The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Family Fun Times: Leaving the Nest

We did it, readers. We made it to the end of The Hero With a Thousand Faces. All we’ve got left of Broseph and his book is a short chapter about endings, and a short epilogue about where to go after the end.

The End… sort of

The mighty hero of extraordinary powers… is each of us. … (pg. 365)

Campbell spells it out more explicitly than he ever has: we’re supposed to relate to, or identify with, or be inspired by, or otherwise connect with the hero of the myths. It’s just something that we do, or at least we can do, or at most we should do. The hero, in Campbell’s theory, is someone who finds the connectedness between themself, humanity, the world, and the spiritual power in and outside the world. That’s definitely something to strive for, even in a culture like America which doesn’t place due value on community and spirituality.

This is my thesis statement for this series conclusion, and I think it’s the thesis statement for Campbell’s epilogue, “Myth & Society.” Because he does not spend much time in the last chapter, “Dissolutions,” which discusses the death of the “microcosm” and the “macrocosm,” and it’s mostly going over territory similar to what we’ve already discussed, I’m not going to spend any more time there. The above quote comes from “Dissolutions,” where the hero meets his temporal, physical end and becomes one with the world – and turns into the hero we need in the here and now.

Happily Ever Now

For when scrutinized in terms not of what it is but of how it functions, of how it has served mankind in the past, of how it may serve today, mythology shows itself to be as amenable as life itself to the obsessions and requirements of the individual, the race, the age. (pg. 382)

I won’t lie: after the initial big-picture introduction, Campbell’s epilogue starts out a little shaky. He claims that religious and social ritual has, historically, been a way to metaphorize each individual’s existence, giving an enduring meaning to an otherwise “insignificant” person’s life. An individual is just an individual; the role they play in society, however, is something that does not change with time. Father Smith dies but there will always, most likely, be priests. It sounds good, regardless of actual historical truth, especially in light of Campbell’s ensuing claim: that anyone outside of society’s system of role-holding, either through exile, revolt, or simple indifference, is dead to society. His exact wording is that they are “simply nothing – waste” (383).

Yikes.

There’s another side to it, though, which made me release a tense breath, because I was about to pull out receipts. What about Hold-Fast, the tyrant ogre, the duty of the Hero to slay the beast of a decaying society in order to reinvigorate it – in other words, to change it and keep it from stagnancy?

Campbell gets there: the exile is in a league of their own, with their own role to work through. They are on a quest for an unvarnished truth about themselves and the world, separate from the trappings of society. I associated them, personally, with one of the two religious modes, the Way of Denial and the Way of Affirmation*. The exile is of the Way of Denial, one of or similar to the religious ascetics, more concerned with finding the truth than with their own comfort or happiness. The “accidents of geography, birth-date, and income” are inconsequential to their quest; I’d imagine those things might even get in their way.

What is the core of us? What is the basic character of our being? (pg. 385)

All For One, One For All

There are problems inherent in any dichotomous system like the one Campbell has laid out for us. The society vs the exile, affirmation vs denial – these are conflicts which become conflicts only when sides are taken. Both methods, after all, are trying to reach a sense of understanding of, even a union with, the world as a whole; both sides, as Campbell says, can reach that understanding.

The society might deem the exile too far beyond its roles – rules it believes to be written in stone, but really just written in that decade’s rulebook – to be capable of finding meaning, indeed so far from its roles that it threatens them. The exile, in turn, might deride the role-keeper as too enslaved in arbitrary and restrictive traditions which hinder a grasp of enduring, primal truths. In either case, each side might disbelieve the other’s ability to reach the kind of near-impossible, hero-level “enlightenment” that needs to be reached. More importantly for the purpose of this blog, so does Campbell.

There is no separateness. Thus, just as the way of social participation may lead in the end to a realization of the All in the individual, so that of exile brings the hero to the Self in all. (pg. 386)

The World

The blog series thesis statement, I said earlier, was that spirituality and the connectedness of the world are things worthy of questing after. And if it’s a quest worthy of attempt, then it’s not a theoretical or abstract quest at all. Either it’s a fanciful idea, entertaining in really old stories the same way scarf-wearing fauns and pantsless rabbits are entertaining, or it’s something which deserves hard thought and real-life application.

Campbell argues that – in his time, the 1940s-50s, and equally in ours – our sensibilities are skewed towards the individual, undervaluing humanity’s collective good. I also believe that community, real community, is something rare and underappreciated – and so real spirituality is rare and underexamined. The problem is not that there are simply too many exile-heroes; it’s that not enough exile-heroes are coming back to boot out the tyrant-ogre. (Probably because every exile hates their own society too much.) Must we have individuality at the price of empathy and responsibility? Maybe, but I’d argue that you could have it at a better price – and, if not, then it might not be worth the trade.

Of course, by definition, exiles cannot be a large percentage of the population. Most of us will be, to some degree or another, a role-keeper. But I choose to believe that one does not need to be an exile in order to undertake such a quest, even if exile and trials in the desert are your typical hero’s itinerary. In fact, I believe it’s necessary to believe in a role-keeper – your average everyday Everyman – who can undertake an exile-hero’s search for truth. Dichotomies are dangerous, remember. Any motivated role-keeper can slip into the role of Krishna or Enkidu or Psyche; any role-keeper can take up the mantle of returning exile-hero for the purpose of shaking down truth and community and God.

Conclusion

This idea is crucial for a blog like this one, which examines stories and storytelling – the very vehicle of heroes. If the stories of Psyche and Krishna are worth more than an afternoon’s entertainment, then I’ve got a real duty to treat them and all the other stories as things which can change my life, as well as – if I had an extraordinarily inspired and hard-working day blessed by God Himself – your own lives, my readers. It means these blog posts, which I publish much too late every other Saturday, are not a hobby to pass the time, but an endeavor which I should approach with respect and gratitude, because the stories I’m reading show a way of life counter to both society’s role-bound, culture-locked stagnancy as well as to the exile’s overly isolated self-righteousness.

We’re all in the same Noah’s-ark boat. If stories are worth more than the time it takes to tell them – which of course they are – those of us who love them can’t afford to treat them lightly. Not to say we shouldn’t have fun, heaps and heaps of fun. I like gifs and capslock too much for that. But our stories, our good stories, are windows into empathy, courage, and perspective; our heroes show us how it’s done. Whatever story serves this purpose for you is a story which deserves to be treated well, whether it was published last month or has been told for the past two thousand years.

The way to become human is to learn to recognize the lineaments of God in all of the wonderful modulations of the face of man. (390)

And that’s that for The Hero. Go out and be heroes.


* I don’t think they called it Denial. I haven’t looked at my notes since May. Please forgive me, Profs. I think Denial gets across the idea, though.

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The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Family Fun Times: We’re A Metaphor, Dad

Last time, we examined where the hero comes from: the Earth Mom. This time around, we’re taking a look at where the hero is going: the Bad Dad. Campbell calls this chapter “Transformations of the Hero,” but I’m not going to examine the transformation(s) of the hero as much as the résumé of the hero.

