Monday, September 30, 2013

The 7th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - September Roundup (Sticky Post— Scroll down for most recent post)

How to add your link:
1. Click on the icon above
2. Add a link to your review. (Please link to your specific review, not an entire webpage.)
3. Add your name and in parentheses the title of the book, such as John Mutford (Anne of Avonlea)
4. In the comment section below, tell me your grand total so far. (ex. "This brings me up to 1/13")

Reader's Diary #1070- Fredric Brown: Knock

Knocker A couple of weeks back I was reading "Short Horror Stories" at Dafuq Did I Just Read? .Net and when they say short, they mean short. Like 2 sentences short. While it wasn't a featured story, one of those added in the comments went simply, "The last person on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock on the door..." but the commenter doesn't credit it and I mistakenly assumed it was his own creation. But coincidentally, I just happened upon the original a couple of days ago.

Interestingly, Frederic Brown quotes this short, short story in the opening of his short story "Knock" but it doesn't appear that it in itself was every really a standalone story. According to Wikipedia, it comes from a paraphrase of three lines from a much longer essay by Thomas Bailey. The original lines went, "Imagine all human beings swept off the face of the earth, excepting one man. Imagine this man in some vast city, New York or London. Imagine him on the third or fourth day of his solitude sitting in a house and hearing a ring at the door-bell!"

Whether or not you'd agree that Brown's paraphrase could work as a complete, albeit incredibly short, story is moot as Brown uses it merely to begin his own story. Why was he the last man on Earth? Who was at the door? And wouldn't answering these questions destroy the charm and mystery?

Perhaps, but Brown's short sci-fi tale has a trick or two of its own. It's as implausible as an M. Night Shyamalan movie, but if you don't think about it too hard, it's enjoyable in its own right.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Reader's Diary #1069- The New King James Version Bible: The Book of Romans

Jesus said, "Do unto... TOGA! TOGA!"
There's a scene at the end of most Harry Potter books when Rowling uses Voldemort (or the occasional other villain) to explain the plot that led to this moment. It's certainly not limited to Rowling— detective novels are known for that sort of thing as well— but it was fun (if unintentionally sacrilegious) to compare the apostle Paul to Voldemort.

It's not that Paul sums up the entire Bible up to that point, but it is quite notable how he tries to reconcile the Old Testament to the New— as Jesus had to do more than a few times prior to that. To do so, Paul reinterprets the meaning of previous scripture, deciding what should be taken literally or not. It's interesting because interpreting Paul's words becomes a bit of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection. (Sorry, I've been listening to the new Arcade Fire lately and had to work it in.)

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Reader's Diary #1068- Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Earnest

Many years ago now, before I began this blog, I read Oscar Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. I enjoyed it, enough to recommend it to my wife Debbie who read it and also enjoyed it. A book that we both enjoy is rare.

Since then, and since starting this blog, I've tried to reconnect with Wilde on a few occasions. This didn't work. This didn't work. Even this didn't work. But perhaps I should have gone here first, to what is arguably Wilde's most famous work. The whole play is filled with wit, satire, silliness and tells a story of two men who live double lives. This play is Oscar Wilde.

I wouldn't go in expecting particularly likeable characters, but for plays on words, subtle digs, paradoxes, puns, irony, not-so-subtle digs and for a pure love of words, it's bliss.

"It is very vulgar to talk like a dentist when one isn't a dentist. It produces false impression”

"Well, I can't eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One should always eat muffins quite calmly. It is the only way to eat them."

"If it was my business, I wouldn't talk about it. It is very vulgar to talk about one's business. Only people like stockbroker's do that, and then merely at dinner parties.”

