Chad Comello

Librarian, cinephile, et al

Category: Books (page 1 of 10)

Want to Read (∞): on becoming a good reader

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I’ve officially become a Reader. Reading books is built into my life, to the point where if I haven’t read anything for a while (a while being a few days) I feel anxious.

It didn’t used to be this way. Regularly reading for fun outside of schoolwork wasn’t a concept I grokked until the end of college, which is also when I started keeping track of my reading. In my post-undergrad phase from 2010 to 2012 I read 16 to 18 books per year. In 2013, when I finished grad school, had a long reading-friendly train commute to a summer internship, and weathered a few months of unemployment, I shot up to 49 books. The number continued to rise once I started working in libraries in 2014: 66 that year, 53 in 2015, and my peak of 80 in 2016. I’ll be close to that again this year.

But I’ll be OK with not one-upping myself, because recently I realized I am trying to one-up myself. Totally separate from the psychic nourishment reading provides me is the equally powerful desire to collect more and more books on my Read shelf, almost for its own sake. Accumulating information and knowledge and units (books in this case) is a key part of my personality—Input, Context, and Learner are three of my top five StrengthsFinder characteristics—so this makes sense. But it can also become counterproductive if collecting-for-collecting’s-sake crowds out the deeper benefits of reading, which are many.

What good is reading a lot if I don’t remember a lot of what I read? I’m one of those nerds who takes notes of quotes and interesting factoids as I read, usually in nonfiction books. But there are several books I’ve read, even within the last year, that I remember very little of, if at all, except a general sense of whether I liked it or not. I can’t imagine what it’s like for people who read 100+ books a year: do they have amazing memories? are they skimming a lot of them? do they do anything else?

I suppose it’s the nature of memory when you’re not a savant to filter out certain memories and solidify others. To say it was a waste of time reading those forgotten books wouldn’t be true because I enjoyed them in the moment, and perhaps they filtered down into my subconscious in a way I don’t understand.

But still, I’ve resolved to slow down a little bit, to not feel the need to rush through every book, and to allow time between books to let them settle and to let myself do other things with my time except read.

I know I’m gonna die one day and there’s just not enough time to read everything and that kinda pisses me off. But I’m willing to fail to hit whatever my ideal number of books is, as the benefits of such an arbitrary, artificial, and unsustainable quest will be far fewer than the benefits of quality reading.

Media of the Moment

I want to do more to account for what I read and watch. I do use Goodreads for tracking books, Letterboxd for movies, and my Logbook for all of them in one place. But between occasional reviews on the blog here and there, a lot of other noteworthy pieces of art pass through my consciousness almost without comment.

So I’m gonna blend my “Music of the Moment” feature with Kottke’s ongoing “recent media diet” feature (minus the grading part) into Media of the Moment to try to briefly highlight and recommend cultural bits I’ve encountered recently.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan. The latest selection for a two-man book club I’m in. Neil deGrasse Tyson should take notes.

How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds by Alan Jacobs. Jacobs is one of my favorite thinkers and writers, and in this book he fulfills a W. H. Auden line he quotes in the book: “Be brief, be blunt, be gone.” See also: The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.

“The Imposter” by Béla Fleck. Watched the documentary about Fleck making a banjo concerto for the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, then got the CD of said concerto, and it’s great.

Landline. Really enjoyed Gillian Robespierre’s previous film Obvious Child, and she returns to form here with her muse Jenny Slate. I think I liked Obvious Child more, but this captures a particular time and family well.

The Florida Project. The latest from Sean Baker, the director of Tangerine, one of my favorites of 2015. Knew basically nothing about it when I saw it; I recommend the same for you. Best Actress for the lead.

Two Prospectors: The Letters of Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark. Always liked Shepard as an actor. After he died I heard about this collection of correspondence with his longtime friend and discovered a wise, searching, highly quotable dude.

