Week 20 (Sam): House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

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Reader: Sam

Topic #2: Read a debut novel

Book: House of Leaves, by Mark Z. Danielewski

Published by Pantheon Books (2000)


To get a better idea try this: focus on these words, and whatever you do don’t let your eyes wander past the perimeter of this page. Now imagine just beyond your peripheral vision, maybe behind you, maybe to the side of you, maybe even in front of you, but right where you can’t see it, something is quietly closing in on you, so quiet in fact that you can only hear it as silence. Find those pockets without sound. That’s where it is. Right at this moment. But don’t look. Keep your eyes here.”

Absolute darkness except where the beam of your flashlight illuminates the smooth, black walls. Absolute silence except the sound of your own footsteps echoing back from the many alcoves and rooms you cannot see. A Pulitzer-winning photojournalist and his family find a door to a physically impossible labyrinth in the living room of their house. A blind old man writes an exhaustive essay about a paranormal documentary that does not exist, then dies under mysterious circumstances. An apprentice tattoo artist comes across the old man’s notes, and the more he reads, the more certain he becomes that something savage and hungry is stalking him, waiting for the moment to pounce. With each page they turn, the reader descends deeper into a maze of words twisting across blank white paper, through interview transcripts and footnotes, flipping upside down and sideways in search of an exit, or at least the center of the labyrinth where, in accordance with old stories, there might just be a monster lurking.

House of Leaves is a dense meta-novel packed with footnotes, appendices, and experiments in formatting, fascinating readers with its strange and winding passages. Danielewski’s obsession with meandering footnotes is reminiscent of other works of contemporary metafiction, but it is uniquely appropriate for a novel so concerned with the idea of what it’s like to be lost in a maze. Whenever the reader finishes a footnote and scans the page to find where they left off, it’s as though they’re retracing their steps after reaching a dead end. There are other interesting formatting choices, most of them successful in setting the mood or expressing an idea. The fact that “house” is always rendered in blue is among the most prominent, but Danielewski’s most striking choice is crossing out any text referencing the myth of the Minotaur that lived in King Minos’ labyrinth, as though in some futile attempt to erase the concept from the story but only drawing more attention to it.

As briefly as possible, this book takes the form of a mass-market edition of an amateurish academic essay cobbled together by tattoo parlor employee Johnny Truant based on writings by Zampano, a blind old man, examining the events of The Navidson Record, a purported documentary about the maze hidden in the Navidson household—although Truant can’t find any evidence that the documentary or its subjects even exist. In all, there are three different people writing footnotes, sometimes even writing footnotes for their predecessors’ footnotes (thankfully, differentiated from each other by font). While the urgency and emotional heart of the novel lies in the deepest layer, it is the clamor of other voices, commentating and occasionally disagreeing with each other (or with themselves) that bring the story to life and give it the context it ultimately needs to carry an immense emotional weight. Zampano’s footnotes are a series of pedantic academic references to topics as far-flung as geochemistry, architecture and mythology, examining the events of the documentary from many angles and establishing dozens of literary allusions that linger throughout the book. Johnny Truant’s footnotes are raw and personal, as well as frequently autobiographical. He’ll occasionally comment on something interesting in The Navidson Record or in Zampano’s analysis, but the majority of his footnotes are tangents about his own life inspired by whichever part he just read. The third voice, an unnamed editor, will correct an occasional typo or explain some element of the manuscript that Zampano or Truant couldn’t have known, but their role is mostly to put one final barrier between the reader and the story of Will Navidson that is now nested like the smallest doll in a matryoshka set.

The innermost layer, bolstered by it’s eerie premise, could have stood on its own as a horror story without all the metafictional trickery, albeit with diminished effect. Just as Will Navidson has finally agreed to settle down with his family after a life of travel and adventure, his family discovers the entrance to a maze that cannot exist, serves no obvious purpose and seems to have no end. The passages of the house’s unplanned addition are utterly black and cold, breezeless and featureless except for the occasional door or staircase. Worst of all, the corridors are always shifting, doors appearing and disappearing, rooms expanding and shrinking and moving around without explanation. It’s dangerous to even go inside without wearing a harness. The adventurous spirit that animated Navidson’s legendary career as a photojournalist urges him to explore the darkness with his camera, but at the insistence of his partner, Karen, he agrees to send a professional expedition team instead. The couple assumes that working through intermediaries will keep the dangers of the maze at a distance; by the time they realize how wrong they were, it’s already too late.

While it lacks the high concept thrills of The Navidson Record, the diary that Truant keeps in the footnotes tells an eerie story of its own. He has lived a life of distraction for years, getting high on whatever’s available, hitting bars and nightclubs with his friend Lude every night looking for casual sex. When by coincidence he gets his hands on a box of Zampano’s notes, he thinks organizing the material will be just another way to kill some time.¹ Before long, however, he grows obsessed with the manuscript and the the impossible story it contains, seeing echoes of his own life in the icy darkness of the labyrinth. And the more Truant vanishes into his restoration project, the more certain he becomes that something invisible and inhuman is hunting him and that his only hope of escaping it lies within the manuscript itself.

The mark of a truly great book is being able to open up to a random page and not find any passage that feels out-of-place or unnecessary. House of Leaves manages this achievement with grace and apparent ease. Whether I was watching explorers slowly starve in an endless labyrinth or Johnny Truant install a sixth lock on his front door, I always felt it was part of one story, one fever-dream-vision of humanity being swallowed by darkness. Despite its bleakness, the book is never so self-serious that it becomes a chore to read. There are lighthearted moments too, courtesy of Navidson’s wisecracking twin brother, Tom, and some experimental page layouts that are more playful than profound, but these are only dead-ends branching from the true path to the center of the labyrinth, where Will Navidson and Johnny Truant must confront an emptiness that they cannot escape.

