2017-06-19

Myths of the Norsemen, Criminals,
Imakulatans, and Mahometans

.

075) Norse Mythology by Neil Gaimain, finished June 19

Two compliments which may not read that way:

This book reads like other books of myth I have sampled and enjoyed over the years like Hamilton or the D'Aulaires.

This book is a fun read and manages to have a through-line that almost tastes like plot.

I really only read this book through so quickly because I happened to see it on the library's new shelf and I have to return it before we leave town. So I rushed through it. Which was really the right way to read it and the opposite of how I anticipated reading it when, someday, I took it into my hands.

For instance, the sense of a beginning a middle and an end is the sort of thing that would have been lost, spreading Norse Mythology over a couple years. Also,
the names of characters and things would have required either confusion or frequent travel to the glossary. As it was, I didn't need the glossary. And I even caught a rarely-mentioned-god's-name typo I was so aware of my surroundings.

There's really no one better to take on the task of making Norse myth available to the general public than Neal Gaiman, and he's done a commendable job.

Although....
three or four days



===========================================================



074) Red Handed: The Fine Art of Strange Crimes by Matt Kindt, finished June 16

Here's a remarkable book. I would place it alongside my favorite crime novels, books like Glass City and Mr White and the Colorado Kid and that penguin novel. Yes, it's noirish. Yes, it speaks of clarity while while dropping the reader into a sea of confusion. Yes, it has much more to say about life and the human condition than about any specific crime. And yes, the crimes are fascinating and strange and compelling and unlikely.

I finish this book not even sure that cause and effect occured in the correct order.

Here's the skinny: a Holmes-level detective solves everything, but doesn't understand anything. He can't understand right and wrong until he crosses that line himself.

The art covers plenty of ground---part of the story is just word balloons, part is newspaper comics---and it all works.

It's bold and creative stuff. I'll have to look for more from this Kindt fellow.
two or three days



===========================================================



073) Wyrms by Orson Scott Card, finished June 15

I got a stack of '80s Card from a rummage sale and I will (eventually) read them all. I was never particularly interested in this particular book but it had the most beat-up cover, so I taped it up and read it first. (Incidentally, the volume currently on Amazon shares my version's art, and I don't like it. That's nothing like what geblings look like! This perverted my ability to properly visualize the book!)

Anyway, plotwise this is lighter than Ender's Game; philosophywise, it's lighter than Speaker for the Dead. It was released immediately on the heels of those novels when his cachet was at its mostest, and it's a worthy successor. It doesn't quite reach the heights of those novels, but it's no slouch.

Let's talk characters first, then we'll get to plot and philosophy.

The main character is a precocious early teen---a deadly assassin, brilliant, emotionally aware. A typical Card protag, in other words.

She surrounded a mentor with an unknown hidden agenda. Distant (or dead) parents. Distrustful authority figures. Aliens whose minds and biology are radically different from our own.

Again, it seems like Card has taken the notions from the first two Ender books and reshuffled the deck. This is not a knock. He's very good at this stuff. And none of it is "the same"---we're in the distant, distant future on a faraway planet, for instance. And the world is wonderfully realized. It's good stuff.

The plot is a basic quest---young person goes out, is changed, comes back. And at times the structure is almost picaresque---I didn't realize we were on a quest until near the end of the book when I happened to glance at the back. I'm a bit embarrassed, but sometimes the trees are so fascinating you can miss the forest.

The philosophy rests on various comparisons between passion/desire, will, memory, relationships with others---and asking where is the true self located? The question is explored through pages of discussion between the characters, but also through the species that share the pages. Gaunts have no will. Dwelfs have no memory. Geblings share an "othermind" while humans are utterly alone within their minds.

One thing: my game of imagining how to film the novel I am reading was a grotesque failure this time. So much of what happens in this novel is hidden deep inside characters that filming it seems impossible. So much of importance has the sole visual of faces failing to reveal what they think. This is truly a novel of ideas and bringing them to screen would require a complete recreation of the novel.

