Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

I had initially intended this post to be a compare/contrast piece for the graphic novels and TV adaptation of The Walking Dead. Anyone who’s read the graphic novels and watched the show knows why this has become a bit of a problem—they are so completely different. Well, not completely. But close.

Instead, I’ll take a common thread from each and take a closer look: Lori and Andrea.

Oh, also: SPOILERS!

The portrayals of these two women are so shockingly different between the books and the show. In terms of horror genre conventions, the show forces these two characters into more conservative tropes. Lori, especially, is cast unambiguously into the role of the Whore. The drama between Lori, Rick, and Shane is present in both the books and the show, but the show really draws it out, for understandable reasons (i.e., ratings). However, the Lori of the graphic novels only strays the once and is reluctant thereafter, even before Rick returns; the Lori of the TV show enjoys her adultery a bit longer and then wavers even after Rick comes back. The Lori who is more loyal to her husband gets to die the death of an unarmed woman trying to save the infant in her arms (I WAS NOT OKAY WITH THIS SCENE); the story can’t even wait for the innocent Judith* to be fully born before killing the Lori who wavers.

Oh, and let’s not forget that her marriage to Rick is in shambles just before she dies because her having an affair is just absolutely unforgiveable, and of course it’s all on her. Meanwhile, their marriage in the graphic novels is relatively fine and they even communicate—in a roundabout way—that an infidelity was committed and is still more or less water under the bridge. In one, Lori is singlehandedly responsible for the ruin of their marriage (despite the scene in the first episode where Rick describes the trouble they’re having) and of the friendship that once existed between Shane and Rick; in the other, she’s a devoted wife who made a mistake and atones for it through both her actions and her communication(ish) with her husband.

Essentially, the television show has disallowed Lori her complexity (including a complex sexuality) and decides to have her death be a punishment. She’s denied her martyrdom as a loving mother and emotionally faithful wife.

And then there’s Andrea.

I love the Andrea of the books. I hate the Andrea of the show.

Mostly, I hate her because she’s just so unbelievably—and inconsistently—stupid. On top of that, she’s one of the few characters to be vocally feminist and to insist on being able to protect herself and to be more than a cook or laundress. I don’t like that pairing of characteristics. Frankly, it’s garden-variety, bullshit misogyny**.

The Andrea of the books is valued for what she is: the best shot in the group. The difference—and this is an important difference—is that this egalitarian state is more or less unremarked upon. She’s the best. She gets to be the sniper. Why are we still talking about this?

I had hope for the Andrea of the show when she picked up a gun and demanded Shane teach her how to use it. I assume her time with Michonne (on the show) was an interesting story of two women fending for themselves, protecting and caring for one another in world gone to shit. Who wants to see that? Let’s start the season with Andrea sick and dying and then falling rapidly into the delusion that Woodbury and the Governor (seriously, who the fuck takes that moniker without just a touch of megalomania—wake up, Andrea!) are just peachy keen. Given the show’s penchant for killing off characters who betray trust (in this case, Andrea has betrayed the entire group, but most notably Michonne), I would be downright shocked if Andrea lived past this season. She’s still going strong where I am in the books (right now, I’m to where Douglas just buried his wife and conceded authority to Rick).

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the graphic novels are a paragon of how to write non-het-cis-able-white males into a zombie apocalypse, but I am saying it’s leaps and bounds ahead of the show (especially in the “able” category, which I might explore more in a future post). I believe this to be true; I also know that the audience for the graphic novels is miniscule next to the audience for the show. The message I get from the disparity between the two, then, is this: “More people will be okay with seeing women in weak, stupid, punished roles than will be okay with seeing them in unremarked-upon, valuable roles.” I do not like this message at all***.

*Did anyone else pick up on Judith sharing a name with one of the more badass women from the Bible who also just happens to be in the beheading-the-enemy business?

**In my opinion, Michonne and Carol are the only two characters saving that show from having a very prominent message of, “Women screw things up and are only good for making sammiches.”

***BUT I’M STILL OBSESSED WITH THE SHOW.

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Yesterday, I had a shower thought—you know, when you’re still sleepy and your thinking hasn’t settled into its normal structure, resulting in ideas that are often very weird but sometimes kind of amazing—and I discovered an answer to a question that has plagued me off and on for well over a decade: In the novel Jane Eyre, what is the relationship between Mr. Edward Fairfax Rochester (known as “Edward Fairfax Crazypants Rochester” to some) and his household manager, Mrs. Fairfax? Not so much, “How do they get on?” More like, “Why is Mr. Rochester’s middle name the same as Mrs. Fairfax’s married name?”

