Friday, December 19, 2014

"Night Film" by Marisha Pessl



      Night Film by Marisha Pessl follows the story of disgraced journalist Scott McGrath as he attempts to unravel the mystery behind the death of the daughter of an enigmatic horror film director, Stanislas Cordova. To solve the mystery of Ashley Cordova's death, McGrath must also unravel the mystery of Stanislas Cordova himself--an endevour previously undertaken by McGrath, which resulted in the loss of both his marriage and his career. In his attempt to expose Cordova, McGrath enters "a hypnotic, disorientating world, where almost everyone seems afraid" (Goodreads).
***
      If, during the course of this novel, you begin to experience a very faint case of déjà vu, you wouldn't be alone. The descriptions of Stanislas Cordova and the films for which he is famous in this novel, are a bizarre hybrid of Alfred Hitchcock meets Orson Wells; a deliberate choice on the part of Pessl, I believe, in order to allow the reader to be able to have a sense of familiarity with this enigmatic, elusive character (never seen, but always talked about) right from the start of the story. Stanislas Cordova might not be a real person in outside of this novel...but he stands as a representation of familiar figures in the suspense/horror film industry. He stands as such a powerful figure of mystery and questionable action, that it almost is possible for McGrath's question to uncover the mystery of Cordova to be carried without the addition of the mysterious death of Cordova's daughter. Almost. 
       The questionable death of Ashley Cordova brings into the story what it would lack without it--namely, a reality check. McGrath seeking answers regarding the death of Ashley reinforces the idea that Cordova is in fact a singular person who marks the lives of those around him. Without Ashley and her death, it would have been easy to explain Cordova away as just the face of an massive organisational conspiracy, but not actually a real person. Ashley confirms to the audience that Cordova is a real person, steep in mystery, but a tangible person nonetheless. Ashley keeps the story grounded in reality.
      Sort of. 
     I say "sort of" because eventually you'll reach a point in the novel where it starts to read like the most intense H.P. Lovecraft story ever written, and reality flies right out the window. This is right around the time that people in the story are lacing everything with powerful hallucinogenics, diving into dark magic, and summoning demons.
      However, it is still a compelling story that I am glad I stuck with until the end. It is a story about a man who chose dark suspense films as his artistic medium, and in the process of revealing his character, reads just like one of those dark suspense films--giving the reader the same adrenaline rush.
***
      Night Film by Marisha Pessl is available at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Proof: the Science of Booze" by Adam Rogers

       Proof: the Science of Booze caught my eye when I was looking for something new to read in the science section--specifically in the topic of chemistry. Adam Rogers presents a book that is a comprehensive look at the science behind alcohol and the mystery of why it has the effect that it does...all leading the reader to the grand conclusion of: "we still don't know." Serious examination and studies all lead to the same result of "we know what it does but we don't know why."
      So why would anyone be interested in a book that takes eight chapters and almost 250 pages to tell you that much about alcohol? Well, for starters there's a ton of information that is just downright cool to learn about; like the physiological effects of what is happening to your body during a hangover, a molecular explanation about what yeast is doing to the sugars and why it is vital to the final product, or a history of prohibition that you wouldn't find in a high school history class. There's also a witty, journalistic writing style, and the science passages are written to appeal to readers who want to know about chemical reactions but might not have a PhD in molecular chemistry. Also it contains such gems as:
“If dust disperses through the air it behaves like an explosive gas -- any spark can ignite a particle, which then sets fire to all the particles near it, and so on, in a three-dimensional, fast-moving exothermic wave, which is a fancy way of saying "fiery death explosion.” 
      also:
“The CO2 has to come out, which it does by forming bubbles. Now, champagne is pressurized to six times the atmospheric pressure on earth at sea level, enough to propel a popped champagne cork faster than 30 miles an hour. Lesson: letting the cork shoot out of a bottle when you open it is both tacky and dangerous.”
      and let's not forget:
“You have to be smarter, let’s say, than the German researchers who found liquid in a centuries-old container and simply drank the stuff, figuring they’d be able to taste anything interesting.” 
***
       It's less of scientific explanation as to the "why" of alcohol, and more of a scientific explanation as to the "how." There is a "why" present, but it is the closer examination as to alcohol's effect on the development of human society. “William Faulkner is supposed to have said, "Civilization begins with distillation," but I'd push even further -- beyond just distilled spirits to wine, beer, mead, sake ... all of it. Booze is civilization in a glass”(Adam Rogers). This is not a book about why people should or should not drink, nor is it a lecture. This book is a history of the human story...as seen from a glass of fermented grain, which makes it an interesting combination of a history book and a science book. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone with an interest in chemistry or history, as it shows the development of a product that seems to always come back to the central consciousness of civilization.
***
      Want to see what else Adam Rogers has to say about the science and history behind humanity's love of fermentation? Proof: the Science of Booze is available at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Friday, December 12, 2014

