BOOK REVIEW: Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk

Nights of PlagueNights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Too soon? I’m interested to see how this brilliant novel does, not because anyone will question that it’s a well-crafted story but because it’s definitely less escapist in the wake of the COVID pandemic. Ordinarily, it would have all the emotional distance of historical fiction. However, here we have a novel set around the turn of the twentieth century, and it features the conspiracy theorists, the science deniers, the pandemic opportunists, and those prone to whistle through the graveyard as a disease eats their community alive – i.e. characters with whom we are now all too familiar.

The novel takes place on the fictional island of Mingheria in the Aegean (Mediterranean) Sea between Turkey and Greece during the waning years of the Ottoman Empire. Given its geography, Mingheria is a potential powder keg under the best of circumstances, being about half Greek Christian and half Turkish Muslim, both of whom overwhelm a group who identify primarily as Mingherian and who want to establish their own state, reflecting a primacy of Mingherian identity. (Not unlike those Kashmiris who want an independent Kashmir because they see their problem not as being a Muslim – Hindu one, but rather an India – Pakistan one.) While the story is full of both Mingherian domestic and international politics, it’s the plague that drives everything, or – more accurately – fearful (and often ill-advised) responses to the plague.

At the heart of the story are Princess Pakize and her husband, Doctor Nuri. The couple is diverted to Mingheria while sailing to China. The reason the Sultan changes their itinerary is two-fold: first, to fight a worsening outbreak of bubonic plague, and, second, to learn who killed the last doctor sent to lead the quarantine response, Dr. Bonkowski. (Bonkowski was a well-regarded medical expert who is killed by unknown perpetrators in the early chapters of the book.) As Nuri is engaged in public health matters and the Princess is occupied by writing letters to her sister and contemplating Bonkowski’s demise, they are swept up in events that will ultimately lead to a revolution and coup d’état. When those who oppose the public health measures (e.g. prohibition of Muslim funerary bath rituals) gain control, the epidemic swells to horrific proportions. As in Pamuk’s excellent novel, Snow, the tension between modern / progressive forces and religious traditionalists is ever present (not unexpected given Turkey’s long history of conflict between reformers and fundamentalists.)

This book is compelling and, in the wake of the COVID pandemic, makes a profound commentary on how far we haven’t come.


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BOOK REVIEW: Project MK-Ultra Vol. 2 by Brandon Beckner, et. al.

Project MK-Ultra Vol. 2: Sex, Drugs, and the CIAProject MK-Ultra Vol. 2: Sex, Drugs, and the CIA by Brandon Beckner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 15, 2022

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Volume Two continues the story of CIA’s crazy “experimentation” with LSD, ultimately leading to the fall of the MK-Ultra program. The story is built around strange but true events, but there is a fictionalized element, particularly with respect to the investigative journalist (Seymour Phillips) whose presence in the story is used as a mechanism to tie together events that may or may not have had much overlap in terms of common personnel. That is to say, fiction isn’t just used to make the story more intriguing (a tale this strange hardly needs much help in that department,) but to both fill in knowledge gaps (famously, most of the MK-Ultra files were destroyed) and to make a throughline connecting somewhat disparate events. The focus is on events surrounding Ronald Stark as well as the widening spillover of LSD from CIA programs into the civilian space – e.g. the birth of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

The art in this book is amazing. Of course, much of it has to capture the sensory bizarrerie of psychedelic experiences, and it does that creatively. However, even the “sober” panels are colorful and present a captivating world. There’s a full-page depiction of Chinatown that blew my mind.

If you’re interested in a story built around the CIA’s dalliances with LSD, and the subsequent spillover into the civilian world, I’d highly recommend the two volumes of this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: War & Peace: The Graphic Novel Adapted by Alexandr Poltorak [from the work by Leo Tolstoy]

War and Peace: The Graphic NovelWar and Peace: The Graphic Novel by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: September 27, 2022

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Ambitious. Many readers will feel it’s overly ambitious or even impossibly ambitious. It’s not just the challenge of capturing a sprawling 1,220-page tome in a 220-page graphic novel. Tolstoy’s work has a vast cast of characters and captures a broad set of both fictional and factual events whose broad contours are determined by Napoleon’s wars in Europe, culminating in his adventures into Russia. (In other words, the narrative arc wasn’t organized in such a manner as to be readily compressible, but to capture real world events.)

