by Carole McDonnell
So there I was reading away and generally having fun when suddenly it dawned on me that some of the books and movies I’ve been reading and viewing seemed to be exploring themes of identity, religion, and personal history. I figured I’d let you in on my current musings.
Charlotte Sometimes, Penelope Farmer, The NYR Children’s Collection, 2007, ISBN: 978-1590172216
The first review is of an old classic called Charlotte Sometimes. It’s a children’s book written back in 1969 about Charlotte Makepeace, a little girl stuck in a boarding school who gets caught in a way-back machine (well, a way-back bed) which takes her to the same boarding school during the First World War.
I love time travel stories, especially stories where someone gets stuck inside someone else’s life or body. Films such as From Time to Time, Disney’s Holes, and even the reincarnation film Dean Spanley where a human ends up inside a dog.
In this case, Charlotte is stuck inside of Clare’s life. Clare belongs to another historical era, has a quieter personality, and is somewhat religious. Or perhaps she only appears to be. Clare fits in well into her own era; Charlotte does not fit Clare’s era. What is Charlotte to do? How long can she pretend to be the pious Clare? What is she to do when she feels her true self slipping away? How can she anchor herself to a future she is no longer consistently a part of? Does she even want to remain as herself?
It’s a charming nostalgic read. Especially if one loves children books and books about English boarding schools. And once the reader gets used to the grammatical and syntactical styles editors allowed in books back then, the charm gets deeper. I’m not sure it’s a book any modern child could pick up and immediately like but once they get into the thematic groove and the main character’s dilemma, who knows? The thematic question Charlotte Sometimes asks is: “Is one’s identity something one has to strive to forcefully protect?” And “How does pretense and history affect identity?” This is the kind of book that a kid on the far end of the introvert/extrovert spectrum might like because there are so many questions about who am I, how do I fit in, should I show who I am?
This book is the second part of a trilogy and it’s a good read as a standalone.
The Memory Painter, Gwendolyn Womack, 336 pages, Picador, April 2015, ISBN: 978-1250053039
Back in the day when I was in college, I had a friend who believed she was the reincarnation of Cleopatra. She really did. Despite the fact that other women, more prominent (though admittedly less beautiful than she) also thought they had been Cleopatra. All very forgivable but this is the kind of stuff one eats up when one is in college and searching for an identity.
In The Memory Painter, Bryan Pierce is a brilliant painter; Linz Jacobs is a brilliant scientist. What do these brilliant people have in common? Well, the same thing all destined lovers in fantasy romances have in common? Other than their brilliance, they have been trying to save the world for millennia. Except that in this life, they have the burden of trying to remember how special they were in their past lives. Because, unlike the mundane lives of most people who believe in reincarnation, these two lovers have always been notables. And once one accepts the premise that great folks always live great lives no matter how and where and when they re-incarnate, one will have fun with this book.
The Memory Painter is essentially American reincarnation romantic super-hero mystery fantasy. It follows the basic American template of progressivism, romance, and spirituality. The main characters are the ones we usually find in romance fantasy, spiritual stories, and comic book. But the author really makes it all come together in a fun summer read. Being a historical fantasy with a spiritual sub-plot doesn’t hurt either. A good historical novel should bring past social mores, politics, and people from far-flung places to life and this one does just that, as we rush about from ancient Egypt, through Russia, to other parts unknown.
The main plot is a mystery: who is out to destroy the lovers and why? The sub-plot, which carries the theme, seems to be about the suppression of truth by certain types of bad folks throughout the ages. The book is a good read and a page-turner, but this is not my kind of book. Mostly because perfectly beautiful, perfectly wonderful special snowflake characters are a bit too romance novel-ish and one has to be in the mood to read about the ultra-enlightened, ultra-beautiful saving the world yet again.
Also, if you’ve read a lot of fantasy, this novel is pretty much what mainstream readers —those who don’t generally read fantasy — would consider fantasy. So, don’t look for world-building or any of the thematic questions one would find in fantasy; think of it as a good summer romance novel.
Entrevoir: A Novel, by Chris Katsaropoulos, 208 Pages, Luminis Books, April 2015, ISBN: 978-1941311509
Jacob is the protagonist. He feels pulled away from the art scene to create one great work in the middle of nowhere. For the discerning soul and true seeker of truth, journeying to see this work will be a pilgrimage. And in viewing the installation, the spectator of his art will somehow connect to God and the universe. This is what Jacob believes. And the author doesn’t question his protagonist. Why not? Because it is very clear that the protagonist and the author are mirrors of each other and the installation art done by the protag is to be equated with the book the reader is holding in her hand. That’s my opinion anyway.
While doing his installation, Jacob suddenly gets transported into the cosmic and sees beyond the veil. There are mystics, priests, truths, and page-long run-on sentences galore.
I’m not sure one can really call this book a novel. It’s a third-person narration, with a very intimate present tense POV. Some folks would call this book “visionary” because that is the genre it falls in. It’s rhapsodic, or attempted rhapsody. But the rhapsody is not a gimmick in any way. It feels earnest. I’m not sure if it works although it does pull the reader along. From the beginning when we meet Jacob to his transformation/journey as Asar, this is a book about artists, their priestly role in the world, Reincarnation, Identity, and the Self or Spirit in the world and in each human being. It attempts to sing of life and time but it’s not for everyone. Mostly because between the allusion to Christianity and the invocations to Horus (and as Horus), this is spiritual treatise disguised as fiction.
