book, there’s debate about how to get into Donna’s pants and why Bob can’t manage to do it. As in the novel, when Bob brings home a Donna-substitute to fuck, she wants to know whether he’s gay since he lives with two men. As in the novel, he tells her that he’s trying not to be. But there’s none of the hand-wringing about how Donna’s not going to be able to preserve her current chastity because chicks never do. In fact, in no time at all women addicts seem to slip right into selling sex for drugs. Somehow the men are able to avoid this or avoid mention at least. In the movie, it doesn’t come up much, in part because women don’t exist much.

In the whole movie, I don’t remember hearing once about a woman who wasn’t wearing a bra, but that’s a key descriptor for certainly the vast majority of the women who show up in the book. And while race seems quite incidental in the movie, that these just happen to be a bunch of white stoners, race has in many parts been erased. It’s supposed to be black people from whom Barris buys the bike and a black man who explains to them how the gears actually work, but that’s not how it works out in the movie. The only black character I remember (and I’m pretty sure I’m forgetting some) from the movie is the doctor in the team examining Bob/Fred, and she’s female too. So instead of getting to see how privilege works, why these hierarchical distinctions maybe matter even more to these paranoid straight, white male addicts because inherent power is the only kind of power they can get, we get to see a black woman as the voice of reason, able to correctly assess what’s wrong with Bob. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate choice to contrast the novel’s stance (and I’m not accusing Dick of being a misogynist racist or anything; I assume the biases he gives Bob/Fred and his cohort are just the sort they’d really have) or if it’s a way of supporting it, showing that non-white/female power is just another thing Bob’s damaged brain can’t handle.

There’s more to it than that, of course. This doctor is the one who tells Bob to get Donna some little blue (in the movie version, at least, blue) flowers, which initially made me suspect that she might be Donna in some sort of higher-level scramble suit. She’s the one who lets him off the hook the first time he should fail his perception tests, also the sort of thing a kind-hearted or manipulative girlfriend might do. And yet it eventually turns out that maybe she’s gotten through to Bob’s reptile brain and, whether he realizes it or not, he may do exactly what she asks. Would a white man higher up the hierarchy have been able to get below his skin as well? Beats me.

There’s the whole Donna conundrum, too, that while in the movie she doesn’t get to be the castrating bitch who’s suing a man for $40,000 for grabbing her boob and who carries a well-concealed knife to ward off potential attackers, she gets a major elevation of role in the metaplot. Whether this makes her a conniving bitch instead, especially since as in the book there’s a decent chance that she’s disguised herself as Connie to be Bob’s Donna-substitute fuck after she’s turned him down as Donna, is unclear. I’m pretty sure there was a major difference in the scene where she does turn him down, when Bob asks if he can run away with her if she cleans up her life and leaves the scene, too. In the book, this refusal more than her unwillingness to have sex was the heartbreaking dealbreaker for him. He can’t even have a fantasy of her. And yet I’d thought in the movie she agreed that sure, maybe they’d go together and thus he could dream whatever he wanted (while she knew the truth). I feel a lot of tenderness for her in both versions, maybe gender biases coming into play again, but she’s a bit of a mystery no matter what. I think that’s a good thing, though.

Really, I said that I was okay with not having all the plotlines completely resolved and I still am. I like a certain amount of uncertainty (ha ha) but there’s something a bit unnerving about the cleanup of the nastier bits of story for the movie, just as there would be something unnerving about hearing Keanu Reeves call someone a “spade” the way he’d have to in a literal adaptation. I don’t know how this sort of thing generally does or should get dealt with, but it’s still got me thinking days later. I just don’t think I’m thinking toward definitives, which is typical but also probably good.

“take me in your hand”

When Steven and I got home today, our cat didn’t come to greet us, which was unusual. Soon he found her staring at the closet, from which came an unmistakable sound. Though it’s been a month since the last arrived, it was immediately clear that there was another baby bird in our closet. This one was the most developed, although I’d always assumed that a month’s growth would do more for a little bird than would seem to have happened if this one were from the same hatching group as the last set.

I was less panicky this time around, easily getting it into a shoebox and outside to the bushes beneath the nest. It was so well-feathered that I hoped it would be able to fly, but it just flapped its healthy wings. I tried to maneuver it into the same bush the last one went into but it darted down from there and scurried into the next bush, which is probably even safer in terms of keeping any predators out. When I walked past a few hours later, there were adults in the evergreen chattering wildly. Maybe this means it’s a success and my little guy will be flying soon. Already I watch the birds around the parking lot intently, always wondering if one of them is the first bird I managed to save and release. I don’t think it’s consolation to know I’ll never know.

Moominsummer Madness

I’m already starting my countdown to Drawn & Quarterly’s September release of Tove Jansson’s Moomin comics with the free strip every weekday that they offer. The story starts here if you’d like to read from the beginning. Or there’s a PDF preview if you’d rather not wait on the daily postings.

