Monday, June 6, 2011

Jane Austen and Comic Books

I know I just made a fairly mammoth update yesterday, but I just finished this today and I didn't want to wait another month before writing about it.  By the way, if anybody is curious, I have read 28 of the 60 books on my original reading list

by Jane Austen
First published 1818, this edition copyright 1906
Everyman's Library, Alfred A. Knopf, New York
249 pages

It took me a long time to read this book.  This is likely due to the peculiar circumstance that I could rarely venture beyond one chapter at a time without beginning to feel drowsy.  That isn't to say the book is dull, because it's really not; it just consistently made me sleepy. 

Here we have one of Austen's lesser-known romance novels, a story featuring Anne Elliot, who is pretty old by your typical Austen heroine standards (she's all of twenty-seven).  At age nineteen, Anne fell in love with one Frederick Wentworth, but her father and a close friend persuaded her against the match, primarily because of Wentworth's low position in society, and Anne thought it best to submit to their thoughts than follow her own feelings.  Thus the gentleman left and joined the navy.  Fast-forward eight years, and both Anne and Frederick--now Captain Frederick Wentworth--are still single.  They haven't seen or spoken to each other in almost a decade, but life throws them back into each other's paths.  Obviously, things can't just pick up where they left off--there are always complications in Jane Austen romances, though Austen's more popular heroines never seem to have quite so much stacked against their chances for happiness as Anne has.  Her family members are always keeping her down, her father's poor financial choices have left the family somewhat lacking in social prestige (and thus somewhat less attractive to many potential suitors for the Elliot sisters), and Captain Wentworth appears to have not quite forgiven her for breaking his heart so completely eight years before.  As always, Austen weaves a tale that is equal parts social and economic plotting and emotional confusion in a style that is so straight-laced you might miss the wit if you're not ready for it.  It is a story of redemption and second chances.  But it's also a Jane Austen, so you're already pretty sure how it's going to end.  Let's face it, you don't read romance novels for the mystery :-)

I did like this book.  I did struggle somewhat with the sentence structure.  Austen's thoughts often take off in different directions rather abruptly, and there are so many commas and parentheses that I sometimes forgot what was being referenced or who was speaking by the time I reached the end of the paragraph.  Ultimately, it's a very different style of writing and of storytelling than I'm used to, so it took some time adjusting.  I don't read many novels where 95% of the action is sitting/walking and having conversation and/or pausing for reflection.  There's a lot of talking about things that happened between chapters, but very little of things actually happening while you're reading.  At one point, a character falls and hits her head, and it comes as a bit of a shock to the system because it's something happening rather than someone talking about something that happened.  Again, it's just a very different narrative style than I'm used to, and it's a good stretch for my mind to grapple with. 


Speaking of differing literary styles, I realized I haven't been offering any comments on the graphic novels and comic collections I've been reading this year.  This is because I don't count them in my end-of-the-year page count totals.  Still, some great stories, and so I figured I'd let you know what I've read so far this calendar year in the world of graphic novels and comic strip treasuries.  They've all been pretty good.

Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar
Batman: Hush by Jeff Loeb
Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid
Sgt. Piggy's Lonely Hearts Club Comic: A Pearls Before Swine Treasury by Stephan Pastis
Runaways #2: Teenage Wasteland by Brian K. Vaughn
Runaways #3: The Good Die Young by Brian K. Vaughn

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The Month of May, and What Comes Next

I did actually do a decent amount of reading in May (once again, for me), I just haven't gotten around to blogging it.  Usually, I've been too tired to string together enough coherent thoughts when I'm at home, and I left my page count and publisher information at home so I didn't write while I was at work. 

Long overdue, here be some books I done read:

The Shadow Rises 
by Robert Jordan
TOR Fantasy, 1992
681 pages

Here we have the fourth book in Jordan's Wheel of Time series.  Of the four, this is the book I felt was the least "stand-alone."  By this I mean that, had I picked this book up and read it apart from the rest of the series, I'm not sure I would have cared enough to read any further.  However, it does not exist independently, and as a piece of the WoT story as a whole, it is a very strong addition.  (NOTE: I don't really know how to talk about WoT books anymore without discussing MASSIVE SPOILERS for those who haven't read the series, so if you don't want to know, just skip down to the next book)  The majority of this book seems to be spent waiting on something or other to happen.  Rand's arc through this book is primarily traveling and asking a lot of questions/learning a lot of Aiel history (I'll admit to getting a bit bored in the scene where he was in the Rhuidean flashback, but then again I was also ridiculously tired that day and was having focus issues).  He also spends a lot of time thinking about how strange women are. And it's true, it seems the young women in Rand's life were being more emotionally indecipherable than usual, even for this series.  I generally consider the male-female dynamics--and not just the romantic ones--to be one of the most enjoyable facets of the series.  Nevertheless, by the middle of the book I found myself thinking, "Geez, give poor Rand a break, girls!" 