Short answer: She’s his aunt.

But let’s back this up. Because we know that Mrs. Fairfax is Rochester’s household manager, we can reasonably assume that her late husband, Mr. Fairfax, was Rochester’s steward (i.e., the person who keeps the books, collects rent, and otherwise manages his employer’s properties). Stewardships, like so many other ranks in England’s history, were (usually) inherited. The steward and his family (usually) enjoyed distinction and a comfortable living, but they were by no means considered gentlemen. They were strictly servants. So how did a servant’s family name come to be mingled with a gentleman’s name: “Fairfax Rochester”?

You could say that the Rochesters and Fairfaxes were close and wanted their children’s names to reflect this friendship. You’d probably be wrong. That’s not how naming conventions worked in 19th-century England. Names were for showing pedigree, especially if you had one to show like the Rochesters did. They were not for showing the parents’ creativity or nostalgia or affections for other people*. One common convention for showing pedigree on the mother’s side was to bestow her maiden name onto sons as a middle name (sometimes the first name, like Fitzwilliam Darcy in Pride and Prejudice). If we allow this convention to inform our extrapolations about Rochester’s origins, we can draw few other conclusions than that his mother was a Fairfax, a daughter of the Rochester family’s steward and therefore the sister of the late steward, Mrs. Fairfax’s husband.

THIS MEANS THAT ROCHESTER, SR., MARRIED AN EMPLOYEE, TOO! (Or, at least, the daughter of an employee. Same thing.)

You might think that this is a trivial point to make, but let’s take a look at some possible consequences of such a match:

  • Rochester’s mother knew what it was like to come from the servant class and would not likely want that life for her children, especially if they had access to a much better life.
  • Rochester, Sr., would be extra conscientious about his children sliding back down the social ladder and not climbing it.
  • Edward Rochester was the youngest son and therefore had little or no inheritance coming to him.
  • The fears of both parents were likely to be realized to some degree in Edward.
  • It’s suddenly a lot easier to understand why Rochester, Sr., would be so reckless and single-minded in choosing a very rich woman for his son to marry.
  • This reckless decision making results in Edward marrying a (so-called) crazy woman.

The rest is history, but another layer emerges when you consider how his parents’ socially reprehensible match might’ve affected Rochester’s worldview and behavior. Edward’s parents’ story and whatever social jabs and setbacks they suffered was likely a cautionary tale to him, but it was also likely an important piece of personal history that informed his eventual decision to accept his love for Jane and marry her (i.e., “Well, Mom and Dad did it, so why can’t I?”).

All of these conclusions are very cold-casey and fun to think about, but we should remember that Mr. Rochester and whatever family history he has are part of a Gothic novel. And Gothic novels were nothing if not socially conservative and didactic. So the question remains: What moral can we conclude from Rochester’s checkered family history? The answer is fairly obvious: All who upset the social order by marrying outside their social sphere will bring punishment on themselves and on their children.

The Rochester men’s penchant for marrying women well below their station—employees, no less!—has only ever resulted in pain and suffering. Edward’s marriage to a (so-called) crazy woman was the old Mr. Rochester’s punishment. Not only did he have to live with the knowledge of having ruined his son’s life, but he also had to know that he had ruined the chances for the continuation of his family’s name and legacy through Edward. If I remember correctly (it’s been a few years since I reread the novel), the old Mr. Rochester died before his older son did, but I don’t doubt that he would’ve been any less pained by the fact that his youngest son would have no progeny and that his legacy would be that much weaker. Then, of course, Edward gets his comeuppance when he gets caught in Thornfield while it burns the ground, which blinds and partially cripples him. We can easily read his disfiguring as a punishment for a number of more obvious sins, including adultery and attempted bigamy, but in the context of his family’s history, I believe his disregard for social custom by marrying down was also more than enough reason for the story’s universe to seek revenge on him.

Now, let’s consider the ending through the lens of a family history that continues even still to ignore social mores. Jane is understandably elated and happy just to be married to the man she loves; however, Jane is also a teenager and naïve. Strong willed and principled, but still naïve. Of course she would be happy in her love. But I wonder what Mr. Rochester thinks. Is he still defiant against God and man’s judgment? What does he plan for his son’s future marriage prospects? Would he manipulate him the same way his father did? Or would he step outside that cycle? Even if he does step outside that cycle, will the punishment for Edward’s sin of marrying below his station still be visited upon his son eventually? Will his son also seek love in the arms of someone well below his station?

