Tuesday, March 31, 2009
I have to give author Melissa Wyatt a lot of credit for setting her coming-of-age drama, Funny How Things Change, in West Virginia. The butt of thousands of late night jokes, the state is known more for what everyone says about it then anything else. Wyatt counters these misconceptions head-on with her story about high school grad Remy who is conflicted about his girlfriend's plan to leave their hometown of Dwyer for Pennsylvania where she intends to go to college and he plans to live with her. He thinks it is an okay plan but more importantly, he knows he is supposed to think it is a good plan. The problem is that the more Lisa talks about what she wants, the more Remy begins to consider how what he wants doesn't seem to be much of a concern for her - and the more he begins to realize that he doesn't really know what he wants anyway. That's a big problem when you're thinking about leaving home to be with someone forever and it's even worse when that someone doesn't seem to know (or care about) what you want either.
Here's a bit of what Remy is going through with his girlfriend Lisa:
Remy stood, his hands jammed into his back pockets, and looked out over Dwyer. Everything was going wrong. It wasn't supposed to be about sacrifices, but about doing what they wanted, both of them.
"I don't know." He couldn't trust himself to say any more.
"Oh!" Lisa got to her feet. "What does it matter what you do? It's not like working in a garage is a career or something!"
It was another sucker punch, only he knew she wasn't deliberately taking a jab at him. It was how she saw things. He stared at her, feeling like he'd swallowed his own heart, and wondered why she still looked the same when it felt like he was seeing her in a whole new way.
I saw a quote the other day from the current president of the United Steelworkers Union. He said that Washington has two sets of rules, one for those who shower after work and one for those who shower before. That classism - the notion that those who actually get dirty to earn a living with their hands are somehow less intelligent, less creative, less significant, is just one of the many cultural constructs that Wyatt tackles with Funny How Things Change. (No worries about this degrading into stupid elitism/"Real America" vs the East Coast political campaign garbage though - it's just a straightforward peek at misconceptions.) Do you really have to go to college to be successful? Do you have to leave home to be happy? What makes a life worth living and what if your ideas are different from everyone elses? What should you do?
What would you do?
Funny How Things Change is a revelation in many ways and a book I highly - highly - recommend. Remy is a very engaging and relatable protagonist, the problems and concerns for people in small town WV are explored (like mountaintop mining)and there's also a nifty subplot with a female artist who has been hired to paint murals on water towers across the state.
We do not live in a "one size fits all world" and it is wrong to think that we should all pursue one type of success. Remy is brave enough to stop and consider just who he wants to be before he is swept away by the expectations of others. He is a wonderful character and this is a very cool book.
Funny How Things Change will be released on April 27th. Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for the Summer Blog Blast Tour announcement in May when I will be interviewing Melissa Wyatt at my blog, Chasing Ray.
[Post pic - what mountaintop removal looks like.]
Monday, March 30, 2009
Be it within a short story or a full-length novel, David Levithan always seems to create characters and scenarios which are realistic and relevant. Most of his books are led by teenaged guys who are trying to figure out something about themselves, and probably their friends, and maybe even the world around them.
Whenever the opportunity presents itself, I sing the praises of David Levithan's writing. Opportunity seemed to knock a lot last fall: When Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist was made into a film, I encouraged everyone to read the book (co-authored by Levithan and Rachel Cohn) before they saw the movie. As the presidential election heated up last fall, I talked Wide Awake up to customers and posted about it at both Bildungsroman, my blog, and SparkNotes. We also recommended Wide Awake at readergirlz last November.
I've read all of Levithan's novels to date. My favorites include:
Boy Meets Boy: What if someone's orientation was a non-issue? If people honestly, truly accepted gay and straight (and questioning) without question, and recognized love as love? Boy Meets Boy is a romantic comedy for ANYONE, but especially for teen boys who might be shy (or curious) about their orientation, and especially for librarians, teachers, and booksellers who support GLBTQ rights and wish more places would do so without blinking an eye. Here's a little peek inside of Boy Meets Boy:
There isn't really a gay scene or a straight scene in our town. They got all mixed up a while back, which I think is for the best. Back when I was in second grade, the older gay kids who didn't flee to the city for entertainment would have to make their own fun. Now it's all good. Most of the straight guys try to sneak into the Queer Beer bar. Boys who love boys flirt with girls who love girls. And whether your heart is strictly ballroom or bluegrass punk, the dance floors are open to whatever you have to offer.
Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist: Take the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off, set it at nighttime, make the main characters perfect strangers, and turn up the volume on your favorite rock CD, and you'll be in the right mindset. Nick & Norah have one wild and crazy night in the city filled with music, connections, and discovery. They tell their story back-and-forth, in alternating chapters, with Rachel Cohn writing for Norah and David Levithan writing for Nick. If you like going to live concerts and getting lost in the music and the crowd, if you like meeting new people and finding new bands, or if you like just driving around a busy city and seeing where the night takes you, you will definitely like this book.
What did you think of the movie? Did you read the book first? Tell me in the comments below!
Wide Awake: Set in the not-too-distant future, when a gay Jewish man is elected President and those results are challenged. His supporters include two young men, concerned teenagers at the center of our story, who are learning to stand up for their rights and speak out from their hearts.
Levithan's other major works include:
The Realm of Possibility - A verse novel, set at a high school, told from a dozen different POVs.
Are We There Yet? - Two not-so-close brothers, ages 16 and 23, take a trip to Italy.
Marly's Ghost - A modern-day version of A Christmas Carol set on Valentine's Day.
Naomi & Ely's No-Kiss List - Yes, girls and guys can have strictly platonic and very close friendships. Another collaboration with Rachel Cohn.
How They Met, and Other Stories - A collection of 18 short stories, unrelated except for their overall theme: "stories about love."
Due out in 2010: Will Grayson, Will Grayson - A collaboration with John Green (author of Looking for Alaska and other GLW-worthy reads!)
He is also one of three authors who work on the Likely Story series, in which a teen girl - the daughter of a famous soap opera actress - develops her own daytime soap. The series byline reads "David Van Etten," which takes the last name of one of the writers (Chris Van Etten) and the first name of others (Levithan and David Ozanich).
