The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson CoverLike many others, I was drawn to read the late Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by all the media buzz; you can only hear the words “literary sensation” and “international bestseller” so many times without getting a little bit curious. I haven’t read much in the crime fiction or mystery genres (unless you can count the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter), but if the first book in Larsson’s “Millenium Trilogy” is typical of these types of books, it seems I haven’t been missing anything.

The book follows financial journalist Mikael Blomkvist and private investigator/hacker Lizbeth Salander. Blomkvist is reeling from a libel case he has lost against a CEO of a large financial firm when he is recruited by an aging industrialist named Henrik Vanger to investigate the mysterious death of his great-niece from nearly 40 years earlier. Blomkvist is only convinced to take on the case because Vanger claims to have information that will help him appeal his libel case verdict. Salander is brought in later to assist in research and to use her photographic memory and phenomenal investigative skills to help Blomkvist. Through different methods, they come to the conclusion that the great-niece’s brother, Martin, was somehow involved. The mild-mannered Martin proves to be an active serial kidnapper, rapist and murderer so meticulous in the execution of his crimes that he is only discovered by the pair because of leftover evidence of ritualistic murders Martin’s father had committed many years earlier. Salander saves Blomkvist from being murdered by Martin and the pair surmise that his sister wasn’t dead at all: she had run away to escape from her demented brother. With the conclusion of the mystery, Blomkvist learns that Vanger never had information that was useful for his appeal. Salander, however, hacks into the personal hard drives of the guilty party. Armed with damning evidence, Blomkvist writes an article and a book proving the claims he had no sources for in the previous year.

One striking but unflattering detail about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is the unnecessary exposition. Larsson spends a lot of words describing details that are not necessary to the plot. One might argue that exposition is necessary to set the stage and flesh-out the details for a more believable story, but in most cases Larsson’s excessive description adds little. There are too many instances in the book where he describes the temperature, the furniture of a room, and the technical specs of hardware when it adds nothing to understanding or appreciating the characters, the setting or the storyline. Why is it important to know about the handmade furniture in Blomkvist’s cabin, especially when this tidbit is offered in the last 10% of the novel? How does it help the reader’s understanding to name the speed, memory and storage of a laptop when saying “Powerbook” would have sufficed? I found my eyes glazing over during unnecessarily descriptive paragraphs.

Larsson’s style and character development is clunky. The text alternated between plain language and particularly dense descriptions of complex financial sector operations. Perhaps this was an issue of translation, but plain writing can be forgiven when the plot and characters are rich. The plot wasn’t dull, but it wasn’t surprising either. Blomkvist, as described in a report by Salandar, is something of a lothario, yet it is never clear what it is about him that women find so engaging. He is a smart reporter, but he is rarely charming and there is little to go on in terms of physical description to explain why women are so attracted to him. In effect, we are told he is a lothario instead of being shown that he is one.

Salander is a more interesting character than Blomkvist, but also more frustrating. It is alluded to that she has Asperger’s Syndrome and Larsson’s portrayal of her misunderstanding of the world, mistrust of authority figures and aversion to close social and physical contact are well-portrayed. Where Larsson failed concerning Salander is the reaction she elicits from nearly everyone else due to her goth/punk look. Even though this book was published in 2005, the way Salander draws the attention (and prejudice) of others because of her tattoos and dyed hair makes the novel seem dated. The development of her sexual relationship with Blomkvist is both too obvious and unnecessary. It’s not surprising that she would be attracted to the one person that accepts her at face value, but it seems odd that Blomkvist takes an interest in her sexually; he has two sexual partners and is working on a third before he ever meets Salander. They seem to have no chemistry with each other, outside of their work, and their relationship adds next to nothing to the narrative and very little to their characters.

Despite Salander and her delightful anti-establishment attitude and complex revenge schemes, it is not enough to redeem this book. A dull, plodding story, overly complicated discussions of financial dealings, too many Vanger family members to keep track of, boring characters and clunky execution make The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo one to skip.

Rating: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson CoverThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson CoverThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson CoverThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson CoverThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson Cover

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Great Work of Time by John Crowley

Great Work of Time by John Crowley CoverConsider the following scenario: you are granted one trip to any time in the past. You cannot bring anything with you to the past or back to the future that will not fit in your pocket. You must take extreme care not to alter history or to alter it as little as possible. How would you make yourself rich? Buying the stock of a rich company in escrow for your unborn self wouldn’t work and buying rare artifacts would be impossible without acquiring currency from that time period.

Caspar Last faces this question in John Crowley’s novella, Great Work of Time. He invents a time machine, and quite practically, feels he should benefit monetarily from it. And he comes up with a pretty clever scheme: he travels back over 100 years into the past to acquire a rare stamp that he will either sell at auction or to the owner of the only other existing example of this stamp (who would presumably pay to have it destroyed to preserve the value of his own stamp).

Soon after his return from the past, Last is approached by the President pro tem (“for the time being”) of a secret society called the Otherhood and asked to hand over his time machine. Though he tries to refuse, Last’s protest is over before it begins; the President had travelled from the future using Last’s own machine, meaning that, at some point in the Otherhood’s past and somewhere in Last’s future, the act of handing over the time machine had already occurred. And if you thought that point was confusing, it gets more complicated: the Otherhood suspected that Last wouldn’t accept a cash offer for his machine while he was in possession of a rare stamp, so they planted a fake price guide in his home to fool him into thinking that his trip had altered the future, making his once valuable stamp worthless . Professor Last, being a genius of “orthogonal logic,” had anticipated that his trip could alter history in some minor way, so, with no other alternative, he agrees to sell his time machine for a generous price.

