Author Archive

“Wicked” by Gregory Maguire

Saturday, October 12th, 2013

wicked

For years, I snobbishly dismissed Wicked by Gregory Maguire and the musical it spawned as populist tripe. Fun for the masses, but not for me.

I can be such a snobby cuss, sometimes, no? Put me in mind of that lovely quote by William Paley:

There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all argument, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance. This principle is, contempt prior to examination.

so when one of my smartest friends posted a glowing review of Wicked the book on Goodreads, noting that it was her THIRD read (important not just for 3rd read denoting a better knowledge of the book, but how many books do we readers honor by reading 3 times?), my interest was piqued, I questioned my prejudice and resolved to read it myself.

The time was right recently, when the touring company of Wicked came to town. I got tickets with a girlfriend,and sat down to read the book. It is not an easy read, but I found it a challenging and rewarding one.

You probably “know” the broad outlines, as I thought I did, given the popularity of the musical. It is a re-telling of the Oz story focusing on the witches showing a less sympathetic side of Glinda the Good, and a more sympathetic side to the Wicked Witch, named Elphaba, pronounced EL fuh buh, in homage to Oz’s creator L. Frank Baum.

This is a fair summation of the musical but it does faint justice to the book, which is complicated, going way beyond in depth and breadth Good vs. Evil, and which witch embodies which. Maguire’s book provides the history, childhoods, and influences of Glinda, Elphaba, and many more characters who orbit around the original Oz fable and movie. There are competing religions and traditions in Oz including a variation on Christianity, as well as echoes of an older, darker tradition reminiscent of ancient, matriarchal ones that predate Christianity. There are talking Animals who are persecuted, sentient mechanical beings, a recurring mother/crone figure, and so many more elements. Throughout, though, is the question of Good and Evil, which Maguire presents as tantalizingly ambiguous.

People who claim that they’re evil are usually no worse than the rest of us… It’s people who claim that they’re good, or any way better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of.

The heady mix of themes includes also wind as a signifier of power, and the nature of forgiveness.But it’s complex stew of themes that is, perhaps the book’s greatest weakness and, I suspect, why so many readers dislike it, shown by 3 stars on good reads with many negative reviews. The plot is loose, and wanders. Maguire raises many questions, but answers few definitively. This can be read as challenging the reader and trusting in their ability to think, but it can also be an author not quite in control of his creation. And near the end, when the traditional Oz tail dovetails most with Maguire’s re-telling, it felt like Maguire was hampered by fitting his tale to the other.

I can see why those who liked the musical (which is great fun, and offers some complication of the Oz story just not as much as the book. FYI, it’s adapted by Winnie Holtzman, who also wrote My So-Called Life.) would read the book and dislike it. It’s far less tidy and satisfying than the musical, which demands not nearly so much of its audience. But for its weaknesses of plot and sometimes over-mysterious backstory, this book has made me think, actively, on power, religion, good, morality and so many BIG things, that I highly recommend it, as long as you know you’re in for a challenging ride.

Movies since (gulp) May

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

Little behind on this. What have y’all been watching; anything worthwhile?

Miller’s Crossing. My husband’s favorite movie. I think my favorite of the serious Coen Bros. movies. They alternate “funny” and “serious”; did you know?

Breakfast Club, Magic Mike, and Bridesmaids: with girlfriends, eating chocolate, drinking wine. Cliche? Maybe. Super fun? You betcha.

The Decoy Bride. Adorable Scottish rom-com, free on Netflix, starring David Tennant.

The Sting. Part of a Redford/Newman binge. Music and movie so good.

Smashed. Husband sat this earnest indie out. Didn’t love.

Cold Light of Day. Alas, really bad.

Much Ado About Nothing. Super charming, and Sean Maher made a GREAT Shakespeare villain.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 1 and 2: with the kids. They loved the movies; I found all but #3 forgettable.

Killing Them Softly: decent, but with a sledgehammer message throughout that detracted.

Captain America, Avengers: girlfriends, wine, chocolates again.

Holy Motors
: so weird. More of an experiment than a film. Critics loved it.

Princess Mononoke
: with the kids. Glad we waited for this one; super violent.

Burn After Reading
. Didn’t get great reviews, but I like it and LOVE Brad Pitt being funny. He should do that more often.

Pitch Perfect. Again. New classic. B movie, but love anyways. Aca-scuse me?

Vanishing Point. With the husband, in preparation for

Deathproof. Tarantino. As usual, overly violent, but worthwhile. Fascinatingly, passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.

Fantastic Mr. Fox: with kids, again. Love this cussin’ movie. Hot Box!

Sixteen Candles. With the GFs. Jake Ryan 4ever! Also love the scene with her dad.

Big Trouble in Little China. Kurt Russell again. Silly fun.

Rio Bravo
, with the kids, who liked it lots.It’s one of my husband’s favorites, I don’t think I’d seen it all the way through. Apparently, Tarantino screens this for girlfriends to see if they’ll be compatible. One of the boys: “Dude (Dean Martin) is a really good singer!”

Men in Black, with the kids. They liked it a lot.

Prometheus. Some good stuff like my boyfriend Michael Fassbender as a non human, Idris Elba singing a line from a CSN song, and a tense surgery scene that will live in memory forever, but overall kind of a mess.

Sneakers. With the kids, who had fun.

Bring it On. Meaning to watch it since reminded of by Pitch Perfect. Fun, but not an essential.

To Be or Not to Be by Lubitsch. Lovely Criterion Collection. I see echoes of it in QT’s Inglourious Basterds.

King Henry IV part 2

Monday, October 7th, 2013

I’m continuing to read Shakespeare’s history plays along with the adaptations on PBS of The Hollow Crown. Last Friday was King Henry IV part 2, which I did manage to read before I finished watching. I find it does help to review the play beforehand.

As I read and watch, I’m struck again and again by the enduring poetry of Shakespeare. This line:

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. (III, i, 31)

He’s talking about not being able to sleep, so it makes perfect sense in context, and is such lovely phrasing, and oh, I’m such a geek.

And oh, my crush on Tom Hiddleston just grows and grows.

