Archive for December, 2011

Cannonball 46: Y: The Last Man, Volume V: Ring of Truth by Brian K. Vaughan

Y: The Last Man, Vol. 5: Ring of TruthY: The Last Man, Vol. 5: Ring of Truth by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Surprises. That’s what makes “Ring of Truth” such a great volume.

Yorick, in a fight with some members of a ruthless offshoot of the Culper Ring, loses the engagement ring he had planned to give to Beth. Soon thereafter, he begins developing symptoms of the plague that killed the rest of the men on Earth.

Agent 355 goes on a suicide mission to recover the ring and save Yorick.

This volume also sees the return of Yorick’s sister, Hero. The last time we saw her, she was part of a radical group called the Daughters of the Amazon, but she had since been rehabilitated — but Yorick and his friends don’t know this, yet.

We are also introduced to a new villain, a ninja assassin named Toyota, working for a mysterious “Dr. M.” We’re left to wonder whether she’s working for Dr. Mann’s mother… or if Mann herself is behind Toyota.

This is a solid volume with plenty of laughs to lighten the dark mood of the post-apocalyptic world portrayed in the series.

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Cannonball 45: Y: The Last Man, Volume IV: Safeword by Brian K. Vaughan

Y: The Last Man: Y - The Last Man Bd. 4. Offenbarungen: Bd 4Y: The Last Man: Y – The Last Man Bd. 4. Offenbarungen: Bd 4 by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Safeword” introduces a new character: Agent 711, a retired Culper Ring agent who’s also a friend of 355’s. She helps Yorick to take a deeper look at the reasons behind his compulsive recklessness, and it’s not pretty.

This part of the series was a little… iffy for me, for a variety of reasons. While the conclusion sets up some important events later in the series, the means by which its done is unnecessarily extreme, in my opinion. But I guess it’s more entertaining to most people than a simple sit-down conversation, especially considering the graphic novel format.

There’s some nudity in this volume, and, as I am a total prude, that didn’t exactly boost my enjoyment of this volume. And, while I enjoyed the series overall, I do think that it’s a contradictory message from Vaughan that the vast majority of the women in this post-apocalyptic world have rockin’ bodies — did the fat ones get eaten early on? And were non-form-fitting clothes also destroyed by the plague? You’d think that, with no men to impress, you’d see a lot more women wearing sweats.

It’s just interesting to me that, a lot of the time, he seems to preach about the empowerment of women, but that he also objectifies them at every step. It’s like he knows that most of his readers are going to be young men. He sticks in a few finger-wags about how hard women have it, but then retains his readership by making all of his women total babes who are fighting to save (or possess) this ordinary schlub.

This was an important volume in the series, but not really my favorite.

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Cannonball 44: Y: The Last Man, Volume III: One Small Step by Brian K. Vaughan

Y: The Last Man, Vol. 3: One Small StepY: The Last Man, Vol. 3: One Small Step by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When we last left Yorick, we learned that, orbiting Earth in the international space station, there were three astronauts — two of whom were men. If these men are able to land safely on Earth, and are not affected by the plague, then Yorick will no longer be the last man on Earth, tripling humanity’s chances of survival on Planet Earth.

Yorick is also being pursued by a woman quickly shaping up to become his nemesis: the ruthless Alter Tse’elon. She has basically hijacked the Mossad in order to hunt Yorick down and return with him to Israel so that he can begin repopulating Earth there. Some of her underlings question her motivation, but still follow her orders.

There’s a sort of epilogue at the end of the book in which Yorick sees a play… about the last man on Earth. It’s another nice bit of meta, but, at this point, the dig in the ribs is a little annoying.

While it was still an excellent read and tons of fun, it was one of the weaker volumes of the series, in my opinion. It dragged just a tiny bit, and, as I mentioned, the meta references are getting a bit cheesy.

But it’s still a ton of fun.

