BOOK REVIEW: An Incomplete List of Names by Michael Torres

An Incomplete List of Names: PoemsAn Incomplete List of Names: Poems by Michael Torres
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection consists of autobiographical free verse poetry. About forty poems describe Torres’s youth as a Latino graffiti artist, his adolescent experiences with his friends, and his adult years as he teaches in a prison. Questions of identity are a central theme in these poems. Having numerous group identities: ethnic minority, artist, scholar, and teacher, Torres explores how these facets fit together, and how they sometimes don’t.

Much of the work is simple prose, a direct telling of events, but frequent poetic flourishes shine through. The depth of insight into the author is the strength of this collection. He reveals his worldview with plain clarity. The collection offers touches of philosophical insight. It’s sometimes angry, but more often reflective.

This book is one of the five poetic works put out under the rubric of the National Poetry Series in 2019.

I enjoyed reading this collection and found the insights it offered to be interesting and evocatively framed.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poems to Night by Rainer Maria Rilke [Trans. Will Stone]

Poems to NightPoems to Night by Rainer Maria Rilke
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: March 2, 2021

This is a new English translation of Rilke’s 1916 collection of poems themed around the night. It includes the twenty-two poems of the “Poems to Night” collection, as well as seven draft poems from the same collection and another fifteen poems and fragments on the theme of night. Most of the poems were written during the same period as “Duino Elegies,” which is one of Rilke’s most beloved collections.

The period in which the collection was being composed was a tragic one for Rilke. He was trapped by the war in Germany (while he was born in Prague, he’d been living in France at the time) and all his possessions [in France] were disposed of by his landlord. He had a bit of military service, and — though it was a desk job — he wasn’t cut out for it. And he had an intense affair with a French artist.

The poems mix imagery with a heavy dose of strategic ambiguity — leaving the possibility for the poems to be interpreted in various ways. One might suspect a collection themed around the nighttime and written by a German in the midst of life crises would be deadly morose, but I felt that Rilke balanced the more somber elements with beauty and vibrancy. The poems felt more like a reach for catharsis than a wallowing in suffering (a fault of many poets, in my opinion.)

I found this collection to be evocative and mind-expanding. I’d highly recommend it for readers of poetry.

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BOOK REVIEW: Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

CoriolanusCoriolanus by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Caius Marcius Coriolanus is a brilliant General, and when war is afoot, he’s beloved by his Roman countrymen. However, in times of peace, he’s kind of cantankerous, thinking that people who don’t bleed for their nation should shut their pie-holes and thank their lucky stars for whatever they get in life. This latter fact puts him in conflict with both Rome’s political elite and its commoners. The play opens on this very conflict as rioting citizens are complaining about how the State’s grain silos are full while the rank-and-file are suffering. One gentleman (a friend of Coriolanus,) Menenius, tries to calm the rabble by listening and offering reasoned discussion on the issue. Coriolanus, alternatively, throws fuel on the fire by (and I paraphrase and oversimplify here) telling folks that if they want to get paid, they should join the army.

Soon, Coriolanus is off to war with his arch-enemy, Tullus Aufidius — who is also a great General, but for for the competing state of Volsci. Coriolanus is successful in battle, and uses the merit gained him to successfully be elected Consul. Of course, adversaries tire of being shut down because they aren’t all war heroes, and so conflict escalates. Eventually, the Romans run Coriolanus off, sending him into exile. Except for Coriolanus’s closest friends and his family, all of Rome is pleased to see him go.

But then Coriolanus shows up in Volsci and goes to see Tullus Aufidius. He tells his former enemy that one option would be for the Volscian General to kill his old foe where he stands, but alternatively, if they partnered together, they could easily sack Rome. Aufidius and the Volscians go along with this deal, and soon these great Generals have fought their way up to Rome’s gates. Rome sends three waves of envoys to talk Coriolanus out of burning down Rome. The first two envoys, the Consul Cominius and his old friend Senator Menenius, fail completely. The third wave is Coriolanus’s family and his dear mother, with an eloquent speech, succeeds where the others failed.

