2015-08-31

Stuff you didn't know about me

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086) A Wolf at the Door and Other Retold Fairy Tales edited by , Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, finished August 31

I forget why I ran this book down. Perhaps I just saw Neil Gaiman's name then noticed Gregory Maguire and Patricia McKillip's names as well and thought, hey, why not? Dunno. The point is that I'm glad I picked it up and I quickly switched from planning to read a couple stories from names I know to eagerly reading one after another.

For a YA collection, the variety was terrific. From retellings that stayed very classic to modern settings to postmodern deconstructions. A little bit of everything. Some of my favorites were from writers I didn't know (and one was from a writer I only knew from her introduction to book #085).

Frankly, the best book of fairy tales I've read in some time.
over two weeks



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085) Castle Waiting by Linda Medley, finished August 30

I loved the for-a-buck Castle Waiting novel I picked up at Escapist. When I learned more was available, I availed myself of the library. This volume includes a prologue, then what I had already read, then more. (I've put volume two on hold and am eagerly anticipating volume three.)

Having just read the Castle Waiting I own, I had planned to skip those chapters during this read. But the writing and art (and thus the characters and scenes) are so friendly and likable and inviting that I couldn't say no to an invitation to travel old roads with them again. And I'm someone who pretty much never rereads anything any more.

The charms of Castle waiting are largely mundane, domestic. People about their daily lives. And yes, this is a fantasy novel so everyday life includes sprites and golden eggs, but these aren't great heroes about derring-do. These are people. People so richly drawn that they feel like friends. An afternoon at Castle Waiting would rank high among my travels were I Thursday Next and tired of Jane Eyre.
maybe two weeks



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084) An Amorous Discourse in the Suburbs of Hell by Deborah Levy, finished August 30

This is a novel in verse, I suppose, in dialogue form, "He" and "she" taking turns speaking. "He" is a mortal man and "she" is an angel. Eventually they get on each other's nerves. She gets most of the best lines. Ultimately, however, it's pretty hard to tell what this is all about. Maybe this is a Poe issue. Although short enough to be read in one sitting, I'm not sure I was able to cram the whole thing in my brain at once. I could blame this on it being too literary, but I don't think that was the problem. The fact that sometimes I would forget who was talking was a bigger problem---only two characters? They should be more distinguishable. Anyway. Complaints aside, if you're looking for a manageable bit of book-length poetry, you could do much worse. Plus, it'll look cool on your shelf.
one morning and afternoon



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083) Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women's Local Impact by Neylan McBaine, finished August 30

ORIGINALLY POSTED ON
BY COMMON CONSENT


Neylan McBaine's name seems to be a bit like Joseph Smith's---known for good and evil (though without the same kind of among-all-people reach). It's fascinating how to some she is Moses come off the mountain and to others she's Uncle Tom. I think she's sensible enough to reject both those labels, but if those were the only two options, I would choose the former. But if she is Moses, she's more of a Greek Moses, not with anything written in stone, but with a wandering series of questions and reasonable answers and followup questions that lead to a seemingly inevitable conclusion.

Here I jump in and wonder if audience bias plays a role in how things "seem." Do I, Theric, find McBain convincing because I already assume that part of the Restoration is ever greater equality of the sexes and surely excerpts from the Nauvoo Relief Society Minute Book will be added to the D&C any Conference now? If I were one of those Twitter Stake trolls who make fun of the women giving talks during #ldsconf, would this book help me see past my sociopathy? Or, more importantly, if I were a well meaning bishop to whom it's simply never occurred to ask a woman for feedback on my Mother's Day plans, could this book increase empathy and lead to openings in my ward's spiritual growth? Or would I nod wisely and wink at my counselors and just keep on keepin' on? Buy one for your local chicken patriarch and let me know.

Regardless, this is a valuable book---and I think most people desire to see the Church grow in the direction of inclusion. Wily as she is, McBaine has grounded her discussion in what is currently allowed by the Handbook of Instructions, those blue and red books leadership is obliged to follow. Her strict adherence to these rules---even though they are merely temporarily immutable---makes her ideas both immediately implementable and, presumably, less horrifying to the conservative.

That she is swearing by the book as currently constituted brings her credibility that gives her ideas weight they can gain in no other way. Thus, when she screws up her following-of-the-book, she risks damaging her credibility. Here's an "unimportant" example---indeed, the only one I noticed:
...a ward council meeting officially includes ten men: the bishop, his two counselors, the executive secretary, ward clerk, high priests group leader, elders quorum president, ward mission leader, Young Men's president, and the Sunday School president. Three women are included: the presidents of the Relief Society, Young Women, and Primary. Priesthood executive council (PEC) consists of all ten men from the ward council, with a potential invitation to the Relief Society president. The Young Men president is a permanent member of the priesthood executive committee, but the Young Women president is not even on the list of potential invitees.... the presence of twenty male voices in the two meetings is counterbalanced by the voice of three female voices (maybe four if the Relief Society president attends PEC). [43-44]
McBaine's point is that men have far more representation in ward-level councils than women. It's an important point that deserves discussion. And so she does. Here's my problem with what she's said (and note I already know I'm being persnickety): Aaaactually, the Sunday School president isn't invited to PEC either. Not according to the Handbook. So it's reeeeally 19:3.

That doesn't change the nature of the problem at all. Not at all. The problem is that if someone's reading this book under duress and looking for reasons to dismiss McBaine's arguments, this sort of petty mistake can lead to all sorts of uncharity.

Another mistake that threw me out was the story of a young Primary girl who wants to sing about the Armies of Shelaman. It's a charming story about a young Provo girl who was sick of being just a girl in a room overwhelmed with stories of boys and who carved herself a place. She's just a kid but she feels neglected, and the story is powerful proof that we need to lengthen our cords.

My problem this time? That story didn't happen in Provo. It happened right here in good old Berkeley.

