BOOK REVIEW: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

LolitaLolita by Vladimir Nabokov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Written in a confessional style, Nabokov’s masterwork tells the story of a middle-aged intellectual, Humbert Humbert, and his hebephiliac obsession with a twelve-year-old girl named Delores Haze — whom he calls Lolita. Early in the novel, Humbert is renting a room from Charlotte Haze (Lolita’s mother,) and Charlotte starts sending him heavy hints that she is interested in a more intimate relationship. While the Humbert that we get to know as readers is a creepy, obsessive stalker, in person the man comes across as articulate and suave – in other words, a fine marriage prospect for a single mom in the market for a husband. Eventually, Humbert does decide to marry Charlotte — not because he loves her, but because he is obsessed with Delores / Lolita and wants to stay close to the girl no matter what it takes.

One day after the couple has settled into marriage, Humbert comes in to find that Charlotte is freaked out; she has read his journal and now knows what the reader is already aware of: that Humbert isn’t right in the head, that he secretly detests Charlotte, and that he desperately wants to possess Lolita. This would be the end of the line for Humbert’s ruse, but Charlotte, in a mad flurry of preparation to get away from Humbert, dashes in front of a speeding vehicle as she is crossing the road to post letters that would have outed Humbert as a hebephiliac cretin. But Charlotte is not around to tell the story, and Humbert is handed the unopened letters (no one has any reason to think he’s anything but a loving and devoted husband, so good is his mask.)

At the time of Charlotte’s death, Lolita is away at camp. While Humbert’s obsession may have been news to Charlotte, it seemed the mother was always keen to keep her daughter at bay. In part the mother – daughter never got along, but, on some level, Charlotte seemed uncomfortable having Lolita around Humbert, whether Charlotte was just jealous of the girl’s youth or whether she had some inkling of what was really going on can’t be known. [We only have Humbert’s perspective, and he is an admittedly unreliable narrator – though he does offer his own speculations about other character’s mindset, and – as will be discussed – his unreliability is in specific domains. In some ways, he’s unexpectedly forthright.] At any rate, Humbert takes Lolita on a road trip, at first telling her only that her mother was not well, and not until an emotional outburst much later, letting the girl know her mother is dead. [Lolita seems to suspect that Humbert killed Charlotte, but seems unperturbed by it – perhaps because she never got along with her mother, or perhaps, because she’s a bit of a psychopath, herself.]

After some time on the road, a time during which Humbert both has his way with Lolita and discovers that she isn’t the innocent little girl he’d imagined, Humbert and Lolita settle into a town where Lolita can go to a girl’s school and where they aren’t known. This settling in creates a number of challenges for the possessive Humbert because he would ideally like Lolita to spend no time whatsoever with other males and as little time as possible with other females, or at least with females who might learn about their unusual living arrangement. For instance, Humbert has to be convinced to let Lolita participate in a school play via a meeting with faculty and administration from the school.

Intriguingly, shortly before the play is to take place, Lolita insists they take their show on the road again. [There are many points at which it seems Lolita is playing Humbert, but this is the most intense subversion of the power dynamic. Lolita makes clear that they are leaving, and they will be going where she wants. She has come to understand her leverage, and is willing to exploit it.]

In the second part of the novel, as they are traveling around, Humbert begins to notice that they are being followed. Humbert describes cars tailing them, and men running away or talking to Lolita while Humbert has stepped away from the girl. Of course, we know Humbert is unreliable, and even he is not sure how much he can trust some of these “sightings” as real, as opposed to being products of his imagination. As we are on the subject of Humbert’s unreliable narration, it’s worth discussing that the particular nature of Humbert’s unreliable narration is a central to our relationship to the Humbert character. One might expect an unreliable narrator to hide or rationalize bad behavior, but Humbert not only lets the reader in on his bad behavior but frequently lets us know that he knows what he’s doing is societally (and / or morally) unacceptable. Knowing that he’s behaving badly or irrationally, and still making said choices would seem like it should make Humbert more despicable, but that’s not necessarily the case, at least not fully. Because Humbert is forthright in some regard and because he is so articulate and sensible (if not rational,) one’s reaction to him becomes complicated. I should point out that Humbert does rationalize his behavior, but he does so in a specific way, by acting as though his relationship with Lolita is a loving and, at least somewhat, healthy one.

