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Friday, June 22, 2018

Reader's Diary #1854- Mana Neyestani: An Iranian Metamorphosis

More than once I've expressed my shock and admiration for those cartoonists who tackle their home country's tyrannical regimes. The bravery that this must take!

Mana Neyestani's story is likewise brave but one feels the Iranian government inadvertently pushed him in that direction. According to Neyestani, he never set out to be controversial at all. Writing for the children's section of a newspaper, he accidentally insults a cultural group (who believed they were being called cockroaches, hence the connection to Kafka alluded to in the title). This group gets angrier and angrier and the Iranian government imprisons Neyestani believing him to have orchestrated a violent upheaval on purpose. He is denied a fair trial and interrogated mercilessly.

While he has since escaped Iran I nonetheless view his portrayal of his ordeal as brave; he must know that his likelihood of returning safely to his birth country has been vastly decreased.

I also found the inadvertent racial slur angle to be quite fascinating from a 2018 perspective. No one is denying that they shouldn't have been offended, but the reaction by the Iranian government is so over the top. It might cause some pause for thought for those who are so quick to condemn mistakes on social media; how far should their wrath go? Where is the line between taking victims seriously and due process? How drastic should a culprits sentence be?

One minor issue is the abrupt ending. There is a conclusion but it wraps up in a single page text-only epilogue.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Reader's Diary #1853- Raymond Briggs: Gentleman Jim

At only 32 pages, I still managed to go through some ups and downs reading Raymond Briggs' Gentleman Jim.

Right away I wasn't sure the brand of humour was going to be up my alley. Essentially the titular Jim is too stupid almost to exist. He decides one day that he's had enough of cleaning toilets for a living and instead wishes to become a cowboy. He's knowledge of the job, and indeed of anything a fully functioning adult should know, is sorely lacking.

Should I be laughing or should I be concerned that he doesn't have assisted living?

Fortunately, it becomes more and more absurd, to the point of funny, and at the end I even considered that Briggs had made a rather pithy statement on adulthood vs. dreams.


Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Reader's Diary #1852- Zac Gorman (writer), CJ Cannon (illustrator): Rick and Morty Volume 1

I don't watch as much TV as I used to. This is not some intellectual brag as there is not some "bettering myself" agenda, it's simply that I don't seem to have the time anymore. In saying that there are a few shows I'd like to be better up on. I'm way behind in my Marvel TV shows and I've been curious about Rick and Morty.

One thing I do seem to have time for, fortunately, is comics and so I thought I'd read a Rick and Morty comic to see what they're all about. Of course, I realize that the comics may not totally be an accurate representation of the writing on the TV show. I've read a few Simpsons comics and find them to be a mildly entertaining but no where near as great as the Simpsons TV show in its heyday, but at least readers would get a reasonable idea of what the characters are about (Homer's dumb, Bart's a troublemaker, and Lisa's smart and moral) plus the kind of humour (softly edgy, satirical). Any Rick and Morty watchers out there would be a better a better judge than I whether or not the comic captures the essence of the show.

From what I can tell, the humour is somewhere in between the Simpsons and Family Guy. It doesn't try to beat you over the head with satire and pop culture references like Family Guy but it's slightly edgier than the Simpsons. There's also a mix of Futurama in there with sci-fi based stories. Likewise the illustration is similar to the above three, perhaps with a touch of Adventure Time.

Which is all to say I was entertained and amused. I don't feel particularly enlightened, but it's the summer and there'll be other comics to scratch that itch.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Reader's Diary #1851- Warren Ellis (writer), Stuart Immonen (artist): Nextwave Agents of H.A.T.E. Complete Collection

As it was slowly dawning on me that I wasn't particularly enjoying Warren Ellis's Newxtwave: Agents of H.A.T.E., the phrase "trying too hard" came to mind. Trying too hard to be funny, trying too be edgy, to be cynical, different, etc.

I knew I'd only recently read a Warren Ellis comic so I went back to review what I had thought of that one (Karnak), and lo and behold, that was my exact same criticism: trying too hard.

