Posts Tagged ‘Non-Fiction’

Lisa Hanawalt, “Hot Dog Taste Test”(2016) & Sy Montgomery, “The Good Good Pig: The Extraordinary Life of Christopher Hogwood” (2006,2007)

July 30, 2016

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Is food something that needs to be de-mythologized? It’s one of those things people either think about a lot, or don’t really think about much – it’s such an essential part of life, it’s easy to either take it for granted and cram whatever’s nearby into your mouth, or you turn it into something you obsess about, revelling in specifics and obscurities, to the point where you seem to be in another universe from every other eater on earth. It often feels like all the ideas of nutrition and food-as-art have created these weird class distinctions in an essential activity. I would imagine one of the reasons Lisa Hanawalt received the article assignments that form the majority of this book (following chef Wylie Dufresne, trying New York’s street food one last time, going through multiple Las Vegas buffets) is because she has a real skill at straddling that line, knowledgeable and interested in the complexities and varieties in chef and foodie culture, but more than willing to indulge in the simpler pleasures of more common items. There’s an art to food, but that doesn’t mean only artistic food is the only kind worthwhile – Hanawalt recognizes that food is comforting, but also how food and the process of eating is absurd and just another part of our basic biological functions (food and its counterpart, doof, are closer than we’d like to think), and it’s also a cultural and familial touchstone that brings people together (which is the core of the “Argentina Travel Diary” segment.) There’s too much to food to just ignore but a few of its facets – here we even get some food-inspired horror in “Caballos Con Carne”, which explores the strange relationship between us meat eaters and other animals – it’s both funny and exhaustive in its observations, a hundred or more different ways to look at and appreciate your eating habits.

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Look at some of the spreads in the book – a Lisa Hanawalt spread is always a good thing, with a thousand visual jokes all hiding in different corners, rendered in appropriately smeared water colours that can bring out the best and worst in every piece – you can see many of those ideas in one place, elaborate and ornate and silly and disgusting in equal measures. Food becomes part of everything: design, body horror, ritual, communication, corporate logos, a personality test. Not every piece in the book is about food, but the topic seems to permeate every page, on the book’s mind at all times even when it drifts off to other places. Of course, many of the other sections of Hot Dog Taste Test deal with just other aspects of a normal life – happiness, death, family, that sort of thing – which coalesces quite well with food, all fundamental aspects of existence. Like the food itself that appears on these pages, there seems to be a desire to mix all these different ideas together, to serve them up in unexpected and beautiful ways – they are all part of one greater, very messy meal.

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As a companion to the previous Sy Montgomery book I read, The Good Good Pig offers a similar meditation on human-animal relationships – but while The Soul Of An Octopus focuses on a wild and strange intelligence, this one is definitely more domestic in many different ways. This is also a book about small time life, the idea of going somewhere to free yourself from urban sprawl and crowds, only to have the small population crowd around you as the local flavour – the legacy of Montgomery’s adopted pig, Christopher Hogwood, was to allow her to form relationships with neighbours and other citizens of Hancock, New Hampshire, sometimes by accident (creating a vivid cast of recurring personalities, as she would later do in Soul Of An Octopus as well.) The author openly describes how she has always felt more kinship with animals than people, but at several points in this, animals help bridge the gaps and force her to be a bit more outgoing.

The book presents the small town as the place where everyone knows everyone, everyone kicks in to help (in this case, feeding Christopher scraps), confirming that the ideas of community can actually amount to something – these are the virtues of the small town experience you hear about often. Having an escape artist pig makes Montgomery and her husband “exceptional”, but this brings them closer to others – the interesting contrast Montgomery provides is in her own family life, which appears in many major points in the book, where being eccentric or doing something not in line with expectations is not nearly as accepted. This is sometimes seen as another small town “value”, but it simmers beneath the surface – Montgomery can talk to her mother about her pig, but not her Jewish husband. The book doesn’t delve into that connection – she came from a military family, so not particularly representative of the small town experience – but in a broader sense it does present two different paths those close-knit communities can take: they can become an open community, or a closed community. The author uses both her life with a pig and her career as a way to demonstrate of the open community, emphasizing the different backgrounds of all her friends and neighbours, learning about other cultures (and especially their particular relationships with local animals, such as the stories about the river dolphins in Brazil), and keeping in touch with her associates in other countries. In these cases, too, animal life (especially Christopher, whose fame spreads far beyond New Hampshire) becomes a way to understand others and form connections – with the animals, and with the people, all communities becoming open communities.

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David J. Skal,”The Monster Show: A Cultural History Of Horror” (1993, 2001); John Wagner/Mike McMahon/Brian Bolland/Ron Smith/et. al., “Judge Dredd: The Complete Case Files 04″(1980-81, 2011); & Michael Deforge, “Big Kids” (2016)

June 28, 2016

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Horror reflects the anxieties of its time – that’s really not an especially new or interesting observation, and while Skal delves into that here (especially in how the horror movies of the twenties and thirties reflected a depopulated and disfigured post-WWI world, and interestingly shows how the movies of the forties often directly avoided the then-raging second World War even while setting themselves in a mock image of “Europe”), he also shows how adaptive those horror metaphors are (Dracula and Frankenstein, the two primary subjects of the book, appear consistently throughout the decades and in changing forms), and how they are reflected back by society itself. The twentieth-century did not have a one-sided relationship with horror icons (including the ones pulled from previous centuries) – there was a long-standing relationship with horror imagery that appeared before film (as Skal shows in his overview of the Grand Guignol theatre tradition), and in many ways the kinds of body horror and violent obsessions of horror entertainment influenced the way people look at things. By mid-century, horror imagery became firmly ingrained into culture at large (seen in Diane Arbus’ photography, the rise of gory make-up effects “culture”, and even in novelty songs like “Monster Mash”), even as attempts to censor or eliminate the entire genre – and by the time horror became recognized as indelible, the culture became more like the horror it consumed; the latter half of book zones in on that idea especially. Horror is not just a genre, but a lifestyle, and while they are often derived from real terrors, figures like vampires have become potent symbols for marginalized communities as well, taking some of those dark traits and re-contextualizing them to more positive ends. As well, the book highlights how some of the more outlandishly ghoulish ideas from the films seem to become closer to reality as the century moved one – although the desire to find horror metaphors everywhere leads the author to some questionable arguments concerning the trans community and HIV that were contestable in 1993, but seem atrociously wrong these days.

