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Fanpire: Respecting Fans

Cover of Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It

Cover of Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It

Title: Fanpire: The Twilight Saga and the Women Who Love It

Author: Tanya Erzen

Year of Publication: 2012

LC Call Number: PS3613.E979

Okay! I’m soooo far behind. Let’s continue my writing about books I read in November!

I haven’t read the Twilight Saga and I don’t especially intend to read it; in fact, every time I learn more about it, it sounds less appealing.  Stories about eternal romance aren’t really my thing, and from what I understand it’s essentially wish-fulfillment about being an ordinary girl and being swept off one’s feet by a love that is somehow extraordinary in nature.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but the wishes it’s fulfilling ain’t mine!  Then there are the cringeworthy details that I keep learning about, like the catatonic suicidal stuff and the “imprinting” business with love fated from birth, and, well, like I say, not too appealing to me.  But this isn’t a book about Twilight, it’s a book about Twilight fans, and as such it’s actually of great interest to me.  Twilight fans are, as a group, very different from any group to which I’ve ever belonged, even peripherally, so they’re intriguing partly because of that.  And then again, I’m aware of the general contempt toward them for caring about something that is perceived by many to have no literary value—a contempt that one sometimes suspects is somehow related to their gender. Part of Erzen’s mission, in fact, is to challenge the sexism with which Twilight fans are so often met.

In this book, Erzen reports on her interactions and interviews with Twilight fans in various contexts, including various fan events.  Throughout the book, she works very hard to show the diversity among fan responses to the series; this is facilitated by her ability to portray Twilight fans as human beings and not as  mass of vapid young women as they are so often assumed to be.  In fact, most  of them are women or girls, and their love of this bizarre vampire story is for many of them bound up with their own desires.  Erzen acknowledges and complicates these facts.  She spends some time on the role of male fans of Twilight and what drives them to participate in a mostly feminine subculture, but she also looks at how both the femininity and the fantasy parts of this play out.

For instance.  Many of the Twilight fans with whom Erzen interacts do not see themselves as “geeky” and don’t aspire to geekhood. They speak about their engagement with this text as a remarkable but socially acceptable pleasure in ways that make me wonder whether they have always harbored a latent desire for that type of deep engagement which allows one to become obsessed with something, to come to know it well, and to participate in a community based around the same thing, with others who feel the same way and can have the kind of conversation that one wants to have. Erzen writes in the introduction that many fans had never finished reading a book before they encountered Twilight, which they went on to read obsessively, over and over again. There is a part of me that wants to be a stupid jerky snob about it and say, well, if they tried reading other things, maybe they’d find something better?  But I kind of hate that part of me, and in fact I am moved by their passion for a secondary world and their need to form a community around it, and it occurs to me that there are gendered expectations in play in both their choice of Twilight and their failure to find other outlets for the need for obsession. And of course, not all of them are like that; some are bookish and tend to prefer internet interactions to face-to-face. Over the course of the book, we see many of the relationships that people have formed around Twilight. We meet a group of friends with a  Twilight-themed band, a mother and daughter who have bonded over their Twilight-related travels, men who give each other relationship advice based on the books, and many others.  Erzen attends several fan gatherings, and notices that the officially sanctioned event is the least interesting; the fans organizing their own communities bring in more people, have better events, and spark better conversations.

The most striking thing about this book, though, was Erzen’s explanation of the complicated relationship that fans have with Twilight.  Twilight fans, just like other fan communities that have been observed in any detail, do not receive their fan object with an attitude of passive acceptance. As this is one of the major tenets of fan studies, this should not be a surprising discovery when it comes to Twilight fans, but somehow it is—that is, not to Erzen, who is writing a whole book about her respect for fans, but in the wider world.  The romance that is the center of Twilight has been roundly criticized, and based on Erzen’s plot summaries, it sounds incredibly creepy and unhealthy as well as kind of silly.   Fans have different reactions to it. Some are very invested; they find Edward (the vampire hero who stalks the main character and eventually marries her) very glamorous and romantic, and they are attracted to what he represents: immortality and eternal love. But others are more critical.  Erzen quotes one fan who calls him a “creeper” and many others who find him attractive but nevertheless recognize that his behavior is inappropriate and similar relationships in real life are not healthy. A mother finds Bella (the ordinary heroine of the story) a terrible role model because she gives up on life after Edward breaks up with her.  It turns out that Twilight fans (and again, this shouldn’t be surprising) understand that they are indulging in a fantasy and that it is different from what they really want in their lives. . Erzen looks at the fanfiction as well, pointing out that it resists the pro-abstinence ideology of the book.

Toward the end of the book, Erzen attends the official Twilight convention, and finds it disappointing in comparison with the unofficial, fan-run events. It is “corporate, tame, regulated and scripted.” This was intriguing to me because it encapsulates so perfectly the tension between fans and the people who create objects of fandom. She asks one of the organizers about the unofficial convention that she had attended earlier, and is told that fans are not interested in the creative, or sometimes even academic, work that happens at such events—panels, self-defense courses, music, and more. The organizer of this convention believes that what fans want is what they offer: autographs, vendors, and a show which involves no audience participation. Meanwhile, the studio that makes the Twilight movies is sending cease-and-desist letters to people who make and sell interesting and creative products that could never be official.  Their desire to control their product isn’t unusual; a similar tension exists in many other communities, but the assertion of What Fans Want was interesting to me.