The Navidson labyrinth lies at the heart of Danielewski’s achievement. He leans into the uncanniness of its pitch-black halls—its coldness, its sterile emptiness, its complete silence except for an intermittent rumbling sound like the roaring of a bull—to unnerve the reader, but also to provoke their curiosity and wonder. Although the expeditions Navidson organizes to explore the maze discover very little, especially at first, there is something awe-inspiring and strange about human beings walking through such an alien place at all, like watching someone walking on the moon. As if in reaction to this strangeness, it is always during trips into the maze that the formatting goes the wildest. Sometimes, the text will flip upside down or sideways. Sometimes, footnotes will expand until they overwhelm the body of the text itself. On one occasion, the text is even printed mirrored. It is as though even words are not welcome in the darkened hallways, and must be twisted in strange ways if they are going to survive. While the maze is obviously dangerous, it also has a kind of strange beauty; it’s no wonder Navidson is so enthralled by it.

It’s difficult to come up with substantive criticisms of this book. Johnny Truant’s footnotes occasionally descend into stream-of-consciousness word-salads that annoyed me at first, but the further I read, the more obvious it became that these ramblings suited his character. Similarly, I usually find myself irritated by long, meandering asides, especially when they are in footnotes and harder to read, but when House of Leaves descends into chapter-spanning lists of architects’ names or types of construction material, it seems so appropriate that it actually enhances my experience. Readers should feel free to skim these protracted lists without fear that they are missing out on anything. After all, a dead end is a dead end, no matter how long it takes you to get there.

House of Leaves is an astonishing success, a work with boundless ambition and the artistry to match it. It thrills the reader with supernatural horror, but also challenges them to explore its twisting passages in a search for hidden meaning. Occasionally, the book is funny; more frequently, it is sad. Twice, it made me cry. It’s a book with a clear vision, although ironically, a clear vision of murkiness, of confusion, of being lost and afraid. Johnny Truant’s paranoia, Zampano’s loneliness, the swallowing darkness of the deepest, darkest pit of Navidson’s house: these are all corridors in Danielewski’s maze, and we are its prisoners. Groping around in the dark, we must stay alert and never give up hope if we are to have a chance of discovering an exit, and beyond it, sunlight.

Final Grade: A+

¹ As a younger Zampano once said:

Who has never killed an hour? Not casually or without thought, but carefully: a premeditated murder of minutes. The violence comes from a combination of giving up, not caring, and a resignation that getting past it is all you can hope to accomplish. So you kill the hour. You do not work, you do not read, you do not daydream. If you sleep it is not because you need to sleep. And when at last it is over, there is no evidence: no weapon, no blood, and no body. The only clue might be the shadows beneath your eyes or a terribly thin line near the corner of your mouth indicating something has been suffered, that in the privacy of your life you have lost something and the loss is too empty to share.”

Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves (New York, New York: Pantheon Books, 2000), p. 543

Week 19 (Sam): The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

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Reader: Sam

Topic #14: Read a book about war

Book: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (1990)

“They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

The Vietnam War is quietly simmering and Alpha Company, composed of around eighteen men, wanders the Vietnamese jungle, looking for people that they ought to kill or villages they ought to burn. There is nothing remarkable about Alpha Company; they’re just one of many companies in the war, and their job is roughly the same as the others. Yet, they’re not interchangable drones of course; they’re people with little quirks of their own. Henry Dobbins wears his girlfriend’s pantyhose as a comforter, for instance, and Ted Lavender smokes dope and takes tranquilizers. But whoever they may be, their long days and long nights are spent just like the other soldiers, looking for an enemy as elusive as wind in the foliage. During the Vietnam War, all the terror and exhaustion Alpha Company carry with them every day are simply a matter of routine.

Written by a Vietnam veteran two decades after the war, The Things They Carried is an unconventional cocktail of autobiography and fiction. The stories Tim O’Brien tells are somewhat true to his experience, but he openly admits to changing the details. The book can be read as a series of short stories, but the interrelations between them suggest a unified narrative that is best appreciated when read in its entirety. Although written with a consistent voice, each story embraces a different relationship to fact and fiction with a result that is striking in its originality.

Echoing Alpha Company’s deliberate detachment from the emotional burden of the war, most of The Things They Carried is written with a numbed distance from the action, whatever it might be. In the opening story, for instance, O’Brien narrates a moment when a soldier is shot and killed with no more urgency than scenes where soldiers are making jokes or marching in silence. That man’s death is the axle upon which everything else in the story turns, but its emotional weight is left to speak for itself, a faint murmur of grief. This quiet tone is well-suited to O’Brien’s masterful prose, where every word resonates with echoes of grief so terrible it cannot be confronted directly. The power grief has to transform O’Brien’s writing is subtler than with most authors, the moments of rawest emotion manifesting not through changes in the vocabulary or rhythm of individual clauses, but through the use of massive run-ons, assembling a chain of dozens of these unremarkable clauses into sentences that become slightly more passionate with every comma that passes by, however much the language may belie these feelings.

There isn’t enough space to discuss all twenty-one stories individually, but I do have some favorites: Tim O’Brien describes his brief stint as a draft dodger; years after the war, one of Alpha Company drives around aimlessly, dreaming of telling someone about the time he let someone die, but never quite having the courage; a bitter O’Brien pioneers a scheme to terrify an army medic who nearly let him die. These are some of the longer, more substantial stories, but they are joined together with shorter asides, more abstract meditations on what it was to actually live the war. In these shorter segments O’Brien explores more directly the ideas he develops in the longer ones: that one never forgets the war, and the senselessness of it seems to cry for explanation, and that sometimes it takes some leniency as far as the literal truth goes to convey the emotionally honest truth of one’s experience with the war.

The dreamlike manner in which The Things They Carried drifts between different degrees of truthfulness is not just a thematic gesture, but also the book’s deepest joy. In spite of the seriousness of the subject matter, following along becomes a game of spotting the lies. O’Brien will tell stories about terrible tragedies he experienced, only for him to later tell the reader that they happened to someone else, or in a different place or at a different time, or maybe they didn’t even happen at all, but seemed like the sort of thing that might have happened. Although his prose never falters in its beauty, reading through multiple accounts of the same event, sifting through different levels of fictionality, one senses O’Brien’s befuddled impatience as he tweaks details of the same stories, trying to find the versions that capture his feelings completely. At times, he explicitly challenges the value of literal truth, saying that between “happening truth,” which is events as they actually occurred, and “story truth,” which is events as they seemed to happen, the latter may be more truthful. The Things They Carried serves as proof of his vision of “story truth” because although the details are always shifting, the pain that O’Brien is trying to convey comes through clearly, unchanging.

