Book Review: S. (Ship of Theseus) by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

Ship of Theseus

Ship of Theseus by J.J. Abrams

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


S. or Ship of Theseus is an intensely satisfying reading experience for those who enjoy metafiction and experimental literature. It is a time-consuming but deliciously tactile journey that lends the same surge of intrigue as unfolding a handwritten note that falls out of somewhere unexpected. You don’t know what it contains, or who wrote it, but as you read, you see the traces of the writer–an employer, a friend, a lover, a parent, whomever–writing from a specific place in time, to a specific recipient. And you feel that forbidden drive to read… because of the fact that those words that weren’t meant for you. Combine that feeling with an actual entire literary novel-within-a-novel that is, in itself, spooky, stirring, and Hemingway-esque. And, as garnish, you feel the unique pull of an academic obsession that multiplies as commonality and connection reaches two people who find that their obsession is shared.

This is not a normal book. It is an amalgamation of multi-colored annotations, footnotes, letters, postcards, newspapers, cards, and drawings that exist because of the book. It takes patience. All of it is an absolutely staggering invention. Hats off to Doug Dorst (writer) and J.J. Abrams (concept/story) on this unique tribute to the love of literature.



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Book Review: Art Matters by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell

Art Matters

Art Matters by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Charming little volume of Gaiman’s oft-quoted advice on the creative life, all here in a book short enough that you can read it and get back to making art all in the same hour.



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Book Review: Nnedi Okorafor

Lagoon

Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Lagoon is a fun, big-thinking read, set in Lagos, Nigeria. The novel attempts to answer the classic science fiction question “What happens when aliens inevitably land on earth?” Nnedi Okafor presents something completely unique in response, that wraps a heavy sense of place around so many different interesting elements: shifting narrative voices, non-human narrators, alien interaction with earth-bound deities, and fundamental questions about what core takeaways an alien race would gain from a small cross-section of humanity in a high stakes situation. The idea of ancient cultural religious figures being represented quite literally in the same story where a technology-based alien organism infiltrates human society was a new and rewarding element. The concept and suspense of the story keep it afloat, though character development is unfortunately a bit on the shallow side. This is clearly a concept-driven narrative rather than a character-driven one. The book really comes alive in third act, and the ending is a good payoff. But… I still have questions.



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Book Review: Saga (Volumes 1-5) by Brian Vaughan and Fiona Staples

Saga, Vol. 5

Saga, Vol. 5 by Brian K. Vaughan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


(Review is for Volumes 1-5)

Saga has been lauded by, it seems, every comics guru under the sun. When a friend lent me the first five volumes, I couldn’t wait to dive in. On many fronts, it definitely delivers. The storyline is based in the intense emotions of family ties rather than mindless ka-booms!, and the art is heart-stoppingly great. There’s humor, and a pulling of fantasy tropes so all-comprehensive that it’s actually admirable. Every character has some kind of bizarre and cool supernatural physique. The style is also notably gritty, not shying away (like at all) from scenes of violence or sex. That piece of it started to put me off a bit by the end of this volume–I don’t mind sex scenes, but they start to become pervasive, even for inconsequential characters/beings and even when totally irrelevant to the plot… it started to feel a little invasive and distracting for me, especially when it seemed completely unlikely to occur in the characters’ actual situations. That being said, there is a whole thematic thread carrying through the narrative that repeatedly asserts the message “sex sells, even more than war does.” In that way, it’s very meta. An aspect of the comic that I really enjoyed that kind of surprised me in its effectiveness was the lettering work! The switching of styles to imply the flip from present action to the narrator Hazel’s “voiceover” was perfectly achieved, to the point where the transitions are almost magically seamless.

Above all, it must be stated that Lying Cat is above and beyond the very best aspect of Saga and nobody will ever change my mind on that.



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Book Review: Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I’ve never read anything like Freshwater, and I’m so grateful that I did. This semi-autobiographical novel presents a rotation of narrators who all share the same body: the Nigerian college student Ada and the multiplicity of ogbanje children who shift in and out of her consciousness. The way that the author’s spiritual beliefs help frame the characters’ experience is fascinating… a metaphysical look at an identity as multiple, that a Western understanding might otherwise call fragmented, is presented in a way where we understand the motivation, the cruelties, the protection, and the pain of all the spirits within the “marble room” of the mind in an entirely new way. It was a difficult book to read purely because of the unceasing emotional pain of the narrative. But the writing is boldly inventive and captures a unique human experience of self-finding through the dark. A sensational debut.