The Hero

The realm of the Earth Mother was one, typically, of gods, but the realm of the hero is of men. This is the lowest point in the mythological cycle, remember; if it weren’t, there’d be no need for a hero at all. This is when, Campbell says, humanity needs what we might call a role model:

Accordingly, the cosmogonic cycle yields an emperor in human form who shall stand for all generations to come as the model of man the king. (pg. 317)

(For the sake of transparency, I’ll admit I’m not sure if Campbell is discussing one or two types of heroes in this chapter. The first kind, whom the above quote describes, comes about directly after the gods have left the earth, so there’s nothing for a hero to redeem; directly after this section, however, Campbell describes the childhood and growth of a hero who is going to defeat the Bad Dad of the cosmogonic cycle’s low point, in a world which is as desiccated as it can get. I’m discarding the first discussion of the hero for consistency’s sake, because the second kind is much more relevant to the discussion of this blogpost, and because the second narrative fits the previous chapter on the Virgin Birth more satisfactorily.)

The role model of his world, of course, doesn’t not always start out that way. Campbell points out the frequency of a childhood and development spent in obscurity and even hardship. (Even fairytale protagonists frequently have that backstory.) And doesn’t it just make your underdog-loving heart sing? I’ve never met anyone who can resist an underdog story. It’s in this phase of their life that the hero “is thrown inward to his own depths or outward to the unknown; either way, what he touches is a darkness unexplored” (326). More on that later; keep it in mind.

The Villain

But the point of the hero story is for him to be a hero against something, isn’t it? That’s where the Bad Dad comes in. Or, as Campbell more eloquently describes him, the tyrant ogre, “the usurper from whom the world is now to be saved” (349). Every story needs a good old-fashioned villain, as they say out there in British Land.

It’s not that the Bad Dad is always, frequently, or even often the literal father of the hero. It can be an older male family member, or an unrelated tyrant, or a monster, or Grendel’s mother. Where the hero’s mom tends to be literal in her motherhood, the “father” of the hero tends to simply be someone who came before the hero, with power and purpose at polarizing odds with the hero’s. But in that case, why Bad Dad? Why connect the villain with a father figure at all (besides, probably, a weird Freudian thing that we’re not going to talk about after this because, eugh)?

The golden age, the reign of the world emperor, alternates, in the pulse of every moment of life, with the waste land, the reign of the tyrant. The god who is the creator becomes the destroyer in the end.
From this point of view the tyrant ogre is no less representative of the father than the earlier world emperor whose position he usurped, or than the brilliant hero (the son) who is to supplant him. He is the representative of the set-fast, as the hero is the carrier of the changing. (pg. 352)

It all goes back to the cycle.

Can I give another Star Wars example that you’ve already probably thought of? It’s Vader and Luke. Congrats on thinking of it so quickly. In this case, Vader is Luke’s literal father, a hero in his own time who stagnated and became corrupt (and it’s worth it to consider why he did). He is both the upturn and the downswing of the cosmogonic cycle, from (as Campbell’s section titles would have it) “The Childhood of the Human Hero” to “The Hero As Emperor and Tyrant.”

The hero of yesterday becomes the tyrant of tomorrow, unless he crucifies himself today. (pg. 353)

By the time Luke comes around, echoing his father’s emergence from a difficult, obscure, sandblasted childhood, the galaxy has definitely stagnated along with Vader. But Luke is just the hero to revitalize the world; he is the “carrier of changing.” He’s the one who makes the cycle a cycle, interrupting the static downward flow of time and swinging it back up into the circle we all know and love. You have to ask, though: why does Luke succeed where Anakin failed? Why, in Campbell’s text, does an old hero turn into a tyrant, and why is a younger hero able to defeat him?

If You Love Something…

The work of the incarnation [Luke] is to refute by his presence the pretensions of the tyrant ogre [Vader]. The latter has occluded the source of grace with the shadow of his limited personality; the incarnation, utterly free of such ego-consciousness, is a direct manifestation of the law. (pg. 350)

That sounds just good enough and academic enough to be true. For the most part, I think it’s a good description of how a successful, enduring hero-vs-villain dynamic is created. But I think it can be put much more simply.

Selflessness defeats selfishness.

That’s all it really is, I think. Anakin falls because he wants to save Padmé; Luke succeeds because he wants to save his father. The difference is that Anakin wants to keep Padmé, and Luke wants to free Anakin. Anakin will kill anyone who gets in his way (including, ironically, Padmé herself), while Luke serves up his own life on a silver platter, with literal self-sacrifice as his Plan B.

One textbook definition of a villain is someone who puts their own desires above universal moral beliefs (popularity of moral relativism aside, I’m pretty no given civilization has ever handwaved murder in general). Hannibal Lecter, Annie Wilkes, Vader and the Emperor, Cruella de Vil, Voldemort, The Wicked Witch of the West, Sauron. They’re famous for the victims they leave behind, because of their prioritization of themselves over all else. Selfishness. It sounds like too small a word for a character like Sauron or Hannibal Lecter, but isn’t that it? Self-obsession: a kind of willful isolation, by turning the other inhabitants of your world into objects or inferiors, with you ruler over them all.

And, of course, a hero born from the Earth Mother knows that isolation and self-obsession is exactly the opposite of the spiritual, ethical, societal truths that allow life and vitality to flourish. The Earth Mother’s child practices selflessness instead (or whatever freedom from “ego-consciousness” really is), at the risk of their own life.

Personally, I think this is what Star Wars gets incredibly right, and it’s why Return of the Jedi is my favorite movie of the trilogy. So many heroes go into battle with at least something like a plan, expecting to either win by their own might or die trying. Luke doesn’t have a battle plan. He walks straight into a pair of Stormtrooper handcuffs and lets his father do the work. Where Anakin’s reaction to death and loss is hysteria at its most destructive, Luke essentially shrugs at the likelihood of his own demise and says, “Eh.” Will he die if he tries to save Han and Leia? Probably, but he has to try, for their sake. Will he die if he tries to save Darth Vader? Probably, but he has to try, for Vader’s sake. Luke’s selflessness, not his battle prowess, is what saves the day – and the galaxy.

Conclusion

Reading this chapter in a nearly 70-year-old book that thinks “Oedipus complex” should be taken seriously, I was surprised at how popular are some of the broader concepts Campbell describes. A hero coming out of a hard, poor childhood, a young “carrier of change” dethroning an old egotistical tyrant? It’s an incredibly relevant angle for mythology to have, as well as one of its oldest themes. It’s a theme almost impossible not to politicize, or at least turn into some kind of call for activism and justice and social change. That’s absolutely a valid reading, and if a take on mythology inspires young leaders to step up and revitalize the world, taking society back from its usurpers, that’s amazing.

But I think it’s important to step back, as well, and individualize the stories we read. As nice as it would be if they were, not everyone will become beacons of hope for half a world to see. Mythology – its stories and themes, and, most of all, its characters – are for everyday lives. Our Bad Dads can be ourselves: our own selfishness, our own self-isolation, our own destructive pride. To see villains only outside of ourselves is exactly the kind of self-aggrandizement that turns heroes into tyrant ogres. Selfishness vs selflessness is a fight every single one of us lives, every day, every hour.