A sense of truthfulness hangs over everything, lie or not, largely because of how convincingly the soldiers of Alpha Company are written. There is plenty of cartoonish machismo and morbid humor, but unlike some movie portrayals, it is not the only way these soldiers communicate with one another. Sometimes they’re scared or angry, lovesick or embarrassed, and although they may try to hide it, they are all human underneath. Their humanity is the pillar of the book, lending urgency to the pain they experience, and making irrelevant the question of whether a given event really happened to Tim O’Brien himself. Even if it didn’t happen to him, in a whole war full of soldiers just like him, someone must have gone through something similar.

Altogether, it’s difficult to imagine a more heartfelt or more quietly striking exploration of the grief of war. The fact that the details are so muddled and O’Brien’s narration is openly so uncertain at times what he is trying to say only increases the emotional power he wields with every elegant sentence. To a certain extent, uncertainty is itself the point, since as the decades have passed, alienating him from his experience, the war has taken on a strange distance, even though at times, it seems to O’Brien to be recurring in front of his eyes from the sheer intensity of the memory.

There is one story in the book, “In the Field,” which feels redundant with other, better stories, and for this minor flaw alone, I cannot quite give The Things They Carried a perfect score. Otherwise, it is a beautiful book, passionate, confused; even haunted, in a way. Haunted by the men O’Brien killed, the men he watched die, and the man he used to be, a long time ago.

Final Grade: A

Week 18 (Blaga): The Adventures of Superhero Girl, by Faith Erin Hicks

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Reader: Blaga

Task #18: Read a superhero comic with a female lead

Book: The Adventures of Superhero Girl, by Faith Erin Hicks

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (2013)

 

Superhero stories can be fantastic (both literally and figuratively), but they can sometimes take themselves a bit too seriously, perhaps? What better way to enjoy a superhero story and simultaneously address real issues than through a parody, then? Faith Erin Hicks’ The Adventures of Superhero Girl accomplishes exactly that, and teases quite a few laughs along the way. Originally a children’s comic serialized in The Coast paper (and later published online in its entirety), Hicks’ work consists of a series of vignettes exploring the day-to-day adventures and mishaps of Superhero Girl—a 20-something Canadian girl who is trying to establish herself as a superhero and also navigate normal life.

What initially drew me to The Adventures of Superhero Girl was Hicks’ aesthetic style, since as a comic reader, I tend to be very picky about visuals. Relatively simple, Hicks’ style is fun and easy on the eye; it also lends support to the comedic tone of the story. Although the original was in black-and-white, this edition proves that the art is a great match for colorist Cris Peter. His palette is bright and fun, and his use of Ben-Day dots is a nice homage to the tradition of comic design. Another interesting feature of this graphic novel is its horizontal layout, retained from when it was a newspaper comic. At first, this made it seem larger than standard graphic novels, but upon comparison, it has exactly the same dimensions (even in hard cover). There is an average of five to ten panels per page, which are clearly divided and spaced. It should be noted, however, that Hicks makes a sharp shift in layout: in the first twenty pages or so, the panels are divided only by lines, and take their aforementioned form only after that. This would not have been too noticeable, had it not been done right in the middle of a story. As a result, difference is clear and slightly uncomfortable on the eye.

Another issue that came up from time to time was the lack of division between the vignettes. The Adventures of Superhero Girl is a collection of vignettes, telling episodes from the life of Superhero Girl. The stories are loosely connected chronologically, and have certain motifs present throughout (e.g. Superhero Girl’s search for an arch nemesis, her jealousy of her big brother’s success, etc.), but sometimes reading at the comic’s brisk pace, one can miss the ending of one story until well after the start of the next one. This is partially due to the difference in the stories’ length. While most are multiple-pages-long, others might last for only a page. Here, Hicks’ lack of clear transitions works against her. Although this would have made sense in the original format, in a compilation, this is often confusing and, in the case of the story’s abrupt ending, annoying. In that sense, The Adventures of Superhero Girl cannot be called a proper graphic novel; a collection of short stories would be more appropriate, as short stories can follow the same characters and themes, but do not have to follow any particular order, or be limited to a single plot.

While The Adventures of Superhero Girl has a number of stylistic troubles,, its real strength lies in the content of the narrative itself. While successfully parodying established superhero tropes, Hicks also tells a story about a girl coming of age. Superhero Girl is in her early twenties, living away from home and struggling to establish herself as a superhero—not very successfully—while balancing that with her “real” life. Even while battling ninjas and monsters, she needs to think about finding a job and making new friends, although at one point she admits to having forgotten how to deal with anyone that she doesn’t need to punch. It doesn’t help that her older brother has a far more successful—if conventional—superhero career, and she constantly feels obligated to prove herself and crawl out of his shadow. Her awkwardness and unceasing determination makes for a relatable heroine, one that both the intended audience (8-14) and older readers (especially those of us in our early to mid-twenties who are just beginning on the path of adulthood) will enjoy.

While unbalanced and not well-transitioned from a serial into a graphic novel, The Adventures of Superhero Girl provides for a fun and interesting read. Its strong visuals and thoughtful—often hilarious—content redeem it. While I am not sure that I will ever come back to it, I still find myself satisfied with having read it.

Week 17 (Sam): Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson; Art by Adrian Alphona, Jacob Wyatt, Elmo Bondoc, and Takeshi Miyazawa

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Reader: Sam

Topic #18: Read a superhero comic with a female lead

Book: Ms. Marvel  Vol. 1 No Normal (Issues #1-5), Vol. 2 Generation Why (Issues #6-10) and Vol. 3 Crushed (Issues #11-15)

Written by G. Willow Wilson, with art by Adrian Alphona, Jacob Wyatt, Elmo Bondoc, and Takeshi Miyazawa

 


“No matter how bad things get, there are always people who rush in to help. And according to my dad…they are blessed.”


