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Joyful Girl

Andrea Blythe's blog about writing, reading, and everything else

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Books Completed in May
andrea reading
1. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card
2. Kim (audio book), by Rudyard Kipling
3. The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry, edited by Rose Lemberg
4. Tank Girl (Remastered Edition) (Bk. 1), by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin
5. Park Songs: A Poem/Play, by David Budbill
6. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
7. Scheherazade's Facade: Fantastical Tales of Gender Bending, Cross-Dressing, and Transformation, edited by Michael M. Jones
8. Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders, by Jennifer Finney Boylan
9. The Count of Monte Christo, by Alexandre Dumas


1. Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card
Following a war with alien creatures, nicknamed "buggers," government agencies select certain gifted children to train to be soldiers and leaders when the buggers attack again. One of these children in Ender, a very young (he's only six when we first meet him) and very intelligent boy, who is expected to be the ultimate commander who will save the world with his ability to strategically plan attacks.

It's easy to feel empathy for Ender, after all he's just a little kid with a hell of a lot of pressure on his shoulders. And yet, none of these kids act very much like kids; they have been bred and trained to be soldiers from a very young age and so they act accordingly. It's kind of an odd thing, because sometimes you forget that these are kids and it's a bot jarring every time you remember they're only seven, nine, ten years old. The result was that while I felt empathy for Ender, I also felt a bit distanced from him.

A lot of the tension in the book is created by the conversations different teachers and military leaders have with each other at the beginning of each chapter. With no descriptions, just dialog, these people are faceless menaces actively manipulating and cruelly driving Ender forward toward their goal. Even as they express compassion for the boy, they still push him and throw him into nasty situations and offer no salvation, no way out.

In fact, the manipulation and threat from the teachers and fellow students is far more intense than the supposed threat from the buggers. The buggers are just a distant enemy, light years away, and sometimes it seems they are so distant, it's as though they don't even exist. However, the teachers and the bullies are very real and very present.

While Ender's Game is a fast read, easy and full of tense action, there's not much to sink your teeth into intellectually. The twist ending might have been surprising, if I haven't heard Ender's Game talked about a million times over, and the denouement was a bit too much of a neatly wrapped little bow, so tidy and clean (especially coming after war and knowing what we know about Ender's vicious brother). In fact, the denouement was so neat and clean, I'm amazed Card was able to continue the story line.

So final summation? Very enjoyable, but doesn't make me want to eagerly run off and grab the next book in the series.

2. Kim (audio book), by Rudyard Kipling
Kim is an orphaned Irish boy, who has grown up under the care of an Indian woman. He's lived in the streets all his life, running amok just as the other Indian boys do, with little knowledge or care that he is white. When he meets a holy man, a lama on a quest to achieve enlightenment by bathing in a certain river, he is fascinated and decides to become the lama's apprentice. Together, as they walk the roads of India and meet many people, Kim also gets himself wrapped up in British espionage.

This was a fun little romp that very much reminded me of the many adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, except on the roads of India instead of the riverside of the South.

I don't know nearly enough about the intricate nature of India's many cultures to know where Kipling got it right and where he screwed it. Since Kipling grew up in India himself, it makes sense that he drew on his own experiences while writing. I'm sure there's a certain amount of Orientalizing and stereotyping going on, but not how much.

In his favor though, Kipling seems to present most of the characters in multiple layers and to treat much of the events as entirely normal, while most Westerners would consider them strange. In some cases, he also flips to show how Indians and the lama are perceived through the white man's lens. For example, the lama, who is seen as a holy man to all the native peoples around him, is seen as just another dirty beggar to the white men.

However, the fact remains that the British are clearly the good guys and colonialism is presented as, if not a good thing, then at least not a problem. Also, whenever "magic" came into play within the story, I kind of cringed a bit as it seemed to be the greatest indication of stereotyping the "mysterious and magical East".

There are also some spiritual aspects to the book, as presented through the lama and his peaceful quest. He teaches Kim about the wheel of life and how everyone is tied to the wheel, how the body is illusion and he wishes to escape from illusion. This is mixed with the assemblage of Hindu and Muslim people and customs they meet along the road, all of which is very interesting (though again, I can't properly judge how much is accurate).

On the whole, I enjoyed it quite a bit from an adventure story standpoint with some reservations in regards to other aspects.

3. The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry, edited by Rose Lemberg
Discussed elsewhere.

4. Tank Girl (Remastered Edition) (Bk. 1), by Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin
This "remastered" version presents the Tank Girl series in its original black and white and in chronological order of when they first appeared.