Now look: I believe these were simple, editorial oversights. And they're the only two such errors I noticed. But the fact I found any makes me wonder how many I missed and any errors---but especially Handbook errors---damage McBaine's grounded-in-the-Handbook ethos. In fact, someone more cynical than me could think of reasons why those errors might be intentional (19:3 might be bad but 20:3 is worse and everything must sound as awful as possible) (this story works better in Provo---admit it was Berkeley and most saints will reject it as hippy nonsense), and the fight against any perception that she's manipulating facts is absolutely vital to the book's success.

But enough about that. Let's speak of the book's successes.

The first and greatest success, I think, is simply the massive collection of stories. We learn from each other, and if a woman would like to participate in her child's name and blessing but has never seen a mother do so before, how will she know she can ask? who to ask? what to ask for? Women at Church shares several different ways women have already participated in this event. Suddenly we have options.

The same can be said of past successes at getting women's voices heard in councils, finding equal(er) footing among their priesthood leaders, supporting women in their stewardships, empowering women to use their strengths within the body of Christ, etc. The book is loaded with useful tales. And some cautionary ones as well.

Stories are vital for building empathy, and empathy is the only way out of this rut we're in. Only by loving our neighbor as ourselves can all of us become one. Jesus didn't teach with stories by accident, you know.

I don't want to get into the (in my opinion) frustrating history of the Relief Society, nor do I want to debate the ultimate value of Correlation---even though both these stories are fascinating and vital---but I do think it worth mentioning that McBaine touches on both. She's not controversial---she more relays the facts than comments upon them---but, even without moralizing, that history helps us understand that our latter-day trajectory is sending us towards women with authority and power, rib-cracking hiccups notwithstanding. I can only believe that Women at Church is best understood as a helpful reminder of where we're headed and a kindly suggestion of where to step next.

This might be the historical "moment when [we] have gone to the edge of the light" and must step "into the darkness [only] to discover that the way is lighted ahead for just a footstep or two." Our wards and stakes might be stumbling forward at different paces, but we can all make sure that the direction is, in fact, forward. And this little book can help.

two-plus months



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082) The League of Outsider Baseball: An Illustrated History of Baseball's Forgotten Heroes by Gary Cieradkowski, finished August 25

This is one of the best collection of nuggets I can remember reading. Every story fascinates and Cieradkowski's art is terrific. I just got distracted after that last sentence, adding things I learned to Wikipedia. It's an hour later.

Each story is bitesize---some nibbles, some a full box of nuggets---and all are worth reading. Whether its players everyone knows like Babe Ruth and Roberto Clemente, classic Negro Leaguers like Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson, nobodies you'll never hear of anywhere else, and people you know better from somewhere else---like an Eisenhower or a Bush or a Kerouac.

Man it was fun.

Read it slow though---no reason to speed through it and realize that some of these legends collide uncomfortably against each other.

Or that one out of every four greats was called the Babe Ruth of X.

Anyway. Don't wait for the book! Start now by perusing the original website!

over a month





Previously in 2014 . . . . :

2015-08-21

Saint Cole and some other stuff

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081) Saint Cole by Noah Van Sciver, finished August 20

Look:

Noah Van Sciver is doing remarkable work right now. This story about a midtwenties screw-up derailing his life with every choice he makes is heartbreaking. Joe's not a bad guy. He's just not equipped to make good choices, and his burgeoning awareness that he's an alcoholic isn't helping.
It's impossible not to feel for Joe, even as his id takes charge. He means well, he just can't hang on to a clear sense of what is best in this world. What his right. And his choices are spiraling downward---every good decision is outweighed by half a dozen bad.

/beat/

You know when you're in an awful moment of your life, so bad the thought that hey---if only a truck would kill my boss, things would work out for me seems totally reasonable? Joe's deep into that realm. And he gets his wish. And for a moment we think, hey! yeah! That solves his problem! And then we remember...all his other problems. His deus ex machina might solve as many as two of his problems. It might make that many more. And one thing's for sure: it won't take the booze away.

The title is a fascinating choice. It reveals that the entire world we see isn't some omniscient narrator, but Joe's consciouness's filter. It starts and ends us with a sense of the holy---of pending deus---but is really no more than a cheap gag.

Where does this leave us?

With ambiguity. Life too real to be embraced. Art too powerful to be ignored.

One last comment: On one page, Van Sciver abandons the gutters and just rams the frames together, a sign of Joe's instability more subtle but just as effective as the wobbly thoughtboxes or concentric dark circles. The experimentation level is high, but it's kept entirely under control. Man knows what he's doing.
two nights



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080) That A Guise, John? by Brace Pannier, finished August 19

Screenplay. MS POLICY enacted.
evening



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079) A Blink of the Screen by Terry Pratchett, finished DATE

The primary impression of this book is that Terry Pratchett was not beset with false humility when he claimed he wasn't a strong short-story writer.

Don't get me wrong. The stuff he wrote when he was a teenager was precocious---on the par with the best student stuff of my career. But still only really worth reading from a scholarly perspective.

That his short stuff is good but not as great as his long work is true. And I suppose that's why it's not surprising that the best work in this collection is the longest: a 48-page Granny Weatherwax story.

That said, as I read on, I stopped skimming the occasional paragraph and just read the whole thing. No one made me. I was simply enjoying it.

(Final note: As a Pratchett fan, interesting to see the primordial versions of Truckers or The Long Earth.)
less than a month



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078) Revival Volume Four: Escape to Wisconsin by Tim Seely and Mike Norton, finished August 16

Starting in the middle is unnecessary in this day and age, but I picked this up from the library's NEW shelf and hey, why not? So I don't have a clear sense of everything that's going on, but basically: the recently dead arose and are now immortal---but only in one small Wisconsin town, and naturally everyone (worldwide) is a mix of freaked out and jealous. Add noir, add sex and violence---it all makes for a nice package. (The kid, however, is written terribly.)
over two weeks





Previously in 2014 . . . . :

2015-08-17

Thuperduperpuper

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My superpower is being so sensitive to temperature change that a sudden drop gives me diarrhea. Not sure how this helps me fight crime....

Mostly vacation books, but also some sexy poetry

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077) Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine, finished August 15

Not hard to see how this became a classic. We enjoyed listening to the audiobook very much on our trip, and my boys don't even know who Cinderella is.