 

In a world full of superheroes, sixteen-year-old Kamala Khan of Jersey City constantly falls short of her own daydreams. She wishes she could somehow join the ranks of the heroes she idolizes, especially Carol Danvers, the dazzlingly blonde Captain Marvel, but the possibility hardly seems worth considering. As a Pakistani-American Muslim, she already finds it impossible enough just to be something approaching normal in her largely white high school. But like it or not, normal just isn’t an option after a mysterious blue mist awakens shapeshifting abilities that propel Kamala into a life of crime-fighting that she used to experience only through fan fiction. Of course, being a superhero isn’t as glamorous as she assumed, and balancing two parallel lives might be more than dangerous; it might make it even harder for Kamala to figure out who she really is.

I’m not typically a reader of superhero comics, or really western comics in general, and in reviewing Ms. Marvel, I had to make some critical choices. Like many superhero comics, this one doesn’t seem to be written with a specific end in mind, so I had to choose a cut-off point. Given how short they are, one trade paperback seemed like far too little, so I arbitrarily chose to read three of them. The resulting experience failed to reach the standards of brevity and efficiency that I expect from stories, but I’ve chosen to at least show some leniency when it comes to loose-ends just in case they are going to be resolved in time. I will focus instead on how effective the story has been so far.

In a superhero story, nothing is more crucial than the superhero herself. Thankfully Kamala Khan (aka Ms. Marvel) is an excellent pillar for the series as a whole. She is not a particularly subtle or original character, but writer G. Willow Wilson has embraced the broad characteristics that make Kamala overpoweringly likeable. Whether she’s awkwardly bumbling her way through an interrogation by her overprotective parents or going gaga at the prospect of getting to fight alongside Wolverine, everything she does is pure nerdy, awkward “Kamala Khan.” The strength of her personality opens up the door to stories that are just as much about her emotional life as they are about the villains she’s fighting, and this not-fully-tapped potential is the greatest strength of the series. Visually, Kamala Khan is a triumph as well, at least as she is portrayed by lead-off artist, Adrian Alphona, who worked on the  Apart from her excellent costume design (as revealed in issue #5), Kamala’s face is a perfect medium of expression. Her youth and awkwardness are made visible in every jutted-out chin, in every bit lip or strikingly wide-open grin.

Unfortunately, Adrian Alphona is not the only lead artist in the first fifteen issues, and none of the others are able to match the lofty standard he sets. Artists Elmo Bondoc (Issue #12) and Takeshi Miyazawa (Issues #13-15) put in strong efforts and produce results worth reading, but Jacob Wyatt (Issues #6-7) seems to have no idea how to draw the lead character. Kamala’s off-kilter expressions are conspicuously absent for both issues drawn in this style, along with her memorably curly hair, the result being that she doesn’t even look like the same person. So, although those issues maintain the same high level of character writing, and feature too many alligator-fights to be considered a waste of time, it’s impossible to be emotionally invested in a story about Kamala Khan when the protagonist simply looks so little like her.

Sadly, the story in the first three trades is more a lesson on wasted potential than it is effective in its own right. For instance, a striking idea introduced in the very first issue is that when Khan transforms into her superhero identity, her uncontrolled shapeshifting abilities turn her into a mirror image of Captain Marvel, the white, blonde superheroine she idolizes. This was a perfect opportunity for meditation on the nature of internalized racism when it comes to personal identity, but just as the comic seems positioned to tell a story about this, it drops the whole thing entirely and Kamala gains the ability to fight crime with her own skin tone and face (behind a mask, of course). While Kamala’s discomfort at reconciling her superhero identity with her Pakistani-American Muslim identity is still very much a part of her character afterwards, the most striking symbol of her anxiety is never properly addressed or explored. G. Willow Wilson already threw away the most striking symbol of that struggle for seemingly no reason. There’s a similarly slapdash effort in regard to Kamala’s conflict with her first major antagonist, a bird-headed man with the mind of Thomas Edison. In addition to the goofy fun of fighting the famous inventor’s army of robots and sewer-dwelling alligators, there is the outline of a truly great story here about the pressures the modern world places on millennials. Sadly, other than a couple of moments that allude to this theme in an intentionally obscure way, and one clumsy scene near the end of the arc where Kamala just outright states what the story’s theme is, there isn’t much work put into making the theme feel central to the action. If the angst of teenagers who feel nothing but despair for their futures was more deeply explored and felt, this would have been an incredible story, but what we got falls short of that.

If my standards for this comic were simply concerned with the broad strokes of the set-up and the potential of the series in a general sense, I would label Ms. Marvel a tremendous success. It stars a wonderful protagonist with a simple but interesting set of powers and some great art. It has a strong sense of identity, percolating with questions about how a child of immigrants can comfortably live as an American. Also, there’s an adorable giant dog—did I mention that? Of course, a story isn’t judged on the broad strokes alone, and it’s in the details that Ms. Marvel goes astray. It gestures toward a great story, but somehow never quite finds time to tell it.

Final Grade: C

Week 16 1/2 (Blaga): Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

Reader: Blaga

Task #6: Read an all-ages comic

Book: Nimona, by Noelle Stevenson

Publish19351043.jpger: Harper Collins (2015)

When former-knight-turned-supervillain Ballister Blackheart comes home one day, he finds a girl waiting at his lab. Her name is Nimona, she is a shape-shifter, and she wants to become his sidekick despite his initial reluctance. With the help of both magic and advanced science, the two of them wreak havoc across the kingdom. Their goal: to prove that the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics and its champion, Sir Ambrosious Goldenloin (who has a complicated history with Blackheart), are not as righteous or law-abiding as they appear.

I first heard about Nimona from a friend in college. At the time, it was still only a web comic- the print version did not come out until later. I find that it made the transition smoothly between the two formats. On average, there are six to seven panels per page, filling the space but also leaving enough room in the margins so as not to seem cluttered. The panels are large and easy to see, although the font for the dialogue is a bit small. Stevenson’s backgrounds are relatively low in detail, employing a lot of solid greens and reds. The simple backgrounds balanced well with the novel’s complex plot, which was full of little subtleties that required the reader’s full attention.

