book reviews, comics, history, literature, science

Book Reviews, February 2016

February’s reviews start off with three (!) comic books of varying quality.  I read lots of comics, mostly from the library, but I don’t always review them.  One reason is that because of the serial nature of much of comics storytelling, I don’t want to comment on and/or recommend a volume that is in the middle of a story.  But I’ve decided to try reviewing more of the comics that I read so that anyone interested in the medium can possibly find something new to read.  Or maybe I’ll make something sound so good I’ll convince someone to try their very first comic.  It’s worth a shot.  But it’s not all comics this month.  There’s also a novel by a Nobel prize winning author and science writing from a New Yorker staff writer.

  • Batgirl Volume 1: Batgirl of Burnside, written by Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher and illustrated by Babs Tarr, is a smart, fresh take on an old character.  This volume collects individual comics #35-40 of the series, but it begins a new start for Batgirl with a new creative team and a new outlook for the character.  Batgirl is Barbara Gordon, the daughter of Jim Gordon of the Gotham City Police Department, but she hasn’t always been Batgirl.  She was the original, but after the Joker shot her in the classic Killing Joke storyline, she became a paraplegic and became Oracle, a whiz at computers who provided assistance to other superheroes such as Batman and Black Canary.  Others took up the mantle of Batgirl in the meantime.  When DC Comics relaunched all of their comics a few years ago in an event called New 52, they decided to have Barbara the beneficiary of an experimental surgery that restored her ability to walk, a controversial decision because many found Oracle to be an inspirational hero with a disability.  This latest version of the character is starting over at college in Burnside, a borough of Gotham.  She is still a super genius with computers, which comes in handy against the villains she faces who use social media and celebrity to further their aims.  I appreciated that with this incarnation, the creators revamped her costume into something practical.  All too often, women superheroes have had costumes that were about the male gaze and not about the character herself.  This Barbara wears a leather coat instead of spandex and boots instead of heels in a chic DIY look.  Though not wowed, I enjoyed this new beginning, and I’ll probably read the next installment from the library when it arrives.
  • Magneto Volume 1: Infamous, written by Cullen Bunn and illustrated by Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Javier Fernandez, is the beginning of a chilling and brilliant anti-hero story.  If you’ve read X-Men comics or seen the films, you know that Magneto is a Holocaust survivor: this collection includes a flashback to the Warsaw ghetto.  He’s determined to prevent another genocide, the extinction of mutants.  This version of Magneto is very much like the one at the beginning of X-Men: First Class.  Instead of killing former Nazis, though, he is working alone to take out threats to mutant-kind.  In the tradition of other anti-heroes, Magneto’s actions repulse the reader, but still his motivations are understandable and ultimately we end up sympathizing with him.  Volume 1 collects the first six issues of the story, and I’m looking forward to continuing.
  • Black Science Volume 1: How to Fall Forever, written by Rick Remender with artists Matteo Scalera and Dean White, is a pulpy sci-fi comic that unfortunately falls into the traps of its forebears.  It’s published by Image Comics, which is home to a host of creator-owned comics series that are inventive and interesting (such as Saga and Wytches). The premise is solid: it’s an adventure story featuring a device that allows travel to alternate timelines within what the story calls the Eververse (basically all of the infinite possible universes).  The cast of characters include the team of inventors who built the device, the two children of the team leader, the financial backer of the project and his partner, and a security guard.  After an accident, the group gets stuck jumping from place to place, unstuck in time, with no apparent way to get back.  I thought it could be fun, and it sometimes is.  But I was extremely bothered by the portrayal of Native Americans in one of the alternate worlds.  In that particular world, the indigenous people of North America are visited by some other group of spacetime travelers and they gain use of the device.  They use it to find superior technology with which they first fight back against white invaders first defensively and then offensively as a sort of inverse Manifest Destiny.  I get that Remender wanted to show the evil of the device.  But it’s an alternate reality so he could have made the Native American tribes superior in the first place without outside help (the device works as a deus ex machina).  Besides this, the portrayal of the tribes is that they are barbaric in spite of their advanced technology.  In their first appearance, they are massacring German soldiers, who appear to be in World War I uniforms and defending trenches.  In their next appearance, an indigenous soldier is vividly scalping an enemy soldier.  The stereotype has been set, and unfortunately the characterization never gets much better even as we get to know one.  The team leader sustains an injury so they need the help of a shaman to heal him, so they kidnap one.  He effectively joins the group.  Why he bothers to help them and go along after they have left his timeline is not made clear.  Nearly every other character has clear backstory and motivation, but his reasoning is mysterious.  Eventually in volume 2 of the series we do discover the backstory of his world that I already described, and we learn that he has a family; in fact, he is a grandfather, but it’s not much to humanize him.  He’s still paper thin as a character; he’s mostly used as someone who has powerful technology to heal and to fight, not as a person.  All in all, it’s an extremely disappointing portrayal of Native Americans.  It could have been interesting and forceful (i.e. a world where Native Americans came out on top has potential as a premise), but the execution was abysmal.  It played into all of the worst tendencies of the pulp tradition from which it came by playing to stereotypes.  If you enjoy swashbuckling fantasy or sci-fi, look elsewhere.  Black Science isn’t worth your time.
  • Sula by Toni Morrison is a really great novel.  It tells the story of two friends, Sula and Nel, who grow up in a small, segregated Ohio town.  In brief chapters the story flows as the two girls share life together and then separate when Sula leaves town to live freely.  Nel stays and settles down until the day Sula comes back and shakes things up again.  I’ve kept this incomplete summary rather vague so as not to give away any particular details for anyone who hates spoilers.  I was pleasantly surprised at how straight forward and easy the narration was to read.  I began the book worried that it would be too “literary,” which by itself is not a fault and which I often love about books.  I love many difficult literary books.  But I’ve found that it’s harder for me to give those kinds of books the attention and concentration required these last few years now that I have kids.  I’m more easily distracted.  So I loved that I could follow the story in Sula, and it was still a deep and rich book even if not as difficult as I expected.  An impressive achievement.  I’d highly recommend this novel.  Now for a little anecdote.  I was reading this at the dentist, and one of the assistants/hygienists asked me what I was reading.  I told her the title and then said that it was by Toni Morrison.  She stared at me blankly.  I was momentarily surprised that she wouldn’t have heard of the Nobel Prize winning author, but then I began to think why would she necessarily know Morrison?  Would she know the names of other famous authors who have won the Nobel like Alice Munro and Saul Bellow?  Why would I assume people outside of my set of friends would know who these people are?  Half of all American adults read four or fewer books in a year.
  • The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert is a sobering look at the effects humans are having on life on this planet.  There have been five major extinction events in Earth’s history, and we are currently living during the sixth.  Previous extinction events have been caused by catastrophes like asteroid impacts.  Not so for the sixth extinction, which we are currently witnessing.  Human behavior, whether greedy or careless, has caused the extinction of untold numbers of species.  In chapter after chapter, Kolbert details how species or larger groups have gone extinct or been threatened because of humans.  The megafauna (such as mastodons, mammoths, and sabretooth cats) died out soon after contact with humans, possibly from overhunting.  Large land animals to this day do poorly when in close proximity to humans because they reproduce so slowly and cannot make up for any population losses.  Other chapters deal with the killing off of auks (similar to a penguin) or the Sumatran rhinoceros, which is not yet extinct but barely holding on (in fact, the rhino Suci who is highlighted in book died at the Cincinnati Zoo soon after the book came out).  Still other chapters deal with how humans have made such an impact on different species.  Habitat destruction, especially in diverse environments like rainforests, has led to untold numbers of extinctions of insects and larger animals in the foodchain.  Ocean acidification, caused by global warming, is killing off corals and the many species which rely on coral reefs to survive.  Humans also transplant species around the globe, sometimes unwittingly, which can cause all sorts of unintended consequences.  The book opens with the fungus that is killing off many frogs and other amphibians.  All sorts of invasive species are able to thrive in new environments when they have no natural predators.  They disrupt their new ecosystem, outcompeting and/or killing the native species they encounter.  The final pages offer up the possibilities of all of the mayhem humans have caused: either we will also succumb to the vast disruptions we have wrought to the planet or we will through our ingenuity overcome the looming disaster.  It’s a bleak picture.  Despite how depressing it can be, I still would highly recommend this book.  Kolbert is a fantastic writer (the book won a Pulitzer Prize), and it’s important to think through the implications of human interaction with nature.
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book reviews, comics, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, medicine, poetry, politics, science

