Friday, January 29, 2016

Graphic Novel: Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

I am always on the lookout for graphic novels to review. But just like it is hard to find a new young adult fantasy novel to review that isn't part of an ongoing series, I run into the same issue with graphic novels, which accounts for why I have so few of them on this blog. So I was pleased to find out about Kate Beaton and her two collections, Hark! A Vagrant, and Step Aside, Pops, which will be covered next week.

Genre, Themes, History: While I have placed this book under graphic novel, it really isn't a novel as it is a collection of Beaton's comics, most of which place a humorous spin on either historical events and figures, or classic literature and their authors. The Canadian-born Beaton earned a bachelor's degree in both history and anthropology, and eventually left her job at a museum to pursue drawing comics full-time. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker and The Best American Comics anthology, and always seems to attempt to educate while bringing a smile to the reader's face. And when Beaton isn't poking fun at some historical figure or event, she is poking fun at a great work of literature and the author. Some historical figures that managed to make it into the book include Andrew Jackson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. And much to my delight, Beaton chose to draw comics lightly mocking the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Bram Stokes, Victor Hugo, and even William Shakespeare. And I suppose it would not be a proper collection of comics without a few depicting Batman, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, and a few Marvel characters such as Wolverine and Storm. In other words, it seems no one is safe from Beaton, whether they be from history or popular culture. Even the modern day hipster doesn't escape Beaton's pen. And of course, as a Canadian, Beaton pokes plenty of fun at her home country, which anyone from the U.S. will certainly appreciate.

My Verdict: Anything that makes you laugh out loud is worth a look, and I certainly laughed out loud plenty of times throughout this collection. It is often said that all jokes have a little bit of truth to them, and that is definitely true of many of Beaton's comics. She touches on the baffling obsessions of Poe and the difficulty we have today of being able to call Andrew Jackson a hero. She points out what we have all thought about Aquaman and his ability to save anyone in any real trouble. And she attempts her own explanation of why Brahms would fall asleep during a performance by Liszt. Even if you aren't familiar with the reference, you may at the very least learn something, and often you'll end up laughing anyway. And while the entire book is only 160+ pages long, it goes by even faster due to the graphic novel format. It could easily be read in less than an afternoon or on a short plane ride. 

Favorite Comics: There were quite a few that I will always remember, but my personal favorites were the ones where Beaton attempts to interpret great works of literature simply based on their covers. 

Recommended Reading: Naturally I recommend Beaton's follow-up collection, Step Aside, Pops

Friday, January 22, 2016

Classic Fiction: The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

I had never read anything by Ernest Hemingway, and I figured that The Sun Also Rises was as good a place to start as any. I had long heard of his tendency to write in short but powerful statements, and also his ability to write dialogue as a former journalist who had closely observed the way people talk. It was time I experienced his writing for myself and see if his work would be something I would want to start seeking out. 

The Situation: Jake Barnes currently resides in Paris as part of the expatriate community of the 1920s. As our narrator, Jake first gives us a brief history on Robert Cohn, a Jewish boxer and writer. First he was somewhat decent at boxing, and then he became somewhat decent at writing, and ended up finding moderate success after his first publication. Now Cohn and Jake are both in Paris, which leads to the former being introduced by the latter to the beautiful and incredibly charming Lady Brett Ashley. And although Brett is engaged to Mike Campbell, that does not stop Cohn from falling for her, and her letting him. Soon the entire group, along with Bill Gorton, go down to Pamplona for the annual San Fermin Festival.

The Problem: While Cohn has fallen for Brett, Brett hasn't necessarily fallen for him, and she has no intention of ever leaving Mike. Everyone else seems to understand this, but Cohn can't quite get the message, nor can he seem to stop getting on everyone's nerves. And it doesn't help that Jake himself has long been in love with Brett and seemingly will be forever. Together the group will drink, eat, drink, get into fights, drink, watch the bulls, drink, fight each other, get thrown out of places, and then drink some more. Cohn only gets more annoying, Mike only gets more annoyed with Cohn, Jake becomes even more hapless, and Brett eventually eyes her next target and conquers him, an event that may bring everything to a head and ruin the entire trip.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in the post-World War I 1920s. Much like Hemingway himself, Jake Barnes has settled in Europe after serving in the war as part of what has come to be known as the Lost Generation. It is a common story of a group of people trying to find their purpose through self-medicating and partying. And while it may seem that Mike has been the one to win Lady Brett, he hasn't really as she continues to have affairs on the side even though she is engaged. And even though it is painfully obvious Jake is still in love with her, he is never one of the affairs. She also seems to know exactly what she is doing, knowing it causes nothing but pain and destruction, but she isn't happy with herself until she does it. And Mike appears to be fine with it, until he gets drunk and shows that he actually isn't okay with it at all. It is a story that could easily have been written today, but there is now way it would be told in same straight-forward, yet still compelling and dramatic way that Hemingway manages to tell it. There are short, declarative sentences, as well as limited descriptions. And yet, the settings are more than adequate and the limited and repetitive dialogue tells us everything we need to know. Also, the descriptions involving the bull-fighting are brutal without being full of gore. For writers, Hemingway is the perfect example of how to show and not tell.

