Friday, June 30, 2017

The 10th Annual Canadian Book Challenge - June Roundup (Sticky Post— Scroll down for most recent post)

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")

And in prize news, congratulations once again to Melwyk for winning a copy of Christal Doherty and Carla Taylor's How Raven Returned the Sun for taking part in last month's mini-challenge to read a Canadian book not originally written in English. Canadian Book Challenge mini-challenges are exclusive to members via email.)

Reader's Diary #1615- Jeff Lemire (writer), Dean Ormston (artist): Black Hammer Secret Origins

Jeff Lemire's Black Hammer Secret Origins is exactly the comic I wanted and needed right now.

I think there's a misconception out there that superhero comics are fine, but most people mature past them and eventually turn to serious, literary comics. This despite Watchmen having been published some 30 years ago-- you know, the superhero comic that supposedly proved that superhero comics can have literary merit.

This won't be a rant against Watchmen, but as I was underwhelmed by that one personally, it would be hard for me to cite it as an example of a smart superhero comic. Not that I find most superhero comics dumb. I think some of the themes explored in recent years by Marvel and DC (vigilantism, patriotism, collateral damage) are worthy topics of discussion. But nonetheless, these are expected themes of superhero stories.

But Jeff Lemire's Black Hammer Secret Origins explores themes beyond that while still celebrating the insanity of superheroes. The oppression and loneliness of a small town and it's a fun book? Yup!

So, it's literary for sure, but I'm not necessarily recommending it to those without a knowledge of superheroes. Would such readers enjoy it? If you were fans of Jeff Lemire's Essex County, most likely. But, as I said at the beginning, it found me at the right time. I've practically been devouring superhero comics over the past year or two and the nods to classic superhero characters were definitely more appreciated this way: Swamp Thing, Adam Warlock, Thor, Martian Manhunter, etc. Make no mistake, this is also a love letter to superhero comics; and most likely a point about how their fantasy worlds provide escape from hum-drums of rural life.

As for the art, it's also great and coloured perfectly. I'll admit though that Dean Ormston's style is so similar to Jeff Lemire's I thought it was his.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Reader's Diary #1614- E. Pauline Johnson: Flint and Feather, The Complete Poems

It's been a while since I've read any poetry. But it was CBC Books' 100 Indigenous Writers to Read that finally inspired me to pick up E. Pauline Johnson's Flint and Feather: The Complete Poems.

Written back in 1912, before free form poetry had really taken off, these poems all have defined forms and lots of rhyming. A good many of them, and I would say some of the better ones, are narrative poems. One aspect that I immediately appreciated was her unrestrained emotion. Of course, one might flip that and criticize her for being overly sentimental, but when I first decided that I needed a break from poetry (a few years back I used to read a lot of it) I'd been getting exhausted by the forced obliqueness of all the modern stuff.

Perhaps it was because of the emotions, I unfortunately got a little too distracted by the poet herself. (I still remember how frustrating it was for everyone when a guy in my first year poetry class analyzed every poem based on the poet's background.) But there was such a contrast between the attitudes in some poems to others that it was difficult to reconcile they could come from the same person.

Take the sentiment expressed in the last stanza of "A Cry From An Indian Wife"
Go forth, nor bend to greed of white men's hands,
By right, by birth we Indians own this land,
Though starved, crushed, plundered, lies our nation low...
Perhaps the white man's God has willed it so.
 And compare it to the first stanza of "Canadian Born"
We first saw light in Canada, the land beloved of God;
We are the pulse of Canada, its marrow and its blood :
And we, the men of Canada, can face the world and brag
That we were born in Canada beneath the British flag.

Of course, anyone's allowed to have mixed feelings about a place, but I suspect Johnson's identity as the daughter of a Mohawk man and white woman must have made her relationship with Canada especially complex. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

Reader's Diary #1613- Terri-Lynn Quewezance: Wapihti

Terri-Lynn Quewezance's "Wapihti" is a heartwarming story of a young Woods Cree girl who wanders into a meadow to offer a green ribbon to the sacred guardian. There's a gentleness to the story, despite the approach of a wolf and a bear and this gentleness can largely be attributed to the peaceful demeanor of the girl. Along with the offering, she also helps other animals (a baby bird that has fallen from a tree, a trapped beaver) and almost as karma, Wapihti is spared, or at least, there's a sense of balance.