"The Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith



The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (pseudonym of J.K. Rowling) is the second in a mystery/suspense thriller series featuring Cormoran Strike, an young English military veteran turned private eye after a significant wartime injury resulted in the loss of one of his legs, and Robin Ellacott, Strike's secretary, assistant, and detective-in-training. 
The plot of the book picks up not very long after the conclusion of the first novel in the series (The Cuckoo's Calling), with Strike's private investigative services seeing a rise in business following his minor celebrity status due to his successful resolution of the Lula Landry case (the main plot of The Cuckoo's Calling). Strike is hired by the wife of a formerly prominent author with the job of finding said formerly prominent author who has gone missing.
The novel follows Strike's investigation into the disappearance of Owen Quine, and as a result gets drawn into the cutthroat (sometimes literally) world of the publishing industry--and what starts out as a simple missing person investigation becomes a complex and dark race to uncover the identity of a murderer, blackmailer, and literary forger before they ruin the lives of Quine's family, and end the lives of Strike and Robin. 
***
Having grown up during the boom of Harry Potter popularity, and having centered a great deal of my life around awaiting the publication of each Harry Potter novel, it is very very difficult to not compare everything else that Rowling will ever write to her original series. Indeed this is what happened with A Casual Vacancy; her first publication following the conclusion of the Harry Potter series. Each review I read of that book seemed to contain some variation on the phrase "not like Harry Potter." But I feel that comparing everything that Rowling writes to Harry Potter is a surefire way to ensure that nothing will ever succeed. Which is why her decision to publish this series under a pseudonym makes sense.
That being established,
The Silkworm surprised me by catching my attention moreso than its predecessor The Cuckoo's Calling did. While I did like The Cuckoo's Calling, I was so focused on learning about the characters and remembering which name coincided with which description and set of character traits, that I was less focused on the plot of the story and ended up missing significant plot events--and thus would then be confused when the next significant plot event hinged on the plot event that I had missed. This issue was solved when I went back and re-read the book a second time, and I loved it. But in The Silkworm, I ended up not having this problem at all. The characters came off as more developed, and I was more interested in the case being investigated. I attribute this to the fact that there was less time spent establishing the main characters as main characters (i.e. less time spent blocking out their back-stories separate from the plot of the story) and more time spent developing their characters as a part of the story itself. This meant that I found myself sinking more of my emotions and commitment into the story, and less time deciding if I liked the characters.
***
I think that where The Silkworm succeeds as a mystery/suspense thriller story, is that the setting of the story is laid out to be intensely realistic and able to be imagined by the reader to give a sense of inclusion to the story. Too often I will read suspense thrillers and mysteries and feel disconnected from the story because I can't well picture what or where things happen in the story. With this series, the setting is vivid and the detail given to the actions of the characters makes for an almost tangible sense of anxiety with the rise in tension. This is what allows for the necessary feeling of catharsis that comes from the emotional connection with the characters within a story--that feeling of having undergone great stress and trial, without having to actually undergo the actions themselves. Which is what I primarily look for when seeking out new reading material. 
***
The Silkworm is the second book in the Cormoran Strike series, and is the third book written by Rowling post-Harry Potter to be geared towards an audience of adults. You can find it, and many of Rowling/Galbraith's other books at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan

