Apr 16, 2015

Reading Notes: More Marvel Comics

Reading Notes: More Marvel Comics

Captain Marvel Vol 1: Higher, Further, Faster, More by Kelly Sue DeConnick and David Lopez
Before I start talking about this book, a bit of a sidenote: I’m just as puzzled as you are as to why this is volume one of Captain Marvel, when only last year I read and wrote about another Captain Marvel trade paperback by the very same writer which was… also volume one. Oh comics, why so confusing?

After reading the other Captain Marvel Vol 1, I followed Carol Danvers (aka Captain Marvel) into Down, a second story arc by the same creative team. Unfortunately, while In Pursuit of Flight is self-contained, Down ends mid-story, and the cliffhanger ending is only resolved in a crossover title called Avengers: The Enemy Within. This is the kind of thing I’d have found Too Daunting only a year ago, but as one of my aforementioned comics guiding principles is “follow characters you love”, I decided to push through. My library had The Enemy Within, so I put it on hold. But then the due date came and went, and then one, two, three weeks, one month went by with no sign of the book. It began to look unlikely that whoever had it would ever bring it back, so I caved and bought it as a digital comic — a first for me.

This is a measure of my love for Carol. You see, Carol is my favourite (though it’s possible that this actually means Kelly Sue DeConnick is my favourite). The character moments in her stories are the most satisfying I’ve come across so far. I love the scene in Down when Carol is arranging to take her friend Tracy (who we know has cancer) to the doctor, but when she gets there we realise Tracy came along because Carol herself was asked to bring a family member for support. I love her relationship with Kit Renner, her six-year-old neighbour and Captain Marvel’s biggest fan. I love that one of her priorities is taking her cat Chewie for her annual check-up — and when everything explodes, to keep her safe. I love that there are so many women in Carol’s stories, and that her relationships with them matter.

At this point I would follow Carol anywhere. Also, something happens at the end of The Enemy Within that gives narrative justification to the series’ reboot, so there’s that, too.

In Higher, Further, Faster, More, we follow Carol and Chewie into space. Carol needs some time away after her difficult experiences in NYC, and when the opportunity presents herself she doesn’t hesitate (her cat comes along because she’s too mean for any of Carol’s friends to agree to feed her. Chewie, that is, not Carol). A mission to return an alien teenage girl to her home world ends up getting Carol involved in a conflict between a large intergalactic empire and a small planet of refugees who are once again being moved from the place they’ve learned to call home against their will.

What I liked about this volume was pretty much what I like about Captain Marvel as a whole: it shows Carol using a range of skills to solve a problem and collaborating closely with other women along the ways (also, Chewie. I really like Chewie). I also appreciated how DeConnick analysed traditional colonial dynamics, not only between the Empire and the planet’s inhabitants but in Carol’s intervention itself.

While the first Kelly Sue DeConnick Captain Marvel story arc remains my favourite, I’m glad I read on. I love this series, and I’m delighted that a new collected volume in the Carol and Chewie Adventures (how I dub it in my head — don’t judge me) will be out at the end of the week.

It’s possible I’m mildly obsessed with this cat.

Ms Marvel Vol 2: Generation Why by G. Willow Wilson, Jacob Wyatt and Adrian Alphona

Kamala Khan! She’s my second favourite, and really not that far behind Carol. I explained why I loved the first volume of Ms Marvel last year, and what I said then goes for this volume as well: I continue to be charmed by Kamala’s geeky nature, to enjoy the series’ many Internet culture jokes, and to feel more welcomed as a reader in this series than in any other superhero comic.

In Generation Why, Kamala meets Wolverine and gleefully tells him about her fanfiction. She also confronts The Inventor, the villain first introduced in No Normal, and learns a little more about his motivation. This story is deeply concerned with our cultural tendency to dismiss and condescend to children and teenagers, and with how easy it is for the fact that you’re repeatedly told you’re worthless to make you feel worthless. Kamala meets some kids who have taken that message to heart, and it’s heartbreaking to see the effects it’s had.

Also, the scene in the panel above is important: Sheikh Abdullah tells Kamala that he trusts her to act with “courage, strength, compassion, honesty and self-respect” even if she can’t share the details of what she’s been doing. Again, readers are reminded that there’s no inherent incongruity between Kamala’s cultural background and her work as Jersey City’s very own superhero — on the contrary, her identity is what makes her the hero she is. Kamala asks for trust, and the adults in her life show that they’re willing to give her that.