Tom Hanks, Olympia, and Me

I had the pleasure of seeing a photo of mine get the Ken Burns treatment on CBS Sunday Morning’s story this weekend about Tom Hanks, his new book, and his love of typewriters:

One of my colleagues got an advance copy of Hanks’ book at a library conference back in June specifically because she knew I’d love it—and I did, enough to write my first typecast review. For the accompanying image I thought pairing the book’s beautiful blue cover with my Olympia SM7 (acquired at the splendid Retro-Revolution in Madison, WI) of almost the same shade made sense and looked great:

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Since I posted it far enough ahead of the book’s publication date, the photo (along with the images of my typewritten review) had time to climb up the ranks of Google Images under searches for “Uncommon Type”, which no doubt is how the CBS producer found it.

I knew Hanks’ book would give typewriters A Moment; I didn’t realize I’d be part of it! But I am happy to be. The book is out Tuesday: go get it and then get a typewriter of your own.

The Diary of a Young Girl

In my ongoing quest to catch up with the “high school reading list” books I missed the first time around, I listened to the audiobook of Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl and, holy crap, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised due to its reputation, but it’s kinda amazing. Not sure how much the translation from Dutch affected the language, but Anne comes across as incredibly intelligent, self-aware, funny, honest—oh is she honest—and even noble in her struggle to become a better person even in confinement.

Knowing the ending of the story while I read it, I felt an immense sadness as I neared the end. I seemed to go through all the stages of grief: I’m sure they’ll make it through the war, then Why do they have to be discovered? then Couldn’t they just make it a few more months? then Screw Hitler and the war. This whip-smart teen who wanted to be a journalist (she would have killed it on Twitter and as a blogger), who was a self-admitted chatterbox, who struggled through boy troubles, who resented her family but tried to love them… she didn’t get the chance to see the fruit of her laboring, and the world is worse for it.

Selma Blair reads the audiobook and perfectly captures the voice of a teen girl. It’s a classic mix of sarcasm, angst, gossip, philosophizing, high-minded ideals and aspirations, and *ahem* frank discussions of sexuality.

Another high school reading list classic I recently caught up with and loved was Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Like Diary, Douglass’s memoir is a hyper-articulate and honest account of oppression that writes beyond its setting and subject, much to the benefit of future readers. I highly recommend both.

So even though The Fault In Our Stars nearly ruined the Anne Frank museum for me, I’d love to visit it one day to pay my respects to an incredible young woman:

“We’re all alive, but we don’t know why or what for; we’re all searching for happiness; we’re all leading lives that are different and yet the same. We three have been raised in good families, we have the opportunity to get an education and make something of ourselves. We have many reasons to hope for great happiness, but… we have to earn it.”

The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek

In the summer of 2013 I interned at the Leo Burnett advertising agency’s corporate library and archives. In the course of my work I came upon boxes of original conceptual artwork and copy from the 1950s and ’60s of the famous brands Leo Burnett created: the Marlboro Man, the Jolly Green Giant, the Pillsbury Doughboy. They also created several of Kellogg’s famous clan of characters: Tony the Tiger, Snap Crackle and Pop, Toucan Sam. At the time I marveled at these artifacts merely as a student of history and consumer familiar with these characters. But now, having read Howard Markel’s new book The Kelloggs: The Battling Brothers of Battle Creek, I see those characters not as the foundation of the Kellogg’s brand, but, since they were created after both Kelloggs died, as its unintentional consummation.

If you’re like me, you:

(a) didn’t know there was more than one Kellogg;

(b) didn’t know one of them was John—a renowned doctor in his time (1880s-1940s), founder of the Sanitarium in Michigan, and “better living” proponent who was way way ahead of his time on dangers of prolonged sitting, meat consumption, smoking, and the benefits of exercise—and the other was Will, John’s long-suffering younger brother, dour millionaire magnate of the Kellogg cereal line we all know (that’s his signature on the box); and

(c) didn’t know they hated each other’s guts.