And now the Romans are happy, but the Volscians… not so much. In particular, Aufidius is seething because he feels he’s been betrayed. Coriolanus tries to tell the Volscian leaders that, “Look, I got you this far, now you can write a treaty on favorable terms, and Rome is no longer going to look down on you.” But Aufidius still feels that he’s been used and cast aside cheaply. So, he stabs Coriolanus.

This is one of Shakespeare’s last, if not his very last, tragedy. It’s fascinating to consider how his slate of tragedies unfolded. “Titus Andronicus” is generally not regarded as highly as the others because of its savagery – which at the time (and even today) was considered a bit over the top. I will say that I enjoyed the visceral intensity of “Titus Andronicus,” but won’t deny it was a bit bonkers in terms of its brutality. Toward the middle of his career, one has Shakespeare’s best-known and most warmly-regarded tragedies, e.g. “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” etc. that are not as harsh as “Titus Andronicus” but are tragedies for more than the main character. The last few tragedies are much more personal in nature: (i.e. “Timon of Athens,” “Antony & Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus.”) Obviously, a lot of people die off stage as Coriolanus works out his revenge plot on the way to Rome, but as far as on-stage / speaking characters, Coriolanus is the sole victim. I don’t know whether this has anything to do with a lesson in “less can be more” or if it’s just how the dice fell in Shakespeare’s writing, but it does make one wonder. (Like many of Shakespeare’s tragedies, this one is based on recorded history, and so that certainly is a factor in the number of deaths. However, it also raises the secondary question of why various projects held interest to the Bard when they did.) I will say these last plays aren’t as gripping the one’s in the middle, but they are never-the-less sound stories.

Like all Shakespeare, this is a must read.

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BOOK REVIEW: iZOMBIE, VOL. 1: DEAD TO THE WORLD by Chris Roberson

iZombie, Vol. 1: Dead to the WorldiZombie, Vol. 1: Dead to the World by Chris Roberson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“iZombie” is the story of Gwen, a zombie who works as a grave-digger to allow her access to ethically-sourced brains (at least compared to the alternative.) Gwen lives in the cemetery, has a colorful cast of friends and confreres, including: a ghost, a were-dog, and the odd human being. The niche idea that separates this from the vast zombie lore is that Gwen takes on memories and personality traits of the ex-owner of the most recent brain she consumes. She then uses this knowledge to do a favor for the deceased, be it solving their murder, or otherwise. In this volume, following visions of the deceased family man leads Gwen back to a spooky house that she and her ghost-girl pal had trick-or-treated at on Halloween.

I read this because I was intrigued after seeing the CW television series which is based upon this comic book. For those who’ve seen the show and are wondering, the book and show have very little in common beyond the premise of a female zombie who takes on memories and personality traits of the former owner of the brain she consumes. In the tv series, the main character is Liv Moore, a doctor in the medical examiner’s office, and the series is much more of a police procedural set in a city experiencing a covert pandemic of Zombification. Both the comic and the tv series are light-hearted takes on zombie tropes, but the tv series reminds me more of “Psych” than it does, say, “The Walking Dead.” [An individual who people believe is a psychic, but who solves crimes in another way altogether – i.e. “Psych” with Zombies.] Comparing the comic book is more difficult, but I would say it has a definite “Scooby-Doo” vibe, except the monsters (e.g. vampires) are real and not the scary ploy of a crotchety old man (and there’s a nefarious guild of monster hunters in the mix.)

I enjoyed reading this volume. It wasn’t as satisfying as it could be because it seemed like it was more about setting up a larger story than it was about telling a story within the volume itself. That is, I was left in a somewhat unsatisfied state of having more questions outstanding than I felt were answered. To be fair, there is a story – i.e. an answer as to why Gwen’s “brain of the month” died, but we don’t really know whether that answer can be trusted because we know the responsible party has some (presently ill-defined) ulterior motive. Perhaps, it is just that, as readers, we enter the protagonist’s world “in medias res” and then are given a huge helping to chew on that will not be paid off until later. The combination of these two factors causes the volume’s story arc to get lost.