I felt a little like Jordan considered Elayne and Nynaeve's storyline a bit of an afterthought. It seemed a lot more was happening there than we really got.  Instead, all I got was a bunch of Nynaeve being annoyed at the men.  I don't know specifically what in this storyline was unsatisfactory, but it just felt like there was a misfire somewhere in the execution.  It may have been that I was just never that interested in the Seanchen woman (See?  Don't even remember her name) and she was the major player early on in that story.  That said: if this series ever gets (unfortunately) turned into a movie franchise, I want Thom Merrilin to get a spin-off solo film.  And I loved seeing his and Elayne's dynamic grow.  That, and the re-emergence of Bayle Domon, were probably my favorite parts of this arc. 

I liked the growth and change to Elayne's character.  I'm generally annoyed with Egwene at this point.  Which is odd, because she was one of my favorite characters in the first two books.  Now that she doesn't love Rand, it seems like she's just stubborn and trying to prove to everybody how grown up she is.  For some reason, she's just annoying me. 

Since we're talking about women, the capitulation of the White Tower is an awesome story development.  Of all the things that happened in this book, that probably has me the most excited moving forward from a story perspective.  (Also, why do these books only give us little tiny bits of Min?  More Adventures of Min, dangit! Though that's really what amazes me most of this series: on the whole, there's really not a weak character.  Certain characters seem to fluctuate in and out of the realm of "interesting" from book to book, but they're all really solid and there's not really any one character who makes me want to skip the chapter as soon as I realize it is going to be told from his/her perspective.  (This isn't something I can say about other epic fantasy storytellers I've read recently) 

I loved Perrin/Faile's arc in this book.  It was probably my favorite individual story arc so far in the series.  It was also very welcome because, while Rand was walking for days and the ladies were sailing and then sitting around waiting for information, Perrin was rallying his homeland to rise up and repel a full-scale Trolloc invasion while sorting through a painfully enjoyable relationship and, reluctantly, becoming a hero.  From a beginning-middle-end aspect, clearly the most satisfying arc of the book.  Heck, it ends with him riding off (to the inn) on his horse with his new bride to the cheers of his army.  Perrin is easily my favorite of the three ta'varen (as I suspect one particular recommender suspected would be the case) and is vying with Loial, Thom, Faile, Lan, Min, and Moiraine for favorite overall character.  (It rarely stays the same from one book to the next)  And Faile is the perfect foil for him.  The "Price of a Departure" chapter is probably the biggest "Awwwww" chapter so far in the series.  Nice for a brief bit of feel-good in the midst of all this killing and soul-eating. 

One last thing, and then I've really got to move on: As much as I felt like we, as readers, were just waiting for Rand to meet with all the Aiel, once he does finally make it there, HOLY CRAP.  My second-favorite Final Boss Battle of the series thus far.  Also, I loved how, when Lanfear steps out to make her big "OMG it's the Big Bad!" reveal, Rand's response is basically, "About time you revealed yourself.  Where's the other one?"  And Lanfear's reaction is roughly akin to, " already knew?  So, you're not surprised at all???"  So often, you want the hero in a fantasy or adventure story to realize that yes, the mysterious stranger is not just a recluse, he's actually the Dark Lord of All Things Evil, yet they're still surprised by it every time it happens.  Not this time.  Rand's got this whole "Everybody's Out to Get You" thing figured out.  And a very cool twist, Asmodeon forced into training Rand in the One Power.

The pieces continue to move into place in what is an impressive Magnum Opus for Mr. Jordan.  I could fairly easily get lost in this series for about eight months if I allowed myself to. 

War Horse 
by Michael Morpugo
Scholastic Press, 1982
165 pages

War Horse, War Horse! War Horse, War Horse! He rides across the nations way back in World War One. Dodging shells and barbed-wire fence is not much fun! An armored tank is coming, so run run run run run! He's saddle up with no recourse, so get that kaiser!  Go War Horse!