My Verdict: While The Sun Also Rises follows what I call the Frankenstein effect - a short book that takes an incredible amount of time to read because of the density of the material - it is certainly worth the struggle. Hemingway's prose and the rhythm of his writing may take some getting used to, especially for a first timer, but once you're in it you kind of wish more books were written this way. Even the painful scenes become fun, and the annoying characters become a joy to listen to. And while reading about fishing and bull-fighting is something I never imagined would be enjoyable, Hemingway manages to make it be exactly that, allowing the reader to get caught up in the most mundane of the activities. And Lady Brett is certainly a character I would never enjoy in any other book as she is a person who is only seems to be happy if she is the prettiest woman in the room taking all of the attention, and doesn't much care how upset she makes people as long as she gets what she wants. But I found myself even looking past her many faults if it meant I got to read more sparse descriptions and dialogue. I will certainly be seeking out more writing by this classic author.

Favorite Moment: While it was disappointing to see Lady Brett get her way with yet another man, it was brilliant the way Hemingway wrote it.

Favorite Character: Bill Gorton is a true friend, and while he drinks just as much as the rest of them, he seems to be the only one not head over heels in love with Brett.

Recommended Reading: Hemingway is certainly a hard act to follow. So I will recommend Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, which follows another woman who is used to getting what she wants. 

Friday, January 15, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra's The Tsar of Love and Techno falls into the strange space between full-on novel and collection of short stories, kind of like Margaret Atwood's Stone Mattress, but with more of the characters being connected and having their lives intersect with each other. I picked it up because I enjoyed Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, a novel that also focused on Chechnya and the conflict that has raged there.

The Situation: It is 1937 in Russia and Roman Osipovich Markin is one of the best censors working for the Department of Party Propaganda and Agitation. After visiting his brother's widow and making sure she had scratched her late husband's image from any photographs she may have - an act that is meant more for her and her son's protection than for anything else - he continues his work altering paintings and removing the images and likenesses of those who are found out to be disloyal to the Soviet Union. But after visiting his brother's wife, he now finds himself inserting his brother's image into every picture he censors. Sometimes Vaska is inserted as a young boy; other times he is a young man, and in still others he is old. Roman's alterations of certain paintings will have a direct effect on people's lives for years to come. 

The Problem: Most of the stories that come out of the lives touched by Roman's work are tragic and filled with hardship, and all against the backdrop of first a communist nation, and then one in seemingly endless conflict for one reason or another. The granddaughter of a famous ballerina who was removed from a painting years before enjoys a good amount of celebrity and the benefits of being married to a wealthy official, before fortune leaves her and she returns to a humble life back home among the people she grew up. The man she was betrothed to before she became a star would join the army, twice, before becoming one of two prisoners held captive in a well. His brother would become a forever student searching for answers about his brother's whereabouts. And the son and grandson of the man who was inserted into all of those pictures will end up discovering the truth at an art showing many years later.  

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that reads more like a collection of short stories. It starts in 1937 and moves back and forth through time, going as far as 2013. Much like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, Marra places many of his scenes and characters right in the heart of the conflict in Chechnya. And because the story begins in the 1930s, there is also some mention of communist Russia and the Cold War. As a censor, it is Roman's job to alter paintings containing the images of those the government wishes to erase from their history. Almost everyone lives under the threat of being turned in as a dissenter. And even after the Cold War has ended and the Soviet Union has fallen, people still must be careful about what they say, and who they work with. One secret spilled to the wrong person could cost you your livelihood, as well as your life. At times the book seems to be an indictment of Russia and an expose on what it is like to live there, even in modern times. 

My Verdict: I don't much care for short story collections, so I was dubious when I picked this book up. However, I was also hopeful because of how much I enjoyed A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Marra does not disappoint with a masterfully told story that moves through time and connects everyone's story. There was a moment close to the end where I wondered what the plot of this book was, since it bounces around from one character to the next, filling in gaps here and there, while not immediately completing any one story. But by the end, it is clear where the author was headed and what the focus of the story is. It isn't all about communism, or war, or even censorship. For me it was about the strangest and littlest things that can connect people, while also illustrating what it is like living in a place where everyone is watching and conflict can break out almost at any time. 