In any case, I’m trying to convince my students that an analysis of the fan community surrounding something that they do not personally know/like/consume can be interesting and enlightening to read. To me, this book is an excellent example.

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Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 4-6: Learning from Experience

Title: Fullmetal Alchemist, Volumes 4-6
Author: Hiromu Arakawa
Year of Publication: 2003

Writing about Izumi. This is going to happen.

It’s very strange to think about Izumi as part of the Elrics’ support network, because it’s a characterization to which she might well object. She is their alchemy teacher, and their quest for the philosopher’s stone makes her very angry (and you always know where you stand with Izumi).  The kind of support she offers him is in the form of a good ass-kicking; she is perfectly willing to yell at him and tell him that he’s violated everything she ever taught him.  If Paninya undercuts Ed’s self-aggrandizement through her mischief and her existence, Izumi simply refuses to recognize it.  Instead, she sees right through him. She knows the things that he knows that he believes cut him off from normal people (they have both seen what they call “that thing”) and she responds not with awe or pity but with anger.  After all, as she says, “if they’re trying to take the wrong path, isn’t it my job as their ‘teacher’ to put them on the right one?”

But she doesn’t do that, and a lot of her anger comes from her anger at herself for making mistakes similar to theirs, and for allowing them to duplicate these mistakes.  Her connection to Ed is immediately obvious from a visible point of view, because she has a tattoo on her chest which is the same symbol he wears on his coat.  Izumi is where it all starts, and of course the narrative takes the opportunity of her appearance to drop in some exposition in the course of a flashback. But this is framed in the understanding that his experience is Izumi’s experience as well.

So Izumi is clearly a skilled alchemist, and she taught Ed and Al what they know, both the skill and the philosophy. Still, it seems that the philosophy hasn’t quite stuck. In many ways, she is the opposite of Ed. She believes that alchemy should be used as infrequently as possible, and is shown fixing toys and explaining to a little girl why she won’t attempt to resurrect her dead cat.  “You shouldn’t depend on alchemy for everything. Try to fix whatever you can with your own hands” she tells the children.  She believes in accepting death:  “In the same way, our souls become nourishment for the people around us, and live on through the memories of those we loved.  Everything in this world has a flow. Even human lives.  I’ve come to accept this long ago… but it’s hard to explain to a child.” Lines like this are why I’ve referred to Izumi as a hippie in a prior post. This acceptance, of course, is exactly what Ed lacks; he suffered the loss of his limbs, and Al suffered the loss of his body, in their attempt to bring their mother back from the dead.  Ed explained this to Rosé way back in Volume One, and showed her the hopelessness of this cause; he’s abandoned the idea of trying to revive his mother. However, he’s still not willing to accept the price that he and Al paid—especially Al—and he is still attempting to recover their bodies.

But Izumi’s philosophy doesn’t come from abstract moral reasoning.  She’s committed this sin herself; she is more like Ed than she’d like to admit.  Finally, ruefully, she remarks, “So the student makes the same mistake as the teacher.”  Her husband clarifies that Izumi once lost a pregnancy, and her mistake was attempting to bring back that child. She has paid a similar price, “some of my insides,” as she puts it.  So the most important lesson she attempted to teach Ed and Al was one that she had not herself learned until she experienced it.  The lectures about not using alchemy to reverse death are an attempt to prevent them from repeating her mistake.  Still, I’d argue that Izumi doing a little better learning from that mistake than they are. She is constantly ill (she does that implausible fictional thing where she’ll perform magnificently in a fight and then cough up blood) and she’s unable to bear children, but she has accepted this price.  She makes the most of her life by helping the children of her village, rather than seeking to regain the life she had before she made her great mistake.  She’s careful with alchemy and resists the pressure to use it to make life easy.  In fact, she refuses to consider herself an alchemist and instead describes herself as a housewife, even as she performs amazing feats of alchemy.  Izumi’s response to her trauma is a strong skepticism of the value of alchemy; when I write it that way, it sounds like an overreaction, but the truth is that alchemy is dangerous. She has nothing but contempt for the state alchemists, “dogs of the military,” who trade the use of their talents to the state for power, and allow themselves to be used as weapons of war.  To Izumi, this is a great wrong, and you know, she has a point.  We’ve already glimpsed Kimblee, who is destructive and mentally unbalanced and kind of makes the point for her.

But Ed and Al are the same as Izumi: they cannot accept the impossibility of human transmutation until they’ve tried it and things have gone as wrong as they can.  And as readers, we think we’re smarter than that, but we probably aren’t.

The thing is, Izumi realizes this. She knows that Ed and Al cannot accept these philosophical ideas without experiencing them; this is why her pedagogy involves dropping them off on an island and letting them figure out a riddle while trying to survive on their own.  And she knows that they have an illicit goal in mind when they come to her and ask to learn alchemy.  So teaching them at all is a risk.  She believes she can stop them from attempting human transmutation; this is the unspoken goal of much of her teaching. She takes on Ed and Al as apprentices because they’re the close to the age that her child would have been; there’s a symmetry between their loss of their mother and her loss of her child that helps to bring them together.  But this also raises the stakes for Izumi; she needs to stop them from their goal not only because they are trying to do something wrong but because she doesn’t want them to destroy their lives.  And she fails.