I enjoyed this comic book, overall. I will make the unpopular and anti-urbane comment that the tv series seemed a bit cleverer and more intriguing to me. That said, it’s an interesting concept and a nice light-hearted read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Kink ed. by R.O. Kwon & Garth Greenwell

Kink: StoriesKink: Stories by R.O. Kwon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: February 9, 2021

 

This is a collection of fourteen erotic short stories with a common theme of asymmetric power dynamics. [That’s an excessively syllabic way of saying Dominant / submissive, top / bottom, or Sadist / masochist relationships.] As is common with anthologies, a meaningful overall rating isn’t really possible. I found a couple of the included stories to be highly evocative or engaging, many were good, while others were just okay – plagued by the usual suspects that impair erotica such as characters without depth / intrigue or thin story. That said, none of the stories were poorly written.

To be fair, a broadly appealing erotica collection is a tall order. For one thing, erotica is the most idiosyncratic of genres. Like Horror, if it’s too tame for one’s tastes, it’s boring; if it’s too wild, it grosses one out — or otherwise become unreadable. [I suspect few (if any) readers will have the latter problem with this collection; some might have the former. (That is, given the likely readership demographic.) If you are picking up a book on kinky erotica, you are unlikely to be triggered or otherwise shocked or offended by anything contained herein.] In addition to the varied levels of intensity readers look for in erotica, there is the question of whether varied sexual orientations and identities are of interest to a given reader. This book covers a lot of ground in this regard, including heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, and transgender characters.

Because the anthology is so qualitatively and topically varied, I’ll say a little about each story.

1.) “The Cure” by Melissa Febos: I found this to be a strange choice for the collection and – particularly – for opening the collection. It’s about a lesbian who decides to have sex with straight men because she’s having trouble in her customary dating pool, but since she likes sex, she decides to pursue it in the form least laden with complication. So far, it could be fine, but it devolves into a laundry list of what she finds disgusting about intimacy with men. Now, one would expect a lesbian to find having sex with a man unappealing; just as anyone might when having sex outside their preferred orientation. However, it does raise the question: Why am I supposed to enjoy reading about this in a book of erotica? I think it’s fair to say that reading about people enjoying having sex is more erotic than hearing about people who aren’t enjoying their experience.

2.) “Best Friendster Date Ever” by Alexander Chee: This is a story about a hookup between two gay men who meet via a dating site, and who find themselves in a mutually appealing top / bottom sexual experience. While it’s not a story with a great deal of depth, it would have made a better opening because at least if features two people who are having intercourse because they like having sex with each other [as opposed to because there’s nothing on Netflix and each is the best the other can do on short notice.]

3.) “Trust” by Larissa Pham: As the name suggests, this story revolves around the issue of trust and the challenges that subject presents in a relationship of dominance and submission. When the couple goes on a getaway, the story mirrors the experience of trust-building in sexual encounters with the non-sexual circumstance of the male (dominant) driving off for the day without telling the female (submissive) that he’s leaving — or when / if he’ll be back. There’s some interesting insight into submissive psychology to be seen in this story.

4.) “Safeword” by R.O. Kwon: In this story, we see an issue that was touched upon in the previous on (and which later recurs,) which is what happens when one member of an intimate relationship is more into the kinky aspect than is the other. In this case, it’s a sadomasochistic relationship in which the female masochist is more desirous of the sadomasochistic aspect of the relation than is her male partner. The couple goes to a dominatrix so that the masochist can get what she desires and the man can learn to better pleasure [i.e. pain-ify?] his partner.

5.) “Canada” by Callum Angus: This atmospheric piece describes a girl’s relationship with a female to male transgender. It’s one of the shorter pieces, and – as the title suggests – it plays heavily on the setting, Canada, to create ambiance.

6.) “Oh, Youth” by Brandon Taylor: The story centers on an attractive young man named Grisha, and the appeal he has for some middle-aged people – particularly the infatuation that develops between the husband in a married couple that he is staying with temporarily during a college break.

