book reviews, comics, faith, history, literature

Book Reviews, March 2016

The book reviews for this month are another varied bunch–a historical mystery, some short stories about a party, a coming of age graphic novel, and a book about the Bible.  The last one goes longer than usual since I had a lot to say about it as it relates to my recent wrestling with modern scholarship on the Bible.

  • The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey (pen name of Elizabeth Mackintosh) is an intriguing mystery from British history.  The Scotland Yard detective Alan Grant is laid up in the hospital with a broken leg and bored out of his mind.  Friends visit him and bring him books to read, but it isn’t until he becomes fascinated with a portrait of Richard III that he engages his deductive skills.  He wonders what really happened to the Princes in the Tower, Richard’s two nephews who most everyone believes that Richard himself had killed in order to secure the throne.  Grant has trouble reconciling the awful crime with the face of the man in the portrait, so he sets out to figure out the mystery of what happened to the two boys once and for all.  It’s a fascinating historical whodunit (and often funny), tracing various historical sources with a detective’s eye for evidence and motive.  I especially liked how it emphasized mythmaking in the historical record and how those myths can come about.  I was able to follow the historical characters and events, but I have some familiarity because of the many British literature courses I’ve taken.  I now wish I had paid even more attention to the history bits in those classes.  My only complaint is that the front cover of the book had the blurb: “One of the best mysteries of all time,” which raised my expectations too high.  I enjoyed it plenty, but it probably never could have lived up to that statement.
  • Mrs. Dalloway’s Party by Virginia Woolf is a collection of stories that serve as a good companion to her classic novel Mrs. Dalloway.  From the introduction to the book we learn that the stories were written at the same time as or just after the writing of the novel, the latter of which was especially unusual for Woolf.  She usually moved on to something different when she completed a novel.  But she was interested in what she called in her writing diary “party consciousness,” that something about the gathering together of so many people under one roof that was both more artificial and more real than everyday life.  In the course of seven stories we encounter a guest whose speech would fill a book and others who stand on the fringes hardly able to utter a syllable.  There are misunderstandings and miscommunications as social opposites are introduced to one another.  One woman worries the entire night about having worn the wrong dress that is not the current fashion.  She had thought to wear something unique, but instead ruminated on the decision the entire party.  Another man thought that he was so above the other party goers and their frivolity that he could barely deign to converse with anyone, and when he did it was with only the utmost condescension.  I thoroughly enjoyed this slim book, but I have to say that it works best as a companion to the novel.