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Cannonball 43: Y: The Last Man, Volume II: Cycles by Brian K. Vaughan

Y: The Last Man, Vol. 2: CyclesY: The Last Man, Vol. 2: Cycles by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The tale of Yorick Brown, the last man on earth, continues with Yorick’s trek across America to help Dr. Mann get back to her lab in San Francisco and find out how Yorick and Ampersand survived the plague. Along the way, they meet a town of women that live in a virtual utopia compared to the rest of the nation. Of course they’ve got a secret they’re trying to hide.

In each of these volumes, Vaughan brings up some interesting points. Dr. Mann points out that, the longer this plague goes on, the more species are becoming extinct. Day flies have a life span of one day. Since they’ve already gone more than a day without any males to mate with, the entire species is already gone. Other animals with short life spans are also extinct. He really thought through the world he created with a lot of attention to detail. It’s admirable.

Yorick, Ampersand, 355, and Dr. Mann also run into a group of radicals: the Daughters of the Amazon, who believe that the plague was nature’s way of getting rid of the weaker male half of the species. This group is trying to hunt down and kill Yorick in order to wipe out the males completely. But one of their number is conflicted about pursuing him, for very personal reasons.

It’s hard to review these volumes on their own, especially as they’re all kind of blurring together in my memory. This is a credit to Vaughan’s ability to maintain the flow of his story, and to keep the reader captivated.

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Cannonball 42: Y: The Last Man, Volume I: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan

Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1: UnmannedY: The Last Man, Vol. 1: Unmanned by Brian K. Vaughan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Brian K. Vaughan’s graphic novel Y: The Last Man is smart, funny, and raises some interesting questions. It’s one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read.

Yorick Brown is a former English major and amateur escape artist In an attempt at altruism, he’s taken in a Capuchin trainer monkey. He’s about to propose to his girlfriend, Beth, who’s out exploring the Australian Outback, when the world gets turned upside-down. All the men of Earth suddenly die — all at the same time. Planes are suddenly unpiloted, freeways become death traps, and half of the world’s doctors and emergency personnel aren’t around to respond. Even male animals have died off. The world is plunged into chaos.

For some reason, Yorick and his monkey, Ampersand, have been spared. Yorick doesn’t know why, but he has a single-minded mission: to find Beth.

Volume 1, “Unmanned,” does a great job of setting up the story and introducing us to most of the major characters. We meet Yorick, Ampersand, and Beth. We meet Yorick’s mother, a Congresswoman, and his sister, Hero. We meet Agent 355, a member of the top-secret Culper Ring, who is tasked by the new President to protect Yorick. We meet Dr. Allison Mann, who thinks she may have caused the plague by playing God. And we meet Alter Tse’elon, a soldier in the Israeli army that ultimately becomes Yorick’s nemesis.

“Unmanned” paints an interesting picture of a manless post-apocalyptic world. He does a great job of fleshing out this world, addressing questions ranging from the Presidential line of succession to food shortages and surviving in anarchy. Vaughan also throws in some tongue-in-cheek meta references to how hard it is to put an English degree to good use in the real world, a theme I can personally identify with.

hillary clinton

For those who are curious, if the plague were to strike tomorrow, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would become President. There are only five women in the current line of succession.

I’m going to try to review each volume on its own merit, but I also don’t think you can divorce each volume from the series as a whole. And, for what it’s worth, “Unmanned” is a great way to kick off the series.

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Cannonball 41: John Adams by David McCullough

John AdamsJohn Adams by David McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s no secret that I loves me some David McCullough. He’s like the Iain Murray of American history.

McCullough takes a lot of flak in some circles because of his narrative writing style, but as a nonacademic history buff (well, as nonacademic as a history buff can get), I appreciate that he’s not just reciting historical facts to his reader. He’s painting a picture of a real man who lived on this earth and happened to do extraordinary things.

And John Adams was a real man who lived on this earth and happened to do extraordinary things.

Adams was a simple farmer with strong convictions about the land where he lived. He believed that he and his fellow colonists ought to be free to pursue a fair living without being bossed around by a king who lived thousands of miles away. He got pulled into politics for the sake of this budding nation, and he served her faithfully, and often without thanks.