Though the episode between Last and the President is an entertaining enough story in itself, it makes up only a small part of a much larger narrative about altering history and the responsibility a person has to the world, a complicated concept when possible worlds can become actual worlds. Denys Winterset, a loyal and devoted citizen of the world-spanning British Empire, is asked by an enigmatic man named Davenant to join the Otherhood. He learns of the secret history of the Otherhood: that Cecil Rhodes, an imperialist and entrepreneur, left a sum of money in his will to create a secret society charged with the extension and preservation of the British Empire. Winterset is made to understand that the world he knows exists only because of the machinations and manipulations of the Otherhood. He also learns of the Original Situation: where the minor war of 1914 became the Great War of our reality. This war, of course, led directly into the next World War, with the total result being the death of many millions, the invention of atomic weapons and the Cold War. Winterset is appalled by this information and is convinced to join the secret society to preserve the Empire he loves and the affluent, peaceful world the Empire ensures. Inside the club of the Otherhood, which exists outside of time, the actions necessary to create his world have yet to occur and Winterset is given an assignment vital to the existence of his altered world: the assassination of Cecil Rhodes before the wealthy imperialist changes his will in 1893 and removes the Otherhood’s endowment.

Meanwhile, the President pro tem has traveled into the future, breaking a cardinal rule of the Otherhood,  and finds a world diverging significantly from the world the Otherhood was trying to create. This world is inhabited by creatures quite different from humans: lizard-men called Draconics, angelic, faerie-like beings and ominous, wise hominids calling themselves Magi. And the President loves it. The world is stark, strange, fantastical and eccentric, but it somehow feels right to the President, as if that is how the world should be. The only way this world could have been created was by breaking another one of the rules of the Otherhood: traveling to a time before the death of Cecil Rhodes. The fabric of this world has been made weak due to the constant changes in the timeline, creating fluctuations in reality that would eventually destroy it. The angels, the oldest race on this world and most sensitive to the manipulations of time, reveal to the President the end result of the Otherhood’s actions: a world consisting of only a large, dark forest, with roots descending into the ocean. No creatures, no life, no change.

As right as the world may seem to him, he is convinced by a Magus and an angel that he must restore the original timeline. In order to achieve this, the President would have to break a third rule of the Otherhood by traveling to a point in time he had already been to: the assassination of Cecil Rhodes. To prevent the creation of the Otherhood, the President would have to stop his younger self, Denys Winterset from killing Rhodes. Because Crowley is such a brilliant crafter of stories, he doesn’t give us an easy ending once the President’s identity is revealed. In a twisted denouement, a third Winterset in a world where the Original Situation had occurred discovers an older version of himself living in Africa. This older version recounts the story of his life to the younger Winterset: how he had been sent to kill Rhodes and how a distraction prevented him from doing so; a distraction he believed to have been created with the intent of stopping him, thus restoring the world to the way it was supposed to be, but stranding him in the past.

John Crowley deftly manages to present a complicated scenario in a way which doesn’t bewilder and confuse the reader. Time travel is tricky to convey and there were moments during my reading of Great Work of Time when I thought I should go back and reread previous sections, but I plowed ahead and Crowley found a way to bring everything full circle by the end. Even so, I look forward to coming back to this story and reading it again, not only because of intricate and fascinating plot, but also the richness of the language. Crowley deliberately uses intricate language while keeping things vague, having the effect of mystifiying you and making you savor every word. Each sentence reflects the time and thought put into its construction; they are not merely describing the action. Perhaps most impressively, Crowley takes the reader to different worlds and time periods, introducing a variety of characters and circumstances, and yet the reader doesn’t lose the thread of the story.

What’s particularly endearing about Great Work of Time are the unexpected places Crowley takes this far-from-standard time travel story. The opening chapter about Casper Last and his quest for riches seems quite distant from Winterset’s struggle with killing a man to create a better world. Even more shocking was the world of the future; a fantasy world which should have seemed out of place in a science fiction story, but didn’t. Last’s desire to improve his lot in life, a desire anyone could understand, seems small and petty when compared to the mission of the Otherhood, to create a world in which everyone’s lot in life is improved. However, the President’s reaction to the future world reveal a corruption of the Otherhood’s mission; the world of strange races, rigid hierarchies and no change are appealing to the President. This future world feels proper and correct to him, and so the objective of an organization to better the world is subjugated to the personal feelings of one man. Last’s purpose in creating his time machine was to fulfill his own desires, and the President discovers that the future was built upon the desires of one man as well: himself. Winterset, in his different incarnations, is driven by the responsibility he feels toward bettering the world. Ultimately, this is what drives him to travel into the past to kill Rhodes. It is also what causes him to return to that time period and prevent the killing. For all the good that the Otherhood is trying to achieve, Winterset realizes that men cannot guide the entire world, for they will guide it to oblivion. I wonder if the final pages of the story, where the younger Winterset smuggles the older, time-traveling Winterset out of Africa and into England, is the author’s obtuse way of saying that a man is not responsible for the entire world, but is responsible for helping himself.

Rating: Great Work of Time by John Crowley CoverGreat Work of Time by John Crowley CoverGreat Work of Time by John Crowley CoverGreat Work of Time by John Crowley CoverGreat Work of Time by John Crowley Cover

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The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand CoverThe Fountainhead tells the story of architect Howard Roark, the quintessential “ideal man” according to Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. Roark is ideal because he never settles for mediocrity, never compromises his artistic vision and never fears to break from tradition to forge his own path. These qualities bring difficulties to his career in architecture; his untraditional ideas and stoic nature are found unacceptable by architects and the general public alike. Roark’s work is mostly panned, although a handful of people recognize his genius. Most of the novel deals with how the man and his work are perceived by others, with the main focus on his refusal to concede to the ideas or desires of other people or groups.

Rand aids the reader in understanding Roark by giving him several foils, each of which is a reflection and/or corruption of the “ideal man,” and most of the novel’s action revolves around each foil’s connection to the protagonist. Roark’s architecture classmate, Peter Keating, is the polar opposite of Roark: he has no passion, he adheres to tradition and he seeks the respect and acknowledgement of others. The art critic and journalist Ellsworth M. Toohey, cognizant of Roark’s greatness (and perhaps his own lack of it), subtly manipulates the public through his articles and news connections to attempt to destroy Roark. Gail Wynand is the owner of the largest news organizations in the country. Like Roark, he is passionate and highly competent, but instead of creating great works, Wynand only strives to amass power and influence by pandering to the whims of a vile and fickle public. A quality that unites Roark’s foils is their connection to public opinion: Keating relies on the whims and judgments of others (having no opinions of his own), Toohey tells people what their opinions should be and Wynand gives the public the sleazy tabloid pulp they want instead of the real news that they need.