This distorted worldview can be seen in his perception of Clare Quilty, who – to the reader – is Humbert’s mirror image; but to Humbert, Quilty is a monster. On their second road trip, Lolita falls ill and Humbert must take her to the hospital. As he is taking care of business, an unknown individual takes possession of Lolita. Searching high and low, Humbert can’t discover who took her and where they’ve gone. Then one day, after years have passed, Humbert gets a letter from Dolly Schiller (the now married Delores Haze, a.k.a. Lolita) asking for money to get them through until her husband’s new job starts paying. Humbert goes to her, intent on killing the man who dragged her away from him, but – once there – he realizes that Dolly’s husband wasn’t involved in her disappearance. Humbert begs Dolly to come back to him, only to realize that he is to her as Charlotte had been to him, a relationship she put up with to get what she wanted (or, with youthfully naiveté, thought she wanted.) Humbert willingly gives Dolly some money and goes, but only after she tells him who actually absconded with her, i.e. Clare Quilty. The concluding sequence of the novel involves Humbert’s confrontation with Quilty — surreal and almost comic as it is.

This book is definitely worth reading. Nabokov uses language with masterful poeticism, and builds a fascinating character in Humbert. Reader’s who loved “Confederacy of Dunces” will recognize that one doesn’t have to like a lead character to find their life-story intensely readable. But, while everyone hates Ignatius Reilly, one’s feelings for Humbert may be more complicated. He’s both detestable and sympathetic at the same time. The version of the book that I read had a nice epilogue by Nabokov, himself. While I don’t always find such ancillary matter is useful in works of fiction, in this case I got a lot out of it because the book is quite nuanced. If nothing else, I learned that Nabokov reviled all the “symbolism” that critics liked to attribute to his works. I’d highly recommend this book. While it deals in challenging matter, Nabokov leaves a great deal to the reader’s imagination, and so it’s not graphic or explicit as one might expect from a book that’s been so often banned. [Of course, being so banned was reason enough for me to read it.]


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BOOK REVIEW: Dark One, Vol. 1 by Brandon Sanderson

Dark One Vol. 1Dark One Vol. 1 by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 5, 2021

 

This Fantasy graphic novel tells the story of a young man, Paul, who is in therapy for mental health issues, in our world (or an indistinguishable facsimile of it,) that is. However, it seems that the most pressing of Paul’s symptoms, hallucinations, result from bleed over from an alternate reality, a world called Mirandus. Mirandus is a quintessential Fantasy genre world with kings and castles, magic and monsters, and feudalism and fierce warriors. While the artists and writer take efforts to present a unique rendering of a Fantasy realm, in a way it’s a clear-cut and emblematic example, with – literally – forces of light arrayed against forces of darkness.

Mirandus is governed by something called “The Narrative.” I couldn’t decide whether that was too on-the-nose for a storybook world, or whether it was a clever way of hinting at the true nature of this alternate reality. (There are a number of other elements that make blatant the storybook qualities of Mirandus.) Whether it’s too on-the-nose or not depends on how one sees what is going on in the story. I mentioned the straightforward interpretation of the story – i.e. Paul thinks he’s mentally ill but then he’s drawn into another realm, one in which his symptoms are shown to have been a ghostly other-realm visitor, as well as repressed memories and general confusion. That’s the interpretation of the story that seems to be meant to achieve traction with readers, at least there are a lot of little pieces of supporting evidence for it. There are other ways of interpreting this scripted storybook world.

An alternative that one might consider is that Paul has had a full-blown psychotic breakdown and the events in Mirandus are a much more intense kind of hallucination as Paul works through the throes of flipping out. This interpretation doesn’t work as smoothly [but, it shouldn’t.] It leaves many questions unanswered while those of the main interpretation are reconciled by the narrative as we see it. Paul’s mind would definitely be working overtime to do things like build a backstory for the sister he’s been hallucinating. However, the explicitly storybook quality of Mirandus makes it feel more likely that it would be made up by a Fantasy reader than that it’s a real world that is the quintessence of a gritty fairy tale. [It’s worth noting that the [unlikely] psychotic break interpretation would be necessarily messier as the narration becomes unreliable and all clarity is lost.]

The story has a lot to say about fate and destiny, and the degree to which those concepts reflect reality.

I found the art to be easy to follow and nice looking. As I said, it walks a line between the novel and the familiar quite well. The “hallucinations” are very clearly differentiated from the real-world action. The sibling dynamic between Paul and his ethereal sister is nicely portrayed – even though he has no childhood memories of her through most of the story.

There is a sub-plot involving the main character’s mother, a lawyer who is defending a serial killer, a man who is not what he seems. However, this subplot is meant to set up continued action through the subsequent volumes. While the subplot generates some intense moments and intrigue, it does not pay off in this volume as a story (i.e. having a climax and resolution.) That said, I liked that the main plot does pay off. We know from the “Volume 1” subtitle that this will be a serialized story, and so it’s certainly necessary to have some continuing intrigue. However, too often, serialization means that one is given a tiny speedbump or a big cliffhanger in lieu of a proper resolution. This book did resolve the main storyline. [Thus, avoiding running afoul of my firm policy about never continuing a series – multi-volume book or multi-season tv – that doesn’t resolve in the volume (or season) under review – if they don’t do it in a given volume / season, how likely are they to do so in the end? Not very, I feel.]

