Graphic Novel Review: Brass Sun (Wheel of the Worlds)

Wren lives in a dying world. A world that is part of a mechanical solar system, created long ago, and now its inner clockwork is slowing down. That system is now dying, and it is up to Wren and some companions to make her way through the inner workings of the solar system to find the disparate “keys” that will connect to rewind the clock and save the Sun, and all of the worlds that are revolving around it.

Brass Sun (Wheels of the World) is an intriguing ride as a graphic story, immersing you fully into an imagined world in which a Blind Watchmaker acted as a sort of God to create the mechanical solar system, and then divvied out the keys to different planets so that they would have to work together in times of crisis. It didn’t work. Instead of seeing each other as partners, they went to war with each other, trying to be the planet that would have the upper hand with the most “keys.”

Part steampunk, part sci-fi, part tech adventure, Brass Sun centers on Wren, who is sent on her mission by her grandfather just before he is captured and killed by a government suspicious of his activities (which run counter to the political, religious narrative of the time). There are lots of complicated smaller stories unfolding in Brass Sun, and writer Ian Edgington never lets you forget that this is a strange world he has imagined. The art by I. N. J. Culbard is wonderful and engaging, particularly in the oversized book that I got from my public library.

This book is part of a larger series apparently (since the story does not resolve at the end of the version I read). It would be appropriate for any middle and high school classroom and would surely engage those young readers who enjoy the concept of alternative world building. Wren, as a protagonist, is a strong female character.

Peace (in the worlds beyond worlds),
Kevin

Book Review: The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

I’d be lying if I said I know what happened in this third book by Catherynne Valente. The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland And Cut the Moon in Two, like its predecessors (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making and The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There), is a trippy adventure into an unknown landscape that requires you to allow Valente to lead you forward into the unknown. (And what I didn’t know until now is that this Fairyland series grew out of a reference to a book in a previous book that Valente wrote …).

This not your typical fairy story. Disney, this is not.

At one point, the narrator even interrupts the story, to let us readers know that the path ahead will be strange and winding. We need to hold the narrator’s hand and trust in the story.

Everything that goes down must come up again. When you leave the world, the going gets tough, whether you are a chemical rocket or a little girl. Take my hand, I know the way. Narrators have a professional obligation not to let their charges fall onto the pavement. (p. 89)

I still fell, and I am grateful for it. With the hero (of sorts) a girl named September; a blue-skinned magical friend from Fairyland with the name of Saturday; a red fire-breathing dragon getting smaller with every burst of flame due to a curse; and a fast-moving Yeti who is the midwife to the Moon itself … you get the picture. This is an adventure that will keep you off balance for days with each character wilder than the previous.

It is Valente’s writing that is the glue that holds it all together, thankfully. Her style of writing is unlike anything I have come across in recent years, as she both tries to build off the Alice in Wonderland narrative of “anything is possible if you withhold reality” and metaphorically tells of a girl, September, growing up and moving out of childhood, and what that means when you lose touch with your imagination.

You really do have to read the first two books to understand this third one, though, and even then … well …. you do your best. Me? I am now reading the fourth one: The Boy Who Lost Fairyland. (And yet another book just came out later this year: The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home)

I’ve never been able to get any of my students interested in this series, for whatever reason. Maybe it is the “fairy” reference in the title, or maybe it is Valente’s writing style and voice. The vocabulary can be a challenge, too. But it saddens me, because I think some of my higher reading students could plunge into the adventure and maybe never come out the other side.

Peace (in fairylands all around us),
Kevin

Book Review: Gratitude

It’s a sliver of a book, but somehow, I saw the spine on the shelf at the public library. It was surrounded by many other, much larger, books, almost crowded out. I was just wandering. Not looking for anything specific. It was the word “Gratitude” that caught my attention. I pulled the thin tome out to investigate and I saw the writer was Oliver Sacks, which of course got me even more interested. I added the book to my pile.

Gratitude is a collection of just four essays that Sacks, the eminent poet-scientist whose stories of patients reminded us of the wide breadth of the world itself, wrote in the last year of his life as he was dying of cancer at age 80. The essays, each of which which first appeared in the New York Times, are reflective pieces on what a long life lived might mean for someone with the ability to ponder back, brought to the surface by Sack’s powerful and emotional writing. The essay connecting Sack’s life to the Periodic Table, and how he tracked his years with elements from the scientific organization chart, was perfectly written, I think.

