2013 in Books

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According to goodreads.com, I read 83 books in 2013. The beginning of a new year seems a good time to assess what is memorable among the reading material of the previous twelve months. I am an eclectic reader: this informed my research when I was teaching in higher education—nobody can know everything, and it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye on what fellow researchers in “unrelated” areas are doing. I always throw in a healthy dose of novels as well. Among the novels, some of the most profound were those written for younger readers (each of the books discussed here, by the way, can be found discussed in more detail by selecting the category “books” at the right on this blog). Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, Ransom Rigg’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief all stand out as particularly profound. They are all, as young adult books tend to be, stories about coming to terms with the adult world. The theme of death weighs heavily in all of them. In none do the children take refuge in religion.

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Among the non-fiction offerings, revisiting my most memorable also reveals trends, I think, in how religion might be usefully applied to an increasingly secular culture. It is no easy task to choose favorites, but I see that I read three books about comic books: Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls and Divas, Dames, and Daredevils, and Christopher Knowles’ Our Gods Wear Spandex. The work of Jeffrey Kripal started me on the quest of taking superheroes seriously as sublimated religious figures. Clearly that is the case, as has become increasingly apparent in top-grossing movies. Another set of books (Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos, John Angell and Tony Marzluff’s Gifts of the Crow, and Curtis White’s The Science Delusion) highlighted some of the deeply rooted flaws of a materialist reading of the world, whether they intended to or not. Robin Coleman’s Horror Noire, and Susan Hitchcock’s Frankenstein indicated that monsters are among the most eloquent of social critics, even when they have little to say. I would recommend any of these books without hesitation.

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Some of my reading was on specific religious traditions. Maren Cardin’s Oneida, Hugh Urban’s The Church of Scientology, Sean McCloud’s Making the American Religious Fringe, and Andrew Chestnut’s Devoted to Death each showcased either a single or several traditions that have emerged in the last century or two that have had a striking impact on America’s religious morphology. Katie Edward’s Admen and Eve is a great example of how businesses have figured out that a religiously hungry society will buy, if marketing pays attention to religion. Among the most powerful books I read were Susan Cain’s Quiet and Jonathan Gottschall’s The Storytelling Animal. Being human is, after all, the most religious of experiences. Starting with fiction, I’ll end with fiction. The novels for adults I remember most vividly are those with strong female protagonists: Sheri Holman’s Witches on the Road Tonight, Piper Bayard’s Firelands, and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian.

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This blog offers me a chance to give brief sketches of books that have much more to say than a few words might summarize. The fact that religious ideas and themes might be found in such a range of books underlines once again that we live in a religious milieu, whether we want to admit it or not. Read on!

Super Women

DivasDamesDaredevilsDivas, Dames and Daredevils: Lost Heroines of Gold Age Comics, by Mike Madrid, is a stroll down a memory lane that many of us never previously walked. My imagination is such that I no longer read comic books, but as a child they provided a cheap escape from a reality that didn’t feel so different from the crime-infested world that superheroes inhabited. For young boys reading these stories the absence of women was normal—there were some things of which Mom didn’t approve, and that was because she just didn’t understand. Boys will be boys. Still, Mike Madrid has ably demonstrated a secret knowledge that the 1950s would deem arcane—female characters once held a position nearly equal to that of men in the world of comics. Prior to Comics Code Authority in 1954, the women who helped win the Second World War were portrayed as tough, independent, and in charge (to an extent) of their own destinies. In the conservative backlash of the ‘50s, however, women were diminished, relegated to the home and domestic life. Comic books presented them as secondary to men. That myth has proven pernicious, even now, six decades later.

One of the perks of blogging is having someone you’ve written about contact you. Mike Madrid has been the subject of a previous post for his book The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heriones. Madrid’s agent kindly sent me an advance proof of Divas, Dames and Daredevils, and I was once again struck by the historical scope of knowledge that these books present. Academics are—let me correct that—some academics are becoming aware of the fact that popular culture defines reality for many people. We find our troth in those who live on the big screen or on the pulp paper, those who rise above the constant threats of an uncaring world. We’ve seen that business can be its own evil empire, and superheroes, and everyday people, do have it within their power to act. Madrid shows that we were well on our way to equality of the sexes when the haircut and horn-rim crowd of the clean-cut 1950s insisted a return to Stone Age ethics in the treatment of women was appropriate.

In keeping with the general theme of this blog, the book has a chapter on the goddesses who became heroes. We all know Thor, but what of the forgotten Fantomah, Amazona, Marga the Panther Woman, Wildfire, Diana the Huntress, or Maureen Marine? Madrid’s book presents a story from several of the animated heroines of the days before censorship tamed the feminine mystique. More than that, he clearly shows how women—even ordinary women—were once deemed incredible and awe-inspiring. Then the titanium gate of male inferiority complexes and the vaunted “old ways” crashed down, trapping us all in a world fit to be ruled by men alone. I congratulate Madrid for resurrecting so many forgotten figures who never had a chance to become cultural icons. All women are heroes, and I know there is a hero that I miss very much, although even Mike Madrid didn’t mention her in his wonderful book.

True Heroes

supergirls As a guy with a healthy sense of the weird,it strikes me as odd that rational people can suppose that we’ve solved all of life’s great mysteries. As a student of biology, chemistry, and physics in high school—and a reader of non-technical aspects of the same throughout my adulthood—it always seemed that there was an undefinable “something more.” Reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics led me to an interest in comic books. As a child I did not have many of them since we didn’t have much money to spend on luxuries. The few I had, however, were read and reread and reread, assaulting my imagination with endless possibilities, many of which defied everything I was to learn of biology, chemistry, and physics. My interest in feminism and new-found appreciation of the proto-graphic novel, led me to read Mike Madrid’s The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines. As a boy surrounded with brothers, I clearly knew which comic books were for males. Madrid’s book delves into this super-hero world with the question of why females have always struggled to be taken seriously in this fantasy land.

Many of the characters explored in Supergirls were heroines I’d never encountered before. Madrid’s analysis often appears spot-on as he traces their histories through the decades as they mirror, and occasionally lead, society’s expectations of what women should be. The one that I had no trouble recognizing was Wonder Woman. And the reason for that was she used to have a TV show. Not mentioned by Madrid was the mighty Isis, also a heroine from television. She began as a character opposite Captain Marvel, and did not have her origin in a comic book. Isis was, of course, an ancient goddess, and as I learned from Supergirls, Wonder Woman was not far behind. The way that women could be as strong as men was to be divine. For human females, life was much rougher.

Wonder Woman, Madrid notes, was one of the Trinity of early, lasting comic book heroes. Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are cast as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, respectively. Like her theological counterpart, Wonder Woman is the most amorphous, least understood of the three. Her career and persona change over time, almost losing any kind of supernatural ability. Her origin story, however, began as a helper of oppressed women everywhere. Today we see Superman and Batman on the big screen, but Wonder Woman has fallen behind. Despite great strides, our society still isn’t ready to accept rescue of men at the hands of a woman. More’s the pity, because we clearly see the mess that masculine leadership has spawned. Mike Madrid has discovered a secret identity for our old foe, sexism. And it might take the world of comic books to help us see clearly that which mainstream analysis still denies.