Be Luke Skywalker. Otherwise, you’re going to end up with a melted-plastic face and no energy to actually fight your own lightsaber duels. And, really, if you can’t do that, what’s even the point?

The Hero With A Thousand Faces

Family Fun Times: MOM?!

(You’re supposed to hear that MOM?! in a Jean-Ralphio voice. Just FYI.)

Welcome back to Symma’s Neverending Blog Series on Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. If you’d like to catch up on my previous blogposts on the subject, in which I rant a lot about oversexualization of mythology and try to connect my sentimental asexuality and moral-of-the-Storytelling analysis on Broseph’s book, you can check the “Hero With A Thousand Faces” category tag over in the right sidebar. (For the record, it’s a goal of mine to finish off Thousand Faces by the end of 2017. Knowing my record, I think it’ll be fun to see.)

Without further ado, let’s get back to it.

All The Mythological Ladies

We’re back in Part 2, Chapter 2 of Thousand Faces, entitled “The Virgin Birth.” My initial reaction: Oh, boy. It actually wasn’t too difficult to get through, though, either in the sex respect or the woman respect. Because, obviously, that’s what this chapter is all about: women. More specifically,  mothers.

The mother of the world. …is the lure that moved the Self-brooding Absolute to the act of creation. (297)

This can be misleading, because, in a lot of mythologies, the “earth mother” creates the world of her own volition, or at least on her own (also p. 297). Campbell uses the Finnish epic Kalevala as an example of this, which sounds like a great read (I need to find an English translation somewhere). In the epic, it’s the sea which “woke life” within Ilmatar, so that she could become the World-Shaper (299). She’s a very proactive World-Shaper, too, like a much less violent version of Odin, Vili, and Ve’s method of world-shaping; she actually shapes the world while in her 710th year or so of unbroken pregnancy. Talk about a working mom.

So the mythological woman can be defined by more than her ugliness, virginity, or relationship with a man. On occasion. None of the other examples given by Campbell in this chapter do much with this idea – it’s all wives, birthers of the world, and wifely duties from here on out – but it’s a nice change of pace. I like Ilmatar. I really need to read the Kalevala. She probably disappears after world-shaping, though. To all Finnish epic enthusiasts: no spoilers!

Whether he meant to or not, though, Campbell makes some strides for the mythological mother and her role – or, rather, roles.

The universal goddess makes her appearance to men under a multitude of guises; for the effects of creation are multitudinous, complex, and of mutually contradictory kind when experienced from the viewpoint of the created world. (302)

Ironic that this statement is followed by no real exploration other than Venus being known as a harlot, virgin, consort, or hag, depending on the movement of her planet (303). But still: this is progress! It’s a hint that the world mother, and so the other women of myth and legend, might wear a “multitude” of faces outside the Madonna-whore dichotomy.

Later, when we go from primordial Earth Mother to mortal mothers of heroes, Broseph gives us Parvati, a Hindu heroine who takes action to attract Shiva, the highly ascetic god. While her end goal is to bear a child, she is the one who decides to act. Shiva’s child will be the hero her land needs to save it from a tyrant, after all, and she takes it upon herself to bear that child. It’s not easy, either; years of grueling asceticism steal her youth, beauty, and vitality. Shiva, however, is won not by her beauty but by her strength and faith.

Between Ilmatar and Parvati, Broseph is, for once, giving us some pretty great examples of women in mythology.

Modern Mythological Mothers

What I don’t have the intelligence or training to get into right now is why the virgin birth is such an apparently worldwide phenomena in mythologies of great heroes. I have no idea what it might symbolize. Campbell calls the virgin mothers “a miniature… of the cosmic woman,” whose fertility “summons to itself by its very readiness the original power that fertilized the void” (308).

Okay.

So a virgin birth returns the relatively mortal hero to a pure state, the way humanity was before it was fruitful and multiplied, and kept multiplying until it was generations away from the primordial mother’s world-shaping. The hero can thus be more spiritual, more attuned to the “significant form of the human agony” as well as the “grand lines of the human comedy” (308), and more prepared to be, in general, heroic.

You know what this reminds me of? You’ve got it! My ultimate favorite, Star Wars!

Shmi

If you want to know anything about me, ask me about my headcanon that Luke Skywalker grew up hearing dozens of stories of his paternal grandmother. I will hit you in the face with my folder full of details.

I’ve grown up with the Star Wars prequels and I’ve repeatedly heard judgments on the choice to make Anakin a virgin birth. I struggled with it for a while, too. But everyone knows how heavily the OT was influenced by Thousand Faces, so it makes sense to me that the PT would include at least a few nods to worldwide mythological tradition. And, as much as I loved Shmi Skywalker before, I love her even more after reading this chapter. It’s given me a deeper appreciation for her and what she stands for, even if it was questionably written (and even if she was fridged later).

Shmi is strong the way an old tree is strong, enduring and life-giving. She’s not just Anakin’s mother; she’s an image of the Earth Mother, the primordial goddess who brought the world to life. And that’s what Shmi did, too.

Padmé

I love Padmé, too. Even when I was little, I was never inspired by Leia as much as I was by Padmé, even with the increasingly poor writing decisions her character was subjected to. By no means do I want to understate Padmé’s political acumen and importance in this section; that’s what I loved about her first.

But Padmé’s role is mythological, not just political. She is very obviously not a virgin mother, but she is a mother of heroes, and her little heroes are descended from the Star Wars saga’s Earth Mother. So maybe she was close enough.

And the roles Luke and Leia play are the roles of the virgin mother’s hero-children. After almost twenty years of suffering, the galaxy far, far away is desperate for “some personality who, in a world of twisted bodies and souls, will represent again the lines of the incarnate image” (308). If that’s not Leia and especially Luke, I don’t know how else to describe them. (Well, I do, but I’m trying to make a point.)

Conclusion

This is already an overlong blogpost, so I’ll try to be brief:

Mythological women can, in fact, be awesome, whether or not they fulfill the traditional wife-mother expectation. World-shaping Mothers are, in fact, VIPs. And I do, in fact, like the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy.

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 1.2, 1.3: The Art of X-Ray Reading + Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye

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In one corner, we have a nonfic volume which briefly examines 25 works of noteworthy literature, in order to see what, in part, makes them so enduring.

 

 

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In this other corner, we have an illustrated MG novel about a young boy, the last in a long line of caretakers for the family hotel. His life turns itself upside down when his new aunt starts a chain reaction of catastrophe while searching for the mysterious All-Seeing Eye.

 

I’m going to be candid: I have been in a daze for the past forty-eight hours. A daze caused by the very movie that sparked this ridiculous blog series. Thor: Ragnarok was, in a word, spectacular, and, in a few more words, it was everything I hoped it could be and more. My Read-A-Thor was for a good cause, dear readers. Though I reviewed many duds these past nine weeks, it was worth it – maybe the universe allowed me to be drained by so many unworthy books so that I’d be refreshed and reinvigorated for my new favorite MCU movie.

