Sunday, November 30, 2014

The 8th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - November 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")

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Reader's Diary #1093- Hiromu Arakawa, translated by Akira Watanabe: Fullmetal Alchemist, Vol. 1

I've been chatting with a lot of other Western manga readers lately, at it would seem that those of us who find it difficult adjusting our reading to right-to-left and "back-to-front" are in the minority. Most seem to consider the transition an easy process. Others have suggested that all it takes it a little practice. I'm not sure how many books most would consider sufficient practice, but for me the magic number seems to be 4. Having struggled through 4 other manga titles that read in the opposite way that I'm used to (I don't include Akira in this tally, as the copies I read were Westernized to read left to right), I found myself reading Hiromu Akawara's Fullmetal Alchemist with ease. Was it the practice? Was it Arakawa's easy to follow arrangements? Maybe it was both? In any case, it made a LOT of difference to my enjoyment.

I was finally, actually entertained and caught up in the story. And what a bizarre, fun story it is: Fullmetal Alchemist tells of two teenage brothers named Edward and Alphonse who are both alchemists. In this reality, however, alchemy isn't just turning another metal into gold, it's turning anything else into anything else. There are certain rules though. One "scientific" rule is that to obtain something, something of equal value needs to be surrendered. There is also a moral rule against human transmutation (modifying or creating a human being), which Edward and Alphonse soon discover must also have a scientific basis. Trying to bring their deceased mother back to life, their plan backfires: not only does the mother not return, but Edward loses a leg, and Alphonse his entire body. Edward then sacrifices an arm as well, in exchange for Alphonse's soul, which winds up in a rather odd suit of armor. I'm not sure how that math works out, but I guess it's like those insurance policies that offer you prices that vary based on the limb or digit lost. Still, an arm for a soul seems like a bargain. Then the story is a bit muddled. Edward attains prosthetic limbs, the brothers join the military while looking for the mystical Philosopher's Stone that they hope can be used to get them their originals body back. But some in the military are also looking for the stone for themselves.

It becomes a bit of a whirlwind, and there were a few things that I didn't fully grasp, but there are 26 more volumes to go, so I suspect more will become clear. I'm not sure if or when I'll continue with the series, but I did enjoy the 1st one enough.

As for the art, it was good. I've seen better manga, but I've also seen a lot worse, and there were somethings that impressed me. Edward's prosthetics are detailed and interesting, and there were a few instances of techniques I'd not seen before that really got my attention.
Note the bottom panel, where the man's head acts as a panel divider. He's saying, "It shall me God's will," (smirk) and then it bleeds into the next scene where he's leading Edward and Alphonse to a door, as if his plan (the "God's will" statement was ironic) flowed flawlessly.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Reader's Diary #1092: John Collier: Thus, I Refute Thee Beelzy

A couple of nights ago I went to see a wonderful production of Harvey, by Mary Chase, performed by Yellowknife's Lunchbox Theatre. Though it won a Pulitzer back in the 40s and has been adapted for film, it somehow escaped my radar. Anyway I quite enjoyed it, but oddly it had nothing to do with my choice of John Collier's "Thus, I Refute Thee Beelzy" for today's short story. The fact that both deal with characters who have imaginary friends, both to the frustration of those around them, is but a coincidence.

In Collier's story, the imaginary friend belongs to a young boy rather than a grown man. But the major difference between the two is that Chase's play is a comedy, while Collier's is definitely not.

While I was once again engaged with this story, I did find the dialogue odd. Granted some may have been intentional (there's a windbag of a father who likes to spout his superior knowledge of child-rearing), others may have been due to the time and place the story was written (England, 1940s). (Though I have to admit, it made me envision Jeff Goldblum in the role.)

Despite that, I liked the pacing of the story and buildup of danger. What begins as a generic childhood scene of a boy playing with an imaginary friend, escalates into a power-struggle between the boy and his dad-- but still, at this point, not an uncommon scene. Then it gets ugly.