In addition to his work as a novelist, Levithan is also an editor. He founded PUSH for Scholastic, an imprint which has GLW written all over it. He has also contributed to a number of anthologies.
Kudos, David, for your highly approachable, commendable, and recommendable works.
Friday, March 27, 2009
In Britain (where the series was first published, and where the third book is already out), this trilogy has been called "The Da Vinci Code meets Alex Rider." If, like me, you're not familiar with the British Alex Rider books, you can think of it as The Da Vinci Code meets Johnny Quest meets Lara Croft meets Young Indiana Jones meets Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. The story, set in post-WWI India and China, follows teenage sister and brother Becca and Doug as they search for their lost parents--members of the mysterious Honorable Guild of Specialists--while racing against time and an eccentric rogues' gallery trying to track down elusive gyrolabe "gravity devices" and find the legendary Storm City of Ur-Can.
The cast is over-the-top colorful (from the salty "aviatrix" and oil-heiress Liberty da Vine to the crazed, Bolshevik-hating General Pugachev), and the action is fast-moving and cinematic, told in part through Becca's diary entries and Doug's pencil sketches. It's all the supporting material, though, that makes this series so unique, and the book is littered with diagrams, photographs, portraits, newspaper clippings, historical asides (many even factual!), and letters--not to mention many lushly detailed drawings, including several dense fold-outs.
The series has a wide recommended age range, from 9 all the way up to high school, but it's definitely more PG-13 than PG, with no bashfulness about death (or planetary apocalypse, for that matter). Operation Storm City comes out in the U.S. in May--which should give you plenty of time to catch up on the first two books in the series, Operation Red Jericho and Operation Typhoon Shore!
(cross-posted at Omnivoracious)
Thursday, March 26, 2009
Well? WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?
Well, this is my tenth review here at GLW, and it's time I reviewed a fiction title. And that means I had to choose a Daniel Pinkwater book.
If you have not read any of Mr. Pinkwater's books, shame on you. He is a funny man. I like to read his books for children, for young adults, and for adults (though his polar bear characters are not among my favorites).
The Education of Robert Nifkin is written in the form of Nifkin's college application essay. He describes his life, in high school, and out. Somewhere in the essay, he uses the word, "quodlibet." I had to look it up - "a ... performance composed largely of familiar tunes." And this book is a quodlibet - Pinkwater revisits some familiar characters and territory in it: On school, for example, "I hated it... I was learning that boredom can hurt like physical pain..."
He describes his teachers, who remind me of some that I endured. You may recognize them, too. And the busy work!
When Nifkin writes that he has gotten into an "alternative school," life starts looking up. He is allowed to pursue what he wants to, not have a curriculum forced down his throat. This is a tried and true way to learn.
The people there are quirky, to say the least. But aren't we all?
If you enjoy his fiction (I'm sorry, I can't help it.), two collections of Pinkwater's pieces for NPR's All Things Considered (and Morning Edition?) are worth looking for. If you can, get audiobooks to hear him read Fish Whistle, and Chicago Days, Hoboken Nights. The books have been reissued in one volume, Hoboken Fish and Chicago Whistle. I love this guy. Hope you do, too.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
I have just read -- or at least heavily skimmed -- four books on building your own robots:
Robot Building for Beginners
The Robot Builder’s Bonanza
Junkbots, Bugbots & Bots on Wheels
Each book had its own merits and each book might be quite useful to someone who wanted to get serious about making robots.
But -- before I offer thoughts on each book --let me explain that I’m not serious about making robots, nor do I wish to be. But I do want to make a few little bug-type robots that can navigate my kitchen.
The books sort of assume that you’re willing to buy a soldering set, learn to solder, deal with the toxic nature of solder, learn the color codes on tiny resistors, spend money, etc…
No thanks. I just want to have some cheap fun. Emphasis on fun and double emphasis on cheap.
None of the books had what I consider a “Hello World” starter project. Something I can sit down in one evening and do, just to get started and understand a few simple components. (Something like a Bristlebot, for example. Now that was cheap fun!)
With all that said, here’s a mini-review for each book:
Robot Building for Beginners. This book is quite appealing. The whole thing is devoted to building a single robot. A line-follower. He takes you step by step and explains all sorts of underlying robotics concepts along the way. If you wanted to build a good, serious robot, I can see this book taking you a long way.
Robotics Demystified. This book actually kept my interest the longest. It’s the opposite of the previous book. He describes lots of different projects and concepts, but doesn’t actually get into the step-by-step of any of them. You’ll have great respect for the worm gear when you’ve read this one.
The Robot Builder’s Bonanza. Packed with information, but a lot of it left me saying “whuh-huh?” The instructions might be enough for some folks. But definitely not for me. Also, the cover boasts “99 Inexpensive Robotics Projects.” Where are they? Did I miss about 90 of them?
Junkbots…I really dig the idea here. They encourage you to rip open tape players, VCRs and other junk in search of parts. The book is quite nice. And I can imagine a clever person with a few bucks to spend and no fear of soldering having fun with it, learning robotics and becoming a genius.
But I’m afraid it won’t be me. However, I have ripped open some junk, put some pieces together and, yes, made my own robot. He could drive forward and when he hit a wall he’d flail about, but never manage to actually get unstuck. The important thing was he KNEW he was stuck. I’d show you a picture, but I’ve already torn it apart to start my next robot.
So, yes, I’m having cheap fun and the books got me started (along with the Make:Blog and Instructables and Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories… ). I’ve even got hopes of building a real Junkbot someday and for now I’m happy with my junky bots.
Return to the days of daring adventure in the crowded streets of exotic cities. Return to when a woman's kiss inspired men to fisticuffs, when villains threatened the world, and magic and mayhem were always in the pages of the pulps.
The pulp magazines were cheaply printed periodicals sold by the tens (sometimes hundreds) of thousands in the 1920s-1950s. Many of these pulps showcased various genres, such as cowboy stories, science-fiction, risque adventures, and horror tales. Well-known writers like Ray Bradbury, Jack London, and even Harry Houdini (well, supposedly authored by the famous magician but really ghost-written) appeared in the pages of the pulps.
