Pheagan’s #CBR5 review #5 Sailor Twain, or The Mermaid in the Hudson- Mark Seigel

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I wish more comics were written like this– novels instead of unending or sometimes overlong serials. All my favorite comics have endings– Preacher, Sandman, Y the Last Man– but their story structure is often marked by traits of the unending series– wild shifts in perspective to other characters so the writer has time to get it together with the protagonist, the wittholding of mysteries well past the point of interest– and this can work– the shifts in perspective especially. But it’s a different experience reading something like From Hell or Hard Boiled, which can be contained in one book instead of numbered volumes. Reading a tight, focused story in comic book form is a rare experience, and that’s  exactly what Sailor Twain is.

Sailor Twain is the story of Captain Elijah Twain and also the womanizing owner of the steamboat Lorelei, Lafayette. Captain Twain is happily married to a sweet invalid, Pearl– or at least he wants to be happily married. He is put off by Lafayette’s womanizing ways, but there is more to his behavior than there seems to be.

The story is set into motion when Twain discovers a wounded mermaid aboard his ship, and it is really the mermaid that makes this story. Every character in this story is nuanced and conflicted and reveals more layers as the story goes on, but the mermaid is confounding. Spooky, strangely magic, and animalistic, I haven’t seen a mythical character done so well in a long time. Most mythical characters are too human or to animalistic these days– things like vampires and zombies and werewolves are done so often we’ve become too used to strangeness. Seigel’s mermaid is truly otherworldly, however, and it was she who compelled me above any of the characters rotating around her.

The art is, frankly, not on my wavelength. I can see how people would like it– the smokiness contributes to the atmosphere of the story, but it’s just not as good as the story is. I would definitely recommend it to comic book fans and anyone with a passing interest in mythology, folk tales, or the fantastical. If you want to check it out the first few chapters are up at http://sailortwain.com — beware, it will suck you in.

Pheagan’s #CBR5 Review #4: Logicomix by Apostolis Doxiadis

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Logicomix purports to be a comical history of Bertrand Russell, philosophy’s prolific giant, and through him an account of how the logical positivist school of philosophy came to be.

A brief background. At the beginning of the century, philosophy experienced a split. Some philosophers, many of them mathematicians, grew interested in applying mathematical rigor to the field of logic, which at that point hadn’t progressed much further than Aristotelian syllogistic logic (the old “All men are philosophers, Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is a philosopher” schtick). If we use logic to argue, and we hope to get anywhere instead of disputing the same problems over and over again (and believe me, this is kind of a Thing in philosophy), then the tools we use must be capable of providing the same kind of clear and obvious answers as mathematics. This is also known as the Anglophonic school of philosophy or the Vienna circle, since anti-Semetic sentiment on the continental side pushed a lot of amazing Jewish mathematical logicians to pursue their project among the English philosophers, and they most often met in the neutral territory of Vienna. This brain drain also explains why Continental philosophy is such dreck. Kidding, sort of. That is the basic prejudice among students who come up in English-speaking philosophy departments, and I for one would take Wittgenstein over Hegel any day.

Since I love comics and philosophy, I was destined to read this comic. It’s pretty well done, but doesn’t offer a whole lot for a philosophy student. The basic genesis and movement of the project is sketched pretty well for the layman and serves as a good entry point for anyone who’s interested in this kind of thing. I would certainly offer it in a 101 course. It also does a great job at illustrating just why this stuff is important– I mean, if you’re going to read Russell’s early articles about logical atomism it can be hard to see why anyone could care about the difference between “all” and “every”– John Searle says the mark of a philosopher is an obsession with things that most people consider trivial and take for granted. What makes the logical positivist project such a compelling adventure and such a tragic failure is that it is an absolutely earnest search for the truth– and Doxiadis gets this. I’d almost call this comic dangerous because it makes philosophy seem so much more exciting than it really is (get ready to debate whether a truth-functional or probabilistic analysis of counterfactuals is best, guys!). Also, the analysis is so simplistic that I think more than one student of the anglophonic tradition would straight up disagree with Doxiadis’s characterization. That being said, it was a very nice history. It was pleasing to see Russell’s interactions with Frege and Whitehead, and seeing Wittgenstein’s brand of crazy is always fun– you don’t even need to be interested in philosophy to find a biography of that guy entertaining. I would most recommend it to computer programmers– for those of you who find philosophy useless, not only can you trace computer coding back to philosophers, you can thank Thales of Miletus for the futures market.

