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Archive for March 2011

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

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Ok, so I did a miserable job of catching up on reviews over my spring break. In fact: TOTAL FAIL. The next few months are likely to remain slow around here as well. It’s too bad, because there are a ton of books I can’t wait to write about! But, busy busy busy yawn. You know how it is. Please bear with me!

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a multi-generational epic which follows the careers of cousins Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier as they build their own comic books empire. Joe comes to stay with Sammy in Brooklyn after fleeing eastern Europe as a teenager in the thirties, and they quickly combine their talents of storytelling and drawing to create the first Jewish superhero: The Escapist. The Escapists’ struggles are an obvious (but apt) metaphor for their own, and his ass-kicking provides the cousins with a much needed outlet of expression for their fears, rage, and hope in the face of European totalitarianism and Nazism.

Throughout the eyes and growth of Sammy and Joe we see the rise of the Golden Age of comics, the horror of World War Two, and the complexity of Jewish-American identity formation. The metaphor of escape artistry as Jewish experience was a really fascinating one, and was enacted in a variety of ways throughout the book–not just in the comics. This consistent underlying theme in a book of this length could have easily become tired in the hands of a lesser writer, but Chabon kept it interesting, even when a bit overstated. Plus, there were a decent number of sub-plots that were fun, not distracting (with the exception of Joe’s army exploits), and helped to maintain the momentum of the story.

That said, though, the book really didn’t need to be as long as it is (over 600 pages). The length definitely detracted a bit from my enjoyment of the story. Though I never considered abandoning it and was usually absorbed while reading, it was difficult at times to make myself pick it up again after taking breaks. Also, I was so excited about the introduction of Rosa Saks, which came a bit late, in my opinion (like, a few hundred pages in)…she was basically the only real female character in the book: smart and imperfect and a great counter to all the one-dimensional sex-selling female comic book characters drawn by the Boy’s Club men of comic book artists. But I was really disappointed to find that, though an innovative and eccentric painter herself, all she cared about was Joe and how much he loved her and when they were going to get married. Even toward the end, when she does finally start to sell her work, she focuses exclusively on formulaic “women’s love stories” that don’t seem very interesting even to her and contributes only peripherally to the Kavalier and Clay franchise. I would have liked to see Rosa pursue her own artistic goals in a way that did not demean her talent and develop interests and relationships that didn’t involve Joe (or any man–imagine that!).

So, mainly, I did enjoy the book a lot. Chabon has a really vivid imagination and a unique writing style. Manhood for Amateurs has been on my radar for a while now and, though completely different from The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I’m sure, I’m now convinced I want to read it. He’s got some interesting things to say about Jewish identity, and I’m hoping to find out how, for him, that impacts his experience of masculinity. But, the Rosa Saks thing and the length did bug me, so this is your fair warning about those things if you decide to invest your time in this one.

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Written by Emily Jane

March 30, 2011 at 1:36 am

I Was Told There’d Be Cake, Essays by Sloane Crosley

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There is a quote on the cover of this book from Jonathan Lethem: “Soane Crosley is another mordant and mercurial wit from the realm of Sedaris and Vowell.” And he’s right. Her style is very similar to those of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell. I should have taken Lethem’s word for it and stuck these essays back on the shelf, as I’m really not partial either of those authors. But I didn’t, because I was craving essays and I found the book for only a dollar.

Sloane’s writing is polished and tight. Her essays are well planned out and executed, and she can be funny. There’s little doubt about it; she can write a good essay. The problem? Well, I had a few.

The first problem: many of the essays are about living in New York City (by which she clearly means Manhattan). The kinds of experiences she has in The City are experiences that anyone who has lived in The City has had, and that anyone who hasn’t lived in The City has seen happen countless times in movies about The City or can easily imagine happening in them. The exaggerated difficulty of moving to an apartment only blocks away? Check. Leaving wallets in cabs and the surprising kindness of strangers? Check. Of course, the stuff of everyday experience often makes for incredible writing, but Sloane lacks the originality to pull it off. She gets close, at times, to something special, but never quite close enough.

