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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 26, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Butler, Korra, Austen Guide, Evelina

Japanese cartoonists and animators found their own way. Manga, the Japanese comic book, has its share of superpowers -- but in America, as in Japan, it isn't so relentlessly aimed at boys.

American boy-oriented comics have females so buxom that they all seem to have the superpower of defying gravity; Japanese manga, on the other hand, has vaguely sexless characters -- so much so that it's sometimes hard to tell males from females.

At Comic-Con in San Diego last week, I paused at a manga booth and picked up a book from a series called Black Butler. Since Japan has an African-origin population somewhere just above zero, the word "black" has the ordinary connotations of darkness without racial overtones.

The butler, in this case, is definitely white, and English, and at first it seems that he's a combination bodyguard, chef, and superhuman housekeeper who also opens doors. A significant number of manga fans have fallen seriously in love with the butler; he brings new meaning to the word suave.

Not until the end of the first book do we realize what he really is -- all of the above, but something much more perilous.

Because the manga tradition skews young, it's no surprise that the wealthy family the butler serves is headed by an orphan boy whose behavior sometimes makes him seem sixteen years old, and sometimes eleven. But young as he is, he's made a perilous deal in order to have help in protecting the family's worldwide interests -- not just money, but also maintaining order in the world at large.

The series is more than ten books long so far, but it's funny and adventurous, and there's plenty to delight both male and female readers.

Like manga, Japanese animé attracts audiences of girls and boys -- the mix of adventure and relationships somehow crosses gender lines that American shows have a harder time crossing. More important, animé is able to be serious along with the humor -- in a way that American cartoons rarely try for, animé series attempt to matter to their viewers.

Animators from other countries are adopting the tropes and style of animé, sometimes to very good effect. The result is that the American team that created Avatar: The Last Airbender not only used Japanese markers -- all the signs and documents in the series were in Japanese -- but also achieved the openness to both genders and the seriousness in the storyline that often elude traditional American animators.

The M. Night Shyamalan live-action feature-film adaptation demonstrated very nicely that the animators are able to achieve things that are clearly beyond the reach of at least some live-action directors. And now the new series, Legend of Korra, set in the same world a hundred years later, brings off something I didn't think was possible: It's better than the original.

The first season of Korra reached a very satisfying climax, partly by keeping the magic to a minimum; it preserved its mystique that way. The characters are even more interesting than those in the original series -- though I do miss Zuko. If you missed it on this go-round, the series is available online, and when the next season starts, the first will undoubtedly be rerun. It's well worth looking for.

*

In the Atlanta airport the other day I picked up one of the most delicious (and healthy) snack foods I've tasted: Boulder Canyon Natural Foods Rice & Bean Snack Chips with Adzuki Beans, in natural salt and chipotle cheese flavors.

We all know what to expect from a chip: Thin, crisp, delicious. So let's just say that this is the thinnest, lightest, airiest, chip on the market, and you can't get crisper than this.

It's so thin that I'm not altogether sure how they can package it. I've had chips this thin at a couple of Mexican restaurants over the years -- Uncle Julio's in Reston Town Center (formerly known as "Rio Grande"), and a Mexican restaurant in Larkspur Landing near San Quentin in California, which has since gone out of business.

And those were so thin that I didn't imagine they could ever be packaged -- no matter how much air they puffed into the package, the chips would be reduced to dust by the time they got to the consumer.

Well, these Boulder Canyon chips are every bit as thin -- but, perhaps because of the bean content, they held together better than much thicker chips.

With chips so thin, you can bite down on them and they crunch delightfully; or you can let them lie on your tongue and they practically dissolve. A very sensuous chip.

The "delicious" part is, of course, much more personal and subjective. I can't promise you that you'll like the flavor as much as I do. But I really, really like both flavors I tried.

Where can you find them? I don't know that they're worth flying to Atlanta just to look for them. I also found them through Amazon.com and bought them in units of 24 small packages. Not exactly the least expensive way to sample something.

I guess the best you can do is keep your eye out for Boulder Canyon as a brand, and then specifically for the Rice & Bean with Adzuki Beans as the snack chip. For all I know, they have them in stores all over Greensboro and I've simply never noticed them before.

