12 days ’til I turn 37!
The Candle in the Wind by T.H. White — If the previous installment was the fanfiction leadup to the inevitable, this one is the leisurely, meaty examination of that inevitable. It’s ridiculously sad, and a brilliant dramatic tragedy.
For some reason, the breakup of a close-knit group or team hits me harder, on the tragedy scale, than many another story event more legitimately tragic. The dispersal of the cast, even to various happy situations, depresses the shit out of me. Therefore I found the dissolution of the Arthur/Lance/Gwen friendship much the saddest part of this book. The scene where Arthur breathlessly waits for Lance, knowing he’ll show up to rescue the condemned Guinevere, counting on him, loving him, cheering him on in an action that must lead to war between them… That was just heartbreaking.
White did very well with how much, and when, he chose to focus on Arthur. This Arthur is such a plain, simple character… An excellent passage says, He did not see a hero of romance, but a plain man who had done his best—not a leader of chivalry, but the pupil who had tried to be faithful to his curious master, the magician, by thinking all the time—not Arthur of England, but a lonely old gentleman who had worn his crown for half a lifetime in the teeth of fate. Only when his plainness and simplicity create some external conflict — when he struggles to decide about the question of might, or hides the truth about Lance and Gwen even from himself rather than dealing with it — does he become interesting to read about, and for the most part White focused on other characters except in those specific instances.
In those specific instances, though, Arthur is both admirable and pitiable. He puzzles through matters of appropriate human interaction just as any of us might; he’s never implied to be some visionary leader with any right of superior political intellect to rule over others — he’s just, as it so often says in the text, an honest, hard-working, normal man. And who can blame him for not wanting to give up his beloved wife and best friend? He undoubtedly made poor choices, but they were based in very understandable and not egregious human desires. And I love this very real, very understandable King Arthur; he’s much more identifiable, more accessible, than the grand and aloof figure I picture when I hear him mentioned in other contexts — and therefore a much fitter lens through which the examine the societal problems these books so carefully discuss.
Like a lot of great literature, they do raise important questions, and examine them from various angles, but never really answer them. How should mankind’s baser instincts be dealt with, if they cannot be eradicated? How can wars be prevented, and what is to be done about them once they do start? And how likely, how worthy is an individual that has done wrong, or is continually doing wrong, to achieve personal goals and noble ends? The fact that these questions remain unanswered not only adds to the realism of the story — since they’re questions that often go unanswered in life as well — it also adds to the pathos of watching a sympathetic character struggle with them, knowing he’s not likely to have any better luck than we do in reality.
The Murder of Mary Russell by Laurie R. King — This book is the very essence of fun and intriguing fill-in-the-gaps fanfiction. I followed Mrs. Hudson’s life story with great interest, and developed a great admiration for her, and the expansion of The Adventure of the Gloria Scott was brilliant. And I loved to meet young Holmes and see some early inklings of what led him to start detecting as a career and way of life.
I was surprised, though, and perhaps a little dismayed, that Holmes’s coldness toward Mrs. Hudson never diminished the way I assumed it would. It’s true he made the comment, “You know how much Dr Watson helped me understand my fellow man. Mrs Hudson has done the same. Although perhaps for different reasons.” — but I never really got the sense of his warming to her the way their later relationship seems to indicate he must have done.
And in fact the feel of this book overall didn’t seem to fit with that of the rest of the series. This wasn’t a deal-breaker for me by any means, since I really loved this installment, and it’s possible the impression may diminish the next time I read through the series and this book is sandwiched between two rather than forming the tail-end. But something definitely felt disconnected about this story. Ah, well.
The Light Princess by George MacDonald — In my last commentary on a George MacDonald book, I discussed how his treatment of female characters is interesting and sometimes not what I expect from an author of his time. Well, this book kinda turns around and kicks that assessment in the balls XD
Despite the fact that the witch is the only named character in the book, and that the two princesses presented form an interesting juxtaposition, neither one of them (nor the queen) comes out of it looking particularly good or as if she was written by someone with a clear idea of women as fully realized people. I was especially distressed by the prince’s assessment of the princess when he found she was more ‘maidenly’ in the water than out of it. Like seriously WTF. Nevertheless, this is an adorable story — really charming faery tale stuff, and very funny.
All right, I’ve reached that way-behind state in AEL’s where I’m never going to catch up and get back on track if I don’t condense. So just a few thoughts about the rest of this extensive list.