What I love most about the comic are Stevenson’s multi-layered characters. Ballister Blackheart’s name is perfect for a supervillain, and “Ambrosious Goldenloin” for a champion. Despite his dark hair,  red cape and a mechanical arm, Ballister lives by a high moral code (which Nimona finds un-super-villain-like). In contrast, Ambrosious has flowing golden hair, and wears golden armor and a green cape as part of his long effort to appear heroic, but his place as champion came at a high cost. The two are arch enemies, but their relationship is not so simple – at the bottom of it all, there lies a deep friendship and probably, as Stevenson subtly implies, something more than that.

Nimona herself is quite complicated. At first glance, she is a fun, punky shape-shifting youngster looking to wreak havoc. It all looks like a game on the surface, but it eventually becomes clear that there is something more sinister to her than she is willing to show. She is a loyal and determined sidekick to the end, however; her relationship with Sir Ballister develops into trust and true friendship. Stevenson builds their relationship with a series of “mundane” moments that are a lot of fun nevertheless, such as a zombie-movie night (Ballister, ever the scientist, is not at all impressed with the scientific inaccuracy, much to Nimona’s annoyance).

Two supporting characters also merit mention: the director of the Institution, who is the de facto main antagonist, and Dr. Meredith Blitzmeyer, a prototypical mad scientist who has invented a machine that will prove very important to the story. I appreciated the fact that both are women in positions that are still not female-friendly in our world: a position of political power, and a position in scientific research. Like with everything in this story, Stevenson defies the set standard here as well, although I would have liked her to give Dr. Blitzmeyer more room to develop as a character.

One great piece of world-building is the way Nimona mashes medieval and modern together. It is set in a kingdom ruled from a palace; it has an Institution which trains knights and upholds law and order; people generally dress in medieval fashion. And yet, the world also brims with highly developed technology; a newscast which features a very modern-looking anchor; a science fair where we first meet Dr. Blitzmeyer. Nimona and Sir Ballister even discuss using genetically modified dragons at one point. Ballister is a very modern sort of nerd, getting overly excited about all things “science,” while Nimona – who would prefer to be blowing something up – quickly grows bored.

I truly adored this graphic novel. Both visually and narratively, I was always having a great time. There is, I think, something for everyone in it. The ending, true to the concept, is deeply satisfying and emotionally nuanced, if a little sad. When I finished, I was left wishing there could be more. Highly recommended.

 

Week 15 (Sam): American Born Chinese, by Gene Luen Yang

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CW: Racism

Reader: Sam

Topic #6: Read an all-ages comic

Book: “American Born Chinese” by Gene Luen Yang

Publisher: First Second (2006)


“It’s easy to become anything you wish…so long as you’re willing to forfeit your soul.”


Jin Wang was born in the United States, grew up there like most of his classmates, and has never even been to China, and yet, wherever he goes, his Chinese heritage is inescapable. If it were simply a matter of withstanding the bullying of his classmates, it might not be so bad, but as the years pass, the worst contempt for his heritage starts to come from within. Interwoven with this coming-of-age tale are two complementary stories: a retelling of the Monkey King’s origins from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, and the story of Danny, an average (white) American high schooler who receives a humiliating visit from Chin-kee, his pig-tailed, bucktoothed, slit-eyed, Chinese-stereotype cousin. As these stories alternate, the juxtaposition of the three tells one unified story about a search for identity, once abandoned, and now renewed.

Jin’s childhood, from elementary to middle school, is miserable in a believably restrained way. As with just about any child, his life is not simply a parade of woes, and so he manages to make a few friends, including a Taiwanese boy, Wei-chen Sun. The more obvious instances of bullying eventually peter out, and yet by that point, Jin has has grown so accustomed to a social gap between himself and his peers that he no longer tries to bridge it. It is only when he develops a crush on a white classmate, Amelia, that his dreams of achieving normalcy to impress her threaten to upend everything in his life, even his very identity.

Jin Wang’s story might be the most central of the three, but this comic is best read as a kind of triptych, where no one part can convey its real meaning without the presence of the other two. All three protagonists—The Monkey King, Jin, and Danny—are burdened by similar anxieties about their origins: the Monkey King by his species, Jin by his ethnicity, and Danny by the incongruous Chinese-stereotype that he somehow shares grandparents with. All three parts feature similar conflicts as well, with the main difference between the three being the level of plausibility: one is fairly mundane, another is a fantastical story with Gods, demons and superhuman kung fu abilities, and the last one is almost as commonplace as the first, but with an impossibly racist caricature whose presence continually challenges any sense of realism the story might otherwise have. Nevertheless, the way that these stories are told is altogether quite similar. The dialog is mostly casual and unobtrusively stylized, whether the speaker is an ordinary high schooler or a monkey trying to achieve godhood, and the general tone is rather relaxed and light-hearted. This is one simple story, told three times with a unified style, culminating in a single climax that is greater than any one of version could have achieved on its own.

Chin-kee, although barely a character in his own right, is Gene Luen Yang’s most ingenious invention. Every single moment of him—whether he’s dancing on the tables or salivating over “Amellican” girls—is agony, a rebuke to every American artist and writer over the course of a century who allowed this horrible caricature to represent millions of people within our borders and hundreds of millions abroad. As white as he may be drawn, Danny’s humiliation at the hands of his cousin is a specifically Chinese-American burden: to be at the mercy of racist nonsense that threatens to supplant whatever image one wants to present to the world. While all three stories are necessary, thanks to Chin-kee, the story of Danny is easily the most original and most memorable.

The art is serviceable enough to communicate the story, but it’s easily the most underachieving element in an otherwise outstanding comic. With few exceptions, the faces of the characters are drawn with identically flat lighting regardless of the environment and time of day, which denies the reader a sense of setting, which in turn sabotages the emotional vividness of events and even the characters themselves. Combined with the fact that many of the backgrounds are blocks of solid color, one occasionally gets the unsettling impression of talking heads floating in a light tan void. It doesn’t help matters that for some reason, most of the top and bottom of each page are simply empty space, the actual content only rendered within an identical square on each one. Forced to draw his characters within such a small space, Yang frequently has to depict them with simplified facial features that do a poor job of conveying emotion. There are some artistic successes in this comic, including a handful of striking panel layouts but the overall effect of the art is perfunctory at best.

