Saga, Volume 4

Saga, Volume 4 (Saga #19-24)Saga, Volume 4 by Brian K. Vaughan
Illustrated by: Fiona Staples
Published: 2014
Publisher: Image Comics
Length: 144 pages
Collects: issues #19-24

Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples know how to open a volume with a bang. You’re off running right from the first page with a close-up of an alien birth in action. They’re excellent at having little shocks in their books in an age where it’s difficult to shock anyone. I love that I just don’t know what I’m going to get when I open these pages.

The story jumps ahead a bit here. The crew is somewhat settled now, and it turns into an odd slice of life comic with the other storylines picking up steam in the background. It feels a bit like a setup arc, catching everything up and setting the groundwork for a big next volume, but the writing still holds up and makes it a great read. My only real complaint is that it started to get a little Degrassi High. Every sitcom in the 80s and 90s had to have their ‘Drugs are Bad’ episode, in which a character gets too easily roped into drugs and it turns too easily into a major problem, and this felt eerily similar to one of those. It’s probably the first complaint I’ve had in the whole series, though, so that’s a pretty good track record.

The panel layout and art is deceptively simple, but it has the effect of being very cinematic. I love the little touches of detail they add. There’s an alien cyborg race with televisions for heads, and up until this volume I think they’ve all looked the same, but here we see a commoner of this race with a black and white CRT for a head and a king with a giant LCD screen for a head. They’re great at taking these bizarre ideas and gradually giving them more flesh as the story progresses.

This was probably my least favourite of the four volumes, but I still really loved it. Saga has easily become one of my favourite comic series.

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February in Review

Books Acquired:
None.

Books Read:
Saga, Volume 4 by Brian K. Vaughan
A Brief History of the Celts by Peter Berresford Ellis
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
Skin Deep by Brandon Sanderson

This was a decent reading month, full of mostly short but quality reads. Also I finally, finally, finished A Brief History of the Celts, which if you follow me on Goodreads you may have noticed had been marked as Currently Reading since last November. Every time I nearly dropped it, something interesting would pop up and keep me reading.

No books purchased! How’s that for self-control? I did try to go to a bookstore last week after having a few drinks at dinner, and it was closed, so I possibly dodged a bullet there. I’m trying to avoid buying books right now that I’m not planning on reading within the month. There’s also the annual giant book sale coming in a couple of months for which I’m preserving shelf space.

Movies watched:
21 Jump Street (2012) – This was better than I’d expected. Predictable and a bit forgettable, but it wasn’t bad.

The Interview (2014) – This felt like a waste. Big budget but the writing was mostly terrible. It had a few really funny moments, and was a lot better once the story got to North Korea, but it could have been so much more.

Much Ado About Nothing (1993) – I hadn’t watched this since high school, and it was so much better than I remembered. Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh were particularly fantastic in it, and Branagh’s soliloquies were performed hilariously.

A Long Way Down (2014) – I love this book, and I thought the casting choices were great, but the screenplay really lost a lot. It felt too rushed, so everyone came off flippant about suicide, and that really screwed with the tone of the movie. I didn’t hate it, but it was a shame.

The Untouchables (1987) – I hadn’t seen this before and thought I should. I don’t think some of the scenes stood the test of time, unless they were ridiculous for ’87 as well, and Sean Connery’s accent was hilarious (I still love him), but overall it was a fun movie.

TV watched:
No television series finished.

Games played:
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (2014) (PC) – My friend and I finished everything in the game without going back to play it in a harder mode. I had a lot more fun than I thought I would, and wasn’t sick of it at all by the end, which I assumed I would be. We’ll likely go back and play some DLC later in the year.

Insurgency (2014) (PC) – After we were done with Borderlands, we were looking for another cooperative game to play and thought we’d give this another try. So far it’s been a blast. It’s a slow, tactical shooter – no mini maps or killstreaks or anything, just sneaking through some buildings and trying not to die.

Rayman Legends (2013) (PS4) – Apparently I don’t play solo games anymore. My girlfriend and I have been playing though Rayman Legends cooperatively, and it’s been great. We’ve finished the main game and are now going through bonus content. It’s a really well-designed platformer.

