Archive for Cannonball! (Books)

Regular Read: Lady Susan by Jane Austen

Lady SusanLady Susan by Jane Austen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the most best things about Jane Austen’s books is her social commentary. Her books are, for the most part, lighthearted in tone, but they also brought to light serious issues of that day and called into question the justice of issues like entail, social status, and the politics of courtship and marriage. She packaged her social commentary in a delightful narrative filled with plenty of wit and romance because a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

But she doesn’t do that in Lady Susan. Unfortunately, without the wit and romance, Austen’s social commentary is like watching an episode of “The Real Housewives of Regency Era England.”

Lady Susan Vernon is a calculating, manipulative social climber who cares nothing about anyone but herself. A widow in her late twenties with a daughter who is of an age to be married, she likes to keep her daughter far away and plenty of irons in the fire. Among her admirers and potential suitors are a married man, her brother-in-law’s brother-in-law (her brother-in-law’s wife’s brother), and a young man that’s she’s actually trying to manipulate into marrying her daughter.

Her lies and scheming are just plain ugly to behold. Some may argue that Austen’s showing that Lady Susan lives in a society that forces her to be manipulative in order to survive, but I think that’s a load of King George’s shorts. Austen doesn’t paint Lady Susan in at all a sympathetic light. Even Emma, a character only Austen herself was supposed to like, is miles more likeable.

The scheming and plotting sucked any joy out of the book for me. And everyone else’s helplessness to withstand Lady Susan’s machinations were just as annoying, if not more so.

It’s an epistolary novel, so you also lose Austen’s delightful asides and observations; you only get to hear the direct perspectives of the characters. It’s a pity that the characters are so yucky.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 31: The Sandman, Volume 5: A Game of You by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman Vol. 5: A Game of YouThe Sandman Vol. 5: A Game of You by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Despite the fact that Dream himself isn’t much in this volume of The Sandman, it’s still a great exploration of the world of dreams. We get to see some nightmares in this volume, and they’re truly disturbing.

I love how Gaiman blurs the lines between dream and reality in this one. It leaves you looking at the room around you and wondering, “Is this real life?”

We find Barbie in New York City. When last we saw her, she was living with her boyfriend, Ken, in Florida, boarding at a house with Rose Walker, who turned out to be a living dream vortex (stay with me). She’s now living in a small apartment with a motley crew of neighbors: George, a seemingly innocuous man with a dark secret inside; Hazel and Foxglove, a lesbian couple about to face an unexpected crisis, and half of which we’ve met before; Thessaly, a “vanilla” girl who’s a lot deeper than she looks; and Wanda, who used to be Alvin.

We’ve seen into Barbie’s dreams before. But we’d never expect Barbie’s dreams to affect the “real” world she lives in.

Gaiman has found a clever and creative way to pose the question of how our dreams affect our everyday lives. It may be unconscious or conscious, but our dreams do play a part in shaping how we view the world around us. What’s important to us at the moment may actually be as insignificant as dust that will blow away in a moment, yet it leaves a lasting impression in our hearts and minds — much like Gaiman’s graphic novel.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 30: The Sandman, Volume 4: Seasons of Mist by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of MistsThe Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oh, wow. Just… wow.

Season of Mists moves the story of Dream along. He is one of the Endless, along with his siblings, Death, Desire, Despair, and Destiny. Destiny calls them all together and, as a result of this meeting, Dream goes to Hell to free someone that he wrongfully condemned there ten thousand years ago. But the going won’t be easy because he offended Prince Lucifer (often referred to as “Satan”) the last time he was there.

Things aren’t difficult in quite the way that Dream expected. This volume subtly makes the point that the harder option isn’t always the punishment that we expect it to be, and that the easy road isn’t always the boon we think it is, either. Gaiman tells a very subtle allegory here, and it’s beautifully told.

Neil Gaiman is a serious genius. I can’t wait to see what the next volume is like.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 29: The Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream CountryThe Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Holy cow, I had no idea just how good this series would be. Dream Country doesn’t even do all that much to move the plot forward, but it’s so compelling that it’s still nothing but a pleasure to read.

There are four unrelated stories told in this volume. The first is “Calliope,” about Richard Madoc, a writer who captures the Muse (like, I mean, the Muse, Calliope) and holds her captive in order to write brilliant things. She calls out to the Grey Ladies (the Fates) for help, and they tell her to ask Dream (known to her as Morpheus). We then see the terrible price of compromising integrity in the pursuit of success.

