BOOK REVIEW: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

God Bless You, Mr. RosewaterGod Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel presents a satire of American socio-economic existence. It spends much of its time poking fun at old money folk (trust fund kids, as they’d be called today,) but the book has plenty of barbs to go around. The story centers on Eliot Rosewater, the head of the Rosewater Foundation, the charitable arm of an old money robber-baron kind of family corporation. Eliot is cut from different cloth, however. He’s in love with the work-a-day blue collar American, and does everything in his power to eliminate his separation from such people, including obsessively working with volunteer fire departments, setting up his foundation in his hometown (Rosewater, Indiana,) and making the Foundation an extremely personal organization that gives what would today be called micro-grants to ordinary citizens for ordinary uses.

Opposing Eliot Rosewater is a lawyer named Norman Mushari who’s made it his mission in life to have Eliot proven insane so that he can have the Rosewater Foundation fortune shifted to Fred Rosewater (of the middle-class Rhode Island Rosewaters.) The challenge is knowing whether Eliot is truly insane or not, even Eliot, himself, doesn’t always seem clear on the matter. For many, such as Mushari, just the fact that Eliot is acting in opposition to the societal norm (e.g. setting up in Rosewater, Indiana v. New York or Chicago and not making big grants to corporations and colossal NGO’s but rather giving a few hundred dollars at a time to residents of Rosewater) is proof enough. And, if Eliot is crazy, is it because there’s something wrong with him, or that there’s something wrong with the world.

This book is hilarious, and the last chapter leaves the reader with a great deal to mull over. I’d highly recommend this book for all fiction readers.


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BOOK REVIEW: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

A Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a comedy of family dysfunction. The family consists of Cold War era immigrants to England from Ukraine. One adult daughter (Nadezhda) narrates the story, which about how her estranged relationship with her sister (Vera) is renewed through battle with a common enemy, Valentina, the gold-digging Ukrainian woman (younger than either sister) who’s moving in with the sisters’ eighty-four-year-old father.

There’re a few divides that generate the story’s tension. First, Vera grew up with war during her formative years, while Nadezhda was a child of the post-war peace. This informs how each sees the world and the other. Vera sees her younger sister as a naïve bleeding-heart socialist, while Nadezhda sees Vera as a cold and distrusting Thatcherite scoundrel. Second, there’s the chasm between established immigrant and new arrival, the former feeling that they kept their heads down, did the work, assimilated, and earned their status as citizens, while feeling someone like Valentina is tricking her way in and expecting to be handed all the perks of first-world living without working for them. Finally, there’s the gap between what a new immigrant expects life is like in a wealthy country, and what it’s actually like. Valentina has a television view of England that assumes the characters she sees are typical.

The story is funny, but occasionally poignant – e.g. as when we learn the family’s war-torn backstory or even when Valentina is shown in a more sympathetic light by our “bleeding-heart” narrator, who waivers between her family obligation self (who despises Valentina) and her socialist-feminist self (who empathizes with Valentina to some degree.)

I’d recommend this book for readers of literary fiction. It’s well-crafted and humorous. But it’s literary fiction, so if you need your characters likable and your plot strong, you may find it a bit dull.


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BOOK REVIEW: Doctor Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughan

Doctor Strange: The OathDoctor Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The story begins with Doctor Strange being hauled into the office of the “Night Nurse,” a doctor (misclassified because of Marvel’s great love of alliteration) who treats superheroes off the books and at all hours. Stephen Strange has been shot in the chest by a burglar, Brigand, who proves more capable than your average thief in the night. The drama is all over a potion. It turns out that said potion is intended to treat Wong (Strange’s valet, ally, and martial arts instructor) who is in advanced stages of cancer. However, there’s more to the potion than Strange realizes. This five-issue arc is a race against the clock to get the potion before Wong succumbs to his disease, but there are those who want nothing more than to keep the potion out of Strange’s hands.

Marvel fans will likely be familiar with the “Thanos was Right” movement, a group of fans who propose that in the last phase of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thanos wasn’t really a villain but was, rather, doing what needed to be done. This book plays similarly with ambiguity of villainy, asking the question “would a panacea really be good for mankind?” I enjoy such approaches to story in which its far from obvious who is right, making it completely believable that the story’s villain could see themselves as the hero (not to mention some of the readers seeing them that way.) Virtuous villains and heroes who make tragically bad decisions are one thing that Marvel does right both in the comics and the movies.