In an audiobook, the space Levine spends on her made-up languages gets a bit long, but ultimately Ella is a fun and interesting hero who earns her release from a fascinating curse. I think the boys choice this one because they expected more slapstick, but they still enjoyed the story.
six days



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076) Happy Birthday, Wanda June by Kurt Vonnegut, finished August 6

This is an excellent big of Vonnegut. The ending (which in the intro he admitted was reworked over the entire run of the play) doesn't quite land, but as a whole it is sharp and clean and smart and funny and thoughtful. And it's reliance on the Odyssey as source material makes it an excellent book to teach alongside Greek myth.

In short, Harold Ryan crashes in the jungle and seven years later returns to find his wife engaged. His wargoing ways are expired in a new era of aspirational peace (his sexism isn't so hot either). It's satire of course, and aged satire at that, but it nreveals both how far we've come and how far we've yet to go.
three days



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075) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, finished August 4

Our latest adventure into audiobooks comes on a to-and-fro trip to San Jose and one way to Bear Lake, Idaho. Yes, Tom Sawyer is that long. I think we're all surprised.

Although some of the satirical stuff got boring for the boys (Exhibit A: poetry recitals), the Great Boys Tale is a fun and exciting as ever. And it gave us lots of opportunities to parent (eg, rage and tobacco). In the end, it's a fine book. And the sequel's finer. Which is what makes the further sequels so absurd.

Anyway, it's hard now to imagine Tom's world, the newest town impossibly far and the children free. A lost world. Largely for better but also for worse....

UPDATE: Not just because we visited a cave while in Idaho, Tom's adventures came up quite often in conversations with our kids over the following week or so.
four days



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074) The Erotic Spirit: An Anthology of Poems of Sensuality, Love, and Longing edited by Sam Hamill, finished July 28

I didn't have high expectations for this book so I'm delighted to say it was pretty dang good. Plenty of things I personally would have left out and how can there be no John Donne??? but as a whole, I quite liked it. To my greatest surprise, most of my favorites were in fact the work ancient poets, many of whom I was utterly unfamiliar with. The poems I jotted down to revisit were by Anakreon, Asklepiados, Praxilla, Ovid, "Anonymous Japanese (10th century)," Liu Yung, Jelaluddin Rumi, John Keats, Carolyn Kizer, and Dorianne Laux.

I'll let you look up the actual poems yourself.
two weeks max





Previously in 2014 . . . . :

2015-07-27

This time around

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073) Dial H: Exchange by China Miéville et al, finished July 27

This one added too many characters and covered too much time, making it less fun than the first volume. I still appreciate what's being attempted, but the pacing was off and so much is going on, it's tough to juggle in the confines of the pages alotted to a monthly comic. So it goes.
a few days



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072) Sir Charlie: Chaplin, the Funniest Man in the World by Sid Fleischman, finished July 24

My son checked this out (they've all been big fans since we celebrated the Little Tramp's centenniel in a movie theater) but I don't think he's going to read it. I've been picking it up though and reading it now and then. It's great! Sure, it's for kids, but it's detailed and I certainly learned things I did not know. And it doesn't hold back when our hero's a cad either. Some parents might find this book too honest, too detailed.

I however hope one of these kids actually picks it up and gives it a go.

In the meantime, we're working our way through this: http://www.openculture.com/..free_charlie_chaplin_films...

Join us!
weekish



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071) "C" is for Corpse by Sue Grafton, finished July 22

I had an interesting experience with my third dip into Kinsey Millhone's world. This book projected its solution much more clearly. I don't try to crack mystery novels as I read them, but elements of the solution here were so obvious I couldn't not predict them.

However.

This was the first of the novels to keep me up late, tense, working my way to the finish.

Dramatic irony is the best path to suspense. But too much and the protagonist just becomes an idiot and how is she a detective? Kills my ability to care.

This novel teetered on that line, dangerously.

Can't wait for "D"!
ishly, two weeks



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070) Isle of 100,000 Graves by Fabien Vehlmann and Jason, finished July 19

This nutty look at a young girl whose quest to find her father takes her to a school of executioners is nutty fun and suitably European in direction.


Writer Vehlmann has written a very Jasonian book. I would be happy to see them work together again.
not long





Previously in 2014 . . . . :

2015-07-17

Funny pictures and scary pictures and thoughty Mormons

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069) Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett, finished July 17

This is the first of the City Guard books and, of the ones I've read, the least. That said, it was still smart and funny. No one can turn a phrase like a Terry Pratchett character. No one. And it did make me want to plow through the rest. I started with a mediocre short story in his short story collection (he wasn't joking when he said he's less good at short stories; the quality varies, but has not yet reached the level of his novels), and we have a couple more in our collection I haven't gotten to yet. But I'm making a possible error and instead of making the next in-the-car book another Pratchett, I'm trying on something very very different.

I'll miss you, Discworld.
just over three months



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068) Dial H: Into You by China Miéville et al, finished July 15

Dial H is based on one of the hokiest concepts in DC Comics history. And that's saying something. But it's been recreated here with intelligence. Yes, the hokey aspects remain, but somehow Miéville found a way to bring it up to the "normal realism" of superhero books. (Whatever that means.)

Must be a fun book to write (and draw), being able to make up new characters---as absurd as you like---for each issue. Some are pretty great and I can imagine fans demanding to see more of them. Others are . . . hokey. And they do seem to run out of ideas now and then (the number of characters that, instead of arms, have everyday objects is striking), but still. It's fun.

One thing I like about this particular collection, is that after the first story ended, it included two other stories with very different flavors. Sure this happens a lot in The New 52, but these ones actually function to build the world rather than feeling like the writer needed a week off. The final story in particular, sending the Dial far back in time and introducing a sensible explanation with accompanying threat for those who use it, raises the stakes in a reasonable, manageable way. In short, pretty good stuff. One of the better New 52s I've read.

TIME



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067) Benny Breakiron: The Red Taxis by Peyo, finished July 15

I've never read anything by the creator of the Smurfs, as I recall. This book is sort of a cross between Superman, Tintin, and Richie Rich. I think that's the best way to describe it.

Fun book. Very midcentury European. Very kid.