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as anything more than candy for the serious philosophy student, I would absolutely recommend it to anyone interested in seeing what philosophy is about now. We’ve gotten past “I think, therefore I am”. And please stop asking me about the meaning of life.

Pheagan’s #CBR5 Review #03: Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

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     Did anyone else always think it was Portrait of Dorian Gray? I kept turning to the cover page in wonder as I read this book. Picture seems like such a pedestrian word for the likes of Oscar Wilde. Also, that stupid movie with that Narnia guy follows the book more closely than I would have guessed, at least in the beginning.

 

     Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales sustained me during a bad period in my life. Everyone knows Wilde is funny and analytic and good at turning phrases, but what made me love those stories was their heart, their moral center.  

 

     The book, like its protagonist, is without one. That’s not exactly a bad thing. Picture of Dorian Gray is an examination of heartlessness, and it doesn’t miss its intentions. It is hard to read, however. I didn’t like anyone in it, and wasn’t supposed to. Its analysis would be useful to these times. After all, in this age it’s enough to achieve something more or less good even if the aim is not goodness but self-aggrandizement (looking at you, Bono, you tax-evading Africa-infantilizing hypocrite). So long as you’re not Charlie Sheen, we’re willing to find a lack of something to condemn as commendable. In Wilde’s world, though, character begins in the center, and not in its effects. When Dorian Gray vows to change his way more out of fear and curiosity, the blood on his portrait’s hands shines more. Also instructional is the poison of influence. Look at the debates about guns and everyone agrees that the responsibility lies ultimately in the wielder of them. We may disagree about the degree of influence entertainment or the media or the NRA has, but we can all agree that they are not the end, and thus find it easier to dismiss them as any kind of means at all. Wilde illustrates exactly how strong influence can be, however, and while I agree with personal accountability, Wilde makes it clear how far astray weak people can be led, how powerful influence is, and how much more appealing bad influences are than good.

 

     I do believe Oscar Wilde was a good man, and goodness was important to him, and is at the center of everything of his I’ve read. Bad is still more appealing these days, and a lot of people are drawn to Wilde’s writing because he captures the humor and glamor of bad people so well. They seem to miss that Wilde isn’t holding them up as examples of what to be, but what should be avoided. They might make you laugh, but it’s the emptiness of the laughter that is important, not the cleverness of the joke.

     

Pheagan’s #CBRV Review #02: The Pearl Diver by Jeff Telarigo

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Fair warning– the author of this book is my coworker, Jeff Telarigo. We teach at the same school. I had been meaning to read his books for a while, but it wasn’t until I had a flight that I picked it up for a bit of plane reading. I was hoping I would at least enjoy it enough not to have to withhold my opinion from him, but it far, far, far exceeded my expectations. I finished before we landed and wouldn’t talk to my boyfriend the whole time. I also cried in an airport restaurant on the layover. Embarrassing.

The Pearl Diver is the story of a young Japanese pearl diver who is diagnosed with leprosy. She is sent to a leper’s colony just before a cure was found. Even though there is a cure and the state of her disease (which is mild) is arrested, and even though leper colonies rapidly began to disappear from the world, Japan’s leper colonies and policy of absolute quarantine have lasted into the millennium. There are still people in Nagashima today, mostly because it is impossible to reintegrate them into society. I know from talking to Jeff that he spent quite a bit of time at Nagashima researching the book with his son. The structure of the book is based on a museum one of the lepers was constructing at the time– each museum artifact tells a story. Jeff lived in Japan for a number of years, married a Japanese woman, and speaks the language, so the setting and culture is accurate– at least according to the Japanese students at our school who have read it. Almost everything in the book is true with the exception of the protagonist, through whose eyes we see the story unfold.

Upon entry to the Nagashima island leprosy camp, the Pearl Diver loses her name and chooses a new one- Miss Fuji, a name she chooses based on a fond memory of a trip to the mountain with her uncle. She endures the eradication of her life and adjusts to life on the colony, becoming a caretaker of those whose condition had deteriorated well before the treatment was introduced. The secondary characters are drawn with minimal but meaningful strokes. The colony can’t erase who the lepers were before they came to the island, and their attempts to create a meaningful life on the island is the joy and tragedy of this book. No one is made a saint, however. Personalities are bruised and distorted. No one is who they would have been if they’d had a chance at a normal life. There is hope and there is courage, but there is also bitterness and failure and retreat. The prose is minimal but poetic, and I for one found it impossible to put the book down until I finished it. As bittersweet as the story is, it ends on a very sweet note.

