Book Challenge #13 & Movie Challenge #2

Thank God for Christmas break and a new apartment with no internet. No, really. I have done so much reading and movie-watching, and it’s wonderful!

Book Challenge #13: Read a book by an author I love that I haven’t read yet

preludesnocturnesThe Sandman Vol. 1: Preludes & Nocturnes, Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is, far and away, one of my favorite authors. I had read the first issue of The Sandman years ago, and I’ve owned the trade paperback of volume 1 but had never gotten around to reading it. Before Gaiman became famous for his novels and works of short fiction and episode-writing for Doctor Who and his marriage to Amanda Palmer, he made his name known in the comic book world with this critically-acclaimed series.

In Vol. 1, a man named Roderick Burgess acquires a grimoire that should enable him to capture Death. Instead, he ensnares Death’s little brother Dream (also known as Morpheus), whom he imprisons for about 70 years. When Dream is captured, he is no longer reigning over the dream and nightmare realms, and of course things go horribly awry.

morpheusWhen Roderick’s son Alex finally releases Dream, he immediately punishes Alex and then goes on a quest for his tools. Dream teams up with John Constantine to find a small, but powerful, bag of sand. He ventures to hell to fight a demon in order to get his helmet back. And, with a little help from old members of the Justice League of America, he finds Doctor Destiny, who has used Dream’s ruby amulet to take control of the dreamworld and attempt to bring about the apocalypse. (Also, Morpheus is kind of attractive in that 80s, early-Neil Gaiman, comic-book sort of way.)

The editor, in the introduction to vol. 1, states that this is the weakest of the collected volumes, that Gaiman was still trying to find his voice. But I still found it wonderful. It’s almost like there’s this band that you’ve loved for years, and you discover their unreleased EP that they recorded in someone’s garage, and you still think it’s wonderful. This volume of the comics is really, really good, and I know Gaiman’s voice well enough to hear it in the voices of Morpheus and his sister Death. And I’m eager to get my hands on the rest of the series now.

Movie Challenge #2: Watch a movie made more than 50 years ago

Take Me Out to the Ballgame (1949)

take me outI found this on sale at B&N a year or so ago, and I’m so glad I did. It’s a musical about baseball! Frank Sinatra plays a young second baseman to Gene Kelly’s veteran shortstop on a championship baseball team in the early 1900s. In the off-season, Sinatra & Kelly do vaudeville acts, and the movie begins when they’re late for spring training in Florida. Shortly after they arrive, the teams learns that the old owner has passed away and left the team to a distant relative who wants to see the team. They immediately assume it will be an old, fat man who thinks he knows more about the game of baseball than they do. Instead, the new owner is a beautiful woman, played by Esther Williams. She immediately clashes with Gene Kelly, and young Frank immediately falls in love with her but has no game, so he doesn’t no how to talk to her about anything other than baseball.

There’s baseball and romance and bad guys betting on the game of baseball and a clambake. It’s really delightful. My friends who love musicals would love it. Also, Frank Sinatra is a skinny, young guy who looks absolutely adorable in his team sweater.

Unchained

The evening began with a story of a man and a woman meeting in a bar. I wasn’t thrilled to learn, shortly thereafter, that the evening’s stories would be a celebration of love. The raconteurs were even traveling by bus on a thirteen-city tour that was heart-shaped when plotted on a map.

I have stopped watching most romantic comedies. I have found solace in the science-fiction/fantasy/dystopian world where love is rarely a first-rate plot device. I have wondered if, perhaps, romance and relationships are not for me. I–I–was sitting in a room with an intimate crowd of 200 to listen to storytellers celebrate love? I’ll admit that I rolled my eyes.

I was reassured, however, that we would be celebrating all kinds of love.

The first storyteller regaled us with a story of growing up with a twin brother with a slight case of Down’s Syndrome. When she suffered an injury that ruined her college running career and her Olympic dreams, her brother’s love and care for others convinced her to re-imagine her future and her goals. A celebration of the love of siblings…and a story that, as a big sister, I understand.