I enjoyed this story. If the set-up intrigues you, it’s definitely worth giving a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hummingbird Salamander by Jeff Vandermeer

Hummingbird SalamanderHummingbird Salamander by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: April 6, 2021

 

Vandermeer’s new novel keeps the reader in the grip of curiosity from the opening scene in which the protagonist (‘Jane’) is handed an envelope containing a storage unit key through the various traumas of tumbling down a rabbit-hole in search of answers. That said, the book is not without its narrative clunkers. The book’s great strength (maintaining a sense of mystery) is simultaneously the source of its greatest weakness (inexplicable motivation: i.e. it’s hard to imagine that a person – even the flawed and complex protagonist Vandermeer creates – would be willing to suffer death on so many levels: professional , personal / familial, and — on a couple of occasions – near literally as this woman does, given her dearth of understanding of what is going on at various points leading up to the ending. Given the stakes, one would expect a powerful motive. [One could argue that ‘Jane’ gains a worthwhile motive post-hoc, but that can’t explain her tenacious behavior throughout the book, putting everything in her life at risk when she has only a vague sense of the other characters and their motivations.])

The storage unit key gives the protagonist, ‘Jane,’ access to a cardboard box containing a taxidermized hummingbird and a cryptic note suggesting she should find an unidentified salamander. The signature is in the name of a deceased wealthy heiress who is known for being an environmental activist who most people believe strayed over a line into a life of domestic terrorism. As ‘Jane’ tries to investigate in her (not-so-) spare time as a security expert for an IT company, she runs into many mysterious people, dead-ends, and a few gunfights. Along the way, she loses her job, becomes estranged from her husband and daughter, is shot, and is nearly murdered in a several ways.

Vandermeer builds an intriguing character with ‘Jane’ (the quotes implying that’s not her real name, but – like most all the names in the story – is altered or made-up.) Physically, she is a bulky woman, as in she was a wrestler and a bodybuilder in her youth, and so she is not just large of frame but is physically imposing and can take a beating and walk it off. With respect to her personality, she is somewhere between a dysfunctional wife and mother / workaholic and a high-functioning sociopath. At work, she is respected, though not beloved. She does not play well with others, including her loved ones and co-workers, and can be downright mean to most other people with whom she is forced to interact. However, the full extent of her dysfunction is revealed over time, both in response to the increased stress and as her backstory is shared. In the beginning, we tend to see ‘Jane’ as a professional woman who is skilled, if a bit cold, but while she neglects her family and can be a bit gruff with those with whom she works, she has her redeeming qualities.

The setting looks a lot like our world if we continue to be maladaptive and myopic over a few (or several) more years. Pandemics are referenced; they’ve seen more than one in rapid succession. There is also climate disruption related deterioration. (The two titular creatures are caught up in said ecological degradation.)

The book kept me reading, its story remaining gripping despite what I saw as a number of flaws. Besides the high-level motivation problem that I mentioned in the introductory paragraph, there are a few instances in which the main character does or says something that seems out of character. Despite her personality quirks and coldness, we empathize with ‘Jane’ because she seems like she’s interested in doing the right thing and her personality dysfunctions don’t equate to villainy. However, there was a point at which she mentions an action (to remain unnamed to avoid a spoiler) that takes her past being cold to strangers to being potentially homicidal toward them. It seems likely this was done to set up a cinematic event later in the story that may not be deus ex machina but is built on this thread of unlikely / uncharacteristic behavior – even given her paranoid state at the time.

There is also some exposition that is seems uncharacteristic, unnecessary, and / or distracting. At one point, ‘Jane’ is having an internal monologue about her arsenal of firearms and she comments that she ‘never fetishized guns.’ At this point I was lifted out of the story, trying to figure out the motive for this bizarre additional commentary. Was Vandermeer trying to take a dig at gun owners? A certain sub-class of gun-owners? Is he tribe-signaling that while he puts a lot of guns and gunfights into his story, that he opposes guns in reality — while finding them very useful and / or cool for story purposes? [i.e. Much like the “Lethal Weapon” movie people put gun-control posters in the background of their movie in which a mentally-ill detective with the trigger-discipline of one of those kids who ate the marshmallow before the researcher left the room is the character the viewer is supposed to find sexy and admirable as he shoots a small village worth of people over the course of the movie.] Incidentally, I’m not saying the author shouldn’t express political views via his writing. I think he does so successfully elsewhere in the book by showing us a sequence of events that lets the reader take in the lesson organically. All the blunt force exposition does is make the reader wonder what the author is trying to say, while we should be following the events of the story. [And this is not a story one can afford to let one’s attention drift away from, lest one risk wondering who such-and-such character is or how such-and-such event happened. Often things are mentioned brusquely once that other crucial events will hinge upon. The story is not robust to distraction that way.]

