Thursday, November 20, 2014

(Audio)book review: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

Written and read by: Chris Hadfield

Published: 2013

Synopsis: Colonel Chris Hadfield has spent decades training as an astronaut and has logged nearly 4000 hours in space. During this time he has broken into a Space Station with a Swiss army knife, disposed of a live snake while piloting a plane, and been temporarily blinded while clinging to the exterior of an orbiting spacecraft. The secret to Col. Hadfield's success-and survival-is an unconventional philosophy he learned at NASA: prepare for the worst-and enjoy every moment of it.

In An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, Col. Hadfield takes readers deep into his years of training and space exploration to show how to make the impossible possible. Through eye-opening, entertaining stories filled with the adrenaline of launch, the mesmerizing wonder of spacewalks, and the measured, calm responses mandated by crises, he explains how conventional wisdom can get in the way of achievement-and happiness. His own extraordinary education in space has taught him some counterintuitive lessons: don't visualize success, do care what others think, and always sweat the small stuff.

You might never be able to build a robot, pilot a spacecraft, make a music video or perform basic surgery in zero gravity like Col. Hadfield. But his vivid and refreshing insights will teach you how to think like an astronaut, and will change, completely, the way you view life on Earth-especially your own.
___________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“If you start thinking that only your biggest and shiniest moments count, you're setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time.”

Maybe it's corny, but I truly feel like there isn't anything truly outside my grasp. Obviously it's highly unlikely that I'm about to become prime minister or the next Angelina Jolie, but I can get in the ballpark (or at least in the carpark next door to the ballpark). I could get involved in local politics or try my hand at community theatre. I can take tours of studios and Government House and at least get a good idea of what it would be like to fill those shoes. But space is an entirely different kettle of fish. I could visit NASA and take astronomy classes and visit every space exhibit at every museum on the planet and it won't come close to life in space. It's utterly unachievable unless you dedicate your life to becoming an astronaut, and as much as I'd love to look down on Earth from space that was never a career for me.

Which I think is the main reason Chris Hadfield has become such an internet success. He brings space to the masses, whether by crying into a camera to show us how tears work in zero gravity or by writing a book that  gives an incredibly thorough look at the business of being an astronaut. He's such a genial guy that it's hard not to get swept up in his excitement when he talks about smiling so hard at his first launch that his face ached or empathise when he recounts how hard it is to be the family of an astronaut. A great deal of this book is about confronting people's stereotypes of this particular career. Like how much money it costs to launch people into space and what it actually achieves. While Hadfield is clearly passionate, he also doesn't completely let go of his objectivity, especially when it comes to money.
“Many people object to “wasting money in space” yet have no idea how much is actually spent on space exploration. The CSA’s budget, for instance, is less than the amount Canadians spend on Halloween candy every year, and most of it goes toward things like developing telecommunications satellites and radar systems to provide data for weather and air quality forecasts, environmental monitoring and climate change studies. Similarly, NASA’s budget is not spent in space but right here on Earth, where it’s invested in American businesses and universities, and where it also pays dividends, creating new jobs, new technologies and even whole new industries.”
Not only are there misconceptions about what astronauts do, but I think there is a large gap between who actually becomes an astronaut and who Hollywood leads us to believe is right for the job. Because of its exclusivity, astronauts have always seemed sort of larger than life. They're space cowboys, explorers in a new frontier. Even though I know they have to be incredibly intelligent, I always imagine them as kind of jock-y. Macho and tough and tall. Visual cues that I think probably have a lot to do with the people hired to play astronauts in the not-even-close-to-realistic sci-fi movies. So I found it fascinating that Chris Hadfield sounds like any guy I'd see walking down the street. You mean he doesn't faintly glow and hover off the ground? Or have muscles as insane as The Rock? Not only that but Hadfield manages to make being an astronaut sound...dull. And I don't mean that the book or Hadfield's narration is dull - I was captivated from start to finish, but life as an astronaut is nothing like the movies. Being an astronaut actually rarely involves going into space. And whether or not you do, it's ruled by rules and safety checks and infinitesimal tiny details. It sounds so repetitive and ordinary.