Frances books by Russell Hoban performed by Glynis Johns — We used to listen to these when I was a kid, and when I found four of them on CD I obviously had to buy them. They’re every bit as hilarious and adorable as I remember. The author’s understanding of a little girl was amazing, and the reader’s comedic timing is impeccable.
Jem and the Holograms only I forget which issues — I thought I had all the issues up until the end of the series, but when I read all that I had left I found the story still continued. Anyway. I still don’t like the art much. Passage of time and status of anything is still a problem with this writing.
I appreciate seeing Pizzazz demonstrate artistic motives rather than merely selfish ones. Riot comes across as more of an airhead than the suave, arrogant character from the TV series. I cried seeing Raya interact with the Holograms, because she BELONGS IN THAT FAMILY, even if the TV series kinda gave that storyline and her development alongside them the short end of the stick.
Beauty and the Beast (2017) again — This movie is still not very good, and the special effects kinda suck. Not as much as the vocal performances, though. Seriously, why does this exist?
The Book of Merlyn by T.H. White — My mom and I have spent the last thirty years wondering why some editions of The Sword in the Stone contain the ants and some don’t, and now the mystery is solved!!! Finding out the answer to that question was my favorite thing about this book, however, since it’s kinda boring. And I don’t know that any coherent point (or at least any feasible suggestion) is ever made on the subject of war and government.
Crocodile on the Sandbank by Elizabeth Peters — I’d really like to have more opportunity to discuss this book and the next few in this series, but as I mentioned above, it’s obvious I have to condense. At least there are a million more books in this series to comment on later XD
Anyway, Amelia Peabody is one of my favorite series of books in the whole world, and this is about my millionth time through. About this first one I’ll mention that it’s a good thing the Early Installment Weirdness (or subsequent retconning, if you will) wasn’t enough to turn me and many other readers off this series, because there’s definitely some of that.
I also want to mention that, for all Amelia claims from almost the very first instant of her narration to be highly confident and largely indifferent to other people’s opinions, she’s not nearly so much of these things as she later becomes. In fact there are moments in this book where she’s positively unsure of herself, and it’s actually kinda sad to watch. I don’t think this is EIW, though, just natural character progression. She had to shake England off her feet, after all.
Wizard People, Dear Reader by Brad Neely — It’s so difficult to describe what this thing even is, let alone offer any commentary on it. I’ll just say that this unique piece of art is one of the funniest things I’ve ever experienced in my life, and it never becomes any less so no matter how many times I listen to it. (Yeah, I just listen rather than watching; you know how I am.)
Also, this is not the first Harry Potter parody (though I don’t know that “parody” is entirely the right word) that portrays Hermione (in this case The Wretched Harmony) as unlikable and unattractive, and I continually wonder where this idea comes from. I never thought the books or even the crappy movies meant to imply that Hermione was anything but a totally normal person with normal flaws, but I keep seeing implications elsewhere that she’s ugly and gross. Why? I don’t know.
Justice League (2001) — I started watching this show (haven’t gotten to the second season yet) after I finished Batman: The Animated Series, because I wanted more Batman, and my immediate and pervasive thought was, Needs moar Batman (and why are his ears so pointy??).
I like that it imitated BTAS’s style in having stand-alone stories rather than a seasonal story-arc but expanded upon that by making those stories two or three episodes long. Some of them were extremely engaging, too. Surprisingly, I even liked Aquaman!
I interpret the Flash as he’s meant to be rather than as he’s actually written. His isn’t the worst would-be-funny, would-be-fast-talking kids’ show dialogue I’ve ever heard, but it’s not very good, so I do the writers the credit of seeing him (as much as I can) as the character they wanted him to be rather than the character they actually came up with.
I adore Hawkgirl. She reminds me so much of Sano. Also, I’m kinda-sorta OK with Batman/Wonder Woman, though I’m very much overlaying Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman over this one that doesn’t actually get much characterization.
Beyond that, random thoughts: Property damage means nothing to these people. Flying should work differently in space. Please stop making Hawkgirl hover without at least flapping her wings. Make up your minds about how fast the Flash actually is, and also about how friction works. Please establish relative strength levels for these characters and stick to them.
Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian —
MsJadey wanted me to read these books over a decade ago, but that was back before I’d discovered audiobooks, when I still wandered off from most things I tried to read whose author’s name didn’t have a J and more than one R in. I did, however, remember the phrase “a brutally ugly clock” with loving clarity, and looked forward far more vaguely to the day when I would give this series another try.