Monday, September 23, 2013

Reader's Diary #1067- William Faulkner: Dry September

It's an uneasy time in Yellowknife at the moment. I won't go as far as saying we're gripped by fear (I went on a lovely bike ride with my kids today and enjoyed the fall scenery), but there is an undercurrent of fear for sure. And mistrust, paranoia, and anger. What's brought it on? I would say it began this summer with a wave of sexual assaults that have still gone unsolved. It seemed to subside for a while and this past week or two there have been more. Some attacks have been as bold as to have happened in people's homes, while others have happened in the wee hours of the morning along a trail that most would agree isn't particularly safe at the best of times— not that anyone excuses those assaults either. It's certainly dominated the discussions in any circles I've been a part of recently. Media and police reports aren't exactly helping matters either. While some long term residents are saying that it's proof that Yellowknife is on a sad and scary decline, other reports suggest that it's no worse than it's ever been, which makes some of us question if we've been living with out heads in the sand snow or if the horrible reality has been kept from us on purpose. Reports that the assaults are not believed to be related are equally jarring. On the one hand we'd all be glad that a serial rapist is not on the loose, but on the other hand, that there are multiple people that we should be scared about is not exactly a comfort. That some Yellowknife women would feel so terrorized as to sleep with baseball bats or knives next to their beds is unacceptable. So far, I am unaware of any arrests having been made.

That this issue is never far from my mind lately, it's no wonder that William Faulkner's "Dry September" struck a chord. It begins with a scene in a barber shop where the men plan to take the law in their own hands. It is unclear what exactly happened that has them worked up so much, but there has been a rumour going around about one of the town's white women and a possible attack, possible by a black man. As people are wont to do, many fill in the blanks themselves and it becomes their truth. If you want a sense of the ugliness exposed by Faulkner, consider how far this line, "Do you claim that anything excuses a nigger attacking a white woman?" is from the line, "Do you claim that anything excuses one human being from attacking another?"

I wasn't a fan of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, the only thing I've read by him until now, but I loved the complex layers in this story. Biases and rumours: two things which are definitely bubbling under the surface in Yellowknife right now. Fear sucks, no doubt about it, but if there's anything good to come from it, let's hope it's self-reflection.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Reader's Diary #1066- James Howe: Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allan Crow

Back June when I wrote about the 6th book in James Howe's Bunnicula series, I wondered aloud how there could still be another book remaining when everything seemed wrapped up and complete. Chester and Bunnicula were finally getting along and the younger dog Howie was poised to take over a spinoff series.

Fortunately Howe addresses this issue directly in the end notes of Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allan Crow and takes away all the guess work. It turns out that he had intended for Bunnicula Strikes Again! to be the final installment. Basically Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allan Crow is Howe's catching of "the one that got away." He'd apparently tried to write it earlier but couldn't seem to get a handle on it. Instead of forcing it, he finally decided to just steal the best ideas that he'd come up with and abandon the Edgar Allan Crow plot in favour of a whole new story: Bunnicula Strikes Again.

Years later however, like the raven that sits eternally on the pallid bust of Pallas, Howe was haunted by the crow and finally gave the story another go.

Overall it doesn't really do a whole lot for the arc of the series, and in that regard did feel like an add-on. However, it does have some really funny moments (my son guffawed a number of times) and is enjoyable nonetheless. R. L. Stine and Edgar Allan Poe are parodied once again, while this time J. K. Rowling is also mentioned a couple times. There was room for a little more wrap-up, however, could Howe have finally revealed Bunnicula's true origins or make him finally speak his first work. Wasted opportunity!

In Bunnicula Meets Edgar Allan Crow, the world famous but reclusive writer of the (fictional) FleshCrawler series, M. T. Graves (who looks suspiciously like Neil Gaiman), is staying with the Monroes. He has brought along the eponymous crow much to the mistrust of Chester the family cat who is convinced that Graves and his corvid sidekick will harm or transform the pets in somewhat or even steal Bunnicula!

And while there hasn't been another book in the series since 2006, I'm not entirely sure that Howe won't eventually do another. One late edition to the series is the revelation that Bunnicula had had an offspring: Sonnicula!

Monday, September 16, 2013

10 From 100- A Profile of Canadian Book Challenge participant PEROGYO

John's Preamble: Over the years of running the Canadian Book Challenge, I've been taken aback by the number of people outside of our borders who have taken on the challenge. We've had people from South Korea, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, and India to name but a few. In the case of Perogyo, a Canadian who now resides in Japan, her interest in the challenge perhaps comes as no mystery. Raising her kids in Japan, she looked to the challenge initially to reconnect with her roots and to ensure her children are connected to that part of their heritage. She focuses heavily, but not entirely, on Canadian picture books. And now, let's found out even more about her!

10 FROM 100

1. What is an unusual talent you have?
I can peel a banana with my toes. You probably won't want to eat afterwards, however.
2. What is a sport you wish you were better at?
Soccer! I spent most of my time as a soccer player in my youth picking flowers. Now it's the family hobby and I just can't keep up. I can do some great soccer chants at least though!

