Monday, August 31, 2015

Book Review: Queens of Noise by Evelyn McDonnell

Queens of Noise: The Real Story of The Runaways

Written by: Evelyn McDonnell

Published: 2013

Synopsis: In four years the teenage members of the Runaways did what no other group of female rock musicians before them could: they released four albums for a major label and toured the world. The Runaways busted down doors for every girl band that followed. Joan Jett, Sandy West, Cherrie Currie, lead guitarist Lita Ford, and bassists Jackie Fox and Vicky Blue were pre-punk bandits, fostering revolution girl style decades before that became a riot grrrl catchphrase.

The story of the Runaways has never been told in its entirety. Drawing on interviews with most of this seminal rock band’s former members as well as controversial manager Kim Fowley, Queens of Noise will look beyond the lurid voyeuristic appeal of a sex-drugs-rock ’n’ roll saga to give the band its place in musical, feminist, and cultural history. (Via Goodreads)

I have well and truly dropped the blogger ball this month. I have been extremely busy with uni work and life stuff, but it's sad to see so few posts up on my blog! So here is a quick review to add another post to my meager blog offerings.

Where to start? I came across this book when Jackie Fox (first bassist of the Runaways) made headlines the other month accusing their manager of raping her while she was in the band. I had long been a fan of the music of The Runaways, but outside of knowing that they were teenagers and hugely influential on future female bands I really didn't know much about their formation or the scandals that followed them pretty much from the start. Jackie Fox's statement, and the subsequent fallout from her other bandmates, led me on a wikipedia binge which ended with a visit to Goodreads. The main reason I decided on Queens of Noise over one of the autobiographies is that I hoped it'd be a broader look at the band, rather than prescribing to a certain person's memories and perspectives. Given how many fights and court cases this band has fought since the 1970s, I just don't know how much weight those autobiographies can be given.

Unfortunately that wasn't what I got. Generally speaking, I didn't get any insights in this book that I couldn't find on wikipedia or fan websites. It covered the highs and lows of the band, but it didn't really introduce any new perspectives or stories. McDonnell may have been backed against a wall, so to speak, because it seems from the interviews included in the book that she didn't really get access to all of the band and the ones willing to talk were the ones who have always been willing to talk. In terms of this complaint, if you haven't really read anything about this band then I don't think the content will be a problem. It's comprehensive and it covers a lot, from their lives before the band to their careers afterwards. If you have, like me, done some internet searches on the band then don't expect too much from this book.

Another issue I had was the quality of the writing. McDonnell has had a lengthy career as a journalist but when I started reading this I turned to my mum and said "this reads like someone's Masters thesis". Low and behold, that's exactly what this book was. I've read a lot of book which have begun as a Masters or PhD thesis, but the successful transitions are the ones which eliminate the unnecessary academic framework. McDonnell frames the formation of the band around academic discussion on Los Angeles in the 1970s in terms of "four ecologies"*. It's quite interesting stuff but it's introduced early in the book and then never really adds any real context or depth to the girls' stories. Does it really help for a music fan to know that certain girls grew up in "autopia" or "surfurbia"? This broad academic framework has a very specific purpose in academia, but this isn't a book advertised to music academics, it's a book for fans of the Runaways. And considering how often McDonnell refers to the biopic starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, it's clearly a book created for young new fans of the band who want to know more about the real life women who inspired the film.

But outside of the academic framework at the start of the book, the writing is pretty sub-par.There is a lot of groan-worthy, overly descriptive language typical of a feature article:
"Laying down the chinka-chinka guitar rhythms of the band's dirty rock sound, Joan Jett is already Joan Jett: a cute but dark-eyed tomboy in a custom, red catsuit - gymnast meets race-car driver - and, of course, boots. She has outlined her Cleopatra eyes in dark liner and sings with the sexy bravado of one who was once painfully shy"
This is sandwiched between McDonnell's most overused stylistic choices, 'to' comparisons:
"To this day, he speaks a sort of tourette's jive that's a crucial link in the lineage from the Beats to Jack Bruce to Tom Waits to Wildman Fisher to David lee Roth to Perry Farrell"
What does this mean? What exactly is she comparing? The way they speak? Were they all influenced by Kim Fowley (who this quite is about) and how he spoke? Was he influenced by them? To comparisons are fine in moderation, but they are incredibly overused in this book. It just ends up reading as lady and as though she's wanting to prove her credentials, "look at all these things I know! Seven degrees of musical Kevin Bacon!" The final straw, for me, is that McDowell doesn't view this story objectively. Her person opinions on events that occurred and people that were involved came through so strongly. When discussing a somewhat controversial interview that music manager Danny Sugarman conducted with the Runaways McDonnell writes:
"Sugarman was a shitty writer and drug addict who thought he was a rock star and died married to Fawn Hall of Iran-Contra infamy"
Look, his article was garbage and lewd but there's a way to say that without bringing your own personal opinions on the guy into the story. And what does it matter if he was a drug addict - so was just about everyone in the Runaways!

