BOOK REVIEW: Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the BorderlandsMaps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book consists of 17 essays about reading and writing. As the book’s title–also the title of the second essay–suggests, there’s an analogy drawn between story and a map, but—more importantly– Chabon proposes that the literary domain is a realm with frontiers and hinterlands. The central theme is that there is room for great discoveries if we stray from the center of the map were all is clear and well-defined. Literary fiction is the center. The hinterlands include a range of genres and approaches to story-telling that are often maligned as low-brow—e.g. fan fiction and comic books.

 

The book could be split into two parts, though the aforementioned theme cuts across all essays. The first 11 essays offer insight into maligned genres and their merits, but the next five shift gears into autobiographical telling of Chabon’s transformation into a writer. (The last essay, not present in some editions, could be seen as an epilogue to the entire work.) I’ll list the essays and give a hint about what each is about:

 

-“Trickster in a Suit of Lights”: This essay invites us to reconsider the connection between entertainment and literature, and in particular with respect to the modern short story.

 

-“Maps and Legends”: Here Chabon reflects upon the nature of a map and its analogy to the domain of fiction.

 

-“Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes”: Fan fiction is maligned, and not entirely without reason. Even when it achieves great popularity, it’s often bad (e.g. “Fifty Shades…”) However, Chabon correctly suggests that we consider fan fiction too narrowly, including only that which reinforces our notions. He offers a great example of a character, Sherlock Holmes, who launched a thousand fan fictions, some of which are masterpieces in their own right.

 

-“Ragnarok Boy”: Mythology often seems tired and cliché, but there are reasons such stories survive across ages. Chabon explores what it is in Norse mythology that makes it an ongoing font of inspiration for writers.

 

-“On Daemons & Dust”: For a while, YA was the only genre with rising sales–much to the chagrin of those who felt this might herald the rise of a real world idiocracy. In this essay, Chabon describes what it is about Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” series of fantasy books that pulls readers in—including the appeal of dark elements in stories.

 

-“Kids Stuff”: In this essay, Chabon considers the comic book and its evolution from kids’ stuff to a vast domain meant to appeal to a broad readership.

 

-“The Killer Hook”: This essay continues Chabon’s look at comic books, but through a specific example: “American Flagg!” a dystopian sci-fi comic book. Chabon proposes that “American Flagg!” spawned a new approach to comic book art and tone.

 

-“Dark Adventure”: This is about Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” Some topics are revisited, such as the appeal of dark and dystopian content. [For those unfamiliar, “The Road” is the story of a father and son wandering through a post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of some sort of stable community. McCarthy is the master of sparse prose, eschewing dialogue tags and maintaining a minimalist approach to his craft.

 

-“The Other James”: Here Chabon discusses the ghost story, using M.R. James’ story “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” as an exemplar.

 

-“The Landsman of the Lost”: Chabon discusses the comic strip work of Ben Katchor.

 

-“Thoughts on the Death of Will Eisner”: Eisner was a popular cartoonist, associated with such comic books as, “The Spirit.”

 

-“My Back Pages”: Here the book ventures into autobiographical territory as Chabon talks about his first dalliances with writing a novel.

 

-“Diving into the Wreck”: This continues Chabon’s telling of how he came to be a writer, and his early troubles in structuring a novel.

 

-“The Recipe for Life”: Here Chabon tells us about his introduction to Golems, a concept that would play an important role in one of his most influential works—an in the rest of the book. You’ll note the connection between fantastical devices and the telling of story that carries over from the first part.

 

-“Imaginary Homelands”: Chabon describes the role that is played by culture in forming a writer’s experience—both the culture one is living in and the cultural heritage that we each carry with us wherever we may roam.

 

-“Golems I Have Known”: This is one of the longer pieces and it presents the climax of Chabon’s tale of his transformation into a novelist. Golems as fictitious creatures built to facilitate certain truths are a central feature around which Chabon’s story is told.

 

-“Secret Skin”: [Note: This essay didn’t appear in the initial version of the book, and so your edition might not have it.] This essay invites the reader to reconsider the role that costumes and secret identities play for superheroes and how that need resonates with readers. In the process, this last essay sums up the reason why fantastical elements are so powerful in fiction.

 

There are only few graphics in the book, i.e. comic panels. Other than that there’s not much by way of ancillary matter, though there are recommended readings (oddly) interspersed within the index—rather than being a separate section.

