Astonishing X-Men

Author: Joss Whedon

Artist: John Cassaday

Type: Fiction, comic

Published: 2009

I read it: March 2015


This one was another entry point recommendation from Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men. Though more traditional than Marvels, it was a solid book through and through. I knew most of the characters going in but there was plenty of new stuff (still trying to get used to cat-Beast) and I think total newcomers would also have a good experience. Before the real action begins there are a few pages that outline some broad plot points from historical X-Men narratives, so you can get your bearings for this modern tale.

The team is kind of unique, but still features core members. Cyclops is the leader, and he gets some really good coverage to the point where you actually root for him instead of get annoyed by him. Wolverine is present but doesn’t take over, which is the just the right dose. Beast is awesome and I think I can still call him my favorite, after I accept the feline qualities. A big change-up here is Emma Frost (the former White Queen) as an X-Man and love interest for Cyclops. You learn a lot about her in this story. The return of Kitty Pryde is a major part of the plot, as well as a revival of Colossus (it’s not a spoiler, he’s right on the cover) who was supposedly dead. Kitty and Peter are great both individually and in their scenes together. They are the heart and soul of the story and factor into the climax in a big way.

This is just all-around a super fun book, fat enough at 24 issues to have a little bit of everything you might look for in an X-Men comic, yet focused enough to know what it’s trying to do. These are the types of standalone stories I could continue to enjoy. What are some others from the Marvel universe? Let me know if you have favorites. Just give me fair warning if my favorite characters now look like cats.

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Posted by on March 27, 2015 in Comics


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Author: Kurt Busiek

Artist: Alex Ross

Type: Fiction, comic

Published: 1994

I read it: February 2015


I still dream of Marvel cards. That I’m opening a brand new pack or hunting down a rare set at a convention at the mall. Upon awakening, I’m disappointed that I don’t actually have a mint Nightcrawler card in my possession.

Alongside the X-Men animated series, the trading cards made up the bulk of my Marvel education. For whatever reason, my brother and I didn’t read many actual comics. But collecting the cards allowed us to get a glimpse, piece-by-piece, of the structure and stories of the somewhat dense and confusing Marvel universe.

Now when it comes to said trading cards, there were cards and then there were cards. In the former category you got the characters in bold primary colors, all forced flash and little personality. On the other end (and for several dollars more) were the sets in which each hero and villain was rendered with artistry and care, colored in delicate pastels or lit to reveal a complex expression. In the best scenario, these cards had a comment by the artist on the reverse side, where they explained their inspiration or vision or technique.

Marvels is an entire book of this artistic caliber. The pages are paintings you could hang on your wall, such as the cover of issue two that shows Angel lifting a helpless young mutant above the clutches of a bloodthirsty mob. It’s magnificent.

The story is equally renowned. It’s from the perspective of Phil Sheldon, a New York photojournalist who is at the center of the action when superpowered beings first spring onto the scene in 1930s America. The issues span across the following few decades and explore the changing attitudes that regular humans have about the “marvels” who often leave destruction and confusion in their wake. There is a huge cast of cameos, and the back of the book lists the reference points to how the plot points of the book link up to where they previously occurred in the Marvel universe (gotta try to keep that tangled continuity intact).

But man, that artwork by Alex Ross. You can see the folds in the fabric on Spider-Man and Captain America. You can tell they are wearing suits! A simple detail that adds heaps of realism. More extras include artist commentary and photos of his craft, as well as concept art that includes homage covers that update the early appearances of Fantastic Four, X-Men, Spidey, and the Avengers. The X-Men cover is another revelation that I could frame.

This is the type of superhero book that a wide audience can enjoy, without needing much comic experience. It’s self-contained and exciting, and asks great questions. It’s worth noting that I heard about it while listening to the podcast Rachel and Miles X-Plain the X-Men, which I definitely recommend, and I’m eager to seek out other starter books they have mentioned.

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Posted by on March 20, 2015 in Comics


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The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2014

Author: Daniel Handler (series editor), Lemony Snicket (introduction)

Type: Fiction, non-fiction, short stories, essays, comics, poetry (anthology)

Published: 2014

I read it: February 2015


The times they have a-changed for The Best American Nonrequired Reading series. Dave Eggers has stepped down as captain, and Daniel Handler is filling his shoes. It was a bit of a cheap trick to have Handler’s alter ego write the introduction, but I suppose they had plenty of newness to deal with this year, so I give it a pass.

