BOOK REVIEW: House of M by Brian Bendis

House of MHouse of M by Brian Michael Bendis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book pics up in the wake of a tragedy triggered by Wanda Maximoff’s (a.k.a. the Scarlet Witch) descent into madness. Normally, a losing one’s mind would be a cause for sympathy and assistance among heroic individuals, but there are those among her former teammates and friends who think the Scarlet Witch needs to be killed. The reason for this extreme view is that Maximoff’s tremendously powerful reality-warping abilities make her insanity not merely a risk to herself and to her loved ones, but to the nature of reality itself.

The book opens with Charles Xavier trying to help Wanda keep her delusions in check – largely unsuccessfully. We then see a meeting between survivors of the Avengers and key X-Men to discuss the Scarlet Witch’s future (or lack thereof.) When they go to track Wanda down, in a flash of blinding light, the world is changed. The next day, almost no one remembers the way the world was – except for Wolverine and a young girl named Layla, a girl who confirms Wolverine’s telling of events, a story that would be outlandish and unbelievable if not for the girl’s independent corroboration.

The new world is Magneto’s dream world. The mutants have won a war and are in control. Most of homo sapiens humanity is accepting of this, even if many are having trouble coping, though Luke Cage and a few others have created an underground resistance movement. In the new reality superheroes are doing pretty well. Even the homo sapiens heroes such as Spiderman are not bad off because they are generally believed to be mutants.

While Wolverine can merely remember the world as it was, Layla has an additional ability; she can project or unlock these memories in the minds of others. It’s using this ability that the Wolverine / Cage team put the band back together, taking Layla around to free the minds of Kitty Pryde, Peter Parker, Carol Danvers, Tony Stark, Stephen Strange, She-Hulk, etc.

As the superheroes take the fight to Magneto’s stronghold, Doctor Strange sneaks in to see Wanda Maximoff as she blissfully plays out her imaginary life with her imaginary children, until the battle around her turns tragic and, fed up, she changes the world again.

This book collects issues #1-8 of “House of M,” and includes a great deal of bonus content including: character profiles and back ground information (conveyed by way of a fake newspaper) for the alternative reality that Maximoff created – the mutant-dominant world, as well as an interview with the author and sketchbook pages from the illustrator (Oliver Coipel.)

I enjoyed this story. I think because the ensemble cast is so huge – i.e. it has to squeeze in so many Marvel characters – it’s not as emotionally intense as it could be. Bendis goes to the trouble of showing us how hard-hit Peter Parker / Spiderman is hit by the discovery that his new blissful world is not real, knowing that actions must be taken to return the world to its previous status quo. However, the pacing required makes it hard to feel this strongly. What I think this story did very well is keep everything clear, which is not easy task when one is dealing with shifting realities. I thought Bendis and Coipel did an excellent job of being clear about when things changed, how things changed for the crucial characters, and did both without getting bogged down. This is definitely a story that is worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 3 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 3 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 1, 2021

 

This series collects short fiction of Neil Gaiman and presents it via the medium of the graphic novel. While there are four works listed, because two of these works contain multiple stories, there are actually eight stories contained in this volume. The selection is diverse both in terms of genre and artistic style. With respect to genre, the stories cut across fairy tale, fantasy, horror, supernatural, and tales of the weird. The artistic styles range from art nouveau to comic strip style. While this is the third volume, the included stories all stand on their own, and so there is no necessity to have read previous volumes. Because Gaiman draws heavily on fairy tale source material, parents might assume these are kid-friendly stories, but you should check them out first yourself as “Snow, Glass, Apples” and “The Daughter of Owls” both present somewhat sexually explicit content (the former both graphically and with respect to story events and the latter only with respect to story,) and while the horror stories are pretty calm as horror stories go, they are still works of horror.

“Snow, Glass, Apples” is a dark take on the princess-centric fairy tale. It imagines a vampiric young nymph who appears as challenger to the Queen. This is probably the most visually impressive work, being illustrated in a style that mixes art nouveau with Harry Clark’s stain glass artworks. It is definitely not the run-of-the mill graphic novel, graphically speaking. The art is exceptionally detailed and stunning.

“The Problem with Susan and Other Stories”: As the title suggests, this is one of the two multi-story entries in the collection. The titular main story features a retired Professor who is plagued by Narnia-like dreams, and who receives a visit from a reporter for a college paper. The art for this one is much more reminiscent of the typical graphic novel of today. There are three other stories included. “Locks,” the comic strip-esque illustrated story, is a take on “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” as it’s being told to – and imagined by – a little girl. “October in the Chair” imagines a kind of story competition taking place around a campfire by anthropomorphized “months.” It’s a bit more artistically rendered than the other stories in this [sub-] collection (although that may have to do with the dark tone that is used to reinforce that the stories are being told in the middle of the night in the middle of a woods.) The final story is a brief, but artistically dense, story that imagines a day in which everything goes wrong at once.

