Saturday, February 17, 2018

Book report.

Now that we're a couple of months into 2018, I thought that I should provide an update on my New Year's resolution to do more reading of physical books, with the goal of one book a week.  As with most resolutions, I'm not quite keeping up with my target, but unlike most resolutions, I've certainly been enjoying the process so far.

I started by clearing the decks:  a couple of months back my friend Chris had lent me his copy of Metro 2033, a mystical tale of post-apocalyptic life in the Moscow subways by Russian author Dmitry Glukhovsky, and I had gotten about half way through the book and then just sort of set it aside as other reading captured my attention. My original introduction to the story had come in the form of the 2010 THQ game adaptation, and, to be honest, I found that in some ways I preferred it as a computer game, although it just may be that the book suffers in translation. But, with my resolution in effect, it seemed like the perfect place to start, so I moved it back onto the play list.

After finishing off Metro 2033, I picked up one of my Christmas gifts from Karli: Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, which tells the tale of Marvel Comics from its origins as Timely Comics in 1939, its rebranding as Marvel and the creation of its breakout characters the Fantastic Four in 1961, through to its sale to Disney Inc. and its current incarnation as a motion picture powerhouse.

It's spiced with fascinating (and somewhat gossipy, to be honest) details about conflicts between owners, publishers, editors, writers and artists at Marvel, and the company's rise and fall over time.   

The sad part is that, as much as I enjoyed it, I really don't know anyone to whom I could recommend this excellent and well researched book.  For me, it illuminated a portion of my personal history, the period of time when I was an avid comic book reader, providing the back story for events that I could only watch from a distance when they were taking place.  If you weren't reading Marvel comics for at least some part of the last fifty years and have no knowledge of North America comic books, I'm not sure that The Untold Story would be of interest to you as an abstract historical document.  But if you do fall into that group, this books is a rewarding and fascinating read.

From there, I went with The Golem and the Jinni, followed by Spaceman of Bohemia, both of which I had purchased at The Strand Bookstore during our New York trip. The Golem and The Jinni is a wonderful book, whose titular characters meet in the cultural melting pot of early 20th century New York.  Author Helene Wecker obviously did meticulous research to create her setting, which is packed with details and grace notes regarding life in New York's immigrant communities at the turn of the century.

Her characters cleverly represent odd reversals on their usual roles:  both are traditionally associated with servitude to human masters, yet in this novel they are both set free* and forced to find their own ways in an unwelcoming and unfamiliar world. Wecker does a superbly insightful job of showing us the challenges faced by the opposing personalities of her two protagonists: one a construction of earth and water, the other a creature of air and fire.

I can't be quite as fulsome in my praise for Spaceman of Bohemia, by first time author Jaroslav Kalfar.  It's clever and well written, and I was certainly intrigued by the manner in which Czech scientist and astronaut Jakub Procha's life is molded by his father's involvement with the Soviet secret police. Unfortunately the subplot of the alien observer on Procha's doomed space mission doesn't add to the story, which, when you think about it, is a strong criticism for a science fiction novel.  A good read, but not a great read.

I'm currently making slow going with The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood, but not because of any fault in the book itself.  It's a masterfully written tale which tells its story of a dystopian future without ever relying on conventional scene-setting narrative blocks.**  However, I made the mistake of loading The Lord of the Rings onto my iPhone as fallback reading material, and it's offered strong competition to The Handmaid's Tale in terms of skillful and absorbing (although obviously very different) storytelling. 

So, at the end of the first seven weeks of 2018, I'm in the middle of my fourth (and a half) book, rather than my target of seven. In my defense, both Marvel Comics and The Golem and the Jinni are big solid 450+ page books, and I've been reading steadily, so my current shortfall is based on book length rather than dereliction of duty.

Regardless, I'm quite pleased with the results so far.  It's been very enjoyable to get into that stack of abandoned purchases, and I'm looking forward to continuing the process over the course of the year.

Let's see...what do I want to read next?
- Sid

* Ish.

** Which can spoil a story if done badly.

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