The novel opens with Roark being expelled from architecture school as Keating is being offered a coveted job at a prestigious architecture firm. Keating thrives in his new position at first, even winning awards for his designs (designs which he could not have completed without Roark’s secret aid). Meanwhile, Roark works at a lowly firm and is ridiculed by the public for his strange designs (though beloved by those living in and using his structures). As Roark’s fortunes begin to rise and Keating’s fortunes fall, Toohey becomes aware of Roark and, recognizing the architect’s individualistic spirit, plans his downfall. He convinces a businessman to hire Roark to design a temple, knowing the businessman will be appalled by Roark’s design. Toohey nudges the businessman further, creating a public outcry and a well-publicized civic trial.

Despite being forced to pay a settlement that bankrupts his business, Roark works on occasional commissions and eventually comes to the attention of Gail Wynand (who had been a great fan of Roark’s designs for many years without knowing the identity of the architect). They strike up a friendship and Wynand feels, for the first time, that he has found a kindred spirit. Roark helps Keating with yet another design, this time for a housing project, on the condition of anonymity and strict adherence to his blueprints. After a committee of architects alters his designs, Rourke blows up the housing project before it can be finished. Wynand is glad for the opportunity to use his power to help his friend and attempts to wield his influence as a newspaper mogul to sway public opinion in Roark’s favor. At this point, though, Toohey has managed to insinuate himself into many different levels of society, including Wynand’s main newspaper, various journals and several artistic circles and worker’s unions, revealing a level of influence no one suspected him of having. With public opinion heavily against him, Roark is brought to trial. He defends himself, making an impassioned speech about the necessity of ego and the glory of the individual, the creator–and the evil of second-handers, who create nothing except altruism, as a method to control the collective and impede the individual. The jury finds him not guilty.

In addition to presenting the realized ideal man, the novel is also an examination of those who fall short and those who are diametrically opposite. Dominique Francon appears to be presented as an example of female greatness; being Roark’s lover, there is an implication that she is an ideal woman. And yet, before meeting Roark, she lived the vapid lifestyle of a socialite: attending social functions, dressing up and generally being bored and critical of the world around her. But at least early in the story, she seems to be the cleverest person in the room; encountering Roark changes everything for Dominique. After being raped by Roark, and seemingly enjoying the experience, her independence and power are lost and she succumbs to typical female stereotypes: she falls hopelessly in love with Roark and subsumes her own desires into his. Then, the character takes a strange turn: Dominique, in perhaps her last insightful moment in the story, recognizes that the world will try to destroy Roark’s greatness–and aids those forces by doing everything in her power to sabotage his commissions! In her confounding sexual deviance, Dominique desires Roark to physically/sexually overpower her, but only allows herself this pleasure after she has thwarted one of his commissions. And Roark seems perfectly content to allow her to do this! With the damage she does to Roark’s works, she resembles the antagonistic Toohey much more than the ideal Roark.

Although Dominique is personally responsible for withholding some of Roark’s work from the world, she soon grows disenchanted with the world for not recognizing his greatness. She decides she wants no pleasure in a world like this and ends her trysts with Roark. Dominique’s perplexing, self-destructive behavior doesn’t end there; she seeks to make herself miserable by marrying someone who is the opposite of Roark, someone she despises: Peter Keating. When the opportunity arises to make herself more miserable by marrying someone even worse, she divorces Keating and marries the powerful and ruthless Gail Wynand. The mogul ends up being more similar to Roark than anyone could have guessed but it’s her intention to punish herself that makes Dominique’s actions so difficult to comprehend. She doesn’t seem very much like an ideal person, let alone Roark’s ideal mate.

Ellsworth M. Toohey, in a quite obvious and heavy-handed way, is Rand’s explanation for why altruism is evil. Toohey is a critic and lover of the arts, hero to and supporter of the common man, selfless, generous, religious and intelligent. He is a man known, respected and loved by the public. He preaches the suppression of the self in service to others and almost always presents himself in this way to others: he lives and dresses modestly, organizes meetings of artists and unions (never accepting pay for this work) and writes articles appealing to the traditional values of the public. But he is the villain of the story! As his aunt describes him, he is a maggot. He thrives on the despair of others and takes particular delight in crushing the spirits of those who have greatness in them. In his heart, Toohey is really a cynic. He doesn’t believe in anything he preaches, only that his machinations will give him power. He sees the edifices of mankind: government, religion, civilization–as structures of control. And he wants to be the one to pull the lever that makes the gears of the world turn. In essence, Toohey aims to be a secret ruler of men and has realized that the easiest men to control are those who have no individuality; those who have suppressed the self and have submitted to a form of societal control.

Though Rand’s method of denouncing altruism is unsubtle and perhaps even sophomoric, it is certainly entertaining and provocative, especially in the example of Toohey’s extended rant to Peter Keating about his vision of a subservient society. In one of the most memorable passages of the novel, Toohey describes the way to destroy greatness:

Don’t set out to raze all shrines–you’ll frighten men. Enshrine mediocrity–and the shrines are razed.