 

I’d recommend this book for readers and writers. The essays are well-crafted and thought-provoking.

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2014 Superhero Movies

Here’s an overview of the upcoming year’s superhero movies.

 



I, FRANKENSTEIN; January 24th

Frankenstein’s monster may not the usual superhero, but it’s based on a graphic novel and the demon-battling premise seems heroic enough.



ROBOCOP; February 12th

This is also one you might not think of this as a superhero movie, I include it because there was a Marvel comic based on the movie and if Iron Man is a superhero…



CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER; April 4th

The second Captain America installment and the third of the five Marvel Phase II films. After taking on some high level conspiracies, Captain America finds himself battling his old sidekick’s villainous alter ego, i.e. The Winter Soldier.



AMAZING SPIDERMAN 2; May 2nd

The sequel finds Spiderman facing Electro and–to a lesser degree–Rhino.



X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST; May 23rd

As the confusing title implies, this is a time travel story in which events in the past must be changed to avert a grim future. Wolverine is sent back to affect this change.



TRANSFORMERS 4: AGE OF EXTINCTION; June 27th
220px-Transformers4_Teaser_Poster
OK, this is more a toy movie than a superhero movie, but cars that turn into robots seem super in my book. That’s not to say there isn’t a better than average chance the movie will stink.



GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY; August 1st
220px-Guardians_of_the_Galaxy_logo
It’s still early. There’s no trailer out as of this posting.



TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES; August 8th
No trailer or images out, and little is known except this is about as ridiculous a premise for a movie as is imaginable.



BIG HERO 6; November 7th
Big_Hero_6_logo
This is an animated Marvel project. A robotics prodigy and his creation team up with amateur crime-fighters to put an end to a nefarious plot.

I Always See the Wrong Movies: or, Post-Oscars Watcher’s Remorse

The one Oscar-Winner I saw

The one Oscar winner I saw

I only watched part of the Oscars last night. At some point I realized it wasn’t worth continuing. I see about three movies in the theater per year, and rarely are any of them Oscar material. At 10:00 pm all I had to show for watching was the chorus of the ditty “We Saw Your Boobs” echoing through my brain.  (Damn you, Seth MacFarlane, for that catchy, clever, melodic jingle that still runs like a gerbil in the rodent-wheel of my mind.)

The three movies I saw in the theaters last year were: The Avengers, Dark Knight Rises, and This is 40. The first two will no doubt convince you that I am a 12-year-old boy trapped in a middle-aged man’s body, and the last will convince you that I have poor judgement. (This is 40 had its humorous moments, but there was far too much screaming for my taste, although we did see Leslie Mann’s boobs– damn you, again, Seth MacFarlane.) I saw another half-dozen 2012 films on long Korean Air flights, but these were equally lowbrow titles (Men in Black 3, Prometheus, and Brave– the latter at least won an Oscar during the hour and a half I was watching, I think it was for Best Animated Makeup Artistry.)

I’m not altogether lowbrow. I will see most of the big winners eventually, when they finally make it to basic cable. For example, I watched The Hurt Locker on Saturday, just one day before the Oscars. So I am only three or four  or five years out of synch.  The Hurt Locker is a particularly fine example of going the other way because I understand its distinction is being the lowest grossing Best Picture winner ever.

This year’s Best Picture Argo is definitely a film that I will see in the next five years–barring Zombies, the apocalypse, or a Zombie Pandemic Apocalypse. So there’s a 60% chance that I’ll see it. The Iranian hostage crisis is one of the first historical events that I remember seeing on the news first-hand. Had I been in the country when Argo came out–I might have seen it in the theaters, but probably not.

Part of me thinks that I should grow up and start watching the “right” movies.  However, part of me says, “wait, there’s this one day a year when everybody is talking about these movies, and the other 364 days  they are talking about Dark Knight Rises and The Avengers  So in some sense, I already am watching the “right” movies.

TODAY’S RANT: Viral Video Advertising

I recently saw this posted on Facebook. I, being a doofus, believed I had stumbled upon the black box recording that would show archaeologists the moment it all went sour for the human race– the dawn of the rise of the apes. As soon as our self-aware brethren learn to take our technology and use it against us, we are surely doomed. Being damned dirty, the apes will own humans. [Participle dangle intended.]