"The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The bookstore’s secrets extend far beyond its walls." (from the Goodreads review page.)
***
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan drew me in with a description of a millennial-ish aged person reevaluating their options and transitioning from the mindset of "I need to find a career that highlights my talents and specific training" to "I need to find a job--any job--because I need to pay my rent. Also food would be nice." Once again, I stumbled upon a character with identifiable traits and personality development. The narration style employed by Sloan was also very reminiscent of the narrator from Ernest Cline's Ready Player One; which, incidentally, was another book that a) I personally loved and b) has been highlighted on this blog previously
The story progresses into a plot that sounds like a set-up to an Indiana Jones story: a bookstore out of which ancient secret society operates, combing through the bookstore's secret collection in search of the code that cracks the society founder's secret to eternal life. I will admit that at this point, I almost put the book down since this is a plot that is starting to wear thin--having read it multiple times, each time I pick up a Dan Brown book. However I have a (sometimes frustrating) habit of doggedly determining to finish any book I start reading. So I kept reading. And I'm very glad I did, because the story took a turn that I did not expect and wound up being one of my favourite discoveries of the year. What you think is going to turn into a story about a search for a paranormal and supernatural secret to eternal life, actually becomes a metaphor for the continuing quest to obtain, preserve, and display information in the form of words and writing. It's a story about the development, progress, and importance of words.
***
This book is an allegory for the paper book vs. e-book argument/battle happening everywhere all the time over the last five years. The split between the two primary leaders of the ancient society (The Society of the Unbroken Spine) over the methods by which the society members decode the codex is eerily familiar; the store owner, Mr. Penumbra, in favour of embracing the emerging technology in order to better access the hidden facets of the codex, while the society leader struggles to keep the society strictly in the dark ages and only rely on the methods used by the society's founder with no outside aid from any technology other than a pen and paper. There's a moment in the book when Clay and Penumbra are in the secret underground vault of the society, where Penumbra remarks what a hassle it was to get the leader to agree even to install electric lighting in the vault to aid those doing the bulk of the code breaking work. Someone wanting to using technology to advance a society forward, versus someone struggling to keep a society firmly entrenched in the past? Sounds so familiar, almost like I've had that exact argument before. Repeatedly. Every day.
***
And the protagonists of this book are not simply in favour of technology replacing analogue sources--that's usually the argument that anti-tech. people resort to when attacking new technology. That would be a weird argument to make, considering I read the print copy of this book, and not the e-book (though that exists as well). Rather, the story in this book is a metaphor for using the emerging technology to improve the access to information provided to people, not to replace way the information is provided. It's to take information that once was difficult to access, or obtuse to wield, and make that information available easier and more reasonably. Mr. Penumbra's mindset regarding wireless technology and computers is one that I share and try to verbalize every time I am confronted with the phrase "Why get your library degree? Won't e-readers make your job obsolete in the next [insert arbitrary time frame here]?" This comment is usually met on my part by a heavy sigh before launching into a long and detailed explanation of "No, librarians don't just read books all day, there's actually a lot of work involving computers that happens, there's also reader's advisory, collection management, reference advisory, and quite frankly there are tons of different non-public library jobs that require a library degree like for example archive management, lots of digital records management, or sometimes even museum curator (depending on the museum)--wait why are you leaving? Come back, I haven't even gotten to databases yet!"
***
Computers, e-readers, the internet...these technologies are not the enemy of books and libraries. They won't make print sources obsolete, they won't put libraries out of business, there won't be abandoned landfills full of paper books. What this technology is doing is taking the information provided and making it easier and faster to access, so that it is possible to find more and advance society in a better direction. This book is a metaphor on the dangers of trying to halt development in favour of glorifying and remaining entrenched in the past instead of acknowledging the both the accomplishments and the mistakes of the past and building on them in order to build a better future.
***
You can find Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Friday, December 5, 2014

"Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened" by Allie Brosh


***


Hyperbole and a Half is a blog written and run by Allie Brosh in which she uses a combination of web comic and narrative prose to describe stories of her childhood, incidences with her dogs, and advice based on her observations of adulthood. Using an intentionally artistically crude drawing style (rendered in the Mac Paintbrush program) coupled with observational and absurdist humour, Brosh has gained internet popularity since 2009 as a blogger willing to speak bluntly and openly about her own struggles with depression, social anxiety, ADHD, chronic procrastination, and other conditions. Several of her comic drawings have exceeded well beyond her blog and achieved meme status on social networking websites like Reddit, Tumblr, and Imgur.

***

In October 2011, Brosh made a blog entry which displayed in detail her experiences with depression, which was praised both by followers of her blog and by practicing psychologists as one of the best non-medically written, and insightful descriptions of depression from the point of view of someone suffering from the illness rather than from the point of view of a medical professional observing the effects of the illness. After this post, Brosh’s blog went silent with no new material posted for over a year, causing concern among her readers. While she issued a statement regarding her absence from the blog, and answered questions during a Q&A thread on Reddit, it wasn’t until May of 2013 that a follow-up comic “Depression Part Two” was posted on her blog continuing the narrative and including a discussion on her suicidal feelings. The popularity of Brosh’s blog was seen when the post got 1.5 million views in a single day.

