Book Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Kesey)

February 2, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest doesn’t exactly suit my habit of reviewing books right around their publication dates–it was first released in 1962 and has since become a major classic.  But I somehow avoided it up until now, and having come to it at last, I feel compelled to urge anyone else who has yet to read it to do so.

In some ways, Kesey’s classic takes on the same issues that I mentioned in my review of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna; that is, America’s history of conformist culture and its sometimes surreal habit of crucifying those who stand left of center.  Its characters are the American asylumnites of the 50s and 60s and their keepers, but even considering their strange behaviors and the schizophrenic language of the narrator, Chief Bromden, it doesn’t take the reader long to begin wondering if any of them are crazy after all–or at the least, if they were when they arrived or if it’s been done to them by the hospital and the zeitgeist–what Bromden calls the Combine.  His crazy-talk about vast machines and mechanical puppetry is, among other things, a fitting metaphor for a culture consumed by its own mass-produced suburbs, mass-produced jobs, and mass-produced pills for sanitariums.

In this way, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not merely a tale of a man named McMurphy raising hell in a crazy ward run by the authoritarian Big Nurse Ratched.  It is not even entirely a novel about American mental institutions; Kesey thought bigger than that.  Like his Chief Bromden, he saw the wires running between nurses and suburbs and every man to wear a business suit; though his characters are locked away behind solid walls, their sight reaches far beyond.  And ultimately, it is a story of how people can come together to subvert the Combine, and can win, even if only at a cost.  To quote Kesey in the book’s introduction, “This was, after all, the sixties.”


Book Review: The Odyssey (Hinds)

December 27, 2010

*ARC Alert*

The Odyssey by Gareth Hinds (based on the epic by Homer) was published October 12th, 2010 by Candlewick Press (hard- or softcover, full-color, $14.99 soft, 256 pages).

No surprises that this one is up for a Cybil–actually, there are two Odyssey retellings on the nominations list, but the other one isn’t as pretty.  And oh, this book is pretty.  I’m fairly sure that Hinds does his art digitally, but it looks like watercolor and he handles it well.  His linework is expressive, his colors set a great mood, and his pacing lays the story out quite nicely.  His text adaptation is modern enough to make comprehension easy, but retains the resonance and power of its mythic origins, and besides that he does a great deal to humanize the characters through dialogue–Penelope, especially, is given more emotional screen time than in other translations I’ve read.

Because of Hinds’ page count and some gore, I’d recommend the other Odyssey graphic novel for younger readers.  This one, however, is great for reluctant teens; in my experience the old stories are among the most accessible, and graphic interpretation and contemporary writing make them more appealing still.


Book Review: Girl Genius Volume 9: Agatha Heterodyne and The Heirs of the Storm (Foglio, Foglio)

December 27, 2010

*ARC Alert*

Girl Genius Volume 9: Agatha Heterodyne and The Heirs of the Storm by Phil and Kaja Foglio was released July 13th, 2010 by Airship Entertainment (hard- or softcover, full-color, $22.95 soft, 144 pages).

I squealed when I got this book in the mail.  Girl Genius has been a favorite of mine for years–I usually read it, as you can, thrice weekly at the comic’s website.  This is less expensive than buying the books, but you miss out on all sorts of extra goodies like giant bathtub snails.  And book-versions of webcomics make great gifts for our less-savvy loved ones.

But Ray, you say, what is Girl Genius actually about?  Ho!  I am so glad you asked.  The cover should probably have tipped you off, but this is steampunk at its best.  The slogan of the series is “Adventure!  Romance!  Mad science!” and it lives up to that, but I would also add “Hilarity!  Irreverence!  Tiny robot civil wars!”  Seriously, guys, this stuff is… genius.  They say that there is nothing new under the literary sun, but you have never seen anything like this.  Down to the tiniest details of the art and dialogue, it’s off-the-wall fun of the type that won the series the Hugo Award for Best Graphic Story in 2008.  Cheers, Professor and Professoressa Foglio–five years and counting, with hopes of many more to come.

Just as a last note, this is, of course, the ninth book in the series.  All of the comics are archived by the authors on their site, and can be read there free of charge as I mentioned earlier.  You can start with this volume if you like, but despite continuing the GG tradition of excellence, it won’t make much sense on its own.

Book Review: The Night Owls (Timony, Timony)

December 17, 2010

*ARC Alert*

The Night Owls by Peter and Bobby Timony was released March 30, 2010 by Zuda Comics (softcover, black and white, $14.99, 192 pages).

A nerdy supernatural detective, a flapper with a mean right hook, and an ever-hungry gargoyle?  Yes, please! The Night Owls combines the tried-and-true aspects of the detective genre with Prohibition-era America, flirty comedy, and light-but-satisfying violence (great taste, less filling!).  Add simple, elegant grayscale art and an original cast of baddies and you end up with a great read for middle-grades and up.  The book ends on a rather sizable cliffhanger, and I’m praying for a second volume.

Book Review: Amulet, Book Three: The Cloud Searchers (Kibuishi)

December 17, 2010

*ARC Alert*

Amulet: The Cloud Searchers (Book 3) by Kazu Kibuishi was released September 1st, 2010 by Scholastic GRAPHIX’ press (softcover, full-color, $10.99, 208 pages).

