Read, dammit.

Books are fun. Read 'em whenever you can.

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Location: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

I'm a writer, podcaster and skills coach in Vancouver, BC. I have two legs, but often misplace the left one. If you see me operating this blog in an erratic or dangerous manner, please smile, nod and back your way out of the room slowly.

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Marvel 1602, by Neil Gaiman

I just finished reading Neil Gaiman's post-Sandman endeavour, entitled Marvel 1602 due to the simple fact that he's taken the Marvel universe and plunked it firmly in the final year of Queen Elizabeth's reign. 1602, to be precise.

Well-written, and a fun spin on the whole Jack Kirby/Stan Lee character empire. Mutants are called Witchbreed, and are hunted by the Inquisition.

Strangely, the character I'm most into is Daredevil, all-too brooding and self-absorbed in his usual incarnation; here a blind minstrel with a penchant for one-liners.

A fun read, I must say, especially necessary for me right now, since most of the time these days I'm knee-deep in non-fiction Latin American history or fighting through intense Shakespearean analyses.

Oh, and did I mention the bitchin' scratchboard covers by Scott McKowen? They're, well, bitchin'.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Gulliver's Travels - Jonathan Swift

Gulliver's Travels
Jonathan Swift

Published: 1726
Read: October 2006

Capsule: Lemuel Gulliver writes a series of observations about his unusual travels to lands previously unseen by European eyes. Most identifiable for the image of Gulliver pinned to the earth by 10-cm tall Liliputians, GT is most compelling for its unswerving bite in attacking the colonial enterprise. Look for the coining of the term "yahoo" in describing the undesirable actions of a person.

Trade Paperback: 306 pages
Penguin Classics
ISBN: 0-14-143949-1

As a precursor to the 18th Century lit course I'm to take in the new year, I recently perused Jonathan Swift's 1726 masterpiece, the brutally honest sendup of the British superiority complex called Gulliver's Travels.

Most of us know it only through a single image: the everykid fantasy of suddenly finding oneself a giant amongst little people. After his ship is ripped asunder, a victim of the sea, Gulliver wakes up on a beach, prisoner of the Liliputians, a race of people barely 10 centimetres tall. Since the mid-18th Century, this is the image we've all grown up with, that we've all identified with, that we've all taken for granted:

The sad, joyous, tragic and compelling part is that Gulliver's Travels is so much more than a single child's play painting. What starts as an exercise in Swift's hatred for travel books soon moves out of mere sarcastic disdain for self-absorbed writing. The author uses the monstrously large Brobdingnagians to ridicule human illusions of grandeur; the misshapen Laputians (whose name literally translated from Spanish means "the whores") to mock navelgazers, artists, religious zealots and psychologists; the Chicken Little-esque Balnibarbians to skewer both sides of the British-Irish conflict; the form-over-function Luggnaggians to spank both Asian traditions and those in the west who refuse to respect them; the immortal Struldbruggs to shame dreamers who refuse to grow old gracefully; and the equestrian Houhnhums to out-and-out name humankind as the single greatest scourge to slither, crawl, swim or walk the face of the earth.

Even paintings rendered fairly early on decided to run in unintended directions with Swift's work; every representation has Gulliver wearing his hat while being staked to the ground by tiny creatures. If you read with even the slightest care, you'll find that the cap was actually recovered and returned to its owner days later by a scouting party. Notes in my Penguin edition bear out Swift's claims, even centuries later: from the very first, publishers edited, rewrote, renamed and otherwise bastardized Gulliver and his Travels for fear of reprisals from politicians and readers alike. Since then, the holier-than-everythou scholars have spent nigh on three hundred years arguing over which pronouns are preferred, what chapters ought be renamed, and how many lines may have been redone by Swift himself or a jealous compatriot. Some of these debates have, in their utmost importance, brought academics to tears, shouting matches and even bloodshed.

