Archive for January, 2012

Tom Harper’s Book of Secrets, a Review (Part Two)

January 15, 2012

(This post contains spoilers for Tom Harper’s Book of Secrets an for Holy Blood, Holy Grail. You have been warned!)

I just finished Tom Harper’s Book of Secrets, which I enjoyed a good amount. I highly recommend the book to any printing / bookmaking geeks, it features an interesting (though mostly fictional) account of Gutenberg’s life and cross-cuts it with a modern-day mystery adventure through Europe. In this post, however, I’d like to talk about two aspects of the book that irked me, and that strike me as part of a larger pattern of contemporary historical mysteries. These are, the gender roles in the book and the persistence of a Da-Vinci-Code-esque imagery of Dark Secrets Held By The Church. I talked about gender roles in my last post, so this one is going to be about the Da Vinci Code imagery.

To put it simply – Book of Secrets is an interesting historical fiction about Gutenberg, coupled with an exciting journey of historical reconstruction through Western Europe, on top of which is grafted a mostly unnecessary historical mystery plot. By unnecessary here, I mean that the plot has little value or consequence for the book as a whole. In the end, the Devil’s Library has burned to the ground, its secrets gone forever. The budding relationship between Nick and Emily is based on the hardships they endured together, and on a common enjoyment of reconstruction and old things, not on some Secret they share. The secret bestiary is also gone, and ultimately much more important as a symbol of the hurt, complicated relationship between Kaspar, Johann, Aeneas and their world, than as some dark secret the Church wants to keep. No one in the contemporary plotline seems to recognize the true significance of the diary, nor could they – the characters simply don’t have the relevant context. So why is it in there?

In the years since the publication of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s Holy Blood, Holy Grail, and (more recently) Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, there has been a plethora of historical mystery novels with this same general theme. The Church has Some Terrible Secret they wish to keep so. Plucky young heroes are, through happenstance, thrust into the middle of a plot to uncover this secret. In the climactic resolution of said novels, however, we often find the secret is either inconsequential or not a secret at all. This let-down is rooted, in my opinion, in the simplicity of Baigent, Leigh and Lincoln’s original mystery… (SPOILERS) Christ was human, possibly married and had kids, and descendants of those kids survive to this day. This may be a very controversial statement to some Christians, but there’s nothing more there. All subsequent attempts to harp on the same theme either end up repeating it, coming up with some secret that has nothing to do with Christianity, or (as is the case with Book of Secrets) never revealing the secret in the end.

The Ultimate Answer that all these books try to circle around was penned by Umberto Eco, in Foucault’s Pendulum. Towards the end of the book, as the main character gets more and more bogged down in the world of mysteries, his wife tells him, his secrets lie in the human body and in the world around us. Our bodies have two legs and two arms, so we assign significance to the number two; we love and hate and hurt and rejoice and so we wrap those feelings up in fancy packaging and spend years looking for the answers that are right in front of our noses. Our body, our human experience, is the true book of secrets. We may enjoy trying on all the fancy symbolic wrappers, but in the end, I would guess, we’ll come back to the naked form and enjoy it all the more.

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Tom Harper’s Book of Secrets, a Review (Part One)

January 15, 2012

(This post contains spoilers for Tom Harper’s Book of Secrets. You have been warned!)

I just finished Tom Harper’s Book of Secrets, which I enjoyed a good amount. I highly recommend the book to any printing / bookmaking geeks, it features an interesting (though mostly fictional) account of Gutenberg’s life and cross-cuts it with a modern-day mystery adventure through Europe. In this post, however, I’d like to talk about two aspects of the book that irked me, and that strike me as part of a larger pattern of contemporary historical mysteries. These are, the gender roles in the book and the persistence of a Da-Vinci-Code-esque imagery of Dark Secrets Held By The Church.

First, the gender roles. The protagonist is male, which remains the norm in the genre, a norm I dislike and do what I can to change. It’s not just the gender of the protagonist: the gender roles are pretty traditional, in a way that grates on me. There are two major characters in the contemporary plotline of the book who are women. Emily is the “positive” character who helps the protagonist. She is frequently passive (though occasionally awesome and competent) and gets sidelined towards the end of the book, even though, in some ways, her story is the more interesting one. Gillian is the “negative” character. She is an independent, strong woman who goes where she wants and does what she wants, but through the lens of the author and of the main character she appears “the wild woman, untamed and unknowable” – and her actions ultimately put her at odds with the party and the law. At the end of the book, she simply disappears, no longer a lover or a friend, but still an unsolved mystery.