I haven't read a lot of calming stories lately, nor spent enough time with nature. This is a great reminder to do more of each.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Reader's Diary #1612- Christopher Priest (writer), various artists: Deathstroke Vol. 1 The Professional

Again, not a character of whom I was overly familiar, but unlike many of the others I've been recently familiarizing myself with, I'm not overly eager to learn more.

I also wasn't thrilled to see Christopher Priest's name attached to the character. I really hadn't liked what he'd done with Black Panther and before I got far into Deathstroke Vol. 1: The Professional, I could see that I was going to have similar issues. The man does not seem able to tell a straightforward story.

Granted, the pieces did come together over the course of the collection, but not enough to make me appreciated the approach. And, as an aside, it's a good example of why I still think trades are better than serials. I'd have given up after the first book, never giving the story a chance to fall into place.

I don't suppose, however, all the blame for my lack of enthusiasm can be pinned on Priest. I just don't like the character. He's a supervillain, so I guess I'm not supposed to, but in addition to being a jerk, he's also somewhat boring. Again, there were some tiny hints of a more complex character as the book progress, but I don't think enough to convince me to pursue him further.

The art, while admirably consistent considering the number of artists, is consistently utilitarian.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Reader's Diary #1611- Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente (writers), Dale Eaglesham (artist): Alpha Flight The Complete Series

I'd known about Alpha Flight for some time but admittedly it took some time for me to truly get interested enough to read them. Even now it was out of a pursuit to read the less popular superheroes. While I also knew they were supposedly Canadian, the fact that they were created by an American (John Byrne) dampened my enthusiasm somewhat. Also, they sounded a bit hokey.

If it's all as good as the Greg Pak, Fred Van Lente, and Dale Eaglesham collection, I've been missing out.

First off, it's not as hokey as I thought despite having characters named Puck and Sasquatch. It's filled with Canadian stereotypes, but done lovingly so and once you move beyond that the characters are fully developed and complex in their own rights. There may be some issues with the First Nations and half-Inuk characters as such people have been exploited and misrepresented so often, but I am not in a position to analyze Shaman and Northstar, to weigh in on whether or not their representations are fair or authentic. I will say that as a Newfoundlander, I quite enjoyed the Marrina character, the alien raised by a Newfoundland couple and with many ocean related powers.

This collection details a new governmental party that uses an invasion to capitalize on people's fears and start stripping everyone of their rights and freedoms. Yes, unfortunately applicable in 2012 when this was written and still now in 2017. Perhaps more shocking with the Canadian setting but a good lesson for us not to be so smug and self-assured that it couldn't happen here (a corrupt government that is, not a hostile invasion from Asgardians or cavemen).

Dale Eaglesham (the only real Canadian on the creative team) provides crisp visuals coloured expertly by Sonia Oback.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Reader's Diary #1610- John Stanley and Irving Tripp: Little Lulu A Handy Kid

I've been mostly enjoying exploring old classic comic book and comic strip characters. Though, to be expected, most have at least a moment or two that underscores the times they were written, and usually in the most unpleasant of ways. I've encountered a lot of racism and sexism.

New with John Stanley and Irving Tripp's Little Lulu: A Handy Kid collection are issues of corporal punishment (spanking is the norm, even to the point of hauling down the pants of another family's kid and spanking them) and fat-shaming (one of the main kids is named Tubby).

If one can get past that, I suppose the farcical adventures of the little girl named Lulu and her gang of friends is mildly amusing. The art is extremely simplistic, which may or may not be a good thing. Maybe the weak gags would suffer from the slightest visual distraction.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Reader's Diary #1609- Mao Tse-Tung: Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung

Ah, some nice summer reading courtesy of Chairman Mao.