3. A place or event in your current hometown that you’re embarrassed to say you have not seen.
I've never been to the Umbrella Burning Festival. I need to recitify that.

4. You’ve just won a trip to another province or territory. Where do you go?
Nova Scotia!! I would eat my weight in seafood, look at beautiful scenery, and crash a ceilidh.

5. A fictional place you wish you could visit
Three Pines, Quebec, from Louise Penny's mystery series.

6. Preferred superpower: invisibility, ability to fly, or time travel?
Time travel would be awesome.

7. Who is your favourite Canadian author?
Kyo Maclear. I love her children's books and adult books, and she always makes me think.

8. Name a blog or blogger you’ve discovered (other than the Book Mine Set!) through the Canadian Book Challenge.
This is probably my favourite part of the Canadian Book Challenge, finding new blog friends! There are so many I love to read, but I have a soft spot for Melwyk ( who cheered me on during the first Readathon I participated in, in 2011.

9. What are your thoughts on “Books for Boys”?
I think the necessity of books for boys stems in a way from deep-seated misogyny. Why in the world can girls read books about boys and boys not read books with girl protagonists. It also speaks to the cover issue- even if a woman writes a serious literary fiction she is at risk of getting a flower and hearts cover which, sadly, men would be ashamed to pick up. The fact that women as talented as JK Rowling need to use initials instead of their names says to me we haven't moved on that far from the times of George Eliot.
But we can't fix this problem without fixing society, but we can try to make both boys and girls empathetic to the plight of the opposite sex, partially through books, regardless of cover images.

10. Name a politician whose life you’d like to read about in a graphic historical novel and why.
I'd like to say Audrey McLaughlin because she is one of the kindest politicians I've ever met, and also her autobiography was written in 1992 while she was still the first female leader of a sitting political party, so there is a lot left unsaid.
But really, the buffoon Rob Ford and his antics are absolutely perfect for a satirical graphic novel.

Reader's Diary #1065- Chuck Wendig: This Guy

Last week over at The Eye of Loni's Storm, Loni pointed me in the direction of Chuck Wendig's "This Guy," a story she described as "truly weird."

It's an apt description if ever there was one. It's about a man who kills another man every day. The same man, is the same victim, every day.

Loni said that she kept "trying to figure out what the narrator's 'deal' was." As did I. I love how our brains do this. When we're presented with something that doesn't make sense, we try to make sense anyway. When we're presented with weird, we try to unweird it.

And it's delightfully evil that Wendig doesn't do it for us.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Reader's Diary #1064- Julie Maroh, translated by Ivanka Hahnenberger: Blue is the Warmest Color

When the movie Blue is the Warmest Color premiered at Cannes earlier this year, everyone seemed to love it and it looked like a real boost to graphic novels, especially of the non-superhero variety. It was a love story involving lesbians and looked like it would be a real boost to the LGBTQ community.

Yeah, that positive energy lasted about a day. Since then it's been mired in controversy with the original author Julie Maroh speaking out against it and the lead actors and the director involved in a very public feud.

Despite all of it, I was curious to know if the source book was any good. Thankfully, Canada's own Arsenal Press offered up an English translation by Ivanka Hahnenberger and allowed me to judge for myself.

My impression early into the book was positive. The artwork was beautiful, especially with the watercoloured sketches. I was a bit uncomfortable with the age of the love interest— Clémentine is a high school student who falls for a university student known as Emma. A large part of the story involves Clémentine discovering and coming to terms with her own sexuality, which of course is a very common teenage experience, but with the older woman, it felt somewhat like Emma took advantage. Still, I was able to overcome that and move forward.

(Spoiler alert!) Unfortunately, there's a very stupid moment later on that I can't believe I can't find anyone else complaining about in the other reviews that I've read. One night, when Emma is sleeping over at Clémentine's parents house— parents who not only do not know that Clémentine and Emma are dating, but who would also not be accepting of a lesbian romance— Emma decides to go down to kitchen to get a drink of milk. In the nude.

Who the hell would do that? Of course, the two get caught and it's a whole big scene, but for me it completely ruined the book.