Of course, I felt compelled to do a Snopes check because– believe it or not– sometimes people put things on the internet which are fake. I know, I know, hard to believe.

It turns out the video is a piece of viral advertising for the next Planet of the Apes movie. “Lesser” primate use of technology is still about right here:

Viral advertising is the latest craze. One leaks intriguing footage onto YouTube and doesn’t label it or say what it is.  Then you hope a bunch of schmucks fall for it, and they will– because that’s the defining characteristic of we schmucks. It’s tautological.  This kind of video will stick in one’s mind and get more media attention than would a regular trailer.

The problem is that movie-makers have the ability to make really convincing fakes. (That’s what they do.) My well-read reader will certainly have heard of the Orson Welles War of the Worlds incident. People who didn’t hear the beginning of the broadcast, which was formatted like a news bulletin, freaked out about the alien invasion. Some people jumped out windows (why, I have no idea. I don’t think they thought the value of that through.) Some people fled to Canada (assuming, of course, that the aliens wouldn’t be interested in that icy wasteland.)

My problem with all this isn’t that people are duped; it’s the “boy who cried wolf” effect. One day when we’re under attack by aliens, apes, or artificial intelligence, people are going to be like, “Dude, that’s a really convincing looking ray-gun… NOT!”

Book Review: JOHN DIES AT THE END by David Wong

John Dies at the End (John Dies at the End, #1)John Dies at the End by David Wong

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If the movie Alien was “Jaws in space,” then John Dies at the End is “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the Nether World.” Except that, unlike Bill and Ted’s, Wong’s book is hilarious.

The gist of this book is that two likable anti-heroes ingest a drug, “soy sauce,” that gives them the ability to pass into an alternate universe. They’re inexorably drawn down the rabbit hole (so to speak, there is no actual rabbit hole in this book.) What they find is not what they expected. It’s not what anyone expected, because it’s so mind-boggling ridiculous and richly complex.

The title character, John, oddly enough is not the main character. The author, David Wong, uses a self-named protagonist as narrator and lead. The book unfolds as Wong (the character, not the author) tells a skeptical journalist about the strange goings-on in his small, Midwestern hometown.

We see John mostly through the lens of the narrating Wong. We know that John is a storyteller. Which may sound a lot like “liar,” but that’s not the case. Have you ever known a person who would never deceive you for personal gain, but will never fail to engage in hyperbole to make a story funnier or more interesting? That is John. He has one of my favorite lines of the book:

“We’re talking about a tentacled flying lamp fucker, Dave. What are you prepared to call unlikely?”

Despite the fact that John is a booze-hound and exaggerator, he remains an endearing character. As Wong gets to know Amy, a classmate who lost her hand after they knew each other in school, we get an insightful testimonial about John:

“Let me tell you something about John. The reason I was surprised by your hand was because John never once described you as, ‘the girl with the missing hand.’”

As for Wong’s character, he is hapless but hilarious. When he gets to know Amy, he is shocked to find that she’s not retarded or crazy. They had vaguely known each other from a “Special Needs” school, but it never occurs to him that she might be at least as sane as he.

The book is a pan-genre mélange. While it’s mostly a combination of horror and humor, there are points at which it feels like action/adventure and towards the end it seems largely like sci-fi. Horror and humor are not easily mixed, but this book does it about as well as one can imagine it being done. John Dies at the End is campy, of that there can be no doubt, but Wong writes descriptions of creatures and murderous events in a way that offers grim clarity. As a lover of humor more than horror, I was obviously not put off by this dark comedy.

Throughout the book, one suspects that the whole surreal bag of events is just a bad hallucinogenic trip, and that the “soy sauce” is just LSD on steroids. Happily this is not the case… or is it?

Don’t worry; John dying is not the intriguing twist at the end of this book. There are a couple such twists though.

If the movie that comes out today (January 25, 2013) is not awesome, it’s not Wong’s fault. The trailer shows us the quirky horror, but not the humor of the book. Much of the humor is in the language – i.e. the word choice. Some of that will likely come out in dialogue and narration, but who knows how much.
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2013 Superhero Movies

2013 will be a big year for superhero flicks. There will be two films in The Avengers domain. The third Iron Man film will be out at the beginning of the summer and Thor: The Dark World is out at year-end. Given my preference for superheroes that don’t wear tights as outer garments, I have to say that Iron Man 3 is shaping up to be my favorite. The Wolverine is also unlikely be in tights in this personification, but I’ll go into that one with low expectations. (Don’t disappoint me again, X-men. Actually, I liked First Class, but the others were making me consider a life of  super-villainy.) I’m not big on gods as heroes, but that’s just me.