I highly recommend this book. Also, he’ll be publishing a book based on his time in Palestine, so keep an eye out for that.

Pheagan’s #CBR5 Review #1: Lilith’s Brood

     Now I know my answer to that old saw about who which dead author I’d have dinner with because I’d dearly like to have a chat with Octavia Butler about Lilith’s brood. Usually I have a fine time deciphering authorial intent, or at least I think I do. I’m having a little more difficulty here, because as Dr. Who would say, there are some cowboys in here, and by cowboys I mean consent issues.

     A little spoiler-free background first. I will have to more explicitly engage in the plot to discuss my issues, but I’ll provide a warning upon entering more dangerous territory. Lilith’s brood is a trilogy in which humanity, upon the brink of self-annihilation upon nuclear war, is whisked away by aliens known as the Oankali. They mean to save the remaining humans and engage in a “gene trade”. They will produce human-Oankali hybrids. The price is that the remaining humans will be the last pure humans. The Oankali have three sexes- a rough male and female equivalent, and a third sex, the ooloi, who are neither male nor female but who take the male and female genetic material and mix it into a genetically viable child. The ooloi are capable of healing genetic flaws, which means the remaining humans won’t suffer from disease and will live for centuries, depending on how old they were when salvaged by the Oankali. Lilith is a human awakened by the Oankali and is trained to awaken other humans and prepare them for life in a regenerated earth among the Oankali.

     This book is obviously science fiction but not even slightly hard science fiction, which for me is a pity because I like the nitty gritty. It would have been great for me to read more accurate and specific exposition of what kind of genetic manipulations the ooloi are doing, and why exactly cancer is so interesting for them. I’m sure that the time it was written in (1989) limits what might have been possible to explore, but also Butler’s interest is obviously not in the science. It’s more of a meditation on humanity’s self-destructive nature and the usual fun that comes from world-building an alien culture. It also features humans of color from around the world, which not only adds to the realism but is also a relief from the towering inferno of Western and White that sci-fi can sometimes be. It is an enjoyable, compulsive read.

     However.

     (Spoilers!)

     The Oankali are some manipulative motherfuckers. They don’t lie, but they withhold information and are so good at reading humans that it’s easy to get them to do what they want (relatively). In some places,  it is clear that Butler doesn’t condone this– in the last book, an ooloi hybrid, or construct, finds a pair of humans to mate with– and to be fair it’s a matter of life and death that this ooloi mate– and asks them to stay with it through its metamorphosis. They are conflicted about being its mates, but if they stay through the metamorphosis, they will be biochemically yoked to the ooloi for life. The ooloi neglects to tell them this. This characterization is fine with me– the Oankali are not Ghandi aliens. But early on I read the following passage of an ooloi seduction:

     “You said I could choose! I’ve made my choice!”

     “You have, yes.” It opened his jacket with its many-fingered true hands and stripped the garment from him. When he would have backed away, it held him. It managed to lie down on the bed with him without seeming to force him down. “You see. Your body has made a different choice.”

     Ewww, Octavia! Humanity gets saved by date rapists? And humans that are treated like this accept this and have families with their date rapists. This might be acceptable for me if I thought it continued the gray morality of the book. But I question how gray it is exactly that those who stay with the Oankali are consistently portrayed as far more peaceful and reasonable than those who resist. Those who resist making families with the Oankali Iare allowed to live on Earth, but barren. They form villages that are portrayed as xenophobic, violent, and rapey.  There are some good people in these villages, sure, but their resistance often seems to be driven by a wish to be pure human than to be a wish to avoid having, you know, free will. They reject healing from the Oankali even when it comes without a price, seem incapable of realizing that Oankali never lie, and kill each other for stupid reason after stupid reason. I’m sure restarting humanity in the jungle after a war wouldn’t be a picnic, but Butler seems more interested in underlining how hopeless and self-destructive humanity is than in exploring the complexities of the resister mentality or the value of humanity. That being said, I’m not sure that’s what she MEANT to do. Hence my new answer to that old saw. I’d love to have a chat with her about these issues.

     As much as the above bothers me, I do think the good outweighs the bad. The writing is clear and propulsive, and Lilith and the Oankali are fascinating. I will probably pick up Kindred. But I do wonder how Butler herself thought of the Oankali’s action– whether it was forgivable. And I wonder if the fact that I would recommend this to non-rape victims has more to do with how used to seeing rape in literature I am, and how thirsty I am for characters of color. 