And while I'm sure some people would consider that a negative, I think it's a huge positive. Working for NASA, whether as an astronaut or in some other role, is a totally achievable job. Yes it's a competitive field, but you don't have to be Superman to be hired. And I think that's a fantastic lesson to impart on kids. Astronaut is so often the job kids say they want, but it's also considered this entirely mythical position for only a special few chosen people. Hadfield brings the profession back down to Earth. Yes you need to work hard. Yes you need to be passionate. Yes you need to be intelligent. But the things most worth doing are the things you have to work for.

Hadfield manages to combine personal anecdotes about college and marriage and parenthood with stories about life on the ISS and working in Cape Canaveral and a motivation self-help book. While I loved learning about life in space and the career path that led to it, it was Hadfield's mentality that I think I'll take away from this book. There's a reason this book is called "an astronaut's guide to life on earth," while some of the advice may be a little intense for life as a retail clerk or banker, the general attitude and lesson that the advice aims to impart can benefit anyone. 
“In any new situation, whether it involves an elevator or a rocket ship, you will almost certainly be viewed in one of three ways. As a minus one: actively harmful, someone who creates problems. Or as a zero: your impact is neutral and doesn't tip the balance one way or the other. Or you'll be seen as a plus one: someone who actively adds value. Everyone wants to be a plus one, of course. But proclaiming your plus-oneness at the outset almost guarantees you'll be perceived as a minus one, regardless of the skills you bring to the table or how you actually perform.”
Each chapter, or there about, centres around these kernels of advice. From "sweat the small stuff" to "aim to the a zero", Hadfield discusses how these have helped be a better astronaut, a better husband and a better father. Perhaps most importantly though, he describes his failures, both personal and professional, and how he moved past them. Combine all of this advice with an amazing career and a really, really nice guy and you've got a really great read on your hands.



Monday, November 17, 2014

(Audio)book review (sorta): Serial the podcast

I happened across an article last week which was titled something Buzzfeed-y like "5 reasons you should be listening to the unbelievable Serial Podcast" and while I usually avoid these sorts of articles on principle (seriously, can people start trying with their headlines again?) something drew me in.

Serial is a new podcast that breaks the traditional podcast mould. Rather than looking at a new subject each week, Serial is taking 12 episodes to investigate a murder case from 1999. From the website:
"On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She'd been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae's body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t."
The podcast is absolutely fascinating. It's like listening to a true crime novel, but unlike a novel it's a living document. As the podcast grows in popularity, more people will come forward with their memories of the event and the people involved. Sarah Koenig is the host of Serial and she (along with her research and production team) has structured the show to make it as enticing as possible. Each episode raises more questions than the last, and just when you think you have a hold of the evidence Koenig introduces something new that completely shakes your previous confidence.

Though the show is looking at a real life case it is easy to fall into the classic "whodunnit" realm as you listen to the evidence Koenig presents both against and in support of Adnan. A lot of the articles and reddit posts on the podcast are of people wondering whether Adnan is telling the truth about his innocence, which understandably leads to a lot of conspiracy theories. But while this is an obvious hook into the series I actually think it's a very small part of what the series is about. Unless the series manages to stumble upon a confession from someone else (or maybe lures Adnan into finally admitting guilt/involvement) it's less about the case, and more about the judicial system that sent Adnan to jail.

I really recommend giving the series a listen for yourself (it's currently at 8 episodes, and a new one is released every Thursday) so I'm going to be a little vague on the details but one of the things that's stood out for me in this case is the inconsistencies. So much of the case is built on a single witness testimony, and it's a testimony that is riddled with problems. Every episode I find myself wondering "is this standard in murder trials?" "is it usual for cops to take a single course of action and ignore other avenues of investigation?" and "why wouldn't a defence attorney bring up the prosecutions cherry picking of the phone records?" Granted, I have very little knowledge on the judicial system outside of crime dramas and believe me, I know how unlikely it is that they're feeding me facts over fiction, but so much of the information in the podcast just seems illogical. If this case is typical, what does that say about the judicial system? If a jury admits to voting guilty largely on the basis that the defendant didn't take the stand, does that mean we need to look closer into whether the jury system is actually the best way to handle these cases? So much of the court case seems to have depended on who could tell the best story, and that worries the hell out of me. Is that really the best way to get justice? How many innocent people end up in jail because the prosecutor is that much better at spinning the evidence in their favour? And how many guilty Richie Riches walk free because they can buy the best people to defend them?

