John-Michael Gariepy

Archive for the category “Two Books”

Two Books: Flatland and Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman

Flatland is a ‘Romance of Many Dimensions’ written by Edwin A. Abbot in 1884.  It’s a tough book to categorize, but let’s say it’s a mathematician’s exploration of what life would mean if constrained to two-dimensional shapes.  Despite the subject matter of geometry and philosophy written from Victorian England, it’s a light read.

Catherine the Great, Portrait of a Woman, is an exploration of the life and times of Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia from 1762 to 1796.  In it, Robert K. Massie helps tell the story a young Prussian princess, her self-involved stage mother, her unwilling and foolish husband, and Queen Elizabeth of Russia, who is desperate for an heir to cement her monarchical authority.  How Catherine maneuvers into power, and what she does with it once achieved makes excellent reading.

With this installment of Two Books I want to cut to the chase:  Both books are great, and deserve four stars out of five.  Flatland is a good story, and is great for getting the reader to think about the universe about him and what it means.  At times, though, it reads as a dissertation on mathematics and society, and at times it reads like a Christmas ghost story.  Having split it’s focus, ‘Flatland’ can’t achieve a perfect five of five, but comes close.  ‘Catherine the Great, Portrait of an Empress’ is a delightful read, and, if I was forced to put the book down half way through, I would have given it five of five stars.  Unfortunately, the work is exhaustive.  Massie dedicates whole chapters to Catherine’s lovers, the artwork she bought and the buildings that she had built.  He jams too many subjects that could have been books in their own right toward the end in a not-really-an-appendix.  If Massie kept the narrative flow of his story straight, perhaps this book would have maintained its power.  But he attempts to hold both the narrative and this much trivia about Catherine in one book, and, consequently, one suffered for the other.  Still a great read, though.

~

In Flatland, a middle class square of the realm of two dimensions has a vision of a one-dimensional world made out of lines and the spaces between them, and is later shown a vision of Spaceland, a higher world of three dimensions.  A Sphere, who describes himself as “a more perfect Circle than any; but to speak more accurately, I am many Circles in one” guides our narrator through his domain and labors over his  Read more…

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Two Books: ‘I, Robot’ and ‘Watership Down’

‘I, Robot’ is Isaac Asimov’s go-to book about the future history of robots.  ‘Watership Down’ is Richard Adams’ epic tale of how a brace of rabbits escaped the destruction of their warren, and hopped a few fields to start over.  Both books show animals and machines with qualities similar to our own, and in that strange mirror that reflects them back on us, we are forced to reexamine our own humanness.  What makes us more human, and what makes that important?  Both books also effuse imagination; ‘Watership Down’ does it by building up and taking down obstacles for an intricate rabbit society to overcome, while ‘I, Robot’ features a number of mysteries, some curious, some deadly, all featuring humans as they learn to adapt to robopsychology.  What the two books do not have in common, however, is faith in the reader.  ‘Watership Down’ has it, and ‘I, Robot’ does not.

Perhaps that statement is unfair.  ‘I, Robot’, after all, was written in the 1940s as a collection of short stories strung together through the premise of a robopsychologist relating her life experience of working with robots to a young reporter.  These nine stories were intended for pulp sci-fi magazines, and needed to use clear language that appealed to the greater audience of a new generation of science fiction readers.  I can’t fault Asimov for picking to pieces The Three Laws of Robotics.  Those rules may be old news for the modern nerd, but the story ‘Roundabout’ in ‘I, Robot’ was the first time the world was introduced to Asimov’s unifying robotics theme.  I also can’t blame Asimov for the retreading similar ground in multiple stories.  If his intention was to present the stories without alteration from Super Science Stories and Amazing Science Fiction, then this would be unavoidable   Besides, if a story is told right, it doesn’t matter how many times the premise is repeated.  Each time presented, that premise will be seen from a unique angle, and, itself, feel new.

But still, I can’t help feel that Asimov could leave some mystery in his writing.  He tries to explain everything, and, since he only has so many words to work with, he can’t get very far.  Characters are limited by archetypes, problems are presented early in stories, and are explained at the end like a formulaic Sherlock Holmes mystery, and easy to grasp ideas take up multiple lines of dialogue to stumble over.