The second storyteller spoke in an utterly unique accent–part Southern Savannah gentleman, part Eastern European gypsy, parts of dialects I’ve never encountered–all strangely, shiveringly delightful. He told of his high school experience attending a Catholic military school, a story focused on a boyhood experience that was, if not aligned with the theme of the night, certainly engrossing, humorous, and intriguing.

Intermission arrived then, and I hurried to the back of the venue to chat with my late-arriving friends–newlyweds, entirely appropriate guests for the evening. We discussed the evening thus far and our excitement for the upcoming, final speaker–the one we’d all really come to see.

The third storyteller was the one who’d begun with the brief story of the meeting in the bar. Those were his parents, and he went on to relate the story of how he and his wife met. A story of an unlikely boy and the girl he dreamed of, perfect in its crudeness and humor, and encouraging in its ultimate truth that one must seek out and hold onto whatever life one desires.

Before the final storyteller, three audience members who had signed up to tell stories were called onto the stage to tell one-minute stories relating to love–one about a boyfriend from elementary school, one about a man meeting his (very sassy) wife of 30 years for the first time, and another about a cat at a homeless shelter.

Then, finally–finally–the man we’d been waiting for. The man whose books we have devoured, whose blogs and tweets we have so studiously followed, whose worlds we have emerged ourselves in and called our own.

Neil Gaiman’s quiet, even voice; his British accent; his dark, slightly rumpled clothes; his demeanor. He’s real. He’s wonderful.

He began with a story he’d heard from a woman who’d worked at the circus. The elephants at the circus are trained, from a young age, to be chained. This prevents their escape. As a calf, an elephant is tied to a chain every night, and he cannot escape no matter how hard he pulls. As a grown elephant, he has become so used to the chain that, even though he could be free with merely a lift of his giant foot, he is still imprisoned–bound, mentally if not physically, by the chain.

Mr. Gaiman then moved, without transition, in the way of a talented storyteller, into the story of a period of his own life, when his marriage had fallen apart, when he was alone in a large house with no companion, and when he was driving down the road one night and rescued a muddy dog in the middle of a torrential rainstorm. He took the dog home, cleaned him up, and then carried him to the animal shelter to be returned to his owner. He missed the dog, but the dog could not be adopted. A few days later, the phone rang, and he heard the story of the dog’s owner, a farmer with a disability who couldn’t care for the dog and kept him on a four-feet chain, only letting him off the chain for 20 minutes a day. That day, the dog went home with Mr. Gaiman, who called him Cabal.

Then came the story of when Mr. Gaiman met a musician, with whom he spent three days exploring museums and attending shows, of talking and getting to know one another. Then, an abrupt ending and her uncertainty and his wondering whether she would ever call.

We, his fans, know how the story ends. We know that Cabal is his companion at the gazebo where he writes. We know that he and Amanda Palmer are married, happily.

Sometimes, the chains fall away. Sometimes, we are rescued.

The evening has followed me throughout the week, the memories staying hidden until quiet moments when I shake off the responsibility and the looming to-do list. I’ve found myself, at times, thinking about my own chains.

On Monday night, I sat, thinking about my students, thinking about how I need to be strict with them, about my frustrations and doubts as an instructor, wondering if it’s possible to lose one’s ability to love. The heartache makes it seem that way sometime–the heartache of feeling like I’m constantly telling people what to do or what not to do, the heartache that my grading responsibilities and schedule won’t allow me to visit my family for weeks if not months, the heartache of the relationships gone bad.

I curled up on my bed, cried a little, and asked God to remind me of how to love people. The next morning, a student came in my office, a student with whom I’d had little contact, and he told me his story. And I understood his silence, his absence, his reticence. The next afternoon, an old friend stopped by, and our friendship was restored, and I apologized for my own absence, my own silence, my own reticence.