Best Books I Read in 2015

I read a lot of great books in 2015, and I would recommend many of them to interested readers.  But I thought it might be helpful to narrow it down to a smaller list of titles for a year end wrap up.  So here are the five books I would most recommend to anyone, followed by ten more that were also great (and I feel bad leaving off books I liked by Anne Lamott, Patrick Hicks, Marilynne Robinson, and Brian Turner, among others—it was a good year of reading).  I’ve put them in the order that I read them with a brief quote from my original reviews (and a link to the review if you want to see more).  First, the top five.

Complications (Atul Gawande)

“a phenomenal book of medical stories and explorations of the human experience at a most vulnerable time.  The book’s greatest strength is its stories.”

The New Jim Crow (Michelle Alexander)

“a devastating critique of American society.  Alexander argues, persuasively I feel, that upon the end of Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, instead of ushering in a time of equal opportunity, America erected a new racial caste system based on mass incarceration (via the War on Drugs) with devastating effect on African Americans.  Her argument is a complex one, requiring diving into history, law, and social science research.”

Get in Trouble (Kelly Link)

a book so good I reviewed it twice!

“It hit the right tone between reality and fantasy that got under my skin so I didn’t know what to believe.” (blog review)

“It’s this quality of the fantastic, when in the best hands like Link’s, that helps the reader to get out of the ordinary world and see something different, all while shedding light on some part of the ordinary that we often overlook. Plus, it’s fun.” (Rock &Sling review)

Hiroshima (John Hersey)

“And though this is a survival story, we see death everywhere.  It’s important to reckon with this, look at the death and destruction square in the face.  As an American, this is my legacy: America is the only country to have used atomic weapons.”

