“The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future” is a short, quickly digested, thought provoking, worrying, but ultimately hopeful piece“The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future” is a short, quickly digested, thought provoking, worrying, but ultimately hopeful piece of creative fiction. I found it particularly, and frighteningly, topical reading during a 52 degree December night in Minnesota, as drought and now flooding beset California and we are gearing up for another even warmer year in 2015. Written as a introduction to the Penumbral Age (1988-2093) by scholars in the Second People’s Republic of China, circa 2393, it reads like something that could be assigned to first year students in a low level world history course, an easily understandable summary of the elements that resulted in the collapse of world population a few centuries previously (including a particularly amusing glossary of “archaic terms” like “environment,” “positivism,” and “capitalism.”)
While dropping a few hints of future societies aside from China, including the United States of North America and the Nordo-Scandinavian Union and the horrific extinction of human society from the continents of Australia and Africa, much of it explores how our current political, scientific, and social cultures are preventing us from preventing what we know is happening in front of our eyes. During the Penumbral Age, we can look forward to much turmoil and strife as nations collapse once the climate begins to spiral out of control thanks to the melting of permafrost and belated attempts to combat it with atmospheric emissions and genetically engineered lichen; Food shortages, desertification, flooding, and plagues rendered many places uninhabitable, sending mass migrations of “eustatic” refugees to higher ground; it’s too late for Amsterdam, Bangladesh, and Florida. Still, there is also much hope to be had; according to this future, humanity has survived with much of the technological and cultural knowledge of the past intact and are able to look back and discuss the mistakes of the past.
The book ends with some very interesting and thoughtful comments by the authors on their use of science fiction to comment on the current responses and ideas of climate change. Will this year, as the article linked earlier in this review suggests, become a turning point that will, in some way, nudge us away from the future presented here? ...more
One of the most affecting graphic novels I've read recently, "Beta Testing the Apocalypse” is a collection of stand alone stories by Tom Kaczynski thaOne of the most affecting graphic novels I've read recently, "Beta Testing the Apocalypse” is a collection of stand alone stories by Tom Kaczynski that are linked by common threads and themes of modern human existence in the urban world and elements of the sciences, history, architecture, and cosmic dread. From paleolithic microsocieties to the megacities of the 21st century to Martian colonies, the human quest for understanding of the universe is examined with a wit, style, and pure invention that I loved. Kaczynski’s spare character drawings and sharp architectural landscapes has left me with much food for thought, each story exploring another aspect of existence, the cyclopean power of grain silos, the dichotomies of noise and silence. Every story was great, though my favorites were “100,000 Miles,” (an examination of the modern commute and the transit network of the city), “976 Sq Ft,” (the cosmic dread of condos and gentrification) and “Million Year Boom” (a “green” corporation attempts to economize the biosphere). I am still wrestling with how best to express my appreciation of Kaczynski's erudite (I can use that word, right?) comics. ...more
“The Voyeurs,” a series of memoir and semi-autobiographical comic stories by Gabrielle Bell spanning 2007-2010, may be my favorite collection of her w“The Voyeurs,” a series of memoir and semi-autobiographical comic stories by Gabrielle Bell spanning 2007-2010, may be my favorite collection of her work I have read so far. From her trips to France and Japan to her Brooklyn apartment to her encounters at Comic Con, Bell’s understated brand of melancholic, self-deprecating, and extremely humane humor is a masterful examination of the awkwardness of daily life and the human condition. Her art and writing is so adept at capturing expressions and feeling, and I especially love her use of slight magic realist elements (though this is a bit less prominent in “The Voyeurs.”) As a fellow introvert who simultaneously wants to meet people while staying in my apartment all weekend, I found much to ponder and to empathize with. I feel the title is very appropriate for semi-autobiographical memoir comics like Bell’s, as the readers get such an intimate, thoughtful look into the thought processes and life of another person, I find it very insightful. ...more
Beautiful, gritty, and thought-provoking, these images provoke a lot of questions and reactions from the viewer. I had first heard of this collectionBeautiful, gritty, and thought-provoking, these images provoke a lot of questions and reactions from the viewer. I had first heard of this collection of photographs on NPR and I am glad I was quickly able to request it from the Hennepin County Library Minneapolis Central branch, which has one of the 3000 copies currently available. Following the photographer Mike Brodie (known on the ‘net as the Polaroid Kidd) between 2006 and 2009 as he jumped freight trains with a varying group of other adventurous young people as they attempt to travel as far as possible for as little money as possible, operating far off of the grid of the normal conformity of American culture. In living this life, he grants an intimacy to these portraits that most journalists or photographers might struggle to capture. In addition to capturing these people who, for whatever reason, follow this life of freedom, the photography illustrates the divergent landscapes of America as well, wilderness, rural, suburban, urban. The images are presented in a spare, gallery style, neither judging nor romanticizing the train hopping lifestyle and the photos can only speak for themselves.
