Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame

Okay, so I know this book doesn't exactly fall within my usual bailiwick of science-fiction or history. I mean, since the main characters are all anthropomorphic animals and there's a demigod it might count as fantasy but even then that's a tenuous link at best. To be perfectly honest the reason was I was reminded of the book and remembered liking it a lot as a child, as well as a couple of its film adaptations, and I decided to dust off my old copy and see if it was as good as I remembered it being. Looking at it now, though, I find the whole book rather odd and I think a lot of that is because it's displaced in both time and location and what may seem appropriate for an early twentieth century community on the banks of the Thames certainly does not seem appropriate in twenty-first century Ohio. It's still an entertaining family read, but its overall tone and emphasis is very odd to a modern reader.

In a way, I find this book to be about the quintessential landed English gentleman, much like the hobbits in Lord of Rings. The characters, much like the hobbits, haven't got a lot of work to do and spend much of their time wandering around and having picnics. There's also this sort of overall message that you should never do anything exciting or dangerous ever in your life and should be content with lazily wandering around in the country. Okay, to clarify on that as you're no doubt aware, Mr. Toad takes up a number of expensive fads throughout the book which he ultimately gets bored with and moves on to the next thing. The most expensive and dangerous of these fads being Mr. Toad's obsession with that new-fangled technology of motorcars. Now of course there is certainly a lot to be said for moderation and not doing anything to excess, which is certainly Toad's weakness, and on that point I agree with the author. What troubles me is that there's a chapter when Ratty wants to go on an adventure because he's young and wants to have a few stories to tell when he's older. Quite frankly I see nothing wrong with him doing that since he apparently has no real pressing obligations along the riverbank. I'm all for young people going off and having an adventure or three before they have to settle down and be responsible, heck I've done it myself on a couple of occasions. The troubling part is that Mole keeps Ratty from going on his adventure and then Ratty thanks Mole for saving him from his mania. Maybe this is just a rural English thing, but apparently doing anything different or unusual is bad and should be avoided at all costs. Certainly a message that a twenty-first century American audience probably will not understand.

The other thing I really noticed about this story was an emphasis on class standing and proper respect towards one's betters. Again, I think this is because I'm reading this in a different country a hundred years later that it's confusing me more than anything. As an American, and a twenty-first century American at that, I don't really follow the same strict stratification of classes that an early twentieth century Englishman might. Granted, I will admit there are certain social classes in America today and I certainly belong to a certain class and move in that social circle, but I certainly don't expect people to be doffing their caps or knuckling their forelocks to me. And I certainly won't be doffing my hat to anyone just because they're somehow "better" than me. The indignation over disrespect towards higher social strata is probably the part I found most alien to me, merely because of changes over time.

There's also a matter of asking "So when the hell are we, book?" which comes out during Toad's imprisonment. I had assumed for the most part the book was set in 1908, when it came out, and for the most part that seemed to be true. But when Toad gets put in prison it's described as a medieval dungeon with straw and his guards carry halberds. I mean, really? Halberds? In 1908? I of course started thinking of the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London and as far as I can tell the Tower stopped being used as a prison well before 1908. (Granted, it apparently was used to hold POWs during both World Wars, but since this is peacetime I have significant doubts.) And then it gets worse when Toad escapes and his jailers chase him on a train....with halberds. It was a confusing anachronism that I found frustrating more than anything else.

A final thing that kind of bothered me about this book was the statement that Toad didn't deserve to go to prison because he was rich. I will admit that even in the United States there is a different law for the rich than there is for the poor, as has been proven many, many times, but I like to at least pretend that no one is above the law, regardless of who they are. Again, maybe it's a difference in time and place that makes saying rich people are allowed to break the law a perfectly acceptable thing to say, but I found it rather jarring and I think that's why most adaptations try to make Toad innocent when he goes to prison

Is it a good book? Well, it's certainly still a beloved story a century later and the subject of much nostalgia. I certainly wouldn't say you shouldn't read it, but I find it very odd and definitely a product of its times. And if reading isn't your thing there are countless adaptations which you can pick and choose from.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents, by Terry Pratchett

So, I had one more young-adult Discworld novel to read, which was actually the first young-adult Discword novel that Sir Terry wrote. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents in no way ties in with any of the other Discworld novels which is probably what is what I found to be so odd about this book. Almost every other Discworld book, except for the very early ones which have a very distinct character on their own, feel like you're on the Disc and part of a larger universe. Usually this is something very simple like familiar geographic landmarks, like the city of Ankh-Morpork or the Lancre highlands, or a familiar character like Lord Vetinari or Granny Weatherwax. Even in the first Tiffany Aching book, The Wee Free Men, it introduces the new location of the Chalk, but somehow ties it into the larger world of the Disc. I'm not saying that The Amazing Maurice is bad because it doesn't feel like a Discworld book, but if it weren't for the fact that the story happens entirely in Uberwald, I would have forgotten that this is a Discworld book.

