books

Kafka - By Crumb and Mairowitz

Having been a Kafka fan since I was merely a brilliant teenager, and a little bit of a Crumb fan as well, I was excited to see this cool title at the comic shop. From a quick glance through the pages, I could see instantly that the art was great, but close inspection revealed that, in some ways, this book diverged from the markedly exaggerated style that Crumb fans might expect. Just as importantly, Mairowitz's contribution to Kafka Studies is both entertaining and important.

Readers may be surprised at just how deep the analysis of Kafka and his work goes in this fairly slim volume. More than just another biased academic work bent on shoehorning Prague's finest into some category or genre, this Kafka simply tries to show him as the man he was.

From close readings of his work, interviews with people who knew him, and evaluation of his letters to friends and family, Mairowitz paints a full picture of a man, warts and all. In all of its humor, sadness, intrigue, and general bizarreness, this well-written book tries to take us into the mind of Franz Kafka, a man who was many different things to many people, and frequently nothing to himself. Rather than make a hypothesis which they then try to prove through art and prose, the two creators of this must-read graphic literary biography simply present the important facts surrounding the life of a man who defied understanding, and ask us to make our own decisions about what his works really mean.

The stark world of early 1900s Prague, a place just as inhospitable to Czechs as it was to Jews, is revealed in careful detail by Crumb at his moodiest, who thoroughly engrosses us in the life of Austria-Hungary's most influential Jewish Czech. In his sometimes-funny, sometimes-agonizing depictions of Kafka's life and work, with wild detours into period art styles and frequent forays into realistic art, we perhaps see the hand of a kindred spirit.

(Note: The version pictured uses an exceptional binding method -- signature sewing through the saddle, then perfect-bound. A very tough binding that will easily withstand perhaps hundreds of readings. Normally, when you get such a thick perfect-bound graphic novel, particularly one that uses a thick paper, it's just a matter of time before the pages start to fall out. This version is basically immune to this problem.)

Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science

It took me a while, but I finally finished Paul Thagard's "Mind: Introduction to Cognitive Science" today. It's a very interesting read that summarizes the major questions facing researchers and the models that they are using to describe mental processes.

All was very informative, and surprisingly accessible to a layman, with very little of the pseudo-math, symbolic logical symbols that you often see in works of this nature. I suppose there is a certain irony to the fact that symbols can make things harder to understand, particulaly when you're talking about a field that is very concerned with symbols.

My only complaint overall is that, while Thagard seems to keep an open mind about virtually all aspects of the field, he is very dismissive of the Dualist and Idealist views of consciousness. He is quick to show the possibilities of many ideas that conflict with his own CRUM model of cognition, but he shows nothing but disdain for people who think that consciousness can't be described as an electro-chemical process, putting them down as merely "unimaginative."

That aside, I highly recommend this title for people interested in thinking about thinking. The first few chapters turn your brain upside down, if you're willing to really read closely and take in what's on the page.

All you need is kill

The fine folks at VizMedia, a leader in bringing Manga titles to the US, now have a cool literature imprint called Haikasoru, specializing in importing and translating cutting-edge science fiction titles from Japan. I was at Meltdown Comics this weekend and came upon one of the first titles from this exciting new division, a book called All you need is kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. A quick look at the back cover and I was interested enough to buy an unknown book by an author I've never heard of before. So, I have to deduct 5 points for the name of the book, but the paragraph synopsis was tops. ;)

AYNIK is set in the not-too-distant future, on a planet Earth that is being overrun by "mimics," a mutant species that may or may not be alien, and may or may not be sentient. All that humans really know about the mimics is that they are incredibly difficult to kill and they leave death and destruction in their path. Even their metabolic waste is a deadly poison.

