Thursday, April 16, 2015

Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai

The great samurai saga Usagi Yojimbo, by Stan Sakai, is one of my favorite comics sagas of all time. Yet it is unfortunately unknown to so many people. The ongoing adventures of Usagi, a ronin warrior monk, and the assorted friends, rogues, and enemies, are stories I read regularly, over and over again. Imagine an anthropomorphic 17th century Japan, with rabbit samurai, fox thieves, rhinoceros bounty hunters, clans of ninja bats, conniving snake lords... it's as if Carl Barks (Donald Duck Adventures, Uncle Scrooge Adventures) and Akira Kurasawa (Seven Samurai, Roshomon) made comics together.

There is nothing better to do on a lazy afternoon than to get lost in the sword fights, political intrigue, epic battles, and suspenseful monster hunting tales that make up the twenty some odd volumes of this tremendous series. And did I mention the humor? Usagi Yojimbo has it all!

Waaay back, in the early years of this blog, Jesse mentioned Usagi Yojimbo, but I felt it was well worth the time to revisit this great comics samurai epic.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Descent by Tim Johnston

I've got a bone to pick with Tim Johnston.

I read the last 100 pages of Descent in a flurry, staying up to 1:00 am and then going back and re-reading the last 10 pages just to make sure I didn't miss anything.

It's that good.

The problem is, I've got a two year old that has the sleeping habits of a wolverine on Red Bull, which means I'm running on three hours of sleep and about a gallon of coffee this morning as I write this.

Speaking of being a father, Descent represents a parent's worst nightmare. There is nothing more terrifying than the thought of someone kidnapping your child, it's the kind of stuff that can drive you insane just by thinking about it. That's why I make sure both of my children are always armed with semi-automatic weapons. Joking.

You might say that the kidnapping theme is one that has been done again and again, and you'd be right. However, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that there's a good chance you haven't read one written as powerful as this. This is no run of the mill "literary thriller." The writing in this story is about as good as it gets.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

AIMLESS LOVE: New and Selected Poems by Billy Collins

April being National Poetry Month, it seemed fitting to feature a poetry collection, so here goes:

Aimless Love is the most recent poetry collection by Billy Collins, a marvel of understatement and wit. And if you can't tell whether I'm speaking of the poet or the collection, that's intentional, as the phrase applies equally to both.

The book includes selections from four prior collections, Nine Horses, The Trouble With Poetry, Ballistics, and Horoscopes for the Dead (previously reviewed here at Guys Lit Wire, plus another 51 new poems. Fifty-two, if you count "Reader", which forms a sort of preface. Note how it's all one sentence and how, too, some of the synonyms for "reader" sound like insults as much as descriptors (I'm thinking "thumb-licking page turner" isn't neutral, for instance.)

by Billy Collins

Looker, gazer, skimmer, skipper,
thumb-licking page turner, peruser,
you getting your print-fix for the day,
pencil chewer, note taker, marginalianist
with your checks and X's
first-time or revisited,
browser, speedster, English major,
flight-ready girl, melancholy boy,
invisible companion, thief, blind date, perfect stranger--

that is me rushing to the window
to see if it's you passing under the shade trees
with a baby carriage or a dog on a leash,
me picking up the phone
to imagine your unimaginable number,
me standing by a map of the world
wondering where you are--
alone on a bench in a train station
or falling asleep, the book sliding to the floor.
Since Billy Collins is aging, it's not surprising, I suppose that a bunch of the newer poems are about aging and death, though that's not true of all of them. There is a mixture, too, of the silly and the sublime, the serious and the quirked eyebrow. For instance, there is "The Suggestion Box", a poem about how everyone wants to tell him what to write poems about (usually them), which mixes what is likely a legitimate poet's complaint with dry humor, or "The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska", which is actually about how he got to Nebraska too late in the season to the see the birds that are the subject of the poem, and ends with him "in another state, stuck in a motel lobby/ with the local paper and a styrofoam cup of coffee,/ busily missing God knows what."

And then there's "Last Meal", about the grim reaper arriving as a waiter, or a poem about aging entitled "Cheerios".

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Monday, April 13, 2015

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal is subtitled “Medicine and What Matters in the End,” and author Atul Gawande’s arguments matter so much that I have been recommending this nonfiction title to nearly everyone. Gawande could well have called his book Being Human, as it speaks to our morality as much as it does our mortality. Specifically, the morality of how we deal with aging and dying. Though life expectancies and our medical ability to sustain life have increased, our ability to make these extended lives meaningful lags behind.

