Friday, May 28, 2010

Pride and Prejudice (Without Zombies)

I have a shameful secret to confess: until a few weeks ago, I had never read anything by Jane Austen.

This wouldn't be a shameful secret for everyone, but I was an Honors English major at Kenyon College thirty years ago or so, which meant, among other things, that I had to pass a six-hour comprehensive examination on all of English literature. Plus, I do in fact regularly read 18th and 19th Century novels for pleasure. About ten or twenty years ago, there was a huge surge in interest in Austen's work, so that a literary-minded person could hardly turn around without bumping into her somewhere.

This popularity has waned a bit, but it may now be renewed by the recent parody mixing her gentle romantic comedy with the tropes of the horror genre, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Indeed, that work has itself become so popular that it has created a new sub-genre all its own, and compelled me to title this review in such a way that readers would know right off the bat that I was speaking of the original.

So, after all this time I finally decided to pick up a Jane Austen novel. The verdict? I liked it. I liked it quite a bit, actually. I can't imagine it being improved by the injection of zombies.

Austen's novels are generally classed as comedies, which is true enough but the modern reader should be warned that this is primarily in the classical sense of the difference between tragedies and comedies being that in a tragedy everyone ends up dead and in a comedy everyone ends up married.

This is not to say that there is no humor in "Pride and Prejudice." There is quite a lot of humor, some of it quite pointed. The book is full of satirical wit, and indeed it is just such wit on the part of the main character, Elizabeth Bennet, that captivates the heart of the aloof Mr. Darcy. But it's humor of the nodding and smiling variety. You probably won't find yourself laughing out loud.

There's nothing wrong with that sort of humor, and some even prefer it, but in this era of jaded tastes and television laugh tracks many expect anything labeled a "comedy" to deliver more-or-less constant belly laughs, and you certainly won't find that here. That said, there are plenty of smiles.

Feminists have adopted Ms. Austen as one of there own, which has no doubt helped the popularity of her novels. Elizabeth is, however, at best a problematic exemplar of feminist ideals. It's true that she does twice turn down proposals of marriage. But it's not as if she does anything to indicate that she contemplates a career, or any other kind of future other than eventually being a wife and homemaker.

And despite the fact that her pushy mother, Mrs. Bennet, trying desperately to get her girls not just married but married "well," is subject to at times vicious satire and presented as at best a buffoon and at worst a thoroughly despicable person, her values are not so much rejected as they are tempered and slightly redirected by the books plot and what constitutes a happy ending for Elizabeth.

Elizabeth refuses to marry for money, and a friend who has no such scruples is thereby diminished in her eyes. But the book is hardly an encouragement to follow one's hear with no thought of practicality. The one impulsive union based purely on emotion with no calculation for the future that we see in the book is presented as a complete disaster.

No, Austen's contribution to the social system she found herself in, the social system dominated on the female side by figures like Mrs. Bennet, is to insist that, at least as an ideal, the calculations involved in making a marriage should *include* the congeniality of temperaments, and not *just* be a calculation of how much a suitor is worth a year.

This is hardly a feminist or even an overly Romantic stance, and it is a reflection of how banal and mercenary the society she depicts in her novels was that in her hands it does indeed seem almost revolutionary.

The title of this book might seem to refer to negative qualities one might attribute to each of the main characters - Pride would be associated with Darcy, obviously, and Prejudice with Elizabeth, who assumes much about him that turns out not to be true. In fact, both of them display both of these characteristics, and both need to learn to overcome their pride and prejudice and see each other with new eyes, before the inevitable happy ending can occur.

This novel was published almost 200 years ago. The society it depicts is, in its protocols and details, gone forever. But venality and greed, fondness and passion, maternal calculation and obsequious favor-currying all will be with us forever, and all are on display here, observed with a keen eye and depictged with a lively wit that indeed makes this book timeless.

I intend to rectify my decades-old error and begin searching for other Jane Austen books directly.

