Monstress Vol. 2, Not too Late to Start a Brilliant Series

I picked up the first volume of graphic novel series Monstress, written by Marjorie Liu and illustrated by Sana Takeda, while ago and was definitely impressed with the beautiful art and fantastic fantasy world building. I had one of those happy, unexpected catches in my chest when I recently saw the second volume out, and immediately bought it. While I’d forgotten some of the more intricate parts of the storyline, as often happens when I read insanely detailed fantasy world-based series, I still got sucked back into the storyline immediately. Monstress Vol. 2: The Blood is a stellar expansion that left me even further addicted to a series that I already found intriguing.

The Monstress series takes place in a largely matriarchal, steampunk era Asia, with different magically charged societies vying for power. We have the Cumea, witches, human women with great magical prowess and skills leading a purely human society in trying to take over and subjugate Arcanics, human and magical ancient being cross breeds. Arcanics can range from full on animals in humanoid form to humans with, say fox ears and tails, or even no noticeable Arcanic identifiers at all. Protagonist Maika Halfwolf must navigate this richly developed world stuck in the throws of conflict as she tries to figure out what to do with an ancient power her late mother thrust upon her.

That ancient power is actually an ancient being, a strange-eyed tentacle monster that definitely echoes the Lovecraftian ancient ones as well as the Japanese influence informing much of the stories mythology and illustration. Yes, the art incorporates opulent Japanese elements on top of steampunk style and decadent, Lovecraftian horror. Does that sound like too much? Well, for me, it was an excess of all my favorite aesthetics, and reviewers definitely agree the effect is fantastic. Each panel feels rich with a magical, antiquated, and sometimes sinister level of detail. This is a series  you can enjoy by casually flipping through the pages, letting the strange and wonderful atmosphere conjured up by the story wash over you in passing.

Getting into the nitty gritty of the story too, though is just as rewarding as glancing at the amazing art, not something that can be said too often today, mostly thanks to Hollywood movies I suppose. Books lifting the heavy weight again, as per usual. Maika must try and resolve her relationship with an already deceased and far from perfect mother, while also grappling for control over the dark, blood thirsty entity that lives inside her. That intimately explored internal conflict set against the amazing back drop of such a fascinating world makes every part of Monstress feel absolutely full to the brim of something you’d be lucky to find even a sip of elsewhere.

There’s also the amazing diversity of the characters in the story, and I’m not just talking about the variety of furries walking around. Main character Maika Halfwolf has only one arm, (remember when I complained last week about how hard it is to find a story featuring a disabled person just last week?) Numerous people of different skin tones appear, fighting that fantasy trope of monogamous racial cultures, where magic and dragons can be real, but a brown hobbit cannot. Just reminding myself that the society is matriarchal is a sort of giddy feeling, every time I read it. I think in my head, “oh wow, this comic does a great job of including so many different women in positions of power,” then remember “oh, duh, because that’s how they designed the societal structure. It would be weird if they weren’t all female.” Is this what straight white men feel like all the time? Oh wow, it’s amazing, so roomy, liberating! The world is my oyster! I feel compelled to make some immaturely aggressive comments about a man’s place on twitter now!

So yes, I very much want to live in the world Liu and Takeda created for Monstress, even with the wars and ancient tentacle-god monsters. I cannot, unfortunately, so I’ll just wait for the next book to come out, and the next, cherishing every glimpse into this fantastical world and story. I recommend you do the same, my friend.

Advertisements

The My Life Our Books Reading Challenge

Summer is, for me, a time full of reading challenges. I’ve got more time to read in the summer, and library summer reading programs challenge you to read more books than that one retired couple who always claim the biggest prizes at the end of the summer award ceremony. Curse you, pensioners with all your free time! Some reading challenges, though, last longer than just the summer and can be found online too. I myself am nearly finished with POPSUGAR’s reading challenge, which I started at the beginning of the year.

