BOOK REVIEW: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don QuixoteDon Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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DON QUIXOTE is among the earliest novels, and – owning to its humor and thought-provoking story – it continues to be one of the world’s most important literary works. The book tells the tale of a Spanish gentleman, Alonzo Quixano, who has a combination midlife crisis and breakdown of sanity that result in his adoption of the new name Don Quixote de La Mancha (a.k.a. Knight of the Rueful Countenance, and [later] Knight of the Lions) and his setting off as a knight errant (i.e. a roving warrior in search of adventure, competition, and opportunities to be virtuous / chivalrous.) We are told that this breakdown is the culmination of obsessive reading of books on Chivalry. These books were the pulp fiction of the time: low-brow, sensationalist, and – to the scholarly-minded — pointless. A recurring debate throughout the book is whether these books are harmful and should be avoided or whether they are a harmless amusement that may even have benefits. For Don Quixote, they are neither; he sees them as a truthful depiction of how knights live an behave.

The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, Don Quixote makes two journeys away from his village in La Mancha. The first trip is short-lived, beginning with some preliminaries before he can strike out as a knight. A handy series of delusions help set events in motion. In his mind, an old broken-down horse becomes “Rocinante” (a regal knight’s steed.) A beautiful farmgirl who he has never met becomes the Lady Duclinea del Toboso – object of his affections [unbeknownst to her.] Finally, an innkeeper becomes the King who Don Quixote asks for knighthood [which the bewildered innkeeper bestows upon the deranged old man.] Shortly thereafter, Don Quixote takes his first beating and is taken back home.

During this time period, his concerned staff and neighbors burn all his books on Chivalry, but that has little impact [possibly because he’s already read all the books and knows them by heart] and soon Don Quixote is riding out on his second sally — this time with his squire, Sancho Panza. Don Quixote is able to face quite a number of ignominious adventures during this outing, including his famous charge on the windmills – which he sees as giant arm-swinging monsters. [From whence the turn of phrase “tilting at windmills” derives to describe the behavior of charging into a futile and ill-advised battle with an illusory enemy.] At the end of the first part, Don Quixote is dragged back to his village by the curate and the barber (two men interested in saving Don Quixote from his madness.) Believing he is under an enchantment, Don Quixote is able to be returned home with minimal kicking and screaming.

Part two of the book continues the adventures of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as they again leave their home village. It’s worth noting that Cervantes presents this work as if it were a book within a book – in other words, as if he’s presenting collected tales of the life of Don Quixote as they were presented in other volumes. This creates some amusing instances of the literary equivalent of fourth wall breaking. I found that the second part did feel different from the first. Whereas, part one comes across as a conglomeration of tales, a through-flow of story is more apparent in the second part. The two parts weren’t released together, and so there is probably good reason for this besides a literary decision to change styles. The second part has been said to be more reflective – rather than pure farce – and that makes sense as Cervantes had about a decade to ponder what he wanted to say. Much of the second part revolves around the activities of a Duke and Duchess who prank Don Quixote. By this time, the first volume of Don Quixote’s exploits has been in publication for a while and the “knight errant” is well-known as a madman and a buffoon.

Pranking both Don Quixote and Sancho Panza is a challenge as the two men are quite different in their vulnerabilities. The Duke and Duchess can use suggestion to exploit Don Quixote’s inclination to mentally conjure grandiose, romantic scenarios. However, Sancho Panza is of sound mind and has a kind of pragmatic insightfulness and so they must – instead — exploit his lack of sophistication and cowardice. The Duke gives Sancho Panza governorship of an island – something that Don Quixote has been promising he would give his squire as soon as some King or Queen saw fit to reward him for his virtuous service as a knight errant – which, of course, is not forthcoming. Sancho rules for only ten days before his hunger and cowardice reach their limits in the face of: first, a doctor who puts him on a calorie-restrictive diet for the health benefits; and, second, a mock attack on his island.

The book ends after a second battle with a disguised Sanson Carrasco. Carrasco, far from the knight seeking fame that he pretends to be, is a villager from La Mancha who wants to see Don Quixote return home to get well. He “battles” Don Quixote once as the Knight of Mirrors about midway through the book, but is defeated (more through a combination of his own inexperience and bad luck than as a result of Don Quixote’s skill.) On this second occasion, he fights as the Knight of the White Moon and defeats Don Quixote – who is forced by the dictates of the wager to return home. At first, Don Quixote plays like he might try out the shepherd’s life for a year, but soon he falls into a funk. Before he dies, he reclaims the name Alonzo Quixano and acknowledges that he’d been out of his mind and that all of his adventures in knight errantry were a farce.

