This was a really fun read, even for someone like myself who is largely outside of the Superman industrial complex. Except for one month in 2011 when...moreThis was a really fun read, even for someone like myself who is largely outside of the Superman industrial complex. Except for one month in 2011 when I did, I don't read comics. I've seen the first Christopher Reeve movie, and none of the others. I watched Lois & Clark in the 90s and thought it was fine.
I decided to read this book for two reasons. One is that Glen Weldon is my favorite contributor to the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, a witty curmudgeon-type I wish I could hang out with in real life. Two, I like cultural history and analysis of icons. My hope for the book was that it would look at Superman the character in his historical and symbolic context. Mission accomplished there.
The book is set up chronologically, with each chapter representing approximately one decade, starting in the 30s when Superman arrived on the scene. Instead of getting too much into the ins and outs of how publication came about (the suing of DC Comics by original Superman creators Shuster and Siegel is mentioned only superficially), The Unauthorized Biography zeroes right in on the character. We get recountings of plotlines of the first appearances in Action Comics and see how they paint a picture of a Superman who is being formed, whose motivations reflect the concerns of the day, whose powers change according to the whims of the creators and the needs of the narrative.
And then we see how that picture of Superman continues to change and never stops for seventy-five years. Along with his hair and his costume and his jawline, Superman's motives and politics and anxieties constantly evolve, based not just on the revolving door of writers and artists behind the scenes, but also on the changes wrought in American society.
It's especially fun to see how the villains change over time. In the 30s, Superman fought Cagney-esque gangsters. In the 40s, Nazis. In the 50s, mad scientists. And so on. Remembering the 90s in terms of their "extreme" villains (with names that Weldon mocks mercilessly and hilariously) was especially fun.
Apparently one of the biggest questions new Superman writers need to address is whether they believe Superman is a crimefighting alien masquerading as a man, or a farm boy whose strange powers are just a vehicle through which he does good. The goodness, in fact, seems to be the only thing that stays true--Superman is always trying to do the right thing, enforce a moral code.
Drawbacks: Weldon does go into detail retelling the stories as they happened in the comic books, the movies, and the TV shows. They are fun for awhile, but occasionally get repetitive. As the Superman universe expands and doubles and triples and spawns bizarro worlds and paradise worlds etc., they get increasingly complicated as well. If you are a not a Superman completist (as I am not) it may feel like a bit too much.
In that same vein, hundreds and hundreds of men (and a handful of women) have contributed to the drawing, writing, and publishing of Superman media for the past seventy years, and their names are crawling all over this book, with very little else to differentiate them from one another. I imagine Weldon had to include "This time with a story by Comicguy Bookington, drawn by Dude McComics," every time to satisfy the scholars who are looking for that thing, though the names became white noise to me really quickly. If you are looking to learn more about Bookington and McComics specifically this is definitely not the book for you. (Luckily Weldon includes an annotated bibliography at the end for your edification!)
Minor quibbles, though, about an interesting (pop-)cultural history written in a funny and engaging style by Weldon.(less)
I've been a big fan of "Pamie"'s online presence for a long time: her blog pamie.com, the recaps she wrote for Television Without Pity, her appearance...moreI've been a big fan of "Pamie"'s online presence for a long time: her blog pamie.com, the recaps she wrote for Television Without Pity, her appearances on various podcasts. I really though that I was going to like this book better than I did.
It's not poorly written, but it's not as lively as Ribon's digital writings, maybe because Charlotte the Sad Sack is not as fun as Pam the Real Life Person (even though there are a lot of autobiographical bits in there, roller derby being the most obvious). I don't have an automatic hate for girl characters who get a little weepy and fall apart--I know people who will immediately turn their backs on these types of characters--but I can have sympathy for an emotional wreck, having been one myself here and there. Also, her early weakness was necessary to draw the contrast with the Charlotte who learns to kick ass and not say she's sorry. (The only thing I found too pathetic was Charlotte inviting Matthew to her mom's dinner. Why would she expect he would agree to go to that? Normal people don't do nuisance favors for people they have broken up with, unless they, like Matthew, have ulterior motives.)
