BOOK REVIEW: I Breathed a Body by Zac Thompson

I Breathed a BodyI Breathed a Body by Zac Thompson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

This is one creepy commentary on technology run amok, and the alienation, desensitization, and disconnection that can result. [Or, at least that’s how I interpret it.] The protagonist is a driven social media executive who finds herself in territory that even she believes is over the line, despite her near psychopathic emotional disconnection. Another way to interpret the story is that the fungi that has taken parasitic control over humanity is making people see the world more as they would – i.e. with less cringing about death, decomposition, and deformation. [I happen to think that the fungi infection is a clever plot device to get across ideas about technology and modernity, but I could be wrong.]

Either way, I do think this is a clever story. There’s a species of Cordyceps fungi that takes control of the brain of an ant, steers it to the top of the nearest tree, and bursts out of the ant’s head to spread its spores from its new, elevated vantage point. This book reminded me of the Cordyceps fungi, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired the story — with the requisite growth in sophistication to account for taking over a much more complex brain. This is a compelling and thought-provoking story, but it’s also gruesome and at times chaotic. If you can take horror, you’ll probably find it worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges

The Aleph : including the prose fictions from The MakerThe Aleph : including the prose fictions from The Maker by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book contains the seventeen stories of The Aleph, plus about twenty short pieces of prose fiction from The Maker. Borges was one of the best writers of the twentieth century. His writings are mystical, philosophical, imaginative, provocative, compact, and thick with ideas and references to great literature from Don Quixote to Shakespeare to Greek Mythology. Much of Borges work has a fantasy / speculative component, but it never feels like it’s for its own sake, but rather to convey ideas of a philosophical, psychological, or spiritual nature. One might think that such short writings by a man who was clearly obsessed with a few key ideas (e.g. libraries and labyrinths) would get stale, but far from it.

The collection known by its titular final story (i.e. “The Aleph”) makes up the bulk of the book, and offers some exceptional stories – e.g. “The Other Death,” “Deutsches Requiem,” “The Man on the Threshold,” and, of course, “The Aleph.” The stories engage the readers with issues like mortality, fate, courage, and mystery.

The pieces from “The Maker” are short, few more than a couple pages and some just a paragraph. The most famous piece included is probably the brilliant “Borges and I,” but other important pieces include “The Maker,” “Everything and Nothing,” “The Yellow Rose,” and “The Witness.”

The book has notes and back-matter by the translator / editor, which can be useful for readers who aren’t acquainted with Latin America or the broad canon of classic literature Borges regularly references.

I’d highly recommend this for those who enjoy though-provoking, philosophical fiction. It is a thinking person’s read, but yet many of the pieces are highly engaging as stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ashes, Ashes by Jean-David Morvan

Ashes, Ashes #1Ashes, Ashes #1 by JD Morvan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: October 5, 2021

[Note: The book I’m reviewing is the 144-page multi-issue story.]

This is the story of a technological apocalypse and a post-apocalyptic Alexander the Great who was born of it. The bulk of the story reveals the cataclysm and life in the early days of its wake. But there is an interspersed subplot that takes place in a present-day that is well after the apocalypse. The big difference between this “world-conqueror” (actually, it seems to be only a small area of what had been southern France) and other power-consolidating titans is his luddism. He vehemently hates [almost] all technologies and insists that all (but one) post-Amish technology be eschewed because he feels human innovation to be cause of humanity’s fall. Otherwise, he checks the boxes: narcissistic, nihilistic, and probably a psychopath.

The story is compelling, and it definitely draws one in. I thought the pacing was well-executed and the concept was intriguing. Both the art and story have a unique feel, though I don’t know that the book will be able to distinguish itself within an extremely bloated dystopian / post-apocalyptic sub-genre.

There were a few elements that felt clunky. First of all, the mid-twenty-first century technological landscape is strange. I didn’t think anyone still imagined flying cars on the near-future time horizon. I think they only existed here to make the moment of doom impressively fiery. Second, a romance is established with great effort that is allowed to flameout to a lukewarm puddle of nothing. Perhaps, this was the point — to show the romance as victim of the demands of life under an anarchic dystopia. (If so, it gets lost amid the more exhilarating happenings.) Third, there is one modern technology that the protagonist is quick to adopt. This might be an intentional way of showing his love of self far exceeds his hatred of technology, but it’s curious.

If you don’t have dystopia fatigue, you may want to give this book a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: Maria Llovet’s Eros/Psyche by Maria Llovet

Maria Llovet's Eros/PsycheMaria Llovet’s Eros/Psyche by Maria Llovet
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This story takes place at a all-girl boarding school called “The Rose.” It’s a strange place with something vaguely supernatural about it, including: we see no faculty or staff – only students, and, also, it appears to teach witchcraft or some sort of herbal potion-based artform. And the students are eliminated one by one – as in a reality tv show in which the low-scoring student (or disobedient / disorderly students) must leave, at least that’s what we are led to believe. The bulk of the story revolves around just two characters, Sara [a new student] and Silje [a veteran.] Few of the other girls have much in the way of speaking roles or story relevance. That’s part of a minimalist motif that’s used to generate a stark feel. There’s a lot of textless frames, and most frames show a simple scene that is often more reflective than active.