Markel covers a lot of ground in this family biography. On one hand this provides readers with a backstory I suspect most haven’t heard before, like how the Kelloggs were reared in an apocalyptic Seventh-Day Adventist culture that valued health reform and that bankrolled the Sanitarium in Battle Creek that sprung John to global renown. John was the idea man, the charismatic physician into what would now be called alternative medicine, and (let’s be honest) overbearing asshole. Will, conversely, was the details man, adept business manager, and John’s put-upon lackey before he set off on his own to expand his cereal empire and his bitterness toward John. (He was also an overbearing asshole.) Because of long-held resentments and their similar products with the same last name, the brothers sued each other throughout the 1910s and never reconciled, even into old age.

On the other hand, Markel covers so much ground and in a sometimes scattershot way that it can be an exhausting read. As a physician and medical historian himself, Markel shines in the parts about John’s development as a doctor and how it influenced his products. He illustrates the cruel irony of brothers so focused on creating products and principles based on health and “better living” for others feeding a most unhealthy rancor towards each other. He also ably balances the brothers’ colorful back-and-forth over the years, thanks to an abundant written record at his disposal. But the parts about the inner workings of the businesses get repetitive and wearying, and the last few chapters—tackling the post-litigious years and John’s unfortunate promotion of eugenics—feel tacked on when they could and should have been better integrated into the narrative, which is as a whole chronologically discombobulating.

Nevertheless, this is an illuminating portrait of a foundational American family and their business empire. Though not quite a tragedy in the end, given the Kellogg Foundation’s continued charitable work (thanks to Will leaving his millions with them after alienating all his progeny), it is a grim reminder of the power we waste on hatred and how wealth can’t cure, in Markel’s words, a “damaged soul.”

Agony and Hilarity in The Iliad

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It was Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult that compelled me to finally read Homer’s The Iliad, one of those ought-to-read books that are easy to avoid because so many newer and less challenging books pop up in its way. But I’m glad I decided to dive in, even if it became my actual beach read over the Fourth of July weekend and beyond. Overall, I was surprised by how violent, funny, and sometimes profound it was, and by how much it made me want to rewatch Troy. *shudder*

After first I consulted the Cliff Notes before each chapter so I could make sure I knew generally what was going on. But about halfway through I switched it up, diving into the text first and then reading the Cliff Notes to fill in context. I grew more comfortable with the tone and flow of the text, which in my translation by Robert Fagles was in poetry form.

Because the book is basically one long battle, the fighting itself—and boy is there a lot of it—can sometimes seem abstract. So I like how in the midst of the seemingly never-ending war, Homer sometimes zooms in on one minor character and briefly tells his life story—right before he dies. Like with Euchenor in Book XIII:

But Paris flared in rage at his comrade’s death,
his friend and guest among all the Paphlagonians.
Incensed, he let loose with a bronze-tipped arrow
aimed at one Euchenor, son of the prophet Polyidus,
a decent, wealthy man who made his home in Corinth.
Well Euchenor knew that boarding the ships for Troy
meant certain death: his father told him so . . .
Time and again the strong old prophet said
he’d die in his own halls of a fatal plague
or go with the ships and die at Trojan hands.
So off Euchenor sailed, both to save his wealth
from the heavy fine the Argives made deserters pay
and himself from wasting illness—no slow plague for him.
Suddenly Paris struck him under the jaw and ear—
and life flew from his limbs
and the hateful darkness had him in its grip.

And that was it for Euchenor.

There are also periodic descriptions of combat that are surprisingly graphic. This again helps to ground the story in the realities of the carnage it was producing. It was sometimes easy to forget between all the monologues and backstories of soldiers that there was an actual war going on, with countless men dying gruesome and forgotten deaths. So the moments when Homer describes entrails spilling out on the ground, for example, were, if not welcome, then at least a crucial part of making such a mythical story feel real.

I expected The Iliad to be serious, but I didn’t expect it to be funny. In Book XIV, for example, Hera called on Hypnos the god of sleep to put Zeus to sleep in order to change the course of the war. But Hypnos was reluctant to do so, since the last time he tricked Zeus to sleep, he was furious when he awoke:

But now you are back, Hera—
you ask me to do the impossible once again.”