7.) “Impact Play” by Peter Mountford: A recently divorced man enters into a serious relationship with the woman he was having an affair with when his marriage ended. He and this woman share an interest in kink and fetish sexuality that his previous wife apparently did not. We don’t learn much about his ex-wife, but we do learn quite a bit about his cousin, Betsy, whom he treats as a confidant and with whom he has a special relationship.

8.) “Mirror, Mirror” by Vanessa Clark: Diary entry of a well-endowed transgender escort. The story explores the fetishized nature of the main character’s occupation.

9.) “Reach” by Roxane Gay: A man and wife enjoy the former tormenting the latter with a steady stream of indignities as a fetish in their romantic life. It’s one of the more sensual pieces of writing in the anthology.

10.) “Gospodar” by Garth Greenwell: I would rate this as one of the two strongest entries in terms of story. It’s not the typical erotica in which the character comes out the other side of the story completely unchanged except for being momentarily spent. A submissive gay man meets up with a dominant in Romania that he learned about through the internet. The interaction starts off swimmingly, but it takes a hard turn south. The story is quite visceral, but provokes thought on the nature of consent where power dynamics are in play.

11.) “Scissors” by Kim Fu: This story is set amid a stage show in which sharp objects are used to undress a performer in motion. Attendees aren’t just after the prurient appeal of the striptease, but the vicarious visceral fear.

12.) “The Lost Performance of the High Priestess of the Temple of Horror” by Carman Maria Machado: This story has some superficial commonalities with the previous one – i.e. it largely takes place in a theater in which frightening shows are put on that feature a damsel-esque central character. However, it’s also quite distinct from the previous story. It’s the longest story and is the other entry that I consider strongest in terms of narrative qualities. The central character is a young girl [called “Bess” though that isn’t her real name] who becomes the protégé of the main character of the aforementioned horror show. The story is all about the changing nature of their relationship as the protégé grows from girl to woman.

13.) “Retouch / Switch” by Cara Hoffman: This ethereal piece is about fluctuation in sexuality and identity. It’s one of the shorter pieces, and features a dreamlike quality.

14.) “Emotional Technologies” by Chris Kraus: This piece frames the dominant / submissive relationship in artistic and philosophical terms. It’s erudite and among the most thought-provoking pieces in the collection. In particular, it discusses the role of an acting “technology” (most people would call it a “method”) that uses somewhat cruel and savage tactics to achieve the desired outcome. Because I’m a nerd who likes thinking about things that are “out there,” I really enjoyed this story. Others may find that the erotic adventure is undone by the philosophizing.

If you’re intrigued by what you’ve read so far, you should definitely give this one a read. While it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s well-written and has broad appeal. It takes chances in some ways, but stays inside the lines of most readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

A Prayer for Owen MeanyA Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is an oldie (originally published in 1989,) but I just got to it and must say that it’s one of the most skillfully crafted novels I’ve read in some time. One indication of this is that it is both highly readable and often nonlinear in storytelling. Stories that jump about in time have to keep the reader in a rapt state of attention and need to be written with multiple cues as to where one is in the timeline. Otherwise, if one misses a time transition, one is lost — and then the reading becomes a tedious slog. Irving maintains one’s attention through masterful revelation. The reader is always asking questions that are teased out until (at the optimal time) a revelation is made, but by that time one has a new slate of questions – all of which are resolved by book’s end.

The story revolves around the relationship between the titular character, Owen Meany, and the narrator – who is also Meany’s best friend, John Wheelwright. Owen Meany is a fascinating character mentally, physically, and spiritually. Mentally, he is at the top of his class and is often the smartest person in the room even when the room contains adults. Conversely, physically he is the tiniest kid in class and never grows out of that position, and he has a strange and grating voice that also isn’t cured by puberty. Spiritually, he is not only a person of iron-clad faith, he also believes he is God’s instrument. [Faith and doubt is a major theme of this novel.] The close relationship between Wheelwright and Meany is fire-forged by the trauma of Meany hitting a foul ball that careens into the temporal lobe of John’s mother, killing her instantaneously (and, perhaps more crucially, the relationship survives the the revelation that Owen believes he is God’s instrument.) It should be pointed out that Owen is also devastated by the foul ball killing. John’s mother, Tabitha Wheelwright, is as much a mother figure to him as to John, both because Owen’s mother is ambiguously not right in the head and because Tabitha says she will pay for anything necessary (beyond the scholarship he is sure to get) to allow Owen to go to the Gravesend Academy. (John comes from money but Owen is from a struggling blue-collar family, and so Owen couldn’t go to the prestigious school otherwise – even though he is academically much more suitable for such an educational environment.)