I then spent a lot of time considering that phrase. Can I really criticize a guy for trying? Well yes and no. If he is really trying, I think he's trying the wrong things; focusing on quick, irreverent wit rather than on compelling characters and story. But maybe he's not trying at all and just knows that this stuff sells. I'll acknowledge that I'm largely alone in my assessment of Ellis's work; the whole reason I read it in the first place was because it was on a list of "10 Marvel Graphic Novels You Need to Read Before You Die." Nonetheless, I didn't connect with it at all.





Monday, June 18, 2018

Reader's Diary #1850- Alexander Jablokov: Living Will

Alexander Jablokov's short story "Living Will" struck a particular nerve for me as it's about a married couple and Alzheimer's which runs in my wife's family.

It is the husband in this case who discovers that he's developed the dreaded disease and he's trying to upload his memories and personality into a computer before he gets too far gone.

Depending on who you ask, the sci-fi angle may not be as far out as it first seems. Jablokov's take here is particularly interesting as he suggests that it can never be the real thing. Indeed, the point here isn't to exist after death, or after his memories are gone. Through this emotional story, many philosophical questions about memory and humanity could be posed.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Reader's Diary #1849- Leanne Shirtliffe, illustrated by Georgia Graham: Saving Thunder the Great

It's been a while since I've read a picture book, let alone written about one on my blog, but I've finally read Leanne Shirtliffe's Saving Thunder the Great: the true story of a gerbil's rescue from the Fort McMurray wildfire and I'm counting it as my Alberta pick for the 11th Canadian Book Challenge*.

I've read a few picture books based on real life tragedies and haven't always enjoyed them. Sometimes the situations have been too specific and isolated to really need or appeal to an international audience, sometimes I've found them questionably too graphic and insensitive for younger readers.

Forest fires are a very real part of life in Yellowknife (hopefully not this summer as we've had a wetter than usual spring) and so I could relate to that aspect of Shirtliffe's book, but even if they were not, I think it would still be appealing. Kids of course will like the gerbil, but they'd also likely be drawn to the danger of the story which Shirtliffe wastes no time getting to. Parents, like myself, will be more likely drawn to the mom in the story who is determined to take her son's gerbil with her. Her son is off, safely, visiting his grandparents in Newfoundland and she misses him terribly.

I also don't think most readers would find it too traumatic. It helps, I suppose, that most of the damage was property damage and that it could have been much worse. That said, I will correct one detail in the author's note at the end. She writes that "the fire claimed no one." Maybe not directly, but two were killed as they tried to escape the town.

Georgia Graham's illustrations are big, colourful, and realistic; highly appropriate for this true story.


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Reader's Diary #1848- Thomas Mann: Death in Venice

So Thomas Mann's Death in Venice is a rather piece of shit.

It involves a vacationer in Venice who becomes attracted to and obsessed with a young boy. He's a pretentious windbag from the get-go and he manages to get infinitely worse by trying to rationalize his sexual perversion as an intellectual, artistic idea.

He's better than Lolita's Humbert Humbert in that he doesn't act on his attraction (the boy remains unaware) but worse when you learn that he's actually based on a real-life experience of Mann's.


Friday, June 15, 2018

Reader's Diary #1847- Nick Drnaso: Sabrina

Nick Drnaso's style isn't one of which I'm typically appreciative. Sabrina, a graphic novel, has the flat kind of colouring of old Tintin comics and overly simple lines and lack of details that reminded me of Rutu Modan's Exit Wounds or airplane safety brochures.

Still, it fits this odd little gem of a story. Sabrina, it turns out, is a missing woman, and the story primarily revolves around her grieving boyfriend and his friend. While that premise isn't particularly odd, it soon delves into a critique of our conspiracy-minded society (with tones of InfoWars and their insanely awful Sandy Hook take).