So now I’ve done so, and Jadey was right all those years ago: this is fucking amazing stuff. Excellently well drawn characters in a thoroughly gripping story, and historic accuracy (apparently) so precise I almost literally cannot believe these books were written in the 70’s.
Gotta say, though, while I get the gist of these very technical naval scenes, the specifics tend to go right over my head. After reading one of these books I find I have these various terms I don’t actually understand floating around in my head, and am likely to shout out, “Quaterdeck!” or “Mizzenmast!” at any given moment for no particular reason, and that’s the extent of my minute understanding XD I thought the scene where someone (I forget who, and don’t feel like looking it up) explained to Stephen what all the parts of the ship were called and what many of them were for was meant not so much as an explanation for the reader as a thumbed nose at her. Which is all in good fun, really, and doesn’t detract at all from my enjoyment of the books.
It’s always interesting to read stories about characters that are likable but not necessarily approvable. Obviously everyone has different morals, at least slightly, and one is flexible to a certain degree in experiencing those of different characters… but seriously when Jack came down with a venereal disease at the end, I was kinda like, Dude, you had that coming. More on this in the second installment.
Because I am damn well making my way further into this series. I honestly cannot imagine how the author could keep this interesting for twenty more books, but I’m very much game to find out. I shall press forward until they become boring… and if they never do, so much the better! I need to add another 20-book series to my reading list, right?
The Curse of the Pharoahs by Elizabeth Peters — It’s funny how much of Amelia is direct Sherlock Holmes parody or reference. My first couple of times through the series, back in the day, I hadn’t read enough Holmes to recognize this. Then when I did go all through the Doyle properly, I was amused and amazed at all the familiar names.
Lady Baskerville is an excellent character and villain. Madam Berengeria is hilarious, but also, in only the second book, the beginning of a long-running tradition of fat-shaming (though you could argue that Lady Harold started that even earlier; just she’s a far less significant character).
I feel like Peters set Kevin up to be more important in the long run than he turned out to be. Or at least he was a character that outlived his usefulness as part even of the secondary cast. He has two romantic letdowns — one more and it would have become a running joke — so I always find myself disappointed when the culmination of his life’s romantic endeavors is dismissed ten books later in a throwaway line about a wife we never meet. Still, “like a small dapper whale stranded on a sandy beach” remains one of the best descriptions ever written.
Favorite moment in this installment: “Champagne Charlie is my name.”
The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit — There’s a certain perhaps 75-year period of British children’s literature wherein ALL CHILDREN ACT THE SAME. I kindof assume this is a painful sort of realism, given how prevalent it is… I’m just glad I wasn’t a kid (a girl, even, yikes) in England at that time.
Gotta admit, though, Gerald is one of the more unique and interesting child characters from that era that I’ve encountered.
I don’t like the surrealism at the end of this book. Maybe the author thought she was presenting a climactic scene for a really good ending by ramping up the magic into sheer nonsense, but I really feel like it is nonsense, and a stupid way to wrap things up.
Time for an important story. When I first read this book, I was about twelve years old, and it was at that point, largely because of this book, that I started to have a strong antipathy for what in later years I dubbed Personification Without Empathy: the tendency of writers, specifically writers of children’s art, to assign human-like intelligence to a non-human creature or object without ever (apparently) considering the effects of the situations they then put that character into on an intelligent and sensitive being.
Consider, for example, the Les Poissons scene in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, a movie that came out at around the same time I first read The Enchanted Castle and that undoubtedly helped form my opinion on this subject as well: here we have Sebastian, an intelligent and artistic adult, trapped in a room full of the butchered body parts of slaughtered countrymen, fleeing the murderous Louie as he sings (sings!!) about the atrocities he perpetuates on the aforementioned body parts — and this is played for humor.
I mean, seriously — doesn’t the above description sound like something out of a survival horror game? Did nobody on that staff consider how unsettling and even distressing this might be? I find this type of disregard for the feelings of a character in more than a few pieces of children’s media.