First, the one notable downside that occurred with this shift: the death of the front section. Throughout all the volumes I had read, the front section was a creative mishmash of anything that couldn’t comfortably fit into a distinguishable genre of written work. Speeches, snippets, emails, collected quotes, best first (or last) lines of books, Craiglist ads, weird flyers, newspaper clippings, you name it. One of my favorite parts, The Best American New Band Names, had already been excised from the front section a couple years ago. And now the whole thing is gone.

This would have stuck with me as a major concern if under the new leadership the group didn’t end up filling that extra space with superb writing picks. But rest assured that they have done it. In fact, the first seven or so entries are a rush of exceptional pieces, kicked off by Matthew Schultz’s “On the Study of Physics in Preschool” (a must-read for teachers) and Dan Keane’s equally creative “AP Style” (a must-read for editors). A couple non-fiction selections that show up in the early pages include a portrait of a man who infiltrates and saves people from cults, an insightful look at the way humans interact with pets, and a lively interview with a female Egyptian political activist.

The rest of the anthology includes:

  • A couple of breezy comic excerpts.
  • Several poems and flash fiction plays.
  • An intriguing history of comedian Dave Chappelle, by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah.
  • A transcript of an episode from a podcast called Welcome to Night Vale, which I’m now tempted to check out.
  • Engaging accounts of the friend of a terrorist (V.V. Ganeshananthan’s “K Becomes K”) and the life of a soldier returning from modern war (Cole Becher’s “Charybdis”), which I can’t tell whether or not are fiction or non-fiction.
  • True accounts of reporters in third world countries, which are always eye-opening and hard to read for the obvious reasons, and which seem to be requirements in compilations like these. I can see why they have value, but my narrow first world mind has a hard time distinguishing these sometimes.
  • Two parallel stories, one short and one long, that channel first-hand experience of the illness of a loved one. These are “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” by Rachel Swirsky and “Nirvana” by Adam Johnson.
  • A deceptively straightforward yet aching piece, Gabriel Heller’s “After Work.”
  • A fantastic essay on the topic of “Joy” by Zadie Smith.

So yes, the Nonrequired series remains in fine form. Hopefully Handler can confidently steer the ship for a while and continue to let the young anthologizers show us the good stuff. Happy reading.

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Posted by on March 13, 2015 in Comics, Essays, Poetry, Short stories


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The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher

Author: Hilary Mantel

Type: Fiction, short stories

Published: 2014

I read it: February 2015


This review was originally published on The Stake.

Hilary Mantel continues to expand her readership as more people latch onto her brilliant Thomas Cromwell trilogy. This piece of historical fiction is the first taste of her work for a lot of us, and the final installment has yet to land (not to mention a TV adaptation that British viewers are enjoying as we speak, but which awaits stateside release). In the interim, a separate publisher has provided the ten short stories in The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher.

The opening shot, “Sorry to Disturb,” is a confusing gauge of what is to come. It paints a modern culture clash, with vague hints of a male threat against the female protagonist, and then fizzles with not much of an ending. Bad men, and infidelity specifically, are a regular occurrence in this collection. In “The Long QT” a wife comes upon her straying husband at a party they host, and “Offenses Against the Person” is a more complex story in which the mistress of the narrator’s father is known and named.

A better display of Mantel’s writing is her strange take on girlhood. In “Comma” two girls are voyeuristically enthralled with someone with unstated deformity or disability. An eating disorder haunts the sister of the callous teen protagonist in “The Heart Fails Without Warning.” One of the more distinct stories is “How Shall I Know You?” which is unique in its unease. It tells of a weary writer visiting a dilapidated motel on a shoestring book tour, and her interactions with a mysterious (and once again, somewhat deformed) young girl who works there.

Mantel slips a bit when she tries to add a punchline or ah-ha moment to her endings. This happens in a consecutive trio starting with “The Long QT,” then “Winter Break,” in which a couple argues over the idea of children until their topic of conversation is made gruesomely manifest, followed by “Harley Street.” This last is rich in detail, chronicling a group of women who work in a shabby hospital in an unspecified year. But by the end we are to presumably suspect vampirism of a sort, and the whole thing feels more like a clever exercise.

Yet this all makes a bit more sense when you see that “Harley Street” was originally published way back in 1993, with most of the other stories having origins in the first decade of the 2000s. The whole book is a reason to publish the title story, which sits in the final slot. This is a strong piece, evoking an exciting day in a humble London neighborhood in 1983, when Mrs. Thatcher makes a stop. Here is Mantel in her element, vividly painting a situation that feels immediate because of its particular place and mood, toying with established history. The assassin and his unwitting accomplice set up shop next to a window with a perfect sightline, awaiting the final minute. The story is more about these two than the bullet that may or may not find its target.

