Posted tagged ‘Phillip Pullman’

Alanna in Afghanistan? Girls Raised as Boys Taste Freedom And Sadness.

September 21, 2010

The Shield of "Boyhood"

Today’s New York Times has a fascinating and rather sad article by Jenny Nordberg about families in Afghanistan raising a daughter as a son to cope with the pressures of a society in which boy children are incomparably prized.  The reasons for raising a girl as a boy differ – in some cases, the “boy” is the only one who can work in the world, providing support for a family of females who are not allowed to earn their keep; in others, it is to provide some protection from the rebuke and ill fortune deemed the lot of a family solely of daughters.  The selected girl (usually a youngest daughter, chosen when hope of a boy child wears thin) is raised as a boy till puberty or beyond (sometimes even till marriage) , despite the risk of the girl’s body betraying her.  The “change back” to traditional female comes as a brutal shock to women who have been used to the freedom–societal, mental, and physical–that only “boyhood” allows.  Such women have difficulty not only in assuming their circumscribed feminine lives, but also in relating to other women.

How do you regurgitate a taste of freedom?  Some women (such as one of the main mothers interviewed) hope that that the experience of boyhood will enlarge the ambitions of their daughters, empowering them even after they are forced to revert.

Obviously, the article–the phenomenon–raises lots of questions, many of which can be summed up by the word “how”?  But one obvious point is simply the difference in Afghani culture from the mainstream West.   This is the stuff of fantasy in the West  (setting aside transgender girls and boys, which are a somewhat different phenomenon).   Alanna!  The wonderful/horrible series of children’s  fantasies by Tamara Pierce about the girl who disguises herself as a boy to train as a knight.

It’s also the stuff of history–those ages in which women could not own or manage property.  (In the children’s book area, this territory has been beautifully mapped by Phillip Pullman in the Sally Lockhart series.)

Okay, I’m not saying that everything is so clear and straightforward for girls in the West now.  Factors in Western culture push girls to all kinds of self-distortions–i.e. anorexia, cosmetic surgery. I recently received an Urban Outfitters catalogue in which all the female models look like underage prostitutes on quaaludes.

Oddly, many of these distorted means to power have a stereotypically feminine aspect in the West.   Girls who can only roam with relative freedom when they can pretend to be boys?  Girls who shield their whole families through such conduct?   This is something apart.

Triple-Dosing on Stieg Larsson

June 19, 2010

Biker Boot?

Okay, I’ll confess that one reason I’m so cranky today (see e.g. my earlier post complaining about World Cup 2010) is that in the past three days I’ve almost finished reading all of the Stieg Larsson trilogy that begins with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, moves on to The Girl Who Played with Fire, and (I hope) finishes with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.  (I do understand that there’s part of a fourth book kicking around in a computer held by the long-time companion of Mr. Larsson, who died suddenly in 2004.)

Although the books follow the same characters (more or less), Book 1 and Books 2 and 3 are quite different from each other.  Book 1 is relatively self-contained, while 2 and 3 seem more like one separate, very long, book with a substantially different focus.  And yet that’s not true either:  Book 1 concentrates on a dysfunctional family and a corrupt and violent power structure; while Books 2 and 3 focus on a different dysfunctional family and an expanded corrupt and violent power structure.

One reason the books are so popular is the main female character of all three books, Lisbeth Salander, who, in my mind, is what results when Minnie Mouse meets Mighty Mouse meets Kevin Mitnick (world champion computer hacker), meets Bobbie Fisher, Joan Jett, Andrea Dworkin, House (the doctor on TV), and, in her teeny pair of steel tipped motorcycle boots, divides her time between tattoo parlor, boxing gym and math library.  (And, of course, her seventeen inch power book.)

What makes Lisbeth so appealing is that, despite the terrible abuse she’s suffered, she remains fundamentally moral, fearless, and, even compassionate.

Also, yes, she’s very very hip.

[Spoiler Alert–sort of.]  The books are good books, if not exactly great;  but they do very effectively tap into that most fearful of situations in which both the “bad guys” and the “supposed good guys”—that is, the authorities—are after you, where there’s virtually no one to turn to for help, where the powers-that-be cannot be trusted.  I know that’s not atypical in movie circles, but I’m not much of a movie person.  So, oddly, the books they bring to my mind are “children’s books”, namely the wonderful Sally Lockhart series by Phillip Pullman, especially The Tiger In The Well, in which Sally’s property and life are taken over by a faked husband with amazing ease.  (It’s Victorian England.)   (Actually, the Golden Compass books also work with this theme, which is probably particularly powerful for children, given the power of authority in their lives.)