I must make a confession. Usually, when I’m reviewing a graphic novel adaptation of a work of literature, I’ve read the source material. In this case, I haven’t, and so I may not be the best person to comment on how accurately Poltorak and Chukhrai condense events. I can say that the pacing of the book – particularly in the latter half – is a bit like taking in the world through the window of a speeding train. Of the two most important characters, this is particularly true of the experience of Prince Andrew, whose major moments are “blink and you’ll miss them.” Pierre’s arc seems to be covered in greater detail, though still at breakneck pacing.

Given all that, many people will say to themselves: “Realistically, I am never going to read a 1000+ page novel about the experience of Russian aristocratic families leading up to and during the Napoleonic French invasion, even if it has love triangles, conniving inheritance disputes, and plenty of good ole family dysfunction.” The early part of the book is mostly rich people sitting around at soirees discussing war (in peace) as they live out their various familial and romantic dramas. If you’re that person, this graphic novel maybe the perfect solution for you, and I’d recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: He Who Fights With Monsters by Francesco Artibani

He Who Fights With MonstersHe Who Fights With Monsters by Francesco Artibani
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date: August, 30, 2022

This graphic novel tells a story featuring the Prague Golem, a mighty protector figure from Judaic folklore – formed of clay and breathed to life by magic words. The setting is Nazi-occupied Prague, and the golem is brought to life after a great period of dormancy, having been stored in the rafters of a synagogue, in order to once more act as protector to the Jewish people.

It’s a gripping tale of wartime resistance, but with a flat ending. However, I’m not sure it could have concluded in a satisfying way. That’s the challenge of writing a story of a superhero versus Nazis. The Holocaust is such a colossal tragedy that to rewrite the it resets the book into some alternate reality fantasyland, striking a raw nerve and killing any poignancy in the process.

The artwork is skillfully rendered and captures the grim nature of a city under fascist occupation quite well.

I enjoyed the story, despite not really knowing how to process the ending. Maybe that’s the point, that one can’t turn such mindless brutality into a storybook satisfying ending [by satisfying I don’t mean happy, but rather concluded in the definitive and intrinsically reasonable – if horrifying – way of tragedies.] Still, one is left wondering about apparent changes in character motivation and whether they make any sense — because they don’t feel like they do.

If you’re intrigued by a historical fiction / fantasy mashup set in Prague during the Second World War, check this book out, but expect to be left in an uneasy space at the end.


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BOOK REVIEW: Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi; Adapted by Fred Duval

Black Water LiliesBlack Water Lilies by Fred Duval
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release date: October 11, 2022

This is a murder mystery novel by Michel Bussi adapted into a graphic novel. It’s a bold move to transform it into a graphic novel because the story is so setting-dependent, that setting being the timeless tourist village of Giverny in France, a village that served as the model for many of the paintings of Monet. That said, the book worked for me. I found it engrossing from cover to cover.

A trio of police detectives arrives in Giverny to investigate the death of a man who was stabbed and subsequently bludgeoned, his corpse found in a picturesque stream. So, one has this small town where everyone knows everyone else — and the secrets and the rumors, except these outsider detectives who must learn what they can from questioning locals who are used to keeping things to themselves. The detectives aren’t even clear about whether the victim was done in by his womanizing, his attempts to acquire rare paintings, or some unknown cause. Therefore, they have to purse multiple lines of investigation at the same time.

I found the story to be well-crafted in terms of how information is concealed and revealed and how the loose-ends and anomalies are tied up in the end. The art is beautiful and green, and captures the scenic appeal of Giverny. Though I should note that I don’t read many mysteries and those who do and who have intense attention to detail might find problems that I missed altogether.

