Friday, August 28, 2009

Frankenstein (Mary Shelley)

Last week we talked about the future, so this week we're gonna reverse and go almost 200 years into the past. Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley. Three authors telling ghost stories by the fire, shut up in their European manor during a dreary summer evening. A classic is born. Blah blah blah, over it. The story behind the story is almost as famous as the story itself at this point (wow, that was a lot of "story"). Mary Shelley had a terribly unfortunate life—her mother died shortly after childbirth; her half-sister committed suicide; her husband Percy's previous wife drowned herself when Mary and Percy ran away together; Mary's father disowned her; several of her children died at a very young age—so it's not difficult to see why such a young girl would write such a frightening horror novel. The idea behind Frankenstein has evolved much over the last two hundred years, though. With so many movie adaptations, tv shows, and Halloween costumes, I wanted to see how true these current iterations were to the original story. And also, ya know, see if the story was really even that good.


Although I'm sure you all know the basic plot of the novel, for the moment let's pretend that's not the case. Victor Frankenstein, the young, enthusiastic son of a rich Swiss merchant family, goes off to university in the Bavarian town of Ingolstadt to study chemistry and all that scientific stuff. His love of alchemy and other arcane pursuits, however, leads him to begin conducting experiments on the nature of life itself. After many months of near-constant experimentation, Victor successfully creates artificial life in the form of a hulking monster. However, in the moment when his creation finally comes alive, Victor, afraid of what he has done, renounces the monster and basically runs away. When he returns, the beast is gone and is not seen again for years. Victor becomes despondent and aloof, eventually leaving the university to return back home to Geneva, where his father, two brothers, and life-time love interest Elizabeth all reside. Just before he reaches his family, however, Victor's youngest brother is killed, and a young family friend named Justine is convicted of the murder. Only Victor knows the truth: his monster has returned, determined to revenge his creator's rejection by killing all those whom Victor loves.

This book was nothing like what I expected. I pictured a Victor Frankenstein with no family or friends, locked away in a gloomy castle in the Swiss mountains. I pictured an unintelligent monster, one who couldn't talk and was afraid of fire, misunderstood for his accidental murders of some local villagers. I pictured an angry mob with pitchforks and torches storming a castle, demanding that the monster answer for his crimes. Yeah, that's not even close. Victor often slips into periods of guilt-induced delirium, but he's hardly the mad scientist I always assumed he would be. He's actually a really outgoing and enthusiastic socialite at the beginning of the book. He loves nature, exercise, and spending time with his family. The monster is even further from what I expected. The first time Victor and his creation meet after the death of Victor's brother, the monster speaks fluent French and makes references to Paradise Lost. He is cold, manipulative, and powerful. He kills knowing full well what he does, and, when it helps to destroy his creator, often enjoys it. The monster blames Victor for all of the cruelness that he has experienced in his short life, and decides that man is not worth pitying if man is not willing to pity him. It's all very psychological, and deeply entrenched in religious and moral philosophy.

Oh, and there are no angry villagers. Bummer.

This book is actually really bizarre. Shelley tells the story entirely through first person narration, initially through a sea captain writing letters to his sister, then through Victor relating his tale to the sea captain, then through the monster relating the story of his early months to Victor. It makes the whole thing heavy with exposition and flourishing emotion, but surprisingly light on descriptive detail for some reason. Pages and pages are written about how Victor feels during the months of his initial experiments and attempts to create artificial life, but then in half a page it's just happened and the monster exists. It's pretty much, "finally the hour arrived, but when the thing awoke, I became afraid and ran in a fever to my bedchamber." There's zero tension or suspense regarding the moment before the monster comes to life. Shelley tends to drone on and on about how Victor feels without showing much conflict within the scenes themselves. It gets a little annoying, considering how vehement Victor is regarding his stance on the monster and complete lack of compassion or sense of obligation towards him. Victor is a very difficult character to relate to, and that's mostly the point, since Shelley often goes to great lengths to make the reader's sympathies lean towards the monster, but that doesn't necessarily make Victor's ramblings fun to read. The book is fairly short—only two hundred pages—and definitely unlike anything I've ever read in terms of it's utilization of horror to chart the changing social atmosphere of Shelley's time, but in the end I think the idea of the story and the events of the story are much better than how the story is actually told. I couldn't relate to Victor enough to feel his tragedies, but the monster wasn't around enough to really latch on to, so I ultimately found myself in this weird morally ambiguous gray area. Maybe that's the point, but if so, that's not really doing it for me.


Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus
by Mary Shelley

There's something really powerful about man's creation coming back to doom its creator. Almost two hundred years later the idea is still going strong with movies like The Matrix and Terminator. Oh, and Tron. Love Tron.

I want to say that the idea was very original at the time, but Shelley writes her influences right into the novel, quoting The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Tintern Abbey, directly referencing Paradise Lost and other literary works, and setting much of the story around the very lake where she was staying at the time it was written.

There's a very good chance that the evolution of the characters to what they are in modern culture has tampered with my objectivity on this one, but anyone who reads this book today is going to have many of the same ideas as I had, so I don't think it matters. In its day, this was a masterpiece. At this point, I think the novel has been outlived by its own ideas.


Keep reading, Genoshans!

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Next 100 Years (George Friedman)

I don't follow politics very closely. I usually have a basic idea of what's going down in the world, but I'm not the guy at the party who's dying to discuss the latest happenings on the hill. However, this week's book is a geopolitical gem. If an author can get me interested in global policy and the history of politics, he's definitely doing something right.


The Next 100 Years is exactly what you think it is: a book about the next 100 years on Earth. George Friedman is a political scientist and founder of the private intelligence agency Stratfor, so he pretty much spends every waking moment analyzing geopolitical events. Using his extensive knowledge of foreign policy, historical trends, and the goals each country has to meet in order to maintain their national identity, Friedman predicts what the next 100 years on Earth will probably be like. He goes into detail on why there will be a second, smaller Cold War (Russia loses again), how Japan, Turkey, and Poland will rise to be global powers, how man will set up permanent research stations on the moon, and the causes that will lead up to Mexico challenging the United States for dominant control of North America.

Now, most of these predictions sound ridiculous, and Friedman admits this freely. He also admits that he's not a psychic, and can't really predict the future. What he can do, however, is analyze the data available and compare it to similar historical situations. Friedman has an incredible understanding of how the United States works and what its goals are for the coming decades. He discusses how the U.S. doesn't really need to win wars, but instead merely keep certain areas of the world unstable, preventing another nation from getting too powerful. He also talks a lot about things like how no one in 1919 would have thought that Germany would be a great power again by 1939, but that certain geopolitical clues from the time could have suggested it. What might seem illogical in one generation might become the norm the very next generation, and the only way to really predict where the world is going is by analyzing the data.

There are a lot of things in the book that I think seem a bit silly, like the idea that moon colonization and orbital battle stations will be fact by the year 2050. I don't think the idea of space becoming an important part of war is silly, just the thought that the situation in space will have advanced enough in the next forty years that humans will be running a fully functional research facility on the moon. Maybe one will be under construction, but these things take time. Some things that don't seem so silly, however, are his ideas on how the U.S. handles potentially threatening situations. Friedman talks a lot about America's desire to keep any one nation from gaining too much influence over Eurasia and the Islamic world. Given the history of the last century, it's not so difficult to imagine that the American government claims victory simply when a region is destabilized, as opposed to a traditional military victory. For the United States, what seems like a defeat or an embarrassing situation is often in fact exactly the outcome that the government was looking for in the first place. It's all very complicated geopolitical stuff, but George Friedman presents his ideas in a way that's easy for readers to understand and free of domestic political agenda. He speaks of America as a united people, and doesn't focus on party policies. He points out how historical trends tend to cycle through regardless of what party is in power. It's a great book, easily relatable no matter what amount of prior knowledge you have of the geopolitical world. Definitely check this one out if you can.


The Next 100 Years
by George Friedman

This one doesn't really have a story, exactly, but by the time he starts talking about the middle of the 21st century, it begins to feel like science fiction. That actually makes it more fun to read, since you can kinda look at it as a big "What If?" book if you don't take his ideas seriously.

This book doesn't have a ton of personality, but it's easy to read and enjoyable. To me, that counts for a lot in what's essentially a "history of the future" book. If all political books were this fun to read, the average American would have a much better grasp on the political world.

Even if none of this ever happens, it's still an interesting book. Friedman offers fresh perspective on the geopolitical realities of today and shows how global situations can escalate, seemingly without cause. The guy knows his stuff, it's a very interesting book.


This book was suggested by one of The Daily Genoshan's weekly readers. Do you have a suggestion for a future review? Send it in! Either comment here or email your suggestions to And remember, keep reading, Genoshans!