Here, then, was the answer; here are the people I am called to love. And I’ve felt those chains, at least, loosened.

Today, my dad and I talked, and we discussed a conversation in which an old classmate had asked him how I was doing and how many kids I have. My response: “Next time, tell her I have 46. They just all happen to sit in desks in front of me.” For this is my calling, this is my family.

Thank you, Mr. Gaiman and the rest of the Unchained Tour. Thank you for reminding me that love comes in many ways, in many varieties, at many times. Thanks for the reminder that chains exist, but that they don’t have to. Thanks for the reminder to squeeze everything I can out of the life that I lead.

(Thanks, too, Mr. Gaiman, for signing my poster and getting excited about seeing the Threadless t-shirt–designed from your poem–in real life. Thanks for an evening that I won’t soon forget.)

The founder of the Unchained Tour and the raconteurs

The fangirl face and hands while pointing out my t-shirt to Mr. Gaiman

He wanted to inspect the back of my t-shirt. Of course, I said yes.

Remember that time I met Neil Gaiman?

Reading Roundup: Zombies, Graveyards, and Superheroes

My last reading roundup post got several comments from people thanking me for my reviews. That’s awesome, so I decided that I would post again about some more of the awesome books I’ve read recently. These three books are the three best I’ve read lately.

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

I checked out this book from the library after my thesis advisor referenced it in a Twitter discussion about the Miami zombie. Weird, right? Anyway, I found this book to be a fascinating read. The premise of the novel is that it’s actually a documentary history of the zombie war, and honestly, there were times when I forgot that Brooks was writing a novel and not a work of nonfiction. I’d have to remind myself that, oh wait, the zombie war hasn’t actually happened. The book is written in a series of “interviews” with people involved in every phase of the war, from the initial reports of Patient 0, to the confusion and cover-ups, to the military plans designed to stop the zombies, to the recovery efforts. The great thing about this book is that most of the sections are short, sometimes just a page or two, sometimes up to maybe twenty pages. Either way, I could sit down, read one section, and set the book down to do something else. Usually, that’s what I had to do. The story is heavy and violent at times (as befitting the subject matter), and I don’t think I was ever able to read more than about 40 pages at a time. The only drawback I found to this book, though, was that Brooks attempts, and almost succeeds, to write in many different voices. Occasionally, I had to flip back a few pages to the beginning of the section to remind myself who was speaking and what role he/she played in the war. I’d venture to say that it’s impossible for a writer to capture so many voices well, but Brooks almost manages. I’ve heard, too, that the audiobook version is excellent because so many great people provide the voice for the different speakers (people like Alan Alda…I love him!). I have some friends who are listening to the audiobook right now, and if they like it, I might actually purchase it. Obviously, this book is not for everyone, but if you really appreciate the use of the zombie as social commentary, then I highly recommend it. Brooks really plays up the political and social ramifications of fighting a global war against zombies, and I’d argue that the book is really more about societal tension than fictional monsters.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

This children’s novel by Gaiman won the Newbery Award several years ago, so it’s a shame that it’s taken me so long to read it. This last year or so, however, has been a year when I’ve really jumped into the world of science fiction and fantasy, so it’s appropriate that I’m reading so much Gaiman now.

I had a friend telling me a story on Wednesday, and she made the comment, “He was beautiful like death is beautiful. Does that make sense?” To Sarah: absolutely! Gaiman’s stories (and many other things in life, actually) are beautiful like death is beautiful. I think there is beauty in darkness just as much as in light, and The Graveyard Book is a dark, beautiful story.