Before God, I am exceeding weary (II,ii, 1)

:

tom_hid

“King Henry IV, part 1″ by William Shakespeare

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

PD*55247683

I’m watching “The Hollow Crown” series of Shakespeare’s history plays on PBS, so am reading the four plays: Richard II, King Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, Henry V.

henryiv1

I’d never read the Henry IV plays, so part 1 was new to me. I watched the movie first, then read the play second. I wish I’d done it in the reverse. One particular scene, in which Hotspur continually insults Glendower, was hilarious to read, but I don’t remember finding it as funny during the play.

GLENDOWER

I cannot blame him: at my nativity
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
Of burning cressets; and at my birth
The frame and huge foundation of the earth
Shaked like a coward.

HOTSPUR

Why, so it would have done at the same season, if
your mother’s cat had but kittened, though yourself
had never been born.

GLENDOWER

I say the earth did shake when I was born.

HOTSPUR

And I say the earth was not of my mind,
If you suppose as fearing you it shook.

GLENDOWER

The heavens were all on fire, the earth did tremble.

HOTSPUR

O, then the earth shook to see the heavens on fire,
And not in fear of your nativity.
Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth
In strange eruptions; oft the teeming earth
Is with a kind of colic pinch’d and vex’d
By the imprisoning of unruly wind
Within her womb; which, for enlargement striving,
Shakes the old beldam earth and topples down
Steeples and moss-grown towers. At your birth
Our grandam earth, having this distemperature,
In passion shook.

So, basically, Hotspur told Glendower that the earth was farting on the day he was born. Lots of bodily functions and meaty insults, of which this was my favorite, though it had good competition:

Gadshill:

none of these mad mustachio purple-hued maltworms (II.i.73-4)

This is a manly play, full of action, which perhaps explains why I found it more enjoyable than Richard II, which is full of effete, weak Richard and lots of people who stand still and speechify.

Based on this, I will try to squeeze in a read of part 2 before tomorrow.

“This Lullaby” by Sarah Dessen

Monday, September 30th, 2013

Lots of people cite Sarah Dessen’s This Lullaby as a classic of young-adult romance. Alas, it didn’t draw me in.

Eighteen-year-old Remy has just graduated from high school, and is about to dump her current boyfriend when she meets a weird guy named Dexter. Remy is a control freak with a many-times-married writer mother, and Dexter does not fit into her plans.

But I never felt really involved with the book. The characters never felt real to me. Remy felt like a checklist of characteristics rather than a person. I saw a couple plot twists coming from a ways away. I know Dessen is popular and her books are well reviewed, so perhaps her style is just not for me. I liked Keeping the Moon more than this, though, so I may check out another title.

“The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice”

Monday, September 30th, 2013

tommy

Now, HERE is a good entry into the excellent and involving comic-book series The Unwritten. In The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice, we get origin stories for both Tom Taylors, the real one and the fictional one. In alternating segments, illustrated in alternating styles, we learn how writer Wilson Taylor simultaneously created both his real son Tom and his fictional character Tommy.

In what has been told piecemeal throughout the series so far, we get the backstory of Tom’s mother, her pregnancy, and Wilson’s machinations to create a living embodiment/mirror of a fictional creation.

This alternates with the text of the first Tommy Taylor book that Wilson was writing, the Ship That Sank Twice about a boy named Tommy, his friends Sue and Peter, and their magical adventure.

Like all of Unwritten, this is a twisty-turny tale that has literary references upon references, yet is good no matter how many you get or don’t, e.g., the Dumbledore-ish character is called Tulkinghorn, a name from Dicken’s Bleak House. I really enjoyed how it joined together and filled in so much of what readers knew and didn’t know.

While I liked the idea of the alternating styles, crisp pencils for the “real” world and softer watercolors for the fictional one, many of the segments had a different style. The credits page indicate that Peter Gross did all the layouts but several different artists did the finishing, This range of art styles made it feel uneven, rather than balanced, to me. This was a lovely, involving book. I would have preferred to have waited for one that Gross would have illustrated all himself, or at least half and half with another artist like Jon Muth, whose style I was reminded of in the fictional sections. But, I quibble. It’s a lovely book, well illustrated, and well told. It’s both a good entry in the series and a good possible entry point for new readers.

“The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death” by John Gray

Saturday, September 7th, 2013

the-immortalization-commissi

You know how some magazines sit around for a LONG time, since you want to read them, but you know that it would probably take as much time as a book, and who has time for that? A friend had lent me a copy of Harper’s magazine from early 2011, and I didn’t even remember which article or story was the reason, but I finally got around to reading it, and whether it was the intended article at the time, what I was most interested in was Zadie Smith’s review of John Gray’s book The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death. Alas, the link is only available to subscribers at Harpers.org.

Gray’s book is short but not a quick read. I felt out of practice with my academ-ese, but I muddled through, though I did feel at times rather dim. His topic is the muddy and contentious areas of science and occult in the post-Darwin years. Occultists in England were seeking scientific proof of the afterlife from a growing library of “automatic writings,” material channeled by mediums ostensibly from the dead or yet to be. Scientists in Russia pursued immortality and human perfection through any number of atrocities that pre-figured those of the Nazis during WWII.

There is no pristine science untouched by the vagaries of faith (5)

Speaking of Russia, WTF? Reading this book made my jaw drop. It seemed that all government people in Russia did was run around, plot, kill and poison each other, and then murder millions of citizens, either by mass starvation or guns. That is some scary stuff, people. Much more gruesome than the tidy, repressed Victorians who were trying to talk to ghosts.

Gray’s book was not an easily accessible book for me. It had lots of esoteric vocabulary, that even though I was familiar with, e.g., hermeneutics, the study of texts, which I find is a litmus test of discourse level. If the author uses “hermeneutics” it is high Academ-ese, as a professor of mine once called it. But it’s not fair, and kind of embarrassing to say that it was hard to read because the words were hard, but I’m just sayin’. But other things would have helped a great deal: labelling photos rather than having an illustration list at the front to be flipped back to, end notes that were noted by number, not just clumped at the end. These made the book tidy, so perhaps visually easier to read, but didn’t help illustrate some of his points as he made them. Further, a timeline at the beginning of people’s deaths, as well as clearer delineation within the book of the chronology of events would have helped. In the English Cross-Correspondences section, one man was apparently channeling another, whom it wasn’t clear had died.

Those things aside, this was fascinating stuff, especially in the wake of reading The Karamazov Brothers, since Dostoevsky was writing in this post-Darwinian period of doubt, faith, and possibility.