Another fascinating line comes from not just discussing horror movies as some cultural objects that were collectively dreamt up (as these sorts of arguments sometimes lean towards), but as the products of people with their own ideas and their own reasons for making them. Tod Browning is the central figure here, as Skal looks at his fascinating life and brief filmography and finds several recurring themes – Browning’s very peculiar career trajectory is very much apparent in his work, and it’s an especially potent series of events where his childhood as a carnival act (as a man who would be buried in a casket and then “resurrected”, because sometimes things make too much sense) would ultimately lead him to direct Freaks, the film that destroyed his directing career. Browning is the figure the book is most fascinated with, but the history of the stage versions of Dracula and Frankenstein (and the ugly business of securing the film rights) are equally important, and show in microcosm how individual directors, writers, actors, and businessmen interpreted these stories and helped create close-to-platonic conceptions of both those stories, crafting all future reinterpretations of the two most important horror symbols.

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After reading later volumes of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, I decided to walk my way backwards and see what I missed. This volume begins with a very long storyline that, while entertaining in parts, never comes together into much of anything. Considering how few of the stories have anything to do with the main plot (once Dredd and the other judges head into space, especially), one has to wonder if this whole idea was simply because the writers were bored of Mega City One and wanted to have an excuse to set the comics elsewhere for a while – and once they ran out of ideas for weird aliens or planets for Dredd to deal with (and considering how urgent his mission supposedly is, the points where has to stop and do something else because someone asked him are especially head-scratching), they went back to the main plot and finished it on an appropriate (but still maddening, especially if you were reading this weekly back in the eighties) anticlimax. It’s hard for me to even call most of the storyline padding, because most of the stories that happen between the early parts of the “Judge Child” saga and the end don’t even feel like they’re part of the same story – it’s more like they changed the premise of the strip for over half a year.

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It’s also frustrating because of how solid an artist line-up they have for an entire volume, with Ron Smith (who gets frequent opportunities to draw goofy cross-eyed expressions on people), Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon, Ian Gibson, and Steve Dillon trading off stories, and there isn’t a bad-looking comic in the lot. Once the “Judge Child” story ends and you get back to the more anchored lunacy of Judge Dredd, things begin to click again (although the space stories weren’t bad per se, they lacked the spark of the Mega City One stories, with maybe the exception of the “Battlefield” story – one of two opportunities for Ron Smith to do ad parodies in this volume) – the first comic to follow it is a real nice character-focused piece with even nice Brian Bolland artwork, almost reintroducing readers to the actual point of the series. Subsequently, you get real fun premises like “Otto Sump’s Ugly Clinic” and “Unamerican Graffiti” (probably the best of the stories in here, about as hilariously bleak as you can get), as well as the ridiculous action piece “Pirates of the Black Atlantic”, which somehow manages to be many different sorts of stories all at once (you go from a story with mutant pirates to “oh, a whole section of the city has just been obliterated with a nuclear missile”, which understandably is a pretty grim turn), and even acts as prelude to the stories they’d be telling not long after (this volume ends up introducing several elements that the series would go back to for years to come.) After what felt like a long time away, the second half of volume 4 felt like coming home.

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One thing that struck me while reading Big Kids was the constantly shifting presence of very specific social power dynamics, a slightly unnerving sort of casual cruelty that sometimes appears in Deforge’s other works. There’s always a need for someone to be at the bottom of the hierarchy among Adam’s peer group, who are arbitrarily (although probably not that arbitrarily) chosen to be the target, and this is never questioned even by the designated target. When Adam changes into a “tree”, the dynamics change – he no longer becomes the target as the other teenagers sense something is different about him, people in his life who are still “twigs” become lesser beings (even when, or maybe especially when, they are former authority figures like Adam’s father, his policeman uncle, and his ex-boyfriend) – the twigs are, as the narration itself explains, not actually lesser in any real way, but they not only lack the gifts of extrasensory visualizing and interconnection. But they are also seen as these expressionless, simplistic shapes that are physically smaller and lack any of the “organic” features that define the trees. In a way, this dehumanizes them in a way that Adam seems willing to take advantage of, his new way of seeing the world allowing him to ignore the other level of reality he no longer has to deal with – like on the page where he simply picks up and throws his abusive uncle out a window, the change in their relative realities giving him the confidence to overthrow those who once domineered his life. But while this seems triumphant in that scene, it’s not difficult to see that this is just another arbitrary hierarchy being used – the trees’ “awakening” is random, and the trees’ distinctive societies and relationships are an unspoken agreement.

Another recurring theme is a strange ambivalence towards art and its ability to construct and deconstruct familiarity. When Adam becomes a tree, every object or concept (like sounds) in the world becomes a Deforge-style abstraction, a flowing liquidy shape or living thing – ideas are anti-Platonic in a way, and no ideas are invisible, always visible. Being able to see things in this seemingly nonconforming, elastic way is the gift and the curse of the trees, the world becoming a formless expression rather than rigidity, but one that ultimately gets in the way of understanding people without this artistic mind, and ultimately robs them of their memories of their older world. The computer program April develops with Adam’s mom is a sort of alternative form of expression, returning to some semblance of “realism” in order to preserve those memories, but it also demonstrates the imperfection of visual memory (an idea helped by the way Deforge draws people in this – simple faces that make the imprecise fudging of details more noticeable), every image of the world around us a always a illustration from a hazy thought rather than anything completely concrete. By the end, we see that there are people who seem to gain something from this new mode of interpretation that they can flow through themselves, a viable community, but to others it is ultimately an alienating force (like Adam’s mom, who chooses to physically deform herself to feel more at home among the twigs like her husband) – artistic extrapolation and reinvention being able to bring people together or keep them separate.

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Sy Montgomery, “The Soul Of An Octopus” (2015) & Italo Calvino (Trans: Jonathan Cape, Tim Parks, Martin McLaughlin , “The Complete Cosmicomics” (2002, 2009)

June 6, 2016

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The danger in anthropomorphism is that it not only removes the unique beauty of many non-human animals by simply turning them into a different version of us, with all the same foibles and none of their own, but also because the same effect hinders our ability to understand their own behaviour – the way certain species view the world would be very different, guided by the specifics of their evolution in the same way we were. So, expecting them to operate and react in a similar way to us in certain situations is wrongheaded, and in some ways is even dangerous to both human and non-human.

The Soul Of An Octopus tightly walks the line between degrees of anthropomorphism – the journey Montgomery has in the book is not simply to “humanize” octopuses, but rather to show the commonalities in our separate forms of intelligence. She never denies that the octopus’s mind works on a very different level than our own (she regularly reminds us that it is an “alien” entity with a heightened capability of taste and limbs that may well operate independently), but from her own experiences and further research sees so much evidence of certain things – curiosity, memory, personality, stresses (also mentioned in one of David Quammen’s columns in Natural Acts), and possibly even a sense of humour – the driving force of the book becomes finding how a very different sort of animal could seem to share so many things in common with humans. Over the course of the book, we see how many of those similarities come from differences – an octopus needs to be as clever as many of the more highly-developed mammals because of how vulnerable it is physically – but there remains as many questions about how their brains work as there are for the rest of us.

