Book Review

A Book about Heroines

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No, not heroine, heroines, the female version of heroes. You’d think we could come up with a better name. Anyway, The Supergirls by Mike Madrid is all about those fabulous females that populate the super-hero world: their fashion, feminist leanings, and history throughout the industry. This was a fascinating read for me, as I have long been a fan of the super-women, having been infected at a young age by a brother addicted to comics. The book follows the history of the female hero in comics from their inception in the 30’s through today (well, 2009 when it was published, but it’s pretty damn close).

Cover of The Supergirls

My favorite tid-bit of information? Wonder Woman was actually the brainchild of a psychologist who was in in an open polygamous relationship in the 40’s (the 40’s!) and who eventually laid the ground work for the polygraph lie detector test (Lasso of Truth anyone?). I am also now committed to going back and finding some of the Golden Age Heroines who sounded simply awesome. My main target is Phantom Lady. I have also determined that I really need to read She by Haggard.

Phantom Lady from the Golden Age

But beyond the tidbits of fascination, this book is incredibly well researched and detailed. Madrid certainly spent a lot of time with the genre and its various components and then more trying to distill all of it down to a concise and interesting book. His organization was at times questionable (he tries to organize the book chronologically, by subject, AND by prominent characters all at once and that doesn’t necessarily flow well) but overall, his writing and presentation was engaging and thoughtful.

I definitely recommend this book for anyone who would like to delve into the feminine side of comics. It is fairly comprehensive and definitely engaging. The topic comes alive under Madrid’s pen and you can tell just how passionate he is about these women and the lack of representation they have had in the industry. That being said, it avoids being preachy, simply presenting the information for the reader so they can learn and enjoy the fantasy that is the super heroine.

Also, Madrid makes the most amazingly beautiful figurines of these women, one of which gets auctioned off for charity each year at the Women of Wonder Day. Go check it out…

Wonder Woman Statue

A Rat Like No Other

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Firmin by Sam Savage is an odd little book, almost small enough to be called a novella. In it, Firmin is the runt of a litter of rats born into the basement of a bookstore on a bed of shredded books. Through eating the pages under him to quell his rumbling stomach, he acquires the ability to read and philosophize with the best of humanity, though he still finds it incredibly difficult to communicate with us.

The novel follows Firmin from the time of his birth through to his death, which was a remarkably long time for a rat in Scollay Square, Boston. He spends his days watching the square slowly crumble from the bookshop and his evenings reading, foraging and watching his Lovelies in the pornographic movies at the movie theater down the street.

It was an engaging novel, though by the end you are unsure of how much is him just making up stories and what is actually happening. The writing is crisp and clean, and well placed in Firmin’s point of view. I love the phrenology references that Firmin relies upon to judge human behavior, even if that is a crackpot science. It seems to work well for the rat.

Overall, this is a story about a person who just fails to fit in. Anyone can identify with Firmin and his struggle to communicate with and socialize with the intellectual creature, man. Especially those of us who were labeled a book worm in elementary school. There was the constant companionship of the books, but you really just wanted to be asked to the cool kid’s birthday party. Firmin evokes all of those emotions and more.

A rat reading a book--just how many drugs did you take last night?

Busy Monsters are Busy

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This week I had the dubious pleasure of reading Busy Monsters by William Giraldi. This was a story about a man whose fiance takes off with the captain of a vessel determined to find the Kraken of mythos. First, he decides to try and stop her from leaving and shoots up the boat. After he gets out of prison, he learns that she has actually managed to find one of the beasts and capture it, so he decides he needs to out do her and catch a Sasquatch. And his guide is promptly eaten by the man-ape. (He thinks. He ran away from the horrible noises and back to civilization.) And this is just the first 1/16 of the book. Needless to say things keep going downhill from there for the poor man.

The style of this novel is what I find most interesting. This is a first person narrative that is rather unique. Each chapter is actually an installment of his column in a magazine wherein he is memoir-izing his life as it happens. This lends itself to an incredible amount of self-referential and meta-writing opportunities which was fun and quirky. His column was widely read enough that when he met new people, they often critiqued his writing.