New to the U.S.

morning



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066) Bossypants by Tina Fey, finished July 14

If you love Tina Fey as we love Tina Fey, you will love this book as we love this book.

(Lynsey read it when it was new, then returned it to the library instantly, before I could touch it. So we got to have Tina read it to us over a couple long drives instead.)
a week



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065) Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature by Marden J. Clark, finished July 12

I received a copy of this as part of the booty (or pretty much "the booty) with my AML Award and have picked up another copy since. They seem to float around Mormon arts circles.

Anyway, it was great. You can get a taste of what it's like by reading this abbreviated form of the title essay as published in the Ensign, 1977. It leaves out Flannery O'Connor, but includes the sonnet. That part of the essay I often share with my AP classes. It's good stuff.

Anyway, having taken so long to finish the book, I've forgotten most of what I wanted to say about it. Which was a lot. He talks about literature and religion and society and specific works of art and life and academics and . . . he talks about a lot of stuff. But it all centers around the paradox hinted at in the title: how limiting forms set us free.

It's a wonderful book and I commend it to you. In fact, if you want to swing by, I'll give you my extra copy.

The only sad thing about this book is that it's barely aged at all. Published in 1992, collecting essays that go back decades, and still very much the conversation we're having today.

Sigh.

Well. At least we can still read what the best minds have had to say. Let's start there.
maybe five years



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064) The Rise of Aurora West by Paul Pope and J. T. Petty and David Rubín, finished July 12

This is a prequel to Battling Boy (see below) starring that novel's other young hero. As a prequel, I would call it a great success. It connects to book one in useful, intelligent, unexpected ways. In other words, it's not gratuitous.

We meet Aurora's parents in more detail. And if her father is "Batman without the baggage," well, Aurora's mother was killed and her father will die in Battling Boy. She gets to bring the baggage.

Pope only wrote this book. The art apes Pope's style ably, but it does feel like an aping---character's eyes are misplaced, but it doesn't feel like Pope's chaotic, black-smudged impressionism. It feels like a knockoff.

Still. It was pretty great. I'm looking forward to an addition to this series come October (a sequel to this book, not Battling Boy).

two days



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063) Battling Boy by Paul Pope, finished July 11

I read this a year ago. It totally holds up.

I love the humanity of the monstrous villains, how prosaic the edges of their lives.

I love the youthfulness of the young heros

Man is Pope something.
one day



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062) The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins, finished July 6

(Awesome cover, right?)

It's 2007 and the college-town video store is unwittingly being hunted by Netflix and the obsolete-itself behemoth Blockbuster. But it's a great place to work if you love movies and have a tough time with people. And after the novel has ended, its some of those employees that are what linger. I had some issues with this novel, but I did love some of these stuck souls.

Plus, the references they provide the reader to film would certainly fill your summer schedule.

The novel is a bit sloppy at times---for instance, we're told that one character talks "like a smoker" then, at the bottom of a page, he smokes. Suddenly his voice is a lot less mysterious. This "like a smoker" this is less a simile . . . and more like . . . a fact.

That example comes from the final third of the novel which is the sloppiest. It feels insufficiently redrafted, almost as if the original was trashed late in the process and this was rushed in to fill its space. That final third is also the most self-aware though that's largely redeemed as things continue to move forward.

The epiloguey final pages revealed to me something I had not realized tho this point---what I mentioned above---that Hawking had introduced me to people I'd thought I'l known but hadn't, not really. And now I did. Now I did know them. This section went on a bit long, but I can forgive it. It took me this long to build sufficient empathy. It must have been hard for Hawkins to let go.
a small number of weeks



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061) Arabel's Raven by Joan Aiken, finished July 3

[Note that my judgment of this book might not be fair. I slept through the middle half as it ran through our car's speakers.]

With a cover illustration by Quentin Blake, you have to assume the publisher's trying to sell us some substitute Roald Dahl. And a lot of the basic traits are the same. Young protagonist. Over-the-top adults. Fantastic situations. But (at least in the first story) these elements do not congeal. For instance, Arabel's mother is not internally consistent. You can be absolutely insane, larger than life, ridiculous---but you need to be consistent within thyself, O character.

Some elements work great (the raven eats stairs! meat-colored tiles! another example I've forgotten!) but ultimately it's just not magic. I think the primary problem is that Arabel's not an important character. The story abandons her for long stretches, she never actually does anything, she's not connected to the resolutions, she has very little character or personality. Yet we're supposed to care about her because, being the only child in a children's story, she's the nominal hero.

And somehow this merited a dozen sequels? Did they get better?
during our drive south



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060) Templar by Jordan Mechner and Alex Puvilland and LeUyen Pham, finished July 2

For a book with wonderful action sequences and breakneck pacing and interesting characters, I found myself bored silly. Then I read an essay by Mette Ivie Harrison and it explained to me exactly the problem with this graphic novel. In fact, it predicted who would die in the penultimate scene.

The moral of the story is plotting according to preordained rules results in something a bit lifeless, no matter how well it's constructed.


There was a lot to like here, but your time's better spent with Mette's essay.
TIME



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059) Heaven Knows Why! by Samuel W. Taylor, finished June 26

When Taylor's novel was first serialized in 1948 as The Mysterious Way in Collier's (see the layout of parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), it passed before the eyes of millions of Americans. This was the first nonpioneer Mormon-charactered (contemporary) novel published for a national audience. The action takes place a long-day's drive from Salt Lake City and when it first came out, its geography became a matter of some debate among the Saints as to who was whom and where was where. Taylor, of course, rolled his eyes and happily defined the word fiction for any who asked.

Anyway. Millions of readers did not translate into bestseller status when it was rereleased under the "improved" title in book form (though it did fine and got good reviews). It would be republished a couple times over the decades. My copy (pictured) is a 1994 Aspen Books rerelease which Taylor says he was talked into by Richard Cracroft (though I suspect his intro was originally penned for a c. 1980 publication). Cracroft called it "the best Mormon comic novel to date" and he says that it's still the only humorous Mormon novel. (This claim is why I think the intro is older than the publication date. By this time Curtis Taylor's The Invisible Saint was out not to mention Joni Hilton's Relief Society novels and Orson Scott Card's Hatrack River was publishing stuff like Paradise Vue. So 1994 would be a crazy time to make that claim. But whatever.)

