What I’ve been reading lately, part 30

In Defence of Fascism (Bob the Angry Flower) — Stephen Notley

I went back to the very first collection of Bob the Angry Flower comics, which is wildly uneven but contains some superb strips.

It takes a little while for Bob to find his voice, but by the eighth strip (BtAF Joins the Circus) it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and some of the later stripes are genuinely thought-provoking and funny — for example, The Puppet Master. A fine beginning, pointing to yet better collections to come …

How to Operate a Chair (Bob the Angry Flower) — Stephen Notley

… but not this one.  It’s the eighth in the series (following on from Rothgar), and a lot of the stripes feel just plain lazy. With some of them (e.g. Mekkin), I can’t even understand what Notley was attempting. Definitely not the place to leap on board if you’re new to Bob.

A pocketful of Rye — Agatha Christie

Another of Christie’s books to have been based on a nursery rhyme, this one in a way more contrived than most. A sequence of murders seem to correspond to lines in “Sing a song of sixpence”. This time it’s Miss Marple who sees through all the red herrings and false trails, but even though I only finished it about a week ago, I honestly can’t remember who the murderer was. I guess that makes it one of the less memorable entries in her canon.

I sometimes wonder how well Christie knew her own books. Having written so many — and with so many of them treating with similar themes and circumstances — did she get them mixed up as I do?

Mere Christianity — C. S. Lewis

How many times have I read this? It’s got to be into double figures. Many of the phrases glide over my mind comfortably now, and most of the arguments feel like old friends. Yet it remains compelling: not only persuasive in its exposition and defence of the core of Christianity, but something more. It kindles an affection and an excitement for the God that Lewis describes, not merely an awe or a fear. He does a lovely job of making Christianity not only accessible but appealing.

… with one or two crucial exceptions related to the age of the book. Lewis was writing during World War II, and some of the sexist assumptions of three quarters of a century ago sound very duff notes in 2018. In particular, I was painfully aware on this read of how often Lewis uses the word “man” when he mean “person”. To pick some examples at random:

  • “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original.”
  • “Surely what a man does when he is taken off his guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is.”
  • “What God creates is not God; just as what man makes is not man. That is why men are not Sons of God in the sense that Christ is.”
  • “Some people say the idea of a Law of Nature or decent behaviour known to all men is unsound.”

In general my inclination is always to resist re-writing old texts to conform with modern sensibilities: for example, the casual use of the N-word throughout Huckleberry Finn is a true reflection of the culture that it depicts, and should be allowed to stand. But I wouldn’t oppose a new edition of Mere Christianity that fixed just this one pervasive bug, substituting “people” for “men” wherever it’s apparent that this is what Lewis meant.

Dog Killer (Bob the Angry Flower) — Stephen Notley

Mid-period Bob where the great majority of the stripes are classics: for example, Microwave and 20 Questions. There are also some stripes that will divide opinion more: Jolly Starfish, for example, will have its lovers and its haters.

Overall, very well worth reading.

After the Funeral — Agatha Christie

One of Christie’s better mid-period novels for my money. An elderly man has died in unsuspicious circumstances, but as his relations gather after the funeral, one of them lets slip the idea that he was murdered. More deaths follow, the suspicions of the family solicitor are aroused, and Poirot becomes involved. On the downside, some of the interchangeable nieces, nephews and spouses were a bit hard to keep straight. But I found the resolution more than usually satisfying for reasons I can’t explain without including spoilers.

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow — Peter Hoeg

A modern classic Danish novel, translated into English and told in the first person present tense. Smilla is a 37-year-old Greenlandic woman living in a flat in Copenhagen, Denmark. One day, a child who lives in another flat in the same building falls off a snowy roof and dies. It’s ruled an accident, but Smilla’s deep experience and understanding of snow and ice leaves her unsatisfied by this explanation when she sees the boy’s tracks on the roof. As she starts to investigate she uncovers a complex conspiracy.

The actual writing is superb here, even in translation. Many chapters end with a cliffhanger in the story, to be followed by a chapter that begins with an apparent digression that turns out to be relevant. It’s a neat trick, even if it’s perhaps used two or three times too often, so that by the last quarter of the book it feels more like a habit than an innovation.

The story is perhaps a little too intricate, multiplying entities without necessity: by the end, we’re dealing not just with a drug-smuggling ring, but with (ROT13) n zrgrbevgr va na haqretebhaq pnirea ba na vfynaq bss jrfg Terraynaq juvpu trarengrf vgf bja urng naq znl or nyvir, naq n enqvpnyyl zhgngrq tvnag cnenfvgvp jbez juvpu xvyyf vgf uhzna ubfgf va qnlf, juvpu znl be znl abg unir orra perngrq fbzrubj ol gur zrgrbevgr. It’s a very rich diet, and feels a very long way from the story’s low-key opening.

Well worth reading.

Flex Mentallo — Grant Morrison and Frank Quiteley

A four-part comic miniseries starring a Charles Atlas parody who is able to alter reality by flexing his muscles. It’s all very meta: not really about Flex, but about the comics writer who created him, and how by doing so he either created the universe, or brought real people from a different universe into ours in fictional form, or something.

I’m sure it’s all terribly clever, but my position on this kind of thing is that if, by the end, I don’t understand what’s happened, then the writer didn’t do a good enough job explaining. See also: Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory, which I read twice — one in each of the two meaningful orders — and still have no idea about. (Notably, all Alan Moore’s comics make perfect sense.)

I continue to be unimpressed by Grant Morrison, and I’m about ready to give up trying.

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