Leafar is my imaginary friend par raphaë by leafar., on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License
   by  leafar. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Reader's Diary #1091: Mark Millar (writer), Steve McNiven (penciler): Civil War

I keep stumbling upon comics artists that I had no idea were Canadian. Recently I discovered that Fiona Staples, the illustrator behind Saga is from Alberta. Now I find that Steve McNiven, the illustrator behind Marvel's 2006-2007 Civil War series is from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Great!... If only I liked his work more.

I had two main issues with his art, both of which either got better over the series or else I got used to them. The first was with characters who were left speaking (or yelling) with their mouths agape. It's a pet peeve of mine and I think it makes characters look slightly ridiculous, like when you pause someone mid-blink on TV. Why do this? The entire sentence can't be captured by one expression, so why settle on a moment when the mouth is open? Just look at this one:
(And if you look at the panel just below, she's still catching flies.)

In the large panel, she's yelling, "you filthy piece of crap!" Try saying that aloud (make sure there are no loved ones around) and I guarantee your mouth won't look like this for any syllable.

Secondly was the sexist portrayals of the female superheroes. I get that they're scantily clad and that's an issue above McNiven. But look at this scene:

Here's the dialogue Millar has written for these two panels:

Iron Man: No, we're super heroes, Jennifer. We tackle super-crime and we save people's lives. The only thing changing is that the kids, the amateurs, and the sociopaths are getting weeded out. 

Tigris: What category does Captain America fall into, Iron Man?

Can someone please tell me how that conversation warranted an ass shot of She-Hulk?

Illustrations aside, I felt a little better about the writing itself. Millar, who some might remember for Kick-Ass, once again ponders the ethics of vigilantism. Only this time he has the entire world pondering the same thing and it's tearing the Marvel superheroes apart. On one end of the spectrum is Tony Stark (i.e., Iron Man) who wants the superheroes to register and basically make superheroism a legitimate job. On the other end is Captain America who opposes registration as an attack on their personal freedoms. (Captain America is an interesting choice to represent that side. On the one hand it opposes government intervention, which sounds like a republican sort of idea. On the other, it approaches anarchism.) The other Marvels must choose sides. It certainly had potential for some higher level thought than stereotypical superhero fare.

That said, it didn't work as well as all that. The aforementioned problem with McNiven's illustrations not withstanding, the story also suffered under the weight of too many characters. Nobody's story was told in sufficient depth, though there was an attempt at Spider-Man's. Tony Stark, I gathered, was supposed to be a more dynamic character, but in the end just came across as a jerk rather than fraught with conflict. I know the collected 7 volumes of this edition had ramifications that spilled into other comics and books, where individual characters possibly got more attention, but it's a bit of mess at the end of issue #7.

Apparently the Avengers movies will eventually adapt the Civil War story line, and I'm optimistic they'll make it work despite my lack of enthusiasm for the source material. Even if they bring in the Guardians of the Galaxy guys (who are not in the book, by the way) and should they get Sony Pictures to allow a Spider-Man crossover (yes, please!), I still think they'll have less characters to deal with than the comic tried. Maybe we'll finally and adequately be dealing with those philosophical issues after all... with ample doses of explosions and wisecracking wit, of course.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Reader's Diary #1090- Nick Abadzis: Laika

I'm not a dog person. But what I mean by that is I don't want one for a pet. Still, I've read what some might feel is an unusual amount of books about dogs for someone who doesn't claim to be a dog person. I even went through a dog book phase there for a while. That's okay, I've also read an odd amount of hockey books for someone not into hockey. I guess it's my roundabout way of saying that my reading choices don't define who I am. But enough about me...

Laika, is historical fiction based on the first dog in outer space. Actually though it's more about the people who's lives are touched by Laika than the dog herself. But Russia, early space exploration, and the Cold War, are also worked in so seamlessly, that I can hardly think of a better way to learn about those topics. Certainly the potential was there for this to be a dry history lesson, but I was so caught up in it that I barely realized I had learned anything, though I learned a great deal.