The second problem: The essays that aren’t about The City are about her “typical, suburban” upbringing. She frequently refers to her childhood as “normal”, “boring”, and lacking culture, and, I get it–that is how white, middle class suburbia is depicted in mainstream U.S. discourse–but she doesn’t really take into account that maybe her reader ISN’T from the same background, or that her experience is not, in fact, the “default” growing up experience.

These problems are really the same problem: In these essays, Crosley repeatedly stresses the things about her city life that she¬† thinks are unique to her experience while mistakenly assuming the universality of the experiences who made her who she is before she came to New York. This leaves her with a very specific audience of readers that may not feel somewhat alienated by this collection of essays; readers who are demographically similar to herself. I think this is a shame, as I don’t think there’s any reason that a suburbs-to-city sort of narrative like this one needs to come across that way.

The final problem: Without passing judgment on Crosley herself, the voice she employed in this collection really turned me off through occasional self-centeredness, immaturity, and a seeming sense of entitlement. It’s clear that we don’t share a sense of humor, and probably wouldn’t get along that well if we met in real life.

I don’t mean this to sound as harsh as it does. I do think that Crosley is quite an accomplished writer and I did actually feel pleasure at times while reading her essays. I just don’t think she has all that much to say, really. Perhaps that will change with time and experience, in which case I’m sure she will be able to properly dazzle us with her wit and her fine way with words. On the other hand, if you like David Sedaris or Sarah Vowell you might enjoy I Was Told There’d Be Cake more than I did, and be more forgiving of its flaws.

Written by Emily Jane

March 17, 2011 at 4:59 am

Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography, by James Burge

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First off, apologies for being a bit absent lately. I’ve been busy with midterms, family visits, and internship applications. I’m on spring break now, though, and things are settling down, so I plan to do a LOT of catching up this week!

My first encounter with Heloise and Abelard took place about a year ago when I came across a brief mention of their story in A History of the Wife, by Marilyn Yalom. By the time I stumbled across Heloise and Abelard: A New Biography by James Burge, I remembered very little about them; only that they were considered iconic lovers of medieval Europe and that their lives were fraught with scandal. I didn’t know anything about medieval Europe (and still don’t, really) so I thought Burge’s book might be an interesting way to ease myself into a new historical context. Luckily, it was.

Peter Abelard was already a famous and controversial philosopher, lecturer, and teacher by the time he entered his twenties in early 12th century Paris. His early success was a rare achievement in any time period–also rare was the high level of education afforded his star pupil and young lover, Heloise. Formal education was rare for men, and practically non-existent for women. Heloise, however, was well known in her own right for her impressive knowledge of multiple languages and her erudite writing. Abelard served as Heloise’s tutor until Heloise’s guardian uncle discovered their affair and had Abelard beaten and castrated in the night. By this time, Heloise was pregnant and she and Abelard both found themselves with few “respectable” options. They married secretly so as not to damage Abelard’s career, but soon were separated as Abelard joined a monastery and Heloise became head nun of a convent. Though they were physically separated, Heloise and Abelard remained incredibly close, even when Abelard was later condemned for philosophical works that his contemporaries considered heretical.

What we know of them has been pieced together from what remains of their life-long correspondence through letter-writing. But their story is not only interesting because it is “one of history’s greatest love stories,” as the cover of the book proclaims, but because of what it might tell us about medieval European philosophy, politics, religion, and gender ideology. Burge argues that, despite common belief that the Middle Ages were relatively static and unchanging, the early 12th century would have seemed entirely different from the late 11th to those who lived through both. One significant cultural change, for example, was the expanded public role for women enabled by the proliferation of a new kind of convent, through which they were encouraged to act as religious business managers of sorts. As head abbess, Heloise was able to wield power and influence undreamed of my many of her female contemporaries. This was one of many roles filled by Heloise throughout her life, and Burge never loses sight of her strong personality and incredibly agency, even while examining letters in which she declares complete submission to Abelard in all things material and spiritual. Burge continually emphasizes the ways in which their partnership was unusually egalitarian, which makes their intellectual and romantic partnership especially attractive to the modern reader.