this one summer

  • This One Summer, written by Mariko Tamaki and illustrated by Jillian Tamaki, is a touching graphic novel about growing up.  It’s the story of Rose, a girl on the cusp of becoming a teenager.  Every summer she and her parents travel to a cabin on a lake for vacation.  The routines are established: swimming in the lake, bonfires on the beach, reading in her room, and playing with Windy, another girl a year or two younger whose family also comes to the lake every summer.  Rose and Windy are like most kids: they want to grow up.  They talk about their soon to be developing breasts.  They go to the tiny convenience store to buy candy and rent classic horror movies, which they watch to feel older.  The 18 year old guys who clerk at the store don’t care that they aren’t old enough to be renting R-rated movies.  Those guys are fascinating to the girls, but the girls can hardly put into words how they make them feel.  The guys have their own drama with the young women their own age in town, which Rose and Windy watch as well, trying to figure out what is going on.  And in her own cabin, Rose’s parents are having conflicts that she thinks she gets, but like most everything else, she misunderstands what’s really going on.  It’s a beautiful story.  The art is a real strength, too.  At times cartoony, and other times more detailed and realistic, it’s in total harmony with the story.  I would definitely recommend this book.
  • Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament by Peter Enns is an essential book.  I feel like it is a book that was written for me, a book that helps me make sense of the Bible and modern scholarship at a time when I’m full of questions and doubts.  The main thesis of the book is that there is an incarnational analogy between the Bible and Jesus where both are fully divine and fully human.  In three main sections, Enns looks at supposed problems in the Old Testament that his incarnational analogy help resolve.  The first is the matter of the close parallels of material from the Old Testament with Ancient Near Eastern literature.  For example, the epic of Gilgamesh has a flood story that possibly predates the account in Genesis.  The law code of Hammurabi of Babylon has laws that are similarly worded to laws in Exodus.  Enns points out that the Bible is part of the cultural context in which it was given, meaning that the law codes should be similar and it should have similar myths concerning origins (myth here meaning a story to explain who we are and where we come from, not that it is made up).  The second section deals with the diversity of the Old Testament.  By diversity, he means that there are multiple voices speaking, sometimes in tension.  For instance, in Proverbs sometimes the wisdom that is expressed in one verse contradicts what one finds in another verse (e.g. Proverbs 26:4,5 “Do not answer a fool..” vs. “Answer a fool…”).  It turns out that the wisdom of Proverbs is situational.  Another example that is even more forceful is the difference of the historical account in Chronicles with the similar accounts in Samuel and Kings.  The account in Samuel and Kings emphasizes the centrality of worship, and the kings are evaluated on their ability to centralize worship in the temple (i.e. get rid of the high places and Baal and Asherah worship).  The texts were likely written during the exile in order to explain why they were in exile.  It was because they didn’t follow God and get rid of idol worship that they were handed over to foreign powers.  But in Chronicles, which in the Jewish Bible is placed at the very end after all of the prophets and not directly after Kings, the point is to explain how they can be God’s people after the exile.  It is from the point of view of those who returned back to the land and began again with Ezra and Nehemiah.  Chronicles emphasizes the unity of the people and elevates the stature of figures like David and Solomon making them into heroes (much like American history often elevates the Founding Fathers, glossing over their failures).  I first encountered this multi-voiced history of Kings and Chronicles in Josh Way’s excellent podcast on the Bible (click here to listen or read the transcript).  Enns points out that diversity in Scripture is to be expected because God is speaking to different situations throughout Israel’s history, accommodating himself to wherever they find themselves at that point.  The third section concerns the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament.  The gospel writers and Paul use the Old Testament verses in ways that we wouldn’t normally consider proper if we heard them used in the pulpit on a Sunday.  They seem to wrench things out of context at times in order to make their own point.  One example includes Matthew’s insistence that Jesus going to Egypt with his parents to avoid Herod is a fulfillment of prophecy in Hosea.  But the context of the passage in Hosea is looking backwards to Israel being delivered from Egypt, not a forward looking prophecy about the future messiah.  Matthew appears to be quoting out of context.  But he is merely using similar methods that were used at that time, the Second Temple period.  The writers in the New Testament are showing how passages in the Old Testament point towards Jesus, even if they are not direct prophecies.  Enns introduces the word christotelic, in that the history of Israel in the Old Testament is leading towards and is fulfilled in Christ.  My version of the book (the second edition) had a helpful postscript that reiterated his points and dealt with some of the reactions and arguments that his book elicited when it was first published ten years ago.  I would highly recommend this book to any Christian, especially anyone with an evangelical background who finds themselves asking how modern scholarship on the Old Testament can be reconciled with believing that the Bible is still God’s word.
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book reviews, comics, history, literature

Book Reviews, December 2015

This is my final installment of book reviews for the year, soon to be followed with a year end wrap up of the best books I read in 2015. Watch this space!  In the meantime, listen to this song from Hamilton, the musical about the founding generation of America, as you read a relevant book review (the first one, anyway).

  • Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis is a look at six episodes of the early days of the American Republic.  One advantage of the episodic structure is that it allows Ellis to advance the thesis he mentions in the last chapter, namely that “all seamless historical narratives are latter-day constructions” (216).  In fact, “Nothing was clear, inevitable, or even comprehensible” to those who have been designated Founding Fathers.  Ellis prefers the designation “brothers,” presumably because while the various players came together on certain matters, there was an inherent “messiness” to the founding of a new country, and they fought each other on many issues, even the very meaning of the revolution.  In telling the story of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, or the composition of Washington’s Farewell Address, or the correspondence of friends and rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Ellis highlights the conflicting ideas that animated the early tenuous years of the country.  There was nothing that they could all agree on, except perhaps the need for freedom from Britain.  But the nature of freedom was certainly something that they still disagreed on.  In the chapter called “The Silence,” Benjamin Franklin in 1790 lent his support to ending the slave trade, even though the Constitution had provisions that it would not be ended for at least the first 20 years after ratification.  The congress hotly debated whether they should even discuss the matter since it was supposedly already a settled question in the Constitution.  But how could the same ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration live together with the enslavement of large portions of the population?  The congress managed to put off the question for decades, leading to compromises as the country expanded until it all came to war in 1861.  I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the American Revolution and the early days of the country (or who likes the musical Hamilton).
  • Killing and Dying: Six Stories by Adrian Tomine is an impressive short story collection in comics.  I would put it next to any collection of stories in prose out this year and be confident it would hold its own, it’s that good.  Tomine explores the themes of identity and unrealistic dreams.  The title story tells of a father’s love and grief, and his difficulty with being supportive of his daughter’s desire to do stand-up comedy.  It’s a haunting story of perceptions: who is dying and who is killing keep changing throughout.  The collection leads off with a farcical tale of a misunderstood artist who dreams of a new artform called “hortisculpture,” a combination of plants and sculpture that is as ugly as its portmanteau namesake.  Tomine plays with the presentation, telling the story in four panel chunks as if it were a newspaper comic, complete with full-page Sunday installments on schedule.  The format and the subject matter let him poke fun of himself for the self-seriousness of an artist.  Two of the shorter pieces, “Translated, from the Japanese” and “Intruders,” are very meditative and text-based.  The former never even shows its characters, instead showing the settings as we read a letter from a mother to her son about a transitional moment in their lives.  The latter narrates the inner monologue of a soldier on leave coming to terms with his past, but this time using a nine panel grid to tell the story.  It’s a fantastic collection of stories; every one stuck with me.
  • March: Book One, written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell, is the powerful first part of a trilogy of comics based on Lewis’s life and the civil rights movement.  The story concerns Lewis’s early days in rural Alabama and his start in the civil rights movement in Nashville while he was in college.  He was involved with the nonviolent sit-ins at the downtown stores in Nashville that protested segregation.  All of this narrative is framed by the contemporary Lewis reminiscing about his past while he gets ready to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama in January of 2009.  This is one instance where I think the medium of comics is especially effective at conveying the power of the story while also helping the reader see the larger context.  The scenes of violence are particularly potent to help the reader see both the resistance the protesters faced and the way the strategy of nonviolence worked in the face of violent resistance.  By being able to see faces and settings, the story came alive in the same way that a documentary would, but there wasn’t footage of many of the scenes he was telling.  I would highly recommend this to anyone wanting to learn about the civil rights movement.  One word of caution: the book does not shy away from the harsh language used against African Americans.  The n-word is used multiple times, so use discretion if giving the comic to a younger reader.
  • File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket (the pen name of Daniel Handler) and illustrated by Seth is a fun collection of mysteries in the kids’ series All the Wrong Questions.  Snicket is also the author of the previous A Series of Unfortunate Events, and this one features a similar humorous style of writing, full of wordplay and literary references.  All the Wrong Questions is narrated by the young Snicket who is trying to solve a mystery in the spooky town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, but File Under departs from the larger mystery to have Snicket solve some smaller conundrums that he stumbles upon or that are brought to him.  Many of the familiar denizens of the town including Jake Hix, the Bellerophon brothers, Moxie Mallahan, and his clueless chaperone S. Theodora Markson, as well as many others, make appearances in the various suspicious incidents.  The answers or conclusions to the mysteries are provided at the end of the book much the same as they would in an Encyclopedia Brown or similar mystery book, and the clues aren’t so difficult that a young reader couldn’t figure out the solutions to at least some of them (confession: I only figured out a handful myself).  Snicket’s style is educational as it entertains.   The characters provide useful definitions of difficult words throughout the stories, such as inane (“pointless and dull”) and preternaturally (“extra”), and phrases like “shadow of its former self” (“not as good as it used to be”) and “well-bred” (“doesn’t mean anything at all, but which some people use to make themselves feel better than others”).  The literary references were also fun, especially for an English major like me.  In one story alone, “Twelve or Thirteen,” there were mentions of a stolen portrait of Gary Dorian, an Ethan Frome Festival sled race, and hidden within the list of sledders the name of the poet William Carlos Williams.  This is a good kids’ book and series, one that even an adult can enjoy.
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book reviews, faith, history, humor, literature

Book Reviews, June 2015

The June installment of short book reviews has humor, a look at evangelical Christian purity culture, and two more World War II novels, one of which has an appearance by a certain famous detective.