It's too bad. It had so much potential. It's also annoying that no one is calling out the book for that. Everyone seems to be focused on another— in my humble opinion— less than important angle.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Reader's Diary #1063- The New King James Version Bible: Acts of the Apostles

Axe of the Apostles
I remember thinking, after reading the Pentateuch of the Old Testament, "what's left?" It seemed that all the stories that I'd remembered from my childhood— the ark, the Garden of Eden, the parting of the Red Sea— were already done in the first five books of the Bible and there were 34 more books to go. But while I did encounter a few completely unfamiliar books, it seemed there were still a few "greatest hits" left— Jonah and the whale, Daniel in the lion's den, etc.

Reading the New Testament, I was similarly thinking the same thing after reading the four books of gospels at the beginning. Jesus' birth, death, resurrection? All in the first four books. (Actually, all in the first book, but repeated in the next three as well.) What's left?

Turns out, still a few classic stories. In Acts of the Apostles, for instance, I was taken back to my high school religion classes, learning about the conversion of Saul into Slash, er, I mean, Paul. I enjoyed this tale then as I did now, with its message of righteous guitar solos and redemption.

Acts is basically the Traveling Christian Road Show, with Peter, Paul and other apostles bringing the story of Jesus, and their interpretation of his teachings, to Mediterranean Europe. Along the way they are forced to defend their beliefs, sometimes as a matter of life and death. Like when I went to France and insisted on getting a large coffee-to-go when everyone insisted that I sit and relax with an espresso.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Reader's Diary #1062- Lydia Davis: The Mice

Lydia Davis made headlines this year when she won the fifth Man Booker International Prize. She is best known for her incredibly short pieces that many refer to as stories. I'm a fan of flash fiction. I do believe that a complete and well-written story can be told in a few short lines. In fact, I'd rather a six sentence story than those mini-novellas Alice Munro tries to pass off as short stories.

So, if Davis's win brings more attention to flash fiction, I'm okay with it. However, after reading a lot of her work online, I'm not convinced that what she does isn't more akin to short, free-form or prose poetry. If what she does is artistic (it is), I'm sure that many would argue that the label is unimportant. I'll agree to some extent, but I'd just be nervous that someone making up his/ her mind on flash fiction based on Davis's work would not be making an informed decision. Then, if someone is so quick to judgement as that, I guess they're not worthy of the debate in the first place.

In any case, I'll link here to five of Davis' so-called stories. While I don't have a well hammered down short story definition in my head, only "The Mice" and possibly "Fear" register as anything near that definition. I quite enjoyed "The Mice." It's about a person wondering why the mice in her walls don't bother invading her kitchen. She acknowledges that this should be a good thing, but can't help but feel a little insulted. Her theory on why this might be is quite interesting and call it crazy, but I took it to be a metaphor for the internet and why, despite all the information at our fingertips (or clicks on a mouse), we're not getting any smarter.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Sunday, September 08, 2013

The 13 Best Canadian Graphic Novels of All Time

It's taken me a while to compile this list, but I've finally completed my list of best Canadian graphic novels of all time. Usually when someone develops such a list, they'll preface it by acknowledging the subjectivity, they'll anticipate some dissent and controversy, and they'll request alternative suggestions.

I'll follow suit. I've read no where near all of the Canadian graphic novels. Not even a vast amount. In fact, the majority of the Canadian graphic novels that I've read made this list. So, yes, it's largely subjective. However, I've chosen to read Canadian graphic novels that have all ready made names for themselves: award winners, best sellers, critically acclaimed and popular titles. My best of list may be subjective, but there are plenty of those who'd agree with at least some of my choices.

But not all. I'm guessing, for instance, that I'll piss plenty of people off with the logo I created above. There is a glaring omission of superhero graphic novels. I have nothing against superheros (recently I quite enjoyed All-Star Superman, Vol. 1) but I refuse to put one in just for the sake of putting one in. As of writing this, Jeff Lemire's Justice League Canada still hasn't been released. And Captain Canuck sucks. Some may like some of the authors I've chosen, but not the book. Some may feel my list is too mainstream. Some may take other issues. Regardless, it is what it is.

But I'm open to suggestions. In fact, I'd love suggestions. The list is not written in stone and I'm sure after I've continued to discover more and more wonderful Canadian graphic novels, I'll update the list in due time.

In the meantime, here we go!

