Saturday, February 10, 2018

What I'm Reading: Wild Bird

Wild Bird, by Wendelin Van Draanen, tells the story of Wren, a 14-year old from a good family who is addicted to alcohol and marijuana and runs drugs for a 12th-grader she wants to be her boyfriend. Her parents, fed up and finding Wren to be intransigent, send her away to a wilderness survival camp in the desert of southern Utah.

The camp is eight weeks long, and she's determined not to let go of any bit of the anger she feels while she's there. But soon, despite herself, the new skills she's learning and the unforgiving natural landscape are working a change in her, along with a friend she makes--Hannah, a high school heroin addict who is grateful for the second chance at a sober life the camp is providing.

Eventually, Wren reaches a point where she can almost admit some of the things she did that were wrong--things she did to hurt her family, her community, her own future. But she doesn't feel like she can confront them without the numbing aid of alcohol or other drugs. It's then that the counselors decides she needs to go a quest in the wilderness, alone. And what she discovers on that quest will change who she is and how she understands and approaches the world.

Wild Bird is a great book, but it may be pretty intense for some readers. I think it'd be great for readers in their mid-teens, or for mature readers in their early teens. But for those who are ready for it, it's really beautifully written and perfectly paced. I suppose you could say it's a "message book" but it doesn't feel preachy--it's actually quite a page-turner, helped along by Wren's funny and decidedly irreverent narrative voice.

Friday, January 26, 2018

What I'm Reading: Death Comes for the Archbishop

Okay, I've fallen a little behind on my book logging, so let's get started. Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop has been calling to me from our shelves for years now, so I finally got around to reading it. What a beautifully written book!

The main characters are the French Bishop Jean Latour and his good friend Father Joseph Vaillant, who come as missionaries in 1848 to Santa Fe, New Mexico, following the Mexican-American War to lead a new Catholic diocese that's been split off from the old one in Durango, Mexico. (Apparently, they are loosely based on two actual missionaries, though the book is a work of fiction.) The area of the new diocese is in wild country, remote even from Durango, and local priests have run things more or less without guidance for centuries. At best, the priests have operated without resources or advice, doing what they can; at worst, they've operated their local communities like mini-despotisms, perhaps taking local Mexican women as wives or concubines or using local Indians as free labor.

Bishop Latour is determined to clean things out, but though he has the authority of the church behind him, he really doesn't have any more in resources than any of the local, entrenched priests. He is forced to rely on his will and sense of righteousness as well as his secret weapon: his vicar, Father Vaillant. Father Vaillant is physically small but possessed of an incredible force of personality, compassion for people, and purity of faith instantly recognizable to all who meet him. He is able to bring entire Indian villages over to Christianity after a few days' stay, and travels the country carrying out spiritual missions for Bishop Latour.

The center of the book is really the relationship between Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant, probably the greatest account of deep male friendship I've ever read. Superficially, the cool-headed, intellectual, and sometimes even sarcastic Bishop Latour seems to have little to in common with the fiery, energetic, and direct Father Vaillant. But in fact, they discovered when they met in seminary back in France that they complement each other almost perfectly, each providing what the other lacks.

For instance, in one scene, the canny Bishop Latour decides to keep on a corrupt local priest, Padre Martinez, who has married several women and owns numerous farms worked with the labor of his congregation. Father Vaillant urges him to dismiss the old goat immediately, but Vaillant sees that Martinez, despite his personal failings, has built up a strong and faithful congregation. He decides to wait a year or so, when he can get just the right man from his home seminary in France to take his place. Father Vaillant cannot stand the thought, but in the end he recognizes the Latour's wisdom.

The book is told mainly in little anecdotes, reminding me a lot of the other Willa Cather book I've read, My Antonia. Sometimes these anecdotes are humorous, other times moving. Sometimes they're not even about the current characters at all, but merely to give a bit of fascinating background illustration, such as the tale of Bishop Latour hears of an old Spanish priest who had served decades before in an Indian village built on top of a mesa. The priest had a quick temper and one evening beaned his serving boy with a pewter cup after the boy had spilled a well-prepared meal. The blow killed the boy, and afterwards the Indians, who had accepted Christianity but not yet lost touch with their old ways, gathered in the main square to decide the priest's fate. When they came for him, the priest did not resist or beg for his life, but accepted the judgment as the Indians carried him to the edge of the mesa and tossed him off.