But the most famous pair of writers of that era was Walter B. Gibson, who penned The Shadow and Lester Dent, who wrote the Doc Savage series. These men, who could sit down and type 100,000 words in a month without fear, are two of the heroes in the clever novel, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril.
The book is an homage to the Pulp Era. However, you don't have to be an expert on the writers of that time to recognize many of the names mentioned: both H. P. Lovecraft and L. Ron Hubbard (pre-Scientology) are important secondary characters. The author's treatment of Hubbard was a pleasant surprise: boastful, yet sympathetic.
The novel begins with the retelling of a famous murder in New York's Chinatown past. A murder that has never been solved--both in culprit and method. It fascinates both Gibson and Dent to the point of obsession--this is an old tale without a proper ending, a maddening condition for writers. This story is the catalyst that throws both men, as well as the beautiful women that adore them, and several of their peers, into a greater and more dangerous mystery.
All the important elements of the pulps are in the book--and what guy could resist secret military weapons, monstrous zombified sailors, ancient cults, martial arts and gunplay, plenty of punches swung, and some conjuring magic.
The first third of the book is a bit slow compared to the rest--author Paul Malmont spends a good deal of time (perhaps too much) setting the stage. Lovers of the pulps and historical fiction will be able to immerse themselves quickly and easily; readers new to the topic might have to wade through a bit to get to the good stuff. But there is plenty of good stuff--did I mention those creepy zombies?--so be patient.
I kept pausing after every other chapter to hit up Wikipedia and learn more about the pulps and who these men and women were--so actually the book led to some education. How cool is that?
Now I want to buy some of the reprints of those old pulp stories, build a fort out of the sofa cushions, and read them by flashlight.
Monday, March 23, 2009
In a word, Hole in My Life is riveting. Gantos writes matter-of-factly about the mistakes he made, not afraid to show himself in a poor light. During his junior year of high school, his father moved the family to Puerto Rico, where Jack ended up working as an electrician because he couldn't attend the Spanish-speaking public schools and his family couldn't afford to send him to an English-speaking private school. But he was a poor electrician. Deciding he wanted to get his diploma, Jack returned to Florida, without his parents, to finish high school.
At first he stayed with a family who needed the boarding money Jack's father paid, but after missing the toilet one too many times in his alcohol-induced puke-athons, Jack takes a room at an old motel. While his living situation did not, unfortunately, increase his appeal with girls ("maybe it was my whiny Holden Caulfield imitation of a boy in need of carnal therapy that got me nowhere. Or perhaps my sitting in the library with an intensely cheerless, poetic look on my face only scared girls away"), it was while he was living at King's Court that he is invited to the apartment of a friend of a friend, where there would be a weed party.
I had read lots of books where people smoked weed. Some seemed to really enjoy it and got happy and hungry and silly and had deep insights into themselves and the world. I had a sneaky suspicion I was going to be the other kind of smoker—the kind I had also read about who go off the deep end and let life drift way out of control, and become dependent on dope and other users to help them out, and are abused and broken down and the only deep insight they gain from the experience is that they have totally ruined their lives—and I'd end up like that girl from Go Ask Alice who went nuts on LSD and was locked in a closet after she imagined a million bugs were on her skin and to kill them she clawed off all her flesh and nearly bled to death.As weed parties go, it was a disappointment, even to his hosts. But it didn't dissuade him from trying marijuana again. A year later Jack, having decided college, or at least the University of Florida, wasn't for him, reunited with his family in St. Croix, where drug use was rampant. It is in St. Croix that Jack will meet the smugglers who ask if he wants to join them and the lure of $10,000 proves too much to resist. And it is a testament to to Gantos' skill as a writer that even though you know he'll take part in the smuggling before ultimately finding his focus as a writer in federal prison, you're still turning the pages rapidly, holding your breath and unable to put Hole in My Life down until you finish the very last page.
By the time I finished restocking the entire canned vegetable section at work, I was convinced I would be a vegetable if I smoked. Yet I went to the apartment.
[cross-posted at The YA YA YAs]
Friday, March 20, 2009
In Guardian we meet 14 year old Ansel Anderson, whose father owns and manages the General Store in Davis, a small town in the Deep South of the United States. It is 1946, and prejudice runs deep in the community, lurking beneath the surface of day-to-day interactions between black and white neighbors. Ansel feels stuck in Davis, and he wonders how he will ever take up the family business from his father when the time comes. In spite of his father's misgivings, Ansel is friendly with a young black kid, Willie, who works for his family. The two boys like to sneak off to go fishing on the hottest summer afternoons. The story unfolds over 6 days, and proves how lives can be changed forever in the shortest time, especially when people live in a climate of hatred, fear and gross imbalance of power.
Lester establishes an immediate sense of tension and foreboding in his narrative. Part of this comes from the choice for point-of-view. The third-person present tense makes you feel like you are watching things unfold as the characters experience them, like a play. The weather is part of the drama here too. It's hot, really hot and close and "heavy as a broken heart." This gives you the feeling that something nasty and violent is coming, right from the start. And it is coming. Characters are developed in this short novel with as much realism and complexity, if not more, than you often find in much longer works. Once you start reading, it's hard to put this story down, in part because you can sense what is coming.
Guardian is a novel about human ugliness and the power of each person to make choices, even in desperate times. It's about how people come to terms with their actions and their inaction. This is not an uplifting book, but it is not without hope. It should inspire readers to learn more about this historical period, and Lester offers a starting place for further investigations in his author's note at the end of his novel. This is a book that should be passed on after it's read.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
If you’re a fan of this site, you know we’re fans of Alan Gratz—but did you know he’s a big fan of baseball?
Shortstop concerns Toyo, a young man growing up in Japan in 1890, who discovers in baseball a way to link his family’s tradition of bushido to the new industrialization transforming Japanese society. Did you know Japan had baseball before World War II? Before Babe Ruth? Before automobiles? Well Alan Gratz knew, because he knows his baseball history. And it’s that history, that ability to illuminate the oddball corners of America’s most storied sport, that he brings to bear full bore on his new novel, The Brooklyn Nine.