Everyone covers the wide releases and often it’s the indie books where we get our earnest statements from. And dangnabit, this story is earnest! I rather like the courage connected with earnestness and with an author bravely being himself. I understand what he is aiming at, but I’m not sure I really believe it. There is a fine line between downright solipsism and acknowledging that we are all each other’s mirror/reflection of Spirit. And this is not really my cup of tea because although I believe God is in His creatures, I also believe God is separated from them. But, Entrevoir might connect to some mystical reader who has a gnostic Christian pantheistic, panentheistic bent.
Daredevil, 2015; created by Drew Goddard, starring Charlie Cox, Vincent D’Onofrio, Deborah Ann Woll (Netflix)
In Daredevil, a man’s identity seems to be formed from personal history and his relationship with his father. (The father issues of Karen Page and Electra — who hasn’t popped up this season — haven’t been shown yet.)
Both Matt Murdock (aka, Daredevil) and Wilson Fisk (aka Kingpin) grew up poor with scrappy fathers. Being scrappy is a good thing, unless that scrappiness is linked with abuse, which abounds in the Fisk family. So, both these poor boys grow up wanting to rid the world of vermin, but Matt identifies with the weak while Wilson identifies with the power structure that preys upon the weak. Although he does not want to be like his dead father, Fisk holds to his father’s ideal of wanting political power. Both Matt and Wilson are motivated by a higher good and are conflicted about the evils they have to do in order to accomplish their noble goals. Both men also have icons or mirrors who know their hearts and who help reflect their inner battles; Matt’s icon being a gravitas-laden priest and Wilson’s an ice queen who is representative of upper-class New York approval.
Okay then, since I’ve succumbed to watching Daredevil despite my indifference to comic book superheroes, I was thankful that Matt Murdock’s super-senses were kept at a minimum. Perhaps because the other superheroes are busy fighting aliens and robots, Netflix is making this more of a crime thriller than a superhero story. Hey, regular human crime needs to be attended to — even if it’s part of a larger criminal conspiracy.
So what did I think of the series? I will just say that Vincent D’Onofrio is one amazingly sexy Wilson Fisk/Kingpin. I had utterly forgotten how sexy power could be. And while we’re talking about the power of sex, isn’t a lovesick villain the bestest most manipulatively wonderful creation ever? And it works wonders in helping viewers empathize with the villain. We are all suckers for any smitten Big Bad who melts before his classy high-born object of affection while suppressing his childhood wounds and rage. Kingpin has control issues, is seriously uncomfortable with people in general, and has a self-image that urges him to compensate for his past.
I watched the first three episodes hoping Matt Murdock would just move aside so I could see Kingpin. But I suppose we must talk about Matt Murdock. He is a former law student, who went blind as a child as a result of an accident. He has this major freak out when he first becomes blind but other than that, the man shows absolutely no sign of having a disability. None at all. Okay, yes, he carries a cane and he wears dark glasses. He has his inner demons but really, on the demon-o-meter, those demons just do not measure up to Kingpin’s. And while we’re discussing measuring up, I have yet to figure out why he wears that shmatta over his face. Seriously he is the only white guy running around Manhattan with five o’clock shadow, how could anyone not recognize him with his face covered or uncovered? His outfit — before the criminal fashionista tailor set up his new couture — is nothing compared to the kingpin’s couture. I kept waiting for Daredevil to get a makeover.
The show has some moments of great writing. But there are moments that failed for me. The biggest problem for me with Daredevil is that he is so un-disabled that he is like an idealized dream. I know it’s ridiculous of me to hope that a daredevil superhero show some sign of disability but there it is: my foolish hope. And the sudden near-zombification of the blind folks at Madame Gao’s didn’t help matters.
But there were other issues. For instance, Matt’s backstory. Way too lengthy; we’re all pretty knowledgeable about how heroes and villains are made; why oversay a thing? Time spent on flashbacks of Matt’s life would’ve been better spent showing why Kingpin loved and trusted Wesley so much. Matt Murdock is a character that feels flat and whose only momentum is backward. When the writers try to make him look conflicted, it’s a lifeless trope. He looks like a kid trying to look conflicted. Fisk is the standout character, full of life and richness and his love for his friends, lover, and mother go a long way to humanizing him. Whereas Murdock’s feelings for his friends just feel tame and a bit self-absorbed.
Another problem was the depiction of Asian-American gangsters. Why make them so dang exotic? Why make them immigrants? And why must Madame Gao be so “inscrutable”? And the last episode’s explosion of magical negroness, which was equated with justice (Cue the gospel suffering motif) just made me realize how far the American media has to go when dealing with non-whites. I actually burst out laughing when the writers fell into “widow/martyr reassurance to the white girl” mode. I wouldn’t have minded it so much if we had seen how much the widow was grieving, but the writer obviously thinks in emotional racially-tainted soundbytes. The scene feels clearly set up to absolve one of the main characters of guilt. And what is better for that than having a suffering black woman say the absolution? So in the end the black folks, the disabled, the underserved are all created to show how good and noble the white rescuer is. Then there is the religious spiritualizing. Dear me! The spiritualizing! Since Matt is a Catholic, the religious discussions were mostly about morality. While it’s good to see a program where God and morality are discussed, I was never sure of how earnest the writer was. I’ll recommend it, though. Maybe next time they will remember that minorities are human, not just symbols. Just saying.
Happy reading, all.
Carole McDonnell is the author of The Constant Tower, published by Wildside Books.