I read the essays while waiting in a doctor’s office, it turns out. The room was quiet and comfortable. I was completely immersed in Sack’s voice as a writer and as a curious traveler of the world of medicine and humanity and stories.

I am grateful to have found Gratitude, and I appreciate this final gift that Sacks left us.

Peace (in the reflect),
Kevin

Disrupted, The Big Short, and the Great Unknowns

It’s just by chance that I finished Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Start-Up Bubble by journalist Dan Lyons (he, of Fake Steve Jobs fame, writer on Silicon Valley, and former tech columnist of Newsweek) on the very same day that we watched The Big Short for family movie night.

What can I say? I am worried about our whole financial system now, and I can’t tell if that is because Michael Lewis’ tale (The Big Short is adapted from his book) of how the economy crumbled in 2007-2008 is merely an alarming precursor of “here we go again” on the horizon of technology start-ups instead of the housing market. The movie certainly reminded me of not just the weakness of underlying factors but also exposed yet again the ways in which banks and Wall Street and the business world stack the deck in their favor. Every single time.

The world crumbles, millions of people lose their jobs and homes, and the leaders of Wall Street walk away, rich as hell with the taxpayers bailing them out. (I know this is simplistic understanding but it’s what I got right now). This is why Bernie Sanders resonates with young, nervous voters who see the system as corrupt and stacked against them. Even the characters with some moral undertones in the movie get rich — by betting that the entire American/Global economy will fail.

In Disrupted, Lyons writes about his time as a 50-plus-year-old unemployed writer trying to find his way into the Dot-Com world of Boston after being laid off by Newsweek. He does get his foot in the door at a growing technology company, only to realize, as Lewis showed, that everything in the business world is stacked against the average person (and against anyone over the age of 4o … ouch) and that what he sees runs counter to the logic of business understanding. Start-up technology companies don’t make profits — they make IPOs, and the average worker does not cash in. The CEO and executives do.

What I found most startling, if Lyons is to believed, is the near-cult-like culture that he finds in the technology start-up world. The place is teeming with 20-somethings, fresh out of college, and taking low salary for long hours of sales, sales, sales. Whole rooms are crammed with young marketers, pitching products on the phones. They follow every lead by every click on their websites (yes, web cookies track you and every free ebook you download is an invite to get a cold call). Unrealistic quotas drive the company dayafterdayafterdayafterday. People get fired, with no notice. Wait — the language is not “fired” but “graduated” to something else. The vision from the top is not on the technology that will transform the economy. Instead, the narrative is on the “company story” that will fuel Venture Capital and investors.

These young people seem to buy — hook-line-sinker — the endless rhetorical nonsense of the company leaders about the value of hard work for low pay, all in the name of the good of the company and unity and some touch-feely acronym world. Some of what Lyons shares seems like something right out of Orwell or Kafka.  The whole notion of these tech start-ups is the not the product itself, but the sales numbers that will convince investors in a public offering to pay more for stock on the possibility (and only a possibility) that someday, down the line, the company might make a profit.

Maybe. Possible never. (That’s what they write in their IPO, believe it or not. Profits may never come.)

Yikes! That’s akin to realizing there are whole ghost town subdivisions in Florida that are nearly vacant because of mortgage problems and defaults. It’s the canary in the coal mine. When the folks in The Big Short see those subdivisions with their own eyes — hundreds of empty houses — they realize the tragic reality: It’s the bubble about to burst.

There’s a strange epilogue to Distrupted, too, in which some of the top executives of the company where Lyons worked get accused of hacking their way to gain access to a book being written about their company (Lyons assumes it is his book that is the target of the hack). Some get fired but not the top dogs of the firm. They come out just fine. And they get rich when the IPO happens.

Of course, they do.

My oldest son is off to college next year in the Boston area. I’m passing him Lyons’ book, just in case he has some illusions about joining the burdening start-ups in Boston (one of the hot spots in the country). It may not stop him when he reaches that decision point of his first job in a few years, although I would try my best to convince him otherwise. Wish me luck.