The Brooklyn Nine follows nine generations of the Schneider family, from Felix Schneider, German immigrant and fan of the New York Knickerbockers in 1845, to Snider Flint in 2002, who hunts down the provenance of a mysterious old baseball bat while recovering from a broken leg. Each generation faces problems—some small, some historic—grounded in their specific moment in history. Oh, and each generation has a powerful love of baseball.
I’ve often heard it said that baseball is a writer’s sport, that baseball makes for the best kind of story. Intrinsic to the sport are notions of character, place, conflict that take place at a story’s pace. Games can be diagrammed like sentences and one inning’s close strikeout can foreshadow a late homerun like a gun on the first page of a book signals somebody’s death in chapter seven.
However, Gratz has made the most baseball of baseball books here: nine characters for nine innings, and each character gets three chapters, like the minimum at bats for a team each inning, or three strikes a batter gets before he’s out. And the characters’ situations revolve around baseball—like how Louis Schneider discovers in the middle of the Civil War that he has more in common with the Confederates than he realized. Or how Jimmy Flint’s agony over losing the Brooklyn Dodgers to Los Angeles reflects the nation’s agonizing struggle with the changes of civil rights and the cold war.
Readers familiar with his earlier books may initially be struck by the age of Gratz’s main characters—where Samurai Shortstop and the Horatio Wilkes novels follow high schoolers, the Brooklyn nine range from ten to maybe sixteen. But that’s not the whole story. In fact, this is probably Gratz’s most complex novel to date. As I’ve already noted, the structure of the novel is fairly complex. But it’s not just that—each character is given their proper due, whether they triumph in their struggles or not, whether their individual story is one of hope or one of disappointment. I’m convinced that The Brooklyn Nine is an epic, a book of the long now, one that is more interested in looking at stories that only find resolution over generations—the goal of a young man in 1845 may not find completion for a century or more, and no one character, while the hero of their own individual story, can claim to see the big picture.
A couple of notes before I wrap this up and hopefully send you on your way to find this great book. First, Alan’s website has some really interesting bits, including some great background info on the research he did for each section of the book. Second, I think Alan’s a fascinating writer and I’m interviewing him for guyslitwire and hope to have that on the website soon.
Books mentioned in this post:
The novels of Alan Gratz:
The Brooklyn Nine
The Horatio Wilkes mysteries: Something Rotten and Something Wicked
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Behind the cut, enjoy the TBD trailer from the very talented Holly Cupala with a killer song and links to more info.
As the space race heated up, down on Earth boys were falling for girls and trying to learn who they wanted to be. Homer Hickam, 14 when Sputnik passed overhead, weaves together the atomic age and coming of age in his memoir, Rocket Boys.
Hickam grew up in Coalwood, West Virginia, a town built around a coal mine, where the identical white houses and even the church were owned by the mining company.
In the late 1950's, [the church] came to be presided over by a company employee, Reverend Josiah Lanier, who also happened to be a Methodist. The denomination of the preacher the company hired automatically became ours too. Before we became Methodists, I remember being a Baptist and, once for a year, some kind of Pentecostal. The Pentecostal preacher scared the women, hurling fire and brimstone and warnings of death from the pulpit. When his contract expired, we got Reverend Lanier.
Hickam's father was the mining superintendent, a dedicated, hard-working man, but one who couldn't see very far past their small town and the mine at its heart. He thought his bookish son might make a good clerk for the company, but waved off any talk of sending him to college. Then came Sputnik and American attempts to launch a satellite led by scientist Warner Von Braun. Hickam saw an opportunity. If he could build and launch a rocket on his own, maybe his dad would see he had the potential to follow his dreams.
His first attempt blew up, taking his mother's garden fence with it. But working with a little more than a chemistry textbook and a rocket diagram from Life Magazine--and a lot of trial and error--Hickam and his friends refined their rocket designs and fuel mixtures.
Rocket Boys is, as much as anything, a love note to science, to the joy of learning stuff. Hickam reports on each successive launch attempt, from the materials tried to the equations needed to calculate their altitude. Through the books, he shows his rockets' evolution from crude pipe-bombs to truly amazing things soaring thousands of feet into the air.
And while they figure out the mysteries of jet propulsion, the rocket boys also have to figure out other, more common, mysteries teenage boys face. Rocket building meetings include occasional lessons on how to unhook a bra. When Hickam is partnered with the gorgeous Dorothy Plunk in biology class a couple days after the Sputnik, his yearning for her is tangled with his love of science.
"Are you scared?" she asked me.
"Of the Russians?" I gulped, trying to breathe. The truth was, at that moment Dorothy scared me a lot more than a billion Russians, and I didn't know why.
She gave me a soft little smile, and my heart wobbled off its axis. I could smell her perfume even over the formaldehyde. "No, silly. Cutting open our worm."
Our worm? If it was our worm, couldn't it also be our hearts, our hands, our lips? "Not me!" I assured her, and raised my scalpel, waiting for Mr, Mams to give us the go-ahead. When he did, I made a long cut down the length of the specimen. Dorothy took one look, grabbed her mouth, and lurched for the door, her ponytail flying.
Every teenager is a scientist, dazzled by the world around him, desperate for knowledge. A lot of growing up is trial and error. Occasionally, you blow up the garden fence. But through all their missteps with rockets, with parents, and with girls, the rocket boys stick to their motto, cribbed from Dr. Von Braun, that we learn more from out failures than our successes.
Monday, March 16, 2009
The adventure begins when a piece of drug paraphernalia that actually houses Shams the Jinn goes missing. Ashraf has to find the teen he sold it to in an attempt to placate some mystical thugs and save his kidnapped friends. The story seems almost straight-forward for a while but then takes too many twists and turns to note.
Wilson has injected a lot of things to think about in her debut graphic novel including some really enjoyable humor. Fear is one of the main themes, both as its use as a political tool and as a weapon evil uses to combat the heroes of the story. The characters also frequently move from our world to places like the Undernile, forcing them to overcome barriers through thought and reason not just brute force, though that is also used.