And what a unique style of writing it was. The language was very high art for such surreal and hyper-realistic hijinks. Unlike Zazen, which I reviewed last week, the absurdly high language of this novel worked well. If the material had been presented in language more synonymous with the material, it would have been…predictable. But the juxtaposition of the entirety of the thesaurus along with the absurd actions of the main character, well, that was just delightful.

Absurd and delightful entertainment.

A Meditation on Zazen

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Vanessa Veselka‘s Zazen was an interesting read. The title itself implies a seated meditation, which I guess could be applied to the writing, though it is not an overt theme in the book.

The construction of this novel is rather lovely. Veselka’s turn of phrase is unique and I like how she renames people and things for a more fanciful feel: fetuses in utero become bellyfish, policemen are crickets, etc. It adds to the fact that the main character, Della, is not quite in sync with our world after a mental break she had when she was just out of graduate school. Since then, she has been living with her brother and his pregnant wife, imagining she hears explosions from the far off war while covering her walls in maps tracking self-immolation around the globe. After the bombs find their way to her city for real, she decides she wants to call in bomb threats of her own. For a little while, this thrills her, but that quickly fades. However, when someone actually starts bombing the buildings she’s threatening, the stakes are suddenly real.

However, even thought the prose was beautiful, I had some trouble grasping what the book was getting at occasionally. It seemed to be a novel criticizing not only consumer/American culture but also taking a hard stance on the extreme liberal movements against the corporate world. Della is the product of two parents who revel in the activist extremes, and her brother takes to the organizing and protesting angle with grace. But Della seems trapped in the liberal extremes–interested in their ideas, unhappy with their methods. But, all of this is buried behind a very unreliable and somewhat schizophrenic narrator.

Della is a woman with issues who does not see the world the way we do. And because her filter is so off-kilter, we cannot even tell how far off her world is from ours. Now, if we had an unreliable narrator, or a slightly differing world from ours, that’s one thing. Put the two of them together and it’s virtually impossible to tell what is real and what is not. Some people may enjoy this experience. I, however, found it off-putting. I would get distracted by how pretty the prose was and then realize I had no idea what the last three sentences even meant.

This is also the first book in a while were I felt the publisher could have done a much better job with the cover design and proofreading. The cover is unbalanced, with a title that is ridiculously sized and placed. And the amount of typos in the book is excessive. The worst section was two pages near the anti-climax where there were several typos together on facing pages. It makes me feel like they just missed proofreading those pages altogether.

Anyway, I think this book is worthwhile for an examination of the prose and structure, but, ultimately, it was a bit of a confusing disappointment.

I can't help but dislike this unbalanced and hard to read cover...

Did You Know Twain Wrote a Murder Mystery?

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I had no idea, but Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) wrote a murder mystery. Kind of. It’s titled A Double Barrelled Detective Story and it is a novella in which there are two unique revenge stories and he makes great fun of Sherlock Holmes. It’s structured around letters written by a young man to his mother as he tries to track down his father who was quite the scoundrel.

Beautiful embossed red cloth, and I love the quote.

It was a unique little tale and did not take much time at all to read, but I was particularly struck by the beauty of the original printing. The red cloth cover with the fancy gold embossing is a pleasure to hold. And that quote is something else–“We ought never to do wrong when people are looking.” It epitomizes a lot of the story in a one sense, but it subverts it in another. The murder (which doesn’t even take place until about 2/3 of the way into the story) is covered up explicitly by disguising the setup for the murder with regular actions in front of Sherlock Holmes. And it would have worked, too, if it wasn’t for the meddling kid and his super-human tracking abilities. Sherlock Holmes had gone on the completely wrong path…

But the beauty of the book doesn’t stop at the cover. Take a look at these gorgeous end pages. They make sense as the majority of the story takes place in mountainous gold mining camps. I was wondering if I could take a page out of this book and create end pages for my novel that are cascades of falling letters…or stamps…

Endpages depicting the forest and mountains around the mining camp.And the pages themselves are gorgeous. They all have a red frame with an accent in the corner. It was a two color job, which must have gotten expensive in 1902 because that meant they had to run each page through the press twice. But just look at how pretty it is! And I love the little annotations in the margin there. They run throughout the book and there are up to three on a page. Sometimes they were simply a note on the text and at other times the way they were phrased was a snarky bit of commentary.

