Thursday, July 30, 2015

Go Set a Watchman: A Review

I burned through the new Harper Lee novel Go Set a Watchman in the last couple of days. It was a depressing read, albeit not for the reasons that a lot of people will find it depressing. This is probably the biggest literary event that most of us will experience in our lifetimes. Looked at in its larger context there are some things about it that seem, at least to those observing from distance, to be a bit unseemly (Joe Nocera had an interesting piece on this in the New York Times a few days ago). Without access to the principles, it’s difficult to know exactly what the circumstances of the release of Go Set a Watchman really are. But what is clear is that the differences in the character of Atticus Finch between Go Set a Watchman and To Kill a Mockingbird are (and will continue to be) very upsetting to a lot of people.

Unlike a very large proportion of the high school students of my generation, I didn’t read To Kill a Mockingbird in school. My crotchety old high school English teacher, Mr. Patterson, had us read Faulkner’s Intruder in the Dust instead. The stories are similar in a lot of respects, as are the underlying issues. Personally I think Intruder in the Dust is a better book, but I certainly respect the views of those who think otherwise. Perhaps if I’d read To Kill a Mockingbird in adolescence, as opposed to in my cynical twenties, I might feel differently.

What I do understand is the attractiveness of Atticus Finch’s heroic qualities, especially when viewed against the backdrop of the grim state of race relations in the United States around the time that To Kill a Mockingbird was published. There were a lot of people in America in the 1960s who were hungry to hear someone in the southern milieu speak out for the values of the freedom and equality that the Constitution promised to all, and for which a lot of blood had been spilled since 1861. Atticus Finch’s powerful speech in defense of those values was moving and enshrined him in the hearts of millions of Americans as a defender of something fundamentally right about the nation.

As most people are now aware, the version of Atticus Finch that appears in Go Set a Watchman is, at least apparently, cut from different cloth than his earlier incarnation. In particular, his is an ardent and unrepentant segregationist. This is a hard thing for fans of the earlier version to swallow, even if it is the case that those views are (historically speaking) not out of place, nor is it unheard of for people’s views to change or harden as they reach old age. It is also worth mentioning that the writing in Go Set a Watchman is not nearly so precise and polished as that in To Kill a Mockingbird. The overall effect of the release of Go Set a Watchman is hardly likely to be an enhancement of Harper Lee’s reputation, which is another unfortunate dimension to this story.

In the New York Times article mentioned above, Joe Nocera essentially suggests that Go Set a Watchman is best viewed not as a prequel to To Kill a Mockingbird but rather as an early draft. This interpretation has some problems, not the least of which is that Go Set a Watchman has many of the qualities of a free standing novel and doesn’t share a lot with the later book. Still, I think it’s an approach that has merit, both in terms of making sense of Harper Lee’s statements about her propensity to revise and polish, as well as in terms of the final product.

As I said, I don’t have quite the degree of emotional connection with Atticus Finch as some people I know. But I (and any other lover of Tolkien’s work who has seen Christopher Jackson’s defilement of The Hobbit) do understand what it’s like to have a treasured literary memory of youth dragged through the mud. Reading Go Set a Watchman as something like a first draft, problematic as it is, at least allows one to preserve the character of Atticus Finch in the power and the glory of his original incarnation. Go Set a Watchman is definitely worth reading, but it’s a book that needs to be read the right way. 

~John F.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Jean Grey versus Black Widow

[Some blog posts are written out of general interest. Others are written because of a need to inform. This one is being written pretty much out of bitterness because at the time of this writing, my colleagues in the department get to go to the opening of Ant-Man and I don’t.]

We at Mentor Public Library have been in a comics mood this summer, and with good reason. Our summer reading theme was superheroes, there are superheroes in movies and books this summer, and we have a program coming up this Thursday, July 23 with comics scholar Valentino Zullo, who is going to discuss the history and impact of one of the greatest superhero teams: the Avengers. So, with good reason, we've had superheroes and comics on the mind lately. 

I’ve been thinking a lot about the current spate of Marvel movies. Now, you might be saying to yourself, “Hey, this blog is called Mentor’s Reader, so why are you talking about movies?” But, of course, those films rely heavily the story arcs that were established in the comic book series put out by Marvel, and what I have to say relates both to what’s on paper as well as to what’s on screen.