Friday, August 14, 2009

White Oleander (Janet Fitch)

After a few consecutive weeks of comic books, I thought it was time to get back on the literary track again. White Oleander is a very popular book that I'm sure has been reviewed to death, but it's what I finished this week, so it's what I'm reviewing.


Astrid Magnussen is a twelve-year-old girl living in Los Angeles with her mother, Ingrid. Ingrid is a poet and a free spirit, often whisking her daughter away to foreign countries for months or years at a time, going wherever she feels like going. They have very few attachments to the world, as Ingrid considers them to be above most other mortals. When she meets and begins dating a man named Barry Kolker, Ingrid goes against her better judgment and begins changing her ways. She and Astrid do "normal" things with Barry: go to the farmer's market, horse races, Dodger games, Catalina. But when Barry breaks off the relationship, Ingrid, already a little crazy, poisons him. With her mother serving a life sentence for murder, Astrid is forced into a series of foster homes, each more disturbing than the next.

The book is mainly about womanhood, identity, and questions on how much a person's past really affects their future. Astrid is perpetually bogged down by the memory of her mother and the feeling that, because she was raised without much love or affection in her life, she never had a chance to begin with. Everyone and everything that Astrid cares about is somehow taken away from her. She degenerates into a typical foster child, adapting to her less-than-perfect surroundings by doing things that she never would have considered doing if her mother was still around. She sleeps with one foster mother's boyfriend, begins drinking and doing drugs, and at one point is even reduced to panhandling on street corners. It's a very powerful book, and extremely well-written. Fitch goes all out, showing how bad a person's life can really get without a proper support system.

There are times when I think the book is a little extreme in its negativity, but that might be my personal taste. I also think that the book is just a little too long. There are a few dead spots in the novel where I was able to put it down for a while and didn't necessarily have a strong desire to pick it back up. That again might just be personal taste, however. Each foster home is like a different act in a very long play, and these "acts" usually wrap themselves up in a way that let's the reader take a break from the intense despair that at times overcomes Astrid. This wasn't my favorite book ever, and it might have more of an impact on women readers, but I definitely enjoyed it. There are plenty of issues that come up in the book that I as a man will never have to deal with, but it gave me some good insights into how difficult it must be to be a teenage girl and live like this. Much of the story is very tragic, but it's written so beautifully that it doesn't force you to take pity, just to observe and recognize that this is how it is in the world sometimes.


White Oleander
by Janet Fitch

Janet Fitch does a wonderful job of making this story come alive. Even though many of the events that take place are rather extreme, she presents them in a way that emphasizes the fact that this stuff happens all the time, though maybe not to everyone.

The novel is very poetic, and often includes letters and bits of haiku from Astrid's mother that show how detached from reality Ingrid truly is. The writing is very effective.

This is a very good book (Oprah's Book Club thinks so, too). I say check it out if you can. It might not blow you away, but I doubt you'll be disappointed.


Keep reading, Genoshans!

Friday, August 7, 2009

What I'm Reading

So I've been unwell, and that has cut into some of my reading/writing time for this week, so instead of a real review, I'm gonna tell you guys what comics I've been reading lately and why. I mostly read Marvel books, but there are a few Vertigo titles that I pick up as well.

Definitely Read

Guardians of the Galaxy by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning—
A talking raccoon, a tree that beats people up, an interdimensional wizard trying to patch up holes in the fabric of the galaxy, AND a telepathic Russian space dog? This is Marvel's premier cosmic book right now, tying into all of the wacky shenanigans those alien races get themselves mixed up in, but without bogging itself down too much with "stuff you should know." It's currently on issue #16—the first 12 issues are already available in collected editions—but it's a terrific book to read if you want to jump into ridiculous outer space antics.

The Immortal Iron Fist by Duane Swierczynski—
Danny Rand, the Immortal Iron Fist, is a kung fu master and ex-billionaire CEO trying to figure out the best way to use his powers and considerable fortune for good. The series, now on issue #27, was started by Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction with the idea of learning more about the history of the Iron Fist, and when Swierczynski picked up the title with issue #17 he didn't miss a beat. There's never been a better time to jump into the world of one of Marvel's more recent B-list-heroes-gone-A-list, as the series JUST went on a hiatus while they tell the stories of 6 other kung fu masters, the Immortal Weapons. The first 20 issues are already in collected editions, and I highly recommend picking them up.