All in all, I enjoy this story and got caught up in it. Though it is not without distractions, clunky narrative activity, and implausible motivation, it does keep the reader intrigued by what’s happening. Going into the final part, I though the book might end on an unsatisfying note, but I think the author ties up things pretty thoroughly in the conclusion. Like the main character, this book has many fine and redeeming qualities, despite its rough edges.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Shaman’s Apprentice by Zacharias Kunuk

The Shaman's ApprenticeThe Shaman’s Apprentice by Zacharias Kunuk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: May 11, 2021

This is an illustrated children’s book that takes the reader on a journey with an Inuit Shaman and her apprentice. The pair make a house call to diagnose and treat a man who is laid up in his sickbed. That diagnosis and treatment involves “visiting” a kind of spirit guide who provides them the information needed to understand the man’s ailment.

The pictures are beautiful, detailed, and rich in insight into the Inuit way of life.  They are full-page illustrations rendered in a painting-like style. The artist is Megan Kyak-Montieth.

The text consists of, at most, a paragraph on each page that opposes the respective illustration, thus making this a book that could easily be read as a bedtime story. It’s a simple and straightforward story.

The book explores the interesting issue of how our behaviors and mindset can influence our physical health. Some parents may be more comfortable than others with the supernatural way in which the patient’s ailment comes to be understood – i.e. through consultation with a spirit. However, if one is at all prone to buy a book featuring “Shaman” in the title, you’re probably not going to be disturbed by the material or the questions that might arise as a result of said material.

I found this book to be interesting and beautifully illustrated. If you’re looking for some diversity in what your children are exposed to, you may want to look into it.

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BOOK REVIEW: House of M by Brian Bendis

House of MHouse of M by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book pics up in the wake of a tragedy triggered by Wanda Maximoff’s (a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch) descent into madness. Normally, a losing one’s mind would be a cause for sympathy and assistance among heroic individuals, but there are those among her former teammates and friends who think the Scarlet Witch needs to be killed. The reason for this extreme view is that Maximoff’s tremendously powerful reality-warping abilities make her insanity not merely a risk to herself and to her loved ones, but to the nature of reality itself.

The book opens with Charles Xavier trying to help Wanda keep her delusions in check – largely unsuccessfully. We then see a meeting between survivors of the Avengers and key X-Men to discuss the Scarlet Witch’s future (or lack thereof.) When they go to track Wanda down, in a flash of blinding light, the world is changed. The next day, almost no one remembers the way the world was – except for Wolverine and a young girl named Layla, a girl who confirms Wolverine’s telling of events, a story that would be outlandish and unbelievable if not for the girl’s independent corroboration.

The new world is Magneto’s dream world. The mutants have won a war and are in control. Most of homo sapiens humanity is accepting of this, even if many are having trouble coping, though Luke Cage and a few others have created an underground resistance movement. In the new reality superheroes are doing pretty well. Even the homo sapiens heroes such as Spiderman are not bad off because they are generally believed to be mutants.

While Wolverine can merely remember the world as it was, Layla has an additional ability; she can project or unlock these memories in the minds of others. It’s using this ability that the Wolverine / Cage team put the band back together, taking Layla around to free the minds of Kitty Pryde, Peter Parker, Carol Danvers, Tony Stark, Stephen Strange, She-Hulk, etc.

As the superheroes take the fight to Magneto’s stronghold, Doctor Strange sneaks in to see Wanda Maximoff as she blissfully plays out her imaginary life with her imaginary children, until the battle around her turns tragic and, fed up, she changes the world again.

This book collects issues #1-8 of “House of M,” and includes a great deal of bonus content including: character profiles and back ground information (conveyed by way of a fake newspaper) for the alternative reality that Maximoff created – the mutant-dominant world, as well as an interview with the author and sketchbook pages from the illustrator (Oliver Coipel.)