I’d highly recommend book. Those with an interest in art will find the book particularly intriguing.


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BOOK REVIEW: Pulp: The Process Edition by Ed Brubaker

Pulp: The Process EditionPulp: The Process Edition by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: July 26, 2022

This is the “how the sausage gets made” edition of a popular standalone graphic novel, “Pulp.” It takes the reader through the various stages of the book’s development from conception through book “trailer,” drafting, penciling, coloring, and on to the final product. It offers explanatory notes by the author and artist at each stage along the way, in addition to showing the work at that stage of development. For the more substantial stages (e.g. drafting and final edition) it shows the full product, but for intermediary stages (e.g. inking and coloring) it just shows a few representative pages to give one the idea.

If you’re just looking to be entertained by a story, this isn’t the edition you want. Which isn’t to say that it’s not the book you want, “Pulp” offers a well-crafted and intriguing tale of a man, Max, who lived the gangster life in the wild west in the prime of his life (late 1800’s) and then “went straight” to become a pulp fiction writer in 1930’s New York during his senior years. The action of the story takes place in 1930’s New York, with flashbacks to violent episodes of Max’s past out west. It’s a take on “the life sucks you back in” storyline.

The main market for this edition is artists and writers interested in the comic writing / drawing tricks and techniques of seasoned professionals. I can also imagine actors, filmmakers, and those with cinematic interests benefiting from learning how choices are made with respect to how scenes are set and framed – i.e. to learn from the economy of the graphic novel format.

If you’re a creative type looking to work with comics or wanting to learn about how scene choices are made, give this book a look. If you’re just looking for an action-packed story, pick up the original edition of “Pulp.”


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BOOK REVIEW: Adi Shankara by P. Narasimhayya

Adi ShankaraAdi Shankara by Anant Pai
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This short, comic book tells stories associated with the Advaita Vedanta sage, Adi Shankara. As it’s a comic book intended for children, it’s more occupied with mythology and magical tales than with describing Shankara’s philosophy or what real world events influenced said philosophy. That said, it’s a quick way to gain some insight into the mythology of Adi Shankara as well as a few sparse biographical details such as the places he traveled and people he met.

At the end, it does have a half-page box of quotes that offers a tiny bit of insight into what Shankara believed and what concepts he emphasized in his teachings.

If one reads it with the expectation that this is a book that is primarily going to offer insight into stories and fantasies bandied about, it’s certainly worth the limited investment of time and effort required to read the book. But it’s kind of boring in the way of Superman-type comic books –i.e. fantasies of a guy who does whatever he can imagine because he’s not bound by the physical laws of the universe. That is, it’s more intended as escape from reality than as education.


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BOOK REVIEW: Compass, Vol. 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie and Dave Walker

Compass, Volume 1: The Cauldron of Eternal LifeCompass, Volume 1: The Cauldron of Eternal Life by Robert MacKenzie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: January 25, 2022

This graphic novel mixes Fantasy, mythology, and bits of history to tell a story with a fountain of youth trope. The protagonist is Shahidah El-Amin, an Arab Moslem Indiana Jones but in the form of a teenage girl. Her ultimate antagonist is a Mongolian Khan with leprosy who wants the “cauldron of eternal life” in order to cure his leprosy, and – you know – because he wants to live forever. However, the more immediate conflict plays out between Shahidah and a Chinese version of herself, i.e. another teenaged girl scholar / adventurer. This allows for a more interesting emotional arc as the two girls have clearly been close companions before, but now they’re on opposite sides and it’s never clear whether their friendship (or their other obligations) will win the day. Having a peer antagonist also avoids the strained credulity of Shahidah having to single-handedly defeat the leader of the biggest and most accomplished army of its time, and, well, said army.

This is an exciting adventure story. Being in the Fantasy genre, it’s hard to build and maintain thills and suspense when anything [i.e. magic] can happen. However, the limits of the fantastic elements are kept in check in this book, and don’t really benefit the main characters — who must rely on their own wits and physical capabilities.