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Book Review: North Writers by John Henricksson, editor

North Writers I: A Strong Woods Collection

North Writers I: A Strong Woods Collection by John Henricksson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A lovely collection of short essay/memoir writings from a highly specific part of the American (and Canadian) landscape. A variety of voices and experiences are present here. Some of the pieces feel dated for the modern reader while others remain poignant and fresh. If you have love for the north woods, you’ll find something to enjoy at some point in this book. I would recommend reading it in small bites at a time. The volume is split between nature-focused writings and more human encounters–my preference was for the former.



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Book Review: The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin

The Shadow of Sirius

The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I don’t know what I could add to the observation of the committee who awarded this set of Merwin’s poems the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: “A collection of luminous, often tender poems that focus on the profound power of memory.” Not only are many of the individual poems so special*, but the overall permeating sense of the book creates a unique color of emotion when read all together. Another of his reviewers identifies it, again, so much better than I can: “his personal anonymity, his strict individuated manner, his defense of the earth, and his heartache at time’s passing.” It is all that and more.

W.S. Merwin truly was a master poet, and there are so many places here to stop and say “oh”! in this collection, one of the finest and latest in his long, prolific career. If you love poetry, especially if you’ve been away from it for a while, I highly recommend The Shadow of Sirius.

*There were so many standout poems in the collection, but if I had to pick one: “Just This.”



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Book Review: Shipwrecks of Lake Superior, edited by James Marshall

Shipwrecks of Lake Superior

Shipwrecks of Lake Superior by James R. Marshall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I found this charming book in a used bookstore in Door County, Wisconsin. Compiled in the 1980’s, this volume is a collection of articles that methodically explores the known history of shipwrecks in Lake Superior–a topic that I’m currently researching. For the purpose of information, it’s an awesome find. The writing quality does widely vary from article to article. Some are filled with poetic prose, others unbearably dry. All of them are written by maritime history enthusiasts and divers, not necessarily writers… However, I found that created amusing results. For instance, the clearly heated opinions over theories regarding the reasons a ship might or might not have sunk come through with barely veiled salt. It’s great.
*
Like most of the non-fiction books I read, I wouldn’t recommend it other than for a very specific audience. Want all the facts on Lake Superior wrecks right at your fingertips, down to the names and lengths and crews of every single ship, but with no real regard for writing quality or organization? Look no further!



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Book Review: Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer

Rough Magic: Riding the World's Loneliest Horse Race

Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Lara Prior-Palmer’s Rough Magic is a disarmingly contemplative memoir. It is a very satisfying book for two opposing reasons. 1. It is a horse book that is actually about horses in a very major way–the way they move, look, communicate, feel. The horse race referred to in the title encompasses the bulk of the book, and that’s what we all truly want if a book has a horse on the cover. 2. The book also is a joy to read because of its human narrator, who treats the story as looking glass, postcard, forecast, and saga. She looks ever inward, sparing us no qualm or thorn as she faces her immediate inner and outer landscapes. It is a quiet, meditative, foggy book. Prior-Palmer lets us get lost with her, and the result is quite lovely, quite true.



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Book Review: The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

The Rise of Endymion (Hyperion Cantos, #4)

The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The final installment in the Hyperion Cantos delivers on every front, succeeding in weaving together the hundreds of mysteries that Simmons scatters seemingly haphazardly everywhere throughout the four book set. This is simply cerebral sci-fi at its best, set at a scope so dizzying that it makes many other complex fantasy universes look like child’s play. Even amid a story that spans the entirety of time and space, though, the novel remains extraordinarily intimate. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that these coexisting features of the writing mirror Simmons’ ultimate point: that every moment in time, every place in the universe, every possible future–all these things do not make the individual human insignificant. Rather, the most personal and private of our emotions may make up the very fabric of reality as we know it, and stretch in significance far beyond what we could ever imagine. An ambitious notion, with an ambitious set of books to accompany it, ending here pretty much perfectly.

**I will also add that I think Simmons’ editor could have been a little more aggressive on some instances of repetitive over-explanation in this particular installment… but I forgive Dan Simmons anyway because this series is stunning, unforgettable, and otherwise without flaw.



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