The sixth story, “Only the End of the World Again,” revolves around a man / werewolf who wakes up to find that he has clearly turned in the preceding night. The tale is set in a small and remote village, where everyone seems to know everything about everyone, and it doesn’t shock the man when select people let slip that they know his secret. As the story unfolds, it’s clear that the man / werewolf is caught up in something bigger than his own tragedy.

The last entry is a two-parter. The first is one of my favorite Neil Gaiman short stories; entitled, “The Price,” it offers an answer to the question of why some indoor / outdoor cats constantly come home battered and bleeding. The second story, “The Daughter of Owls,” revolves around “the baby left on the church steps” plot mechanism. Because the girl is enveloped in owl accoutrements, she is shunned by the village and forced into exile at a dilapidated former abbey. Both of these stories have a more brush-painted style that the usual graphic novel.

I enjoyed this collection immensely. While not all of the stories were new to me, the way they were illustrated shone a new light on the familiar tales. All of the stories are masterfully crafted and illustrated. While Gaiman draws heavily on well-known fairy tales, there is nothing banal about these stories. I’d highly recommend this book, even if you’ve read some of the stories already.

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BOOK REVIEW: Teaching Artfully by Meghan Parker

Teaching ArtfullyTeaching Artfully by Meghan Parker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 4, 2021 in India (It may be out already where you live.)

 

While I’m not an art teacher and this book is clearly directed at art teachers, I took away a number of useful lessons nevertheless. The book is laid out as a comic book, and is meant to extol the virtues of that artform while at the same time conveying knowledge about art, teaching, and the teaching of art.

The book is organized into seven chapters that are loosely themed according to the seven elements of art: line, color, form, texture, shape, space, and value [in the sense of the level of lightness / darkness.] The connection between the artistic characteristic and what is conveyed in its chapter is more readily apparent for some chapters than for others.

Chapter one (Line) both presents how the book came to be and what the intention behind it is, and also has something to say about process. The second chapter is entitled “Color,” and it touches upon issues such as the nature of aesthetics, the value of the notion of embodiment to the artistic endeavor, and the role of imagination. Chapter three is “Form” and it explores how time, space, and story play into conveying knowledge, as well as offering insight into how form influences perception. The next chapter is “Texture, and it has a lot to do with interaction and human relationships as they pertain to the art classroom. “Shape” investigates the issue of boundaries, such as what really differentiates artist from non-artist, the grammar of comics, and the role of the teacher. It also presents a number projects that might be introduced in the classroom or in one’s self-study. “Space” is probably the most literal title as it discusses the classroom space as well as the more figurative space given to students. The final chapter (Value) has a lot to say about frames of reference and the analogy of painting frames to the frames that individuals operate in and see the world through.

There is a Conclusion that provides some summation of ideas, and there are also notes and a page of references. This book shined a spotlight on a few other books that intrigue me, but that would have been completely outside my awareness — given I don’t read much about the visual arts, but I’m increasingly finding it to be a topic of interest.

As I said, even though its outside my bailiwick, I took away some intriguing lessons from this book — particularly about how variations in the elements of art encourage different emotional and psychological responses. There are a few excellent quotes as well. These powerful lessons weren’t in every frame. A fair amount of space is devoted to both platitudes and [hopefully] cathartic rants about the challenge of being a teacher, and particularly a teacher of art.

The book is festively drawn and colored and (as befits a book focusing on the visual arts) I got even more out of how ideas were portrayed visually than how they were discussed textually. The book takes a light and whimsical approach, and is pretty to look at.

If you’re interested in learning more about the visual arts, I’d highly recommend picking this book up.

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BOOK REVIEW: Range by David Epstein

Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized WorldRange: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The human world has been shaped in large part by a trend toward increasing specialization. From the agricultural revolution through Adam Smith’s teachings about division of labor to thriving medical specialties such as Gerontological Podiatric Vascular Specialist, the trend has been toward knowing more and more about less and less on the way to knowing everything about nothing. However, it’s become increasingly apparent both that hyper-specialization has its downsides, and that well-rounded generalists can solve some problems and make some innovations that specialists – blinded by their silos – can’t. Epstein’s premise is not that we need to roll-back specialization, but rather that we need to recognize what it does well and where it tends to fail, and to value generalists for what they bring to the table – which is often substantial.

If Epstein’s name sounds familiar, it’s probably for his previous book, “The Sports Gene,” which examined the science of athletic excellence. This book’s introduction sets up the discussion with a pair of sports-based examples. The first is Tiger Woods, a golfing legend who is one of the dominate forces in his sport. Woods is the poster-child for obsessive specialization and the frequently-cited (if greatly misunderstood and over-applied) 10,000-hour rule. [An idea that — on average — one needs about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of an activity. It turns out to be demonstrably wrong when applied to many activities, and seems to have contributed to a lot of repetitive stress injuries, if not mental health issues, owing to fanatical parents and coaches who bought into the idea hook, line, and sinker.] From his earliest childhood, Woods’s life was built around the game. The Woods case seems to bolster the idea that children who wish to be world-class elite athletes must focus their efforts on one sport as soon as possible. Until, however, it is juxtaposed to the story of Roger Federer, an athlete who has also been at the top of his sport (tennis,) but who took a much more meandering and varied route to becoming a champion.