But, now that Ed and Al made so many mistakes, she releases them as her apprentices and actually comes closer to treating them as peers.  She and Ed have both seen “that thing” or “the truth;” the being that lives beyond the gate and provides glimpses of comprehensive metaphysical knowledge in exchange for body parts.  Al’s seen it too, but he got too close and lost his memory.  There is an interesting discussion between them about whether they should attempt to recover the memories he lost, in which they weigh the risks and, despite her doubts, Izumi accedes to Al’s wishes and agrees to look into a way to do this.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post that these three volumes are all about the Elrics’ support network—the people who help them and how they do it.  Hughes is first, then Winry, and finally Izumi.  Izumi is a good place to end this, though.  Hughes manages things silently in the background and makes sacrifices, and Winry provides emotional support as well as prosthetic repair. But Izumi is the person who will give you the wake-up call and tell you when you’re wrong.  Arakawa allows all these characters to undercut Ed’s self-absorption, but Izumi does it the most directly.

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Fullmetal Alchemist, Vols. 4-6: Not the Center of the World

Title: Fullmetal Alchemist, Volumes 4-6
Author: Hiromu Arakawa
Year of Publication: 2003

I wrote before that Volume 5 is really about Winry and Volume 6 is about Izumi, but as I look over it now, the shift isn’t so clean. Izumi comes in about halfway through Volume 5, whereas Winry is also fairly important in Volume 4. Still, there’s a Winry story here.

Volume 5 covers the trip to Rush Valley, the “auto-mail engineer’s mecca,” where a thief named Paninya steals Ed’s official state alchemist watch. This leads to Ed, Al and Winry meeting a master auto-mail mechanic and also delivering a baby. Of course, it makes sense for this to be a fairly Winry-centric story, since she is the one who wanted to go to Rush Valley in the first place, and after all, she is the one who actually cares about auto-mail prosthetics (she makes them, Ed just wears them).

Much like Volume 4, Volume 5 makes the point that the world does not, in fact, revolve around Ed, but it makes this point in a very different way. It opens with the theft of Ed’s watch and his and Al’s inability catch the thief, Paninya, who is a young woman with auto-mail legs. It is Winry who finally stops her, but her agenda is different from theirs; she doesn’t care about the watch and only wants to get a good look at Paninya’s auto-mail. Her interference stem not from a desire to help Ed but a fascination with the very sophisticated, high-quality auto-mail Paninya uses. The manga explicitly points out that the negotiation between Winry and Paninya over the watch does not involve Ed or Al. Rather, they sit in the background complaining about their exclusion from the conversation. This is an interesting contrast from Winry’s earlier complaints that Ed and Al never tell her anything. She’s in control here and Ed doesn’t handle it well. Throughout the volume, there are a lot of these auto-mail conversations. Paninya stays with a family of auto-mail engineers: Dominic, who made her legs, Dominic’s son-in-law Ridel and his daughter Satera. As a result, there are many opportunities for Winry to talk shop, and her desire to improve her craft leads her to ask Dominic to take her as his apprentice. A good deal of the volume is concerned with her reasons for wanting to be so good at auto-mail.

Some of it is just the way her character is composed. At the very beginning of the volume, her awestruck cooing at some tools in a shop is compared with a woman lusting after a piece of fancy jewelry; on some level she just likes this stuff because she likes it. Ed draws a comparison between her work and his, saying that Winry “used to look through medical books as if they were picture books, just like Al and I did with alchemy books.” (There is certainly a medical element to auto-mail.) And some of it does indeed have to do with Ed. When she is apologizing to him for prying open his watch and seeing the date he’s etched inside to remind himself of his own motivation, she tells him: “You burned down your own home and then you wrote that in your watch, so you’d never forget and never turn back. If you can do that, I should be just as serious about the things I believe in. I want to be able to help you, so your road’s not so hard.” So yes, supporting Ed is part of it. But this conversation happens at the end of the story. Instead of seeing her pursue something for Ed’s sake, we see her very concerned with it for her own reasons and only later does it become linked to Ed. She praises Dominic’s design as “nothing less than art” and is interested in the story of Paninya’s legs. She’s interested in the business aspects of it as well, admonishing Paninya to stop stealing to pay for her legs. Ed is the auto-mail user who is most important to Winry, but even though she’s from Resembool, which appears to have a population of about six, she’s aware that auto-mail isn’t just Ed.