Returning to the question of whether the chivalry books are harmful and should be avoided at all costs or whether they are entertainment with some redeeming features, the reader is really left leeway to conclude as he or she sees fit. It’s worth noting that this wasn’t a new question. Plato and his most famous student, Aristotle, argued this same question. Plato believed that all these exciting stories could do is incite people to violence and other unproductive endeavors. Aristotle believed that there could be catharsis (purging of emotions) through dramatic works.

At first blush, it might seem clear to the reader that Cervantes is saying that these works are detrimental. He proposes that they, literally, dried out Don Quixote’s brain and turned him into a madman. However, one might come to feel differently as one sees the influence that Don Quixote has on people. While everyone recognize that he is a madman, most also recognize that he has a sort of wisdom and courage about him. He stands for virtuosity, even if he doesn’t have the power to back it up with weapons that he imagines he does. Sancho Panza also has a sort of wisdom, and one suspects that this sagacity has increased through his exposure to Don Quixote. For the brief time that Sancho Panza is governor, he makes some sound decisions and he never exploits his position to his own gain. While none of the battles of Don Quixote amount to much, people are moved by his advice and his virtuous example.

This is a hard book not to love. I will admit to thinking that — particularly in Part one –it could have benefited from an editor, but given its seminal literary position, it’s hard to give this criticism much weight. [What I mean by it is that there are numerous repetitive examples of Don Quixote mistaking one thing for another and getting into an unwise fight throughout the first part, few of these scenes are anywhere near as effective as the relatively early ‘tilting at windmills’ scene. Therefore, there is a bit of tedium in these scenes.] That said, the book is witty is places and laugh-out-loud funny in others, and it offers philosophical food-for-thought while never being overbearing in the process. If you read fiction, you should definitely read this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Boys, Vol. 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis

The Boys, Volume 1: The Name of the GameThe Boys, Volume 1: The Name of the Game by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you weren’t familiar with this comic book, you’ve probably at least seen promos for the streaming series adaptation available on Amazon Prime Video. After watched season one, and as season two is currently in release, I decided to give the source material a read. As with “Preacher,” this presents its own challenges in keeping the comic book and series straight. This is because (as with “Preacher”) there is a common cast of major characters, but significant differences in the story and details. That said, the book and series both open in a similar way with Hughie being drawn into the action by a tragic event involving a superhero (A-Train, this team’s version of the DC character, Flash) and Hughie’s girlfriend.

If the description of A-Train as – essentially – the same as the Flash makes the book sound derivative, it is intentionally so. In a nutshell, “The Boys” takes the Justice League and gives the characters nasty personality traits, ranging from pettiness to madness, and then centers the story not on the superheroes but on a group that works to check those “heroes’” power from the shadows (i.e. the titular “Boys.”) So, A-Train is fast like the Flash, but he lacks Barry Allen’s intellect and soft-spoken mannerism, and so – conversely – A-Train is a high school jock dialed up to his most vain and brash form. The other members similarly have unappealing personality traits, and even full-blown dark sides. This divergence between is most intensely seen in Homelander (the Superman of this series, but without the Man of Steel’s perfect moral compass and stoic Midwestern calm,) but even Noir (the Batman of the group) is intended to make Bruce Wayne seem like a well-adapted beacon of light by comparison.

The six issues contained in volume one both tell the tale of Hughie’s reluctant entrance into “The Boys,” and follows him through his first mission as the newly reassembled Boys take on “Teenage Kix.” (A youth superhero group which is to “The Seven” as the Teen Titans are to the Justice League.) Having Hughie in the role of the group’s “everyman” would be an odd choice in real life because it puts a rank amateur on a team of professionals who are already outgunned. From a narrative point of view, however, the appeal is clear. It creates emotional stakes within a group that is otherwise stone-cold killers (if with some positive personality traits to subvert expectations.) Hughie’s naivete and raw fear is particularly necessary in the book because the stakes are somewhat lessened by the fact that the Boys are not as severely outmatched as they are in the series (in the series “The Female” is the only superpowered member of the “Boys.”) The decision to recruit Hughie is explained both by the desperation of the team’s leader, Butcher, and his desire to include someone who is personally driven. There are not a lot of people willing to sign on to take on a two-faced lunatic with the powers of Superman (i.e. Homelander,) and Hughie is uniquely motivated by the tragedy of his girlfriend’s death to go after superheroes who’ve been corporately levered above the law.