Compare this to Watership Down.  Here, Adams has established a social structure, mythology and culture for his rabbit population.  The rabbits go on a quest to create a new burrow, and increase their ranks, while avoiding the dangers presented by men, Read more…

Two Books: ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ and ‘The Book of Human Insects’

Today’s two books are masterstrokes.   “The Fault in Our Stars” focuses on a pair of cancer kids, struggling to make their diseases not become the focus of their lives.  “The Book of Human Insects”, meanwhile is a character study of a woman who metamorphoses to suit the needs of her new environment, while destroying everything around her. Both books’ authors make solid connections with their readers.  While John Green achieves his literary victory through nailing perfect formula, Osamu Tezuka achieves success through grasping tight the fringes of a story, and refusing to let go.

I don’t need to prove that internet celebrity John Green’s novel is well-received.  The Fault in Our Star’s Amazon page can do my work for me.  So far, 721 people have voted on this book, and they gave it a 4.8 star rating out of a possible 5 stars.  89% of the voters gave this book a rating of five stars.    For comparison sake, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, the much beloved story of a girl learning to understand and accept her small American town, got 4.5 stars (with 2,263 voters).  John Green just knocked the snot out of an American classic.

The other book on our reading list today, The Book of Human Insects, is a manga written by by Osamu Tezuka.  That would be “Godfather of Anime” Osamu Tezuka.  Western audiences sometimes recognize him as the author and creator of the mangas Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion and Metropolis.  Eastern audiences compare his output and diversity to Walt Disney.  According to Wikipedia, Osamu Tezuka penned over 700 manga totaling more than 150,000 pages.  Scott McCloud, in Making Comics, relays the theory that the reason Japanese Manga is so diverse today, while American comic books still gravitate toward superheros, is because Osamu Tezuka had such an incredible range of style and subject matter, that anyone who attempted to copy him, would only pick up on one of his many attributes and excel at that.

Unlike The Fault in Our Stars, The Book of Human Insects refuses to play formula.  In the first ten or so pages, characters enter stage left and immediately exit stage right.  Amid this flow of characters flits Toshiko Tomura, a woman who nestles up to people, mimics their talents, then leaves her host sucked dry of life.  She’s a spectacular disaster, and the manga keeps pace with her as she transforms.  Toshiko never allows the reader to be comfortable with sympathizing for her, but, even so, it’s impossible not to be fascinated.  Like a black widow spider, or a praying mantis, Toshiko draws the reader in with her alienation, and, even as she devours her host, we can’t help but watch.  This, mind you, for a manga that was written in 1970.  Osamu Tezuka was experimenting with adult themed mangas during this period, and, while the censors turned a blind eye, Osamu flooded his book with honest sensuality.  At times, it can be painful to watch Toshiko use her sexuality as a means to get at what she desires.  Osamu isn’t an ill-informed product of his times, however.  He’s well known for treating all his characters with dignity, and has written numerous mangas with heroic female leads.  Toshiko isn’t here to represent womankind.  Osamu, instead, illustrates a monster, with a beautiful smile. He’s presenting his audience with someone that they like, despite themselves, and asks us ‘Why?’

The Book of Human Insects sure does ask more questions than The Fault in Our Stars can answer.  Augustus Waters, one of the aforementioned cancer kids in that novel, reminds us that “The world is not a wish granting factory.”  But if not that, then what?  For that matter, why?  There is a lot of focus in The Fault in Our Stars on what we have right now.  That unsatisfying answer will probably be all that anyone ever gets.

Hazel Grace needs and desires are simple, when compared to Toshiko Tomura’s.  Hazel wants to live what is left of her life in relative comfort, away from the sympathetic responses of everyone who notices her oxygen tank.  She knows that, when she dies, sometime soon, her death will devastate her parents.  She knows that the rest of her life can only be spent being the best person that she can be.  So, while she hates going to her cancer support group, she does it, and tries her best not to get involved.  She definitely doesn’t want to find the love of her life in a boy in her support group, who has recessive cancer, and that she can only destroy when she dies.  Hazel’s character is simple, but it’s that simplicity that draws us to her.  Hazel could be you.

Augustus, the undesired love of her life, is a perfect foil for Hazel.  Sure he’s witty, handsome and stoic.  But if I was to guess at one quality that Augustus has that makes him attractive to TFiOS’s female audience, I’d say that it is because he recognizes Hazel for the wonderful girl she is.  Authors, take note:  There’s a reason why Twilight has such a positive response among many female readers and a negative one among many male readers.  In Twilight, there’s nothing special about Belle.  She’s just a shell for the reader to put themselves into to be loved and respected by Edward.  In The Fault in Our Stars, however, Hazel isn’t a vapid teenager for us to experience Augustus Waters first hand.  She’s a tortured, intelligent and funny individual, with just the right mix of philosphy and earthiness, as well as an endearing mad fixation on finding out what happened at the stunted end of her favorite book.  We don’t want Hazel to die, but I couldn’t imagine it happening to a better person.