This is a children's book from 1982 that is now a Broadway play famous for its amazing puppetry.  When I heard of the show, however, I thought the story sounded good, so I checked out the book.  If you like horses, sad things happening, or sad things happening to horses, then this is the book for you!  It's told from the horse's perspective.  A farm-raised horse forms a special bond of love with his owner's son, but the farmer gets low on cash and so he sells the horse to the army. You even get a nice scene with the boy running up to the serviceman about to take the horse away, shouting "You can't take him!  You can't take him!" and "I'll come find you!"  It's pretty sad.  From that point on, the horse is taken care of by a kind, animal-friendly officer--who is shot and killed in battle.  He then escapes the battlefield with his closest friend (whose rider was also killed) and is eventually taken care of by an old German man who lives alone with his sickly young granddaughter.  She loves the horses, so naturally the army eventually forces them to leave her.  This kind of thing happens for about a hundred and fifty pages.  It's kind of like a Lassie story where Lassie gets kidnapped and nearly dies several times as everyone who treats her kindly along the way suffers some tragic end before she finally makes her way home to an overjoyed adult Timmy, who dies of pneumonia a week later.

Okay, it's not quite that bad.  Still, it's a downer.  And that isn't to say it's bad.  I think the book is trying to be an introduction to the horrors of war for young (I'm saying 4th-6th grade?) minds.  A lot of sad things happen, but it never takes you to Where the Red Fern Grows-levels of depression.  Still, it doesn't sugar-coat the harshness of war.  A lot of characters that you come to like don't make it through the book. 

So, a good book, and a valuable one.  But it's not a surprise it didn't become a beloved classic like Charlotte's Web or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The Rise and Fall of the Bible
by Timothy Beal
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011
225 pages

Timothy Beal is a Christian who doesn't believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God.  And in this book, he lays out why.  Doesn't sound like the sort of thing I'd be up for, and yet I loved most of this book.  Here's the weird thing: I agreed with a lot of Beal's thinking and reasoning, but I don't come to his conclusions.  He spends most of the book on what the Bible is not and he presents these points very clearly and, I think, accurately.  He talks about many people loving (or hating) what he describes as the "cultural icon" of the Bible and not the actual words of the Bible, and I think that's a really strong point.  Folks go into the Word having already decided what it says, and they dismiss anything that challenges those ideas.  He also writes a fantastic chapter on how Bible-printing became Big Business, and how many of the Bibles that are in print today actually seem to discourage readers from searching the scriptures.  Really good, thought-provoking stuff.  Beal's encouragement is not to look at the Bible as a book of answers, but rather a catalog of questions.  And ultimately, that is where we disagree.  Because I believe the Bible both gives a lot of answers and leaves us with a lot of questions.  All of the questions--both the answered and the unanswered ones--are designed to direct us to God.  I don't consider the fact that the New Testament was not canonized as scripture during the time of the early church substantial reason to set it aside as "not necessarily scripture."  I don't believe the Bible was thrown together completely separate from the will of God.  I think there's a lot of value in much of what Beal asserts, but he comes to consider the Bible to be a discussion piece and not an authority, where I think there is, in fact, a lot of authority that is guiding the discussion.  

We may be splitting hairs here.  On the whole, I really liked the book.  As I said, I found myself agreeing with much of it.  Just not it's conclusion.  Not quite.  And admittedly, I didn't think the conclusion was nearly as clear as the chapters that lead up to it, so I may not be properly understanding exactly which position Beal does propose.  Still, a recommended read for most (though, admittedly, not all) of my believing friends, and a great book to sit around and discuss over a cup of coffee.  :-)


Now, I've made a bit of a deal with my 4th-6th grade AWANA students.  I challenged them each to read through the entire New Testament this summer (it's not actually that long).  My challenge is that I've allowed them each to recommend any two to three of their favorite books, and I'd read them all by the end of the summer. If we all meet our goals, we'll have a party in September.  To track my progress, I've offered to set up a blog where I'll write about each book when I finish it. It won't be the same kind of blog as this one is, because I'll be more summarizing story elements so they can tell I've actually read the book.  I'll link to that once it's set up.  I will still be here occasionally this summer, since I have a few grown-up books I'll be reading on the side, but my summer reading will be just about entirely YA literature.  Which will be good for me as a writer, but I will be ready for some more meaty material when I finish the summer reading project.