For me, I feel that they are a great portrait of this period of American history. While on occasion seeming to reflect comparison to the “Dirty Thirties” during the height of the Great Depression, the post-punk style of the clothes, tattoos, and squats these young men and women inhabit are distinctly contemporary. I can’t help but feel that as our economy and environment continue to falter (i.e., the Great Recession) this subculture will continue to increase as people travel to escape the drudgery of modern life or are simply unable to find employment. A great example of a places and populations normally unseen in our culture, and it is amazing how much power and emotion can be packed into one photograph. ...more
I had been on the fence with Neil Gaiman for quite a while, I have to admit. I guess I regarded him as a tad, er, overrated. I mean, it seemed everyonI had been on the fence with Neil Gaiman for quite a while, I have to admit. I guess I regarded him as a tad, er, overrated. I mean, it seemed everyone interested in speculative fiction sang his praises as the supreme stylist of the genre (if they weren’t trying to be contrary and claim he was terrible). I mean, I read some of "Sandman" and thought it was pretty good, but I was not really a comics person, you know? I thought "Neverwhere" was okay, entertaining if a bit shallow. I felt, however wrongly, that his writing had a certain affected “preciousness” that caused me to be skeptical. His short stories seemed to turn up everywhere and his good word seemed to be on the back of just about every new publication in genre fiction. Then I read American Gods. Along with "Coraline" and "The Graveyard Book" a little later, this great opus of contemporary fantasy began to convince me that, yes, there was something to write home about Neil Gaiman. I guess, I would have to say, that I am a convert.
Now, having reread this novel for the second time, I have to reiterate my first impression; I was quite blown away by American Gods, perhaps even more so. Gaiman truly captures the zeitgeist of the times, of American culture, and of human culture in general. I do not want to go too deeply into an analysis of the plot or characters of the novel in this review, as I am sure that there are much more erudite interpretations available. American Gods, to me, is a perfect expression, or marriage, of the mystical, fantastical world of myth and the imagination and the normal, everyday reality of contemporary life. Alternately grounded in current America’s truck stops and strip malls, airports and library book sales and the dreamlike, surreal world of folklore and mythology, the story is an epic journey populated by a host of engaging, even sympathetic characters, both human and supernatural. I must also say, there is just something about the idea of a magically significant road trip that really appeals to me. Below the surface, under the tautly written plot, humor, terror, and wonder, Gaiman weaves much discussion of human belief, religion, and the immigration of ideas as well as people; whether the United States truly is a "bad land for gods," as is postulated in the novel, there is as much food for thought as mind candy in "American Gods." ...more
A breathtaking graphic novel collection, Jeff Lemire’s opus of rural Canadian life is steeped in the unstated pains of existence and human feeling, aA breathtaking graphic novel collection, Jeff Lemire’s opus of rural Canadian life is steeped in the unstated pains of existence and human feeling, a seamless blend of the normal with the surreal. Consisting of Lemire’s trilogy of stories set in rural Essex County, Ontario, and including a few extra tales and deleted scenes, this collection follows a group of loosely connected characters through time as they live their lives in Essex County or in big city Toronto. I had read and enjoyed each of three main books before, Tales from the Farm, Ghost Stories, and the Country Nurse, and enjoyed them a lot, but reading them all together in one volume completes the brilliance of their understated elegance, Lemire's crisp dialog and evocative artwork. From the ten year old superhero fan, Lester, to his elderly grandfather, a former hockey player lost to memories of the past, each explores life’s joys and tragedies. Lemire in particular illustrates