Thursday, April 30, 2015

The 8th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - April 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")

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Reader's Diary #1146- Greg Rucka (Writer): Wonder Woman, Eyes of the Gorgon

Obviously aware of Wonder Woman (who isn't?), I nonetheless knew very little of the character, having never read one of her standalone comics before. I had at least a little more experience with Greg Rucka, having read his White Out a couple of years back.

At the end of Eyes of the Gorgon, however, I still don't feel particularly informed about Wonder Woman and I'd still not say I'm a big Rucka fan. There was a lot of context sure, and it hammered home that Wonder Woman's background is wrapped up in Greek mythology (Medousa, Zeus, Athena, and more are major characters), but it's so plot heavy and Wonder Woman just  seems along for the ride. She cries a bit at one point, she gets angry at a few points, but I'd certainly not call it a character-driven book. I still don't feel like I know what makes her tick. It felt a bit like an old-fashioned comic, like something from the 70s, to tell the truth. Plus, since I'm being honest, I'm not crazy about Greek, Roman, or Norse (sorry, Thor) gods in comic books. Superheroes, aliens, superhero-aliens, fine, but my suspension of belief is a tad on the rigid side when it comes to the whole god thing. It's not completely closed to the idea, and I can move on if there's a compelling story, there's humor, the action is exciting and unpredictable, or it has some other hook (welcome back, Thor), but if all that falls through... well, it's kind of just dumb, isn't it?

The art in Wonder Woman, Eyes of the Gorgon feels similarly dated. Then, the fact that it's printed on cheaper newsprint and thus appears faded certainly doesn't help. But I'll give credit for some rather cool looking characters.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Reader's Diary #1145- Ann Petry: Like a Winding Sheet


Instead of linking directly to Ann Petry's "Like a Winding Sheet," I have instead linked to the list where I first heard of the story, "17 Essential Short Stories Written by Women," compiled by Rebecca Kelley for Bustle (a direct link to Petry's story can be found there). I'd already read a good many on the list, and knowing how good those were, felt that any unknown story was probably pretty good as well, and randomly chose the Ann Petry story. My theory panned out: it's a great story.

"Like a Winding Sheet" has themes of race, gender, and there's a case to be made for class as well. Which sounds like a lot to take on in such a short space, but I think that's a myth created by the polarized world of the Internet age: that we can only tackle one issue at a time, that one need trumps another.  Petry also handles the story of an overworked black man with a rich complexity that also seems to have gone out of favour. This is an intelligent, emotional read.

 by Adalie Plain, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License

Monday, April 20, 2015

Reader's Diary #1144- James Franco: Just Before the Black


I'm not completely averse to celebrities jumping into the writing game, for the record. I know critics delight in tearing shreds out of people like Billy Corgan or Pamela Anderson for fancying themselves poets and novelists and I also know that celebrities probably have an easier time finding a publisher, but that doesn't mean, necessarily, that some popstars and actors can't also excel in the literary arts. I happened to quite enjoy a short story of Tom Hanks last year.

Thinking then I was approaching James Franco's "Just Before the Black" with an open mind, I nonetheless found, at first, the story to be immature and told by a bit of an obnoxious dude. However, a short while later I realized that maybe I was being influenced too much, too negatively, by Franco's persona. And, lo and behold, I was having an actual emotional connection to the story.

First off, he's obnoxious because he thinks he's better than his friend. Second, I had a bad reaction to this because in my teenage years I was sometimes that obnoxious dude and sometimes the friend of the obnoxious dude. Both suck. Finally, and also recalling my own past, Franco's narrator is both depressed and also morbidly enjoying being depressed. Been there as well. So it hit close to home on a few levels and made me uncomfortable and I suddenly find myself conceding that Franco has written a plausible story and made me feel something. I've never faulted an author for that before, I've given them credit, in fact. Franco will be no exception.

Fame, be damned.

1960 Cadillac Coupé DeVille by eatmymoto, on Flickr
Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License
   by  eatmymoto 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Reader's Diary #1143- Osamu Tezuka: Buddha, Vol. 1/ Kapilavastu

Back when I first started exploring manga, about 5 years ago, I often brought up Astroboy. The landmark 80s cartoon was my first experience with anime or manga and while most boys around me at the time talked about it like it was the best thing on TV (even better than Alf? Come on.), I wasn't sold on it. If I wasn't thrilled with the storytelling, I despised the animation style. Was Astroboy supposed to have feet or not? Why did everyone have an oval mouth?

Now I find myself reading the first volume of Buddha, the award winning and now classic manga series that tells the life story of Gautama Buddha (the founder of Buddhism), and finding a new appreciation for the work of Astroboy and Buddha creator, Osamu Tezuka.