What did bother me about Charlotte's crisis and the illustration of such is that she had so many people just waiting in the wings to help her through it. Charlotte's Guy Pal Andy seemed especially extraneous. As far as I could tell he was only there to give Charlotte a talking-to that would seem presumptuous coming from Francesca, who didn't have as much of a history with Charlotte. But then why was it necessary to make Francesca a new friend? And what did Francesca do with her time before she had Charlotte to coach and care for?
What I also discovered, reading this book, is that roller derby is kind of boring. I know this is Ribon's pet hobby and the whole hook of the novel, but I didn't need such precise instructions on the rules and procedures of the game. I felt the action wane during these sections when it should have been picking up. I found the break-up half of the story much more interesting than the derby part of the story and I'm sure it should have been the other way around.
Finally, while I can appreciate the symbolic significance of Charlotte's vocation as a miniatures artist, I can't help but feel like it is something that nobody actually does.(less)
I have been a huge fan of Flannery O'Connor's literary output for a long time, but somehow it escaped my knowledge that she was, in and around her pro...moreI have been a huge fan of Flannery O'Connor's literary output for a long time, but somehow it escaped my knowledge that she was, in and around her prose scribblings, also a practiced cartoonist. She did drawings for publications in her high school and college careers and became well-known among her peers for doing so. Her characters are a bit grotesque, fat and skinny in excess, bending at impossible angles, and all saying wry and ironic things to each other. Even if you don't care for comics, if you love O'Connor's work you will recognize her point of view immediately.
Having said that, the way this book is set up is extremely weird. It presents all the cartoons, one per page with zero explanation, and then ends on a lengthy, dry epilogue with all the contextual information the reader lacked before. It will even refer to specific drawings that the author feels were particularly skilled or notably autobiographical, and then not reprint the drawing next to the reference, or even give a page number so you can glance back. Wouldn't the entire biographical section have been better implemented as a companion to the drawings instead?(less)
Time management is another thing. I have been fighting with the notion that I may have ADD my entire adult life. I have no trouble planning my daily tasks and chores, but I often have trouble carrying them out. I can also sit on my couch on a Saturday morning and find that it's suddenly bedtime. And the blog didn't get written, the dog didn't get walked, and the laundry didn't get done. WHAT HAPPENED? Is my brain fighting against my instinct to complete things? Or do I just lack discipline, or organization?
There are some excellent and useful points to be had in the book, points which I hope will help me at least answer the question as to whether my time is slipping away or whether I'm throwing it away. For example, one thing that dooms people to never finish everything they wanted to finish, or to be consistently late, is not having a proper sense of how long things take. Definitely a factor for me. I never remember to consider driving time between errands, or the fact that I will HAVE to stop for a caffeinated drink after one or two of them.
Another thing I liked is the way she categorized every type of goal a person might have (work success, relationship success, success in maintaining a nice home, having time for hobbies, having time for personal enrichment, etc.) and then laid out a plan for figuring out how a person can identify specific tasks that contribute to these goals, and then make regular time for them. Because another bad habit I have is saying, "I am just focusing on this one thing for right now, and when I get it under control, then I'll catch up everything else."
This is incredibly useful knowledge for me, and presently I'm trying to fit this framework around my life and see if things work a little bit better.
There are also some more specialized points that were not relevant, at least not for me. Though she doesn't make this explicit, the image Morgenstern gives us of the reader she thinks she has is of a harried, control-freak suburban working mother. She's probably not far off; everybody I know who fits that category has issues with time, and vice versa probably. But I don't have a husband whose help I need to train myself to accept at home. I'm also not a manager or a supervisor who needs to get comfortable with delegating tasks, certainly not to the point of needing to have the way to delegate tasks broken down to each individual step (including the type of emails you write to people about how to cover your work) and explained to me.