an evocative picture of the Ontario farmland from the vivid summer to the bleak winter and and include such Canadian themes as hockey, maple cookies, as well as universal themes of rural life, loneliness, and the human condition. The linework is stark and simple, but drenched in emotion. I can’t help but think that Collected Essex County makes a great pairing with the music of one of my favorite bands, the Weakerthans, and as I read Lemire’s work, I could not help but think of lyrics and riffs from the Winnipeg folk punk band, as they explore similar themes of personal existence, rural and urban life. I’d recommend each for a snowy night....more
One of my earliest childhood memories of Halloween involved attending a Halloween party for kids held at the house of some of my parent's friends whoOne of my earliest childhood memories of Halloween involved attending a Halloween party for kids held at the house of some of my parent's friends who I don't recall (and they too have no memory of who they could be, or when this actually took place). I was taken into a basement with a lot of other children who I didn't know and a man read this really odd, creepy story about a kid lost in the woods who saw a lot of things "too terrible to tell," including a dancing skeleton, a witch who turned children into spider creatures, and a ghost who enjoyed watching TV. The story was illustrated with wonderful, cartoonish, evocatively detailed pictures. Along the edges of the events, all sorts of stuff was going on; evil eyes peered out of the darkness, weird little creatures romped and devoured each other, each page seemed to have a million things going on. It was both really creepy and also really funny, in a way that kind of complimented each other.
Though I can't remember anything else about that night, the story stuck with me and these weird images of a story night, old cabins with sacks of bones, huge werewolves, and all sorts of bizarre, grotesque creatures running around became synonymous with Halloween. A few years later, this also became the favorite holiday read of our resident wonderful elementary school librarian and its place was set. Of course, as the years went by, though I still recalled the delicious chills and spooky laughs delivered by being read the book, I could not remember what it was called and it faded into the background of my Halloween subconscious.
Recently, though, through the magic of the internet, I thought, hey, why not look that book up? So I googled spooky Halloween book with skeleton and "Grandpa's Ghost Stories," popped up right away. Awesome, a quick ILL later and I had it again, the memories came pouring back, and it still does not lack its funny, spooky, almost subversive picture book fun. Written and illustrated by James Flora, best known for designing the covers of jazz albums during the 1950s, Flora's idiosyncratic drawing seems very suited to this spooky tale. Flora packs within its 30 pages three horrible but good natured adventures, amazing lush ink-work, and tons of eerie style. Still a perfect picture book for kids and adults alike, though the only problem is that it is long out of print and seems to average around $100 used on Amazon. Fortunately, there is a very nice adaptation available on Youtube here! Definitely worth checking out if one is unable to get a copy of this nostalgic Halloween treat. ...more
Dear Committee Members is a sharp, biting, and delightfully prickly epistolary novel of academic and professional ennui, a wry and bleakly comic accouDear Committee Members is a sharp, biting, and delightfully prickly epistolary novel of academic and professional ennui, a wry and bleakly comic account of one curmudgeonly chauvinistic creative writing professor’s rather unfortunate semester. A fast paced and elegant novel, Julie Schumacher uses the sarcastic and exasperated correspondence of Professor Jason Fitger to paint a vivid picture of his deteriorating life and the collapsing environment of the institution surrounding him. Schumacher writes with a deft pen, granting the egotistic professor with a pathos that makes him feel sympathetic, even when he is a complete asshole. I could definitely relate to his environment, if not his sarcastic personality, though his wit and venom certainly led to some laugh out loud funny moments.