In other words, men can’t be convinced that there aren’t great things in the world, but if they can be fooled into believing that the banal is the ideal, they will lose the ability to create or even recognize greatness. One can’t help but find an eerie analogue of this in today’s media-saturated society: reality stars trump truly talented actors in popularity and recognition, consumer goods are sold based on endorsements instead of quality manufacturing and books and movies are judged more on sales figures than critical reception. A similar observation can be made about the apathy and indifference of the general population concerning politics, poverty, hunger, war, etc. Being inundated with these concerns from so many sources, it’s no surprise that images of needless death and destruction don’t horrify people as much as they should. Perhaps Rand had it right, from a certain perspective…

On the whole, The Fountainhead isn’t particularly well-written (it reads like a romance novel in some places) and the characters and situations aren’t very realistic. However, this is a book of examples, of ideas in motion; each character is a representative for one of two ideas: a variant of the ideal spirit or a collectivist/second-hander. Rand’s Objectivist ideas about the greatness of the individual are, admittedly, seductive; everyone believes on some level that their integrity and vision should never be compromised. Roark is an attractive exemplar because his work is described as being genuinely better than the work of the architects who cling to outdated tradition. One flaw that materializes, however, is that the “ideal man,” even in the world of the novel, appears to be an infrequent occurrence. Henry Cameron, for example, is crushed, physically and spiritually, for clinging to his own ideas on architecture, as is Stephen Mallory (until Roark comes along and gives the young sculptor purpose). Gail Wynand misuses his ego to acquire power. Dominique Francon has masochistic tendencies. Only the seemingly inhuman Roark is able to make his ego work for him.

This brings up a larger question: if, in the context of a fictional novel, individuals cannot successfully maintain their integrity and do great things, what hope do people in the real world have? What about untalented people? How does a janitor or a cab driver or a waiter act with integrity? Taking Wynand as an example from the novel, it is not clear how he could have used his ideal nature to run his newspaper differently. Perhaps he could have published real news instead of tabloid fodder, but this most likely would have caused his newspaper to go bankrupt (in one passage, he describes an early experiment in trying to publish both kinds of news, with sales and profits favoring sleazy tabloid news). Sticking to his guns would have resulted in falling into obscurity like Cameron. Similarly, what could Dominique have done differently? She already spoke her mind in her art criticism and social interactions, yet she was miserable, inflicting new kinds of pain on herself to forget the troubles of the world. Cameron is perhaps the most interesting character to consider: he is just as stubbornly insistent on maintaining his integrity as Roark. His personality is similarly abrasive. In all the ways that count for Rand, Cameron is virtually identical to Roark, from talent to attitude to intelligence. However, Roark gains some semblance of public acceptance and personal fulfillment by the end of the novel while Cameron does not, and the novel does not explain why Roark succeeded and Cameron died dejected and bitter. If characters so similar to Roark cannot succeed in the same world he did, how much harder would it be for real people in our non-fictional world? These questions are not adequately addressed by Rand in The Fountainhead.

Perhaps it is asking too much to have a book work well as a piece of literature and a philosophical treatise that applies to the real world. It’s sometimes difficult to separate the Objectivist Philosophy from the content of the book, but Rand’s case for the individual as being the prime mover of progress and the collective being the destroyer of progress is too simplistic. Wasn’t it men coming together to form tribes in ancient times that allowed everyone to survive against savage beasts and hunt large game? Rand’s attacks on altruism fall apart when applied to any place that isn’t democratic: could Roark have achieved his greatness if he was born into a low caste in India? In a poor village in Uganda? In medieval England? Ancient Egypt? Living in a democracy provides initial conditions and opportunities to those living there and democracy is the product of a form of collectivism.

Despite its inconsistencies and simplicity, The Fountainhead makes for a thought-provoking read; I spent a few months thinking about it before putting my thoughts down in this review. It’s easy to see why so many young, impressionable teens latch onto this book, falling in love with the notions of breaking from tradition and walking your own path, as these ideas are so much a part of the teenage experience in the West. But it’s also pretty clear why most (but not all) twenty-somethings discard and dismiss this book; it takes a certain level of maturity and distance from puberty to understand that ego is not always great and altruism does not always entail a loss of self to the collective.

Rating: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand CoverThe Fountainhead by Ayn Rand CoverThe Fountainhead by Ayn Rand CoverThe Fountainhead by Ayn Rand CoverThe Fountainhead by Ayn Rand Cover

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King of the Road: From Bergen-Belsen to the Olympic Games by Shaul Ladany

King of the Road: From Bergen Belsen to the Olympic Games by Shaul Ladany CoverKing of the Road: From Bergen Belsen to the Olympic Games by Shaul Ladany CoverThis review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

Shaul Ladany was certainly an inspiring man, having survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp to become a record-holding race walker and distinguished industrial engineer.

My interest in the book was Ladany’s experience during World War II and the Holocaust, but only a small portion of the book was devoted to this (less than half a chapter). The main focus of the book is on the sport of race walking.

I couldn’t muster the interest to do more than skim and flip through the book, but that’s just my personal preference; I’m not very interested in sports and I was expecting more about the author’s Holocaust experience. The tone of the writing is conversational, like someone relating a story to a friend. It’s definitely serviceable for the content. For someone interested in race walking, and sports competition in general, I’m sure this book would be an enjoyable read.

I should add that the section about the massacre of Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich was fascinating. Ladany makes it a point to correct some details that had been previously reported about his escape. Mainly, he describes following the lead of other Israeli athletes and escaping through the back door of his hotel room (no jumping off a second floor balcony, as most reports, including Wikipedia, state). Of additional interest are his thoughts on why the terrorists didn’t take his roommates and himself hostage (there were two Israeli marksmen among them), his opinion of the German military of the ’70s (inept and clumsy, a far cry from the German military of the last World War), his anger at the Israeli government for recalling their athletes home, the mistaken reports of his death in the massacre and his lawsuit against an author who fabricated details of the events of that tragic night. I wasn’t at all familiar with this incident and Ladany’s report was as good as any to learn about it.

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Happy Hour Is for Amateurs: A Lost Decade in the World’s Worst Profession by Philadelphia Lawyer

Happy Hour Is for Amateurs: A Lost Decade in the Worlds Worst Profession by Philadelphia Lawyer CoverHappy Hour Is for Amateurs: A Lost Decade in the Worlds Worst Profession by Philadelphia Lawyer CoverThis review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.

