Book Review: Things That Are

Book Review: Things That Are by Amy Leach

“The secret to crypsis is placing yourself among things you look like, but in a scene where no one will expect you, like Willie Nelson with Lithuanian peasants.”

Essays are short pieces in which the author attempts to set down their thoughts.  They can be formal or informal, informative or fanciful.  This book is a set of prose essays by Amy Leach, collecting them from various previous publications.  The title is inspired by an epigraph from John Donne.  Inside, the essays are divided into “Things of Earth” (primarily plants and animals) and “Things of Heaven” (primarily space objects.)

Things That Are

Ms. Leach’s language is poetical and heavy on the similes.  I am happy to report that it works most of the time, and is pleasant to read.  The words flow smoothly as the ideas dance from one related topic to another.  My personal favorite of the essays is “Goats and Bygone Goats” as my family raised these creatures on our farm long enough ago that many of the memories are pleasant.  The essay “God” on the other hand came across as pretentious.  And “The Safari” just goes on and on with its extended animals as memories metaphor.

The edition I have is from Milkweed Editions, with rough-cut pages and illustrations by Nate Christopherson.  I like the illuminated beginning capitals.  There’s a short glossary at the end that sometimes makes certain words clearer in meaning.

These short, calm pieces make the book a good choice to read between heavier or more emotionally demanding material; this is a good book to read before bedtime, or sipping a cup of tea.  It also sounds good read aloud.

Recommended to…just about everyone, really.

Book Review: The Naturalist

Book Review: The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States of America, was big on nature.  Specifically, he had a strong interest in natural history, and wanted to become/be known as a naturalist.  This new biography focuses on that part of Roosevelt’s life, from his boyhood collection of stuffed birds to his African expedition for the Smithsonian Institute.

The Naturalist Theodore Roosevelt

The author is himself a museum naturalist, so the narrative is perhaps a bit biased in favor of those who go out to collect specimens for natural history museums.  Roosevelt considered himself a “hunter-naturalist”, someone who went out, observed nature carefully, then killed animals for scientific study.  Sickly as a boy, with bad asthma, Teddy had to re-invent himself several times in his youth.  He worked hard to build up his body and mind, engaging in outdoor activities and especially learning about animals in nature.  His family was involved with the founding of the New York Museum of Natural History, which gave him a head start.

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s choice to go to Harvard seems to have doomed his ambition to become a full-time naturalist–according to this book, the college’s natural history program was dominated by laboratory work, not the field expeditions Teddy favored, and he met his first wife and realized that a naturalist’s pay wasn’t going to keep them in the style they were used to.

Instead, Roosevelt studied law and got into politics, with the results I mentioned in the first paragraph.  While he certainly made some headway as President, including creating America’s first wildlife reserves and other environmentally friendly actions, Teddy chafed at not being able to hunt properly and the last months of his term were largely taken up with preparations for his African expedition.

There were many bits of knowledge in this book that I either had not known before or had long forgotten.  Theodore Roosevelt’s poor vision meant that he was a bad shot, and often had to use far more bullets to bring down specimens than was ideal (and sometimes this meant he wound up killing more animals than he wanted!)

I found the literary feud between Roosevelt (and other scientifically-oriented naturalists) and the “sentimental” nature writers as exemplified by the Reverend William J. Long interesting.  Dr. Long heavily anthropomorphized the animal behavior in his “non-fiction” stories, and often depicted events that were so unlikely that naturalists accused him of just making things up.  (Side note:  I looked up Dr. Long’s work and among other things he penned an entirely serious book on the subject of animal telepathy-not just non-verbal communication, telepathy.)  In response, Dr. Long said that President Roosevelt could only touch the hearts of animals…with bullets.

The book stops with the aftermath of the successful African expedition-the less happy Amazon expedition does not get mentioned at all.  As is common with these specialized biographies, any parts of Roosevelt’s life that did not have a bearing on natural history get short shrift, and the serious student should also read a more general biography to get a balanced picture.