I enjoyed this story. I think because the ensemble cast is so huge – i.e. it has to squeeze in so many Marvel characters – it’s not as emotionally intense as it could be. Bendis goes to the trouble of showing us how hard-hit Peter Parker / Spiderman is hit by the discovery that his new blissful world is not real, knowing that actions must be taken to return the world to its previous status quo. However, the pacing required makes it hard to feel this strongly. What I think this story did very well is keep everything clear, which is not easy task when one is dealing with shifting realities. I thought Bendis and Coipel did an excellent job of being clear about when things changed, how things changed for the crucial characters, and did both without getting bogged down. This is definitely a story that is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 3 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 1, 2021

 

This series collects short fiction of Neil Gaiman and presents it via the medium of the graphic novel. While there are four works listed, because two of these works contain multiple stories, there are actually eight stories contained in this volume. The selection is diverse both in terms of genre and artistic style. With respect to genre, the stories cut across fairy tale, fantasy, horror, supernatural, and tales of the weird. The artistic styles range from art nouveau to comic strip style. While this is the third volume, the included stories all stand on their own, and so there is no necessity to have read previous volumes. Because Gaiman draws heavily on fairy tale source material, parents might assume these are kid-friendly stories, but you should check them out first yourself as “Snow, Glass, Apples” and “The Daughter of Owls” both present somewhat sexually explicit content (the former both graphically and with respect to story events and the latter only with respect to story,) and while the horror stories are pretty calm as horror stories go, they are still works of horror.

“Snow, Glass, Apples” is a dark take on the princess-centric fairy tale. It imagines a vampiric young nymph who appears as challenger to the Queen. This is probably the most visually impressive work, being illustrated in a style that mixes art nouveau with Harry Clark’s stain glass artworks. It is definitely not the run-of-the mill graphic novel, graphically speaking. The art is exceptionally detailed and stunning.

“The Problem with Susan and Other Stories”: As the title suggests, this is one of the two multi-story entries in the collection. The titular main story features a retired Professor who is plagued by Narnia-like dreams, and who receives a visit from a reporter for a college paper. The art for this one is much more reminiscent of the typical graphic novel of today. There are three other stories included. “Locks,” the comic strip-esque illustrated story, is a take on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as it’s being told to – and imagined by – a little girl. “October in the Chair” imagines a kind of story competition taking place around a campfire by anthropomorphized “months.” It’s a bit more artistically rendered than the other stories in this [sub-] collection (although that may have to do with the dark tone that is used to reinforce that the stories are being told in the middle of the night in the middle of a woods.) The final story is a brief, but artistically dense, story that imagines a day in which everything goes wrong at once.

The sixth story, “Only the End of the World Again,” revolves around a man / werewolf who wakes up to find that he has clearly turned in the preceding night. The tale is set in a small and remote village, where everyone seems to know everything about everyone, and it doesn’t shock the man when select people let slip that they know his secret. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that the man / werewolf is caught up in something bigger than his own tragedy.

The last entry is a two-parter. The first is one of my favorite Neil Gaiman short stories; entitled, “The Price,” it offers an answer to the question of why some indoor / outdoor cats constantly come home battered and bleeding. The second story, “The Daughter of Owls,” revolves around “the baby left on the church steps” plot mechanism. Because the girl is enveloped in owl accoutrements, she is shunned by the village and forced into exile at a dilapidated former abbey. Both of these stories have a more brush-painted style that the usual graphic novel.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. While not all of the stories were new to me, the way they were illustrated shone a new light on the familiar tales. All of the stories are masterfully crafted and illustrated. While Gaiman draws heavily on well-known fairy tales, there is nothing banal about these stories. I’d highly recommend this book, even if you’ve read some of the stories already.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen [Ill. by Marjolein Bastin]

Pride and Prejudice: Illustrations by Marjolein BastinPride and Prejudice: Illustrations by Marjolein Bastin by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This edition out: March 2, 2021

 

This is a new addition of an early 19th century classic. The value-added of the edition under review comes from illustrations by Marjolein Bastin, making for an aesthetically pleasing hardcopy edition for gifts or for collectors. The attractive color illustrations are of wildflowers, birds, and butterflies, and are widespread throughout – including the first and last page of each chapter. The artwork is beautifully drawn and vibrantly colored.

It’s a testament to the effectiveness of this book’s story and character development that it has withstood the test of time, becoming a widely-adapted classic. If it were being submitted for publishing today, I suspect it would face intense challenges with respect to its flouting of many popular conventions on writing. It has a pretty high telling-to-showing ratio. Description is sparse, so much so that some might find “floating head syndrome” kicks in [i.e. long tracks of dialogue detached from the setting and any action, such that they are imagined as two floating heads in a white void speaking back and forth.] That said, it may be that Austen was ahead of her time in this regard. A number of prominent later writers concluded that there was a general tendency to over-describe in novels. [Readers are going to build their own mental models of setting and character appearance, such that long tracts of description are wasted effort and ultimately hinder readability.]

