opinion


Offence

Shannon Hale posts on books that cause offence (and hopes hers will) and asks what offends readers: The Great Galley Giveaway

I’m offended by books that insult my intelligence: poorly written, poorly edited, poorly characterised, characters that are of course untrustworthy/malevolent/hypocritical/silly/fabulous because they are Jewish/Muslim/Christian/female/gay, etc. There are other books I prefer not to read because of their content, but I (almost always) put them down out of choice, not offence.

Sympathy

Jennifer Kesler on The Hathor Legacy has gone back for a second look at Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere: Neverwhere: review, take two. I’m really glad she did this because there was some controversy and discussion about her first review and it was interesting to see the discussion there (Neil joined in) and see her new opinions on the book and how he treats the characters. What I found particularly interesting was that although she felt he treated the female characters with respect, she didn’t like them as much as the male characters, many of whom were either funny or sympathetic to other characters. That sort of sympathy/empathy is often held up as being a feature of female characters, and Jennifer replied that that could be seen as a role reversal in itself.

Ordinariness

Again on the Hathor Legacy Jennifer writes on Neil Gaiman’s Coraline and “[normalizing] the idea of a girl going on a quest by simply showing one without making an issue of her gender, without making her an exception to the rule that girls can’t quest”.

I do like it when people just do things without making issues out of them (that’s why my favourite movie is my favourite – ah, Chard!), but I was more struck by Jennifer’s comment that “Coraline is not special. She’s an ordinary kid with ordinary parents living in an ordinary home.” I’ve been thinking about how few heros (or heroines) seem to be around these days who don’t have magical powers, and this made me remember how much Coraline reminds me of Alice: unremarkable, unmagical, practical and sensible. And I do like heroines – and characters in general – like that. Alice in Wonderland’s slightly supercilious common sense, the remarkable scrapes E. Nesbit’s children get into (whether assisted by magic, as in The Enchanted Castle or Five Children and It, or entirely through their own efforts, as in The Story of the Treasure Seekers), the awful ordinariness of Edmund Pevensie and Eustace Clarence Scrubb and Jill Pole.

So many characters are extraordinary (often secretly so): secretly brilliant, magical, gifted, princesses, Destined, beautiful, inspired… I enjoy stories about people whose unique qualities eventually become recognised. But I also adore stories about utterly mundane people who manage to get by regardless: the dull, respectable heros, the plain practical heroines, the brave but not brilliant lassies, the smart but silly children, the lazy Jacks of the tales, all the people who are envious and proud and boring and irritating and who have adventures anyway, and change, and change the world.

Diana Wynne Jones, of course, manages to have it both ways: quite horribly human characters whose undiscovered abilities don’t necessarily make them or their extensive and awful families any better. And then, of course, she makes you love them anyway (sort of the opposite of Joss Whedon, who makes you love characters and then does awful things to them).

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Packed

I decided to offer a selection of famous luggage for this week’s Illustration Friday topic, “Packed”. (If some seem obscure, it was going to be called “Literary Luggage”, but one is from a movie).

Literary luggage is often very revealing of characters, more so than real luggage (I hope). It is an object lesson, a key to personality, sometimes an aid or extension of it. Some luggage is simply a reflection of a character’s position: Anne Shirley’s “very old carpetbag”; the Grand Sophy’s piles of luggage. Even then it can reveal personality: Anne’s cheerful, fragile optimism; the avalanche of Sophy’s character.

Sometimes it encapsulates personality and interests: Larry Durrell’s trunks of books and briefcase with spare clothes; the Children of Cherry Tree Farm’s selections for their traveling trunk.

But almost always it contains magic: bags of tricks and mysteries, promises and possibilities, lists bare of verbs to be populated by the imagination with the bizarre and enlightening and hilarious.

I promised details of some of the books I bought in Paddington the other weekend. As a warning for the sensitive, this post starts with cars and then gets a little more feminine, but I’ve saved the worst till last.