He was a man of integrity who was loathe to fight fire with fire when he was attacked, even when people were spreading untrue rumors about him.

abigail adams

Abigail Adams

He shared a remarkable marriage with a remarkable woman. He and his wife Abigail were apart more than they were together for much of their marriage. Adams often traveled abroad as an ambassador to continental European nations, trying to garner support for the budding American nation.

McCullough clearly did his homework. He read tons of letters and documents so that he not only knew what the historical facts were, but also so that he could imagine what Adams must have felt at certain points in his life. McCullough has a rare gift for sympathy that he uses to really get into the lives, heads, and hearts of these historical figures.

I really appreciate that McCullough chooses noble subjects to write about. He could’ve chosen to write about the life of Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. These two were more popular figures at the time, both a magnetic personality and commanding presence. Instead, McCullough chose John Adams, whose opponents mockingly called him “His Rotundity.” He wasn’t dashing or charismatic, but he had integrity. He didn’t own slaves, and he extrapolated the value of freedom to all men, not just to those who were like him. He chose a man of virtue to write about and immortalize, and I respect him more for it.

John Adams was well-written, compelling, and a great in-depth look at the life of a simple man whose country demanded more of him. He was a rare man, and his story inspires courage and duty.

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Cannonball 40: Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins

Road to Perdition (Graphic Novel)Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I watched the film version first, so maybe I’m a little biased, but I wasn’t too terribly impressed by this graphic novel. I mean, it was pretty good, and the artwork was excellent, but it just didn’t have the same impact on me as the film did.

Road to Perdition is a graphic novel about Michael O’Sullivan, an enforcer for the Looneys, an Irish mob family. The Looneys betray Michael and his vengeance is great. Along with his son, Michael Jr., he takes his revenge on the Looney family for what they’ve done to his. Collins does a fair job of drawing real people from that era into his story, and it’s clear that he did a lot of research.

The story itself is a stock vengeance tale — it’s always entertaining to see the bad guys get their due. But the pacing of the novel felt a little rushed to me. I couldn’t get attached to any of the characters because the action unfolded so swiftly, with little development of the characters.

The ending of the movie is significantly different from the ending of the novel. While I kind of liked the novel’s ending, I can see why they changed it for the film — the ending they chose is better suited to the movie they made.

Maybe I would’ve enjoyed the graphic novel more if the edition I read hadn’t included a long preface by the author. It reminded my of Chuck Palahniuk’s afterword in Fight Club, where he basically talks about what an amazing job he did writing this novel. While I can understand and appreciate that Collins poured a lot of passion and energy into this project, it doesn’t help me to enjoy it more to see him boasting about himself and getting high on his own opinion of what he considers his vast talent.

It reminds me of this scene in one of my favorite guilty pleasures, Center Stage. During a rehearsal, the director of the ballet tels the prima ballerina, “I need to see the movement, not the effort behind it.”

Overall, I thought it was a solid graphic novel, and worth reading. It just didn’t blow me away the way Michael O’Sullivan kicking down a door and shoving a gun in my face should have.

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Cannonball 39: Brian’s Return by Gary Paulsen

Brian's Return (Hatchet, #4)Brian’s Return by Gary Paulsen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Lakers recently acquired Jason Kapono, a former Bruin who was, at one point, the most accurate three-point shooter in NBA history. So what happened? He got more playing time is what happened. While Kapono is undoubtedly one of the best three-point shooters in the game, it’s just common sense that, the more shots you take, the harder it’ll get for you to maintain that percentage.

jason kapono

Jason Kapono in Laker purp & yella.

This is kind of what happens to Gary Paulsen with Brian’s Return, the fourth book about Brian Robeson. Paulsen is a prolific writer, with over 200 titles to his name, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that all of his works are of the same quality. Like even the best professional basketball player, if you take too many shots, you’re bound to miss a few.

Brian Robeson has survived a plane crash and being stuck in the woods alone for a long time. This book deals with Brian’s attempt to reassimilate into civilized life, which ends with Brian seriously injuring a boy who picks a fight with him at a pizza parlor. Forced to see a psychologist after this violent act of self-protection, he realizes that he misses the wild, and decides to take a trip back into the woods.