Favorite Moment: When Nadya's surgery to restore sight to her right eye is successful.

Favorite Character: Kolya's little brother Alexei. He is a little silly, but he makes mix tapes and even sends his brother off with one when he joins the army. 

Favorite Quotes: "The institutions we believe in will pervert us, our loved ones will fail us, and death is a falling piano."

"The problem with rejection is that it feels imposed even when it's earned." 

Recommended Reading:  Of course I recommend A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, but also Girl at War by Sara Nović.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin

With young adult fiction being one of my favorite genres, it is both hard and easy for me to pick books to review in this category. Hard because I find myself becoming interested in so many, and unless I turn this blog into one purely for young adult fiction, there just isn't enough time and space for me to review them all. But it is also easy because there is so much to choose from, and it doesn't take much for me to consider a young adult fiction novel, at least compared to some of the other categories, such as science fiction. The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin was one I knew I would eventually get around to, even if it hadn't been in 2015. The idea of a grieving child retreating into silence isn't exactly new, but I wanted to see in what direction Benjamin took the story.

The Situation: Suzy Swanson has started seventh grade, but this year she will be without her best friend, Franny. In the summer before the new school year started, Franny drowned while swimming at the beach, leaving behind grieving family, friends, teachers, and a community asking why. Suzy can't understand it, not only because she is only in the 7th grade and lost her best friend, but also because Franny was a strong swimmer. How can a strong swimmer drown? Suzy cannot accept the answer that is given to her, which is the idea that sometimes "things just happen." So instead she attempts to find the truth for herself, which leads her to her exploration of and fascination with jellyfish, believing them to be the answer to what really happened to Franny.

The Problem: Since the terrible tragedy that took Franny, Suzy has decided to stop talking, or at least not to talk unless it is absolutely necessary. Of course, this causes both frustration and concern for her parents. They may understand that she is grieving, but what they don't understand is Suzy's guilt over the last time she saw Franny. During sixth grade, the two childhood friends had drifted apart. But on the last day of school, Suzy did something so awful that she sees herself as the villain in Franny's story, even though it wasn't her who caused the two to no longer be friends in the first place. Plus, while she has picked jellyfish as her topic for the school science project, and has certainly done enough research and worked very hard, in order to pass 7th grade science, she is going to have to do an oral report. The girl who had decided not to speak anymore is going to have to open her mouth and talk.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel that is geared more towards a middle grade (or middle school) audience, as opposed to teenagers in high school, like most of the YA books I usually choose. It explores the grief of a young girl who had already felt like she was on the outside of everything, and now she has lost her best friend in a tragic way, with no concrete answers as to why these things happen to comfort her. But Suzy isn't different just because she no longer talks or because of her frizzy and unruly hair. She is also different from most of her classmates because of how much knowledge she has and how much she loves researching, investigating, and finding her own answers. She doesn't look at the world in quite the same way as most 7th graders, and her classmates have certainly noticed. Middle school being the cruel and awful place that it is, Suzy isn't exactly popular, and when she had Franny by her side, that didn't matter. But when Franny decides that popularity is at least important to her, Suzy experiences that betrayal we all have felt at one point in time when a friend walks away. And probably the most interesting (and sad) thing about this story is the fact that this kind of betrayal doesn't only occur among 12 year-olds. 

My Verdict: This book delivered better than I thought it would. There is a reason it was nominated for a Goodreads Choice Award, as Benjamin gives us a loveable and understandably heartbroken narrator doing the best she can with a grief she doesn't understand. While middle schoolers can be annoying, and the ones Suzy goes to school with are no exception, Suzy herself is delightful and relateable. And her sense of curiosity is refreshing, especially when put against a backdrop of a middle school full of kids that aren't so curious, at least not about science. And while the book deals with the death of a young child, the subject isn't made so heavy that it is unbearable. In fact, probably the most emotional moments for me came from Suzy attempting to plan her way to Australia in order to talk to one of the leading jellyfish experts. How serious she is, and how meticulous she is in her planning revealed to me just how much she was hurting.

Favorite Moment: Whenever Suzy makes plans for her trip to see jellyfish expert Dr. Jamie Seymour in Australia. Maybe it is because I love that act of purchasing plane tickets, booking the hotel, and making lists of what to pack and what to see, but I loved Suzy's method of putting her trip together.