Trying to tick off all the boxes in POPSUGAR’s reading challenge has been a really enlightening adventure. It showed me what I do and do not read, not just my obvious likes and dislikes I mean, but what books I could pick up in the first place. For example, I had to work really hard to find a book by or about a person with a disability, but found yet another WWII era mystery/adventure and checked off that “set during wartime” box pretty easily. I learned partially about my own reading habits, yes, but even more about what books are or are not readily available to me and other readers.

To encourage this kind of exploration, I’ve decided to invent my own reading challenge right now, something to round out the rest of my summer and widen the scope of books I keep an eye out for. Hopefully you might join my too. With this list, I tried to make sure the books could still be fun, enjoyable reads while also showing how difficult, and therefore arguably more important it can be to find books created by and for voices outside your specific circle.

So, without further ado, I present:

The My Life Our Books Reading Challenge Book List:

  1. A book of poetry by someone from a different country than you
  2. A book someone has been recommending to you for ages that you just haven’t gotten around to yet, shame on you!
  3. A non-superhero comic book or graphic novel
  4. A dog book where the dog does not die in the end. (Good luck even finding that one.)
  5. A book with a woman of color as the protagonist.
  6. A book you found at your local library.
  7. A book featuring a healthy and well-developed same-sex relationship. (no burying of any gays!)
  8. A book exploring political views different from your own.
  9. A bestselling poetry book by a poet you’ve never read before.
  10. A book set during a war other than WWII (That cuts out like, over half the war books  ever written, I’m pretty sure.)
  11. A book about and/or set in a time and place you know little about
  12. Your mom or dad’s favorite book. (or whoever raised you.)
  13. A book set in Central and/or South America.
  14. A book by a “famous” person whom you’ve never heard of. (I’m looking at you, guy from the cast of Glee who apparently writes children’s books now.)
  15. A book that made you cry as a kid, or at least made you notably sad, if you were too stone cold for tears as a young’un.
  16. A book translated from another language.
  17. A book about or set in a place you want to visit one day.
  18. A book either featuring a religion different from your own. (Let’s say atheism and agnosticism count as religions.)
  19. A bestselling children’s picture book
  20. Your old favorite. See, I can end on an easy one.

I hope this list gave you some ideas about books you should try, even if you don’t feel like taking a reading challenge. Challenging yourself to read even a few books you never would’ve thought to try before is, to me, the most valuable thing you can take away from a reading challenge.

If your interest is piqued, here’s a great article with a list of even more reading challenges to try. Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried anything like this before, or want to.

Scribbled in the Dark: Humble Title for a Quality Poetry Collection

So there were a couple reasons I picked up Charles Simic’s  (pronounced Simich due to his Serbian roots,) book of poems Scribbled in the Dark. The “Pulitzer Prize Winning Poet” subtitle’s usually a good sign, and of course we have the cute little cover featuring a charming illustration of an old man feeding pigeons.

Perhaps what drew me the most, before I cracked it open and saw the quality poetry inside of course, was the amusing image conjured up by the title. Oh crap, my new collection is due at my editor’s in an hour, what do I do? (sees pile of scribbled on post-it notes by bedside,) Okay, I can make this work. I’m Pulitzer Prize holding former poet laureate, right? That’s is like poet tenure. I could teach a class in just my underwear and they wouldn’t fire me.

In all seriousness, I connected with Simic’s work, and his chosen title. It’s a very humble name for sure, and I found that refreshing an laid back, not at all like the many pretentious efforts I’ve seen that think themselves superior because they’ve mastered superfluous line breaks and swallowing most of the page with blank space. I remember tutoring too many high school students in English, and groaning as they try to impress their teacher on the poetry assignment by

stretching

out

 

the

 

 

lines and

 

white

 

 

space.

 

They may have also been trying to meet a page requirement. Some seemed like they just wanted to finish the assignment and figured this looked long and poetic enough, and some seemed to think they were exercising their legitimate poetic prowess. Even today, whenever I see a poet relying heavily on line breaks and blank spaces, I think back to my agonizing days as a peer tutor and get a phantom headache. Still, there are poets that know how to use these traits well, and Simic shows he’s one of those artists with this collection, and maybe also all those awards listed in his bio, too.