Eyes widening, noble Hera coaxed him further:
“So troubled, Sleep, why torture yourself with that?
You think that thundering Zeus, shielding the men of Troy,
will rage as he raged for great Heracles, his own son?
Come now, I will give you one of the younger Graces—
Wed her at once and she’ll be called your wife.”

“On with it!”—Sleep cried, thrilled by the offer—
“Swear to me by the incorruptible tides of Styx,
one hand grasping the earth that feeds mankind,
the other the bright sea, that all may be our witness,
all gods under earth that gather round King Cronus!
Swear you will give me one of the younger Graces,
Pasithea, she’s the one—
all my days I’ve tossed and turned for her!”

That “On with it!” is golden. Later in that scene, Hera, awash in ambrosia and aided by a charm by Aphrodite, goes to seduce the mercurial Zeus. And he is so smitten by her that he tells her:

Never has such a lust for goddess or mortal woman
flooded my pounding heart and overwhelmed me so.
Not even then, when I made love to Ixion’s wife
who bore me Pirithous, rival to all the gods in wisdom . . .
not when I loved Acrisius’ daughter Danae—marvelous ankles—
and Perseus sprang to life and excelled all men…

… and on and on he goes, because nothing will set the mood better than bragging about previous carnal exploits!

Though I can’t compare it to others, I’d highly recommend Fagles’ translation of the text. There’s some beautiful language throughout, and in poetry form it’s allowed to breathe on the page. I didn’t read every word (again with the monologues!), but I finished the journey, and look forward to more in The Odyssey and The Aeneid.

Eventually. After I take a break with some reading from this millennium.

Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich

51MAjxi5d1L._SX330_BO1,204,203,200_Don’t do drugs, kids. But do give it up for whoever thought of the perfect double entendre title and cover for Norman Ohler’s Blitzed: Drug Use in the Third Reich.

This topic is definitely not something I’ve heard about in the history books, as they say, so perhaps it’s fitting that Ohler is not a historian buta novelist and journalist. His writing style is much more vivid and conjectural than what you’d expect from a typical history book, yet it’s still rooted in the historical record, which makes it all the more riveting. Who knew that the same German scientist who invented Aspirin also discovered heroin? And that the Nazis’ infamous blitzkrieg that toppled France was aided by the entire army being hopped up on meth?

Add to this the (more well-known) fact that Hitler was a morphine, cocaine, and oxycodone addict and needed several injections a day of vitamins, uppers, and animal proteins to keep going. This would explain his volatile mood swings, insatiable megalomania, and disconnection from reality toward the end. It would also explain why he was a terrible military strategist but an excellent demagogue and tyrant.

It doesn’t mean, however, as Ohler is clear to point out, that the drugs turned him into someone he wasn’t. The “pharmacological barricade” he erected around himself in his final years only ossified what was already there:

His drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions. Hitler was always the master of his sense, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He acted always in an alert and cold-blooded way. Within his system, based from the beginning on intoxication and a flight from reality, he acted systematically and with terrible consistency to the end. He was anything but insane.

Highly recommended fast-paced, unorthodox history of a degenerate time and place.


Some informal book notes:

