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Friday, March 24, 2017

Speculative Blackness: Blacks in Science Fiction Media and Fandom

Speculative Blackness by Black academic André M. Carrington  is a compilation of essays on Black characters portrayed in science fiction on television and in comics which are bracketed by a pair of essays on fandom.   There are mentions of science fiction novels and authors, but that isn't the focus of Carrington's study.


There was an essay on Uhura from Star Trek: The Original Series and another on Sisko from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  These were familiar territory for me, and I can't say that there were any fresh observations in those Star Trek essays.

The first of the essays on fandom was interesting because it dealt with a fake persona of a Black fan that was created by Caucasian fans.  The persona was intelligent and articulate.  I would speculate that one reason for creating the persona was to attract real Black fans. Yet it's also possible that these fans wanted to feel inclusive without actually being inclusive.  In the 1970's I met  local Black fans in New York City.  I feel that NYC fandom at the time was not as a diverse as the general population of NYC, but more diverse than fandom in other areas of the U.S.  

The essays dealing with comics are the reason why I felt it was important to review this book.  They educated me about comics characters that I either knew little about, or were totally unknown to me.

I would first like to call attention to the essay on Storm, an African female mutant in the X-Men universe.  I have to confess that  I used to be a DC comics fan who never read any Marvel.  So I discovered the X-Men through the movies, and knew nothing of Storm's background.

 I learned from this book that Storm was originally from Kenya where she was worshiped as a Goddess.   Carrington praised this as an African strategy for respecting difference rather than marginalizing those who are different.  I would like to add that this can also be seen in African diasporic religion where trance mediums are viewed as leaders in their community who are favored by the spirits rather than being considered suspect deviants.   Marie LeVaux  would be a prominent historical example. Carrington portrays Chris Claremont as believing that the origin of Storm was racist.  Claremont is a writer who was most instrumental in the popularization of the X-Men.  I'm not sure what origin he would have given Storm if he had the opportunity to re-boot her, but I prefer Carrington's interpretation of Storm's established origin over Claremont's.  It seems to me that your attitude toward the origin of Storm depends on how you feel about African culture.

I was also interested in Carrington's discussion of the origin of Storm's claustrophobia.  She became claustrophobic as a result of having been buried in rubble.  I was reminded of the award winning YA novel, In Darkness by Nick Lake.  The plot of In Darkness centers on a Haitian boy who was buried in rubble during Haiti's catastrophic earthquake in 2010.  The boy survives with the help of a spiritual connection to the 18th century Haitian revolutionary Toussaint L'Ouverture.   I found In Darkness inspirational.   Storm's claustrophobia origin story portrays her as having PTSD that manifests as a phobia.  I think that it may have been intended as a way of making Storm more relatable.   This would seem to imply to me that Marvel had to give Storm this additional trait for relatability because they thought that no reader would normally identify with a character from Africa.  That would be sad if true.  I love Storm, and I didn't even know she was claustrophobic.

The essay that I found really amazing was the one about Black owned comic publisher Milestone Media's title, Icon.   The superhero Icon was a Black equivalent of Superman, but the really groundbreaking character was Icon's female sidekick, Rocket.   Rocket wanted to be a writer.  She was inspired by Toni Morrison.  When Toni Morrison won the Nobel Prize, there was an editorial about it on the letters page of Icon which mentioned that Rocket was really pleased.  Not only did Rocket have literary interests, she was independent minded.   I was thrilled by everything I read in this book about Rocket.  I have never heard of a comics character like her, and I also had never heard of Milestone Media. They have a website.  It would be very interesting if they resumed publishing.    I ordered a paperback compilation of Icon issues from Amazon and I'm looking forward to reading it.

The essay about Icon alone makes this book very worthwhile.   I recommend it to anyone interested in Black characters in comics or television.