The comic is a bit more sexually graphic than the series, though in some ways the series is more viscerally horrifying. (As I mentioned, in the series the Boys – excepting one – are in no way capable of going toe-to-toe with the enemy.)

The art is well drawn and colored and I didn’t have any problems following the happenings conveyed graphically.

I enjoyed this comic as I have with other Garth Ennis works. At least this volume was a bit more lighthearted and not as visceral as the series, but I don’t count that as a good or bad thing. Just different and just appealing to different states of mind. The comic is funny in places and action-packed in others. If you are interested in the concept of neurotic to psychotic superheroes and what it would take to keep them under control, it’s worth giving this book a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

The Hollow PlacesThe Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 3, 2020

 

I’m a sucker for down-the-rabbit-hole alternative world fiction. Kingfisher’s version is eerie and dark, as opposed to the more whimsical and fantastical versions of Lewis Carroll or Neil Gaiman. [While the latter have their share of tense moments, an adventurous person would still chase those experiences, but through Kingfisher’s looking glass is a world that everyone who wanders in immediately wants to escape.]

The book is set in and around a museum in a tourist trap town in the southern US. This museum is what would have been called a “cabinet of curiosities” back in the day, which is to say it combines natural history displays with a bit of a freak show aspect to spice things up. This setting contributes nicely to the story, offering both a suitably weird environment to lend credulity to the anomalous happenings and a suitably creepy environment to make the climax a harrowing experience.

The story revolves around a recently divorced woman named Kara (nickname: Carrot) who goes to live and work at Wonder Museum, her uncle’s cabinet of curiosities. She does this because she’s a gig-economy graphic designer without enough gigs to put her in a home of her own, because she wishes to avoid moving in with a mother who can be overbearing, and because her beloved Uncle Earl could use a hand as he’s getting up in years. When Uncle Earl has to get knee surgery and must leave the museum in Kara’s hands, all hell breaks loose by way of the opening of a portal to a parallel universe.

I should point out that the book isn’t dark and foreboding throughout, the main character and her sidekick / barista-next-door, Simon, provide plenty of comic relief, and we do get a good bit of character development for Kara in early chapters. I think the story benefits from what some might find a slow-burn opening. It’s intriguing to see how Kara is in emotional turmoil in the beginning over her failed marriage and lack of stable income, but then the trials of the story put matters into perspective for her.

Like the Algernon Blackwood novella (i.e. “The Willows”) that influenced it, this story manages to be a chilling and visceral experience without at all being gratuitously graphic or wantonly murderous. While some would classify it “horror,” it might better be considered a tale of the weird. The author does a fine job of creating atmosphere. In one sense, this concision of gruesomeness might be seen as a more impressive than in Blackwood’s story because Kingfisher’s characters are set in their everyday lives and thus the story has to shift between lighthearted and grim – whereas, Blackwood’s story about a couple of guys canoeing a remote stretch of the Danube River was able to be starker throughout. (As I recall, it’s been a while since I read “The Willows.”)

I found this book to be gripping. It kept my attention throughout with a mix of humor, gallows humor, and bleak moments. My most intense criticism involves the description of events leading up to, as well as during, the climax. There were moments where my attention was drawn from the story to asking questions (e.g. why was that so easy? Why was that so hard? Or, why didn’t she do X?) It might just be me, but I felt that in the attempt to maintain a fast pace, the author may have glossed over some challenges. That said, it’s fair to point out that the character is sleep-deprived and terrified at this point, so maybe this approach was (consciously or un-) an attempt to capture Kara’s disjointed state of mind, and maybe I was simply overreading. At any rate, I thought the book resolved strongly and was plotted smartly.