Paninya’s story helps to reinforce that. Ed’s story is fairly unusual, of course. Most of the people who wear auto-mail didn’t lose their limbs in forbidden alchemical experiments, but in the war or as a result of accidents. It’s explained that the boom in auto-mail demand is related to the Ishbalan war, which has already been established as brutal and, well, kind of genocidal actually. Paninya isn’t part of this larger political context either, but it is invoked as a backdrop and will certainly be addressed again later. Paninya, however, lost her legs in a train accident, in which her parents were also killed, and she lived for some time as a legless beggar child before being picked up (literally) by Dominic. Her story is less dramatic than Ed’s, but it’s no less sad. This brings me back to some of the things I said about the anime and how deftly this story deals with disability. I’ve called Ed a Byronic hero; he broods a lot, suffers from a tragic backstory, has the abilities of a genius, and struggles against the world. Arakawa often undercuts this by making fun of his ego a little, and here she does undercuts it a little more subtly by showing that tragedy is mundane. Paninya lost her legs and her family, and although her life is better now, she’s still living as a pickpocket, but she is cheerful about it and she doesn’t sulk like Ed. There’s a whole town of auto-mail engineers here; there is therefore a sufficient population of amputees of one sort or another to keep an entire town in business. Ed’s not special. He’s a character who happens to have a disability but has a lot of other things going on; disability isn’t a tragedy that defines his character (or Paninya’s). Of course, something could be said about Dominic’s unilateral decision to kidnap Paninya and perform surgery on her without her consent–well, this isn’t perfect.

In any case, Winry is interested in this story, and in fact she settles into this family just as easily as she did into the Hughes family. She scolds Paninya and encourages her to adopt an honest trade and give up her pickpocketing business. She interacts with the grumpy, unfriendly Dominic and asks him to take her on as his apprentice (he refuses, twice, but he is pleased by her appreciation for his work, and in the end, he agrees to find her another master). And of course, she delivers Satera’s baby.

I’m hoping that the story picks up her apprenticeship again and we see how she is progressing later on. In the anime, her story isn’t carried through as much as I would have liked it to be, but there’s more setup here, and more time spent on her, so I’m hopeful we’ll see the continuation. It also appears that Dominic is Pinako’s ex, which is hilarious and I want to see more about that for sure. In any case, delivering the baby is set up as something of a test for Winry, a stressful situation she hasn’t seen before in which she needs to perform well. She does, and she and Ed part as equals who respect each other. This works a little better for me than the relationship they have in the anime, in which she sometimes seems to be under the impression that she owns his arm and he constantly rolls his eyes at her. Here–well, Ed certainly quarrels with her interference and general motherliness in volume 4, but their relationship seems to mature over the course of these two volumes.

(Yes, this is a little disorganized, Let’s see if I do better writing about Izumi!)

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Outliers: Missing Pieces

Cover of OutliersTitle: Outliers

Author: Malcolm Gladwell

Publication Date: 2008

LC Classification: BF637.S8G533

Okay, so I’m leaving tomorrow and have another book to write about that I actually care about, so I just want to pound out something quickly about Outliers. This will be short. It’s a book meant to popularize certain ideas about statistics and success. Specifically, Gladwell is interested in how unpredictable circumstances make success possible for certain people. He uses examples including the Beatles and Bill Gates.

I know that there are lots of people who actually know about statistics and sociology and so forth who have lots of problems with this book.  The math that it takes to really understand such things is not really my strong point; every time I try to do any statistics, I always have to look things up and practice for a while before doing it for real. So I haven’t really internalized those things well enough to critique the book on those grounds, although I did notice that in many places throughout the book he doesn’t do a real statistical analysis, but rather compiles a list of people he finds significant and shows some similarities among them.  How they compare to less-successful people in similar fields isn’t really covered, so I don’t put much stock in most of the mathematical parts of this book. So when Gladwell claims that the Beatles were successful because they got lots of practice playing in Hamburg, I don’t question the usefulness of this experience for the Beatles, but I wonder about all the other bands who played in Hamburg.  Surely they didn’t all become the Beatles?

There is an exception to this: his observation about athletes born at particular times of the year having greater success, which I was able to confirm with my resident collector of baseball statistics.

Mathematical foibles aside, there are some things in the book that I found enjoyable, persuasive, or at least interesting.  I enjoyed the first chapter, which points out that even small structural decisions, like the date that begins the school year, arbitrarily privilege some people over others.  Gladwell claims that it takes ten thousand hours of practice for someone to achieve expertise, and while I’m not sure that he proves this is the case, I’m always up for someone pointing out that people who are good at things tend to be people who have practiced a lot (and that whether this happens depends both on dedication and on the luck that brings opportunities about).   I found the analysis of high-IQ individuals interesting, although it operated from a lot of assumptions that I didn’t think were necessarily warranted. Gladwell assumes that the reader respects IQ as a valid measurement, and introduces the idea that some people with high IQ’s don’t enjoy great financial success as if the reader is supposed to be shocked by this.  (The reader is not shocked.)  There’s a comment in this section which  implies that the best colleges are the ones chosen by students with high IQ’s, which is certainly not a measure that it would have occurred to me to use.  And then there’s the part where he laments that the math professors whose interactions with Chris Langan went poorly would have reacted to him more positively if they had known he was good at math—maybe they would have, but that’s…kinda bad, if true?  Anyway, the point of this section is that academic success depends on social skills, the acquisition of which is linked to socioeconomic class. I knew that, but it’s a nice takeaway for the popular audience of this book, although in the context I don’t know how seriously people will take it.