Just Mercy (Bryan Stevenson)

“a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.”

And the runners-up

Gulp (Mary Roach)

“the perfect bathroom book, and I mean that in the best way possible.  The book is fascinating and funny, and the subject matter is often fecal.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson)

“The book is satisfying but not overlong, and still I wished I could spend more time with these delightfully eccentric sisters.  I’d recommend this novel to anyone who likes a slightly twisted and dark story.”

God and the Gay Christian (Matthew Vines)

“Vines presents a well-organized and detailed argument that the church should affirm LGBT individuals and marriage between same sex partners that is monogamous and committed.  And it fulfills the promise of its subtitle: it is a biblical argument.”

Carver: A Life in Poems (Marilyn Nelson)

“In many ways, I thought it read better than a traditional biography would have.”

Searching for Sunday (Rachel Held Evans)

“a mix of memoir and a meditation on church.  The book is structured around the seven sacraments (baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage), which helps hold the fragmentary nature of the chapters together.”

Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates)

“Coates’s writing is an inspiration for me.  He is a writer that I admire for many reasons: love of language, curiosity of self and the world, and deep humility.”

Neurotribes (Steve Silberman)

“a comprehensive and important history of autism […] it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition”

Davita’s Harp (Chaim Potok)

“another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.”

Killing and Dying (Adrian Tomine)

“is an impressive short story collection in comics.  I would put it next to any collection of stories in prose out this year and be confident it would hold its own, it’s that good.”

March, Book One (John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell)

“This is one instance where I think the medium of comics is especially effective at conveying the power of the story while also helping the reader see the larger context.  The scenes of violence are particularly potent to help the reader see both the resistance the protesters faced and the way the strategy of nonviolence worked in the face of violent resistance.”

I hope 2016 brings at least as many good books my way!

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book reviews, comics, history, literature

Book Reviews, December 2015

This is my final installment of book reviews for the year, soon to be followed with a year end wrap up of the best books I read in 2015. Watch this space!  In the meantime, listen to this song from Hamilton, the musical about the founding generation of America, as you read a relevant book review (the first one, anyway).

  • Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis is a look at six episodes of the early days of the American Republic.  One advantage of the episodic structure is that it allows Ellis to advance the thesis he mentions in the last chapter, namely that “all seamless historical narratives are latter-day constructions” (216).  In fact, “Nothing was clear, inevitable, or even comprehensible” to those who have been designated Founding Fathers.  Ellis prefers the designation “brothers,” presumably because while the various players came together on certain matters, there was an inherent “messiness” to the founding of a new country, and they fought each other on many issues, even the very meaning of the revolution.  In telling the story of the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, or the composition of Washington’s Farewell Address, or the correspondence of friends and rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, Ellis highlights the conflicting ideas that animated the early tenuous years of the country.  There was nothing that they could all agree on, except perhaps the need for freedom from Britain.  But the nature of freedom was certainly something that they still disagreed on.  In the chapter called “The Silence,” Benjamin Franklin in 1790 lent his support to ending the slave trade, even though the Constitution had provisions that it would not be ended for at least the first 20 years after ratification.  The congress hotly debated whether they should even discuss the matter since it was supposedly already a settled question in the Constitution.  But how could the same ideals of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration live together with the enslavement of large portions of the population?  The congress managed to put off the question for decades, leading to compromises as the country expanded until it all came to war in 1861.  I’d recommend this book to anyone interested in the American Revolution and the early days of the country (or who likes the musical Hamilton).
  • Killing and Dying: Six Stories by Adrian Tomine is an impressive short story collection in comics.  I would put it next to any collection of stories in prose out this year and be confident it would hold its own, it’s that good.  Tomine explores the themes of identity and unrealistic dreams.  The title story tells of a father’s love and grief, and his difficulty with being supportive of his daughter’s desire to do stand-up comedy.  It’s a haunting story of perceptions: who is dying and who is killing keep changing throughout.  The collection leads off with a farcical tale of a misunderstood artist who dreams of a new artform called “hortisculpture,” a combination of plants and sculpture that is as ugly as its portmanteau namesake.  Tomine plays with the presentation, telling the story in four panel chunks as if it were a newspaper comic, complete with full-page Sunday installments on schedule.  The format and the subject matter let him poke fun of himself for the self-seriousness of an artist.  Two of the shorter pieces, “Translated, from the Japanese” and “Intruders,” are very meditative and text-based.  The former never even shows its characters, instead showing the settings as we read a letter from a mother to her son about a transitional moment in their lives.  The latter narrates the inner monologue of a soldier on leave coming to terms with his past, but this time using a nine panel grid to tell the story.  It’s a fantastic collection of stories; every one stuck with me.
  • March: Book One, written by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, and illustrated by Nate Powell, is the powerful first part of a trilogy of comics based on Lewis’s life and the civil rights movement.  The story concerns Lewis’s early days in rural Alabama and his start in the civil rights movement in Nashville while he was in college.  He was involved with the nonviolent sit-ins at the downtown stores in Nashville that protested segregation.  All of this narrative is framed by the contemporary Lewis reminiscing about his past while he gets ready to attend the inauguration of Barack Obama in January of 2009.  This is one instance where I think the medium of comics is especially effective at conveying the power of the story while also helping the reader see the larger context.  The scenes of violence are particularly potent to help the reader see both the resistance the protesters faced and the way the strategy of nonviolence worked in the face of violent resistance.  By being able to see faces and settings, the story came alive in the same way that a documentary would, but there wasn’t footage of many of the scenes he was telling.  I would highly recommend this to anyone wanting to learn about the civil rights movement.  One word of caution: the book does not shy away from the harsh language used against African Americans.  The n-word is used multiple times, so use discretion if giving the comic to a younger reader.
  • File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents by Lemony Snicket (the pen name of Daniel Handler) and illustrated by Seth is a fun collection of mysteries in the kids’ series All the Wrong Questions.  Snicket is also the author of the previous A Series of Unfortunate Events, and this one features a similar humorous style of writing, full of wordplay and literary references.  All the Wrong Questions is narrated by the young Snicket who is trying to solve a mystery in the spooky town of Stain’d-by-the-Sea, but File Under departs from the larger mystery to have Snicket solve some smaller conundrums that he stumbles upon or that are brought to him.  Many of the familiar denizens of the town including Jake Hix, the Bellerophon brothers, Moxie Mallahan, and his clueless chaperone S. Theodora Markson, as well as many others, make appearances in the various suspicious incidents.  The answers or conclusions to the mysteries are provided at the end of the book much the same as they would in an Encyclopedia Brown or similar mystery book, and the clues aren’t so difficult that a young reader couldn’t figure out the solutions to at least some of them (confession: I only figured out a handful myself).  Snicket’s style is educational as it entertains.   The characters provide useful definitions of difficult words throughout the stories, such as inane (“pointless and dull”) and preternaturally (“extra”), and phrases like “shadow of its former self” (“not as good as it used to be”) and “well-bred” (“doesn’t mean anything at all, but which some people use to make themselves feel better than others”).  The literary references were also fun, especially for an English major like me.  In one story alone, “Twelve or Thirteen,” there were mentions of a stolen portrait of Gary Dorian, an Ethan Frome Festival sled race, and hidden within the list of sledders the name of the poet William Carlos Williams.  This is a good kids’ book and series, one that even an adult can enjoy.
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book reviews, comics, criminal justice, faith, history, literature, medicine, politics, psychology, science