Whereas the series’ first book, Hatchet, focused on Brian’s struggle simply to stay alive and adapt in the forest, Brian’s Return is filled with an affected air of mystery surrounding Brian’s inexplicable and irresistible connection with Nature. And I write “Nature” as a proper noun because that’s how Paulsen treats nature in this book, as though it’s a deity with whom Brian has a nebulous relationship. The whole “Mother Earth” vibe of this book made me keep rolling my eyes. Brian goes from a hardy kid who’ll never say die to a pretentious, sanctimonious tree-hugger who somehow has this mysterious connection with Nature after having lived in the woods for a mere three years.

house

Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House and Andre Braugher as Dr. Darryl Nolan, his psychologist.

If Paulsen had focused a little more on the survival side of the story instead of Brian’s mystical ear for hearing the pleas of Mother Earth, the book might’ve been more compelling. And the whole psychologist storyline was very “House,” Season Six. In fact, I was picturing Andre Braugher in my head in the role of Caleb the Psychologist. Meh.

But don’t get me wrong. I actually really like Gary Paulsen. I think a lot of his books are solid (especially the original Hatchet and his semi-autobiographical The Cook Camp, and anything he’s ever written about dogsledding). It’s just that this one was an airball. But I’m sure that Paulsen’s already jogging downcourt, waiting patiently for another shot opportunity.

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Cannonball 38: Native Son by Richard Wright

Native Son (Perennial Classics)Native Son by Richard Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I swore to myself that if I ever wrote another book, no one would weep over it; that it would be so hard and deep that they would have to face it without the consolation of tears.” — Richard Wright, How “Bigger” Was Born”

Native Son is not only well-written and compelling, but I’d say that it’s one of the most important books ever written. By writing this book, Richard Wright confronted the America he lived in with the reality of a racism so deep that even the kindness of a white woman could drive a black man to think he had to kill or be killed. Reading this book will wound you (if you have a soul to wound), and the wound will be so deep that you’ll find yourself dry-eyed and struggling to reconcile it with what you thought about the world you live in.

On the surface, it’s a story we all read about in our high school history classes: Lincoln frees slaves. Slaves not really free. Freedmen struggle to make living in world that still thinks of them as second-class citizens. Freedmen commit crimes of desperation, are caught and condemned to greater punishment than the crime merits. We, safely on this side of history, exclaim over the horrors of such stories and aver that we shall never let such injustice occur again, all the while secretly priding ourselves in thinking that we are not so narrow-minded as the bigots of 1930s Chicago.

Heck, I’m not even white, and this applies to me.

The story of Bigger Thomas goes much deeper than the surface telling of a tale of injustice. Bigger, a poor black man, is offered a plum position chauffeuring a wealthy white family around. The Daltons are nice people, and they long to help the uneducated and oppressed blacks by offering them the opportunity to work and make a nice living. Bigger understands that this is a rare opportunity; rarer than once-in-a-lifetime. He’ll have a room to himself and more money than he’s ever made at any other job, all just to drive people around town in a car that he’d never even have the chance to see the inside of if not for this job. But their politeness makes him uneasy; he doesn’t know how to respond to them, and he responds to their kindness with suspicion and fear. Instead of helping him to let his guard down, it puts him even more on edge.

Then, the Daltons’ daughter enters the picture. A young university student, Mary has fallen in with the local communists. She and her boyfriend, Jan, insist on treating Bigger like their equal, insist that he call them by their first names, insist that he take them to a local diner that he and his friends frequent, and insist that he sit with them as they dine. He resists every single one of these advances, but ultimately feels powerless to disobey them. They think they’re treating him with the respect he deserves. He thinks they’re putting a target on his back. Even with the best of intentions, they’re displaying their ignorance of Bigger’s situation in life. Mary and Jan, for their part, are puzzled when he balks at being treated with the courtesy to which they themselves are so accustomed.

