BookBin2015: 99 Days (Vertigo Crime)

99days

I think the thing that struck me the hardest about Matteo Casali’s graphic novel 99 Days was the mention of how most people in this country heard more and remember more about Kurt Cobain’s suicide than the atrocities that occurred around the same time in Rwanda.

For the record, Kurt Cobain killed himself on April 5, 1994. Beginning two days later, from April 7 to July 15, 1994, the Hutu-led government of Rwanda targeted the Tutsis for extermination, killing between 500,000 to 1 million Tutsi—almost 70 percent of the Tutsi population. And yet, in this country, the suicide of one rock star right before that stretch of time is what many people here remember as one of the “biggest news stories” from 1994.

I’m by no means belittling the seriousness of suicide. I am, however, pointing out a disappointingly xenophobic history of reporting global events in this country. Things have improved now that we can access other news outlets from other countries through the Internet—but this still doesn’t change the fact that our news outlets too often take an isolationist approach to what we deem worthy to report to constituents. It shouldn’t be this way. We should know what is transpiring around the world and how it relates to our global history.

Say it again. Say it until you can’t speak any more. Those who don’t know their history are doomed to repeat it. This is a history that will never remain in the past so long as we ignore it. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, with the attacks last week in Paris. The attack the day before that in Lebanon. The attack going on in Mali right now as I type this. Right. Now. The total destruction of the Russian Airbus A321 leaving Egypt. The unrelenting terrorist violence throughout Africa. In fact, more attacks this year alone than I want to list here, but that should be known.

Why? It’s not new. Genocide, new? Bosnia. Bangladesh. Arbeit macht frei. Religious war, new? Onward, Christian soldiers. Allahu Akbar. And, yes, it’s easy to blame religion. I confess that my first response to these instances is to think that if we could just disband all religion, then we might have a chance. But that’s a lie. It’s not religion. It’s not politics. It’s not culture or morality or skin color or ethnicity.

It’s us.

We are the fuel to this fire. We are genetically hard-wired to behave this way. I’m going to bogart something I wrote elsewhere recently:

We are hard-wired to fear. Fear kept us alive as a species throughout millennia of evolution. Fear drove us to kill or be killed. That hard wiring is still there, only now we have no real reason to kill. So we just make shit up. We need to figure out how to rewire our genetic responses.

At one point, that fear saved us. Now, it’s destroying us. It’s no longer necessary to our survival as a species, so we simply make up reasons to continue to justify it. At the moment, religion is the excuse and absolution for our inborn fear of “the other.” If there were no religion, then we would simply make up another reason. But how do we reprogram something so deeply rooted within us? How do we rewire what became an evolutionary necessity? Kill what we fear. Kill what is not us.

I’m not going to say love is the answer. That’s trite and schmaltzy. It’s also not true. I don’t have to love you to know that I shouldn’t kill you. And I know I shouldn’t kill you for one simple reason. It’s at the heart of what France once said to us as a country, and what we have in turn said to them in recent days.

Aujourd’hui, nous sommes Américains Parisiens humains.

Now if we can just figure out how to embrace that truth, we might actually get somewhere.

Final Verdict: You probably forgot that this was a book review, didn’t you? I apparently did. It’s just, the book itself wasn’t all that great, but the thematic elements were incredibly provocative, especially right now. The artwork was solid but the story itself was a bit spotty, although I did like the focus on the traumatic effects that the events in Rwanda continued to have upon the main character. War does not end when the white flag goes up or the enemies are all vanquished. War comes home inside every soldier who fought. We’d do our soldiers far more honor remembering that truth than in having a holiday to “remember” them with discount sales on TVs and refrigerators. But I digress. Anyway, the overarching power of the novel’s topic for me is clear. Still, I don’t foresee adding this to my collection.

BookBin2015: Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: The Book of Scary Urban Legends

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I picked up Jan Harold Brunvand’s book Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid completely on a whim. I happened to notice it on a shelf near a section in the library I usually don’t visit. I saw it was about scary things. I like scary things. I threw it in my basket.

Yes, I load a basket when I go to the library.

The book was pretty much what you would expect it to be: a compilation of urban legends in their various iterations through the years. However, I didn’t learn anything from this book that I hadn’t already learned from the Internet. I kind of feel as though books like this are pointless now, with so much information online about urban legends. Want to know if something is true or a legend? Go to Snopes like everyone else.

Sorry. I feel terrible for pointing people to online rather than a book, but sometimes online is better.

Final Verdict: Back to the library with you, urban legend book.

BookBin2015: Batwoman Volume 5: Webs

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This, sadly, is going to be both my shortest Batwoman review and my last Batwoman review. At least for now. They’ve ended her solo run and, while there is one final graphic novel out there, I have no intention of buying it. I couldn’t care less how Marc Andreyko ended this series. By the time I finished this graphic novel, I was left so apathetic that I couldn’t even muster the energy to be furious that the last two pages pretty much seemed to imply that Batwoman was about to be raped by her new nemesis, Nocturna.