The book consists of twelve chapters that seek to illuminate different dimensions of the specialist-generalist divide. The first chapter doesn’t dive into the arguments for generalization and well-rounded training as one might expect, but rather it shows how the idea that specialization is essential to success gained hold. The case that Epstein takes up to explain this tendency is that of the Polgar sisters, a trio of Hungarian siblings who became globally-recognized chess masters. Their father fought to be able to homeschool the girls (this was Cold War Eastern Europe — so doing one’s own thing wasn’t something one just decided to do and then did,) arguing that he could achieve greatness, launching his girls to the top of their field. The fact that Polgar succeeded could be taken as further iron-clad evidence for the virtue of specialization, but what it really does is to set up a discussion of how we might might go about differentiating fields where intense specialization is beneficial from those where it isn’t. It is convincingly argued that chess is not universally analogous to many other activities.

Chapter two explores the topic of cognition, and the effect that a general education has had on humankind’s thinking. The discussion centers on the “Flynn Effect” a steady rise in test scores that are supposed to measure innate intelligence (e.g. IQ tests,) but the fact that there has been a steady improvement on tests suggests there is something more at play than innate intelligence. It’s the third chapter that finally explicitly delves into the case for generalization, and it does so through through the fascinating case of a Venetian Women’s musical group that became legends despite the fact that: a.) they were only allotted a quite limited amount of time for music study given the competing requirements of their chores, general education, and other obligations; b.) even within the domain of music, they were famous for being able to switch instruments mid-act, or to serve as both vocalist and instrumentalist.

Chapter four completely changed my perspective on “new math.” I’d always shared in the widespread curmudgeonly attitude towards it, as if it were purely to accommodate the laziness of the youth, but I came away thinking about the topic very differently. The argument Epstein advances is that in a rush to teach the subject as quickly as possible, students of my generation were taught to memorize a massive number of rules and strings of sequences needed to solve problems. Because of this, such students had no intuition for why said sequences of operations worked – not to mention very little love for the subject of mathematics, which seemed both difficult and pointless [a deadly combination – either one of those characteristics will meet with limited resistance, but together they spell doom.] Chapter five investigates how use of analogies from outside a discipline can open up pathways to solutions that weren’t found from within. Chapter six shares a unique view on “grit,” the ability to keep digging through all the challenges to achieve a desired goal. Grit is typically perceived as an excellent trait, but Epstein shows that too much of some types of grit can trap people in the wrong academic field or line of work. There is a fascinating discussion of the US Military Academy and the Army’s attrition problem. They kept getting high-grit people who would power through the challenging parts of selection, but who [after great investment by the Army] would leave as soon as their minimum service requirement was met. It turned out the people they were paying the most to get into service were the least likely to stay, and the process they thought would weed out those who weren’t career material didn’t work at all.

Chapter seven tells the story of Francis Hesselbein, a housewife turned CEO, and how the exploration of one’s possible selves can help one achieve great and unexpected things. Chapter eight investigates a number of cases in which outsiders with broad knowledge bases were able to achieve what experts could not. Chapter nine discusses Nintendo’s path from a middling playing card manufacturer to one of video-gaming’s top names. They hired an engineer (a self-proclaimed tinkerer) to do maintenance of their equipment and he – ultimately — developed a principle that would turn into the company’s core innovation philosophy. It was called “lateral thinking with withered technology” and it utilized existing technology for entirely new purposes with respect to game play [e.g. the technology from calculators was put to use in making handheld videogaming units – i.e. the “Gameboy.”] This approach allowed Nintendo to produce at very low cost and to dominate the market at their price point.

Chapter ten examines the fascinating phenomena whereby experts in a field are often notoriously bad at making predictions about future happenings within their area of expertise. The concept of “foxes v. hedgehogs” in forecasting is discussed at length. Specialist experts tend to be hedgehogs, they build their forecasts around a pet hypothesis and then dig in and are quite reluctant to adjust to changing information. [Foxes look at many types of information and approaches, and quickly adjust to changing information.] The penultimate chapter uncovers another common defect among specialist experts, attachment to familiar tools. The central case of this discussion involves NASA engineers disregard of evidence of a potential danger that couldn’t be put in terms of quantitative data. A secondary example is provided by firefighters who literally couldn’t drop their tools [chainsaws, axes, etc.] when they needed to run to escape advancing wildfires. [I could see another example from my training in the martial arts. In learning weapon disarms and retention, it often takes some hard lessons for martial artists to not maintain a white-knuckle grip on a weapon that they don’t control and can’t immediately put to use – all the while they are tying up their hands, they are also taking a beating. Knowing when to let go, and change one’s tactics, doesn’t come easy.]