The important question though is this one: Does the novel hold up, almost seventy years later?

The story has a brilliant bit of innovation by starting with a deus ex machina, then having the characters work through the mess that engenders. Old Moroni Skinner is up in heaven (heaven, incidentally, is a satire of midcentury American capitalism and has not aged as well as the rest of the novel) concerned with his grandson who's grown up to be the valley trash. He files the paperwork to make a visitation and so he does, making it up as he goes, dropping in on the town apostate and telling his grandson to marry the bishop's daughter (who is engaged to be married the very next day, unbeknownst to Moroni). And this descends chaos in the form of crazy and coincidence, capturing the very best elements of the comedies of Dickens and Shakespeare. It is exquisitely engineered. The characters are sharp and tear off the page in into the imagination. The hurdles to our protagonist's success just got greater and greater. And somehow---comedy!---it all works out in the end. (Unless you include the final chapter which returns us to heaven and adds on a painfully heavy dose of predestination to the mix.)

In short, this is a terrific look at midcentury Mormon-corridor Mormonism with its uncertain relationship with the Word of Wisdom and heldover pioneer-era Churchhierarchies and living breathing human beings.

Sp does it hold up? Yes. Most certainly yet. I may not have laughed on every page like Cracroft, but it was a fun, fun ride.

originally posted on motley vision
five days





Previously in 2014 . . . . :

2015-07-02

Feature films 2015: second quarter

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In theaters:


Romeo Is Bleeding (2015): This is a powerful film about kids in Richmond applying the Bard to themselves through the trauma that is everyday life in Richmond. We watched the world premiere of this doc in the theater where their play was originally produced and many of the people filmed and their families were present. And they felt the film even more than we did. They laughed harder and they sobbed---I've rarely heard sobs like these from adults. And sure, that enhanced the experience, but this film is moving and important and you shouldn't miss it. Look for screenings near you. (One postscript: watching the film and seeing how people react to poet Donté Clark, I could see his ability to communicate through words was real and community-changing. And I felt him as a fellow traveler. But hearing him wing responses live in the Q&A made me feel what the people around him already knew. He's an incredible talent. And if the culture's just different enough from mine that I can't feel it, that's on me to learn that culture. I mean---haven't I had to do that with Shakespeare?)

Tomorrowland (2015): I wanted to love this movie. I appreciate its optimistic goals and alleged worldbuilding and, come on, its Brad Bird. Not every movie has a Brad Bird. So I'm sad to say that even with George Clooney and Hugh Laurie and this crazy awesome little British girl, not with standing some cool visuals and futurey conceptions etc etc, ultimately the film does not quite work. Largely because it spends a lot of time undercutting its themes. For instance, we have to have big fights and kill innocent people and blow things up to make a happy future. And I can't remember the last time I was so browbeaten with product placement. Sigh. Still. I'm glad I voted with my dollars and by no means do I feel my day was wasted. I just wish I'd been given more. And not in a consumer way. In a philosophical way.

Inside Out (2015): How could was it? I was spontaneously weeping an hour after we left the theater. I may still spontaneously weep yet. (UPDATE: nine days later, still weepy.) We're going to buy and rewatch it every year to make it part of our family's vocabulary. You owe it to yourself. It's a movie made up of perfect details, that finds the epic in the small, and the tiny in the large.

Jurassic World (2015): Look: It's not a great movie. It has it's flaws. But all I really felt I was owed was a lot of fun and not to be talked down to. I got both those. The movie was utterly and wonderfully satisfactory. Do I need to spend all summer rewatching it? No. Would I go with someone if they asked? You bet. I could talk at length about details and choices, but the rest of the internet is taking care of that. I'm satisfied. That is enough. (Although, once again, the product placement was eye-gouging at times.)



At home:


Edge of Tomorrow (2014): When Lady Steed and I saw the trailer for this movie in theaters, it was probably one of the best trailers I've ever seen, from an advertising perspective. It sold the movie absolutely, gave nothing important away, and drove the title into our minds where we've never forgotten it: LIVE. DIE. REPEAT. Only . . . then it displayed the real title, Edge of Tomorrow---utterly forgettable and generic. I have a feeling it was a title the studio had owned for years and just slapped it on this film because it sounded cool. Generically cool, but cool. Marketing knew better, but couldn't shake it. Ah well. As for the movie? It's awesome. Don't dismiss it as Groundhog Day with guns and aliens, because it's more than that. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's "better" than Groundhog Day, but I would also say it's a dumb argument. They're both very good and they are utterly different save in one central conceit. One fascinating thing about this film is how it plays with sound design and score. When we first see battle with the aliens, it's that uberdramatic KwAHHHng! stuff with sweeping orchestration and so forth, telling us how to feel. Then he dies. And the music switches subtly to comedy and the over-the-top SFX go away. And as the move delves further away from "reality" the music becomes more of a partner in storytelling rather than a bully. Anyway, good movie. I would watch again with you right now were you here.

The Boxtrolls (2014): I'm not sure we're watched a movie before that had my five-year-old drawing me pictures of the characters before bedtime before. And rightly so. I'm not sure if this is the "best" Laika movie to date, but it's probably the one I enjoyed the most and the one I'm most looking forward to enjoying again. I thought I was in for a Jungle Book. It was more.

Freetown (2015): I expected to be more thrilled than moved. In fact, I was more moved than thrilled.

Chef (2014): The cast is incredible and a joy to watch. The food is incredible and a joy to watch. Who cares if the frame's a bit pedestrian? Who cares? Have you seen this cast? Have you seen this food?