If the story’s universe takes a steep toll on all those who upset the social order by marrying down, then the ending of Jane Eyre can be read as a failure to learn the right lesson and as the beginning of a new family that is doomed to more tragedy. Jane just doesn’t know it yet.

So, yeah. Jane Eyre’s ending was really a tragic one because Mrs. Fairfax is Edward Rochester’s aunt.

(Also, this tidbit means that Mrs. Fairfax is to Rochester what Mrs. Reed is to Jane! I don’t know what this parallel relationship means, but I think it’s probably important!)

*Fun Fact: In Vietnam, it is traditionally considered extremely rude and disrespectful to name your child after anyone you know, especially a family member or someone older than you. The assumption is that you will eventually scold your child and that while doing so, you’re also “scolding” the person they’re named after.

If Victoria Foyt’s novel Revealing Eden: Save the Pearls were a pot of boiling oil, Weird Tales would most certainly be the frozen turkey.  The most polite way of describing Foyt’s reaction to the allegations that her YA novel is a racist one: bad. A less polite way: WTF were you thinking? To think that Weird Tales would not only choose to enter the foray by publishing the first chapter of her story but also by defending its “thoroughly non-racists-ness” with an argument that amounts to, “It’s not because it’s not and you’re just too stupid to see it,” is just mind blowing.

Before I go further, I’ll disclose that I have not read the novel in question. However, based on substantial reviews and analyses (here’s a good one) from writers and readers whose opinions I respect and find in common with my own, I feel confident in saying the charges of racism are supported to the hilt. That being said, I also don’t wish to demonize Foyt, who is clearly repulsed by the idea of racism, even if she has unwittingly perpetrated it. What I find problematic is the story, not the author. Having not read it, I’ll restrict my opinions to the things that I do know about the novel.

The Premise

  • An environmental disaster has devastated the earth and inadvertently made whites a racial minority (I’ll save the discussion of how sheer numbers do not a minority/majority make for a different post) because their lack of melanin made them particularly susceptible to the more cancer-causing properties of the sun. Because blacks were better suited to survive this new environment, they’ve become the new privileged class and the oppressors of this world. Essentially, blacks and whites have switched social roles.

Some Details

  • The protagonist uses blackface to pass. (Seriously?! OMG WTF?!)
  • Whites are called Pearls; blacks are called Coals.
  • The black males are described in bestial terms while simultaneously being fetishized.

First the details, which almost speak for themselves. Given the history of blackface, and considering the real-world connotations behind the words “pearl” and “coal” (i.e., that one is good and pretty and shiny, while the other is bad and dirty and disagreeable), wonder why Foyt is surprised that others have read them as anything but ironic. Simply wanting a word to be read with the opposite connotation and meaning of what it really has doesn’t automatically make that happen. Others have said that her defense of these words only exists in her HuffPo articles and nowhere in the actual novel. I cannot speak to the veracity of this assertion, but I have read excerpts in which “coal” was explicitly used as a racial slur, not as the desirable designation she insists it is.

And if bell hooks is at all acquainted with this debacle, I’m sure she’s gnashing her teeth (or at least sighing in exasperation) regarding the descriptions of the black men. As well she should. Foyt may well be ignorant of the dialogue surrounding the long-standing fetishization, visual dismemberment, and dehumanization of black men in media. Her text appears to be ignorant (or at least dismissive) of the history behind the other racist details and the kind and level of offense they carry, so being ignorant on this front is likely. Her ignorance would acceptable if she’d owned up to it; as it is, she denies her ignorance, which only adds insult to injury.

But let’s put aside the details. Honestly, you don’t need them to point to a pulsating undercurrent of racism in the text. You need only the premise.

Seen in the best light, a simple role reversal is (usually) uninspired. It takes little imagination and does not advance the discussion of race and racism in any substantial way. Seen in the worst light, the premise of this story is insidious and divisive.

Here’s the basic idea behind the role reversal: Let’s take the real-world group already subject to harmful, deep-seated social prejudice, that’s has been seen historically as embodying and being responsible for the dregs of society, and make them the bad guys.

Okay. Demonizing an already-oppressed group by making them through literature is not empowerment; it’s just oppression all fancied up. The best I can make of this approach is, “How would you like it if it were done to you?” Unfortunately, what it also says is, “Well, they would do it to us, too, so we should get ours.” Which is the real problem and the true poison in this story. It is a story that acknowledges and (I’ll give Foyt the benefit of the doubt) inadvertently supports a dangerous notion: that enfranchising an oppressed group necessarily and proportionally disenfranchises the privileged group—as if there were only so much enfranchisement to go around*.