The potential was also there to be overly sentimental and judgmental. Laika is a street dog at first, living a tough life. Suddenly captured and made part of the Russian space program, she seems destined for greatness. Plus, the animal technician in charge of Laika's care has taken a liking to her. Alas (and spoiler alert for those who don't already know the history), Laika died within hours of the launch. Sad, clearly, but Abadzis never really rested his story on that. Instead, he's used the opportunity to describe these wonderfully complex individuals, all of whom are touched affected in profound ways by the very simple-yet-good dog. As for the death at the end, there's a sense of outrage, sure, but one suspects the cries of cruelty from the Western world were disingenuous, more about Cold War technological jealousies than anything else. It was those closest to Laika that really felt the injustice of it all.

The drawings are okay, though nothing great. I did, however, enjoy the colouring. The pastels suited the era, and the lighting in various scenes brilliantly capture the figurative and literal temperature of the scenes.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Reader's Diary #1089- Laura Legge: Tukisiviit?

I have to admit, I got preoccupied with politics and ethics while reading Laura Legge's "Tukisiviit?"
Written by a white woman but told from the point of view of an Inuk teenager, I'm not the first to question if this was appropriate. (Unlike the commenters on the story on the CBC page on which the story appears, however, I haven't made up my mind about it one way or the other yet.) My reluctancy with accepting Legge's story probably had something to do with reading (coincidentally) this story about indigenous appropriation just beforehand. However, I also reminded myself that when you tell fiction, you automatically assume the perspective of someone else. But does that mean anything goes? Can a white woman tell the story of a Inuk? Can a woman tell the story of a child? Can a man tell a woman's story? An American tell a Canadian's? An Anglophone a Francophone's? A person without disabilities tell the story of a person with disabilities? Lots of gray areas here and I'm sure to some extent it depends on the sensitivity and believability of how it's told.

I didn't buy Legge's perspective, offensive or not. The story of an Inuk who watches his geography teacher get humiliated in a professional wrestling ring, it begins, "We hated him for three reasons. His chained dog. His refusal to learn Inuktitut. And his noisy and conceited notion that he was helping us."

First off, there are enough Inuit who chain up their dogs that hating their geography teacher for doing so is very unlikely. As for the refusing to learn Inuktitut and the rest, Legge has reduced both northern student and teacher to complete cliches.

The introduction of pro-wrestling in the story was a welcome and unexpected detail, but not, unfortunately enough to rescue the story from its lack of authenticity.

Lack of authenticity? Now that I think of it, pro-wrestling fits the story perfectly.

End of the Chain by Sans Peur, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License
   by  Sans Peur 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Reader's Diary #1088- Albert Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell and Derek Hockridge: Asterix and the Black Gold

I'm not sure how I managed to avoid European comics as a kid when so many others North Americans seemed to have grown up on Tintin and/or Asterix. Too busy reading MAD Magazine, I guess.

Still, it's never too late to join the crowd, I suppose. I managed to fill my Tintin void a few years back and am finally managing to get an Asterix title under my belt.

In Asterix and the Black Gold, Asterix and his friend Obelix head off to the middle East to bring back some oil. Oil, it seems, while undervalued by most at the time, is that essential ingredient in a magic potion that gives Asterix and his fellow Gauls the strength they need to keep the Roman army at bay.

Not having any experience with Asterix before, most of this stuff was new to me. I did not know Asterix was a Gaul, nor that the Gauls in this series had superhuman strength. I quite enjoyed the historical settings and characters. They're a bit slow in getting to the Middle East, so perhaps some more familiar readers might grow impatient waiting for that particular setting to appear, but for me the various settings along the way were all interesting.

The story itself was a bit boring. There's a Roman spy tagging along with Asterix and Obelix, but the  peril-overcome peril-peril-overcome peril pattern grew tiresome when really, nothing amounted to much of a challenge. There's also a LOT of puns. I never thought I'd say it, but too many puns! After a while they stopped being amusing and just became distracting. As for the characters, I found them sort of flat. Asterix, who I'd assumed would be the main character didn't stand out at all. In fact, there didn't seem to be any protagonist. The spy, perhaps?