Nursing homes, even the best ones, often leave their residents depressed and isolated; these institutions focus so strongly on safety and standards that the humanity of their residents becomes secondary. A noted surgeon and author, Gawande makes this abundantly clear in his many interviews with and profiles of said residents, and he himself says it most clearly in these words:

“The terror of sickness and old age is not merely the terror of the losses one is forced to endure but also the terror of the isolation. As people become aware of the finitude of their life, they do not ask for much…They ask only to be permitted, insofar as possible, to keep sharing the story of their life in the world—to make choices and sustain connections to others according to their own priorities.” (146-147)

The hardest choices to make involve end-of-life issues and deciding when to stop pursuing treatments that may only make one’s final days worse; these choices become the focus of the second part of Being Mortal. Patients, particularly at this stage, desire what Gawande calls (using research from medical ethicists Ezekiel and Linda Emanuel) an “interpretive” relationship with their doctors, a relationship where doctors ask what is most important to patients and what patients are most concerned about before dispensing medical knowledge and advice.

Yet most doctors focus instead on attacking the medical problems at all costs (financial, emotional, mental, physical), which too often leads to the same cruel irony as our nursing home model: patients who feel dehumanized. They want their stories to be heard, they want to have a part in how the story of their final days will be told, and they want the stories of their final days to consist of more than their medical conditions and treatments.

Gawande comes to understand the importance of listening to these stories, admitting his own mistakes with previous patients, and allowing us a detailed look at the story of his father (also a doctor) as the elder Dr. Gawande deals with a painful and progressive spinal cord tumor. Being Mortal succeeds because Gawande argues not only as a doctor cautioning us against heedless attempts to forestall simply because we have the technology and medical ability to do so, but also as a son using the gutting story of his father’s death as its own intimate argument.

As a son, I could not read the second half of Gawande’s book without thinking of the story of my own father’s painful death from colon cancer, and I could not read the first half without thinking about my aging mother and the decisions she and my siblings and I will eventually have to make. Dying is part of all of our stories, but we have become increasingly uncomfortable discussing it. Gawande stresses that although we have learned how to live longer, we must relearn how to die. This learning must include having initially uncomfortable discussions about end-of-life issues. Patients and families must tell these stories. Doctors and families must listen to these stories. We as a society must honor the humanity of these stories.

As a teacher, I could not read Being Mortal without the stark recognition that Gawande’s diagnosis applies to our educational institutions as well. The reasons so many nursing home residents hate being there are the same reasons so many students (many more so than when I began teaching twenty years ago) hate school: Their autonomy is sacrificed for safety and order, their own stories are not valued, standards of humanity are sacrificed for standardized testing and curriculum.

Education becomes, as Gawande bemoans about medicine, “increasingly miscast in retail terms” (168). In education we push technology and data at the expense of humanity, just as medicine often does. Someone needs to write a Being Mortal for education, and Gawande’s subtitle needs only a tiny change: "Education and What Matters in the End." For what matters most in the end is a satisfying answer to the question at the heart of all our stories: What does it mean to be human?

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Friday, April 10, 2015

The Alex Crow by Andrew Smith

Ariel is a refugee, a fifteen year-old boy who can't seem to find his place in the world, no matter how many lives he lives. When his village in the Middle East is bombed, Ariel is collected by soldiers who take care of him - until their convoy is bombed. Then Ariel tags along with a family escaping the wreckage of their town. They part ways at a UN refugee camp - the tent city where Ariel goes through the hardest nine months of his life. And from there, he comes out on the other side reborn, like a phoenix, taken to America to live with a foster family. There Ariel meets his new brother, Max, who is only sixteen days older than Ariel.

And that's where shit gets weird.

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

How to Talk to Your Cat

Jean Craighead George was a Newbery-Award-winning writer who knew a lot about animals. She wrote a lot of fiction, but I really enjoy her nonfiction. This book, for example. I've lived without cats for a few years now, so rereading this reminded me how much I used to enjoy talking to Merlin, Mr. President, Ibn Rafferty, Bella, et al.

There is one thing to know about cats: The cat that picks you, the one that meows at your door asking to be taken in, makes the best pet. You have not forced yourself upon it. Of its own free will it has chosen you. That's what a cat is all about -- free will.