Foyt has succeeded in at least one way: getting people talking about her book. I’m sure she’d prefer they weren’t talking about it quite as negatively as they are, but she’s at least getting sustained attention. There are some people who think she deliberately chose an inflammatory topic for the attention. This may be essentially true, but I don’t think her aim was to be publicly castigated for racism. As an unpublished author, I imagine I would be mortified to find myself in a similar situation so early in my career. But her response to the criticism has been lacking in maturity, dignity, and professionalism, which is unfortunate. Readers will remember this debacle when/if she publishes again and won’t likely give her their money again.

That Weird Tales decided to throw its weight so vehemently behind such a highly problematic story without any kind of intellectual engagement with a readership that has loudly voiced its disapproval is baffling to me. It also tells us a great deal about Marvin Kaye’s literary taste and discrimination, not to mention his editorial vision for the magazine. The magazine has retracted its support for Foyt, but the damage is done. The new direction and editorial management makes me sad because I had wanted very much to be published in that magazine. Now I don’t want anything to do with it. I’d prefer not to be part of an organization that can’t see a racist text (or any other overtly prejudiced text, for that matter) for what it is and refuses to accept or acknowledge criticism for it.

*There are people in the real world who truly believe this. There are elected officials who insist that women should not get equal pay for equal work because “money is more important for men”—because women making more money obviously requires men making less money. And those officials pass legislation informed by these reprehensible ideas. Scary.

This was the thought I had as I slipped into sleep last night: “Malfoy means ‘bad faith.'” I wonder why this never occurred to me before. Rowling, after all, is no stranger to playing with words and names. And, “bad faith” describes the Malfoys in more ways than one. It could mean that faith in them is misplaced; alternatively, it could mean they put their faith in bad things. The world makes sense now!

Ways to tell you’re a nerd #1: You deconstruct novels while you’re falling asleep.

RIP, Anne McCaffrey

Posted: November 23, 2011 in Books, Writing
Tags: , , ,

Anne McCaffrey, a titanic icon of SFF, has passed into the mystery. Cheers to a life well lived. She will be missed.

If you haven’t heard of Sam Sykes, I recommend* his work to you, both his novels and his blog. In particular, I recommend his most recent post, which has to do with the label “boy books.”

Like Sykes, I’m suspicious of labels, especially regarding books. I see their marketing value, because let’s face it: people hate making decisions. Labels help narrow down the choices people want to consider, which, ideally, leads to them buying something instead of walking out the store empty-handed. But labels can be abused to the point of actually harming the work they apply to. Take for instance science fiction and fantasy novels. I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count the number of people who’ve listened to all my measured, supported reasons for why a great deal of science fiction and fantasy have literary value and should be treated seriously only to respond with, “Okay, yeah, whatever, but you have to admit. It’s just not as good as normal fiction.” That’s usually the point when I put my head through a wall. Keeping all that in mind, there is only one reason I support using the label “boy book,” and I’m not even sure how good of a reason it is: it’s meant to help young boys feel like it’s okay to read.

Boys are told they don’t enjoy something as touchy-feely as reading the same way girls are told they’re no good in math and science. Of course, civilized, reasonable, rational people recognize that neither of these assertions is particularly true, and their perpetuation is a serious injustice that is still a long way from being fixed. Theoretically, labeling a book as one for boys could perhaps interest an underserved demographic. It’s a small step to breaking down the rigid expectations of the masculine gender, but it’s a step nonetheless.

Of course, I’ve heard this same argument applied to the Twilight books: “Yes, they’re horrible, but at least it’s gotten young people reading for once.” Having worked in a book store, I’m perfectly familiar with the people who lose their minds over Twilight. But trying to tell a Twihard their favorite series is the literary equivalent of an outhouse is like trying to tell a five-year-old that candy is in fact not food and that you need actual nutrition to stay healthy. So, my support for the label “boy book” is definitely tenuous.

Beyond luring young boys into the habit of reading books, I think the label has no value. In fact, for any other use, I find it divisive and insulting. While wondering what the label actually means, Sykes writes, “A boy book is a book that deals with habits or subjects that would appeal to boys. Violence, action, bloodshed, bodily functions or, in the case of this book, thinking about thinking.” I have to admit I was rather irate at the insinuation that a book about “thinking about thinking” made it more appealing to boys than girls. To clarify, I know this was not Sykes’s insinuation but rather that of the NPR reviewer, which really makes it all the more shocking.