It’s strange that the latest iteration of this theme arises in Sweden, a place not pictured by most Americans as particularly venal or sadistic.  (I guess it’s been a long time since Ingmar Bergman.)

What Makes Young People (And Some of Us Others) Re-read

October 27, 2009

For those of you who actually follow this blog, and don’t just click on a link that happens to mention Robsten or the Twilight Saga, I’m sorry!  There’s not been much poetry over the last couple of days, but a lot of clicks.

Yes, I like the clicks.  (And, strangely, “Robsten” seems to generate a whole bunch more than, let’s say, “sestina.”)

But I want to explain to you (who may not understand why in the world I write about this stuff) that I truly am interested in a couple of facets of Twilight mania (besides each of Rob’s cheekbones.)

First:  despite all the poetry I’ve posted on this blog, I am mainly a fiction writer, primarily for children and young adults.  As a result, I am fascinated by the question of what makes people read a book again and again.  And I have to say (without mentioning anything about my own experience) that the Twilight mania proves Twilight et al. to be a set of those much re-read books.

It’s a given that books that generate this type of obsessive re-reading are not always particularly “good” books, i.e. well-written.  In fact, many “good” books, that is, really profound, original, heart-wrenching, or poetic books, are not the most dog-eared at the end of the day (or lifetime.)  It’s almost as if such books are too sharp, too bitter, too stinging, to be savored again and again (in the same way that grapefruit is not typically considered a comfort food.)

This is not to say that much re-read books are poorly written!  (Charlotte’s Web and  Harry Potter are much re-read great books.) Only that good writing alone does not make a book a good re-read.  (Nor does a good plot, good jokes, good suspense, even though one or more of these is likely to be present.)

So what does make a book a good re-read?

To me, the distinguishing factor is that the book creates characters with whom readers like to spend time, sometimes, too, a world in which readers like to spend time.

Reading a book is a commitment.  It means hours in which you are not conversing, i-ming, watching TV; hours, in other words, in which you are alone.  Sometimes, in fact, a book is a way to be alone, a path to privacy in a place with hard-to-place boundaries, such as a subway, or, if you are a child, a family dinner.

Because of the inherent solitude of reading, it is important that the main character is good company—fun, cool (but not too cool as to be unempathetic), willing to share confidences.  Being admirable is helpful too, as long as there are also sympathetic and/or humorous failings and idiosyncrasies.  (Sam Vines, Captain Carrot, Granny Weatherwax in Terry Pratchett, even Hercule Poirot in Agatha Christie.)

The world of a much re-read book can, of course, have its dark side.  But it is hard to repeatedly spend time in a world that is overwhelmingly creepy or frightening. (The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and even Cold Mountain, by Charles Frazier, are obvious examples of wonderful books in which the worlds created, or re-created, are just too horrific to motivate re-reads.  On the children’s shelf, similarly, the later tomes of the wonderful, His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, that is, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass, also, with the exception of certain scenes, get both too threatening and rarified for a child’s immediately repeated visits.)

Ideally, the created world, even if dark, has a fun, semi-magical side.  (Hogwarts, obviously; the barn in Charlotte‘s Web, Florida, as seen by Carl Hiassen, Discworld, as envisioned by Terry Pratchett.)

Re-reading is a particular practice of the young and the young (or perhaps, immature) at heart who can repeatedly find sustenance in something that’s already well-digested.  (Sort of like baby penguins.)   This may be because the young (and not young, but immature) are themselves subject to (i) so much fluctuation, and (ii) so much beyond their control, that they find special comfort in the predictability of a “known” fiction.   The combination of the familiar with the fantastical may be especially appealing.

Romance makes a great re-read as well.   First love is a story that has been told again and again and again; is it any wonder that some people don’t mind re-reading the exact same version of it?

Which brings me back to Twilight.

Tomorrow or in the near future (if I get time),  I’ll write about the second facet that I find interesting—that is, what makes people re-see a movie, as opposed to re-read a book.

In the meantime, check out 1 Mississippi by Karin Gustafson on Amazon.