Hope In the Dark by Rebecca Solnit – A Book Review

It so happened that on the morning of January 13th, I rode in my car and heard Rebecca Solnit on the NPR program entitled On the Media.  She read an excerpt from her 2004 book called Hope In the Dark.  Her reading, as well as her subsequent interview, convinced me that I had to experience the work for myself.

She begins with a quote from Virginia Woolf during WWI that says, “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.”  Solnit goes on to clarify that, in this case, darkness does not equate disaster, it merely reminds us that the future is ultimately unknown.

These are troubling times, and it is by no accident that this book, which is well over ten years old, is experiencing a resurgence.  Hope In the Dark illustrates some horrific calamities of the late 20th Century, but it also goes on to discuss how those disasters served as a catalyst to change, real change—positive change.  It also spends a great deal of time illustrating that the most potent of such change came through the efforts of people, regular citizens, standing up, taking action, and making their voices heard.

And even though some of these events may seem dated, if you read carefully enough, you’ll realize that the specific things she’s focusing upon absolutely have an effect on today’s local and global political climate, and, well, meteorological climate for that matter!

It is with great satisfaction that I read this book even as the Women’s March in Washington and throughout the world ensued.  It proved that what she said then is undeniably applicable today.  Our peaceful action speaks volumes; our voices can and will be heard.

Many of us feel hopeless today, but this book will instill faith in your fellow citizen … and yourself.  It will inspire you to do something, no matter how small, and to make your voice resonate.  It will, in the end, help you to realize that the future is dark, but, as Solnit points out, many things grow in the dark, things that later offer both beauty and sustenance.

We have the power to make our own story; we have the means to create our own future.

(If you’d like to listen to Solnit’s appearance during On the Media, visit this link: http://www.wnyc.org/story/rebecca-solnit-hope-lies-and-making-change/)

 

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Patience by Daniel Clowey

I have to admit that when NPR recommended this graphic novel, it did not seem to be something I’d enjoy.  If I’m being completely honest, I judged it by the cover, and the cover did not speak to me.

However, I found myself in a situation in which I had nothing else available to read, and so I gave it a shot.  The art immediately struck me as oversimplified.  Furthermore, the characters were initially completely unlikable while also making ample use of the “f” word.  The colors were far too bold.  In other words, it did not immediately win me over.

In the beginning, the story focuses on two adults—Patience and Jack.  They are truly in love with one another, but both are generally unsuccessful, uncouth, and somewhat rough around the edges.  Neither has made great choices in life; Patience has suffered indignation throughout her past; Jack has virtually no motivation.

Soon enough, Patience discovers she’s pregnant.  Both are elated, but both are also terrified.  They recognize the fact that they are not especially qualified to be parents, but they strive to forge ahead nonetheless.

But then Jack comes home from work to discover Patience has been murdered.

Of course, the authorities pin it on him, but he is eventually found innocent.  Jack is devastated.  His greatest loves—Patience and the unborn child—have been ripped away from him and cut out of his life.  He now has motivation.

The book next skips ahead several decades and we find Jack still searching desperately to find Patience’s killer.  Technology has evolved exponentially while society seems to have devolved.  We even have a few folks who don’t look entirely human.  Jack eventually gains the capability to time travel, and that’s when the book gets really interesting.

I won’t spoil the rest of the graphic novel, but Clowes delivers a story that kept me guessing and impressed me with its originality.  I won’t lie to you—I thought I had the ending all figured out, but Clowes managed to surprise me nonetheless.

This is a time travel story, with Jack jumping around quite a bit, and Clowes meticulously endeavors to make every event consequential to the overall plot.  Everything plays a role in this story—every action has a reaction.  That result may not be immediate, but it invariably happens.  I love the commitment to tight storytelling, I love the attention Clowes pays to time travel’s ramifications, and I love that, in the end, his unlikable characters grow into people for whom I deeply care.  Clowes also forced me to realize that they were actually the same all along—I am alone at fault for misjudging them.

On that note, the art, which I deplored at first, ultimately won me over.  Clowes lines are simple, but his anatomy and perspective are always perfect.  His panels are very straightforward, yet if you look hard enough, you find incredible detail in the little things such as books on the shelves or several doorways within the background of an apartment’s interior.  His colors are very bright in this book, as you can tell by the cover, but those bright colors work to contradict the dark tale unfolding. Perhaps those colors are simply his style, or perhaps those colors are meant to signify an eternal optimism even amidst the savagery surrounding Patience and Jack.  … I could be overthinking that one.