Joe Versus the Volcano (1990): I've been aware of this movie for 25 years but I've never really been interested in seeing it. I can't remember why. But I was just reading about it in The Best Film You've Never Seen which tells me it was a flop. But I remember hearing about it more than the Tom Hanks hits mentioned (I don't remember hearing about Punchline as a kid at all)---certainly, other than Big, this was the film my friends talked about. But I was never sold until now. I'm so sad I waited so long. I loved the heightened reality and sense of play and seriousness within madness. And Meg Ryan playing three roles (which I didn't know before) is, as the book says, her Peter Sellers (or, as I would have it, her Alec Guinness role). I could dedicate a whole post to this movie, but I don't want to. So just one more observation, about the islanders. Although arguable racist, they sidestep the issue in an interesting way by their ancestry and by their being steep in Hollywood faux-island culture (eg, King Kong). I don't know what Polynesians think, and the islanders weren't my favorite part of the film, but if anybody cares what whitey thinks, I would give it a pass. Anyway. The film was great. Like a Coens comedy cranked up one more notch.

Wadjda (2012): For a look into another portion of the modern world, this film is invaluable. To see the life of a young Saudi girl and her school and her mother is pretty great. To see how the fundamentalist fear of sexuality leads to hypersexuality is insightful (note: not the point of this movie, but there whether it's meant to loom or not). But I'm pretty sure that some of the things I did not understand weren't cultural. For instance, the occasionally confusing chronology. Still though. Even when turns in the plot were obvious cliches, they worked. This is a charming film. Though I have a hard time imagining my kids sit through it. Definitely not paced rat-a-tat-tat.

Groundhog Day (1993): I haven't seen this movie in a long, long time. I'm so happy it holds up. It's still a great movie. And Edge of Tomorrow did not suffer in the comparison. Which is impressive. Because this film is an acknowledged classic.

Under the Skin (2013): This is a strange, strange film. Short-film strange, blown up big. It's a bit like THX 1138 (scroll down) at moments and a lot like Eraserhead in the middle. It reminded me more and more of Cat People as it went along and the way the shots lingered forever like sitting in front of a painting makes me think of what I imagine 2001 is like. I've never seen a monster quite like this one. So human and so alien. So impossible to fathom. And so predatory. What to make of it? I don't know. Filming in Scotland with amateurs wearing astonishingly opaque accents helps us understand some things. That the accents get more transparent as the film goes on is telling. The fades are so patient as to be poems in themselves. So much to say. So little to conclude.

Jurassic Park (1993): Holds up. Always always always holds up.

The Adjustment Bureau (2011): A pretty good movie, but the real key to why the movie isn't all it could be is contrasting the development of the Matt Damon character to the Emily Blunt character. He is very well developed. She is not. She doesn't even get to share a childhood story of her own. And her fiance? That poor guy is a 100% disposable nonhuman entity. Sigh. It was ambitious and new! If only the Pixar Braintrust had had a chance to give some feedback just before production started....

Godzilla (2014): Yeah, I suppose it deserved the hype. It was certainly awesome (not in the "good" sense but in the "awesome" sense). It was visually impressive and it's monsters were pretty terrifying (that spider-ape female thing!). The characters were a bit cliched but generic in a way that made them a bit more relatable. And not everything worked out the most obvious way (the Only Man Alive Who Can Help doesn't get to help . . . twice!). And the way the film dealt with the classic Godzilla themes of nuclear arrogance was way more timely and on-point than I had expected. Although it certainly was disaster porn, it wasn't ignorant of the millions of should-be-meaningful casualties. It's funny how weird things can throw you out of a movie (I can buy an absurdly tall monster, but he standing up in the Golden Gate? That's the deepest part of the Bay! And the Bridge is tall! And those currents! or: They're flying that warhead right over the City? Are you kidding me?) but whatever. Maybe I've lost my sense of wonder or something. In short, a dumb monster movie, but a really really good dumb monster movie.

Marwencol (2010): I learned of this from a This American Life episode but have only now finally got around to watching it. It was a pretty great movie. I think part of the reason is, as an arts-mag editor observes, Mark Hogancamp is utterly absented of irony. He means everything. That's pretty rare these days. And it can't be faked.

American Movie (1999): I remember reading about this film in Newsweek while in a doctor's waiting room. I've never forgotten about it, and always intended to someday watch it. Now I have. And although Milwaukee is pretty different from Montpelier, I think some of the pathos I felt came from the similarities that do exist. Anyway, it's about a dirt-low indie filmmaker trying to follow his muse, and the people who surround him. It's a mix of funny and horrifying and heartbreaking and hopeful.

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011): I usually watch foreign-language animation dubbed (I have my reasons, haters), but never have I been so sure that the story was taking a beating because of the translation. Still, I enjoyed the film and it earned a tear.




Elsewhere:


Looking for Richard (1996): Showing this alongside teaching Richard III is kind of great. It tells the story well while modeling actors and scholars struggling with the text's complexity. It's a fun watch. And I love the line by (I think it was) Barbara Everett, molaq, "Irony is just hypocrisy with style." What a great line. But is it true???

V for Vendetta (2005): Besides being a crowdpleaser with an easy-to-grasp theme, V holds up very well to repeat viewings. They really layered it in here, some obvious, some subtle, always something new to find. A great little flick to introduce film analysis.

THX 1138 (1971): A horrific future created mostly by the color white and sound design. And, for unfathomable reasons, now fiddled with by its creator with CGA add-ons that don't add on.

Casablanca (1942): Perfect films don't grow old. They grow richer.

Psycho (1960): Honestly? I don't think I'll ever tire of it. Though I think Ebert is right regarding cutting down the psychologist's scene. But I don't think he would have been right in 1960. Hitchcock himself told the actor he'd saved the movie. It was a different time. I can respect that.

The Iron Giant (1999): I think I've passed peak-cry for The Iron Giant, but I still certainly cry.

Spirited Away (2001): I agree with Roger Ebert that this is a film made with generosity and love.

Bambi (1942): Beautiful movie with one of my alltime favorite soundtracks. But it's such a weird movie. See 1 2 3 4 5.

Dazed and Confused (1993): A friend's every-year-last-day-of-school movie. And I can see why. But I just have a hard time relating to kids want to get drunk/stoned/laid. Parts of the Universal Human Experience ring true, but not enough. On the other hand, it's a picaresque and my understanding is it gets better each time as you pick up more details. That I can believe.