I think what most impresses me about Death Comes for the Archbishop is its resistance to  facile comparisons and easy answers. Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant are complex, fully-rounded characters, good at heart but capable of weakness, and even the bad characters have some redeeming qualities. The Americans who gradually filter into the story have little understanding or patience for the old Mexican and Indian world they encounter and conquer, but even that is presented less as a wrong than a sad but probably inevitable passing of ways.

Willa Cather is by no means naive about this--the Catholic Church under Bishop Latour in some ways facilitates this takeover by the incoming Americans--but it also softens it, provides a channel of communication for local communities, even helps the Navajo win back their ancestral lands after the US Army drives them to a new area not suited for their way of life. Whatever their mistakes, in the end the tremendous compassion and faithfulness of Bishop Latour and Father Vaillant must be considered a force for good in the world.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

What I'm Reading: Winning Chess Tactics

I reviewed former US chess champion Yasser Seirawan's Play Winning Chess a couple months ago and found it to be a good book, if a little too basic for my level of experience as a chess player. This book, Winning Chess Tactics, is the next in the series and perfect for where I am as a player.

This book is a gold mine. It explains all the basic chess tactics, at least some of which I was already familiar with (pins and skewers), as well as more advanced ideas (deflection, decoys, and the rarely-seen windmill), with plenty of examples and mini-tests at the end of each chapter. Seirawan (and his co-author, Jeremy Silman) explain each concept clearly, thoroughly, and with a bit of humor.

I've already seen a great improvement in my game from this book and expect to continue to get better as I apply these ideas. If there's one thing I have a complaint about, it's that there aren't enough practice problems--perhaps four to six at the end of each chapter, plus three pages at the end of the book. I think it could really benefit from more exercises.

To that end, I've also bought Winning Chess Exercises for Kids, which is just that--900 tactical exercises of increasing difficulty. Despite the title, it is by no means a book only kids would benefit from. I believe it pairs beautifully with Seirawan's Winning Chess Tactics.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

What I'm Reading: Perdido Street Station

Perdido Street Station is a book by China Mieville sent to me last Christmas by my brother, who's getting his Master's in English literature and recommended this highly. (I have previously, and quite positively, covered a comic series China Mieville wrote, here.) It's a little bit hard to describe the book because there's a lot going on in it, but I'll make a brief attempt to summarize it.

The book follows Isaac de Gimnebulin, a plump, middle-aged scientist of sorts who's been kicked out of the local university for conducting forbidden experiments and is dating a khepri woman (khepris have the bodies of humans but insect heads). You can probably tell this fantasy, and specifically in the sub-genre known as steampunk, where magic and industrial-era technology work side-by-side. The city where the story takes place, New Crobuzon, is a sprawling, polluted, Dickensian nightmare of factories, slums, and coal-belching railways.

When Yagharek, a garuda (a humanoid hunting bird) who lost its wings in a horrible way, comes to Isaac with a request for help in flying again, Isaac realizes that the problem could further his own research into crisis energy (sort of a link between magic and physics), and agrees to take Yagharek on as a client. Unfortunately, for his studies into flight, Isaac acquires a kind of caterpillar he's never seen before, one that seems to have psychic powers. When he finds the sort of stuff the caterpillar eats--a powerful hallucinogenic drug that's recently arrived in the city--it soon grows into a Slake Moth, a huge, dangerous, predatory insectoid creature that escapes and threatens all of New Crobuzon.

This is a good start to what happens, but this novel is so chockful--Isaac and his companions must travel through nearly all of the numerous neighborhoods of New Crobuzon throughout the book in their fight against the Slake Moth, encountering all the city's strange races and their varied customs, and every social stratum, from the poorest of the poor, to all the workers of its jobs, both wondrous and mundane, to the political elite, that it reads a little like a guidebook for the fictional metropolis.

In fact, my final impression after finishing reading, is that it's a love letter to urbanity, an ode to cities in all their grimy complexity, and how geography, industry, politics, crime, and recreation combine in endless combinations to make a distinctive urban environment. There's more than a little Victorian London in New Crobuzon, but it's more than that. When a woman at my son's fencing class was asking about the book, and I showed her the map of New Crobuzon at the beginning, her daughter exclaimed, "It looks like a brain!" And she was right--the map of the city looks like a brain, with its hundreds of connections and different functional areas. I think in the end, that might be exactly what China Mieville is getting at.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Ranking Thor: Ragnarok

My family went to see Thor: Ragnarok last weekend and a good time was had by all. Oddly, the first Thor movie was lackluster but each sequel has only gotten better--not the usual progression for movies.