It may seem like an odd pick but I've been curious about it ever since I read a Wikipedia article on best selling books that put Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung on par with the Bible in terms of sales. Getting my hands on a copy and noticing how short it is, I figured, what the heck.

Nothing real surprising here. It's got that vintage Marxist propaganda vibe. Down with the Imperialistic Dogs! and so forth. But it's occasionally interesting.

First off the arrangement caught my eye. The quotes are not arranged chronologically but rather by topic. So you might have a quote from the 50s, followed by one from the 20s, followed by one from the 30s. (Though that's as wide as the range goes.)

I also found it intriguing to read how devoted and studied Mao was on Marxism. I usually hear of Western culture adopting Eastern philosophies, not so much the reverse.

Finally, whenever one reads something as dogmatic as this, whether it be the superiority of socialism, communism, democracy, or capitalism, it's always more than a little frustrating to see how in denial everyone is over the possibility of corruption. My way is the good way, the perfect way, and that's that and will never change.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Reader's Diary #1608- Jim Starlin (writer), various artists: Warlock The Complete Collection

One of the big, after the credits reveals from the recent Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 film was the coming of one Adam Warlock. For fans in the know, this was exciting news indeed. As for me, I was more curious. I immediately had to educate myself on this character.

I'll say that James Gunn is definitely the right person to bring Adam Warlock to the big screen. This character is weird and as Guardians of the Galaxy shows, Gunn knows how to sell weird.

Adam is an artificially created humanoid with a gamut of superpowers (strength, ability to breathe in space, speed, flight, and more). To top it off, he also has a soul gem which can steal the "souls" of his enemies. More accurately, it seems to take their minds; their memories and so forth become readable to Adam. It seems that these ultimate powers are a lot to handle and Warlock often goes completely mad. While this is all obviously fascinating, he is nonetheless not an easy character to care for. Always in an existential crisis, his seriousness grows wearying. Hopefully Gunn will be able to infuse him with that wonderful GotG humour to take the edge off.

As for the comics, despite not connecting well with Adam Warlock himself, the sheer strangeness of the plots and wonderful 70s space-psychedelic visuals by Alan Weiss, Al Milgrim, and Steve Leialoha kept me enthralled. I can't say for sure that there's anything really intelligent about it all (hard to find parables here to connect to real life), but it's certainly unique.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Reader's Diary #1607- Doug Patrick: The Playground with Dad

I'm sure all of us parents have had those moments when we were not shining examples of parenthood. Fortunately I have Doug Patrick's "The Playground with Dad" to remind me that hey, at least I'm not that guy. The father in this story is the male that we all talk about when we say that yeah, maybe it's not a bad thing if masculinity dies.

It's written from the perspective of a young boy who has not yet accepted that his father is at best a dud. Writing from such a point of view, as we all know, is always risky. It's hard to write an authentic sounding kid. By and large Patrick accomplishes it, though there's one joke where the kid mistakes John Lennon as John Lemon that is hammered on just a tad too long. Small complaint really.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Reader's Diary #1606- Patrick Ledwell: I Am An Islander

In a lot of ways, Patrick Ledwell's I Am An Islander reminded me of Nancy Gardiner's Hairy Leg News. Both are pretty short on focus, but both do an admirable job of using disjointed, humorous anecdotes to depict a pretty average life in their respective province/territory.

That said, Ledwell's is set in Prince Edward Island whereas Gardiner's is set in the Northwest Territories. In some ways the places appear similar (both seem to eschew the pretentiousness and pace of larger city life) but in at least a few ways, they are also different. The way Ledwell described how Islanders will not rest until they traced your family tree just would never fly in the north. It's way too transient here for that.

Not all of Ledwell's observations are necessarily unique to the Island or even an Islander's perspective, but that's fair. Likewise, some entries are funnier than others. Nonetheless, it's a lighthearted, entertaining way to get a feel for Prince Edward Island and the culture. 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Reader's Diary #1605- Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón: The 9/11 Report

Thanks to Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón I am convinced that most reports should be turned into graphic novels. Have you seen the original, non-illustrated 9/11 Report? It's huge. Plus, as important as it is, it has the connotations of a report: long, difficult, dry reading. If someone can use visuals to help condense the message, help people understand it, and even encourage people to pick it up, why not? I hope someone adapts the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as well.

