Superfluous Matter
Books - The Terror, by Dan Simmons

I loved visiting Canada's arctic and I thoroughly enjoyed reading two of Pierre Berton's books about early exploration of the area. So when my friend Lee told me about a fictionalized version of Sir John Franklin's final, fatal expedition for the northwest passage I knew I had to check it out.

Simmons did a ton of research, citing Berton's "Prisoners of the North" as one of his main sources. Unfortunately the novel was published before the recent discoveries of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror (2014 and 2016) but the lack of extra information on the final resting place of the ships does not diminish the story. Simmons also researched Inuit traditions and mythology to bring a supernatural element into the tale.

I enjoyed reading about the various ways the British were thoroughly unprepared for the realities of living in the far North and thoroughly unwilling to learn from the native peoples. I also enjoyed the descriptions of the ways in which Inuit thrive in the same environment. The supernatural element was strange, but grew on me towards the end of the book.

The book is long but I read it quickly, reveling in familiarity with the places, people, and situations I remembered from other readings. I'm not sure how good the book is objectively, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.

Books - Angel Catbird Volume 1, by Margaret Atwood

I love Margaret Atwood, but was not aware that she has written a graphic novel with artists Johnnie Christmas and Tamra Bonvillain. My awesome mom introduced me to it by sending me a copy of the first volume as a surprise for my upcoming birthday.

Apparently Atwood has dabbled in art and comics over the course of her career so this wasn't a total departure for her. The story itself is very tongue-in-cheek, full of bad animal puns and classic campy comic tropes. It follows the exploits of a man who discovers a formula to produce human-animal hybrids and then accidentally spills it on himself while in contact with an owl and a cat. He is transformed into a half-man half-cat with wings and feathers and is thrust into a previously unknown world of hybrids of all kinds.

I quite enjoyed it.

Europe 2016!

Sarah and I took our first major international trip together at the beginning of September, hitting five countries in two weeks. We had a fantastic time and now you can see pictures and read about it in my standard trip journal.

Books - Of Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham

Regularly placed in lists of the top 100 English language novels, Of Human Bondage is also generally considered to be Maugham's best work. I bought a used copy over a year ago in my continuing quest to read more legitimate literature but just got around to reading it now.

I wish I'd read it sooner.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I found myself constantly engaged by the thoughts and actions of the protagonist Philip. The book is described as auto-biographical fiction (i.e. fiction, but based on real life) and so I assume Philip's inner monologue sounds a lot like Maugham's. I mention this because at many points I found it also sounded like mine has at various points in my life. The story and Philip resonated with me to a great extent.

Maugham wrote the first draft of the book when he was 23. It was rejected for publication and so he shelved it for fifteen years. When he returned to it he did so with the perspectives of a mature adult. As a result he was able to take the clear and accurate raw material of his younger self and polish it with the help of his years of experience.

I found the result engrossing, but I imagine that would not be the case for everyone. Some of Philip's decisions and actions can be infuriating and I would not fault anyone for losing patience with the character. To me though it all felt very realistic and believable.

Books - Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

I really love Neal Stephenson, so it is probably not saying much that I also loved his latest book. However I've spoken with some more objective people about "Seveneves" and they also agree it was excellent.

In the first chapter an unknown "agent" splits the moon into seven large pieces which remain in orbit around the earth and closely clustered together. At first all is well because the relative position and mass is mostly unchanged. But then scientists realize that the fragments will eventually start breaking each other into smaller bits which will rain down on earth and light the sky on fire (estimated to occur about two years after the initial breaking). So humanity scrambles to preserve some small amount of life in a hastily enlarged ISS orbiting earth with the hopes that someone will be able to re-colonize the planet sometime in the distant future when the bombardment has settled down.

There is a lot to love in the book, but something I'd like to call out is how gripping the early chapters were. While reading I found myself occasionally forgetting that the world wasn't actually ending and that the moon was not broken and about to rain hellfire onto the planet. I'd find myself thinking about how I would want to spend my final two years. Super powerful stuff!

Books - Gulliver's Travels, by Jonathan Swift

I picked this book up at a used book store last year as part of my continued attempt to read some of the classics. I didn't realize it at the time but it is rather old, originally published in 1726. I also did not realize that it is a colossal satire of the societies of the world, humanity, and of travel writing. I just assumed it was a story about a dude having some crazy adventures.

The dude definitely has crazy adventures, but the whole time he is also holding up a giant mirror to show all the faults of the world (of which he sees many). The satire remains remarkably engaging despite being targeted at the world as it was 300 years ago. I also thoroughly enjoyed the "travel book" aspect of the novel, despite the fact that it was written as a send-up of such books. The writing at times reminded me of Bill Bryson, whose books I quite enjoy.

Gulliver's Travels is an easy read and definitely worth the time. If you've ever thought about checking it out then I add my voice to encourage you to do so.

Books - Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller

In anticipation of the movie "Batman v Superman" I thought I'd check out the Frank Miller Batman comics on which it was loosely based. My hope was to do so before seeing the movie, but a surprise screening at work messed up my timing. Fortunately the movie was pretty bad so I dismissed it and enjoyed the comic independently.