Okay, not completely bereft of fury. Seriously, DC? It’s not okay for Batwoman to marry her girlfriend but it’s okay for her new enemy to mentally Roofie her as she’s trying to fall asleep and trick her into believing she’s someone else so that Batwoman won’t fight her off? Oh, and really subtle artwork in that last panel, of Nocturna, who is apparently a vampire or vampire-like character, penetrating Batwoman with her fangs while Batwoman arches back against her while wearing just a camisole and undies. And with a look on her face as if she were enjoying what was happening to her. Great message there. Absolutely.

What utter bullshit. Sorry, but there’s no tactful way to put it. The whole novel was just example after example of piss-poor writing and some of the most mediocre artwork to ever grace a Batwoman comic. There was nothing satisfying about any of this collection, starting with Andreyko’s terribly anticlimactic ending to the story arc that Williams and Blackman started (and should have been allowed to end, dammit). And then to end the novel on that so-not-kosher, rapey WTAF were you thinking note? Allow me to be thoroughly clear with this sentiment, DC Comics. Fuck. You.

So utterly disappointing. Thanks, DC, for ruining my current favorite character from your comics line. Oh, and it looks like you’ve turned Batgirl into a character I don’t really want to follow anymore either. Thanks. For nothing.

Final Verdict: The only redeemable thing about this collection is the clean copy of that great WWII-era artwork of Batwoman as one of the ball players from the All American Girls Professional Baseball League. I think I’m probably just going to slice that out and then get rid of the rest of the book. Not even going to donate it. Just going to toss it in the recycle bin. That’s how much I hated this collection.

BookBin2015: Still Alice

stillalice

Remember in my last book review how I wrote that I was going to be writing again soon about a book that I enjoyed less than the movie? That would be Lisa Genova’s Still Alice.

Right off the bat, however, let me clarify some things about that statement. First, I think Genova’s story of well-respected linguistics professor Alice Howland’s decline from early onset Alzheimer’s disease is unflinching, devastating brilliance. I couldn’t put down the novel, no matter how haunting or painful it was to continue. As I’ve mentioned here before, Alzheimer’s took my grandmother from us slice by brutal slice, so this story was particularly upsetting at points. However, it also bore a message of determination and survival as well as a plea that we not shut out those with Alzheimer’s as though they were no longer a worthy part of our lives or the world in general. They cannot halt what is happening to them, but they continue to need the same things we all do: interaction, acceptance, love, strength, kindness.

That all being said, I don’t necessarily think I would use the word “enjoyed” in reference to this book. It’s like saying you enjoyed Sophie’s Choice. You can appreciate the craftsmanship of the story, the power of the narrative, the thematic impact. But enjoy? I don’t know about that, although I suppose the somewhat open-ended conclusion of the book and movie provide a final bit of silver lining to Alice’s admittedly ever-darkening cloud.

Finally, I would place the movie version of this book higher than the book. Why? Two words: Julianne Moore. A sublime actress, Moore brings Alice to life in ways that will destroy you. Few have deserved an Oscar more than she did for this performance. I believe she also is the reason that I ultimately rate the movie higher than the book. She lifted this character from the page and pushed her into existence honestly, eloquently, and with purest humility. She released all inhibition and gave herself to the role in a way that few can truly and convincingly do. If for Moore only, I recommend the movie more than the book, although I’m all for tackling both and doing your own comparison.

Final Verdict: In both book and cinematic form, this is a story whose value I can acknowledge. It also is a story I don’t particularly ever want to revisit.

BookBin2015: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

freakonomics

I’m actually going to start this book review off with something that I rarely ever state (but also something that I’m going to be repeating in my next book review, so stay tuned!): I actually found the movie more interesting than the book. In this instance, I believe that the movie makes the information of economist Steven Levitt’s book Freakonomics a bit more approachable. While not completely boring, the book is a bit on the dry side. For a book with such a whimsical title, I suppose I was expecting a bit more…whimsy. I believe this is why I enjoyed the film version more. While not flippant at all, the film takes the text and livens it up, makes it pop a bit more.

I actually loathe that I’ve written all that. I typically defend books to the bitter end when it comes to the “which was better” debate. I think perhaps it also didn’t help that I trudged through this book while sitting on the beach. This is not beach reading. Bad choice on my part, to be honest.

After that rousing review, who doesn’t want to read this book now? To be fair, it actually is quite a fascinating study into the events that shape certain life paths for us as a society. It tackles statistical analysis in an approachable and provocative manner, inviting us to consider our own thoughts on Levitt’s well-supported arguments regarding things such as drugs, education, abortion, real estate, parenting, cheating…all presented in intelligent, witty, and freshly examined ways.