Saturday, March 18, 2017

Kasper Mützenmacher's Cursed Hat

I'm a reviewer for the indie publisher, Curiosity Quills.  They periodically send me e-mails offering me ARCs.  I have reviewed several titles from this press in various genre categories, and they've all been conceptually unusual. (They were Alice Takes Back WonderlandThis Above AllThe Heartless City and The Maid of Heaven) The historical fantasy Kasper Mutzenmacher's Cursed Hat by Keith Fentonmiller is equally unusual.  That's why I requested an ARC of this title.


My main association with the name Kasper is a cartoon that aired on television during my childhood called Casper The Friendly Ghost.  I had a talking Casper doll who told me reassuringly "I'm a friendly ghost.  Don't be afraid of me." (For more information see the Casper The Friendly Ghost Wiki)  Fentonmiller's Kasper is neither a ghost nor particularly friendly.  He always had to protect the family secret of the cursed hat, and he also lived under Hitler for a period.  These circumstances didn't incline him to let very many people into his life.  I found Kasper semi-sympathetic.   He was capable of learning from his misdeeds.  He also did some great things for which he was remembered.

I think that all the characters were fallible human beings who were very believable, but not always likable.   The villain, who did really terrible things in Nazi Germany, became more sympathetic when we learned about the background of that character.  The villain also attempted to engage in redemptive actions after WWII.  In the end, I felt that this character was a tragic figure with some serious psychological problems.  

The "cursed" hat was the only fantastical element in the book.   Otherwise it was the story of a  German family which emigrated to the United States.   The hat had an amazing power that could have done a great deal of good in Nazi Germany, but the necessity of keeping it secret limited the amount of good it could do. Nevertheless, it was still very central to the novel.  The hat cast a huge shadow over the lives of the major characters.

Kasper's role in the narrative is complete at the end of the book, but this is the first book in the series.  The conclusion of the novel made it clear that the next book would continue with the story of Chance, Kasper's grandson.  I look forward to finding out how Chance and his descendants will utilize the magical hat's powers.




Saturday, March 4, 2017

Behind The Mask: A Superhero Anthology

I started reading superhero comic books when I was a mere sprout in the 1960's.  I still love them-especially female superheroes. Lynda Carter as Wonder Woman was an inspiration, and  I would probably watch the current Supergirl series even if the star hadn't been on Glee.  

That's why I immediately jumped at the chance to read and review an ARC of  Behind The Mask: A Superhero Anthology from Net Galley.


 Sixteen of the twenty stories that appear in this volume are original to the anthology.  Only four are reprints.  The stories I liked best have never appeared anywhere else.   Other stories were well-written but didn't appeal to me.  There also were stories that didn't feel complete in themselves.  They were probably sneak peeks for upcoming novels.

My #1 favorite of the anthology was "Destroy The City With Me Tonight" by Kate Marshall.   I found it original and compelling.  It's a riff on the idea of superheroes being linked to cities.  The link in Marshall's story is  much stronger.  The story also deals with memory as a bond between human beings.   When that bond dissipates,  you feel isolated.  People with superpowers feeling disconnected from humanity is a dangerous situation.  The protagonist deals with an ethical dilemma that would cause her to morph from hero to villain if she made the wrong choice.

Another amazing standout story was "Madjack" by Nathan Crowder.  It was a moving story about a recently deceased rock star with powers that would be very useful for someone in that profession.  The protagonist is his daughter, a rock star in her own right.  If this were in another science fiction anthology, no one would consider it a superhero story.   It stretches the concept a bit, but I loved it.   I now want to read Crowder's fantasy novel, Ink Calls To Ink.

I think that what these stories had in common is that they involved characters with enough stature to be called heroes, characters that I admired because they struggled against becoming villains.   That's my motivation for reading about superheroes.   I want to believe in heroes.  I feel that they represent the best in us.  In this world where cynicism and noir are popular, I feel that superheroes are the antidote.   I found that hopeful vision in those particular stories of Behind The Mask which makes me glad that I read them.



Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The Dove's Necklace--It Really Isn't A Whodunit

The opening for The Dove's Necklace by Raja Alem seems to declare that this is a mystery though scarcely a conventional one.  I can't say that I've ever read a mystery which begins from the perspective of the street where the body was found.  There is a police detective investigating the death.  Yet if you were expecting to find out whodunit, you will be sorely disappointed.   It can be challenging to even get an identification of a female murder victim in a country where women are completely veiled in public and no one but a close relative or a husband has ever seen her. In some circumstances,  solving the case may well be impossible.  So Alem's intentions must lie in another direction.