While this book might arouse interest for the first few chapters, the entertainment value drops off quickly. How many times can the same tweaked story be retold? How many times can one guy relive the same premise with minor alterations in the details? Here’s the gist of the book: the narrator gets drunk/high, gets into a situation, then gets out of said situation, sometimes with wit (but usually through dumb luck). Rinse, repeat. Also, throw in a few easy women, and one friend with an alcohol/rage/drug problem whose name keeps changing for some odd reason…

The Philadelphia Lawyer is the kind of guy that rubs me the wrong way. He’s proud of getting through college drunk, squeaking through law school and getting high to escape the boredom of legal work. Boo hoo. And to top it off, he thinks he’s better and smarter than nearly every person he meets!

However, this book is not without merit. It gives what appears to be an honest and intimate look into the legal profession. It’s a corrupt system, like many other systems in our society, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it scared off some law students.

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I Am Legend by Richard Matheson

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson CoverRobert Neville is the sole survivor of a plague that raised the dead and turned the living into vampire-like creatures who are sensitive to light and crave blood. Neville spends his days fortifying his house and gathering supplies, and his nights drinking himself stupid and listening to loud classical music to drown out the taunting voices of the vampires gathered outside. His other main activity is gathering wood and painstakingly whittling them down to stakes. He then goes to the surrounding houses and neighborhoods and systematically stabs vampires through their hearts during their daytime slumber.

Rousing himself from his drunken stupor, Neville decides to research the plague. He gathers lab equipment and biology books from abandoned libraries and discovers the germ that caused the plague, as well as how it spread so quickly. He encounters a woman during the day time, and after befriending her, discovers that she is a vampire. He soon learns that a group of infected humans have formulated a pill that suppresses their vampiric urges and allows them to remain in the sun for short periods of time. The infected humans eventually storm Neville’s house, capturing him and locking him up for his crime of killing so many people.

I Am Legend is an exciting and enthralling read. Richard Matheson’s prose is engaging and fluid. Most importantly, he creates an endearing protagonist in Robert Neville. His loneliness and depression at being the sole survivor of the human race is understandable. His self-mediation with alcohol makes him even more sympathetic. In the passages where he reaches dead ends in his research, his frustration is almost tangible. The reader rages with Neville and sulks with him, but also pities him for his self-rebuke when the answers don’t come easily. Matheson’s portrayal of Neville evokes a wide range of emotions with ease.

One of the most heartbreaking moments of the story is when Neville discovers a healthy dog. The cautious animal won’t go near him, but Neville lures the dog by placing a bowl of food near his home, moving it closer each day. One day, the dog returns , obviously infected by the vampire germ. Neville desperately snatches the dog and brings the terrified animal inside, holding the animal in his first embrace of companionship in years. Without a cure, however, the dog dies and Neville is left bitter and alone again.

A new perspective to the world Neville lives in is revealed in the last quarter of the novel. Ruth, a woman Neville encounters during the daytime, appears to be the answer to Neville’s loneliness, the companion he had been seeking since the beginning of the novel. Instead, Matheson delivers a crushing twist: Ruth is infected. At first it seems that she is doomed to die like the dog Neville had found earlier, but the twist goes even deeper in revealing her role as a spy for a group of infected humans. While Neville thought he was doing his duty as the last survivor in killing the infected, they had found a way to adapt to their condition and rebuild society around the new human condition.

This all leads to an excellent, if sad, conclusion to Neville’s story. While he is being held in a jail cell before his execution, he looks out at the crowd that has gathered outside. When Neville shows himself at the window, the crowd cringes and cries in terror. He realizes that the countless infected bodies he staked has created a legend around himself as great as the one that grew about vampires.

Our sympathies originally lie with Neville because of his violent and difficult struggle against monsters trying to kill him. But in his hate and haste, he never checked to see if some humanity remained in those he murdered in their sleep. It is likely he killed many that had been using the pill to control their urges. In his zeal to kill monsters, Neville had become a monster himself. It’s this reevaluation of Neville’s action and the new reality of the world that makes the ending to this story so great.

Rating: I Am Legend by Richard Matheson CoverI Am Legend by Richard Matheson CoverI Am Legend by Richard Matheson CoverI Am Legend by Richard Matheson CoverI Am Legend by Richard Matheson Cover

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Locke & Key: Head Games #6

Locke & Key: Head Games #6 CoverThe Story: Rendell Locke warned his family that, if anything should ever happen to him, his family would be safe in his ancestral home, Keyhouse, in Lovecraft, MA. Sam Lesser, serving a mysterious force, kills Rendell. The grieving family moves into the ancient house and Bode, the youngest child, quickly discovers that Keyhouse hides many secrets in the form of special doors and keys. The malignant force, trapped in the Locke Wellhouse years earlier by Rendell, seeks two specific keys and will stop at nothing to get them.

The Recap: After the Head Key is revealed to Zach by the Locke children, he uses it and the Anywhere Key to visit Duncan and Ellie. He uses the Head Key to remove any memories of himself from the two so he can proceed with his search for the Omega Key without hindrance.

This Issue: A flashback reveals how Ellie came under Zach’s power. Years earlier, Zach/Dodge planted a glass jar with the Gender Key and the Wellhouse Key, as well as a piece of himself, in a place where Ellie would find it. The little piece of himself climbed into Ellie’s head through her ear, helping Zach to manipulate her with ease and prevent her from meddling with his plans. Zach removes all memories of himself from Ellie and attempts to do the same with her son, Rufus, but Zach cannot find a keyhole behind Rufus’ head…

Locke & Key: Head Games is one of those rare comics that, to use clichéd terms, intrigues and delights, stimulates and mystifies. Joe Hill has created a story that draws you in slowly and holds you in its clutches until the very end. My favorite part of Hill’s creation is his use of keys and doors as magical items. If you’re looking for magic spells, wands and wizards, look elsewhere. This series is grounded in reality, with one strange house being the center of the magic. There is a certain logic behind using keys and doors as magical items; they symbolically restrict or allow us access to persons, places and things, but Hill grants keys and doors literal powers to allow his characters to go to different locations, change their physical forms and even go inside the heads of others and themselves!