She-Hulk Vol 1: Law and Disorder by Charles Soule, Javier Pulido and Ron Wemberly

She-Hulk is about Jennifer Walters, a talented lawyer who was gunned down by a crime lord and had to received a blood transfusion from her cousin Bruce Banner. Banner is the Hulk, and his blood gave Jennifer the same superpowers he has. Jennifer is much better than her cousin at controlling them, though, and she can transform into her Hulk-self at will.

Memory persuaded me to try She-Hulk by saying that it “gives far more weight to [Jennifer Walters’] law practice than to her superheroic antic”: I thought this hinted at the same human scale I so appreciated about Kate Bishop’s L.A. adventures, and that did indeed turn out to be the case. As you probably can tell, She-Hulk didn’t disappoint: it hit all my cool-lady-doing-things-and-surrounding-herself-with-other-women buttons and it filled me with joy.

In the first issue, Jennifer leaves her job at a big law firm, helps a single mother challenge a powerful man, and ends up establishing her own law practice. She then hires Angie Huan as her paralegal and fellow superhero Patsy Walk as her investigator, and the three begin solving cases and helping those in need.

There’s an overarching mystery to the series, but this first collection is also very much concerned with smaller cases. If you’re wondering how much superhero context you need, one of Jennifer’s clients is the son of Doctor Doom, who’s seeking political asylum in the USA because he doesn’t want his father to force him to succeed him as an evil overlord. I knew pretty much nothing about the character, but the context makes it obvious that he’s bad news and that’s all it takes for the plot to make sense. Also, it was nice that Jennifer didn’t hesitate to point out when her client was being an entitled, patronising jerk (which was most of the time), but she decided to help him anyway because his claim was sound.

In sum, She-Hulk was another successful incursion into the Marvel universe. I look forward to reading volume two, which sadly will be the series’ last.

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Apr 14, 2015

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

Bone Gap by Laura RubyBone Gap by Laura Ruby

Bone Gap is about two brothers, Finn and Sean O’Sullivan, who live in the small Midwestern town that gives the novel its title. Finn and Sean live alone: their father died when they were young, and their mother left Bone Gap a few years after, before Finn had finished high school. Sean, who had plans to go to medical school, has put them on hold to look after his little brother. When the novel stars, Sean and Finn are trying to cope with another loss: Roza, a girl who one day appeared mysteriously in their barn, has disappeared just as mysteriously. But Finn knows what happened to Roza — he saw a man drag her into a car the day she vanished. However, his inability to describe the man in detail, combined with Sean’s predisposition to assume he’s been left again, means that not even his own brother will believe him.

Bone Gap is also about Roza: there are chapters from her point of view, and readers find out fairly early on what happened to her and what she’s up against. There are also flashbacks to Roza’s life up until the day when she turns up in the O’Sullivan’s barn. Additionally, we get to know Petey, a girl Finn is falling in love with and whose connection with bees may or may not be magical; we’re introduced to a horse that most definitely is magical; and we learn all about the gaps people slip into, and the silences that shroud the town.

When I picked up Bone Gap, I knew a few things: that it was a feminist novel, that it played with fairy tale conventions, and that some people described it as magic realism. I didn’t know much about the actual details of the plot, and though I can see how getting into what happens to Roza may be spoilery, I can’t really say much about why Bone Gap resonated with me and why I found it so hard to read at times without talking about it. So consider this a spoilers warning.

Roza’s story is heartbreaking largely because it’s so common. As we read about her past, we learn about instances of harassment that will be familiar to the overwhelming majority of women. As a teenager, Roza quickly learned that a lot of men saw her as a thing to be owned and touched at will, not as a person with a mind of her own. This culminates when she goes to America as an exchange student and meets a man — a professor, someone in a position of authority she was inclined to trust — who abducts her and vows to “make her love him.”

