Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Nobody by Jeff Lemire (2009)

The Nobody by Jeff Lemire (2009) is my next pick from the St. Denis lending library of graphic novels.

This is a modern retelling of H.G. Wells' novel The Invisible Man (which I read almost 10 years ago! Also, wow, I've had this blog for a long time). In Lemire's version, a mysterious bandaged stranger comes to the town of Large Mouth (population 754). He soon gets the attention of pretty much everyone who lives there, but strikes a particular nerve with the teenage Vickie, our narrator, who waitresses at her dad's diner. Vickie befriends the stranger and often visits him in his hotel room but doesn't get any closer to finding out his many secrets. When a local woman goes missing, the small town anger lashes out at the mysterious stranger (who isn't really so innocent, although not for the reasons they suspect), and it all comes to a satisfying and slightly ambiguous conclusion.

This is a nice combination of a coming of age story, a cathartic look at small town life, and a modernization of a classic sci-fi/horror novel. The drawings have an angular life to them that highlights the dissatisfaction, mystery, and occasional anger in the text. This is a tightly told story and one worth seeking out regardless of how familiar you are with Wells' original.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010)

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell (2010) is the third of Mitchell's books that I've read (after Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten), this one thanks to a loan from the lovely Corie.

The novel is set at the dawn of the 19th century in the one gateway from the west into Japan -- a small and highly regulated Dutch trading post, Deijma, located in the Nagasaki harbor. Jacob de Zoet is a newly appointed clerk, beginning a five year term at the post where he hopes to make his fortune, return to the Netherlands, and marry his sweetheart. He and the new commissioner are also teaming up to rid the trading post of its complicated web of corruption and double dealing.

On Deijma, there is a western doctor who runs a training hospital for Japanese students. By a special dispensation granted after she miraculously delivered the near-dead son of the Nagasaki magistrate, Orito Aibagawa, professional midwife and daughter of a samurai, is allowed to study with the doctor. Orito's face, disfigured by a childhood accident with a fire, repels most of her fellow countrymen, but entrances the young clerk de Zoet as soon as he sees it.

Trade goes on, corruption is ferreted out, and a complicated and not entirely reciprocated romance starts blooming. Things get rough, however, when Orito's father dies and her stepmother commits her to a mysterious and secretive temple. As Jacob and Orito's other admirers soon discover, Oriito is losing more more in the creepy nunnery than just her freedom.

Mitchell is an amazing novelist, and this detailed and well-researched piece of historical fiction is no exception. Still, I didn't like this one as much as the other two of his novels I've read, and I'm not entirely sure why. Part of it is the pacing, I think, and the deliberate turn away from the female characters at the midpoint in the book. I got a little bogged down in Dutch / Japanese / English politics, and the arrival of a British ship in the final third didn't do much to build up my interest. All that aside, however, this is still an enjoyable read with a lot to chew on. In fact, it got such great reviews that I feel like I missed something in my reading. This might be one to think on for a little while...

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (2013)

March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell (2013) is another selection from the St. Denis visiting library. This is the first part of a projected three-part graphic novel autobiography by Civil Rights leader and U.S. Congressman, John Lewis.

The book takes us through Lewis's early life and education and spends most of its time in Nashville where Lewis and others led the non-violent lunch counter sit-ins to protest segregation in public businesses in the city. The narrative is crisp and easy-to-follow -- a good combination of educational, inspirational, and just good story telling. The drawings are a good match for the subject matter and give depth and gravity to the important conversations and actions taking place in the text.

Lewis was really influenced by an early comic talking about the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was a child, and the hope of telling his story and influencing others to fight for what is right in the future brought him together with writer Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell to create this series of books. I had never heard of these before this one showed up for storage at my house, but now I'm keen to seek out the other two volumes as they are published.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Women of Trachis by Sophocles (circa 430?)

I read the very old play Women of Trachis by Sophocles (circa 430?) as part of my journey through Harold Bloom's western canon list, and I think it might be one of my favorite very old plays ever.

Here Sophocles tells the story of Deianeira, the long-suffering wife of Heracles (yes, that guy, the one the Romans called Hercules). She's been basically abandoned and raising their children while Heracles goes off to war and has adventures. She hears that her husband is finally coming home, but in the group of women prisoners from the city he sacked is one beautiful well-born lady, Ione, and Deianeira finds out that Heracles brought her back to take as a mistress. Deianeira tries to play it cool, but is feeling insecure and old and lonely and ends up using a love potion she got from a centaur to try and keep Heracles eye from straying. The potion plan goes horribly awry and after a bunch of death and some exceedingly amazing tragedy, things end and no one is happy.