This book offers an intriguing story. It’s thought-provoking, though not the kind of trippy, surreal tale that many are looking for when they turn to Doctor Strange comics. It revisits Strange’s origin story, but just in enough detail to provide backstory for an important character. It’s a must-read for fans of Doctor Strange.


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BOOK REVIEW: Cross to Bear by Marko Stojanović 

Cross to BearCross to Bear by Marko Stojanović
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: July 5, 2022

This Western-Dark Fantasy hybrid tells the story of two men who fled the Old World, seeking anonymity in the American West, two men whose stories tragically intersect. The protagonist is a battle-weary ex-killer for the enforcement arm of a secret society. It’s a twist on the clichéd “man-of-violence who walks away from it all only to be drawn back.” The other immigrant to the West is none other than Jack the Ripper.

I thought the author built a clever story that both drew heavily on the conventions of the Western, but with some atypical elements to give it a unique flavor. While the story draws on the clichés of the genre, by telling it slant they aren’t quite as blinding. The story builds emotional resonance and feels unique despite the fact that the components of the mashup are familiar.

I only felt one clunker in the story, a point during which the protagonist tells another man that he should keep in mind that the protagonist’s son is a Lord and, therefore, is this other man’s better. This would make an American LAUGH and LAUGH. I’m not saying that promise of equality embedded in the American mythos worked out for everyone, but the idea that this deputy would find claims to aristocracy a meaningful basis of superiority (and that the protagonist wouldn’t know better than to say it, having lived there as long as he did) seem unbelievable.

If you like Westerns and cross-genre comics, you’ll probably find this one to be a compelling read.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Dark Room by Gerry Duggan

The Dark RoomThe Dark Room by Gerry Duggan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: June 29, 2022

The MacGuffin of this dark fantasy story is a camera that shows scenes not as they appear to the photographer, but in a way that reflects the blessings or curses of the photographic subject. There’s a demon looking for the camera, and he’s focused his search on Dounia, proprietress of a cabinet of curiosity style collection of usual objects. Dounia is a plucky young woman who’s well-connected within the supernatural community.

The setting of the story is a New York that’s a bit like the London of Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” book, which is to say normal on the surface but overlapped with a city of mythic and magic beings.

The art is clearly drawn and uses color boldly, particularly given the ghastly subject matter. Different color palettes are used for different realms, and the cast does move around among the homes of folkloric and fantastical beings. I liked the color and don’t think it detracted from the macabre content, and – it should be noted – that the tone always retains a level of humor and lightheartedness.

I enjoyed reading this comic, and thought the art was skillfully rendered. If you’re interested in dark fantasy graphic novels, you might want to give it a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Arsene Lupin, Gentleman Thief by Maurice Leblanc

Arsene Lupin, Gentleman ThiefArsene Lupin, Gentleman Thief by Maurice Leblanc
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: July 5, 2022

This is a beautifully illustrated edition of the first collection of stories featuring the fictional burglar-extraordinaire, Arsène Lupin. While some of the nine stories reference others, they each read standalone.

Arsène Lupin is the Sherlock Holmes of crime. Like Holmes, he’s extremely intelligent, gifted in observation, with deep insight into human nature, and with a range of practical skills from hand-to-hand combat to disguise, but Lupin puts these talents to use for the purpose of theft. While one might think of Prof. Moriarty as “the Sherlock Holmes of crime,” Lupin operates by a code, eschewing senseless violence, carefully targeting his victims, and returning items he feels inappropriately taken. (Mirroring how Holmes occasionally lets a [technically] guilty party go free due to extenuating circumstances.) Besides cameo references to Holmes in multiple stories, the final story pits England’s greatest detective against France’s greatest burglar (though in a way that mostly allows each to retain an unblemished record and mutual admiration.)

I found these stories to be enjoyable to read, and generally clever, but – having been forced to make the comparison due to the repeated references to Holmes – I couldn’t help but see their inferiorty to the stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Lupin is more one-dimensional and fantastical than Holmes. In Holmes, one recognizes that one is unlikely to get extreme intelligence without some sort of countervailing cognitive challenges – e.g. Holmes is an addict who needs to fill his days with work lest he fill them with heroin, and for all his great observational skills, Holmes frequently doesn’t recognize when he’s offending others with his brusque nature and sense of superiority. Lupin can come off as an arrogant jerk (he recognizes that he’s being narcissistic, but doesn’t care) but it seems we’re supposed to conclude that he’s just that good. Lupin is a fantastical mix of super intelligence, preternatural charm, and zero weaknesses – i.e. a perfect being made for pure escapism.