They story gets interesting when a fresh army recruit, Keiji Kiriya, during his first battle, inadvertently sets himself in a never-ending time loop, repeating the battle over and over again. The comparisons to Groundhog Day will be plentiful, and rightfully so, as the story revolves around a man constantly reliving the same 30 hours. But, Sakurazaka has actually created a unique phenomenon for the novel which is internally consistent, interesting, and very entertaining to try and piece together.

The other central character is the Earth's greatest warrior, a slight, red-headed American woman called Full Metal Bitch, or Valkyrie. Kiriya knows immediately that their lives will become intertwined, but doesn't realize until it's too late exactly what that means.

AYNIK is a fantastic, energetic read with two strong characters and a plot that pushes you forward. Translation work by Alexander O. Smith is extremely well done, with a modern style and a compelling mode of storytelling that makes for a fast read that is difficult to put down. I hope that the imprint continues this partnership and that we see more work from both Smith and Sakurazaka in the future.


Don't drive angry.

The Black Swan


Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan is the kind of non-fiction that I can't put down: an arrogant, self-important, and unapologetic attempt to show people that the world is not as it seems. But, there is more to it than the much quoted indictments of probability professionals and the predictions about Fannie Mae and the simultaneous failures of interconnected banking interests. Taleb gives us a book that combines a trader's experience with an academic's rigor, leaving us with something not quite math, not quite philosophy, and definitely not common sense, but certainly worth more than all three.

The central premise of Taleb's book is that the world does not move along a slow, predictable continuum. Rather, it moves along a slow continuum of events until seemingly random, unpredictable events come along to make massive changes, upheavals that alter lives, but, for some reason, not perceptions. He calls these events "Black Swans."

Taleb systematically dismantles the silent epistemology of every day life, questions the ways that we choose to spend our time and money, exposes all prediction professionals as frauds, and shows a new way of looking at the world that is both repulsive to our instincts and an accurate description of our world.

Highly recommended reading from the author of Fooled By Randomness.

The Design of Everyday Things

I finally finished this book after months of trying, and I'm glad I did. It's one of the most interesting and personally gratifying things I've read in a long time, and it gives me an entirely new respect for the simple details that make life easy, or at least possible.

Donald Norman's masterpiece on interface design principles examines the thoughts and ideas that go into product and software design, the many ways that they are misleading, and suggests many new ways to look at the purpose of design in general. Perhaps Norman's greatest achievement is addressing the problem of self-esteem versus design sense.

Throughout the book, Norman invites us to look at the millions of confusing, frustrating, and potentially dangerous mistakes we make operating everyday equipment, and to consider how design is at least partially responsible. He also speaks at length about the thought processes that go into using something, the universal language of interactivity, and how design trends actually serve to degrade the user experience serving no other purpose than winning awards.

Designers are constantly hobbled by the amazing shortcomings of the public who will one day use the products they design. But, it's important to realize that the point of design is not just aesthetics, but also utility and ease. Norman's book is the last book any designer should read, because it puts everything else in a logical perspective, with a user-focused agenda that reminds you to never blame a consumer for an error that could have been prevented by better design.

Surrogates: Flesh and Bone

In the 2009 prequel to one of my favorite graphic novels ever, Venditti and Weldele give us a glimpse into the past and reveal the events that will eventually lead to the story in Surrogates.

Brett Weldele's moody, atmospheric drawing once again dazzles, straddling the line between comics and graphic design, with a signature style that puts him in the upper echelon of current greats like Ashley Wood and Ben Templesmith. The art is strong and loud, with linework that feels raw and gritty.

Robert Venditti's story is a bit hobbled by the fact that it has to get to a certain place at a certain time, and feels, at times, more interested in continuity than nuance. But, it remains clear that his work is more that what we see in most comics: a clear vision of a possible future; speculative fiction transformed into a new medium, and done for great effect. If he decides to continue the series, I'd love to see a story that is barely even tangential to the main arc, maybe something with completely different characters. I understand that the Prophet story is what's really happening, but it seems that every city must have a million other stories going on.

