May 15

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir

I picked up this book on a 2-for-1 special on Audible, and I’m really glad that I did. It was a blast. I was talking to my friend Krystin about it when Dale and I were in the middle of listening to it, and apparently  this book  is a bit of a response to the genre blending that has become so prevalent over the last couple of years. No blending with this one, though. Weir puts forth a straight science fiction yarn that can be summed up simply: Mark Watney is alone on Mars, and he’s doing everything he can to survive.

The majority of the book takes the form of first-person day logs kept by Mark Watney. Watney was one of the astronauts on the Ares III mission that was supposed to establish a month-long base on Mars before coming back to Earth. Less than a week in, a massive storm hits, and they all escape. Well, except Watney who becomes injured and swept away. Through dumb luck, he survives, and he spends the next two years putting his life back together on Mars. The story follows him healing his initial injuries, crafting ways to communicate with space command back home, figuring out how to become the first Martian farmer, and trying to come up with a way to get home. In the midst of it all, Watney provides shrewd observations about his new world and life with a biting, sarcastic humor that helps keep him sane in the desolate wasteland.

Now, a straight up epistolary narrative is not my thing. Though Watney doesn’t record every day of his time on Mars, leaving one character alone for too long can get dangerous. Luckily, just at the point that I was starting to get worried that Weir was going to strand us on Mars with Watney, he starts to include chapters based out of mission command on Earth. That story picks up from a satellite technician figuring out Watney is alive to the administrators trying to decide on the best way to keep him. The book accurately portrays how people on Earth would react to the news of an astronaut being trapped on Mars: morbid curiosity, fear for his safety, and a clamoring to do whatever could be done to get him back.

And so, while in some ways this book has a very modern feel, it does have a very classic format. The main problem is escape Mars, and this is never used a backdrop for more sentimental or psychological issues. The very real man vs. nature conflict puts all other worries aside as Watney has to deal with numerous problems dealt to him from the environment to a plethora of issues he brings on himself through experimentation (explosions from water making, blowing up a rover with a drill, and other mishaps). The book is simultaneously both dramatic and fun. It kept making me want to peek ahead to see if he actually made it out or not. Because you start feeling that you’re going to be so mad if he dies, but you just can’t see how could ever make it.

And if you’re going to do a trapped and trying to escape story, then that’s the way to do it.

JMF Rating: 9/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

Apr 30

Review: The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry

This book came into the library, and one of my coworkers immediately said, “That has been all over the Internet. It’s supposed to be fabulous.” So, since I didn’t have anything to read (lies…I have all the things to read), I decided to take it home and see if it really was that good. I mean, I don’t read a lot of just straight out literary fiction, but when I do, I tend to love it. Maybe it’s because I’m lucky. Or maybe it’s because I only read things that other people have raved about (looking at you, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry). So I dove into this book.

A. J. Fikry is the town curmudgeon. He runs Island Books on Alice Island, but he is not your friendly neighborhood bookshop owner. Instead, he likes literary fiction, and he has no patience for bestsellers, chick lit, children’s book, or vampire fiction. His wife used to deal with the customers, but she died in a freak car accident after an author even two years ago. After his first edition copy of a rare Edgar Allen Poe work goes missing, he decides to take up running to help clear his mind and get himself off the booze. Well, he comes home to find that someone has left a baby girl named Maya in the bookshop in his absence. He offers to keep her while they attempt to locate her mother. Sadly, she turns up dead. Instead of giving the child up to the foster system, though, Fikry agrees to keep the child and raise her.

This bring a profound change on Fikry. Suddenly, he’s not the town crank anymore. He starts ordering books for children and some more popular materials. The community rallies around this man who has no business raising a child, stopping by to drop off supplies, advice, and to create that “community raising a child” vibe that small towns in literature seem to love. It even makes Fikry come out of his shell and make an advance on Amelia Loman, the pretty publisher representative that eventually sweeps him away.

There’s also a frame structure that I found quite nice. Each chapter is preceded by a short description of a short story that Fikry wants his daughter to read. It includes a brief synopsis and why he thinks she should read it or why he thinks she will enjoy it. So, on top of a book, you get a short reading list of short stories to get you jumpstarted in that genre.