***
In October 2013, Brosh’s book Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened was released. This book contains several of the classic and popular comics/posts from her blog (including Depression Parts One and Two), plus about ten new stories not ever published on the blog--like the first chapter in which Brosh tells of the time when (at age twenty-seven) she found the time capsule she had buried at the age of ten containing a letter written to her future self. The letter concludes with the request that her future self “please write back”; a request with which Brosh not only complies but also expands to include letters to her past self at various other ages as well. For example: “Dear Two-year-old, face cream is not edible--no matter how much it looks like frosting, no matter how many times you try--it’s always going to be face cream and it’s never going to be frosting. I promise I wouldn’t lie to you about this. It’s honestly never going to be frosting. For the love of ****, please stop. I need those organs you’re ruining” (pages 8-9).
***
I think that what so many people (myself included) find appealing about Brosh’s writing/comic style is how approachable it is. While she's telling stories about her own life and her own weird experiences, they hit so close to home for so many people in the millennial generation who are approaching or already in their mid-twenties. When I first started following the Hyperbole and a Half blog and then later was reading the book, I started to loose track of how many times I found myself thinking "There are other people who think this way? Oh thank goodness I thought I was alone and weird." But I'm not alone and weird, there are apparently millions of people who have similar experiences and mental processes. And we're all pretty weird. And are drawn to Brosh's deliberately simplistic drawing style and hyper-descriptive narrative text. Her story-telling method is very fluid, inserting the Paintbrush drawings so seamlessly that they are so much a part of the story that to remove them and replace them with strictly typed words describing what the drawing was attempting to convey would be akin to removing one of your kidneys and replacing it with a balloon filled with pudding. Sure it’s still vaguely kidney-shaped, and you’d still have the other kidney to take up the slack, but pretty soon you’re going to notice something’s missing. Also, you’ll probably get some kind of infection. And if that metaphor sounded weird and slightly disturbing then I’ve successfully conveyed the type of humour Brosh uses in her writing.
***
Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened is available in the catalogue at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Monday, December 1, 2014

"American Elsewhere" by Robert Jackson Bennett





“Some places are too good to be true. Under a pink moon, there is a perfect little town not found on any map. In that town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things…” (taken from the Goodreads summary)

***
American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett follows the story of former policewoman Mona Bright, as she tracks down information regarding her deceased mother and finds herself in the small town of Wink, New Mexico. Suddenly the benefactor of her mother’s old house, Mona decides to temporarily reside in the town of Wink while she decides what to do with the house. The town is strange, mysterious, and dangerous as a whole, and even stranger as individual residents are introduced. The undoubtedly human residents seem quite content to make arrangements and conditions for strange unseen forces while never ever venturing out of their houses after dark; staple community members are unquestionably fey, otherworldly, and know more than they’re telling; and clusters of residents seem stuck in a pseudo Stepford-like haze without any clue as to what they are doing or what constitutes normality. Mona finds herself interacting with all these bizarre townspeople while trying to unravel the mysteries of how her mother fit into this small town dynamic, what role the abandoned scientific research facility on the mountain looming over the town plays, and the reason why her mother chose to end her life  so abruptly and without warning.
***
American Elsewhere at first appears as a work of urban fiction--an ex-cop turned drifter, disillusioned with the justice system dealing with the loss of both her parents--but quickly starts to twist into an otherworldly invasion story worthy of an episode of The X-Files. Or Sanctuary.  Or a bizarre hybrid of both. As the story progressed, the town began to twist into a bizarre nightmare world. The laws of physics start to warp and it starts being less like a  mystery and more along the lines of a sci-fi mad scientist backstory gone horribly horribly wrong. I discovered this book when looking for long fiction that embraced the Lovecraftian narrative style of writing. And American Elsewhere definitely has Lovecraftian narrative running throughout its plot. In fact, as I was reading I started to picture the town of Wink, NM as a sister town to Night Vale--the fictional desert community of Welcome to Night Vale, the CommonPlace Books podcast heavily influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  And once my brain made this comparison, I was hooked and desperate to read it all in one sitting. Unfortunately, since I had started reading it on a one hour lunch break, that wasn’t going to happen so for the rest of the day I kept gazing longingly at my satchel bag and making whimpering noises.
***
American Elsewhere is most definitely, unquestionably, and without a doubt, weird. There’s no other one word description for it. Which was great for me, because I tend to deliberately seek out and embrace the weird. It’s weird, it’s twisted, and it delves into the dark recesses of human thought to poke at the lingering fears humanity has stored in the backs of their minds. The base story that Bennett presents is not necessarily new--on the contrary, there have been so many sci-fi stories that rely on the infiltration trope, i.e. humanity’s slow replacement with otherworldly duplicates or subversive enemy agents that it’s pretty much become its own branch off of science fiction. We’ve seen it in so many times in movies (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Faculty, The Invasion, The Thing, Little Shop of Horrors, Oblivion, Slither, The World’s End, etc.), in comics (Marvel’s  entire Skrull Invasion comic series), in television (the long-running Syndicate story-arc in The X-files, multiple story-arcs in Doctor Who, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Outer Limits, Stargate SG-1), in literature (Animorphs, The Puppet Masters, The Bone Clocks)--it’s a very well known plot device for sci-fi creators. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a worn-out plot device. On the contrary, Bennett uses it to his full advantage. Combining a classic creation-style myth with the infiltration trope, gritty urban fiction style writing, and plenty of aberrant Cthulhu-esque monsters, at the end of this book I found myself wishing that I could wipe it from my memory completely so I could read it again and experience it for the first time .
***
American Elsewhere was Robert Jackson Bennett’s fourth novel, and you can find it in the fiction section at the Ocean City Free Public Library. Or put a hold on it in our online catalogue.