“A Dream of a Thousand Cats” tells the story of the world before recollection, when cats ruled the earth and humans were merely their pets. This all changed when, one day, a human started to dream of ruling the earth himself. This dream spread until a thousand people dreamed it, and it then became reality. A Siamese cat now roams the earth, telling her story and urging other cats to believe and dream, that they might rule the earth once more.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” was a really fun one. It shows the first-ever performance of Shakespeare’s famous play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was implied earlier in the series that Shakespeare struck a bargain with Dream in order to become a famous writer. This performance of Shakespeare’s play is put on for the fantastical characters in his play, many of which are real, and friends of Dream’s. It’s a nice bit of meta.

midsummer night's dream

Oberon, Titania, & co. arrive to watch the debut performance of William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream

“Facade” is about Urania “Rainie” Blackwell, who is transformed into a half-goddess, half-human by coming into contact with the Orb of Ra. She’s lonely and desperate, unable to interact with humankind because of her grotesque, half-human appearance, and she can’t even kill herself because she’s part goddess. Death (Dream’s younger sister) happens upon Rainie as she returns from taking a woman in the building who fell off a stepladder. She can’t take Rainie, but she gives her some helpful advice that allows her to find release from her suffering.

The stories don’t appear to be linked in any way, but they help you to get a bit of a feel for some of the main characters in the story. It doesn’t do so by direct revelation, but rather by showing you the effects that they have on others, which shows the reach of their influence and presence.

Dream Country is a heady read, and could stand alone as its own work.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 28: The Sandman, Volume 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman

The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's HouseThe Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I said in my review of Preludes and Nocturnes that I trusted that the foundation laid therein would be put to good use. Well, Gaiman exceeded my highest expectations.

We already know that Dream is the king of the dreamworld, but he was imprisoned by an occult group for seventy years. Now that he’s escaped, he’s trying to rebuild his kingdom. But there’s a complication: a girl called Rose Walker. The girl is a human dream vortex, and unless she’s destroyed, Dream’s kingdom could be destroyed. That sounds so much simpler than it actually is, which is a testament to Gaiman’s genius for storytelling.

There are also some dream beings who have rebelled against Dream, and are trying to create kingdoms of their own. They’re trying to interfere with Dream’s attempts to rebuild his kingdom.

There’s little I can say to adequately praise the beautiful artwork and breathtaking narrative in this volume. Suffice it to say that I couldn’t wait to read the next one.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 27: Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Northanger AbbeyNorthanger Abbey by Jane Austen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first time I read Northanger Abbey, I was disappointed. I thought the romance was rather cobbled together, and Catherine Morland seemed the most dimwitted of all of Austen’s heroines.

It improved upon the second reading, though. I think my problem with my first read was that I was expecting it to focus too much on the romance. But upon reading it a second time, I realized that the strength of this book is its emphasis on friendship, especially in regard to avoiding bad ones.

Catherine Morland is seventeen, and visiting Bath for the first time. Society in Bath is exciting, and young, na├»ve Catherine is taking it all in with much excitement. She’s overjoyed when she’s befriended by Isabella Thorpe, one of the prettiest and most popular girls in Bath. At Isabella’s urging, she begins calling her by her first name, spending all kinds of time with her, and even doing a few things that she might not have thought proper back home in Fullerton.

Isabella flatters her endlessly, but is also oddly inconsistent in her behavior. She declares that she won’t dance unless Catherine gets a partner, but soon abandons her to dance with Catherine’s brother, James. She declares that she doesn’t care at all for Frederic Tilney, but, somehow, always seems to be talking to him. But Catherine, loyal to the core, insists to herself that Isabella must have a good reason for her behavior, or must not know how her behavior is affecting others.

In the meantime, she also makes the acquaintance of Henry Tilney and his sister, Eleanor. Catherine likes Henry almost instantly, and she’s glad to find that she likes Eleanor, too. Eleanor’s not as flattering or flashy as Isabella, but she’s steady and likeable.

udolpho

The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe, one of the gothic books that Austen references in Northanger Abbey

Catherine’s also a great reader of gothic mysteries. She longs for the excitement and romance that she reads about in these books, and her desire for adventure gets her in a bit of a pickle down the line. Austen uses this to gently encourage the reader not to put too much stock in what you read in books — even as you read hers.

The resolution of the romantic entanglements still felt a little too neat to me, but the friendship angle is still a good lesson to learn today. It’s good to have an open temperament, and to be willing to get to know and like people. But it’s also good to exercise discernment because there are many who would prey upon the unwise and take advantage of their trusting natures. Don’t become jaded, but don’t be a fool, either.

It’s a nice, little morality play, and it teaches an important lesson: don’t be blinded by flattery in friendship. A true friend doesn’t flatter, but tells the truth, whether it’s complimentary or not.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 26: The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

Preludes and Nocturnes (The Sandman, #1)Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Sandman is an interesting premise, and the first volume of the graphic novel has a lot of promise. I hear it gets even better as the series deepens, so I’m looking forward to getting into Volume 2.