These pieces are a study in how to actually use brevity and open page space superbly, not just to play at looking poetic.  This whole collection’s clearly grown from the concept hinted at in the title. No, not a last minute idea for the editor, but a so many small little phantoms floating onto the page from a pen, freely in the darkness. See? I only just read Simic and now I’m all waxing poetic. It’s inspirational on top of educational.

Most of these poems are short, small little things that definitely seem like they were all scribbled in the dark. They read like those little thoughts or moments of clarity that you can only have when your brain is half asleep, half awake, the cover of night allowing it to exist as both at once. That’s an annoyingly creative state for me too, and probably many others as well. (I say annoying because really I’d rather be sleeping in many of those moments, but I can usually force myself to jot some short something down, in the dark. So reading these pieces feels familiar. I’m sure they’ve been carefully drafted and edited again and again, but they each echo the way ideas slide so easily out of your head when “scribbled in the dark.”

My Unintentional Hemingway Quest

Ernest Hemingway is not my favorite writer. I acknowledge he’s definitely talented. Look, I’ve even read more than one of his novels. As a person, I find Hemingway far too much of a caricature of toxic masculinity and aggression to develop any cult-like hero worship like some of his fans do, the sort of fans who would intentionally take on the quest I find myself undertaking.

I’ve actually been to an oddly high number of his residences without really trying. This series of coincidences slowly created my unintentional quest: to visit every place Ernest Hemingway ever lived.

I live only a short way from Hemingway’s birthplace Oak Park, Illinois. I’ve visited the town a number of times for the shops and other features before I eventually went with my book nerd family to visit Hemingway’s home, which has since turned into a museum. We got to take a tour of his house, and see it set up all reconstructed to the time it’s famous occupants lived in it. Perhaps because we were so close to my own home, in a neighborhood so like my own in a lot of ways, (minus the fancy Victorian period housing of course,) but I felt a bit weird, realizing how awkward it would be to have a whole bunch of strangers walking through your house, peering in at your bedrooms and bathrooms just because you once used them. Creepy.

Next up was Florida. Hemingway made himself a rather nice home in Key West later in his life. I went out there myself because Florida, and headed out to Key West because it’s supposed to be a lovely island and someone else would be driving the hours long trip from our place all the way to the tip of the Florida Keys. This person also knew I was a bit of a book nerd and said, if I liked, we could go visit Hemingway’s house there.

Another one? Well, I actually enjoy visiting historical sites and museums on my vacations, and it seemed like an odd  coincidence that two Chicago Suburbanites should find themselves out here. Most importantly, the house is well known for it’s only current residents, a large collection of six-toed cats, all descendants of the cat Hemingway’s family originally brought here. If my only legacy is a historical mansion full of weird cats descended from my family pet, I will have lived a good life, even if I prefer dogs.

I did get to see plenty of six-toed cats lazing about in the island sun, and learn more about Hemingway’s life since he was a little kid in Oak Park. By the time I met him in this historic house, he’d grown up, had his own children, and already put several wives behind him. He even had to build a big wall around this home, because he was famous enough by that time that privacy was a valuable resource.

So I’d seen two homes that housed Hemingway at two very different points in his life, young and old, an anonymous child and a famed author. Well, just now I’ve visited yet another one, and mostly by accident.

My family and I were actually returning from another trip, a short family getaway to Canada, when last minute we decided to break up the last day of driving and stop in Petoskey, Michigan for a night. You know who spent every summer of his childhood learning all the outdoorsy skills that would later become a part of his rugged persona in Petoskey? That’s right, Ernest mother-loving Hemingway.

The house by Walloon Lake that he visited every summer here is still owned by his family and kept as a private property, but I was able to explore the town. Really, it was a bit ridiculous. I definitely did not camp in my nice hotel room. I went swimming, but definitely not fishing in the hotel pool. I walked by a bar in town that an older Hemingway frequented when he stayed in the area, and the park where he would watch bare-knuckle boxing matches, according to my sudden flurry of research on the place. Really, I felt ridiculous trying to connect to that past in the current day Petoskey. Everything was all done up for tourists, gift shops and overpriced restaurants everywhere. The only thing scheduled in that park was a summer concert later in the week, definitely no boxing.