Favorite Character: Since middle school children are mostly awful, I thought this would be more difficult. But despite her silence, Suzy does manage to make a friend in Justin, a boy in her science class who is on medication for his ADHD. He doesn't mind that Suzy doesn't talk, and is perfectly content with carrying the burden of the conversation. He is also one of the few students that doesn't tease her, and is genuinely interested in a lot of the same stuff she is. 

Recommended Reading: I don't read a lot of middle grade YA, but I will recommend either Love Letters to the Dead by Ava Dellaira, or We Were Liars by E. Lockhart.   

Friday, January 1, 2016

Science Fiction: The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

I have been fortunate enough to have met Margaret Atwood at two separate times, several years apart. The first time was after a reading at the Empire Theater in downtown San Antonio, where she signed my copy of The Handmaid's Tale. The second time was only a few weeks ago, after her talk at the 2015 Texas Book Festival in Austin, Texas, where I waited in line so she could sign my copy of her latest book and today's selection, The Heart Goes Last. Atwood has once again stuck with the theme of a dystopian society in the not so distant future, but clearly it is a theme that works for her as The Heart Goes Last was nominated for the 2015 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Science Fiction. The premise alone was enough for me to get curious, and getting it signed was just icing on the cake.

The Situation: Stan and Charmaine having been living in their car after both having lost their jobs, and then subsequently their house. The economy has completely crumbled, and now Stan and Charmaine are reduced to living the semi-nomadic life as they move from parking lot to parking lot during the night in an attempt to avoid being robbed, or worse. It is during her shift at a local bar that Charmaine sees an ad for the Positron Project in the town of Consilience. If Stan and Charmaine are excepted into the program, they are promised jobs, and their own house. And without being completely clear on everything that the project entails, they apply as a couple and are accepted. 

The Problem: Like pretty much everything in life, the Positron Project is slowly revealed to be to good to be true. Stan and Charmaine are both given jobs, and a home, but the entrance into the project comes with a few unexpected surprises. They both knew that they would only be able to live in their new home every other month, as the project residences spend one month living a normal life, and the next month in the town's prisons, working at a different job. Meanwhile, a different couple would live in Stan and Charmaine's house, until it is time for the two couples to switch back again at the first of the next month. What the couple did not expect was for Charmaine to become involved with the husband of their alternate couple, starting a chain of events that would not only reveal the Positron Project for what it is, but also potentially put Stan's life in danger. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction book that explores a dystopian future in a time period not all that far ahead of our own. Stan and Charmaine are a couple deeply affected by a collapsed economy and looking for a way out of their new lifestyle. They serve as an example of what people are willing to agree to, without knowing all of the details, in order to escape an undesirable situation in exchange for some security. The book also looks at how easily swayed and highly suggestible some of us can be. Of the two, Charmaine is certainly the most easily swayed, possibly because of her unwillingness to face facts and look for the truth. And even though the Positron Project provides all of the comfort and security Stan and Charmaine could want, it does not necessarily make them happy, and certainly not with each other. Plus, the Positron Project appears to be another attempt at utopia gone wrong, as the people in power become unsatisfied with current production, always craving more profits and even more power. 

My Verdict: I have only read two other Atwood books, out of the more than forty works she has published in her life, but I am no stranger to the theme of the dystopia. Atwood's idea is an intriguing one: a couple lives one month in a house, working normal jobs like normal people, and then spends the next month in jail while a different couple lives in the house. There are so many things that can be done with that. And while I do feel like Atwood absolutely went for it by not playing it safe and going for a somewhat futuristic almost spy adventure type story, I still cannot say that I cared for the direction she went in, and what she did with Stan and Charmaine. For starters, there are so many twists and turns that nothing feels certain, which may have been the point, but I was more confused and annoyed than I was curious. Also, even before they sign up for the Positron Project, Stan and Charmaine are not the most likeable characters, and the lack of communication between the two only fed their oncoming problems. I could not get myself to care enough about them to actually worry about whether or not they, or even their marriage, were going to survive this thing. In other words, the novel was a little bit of a letdown.

Favorite Moment: When Charmaine learns just how many of her Positron experiences were engineered by someone else.

Favorite Character: There are none righteous in this book. No, not even one. Even so, I pick Charmaine's friend Veronica, whose fate could have been much worse, but is still pretty bad. Fortunately for her, in the end, she doesn't know any better.  

Recommended Reading: I choose Atwood's collection of stories, Stone Mattress, published just last year. These stories were more my speed, and she does that thing I love so much (when done well) where some of the characters overlap between stories.