Walden by Henry David Thoreau recounts two years, two months and two days that the author spent in the woods near the pond after which the book was named. Starting on July 4th, 1845, Thoreau set out to the woods, leaving behind a newspaper job, a house and a community in search of some truth, an insight into himself and the nature of the person inspired by self-imposed exile. He, of course, didn’t cut off human contact. No, far from it. He welcomed guests to his hand-made shelter, made trips to town to sell produce and make social calls and befriended others living out in the countryside, like a charismatic French-Canadian woodsman who goes unnamed. Walden was a high water mark for the American Memoir, but only insomuch as it was one of the first. In truth, Thoreau is a pedantic, judgmental and narcissistic author, the kind of person who would later become the modern hipster. Needless to say I did not care for the book, though I read it anyway. Or did I? Walden was one of the first audiobooks I’ve…engaged with…in a long time, and as I sat to write this review, it occurred to me, can I truely say that I’ve read the book?
When I was reading J. Bruce Fuller’s Notes to a Husband this summer, I was also moving in with my boyfriend. And while Fuller’s chapbook is about a relationship ending, there is so much wisdom in these short notes from a wife to her husband that rather than finding a guide to ending a relationship, I found reminders of how to be fully in one. And yes, this is a composition of loss, but it’s also a guide to mindfulness.
Several years ago, before I became a father, I re-read Voltaire’s Candide. It had washed over me when I first read it years before as a much younger man, but this time I found it brilliant, a farcical tour through the history of human suffering that seemed to offer some solace despite its assurances that there was none. Of course, it’s easy to take an enlightened view of the inevitability of suffering and laugh off the darker pages of human history when you’re largely insulated from them. Though I remain convinced that Candide is deserving of its firmly entrenched canonical status, I’m not sure that I would have the same reaction to it now, just a few short years later, and a lot of that has to do with the little guy I’m typing this as quietly as possible to avoid waking. The responsibility of becoming a parent comes with a stiff side-dose of worry, night terrors about all the terrible things in the world that suddenly don’t seem so far away when you become the steward of a tiny, helpless human being. To use the parlance of our time, shit gets real. Fast.
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!
As 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
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. 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.