The first is a guide on car holidays from BP – the artwork is hilariously exuberant, but the advice is sometimes just as enthralling. Note the panel of advice for ladies (a larger version is here), “the easiest way to change the wheel is to find the nearest male”.

BP Holiday Digest

It also helpfully begins its “What to do now you’re bogged” section by telling you everything you probably did wrong to get into that situation.

More advice for ladies comes in the form of the following books on, hem, becoming a woman. The first is You’re a Young Lady Now, a really rather sweet book from Kotex (copyright 1952-3). This copy was printed in Australia, but when my (American) mother saw it she said that it was exactly the same as the one her mother gave her in the ’50s, so we had a nostalgia/feminine bonding session while my father looked on from the sidelines. But… belts? pins? Ladies of my era, be grateful you grew up when you did!

"You're a Young Lady"

Inside, the illustrations are of a cheerful and rather robust girl who doesn’t seem to give up her tomboyish ways altogether in spite of the vicissitudes of impending adulthood. I am intrigued by the perspective in this picture, however. I think it is just so rigorous and yet… something’s missing.

Jeans Girl

However, for all its charm, it does contain such words of wisdom as “You see, many girls imagine they feel worse than they actually do. They get in a dither just by thinking too much about themselves”. (I recently heard PMS explained as follows (I don’t recall where): if men knew that every 27 days someone was going to hit them in the groin with a sledgehammer and there was nothing they could do about it, they would start getting pretty uptight around day 24 too).

Then there is the blue book put out by Modess (“rhymes with Oh Yes”) which contains pictures of girls dancing (not too energetically), riding and washing their hair (not dangerous, but don’t let the water be too hot or cold) and helpfully explains that “one of the main purposes in life of every human being – man or woman – is to create, produce and bring up the next generation”.

Growing Up

But the real horror lies below…

(more…)

Don’t over-microwave a wheat-pack.

The restaurant is not spotless, but cleaner than its Milton Road branch. Its colourful and cosy interior create a comforting and welcoming atmosphere (the almost equally ubiquitous Kentucky chain has to its own misfortune chosen a predominantly blue scheme, which is chilly and unappetising). Although the restaurant is oddly empty for the time of evening (perhaps due to the downturn while people recover between bouts of State of Origin), the staff are friendly and helpful and when asked whether I would like a meal, I change my initial plans and say yes. This prompts me to muse on what makes a meal a meal, but that may be left for another time.

Service is prompt. Although I take my own drink and side to the table, the waitstaff deliver the burger within minutes. The orange juice is somewhat too sweet and warm, the insipidity of a recent refill, but it is consistent with previous experiences. The fries are unfortunately somewhat limp. Though acceptable and even surpassing other restaurants’ forays into this field, they are not the slender threads of saffron crispness that I am fond of and have come to expect, and I can enjoy them only as counterpoints to that memory, as symbols of potential.

But it is the centrepiece of the meal that must command attention, for it is the newest offering of this venerable establishment – veritably debutante – and like the mayfly, short-lived. In a fortnight it will be gone, and I confess I am surprised that curious gourmands have not beaten a path to the automatic doors and fluorescent-lit cashier to savour it on this, its opening night.

Grandly christened “The McEurope” (in a coy reference to recent accusations of the owner’s cultural imperialist tendencies), it is proudly presented in a themed wrapping – a cheap gimmick perhaps, but one which does not antagonise by being difficult to negotiate. It is hinged on ancient principles and, indeed, may be considered a nod to the paper wrappings used to steam foods in many cuisines and increasingly popular in fusion styles, a nice nod to the internationality of the event it is created to honour. Inside, the burger rests in a cushioning of shredded lettuce.