I have previously ranked the Batman movies, the Superman movies, the other DC movies, the Avengers movies, the X-Men movies, the summer 2015 comic movies, the Spider-Man movies, the non-Marvel and non-DC comic moviesCaptain America: Civil WarDr. StrangeGuardians of the Galaxy 2, the Man-Thing, and Wonder Woman.

So Thor:Ragnarok could just as easily have been called Thor/Hulk Team-Up, because the Hulk plays a major part in this movie. There's also a great cameo appearance by Dr. Strange. I think one reason the movie works well is because it takes two of the best and most grandiose stories for both Thor and the Hulk and combines them--Walter Simonson's run of Thor comics from the 1980s, and Greg Pak's Planet Hulk from 2006-07, plus elements from the 1980s Contest of Champions mini-series. It tosses them all together and adds in a hefty dose of humor. What comes out at the end of the process is one highly entertaining movie.

Another thing that struck me is that Loki in the movie is not a bad guy. Sure, he's self-serving and can't be counted on, but he does help his brother Thor when it's in his interests. And I found it interesting that at the beginning, when Thor returns to Asgard after a long absence and finds Loki has banished their father, Odin, and ruled in his stead, Asgard has not turned into some dystopian nightmare. Actually, it's a pretty fun place, with lots of drinking and funny dramatic works to honor Loki, and the people don't seem too put upon. Of course, Loki hasn't been vigilant about protecting Asgard from external threats, which is a problem, but he's not some awful tyrant. I think a simpler movie would not have had such a nuanced portrait of the trickster God.

The first Thor movie rated an avoid, and the second one was okay, but with this third one, the Thor franchise has reached pretty good.

As ever, my ranking system is
Green=excellent  Blue=pretty good  Black=Okay  Red=avoid


Here's the master list of all comics movies I've rated so far, in order from best to worst:

American Splendor
Iron Man
Heavy Metal (1981)
Spider-Man 2 (2004)
Superman (1978)
Captain America
Wonder Woman (2017)
Batman Begins (2005)
Captain America: Civil War
Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier
Spider-Man (2002)
X-Men 2: X-Men United
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Superman II
Batman (1989)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Dr. Strange
The Dark Knight (2008)
Iron Man 3
The Wolverine (2013)
Guardians of the Galaxy 2
Sin City (2005)
X-Men: First Class
X-Men (2000)
Avengers 2: Age of Ultron
Swamp Thing (1982)
Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Iron Man 2
Watchmen (2009)
Batman Forever (1995)
Superman Returns (2006)
Thor 2: The Dark World
Incredible Hulk (2008)
Mystery Men (1999)
Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Man-Thing (2005)
Superman III
Supergirl (1984)
X-Men 3: Last Stand
Hulk (2003)
Fritz the Cat (1972)
Batman and Robin (1997)
Batman Returns (1992)
Superman IV

Amazing Spider-Man (2012) (Haven't seen)
Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) (Haven't seen)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) (Haven't seen)
Batman (1966) (Haven't seen)
Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Haven't seen)
Catwoman (Haven't seen)
Constantine (Haven't seen)
Deadpool (Haven't seen)
Green Lantern (Haven't seen)
Hellboy (Haven't seen)
Judge Dredd (Haven't seen)
Man of Steel (Haven't seen)
Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014) (Haven't seen)
V for Vendetta (Haven't seen)
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (Haven't seen)

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Scary Movies: Carrie

Working through a backlog of horror movies we watched this past October, and now we come to a personal favorite of mine, Carrie, directed by Brian De Palma and released in 1976. I haven't seen it since I was a senior in high school, but it was near the top of my list at the time, and remains so after this viewing.

Carrie (Sissy Spacek) is in high school and lives with her religiously fanatical mother who believes that all sex is sinful. She refuses to let her daughter date boys or really hang out with any other kids in school, and even the smallest signs of rebellion on Carrie's part result in her mother dragging her into a dark closet and locking the door on her. It's during one of these sessions that Carrie discovers when she is under extreme emotional duress, she is capable of moving objects with her mind.