This show is run by many of  the same producers and managers as This American Life, including Ira Glass, so you don't need to take it from me that this show has impeccably high standards, both in terms of production and journalism. It's infinitely more 'readable' than most of the audiobooks that I've tried over the past year, and each episode leads to a huge conversation between me and Tom as try to get on top of the new information presented. And since it's a podcast it's free, so win win right?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Graphic Novel mini-reviews #27

Captain America: Winter Soldier (Volume 2)

Written by: Ed Brubaker; Illustrated by: Steve Epting

Published: 2005

My Thoughts: I probably enjoyed the first volume of Winter Solider a bit better than the second. The first was very introspective, something I always dig in my superheroes. This volume is far more action-heavy - whether in the present day assault from the Winter Soldier (and those he works for) or in the WWII flashbacks that feature heavily in this volume. All that being said though, it isn't like this volume completely discounts on character development in favour of action set-pieces. There are some brilliant moments where Cap wrestles with whether the Winter Solider is actually Bucky anymore and if there is even a fraction of Bucky still alive - should Cap do everything in his power to save him?

Kill Shakespeare: Mask of Night (Volume 4)

Written by: Anthony Del Col, Colin McCreery; Illustrated by: Andy Belanger

Published: 2014

My Thoughts: I wasn't sure if I wanted to read any more of Kill Shakespeare after the third volume. It wasn't bad, but I did feel like perhaps the gimmick had played out. But when I saw this was only a four issue volume I figured I'd give it a shot and see if they managed to introduce anything new to the story. The story takes place directly after the third volume, with Shakespeare, Juliet, Hamlet and Othello angry and still slightly mad from Prospero's Island. While they escaped Titus's navy they find themselves in the hands on Cesario and Viola, two dastardly pirates (and lovers) who intend to turn them in to the highest bidder. And yes, you read that correctly - Cesario and Viola are two separate people in this story AND they're together. It actually took a moment to remember that Cesario is Viola's alter-ego in Twelfth Night but I kind of dug that depending on your Shakespeare knowledge their relationship took on very different connotations. And it's moments like that which make these comics interesting. Not the slightly shoe-horned in lines like "parting is such sweet sorrow" when two characters separate, but the much less overt character traits that demonstrate that this team not only know Shakespeare, but know him well enough to experiment based on thematic elements of his plays. If you've enjoyed the other three volumes then you'll probably still enjoy this one - but I definitely feel as though it's weakened a bit with each volume.


Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery (Volume 1)

Written by: Kurtis J. Wiebe; illustrated by: Roc Upchurch

Published: 2014

My Thoughts: I've been wanting to read this for soooo long but I wanted to wait until a trade volume was released and luck would have it that Comixology had it on sale. Score! This comic is everything. I can't even tell you how much I adore it. It's a D&D player's dream. There are four gorgeous, sassy, kickass female protagonists - Hannah the Elven Mage (with an excellent rockabilly vibe), Violet the Dwarven warrior, Dee the human cleric and Betty the Goblin (Smidgen) thief. They're all heavily, heavily flawed but loveable characters with a penchant for quests, bar fights and sex. Betty considers candy and drugs a perfect meal, Dee is overcome with social anxiety, Hannah is reckless and Violet was beardless before it was cool. They're joined by a motley crew of enemies, frenemies and lovers, of which Orc Dave is my absolute favourite. He's a cleric who has magical bluebirds settle in his beard after healing. BIRDS IN HIS BEARD, SO FREAKING CUTE. The art style is cute and colourful, the writing is fun and (at times) vulgar. It's basically like being back in one of my D&D campaigns which is the most wonderful thing ever because I miss D&D like crazy. So this is helping fill that gaping, ridiculous hole.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Pages to Panels: A Bookish Guide to Getting Into Comics. SUPERHEROES (2)


Heyyyyyyy, it's time for round two of Pages to Panels!