Arguably the best Marvel film thus far
I was talking the other day with one of my co-workers (who is probably watching the opening credits of Ant-Man as I write this) about the way that women are represented in the Marvel superhero movies and in the Marvel universe more generally. In particular, we were comparing the X-Men movies (varied in quality but generally enjoyable) with Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which we agreed was the best of the Marvel flicks so far). One important point of comparison (although there could certainly be others) is the change in the role that women seem to be playing in superhero stories, and the comparison between the X-Men movies (which started coming out in 2000) and Winter Soldier (released last year) was profound. I talked about this a bit a few months ago when I wrote about women in comics generally. But I think that looking at two characters in particular (Jean Grey and Black Widow) might make the point a little more directly.

By way of background I should say that (as some of you may know) I am the one responsible for buying stuff for the Young Adult Graphic Novel section. This is kind of dream come true for me, but it’s also a real challenge. What with trying to keep up with what comes out on the major imprints, as well as the enormous (and growing) output of manga from Japan, it can be a little overwhelming. I am fortunate in that I have several colleagues here who are passionate about the genre, and doubly so in that they are women. I’m continually impressed with their dedication, especially given the gender politics of comics and graphic novels, which are often very weird.

As I’ve probably mentioned before, the only people I ever knew who were into comics and superheroes when I was growing up were boys. The people publishing the comics knew their target audience, and when we looked at the superheroes in the comics we read, we mostly saw versions of ourselves reflected back at us. There were some women: Batgirl and Wonder Woman for those of us who read DC, Scarlet Witch and Black Widow and Sue Richards for the Marvel readers. And then there was X-Men. The early 1980s, which was the era in which I started following comics seriously, was also the golden age of the X-Men series. In earlier days, X-Men had been a pretty standard team-based story line with, as was pretty much par for the course, only one serious female character: Jean Grey (alias Marvel Girl). Marvel Girl was cool, a really powerful telepath, but also (and not unimportantly) Scott Summers’s girlfriend (and later wife). As time went on, more women joined the X-Men: Storm (Ororo Munroe) who could control the weather, and Rogue (full name unrevealed), a “southern belle” who could steal the powers of others. Still, the team was predominantly male, and its leadership wholly so.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Mary's Favorite 2015 Reads (so far)

My favorite reads of 2015 (so far…)

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson. (Nonfiction - 2003). An older book I read for my book club... and loved. Devil in the White City is two different stories wrapped in one - the Chicago 1893 world fair and H. H. Holmes, America's first serial killer. Very informative, yet interesting and engaging. I highly enjoyed it.

Information Doesn’t Want to be Free by Cory Doctorow. (Nonfiction - 2014)  How is our world dealing with copyright infringement, digital piracy, freedom of information, privacy, etc.? The answer is: not well, and this slim volume explains it all. A very intelligent conversation on a topic that doesn’t seem like it should affect us, but does with every book we read, song we listen to, or movie we watch.

Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge. (Fairy Tale Retelling - 2014) Nix has been betrothed to the Demon Prince since her birth, but her father and his friends expect her to kill him the first time the opportunity arises. This retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story is a little darker and more mature than one might expect, and it is just different enough to make it a fun and engaging read.

Storyspinner by Becky Wallace. (Fantasy - 2015) A dead king, missing princess, a failing country boundary which threatens the kingdom with invasion from the outside,... and a gypsy-like storyteller who is the key to everything. One of my favorite reads of 2015.

Cold Burn of Magic by Jennifer Estep. (YA Fantasy - 2015) Lila is an orphan, surviving by stealing and using her magic “gift.” When she accidently saves a boy (from one of the elite, gang-like, magic wielding crime families) from assassination, Lila becomes the boy's bodyguard. However, since none of his bodyguards have lasted longer than a year, she has her job cut out for her. This is an action-packed adventure story with a little magic thrown in for spice.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Librarians' Line-Up: Favorite Superheroes!

It's been awhile, so it's time for another "Librarians' Line-Up" here at Mentor's Reader. In light of our super summer reading theme (superheroes), our topic today is Favorite Superheroes! Feel free to share yours with us in the comments below.

My favorite superhero is the Hulk. I like that Bruce Banner is normal... until he is not. I think this is a metaphor for most people we meet in our lives. Normal... until they are under stress and then who they really are inside comes out. What can I say? Sometimes I am too intellectual for my own good.
~Mary P.