  • Serturner derived morphine from thickened sap of opium poppies in 1805
  • Merck began selling in 1827, and after injections invented in 1850 was used in Civil War
  • Drinks containing morphine and cocaine available at drugstores
  • Hoffman, chemist at Bayer Company, synthesized Aspirin from willow bark and heroin, a derivative of morphine
  • With small operations and low overhead, business boomed especially in Germany, with high stock of engineers, chemists, and education system
  • Germany lost colonial sources of stimulants after Versailles, so had to produce synthetic ones and soon became global leader
  • The Nazis “hated drugs because they wanted to be a drug themselves”; stigmatized and severely punished drug use after 1933
  • Hitler mythologized as anti-drug teetotaler without personal needs
  • Strict anti-drug measures used to deepen surveillance state and prevent addicts from marrying so as not to reproduce faulty genes
  • Jews depicted as pathogen or disease poisoning the Reich needing to be exterminated
  • Celebrity doctor Morell pioneered use of vitamins mixed with stimulants; Hitler made him personal physician
  • Inspired by US’s amphetamine Benzedrine at Berlin Olympic games, pharmacist Hauschild synthesized new methamphetamine Pervitin, like adrenalin but gentler and longer lasting
  • Meth’s long lasting effects kill nerve cells, and once it runs out the hormones take weeks to resupply, leading to lack of drive and joylessness
  • Pervitin became widely used, assumed safe; marketed as slimming agent because it curbed appetite (meth chocolates: “Hildebrand chocolates always delight”)
  • Appeasement wouldn’t work because Hitler, a morphine addict, always needed more
  • Morell revived Czech president Emil Hacha, who had a heart attack before signing papers of capitulation, so he could sign them
  • According to studies Pervitin kept people from sleeping but didn’t make them cleverer, so it was considered ideal for soldiers
  • Blitzkrieg in France fueled by meth, including Rommel; French and British unprepared for constant attack
  • Propagated idea that Germans were superior beings reinforced by meth’s symptom of arrogance
  • Hitler’s inferiority complex made him distrust success of smarter generals
  • Luftwaffe’s Göring a morphine addict and felt victory shouldn’t be left to army, so convinced Hitler to halt Dunkirk advance
  • “Gröfaz” German soldiers’ derogatory acronym for Nazi propaganda’s term for Hitler as “greatest commander of all time”
  • Morell created new vitamin combo Vitamultin, which had unremarkable elements but was marketed solely to Hitler and generals; when Luftwaffe medical chief rejected them Morell got Goring to fire him
  • Word about Pervitin spread in late 1940 and Reich health fuhrer Conti fought to have it eradicated under Reich opium law, but war needs made it essential
  • Pervitin of no use on Russian front, which was attritional
  • Hitler had “severed relations with geopolitical reality” by declaring war with US; out of touch in bunker
  • Mid-1943 started taking Eukodal (oxycodone), twice as powerful as morphine, created euphoric state higher than heroin
  • Hitler was doped up for Valkyrie explosion so didn’t have pain despite busted ear drums and splinters
  • Giesing, ear nose throat specialist summoned after Valkyrie in July 1944, prescribed cocaine, which “erases self-doubt and encourages megalomania”
  • Hitler consented to full-body examination to get more cocaine from reluctant Giesing
  • Erected “pharmacological barricade” around himself, within “deluded totalitarian system”
  • “His drug use did not impinge on his freedom to make decisions. Hitler was always the master of his sense, and he knew exactly what he was doing. He acted always in an alert and cold-blooded way. Within his system, based from the beginning on intoxication and a flight from reality, he acted systematically and with terrible consistency to the end. He was anything but insane.”
  • Used death camp prisoners to test new endurance pills and cocaine-spiked gum, kept awake and marching
  • Started running out of supplies and withdrawing in early 1945