If you like alternative worlds fiction – and don’t mind it being a visceral experience – this would be a great book to check out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dracula, Motherf**ker by Alex de Campi

Dracula, Motherf**ker!Dracula, Motherf**ker! by Alex de Campi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This short story in graphic novelized form imagines a Dracula who has been trapped in his coffin since the post-Bram Stoker story time period coming back into action in 1970’s Los Angeles. (While there is a nod to the Bram Stoker novel in starting the story in late-1890’s Central / Eastern Europe, the book doesn’t present itself as a sequel — and purposefully tries to avoid some of the old [and new] vampire clichés.) The book taps into the feel of 1970’s noir crime drama. The main character, Quincy Harker, is a photographer whose work appeals to a macabre impulse of those who like to see snuff shots of beautiful people. As such, he goes around to scenes reminiscent of the Manson family slaughter of Sharon Tate and friends to snap his pictures. [Note: While in Bram Stoker’s book Quincy Harker was the child of Mina Harker, in this book that’s just an Easter Egg-style reference without any intended continuity to the book’s characters.] Because Harker is always going out at night to capture images of the recently deceased, he his easily drawn into the family feud between Dracula and his brides.

The artwork is interesting. There is not a single color palette used throughout, but rather different scenes are in different palettes. In the back-matter written by the artist, there is a statement about this being meant to influence the reader’s emotional inflection. It’s also pointed out in the back-matter that all scenes are set at night, which might not be otherwise apparent. Some panels are colored brightly and colorfully while others are in black and dark blues.

The story is simple and quick. Between drawing on the vampire mythology and on the noir crime cinema imagery, there’s not much that’s particularly novel about this book. That said, the fact that it puts Dracula’s brides at the fore does give it a bit of niche.

As mentioned, there is a writeup at the back by both the author (de Campi) and the artist (Henderson,) along with some draft drawings and scripts for those intrigued by how the sausage is made.

I enjoyed this enough to get caught up in reading it in a single sitting. (That said, it’s very short — even for the 80-ish pages — given sprawling panels and sparse / terse dialogue.) If you enjoy vampire fiction, it’s worth checking out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Timon of Athens by William Shakespeare

Timon of AthensTimon of Athens by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a tragic take on a premise similar to that of “The Merchant of Venice.” That is, there is a gentleman who is generous to a fault — and much beloved because of it — who ends up suffering for it. [It’s also a bit like the “Oedipus” trilogy except that, instead of the discovery of unintended incest that sets the lead character walking the wilderness, it’s Timon’s discovery that he isn’t as rich in friendship as he’d thought.] In “Timon of Athens,” the lead character (Timon) is going about business as usual (i.e. being a patron to artists, lending to those in need, and holding banquets) when debt collectors begin to gather at his gate.

At first, Timon is unconcerned. Surely, his friends will help him get through this rough patch, just as he has helped so many of them over the years. However, when he sends his servant out to borrow what he needs to get back in the black, he faces rejection after rejection. Eventually, it hits Timon like a hammer that the only reason he ever got any love was because he was always supporting, feeding, and purchasing the products of Athenians. This realization hastens a sea change in Timon’s attitude. Timon decides to hold one more “banquet” to which he invites those he’s been good to and who’ve not offered the slightest reciprocity. At the banquet, the dishes are uncovered to reveal stones in water. Timon then gives the assembled crowd a piece of his mind. Then, Timon takes off to live in a cave in the woods – shunning contact with humanity.

One intriguing character is Apemantus, who is a Cynic philosopher. [Cynicism was a school of philosophy that was largely ascetic, nature-oriented, and which rejected many of humanity’s norms and values (e.g. valuing comfort and wealth) as anathema to a good life.] Apemantus features in the first part of the story, insulting both Timon and his guests, but also serving as a harbinger of what’s to come when he explains that these sycophants only associate with Timon because of what he does for them. In the second half, Apemantus visits Timon in the latter’s cave and – among other insults – accuses Timon of being a copycat by adopting Apemantus’s way of life.

Living in the woods, Timon stumbles onto a cave of gold. While he could take this money and return to his previous life, that path holds no allure to him. He has no interest in the money. When news of this discovery circulates, people come to the woods to seek Timon’s good favor only to be rebuffed. Alcibiades, a military man who was also wronged by Athens and who now promises to destroy the city, is given gold. Also, Timon gives some money to a couple of prostitutes so that they can go spread venereal disease among the Athenian population. The painter, the poet, and the senators who come to Timon are cursed and sent away. Even Timon’s servant, Flavius, is told to go away, although he is tolerated when it becomes clear that he is – in fact – an honest man who never sought anything more than his just recompense for virtuous service.