Wilson deftly makes her characters seem real despite surreal circumstances. The crux of the story is how complicated it can be in the modern world to do the right thing and make it a better place. While trapped in the Undernile, Kate says, "Everything is a mess and I don't know how to fix it, not a single thing..." Ali replies, "No one does, but brave people are trying." Along with Shaun Tan's Tales from Outer Suburbia, Cairo is one of my favorite graphic novels of '08.
Friday, March 13, 2009
First, cleanse your palate with Superman: Brainiac (by Johns and Frank). This is a straight up, mainstream, super-hero adventure. But . . . Johns captures a sense of grandeur and a depth of emotion that will catch you by surprise. He manages to capture the best of Superman, making the book feel both classic (recalling the feeling of Superman: the Movie, in particular) and completely fresh at the same time. This has got Superman and his cousin Supergirl facing a terrifying threat from long-dead Krypton in a battle which has unexpected, and tragic, repercussions. It doesn't hurt that Frank's figural work and action are about the best in modern mainstream comics. I swear, you will be able to hear Christopher Reeve speaking when you see his Superman.
Then, dip into something decidedly darker and stranger with Omega the Unknown (by Lethem and Dalrymple). Novelist Lethem updates the obscures 1970's hero with the story of an alienated teen who starts off by learning that his recently deceased parents were actually robots and ends up with a connection to one very, very unusual super-hero. Intelligent, disturbing and filled with characters that are complex in both motive and morality, Omega is one of Watchmen's worthy successors.
Finally, if the movie has prompted you to take a look back at your much-thumbed or brand new copy of Watchmen, here's something you might not have noticed. Chapter 5 ("Fearful Symmetry") is perfectly visually symmetrical. The first page composition and color scheme matches that of the last page exactly. The second page matches the second to last, and so on, right to a dramatic meeting right in the middle. Just one more way that Watchmen used the sequential art form like nothing before it ever had.
Hopefully, this will keep you until you head back to the theater for a second viewing.
Thursday, March 12, 2009
Did you know that malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases produce false positive results on HIV tests? Christine Maggiore reports in her book, What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong, that "Many antibodies found in normal, healthy, HIV-free people can cause a positive reading on HIV antibody tests." She also notes that "Canada's Laboratory Centre for Disease Control does not recognize the American T cell count criteria for AIDS. This means that 182,200 American AIDS patients - more than 25% of all people in the US ever diagnosed with AIDS - would not have AIDS if they were in Canada."
This book is an eye opener: "Can you imagine receiving a fatal diagnosis without being told the diagnosis is based on an unproved idea and an uncertain test? Being instructed to take powerful, experimental drugs without being told these drugs compromise health, destroy functions necessary to sustain life, and were approved for use without adequate testing? Being informed that you have, or should expect, deadly illnesses without being told that these same illnesses are not considered fatal when they occur in "normal" people?"
The HIV/AIDS hypothesis was introduced at a press conference, not a peer-reviewed scientific journal. I knew that. So not everything I thought I knew about AIDS was wrong.
This surprised me, though: HIV tests are not required for an AIDS diagnosis in Africa.
The author is not making this up. She provides 10 pages of references, from the World Health Organization, and from publications such as the Journal of the American Medical Association, the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of Infectious Diseases, and Lancet (one of the top British medical journals).
"AIDS is not a new disease or illness; it is a new name or designation for 29 previously known diseases and conditions. As the NIH (National Institutes of Health) states in its comprehensive report on AIDS, 'the designation AIDS is a surveillance tool.' Since 1982, the surveillance tool AIDS has been used to track and record familiar diseases when they appear in people who have tested positive for antibodies associated with HIV."
On page 11 of her book, Maggiore lists 65 other "Factors Known to Cause Positive Results on HIV Antibody Tests". I think people need to know this.
1993 Nobel Laureate Kary Mullis said of this book, "Christine Maggiore writes clearly for any reader the simple truth about AIDS."
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
Listening to news reports of the recent Wall Street scandal involving Bernard Madoff, I kept hearing the same descriptions about the man who scammed and scammed big. He was charming, likable, distinguished. He treated his employees like family. He also happened to manage a $50 billion dollar Ponzi scheme that has wreaked havoc with investors, many of whom were non-profits that are suffering from investments made on their behalf. Over and over people wondered how this well-respected Wall Street investor could have charmed and snowed so many people.
The simple answer is he was a con man trying to pass in the real world.
Con is short for confidence, and the con man runs games that snare unsuspecting marks in a web of trust that eventually ends with the individual being separated from their money. In most cases, though there is a great deal of deception involved, the con man is not considered a thief because the victim hands their money to the con and his outfit. Where Madoff differs from traditional cons is that usually the con involves a greedy victim who knowingly involves themselves in shady activities, so that when the deal goes south they are too embarrassed to report it to the police. Madoff was simply using his existing experience and connections to manipulate people for no known reason and broke many finance laws doing so. He may simply have been playing a high stakes game for the fun of it.
To understand how elaborate these confidence games can be, and how seemingly innocent people can get snared into these webs of deception, I found myself returning to David W. Maurer's classic The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man. Originally published in 1940, Maurer's examination of the inside world of classic confidence games is a fascinating look at the real world machinations that inspired movies like The Sting and The Lady Eve, and fiction like Jim Thompson's The Grifters. For a book that is 60 years old, with con games that stretch back even further, it's surprising how relevant this book still is today.
Maurer's look at this non-violent criminal underworld is built from a collection of oral histories by those who knew the creators of the original con games, or participated in them. Tracing the history of "big store" games - con games that originated in fake storefronts at the end of the 19th century - we get the full run-down of the three big cons: the rag, the wire, and the payoff. These games - and they really play out like games when you read them - took places in fake betting rooms and fake stock brokerages, with a full accompaniment of fake banks and fake telegraph offices to match. There could be dozens of players involved, organizations pulled together to create a very convincing world of high stakes gambling and finance, that would lure in marks to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars (in 1930's dollars, mind you) in one lump-sum payout. And once that payout was made those storefronts were gutted and shuttered within the hour, the players scattered to different cities where they would pick up parts in new games.