But perhaps the biggest straw for me is the sympathy McDowell has for Fowley, the man who Jackie Fox accused of raping her. Throughout the book there are interviews with crew, journalists and musicians who say that Fowley was a creep and aggressive and abusive towards the girls. While I don't think it was McDowell's responsibility to address all of the rumours, especially when there was conflicting stories or a lack of evidence, but she follows so many of these moments of criticism with some really gross explanations for why Fowley isn't so bad. I.e. it was the 1970s and tonnes of men had sex with underage girls. Heck, Roman Polanksi "got busted" for having sex with an underage girl**. Or modern society has a different definition for what constitutes predatory behaviour. Or he was a freak, and was an easy target because of this. It just comes across as so apologetic, especially since she failed to be objective throughout the book, like she'd met him and liked him and didn't want to face the idea that he wasn't the charming and weird guy in a salmon coloured suit she envisioned.

So at the end of the day this book just didn't deliver what I was hoping for. It'd be fine for a complete Runaways novice or younger reader as it reads pretty well in spite of my issues with style and it does cover the details about the formation of the band, career highlights and band fights. It does paint some interesting pictures of the 1970s L.A music scene, but these are too few and far between for my liking. A resounding meh, from start to finish.

*It's based in architectual and cultural studies stuff. 

**This upset me the most. She didn't address that he was arrested and found guilty of raping a child before fleeing the country. She simply mentioned he was "busted". ugggggghhhh

Friday, July 24, 2015

Book review: Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

Red Dragon

Written by: Thomas Harris

Published: 1981

Synopsis: Will Graham stands in a silent, empty house communing with a killer. An FBI instructor with a gift for hunting madmen, Graham knows what his murderer looks like, how he thinks, and what he did to his victims after they died. Now Graham must try to catch him. But to do it, he must feel the heat of a killer's brain, draw on the macabre advice of a dangerous mental patient, Dr. Hannibal Lecter, and follow a trail of microscopic clues to the place where another family has already been chosen to die--and where an innocent woman has found the Dragon first. (Via Goodreads)


“It's hard to have anything isn't it? Rare to get it, hard to keep it. This is a damn slippery planet.”

Tom and I started Bryan Fuller's series Hannibal when we heard it had been cancelled. We'd both been wanting to watch it for awhile, but we have so many ongoing shows we watch that it was kind of exhausting to add yet another one to the list. So the cancellation, though very sad (more so now that we know how great the show is), let us feel like we could finally make the commitment to the show. After we finished each episode, I'd look up the AV club review and see what people had said. One thing I hadn't really expected was a continued discussion on how faithful to the book(s) the show is, especially since it takes place prior to the events of the Harris novels. 

Interest piqued, I decided to find out for myself. What I discovered that the TV show is very clever at weaving lines and references from the book into the show, but also, this book is hella cool.

For those of you who have watched the TV show,* Red Dragon takes place four-five years after any events in the show (maybe longer? It's 4 years since Hannibal's capture in the book but I don't know when/if Hannibal will be caught in the show). After catching and then nearly dying at Hannibal Lecter's hand, Will Graham has removed himself from the FBI and settled down and married. He's still troubled by his days in the FBI, but he finds a quiet satisfaction working with his hands and not empathising with serial killers for a living (whodathunkit?). Oh wait, did I say he was content? Enter Jack Crawford, desperate for Will's insight into a new serial killer known as the Tooth Fairy. 