The last chapter offers some examples of generalists who achieved greatness by applying a broader understanding than others. The people who learn less and less about more and more on the way to knowing nothing about everything have their purpose in this world. There’s a conclusion that lays out some basic ideas for applying the concepts from the book. The Kindle edition that I read had a substantial “Afterword” that was introduced with the paperback edition and which examined some different cases to clarify the generalist advantage.

I found this book to be an enlightening read. It used many fascinating cases to make clear where generalists have particular value. If you are interested in where the jack-of-all-trades will excel, this is an excellent book to give a read. Along the way, it also lends insight into learning, innovation, and creativity.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen [Ill. by Marjolein Bastin]

Pride and Prejudice: Illustrations by Marjolein BastinPride and Prejudice: Illustrations by Marjolein Bastin by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This edition out: March 2, 2021

 

This is a new addition of an early 19th century classic. The value-added of the edition under review comes from illustrations by Marjolein Bastin, making for an aesthetically pleasing hardcopy edition for gifts or for collectors. The attractive color illustrations are of wildflowers, birds, and butterflies, and are widespread throughout – including the first and last page of each chapter. The artwork is beautifully drawn and vibrantly colored.

It’s a testament to the effectiveness of this book’s story and character development that it has withstood the test of time, becoming a widely-adapted classic. If it were being submitted for publishing today, I suspect it would face intense challenges with respect to its flouting of many popular conventions on writing. It has a pretty high telling-to-showing ratio. Description is sparse, so much so that some might find “floating head syndrome” kicks in [i.e. long tracks of dialogue detached from the setting and any action, such that they are imagined as two floating heads in a white void speaking back and forth.] That said, it may be that Austen was ahead of her time in this regard. A number of prominent later writers concluded that there was a general tendency to over-describe in novels. [Readers are going to build their own mental models of setting and character appearance, such that long tracts of description are wasted effort and ultimately hinder readability.]

The story revolves around a family of five sisters, the Bennet’s. Their father is a gentleman, but of modest means and his estate is “entailed.” [I don’t know what “entailed” means legally, but relative to the story, it means that his wife and daughters can’t inherit his estate – rather, the property must go to Mr. Bennet’s nearest male relative, who turns out to be a pompous, self-righteous, and generally irritating clergyman, Mr. Collins.] The significance of that fact is that it exacerbates concern about what will happen to the family when Mr. Bennet dies — particularly if the daughters don’t marry well and Collins decides to be a jerk and put them out on the “street.” This makes Mrs. Bennet anxious about the future and a little cuckoo about getting her daughters married.

Within the Bennet family, the story revolves mostly around the second oldest daughter, Elizabeth. When Mr. Collins asks her hand in marriage, she summarily rejects him. This, of course, is much to the chagrin of her mother, as marriage to Collins would single-handedly secure the family’s future [one can’t very well evict one’s mother-in-law, or at least one would have to be an even bigger jerk than Collins to do so.] Elizabeth soon meets a man she does find very promising, Mr. Wickham, a personable military man. But Elizabeth is nothing if not cautious, which turns out to be a good thing for her. The relationship with Wickham doesn’t go anywhere, and she ultimately discovers that all is not what it seems with the man. She immediately notices hostility between Wickham and a wealthy young bachelor gentleman named Mr. Darcy. Wickham tells Elizabeth his side of the story, which makes Darcy look like a jerk who ruined Wickham’s life. Elizabeth readily believes this Wickham because Mr. Darcy is so proud, and the fact that Darcy is also quiet and reserved makes him seem all the more aloof. [Those of us who are not highly expressive can readily recognize the point that people will write their own stories to fill in the blanks when faced with a lack of intense feedback.] So, here we have explanation of the title. Mr. Darcy is proud, but Elizabeth develops a prejudice against him not only because of his pride but also because he is not as instantaneously likable as Wickham or – for that matter — Darcy’s best friend, Mr. Bingley. This lack of bonhomie makes it easier to believe the bad than the good about Darcy, despite mounting evidence that he’s kind of a quietly great guy.

Elizabeth rejects a second marriage proposal, this one from Darcy, on the twin grounds that she believes Darcy ruined Wickham and also that she came to the conclusion that Darcy poisoned Bingley’s relationship with Elizabeth’s older sister, Jane. [Elizabeth and Jane are close not only in age but in their relationship to each other.] Reeling with rejection, Darcy hands Elizabeth a letter the next day. In it, Darcy admits that he was party to convincing Bingley to drop Jane, but only because he thought the reserved Jane wasn’t into Bingley. That is, it wasn’t that he had anything against Jane, but he didn’t want his friend to be the “reacher” in a “reacher-settler” relationship. But the big bomb regards Wickham, as Darcy’s side of the story paints the affable red-coat as flighty and irresponsible. Gradually, Elizabeth comes to see that Darcy’s is the more complete and accurate depiction of events, and she can even see how he would think as he did about Jane. After several readings, Elizabeth is mortified at her own behavior in light of this new information, but the English countryside is a small pond for the upper crust, and she will continue to run into the man she spurned wrongly.