“I Am Not Sidney Poitier” by Percival Everett

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

I picked up I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett after reading a good review of it in an old copy of The Believer that I finally got around to reading on our Big Ass Family Trip Out East, aka the BAFTOE. But anyhoo, the book: it’s a satire on being black and not poor in the south, it reminded me of Confederacy of Dunces and Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days. Our narrator is Not Sidney Poitier. Since his last name was Poitier, his mother thought she’d be making it clear who he wasn’t. Instead it just inspired the running joke of the book.

What’s your name?

Not Sidney.

Okay, then what is it?

I did recognize some references–getting arrested in a Southern town had a similar feel to In the Heat of the Night, while a trip to meet his girlfriend’s family was a send up of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I got the sense there was a lot going on in other scenarios that might have been referencing other Sidney Poitier work I wasn’t familiar with. I was intrigued and amused by the presence of a professor named Percival Everett who people thought was brilliant, but was actually just messing with people. I’m not sure if this novel was brilliant, or just messing with people, but it was frequently funny in spite of its treatment of ongoing racism in the south, which is always depressing.

Silence fell on the table like a bad simile.

and

“How much money he got?” from the fat man.

“Ten crisp one-hundred-dollar bills,” the deputy said.

Tractor Cap whistled. “That must be close to a thousand.”

“Pretty close,” I said.

Also hilarious: everything that came out of fictional Ted Turner’s mouth.

“The Karamazov Brothers” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

kb1

Hey, y’all! Guess what I did this summer? I finished The Karamazov Brothers! And am feeling v. please w/self because of it.

What can I possibly write about The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky that doesn’t come across as hubris. This is one of the Great Books. But, as David Foster Wallace (RIP) noted in his essay on Dostoevsky that was collected in Consider the Lobster, approaching it as such can suck all the fun out of it. And it CAN be a fun book, As well as a moving book. And an engaging book. Which is why it’s come to be one of the Great Books.

Here are just a handful of reasons I’m glad I read it and would recommend it to just about everyone:

It’s perhaps the first police procedural. It centers on a murder, one that is described often for most of the book, but doesn’t actually take place until about 2/3 of the way through. But the clues, action, suspects, motivations, police work and trial are all detailed, often exhaustingly.

It’s funny. Too many examples to count, but one of my favorites was:

I must make an admission…I never could understand how it’s possible to love one’s neighbors. In my opinion, it is precisely one’s neighbors that one cannot possibly love. Perhaps if they weren’t so nigh…

It deals overtly with Theodicy, the study of the problem of pain in Christianity, or how can a benevolent God allow terrible things to happen.

As with the police procedural aspect, it is sometimes spookily modern:

the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. (313)

And perhaps, most of all, the teachings of Father Zosima, an elder, who speaks a passage quoted in both Harriet the Spy and Terence Malick’s To the Wonder,a character whose teachings changed Martin Sheen’s personal faith after Malick gave the book to him:

Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.

I started reading the newest translation, the one by Pevear/Volkhonsky but switched to the Oxford World’s Classics (which have yet to let me down) version translated by Ivan Avsey, which I thought read much better in English. I did this as a summer reading project. The novel is divided into 13 books, ranging from about 20 pages to 100, (FD didn’t have the whole serialization thing nailed down, like Dickens, whom FD admired, did, with regular page counts ending on a cliffhanger.) so I read a section a week. Dividing it, and reading it with others, ensured that I finished. Otherwise, I would likely have given up during the third book, in a section called The Grand Inquisitor, which in retrospect is one of the more intriguing parts to the book. This would be a good book to read during winter.

Highly recommended. Not just because it’s Important. But because it’s GOOD.

“This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

boyslife

This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff was recommended to me a while ago on one of The Morning News Biblioracle events, where I listed the last five books I read, and John Warner offered a suggestion for the next. I am far, far from whenever that suggestion came, and perhaps it would have been more timely then, but it seemed timely enough, coming on the heels of my finishing, liking and appreciating Jeannette Walls’ childhood memoir The Glass Castle.

Also, since you may be wondering, it was adapted into a movie with Ellen Barkin, Robert DeNiro and Leo DiCaprio.

Toby, or Jack, since he changes his name within the book, lives in the west with his mother, who is divorced from his dad, who lives out east with their son Geoffrey. The mother, Rosemary, has a penchant for getting up and going. Interestingly, she shares this tendency and a name with Jeannette Walls’ mother, so there was an interesting fun-house mirror effect to reading these books one after the other.

Where Jeannette was a sympathetic narrator, though, Toby/Jack is not. He lies, he steals, he plays with guns. He is sympathetic in that he has to endure two abusive father-ish figures in a row: Roy, then Dwight, who becomes Toby’s stepfather. So his deliquency is his survival mechanism. And Tobias the author doesn’t paint his younger self in a flattering light. Like Walls and other memoirists, he presents a portrait of his childhood, one that we are supposed to read as more or less true. It’s a rough one, without the abject poverty of Walls’, but without the intermittent glimmers of love and joy, too.

Dwight drove in a sullen reverie. When I spoke he answered curtly or not at all. Now and then his expression changed, and he grunted as if to claim some point of argument. He kept a Camel burning on his lower lip. Just the other side of Concrete he pulled the car hard to the left and hit a beaver that was crossing the road. Dwight said he had swerved to miss the beaver, but that wasn’t true. He had gone out of his way to run over it. (88)

Like Walls, Wolff is a storyteller, and the tale of his childhood is a compelling one, if often uncomfortable to read. Towards the end, when Toby tries to get out, it was much more complicated to root for him, given the machinations he went through to orchestrate his potential escape from small town Washington State. But since we know he DID escape–since he’s a published author, and a professor of writing, it’s also fascinating to see the beginnings that ended up somewhere quite different.

“The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Apparently, I am one of the last women in the world to read Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle. It has been recommended to me umpteen times. When a friend urged me to borrow her copy so we could talk about it, it seemed like it was finally time to read the book that most people described as “a memoir of a girl whose parents choose to be homeless.” After reading the book, I now understand why this is a shorthand for describing the book, yet I think it gives more weight to later developments of the parents, and not enough to the bulk of the book, which is the unlikely survival and escape of the three elder Walls children from their poverty-stricken, bat$hit crazy childhoods.