What's lacking in the visual details is made up for in the minutiae in the dialogue and mundane moments that are intertwined with the potentially sensational missing-person story. The effect, for me anyway, was a pretty intelligent, albeit cynical, look at the way we process news nowadays. It's like we've become so accustomed to horrible news that it's become boring and so we've upped the ante with conspiracy theories.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Reader's Diary #1846- Dante Alighieri, translated by Henry Francis Cary: The Divine Comedy

Entire courses have been taught on Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy so I will not attempt to even approach such a lengthy intelligent discourse here. 

Instead, I'll simply recount my own feelings reading through a man's journey into hell, purgatory, and heaven. 

I started off quite enjoying it. The imagery was dark and psychedelic, reminding somewhat of the Book of Revelations. I also began to see it as a metaphor for a man weighing his options regarding a difficult decision. 

Unfortunately, it went on for a long time and I began to grow bored. I suppose a course might help draw out some of the scientific themes or historical references and therefore maintain my interest, but as a pleasure-read not so much.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Reader's Diary #1845- Lucy Maud Montgomery, adapted by Mariah Marsden, illustrated by Brenna Thummler: Anne of Green Gables

I'm wrapping up another year of participation in the Canadian Book Challenge and once again I was scrambling to find a book from PEI to read. I wasn't terribly excited to read Mariah Marsden's graphic novel adaptation, feeling I was already familiar enough with Anne of Green Gables, but I'd heard good things and in any case, wouldn't take a lot of time.

I'm certainly glad I did though. Marsden has done a wonderful job with this adaptation, choosing many wordless scenes to help set the tone and pace of the story and zeroing in on those quintessential moments (the "carrots" episode with Gilbert, the inadvertent intoxication of Diana, and so on). Nothing is lost and most importantly Anne's strong, loveable, curious, and melodramatic personality shines through, as infectious as ever.

Illustrator Brenna Thummler's work here is amazing. Charming and rich, highly stylized, with a flow that of a old China tea cup design. The characters' faces may not be to everyone's fancy, with eyes simplified to simple circles (a la Little Orphan Annie) and noses that are coloured a darker pink to form almost perfect triangles. Nevertheless, they are consistent and still manage (sometimes with a mere eyebrow lift) to convey a wealth of emotion.

A few stray thoughts:

  • Though the book was dedicated to Lucy Maud Montgomery, I thought it off that her name did not appear anywhere on the cover
  •  I've only been to PEI once but I don't recall trees quite as large as depicted here
  • I found myself wondering if Marilla isn't a good metaphor for PEI itself. PEI has a reputation for not exactly welcoming newcomers to the island but must, I would imagine, be won over by some folks.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Reader's Diary #1844- Tess Gerritsen: Playing with Fire

I read a lot of books traveling to and from Italy recently and am not yet caught up on my blog posts about them. I'm having a little difficulty remembering much and while ordinarily I'd write that off by saying that I'll remember the really good and the really bad and the rest probably didn't deserve much commentary anyway.

However, I do recall that I really enjoyed Tess Gerritsen's Playing with Fire but it took me going to Goodreads to remember almost any details. Though once I got brought up to speed with the plot, it all started to come back to me.

There are essentially two stories going on. In the first (and the frame) story, Julia Andsell finds some handwritten Gypsy music in a store while visiting Italy. When she gets it home and plays it on her violin, it seems to provoke a violent reaction in her young daughter. The second story tells the origin of the sheet music.

Playing with Fire was marvelously entertaining. It was an entrancing mystery, possibly with supernatural elements, and with important historical reminders regarding Italy's dark Nazi past. The ending was surprising but plausible. Julia's character was especially well done. (She felt authentic as she sometimes reminded me of my wife!) The love-torn musicians felt at times a bit too over-the-top to be real, but there are eccentric and obsessed people in real life, so maybe not.


Monday, June 11, 2018

Reader's Diary #1843- Katherine Mansfield: A Cup of Tea

While some of the themes in Katherine Mansfield's "A Cup of Tea," a short story about a wealthy woman deciding to take a street beggar home for tea, are worn on its sleeve (materialism, classism, feminism), I rather liked the cynical subtext regarding the idea of a selfless act.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Reader's Diary #1842- Tetsu Saiwai: The 14th Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama is one of those noteworthy figures of whom I'd normally have avoided conversations. Not because I had particularly controversial opinions on him but rather no opinion, no real knowledge about. Something about China, about Tibet. Embarrassingly, it's a historical/news story I'd not kept up on.