What follows is absolutely horrifying, and not because any of it is described graphically (I highly recommend this guest post by Laura Ruby, by the way, about why she didn’t feel the need to be more explicit, and about how we as a culture feel entitled to the details of survivors’ stories). The focus is on the psychological impact these experiences have on Roza; on what it feels like to live through them. The man who claims to want Roza doesn’t really want Roza-the-human-being: there’s a chilling moment where he says, “You’re the most beautiful creature I have ever seen”. Bone Gap does an excellent job of capturing how being on the receiving end of this kind of attention is the ultimate objectification. It robs you of your humanity, because whatever it is that such men want is so incidental to who you are: it’s about looks, or some sort of projection you just happen to be a vessel for, or the accident of being in the same room as them at the wrong time, or having your common politeness misconstructed as availability. And the knowledge that whatever it is that they want has so little to do with you can worm its way into your head and make you feel like you’re less than a person, or like your personhood doesn’t matter at all to the world at large.

Bone Gap was too vivid a reminder of experiences I haven’t felt ready to discuss in public, which made it hard to read at times — but this is also what makes it an amazing novel. It tackles sexism and objectification and rape culture head on, and it illuminates the continuity of abuse. Major incidents like Roza’s abduction and everyday episodes of harassment like the ones a younger Roza or Petey experience exist as part of a continuum, of a cycle where the acceptability of the latter makes the former all the more likely. There are layers and layers of assumptions and normalised cultural mores that make it possible for a man to believe that he can “make” Roza love him.

Also, I like that Bone Gap presents an alternative model of masculinity in Finn and Sean. The novel does what a lot of my favourite fiction does, which is analyse how stereotypical notions of what it means to be a man or a woman can get in the way of real intimacy. A traditional model of hypermasculinity that builds itself on rejecting everything tainted by associated with femininity makes it very difficult for heterosexual men to see women as people, let alone to form a balanced partnership. When Roza meets Sean, she feels (to quote from the guest post I linked to above) “the sheer terror” of “finally [stumbling] into a person she might be able to trust.” The terror goes both ways, though, because the vulnerability of intimacy also goes both ways. There’s a lovely scene where Roza notices that Sean is shaking too, as if being near her meant just as much to him as it does to her. The fact that Sean doesn’t feel the need to disguise this is what makes it possible for the two to approach each other as equals — as two human beings who have been hurt and are desperately afraid, but who are willing to take the risk of getting close to each other.

I need to talk about Petey and Finn too, because I loved them just as much — everything from their late-night talks by a bonfire to their hesitation to the lovely oral sex scene with female pleasure at its centre. Also, Finn is not neurotypical: he has prosopagnosia, which makes it difficult for him to recognise human faces. This is not something he realises about himself until Petey pieces the clues together and points it out. This is what happens when she does:
“You’re not a circus clown.”
“Not, not a clown. But I’m hideous. Everyone thinks so.”
“I don’t think so,” Finn said, angry now. He had some sort of crazy disease and Petey was talking about being ugly after he’d been coming for her every night, because he couldn’t stand to be away from her, and she was throwing papers and books at him as if it proved something about her, and not about him.
“It’s true,” she said. “I look like a giant bee. And that’s why you can tell it’s me. And that’s why you’re here.” She shrugged, but the tears came again, wet tracks down her cheeks.
“That’s not why,” she said.
She said nothing.
He said, “I love you.”
She shook her head. “You can see me, that’s all.”
But wasn’t that love? Seeing what no one else could?
I loved Petey, but she’s human and fallible and she screws up: this is a perfect example of how fear can make you self-centred. Finn is right, of course. She makes her discovery about her, because she’s so desperately afraid it means Finn doesn’t love her after all. So she hurts him to preemptively avoid getting hurt, but fortunately the two eventually manage to work it out.

I also really liked the fact that there are complicated family relationships at the heart of Bone Gap: Sean and Finn find their way back to each other after fear and lonely had isolated them, and much to my joy and relief the novel never really scapegoats their mother. Lastly, have I mentioned the writing? Laura Ruby is amazing, and I’ll be surprised if this doesn’t end up among my favourite reads of the year.

They read it too: By Singing Light, Random Musings of a Bilbiophile, The Book Smugglers, Lady Business, you?

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Apr 9, 2015

Reading Notes: More Comics (the Marvel edition)

Reading Notes: More Comics (the Marvel edition)

After spending most of my life intimidated by superhero comics, I decided to take the plunge with Marvel. Ms Marvel is partially to blame, as are all the very handy posts Memory has been writing. But a large part of it is simply the fact that I decided to stop worrying and embrace the (occasional) confusion. It’s not the end of the world if a character refers to background events I have no clue about — more often than not, the context tells me all I need to know; if not, Google is my friend.

