20 November 2017

Review: American Splendor: Unsung Hero by Harvey Pekar and David Collier

Comic trade paperback, 79 pages
Published 2003 (contents: 2002) 

Borrowed from the library
Read May 2017
Harvey Pekar's American Splendor: Unsung Hero: The Story of Robert McNeill

Writer: Harvey Pekar
Artist: David Collier

Later, Pekar would write Ego & Hubris, but I think this was his first extended non-autobiographical biographical comic. It covers the Vietnam wartime experiences of Robert McNeill, apparently a coworker of Perkar's judging by the (extremely light) frame sequences. The title seems inappropriate: this is a story about how Vietnam was not a place for heroes or heroism, but just dudes getting by in often terrible ways. The thing McNeill got a medal for turns out to be instigated by his attempt to avoid assigned duties. It's in that grittiness of war that this book really shines. McNeill isn't a good person, he's just a person, with all that entails, and Pekar presents his tale in his characteristically non-judgmental style. I found the discussion of race in the United States military during the war the most interesting part of the book, an aspect I knew little-to-nothing about prior to reading the book.

17 November 2017

Two Things I Was Wrong about When It Came to Star Trek: Discovery

Just over two years ago now, I reacted to the news about the new Star Trek tv show in development by writing a post informing you (yes, you) of six things you were wrong about. But now that the first "chapter" (half a season) is over, it turns out that I was wrong about a couple things, so I'm going to revisit that old post and eat my hat.

Things I claimed:
  1. It Was Going to Be Set in the "Abramsverse." While I was correct that the new show would not follow up any of the myriad things fans remembered from latter-day Deep Space Nine and Voyager episodes (it actually was not Captain Worf), I went on to claim, "New Star Trek should take advantage of the relatively blank canvas offered by a reality with only six hours of content to do something bold, new, and interesting that still feels like Star Trek. [...] Sure, in theory you could do this in the old universe, but there's a perception of baggage that the show is just better off without." Well, it turns out that the show was set in the old "Prime" universe after all! How did it deal with the baggage? Well, just by ignoring it! The aesthetics of Discovery hew pretty closely to those of what we now call the "Kelvin timeline" films (we did not have that convenient term in 2015, reader), and they certainly haven't felt restricted by small bits of canon: Klingon cloaking devices in 2255, why not!? I remain a little surprised by this. Other than the fact that the planet Vulcan still exists, I feel like this show hasn't done anything that wouldn't have fit in the Kelvin timeline, yet here we are.

    It turns out, though... that I actually kind of like that it's in the "old" universe. When this show reintroduces Harry Mudd, it's the "same" Harry Mudd I grew up watching, and that makes me smile. Maybe you can go home again.

  2. It Was Not Going to Be Terrible Despite Being Set In the Abramsverse. Basically this was a long argument about how being set in the same continuity as Abrams' films didn't mean it would have the same quality as them. (This was directed at Abrams haters.) So I guess technically this one ought to be rated "NOT APPLICABLE" since it wasn't set in that reality. If you read my full thing, though, it turns out that I was wrong anyway, because I said, "being set in the same continuity doesn't mean it'll have the same aesthetic, either. If you dislike the movies for being zippy action flicks, the television series is probably not going to be quite like that. (If nothing else, I bet they don't have the money.)"

    It turns out that 1) they weren't set in the same continuity but did have the same aesthetic, and 2) they did have the money because CBS is going all out on this thing. Thus arguably I still ended up wrong, but I refuse to ding up two misses already, so I'll stick with my technicality.

  3. It Was Going to Not Be Like Your Favorite Fanfilm. Finally one I definitely got right. No fanfilm I have watched has managed to play with the classic tropes and ideas of Star Trek like Discovery has. It did initially seem like it was going to be a grimdark war show with the Whole Federation At Stake (like a lot of fanfilms), and it's even plumbing the depths of the Federation-Klingon War (like a certain fanfilm in particular), but though that's definitely a major part of the show's background, it soon established itself to be a lot more varied, and more inventive, and less fannish than any fanfilm I have watched.