Previously, I talked about wanting to hang out with Barbara Gordon (AKA Batgirl) and it so happens that Batgirl is also my favorite superhero - just not Barbara Gordon's version of the character. Stephanie Brown, the third Batgirl, is my favorite superhero because she's just so average. She started fighting crime as Spoiler when she discovered her father was actually the Batman villain, Cluemaster, before eventually taking up the mantle of Batgirl (from the second Batgirl Cassandra Cain). So, while Barbara is the genius computer hacker Batgirl and Cassandra is the expert martial artist/assassin Batgirl, that leaves Stephanie as the hapless one. She fights crime because it's the right thing to do, not because she's particularly good at it.
~Meredith T.

My favorite superhero has always been Batman, because he is one of the few superheroes that are not superhuman. He’s just a man with above-average intelligence and a bottomless bank account. Batman is unique, because—more than any other superhero—he’s vulnerable. In Batman #497 (July, 1993), the villain Bane breaks Batman’s back. Bruce Wayne cannot miraculously heal himself (like Wolverine, Martian Manhunter, or Deadpool), and the physical trauma that he undergoes is compounded by a struggle with depression during his recovery. I am certain that everybody can find something about Bruce Wayne that they can relate to, and that’s what makes Batman the best. He proves that anybody can be a superhero.
~Ariel J.

I grew up watching the animated X-Men show on TV and thought that Rogue was the coolest. I liked all the X-Men really, but I liked that she could fly and could take on any power she absorbed (for the more indecisive of us). Gambit was cool too. I liked his accent. I don't like what they did with Rogue's character in the movies, but what are you going to do?
~Amanda D.

My favorite superhero is Daredevil. He’s all about overcoming obstacles (being blind and all) and he spends his time fighting for the little guy. He’s willing to take a whupping for what he believes in, but he’s not averse to dealing one out as well. He’s friends with Black Widow, and you’ve got to respect that, even though he spends a lot of time trying to keep her from killing people.
~John F.

Currently, my favorite superhero, like John's, is Daredevil. (It changes from time to time.) Right now, I like him best because I recently binge-watched the Netflix show, which really changed my views of the blind superhero. I like that he wasn't born with his powers and had to learn how to hone them properly. He's a superhero with a lot of morals that he lives by. I also think he just kicks butt. I've never read his comics, but now I have to. 
~Cailey W.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on my Summer TBR List

As readers, I think we all know that the To Be Read (or TBR) list never stops growing. I personally wish there was at least one month a year with no new releases, so I can play a little catch up. I think the great Lemony Snickey said it best: "It is most likely that I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read." Truth, Lemony, truth.
Top Ten Tuesday is a meme started on the Broke and the Bookish blog.
They set the topic, we make the lists. Visit their site to see more on this topic

So I have chosen my top ten books to read this summer. With a grain of salt, of course, because something shiny may cross my path.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson
I've never read anything by this author, but this book seems good. It has a futuristic kind of "Wall-E" thing going on. After abandoning Earth thousands of years ago, the descendants are now returning to the abandoned planet.

Armada by Ernest Cline
I unexpectedly loved Cline's last novel, Ready Player One, and so I am excited for this new book, out in July. I don't even know what it's about, but if it has the same level of nerdiness, I'll be happy.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
A friend recommended this to me, and it sounds really interesting. It is a psychological mystery, with an elderly woman searching for her missing best friend. The twist: she is descending into dementia. It jumps back in her memories of her friend while she's searching for her now.

The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus by Jennifer Fisher Bryant
It's no secret I love words, so this book is right up my alley. I'm looking forward to this story about how the iconic word book came to be.

The Wednesday Sisters by Meg Waite Clayton
Another book recommended to me by a friend. I feel like this one would be a good summer read. It is about five women who have been friends for decades. Starting in the 1960s and moving forward with the women as their lives change, this book promises to be a heartwarming read.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Lois Lane, Girl Blogger

As residents of NE Ohio, you all probably already know that Superman made his comic book debut in 1938’s Action Comics #1. The man of steel was created by fellow Clevelanders, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. What you may not already know is Lois Lane, girl reporter, also made her debut in that same issue. She wasted no time establishing herself as a go-getter journalist hot on the trail of the latest scoop.

Panel from Action Comics #1

The character of Lois Lane has morphed over the decades as the role of women in society has changed. That plucky girl reporter became an unsatisfied career woman in the ‘50s and ‘60s when women in the workplace were viewed more negatively in a post-WWII America. By the late ‘80s she regained her ‘30s spirit and the partnership between Lois and Superman’s alter ego, Clark Kent was emphasized. Their relationship was eventually the focus of the television series, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman (1993-1997).

