What I’ve been reading lately, part 3

Peter Pan and Wendy — J. M. Barrie

I highly recommend this to anyone. Written in 1911, it’s now comfortably in the public domain, and you can pick up a free copy at Project Gutenberg. Like Mary Poppins, its a profound and touching book, best known from a Disney adaptation that systematically boiled all the charm and distinctiveness out of it. (I watched the movie after finishing the book, and found it enjoyable in its bland way, but completely unexceptional.)

What makes Peter Pan so memorable, what makes it cut like a knife, is the absolute callousness of the eponymous lead. Peter is a picture of early childhood — his age isn’t given, but there are extratextual reasons to think Barrie intended him to be maybe six years old. But he’s not a sentimentalised portrait. Yes, he embodies everything that’s wonderful about children — the wild imagination, the uncritical ability to enjoy almost anything, the readiness to make immediate friends. But along with that comes all the infuriating and even heartbreaking things about children — the utter selfishness, the complete disregard for the desires of others, the short attention span. Most notably, near the end of the book, Wendy meets Peter again after several years have passed, and he has completely forgotten Tinker Bell, previously his best friend. We’re left to assume that she’s died in the intervening years (fairies have short lifespans) but that the event left so little impression on Peter that she might as well never have existed.

This hard-headedness about children saves Peter Pan from the snare of sentimentality. The Darling children (Wendy, John and Michael) are scarcely more thoughtful than Peter, flying off with him to Neverland on a whim and leaving their parents to grieve for months before eventually returning home when it suits them. In the Disney movie, the parents are buffoons; in the novel, they are people, if somewhat eccentric. They are distraught at losing their children, and their father, blaming himself, descends into mental illness. It’s all written with a light touch, and can be read as comedy, but the subtext is painful and very sharp.

Peril at End House — Agatha Christie

As a sort of low-priority background process, I am making my way through all Agatha Christie’s detective books in chronological order. It’ll take a while, as she wrote about 66 detective novels and 21 short-story collections (depending on exactly what you count) for a total on the order of 87. I’m up to 1934, so 15 novels and 7 short-story collections. 22 books is only a quarter of the total, so don’t hold your breath waiting for me to finish.

I’ve been surprised at the wild variation in quality. Some of them, including her debut The Mysterious Affair at Styles [free copy at Project Gutenberg], are really good, well worthy of their reputation and interesting not only in historical context. Others, such as the cobbled-together Hercule Poirot vehicle The Big Four, are slapdash and arbitrary, placing the characters in situations that make no sense and extricating them by means that make less.

Anyway, Peril at End House is definitely at the top end of the scale, with a resolution that I didn’t see coming at all but which feels believable and credible, and which once revealed makes perfect sense out of everything that has gone before. I hesitate to say more for fear of giving anything away, but I’d call this a good starting point for anyone wanting to make a first foray into Christie’s work.

Lord Edgware Dies — Agatha Christie

… whereas this one feels relatively mundane. Workmanlike and enjoyable enough, it didn’t leave much of an impression for me — in fact, a month or so on from having read it, I can’t remember who the murderer was.

The Chrysalids — John Wyndham

I read this many years ago as an SF-hungry teen, and read it again recently on the recommendation of Sam Kington in a comment on the post where I discussed Wyndham’s earlier The Kraken Wakes. This one is very different from that and The Day of the Triffids, both of which are about end-of-the-world scenarios. Instead, The Chrysalids takes place after the end of the world, in a post-apocalyptic society with a primitive agrarian lifestyle dominated by a harsh fundamentalist religion. It’s extremely well constructed, starting out as a fairly small-scale coming-of-age fable and only slowly revealing its hand as touching on broader themes.

Written in 1955, it’s easy to imagine that the witch-hunt themes of the book — the lead characters have hard-to-see mutations that they have to hide from their families and peers — were deliberately written to reflect the communist witch-hunting of Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1950s America. I don’t know enough about Wyndham to know whether he had any communist sympathies — or perhaps just humane sympathies with people being quizzed on matters that are their own business. But the themes of alienation within a society are resonant in pretty much every time and place.

Unfortunately, Wyndham again falls prey to his besetting sin — the inability, or lack of inclination, to write a proper ending. Chrysalids is better in this regard than either of its predecessors: at least the book doesn’t merely grind to a halt when he loses interest. But the ending is a pretty blatant deus ex machina, and doesn’t really satisfy.

(I have no idea what a chrysalid is, by the way. The word is never used in the book.)

The Hound of Death — Agatha Christie

Possibly the worst of the Agatha Christie books I’ve read so far. It’s a collection of short stories mostly with supernatural themes, almost none of which hold the attention. The Call of Wings is particularly risible. The exception to this general low level is the story The Witness for the Prosecution, which is genuinely clever and engaging. Not coincidentally, it’s one of the few in the book that is a crime mystery — a genre that really is Christie’s forté.

Batman: Year One — Frank Miller

Frank Miller wrote The Dark Knight Returns, a four-comic mini-series that is by far the best thing I’ve ever seen on Batman, and probably my all-time second-favourite graphic novel. (After Watchmen, naturally.) So I thought it would be interesting to see his other most influential Batman work, Year One.