I jumped into the Marvel universe using the following guiding principles:
a) Pick a character or group of characters I like and follow them;
b) Focus on my pre-existing interests (stories about women).
The results have been, well, a whole lot of fun. As if that wasn’t enough, they’ve brought plenty of new awesome fictional ladies into my life. The past month or so has been so different from the somewhat distressing experience I had when I first tried to read Hawkeye last year. Much to my dismay, I failed to love Matt Fraction and David Aja’s series even though it came with Jenny’s stamp of approval, the art was in shades of purple, and it featured Pizza Dog. This left me wondering what on earth was wrong with me, and secretly suspecting I just might be Too Dumb for the Marvel Universe. I think, now, that I was simply worrying too much. I let every little reference to a character and/or event I wasn’t familiar with pull me out of the story, instead of just rolling with it and trusting my ability to piece clues together. But then Ms Marvel came along, followed by Captain Marvel, and before I knew it my attitude had shifted. What follows are some brief field notes from my latest adventures in Marvel-land, complete with lots of gushing about the awesome women I met along the way.

Hawkeye Vol 3: LA Woman by Matt Fraction, Javier Pulido and Annie Wu

After all of that, of course I had to start with my triumphant return to Hawkeye: L.A. Woman is all about Kate Bishop (who’s Hawkeye along with Clint Barton). Kate is finding it difficult to be around her mentor guy Clint, so she takes Pizza Dog to LA and starts putting her talents to good use by becoming a Private Investigator/Solver of Problems/Superhero For Hire. Then we get to watch her wear amazing purple dresses and be kind and resourceful for over a hundred pages, and it’s nothing short of a delight.

How do I describe Kate? L.A. Woman reminded me of Veronica Mars at times, but that’s more about how the narratives play with noir tropes and about the situations Kate and Veronica find themselves in than about their personalities. The thing about Kate is that she’s kind, though never in a sappy sort of way. This issue sees her babysitting a cat, helping a gay couple recover their lost wedding flowers, and coming to the aid of a reclusive 60s music star. Kate is unfailingly good-hearted and genuinely ones the people she crosses paths with to be okay (unless they’re trying to kill her). For the most part, the scale of L.A. Woman feels human rather than epic, and I liked that a lot.

When she’s not being a friendly neighbourly superhero at your service, Kate is a young woman who struggles with her family, who’s vulnerable and trying to find her way, and who wants to learn who she might be without money and connections she knows she can fall back on at any time. Although the Clint Barton-focused volume 4 of Hawkeye marks the end of Matt Fraction’s run with these characters, I hope there will be more Kate Bishop in my future.

I want that purple bike.

Storm Vol 1: Make it Rain by Greg Pak, Victor Ibañez and Scott Hepburn

Storm was a bit of a daring choice for me, in the sense that it’s a comic that requires more context than any of the things I’ve been reading. As people who aren’t me probably have known for years, Storm is Ororo Munroe, a Mutant with the ability to control the weather. She’s an important character in the X-Men universe, and was the first black woman to become a major character in the Marvel universe. Between that, hearing good things about her solo series from friends, and my new “Why not?” attitude when it comes to comics, I got Make it Rain as soon as it came out.

Before I continue, I’ll have to admit the full extent of my ignorance. Reading Storm did have me asking my partner for a crash course on the X-Men universe (the words “Who is Professor Xavier?” may or may not have been uttered) and hastily googling “What happened to Wolverine?”, but you know what? None of that much mattered in the end.

At the start of Make it Rain, a student at the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning, where Storm headmistress, accuses her of being a sell-out. This forces her to reassess how she uses her powers, and the result is a series of episodes where Ororo attempts to help people in ways big and small, and which more or less have the same human scale I so appreciated about Kate Bishop’s adventures. I particularly enjoyed the issue where Ororo helps the inhabitants of a village whose crops have been failing due to a draught — she unexpectedly meets someone from her past and there are some tensions surrounding that, but the focus remains on ordinary people.

So yes, a good start to the series, and one that made me want to seek out more titles in the X-Men universe (particularly ones that focus on women). I’m glad I decided to be brave.

