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Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Secret History of Wonder Woman: The Invention of a Superhero in Historical Context

When I was a pre-teen I spent my allowance on comic books.  I mainly bought Superman, Batman and Legion of Superheroes.  I was interested in female superheroes, but Wonder Woman didn't have superpowers at that point.  I read Supergirl  until her story arc became centered on how aliens had victimized her at a beauty pageant.  I wanted to be inspired by a female superhero.  I felt betrayed.  So I threw up my hands and stopped reading about her.   It was Ms. Magazine that showed me what Wonder Woman had once been, and I loved the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman series.  By that time, however, I didn't read comic books.  It was the Witchblade TV series starring Yancy Butler that brought me back to comic books as an adult. I read and collected Witchblade in all its various incarnations , but I also began to read Wonder Woman regularly.  I now consider myself a fan of the Amazon from Paradise Island.  That's why I had to read and review The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.


I watched Katha Pollitt's interview with Jill Lepore on the subject of this book on Book TV, and was fascinated by what Lepore had to say.  Now that I've read it, I still admire it as a feat of research.  She presented Wonder Woman in the context of the early 20th century feminism that inspired her creator, William Moulton Marston, and in the context of  his life and unconventional family.

Yet Lepore tells us that  Olive Byrne inspired Wonder Woman. She was an integral part of Marston's household, but this is where I part company with Lepore.  Olive Byrne may have worn the bracelets, but her lifestyle choices were not those of a superhero.  Her mother was Ethel Byrne, the sister of Margaret Sanger.  Ethel Byrne had been an activist for the cause of birth control.  She disapproved of her daughter because Olive chose a support role in Marston's life and career rather than having an independent life with her own career.  I feel that women have a right to live as they choose.  Not all women want to be heroes.

 In fact, it seems to me that Olive probably had very conventional aspirations.  She was absolutely adamant that her role in Marston's life as his lover and mother of two of his children must never become known.  She even invented a fictional husband who supposedly fathered her sons.  She must have been very uncomfortable with being one of three women in Marston's life, and would have preferred a monogamous lifestyle.  She stated that she hid the identity of their father for the sake of her sons, but this implies that she didn't feel that she could defend her life choices to her children once they were adults.  If she had been the sort of woman who inspired Wonder Woman, she wouldn't have lived a life that made her feel ashamed. 

Lepore shows us that it was a man who inspired Marston's interest in the feminist movement of his day.   His name was  George Herbert Palmer.  The 1933 article from The Harvard Crimson that I've linked calls him influential because of his "genius in teaching".  For the purposes of this review, it's most significant that he was the advisor of a student organization called the Harvard Men's League for Women's Suffrage.  This means that Marston probably wasn't the only Harvard student who was influenced by Palmer to become a supporter of  feminist causes.   When Marston married, he chose the independent-minded feminist Sadie Elizabeth Holloway who was the household's breadwinner during the Great Depression  when Marston couldn't find work.  Certainly Holloway was closer to being a superwoman type than Olive.

I've seen reviews on Goodreads which state that Marston's lifestyle, which some would now call polyamorous, showed that he wasn't really a sincere feminist.  I admit that I didn't think much of his failing to give collaborator's credit to Olive for all the work she did on his psychology book, Emotions of Normal People.  This represents a widespread problem in academia. Marston was a professor of psychology at various universities. Olive began as Marston's research assistant.  Research assistants, who aren't always women, are still rarely given credit for their work on a professor's writing projects no matter how extensively they contributed to them.  Academic writers consider this a completely acceptable practice.  The research assistants aspire to become professors who will in turn utilize the labor of their research assistants without giving them credit.

So Marston was a flawed human being, but it would have been a huge loss to many women if he hadn't created Wonder Woman.  One of the really valuable aspects of the Wonder Woman comic when Marston had creative control, was the Wonder Women of History insert.  LePore doesn't believe that Marston wrote these profiles of noteworthy historical women, but there is evidence that he selected them.  Lepore thinks that Dorothy Roubicek (later known by her married name of Woolfolk) the first woman editor at DC Comics, was the one who wrote the text for Wonder Women of History. Marston did write the story of how Wonder Woman took a boy back in time to witness the Celtic Warrior  Woman Boadicea's  revolt against the Romans which was published in 1946.  It wasn't Marston who robbed Wonder Woman of her powers. It was Denny O'Neill who was responsible for this change in 1968. 

I personally am grateful to Marston for giving us Wonder Woman even though he can't be considered a feminist in modern terms, and Lepore is the ideal historian to present Marston to us with all his eccentricities intact.  In The Secret History of Wonder Woman William Moulton Marston and the women of his household live for us again.



Friday, February 6, 2015

Awakenings: A Lesbian Couple Dealing With Post WWII Trauma

I am writing this review from the perspective of someone who hasn’t read the three previous novels in the Interwined Souls series.  Awakenings is my first exposure to the work of Mary D. Brooks. I purchased it on Amazon and have reviewed it for The Bookplex.