One fascinating aspect of character development is that Irving keeps the reader in Owen Meany’s corner. This is no small feat as the boy can be a bit of a pill, being a self-important know-it-all with a Biblical level of faith and (in some cases) dogmatism, as well as – oddly enough – a palpable disrespect for his own parents. One way this is done is by making Meany relatively reasonable, moral, and consistent – i.e. even when he is irksome it is usually in opposition to even more irksome forces. The other way that the author achieves this is by showing us that all the likeable characters in the book stay in Owen’s corner, as well. The most telling example of this is when John admits that he secretly hasn’t forgiven the batter two before Owen in the lineup for a play that allowed his friend to get to bat [while Owen, himself, is exonerated.] When John’s grandmother, who initially finds Owen to be painfully annoying, becomes Owen’s benefactor and primary maternal figure we know that there is something about this guy.

As kids who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s, Owen and John enter adulthood at the height of the Vietnam conflict, and the story climax revolves around there diverging paths. Neither is a fan of the war, but Owen believes he has been called by God to participate for a very specific purpose. Therefore, he ends up in the bizarre situation of struggling to get sent to war while the Army finds him unfit for combat because of his diminutive stature (and his friends and family think he’s lost his mind.) The climax and conclusion tie up all the loose-ends generated by the book, including a few that one may have dismissed as purposeless “quirky behavior.”

Interspersed throughout the book are flash forwards to the “present day” (mid / late 1980’s.) These were the least appealing part of the book to read, though they did serve a purpose. For the most part, these sections consisted of John Wheelwright ranting about American politics or discussing his troubled relationship with the church he attends or the school at which he teaches. Ultimately, I saw these as a way to show John’s loathing for the American government and America because he believes they stole the genius of Owen Meany from him and from the world. As I was reading them, I wondered if they weren’t Irving’s way of getting across a loathing for the Reagan Administration and the Iran-Contra Affair. However, these parts also created an evocative lonely feel because one notices all the characters with strong individual identities are absent. This is not to say that the character of John Wheelwright / narrator is ill-developed, but he is a bit milquetoast compared to Owen or even characters like Hester or Grandmother. John’s obsession with national and institutional entities rather than individuals makes one feel the loss at points throughout that John has felt since Owen’s demise.

If you read fiction, this is a must-read. It is storytelling at its best. Despite excellent foreshadowing that lets the reader know the the book is on a tragic course, how this plays out is full of unexpected turns. The book is emotionally charged and intellectually engaging. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Boys, Vol. 2: Get Some by Garth Ennis

The Boys, Volume 2: Get SomeThe Boys, Volume 2: Get Some by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This volume continues the Garth Ennis series that takes as its premise that the superheroes are villains and the real heroes are anti-heroes. It consists of two different four-issue stories. The first half (issues 7 – 10 [of the comic series overall]) is the subtitular story “Get Some,” and the back half (issues 11 – 14) is entitled “Glorious Five Year Plan.”

“Get Some” pits the Boys against Tek Knight and SwingWing as the anti-supe team investigates the killing of a young gay man. Tek Knight is a sex-addicted cross between Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne (i.e. wealthy, intellectually-gifted, and without superpowers.) SwingWing was originally Tek Knight’s sidekick, Laddio, but became a marquee character in his own right (á la Dick Grayson’s Robin to Nightwing transformation.) Of course, Butcher and his team, “the Boys,” aren’t social justice warriors out to solve all societal ills, but – instead — are interested in the case mostly for the leverage it will give them over a couple of key members of the superhero group called Payback.