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Eugene Onegin

Eugene OneginEugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
Published: 1825–1832 (serialized), 1833 (single volume)
Translated by: James E. Falen (from Russian, 1990)
Narrated by: Stephen Fry
Length: 04:21

I can’t remember where I found the link, but I came across Fry Reads Onegin a while back and knew I had to download it. Stephen Fry narrates the 1990 translation of Eugene Onegin, and it’s available to download for free. I didn’t know anything about the poem, but I will listen to anything narrated by Fry, so I decided to give it a try.

I read after listening to this that it’s the origin of the Onegin stanza (aBaBccDDeFFeGG), which did jostle some distant memory from English Lit class fifteen years ago, but otherwise I was completely unfamiliar with it. It’s a Russian classic, published serially over a period of seven years, and apparently Pushkin is thought of by many as the greatest poet to come out the country. His rhyming scheme was innovative, you don’t name stanza forms after just anybody, and his story-telling and characterization went on to inspire generations of Russian writers.

Partial Spoilers
Eugene Onegin is a dandy, a Russian equivalent to someone you might find in an Oscar Wilde play. He is jaded, a bit lost, and has grown tired of concerts and partying. After inheriting his uncle’s estate and moving to the country, he meets and befriends the young poet Vladimir Lensky. Onegin eventually meets Lensky’s fiancée’s younger sister Tatyana, who falls completely for him, but he rather ruthlessly turns her down. This, and a spiteful evening of flirting with Lensky’s fiancée, leads to a tragic string of events.

In the poem, the poet Vladimir Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel after he finds him dancing and flirting with his fiancée, and it ends with Onegin killing him. Reading Pushkin’s Wikipedia entry, it seems he suffered the same fate. Pushkin heard rumours that his wife was cheating on him and challenged the man to a duel. He was shot through the spleen and died two days later. Maybe not that uncommon for the time, but it feels like a very odd coincidence looking back.
/Partial Spoilers

My head begins to hurt when I consider what it must take to translate a poem, keeping the line by line content the same, while adhering to a set rhyming scheme. I’m sure liberties had to be taken, and I’ll always wonder how it reads in Russian, but I was shocked at how natural the writing felt. I was ready for it to be somewhat rough and stilted, but it’s really well done. I may be wrong, but I imagine translation is a fairly thankless job, so I hope James E. Falen got due credit. There have been dozens of English translation of this, including one by Vladimir Nabokov, but Falen’s is said to be the most faithful while still sticking to the rhyming scheme.

This was really enjoyable, and Stephen Fry’s narration was great. I did have a few false starts on this, though. I haven’t listened to a novel in verse as an audiobook before, and while the language wasn’t all that complicated, I kept finding myself just following the rhythm and forgetting to listen to what was actually being said. It took a bit more concentration to begin with, but once I finally got into it, it was a fun listen.

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Published: 2012
Length: 304 pages

Clay Jannon is a recent college graduate in San Francisco. He worked for a short time as a web designer at a start-up that unfortunately went under. We wanders into a dark and dusty bookshop on a whim one day and lands a job on the night shift. The bookstore turns out to be even stranger than it looks. The owner is very secretive, there’s a whole section of books that Jannon’s not allowed to read, and most of the clientele seem mildly insane. His curiosity soon gets the better of him, however, and he finds himself very involved in this strange and archaic world.

All I knew of this was that it’s a book for people who love books, but I have to say it became something I really hadn’t anticipated. As much as it’s about books and secret societies and old mysteries, it’s also about Google and typography and cloud computing. I’m a software developer with a book blog, so you’d think that would be perfect for me, but I found it a little off-putting at first. It’s not a bad mix; it just wasn’t what I thought I ordered.

Once I got over the fact that Google was all up in my secret society book club, I really liked this. I was consistently excited to see what was happening next and did eventually find the world, the mix of old and new, really interesting. Some of the plot elements fit together a little too well, every character that was introduced in the book had a moment where their particular knowledge or access saved the day, for example, but I didn’t really care. The relationships did feel believable even if some of the plot and use of technology didn’t, and it was just a fun, fast-paced, nerdy adventure.

The pop-culture and technology worked for the most part. Every now and then he’d mention an author and I’d get that fanboy tickle. It was like Ready Player One in that way, except instead of spending a chapter listing off thirty authors, he’d list, say, three, which is much more manageable. I was of two minds on how involved Google was in the plot. On one hand it’s interesting to have that real reference point, as it can be a nice shortcut for the reader to feel a connection to the fictional world, but on the other hand it was starting to feel like Google funded the book.