The 15th century plotline in Secrets is even worse with respect to gender roles. Gutenberg himself is a major character, and homosexual; his homosexuality, however, is never anything more than a torment or a jealously guarded secret. I appreciate the fact that a gay man might find himself very much an outcast in 15th century Europe, but the Gutenberg sexuality arc features no progress until the resolution when Gutenberg claims he is cured of his “demon” by God after a particularly stressful night when he (temporarily) loses his friend Kaspar. This sort of statement makes me extremely uncomfortable. On its own, it is certainly possible for a person’s sexuality to change drastically after particularly stressful episodes. However, the way Harper chooses to portray Gutenberg’s sexuality has a very unpleasant “casting out the demon feel” that suggests (homo)sexuality is something that is at worst hidden deep and at best cured like a disease. Again, the social norms of Gutenberg’s time and place may have suggested a similar portrayal, but it is my experience that sexuality is an intensely personal matter. A character’s perception of their own sexuality may be tinged by the messages they get from social context, but it grows and changes as the character grows and changes, and (I would argue) never does it conform to any socially held view of sexuality.

This post has gotten a bit too long, so I will leave things here and talk about the Da Vinci Code and related matters in the next post!

Beautiful

January 11, 2012

Recently, I’ve started contributing to the awesome site Genderfork, which tries to be a safe, welcoming space for genderqueer, transgender and genderfluid folks, among others. I’m a Genderfork volunteer, and part of my volunteering is finding photos of genderqueer / transsexual people and reblogging them (with permission) . These photos are part celebrating gender diversity, part helping make Genderfork a welcoming place for anyone who doesn’t want to be binned into maleness / femaleness as a discrete, binary category.

Quick aside: I am going to be talking about gender in a non-binary way in this post, and for me that includes using gender-neutral pronouns. I realize that folks have differing opinions on these pronouns, and some people don’t like them at all. I totally respect that. These pronouns are how I choose to talk about non-binary genders now, and they may not fit for other people, or even for me in the future.

Putting up these photos is a) extremely rewarding, and feels very good, and also b) highly thought-provoking. When I search for photos to reblog online, I find myself thinking about gender, expression, and beauty. Beauty is such a loaded word that I don’t explicitly look for “beautiful” photos to post. However, more often than not, one of the criteria that will make me submit a photo for review is “this person is beautiful.” So of necessity I’ve been thinking about beauty and gender-fluidity a lot.

There is a social standard of beauty, especially female beauty, that other people have written volumes about so I won’t mention it much here. I only want to say that this standard is both highly unrealistic, in the sense that few, if any, actual people match it; and annoyingly persistent, in the sense that I find it burrowing into my head when I look at people. There’s an easy trap I sometimes fall into: when looking at gender-queer and gender-fluid and transsexual people, I catch myself judging them by socially normative, cis-sexual standards. I can look at a picture and say, “oh, ze is beautiful because there is this maleness that’s rugged and strong but also this femaleness that’s soft and curvy and they’re sort of together here.” But when I do that, it feels wrong.

What feels right, then? Well, it feels right when I don’t try to break down and analyze beauty in terms of gender and norm. The way ze wears stripy socks is beautiful. The way ze sticks hir hands awkwardly in hir pockets is beautiful. The way hir hair falls all over hir face is amazing, and so is the light in this picture. The smile, the skin, the pose, the eyes, all those things that people of any and all gender have and express themselves with, those make some inner beauty shine through. The sum result may be a fierce rejection of gender norms, or a fierce expression of the same, or anywhere in between.

I want to emphasize that I’m talking about a continuum here, not a binary acceptance/rejection of cis-sexual presentations, or even of what I internalize as cis-sexual ideas about beauty. To put it simply, some folk like to be cis-sexual. Some folk are trans-sexual, but like to present as cis-sexual. Some folk have trans days and cis days and days when they don’t want to present in any particular way, and all of that is totally cool. Also, I want to say that I’m talking primarily about visual stimuli, which offer only a narrow window into someone’s identity. I can’t *for sure* tell if a person is trans or cis or *anything* from looking at one photo; thinking that I can is equivalent to stereotyping. So, really, I’m sharing my impressions and ideas, but I’m aware that those impressions and ideas can be, and often are, wrong.

Still, I feel that even if I stumble on particulars, my general point is worth expressing: Genderqueer folk come through as genderqueer without having to build themselves out of normative-gender Lego bricks. They can throw out the whole set, or keep any part of it they want, and be beautiful all the same.