An occult group, in an attempt to capture Death, accidentally traps and imprisons Dream instead. He escapes after seventy years, and his kingdom has since fallen into disrepair. He has to regain his tools for rebuilding his kingdom: a pouch of sand, a helm, and a ruby.

That’s such a gross oversimplification of the beauty of the first book that I’m rather disgusted with myself for not being able to describe the intricacies and nuances of it. But it’s clear that Gaiman, while still finding his direction in these first few books, is taking his work seriously and really trying to weave a tale like none other ever seen in comics. It can be at times macabre, at other times humorous, and at still other times truly magical.

The first volume does a solid job of laying the groundwork for the rest of the series. It’s really whet my appetite for more. While it didn’t quite blow me away as a standalone volume, I appreciate that Gaiman is taking the time to lay the framework of the series, and taking his time introducing us to Dream so that we’re encouraged to invest in the character, instead of getting cheap and immediate payoff.

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#CBR Cannonball 25: Dancing under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag by Karl Tobien

Dancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin's GulagDancing Under the Red Star: The Extraordinary Story of Margaret Werner, the Only American Woman to Survive Stalin’s Gulag by Karl Tobien
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Side Note: If you can help it, try not to read too many books about death camps too close together. It can get very depressing and then, even worse, you could become numb to the suffering.

My friend let me borrow this book at the same time that she lent me Unbroken, and I was cautiously optimistic about it. But it was a mistake to read the two so close together because I couldn’t help but to compare the writing, and Dancing Under the Red Star, sadly, could not compare.

Karl Tobien, the author, is the son of the book’s subject, Margaret Werner Tobien. In some cases, an author close to the subject is able to add depth to the story by virtue of personal knowledge and a more intimate understanding of the subject. Unfortunately, a lack of writing ability will trump all of that. It’s not that Tobien is a terrible writer; he’s adequate, I suppose. It’s just that his level of writing ability can’t really do justice to his mother’s amazing story.

Margaret Werner moved to Gorky, Russia, when she was a little girl. Her father worked for Ford, and he moved to the factory’s plant in Russia during the Great Depression, hoping to improve his family’s situation. Unfortunately, things were even worse in Russia than they were back home. But Carl Werner was not one to go back on his word, so he kept his family in Russia.

russian yoda

Because he was American, he was eventually arrested and sent to a work camp. His family never saw him again. A few years later, Margaret was also arrested for treason and espionage. She spent ten years working as a prisoner. She survived, and eventually became the only American woman to survive the gulags (and this isn’t a spoiler because it’s right there in the title).

Margaret’s survival is nothing short of miraculous, but Tobien’s telling of his mother’s story is oddly lackluster. He kept emphasizing that his mother was the only American in all of the camps. Who cares? Did she suffer more because she was American? Countless Russians died, too. Were their lives worth less? Stalin’s cruelty knew no bounds; we’ve got that. Does it make him so much more of a monster because he wrongfully imprisoned an American woman?

I also had an issue with the title of the book. It led me to believe that there would be more about dance in it, like in Mao’s Last Dancer. But there was no mention of dance until well into the second half of the book, and it was only a small part of the story even then.

russian breakdancing

Karl Tobein is a Christian, and his mother became a Christian later in her life, too. I can appreciate that the cruelty of the gulag helped her to believe in the existence of God, which primed her to believe in the gospel later on. But the inclusion of so many random references to God, with only brief mentions of Margaret’s later faith in the appendices, made them seem tacked on just for the sake of mentioning God. I’m a Christian, so I can understand that urge, but if Tobien wanted to share her testimony of faith, I wish he would do it straight out and all at once, instead of scattering it throughout the book.

Ultimately, it’s an amazing story that isn’t told very well. I blame his editor.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 24: Blankets by Craig Thompson

BlanketsBlankets by Craig Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Blankets is aptly named. Imagine pulling out an old blanket and wrapping it around yourself. Breathe deeply of its scent; of dust and mold and mothballs, with a whiff of winter nights and pillow forts. For Craig Thompson, writing this graphic novel must have been like pulling out his past and immersing himself in it, inhaling the euphoria and pain of innocence lost.

Craig was raised in an evangelical Christian household. He was picked on by others and unpopular at school. He had to share a bed with his little brother, Phil. One year, he goes to a Christian winter camp, where he meets Raina. The two have an instant connection and begin a long-distance correspondence that culminates in Craig’s visiting Raina for two weeks.