Of course, the scientific and philosophical inquiries are only part of the book – the rest, and maybe the majority, of it is a recounting of the author’s interactions with several octopuses, in captivity and in the wild, which is what spurs her interest in octopus intelligence in the first place. She also becomes friends with the people who are involved with octopus keeping – the staff members of the New England Aquarium (both veterans of the trade and younger volunteers), partners in diving expeditions, and cephalopod-focused scientists – who help Montgomery become increasingly integrated into the going on of the octopus realm, all of them sharing in the same enthusiasm and awe of these animals. The author documents the lives and personalities of the staff as thoroughly as the octopuses themselves (each of whom have their own distinctive personalities, as Montgomery always tries to demonstrate), and the relationship with all the animals they look after are some of the most interesting parts of the book. Whether or not they go a little too far in making their fish and invertebrate and reptile charges seem more “human”, the idea that these people can identify the distinctiveness of each animal is both practical for the daily goings-on in an aquarium and fascinating – even if our species isn’t exactly the same as all the others, there still seems to be a possibility for some kind of understanding, especially in these close, regular encounters.

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Speaking of anthropomorphism, Calvino’s Cosmicomics engage in that in a different way – characterizing processes both macro and micro, cosmic and terrestrial, as a series of fables driven by desire, an endless pursuit of perfection, and a tragicomic relationship with change. Vast, unknowable processes – the expansion of the universe, the creation of the moon, evolution, light speed travel – become a series of adventures of one character, who is almost always in the pursuit of the same goals (i.e. The love of a specific woman or female-coded abstract concept) and is usually prevented from achieving them (An interesting contrast are the stories in the “t zero” section, where the process is almost reversed – a human situation is written as a complex scientific algorithm offering alternate theories of time and probability.) The inevitable course of history is driven by the travails of often highly abstracted characters, who in their lives mix the everyday and the grandiose.

In including all of Calvino’s stories in chronological order, you also see how these themes recur and change over time – and specifically through his series of stories that follow the structure and theme of Orpheus and Eurydice, the most direct being the trilogy of “Without Colours”, “The Stone Sky”, and of course “The Other Eurydice”, a revised take on “The Stone Sky” which even includes slightly different versions of the same sentences. These three in particular feature the previously-mentioned theme of seeking a state of perfection only to be stymied by the development of our world – a world above the surface of the world, a world with endless colour – with the narrator Qfwfq railing against the new world that ruins his static one (which occurs in other stories such as “Nothing and Not Much”) and robs him of his endless, unchanging life with his one true love, who either is left behind (in “Without Colours”) or leaves him behind (“Stone Sky”/”Other Eurydice” – as well as more in a sillier fashion in stories like “The Aquatic Uncle”). The presence of a world beyond himself and his chosen love is the recurring bane of Qfwfq’s existence in many stories, whether it is other characters like Lieutenant Fenimore in “The Form of Space”, or against a generalized mass of noise in the far more angry and cynical “Other Eurydice” (modern life seems to be a pestilence that is destined for eradication) – the whole of existence outside the pair is an affront to the perfection the narrator seeks in many stories, a compromise to his closed loop. But of course, very rarely does Qfwfq ever consider what others, his chosen partner especially (who often, in his mind, end up as some prize for his self-selected battles and rivalries), seeks in their own lives – so he is baffled when in stories like “Stone Sky”, they seem unwilling to simply follow him back tho their old world, to regress with him – they are lost and he is now alone, no longer having to worry about being overcrowded.

Bill Carter, “The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, & The Network Battle For the Night” (1994,1995) & Harlan Ellison, “The Glass Teat”(1969-1970, 2011)

May 9, 2016

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Rightly or wrongly (probably more of the former), many people look at entertainment industry conflicts as an entirely who-could-possibly-care proposition, a battle between millionaires who shouldn’t want more than they have but apparently do (and not necessarily in terms of money, either – but money is supposed to fill those universal holes in our sense of self-worth, or so we’d like to believe.) For a normal person with a normal job, it’s difficult to fathom what could possibly be so important about being the one spearheading one particular show – and in the two decades since the The Late Shift was published, the idea of something like The Tonight Show having any sort of legacy that was worth fighting for, or that anyone would care so deeply about a format that seems antiquated and intentionally ephemeral, seems even more ludicrous – there were major changes in the television landscape happening alongside the NBC fiasco, and it’s even more significantly different now. That, and the fallout of the events in this book (and later events that were so similar that the same author wrote about them as well) ended up more or less taking the gleam from the Tonight Show – the way the show (and late night television in general) has evolved since Leno took over, left, took over again, and then left again has made it seem like something perfectly fine in its perfunctory and irrelevant niche – it’s mild entertainment for the ones who want it, and that’s pretty much it.

At the same time, considering how television was, it’s not that difficult to see why Letterman put so much into the idea of taking over The Tonight Show – it was destination television, a near-constant in the entertainment world for decades, a showcase for talent (like him and Leno), a venue available to millions of people who always know when it’s on. When you put so much into the idea of being an entertainer, being the lead in what was then the most consistent source of late night entertainment would seem the ultimate prize, the most prestigious position anyone could possibly have – and that’s especially true when you idolize your predecessor as much as Letterman idolized Johnny Carson. Letterman seemed to view The Tonight Show not only as the best venue for his talents, but also recognized it as the origin of his career. That kind of character study, of both Letterman and Leno, makes up about half of the book, the other being the executive wars going on primarily at NBC, where the players are definitely invested but often in ways that go back to that “war of the millionaires” idea (of course, it’s fun to read about it anyway, because the industry and the money involved means we can gleefully observe the bloodletting without any compunction – morality and proportion checked out long ago.) Both seem to have ideas and personalities that are the priority in their decision-making, Letterman’s devotion to craft and Leno’s to the idea of hard work going hand-in-hand with success, rather than just keeping a business afloat or even personal wealth – when the money does come up, it’s rarely the deciding factor (but it’s still there to make us workaday nobodies do a double take and wish we had their problems.) Where does one decide to bring art into the equation when you’re talking about something so inherently crass as television? It seems to be more at stake than would seem rational, but I guess people’s need for creative exposure and prestige would have to go somewhere – and at some point, it was going be with a medium as (seemingly) universal as network TV.

