Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Reader's Diary #2157- Jose Saramago, translated by Margaret Jull Costa: Seeing

It's been years since I read Jose Saramago's Blindness but I still consider it one of my favourites. To some it may seem surprising that it's taken me this long to read the sequel but I really liked Blindness so much that I was afraid of not enjoying Seeing and that experience detracting from my fond memory of the first book.

Now that I've finally read it, I can't say that my fears were unfounded. While I ultimately enjoyed Seeing, it was nowhere near the same extent. One of the things I liked the most about Blindness was how well the experimental style fit the plot. Eschewing quotation marks or changing paragraphs after a person spoke, a lot of the dialogue was blurred and it was difficult at times to tell who said what. However, in a world where everyone is suddenly struck blind, that made sense. Most of us would have difficultly differentiating between the various conversations going on around us.

In Seeing sight has been long (4 years) to the world and that style seemed less purposeful and more gimmicky. I suppose it did keep the pace up but otherwise I don't know that it did the story any favours.

Also I wasn't sure it worked as a sequel. In fact, it was only about halfway through the book that it's even clear that it is a sequel. The plot of this book involves an election in which a large majority of ballots are spoiled by being left blank. It leads to political chaos and then violence. Eventually, someone points to the doctor's wife, the woman who didn't go blind in Blindness, as somehow being responsible.

I mean it was still all rather interesting, had some provocative themes about democracy and corruption, and the ending was pretty unique. I won't say what happened or didn't happen, but I will say it probably wouldn't be everyone's favourite ending.

Seeing was good, nowhere near as great as Blindness, but it thankfully didn't detract from it either.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Reader's Diary #2156- Nick Seluk: Heart and Brain

Starting to think I should just avoid books  published by Andrews McMeel Publishers. Usually featuring comics taken from the web, I'm sad to say we don't usually share the same sense of humour and I can't put my finger on why. On the surface, they tend towards quirky, slightly dark which is exactly what I go for. Unfortunately, I'm always left underwhelmed. Same goes for Nick Seluk's Heart and Brain.

The premise is decent: a heart and brain debate responsibilities and living in the now. Could be some smart psychological insight here, a riff on the id vs the ego. Except it's the same joke over and over. The brain is typically right, until he's not. The brain is over-serious, the heart is goofy.

The art is simple, which would be fine if the jokes held up their end of the bargain (we wouldn't need complicated art getting in the way). But when the jokes are just meh, I found myself wanting more from the art.

I did find the brain's pestering of the Awkward Yeti (the host body) just as he was about to fall asleep worthy of at least a chuckle.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Reader's Diary #2155- Dig Wayne: Louie Armstrong on the Moon

Last year I read Youssef Dadudi's brilliant graphic novel Monk! and commented at the time that it had the feel of jazz yet remained accessible, unlike the reputation of actual jazz music. (I'm assuming  actual jazz musicians would disagree that their chosen genre isn't accessible!) This week's short story, Dig Wayne's "Louie Armstrong on the Moon" also has the feel of jazz music, again almost to the point of cliche, but perhaps less accessible.

It compares the styles of Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong to the space race and the first manned moon landing and that's really enough. Maybe not an easy read, but a fun read, with jazzy rhythms and more poetics than prose.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Reader's Diary #2154- Various writers, artists: Wonder Woman / The Cheetah

Looking forward to the next Wonder Woman movie, I felt the need to brush up on the Cheetah character, a villain that will be portrayed by Kristen Wiig. I'm nowhere near as familiar with DC Comics as I am with Marvel, and I admit, I barely know Wonder Woman, let alone her rogues gallery.

This collection, no doubt put out because of the movie, does a good job of highlighting the character's publication history, with stories from her original appearance right up to 2016. But it also highlights the issue that the writers have had keeping the character consistent (though bonus points for later authors trying to rein it all in). Her identity, origins, and powers are all wildly inconsistent and it makes me wonder which ones the movie will focus on. I do hope that they keep the super speed though. Her character is based on a cheetah after all and there's a real dearth of fast female superheroes.

And as I often point out with collections, the quality varies. For the most part though, I found the stories engaging. One even tried to provide commentary on striking a healthy balance with environmental activism, which I enjoyed. My larger issues against involved racism and sexism, neither of which were in the earlier comics as you might expect, but some of the more recent ones. One artist, for instance, seemed to shrink Wonder Woman's outfit more and more with each passing panel. She deserves better.