A few notable things jumped out at me:

1. Donald Rumsfeld started capitalizing on it from day one, on the evening of the attacks encouraging Bush to think broadly about who might have harbored the attackers, naming Iraq and Iran, yet notably not Saudi Arabia

2. While the report seems largely balanced and fair, I thought a line that criticized the FBI for spending more on fighting drugs than on terrorism missed the mark. Illicit drugs DO kill more people than terrorism, why wouldn't they?

3. At one they state that little or none of the weapons that the U.S. gave to the Afghani people in their fight against the Soviets was given to Osama Bin Laden. I don't consider myself a conspiracy theorist, but at worst this statement smacks of the U.S. trying to cover its own ass and at best, I'd find it incredibly dubious to suggest that they didn't wind up in Bin Laden's possession.

Despite those things, I did find it to be a compelling read (the timeline of the 9/11 attacks at the beginning is amazingly well done). Plus, it's a stark reminder that the U.S., and arguably the rest of the world, has still not healed entirely from those events. Nor, dare I say it, learned from it, despite a plethora of recommendations. One of the recommendations was for the U.S., to "offer an example of moral leadership committed to treating people humanely, abide by the rule of law, and be generous and caring to [their] neighbors." I ask you: how is Trump accomplishing any of that?

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Reader's Diary #1604- Bill Mantlo, Al Milgrom, and Chris Claremont (writers), various artists: Cloak and Dagger Shadows and Light

Despite having a couple of degus named after Marvel's Cloak and Dagger, I didn't really know a lot about these characters except for some rather silly sounding powers. Cloak can capture bad guys in his cloak while Dagger shoots daggers of light at them. Still, someone clearly saw enough potential here to give them their own TV series and so, I figured it was time to familiarize myself.

I'll give credit to writers Mantlo, Milgrom, and Claremont for selling this idea. If they can make me suspend my belief for those superpowers, they must have done something right. Those daggers also chill the blood and have healing powers for addictions. That cape acts as a sort of portal into a black abyss that is extremely difficult to escape from, damaging the captives' minds the longer they are there. You have to admit, these abilities are rather unique.

Plus, while the action is great, these are really character-driven stories. In one early story, for instance, Cloak and Dagger find themselves between Spider-Man and the Punisher, determining the path they want their heroics to take. Like all superheroes they are vigilantes, which comes with its own set of moral dilemmas, but now they must side if they act merely as judge (as Spider-Man) or as judge and executioner (as the Punisher).

There's also some interesting angles that come from the "fact" that Cloak and Dagger need each other to provide balance. A yin-yang scenario. Most of their stories revolve around fighting drug dealers, yet interestingly Cloak hungers for "light" almost as an addict himself. Dagger is able to provide it or he can consume it from bad guys. And both wrestle with whether or not these want these powers; Cloak for the aforementioned addiction, Dagger because she misses having a normal life.

The art is less than stellar. It's largely very typical of 70s and 80s, outlandish but uniformed colours, and so on. The largest issue though is Dagger's ridiculous costume with its dagger cut-out to reveal her navel and top of her breasts and yet somehow it stays in place. If I'm not adequately describing just how silly it is, allow Kate Beaton to take it from here.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Reader's Diary #1603- Erin MacNair: Thin Crust

Not knowing in advance that Erin MacNair's "Thin Crust" was sci-fi, I quite appreciated when that element made itself known. She sets the scene so peacefully with a fisherman just before the break of dawn and then, it happens.

What happens I won't spoil except to say that it's an apocalyptic tale similar in some ways to Stephen King's The Langoliers. Or maybe Horton Hears a Who. Or Marvel's Galactus.