A heavy emphasis is placed on how Roosevelt’s practical experience with hunting influenced his ideas on conservation.  He could see with his own eyes how over-hunting was wiping out game animal populations, even within the span of a few years.

There’s a center section with black & white photos, and a few more scattered through the book.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.  Bright senior high students should be able to handle the material and language.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to those interested in Theodore Roosevelt, natural history and the role of hunters in nature conservation.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through Blogging for Books for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Comic Book Review: The New Teen Titans Volume One

Comic Book Review: The New Teen Titans Volume One written by Marv Wolfman, art by George Perez and Romeo Tanghal

By 1980, Marv Wolfman had come over to DC Comics from Marvel, but found himself writing one-shot team-up books, which he felt didn’t allow him the room to develop subplots and characterization the way he wanted to.  He offered to write a revival series for the Teen Titans, a book that had teamed up several kid sidekicks (and eventually some more obscure characters) for some years before dropping sales got the book cancelled.

The New Teen Titans Volume One

The Powers that Were turned his original proposal down, so Mr. Wolfman revised his proposal with several brand-new characters, going for more of a male-female balance than most teams of the time, and complementary personalities that would both cause conflict and bring the team together.  He also gave most of the group some sort of conflict with a father figure.  Robin trying to get out from under the shadow of Batman, Starfire’s weak-willed father selling her into slavery to save his world, Cyborg’s father being responsible for his needing massive cybernetic upgrades, Changeling having all his father figures vanish from his life, and Raven’s father being the demon Trigon.

That last was the plotline behind the first few issues, as Raven fled to Earth and assembled a team to battle her father’s planned invasion.  The first issue, however, made the alien Gordanian slavers the main focus, as Starfire needed to be rescued from them before she could join.  Raven also manipulated Kid Flash’s emotions (off-screen but it was pretty obvious) to make him loyal to her and thus willing to help out.

During that same story, the Titans accidentally made an enemy of Grant Wilson, who then in the second issue became the villain Devastator (using the 100% of your brain hokum) as part of a plan by the shadowy organization H.I.V.E. to acquire the services of his father, Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke the Terminator.

The third issue introduced the first version of the Fearsome Five, a villain group put together by Dr. Light for mutual gain.  They were promptly hijacked by Psimon, one of their members who had been working for Trigon.

The next three issues were all about Trigon, starting with the Titans having to face off against the Justice League in an effort to keep the more powerful heroes from accidentally knocking out the one barrier between Trigon’s realm and Earth.  Mr. Wolfman notes that the sales had been going down issue by issue (and it did not help that #5, the issue where Trigon is fully revealed, had guest art by Curt Swan, rather than George Perez–Mr. Swan was a classic Superman artist, but just wrong for this title) but issue #6, the big finish, saw the sales climb and every issue after that for a while.

In issue #7, the Titans face off against their own headquarters, the Titans Tower, as the Fearsome Five had co-opted it in an effort to free Psimon from the fate Trigon had “rewarded” him with.  This issue also explained who Cyborg actually was, and mostly resolved his relationship with his father.

Issue #8 was a breather, so that several new subplots could be introduced, some of which stuck around for quite a while.

On the strength of the many subplots, engaging personalities, and stellar George Perez art, the New Teen Titans series became DC’s hottest title, and the closest competitor they had for Marvel’s X-Men under Chris Claremont.  One of the obvious Marvel-style touches was setting the series in the real life city of New York, rather than one of DC’s many fictional cities.

There are some elements that don’t come off as well in hindsight; Starfire’s personality, powers and cultural background seem written specifically to have her go around wearing as brief a costume as the Comics Code would allow, or even less.  Raven’s origin involves rape by deception, and Trigon comes across as almost cartoonishly evil for the sake of being evil.  Cyborg often takes the role of “angry young black man”, and his bickering with Changeling is not nearly as funny as the writer seems to think it is.  And of course, Raven’s emotional manipulation of Kid Flash is very skeevy, which is acknowledged in the story itself.