Tank Girl is the mutated child of Madonna and GI Joe, living in an apocalyptic Aussie outback with a few teenage mutant punk rock kangaroos thrown in. While the author and artist claim to have created this comic in rebellion against the pathos of MTV, the truth is Tank Girl could only have come out of that generation (late 80s, early 90s). It's short episodic pieces, laced with pop culture and zany antics would have been right at home with the other animated shows appearing on that channel an others during that time period. It's all about spectacle and objectification an wackadoodle encounters. Many of the stories only barely make sense, if they even bother with sense at all, and there is little to no character development. Event flashes to event like a series of quick paced music videos (though there seems to be a tiny bit more cohesion toward the end of the book and you can see how the creators gained skill). The art is frantic and detailed, sometimes with so much going on its hard to know where to look, but it's fun to look at.

Tank Girl is a representation of Girl Power as much as Spice Girls was (though more punk rock than pop rock), half sexist exploitation even as she presents power. Nameless, Tank Girl is only Tank Girl. She, like all the characters within the comic, is entirely one dimensional. Never growing or changing (except in appearance and clothing), she is exactly as advertised, a tank driving, chain smoking, kangaroo kissing crazy woman wearing little more than a black bra and a devil-may-care smile. Absolutely fearless and with no ambition, she faces each bizarre challenge with a grin on her face. Half the time she's so busy doing here own thing, she's oblivious to the threats around her and gets out of sticky situations as much by luck as by any apparent skill (which other than her fearlessness and recklessness, I'm not sure she has).

In a sense, I love Tank Girl, because she allows me to live vicariously. I always wanted to be that person, with crazy dyed and wacky cut hair, adorned with chains and safety pins and vibrant colors, and sporting an I-don't-give-a-flying-f*ck-what-you think attitude. But I never had the courage and I still don't.

She's fun and free of cares, which unfortunately means she leaves a slew of damage and death in her wake. There are never any consequences for this; Tank Girl lives in blissful chaos.

That and the sexism are only minor concerns compared to how the black and aboriginal characters are handled. They are presented as caricatures, all with dreadlocks and big lips and often with tribal paint; one such character is a voodoo priest (even though that's not part of Australian Aboriginal culture as far as I'm aware), who actually says, "Ooga, ooga, ooga," while in the act of performing "magic." And it's just so racist. It doesn't happen often, but every time one of these caricatures appeared I cringed.

I like the idea of Tank Girl (and I even like the ridiculous movie adaptation), but I have a hell of a lot of reservations about aspects of it.

5. Park Songs: A Poem/Play, by David Budbill
Park Songs presents the comings and goings, the loneliness and interactions of the various denizens of a city park. It's and interesting book, because it's not quite poetry and it's not quite a play. It's made up of a multitude of short scenes that present interlaced dialog or monologues, most of which are set off on their own as one to three page long pieces, or poems. There are a few actual poems with line breaks and rhyme, as well, which are described as traditional blues songs.

Reading is straight through, there is rhythm to the scenes and the way bits of dialog punctuate each other that's enjoyable. Though I didn't get much of a feel for any of the characters. I do like day-in-the-life kinds of stories, but I want to connect to something greater on some level -- either a oneness with a character, or a feeling of some wider message, or even just a cleverness of style or portrayal -- and I don't feel I really got that. But at least it was very readable.

For me, Budbill is at his best when he plays with words, even if such scenes might be slightly less realistic. For example, my favorite piece was the longest, the 19 page mini-play, "Fred and Judy: Let's Talk." One such word play goes like this:

Judy: You have trouble hearing, don't you?
Fred: No. I have trouble understanding.
J: Where was I?
F: Where you were.
J: What?
F: You were where you are.
J: What are you talking about?
F: Did you leave?
J: No.
F: Then you are where you were
and you were where you are.
J: What?
F: Right here! Right here!"

The scene presents a playful scenes with lots of word fun that also reveals two lonely people wanting to connect somehow. I still didn't really connect with the characters, but I had fun reading it.

Even though I didn't resonate with the scenes as they were presented on the page, I would be interested in seeing them performed. Budbill, in his afterword, describes this book as raw material that could be adapted for the stage in a number of ways. A great director and amazing actors could bring life to these words, making them resonate through collaborative creativity. And I was especially interested in Budbill's suggestion of playing the "Let's Talk" scene three times in an evening, first with a male/female pairing, then with two women, and then with two men. Sounds like a fascinating experiment, and one that I would be interested to see.

6. The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within."

Dr. Montague is an occult scholar determined to prove the supernatural exists and has sought and found Hill House, where he believes he might be able to do just that. Answering his call for assistants, Eleanor (a friendless young woman) and Theodora a lighthearted, carefree artist) join him for one summer of studying the supernatural, along with Luke, the future heir of Hill House.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story, which shows the characters bonding together against the terrors of Hill House in such a way that the experience almost becomes a joy. Life seems so much more valuable after the frights of the night and the characters experience a kind of horrified euphoria and a disconnection from the outside world. It seems to be the kind of experience and friendship that is only capable of existing in that place and time. The bond only begins to strain when Hill House begins to single out one of the characters.