Of course, as I said, after I finished The Memoirs of Helen of Troy, my reading for this past week improved. Because it is an hour until midnight this Saturday and I have two books to review, I’m going to do them very quickly, but know that these were sturdy, solid books, which I recommend for different reasons.

Firstly, The Art of X-Ray Reading.

I finished X-Ray Reading on November 1st, which was perfect, because it got me in the mood for NaNoWriMo. It’s a simple, easy-to-read little book, and its overall message is an encouraging one: “The mysteries of the great masters such as Toni Morrison and F. Scott Fitzgerald are not necessarily mysteries if you know how to read constructively. You, too, can teach yourself how to read such meaning-drenched sentences as the ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past’ doozy we all sort of know.”

The strengths and weaknesses of X-Ray Reading are often the same. For example, as I said, its chapters are brief, and the lessons are clear and simple. These are often good things. However, those attributes can turn on themselves; as the book moves on, Clark often becomes repetitive (in a twist of irony, he most often repeats himself when talking about meaningful repetition). In sacrificing content for simplicity and easy reading, he skims over conversations that might give the reader more to chew on. There aren’t many practical exercises; there are times where Clark suggests, “you might try this while writing,” or, “try this when you’re editing,” but the book could have been elevated with some real-time projects. The “Writing Lessons” at the end of each chapter are the most redundant, both in copy-pasting from the chapter itself to reusing the same lessons in previous chapters.

All that aside, I did enjoy X-Ray Reading. It’s a solid resource and one that probably bears rereading. You might start to skip the “Writing Lessons” segments, but there are plenty of lessons to be learned or relearned in the chapters, simplicity notwithstanding. Sometimes you might need a simple reminder, of the “cut nonessential adverbs” variety to the “know where your allusions come from and use them” sort.

Secondly, Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye.

I love illustrated books. I love books whose author knows what they’re doing. I love characters who are so ugly, they’re cute. I love quirky stories that occasionally turn out darker than you expect. I love riddles I don’t know the answers to right away. I love a lot of things of the kind, and it turned out that this first Warren the 13th book delivers.

Warren is, first off, a joy to hold physically. I wouldn’t suggest reading the ebook version. There’s something about its big square shape and thick soft pages that is essential to the reading of this enchanting story. The cover matches the insides, is what I’m trying to say. If you’re not physically holding the riddle contained in the book, then you’re missing out on something (imho) important.

The story, too, is well put together. The characters spring to life from page 1, especially Warren, who gives me the combined vibes of any stock Igor character (the squat frame, the froglike face) with Tom Hulce’s Amadeus Mozart (the clothes, the canonically beautiful coif of blond hair). As much as I’m not fond of the “dumb uncle marries evil aunt” trope, it worked well here, if only because Uncle Rupert is so dumb and Aunt Annaconda (what a great name, isn’t it?) is very convincingly evil. There’s no “acting like an evil demanding witch to her nephew in front of her husband” for Annaconda; she’s an actually competent villain, thank you very much. The designs are all lovely, even for Rupert, who isn’t a major character but who has some hilarious “reaction image”-type illustrations.

As for the plot and pacing, I’d be hard-pressed to complain. I’m sure it could have been improved, but I’m at a loss as to how, except that the conclusion might have been tightened up a bit. The foreshadowing is fantastic, and, as I said, the riddle stumped me. (Not especially hard for someone who screams in frustration at the Riddles chapter of The Hobbit, but still.)

A final compliment: the character design for Sketchy is, quite frankly, adorable. It had no right to be that cute.

Read Warren the 13th if you need some high stakes and plot twists successfully blended with a fun, clever, lighthearted adventure story about a strange little boy who just wants to carry on his family tradition.


 

And that’s that. Read-A-Thor is complete. It’s a bittersweet realization: for nine weeks, I’ve struggled with a grueling review schedule, in an agony of anticipation for the story I’ve been waiting for since 2014. There have been highs and lows; I’ve been perfectly on time for a (very) few weeks, and I’ve struggled to even make my review quote (like tonight). And now that I’ve seen and adored Ragnarok itself, I am faced with the inescapable and oft-verbalized truth: sometimes the wanting is better than the having.

But if I’ve learned one thing over the past nine weeks, it’s that, for me, stories are worth the energy. I know I’ve gotten passionate at times, perhaps been too forgiving or too sarcastic in my reviews; believe it or not, I am always reining myself in, in an attempt to be fair, logical, and, frankly, less embarrassing. The post-victory high is gone, and, though I avoided it yesterday and most of today, I’m faced with another oft-verbalized truth: going back to the old routine kind of sucks.

What makes it better? Stories. Finding new stories. Discovering old ones. Rereading favorites. Finding something to appreciate even in the worst ones. Learning from the best ones. Loving the ones found under conditions which seem unpropitious (but aren’t, because no condition is totally unpropitious when a library is within driving distance).

There will be other Ragnaroks. There will be other occasions for joyous, ecstatic, mad Read-A-Thors. (We can always hope for another Waititi-directed Thor 4, after all.) Do I overemphasize the importance of a superhero movie in which a plot point involves something called the Devil’s Anus? I could be self-deprecating and say, ‘Probably,’ but I’m not going to, because I don’t want downplaying my passions and beliefs to be part of my style anymore. I do believe in the importance and power of superhero movies with Devil’s Anuses, and I do believe in getting radiantly, effusively impatient over their release dates, and I do believe in crying after viewing them for the first time on opening night because something in them, against all odds, touched the part of my soul most in need of understanding. I believe in seeing pieces of a bigger, unearthly joy in whatever I can find on earth, because joy does not often come naturally, and to teach myself to thrill over anything that touches me, frivolous or meaningless as it might be deemed, is one of the most powerful methods of spiritual survival I have.

For now, it’s back to the hunt for more stories, unexpected but miraculously found, undeserved but desperately needed.

Read-A-Thor

Thor: Ragnarok Is Here!

It’s November 2nd. The time: almost 4 PM, CST. The sun is the kind of low reddish-gold that you only see in November, a shimmery blessing that might remind you of cursed ring gold or the dwarf-fabricated locks of a goddess’s hair.

It’s freaking Thor night.

Now, I am lazy and have spent this entire day doing nothing of any worth whatsoever. I am not caught up with NaNo, I have not written my final two Read-A-Thor reviews. I did listen to about thirty minutes of A Single Man while taking my walk. And, more crucially, I did finish my fourth book this week. Fourth. Which means that, yes, I beat my challenge. Sometimes by the skin of my teeth, but that counts! I completed it! (You can verify my claim here, at my Goodreads ‘read’ bookshelf.)

So tomorrow and Saturday will be my last two Read-A-Thor reviews (and they will be much more positive than the last.) After that, I will be back next Saturday to pick up where we left off, much too long ago, with Broseph Campbell and The Hero With a Thousand Faces. (One of my reading goals is to finish reading that book before the year is out.) I also have a book of Haitian mythology to work on this month, either for a book review or for a standalone post between Hero installments, and I got a hold of the first Magnus Chase book as well (because I am fashionably late to this particular party).

And after that? Who knows! We made it to the end of Read-A-Thor! It’s not time for planning – it’s time for revels.

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VICTORY!