Still, this is an important part of comics history, and fans of the various Titans incarnations should enjoy it.  (With a caveat that kids who only know the Titans from the cartoons might find some of the material a bit much–junior high on up, please.)

Comic Strip Review: The Far Side Gallery 2

Comic Strip Review: The Far Side Gallery 2 by Gary Larson

The Far Side was a daily single-panel newspaper comic that ran from 1980 to 1995, although reruns are common in newspapers.  Gary Larson’s offbeat comedy often features science fiction and horror concepts, as well as talking animals and cavemen.  Honestly, it’s hard to describe without giving specific examples.  This oversized volume contains the best cartoons from three smaller collections from the early Eighties.

The Far Side Gallery 2

As a “best of” collection, this does a good job, showcasing favorites from back in the day.  For example, “the modern lion” shows lions using walkie-talkies to stalk their prey.  Or the woman about to pet a cat, asking if it’s friendly, oblivious to the obvious injuries of the cat’s hosts.  There’s an introduction by horror writer Stephen King that’s mildly funny.

Gary Larson’s art, like many single-panel cartoonists’, is more “distinctive” than “good.”  You know right away that you’re looking at a The Far Side cartoon.  He was smart enough to recognize when his material was getting stale, and retired the feature to work on other projects.

Being written in the 1980s, there are some outdated ethnic references, so parents may want to explain why those words are hurtful to children reading this collection.

Recommended to comics fans and those who enjoy offbeat humor.

Comic Book Review: Teen Titans Earth One Volume One

Comic Book Review: Teen Titans Earth One Volume One written by Jeff Lemire, pencils by Terry Dodson, inks by Rachel Dodson & Cam Smith

The Teen Titans began as a club for the kid sidekicks of various DC Comics superheroes, with an attempt to address “youth issues” while the characters were very much establishment types.  Over the course of time, the group added new members who were created especially for the series and broadened its appeal for modest success.

Teen Titans Earth One Volume One

In 1980, writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez updated the series as the New Teen Titans with several new characters and making most of them  college-age.  This version became immensely popular due to superior art and plotting.  It’s also the version that this re-imagining draws upon the most.  The “Earth-One” books take place in the present day of a world that hasn’t had superheroes before, so only the characters who weren’t created as sidekicks are included.

Navajo teen Raven has been having visions, confusing images of a crashed spaceship, and of other teenagers who are somehow connected to it.  The other main characters, Tara, Victor, Garfield, and Joseph, are currently living in Monument, Oregon and it’s the first day of school.  Each of them has their own difficulties, with their family or with their peer group.  Each of them also is beginning to have strange things happen to them.

Tara’s mother Rita is not at all happy about what’s going on, but with her alcoholism, Tara can’t trust the woman.  Victor’s mother, Elinore Stone, is much happier–she’s been waiting for her son to develop for ages.  She’s creepily thrilled, which makes Victor even more afraid.

Elinore and the other adults have their own problems.  It seems that the kids weren’t supposed to be developing their powers in such an uncontrolled way, and the survivor of that spaceship is becoming more powerful by the minute.  Their secret sponsor is about to pull the plug unless they can get “Starfire” subdued.

The theme of young people being lied to and betrayed by their elders is a familiar one, but is decently handled here.  Those familiar with the previous versions of the team will notice some shout-outs, but new readers should not have any difficulty following the story.

The art is decent, and there is plenty of room for sequels.  It’s not very much like the animated Teen Titans series, so I am not sure how much crossover fandom there will be.

Recommended primarily for comics fans who don’t want to deal with a lot of the previous continuity.