Book Reviews, November 2015

November’s books are a varied lot, but they were all pretty great (with one notable exception–I’m looking at you, Luke Skywalker).  You might find something you like.

  • NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity by Steve Silberman is a comprehensive and important history of autism.  He details how two researchers, Hans Asperger in Austria and Leo Kanner in Baltimore, both discovered autism around the same time in the late 1930s, but came to radically different conclusions based on their observations.  Kanner viewed autism as a rare condition with a strict set of “fascinating peculiarities.”  Asperger, working under the shadow of the Third Reich, however saw it as “not at all rare” and as a continuum, but his work remained untranslated from the German for decades.  It wasn’t until Asperger’s views were rediscovered and disseminated in the 1980s by like-minded psychologists such as Lorna Wing and Uta Frith that views began to shift.  In the meantime, Kanner’s narrow view of autism meant that few got a diagnosis and the help that they needed, and of those that did, he proposed theories (popularized by Bruno Bettelheim) that parents were to blame, especially “refrigerator mothers.”  The continuum model, or spectrum as it is now called, finally took hold in the DSM-III-R of 1987.  One of Silberman’s chapters details the fascinating history of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as it relates to autism, and how with the inclusion of Asperger’s syndrome in DSM-IV in1994, the way was paved for many more individuals to get a diagnosis.  It is this new understanding of autism that has led to the “epidemic” of diagnoses in the last 20-30 years.  Autism has always been there, but now there is a label to attach to it.  Silberman slaps down the study by Andrew Wakefield that supposedly showed a link between vaccines and autism, showing how the study was seriously flawed in many respects and was later retracted by the journal that originally published it.  There were many other chapters that focused on different aspects of autism besides the clinical and diagnostic side.  One focused on the impact of the film Rain Man, which was a favorite of mine in high school (not sure how it holds up as it’s been a long time since I saw it).  Another detailed the connections between autism and ham radio and science fiction fandom.  Others chronicled how families cope with autism and how the autism community has begun to define itself.  Overall, it gives a multi-faceted perspective to an often misunderstood condition.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in autism.
  • Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is a flat-out incredible book.  Through the stories of prisoners young and old, innocent and guilty, whom he has represented as an attorney through the Equal Justice Initiative, Stevenson shows the many ways that the U.S. criminal justice system is flawed and often leads to unjust outcomes.  The main narrative concerns Walter McMillian, a man wrongly sent to death row in Alabama for a murder he had nothing to do with.  The twists and turns in the case as they try to appeal his conviction against a hostile prosecutor and law enforcement officers and indifferent courts read like a John Grisham novel (Grisham himself gives the book a positive blurb).  I could barely put it down.  The structure of the book aided this quality: he interspersed the chapters on the McMillian case with chapters on other topics including juveniles tried as adults, mothers in prison, and the mentally ill, so the reader can’t stop.  The stories are forceful and worthy of indignation.  Ultimately, Stevenson has compiled a moral argument for criminal justice reform that is a perfect complement to books like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and Adam Benforado’s Unfair (both of which I reviewed in May and mentioned before).  He provides the emotional heart of the argument in the stories of the imprisoned that the others make in detailed analysis of case law or social science research.  What is the point of our criminal justice system anyway?  Stevenson points out how inhumane it has become as we have overseen the era of mass incarceration: “We’ve become so fearful and vengeful that we’ve thrown away children, discarded the disabled, and sanctioned the imprisonment of the sick and the weak—not because they are a threat to public safety or beyond rehabilitation but because we think it makes us seem tough, less broken” (290).  I can’t recommend this book enough.
  • When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson is an important book of essays dealing with big topics like democracy, human nature, and the difficulty of history.  It’s not nearly as daunting as that sounds, but it is a bit daunting.  First, she knows a lot about history and literature.  Second, she doesn’t write down to her audience.  It’s not that she is showing off, but she packs so much into her analyses and probing that it sometimes does take a moment to soak it all in. Robinson has a style that meanders in a pleasant way, touching on matters that don’t always appear at first to be on topic, but that she brings around to great effect.  There are many passages I marked because they were so powerful.  For example, when talking about the Homestead Act, she points out that “housekeeping is a regime of small kindnesses, which, taken together make the world salubrious, savory, and warm.  I think of the acts of comfort offered and received within a household as precisely sacramental” (93).  Or when discussing a number of books that attempt to debunk the Bible, especially the Old Testament for its violence, she proceeds to show how the Torah is heavily interested in the care of the poor, listing many laws that command making provision for those in need.  It’s a rich book, well worth the time and worth rereading.  I had the opportunity to meet Robinson once at a wine and cheese gathering before a reading.  She read from her then forthcoming novel Gilead, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize.  At the time, I had only read one of her books, a different book of essays, but when I had a chance to shake her hand, I told her that I thought she wrote beautifully and that I planned on reading everything that she had written.  I’m still working on that project, and I’m the better for it.
