Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Walking Dead, Volume 18: What Comes After by Robert Kirkman, Charles Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2013)

Oh yes, my friends, we are back in the Walking Dead game with The Walking Dead, Volume 18: What Comes After by Robert Kirkman, Charles Adlard, and Cliff Rathburn (2013).

After the death blast extreme of Volume 17, this one calms down into more talk and less walk. And with new horrible villain Negan behind the talk box, that more talk is great! Seriously, I love that cussing egocentric cruel jerkbag when he starts talking.

Rick continues to tread water as a character, but his son Carl really starts coming into his own in this volume, and I'm interested to see where that one-eyed ragamuffin decides to do next...

Also: post-zombie apocalypse tiger introduction!

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (2012)

A friend from work lent me The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (2012) because she knew I liked depressing books, and I'm also not averse to reading Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. While there is certainly plenty to be depressed about in Johnson's exploration of the North Korean dictatorship, I'd argue that the book is ultimately uplifting if you look at it in the right light.

The novel is divided into two parts, in the first, "The Biography of Jun Do," we follow our protagonist on his journey through the North Korean machine. He starts as an orphan (or is he?), then a soldier training to fight in tunnels under the DMZ, then a kidnapper, then being trained to learn English, then a radio operator on a boat, before falling into the biggest assignment of his life so far, serving as an interpreter on an unofficial diplomatic trip to a Senator's ranch in Texas. Whew.

Through these positions, we learn a lot about the structure of Jun Do's life in North Korea, and even more about Jun Do himself. We gradually accept that fortunes can be made and lost on the whim of authority, that appearances are everything, and that the ability to tell a convincing story is more important than the truth. After he makes it back from Texas, Jun Do is sent to a prison mine, the kind that no one ever comes back out of alive, and that is the last we hear from him.

Until the second part: "The Confessions of Commander Ga." An interrogator has a man in his booth who is Commander Ga, a North Korean hero, a cruel man, the head of the prison mine system, the husband of the national actress, Sun Moon, and a rival of Kim Jung Il. This man has been called Commander Ga by the Dear Leader, so that's who he his, but that isn't who he has always been. The story of how our little John Doe became one of the most powerful men in North Korea, and how he ended up in the interrogation chamber, forms the heart of the book.

Johnson weaves a powerful, fast-moving story and skillfully plays the humanity and individualism of his characters against the unsmiling conformity of the state machine. There is no denying that the isolated country of North Korea is a fascinating subject, and I found myself getting online to find glimpses of state-released photographs and journalistic impressions of the closed off country. Because North Korea is so unknowable, and Johnson is not Korean (he went on a brief state-sponsored trip after he started writing the novel, but also researched the country extensively and interviewed refugees) we shouldn't rely on this story as a "true" vision of what life in North Korea is like for its citizens, but Johnson's impressions and imaginings give us an authentic-feeling (and bone chilling) view of what it might be like. As the book progresses the character of Jun Do takes on Forrest Gump-like qualities of being in the right place at the right time, and the plot nearly veers into the territory of science fiction, but Johnson's well-earned grounding of his characters and their goals keeps the novel from going off the rails.

This is not a cheery book by any means, but a fascinating and well-written one.

Monday, December 09, 2013

The Eternal Savage by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914)

Time for some more Burroughs! The Eternal Savage by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1914) is a one-off / sort-of-Tarzan-spin-off that was serialized in 1914/1915 in All-Story Weekly and originally titled The Eternal Lover. It forms a pair with The Mad King, which I haven't read, but which sounds very fun and quite a bit different from many of Burroughs other books.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first, Victoria and Barney Custer, a brother and sister from Beatrice, Nebraska (!!) are staying with Lord Greystoke and his wife in Africa as part of a hunting party. Those in the know will remember that Lord Greystoke is Tarzan. Her whole life, Victoria has been frightened of earthquakes and visited with dreams about a hunky, half-naked cave man that she feels must be her only love. While the group is out hunting, the countryside is hit by a large earthquake which happens to open up a cave that was sealed by a similar earthquake 100,000 years ago. Oddly enough, the occupant of the cave, a hunky, half-naked cave man named Nu, Son of Nu, is still alive and very confused by his new surroundings. A combination of fate and a series of misunderstandings lead the time-crossed lovers together, then apart, then together again, and ultimately Victoria needs to decide if she should follow her heart and stay with Nu or reject him and stay with her brother and his rich friends.