Thompson paints a stark, sad, and unfortunately accurate picture of many churches and evangelical groups in America today. It made me really sad to see the kind of church he grew up attending. They taught him vague principles without any scriptural evidence, governed him by guilt instead of pointing him to the grace of the gospel, and were more concerned with outward conformity than inward renewal. Far too many churches like this exist, and then wonder why their youth abandon their “faith” as they grow older. I grew up in a church similar to that. I grew up feeling isolated and marginalized at church, which I resented because it just didn’t sit right with me that I was being rejected at the one place that I thought had no choice but to accept me. It wasn’t until I was much older that I understood the true gospel (beginning with my own sinfulness and need of a Savior) and stopped thinking so much about myself and started thinking more about others.

lone wolf

And the whole trend of encouraging young men to go into ministry as a ploy to convince them not to abandon the faith is sad and ridiculously unbiblical. I’m thankful that Thompson had the foresight not to go into ministry out of guilt or because he was flattered by older men who told him they thought he’d be great at it. I don’t know any teenaged boys who know themselves well enough to know whether they’re called to ministry. Oh, and you have to be called. You can’t just appoint yourself to this role, and if you’re not sure, other people can’t make that decision for you, either.

*steps off soapbox* But the novel isn’t just about religion. The novel is also a raw look at first love. Most of us are familiar with the rush that comes with that first infatuation; the first time we meet someone who turns our insides to goo. And even more amazing is the moment when that person reciprocates your feelings.

But, then, real life is a lot harder than you want it to be when you’re seventeen. Raina’s parents are getting a divorce, and she’s often left to care for her developmentally disabled adopted siblings, Ben and Laura. Craig wants to support Raina, but the reader is left mumbling to herself, “Get outta there, kid; it’s going to be too much for you.”

Blankets is a beautiful coming-of-age story about family, friendship, first love, and learning the ropes of life. The artwork is superb and the story, well-told.

But it did leave me quite sad. Once you leave that innocence behind, there’s no getting it back. It happens to all of us, but that doesn’t make it any easier to let it go.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 23: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little WomenLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some people might read Little Women and think to themselves that it’s outdated, old-fashioned, and out of touch. I mean, the book is basically a morality play about how to be a good, little woman and support the men, and learn how to be a real lady with manners and tact.

I enjoyed every word of it.

Maybe that makes me old-fashioned and backwards and an enemy of feminism, but I don’t care. Little Women is a sweet book about growing up and learning the ropes of life and dealing with tragedy and just loving the people around you.

Alcott used her own family as the inspiration for the characters in her books. You can see just how close she was to everyone in her family, but especially to her sisters and mother. Some people today might think that the way Alcott glorifies women in the roles of homemakers and wives and mothers is downright primeval, but I found it sweet. We’ve lost a little something in today’s culture with our constant pursuit of MORE. Look, I’m thankful to have the right to vote and work in corporate America and crack jokes in the presence of men, but I’m also a little sad that there’s so much pressure to do those things to the exclusion of making our homes pleasant and welcoming places and staying home with our kids and enjoying books like Little Women.

louisa may alcott

Louisa May Alcott

I’m not ashamed to say that I found the close relationship between the March sisters profoundly touching (esp. in light of the fact that my sister just got married, and although we both want to stay as close as ever, things are bound to change and will never be the same again). I’m not ashamed to say that I cried many tears through the course of the book (although I am a little embarrassed that most of those tears cropped up at the most inopportune times, like on the elliptical machine at the gym and whilst working the exit door at the Hurley Warehouse sale — *sob* “Thanks for coming.” *sniffle* “Bye, now.” *watery smile* “Come back soon”). I’m not ashamed to say that the romantic bits thrilled my chaste, little heart.

I loved that the March sisters occasionally bicker, but learn to forgive each other quickly. I love the lack of teenage angst. One of the things I dislike most about YA books these days is the heavy cloud of angst that obscures everything. No wonder kids are so sullen these days. Everything they’re reading (or watching on TV) is encouraging them to indulge in their angst, to become brooding and introspective and consumed with thoughts of themselves and their own problems. THOSE ARE ALL FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS, YOU BUNCH OF BABIES.

first world problems

You think the March sisters didn’t have problems? Their dad was risking his life in the Civil War, they were poor and nigh-on starving, and they lived in freezing-cold Massachusetts and had maybe TWO dresses each in their entire wardrobes. But instead of moping about and whining about how their troubles affect THEM, they try to make the best of it, and try to be cheerful for each others’ sakes. And they also find satisfaction in helping others wherever they can. Now, I know that this isn’t an antidote for everything, but it’s still better than whining.

Maybe others think that Little Women is antiquated, but I love it. I love its simple depiction of friendship, love, and family, and of many of the values idealized in it.

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