At the new moon, the Tooth Fairy kills an entire family. The deaths are quick and mostly painfree, except for the mothers who seem to receive the lion's share of the aggression and attention. Graham is called in to try and make the connection between the two families that no one else has been able to find, but in involving himself in the case he throws his fragile life into a tailspin. His new family is tense and close to falling apart, as is his sanity. Working in pursuit of a serial killer can't be easy on anyone but for Will it seems extra destructive. At one point Will visits the imprisoned Hannibal Lecter to try and get his perspective and this terrible toll on Will is explained, the line between killers and Will is especially thin. Will is gifted (cursed?) with the ability to empathise completely which obviously causes pain, but it also blurs the line about Will's self. Is he able to empathise on a purely scholarly level, or is it because he's the same as them, evil and destructive like them? 

The narrative is primarily framed around Will, however there are chapters that travel back to the Tooth Fairy's (aka Red Dragon, aka Francis Dolarhyde) childhood and adolescence, or spends time with him as he goes through his daily routine and gets ready to attack another family. There is also a section or two framed around Hannibal Lecter and Jack Crawford or other smaller characters, to help fill out the story without having Will inserted into every single scene. As the book gets closer to its final act, the Dolarhyde chapters increase and we see his fractured sense of self and mental instability which is often mirrored against Will. It becomes a story that's both about the hunt for a serial killer and an introspection into the psyche of people who live on the fringe of society.

Lest those of you who watch the TV show think that this aligns with TV-Will...hold your horses. While his ability to empathise with killers is a part of his character and a leading role in his fragility, Book-Will does a lot more detective work than TV-Will ever does. While he certainly gets a "feeling" that he can't define through actual evidence, he also has an eidetic memory which helps greatly as he spends hours upon hours sifting through evidence. There's a stronger foundation of reality in Red Dragon than in the show, which tends to favour aesthetic and theme over narrative stability.

I found the ending a little unsatisfying. I didn't have an issue with the events themselves, but they were written in such a vague way that I actually wasn't entirely sure what I was reading at first. My other major problem was the absolute lack of female characters in the book. There were two, I think, maybe three. I could have forgiven the small number if they were at least characters with some depth, but I found them decidedly lacking.Ultimately though, these two issues weren't strong enough to effect my general enjoyment of the book and I'll definitely be seeking out Silence of the Lambs when I'm next at the library. Goodbye Will.

*Yes, I know that there is a film adaptation of Red Dragon. No I will not comment on it or refer to it in the review because it is NOT GOOD.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Book Review: The Lady of the Rivers by Philippa Gregory

The Lady of the Rivers (The Cousin's War #3)

Written by: Philippa Gregory

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Jacquetta, daughter of the Count of Luxembourg and kinswoman to half the royalty of Europe, was married to the great Englishman John, Duke of Bedford, uncle to Henry VI. Widowed at the age of 19, she took the extraordinary risk of marrying a gentleman of her household for love, and then carved out a new life for herself. (via Goodreads)

*mild spoilers below, but really, it's based on a historical event so this shouldn't be news to you*


“Any woman who dares to make her own destiny will always put herself in danger.”

I don't tend to read it too often, but I really do love historical fiction. There's something about reading a fictionalised account of a family or event from long ago which just ticks a lot of boxes for me. The Lady of the Rivers is actually the third in Philippa Gregory's Cousin's War series, but it's a prequel that takes place during the years prior to and during Henry VI rule. It focuses on Jacquetta, a real life fascinating woman, who began her life in English-occupied France, the daughter and niece of Luxembourg royalty (and a Goddess), before marrying one of the most powerful men in England, John of Lancaster.

Jacquetta is a perfect character for this type of book because while she's involved in a lot of the critical events that led up to the Cousin's war, she's removed enough that the book isn't just another rehash of a very famous family feud. Instead we see life on the outskirts, how her first husband ruled France and how he tried to guide his young nephew, the king. We see the early days of Henry's rule and the follies of youth as he and his young wife play favourites in court and have zero understanding of how to run a castle, let alone a country. And we get a little insight into raising a child (or 14 as is the case with Jacquetta) during these tough and troubled times, especially as a lady of the court who is forced to spend months away from their children. This peripheral view, I imagine since I haven't read the following two books, also helps to set the scene quite well for the really character-driven narrative that is to come*.