Which brings me back to The Enchanted Castle and the Ugly-Wuglies, specifically Mr. U.W. Ugli. My twelve-or-so-year-old self was upset enough that most of the Ugly-Wuglies, after enjoying the play and politely inquiring where they might find a good hotel, then reverted to coats and gloves and umbrellas… but for Mr. Ugli, who had been granted a greater level of longevity and reality and even, apparently, a personal history and position in society, to disappear suddenly from existence and leave behind tangible evidence of having been there and memories in the minds of those that had worked with him… that destroyed me. I cried for hours after I read that. Admittedly I was a melodramatic child given to working myself into a passion, but the point is that it really bothered me.
And… it still bothers me. I feel like Personification Without Empathy is a form of Othering not entirely unanalogous with racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on. Not only does it create scenes or even entire stories that can be deeply disturbing, it encourages an attitude — all the worse because it’s subconscious — of dismissiveness toward the feelings of others that we do not need in our art, especially when that art is intended for children.
Kissing the Witch by Emma Donoghue — This book was more promise than execution. To start out with, the concept of “all these faery tales are connected” is such a basic one that, unless they’re connected in some meaningful way — something more than just, “and it turns out this character was involved in this other story previously” — there’s no more significance or emotional engagement to that connection than there was to the story I wrote when I was eleven wherein each set of faery tale lovers had a kid that went on to be the hero of the next faery tale: no detail of characterization or symbolism specifically fitted any character to be the offshoot of any particular previous character(s) or story; it was pure coincidence, and therefore felt contrived and unnecessary.
Additionally, the book is set up like an elaborate set of framework stories, but again disappoints by failing to resolve any of them. One incomplete tale leads pointlessly into the next without a proper ending until the entire book abruptly concludes. I would infinitely have preferred this to be a collection of discrete stories instead of this mess attempting to be a connected novel.
That said, and said perhaps more critically than I really meant it, there were aspects of this book I enjoyed. Using faery tales to demonstrate (more pointedly than they naturally do) the systemic oppression of women was an excellent idea, and often seeing those women shrug off that oppression along with the men in their lives was very satisfying. And many of the woman experienced a sort of malaise at one point or another that not only gave their stories a surreal feeling but also symbolized extremely well the suppression of thought and personality under which certain men are forcing them to live. Oh, incidentally, I also liked how it was made clear that most of the men were doing this all unknowingly.
Some of the concepts for the faery tale retellings (especially considering the complete removal of magic) were clever and fascinating, too: the little mermaid that subconsciously suppressed her own voice, the goose girl that realized she preferred not to marry the prince or have her maidservant exposed… and there were several truly brilliant fanfiction moments wherein the dialogue referred to elements of the endings of the traditional stories.
My favorite part was absolutely the Snow White story. I loved every aspect of that one except for its lack of ending. And I enjoyed the book as a whole enough, despite its flaws, that I’ll give it another try when I get back around to it.
Transparent episode 1 — When I finished the first season of Justice League, not wanting to pay for the second season just yet (since I’m saving money for a lovely meet-my-girlfriend vacation), I looked around Amazon to see what was free to watch, and I lighted on this. And I’m not going to lie; my first thought was, Needs moar Batman.
I’d heard the objections to this series elsewhere online, so I was aware of the casting problem with the trans lady whose name I forget. And I’d also heard that this show betrays its trans character and its audience by being more about the cis people around the trans character than the trans character herself. Which might be OK if it were called, like, The Fucked-Up Family Problems… but you don’t invoke the rather clever “trans parent” pun for the series title and then focus mostly on people other than that parent. I definitely observed these problems in the first episode, and didn’t find what I saw worth continuing in the face of them.
Also there was a shocking lack of Batman.
The Mummy Case by Elizabeth Peters — Of course this is our first real look at Ramses, one of the greatest literary characters ever devised. I’m consistently impressed with his dialogue, because I’ve seen far too many attempts at excessive verbosity crash and burn because the author was either incapable or lazy. Ramses’ dialogue is always spot-on, and rarely fails to make me laugh.
One thing I wonder in this installment is whether this was Sethos’ first meeting with Emerson. I don’t know what, this early in the series, Peters was planning for Sethos, but when Amelia and Emerson are introduced to “Father Girgis” and he says, “I know you. I know your name.” — especially when Amelia remarks that this is “an ominous formula” — it seems deliciously significant and portentous to anyone that knows who he actually is.
Favorite moment in this installment: “Mash ’em flat to the dust, O Lord!”
OK, now I’m down to only eleven items left. I’m catching up! Once I get there, I should really devise a better system for writing these entries so I can keep on top of them in future…