Peace (in the markets),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Mouse Guard (The Black Axe)

Story and narrative are at the heart of the Mouse Guard graphic novels by David Peterson, and this prequel to the first two books is as powerful in that regard as the others. Mouse Guard: The Black Axe feels as if Peterson has created his own world and history, with fonts and maps and text bubbles and art design all contributing to the overall experience of the reader immersed in a world that seems real and alive.

It’s been some time since I read the first two Mouse Guard books, to be honest, but I was quickly drawn right into this story of a mouse sent on a mission to find the lost weapon of lore. The Black Axe, a weapon of lore, is bestowed to a hero of the mouse world, and less you think that the world of mice in Peterson’s imagination are small and fragile … think again. These mice are fierce and courageous and live in a dangerous world.

The artwork is spectacular here, right in tune with the writing. I had meant to only read the first section and found myself glued to the chair, reading the entire book in one long, enjoyable sitting. Here, in The Black Axe, the mouse hero Celanawe is sent on a quest by his only kin, an elderly mouse, and battles storms, ferrets, fisher cats and a fox. You will root for Celanawe, even as you mourn with him for the cost he pays, and you will sit in wonder of the fabric of this fictional world.

This graphic novel is suitable for middle school and high school students, but it may be a bit violent for some elementary school students. My youngest son is turned off by the different fonts and text bubbles, and the rich language, of Mouse Guard, for some reason. Those are among the things I like most about the series. Go figure.

Peace (for even the smallest of us all),
Kevin

Book Review: The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate

Now, here is a novel with quiet power. The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly is not just the story of a young Texas girl, growing up in the late 1800s and realizing that she has a desire to become a scientist. The novel tells the tale of the social confines that hemmed in girls for so long while also celebrating the independent spirit that pushed against those walls to (eventually) force change and gender equality (still underway, right?).

To put it like that, however, steals away the real power of the writing here, as Kelly does a masterful job of bringing us into the mind and world of Callie Vee, who connects with her rather aloof, mysterious grandfather, who has made his fortune with a cotton gin and pecan farm and now intends to spend the rest of his life observing nature, documenting science and if possible, discovering a new species of plant in the world. Calpurnia, armed with a notebook, joins him in his scientific inquiries in rural Texas, even as her family is getting her ready for the age when she should be attracting a husband for her ordained future as a housewife.

Calpurnia has no interest in that at all.

She wants to be a scientist in a world and age when few women were allowed those opportunities. Luckily, she has her grandfather and that connection with him grows stronger throughout the book as he does his best, in his own way, to educate her in the sciences. As writer, Kelly does a fine job of bringing this Texas family from 1899 to life, and it’s nearly impossible not to root for Calpurnia to break free of the gender constraints and follow her inner voice that seeks to make sense and understand the natural world around her.

I started reading this book only a whim. Someone donated it to my classroom and it has been in the bookshelf for a year. I was intrigued by the title itself (Yes, Darwin’s theories play a role in shaping Callie Vee’s view of the world), and I am glad that I took the plunge. Calpurnia’s voice has lingered with me for days after putting down the book. (Oh, and I see there is a sequel: The Curiosity of Calpurnia Tate. I wonder what Callie has been up to.)

Peace (in change),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: Cleopatra in Space (Target Practice)

This graphic novel has bandied about our house for nearly a year. I don’t know why it took me so long to read, but I know my youngest son had read it a few times and said he liked it. I think that’s why it took me so long … I couldn’t find the book and only recently did I find it during a “clean the bedroom or else” sweep.

I’m glad I did (find the book).

Cleopatra in Space, by Mike Maihack, is a series of graphic novels about, yes, THAT Cleopatra as a budding teenager who gets herself zapped not just into the future (where she is destined to change the fate of the Universe) but also to an entirely new galaxy altogether (where many of the character are intelligent cats).

The mechanics of her transformation from Ancient Egypt (ancient to us, anyway) to outer space is less important than knowing that Maihak is attuned to character development and to using humor to tell a full-on action story. We don’t get a ton of backstories to the friends that Cleopatra is making but I suspect that might be coming with other books in the series. The artwork is colorful and engaging, and the story moves at a solid pace, without sacrificing characters and plot gaps.

Cleopatra is no fool and she’s pretty handy with her laser gun, too.