I found Heloise to be a very compelling figure, and was pretty wrapped up in the story of her relationship with Abelard. Burge does a pretty good job of relaying the salacious drama of the story while providing appropriate historical context, which fit my expectations and satisfied me. Though not necessarily an all-time favorite, it was an interesting introduction to a time and place I know close to nothing about and a story of love and friendship I’m unlikely to forget. It has survived close to one thousand years in the public consciousness already, after all, and for good reason.

Written by Emily Jane

March 14, 2011 at 6:10 am

The Subjection of Women, by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor*

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This was the February pick for the Year of Feminist Classics read-a-long.

Sometimes it’s hard to really get into an essay like this one, because so much of what made it original and startling when published is now largely taken for granted. We don’t usually feel the need to justify our assertions that men and women should have equal access to the workplace, or that equal partnership in marriage is a good thing. Well, sometimes we are pushed to, but we don’t need to work as hard to make our point as Mill did in the mid-19th century.

Mills argues for women’s liberation from subjugation through politics, education, marriage, and family. He does so clearly, cleverly and, in my opinion, with a fine sense of humor. He tackles the claim that Victorian-era ideas about women and their roles in society follow simply what has been proven by “nature”. Claiming that we can not truly understand the nature of either men or women in any meaningful sense as long as the binary system through which they are related is one which unfairly favors men, he assures his contemporaries that there is no reason to fear allowing women more freedom of opportunity in the workplace. If his detractors are correct, he says, and women are naturally not as good as men at certain jobs, then the competition of the free market will ensure that a more qualified man is hired anyway. If women prove capable of the same jobs, then the idea that they are naturally inferior at certain tasks will be debunked and knowledge will be furthered. Heavily influenced by the thinking of the Enlightenment, he makes the point impersonally (which it is his privilege to be), stressing that reason alone can determine truth, and that assumptions about the way society works and has always worked are completely unreasonable: they have not been properly challenged as no large-scale experimentation has been allowed.

Furthermore, he makes examples of women like Joan of Arc and English queens who have excelled in non-traditional roles, whom more women could emulate if given the chance. Let them prove themselves at writing, music, leadership, etc. Why intentionally limit the possibility of greatness?

He notes that most prejudicial complaints about women–their neediness, their emotionality, their frivolity–stem from socialization, and that equal education of the sexes would result in a greater sense of self and bearing for women. Not only would this be to the benefit of women, but it would also benefit men to be able to relate intellectually to the women in their lives, and would contribute to a greater culture of intellect in society in general. Shared responsibility in both the private and public spheres would relieve the specific burdens placed on both parties and would lead to happier marriages.

Finally, he breaches the subject of suffrage. Though absent from politics, he says, women are by no means unaffected and should be able to vote for their own interests.

So, okay. I yawned myself while typing this and hope no one reading has fallen asleep. I did a terrible job at backing up my claim that Mill is actually pretty funny. He is! I promise! He makes jokes and employs sarcastic witticisms! :/ Even so, though, it’s true: The Subjection of Women is not particularly riveting. If it wasn’t for my commitment to the Feminist Classics project, I probably would have tossed it aside after twenty pages and taken for granted that I agree with all of Mill’s contentions and that he had nothing new to say to me. However, once I got into the swing of things, I found Mill pleasant company enough and am satisfied with being able to comfortably use his essay as a reference for more complicated arguments in the future, if need be.

*You won’t likely find her officially credited as author anywhere, but after our discussion at the Feminist Classics blog about how she’s been widely demonized and written out of history, I wanted to both make a point and pay her respect.

Written by Emily Jane

March 5, 2011 at 2:18 am