  • My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner is a startling and poetic memoir of an Iraq War veteran.  The book is divided into short, numbered sections, and it’s not surprising that some of them read like brief poems since Turner has written two well received books of poetry before this memoir.  To give an idea of what I’m talking about here’s the closing paragraph of an early section where he describes his time in Bosnia, where he was also deployed:  “Fires burned in Mostar and Visegrad, Gradacac, Gorazde and Sarajevo.  Season by season, the dead sank deeper into the soil—each enduring the severe and exacting labor of leaves and rain and sun in their compression of mineral and stone, there within the worm-driven kingdom of hunger, phyla of the blind.” (32)A later section about a house raid in Iraq begins with “The soldiers enter the house” and repeats the phrase like a refrain over and over, each time with a different description of how they enter the house (e.g. “with shouting and curses and muzzle flash” or “with the flag of their nation sewn onto the sleeves of their uniforms”) (The entire section can be read at this link; I highly recommend taking a few minutes to read it; it’s worth your time).  I had the opportunity to hear Turner give a reading last month, and he chose this passage from the book.  It’s the centerpiece to the book, a moving description that humanizes the soldiers bursting into the home as well as the Iraqis who are disrupted and traumatized.  The fragmentary nature of the narrative allows Turner to play around with memory and time.  Memory often works likes this, brief glimpses of the past disconnected from what came before, a moment captured, but then sometimes intertwined with an image or a person or a feeling to some other moment, leading to another glimpse.  One of the themes of the book is the legacy that Turner feels as he tries to explain why he joined the Army.  He recounts the war experiences of many relatives, including his father and grandfather, and the bonds that are forged by that experience and how it never leaves a person.  In fact, another part of the book explores how anyone can come back from a war zone and try to re-integrate into civilian life.  He describes himself as two persons, one Sgt. Turner who, although dead, still watches the other, civilian Brian Turner, from the cameras of a drone.  It’s a remarkably potent image of the nature of identity integration and the trauma of war as it is carried out in the 21st century.  I began reading the book on Veteran’s Day because I felt that I need to grapple with the experiences of our soldiers and the costs of our country’s decisions to go to war, even when I didn’t agree with the reasons for going to war.  Those men and women went on my behalf whether I asked them to or not.  Turner’s story is only one soldier’s story, but it’s worth knowing when it’s told this well.  [Here’s a great interview with Turner as well]
  • Star Wars: Skywalker Strikes, written by Jason Aaron with artist John Cassaday, is essentially a placeholder comic, not really worth the time.  I was pretty disappointed at how predictable it all was: the first arc especially is simply another small band of heroes infiltrating an enemy base.  Set between the first two movies (Episode IV: A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back), it is very constrained in what it can do in terms of story and character development.  These first six issues of the comic feature only familiar characters from the movies (with one notable exception at the very end of the collection).  For what it is, a retread of familiar characters in familiar situations, it actually is well done.  Aaron has the voices of the characters down, and the art by Cassaday is top notch, reproducing the facial expressions of the actors with real skill.  But I expected much more from these two creators who have written or provided art for some of my favorite comics (e.g. Aaron’s writing on Scalped and Cassaday’s art for Planetary and Astonishing X-Men).  I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you absolutely cannot wait until the new Star Wars movies come out, and you can read it for free (like I did, from the library).
  • Davita’s Harp by Chaim Potok is another beautiful and moving novel by this author.  Like the others I’ve read, it’s a coming of age story about a young, smart, Jewish kid; unlike the others I’ve read, this one is about a girl, and that makes all the difference.  Davita’s Harp is the only one of Potok’s novels with a female protagonist.  Davita herself tells the story of her childhood, growing up in New York City during the Great Depression.  Her mother is a Jewish immigrant, but not religiously observant, and her father is from New England privilege, but has renounced the wealth that he came from.  They are Communists (when that wasn’t quite as unfashionable as it would be today) with hopes and beliefs about making the world a better place.  Her father is a journalist who travels a lot to cover strikes and other important events, eventually traveling to Europe to cover the Spanish civil war in 1937.  Her mother is a social worker and very active in the party.  Davita never quite understands her parents and their beliefs, but she loves them dearly and respects their desire to make the world better.  She wants to understand how they changed so profoundly: her mother had been brought up in a Hasidic family (a very strict Jewish sect) but had lost her faith, and her father had renounced capitalism and his wealthy heritage because of some event in his past.  It’s all quite mysterious to Davita.  As she grows, she learns more about her parents and about her place in the world, both as a girl and the daughter of Communists.  There’s a lot of connections to the history of the period, to Jewish identity, and even to characters from other Potok novels, though it’s not necessary to read the other books to find pleasure in this one.  I enjoyed this one thoroughly, and I’m glad that it wasn’t another story about fathers and sons like so many of his others (though I liked those a lot, too).
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book reviews, comics, faith, history, literature, poetry, politics, science