The story revolves around a family of five sisters, the Bennet’s. Their father is a gentleman, but of modest means and his estate is “entailed.” [I don’t know what “entailed” means legally, but relative to the story, it means that his wife and daughters can’t inherit his estate – rather, the property must go to Mr. Bennet’s nearest male relative, who turns out to be a pompous, self-righteous, and generally irritating clergyman, Mr. Collins.] The significance of that fact is that it exacerbates concern about what will happen to the family when Mr. Bennet dies — particularly if the daughters don’t marry well and Collins decides to be a jerk and put them out on the “street.” This makes Mrs. Bennet anxious about the future and a little cuckoo about getting her daughters married.

Within the Bennet family, the story revolves mostly around the second oldest daughter, Elizabeth. When Mr. Collins asks her hand in marriage, she summarily rejects him. This, of course, is much to the chagrin of her mother, as marriage to Collins would single-handedly secure the family’s future [one can’t very well evict one’s mother-in-law, or at least one would have to be an even bigger jerk than Collins to do so.] Elizabeth soon meets a man she does find very promising, Mr. Wickham, a personable military man. But Elizabeth is nothing if not cautious, which turns out to be a good thing for her. The relationship with Wickham doesn’t go anywhere, and she ultimately discovers that all is not what it seems with the man. She immediately notices hostility between Wickham and a wealthy young bachelor gentleman named Mr. Darcy. Wickham tells Elizabeth his side of the story, which makes Darcy look like a jerk who ruined Wickham’s life. Elizabeth readily believes this Wickham because Mr. Darcy is so proud, and the fact that Darcy is also quiet and reserved makes him seem all the more aloof. [Those of us who are not highly expressive can readily recognize the point that people will write their own stories to fill in the blanks when faced with a lack of intense feedback.] So, here we have explanation of the title. Mr. Darcy is proud, but Elizabeth develops a prejudice against him not only because of his pride but also because he is not as instantaneously likable as Wickham or – for that matter — Darcy’s best friend, Mr. Bingley. This lack of bonhomie makes it easier to believe the bad than the good about Darcy, despite mounting evidence that he’s kind of a quietly great guy.

Elizabeth rejects a second marriage proposal, this one from Darcy, on the twin grounds that she believes Darcy ruined Wickham and also that she came to the conclusion that Darcy poisoned Bingley’s relationship with Elizabeth’s older sister, Jane. [Elizabeth and Jane are close not only in age but in their relationship to each other.] Reeling with rejection, Darcy hands Elizabeth a letter the next day. In it, Darcy admits that he was party to convincing Bingley to drop Jane, but only because he thought the reserved Jane wasn’t into Bingley. That is, it wasn’t that he had anything against Jane, but he didn’t want his friend to be the “reacher” in a “reacher-settler” relationship. But the big bomb regards Wickham, as Darcy’s side of the story paints the affable red-coat as flighty and irresponsible. Gradually, Elizabeth comes to see that Darcy’s is the more complete and accurate depiction of events, and she can even see how he would think as he did about Jane. After several readings, Elizabeth is mortified at her own behavior in light of this new information, but the English countryside is a small pond for the upper crust, and she will continue to run into the man she spurned wrongly.

The events that set up the grand romantic gesture that will turn things around and set up the climax revolve around Elizabeth’s [immediately] younger sister, the ugly bonnet-buying Lydia. Visiting some family friends at Brighton, Lydia falls in with Mr. Wickham and, being less cautious and discerning than Elizabeth [not to mention overeager to be married,] she sidles off with him. This is not so relatable today, but the entire family become obsessed with finding out what happened with Lydia, and fears that she’s brought disgrace on the entire family and may even keep the other daughters from finding suitable suitors. [Mr. Collins, for one, believes they should treat her as if she were dead.] This sets up Mr. Darcy to come in and secretly save the day [get Wickham to marry Lydia, a marriage which satisfies everybody – except Collins who still believes Lydia should be written off because she may or may not have had premarital sex but she certainly created the appearance that she probably did — for which she will spend an eternity in a lake of hellfire for ever and ever without end.]

There is a lot of obsession with the incomes of the various characters, and a lot of “keeping up with the Jones’s” mentality. In one sense, it seems that Austen is critiquing such attitudes – along with a lot of other peculiar attitudes of the day. Certainly, we see the sympathetic protagonist, Elizabeth, is clear in behaving in a way that suggests she is most interested in a happy future. On the other hand, critics have pointed out that the book ends with those with more wealth set to have happier futures. Elizabeth and then Jane are likely to be happy as clams with their rich husbands, but Lydia far less so with the perpetually broke Mr. Wickham. There’s also lot of rigid formality that might be being picked at by the novel as well – or, at least, it appears so problematic to a present-day reader. There is so much reserved refusal to say anything that might violate social norms, even if a person is bursting to do so and everyone would be better off if they did. One might get the feeling Elizabeth is scared as a mouse given her unwillingness to speak openly, but then when Lady de Bourgh (who intimidates almost everyone in the book) tries to get Elizabeth to agree to turn down Darcy’s proposal, Elizabeth refuses her in a very articulate and well-deployed counter-attack – despite being under the impression that there is no engagement to be concerned about in the first place (this after she rejected his proposal.)