Actually, The Dove's Necklace is more like a thriller.   It primarily takes place in Mecca and is awash with secret conspiracies with religious implications and a historical dimension.  You might call this an Islamic Da Vinci Code.  There is even a looking for clues in paintings sequence late in the book.  It's certainly much more literary than anything Dan Brown ever wrote.  Alem makes extensive use of unreliable narrators which causes the reader to question what they think they know.   I would be wary of drawing any definite conclusions from this book.  It's a dark and uncomfortable read.

Yet there's something compelling about it.  Every time I thought that I would abandon The Dove's Necklace unfinished, I would come across a powerful character scene, a beautiful prose passage, a piece of history that was previously unknown to me, or some fascinating nugget of Islamic lore.

The character that drew me most is Aisha, an independent minded bibliophile who is mainly known to us through her e-mails that a couple of male characters read with shock or irritation.   I wanted to know Aisha's ultimate fate, but the degree of uncertainty woven into the narrative made me unsure about that issue even after I turned the last page.  So do I know what happened to Aisha?  Maybe I do, and maybe I don't.   Some readers might feel frustrated.  Others might feel intrigued by the possibilities, and therefore willing to be tantalized by an unresolved conundrum.

Then there are the readers who will be primarily concerned with themes.  The Dove's Necklace deals with corruption, modernization, missing physical keys to sacred places and mystical keys revealed in visions.   As I expected, the medieval Islamic text  The Necklace of the Dove (also called The Ring of the Dove) by Ibn Hazm has something to do with it.

According to my research, Ibn Hazm was born in Islamic Spain where his work was reviled and even burned.  He was also imprisoned and expelled from provinces. He wrote The Necklace of the Dove in 1027 after having served a prison term.   The significance of this text is open to interpretation, but its focus is both physical and spiritual love.

What do I take away from The Dove's Necklace ?  Well, I'm not sorry that I read it because I did learn from some of the content about Islam and Islamic history.  I  did think that the book was too long.  Not all the content was equally interesting.   Other readers seem to have stronger opinions about the value of this book than I do.




Sunday, February 19, 2017

The Unquiet Dead: Bosnian Atrocities Are At The Heart Of A Canadian Mystery

I read the second book in Ausma Zehanat Kahn's mystery series first.   There is a mystery group on Goodreads where I am known as an Unrepentant Out of Order Reader (UOOOR).  This doesn't mean that I always read out of order, but I allow myself to exercise that option when I feel more drawn to a later book in a series.   I am unrepentant because this almost never causes problems for me in reading a series.  On the rare occasions when I do experience difficulties, I feel that the author has been inadequate.  I believe that books should stand on their own.  If there is information that I need to understand events or characters in a book, it should have been included in that book.  I am happy to say that The Language of Secrets, the first book I read by Khan, did stand on its own.  I found it to be a very interesting and somewhat unusual mystery/thriller dealing with terrorism.

I decided to read this book because I noticed that Khan has continued to write about the legacy of atrocities in Bosnia in A Death in Sarajevo and Among the Ruins.  What happened in Bosnia in the 20th century evidently had significant impact on protagonist Esa Khattak.  The Unquiet Dead is also going to be discussed at the March meeting of the F2F mystery group that I attend.  This gave me additional impetus to find out more about Khattak's background.


Let me say that sometimes I feel that the horrors of  20th century genocide are too much for me.  It also has much more subjective immediacy when it's happened within my lifetime.  Perhaps that's why I've avoided reading about what was done to the Muslims of Bosnia even though I knew it was important for me to know about what happened there.  I also feel a certain amount of shame that I feel the need to protect myself from fourth hand exposure to traumatic events.  After all, I am not a survivor of such experiences, I am not a witness to them, nor am I the author of this book who had to live with the suffering of Bosnian Moslems the entire time that she was researching and writing it.  She cites testimony from the International Criminal Court and other witness accounts in her endnotes.  Ausma Zehanat Khan has far more inner strength than I do.