This is a simple story, and perhaps the most thought-provoking part of it is how the characters respond to homosexual individuals. On the one hand, there is Billy Butcher who talks in such un-PC terms that he would certainly be labeled homophobic by anyone hearing him talk, but yet he is both comfortable being around gay people and shows no disrespect in his behavior toward them. On the other hand, one has Hughie, who is very uncomfortable with Butcher’s politically incorrect speech, but is also subtly uncomfortable interacting with gays. As the movie “Get Out” considered whether “soft racism” can be at least as disconcerting as hardcore bigotry, this story considers whether “soft homophobia” isn’t something that presents a more serious long-run threat to better relations.

The second half of the book presents a more intriguing story. In “Glorious Five Year Plan,” the Boys go to Russia to get to the bottom of a case involving an exploding head. [FYI – this has nothing to do with the exploding heads from the second season of the Amazon Prime tv series.] The Boys team up with an old retired superhero from the Soviet days, “Love Sausage,” whose costume is way too tight. The story revolves around a nefarious plot and international intrigue that turns out to be much bigger than was first thought. When Butcher stumbles onto warehouse where about 150 superheroes are hanging out, he knows someone has big plans. The story features an intriguing villain, Little Nina, who is physically tiny but manages to have an outsized menace.

I enjoyed both these stories. It’s nice that each is self-contained. If you like the idea of superhero team-up parodies, this series is worth looking into. If you’ve been watching the tv series, don’t worry that the books will be spoiled, they are very different in many ways.

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BOOK REVIEW: Psi-Lords by Fred Van Lente

Psi-LordsPsi-Lords by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: December 2, 2020

Four individuals find themselves with autobiographical amnesia and superpowers in an unfamiliar deep-space world. Over the course of the story, they discover that they are a multinational team of Earth astronauts deployed to this location because it’s on a collision course with planet Earth. However, they are instantly caught up in the political and interspecies squabbles of the roving star system on which they’ve found themselves. Even once they figure out their mission, they have to contend with forces that have opposing objectives.

This volume (consisting of eight issues) seemingly suffered from a problem of not being constructed from story foundations upward. Rather, it felt like the author said, “We need these cool happenings to occur. Let’s write /draw them and then at some point we can figure out why they might happen.” If that sounds like devoting all energies to figuring out how to pimp out a penthouse without knowing anything about how the basement and ground floor will be arranged, that’s about the size of it. The central premise doesn’t make much sense, so the things that this book does right don’t matter so much – though they do exist.

To be fair, the most glaring point of incredulity in the book is later explained more adequately as part of the resolution, but by that time one is so soured to the book that it doesn’t matter [plus, it’s only one of several points of incredulity.] The issue in questions revolves around the fact that we are led to believe that these four have superpowers because they were given them in order to guard some dangerous (but ill-defined) prison population. Imagine you are a tourist traveling in a foreign country and people from the government hand you a machine-gun and rocket launcher, and say, “Please guard our most dangerous prisoners.” The reader is presented with a premise like this as the rationale for these four lead characters having superpowers. It seems like the author wanted to make a superhero story, but he didn’t want to waste a lot of energy thinking of why or how this team of people would have superpowers. [Yes, I know that, from radioactivity to murdered mothers, superhero origins are notoriously tenuous, but this one is so bad that it actively captures one’s attention, hindering one’s capacity to stick with what is going on in the story.] As I said, explanation is revised at the end, and the revision is a bit better, but by that time the sins of story have piled up so high that it doesn’t free the book of the stench of story failure. (I think the author wanted to keep origin information secret till the end, and that killed the story. He either could have made an earlier strategic reveal or thought up a more logical explanation.)

Because the lead characters are from Earth (i.e. in a universe where we know how physics work) there are some huge issues on the science front as well. I’m neither a science major nor one to nit-pick all the little physics violations that sci-fi stories are rife with, but I think if one so much as passed eighth grade science, one will find all the glaring impossibilities of this book annoying. [And if you really know anything about science, you’ll be mortified by how ridiculous it is at every turn.] You may have caught the biggest of these in that it’s supposed to be a star flying through space. There seems to be a lack of understanding that a star that gets relatively small becomes even more immensely dense, such that gravitational effects are still in effect. Setting the story in another world would eliminate this, but then one wouldn’t have the emotional appeal of characters from Earth. [Quite frankly, I also don’t think anyone (but the biggest science sticklers) would notice or care if they were engaged in the story, but because motivation is unclear and undercut from the start, it’s impossible to become lost in the story (and easy to find faults.)]