I was going to make this instalment another "if you like this/read this" post but I know that one of the issues I first had to overcome as a comic reader was where the hell do you start? Series like Fables or Rat Queens are easy because even if they're 20 volumes in  there's a clear linear progression. It does get a little messy when they start working on side series and prequels, for instance Fables has Jack of Fables and Fairest - two series which occasionally dip back into the Fables narrative,  but for the most part these newer series are still not nearly as difficult to work out a reading order for.

But if you're interested in a traditional superhero series? Hell to the no. It's like wading into quicksand, just a quick scan at the hundreds of titles for a single hero will make you feel like you're well out of your depth. The first thing to keep in mind is that it is incredibly unlikely you'll ever be able to read an entire hero's back-catalogue. Not only are you potentially looking at 60 years of stories, but there are cross-over editions and specials and singular runs which add tonnes and tonnes of titles to an already heavy load. Not to mention, honestly, you probably don't want to read them all anyway. Characters evolve and the Batman you love from the Nolan trilogy is very different to the Batman of the 1950s. If you're attracted to the dark and brooding Dark Knight then you probably don't want to read any Batman pre-1980s. By all means get a taster for early Batman, but if you decide it isn't your jam then just mooove on. And that's okay. Life long comic book readers will occasionally try and shame you for not knowing what happened in issue 47 when Batman faced off against Freeze* but your time is precious. So screw those guys.


Batman is actually a fantastic starting point. He may have continuous runs dating back to the stone ages but his stand-alone arcs are brilliant and super easy to read in any order. One thing to keep in mind is that comics love to reboot and redux and re-imagine. What was the Joker's origin story in the 1970s is unlikely to be the same  in 2000. So while you may decide to start on an arc written in the 1990s, don't assume that what you know from the films or cartoons is any basis for what you're heading in to. My best advice is to just ignore anything that isn't in the comic in front of you. Don't worry about the Joker or Freeze or Robin. And if you come across a mention of a fight or a villain that doesn't seem to be mentioned previously in the comic, it was probably in a cross-over issue and just jump onto Google.



But back to Batman arcs.

If you come to me for recs I'm going to suggest Alan Moore's The Killing Joke, Jeff Loeb's The Long Halloween, and the epic Knightfall. They were the first three arcs I read (in that order as well) and I never felt like I was out of my depth. The beauty of Batman is that while some details might change (namely who is Robin and various villain's origins) the general gist of it remains the same. You have your wealthy man about town who is also their protector. And he dresses like a bat. A man-sized bat. And since he is stinking rich he always has excellent toys. The rest of the details come from the arc you read -how brooding he is, his relationships, age and mental state - that all depends on which storyline you decide to read.

The internet is a beautiful thing. While I am fairly well versed in the comics I've chosen to focus on, I'm still far from the person you necessarily want to go to for a thorough breakdown of superheroes. That's where that pretty, pretty internet comes in. The DC wiki is obviously a pretty decent starting point, especially if you want to jump in at a later arc and just read up on the general story progression up until that point. The same goes for Wikipedia. If you have a couple of titles that jump out at you but you want to know a little more about them, wikipedia is pretty thorough in this regard. But if you want a more in-depth suggestion on the critical arcs and where to then move on from there are some other sites that will serve you well.

A Comic Book Blog has a really fantastic run down of seminal Batman arcs. They introduce you to the narratives, why they're important and also offer the next read based on which choice you make.

The AV Club also has a decent run down which is especially helpful because it's aimed at film fans who may have no comic experience with the Dark Knight at all.

Comic Vine is a bit more a time line (and a little bit spoiler-y) than a really helpful guide, but they've steered me in the right direction for other heroes and are therefore a pretty handy reference to keep bookmarked.

But on the off chance you're not interested in Batman you can basically take all of that advice and change Batman for Superman or Captain America. Comic Vine and A Comic Book Blog look at a wide array of heroes, and Wikipedia will be your friend regardless of which side of the DC/Marvel battle you pick.