  4. Alex Kurtzman Not Being a Star Trek Fan Was Not Terrible. Well, I stand by this one. He's the credited co-creator, but my impression is that his involvement isn't that big. He has a co-story credit on the pilot, and that's it. I mean, he's executive producer so I'm sure everything passes through him at some point, but is he even in the writers' room breaking episodes? If the show is terrible, it's not because of Kurtzman's lack of fan credentials. (And it's not terrible.)

  5. They Should Not Bring Back Someone Who Worked on Old, "Real" Star Trek. Okay, I don't know if they should have, but they did. They brought back Bryan Fuller, who was a story editor, later executive story editor, later later co-producer on Voyager back in the day; he has story or script credits on twenty-two various episodes of Deep Space Nine and Voyager, including triumphs like "Spirit Folk" (a holosimulation of Irish stereotypes takes over the ship) and "Fury" (Kes comes back... and she's pissed!). So I guess I was wrong.

    But I actually was excited, because in the two decades (what the heck!) between Voyager and Discovery, he went on to create Wonderfalls, one of my favorite tv shows, and also Pushing Daisies is pretty good. He may have cut his teeth on 1990s Star Trek, but I knew he would produce something utterly unlike it.

    But but despite being co-creator, he quit after three episodes: he's credited with co-story and co-script on the pilot, story on the second episode, and co-story on the third, and that's it because he's busy doing wacky Gaiman shit on American Gods. He still left his mark, though. Mainly in that the main character is a woman with a male name.

  6. You Would Be Able to Watch It Despite It Being on a Streaming Service. Um, okay, I'm technically wrong about this one too because there are good odds you aren't watching it because it's on a streaming service. And let's be honest, paying for ads is kind of dumb, but paying for that goddamn Xeljanz ad again and again is particularly dumb. (Xeljanz is an arthritis medication; I assume they're advertising it on Discovery because it sounds like a leftover Star Trek alien.) But the show has been good enough to be worth it, and let's be honest, my real reason for this entry in my original post was to go on a long rant about how watching Star Trek on CBS All Access couldn't be worse than watching Star Trek on UPN, and I was right about that, so I'm calling this one a win anyway.

Also Discovery is actually pretty good and pretty clever, but that's a different blog post.

16 November 2017

Review: Two on a Tower by Thomas Hardy

Trade paperback, 296 pages
Published 1996 (originally 1882)
Acquired October 2012
Read January 2013
Two on a Tower: A Romance
by Thomas Hardy

Most of the major Victorian novelists, as I am fond of pointing out, wrote one scientist novel: Dickens, Eliot, Gaskell, Collins, Kingsley, Trollope. Thomas Hardy, I am even fonder of pointing out, wrote three. Two on a Tower, his 1882 astronomer romance, was the middle one, following his 1872 geologist romance A Pair of Blue Eyes and preceding his 1887 amateur naturalist romance The Woodlanders. If we were to trace a trajectory of Hardy's opinions on science as way of seeing across them (a somewhat risky critical move, perhaps), we see that Hardy grows more pessimistic across the fifteen years (as Hardy seemingly did about everything).

While science is largely incidental in A Pair of Blue Eyes and while the scientist in The Woodlanders is a monster, Two on a Tower is somewhere in between in its depiction of a romance between Swithin St. Cleeve, the young astronomer, and Lady Viviette Constantine, an older married woman. Swithin finds beauty in the stars, but his elevated vision struggles to see Viviette's beauty on Earth-- even though she sees his quite clearly. Then, when he does shift his perception in order to see her, he loses sight of the stars that gave him so much wonder. And this being Hardy, nothing can ever work out correctly. This is my favorite of Hardy's three scientist novels: you really want this romance to work out, but know it never can, and there's beautiful imagery and some great ideas. The universe is unforgiving, and so is Thomas Hardy.