Delightfully weird end of days story.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Reader's Diary #1602- Arthur Slade: Dust

It's been a while since I've read any Stephen King, so forgive me if my comparison to King's writing is not entirely apt. Arthur Slade's Dust is considered juvenile literature and Stephen King has so far eschewed writing for the younger set, but the villain in Dust could easily be another manifestation of King's Randall Flagg character, a supernatural villain who's jumped across numerous King novels. He can charm a crowd, even appear quite normal, but with sinister intentions and great power.

In Dust his name is Abram and he's a kidnapping charlatan who has an entire town, minus a pre-adolescent boy named Robert, mesmerized. Dust itself plays a few different roles; it's set during a drought so the entire Saskatchewan town in covered in dust, but Abram also collects a mystical sort of soul dust from children as well. That sounds crazy as all hell, but like the finest of horror writers, Slade managed to convince me to suspend my belief and eagerly go for the ride. Mesmerizing.

Monday, June 05, 2017

Reader's Diary #1601- Ed Lately: Remain

It's a common debate as to whether or not a likeable protagonist is necessary and if such a subjective measure should even enter into literary discussion. I'm of the mind that it usually is relevant, but Ed Lately's "Remain" provides an example where it is not essential. I didn't like that narrator, but I liked the story.

That said, it presents a hurdle right up front. The narrator/protagonist is long-winded, navel gazing, pretentious, and fancies himself a bit of a philosopher. But should one stick with it, once more details of the story are presented, it's quite an interesting tale of infidelity and the cynically humorous way the couple attempts to move forward.

Saturday, June 03, 2017

Reader's Diary #1600 - Nancy Gardiner: Hairy Leg News

The description on the back of Nancy Gardiner's Hairy Leg News claims that this northern memoir is written in the "dry style of Erma Bombeck." Not having read any Bombeck before, I still wasn't sure what to expect and not many pages in, I wasn't sure it was a style that would appeal to me.

While the chapters are given broad themes, it's largely a collection of quick and often disjointed observations and recollections. Perhaps it's that quick pace that kept me moving forward and despite myself, enjoying it more as I went along.

It used to be the case that whenever someone new moved north there was a good chance they'd start up a blog, regularly updated with their newest experiences and insights. (Facebook, I think, has largely eliminated those, but still pretty much accomplishes the same.) No one really expected these to be "high literature" but they served their purpose in educating and entertaining their readers.

Likewise with Gardiner's Hairy Leg News. If someone is looking to know what life is truly like in the north (or can be; I acknowledge that everyone's experience is different), there'd be a lot worse places to turn than Hairy Leg News. Many passages are uniquely northern while others could be anywhere and it's that latter, but nonetheless important component that many northern books miss. Plus Gardiner's aww-shucks, self-deprecating approach keeps the whole thing light and engaging. It's as unpretentious as the north.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Reader's Diary #1599- Gabriel García Márquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude

I'd put off reading Gabriel García Márquez's classic One Hundred Years of Solitude for sometime owing to its reputation as a difficult read and its magical realism label (which in itself might be explain the reputation).

I didn't wind up finding it be overly difficult but it's one of those books that's probably as difficult as you want it to be. Of course, how much work one puts in would be directly correlated to how much one understands the subtleties and how much one understands it would be directly correlated with how much one enjoys it. In the long run, I am rather ambivalent toward it.

Describing the generations of the Buendía family from the fictional South American country of Macondo, One Hundred Years of Solitude is unsurprisingly long. There also doesn't appear to be any one central character (maybe Ursula?) and while a family tree provided at the front of the book helped me keep track of who was who, I eventually stopped referring to it. Not that I had it all memorized, I just stopped caring.

It is interesting at times, funny, tragic, weird. But I never really connected.

Despite that I found myself comparing it to Michael Crummey's Galore, which is one of my all-time favourites. I think the difference is that I grew up in Newfoundland, the setting of Galore, and I really understood the context. Loosely based, I'm told, on Colombian history and mythology, I'd likely appreciate One Hundred Years of Solitude had I either experienced that country's culture and history myself or if I put in some effort to research it myself. I will fully take the blame for not making such an effort, for being a lazy reader. In my defense, I don't have one hundred years of solitude to expend.