Friday, February 28, 2003

The Weaker Vessel by Antonia Fraser

This is the third book by Fraser which I've read. There was The Warrior Queens, a survey of female martial leaders throughout world history, and there was Mary, Queen of Scots, an account of the doomed queen's life and world. The former had the virtue of being, at bottom, a collection of adventure stories, and the latter was about one of the most interesting women in history. The Weaker Vessel doesn't have those things going for it, which doesn't mean it's a bad book. It's a very good book, for anyone who wants to know more about the lives of women in 17th-century England. But it's not as readable as the aforementioned volumes, as it has more of the flavor of a textbook. There are many fascinating stories here, but since it is a survey of the typical Englishwoman in the 1600's, there are also some which are more mundane. The subjects range from high-class to low, or as the subtitle of the book says, "heiresses and dairymaids, holy women and prostitutes, criminals and educators, widows and witches, midwives and mothers, heroines, courtesans, prophetesses, businesswoman, ladies of the court, and that new breed, the actress."

Through the breadth of Fraser's research, it becomes very clear that being a woman at this time and place was not particularly pleasant. An independent woman was an extremely rare thing, as well as being suspect by society at large. An aged woman living alone was even more suspect, and if she was ill-tempered, superstitious or losing her faculties she was likely to be taken for a witch. In Protestand England a well-born woman who wished to avoid marriage did not even have the option of entering a convent, where she might receive, at least, the education which was denied to the vast majority of her sex. And even a woman whose only desire was to marry and bear children was not assured of happiness, childbirth being perilous for child and mother both. Still, Fraser finds heroic women in all sectors of society, from wives who defended their husband's properties during the Civil War to reformists who were imprisoned for their political and religious ideals. And there is humor here as well, in the ridiculous pursuits of wealthy young widows by indigent nobles, or the pursuit of actresses and courtesans by wealthy nobles.

Overall, a well-researched and interesting book, if not a page-turner. Recommended for Fraser fans or anyone interested in English or feminist history.

Thursday, February 27, 2003

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust

I give. I'll try to read this again someday, but I have neither the stamina nor the interest in hawthorn blossoms to continue. Proust's descriptions are evocative, and the character of the great aunt is well drawn, but 107 pages into Swann's Way I have yet to find a story. And call me lowbrow, but I need a story. I need for something to happen. I thought at a couple of points I glimpsed one, but then the thread was lost. So I'm putting this back on the shelf.

Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Hellblazer: Haunted, written by Warren Ellis, drawn by John Higgins

This trade paperback collects issues #134-139 of Hellblazer, which is apparently the point at which Ellis took over for Brian Azzarello, who took over from Garth Ennis, whom I sometimes confuse with Ellis. Can you blame me, really? I mean, they're both brits, both write comics that are a bit off-center, and their names are identical except for the double consonant in the middle. After having read Preacher, though, I learned to tell them apart, because I didn't like Preacher, and I love Ellis's Transmetropolitan. Spider Jerusalem lives!

Truth to tell, John Constantine is reminiscent of Spider at times in Haunted, but then I suppose there's always been a bit o' the sadist in our John. Apparently just back to London after his sojourns in the US, Constantine learns that one of his old girlfriends has been murdered, and he decides to look into it. Isabel was something of a magician's groupie, and John suspects that it's someone in his line of work that's responsible. In seeking answers, he calls in some favors and makes some new enemies--of course, the only people who die quicker than Constantine's friends are his enemies.

This is Constantine all over. I like that every few issues he takes a good beating, because if Constantine became a martial arts expert it wouldn't be the same. It would make sense for him to learn to fight, but it would make him less Constantine. Besides, it's a noir tradition for the hero to get by on his wits rather than his fists.

The art here is cartoonish (not a bad thing) at times and unflinchingly gruesome at others. What's effective is how much is illustrated without being shown, if you get my meaning. I don't necessarily need to see all the blood; often it has more impact if I'm left to imagine it. In the clinical description of Isabel's murder this is particularly effective.

John Constantine is one of the most intriguing comic characters ever created--a selfish bastard with a conscience, he feels for the people who suffer because of him while still being unapologetically out for number one. Survival is his driving force, and everything else is by necessity secondary. Perhaps that's why he takes such pleasure in the "justice" he metes out in the course of this storyline. Perhaps he feels that he can exorcise some of the stains on his soul with a little bit of retribution. Or perhaps he realizes that any such hope would be futile, and he just enjoys it.

Good stuff.

Monday, February 24, 2003

Alan Moore's The Courtyard, Issue One, written by Alan Moore, artwork by Jacen Burrows, sequential adaptation by Antony Johnston and Alan Moore

These Avatar Press minis keep popping up with Alan Moore's names on them, so like the slavering Pavlovian mutt that I am, I pick them up on sight. I'm not really sure what Avatar's deal is, or how long they've been around--I haven't paid much attention to comics companies since the Image boom of the mid-90's temporarily killed off all my interest--but they look to have some interesting releases coming up; more Moore, lots of Warren Ellis, even some Joe Lansdale. Stop me if you already know all this. I was a bit leery, because I'm really not sure what "Sequential Adaptation" is supposed to mean or who this Antony Johnston fellow is. Sure he's a nice guy, loves his mother and all that.

The Courtyard is Alan Moore's contribution to the Lovecraftian Mythos, set in a gritty near-future where things like Farrakhan Day are celebrated and the drugs have names like Aklo and the dealers wear veils. A deep cover federal agent named Sax is investigating a spate of ritual murders committed by three unrelated suspects, and the clues point towards a band called The Ulthar Cats.

This is issue one of two. The black-and-white art is clean and captures urban drabness, although everyone seems oddly tall. I didn't know this was a Cthulhu story until partway through, and I must admit I was disappointed to discover it. I like Alan's original stuff better. But then it's tough to judge the whole based on half, so I'll be looking for the second issue.