Previous films watched

2015

2014

2013

2015-06-22

Change of pace: Poems and poems and Matilda

.

058) Itself by Rae Armantrout, finished June 21

I know of two main schools of bad high-school poetry (this taxonomy is based on style, not content): tortured rhyme and rhythm; itty-bitty-lined free verse. Armantrout's new collection looks on the surface very much like this latter school. But her skill shows that, just as rhyme and rhythm weren't hackneyed in the hands of Donne or Frost, itty-bitty-lined free verse need not be either.

That said, I don't feel well prepared to say just how Armantrout manages to make her work better. Some lines absolutely shoot of the page. Some images and metaphors and conceits and juxtapositions are clearly brilliant. But sixty to ninety percent of the book isn't those moments. It's still "well written," but it might take a few more times through to figure out just what made it good. And I'm not sure I liked it enough for that.

Less than perfectly helpfully, after the poems had ended, at the end of the author bio, was this link: http://raearmantrout.site.wesleyan.edu/ and the promise of an "online reader's companion."

I'm not sure that's what I would call that site, Wesleyan.
a few days



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057) Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry by John Frederick Nims and David Mason, finished June 19

I loved this book. Maybe part of my love is that I'm no longer a harried undergrad having to cut corners, but a steady adult able to take as much time as I like, working my way through its 600 pages. Be that as it may, Nims's explanations of things such as metaphor and allegory are so helpful I've already incorporated them into my own teaching, and if I ever do get to teach a poetry class, this is the text I would want to use. Though I don't know how to get kids with constant deadlines to reproduce my experience with the book.

Ah well.

Although this is really a book about analyzing poetry, I think it's of even more use to poets. Self-proclaimed poets are a lazy bunch and Western Wind reveals how much craft goes into the finest poetic work. If you care about poetry and [accurately] believe you can get better, this book will be a powerful tool. Pick up an older edition on the cheap.
about nine months



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056) Matilda by Roald Dahl, finished June 15

Although Matilda frequently comes up in lists of people's favorite Dahl novels, I've never read it before. I assume because it was his last novel, came out the year I turned twelve, and I was busy reading other things. (Though this was the time Henry Sugar was blowing my mind and prepping me for Dahl's adult work, so this excuse isn't quite airtight.) Anyway, I found myself waiting in line at Costco having left my book in the car. Next to the checkout is the (sadly diminished) media section where I saw a copy of Matilda separated from its boxset, so I picked it up and started reading it. I got a chapter or so in before leaving it with the cashier. The next day I was at the library and picked up the same edition. I was making quick progress until Big O stole it from me. Anyway, I've finished now.

In some ways, this is the quintessential Dahl novel. About a kid surrounded by miserable adults failing to care for her, but this time her salvation comes from inside her---and it's not just her salvation: she also saves an adult who had once been a child surrounded by miserable adults---and who still awaits redemption.

Matilda is a marvelous character. Her gifts and circumstances are no doubt shared by plenty of to-be supervillains, but Matilda never really loses her innocence, even when she is given greater stores of knowledge and tastes the pleasures of revenge. It's wonderful to watch.

Perhaps no Dahl book has been better served by its Quentin Blake illustrations, either. Matilda is small and birdlike and charming and clever and innocent. Her parents and the Trunchbull are horrifying and ugly and menacing and fearsome, while Miss Honey is kind and put-together with a vulnerability and hesitance that don't get in the way of her being a stone-cold fox.


You don't need any more proof of someone's mastery of anatomy and emotion and technique generally than to look at Quentin Blake and how he makes things look so dashed off. He astonishing really.

Another thing I admire about Matilda is how quiet its ending is. And understated ending to one of his quieter books. I would argue Matilda is more magical than, say, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, yet it is simultaneously much less mad.

The perfect ending, methinks, to a career.
about a week





Previously in 2014 . . . . :

2015-06-15

let's see . . . more comics !

.

055) Bad Houses by Sara Ryan and Carla Speed McNeil, finished June 14

Small town, open secrets, young love, estate sales, hoarders, parents of adult children, loneliness, shame....

I don't remember what led me to track this book down anymore, but I was worth reading. I wasn't as overwhelmed as its blurbers apparently were, but it was a very human story and I enjoyed it.

two or three days



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054) Star Wars Underworld: The Yavin Vassilika by Mike Kennedy and Carlos Meglia and whoever, finished June 12

These pre-Episode IV adventures of all your favorite smugglers and bounty hunters and gamblers and mobsters and suchlike have charm for boys but make the adult in you glad that they are not now nor will they ever be canon.
two days



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053) Batman Vol. 5: Zero Year - Dark City by by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo (et al), finished June 11

This is book five in the New 52 reimagining of Batman so my perspective on it ain't complete, but I like this book a lot. Certainly a lot more than Batman's first having-sex-with-Catwoman-on-a-rooftop New 52 appearance. In part, because it was enough issues to tell a whole story, as opposed to most of the collections I've been reading lately with their slightly longer excerpts. But also because it was pretty darn good. Sure, it's trying to fit in as many oldtimey Batman references as possible (RRRRIDDLE ME THIS, BATMAN)---but most work, only a few are gratuitous. And this Dr Death character is a pretty terrifying new incarnation of a boring old supervillain. And seeing Batman and Gordon have some pretty serious issues and begin to resolve them was fun.

Something about the current generation of comics writers seems to want to make the Riddler into a true terror. I've seen this sputter but here it comes off pretty well. The Riddler is a horror in this book and not just a joke. Even if he does look a bit like my brother-in-law (it's the chops).
two days



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052) Deadpool's Art of War by Peter David and Scott Koblish, finished June 10

I've never quite read anything that helped me understand why people love Marvel's psychopathic Spider-Man and Guildenstern, but this one gets close. Instead of seeming to be an attempt at recapturing spent wit, this seems reasonably fresh. Deadpool is retelling Sun Tzu's Art of War and causing all sorts of chaos as he demonstrates the theories. It mostly works. Certainly it results in more thought-out battles than we recently saw in X-Men. Although it does get a little crammed and sloppy at the end, I'm still tempted to make this required reading for any monthly writer who wants to do fight scenes that make sense and have dramatic purpose.