I know buddy, they're crazy
That said, I've found other superheroes harder to get into than our dear Dark Knight, mostly because a lot of them don't have the detective serial aspect of Batman arcs and some of them are just insanely convoluted. There are two main ways I've attempted to traverse new (to me) heroes. The first is the simplest and maybe best for newcomers, the current runs of DC and Marvel comics. If you're looking at DC that would be the New 52 (which kicked off in late 2011) or Marvel Now! for Marvel (2012- current). These are both made as easy entry points for new readers. There's been a mixed-response from older comics readers but I've found this to be a pretty great way to get into a few series that otherwise would have been too tricky. It's how I discovered Aquaman, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Captain Marvel. Once you've read up on this particular run, you can make the decision to travel back to earlier incarnations or to simply stay on the road they're paving. And either option is absolutely acceptable.

The other option is the movie route. After seeing X-Men: Days of Future Past I was interested in reading how the comic differed from the film. I had never actually read X-Men before and of all the superhero series this is probably the most mind-boggling one to try and get into. It's full of paradoxes and twins and Days of Our Lives level soapy drama. DoFP is a short run, about 5 issues, and by itself isn't too bad. It mostly involves characters you know from the films and unless you read up on it first you aren't likely to know how loopy the wider plot around it is. Similarly my first Captain America comic was the Winter Soldier double volume which I decided to pick up partly because I enjoyed the film and partly on the strength of writer Ed Brubaker. So this is definitely an entryway into the comics, but it's likely that most other films have taken a mid-point comic or even parts of several arcs to produce their films, so it's probably best as a taster. Ultimately you'll probably need to hunt around the web to work out where is best to start, which is where the websites above will come in handy. Or just Google "superhero" + where to start and work your way through the blogosphere.

Finally, if you mostly want to read some comics as a companion to the Marvel and DC films then there are some volumes that would be more helpful than others. Now that we have a basic idea of the story lines for the future Marvel films (and the rumoured DC arcs) there are some comics that will better help round out your understanding than others. Let's go!



Captain America: The Winter Soldier (written by Ed Brubaker, illustrated by Steve Epting) - While it's a bit darker than the film version, this comic is a really solid starting point if you're interested in starting either the modern Captain America and Winter Soldier arcs. It reflects back on his more idealistic early days as Cap, as well as reflecting on the difficulties that a man from the 1940s faces in the modern world. It's also a good primer for the Civil War story arc, which we now know is going to play a pretty major role in Marvel's phase 3. It's more a backgrounding that an explicit lead-in, but I think it does a good job of explaining the mentality of Cap as that storyline begins.

Aquaman: New 52 (written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Ivan Reis and Joe Prado) - As I said in my mini-review, I never thought I'd read Aquaman but I found the New 52 not only gave me an introduction to the character while hinting at old storylines I'd eventually want to discover, but it made me feel awful for ever laughing and suggesting he was a "useless" hero. Aquaman has been announced in the next Batman V Superman movie as well as his own standalone (Hello Jason Mamoa!) and DC is rumoured to be mining heavily from the new 52 so if you start here you'll be sure to get the most accurate origin for the films.

Captain Marvel: In Pursuit of Flight (Written by Kelly Sue DeConnick, illustrated by Deter Soy, Emma Rios) - There have been seven Captain Marvels and Carol Danvers (former Ms Marvel) is the latest to take on the mantle. The main reason I recommend starting here is firstly because the movies will be taking on this particular character and (likely) story thread, but also because I found it a really helpful starting point for a bunch of other series. Danvers gained her particular powers from the original Captain Marvel (a Kree alien named Mar-Vell) so in this volume you actually get the best of both worlds, a look at both Earth bound and cosmic heroes. Even though some things may only be alluded to or mentioned in passing, I found the brief mentions of the inhumans,  Kree technology and Danver's past to be indelible when I went on to read Guardians of the Galaxy and Ms Marvel and Annihilation. 

Suicide Squad: New 52 (written by Adam Glass, illustrated by  Frederico Dallocchio) - While personally I'd recommend starting this series at the John Ostrander, since all of the news of the film has been centred around Harley Quinn if you're mostly interested in it to contextualise the film then this is the place to start. Unlike my other recs, these aren't heroes. They're well known DC villains who are forced into undertaking black ops missions for the US government. It has massive potential to be completely different from the superhero films currently on our screens and it's perhaps the announced film I'm most excited about (aside from Wonder Woman OBVS). Read here for a little bit more info on exactly what the series is about, and why it'd be a great film.