Which is fine anyway as much of what is filmable is . . . problematic. And I just don't mean the creative and bloody violence. There's also [SPOILERS] a teenage girl getting raped by a giant space slug (and sometimes [but only sometimes] liking it)---and then making a life with a man a whole lot older than her. I haven't seen Game of Thrones, but I'm not sure even it went this far.

In the final analysis, this is a fine novel. Great for completists. Great for fans of the genre. Great for people who want to read just one Card book that will present much of what he is great at.

But not one of his clear masterpieces.
a couple weeks



===========================================================



072) Cairo by G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker, finished June 13

I know Wilson's work only in the form of Ms Marvel, but I wanted to know more. Starting with another comic.

This one takes place in Cairo (tada!) and is tonally separate from her Marvel work. That said, it is equally fantastic. A major character is a jinn, scenes take place in a -like "Undernile," and then there's this:


THAT's how you use a medium to move story forward in a way other media cannot.

Anyway, a couple American characters (one of whom starts out as a would-be suicide bomber), an Israeli soldier (were this to be made into a movie, the producers first question would be, can we afford Gal Gadot?), an Egpytian drug runner, an Egyptian journalist, a magical ganglord---you name it!

The story is coherent all the same and a delightsome introduction to some cultural concepts I'm pretty ignorant of (cf jinn). But it never really sang for me.
Part of that was the art. Overall it was fine, but sometimes Perker's humans didn't quite seem human. And sometimes Wilson left heavy lifting for the art (eg,
the romantic development), and the faces just weren't up to the task.

Plus, if you're thinking Ms Marvel was good for my kids, know that this has, you know, swears and icky violence and sexy dancers and such.
two days




Previously in 2017

2017-06-09

These are the books

.

071) Abstract City by Christoph Niemann, finished June 9

I know Niemann's work from The New Yorker and WIRED, but I hadn't given him much thought until I bumped into one of his visual essays on National Geographic. I then put every Niemann book our local library has on hold. Most were kids' picture books, and I liked them, but this book I liked very much indeed.

It's a collection of his visual essays. They range from slice-of-life to series of puns to humorous "science" essays to historical remembrances to memoir.... And the art that goes along with each essay is unique. Several, sure, use his inky style, but one, while in that style, is drawn with coffee on napkins. One is made from cut leaves. The Berlin Wall essay is composed of weaved black and orange paper (analog pixel art!). One is made of ... shall we call them voodoo dolls?

In other words, Niemann is succeeding at baizzerrism beyond even my stated intentions. So of course I like him.

Anyway, in essence, what we have here is someone pushing their skills into whatever whimsical direction he pleases, and uncovering delight every step along the way.
Or, in other words, here is a fellow who has held onto the fun in art.

The afterword is an essay I would like to bring to my classes. Creativity is always possible. It just takes work and work and work. That's all. Anyone can do it.
So long as they work.
a few days



===========================================================



070) The Wrenchies by Farel Dalrymple, finished June 8

This is a book I found through BAC. I have no idea what it is or what it's about. I mean, sure, I can tell you scores of details, but no way I can answer the seemingly simple question, What the hell?

The book is scrambled in terms of time and geography and reality, its violence not only literal but in the very lines and colors smeared across the page.


Unquestionably, reading this book is an experience.
about a month



===========================================================



069) Real Friends by Shannon Hale and LeUyen Pham, finished June 5

I think, for girls, these things tend to be more intense (or perhaps this is more a comment on my people skills), but I recognize these feelings.

Shannon Hale's comics memoir (drawn by her Princess in Black-partner) is filled with the sorts of ambiguities we expect from good literature. In her afterward, she even says that she left some parts messy (that she would not have in fiction) because it was more true. Maybe, perhaps, I want more nonfiction from my YA novelists.