The original miniseries, Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft, told us very little about how things got the way they were: why Rendell moved out west to start a family, how and why he trapped Dodge in the Wellhouse, who, or what, Dodge really is and how Keyhouse would keep his family safe. Head Games doesn’t answer all of these questions, but it answers some of them. Before he was female and trapped in the Wellhouse, Dodge was known as Luke, and was part of a group of friends which included Rendell Locke. The group was planning to do… something, which resulted in the deaths of everyone but Luke and Rendell. Luke hates adults and refers to them as being stupid and ignorant of magic. It’s clear that the incident at the Drowning Cave that killed most of his friends stopped his aging and kept him youthful. In the present, by insinuating himself with the Locke kids as friendly Zach Wells, he is using their trust to gain access to the various keys on his quest to find the Omega Key. What it is and why he wants it is still a mystery.

The main items of power in this story are the keys and the first mini introduces the first three keys. The Ghost Key opens a door that turns a person into a ghost, with the ability to instantly travel to a place, person or object by thinking about it. Bode used this ability to find the Anywhere Key, which turns any door into a portal to another doorway, potentially anywhere in the world. The last key, the Gender Key, was only seen briefly after Dodge escaped the Wellhouse with the Anywhere Key and used the former to change from female to male. As cool as those keys were, they can’t match the one key revealed in Head Games, the Head Key. This key, the third discovered by curious little Bode, causes a keyhole to appear on the back of a person’s neck, popping the top of their head off. Tyler and Kinsey freak out when Bode shows this to them, but he surprises them further when he asks them to peek inside his head, where they see his thoughts and memories in miniature, literal forms. Somehow, as they peer down into his mind, he manages to stand beside them and look inside as well! It only gets cooler; they soon discover they can reach inside and remove memories and emotions and literally cram books inside their heads to know them by heart! I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen magic used so uniquely and eloquently in a comic book.

As great as the mysterious plot and the magical items are in this book, it’s all brought together by the well-expressed characters. Tyler is your typical angst-ridden teenage boy, with additional angst over his father’s death, but he doesn’t come across as annoying. Artist Gabriel Rodriguez portrayed Tyler with stooped shoulders and dramatic hand poses in Welcome to Lovecraft, giving Tyler an intensity and a drama that only a teenager would believe about his own life. This time around, Tyler seems a little less burdened, as if time and the death of his father’s killer have eased his pain somewhat. Bode exudes youthful curiosity and energy in every panel he appears in. After having Tyler reach into her head and remove her fear and despair, Kinsey looks less tortured and even nonchalant. Dodge/Luke/Zach exudes a sly malevolence even when he’s pretending to be a friend of the Locke kids. Another great thing about Rodriguez’s art is that he is one of those rare artists who actually gives his characters different faces, not just different hairstyles. If everyone had a matching haircut, you’d still be able to tell them apart and that is rare for a comic book artist.

In short, Locke & Key: Head Games is a comic that has everything: an intriguing preceding arc, a slowly unfolding mythology, characters that are actually interesting, a moving plot, a malicious villain, a unique take on magic, great art and a plethora of questions leaving you hungering for the next series. What more could you ask for in a book?

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Dr. Doom and the Masters of Evil #4

Dr. Doom and the Masters of Evil #4 CoverThe Story: Dr. Doom has yet another secret agenda… one that requires the services of other super-villains. Using various groups of evildoers, Dr. Doom is gathering components from different sources, constructing a plot that has yet to be revealed.

The Recap: Dr. Doom and the Masters of Evil seek a mysterious being of great power known as Quinn, imprisoned by Watchers on a planet protected by giant, robotic spider armies. Dr. Doom’s devious plan to free Quinn alerts cosmic powers around the universe, including Blastaar. The Negative Zone tyrant easily defeats the Masters of Evil, but Dr. Doom tricks him and gets away with his allies and Quinn intact.

This Issue: Dr. Doom, Princess Python and his latest accomplice, Magneto, travel to a house in Scotland, the home of an ancient witch named Selene. Dr. Doom reveals his ultimate goal: to use the power located at the ley lines created by the Infinity Gems near Selene’s house to make a wish. And his wish is to banish his greatest enemy for all time.

There’s nothing worse than a story with an interesting premise that is well-crafted and well-paced… and leaves you with an unsatisfying conclusion. It’s especially surprising that Paul Tobin, who seems to understand the character of Dr. Doom well enough to place him in such a fitting story, could write an ending that doesn’t match Dr. Doom at all. In fact, this issue was so good up until the end that I’m still a little bit shell-shocked by the ending.

We learn early on this issue that the ley lines created by the Infinity Gems in their passing hold a limited amount of power; just enough to bend reality for a single wish. Dr. Doom brings along Magneto this time around to make sure Selene lets Doom have his wish. She teleports the group around the world to locations of ley lines that have been drained already (some by her). After betraying Magneto, Dr. Doom convinces Selene to let him have his wish by claiming that he is the first “real” man she has ever encountered. Really, Tobin? Selene laughs at Dr. Doom’s words, but it had me groaning. Would Dr. Doom’s super-intellect really lead him to try that route to get to his wish?

Selene allows Dr. Doom to go for it, expecting him to die when he steps onto an enchanted stone platform. This is where Dr. Doom reveals why he needed the immortality he successfully discovered at the Sumerian temple back in issue #2: he knew the enchanted platform’s magic would kill him, but being an immortal, the spell only made him mortal again instead of killing him. As usual, it looks like Dr. Doom has every angle figure out… except Tobin has created some internal inconsistencies in his plot: if Dr. Doom knew about the platform and its guarding spell, why did need Quinn to tell him where this particular ley line was? It seems he already knew where it was. This little problem could have been averted if issue #3 came before issue #2 chronologically: if he had gone to outer space before the Sumerian temple, it would have made sense for Dr. Doom to seek immortality after learning of the enchantment protecting the last working ley line site on Earth. The way it actually occurred makes it seem as if Dr. Doom knew of the site and the enchantment and didn’t need Quinn at all.

