Wednesday, December 4, 2019

I Read a Graphic Novel. "Spider-Man Noir," and Here's What I Found Out

I was browsing at my good old local public library and wanting to try something new. On the way to the fiction section, walking down the central aisle, I passed the small graphic novel collection and thought, "Why not?" I had looked at the graphic novels before but hadn't pulled the trigger and checked one out. Why not try one?

I chose a thin book on a subject that I was familiar with and picked up Spider-Man Noir. The graphic novel's text author and goodreads self-reviewer posted the following blurb:
With great power, there must also come great responsibility - and when those in power abuse it, it's the people's responsibility to remove them. The year is 1933, and New York City is not-so-secretly run by corrupt politicians, crooked cops, big businesses . . . and suave gangland bosses like New York's worst, the Goblin. But when a fateful spider-bite gives the young rabble-rouser Peter Parker the power to fight the mobster who killed his Uncle Ben, will even that be enough? It's a tangled web of Great Depression pulp, with familiar faces like you've never seen them before!
As anyone can see, the novel's 2009 storyline is familiar and aligned to the familiar characters and events in the Spider-Man movies. However the noir aspect provides a darker and more gritty feel to the novel, captured not so much by the storyline but by the art. The pictured illustrations are literally or visually more dark than many comic books I've read. Spider-Man packs a pistol and wears a costume compiled from old, iconic wardrobe styles of the 1930s--leather bomber helmet, motorcycle goggles, trench coat, and heavy clothes of natural fiber. He can still spit the web, though, and fly through the air with spiderese.

My Conclusions
  1. I found the graphic art of the novel interesting in the depiction of the times, the tone. The illustrations provided powerful and interesting images that concretized the novel's world view.
  2. The graphic aspect of the novel didn't help me with the storyline. I do just fine reading a novel that is all text and with no illustrations. The pictures in my head, built through author description of character and setting and my imagination, are the real canvas upon which a textual novel is revealed. 
  3. There's nothing wrong with a new experience, though, and I enjoyed the read.
  4. The comic book "bubble" dialogue and description in this graphic novel were in tiny letters. Some I read by just attending closely, and for some of the novel I pulled out a magnifying glass to read. The size of the text was just small enough to require just enough effort that I was pulled away from the storyline in order to deal with the physical experience of reading.
So do I recommend the graphic novel? Sure! I experienced no epiphanies, though. It was pretty much what I expected, just smaller than I expected.

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Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Reading Ernest Hemingway--The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories

While browsing through my local county library, one of the books I brought home was Ernest Hemingway's The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories. I hadn't read Hemingway for a long time, and I was interested in the experience. And what was my experience? Surprised, pleased, and "Oh, yeah, I remember."

The collection is one that the publisher Simon and Schuster gleaned from his published short stories, the first being the title short story. I read the first three stories and plan to read the rest a bit at a time over time. What surprised me what how the stories pulled me in. The action was not intense, but the characters and their dilemmas captured me. Time and storyline took a backseat to the perspective of the characters. I had forgotten, what with my current interest in more popular fiction, especially whodunits, that one can just enter the world of fiction and live for a time with the characters, just hang out in their reality. Reading Hemingway, I found his simple, straightforward phrasing again pulled me into his reality, his human, imperfect world.

I was pleased to remember again the experience of reading "literature," that is, fiction that is not written primarily to entertain or thrill (although it must, to an acceptable degree, do both) but more to open the world to the reader, to unify the outer and inner worlds. The best writing opens the world, widens it, places us, the readers, in that larger world--expands us. Hemingway's stories, these gems, did this. I was reminded of my humanity--the stories didn't allow me to escape but rather to remember. The main purpose of the stories was to open the reader to that moment of epiphany, when we for a moment touch the greater realities of existence.

However, there was also that "Oh, yeah" moment I remembered about Hemingway. I suppose most reading this will know about his depression, his alcohol, his suicide. Each of the three stories in this collection are all associated with death. I was reminded that "beauty" is not the same as "pretty." These stories are beautifully crafted; they move us, increase us. They are not pretty, though. The uplift we experience is from the art of the story, not the content, which is dark. I had forgotten and then remembered while reading the heaviness of Hemingway's vision, Hemingway's stoicism in the face of suffering, mostly self-imposed. Reading Hemingway is like taking a bitter tonic. It may be good for you, but only in small, occasional doses.

