March 29, 2015

Leary is still the same person he was when I was 11: Dennis Leary's "Why We Suck"

I used to really like Dennis Leary. His “No Cure for Cancer” album was something that I listened to a lot, and could recite the routines and sing the songs by heart. I was maybe a little young to be listening to it, so it had this illicit air about it. Leary was unapologetically who he was, and no one could take that from him. I wanted to be just like that!

But that was the 90s. Maybe it was a backlash to the perceived PC movement or something, but what worked for him on that album is carried over on this book, and it doesn’t work. I know the book is dated, so I don’t know if this is true of Leary now, but he just seems like a sad reactionary here. The world has changed and it’s different, so he’s mad. It is a little more complex than that, but that was how I felt reading this document. Leary makes a point to have anecdotes that show just how smart he is, so he has “intellectual” bonefides (plus he was riding on the “Rescue Me” accolade when this was coming out). 

Leary is smart, that is not at issue. He just wants things to be the way they were when he grew up in terms of gender roles. When he writes of these, he feels like the embarrassing uncle at Thanksgiving. But as I said, he’s complicated. Leary writes with an enlightened view on race relations, so it’s confusing. He doesn’t seem to like either party, so it is hard for me to just categorize him and then dismiss him, but his stich hasn’t aged well. The only reason I kept reading the book to the end was to see if it got better, hoping that it would but not optimistic about it. It didn’t. It reminded me that I wasn’t the same person I was when I was 11. For better or worse, Leary is still the same person he was when I was 11.  

Andy Weir's "The Martian": A Promising First Novel

I’m usually of the mind that I will like science fiction, but the burden of world building is such that it is so hard to get right that very few people do. The further out you push your plot, the more you have to explain, or at the very least, you have to know as background of the story you are telling. Weir solves that problem by making the world he talks about one that is very much like the contemporary world but with Martian missions. There’s relatively few time markers that I noticed –one of the crew on the ship that we meet has a collection of 70s music and sitcoms, so it can’t be so far that they are utterly dated. Or not. Like I said, there are very few time markers.
What the book is is mainly the log of Mark Watney, who is a member of the third Mars mission. He is both a botanist and a mechanical engineer. After a freak accident, the rest of his crew leaves him on the Martian surface, thinking he was dead. The rest of the book is about how Watney tries to survive and the rescue efforts taken by NASA to retrieve him. Overall, it is an interesting book, and it was an easy read.

There are some issues, though. The bulk of the book is told through these logs he is inputting, and it tries to capture Watney’s personality, but they have the same sort of issues that everything written in epistolary form have – not all of the situations have a logical reason to explain why this person would be sitting down and explaining to whomever what happened in such detail. This is even stronger in the beginning, where there seems to be no hope, as he has been left for dead. There are additional problems with characterization. Watney’s first words in the book, as related to the log, is an F-Bomb. My first reaction to the character was that he didn’t come across as a super educated astronaut scientist. It took a while to really get a sense of the character’s voice, as for a huge chunk of the time; he is the narrator, inputting his logs.

A problem for me was structural. There was the log entry format, but then Weir slipped into a traditional third past omniscient for scenes at NASA and in the ship that his former crew occupied. It was as if he started in in the log format, but then he realized he wanted scenes off the surface of Mars and had to figure out a way to make that work. It doesn’t. If I were workshopping this, I would tell Weir that that was a point that needed work. He could have lost the log-entry structure and not lost any narrative urgency.

There is a further problem with characterization. Watney works alone, but I didn’t believe any of the relationships. At the beginning, as he was explaining through the log structure the other characters I didn’t feel any real warmth or depth of the relationship between these people who supposedly had spent a lot of time together. Even later, that never really developed for me. I was at first under the impression that Mark was an outsider for some reason, which was so under-worked. There’s also the problem that every one of the crew had like two doctorates, thus Watney was both a mechanical engineer and a botanist. It can be handwaved, but it is very important for the plot. Thus, it feels like a little much, like a super-hero with no weaknesses.