One of the best things about this book was how focused it was on women in this era. Through Jacquetta and the women in her life, we see how few options they had. And not only did they have far fewer options in life compared to men, but their futures were largely out of their control. If they were from wealthy families like Jacquetta, their marriages were often to form alliances or to solve land feuds. Jaquetta's first marriage to John of Lancaster is never consumated, instead she is an object for him to use. Jacquetta, as their family myth says, is gifted with the "sight" because their oldest ancestor was the water goddess Melusina. John, obsessed with alchemy, wants Jacquetta to see the future in a mirror and help him guide his nephew to success and prosperity. And while her talents puts her in his favour, as the reader sees with Jacquetta's brief interaction with Joan of Arc and another woman of the English court, this favour can quickly turn sour when it no longer works in someone's favour. A talent at forecasting the future or making herbal remedies quickly becomes signs of witchcraft and can lead to an unfortunate end tied to a stake. In a less supernatural sense, a woman failing to give her husband a child and heir just as quickly turns from favour. It was a time where women were balancing on a tightwire, hoping to keep their husband, their father, their brother, and their King happy.

In spite of this, Jacquetta, and several other women in the book, are shown to be independent and strong characters. They make themselves heard and they make their own choices, even though they face dire consequences. After John's death, Jacquetta marries his squire and almost loses everything in the process. But her marriage is one of love, and not only do they survive, they rise high in the court. Henry's wife and Queen, Margaret, is ruled by her emotions and is a passionate and fiery woman. Many of her decisions could have risked her her crown and her head, but she lives as she pleases regardless. Joan of Arc, although only in the book for a short while, is an absolutely beautiful and principled girl. Her trial and death is utterly heartbreaking, and the weight of it effects Jacquetta long after it happens. The women are the focus of this book, so we see a lot less of the wars and fighting than many books that deal with this era typically show. This I am eternally grateful for because, ugh, I don't need more battle scenes in my life. I get enough of them in Game of Thrones thank you very much.

Now this isn't to say this book is perfect. It falls into many of the holes historical fiction struggle to deal with. There is an insane overuse of titles in the book. Every time John is mentioned, it is "John of Lancaster, first Duke of Bedford". While I know it's hard to keep on top of all the characters, especially since they all seem to be called John, Richard, Edward and Henry, but when you have a 10 page chapter that only involves a discussion between Jacquetta and her husband, I think the reader can be trusted to understand which John this is. It also struggles at times with covering so much. I loved that it gave glimpses into life in court, away from court, during pregnancy, during birth, during war etc etc, but this did mean that sometimes things were fairly shallow in their depiction. A few times Jacquetta brings up her pregnancy and then gives birth 200 words later and then you don't hear of the child for another 40 pages. A tightening of the focus, just a bit, may have helped here. Building on this...I hated Margaret. She was an insipid and obnoxious brat who plunged two countries into ruin because she wanted to play favourites at court and didn't have a proper grasp of money or time. Because the book is so focused towards the women in the narrative, all of the blame ends up heaped on her shoulders, probably unfairly, while Henry is barely discussed or depicted as a pious and naive young man. Because Jacquetta is one of her ladies in waiting, we spend so much time with her, especially as the country falls into war between the two factions of the family. I didn't like spending so much time with her scheming, although I guess there wasn't a lot else that could be depicted since we were following Jacquetta. But to further infuriate me, the book depicts Margaret as this horrendous woman but then Jacquetta will dote on her or excuses her terrible actions. I couldn't get a read on how Jacquetta truly felt. When she talks about a shallow or dangerous decision made by Henry and Margaret, is she simply being nice because it's her job to be loyal, or does she truly not understand/care how terrible that decision was? Jacquetta was shown to be so intelligent before this part of her life, and suddenly I couldn't tell if she was playing it safe or naive or foolish or simply blind. At the end of the book I was firmly on the York side, which I don't think was Gregory's intention.

Problems aside, I did really enjoy reading this book. I spent most of my first day up the Coast with Tom with this book in one hand, and my phone in the other googling names so I could work out everyone's relationship. English family trees give me such a headache! I loved that this book introduced me to a new badass woman in history. Because Jacquetta most definitely was a badass. This book sadly doesn't cover the later years of her life, but she ends up accused of witchcraft (hence the supernatural elements threaded through this book) and manages to escape with her life. And as a mother of 14** it's really beautiful to see how much she fought for her kids and for them to have the best in life. Other accounts of Jacquetta that I've read since tend to depict her as this grabby power-hungry woman who used her children to rise up in station, and maybe she truly was the 15th century version of Kris Kardashian but I much prefer this version. She fought for and risked everything for all of the people in her life, even those like Margaret who perhaps didn't deserve her love and loyalty. Melusina would have been proud.