*

I happen to believe that not only did Jane Austen develop most of the useful techniques of the modern novel, her books remain as exemplars -- like Shakespeare, she not only reinvented the form, but her works remain at the very top.

For a long time, however, Austen was ignored by critics -- like Louisa Mae Alcott, Margaret Mitchell, Mrs. Gaskell, and many other writers of the female persuasion, she and her works were regarded as vaguely substandard, with an audience only of women and therefore easy for professor-types to ignore.

The fortunate result of this is that Austen is still completely readable without any mediation from critics or interpreters. You don't need to take a class in Austen. You just pick up Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility and start reading. She teaches you how to read each novel within its own pages.

The critics who do attempt to "do" Austen usually produce dull failures, because the academic-literary tools invented to make Modernism and Post-Modernism look better than they are simply don't apply to Austen in any but the most rudimentary ways.

However, the very fact that Austen needs no mediation allows a really perceptive literary critic to invent a new way of reading her work that responds, not to how well she fits parameters invented to make Woolf and Joyce seem important, but to what she actually cared about in the writing of her books.

In The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After, Elizabeth Kantor does two jobs at once: She writes a witty, perceptive, helpful guide for modern single women in search of a mate worth keeping for the long term; and she gives us on of the best literary readings of Jane Austen that I have ever read.

It's one of the mistakes made by most literary critics today -- they are all about the manner and generally ignore the matter: what the writer is actually talking about.

But this is a mistake with Austen, because, even though she was a superb writer and she was keenly aware of her form, she was writing about something. Where the ac-lit critics dismiss her subject matter as "mere romance," Kantor sees that Austen is, if anything, the consummate anti-romantic novelist.

Like Margaret Mitchell after her, Austen uses the form of a love story but subverts it every step of the way. In fact, she's quite open about this project in Sense and Sensibility, where Marianne, a romantic lover, head over heels and hiding nothing, is unfavorably contrasted with her much more careful -- and unromantic -- sister Elinor.

Once Kantor points it out, it seems obvious that Austen does not write stories about love at first sight. She writes stories about mature decisions about the kind of love that can last through a lifetime of happiness.

So The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After has plenty of material to guide single women today exactly in the way Austen intended her readers to seek a mate: rationally as well as emotionally, steering away from men of little worth by showing us that such men lead to little that could be called happiness.

The Jane Austen Guide is one of the rare guides to social behavior that is actually worth something: I put it right up with He's Just Not That Into You and everything Judith Martin has written in her guise as "Miss Manners." In fact, that distinguished list also serves as some of the best social anthropology about the mores and practices of the present, post-sexual-revolution age.

Kantor refers to He's Just Not That Into You a dozen times or more in her book, because it is the best of its type, and because Austen's novels prefigure many of the useful observations in that book.

But even if you already have a good marriage, The Jane Austen Guide is well worth reading because it is not only a good guide to happy relationships, it's also a very good guide to reading Jane Austen!

I remember that in grad school, I quickly became contemptuous of most Milton scholarship because it completely ignored the fact that what Milton cared about most was his faith, and without sharing that faith it is hard to imagine reading Milton with anything like understanding.

Likewise, I can't see how you can read Austen intelligently without paying close attention to what she is saying about human relationships. And while Kantor focuses in on the finding-and-choosing phase of marriage, the result is a demonstration of a superb way to read Austen and, by extension, any other novelist who is actually saying something about the real world instead of merely trying to show what a clever writer she is. (In other words, Anne Tyler, but not Margaret Atwood; Richard Russo, but not John Updike.)

Even if you haven't read Austen, The Jane Austen Guide gives you enough clear examples from her novels (and other writings) that you will never be lost or confused -- in fact, after reading The Jane Austen Guide you'll be so well-versed in Austen's fiction that you'll be able to hold your own in long conversations about Austen without actually having read the novels at all.

And men who have grasped the obvious fact that if you want to understand women, you need to read what they read in order to know how they think, will find this to be one of the best, most useful guides ever written. In fact, if anything this book is an excellent manual for men on How To Become a Man Worth Marrying. Consider that to be the subtitle and start reading.

