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

Book Reviews, April 2016

I bought a stack of books at the annual library sale and got started on reading some of them in April.  I couldn’t help rereading an old favorite in the hopes that I would find it just as enthralling again.  (Spoiler alert: I did.)  I also read another funny science book by Mary Roach and a more serious picture book of extinct species.  To round out the month, I read a superhero origin story and a Newbery Honor winning kids’ classic.

  • Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach is a funny and interesting book on what happens after we die.  Years ago I read and enjoyed her first book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but I hesitated in reading the follow-up on the afterlife because I wasn’t all that interested in the topic, or at least what I had assumed would be her take on it.  I needn’t have worried.  Roach makes almost anything interesting with her lively and humorous writing.  I rediscovered her last year when I read her book on the digestive system, and I then decided that I would happily read any of her books.  I especially liked the early chapter on souls and the hunt for them in the body.  I also learned about the dubious study that supposedly found that the soul weighs 21 grams.  There were many other good bits: the hunt for reincarnated souls, testing the effectiveness of mediums, and the search for ghosts.  One particular story involved a farmer, with the help of his father’s ghost, finding a new will that changed the entire family’s inheritance.  I won’t give away what Roach’s investigation into the matter finds.  Overall it was a very enjoyable read, but I would probably recommend one of Roach’s other books first.
  • The Shadow Hero, written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Sonny Liew, is a fun origin story about a mysterious and short-lived Golden Age superhero named the Green Turtle.  As explained in an afterword, the original Green Turtle only lasted five issues in 1944.  He fought in China against the Japanese, but curiously it wasn’t ever known if he himself was Chinese or not (rumor was that his creator Chu Hing wanted him to be Chinese).  His face was never shown; he was mostly drawn from the back or when he was in profile or was facing the reader, he had his face covered in some way (i.e. with his arm or obscured by another character).  In fact, the publisher had him colored a garish pink, possibly to accentuate his Caucasian skin as a Chinese superhero might not sell.  Another recurring element to those stories was that Green Turtle was always on the verge of telling Burma Boy, his sidekick, his secret origins, but never gets around to it as he is always interrupted.  So in steps Yang, 70 years later, to write an origin for Green Turtle, possibly the first Asian American superhero.  The story takes place in Chinatown in a stand in for the Bay area, where gangs thrive.  Young Hank helps his father tend the grocery store while his mother wishes better things for all of them.  After she is saved by a superhero, she pushes Hank to become a superhero, too, even though he doesn’t have superpowers.  It’s a fun tale about identity and heritage that plays on many of the conventions of the superhero origin.  A brief warning for younger readers: the story includes stereotyped language about Asian Americans to place it into historical context.  It doesn’t condone the language, but rather shows how the stereotypes are wrong.  If you like superhero origin stories, definitely check this one out.
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova is a thoroughly engrossing literary thriller.  Playing with the historical Vlad the Impaler and Bram Stoker’s character Dracula, the novel follows the investigations of an unnamed narrator, her father, his mentor, and other historians as they try to unravel the mystery of what exactly happened to Dracula and where he is buried.  It all starts when the narrator finds a letter in her father’s library, tucked away in a strange book.  The letter starts, “My dear and unfortunate successor…” and the book is an ancient volume with totally blank pages except for a woodcut image of a dragon at the very center of the book.  I think I loved this book because much of the action takes place in libraries as the characters conduct research with old documents and letters.  Much of the story is related in letters, an obvious homage to Bram Stoker’s famous novel.  It’s not a particularly deep novel, and the characters are not fully formed, but for a suspenseful thriller, I can hardly imagine a more successful novel.  I read the book over ten years ago when it first came out and I really liked it then.  I forgot much of the action since then, so I picked it up again hoping to have a similar experience.  Part of me worried it wouldn’t hold up.  I needn’t have fretted.  I loved it all over again.
  • A Gap in Nature: Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals with text by Tim Flannery and illustrations by Peter Schouten is a sobering look at the effects of humanity on the animal kingdom.  The book includes 103 species (mammal, bird, or reptile) that have gone extinct since the year 1500, most of them in the past 150 years.  Peter Schouten’s illustrations are beautiful and naturalistic.  I was reminded of the Audubon calendars we had in our house growing up.  It was rather haunting to see animal after animal that is gone forever.  Some of the species are familiar, even famous for their extinction: the gigantic moas of New Zealand, the Dodo of Mauritius, the Great Auk in the North Atlantic, the Passenger Pigeon of North America, and the Thylacine (aka the Tasmanian Tiger).  I didn’t know about Steller’s Sea Cow, a gigantic relative of dugongs and manatees.  It was the largest mammal (besides whales) to live in modern times, at up to 30 feet long and weighing approximately 10 tons.  They were all hunted until there were none left by 1768.  The text by Tim Flannery, an introduction and commentary on each species to accompany the artwork, is informative on what was known about each species and its demise.  Sometimes a bird would be hunted for food by humans.  Such was the fate of the Rail (a kind of bird) on Wake Island during World War II—during hostilities between the Japanese and American forces, the Japanese soldiers faced starvation and ate the birds to survive.  More often the reason for extinction was the introduction of some other invasive species that disrupted the life cycle.  Black rats might eat the eggs, for example, of some other island bird.  The rats came to shore from aboard the ships that explored the South Pacific and other faraway once diverse habitats.  Sometimes people destroyed the habitat for these animals, usually for agricultural reasons.  Flannery also notes that a few species went extinct when naturalists gathered the last few remaining specimens for natural history museums.  Our knowledge of the species came at the expense of their extinction, a truly bittersweet result.  This book is a good complement to Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction, showing example after example of humanity’s devastation of the natural world.
  • The Egypt Game by Zilpha Keatley Snyder is another classic of kids’ lit that I managed to miss when I was growing up.  I thought maybe I had read it because I have some vague memory of a book I randomly picked up at the library that had to do with kids and some Egyptian mystery, but then I forgot the title and could never find the book again when I went to look for it.  I don’t think it was the same book, but regardless, The Egypt Game is a good book for elementary age kids to read.  It has a lot to say about friendships, imagination, and figuring out how to deal with disappointment.  The initial main characters are April and Melanie.  April has recently moved in with her grandmother, who herself has recently moved into a new two bedroom apartment so she would have enough room for April and herself.  Melanie lives one floor down from April, and they become friends because of a shared interest in Egyptian history.  They start to imagine that they themselves are living in ancient Egypt with its gods and ceremonies, priests/priestesses and pharaohs.  The game is a secret they play in a fenced storage lot behind a junk shop, but they eventually end up inviting others to join them.  I’m looking forward to the day my kids are old enough to read it so I can talk to them about their own Egypt games.
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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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