Overall though I do feel more prepared for the Cheetah's entry into the big screen. I'm very curious about the choice of Wiig though. I'm a fan, but she's a comedian and none of these stories hinted at the Cheetah being a particularly funny character. A worthy adversary, yes.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Reader's Diary #2153- Al Ewing (writer), Joe Bennett (artist): The Immortal Hulk vol. 1

It's a cliche at this point that no one stays dead in the comics. And while it's usually just laughed off, I'd say that it's a real problem. It's why in 2016, when Hawkeye killed the Hulk, it should have been shocking, should have had readers in tears, but instead it was met with shrugs. We all knew he'd be back and most likely soon. Sure enough, he's back. And to add to the problem, new writers are coming up with new characters all the time, some of whom are even obvious replacements. But with publishers insistence that readers will miss legacy characters too much or some nonsense, we wind up with a world way too populated with superheroes and no one really given the chance to invest in new versions (unless it's Miles Morales, maybe Ms. Marvel). Sure The Immortal Hulk is good, but there's no reason a similar story couldn't have been told with the Amadeus Cho version of Hulk rather than drag Bruce Banner back from the meaningless dead.

Jeff Lemire writes the intro to this collection and based on his high praise, I was convinced it would be so good as to make me forget all that. It was not. Again, it's a decent comic. There's an arc but each story stands alone, it has horror elements, and the art is fantastic. Plus I liked cameos by characters I've not really had enough exposure to (notably Sasquatch). But overall, I was never able to shake the feeling that there's no reason for the book to exist.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Reader's Diary #2152- Walter Whitman: Eris

Yes, Walter Whitman is Walt Whitman, the poet behind Leaves of Grass. I didn't know he also wrote short stories until now. "Eris; A Spirit Record" was published under "Walter Whitman" hence the name chosen for this post title.

Would hate to base a preference for one form of his writing over another based on a single piece of short fiction, but it certainly didn't capture me like some of his poetry has. Besides the dated language, which he can hardly be faulted with, I found the story overdosing on adjectives, adverbs, and figurative language.

But I did enjoy that it had the air of an old Greek myth. With themes of unrequited love, it tells of an angel who breaks the rules to confess his love to a mortal he had been meant to oversee without interference. (Yes, it also reminded me a little of Nicolas Cages' City of Angels.) Anyway, without giving to much away, it doesn't work out in the end.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Reader's Diary #2152- John Arcudi and Doug Mahnke: The Mask Omnibus

I had heard the Jim Carrey Mask movie took many liberties with the source material, notably cleaning up the violence to a PG level. It still didn't prepare me for the first comics, especially the misogyny. Lesser of an issue: the shoddy art.

Nonetheless, I stuck with it and once the misogyny was dialed way down and the art approved, it grew on me somewhat and I could better appreciate the humour and over-the-top world building. It might even be said to have philosophical themes about absolute power corrupting absolutely.

To be sure though, the mask is definitely not a hero and only at times does it approach anti-hero territory.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Reader's Diary #2151- The Avengers/ Doctor Strange: Rise of the Darkhold

Excited for the upcoming Wanda Vision TV series and Doctor Strange sequel, I can only rely now on rumours: I've heard that they'll connect to one another, that Scarlet Witch may turn evil, and that Doctor Strange may have strong horror elements. I've also heard that the Darkhold storylines may be used and hence my reading of this collection.

I'm not sure that the Darkhold itself will make an appearance as it's already been featured in the TV show Agents of Shield and quite frankly, is kind of lame (it's an evil book, in a nutshell). But should any other element come to fruition, it could be interesting. There are a lot more possible characters that could be introduced for one, including Modred the Mystic, Jack Russell the Werewolf by Night, Dracula, and the High Evolutionary. Werewolf by Night and Dracula could certainly work for the horror angle and the latter could tie in with the Blade reboot, and the more Marvel Dracula comics I read the more convinced I am he belongs in the MCU. The High Evolutionary is also rumored to be making an appearance in the next Guardians of the Galaxy movie, to explain Rocket's origin.