I did, however, enjoy the artwork. The colours were bright and cheerful, reminding me of old Smurfs episodes. The characters themselves are drawn in a humorous, classic Looney Tunes style, especially when occasional characters had far more realistic faces, like when celebrities appeared on Merrie Melodies.

I'm unlikely to read another Asterix comic any time soon, but I can at least appreciate the appeal, especially if someone grew up reading them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Reader's Diary #1087: Steve Niles (writer), Dave Wachter (illustrator): Breath of Bones

Breath of Bones was quite difficult for me to get my hands on a physical copy. I ended up buying it from the Kobo store, which gave me a lot of reservations. My only prior experience with trying to read a comic on my eReader before was with Sharon McKay's War Brothers, and it did not go well. Losing all the colour and unable to zoom or scroll almost ruined the book  (fortunately the story salvaged it). This time, however, I decided to read it right on my laptop and it worked out better. For one, most is in black and white anyway (and the cover, which technically is coloured, does not exactly take advantage of the full rainbow), and for another it was larger and not as difficult to see.

Breath of Bones is set in World War II and tells the story of a small European village, as of yet unscathed by the war. That changes, however, when an Allied plane crashes nearby. The Nazis will now come to investigate. Much to the disbelief of most townsfolk, an old man decides to create a golem, a mud monster, to protect them. The story most revolves around Noah, the old man's grandson.

When I found out it was about a golem, I was very interested in reading further. I didn't know a lot about golems of Jewish mythology (the first time I heard about them was through a Simpsons Halloween episode) and so I was curious. I also enjoyed the artwork, which reminded me at time of Will Eisner's work, especially in the characters and the tendency to drop the panel boxes from time to time (though the golem itself reminded me a little of The Thing, from the Fantastic Four).

With the lack of colour I found myself at times wondering about the violence and if it was made less alarming, therefore more child-friendly, with the grayscale approach. There was one scene in particular where the golem takes a Nazi and crushes him in its hand. "Skronch" it says, which was a surprisingly evocative word to describe a wet, popping say of a skull. Violent in itself, but imagine if there was red squirting out at the same time. Would that have been too intense? Likewise had all of the shooting and fires been colourized. Black and white tends to compliment historic settings, but I'm not always sure that the death and violence of war should be downplayed.

And then it just seemed to end. I wasn't sure why the golem disappeared ("he was gone in an instant—void of life, drained as mysteriously as it had come. He had done what he was created for"). The war wasn't over, couldn't he help others? Plus, I felt the moralistic message at the end about finding good within ourselves was tacked on and disingenuous considering that earlier in the story the grandfather says, "sometimes it takes monsters to stop monsters."

I had been enjoying the book until the end. I wished it felt longer than a single breath.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Reader's Diary #1086- Cynthia Flood: Apology

As a character study, I suppose I enjoyed Cynthia Flood  "Apology." As a short story, I did not. I found the plot to be lacking in direction and dull. It's about an older woman named Edith being lackadaisically confronted by her friends about a few of her recent  misdemeanors. Essentially, I supposed, one could make the case that this isn't one short story, but three collected flash fictions,  anecdotes about Edith's transgressions. I like flash fiction. I could possibly get behind "Apology" after all.

Nope. They're just mundane little tales, gossipy and petty, barely interesting. Sure they're realistic. And sure I got some sense of who Edith was. But so what?
129:366 by chrisjtse, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License
   by  chrisjtse 

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Reader's Diary #1085- Scott McCloud: Understanding Comics

When I first started getting heavy into comics and graphic novels a few years back, I wasn't sure how to talk about them here on the blog. Not having much of an art background, nor any (at the time) formal education in comics, I thought the sheer lack of vocabulary would hold me back or render my opinions completely stupid; "I like the way he drew that thing by doing that weird stuff."

Still, appearing stupid has never held me back before. I write about other books and I'm not an author myself. My philosophy there was always, "who are they writing these books for: readers or other writers?" Since the answer is presumably readers, my opinions are still valid; my lack of a thorough writing education was inconsequential. I went for it.