The bit about the bankers had similar strengths and weaknesses.  Gladwell writes about Jewish lawyers in New York in the twentieth century, and how their exclusion from the most prestigious fields of law ended up in their favor when the types of law that were considered valuable in society changed.  Gladwell has a lot to say about this, but what was interesting about it is that, in a book about how success depends on circumstances which are often out of our control, this is the only place that he explicitly discusses discrimination and marginalization.  (There’s a little bit about class privilege when he discusses Chris Langan, but he isn’t explicit about how this is systematic, so it’s just about Langan and does he deserve success for his mental gifts even though he is kind of a jerk.)  But in this one place in which marginalization is discussed, it’s so that Gladwell can show that there exists a situation in which it can be an advantage.  And that’s compelling and enjoyable, of course, because he turns it into a triumphant underdog story, but it forecloses the possibility of his discussing how opportunities are made available to people on the basis of privileged characteristics.  Almost all his examples of extraordinary success are white men, and that’s definitely not a coincidence.

This exists in the same book in which Gladwell explains feuding towns not only by means of their culture but by recourse to the culture of their ancestors in Scotland and sheep herding or something; there was an opportunity for him to discuss how culturally-sanctioned violence perpetuates itself, but he has to find some economic cause even if it is a bit of a reach, because he is an economist.  So it’s not surprising that he’s reluctant to take on systematic social biases, but it’s a pretty major piece missing from his analysis.

So yeah, there are certainly criticism to be made here.  I do, however, admire Gladwell’s ability to make this stuff accessible and engaging.

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Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood: Life in the Revolution

Cover of PersepolisTitle: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood

Author: Marjane Satrapi

Publication Date: 2000 (English translation 2003)

LC Call Number: PN 6747 .S 245 P4713 2003

Persepolis is a graphic novel memoir. In it, Marjane Satrapi recounts her childhood in Iran in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There is a second part, but it was not included in the edition I read.

When I began reading this book, I was mostly ignorant of what happened in the Middle East at this period of history. I’m from the US and was a very young child at the time, so I don’t remember all of this happening. Satrapi recaps this history very quickly in the introduction—Great Britain and the United States organized a coup in the 1950s against the prime minister of Iran because he had nationalized the oil industry, putting the Shah in charge until 1979, when the Iranian revolution happened. Throughout the book, she describes how the revolution resulted in a very conservative religious society, which many Iranians, including her parents, resisted. She describes learning about history and the people she knew and members of her family who had been political prisoners. She describes attempting to gain some historical perspective by studying both philosophy and the history of the Arab invasion. She remembers bombings and deaths and being forbidden to attend school. But, of course, this is a memoir. She also recalls her own complicated relationship with religion, her love of Michael Jackson, and her maid’s crush on the neighbor. History is intertwined with Satrapi’s own experiences in a way that makes real the obvious fact that history has a real affect on people’s lives. Throughout the book, she uses a very simple style of black-and-white art that allows her to capture gestures or expressions very well, emphasizing what it felt like for her to live through these tumultuous times.

I really like this way of looking at history and wish for more of it. Because Satrapi is a child for most of the book, there is scope to explain what is happening and why in a way that doesn’t demand a great deal of preexisting knowledge on the part of the reader. At the same time, the fact that everything is told from Satrapi’s point of view means that there is an emotional connection that doesn’t happen when history is explained in a more abstract way. It’s humanizing, which is very important to me as a Western reader when reading about parts of the world that, just as the introduction points out, have been demonized as dangerous, backward, and fundamentalist. Satrapi hints at the importance of understanding the human dimensions of history when she writes about her school report. She writes about the historical context of the Arab conquest 1400 years earlier and is very proud of her work, but admits that her classmate’s report was the best: “a letter to her father in which she promised to take care of her mother and little brother” (86). The accompanying image shows the emotional impact that this has on all the students in the class; they are all crying. This book follows upon the work of the classmate rather than the report described by Satrapi herself; the important thing here is to recognize and acknowledge the people of the time.

So, with that in mind, the book tilts more toward memoir than history. You get a lot of the way that Satrapi thought when she was a child. The political situation seems as strange to her as it does to the reader. She talks with her friends about whose parents are playing what role in the revolution; they nearly attack a boy whose father was in the secret police, until her mother teaches her that she has to forgive him. She is upset to hear that her friend’s father has been tortured, but also excited to find that her own uncle was in prison for a longer period of time. These are just small examples, but the book is very much interested in the bizarre social situations that arise as a result of living in the midst of a revolution. In fact, everything that happens has to integrate into mundane, everyday life. This isn’t just because of the attempts to keep normal life going in the face of danger, as when her parents throw parties which they must hide from the authorities, but also because… that’s when these things happen. So there are many domestic scenes in which information is passed on or which are intruded upon by outsiders or old friends. There are school scenes, there are bombings walking home. And there is a lot about Satrapi growing up.

Persepolis is quite capable of speaking for itself, so no more of this from me. But I think that its reputation as a masterpiece is well-deserved. I very much enjoyed Satrapi’s voice throughout because she tells the story with clarity and directness. All the people she describes feel like real people, and their struggles are quite moving. I found the art style very effective; while simple, it was also very expressive. I enjoyed the humorous moments and her understanding of herself as a child. And of course, I think that the story she is telling is an important one. So I liked this very much, although parts of it were hard to read. I know that there is a sequel, but it wasn’t included in the edition I read, so perhaps I will hunt it down.