Be aware if you buy this book, there are brief, rather tame, moments of nudity, so you may not want to leave it sitting out for a youngster to grab hold of in the hopes of seeing Batman.  There is also a lot of profanity.

Patience surprised me.  I’ve never read anything quite like it, and it certainly struck me as completely original especially in regards to its medium.  It delivers a love story, a science fiction story, a philosophical take on time and space, a mystery, and a good old tale of revenge.  It studies a man who would do anything to save his soul mate and unborn child, a man who believes in the greater good even as he dives into the muck.  It also comments on how the past can shape the future, for better and for worse, and how sometimes we need to judge the present less harshly because of that fact.  Patience reminds us that we are all a product of what has previously transpired.

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Superman: Son Of Superman by Peter J. Tomasi and Patrick Gleason – A Book Review

Oh, boy.  To understand Superman’s first volume under the Rebirth movement, you need to understand that the Superman in this book is the Superman we knew in the 80s, 90s, and early-2000s.  This is the Superman who married Lois Lane, the Superman who fought against Doomsday and died, the Superman who returned from the dead.

Why is this confusing, you ask?  Well, this Superman is now living in an alternate reality, one that arrived around 2010.  DC calls it The New 52 universe.  In this softly rebooted universe, everything and everyone got a facelift, modernized, updated.  The Superman in this new universe wore a suit more like armor than tights, had a romance with Wonder Woman, and wasn’t much of a talker.  He died in battle, though, and so the pre-New 52 Superman, who had been hiding out on this alternate Earth with his wife Lois and their son Jon, decides to don the red and blue again because, yeah, Earth needs a Superman.

Batman and Wonder Woman don’t know this new Superman.  No one does.  They don’t know if they can trust him.  They honestly don’t know what to think of him.  This is a really interesting dynamic because this classic version of Superman was the beacon of hope in his old universe—he was the gold standard.  To suddenly be an alien twice over adds an interesting dimension to the character, one that the creators were sure to touch upon.  I can only hope they continue to use it to drive stories.

But the real heart and soul of this book is the arrival of Superman as a family man.  Let’s face it—our classic Superman has always been a dad.  He may not previously have actually had a child, but he basically epitomized the traits we hope for in every great father—brave, selfless, compassionate, assertive, reliable, strong, and even a little boring.

Now Superman acts like a dad for good reason—he is one!  Their son, Jon, is just beginning to develop powers, and watching Superman guide his son through these changes is charming in and of itself.

Jon, who I believe is around ten or so, is an incredibly likable character.  He’s not too naïve, not too sassy, not too polished, but not too rough, either.  They’ve hit a nice tone with him, one that I hope they can continue.

I do believe Lois is getting a bit lost in the mix in this first volume, though.  In my opinion, her inclusion in the action feels a bit forced, and, honestly, there’s a moment at the end of this book where I really questioned Superman’s judgment in allowing a very human Lois to be anywhere near the cataclysmic battle taking place.

As much as the creators have hit the right note with Jon, they are missing the mark just a bit with Lois.  They’ve all been hiding out on this new Earth in order to protect Jon, and so Lois must be content as an anonymous novelist, doing house chores, and sort of playing the role of house wife.  It never felt quite true to the character, but neither did the big action scene in which she participates.  Granted, like Superman himself, getting Lois just right can be tricky.  I trust Tomasi and Gleason will eventually find the right chord for her.

So, yes, much of Son of Superman worked very well.  Seeing Superman as a father is something I very much enjoy, especially because I am a father myself.  It’s fun to be able to relate to him even now as a forty year old man.  Seeing Superman through Jon’s eyes breathes fresh life into the hero, and watching Jon struggle to become a hero in his own right is going to prove fertile ground for future stories.

But speaking of story, Son of Superman faltered with its main conflict.  The Eradicator is back, but I think this is the New 52 version of the character—I was never clear on that, to be honest.  Anyway, as an ancient piece of Kryptonian technology, he’s taken it upon himself to destroy Jonathan Kent, whom he views to be an impure blight against Kryptonian genes due to his human heritage.  Plus, as it happens, he’s got a bunch of Kryptonian souls living inside of him.

Frankly, I found the whole Eradicator plot a bit of a stretch, even by comic book standards.  There are dozens of directions they could have taken in this first volume, why they chose yet another character with an “S” on his chest and very convoluted motive is something of a mystery.  And the dozens of Kryptonian souls trapped inside of the Eradicator really took me out of the story.  It seemed like such a significant event just to kind of throw in there as an aside … it felt forced and unnatural to the general cadence of the book.  In fact, everything with the Eradicator felt a little clunky to me.

