Friday, February 6, 2015

Friends of Yore

A revelation:  Some days, I am just not in the mood to write about John Adams. I came into work today and knew that at some point during the course of the day, in between students dropping by to chat about Life or Coursework, I’d write about the John Adams biography I recently read for my tutorial.  Yet, here I am staring at the John Adams book, and noticing that, really, I won’t do it justice right now.  I lack the seriousness of intent and intensity of concentration to ruminate upon John Adams.  So, he is being pushed aside, and looking at the pile of books awaiting review, it is not contest what sort of review fits my current mood.  Writing is much like reading.  Some days I am in the mood for weighty substantial fare; others for light-hearted fare.  Not terribly surprising, I know, and yet, I have this conversation with students all the time (earlier today in fact)—it is OK to not always be in the mood to enjoy reading Plato—sometimes, Homer is just more fun—and sometimes Herge beats out both of them.  And so today is the Comic Book Roundup.

1. DC Universe vs Masters of the Universe
            A Christmas Gift.  A curious read.  As a straight story it was good enough to be enjoyable.  Some fun bits.  The whole clash of two different lineups was clever in a way.  I think I would have enjoyed it even more if I had ever seen an episode of He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.  I never watched that cartoon; it was after my time.  So, this was the first time I met anyone in that universe—I knew about He-man and Skeletor—well, I knew their names and what they looked like, I knew nothing about their personalities other than He-Man: Good; Skeletor: Bad.  So, this book was like uncovering a whole new universe which was interesting, but not so interesting I would rush out to read more about the Masters of the Universe.  In the end—if you have a copy of this on your shelf, it is worth reading.  If you don’t own a copy, not worth rushing out to buy a copy.
            An odd addendum.  As noted above, in case your memory is so short you can’t remember what you read in the last paragraph, I have never seen the cartoon about He-Man nor ever read a comic book about him.  But, when I was in college I had a He-Man Action Figure on my desk.  Why?  I cannot recall.  I have no memory of where I got said Action Figure—a Christmas gift from my brother, maybe—and I have no idea why having received said Action Figure, I thought it would be a great addition to the desk in my dorm room, but there he was, brandishing his sword.  I wonder what happened to him.  I wonder if he is in the attic.  Oddly, I sort of miss my He-Man Action Figure right now.  We went through a lot together, me and He-Man.  He is like my fake friend I never really cared about and didn’t miss at all whenever he left my life, but now, after reading a comic book about the guy who was the model for my fake friend, I get to wondering where my fake friend ever went.  Maybe I will look for him this weekend and if I find him I can put him on my nightstand and say goodnight to him.  Oh, never mind.  I just realized that Janet would see He-Man and say in a very disdainful voice, “Where did you dig that up?”  Janet never liked my He-Man Action Figure.  Oh my.  It just occurred to me.  Did Janet get rid of my He-Man Action Figure?  Was she jealous of him and destroyed him when I wasn't looking?  Is my wife a closet murderer of Action Figures?  Now I will stare at her all night wondering about the Darkness which might just lie in her past.

2. Fantastic Four: Original Sin 
            Some comic books are so good they transcend the genre and one can recommend them to anyone as books worth reading.  This isn’t one of those.  Some comic books are fun to read and can be recommended to anyone who likes comic books.  This isn’t one of those.  Some comic books are decent enough that if you had a copy and an idle evening, it isn’t a bad way to spend your time.  This isn’t one of those.  Some comic books are so awful you just hope that nobody ever sees them because they would be a prime example of the stereotype that comic books are fit only for people with extraordinarily feeble intellects and absolutely no idea that there are books out there written for 2 year olds with more literary merit.  This is one of those.
            I thought about relating the plot, but trust me, you don’t want to know.

3. Herge, Flight 714 to Sydney
Coming off the disaster of Fantastic Four: Original Sin I needed something I was certain would not depress me.  Enter Tintin.  I’ve read all the Tintin books, so I knew exactly what I was getting.  This one is Tintin at his best—but, then there are numerous titles which are Tintin at his best.  It has everything you want—Tintin is daring and bold and courageous; Haddock and Calculus and Snowy are funny; evil villains have a dastardly plan.  I was so cheerful after reading it.