At lunchtime, when other kids unwrapped their sandwiches or bought their hot meals, Brian and I would get out books and read. Brian told everyone he had to keep his weight down because he wanted to join the wrestling team when he got to high school. I told people that I had forgotten to bring my lunch. No one believed me, so I started hiding in the bathroom during lunch hour. I’d stay in one of the stalls with the door locked and my feet propped up so that no one would recognize my shoes.

When other girls came in and threw away their lunch bags in the the garbage pails, I’d go retrieve them. I could not get over the way kids tossed out all this perfectly good food: apples, hard-boiled eggs, packages of peanut-butter crackers, sliced pickles, half-pint cartons of milk, cheese sandwiches with just one bite taken out because the kid didn’t like the pimentos in the cheese. I’d return to the stall and polish off my tasty finds. (173)

Walls tells the stories from her childhood with a light touch. She has amazing reserves of love for her parents, despite the ongoing trauma they put her and her siblings through. I kept reading because I wanted those kids to escape from the parents. It’s amazing that they did, and even more so that the three eldest became successful.

Like the best memoirs–Mary Karr, Cheryl Strayed both come to mind–this one is self-deprecating, often funny, and not recriminating, though I think it’s impossible not to judge the parents, even as we grudgingly admire their many positive traits that Walls carefully enumerates.

“The Cat Ate My Gymsuit” by Paula Danziger

Monday, August 26th, 2013

cat

Last week I finished The Karamazov Brothers (woo!), and cast about for a a sorbet of a book, a mezzo, something that would be fast, funny, female and modern. I landed on The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, one of the titles I never got ’round to last summer while I was reading books for the Shelf Discovery readalong.

The outline is simple: Marcy Lewis is an unhappy, overweight girl whose father yells a lot. When she gets a new teacher, she and her friends are transformed. Trouble happens with the teacher, and her parents, plus there’s a cute guy thrown in for good measure.

This was a short, diverting book, but oh-so-slight. I wonder–would it have meant more to me if I’d read it as a girl?

“The Karamazov Brothers” Book 12: Judicial Mistake

Sunday, August 18th, 2013

kb

Oh, did you notice the change in the wording of the title and the book cover? That’s because I was fortunate to find a used copy of the Oxford World’s Classics edition, titled (more appropriately?) The Karamazov Brothers. In Russian, the word ‘brothers’ comes first, but in English, it would not, no? Unless they were a circus show. And while it might be argued that this book is a kind of circus–A CIRCUS OF CRAZY–I still like this title better. And having read the longest segment of it from this translation, I like this far better than the Pevear/Volokhonsky which has irritated me continuously throughout this readalong. This tells me two things. One, new is not necessarily better, just a cash cow for the publisher. And c, I have liked every Oxford World’s Classics edition I’ve read it. The notes are a good balance of helpful without being information dumps while also not interrupting the text with something that can be gleaned in context.

And now, on to our longest segment.

Book 12, titled Judicial Mistake (what do you think the narrator REALLY thinks about the result? WHICH HE HIMSELF CREATED.) could also be titled Dmitri’s Trial. And my irreverent brain would often supply the “chung chung” sounds of Law & Order as this segment unfolded.

Imagine how this book could be adapted to the various L & O series, such as Original Recipe and Criminal Intent? Someone should totally do this if it hasn’t been done already. I’m checking Youtube now…nope, doesn’t exist. You are welcome to the idea, anyone.

Anyhoo, I digress; back to the book.

Ch 1: The Fateful Day. The trial begins. Lots of gawkers, especially women, who are fascinated by Dmitri. It’s Fetyukovich, the famous city lawyer hired by Katerina, on defense and Ippolit Kirillovich for the prosecution. Dmitri finds out Smerkyakov is dead and shouts. The judge tells him to zip it. This will happen a lot over the next many chapters.

Ch 2: Dangerous Witnesses. The initial testimony by the witnesses for the prosecution are pretty damning. One by one, though, Fetyukovich knocks them down. The main ingredient in Grigori’s back-pain tonic? Vodka, and lots of it. Rakitin? Took money from Grushenka. Innkeeper? Stole from a drunk Dmitri. The Poles? Cheated at cards. Dmitri shouts; judge admonishes.

Ch 3: Medical Evidence and a Pound of Nuts. Three doctors give three opinions. Herzenstube, the elderly town doctor, says D is abnormal and thus should’ve looked to the ladies when he walked in. Famous city doctor says D is manic and prone to fits of passion. (You don’t say!) Third, young doctor says D is perfectly normal. Dmitri shouts agreement; judge admonishes him to shut up. Herzenstube comes back to tell a heartwarming story about giving a pound of nuts to starving Dmitri in childhood. D came back in adulthood to thank him.

Ch 4: Fortune Smiles on Mitya: Alyosha, Katerina and Grushenka all claim Dmitri’s innocence, though with no concrete proof. Alyosha recalls an incident that would support Dmitri’s claim about having 1500 of the original 3K roubles from Katerina in a pouch about his neck. Grushenka outs Rakitin as her cousin (an interesting late stage reveal), further discrediting the little weasel.

Ch 5: Unexpected Catastrophe. Catastrophe, thy name is Ivan. When he finally takes the stand, Ivan is initially reticent, begins to leave, then pulls out the 3K roubles*, begins to rave that Smerdyakov did it and is removed into medical care. Katerina jumps into the fray, pulling out the damning letter from a drunk Dmitri, raving, and is removed into medical care. In this translation, the letter is referred to as “Proof beyond all shadow of a doubt” which makes much more sense to me than the Pevear’s “mathematical proof.” Dmitri shouts; the judge shouts back. Grushenka shouts. A very loud chapter.

*Not for the first time, I imagined Dmitri trailing FP, like the little paperboy on the bike in Better Off Dead, shouting, “Thee Thousand! Three Thousand! I want my three thousand!” Am I alone in this?

Some thoughts on Smerdyakov. Ivan’s reaction to the devil in the book 11 reminded me of his weird reactions to Smerdyakov in all their previous encounters–he is unsettled by ugly truths, has violent impulses and is talking to someone about something that no one else will believe. We were told that FP could have been the father, but not that he was.

Could Smerdyakov be….THE DEVIL?!

Ch 6: Prosecutor’s Speech. Character Sketch. Oy, this was a long one with those pages-long paragraphs. Kirillovich makes closing arguments. This is the first of four chapters he takes to do so. He introduces us to the idea that we are all Karamazovian–capable of extreme highs and dreadful degradations.