Both as literature and as a guide to understanding and coping with modern life, The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After belongs on everybody's short list. And since every women's book club that's worth anything is going to include this book in their reading list, it's going to stay in print for a good long time.

*

As long as I'm talking about Jane Austen, let me take just a moment to mention a book that you probably never read in school. Evelina, or the History of a Young Lady's Entrance into the World, by Frances Burney, isn't included in lists of great literature today.

Courses in the early English novel will give you the works of Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding (all men, of course, though their main characters are often women). But it's worth pointing out that Evelina was one of the favorite books, and Burney one of the favorite writers, of the Great Jane herself.

Jane Austen was no mean judge of other people's writings, and while she was in the process of reinventing the novel to suit her own purposes, and far surpassing Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding as she did so, she openly acknowledged her debt to Burney.

Now, I generally loathe epistolary novels -- novels told in the form of letters from one of the characters to another. But as I recently learned in the brilliantly insightful course Classics of British Literature, taught by John Sutherland for The Great Courses, epistolary served a very useful purpose in those early days of the novel.

In the writing course I teach, I stress for my students the serious rhetorical difficulties of first-person narrative, urging them to use third-person-limited instead. First-person, you see, suffers from the double burden that it is always written in the voice of a narrator who knows how everything comes out, so that suspense depends on the artifice of withholding information known to the narrator; and it is always at a great remove in time, so that the narrator already knows what everything means and where everything will lead.

But the modern alternative, third-person limited viewpoint, had not been invented yet; indeed, one can claim -- indeed, I do claim -- that Jane Austen invented it. So epistolary, as Prof. Sutherland explained, is a useful way to overcome the limitations of first-person. Since the letters are written during the time of the narrative, while the ending is still unknown, the narrator is not so aware of how things end, and what everything means. In fact, the letter-writers are often found to be hopelessly wrong in the early letters, as events transpire to contradict their first conclusions and assumptions.

Most epistolary, however, suffers from a worse burden -- the characters would never write in the turgid style that most writers can't resist using, as they try to show off their talent and write "well." Thus an epistolary novel is usually even more artificial than a straightforward first-person narrative would be.

Burney, however, does not succumb to the flaws of bad epistolary. I downloaded the book to my Kindle soon after learning that it was a favorite of Jane Austen's, and to my surprise and delight, it is an excellent comic novel -- much funnier, in my opinion, than any of the "comic" works of Tobias Smollett or even Dickens's Pickwick Papers, which I find labored and tedious.

The joke running throughout Evelina is that the title character is a young woman of such surpassing kindness and good manners that she cannot bear to disappoint anyone -- even when the young man in question is behaving very badly and making appallingly inappropriate demands.

The result is that young virginal Evelina finds herself, quite unknowingly, in places where no young lady would ever go -- and yet, in her deliciously innocent letters, she doesn't quite understand that she has been consorting with roues and shady women.

Evelina's willingness to go along with truly idiotic schemes can be maddening to a modern reader, unless you understand that this very trait of hers is the joke, the premise: She's a girl who "can't say no," not because she has any bad desires, but because she doesn't have any idea what is really being asked of her. She is "the innocence of virginal young womanhood" carried to a marvelously laughable extreme.

So well did Austen love this book that she named one of her best nefarious characters, Willoughby, after Sir Clement Willoughby, the man who tries so hard to lead young Evelina astray. To Austen's readers, who were not unlikely to be familiar with Burney's best-known novel, the name "Willoughby" would have set off warning bells the moment he appears in Sense and Sensibility -- an overtone that modern readers completely miss.

But Evelina is more than a scholar's footnote to the career of Jane Austen. On the contrary, it's a delightful novel in its own right. No, Burney is no Jane Austen -- but neither is anyone else. And I'll take Burney's Evelina over, say, George Eliot's tedious books of trivial philosophy masquerading as novels any day.

Meanwhile, I have a plan to produce an audiobook of Evelina, because I think that it will be even more enjoyable if it is read to you than when you read it to yourself. Not many fictional works from 1778 are still enjoyable today -- but Evelina definitely belongs on your short list.


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