The stories are enjoyable and the art is beautifully rendered, and if you can avoid comparing it to Sherlock Holes and take it as mere escapism, you’ll likely find this book pleasing.

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BOOK REVIEW: Bone Orchard: The Passageway by Jeff Lemire

Bone Orchard: The PassagewayBone Orchard: The Passageway by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: June 21, 2022

A geologist from the Geologic Survey is dispatched to a remote lighthouse island to investigate an unusual hole in the rock, and what he finds is beyond expectation.

I must admit, I might have found this book more intense were it not for my own recent reading history. In the past year or so, I’ve read more than one book placing a stranger on a lighthouse island, and so it feels cliché. I can’t say for certain whether it’s truly an overused plot device or a fluke of my reading selections (though they were all new releases.) The lighthouse is a visceral setting by virtue of its isolation, with only an antisocial lighthouse keeper for company.

The bigger challenge for me was the decision to let the art do much of the heavy lifting at the climax of the story. This created a great deal of ambiguity, and I couldn’t tell whether it was purposeful / strategic ambiguity or whether it was just a misunderstanding of what the reader would glean from the rapid succession of stylized panels. The artist did a good job of capturing the stark and frightful imagery necessary to achieve the requisite emotional palette for the story. However, I was distracted by so many questions: “Is this meant to be real or a dream?” “Why does the island work that way?” “What is the story’s base reality?” etc.

The book’s art and premise are good (if overly familiar,) but I felt the story was given short shrift, possibly the author was more focused on the overarching story and not enough on this as a standalone entity. Long-story-short: it’s okay, and maybe as a whole the series will be more promising.


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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: The Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway

The Torrents of SpringThe Torrents of Spring by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella is atypical of Hemingway’s work in several ways. It’s one of his earlier works of fiction, so it may stand to reason that his style and genre preferences weren’t yet set. The book parodies certain works and authors and satirizes the conceits and affectations seen in some popular writers of the day. Not that Hemingway’s work is otherwise devoid of humor, but it rarely plays the central role that it does herein. The story also has plot points that feel surreal in their absurdity, which is a variation from Hemingway’s usual dramatic realism. The novella also features a number of fourth wall breaks in the form of “Notes to the Reader.”

The book combines two storylines, each featuring a different worker at a pump factory in a Michigan town. Scripps O’Neill is a writer who comes to town after wandering away from his home down a train line after his wife left him. Scripps goes native in the town, getting a job at the pump factory and marrying a local woman, but he’s perpetually restless. Yogi Johnson is already an experienced worker when Scripps arrives, and he’s shaped by his experience in World War I, which other characters continually question amongst themselves. He ends up wandering out of town down the train tracks in a way that echoes Scripps’ arrival.

The book is funny and quirky and oddly engaging. Some of the humor would probably land better for those familiar with the pretentious writers that were the book’s target, but even if one isn’t familiar with the literature of the era, one will come away with an understanding of how Hemingway viewed said writers.

I enjoyed the book and would highly recommend it for readers of American Literature.


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BOOK REVIEW: Primordial by Jeff Lemire

PrimordialPrimordial by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: May 24, 2022

This graphic novel blends alt history and sci-fi. It takes place in a world that differs from ours in a number of [mostly superficial] ways that might all be ripples from one major change, that change being that when the US and the USSR sent their test animals into space something very different happened, something that put an end to the space programs of both nations. The story features characters based on the real-world personages of Laika (the dog the Soviet Union shot into space) and Able and Baker (the monkeys that America sent.)

There are two storylines occurring simultaneously, first in the 1960’s and then in the near future. One of these is the tale of the aforementioned “test pilots,” and the other is that of two scientists who are trying to get the animals back, or at least to communicate with them. One of the scientists is an American professor from MIT doing contract work for NASA and the other is a Soviet biologist.

It’s a simple story, but I found it engaging and to be built on an intriguing premise. I’d recommend it for readers of graphic fiction, particularly those who enjoy counterfactuals.


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