The story consists of a slow-burn budding romance of the two main characters. The sparse approach leaves some story elements inexplicit or ambiguous, and that means that varied readers may have a broader than usual range of interpretations. The sparsity may generate feelings of desolate melancholy for which I suspect the author was aiming, but it also might create a sort of emotional disconnect from the book. I kind of fluctuated between the two as I read.

At the end of the story, I found it satisfying – if simple, but during the read I frequently wondered where it was going and / or what I was missing. It’s essentially a romance set in an all-girl and sadder-feeling Hogwarts.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Old Man And The SeaOld Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella is a masterpiece of American literature. The story is straightforward, but visceral and provocative. Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, has been having the dry spell of all dry spells, having not returned with a fish in over eighty days. Santiago recently lost his assistant / apprentice, a boy named Manolin, but the age-mismatched pair remain friends. After a scene in which the two hang out and share a meal one evening, most of the rest of the book is only – literally – the old man and the sea.

The next day Santiago goes out much farther than usual in an attempt to rectify his losing streak. Soon, he hooks what he can tell is a massive fish. It turns out to be an eighteen-foot marlin, and it ends up dragging his boat around for the better part of three days before Santiago can sink a harpoon into it. But the three days of raw fish meals, almost no sleep, and gashed hands (from the line) are only the start of Santiago’s problems. The marlin is far too big to fit in Santiago’s tiny boat. The fisherman has to strap the fish to the outside of the boat. It’s not long before a shark sinks its teeth into it, and – while Santiago kills the shark – the blood and meat dripping into the sea attract additional sharks. By the time Santiago gets back to port, there’s nothing but a skeleton attached to his boat. Locals are impressed by the fish skeleton, buy Santiago has nothing to show for all his tenacity.

I was reading a book that dealt with the challenges of modernity (Camus’ “The Fall”) around the same time I read this book, and it occurred to me that this is, in an important sense, the opposite of “The Fall.” While Santiago may be struggling to prove that he’s still the man who once won arm-wrestling matches against brawnier challengers, he’s also at-ease in a way that seems rare. Santiago knows who he is. His fear of death is minimal. He can endure because he has the confidence of one who has mastered himself via the forge of nature.

This short book is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Fall by Albert Camus

The FallThe Fall by Albert Camus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a novel for someone who revels in philosophizing. It’s not a book for those who like to get lost in a story. It reads as if one sat down at a bar next to an obviously intelligent, but also obviously tipsy individual, who proceeded to tell his life story reflectively and analytically – without emphasis on thrilling exploits.

It falls among books that deal in the crisis of modernity – by which I mean, the challenges that arise from being evolutionary optimized to live a certain kind of life, while living one that is completely different. (i.e. It’s like “Fight Club,” but both far more boring and less broadly introspective.) The protagonist, Clamence, tells us about how he once got hit in public and how angry he was with himself for not getting in a lick of his own. He also describes hearing a woman jump / fall into the Seine, and not lifting a finger to help – despite hearing the woman’s screams. Adherence to laws and norms (in conflict with animal impulse,) disconnection from community, and ethical ambiguity are recurring themes in such books. What one does in a post-god world is also reflected upon. Religion and belief, like it or loathe it, fulfilled a function for humanity, and a vacuum was created for people for whom the cons of belief came to outweigh the pros.

Personally, I’m prone to philosophizing, and so I did get into this book – despite not finding it engaging as a story. When I read one particular line, I learned I was a suitable drinking companion for Clamence: “I have never been able to believe, deep inside, that human affairs are serious matters.” [Virtue or vice, I can relate.]

If you’re prone to philosophize, check out this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Frank Pe’s Little Nemo by Frank Pé

Frank Pe's Little NemoFrank Pe’s Little Nemo by Frank Pé
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a comic strip character / concept redux of material created in the early 20th century by Winsor McCay. It features surreal scenes from the dreamworld of an imaginative and sleepy boy. The artwork of Frank Pé’s revisitation of Nemo’s dreams is stunningly beautiful and brilliantly creative. But…

I would argue that it’s not a good children’s book for two reasons. First, there are a few panels that are likely to prompt questions / conversations that most parents probably don’t want to deal with during story-time. In particular, there’s some prominent cigarette and smoking imagery. It does contribute to the book’s retro feel. When the original strip came out in 1905, there was probably lots of smoking in it (maybe even some product placement advertising by tobacco companies,) but by today’s standards it’s conspicuous and controversial. I won’t get into the few other questionable frames, but they exist. (Though most of it is perfectly kid-friendly.)