*Like I said in the intro, this is actually the third in the series and a prequel, but from what I've read about the other two books it does sound like they are more tightly written in terms of focus. 

**I really should fact check this, it's either 12 or 14, but I've already sent the book back to the library and I'm LAZY.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Graphic Novel review #34

Cinema Panopticum

Written and illustrated by: Thomas Ott

Published: 2005

My Thoughts: I first came across Thomas Ott through his illustrated cover for Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I love his scratchboard art style, it adds an enormous amount of visual complexity to his stories, which is necessary since they are entirely wordless. Cinema Panopticum follows a girl at a fair who can't take part in any of the activities on offer because she doesn't have enough money. She finally finds the Cinema Panopticum tent, which has 5 movie boxes that are cheap enough for her to afford. Each movie is another short chapter, and the stories are all fairly dark and foreboding, although some are laced with a wicked wit while others are just downright heartbreaking. It's only a short little book but it packs one hell of a wallop.

Birds of Prey: The Death of Oracle (volume 2)

Written by: Gail Simone; Illustrated by: Adrian Syaf

Published: 2011

My Thoughts: I picked this up thinking it was the first volume (I hate when they don't number the spine!) but even so, it clearly sets out all of the major players and recent events at the start of each issue, so that presented no real issue. The story is interesting enough, Oracle (Barbara Gordon, now in a wheelchair) has garnered a little too much attention as a tech-genius and her enemies are now doubling-down on trying to eliminate her. Not only is Oracle a credible threat in her own right, but as Oracle she monitors and supports countless of other heroes so any threat on her life has a knock on effect. The rest of the Birds of Prey are tasked with trying to save Oracle while also having to come to grips with their own dark pasts. This is my, to my knowledge, first Gail Simone and ... I didn't love it? It's a solid story and the characters are well-developed but it didn't wow me. But an (almost) all female team of heroes, some of whom began as anti-heroes or dabbled with villainy, is too good a concept for me to give up on after one middling edition. I'll give it at least one more edition and make my mind up then.

Lady Justice (volume 1)

Written and illustrated by: C.J Henderson; Fred Harper; Daniel Brereton

Published: 2008 (though the collected comics are from the 90s)

My Thoughts: Ugh, this is a good example of making sure you read the fine print. In case you can't see in the cover image, Neil Gaiman's name is written above the title. Awesome!, I thought. Turns out it's not written by Gaiman but merely based on a character of his, and loosely, so very loosely. The concept itself is kinda awesome (kudos to Gaiman). Lady Justice appears to women who have been wronged and implants them with her powers, making them her physical avatar. They then have the power to gain justice for the wrongs they've experienced. The first issue is very violent and very bloody, but when Lady Justice leaves her avatar and the woman cries for her to stay saying she "did everything L.J asked of her," Lady Justice replies that she didn't say how the justice should be meted out and that "the blood and violence was entirely her choice, and she should beware that she isn't revisted in the future by another Lady Justice avatar"*. This I actually really dug, but this story was completely destroyed by the following two or three stories which were equally as bloody and equally as violent. What happened to choosing how to deliver justice? Or that the justice should be proportionate to the crime? I think there was one which actually had the bad guys going to jail instead of dying, but plenty of other people had died by this point. It's just all so pointless. The art is also very '90s pornographic superhero style. Huge gravity defying boobs, tiny waists and the women are always walking on tip-toes. Pass if you ever see this guys, HARD pass.

*my paraphrasing

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Book Review: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Into Thin Air

Written by: Jon Krakauer

Published: 1997

Synopsis: On May 9th 1996, five expeditions launched an assault on the summit of Mount Everest. The conditions seemed perfect. Twenty-four hours later one climber had died and 23 other men and women were caught in a desperate struggle for their lives as they battled against a ferocious storm that threatened to tear them from the mountain. In all, eight climbers died that day in the worst tragedy Everest has ever seen.

Jon Krakauer, an accomplished climber, joined a commercial expedition run by guides for paying clients, many of whom had little or no climbing experience. In Into Thin Air he gives a thorough and chilling account of the ill-fated climb and reveals the complex web of decisions and circumstances that left a group of amateurs fighting for their lives in the thin air and sub-zero cold above 26,000 feet - a place climbers call 'The Death Zone'. Into Thin Air reveals the harsh realities of mountaineering and echoes with frantic calls of climbers lost high on the mountain and way beyond help. (Via Goodreads)

“With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill ... The trick is to get back down alive.”