Young Avengers Vols 1-3 by Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie et al

I decided to read Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s run of Young Avengers (collected as Style>Substance, Alternative Culture, and Mic-Drop at the Edge of Time and Space) for the following reasons:
1) Their creator-owned title, The Wicked + The Divine, was all kinds of amazing;
2) Kieron Gillen wrote this and this when Terry Pratchett died, which pretty much guaranteed he’d be someone I’d like;
3) Kate Bishop.
Thanks to Memory, I knew that Kate Bishop first appeared in Young Avengers, and that she was every bit as interesting a character in the hands of other writers as she was in Matt Fraction’s. In addition to Kate, the Young Avengers are Teddy and Billy (who are a couple), America Chavez, Noh-Varr (who has a thing with Kate), David Alleyne, and a young and morally ambiguous Loki. In Style>Substance, an intergalactic parasite accidentally summonsed by Billy takes over the Young Avengers’ parents, which means that until they find a way to defeat it they can never go home.

These books are very past-faced, and after my experience with The Wicked + The Divine I’m starting to suspect that might be a Gillen and McKelvie thing. But, also like The Wicked + The Divine, they have a very diverse cast of characters I quickly grew to love. I love that there’s a gay couple at the heart of the story (neither of whom dies! This shouldn’t be worthy of note but sadly it is), plus plenty of other queer characters. There’s a scene where Kate comments on the fact that she’s the only straight member of the team, to which America replies, “I’ve seen the way you look at me.” Also, the bit where Kate wakes up next to Noh-Varr and quickly decides that she’s neither sorry not ashamed to act on her desire made me incredibly happy.

What else? The dialogue is funny and sharp, the characters’ emotional ties feel real, and there are moments with real heart. If anything I wish there had been more of the latter in-between the action scenes, but that’s probably the character-oriented reader in me rearing her head. I had a ton of fun with these books, and I particularly appreciated that they had a sensibility that spoke to me.


Pop culture jokes!

Ladies with satisfyingly complex relationships!

I’ll be back next week with even more Marvel adventures — I’ll leave you to decide whether that’s a promise or a threat.

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Apr 7, 2015

Reading Notes: Comics, Comics, Comics!

Reading Notes: Comics, Comics, Comics!

Excitement about comics is in the air lately — at least in my corner of the bookish Internet. As Jenny was saying the other day, it seems easier than ever to be aware of ongoing and upcoming series, and to end up with far more that you want to read than you have the time or the money for (thank goodness for libraries) (though they don’t really help with the time bit). I don’t think there was ever a time before now when I knew about series I desperately want to read before they’d been collected as trade paperbacks, or even published at all (Monstress! ODY-C! Bitch Planet! Lumberjanes! I want them noooow). Jenny’s post included a list of culprits that more or less matches my own, except I’d also add Chris and Debi’s Comics February and last year’s Comics and Super Women Theme Week.

I’ve read too much in the past month or so to be able to talk about these books individually, much as I’d like to, so this is is the first in a series of comics-themed Reading Notes. Today I bring you some quick thoughts about three offerings from Image Comics, all of which I enjoyed:

The Wicked + The Divine Vol 1: The Faust Act by by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie

This book! The Wicked + The Divine is full of music, mythology, complicated women — it short, it seems tailor-made for my feminist, music and Sandman-loving heart. The premise is this: every ninety years, a Pantheon of twelve gods returns to our world. They are incarnated in twelve young humans, and then spend the next two years being worshipped — in the case of the present-day cycle, as music stars. When the two years are up, the twelve gods die.

Laura is a seventeen-year-old music fan who’s obsessed with the Pantheon (well, most of it anyway). She goes to as many of their gigs as possible, and she eventually catches the eye of Lucifer. When Luci is accused of murder, it’s up to Laura to find out what really happened. Along the way, she meets a journalist named Cassandra who’s not as convinced by the gods as Laura is.

The first thing I need to comment on is the diversity of the cast of characters — and having read Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers I know this is something they’re deliberate about, which makes me very happy indeed. First of all, there are ladies everywhere. Memory pointed out that “this is a book in which women do things for women with other women’s help—or in spite of their hindrance”, which is absolutely true. There are also lgbtq characters (and for once the “t” is not ignored: Cassandra is a trans woman) and characters of colour. It’s wonderful to see a fantasy universe whose makeup actually matches our own’s, and where the narrative reminds us that straight white boys are not the only ones who get to have exciting mythical music adventures.