It’s generally believed that this play wasn’t a completed work, but rather a work in progress. The pacing at the end does become a bit abrupt, but it’s hard to know for certain. It’s also the case that some points could use fleshing out – notably the discovered gold which gives the latter bit of the play some drama but which also strains credulity. As Shakespeare’s tragedies go, this one is at the other end of the spectrum from “Titus Andronicus” in terms of bloodiness, which is to say it isn’t at all violent. We don’t see Timon’s death but only hear about the discovered grave, and otherwise the soldier who Alcibiades tries to save is the only other fatality of note. There are some critics who don’t even classify this work as a tragedy, but rather as a problem play.

It’s a simple story, but is potent in that it shows such a clear and definite character change. While it’s not one of Shakespeare’s more popular works, it’s definitely worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: King Lear by William Shakespeare

King Lear (Project Gutenberg, #1128)King Lear by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the tale of virtuous children, wronged, who nevertheless do the right thing when the time for filial piety is at hand. This play combines two such tales.

The main story involves King Lear pitting his three daughters against each other in a competition to see which daughter will describe her love for him in the most glowing and grandiose terms. When his eldest two daughters (Goneril and Regan) engage in fawning and over-the-top bootlicking while his youngest daughter (Cordelia) will only say that she loves him like a daughter should love her father, Lear becomes enraged with his youngest. While he’d intended a roughly even three-way split of dowry awards between his daughters, he changes his mind and divides Cordelia’s share between the other two. Even when Kent, a nobleman and the King’s right-hand man, begs the King to reconsider (because Kent can see that the older daughters are all talk and no love,) Lear banishes Kent. Not surprisingly, when Lear is later in need, the two toady daughters are less than helpful – turning him out into a wild storm, in fact. A French prince agrees to marry Cordelia even without the dowry because he, like Kent, can see that she is the cream of the crop as far as Lear’s daughters are concerned. As Queen, Cordelia is later in a position to come to help her father in his hour of need. Kent, like Cordelia, maintains loyalty even after being spurned by the King. Kent takes a disguise to continue his service to the King.

The subplot involves another loyal nobleman, Gloucester, who has two sons – a legitimate one named Edgar and a bastard named Edmund. Edmund, like Iago in “Othello,” cleverly goes about poisoning the relationship between Gloucester and Edgar, resulting in Edgar fleeing and adopting the disguise of a peasant. After Edmund’s ambitious plotting becomes known to Gloucester, the nobleman (now blinded for being loyal to Lear in opposition to Goneril and Regan) meets Edgar on his way to Dover. Because of Edgar’s adoption of a crude and common manner of speech and the fact that Gloucester is blind, the father doesn’t recognize his son. A disguised Edgar agrees to lead Gloucester to the chalky cliffs of Dover where the father can suicide plummet to his death. Edgar, however, doesn’t lead him to his death, and along the way learns that Gloucester is remorseful and wishes good things for Edgar.

This is a cautionary tale about our inability to recognize virtue and vice, and the tendency to read the signs wrong. About valuing pretty words over devoted action. Both Lear and Gloucester wrong a soft-talking child while failing to recognize that ambition, not love, motivates the cheap words of each man’s other child(ren.) Definitely, a must-read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Neil Gaiman Library, Vol. 2 by Neil Gaiman

The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 2The Neil Gaiman Library Volume 2 by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 24, 2020

 

This is a graphic novelization of several pieces of Neil Gaiman’s short fiction. The component works are all speculative fiction (i.e. taking place where the fantastical is possible,) and – more specifically – most would be classed urban fantasy — though there is a touch of horror.

The book contains four parts, and could be thought of as four stories. However, the first chapter, “Likely Stories,” is actually a collection of tales connected by being told in the same private after-hours club. So, the connective tissue is bar patrons trying to one-up each other with more intriguing stories. The pieces included are: “Feeders and Eaters” (the entry most likely to be classified as horror,) “Looking for a Girl,” and “Closing Time.”

The second story is “Troll Bridge,” and it shows a man’s repeated encounters with a troll who exists in the pedestrian tunnel under an abandoned rail line. These meetings begin when the protagonist is a young boy and continue until he’s middle-aged.

The penultimate story is entitled “Harlequin Valentine,” and it’s about an amorous Harlequin who develops an infatuation with a young woman and begins to stalk her. When he gives her his heart, it doesn’t go as expected.