Apparently Tezuka was heavily influenced by Disney, even writing a manga version of Bambi at one point, and this is quite evident in Buddha. While backdrops occasionally have more realism, the characters tend to be very cartoony. Combined with a slapstick, and sometimes vulgar sense of humour, it's probably not what one would expect for a book with religious themes. But it all works. I think Tezuka was right to take some of the "serious" edge off. It was very entertaining but only deceivingly light. Life is messy and funny sometimes. The more grandiose themes are still there and personally, I don't feel they are cheapened one iota. This is what I wanted and had expected from Robert Crumb's The Book of Genesis, but didn't get.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Reader's Diary #1142- Bill Braden: Bridging the Dehcho

I was born and raised on islands. It was in Twillingate, an outport community that itself is divided into 2. I was born on the South Side, an island, but raised on the smaller North Side, another island. To leave, we'd have to go to the South Side and then to yet another island, New World Island, and finally cross to the much larger body of Newfoundland, which of course, is also an island.

Except for leaving Newfoundland itself, however, I never really felt like I was on an island. North Side was connected to the South Side, the South Side to New World Island, and the New World Island to the province by a series of bridges or causeways and that was it. Those crossings were there since before I was born and only when my parents sometimes told me stories about the short ferry trips that used to be required, did I even consider them to be islands. There were communities in Newfoundland that still required a ferry to visit those were the islands. Those were the truly, in my opinion at the time, isolated ones.

Not trying to bore anyone to tears with this bridge talk, but it's important to show my perspective when I say that sometimes bridges can change your entire outlook and yet be taken for granted. I'm not sure that is the case with the Deh Cho Bridge which was finished (or at least open to the public) in the Northwest Territories after exceeding 200 million dollars in costs.

Sorry, a little more personal context. Before moving to Yellowknife, I lived in 2 communities in Nunavut, and like all Nunavut communities, they were fly in only. Now that was a feeling of isolation. In Yellowknife there was a road out, and one we took advantage of often just because we could. Sure in the summer it required an 8 minute ferry ride across the Mackenzie River, but big deal. And there was an ice road across it in the winter, meaning one didn't even need the ferry. There were just two short periods throughout the year when there was only the fly out option: spring break-up and fall freeze-up. Minor inconveniences really.

Still, I'm not one of those that had strong feelings about the bridge one way or the other. I trusted that plenty of people had solid reasons for wanting it built, just as I trusted that those upset by the delays, mismanagement, and ballooning production costs had valid reasons to complain.

In Braden's Bridging the Deh Cho, it's those two groups of people I suspect he was trying to bridge. Or not so much Braden, but the Government of Northwest Territories Department of Transportation who commissioned the book. Unfortunately, I don't deem it to be a grand success.

Braden's writing and the photos are just fine, even beautiful on occasion, but the flow is weird, if not even propaganda-ish. It begins with a section on the history of the territory which seems out of place. If you've read any history of the territory before, there's very little new insight here (plus, once again, the history pre-white explorers is portrayed as brief and relatively insignificant). And then, with the latter half of the book about the construction of the bridge, there's an insanely skewed sense of its importance in the territorial history, like everything had led to this ultimate project.

There is no denial in the book of controversies surrounding the bridge, but they are minimized. There's an obvious, but understandable, lack of finger pointing, but a quote from someone suggesting that such controversies are par for the course when a significant bridge is built did seem over-the-top. It is also acknowledged that we're not talking about the Brooklyn or San Francisco bridge here, in terms of cultural significance, Braden (or again, more accurately, the NWT Department of Transportation) practically begs artists, poets, and musicians to take up the cause in a section called, "Not a Northern Icon— Yet" which I felt to be kind of embarrassing, to be honest. 

The thing is, I understand that a book about bridges may not sound compelling. The parts about it being built, however, were riveting (!), it's the rest and the unnecessary context that I feel did this book in. What did I expect from a commissioned book, I suppose?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Reader's Diary #1141- Abdellah Taïa, translated by Daniel Simon: Turning Thirty


There's a line in the Alabama Shakes' song "Hold On" when Brittany Howard sings that she never thought she'd "make it to 22 years old." It struck me as amusing when I first heard it, and the line still jumps out out at me. It's the sound of blues, but the age belies the "paying the dues" part that usually accompanies such music.

Of course, it doesn't really. I don't know what troubles Brittany has seen, I don't really know her sorrows. Perhaps the answer lies in the rest of the lyrics, but I've not paid attention and as this is not an Alabama Shakes post, I have no intention to do so now. My point is that I'm an old man who's forgotten that young people can not only have real problems, they can even have existential angst.

So, when I read the blurb at the beginning of Abdellah Taïa's short story, that a narrator faces an existential crisis from "Turning Thirty" I once again smirked to myself. 30? Pffft.

(I'll also disclaim at this point that, despite the somewhat facetious "old man" comment above, I'm only 38.)

Nonetheless, once I got past my generational snobbery, I accepted and enjoyed "Turning Thirty" (that's the story, not my own 30th birthday which I barely remember because I'm pretty sure it was a non-significant event). As you might expect of a story with the promise of anything to do with existentialism, there's a lot of melodramatic inner-turmoil. There are external details though, and while the narrative is sometimes difficult to follow as each detail is interrupted and processed internally, I still found them compelling. I also, thankfully, found the story less annoying than I anticipated.