That may sound silly, but today our problem is worse. It's truly unfortunate that our soundbite-driven modern society has reduced such an opus as GT to a single image. (Even more saddening when such a biting portrayal of colonial missteps is so wholly ruined by association with an American C-list actor such as Ted Danson.) Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point is an aptly simplified look at how we juxtapose all the information we encounter: we are so bombarded with imagery and popular culture minutiae, we're forced to take even the most pointed message and flatten it for easier placement in our cerebral filing system. No longer do we roll phrases around our mouths to find hidden meanings, or labour to read up on an author's influences. Instead we reiterate half-baked conspiracy theories handed us by writers of The X-Files and memorize inconsistencies between episodes of CSI: Miami; we look up quotes on the internet, sans context, often sans citation or even accuracy.

As a culture, we've stripped & sold parts of hundreds of amazingly detailed pieces of historical commentary rather than take time to study them in detail. This is why our modern runaway hits are so bland by comparison; The Da Vinci Code is already flat, uncomplicated pageturning that has spoonfed the masses a two-thousand-year-old mystery unravelled in a weekend by a middle-aged college prof and his twenty-something love interest. Rich Dad, Poor Dad is fast food for the financially illiterate: complete with its large print, oversimplified repetitions & numerous typos, it's pre-digested pablum that's more improbable for success, but much easier to swallow than, say, the semester or two of Intro to Financial Management that should be mandatory in junior high school.

Even the sacred tomes of Harry Potter are simply watered down Norse, Greek & random collected myth. Boy-child vs unimaginable arch villain: David & Goliath, anyone? Child pulls magic sword out of... well, you pick: a hat for Harry, or a stone for Arthur. JK Rowling is an astute pupil of reshaping myth; so was her countryman Shakespeare, as was Ovid in Rome, and Homer for the Greeks. They've all created stories that look great on the surface and invite voracious first reads. What the mother of the Harry Potter franchise has managed to do, however, is decidedly different: she's pre-flattened the story for easy entry into the mental hard drive, and by doing so, removed the meaty, subtextual flesh that makes for good study.

Jonathan Swift compared his melodramatic travelogue to the song of Sinon, the Greek who sold the Trojan Horse like a car salesman with a good-looking lemon. Both Vergil and Swift, but by a few staid classicists, have long since been dumbed down. Only time will tell if or how Harry Potter and the Overhyped Ending will fare with audiences three centuries down the road. If Rowling's hero is still in the collective memory by then, here's betting it'll be in a single pictograph and an advertising catchphrase.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Island of Dr Moreau - H G Wells

The Island of Dr Moreau
H G Wells

Published: 1896
Read: January 2006

Capsule: Edward Prendick finds himself on a desert isle with myriad beast people created by a wanton vivisectionist, Dr Moreau. A classic early foray into the genre of scientific horror, The Island of Dr Moreau challenges Darwinian exploration and assumptions of Christian dominion. It also successfully displays both sides of the ethical scientist argument while taking typically 19th-Century British shots at "lesser" races.

Trade Paperback: 104 pages
ISBN: 0486290271
Dover Thrift Editions

I've read only a little H G Wells over the years, but spurred by the recent Tom Cruise debacle thought I should give the real deal a try. Despite being contemporaries in the newly emerging field of science fiction, Wells and Jules Verne apparently used to hate each other's writing. Wells thought Verne was unnecessarily dry and dark; Verne thought Wells was implausible and overly fantastic. For readers today, both authors provide fascinating looks at a genre in its infancy.

The Island of Dr Moreau is best placed beside works like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: it's as much about the people involved as it is the crazy science of it all. With monthly breakthroughs in cloning, the Genome Project and medical nanotechnology, these stories are perhaps more important now than they have been in a hundred years.

At the same time, the most jarring issue for a modern reader is most likely going to be a very old one. The narrative spends half the book slamming species and races "less" evolved. Even with a clear call for scientific (and colonial) restraint, the racial intonations are, today, uncomfortable -- in agreement with British thought at the time, Wells equates white with intelligence and civilisation, black with brutish ignorance.