The recommended time charts, of which she offers several examples, feel completely unrealistic to me, too. Morgenstern states many times that she knows people don't want to feel too hemmed-in or structured in their daily routines, but then presents these charts where literally every hour of the day is penciled in as being devoted to something. In her defense, she also writes that people can be as specific or as general as they wish to be in their own charts--some may want to schedule "playing with kids" from 4 to 5, "cooking" from 5 to 6, "family dinner" from 6 to 7 and so on, while others may want to just schedule "family time" from 3 to 9. That still feels restrictive to me. I may waste a lot of my unstructured time, but I prefer that to having an anxiety-induced brain hemorrhage. (Also, why were her sample clients all getting up at like 5 in the morning to complete tasks? Who does that all week long, including Saturday? Those are not human people.)
Another negative: the section where she discusses different types of calendars and schedulers has become hopelessly outdated. I daresay she could eliminate that section altogether in future editions, and just direct people to her website, which would be much easier to keep updated. (It did make me nostalgic for the Franklin Covey planners my mom carried while I was in high school.)
All in all, this was a good skim, worth looking at for those couple of ideas that really hit a chord with me.(less)
*Heaves enormous sigh* I don’t really know what to do here. I got an ARC of this book free from the publisher in exchange for writing a review. And no...more*Heaves enormous sigh* I don’t really know what to do here. I got an ARC of this book free from the publisher in exchange for writing a review. And now I have to write a review for a book that I hated.
I signed up for the ARC based on my love of Dorothy Parker. I discovered one of her stories in an anthology my freshman year of college, sought out more, finally put my hands on The Portable Dorothy Parker, and then basically became obsessed with her. I wrote my senior thesis on her. I wrote another seminar paper on her in grad school. Parker is not an unusual obsession for your more bookish young ladies. She was just that awesome.
Here’s the thing Farewell doesn’t seem to know about Dorothy Parker (or care about her): she was a devastatingly talented writer. She had an amazing grasp of structure and characterization, and she could turn a phrase like nobody’s business. She didn’t do it just to engage in witty repartee; she used her words to build startling, rich images. I understand the lure of the mythology surrounding Parker: her biting wit, her high-functioning alcoholism, her place among the legendary raconteurs of the Algonquin Round Table. But this book is using Parker more like someone’s feisty old aunt.
Our protagonist here is Violet, a mid-thirties film critic who writes with verve and edge, but lives her life as a marshmallow peep. Through some necessary contrivance, she comes into possession of a book that contains Parker’s ghost. Parker becomes a de facto life coach for Violet, who is desperately in need of help with her career, her love life, and a fraught family situation. Ghost Parker, rascal that she is, often wrecks things en route to ultimately fixing them.
The story is simplistic, but that’s not where it goes wrong with me. What particularly bothered me—without cease—was the continual inability of the characters to behave in naturalistic or psychologically plausible ways. I don’t mean they made choices I disagreed with—great characters do that all the time. I mean that these characters made choices that made literally no sense in any context, neither as functional, responsible choices, nor as dysfunctional, damaging choices. They made contrived choices—baffling choices—tear-my-hair-out frustratingly inane choices.
Violet’s interactions with her love interest, for example, the too-good-to-be-true he’s-so-hot-but-also-so-incredibly-perceptive-and-nurturing kung fu instructor, indicate that she is approximately nine years old. She is so timid around him she basically faints every time they attempt to converse. I think we’re actually supposed to feel for Violet’s predicament, like “Oh that poor shy girl!” But, I reiterate, she is in her 30s. Her behavior at every turn is childish and lacks self-awareness. I feel sorry for her, all right. She earns my pity. She—and her fictional sisters in foolishness—are the reason I don’t typically read chick lit.