Toward the end Maurer also drops the dime on some short-con games, games where a few con men can make a quick buck on whatever a mark has on him. Things like three card monte, crooked card and dice games, and the occasional hot-seat - a con that involves the mark putting up money as a bond against splitting the profits toward a larger amount like a found suitcase full of cash. The modern version of this is the advance-fee scam, often called the Nigerian Bank letter scam that takes place in people's email boxes all over the world. Big and small, cons fleece them all.
As Maurer was professor of linguistics it shouldn't be surprising that the book is packed with the lingo of the con's world, with full explanations provided when known. Familiar terms like mark (victim) and roper (a scout) and the fix (paying off police) bump alongside colorful terms like cackle-bladder (a fake a murder used to scare off marks), plinger (a street beggar), and a fitted mitt (a bribed official). The joy in reading Maurer's book is that he lets the cons play out on the pages, allows the players to tell the composite stories he's constructed, butting-in to explain details only as necessary. The chapters read like classic short crime fiction full of characters who, with a change of venue and only slightly different methods, are still among us and plying their trade on Wall Street and through our junk email.
Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.
The Big Con: The Story of the Confidence Man
by David W. Maurer
with and introduction by Luc Sante
Anchor Books edition 1999
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
ZOMBIE HAIKU by Ryan Mecum tells the story of a zombie plague. It is presented as a journal full of poetry by some guy. At first, he's just a guy writing haiku (a lot of which are parodies of other people's poems, including those of Robert Frost and William Butler Yeats), but he continues to write haiku as he becomes a zombie and starts hunting for brains. However, right at the start, in the margins around the poems, there's some blue handwriting by a human guy who has been bitten by a zombie, but has grabbed the journal. So he sets up the scene (zombie plague, some people hiding out at the airport, all of them dying one way or another), and then he gets out of the way so you can read the story of the zombie plague straight through. The note-making guy comes back in at the end, with rather tragi-comic consequences.
Here, some samples of what you can expect from ZOMBIE HAIKU:
Little old ladies
speed away in their wheelchairs,
frightened meals on wheels.
Five old women on the ground,
helpless as babies.
That's from an episode where our zombie poet is in nursing home. From a bit later, here's this tidbit:
Blood is really warm.
It's like drinking hot chocolate
but with more screaming.
Here's another general observation:
Brains are less squishy
and a tad bit more squeaky
that someone might guess.
And another, which appears inside the book with a "his skull", but is on the cover as follows:
Biting into heads
is much harder than it looks.
The skull is feisty.
A general warning: This book is full of zombie murders and mayhem, including descriptions of zombies decomposing, maggot infestations, and gruesome injuries. Interestingly enough, Ryan Mecum, zombie haiku-writer extraordinaire, worked as a youth pastor at a Presbyterian church in Cincinnati, Ohio. Gotta love a youth pastor who writes about zombies. Coming this summer, Ryan's next opus: VAMPIRE HAIKU.
Monday, March 9, 2009
Did you ever wish that you understood what the heck people were talking about when they mentioned DNA, RNA, genes, and chromosomes? Do you hear things about gene therapy and cloning and wonder how stuff like that really works? Or maybe you’ve just gotten to a section on genetics in your science class in school and the teacher isn’t presenting it in quite the best way for you. If any of this applies to you, or if you’re just curious about the amazing story of human life, and life on earth, check out The Stuff of Life: A Graphic Guide to Genetics and DNA by Mark Schultz, with illustrations by Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon.
A graphic novel about DNA? How detailed could it get? Let me assure you, this is NOT a dumbed-down version of science—this book will give you all the info you need to pass a test, have an intelligent conversation, and decide if you want to do further reading on any specific topic, and its presented in a way that you’ve probably never seen it before. Framed as a report by an alien who has been to earth researching strategies for combating his own species' pervasive genetic disorders, The Stuff of Life covers everything from the origins of DNA to modern breakthroughs such as gene therapy and evolutionary genetics. While the format may seem a bit cheesy, it serves a great purpose. Just when you feel like you’re being bogged down with too many new words and concepts, there’s a break in the story as the king asks his subordinate to clarify what he just said. This allows for alternative metaphors and a slowing down of the information to allow you to take it all in. Having the information presented as both text and pictures gives you twice as many chances to understand both the building blocks of cells, genes, chromosomes, and DNA, and the more complex concepts of how inheritance works and how we are applying our knowledge of genetics. In addition to the main story, there are one-page detailed explanations of things such as the human team who first described the DNA structure, mutations, and how genetic information has been used (and manipulated) by politicians.
The format of this book makes it a fast read, though you may want to go back and look at things again as all the information sinks in and you start to make connections. There is also a thorough glossary, as well as a suggested further reading list (which includes magazines, books, and web sites) at the end of the book. Hear author Mark Schultz discussing the book in an NPR interview here, or check out an animation on What is a Nucleus here if you want to get more of an idea of what this unique book is all about. The Stuff of Life is a great introduction to the concepts of DNA and genetics for both teens and adults.
Friday, March 6, 2009
And he was right.
The year is 2025. Ben Richards hasn't been able to find regular work for years. His young daughter comes down with the flu, and it's so bad that she clearly needs a real doctor -- not, as Ben puts it, "a block midwife with dirty hands and whiskey breath".
So he heads across town to the Network Games Building. Contestants on Free-Vee shows like Treadmill to Bucks, Swim the Crocodiles and How Hot Can You Take It rarely survive, but their families get the winnings. And there's always a chance that he'll make it -- he's a powerful man, smart and determined.
But he gets assigned to The Running Man. Which is basically a death warrant. In the six years it's aired, not a single man has survived. He'll get a twelve-hour head start. After that, he'll be fair game. Not just to the Hunters that The Network will send out -- regular citizens will get reward money for providing tips on his whereabouts, and they'll get even more if they kill him. If he survives for 30 days, he'll win one billion dollars. If he doesn't, his family will receive one hundred dollars for every hour he's free -- and one hundred dollars for every pursuer he kills.