Moreau's attempts to inflict civility upon the animals of the kingdom, of course, turns out horribly. The vivisected beasts learn language to certain degrees, and are taught a rudimentary religion centred upon the good doctor's pain-giving abilities. "Stubborn beast-flesh" prevails time after time, however: invariably, the creatures slowly revert to instinctual, speechless animals. The racist comments make an otherwise brilliant text difficult to read in a modern context.

Sympathy for Moreau's victims quickly becomes awareness of colonial slave trade. One can't help think that Prendick's judgement of human servants would read similarly -- when the teachings of the great white man start wearing off, Prendick observes, "I... distinctly perceived a growing difference in their speech and carriage, a growing coarseness of articulation, a growing disinclination to talk."

The obvious allusions to race relations aside, Moreau is intelligent storytelling; Wells was incredibly well-read, and no matter Verne's opinion, his literacy shows through in his work. Near the end of the book, the Monkey Man offers up a little pre-Orwellian newspeak: everyday topics are "little thinks", while abstract discussion and inventive wordplay are "big thinks".

South Park took 30 minutes to tackle the little thinks in Moreau with their four-assed monkey interpretation. It would take a few semesters of studying colonial and black history, however, to even attempt a cranial wraparound on the big thinks in this story.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - J K Rowling

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
J K Rowling

NOTE: Raincoast Books, the Canadian publisher of the Harry Potter franchise, is the sole publisher of these books to use Old Growth-free, recycled paper. Please support responsible companies like this whenever possible -- order the Raincoast edition of Harry Potter!

First Published: June 1997
First Read: 2000
Last Read: June 2005

Capsule: Is there anyone who doesn't know? Well, okay, for consistency's sake: Harry Potter is maltreated and abused by his step-parents. His life seems dreadful and sad, until his eleventh birthday, when he finds out: he's a wizard! He subsequently goes to Hogwart's, the finest school of magic and witchcraft in England. This, the first book of seven (six as of this blog post), literally woke up the bookreading world and started an empire for J K Rowling, who is now richer than the Queen of England.

Trade Paperback: 256 pages
ISBN: 155192398x
Raincoast Books

My review is hardly necessary -- there's so much cyberspace devoted to Harry Potter and the six books we've been treated to so far that I won't add my two cents. Suffice to say, as a storyteller I admire how she's created such an intriguing, complex world with essentially simple characters. As a writer, I love that Rowling has brought people -- especially children -- back to reading for the love of books. As a reader, I'm excited to see how she winds it all up. I go back and read all the books prior to publication of each new one; here's hoping the ending lives up to the stupendous material to come before it.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Calculating God - Robert J Sawyer

Calculating God
Robert J Sawyer

First Published: April 1999
Read: May 2005

Capsule: Robert J Sawyer, Nebula Award-winning science fiction writer, weighs in on the intelligent design debate through contrived, heavy-handed fiction.

Paperback: 352 pages
ISBN: 0812580354
Tor Books

This was lent to me by a friend with high praise. Unfortunately I can't support his claims. While positing a smattering of interesting ideas and posing one or two questions of note, Calculating God is pretty much an ageing science fiction writer's attempt to show off how much he knows about physics, astronomy and cutting edge religious dogma.

After an alien spacecraft lands at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum, the world is shocked when the extraterrestrial that emerges asks not to meet political or military personnel, but rather desires an audience with the ROM's head paleontologist.

It seems that there are at least two other civilised worlds on the brink of self-destruction, like ours. These aliens, then, are searching for similarities in our cultural and physiological evolutions to head off disaster for our three races. Oh, did I mention both of these otherworldly visitors have scientific evidence for the existence of God?