1. Louis Riel- Chester Brown
2. Pride of Baghdad- Brian K. Vaughan (writer), Niko Henrichson (illustrator)
3. Essex County- Jeff Lemire
4. It's a Good Life, If You Don't Weaken- Seth
5. Pyongyang- Guy Delisle
6. Skim- Mariko Tamaki (writer) and Jillian Tamaki (illustrator)
7. Paul Has a Summer Job- Michel Rabagliati
8. Scott Pilgrim series- Bryan Lee O'Malley
9. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Treasuries- Lynn Johnston
10. Northwest Passage- Scott Chantler
11. Tangles- Sarah Leavitt
12. Binky the Space Cat- Ashley Spires
13. My New York Diary- Julie Doucet

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Reader's Diary #1061- Sharon E. Mckay (Writer) and Daniel Lafrance (illustrator): War Brothers

I learned a valuable lesson with this read: Kobo eReaders suck for graphic novels.

First off, the screen is too small. To read each page I had to zoom in 4 times. Then, because an info bar at the top of the screen cutting off any text at the top of the page, I had to rotate the page to read it. And when I tried to turn to the next page, the zoom reset and I had to zoom in again. Zooming in, by the way, meant that the entire page wasn't visible at once. Furthermore, it was black and white when the original illustrations were in colour.

None of this is Sharon E. McKay's or Daniel Lafrance fault, but it took me much longer to get into the story and let go of my frustration.

War Brothers is the fictional story of Jacob, a 14 year old Uganda boy who is kidnapped into the very non-fictional Lord's Resistance Army, a rebellious terrorist group led by warlord Joseph Kony. Kony first came to my, and much of the world's, attention through Joseph Russell's Youtube video Kony 2012.

Jacob's story is heart-wrenching, dealing with the inner turmoil the child soldier must endure. Missing their homes and family, being forced to commit violent crimes including murder, and the after effects. Even for those who leave, the ramifications on their psyches are lifelong. Jacob was one of the fortunate ones who was able to hold on to his true self; warm to others, brave, and reflective. Despite this, he will carry the physical and emotional scars always.

Last year I read McKay's Charlie Wilcox and I could see many similarities between the two main characters. They were both brave and profoundly affected by war. However, there was much more build up in Charlie Wilcox and the character was more fleshed out. I question if the original novel version of War Brothers wouldn't have developed Jacob more.

As for the illustrations, they're of a realistic somewhat old fashioned style. (They reminded me of artwork from old Sunday School textbooks.) However, when I see the beautiful colouring online, I can see that they are far better than I'd first suspected. The shading and lighting really bring out the intense and sombre moods.

It's an important read to introduce teens to current world events, to make privileged teens appreciate their blessings, and above all, to hopefully encourage change. It's not overly graphic, but it still packs an emotional punch and gets the point across.

Friday, September 06, 2013

Reader's Diary #1060- Guy Delisle: Pyongyang

I've been waiting a while to finally get my hands on a copy of Guy Delisle's Pyongyang. I've been planning on compiling a Top 13 list of Canadian graphic novels. Yet based on upon all the glowing praise I'd read about Pyongyang, I figured I'd better hold out just in case it deserved a spot. Spolier alert: it does.

I've wanted to visit North Korea. I'm not under any illusions that it'll be rollicking good times, gourmet meals and five star suites. In fact, a part of me wanted to see that notoriously false and obvious veneer they put on for tourists. I'd have been let down without seeing photos of Kim Jong-un plastered everywhere.

Guy Delisle, who went there to work in an animation department, was also under no such illusions. Unlike me however, he didn't appear to be looking forward to it. In fact, he begins to complain and point out their idiosyncrasies almost immediately. At first I judged him for this. Then I reconsidered. I'd go as a tourist, not to live. But I've moved to places in which I'd anticipated would be different than what I was used to and without all the conveniences, I didn't hold it against them. Then, after reading the whole book, I reconsidered once again. Delisle was clearly bothered by the relentless propaganda, the empty promises, ridiculous mythology, outright lies, and hidden truths, under which the North Koreans are living. Yes, I think he had more than an inkling of all of this before he went in, and no doubt some would argue that he already had his mind made up, but no; throughout the course of the book, he's clinging to hope. Hope that not everyone has swallowed up the words of their insane dictator, hope that he'll meet at least one person who hints that he or she recognizes that life could be so much better. Alas, Delisle's movements and his encounters are very carefully monitored and controlled. My earlier comments about what I'd like to see in North Korea now seem selfish and ignorant. I wasn't really considering what life would actually be like there, for the people, day to day. Just another misery tourist.