Ch 7: Background History. In a nutshell, prosecutor says Dmitri did it, and his past behavior indicates premeditation.

Ch 8: More About Smerdyakov. In a nutshell, he says Smerdyakov didn’t do it, Dmitri did, and that he doesn’t believe Dmitri checked back on Grigori.

Ch 9: Psychology Let Loose, Galloping Troika, The Prosecutor’s summing up. The end of the closing argument, which is so taxing that Kirillovich faints after, which would not have surprised me in a non-consumptive character after 4 chapters of blathering on. In a nutshell: Dmitri did it, and convicting him would stop Russia from going to hell in a handbasket, or “galloping depravity” which phrase I liked a lot. The end of the chapter has the public commenting on K’s comments, which reminded me of the chorus aspects in Dickens’ murder mystery, Bleak House.

Ch 10: Defense Counsel’s Speech: All Things to All Men. Psychology cuts both ways. Fetyukovich gets some laughs, while Kirillovich had gotten applause.

Ch 11: There Was No Money, There Was No Robbery. Yep.

Ch 12: Neither Was There a Murder. More accurately, there was not a murder by Dmitri but could’ve been by Smerdyakov.

Ch 13: Truth Perverted. Says even if Dmitri _did_ kill his father, FP was such a terrible person that it didn’t count as patricide. (Pevear uses “parricide” which can refer to the murder of either the mother/father, where Avsey uses the more specific and familiar and readable patricide for murder of one’s father.) Says Russia is a chariot, not a runaway troika.

Ch 14: Trust the Peasants! (referring to the jury) Fetyukovich is applauded. Kirillovich, again conscious, is outraged and argues back. Fetyukovich responds calmly. Dmitri again declares his innocence. Jury goes out, returns quickly (which we all know is a bad sign in a murder case, thanks to L & O) and declares him guilty on all counts. Guess what happened? “A terrible chaos ensued.” The men rub hands in glee, the women wring theirs in distress. Dmitri yells then cries. Grushenka shrieks. Dmitri is led away. Again, a very loud chapter, which closes with the chorus again.

“Twenty years down the mines.”

“At least.”

“Trust the peasants!”

“They really did for poor old Mitenka!”

Yep.

This was our penultimate section! We’re in the home stretch, with just the Epilogue and the Introduction to discuss next week.

What did everyone else think?

“The Giver” by Lois Lowry

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

Ah, to revisit books of the past. I last read The Giver in the mid 90’s before I had kids, and before I went to grad school, and before I read all the books I’ve read since then.

The Giver depicts a utopian society in which all members are regulated, safe, fed, housed, and cared for. When young Jonas is selected to be the Receiver of Memory, we slowly learn through his eyes what the costs to this “utopia” entail. It ends with a famously ambiguous scene, that I was disappointed to learn that Lowry explains in a later book. I only read one sequel, Gathering Blue, which didn’t propel me to read the rest.

Superficially, The Giver is a Good Book, a Classic. Jonas is easy to relate to, a sweet kid who learns and is pained by dark truths. But the conflict at the end hinges on one of my least favorite cliches, the YOUNG CHILD IN PERIL. Jonas makes a “choice” that’s not really a choice–it’s obvious. I wanted that choice to be more complicated, to have more consequences. And it does have a possible consequence in its ambiguous ending, but only one for the individual, not for the many.

I said this in my review of Matched, but a good dystopia should make the conflict between freedom and safety more complicated, as Ursula LeGuin did in her story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas“. The benefits of safety are dismissed too easily by white kids of privilege. Of course they’d find it easy to dismiss. But what about people who’d undergone poverty, starvation, war, etc? Mightn’t they make a different choice? And might not they be considered in a white-kid protagonist’s decision? Not in these books.

One interesting thing to me: I read the ending differently this time. I made a note when I read it last time what I thought happened, and this time I felt the opposite. There is power in that ending, which is why I wish Lowry had left it ambiguous.

Edited to add: The world of The Giver is communist, so much so that I was often reminded of the North Korea from Adam Johnson’s novel The Orphan Master’s Son, e.g., when announcements were made by loudspeaker and people disappeared under a cloud of euphemisms.So then isn’t The Giver at its core just: “Communism is Bad; Individuality and Freedom are Good. Go, ‘Merica!”?

I just finished reading The Karamazov Brothers, and one line from the famous chapter ‘The Grand Inquisitor’ reminded me of The Giver and the other dystopian novels because it sums up the central conflict:

And they will come to understand that freedom together with an abundance of earthly bread for all is inconceivable, for they will never, never learn to share among themselves. (317, Oxford World’s Classics)

“Matched” by Allie Condie

Saturday, August 17th, 2013

I’m on a dystopian bender lately, so I was curious to see the world Allie Condie imagined for her Matched trilogy. I didn’t realize it at the time, but was reminded by a reviewer at Goodreads, that the Matched dystopian future is largely that of Lois Lowry’s Newbery Award winning The Giver. Yes, Condie expands on it, somewhat, but the building blocks are the same: totalitarian government, mates and jobs chosen for individuals, restrictions on activities, and constant surveillance.

Condie’s protagonist is Cassia Reyes, a 15 year old girl. Like Jonas in The Giver, she slowly comes to realize the restrictions of her world, and the freedoms that have been taken away. The catalyst in this teen book marketed to girls, though, is a chaste love triangle. Cassia is matched with her best friend Xander, but a glitch in the system says she is also matched with Ky, who has a complicated history. It’s a similar triangle to that of The Hunger Games, with Xander as Peeta and Ky as Gale, though this one will end with Cassia and Ky together. No need to read the next two books for that. For that matter, probably no need to read this book–one can just tell from the back copy.

I was not at all moved or interested in the love triangle. I found it predictable and dull. Cassia was not a particularly interesting narrator to me. I longed for flawed, impulsive, gawky Meg from L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, even as Cassia’s world reminded me of the one in that book, Camazotz.

The plot turns over a supposedly difficult decision Cassia has to make. I found the decision contrived, Cassia’s action (and its complementary better action) predictable, and the result also predictable, although it was meant be be moving and involving.

What interested me in this book were aspects of the world Condie expanded on from the Giver: how 100 works were chosen from each art, so that all citizens could have a similar cultural legacy (which reminds me of E.D. Hirsch, who I never liked, precisely because of the totalitarian, exclusionary, privileged bias his campaign for Cultural Literacy implied to me.) and how works survived beyond those that were selected.