I enjoyed reading this story. I expected it would be archaic and generally unrelatable to today’s world. However, it turned out to be a surprisingly engaging story. While I am not one to by a book for ancillary illustrations, if you are into such things, this book has some soothing and beautifully-rendered imagery. It’s definitely worth reading this classic novel.

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BOOK REVIEW: Money Shot, Vol. 1 by Tim Seeley and Sarah Beattie

Money Shot, Vol. 1Money Shot, Vol. 1 by Tim Seeley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel weds a serious look at a serious problem with a raunchy romp into extraterrestrial porn. [Warning: If the latter part of that statement didn’t clue you in, this book is sexually graphic both pictorially and in terms of dialogue. While I don’t think there is anything in it that your average adult can’t handle, I wouldn’t recommend it for the puritanically-inclined or as a gift for one’s eight-year-old nephew – i.e. “because it’s a comic book.”]

At the center of the story is Dr. Christine Ocampos, the inventor of a Star Gate-like faster than light travel portal, a brilliant technology that is far too expensive to operate to get grant funding, money she needs to finance a multi-disciplinary team of researchers. The title, “Money Shot,” is used in two senses in the book. First, the portal was marketed as “Star Shot,” but because it is so expensive to run, it earned its “money shot” nickname, implying it was a good way to shoot a mass of cash into the dark void of space. The second sense of the word is as it’s used in the porn industry, the highly-visible climactic moment of a sex scene.

Ocampos, tired of spending her life writing enormous grant proposals that ultimately get rejected on the grounds of cost, stumbles upon an idea for an alternative approach while “decompressing” with pornography. The harried lab director realizes that people seem to be disproportionately interested in outlandish fetish porn, presumably because they are bored with the usual “meat-and-potato” varieties of sexual activity. Ocampos concludes that there can’t be anything wilder and more outlandish to catch the attention of the porn-viewing world than sex with extraterrestrials. She pitches her plan to the other four members of her research team, and –fortunately for her – they are all photogenic / attractive and surprisingly sexually liberated. [Meaning it’s not particularly difficult to convince them all to participate.]

I won’t go into the story in great detail, except in as much as to say there is one and it’s entertaining. The story uses a common science fiction idea of being drawn into the center of a dysfunctional alien society’s troubles. The five scientists / porn stars find themselves on an environmentally-depleted planet run by an authoritarian warlord who uses the ‘bread and circuses’ approach to keeping the population in check, thus resulting in gladiatorial battles and a groundswell of revolutionary sentiment.

While the book takes a light tone, it does convey a couple serious messages in the process. The most obvious of these messages is that science is expensive and, perhaps, the mainstream funding approach (applying to large government-run grant agencies) curtails some good science. A secondary message is that less sexual repression and shame could be a good thing for the world, overall.

The art is well-drawn and clear. The scenes are depicted in a clean and easy to follow fashion. Color palette changes are used to make it easy to follow between flashback and the present moment. While I made a comment about the team all being attractive, I suspect there was a conscious effort to include a range of body types – within some bounds at least. While Ocampos is the perfectly-proportioned Disney princess-type — on the whole, the team displays a mix of size and shape.

While this is unquestionably a bizarre premise for a comic book, I found it to be readable and compelling. If you like sci-fi comics, and aren’t put off by graphic sexuality, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd

V for VendettaV for Vendetta by Alan Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel is set in a fascist, dystopian Britain that grew up in the wake of an apocalypse that left England relatively untouched but ripe for the rise of a fascist political party, Norsefire. The book was written in the eighties at the height of the Cold War, and imagines this fascist Britain in the late 1990’s. The nature of this dystopia is part Orwell’s “1984” and part Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” meaning it’s an authoritarian surveillance state, but religion (and the morality thereof) is definitely an active participant in the abuse of power.

While the protagonist is a shadowy figure who goes only by the nom de guerre “V” and whose backstory is gradually revealed over the course of the book, another central character – one who presents a more human face – is Evie Hammond, a young woman who is turning tricks on the street to get by. The book opens with Evie being cornered by a couple of “Fingermen” (Brownshirt-like secret policemen who intend to rape and murder her) when she is rescued by a Guy Fawkes-mask wearing mystery man, V. V takes Evie back to his hidden lair, and while their paths diverge and converge over the rest of the story, Evie remains a crucial character to the bitter end.