I found the art a bit odd and frenetic at first, but it grew on me. I can’t say that if there was nothing wrong with the story, I would have been troubled by the graphics at all. There were a number of little things that were not great, e.g. quips that didn’t land, etc. that wouldn’t have detracted from my enjoyment if there weren’t so many major story elements that didn’t make any sense. As I said, even huge science problems probably would have gone unnoticed if the story wasn’t a flaming train wreck by the time that I had the free cognitive capacity to notice those errors (i.e. because I wasn’t intrigued or emotionally engaged in the story.)

I think there are some interesting ideas in the book — such as the Scion character backstory. With different execution, e.g. revealing information differently and building more sound and logical motivations, this book could have worked. Despite being intrigued by the blurb, I wasn’t thrilled with this book, but your results may vary.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Inferno [a.k.a. Hell] by Henri Barbusse

The InfernoThe Inferno by Henri Barbusse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a translation of the French novel, L’Enfer, which is alternatively entitled Hell or The Inferno in various English language editions. It’s a short work with a simple premise, but is nevertheless psychologically and philosophically intriguing. An unnamed narrator, lodging at a rooming house, discovers that he can see and hear into an adjacent room. The book describes what this man witnesses, as well as doing some philosophizing about what he sees and the conversations he hears.

While the events of the book are voyeuristic and said voyeur does witness various sexual dalliances, it’s not a graphic – and certainly not a pornographic – work. The author is as much interested in the pillow talk as he is in the acts of intimacy, which it’s not clear how well he can see anyways.

It should also be pointed out that not all of what the narrator witnesses is carnal in nature. It could be argued that the most fascinating scenes involve an old man who is dying. In addition to the non-erotic intimacy of dying, itself, there’s a scene in which a priest comes to offer the dying man last rites. At first the old man is agreeable enough to this, but as the priest’s dogmatism and accusatory tone becomes oppressive, the man has enough and tries to send the priest away. The scene turns expectation on its head as the priest is so fearful for the man that he ultimately tries to just get the man to say the bare minimum needed to ensure his salvation. But, by that time the man — who doesn’t seem fearful at all – is no longer interested.

Another intriguing scene sits toward the end of the book. It’s one in which the story goes meta- on itself. The narrator, this time dining at a restaurant, witnesses a well-known writer who is sitting at a nearby table tell his guests about his new writing project. What he describes is the same as the book one has just read (in subject but not in tone) – i.e. it involves a boarder who is a voyeur, peeking in on an adjacent room. The difference is that the fictitious author wants to make it all humorous. This offends the narrator’s sensibilities. The narrator presumably wishes such a book to be more like the one that one is almost finish reading – deeper and more philosophical.

I found this book to be thought-provoking and evocative. It puts the reader into the voyeur’s seat and shows one people’s behavior when they think they are alone, they think they are only with a loved one, or they are engaged in intimate activities with someone with whom they don’t have a truly intimate relationship. It makes one think about how well one really reads the people one comes in contact with.

If you are interested in the psychology of intimacy and solitary behavior, this book raises some interesting considerations. I’d highly recommend it for individuals not too weirded out by the book’s voyeuristic aspect.

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BOOK REVIEW: Manga Classics Frankenstein Adapted by M Chandler

Manga Classics FrankensteinManga Classics Frankenstein by Mary Shelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

Out: November 10, 2020

 

This is Mary Shelly’s story adapted into a manga-style graphic novel. It’s the story of an ambitious young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who races to create a human-like living being, but faced with the horror of seeing the creature alive and in the flesh, Victor flees, abandoning his “monster” to its own resources. Shelly’s story is considered one of the first (if not The first) science fiction novel and is also one of the great works of horror. But it’s not just a piece of cross-genre pop fiction. Because it artfully deals with a number of issues central to the human experience, such as the potential for monstrosity in ambition and question of whether evil is made or birthed, the book is frequently studied as literary fiction and is one of the preeminent works of the Romantic movement.