Overall, this is a lot of fun. Recommended if you could stand the idea of Allan Quatermain using Google Maps to find King Solomon’s Mines.

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Dracula

DraculaDracula by Bram Stoker
Published: 1897
Narrated by: Alan Cumming, Tim Curry, Simon Vance, Katherine Kellgren, Susan Duerden, John Lee, Graeme Malcolm, Steven Crossley
Length: 15:28

Told entirely through written correspondence and journals, the story first follows Jonathan Harker as he visits Count Dracula in Transylvania to assist him in a real estate purchase in England. The first third of the book is him slowly learning more and more about what Dracula is, and I absolutely loved this section. Both the initial feeling of Harker being in a foreign land at the beginning and the pacing of how Dracula’s true being was revealed were both perfect. I was hooked from the first chapter.

The beginning of the novel is taken from Harker’s journal during his time in Dracula’s castle, and the rest of the novel involves a full cast of characters and is from the journals the keep and the letters they write. I found the transition between these two sections really jarring, just because I was loving it so much that I wanted to keep the same point of view. After a little time, though, my head was back in it and the change was for the better. It brought a lot more depth to the story than there would have been from the single viewpoint.

I listened to the Audible version of this, and it was a great production. Simon Vance is one of my favourite narrators, and his narration of Harker is part of why I was so immediately hooked. The rest of the cast is fantastic as well. Katy Kellgren was great as the incredibly modern Mina, and she sounded a bit like Mary from Downton Abbey, which helped. Tim Curry as Van Helsing was a genius choice. In their journal entries, each of the characters recount conversations that they had with the others, and part of the fun of listening to this on audio was hearing everyone do a Van Helsing impression as their own character. Each narrator was so talented. I haven’t done many full cast audiobooks before, but since this is an epistolary novel, it’s really just a new narrator for each chapter. You aren’t switching speaker mid-sentence.

I’m so glad I finally read this. As familiar as I am with the character, I really didn’t know the actual story of the novel, so it’s nice to see where all of our modern interpretations of this originated. Dracula, for example, is very much like he’s portrayed in modern film, charming and interesting, but he’s not involved in any romance or seduction in the novel. Harker and him have a burgeoning bromance at the beginning, but other than that it’s just not a part of the story. Abraham Van Helsing is not an expert at vampire hunting either. He’s a doctor, and a jack of all trades, and is only involved because he was called to diagnose the illness of Lucy Westenra, Dracula’s first victim. He is a natural, however, and is the first to come up with the theory that the symptoms could be from the bite of a vampire. He has no real knowledge of the undead, but he guides the team through the investigation.

I’d definitely recommend this to anyone. It’s not action-packed, and it’s more eery than scary, but it’s a lot of fun right up until the end.

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Top Ten Most Read Authors

If you click on ‘My Books’ in Goodreads and have a look at the bottom of the left hand menu, you can see a link to your most read authors.

I thought instead of listing the top 10, I’d break it down by number of books read. I excluded comics for this, as they tend to skew the numbers.

  • 23 – Terry Pratchett
  • 14 – Robert Lynn Asprin, Christopher Moore
  • 9 – Neil Gaiman, Nick Hornby, Robert Jordan
  • 8 – Robin Hobb
  • 6 – Chuck Palahniuk
  • 5 – William Shakespeare, John Scalzi, George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, John Wyndham
  • 4 – Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Coupland, Stephen Fry, Margaret Weis
  • 3 – Dan Brown, Raymond Chandler, Arthur Conan Doyle, Douglas Adams

As you can see above, I have some commitment issues when it comes to authors. I just love finding entirely new fiction to read, but I am making more of an effort lately to return to favourite authors instead of chasing anything shiny.

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An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on EarthAn Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
Published: 2013
Length: 304 pages

When Chris Hadfield was commander of the International Space Station, he managed to bring back that childhood fascination of space that some people forget as they grow older. He was the first astronaut to really make use of social media to show the amazing sights of space travel – he took beautiful photos of the earth from orbit, he made HD videos to show the trials and wonders of living with no gravity, he held live Q&A sessions with elementary schools (it would have blown my mind as a kid, and still would, to video conference live with someone in space), and he raised general awareness of the space program with entertaining music videos and media interviews. This is all in addition to his main work on the station.