14 November 2017

Return to Oz: Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz by Eric Shanower & Skottie Young

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2012 (contents: 2011-12)

Acquired September 2012
Read September 2016
Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz
Adapted from the book by L. Frank Baum 

Writer: Eric Shanower
Artist: Skottie Young
Colorist: Jean-Francois Beaulieu
Letterer: Jeff Eckleberry

Dorothy and the Wizard is probably my favorite of the original six Oz novels, partly I suspect, because it's the only one of those I owned as a kid in an edition with high-quality reproductions of the original illustrations: my others were either low-quality Del Rey editions without color (Ozma and Emerald City), poorly re-illustrated versions (Wizard and Marvellous Land), or just had no illustrations at all (Road)! So to me, the underground world of Dorothy and the Wizard has always seemed particularly lavish and detailed-- and, as a result, alien. This means it's, as always, well-suited to the illustration talents of Skottie Young.

from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz #3

Dorothy and the Wizard is probably the darkest of the original six Oz novels. In the others, most of the people Dorothy meets are reasonably nice, and/or are evil thanks to external influence, and/or there's a clear end goal. For the most part, Dorothy and the Wizard lacks any of these: almost every environment Dorothy and her friends encounter is somewhere between actively hostile and completely indifferent, and there's no obvious destination for the group. There's no route to Oz that they're following, they're just trying to stay alive by moving onwards from each terrible place to another, hopefully-but-not-actually less terrible place. I wouldn't like it if every Oz novel was like this, but this one does what it does well.

from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz #5

Its terrifying Mangaboos and Gargoyles give Young so much to work with, but as I came to realize when reviewing Ozma, he best shines with the "normal" animals, this one having Eureka, Dorothy's conceited kitten (but then, aren't they all?), and the Wizard's nine tiny piglets. Because of this, Shanower and Young even manage to rescue the book's extended coda about Eureka being on trial for murder. It drags in prose, but put Young's amazing rendering of Eureka at the center, and every moment of her attitude is a joy. Plus, Shanower even uses the opportunity to smooth over some hiccups in Baum's improvised history of Oz. Another Shanower and Young triumph.

from Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz #8
Next Week: Dorothy goes back to Oz, yet again in Road to Oz!

13 November 2017

Review: Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

Trade paperback, 325 pages
Published 2014 (originally 2013)

Acquired December 2014
Read November 2016
Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler

I read this as part of my ongoing project to read more books set in my hometown of Cincinnati. Calling Me Home alternates between two first-person narratives, one in the late 1930s in northern Kentucky (a fictional town outside Newport, which is right across the river from Cincinnati) about a white girl in love with a black man, and one in the present day in Texas, where that white girl (now grown up) is accompanied by her black hairdresser on a cross-country drive back to Cincinnati for a funeral.

It's okay. The present-day narrative is pretty boring, to be honest, as the hairdresser encounters racial microagressions and experiences some stereotypical drama with her teenage son and frets over her own romance. The past narrative was better, and really came alive for me at a couple key points, one of them being a short-lived reunification that the girl has with her black lover-- I really felt their desperation and their hunger. There are a couple twists, one of which is incredibly obvious (yet many reviewers on LibraryThing expressed surprise at it), but worked for me emotionally anyway.

There was the occasional slip-up. I don't think Kibler is very good at capturing the nuances of racism: her racist characters are all ridiculously evil people, while all of the nice characters are secretly not racist. Probably the worst part of the whole book was that the hairdresser learns a moral lesson from the flashback narrative that sounds like it came from a greeting card. Like, you just heard this tragic tale of racism, and that's what you take away from it?

Bonus Nitpick: As a Cincinnatian, I was happy to see a little bit of local color, like the street car, the incline, and chili parlors. But there was a pretty big research fail when a coney is described as a plain hot dog:

A coney has chili on it, c'mon! Kibler has obviously not ever eaten one (some Cincinnati chili recipes do include cocoa powder, but there's no way you would taste hints of chocolate), but at least she could have looked at a menu.

10 November 2017

Review: Top 10: Season Two by Zander Cannon, Gene Ha, et al.

After reading all the collected editions of Top 10, the Alan Moore-created superhero cop drama, I sought out the one uncollected Top 10 story, Season Two, which reunites the original Top 10 artistic team of Zander Cannon and Gene Ha, with Cannon taking over for Alan Moore as writer. (I also tracked down the other uncollected Top 10 stories, in America's Best Comics 64 Page Giant #1 and the confusingly titled ABC A-Z: Top 10 and Teams #1, but neither of those was interesting enough to write about.)