Now, after more than five years of writing about graphic novels and with them slowly taking over my blog altogether, I was excited to hear about Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. Don't get me wrong, the book's been out since 1993 and insiders seem to have known about its status as a landmark text for some time, but regardless in its delay in getting to me, I was eager to jump in. Finally I'd have some vocab to explain my thoughts on the latest Blondie strip.

And I gained that in spades. I now say things like, "I enjoyed Seth's use of non-sequitur transitions." Whether or not I'll hang on to all this new knowledge will remain to be seen. What's more important is that I don't believe I'll ever look at a comic the same again.

I read this back in August and with every comic I've read since, I've been enraptured by the artist's technique and identifying aspects I always took for granted before. This is not to say McCloud has ruined comics for me, removing me from the story to instead think about the writing, but just the opposite. It's like I have two levels of thought going on at the same time. "Wow, I loved that part! How'd she do that? Oh right, by..."

Understanding Comics is a nonfiction comic about comics. Going into the history of comics as well as the techniques behind them, McCloud's examples, whether they be his own or ones borrowed (and referenced) from famous sources, help explain and cement concepts. I can't imagine this working in a typical textbook. Add to that the light humour and enthusiasm, it's quite an engaging book.

It doesn't all work. There's a triangle with points representing reality, meaning, and the picture plane that is needlessly complicated and McCloud goes back to it over and over. There's a chapter on the meaning of art that seems unnecessary and out of place. (What's to say beyond "comics are art"? Nothing.) It's a bit dated and though he has written several books about comics since, I'd still like welcome a new, revised edition, one that looks at the rise of the graphic novel, manga's influence on western comics in the age of globalization, and why didn't he have a chapter on fonts and lettering, anyway? Plus, new examples would certainly be welcome.

Fortunately,  there were a couple of brilliant moments in the book that more than made up for the faults. Explaining gutters, the space between panels in which long or short time and/or distance passes and information is intentionally withheld, McCloud writes that "to kill a man between panels is to condemn him to a thousand deaths." What an ingenious way to describe the power that comics writers have and can pass on to us as they see fit. I'm sure I'm not describing this well, but the visual McCloud uses is another prime example as to why this book needed to be a comic. I was also in awe of the way McCloud demonstrated the bizarre time flow of comics, often within a single panel. Imagine two people speaking to one another. Their bodies are frozen in the scene but one person's speech (in a balloon) is followed by another. Time is passing for the audio but not the picture! And that's just a basic one.

It's all stuff that I didn't think a lot about before but now can't stop thinking about. 

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Reader's Diary #1084- Dawn Kostelnik: The White Girl

In the 1960s, Dawn Kostelnik's father got a job as an Indian Agent in Fort Norman, Northwest Territories. Bundling up their four children (Dawn and her three younger brothers) and their Siamese cat, they head into the great white North in the middle of winter. Where they're moving from exactly, isn't made clear, somewhere in Southern Canada, but from that point on she becomes and remains a Northerner, so it's as much origin story as you need.

Today Kostelnik lives in Whitehorse, Yukon where these autobiographical anecdotes first appeared as a weekly feature in The Whitehorse Star. The White Girl is self-published. However, knowing they first appeared in a newspaper, I held onto hope that the stories would not be rife with typos as is typically the case with self-published books. Alas, they were. The most pervasive was the odd spelling of story as storey. This one occurred often and without fail. It got to the point that I suspected it was an artistic thing, referring to a story as a layer, like a storey of a building. However, the number of other typos makes me suspect it's wishful thinking on my part.

If you can get past those, The White Girl is an interesting look at one person's experience in several Northern communities in the 60s and 70s. Sometimes it's unclear from an outsider, through no fault of Kostelnik's, whether one might still experience such things in those communities or if life is drastically different there today. At other times it's very obvious that you would not, like in stories about having only pre-recorded TV broadcasts that were a week old. But details aside, Kostelnik's tough and amusing, sometimes thoughtful, personality is the most engaging aspect of the book. Despite the title, drawing attention to the fact that she was a minority in these towns, I didn't find many stories preoccupied with race (the last one is a notable exception). Life could be rough, for sure, but there was also a lot of laughter and adventure. Kostelnik seems to look back on all of it with affection and gratitude for having shaped the person she became.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Reader's Diary #1083- Lynda Barry: What It Is

I don't often know where I fit in the artistic community. I say I love creative types. I think cutting arts funding from schools is as bad as cutting gym or math funding. I've taken drawing classes and attended poetry writing workshops. And then, suddenly, I'll find myself offending some artist because I've said I don't believe in magic, but I find science magical. I too often suspect artistic fraud whenever I encounter something I don't understand.