Look at all the gorgeous detail on the page...

And there were several stunning plates throughout the book. The detail and clarity of each of them was just astounding. If you can’t read the caption, this one is, “He proceeded to lash her to a tree.”

The plates in this book were gorgeous, here is "He Proceeded to Lash Her to A Tree"

Anyway, an amusing little story, but a gorgeous presentation. This is a true gem of Twain’s that I didn’t even know existed until last month. It’s worth it to read a copy (it’s available in modern paperback and for the Kindle) but if you can get your hands on one of the 1902 printings, that’s even better.

The Aftermath of Our Decisions

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With a title like Aftermath, one might expect Scott Nadelson’s new short fiction collection to be full of tales of devastation and chaos. To some extent, this is true; each of the stories deals with hard emotional and physical realities, but the aftermath of the character’s decisions is not wholly dispiriting. Hope abounds in these tales–unlike Nadelson’s previous collections–and you are left with the impression that, regardless of the current story’s unhappinesses, things will get better. They have a chance for a happy and fulfilling life or love and it leaves you as the reader with a pleasant satisfaction.

I have been a fan of Nadelson’s since I picked up his first two short collections when I registered for a course of his in undergrad. I make it a habit to read an author’s work before working or speaking with them, which I think is only polite and it is advice that not enough people heed. I found myself pulled into the simple and evocative prose in a way that I hadn’t found before in realistic literary fiction. I was particularly interested in his work as his stories do a wonderful job of working within the Jewish American culture while remaining open and inviting to gentiles such as myself. I feel welcomed into the families and cultures of his stories and they are enriched by the depth and intimacy with which they are woven.

Nadelson’s first two works (The Cantor’s Daughter and Saving Stanley) were stunning in their own right, but Aftermath is definitely surpassing them as my favorite collection. Partly due to the more hopeful nature of the stories, but moreso for two particular stories that appear here: “If You Needed Me” and “Backfill.”

“If You Needed Me” is a Rashomon style telling of a grandfather that looses control of his car and accidentally sends it crashing through the wall of his daughter’s house while the grandchildren are watching Saturday morning cartoons. The varied viewpoints are handled with finesse; they each reveal just enough information and the change to the next viewpoint is seamlessly carried out. Not an easy task in a short work, but beautifully crafted here.

In “Backfill,” a rocky marriage and a bad construction assignment are playing havoc with Robert’s life and sanity. The junk filled old quarry that is the site he’s supposed to be preparing for overpriced McMansions is a wonderful scene to juxtapose against the failing relationship. The most powerful part, however, are the beautiful lines that close the story, and no, I’m not going to give them to you. Go read it!

While these two stories stood out in particular to me, all of the stories are expertly crafted and evoke a wide range of emotion. Definitely my favorite of Nadelson’s work thus far, though I’m now eagerly awaiting Nadelson’s collection of autobiographical essays due out in March of 2013 from Hawthorne Books!

Emotional devastation with just a dash of hopefulness...

Un Rêveur

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The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern was quite a fantastical adventure. I don’t want to classify it as fantasy because it feels too real. Too approachable. It felt as though one was truly wandering through a traditional circus, watching the sideshows, and asking yourself if it is really possible for a person to bend themselves in that direction.

Quick plot summary: two magicians (for lack of a better term) who have been competing through the ages are once again pitting their students against each other in an exhibition style competition. This time, the competition arena is a circus, Le Cirque des Rêves (Circus of Dreams), where Celia and Marco must create new attractions and tents, constantly trying to outdo the other. At the same time, we get glimpses into the lives of the magicians, a set of twins born into the circus during it’s premier, the founders and supporters of the circus, and a young boy named Bailey who is a Rêveur or a dreamer who loves and follows the circus.

What the magicians could not have known is that they picked two ideal competitors; they complement and challenge each other so perfectly that they fall in love. The tents that they create in the black and white circus are gifts for each other and they dream about escaping the game and spending the rest of their lives together, but only one can win the competition…

The Night Circus was a beautiful and engaging love story; love of a man and woman, love for the circus, for dreams, for life. Love of imagination and story.