Before reading it, I was a little surprised by the title "Season Two," which seemed like a disavowal of the Top 10 follow-up by Paul Di Fillipo and Jerry Ordway, Beyond the Farthest Precinct, as if they were saying the Alan Moore run was "season one" and now there was this, nothing else. However, once I started reading it, I realized that the title is actual a signal of its chronological placement-- Beyond the Farthest Precinct took place five years after the original run, whereas this starts right after it, simultaneous to the events chronicled in Smax. (Which is somewhat a weak point, because Toybox was very much the heart of Top 10, and Jeff Smax one of its funner characters, and they're both off in a fantasy world.)

Season Two seems promising at first. Cannon is a better writer of these characters than Ordway was, weaving together some fun superhero concepts into a crime framework; I really liked the idea of a dealer who's not selling kids drug, but magic words along the lines of "Shazam!" This subplot was complete with a burnt out magic user trying to go straight by informing the cops, but he keeps backsliding. Another character's husband has been assuming a new superhero identity on the side-- she cries that he's not the man she married, and ends up enrolling him in a seminar to get in touch with his real alter ego. Meanwhile, a new commissioner has been installed, and he's not very happy with what he sees at Top 10. Plus he's making them all wear uniforms!

Also: Girl One, the bio-engineered cop who died in the original run, is replaced by Girl Two. I was curious where this was going to go, because in Beyond the Farthest Precinct, a new "Girl 54" was introduced, which everyone was weirdly blasé about, one of the major defects of that series. Was Cannon overwriting that, or laying the groundwork to explain it better? It's one of many things we'll never know because the story of Top 10 isn't complete, it just suddenly stops at the end of issue #4.

It is followed by Season Two Special #1, which I had thought would wrap everything up (even if abruptly), but was actually a standalone done-in-one Top 10 story tying into the events of Season Two. Confusingly, Girl Two is no longer a cop in it, but a public defender, and she's dating one of the members of the force, Pete, something the main series was moving towards. The issue begins with a "TWO WEEKS FROM NOW" caption that must refer to the special's placement with respect to the rest of Season Two; I guess these changes were where Cannon's story was headed. This story's okay-- I do like Girl Two, though the conspiracy she unravels was a bit abstruse for me.

It's all a bit disappointing. I mean, I'm sure there were good sales-related reasons for the cancellation, but to not even get through a whole limited series is kind of pathetic. Moore's original Top 10 seemed like the kind of thing that could run and run; for it to just get twelve issues, a prequel, a disappointing sequel, and a cancelled sequel is sad. Still, it was nice while it lasted. Gene Ha is always good value for money as an artist, and Daxiong shows promise with his art on the special, too. Top 10 had a great, inventive premise-- colliding the anarchic genre of the superhero with the regimented one of the police procedural-- and it's a shame that more couldn't have been done with it. If you really liked Top 10, this is worth seeking out, but be forewarned that you'll get exactly no closure on everything set up within it.

Top 10: Season Two originally appeared in Top 10: Season Two #1-4 (Dec. 2008–Mar. 2009) and Top 10: Season Two Special #1 (May 2009). The story was scripted and laid out by Zander Cannon with Kevin Cannon; penciled and inked by Gene Ha (#1-4) and Daxiong (Special #1); colored by Alex Sinclair (#1-4) and Tony Avina (#3); lettered by Todd Klein (#1-4) and Rob Leigh (Special #1); and edited by Scott Dunbier (#1-4), Scott Peterson (#1-4/Special #1), and Kristy Quinn (Special #1).

09 November 2017

Voice and Genre in Young Adult Literature: Holes (1998)

Mass market paperback, 222 pages
Published 2015 (originally 1998)
Acquired November 2016

Read February 2017
Holes by Louis Sachar

I have a friend-- herself much more of a young adult literature scholar than I-- who, when she found out that I was assigning Holes in my YA literature class, objected strongly. Holes is not young adult, she said, it's middle grade. And indeed, if you look at the back of my copy it indicates "Ages 10 & up," and ten years is definitely below the somewhat fuzzy middle grade/young adult barrier. I couldn't muster much of a defense of it myself, having not actually read it prior to assigning it, but having had a hole to plug (I needed a male-written YA novel published in the 1990s to balance out my course) and finding it on a list.