Told through a collection of sarcastic letters of recommendation, interdepartmental memos, and other correspondence penned by the bitter English Professor and would be great author, Jason Fitger, of the “second rate” Midwestern liberal arts college Payne University, we are treated to his passive aggressive barbs aimed at his students, his colleagues, and his former friends and lovers. Fitger rarely passes up an opportunity for editorializing, ranting, and self aggrandizement, particularly in letters to former flames and ex-wives, there is a pathos here that laments the current state of academia in addition to one man’s feeling of personal failure, as we are forced to watch him grapple helplessly with clunky online evaluations, callow undergrads, unsympathetic administrators, and the toxic dust being pumped into his department by the refurbishment of the economics department while his window still doesn't close; there is tragedy and comedy, as well as a depressing amount of familiarity. Whether it is lecturing the wretched grammar of the job descriptions/poor service of the soul draining corporations and catering companies his desperate BAs are forced to apply to after graduation, to taking on the commodification of education itself, our blowhard of a professor also laments the minor status of his own work while insulting his colleagues that they had not published anything of relevance in decades.
In Fitger, Schumacher has created a great unreliable guide to the world of the English department. I just wonder how he’ll respond when he discovers RateMyProfessor. ...more
The Moth Radio Hour, "true stories told before a live audience," has come to be one of my favorite programs I tune into on NPR and I looked forward toThe Moth Radio Hour, "true stories told before a live audience," has come to be one of my favorite programs I tune into on NPR and I looked forward to reading this book, a compilation of some of the best stories featured on the program over the years. These personal narratives were shared on the stage by master storytellers, from prisoners to astronauts, famous musicians to college students, all telling in their own voices the challenges, triumphs, and defeats of their human existences. In the prologue one the storytellers, Adam Gropnik, writes that the participants in the Moth follow “three Cs” in the reasons behind their storytelling, “confession,” “comedy,” and, my favorite, “connection.” I love the deep insights into the human experience these stories provide, from humor, to despair, triumph to survival.
Coming from this great diversity of backgrounds, each of these personal narratives, shared by people on the stage, delve into the myriad paths of human life. While the stories written in this book lack the special benefits of listening to the storytellers’ voices, their inflections and emotion providing so much to the narratives, it nonetheless is a great collection and recommended for both fans of the show and those new to it. ...more
Recently, I’ve gotten it into my head to try out some homebrewing and after requesting a whole shelf of do it yourself beer brewing treatises from theRecently, I’ve gotten it into my head to try out some homebrewing and after requesting a whole shelf of do it yourself beer brewing treatises from the library, both basic and advanced, Emma Christensen’s “True Brews” came to be my favorite. I will probably invest in a copy! True Brews is a great place to start, with Christensen’s clear explanations detailing basic instructions and recipes for a beginner to quickly start doing their own homebrewed beverages, including the equipment and ingredients needed, as well as tips for more unique and difficult projects.I liked that “True Brews” did not focus on one specific brew, but included a variety of fermented beverages to try out, alcoholic and non-alcoholic; sodas, kombuchas, kefirs, ciders, beers, meads, wines, and even sakes. I also appreciate her focus on one gallon recipes, easily accomplished in even the most cramped apartment kitchens; this also allows for a lot of tinkering with recipes as well.