Book Review: Galaxy of Ghouls

Book Review: Galaxy of Ghouls edited by Judith Merril

October is scary stuff season, so let’s look at a book of creepy tales.  This collection of 16 “science-fantasy” stories is themed around various monsters, from the classic to the out-there.

Galaxy of Ghouls

We open with “Wolves Don’t Cry” by Bruce Elliott, turning the traditional werewolf story upside down when a wolf inexplicably turns into a human being.  It’s an emotionally muted tale, with the primary sensation being loneliness.  The ending story is “”Mop-Up” by Arthur Porges.  The last human on Earth after the War and Plague meets the last monsters.  But none of them imagined there were other threats…some nice imagery in this one.

Notable stories include Manley Wade Wellman’s “O! Ugly Bird”, the first of the John the Balladeer stories, in which John and his silver-stringed guitar go up against a hoodoo man and his flying familiar; “Fish Story” by Leslie Charteris, a non-Saint story about a man who is far more familiar with the sea than you’d think, and “Desertion” by Clifford D. Simak, which inquires into why no explorer returns from Jupiter

The general quality is high, although a couple of stories have become dated and creak a bit.  Judith Merril provides her usual helpful introductions to the tales and their authors.

This book seems never to have been reprinted, so you will need to haunt your local used  bookstore or E-bay.  Well worth a look for fans of science fantasy.

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

Book Review: The Year’s Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume edited by Judith Merril

This 1957 volume contains speculative fiction stories from magazines published in roughly the previous year, hand-picked by the editor to represent the best the field had to offer at the time.  (I’ve previously reviewed the fifth annual, which switched the title from “Greatest” to “Best.”)  It contains eighteen stories and articles, beginning with “The Man Who Liked Lions” by John Bernard Daley (an unusual person spends the day at the zoo; he isn’t too impressed with the human visitors) and finishing with “The Anything Box” by Zenna Henderson (a teacher notices that one of her students has an imaginary box of wonders–or is it imaginary?)

The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy Second Annual Volume

“The Anything Box” is the best story in the collection–Ms. Henderson was a first-grade teacher herself, and it shows in her descriptions of the students and their personalities.  And also in the dialogue of Alpha, the teacher kids won’t remember fondly at all, even while she prides herself on the discipline she inflicts.   The use of imagination, and its perils, are well-represented here.

Also of interest: “All About ‘The Thing'” by Randall Garrett,  a summary in rhyme of the classic John W. Campbell story “Who Goes There?”  Ms. Merril mentions in her introduction to the next piece, “Put Them All Together, They Spell Monster” by Ray Russell, how disappointed she was that Hollywood in the Fifties decided to go with sci-fi creature features for their movies, instead of thoughtful SF like “Destination Moon.”  The piece itself is a parody of the plots of monster movies, with a bit of extra spice because it first appeared in Playboy.  (No actual sex or naughty words.)

“Grandma’s Lie Soap” by Robert Abernathy takes a fantastical premise–a soap that prevents the user from telling untruths, and follows it to a logical conclusion, only to present a new dilemma in the last paragraphs, one that perhaps makes the main character’s actions more dangerous than he’d thought.

Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Other Man” should be talked about a bit.  An abused woman asks her ex-boyfriend, now a renowned psychiatrist, to treat her awful husband.  The story has a unique take on the habit abusive people have of suddenly being the most loving, wonderful person you fell in love with before going back to being abusive.   The therapy works, but something of value might have been lost in the process.

Many of the stories have the theme of communication, with others or with oneself.  In the afterword, Judith Merril notes that the previous year’s stories had been marked by cynicism and pessimism, while this crop is somewhat more hopeful.  She also notes that the pressure for conformity in the greater society led to more use of science fiction and fantasy as metaphors for current events and social ills.

I have not even mentioned several famous writers who got their works in; Isaac Asimov, J.G. Ballard (his first published story!), Algis Budrys, Damon Knight, C.M. Kornbluth and Mack Reynolds.  Their stuff is pretty good too.