Furthermore, along those same lines, the art in Son of Superman is flat-out superb.  Patrick Gleason draws a heroic Superman, a charismatic Jonathan, and a self-reliant Lois.  But his style tends to be a little cartoony—a bit exaggerated.  There are a few installments in the book, however, where both Jorge Jimenez and Dough Mahnke fill in on the pencils.  Both are superb—I’ve been a Mahnke fan for a long while now.  But, their style tends to be a little darker, a little more realistic, a little more chiseled.  Like the storyline itself, the shift in art could be abrupt and jarring.  All of the art is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but the flow is disruptive from installment to installment due to contrasting styles.

Son of Superman is not perfect, but it’s a bold, uplifting direction for Superman and I commend the creators for embarking upon such risk.  Taking one of your flagship characters and making him both a husband and a dad is unconventional to be sure, but I have no doubt this creative team in particular will provide captivating stories to come.  I think we’re all ready for Superman Dad … I know I am.

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Han Solo by Majorie Liu and Mark Brooks – A Book Review

As you know, Disney bought Marvel some time ago, and then Disney bought the Star Wars franchise as well, so it only makes sense that Marvel would return to publishing Star Wars comics.  I have to be honest, I’ve been pleased with virtually every title Marvel has released belonging to the Star Wars universe, and Han Solo is no exception.

This limited series takes place soon after the first destruction of the Death Star.  The premise is rather simple – Han takes on a mission given to him by Leia, whom he seemingly can’t refuse.  He is to rescue some embedded Rebel spies posing as Imperial loyalists.  A famous space race is due to occur near the very planets he is to rescue Leia’s agents, and so Han will use the race as a cover for his real mission.  There’s only one problem – one of those supposed Alliance members is actually a traitor, but they don’t know which one!

Han Solo offers no backstory concerning the icon.  It does not touch upon the origin of his friendship with Chewbacca.  In other words, it steers very clear of any meaty topics the impending movie will likely address.

However, that’s not to say the book is a failure or boring.  Quite the opposite!  In fact, I think this book does a wonderful job establishing an important shift in Han.

I just watched Episodes IV, V, and VI with my young daughters, and I noticed that Han went from being a snarky, selfish pirate to a loyal, selfless hero rather quickly.  Of course, those are movies and have to operate by a different standard of pacing, but when watched in succession it’s a bit jolting.

This series showcases the struggle taking place within Han Solo.  He grapples throughout the book not only with doing the right thing, but also with introspection concerning why he’s doing the right thing at all.  Best of all?  Like Huck Finn, Han has a habit of acting heroically when he doesn’t have time to think.  There is a heart of gold under all that scruffiness, and this book makes a point to shine a spotlight upon it.

Furthermore, we hear a lot in the movies about what a great pilot Han is.  This book takes that to heart while illustrating Han’s skill on multiple occasions.  The race, called the Dragon Void, is designed to disable, even injure, the participants, and so Han must outrace, out think, and outmaneuver his opponents, all while dealing with the Empire as well as a potential traitor on his own ship.

But he does this with his usual swagger, charm, and aloofness.  Han Solo will never stand up front and center and declare himself a hero; he will typically do the right thing while self-deprecating and playing up an aspect of reluctance.  Because of this, the book helps bridge the gap between Han Solo of Star Wars and Han Solo of The Empire Strikes Back.  It hints at the good man into which Han will evolve.

It also works to establish a bit more of Han and Leia’s relationship.  Neither of these two individuals are likely to throw themselves at someone, yet, honestly, the movies progress their relationship along at a pretty fast pace.  The book does an excellent job of inching their romance along, slowly, awkwardly, even confrontationally.  But, by story’s end, there is a spark, an acknowledgement that an epic love story is about to begin.

The art, by the way, is very good.  Mark Brooks has truly captured the characters’ likenesses from film without making them appear too rigid.  His spacecraft are fun while appearing consistent with established mythology and his aliens are varied and interesting.  Best of all, he conveys motion well, especially in regards to the race.  It’s very important that comic book artists are able to literally move a story along from panel to panel, and Brooks manages to service Liu’s pacing well.

If you’re a Star Wars or Han Solo fan, this book will not disappoint.  I know on the surface it seems a little superficial with the clichéd race plot, but Liu offers some deeply interesting characterization and motivation for Han Solo that only enriches the character and grounds his actions in the films.