In the early part of the story, we see that high-ranking fascist party members are being murdered in ways and with clues that are clearly meant to make a statement. In the first half of the book, a police detective, Finch, is trying to solve the murders – which first requires figuring out a motive. About the time he comes to understand the basis of a revenge motive, it becomes clear that V intends much more than just getting personal revenge for the wrongs done to him at a concentration camp.

At the beginning of Part II, Evie is separated from V after a falling out over an action she participated in against a pedophilic Bishop that ended in a murder that she found distasteful. However, she has a change of heart about the use of lethal force when the man she is staying with receives a visit from the Fingermen. She makes an amateurish attempt to invoke street justice that is interrupted by a man she assumes to be with the authorities. In reality, it is V conducting a clever ruse designed to put her through what he went through so that she can experience the freedom of mind that he acquired when his fear died.

In Part III, V’s grand plan unfolds, sinking London into chaos in the hopes that something glorious (or at least better) will arise in its place. Alan Moore was a proponent of anarchism, and the suggestion is that by tearing down the existing political order, a period of peaceful anarchic or quasi-anarchic coexistence might come to be. I should point out that Moore doesn’t tell the story as an ideologue. He creates sympathetic characters among the fascists and ensures that a light is shone on V’s dark side. He also leaves the outcome open. The reader doesn’t really see what grows out of the ashes.

In addition to being political fiction, “V for Vendetta” can be read as a kind of superhero story. It’s not known precisely to what degree V is superpowered, if any. He does seem to possess some degree of superhuman ability, but it might just be that he’s crazy enough to succeed in activities such as taking on multiple armed opponents at once. It seems that the experimentation that was done on him, which killed most of his fellow subjects, may have made him stronger and / or more physically capable, or – alternative – maybe being preternaturally robust in the first place allowed him to survive what others couldn’t. Still, it is clear that he is not invulnerable.

I enjoyed this story tremendously. It’s thought-provoking, both at the political level and at the level of individual psychology. We are led to consider what brings people to accept authoritarianism, and to also wonder whether people could accept an anarchic approach to social existence. But there is also the question of what is freedom for an individual, and in what way one can have freedom within when there is no freedom to be had without? If you’re intrigued by these themes, I’d highly recommend reading this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King by Ira Madison III, et. al.

Marvel's Black Panther: Sins of the KingMarvel’s Black Panther: Sins of the King by Ira Madison III
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: January 28, 2021

The edition that I’m reviewing includes episodes one through thirteen, covering an entire story arc that revolves around a present-day conflict with its origins in the policies of Wakanda’s previous king, T’Chaka – hence, the subtitle. I mention this because the single “issue” / episode-only books seem to be what are currently posted on Amazon and GoodReads (though the blurbs they display are consistent with the story under review.) While I try to avoid being too spoiler-y, it’s hard to talk about a thirteen-issue collection without spoiling something about the first issue. [If you are only getting 15pp, that’s just Ep.1.]

The story opens in media res with a fight against Graviton that takes place in Rudyarda, one of Wakanda’s neighboring countries. This battle includes not only Black Panther and other Wakandan warriors, but also a partial Avenger’s roster including Vision, War Machine (Col. Rhodes,) Ant-man, and The Wasp. This Avenger’s team will be “re-assembled” in the climactic battle – against another foe entirely. However, the heart of the story revolves around T’Challa / Black Panther (and also Shuri and Okoye (of the Dora Milaje)) operating more or less independently. The Graviton opening is mostly about getting off to an exciting start, but the most compelling parts of the story occur later when the characters are more isolated and vulnerable.

After the Graviton battle, there’s a bit of intrigue in New York that lets the reader know there’s more going on than meets the eye. However, the big shocker of the book comes upon T’Challa’s return to Wakanda when he finds his deceased father (T’Chaka) is inexplicably back from the grave. The strength of this story comes in the middle issues (Ep. 6 – 9) when the Black Panther is isolated from his resources and must rely on his mind and his capacity to endure adversity. While the Black Panther is away from Wakanda, the nation comes under a kind of Trojan horse attack, requiring others to hold the fort while T’Challa extracts himself and brings reinforcements.

There is a false climax in Ep. 11, in which it seems that the forces of good have won – only for the battle to be taken to an unexpected domain. I would say the conclusion of the Ep. 11 battle was the least satisfying part of the story; the pacing and explanation gave it a deus ex machina feel. However, the fact that the ultimate battle was more satisfactorily concluded made the Ep. 11 victory less problematic.

I found this story to be compelling and cleverly plotted. It keeps the reader engaged and – for the most part – satisfied. If you get a chance to read it, I’d highly recommend it.

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