In summary, I guess my expectations were too high. Surrogates, in my opinion, is one of the best comics ever written, with a unique and realistic voice about where the world is going. It speaks through allegory about real problems in our time: racism, sexism, self-image, the cult of vanity. Don't get me started on the butchering that Ferris, Brancato and Mostow gave it. The movie was disappointing beyond mentioning, especially the last scene. And why did they get rid of the burglar surrie with the laser whip?

It's not fair to compare Flesh and Bone to what may be Venditti's masterpiece. It's a very good comic that has something important to say about race and class in a frightening future, a future that may be just around the corner. The pacing and action start off strong, but it fails to deliver a memorable climax. What begins with violence ends with politics, making the work seem excessively front-heavy.

What the Dog Saw

Another fantastic read by Malcolm Gladwell, this time with vignettes on everything from Ketchup to pitbulls to the interconnection of feminism and hair dye.

If you haven't read any of Gladwell's books yet, you really should. The details inside are infinitely interesting, and the people he interviews are always memorable. But, it is the lasting idea that you must always question your beliefs that really gives his books value.

Gladwell has the rare ability to see something obviously true and say that it's not so obvious at all. Then, he has the unique mindset that makes him painstakingly research just how these things work.

His books also have this unique ability to bring together elements that are so disparate that you can't imagine how he's going to relate them to one another, but he always manages it, and with a type of success that makes you wonder just how many other things might be involved in seemingly simple parts of our day.

In this book, you'll learn about the Dog Whisperer, two different takes on the Enron failure, more than you'd ever expect to know about the birth control pill, Jana Novotna, solving the homelessness problem, and the truth about criminal profiling.

Catching fire - Just finished

Finally finished Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, and, of course, all I can do now is count the days until the third volume ships. It looks like none of my librarian friends were able to get an advance copy, so I'll have to wait like all the rest of you suckers.

The story picks up a few weeks after The Hunger Games, so, if you haven't read HG, you should probably stop reading right now and go get a copy. It's impossible to talk about the sequel without spoiling everything. And Hunger Games is such a compelling page-turner, you'll be happy to give up your entire Sunday reading it. Honestly, most people I know who have read it did so in just two or three sittings. It's that much fun to read.

Now, my first and only real criticism of Catching Fire is that it begins so slowly. The tumultuous action of HG hooks you from the very beginning. But Collins really takes her time in this volume, working hard to establish a world that is politically and socially interesting, and setting the stage for the events that will happen later in the book.

Again, we meet Katniss, Peeta, Gale, and Haymitch, who all maintain their unique character. However, District 12's win, we learn, has had heavy ramifications throughout the country of Panem. As the two victors begin their Victory Tour (not unlike the Jacksons in 1984), Katniss learns that President Snowe, the leader of the known world, has special plans for her, as well as certain expectations of behavior.

When the tour doesn't go as Snowe has planned, and the presence of Katniss and Peeta causes unexpected repercussions in the Districts, he decides that there is still one more way he can have his revenge while squashing any hope of revolution.

After this lengthy exposition, Catching Fire really takes off, and once again, we're back in the thick of the action, and Katniss the Appalachian Amazon is kickin' ass and takin' names. Haymitch is communicating in his cryptic way, and Peeta becomes the baffling object of protection while the world seems to be spinning out of control. The big reveal in the last chapter reminds us why we love this series so much, and leaves us with an unquenchable thirst for more.

New characters include Finick, the crazy-gorgeous career contestant from District Four, Nuts and Volts, the inventors, and Johanna, who seems to like getting naked all the time. Everyone's favorite designer, Cinna (who we desperately hope will be played by Christian Siriano), returns, as well as Effie, the annoying scheduler lady.

Overall, the book is a great read, but it ends so abruptly that it leaves you with a narrative hole the size of District 13. Guess we'll just have to wait until Fall.


Please cast Christian! He's the only person who can be Cinna!