This was a one sitting book for me -- I actually tried to go to bed with twenty chapters unread, but after tossing and turning and tossing some more I finally resigned myself to a serious lack of sleep, got up and finished it. I ended up exhausted but content. It's a very fast-paced book -- none of the chapters are more than three pages long, and rather than chapter titles, there's a countdown. By the time I hit ...Minus 020 and COUNTING..., I was so amped up and tense that it's ridiculous that I even attempted to go to bed.
As per usual with Stephen King, I felt this story in my chest and in my gut -- reading him is almost always a very visceral experience for me. And there were a couple of passages that made my stomach flip around in an extremely unpleasant manner. One of them involved intestines. But The Running Man was more than action and gross-outs -- this extremely ugly vision of the future isn't exactly enjoyable, but Ben Richards is. He's angry and smart and unpredictable, all traits I enjoy in a hero. And the world, while bleak, is an interesting one -- obviously there's the futuristic aspect, but there's also a huge class divide, and within the classes, there seems to also be a huge racial and cultural divide as well -- and rather than do any explaining at the beginning, Stephen King just drops you into the thick of it.
In the introduction (when it comes to Stephen King books, the introductions are always worth reading), he discusses all of the books he published under this pseudonym. About The Running Man, he says, "...which may be the best of them because it's nothing but story--it moves with the goofy speed of a silent movie, and anything which is not story is cheerfully thrown over the side." I don't think he's giving himself enough credit.
Lesson learned? Reality television is evil.
(cross-posted at Bookshelves of Doom)
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Project Sweet Life by Brent Hartinger
"For most kids, fifteen is the year of the optional summer job: Sure, you can get a job if you really want one, but it isn't required or anything. Too bad Dave's dad doesn't agree! Instead of enjoying long days of biking, swimming, and sitting around, Dave and his two best friends are being forced by their fathers into a summer of hard labor.
The friends have something else in mind, though: Not only will they not work over the summer, but they're determined to trick everyone into believing they really do have jobs. So what if the lifeguard doesn't have a tan or the fast-food worker isn't bringing home buckets of free chicken? There's only one problem: Dave's dad wants evidence that his son is actually bringing in money. And that means Dave, Curtis, and Victor will have to get some . . . without breaking the law and without doing any work!"
I loved this book and there's no doubt about that. I read it so quickly- I started it yesterday and finished it just a few hours ago. I've been a fan of Hartinger's previous work and this one didn't let me down. This was a very funny book and it was extremely creative of Hartinger to come up with all the schemes that Dave and his friends try to do to get the money they need without having to get a summer job. The ending was unexpected, but not so much that it seemed like it popped out of nowhere. The clues throughout the novel that hint at the ending are very cleverly placed. It's a wonderful ride from beginning to end, and this is a prime example of why Hartinger is one of my favorite YA authors. Definitely a recommend book, and I'd strongly suggest his previous novels too!
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
I'm normally not a huge fan of Sci-Fi. I love Ender's Game like most everyone and Feintuch's Hope series has some nice moments (more about that in another post). But as a whole it isn't a genre that speaks to me. I love the idea behind alternate history, but I've not seen it executed very well. Turtledove has some very interesting ideas, but I can't stand his writing, and other authors never seem to do as much with the stories as I would like.
Then I read the Destroyermen trilogy by Taylor Anderson. It begins in 1942 with the USS Walker, an obsolete American destroyer fleeing desperately from the Japanese onslaught in the company of the remainder of the Allied forces in the South Pacific. Harried and overwhelmed by overwhelming Japanese naval and air forces she slips into a passing squall for shelter and emerges in a totally different world. The sea is somehow different and more dangerous, the landforms don't quite match the charts, and there are no radio signals or any evidence of human presence.
As they explore the new world they find themselves in the men of the Walker come across a race of lemur-like seafarers known as The People and hear of the all-consuming Grik, a race of predatory lizards. They will be forced to choose between searching for a way out of their untenable situation or confronting a terrible and implacable enemy. And they will find out they weren't the only vessel from their world who passed through The Squall.
Filled with interesting characters coming to grips with a strange new world the three books of the series, Into the Storm, Crusade, and Maelstrom provide no shortage of fierce creatures, jury rigged solutions, and frantic battles. Anderson creates a savage world creepily similar to our own and populates it with characters you care about and root for. If you like militaristic sci-fi, or WWII action Destroyermen might be the perfect blend for you.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
As a youth, I discovered John Christopher’s Tripod trilogy the way I discovered most books, by browsing the fiction section and dismissing everything not adorned on the bottom of the spine with a rocket ship sticker, indicating its inclusion in the Science Fiction genre. (I visited a small town library which didn’t feature a separate Sci-Fi section, or not in the YA stacks anyway.) I had virtually no interest in realistic fiction. A few titles were OK. I enjoyed the realistic novels of Madeleine L’Engle which I found via her better known science fiction and fantasy works. But most realistic YA fiction was either about kids coping with trouble--booze or sex or drugs—or kids’ arguments with adults, usually their divorced parents. I had enough of my own crap to get depressed over, I reasoned, without having to engage in the traumas of a pretend person.
And so I escaped with escapist fiction. True to its characteristic flaws, the fiction that I read was somewhat predictable, and its characters tended to be a little one-dimensional and its themes rather black and white. I could not have cared less. I knew what I liked and that’s what I was going to read. So I judged the Tripod series by its covers, which promised sci-fi adventure. I gobbled up those library copies of The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire, and then I reread them again and again. I doubt I could have voiced just what it was about them that I liked so much. They certainly contained all the elements I looked for in a book: a setting in a world vastly different from my own, a fast-paced adventure plot, fascinating and strange new concepts, and themes of overcoming great adversity while staying true to ones friends. But now rereading them again, thirty years later, I think I understand better what attracted me to them.