The translation I read is extremely crisp and modern-feeling, but other translations I looked at online have much of the same feel to them, so some of that has to come from the original. I love that this play is almost entirely told by a woman, Deianeira, and a chorus (the titular Women of Trachis), and the usual hero, Heracles, doesn't come in until the final section of the play (and isn't all that heroic when he does arrive). And the tragedy, my God, the tragedy! This is one that everyone should read, and one that I'm definitely going to read again.

[Interested? Read the whole damn thing for free here, because very old plays are totally in the public domain. Just try reading the first monologue and see if you can stop yourself from reading the whole thing. Go on, I dare you.]

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Troop 142: A Graphic Novel by Mike Dawson (2011)

My lovely friend John is storing a couple boxes of graphic novels and other assorted books at our house for an indefinite period of time, and rather than just leaving them sadly alone in a closet, I've put them out on a couple of shelves and I'm planning to read my way through most of them. Lucky for me, John and I have similar taste in books, but he also buys a lot more graphic novels than I do and knows about way more cool authors.

The first random book from the John pile is Troop 142: A Graphic Novel by Mike Dawson (2011). This comic tells the story of one week with the Boy Scouts at Pinewood Forest Camp, New Jersey in the summer of 1995, complete with badge earning, campfire singing, pranks, drugs, (thinking/talking about) sex, and lots and lots of horseplay.

I've never been a boy, a Boy Scout, or attended any kind summer camp, but the uncomfortableness of adolescence and the weirdness of being stuck with a group of your peers is relatively universal. The point of view of the book changes, but we are often seeing things through the eyes of one of the chaperones, a "new to camp" dad of two of the boys. Moving from the teenage to the adult perspective keeps the story from getting too bogged down in either camp (ha!) and the cartoony drawings have an unexpected amount of depth and heart.

This one was a good first step into the wonderful world of some of John's books!

Friday, December 05, 2014

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown (1970)

My Debbie Downer book club (for which we only read depressing books) may have hit on our saddest book selection yet: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown (1970). In fact, this book is so sad that I'm the only member of the four person book club that was able to cry my way through the whole thing. That shouldn't reflect badly on my fellow book club members though, while this book is important and enlightening and well-researched and I'm so glad I read it, it is hard. Some chapters physically hurt to get through. I'm glad I did, and I honestly feel changed by it, but I wouldn't want to read it again.

Brown takes us from about 1850 to about 1890, and covers tribes primarily west of the Mississippi river. Part of what makes the book so extra depressing is the repeating pattern of betrayal, misunderstanding, violence, and inhuman treatment. It happens over and over and over again, to tribe after tribe after tribe. Even when there is a glimmer of hope in a sympathetic general or helpful interpreter, it never ends up anything but extremely sad.

Because of what was going on in our current often very sad world while I was reading this book, I couldn't help but make a connection between the treatment of Native Americans in the 19th century (and beyond, really) and the treatment of African-Americans in Ferguson, Cleveland, New York, and elsewhere. The troops who violently attacked tribes in the 19th century were often decommissioned Civil War soldiers who needed something to do in order to keep the war budget up. They had lots of guns and not a lot of enemies and their actions were exacerbated by exaggerated stories of the danger of the Native Americans. They often felt threatened when there was no threat, blamed any group of natives that they saw for the actions of unrelated people, and took actions as mob that they may never have done as individual men.

Since I'm the only one of my book club that read the whole book, I suggested a couple of chapters that we read together to discuss. If you don't feel like you can take the whole thing on, you might also check out Chapter 8 ("The Rise and Fall of Donehogawa," about an actual Native American head of Indian Affairs) and Chapter 16 ("The Utes Must Go!" which features the same general sad story as other tribes but with an interesting media twist and a rather bizarre agent. I'm also pretty fascinated with the second half of chapter 18: The Dance of the Ghosts (starting on page 431 in my copy with "In the Drying Grass Moon...").

So, yes, this is rough stuff, but I learned so much about the history of our country and the things that happened in the region of the country where I grew up. It might take you a while, but this one is worth the hurt.