Monday, November 24, 2014

"My Drunk Kitchen: a Guide to Eating, Drinking, and Going With Your Gut" by Hannah Hart



***


In March of 2011, a college student named Hannah Hart uploaded a video to her YouTube channel in which she attempts to cook grilled cheese while drinking wine and providing witty commentary--and without any cheese. By 2014, My Drunk Kitchen had reached over a million subscribers, while Hannah herself has become one of the most prominent YouTube personalities, and has collaborated with countless other YouTubers on video and charity projects, brought several celebrities onto her own channel (including chef Jamie Oliver, actress/writer Felicia Day, and novelist John Green), and even co-wrote/produced and starred in an independent film. So naturally the next logical step is to publish a book.
***
My Drunk Kitchen: A Guide to Eating, Drinking, and Going With Your Gut is an insightful and humorous cross between a cookbook and a self-help book in which Hannah offers both recipes and life advice in a comic, sarcastic, and only slightly self-depreciative writing style--with plenty of drink pairings to go along. The recipes included range from three step PB&J instructions (the third step being to add potato chips), to the detailed and complex instructions of assembling "The Hartwich" (a gourmet-level sandwich with ground turkey instead of bread), to the necessary ingredients for pulling yourself out of a downward depression spiral. ...It really covers all the basics. Among the recipes and the awesome photography, you will find anecdotes offering advice on how to get over failed relationships (and how to get yourself out of a bad one), detailed explanations about alcohol’s effect on the human body (and why you should always have potatoes on hand), and even advice to those debating on coming out to friends and family (and how to make the decision that is best for their own well-being). There’s even a section on dealing with holiday stress, family gatherings, and how to cope with being asked to cook when faced with serving family members whose cooking is better than yours--a section that I find very comforting during this week leading up to Thanksgiving.
***
I read this book during a very stressful time in my life and was able to connect to a lot of its subject matter on a very personal level--both because I find myself still relying on the “broke college student shopping list” (instant ramen, peanut butter, and whatever produce is on sale), and because of the anecdotes involving personal realisations during the “quarter-life crisis” time of life. Being no stranger to the YouTube scene, and to Hannah’s channel in particular, I had been eagerly awaiting the publication of this book since she first announced she was writing it. And I was not disappointed, as it has quickly become one of my favourite books to turn to when in an emotional crash--or when I just want to know how to make nachos out of saltine crackers and martini olives. By no means is it a step-by-step instructional cookbook with one specific outcome in mind; but rather it's more like a series of suggestions to get you started towards many possible outcomes, depending on the choices you make. It’s a cookbook that’s not so much about cooking as it is about life choices and the effectiveness of just going with your gut, as interpreted and presented through the eyes of someone who one evening turned on a webcam and said: “Hello! And welcome to my drunk kitchen.”
***
My Drunk Kitchen: A Guide to Eating, Drinking, and Going With Your Gut was published in August 2014, and will be added to the library collection soon. You can put yourself on the waiting list here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