A museum commemorating Moorish Spain plays a role in The Unquiet Dead.   My uncle kept a collection of "Little Blue Books" which were independently published by freethinking press E. Haldeman-Julius and written by de-frocked priest Joseph McCabe.  It was from one of these pamphlets that I first learned about Moorish Spain when I was a pre-teen.  I was entranced by what I read. McCabe portrayed it as a utopian community where people from three different faiths got along. Some current historians such as Maria Menocal (author of The Ornament of the World) also portray Moorish Spain as utopian.  I have since learned that there was some dis-satisfaction in Moorish Spain, and it wasn't exactly a perfect society.   There's a reason why the title of Samuel Butler's utopia was Erehwon which is nowhere backwards. There are characters in The Unquiet Dead who revere both Moorish Spain and their memories of a multi-ethnic Bosnia that was free of strife.  I tend to suspect that Bosnia was also never a utopia.  Yet the strong likelihood that neither Spain under Islamic rule nor Bosnia were ever perfect doesn't justify the Spanish Inquisition or the genocidal activities of the Serbian militia groups in 20th century Bosnia.

I consider The Unquiet Dead a compelling novel dealing with history that shouldn't be forgotten.   I've read criticisms of the characterization in reviews. I admit that there were female characters who were stereotypical or not well-developed, but there are few first novels that have blown me away with their power as this one has.    I will be thinking about The Unquiet Dead for some time to come.


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Terrible Virtue--A Novel About Margaret Sanger

I first learned about birth control advocate Margaret Sanger from a TV movie starring Bonnie Franklin, Portrait of a Rebel  which aired in 1980.  She became one of my feminist idols.  I read about various aspects of her life and legacy.  There is no doubt that she is an important figure and that women owe her a great deal.   Yet she is also controversial for a number of reasons.

 I found out that there was a new biographical novel dealing with Margaret Sanger from my co-blogger Tara on Flying High Reviews.  She reviewed Terrible Virtue by Ellen Feldman here.   I wanted to find out how Feldman approached Margaret Sanger.  I also thought that a book about her presents an opportunity to discuss some difficult issues in my review.


Sources that I've previously encountered dealing with Margaret Sanger didn't emphasize her Socialist Party membership and involvement in the Socialist community.   I thought this aspect of Terrible Virtue was particularly significant especially given charges that she was right wing due to her support for eugenics later in her life.  There was one scene at a meeting in which Socialist leader Big Bill Haywood said that in a socialist society women would stay home and take care of the children.  I found that scene emblematic because it reminded me of second wave feminist Robin Morgan's complaints about the New Left. This lack of support in male dominated organizations for women's freedom to choose is what caused feminists like Margaret Sanger and Robin Morgan to realize that women needed their own movement.

Feldman portrays Sanger as latching on to eugenics because of its popularity.  I don't think that this is a persuasive defense of  Sanger. While researching for this review,  I read an article that Sanger wrote on this subject which originally appeared in 1921 in The Birth Control Review here . It seems to me that if you don't want people to interpret your words as racist, you shouldn't use phrases like "improving the race".  So if she intended her association with eugenics as a pragmatic decision to make her cause more politically viable as Feldman has her claim, she was being shortsighted.   There is really no way to incorporate eugenics in an approach to birth control without being offensive.  When eugenics isn't perceived as racist, it's seen as an attack on the disabled or people with variant sexuality.  It was inevitable that the eugenics paradigm would discredit Sanger and her movement.  She should have seen its implications and stayed far away from it.   I believe that birth control should be framed as an individual choice based on individual life circumstances.   "Improving the race" pollutes the discourse on this issue.   Regardless of her intention, Sanger was allying herself with fascists.