A handful of years ago I read Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, and shortly after the film adaptation came out. Both caught me at a point in my life where I was first experiencing life as an adult and trying to work out what kind of future I wanted to lead. Christopher McCandless' decision to strip himself of material possessions and trip through the wilderness spoke to me on a very deep level, but the book captured all the very real, and frankly terrifying, consequences that can accompany that sort of lifestyle if you don't actually plan things out. I earmarked Jon Krakauer as an author to read more of but for whatever reason, 19 year old me never followed up with his books.

A couple of months ago I actually saw a review for his book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town and earmarked that as a book to request from my library. I haven't gotten around to that yet, but it rekindled my Krakauer interest for the first time in years. And then I saw the trailer for the upcoming film Everest which is based on this book.

The trailer reminded me of that outdoor wonderlust I experienced when I first read Into the Wild, and once again there seemed that there was an intense mother-nature-is-not-your-friend theme running through it. I bought it immediately, and once I started reading I could not stop.

I finished this book with a heavy heart. I actually can't remember a time a book made me feel this weary. I cried and felt numb for a good few hours after I put the book down. It was one of the most emotionally exhaustive experiences I've ever gone through that wasn't actually something that was happening to me.

Here's the thing though, I wasn't emotional because of the loss of life during this Everest climb. Well, I was but that wasn't really what made me feel so damn tired. It was the whole story of Everest. The fanaticism, the commercialism, the risks, the waste and the lack of humanity that people climbing Everest seem to have.

There is a point early into their climb where Jon remarks on a bundle he sees in the snow along the path. It's the dead body of someone who died making the climb a couple of decades before him. That just seemed so emblematic of how dehumanising this endeavour is. A person died to climb a mountain, not because they needed to for survival but because they wanted to be able to add their name to the list of people who had. And when they died, they get left by their peers like the trash and the old oxygen tanks. "The slopes of Everest are littered with corpses" writes Krakauer at one point, and he isn't exaggerating. One in four climbers have died trying to reach the summit of Everest, and yet it's become a tourist attraction that people with barely any climbing experience pay tens of thousands to do. It's just. so. stupid.

At another point, Krakauer writes:

It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificient activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them.”

And I get it, I really do. I can completely understand the draw of wanting to climb Everest. But the toxicity that surrounds mountains like Everest is everything I hate about humanity. People charging $65,000 to guide you up to the top of the mountain, but not making sure their charges are at a particular level of climbing skill or athleticism. It's so greedy, and when the death toll is so high, it's just a really ugly sight. It makes me think of Gollum and the ring in Lord of the Rings. Reaching the summit is everything, and if that means you leave a person dying on the side of the mountain, like some Japanese climbers did in 1996, then that's what you do. I can't even imagine how terrifying it is to die alone on the side of a stark and baron mountain after watching two people leave you where you lay, because giving you their oxygen means that they wouldn't be able to make the trip up to the top. How can a person actually do that? And I can't imagine how heartbreaking it is to have a loved one die on Everest, and have their body sit where they died until someone pushes it down a ravine or covers it with rocks. It's just so utterly lonely an image.

While the book itself is primarily about the horrific storm that hit in 1996 and cost 8 people their lives, it's also broadly about the curse of Everest. Krakauer weaves in stories about the climbing history of Everest and the famous stories of men and women both succeeding and failing to reach the summit over the last 100 years. He was originally employed to climb Everest to write an article about the commercialism of the many guided tours going up the mountain each season. But at the end of the day, this commercialism both is and isn't the cause of the wanton loss of life. People were dying well before climbers got the clever idea of leading packs of people up the mountain for $30,000. But the people dying were typically people who had mountaineering experience and who knew the risks of climbing a mountain as high as Everest. As the trailer above points out, once you hit a certain point your body is literally dying. Nowadays, people climbing the mountain are often people who have the money to. They may have some climbing experience, but they're ultimately paying for their guide to get them to the top no matter what. And this is where things turn ugly. When they start their preliminary climb, Krakauer notes that many people in his group have only rudimentary climbing skills and had only climbed one mountain (and not one on the scale of Everest) in the year earlier. They were all in good shape, but as he explains, climbing a mountain isn't about being in shape. It's about the instincts you need to have to problem solve and anticipate the numerous issues you're faced when scaling a wall of ice and snow. When you then toss in the issues of sleep deprivation, sore and wasted muscles, injuries and the brain fuzziness that comes from being withheld necessary oxygen, the issues caused by this lack of experience are vastly intensified. How can you trust being tied to someone who hasn't climbed a mountain before? Or who hasn't experienced oxygen deprivation?

