The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible by Neil Connelly

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I wanted to write this review a few months ago, but I realized then that I did not have the frame of reference to even begin talking about such topics as comic books and superheroes/villains. However, armed with a comic book reader, access to digital comic files (from a procurement method of which I can only advocate be done with care), I set out to read some of the best comic arcs in the last thirty years. I would spend hours going through trade paperback editions in PDF form, or hopping around various individual issues to get a sense of the storyline. It took a lot of time and battery life of my Mac, but I had a lot of fun surrounding myself with good reads and dynamic characters. Along the way, I noticed that I related the most to stories of heroes in everyday situations. It was a microcosm of why I prefer Batman to Superman—he’s “realer.”

The “realism” within comic books and graphic novels has had its share of doubters throughout the runs of DC and Marvel, along with different independent companies throughout the years. Yet two of the seminal works in comic lore fly in the face of the glamorized and glossed-over hero, and focus on heroes and villains succumbing to something much worse than gamma rays, kryptonite, or bullets—the mundaneness of everyday life. Those works are: the underrated and far too often forgotten Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, and the perfectly rated, incomparable Watchmen, from the mad genius, Alan Moore.

However, those two arcs cover specific groups of heroes. I’ll apologize in advance for being a bit broad in my brush strokes, but Astro City shows heroes in their own environment, mostly away from the peril of the citizens they defend, while The Watchmen, with the exception of Dr. Manhattan, have no real superpowers to speak of, just agility or speed. What had been missing from my comic reading was a work that blends the esotericism of Astro City with the grittiness and humanity of Watchmen. Granted, there are probably a thousand of those types of storylines, given that comics have their own safe for work. comics version of Rule 34 (or maybe Aristotle’s decree that there was “nothing new under the sun” would be better fitting here), but I had never experienced it until I sat down for Neil Connelly’s The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible. Get ready for some allusion-filled action in this review! POW!

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Clock of Ages, Brian Hayes

GTiBcoverAs a mathematics professor, I am always eager to find new and interesting stories and ideas to pass along to students. “Pythagoras and the Hammers”, “The Death of Archimedes”, and “The Calculus Debate” are some favorites among others. In the continued search (and with the help of a gift card) I stumbled upon “Group Theory in the Bedroom, and Other Mathematical Diversions” by Brian Hayes, a collection of essays and lectures discussing various mathematical topics. Randomness, genetic codes, and obviously group theory take their turn in Hayes’ spotlight, and I am confident that they will make some great anecdotes in the future.

However, I want to focus on Hayes’ first, a detailing of the astronomical clock of Strasburg Cathedral, a mechanical masterpiece of gears and levers that… well… does what clocks do: keeps time. However, the Strasburg clock does a little more. Hayes states that “a celestial globe in front of the main cabinet tracks the positions of five thousand stars, while a device much like an orrery models the motions of the six inner planets.” Additionally, the clock tracks the sidereal day (the “true day” that is 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.0905324 seconds), the mean solar time (24 hours), leap years, and phases of the moon. Continue reading

Maritime Murder by Steve Vernon

“It was the kind of morning that made a body feel as if there was no way in this world anything bad could ever happen—but Nova Scotia weather can often fool you.”IMG_2104

Ever since I first moved overseas not a year has gone by that, on Christmas or my birthday, my parents do not send me some token of home by way of a gift. Sometimes these gifts are of a purely Canadian flavor, like maple syrup cookies or Tim Horton’s products, but far more often they’re connected to my home province of Nova Scotia, and the Maritime Provinces (or “the Maritimes”, as we call it) in general: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. These have included local products, clothing, and perhaps most timelessly, books. I think the books are their way of helping me keep connected to my roots, and they very much do.

The longer you spend away from the place you were raised in, the more of the world you see and the different ways of living you grow accustomed to, the better you come to understand the nature of where you’re from, to recognize your own culture and what helped make you the way you are, in the way that the proverbial goldfish will better know the shape of its own home once it looks upon the bowl from the outside. I’d say that most people in this situation inevitably come to appreciate things about their homeland in a new way, to see the good they didn’t notice before and forget about much of the negative. This has happened to me over my years as an expat, and at the same time I’ve come more to relish stories borne of my corner of Canada—those little tales that have enmeshed in their thousands over 200+ years to form our folklore, small-town histories and local culture—and so I was tickled pink to open a parcel and discover Steve Vernon’s Maritime Murder awaiting me. Continue reading

Between Wrecks by George Singleton

Between Wrecks by George Singleton. Dzanc Books, 2014.