The final story is “The Facts in the Case of the Disappearance of Miss Finch.” When a writer is roped into a double date in which his date is a dowdy and humorless scholar, the night that had been a train of misery ends in a mind-blowing (if disconcerting) fashion.

This was an excellent read. While it’s a second volume, because it’s short fiction, the book is completely self-contained. One doesn’t need to read the first volume beforehand to follow these tales. Each of the stories is satisfying in itself. I’d read at least one of these stories previously (possibly more) but it didn’t feel redundant because the conversion of the textual stories to graphic ones gives each an entirely different feel. The art is clear and the various styles match the tone of the respective stories nicely. If you like Neil Gaiman’s work, you should definitely check this one out. [And if you’re unfamiliar with Gaiman, I’d recommend you get familiar.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Spark by Naoki Matayoshi

SparkSpark by Naoki Matayoshi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Spark” tells the story of two manzai comedians. Manzai is a Japanese comedic form that involves a duo that engage in rapid-fire conversational exchanges involving puns, word play, absurdities, and misunderstandings. [Think of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first” sketch, but set to appeal to the Japanese sense of humor.]

The two comedians in question do not form a duo, but rather are members of their own, respective, manzai duos. While their relationship is one of friendship, to understand it fully one has to have a basic grasp of the sempai – kohai interaction. Most Westerners who haven’t practiced judo, aikido, flower arranging, or taiko drumming, or who haven’t done business in Japan are unlikely to be familiar with this very Confucian idea. It’s sort of like the idea of mentor and mentee, but writ much more broadly, basically into all aspects of life. The sempai is the senior, and the kohai is the junior. In this case, our narrator, Tokunaga, is the kohai (junior,) and Kamiya is the sempai (senior.) Kamiya says he will guide Tokunaga, if Tokunaga agrees to write Kamiya’s biography. The book in question could be taken to be the resultant product — although Tokunaga, himself, is the protagonist of the story – with Kamiya being the Obi Wan to Tokunaga’s Luke.

I think readers should know not to expect a book that is laugh-out-loud funny throughout. Because the subject is comedy, one might expect it to be a laugh riot from cover-to-cover. I remember seeing the movie “Punchline” (1988) and being very disappointed because it was about standup comedians, but the standup comedy in the film was mediocre at its best. The movie had major league talent (Tom Hanks and Sally Field) and I might have enjoyed it more if my expectations about the humor were tempered. “Spark” does have its funny moments, but one wouldn’t want base one’s judgement on that. For one thing, overall, the story is bittersweet. It tends to be lighthearted, but it has its moments of angst as well. Furthermore, the humor doesn’t translate well, and I think there are both cultural and linguistic reasons for that. Much of the humor that plays out when the comedians are riffing (usually off-stage) is what I would call absurdist quips, and the more you like that kind of humor the more you’ll like it in the book, but vice-versa is true, too. If your response to puns is deadpan, I wouldn’t expect to find yourself laughing (or even smiling) much. (Not that the humor is pun-based, but it’s about that level of funny.)

Obviously, I thought the book does something right, even if it’s not its hilarity. For one thing, it has at least as many philosophically thought-provoking moments as it does humorous ones. While there is a lot of silliness in the exchanges between Tokunaga and Kamiya, there is also a philosophy and a psychology that are presented for one’s consideration. At its heart, I think this is a book about what art is exactly, and how one rides a line between the creative and the familiar. Tokunaga wants to be like Kamiya because he sees Kamiya is creative to the point of being so far outside the box that he can’t even see the box. However, as the story goes on, Tokunaga ends up having more success because he (and his partner, who is a relatively minor and unseen character) instinctively keep one eye on what will appeal to audiences. While Tokunaga chides himself for lacking the courage and creativity of Kamiya, ultimately, he gets to see the downside of those proclivities.

I enjoyed this book. It clearly leans toward literary fiction, which is to say it’s much more about characters than it is about story and exciting events. This means that it may feel a little slow at times, but it does have a payoff that ties up the story into a satisfying narrative. It’s also a book that is wisely kept short. Because it’s not that long, the coffee shop and bar discussions that make up much of “the action” don’t overextend into tedium. If you are interested in comedy, creativity, or just tales of friendship, this is a worthwhile read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Frankenstein Alive, Alive! by Steve Niles

Frankenstein Alive, Alive: The Complete Collection (Frankenstein Alive, Alive!)Frankenstein Alive, Alive: The Complete Collection by Steve Niles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This graphic novella collects four issues together with some ancillary matter (e.g. draft sketches.) It not only draws upon the Shelley Frankenstein world; it picks up from it as if it were a sequel. That is, it begins on the Artic ice, with Frankenstein’s monster intent upon finding peace – if not an end — frozen in the glacial mass. The story is about the monster coming to grips with its humanity, its monstrosity, and its immortality.