Although it’s very nearly two thirds as long as Dark Night (144 pages vs. 224), Year One seems very insubstantial by comparison. It might just be that it’s less wordy, so takes less time to read. But I think it’s more than that. It doesn’t feel to me that it has the re-readability of Dark Knight (which I’ve read at least three times, maybe four) — the plot feels slight. In fact I can hardly remember anything that happened … which paradoxically may mean that I do re-read it soon, if only to remind myself.

At any rate, for someone raised on the 1960s Batman TV series and who wonders how that character can possibly be taken seriously, I think that Dark Knight very much remains the place to start.

[Read on to part 4]

19 responses to “What I’ve been reading lately, part 3

  1. Glad you liked The Chyrsalids. While not my favourite, I do love John Wyndham. I also like John Christopher and read him and Wyndham when I was a ‘young’ reader in the 70’s (and always paired them together in my head though Christopher was more of a children/young adult writer). I gave ‘The Day of the Triffids’ and ‘The Tripods’ to my daughters a few years ago and they thoroughly enjoyed the (also the 1981 BBC version of DOTT and the early 80’s Tripods series). They also loved ‘Chocky’ and it 80’s TV series.

    A while back I read a few Christopher novels which I had missed and would recommend them to fans of Christopher (or Wyndham) as they are basically good yarns and certainly reminded my of my reactions to the books I had read all those years ago.

    A wrinkle in the Skin – A nice post-apocalyptic set just after a world wide series of earthquakes.

    The Possessors – Nice scifi/horror amalgam.

    The Little People – An oddity but has its moments (verging ofn polically incorrect about Irish, I’m Iriish and wasent bothered).

  2. The only John Christophers I read back in the day were the three Tripods books. I’d read them again if I could pick them up cheaply, but I remember even at the age of fifteen or sixteen finding them relatively pulpy, whereas I felt the Wyndham dealt more with ideas. So while I will probably continue on my chronological crawl through Wyndham’s oeuvre, I don’t expect to do the same with Christopher (even though they have the same first name :-))

  3. What a strange coincidence. I’ve just read The Dark Knight Returns. I haven’t read many comic books, just Watchmen and V for Vendetta a few years ago. I find it hard to imagine that there can exist anything better than these two in this genre. Back to Miller’s mini-series, it was captivating, but definitely not as great as Alan Moore. I was also planning on reading Year One next, but in a few months probably.

  4. I think if you’ve only ever read three graphic novels, and they are Watchmen, Vendetta and Dark Knight, you should probably just stop now — you’re never going to improve your average from that crop!

  5. Hi Mike! I’ve been enjoying your posts for a couple of years now. Thanks for all the great writing!

    I had the same problems with Year One as you on my first read. I thought the story lacked the richness of Dark Knight and was confused at how the stories fit together with each other and with the regular series. For a long time I thought it was quite overrated.

    But I came back to it years later, finally reading the story on its own terms. And this time I came around on it. No, it isn’t the adrenaline-fueled, world-in-collapse satire of Dark Knight. It’s a different story, and it’s the best take on a noir Batman that I’ve read. The characters are fallible and flawed on all sides. The story is much more human. In DK the characters are antipodes — either hopelessly corrupt or pure forces of will — and the fate of the world is at stake, not just a few entangled lives. One story is concerned with absolute dichotomies and the other muddies everything into shades of gray.

    If your perspective is mostly the ’60s show, then certainly DK, where the characters are so brightly outlined they show hints of caricature, will be the more immediately appealing story. And more recognizable: It’s essential in DK that Batman be Batman, Superman be Superman, and the Joker be the Joker. The story doesn’t make sense otherwise. Year One would still be a compelling story lifted from that context; it just happens to be using Batman, Gordon, and Catwoman as main characters.

  6. Hi, Scott, great to hear from you! It’s always a good moment when a long-time lurker steps up; I hope we’ll be hearing more from you.

    I have to say your characterisation of Dark Knight as black-and-white — “the characters are antipodes — either hopelessly corrupt or pure forces of will” — doesn’t chime at all with how I’ve read that book. To me, its core question is whether the Batman we know and love is really a hero at all, or just another out-of-control vigilante, like someone from a Charles Bronson film. In my reading, the latter interpretation is not just something proposed by the story’s bleeding-heart liberals, but a real proposition that’s offered up to us, the readers. In the end, we want Batman to survive this battle with Superman — obviously — but we don’t necessarily want him to win. Because there’s at least a 50-50 chance that Superman is in the right.

  7. Hmm. I may have been a bit hyperbolic. And my reading may be colored by Miller’s second Dark Knight series, where the characters have blown well past their limits and have arguably become grotesques.

    But I don’t remember much in the text that suggests the Superman side could be in the right. Clark is the voice of authority, but the book has been telling us all along that authorities are untrustworthy, a hindrance at best. Television personalities and doctors are buffoons. Politicians are self-serving liars. There are multiple scenes where Batman is the only voice of reason amongst the madness, whether it’s literal, at the amusement park with the Joker, or a bit more subtle, like his fight with the thuggish, nearly subhuman leader of the mutants. Even poor Harvey Dent, who once held the contradictory forces of good and evil within himself, has been completely overcome by his villainous nature.