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 1.1: The Memoirs of Helen of Troy

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It is what it says on the package (but with more sexism-disguised-as-feminism than I have ever personally seen in a novel).

Content warning: There is… a lot of rape in this book. Too much. So much that I’m not putting it in a disclaimer in the review itself, but right here, because I’m not going to talk about it too much because I don’t like to. But there is a lot in this book. So, warning for incredible grossness.

 

In a word: Gross.
Recommend: No, no, no, no, no.

First, before I get into my extremely negative review:

WE HAVE REACHED THE FINAL WEEK OF READ-A-THOR.

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Huzzah! And now, on to the review.

I need to stop getting novels I’ve never heard of at thrift stores. Someone must have gotten angry and put a curse on me at some point, so I’ll never be able buy a novel from a thrift store that 1) I’d never heard of, and 2) that was actually decent. The Memoirs of Helen of Troy is the most blatant evidence of this curse and I am ready to curse someone right back.

There’s very little setup that needs to be explained here. It follows the infamous Helen from the age of five, when she finds her mother dead of suicide, to about a decade post-Trojan War. The book is dedicated and addressed to her estranged daughter Hermione. This already raises a few red flags for me, because, as I’ve said before, I inherently distrust epistolary novels. An epistolary novel (even one that’s a single 300-page letter) must adhere to certain rules: the reason for the letter has to gel with the content of the letter, the narrative style has to play with the natural difficulty of telling a novel – not just a story, but a novel – through one person sitting down and writing a letter, or the story just has to be lighthearted enough that it doesn’t really matter about suspension of disbelief. I, personally, think that The Memoirs could have taken Option #2 and turned Helen into an unreliable narrator; at least Elyot should have tried harder with Option #1. But, alas, The Memoirs is shaky from the start due to the cognitive dissonance between the “why” and the “what” of Helen’s writing.

And this is a good place to get into what makes The Memoirs so bad: sex. This book is full of sex, because this is the kind of “feminist” novel that tries to say it’s about how great women are, but really all it does is turn the women into either sexual objects dependent on men for pleasure, women who hate Helen because of her effect on men, or… well, Aethra. When Helen isn’t talking about how terrible she is, Clytemnestra’s femininity is constantly called into question; at one point, those attributes that Helen admires in Clytemnestra are chalked up to masculinity. Andromache and Hecuba hate Helen, because… they do; Polyxo, Helen’s childhood friend, ends up hating Helen and burning her in effigy because Polyxo’s husband died in the Trojan War; Penelope, though a neutral force at the beginning, eventually turns on Helen as well, also due to her husband’s well-known participation war. Meanwhile, when female characters aren’t hating on Helen, Helen is hating on them – over Paris. Helen immediately resents Oenone and Penthesilea (bafflingly present and then killed before the death of Hector) because… they’re women, and Paris looks at them. To be fair, Oenone in this version is in love with Paris, but Paris is in love with Helen, and to resent a woman for the insult of falling in love with Your Man is inhumane at best.

So The Memoirs has a sex problem. Why is this a problem? Besides being kind of grossly written, Helen is writing this to her daughter. She is detailing her sex life in a missive to her daughter. And yet, as disturbing and cognitively dissonant as that is, The Memoirs‘s woman problem is even worse.

The book also has a man problem. Every man besides Paris and Theseus, who both worship the ground Helen walks on, are essentially garbage. Where men are unpleasant or wicked in, say, the IliadThe Memoirs turns it up to eleven. Agamemnon is one pitchfork away from demonhood, which is fair – no one likes Agamemnon – but the sheer self-indulgence of his awfulness is hard to read at times. Achilles and Deiphobus also get this treatment. Tyndareus is opportunistic and tyrannical; Menelaus is weak and abusively jealous, shamed by Helen for not being good at, you know, marital duties; Priam does what the plot needs. Hector is a Paragon of Manhood, beloved by all except bad people, but who knows why, because he’s barely in the book. Even Odysseus gets turned into a brutal, conniving, self-serving monster, revealed to be irredeemable at the war’s end. There’s a feeling of savage satisfaction throughout The Memoirs at the erasure of moral ambiguity and complex characterization, at the utter debasement of certain characters and the well-nigh canonization of others. There are two types of people in Elyot’s world: people who love Helen and people who hate her. There are two other types of people in this world: Paragons and Monsters. You can probably guess how the two sides overlap.

That leads to final point I want to make about The Memoirs: Helen is insufferable. This is half because of the way Elyot sets up the story, and half because of Helen’s narration, because Elyot absolutely martyrs Helen. Helen only has one childhood friend; Helen’s father and sister hate her, and her mother committed suicide; Helen’s brothers betray her by taking away from her first love; Helen gets married off to a weak man with a monstrous brother; Helen has to give up her first-born child to her awful sister because it isn’t Menelaus’s; Helen has to leave her children to elope with Paris; Helen has to suffer through visits to other islands on the way back to Troy, because gods forbid Paris complete the business he set out to do; Helen is hated by everyone in Troy because she’s so beautiful; Andromache hates her, Hecuba hates her, Priam hates her; my gods, everyone hates Helen because of her beauty; Helen is raped countless times, on- and off- page, because of her beauty and the hatred that inspires in them. At one point, after she returns to Sparta, the women ignore Menelaus the warrior but pelt Helen with grapes (?); she remarks, and I quote:

“Murder is easier to forgive than beauty.”

Okay.

The thing is, this could have been done well. Beauty as something that people want to own as a commodity, while discarding the human who happened to be born with it, is a real issue, one that I think is a more spiritually serious issue than a lot of people give it credit for. And Helen is the perfect vessel for examining it. But The Memoirs isn’t an examination, and it isn’t interested in exploring complex moral ideas like autonomy, responsibility, and spiritual-vs-physical worth. It’s one big literary pity party and Helen can cry if she wants to, and she very much wants to, because Helen is fate’s punching bag. Whatever tragedy happens, Helen has the worst of it, or she can, at least, say that she knows what it feels like to suffer that kind of tragedy. Helen can’t let anyone grieve without reminding the reader and sometimes the grieving person themselves that she, too, has it bad; why aren’t we all pitying her instead? Elyot even rewrote a few portions of the Iliad, which could have been forgivable since Helen needed to stay relevant as a narrator, but what was changed or elaborated on, of course, reads nauseatingly like torture porn. The most egregious and horrifying rewrite to Iliad canon? Helen, not Hermes, drives Priam to Achilles’s tent; when Priam doesn’t get through to Achilles, she lets Achilles rape her in exchange for Hector’s body. Which definitely had me like*:

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Just skip The Memoirs of Helen of Troy. Read the Age of Bronze graphic novels, which aren’t great but are at least entertaining, or read After Troy by Glyn Maxwell for actual human women, or Ransom by David Malouf, or reread the fricking Percy Jackson series. Or just read the Iliad. There’s a reason it’s immortal

Finally, a few questions I’d like to ask those with more knowledge on the subject than I:

  • Is “Troyan” a legitimate alternate spelling for “Trojan” or is Elyot just trying to sound more authentic by being different?
  • How historically viable is the whole “the gentle, wise women worshipped the Goddess but were suppressed by the brutish power-mad men and their fake patriarchal Olympian gods” thing that I’ve already read about twice this year alone?
  • How accurate/faithful to the mythology is it to render Helen functionally immortal, unable to die without being given permission by Zeus, on account of her half-deity nature?