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It’s likely based on nothing but established personality defects, but I can’t help but find that even though there’s rarely anything blatantly wrong with most modern TV criticism, there’s this feeling of stultifying dullness that creeps in. The idea of the “golden age” of television seems to inspire in a generation already raised by TV not a desire for introspection or context, but an assumption that “we’ve already won”, so all we need to do is tell everyone how intelligent and well-made everything is without adding any actual interesting thoughts to the mix. The kind of animating venom that really gets one thinking about the state of a medium, about its failings and what it could be, sometime feels absent – but maybe television has just been around in its current form for so long that everyone just sort of accepts that this is the best we can do, and it might be more sustainable sanity-wise to look at the successes that might be found in this current form and not constantly dwell on the never-ending parade of failings. It’s maybe better for the writers – but as a reader, I prefer the anger, to be honest.

Ellison’s The Glass Teat columns were being written in a very singular moment in American history, and also a very important transition point in the history of television. While there’s plenty in here that modern readers will recognize, there’s also plenty that just seems at odds with how things are now – the timidness and artificiality of TV news (especially in times of major upheaval) is about relevant as ever, but it’s difficult for us in the post-80s/90s media world (where envelope-pushing vulgarity became so common that it stopped having any sort of subversive edge) to grasp just how milquetoast and bloodless the majority of network TV was. For example, the sitcom format can always be accused of being intentionally removed from reality/humanity, but the quaintness of the shows Ellison describes is still very much a product of a decade or more earlier (one of the most interesting columns has Ellison defend the early, unsuccessful pilot version of what would become All In The Family years before it would be picked up and instigate some real change in the sitcom world.) Dramas seemed equally detached, going through cycles of heroic archetypes (doctors, detectives, and western heroes) that seem to ignore everything going on in the world of the common person. The sixties protest culture and its myriad of issues is a constant throughout the columns, presenting the kinds of new thoughts about race, gender, institutions, and freedom that were clearly absent from the world of television, making the few venues for it (like the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, one of those shows mentioned here that has mostly faded into obscurity) major rallying points.

It’s the sort of media criticism that is still widely practiced among the progressive/alternative thinkers – taking the giants of the entertainment industry to task for their failures to engage with the society of now, and simply pushing out frivolous junk for the lowest common denominator – but in the case of this collection, it’s in the context of the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon, and the 1968 Chicago DNC. The networks are seen as a complacent part of the increasingly authoritarian systems that were shoring up in the wake of civil unrest, placating the masses with shallow entertainment while also undermining the protest movement in often subtle ways. These columns are part and parcel with that movement, pushing back against the form of mass entertainment – and as an underlying thesis statement, it gives each column, no matter where it ends up going, a sense of purpose, becoming a piece fitting into a larger idea gradually building up over the course of two or so years. Just having an guiding vision for criticism rooted in current realities is enough to make it interesting to read, both as a historical artifact and an example of how to write about television in a way that feels meaningful.

Kij Johnson, “At The Mouth Of The River Of Bees” (2012) & David Quammen, “Natural Acts: A Sidelong View Of Science And Nature” (1985, 2008)

April 5, 2016

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Many of the stories in this collection feature an imaginary intersection between humanity and the natural – an unknowable, unmovable force that individuals and whole societies build their identities around. Take for example, the longest (and probably best) of Johnson’s stories, “The Man Who Bridged The Mist”, which uses a fantastical and mostly unexplained concept (the titular mist, which isn’t even really mist) to demonstrate the extent of that intersection, as well as the tenacity of human progress – a public works project with both historical and individual significance. The people at the cusp of the mist have formed economies and individual identities based on their relationship with the mist (most importantly with the Ferry family, the names being the most explicit example of how important occupation and trade is in that society, an idea that reminds me of other books), and the building of the bridge will inevitably impact them both positively and negatively. Even more so, when one’s idea of death (as Rasali’s is, informed by whole generations of her family) is determined by seemingly insurmountable cosmic forces, the realization that it can and will eventually be “tamed” is a cultural shock – the full extent of which is only revealed gradually to the titular man, Kit. Most of the story devotes itself to more “mundane” tension of hiring and building, and the dangers that come not from poisonous foam or massive unseen marine monsters, but workplace accidents – and in those moments we see not just the contrast between the human ingenuity we know and the strange world that is established (and it is tense when they come together – the use of dynamite possibly attracting the attention of the aforementioned monsters, for example, even if it is only for a moment), but also how those accidental deaths are perceived by Kit (who assumes a high level of responsibility as the designer) and the locals like Rasali. There is a level of knowledge that comes with living so close to an untouched (or untouchable) natural world, but it’s also shown how an outsider can learn to appreciate it as well.

Characters defining themselves through a fantasy projection of nature is present in other stories as well, such as the title one – showing another unexplainable natural phenomenon, but one that brings willing individuals a “natural” way to handle grief (taking back its own, animal returning to animal, providing true comfort and peace.)The idea of this mysterious animal power being a gift is also present in “26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss” – it seems that allowing these representatives of the natural world a level of autonomy and privacy proves emotionally beneficial. More like “Mist” specifically, “The Horse Raiders” efficiently establishes a fictional society that seems to be undergoing radical changes (this time instigated not by human development, but by purely unguided changes in the environment), which in this case instigates violence between different groups – but, as with the other story, there remains possibilities for the future. Understanding and working within these dynamic ecosystems is important in those stories, much as they are in the smaller-scale ones.

The intersection plays out a bit differently in “Fox Magic”, “The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles”, and “The Evolution of Trickster Stories….” – the first two being told from the animal’s perspective (both are based in Japanese folklore as well), while the last one includes both human and animal sides of the story. These present whole animal mythologies and societies developed alongside humans, crossing paths out of necessity – “The Cat” requiring human assistance as it pursued its own goals, the “Fox” using its illusions to blur those lines out of love, and the dogs finding themselves outcasts once they learn to think and communicate as we do. While many of the other stories show a notionally optimistic outlook of how we and the rest of the animal kingdom can coexist, only “The Cat” seems to unambiguously fall along those lines – and likely only because its protagonist sees humans as just a part of its world. “Fox Magic” ends in tragedy, as even in love such subterfuge can only be temporary, and “Evolution of Trickster Stories” shows that the relationship between humans and animals they seem to care about can be strained when the terms of that relationship changes, revealing that there have always been grievances we refuse to acknowledge. What seems to be suggested in these is that while humans and other creatures can coexist, it needs to be based on (once again) understanding, and the coercions at heart of existing cohabitation are our primary obstacle.