"This forms the nub of a dilemma that every Everest climber eventually comes up against: in order to succeed you must be exceedingly driven, but if you're too driven you're likely to die"

The book is a fascinating look at both mountain climbing as a career or hobby and the magical draw of mountains. It's so ruthless and competitive and heartless, but it's also this amazing depiction of human endurance and determination. It's horrifying because there are so many examples in the book of how dehumanising this experience is, but it's compounded by the fact that at the back of my mind a little part of me gets it, and i'm disgusted by that. You finish the book feeling the weight of every decision, good and bad, that was made on that mountain. This book might sound like it has a very small base of people it'd appeal to but I came away from it feeling like my eyes had been opened to a whole new view of humanity. Because Krakauer was both a climber with relatively decent experience but also one of the novices joining a guided tour I've discussed above, he offers a very unique perspective into this world. He understands climbing and he understood his limitations and that he probably shouldn't have been there, but as a climber he was also under the spell of the mountain and the desperate need to conquer something that has foiled so many. It's both hard to watch, and hard to look away.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Graphic Novel Mini-reviews #33

Chew: International Flavor (Volume 2)

Written by: John Layman; illustrated by: Rob Guillory

Published: 2014

My Thoughts: I read the first volume of Chew aaaaaaages ago, but I never got around to buying the second volume. God knows why because these comics are side-achingly funny. To recap a bit, Tony Chu is a cop who is cibopathic - meaning that he can get the "history" of something by tasting it. Yes that means he can tell whether that black market chicken soup is made with real chicken, yes that means he also takes the occasional bite out of a dead person. It makes for some disgusting moments (especially when you factor in a boss who hates him) but they're always hilarious. In this volume Tony finds himself on a little island renowned for its lax chicken laws, something which attracts everyone from his chicken-chef brother and a host of tourists and chefs to the island. But it turns out the chicken isn't actually chicken, and perhaps some of the chefs aren't here of their own volition. Throw in a vampire, a bionic partner, a host of cibopathic-style specialties and you've got the best cop comic written about illegal chicken ever. EVER.

Thor: Goddess of Thunder (volume 1)

Written by: Jason Aaron; illustrated by: Russell Dauterman

Published: 2015

My Thoughts: Lady Thor!! YES! I put off reading this run until the first volume came out because I instinctively knew that it'd be one that would make me sad if I couldn't just read through a big chunk of it. Basically, male Thor has become unworthy of wielding Mjolnir and a secret female has picked it up and been transformed into the female incarnation of Thor. Who she is out of Asgardian armour we don't know (yet) but what we do know is that she knows male Thor to some degree. There's a really interesting discussion about what makes a person Thor, is it a mantle that can be adopted by whoever holds Mjolnir or is it intrinsically tied to the man who originally held that name. And are you worthy of the name just because you can hold the hammer, or does the name hold another measure of worthiness? The comic subtly plays with male vs female expectations within the comics world, weaving it into the broader story while never making it the story. I'm not familar with Russell Dauterman's other work, but his illustrations in this volume (all but one issue) are really evocative and beautiful. 

Cat Person

Written and illustrated by: Seo Kim

Published: 2014

My thoughts: A few weeks ago Tom and I headed down to the Gold Coast to attend the final weekend of their film festival. We had some time to spare before seeing a movie, so we ended up popping into a library and having some reading down time. I picked up Cat Person because, duh. OF COURSE I picked up a book that was clearly written for me. It's a short collection of 1-4 panel comics created by Seo Kim. In direct contradiction to the title, the cat comics are only actually a small part of the book. The comics are broken into 4 autobiographical sections about her love life, her cat (I want to say Jimmy?) and her life as an illustrator. It's really cute and relateable, but it's probably not made to be read front to back in one sitting like I did. It's the kind of book that you flick through and read a couple of comics every now and then.


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