Because the messiness does make it more true. Even our hero engages in casual, accidental cruelty. And that cruelty may never be revisited because life is not that neat.

One of the most heartening things about this book---and part of the reason I expect it will become a classic---is that everyone is weak at times, everyone is strong.
Everyone is kind at times, everyone is cruel. And they all become real people.

And the future looks bright indeed. Ending on hope for that future is satisfying because it doesn't promise too much---while also promising the whole world.
one evening



===========================================================



068) Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, finished June 1

The introduction from personal favorite Connie Willis set me up to expect to be immediately wowed.
I was not. I was, however, intrigued. And I kept reading.

Ish, our hero, is a man of his time. Like another book I read recently,
the novel is liberal-minded and thus exposes its of-the-time illiberal failures (racism, sexism) by how it attempts to be enlightened. (Makes me wonder what we'll sound like in seventy years.) But part of this, it ends up, is civilization itself.

Like Ish, I'm desperate to see this postapocalyptic life be redeemed by books and reading and education and civilization, goldarn it! (Skip to the ** to avoid grand-scale spoilers.)

It's when Ish is able to give up on civilization---or, more accurately, see that his bias for civilization is unjustified---that the book goes from being a just-fine postapocalypto to something startling, something that makes my soul feel like it's standing on the edge of a cliff with only clouds below.

And it's not just Ish's giving up on civilization that gives this feeling; it's also the way Stewart represents him as an old man. I don't know if that's what being ancient feels like, but it felt real. My insides feel emptied out and filled with ice.

I still feel a bit like that moment when the rollercoaster crests....

**I only heard about this book when a local oldtimer told me and Lady Steed it was a step up from Station Eleven, both because she found the newer book underwhelming and because Earth Abides takes place locally, which is nice added-value.

I disagree as to the relative qualities. I think Station Eleven is, overall, the superior novel, but that is no knock on Earth Abides which is powerful in its own way. And I agree that reading anything ever that takes place where you live is of itself powerful. We should all have that experience. Not just people from Manhattan.

Anyway, if you want to read a postapocalypse that lets the violence sing between the scenes and focuses instead on one man's mind and his relationship with other people,
the past, and the future, this is the one for you. It ain't no Road. And although Earth Abides apparently inspired it, I suspect it ain't no Stand either. It's too quiet a book for that.
But that's how it gets you.
more than five months






Previously in 2017

2017-06-03

Circus Screams

.


Lady Steed and I took our middle child (the only one to engage in either circus or music training with any seriousness) to see our friend Sam's Circus Screams last night. (The baby also came along and, happily, she slept through it.)

It was pretty great. A smorgasbord of artifice!* You can get a sense of its aesthetic by looking at video and photos on Twitter.

I didn't know the show was going to be funny. But it was, largely thanks to the work by Natasha Kaluza who played three characters and whose killer mime skills moved the show from the literal to the imagination---much of what happens in the show wouldn't make sense without her laying the groundwork. In fact, a scene near the end similar to her scenes lost some of my companions (we ran into more friends at the show) because the man executing them lacked Kaluza's ability to clearly signify that what we were seeing had left the realm of the literal.

But first and foremost, Circus Screams was a musical performance. We have the cd, but I think I will find my way into it more easily now having seen it live. Yes the circus performers / actors helped here, but just seeing the band make the music also gave it life. (If you've never been to see music live---complicated music you don't quite understand---this may be why you don't quite understand it. Having seen it, you might still lack understanding, but it will live for you.

But enough with the preaching in the second person.

For all the laffs and murder and discord and acrobatics and audience-participation screaming, the show closes on a quiet trumpet solo. A prolonged moment in which the violence and absurdity and artifice recede and the audience is pointed toward the direction of . . . reality? But I hesitate to call it contemplative and I hesitate even more to sully this post with an unpleasant word like "reality." So let's just say that it's a quiet moment at the end, and we can all make of it what we will.