George Singleton has done it again. Between Wrecks, his sixth collection of short stories, presents more of the humorous yet deeply human stories that readers have come to expect. The characters are everyday, hard luck people struggling against funny but real obstacles, such as family issues and economic misfortune. The stories are laugh-out-loud funny, but as with Singleton’s best work, there is genuine empathy for their situation. Personal loss deeply resonates throughout these pieces. The collection is solid, and should be read by anyone who interested in contemporary Southern literary fiction.

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Lexicon by Max Barry

ImageLanguage is a sticky thing.  In some ways, what it does is straightforward and clear, but in other ways it’s soft and subtle and refuses to submit to imposed boundaries.  It can be used to convey facts or meaning, intention or deception, abstract ideas and concrete descriptions.  Language can literally open up new worlds, or expand a person’s current world, by taking things and ideas already known and putting them together in new ways to create new thoughts in a person’s mind or to completely change their way of looking at what they thought they already knew.  Even subtle nuances mostly hidden within words, when paired together, can have an incredible and visible impact.

It’s remarkable how few people realize the power inherent within language.  I’m sure established poets must know, and even amateurs must have some hint of what they’re doing when they’re crafting groups of words together.  But day-to-day usage is just taken as a fact of life and most people assume they’re using language for its most basic purpose: to get things done.  They don’t realize that their subconscious choice of words betrays their ideological biases, their opinions of another person, or the details that they’re not sharing.  Even more profoundly, most people have no idea that the language they speak constricts their available ideas and opinions, and gives preference to a limited few, constrained by the range of vocabulary available to the group of people in their place and time.

If I had never learned to speak another language, and then a couple more after that, each from different language families, I may have never known either.  But it’s true: each and every language is a construct of its culture, both allowing and constraining people’s thoughts and ideas to those areas considered most valuable and positive, or simply useful, to the culture which produced it.  Have you ever heard that Eskimos have 17 words for snow?  I don’t know if that’s true, but that’s the idea: their language frees their mind to consider the subtle differences in types or uses of snow, a thing for which they have unending experience.  They have a perspective of snow that I could never approach, not without living among them and learning their language for a considerable amount of time, observing both the instances in which a particular word is used and the impact it has on those who hear it.  But I bet they have incredibly limited capacity to consider a desert, or indoor heating, or a palm-laden beach – at least not before they adapted English as a secondary or primary language.

Another example may be more familiar to most reading this: most Latin-based languages (of which English is sort of a half-sister) distinguish between singular and plural “you,” and it often doubles for informal and formal occasions.  A French or Spanish speaker subconsciously considers both the number of people he’s speaking to and whether or not the situation calls for a degree of formal respect.  English doesn’t even have that capacity, and thus our language, like our culture, is incredibly informal.  It can be made a bit more formal with added adjectives (i.e., “sir” or “ma’am”), but it can never approach the level of formality dripping from every pronoun and verb conjugation that French can.  And thus it also never enters our minds: we native English speakers are an informal group of people.  In the US, to recapture a bit of lost usage from not having a distinction between singular you (the “thee” and  “thou” which was present in King James’s English) and plural you, we’ve invented combination phrases: “y’all” or “you guys” (my favorite).  But if anything, those are even less formal, and thus formality isn’t even a category in our language, and it rarely enters our thoughts.