By Jane Austen
Penguin Classics, 480 pp., $8.00
This edition published 2002
Originally published 1813

Friday, May 21, 2010

Very Logical

I don't usually "give away the ending" of a book I'm reviewing. However, it's very hard to review this book sensibly without touching on things that come up near the end, including some things that might be thought of as "spoilers" in a more conventional book. I honestly don't think they would spoil your enjoyment of the book. The plot is hardly the main point here, although it is in fact a gripping story.

Would it really spoil a James Bond movie for you if I leaned over and whispered in your ear, "Bond gets the villain in the end."? Of course not.

Still, if that sort of thing bothers you, if you hate reading any review that reveals anything other than stuff that happens in the first few pages, then you might want to skip the rest of this review and just take away would normally be the last paragraph, moved up here for your convenience:

Read this book! It's surprisingly engaging and enjoyable, despite being based on a subject matter that would put many people to sleep if handled conventionally. This most unconventional narrative with enthrall even the most anti-mathematical soul.

And now that we've had the ending, let's start at the beginning:

This book is about the fundamental quest for certainty, the nature of truth and how we can be sure that we know what it is that we think we know.

That sounds like a treatise, a philosophical essay of the time most would probably find boring, but this is in fact a fascinating story, presented through the lives of some of the foremost philosophers and mathematicians of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, focusing primarily on the late Bertrand Russell.

It's also a dialogue between the two writers and the artists who drew the pictures. Indeed, the book opens with Apostolos Doxiadis speaking directly to the audience. If you don't like that sort of thing, you probably won't like this book, because the whole thing goes back and forth like that. In fact, most of the book is presented as being told by Doxiadis to co-writer Christos Papadimitriou, with the artists occasionally entering into the conversation.

The heart of the book is a lecture by Russell at "an American University," supposedly given on September 4, 1939, the day after England declared war on Germany in response to Hitler's September 1 invasion of Poland.

(I say "supposedly: because it's pretty clear that this event is at least fictionalized, if not completely made up. In the course of it, Russell recalls meeting people that he never met, or meeting people decades earlier than he actually met them. However, the authors assure us that the *ideas* presented are faithfully presented as are those associated with them, and the way these ideas clashed and developed on each other is real.)

When Russell arrives the way to the lecture hall is blocked by protesters, who demand that Russell call off his lecture and join them in their protest against this new war, reminding him that he spent time in prison as a pacifist during World War I. Instead, Russell advises them that the theme of his lecture, "The Role of Logic in Human Affairs," will touch on their concerns and invites them all in to listen, and then make up their own minds.

After joking that a lecture on the role logic has actually played in determining human affairs in history would be very short, Russell makes it clear that his subject is the role logic should play, and as the lecture develops we see that it is also about the role logic can play, the extent to which human beings are even capable of acting logically, and finally, on the very existence of logic as a reality outside the abstractions of philosophers and mathematicians.

Russell proceeds to give his audience an autobiography, which means, of course, that Doxiadis is giving Papadimitriou a biography of Russell, which of course also means that the team of creators responsible for the book is telling us Russell's life story. This Russian doll structure of the story is, I think, an important part of what makes the story work, and also makes a subtle commentary on the subject matter.

Russell's account of his life focuses on his life-long quest for verifiable truth. At first, he was attracted to mathematics because it seemed so objective and absolute. Eventually, however, he discovered that it was built on a set of axioms, which were basically nothing more than assumptions, unsupported and unprovable. He began to search for something that would ground mathematics in a provable way, a search that led him to philosophy.

With A.N. Whitehead, he began to work on what would become a massive multi-volume Principia Mathematica, which ran to thousands of pages. In the first volume, the authors spent 362 pages proving that 1+1=1.

In the lecture, Russell is confessionally frank about his own failings, and also of those he encountered along his journey, which includes a veritable Who's Who of the most important mathematicians and philosophers of his time, a few of whom ended up in asylums. Indeed, the authors belabor this point perhaps too strongly, wondering if there may be some kind of link between logic and madness.