One of the more startling revelations for me was the absence of old people and handicapped people in the capital. When Delisle asks about handicap people, his respondent says that no such people are born in North Korea. As far as Delisle can tell, the man believes this. Not getting an answer to the question, I've been looking it up online and a few sources say that they are pushed out of Pyongyang, into the countryside and away from their "showcase city" (and with little support in the countryside either).

Another thing I didn't know (and let's face it, there's a lot I didn't know about North Korea) was that their hatred for the Japanese seems on par with their hatred for the Americans. Canadians, as I did expect, were barely given a thought.

The artwork depicts Delisle's, and North Korea's, isolation with shades of grey, sometimes which overwhelms, sometimes which gives way to an equally overwhelming white. There's a lot of emptiness.

By now I've probably lead anyone unfamiliar with the book to believe it's all bleak and serious. That's not true in the least. Delisle's sense of humour makes it all more than palatable. The best times are when he's bored and trying to make his own fun or when he's in hysterics about something no one else seems to get. I suspect it's his sense of humour that got him through, and because of Pyongyang, I'm glad he did.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Reader's Diary #1059- Markus Zusak: The Book Thief

Sometimes I'll read something wildly popular and sit back all judgmental, like Fifty Shades of Grey. Other times, I'll read what the masses are reading and completely have my faith in humanity restored, like Markus Zusak's The Book Thief.

The Book Thief isn't a book, it's a work of art. And where does one begin explaining why? The story itself involves a girl named Liesel who lives with her foster parents, the Hubermanns, in Germany during the 2nd World War. They briefly shelter a Jewish man named Max Vandenburg. Liesel is best friends with a boy named Rudy Steiner and together they like to steal. Liesel's preferred loot is books.

But it's not the plot itself that makes the book remarkable— though in itself is quite intense and tragic. It's Death that sells this book. And by capitalizing it, I'm not being hyperbolic. Death is the narrator. What a narrator. What a voice. Is Death blessed with synesthesia or is he being poetic when he blends the senses the way he does? Plus Death's liberal use of foreshadowing was a huge risk on Zusak's part. Constantly Death tells us what happens, then tells us how we get there. It works unbelievably well.

Then there's the theme. Trying hard not to give it away entirely, how humans are compared to words is nothing short of beautiful insight.

I read The Book Thief to my daughter, who's 10 and could easily have read it on her own. Near the end, I choked up. I never do that for a book. I don't know if I was worked up because I was afraid she couldn't handle it (she didn't choke up any more than I), or if it was because of the relationship between Liesel and her foster father, but whatever it was, it was intense. There were times I questioned if I should be reading the book to her. There's a lot of swearing. She's heard as much in movies, but it was difficult to read them aloud to her. Admittedly, some I didn't. I couldn't bring myself, for instance, to say whore or slut. Why is it that I think she's ready to talk about the holocaust but I'm not ready to explain what those words mean? Lots of parental reflection happened at those moments! Still happening. In any case, I don't regret reading it to her. Nor do I think she didn't handle it well. She probably matured a little in the process, but that's a good thing. I definitely don't think Zusak's message was lost on her at all.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Reader's Diary #1058- Greg Rucka (writer) and Steve Lieber (illustrator): Whiteout

Whiteout, by Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber is the first book I've read that is set in Antarctica (that I remember anyway). I enjoyed the setting, especially being able to compare it to Canada's northern regions. Largely set in the real-life McMurdo Station, which can accommodate more than 1200 researchers, military and support staff, it would certainly be comparable to a mid-sized community in Nunavut. Then, without the Inuit culture it's remarkably different.

The story of Whiteout isn't remarkable; a run of the mill crime story. Carrie Stetko, a U.S. Marshal finds herself investigating a murder at the relatively peaceful bottom of the Earth. Before she's able to crack the case most of her suspects will also be slain and Stetko herself will be attacked and left to die. It's all resolved rather quickly and with the cliched bits about gold smuggling felt like an Eric Wilson book.