‘Uncommon Type’ by Tom Hanks – a typecast review

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It's fitting that my very first typecast is a review of "Uncommon Type: Some Stories", a book of short stories by Tom Hanks (out October 2017), written on my Olympia SM7 of a similar color. I don't read many short story collections, but when I heard the unofficial Dean of Typewriter Enthusiasts was writing a book inspired by typewriters, how could I not read it? Little did I know that a librarian colleague (h/t Megan) would snag an advance copy at a library conference for me, allowing me an early look. And whaddaya know: I liked it! But I *would* say that, right? "Of course the typewriter and Tom Hanks fan would like it!" Since I knew I was biased, I tried to read the book as if I'd picked it up at random without knowing its very famous author. And I liked it even then, though there are clues throughout that point to Hanks being the author. There are stories about World War II, the Apollo missions, and the life of a famous actor during a whirlwind press junket, no doubt influenced by Hanks' well-known interests and career. The bulk of the writing, though, is characteristic of simply a good writer, famous or otherwise. The highlight might be "Christmas Eve 1953", which alternates between a sweetly rendered scene of a World War II vet at home with his family and his vivid flashbacks to the Battle of the Bulge. I also really enjoyed "The Past is Important to Us", set in the near-future when time travel is possible but only to a specific time and place for 22 hours at a time. This brings a billionaire to the 1939 New York World's Fair repeatedly to track down an enchanting mystery woman. Has the makings of a great short film. Several stories feature the same friend group but with a different focus in each: "Three Exhausting Weeks" follows a listless man who gets more than he bargained for when he starts dating his type-A friend; "Alan Bean Plus Four" (so-named for the fourth person to walk on the moon) sends the gang on a fantastical, slapdash trip around the Moon; and "Steve Wong is Perfect" has them cheering on a reluctant bowling prodigy. Each story leads off with a picture of the typewriter mentioned in the story, be it a Hammond Type-o-Matic, Groma Kolibri, or Selectric. Most of them are used or mentioned only in passing (for a story dedicated exclusively to typewriters, typeheads can skip to the delightful "These Are the Meditations of My Heart", which includes a paean to the Hermes 2000), so people who didn't come to the book for the typewriters (perish the thought!) will still enjoy a fairly diverse assemblage of stories and characters. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that Hanks exhibits in his writing an actor's keen sense of relationships and scenic flow. It *was* surprising that this wasn't the case for dialogue, which is often over-written. But I ain't mad. I'd recommend this not only as a typewriter fan but as a librarian, to readers in search of small-dose stories that trigger a smile as often as a twinge of longing. May this book recruit ever more people into the glorious Typewriter Revolution!uncommon-type2uncommon-type3uncommon-type4uncommon-type5uncommon-type6

See more typewriter-related posts here

The Vanishing American Adult

51gFJx7Js5L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgI can’t believe it. I think I may have just found a Republican U.S. senator I’d actually vote for.

I’m as surprised as anyone that I read, let alone greatly enjoyed, Ben Sasse’s The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis—and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance by Ben Sasse, Republican (but, phew, #NeverTrump) senator from Nebraska. I really think the only reason I picked it up was because Sasse’s face isn’t on the cover. If it were, it would look like every other politician’s memoir and therefore a waste of time.

But this isn’t that, not by a long shot. Sasse, a Ph.D in history and former college president, was troubled by the lack of certain skills and self-sufficiency in his college’s incoming freshman classes. He doesn’t use the term, but it’s those darn Millennials he’s talking about. Though the book does give off the slightest aroma of Kids These Days and Back In My Day, I’m inclined to endure it because Sasse is largely right.

Part I examines education, which Sasse sees as the root of the current coming-of-age crisis. He’s not a fan of John Dewey, who crusaded to make schooling the central influence on children, rather than make it something that was supplemental to the education children should receive at home. (No surprise that the Sasses homeschool their kids.) But he’s right about the self-perpetuating nature of bureaucracy and how it runs counter to good education:

Unfortunately, centralized education and bureaucrats tend to see every failure as a product of still not enough centralized bureaucracy. Most of these experts are blind to the possibility that perhaps we are still trying to spoon-feed young adults who we should instead nudge to travel and to read, to work and to become the kind of students to ask questions before being handed a three-point formulaic answer.

One man’s boilerplate Republican talking point is another’s sensible conservative approach to an evident problem.

Beyond the school walls, Sasse sees a conglomeration of factors that have led to the current coming of age crisis: too much medication, screen time, video games, and porn; living with parents too long and getting married later; too much helicopter parenting and intellectual sheltering and not enough religion. One can debate each of these to death, but taken together it’s a potent cocktail for Peter Panism.

Part II gets into the practicalities of cultivating self-discipline and good character and how they can foster a healthy transition to adulthood: avoid age segregation, work hard, consume less, travel, and read a lot. Basic stuff, right? Sasse dives into each of them. As a librarian I was especially tickled by the chapter on reading: Sasse has developed his own “essential reading” library that is impressive in its scope and depth, and even inspired me to pick up The Iliad in my ongoing quest to fill in the gaps of my public education.