Probably what confused me most about this book was its repeated insistence that stories aren't real and the real world doesn't follow story logic. Just as an example, in a story the third and youngest son who goes on a quest that his older two brothers have gone on and failed is guaranteed success because that's how stories work. In real life, the third son probably has no better chance than his brothers unless he has some sort of extra knowledge or an extra talent. Possible, yes, but definitely not guaranteed in any way. And in this respect I feel like the book is in conflict with itself because the characters openly state that the real world doesn't work like stories and they have to write their own destiny because the story won't help them. Despite the fact that in other books like Witches Abroad it is very clearly stated that the Disc runs on narrative causality and people get shaped by the story-magic that dominates the Disc. Granted, this being Discworld there are subversions of the archetypes and tropes, but the stories still follow a familiar format. Heck, in The Last Hero Cohen and his Silver Horde succeed because they know how to manipulate the power of stories to their benefit. For the characters to be fighting against the forces of narrative, and at the same time benefiting from them, it made the book feel almost schizophrenic. 

I also got the impression that the plot of this book ran along rather quickly and didn't really pick up until maybe a third of the book had gone by. This impression may be because I read this book rather quickly, but there was definitely a lot of time establishing the premise of talking rats and a talking cat who are all sapient before the real plot of the book got underway. 

I will admit that this book was actually rather dark in tone, but I think it was still appropriate for children and definitely for young adults. I think it's also a reference to original fairy tales where the wicked are punished mercilessly and there's plenty of blood and gore. Granted, not a lot of blood and gore in this novel, but there are some pretty scary things in there too. 

If the book didn't explicitly take place in Uberwald, I wouldn't categorize it as a Discworld book. And even then, the Uberwald in The Amazing Maurice is not the same as the Uberwald in The Fifth Elephant. There are no vampires, werewolves, Igors, or dramatic thunderclaps. It just...happens to be in a vaguely German village. But it's still an enjoyable book and I'd recommend it for fans of fantasy, but don't get your impressions of the Disc from this one book. 

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe, by Cullen Bunn & Dalibor Talajic

I have to admit I've never really been into superhero comics. I was only really introduced to them in college and there is such a deep and complicated story with many of the characters that I found it kind of hard to get into the universe. The main exception being a lot of comics involving Deadpool because, for whatever reason, there just isn't that same feeling of decades-long continuity that I get with a lot of other characters. Plus there are a ton of self-contained stories contained in a trade paperback that made it very easy for me to get engaged in the story. So, on occasion I will pick up a copy of Deadpool's adventures for my own amusement. And really, with a title like Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe, how can I not be interested?

This story is actually rather short so I won't go into too many of the nitty gritty details so you can enjoy it for yourself. Basically it takes the premise of what if Deadpool stopped goofing off and actually put an effort into murdering superheroes and supervillains alike? The result is, as you can probably tell from the title, a complete and total bloodbath. Personally, though, I didn't find Deadpool killing everyone to be the most interesting part of the story. (Although if I knew more characters in the Marvel Universe I probably would have been more interested in how he took everyone down.) What was really interesting was the questions Deadpool asked about the fourth wall and the nature of the Marvel Universe. Again, I really can't go into too much detail because I don't want to spoil anything, but I think the story does a very good job of connecting with the reader and challenging them about what they really enjoy about superhero comics.

If you're a fan of Deadpool or Marvel and superheroes in general, I'd recommend you check out this book. As the cover says, it's very much not for kids, but adult readers will definitely find it interesting.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Tehanu, by Ursula K. Le Guin

So, I know I haven't talked about Le Guin's excellent Earthsea series before, but I read four of the five novels a long time ago when I was an undergraduate. Perusing Half Price Books some time ago I found a used copy of the fourth book, Tehanu, which I had not read and decided now was as good a time as any to really complete the cycle. Overall I feel kind of disappointed with this book in general. It certainly doesn't take anything away from Le Guin's excellent storytelling, but I feel like it doesn't really add anything either. Much literary analysis has already focused on this novel and Le Guin's stroing, anti-patriarchal viewpoints which are introduced in this much later sequel, and while I identify as a feminist I feel like the book really only goes halfway in addressing the problem. There are certainly worse books out there, but I feel it is very much the weakest of the Earthsea novels.

Tehanu follows Tenar, the heroine from the second book, Tombs of Atuan, about twenty years after her first appearance. In the intervening time Tenar has settled down on Gont with a farmer named Flint, raised two children, and has recently become a widow. Over the course of the book Tenar takes care of a horribly injured orphan, Therru, helps bury the great mage Ogion, and nurses Ged back to health after the events of The Farthest Shore. During the book Ged comes to terms with the fact that he no longer has any of the power he had as a wizard of Earthsea and Tenar tries to come to terms with her identity as a woman. The plot is nowhere as big or epic as the other Earthsea novels, but I really don't think that's a weakness of the story. If there was a lot of focus on the fate of the universe and wizards and dragons we would be distracted from the development of Ged and Tenar as characters. I'll admit I feel like the growth is limited, but there's at least an effort.