I cannot pretend to justify the title of “The McEurope” except to the extent that America itself may be held up as the defining characteristic of “The West”. Those influences not native to the common or garden burger seem to be drawn primarily from the Mediterranean region and what are popularly considered to be the keynote flavours of Italy. The signature meat is chicken, crisply crumbed and fried, but this is topped with napolitana sauce and parmesan. Pleasingly, the parmesan is shaved, not shredded or powdered, though it lacks some of the piquancy of true and truly fresh parmesan. The chef has chosen a stereotypical napolitana sauce, perhaps to avoid detracting from the desired impression with flights of culinary fancy. It is, perhaps, a little too stereotypical however, as it is less reminiscent of Italia than of bottled supermarket sauces.

The lettuce, I confess, puzzles me, particularly in such a “limited edition” dish as this where, untrammelled by the restrictions inherent in dishes which form the backbone of the menu (consistent and sustainable), I might have thought the chef would risk using the somewhat more diner-friendly leaf lettuce. I do not think it would have made the dish too divergent from the balance of the menu. Oddly, the lettuce was not mentioned on the menu itself. Ordinarily this would not surprise me, but as all the other ingredients were listed, it seems this too should have been included, for although frequently included in burgers lettuce is arguably not essential to their make-up in the way bread is.

Ultimately, the dish doesn’t quite gel for me. The individual ingredients – perhaps further hampered by the sheer quantity of shredded iceberg lettuce – never become a single “McEurope” but remain isolated in flavour, as listed on the menu, an ensemble performance of capable and solid (if uninspired) actors whose director fails to bring them together into a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Nevertheless, I am intrigued by the experiment and will return with some curiousity for the next fornight’s instalment in this serial drama of food not as sustenance or flavour or even convenience, but as novelty, gimmick and idea.

The Mean Seasons: Fables Vol. 5 – Willingham et. al. I am enjoying this graphic novel series so much. I spent an evening sitting in a cafe composing a post on the awesomeness of one of the main characters. The series is not unproblematic, but it’s better than a lot and it is fairytales not retold but… matured? continued? and thrown into a difficult situation they have to deal with or perish. Snow continues to be amazing, Bigby to be difficult, everyone has their own agendas and jealousies, and they are beginning to be under threat not only from the old world but from elements of the new and from their own rules. Will the triumph of democracy be a deathblow for Fabletown? Will investigative journalists expose the secret at the heart of 21st century New York? Will true love triumph? And will anyone ever cut Snow a break? I wish comics weren’t so expensive. I’m trying to not buy more than one volume of this a month, but I bought vol. 6 a week after this one.

Batman – A Death in the Family . My first actual Batman encounter other than the movies and The Daily Batman, so while I enjoyed reading it (and found the idea of readers “voting Robin off”) I don’t really have any framework within which to review it. But seeing the Joker so much gave me a jawache.

Assorted short comics acquired at Supanova – these were out of context for me, both in terms of the continuing stories and the sort of comics they are, so I won’t review them. Also, I was disconcerted by the artwork being so much weaker than what I am used to seeing and so much better than mine.

Labyrinths – Borges. Finally. And yes, he is gorgeous. He reminds me of Umberto Eco, but perhaps took himself a little more seriously. His short stories, essays and poems tread between fantasy (sometimes reminding me of Lovecraft) and philosophy, theology, impossible hypotheticals, all short enough that they leave you room to go off on thoughts of your own. I would sit on the bus pondering the relationship between his examination of ‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’ and the cultural cringe and the landscape in Australian speculative fiction until I began to suspect the reason I was having trouble concentrating at work that week was because I was thinking too much outside it. The final poem in the collection was ‘Elegy’ which contained the very lovely line: “to have grown old in so many mirrors” which reminded me of Elliot but is both more beautiful and just as tragic.