All this aside, if one is not interested in the movies, just the comics, I think they'd still have a good time with this collection. It's more on the magical side of things than superhero sci-fi or crime fighting, it's primarily from the 70s so one can expect a lot of garish colours and cheese typical of comics from the time, and the stories are more or less coherent, though some familiarity with Marvel comic characters would help. I also think it's fair to say that Marvel's usual wise-cracking light atmosphere is pretty absent in most of their more magical stories. I'm not sure what the logic of that is, but I suspect magic is an even bigger leap of faith that other superhero tales, so they have to give it a "serious" air.

Monday, April 13, 2020

Reader's Diary #2150- Patti Weber: On the Rising Wind

Coming from Newfoundland, I can trace my roots back to England, but I don't feel much of a cultural connection to the place. Like most Newfoundlanders, there's a bit of a pull toward the place and of course, Ireland, but the rest is just the United Kingdom and we don't really give it much thought. The Nova Scotians have Scottish roots and who the hell knows anything about Wales?

Patti Weber's "On the Rising Wind" is steeped is Welsh culture and though it comes across as a seaside culture in the story, the sheer Celtic-ness of if seems almost foreign to me. Like folklore and witchcraft all rolled into one. And of course words with an assortment of consonants that I cannot fathom how to pronounce.

For these reasons, I loved it and was entranced by it. There's a melancholy mystery about it though that feels like a secret in the fog.

Wednesday, April 08, 2020

Reader's Diary #2149- Ebony Flowers: Hot Comb

In the very first story in Ebony Flowers's Hot Comb, she recounts getting a perm as a young girl. It made me remember getting a perm as a young boy, probably around 11 or 12. My mom had been taking a hairdressing class and I was her guinea pig. It was hysterically bad as my wife, who has since seen the pictures, likes to remind me.

It's natural, I suppose, as readers to make such personal connections to a text. But Ebony Flowers' Hot Comb is a memoir of how her hair, and in broader terms how black women's hair, has had an impact on her life. It's an experience that I, as a white male, can only begin to appreciate thanks to stories like these.

These were engaging, funny, sometimes sad or infuriating, and like any collection of short stories, I felt some were more fully realized than others. The art was interesting, very stylistic and in the use of thick, curvy black lines, I wondered if it was a conscious choice to draw in a way reminiscent of hair or if this was just a coincidence.

Monday, April 06, 2020

Reader's Diary #2148- Ernest Hemingway: Chapter V

My verdict on Ernest Hemingway is still out. I really hated The Old Man and The Sea. And I thought I loved his incredibly short (and oft parodied) story "Baby Shoes" but there's debate about whether or not he actually penned that. But he did write the flash fiction "Chapter V" and okay, so I liked it.

The story of six cabinet ministers facing a firing squad, it's the somewhat strange way its told that really sells this story for me. The sentences are short and repetitive but it all adds to the tension and impact. It ricochets around in my head.

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Reader's Diary #2147- Jim DeFede: The Day the World Came To Town

I read Jim DeFede's The Day the World Came to Town during my most recent vacation to Barbados. The plan was to visit New York City after Barbados and see Come From Away on Broadway. Both, of course, are based on the stranding of international flights in Gander, Newfoundland after 9/11 and the hospitality received by the passengers.

Our trip to New York didn't wind up happening. With Covid-19 hitting North America, Broadway closed down and we followed Trudeau's advice to Canadians abroad to get the hell home. Borders were closing and flights were being cancelled. It was stressful.

And not that two events are really comparable, but perhaps that played a part in my emotional reaction to Jim DeFede's book. I'd heard the stories many times and though I'm a voracious reader, I don't usually have strong, immediate feelings about a book. (Most books that really resonate with me have a slow-burn effect and I think about them long after the fact.) For The Day the World Came to Town though, I choked up. A lot. Sometimes it was over something sad (a passenger worrying about the status of a loved one who may have been at the Twin Towers that day), sometimes it was over something touching (a small, but thoughtful gesture by a Newfoundlander trying to make someone's impromptu and inconvenient stop a little more bearable).

Of course, I'd be remiss not to give some credit to Jim DeFede for the connection I made to the book. Despite hundreds of travelers and helpful locals, he managed to take just the right amount and right assortment of stories and characters to focus on. And the way he revisited and intertwined these stories throughout each chapter was handled superbly. It could have easily been a confusing mess but instead I felt like I got a real sense of individuals. That makes all the difference.