If you read graphic novels, you’ve probably heard of Kazu Kibuishi–he’s the guy who created Flight (now in its seventh volume and up for a Cybil this year), and he has two books of his own up in the Cybils running as well–Copper, a collection of webcomics about a boy and his dog, and this third volume of Kibuishi’s popular Amulet series.

To start, I would recommend going back and reading the first two books before picking this one up; I tried to get into it as a stand-alone and had very little idea of what was going on (but it’s well worth it to do the extra reading). This volume deepens the story of the elf king’s sinister rule and takes the focus of the adventure to a larger scale than just Emily and Navin’s family.  Moral complexity is also introduced to the adventure, and this measure of uncertainty in the mission serves to deepen the characters and create suspense for the next volume. Kibuishi’s settings are the most beautifully illustrated part of the book, as usual, but don’t distract from the characters, who are illustrated with greater subtlety than in previous books to suit their new depths. Overall, the series continues to improve with each new book. I look forward to the next one.

Book Review: The Action Bible (Cariello, Mauss)

November 21, 2010

*ARC Alert*

The Action Bible by Doug Mauss and Sergio Cariello was released on September 1st, 2010 by David Cook Press. (Hardcover, full-color, $24.99, 752 pages).


Disappointment.  I’ll lay that out right there for you so that you’re aware of my position on this book from the start. I was disappointed, even angry, with this book. That is not a judgment on the Bible in general; that’s an issue I won’t touch in this blog post. But this specific edition hasn’t won my approval.

First and most immediately annoying to me is the fact that this revolutionary new edition is hardly so.  The idea of the Bible as a graphic novel was, I thought, a brilliant one– until I discovered that there’s nothing particularly new about it.  Doug Mauss, the editor, is evidently no scholar of the holy text.  The stories herein might as well be presented word-for-word as I heard them in Sunday school.  They stick to the familiar plot points and concepts.  They do not present an understanding of moral grey areas. I left the faith when I was ten, and did not learn any new stories in reading this book.  The Apocrypha, which would have been interesting, are inevitably left out.  And the “Bible figures as action heroes” premise falls flat because no one has powers, or any sort of singular trait at all.  All of the good guys do their good by the grace and for the glory of God. The male bad guys are presented as weak-willed, greedy and stupid; the female ones are conniving temptresses.  And most of the Old Testament seems to be that every thirty years or so, the Israelites (they’re not called Jews here, because Jews aren’t Christians) forget the true God and are warned by prophets, then duly punished. Lather, rinse, repeat.

But let’s talk about something I can give good news about. The art!  It’s quite impressive– 744 pages of full-color illustration. Beautifully expressive figures and facial expressions, good pacing that matches the dialogue.  But oh, oh no, what’s this? Something seems off.

It bugged me for about a fifty pages before I realized what it was. Mr. Cariello, I don’t mean to call into question your interpretation of your own holy text, but there are a few things. Actually a lot of things, actually a lot of people. Adam, Eve, Abel (not Cain), Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Gideon, Samson, David (not Goliath)… Mr. Cariello, all of these people, these heroes, are white.  Living in Egypt, Persia, Babylon, they are white. And their enemies are not.

I admit that most of the people listed above are given facial features that imply Jewish heritage.  But they’re also paler, and tend to have lighter hair, than any one of the unbelievers (or, as luck would have it, any of the women).  All of the angels are not only white, but tall, blonde and blue-eyed. Jesus, conceived in Nazareth, then a part of Egypt, is white as well.

Now, Bible figures are traditionally depicted, at least in our culture, as white. But one would think that with 744 pages to think about it, 744 pages otherwise filled with Middle Eastern-ish people, that it would occur to Sergio Cariello that the Bible’s heroes were ordinary men elevated by God, and as such would have been born ordinary. From the same gene pool as all of those around them. In the one case where that doesn’t hold true… well, Jesus was the son of God. I guess God is so absolutely white that it cancels out Mary’s half of the equation.

I’ll say it again–disappointment.  The Action Bible carries many faults, even considering that I tended to forgive the ones transmitted directly from its source material.  It’s useful as an introduction to the major stories of the Bible, but impressionable minds– like say the children this book is aimed at– will pick up a number of unsavory ideas in the reading of it.

Book Review: Twilight: The Graphic Novel, Vol. 1 (Meyer, Young)

October 25, 2010

This is a tough one, because so much has been said about the Twilight saga that I feel like I’ll only be parroting old arguments here. In case you’re wondering, no, Edward didn’t turn into a halfway decent character. In fact, the addition of artwork to illustrate his movements and expressions only makes it much, much clearer how threatening and controlling he is. The woods scene (you know, where he starts screaming “As if you could outrun me!”), taken out of context, could be a poster for a relationship abuse hotline. Especially the part where he grabs Bella by the wrists, leans in, and says, “As if you could fight me off…”

Join me in a collective shudder.

But let’s talk about something I can praise! The artwork was nice. I’m not a huge fan of the manga style, but this fell somewhere in between that and realism, the result being something that I quite liked. The characters have a surprisingly wide and meaningful array of expressions, given the source material– Young Kim, the artist, evidently knows her work well. The backgrounds disappointed me, seeming to be nothing more than photographs–some of them possibly screen caps from the movie– run through a Photoshop filter. So, I guess the high peak presented by the art was a narrow one.

All in all, I think this book is well summed up by the fact that the only quote of praise on the cover is actually from Stephenie Meyer.