Once I read it, though, I realized that age range aside, it's definitely young adult fiction. Something I talk about a lot is the difference between the features and the projects of genres, and Holes, I would argue, has the project of young adult fiction. Or, at least, one of them. In her book Disturbing the Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature (2000), Roberta Seelinger Trites argues that "[t]he chief characteristic that distinguishes adolescent literature from children's literature is the issue of how social power is deployed during the course of the narrative. In books that younger children read [...] much of the action focuses on one child who learns to feel more secure in the confines of her or his environment, usually represented by family and home" (2-3). But in the YA novel, Trites continues, "protagonists must learn about the social forces that have made them what they are. They learn to negotiate the levels of power that exist in the myriad social institutions within which they must function" (3).

Holes is all about power. Stanley confronts all sort of social forces during his time at Camp Green Lake: race, class, childhood, prison, probably many more you can think of (and my students did). And in complicated ways, too-- Stanley is accused of being racist when he uses the labor of a black child, Zero, to relieve his own (in exchange for which he teaches Zero how to read). Was Stanley wrong? Were his accusers? I don't think there are any good answers here; what's more important is how Stanley becomes aware of an entire dimension of racial power of which he was previously unaware. Trites says that "the YA novel teaches adolescents how to exist within the (capitalistically bound) institutions that necessarily define teenagers' existence" (19).

Stanley doesn't just learn about institutions, but he learns how to operate within them to get what he wants. And this goes to Trites' other take on power: it's also "the force that allows for subjectivity and consequently, agency" (5). Your internal power allows you to act. And that's one of the big trajectories of Holes: Stanley starts out seemingly powerless, but as the novel goes on, he finally learns how to act, how to do something instead of having things done to him, and that's how he saves the day. So, in terms of its concerns, I think Holes is much more YA than children's.

In fact, considering Trites's theory of power and YA literature allows us to solve one of the novel's complexities. Something my students were really into was whether the curse placed on the Yelnats family was real or not. It seems real, given that when Stanley solves the historical injustice, the land is regenerates (shades of what Farah Mendlesohn says in Rhetorics of Fantasy, and indeed, the climax of Holes bears some traces of what she calls the portal-quest fantasy). But the narrator deliberately casts doubt on the reality of the curse, and coincidence is a perfectly plausible explanation for the events of the novel, too. When this kind of discussion arises, my inclination is to redirect, away from asking which is real? toward why create the ambiguity? Hopefully it's there for a reason other than just love of ambiguity, and I would argue that in the case of Holes, it is.

By introducing the idea of a curse, Sachar can literalize the kind of institutional power and make it visible: the curse is classism and racism in action, distant institutions turned into concretized force. We can see the real effect these powers have on the world in general, and Stanley and Zero in particular. On the other hand, were the curse to be clearly real, that would remove its power as a symbol, Stanley wouldn't be fighting an institution, but magic, and he would have no real reason to assume personal responsibility (as Trites's formulation tells us he must) because the curse would have predetermined his life. Leaving the curse ambiguous creates a sweet spot, where we know there's something real out there working against Stanley, but it's not no powerful that it can defeat him.

08 November 2017

Audio Catch-Up: Fourth Doctor Adventures, H. G. Wells, and Torchwood

It's been a while, and I don't have a post to run this Wednesday, so here's my recent witterings on Big Finish audio dramas.
  • Vivisection run amok in Big Finish Classics: The Island of Doctor Moreau. "Fundamentally, I suspect, this is a story whose horror is ill-suited to audio."
  • Evolution run amok with the fourth Doctor in Doctor Who: Dethras. "There’s also a lot of rattling off of cod-scientific terms, in the fashion of the era that gave us 'chronic hysteresis' and 'block transfer computation'."
  • Seances with the fourth Doctor in Doctor Who: The Haunting of Malkin Place. "Sound designer Jamie Robertson does a great job with the sound, especially the séance, which was unsettling even though I listened to the story in broad daylight while commuting to work!" 
  • The deepest of time in Big Finish Classics: The Time Machine. "I mostly know [Ben] Miles from his role as Patrick on Coupling, which is about as far from the erudite Time Traveller as you can get, but he comes across as the quintessential Victorian amateur scientist here."
  • The fourth Doctor meets mole-men(!) in Doctor Who: Subterranea. "Way back in the day, Big Finish did The Sandman, which really used its distinctive setting of a migratory space fleet called 'the Clutch' to good effect; I think that if this had done the same, it could have been a minor classic."
  • There's sex plagues, domestic killings, gig economy apps, and police violence in Torchwood: Aliens Among Us 2. "Andy has always been as steady as a rock in his own way [...] so listening to him as his world disintegrates is just so desperately sad."