Isn’t NPR supposed to be run by dirty liberal hippies? And one of their reviewers would actually go so far as to suggest that a book about thinking about thinking is inherently less appealing to girls/women? I hate feeling offended, so I wish I knew which book was being reviewed so that I could listen to this ninnyhammer for myself. I’d really like to regret calling him a ninnyhammer because that would mean he’s not and that he doesn’t actually have the caveman perspective that philosophical subjects are too boring/arduous for the delicate female mind.

In general, I find all the questions regarding what’s appealing to men and what’s appealing to women to be frustrating and overthought. Can’t we just like the things we like without it saying something more about our levels of estrogen and testosterone? Resist the pigeonholes, people!

 

*I have two criteria for recommending authors: I must have personally enjoyed their work, and they have to not be douchebags. Generally, I give authors the benefit of the doubt (that is, that they’re not douchebags) until I find out otherwise, but I had the pleasure of attending one of Sam Sykes’s readings and discovering that he does in fact meet the second criterion. But if I ever discover he, I don’t know, eats babies’ fingers, OFF THE LIST HE GOES!

My last two posts were gigantic, I know. I’ll keep this one short and sweet, I promise!

I’ve finished The Girl books, but now I don’t know what to read. Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty to read. I just don’t know where to start. This happens every time I finish a series of books, and every time, I feel so lost. So, I’ve decided to put on blinders to everything else on my shelves and decide between two books: Let the Right One In or The Hunger Games. I could continue with the Swedes, or I could shake things up a bit with a dystopic novel that pretty much every one of my friends has been trying to shove my way for the last year. Or A Game of Thrones. Or The Ghost Brigades. Gah! No! Just Let the Right One In or The Hunger Games! Do you see my dilemma?

Decisions are the worst!

I’ve finished them! I know they’re really the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, but I prefer to call them The Girl books. For one thing, the titles of all the (English-language) books start the same: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Cosmetically speaking, calling them The Girl books fits nicely. However, I call them The Girl books mostly because they are astoundingly vagina-friendly. The women are strong, intelligent, and capable, each in her own way, despite the many attempts of more nefarious folks to undermine and subjugate them. Though, I’m sure you’d have a hard time garnering a male readership for a series called “The Girl books.” And, of course there’s the whole translation thing, but all of that is beside the point.

*ALERT! HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!*

I enjoyed all three of Larsson’s novels, each for different reasons. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was the slowest, but I also found it to be the most mature and the most demanding of me as a reader (in a good way). There was one satisfying chiasmus after another, none of which were uncomplicated. For example, I doubt it was a coincidence that Larsson sent Salander to Gibraltar to manage her billions of stolen kronor the day after she’s acquitted and labeled a victim by the court. He doesn’t want the reader forgetting that Salander is in fact a criminal; that is, she has broken many laws and continues to do so with impunity. The only true victim of her primary crime, though, was a misogynist who fell outside the grace of Salander’s morals. According to society, she’s guilty of a serious crime. According to her own set of morals, she didn’t do anything to anyone who didn’t deserve it. Then again, I’m sure the members of the Section, which locked her away in a mental hospital as a young girl, believed they were acting within the parameters of what they considered morally right too. (“We must defend the State no matter what the cost!”)

I loved the way Larsson played with the reader with these kinds of moral questions. The primary plot was an investigation into the many wrongs and constitutional crimes that had been committed against Salander, but there were numerous subplots in which the “good guys” reciprocated this behavior against the “bad guys.” Larsson puts the reader in the morally uncomfortable position of denouncing constitutional crimes against Salander but rooting for those same crimes when they’re perpetrated against the enemies of the good guys (most frequently by way of Hacker Republic). AND. The good guys appear to be blithely unaware of this double standard. The argument that the good guys would never have been able to find true justice without breaking a few laws and suspending the constitutional rights of the alleged assailants is a good one. Well, not good, necessarily. It’s a practical argument, which is where the moral ambiguity comes in. Larsson seems to have no qualms about indicting the quality and strength of his reader’s morals. I loved every minute of it!

Stieg Larsson is a sharp writer with a talent for clarity and detail, but not the sort that swallows you up until you have no idea where you are in the story. It’s a pity we only get three of his stories.

And now for the movies!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I wish I’d been there for two reasons. One: It would mean I’d be in Germany. Two: It would mean I’d be a rock star editor and/or writer, and who doesn’t want that? If I had a bucket list, being invited and going to the Frankfurt Book Fair would most definitely be on it.