But then!: Another earthquake happens and we are rocked back to 100,000 years ago where Victoria's counterpart, Nat-ul is waiting for her lover Nu to return to her with the head of a saber-toothed tiger that he promised to defeat before they became mates. A complicated combination of fate and a series of misunderstandings lead the lovers together, then apart, then together again in a very familiar pattern. Interspersed with the misunderstandings are lots of lion attacks, chases, and sniffing the air for the scent of one's mate.

In the end we are met with yet another earthquake and a slightly disappointing return to Victoria's life where the whole thing (spoiler alert) was just a dream (double spoiler alert) OR WAS IT! 

In many ways, this plot is similar to The Monster Men, which I read a couple months ago: the smart and spunky heroine who still needs a lot of saving, the tough and straightforward hero who hasn't been corrupted by modernity, lots of lots of chasing and fighting, etc. In fact, the plot is similar to a lot of Burroughs books and a lot of serialized adventure novels in general, but who am I to argue with a successful formula?

Like much of Burroughs, one needs to accept a certain amount of sexism and racism with the story, and I could see an entire dissertation being written on gender roles and the issue of race in this book alone (for example, it is mentioned multiple times that Nu is white, although he was living in Africa 100,000 years ago and the current inhabitants are certainly black). The reader also has to suspend her disbelief when, for example, Nu is staying at Tarzan's house (Tarzan of the jungle who can speak to the apes and all that) and there are zero interactions between the two of them and not even any mention of how Tarzan might be able to help out with Nu's situation.

I'll leave you with this gem to help you start your dissertation: "Such reveries made Nu very sad, for he loved Nat-ul just as you or I would love -- just as normal white men have always loved -- with a devotion that placed the object of his affection upon a pedestal before which he was happy to bow down and worship. His passion was not of the brute type of the inferior races which oftentimes solemnizes the marriage ceremony with a cudgel and ever places the woman in the position of an inferior and a chattel." (p. 65)

[read the whole thing here!]

Friday, December 06, 2013

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy (1887)

"There was now a distinct manifestation of morning in the air, and presently the bleared white visage of a sunless winter day emerged like a dead-born child. The woodlanders everywhere had already bestirred themselves, rising this month of the year at the far less dreary time of absolute darkness."

For heaven's sake, how could you not just love Thomas Hardy to pieces. Hardy's The Woodlanders (1887) is my next selection from Harold Bloom's Western Canon list, and while I had to get myself over a hump of deciding to start it (why is it so hard to get started on a 19th century novel?), once I did I couldn't stop.

This is the story of the tragic romance of Giles Winterborne and Grace Melbury. They grew up together in the small village of Little Hintock and for a complicated but good-intentioned reason, Grace's father, one of the most well-to-do in the village, had planned for the two of them to marry, even though Giles was a little rough around the edges. After sending Grace away to school and seeing how refined and urban she seemed when she got home, however, Mr. Melbury decides she shouldn't marry beneath her and instead plots for her to marry the new doctor in town, Edred Fitzpiers, a learned man with a good name and not that much money of his own. Grace is sweet and smart, but also very obedient, and does just what her father says. Unfortunately, Fitzpiers is not that constant of a husband and starts an affair with a wealthy widow, Mrs. Charmond, that tears his young household apart.

Like any good tragedy, there are plenty of misunderstandings, missed opportunities, misinterpretations, and ultimately, death. There is also quite a bit of humor, some amazing descriptions of the woods and their rustic inhabitants, and a surprising amount of candid talk about sex and adultery. This one is less well-known than Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd or Tess of the D'Ubrervilles, but it is a rewarding and entertaining read and worth a second look.

[Read the whole thing for free as an e-book here. Yay for the public domain!]