I scored some high quality unpasteurized Door County apple juice last October, so for the past few months I’ve been processing it into cider; cracked it open for a holiday party and it turned out to be not too disappointing; very crisp and boozy, not bad for a first attempt! I’m also planning a chai-spice mead for my next main brewing project. I also love how Christensen’s recipes are both specific enough to be followed by someone who doesn’t really know what they’re doing (like myself), but also open enough to be almost immediately hacked for specific tastes; the “master” soda and “master” beer recipes, in particular, are ripe for just about anyone to start up some improvisation and experiments. I started out with my own experiment on the soda front, a pumpkin spice soda brewed up with roasted pumpkin, lemon juice, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg; one taster called it “fall in a bottle.” I’m going to try a cranberry ginger ale this week, (basically, I am a fan of all things ginger), and I”m going to try an improvised beer, a extra special bitter ale, based on the master beer recipe as well. Really, I’m inspired to try something new every time I crack the cover! ...more
A bleak, effecting, beautifully resonant work, Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon may be the strongest (and most chilling) young adult dystopian work I’ve reA bleak, effecting, beautifully resonant work, Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon may be the strongest (and most chilling) young adult dystopian work I’ve read so far. There are definitely shade’s of Orwell’s 1984, but this novel feels more inclusive and fresher, and is an all too realistic account of human cruelty and hope. The audiobook, narrated by Robert Madge, really accentuates the strong emotions evoked by the story and makes a harrowing experience.
Post war England under a brutal fascist regime is a decidedly unpleasant place; it is implied this authoritarian government was a result of Nazi Germany’s defeat of the UK, though this left unstated, unimportant. The Motherland is a place where any sign of defiance or any trace of standing out is punished with death, all for the greater strength of the nation. Propaganda is the only luxury afforded most of the impoverished, paranoid citizens of Zone 7, a less prestigious occupied territory of the Motherland. Enforced patriotism has reached a fever pitch as the regime gears up to mount a Moon mission, that they may launch missiles at their enemies across the globe.
Standish Treadwell, a kind, gentle, and imaginative teenager with the odd trait of one blue and one brown eye, struggles with dyslexia, but also his place in a world that sees little use for him; a world which would be happy if he were dead. Living in Zone 7, the cruel society of the Motherland works for utter domination and sees any difference as weakness that must be crushed; after Standish’s best friend and his family disappears (sent to the “Maggot Farms” where most inferior or politically inconvenient people are sent to die), he tries his best to follow his ideals and oppose the ever present secret police and perhaps aid the "Obstructors" in inconveniencing those in power, and call into question their strength. How much is Standish willing to sacrifice to expose, even a little bit, the lies and weakness of the regime? With an ending both horribly tragic and hopeful, Maggot Moon shows how the actions of “flawed” people like Standish can challenge a corrupt world. ...more
I am not exactly sure what to say about Eula Biss’ collection of prose poems, except that I find myself totally taken with them. I am not sure how BisI am not exactly sure what to say about Eula Biss’ collection of prose poems, except that I find myself totally taken with them. I am not sure how Biss expresses so much in a few lines of factual statements, but I crave more, to learn how to accomplish this. A memoir of family and childhood, Biss shifts viewpoints and time to analyze and . There is a sense of collage here, pieces of memory and thought pasted together into a picture of human relationships.
"Stories are only true if we believe them. Or if we live them. It is unclear where our parent's stories end and where our stories begin."
There are a lot of themes explored in the Balloonists, from storytelling, tools and their use, disasters, but especially the strained relationships of people, women and men, adults and children, Most of all, it was just so evocative and lovely to read. ...more
I had not heard of the HONY tumblr before having this book recommended to me by my sister, who had just checked it out from the library and read it inI had not heard of the HONY tumblr before having this book recommended to me by my sister, who had just checked it out from the library and read it in one sitting. I followed her and soon devoured Brandon Stanton's inspiring collection of photographs and statements by the "humans of New York." Stanton's hobby of photography turned into a full time obsession, capturing and blogging the faces, fashion, and feelings of New York City; the diversity of people who live and visit the city- young and old, rich and poor, all races, genders, sexualities, professions. Many of the facets of human life are reflected here. Each time you flip through the pages, watching the character of the city change through the seasons, watching people weather the tenth anniversary of 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, celebrations and parades, you notice things you did not before.
While the buildings, landmarks, streets, and skyline of NYC is there, Stanton's work truly shows that the people are the real life of the metropolis. The emotions of the city are conveyed so strongly in his images, it makes me wonder what a similar project would look like in other world cities. I will definitely start following the HONY blog....more