Dean Cain and Teri Hatcher in "Lois and Clark," ABC Television

Lois Lane has endured alongside Superman for over 75 years. Currently, she can be found butting heads with Clark at the Daily Planet or interviewing Wonder Woman, but always on the hunt for her next Pulitzer Prize winning story. Because of her lasting legacy, DC Comics has looked for opportunities to include Lois in other ways. Marvel has found some success in publishing novels featuring their female characters (The She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch) as a way of targeting an audience that may never find themselves inside a comic shop. Last month, DC stepped into the arena of young adult novels with the publication of Gwenda Bond’s Lois Lane: Fallout.

Lois Lane: Fallout finds our titular hero back in high school. Army brat Lois has just moved with her family to Metropolis, a city where they hope to finally put down some roots. Lois’ only goal is to make it through a year of school without getting into or otherwise causing trouble, but a chance meeting with Daily Planet editor, Perry White, sets her on a perilous path. Given a spot on the news team of Planet’s online sister paper, the Daily Scoop, Lois begins investigating the virtual reality video game, “Worlds War Three” that has swept the student body and the cyber-bullying subculture that goes along with it, but she quickly finds herself running afoul with the school principal. With the help of her new classmates and her mysterious chatroom friend known only as “SmallvilleGuy,” Lois has to use all her wits to unravel this conspiracy.

I feel a little divided about this book. On one hand, I thought the story was a bit of a hot mess. A lot of the conflict involved this virtual world which required clunky descriptions of “holosets” and characters' avatars. The penultimate set piece was a confusing confrontation between Lois and the CEO of a generic sounding corporation called Advanced Research Laboratories. On the other hand, this version of Lois Lane is really excellent. She’s intelligent, resourceful, and not afraid to break a few rules to find the truth. That’s a trait of modern-day Lois I really like. Her stubborn determination leads her to do whatever it takes, even if it means operating outside the lines. It juxtaposes well with Clark Kent’s “Golden Boy” persona.

It’s my understanding that this is actually the first title in a planned series. While I’m not completely fangirling over this book, I enjoyed it enough to be interested in reading a sequel. The inevitable meeting between Lois and her “SmallvilleGuy” has great story potential, so I look forward to future installments.

Interested in learning more about Lois? DC published a collection of Lois Lane centered comics for her 75th Anniversary. Lois Lane: A Celebration of 75 Years includes issues from the ‘30s and ‘40s all the way through the modern iteration of the character and makes for a decent survey of her long history.

Additionally, and this will probably ding my comics cred but, I always liked Erica Durance’s portrayal of Lois Lane in the later seasons of Smallville. Seasons 8, 9, and 10 have some great moments between her and Clark at the Daily Planet that make for a fun watch.


Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Learning to Swim by Being Tossed into the Pool: A Review of The Fangirl's Guide to the Galaxy

I’ll admit it, getting into what some call “nerd culture” can be quite intimidating. There’s just so much out there, and it’s hard to step back and take a look at what really interests you. Combine that with decades of movie and comic history to learn, gatekeepers, sexism, and the rising cost of collecting, it can seem overwhelming and like it isn’t worth the hassle. There’s a comic by Lumberjanes' Noelle Stevenson that I feel is a good representation of how it can feel.

It was because of all of this, that I was excited to hear about The Fangirl’s Guide to the Galaxy:A Handbook for Geek Girls by Sam Maggs; a book for fangirls, by fangirls, a book to help guide newcomers through the crazy world of geek culture. It seemed like the perfect book to get girls to dip their toes into geek culture.

But my excitement for the book was crushed about 10 pages in. After defining what it means to be a fangirl, Maggs does little to ease newcomers into the wide world of fandoms, or fan subcultures. Instead she throws readers headfirst into some of the most overzealous and niche fandoms on the internet, using fandom specific terminology. Not exactly what I would call welcoming to people looking to learn more about geek culture.

The book seems somewhat self-congratulatory and doesn’t seem to know its audience. It is caught in between wanting to be an introduction to new geek girls and a handbook for established geek girls, and it lost me along the way.

The book is not without its merit. I found the chapter on convention attendance and etiquette to be incredibly helpful for first time and seasoned convention goers. Conventions can be intimidating and confusing, and Maggs gave a good overview of what to expect and how to prepare. There were also plenty of helpful links throughout the book on everything from cosplay to tech blogs to nerdy recipes. And the audiobook continues with the celebration of all things geek. It is narrated by audiobook veteran Jessica Almsay as well as cosplay queen Holly Conrad, which is a special treat for fangirls like me.

I can’t say that gained much from reading this book, and I don’t know too many geek girls who would have either.