Tetsu Saiwai's The 14th Dalai Lama provided me a pretty good primer. Told in manga style (through westernized to read right to left), Saiwai's breakdown is pretty clearly told. (It's largely told from the Tibetan perspective though.)

I learned about his connection to Buddhism, how young he was when 1st chosen, his exile in India; all things I'd not known before. It all made for a fascinating story.

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Reader's Diary #1841- Moshe Sakal, translated by Jessica Cohen: The Diamond Setter

I read a review (not of this book) earlier this week that had applauded an author for eschewing tidy ending, praising the fact that there were many loose plots ends unresolved by the book's close. It struck me as amusing that anything can be spun positively. I'm not suggesting that the reviewer was wrong, it was just interesting take.

There are a lot of things I enjoyed about Moshe Sakal's The Diamond Setter. The characters were developed well and were not typical sorts of characters I've encountered in most books. The Middle Eastern setting I found particularly fascinating. And there were lots of things I respected. Sakal's experimentation with plotting, including multiple versions of events, meta-commentary, allusions to 1001 Arabian Nights, just for a few examples.

But ultimately I was left confused. I'm not willing at this point to spin the experience entirely negative or positive, but I will go as far as saying it would probably take another read to get a better grasp on it all and make up my mind and I wasn't inspired enough to do so anytime soon.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Reader's Diary #1840- Mario Puzo: The Godfather

I've never been a fan of mafia stories. But, because of their pop culture significance, I still on occasion give one a shot. It never goes well. I even found the classic film adaptation of The Godfather boring. So imagine my surprise that I actually didn't mind the book!

I was engaged throughout and found it plausible and, despite being one of my usual beefs with the genre, didn't think it particularly glamorized the mob. It did have some provocative themes regarding fate and there was a cynical tone which I actually enjoyed in this time of Trump that suggested that large business and government were not much better in terms of questionable practices, effectiveness, and corruption.

Back to the non-glamorization thing though, the Corleone family is shown to be quite misogynistic and while perhaps less frequently commented upon, also racist and homophobic. Some I think helps in order to decrease any respect for such a lifestyle as the mafia, but I did question why Puzo himself. Granted every character in the book is flawed in some way and so asking for a good, strong, smart female character might be asking for a lot, just one that was at least as fully developed as the males would have been nice.

Thursday, June 07, 2018

Reader's Diary #1839- Tom Rachman: The Italian Teacher

It took me a little while to get into Tom Rachman's The Italian Teacher, finding it at first a bit on the stuffy side. Were these lofty ideas about art veering too close to pretentiousness? Those ideas, plus the traditional style of Rachman's writing (though perhaps I should acknowledge the inventive time jumps) reminded me Robertson Davies.

Before long, however, it grew on me. More than art, the central theme became one of complicated (or ordinary?) father/ son dynamics and the insecurities that arise as a result. It's especially strained and significant here because the father is a world renowned artist and as a result, everyone (father and son included) has an inflated sense of his importance.

Having been in Italy while reading the book, I especially liked scenes depicted there, but I think I liked the portrayal of Pinch, the protagonist son most of all. He's such a realistic but humanly flawed character. His insecurities are totally believable even if occasionally frustrating. He has impostor syndrome, which I'm sure most of us could relate to, but sometimes the way he approached them made me wonder if he didn't have OCD or perhaps fell on the Austism spectrum.

I did, however, find myself wondering about the depiction of female characters. On the one hand, I think Rachman makes a fine feminist point about female artists not being taken as seriously as rhey should be. On the other hand, and while I recognize this was ultimately a father/son story, I question if the females here were as developed or as believable. (I especially found the return of Pinch's first love in the latter half problematic; more convenient for Pinch's story than plausible, I thought.) Still, perhaps female readers would have different takeaways than this. Anyone?