Still, there are other questions that come up: why did Dr. Doom seek the last ley line site on Earth? Especially since it was guarded by a powerful witch he couldn’t defeat? And what up with that? Everyone knows Dr. Doom is next in line for Sorceror Supreme if Dr. Strange kicks the bucket! But back on topic: why Earth? Issue #3 showed us that Dr. Doom has a spaceship, so why not get Quinn to reveal a ley line that is unprotected that no one knows about? And what are the consequences of freeing Quinn? Shouldn’t half the universe be after Dr. Doom because he has Quinn? So many dangling questions and no answers.

But I haven’t even gotten to the worst part yet. Since issue #2, the anticipation has been around what could possibly be valuable enough for Dr. Doom to give up immortality. The complete and utter defeat of Reed Richards sounds plausible. Tobin, however, has Dr. Doom make a wish that makes little sense and diminishes the character: Dr. Doom wishes to feel no guilt. This is wrong on so many levels. Let me count the ways: first, it is lame. After all this build-up, Dr. Doom just wants the freedom to be a jerk? Newsflash, Tobin: he already is one. Second, and on a deeper level, guilt is an important part of Dr. Doom’s motivation as a character. One of the features that sets Dr. Doom apart from most villains is his nobility; his honor in facing his foes, his word being his bond, etc. Without guilt, Dr. Doom loses that nobility and becomes… the Tinkerer. Or Green Goblin. Or the Thinker. Or the Leader. Just another genius villain trying to kill his enemies for no good reason other than that they are in his way. Without his guilt, Dr. Doom would never have bothered with trying to save his mother’s soul. Without his guilt, Dr. Doom would not think he needs to rule the world because he’s the best one suited toward improving it. Guilt helped to create Victor Von Doom; his guilt at not being able to save his father sparked an urge to learn voraciously and acquire power so that the injustices done to his family would be avenged. Guilt gives Dr. Doom just a little more humanity than your average megalomaniacal super-villain.

Removing Dr. Doom’s guilt messes with the earlier events of this series as well. When Princess Python asks him if he feels bad about the people he betrayed for his meaningless wish, he replies that he doesn’t… because guilt doesn’t bother him anymore! I think that if Dr. Doom’s wish was to turn his royal tunic pink, his answer to Princess Python’s question would have been the same. Dr. Doom’s never shown regret for using people for his own purposes, so the removal of his guilt really hasn’t changed much. All Tobin has managed to do is leave Dr. Doom’s ruthless side intact and remove what good he had in him.

Having trashed Tobin’s choice for Dr. Doom’s wish enough, I’d like to propose an alternative, something in the same spirit: Dr. Doom should have wished to no longer feel obsessed with defeating/outdoing Reed Richards. Putting aside his petty jealousies and rivalries would have freed Dr. Doom to learn and invent with a clear head. Everyone knows negativity holds you back and with Richards out of his mind, Dr. Doom could have gone on to show the world that he actually is smarter than Richards. In any case, I’m now glad this is an All-Adventures book, because I would hate to see this guilt-less Dr. Doom in actual continuity.

[End of Rant]

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Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling by Bret Hart

Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling by Bret Hart CoverHitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling describes in great detail the life of one of the greatest professional wrestlers of all time, as written by himself. Bret Hart paints a vivid picture of living at the legendary Hart house: what it was like to grow up poor in a huge family whose financial fortune was slowly sinking due to an unprofitable wrestling promotion that daddy Stu Hart wouldn’t close. Having tough old Stu as a father and many older brothers hardened Bret, but for some reason it didn’t embitter him. As his brothers and sisters backstabbed him and each other many times, Bret remained considerate and helpful when he could.

As a child of the 80s, my favorite parts of the books were Bret’s descriptions of the fledgling WWF and it’s subsequent monopoly over the pro wrestling business. Although his version of events seem a little bit one-sided, Bret reports many instances of being the nice guy while other wrestlers manipulated, cajoled and strong-armed their way to fame and riches. I couldn’t help but feel Bret was naïve until the very end in his dealings with Vince McMahon, owner of the WWF/WWE. In his writing, it comes through that he knew McMahon was sneaky but let Vince walk all over him anyway.

Despite his attempts at objectivity, it’s pretty clear from his first mention of him that Bret wasn’t too fond of Shawn Michaels. I’m no fan of Michaels myself, but I could understand how he could negatively interpret some actions that Bret took against him, both in the ring and out. Bret took great umbrage at the direction pro wrestling was going and the people that were blocking him from having a better career, but from my perspective, it seemed like an old horse being angry at the road for having cars on it. Wrestling was changing and at the time, Bret didn’t see that he didn’t fit very well into what wrestling was morphing into: a more risque, even sleazy, harder and more dangerous form of entertainment.

I’m sure many wrestling fans would be interested in picking up this book for Bret’s side of the infamous “Montreal Screwjob,” the event at which McMahon promised to allow Bret to keep the World Championship, but then ended the match abruptly to make it seem as if Bret had succumbed to a submission hold by Shawn Michaels (Bret’s own Sharpshooter hold, in fact). Although it was disappointing to read about how Bret was forced out of the WWF unceremoniously instead of graciously, it wasn’t this part of the book that struck me emotionally. For me, it was the end of Bret’s career at rival promotion WCW and the aftermath that were very difficult to get through.
Bret’s career ended because of a kick from an inexperienced wrestler that caused a concussion. Bret ignored the concussion, letting it get worse until a doctor told him he would end up worse that Muhammad Ali if he didn’t stop wrestling immediately. The last part of the book is devoted to a description of Bret’s stroke and recovery. It’s heart-wrenching read, as it usually is when reading about a strong hero weakened by injury or old age.