Another element that bothered me is that I’m not sure this author really knows what is good confrontation and what isn’t. Violet manages to unload her ungrateful boyfriend early on, by hemming and hawing over him forever, and then, with Parker’s assistance, giving him one dramatic takedown. The book doesn’t care about whether he’s a good guy or not, of course; it doesn’t give him a single good quality to hang a hat on, so we know we’re supposed to be 100% on Violet’s side. But it is not emotionally healthy to internalize your problems for an incredibly long time and then just blow up on someone for not reading your mind. You don’t want to be with him, just tell him you don’t want to be with him. Wish him well, send him off. You don’t need to eviscerate him to prove you have a backbone. But the book is so tone-deaf that it portrays this as a victory.
Later, Violet’s co-worker ‘stands up to’ an editorial assistant who made overzealous corrections to his work. And the narrative specifically sets up this juxtaposition of the two, a fifty-year-old man in the prime of his career, and a twenty-something girl trying to make a name for herself. Again, not a single good quality exists to make us feel any sympathy for this young assistant, but this man dresses her down like a DICK. Neither Violet nor the author seem to see the sexism at work here, the gross entitled behavior of this man; instead Violet wishes fervently that she also…could be a dick, I guess.
Later, Violet ‘stands up to’ the same girl by tearing her down (incompetently, because she’s Violet) and making her do demeaning work. Great management style there, excellent. She makes the girl get her coffee in the morning. Is that not an invitation to get it pissed in? But it turns out the girl likes being bitched out. She responds positively to this. It makes her feel at home. Of course it does. Because no one in this fictional world approaches anything like actual psychological realism.
But I think of all of them, the ultimate baffling, “WHAT WORLD IS THIS?” portion of the narrative was the backstory between Violet and her dearly departed sister, Ivy. Apparently the reason Violet is so timid in personality is because she repressed her biting wit as a child after being shunned by her sister. This is written as an intense childhood trauma—having her sister not speak to her for a couple of days, because Violet zinged her? First of all, Violet’s beloved mother should have shut that nonsense down. These are little elementary school-aged girls; their mother should still be running interference. “Violet, don’t be rude.” “Ivy, don’t be so sensitive.” DONE. Instead, Dear Mama is cuddling up to Violet saying, “Don’t cry, darling, Ivy will forgive you someday!”
Also, a penchant for zingers is not like, I don’t know, being a werewolf. You don’t need to reign yourself in that hard. You’re not going to kill anybody.
There’s a difference between straight talk and sass. There’s a difference between backbone and bitchiness. But this book is not nuanced enough to acknowledge those differences, much less do anything with them.
Contrivances and implausibilities aside, maybe I could forgive all of this if the book was well-written, but it isn’t. The narrative contains endless awkward moments in which Violet recounts Dorothy Parker factoids to herself.
Take this one (page 34):
Violet laughed, remembering that Dorothy Parker had spent a number of years on the West Coast, writing movie scripts and fighting with studio heads. Once, in a snide reference to the power wielded by one of the most imperious moviemakers, Dorothy Parker had quipped that the streets in Hollywood were paved with Goldwyn.
Still later, she referred to another studio as “Twentieth Century F**ks.”
Violet asked Dorothy Parker if she wanted something to eat.
There are at least a dozen incidences of Parker stories being shoehorned into the narrative this way. I am mystified as to why this was considered the best way to get that information in there. It seems like anything else would have been better. Have Dorothy tell the stories herself, as dialogue, for example! (Surely she must have been a recounter of her own adventures.) Or use metatextual footnotes. I’ve seen it done in fiction novels. Or set the anecdotes apart from the narrative as italicized chapter headings or something. ANYTHING. Anything different.
If you are a veteran reader of Dorothy Parker, I would not recommend Farewell. You will be disappointed. You will not feel her legacy is well-served. Well-drawn, complex, consistent characters such as you’re accustomed to finding in Parker’s own stories are not present here.
If everything you know about Parker can be encapsulated in a snappy quip on a refrigerator magnet, go for it.(less)