But, as mentioned earlier, Whiteout does have the setting going for it, and it's captured wonderfully with Lieber's artwork. While the characters reminded me of Charles Burns or Daniel Clowes' style (which I also enjoy), the biggest achievement here is his use of white space and his kitchen sink approach to illustrate the snow, cold and wind. In his notes at the end he refers to not only using all sizes of brushes and pens, but toothbrushes, razor blades and even finger prints in his experimentation to get the scene just right. The results compliment the setting and the noir story perfectly.

Despite the weak plot, Rucka has created some interesting characters. While the peripheral characters are rather flat, Stetko's hard exterior and emotional baggage bubbling underneath pairs beautifully with that of British Agent, Lily Sharpe, who seems more reserved and self-assured. They have undeniable chemistry and cleverly Rucka toys with it. Apparently there are rumours swirling around Antarctica that Stetko is a lesbian, which are never confirmed nor denied. So, when watching the two women together I felt almost guilty wondering if they'd get together— as if I was one of those gossiping about her behind her back. But then, I could clearly see that they had a connection, so I was kind of rooting for them. One might say that by not revealing Stetko's orientation or by confirming that they finally hooked up*, Rucka has made a bold statement that such matters are irrelevant to the crime at hand.

Except that the crime at hand wasn't any where near as interesting.

*(There has been a sequel, but I haven't read it and don't know if any answers are provided later.)

Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Reader's Diary #1057- George Guthridge: The Kids from Nowhere

I first heard George Guthridge speak at a conference in Whitehorse back in 2009. He was talking about an approach he'd developed to teach writing that was supposed to be revolutionary. He seemed arrogant and I was skeptical of his methods; methods that to me sounded gimmicky and formulaic. But then, he only spoke for an hour. It's hard to judge a guy on so little time. And besides, what if his approaches work? His personality would hardly matter. I picked up a copy of his book The Kids from Nowhere just in case. Now, a mere 4 years later I can weigh in.

The Kids from Nowhere recounts Guthridge's teaching days in Gambell, Alaska, a small Eskimo (they referred to themselves as that at the time) village located on island in the Bering Sea. In the first two years of his teaching there he led not one, but two teams (from junior and senior high) to victory in an international academic competition known as Future Problem Solving. It came as a shock to many (even some in Gambell), that Eskimo kids could outperform students many of whom were more "privileged," more exposed to world events, and faced less racism. 

For the most part, I enjoyed The Kids from Nowhere. Besides the obvious inspirational message, I was intrigued by the Yup'ik culture. It reminded me a lot of my time in Nunavut. I was amazed for instance that they, like the Inuit of Rankin Inlet and Iqaluit, raised their eyebrows for yes and scrunched up their noses to indicate no, equivalent to the nodding and shaking of heads in other cultures. In Newfoundland it's not difficult— at least it wasn't in my days there— to identify which outport community or region a person was from based on their accents or grammar. Back in the early days, we reasoned, when the communities were more cut off from one another, various communities developed their own unique styles of speaking. We're only talking about 400 or so years and distances only as wide as the province itself that the Newfoundlanders started to differentiate from one another. Not that the Yup'ik or Rankin Inlet Inuit or Iqaluit Inuit don't have their differences (they do), but I found it astounding that they all held on to the nose/eyebrows gesture despite vast isolation from one another and thousands of years.

But back to the inspirational message (the point of the book, after all), I was less taken with the storytelling. Don't get me wrong, what Guthridge and those students did was remarkable and those feats are clearly historical fact. But I still found it a bit formulaic in structure. We know from the get go what these kids achieved, so it's hard to build up suspense. So, just before every accomplishment when Guthridge doubts that they'll succeed and once again questions his abilities, it's all rather predictable. It comes across as false modesty. It's far better than the arrogance I'd suspected years earlier, but it still felt a little insincere. There's also a villain that criticizes Guthridge, his motives, his techniques, and his students. He felt over-the-top and too much like a Hollywood character, as if this were Dangerous Minds- Alaska Edition. I began to doubt the authenticity. In the notes on factual accuracy given at the beginning of the book, Guthridge explains that some characters are composites. I have to believe (and anyone who knows otherwise can correct me) that this moustache twirler named Gerald is one such composite. If this is the case, the character is truly unnecessary and sells the real drama short. If he is accurate, I apologize. (And sympathize!)