"The Bone Clocks" by David Mitchell


 
***
The Bone Clocks is the latest novel from David Mitchell, the author who brought the world Cloud Atlas. Set up as a series of six 100 page novella sections, The Bone Clocks follows the life of a teenage runaway named Holly Sykes from her adolescence to her old age; while at the same time following the story of an ancient secret organisation twisting the laws of nature, science, and morality in order to perpetuate the ideals and hunger for eternal youth.
***
A foray into the realm of realistic fantasy, this latest novel by Mitchell explores the idea of conscious reincarnation and randomly chosen rebirth--what happens when a select portion of the  population is born with a genetic predisposition to be able to transfer their consciousness from the body they currently occupy to either the body of a currently alive individual (temporary, and usually with the consent of the person) or an individual who has just died (permanent, and with the understanding that they will continue to live that individual’s life from that point on).  While  Holly Sykes, the main protagonist of the story, does not possess this capability, her little brother does. This, along with the occasional capacity for psychic premonition, draws Holly straight into the center of a long standing battle between two factions of these reincarnation travelers--one faction who wishes to protect the human race and the knowledge learned from centuries of rebirth, and one who wishes to prey upon the human race in order to further their practice of  immortality.
***
I stumbled on this book by accident--admittingly drawn in by the cover art of the book jacket, and not having previously read Cloud Atlas--and found myself engaged in a “I only meant to read a few chapters but somehow I’m reading the whole book in one sitting” situation (a situation I’ve found myself in several times before, but usually only when Harry Potter was involved). It was the first thing that I’ve read by David Mitchell, and now I want to go read all his other novels. See if it is something you want to read, or check out David Mitchell’s other novels, at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Monday, November 17, 2014

"Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary" by J.R.R. Tolkien

 

In the years following the death of J.R.R. Tolkien, his son Christopher (being named as literary executor to his father’s unfinished works) has been completing and publishing many of his fathers as-yet unpublished works. This includes The Silmarillion and The Unfinished Tales of Middle Earth (which Middle Earth fans would recognise as source material for some of the plot lines in the newer Hobbit movies) as well as The Tale of Sigurd and Gudrun, The Fall of Arthur, and most recently Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary.

***

In addition to writing The Lord of the Rings series (which has undoubtedly become one of the most well recognised staples of geek culture, having spawned movies, comics, cartoons, video games, and table games from just one trilogy and its prequel), John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was a renowned professor of English language and literature, holding multiple positions at Oxford. It is here that he worked on translations of poetry from Old English, to later be published by his son. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary was one of these. It has been known for quite some time that Tolkien had worked on a newer translation of Beowulf, but his son held off on publishing it until May of 2014--much to the frustration of English Literature professors  professors everywhere.
***
Anyone familiar with Beowulf will know that there are many translations of the poem available, some of higher quality than others. Tolkien’s translation focuses on the precision of the language and the imagery brought forth by the language. This, coupled with the detailed footnotes provided by his son regarding the methods by which the translation was accomplished make this translation of the poem one of the high quality ones. In addition to the translation of the poem (and perhaps what makes the book better than other translation) is the inclusion of Tolkien’s commentary and original writings following the poem. The initial commentary that follows the poem is the source material that eventually became Tolkien’s renowned 1936 lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. In this commentary is found some of the most detailed writing regarding the nature of the translation of language and the impact on a story that mistranslation or bad translation can have.
After the commentary, there are two original writings by Tolkien; “Sellic Spell” and “The Lay of Beowulf.” The former is a fantasy piece written by Tolkien regarding the origins of Beowulf and speculates the biographical history of the hero that is only briefly alluded to in the original poem. The latter is two poems written in the style of a song in the Beowulf theme.
***
As a former English lit. student I was fascinated by the method which Tolkien used to translate and present the poem. Though Tolkien himself was not as satisfied with his own translation of the work, still to be able to see how he chose to focus more on the rhythm and details of the original poem, rather than on focusing on the rhyme and alliteration as many previous translations of the poem have done (which can lead to losing many details or important facets of the original story). Because Tolkien chose to focus on the rhythm and details of the original source material, there are elements in his translation that won’t be found in other translations.
As a fan of Tolkien’s Middle Earth material, it was gratifying to see glimpses the language that Tolkien would use later in his Lord of the Rings--Tolkien himself having stated that Beowulf was a significant source of inspiration for The Hobbit. Reading it felt somewhat like a treasure hunt where the treasure was the hints of foreshadowing of what Tolkien would later publish. (Remember--his lecture Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics was in 1936, while The Hobbit was published in 1937, and The Lord of the Rings between 1937 and 1949).
***
I was excited to read this new translation of Beowulf, as the old poem has been one of my favourite staples of English Literature. It also helps that, being exposed to the writing of Tolkien at the earliest age possible, I’m a vehement Tolkien fan. I was not disappointed. All in all, it was an interesting read, both from an educational standpoint, and from a Tolkien fan standpoint--no matter which way I approached it...