This is just the first book in the series (entitled: Target Practice) but I am intrigued and want to know more about this feisty heroine. This book is well-suited for boys and girls in the elementary and maybe middle school years. The boys won’t be turned off by a girl as protagonist because of the sense of adventure and action, and the girls will be excited to see someone their own age as the hero of a graphic novel story. Win-win.

Peace (connecting across time),
Kevin

Book Review: Who Is Jeff Kinney?

I can answer the question in the title of this small book for you rather easily enough: Jeff Kinney is the author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series. If you teach in an elementary/middle school, or have young readers at home, ’nuff said. This short biography — Who is Jeff Kinney? — gives more details about Kinney’s life as a budding and aspiring cartoonist/novelist, and how his hard work and vision for story eventually paid off.

Who Is Jeff Kinney? is a quick read, but it could be a solid companion piece for those readers who want to know more about how Kinney and his series became the blockbuster that it is. Kinney seems like a regular guy who loved to draw, but realized that his drawing ability would not likely get him far. He turned that weakness into a strength with his books, though, and got a few breaks along the way.

What I found most fascinating is how Kinney worked hard for a handful of years to gather together stories and drawings, with no publisher in sight, and when he was done, he had a mountain of ideas from which to work from (which is why he can publish a book a year now). Also, the first iteration of Wimpy Kid were aimed at adults, not children (I’d love to see some of those) but the publisher who took a chance on Kinney (all the way to the bank) saw a market for young boy readers, so Kinney reworked his ideas for a younger audience.

This biography is written by … his younger brother, and so it is rather flattering (not that I have any dirt on Kinney or anything … he seems like a genuinely nice guy and who couldn’t like a guy who used his fortune to open a bookstore in his hometown?).

Peace (in the bio),
Kevin

Graphic Novel Review: The Nameless City

The city is named over and over, and no conqueror can name it for long.

The Nameless City is, as noted, a place without a name. Or rather, a place with many names, designated by those who have invaded it over time and who have called it what they wanted to call it because they held the power. But those who live in the Nameless City — the ones who wait out the invasions and the subsequent transitions of power over time — know better and call their city Nameless.

Told beautifully, and with great depth, The Nameless City by Faith Erin Hicks (and art by Jordie Bellaire) is a fascinating story of what seems to be city of the past, somewhere in Asia, in which politics and ambition, and intrigue, play out even as the story focuses on a young boy named Kaidu (whose father is part of the invading force now governing the city and fearing for the next invasion) and Rat, a young girl of the streets of the Nameless City.

What makes the Nameless City so ripe for invasion is its location and a strange history of its original founders, who dug tunnels in the ground and carved out the mountainsides, and whose language is a mystery to those who live in the city (setting the stage for a future story, no doubt).

The book has it all: humor, adventure, friendship, danger, courage, and flow. This story flows naturally, moving the narrative along in ways that only graphic novels can, particularly when we see the city through the eyes of Rat, who prowls along the roofs of the city buildings, leaping like a superhero from building to building, and over rivers. The use of art to show us up high, and then down low, and the action of the leap … that is an experience of graphic storytelling. Rat’s a headstrong, powerful girl, and she teaches Kaidu a few things about life.

I’ll be honest, too. As I read this first installment of The Nameless City, the place that came to my mind was Afghanistan, for some reason. Perhaps it was the narrative of subsequent invading forces and the native population finding ways to live and survive through each turn of events by becoming invisible and patient, until some start advocating violent rebellion. The Nameless City could be anywhere, or nowhere, but the ideas of who owns the heart and soul a place is at the center of Hicks’ graphic story, and that idea remains an important one throughout time, even beyond the graphic novel.

Even today, on the world stage.

I’ll be curious to see where Hicks and Bellaire take the story of Kaidu and Rat in the future, as this is the first of a trilogy from First-Second publishing. It’s well worth your time, and the book is appropriate for the upper elementary and middle school classrooms.

Peace (in the flow),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Pay Attention to the Abundance

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge for March, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We are writing each day about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

sol16I’ve been reading, by chance, perhaps the most appropriate, and best, writer for an event like Slice of Life: Annie Dillard. Her new book of essays — In Abundance — is a collection of pieces from her various books and a few new ones thrown into the mix, but any reason to return to Tinker’s Creek with Dillard is well worth my time. Yours, too. She reminds us to see the world. Really see the world. To take notice. To be there, in the moment of nature.