“I should like to be rich in anecdote. Fertile to invent.” Mantel writes this in the short and poetic “Terminus,” the penultimate story in her collection (and one that city commuters would appreciate). She no doubt has these qualities herself, though this collection as a whole fails to show off her strongest side. “The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher” as a story is worth the while, something that would work well as a $1.99 Kindle Single. In its best moments it reminds the reader of the author’s intricate handling of significant events, and leaves us eager to return to her visions of an older England. The short story snacks hold us over for a minute, but the meal is in Mantel’s novels.

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Posted by on March 6, 2015 in Short stories


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Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: Southern Reach (#3)

Published: 2014

I read it: February 2015


There comes a time in every series when the pages are winding down. You will have to leave the characters soon, after all this time together. You get nervous. How can the author wrap all this up in just a few short chapters? At first you wanted to race through, and now you wish there was a whole extra volume after this one.

So we have to talk about endings. They can get incredibly touchy, especially in genres like science fiction, horror, or fantasy. People will argue about whether the mysteries of the Southern Reach books are properly answered. I think that many are, yet some big ones are not. Plotwise, it can be argued a few different ways. What about everything-wise, including the emotional resonance of the characters themselves?

In this piece from The Stake about problematic endings, Chris ZF writes:

A finale is not only about tying up the loose-ends, or revealing the mystery, or pairing up the central romantic coupling. It’s also always about showing the audience out of the auditorium with dignity. About closing the back-cover of the book with a few last lines to hold on to and remember. I’ve invested, give me some return. Don’t cheat me out of my investment.

I don’t feel cheated by Jeff VanderMeer at all. This remains a creative, thought-provoking, satisfying read right down to the end. All the main characters are accounted for and taken seriously. But the series gets an extra chance to say its own words about mysteries themselves, because the story if fundamentally about the human need to know, organize, and control, “as if purpose could solve everything.” Our own ache to see behind the curtain is reflected in the characters’ ability to deal (or not) with their puzzling circumstances, to struggle with “that tension between what [we] could and couldn’t know about even the mundane world.”

What we don’t know will always far exceed what we do know. And this final book gives itself away right in the title: we will either find acceptance gracefully, or it will be forced upon us. The author has given us a highly fantastic yet plausible fictional world, and challenges readers to see themselves within it. What would you do with only scraps of knowledge? With mere glimpses of the whole? This is simply how we live every day.

Some parting thoughts about VanderMeer’s writing. He sneaks in so many great nuggets about the human condition, and this one in particular stuck out:

As if there were nothing worse than being bored and the only point of the world people already lived in was to find ways to combat boredom, to make sure “all the moments” . . . might be accounted for in some way, so minds wouldn’t fill up with emptiness that they bifurcated simply to have more capacity to be bored.

That’s some astute spiritual philosophizing about the ways the mind constantly analyzes with no pause to simply experience.

Also, one last emphasis on his Lovecraft skills. I thought that the concept as a whole had a lot in common with the particular story “The Colour Out of Space.” Some of the specifics of the writing itself also does the trick:

Those thousands of eyes regarding him, reading him from across a vast expanse of space, as if the biologist existed simultaneously halfway across the universe. The sensation of being seen and then relief and then a stabbing disappointment as it withdrew, spit him out. Rejected him.

Two more things. One, the phrase “ancient of days” is used. I’ve had this rattling around in my head for years, and I have no idea where I first heard it. I always thought it’d make a great song title. I began to question if it was even grammatically coherent. And here it is. Secondly: he loves the word leviathan! It’s the go-to term in Acceptance for all sorts of shiver-inducing beasts both real and metaphorical. An awesome word for an awesome book.

I feel really lucky to have experienced this story, and I have no doubt it will reward another visit someday. It just seems to have it all.

Up the leviathans.

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Posted by on February 27, 2015 in Novels


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Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: Southern Reach (#2)

Published: 2014

I read it: February 2015


When Annihilation wrapped up, it seemed like the story could go anywhere. Yet it was so solid a book that it could almost work as a standalone novel, already a direct descendant of Lovecraft’s story/novella “At the Mountains of Madness” and fully realized as such, despite its many unresolved mysteries.