If you like historical fantasy that blends mythology with creative story elements, you may want to check this book out. [Not to mention if you like the idea of a young / female / period Indiana Jones.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Mademoiselle Baudelaire by Yslaire

Mademoiselle BaudelaireMademoiselle Baudelaire by Yslaire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel mixes fact and fiction to tell the tale of the romance between French poet, Charles Baudelaire, and Jeanne Duval, the Haitian mulatto woman with whom he maintained a long-term relationship. The fictional portion of the story is necessitated by the fact that some of the couple’s story is unknown. Much more is known about Baudelaire than Duval, and in terms of what is on record, accounts differ. The relationship was passionate and complex, but it’s hard to say how loving it was. Baudelaire is depicted as fetishizing Duval’s dark skin, and Duval seems like a gold-digger at times.


The bulk of the story is told in an epistolary fashion as a letter from Duval to Baudelaire’s mother after the poet’s death. While the epistolary form seems apropos for creating a tone for historical fiction set during the 19th century when that form was all the rage, it was the source of my only problem with the book. That problem is that some of what’s communicated strains credulity. First, the work is erotic in nature, and it seems unlikely that even the most libertine of women would feel the need to share with a mother what they did with her son. It just feels awkward. Second, there is a fair amount of “as you know, Bob” exposition in the letter. [“As you know, Bob” being shorthand for telling a character something that they would know at least as well as the teller knows, and – in some cases – more so.] This is most clearly seen when the letter talks about a time when Baudelaire was living with his mother, such that it’s not clear how Duval knows this information, but it’s non-sensical for her to act as though the mother wouldn’t know.


Other than that, my view of the book was entirely positive. I found the art was effective and captured the spirit of the time well. There’s large amounts of nudity and graphic sexuality, so if that’s troubling for you, it’s not your kind of book. The prose is just purple enough to lend authenticity to the 19th century epistolary format, but quite readable.


I found the book fascinating and I read it straight through. If you’re interested in the Bohemian life of a womanizing poet / laudanum addict, you’ll definitely find this book compelling.


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BOOK REVIEW: Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs, and the CIA, Vol. 1 by Brandon Beckner

Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIAProject MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIA by Stewart Kenneth Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 19, 2021

This graphic novel mixes fiction with the historical events, and – in a bizarre inversion of the usual – the most outlandish parts of the story tend to be the history. It tells the story of the CIA’s ill-fated and highly illegal “experiments” with LSD, studies that involved dosing unwitting individuals on American soil. The fictionalized through line of the story involves a San Francisco journalist who stumbles onto the CIA’s illicit activities in 1971, and – even after being discredited – continues to pursue the story with the help of a whistleblower. The book includes a prologue that shows the accidental dosing of chemist Albert Hofmann in his laboratory, an event that marked the discovery of LSD. And it comes to an end showing Operation Midnight Climax, a sub-project of MK-Ultra that was among the most audacious plots because it involved setting up a brothel at which johns were involuntarily dosed with LSD and watched through 2-way mirrors as they did the deed [or freaked out, as the case may be.]


The art is interesting. A lot of the frames are psychedelic, reflecting the fact that one is seeing the world through the eyes of tripping individuals. Most of the rest are retro to give the feel of the time at hand. In most cases, that’s 1971 San Francisco, but some of the story jumps back to events in the 50’s and 60’s. At one point the frames reminded me of Archie and Jughead comics.


I enjoyed how the story was told, using the driven newbie journalist as protagonist. That said, the book may be annoying for individuals who are curious about what is fact and what is fiction. Footnotes are occasionally used to help in this regard, as well as to give information about period references used for authenticity.


I found this book compelling, but – having read a fair amount about MK-Ultra – I had some idea what was true and recognized the names of key figures. If you’re interested in the ridiculous annals of the CIA and aren’t bothered by the fact / fiction mixing, check it out.


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