Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Book Review - The Dark Knight Returns, by Frank Miller

I signed up for a Coursera course in Comic Books and Graphic Novels, and I have been working my way through the recommended reading list. This was in the top 3 books. Apparently it's a big deal?

OK. I liked it. I did. I can see how it's probably visionary and a masterpiece and stuff... but... I did not love it.

I'm not really into superhero comics, so that sort of put me at a disadvantage for appreciating this. It's not a typical superhero comic, so that helps. This was also my first Batman comic, so I didn't go into it knowing the history and relevance of this piece. I felt like I must have missed something upon finishing, so I poked around online to read others' reviews and learn more about the Batman arc. That's helped guide my hindsight.

The bad:

There were too many panels per page for my taste. I didn't love the art - I get that it's supposed to be dark, but I'm saying some drawings were literally so dark that my eyes couldn't decipher shapes or actions.
jk, this isn't a real panel, but you get the idea.

A minor thing in the grand scheme, but one of the first groups of villains the book introduces -- the "Mutant Gang" -- was just... too much. I really can't decide if they are an 80s fluorescent vinyl nightmare or if I should just love and embrace the camp. Come to think of it, the same clownish look goes for all the villains, really... but I couldn't take them seriously.

The good:

Carrie Kelley as Robin is awesome. Because I'm not familiar with the Batman stories in comic form, I've only seen baby-faced young men like Chris O'Donnell and Joseph Gordon Levitt in the role of Robin. Where my ladies at, Bruce Wayne? It was cool to see a 13-year-old girl leave her neglectful family and take on this role. Since finishing the book, she is seriously everywhere -- on a hipster's shirt at the hipster coffee shop, the object of several San Diego Comic Con cosplays... I am way behind the curve.

Dat hair.

did like the overall premise. Existential crises. Fate of humanity in the balance. Even super heroes grow old. To that effect, though, I found myself drawing comparisons to Watchmen, which I read first... and liked more.

I think it's like this: Pulp Fiction was this really groundbreaking, influential film, right? If you don't see Pulp Fiction until, say 20 years after it was released, but you've been watching other movies which were influenced by Pulp Fiction, when you finally see Pulp Fiction, it's like... "so?" Maybe that's not the normal reaction, but that was my reaction when I finally saw Pulp Fiction. My reaction was indifference and "you know, this kind of reminds me of Kill Bill..." OF COURSE IT DOES.

I give it a "meh," but it is a "meh" of great respect.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Book Review - Acacia: The War With the Mein, by David Anthony Durham

I probably don't need to tell you that the Game of Thrones TV series is a big deal. I also probably don't need to tell you that HBO's very HBOey series is an adaptation of the Song of Ice and Fire book series originally envisioned by notorious protagonist-murderer and nerd-overlord George R. R. Martin. While I cannot claim to be one of the visionaries who read the series right from the beginning (mostly because I was too busy being 9 and reading a bazillion-installment series about heroic talking rodents... whatever), after bingeing on the entire first season of the TV show, I was hooked.
The next season wasn't due out for another, like, 6 months, but... but... there are books!
So I read those until there were no more.
Then I felt empty.

Somewhere, someone on the internet recommended the Acacia series by David Anthony Durham as a sort of methadone for GRRM addiction, so I picked it up from the clinic library.

Acacia is a trilogy, the first book of which is The War With the Mein. The Akaran family has ruled the Known World (which looks, on the map illustration, suspiciously like ASOIAF's Westeros) for generations. The book focuses on the four Akaran children, who begin content and comfortable. Outside the castle, of course, there is simmering unrest, and the peasants live short and miserable lives. The reader learns pretty early on are some super shady dealings between the ruling dynasty and The League, which controls "trade" (um... kind of like the mafia provides "security") between the Known World and the Other Lands. One ethnic minority is particularly pissed off, revolution ensues, and the remaining 2/3 of the book picks up nine years later with the four Akaran children, now scattered separately throughout the Known World. Things happen - some surprising, and some predicted (the last 1/4 or so of the book is where the real action is) - and this installment closes in a time of calm on the surface... but the reader remains conflicted and a bit wary of what's to come.


I will say that the story did get off to a slow start. When everything is rosy, the book doesn't hold the reader's interest as it does after the shit hits the fan. The first 1/4 of the book took me about as long to read as the last 3/4.

I couldn't help but draw comparison to ASOIAF - but that's what I wanted, wasn't it? Acacia has enough interesting twists on its own to set it apart from ASOIAF - but not by much. I loved that it followed so many of the ASOIAF conventions which make that series so compelling, but I was also a bit uncomfortable with all the similarities.

Just as in ASOIAF, the chapters jump between multiple narrative perspectives, so the reader hears what's going on in each of the major characters' corners of the world, one chapter at a time. For me, this structure kept me interested and on my toes, but I've talked to others who find it distracting and disjointed.

It's a fantasy world, but the fantastic/magical elements kind of exist alongside the action rather than dominate it. There are no dwarves or elves or outright wizards (yet?)