The events that set up the grand romantic gesture that will turn things around and set up the climax revolve around Elizabeth’s [immediately] younger sister, the ugly bonnet-buying Lydia. Visiting some family friends at Brighton, Lydia falls in with Mr. Wickham and, being less cautious and discerning than Elizabeth [not to mention overeager to be married,] she sidles off with him. This is not so relatable today, but the entire family become obsessed with finding out what happened with Lydia, and fears that she’s brought disgrace on the entire family and may even keep the other daughters from finding suitable suitors. [Mr. Collins, for one, believes they should treat her as if she were dead.] This sets up Mr. Darcy to come in and secretly save the day [get Wickham to marry Lydia, a marriage which satisfies everybody – except Collins who still believes Lydia should be written off because she may or may not have had premarital sex but she certainly created the appearance that she probably did — for which she will spend an eternity in a lake of hellfire for ever and ever without end.]

There is a lot of obsession with the incomes of the various characters, and a lot of “keeping up with the Jones’s” mentality. In one sense, it seems that Austen is critiquing such attitudes – along with a lot of other peculiar attitudes of the day. Certainly, we see the sympathetic protagonist, Elizabeth, is clear in behaving in a way that suggests she is most interested in a happy future. On the other hand, critics have pointed out that the book ends with those with more wealth set to have happier futures. Elizabeth and then Jane are likely to be happy as clams with their rich husbands, but Lydia far less so with the perpetually broke Mr. Wickham. There’s also lot of rigid formality that might be being picked at by the novel as well – or, at least, it appears so problematic to a present-day reader. There is so much reserved refusal to say anything that might violate social norms, even if a person is bursting to do so and everyone would be better off if they did. One might get the feeling Elizabeth is scared as a mouse given her unwillingness to speak openly, but then when Lady de Bourgh (who intimidates almost everyone in the book) tries to get Elizabeth to agree to turn down Darcy’s proposal, Elizabeth refuses her in a very articulate and well-deployed counter-attack – despite being under the impression that there is no engagement to be concerned about in the first place (this after she rejected his proposal.)

I enjoyed reading this story. I expected it would be archaic and generally unrelatable to today’s world. However, it turned out to be a surprisingly engaging story. While I am not one to by a book for ancillary illustrations, if you are into such things, this book has some soothing and beautifully-rendered imagery. It’s definitely worth reading this classic novel.

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BOOK REVIEW: Money Shot, Vol. 1 by Tim Seeley and Sarah Beattie

Money Shot, Vol. 1Money Shot, Vol. 1 by Tim Seeley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel weds a serious look at a serious problem with a raunchy romp into extraterrestrial porn. [Warning: If the latter part of that statement didn’t clue you in, this book is sexually graphic both pictorially and in terms of dialogue. While I don’t think there is anything in it that your average adult can’t handle, I wouldn’t recommend it for the puritanically-inclined or as a gift for one’s eight-year-old nephew – i.e. “because it’s a comic book.”]

At the center of the story is Dr. Christine Ocampos, the inventor of a Star Gate-like faster than light travel portal, a brilliant technology that is far too expensive to operate to get grant funding, money she needs to finance a multi-disciplinary team of researchers. The title, “Money Shot,” is used in two senses in the book. First, the portal was marketed as “Star Shot,” but because it is so expensive to run, it earned its “money shot” nickname, implying it was a good way to shoot a mass of cash into the dark void of space. The second sense of the word is as it’s used in the porn industry, the highly-visible climactic moment of a sex scene.

Ocampos, tired of spending her life writing enormous grant proposals that ultimately get rejected on the grounds of cost, stumbles upon an idea for an alternative approach while “decompressing” with pornography. The harried lab director realizes that people seem to be disproportionately interested in outlandish fetish porn, presumably because they are bored with the usual “meat-and-potato” varieties of sexual activity. Ocampos concludes that there can’t be anything wilder and more outlandish to catch the attention of the porn-viewing world than sex with extraterrestrials. She pitches her plan to the other four members of her research team, and –fortunately for her – they are all photogenic / attractive and surprisingly sexually liberated. [Meaning it’s not particularly difficult to convince them all to participate.]

I won’t go into the story in great detail, except in as much as to say there is one and it’s entertaining. The story uses a common science fiction idea of being drawn into the center of a dysfunctional alien society’s troubles. The five scientists / porn stars find themselves on an environmentally-depleted planet run by an authoritarian warlord who uses the ‘bread and circuses’ approach to keeping the population in check, thus resulting in gladiatorial battles and a groundswell of revolutionary sentiment.

While the book takes a light tone, it does convey a couple serious messages in the process. The most obvious of these messages is that science is expensive and, perhaps, the mainstream funding approach (applying to large government-run grant agencies) curtails some good science. A secondary message is that less sexual repression and shame could be a good thing for the world, overall.