And not once did it get trite or cliche. Since I spend a lot of time looking not only at a story, but at the writing, I must admit I was a trifle worried at times. But I was always pleasantly surprised at the treatment given to aspects that could easily become melodramatic. For instance, there were (I thought) three options to end the game. Either one of them loses or they somehow find a way to break the bonds tying them to the game. When the time came for the game to end, however, my reaction was, “Wait…Oh! Oh that’s good.”

I myself am definitely a Rêveur now; I fell in love with the circus and the people who create and live in it. If you are looking for a wonderfully satisfying fantastical love story, then this is the next book to put on your list.

I have the sudden urge to wear only black and white with a red scarf...

Terrier to Bloodhound to Mastiff

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Tamora Pierce‘s Beka Cooper series came to a rousing conclusion this year with Mastiff. I have long been a fan of the YA fantasy author and was excited for this year’s fix. Beka Cooper, a City Dog (basically a police officer of the realm), finds herself a mature agent of the law and assigned to the hunt of her life that takes her across the realm with her partner, Tunstall, a new mage, her scent hound Achoo and, of course, the cat née constellation Pounce.

I don’t want to ruin too much of the plot for Mastiff, but I have to make a few veiled comments for my own satisfaction. When they finally unmask the traitor, I cried; the award she wins was incredible; her choice in lovers was at first surprising, but in retrospect makes a lot more sense than any others. There, I’m done being cryptic, but I just had to get that out.

As always, Pierce approaches the adventure with a wit and urgency that draws her readership in, regardless of their age. I remember picking up Wild Magic when I was a prepubescent bookworm and immediately falling in love with her worlds and characters; I have spent every year since gleefully awaiting the next book. And my favorite thing about her work is that it has matured along with her audience. The material has gotten more complex and deals with more significant cultural issues while still maintaining the approachability that has made her a favorite among the YA audiences. As always, Ms. Pierce, a job phenomenally well done.

Can’t Decide Whether to Laugh or Cry

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The novel Clown Girl by Monica Drake caught my eye, with its rubber chicken cover and promises of dark comedy. The story itself is about a young woman in Baloneytown who is attempting to make a living as a clown, a true artist, with silent mime-ish interpretations of Kafka while struggling not to give in to the easy corporate-clown money.

On the surface, it seems fairly straight forward, and–as expected in a novel about clowns–at times absolutely hilarious. But it is so much more than a novel about a clown named Sniffles. It’s a story about a woman named Nita dealing with a miscarriage, the absent elitist clown boyfriend, horrific housemates, missing dogs and chickens, and forbidden feelings. Every time Drake allowed you the release of laughter, two lines later you felt like crying. It was an incredible, beautiful, roller coaster of a novel, from start to finish.

The writing itself is simply pristine. It has been a long time since I have read prose that was as refined and purposeful while evoking a dark hilarity in simple turns of phrases. Drake has a true talent for understatement, which is necessary in a novel with such absurd extremes. It facilitates and eases the reader through each low and high spot, leaving them feeling satiated and content by the end.

Suffice it to say, I recommend Clown Girl for anyone who enjoys a dark literary comedy, or even those who don’t, as you will fall in love with Sniffles as you root for her through street fairs, police stations, and corporate parties.

The Passing of a Dragon Rider

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For those of you who enjoy reading fantasy, particularly fantasy featuring dragons, I am sure that you have read Anne McCaffrey. She was a goddess of the fantasy novel; her world constructions were beyond believable, and she truly lived her work. Her books were some of my firsts–first dragon warfare, first time I wished I would be chosen by a dragon, first sex scene. She is also probably the reason I ended up owning a bearded dragon in high school (I really wanted a dragon small enough to perch on my shoulder).

Alas, Ms. McCaffrey passed this week, and the geek community celebrates her work and life and all of the hours of pleasure she gave to us while we mourn the fact that there will be no new Dragon Riders of Pern. (Well, maybe, there are vague rumors floating about that she had been working on a new one.)

Here’s to hoping she was reborn as a golden dragon, matched with a fearless woman, and is even now soaring through the skies of Pern.

May your skies be full of dragons...