It’s the tension between all of these factors — the Daltons’ kindness, Bigger’s background and life experience, Mary and Jan’s desire to help Bigger to take what they think is his — that ultimately leads Bigger to commit a reprehensible crime. Wright doesn’t sugar-coat Bigger’s actions: it’s clear through the course of the narrative that Bigger’s first priority is self-preservation, and he does terrible things in order to ensure it. He’s not some hero forced to make a terrible decision by impossible circumstances. Yes, his options were less than limited. Yes, the situation was unfair and exacerbated by the strange coexistence of kindness and racism in the white folks around him. But Wright doesn’t make those excuses for Bigger, and he shows you the cruelty of Bigger’s actions in a harsh and unblinking light.

The book does a fantastic job of raising some important questions: Did Bigger really have any choice at all? What else could he possibly have done? How could the Daltons have treated him differently? It also raises questions that hit closer to home: Has the world really changed? Is it still like this for some people? Am I more like Bigger or more like the Daltons or more like Mary and Jan? Reading this book made me feel a gamut of conflicting emotions. I was embarrassed by the Daltons’ unwitting condescension. I was enraged by Mary and Jan’s insistence that Bigger do as they say, even though they were only insisting that he let them treat him as an equal. I was horrified by Bigger’s actions. I felt sympathy for Bigger. I felt sympathy for Mary and the Daltons. And, overall, I felt helpless to do anything to change situations like these that might be occurring in real life, right here in my own hometown.

This is where the importance of the book really lies. It shows you that it’s not enough just for you treat others with kindness and as equals. The Daltons showed Bigger kindness, and Mary and Jan treated him as an equal, and that’s what precipitated the events of the book. No, in order for that kindness and equality to make a difference, the entire society has to change. Bigger has to change, too. Bigger has to believe that the kindness is genuine; Bigger has to believe that equality is his right and is the norm. And the world we all live in has to believe that it’s a good and right thing for Bigger to be equal to rich, white folks.

It’s not often these days that you read a book that has to do with issues this deep. These days, what passes for literature is usually self-centered and individualistic; it’s all about how you, one person, has the power to rise above your circumstances. But Native Son shows the unavoidable reality that it takes more than just one man to change the world. It takes all of us.

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Cannonball 37: The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom

The Hiding PlaceThe Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine extended an unusual invitation to me: she invited me to go grave-hunting. As it turns out, Corrie ten Boom is buried in Santa Ana, and you can go visit her grave.

I was in high school when I first read her book, The Hiding Place. At the time, I read it more as a Holocaust book than anything else. I remember thinking, “Man, concentration camps suck.” But I don’t remember much else.

Well, before hunting for Miss ten Boom’s grave and standing there wishing I remembered why I thought I ought to admire her, I thought it might enhance the experience to reread the book. Boy, am I glad I did.

I missed so much the first time around. The book isn’t just about the horror of the Holocaust — it’s also about God’s faithfulness, even in the midst of difficult times. Of course the book talks about the amazing ways in which God answered prayers during Corrie’s time in the concentration camps. But it also talks about how He used it to teach her more about Him, and how her faith in Him grew through these terrible trials, and even of how He used various circumstances before Hitler came to power in order to teach her about God’s love.

I was especially impacted by her singleness. I remembered that she died a spinster, but forgot that, at one point, she was deeply in love with someone who ended up breaking her heart. After this happened, her father comforted her by reminding her that, yes, she did love Karel (the young man who ended up marrying someone else), but that God loved him more than even she could. And he encouraged her to pray that God would help her to love Karel with His love. She prayed that prayer and, in years to come, learned to pray it for people who did far worse things to her than disappointing her hopes for marriage.

The Hiding Place isn’t necessarily the greatest work of literature I’ve ever read, but it’s certainly a great testimony of God’s power and faithfulness. It’s easy to see why Miss ten Boom was traveling the world for speaking engagements well into her eighties, until a stroke took her ability to speak in public.

corrie ten boom

And if you ever get a chance, and you’re in the area, visit Corrie’s grave. It’s nothing fancy, and it might take you a while to find it in the section of the graveyard it’s in. But, much like Miss ten Boom herself, it’s simple, unassuming, and faithfully proclaims that “Jesus is Victor.”

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