book review: pre-holiday 2013 roundup

I suppose I’m getting used to the fact that this is less a book review blog than it used to be. I’m sorry. Maybe I’ll be more diligent in 2014? Regardless, here’s what I’ve read (for a certain value of) recently.

  • Mendoza in Hollywood by Kage Baker. A sequel to In the Garden of Iden, but there’s another book in between that I haven’t read. I like these books because they’re all about the historical anachronism. This one wasn’t as tragic as the first though.
  • Galapagos by Kurt Vonnegut. This was the only Vonnegut novel I hadn’t read when I started Unstuck in Time, Gregory Sumner’s book about Vonnegut’s novels. I liked Galapagos more than I’d expect to like a book about inbreeding, stupidity and evolution. Which means I liked it a lot. Unstuck in Time was a decent bit of biography around what was going on in Vonnegut’s life when he was writing the novels, which, fine, whatever, but was also a really good Cole’s Notes kind of refresher on what was actually in those books. It tickled my Vonnegut itch which means I can keep tackling new books in my to read pile rather than rereading the ones I know I love.
  • Paintwork by Tim Maughan. Three short stories set in a near future SF world. I liked the Cuban giant fighting robots story the best, though they were all fine stories in a Strossian vein.
  • Battling Boy by Paul Pope. A boy-god is sent to Earthish to fight monsters as part of his adolescent trials. I love Pope’s art, but wish the story was less of a first chapter and more complete. Selah.
  • The Dream Thieves by Maggie Stiefvater. This is the second book in The Raven Boys cycle, and this one I liked a little less than the first because it was such a continuation, instead of introducing us to characters and situations. Yes, this almost directly contradicts my issue with Battling Boy. Whatever. I quote Whitman at you.
  • The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. I am not a history buff, but a friend who is one recommended this and I loved it. Part of the appeal is that I know shit about the crusades from the European perspective since my education wasn’t really big on celebrating wars of any sort, so now all I know about them beyond very basic Indiana Jones stuff is from this book about bickering Seljuk princes and the politics between Damascus, Aleppo and Baghdad. Neat stuff did happen in the past (and it totally gave me a lot more context for when I play Crusader Kings, which I enjoy anyway).
  • Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon and Little Hits by Matt Fraction & a bunch of artists. These are good gritty-ish Marvel crime comics about what Hawkguy does when he’s not being an Avenger. Funny and clever. I read this because Fraction is probably my favourite superhero writer these days. The Pizza the Dog issue in Little Hits is the best though. The best.
  • The Land Across by Gene Wolfe. This one is about an American travel writer going to a strange European dictatorship. It feels like it’s going to be a Kafka pastiche but then it turns into a ghost story and noir secret police detective tale. It’s very weird and I really liked it. I like The City & the City better, mind you, but not by much.
  • Battle Bunny by John Scieszka, Mac Barnett & Matthew Myers. This is a picturebook a well-meaning grandma has given to a little boy about a Birthday Bunny that the boy has repurposed into the tale of thwarting Battle Bunny and his evil world domination plans. I love love love the idea of this so much. That said, I’m a little nonplussed by the gender role implications that boys have to turn everything into violent confrontation for it to be interesting and wish that the protagonist (who is the person defacing the “original” book) was a girl. I might have to write separately about this book.
  • Plow the Bones by Douglas F. Warrick. This collection of mostly dark SF short stories was excellent. The writing in its density and consideration of the implications of the premises reminded me of Ted Chiang. Really really good stuff.
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. This is a dystopian novel that’s far more realistic than most. Economic downturn has forced communities to hunker down and maybe hope for the best, while drugs and deprivation force people who have even less to descend upon the people who have a little bit. And in all this, a teenage girl with overdeveloped empathy (she feels injuries in other people) is building her own way of seeing and being in the world. It’s hard to take a lot of other fanciful dystopia at all seriously when this was done so well. I’m kind of ashamed it took me so long to read this classic.

Phew. I’m leaving out a few that I’ll try and do separate writeups for.

book review: best shot in the west

Best Shot in the West is the story of Nat Love, a former slave who became an expert cowboy. The comic is taken from his autobiography, so it’s basically a pile of anecdotes of the cowboy life. It’s good cowboy stuff that isn’t about some kind of criminal life. He talks about the danger of stampedes and the work it is to deal with cattle rustlers. Very nice little introduction to cowboy-dom.

book review: r. crumb’s kafka

R. Crumb’s Kafka (also known as Introducing Kafka) is an introduction to Franz Kafka’s life and work written by David Zane Mairowitz and illustrated by Robert Crumb. It focuses more on the writer’s Jewishness than I’ve seen in any of the rest of my reading on Kafka, and how life was in the ghetto of Prague where he lived almost all of his days. There were sections on, of course, Kafka’s domineering father, Franz’s love-life (mostly epistolary) and his extreme self-abnegation.