The Game – Diana Wynne Jones. As lively and convoluted (plot and story and characters all) as any of her stories, but in other ways just as reserved. The story of the paths of the mythosphere, the interconnectedness of families and stories and myths and legends (the Sysiphus strand which reaches out to the legend of Sysiphus at one end, but closer to home is office workers dealing with never-empty in-trays), the whirling wheeling stars (which reminded me of P. L. Travers at her best) are so rich and ripe and vivid and yet DWJ holds back so much, telling only the barest part of the story and leaving the reader wanting so very much more. Not that the story is untold, but she has shown and hinted at wonders and worlds just over the edge of it and then pared back to only the core of her tale. It is incredibly frustrating. I wrote to the DWJ list that “DWJ is very good at giving the impression that there are stories spilling over the edge of the one you are reading, that there are worlds and events and tales that you can’t quite turn the page to read although you *want* to, and that she probably won’t tell you ever because they aren’t necessary to the (quite wonderful) story at hand. Lately, however, she seems to be developing this to a very fine pitch – as if she has worked out the bare minimum she needs to actually tell to convey the story she wants to tell you, while hinting at an even more voluminous universe. The story she is telling works and is very very good, but as a reader I am convinced that there is *so much more out there* that it becomes a kind of exquisite torture.” The worst part is that I know from experience that even if she does write a sequel, it will probably be about an extremely peripheral character and is unlikely to take place in the same universe.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat – Oliver Sacks. If you ever saw Awakenings with Robin Williams, Williams played Sacks. This is a series of case studies of patients with various neurological anomalies – twin savants, a ‘disembodied’ woman, a musician who ceases to recognise faces (not just the faces of certain individuals but human faces at all), people whose lives are held together with music or who can only walk upright by means of a spirit level attached to their spectacles, who recognise expression but not words or words but not expression. It is fascinating and alarming but most interesting because he treats his patients less as fascinating cases than as interesting, complicated people, whose ‘problems’ may not be problems at all, or part of a continuum of human experience. I was glad I read this after Borges, for Sacks referred to him (and particularly his story ‘The Mnemonist’) several times.

The Fourth Bear – Jasper Fforde. Alright. I laughed at some of the puns (the Oddly Familiar Deja Vu Club) but it wasn’t as sparkling as the Thursday Next books. The threats weren’t threatening, the comedy sometimes felt forced. I really like fairytale retellings, but I think Fforde handled retellings of literature better. I liked Jack Spratt – I have a soft spot for hard-bitten, even noirish, policemen with complicated pasts – but he was a bit too affected by his past and I didn’t like the way his ex-wife was portrayed.

The Pinhoe Egg – Diana Wynne Jones. Another “meh”, but within the context of the rest of DWJ’s books, so that’s a pretty good “meh” : ) Although Magicians of Caprona was one of my earliest favourites, I don’t rank the Chrestomanci books as a whole among my favourites of her books. I like the characters and the world but they often leave me feeling as if there is something more behind the background, some part of the story I can’t quite get at or which is still waiting to be told. But it has a cat who walk through walls.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon. It was an odd experience reading this, because the subject matter and milieu belong to genres I am used to (comics, graphic novels, magic realism, slight surrealism) but the book itself is a Novel, which does things differently, and is a genre which seems obliged to have more gritty sexuality in it and less satisfying endings than the genres I’m used to (although, as Novels go, the ending of this one wasn’t bad). A similar thing happened with Year of Wonders which I would have liked as an Historical, Fantasy or Alternate History novel but really took against as a Novel. I liked Chabon’s style, I really liked that he anchored the characters in history and made their fictional fictional creations (The Escapist, et al) seem so real I wanted to be able to pick up one of the comics and look at Joe’s drawing, or look for references to the characters and their creations in the anti-comic literature of the time. Usually this would bother me – I often feel cheated by reading historical fiction, but this fictionalised history paralleling the real rise of the comic book hero was excellent, interesting, entertaining, helpful and gratifying. I liked the faint elements of the fantastic and can’t decide if I wanted them explained or not. I’d have a hard time lending it for reasons of certain scenes.

Also, Song of Songs, and if you want to scar your children, read this aloud as a family with parts assigned appropriately.

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