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Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections: Time, Death and Stories

Cover of Sandman, Vol. 6, Fables and ReflectionsTitle: Fables and Reflections (Sandman, Volume 6)

Author: Neil Gaiman, with artists

Publication Date: 1993

LC Call Number: PN6727.G35S26

Sandman has never been a single coherent narrative; there is an ongoing story into which many smaller stories have been woven. Fables and Reflections is one of the volumes which presents a collection of shorter stories that don’t necessarily have much to do with the larger narrative or with each other. There is a theme among the stories in this volume, however; except for the short prologue, “Fear of Falling” and one other story, they are all historical or mythical in nature. There isn’t a huge distinction made here between history and myth; both are kinds of stories, after all. “Three Septembers and a January” is a story about the self-styled Emperor Norton of the United States (he is also of interest to a certain brilliant cartoonist with an interest in history). “Thermidor” continues the story of Johanna Constantine, whom we’ve seen a couple times before, and who is now living through the French Revolution. “The Hunt”is a supposedly Eastern European folktale told by an old man. “August” focuses on the Roman Emperor Augustus. “Soft Places” is something of a ghost story about Marco Polo (and an old friend from Volume Three turns up here). “The Song of Orpheus” is a retelling of the story of the mythical Greek bard, Morpheus’s son. “A Parliament of Rooks” is the oddball story, set in the future, but with a visit to the Dreaming, where we catch up with Cain and Abel again and consider the nature of storytelling. “Ramadan” is set in the quasi-mythical Baghdad of Haroun al Raschid and is drawn in a completely different style.

Oh, and from here on out, there may well be spoilers, but they don’t much damage the experience for this.

Time is an interesting consideration in these stories. The observant reader will have noticed that most of them are named after months: not just months in the Western calendar such as September, January, and August, but also Thermidor, which was a month in the revolutionary calendar, and of course, Ramadan, a month in the Muslim calendar. It’s curious to place this much emphasis on time, because while Dream and the other Endless are not time-travelers, they show up so casually at so many different historical moments that it’s sometimes hard to remember that they aren’t, especially since the series moves so freely from one time in history to another. But this volume isn’t really about Dream; it’s mostly about mortals, although Death is very important in “The Song of Orpheus.”

The two stories that are put most in dialogue here are “August” and “Ramadan.” Both are about very powerful men who rule impressive empires, and in a way, both are presented with the same choice. In “August,” Augustus is very careful to distinguish between his public self and his personal self. He reminisces with an actor about another actor whom he had killed due to an insult to Rome; personal insults are not important to him. He does so while disguised as a beggar; that is, he is abandoning his official identity for one day. Eventually we learn that Dream advised him to do so, after speaking with Terminus, god of boundaries, so that he can make decisions not observed by the Roman gods and in particular the newly-divine Julius Caesar. He is free, under these circumstances, to intentionally make decisions which lead to the fall of Rome, apparently as a form of revenge for the abuse he suffered at the hands of that same Julius. Ultimately, the boundary between his personal and official identities does not survive—but then, it is of course Julius who began by violating boundaries. Contrast with “Ramadan,” in which Haroun al-Raschid lives in a fantastical version of Baghdad in which everything is apparently perfect. Foolishly, he summons Dream, because he wants to ensure that his kingdom will live and be remembered forever. He has apparently been reading “Ozymandias” (well—figuratively!), or at any rate he has been seized with the fear that not only will his empire fall, it will be forgotten. His deal with Dream is that Dream will take the city, so that it will be permanently remembered in its perfect state. Dream complies, so that Baghdad becomes a dream-city and the real city is reduced to a place you wouldn’t want to live. So—one of these rulers chooses to think of the city and attempts to preserve it for the future, but does so in a way that destroys it in the present. He overlooks his personal well-being and that of everyone else, and gets a story in return. The other acts out of anger; when he is not observed, he chooses to pursue his own goals rather than enriching the empire he rules, chooses to break it down. Either way, these cities are impermanent; when these decisions are juxtaposed in this way, it becomes clear that whatever decision people make will lead to destruction. So the emphasis on time is perhaps an emphasis on the way that mortals occupy a particular, fixed moment.

At the same time, the reader is not encouraged to invest particularly in the survival of either empire. Both already belong somewhere in the past in the mind of the reader. “August” emphasizes how difficult it is for Augustus to rule over Rome and the sometimes unjust decisions he has ended up making (there seems not to be a right of free speech in Rome). There is a sense that the Roman empire is a great achievement, but it is certainly not inviting and there is not much sense of loss in its fall. “Ramadan,” features a less introspective character and must find another way to do this; it achieves distance from the reader by means of a less realistic art style and the use of formalized language as one might find in a fairy tale. The ultimate fate of Baghdad justifies these stylistic changes, but again, the reader never feels that perhaps Baghdad will survive forever.

There may be something intelligent to say about choosing a different and more mystical style for the one story in the book that takes place in a non-western setting, but I’m not the one to say it. The same is true of casting Augustus Caesar as a rape victim—what does this do to the story, and is it an ethical use of that particular storytelling element? These things should be addressed, but I don’t feel able to evaluate it.