This is basically the way I've thrown myself into comics. Is it necessarily the smartest or simplest way? Eh, maybe not. But it's worked for me. The Mary Sue just published a really interesting piece about "what to know now that you know you want to read comics". It's got a bit more of a breakdown of exactly what comics are - single issues, trades etc and the best way to navigate that area. So I highly recommend giving that a read too.


*To any angry fanboys strolling through - that is a hypothetical issue 47, I know it isn't real. 

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Book Review: Looking For Alaska by John Green

Looking for Alaska

Written by: John Green

Published: 2005

Synopsis: Before. Miles "Pudge" Halter's whole existence has been one big nonevent, and his obsession with famous last words has only made him crave the "Great Perhaps" (Fran├žois Rabelais, poet) even more. He heads off to the sometimes crazy, possibly unstable, and anything-but-boring world of Culver Creek Boarding School, and his life becomes the opposite of safe. Because down the hall is Alaska Young. The gorgeous, clever, funny, sexy, self-destructive, screwed-up, and utterly fascinating Alaska Young, who is an event unto herself. She pulls Pudge into her world, launches him into the Great Perhaps, and steals his heart.

After. Nothing is ever the same.
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“It always shocked me when I realized that I wasn’t the only person in the world who thought and felt such strange and awful things.

When my Ninja swap package arrived I squealed and groaned when I unwrapped Looking for Alaska. I had put down YA as the genre I wanted to get a little more acquainted with, but after my rocky experience reading The Fault in Our Stars I wasn't really sure how I'd feel about another John Green novel. Would I find the characters as shallow? The narrative as manipulative? The whole thing so over-hyped that the enjoyment I did find within in the pages would be negated by my utter bafflement that people have lines from the book tattooed on their arm? But the whole point of the trick or treat swap is to push yourself out of your comfort zone and I hate writing off writers after a single book, so I decided to start the book that very day.

I liked this far, far more than TFioS. Some of my issues are still present (which I'll get to), but I felt that in spite of these issues it was far more ....honest, is what I'm thinking. More genuine perhaps? A quick Google lets me know that this is actually John Green's first novel, so maybe it was simply that he was putting a lot more of himself into the characters and mining his own life for anecdotes and settings. I don't know, but I definitely felt like this book had characters that lived, rather than simply moved through a series of events.

The book takes place at a co-ed boarding school in Alabama. Our protagonist "Pudge" is a collector of last words and a seeker of the "great perhaps". Back in his native home of Florida he is utterly friendless and while he loves his parents he's 16. Your parents being your only friends is not something any teen wants in their life. So off to his father's alma mater he trots, where he first meets his stocky map-nerd room-mate the Colonel and the smoking hot Alaska. Pudge and the Colonel click immediately, which sort of makes me wonder why he had zero friends back in Florida, but things are a little more rocky with Alaska. I mean she's hot, so that's a huge tick in the positive column, but she's moody and snooty and when he turns up at her room door that night wet from being dumped in the lake (a prank to get back at the Colonel - which actually freaked me the fuck out because he could have died*) she tells him to mooooove on stranger. Ugh, aren't girls the worst sometimes? 


Somehow though Pudge manages to wade through Alaska's comstant mood shifts and faux-existential garbage and spark up a friendship. So strong is this friendship that he passes on Thanksgiving with the folks and stays at the school with Alaska alone where they rifle through everyone's personal belongings watching their porn and stealing their booze. Okay, so obviously a few things in this book didn't exactly rock my world. But pushing past that for a minute the majority of the book is a lot of fun. Pudge is adopted into the Colonel's little group of friends, and along with Alaska, Lara and Takumi, the quintet drink and smoke and study and prank together. And as we all know, the group that drinks, smokes, studies, and pranks together, stays together. Except that these 5 don't. 