The first volume of The Wicked + The Divine packs a lot: it throws us right into a complicated mystery, and it drops tons of clues about the premise and the world where the story is set along the way. I found the storytelling a bit dizzying at times, but not in a bad way. So far there are more questions than answers, but I look forward to following Laura and Cassandra as they find out more. And as with all of these books, it’s the characters that really have me hooked. More, please.

Sex Criminals Vols 1 and 2 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

If there was some kind of Strangest Premise For a Series award, Sex Criminals would be a strong contender. It’s about two twenty-somethings, Suzie and Jon, who have the ability to stop time when they orgasm. The two grew up thinking they were the only ones with this strange super power — until they meet at a party, hit it off, and one thing leads to another. The title of the series refers to the fact that Suzie and Jon decide to make use of their newfound partnership to rob banks. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take long for things to go horribly wrong.

There’s a context for Suzie and Jon’s doomed planned, and Sex Criminals is nowhere near as focused on bank robbing as it is on Suzie and Jon as people and as a budding thing. The thing I enjoyed the most about volume one, for example, was how it used the two main character’s back stories to explore different attitudes towards male and female masturbation and sexuality in general, and how that shaped Jon and Suzie’s experiences growing up. (Also, I loved that Suzie is a librarian who’s really worried about the future of her library, because how could I not?)

Sex Criminals is also about different forms of intimacy, about relationships, and about what getting close to another human being entails. For example, Jon struggles with mental health issues, and the fact that he isn’t always able to look after himself affects his relationship with Suzie. Volume 2 focuses on the ups and downs of their romance, and it explores the challenges of being close to someone who has to live with (as Jon puts it) “brain things” day after day in a thoughtful and moving way — and the same goes for the challenges of living with such issues yourself and attempting to negotiate intimacy with others. As you may have gathered, there are plenty of sad and serious moments, but these are always intersected with unapologetic jokes about sex and sexual attitudes. The result is an emotional tone that deftly balances ligh an darkness, and which worked like a charm for me.

There’s an overall plot to the series, involving Jon and Suzie’s misadventures with a sinister organisation they call the “Sex Police”, but if I haven’t said much about it it’s because I’m nowhere near as sold on it as I am on the characters. Jon and Suzie (and Suzie’s friend Rachel, and Dr. Kincaid) are what keeps me reading, and so far that’s more than enough.

Rat Queens Vol 1: Sass and Sorcery by Kurtis J Wiebe and Roc Upchurch

Rat Queens just might be my favourite of the comics I read recently — which is saying a lot, because I’ve been reading some great stuff. Hannah, Betty, Violet and Dee are a group of adventurers that do what adventurers in sword and sorcery are wont to do: they go on quests, they brawl, they drink, they hook up with men and women, they save the day. They’re also all women, and they are, as Jenny so well put it, “fiercely loyal to each other”. I like stories that gender-swap traditional heroic roles, not only because they appeal to my sensibility but because the world still needs reminding that the full range of humanity should be as available to women as it is to men.

When I read Gail Simone’s Red Sonja last year, I said I enjoyed the genre deconstructions even if sword and sorcery remains not my favourite subset of fantasy. Rat Queens is as unapologetically sword and sorcery as Red Sonja, but! It’s also full of humour, and it turns out that makes all the difference. It’s playful and absurd and full of heart, and it affectionately pokes fun at storytelling conventions in a way that made me incredibly happy.

Also, I love that when portraying the Rat Queens, Wiebe and Upchurch made a point of including a range of body types. But they’re not only unique when it comes to their looks, of course — Betty, the Smidgen, is sweet and funny and thinks nothing of packing candy for lunch. She’s also interested in a local lady who may or may not be ready to pursue a relationship. Violet (my favourite) is a dwarf who left her family behind for a life of adventuring, and who has a complicated relationship with her twin brother. Hannah is an elf who casts spells and wants you to know just how little she cares what you think of her. And Dee is a healer who grew up in a family of octopus deity worshippers and needs to find out what she believes in.

I fell in love with these ladies. Bring on The Far Reaching Tentacles Of N’Rygoth.

So yay, comics! More soon.