On the personal front, I was at first impressed by Sanger's feelings about her daughter.   Yet eventually I realized that she had these deep feelings about having  a daughter before she had one, and she gave her daughter her own name.  Sanger also called her by her own nickname, Peggy, and she imagined her as an adult joining Sanger in the birth control struggle.  In other words, Peggy wasn't an individual to her.  She was an extension of herself.   Many parents think of their children that way, but I thought it was sad that Feldman was presenting Sanger as a woman whose strongest personal connection was essentially narcissistic.  

I knew before I read this novel that my feminist idol had feet of clay.  Feet of clay can crumble and cause the idol to topple from the pedestal.   I no longer put Margaret Sanger on a pedestal.   Feldman's biographical novel reminds me that she was a flawed human being who made mistakes in her life.  Yet we mustn't forget her accomplishments.  Sanger was still a great feminist fore-mother.  Women's options would have remained constricted without birth control. We must continue to fight to preserve that freedom.



Saturday, February 11, 2017

Martha Gellhorn Proved That Women Can Be War Correspondents

It was reading Martha Gellhorn's WWII novel, Point of No Return, which I reviewed here  that led me to search for a biographical account of her life.  I was impressed with the authenticity and grittiness of her portrayal of war.   When I learned that she'd been a war correspondent in WWII and in other wars throughout her life, I wanted to know more.  I suspected that she must have encountered difficulties with being accepted in this very dangerous profession.  It wasn't considered a job for a woman.

There were several biographies of Martha Gellhorn for me to choose from.   I selected Nothing Ever Happens To The Brave.  That title is a quote from her second husband, Ernest Hemingway.  I wanted to know why author Carl Rollyson chose it, and how it applied to Martha Gellhorn's life.


Rollyson's book begins with Gellhorn's childhood in Saint Louis, Missouri.  I was delighted to learn that her mother, Edna Fischel Gellhorn, had been a women's suffrage activist and that she brought British suffragist, Sylvia Pankhurst to address the students at her daughter's elementary school.   This reference caused me to remember that I need to read a biography of Sylvia Pankhurst.

 Gellhorn's  mother was also a friend of Eleanor Roosevelt who was the wife of New York's governor when Gellhorn began her journalistic career at The Albany Times-Union.   Later her mother's connection with ER meant that Gellhorn was welcome at the White House.   This means that while FDR was in the White House, Gellhorn was able to take some formidable risks and get bailed out.   So Gellhorn may have been courageous, but she was also privileged by her political connections.
I admired Gellhorn's determination to succeed and achieve her goals, but she could be very unlikeable.  Rollyson portrays her as unable to commit to a relationship for more than a few years.  After that, she would feel trapped in it and need to move on.  This was especially troubling when she adopted an orphan.   Rollyson apparently believes that the only relationship in her life with any permanence was the one with her mother.  It seemed to me that abstract causes and principles meant more to her than individuals.

Hemingway also doesn't come off very well in this biography.   He became extremely vindictive when Gellhorn didn't give up her career.   He called Collier's, the magazine that had hired her to report on WWII, and got her assignment.  This meant that Gellhorn didn't have credentials, but she got to the front by acting as a nurse, and sweet-talked military personnel to get to the locations where she needed to be in order to obtain the interviews for the stories that she wanted to write.  Hemingway obviously felt that he and Gellhorn were in competition.  Rollyson writes that Gellhorn was a better war correspondent than Hemingway.  I thought that she was certainly more dedicated to covering war as her profession.  Hemingway prioritized writing novels.

Rollyson draws attention to the contradiction of Gellhorn being  a pacifist who felt compelled to witness the events of wars.   She evidently believed strongly that she was called to record the truth about each war she reported on.  She had the distinction of being blackballed by South Vietnam for writing about war profiteering and the callousness of the rich in South Vietnam.  That's impressively honest journalism.

Since Rollyson's biography was written without Gellhorn's permission, he had no access to Gellhorn's letters.   Other reviewers have pointed out that Gellhorn's correspondence is of key importance to understanding Gellhorn and her relationships.   So I may be reading the authorized biography by Caroline Moorehead at some point in the future.  I don't regret reading this one, however.  I thought that Rollyson was insightful despite the limitations of being unauthorized.