This book can be boiled down to a very simple formula. Basically, an unexpected baby makes a single dad reevaluate his life and build a more positive world for himself. But that’s such an oversimplification of how charming this book. Imagine the town crank suddenly deciding to pander to children, host author events, and start a book club for mothers and another for police officers. It’s heartwarming if not always believable in the real world sense. And the end of the book. The end of this book. Guys, it is sad. And you realize that he’s been writing this book (or at least the introductions to the chapters) from the future, and it is just so cute and charming and really, if you’re going away to the beach or you’re looking for something nice and easy but so good to read, then this is it. This is like a less mystical Mr. Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookshop. Go. Read it. Thank me later.

JMF Rating: 9/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

Apr 26

Review: Only Serious About You Vol. 1-2 by Kai Asou

Only Serious About You Vol. 1 Only Serious About You Vol. 2

I found this 2-part series on a list of LGBT comics recommended by one of the library magazines (I think Library Journal, but I’m not sure and I’m too lazy right now to go look it up). So I ILL’d it in since it fit perfectly with what I’ve had going on over the last month. Work is still going good with the GLBT News, the weekly news blog I run with the GLBTRT, and then I served as a juror for the first ever William Eisner Graphic Novel Growth Grant. So, gay and graphic novel has been my extracurricular focus for a good chunk of the last month, so I figured I should find areas where the two meet.

Only Serious About You is the story of Oosawa, a single dad who works at a chef in a nearby restaurant. His wife left him because she couldn’t stand the stresses of raising a child on her own while he was at work all day. So, now he takes care of his daughter Mizu by himself. Oosawa has a regular client at the restaurant named Yoshioka. Yoshioka brings in all his boyfriends, and he seems to have a new guy every week. Well, the shit hits the fan when Mizu’s kindergarten calls Oosawa and tells him that she has a fever and has to go home. He can’t afford to take the time off of work, and he doesn’t really have any friends or family that can look after her.

Enter Yoshioka. He invites them to stay at his place for a while so that he can help look after Mizu. So begins this pretty lighthearted story of a nontraditional family forming to meet the needs of raising a child. Mizu immediately bonds with Yoshi, and they both care for her as she gets better. Then, when Oosawa catches her bug, Yoshi takes care of him, and they end up staying with Yoshi much longer than they intended. Everything looks like its going to be fine, with Oosawa eventually falling for Yoshi in a “I’m not gay but I’m gay for you” kinda way, but then the deadbeat mom shows back up and wants custody of the kid. So the lovely togetherness that ends the first volume is shattered in the second as they have to figure out what their family is going to look like and whether they are going to stay together.

The weirdest thing about this to me was that even though it was printed in English, it maintained the traditional Japanese printing, binding the book on the right hand side and turning pages right to left. While initially a little off-putting, it’s something that I quickly got used to and barely noticed by the end of it. The story in and of itself was interesting, and the book reads very quickly. There’s just enough layers of characterization that the characters aren’t quite stock, but there’s not a detail added in at any point that doesn’t come into play later on. So the story feels very compact and focused, but it did leave me wanting to know a bit more. And, for the most part, the artwork of their relationship stays pretty tame except for one sexy-times bit in Part 2. It was my first time ever reading manga/yaoi, so I didn’t know what to expect, but this was good. I’ll have to try the genre again some time.

JMF Rating: 7/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

Apr 25

Review: Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar

Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar

Also on my recent drama kick, I listened to Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar. This play won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, so in trying to keep up with a bit of theatre, I stuck it on my list. I had kinda stalled out on listening to The Bone Season (which I’m still listening to because it’s good, it’s just a downer), so I picked this up to cleanse my palate.

Palate-cleansing is probably not the best use for this play. This 90 minute (really more like 98) play is meant to be performed in a single act, but really, the sauce is the third scene. Amir is an American-born, Muslim-raised lawyer who works for a high-powered law firm in New York. Emily is his artist wife who is obsessed with Islamic culture for her work. Amir is uncomfortable with this because he has avoided his religion for a long time due to the negative connotations it would have for his career. Amir’s nephew Abe shows up one day to ask him to be at the trial for an imam who is being tried for what Abe claims is a trumped-up charge. Amir goes to the trial due to Emily’s urging, but this ultimately has quite the negative effect on his career consequences.