The manga adaptation follows the beats of Shelly’s story. The story opens in media res with a Captain Walton seeing Victor out on the ice. Victor is giving chase to his creature. Walton brings the haggard scientist aboard. Thus, the tale is told through this device of a story within a story. The manga adaptation even begins with an epistolary (told through letters) entry and revisits that form briefly at the end. However, the story is largely conveyed as a shipboard Victor introduces flashbacks by directly speaking to the Captain. Shelly wrote the novel in epistolary form, which was popular in those days, but it isn’t the most conducive to a graphic vehicle. The epistolary dialogue bubbles are given their own distinct font, and so it’s not hard to distinguish them.

The major points of the story will be familiar to many, even if one hasn’t read the book. [While the most famous of the movies are quite different and less philosophical, elements of the story appear throughout various pop culture media.] In a nutshell, Victor Frankenstein goes off to university, learns to animate a pile of stitched up animal and human parts, and goes deadbeat dad when his creature comes to life. A while later, Victor returns to his home to find that his young brother William has been murdered, and that a beloved family servant, Justine, is to be tried for the killing. Nobody in the family believes Justine is responsible, and Victor (in particular) has reason to believe his sins have come back to haunt him. (However, Victor’s ongoing lack of capacity to truly see what his sins are and to address them is the source of virtually all the suffering in the book – not only his own. While the creature does the killing, Victor often comes off more monstrously. Conversely, the creature explains himself in a way that invites empathy in the reader.)

The monster appears to Victor and tells him the whole story of what happened after Victor fled. The creature wandered off and prodigiously learned how to be human [including how to speak and read classic literature,] largely by watching the De Lacey family from a distance. In his loneliness, the creature introduces himself to the blind old man De Lacey, and the meeting is going swimmingly until De Lacey’s [sighted] children come home and freak out upon seeing the monstrous (if articulate) being before them. This is when, twice spurned, the monster goes to Victor’s home, kills William, and frames Justine.

The monster offers Victor a deal, if Victor will build the creature a companion, it will stop its deadly rampage. Victor travels to England and Scotland, mostly with a friend Clerval, but leaves solo to a remote island to construct and animate the creature’s companion. The creature follows him. With Frankenstein’s bride stitched together, Victor has a change of heart and destroys it as the creature watches. Instead of killing Victor as the self-obsessed scientist expects it to, the creature retreats after delivering an ominous threat. A pair of dire tragedies follow. It is the second of these that results in Victor’s chase of the monster toward the Arctic pole.

Soon, we are back to the point that Victor is on the ship. The crew are petitioning Captain Walton to return toward home even though Victor has already begged the Captain to assume the scientist’s obligation to kill the creature [if the beaten-down scientist is unable to.] Ultimately, Walton agrees to turn back because he is at risk of getting his crew killed. Victor is in poor shape. We see the creature once more, when he comes to ask forgiveness of his creator. The creature explains to Walton that it isn’t the only monster, nor is it the one whose actions really created the tragedy.

I thought the art, which was drawn and shaded in monochrome, was well-done. The artist took efforts to capture the descriptions conveyed in the book. They chose to stick with the convention of reading as one would a Japanese manga (right to left, not left to right,) but there is a handy explainer page up front to make this clear from the start. Also, there are visual cues to help remind one as one reads, e.g. how the bubbles are positioned and angled, etc., and so I can’t say I had any problem reading it that way. It just seemed a bit odd, but I don’t know whether there is a Japanese edition. If there isn’t, it seems like it would have been just as easy to put it together in the manner of an English language comic book, but – like I say – it was no great reading challenge.

I thought this adaptation was well done. I think one gets a very good sense of the story through the combination of selected text and graphics, as well as the varied styles of text and thought bubbles used to suggest who is speaking or thinking.

I’d highly recommend this book for those wishing to revisit the story in a compact and / or visual form, or even for those who have trouble following the writing style of early 19th century epistolary novels, which can be a bit formal.

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