I don’t foresee any more books by politicians on my reading horizon, so I’m glad I lucked out with this one.

Some Quotes

Production > consumption:

Consumption is not the key to happiness; production is. Meaningful work—that actually serves and benefits a neighbor, thereby making a real difference in the world—contributes to long-term happiness and well-being. Consumption just consumes.

Self-sufficiency > permanent dependency:

Allowing our culture to devolve from one that encourages self-sufficiency into one that indulges permanent dependency is to tolerate a disengagement of the soul akin to permanent training wheels. Letting the next generation believe someone else will solve their problems imperils not only them but our whole society.

Aging > perpetual adolescence:

We latch onto evidence hinting that aging can be put off, perhaps indefinitely. It’s no surprise then that our young today inherit a fear of growing up and growing old, and a near allergy to confronting honestly the only certainty in life besides taxes. …

Denying meaningful rites of passage and obscuring the distinction between childhood and adulthood cheats the generation coming of age of something vital. Lowering expectations, cushioning all blows, and tolerating aimlessness not only hurts them, it also deprives their neighbors, who desperately need their engagement.

Wonder Woman

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I recently began reading The Iliad for the first time. Having that in mind when I saw Wonder Woman was helpful in my appreciation of both works. The way Ares interacts with humanity in Patty Jenkins’s excellent film—first subtly, then catastrophically—mirrors that of the gods of The Iliad, who bounce in and out of the affairs of men, sometimes at whim and sometimes with purpose.

The other lens through which I tried to watch Wonder Woman was as through the eyes of women. In this way several images from the movie stuck with me. Steve, the drowning dude in distress, seeing Diana standing atop his wrecked plane before she rescues him. Diana’s glasses, thrust upon her in a winking attempt to de-glamorize her in Edwardian London, quickly and symbolically crushed during a back alley brawl. Steve’s commanding officer, despite being handed the intelligence coup of Dr. Poison’s stolen notebook, caring much more about—God forbid—a woman in the war room.

Not to mention the now iconic No Man’s Land sequence, which I later learned brought many women to tears. What I found powerful about it, beyond the single-minded drive and badassery Diana shows in battle, was how it was the culmination of a day’s worth of her being told No over and over again, and choosing to ignore it each time. No, you can’t dress like that. No, you can’t go to the front. No, you can’t brandish your sword. No, you can’t enter this men’s-only room, or that other men’s-only room. No, you can’t stop to help people on the way to the front. No, you can’t go into No Man’s Land.

And most of this was from her ally Steve! Nevertheless, she persisted. When she finally deployed her powers in full force, all that naysaying seemed silly in retrospect. Of course she was the right person for the job. She was no man, and the better for it.

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On top of her combat prowess, she later on develops keen insights about humanity, in spite of (or maybe because of) her outsider status. Her battle with Ares triggers a revelation that speaks to the depth of her inner character: that men are capable of great evil does not disqualify them from her protection; in fact, it seems to make her more resolved to provide it. “It’s not about deserve,” she tells Ares. “It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love.” It’s an extraordinary thing for a superhero to say, especially within the bleak Zach Synder DC Universe.

(Her compassionate spirit, her dedication to doing the right thing, and compulsion to tackle challenges head-on reminded me of Chris Evans’ Captain America. Both are alienated from their times—one due to cryogenic preservation and the other by her magical hidden island—and also are the rare superheroes to cry on film. It’s a shame we won’t see those two characters fight together anytime soon, but I’d be all for it.)

That it was a female superhero who brought love into the superhero’s creedal calculus will no doubt rankle those who wish for Diana to upend the sexist assumptions of what a female should believe. (She still upends plenty.) But I didn’t see it as the hokey platitude it is on the surface. I see it as an acknowledgement of love’s deep meaning and the impact it makes upon us. However short her time was with Steve, it made an indelible impression on her and subsequently her worldview as a superhero. Pairing this experience with her incessant drive to do something when faced with injustice makes her a potent force for good in man’s fallen world, and in the larger world of superhero movies.

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