Plus, the covers were cool.

one day








Previously in 2014 . . . . :

2015-06-14

American Movie

.

So after years of curiosity, I finally saw American Movie.

Then I found this . . . sequel of sorts. Starring Mormon (Morman?) missionaries:










Okay, kids! (a svithe)

.

Inspired by this fascinating tidbit from 1953, today's sacrament meeting was aimed at the kids. Speakers could speak on any topic, so long as their remarks were directed at the kids. In my introduction, I asked this riddle:
What is older than you
but shorter than you
and you're inside it right now?
The answer was sacrament meeting and we were off to the races. I shared with the kids a summary of that linked-to document (via time machine---paper has always been a time machine) and introduced the speakers and we were good to go.
Give your coloring books and Cheerios to your parents. Although, adults, Jesus told you do be as a little child as well, so you should be able to find something of use as well.
I heard a lot from adults who thought the sacrament meeting was truly excellent. My own kids gave it a decent review. Several adults wanted it to become a regular thing. I think maybe it will.

previous svithe

2015-06-10

Let's see....comic book, comic book, comic book,
comic book, comic book and . . . . comic book

.

051) Men of Wrath by Jason Aaron and Ron Garney, finished June 10

'Tis the time of year when I find myself checking out lots of comics from the library!

This bloody thing is about violence passing down from one generation to another, and it's a nihilistic joyride, if such a thing is possible. It's not a clean thrill. The protagonist is quickly established as someone impossible to cheer for. Really, this entire Alabama is a people ripe for destruction. But it wasn't a story without purpose. Although any redemption is too small to have meaning, maybe future generations still have a shot? Maybe?

one night



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050) X-Men: No More Humans by Mike Carey & Salvador Larroca & al., finished June 9

Here's the recipe for an X-Men comic:
Take some of the greatest and most varied and frankly interesting characters pop culture's produced in the last fifty years

Come up with a really terrific macguffin

Put in a lot of characters with deep-seated grudges and have them sorta kinda set them aside

Have every talk philosophies of love and piece while preparing to beat the crap out of each other

Stack bigger and bigger stakes upon bigger and bigger battles, none of which seems much more thought out than a four-year-old crashing his Hot Wheels together

Deus ex machina

Have someone give a moral to the story, but be certain no one internalizes it
That's about it.
two days



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049) Alex + Ada by Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn, finished June 9

At first I thought I was reading Her---it's a very similar world and the story unfolds in very similar ways. In this case however, instead of an OS, it's a beautiful android. And instead of her attaining sentience on her own, he has to arrange on the black market to have her set free. And that's where the story ends.

Although it took a long time for me to really care about the characters, by the end I did. But this was in spite of the art. The computer-drawn stylings of the characters render them all plastic and android. None of them feel particularly alive. That their lines are often just slightly tweaked from panel to panel only increases the sense of artificiality. (I've read an excerpt from another Luna book, Girls, and it suffered from the same problem. Beautiful people made out of plastic. Just playing with dolls, which gets in the way of having a real human connection. You can pose them, but they don't live for themselves.

Which is a shame, given the excellent worldbuilding and story potential these barbies were plopped down in.
two nights



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048) Miracleman Book 2: The Red King Syndrome by Alan Moore (not credited by name) and a bunch of other people, finished June 6

This looked kind of dumb sitting on the library shelf, but the blurbs were ecstatic. So I picked it up and read it. And had a very hard time telling whether I was being punked re its alleged history or if this was legitimately a 1980s artifact. I mean---that's the most, rrm, accurate birth scene I've ever seen in comics. So when I finished I checked Wikipedia and ohhhh...... It's that book. Yep. This is pretty famous. It's a pretty big deal. And yeah, for the 1980s this WAS an enormously ambitious comic and hugely important in creating the modern scene. And mostly it's aged well. It's better than Coffin Hill for instance (see below), but ultimately I don't think it's all that great. I like how it uses backgrounds to add thematic elements (animals killing other animals, for instance), but it tends to be heavyhanded. It's like Moore realized comics can be art---even superhero comics---and he's not going to let ANYONE escape reading a bit of Miracleman without having plenty of art shoved through their irises. For instance, the lone black character has lots of symbolic dreams and thinks about the absurdity of how symbolic his symbolic dreams are, so we can't miss how many layers of crazy crazy symbolism are being packed in. But the evil Mexican hangs out with unlayered Nazis and la de da.

Anyway. It's probably good I've finally read this. It always comes up when anyone from the era that followed (eg: Gaiman, Allred) talks about the genesis of the late '80s / early 90s renaissance of ideas in comics. It's important to remember though, that just because something was good and important and led the way, does it is the best. I accept that it feels that way to those who were changed by it, but let's step back a hundred years and see what history has to say, eh?
two days



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047) Coffin Hill: Dark Endeavors by Caitlin Kittredge and Inaki Miranda, finished June 6

I actually liked this volume much more, largely because it focused more on her days as a cop rather than the Big Cosmic Evil aspects of the story. I did have to go back to volume one to check a few things as times progressed. I wish they thought more about when to collect monthlies rather than just make them all the same size.....

Also, I feel constrained to say that the way this book scatters hot dead chicks in their altogethers around is lazy and prurient.
a couple days



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046) Coffin Hill: Forest of the Night by Caitlin Kittredge and Inaki Miranda, finished June 4

This is the first collection of a monthly for-adults horror comic from Vertigo. It has a complicated mess of backstory focused in the last decade but going back centuries and still hasn't quite come together to make sense. Visually, it's pretty cool (though character design is pretty everyday), but ultimately I'm not feeling much substance (just a relly good facsimile thereof). Both this and volume two were sitting on the new-fiction shelf at the library, so, since I have it, I might read it as well. Maybe I'll like what comes next. As it is though, if I want to read beautiful New England girls with evil and magic and witches killed centuries ago, I'll just rerereread Rachel Rising.

But now that I've knocked it, I should add that I do appreciate that it didn't read like anything else I've read lately from the big monthly publishers. So props there.
under a week




Previously in 2014 . . . . :