  • Texts from Jane Eyre: And Other Conversations with Your Favorite Literary Characters by Mallory Ortberg is an extremely silly book.  Imagine characters like Captain Ahab or Miss Havisham or Hermione Granger or Hamlet with smartphones sending snarky, funny, and/or weird texts to other characters from their respective stories and you have the premise of this book.  The jokes originated on the-toast.net, which Ortberg co-created, though it appears that many are exclusive to the book.  It’s pretty humorous, though I found myself nodding in appreciation to the jokes more than laughing.  I can really only recommend the book to English majors (or other readers of classics), as it is hard to imagine enjoying the book without a familiarity with the characters and plots.  Also, the gag can be a bit repetitive; it’s better one or two at a time, which is why it probably worked so well online.  For a sample, check out texts from Miss HavishamMoby Dick, Edgar Allan Poe, or J. Alfred Prufrock.
  • Dark Star by Alan Furst is an immersive historical novel set in Europe in the run up and first days of the Second World War.  The protagonist is André Szara, a journalist working as a foreign correspondent for Pravda on the European continent.  He gets entangled in the world of espionage, and only near the end of the novel is he able to figure out completely the role he has played in the dealings between Russia and Germany in peace and war.  He is a survivor.  Historical novels can fall into a Forrest Gump trap by having characters happen to be at famous historical events, and this one is no different.  Szara is on hand for Kristallnacht and the blitzkrieg of Poland.  In my experience, spy novels also run into trouble when they try to include a romance, which they often do.  And again, this one is no different.  Szara has two different affairs over the course of the novel that seem unrealistic.  The sad thing is that Furst handles the romance better than most, but it’s harder for me to overlook anymore.  I’d recommend this book to someone who likes spy novels because it’s definitely above average for the genre, but it’s probably not a gateway book into the genre for the common reader.
  • Damaged Goods: New Perspectives on Christian Purity by Dianna E. Anderson is an interesting, if frustrating, book about purity culture within evangelical Christianity.  Purity culture includes things like complete abstinence before marriage and all of the behaviors that go along with it like purity pledges, purity rings, and purity balls (i.e. father-daughter proms essentially).  The book argues against purity culture primarily because it shames women and men for any type of sexual encounters before marriage, instead arguing for everyone to research and develop their own sexual ethics.  The book is essentially an advice book, which I found frustrating because I didn’t know that’s what kind of book it was before I read it, so I had some expectations that weren’t met.  But let me first mention the things I liked about the book.  Foremost, I liked how Anderson emphasized consent regarding sexual relationships.  It is one of her guiding sexual ethics that she came back to again and again throughout the book, as well as devoting an entire chapter to the subject.  The chapter on the history of purity culture was fascinating, but brief for my tastes (one of my hopes had been that there would be even more historical analysis).  The book also had a good description of gender as a performance that we enact based on social cues and pressures, with an accompanying and thorough explanation of what transgender means.  I suspect that many in her intended audience would find this part informative and helpful.  Her intended audience seems to be unmarried Christians who are still part of the purity culture.  In many ways the book functions as the anti-I Kissed Dating Goodbye, an advice book on the other end of the spectrum but still within Christian belief.  Aside from historical analysis, I was also expecting more grappling with Bible passages.  Anderson spends a chapter shooting down and problematizing the way that purity culture interprets key passages.  But I was expecting her to put forward more of her own interpretation and theology of sex (part of my expectation was based on the inside flap of the jacket which describes Anderson as a “theologian”).  Her main biblical advice is “do no harm,” or basically follow the Golden Rule to love our neighbors.  This is all well and good, but it’s not a guide that is particularly or exclusively Christian.  I think this book is a good start to the conversation, but not the last word, nor would Anderson herself want that as she hopes her readers will research and figure things out for themselves.
  • The Final Solution by Michael Chabon is a fun detective story, featuring an old man who has retired to the English countryside as a bee-keeper.  The character is never named, but he is clearly meant to be Sherlock Holmes in his dotage.  He no longer has a Watson to chronicle his adventures, so Chabon does not even try to recreate the style of the earlier stories.  Instead, Chabon writes in his own mellifluous, if sometimes flowery, style a mystery that is worthy of the detective.  It takes place during World War II and concerns a murder and a missing parrot.  I don’t want to say much more than that so that others can enjoy the book.  Though I do have to say that I guessed early on the significance of the numbers that the parrot repeats (perhaps not much of an accomplishment, but I still felt pleased with myself).  In my experience, it’s seeing how Sherlock Holmes (or any detective, really) arrives at his conclusions rather than the conclusions themselves that gives the most pleasure.  But in this case, there are some mysteries that the old man cannot suss out.  I would recommend it to any Sherlock Holmes fan.  It’s a fun little novel.
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book reviews, faith, history, literature, personal, science