That's why I returned the book to the library. I'll check it out again, read a few stories over the next month, renew it, and then probably finish the stories. It's like that old movie cliché where the hysterical character gets his face slapped and then says, "Thanks, I needed that." Or perhaps it's a glass of cold water tossed in your face (the water, not the glass). An artful rendering of our mortality can remind us to live life more fully, to appreciate each moment, but too much can overwhelm. That's why I'll be reading this collection of short stories a few at a time. "Ah, yes, I remember," I'll say to myself, uplifted by Hemingway's mastery of his craft, and then I'll walk outside and stand in the sun, the light warm against my face.

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Saturday, November 23, 2019

Review: The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle is set in an alternative history universe that vividly describes a hideously transformed America, yet the most compelling aspect of this Amazon series is how it focuses on individual choice rather than panoramic spectacle.

The Man in the High Castle has run four seasons to its end. Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick of the same name, the alternative reality series is an exploration of how our choices shape our own lives.
In a dystopian America dominated by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, a young woman discovers a mysterious film that may hold the key to toppling the totalitarian regimes. (IMdb)
Yes, time is spent on the struggle against genocide, racism, and the exploitation of the weak and poor. The totalitarian disregard for the weak and "different" is omnipresent in the series, yet time and again individual choice captures the moment, individual perspective and choice, even when mired in the miasma of repression.

Some characters are broken; some grow stronger. Some find themselves, decision by decision, becoming the monsters they despise. At one point in the series, a man and wife recognize that they have to stop doing such terrible things. One responds, "I don't know how." This ambivalence is a central theme in the series, that for better or worse, we create our own realities. Protagonists become anti-heroes, failed heroes. Minor characters make world-changing decisions; some die, some transform into major characters.

The extreme hazards of this alternate world's reality constantly raises question. "What are you willing to die for?" "Are you willing to risk your death and your family's dying for the chance of their not living in hell?" "At what point does biding your time become capitulation?" "Have we saved our children's bodies but destroyed their souls?"

In the end, we are given hope yet are never for a moment allowed to forget that this is a cautionary tale, that every choice we make--or don't make--creates the world we live in.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

John Muir's "Snow-Storm on Mount Shasta"

For a couple of bucks I've bought the e-book John Muir Ultimate Collection. My first dip into this collection is "Snow-Storm on Mount Shasta."

I have not finished this piece, but am reminded that Muir's roots as a naturalist stand side-by-side with his narrative capabilities as a writer. This piece begins with the geological history and description of Mount Shasta, a volcano in northern California. After a thorough description of the geology of the area, Muir continues on with an overview of the different zones of vegetation. Then he warms up to the narrative of his and a companion's climb to Shasta's summit in the April spring to conduct barometric pressure readings, in conjunction with a college at the base of the mountain.

A lively blend of observation and action ensues, with the two men reaching the top summit, where they observe clouds forming and blanketing the entire area. What with the title of the article, we know what is coming . . . wind, snow, and more exquisite narration by John Muir.

I leave the how Muir's great, true adventure ends to your reading, but of course we know Muir made it out alive to write the article. We'll experience considerably more fair weather reading about his exploits from our armchairs at home, where nothing is a better read than Muir upon the snowy, wind-swept heights of California peaks.

Other articles I've written about John Muir:

Monday, September 16, 2019

Travelogues and Tiny Trailer Travel

Howell Station Campground, Lake Red Rock, Iowa
Funnily enough, it is four years ago that I wrote a blog article entitled "All Writing Is Travelogue"--and I mean exactly four years ago. The article was published on September 16, 2015, and today, September 16, 2019, I was thinking about travelogue writing and referenced this article. Auspicious or quirky or just random, but I'll go with the flow.

In a week I'll be heading out with my tiny travel trailer on what my wife and I call "scouting missions," where I head out solo to find new campgrounds for us to visit together. When we camp together, my wife needs good cellphone receptivity so that she can use the phone's hotspot to set up her online mobile office for her business. My scouting missions are the search for beautiful camp spots that include a strong phone signal.