There are also times when Yang seems a little lost as to how to communicate his characters. I don’t object to unnaturalistic dialog in theory, but when a scene goes as far as to be simply exposition about topics the characters have no reason to discuss, it feels like the author is just wasting time he could be writing the characters in a more genuine way. His habit of representing what characters are thinking about by putting images of objects or faces in thought bubbles is unnecessary, their feelings being obvious from context, and instead of helping, simply puts an uncomfortable distance between the reader and the characters.

In spite of my misgivings about the presentation, American Born Chinese is legitimately touching in a way few comics ever manage, and its unique structure is carefully harnessed to increase its emotional power. Amidst the interweaving of everyday life and a mythical past, we have the story of a boy treated like a foreigner in his own country for so long that it is only after years of searching that he discovers who he is and where he really belongs. Such a powerful story shouldn’t be overlooked.


Final Grade: B+

 

Week 14 (Blaga): The Iliad, by Homer

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Reader: Blaga

Task #9: Read a book you have read before

 

Book: The Iliad, by Homer (Translated by Robert Fitzgerald; Read by Dan Stevens)

Publisher: Farar, Straus & Giroux (2004) (Original translation 1974)

Audiobook: Macmillan Audio; Unabridged edition (September 16, 2014)

 

“Anger be now your song, immortal one,

Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous…”

 

Nine years since the Greek ships reached the shores of Troy and began the famous war over Helen of Sparta, Agamemnon, the king of all the Greek kings, wounds the hero Achilles’ honor. The enraged hero withdraws from battle, unleashing a chain of events that have decisive effects of the outcome of the war, and Achilles’ own fate.

I first read the Iliad when I was just 11 years old, around the time of its most (in)famous big screen “adaptation.” Ever since, I have made a habit of re-reading it every few years. I now have several translations – one in my native Bulgarian, several in English, and snippets of the original ancient Greek – under my belt. I should note that as a general rule, I do not enjoy re-reading books, especially not more than once. The Iliad has been the exception, in part because it is the richest works of literature that I have ever encountered, but also because the text’s various incarnations, from the original to its translations, are all unique, with their own merits.

Anyone who has at least dabbled in translation knows that the translator must make choices about how the original text will be transmitted into its new form. During this transition, some of the meaning is always lost, a problem that holds especially true when it comes to poetry. The translators I have read (note: in the past decade alone, there have been eight new major translations) have all approached the Iliad differently, especially when it comes to vocabulary and metre. As a result, some of them have been easier to read than others; some have stuck close to the Greek and others have been looser (here is an excellent essay in the New Yorker that discusses four notable versions and their authors’ approaches in more in depth).

No matter which version one chooses, it’s not something most people could sit and read for pleasure on a rainy day. It is long, it is dark (at places quite graphic), and it is quite difficult, although it does leave the reader with a profound sense of satisfaction whether one has read twenty lines or a hundred. The biggest irony here is that the Iliad was not originally intended to be read at all. It was meant to be performed out loud and to be listened to (there is a reason why the author calls upon the goddess to sing in the poem’s very first line). For all my dedication to the text, I had never actually listened to it before.

Fortunately, I remembered that I happen to own an audiobook version of Robert Fitzgerald’s 1974 translation. It is one of the best-known and widest-circulated, although it has never been a favorite of mine. In part, that is due to his insistence of transliterating the Greek names into English (thus Achilles is Akhilleus), but also because his voice on the page is archaic and slow-moving. Yet, Dan Stevens’ performance brings the text right off the page, making it surprisingly accessible and a real pleasure to listen to. Fitzgerald’s text is rich and lyrical, and read aloud that comes through beautifully. The emotions of the characters – Achilles’ indignation and grief, Hector’s annoyance and determination, Andromache’s fear and love, Hera and Athena’s pettiness and frustration – were more vivid than ever, and I was able to picture the events of the story with rare vividness, becoming more of a witness than a distant reader.

There is so much that I love about this text, and with every reading, I discover even more. One aspect that always captures my attention is the way Homer (or the people united under this name, depending on what you believe) takes great care to humanize even the most minor of characters. Homer gives every soldier who gets killed on the field, whether the audience has ever seen him before, at least a mention of his father’s name, and in several cases, much more than that. This is an excellent way to humanize the war. We are constantly reminded that this bloodshed has been going on for nine years, and while to the gods this is just a game for the sake of avenging Hera and Athena’s honor, the Greeks and Trojans are still people with families and stories of their own and who just want to go home.

A common misconception has been that the poem details the Trojan war as a whole. In fact, it takes place over a very short period of time during the ninth year of the war. Yet, in this short span, several crucial events occur. The anger of Achilles is at the center of everything. It begins in one way, changes into something quite different by the end of the poem. For this, and so much more, Achilles’ development as a character is among my favorite aspects of the story.

Of course, Achilles story is so much bigger than just him. When he withdraws from combat and begs his mother to have almighty Zeus avenge his honour (the Greek τιμή, or ti-meh, which translates as “esteem, honour, worship,” was a very important concept for the ancient Greeks), he has an opportunity to reconsider his path in life: should he sail home and enjoy a long life, only to be forgotten, or should he remain at Troy, doomed to die but gaining everlasting glory? What purpose will his life serve? His dilemma is central to the poem, and therefore echoed throughout by other characters in other places. On many occasions, the Greek leaders express a desire to go home, only to be dissuaded each time. They all have reasons of their own, but in the end, they must ask themselves whether they are ready to put nine years of sacrifices behind them, rendering them worthless. In the end, the answer – as we all know – is no. Ultimately, the Iliad is a poem about war and about the meaning one chooses for one’s life, knowing that it will, of course, end.