Book Reviews, January 2015

Here is the first installment of mini book reviews that I promised earlier this year.  I’m planning on writing these reviews for nearly every book I read, first posting them on goodreads.com and then collecting them monthly to post here (so you can eagerly anticipate the next installment on February 28th!).  My goals for this project are twofold.  Most importantly, I want to make sure that I am paying attention and digesting what I read.  I’m hoping that the process of writing these reviews will encourage closer reading and understanding on my part.  The secondary goal is to provide useful book recommendations for anyone who reads my blog (I’ll try to avoid spoilers for the fiction reviews).  Feel free to add your own recommendations in the comments.

  • Saving Darwin by Karl W. Giberson is a decent overview of the creation/evolution debate from a theistic evolutionist, if not as in depth as I would sometimes like.  But sometimes it’s good to step back and view many facets of a debate instead of focusing solely on particulars.  While I am in the same camp as Giberson (someone of faith who accepts evolution), I am still learning much about the issue.  So while I’ve enjoyed more thorough treatments of the Scopes trial by Edward Larson or the history of young earth creationism by Ronald Numbers, it was helpful to read a summary of the U.S. court cases since Scopes and an analysis of the “dark companions” of evolution such as social Darwinism and eugenics.  Giberson is well read on all aspects of the debate so I found his end notes especially helpful in preparing a further reading list to delve deeper on some of these issues.  As a Christian, I especially liked the section where he wrestled with intelligent design, admitting that he wished that the argument from design were true.  He cannot accept it theologically though because of what it would say about God when one considers bad designs (human knees that wear out) or seemingly horrific designs (various parasites).  Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone of faith willing to consider evolution and looking for a solid overview of the debate.
  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer is an enjoyable Sherlock Holmes adventure, filling in a perceived gap in the canonical works by Arthur Conan Doyle.  I only finished reading the complete Sherlock Holmes stories last year (though they were given to me when I was in junior high by my older brother—thanks Alex!), so I was looking for something more now that the BBC’s Sherlock is between seasons as well.  Meyer’s book was a decent “fix” for my itch.  Watson narrates, as he does most of the original stories, and his voice is a credible facsimile.  I never felt taken out of the story because of the narration.  The plot concerns Holmes’s addiction to cocaine (the “seven-per-cent solution” also mentioned in the original stories) and his heretofore unmentioned meeting with Sigmund Freud.  It’s all very clever and well done, but that’s part of what I didn’t love about the book.  It seems that books (or movies) like these—prequels, reboots, or continuations of famous characters or series—often succumb too much to fan service instead of trying to do something new.  By fan service, I mean bringing back beloved elements or tying together every last unexplained detail in the original or having a huge crossover event (world’s most famous detective meets the father of psychoanalysis!).  But maybe it’s the predictability of the original series that makes it beloved in the first place.  So a reasonable facsimile can keep people happy in the meantime.  I was reasonably entertained.
  • Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail by Robert E. Webber is a book I needed to read.  Perhaps it would have been even better if I had read it when I first started attending an Episcopal church in grad school.  The book is mostly a story, the first half Webber’s personal story from evangelicalism to the Episcopal church, and the second half the stories of other like-minded evangelical pilgrims on the Canterbury trail, so to speak.  Webber frames his own story as a search for six needs that he found fulfilled in the Anglican tradition: mystery, worship, sacraments, historic identity, ecumenicalism, and a holistic spirituality.  Sometimes I wished he would spend more time on any of these topics, but he was more concerned with telling his story instead of deep analysis of liturgy.  I suppose that means I need to look somewhere else for that kind of book.  I found Webber’s and his co-pilgrim’s stories comforting as they found richness and freedom in the same way as I have in the Episcopal church.  The book is not meant as a critique of the evangelical churches that they left, but merely a way to tell through personal spiritual journeys how not everyone’s needs are met in an evangelical church.  Webber points out the many strengths of evangelicalism and how the two traditions can learn from each other.  I think this is a book that any evangelical who is interested in liturgical worship should read.  Episcopalians should also seek out this book to find out why evangelicals (like me) were attracted to their door. [Please note that there is a newer edition of the book which keeps all of Webber’s text and story, but replaces the original co-pilgrims’ stories with newer examples.  I have not read this new edition, so I cannot say if I prefer it over the original.]
  • The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould is an excellent history of science that argues against biological determinism of intelligence.  His main argument is that intelligence is not a single, innate, heritable, quantifiable entity, able to be ranked.  By going back and looking at the data and methodology of key figures along the way, Gould is able to show where scientists erred.  He shows how easy it was for scientists’ bias to affect how they measured the size of skulls in the 19th century or how IQ tests for U.S. Army recruits in World War I were inadequately administered and the content biased against immigrants and those without formal education.  This history is humbling for science, a warning always to be aware of bias.  However, I had trouble following his arguments against the theory of general intelligence (g) by Spearman and later Burt.  It involves factor analysis, a method of statistics initially invented to analyze mental tests (but used for many other things).  I don’t have any background in statistics, so I couldn’t tell if his critiques hit the mark or not.  But I did understand when he pointed out that the correlations between a set of mental tests could just as easily show the advantages or deficits of environment as a biological IQ.  He also explained how using other statistical methods on the same data, it is possible to see multiple intelligences (as in Gardner) instead of one general intelligence underlying everything.  Gould wrote the book originally in 1981, but revised it after The Bell Curve came out in 1994 so that he could add a few supplementary essays rebutting it.  The Bell Curve made a big splash when it was published, but Gould feels that it was merely rehashing the same biological determinism of intelligence that he had already shown was mistaken.  I would highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of science or the science of intelligence. [Please note the comment below about the controversy surrounding this book]
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literature, personal