Even the four Akaran children and their sibling dynamics, to me, were reticent of the Stark litter. Eldest brother with a sort of hero complex. Eldest sister with a beauty complex (thankfully not as much of a doormat as Sansa... get it together, girl). Youngest brother who is coming into his own and living in the elder's shadow. Youngest sister who is... just... a complete badass.

Their relationships -- the way they think about each other, care for each other, and complement each other -- make these characters easy to root for, while just enough human flaws remain to make the reader ambivalent toward them as outright heroes.

This is my favorite. Also like ASOIAF, the story itself (and I can only speak for the first book) isn't centered around a heroic quest but instead on the familial dynamics and, more notably, political corruption and struggle - more House of Cards than Lord of the Rings. Sci-fi/fantasy at its best offers an imaginative escape with commentary on our own lives and our own world. Acacia puts issues of slavery, drug addiction, war, ethnic prejudice, and economic inequality at the forefront of the action. Compared to the "bad guys", were the "good guys" really that much better?

I will enjoy reading the rest of this series... but when GRRM finishes Winds of Winter, I'll be ready.

By the way...
"George R. R. Martin is what?..."
"...He's not our bitch."

"Sorry, Neil Gaiman."

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Vegan redux

About four years ago, I decided to stop eating meat. I won't pretend I haven't eaten a scrap of meat since April 2010 or so, especially during that first year or two. My first Thanksgiving with my family was tough. My first St. Paddy's with my family was tough (corned beef and cabbage. seriously.)

I think that's OK. It's important to revisit and reassess essential beliefs, making sure they still fit in the big picture. Each time I did eat meat, it was clear that meat still didn't fit in my big picture. I now haven't eaten meat (knowingly, ugh) in about a year.


For all the reasons I stopped eating meat, I thought I'd try to eat vegan. I wrote a little bit about it. It started as a 60 day challenge, and think it lasted a little longer. Like... maybe 70 days? Guys, not eating cheese is hard, and I am weak. 

Regardless, I became more and more lax. But there's always the tiny little voice...
"This doesn't fit in my big picture." 
"But cheese."

My job is also a lot of lunches and events where the takeaway needs to be my cause -- which has nothing to do with animals or the environment. Even when I'm eating eggs and dairy, my eating habits easily become a distraction from the subject at hand -- a distraction I've learned to manage, but a distraction nonetheless. Awkward conversations at work are part of the package. I get it. I've had those awkward conversations with coworkers, and they've been productive. For me, however, conversations with the external stakeholders (funders, specifically) are far more challenging. Those conversations are different. I have gotten really skilled at managing this and redirecting the awkward, and I am kind of proud of myself for it (pat on the back, self.) Still, it's a glimpse into my personal life I am not comfortable allowing.


Fast forward another few years of tiny voice stubbornly hanging on while big cheese voice does the same. This super lovely person started work at my organization, and she is vegan. We talk about cute animals and the pig sanctuary and favorite delicious vegan and vegan-friendly restaurants. She's long since moved on to another department, but I've thought of her poignant and completely nonjudgmental insight frequently.

"This doesn't fit in my big picture."

So, once again, for all the reasons I stopped eating meat, and on as much of a whim, I'm going to try this vegan thing again. Since last Thursday (one misstep... Kraft Mac and Cheese aka orange crack. It wasn't worth it, and I repent.) Maybe I need a new self-improvement challenge? I won't pretend I'm going to be perfect... but I'm going to try.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Result of the 6-month shopping fast

So, I set out to save some dough and de-clutter my life in the first half of 2014.

When I started referring to our second bedroom as "the closet," I knew the problem was real. Here are my wearables purchases from January-June...

  • Tank on clearance (from Target) - I had a day full of meetings around town, with one last really important one to go... but I felt smelly. Sometimes you feel smelly and need to buy a new shirt. (I acknowledge the ridiculousness of that statement)
    • January
    • $2
  • Dr. Dog (concert) t-shirt - Dr. Dog is one of my favorite live bands at the moment. I feel like this falls more into the "souvenir" category than the "clothes" category, thus only kind of counts... but in the interest of full disclosure, it's here.
    • February
    • $25
  • Accessory box (from Wantable) (nautical earrings, statement necklace, scarf) - This was right on the cusp of my deciding not to shop. I am a huge fan of Birchbox, so a monthly box of surprise accessories sounded like even more fun. It was... just OK.
    • February
    • $36
  • Work shirt (from Goodwill) - I am a Target fashion connoisseur. I know exactly which "fancy" designer collaboration it came from, and in exactly which season... but even when I'm loose in the wallet, $40 is too much to spend on a top at Target. When I saw one in perfect condition at Goodwill, I went for it. I have no regrets.
    • May
    • $7
  • Coral necklace (from Buffalo Exchange) - I have no excuse. My bestie was in town, and secondhand treasure troves are my weakness. It could have been worse?
    • June
    • $9
The result? Less than $100 spent, 5 items added (and about 10 paper grocery bags stuffed with items purged from my closet,) and some lessons in perspective on how my external appearance shapes (or doesn't) my internal self-perception.

I held off an entire day before I dropped in on My Sister's Closet... but that's outside the bounds of this experiment.

I'm pretty pleased with this as a self-improvement experiment.