I've moved slowly and fallen behind in my audio listening the past couple years, but now spending 70+ minutes in the car every day commuting, plus however much other listening time I get in, means I've been moving much faster through my backlog. Maybe someday I'll catch up! The problem now isn't listening to them, it's writing them up.

07 November 2017

Return to Oz: Ozma of Oz by Eric Shanower & Skottie Young

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 2011 (contents: 2011)

Acquired August 2012
Read September 2016
Ozma of Oz
Adapted from the novel by L. Frank Baum 

Writer: Eric Shanower
Artist: Skottie Young
Colorist: Jean-Francois Beaulieu
Letterer: Jeff Eckleberry

Ozma of Oz is a bit of an oddity in the first six Oz novels: moreso than Marvelous Land, even, it's driven by plot, eschewing Baum's usual rambling journey narrative. After some independent misadventures in Ev (where she meets Billina and Tik-Tok), Dorothy links up with Ozma and sets off with her Royal Army on a mission to rescue the Royal Family of Ev from the Nome King. The book is one of Baum's better ones, and it's even better, I would argue, in the hands of Eric Shanower and Skottie Young, as like Marvelous Land, it introduces a whole new set of strange-looking characters for Skottie Young to draw the hell out of: his Tik-Tok is stalwart, his Wheelers are terrifying, his Nomes are wispy.

from Ozma of Oz #1

My favorite, though, was Billina-- Young always does a good job with the characters who are conventional animals (like the Cowardly Lion in Wonderful Wizard or Eureka in Dorothy and the Wizard), I think partially because we all know what, say, a chicken looks like, so he can get more expressive in the design in a way that he can't with a woggle-bug. His Billina is wonderfully sardonic, annoyed and unimpressed by the world she travels through and the company she is forced to keep.

from Ozma of Oz #7

I also like how Young handles Ozma: it's easy to forget in the novels that Ozma is a kid, and one only recently come into her true identity as royalty at that. Young makes sure you remember this: when she shouts, it looks like a kid trying to get her way. She's no less a princess, but it injects a certain amount of realism, even if via Young's cartoony style.

from Ozma of Oz #4
Next Week: Dorothy meets an old friend and makes some terrifying acquaintances in Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz!

06 November 2017

Review: Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther

Hardcover, 288 pages
Published 1940 (contents: 1937-39)
Borrowed from the library
Read August 2016
Mrs. Miniver by Jan Struther

A couple years ago, casting about for short fiction to teach in my class on British literature from 1890 to 1950, I took a friend's recommendation of this book, which chronicles the life of one family in the years leading up to World War II. I skimmed around it a bit, selected eight likely-looking chapters, scanned them, and assigned them to my class. Sometime later, as part of a project to watch all the films of every book I taught that semester, I watched the two films based on the book, Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Miniver Story (1950). (The first one is pretty good; the second one not as much.) But I hadn't read the book, and that seemed like a thing I ought to do, and now I finally have.

Mrs. Miniver is, as Professor Tom Recchio calls Cranford, an "accidental novel." It was originally a single newspaper column, "Mrs. Miniver Comes Home," in the Times of London on October 6, 1937. It was successful enough to warrant further accounts of Mrs. Miniver and her upper-middle-class family in Chelsea (with a home in the country); there were a total of thirty-six columns published up to September 29, 1939, three weeks after the U.K. declared war on Germany. This, though, is what makes it fascinating. The war breaks in on this family by accident, much as it would have in real life. Mrs. Miniver did not begin life as a novel, and it did not begin life as a war story-- it was a simple series of domestic sketches. But it became a war story because as the 1930s rolled on, everyone's domestic story became a war story.

