Monthly Archives: February 2015

Review: The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

Wonder Woman

Honey, where are my pants?

One of my fondest childhood memories is of spinning around in my Wonder Woman underoos, pretending to fling off my glasses and quick change from nerdy little girl into superpowerful superhero. Although Lynda Carter may not get much in the way of props from feminists, her starring role as Wonder Woman made a big impression on a generation of 70s kids. And while I was never into comics back then, I jumped at the chance to read Jill Lepore’s new book, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, an account of the Amazonian’s true back story.

And what a story it is. William Moulton Marston, a psychologist with a penchant for self-promotion, invented the lie detector. He also maintained a complicated private life: his wife and their two children lived harmoniously along with another woman, Olive Byrne, and her two children by Marston. His wife worked and provided the main financial support for the family while Byrne cared for and raised all four children together. Marston wrote, threw tantrums, came up with crazy ideas, and ultimately wrote a comic book series he believed would teach the world the true power of women.

He ran into trouble when his use of suffragist imagery–the chained, enslaved woman yearning to break free–bordered on fetishistic, and his use of terms like bondage, domination and submission sounds more 50 shades than feminist. The tension between Marston’s own life and the feminist ideology behind his creation make for interesting reading.

This book is particularly timely today, in an age where superheroes are everywhere. Superman and Batman will soon have their umpteenth reincarnation on the screen, yet no one seems able or willing to make a Wonder Woman movie. Meanwhile, when my kids see pictures of Wonder Woman they have one basic question: where are her pants?

Genre: Nonfiction at the intersection of feminist history, comic book history, and crazy-life-stories-you-never-heard-before history.

Read it if: You are in favor of birth control, badass boots, and Wonder Woman for president.

Skip it if: You prefer to think Wonder Woman was formed from clay by her mom; you think Ms. magazine was part of a CIA conspiracy; or you’re strictly a Marvel fan.

Movie-worthy: Probably not, but fingers crossed Wonder Woman will someday get a movie worthy of her name!


Book Club Dilemma: I Hate the Book You Love

imageI’m in a Burma Book Club here in Yangon, where we only discuss books set in or about Burma (aka Myanmar). Tomorrow night we’re discussing The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker, a novel originally written in German and published in translation.

I decided to read the book in German because I used to be fairly fluent and, although lack of practice has made it hard to speak coherently, I can still read it without too much difficulty. Unfortunately, even the novelty of reading it auf Deutsch couldn’t make me like this book.

This is not to say it’s a terrible book; it’s just not my thing. Magical realism often makes me queasy and in this case, downright nauseated. Here’s the scenario: a young woman from New York sits down in a tea shop in Burma and is approached by an old man. He has apparently been waiting for her. He begins to relate the tale of her father, who looked like Gandhi and came from that very village before becoming a successful entertainment lawyer in the United States.

The daughter, Julia, learns that her father was abandoned by his mother as a small child. In flashbacks narrated by the tea shop man, Julia’s father subsequently goes blind, but develops a supernaturally enhanced sense of hearing in compensation, so enhanced that he can run through fields without tripping. So enhanced, in fact, that he can actually hear people’s heartbeats (hence the title.) Meanwhile, he falls in love with a beautiful girl born with deformed legs. Despite her inability to walk, she moves with remarkable grace and can heal people with her singing. Fate forces them to separate, but Julia’s father never forgets his true love.

Here’s my dilemma: a fellow book club member already emailed the group about how excited she was to discuss this book because she loves it so much. In fact, she nearly cried when she read the ending. I might have been crying by the end of it, but I suspect my reasons were different.

It’s hard to be completely honest about disliking a book when you know someone else in the room loved it. I’m tempted to temper my criticism with the caveat that it’s really the genre I have a problem with, the sentimental approach to storytelling, rather than this particular story. What’s the proper etiquette here? Be honest in an effort to spark a good discussion, or be polite in the face of another reader’s enthusiasm?

At this point, I”m planning to bite my tongue and drink every time someone says they loved it.

Review: Funny Girl by Nick Hornby

Funny Girl by Nick HornbyBarbara is a beautiful young woman with a bombshell figure in 1960s Blackpool, but she dreams of becoming something more: a TV comedienne like her idol, Lucille Ball. Barbara’s ambitions lead her to London, where she meets four men who will completely change her life–or, more accurately, allow her to change theirs.

In this entertaining and sweetly poignant novel, Nick Hornby follows Barbara as she evolves into Sophie Straw, star of a successful BBC comedy. The distinctive Blackpool accent and distinctive curves that caused agents and casting directors to dismiss Barbara out of hand become Sophie’s signature assets once she’s allowed to show off her comedic talents onscreen.

Hornby uses his descriptive flair and ear for dialogue to great effect in describing the interplay of the team responsible for Sophie’s shot at success: writing partners Tony and Bill, Sophie’s onscreen counterpart Clive, and BBC producer Dennis. While Tony is happy to play a role in popular entertainment, Bill becomes increasingly discontented and aspires to a more serious literary career. Clive dreams of leading actor fame, while flitting from starlet to starlet and never quite grasping what’s so funny. Dennis, miserable in an unhappy marriage to a culture snob, loves his job and would like nothing better than to produce comedy series for the rest of his days. In one of the most entertaining scenes in the book, Dennis debates the relevance and utility of “light entertainment” with his wife’s lover, a pompous professor, on live television.

Funny Girl is, of course, exactly the sort of light entertainment the professor would look down his nose at. Making people laugh rarely gets the sort of respect that it deserves, considering how difficult it actually is. And like all the best comedies, Funny Girl doesn’t go for mindless laughs; the characters and their dilemmas feel real, not cartoonish.

Genre: Light-hearted and highly entertaining fiction

Read it if: You are an I Love Lucy fan; you would enjoy a behind-the-scenes glimpse at British TV comedy production in the 1960s; you could use a laugh.

Skip it if: You only read depressing books as a matter of principle; you can’t abide a Blackpool accent; you believe television is directly responsible for the decline of western civilization.

Movie-worthy: Yes! This could be a really fun movie, and I would finally learn whether a Blackpool accent sounds more or less like Daisy on Downton Abby (which is what I assumed based on no evidence whatsoever.)

Category: Reviews