Book Reviews, October 2015

I’m trying something new with October’s batch of book reviews.  The first review is twice as long as usual so that I could go into more depth on the important history of voting rights in America.  I think I’ll try doing this again when the subject warrants it.  As for the rest, it’s more poetry, science, and faith stuff, which is pretty typical for me.  [edit: I’ve added another review at the bottom of a scary comic book I read on Halloween but didn’t have time to review until a few days later]

  • Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman is a vital look at the history of the Voting Rights Act from its passage in 1965 until today.  It traces the many challenges to the law, the Supreme Court decisions that defined how the law could be interpreted, and ultimately how the law has been rendered mostly toothless by the recent Shelby County v. Holder decision in 2013.  It’s easy to think that when constitutional amendments or major legislative victories pass that they have solved the problems, but it’s not like those who were on the losing side of the argument suddenly give up at that point.  The 15th amendment, ratified in 1870, prohibited all levels of government from denying the vote to any citizen based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”  But after Reconstruction ended in 1877, the south passed numerous Jim Crow laws that essentially denied the vote to African Americans through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, and the like.  For nearly one hundred years, the constitution was not enforced.  The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965 with bipartisan support and signed by Lyndon B. Johnson after the dramatic march from Selma to Montgomery illustrated the extreme lengths that the state of Alabama was willing to go to deny the vote to blacks (the recent film Selma does a fantastic job showing the efforts of civil rights protesters).  But again, those who lost the battle of the VRA did not give up the war against minority voting.  For instance, say a city had 60% white people and 40% black people and had heretofore always elected a white city council by suppressing the black vote.  But now that blacks could register to vote because of the VRA, they had the opportunity to elect, say, two black city council members because two of these hypothetical districts were majority black.  In such a case, many cities switched from having district voting to citywide at-large voting so they could continue voting in an all white city council.  This type of effort to dilute or further suppress the black vote continued to happen in the southern counties covered by the VRA after it was passed.  Both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan courted southern states by promising to water down the VRA in what has been termed the southern strategy.  Reagan even went so far as to fill the Justice Department with lawyers who were not eager to enforce the VRA, including some who were outright hostile towards the law such as future Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito.  Other methods of suppressing minority voting include voter roll purges (where voters are removed from the registration list in an effort to update the rolls, but often leads to errors where lawfully registered voters are removed for no good reason) and voter ID laws (promoted to prevent in person voter fraud, a problem that does not in fact exist, but which hurts minority, student, and elderly voters who may not have the required identifications).  In the 2000 election, the Florida recount made famous the confusing butterfly ballots and hanging chads that made it difficult to determine who received more votes in the presidential election.  What got less attention was the voter roll purge that took place before the election.  Florida purged the names of ex-felons (because by law in FL they did not have the right to vote), but they did so even if the names were a 70% match.  That means that even if voters had a different middle initial or suffix or even their race or sex data didn’t match, they might be purged.  The company that did the work for FL later went through the names again using stricter criteria and found 12,000 names that shouldn’t have been purged.  Some of those people definitely tried to vote but were not able to because when they showed up at the polls, they were turned away since they were no longer registered based on mistakenly being identified as a felon.  More recently, Indiana’s 2008 voter ID law was found constitutional despite zero instances of in person voter fraud in the state.  After the Shelby County decision in 2013, which struck down section 4 of the VRA, numerous states that had been under the VRA rushed to try and pass voter ID laws.  Section 4 of the VRA used a formula to stipulate which counties in the country would be subject to preclearance by the Justice Department of changes in election laws.  With no formula, the preclearance portion of Section 5 was rendered inert.  The Republican controlled Congress, despite overwhelmingly reauthorizing the VRA in 2006, has made no effort to rewrite the formula since the Shelby decision in 2013.  In general, Republicans do not come out looking great in this book based on their actions, with a few exceptions like Everett Dirksen, Bob Dole, and James Sensenbrenner, who respectively each played a role in passing the VRA and renewing it in 1982 and 2006.  However, I did not care for the few times Berman took cheap shots at Republicans based on irrelevant details or issues not involved in voting rights (e.g. mentioning that John Ashcroft spent taxpayer money to cover a statue of Lady Liberty at an event or insinuating that Hans von Spakovsky has a sinister sounding name).  It didn’t happen often, but it hurts his credibility in telling the vital history of voting rights in America.
  • The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements by Sam Kean is a fascinating tour through the elements.  True to its title, Kean’s book includes interesting stories and anecdotes for every entry on the periodic table, from the probable zinc mixed with King Midas’s bronze (itself an alloy of tin and copper) that made it a much shinier brass and perhaps mistaken for gold to the effects of lithium on the brain of a poet like Robert Lowell (e.g. resetting the circadian rhythm).  Kean goes out of his way to include humor and arcane tidbits as he tells his stories.  It’s partly a history of science, but it also touches on other historical events when an element plays a prominent role.  I never took a chemistry class in high school or college, so I feel a little behind in my scientific understanding, but this is the kind of book that goes down easy.  It’s science for the rest of us.  I found myself dipping into the book frequently, and having a hard time putting it down as each new story sounded alluring.  I’d recommend this grab bag of chemistry to anyone who finds science interesting.  My only (admittedly minor) complaint is that there isn’t really an overall theme or point to the book beyond being a delightful collection of diverse stories about or related to the elements.  The title of the book refers to gallium, a moldable metal that melts at 84 degrees, so that a teaspoon made of gallium would literally melt in a hot beverage as a nerdy prank.  Oh, science!