4. Trudeau, But This War Had Such Promise
I never know: is a collection of comic strips a comic book?  Really, this question has long puzzled me.  I cannot decide. On the one hand, Comic Strip and Comic Book do have the same word in the description.  Some Comic strips have story lines which persist over the space of many days.  But, Comic strips have a formula that are absent in the Comic Book Proper.  These are the sorts of philosophical questions which keep me up at night.
            I have liked Doonesbury since I was in high school.  I know conservatives like me are supposed to hate Doonesbury, but I think it is fun, and I like the characters.  At a library book sale in October, imagine my pleasant surprise to see a nearly complete set of all the pre-reboot Doonesbury collections ever published.  At 50 cents each, I bought them all.  I have been enjoying rereading them—I read most of these decades ago.  In this one  B.D., whom I always liked (well, until recently—Trudeau has really destroyed his characters of late—but I guess that is what happens when you write a comic strip for 50 years) heads off to Vietnam.  And he meets Phred.  And Zonker and Mark are up to their usual shenanigans.  Bernie—whatever happened to Bernie?—is in his lab.  The Reverend Scot Sloan makes his appearance.  And, of course there is poor Mike himself, bumbling through life.
            Truth be told, even in college I liked Doonesbury more than I liked He-Man.  But, I didn’t have a Duke Action Figure.  (Much to my surprise, I just found out such a thing exists.  $225 on Ebay.  A bit out of my price range.  I would have paid $2.25).  In the run of books I am reading, Duke hasn’t shown up yet—he was always my favorite. 

Thursday, February 5, 2015

In Search of a Shrubbery

I gather there are people who enjoy reading travel guides.  Not browsing in them, mind.  Reading straight through them.  They pick up a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Latvia and they start at page 1 and read straight through.  They read about the prevalence of ATMs, the average temperature, how much the taxi drivers will try to rob you, and whether the hotel on Fifth Street is clean or not.  If that sounds like fun to you, then I have a book recommendation for you.

How do I know there must be people who enjoy reading travel guides?  Because otherwise, Bill Bryson’s Notes From a Small Island would not exist.

 Bill Bryson decides to travel around England and write about his trip.  If you like the sound of that, you can read the whole book right here:

“On (insert day of week) I arrived in (insert Town Name).  I was surprised to find the town to be so (quaint/unimpressive [pick one]).  I checked into a hotel which was (charming/dilapidated) and then set off to see the (insert famous landmark in town).  On the way I ran into a (young/middle-aged/retired) person who told me a (historical/quirky) story.  The (landmark mentioned above) was (interesting/boring).  (Insert humorous story or anecdote.)   Realizing I was hungry, I went to the local (restaurant/pub) and had a drink and a (delicious/indifferent) meal.  I tottered off to bed and the next morning I left by (bus/train).  The landscape was (scenic/bleak). “
And so on.

I learned one thing from reading this book.  I really, really don’t care about English cities.  At all.  I thought I might care about English cities after reading Alice in Sunderland.  (Not a typo—Alice in Sunderland is a different book than Alice in Wonderland.  The latter is more famous (but you knew that).  It is also better.  Indeed, Alice in Wonderland  is the best book mentioned in this blog post.  So, if you ever have to choose between the Lonely Planet Guide to The Great Lakes and Alice in Wonderland for a pleasant evening’s read, it is not a contest.  This sort of public service announcement is what keeps bringing Readers back to this blog.  But I digress.)  At times Bryson’s book reminded me of Alice in Sunderland.  I suspect I am the first person to make that comparison.  But, while I can imagine reading the Alice book again (any of the three Alice books to which that could refer), I cannot imagine reading Bryson’s book again.

That is not to say that Bryson’s book is without interest.  He is funny.  At times, he is quite funny.  A book of “The best jokes and stories in Bryson’s book” would be a pleasant little thing for an evening of leisurely reading.  But, to take those amusing little stores and bury them in a whole bunch of pointless travel matter is certainly a way to make the book longer but not a way to make the book more enjoyable.

Still, that being said, I enjoyed Bryson’s book.  This may be in part because it was a gift from a former student (thanks, Mahua!) and so I was predisposed to be in a good mood while reading it.  It may also be that the amusing anecdotes are liberally enough spread throughout the narrative to keep it from flagging too much.  But, all that being said: I cannot figure out the market for a book like this.

Then again, I don’t like travel as much as the average person does.  Maybe the rest of humanity reads tales of tours of English towns and fancies being there and so a book like this is akin to a vicarious vacation and maybe people like vicarious vacations involving lots of travel.  Now that I think about it, earlier today one of my colleagues was talking about how he would have liked to have organized a class on a replica of an ancient sailing ship and sailed around the Mediterranean recreating the voyage of Odysseus.  (Note how I carefully avoided mentioning the book title so that I don’t have to go back and rewrite the above section saying that the Alice in Wonderland is the best book mentioned in this post.  The not-actually-mentioned book by Homer is, truth be told, even better.) So, obviously travelling does appeal to some people.  Even if it does involved meeting Scylla.

Now that I think about it: Bill Bryson’s book would have been a lot better if Merlin and Dragons and Knights who say Ni had shown up every now and then.