... cats have worked out as many as nineteen different meows to get their points across... The purr distinguishes the cat from all other animals... Amazingly, the purr is never given when the cat is alone. Sitting in the sun on a soft pillow will not turn on the purr; curled on the hearth before a toasty fire won't do it either. The purr is communication...

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Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Read Below Grade Level

As a parent, I've had a few run-ins with my kids' teachers. Occasionally, one will insist that the kids select books from the library that are at or above their tested Lexile level or their grade level or something. While I understand wanting to challenge them, if you're going to let kids choose I feel that they should be allowed and encouraged to read what they enjoy. There will plenty of "challenging" reading forced upon them in the future.

After all, I point out, I often read below my "grade level," and sometimes way below my grade level. I'd get pretty annoyed if someone made a bunch of judgments about how I wasn't challenging myself because I love reading children's stories even when there aren't any children around.

The Graphical Canon of Children's Literature, edited by Russ Kick provides another way for readers to enjoy some below-grade-level literature. Each of dozens of children's stories--mostly popular classics--is newly presented as a comic or graphic visual story.

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Monday, April 6, 2015

Watership Down by Richard Adams

Most of my friends look back to JRR Tolkien or George Lucas as the authors of the greatest epic fantasies ever created, but for me, it is Richard Adams. His Watership Down is the epic fantasy to which I compare all others. What’s that? You thought Watership Down was just that cute book about rabbits? Just one of the first in a long line of anthropomorphic fiction? No, it is so  much more—more than the allegorical implications of Animal Farm, more than the quest and adventure of Erin Hunter's various series,  and more than the rich characterization and world-building of Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows. No, Watership Down is complexly written, intricately plotted, and emotionally nuanced novel about a bunch of rabbits. I swear it’s awesome.

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Friday, April 3, 2015

Playlist for the Dead by Michelle Falkoff

Playlist for the DeadWhen Sam goes to apologize to his best friend Hayden only to find him dead, Sam's world begins to crumble.  Life was never the greatest for the two friends.  Both of them had family issues and neither really fit in at school.  Together, they found friendship through video games and music. 

Sam discovers a note from Hayden directing him to listen to a playlist of songs that will explain why he swallowed his mother's recently refilled prescription of Valium.  Sam begins to listen to the music hoping to find some answers and whatever peace he can after the loss of his one and only friend.  The music spans a wide range of selections, some favorites of Hayden's and others Sam knows Hayden included just for him.

The night before Hayden's suicide, the two had been at a party.  Not a usual event for them, but one they agreed on, each for different reasons.  The three bullies who constantly tormented Hayden were not supposed to be at the party, but the cancellation of a football game changed all that. 

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Alex As Well by Alyssa Brugman

In Alyssa Brugman's thoughtful novel Alex As Well, the teenaged title character often feels like two people - one female, one male - trapped in the same body.

There's nothing like feeling uncomfortable in your own body. For Alex, the struggle is constant. Alex was born intersex, having physical characteristics of both genders. Doctors could not identify Alex as male or female. Alex's parents selected a gender-neutral name for their baby and were made to monitor their child's behavior and report back to doctors, who decided Alex's tendency to be more aggressive than passive indicated the child was more masculine than feminine - and so Alex was raised as a boy.
Now Alex is in high school, and she has found the strength within to tell her parents that she would rather identify as a girl. Her father splits; her mother falls apart. Alex stands her ground and starts making decisions for herself. She leaves her all-boys school and enrolls in a new school as a girl. She finds new friends, including a girl she gets a crush on and a boy who gets a crush on her. Though she enjoys their friendship, she cannot bring herself to tell them - or anyone at her new school - the truth about her condition, and fears the day that someone or something will reveal it.

The novel is told from Alex's first-person point of view, which occasionally has her talking to her masculine self, her inner twin, who often taunts her and points out the physical differences between her - them - and her peers. Posts from Alex's mother's blog, placed between chapters every now and then, shed light on her struggle to raise her child, revealing facts about Alex's condition and upbringing and the mom's attempts to assist and accept her. The blog posts help make the mother seem a little less harsh, a little less hysterical, and a little more human than she would be had the blog not been included.

To date, I've read four Alyssa Brugman novels - Finding Grace, Walking Naked, Being Bindy, and Alex As Well - and I've enjoyed them all. Brugman creates protagonists driven by personal matters who have yet to realize something about themselves. Her realistic storylines draw in readers and her frank storytelling takes them straight to the heart of the matter.

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