In any case, we do know what Death thinks of these rulers by her words to Emperor Norton: “I’ve met a lot of kings, and emperors, and heads of state in my time, Joshua. I’ve met them all. And you know something? I think I liked you best.” This isn’t a surprise; Norton, despite his grandiose ideas about himself, is infinitely more likable than either of them, but there’s a bit more of an explanation of it in “The Song of Orpheus.” As in the myth, Orpheus is unable to accept the death of his wife, Eurydice. Unlike the myth, he goes to speak to his aunt Death about it. (Incidentally, the scenes where he wanders bewildered around Death’s place, which she keeps like a twentieth-century suburban house with goldfish and tacky teddy bears, is possibly my favorite thing ever.) She tells him, “It was her time to go, Orpheus. People die. It’s okay. It happens.” She does help him, but she doesn’t approve. She believes in the universality of endings and dislikes the struggle for immortality. She tells him, in fact, “I don’t need to know the future. When the future’s over, then it’s me…

…yes, there is really no contest over who is the best character in Sandman.

So there’s a lot here about power and mortality. Orpheus, of course, actually becomes immortal as a result of his failed attempt to recover Eurydice. We see him in “Thermidor,” which, curiously, is actually placed before “The Song of Orpheus” in the book. Thus, we already know that he will become immortal, and that this will not be an ideal situation for him because he is carted around as a head after his encounter with the Bacchae. Even before that, he has sunk into a deep depression following the loss of Eurydice. We’ve seen another immortal human in this series, Hob Gadling, who seems to rather enjoy it, although he has his ups and downs. Orpheus is different; he is punished quite severely for his presumption. Partly this is because he was in a fight with Dream, who subsequently abandoned him. As readers, we are not surprised; Dream is not an especially forgiving person. But there’s also a sense that he should have known better. In “Thermidor,” he is something of a MacGuffin for a while; Johanna carries him around and protects him from the powerful, at Dream’s behest. So there is still a connection between them. In fact, when Johanna offers to visit him again, at a later point in her travels, he tells her, “I do not think that would be a good idea, Johanna.” This precisely echoes Dream’s words to Calliope when she asks, after he rescues her, whether she will be able to see him again. The implication is ambiguous, but Orpheus is speaking on that very page of his desire to be reunited with his father. Well, now that Dream has forgiven two of his exes, maybe his son is next?

So, there is a thread about time and mortality running through this volume. There is also a thread about storytelling, and it should be clear by now that some of the stories I’ve already mentioned touch on this themselves. The most explicit stories in this regard, however, are “The Hunt” and “The Parliament of Rooks.” “The Hunt” features an old trope: an old man tells a story to his unappreciative granddaughter. She isn’t sure she wants to hear it, interrupts several times, and criticizes the story at the end. Curiously, it’s really a story about a book, which Dream’s librarians Lucien (a fine comic character) wishes to retrieve from him. The storyteller knows exactly what the story means to him. He expresses irritation at the interruptions of his granddaughter and expounds on his meaning when she argues with him. But, her objections are also valid. She points out certain ambiguities and inconsistencies in the story, and has her own reading of it which the text doesn’t appear to invalidate. She raises an eyebrow at the assertion that it is a story of the old country, complains that it is a sexist and insular, and, because she understands that stories are told in a particular context, suspects that it is aimed at her. Are we supposed to see her as wrong? We do have sympathy for the storyteller and we see that she is missing what he thinks is the point, but I don’t know. She’s pretty smart, and stories don’t necessarily belong to the teller.

We see a similar dynamic in “The Parliament of Rooks,” in which Cain, Abel and Eve come together to tell their stories to a human child (Lyta’s child, who has wandered into their world). Eve tells the story of the three wives of Adam, and she provides several readings of this story, explains their uses, and refuses to privilege any one of them. Abel tells his own story about his conflicts with his brother and how they came to live in Dream’s country, but he is aware of the context in which he is telling it and makes it into an especially bizarre children’s story. This involves a picture of young Dream and young Death which may be my other favorite thing ever. In any case, Cain constantly interrupts him this story in a rage at his attempt to make it appropriate for children: “What are you trying to feed the child—sanitized pablum? Li’l Death? Li’l Morpheus? Revolting!” He doesn’t approve of the cuteness of it, and he certainly doesn’t approve of the glossing over of the nature of the sheep as a sacrifice. Ultimately, Abel makes it seem as if he was happy to live with Cain forever, which we’ve seen in prior volumes is certainly not the case. Where is Gaiman’s sympathy here? Wellll…. Okay. So the deficiencies of the story point up some of the things that Gaiman tries to do both here and in other works, in showing that the gods are not nice. (Exhibit A: American Gods.). So Cain is certainly correct on those grounds. The ending of the story, too, makes the reader feel deeply uneasy because it’s simply untrue. At the same time, however, Cain is being a jerk by interrupting the story and attempting to wrest Abel’s voice from him, and as Eve notes, when he is telling the story, Abel does not stutter as he usually does.

So this is ambiguous again. Telling a story is not an innocent act. Both Abel and the grandfather of “The Hunt” have an agenda. And in both cases, I’d argue that reading the story critically characters within it do is legitimate. However, they don’t read all the agendas as well as they think they do. So, while Fables and Reflections isn’t exactly an argument against criticism, it casts a wary and slightly amused glance at it.