He’s particularly inspiring for us Canadians, as he was not only the first Canadian commander of the station on his last expedition, but was also previously the first Canadian to ever do a spacewalk, during which he installed the Canadarm2. To see him capture the attention of so many people around the world and promote space exploration felt really special. I don’t get patriotic very often, but he brought a little of that out.

This is an autobiography with a self-help slant. He worked his whole life towards being an astronaut and uses this to look back at what he learned along the way. I approach any self-help book with a bit of reluctance, but if you’re going to take life advice from someone, take it from someone who has needed to work hard his entire life to essentially keep from dying on the job. I found his advice and examples of how he keeps motivated and learning really interesting, and the stories from his own life and work provide great examples of the advice in action. They become much more than just catchy phrases for a Tumblr image this way.

If you start thinking that only your biggest and shiniest moments count, you’re setting yourself up to feel like a failure most of the time.

His life goal was to be an astronaut, but it was surprisingly far-fetched when he decided this as a kid. Canada didn’t have a space program, and Canadians were not eligible to become astronauts in the US. He decided to aim for the American qualifications, in the hopes that a Canadian program would be created. Thankfully it was in 1990. Once accepted, there was still a high likelihood that he wouldn’t even make it to space. A change in government funding, bad timing, or even a common cold can keep you grounded. It drives home the idea that the end goal, which in his career was floating in space, can’t be what you use to measure success. He made a point to acknowledging the small victories along the way.

In space flight, “attitude” refers to orientation: which direction your vehicle is pointing relative to the Sun, Earth and other spacecraft. If you lose control of your attitude, two things happen: the vehicle starts to tumble and spin, disorienting everyone on board, and it also strays from its course, which, if you’re short on time or fuel, could mean the difference between life and death. In the Soyuz, for example, we use every cue from every available source—periscope, multiple sensors, the horizon—to monitor our attitude constantly and adjust if necessary. We never want to lose attitude, since maintaining attitude is fundamental to success.

In my experience, something similar is true on Earth. Ultimately, I don’t determine whether I arrive at the desired professional destination. Too many variables are out of my control. There’s really just one thing I can control: my attitude during the journey, which is what keeps me feeling steady and stable, and what keeps me headed in the right direction. So I consciously monitor and correct, if necessary, because losing attitude would be far worse than not achieving my goal.

Hadfield was a test pilot before joining the CSA, which is a very exciting and interesting profession in itself, so the book is full of great stories – losing consciousness while piloting a fighter jet, finding a bee under his visor while flying in formation, and losing his sight while on a spacewalk to name a few. I also don’t know if there’s many people in the world who can explain how the American Shuttle and the Russian Soyuz feel different on take off.

I’m really glad I picked this up. I had a chance to get it signed on his book tour, but the wait was five hours, so I bailed. I was briefly disappointed when I was reading this that I didn’t stay, but five hours is a long wait to shake someone’s hand and mumble an incoherent compliment. It was a space hand, though, so maybe I’ll catch him on his next tour.

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The People Look Like Flowers at Last

The People Look Like Flowers at LastThe People Look Like Flowers at Last by Charles Bukowski
Published: 2007
Length: 320 pages

This is one of Bukowski’s posthumously published poetry collections, and I always feel odd reading something that an author wasn’t alive to see published. Where were these found? Why were they previously unpublished, and what if he didn’t want these released? He mentions in a couple of his poems that he wrote multiple a night and then tossed the ones that didn’t work. Are some of these those failures? Were any editorial changes made? I’d even hate the idea of someone publishing a silly blog post without my consent, and this is a book of poetry from one of America’s most famous poets of the 20th century.

Note to friends and family: do not post my weblog drafts if I perish unexpectedly. Even if the public demands it.

I only bring this up because some of the poetry in this collection felt uninspired. There were some gems, poems that I immediately re-read after finishing, but the hysterical moments and sparks of brilliant authenticity that he’s known for felt far and few between here. When I love his poems, though, I really love them. He writes so simply, and often on the same few themes over and over, but he’ll hit on some everyday truth that will just stop you dead in your tracks. He really utilizes the ‘it’s funny/sad because it’s true’ approach.

I consider Bukowski one of my favourite alcoholics. He seemed to live that romantic drunk writer’s life. Constantly drinking hard, yet still driven to express himself creatively. Short, intense relationships that leave long-lasting scars. Depression that doesn’t cripple, but instead fuels the writing and provides deep insights into the human condition and ample opportunity for moody, pensive looks. It’s the sort of life that doesn’t exist outside of fiction. There’s nothing glamourous about addiction and mental illness, and I’m sure his life was much more complicated than I know, but that’s the impression one gets when reading his poetry.