...See if you agree! Beowulf: a Translation and Commentary by J.R.R. Tolkien and Christopher Tolkien is available at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Zombies Battle Super-Heroes in "Ex-Heroes" by Peter Clines


"Ex-Heroes: A Novel" 
by Peter Clines




With The Walking Dead returning to television this past Sunday, readers who can't seem to get enough zombies may be interested in checking out the "Ex-Heroes" series by Peter Clines. As it happens, the blurb on the front cover comes from our blog's last featured author, Ernest Cline: "I loved this pop culture-infused tale of shamed superheroes struggling to survive a zombie apocalypse in the ruins of Hollywood. It's The Avengers meets The Walking Dead with a large order of epic served on the side."

Read on and see if you agree with Mr. Cline...


*****


Imagine a world very much like ours, with one major exception: some ordinary humans have suddenly found themselves in possession of extraordinary talents and abilities. Take The Mighty Dragon, for example, once an average handyman named George...who is now seemingly indestructible, super strong, and able to breathe fire. And The Dragon isn't alone, for countless have dedicated themselves to using their new "gifts" for the good of all. Cerberus, for example, is this universe's answer to Iron Man (a regular, "powerless" human who makes a difference thanks to a combination of her brain and a state of the art battle suit). 

If this sounds like every other super-hero tale you've read in the past, keep your cape on. Because neither the human race nor the newly-arrived super-humans are prepared for a sudden plague that devastates the entire planet. Billions of lives are lost, most of which have reanimated as the living dead, now called "Exes." Our civilization lies in ashes, and our only hope is for the remaining survivors (hero and human alike) to band together and fight to survive.

"Ex-Heroes" focuses on The Dragon and his associates, who have carved themselves a home base out of what remains of the City of Angels. Despite their relative successes, many questions remain. Can they really expect to survive in a world where even a bite or scratch from an Ex is enough to turn you into one of them? And what, if anything, exists in the world beyond the city gates?

*****

As a huge fan of both zombies and super-heroes, I was very interested to hear of a book that combined the two subjects. Clines is able to combine the two separate worlds into one that works surprisingly well. "Ex-Heroes" contains plenty of action and adventure, all the while managing to perfectly capture the overwhelming sense of isolation and despair. If you've ever wondered how an epic battle between Superman, Iron Man and an army of zombies might play out, "Ex-Heroes" is here to show you. To pardon the pun, this is a book that fantasy/horror/science fiction fans can easily sink their teeth into.

And while it would be simple to fill a book with zombie gore and call it a day, Clines doesn't stop there. As fans of the genre are aware, post-apocalyptic scenarios take a mental and emotional toll on survivors in addition to the physical threats they face on a daily basis. A band of humans has enough trouble fighting for survival while managing to govern themselves. What kinds of ethical conflicts and power struggles may emerge when these humans are mixed in with a group of superheroes? 

The Marvel Comics character Spider-Man introduced many readers to the concept of "With great power comes great responsibility", and nowhere is that more apparent then when faced with the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding humanity from scratch. And, while superpowers may seem like a dream come true to many, it is also important to consider the potential drawbacks. What if your powers came at a heavy cost? What would you be willing to surrender in exchange for the power to save lives? Readers are forced to wonder how they would act in such a scenario, as unlikely as it may seem.


*****


The Ocean City Library has a copy of "Ex-Heroes" waiting for you to pick up and explore. If you enjoy it and want to read more about The Mighty Dragon and his friends, the series continues with "Ex-Patriots", "Ex-Communication" and, most recently, "Ex-Purgatory." Pack your bags, check your supplies and enter a world where super-heroes and zombies go hand-in-rotting hand. If it's too much for you, take a break and remind yourself that this could never happen in real life.....or could it?


More information about Peter Clines may be found on the author's Facebook page.