In the beginning of the book, a man breaks into a house and kills a family. The only survivor (accidentally, of course) is an infant whose name is unknown. A mysterious man named Silas rescues the baby and takes him to a graveyard in town, where the baby is raised by a ghost couple, Mr. and Mrs. Owens. The baby is dubbed “Nobody Owens,” but is called “Bod.” Bod grows up in the graveyard, rarely venturing out into the land of the living and learning the ways of the graveyard (such as how to Fade to avoid capture). Silas is Bod’s caregiver when Silas is in town (and it was a lot of fun, for me, at least when I figured out why Silas leaves town so frequently). Eventually, as Bod grows older, Silas knows that Bod cannot stay in the graveyard forever, and Bod learns of his mysterious origins and of the man named Jack who killed Bod’s family and is still hunting for him.

I find the premise of growing up in a graveyard to be delightful. Highly illogical (I bet it’s hard to find food and good internet connection there), but delightful nonetheless. In Gaiman, I find that I’m very willing to suspend my disbelief, and in doing so, his stories become real and alive and bright and beautiful.

Batman: The Black Mirror by Scott Snyder (writer), Jock, and Francesco Francavilla (artists)

Two weeks ago today, I attended my first comic book convention, HeroesCon in Charlotte. It was wonderful, and the best part, easily, was attending a panel in which Snyder and Francavilla discussed writing this comic book series. (Insert fangirl moment: I’ve met two of the three creators of this wonderful book!!!) My friend Guy, who met me at the convention, brought his copy of the graphic novel, insisting that I read it. I finished on Thursday.

So many readers have declared this book to be one of the best (if not the best) Batman book. I’m not a connoisseur of Batman, having only just begun to read the series when DC rebooted their entire universe last year. (Side note: Scott Snyder is the writer of the current Batman series, and it’s phenomenal! The first seven issues have just been released in a hardcover edition called Batman: The Court of Owls. Check it out.)

I sort of did things backward with this book: sitting through an hour-long panel about the book before actually reading the book. Still, I think that actually made me appreciate it more. I knew how the story would end, and I knew what the best scenes in the book were, so I read it slowly and savored it. I picked up on a lot of foreshadowing in the book, and I peered closely at panels that I knew were important.

Okay, the premise of the story. Bruce Wayne is not Batman here; Dick Grayson has picked up the suit while Bruce is away from Gotham for a while. Dick is a different kind of Batman than Bruce is, and that distinction makes me appreciate both their characters more. Dick is working side-by-side with Commissioner Gordon on solving the mystery of who is behind an auction house that is selling off artifacts from Gotham’s greatest villains when Gordon’s son James arrives back in town. Something is wrong with James–something has always been wrong with James–but Jim has never been able to figure out exactly what. Through the rest of the events in the book, they finally discover what’s going on with James, but I won’t spoil that for you.

There are so many great things about this book. The idea of a mirror, reflecting duality with both Jim/James and Dick/James. A black mirror, reflecting the darkness of Gotham City, which is basically a character in and of itself. Also, there’s a huge, dead killer whale discovered in a bank, and that’s just crazy and cool.

Anyway, between this graphic novel and Snyder’s current run of Batman, I have become a huge fan of both Batman and Snyder. And this is a really great, literary graphic novel.

Currently:

I’ve read some other books, too, in between all of these. Expect a post soon about the wonderfulness of John Green, who is one of my favorite persons on the planet. I’m in the middle of two books right now: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bagicalupi (the companion to The Ship Breaker, which I previously reviewed) and Why We Broke Up by Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), which I’m trying to push through because I feel like I need it to end soon. I also have The Power of Six by Pittacus Lore, the follow-up to I Am Number Four, which I need to read soon because A) There’s a long line of holds at the library, and B) the next book comes out in a few weeks. 1Q84 is still standing staunchly on my bookcase, waiting patiently for me. Soon.

A Reading Roundup

I’ve been a wretched blogger lately. Let me be honest: when I was writing my thesis, I got out of the habit. It happens; maybe there are only so many words in me, and most of those needed to be devoted to that glorious monstrosity. I would like to declare that, now that I’m an M.A. without half the responsibilities of a few months ago, I’ll be a better blogger. That might not be true, so I’m not making promises. But here’s the second post of June, so that’s at least some semblance of progress.