The current language I’m speaking and learning (Malagasy, the Antakarana dialect to be specific) constricts/expands speech on the opposite side of the table.  There are two words for “us”, an us that’s inclusive of the listener and an us that’s excluding the listener.  Both forms of “us” are used far more frequently than “you” or “me”, because they imply that the speaker is part of a group or community.  The important question (to native Malagasy speakers) is whether or not the listener is part of my group that is acting or expressing opinion, whether we can make that claim or should give them some freedom to decide themselves where they stand.  It’s amazing though the incredible difference this causes in my way of thinking when I’m communicating in Malagasy.  In Malagasy, I’m thinking of groupings and common identity and where I belong.  Discussions in Malagasy are an attempt at congregating, figuring out where people fit in the larger whole.  In English, I’m thinking of concrete individual identities, and each person stands where they want to and they belong only to themselves.  Discussions in English are more often negotiations, figuring out how each person gets what they want, but informally, of course.

An extended family group in rural Madagascar.

An extended family group in rural Madagascar.

I know some of this (and I’m only scratching the surface), not because I’ve studied linguistics from a psychological perspective or anything like that, but because I’ve lived with people who speak the new languages I’ve learned.  I’ve learned most of these languages not through book or study, but through trial and error and friendly helpers.  People let me know when I’ve used the word correctly and when I haven’t.  And when I hear other people’s speech, I can tell when they use a word I thought I already learned in a surprisingly new way.  And I can tell which words they use most often and can model my speech after them.  Though I didn’t grow up among those people, and thus my own ideological leanings aren’t naturally the same, yet in speaking their language I begin to constrict my thoughts (because the new language doesn’t have words for it) and expand them in areas that are most important to the people whose language it is.  And so my world is opened up to not only new places and experiences, but to new ideas and thoughts and subtle but new differences between them… at least inasmuch as I have the new language abilities to keep those new thoughts in my head.

But some speakers of foreign languages still don’t realize any of this.  They’ve learned from a book, or were taught by people of their own nationality (rather than by native speakers).  Or they’ve remained utilitarian in their worldview and they construct sentences that are crude translations of their desired communications without having any idea of the subtleties and changes in meaning that those words, when grouped in certain orders, can have on their native-speaking hearers.  That’s when you get really funny linguistic blunders, that are often sub-titled in comedy movies, or just from plugging something into Google translate.  It’s not that the other language itself is funny, or that it’s lost its power to communicate deeply, only that the person using it doesn’t have the adequate knowledge or respect for it.

Imagine a group of people who not only knew of this power inherent in every language, but they examined and investigated it, and the effects it has on different types of people, with the same razor-edged precision as a neurologist.  These people could know the details not spoken, from what was said; not just recognize a lie, but know the truth behind it.  They could craft sentences precisely designed to elicit a specific thought or action from a person, without that person even realizing they were being manipulated.  With enough knowledge of linguistics and people grouping, and skill in applying it, these people could control anybody; they could rule the world!  This is where we find Max Barry’s “Lexicon”.

“Lexicon” is science fiction at its most basic; it takes some aspect of science (in this instance, linguistics and psychology) and applies it in a new and inventive way.  What’s atypical about it is that what happens in “Lexicon” isn’t really new at all, even if it hasn’t been fully explored or exploited yet.  As Barry points out continuously throughout the book, this is already happening all around us: demographics are being compiled, personality tests are being administered, and marketing strategies are being deployed – all with the purpose of controlling your behavior, to vote for the right candidate, or to buy the right product.  Very few people have any idea how fully they’re being manipulated or have much resistance to it when they are.

In “Lexicon”, it’s taken just one step further.  Compile lots of info about how the neurochemical pathways in the brain are affected by words, even by syllables, and a simple sentence or phrase, a “spell”, could be spoken which would have complete control over the hearer.  But since each person is so deeply affected by their language or dialect, and by their personality type, some knowledge is needed of the specifics of the individual.  Again, just figure out which words are used more often by which personality type and how it affects them emotionally, and you’ve got the ingredients necessary to formulate your spoken spell, to enthrall the listener.  In “Lexicon”, those with the knowledge and skill to deploy these linguistic powers at a highly successful level are known as “Poets”, and the whole world is at their fingertips, with very little to stand in the way.