Cut to scene 3: the dinner party. The most awkward dinner party ever. The kind where you just want to hide beneath the rug before the entree ever makes it out of the kitchen. The party combines Amir, the Muslim lawyer who is both ashamed and kinda proud of his Islamic roots, his white wife Emily who loves Islamic culture and art with Jory, a Jewish art collector for a museum displaying Emily’s work (that slept with Emily in London) and his African-American wife who works with Amir. Lubed well with alcohol, their conversation ranges over so many hot button issues, it can be hard to keep track at times. Suffice to say, the conflict of culture comes to a violent head, and nobody ends up with a happy ending.

The play works incredibly well, even if the pacing seems a little weird. The first two scenes pass incredibly quickly (about 15 minutes) whereas the dinner party lasts about 50 minutes. The final scene is more of a denouement where you see that everybody has received their just deserts, and that with race and ethnicity in America, the problems are intractable. Also, Asif Mandvi played Amir in the production that was captured for this recording, and he turns in a stellar performance.

I think that the reason Disgraced works as well as it does is that it forces you to consider everyone’s perspective, no matter how instinctively wrong that perspective may feel. Amir is ashamed of his Islamic heritage in the first two scenes, and so I ended up feeling like he needed to embrace and not shy away from his heritage. But in Scene 3, he learns that that’s the reason he’s not making partner at the law firm, and his dinner companions are shocked when he finds some of the attitudes coming from Arab extremists understandable and partially relatable. It puts into start relief the idea that when it comes to cultures outside of the mainstream of America, it seems that many want to be accepting, but only of the quirky, fun parts. When things start to get dark and hard, the other side needs to shut up and get in line. In Disgraced, Amir proves unable to do that, and he suffers the consequences.

JMF Rating: 7.5/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

Apr 24

Review: Agnes of God by John Pielmeier

Agnes of God

So I haven’t reviewed anything for a month. Got busy with freelance work and the library, but that doesn’t mean that I stopped reading. I never stop reading. Or listening for that matter. And that’s how I finally got around to listening to a couple of plays that have been riding on my Audible account for a while. So while I was packing up PINES a few weeks ago, I listened to the 90 minute run of Agnes of God.

The story follows psychologist Dr. Livingstone who has been appointed by the courts to establish the mental state of Agnes, a nun living in a New York convent. However, Agnes is always accompanied to these sessions by her Mother Superior, an older nun who is protective of Agnes. Agnes presents two interesting problems that Livingstone must contend with: first, she has been accused of murdering her newborn baby by strangling it with the umbilical cord and then throwing it in the trashcan. Second, Agnes is remarkably naive. She has no idea what sex is, has never dated, never seen a TV show or a movie, and is in every way a modern innocent. As the play progresses, Livingstone becomes increasingly engrossed in the case, convinced that Agnes is innocent, but unable to accept the possibility without having another rational explanation for these actions.

Needless to say in a play that centers around the convergence of faith and psychological practice, rational explanations are hard to come by. Livingstone is convinced a priest knocked Agnes up, while Agnes claims it was an angel or God. No one is ever sure of anything, and in many ways, its like the story of Doubt, just covering a different subject matter.

The character relationships in this production were superb. Whenever I do the audio version of a play, I always very British (where you go to “listen” to a play). But really, this was very good, though I found the characters to be frustratingly, realistically flawed. The Mother Superior refuses to push Agnes for a real story or investigate who the father might have been (or the murder, for that matter). Instead, she relies on her faith and her desire to believe in miracles and goodness in the modern world. Livingstone lets her hatred of Catholicism cloud her judgment, and her over-investment in Agnes’s innocence blinds her to the fact that Agnes may in fact be guilty. And Agnes…poor Agnes. A life lived in fantasy made a break with reality all too easy, making it impossible for her to give straight, real answers to the horrific crime this story involves. And while these people are frustrating in their lack of perfection, that is what makes them so engaging.

This play may raise more questions than it ultimately answers, but that’s something I always like about theatre: it gives you an engrossing story that gives you something to talk about on the car ride home. If I wanted every question answered, I’d just watch network TV.

JMF Rating: 7.5/10

‘Til next time,

-JMF

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