Depictions of Batman in my lifetime have successfully recast the character and rewrote the stories as dark, violent and brooding. So it's easy to forget that when this comic came out it was a revolution from the campy, family-friendly Batman of the old TV show and comics.

The story joins a middle-aged Batman, inspired to return from retirement by increasing crime in Gotham. Since retiring public sentiment has turned against heroes and he faces opposition from police and government, including from Superman who works invisibly for the United States. It's a fun read with lots of moral ambiguity. I'll definitely check out the sequel "The Dark Knight Strikes Again" at some point.

Books - Treasure Island, by Robert Louis Stevenson

I picked this up at Powell's in Portland as part of my continuing quest to read "classics" which form the basis of many works and even whole genres in modern story-telling. After reading it was pretty obvious that most pirate stories owe quite a bit to Mr. Stevenson.

The book itself is a pretty standard adventure story featuring a young man coming-of-age. It's funny to think of it as "standard" though when it is one of the works that helped set the standard.

Although I liked the book, I wish I had read it when I was younger. In a few contemporary books I've read either the protagonist references Treasure Island as a source of childhood joy or the author of the book mentions it as partial inspiration. I feel like it is a book that is meant to be read first as a child and then returned to as adult and I've forever missed the first half of that equation.

Books - The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is terrifyingly good at writing believable dystopian stories. She calls this "speculative fiction" rather than science fiction. There is always a fairly clear path between the world of today and the one she presents. "The Heart Goes Last" is no exception.

The book takes place in the not-to-distant future and the collapse of the middle class, especially on the east coast and the mid-west is complete. With little to no tax base municipalities lack the ability to provide basic services and crime is rampant. The story follows a couple struggling to survive in this world who are offered the opportunity to join a new walled town where they will be guaranteed a job and a home and everything they need. The only catch is that they, like everyone else in the town, spend every other month in prison. The care and maintenance of the prison and its prisoners drives the economy of the town allowing it to be self-sustaining. Of course there are darker motives behind the people running the experimental town and the main characters are quickly swept up into the intrigue.

The book was a fun, quick read and I can't criticize it too much. However I wish Atwood had spent more time exploring the broken world outside the town and less on the corporate greed and corruption behind it. She can be truly terrifying when depicting humanity's possible future and although the beginning of the book has that quality it quickly devolves into more of an adventure story. That isn't a bad thing, I just wanted more.

Books - The Complete Maus, by Art Spiegelman

Heralded as one of the first great literary "comic books," Maus tells the story of a survivor of the concentration camps during World War II via a series of interviews with his son. The work blurs the lines between memoir, autobiography, biography and historical fiction as it is based on the real experiences of both the author and his father.

Maus later went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and along with "The Watchmen" and "The Dark Knight Returns" it was key in raising the profile of the graphic novel in the public mind. Graphic novels can be serious, adult, literary books.

Anyway Maus is a great read, although as one might expect the subject matter is rather heavy. Most of the atrocities we associate with the Nazi "final solution" are touched on but the tone of Vladek, the father, remains fairly positive. He survives using his wits and connections and a considerable amount of luck. He does not minimize the suffering but he also does not wallow in self-pity. I can't imagine living through something like that and coming out even half as well as Vladek does.

This book is important not just as a milestone for graphic novels, but as documentation of the horrors of the second world war and as a reminder to future generations of what can happen when people give in to fear.

Books - The Martian, by Andy Weir

At the behest of many many people I finally read The Martian. I saw the movie twice in theatres so there weren't a lot of surprises in the book for me. I think the biggest surprise was how similar it was to the movie. Some people had told me the book is way better, but actually I found them to be pretty similar. That is to say they're both super fun and entertaining.

The coolest thing about the movie (to me) is how well it captures the tone of the book. Everything happening is super serious and tense, but the main character's sense of humour helps smooth it all over. The balance between tension and humour is what makes both the book and movie so enjoyable.

I certainly recommend the book, particularly to enjoy during a relaxing vacation like I did.

Books - Serenity: Firefly Class 03-K64 -- Vol. 1-4, by Joss Whedon, et. al.

Everyone I know who has watched Firefly loves it and despairs at the fact that there isn't more to love. So I was very excited when I found out that Joss Whedon had collaborated with some other writers and illustrators to produce a few graphic novels that add to the Firefly 'verse.

There are four collected volumes under the "Serenity" title released by Dark Horse comics and they're all pretty great. One volume is an adventure set in the same time period as the television series, another bridges the gap between the series and the movie, another provides the back story for Sheppard Book (!!) and the last deals with some of the fallout from the events of the movie.

Of course I am not satisfied and still want more, but that's how I feel about almost everything Joss Whedon does.

Books - Dear Life, by Alice Munro

Another day, another collection of wonderful stories by Alice Munro. More than other collections this one definitely focuses on romantic relationships under stress and transition, but always in unexpected ways. One of the things I continue to find startling about Munro's work is the way she can destroy the state of a fictional world in just a few short sentences. Everything you thought you knew is torn down and replaced with something else.

In addition to the stories, Dear Life concludes with four semi-autobiographical works. These read very much like her stories but it is implied that they are loosely based on the early years of Munro's life. They're a fascinating look into some of the formative moments of an amazing author.

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