Storytelling and The Memoirs of Helen of Troy: Sometimes, the most enduring of our stories, the most beloved and perplexing and endlessly fascinating, get badly adapted. Most of the time, actually. We have faith and await a decent retelling of our favorite stories and heroes, and usually we’re disappointed, and sometimes we even end up with horror-glazed eyeballs and a sudden disturbing kinship with book-burners. But we must always remember: the original, or as close as we’ll ever get to it, still exists. We can always return to a Helen who doesn’t make us throw up in our mouths a little. Thanks, Homer, whoever you are. Thanks for still being great even when your works are turned into… this.

* Sorry about the double-whammy of gifs. I like gifs, and that’s a fact. If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a moving picture has to be worth like, 50k of inexpressible excitement or loathing.

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 2.3: Tomboy Vol. 1: Divine Intervention

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I’ll just use the warning on this comic’s cover as the elevator pitch:

“Warning: This books contains violence, blood, murder, madness, and magical girls!”

 

 

 

In a word: Frenetic.
Recommend: Yes, if you can handle violence, blood, murder, and madness.

almost didn’t make it. You didn’t think I’d make it, did you? But I did. I’m getting this review in before 12:01 AM on the very last week of Read-A-Thor. No way I’m tripping up now.

Anyway.

I was never into Sailor Moon when I was younger, but I know about the magical girl genre – mostly the transformation scenes, the style, the girls-fighting-evil-in-fun-yet-impractical-outfits, the cutesy magical helpers. Most of what I’ve experienced, actually, comes from Madoka Magica, which is (as far as I can tell) a deconstruction of sorts of the genre. So I really don’t know much about magical girls, except what they typically haven’t been.

It turns out, though, that I really like magical girl deconstructions. Just like I enjoyed Madoka Magica for using a cutesy Saturday-morning-cartoon setup for some pretty heavy character and concept studies, I like Tomboy for transferring said cartoon setup into a real crime-meets-Madoka fever dream of violence and unreliable narrators.

The gist is this: on the day of her birthday, highschool student Addison Brody finds out that her best friend Nick Vivaldi has been brutally murdered, as has his father. That’s as long as it takes for the story to get wild. Throw in some references to an (ostensibly magical girl) anime that Addison and her friends are into, a corporate coverup by pharmaceutical company Trent Pharmaceuticals, and a pretty shady lady who knows Addison’s grandfather, and suddenly Addison is covered in blood after murdering two people on the subway. Don’t worry, though, they had it coming.

First, the art. I can be pretty tough on graphic novels and comics because of the art, which I think is far, given that it’s a visual medium as much as a written one and if I don’t connect to the story through the art as well as the dialogue, then what’s the point? But Tomboy has fantastic art. I think it shows that the writer is also one of the artists. The art suits the story very well, since the story centers around a highschool (magical?) girl, but there’s also a thrilling sort of disconnect between it and the blood, guts, and eyeball-removal that it frequently illustrates.

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The characters are drawn in swift, quick strokes, but the characterization (and the art, too) is strong enough that each person is pretty quickly distinguishable from the others. I did have trouble with the names of the police workers – Tico, Henri and Autry all blurred together, and I didn’t even realize that Addison’s father was Doctor Brody until probably the second issue – but that’s a problem I have with crime media in general. Otherwise, I loved how effortlessly the story placed everyone within their specific story contexts, something that it isn’t always done well. I credit the great art and the strong dialogue equally. I like Addison as a character, I like Jessica as a character and as a person, and you just want to hug Dr. Brody, who is a good man and doesn’t deserve this pain. I want to punch Detective Tico, give Henri a friendly handshake, and grab Addison’s grandfather by the shoulders and ask, “Why would you tell a highschool-age girl these kinds of things???”

One more discussion point, which does not, as you might guess, begin with a spoiler, since that reveal is literally in the back-cover summary of Tomboy: when Nick comes back from the dead, his design is scary. You get why Addison might find it comforting, but it’s also incredibly unsettling, with the gunshot wound in the center of the head and the bleeding eyes and the permanent tired, funhouse-clown toothy smile. It’s very iconographic, actually. And iconography seems to be a running theme in this comic. Frequently characters are imagined the way a classical artist might have painted a martyred saint, once in a pose quite similar to the Madonna and Child. As of right now, I don’t know what that might signify, if anything, but I hope it’s significant.

That leads into Tomboy’s first volume’s greatest strength and greatest weakness: it’s wildness. There are so many elements in this volume, shaken up and jumbled together. There are magical anime-girl charms that come to life, a Halloween mask that becomes Addison’s magical alter-ego, a murderous white-collar pharmaceutical crime leader, a bucketload of crooked cops, ghosts of dead friends, a possible love story in the works, an unknown supernatural force, a family business a la Supernatural, a woman whose origin and nature is shrouded completely in mystery, and a whole lot of blood and guts. Is it a lot of fun? Yes. Does it all meld well together yet? No. Reading each issue, I’d think, Ah, now I get some answers, and then I’d proceed to have no idea what was going on, to an even greater degree than in the preceding issue. Like I said, the sheer reckless madness of the pacing is sometimes the most significant part of the fun, but it can also be frustrating to want some context under all that carnage.

Tomboy Vol. 1: Divine Intervention has its issues (a little comic book humor for you there), but it’s a bloody, pink-saturated riot, and I’ve already checked out the second volume from Hoopla. Hopefully, I’ll keep you updated on how the story progresses. I have high hopes.

Storytelling and Tomboy Vol. 1: I’m coming up a bit empty on how to relate this comic to story in a macro sense. But there’s one scene in particular that I think might help understand how Tomboy in turn understands storytelling.

Addison’s grandfather tells her a story of how he used a position of power similar to the kind that Addison has now. It is very much a story with a moral, and an effective one, too; Addison takes her grandfather at his word and agrees to his strict moral code, all from the impact of that one story. And yet, because of what Addison’s narrative POV has shown us, it’s impossible to simply take her grandfather at face value. There is a disconnect all throughout Tomboy which feels like it’s going to be intentional, a disconnect between what the reader sees with through POV character’s perception and what the reality of the situation might really be. Again, it could wind up being an examination on how storytelling – the framing of events in order to elicit a certain emotional or moral response – could be misused, even in the name of a “good” thing such as justice.

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 2.2: The Wangs vs. the World

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The financial crisis of 2008 has hit, and mega-wealthy Chinese businessman Charles Wang has lost… everything. Everything, that is, except his family. Luckily, oldest daughter Saina has a house in Helios, New York, so it’s time to uproot the family and go crash with Big Sis.

Of course, it’s not that easy.

 

 

 

In a word: Tedious.
Recommend: No.

And here we have another simple answer to the would-I-recommend-this-book question – with fairly simple reasons as well. This should be a quick review.