To me, the idea itself is fascinating and more than worth the time to read Max Barry’s latest book.  But it only took me a few days to read it, because “Lexicon” is action-packed, full of intrigue and suspense, likable and unlikable characters, and I just couldn’t put it down.  Max Barry has long been one of my favorite modern authors, ever since I played NationStates online in college and finally bought the book (Jennifer Government) for which it was a marketing tool.  Since then I’ve read all his books and haven’t had a single moment of letdown yet.  Quite the contrary: I’ve owned “Lexicon” for almost a year, but I’ve put off reading it until now because I didn’t want it to be finished too quickly.  You know, the same reason you save the dessert for last.  This book was as good as I hoped, and even better, even if I did finish reading it in a couple of days.

So whether you have any interest in linguistics or foreign languages or marketing or none of the above, I’m sure you’d still enjoy  Max Barry’s “Lexicon”.  The twists and turns are unpredictable but fascinating, there’s an underlying mystery that’s slowly revealed throughout, there’s tons of action, and the characters grow and change before your eyes.  And the most powerful word in the book is “love” (though the author may argue that the English translation of it is a poor equivalent).  So, expand your vocabulary and read this book!

 

TO BE BRIEF: If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train by Ryan Werner

TO BE BRIEF is a review series focusing on chapbooks, novellas, and other short-form fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. If you’d like for your work to be reviewed in TO BE BRIEF, please email us at friendsofatticus@gmail.com.

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1. Weight

In the title story of Ryan Werner’s excellent fiction chapbook If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train, two brothers trade blows and head in opposite directions.  It’s brief and powerful, packed tight with the heft of violence, familial breakage, and movement – physical and emotional – that Werner invests in all of the stories in the collection.

2. Tension

There’s a beautiful tension that rises up in the chapbook, a tension between the big actions and emotions of the characters and the relatively small spaces in which those lives are fleshed out on the page.

3. Motion

Werner’s people are constantly in motion, even when their lives have become static.  There’s bad advice out there about needing to get characters out of their day-to-day lives.  Werner disproves that advice by having the day-to-day be the thing that is creating movement internally and externally.  And what we call movement can also be called desire.

4. Echo

What holds Werner’s stories together other than that movement, that tension?  Echoing ideas and images.  Take “Origin Story,” in which a young boy is missing his brother, who has disappeared.  The boy looks for answers in comics and in his family.  Everywhere he looks, there is the echoing of “two.”  Everything in the story is paired up, though of course, the unstated pairing – the fractured one – consists of the narrator and his missing brother.  The echoes remove the need for a more fully fleshed-out narrative.  They create trajectory through repetition.

5. Simplicity

Werner’s masterstroke in the collection is the pure simplicity of emotion that manifests in the characters.  Werner’s not afraid to let his characters show very simple emotional reactions – love, desire, jealousy, anger, all of the above – though he’s also not afraid to take those simple emotions and reveal their complexity by investing them in the scenes he builds.  The narrator of “Origin Story” closes by saying, “I walked around to the front of the grandfather clock and stood under the light by myself. The room became louder than the people in it and I could feel us all feel it, tools and dust and foundation settling in deep until even that went away and it was just me and the clock and a click, the pendulum swinging one way and another.”  The emotions that Werner has fleshed out earlier in the story thrum with the scene, and what was simplistic becomes complex.  In the stories in If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train, Werner strikes this balance again and again.  The result is beautiful, terrifying, and human in the best possible way.

 

If There’s Any Truth in a Northbound Train is available from Passenger Side Books.

FamousBaby

Famous Baby by Karen Rizzo

“Missy loved that poem [‘The Jabberwocky’].  She said it gave her hope, not understanding it, but loving the way it sounded.  Not understanding the thing you love, but loving it fiercely anyway…”

Mother-daughter relationships are known for misunderstandings.  It has been that way since, probably, the dawn of humanity.  Mothers and daughters argue, they disagree, they get under each other’s skin.  But they’re also known for being each other’s biggest fans, best friends, and the biggest source of support for each other.  As a daughter with a loving mother, I can attest to all of the above.  But I never disagreed with my mother quite to the extent that Abbie disagrees with her mother Ruth in Karen Rizzo’s Famous Baby.  This mother-daughter pair is one that could rival any other: Ruth and Abbie remind readers of the importance of communication with loved ones, and they illustrate to us that while  we don’t always understand those we love, we do still love them; and that’s what matters most.

FamousBaby

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