I was also interested in how the society let individuals opt to be Matched or Single. The benefits of being Single were never explored, and I wished they had been. And this is an example of the overall problem I had with the book. A good dystopian tale pushes the reader to examine the compromises between freedom and safety. Ursula K. Leguin’s short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” did this back in ‘73, and hers was an homage overtly to William James, and perhaps less consciously to Dostoevsky, who I happen to be reading now, in a lovely weird bit of synchronicity.

But in Matched, like The Giver and The Hunger Games and even A Wrinkle in Time, the deck is stacked, and the utopian society is a straw man. There’s not enough complexity to it, not enough benefit seen of the other side, to make it interested and complicated. And the lesson it’s conveying of the importance of individual freedom, choice, and creativity is pretty worn by now, having been explored more presciently in such works as Brave New World and 1984. Many would say it’s a lesson worth telling again and again. In Matched, I just wished it were surrounded by a better, less derivative story.

“The Brothers Karamazov” Book Eleven

Monday, August 12th, 2013

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Welcome back to the summer readalong of Dostoevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov. At 93 pages, “Book Eleven: Brother Ivan Karamazov” is the second longest section of the book, which will be book twelve, next week. And remember all those early books where stuff didn’t happen? I think it’s because Dostoevsky packed it all into Book 11. boy howdy, did things happen this week. Additionally, I think an appropriate subtitle might be Varieties of Mental Illness because we got a whopping load of that this week. And now, my slapdash, irreverent summary.

Ch 1: At Grushenka’s. Alyosha goes to see Grusha, who has been ill with distress. I was bothered by the contradiction between:

“There was no trace, for example, of her former frivolity.”

And, a few lines later:

“Grushenka still had not lost her former youthful gaiety.”

Am I wrong? Is it Dostoevsky? Is it the translation?

Maximov is staying with her, and I loved the description of him as a “wandering sponger.” We learn that Grusha and Dmitri have been fighting and are jealous: she of Katerina, he of her former Polish lover. We learn that Ivan and Dmitri are plotting something.

Ch 2: An Ailing Little Foot Alyosha is our everyman and the eyes through which we see most of what happens in this section. He goes to the Khokhlakov’s. Mme has a hurt foot, and has been receiving the attention of Perkhotin, but now that weaselly Rakitin is trying to worm his way into the affections of this rich widow. She is anxious because of a libelous (because it’s in print, right?) piece tying her and Dmitri romantically. She’s also anxious because of the rivalry between Perkhotin and Rakitin. She informs Alyosha that Ivan came to visit Lise, which upset the girl.

Ch 3: A Little Demon. Does this describe the visions Lise is having, or herself? In any case, I think Lise is on the Crazy Train, leaving Bi-polar on her way to Schizophrenia. She admits having dark thoughts to Alyosha, which include an ugly anti-Semitic dream about Jews eating children. Alyosha says he understands her dream of demons, which only makes her more enraged so she slams her finger in the door purposefully.

Ch 4: A Hymn and a Secret. Alyosha visits Dmitri in jail. Dmitri wants to be a martyr, and die for other people’s sins.

I wondered who is the “them” in this sentence from p 587:

“Me, friends with Mikhail? No, not really. Why would I be, the swine! He considers me…a scoundrel. And he doesn’t understand jokes–that’s the main trouble with them.

Later, as he continues his ranting, Dmitri moves away from Christianity and says he’s sorry for God, because of the advent of science.

Chemistry, brother, chemistry! Move over a little, Your Reverence, there’s no help for it, chemistry’s coming!

Though it’s not mentioned directly here, Dostoevsky was influenced by the works of Lyell and Darwin:

Then Dmitri goes into a roller-coaster series of mood swings over the next few pages: worried, hot, excited, rapture shifts to breathless pale, trembling and tearful. Two pages later he’s laughing almost gaily. On the next he’s glum and terribly worried. And the next paragraph made him sound completely CRAZYTOWNBANANAPANTS:

He looked around, quickly went up to Alyosha, who was standing before him and whispered to him with a mysterious air, though in fact no one could hear them: the old guard was nodding on his bench in the corner, and not a word could reach the sentries.

“I’ll reveal our whole secret to you!”

And in the next two pages he’s in a frenzy with a feverish look, pleading, and then a page later is suddenly quite pale in the frenzy, and finishes by almost swooning.

I found this scene exhausting to read; how must it have been for poor Alyosha to experience?

Ch 5: Not You! Not You! Alyosha finds Ivan leaving Katerina’s, and declaring he doesn’t care for her. Ivan rips up Lise’s letter, asks Alyosha who he thinks murdered their father, then runs off. Ivan decides to go see Smerdyakov.

Ch 6: The First Visit to Smerdyakov. In a time flashback, Ivan has a psychologically twisted confrontation in the hospital with his half brother, who is suffering in the aftermath of the attack he claims happened on the day FP was killed.

Ch 7: The Second Visit. Smeryakov accuses Ivan of being complicit in FP’s death. Katerina provides a letter from Dmitri that sounds like a plan to have killed FP that is repeatedly referred to as “a mathematical proof.” Again, is it the translation, or an archaic usage, because it seems to me that scientific or concrete would be more fitting.

Ch 8: The Third and Last Meeting. THE MONEY CHAPTER, IN WHICH ALL (MUCH?) IS REVEALED.

SPOILERS, obvs.

Smerdyakov did it! He pulls out the 3K roubles to prove it and accuses Ivan of being the mastermind. Ivan says he’s going to tell all. On his way out, he helps a peasant he’d knocked unconscious, earlier. He decides he’ll put off confessing till the trial the next day, then returns home to stare at an empty couch.

Ch 9: The Devil. Ivan Fyodorovich’s Nightmare. In which Ivan boards the Crazy Train. Understatement:

things will go badly. (635).

Ivan has an imaginary conversation with the devil, in a long chapter that reminded me a great deal of C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, though a quick search doesn’t turn up evidence for Lewis’ book being influenced by this chapter. It goes on and on until finally brought to a close by–guess who?–Alyosha! at the window. Poof. Devil gone. A says that Smerdyakov has hanged himself.

Ch 10: “He Said That!” In which Ivan raves, and Alyosha prays for him.