The Iliad has been my favorite work of literature for many years, never ceasing to surprise and teach me – I can only wonder what new things it will reveal to me in the future. Whether in the original or in translation, on the page or on audio, this is a rich and complex text that should be read at least once. I can now say that I have had a very positive audio experience with it; the 2014 audiobook version is one I will likely return to in the future.

Week 13 (Sam): Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut

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CW: Mental Illness, Suicide, Racism

Reader: Sam

Topic #9: Read a book you’ve read before

Book: Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut

Publisher: Delacorte Press (1973)

 

“This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”

On the surface, Dwayne Hoover is the ideal American: he owns dozens of businesses in Midland City, Ohio, and is one of the city’s wealthiest residents. He is charming and personable, beloved by his employees, his girlfriend, and even perfect strangers. But underneath the surface, he is being torn apart by a psychosis that he keeps secret from everyone, no matter how much his hallucinations and delusions intensify or how lonely he becomes. Meanwhile, in a cramped Cohoes apartment, prolific and virtually-unknown science fiction writer Kilgore Trout is preparing to leave for the Midland City Festival of the Arts, which he has been invited to more or less by accident. Embittered by years of economic failure and the terror of approaching old age, Trout plans to deliberately embarrass himself at the festival in the hopes of proving, once and for all, that the arts are worthless. In just a few dozen hours, these two strangers will meet and the resulting explosion of senseless violence will change both of their lives–and the world itself–forever.

Those who have read our self-introductions will probably remember me listing Breakfast of Champions as my favorite book. Upon rereading it, my feelings haven’t changed, although Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is always in position to edge it out. I felt taking a critical eye to a book I love would be a good exercise in objectivity.

Although Kilgore and Dwayne are the two most obvious focal points, Breakfast of Champions is primarily a portrait of a United States torn apart by apathy and starved of spiritual meaning. Dozens of other characters, most burdened by loneliness, personal catastrophe or the trials of a racist society, weave in and out of the story, connected to one another in a maze of seemingly meaningless coincidence. Most of the characters have little connection to the story itself, but Vonnegut rejects the notion–at one point, explicitly in narration–that a story should have leading characters and supporting characters, since life itself doesn’t. He peppers the story further with tangents about the United States and its history, written as though about a distant and exotic land, full of unnecessary hardship and slowly destroying itself from the inside with pollution, violence and spiritually-empty capitalism. One gets the sense of a circle of hell where millions of destitute people struggle to make it big while those who already have, like Dwayne Hoover, find nothing but emptiness in their wealth and status.

Regardless of whatever Vonnegut’s goals may have been, this book would be a forgettable mess if it didn’t have Dwayne and Kilgore to center it. Kilgore Trout in particular, is Vonnegut’s best-remembered character for a reason. With his dry humor, unbridled bitterness and self-hatred with an intensity bordering on self-righteousness, Trout’s blunt manner has a way of stealing any scene he’s a part of. On the other hand, Dwayne Hoover, in spite of his alleged charisma, controls scenes not with his personality, but by provoking our sympathy as he suffers through his illness in secrecy. He also carries a burden of grief: a wife he lost to suicide, her death casting a shadow over everything he does.

Despite the heavy subject, I actually adore this book for its somewhat incongruous sense of fun. Between the narrator’s deadpan humor, frequent tangents about several of Kilgore Trout’s high concept science-fiction novels, and a series of Vonnegut’s doodles depicting objects and symbols that appear in the text, Breakfast of Champions is a quick read without a dull moment. The myriad connections between the random inhabitants of Midland City engage the reader in an endless game of comparison, looking for meaning in coincidences that might be no more important than they appear. And although I can’t explain too much, two thirds of the way through, Vonnegut delivers his masterstroke, the book gaining a metafictional edge that gives the whole story much more thematic power and is a source of some of the funniest jokes the author has ever told.

Is Breakfast of Champions Vonnegut’s best book? No, definitely not. Slaughterhouse Five, at least, is a stronger book overall, and possibly Bluebeard too. But Breakfast of Champions is certainly my personal favorite, in large part because of the material it tackles. Ultimately, this book comes off like a conversation that Vonnegut is having with himself, pulling his characters’ strings as they act out a drama that will reveal the truth about the value of art. Does art really have the power to change the world? And if so, how do we use it safely? I’d like to think that Breakfast of Champions is a pretty good start.

Grade: A-

PS: A few things need to be explained about this book for moral, rather than artistic, reasons. Despite Vonnegut’s attempts at being progressive, the forty-four years since initial publication have not always been kind to this book. For instance, “chinaman” is a word that has aged very poorly, and was not much good to start with. More prominently, Vonnegut uses the “n-word” extensively throughout the text. I would argue that the slur is mindfully used as a symbol of the bigotry eating the country from the inside, but for many modern readers, that excuse isn’t nearly enough. Lastly, Vonnegut’s portrayal of Dwayne’s illness as being, on some metaphorical level at least, an extension of the spiritual sickness that affects the whole country is not the finest moment in the history of disability representation, although for what it’s worth, I know Vonnegut was trying his best. This book comes off as an attempt to understand what Mark, his schizophrenic son who was hospitalized around the time this book was written, was going through, and I’m always inclined to be lenient to someone who is honestly trying to understand more.

Week 12 (Blaga): The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst

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Reader: Blaga

Task #12: Read a Fantasy Novel

Book: The Queen of Blood (The Queens of Renthia #1), by Sarah Beth Durst (ALA Alex Award (2017))

Publisher: Harper Voyager (2016)

 

Don’t trust the fire, for it will burn you.

Don’t trust the ice, for it will freeze you.

Don’t trust the water, for it will drown you.

Don’t trust the air, for it will choke you.

Don’t trust the earth, for it will bury you.

Don’t trust the trees, for they will rip you,

rend you, tear you, kill you dead.