The art is well-drawn and clear. The scenes are depicted in a clean and easy to follow fashion. Color palette changes are used to make it easy to follow between flashback and the present moment. While I made a comment about the team all being attractive, I suspect there was a conscious effort to include a range of body types – within some bounds at least. While Ocampos is the perfectly-proportioned Disney princess-type — on the whole, the team displays a mix of size and shape.

While this is unquestionably a bizarre premise for a comic book, I found it to be readable and compelling. If you like sci-fi comics, and aren’t put off by graphic sexuality, you’ll probably enjoy this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Madness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull

Madness: A Very Short IntroductionMadness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is yet another of the many “Very Short Introduction” books from Oxford University Press that I’ve been pleased to read and review. The series offers concise overviews of a wide range of topics that are presented by scholarly experts. This particular book is a historical examination of the changing approaches to mental illness from the ancient world where such a condition might be attributed to demonic possession to more recent times in which drugs and decarceration / defunding of asylums have become the dominant approaches to mental illness. Along the way the book shines a light on the immense difficulty experts have had in understanding what mental illnesses are and how they can best be dealt with. The book not only looks at the real-world response to mental illness, but also explores how it’s been treated in fiction from “Hamlet” to “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The book consists of six chapters. As one would expect of a book from a historian’s-eye view, its organization is chronological, but the arrangement of time periods by chapter reflects changing approaches to mental illness. Chapter one focuses on the ancient world, during which we begin to get glimpses of madness in the written record. Chapter two, entitled “Madness in Chains,” focuses on the 16th through 18th century, during which Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital was the cutting edge. That the institution’s nickname becoming a synonym for chaos and confusion says a lot. It was a time of brutal measures that did little to reduce the trauma of mental illness. The chapter also discusses madness in Elizabethan literature, famously that of Shakespeare.

Chapter three shifts to the 19th century, an era in which incarceration became more widespread as well as coming to be thought of as the best that could be done for the insane. In Chapter four, we learn about the rise of psychoanalysis as well as the increasing employment of treatments that involved the physical body – infamously, the lobotomy.

Chapter five is one of the most intriguing parts of the book. Entitled “Madness Denied” it opens with an exploration of the difficulties that arose from all the war-related cases of mental illness that came about as a result of the two World Wars (and others.) It also discusses a movement to overturn the prevailing approach to insanity, most famously and vociferously argued by the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, a clinician who had a mix of promising and disastrous results from his experimental approach which used LSD, but few other medicines. What I found most interesting, however, was the discussion of the growing recognition that there was a false front in the idea that psychiatry was beginning to really understand mental illness and its treatment. This was exemplified by the Rosenhan experiments in which sane volunteers checked themselves into asylums and, for the most part, the doctors and staff couldn’t tell that they were sane (though, interestingly, in at least some cases the other patients did call it out.) The troubles in classifying and diagnosing mental illnesses have also seen in the vexed history of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness” [DSM,] a guide meant to get mental health experts on the same page about what’s what. [As opposed to ten psychiatrists offering ten different diagnoses of a given patient.] While a worthy attempt, the DSM has not – thus far – succeeded, though it could probably be argued that progress has been made.

The last chapter brings the reader up to the current period, a period dominated by two trends – first, mental illnesses being treated overwhelmingly pharmaceutically; and second, the closing of asylums and the concurrent ill-effects that have come about, societally speaking.

The book has a few graphics, mostly black and white art and photos used to enhance the reading experience. There are also appendices of references and recommended readings.

If you are interested in the history of psychiatric medicine, I’d highly recommend you check out this brief guide. It may not give you all the information you’re looking for, but it’s a good first stop to organize your thoughts on the subject.

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BOOK REVIEW: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Lloyd

V for VendettaV for Vendetta by Alan Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel is set in a fascist, dystopian Britain that grew up in the wake of an apocalypse that left England relatively untouched but ripe for the rise of a fascist political party, Norsefire. The book was written in the eighties at the height of the Cold War, and imagines this fascist Britain in the late 1990’s. The nature of this dystopia is part Orwell’s “1984” and part Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” meaning it’s an authoritarian surveillance state, but religion (and the morality thereof) is definitely an active participant in the abuse of power.

While the protagonist is a shadowy figure who goes only by the nom de guerre “V” and whose backstory is gradually revealed over the course of the book, another central character – one who presents a more human face – is Evie Hammond, a young woman who is turning tricks on the street to get by. The book opens with Evie being cornered by a couple of “Fingermen” (Brownshirt-like secret policemen who intend to rape and murder her) when she is rescued by a Guy Fawkes-mask wearing mystery man, V. V takes Evie back to his hidden lair, and while their paths diverge and converge over the rest of the story, Evie remains a crucial character to the bitter end.