The White Mountains, the first in the series, opens with the image of a stolen watch. The watch is a prized possession of Will Parker’s father. The watch doesn’t work, but is an artifact of “the ancients,” people who once knew how to make such things. Will’s world is vaguely medieval, lacking in the technologies driven by the invention of the steam engine and everything that followed. Instead, the lives of Will’s largely agrarian people revolve around a coming of age ceremony called Capping in which a metal net is fused with the flesh of a person’s skull. All this takes place inside a Tripod, a giant machine which strides into town on Capping Day, and draws those old enough to be Capped inside itself. Once Capped, each individual continues with his or her life but becomes completely loyal to the Tripods, stops asking questions about their origin and authority, and ceases to be curious about the world, preventing the discovery of dangerous things like explosives and electricity. For a few, the Capping is unsuccessful, and these people, called Vagrants, are left to wander, mad, about the countryside. Will, thirteen, and rapidly approaching his Capping Day, still has a free mind which begins asking questions. A man disguised as a Vagrant, but wearing only a fake Cap, finds Will, explains to him what the Caps do, and recruits him to escape to a stronghold of free men who are planning to revolt against the Tripods. His journey will take him across a deteriorated Europe, to a completely alien city (The City of Gold and Lead), and turn him from a boy into a dedicated freedom fighter (The Pool of Fire).
The appeal of this transparently veiled metaphor to a young man is plain: all the adults, with their rules and their loyalty to their jobs and their stress over bills are simply tools of the system, brainwashed into accepting a world that only wants to control them. Even today, although most outside observers would identify me as most like the Capped, I strongly identify with the freedom-loving, free-thinking Will Parker and his comrades. (I’m not really Capped; I’m just living undercover.) The story is blatantly one of resistance to the status quo. In contemporary terms, the Tripods represent The Man. And what self-respecting youth doesn’t want to stick it to him?
But what is most intriguing and ultimately most powerful about the series is that John Christopher never leaves the concept of freedom alone, never lets his characters, or his readers take it for granted. Christopher's idea of freedom is distinct from that referenced in country music songs. For Will, the cost of freedom, of free-thinking, of challenging the status quo, is very great; he pays with the loss of his family, his predictable life, several of his friends, his first love, and in many ways his childhood. For Christopher, living freely flies in the face of much of what we desire as humans—the wish to belong, the desire for comfort, the need to self-aggrandize. The struggle for freedom, throughout all of these books is both an external battle against the domination of the Tripods, and an internal one, of Will fighting against his own ignoble tendencies. At one point in the story, Will is offered a life of complete comfort, to be adopted into a family of royalty, as long as he is willing to be Capped. It’s not so simple for him to walk away.
The books are not perfect. The pacing is often uneven and the weirdly formal tone which works so well to help establish the setting sometimes slips into something more casual. Occasionally Christopher’s political messages can get a bit heavy-handed, as when Will discovers the aliens’ collection of beautiful women placed under glass like an insect collection, or when we learn that the original brain-washing of humanity was conducted through television. But for each of these conks over the head, Christopher illuminates other issues—e.g., the weirdness of tourism, and humanity’s own drive to “colonize”—with real subtlety.
Throughout the adventure, Will Parker is a wonderfully flawed hero on which to rest the hopes of mankind. He is often petty and too quick to temper, sometimes childish and even lazy. He is, thus, easy to identify with. A young man will recognize his own flaws in Will (as will a still-seeking adult) even as Will becomes more and more aware of these deficiencies and learns to correct them. At the same time, it is Will’s stubborn, youthful rebelliousness that empowers him. His job, after all, is to help save humanity, as it is all of ours.
Arthur C. Clarke has written that no trilogy should contain more than four books. This trilogy has a fourth book tacked on to the front, twenty years after the original series. The prequel, When the Tripods Came, details the initial conquest of earth. I have not yet read it.
Sam Riddleburger recently reviewed another of John Christopher’s books, the ecological thriller, The Long Winter.
Cross-posted at http://mrchompchomp.blogspot.com
Monday, March 2, 2009
Tim Byrd’s rollicking Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom is part Jonny Quest, part Doc Savage and all a massive hoot. It’s both a throwback and a reboot, taking its influences and moving them effortlessly to an alternate present where the police in New York still use dirigibles and will help a man simply because they know that if someone like him is breaking the law, it must be important.
Brian and Wren Wilde are the preteen children of Dr. Spartacus “Doc” Wilde: brilliant scientist, brawny crimefighter, world-famous adventurer and obviously the coolest dad ever. When Grandpa Wilde vanishes in the South American jungles, the Wildes find themselves battling evil frog-men (not the kind with scuba suits) to save the universe from ribbeting Lovecraftian doom.
For kids, the story is straightforward and action-packed (to say the least). Brian and Wren, like Jonny Quest and Hadji, are not spoken down to or treated as helpless; these kids are right there backing up dad. Like Kenneth Robeson’s Doc Savage, Doc Wilde comes with a team of unlikely allies who bring their own skills to the mix. And like Batman, the Wildes have an immense cave filled with all kinds of cool gadgetry. But even with these various sources, there’s thankfully no irony here: it’s a balls-out adventure that, while light-hearted, never turns to self-referential mockery.
There are in-jokes, though and for parents (at least for this parent) they're a big part of the fun. At one point Doc Wilde is referred to as “the Man of Brawn,” a clear nod to Doc “Man of Bronze” Savage. The evil frog-lord’s previous attempt to consume our universe was foiled by “a wild-haired barbarian from Sumeria,” a hat-tip to Robert E. Howard. But none of these are done at the story's expense: if you don't get the references, the tale still works just fine.
The only real criticism I have of the book is that it isn’t clear who's the main character. Doc Wilde gets the title, but at first the story seems to be told through his son Brian; then he's out of the action for a fair bit, and emphasis shifts. In a way this mimics the less-than-polished tone of the novel’s pulp inspirations, but as I read I wished Byrd would’ve picked a point-of-view character and stuck with it.
Still, in context that’s a pretty minor quibble. ‘Tween and young teen boys should eat this up; I can't wait to read it to my oldest son right after we finish The Jungle Book. Hopefully Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom will be the start of a fun series of more (pardon me for this) Wilde adventures.