As you read the book you'll notice that the chapters aren't labelled Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter XXX, they're a countdown. One hundred and twenty-seven days before. Forty-three days before. And then the book breaks into the second half, the after. The cataclysmic event is significant. It's destructive and I can completely understand how it would completely turn a person's world upside down. But to me it was the biggest problem in the book. I'm about to throw out some heavy spoilers, so skip down to the River Song gif if you haven't read it and don't want to know. 



In a similar way that TFioS felt manipulative, the sudden death of Alaska in a drink driving accident felt manipulative. She's there having a great time and then a sudden phone call sends her into a spiral, rushing out of the school to her inevitable death. My biggest issue is not that she died. People die and I think it's important for books to look at issues like this so that young kids can know that all kinds of grieving is okay. You can cry. You can act out. You can go numb. Whatever your grieving process is, you're not alone. But half the book is dedicated to how her shocking death rocked the student population at this boarding school and the majority of it centres around Pudge, a guy who had known her for about 5 months and was obsessively in love with her, in spite of us not really seeing any true connection between them. Sure they had that Thanksgiving week alone, but most scenes showed them in a wider group setting getting along generally or else they were of Pudge sulking because she was in a relationship and seemed to genuinely care for the guy. If they book had broken into sections and looked at how each of the remaining 4 students survived then I would have felt a lot less skeeved out. Instead we got a lot of Pudge feeling sorry for himself and going full Romeo about how special their love was and then bizarrely the book basically rounds out with the other two guys announcing that they to had been in love with her. Ugh, come on. The take away to me felt less like "she was this enigmatic soul who commanded a room, even though she was a raging bitch half the time" and more "damn I wish she'd fucked me before she blew herself up in a fiery wreck". The mystery that the group embark on to find out where she was driving to and why she was upset (was it an accident or suicide?) could have been a fascinating look at how we deal with death, but in the end Alaska just felt like an object that they'd been unfairly robbed of, not a real person. 


Which leads me into my issue with the characters. Now that I've read two of John Green's books (which incidentally are the best possible depiction of his general arc as a writer) I think I can comfortably say that he doesn't write characters well. Which is fine! There are authors I read because of their ability to make me feel something, and others for their ability to paint an entire world and all its inhabitants through some incredibly creative metaphors and descriptors. Douglas Adams comes to mind, there is a brilliant post on Tumblr that collects a lot of his turns of phrase which manage to give weight to a person or a feeling by perfectly putting the right words together. But not every author can work that particular form of magic. Some write characters, some write events, some write emotions. They're all incredibly valid and I don't think you are an inherently bad writer if you can't write well in one of those areas. When I read a John Green book I feel like he has a story he wants to tell and then he finds the characters to tell it. And because of this we end up with very cookie-cutter "nerdy" or "cool" characters who fulfil a function but don't really live on their own. Pudge is fine, but I don't think I could really describe him to you. He's tall and lanky. He studies a lot. He prefers to read biographies to novels. But who is he? *shrugs* that I can't really say. Similarly, Alaska is just this massive mystery. She's manic and collects books and likes pranks. She's super hot and has green eyes. Sure we get a fairly weak insight into her towards the middle of the book, but it's never really built on either  so does it count? Compare this to say Rainbow Rowell. A lot of Rowell's books share similar parallels to John Green. They're (mostly) about teenagers and romance blossoming where you least expect it, and troubled homes and weird kids who don't fit in. But Rowell's characters live off the page. They might technically tick off the same checkpoints as John Green, "attractive but not in a traditional sense" "silly nickname" "obsesses over book/film/TV character or world" "has an odd hobby" but the plot in a Rowell book happens because of who the characters are, rather than the other way around. To me this leads to Green's characters feeling very manic pixie-ish, they're there to help the plot along and help other characters realise some deep truth about themselves, but they have no substance of their own. Except this is true for every character. It's like a game of Sims or something, the characters just walk headlong into walls repeatedly if they don't have an active role in a particular scene.

