Book Review: Siege 13

Book Review: Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

During World War Two, Hungary was one of the Axis powers, with its own fascists led by the Arrow Cross Party.  At first this seemed like a good idea, as Hungary gained back territories it had lost after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  But late in the war, it became obvious that they were on the losing side.  The Hungarian government tried to broker a separate armistice with the Soviet Union, only to have their country occupied by the Germans.  As a result, they were forced to fight to the bitter end.

Siege 13

In late December of 1944 through February of 1945, the Soviet Army encircled the city of Budapest and besieged the troops and civilians within.  It is that siege that gives us the title of this book, which contains thirteen short stories all of which tie into that event in some way, even if the characters are living in the Hungarian diaspora community in Toronto.

“The Atlas of B. Görbe” is about a struggling writer in New York City who turns to an older author of children’s books for assistance in finding his way.

“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945” is set within the siege itself as the zookeepers come to realize they might not be able to keep themselves alive, let alone their charges, and the extreme steps one of the keepers takes.

“Sailor’s Mouth” takes place in Romania, where a man has come to adopt a child of Hungarian heritage.  He may have become misled by his carnal urges.  One of the themes in this story is “The Museum of Failed Escapes” that Judit, the woman the man is seeing, tells him about.

“The Restoration of the Villa Where Tíbor Kálmán Once Lived” concerns a deserter who joins the Communist occupation after the war.  He takes over the home of a man who used to provide people with false papers to escape the Axis, and betrays their names to the Soviets one by one.  But he gets the distinct feeling the villa  is rejecting him…this one won an O. Henry award.

“The Beautician” is about a college student preparing his thesis paper.  He finds a possible topic in the dark past of the manager of the club for Hungarian exiles in Toronto.  But is that something he really wants to make known?

“Days of Orphans and Strangers” follows up on the Kálmán family mentioned in “Restoration.”  One of them has been talking in his sleep, but not in the language you’d expect.

“Rosewood Queens” concerns the narrator’s relationship with her father’s lover, a collector of chess pieces (but never full sets.)

“The Encirclement” is about a lecturer on the topic of the Budapest siege, who finds himself with a persistent blind heckler who presents a different version of events.  The details are too close to be fake, but that’s not the way the lecturer remembers it.  I thought this story was the best in the book.

“The Society of Friends” features a long-standing love triangle among three Hungarian emigres.  It reminded me a bit of the movie Grumpy Old Men.  It shares a character with “Beautician.”

“The Miracles of Saint Marx” concerns a secret police officer’s search for a dissident who spreads tales of miraculous events.  It becomes personal when one of those stories is about her.  Also very good.

“The Selected Mug Shots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” is about a boy who handcrafts trading cards featuring what he says are Hungarian assassins.  It seems to be all his imagination, until the narrator finds a book on the same topic years later…  This story includes slurs against people with mental disabilities as a plot point, getting the boys in deep trouble.

“The Ghosts of Budapest and Toronto” is another tale of the Kálmán family.  Ghosts are seen in two cities as separated members of the family miss each other.

“The Homemade Doomsday Machine” finishes the volume with a genius child who seeks the destruction of society and the Nazi atomic scientist who shares that interest.  Has perhaps the happiest ending in the book.  Has a character that seems too eager to diagnose the child as autistic, especially as she has no psychological or medical training.

Most of the stories are bittersweet, with a few downer endings.  I found the writing competent but not compelling on average.

There are frequent mentions of rape, and suicide comes up a time or two. While the travails of the Jewish and Romani people in Hungary are mentioned, the emphasis is on ethnic Hungarians.  There’s some period sexism and a number of the female characters express dislike of the patriarchal Hungarian family culture.  Due to the heavy themes, I’d recommend this for college age and up.

Overall, I am glad I got the chance to read this.  Books on the Hungarian experience are uncommon, and I discovered much I did not know.  Recommended for other people wanting to broaden their experience.

 

Comic Strip Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason

Comic Strip Review: Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason by Thomas Siddell

After Antimony “Annie” Carver’s mother Surma dies, her father Anthony drops her off at her parent’s alma mater, a strange boarding school called Gunnerkrigg Court.  The court is an enormous place, looking rather like an industrial city, but large portions of it seem to be abandoned…by humans, at least.  There are robots advanced beyond anything in the outside world, bizarre events are commonplace, there’s a creepy forest just across a long bridge students are forbidden to cross, and Annie notices that she’s picked up a second shadow.

Gunnerkrigg Court, Volume 3: Reason

This noted fantasy webcomic has been running since 2005, beginning here (happily, the art style drastically improves over time.)  It’s got an intricate plot with many details planned well in advance.  (For example, in an early strip Antimony tells us it will be two years before she sees her father again.)  The Court’s architecture is somewhat based on the city of Birmingham in England.

At the beginning of this volume, Annie is in training to possibly become the Court’s Medium, an ambassador between the school and the magical Gillitie Wood.  The other two candidates, Andrew Smith (with the ability to bring order out of chaos) and George Parley (whose father expected a boy, and has the gift of teleportation) argue a lot but turn out to be attracted to each other.  This interrupts two simulations.

Then it’s time for a camping trip to a park that is actually inside the boundaries of Gunnerkrigg Court.  Campers start to disappear, and Annie and her best friend Kat (Katherine Donlan, daughter of two of the teachers who were friends with Annie’s parents) must solve the mystery.

After that, Kat, who is beloved by the Court’s robots due to her technical skills and repair abilities grants the king of said robots access to the portrait of Jeanne, the ghost that haunts the ravine between the Court and the Wood.  In return, he reveals the existence of a robot that has memories of Jeanne, and the very early days of the Court.  Those memories reveal a dark secret of the past.

In the next chapter, Annie visits the Wood and learns more about Ysengrim, the wolf with tree armor that is the current Medium for their side of the river.  Coyote, the trickster spirit that is in charge of the Wood, gives Annie a gift for reasons not fully revealed.

Then the subplot of Jack, who’s been acting increasingly erratic since he was exposed to the mass hallucination projected by a girl named Zimmy, comes to the fore.  He coerces Annie into accompanying him to a power station that might have something to do with why he can’t sleep.

This is followed by a spotlight chapter for Kat, who hasn’t been able to process her emotional reaction to learning what the Court did to Jeanne.  She’s finally able to recover her equilibrium with the help of an abandoned baby bird, and Paz, a classmate who can talk to animals.

Further research with the help of Andrew and Parley reveals some of Jeanne’s story from her point of view, and convinces Parley to be honest about her feelings.

Finally, Annie’s second year at Gunnerkrigg Court comes to a painful close when she and Renard (a fox spirit living in a stuffed toy) quarrel and reveal some very painful secrets to each other.  This leads to her choosing to spend the summer in the Wood rather than with friends.

At the end are some art pages and bonus strips about “City Face”, the pigeon Kat rescued.

The mood swings wildly between chapters, some being very comedic while others go deep into dark territory.  While we get several important revelations in this volume, the jigsaw nature of the overall plot means that many items don’t pay off until future volumes–I do recommend starting from the beginning.

As is often the case with webcomics collections, the material is all available on the internet for free, but if you like it, please consider buying the print version to make the creator more financially stable.

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.

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