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Interestingly, many of the columns reprinted in Natural Acts read like precursors to Quammen’s books – some of them are directly referenced (“The Megatransect” is referenced in Spillover, for example, and “The Post-Communist Wolf” covers some of the same ground as Monster of God in a reverse way, too, “Planet of Weeds” is a sort of follow-up to the previously published Song of the Dodo), but in terms of general subject and style they show Quammen’s talents and areas of interest. It’s not simply informing us of some quirky facts about animals or questioning humanity’s part in the natural cycle – Quammen loves context and loves specific, and the longer the columns run, the more he can indulge in both. The first batch of columns are able to quickly establish a unique angle – can a giant octopus be stressed out? How does a butterfly evolve to drink blood? How exactly does hypothermia work? – and in their (relatively) short word count find a sympathetic angle, one that balances the fascinating scientific and human sides of every story. As a regular columnist is wont to do, these stories can involve a personal angle as well – “Jeremy Bentham, the Pietà, and the Previous Few Graying” does this, as one example – but in most cases they focus on others directly involved in the subject in as much detail as the science itself.

There’s an equal fascination with the people who involve themselves in natural studies or who choose to integrate themselves into the wilderness in some way, or even the people on the margins. The articles demonstrate a knack for sketching out the personalities of the people involved – be they interview subjects, travel companions, or historical figures – the people involved are worthy of detail, seemingly independent of their impact on the topic at hand, just so we can get the clearest picture of the scope of each story, the micro and the macro. This goes for setting as well – “Ying and Yang in the Tularosa Basin” finds time not just for the curiousness of the White Sands, but also a local motorcade, the nearby site of the A-bomb tests during World War 2, and the stone art of the mysterious Mogollon people, all of which are important to understanding the beauty and history of the region. “The River Jumps Over The Mountain” is about poetry, a Grand Canyon rafting adventure, the shaping of the canyon itself, escape from a troublesome life, and the strangeness of going away and having the world change in your absence – the scientific, personal, historical, and human interest parts of the story seamlessly flowing into each other. None of these things need to be separate, treated as their own story, even though our need for compartmentalization and efficiency might dictate they be – all of these things inform each other, and one of the joys of Quammen’s writing is that it knows that, and exhaustively integrates the facts and questions of those systems – otherwise, we might not properly understand why these things happen and why we, or someone else, might care.

David Quammen, “The Song Of The Dodo” (1996, 1997) & Leslie Stein, “Bright-Eyed At Midnight” (2015)

September 10, 2015

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Amongst many things, The Song Of The Dodo is about a history of a scientific idea, its extrapolation, and its many permutations. The reason why the first section of the book (and, rather subtly, the later sections) focuses so heavily on Alfred Wallace is not just because Quammen feels he has been duly undervalued as one of the founders of evolutionary biology (at least compared to Darwin), but also because the evidence and experiences he alone had provide the basis for pretty much everything in biogeography. He investigated different island environments (and comparable continental ecosystems), and sought to answer how place changes different aspects of species – and following his ideas was a calvalcade of other scientists, in both field biology and statistics, who took them further and further, finding how consistent the “rules” of biogeography were, and that they could be applied even more broadly. Island biogeography isn’t just AN important idea, but one of THE most important ideas in modern evolutionary biology, helping illuminate the core phenomenon of organisms: evolution and extinction.

Of course, it’s the latter of those two that gets the bulk of the focus in the book, being the major biological issue of our times (even as far back as 1996!) As one would expect, humans have played a major part in the mass extinction of island species (just look at the titular animal), but what’s more interesting is what Quammen learns about the specificity of island extinction, and how isolation directly affects such things. Take the concept of ecological naivete, where particular animals have lived without natural predators (increasingly remote islands often leading to lower populations of carnivorous species who have greater needs) for so long that they are seemingly unable to identify anything as a threat – this was observed by Wallace and Darwin in their time, and Quammen finds it still among the birds and tortoises. Combine that with the smaller living space leading to smaller populations – even a stable island population might be considerably rarer than most mainland species – and it becomes painfully clear how even one change, especially the introduction of human or non-human hunters, can easily devastate island species.

But even so, there’s a surprising resilience in island species, and the information to replenish population numbers when some are eliminated is one of the most important aspects of their study – the destruction of Krakatoa and its reformation as Anak Krakatau providing a perfect example of how an island is repopulated. That an island can be reclaimed by various species so relatively quickly is why, as Quammen explains at the end of the book, the loss of species (usually balanced by gains through speciation) is growing at an alarming rate – through the microcosm of islands, we have become aware that (as is still being written about today) we are in a period of mass extinction, related to a number of changes mostly brought about by us. The latter parts of the book move into explaining this, and applying island concepts to mainland (especially in the area of conservation, where isolated ecosystems, separated by open land, are treated almost exactly the same way as islands) – the transition very subtle, though set-up by Quammen in the first section especially. This was not just about island biogeography; or, more accurately, island biogeography was never just about islands – its a field that has vitally important information for all of biology. Earth is, after all, just a series of islands of many different sizes.

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Although very different in format, Bright-Eyed At Midnight has many of the same qualities as Stein’s Eye Of The Majestic Creature comics: the way it portrays day-to-day living, drifting from events of varying significance, going back and forth in time. There are some things in the comics that seem like they’d be more important than others, like the bouts of insomnia early on or Stein quitting her job near the end, but the egalitarian outlook of the strips means that they become part of a broader context rather than as definitive events – all the things that are drawn here seem equally important to each other, even if they don’t obviously connect. The flow between the strips is less demarcated in the book than they there on the web – days seem subsumed by the cycle of events, which follows a very identifiable rhythm (see the number of pages that begin or end with her in bed, or drawing one the page that we are currently reading) – there are job stories, band stories, comics stories, ongoing internal monologues, bleeding into each other from page to page. The ritualistic/on-the-fly nature of the project kind of necessitates this – each page is a reaction to that specific day, and so the multitude of experiences constantly overlap each other, giving the book a natural non-progression.

There’s also a charming handmade quality to the comics here – again, being daily made Stein use an evolving minimalist style, but that allows her to experiment with her use of watercolours, collage, and text, giving each day a distinct feeling. The speed-and-ease-oriented drawings give the pages extra space and freedom for those elements to really shine through even more than in something like Eye of the Majestic Creature. Some pages, connected or disconnected from what came before them, become a splurge of scribbles, paint splotches, and disembodied forms – and some days, that is an exact representation of one’s outlook. Despite being originally posted online, every comic proudly wears its physicality, the use of whatever materials seemed to be nearby – the colours and layouts of the pages straddle the line between spur-of-the-moment and innately considered.

Which is probably the most interesting part of going through these strips again, in book form: being given the opportunity to see how those elements came together outside the scheduled production these comics had when they were being posted. They were not meant to be read together in this fashion when they were being produced (as we can tell just by seeing the context of Stein’s drawing in the comics themselves), but they (maybe only sort of) accidentally feel part of a continuum. That was probably one of the aims when compiling the strips, but it manages to do that without compromising the original aims of the daily comics.