When the monster’s attempt to freeze himself in the ice fails to bring eternal rest, as well as a second attempt of a similar nature, the monster realizes there is no respite to be had in hiding out in suspended animation. It will simply result in a string of rebirths like the one that began his torment. The monster must go about the business of living.

Wandering back to civilization, the monster finds a rare friend among a wealthy doctor, and takes up residence in the doctor’s mansion. At first, this doctor, Dr. Simon Ingles, seems quite unlike the monster’s creator, Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Ingles isn’t repulsed by the creature’s existence and has a nurturing manner that wasn’t to be found in Victor. However, eventually we see that Ingles shares with Victor an ambition to be free from the shackles of mortality.

Ingles wants to harness the power of life to keep his terminally ill wife from dying. The price that must be paid to extend his wife’s life is even more foul than that paid by Dr. Frankenstein. When the monster recognizes this monstrous ambition in Ingles, he is torn about what to do. On the one hand, Ingles has been kind to him, is in many ways a good person, and the monster thinks that it is far be it for him to enforce morality given his own great crimes. On the other hand, the monster is uniquely attuned to the darkness of this desire shared by the two doctors, the desire to be master over life and death, and the sight of this ambition brings out a desire to end Ingles’ life and his despicable plan.

This is a smart story built around the humanity in a monster and the monstrosity in humans. It’s a quick read, being less than one-hundred pages. Bernie Wrightson’s artwork is appropriately gothic, and – except for a few plates between issues, is black-and-white. I’d highly recommend it for those who like classic horror and science fiction, particularly if you enjoy graphic works.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable

Dracula: Son of the Dragon (comiXology Originals)Dracula: Son of the Dragon by Mark Sable
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There is a vast amount of vampiric fiction available today, and no small amount of it focuses on the character of Dracula. This graphic novel sets itself apart by building the story on real world events (such as they are known, and with dramatic license to make the story exciting and the imagery evocative.) At the risk of turning people off (but not intending to,) I would go as far as to say this book leads with history, and makes the supernatural secondary. I actually liked that about it. When I say the supernatural is secondary, it’s not like its eliminated from existence or that it’s purely garnish. There are dragons and vampires, but a story exists with or without those elements.

A story of war and political intrigue in what is now Romania is bookended by the depiction of a meeting between Vlad Dracula and three clergymen. In the opening, Vlad is telling the priests that he is about to let them in on the truth of his story, which they have no doubt heard in mythologized form. At the end, he asks the clergymen to tell him whether he will be allowed into heaven. The body of the story is a flashback from the meeting with the priests. It splits focus between Vlad’s father, who is working to keep his domain under his control by playing the ends against the middle vis-à-vis his Roman Catholic neighbors (notably Hungary) and the Ottoman Empire, and the story oft Vlad, himself. Vlad is a young man. He and his brother are sent to Scholomance (a kind of Slavic Dark Arts Hogwarts) and later become prisoners of the Ottomans.

I thought the artwork was easy to follow and stylistically appealing enough. Some of the frames in the ancillary material at the back were truly beautiful. I often disregard the back-matter in comics because it usually amounts to little more than discussion of how the drafts changed over time – i.e. offering insight into the sausage-making of the book. However, this book had an extensive Notes section that I found fascinating and useful because it explained how points in the book compared with known history. Some of the points that I assumed were pure fiction had a factual basis. Sable also related points to Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” The creators tried to be consistent with Stoker’s book, as well as with history, when they could. The former wasn’t so hard because readers of Bram Stoker’s will recognize that the titular character is kept largely a mystery, particularly with regard to his backstory.

If you are interested at all in the historical and mythological basis of the Dracula vampire, I’d recommend this book. As I said, the notes will give you a good idea of what was known to be true, what is complete fiction, and what is a kernel of truth enveloped in story sensationalism. Obviously, all the supernatural elements are pure fiction, and also there is a lot that remains unknown, but this graphic novel provides an interesting take on the origins of Vlad Dracula.

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