Last Week’s Reading: February 12-18

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Elizabeth Bishop: A Miracle for Breakfast, by Megan Marshall: Full marks to this illuminating biography of one of the twentieth century’s best poets. You can read my in-depth review here.

Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop: Thanks to Ms. Marshall’s biography, I succumbed to the temptation to update my version of Bishop’s complete poems. This volume contains all her published poetry, several uncollected pieces, translations, and some works in progress—a feast, by any measure.

The Essex Serpent photo copyright Carolyn OliverThe Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry: From the moment I saw the cover of this novel, I coveted it. Last month I ordered in from the UK, not willing to wait until its summer release here—and goodness, I’m glad I did. The plot: In 1893, Cora Seaborne, a recently widowed amateur natural historian, sets out from London with her son and her friend/nanny/maid to visit Essex, where she hopes to make exciting discoveries and escape the oppressive memories of her marriage. Further up the coast, fear ripples through a small village after a series of unsettling events lead many to believe that the legendary Essex serpent has returned. Cora hopes that the beast turns out to be a living fossil, while William Ransome, the local curate, believes lack of faith is responsible for his parishioners’ panic. When Will and Cora meet, their intelligence and opposing beliefs draw them together like magnets, and the nature of friendship is tested. The supporting characters are finely drawn and the setting is sumptuous—this is a novel you’ll want to devour. Mark your calendars for June 6, U. S. readers.

The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: Had I known more about Sojourner Truth’s life, I probably would have chosen to read Nell Irvin Painter’s biography of the legendary abolitionist and suffragist instead of this primary source (Nell Irvin Painter also wrote the very helpful introduction to this book). Because Sojourner Truth could neither read nor write, her story was necessarily mediated through amanuenses. The Narrative is composed of three parts written or compiled at different times by different figures, and while some of Truth’s speech is set down, it’s hard to tell if it’s an exact transcription (almost all of the work is in the third person, and the first co-writer offers her own opinions freely). Still, I’m glad I read it, since I learned more about Truth’s ordeals as a slave in New York, her years as an itinerant preacher, and her unstinting efforts on behalf of freed persons after the Civil War.

Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal, by G. Willow Wilson, drawn by Adrian Alphona: I loved the concept of this comic, but I think it’s geared for readers younger than I am. Kamala Khan, a sixteen-year-old Muslim girl living in Jersey City with her Pakistani American family, discovers she has shapeshifting abilities. Becoming Ms. Marvel is no easy task, as she needs to learn how to channel her new powers while simultaneously navigating tricky relationships with her friends, family, and classmates. Essentially, this is a more complex and interesting version of the Spider-Man story, and I’d definitely recommend it for teen readers.

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Comics Round Up

I know, Dear Readers: that’s a post title you probably didn’t expect from these quarters.

I’m unpredictable.

Given my nearly unassailable geek credentials, comics should be situated squarely in my wheelhouse, but two factors have stood in the way:

  1. I hate cartoons. With limited exceptions, I find them aesthetically displeasing and grating to the ear (my son’s current favorite, Paw Patrol, is the worst offender right now). Pixar movies are fine because they’re made for adults to enjoy, but I have been done with Disney movies for many years (and that’s not even taking into consideration the deplorable antifeminist and heteronormative sentiments of most of them). South Park, The Simpsons, Futurama, anything on Adult Swim: sorry, no. For years, I though of comics as cartoons in paper form.
  2. I like to have all the information. I realize that’s broad, so let me re-frame: I like to start a story from the very beginning with confidence that there will be an ending of some sort; if a story is particularly gripping, I like to know that I can read (or watch) the next installment pretty much immediately. This is why it’s been hard for me to get into Dr. Who; even if we started at the reboot, I’ll feel as though I’m missing quite a bit—and of course there’s no way I’m catching up on decades’ worth of TV any time soon. This is also why I’ve been waiting to start the Kingkiller Chronicles and to move on to Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary Sword (although the third book in that trilogy is out now, so I suppose I could). And that’s why I’ve never been interested in jumping into Marvel or D.C. comics—it would be virtually impossible to catch up after all these years. And since I associated comics with superheroes for a long time, it didn’t really occur to me that other kinds of comics might be out there.

So, for most of my reading life, I happily disregarded the existence of comics.

But then someone somewhere on the vast interwebs posted about a new comic called Saga; the first volume (collecting issues one through six) of this fantasy space opera features an interspecies couple on the cover, with the armed mother breastfeeding.

I am so totally here for that.

I bought it immediately, and now I’m hooked. It’s so much fun to read—think the best parts of Dune and Star Wars with pulp elements and a love story—and Fiona Staples’s art is just gorgeous, awash in color—it perfectly complements Brian Vaughan’s text. Saga was the gateway drug to a bunch of other comics (all out from Image, now that I think about it) that I read this year. Here’s my rundown of what to read and what to skip.

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Saga (Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples): Definitely read this if you like sci-fi. There are now five volumes out and I’ve loved all of them, but I’d say the first two are perhaps the strongest. Note that Saga is intended for an adult audience: there’s some sex, a great deal of violence, and mature themes throughout.

ODY-C (Matt Fraction & Christian Ward): I wanted to love this, since it’s a gender-twisted version of the Odyssey set in space. While the artwork is really something—it seems like it wants to splatter off the page, and the colors combinations are inventive—I found two major sources of disappointment. One was the style of the writing, which was going for the archaic feel of some Odyssey translations but too often ended up as mangled syntax. The other was the gender-bending—I’m all for it in theory, but the artwork and writing combined portrayed female sexuality as monstrous (part of a long tradition)—and I don’t think the inventiveness of the project was enough to redeem it. Skip this one.

Monstress (Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda): The art in this comic, described as “a dark fantastic adventure set in an alternate 1900s Asia,” is absolutely gorgeous, all the more remarkable for its limited palette. The story is complex; the main character, Maika, is on a mission of vengeance, infiltrating an enemy stronghold for reasons that weren’t fully clear in the first issue. It seemed that all or nearly all the characters are female, which was refreshing (you’ll notice that Ms. Liu, Ms. Takeda, and Ms. Staples are the only women among the writers and artists I’ve listed here). I’d love to see where this story goes, but given how dense it is—novelistic, almost—I think I’m going to wait for the first collection to come out before I continue reading. Recommended, though.

Sex Criminals Vol. 1: One Weird Trick (Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky): This came highly recommended from a few sources. I liked the hilarious title and the ridiculous premise (the main character, a librarian, discovers that time stops whenever she has an orgasm, and when she meets another person who shares her talent, hijinks ensue), but I just wasn’t into the storyline. Maybe it became more interesting in later issues, but I can’t stop time with any weird trick, alas, and life is short, so I’m afraid I won’t be finding out. Lots of other readers were really into this comic, so I’d recommend checking it out at the library.

Paper Girls (Brian K. Vaughan & Cliff Chiang, plus Matt Wilson and Jared Fletcher): I’m only a couple issues into this comic, but I like it quite a bit. Four paper delivery girls in Ohio (hey Buckeyes!) in the 80s are trying to finish their route in the wee hours of Halloween, but run across more trouble than they anticipated. This review in the Onion’s A.V. Club is spot-on. I’m not going to run out to buy every issue, but I’d definitely pick up the volume of collected issues when it comes out. I’d recommend it to any Goonies fans out there.

That’s it for this year, Dear Readers. Have you read any comics this year? What did you like? What should I be looking for next year?

P.S. If you’re a comics fan who’s stumbled across this post, let me take this opportunity to recommend a novel: Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. The title doesn’t lie; it’s one of my favorite books.