I am serious about having high hopes for Iron Man 3. The trailer suggests they are putting Stark in his darkest hour. Hopefully, they won’t entirely lose the trademark humor of the franchise. Having said that, I think some enhanced tension could be good. I don’t know why they couldn’t find a Chinese guy to play Mandarin, but it’s a good arch-villain and will be mirrored by some brawn. (I’m not down on Ben Kingsley. I loved him in Ghandi. I just think we should have left casting Caucasians for non-Caucasian parts with 1950’s Westerns.)

I recently did a post on the Man of Steel. As I suggested, I like my superheroes more flawed and vincible (it’s  a word, and it doesn’t mean capable of being turned into a Vince.) It sounds like they’ve made efforts to build tension, but in the trailer we pretty much see that as superman v. man conflict (which doesn’t sound like a thrill-ride.)  I’m leaving room to be pleasantly surprised.

The most tight-lipped franchise is that of Kickass 2. I don’t know if that should be taken ominously or not. They may have been so surprised by response to the first that they don’t want to jinx things.

Iron Man 3 (May 3)

Man of Steel (June 14)

Kickass 2 (June 28)

The Wolverine (July 26)
(This is not a trailer, but it’s a summation of movie’s development that is humorous in places.)

Thor: The Dark World (Nov 8)
Also not a trailer

2013 Martial Arts Movies

Chinese classic literature will make a major appearance in martial arts cinema this year, with movies entitled The Monkey King and Journey to the West. Both movies will likely featuring the staff-wielding monkey who made mischief in heaven and on earth. You may be familiar with the tale from Jet Li’s portrayal of the Monkey King in the 2008 film The Forbidden Kingdom. Readers can get the jist of the tale by reading the book.

Japanese classic literature will also be addressed, sort of. In the tradition of The Last Samurai, Keanu Reeves will star in movie that has no business having an American lead. It will be some sort of take off on the famous tale, 47 Ronin.

There will also be another iteration of the life story of Ip Man. Ip Man was a Wing Chun grandmaster who, as one can tell from the pile of films about his life, lived a fascinating life. While his fame is eclipsed by that of his most famous student, Bruce Lee, Man was a police officer who had to flee China to Hong Kong because of his support for the Kuomintang.

The sequel to the Tony Jaa film Tom Yum Goong (Ummm, Tom Yum) is due out this year. It will be entitled The Protector 2 in the west. The Thai star is continuing to give Chinese Kung fu cinema a run for its money.

The Grandmaster

Journey to the West

The Monkey King

Tom Yum Goong 2 (aka The Protector 2)
TYG2

47 Ronin

2013: The Year of Post-Post-Apocalyptic Sci-fi

If the sci-fi movies of 2013 reflect a zeitgeist, then we’re shifting from a people who think bad things await the Earth to a people who think we’ll have to abandon the planet altogether. That’s a prevailing theme in the upcoming big box-office movies of the genre. In <em>Oblivion</em>, Tom Cruise plays a drone repairman who at least believes himself to be one of the last people on the planet. In <em>After Earth</em>, Will Smith and his son (in character and real life) return to an Earth devoid of humanity. In <em>Elysium</em>, not everyone has left Earth, but everyone who is anyone has.

There are still a few of the traditional dystopian visions in which some dire fate confronts humanity on Earth. World War Z is a movie adaptation of Max Brooks’ novel that brought the Zombie back to life (admittedly bad pun intended.) It features Brad Pitt battling an ever expanding horde of “fast zombies.” Pacific Rim envisions giant alien monsters coming through a dimensional portal at the bottom of the ocean, and the giant robots humanity creates to battle them. The movie adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game, while largely about the training of the genius Ender Wiggin, also imagines an Earth in peril from an alien threat. Even the new Star Trek movie at least partially abandons frolicking in deep space in favor of confronting an evil genius who threatens Earth.

Oblivion


Star Trek Into Darkness

After Earth


World War Z


Pacific Rim


Elysium


Ender’s Game