TFiOS is a perfect presentation of formula fiction.  Everything in this book screams “This should work!”, from the sympathetic cancer kids, who refuse to accept patronization, to the teen angst love story mixed with equal parts passion and frustration.  Indeed, this style of fiction can be dangerous to pull together.  If you fail to excel at a story with this premise, your failure will either be forgotten, or ridiculed.  When, however, you succeed, and give back to the formula, giving your readers something they accept, then adding adding content to it, you have done a very good thing.

When comparing two books, it’s easy to fall into the trap of declaring one ‘better’ than the other.  After having reviewed so many board games, and talking to many players, I know that there is no such thing as the ‘best game’; there can only ever be ‘the best game for right now’.  John Green’s and Osamu Tezuka books are both great books.  I have high regard for both books, only pausing to remind readers that The Book of Human Insects is rated ‘A’ for Adult.

Two Books – At the Mountains of Madness: A Graphic Novel and Jack of Fables, vol. 8: The Fulminate Blade

Fantasy.  If there’s one thing that these two books drip, it is far flung ideas that define and rejoice in the strange.  For “The Fulminate Blade”, the fantastic is a source of whimsy, and, for “At the Mountains of Madness”, the fantastic is a source of terror.  Both books seek to reach beyond the curtains of the world we live in, pluck what lies beyond and frame it.

Jack of Fables, volume 8: The Fulminate Blade, written by Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges with art by Tony Akins is a complete departure from the main story arc.  It tosses Jack Horner out of his own book, along with Jack’s supporting cast, and focuses exclusively on Jack Frost, son of Horner, a naive hero living in a world where feudalism meets laser guns.  Nearing the end of his run on Jack of Fables, it’s like Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges grew tired of their usual protagonist, the conniving bastard you love to hate: Jack Horner.  Horner forces those he squares against to be either nasty villains bent on control, or personifications of true evil.  Without Horner in his own book, suddenly we’re tossed into a tale of alchemy, space elevators, power blades and magical talking owls.  The world isn’t vindictive, but wondrous, as seen through the eyes of a young Jack Frost, with a touch of help from the imaginative stylings of Edgar Rice Boroughs.

How odd, then, that, in the same journey to my local library, I happened to pick up “At the Mountains of Madness: A Graphic Novel”, adapted and illustrated by I.N.J. Culbard.  By chance, I had two different author’s interpretations of the beginning of the fantasy genre.  At the Mountains of Madness is one of H.P. Lovecraft’s seminal works, tying together much of his mythos into a scientific expedition and arctic adventure which, by accident, unearths terrifying evidence that we are very small in the face of our universe.  Instead of an homage, however, Culbard is tasked with the very difficult job of boiling down a novella into a graphic novel.  He does so through very liberal use of dashes – reducing large swaths of text to a simple line.  Instead of Lovecraft’s twisting turns of phrase to percolate the mind of the reader, Culbard lets his art deliver mood, while the basic plot of the story remains intact.

That’s quite the trick.  In Two Books:  ‘Tale of Sand’ and ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Century 1910‘, I mentioned that, when I read a graphic novel, I’m here for the story, not the art.  In order for me to appreciate the art, it needs to be impossible to tell the story without it.  The art must convey volumes of emotion, endemic to the narration, to the point that extracting it and replacing it with, say, stick figures, would destroy the story in question.  Culbard does an excellent job of fusing Lovecraft’s words with his art.  This doesn’t feel like art for the sake of making a story easier to follow; there is a definite sense that Lovecraft’s original work is made better because of the art.

Culbard, however, is trapped by his subject matter.  I know I’ll lose geek cred for saying this, but a lot of Lovecraft’s work is just silly.  I mean, have you taken a good look at Cthulhu?  Culbard uses the common imagery of Cthulhu, and his sharp lines lend to cartoonery.  Other Lovecraft horrors get similar treatments… they suffer from Culbard’s beautiful vivid style of solid swooshing lines, which while it lends well to drawing ice drifts, men, dogs and buildings, it could use a lot more abstraction when dealing with the unknowable.  Or, instead, I would have also accepted an interpretation of the creatures based upon Culbard’s art style, and not based on the culturally accepted standard.