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Moonglow by Michael Chabon – A Book Review

While I admit that Michael Chabon is my favorite author and that I’ll read anything he publishes, I won’t go so far as to say that I love every single thing he releases.  Gentlemen 0f the Road missed the mark for me, and Telegraph Avenue simply did not connect to my soul like I thought it would.

On the other hand, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is the book I name when someone asks for my ultimate favorite.  Nearly all of Chabon’s books are the perfect blend of writing prowess and narrative charisma.  He not only writes engaging, relatable stories, but he writes them better from a technical aspect than nearly anyone other contemporary author out there.

So, with all that being said, Moonglow is my second favorite book by Michael Chabon.

Let me tell you a little bit about the plot without spoiling too much.  Essentially, in 1989, Chabon visited his dying grandfather.  Terminal, Chabon’s mother transported the grandfather from his home in Florida to her home in Oakland.  There, while the grandfather fought against death and the painkillers flooding his system, the grandfather did something which had before proven a rare occurrence – he spoke … at great length.

Chabon learned more about his grandfather in that last week of his life than all the years previous.  He learned of his grandfather’s misspent youth, his grandfather’s time in the war, his grandfather’s prison stay, his grandfather’s kinship with the stars, his grandfather’s struggles with fatherhood, his grandfather’s last months in Florida, his grandfather’s obsession with rockets, as well as his grandfather’s passionate love story regarding his grandmother.

Make no mistake, however, this story is not just about the grandfather.  The grandmother quickly becomes a star in this book as well.  Mysterious, emotional, brave, witty, beautiful, and ultimately unbalanced, Chabon’s grandmother is not what she seems – not to Chabon’s grandfather, his mother, or even to the grandmother herself.  In fact, in the end, Chabon is the only one who seems to know the truth about his grandmother.  I won’t tell you why or how.

I love this book because his grandfather is the coolest man to have ever lived.  You can’t help but think of the best aspects of your own father or grandfather as you read this story, and, believe me, he will remind you in some facet of your own paternal role model.  Chabon’s grandfather isn’t perfect, not by any means, but that’s also what makes him so loveable.  Plus, as you well know, much like ourselves, our own fathers and grandfathers are not perfect, either.

Chabon also plays with the narrative style quite a bit in this novel.  In terms of time, it is not linear.  Nothing happens in order, and it’s up to the reader to piece it all together.  But Chabon makes it a fairly seamless task for the reader, and in using such a structure, he ultimately builds mystery, suspense, and provides great emotional payoff.  Chabon’s choices are right on target; his pacing is a joy to experience; his tone, while at times very somber, is also light and warm in a manner that will draw you in and make you happy.  There’s even a great joke about Chabon’s style, delivered from the dying grandfather himself.  Be on the lookout for it.

Furthermore, Chabon makes a point to let you know that while this story actually happened, his novel is fiction.  He’s the first one to admit that he has taken great liberties without too much care or concern.  Some of it is probably word for word truth, and some of it is probably completely fabricated, and the beauty of it is that we, the readers, have no idea how to distinguish one from the other.  And to that I say, “Who cares?”  In my mind, reality is always a matter of perception.  When I read a book, I perceive, interpret, and process the story within my mind, which thus makes the book a part of my own personal reality.  As a result, “fiction” and “nonfiction” become a bit of a moot point when it comes to things like this.

I’d also like to say that this is perhaps the most straight-forward of any Chabon novel I’ve ever read.  Is it well-executed?  Magnificently so!  I laugh with my friends that I don’t believe Chabon used the same sentence structure more than once in the entire thing.  That’s an exaggeration, of course, but he’s that much of a master at writing.  And yet, this novel is easy to digest.  It’s easy to follow.  It’s not rife with metaphor.  It’s got great humor, great sadness, great love, and great action.  Oh, what action!  The World War II parts of this book set my imagination on fire.  In fact, because the grandfather is such an unusual everyman, and because the WWII scenes are so vibrant, I actually gave a copy of this book to my own father for Christmas.  I’m not sure when he read a book last, but he made a point today to tell me how much he’s loving Moonglow.

As we live our lives, they, for the most part, probably don’t seem that varied or interesting.  Yet, by our life’s ending, I’ll warrant most of our stories could fill a book, and I imagine that most of our children or grandchildren would love to read that story and experience who we were at 15, 35, 55, and even 75.  Chabon tapped into something wonderful by utilizing such a concept, and he’s got the talent to make it work.  Moonglow has shot to the top of my list of gifts to give friends, family, and coworkers.  I truly believe it’s a guaranteed good read for any reader.

How good is this book?  The minute I finished it, I turned back to page one and started reading it again.  Even better the second time.

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