Lilith’s Brood

Now I know my answer to that old saw about who which dead author I’d have dinner with because I’d dearly like to have a chat with Octavia Butler about Lilith’s Brood. Usually I’m OK deciphering authorial intent, or at least I think I am. I’m having a little more difficulty here, because as Dr. Who would say, there are some cowboys in here, and by cowboys I mean consent issues.

A little spoiler-free background first. I will have to more explicitly engage in the plot to discuss my issues, but I’ll provide a warning upon entering more dangerous territory. Lilith’s Brood is a trilogy in which humanity, upon the brink of self-annihilation of nuclear war, is whisked away by aliens known as the Oankali. They mean to save the remaining humans and engage in a “gene trade”. They will produce human-Oankali hybrids. The price is that the remaining humans will be the last pure humans. The Oankali have three sexes- a rough male and female equivalent, and a third sex, the ooloi, who are neither male nor female but who take the male and female genetic material and mix it into a genetically viable child. The ooloi are capable of healing genetic flaws, which means the remaining humans won’t suffer from disease and will live for centuries, depending on how old they were when salvaged by the Oankali. Lilith is a human awakened by the Oankali and is trained to awaken other humans and prepare them for life in a regenerated earth among the Oankali.

This book is obviously science fiction but not even slightly hard science fiction, which for me is a pity because I like the nitty gritty. It would have been great for me to read more accurate and specific exposition of what kind of genetic manipulations the ooloi are doing, and why exactly cancer is so interesting for them. I’m sure that the time it was written in (1989) limits what might have been possible to explore, but also Butler’s interest is obviously not in the science. It’s more of a meditation on humanity’s self-destructive nature and the usual fun that comes from world-building an alien culture. It also features humans of color from around the world, which not only adds to the realism but is also a relief from the towering inferno of Western and White that sci-fi can sometimes be. It is an enjoyable, compulsive read.
However.
(Spoilers!)

The Oankali are some manipulative motherfuckers. They don’t lie, but they withhold information and are so good at reading humans that it’s easy to get them to do what they want (relatively). In some places, it is clear that Butler doesn’t condone this– in the last book, an ooloi hybrid, or construct, finds a pair of humans to mate with– and to be fair it’s a matter of life and death that this ooloi mate– and asks them to stay with it through its metamorphosis. They are conflicted about being its mates, but if they stay through the metamorphosis, they will be biochemically yoked to the ooloi for life. The ooloi neglects to tell them this. Neither the ooloi’s mother nor its mates are happy with this decision. This characterization is fine with me– the Oankali are not Ghandi aliens, and it’s clear that the ooloi’s actions are not righteous. But early on I read the following passage of an ooloi seduction:

“You said I could choose! I’ve made my choice!”

“You have, yes.” It opened his jacket with its many-fingered true hands and stripped the garment from him. When he would have backed away, it held him. It managed to lie down on the bed with him without seeming to force him down. “You see. Your body has made a different choice.”
Ewww, Octavia! Humanity gets saved by date rapists? And humans that are treated like this eventually accept this treatment and have families with their date rapists. This might be acceptable for me if I thought it continued the gray morality of the book. But I question how gray it is exactly that those who stay with the Oankali are consistently portrayed as far more peaceful and reasonable than those who resist. Those who resist making families with the Oankali Iare allowed to live on Earth, but barren. They form villages that are portrayed as xenophobic, violent, and rapey (the obviously wrong and violent kind of rape, which makes the Oankali kind seem more acceptable. There are some good people in these villages, sure, but their resistance often seems to be driven more by a wish to be pure human than a wish to avoid losing, you know, free will. They reject healing from the Oankali even when it comes without a price, seem incapable of realizing that Oankali never lie, and kill each other for stupid reason after stupid reason. I’m sure restarting humanity in the jungle after a war wouldn’t be a picnic, but Butler seems more interested in underlining how hopeless and self-destructive humanity is than in exploring the complexities of the resister mentality or the value of humanity. That being said, I’m not sure that’s what she MEANT to do. Hence my new answer to that old saw. I’d love to have a chat with her about these issues.

As much as the above bothers me, I do think the good outweighs the bad. The writing is clear and propulsive, and Lilith and the Oankali are fascinating. I will probably pick up Kindred. But I do wonder how Butler herself thought of the Oankali’s actions– whether it was forgivable. And I wonder if the fact that I would recommend this to non-rape victims has more to do with how used to seeing rape in literature I am, and how desperate I am to read sci-fi with characters of color, than anything.