  • Transformations by Anne Sexton is an off-kilter poetry collection retelling familiar fairy tales. The stories from Grimm may be familiar, but the tone and the telling are decidedly fresh and exciting. Take the scene in “Cinderella,” where the sisters are trying on the slipper:The eldest went into a room to try the slipper on
    but her big toe got in the way so she simply
    sliced it off and put on the slipper.
    The prince rode away with her until the white dove
    told him to look at the blood pouring forth.
    That is the way with amputations.
    They don’t just heal up like a wish.
    The other sister cut off her heel
    but the blood told as blood will.
    The prince was getting tired.
    He began to feel like a shoe salesman.
    But he gave it one last try.
    This time Cinderella fit into the shoe
    like a love letter into its envelope.But it’s not long before the lovely image of the letter and envelope are undercut by Cinderella and the prince living happily ever after “like two dolls in a museum case” with “their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.” (read the whole poem here)  Many other tales such as “Rapunzel,” “Snow White,” and “The Frog Prince” get the same sardonic treatment. I especially enjoyed some of the tales that I wasn’t already familiar with like “One-eye, Two-eyes, Three-eyes.” It’s a deeply weird meditation on parenthood and disability in which three sisters each have a different number of eyes. The odd-eyed sisters are favored by their mother, and the normal two-eyed girl is an outcast. Of course, in the usual manner, that means she will come out on top through magic and the love of a knight. But Sexton frames the tale with the deeply conflicted thoughts of parents dealing with children with disabilities. Parents can see their child as a gift from God, a cosmic mistake, a cause for martyrdom, or a millstone around the neck. The tale ends with Two-Eyes taking in her sisters out of pity and because they are like magic talismans. She can’t help but have them. It’s a poem that I’ll be returning to again and again out of sheer fascination. I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes fairy tales.
  • The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus by Robin Meyers is a provocative look at church.  The main problem with the church, as Meyers sees it, is that it has been co-opted by Empire (first the Roman Empire under Constantine, today the American church by the government and/or political parties).  He outlines ways in which the church should disentangle from Empire and get back to its roots as a countercultural force.  Meyers envisions followers of Jesus from all denominations and theological beliefs coming together to live the faith that we profess.  To him, faith is not a list of beliefs, but radically embodied trust, or “an orientation toward the mystery of God [… b]ecause we trust in spite of what we cannot know” (118).  Another key element for Meyers is that the Underground Church he envisions is nonviolent: we are called to peace and to love our enemies.  It’s something that has been lost from many Christian traditions outside of the Quakers, Mennonites, and Amish (and perhaps a few others).  He has lots of other ideas about how the church can be true to its roots: by making communion an actual meal that is shared with not only the congregation but also with any who may be hungry and in need, by budgeting as much money for outreach as for keeping the lights on and staff paid, by standing up against injustice wherever it may be, and by taking care of God’s creation and not exploiting it out of greed and selfishness, among many others.  I felt convicted by some of his exhortations.  I really liked his sense of shared mission in living out unconditional love no matter what church background.  For myself, I’ve found a home in the Episcopal church.  But just recently my mom was telling me about the wonderful after school program for inner city kids that her evangelical church (the one I grew up in) has been running for close to 15 years.  We may not see eye to eye on every bit of theology, but she and her church are showing the love of God to those kids.  My only complaint about the book is that I wanted Meyers to provide more depth to some of his historical analyses.  I appreciated what he did say about the early church and the time of Constantine, but I wanted more.  I thought the idea of church being co-opted by Empire important so I wanted even more analysis.  His book read more like extended sermons, though, which makes sense since he is a pastor.  He comes from the United Church of Christ, so though he wants to find common ground with Christians of all stripes, it might be harder for those who are more conservative to overlook some of his more liberal statements.  But I think it’s worth the effort in trying to find common ground with other Christians if we truly want to love God and our neighbors. [Disclosure: I received the book from the Carol Mann Agency via a Goodreads giveaway in the hopes that I would give it an honest review.]
  • Wytches Volume 1, written by Scott Snyder and penciled by Jock, is a pretty terrifying horror comic book.  Primarily, it’s the story of a family who has moved to a small town in New England in an attempt to start over.  The mother is still recovering from an accident that confines her to a wheelchair, the father needs time and space to work, and their daughter Sailor is trying to start over after a terrible confrontation with a bully in her old town.  But the past cannot be outrun.  And there is something evil in the woods, something old that preys on human greed and selfishness.  These aren’t the witches of Oz or Macbeth, but something more primal and awful.  But it’s not just a story of confronting evil, but a story of confronting limits, the limits of a parent in protecting a child, or the limits of a teenager’s control of anxiety.  The story is well paced, divided as it is in six parts (originally it was published in single issue comic books, each with an effective cliffhanger).  It was hard to put down.  Also, I was glad I read it during the day so I didn’t have to think about the scary parts in the dark.  The artwork by Jock has two modes: during daylight it is fairly realistic, but when it is dark or there are supernatural elements, the artwork becomes more jagged and exaggerated, like it is more about the sensation of the characters or setting rather than their literal presentation.  The art is a perfect match for Snyder’s story.  The book also contains some extra material at the end that allows the reader to see some of the process of the artwork from penciling to the finished product.  From this material it becomes clear that the colorist Matt Hollingsworth is also a vital member of the team to make this story work.  Though Wytches is an ongoing work, this first volume can be read as a standalone story with a clear climax and ending to this part of the story.  Having said that, I’ll be eager to find out where it goes next.  I’d recommend this to anyone who likes scary stories.