The cover above gives readers their first impression of a book. I found the cover of this lesbian post-WWII novel lovely yet subtle.  I call it subtle because I had to look at it twice to see that it depicted two women lovers.

On the other hand, the poem that precedes the novel isn't of especially good quality.  Its language is pedestrian and it adds nothing to the novel.

 Awakenings deals with many important themes.  My feeling is that the book was overloaded with themes.  Brooks could have written several books dealing with this material. It deals with Nazi atrocities against lesbians and gay men, the long-term impact of abuse, the difficulty of accepting paranormal gifts in a world where they aren’t well understood and alternative perceptions of family. I particularly appreciated the honest depiction of Eva’s disabilities resulting from her horrifying mistreatment in the mental institution where she was forcibly consigned in an effort to eradicate her lesbian identity.  

 In addition, there is an unconventional Christian spiritual element in the novel that becomes more pronounced once the characters arrive in Germany.  This novel isn’t likely to attract religious fundamentalists, but I thought I’d emphasize that Awakenings deals with religion in a highly unorthodox manner.  As a result of research, I discovered that it  draws on a central doctrine of Pentecostalism, a Protestant evangelist sect, but the characters who are espousing these beliefs in the book are Catholic.  This seemed rather odd to me.  I also wonder how members of the Pentecostal movement would react to Brooks' use of their beliefs to explain the paranormal element in her book. 

 Awakenings develops some very interesting backgrounds for all the inter-related characters. Yet I was occasionally confused.  I recall that I initially wondered if Father Haralambos was part of the Lambros family.  I eventually figured out all the complexities, but it seemed to me that Brooks was juggling too many characters along with her multiplicity of themes. 
Plot seemed to take a back seat until the last section that took place in Germany.  Very little happened in real time in the first half of the book that took place in Greece.  The book as a whole is overburdened with scenes in which the characters discuss events that occurred in the past.   It’s true that some of these scenes were emotionally intense, but I would have preferred more flashbacks and less dialogue.  Flashbacks are a more immediate and effective method of handling exposition.

There were no typographical errors, but editing is about more than spelling and grammar.  Awakenings needed an editor that addressed the structural problems I’ve mentioned in the above paragraphs.  There were moments in this book that I absolutely loved, but it could have been so much better.  Awakenings really could have used more focus. 


Monday, February 2, 2015

The Garden of Letters: The Cellist Who Was Code Named Dragonfly

I originally wrote this post for Book Babe, but I thought the readers of this blog would appreciate it as well.

The Garden of Letters by Alyson Richman takes place in Italy during WWII.  I have not visited Italy in WWII through the pages of a book since reading The Garden of the Finzi-Continis during my teen years. Regrettably, I have not read Alyson Richman since The Mask Carver’s Son which I very much admired for the way it showed the differences between the perspective of art as a tradition, and the perspective of art as an individual accomplishment.  In The Garden of Letters Richman deals with the perspective of a musician discovering her true priorities in a time of fear and privation.  

When I read about fictional protagonist Elodie Bertolotti’s dedication to music and her love for the fine cello that her father had given her, I was reminded of The Rainaldi Quartet by Paul Adam, a mystery I read some time ago  dealing with luthiers and the love of great violins with a history behind them.  It also took place in Italy, but it didn’t stray outside the world of music as The Garden of Letters does.  Because when your friends are courting danger and your country is about to be invaded by alleged allies, being absorbed in music is not enough for a person of integrity.  I was impressed by Elodie’s courage when she joins the Resistance, and her ingenuity in inventing a new means of secret communication.  I’ve read a number of novels dealing with the French Resistance.  I had expected the Italian Resistance to be similar, but Elodie brought her background into the Resistance which gave fighting the Nazis an unusual twist. 

I would like to discuss a few thoughts I had about The Garden of Letters of the title.  It was seen as a private expression of love, but no one ever called it art or its creator an artist.  Do people only think it’s art if it’s public and the elite give it sanction?   Does the fact that a woman created it for her husband make it not art?   If so, then the definition of art needs to be broadened.  My paternal grandmother had examples of her crewel embroidery hanging on a wall of her living room.  Few people got to see them, but I’d definitely consider them art.  My grandmother was an artist with her needle.   I think that Dalia, the creator of The Garden of Letters, was an artist though she probably would never have thought of herself that way.  All expressions of the creative impulse could be considered art. The Garden of Letters also gave Dalia the strength to deal with separation from her husband.  Therapeutic art is still art. 

The Garden of Letters shifts perspectives and time periods.  I never got confused even though the story didn’t unfold in linear order.    I didn’t think that the head hopping was unclear or excessive.    Other readers might have problems with the author’s narrative techniques, but I consider this the best historical fiction that I’ve read so far in 2015.