He-Man Woman Haters Club?

I recently finished Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books (all six of them), and I’m sad that there are no more.    The Earthsea books have magic and dragons, but what really impressed me is the depth of the female characters.  As much as I enjoy Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, it’s really a story about dudes.  Sure, you have Eowyn disguising herself as a man and killing the witch-king, but by the end of the story she’s given up fighting to settle down as a healer and wife.  I’ve also enjoyed George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has many well-rounded female characters, but the world in which they live is so brutal.  You wouldn’t wish it on your ex-girlfriend (I hope!). Thus it was a welcome change to read Le Guin’s series, especially the books in the series that treat the roles of women as interesting.

The first and third Earthsea books have familiar quest narrative plots, the kind of thing Tolkien made famous and has been copied time and again in the fantasy genre [e.g. a young man, raised by his uncle, growing up on a farm, always dreaming of the world beyond the horizon and feeling different from the other kids, meets a mysterious stranger and suddenly his life is an adventure with elves and magic and stuff].  That’s not to say that Le Guin doesn’t do a good job with the quest trope: the narrative in the first book follows naturally out of the main character’s personality and motivations (his name is Ged, by the way, a deliciously ridiculous fantasy name).  By the third book he is older and wiser, but again on a typical fantasy quest to the land of the dead.  However, it’s when the series departs from the exploits of Ged and focuses on women, especially Tenar, that it really shines and stands apart from the fantasy that I’ve read.