Don’t read too much into that diatribe, though.  I’m only coming down hard on one aspect of Culbard’s interpretation because his work is solid; this is only a minor criticism.  It’s a beautiful book, and it isn’t fair to compare it to what is intended to be a throw-away story in the Jack of Fables universe.  The Fulminate Blade couldn’t possibly outbox this book.  The two books aren’t even in the same division.  The question I’d pose to The Fuliminate Blade, however, is “Do the fantastic elements of Jack Frost’s story achieve the same level of fascination that Lovecraft’s arctic expedition holds?”

Willingham/Sturges hit a lot of beats with their story, presenting a number of twisting plot elements and bringing their own touch of strange science to the workbench.  We get odd glimpses into the contrast of magic and science.  In one scene, specifically, The King’s Alchemist dissects an animated wooden owl, ignoring the owl’s pleas that he was carved from a tree in a magical grove.  The alchemist doesn’t care what the owl has to say… he assumes there must be some science behind this and is willing to carve his way to the truth.  We don’t need many scenes like this to establish the sort of world we’re in, how it functions and what to expect from it.  Willingham/Sturges, however, give us very little to work with.  People ride giant centipedes, swing swords and shoot lasers.  Kingdoms have access to fabulous technology, but the houses that people live in represent medieval Europe.  The story infers a fall from technological grace, but, according to the narration, took place a long time ago relative to our own time.

If the author is attempting to create a fascinating world where anything can happen, should we expect an explanation as to why things happen the way that they do?  Maybe not always, but most times, I think we should.  I don’t want to give off the impression that I ‘don’t get’ what the authors are going for.  I understand their desire to both entertain and flummox their audience using classic fantasy conventions.  But, like a good detective novel, I think the author fails some if the reader can’t piece together why things happened the way they did after the fact.  Confound your audience – sure.  But leave some hint as to why you chose to tell your story this way.  After all, Edgar Rice Burroughs may have been off his rocker with some of the crazy sciences he imagined, but everything had an internal logic.  When Burroughs went forward and introduced new crazy inventions, you didn’t need to question it:  you trusted that the author had his reasons, and accepted it until something resembling an explanation was provided. In The Fulminate Blade, the plot is great, and every strange thing that happens has a point.  Is it too much to ask for the world it takes place in to stand up to the same standards as the plot?

In the end, The Fulminate Blade is a good book (with a great plot for Dungeon Masters looking to steal some ideas), but it can’t stand up to At the Mountains of Madness, or, for that matter, many other volumes of The Fables series.  Read it because you’ve read Jack of Fables volumes 1-7 and plan to read 8 to get to volume 9.  Either way, pick up At the Mountains of Madness.  It’s one of those books that, when you put it down, will stick with you.

Two Books: ‘Tale of Sand’ and ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, Century 1910’

Today’s Two Books are dominated by big thinkers.  Few people haven’t heard of Jim Henson.  He’s the driving force behind The Muppets in their various iterations.  Likewise, it’s hard to call yourself a ‘comic book nerd’ and not know who Alan Moore is.  The creator of ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Watchmen’ revolutionized the way we think and respond to pictures with accompanying words, dragging comics, kicking and screaming, out of the Bronze Age and into something more real, and more dangerous.  Both men were visionaries who saw the medium of television, films and comic books and demanded more.  They wanted us to think and to feel, and to come to a greater understanding of who we were and what we were capable of.

I don’t want to talk about Jim Henson and Alan Moore, though.  I want to talk about Ramon Perez and Kevin O’Neil.  An maybe a little bit about Jerry Juhl for good measure.

Who are Ramon Perez and Kevin O’Neil?  They’re the guys who took the time to illustrate ‘Tale of Sand’ and ‘The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen’, respectively.  They both walk in the shadow of the giants that they prop up, and don’t get enough attention for the work they put in.  I’ll be the first to admit it:  I don’t have as much a respect for artists as I do for writers.  Why?  Some of this stems from the comics news people who sit on the opposite side of the fence and talk about which artists are doing what for what book.  Honestly, I get a bit steamed when someone buys a comic book because their favorite artist is doing a guest run.  Is the story any good?  Who cares?  Humberto Ramos is doing the artwork!

Good artists make me skeptical.  I was an innocent teenager when Image became a comic book powerhouse.  A group of underpaid Read more…

Two Books: Mockingjay and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I don’t need to give you a review of these two books.  I’m quite sure that if you picked up a virtual rock on the internet and threw it, you’d hit someone with a virtual opinion on one book or the other.  I’m more interested in talking about reading books outside of your normal reading list because they happen to be popular.