In a world where people live in woods populated by blood-thirsty nature spirits that would gladly dispose of us, a human queen is chosen for balance and peace. However, what happens when this balance is disturbed? And what could possibly disturb it? Sarah Beth Durst’s newest adult novel, The Queen of Blood, is the first installment in her upcoming Queens of Renthia series. Daleina is only ten years old when her village of Greytree (within the kingdom of Aratay, one of five kingdoms in Renthia) is attacked by rebel spirits. Nearly everyone is slaughtered, but Daleina and her family survive thanks to her having the ability to control spirits. Having survived this horror, Daleina dedicates her life to training in the hopes of becoming the next queen. Along the way, she forges strong friendships, an alliance with a disgraced former warrior for the queen, and is forced to make questionable choices in order to win the crown and ensure that her family and the people of the kingdom will not have to suffer the fate of Greytree.

I have been a fan of Durst’s writing for years, in large part due to its incredible versatility. Every story, every premise, every protagonist is entirely unique and the universes they inhabit – whether our reality with a touch of the magical or an entirely foreign world – are rich and well conceived. The land of Renthia is no exception, and it certainly is one of my favorite thus far. I love the idea of a whole civilization existing among the trees, everything being connected by bridges and wires. Durst’s narrative is enriched by exquisite detail, beautiful and sometimes haunting descriptions. The relationship that she creates between nature and man is a complex ones. The nature spirits are fearsome, but without them, nothing can exist – fire ceases to burn, the crops cannot grow, the wind doesn’t blow. At the same time, without a human queen to control them, they would create chaos, which would destroy everything.

One of the book’s strengths is how limited Daleina’s gift is. Unlike her peers, in order to pass the many obstacles in her way, she must rely on her quick mind, determination, and uncanny ability to strategize and solve problems in unexpected ways. The way her unyielding determination, prevails over self-doubt, low odds and in the face of tough choices, resonated with me and strengthened her as a character.

Good characters in general are The Queen of Blood’s specialty and one of the novel’s greatest strengths. Durst provides a view into the thought processes of characters major and minor; this proves particularly important in the case of Champion Ven, the Academy’s Headmistress, and Queen Fara, who are three of the most crucial, and most complex, characters in the novel. At the end of the day, they are all imperfect human beings and the things they choose to do, while not always forgivable, are at least understandable. The price for attaining power – and retaining it – is enormous, requiring terrible sacrifice, both personal and global. Thus, even when the ending the reader hopes for does come true, it does not feel like a triumph, but a dark and somber meditation on what has been lost along the way.

At times, the sheer amount of background exposition was too much for the book to be a perfect read. This might be expected for the first novel in a series, but it made the narrative stall out. Furthermore, the narrative felt a bit uneven; the book takes place over a large time-span, but that comes at the cost of the believability of some character relationships. At times, I felt that I simply accepted Daleina’s friendships as facts rather than being able to believe them emotionally. I was also not fully convinced by the romance in the story (that is, how it came about), as it is not given enough time to develop properly.

Despite these problems, I was enthralled by The Queen of Blood and the world of Renthia. I think that there is a lot of potential in this series, and really look forward to reading the next installment.

Week 11 (Sam): The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Reader: Sam

Topic #12: Read a fantasy novel

 

Book: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Published by William Morrow and Company (2013)

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with a middle-aged man driving alone from a funeral to his childhood home, and then down the road to the home of a strange girl he knew when he was just a small boy. Vague memories shift and change, becoming clearer and stronger, and he remembers a childhood that was far more dangerous and wonderful than he could have imagined. The problems of his adulthood fall away as he recounts a time when he was young, when his world was full of monsters and the people who fought them.

The book’s prose holds all of Gaiman’s usual charm. The voice is mellow and pleasant, distant without being unemotional–a signature of Gaiman’s. He’s used similar voices for protagonists as varied as ex-convicts and businessmen, but here, he uses it for a seven-year-old child with surprising success. Also on display is Gaiman’s unique sensibility when it comes to the fantastic. The magic and monsters that filled our protagonist’s childhood are more functional than they are explainable. For instance, a little pond in someone’s backyard can, at any time, also be an ocean, without it ever being necessary for it to change size. Frequently, the protagonist’s safety from spirits older than human civilization turns on apparently arbitrary human conventions like land ownership and child custody. Most of Gaiman’s work features magic that either defies common sense or, just as bafflingly, is perfectly in keeping with it at surprising moments. This approach is uniquely suited to the story of a young child puzzled by the world of adults, because it allows us to share his confusion as he searches for his place in a frightening and unknowable universe.

Beneath all the magic is a story of mundane misery: even before our unnamed protagonist becomes the target of an otherworldly spirit, he lives as an eccentric outcast. He has no friends from school, and is neglected by his family. He’s afraid of the dark, afraid of his schoolmates, afraid of his own helplessness, and most of all, he’s afraid of his father’s temper. So, when a monster shows up at his front door with terrifying plans for him and his family, it doesn’t feel as though much has changed. There were always monsters around, just not in such an obvious form. The protagonist’s anxieties (whether their causes are supernatural or not) are the heart of the story, and give it weight and life.

Like the protagonist himself, I find the details of this book already receding into a misty past, and this is probably the worst thing about the book. Despite some moments of excitement and horror, the story as a whole, like a toy made for children, doesn’t have any sharp edges. The obstacles that the protagonist must overcome are just too straightforward to maintain a reader’s engagement. Half the time, he doesn’t even solve them himself, relying on assistance from Lettie Hempstock, the girl who lives at the end of the lane. Lettie has courage to suit a dynamic, goal-driven protagonist, but her inhuman origins and the resulting distance from the reader prevent her from taking on a lead-character role. We are left with a cowardly, child protagonist, which in spite of the advantage it has of feeling fresh, manages to rob the book of a sense of forward momentum.

Usually, in reviewing a book, I try to identify what a book is trying to be, and then determine how well it succeeded, but here, I feel it’s a lack of ambition that sabotaged it, ensuring that in spite of its share of thrills and a good villain, it didn’t amount to anything more than a fun time. Gaiman presents us with a boiling cauldron of juicy thematic ingredients–fear of death, overpowering loneliness, the fallibility of human memory–but although I enjoyed it at the time, it didn’t seem to mean anything terribly important in the end. As I drive away from the ocean at the end of the lane, I think it will probably be for the last time.

Final Grade: B