book reviews, comics, history, literature, nature, science

Book Reviews, June 2016

June was a good month of reading.  I read four fantastic and varied books.  I’d recommend all of them highly!  Check them out!

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  • Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future by Lauren Redniss is an extraordinary art book about the science and stories of weather.  Melding her skills as an artist with her ability to present research in an interesting way, Redniss has created a unique and fascinating book.  Chapters range from the history of lighthouses and fog off Cape Spear in Newfoundland to the shipping of ice from New England to warmer climes all over the world to forest fires in Australia and the American West to the science of weather prognostication especially as practiced by the Old Farmer’s Almanac.  Redniss does it all: she created her own font for the text.  The prints that accompanied the stories and interviews were made either by copper plate photogravure or photopolymer process.  The art is impressive and draws attention before even reading the words.  It’s hard to categorize a book as beautiful and interesting as this one.  It’s not merely a science book, though it is that, too.  In the chapter on wind, there’s the story of Diana Nyad, an endurance swimmer attempting to swim from Cuba to Florida but needing a period with little wind so the waves wouldn’t be too large.  Interspersed in her story are pages with types of winds or mythology and an interlude on the attempt to introduce wind at Mecca during the hajj when millions of Muslims gather for pilgrimage because the site has been so built up to accommodate all of the visitors and cuts off the natural flow of wind.  It’s a one of a kind book.  I’d highly recommend it.
  • Kindred by Octavia E. Butler is a visceral novel about slavery in America.  It’s 1976, and the narrator Dana, an African American, is somehow transported back to antebellum Maryland where she is confronted with a drowning white child.  She travels back and forth, seemingly at whim, until she realizes that she is connected to the child.  It’s dangerous for her when she is in 1800s, even though she is herself not a slave, she has no rights that anyone needs to uphold.  Her education and knowledge of history is a two-edged sword: sometimes she can use it to her advantage and other times it makes the whites of the time, and the slaves too, fearful of her.  While it is a science fiction story because of the time travel element, it doesn’t focus on the particulars of how it is happening.  The story takes the jumps in time as a given.  One of the strengths of this device is that it puts our modern sensibilities back into the past so that we can better imagine what life was like for slaves and their owners.  It’s so easy for me as a white person today to think that I would have of course been an abolitionist if I had lived back then.  But what if I had lived in the south where slavery was an institution interwoven into the fabric of everyday life?  What if my own family had owned slaves?  Would I have really held beliefs that would be to the detriment of my own welfare?  It’s a tough question.  The book makes us consider that it was the times that made the person.  In describing the slave owner, Dana says this, “He wasn’t a monster at all.  Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper” (134).  And she describes many monstrous things that he does.  It’s enough to make us weep.  It’s an extremely powerful book and I highly recommend it.

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  • The Sandman: Overture, written by Neil Gaiman with art by J.H. Williams III, is a lovely prequel to an essential comics story.  First, let me say, that prequels are tricky and often doomed to fail.  When a story begins in the middle of events, it can be difficult to go back and tell the earlier backstory in a compelling way.  But Gaiman has done it beautifully.  When the original Sandman story began, he is imprisoned by a secret society for 72 years after being weakened by some adventure.  Overture tells the story of that adventure when Morpheus (the embodiment of Dream) travels across the universe in order to save it from destruction that he himself inadvertently caused.  Throughout the story, Gaiman weaves elements and characters from the original story in new and interesting ways that add to the mythos instead of merely explaining origins or anything mundane as that.  I was enjoying the story for the first few issues, happy to be back in the world of Sandman, but I wasn’t astounded either.  But upon finishing it, I can say that Gaiman sticks the landing and elevates the entire story, making it a truly worthy prequel.  Though it takes place chronologically before the main Sandman story, I think it still best to read it afterwards.  This was a deluxe edition, so it included a lot of supplementary material in the back.  Remarkably, I found it pretty illuminating, at least more than I usually do with material like this.  The artist, colorist, and letterer all explain their craft and artistic decision making process in a way that helped me understand better the collaborative process of making a comic.  J.H. Williams III’s artwork in particular is gorgeous and makes the book stunning.  If you like Sandman, definitely check this out.  If you haven’t read the original ten collected volumes of Sandman, get on it!
  • Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich is a beautiful novel spanning several generations of two families on and off the reservation in North Dakota.  Through a series of interconnected stories that span at least 50 years, Erdrich introduces the reader to marvelous characters who remain alive long after closing the book. A few of the stories are told by a third person narrator, but most of them are narrated by the characters themselves, so we get to see how they see events, often the same events from multiple perspectives.  It’s a wonderful way to show the intricate nature of perspective.  One of the voices is Lipsha Morrissey, a young boy taken in by the Kashpaws, possibly his relatives, though the mystery of his ancestry is one that he tries to untangle.  His is a humorous and earnest voice.  He describes another woman who his grandfather had a love affair with: “There was this one time that Lulu Lamartine’s little blue tweety bird, a paraclete, I guess you’d call it, flown up inside her dress and got lost within there” (243).  The unwitting joke is that instead of naming the bird he has used the Greek word  for advocate, usually meaning the Holy Spirit in Christian theology. Earlier in his story, he had described his grandmother’s memory as “like them video games that don’t forget your score.  One reason she remembers so many details about the trouble I gave her in early life is so she can flash back her total when she needs to” (240).  Lipsha is only one of the many fully realized people that we empathize with and come to understand.  Many others love, grieve, connive, cope, and live.  It’s a world of characters that Erdrich returned to for a number of other books, but this is the first.  In fact, it’s her first novel, which is amazing.  It’s such a great book.  I read the 1993 expanded edition, which includes more stories than either the 1984 original or the more recent 2009 revision.  But it’s hard to see how one can go wrong with any version of the book (one of the stories taken out of the 2009 version appears in the backmatter, so it isn’t wholly lost).
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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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