To me, the real point is not that geniuses are susceptible to madness -- that is so commonplace an observation as to be cliché, though some might find it surprising that geniuses of a logical and mathematical cast of mind may be just as susceptible to it as artists and poets. No, the truly meaningful insight provided by Russell's lecture is hinted at in his opening joke: even among those most devoted to it, logic doesn't guarantee actually making correct decisions in life. Not only do many of its most devoted advocates find it difficult to actually apply to their own lives, but even seemingly logical decisions can turn out to be disastrously wrong. Russell's decisions regarding the experimental upbringing of his son lead to bitter resentment on the son's part later in life.

Russell ends by challenging the audience to examine their own axioms and assumptions, to question their own certainty. He leaves no doubt about his own stance, but at the same time insists that it must be an individual decision.

By Apostolos Doxiadis
and Christos Papadimitriou
Art by Alecos Papadatos
Colors by Annie Di Donna

Published in the U.S. October 2009
Bloomsbury, 352 pp., $22.95, trade paperback

4 stars (out of 5)

Friday, May 14, 2010

World War II Is Background for Spy Tale

Evelyn is a ten-year-old girl with an active imagination and an artistic flair who is staying with her aunt in New York City in the summer of 1942. She spends much of her time writing and drawing in her notebook. She writes comic book stories about Zirconium Man and his sidekick Scooter. They always manage to save the day, even while being threatened by black tendrils that seem to grow out of everywhere and fill the panels.

Evelyn, who looks quite a bit like Scooter, wants to be a hero, too. "Maybe not yet," she says, "but one day."

Evelyn's aunt is not exactly the best choice for being responsible for a child. A rich girl who fancies herself an artist, she lives a hedonistic life and at first barely pays attention to her niece. Evelyn's father has sent her there so he can honeymoon with his new wife - the fifth or sixth, according to Evelyn, since her mother died. "The new one looks exactly like Lana Turner. And the one before that looked like Ginger Rogers. And the one before that looked like Veronica Lake ... and the one before *that* looked like -- "

Her litany is interrupted by the mother of her confidant and only friend - the only other kid, in fact, living in the building. Tony is the son of the building super, and she meets him when he comes to help his dad fix a leak in their bathroom.

Tony and Evelyn go to a movie, where they see a public service announcement warning about Nazi spies. "Citizens of New York City are being asked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to keep an eye out for suspicious behavior. " Soon the two would-be spycatchers are prowling the streets looking for people with foreign accents - which are plentiful, since the apartment is in Germantown, where lots of German immigrants have recently renamed their stores things like "USA Meats" and "Uncle Sam Donut Shop." Tony sees a man who looks quite a bit like Adolf Hitler himself getting his shoes shined, but Evelyn is convinced he's a real American because his pants don't have cuffs. "Straight legs are American-style. Dope."

Evelyn and Tony finally decide that the doorman of their building is a Nazi spy. They see him take a ticking package out of his locker, and hear him on the phone with someone:

Hello? Ja, it's me. I've got something for you. Something I think you're gonna like. Where should we meet? All right ... half an hour, above the yards. Ya, gut. Bis bald. Seien Sie night spat."

Evelyn decides that "the yards" must mean the Brooklyn Naval Yards, and they find a policeman, who happens to be with his friend a reporter, and they find the doorman still walking, and follow him to a building and bust into the room - to find him in bed with a woman for whom he has brought a cuckoo clock.

This actually makes the newspaper and both children - not to mention the cop - end up in serious trouble.

No, that's not the end of the story. Before long, the children do in fact get themselves involved with a real spy, and get themselves in even more serious trouble - and danger. It's a very entertaining tale with lots of angles and layers and some real psychological depth, all packed into less than 200 pages of words and pictures. A very fun read.

Published May 2010
Written by Suan Kim & Lawrence Klavan
Artwork by Pascal Dizin
First Second, 172 pp., $16.99 trade paperback

3.5 stars (out of 5)