 I also felt that the occasional times when Guthridge would slip into the mind of another character were rather presumptuous. Furthermore, seeing as this is only done a few times, those times felt odd and out of place. Personally, I wish those instances were edited out all together, but I could have acclimatized to even more frequent switches in perspective.

Still, despite its short-comings, The Kids from Nowhere is an interesting read and it could be inspiring for those looking for new solutions to old problems. Or perhaps old approaches to new problems.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Reader's Diary #1056- Jane Gillies: The Bedclothes Baby

Reading Jane Gillies' "The Bedclothes Baby" triggered so many childhood memories, I eventually decided that I couldn't possibly share them all here. Still the one about my cousin and I (presumably after watching too many episodes of Remington Steele) being convinced that our cookie-baking, church-going grandma had bags of cocaine in her attic is too good not to share. Or how a certain other old relative, who shall remain nameless, scared the crap out of me because she reminded me of Miss Gulch/ the Wicked Witch of the West.

It's a wonder how I could pay attention to Gillies' story at all given how my mind kept wandering to the past. But it was through Gillies' rich sensory descriptions that she was able to make so many of her protagonist's experiences and feelings so identifiable. Take this passage:
I remember how one of the braces on that swing set would shudder and lift right out of the ground with a ka-chunk, ka-chunk when we went too high. Somehow it never tipped over and the pole always managed to make its way back down into the hole again.
I was so impressed with this particular piece of writing (loved the "ka-chunk") and amazed to recall the exact same experience as a child— an experience I'd long since forgotten— that I just had to share it with my wife. Lo and behold, she remembered her childhood swing set doing the same thing. What a well-described observation that turned out to be. What a blast from the past.

I should, however, note that "The Bedclothes Baby" not a warm and fuzzy glance back at old family photos. There's some dark stuff going on there. Let's just say that whereas my grandma turned out not to be a drug dealer and the other relative didn't threaten to take away my little dog, the family secrets revealed in Gillies' story turn out to be at least as bad as the child's imagination— and with repercussions.

(Did you write a post for Short Story Monday? If so, please leave a link in the comments below.)

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Reader's Diary #1055- Grant Morrison (writer) and Frank Quitely (illustrator): All-Star Superman Vol. 1

As a kid I loved the Christopher Reeves Superman movies. Still, I didn't read any of the comics. As an adult, I've discovered superhero comics with my son, but have focused almost entirely on Marvel comics. I've enjoyed these characters immensely, mostly because I love how flawed they are; superheroes, but average humans. Superman, however, now seemed like the silliest of superheros to me. Too perfect, too invincible. Then, maybe it's a little unfair to expect him to show his flawed humanity when he's an alien after all. I watched Man of Steel recently and while I didn't hate it, the best compliment I can give is that it was interesting. It's like the writers also felt that Superman was hokey and so went the whole brooding Batman route. Fine, but then it's not really Superman is it? (Check out the body count at the end!)

I thought, given the pensive Superman on the cover and the seeming "mature" trend of DC Comics that this would be a bit of a downer. I figured that the book could only go one of three equally depressing ways: campy and old fashioned, self-deprecating, or dark and veering too far from the original Superman character. Still, the critics in its corner gave me some small measure of hope (despite leading me astray with The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns).

Miraculously, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's Superman manages to make the character likeable again without going in any of three aforementioned dreaded directions. I think the key to Morrison's success here is going full-on sci-fi but with intelligent dialogue. With Superman our belief is already suspended, so Morrison invites us to just run with it. He also acknowledges and pays homage to all the rich Superman mythology that came before it. He doesn't rewrite it but uses it to his (and our) advantage and most importantly builds upon it. Lois Lane gets superpowers (though admittedly, this story line was wasted), he gets defeated by Jimmy Olsen of all people, there are visits from other mythological characters Atlas and Samson (yes, the guy from the Bible), and Krypto, the Superdog even makes an appearance. Best of all, all these over-the-top storylines are written completely unabashedly.

Quitely's artwork is also quite well done. The lines are crisp and simple, vaguely reminiscent of manga while the colouring is vibrant but with a watery appearance, not unlike air brushing. There are some occasional missteps in Superman's facial features, giving him some inconsistencies but nothing outrageous. They're also quite easy to look past when so many other panels look like they could be posters in their own right.

Finally, a superhero graphic novel that I can say I enjoyed.