The movie starts in a girls' locker room when Carrie gets her first period and, not knowing what it is or that menstrual blood won't hurt her, believes she's dying and starts screaming. The other girls stand around and make fun of her (shouting "plug it up!") until the gym teacher intervenes. One of the girls, Sue (played by Amy Irving, the future Mrs. Steven Spielberg), feels bad about what happened, and decides to ask her boyfriend, Tommy, to take Carrie to the prom. Tommy is captain of the football team, but is actually really sensitive and kind of likes Carrie, and agrees.

However, one of the mean girls, Chris, gets wind that Carrie is going to the prom, and decides to play a cruel prank on her. I won't go too much into exactly what happens then, except to note that Carrie's breakdown and telekinetic revenge against her tormentors at the prom is one of the great scenes in horror movie history.

Seeing this as an adult, what strikes me is that this a feminist film. The only ones who have any real idea of what's going on are the women--the gym teacher, Sue, Chris. They easily manipulate the clueless men in the movie--the school's principal in the gym teacher's case, their boyfriends in the girls' case. I suppose you could even make the case that the problem with Carrie's mother is that she never taps into her female sexual power; traumatized by the rape that produced the daughter she hates, she has submitted herself wholly to the masculine religion of Christianity. And of course, Carrie herself, who's felt victimized all her life, takes control of the situation when she discovers her true power.

Carrie (1976)

Story/Plot/Characters--Great script, pitch-perfect acting (Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie, who plays Carrie's mother, both received Academy award nominations for their roles), tight plotting based on a story by Steven King. (4 points)
Special Effects-- Not a real heavy special effects movie, at least until the climax, but pretty good once they get going. (1.5 points)
Scariness--Some tense moments but not a real scary horror movie. (1 point)
Atmosphere/Freakiness--Set in a suburban high school with lots of daytime scenes, the atmosphere is not really what this one is about. Carrie's home life is pretty freaky, I guess, and her candle-lit house on the edge of town, decorated with horrific icons of Christ's crucifixion, is a nice touch. (1 point)
Total=7.5 points (Excellent)

Here's the master list of horror movies I've rated so far. (Click the title for a link to a review of the movie.)

Alien (1979)=10 points
Day of the Dead (1978)=9.5 points
Bride of Frankenstein (1935)=8.5 points
Frankenstein (1931)=8 points
King Kong (1933)=8 points
Village of the Damned (1960)=8 points
Night of the Living Dead (1968)=7.5 points
Carrie (1976)=7.5 points
Jaws (1975)=7 points
Pretty Good
Witch: A New England Folktale (2015)=6.5 points
Aliens (1986)=6.5 points
The Birds (1963)=6.5 points
Carnival of Souls (1962)=6.5 points
Night Creatures (1962)=6.5 points
Phantom of the Opera (1962)=6.5 points
The Thing (1982)=6 points
Tales of Terror (1962)=6 points
The House on Haunted Hill (1959)=5 points
Gremlins (1984)=5 points
Lady Frankenstein (1971)=4.5 points
Man-Thing (2005)=4 points
Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)=3.5 points
Alien 3 (1992)=3 points
The Wolf Man (1941)=3 points
The Last Man on Earth (1964)=2 points

Saturday, October 28, 2017

What I'm Reading: Sachiko

Sachiko is the story of Sashiko Yasui, who was a five-year old living in Nagasaki in 1945 when the atomic bomb exploded only three-quarters of a mile from her house.That one moment became the defining event of her life, as the blast took her family from her--either immediately, in the blast, or over the coming years, from radiation sickness and cancer.

But Sachiko has lived to the present day, after a successful operation to remove her cancerous thyroid gland in the 1960s. At the 50th anniversary of the explosion of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, she began speaking to local school groups about her experiences, and has since toured all over Japan and North America.

She is also an admirer of Helen Keller, Mohandas Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and has worked for a peace and anti-nuclear organization in Nagasaki for several years. It is her hope that by telling her story widely future generations will not have to go through what she did.

The author of this book is Caren Stelson, an American woman who saw Sachiko speak in Minneapolis in 2005 and thought there needed to be an English-language version of her story in print. I have labeled this as a memoir, however, because my impression is that this is more of a translation of Sachiko Yasui's own words than the collection and interpretation of multiple sources that would be correctly labeled a biography.

Though aimed at middle-grade level readers, it is quite an intense book, with accurate and detailed descriptions of the atomic bomb blast in Nagasaki and its aftermath. It might be hard to read for more sensitive readers. For those interested in the topic, though, it would be tough to find a more immediate first-hand account than Sachiko.