I found this one of the most engaging, forward-moving of the book sections so far. So many revelations! So much crazy!

What did everyone else think?

“Brothers Karamazov” Readalong Book X: Boys

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

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Welcome back to the 10th week of this Brothers Karamazov summer readalong. This week’s section Book 10: Boys was short but introduced a seemingly important new character, 14-year-old Kolya Krasotkin. I’ll try to keep this week’s summary short, too.

Ch 1: Kolya is 14, his father died, he’s indulged by his mother but admired by boys for pranks such as lying down under a passing train, has a trained dog named Perezvon, and, in one of the author’s frequent Oh-By-The-Way comments, we learn Kolya was the one stabbed by the sick boy Ilyusha (son of “whisk broom”) whom we met way back in Book IV.

Ch 2: Kids: Kolya likes little children and often looks after the children of his mom’s friend, neighbor and single mother, the doctor’s wife. But this night, he’s trying to get out of the house, has to wait for the servant Agafya to return to watch the kids, and is snippy with her when she does finally get back.

Ch 3: A Schoolboy. Kolya meets up with another boy, Smurov. Ilyusha has fallen ill since the rock throwing incident, and has cried out for a dog named Zhuchka and a visit from Kolya. On the way, Kolya attempts to interact with the peasants in the market to show his open-mindedness, but they see him for the ignorant child he is. At Ilyusha’s, he sends Smurov in to fetch Alexei out to him.

Ch 4: Zhuchka. The dog Ilyusha longs for is one he injured in a prank that Smerdyakov showed him. Ilyusha felt guilty, Kolya cruelly broke ties with him, but this made Ilyusha a target of bullies (Kolya had previously protected him) leading to the stabbing, rock throwing and present illness. Kolya is eager for Alexei’s approval.

Ch 5: At Ilyusha’s Bedside. Kolya goes in, sees all the other schoolkids, is welcomed but alarmed at how sick Ilyusha is, then is strangely cruel to Ilyusha, and calls in Perezvon to do showy tricks; he claims its the missing Zhuchka.

Ch 6: Precocity. Kolya attempts to impress Alexei with his worldliness. Like the marketers, Alexei recognizes a young, ignorant, awkward boy and is kind. Kolya is reassured by this.

Ch 7: Ilyusha. The doctor, sent and paid for by Mrs. Khokhlakov, is disdainful of the poor house and family. He recommends expensive and difficult traveling cures, then dismissively announces that Ilyusha will die soon. Kolya feels terrible (rightly, IMO) about not having visited little Ilyusha. This chapter is extremely sad–there was a lot of dust in the room that got in my eyes when I was reading this, as Alan Sepinwall sometimes says.

So, we get Kolya, who may appear again, and obviously has some redemption he’s looking for. Ilyusha probably won’t recover. (In this, he reminds me of poor Little Jo in Dickens’ Bleak House). It’s an intriguing short diversion from the main murder/Dmitri plot to which we’ll return in next week’s longer section.

Only 3 sections to go!

What did everyone else think?

“World Made by Hand” by James Howard Kunstler

Saturday, August 3rd, 2013

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My friend M from Mental Multivitamin recommended James Howard Kunstler’s novel, World Made by Hand, years ago. I saw him speak at a book festival after the sequel was published. He was an engaging, if irascible, speaker who had no qualms about criticizing Minneapolis streets and its downtown. Coming from any other artist, this might be construed as an insult. Yet JHK (whose last name is unwieldy to pronounce and whose mispronunciation might be misconstrued by my kids) is a writer of both fiction and non-, with a focus on suburban sprawl and energy (mis)use. So while his critique might not be polite, it was, perhaps, true, and I wish I could recall whether he discussed exactly what annoyed him about downtown Minneapolis other than the one-way streets, and Nicollet Avenue which is, like one of the big tree streets in Philly–Walnut? Chestnut?–closed to car traffic but open to bikes buses and emergency vehicles.

In World Made by Hand, JHK merges his two areas of non-fiction interest into a fictional tale of a future upstate New York. The oil has run out, bombs have been dropped, illnesses have devastated the population, and those who remain now live in post-industrial communities of various sorts: agricultural communities, religious enclaves, lord and serf, ruler and subject.

The narrator is Robert Earl, a former computer man of a certain age, who is a woodworker, fiddler, widower and all-around decent, hyper-competent guy. Soon after he and his friend Loren, the town’s preacher, encounter a religious group about to settle in the town, an act of violence occurs that shakes the town and Robert out of complacency, putting many gears in motion that play out interestingly over the course of the novel. One question that plays through till the end are whether the religious group is benevolent, malevolent, or perhaps both. This intertwines with the other question of whether the initial act of violence will be ignored, or taken up in a return to justice.

The tensions and drama pulled me through the novel briskly. I very much enjoyed pondering JHK’s vision of a post-oil society, and recognizing some truths that would have been obvious had I ever had occasion to give them thought before: something as simple as no black pepper, or how bicycles would not be useful because parts would be irreplaceable after time, but more critical would be the roads disintegrating.

We didn’t have coffee anymore, or any caffeinated substitutes for it. I made a pot of rose-hip tea, which was our chief source of vitamin C, and fried up three slices of Jane Ann’s brown bread with plenty of butter in a cast-iron skillet that I had owned by entire adult life–I actually remembered buying it in a Target store… (25)

Alas, sometimes the description became more preachy, when the narrator related opinions on oil consumption, suburban housing, and more. A handful of times, I could feel JHK’s soapbox underneath the narrator’s feet, and I wished for a better integration of lesson and story.

A few other things kept me from full-on loving this story. There is a dearth of female characters, but those there are don’t interact (i.e., fails the Bechdel test) and three of the four most prominent sleep or want to sleep with the narrator. This reminded me of Stiegg Larsson’s Mikael Blomkvist–a dashing journalist and detective who was irresistible to women. I would have appreciated it if Robert had been less idealized, and like JHK, and surrounded by better developed characters. There were plenty of potentially interesting characters, but we learned so little about them in this book that I can only hope that fleshing them out is part of the sequel, The Witch of Hebron.

As the book winds up, there are elements of horror, magic, and the grotesque brought in that reminded me of Stephen King. These were interesting, but perhaps contrary to what I felt worked best–the complex communities and lifestyle changes that develop in the wake of a post-oil USA. Again, perhaps the surreal elements get fuller treatment in the sequel, but I felt these elements both added and took away from this story.