    I completely agree that the rational outside view is that Batman may not be the hero, but I think that’s something you’ve brought to your reading, not something I see within the book itself. As you point out, the characters who think he’s out of control are “the story’s bleeding heart liberals”: the idiots in the media, the clueless doctors, the politicians seeking an angle. The sympathetic characters — Alfred, Carrie, Gordon, Oliver — don’t ask that question. Miller does everything he can to stack the story in Batman’s favor.

    The fight with Superman is never really in question. Batman operates as though Clark — he’s very specific to call him that and render him human — is a simple tool. He anticipates Clark’s every action and leads him unflinchingly down a calculated path where the only uncertainty is whether Bruce’s physical frailty will cause his own death. He never gives a thought to whether Clark is capable of strategy or improvisation.

    The first page of the story gives us an old, solitary man obsessed with the past, thinking that “This would have been a good death”. And on the last page he’s creating a community, the leader of the young positioning them for the future: “This will be a good life”. Where Watchmen gave us parallels and showed us the sublime interconnections of the universe, the Dark Knight Returns is about opposites, filled with dichotomies.

  8. Very interesting, Scott — all I can say in response right now is that I evidently need to read Dark Knight for a fourth or fifth time, to see whether I agree. As I recall the Superman/Batman fight, there’s a sly implication that Supes may be aware of everything Bats is doing, but that he’s playing along because he, too, wants a way for Batman to get out alive. But I might be misremembering or inadvertently misrepresenting.

  9. Mike, I don’t think I will stop reading other comic books, but I certainly won’t invest in becoming a regular reader. Although, I have started reading the new Star Wars series. The Darth Vader one I found especially interesting.

    Anyway, regarding Dark Knight, I have to agree with you, that the atmosphere surrounding Batman is certainly not black or white, but Miller definitely takes a stand on this matter. Like Scott, I also don’t think that whether Batman is right is ever an issue. Superman is never put in a good light and is portrayed as the president’s puppet, whose intentions are certainly not good. And while the reader might question whether Batman did the right thing with the mutants (seeing that while defeating their leader, it obviously didn’t solve the problem at all), in the end everything is cleared up because when Superman screws up (he is incapable of seeing the bigger picture), Batman is there to save the day. So when the final fight is upon us, I don’t think the reader has any reason to side with Superman. It’s made clear that the only reason this fight is taking place is not because Batman should obey authority (he didn’t and the outcome was good) as was suggested on Clark’s and Bruce’s first meeting, it’s because the president felt his credibility threatened.

    And another thing that I wanted to point out in the previous post but forgot, is how interesting it is that Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns are so similar in some regards and have been published just a few months apart. Both depict super heroes in retirement, untrusted by the government and the general public, and both start out with a small case, slowly building up to a climax that encompasses a much broader picture of the whole world.

  10. Thanks for that, Andrei. Based on your and Scott’s evidence, I evidently need to re-read Dark Knight. It’s been a few years, and I guess it shows!

    Good call on the WatchmenDark Knight parallels. I’d like to know what Alan Moore think of Dark Knight, but he seems almost pathologically incapable of saying anything positive about anyone swo maybe it’s best that I don’t know.

  11. Well, prepare to be shocked! It turns out Alan Moore actually wrote the introduction to the 1986 paperback edition: http://www.teako170.com/knight.html

  12. At the time Miller and Moore were allied. In contemporary interviews, each had specific praise for the other’s work, and they referred to each other as friends. They both saved floundering titles, pushed boundaries, achieved critical and popular success, and created multiple landmark comics. When DC proposed a comics rating system, both spoke out against it and refused to do any further work for them. Miller would later soften his stance and return, but Moore has become even more hardened.

    Moore has criticized Miller’s Sin City (misogynistic) and 300 (homophobic) but not Dark Knight so far as I know. Miller still speaks well of Watchmen, but I’ve never seen him comment on Moore’s later work (likely because it’s mostly challenging and obscure).

  13. A banal comment, but… “chrysalid” is just another word for “chrysalis.”

    I believe in scientific Latin, it was “chrysalis” singular but “chrysalides” plural. So in English we get chrysalis or chrysalid(s).

    Don’t ever read Miller’s sequel to Dark Knight Returns… It’s dreadful.

  14. Thanks, Richard. That makes sense. Perhaps at the time Wyndham was writing, he just naturally assumed that his readers would have enough Latin to understand the title immediately. (C. S. Lewis does this — he sometimes drop a phrase of Latin into the middle of a perfectly ordinary sentence, in much the way we might use carte blanche or schadenfreude. Some more recent editions have footnotes translating the Latin phrases or explaining the allusion.)

    I’ve heard nothing but bad things about The Dark Knight Strikes Again. At some point, I may need to read it just to understand what’s so awful about it, but I’m in no hurry!

  15. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 4 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  16. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 2 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  17. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 5 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  18. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 6 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  19. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 14 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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