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Chris Turner, “The War On Science: Muzzled Scientists and Wilful Blindness in Stephen Harper’s Canada” (2013) & Ursula K. Le Guin, “Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences” (1987, 1990)

June 29, 2015

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It takes only a small amount of time and leverage for an self-ingrained ideology to be derailed, as Turner repeatedly hammers home throughout this book. Canada’s devotion to scientific study, and environmental sciences in particular, had somewhat modestly become part of its international image, and Turner argues it’s been part of this country from its founding days – unlike the rest of the continent, it never seemed imperative to stamp much of the wilderness, and with that much of it left, what better use than to preserve and study it? Even someone as seemingly middle-of-the-road as Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden did much to bolster the government-funded science in Canada, one of the examples (alongside later Conservative PM Brian Mulroney, who led while Canada was a world climate science leader in the 1980s) used to show the book is not a bipartisan screed. This is not an established political ideology of the Conservative party, but a very particular goal present in the current one, which Turner labels “the Harper agenda.”

It really doesn’t take much convincing that current Canadian government at the very least doesn’t put much value in the pure science model – almost every budgetary measure since gaining their majority (and even when they could get away with it as a minority) has lacerated the funding for projects like the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Factory and the Experimental Lakes Areas, and even Parks Canada. There are other revealing changes as well, such as the new bureaucracy surrounding communications between scientists and the public or the ending of the long form census, that show a combination of desperate message control and a general apathy (or possibly disdain) for hard data that pervades the government, with only lip service paid to internal and external criticism of how this has damaged Canada’s reputation on both scientific and environmental matters. And that’s just their actions – it becomes far more damning when Turner begins to quote members of the government, who disparage environmental activists and speak of science solely as an adjunct to economic development, making motivations all the more clear.

Following the large-scale protests by members of the scientific community Turner writes about in the first chapter (which likely served as the impetus for the rest of the book), there does seem to be a core belief that the way science and scientific thinking has been treated by the Harper government has not only been noticed by Canadians at large, but is readily opposed. This is not a reflection of how any regular citizen wants to see the country develop, but rather something entirely forced on them, sometimes among smoke and mirrors to keep its true purpose hidden from most of the public. In the final paragraphs especially, Turner argues that a respect for these things is a integral part of the country’s identity, and that the impositions of the Harper agenda will eventually be rejected. Two years after The War on Science‘s publication, and on the heels of a federal election, one would hope that is true – but the agenda has still stood its ground so far.

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Once again, I am thankful for Ursula Le Guin’s introductions for giving me some interesting context and other thoughts in which to read the stories that follow. Le Guin writes of a divide between humanity and the rest of animal-kind (or of the rest of the natural world in general) that is reinforced through literature – the story of animals, talking and non-talking, relegated to books for children, denigrated. There should be no such divide, these stories argue, especially in the titular story – the animals appear as human to lone human, but that’s only a thing of perception. In behaviour, the animals show variation and individual quirks (anthropomorphizing them too much would rob them of their identities), but in substance, they share enough in common that their community is possible – understanding the grander scheme of things. It is a community that humans once took part in, but through their own devices – building the closed-off homesteads and even the use of linguistic barriers (Myra, the human, is the only one with “two names”, her human one separating her from the “generically”-designated animals.) The human girl notices all of this quickly, once she becomes part of the animal world, and comes to despise it. But the animals do not encourage her to abandon humanity, even after it is responsible for the “death” of her friend Coyote, because cutting oneself off from everyone else is the problem – with her new knowledge and perception, there would be no separation at all.

Humanity, no matter how hard it tries, is never truly above or beyond the natural world, and will always share much with it. This is cleverly reiterated through a variety of stories – “Mazes” and “The Wife’s Story” through role reversals, where the presence of humanity is considered the monstrous thing, “Horse Camp”, which subtly shows humans and animals as one, and “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” and “She Unnames Them,” which posit alternatives to the lingual distance between humans and other animals. There are connections, and there are the things that we create that attempt to sever those connections, but there are ways we can reclaim them. This is also present in “May’s Lion,” in which a story of a more sympathetic and natural encounter with an animal is substituted for the more mundanely destructive one – once again, offering that alternative.

It’s not just animals, either, as Le Guin says in her introduction – her poems include many about plants and even rocks and mountains, and the stories “The Direction Of The Road” and “Vaster Than Empires And More Slow” focus on plants as well. Both have a nature-and-civilization motif, showing expanding modernity colliding with the silent, established world of flora, a usually unseen and unremarked-upon realm, but one with great importance. “Vaster Than Empires” brings this into a science fiction setting, offering a plant organism that is large and unknowable, yet entirely affected by the mere presence of humans, unknowingly changed, maybe even permanently – one of the often unrecognized consequences of our constant need for movement to new frontiers. If there is one real difference we have from the rest of nature, it is in the magnitude of the changes we can wittingly and unwittingly make on the rest of it.

Julia Wertz, “The Infinite Wait and Other Stories” (2012) & Stephen T. Asma, “On Monsters: An Unnatural History Of Our Worst Fears” (2009)

May 1, 2015

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As a trio of short stories, The Infinite Wait does some interesting interweaving – although all three are fully readable and self-contained, Wertz has them loop through the events of the others (especially the first two, “Industry” and “The Infinite Wait”), so while the stories and characterizations are consistent, or sometimes repeated, they are brought up in different contexts, giving them slightly different meaning. For example, we see two takes on Wertz’s time working at a pool hall – but the more detailed account in “Industry” shows it more as just another one of her many jobs, and “Infinite Wait” positions it as part of the fallout of her diagnosis with lupus. The details are largely the same, but because the stories have different trajectories, the same events can be seen in different lights. Of course, giving multiple angles on these stories also allows her to wring as much humour out of them as possible, which is also a noble goal.

“Industry” and “Infinite Wait” could have possibly been merged into one chronological story, but that could have robbed them of a lot of their punch, with far too much to keep track of – they tend to go in several different tangents within the course of their stories, so on a sheer readability level, separating them gives them more room to breathe. Thing is, we all have a tendency to compartmentalize things in our lives in a pretty similar way, even when they are all part of a single time frame, and Wertz uses that here in order to maintain clarity in these stories. Even so, reading through all three (with the final, shorter story “A Strange and Curious Place” being a kind of coda that provides additional context to the previous stories) we can see a pretty straightforward narrative – how her relationship with her family, her work experience, and finally her struggles with her diagnosis led to her career in comics.