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book reviews, comics, literature

Women Can, and Should, Be Superheroes, Too!

A brief follow up to my post from last summer where I talked about, among other things, the poor representation of women in comic books.  I’m here to report that there are some encouraging signs (though, as ever, there are still problems like Spider-woman’s butt and the poor treatment of Batwoman from editors and writers).  I just finished reading three of Marvel’s recent series featuring female characters, and they were all pretty great (plus two were actually written by women!).

Captain Marvel (written by Kelly Sue DeConnick and illustrated by David Lopez) and She-Hulk (written by Charles Soule and illustrated by Javier Pulido, primarily) are well rounded and capable heroes.  Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel, is an Avenger, but she leaves Earth to patrol the galaxy.  I didn’t used to care much for cosmic heroes and stories because I thought it was too unrealistic (as if any superhero was “realistic”).  Now I’m simply looking for a good story well told, regardless of setting.  Carol is brave, if not a bit rash, but even when she bites off more than she can chew, she manages against the odds, just as any superhero does.  She doesn’t need to be rescued.  Jennifer Walters, aka She-Hulk, is a lawyer, despite her green skin, and a good one at that.  This new series takes her work as a lawyer seriously (which makes sense as the writer Soule is a practicing lawyer himself), foregrounding it more than the superhero action, though it has that, too.  Both series are refreshing in their portrayals of real women in superhero stories.  And the art in both books, though drawn by men in each instance, refrains from the cheesecake that so often mars comic books.

But the most exciting series of the bunch is Ms. Marvel (written by G. Willow Wilson and illustrated by Adrian Alphona).  It stars Kamala Khan, a Pakistani-American Muslim teenage girl, who takes on the name of her hero Carol Danvers.  In many ways, Kamala is the new Spider-Man, a teenager who suddenly finds herself with superpowers, but still has to deal with the confusing world of being a teenager.  The story takes her seriously on every level, with her family, her friends, and her religion.  And, oh yeah, with her new powers and her new life as a superhero.  The art by Alphona gets teenagers right, which is no surprise after his previous work on Runaways.  It’s simultaneously a surprise and no wonder that the book is a success.  A book this complete should be a hit, but so often a book starring a character not the typical stereotype hero though written well is a critical darling before getting an early cancellation.  Fortunately, Kamala seems to be the exception.  I hope this is beginning of more and better representations of women for the comics industry.  This is a good start.

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