Secret Warriors by Jonathan Hickman and Brian Michael Bendis—
This series is amazing. There's only one book out there right now that I think is better than this, and this one is catching up real fast. When Nick Fury discovers that the terrorist group HYDRA has been running several government organizations as well as other terrorist groups for decades, he sets out to break up their global monopoly on crime. It's a spy / mystery / action / superhero / thriller series; this book literally has everything. And Stefano Caselli's art is beautiful (again, second only to one other book right now). The series is only on issue #6, so there's no reason not to get in on the ground floor here.

X-Force by Craig Kyle and Chris Yost—
In my opinion, there is nothing on the shelves better than X-Force right now. Every single issue is exciting. Wolverine, X-23, Warpath, Archangel and some of the most badass mutants in Marvel just tear things up again and again. Mike Choi's art is perhaps the best in the business right now, and putting him on a book that's so consistently well-written makes for a real powerhouse combination. Kyle and Yost are probably my favorite writing team in comics, because they know how to make a story move dramatically without bogging it down with too much exposition. They write complex situations where characters have to make difficult decisions very quickly, and then have to deal with the outcome. It's a great time. The series is up to issue #17 right now, and the writing is good enough that you could easily just jump right in, but the collected editions are worth going back to read anyway. I absolutely recommend this to everyone.

The Unwritten by Mike Carey—
Imagine if J.K. Rowling had a son that looked just like Harry Potter, and then she mysteriously disappeared. Then imagine it's twenty years later, and people start to believe that her son really IS Harry Potter. That's pretty much the idea behind The Unwritten. Tom Taylor, the adult son of a beloved children's book author who mysteriously disappeared decades ago, becomes the subject of intense speculation as the literary world and the "real" world subtly mix together. It's an incredibly intelligent book, and so far has been quite intriguing. It's only at issue #3 right now, so of all the books I've mentioned, this is probably going to be the easiest to dive into. Also, it's a Vertigo book, and Vertigo is known for it's incredibly quirky—but immensely popular—titles. This fits right in with books such as Fables, Y: The Last Man and 100 Bullets.

Check It Out

Runaways by Kathryn Immonen—
Originally created by Brian K. Vaughan—of Y: The Last Man and Lost fame—this series used to be one of the best on the shelves. In the last couple years, however, there have been several different writers/artists working on the book, each with their own focuses and agendas. Kathryn Immonen only just started writing the series two issues ago (there are several volumes, the current volume is on issue #11), so it's hard to tell where it's gonna go from here. I absolutely recommend picking up the hardcover volumes of Vaughan's time on the book, and if you're still interested after that, maybe think about the current run.

Astonishing X-Men by Warren Ellis—
If you like the X-Men, this is a decent book. It's not really world-breaking, and Simone Bianchi's art is sometimes a little cluttered, but it's solid writing. Ellis picked up the series on issue #25 after Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's epic run, which is definitely a tough act to follow. It's currently on issue #30, but it's been coming out slowly, so who knows when the next issue will be. Again, if you like X-Men, check it out, otherwise you'll probably live if you don't read it.

Don't Bother

Hulk by Jeph Loeb—
In the very first issue, Jeph Loeb introduced a new Red Hulk, bigger, meaner, and stronger than the original green guy. Now it's issue 13, and we still don't even know who "Rulk" is, let alone why we should still care. Bruce Banner recently lost the ability to turn into the Hulk, but I have yet to see how that makes for compelling storytelling. I'm giving it one more issue before I stop buying.

Invinvible Iron Man by Matt Fraction—
I recently dropped this book, because for some reason I just stopped caring what happened to Tony Stark. I enjoyed reading about Iron Man while he was in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D., making difficult decisions everyday that affected millions of people around the world. Now he's just a guy on the run, stealing parts and trying to make ends meet while the new top cop, Norman Osborn, chases him around the globe. I always thought Bruce Banner was boring when he just drifted around all the time, and he could at least turn into the Hulk. Don't read this.

Uncanny X-Men by Matt Fraction—
I don't know what it is about Matt Fraction lately, but I can't get into his writing. I used to love his work (Casanova, Immortal Iron Fist, The Order) but it seems like his recent stuff is just stuck in the mud. I dropped this X-title a few weeks ago, too. I just wasn't connecting with any of the characters. That and the art is kinda eh. Greg Land just isn't doing it for me. All of his females look like porn stars, no matter their age, personality, body type, etc. It's just not an exceptional book right now.

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