I last posted a book review two months ago, when I finished John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Since then, I’ve read quite a few stellar books, so here’s a quick review:

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods

I began this novel on a road trip from Williamsburg, VA. My friend Jenna was driving the whole almost-8-hour trip on that rainy Sunday, and I finished the first 200 pages before we arrived home. What a perfect way to begin a book that is, at least in part, the story of a road trip across America. The protagonist of the novel, named Shadow, meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday, who offers him a job as an assistant/bodyguard. Shadow, an ex-con and recent widower, joins Mr. Wednesday in what becomes a battle of mythological forces across America. This novel is a fascinating tale of what happens to gods and goddesses when their worshipers immigrate to America as well as the way in which new gods and goddesses form as society evolves. In the midst of searching for the gods of America and preparing for a coming war, Shadow is also on a quest to discover life after the life he once cherished dissolves. I’m a huge fan of Gaiman’s writing style (across genres–in novels, movie/TV scripts, short stories, comic books, and books for children), and this book is beautifully written and incredibly evocative of American culture (from a man who is, natively, a Brit). Hopefully, I’ll soon read the companion novel Anansi Boys, and according to Gaiman’s Twitter feed, he is currently adapting the novel for a script for a television show.

China Mieville’s Railsea

Mieville is one of the three authors I studied for my thesis. He is quite prolific, turning out a book a year for at least the past four years, all of which have been incredibly well-written and thought-provoking and distinct. This novel, his first young adult novel in several years, is a retelling of Moby Dick. Instead of ships, however, the crew travel on trains along the railsea, in a fascinating world that Mieville has created. The protagonist of the novel is Sham ap Soorap, a doctor’s apprentice who longs to salvage the wrecks of trains along the railsea. His captain, instead of hunting a great white whale, is searching for a great Southern moldywarpe, with whom she had battled (and lost) years before. One fabulous aspect of this novel, as my thesis advisor pointed out in our conversations about the book, is that, instead of allowing the beast to act as metaphor (as Melville did in Moby Dick), Mieville jumps straight to the point: each captain is in search of a “philosophy” that drives his or her journeys across the railsea. The moldywarpe becomes this captain’s obsession, but Sham soon discovers his own philosophy after finding a photo memory card in a trainwreck. The results of his search are fantastic and fascinating. One downside to this book, however, is that those not familiar with Mieville’s style might have a hard time with his language use and the sci-fi content of the book. Mieville is part of a movement of sci-fi writers called the “New Weird,” and his novels definitely are not written for every audience (but what book is?). My suggestion: if you want to try reading Mieville, start with his detective novel The City & the City (the book I wrote my thesis on), an work your way through the rest of his books from there.

Paolo Bacigalupi’s Ship Breaker

I knew as soon as I picked this novel up that I would love it–the title, the steampunk cover, and, of course, the dystopian premise. Also, even though I haven’t heard much about it (as with, say, The Hunger Games), the novel did win the Michael L. Printz Award (sort of like the Newbery for young adult literature) and was a National Book Award finalist. Prestigious. The book follows Nailer, one of the titular ship breakers, who is part of a “light crew” responsible for crawling through the bowels of wrecked oil tankers to scavenge for copper and other materials to sell. After a vicious storm hits the Gulf of Mexico, where the novel is set, Nailer is scavenging aboard a clipper and discovers a wealthy young girl alive in the wreckage. Eventually, Nailer and “Lucky Girl,” as she comes to be called, must flee the coast in an effort to reunite her with her father’s people and also escape from people who want both Nailer and Lucky Girl dead. The novel, as most dystopian novels are, is an interesting portrayal of society; following whatever disaster wrecked the country, cities have been destroyed and people fight for survival, yet, still, the wealthy remain powerful and the poor remain powerless. Like so many other dystopias, this novel focuses on class consciousness in a prominent way, and I, personally, am glad to see the social commentary take the focus instead of a love triangle in which a girl must both decide whom she loves as well as overthrow a government. In this novel, Nailer and Lucky Girl really do have to fight really hard for survival, and the consequences of that fight are revealed throughout the novel.