I don't know what Lynda Barry's What It Is is. At least, I don't know how to classify it. It's published by Drawn and Quarterly who typically publish graphic novels, my library has it classified as such, so we'll go with that. But it's not a novel. There's no story here (though you'll find an anecdote or two) and if you go with Scott McCloud's definition of comic"Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the reader"— it's barely that. Sure there are loads of pictures, and given that they're on the pages of a book they're juxtaposed, but I'm not even sure the book is sequential. Perhaps Barry or others would disagree, but I think you could tear out all the pages, put them in random order, and it would barely make a difference. 

But rather than say I got hung up on semantics and classification and therefore missed Barry's points, I actually think such questions work in the book's favour. As a book about honing and honouring one's creativity in order to write (or writing in order to hone and honour one's creativity), I think struggling to fit something into a box is a great place to start. 

Initially my inner-artistic fraud detector was on high alert. Seeming to be random doodles of cats, monkeys, and octopuses, interjected with philosophical questions that had no hard answers, I began to wonder why it was published. Sure, I thought there was value in for Barry, there's a lot of personal reflection here that any writer must consider if they want to be any good, but it felt at first like being dropped into someone else's brain without a guide. Interesting for a few seconds, then just confusing. Eventually, however, it won me over. How to publish a book was never the message. But how to improve one's writing is, and those doodles? Wonderful examples of Barry's own writing. That probably doesn't make a lot of sense, I can't do the book justice. What is it? is What It Is (as is when is it? and where is it?). Once you embrace that confusion, it's a wholly inspirational book for any writer, and actually provides a lot of practical tips. This should be a textbook.

Reader's Diary #1082- Tom Hanks: Alan Bean Plus Four

A few years back while in New York City, we'd just left Wicked, heading back to Time Square when we happened upon an even bigger crowd than usual. Shoulder to shoulder, people upon shoulders, and there was an excited giddiness in the air. Tom Hanks, we were told, is expected out of that door... any second.

It was so strange. I mean, I'd have thought New York, and Broadway no less, would be used to celebrities by now. More interested in the crowd than Mr. Hanks, we stuck around. Eventually he appeared and walked about 6 feet to his limo. From the one or two glimpses I could get, I saw that he was smiling and waving to his fans. Then, escorted by 2 police vehicles, the limo pulled away. The crowd, deciding that it had accomplished everything it wanted from life, dispersed.

I think the best role Hanks has ever pulled off is the loveable, slightly goofy, down-to-Earth human. Because at that level of fame, I can hardly believe he's maintained any normalcy (whatever that is). How could you be? We were nobodies walking down the streets of NYC, and after being part of the Hanks mob, I can easily say I prefer it that way. I'll trade bank accounts any day, but the fame? He can keep it.

Not that I don't admire what he does. It's weird. I never expect to be impressed with Tom Hanks. He's just Tom Hanks. Then he does something like that shock scene in Captain Philips, and I'm reminded for the umpteenth time, "Oh yeah, he can really act!"

Turns out he can write too. "Alan Bean Plus Four" is about a quartet or average Joes (3 Joes and 1 Joan, actually) and their DIY rocketship that sends them hurtling around the moon and back. They really shouldn't be able to pull this off.

It's a charming and enthralling story. There's an air of an old sci-fi tale, probably due to the fixation on the moon (whereas new sci-fi tends to look way beyond our galaxy), but it still works in the present day. Given the level of technology at our very fingertips, maybe it's Everyman's turn. Maybe we can all be Hanks. Of course, he's too (pretend?) modest for that. He'd say we can all be Alan Beans.

space_shuttle2 by hownowdesign, on Flickr

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