Even back then, the town was a favored summer retreat for wealthy families, so I can’t imagine all of these changes would surprise Hemingway. Maybe the only thing that would confuse him about these waterfront gift shops would be the addition of fidget spinners to their shelves. Still, I could feel Hemingway silently bemoaning the death of a world where bare knuckle boxing was no longer considered acceptable public park entertainment. Maybe he would agree the bookstore that I bought two more poetry books from was a good addition. As much as I loathe Hemingway’s obsessive masculinity, at least he was not one of those manly types that felt the written word was for pussies.

Here the story of my unintentional Hemingway mission comes to a close, for now, as that’s how many places I’ve visited with a connection to the author. The man traveled plenty though, so there’s still more. I could be persuaded to drag myself over to Paris, I suppose, and Spain of course. Traveling the world has always been a goal of mine, and it’s nice to know I might find the ghost of a guy from my neck of the woods waiting there for me, whether I mean to find him or not.

Lily and the Octopus: A Dead Dog Book Worth Reading

So I’m reading a really amazing book right now called Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley, and I’m enjoying it enough that I really want to recommend it to my friends and family. The only problem is that the plot largely centers around this one guy’s relationship with his dog Lily, and of course, as with waaay to many dog books, Lily is dying. Specifically, she’s dying of a tumor on her head that looks like an octopus. Yeah, turns out that cute and whimsical sounding title is a warning of just how much heartbreak you’re in for if you try and read this book.

I had someone at work recommend this book to me first, and I didn’t want to read it right away myself. “What? A dog slowly dying of a painful medical condition? Her owner is a single 40 something man that could very easily be undone by her passing? Yeah, sign me up!” After I left work, I politely put the book very far down in the massive stack of recommendations people give me.

Still, something about the story (spoiler, it was the dog. I’m always a sucker for dogs, even terminally ill ones) drew my interest enough that, when I saw it was available at the library, I checked it out and mentally prepared myself to cry a whole lot.

I was pleasantly surprised though. I didn’t feel emotionally baited to ball my eyes out every ten minutes while reading. Rowley writes about a man trying to save his dog an illness he barely understands, something I could relate to on an all too personal level. I thought this personal connection would be the thing that made this book impossible to read, but instead, that connection is what made me connect to the story so readily and actually feel uplifted.

Ted, the human protagonist, definitely faces down one of the most tragic things that could possibly happen to him in this book, but he does so not only with an unflinching determination to fight it to the end, and no small amount of humor and imagination too. I saw a whole lot of myself in Ted. I may not be an aging gay man living alone in LA with my beloved dachsund, but when Ted described his Monopoly Night with Lily, where he had to play the banker and also handle all of Lily’s transactions for her because she was a dog, I definitely saw more than a bit of myself in him. Of course, I never played Monopoly with my dogs. That would be ridiculous. I hate Monopoly; we usually played Clue instead.

I also recognized that steadfast determination, the visceral need to hang onto Lily no matter what that characterized Ted’s approach to her illness. Lily is twelve years old when the octopus hits, so some people give Ted a bit of side eye and suggest that she is pretty old after all, and maybe it would be in her best interest if… But Ted makes them leave the end of that sentence unspoken because putting her down is simply out of the question.

He recognizes, just like many dog owners, that keeping Lily alive could turn into something just as brutal, if not more so, than killing her if he does not make the right decisions, if he doesn’t work hard to make sure she has the best quality of life possible. These parts reintroduced the same feeling of panicked exhaustion I had when my family had to make the same decisions.

Perhaps because I could identify so strongly with Ted, I never felt like the book was trying to take advantage of my emotions or manipulate my tear ducts in a way some other tragic books have. I will definitely not say I didn’t cry while reading this book, but the humor, the magical realism, and for me, what turned out to be a very relatable protagonist made the journey feel like more than another doggie sob story.

If some cruel psychopath comes up to you and says you have to read a book about a dying dog in the near future, you can go ahead and laugh in their faces, because now you’ve got the perfect way out of that situation. Happy sad reading!