Speaker for the Dead


So, I just read Ender's game by Orson Scott Card, and it was so good that I immediately went out, bought, and read the sequel, Speaker for the Dead.

The experience began by feeling a little disappointing. The plot wasn't centered around childish pranks and simulated combat in three dimensions. It turned out to be an extremely different book, one that focused almost solely on the motivations of its characters.

Plot
Nearly 3,000 years after Ender's Game, Earth's savior-turned-scapegoat must appear once again, when colonists discover a new Earth-like planet, perfect for humans except that it contains sentient beings, in a seemingly primitive state. Remembering the Bugger Xenocide, humans are now much more cautious in their dealings with other species, and have created a highly restrictive code for studying the natives, called Piggies, or pequeninos.

Everything goes to hell when the piggies kill one of their observers in a particularly brutal and horrible fashion. When he hears of it, Ender Wiggin, Speaker for the dead, must travel 22 light years to save a woman, her family, and her planet, and perhaps to justify religion in the future.

Characters
Andrew "Ender" Wiggin - Thanks to relativity, the child prodigy returns, this time in his new role as Speaker for the Dead.

Novinha - Brilliant daughter of two scientists who save the colony, but die in the process.

Pipo - Novinha's adopted pseudo-father, the first to die in the piggies' strange sacrificial ritual.

Libo - Pipo's son and Novinha's one true love.

Marcos - Novinha's Husband, an abusive, angry, useless alcoholic who recently died of a rare genetic disease.

Thoughts

Speaker for the Dead is a much better book than Ender's game in many ways. It isn't as exciting, and it doesn't have the raw energy and physical conflict. But, it really shows the author's belief that conflict resolution can only be handled through empathy. In Ender's world, communication can only begin when we really try to experience life as another being experiences it.

Of acute interest is how the author of this book could write such a bizarre semantico-religious argument against gay marriage. It's hard to believe the same author wrote these words, particularly when Speaker talks about so many types of relationships, marriage being the most flawed and ugly of them all.

Ender's Game

So, after my beautiful and important fiancée read a copy of the graphic novel version of Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card for an illustrious committee on which she sits, it occurred to us both that we had never read the novel as kids. We missed out.

If you enjoyed The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (and is there anybody who didn't?), then you will love this book. A lot of webspace and printspace have been devoted to calling out Collins for aping Koushun Takami's Battle Royale, but I think that Katniss owes a lot more of her existence to Ender Wiggin, the small boy who never cracks, and whose genius is only exposed more and more as people throw seemingly insurmountable obstacles in his way.

Plot
Ender Wiggin, the third son of a secret Mormon and a secret Catholic, may or may not be mankind's best hope for survival. A special government program enlists the brightest kids on the planet in a lifelong training and discipline program devoted to finding the great minds that will save us from the Buggers, when they return to get their revenge.

Characters
Ender - The youngest kid to do pretty much anything, and he also does it better than anyone else.

Peter - Ender's older brother. He flunked out of the program for being too sadistic. Strong physically, mentally brilliant, but without moral decency.

Valentine - Ender's sister. With her brothers, one third of the most important family ever conceived. Her gentle nature nurtures Ender, and perhaps tempers Peter.

Bean - Ender's friend in Battle School. Card went on to write several books with him as the star.

Graff - The head of the Battle School program. Caring and moral, but goal oriented and hierarchical.

Mazer Rackham - The hero of the 2nd Bugger War.

Interesting stuff
The book isn't really interesting because of the extreme youth of so many characters. In fact, the youth angle is more of a gimmick to be overlooked in many ways. What is important is the idea of "turning the board around." Ender becomes successful because he is able to think like his enemy. It is not the mind of a hacker, though Ender is a hacker in many ways, that makes him successful. It is his intuition and empathy that make him strong. His ability to step into the shoes of other people, to understand their weaknesses and motives, that gives him his power, a power that is developed in beautiful style in the sequel, Speaker for the Dead.