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Of special note here is constant presence of her family, both in the story and in the meta-narration of the book. Autobiography is a tricky subject because, in the end, you’re writing almost as much about other people as you are about yourself, and as confident as Wertz seems to be in describing her life, she always makes it clear that she fully expects the rest of her friends and family to be reading the book as well. This leads to some pretty funny stuff peppered throughout – putting in a special shout-out to her mom when she covers up some particularly lewd panels, or the constant presence of her brother both as a character (and the goofy rapport between Wertz and her brother are the most consistently entertaining parts) and even as one of the pull quotes on the back of the book. The further one gets into the stories, “The Infinite Wait” especially, the more comes to see those relationships as the main anchor of the whole thing.

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(I picked up this book because it was included in the bibliography of the last few books I read.)

In On Monsters, Asma uses a very broad use of the term “monster”, linking both fictional creatures from ancient and modern stories or a descriptions of a murderer or criminal (or the outdated epithet against the deformed.) The fact that monster has such a wide breadth of uses and meanings actually goes hand-in-hand with some of the main ideas in the book – monster as a concept is important in both fiction and reality, and in some instances bridges the gaps between them. After all, the peoples of the ancient world through the middle ages (and beyond, in some instances) had as much reason to believe in dragons and giants and men with faces in their chests they hear of as any of the actual strangeness or deviants in their own lives – the things one can see can give life to things one cannot. They existed in that state for quite a while, too – even post-Enlightenment, it was not easy to determine why a chimera isn’t real, but a platypus was.

The book regularly talks about monsters as liminal beings, strange others that exist between states we see as “normal” (for example, life and death,) a disturbance in our perception of reality. In a way, it’s almost a super-generalized version of the uncanny valley – we have distinct parameters for what something is supposed to appear or behave, be it human or animal or vegetable, and anything beyond that provokes only fear and disgust. In this way, a deformed calf, a demon that appears in our sleep (a liminal being between waking and dreaming,) and a unrepentant criminal all fit the working definition – deviation from our ideas of appearance or understanding or morality is considered monstrous. Especially in the times when all three of those things would be considered “real”, they were all given some sort of magical-symbolic element as well – calves with “human faces” were omens, and criminals and other deviants were often believed to be possessed by demons or otherwise affected by the magical forces those demons embody. As mentioned, “monster” became a go-between for physical and metaphysical between all of a civilization’s collective fears – a place where dangers real and not-so-real real could co-exist and justify each other.

Of course, as western societies changed and natural sciences became more pronounced, the monsters of old were often dismissed, only to be replaced with new ones – once the secrets of gestation and illness were slowly unraveled, and foreign lands thoroughly documented (and verified again and again, as to not repeat the exaggerated travelogues of the past that disseminated less-than-truthful ideas), it only left us with the realization that there was only more to discover, and so monstrous theories often rose up to fill in the gaps. We also had a tendency to create our own monsters where there were none before – the Frankenstein story would become the precursor to most of our modern futuristic monsters, the genetically engineered and the mechanical beings that always seem to creep around our desire for progress. That also brings about other alternative interpretations – if “monster” is even a useful term, when moral relativity is and alternative explanations for things like crime offer up ways to take the monstrousness out of monsters and make them more understandable. Asma seems to reject that idea in some instances, but the possibility that either everyone or no one are monsters – which, of course, is questioning the liminal status at its root, leaving no middle.

That’s a hardly a new thing, though – the book itself shows how interpretations of even longstanding ideas, like the dog-faced men said to live in Africa, changed over time – one of those dog-faced men became a saint, after all. The rise of Christianity itself reinterpreted many monsters and monster stories on their own terms – the story of Beowulf can be read as either a pagan story of a brave warrior killing a gigantic monster, or a Christian tale of a prideful man learning humility. That, of course, is one of the most interesting journeys in the book – introducing religious, scientific, or postmodern lenses allows the same monsters (sometimes in new forms) to find new meanings.

Jason Zinoman, “Shock Value” (2011) & Michael Dylan Foster, “The Book of Yōkai” (2015)

April 19, 2015

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Some of the most interesting historical material in Shock Value are the stories about the new horror directors and their relationship with their direct predecessors, the direct and indirect responses and rivalries that were in the background of many of the movies. Earlier, figures like Vincent Price (tasked with “defending” horror films against Frederic Wertham) and William Castle appear as the veterans of fifties and sixties horror cinema, presented as a kind of light fantasy fare (contrasted with the darker, more intense tone of the late sixties and seventies) – Castle and Boris Karloff (who appears in Peter Bogdanovich’s film Targets) then bridge that era, key figures in some of the core movies Zinoman focuses on. Chronicling how Castle played a major role in the early development of the film version of Rosemary’s Baby, and then losing the director role (and his chance at finally achieving some level of respectability) to Roman Polanski sets the tone of that connection – the new guys, given more leeway for violence and ambiguity, were outright replacing the gothic thrillers and schlocky good times of their antecedents.

This is further developed when Alfred Hitchcock, who was both a predecessor and contemporary of the new horror crowd, is brought in. Although he directly inspired filmmakers like Bryan De Palma (whose work was compared to Hitchcock very early on, much to Hitchcock’s derision), the more interesting comparison was how his less ambiguous ending to Psycho is trotted out as the reasoning behind the often context-free killers of films like Halloween – a bit of film criticism in film form. Directors like De Palma, Polanski, John Carpenter, George Romero, and William Friedkin saw more value in keeping things unexplained, possibly inexplicable, to heighten the tension and leave audiences unsure about reality and perspective, always off-balance. The killers lacked clear motivation (with Targets an early and direct example), or even clear humanity (Halloween’s Michael Myers referred to as simply “the shape” in the credits of the film) – they were evil forces of nature, beyond even mindlessness. The way this affected the movies was not simply removing “happy” endings – sometimes there seemed to be no payoff or catharsis, which put these films in conflict not just with the films that came before, but also with the studios producing the films.

Conflict seems be one of the other recurring elements of these films’ histories – rarely did production go smoothly, and it seems that benefited the final product. Polanski argued with Castle over Rosemary’s Baby, Friedkin’s changes to the story conflicted with the intent of author William Peter Blatty, Carpenter and eventual Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon had their friendship turn sour, and the making of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre was an ordeal. The discomfort and power struggles behind the movies often seem to directly parallel the tone of the movies themselves – these were often not easy films to make, and they aren’t necessarily easy to watch, either.

That seems to be what Zinoman’s final takeaway was, as well – though he regards these films highly, he can’t argue that some of their appeal is just in the revelling in the violence and nihilism rather than reflecting on it. Though movies like Night of the Living Dead are read politically, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t meant to work as pure shock material, either. That they seem to succeed on both levels seems to be one of the unique qualities of these movies and the era they were created in.