As I mentioned, I felt like this book really only went halfway with its feminist agenda. It certainly pointed out the issues of categorizing certain activities as women's work or men's work and how men who refuse to do women's work are actually making themselves dependent on a (much-derided) woman for food, clothing, and a number of other necessities. The book also certainly displays a highly sexist mindset within the world of Earthsea. There are several times where men pointedly do not listen to what Tenar has to say because she is simply a woman and therefore of no consequence. In addition there are plenty of incidents where men straight up state that women are worthless and inferior. The problem I have is that Tenar never really seems to fight back. Yes, she puts up a big show when she's safely back at home, determined to not let them make her afraid again and to stand up to her bullies, but when the time comes she runs away out of fear. It's rather frustrating that Tenar ends up having to rely on the help of other male figures to defeat her attackers.

The other thing that kind of bugged me that the book got into the differences between the power of a man and the power of a woman, and a sort of underlying assumption that on some fundamental level men and women are inherently different beyond just what happens to be in our pants. To be fair there are a couple of very specific things which research suggests are different about men and women, specifically men in general have better visual-spatial coordination while women, again in general, are better able to distinguish between shades of color. However these are very limited studies and should not in any way be assumed to be indicative. The problem I have with assuming men and women are somehow inherently different generally relies on "traditional gender roles" and how it's somehow natural for men to want to be hunters while women want to be nurturers. The simple fact of the matter is that research increasingly has indicated that gender roles are largely a matter of social construction rather than natural order, so I get a little antsy whenever someone starts poking around with how men and women are naturally different. I suppose I should give this book some leeway since it was published in 1990 and I'm not sure if the information I have now twenty years later was as available to Le Guin, but it still leaves me a little skittish.

Ultimately I feel like this book is an attempt to articulate feminist viewpoint to a fantasy audience, but it does so rather poorly, especially considering Le Guin's success in conveying Taoist philosophy in the other Earthsea novels. I would definitely recommend that people read the Earthsea novels if they haven't already because they're very good fantasy literature, but Tehanu is definitely the weakest of the series.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Scoundrels, by Timothy Zahn

This past winter one of my favorite authors in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Timothy Zahn, released a new novel called Scoundrels. Although I cannot, for the time being, permit myself to purchase anything Star Wars related until I know how the new movie planned by J.J. Abrams is going to turn out, I decided to go ahead and borrow this book from the local library and see if it was any good. The short answer is that I was in no way disappointed and I am glad to see that Zahn is still doing the EU credit with his excellent writing. If you're a fan of Star Wars and have spent plenty of time tramping around the EU, I'd definitely recommend you pick this book up if you haven't already.

Scoundrels is set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back and follows Han Solo, Lando Calrissian, and Chewbacca as they put a team together to pull off the heist of a cool 163 million credits from the vault of a local crime lord, but it isn't going to be easy. They're going to need a brilliant burglar, an explosives expert, and a couple of smooth-talking con men just to get at the vault, to say nothing about getting the goodies out. With a solid plan and a little luck, Han should be able to get enough credits to pay back Jabba once and for all.

I think part of why I really enjoyed this novel was because it was basically Ocean's Eleven but in the Star Wars universe with some familiar characters. As much as I love sci-fi and huge space-operas with titanic interstelllar wars and attack ships on fire off of the shoulder of Orion, I occasionally get bored with those sorts of stories because it generally boils down to a good guys vs. bad guys conflict and there's only so many ways to tell that story and keep it interesting. The Expanded Universe often has had that problem because Star Wars is, of course, rooted in the space opera tradition and many of the EU stories have gone in the same vein. I just thought it was a really refreshing change of pace for this space-opera universe to be used for a heist story.

I have to admit, though, that if you're new to the EU then you probably should spend some time tramping around before you try to tackle this book. At the very least I think a familiarity with Black Sun and Imperial Intelligence would help readers get a fuller experience from the book. Newcomers to the EU certainly can start with this novel and there are definitely worse places to start your journey, but I think a good grounding across the galaxy will help you enjoy this book a lot more as a reader. If you're as old a hand as I am and are looking for something fresh you're definitely going to love this.

Like all heist novels a lot of the plan isn't explained to the audience before it happens because it'd be boring if the characters told us the plan and then it worked, there has to be a certain degree of suspense. So a lot of the book you're going to be in the dark and wondering how they're going to get past the next obstacle. However, the pacing is very well executed and I could hardly put the book down because of my desire to find out what happened next. Throw in some truly awesome twists at the end, and a very elaborate Indiana Jones reference, and you have a pretty gripping read.

- Kalpar