Parts of Kafka’s stories are illustrated and lettered by Crumb (most complete is In the Penal Colony), but more of the book is illustrating the deep neuroses that fuelled the writer. Mairowitz has a bit of the air of an angry crank, with his ALLCAPS EMPHASIS and raging against people who use Kafkaesque as an adjective. It works very well with Crumb’s illustrations, though I wish some of the text that was more integrated with the illustrations could have been lettered by Crumb or used a font that didn’t jar so horribly.

Mairowitz recommends other books on Kafka, including The Nightmare of Reason by Ernst Pawel, Kafka’s Other Trial by Elias Canetti, Kafka by Pietro Citati and Kafka: Judaism, Politics and Literature by Ritchie Robertson.

book review: trotsky: a graphic biography

Rick Geary’s biography of Trotsky isn’t terrible. Trotsky: A Graphic Biography lays out the facts about Trotsky’s life and politics in a mostly coherent way. It just didn’t really need to be a comic. The images tended not to really add anything or show anything that wasn’t going on in the essay dwelling in the captions.

This isn’t to say I didn’t learn anything from it. It was a good Coles Notes kind of document, but it’s nowhere near as good as Logicomix or Suspended in Language which made much better use of the comix form.

book review: suspended in language

I will admit, I love reading biographies in the form of comics. Suspended in Language is Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis’ biography of Niels Bohr, one of the hugely important people for twentieth century physics. (Last year Ottaviani’s book Feynman, another physicist biography was published to great acclaim.)

This book doesn’t have the complicated framing structure of Logicomix, though the whole thing is geared towards explaining his ideas (and revelling in his inability to do public speaking). He was definitely no Richard Feynman who could explain them to us himself.

The arc of these physicists’ lives is so interesting because they don’t end at the height of their discoveries. It’s always a story about the great breakthrough they made at one point and then how later, other scientists point out what’s wrong with what they thought. I enjoy that story of science working the way it’s supposed to. I don’t know the narrative of post-war science well enough to know if there’d be good narratives like that to find in the future. But those quantum physicists, man. Good tales to tell.

book review: logicomix

Logicomix is an exploration of Bertrand Russell’s lifelong quest for rigorous truth through logic in graphic novel form. There are multiple framing devices to the book: the outermost layer is of the authors in their efforts to write and draw the story accurately, below which is an American lecture by Russell ostensibly about whether the US should enter World War 2, but that lecture is an excuse to have Russell narrating his own interactions with logic and truth, which encompass his life. Oh and then there’s a Greek play at the end.

The multiple layers work quite well, with the authors breaking in to argue about how much of set theory and basic logic needs to be explained, and whether the themes of “logic through madness” actually make any sense. Because Russell is narrating his life himself the realization that he’s kind of a dick to his wives is done half-apologetically and gently.

The theory of things and the importance of taking 320-some pages to prove, to actually prove that 1+1=2 is kind of intriguing. I tend to think of that sort of academic theoretical stuff as nonsense (and there isn’t much sense of how Russell did the practical things like pay his rent through his life) but with the biographical aspects it made it much more understandable. Which is the aim of this kind of book: to make these sorts of things accessible to laypeople like me.

There were brief appearances by a pile of mathematician/philosophers I’ve read about elsewhere, including Wittgenstein and Godel.

Not necessarily for everyone, and I’m not sure I’d want to use it for a YA book club or anything, but a really interesting read.

book review: devil’s reign

I picked up Matt Wagner’s Grendel: Devil’s Reign from the library having only read Grendel: Black White and Red before. I remembered liking it but not a lot of details. This book might not have been the best place to take up the series again.

It’s the 26th century and the plague of vampires has fractured North America. Orion I, who apparently used to be Grendel is brought in to unify the nation and [SPOILER ALERT] eventually takes over the world by blowing the nefarious Japanese off the planet. And then he’s the king of the world, has a baby boy and dies an old man.

So that’s the main story, and it’s told with the detached air of a biography. The form is very interesting: 8 panels per page and about half of them filled with text and many more as propaganda images. It’s very dense and wordy, but detached detached detached. There’s no sense of urgency to anything. Maybe I would care more if I’d read more of the previous run of the comic, or later ones to see what the aftermath of all this was, but as it was it felt like reading a biased history of a crudely stereotyped alternate world.

The other story is about the vampires who’re banished to the prison of VEGAS for the amount of history covered in the book. Because this is done in a more traditional comicbook style, it’s much less dense and more actiony than the main story. In fact I think they probably take up the same number of pages, but the density of text makes this story feel like a backup. Again, I feel like I would care more if I’d come at this book with more investment in the series.

It wasn’t bad, just not very compelling for someone reading it without previous knowledge. I wish there’d been some indication on the cover to say what volume in the series this was.