I'm planning in a week to leave for a couple of weeks, touring northeast Iowa and specifically scouting out state parks that will fit our family's recreation and business needs. In my earlier article about travelogue, I begin with the following premise: "When writers put down words, they take readers on a journey. In this sense, all writing falls into the 'travelogue' genre, the chronicle of a journey, first the writer's journey of discovery and then the reader's." Four years later, I have no problems with that premise, although I might add that the journeys writers and readers take can have a focus. "How-to" articles have an intellectual and practical focus. Biographical and geographical articles can have a social focus. All writing, whether fiction or non-fiction, has to provide emotional connection to the individual. Writing in some way has to be transformative.

In my "All Writing Is Travelogue" article, I reference a travel blog, The Travel Writing Life, written by a woman, Laurie Gough. It's ironic that her blog is now shut down or "parked" and no longer accessible. I remember, though, Gough's descriptive passages of her travels, and thank her for her inspiration. I hope she is doing well. One article from her blog delineated points for good travelogue writing.

Travel Writing Tips

  1. Focus on interesting, different, and special qualities. "Usually this will be a combination of the place and the people."
  2. Concrete details: "not 'fruit' but 'rotting pomegranates.'"
  3. "Stay true to who you are." Let the readers find out as you go along.
  4. Open your senses to the small things: oil-burning lamps, newly cut timber, cricket chirps . . .
  5. Characterization: "How human beings are acting on this planet never fails to enliven a story."
  6. Find the good, even in the lousy.
  7. Backstory: history, facts, past events.
  8. "Read your work aloud to yourself."
  9. Tone/mood:"Take in as much of a place as you can."
I need to take these tips to heart, and thank you again, Laurie Gough. I spent a little less than a week at the campground in the photo above, and wrote the article "Howell Station Tiny Trailer Basecamp" for my travel trailer blog, Green Goddess Glamping. I think the writing tips listed above are good to remember and to consciously apply.

A beautiful meadow setting at Howell Station
In my Howell Station article, I believe I provided backstory about the lake and Pella, Iowa. I think I missed the "tone/mood" a bit because it was, at least for me, an interesting experience to be camping below Lake Red Rock Dam. The campground is a beautiful meadow with soft morning and evening light, deciduous trees, walnuts, oak, and maple, providing shade during the afternoon. I could have captured that mood better.

Des Moines River at Howell Station Campground
The Des Moines River flows past the campground, adding its liquid background growl to the setting. However, there was always a quiet background awareness of all that water above me, behind the dam. Lake Red Rock is Iowa's largest lake, with over 15,000 acres of water. Maybe it's just me, but if I put my attention on it, I could kind of feel that mass of water lurking over me. Luckily, the five nights at the campground provided a chance for me to get used to the three-dimensionality of the landscape.

I believe I could have spent more effort adding more sense detail and description for both my basecamp experience and for my bike day rides. I added some, but more conscious application of this aspect of writing should always be part of my revising process. I included some bits about me--"staying true to me"--such as when I got lost. I could have added more characterization since I had some good interactions with a variety of people. 

I enjoyed my bike ride to Pella, although I found this fellow not much of a conversationalist. 
I'm looking forward to my tour of state parks. Northeast Iowa is an area missed by glaciers, so the terrain is different than my local area. Also, some of the parks will be on the mighty Mississippi River and should provide some spectacular panoramas. We'll see how the trip and the writing goes, but it should be a bit cooler and more pleasant--the weather, that is. Below are links for the state parks I plan to visit. I will be flexible, but I plan to spend two nights at each park. If a park is really spectacular, I will spend longer; if underwhelming, I can just do an overnighter. I feel no compulsion to have a plan and to stick to it point for point. 
Rivers, lakes, hills, caves, and the amenities of the state parks. I should have some good times. Most of the campgrounds will have modern facilities, but Wildcat Den is a primitive site, so I will have my first experience of camping off the grid with the Green Goddess--my "hard-sided tent." I have a week's work now to get my garden tucked away for the winter and to prepare for my trip. Traveling solo, I should have many opportunities to focus on the details of travelogue writing. I'm writing this now at dawn from my home, and the fields are covered with fog, dyed pale shades of pink and gray by the rising sun. It's a beautiful world, and I'm looking forward to chronicling my adventure.
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