The second and fourth books focus on the lives of women and the options that they have in the world of Earthsea.  The stories are about the daily lives of women instead of merely writing another quest with a woman in the role of protagonist instead of a man.  The second book focuses on the childhood of Tenar when she is groomed to become the high priestess in a mysterious religion on the outskirts of Earthsea.  As a priestess she is isolated from everyone, especially men.  She has nominal power, but two old priestesses really run the show at the temple.  None of them have actual power anyway.  The fourth book is primarily a domestic novel.  Years later Tenar is a widow living on a small farm by herself.  Her children are grown, but she takes in an abused and abandoned girl and adopts her.  Their life together constitutes much of the book.  The contrast to the male quest narratives is stark.  Ultimately, the climax of this mostly quiet and excellent book is the most important revelation of the entire series.  It turns the patriarchal world of male wizards and monarchs on its head, setting up a conclusion of ultimate reconciliation in the sixth book.

The series can be described as feminist in a genre not known for its progressive attitudes towards women.  And it’s good, too.  The writing is strong and economical (the books are short compared to the usual heavy tomes associated with the genre).  It definitely deserves its place in the Fantasy Hall of Fame.  But its respect for female characters definitely makes it an outlier.  And it got me thinking about my enjoyment of other genre fiction.  When I’m not reading serious books, I enjoy getting swept up in a spy novel, a hard-boiled mystery, or some super-hero comics.  I try to be discriminating and find out which are the best of the best in these genres and stick to those.  But it doesn’t change the fact that these genres by and large have trouble with their depictions of women.

The A.V. Club had a feature up yesterday about the state of superhero comics in regard to gender and minority representation.  The panel discussion highlights some positive steps the comics industry has made (like a new teenage Muslim Ms. Marvel), while also talking about how much better it could and should be in the area of in its representations of women and minorities (seriously, check out the Hawkeye Initiative to see how ridiculous the representation of women can be).  Some of my favorite superhero stories of the last decade or so involve female characters (e.g. Renee Montoya in Gotham Central and later in Fifty Two, Batwoman first introduced in Fifty Two and then later getting her own series, and the most recent incarnation of Wonder Woman by Brian Azzarello).  But all of these stories were still written by dudes.  Not that dudes can’t write good women characters (but they usually don’t), but there should be options.  DC and Marvel need to hire more women writers (and editors, artists, and colorists, etc.), not just to write women characters, but to tell good stories.

So what does that say about me?  Looking at the rows of comics on my bookshelf, I suddenly have the urge to trot out my feminist bona fides.  Virginia Woolf and Willa Cather are two of my very favorite authors.  My wife works while I stay home with the kids.  I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer (thanks to my wife).  I believe pay inequality is a real issue that needs correcting.  I listen to Lucinda Williams and Cat Power.  I think we’re long past due having a woman president.  I accept influence! Really!  But I can’t shake off my disturbed feeling at how much enjoyment I have derived from literature that does not treat women with adequate respect.  Just reading Ursula Le Guin doesn’t make up for it.

Often the only role a woman plays in a spy or detective novel – another of my (now guilty) pleasure genres — is the love interest.  Or the femme fatale.  And I usually gloss over the sad representation of women as I try to figure out who committed the murder or if the hero will get the intel out from behind enemy lines.  Sometimes I’ll notice how cliché or predictable the women characters are, but I forge on, even relishing the sad loner-ness of our anti-hero protagonist in his fight against the injustice of the world.  But mostly I sleepwalk through the stories, turning pages to find out what happens.

I’m waking up to it.  A lot of this escapist reading goes back to the type of reading I did as a kid.  Reading cold war spy novels or X-Men comics in my room.  It’s comforting to try to return to that seemingly simpler time.  A few years back I reread some of the authors I liked in high school and I was embarrassed for myself.  That’s nothing new, I suppose, but it was like cold water on the face.  The stuff I read now, more highbrow than what I read then (spy novels by le Carre or mysteries by Benjamin Black), still can hardly be called feminist lit.  It’s a good thing it’s not a large percentage of my literary diet.

Maybe reading is like the food pyramid.  It’s important to have a diverse and wide-ranging diet of authors and genres.  And it’s okay to have dessert, but not too much, or I’ll get sick.  Or to try another food analogy, maybe sexism in literature is like MSG.  It’s not good for me, but it’s in lots of yummy foods so I eat it anyway, hoping it won’t harm me.

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