I’ve only read two of Bukowski’s poetry collections, so I’m looking forward to reading more in the years to come. I think I’ll try one of his novels next.

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The Minute by Charles Bukowski

“I am always fighting for the next
minute,” I tell my wife.
then she begins to tell me
how mistaken I am.
wives have a way of not believing what their husbands
tell them.

the minute is a very sacred
thing.
I have fought for each one since my
childhood.
I continue to fight for each one.
I have never been bored or
at a loss what to do next.
even when I do nothing,
I am utilizing my time.

why people must go to
amusement parks or movies
or sit in front of tv sets
or work crossword puzzles
or go to picnics
or visit relatives
or travel
or do most of the things
they do
is beyond me.
they mutilate minutes,
hours,
days,
lifetimes.

they have no idea of how
precious is a
minute.

I fight to realize the essence
of my time.
this doesn’t mean that
I can’t relax
and take an hour off
but it must be
my choosing.

to fight for each minute is to
fight for what is possible within
yourself,
so that your life and your death
will not be like theirs.

be not like them
and you will
survive.

minute by
minute.

— Charles Bukowski, the minute

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January in Review

Books Acquired:
Selected Poems by T.S. Eliot
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Saga, Volume 4 by Brian K. Vaughan
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
What We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

Books Read:
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth by Chris Hadfield
Dracula by Bram Stoker
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

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This was a quality reading month. I really enjoyed every book, and it was an interesting mix as well – Astronaut memoir, classic horror, contemporary mystery (ish), and a classic Russian novel in verse. The more I read about reading, the fewer disappointments I seem to have on my bookshelf, so if nothing else having a blog about books has helped in that regard. I’m still behind on the posts, currently at about mid-December, but I’m catching up and feel like I’ve gotten into the rhythm of things here.

I love notebooks, but I tend to never use them once I buy them. I always feel like anything I write in one needs to be breathtakingly poignant and meaningful, written in perfect cursive, but it always ends up obscenely stupid and looking as if it were written by a monkey with no hands. Despite this, my girlfriend pointed out the journal in the photo and I had to pick it up. I think I’ll leave it by the bed to help track quotes and notes while I’m reading, as I have a terrible memory at times and I refuse to mark a single page of a book.

Movies watched:
My Afternoons with Margueritte (2010) – Gérard Depardieu befriends an old woman who teaches him the joy of reading. A bit cliché with a fairly transparent plot, but a feel-good movie for the bookish. A lot of Albert Camus love.

When Harry Met Sally (1989) – Can you believe my girlfriend had never heard of the fake orgasm scene? I admit I hadn’t seen the movie, but not knowing that scene is akin to not knowing hakuna matata. I mean, really. What if I had faked an orgasm while having eggs Benedict one morning? It would have been completely lost on her. The movie turned out to be really good, actually, so if nothing else it was a good excuse to watch it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) – I loved this! Hilarious, beautifully shot, and Ralph Fiennes was brilliant in it.

TV watched:
Arrested Development, Season 4 (2013) – They did a great job of mixing up the series in an interesting way after their seven-year hiatus. It was less jarring than I thought it would be to watch the third and fourth seasons back to back rather than seven years apart, which is impressive. It’s also very cool to think how much the industry has changed in the last decade, to allow something like this.

The Mind of a Chef, Season 1 (2012) – I loved this so much. The first season follows David Chang, Momofuku founder, and each episode has a loose theme – pig, smoke, Japan, etc. The episode on different types of ramen has kept me in a state of perpetual hunger since I watched it.

Games played:
Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (2014) (PC) – This is the game I’ve played this most this month. I’m playing through cooperatively with a friend of mine, and we’re having a blast. It’s very much Borderlands 2 with a couple of extras, but that’s not a problem for us. We’d been craving more Borderlands, and this hits the spot perfectly. We figure we’re about halfway through now.

Speedrunners (2013 Early Access) (PC) – I normally don’t play early access games, but we took a chance on this one. It’s cheap and if it didn’t work at all we wouldn’t be all that heartbroken. Thankfully, we haven’t run into any issues. Friends of ours had some launching issues, but overall it seems to be in working order. And it’s an absolute blast to play.

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