The Hunger Games Trilogy gets a poor rap from people who haven’t read it or watched the movie.  I’ve seen enough comments from people who swear that they will never read it because it is a book aimed at teenagers, or because they don’t like Science Fiction, or because “The plot is evidently stolen from another book I haven’t read:  Battle Royal.”  Those are all legitimate reasons why you should not read a book.  I mean, I’m not really a fan of Westerns.  I’m not insulted by them or anything, but I don’t read Westerns that are popular with other people who read Westerns.  But, I’ve read Shane, because it was a good book with a long tradition of capturing readers who didn’t normally read Westerns.

With that in mind, if you haven’t read The Hunger Games, you should be reading The Hunger Games.  Why?  Because I’ve met a lot of people who’ve read The Hunger Games, and I’ve yet to Read more…

Two Books: Destiny of the Republic and The Best of the Spirit

Destiny of the Republic:  A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

by Candice Millard

When visiting my local library, I almost tossed this book away.  This homage to U.S. President James A. Garfield did such a fine job of pretending to be yet another book about Lincoln, that I pushed it aside to get to the other weird tales that hid behind it.  Thankfully, I took the time to flip it over, did a double-take at the photo, and realized that the book in my hands wasn’t yet another company cashing in on Killing Lincoln.  Great!  I always have time for the cracks of history.  There’s nothing better than learning something new.

I remember the brief introduction and parting I was given to President Garfield when we walked past him in my old high school U.S. History class.  My teacher took enough time to mention that he was shot by an anarchist, and it was a shame some people couldn’t recognize that anarchy wasn’t a valid governing choice.  What my high school teacher never discussed was that Chales Guiteau was a madman lost in a fantasy and believed himself the servant of God and thought himself a hero beloved by the people.  I’d heard that Garfield’s doctors did more harm than good, not that Doctor Doctor Bliss’s adherence to pre-Civil War medical practice, and his bull-headed desire for celebrity status, lead him to act as a rapacious pariah.  With the help of his doctors, Garfield descended from a healthy patient in shock into a national tragedy.

All this, and a strange fascination with Alexander Graham Bell, who keeps wheedling into the plot with his early lead bullet detector.  If you want to put a historical biography on your list, you could do worse than to read about what was probably the most popular president during his administration in American History after Washington.

The Best of the Spirit

by Will Eisner

I don’t need to tell you to pick up Will Eisner’s ‘The Spirit’.  If you know comic books at all, it’s likely that you’ve read some comic book writer’s glowing appraisal of Eisner’s pulp noir detective thrillers jumbled into the Sunday circular of newspapers in the 1950s.  But, you know, how good could it be?  Comic books from the 50s read terrible to a modern audience.  They’re full of word balloons and strange expositions.  I mean, can Eisner’s work really be better than a genius plot by Alan Moore, or tale of stunning sympathy from Neil Gaiman, or perhaps an out of the box, then back in the box Avengers tale by Brian Michael Bendis?

No.  It can’t.  I’ll be straight with you.  The Spirit is a phenomenal strip.  Eisner tackles  a variety of genres, barely fitting them under the umbrella of detective fiction.  He can mix pain in his fun, and splashes panel after panel with well-crafted gems.  When you look at some of the schlock that defined the ‘Golden Age’ of comic books, most books barely contained the bare necessities required to hold together a plot.  Eisner, however, defined and defied plot.  His strip holds up to a beating, like Denny Colt dumped in the middle of a crime ring, but the words can still melt in the arms of Silk Satin.

But holding The Spirit up to today’s standard isn’t a fair contest.  When comic books first hit news stands, they were a phenomenon.  A vast, money making phenomenon.  Writers were superfluous to a company.  They kept their jobs as long as the company profited from them.  During World War II, that meant ‘Everyone keeps their job as long as they put out content’.  In the 50s, with the decline of comics, that meant ‘Only the most sensational of writers kept their job, assuming they kept delivering’.  The fact that Eisner was able to write such compelling stories in the thick of this environment is astounding.  His writing is nuance.  How the heck did he sell nuance?

So, before you read The Spirit, you’ve got better things to read by people who’ve been inspired by The Spirit.  Read Moore’s Watchmen, and read  Gaiman’s Sandman.  Read some New Avengers, some Scott Pilgrim, Jimmy Corrigan, Blankets and Maus.  When you’re done reading all that, though, go back and read The Spirit.  It’s an honest fun read, and it will give you perspective and appreciation for the books that came after it.

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