Be aware that there is period sexism in the stories, (all the authors but Zenna Reynolds were white men) and some ethnic stereotyping.

Overall, a fine collection, worth picking up if you see it–also check your library for this or later volumes.

Comic Book Review: Uptown Girl Imitation of Life

Comic Book Review: Uptown Girl Imitation of Life by Bob Lipski

This is another collection of the Uptown Girl comic book stories, filled in with short newer pieces.  The main stories feature Rocketman’s never before mentioned career as a pinball champion (and the forgotten rival who wants revenge), and a zoo-related saga that combines an artistic monkey, a talking car, and a robotic dinosaur.  Smaller pieces talk about comics and gaming fandom, and Uptown Girl’s sometimes difficult relationship with modern technology.  And downer appearances by Sulky Girl.

Uptown Girl Imitation of Life

This is very much a local product of Minneapolis and the surrounding area–see if you can spot all the references!  The art is simple but effective, and most of the jokes hit.  Uptown Girl tries to do her job as a reporter, Ruby Tuesday tries to do her job as an artist, and Rocketman tries very hard not to do his job as an office drone.

The last story in the volume is “Learning How to Smile” , which is a more somber piece that also provides the book title.  Ruby’s uncle has had a stroke, and struggles with the smallest things.   This reminds him and her of his mortality, and it’s time for Ruby Tuesday to inherit part of her legacy….

Recommended to small press comics fans, especially in Minnesota.

Anime Review: Silver Spoon

Ooezo Agricultural High School is the best agricultural vocational/technical school in Hokkaido, and farm kids from all over the territory come there to pursue an education.  But there’s a different student this year.  Yuugo Hachiken is from the big city of Sapporo, and for…reasons…has decided to join the dairy science program at Ooezo in lieu of the prestigious prep school he’d been aiming for.

silver

As a city kid, Hachiken is woefully unprepared for farm life, and has no clue where food actually comes from.  “Chickens produce eggs from their what!?”  He’s warned not to get to attached to a piglet he’s helping raise, but names it anyway.  He’s certainly not ready to wake up before dawn to take care of the chores!

But life at Ooezo does have its compensations.  Fresh air, exercise, good food…and Hachiken discovers talents he never had the opportunity to exercise before.  He joins the Equestrian Club, and there’s this girl named Aki that just might be interested in him.  There’s a silver spoon mounted outside the student cafeteria, symbolizing a wish that their graduates will never starve.

This series is based on the manga by Hiromu Arakawa, who also created the Fullmetal Alchemist manga.  The story takes full advantage of her background growing up on a dairy farm.

Hachiken is kind of rude and surly early on, initially seeing most of his classmates as hopeless rubes.  However, he quickly catches on to the fact that they have their own useful skill sets and acquired knowledge, even the ones that are actually stupid.   We see that his true nature is helpful and tender-hearted, which gets him in over his head more than once.

The other characters are more complicated than they may first appear, and Hachiken’s friends have their own stories to live through, not all of them successful.

Parents of young children should be aware that animals have natural functions and the show does not shy away from this.  Hachiken skins a deer at one point, and assists with a difficult calving at another.  One episode does have some disturbing imagery from a slaughterhouse (when Hachiken must send Pork Bowl off to be turned into meat); the story specifically warns that this is coming up and sensitive viewers might want to leave the room for a bit.  Overall, if your child is not yet ready for the “where food comes from” talk, they’re too young for this series.

There are some hints of romance and sexual thoughts, but Hachiken points out (when he is falsely accused of an affair) that the students’ schedule just doesn’t allow time for any serious hanky-panky.

The manga is still ongoing, so the anime stops abruptly about three-quarters of the way through Hachiken’s freshman year.  It is unknown at this time if there will be an animation of the remainder of the manga.

Those of you who grew up on a farm will certainly nod along at parts, and big city dwellers can learn new things.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

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