What follows is little more than a seminar on intelligent design. Reading the book, you'll either feel that Sawyer's a holy salesman trying to convert you, or be oblivious to it and come away with all that subliminal religious programming swimming around in your head. Hey, I'm all for exploration of faith -- this, however, smacks of the Scientologists handing out coupons for "free IQ testing" to get people through the door. There's no subtlety whatsoever; it's just Sawyer as sci-fi preacher.

Calculating God is a mercifully quick read; as such, it's not a waste of time, but surely there are other sci-fi books that prophesise with a lighter touch.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Little Prince - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Published: 1943
Read: May 2005

Capsule: The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is one of the world's most beloved children's stories. A pilot finds himself stranded in the desert where he meets an extra-terrestrial prince -- the alien's seemed innocence of course belies a cosmic wisdom, and forces the pilot to question all that he holds dear, all that he "knows". To date, The Little Prince has sold over 50 million copies worldwide.

Paperback: 96 pages
ISBN: 0156012197
Harcourt Publishers

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry wrote a wonderful, touching and thoughtful story that should be mandatory reading for everybody. Simple characters give countless opportunities to think about the truly important things in life, and to put everything in your life in real perspective. Even if you're broken down in the desert, you need to realise the cosmic significance of your predicament, and the consequences of your actions. Do you want to be The Drunk, who drinks to forget he's ashamed of drinking? Or the Cartographer, who makes maps of the world, but never leaves his desk to actually experience those wonderful places?

The messages are simple, too. Open your eyes, and even more important, open your heart. Help those who need help. Appreciate what -- and whom -- you have around you. And strive to be the best person you can be while you're at it.

A wonderful story.

Monday, January 02, 2006

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes - Neil Gaiman

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes
Neil Gaiman

Published: Single issues, 1988; Collection, 1991
Read: April 2005

Capsule: Neil Gaiman's work as a writer is hailed throughout the comic, goth and post-modern literature communities as some of the best work of the late 20th Century -- issue number 19 won the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction, prompting a rule change to disallow illustrated works from future consideration. These stories about Dream, the ruler of the dream world, weaving characters and ideas from myriad faiths and mythologies, is among the most influential of the past 50 years -- its touch is seen on television, in the movies, and in music around the world.

Graphic Novel: issues 1-8; 233 pages
ISBN: 1563890119
Published by DC/Vertigo

Morpheus is pissed off. The ruler of the dream world, he has been inadvertantly captured and imprisoned by some basement witchcraft of a hobby cult. Immortal, he outwaits two generations of human captors before escaping and regaining control of his domain. In the meantime, horrible things have taken place in our world; without the ability to dream, some bad shit goes down for nigh on 100 years.

This is how we're introduced to the Sandman, the brainchild of the brilliant Neil Gaiman, who was asked in the mid to late 80s to create a title for DC's new adult-themed imprint Vertigo. He took the obsolete superhero Sandman (a WWII hero dressed in green and gold with a gas mask and sleeping powder) and ramped him up several notches. Instead of a traditional superhero comic, readers were treated to a sophisticated, literate rendition of entities older than ancient mythology. Dream had seen Zeus come and go; he watched Buddha, Mohammed and Ron L Hubbard rise and fall; that Christianity? -- just a phase.

To placate the suits at DC, some mentions of heroes from that universe are present: Arkham Asylum gets a few plugs in the first storyline, which has the Justice League of America's old foe Doctor Destiny in possession of the Sandman's ultra-mystic paraphernalia. The original Sandman even appears for a guest spot as a one-panel illustration of how Morpheus's decades-long absence has inspired mortal copycats.

From these humble beginnings grew a phenomenon that has touched TV (X-Files, Charmed), movies (Matrix, Underworld), and music (Tori Amos, every goth band since 1990). This first collection isn't as polished as the volumes that follow, but after all, it is titled Preludes and Nocturnes. A wonderful read, extremely literate and intellectually as stimulating as any well-planned university lecture on mythology.