In the early part of the story, we see that high-ranking fascist party members are being murdered in ways and with clues that are clearly meant to make a statement. In the first half of the book, a police detective, Finch, is trying to solve the murders – which first requires figuring out a motive. About the time he comes to understand the basis of a revenge motive, it becomes clear that V intends much more than just getting personal revenge for the wrongs done to him at a concentration camp.

At the beginning of Part II, Evie is separated from V after a falling out over an action she participated in against a pedophilic Bishop that ended in a murder that she found distasteful. However, she has a change of heart about the use of lethal force when the man she is staying with receives a visit from the Fingermen. She makes an amateurish attempt to invoke street justice that is interrupted by a man she assumes to be with the authorities. In reality, it is V conducting a clever ruse designed to put her through what he went through so that she can experience the freedom of mind that he acquired when his fear died.

In Part III, V’s grand plan unfolds, sinking London into chaos in the hopes that something glorious (or at least better) will arise in its place. Alan Moore was a proponent of anarchism, and the suggestion is that by tearing down the existing political order, a period of peaceful anarchic or quasi-anarchic coexistence might come to be. I should point out that Moore doesn’t tell the story as an ideologue. He creates sympathetic characters among the fascists and ensures that a light is shone on V’s dark side. He also leaves the outcome open. The reader doesn’t really see what grows out of the ashes.

In addition to being political fiction, “V for Vendetta” can be read as a kind of superhero story. It’s not known precisely to what degree V is superpowered, if any. He does seem to possess some degree of superhuman ability, but it might just be that he’s crazy enough to succeed in activities such as taking on multiple armed opponents at once. It seems that the experimentation that was done on him, which killed most of his fellow subjects, may have made him stronger and / or more physically capable, or – alternative – maybe being preternaturally robust in the first place allowed him to survive what others couldn’t. Still, it is clear that he is not invulnerable.

I enjoyed this story tremendously. It’s thought-provoking, both at the political level and at the level of individual psychology. We are led to consider what brings people to accept authoritarianism, and to also wonder whether people could accept an anarchic approach to social existence. But there is also the question of what is freedom for an individual, and in what way one can have freedom within when there is no freedom to be had without? If you’re intrigued by these themes, I’d highly recommend reading this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Alien Stories by E.C. Osondu

Alien StoriesAlien Stories by E.C. Osondu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 11, 2021

 

This collection of short stories by Nigerian author, E.C. Osondu, examines the alien life. While many of the pieces use extraterrestrial aliens as a plot device, it’s easy to see that terrestrial alienation is the topic under consideration. Most of the pieces are of the soft science fiction variety, focusing on the psychological and relational elements more than the scientific detail. That said, a few of the pieces read as purely realist fiction. Some of the pieces focus on what it’s like to be an alien (of some variety,) but many of the stories focus upon how others perceive the “alien.” I should point out that the tone of the collection tends to be lighthearted, and so while it might seem that a collection based on the theme of alienation would be a bit melancholy, that is not so much the case.

This volume is part of the American Reader Series (#36) put out by BOA Editions. The collection includes eighteen stories. The first story, “Alien Enactors,” imagines individuals trying to convey information about their native culture in a recreational setting (called “the Ranch”) that is very market driven. The enactors are obsessed with ratings and with pleasing customers and the story is a commentary on what it is like for an émigré to enter the globalized world.

“Memory Store” was one of my favorites of the collection, because it sets up a fascinating thought experiment. The premise is that there is a store where one can go and sell one’s memories, and once one has sold a memory, it is lost to one forever. [Like selling blood or other bodily fluids, it mainly attracts those in relatively desperate states.] As a sci-fi plot mechanism, it makes for an interesting idea, but when one thinks of it as being about the trade-off of loss of past as one integrates into a new cultural environment, it becomes a powerful analogy.

“How to Raise an Alien Baby” is presented as a discussion of rules aliens would need to follow to adopt a baby from Earth. The story provokes one to think about how strange it can be for a child to enter a completely new cultural environment.

In “Visitors,” an alien couple have moved into a small village, and the lead characters are a couple who are having said alien couple over. The arrival of this alien couple invites incessant questioning about why they would pick such a place. For those who’ve lived only one place, it seems to be a common thought to wonder why anyone in their right mind would choose to live there – of all places. We also see a divergence of views toward aliens. The wife is more open-minded while the husband remains suspicious.

“Feast,” which is set on Alien Feast Day, features a child’s eye contemplation of aliens, and the endless questions such a view inspires. As with the husband in “Visitors,” the children try to grasp what aliens are really like, why the are so different, and – in the process – they stumble, misestimating the differences between the aliens and themselves.

In the story, “Mark,” a grandmother imparts wisdom via a story about the “Red Planet.” The journey described in this extraterrestrial tale is an analogy intended to prepare others a different kind of travel.

“Spaceship” is another of my favorites from the collection. In the story, aliens leave a broken-down spaceship at a village, just as someone might leave a car along the highway until it can be fixed. What is brilliant about the story is its description of how the locals begin to impart meaning upon the ship’s presence. All things, good and bad, that happen in the village are linked to the whims of the broken-down spacecraft. It serves as a commentary on superstition and religiosity.