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Learning to Look: Art as a Novice or Expert

Cover of Learning to LookTitle: Learning to Look: An Autobiography

Author: John Pope-Hennessey

Year of Publication: 1991

Library of Congress Call Number: N7483.P66A3

I apologize for the long silence in this space! (And then again, this is only for my own amusement, so maybe I don’t apologize after all. BUT, if anyone was disappointed, I’m sorry about that part.)  It isn’t that I haven’t been reading, and it isn’t even that I haven’t been writing, but I’ve been reading many short articles, which weren’t exactly bloggable, and I’ve been writing many professional things, which is rewarding but made things go a little dead here.  But let’s see if I can get a blog or two in here.

But this book is an unusual choice for me. Learning to Look is a memoir by John Pope-Hennessey, a distinguished museum curator who has at different times directed the Victoria and Albert, the Met, and many other well-known museums. I like art—I’m particularly fond of Goya—but I’m certainly not knowledgeable about it. I’m also generally verbally, not visually, oriented, which means I’m the kind of person who goes to museums and reads all the plaques while finding all the visual materials a bit mysterious.  So, it’s a little surprising that I chose to read this at all. Basically, I am developing a class, separate from the one I’ve discussed before in this space, in which it would help me to have some way to talk about art a little and help my students to talk about art. It isn’t the main focus of the class, but I want them to be able to think about several different media.  A colleague is using this book for one part of his class which asks students to “read” paintings, and I hoped that it would serve a similar function for me.

I’m still looking for a book that did what I hoped this book would do.  This is really more of a memoir written from the perspective of someone knowledgeable and experienced in the field of art history and curatorship.  Of course, that is exactly what Pope-Hennessey intended to write, so, let’s look at it from that perspective.

Pope-Hennessey was born in Great Britain in the early part of the twentieth century into a notable family; he had the privilege of a culturally rich upbringing and an excellent education.  He writes of his family, his educational decisions, his trips through Europe at a young age when he was trying to learn more about art and worrying about the war, and then his experiences as a curator in several respected institutions.  His is obviously a very privileged life, but it is of course interesting to see how these things are managed.  In the early part of the book, I was very conscious of his obvious pride in the accomplishments of his parents, especially his mother, and his awareness of the degree of notability which he’s achieved.  This seemed a bit self-aggrandizing to me, but I am particularly sensitive to the awkwardness of self-promotion and this probably isn’t Pope-Hennessey’s fault.  I did find, however, that my ignorance of art history and criticism was a barrier to my enjoyment of the early parts of the book.  He cites particular paintings and gives anecdotes about their histories, or occasionally notes how lucky he was to buy a notable painting at a low price before its value was widely appreciated.  It’s entirely likely that I’ve seen paintings by some of the artists he mentioned, but I do not recognize them by name; without this knowledge, I can get the general sense of what he is implying, but the greater meaning of it isn’t available to me (and meaningless examples render the text a bit dry).  He also spends a great deal of time on his encounters with famous art historians and critics.  Later in the book, he goes on to give more detail, and it’s revealing about what he thinks makes a good critic, but early on, my inability to recognize the individuals he mentioned made it feel like mere name-dropping.  So in those ways, I simply wasn’t the right person to read this book.

This isn’t to say that the book was devoid of interest, though. The parts that were most interesting to me were the ones which discuss the administration of museums as institutions. Pope-Hennessey discusses his relations with the boards of trustees, hinting that such boards are often assumed to be antagonistic but that in many cases they have more to contribute than their popular reputation would suggest. He gives an account of his reorganization of some of the museums that he directed, considers the difference between curatorships and directorships, lets the reader into some of the intricacies involved in buying works of art, and navigates the philosophical disputes about the purpose of museums, acknowledging the importance of their educational function while still believing that art museums can encourage scholarship.  Every once in a while there was a mention of libraries, usually to the effect that while libraries and museums are similar institutions in some ways, there is often some tension between them. This was a bit juicy to me, well, for professional reasons.  These administrative details were quite interesting to me as a librarian; I have no administrative responsibilities and don’t want any, either, but I do have an interest in understanding how things are run and this was a candid behind the scenes look.  Indeed, sometimes Pope-Hennessey discussed his colleagues and even his family members in ways that I found a little too harsh; I’ve internalized some norms about criticizing colleagues in public. However, as it turns out, many of these people have died, and I’m guessing that the most important professional rivalry discussed is public in any case.  I was particularly surprised to read the way he discusses his brother, but this too became less surprising after I read of his death (though I noted, also, that the author doesn’t want to get too personal with his own feelings!)

Pope-Hennessey has a clear and engaging writing style and is deeply knowledgeable about his subject matter. There were two points at which I was able to connect his experience to my own: first, visiting the Prado and being overwhelmed by the Goya paintings, even to the exclusion of the other art there, and second, living in New York and feeling the need for natural beauty.  These were points of strong enough connection that I feel inclined to trust him in other matters as well, given, again, my ignorance.  In any case, I’d recommend the book to anyone to whom this sounds at all interesting. For myself, however, I’m pleased to move on to something more my speed (which may or may not happen next).

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