Thursday, January 30, 2014


My grandma picked up "Candide" while she was visiting and read a few passages out that particularly struck her fancy. We both giggled over them, and then she returned the book to the library before I had a chance to read it.

So, when I stumbled across it a few days ago, I picked it up and read it.

My first thought--why didn't we read Voltaire in high school? Why do we read Nathaniel Hawthorn and Edith Wharton, and all the unfunny Dickens instead? Sure, you get a lot from the serious stuff, but why do they give all us impressionable high school kids the idea that the stuff people used to write is all stuffy and serious?

"Candide" is funny. Our eponymous main character is pretty much an idiot, but a lucky one, and Voltaire throws him from one crappy circumstance to another, using pretty much every scene to skewer someone he doesn't like. It's fantastic. Also, very quick. The copy I picked up is thin, probably less than 200 pages, and more than half of that is commentary (which I didn't bother to read. I might before handing the book back in, but I don't feel it necessary to read the 'educational' bit to further my enjoyment of the book).

Even if this hadn't shown up in an English class, this totally should be included in reading lists for European history classes. Very fun.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Stepford Wives

Apparently this is the week (or perhaps month) for reading feminist literature. I read Ira Levin's "Stepford Wives." I've seen both movies so I was familiar with the plot and themes. Reading the book, though, is a different experience. Especially compared to the (truly dumb) 2004 version.

Joanna isn't a stupid character; neither is Bobbie, nor are any of the other real women in the story. They are simply in a situation that is so unfathomable they don't realize the danger they're in until it's too late. I found it very believable that these intelligent women would give their husbands the benefit of the doubt up until the last, decisive moment. It's a testament to how far we'll rationalize strange behavior in others that Joanna and Bobbie both succumb to the men of Stepford.

Until I read it I hadn't thought of this as a science fiction novel, or as a thriller. It's both. Levin's female characters are asked to do these little, innocent things by their male neighbors--recording lullabies for the children, having a famous artist sketch your likeness, going away for a weekend with your husband--that are positively creepy knowing where the story goes. So subtle, so well done.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Mists of Avalon

Mists of Avalon is one of those books everyone at all interested in genre fiction probably should read at some point. It's kind of a classic. Not only does it take on the King Arthur mythos, but it does it from the perspective of the women in the story rather than from the men's perspectives. That's why it's also considered a feminist work--it's telling the female side of a traditionally very male story about chivalry and conquest.

It's also one of the few stories out there that features a female anti-hero. I read a few reviews on Goodreads that seemed upset that Morgain (as her name is spelled in by Bradley) isn't the hero of the story. In fact, in the end she's wrong and because she persists in her wrong-headedness she destroys the lives of people she cares about and contributes to the destruction of Avalon.

Both Merlins (Taliesin and Kevin) are of the opinion some sort of accommodation should be found with Christians, that Christianity itself is not the problem--all Gods are one God, after all--but rather the strict interpretation and application of dogma that is a problem. The actions of both Merlins indicates they're trying to undermine the strictness of their Christian counterparts through gentle discussion. Viviane, and Morgaine after her, don't share the Merlins' optimism that Christians can be convinced to moderate their stance against Paganism. (Or, perhaps, don't understand what the Merlins' goals.) As such, the women take on a more aggressive, more combative approach.

Morgaine and Viviane's combativeness is, I think, very understandable given how anti-woman Christian rhetoric is. The Christianity portrayed in the book (which I don't think is that out of line with history) is anti-sex, anti-pagan, and very rigid in what it deemed appropriate for women. Since these Christian men were pretty much pushing women out of any position of power or authority, or even influence, in the name of their God, I can totally understand why Viviane and Morgaine--who were powerful, influential women under the reign of Avalon--didn't want to engage. They recognized they wouldn't have any pull with Christian Bishops, not just because of their religion, but also because of their gender.

Unfortunately, the resultant anger also left them blind to what the Merlins were doing (particularly Kevin) in preserving Pagan worship through combining the two traditions. Up until the very end Morgaine is unable to see her insistence that Pagan traditions need to be kept pure is the exact mirror of Christian's insistence Paganism must be rooted out. Finally, in that last chapter she recognizes that an altered form of Goddess worship has been preserved.

Morgain wonders why the Goddess allowed Avalon to fall. As a reader (and a modern person privy to history) it's clear Avalon is going to fall no matter what. It's also clear that Morgain's actions (particularly her stubbornness and desire for purity) contribute to that fall.

It's kinda tragic.

As a feminist I think it's great Bradley gives such a tragic role to Morgaine. She's our protagonist and we love her for championing women, but we also get to see that her insistence that things should be preserved the way she wants them isn't effective. Not that accommodation is always the answer--sometimes you do need to fight--but in the long term it is the gentle word, the subtle and seemingly innocuous idea that changes the world.

Anyway, that's not exactly where I wanted to go with this. I loved Morgaine and Viviane, heartless and stubborn as they were. Morgause is fantastically evil and despicable.

Gwenhwyfar is more challenging. I think we're supposed to at least feel sorry for her with the infertility and whatnot, but mostly she comes off as irrational and fundamentalist. It's too bad Bradley never gives us a scene of Gwenhwyfar experiencing something positive from her religion. Instead, all we see is her wholeheartedly embracing a religion that does nothing but tell her what a terrible human being she is for being female, for being infertile, and for loving a man other than her husband. Again, tragic, but I think more in that Christianity in general is given short shrift by Bradley's refusal to give someone a positive experience with the religion. Really, people aren't dumb enough to join a religion that gives them nothing.