Final Verdict: I intend to check this out of the library again at some point. I don’t believe that I gave the book the fair shot it deserves to really capture me.

BookBin2015: As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride

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I feel almost as if this were a cop-out review. I make no secret of the fact that I love The Princess Bride. It’s one of the funniest, sweetest, swash-bucklingiest, greatest modern fairy tales ever put to film, IMHO. Thankfully, I’m not alone in this opinion, as the movie continues to amuse and delight all age groups who see it. Simply put, it’s one of the most delightful films I own or I have ever seen. William Goldman, who both wrote the original novel and the screenplay for the movie, even stated that this is his favorite of all the things he has ever written. He loves the story so much that he was terrified of what might become of it in the hands of Hollywood.

Clearly, his worries ended up being totally and wondrously unfounded.

This entry isn’t about the original novel—although I do need to read that at some point. I own it. Of course, saying that I own a book doesn’t mean that I have read it, or will read it any time soon, for that matter. I own the unabridged version of Les Misérables as well. I bought it in 1992. It might be the longest-standing “un-read” book in my whole library.

I digress.

Instead, this is about Cary Elwes’ memoir As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride. Elwes, who played Westley in the film, provides us with some of his recollections of filming this movie and of being around the cast and crew on what he concedes is the most important film he has ever done. I have to admit, no matter what I see him in, my first thought is, “Ooh, Westley is in a new movie!” It’s not a bad thing at all.

One of the lovely things about this book is that Elwes doesn’t make it all about him. Instead, he opens it up to allow others from the film to share their memories as well. Sidebars abound from director Rob Reiner, Goldman, Robin “Buttercup” Wright, Mandy “Inigo Montoya” Patinkin, Wallace “Vizzini” Shawn, Billy “Miracle Max” Crystal, Carol “Valerie” Kane, Christopher “Count Rugen” Guest, Chris “Prince Humperdinck” Sarandon…Elwes invited them all on board, making this a delightfully communal commemoration of what they all seem to believe was a wonderful experience and a wonderful film. Either they are all genuine or all great actors. I’d like to think it’s a little bit of both.

There’s not much else to say. If you loved this movie, then I highly recommend this book. It’s funny, sweet, kind, and entertaining. Kind of like the movie it discusses in such reverent ways.

Final Verdict: I would not be averse to adding this to my library. I also really need to read The Princess Bride.

BookBin2015: The Daylight Gate

daylightgate

I feel a bit guilty, as this is going to be the second negative book review in a row (although I promise it won’t be quite as negative as my last one). I feel even more guilty because of the fact that I usually enjoy Jeanette Winterson’s writings a lot. However, for some reason, The Daylight Gate was not the Winterson book I was looking for this time.

I think one of the things that became the largest hurdle for me with this book was the fact that it was a fictionalized account of a true historical atrocity. It deals with the Pendle witch trials, which occurred in the early 1600s in England during the reign of James I. You know, the king under whom the only approved Bible for good fundamentalist Christians came into being. Never mind that it wasn’t an actual translation of the original texts, but a poor translation of a poor translation that was even further whittled down by random editing to help fit the Bible into all the square pegs James I wanted fitted. James I, of course, being the king who believed during his reign that Scottish witches were plotting against him.

But, again, I digress.

The Pendle witch trials were horrific enough in their facts. Truly, you don’t need to fictionalize anything about the trials to get a terrifying account of what occurred. It started as a decree from King James a year into his reign that all justices of the peace in Lancashire should provide lists of all within their jurisdiction who refused to attend church and take communion. By the end, 10 people had been hanged. Seems fair enough, right?

I don’t know why, but something about adding fictional elements to real horrors, or conversely, injecting real atrocities into fictional horror (see every season of American Horror Story for examples of that) has always bothered me. I don’t like history being trivialized. Call it the Cameron Effect, I guess. However, certain historical horrors should never have to have fictional elements added to make them compelling or important to know. The Pendle witch trial apparently fits into this category for me.

Final Verdict: I still very much like Winterson, and I even believe that this book is crafted well enough that, if you don’t have the same odd hangups that I apparently have when it comes to history and historical fiction, then you might enjoy it. I, however, shall bide my time until my next Winterson fix.

BookBin2015: Corked

corked

Y’all know that Loba likes a little bit of wine, right? Je voudrais un verre du vin rouge. Know what I’m saying? So I was definitely intrigued when I found Kathryn Borel’s memoir Corked and saw that it was about a special trip that she planned with her French father to visit wineries throughout the south of France and try to absorb from him some of the wine wisdom he possessed thanks to his career as a hotel manager. They were going to visit all the premiere wine-making regions, such as Alsace, Burgundy, Languedoc…places that, even without her father there to guide her, would have been extraordinary to visit, to describe, to share with readers.