For a wrestler/professional athlete, Bret is a very capable writer. Some of his descriptions of his matches get repetitive after a while and he refers to too many matches as “the best match [he] ever had.” He does a good job describing most typical wrestling terms, though there were a few that were not explained that I had to look up online. For the most part, Bret’s view of himself is very even-handed: he points out his own faults and shortcomings, but revels in his successes. All in all, Hitman is an interesting and engaging read for wrestling fans, and especially for fans of the wrestler many consider to be the Best There Is, the Best There Was and the Best There Ever Will Be.

Rating: Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling by Bret Hart CoverHitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling by Bret Hart CoverHitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling by Bret Hart CoverHitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling by Bret Hart CoverHitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling by Bret Hart Cover

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X-Men: Magneto Testament #5

X Men: Magneto Testament #5 CoverThe Story: Magneto, the master of magnetism and self-appointed leader in the cause of protecting mutants from destruction by humanity, was born in Germany as Max Eisenhardt. Persecuted by the Nazi regime, the Eisenhardts endure many hardships as anti-Jewish laws force them out of their home and into the Warsaw ghetto. Eventually, young Max is shipped off to the Auschwitz death camp, the only survivor of his family.

The Recap: Max arrives at Auschwitz, where he encounters his old schoolteacher, Herr Kelb, who teaches the boy to lie and steal to survive the camp. Max is assigned to the Sonderkommando, to burn the bodies of gassed prisoners. Just as it seems he is about to be broken by the harsh realities of the camp, he discovers that his old sweetheart Magda is a prisoner at Auschwitz.

This Issue: Max bribes guards to ship Magda off to another camp, where she might survive the coming liquidation of the Gypsy section of Auschwitz. Despite Max’s best efforts, Magda is returned to the camp to die. Remembering his earlier instructions, Magda hides in a pile of corpses and is found by Max. A revolt suddenly breaks out among another squad of Sonderkommando and Max and Magda escape during the confusion.

In many instances, comics that attempt to flesh out earlier tales in the lives of its characters end up simply retconning an established fact, usually to the detriment of the story. There are many examples of this, from Hal Jordan’s Parallax parasite to Norman Osborn’s resurrection, from Aunt May’s death to the Flash’s identity being erased from the minds of all his friends. These retcons are usually done to remove unpopular changes to the status quo or to give a character new depth. The latter is the intention of writer Greg Pak in this miniseries, and though the effort is noble and the story interesting enough, it adds next to nothing to the mythos of Magneto as already established by Chris Claremont. If that is the case, then the purpose behind this story must be something entirely different.

Most comic fans are familiar with Magneto’s origins and purpose in life: to prevent mutants from suffering through an atrocity like the Holocaust, an event he was forced to endure as a Jew living in Nazi Germany. In various comics, more specific details about Magneto’s early life have been revealed, the most important details being one of the first manifestations of his powers (when he repelled bullets fired at him by the Einsatzgruppen) and his assignment to the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. Pak doesn’t add much to these stories besides framing them with other events of Magneto’s life. Do these additions enrich the story of Magneto? A little bit.

Most of the significant additions occur in the beginning of the series. Max is shown to be a very talented young student who is the recipient of awards as well as much jealousy and hatred from his non-Jewish peers. He is instructed by a Jewish teacher, Herr Kelb, to hide his superior intellect and other abilities from others lest he be punished for them. Some time later, Max watches helplessly as his father grovels before a former military superior for help, is physically abused and almost killed, then thanks the man for his life. It’s obvious that these events informed Max later in life as Magneto. He actively rejects Charles Xavier’s vision of peaceful co-existence between humans and mutants, because it must have seemed to him to be like the attitudes of Kelb and his father, who encouraged hiding and meekness in the face of conflict.

The answer to the question of whether these additions serve to enhance the history and character of Magneto is: not really. Or rather, not necessary. It could be argued that Max’s time in a death camp, and being the only survivor of his family, may have been enough to create the Magneto persona. Certainly these events would be enough to convince him to fight rather than be persecuted as a mutant. Sometimes, adding too many eventful occurrences to the life of a character serves to overwhelm the influences on the character instead of enhancing him. Does every event that Magneto experienced inform his life? Does every event that people experience inform their lives? Not every little incident is important and the task of storytelling is choose those incidents which are important. When the story adds too many influential episodes to a character’s background, it lessens the impact of the events that were truly important in developing the character’s psyche. Adding too much to Magneto’s origins dilutes him, not strengthens him, as an interesting character.

This leads back to the earlier discussion on retconning in comic books. X-men: Magneto Testament does not restore a status quo and only marginally, if at all, enriches the character of Magneto. So what purpose does this series serve? It is a solid and well-crafted introduction to the events of the Holocaust, particularly for those that aren’t as familiar with the event as they should be. Carmine Di Giandomenico’s art is phenomenal: the world does not look like a world of superpowers and the people don’t look like superheroes; their big, soulful eyes add an emotional depth that is just as important as the backgrounds in creating a sense of gravity for the subject matter. The coloring in this series is outstanding, clearly demarcating the Nuremberg period from the time of the Final Solution, the outside world from the world of the death camp. The colors manage to evoke a sense of another time without resorting to black and white or sepia tones.

As a whole, the series is very well-done. Does it reach the emotional, spiritual and philosophical heights of Art Speigelman’s Maus? Not quite. Does it serve to flesh out the origins and motivations of Magneto? If it does, it is only marginal. The strengths of this book have little to do with Magneto and could have been equally effective with different characters. So, does the book successfully convey some of the horrors of the time period in which it took place? Yes, very much so. The facts are well-researched, the art compelling and respectful, and the writing accurate and subdued, perfectly fitting the story. If you’re looking for a Magneto adventure, you might be disappointed by this one. If, however, you’re looking for a realistic tale about the Holocaust, X-men: Magneto Testament does a great job and might persuade a reader to seek out deeper works about this significant event in history.

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