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Ambiguity also plays an important part in The Book of Yōkai as well – one of Foster’s main points is that many of these spirit figures, rather than provide ambiguity (although some still do that as well, remaining without a visual component even when described) are instead used to provide answers to unexplained phenomenon. So, the feeling of being exhausted after a long walk becomes an invisible wall in your path, and the various sounds around the house becomes unseen tricksters – everyday encounters become fuel for dream creatures. This is used to explain both how different yōkai can be both consistent and inconsistent in different parts of Japan – while ideas can transfer, catching on from one community to the next, different people can also interpret the same situation in different ways, leading to regional variations of the same core concept. The most interesting part of attempting to categorize yōkai is that there are usually many different stories, with many different meanings, that have appeared over time – one creature may end up being multiple creatures, all with their own specific context. They are a commonality that allows for personal interpretation.

The history behind many of the yōkai give them both broad and individual appeal – they are something that normal people will know about, but can be applied to their lives, allowing for stories to be widely identified, but with enough leeway for added developments. The very open-source nature of the stories allowed not only for people to interpret yōkai for different times and places (in the same way some yōkai were developed from stories imported from China and Korea) – the shape-changing tanuki found new ways to appear in the age of locomotives, for example – but also allowed for the wholesale creation of yōkai without a historical origin to easily mingle with the longstanding ones (as many early writers and artists depicting them are suspected of doing.) This adaptability has allowed the yōkai to be figures of horror, comedy, or drama depending on the story, and also directly led to their status as pop culture figures – though they are essentially no one’s property, they are regularly used as characters in commercial fiction or even advertising. Despite being a little antithetical to their folk origins, those modern versions, like those seen in Shigeru Mizuki’s manga and animated series, have been key to keeping yōkai both well-known and obscure in the public consciousness, and has even allowed them to cross over into other countries and languages.

This would seem to make the job of wrangling all these creatures into a single encyclopedic distillation very difficult, if not outright impossible – but Foster goes through the long history of scholars doing just that (himself included in this book), and in those difficulties the enthusiasm of those scholars, spread out over centuries, becomes very understandable. It’s against the nature of yōkai to find one version, but through older stories and writers, one can get a sense of convergence and history – the yōkai stories become a way in which to understand all the social contexts in which they existed, which makes the cataloguing of them all the more exciting.

Endnotes for 2014

January 17, 2015

I have some more focused book posts I’m planning to get around to, but on a whim I also wrote some paragraphs on many of the books I read in 2014, including a few that didn’t end up on the site, and some quick additional thoughts on ones that did. So, here is my 2014 Year In Review round-up:

The first thing I read this year was The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, something that I had been holding off for a while despite having no real reason to hold it off. I didn’t write a post because I didn’t feel I could flesh out any of my ideas into anything coherent or interesting. I found it particularly interesting to read a piece of historical fiction that essentially rewrites some of the history of something relatively minor, maybe something that many of the readers wouldn’t even notice. I still am parsing, trying to determine what I think about this in terms of a medium that still grapples with the truth of its own founding narratives.

I read two books about the natural world back to back – David Quammen’s Spillover and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction. The things I learned from Quammen’s book, which was from a few years ago, turned out to have startling relevance a little bit later in the year. Despite being a 2014 book, the things Kolbert wrote about did not seem to have as much import this year when faced with some more immediate issues, although it is an ongoing condition that remains to be grappled with. Reading them together was one of my first thematic duets this year – the role of man in the precarious and hostile environment we have mostly engineered for ourselves, fundamentally changing the natural system in many ways.

I managed to write a short thing about a Michael DeForge comic I read this year, after failing to come up with a proper response to Mostly Casual last year. Ant Colony (which I followed in webcomic form as it was being posted the year before) seemed a little more straightforward, and I could find a couple dumb things I wanted to mention about it, but I’m still terrible at discussing comics in a half-intelligent way. I also read A Body Beneath, but obviously didn’t write anything about that for the same reasons as Mostly Casual.

I watched a little over half-dozen giant monster movies earlier in the year, and wrote about those as well. It’s a genre that I have a longstanding affection for, and falling for a multimedia blitz like the mark I am, I decided to use it to brush up on my stuff. This was supposed to lead up to me going to see the new Godzilla movie, but that didn’t happen because that would involve leaving my house. This also led me to read August Ragone’s Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, which is a beautiful, utterly essential book that reminds me on every page why I love these stupid movies.

One author I decided to begin reading this year was J.G. Ballard, and I started with one of his novels (Concrete Island) and a collection of his short stories. The short stories provided some crucial context to development of his style and themes – even when he was working with more standard genre trappings, he had a knack for finding jarring, inward-looking story angles, and crafting claustrophobic environments. By the time we get to the novel (which I read first), he had transposed those ideals from the science fiction realm to a contemporary “realist” one, but with essentially the same results.

I read another volume of the Judge Dredd Complete Case Files, 07, which I forgot to write about, to be honest. It’s way more of a procedural volume, without any real major developments in the series ongoing, but since it’s those kinds of stories that make up the bulk of Dredd (and allow for more of the stuff I like from it – namely, the dark humour), it’s good to see what the creators do with their “free time” between epic storylines. The art is all over the place, leaving some interesting stylistic changes (the haunted house story in particular) and some less-than-interesting examples (a lot of the latter part of the collection), with the regulars like Ron Smith putting out their consistently good work.

My light summer reading was Matt Taibbi’s The Divide, which like Quammen’s book, had a lot of material that became in-your-face relevant by the end of the year. Questions of how policing in America is used against certain classes of people has finally become one of the most important social questions for everyone, rather than just the direct victims, and The Divide provides many disturbing examples of how the system has been set up like this. It’s not the whole picture, to be sure, but it’s an important piece of it. Reading 2011’s Griftopia gave me even more insight into some of the systems Taibbi described in his later book.

For one reason or another, I decided to go crazy with my Stanislaw Lem reading this year – I read four different books by him: one novel, one short story collection, one book of criticism, and one literary experiment, all the different forms Lem is known for. It’s pretty easy to look at all four of them together as Lem’s mission statement for science fiction: His Master’s Voice is his take on “first contact,” Mortal Engines covers artificial intelligence using older literary forms re-contextualized as science fiction (mocking those conventions in the process,) Imaginary Magnitudes* (which, despite its gimmick, is pretty much a collection of science fiction short stories in its own right) demonstrates how the genre can be applied outside standard literary modes, and Microworlds well, states its purpose pretty openly, attempting to form a basis for actual literary criticism within the genre. Even without many of his more well-known works, one could easily understand many of Lem’s pervading themes and stylistic tics just from these four books.

*To be discussed further at a later date.