Can you tell I’m pushing Moomins? Of course, who wouldn’t love a family of gentle hippo-ish creatures and their many and varied friends? I was such a fan of the books when I was young (or became a fan then, since clearly they still get me excited) and I’m really looking forward to reading the comics. Jansson wrote stories that are sort of ridiculous but also kind and honest in a way that I find appealing. They’re books for children, certainly, but I think adults can appreciate their goofy depths too. As I recall, my littlest brother got his start in comparative literature at 8 or so by comparing how the adventures in Exploits of Moominpappa shape up against the reminiscences of Moominpappa’s Memoirs, although the Wikipedia entry thinks that these are different titles for the same book.

As far as the books go, my favorite is the one whose title I stole for this post. In Moominsummer Madness, a volcanic eruption starts a flood that sweeps through Moominvalley, forcing the inhabitants to evacuate. They find refuge in a floating theater and decide to write and perform a play. Or there’s Finn Family Moomintroll, a good introduction to most of the major characters, in which Moomintroll’s friends find a hat lost by the Hobgoblin who lives on the moon. It turns out that anything put into this hat transforms, which is part of the reason the sinister Hobgoblin is tracking it down and thus stalking the Moomins and their friends.

I write these plot summaries as if plot is really what drives these stories, but it definitely isn’t. From the lonely Groke whose alienation is so extreme that she leaves a trail of dead grass behind her with each step to Moomintroll’s friend Snufkin, a thoughtful wanderer who plays the harmonica and despises the park-keepers who want to keep him from enjoying the greenery, the characters are both outrageous and recognizably human underneath their fantastical forms. It’s especially the details that make the books such fun for me, which seems to be true of the strips as well. The background business is a delightful complement to the main characters’ conversations. in both cases, it’s the vividness of the world that makes everything more interesting.

I hate writing reviews, as I’ve said before, and so everything I’ve written here seems fake and cliched to me, but I’m sounding like a fangirl because I am a fangirl. Other bloggers can write about their childhood superhero crushes or how they thought they were Ninja Turtles, but instead of anything like that I taught myself to draw Moominmamma and Little My. I even made a little shoebox Moomin house for all my homemade Moomin paper dolls to live in so that I could let them walk across my bed and have conversations but also have a nice place to stay at night. Maybe once I read the strip collection I’ll have more sensible and insightful things to say, but for now I’ll just look forward to it and know that to me it feels like home.

May & June Reading List

I was bad about doing a list in June because I couldn’t remember all I’d read in May. Now that I’m even farther from either, I’m sure I’m forgetting things in both months. I did actually start my July list today, so there’s a chance it will be better. This definitely convinces me that the idea of marking down what I’d read so I don’t forget it is a good one. I’m also reading more than I would otherwise because I don’t want people to look at the list and think I’m totally slacking off, although forgetting books does sort of detract from the impressiveness of the list I do have. But here it is!

Women in the Shadows, Ann Bannon
The last of the 50s lesbian pulp in the house, this one was really a downer. Laura has settled in Greenwich Village with her girlfriend Beebo, but the relationship is getting abusive and both are unhappy. Laura’s attracted to a dance teacher who turns out to be black and married, which was one of the most interesting subplots, and Beebo is jealous to the point of scariness. Laura decides to leave that life and marry her gay friend Jack, whose boyfriend has also become a bad dude. But Jack maybe wants a baby and Laura maybe wants to be more open about her lesbianism and it’s all a huge pit of despair. It was fascinating to read and I’m sure very realistic, but deeply discomforting.

Amsterdam, Ian McEwan
Basically, is it morally acceptable to out a closeted cross-dressing politician in the newspapers if he’s a creepy conservative and this would destroy his power? Do you have to intervene if you’re very busy but see a couple arguing in a way that makes you think rape or murder might be next on the agenda? And assisted suicide, what’s up with that? There’s a lot more to this book than those semi-glib questions, most essentially the woman who was at various times a lover to all the men involved in these dilemmas, but somehow it felt semi-glib to me nonetheless. It’s the first McEwan I’ve read and I didn’t dislike the writing, just didn’t catch on to the content much. I’m open to more.

Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy, edited by Al Sarrantonio
I bought this for Neil Gaiman’s story involving White Witch/Aslan oral sex, but I read it all. Two months later, that story is the one I remember most vividly, finding most of them vaguely unsatisfying. I think it’s probably hard to write a fantasy short story where you’re creating a world and having character development and plot all in a very small space. I know there were other highlights, but much of the time while I was reading I wanted to have a pen to mark things up and make suggested changes.

How Would a Patriot Act?, Glenn Greenwald
I had to read this to make sure it was an appropriate present for my grandmother’s 80th birthday, which it was. For someone who follows political blogs including Greenwald’s it wasn’t terribly new information and no more shocking than it always is, but the current US administration seems so corrupt and awful that anything that gets the story out succinctly and clearly is a good tool to have on hand. This is a short book, easily digested, and it gets right to the point. Apparently it’s quite a hit among anti-Bush octogenarians, judging from the fact that my grandmother recognized it immediately and said her friends had been recommending it.

Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell (cd version)
I definitely recommend this for the drive from Cincinnati to Buffalo because it lets you get to the right points in the text as you’re passing the relevant exits. So you can say, “Last chance for Garfield’s house! Does anyone need the bathroom or a drink?” and it’s all terribly topical. I still have trouble listening to recorded books because they’re so fucking slow compared to actual reading, but it definitely makes the miles pass and this was a very good choice. There’s plenty of commentary on the current administration, plus tons of historical tidbits and a strong authorial voice. And with the cd, you could even make a road trip of it, though we didn’t.

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, Alexandra Robbins
If I’d actually rushed as a freshman, I totally could have been mentioned in this book! Well, if I’d gone Kappa and then been chosen for a secret society within the organization and then, like some classmates I never knew personally, gone public about the ritual initiation with its simulated oral sex, skulls, and cigarette brandings. But yeah, I went to what was at the time the Greekest school in the nation and while I basically avoided that world, I have a more positive view of sororities than I did when I started out. I’m even more skeptical of fraternities than I was at first, but a good 1/3 of my Feminist Theory class consisted of sorority leaders. This was an interesting look at three key informants on a Texas campus, where the Greek system seems to be particularly entrenched and unpleasant, and it gave a good look into body issue problems, troubled race relations, money and class divisions within and among sororities, and the general social pluses and minuses of enforced sisterhood. I certainly made the right decision for myself in not even giving the sororities a chance (though I made other stupider, more damaging choices instead) but it was interesting to compare how things worked out for the women in this book and for other women I knew in college.

The Essential Difference: The Truth about the Male and Female Brain, Simon Baron-Cohen
This is where Baron-Cohen lays out his theory of autism as a sort of extreme male brain capable of systematizing but not empathizing. I’m not entirely sold on the details, but as a general concept it was very interesting. I think I have an integrated brain with certain extreme aspects on both the male and female sides and certainly not autistic because one of my failings is an extreme empathy that makes me incredibly uncomfortable and heart-broken when I think other people are uncomfortable in a situation. Luckily this doesn’t extend directly to the internet to a degree that I care much whether people are unnerved by what I say, because I hope they’ll just click away and be done with it. But I do well with science and math and very much enjoyed the section about people with a head for directions, which I definitely have. I used the book more as a way of testing people I know against the various descriptions of behaviors and tendencies, but it was certainly an interesting read.

The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown
My experience with this book was, I think, the best it could possibly be, with Steven reading it aloud to me. He’d shake his fist to signify the italicized thoughts (generally appropriately) and we’d both interject constantly to mock the writing and the story. Between the two of us, we figured out all the puzzles and major plot twists well before the characters involved, generally by yelling, “Oh, Christ, I’ll bet it’s going to be x because that’s the most awful thing it could be!” If we could rent him out to read this to other people who want to mock the book while finding out what the big deal apparently is, we’d make good money and he’d be worth every penny.

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World , Tracy Kidder
I’d heard Tracy Kidder talking about this on one of the NPR afternoon shows and then my grandmother was lending this book to everyone she could, so I borrowed it for a plane ride. It was really interesting, the story of a gifted American doctor who spends much of his time at a clinic he’s built in Haiti (and, now, flying around the world to talk about healthcare for the poor or policy toward developing nations). The anecdotes were fascinating and while anyone would feel a bit inadequate compared to Farmer, it suggests many avenues average people like me could pursue.

Northern Suns: The New Anthology of Canadian Science Fiction, edited by David Hartwell and Glenn Grant
This was a great anthology full of a wide range of stories, all of them in English. I’m not even sure what I would say stood out as very few were disappointing. The biographical notes were engaging enough and the stories themselves were gems. I need to make notes of the authors who were new to me and see what books I can find to fill in the gaps in my reading.

Promiscuities: The Secret Struggle for Womanhood, Naomi Wolf
This is one of those books it seems like everyone has already read, so when I found it for $1 I figured I’d better join the club. Maybe I’m just too young to relate or not cool enough, but I found very little relevant to my own life here. On a sociological/voyeuristic level it was neat to read about how all these women later looked back on their adolescent sexual selves, but I don’t think I learned anything new about feminism, femininities, or myself. I did learn a great deal about Naomi Wolf, like that I probably won’t push myself to read any more of her books.

The Angel with One Hundred Wings, Daniel Horch
This is Horch’s first novel, an elaboration of a story from the 1001 Nights in which a young prince falls in love with the sultan’s favorite wife and they prevail upon the narrator, pharmacist and alchemist (not to mention friend of the sultan) Abulhassan, to help them make their escape to Spain, where they can live in love and obscurity. There was actually quite a lot of drama in the story itself and while the writing sometimes struck me as overmannered, it mostly got to the effect I think Horch was going for. It wasn’t a great book in part because it was so overwrought, but I think I enjoy it more in retrospect than I did at the time, when I was more concerned about why it wasn’t all as good as parts of it were. I don’t read a lot of love stories and this one was convincing in a certain Romeo/Juliet way, although I grew to believe like Abulhassan did that perhaps the young lovers truly did understand and appreciate one another, if not the troubles that would inevitably lie ahead of them. I don’t know if Horch has written more since, but I’d be interested in trying his next book.