That would have been a great book to read.

This book was, hands down, one of the biggest wastes of time I’ve encountered in a very long time. I honestly wish that I hadn’t finished it, but I’m still deep down disgustingly optimistic, especially when it comes to books. I kept hoping that the book would stop being all about Borel airing dirty laundry, whether it be hers or her father’s. I wanted to read about his knowledge of wine. I wanted to read about wineries and beautiful settings and tastings and learning. I did not want to know about Borel’s life or her problems or her obsessions or anything about her at all, really. I wanted to learn about wine. All I learned was that some people should never be allowed to write. Borel is one of those people.

Final Verdict: The term “corked” actually means that the wine has gone bad because of a cork failure, thus making the wine undrinkable. Once a wine is corked, all you can do is dump it. This memoir is most definitely corked.

BookBin2015: The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think

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Honestly, anyone who has ever experienced the exquisite joy of owning a dog already knows inherently what this book tries to tell us empirically: Dogs are far more complicated and intelligent than we ever anticipate them being.

I write “tries to tell us” not because I thought Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods failed in any capacity with their book The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think. Instead, I think that it’s both an oversimplification to state something so obvious, but also that we are still great lengths away from understanding the depths of these creature’s intellect in any holistic capacity. While this book does take us deeper down the rabbit hole than most, I think the truth is that most people overlook the intellectual capacity of “man’s best friend” because we aren’t looking to them to be furry Einsteins. We want them to wag their tails, woof amiably, lick our faces, and generally just make us smile.

However, it takes a degree of intellectual and emotional depth to comprehend what is expected of them and to deliver in such compelling and completing ways. They come to know us in ways that we don’t quite know ourselves, and how they do it is one of the sweetest, most comforting mysteries of this universe. It’s something we might never fully understand, simply because how could they ever possibly explain it to us? However, this book provides some insights into the observable mental complexities of our canine companions. Again, though, it’s a fine line to walk between fact and supposition when contemplating certain elements of intellect in an animal that can neither confirm nor deny our assumptions. Yes, some things can been empirically proven. The things I want to know? Those are the beautiful mysteries that dogs keep to themselves.

Final Verdict: Interesting book, but not one I feel compelled to add to my library at the moment.

BookBin2015: Redshirts

redshirts
What to do on a cold, rainy Saturday? Read a little, drink a little coffee (or a lot of coffee), work out while watching part of a documentary on Harlan Ellison, and then write some book reviews. Finally. Why? What do you do on a cold, rainy Saturday?

I read John Scalzi’s Redshirts back in January of this year, yet it has stuck with me as one of those delightful surprises that I need to add to my sci-fi collection at some point in the future (look at that, already giving you the final verdict).

First off, if you are not a fan of the original Star Trek series, then the term “Redshirt” might not mean anything to you (of course, with the proliferation of geekery in the mainstream pop culture lexicon now, it’s kind of hard not to know the term, but I digress as usual). Quick summation: The term refers to the fact that the unknown, usually unnamed extra thrown into the landing party with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy always wore the security officer’s tunic, which was red on the original show (it later changed to gold on TNG, but the term remained). That officer rarely made it back to the ship, thus equating the red tunic with the survival short straw on any away mission. Because, really, did you think one of the Trek Triumvirate was going to bite it on that planet, Ensign Ricky?

Therefore, naming your novel after the unluckiest crew members of the original Enterprise guarantees you geek points right out of the gate. Of course, I instantly thought that it was going to be a Galaxy Quest-esque parody full of yucks and insider haha moments penned specifically to appeal to thoroughbred nerds.

I was not expecting it to take a wonderfully surprising sharp turn that would steer us all, character and reader alike, into a fantastical meta mixing of fantasy and reality that never once felt anything less than sincere to me as I went along willingly and happily for the ride.

Scalzi takes something so well-known among genre fans and twists it by giving it far more plausibility than the original show could ever afford it (why did the Redshirts always die on the original show? Because they weren’t Shatner, Nimoy, or Kelley…now stop asking stupid questions!) Instead, Scalzi takes the question seriously, examines it from more than the patently obvious answer, and provides a patently wonderful alternative response.

I could say more, but I don’t want to spoil this for anyone. It’s fun, it’s funny, it’s intriguing, and it’s far more than the parody I was expecting. It’s still whimsical and at times flat-out ridiculous, but Scalzi sells it in such a way that you willingly buy even the weirdest of the story’s elements.

Final Verdict: Seriously, were you not paying attention? I already told you, I’m adding the book to my collection…and you should add it to your reading list. If you love science fiction and Star Trek, then you, too, may love this book.