The excitement of Authority gets quickly underway when it offers up a new character and a new setting. John “Control” Rodriguez steps up with no knowledge of Area X, taking on a new assignment as the director of the Southern Reach, a dilapidated organization with thinning ranks and no new leads. The goal is nebulous and it’s kind of a crap job: figure out what the hell is up with Area X, after a stack of failed (and often harrowing) expeditions into its interior.

The Southern Reach is tangible in its decay, from the mildewy feeling to the nasty green carpet, to the humid marsh that sits outside the complex. This isn’t your sterile high-tech secret government location, where the dudes from Men in Black caress slick weaponry. The organization seems to be hanging on by a thread, and Control is less than welcome as he tries to get along with the assistant director, the adamant Grace, as well as a couple veteran scientists.

The feelings of abandonment that give texture to the Southern Reach as both a location and an organization reflect similar feelings in the life of Control (a moniker the character prefers to call himself). Whereas in the first book we only knew the biologist at arm’s length, never even learning her name, we get a lot of insight into Control’s past and why he ended up on the assignment. He’s not all that great at his job but he keeps trying to do better, with both future and past staring him down. He is as lost as the reader most of the time.

For the mysteries continue to pile up, with the same sense of unsettling dread. The title of the book is twisted into a parody, in a nice parallel to the protagonist’s chosen name. Who is the ultimate authority in the story? Increasingly, it looks like only Area X (or whatever is within it) could lay claim. One character mentions “our banal, murderous imagination” in an offhand way, and this seems to sum up the human desire to know and contain, as well as the often desperate actions taken while doing so. The book taps into the banality of evil, but also the banality of authority.

Things are unraveling. This volume is more meditative than the fast-paced Annihilation, and also longer. But it was no less rich, and now we’re in deep with the characters, grasping at solid land before the waves come to wash us away.

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Posted by on February 20, 2015 in Novels


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Author: Jeff VanderMeer

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: Southern Reach (#1)

Published: 2014

I read it: January 2015


With this trilogy, I decided to just go ahead and believe the hype. Every angle seemed intriguing, right down to the cover art. Now that I’ve finished the first volume, what is there to say? To those interested, the only helpful message is: put aside my opinions on it and give it a try. Curl up under a blanket and get spooked.

For those who have read it, I’d probably start by elaborating on the comparisons to other works. The television show Lost looms large here. The mystery, the sticky wetness of a vibrant and mysterious landscape. That was a show I really enjoyed despite its flaws, and it’s great to tap back into that feeling.

As far as books go, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves comes swirling back to the surface. The sneakily unsettling plot. The prying apart of the natural order of things. The question of genre. Is this horror? And specifically, a deep tunnel that holds something truly unknown.

And above everything hovers the singular giant shadow of H.P. Lovecraft. By coincidence, I’ve been working through a Lovecraft anthology that I started around Halloween last fall when I thought the mood was right. It’s been a lot of fun, and I feel like whole new corners of dark psychological intrigue are opening before me. Jeff VanderMeer is clearly an honor student in Lovecraftian lore, and his modern take in that vein of fiction is vivid.

But I don’t want to go into plot and character just yet. What I’m wondering instead is, what is the attraction to these survivalist stories? Why is it so fascinating to be on a desert island adventure, where you’re not sure who to trust, and you second guess every shadow that catches the corner of your eye?

We’ve all lived through the pop culture popularity of zombies, which has caused us to discuss the term “zombie apocalypse” in half-seriousness, in broad daylight in front of almost any type of person, with nobody lifting an eyebrow to question our interests. At one job I remember the game of putting together a zombie apocalypse dream team where the rule is you can only choose coworkers. We would snatch at names as if picking teammates in a scrimmage. (My top choice was a hardworking, level-headed mother of two with a good sense of humor and a low tolerance for bullshit. I didn’t know her all that well, but for some reason I knew I would want her by my side with a crowbar.) And in the back of our minds we would wonder: would anyone pick us?

We love playing what-if in the weird alternative universes. It’s safe but thrilling in an almost embarrassing way, because you have to imagine some worst-case scenarios. Your family might be dead or missing. You might never return to a functioning society. You might have to turn against your neighbor, or they might turn against you. What if the entire sum of your past brought you to a very specific physical present, one in which you had no conventional responsibilities and no one to look after? What if it was you versus the universe?

Let’s walk down into that tunnel. Or is it a tower? No one here knows. You’ll have to go with your educated but incomplete guess. So stay alert. Stay present. As it is written: “Some questions will ruin you if you are denied the answer long enough.”


Posted by on February 13, 2015 in Novels


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