So I went out into my backyard, with Annie on my mind after finishing up The Abundance, to see what I might see and notice, and make note of. Excuse me for this attempt to steal her style of writing. I’ll do my best.

Our fire pit has long been bruised. Before we arrived to reside in this house, someone — the former owner, we are told by neighbors, who watched with fascination on the event itself —  took a sledgehammer to the fire pit, slicing off chunks of red brick. What’s left is still a place for fire, but it’s as if the brick are now reluctant at its task. Air comes in through gaps. Pieces are crumbling. Bricks keep getting smaller and smaller through the years. The New England winters take their toll. So do kids’ playing. I find pieces of the fire pit through the yard in summer, cursing as I avoid them with the mower. Someone used it as a baseball, probably, or part of the landscape of a rescue scene with Legos. I imagine one of these days, I will come outside and find in amazement that nothing is there where the pit was but some red dust, as if the whole of Mars had come for a visit, and maybe stayed for Smores and drinks. The place to build the fire will no longer be there. Just faint memories of nights under the stars, red embers in the fire pit.

I take out the compost to the bin, which sits beside the crumbling fire pit, and notice how winter slows down everything. Somewhere in there, the worms are in slumber. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of worms call this black bin their home. They’ve buried themselves deep. The rich, black compost is their thick blanket against the chill. Who could blame them? Our bed is still piled high with layers of blankets and we have the warmth of the house. The worms have very little. Only decomposed material. Soon, though, the worms will stir, and no doubt be hungry, and our melon rinds and banana peels, and coffee rinds and tea bags, will nourish them as a welcome to Spring. Some worms will end up in our garden, a mass relocation effort with the goal of food for our mouths, too. In this way, we and the worms eat together at the same table.

Outside

On the windward side of the fire pit, where it almost touches the compost bin, I notice two abandoned brown and striped husks dancing in the wind. They look like bugs, dead from winter, but they are not. They are what the bugs left behind. One little thread connects each to the brick wall, and it feels that if I were to touch them, they might fall. Maybe even fly, they seem so light and airy. I resist the boyhood temptation to crush the husks, even though it reminds me of the bubble air pouches that come in valuable deliveries. You unpack the valuables, fair enough, and first turn your attention to the bubble wrap. Pop. Pop. Pop. Can anyone really resist that popping? You make the air whoosh, snap, pop. It’s an unlikely Zen moment. I’m tempted, yet I resist the husks handing on the wall, although I do wonder who stayed in there last and where have they gone to now? Were they ugly bugs now made beautiful by change? Or were they beautiful to begin with? The husks just keep dangling, with no clue for me to discern.

Outside

I wander by the fence and notice the push mower. We only use this mower a few times each year, before the grass has really come in. Unlike our neighbors, we don’t use anything on the grass in our yard to help make it grow or be luxurious, so our backyard becomes the unexpected by early summer, with weeds and grasses and flowers and a wonderful wildness about it. The few tufts of grass clumps, and wild onions, that are first to emerge from the soil aren’t enough for the larger mower, but this push mower does the job. Come summer, the mower by the fence will be overgrown with vines and weeds, so that it becomes a sculpture of the wildness of the backyard. It will be nearly impossible to move, so strong are the plants holding it in place. Now, however, the mower seems naked, vulnerable even. The weeds of last summer have long died off. The snow has melted. The grass is still quite some time from growing. It waits, patient. I am not. I move on.

Outside

A flash of color catches my eye. One of the first flowers of winter, or spring, of whatever this in-between zone is that we find ourselves in these days. One day it is cold and the next day, warm, and none of us seems to really know what kind of jacket to wear in the morning. Will we be cold because we underdressed? Or warm because we overdressed? Make up your mind, Sun. This flower doesn’t seem to care one way or another, for it has forced its way up to the sun, and opened itself to the warmth of the world. It may not last long, this flower, resisting the last vestiges of winter. While it’s here, though, it teaches us of the beauty of reaching for the sun and of the possibilities of wonderful things happening all around us, if only you remember to pay attention.

Peace (and thanks to Annie Dillard),
Kevin