The author bio at the end makes me think the story is largely autobiographical. And yeah, he's paid his dues.

Notre dame gargoyle France by John Mutford, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Reader's Diary #1140- Brian Michael Bendis (Writer) and Sara Pichelli (Artist): Ultimate Comics Spider-Man

Okay, it took me a while to a while find this one. I went looking for the comic in which Miles Morales, a black Hispanic teenager, first takes the reins from the now deceased Peter Parker. Here's why I had difficulty: I had accidentally picked up the 1st Ultimate Spider-Man. Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, as it it turns out, is the sequel to Ultimate Spider-Man, and the one I really wanted. That single word "Comics" made all the difference, despite both of them actually being comics. I complained last week that having a Captain Marvel and a Ms. Marvel, who are not one and the same, is confusing, but the Ultimate vs Ultimate Comics thing is just ridiculous. It's like newcomers are not welcome in the comic book store. Shocking, I know.

But, I suppose, it was worth the effort. I wasn't sure how I'd feel about it at first, having someone else other than Peter Parker behind the mask. I mean it's not the first time a superhero's alter ego has changed. There's been multiple people known as the Green Lantern, there's been three versions of Ant-Man, and there are probably loads of other examples. But I was never into those characters as a kid (truth be known, I wasn't even aware of Ant-Man, who would have been totally up my alley) and to me Spider-Man has always been Peter Parker. And unlike the grating and sniveling Clark Kent or the pretentious Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker was every bit as enjoyable as his superhero persona.

But, Bendis passes the gauntlet skillfully. He's chosen a wholly likeable young teen (younger, I ever remember Peter Parker being), given him a similar origin story while keeping the character still sufficiently unique (even with some different abilities), and acknowledging that the whole thing might be a tough sell with the fans. After Parker's death, Morales appears in a Spider-Man costume bought as a Halloween costume, prompting calls from the public and other superheroes to call it out for being in poor taste. To Miles, however, a long time fan of Spider-Man, he only intended it to be a tribute.

There's also an appearance from Spider Woman that I was excited to see because I am still, as I said above, a bit of a newcomer, and wanted to know more about the character. I was, however, more confused than ever. Morales, who was aware of Spider-Man, also had no idea who she was or that she had even existed. So how she fits in to the Marvel comics world, I'm not sure. I guess in this case, though, Marvel is using my ignorance to their advantage because I'm intrigued enough to pick up more of her titles.

I had mixed feelings about the artwork. I loved the new suit on the cover (drawn by Kaare Andrews) and was impressed how rubbery and real it looked. As for Pichelli's art work on the inside I was less than enthusiastic. She did a great job with expressive characters, but I'm a sucker for detailed backgrounds and too many of her panels were left blank. Sometimes, instead of just a uniform colour in the background, pseudo-newsprint dots (or halftone dots) were used which was slightly better giving the book a pop art feel and ever-so-subtly suggesting that Miles will become a "classic" character but I still would have preferred a bit more effort with the details.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Reader's Diary #1139- Robb Walker: Reawakenings


"Reawakenings" by Robb Walker begins, "Now, what kind of ceremony did you have in mind? Did you want a traditional burial or a reawakening?" thus setting up the story's mysterious premise: what the heck is a "reawakening"?

I'm going to ruin some of the surprise by letting you know upfront that the story is about a creative and entrepreneurial man who refuses to let the zombie apocalypse ruin his funeral business.

I will also tell you that the story is funny and dark, as the better zombie stories tend to be. It's a welcomed and unexpected voice, this funeral director. You usually get a story from a victim point of view, or rising in popularity the zombie point of view, but this is neither, and I really enjoyed hearing from whom I thought would normally have been thought of as a minor character at best in more typical zombie tale.

IMG_6742 by BenDibble, on Flickr

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License
   by  BenDibble 

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Reader's Diary #1138- Geronimo Stilton: Who Stole the Mona Lisa?

Nick Hornby, if the Internet is to be believed, once said, "I see now that dismissing YA books because you’re not a young adult is a little bit like refusing to watch thrillers on the grounds that you’re not a policeman or a dangerous criminal, and as a consequence, I’ve discovered a previously ignored room at the back of the bookstore that’s filled with masterpieces I’ve never heard of."

Geronimo Stilton is aimed at slightly younger audience than "young adult," but the Hornby quote can still serve my purposes as I've often read children's books as well that I've totally enjoyed, despite my 38 years on this planet. Owly, by Andy Runton, for example is a comic aimed at young kids that I totally and unashamedly enjoyed. Geronimo Stilton, however, I found too juvenile.

I chose to read it because I only recently discovered Stilton is an Italian creation and I don't feel like I've read enough European comics. I've read some mind you; enough to say that Stilton owes more to Tintin and Asterix than to Alan Moore.

Honestly, Who Stole the Mona Lisa? felt like a bad kids' cartoon show. There was some action, some slapstick humour and poor puns, serviceable art, and obligatory educational moments, but I never once got a sense of the characters and thus, never really cared about them. Very underwhelming.