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Apr 2, 2015

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal by Atul GawandeBeing Mortal by Atul Gawande

This is a book about the modern experience of mortality — about what it’s like to be creatures who age and die, how medicine has changed the experience and how it hasn’t, where our ideas about how to deal with our finitude have got the reality wrong. As I pass a decade in surgical practice and become middle-aged myself, I find that neither I nor my patients find out current state tolerable. But I also have found it unclear what the answers should be, or even whether any adequate ones are possible. I have the writer’s and scientist’s faith, however, that by pulling back the veil and peering in close, a person can make sense of what is most confusing or strange or disturbing.
In Being Mortal: Illness, Medicine and What Matters in the End, surgeon Atul Gawande takes a close look at the processes of ageing and dying, and at how his patients, their families, and the medical system they turn to for help cope (or fail to cope) with the inescapable reality of mortality. Gawande’s main argument is that the modern medical system has a hard time acknowledging that as the end approaches, people may have priorities that go beyond merely surviving for as long as possible; giving patients the best possible care involves confronting this fact and making sure their individual needs are met.

Jenny was right: Being Mortal is at times very difficult to read. It’s also an excellent book — a thoughtful and compassionate examination of questions for which Atul Gawande doesn’t always have an answer, but which he believes are worth asking anyway. Gawanda uses the story of his own father’s final illness and death as an overall narrative frame for Being Mortal, and the result is personal and very moving. I struggled a bit with the second half or so, which switches from mainly focusing on old age to discussing terminal illnesses that can hit people at any age. But this just proves Gawande’s main point, really: we don’t like to think about these things, and that unwillingness to confront mortality isn’t always good for us. So I’m very glad I read this book, even if it was difficult at times.

As I said, Being Mortal is a questioning book. It’s also both compassionate and intellectually humble: for all his specialised knowledge and practical experience, Gawande never writes as someone who has all the answers and can bypass people’s will to determine what’s best for them — in fact, this is a model he rejects outright. On the other hand, he also has complicated feelings about the model modern doctors tend to follow instead: one where they give patients information about alternative options and then leave them to make a decision. Information is crucial and it’s something patients and their families should have, but processing it in a highly emotionally charged situation is not always something human beings are able to do. This means they need openness and support, but this is difficult for doctors to provide when they don’t necessarily know how to confront mortality themselves.

Gawande suggests that it might help if doctors and patients alike were willing to discuss the fact that curing illness and prolonging life are not the only possible approaches or the only priorities medicine is allowed to have. We don’t always make choices that are 100% risk free and guarantee our safety when we’re young and healthy; we should retain that ability as we age or become ill. Gawande believes that it’s really important for people to retain a sense of authorship of their own lives, even if they’re constrained by immutable circumstances. What we do within the parameters set by those circumstances is ours; one of the most difficult things about the way we currently deal with old age and illness, Gawande argues, is that it so often takes that sense of authorship away from people.

Admitting that medicine can have goals that go beyond prolonging life is not, of course, the same as saying we should turn our backs on people and let them die. It’s about accepting that patients might die even if we try the best and latest treatments, and by doing so prioritising life. When it comes to assisted suicide, Gawande says he’s less worried about its misuse than he is about people depending too much on that option, and therefore ignoring all the ways in which the lives of the dying can be improved and made comfortable and worth living for as long as possible. “Our ultimate goal, after all, is not a good death but a good life to the very end.” He also adds that “assisted living is far harder than assisted death, but its possibilities are far greater, as well.”

As I read Being Mortal, I learned a lot: not only about the challenges and realities of old age and terminal illness, but also about the importance of gerontology and palliative care and the specialised, contextual knowledge they use to help patients. I’ll be surprised if I read a better work of non-fiction this year.

Other bits I liked:
For more than half a century now, we have treated the trials of sickness, ageing and mortality as medical concerns. It’s been an experiment in social engineering, putting our fates in the hands of people valued more for their technical prowess than for their understanding of human needs.
That experiment has failed. If safety and protection were all we sought in life, perhaps we could conclude differently. But because we seek a life of worth and purpose, and yet are routinely denied the conditions that might make it possible, there is no other way to see what modern society has done.

I am leery of suggesting the idea that endings are controllable. No one ever really has control. Physics and biology and accident ultimately have their own way in our lives. But the point is that we are not helpless either. Courage is the strength to recognize both realities. We have room to act, to shape our stories, though as time goes on it is within narrower and narrower confines. A few conclusions become clear when we understand this: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning on life; that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, our culture and our conversations in ways that transform the possibilities for the last chapters of everyone’s lives.
They read it too: Reading the End, Sophisticated Dorkiness, you?

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