This is the last of the immigration-themed books I chose for reading challenges, and the one I was most looking forward to. It’s been on my to-read list for a good while now, probably since not long after it came out. It has not one but two attractive covers, it was pitched as “hilarious” and “outrageously funny” and “charming,” and the plot includes a family roadtrip, an awkward one, with ex-rich people. These are all attributes that I loved separately, but which together sounded like a lovely casserole of good things.

Not to overextend my simile, but someone dropped the casserole dish in the baking process.

Comedy is highly subjective, but, in my honest opinion, The Wangs vs. the World is not funny. Maybe it was supposed to be. Or maybe it’s a type of humor I don’t gel well with, a kind of “this real-life situation is so awkward or gross it’s funny” type. Maybe too much of the humor was embedded in the sex stuff, which is not, I think you all know by now, is not something I enjoy, “funny” or not. (And, believe me, there was a lot of The Sex Stuff.) Whatever it was, the rollicking, humorous story that I was sold – that of a Chinese family going on a wacky roadtrip, leaving the wake of their crumbled makeup empire behind – wasn’t there. It was part roadtrip, part examination of each of the Wangs’ lives up to this point, part existential crisis for Charles Wang – it was a lot of things, in other words, but it wasn’t funny. The more appropriate word might be “sad,” or “awkward,” “or cringe-inducing.”

Let’s take a look at the Wang family:

  • Charles Wang: the head of the family. Moved from Taiwan to America to create (and later destroy) his urea-based makeup business. Vaguely racist, significantly misogynistic, sort of entitled. Was relieved when his first wife died in a helicopter crash.
  • Barbra Wang: the second Wang wife, the stepmother. Not evil, just distant and a little cold. Probably the most tolerable of the Wangs, even if she was an opportunistic gold-digger.
  • Saina Wang: the second-most tolerable Wang, an infamous artist in New York who left in disgrace after a wholly deserved art-show controversy/scandal. Has man issues, in that she can’t resist dirtbags, lying about her relationships with dirtbags to decent men, and getting angry at decent men for doing pretty much what she did to them (except Leo actually confessed, eventually). In other words, a rather privileged hypocrite. Still, a good sister, a good daughter. Just not a good partner.
  • Andrew Wang: a college-age wannabe stand-up comedian, whose act consists mostly of making fun of racial stereotypes and whose commitment to finding love before sex is deemed hilarious and ridiculous by everyone in the book (and the book’s narrative itself). I don’t want to even talk about Andrew anymore.
  • Grace Wang: the prerequisite fiery, rebellious teen, whose apparent habit of hanging up pictures of dead people is brought up exactly twice in the narrative and then dropped. Has a fashion blog. Um… that’s about it.

Each character brings at least one or two story threads to the table. Some of them bring more, especially Charles and Andrew. This is not necessarily a bad thing, if these threads are tied off neatly or at least recognized to be unresolved. But Andrew’s baffling “relationship” with Dorrie, Charles’s cosmetics empire, Saina’s art and her relationship with Leo, Barbra’s does-she-love-him-or-doesn’t-she thing with Charles and her place in the novel at all, and Grace’s lost dead-people photography kick as well as her blog – all of these and more subplots are thrown in, including a visit to some friend’s wedding in New Orleans and a visit to Opelika, Alabama, which is incidentally the city where I was born. And none of them are satisfactorily resolved or not-resolved. They’re introduced, and either they’re dropped somewhere in the mess of other subplots or they’re simply carried to the end of the novel, where resolution happens somewhere beyond the final page.

There’s not much of a sense of pace, either. When you’re looking at how novels are often structured, you see a wavy line, with peaks to indicate moments of intensity and troughs to indicate downtime. It’s beginner stuff. Not all stories have a perfect arc, of course. Some of my favorite books probably have a pretty wavy, irregular line from Chapter 1 to Chapter Done. However, one thing that doesn’t work well is when the line is straight. The Wangs suffers from straight-line syndrome: the writing gives no special suspense to big events, or much emotional catharsis for the slower periods. There are a few instances where the mood might drop or rise – Charles delivering his last trailer’s worth of cosmetics to a store in Opelika, or Grace’s revelation after a wreck on the way to New York – but these instances are treated with the same amount of urgency. Which is to say, in general, not very much urgency at all.

There are enjoyable elements in The Wangs. Barbra and Saina are probably the most complex characters. Barbra, while not being likable in the most traditional sense, is compelling, anyway, because of her (deservedly) shaky place in the family hierarchy. In a way, she got what she deserved by being as opportunistic and mercenary as she was, but now she has to live with what she got, and it’s both saddening and perversely satisfying to see her struggle. Saina is much the same way: pretentious as all get-out, in the way that only NYC artists can be, she abuses her place of privilege and is summarily booted from grace. She deserves it. But she’s not a terrible person, just, as I said, a hypocritical one. You, or at least I, want her to succeed, to come back from it as a better person, with a better boyfriend and a house I seriously want to own myself should I ever lose my mind and move to New York. Finally, the observations on what it is to be Chinese-American, both in America and in China, were interesting, and it’s one of the first novels I’ve read to effectively express a kind of discomfort, or displacement, in either world.

But Saina and Barbra and ethnic observations can’t carry a novel which, in the end, is not about them. It’s about Charles – unpleasant, selfish, shallow, entitled Charles – and his dream of wealth in America or in China. Not to mention what he’ll do to chase it. The abrupt ending leaves Charles in a strange, idealistic limbo, with his future unsure. Half of me is frustrated that the reader gets so little closure, on the handful of little subplots and on the main emotional plot itself; half of me really does not care.

Storytelling and The Wangs vs. the World: It’s another story where history has given way to story. Very late in the book, Charles even tells his children the “family history” as something like a bedtime story, using it as a way to distance himself from the emotional fallout the closer it gets to the present. I think this novel is also an example of how history-as-story can be used in a negative way, or at least in a self-deluding way; it can build up the distant past as a grandiose, superior epoch which can be recovered, like the clock can be reversed and everything will be okay again. It’s not a healthy way of life, and it shows as Charles’s obsession with “the land in China” causes him to do increasingly reckless things instead of spending time with his family and rebuilding their lives together.

Stories: an amoral force which can be used for good or for evil.

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 2.1: Pen & Palate

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It’s basically what it says on the package: the story of two friends, separated by distance and occasional emotional problems, but united by their love for food, art, and each other. Cue sweet music.

 

 

 

 

In a word: Pleasant.
Recommend: Yes.

What? A book which earns a simple “Yes” at the Recommend section, without a catastrophe of qualifications and maybe for some people’s? I am just as shocked as you are.

But I think the one-word, three-letter answer sums up rather nicely what my response to this book was: Basic, no-frills no-fuss, sincere, straightforward enjoyment. Pen & Palate offered nothing for me to scream with enthusiasm over, but, likewise, there was nothing that I hated in this book, or anything – aside from some scattered language and the fact that Nguyen briefly works in a Store of the Adult Variety – that negates a recommendation. It’s pleasant; an uncomplicatedly good read.