I wasn't exactly frightened by the events that unfolded, but I enjoyed the relationships and how the characters reacted to what happened at the house, and how the house reacted to them. I also really loved that Jackson didn't try to explain events, keeping the mystery of why the house the way it is a mystery. Great book.

7. Scheherazade's Facade: Fantastical Tales of Gender Bending, Cross-Dressing, and Transformation, edited by Michael M. Jones
As the title suggests, this anthology features fantasy stories with characters that exist outside the gender binary. Various characters in these stories shift genders at whim, have secret selves of the opposite gender, cross dress to hide their identity, are transgender, or perform other acts of gender bending. Through the book, the stories are consistently good with strong writing, interesting multi-dimensional characters, and fascinating worlds. Here are a few of my favorites:

"The Daemons of Tairdean Town," by CS MacCath — A scarred woman drifts into a small town, singing to plants along the way, breathing life into them and the world with her tunes. She brings with her a secret self, who connects with the secret selves of others and helps them to heal.

"Kambal Kulam" by Paolo V Chikiamco — As a kambal kulam, Erikson gets hired to protect his clients from evil curses. He does this by transforming himself into his clients and taking on the burden of the curse. He gets more that he's bargained for, however, when a woman hires him for protection. This one was a lot of fun.

"Keeping the World on Course," by Tanith Lee — The fantastical elements of this story are slim, allowing it to rely more on delightful humor, word play, and situational irony. It's hard to describe this story without ruining it, but it begins with two people who loathe each other.

"A Bitter Taste," by Aliette de Bodard — This compelling story about a goddess who abandons her companions in order to try to prevent war is full of bloodshed and regret. It's beautifully done.

"Going Dark," by Lyn C.A. Gardner — Such a beautiful tale of loneliness, love, and grief, at once eerie and moving, about a genderless (or both gendered) child that unintentionally steals the life force of others and finds comfort in the confines of a photography darkroom.

"How to Dance While Drowning," by Shanna Germain — Dancers cling to their beauty in a world where mermaids have been discovered and are exploited for their scales and faces (which can be surgically grafted onto humans). A bit dark and grim, but I loved this story.

"Treasure and Maidens," by Sarah Rees Brennan — Sexy dragon!

"Lady Marmalade's Special Place in Hell," by David Sklar — A transgender woman gets sent to hell for just being herself and completely takes control of the situation, along the way she manages to find forgiveness for herself and others.

8. Stuck in the Middle with You: A Memoir of Parenting in Three Genders, by Jennifer Finney Boylan
This was an ARC from LibraryThing's Early Reader program.

Jennifer Finney Boylan previously talked about her experiences transitioning from male to female in her book She's Not There (which I have not read). In this subsequent book she looks at fathering and mothering and how this transition affected and yet did not affect her kids and her role as a parent, as well as her experience of her own parents.

The author has a simple, clean style to her writing that allows her to express feelings and moments in time without judging them too overtly or trying to grasp for sympathy. She just tells how she remembers it and lets the memories stand for themselves, and I really liked that.

I also enjoyed the fact that she highlights the many kinds of parents and parenting with interviews with fathers, sons, mothers, daughters, and wayward souls. This inclusion of other voices really added to the whole experience (the story of the father who adopted an autistic son had me weeping), and made the book an exploration of what it means to be a parent and to be mothered or fathered as much as it was a look into one parent's life. A really great book.

9. The Count of Monte Christo, by Alexandre Dumas
The classic revenge story. Edmond Dantes is happy, progressing in his career and to be married to the woman he loves, but he is betrayed and sent to prison. After meeting a fellow prisoner, who claims to have a secret treasure, Dantes escapes and rises as the powerful and enigmatic Count of Monte Christo.

I started reading this on my phone, at sporadic points of waiting that occurred over several months, then at about the halfway point, I switched to a brick-heavy paperback -- all of which taught me how the format affects my reading experience. While reading on my phone, I had a hard time keeping up with characters and the book seemed like a struggle to get through. Once I switched to paperback and (I assume) a different translation, the story clicked for me and I loved it.

Monte Christo isn't really a like able character. I certainly had sympathy for him in the beginning, when Dantes was struck down and made to suffer, but as the count, the goodness in him dissolved. He became a man so focused on his goal of revenge that it mattered little what effect his plans had on anyone else, even his friends or the innocent. I even felt sorry for the people who wronged him at a certain point. Even as he tries to make reparations for his actions, I'm a little discomfited by how he handled Mercedes and her son, Maximilian, and Hadee.

Ultimately, this did turn out to be a fun adventure yarn (once I switched to print). it was cool to see how all his elaborate plans unfurled and cane to fruition. I'm looking forward to trying The Three Musketeers at some point.
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