In “Sacrifice,” each year an alien spacecraft visits, requiring one village youth to be surrendered to the aliens. There’s a sort of “Hunger Games” selection processes that isn’t discussed in detail, but which arrives at a presumably random “tribute” each year. However, when an only child is selected, the mother gets up in arms about it.

“Light” is about personal transformation and how it may seem to be a magical and spontaneous occurrence to others. In the story, a light from the sky lands up on the lead character, and, with it, she experiences a profound personality change.

In “Traveler” a local and an alien (“foreigner”) converse in transit.

“Debriefing” is one of the stories that isn’t of the science fiction genre. It imagines the advice that an African would receive upon arriving in the United States. It’s sort of a “do’s and don’ts” of living in America for the alien resident. It’s amusing in some places and disconcerting in others.

“Focus Group” presents a series of comments from individuals as if they were taking part in a focus group where they were asked “What are aliens like?”

The story “Child’s Play” revolves around two children who like to play a game that allows them to disappear into an alternative dimension.

Life changes for a bickering couple when the man finds a mysterious boon in the backyard in “Who Is in the Garden?”

“On the Lost Tribes of the Black World” is a story that is presented as if it were a scholarly description of the “Konga” tribe, a people forged around the singular act of drumming.

In “Love Affair” a lesbian émigré to America from Africa, Finda, tries to navigate the minefield of human relations. On the one hand, she learns from her grandmother that being gay isn’t something Finda would be likely to be able to pull off in their homeland, but still Finda isn’t finding her sexual orientation to be any picnic in America – despite the fact that she can be open about it. This is one of the most engaging stories in the collection.

With “The Home Companion” the collection shifts back into sci-fi territory, imagining a technology that can serve to combat loneliness by providing one with an intelligence with which to converse.

“Our Earthly Possessions” discusses just what a traveler has as he or she moves to a new land. The subject of memory, addressed in the second story, is revisited in this story from a different angle.

I found this to be a fantastic collection of stories. If you have any interest in what it is like to be a stranger in a strange land, these stories will offer you insight into that condition. If you are experienced in that regard, the stories will resonate with you. It’s a smart collection of stories and will plant seeds of thought and help them germinate. If you read short fiction, I’d highly recommend this collection.

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BOOK REVIEW: Best Fairy Stories of the World ed. by Marcus Clapham

Best Fairy Stories of the WorldBest Fairy Stories of the World by Marcus Clapham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book collects sixty-two well-known fairy and folk tales. While the bulk of the stories are European, there are a few entries from Indian, Japanese, Aussie, Slavic, and Middle Eastern folklore. There are several stories which will be familiar to all readers (often by virtue of their Disney adaptations,) such as: “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Cinderella,” “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Sleeping Beauty,” and “Snow White.” There are others that are widely known as go-to bedtime stories, e.g. “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and “The Three Little Pigs.” Then there are others that are likely to be – at most – vaguely familiar to any reader who is not a specialist in global oral storytelling traditions, some because they are anachronistic and relate less well in the modern world and others because they are not well-known in the Western world (e.g. Japanese and Indian stories.)

For the most part, the selection of tales is not surprising. As mentioned, the collection is European-centric with all but about a dozen entries being from Europe. However, given the book is directed toward the English-speaking market, that narrow focus is to be expected. In fact, stories from the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson together make up about one-third of the included works. Some readers may take umbrage that the proposed “Best Fairy Stories of the World” includes examples from so little of the world (ignoring Africa, the Western Hemisphere, and the vast majority of Asia, altogether.)

What is strange about the collection is that there are just a few pairs of stories for which both stories in the pair are structurally identical. I’m not talking about having a common theme or moral. The common objectives of these stories often result in them having thematic overlap, but that is not necessarily a problem for readers. For example, there are several “rags to riches” type stories. However, these stories are widely different in story events and characters, such that reading them does not leave one with the feeling of having reread the same story. Instead, I’m talking about instances like the inclusion of both “Rumpelstiltskin” and “Tom Tit Tot.” In both of these stories, the lead is charged with a task they cannot complete, and some magic creature comes along and says they will do the work and, if the person can guess their name, it’s a done deal, but if they can’t guess their rescuer’s name, they will be owned by said savior. Even how the two stories’ endings unfold is identical except in the finest granularity of detail. On one hand, I can see how including overlapping tales would give readers some indication of how these tales spread and became adapted by other cultures. However, on the other hand, I would have preferred that the editor selected the better of the two and use the freed-up space to include, say, some Native American or African stories.

I enjoyed this collection. It took me back to my youth, and also exposed me to some stories with which I was unfamiliar. I do believe the title could have been better worded because to call these the best in the world and then to make them almost entirely from northern Europe could be interpreted as being pretty conceited. However, I doubt there was any such conceit, just a desire to sell stories that would appeal to a particular readership, and then to hype it in as big a way as possible.

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