Second, there is a segment or two that use vocabulary that will send many parents to the dictionary just to be able to decipher the speaker’s comments for their child. This is a shame because it’s not this way throughout the book. As with the questionable art, most of the book is perfectly manageable as a children’s book. I’m not sure whether Pé was seeking to be true to the original, or whether he thought it was fitting for a children’s book, but with relatively few edits I think it would be much more suitable for children.

For adults who are interested comic strips (historically or artistically,) I’d highly recommend this book. For those considering it as a book for a child, I’d consider whether some grandiloquent vocabulary and a provocative frame or two are troubling, and decide accordingly.

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BOOK REVIEW: Black Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell

Black Widow: Deadly OriginBlack Widow: Deadly Origin by Paul Cornell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This flashback-laden volume revolves around Natasha Romanov’s relations with various men but especially Ivan, a man the Black Widow saw as a father figure. Ivan’s death is an impactful moment in the life of this femme fatale, and it seems like it might be just the start as all the men in her life begin to come under attack (mostly fellow Avengers and other superheroes from the Marvel pantheon.) The story unfolds as the Black Widow tries to unravel the mysterious plot to eliminate her prodigious corps of boyfriends while protecting said friends and (ex-)lovers.

This comic might seem like it would be the perfect entry point for a reader new to the Black Widow character. It offers flashes of insight into the character’s origin, but without the dated feel of old comics that were often marketed toward ten-year-old boys and that didn’t anticipate technological progress and cultural trends any better than most sci-fi does. However, I would argue that it’s a bit of a chaotic read for a newbie to the character (speaking as one.) It’s a four-issue volume and so the glimpses of backstory and the references to arcane Marvel characters and events come in rapid succession.

I found this book a fun and entertaining read, if a bit helter-skelter. I should point out that by the time one gets into the latter-half of the volume everything starts to come into focus.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Clouds by Aristophanes

The CloudsThe Clouds by Aristophanes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play scoffs at philosophers and sophists (in general) and Socrates, in particular. An old man, Strepsiades, is beleaguered by creditors, having purchased a horse and chariot for his son, Pheidippides. Strepsiades tries to get Pheidippides to study philosophy because the old man believes it will allow his son to argue away the debt. Pheidippides refuses, and so Strepsiades takes it upon himself to enroll as Socrates’ student. After some strained conversations and ill-timed masturbation, all parties conclude that the old dog can’t learn new tricks, and so Stresiades again tries to recruit his son. This time Pheidippides does join Socrates’ “think-shop” (called “the Thinkery” in some translations.)

Socrates’ characterization isn’t fair to the philosopher in some regards. If the works of Plato and Xenophon hold water, Socrates was neither a know-it-all nor was he obsessed with grandiose topics – rather, he claimed to know little and was said to have been only concerned with questions of how to live a better life (as opposed to lordly enigmas like the origin of the universe or the nature of reality.) However, this isn’t to say that Aristophanes has no valid point. That intense and abstract philosophical debate doesn’t change the hard facts of the world is a legitimate point. Debts aren’t erased by the creditor’s inability to successfully argue niggling points of grammar. Being stabbed by a jilted lover is no less painful if love is an illusion than if it equates to beauty or is a fundamental truth.
Much of the play’s humor is weakened (if not killed) by a lack of common context, but that’s not to say there aren’t jokes that still fly in the 21st century.

This short play is worth reading, as it presents a beneficial counterpoint to the Socratic dialogues.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Valley of Fear (Sherlock Holmes, #7)The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This (book seven of nine of the Sherlock Holmes canon) follows a pattern set by the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet. Both books are arranged into two parts, the first of each is a typical Sherlock Holmes story in which the detective investigates a puzzling crime in England; the second skips back in time (and across the Atlantic) to tell a compelling tale that provides motive and context for the first story.

In “Valley of Fear,” the first story involves the gruesome death of a country gentleman in his own home by sawed-off shotgun blast to the face. While suicide is quickly eliminated, the clues present mixed signals. While it’s not, strictly speaking, a locked-door mystery, its occurrence inside a moat-enveloped manor house leaves open the possibility of an inside-job, but there is confounding evidence that suggests someone fled the scene.

The second story takes place in a mining town in the United States, in a place insinuated in the first part to be “the valley of fear.” This valley, properly named Vermissa Valley, earned this epithet because it was run by a thuggish group of violent men who used a secret society as a cover for the corrupt gangland-like practices they carried out as “the Scowrers.” This story focuses on a new arrival, McMurdo, who we are led to believe was a gangster in Chicago who fled to this quiet – yet gangster-ruled – place to disappear into the protective company of fellow criminals. But, of course, nothing is as it seems.

While this book may be self-derivative, I still found it engrossing. While the two novels use a similar narrative scaffolding, each is unique in its details. In both cases, the second part is especially compelling.

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