With these concerns, though, I still recommend the book. It has me thinking on energy use, and curious to read books such as Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us (Weisman is a blurber for this book) and Maggie Koerth Baker’s Before the Lights Go Out. I plan to read the sequel, The Witch of Hebron. And in the meantime, I’ll be thinking about what kind of skills it might be useful for me to brush up on in case the lights go out in our lifetime. Because blogging sure wouldn’t be one of them.

Brothers Karamazov Book IX: The Preliminary Investigation

Saturday, July 27th, 2013

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Welcome to the summer readalong of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov. This is a little early because of various scheduling snafus. We’re on week 9, which finds us in Mokroye, where Dmitri has just been accused of murdering his father.

My favorite line in this section was one describing the deputy prosecutor Ippolit Kirillovich:

It appeared the whole trouble with his character was that he had a somewhat higher opinion of himself than his real virtues warranted. (452)

Overall, I found this section much easier to read than previous ones, and that it moved at a faster clip. I suspect this has a lot to do with the murder that was talked about for the first half of the book finally happening, albeit off stage in the last book. In this section, we get details.

Ch 1: The Start of the Official Perkhotin’s Career. This picks up where book 7 left off, with Perkhotin banging on the door at Grushenka’s. Fenya tells him about Dmitri’s earlier visit when he was covered in blood. Perkhotin thinks about going to Fyodor’s house, is afraid, but visits Mme. Khokhlakov’s instead. She tells him she didn’t give Dmitri money, and in a weird twist, Perkhotin finds he fancies her:

“She’s not as old as all that, ” he thought with pleasure. “On the contrary I might have taken her for her own daughter.”

And then our narrator drops another Foreshadowing Bomb: this incident:

served as the foundaiton for the whole life’s career of that precise and accurate young man, which is still recalled with astonishment in our town, and of which we, too, shall perhaps have a special word to say, once we have concluded our long story of the Karamazov Brothers.

Withholding little cusser, is our narrator.

Ch 2: The Alarm. Perkhotin goes to the house of MMM, the commissioner of police (which phrase I will forever and always associate with Jim Gordon, of Batman), who was having a party with several other important people, had been interrupted by Marfa with the news of FPs murder. Marfa in fact had not slept the sleep of the drugged, but had been awoken by Smerdyakov screaming in a way that usually signalled the beginning of one of his epileptic fits.

Ch 3: The Soul’s Journey through Torments. The First Torment. These torments refer to the interview with Dmitri. We’re back at the inn in Mokroye, where book 8 ended. Dmitri learns that FP is dead but Grigori is alive. He admits to wounding G and denies killing FP, though does say he has said he wanted to many times. Grushenka bursts in and loudly proclaims her guilt. Dmitri has wild mood swings and shouts a lot.

Ch 4: The Second Torment. Dmitri rambles. They question him about the pestle and he offers this convincing answer:

“I grabbed it to keep off the dogs. Or because it was dark…Or just in case.”

Ch 5: The Third Torment. Dmitri is questioned about details when he got to FPs, whether the gate was open, what the signals were and who knew them, and whether Smerdyakov might have done it. Yes, he cries, then changes his mind and says no, he’s a coward. That Dmiti. He’s solid a a rock. Then they start counting the money and things get fishy.

Ch 6: The Prosecutor Cathes Mitya. They tell Dmitri that Grigori’s story contradicts his and that G said the gate was open. They show him the empty envelope from FP’s house, which had “for my chicky” added to its inscription to Grushenka. (Is Grushenka the chicky he’s referring to?)

Ch 7: Mitya’s Great Secret. Met with Hisses. Dmitri tries to say that he had only 1500 roubles that night, not the 3K he’d been loudly claiming. the 1500 were what was left from last month’s 3K from Katerina Ivanovna, and he’d been saving them in an amulet around his neck. They don’t believe him.

Ch 8: The Evidence of the Witnesses. The Wee One. The numbers don’t add up. Dmitri falls asleep, and dreams of a poor woman holding a baby out in the wild. He wakes and signs an affidavit.

Ch 9: Mitya is Taken Away. Parfenovich reads Dmitri the statement and tells him he’s under arrest. Grushenka appears and says she’ll stay with him. He’s taken away. Most won’t meet his eye, but Kalganov shakes his hand, then weeps when Dmitri is gone, convinced of his guilt.

Dmitri seems to be off his meds with mood swings for the record books, and is his own worst enemy, and witness. Completely not believable, and yet, since I don’t know yet what happens, I can speculate. I don’t think he did it with teh pestle in the bedroom. Smerdyakov? Ivan? Someone else of the many people who hated FP?

What did everyone else think?

See you back here in a week. The next section is only 48 pages, so it’s a good week to catch up if you’re behind.

Fairest v2: The Hidden Kingdom GN

Saturday, July 27th, 2013

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The long-running comic-book series Fables is one of the more consistently entertaining ones, and I liked the first storyline of Fairest, so thought I’d give the second one, Fairest: The Hidden Kingdom, a try. The theme of Fairest is to focus on backstory of the “pretty princesses.” And interesting backstory it is, with much darker, more kick-butt background than is imagined by little girls playing Disney dress up.

The image above is from the last issue in the storyline. I use it instead of the front or back cover images, which I found more, oh, what word am I looking for here: trashy, salacious, slutty… Just, not for me. One of Rapunzel’s past lovers was a woman, and this story revolves around that relationship. Sometimes I wonder if the creators of Fables are doing equal-opportunity love, or to pander to those who’d snicker and drool behind their hands. I choose to hope for the former.

Rapunzel gets a message via a fleet of killer origami cranes, the first of many visual nods to Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazoaki. After she escaped from the prison tower of her youth from her adoptive mother (Frau Totenkinder in one of her many guises), Rapunzel spent a lot of time in Japan. I read a brief interview with the author, who said that Japanese ghost stories obsessed with hair seemed a natural fit for Rapunzel. She goes in search of one part of her past, but of course things turn out sideways, and she doesn’t get the happy ending she’d imagined. Along the way, we’re given more tantalizing hints about Totenkinder, my favorite character from the Fables-verse.

Like volume 1 about Cinderella, good, and worthwhile but not required reading, and better in pieces than as a whole. Better to start at the beginning of the Fables graphic novels then to jump in here.