First, I have to admit that I preferred Nguyen’s chapters. Her writing style came off as more self-aware, more readily examining where she messed up along with where she was justified in her actions, without either arrogance or self-loathing. Many of her chapters – the book alternates between narrators every chapter – gave glimpses of her life in a family emigrated from Vietnam, and that was fascinating, too, not only because I’m as Anglo-American as they come but because it gave a firmer grounding of who Nguyen is. Madison had a few more hangups, a little bit more hypocrisy, and more frequent lapses in judgment. It’s awful of me to say in a review about someone’s life, but bad choices in a memoir really stress me out. Furthermore, there was less of an understanding on where Madison came from. She always seemed, despite her more dramatic personality, like less of a fully-realized memoir figure.

It’s always, somehow, easier to be critical, easier to get more specific about it. But how do I explain the overall aura of niceness about Pen & Palate? The book is nice because it’s gentle: the two writers are remembering their 20s, a time of wild exploration and no jobs and no cash and bad food, a time of bad jobs and little cash and better food, a time of love and good roommates but also heartache and bad roommates, and a time of sleeping on floors whether for good or for ill. They both prick holes in the aura of young adult invincibility and NYC apartment romance, but never with cynicism or bad feelings, and it’s clear that they don’t regret all of it. (Maybe some of it, but not all.) It’s a very mature take on the kind of subject that often gets bandied about in black-and-whites, when it shouldn’t be. (Even though NYC sounds like an utter nightmare and I never want to stay there longer than, like, a weekend.)

Another pro for this book? The food. Where Driving Hungry left something to be desired in the food department, the descriptions of meals and ingredients in Pen & Palate left my mouth watering and my skillet skills fired up. Both Nguyen and Madison demonstrate more aptly a love for cooking and the art of it all. They have their snobbish moments (a lot of people don’t eat duck for Thanksgiving because duck is expensive, Ms. Nguyen, and turkey is fricking awesome if you cook it right), but they don’t reject the simple comforts of a burger or a soup.

The best food-related pro, however, is the fact that they include recipes. Just like Stir, the book I recommended after Driving Hungry, each chapter includes a couple recipes related to the topics covered in each chapter. Some are relatively easy, and some, like Lucy’s Thanksgiving tamales, are time-consuming and edge towards the expensive side, with frequent requests for less standard ingredients (in America, at least). It’s a good blend, like being able to request difficulty level in a video game menu: “easy,” “intermediate,” “advanced,” “SUPER CHALLENGER MODE.”

I liked this book. It centered on two friends with some romance on the side. There was unfortunate miscommunication, effectively estranging the two friends for a while. There was a reunion. There was, at the end, a wedding. It’s almost like a Shakespearean comedy, with more food (always a good thing). It might not change your life but it’ll brighten your reading time. And it might also improve your cooking game.

Storytelling and Pen & Palate: What I said about storytelling and memoirs with Driving Hungry still stands. Obviously. There’s always a barrier of suspicion up between a reader and a memoir – or, at least, there tends to be, or maybe there should be. I’m not sure. Again, it’s a mixed bag of concepts, tastes, and blurred lines.

But I really, really love the food memoir + recipes format. There’s something very practical and life-affirming about it. Almost archaic. Once the personal history is told, you’re taught how to keep yourself alive with a recipe from the storyteller’s life, something personal and meaningful. It’s a piece of the story that’s endlessly recallable; the story is never lost because you can always taste it, or taste some like it, again. Food and storytelling really should have closer bonds – they’re much more similar than people give them credit for being.

Read-A-Thor · reviews

Read-A-Thor, 3.3: Divinity

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The Soviets send an astronaut to the very edges of space, a 30-year space voyage that’s not supposed to come back. But Abram Adams does come back – or, at least, something in Abram Adams’s body does come back. Something powerful. Something mysterious. Something… divine.

And then there’s a superhero fight.

 

 

In a word: Anticlimactic.
Recommend: I might, after reading a few more of Valiant’s comics.

I have never not been burned by comics. My efforts to immerse myself in Marvel, in order to legitimize my affection (read: self-aware yet sycophantic adoration) for the MCU has mostly resulted in frustration, dating back to before I went to college. (I just wanted to get to the origin of Kid Loki, but you just have to buy about $200’s worth of comics to get the proper buildup.) I’ve had more luck with DC, if only because my library has more origin-type volumes for DC heroes. Although I’m still not over that Batgirl collection being marked Volume 1 and yet containing distinctly not-number-one issues. If I may:

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If you’re wondering what this has to do with Divinity, it’s because the same issues pop up here. I am no comic book aficionado, obviously; it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’ve never heard of Valiant Comics. Apparently, they’re a thing. A superhero thing. Guess what I didn’t surmise from Goodreads’s summary of Divinity? That’s right: that I would be dealing with established superheroes like X-O Manowar and Livewire. I saw the gorgeous cover art on Hoopla, noticed that it was #1 in a series of the same name, and assumed that I would be safe from the perils of the Comic Book Labyrinth.

My dear readers, you know what they say about ‘assume.’ This is a warning to my comic book-challenged fellows: This is not a standalone comic.

On to the proper review.

I adored the synopsis of Divinity. It sounded like something right up my alley: a bit historical, a bit scifi, a bit surreal horror. A bit, in other words, like an episode of The Twilight Zone. And it did start that way. You could almost hear Rod Serling’s voice in the voiceover (until you realize who is doing the talking). I am terrified of space – my terror grows in direct proportion to the length of space you travel – and the idea of meeting… something… out in the outer limits of the galaxy? I couldn’t wait for that to be explored in intimate, horrifying detail.

But guess what happens, about halfway through?

If you guessed “superhero fight,” you’d be exactly right! Thanks for reading my lame-o summary.

Divinity drops the ball by abruptly switching the genre from “supernatural/historical space horror” to “superpowered knock-down drag-out.” The tonal change may have been more compelling if I were versed in Valiant’s superhero world, if I knew the heroes sent in to control Codename Divinity and why they were there. And yet, I’m skeptical even of that. The heroes have no emotional stake in the battle. There’s no sense of history or camaraderie between them. The way the heroes defeat the Divine takes very little time to develop, and, again, has nothing to do with the Divine.

And, of course, Abram Adams had a wife and child he wanted to come back to. Guess what? They’re dead now. But their ghosts can still come back, just for him, to tell him that what he’s doing is wrong (is it, though?), tell him they had happy lives, and then disappear, having allowed the superhero team Unity to take the Divine down while he was in his trance of manpain.

It’s all just overwhelmingly underwhelming, a giant disappointment of concept execution.

Again, I might revisit Divinity if I read more of Valiant’s offerings (I’m interested in Livewire, myself), and there are two sequels to Divinity which I might check out from Hoopla if/when they get it. And I realize that I have much less of a right to review this comic, since it’s my first Valiant attempt. (Ha, unintentional wordplay.) So maybe all I can say is this: don’t try Divinity as a Valiant gateway. It doesn’t work. At all.

Storytelling and Divinity: I really enjoy the conceit of time as a book, a physical story that the Divine can flip through at will, lingering on certain “pages” of Abram’s life. As unsubtle as it might be, it retains a certain poetry, especially given the impact scifi novels had on Abrams and his ambitions.