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, 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.
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.