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Reader's Diary #1838- Hervé Bouchard: Harvey

I found myself really early into Hervé Bouchard's Harvey comparing it to works by other French illustrators and chastising myself for it. Clearly Hervé Bouchard is French, would I be making such connections if his name was Douglas McAllen? Was I stereotyping?

But then I thought about Japanese manga. It tends to have a clear, identifiable style, despite different approaches by individual artists. I think I'm just picking up on a French style. I'm noticing lines and fonts with a slight shaky, first-draft quality (think Sheldon Cohen's The Hockey Sweater), vintage colouring and patterns (think Isabelle Arsenault's Jane, the Fox, and Me), and characters are slightly exaggerated in their dimensions (think Sylvain Chomet's The Triplets of Belleville). 

I enjoyed these attributes in Hervé Bouchard's Harvey as well and they fit with the story of a boy remembering the day his father died; the childish observations, the gloomy tone with some lighter amusements thrown in. 

I didn't quite get the ending though. It felt like it was meant to be artistic, but without understanding the intent, it just came across as abrupt to me.

Tuesday, June 05, 2018

Reader's Diary #1837- Niccolo Machiavelli: The Prince

I don't know that we shouldn't be concerned that Niccolo Machiavelli's The Prince still enjoys a readership today, nearly 500 years later.

There's a reason Machiavellian is a pejorative term for actions that serve the self rather than any real moral code. In The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli advises a prince how to conquer and rule based on historical precedent. His cold, calculating, matter-of-fact style is almost scary. If he advises befriending or granting favours to anyone it's merely to benefit the Prince and Machiavelli is just as quick to advise ruthlessness and cruelty if he deems it beneficial.

On my recent trip to Italy, I went to two torture museums. Yes, two. Reading Machiavelli's violent historical summary of Italy's past, combined with images of spikes, screws, and stretching racks, etc that would be awe-inspiring for their creativity if not for the horrible purposes for which they were created, all reminded me of the hypocrisy of the earliest European explorers to North America (Columbus himself was Italian). Imagine the audacity for those from such a methodically cruel, violent society to call the indigenous people they encountered "savages."

Monday, June 04, 2018

Reader's Diary #1836- Ren Watson: Hot Pink

"Hot Pink" is a great slice-of-life flash fiction story by Ren Watson. The details and imagery used are almost as good as the stuff that doesn't get said, the dangerous electricity lurking in the corners, related mostly to a relationship that may be a victim of society's masculine/feminine roles. The title is perfect, symbolic, purposeful, and hopeful in the context.

Friday, June 01, 2018

Reader's Diary #1835- Sharon Butala: Where I Live Now

I had a particular connection to my grandmother's house. She lived upon a hill in an old-fashioned two story roughly 50 steps from my own, or 11 good leaps if I was bolting home for supper. When she died about 10 years ago, her children debated what to do with the house. Sell it? They'd have strangers living on their doorstep. That wasn't an option. Tear it down?

That probability broke my heart. Fortunately the last, and only, couple of times I've been back since it was still standing. Though it was painful to look at. The first time I avoided it. The second time I went through it. If ever a person was connected to a place, it was her and that building; in my mind almost interchangeable. Tearing it down felt like purposefully forgetting her while leaving it felt like watching her corpse decompose.

I say these things and felt this way acknowledging that I no longer live there and so I do not resent the fact the house has since been taken down. Those family still living near it had their own reasons and complex relationships.

This reflection on grief and its relationship to place has been brought to me courtesy of Sharon Butala's Where I Live Now: A Journey Through Love and Loss to Healing and Hope. She analyzes her time in rural Saskatchewan while grieving the loss of her rancher husband. There are no hard or obvious conclusions but the exploration is warm and engaging, poignant, sad but not unbearably so, and inspiring in a gentle sort of way to contemplate our own existence but with particular emphasis on our relationships to people and place rather than on our navels.