This leads into the narrative issues, in that so much of what Watney does is over explained. It goes back to the world building aspect. The author needs to know all this stuff to make the world work, but once he starts explaining everything it is too much for me. It made me think of that sort of dialogue in TV shows where once character says, “Run this through the GLC,” and the other replies, “You mean the gas-liquid chromatography machine?” And as a viewer, you know it’s just to tell the viewers what they talking about because they already know. It’s worse when they then go and explain the mechanism. Weir explains the mechanism.

I don’t point out all the flaws to be too critical. This is still a very well paced book that builds tension and makes you think how you would act if left behind on a Mars mission. The action builds and resolves and it is entirely satisfying. I’m just critical because of all that it is implies all that it could be, but it is not. I know I’ll watch for Weir’s next book with anticipation.

On "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" Culbard adapting Lovecraft

                Lovecraft is one of those authors I want to have read, but in spite of having some of his book lying around the house, I haven’t found the time or inclination to read. So when I found this book at my library, I was happy. I like graphic novels because they feel like a cheat - I can throw myself in the world and it won’t take all the time. It’s better than a movie adaptation, but less than sitting down and reading the story.

                The story here is Randolph Carter trying to reach the city of his dreams. Having not ready the source, I cannot say how fully realized this book is over the original book. What I can say is that as an introduction to Lovecraft, I hope it isn’t a fully realized look. The journey Carter undergoes doesn’t have any real tension and it never feels like there’s anything really at stake. It’s like instead of trying to attain the city of his dreams, he’s walking to the deli. This is a shame because the setting is interesting. The world built by Lovecraft and drawn by Culbard could have some very interesting things happen inside of it. I just didn’t think that what was possible with it was attained. 

                At the end, I am not turned off by perusing more Lovecraft, but it didn’t whet my appetite to look for more stories. The books I have will remain on the shelf, gathering dust.

"Hello Devilfish!" by Ron Dakron: A Book to Avoid

I want to call this book bad.
                The only thing really keeping me from doing so is that it is, as far as I know, alone in its genre. There are no other books like it. Maybe that’s a good thing.
                I picked this up at my library. I’m not sure what the buyer was thinking. It sounded unique. Basically, it is the monologue of a giant stingray as he destroys Tokyo. A bigger monster, more of a squid, pursues him who the narrator thinks wants to make him his boyfriend.
                The narrator then falls into a vat of human growth hormone and become a human, albeit a blue human. Then he has to deal with being a naked human stranger in Tokyo that is still under attack from the giant squid thing. That plot resolves, but incompletely.
                The plot is bad.
                The author missed some weird character issues. Somehow the narrator speaks early about how he knows manglish – a jumbled English based on the aesthetic contents of the letters and not the meaning of the words. Think of the 90s vogue for kanji tattoos that “mean” strength but really represent the steadfastness of the peasant woman. But the narrator is also somehow very concerned and mock contemptuous of the modern study of language and big literature. I hate to apply the character’s faults to the author, but if this part of the book is an indication of the outsider status of the author, there is a very clear reason he’s an outsider – he’s just not that good of a writer.
                But don’t think the book is all bad. There is one redeeming quality. The book is very short. In fact, it was the reason I kept reading. Even if it was horrible, it was over soon.


One more thing. There's this annoying interjection the narrator uses all the time -- the title of the book, and variations of it. Is it an in-joke I'm missing? I don't know!

March 25, 2015

Symbology: An Academic Reflection

I realized
this morning
the Da Vinci Code
has been out long
enough that there is
probably an army of young
Symbology instructors
at directional schools,
why their lives are
like Robert Langdon's.

In their darker
they wonder
why they didn't listen
 to their uncle and
major in something
practical, like

When they get
they go over
to the archaeology
department and swap
stories where they hear
about the exploits
of one Dr. Jones.