So there's no foreshadowing or anything. At the beginning, it's just domestic observations from Mrs. Miniver as her husband buys a new car, or Christmas day rolls around, or they see fireworks on Guy Fawkes day, or she tries to figure out how you deal with a married couple where you only like one of its members, or they drive up to Scotland to see the Highland Games. There are lots of cute observations on what marriage is like, or on what other people's marriages are like, or on the fact that if someone is "terribly fond of children," a kid never actually knows where they stand with such a person! I really like what Mrs. Miniver observes on the morning of Christmas 1937, as her children go at the contents of their stockings way too early in the morning: "There were sounds of movement in the house; they were within measurable distance of the blessed chink of early morning tea. Mrs. Miniver looked towards the window. The dark sky had already paled a little in its frame of cherry-pink chintz. Eternity framed in domesticity. Never mind. One had to frame it in something, to see it at all."

But then, all of a sudden it's September 28, 1938, Germany is about to annex the Sudetenland, it seems like war is imminent, and Mrs. Miniver has to take her children to get fitted for gas masks just in case. From that point on, the coming war is a shadow that hangs over the domestic life of the Minivers. You couldn't have planned this, and that's why it works so well. The previously idyllic life of the Minivers has been disturbed by a phenomenon they hadn't predicted, and Mrs. Miniver is hoping that this war can go better than the last one: "if the worst came to the worst, these children would at least know that we were fighting against an idea, and not against a nation"-- they need to guard against war-time's "slow, yellow, drifting corruption of the mind."

The war brings out the best in the nation, Mrs. Miniver argues, but in a way that's a bit disappointing. She writes in a letter to her sister-in-law, after the declaration of war: "I can think of a hundred ways already in which the war has 'brought us to our senses.' But it oughtn't to need a war to make a nation paint its kerbstones white, carry rear-lamps on its bicycles, and give all its slum children a holiday in the country. And it oughtn't to need a war to make us talk to each other in buses, and invent our own amusements in the evenings, and live simply, and eat sparingly, and recover the use of our legs, and get up early enough to see the sun rise. However, it has needed one: which is about the severest criticism our civilization could have." And it doesn't bring out the best in everyone, either; she recounts talking to a woman who won't promise to billet London children in her country house because it will upset the servants, who says, "Even if the worst does come to the worst, you must make it quite clear to the authorities that I can only accept Really Nice Children."

The book ends, as I said before, shortly after the declaration of war on Germany, with a letter from Mrs. Miniver to her sister-in-law. But apparently Jan Struther did continue to story of Mrs. Miniver and family, with five more dispatches published in the Times during the war, but as the edition I got from the library is from 1940, it doesn't include. You can read the whole book in an authorized e-edition, however, on the University of Pennsylvania website, and I should get around to reading those five later chapters soon.

The columns in the Times were wildly popular. When I was skimming the Times digital archive to examine the book in its original context, I found a number of letters from adoring fans. Many speculated on Mrs. Miniver's first name, which wasn't revealed until the 29 Sept. 1939 column. My favorite of the letters I found, however, was this one: [Clem is Mrs. Miniver's husband, Vin and Toby sons.]

The relationship between the book and the film is actually kind of weird, because the film begins shortly before the war and goes through its first couple years. In that way, it's actually more like a sequel to the book than an adaptation of it, because it's entirely about coping with wartime life. However, the details don't line up perfectly-- the Minivers' class status is downgraded in the film a bit, apparently to make things more palatable to American audiences. The Minivers ride out an attack in a bomb shelter, Mr. Miniver participates in the evacuation of Dunkirk, a downed German flier breaks into the Miniver home (the film Mrs. Miniver is less sympathetic to him than I think the novel one would be), and so on. The first film doesn't really line up with the second, either; one of the kids somehow hasn't got any older, another has got a lot older, and a third has completely vanished! But the first film is really good (it won six Academy Awards), and I highly recommend it. You'll also get to discover that Julian Fellowes plagiarized a Downton Abbey subplot from it.

About a week after I wrote this review, I read the five WWII-era installments of Mrs. Miniver on my Kindle. They're okay-- worth tracking down if your edition doesn't include them. The first is the best, a story of Mrs. Miniver working on her Christmas list, but this time there is a passel of refugee children along as well, many of whom never had a Christmas tree before. The other four are more letters from Mrs. Miniver to her sister-in-law; the worst of these is the last one, which is a very defensive over-explanation of her second-last letter, explaining why she was not overlooking members of the lower classes. I suspect Struther had received a lot of angry letters.