All of that said and done, I really did enjoy the book. I know the review might not actually depict that, but in spite of not liking the way John Green constructs his narratives I do like them. He writes with an earnestness which helps me move past the fact that apparently every book is contracted to have a character say something douche-y about cigarettes**. And while I might not connect with the characters and their particular journey, but I still find myself pulling in personal experiences which connect with aspects of the novel. Maybe that's the beauty of John Green, maybe he writes his characters like this so that we can populate his books with the men and women from our own lives and question how we'd react if our version of Pudge or the Colonel did X. Or maybe I'm just desperately grasping at straws to find out why I like a book that I struggled to review positively. Maybe life is just full of mysteries, man.



*They wrapped his body in duct tape so that he couldn't move. And when the Colonel later mentions something about how he could have died Pudge just basically shrugs it off. DUDE, NO.

*Says Alaska “Y'all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.”. FARTING NOISE.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

October in Review: Comics, Comics, Comics

Reading meet wall

BOOKS:

What I Read:

*Hellblazer: Original Sin (volume 1) by Jamie Delano, David Lloyd, John Ridgeway
*Hellblazer: The Devil You Know (volume 2) by Jamie Delano, David Lloyd
*Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery (volume 1) by Kurtis J. Wiebe, Roc Upchurch
*Kill Shakespeare: The Mask of Night (volume 4) by Anthony Del Col, Conor McCreery, Andy Belanger
*Captan America: Winter Soldier (volume 2) by Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting, Mike Perkins


Book Stats:

100% male / 0% female (ooof magoof)
100% American / 0% International (although technically I think Conor McCreery is Canadian, but that's just splitting hairs at this stage)
100% ebook / 0% audiobook / 0% physical
100% fiction / 0% non-fiction
100% graphic novels / 0% novels

I'm at the pointy end of my PhD, so that means my reading time is effectively zero. When I do have a few spare minutes to sit down with a book I've been turning to comics (and TV) because, well, they're easier. I just haven't been able to motivate myself past reading a few pages at a time in the actual books I'm reading, but hopefully I'll get past this exhaustion and pick up my pace soon. I started The Girl With All the Gifts last month and while I raced through the first 50 pages or so I've found it hard to get back into it. It's fine, but I'm barely in and I just don't really see where it's going. Not in the ooooh-what's-around-the-corner kind of not knowing but the haven't-we-already-peaked-what-else-can-happen kind of not knowing. It's funny, I love zombie movies but I tend to find zombie books a bore. I was hoping this would change my mind, but I really don't know if it will. I'm hoping if I just push through the next few chapters it'll start to gel. Fingers crossed. I'm also slowly getting through a book of Robert Heinlein's science fiction short stories. It's really high concept and I'm enjoying it, but I don't really know if I'm getting it, y'know?


On a far more positive front, I started Chris Hadfield's An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth on audiobook and I looooove it. I really enjoyed watching his youtube videos last year when he was in space (last year? the year before? time man, it passes us by in such a blur) and Sarah's review convinced me it needed to be my next Audible purchase. He's just such a nice guy, like, really, really nice. He's so positive just listening to him talk about life and career and family kind of makes me feel invincible. I'm going to apologise in advance because I think my review is going to be a little over the top gushy. I also bought a copy of Amy Poehler's book on Audible. I hit a few walls with audiobooks before picking up Hadfield's novel and I think, at least for the time being, I'm going to leave it for my memoir//comedy books. Listening to Tina Fey and Chris Hadfield have definitely been audiobook highs, because they're telling their own stories and adding their own personality to the words. Maybe once I get more comfortable with the medium I'll step back into the fiction shelves, but for now I'm enjoying this plan of attack. I wonder if Lena Dunham will read her book?


In other bookish news, I got my first Ninja Bookswap gift! The wonderful Lauren sent me my "trick" package. I said I wanted to read more YA so along with  Helen Oyeyemi's Mr Fox from my wishlist, she bought me John Green's Looking for Alaska. I was a little underwhelmed with The Fault in Our Stars when I read it last year, but I wanted to try out another John Green book before I totally wrote him off. I started the book today and so far I have to say I'm enjoying it a lot more than TFioS, but that might have a lot to do with the absence of cancer-stricken teenagers. I also got a duo of adorable floral pens and a Maze Runner postcard. I have one more package heading my way, and I can't wait to see what's in store for me. Yay or bookish gifts from bookish folk!

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