Currently

Most of the rest of my planned summer reading follows this sci-fi/fantasy/dystopian theme, unsurprisingly. I’m currently about halfway through Max Brooks’ fascinating novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War, and I’ve just checked out the companion novel to Ship Breaker, which is called The Drowned Cities. Soon, too, I plan to delve into a lengthy novel called 1Q84, which has been both critically acclaimed and bestselling, a rare feat in the publishing world these days. That novel is 925 pages, though, and I’ll be honest and say I’m a bit intimidated by the sheer size and weight of that book. Still, I’m told it’s a worthy conquest. Perhaps in a few weeks, I’ll have more wonderful books to write about!

Lost and Found, Above and Below

Beginning in August, I’ll be starting the first semester of my thesis writing to finish my Master’s degree. I’ve decided to study British dystopian fiction, analyzing how language is used to shape identity. My theory is that dystopian fiction is often driven by the intense fear of losing one’s own individual identity and the loss of identity on a global scale. I had a meeting a few weeks ago with the professor who has agreed to advise my thesis. Dr. Stuart has a strong interest in science fiction, too (she even occasionally teaches a class in British science fiction!), and she gave me some book recommendations. One of which was Neil Gaiman’s novel Neverwhere.

Now, just for clarity, I’ll go ahead and preface this blog by stating that I won’t be using Neverwhere as one of the primary texts for my thesis. While language and identity certainly play roles in the novel, this work should be classified as fantasy, but not actually dystopian. Basically, I’m interested in how dystopian writers imagine the future of a society that exists now; I’m interested in works of literature that can show a worst-case scenario of continuing culture. Books like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which portrays life after an apocalyptic disaster, and Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta, which shows the results of government gone horribly awry (and a text that I plan to use for my thesis) are dystopic because of these imagined futures.

NOTE: There are spoilers in this post. If you don’t want to know how the books ends, stop reading.

Gaiman’s novel is the story of two Londons that exist simultaneously. London Above, which is the world in which the protagonist Richard Mayhew initially lives, is the London that most of humanity knows–all the familiar landmarks; people working jobs, going to the pub, and living in flats; etc. London Below is the seedy underbelly–literally. If one falls through the cracks (like the gap in the tube station), one lands in London Below, inhabited by such characters as rat-speakers (who speak for the rats in London Below), assassins like the dreadful (and morbidly amusing) Misters Croup and Vandemar, and the fascinating teenage girl named Door, whom Richard actually encounters in London Above and attempts to save. Because of the setting–a contemporary, although fantastic setting–I won’t be able to use this for my theory about dystopian literature. However, I’ll probably be brilliant and throw in a footnote or two to compare it to other novels that I’ve read. 🙂

Mostly, I’m fascinated by Richard’s character in the novel. In London Above, Richard has a completely average life. He works an office job, is engaged to a woman with whom he doesn’t really have much in common, and lives a life that is just ordinary. When he meets Door and saves her, he is inadvertently brought into the world of London Below, and it is there that he finds his true identity. The book, though an amazing exploration of the two Londons, is really Richard’s rite-of-passage. He’s on a quest, he saves a lady, and he earns the title of Warrior by the end of the novel. Then, when he returns to London Above, he finds that the life he once lived is not enough for him. His real identity lies below.

I was about halfway through this novel before I realized that Neverwhere was originally a BBC miniseries back in 1996 before Gaiman adapted it as a novel. There’s a chance that, if I can find the episodes online, I’ll be spending some of my glorious week off this week watching the 6 episodes.