Bookshelf: WE3

Home where my thought's escaping, Home where my music's playing, Home where my love lies waiting, Silently for me...I read this graphic novel about a year ago, before I started this blog. It’s a short, well written simple story which seems inspired by those Homeward Bound type of stories, but with the introduction of futuristic technology and killing machines. Which is to say it’s still a heart-warming story but with added blood and guts as the animal protagonists fight literally tooth, claw and rocket launcher to find their way back from a top secret military experiment to somewhere they once called home.

The artwork by Frank Quitely is easy on the eyes, similar to All Star Superman and I really like his style. The story is a nice diversion for Grant Morrison who I’m mostly familiar with through his previous work on Batman. Since these guys have teamed up again for the new Batman and Robin post events of Batman: R.I.P. and Battle for the Cowl (which I still have yet to read), I’m looking forward to seeing their new work (of course, I’ll be waiting a longer time for the graphic novels).

WE3 is a powerful one-off story, which is guaranteed to tug a little at your heartstrings. It would make a nice introduction to graphic novels if you’ve never picked one up. If you’re into graphic novels already then this makes for a short but engaging read and change from your usual favourites.

Bookshelf: The Economic Naturalist: Why Economics Explains Almost Everything

I just finished reading The Economic Naturalist: Why Economics Explains Almost Everything. I read it in part because I’m interested in big picture ideas and why things are the way they are, and partly because it’s coming from the same approach and school of thought as another book I read last year – Freakonomics
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Not that Freakonomics and The Economic Naturalist are teaching exactly the same subject or entirely in agreement, the ‘school of thought’ I refer to is to examine cultural, historical and environmental mindsets and events and try to determine the reasoning behind such things.

I’ll start by saying it’s a good book and it did cause me to learn a few things, but I didn’t find it as good a read as Freakonomics. For a start I found the first few chapters to be shallow in terms of depth of understanding and plainly ignored or forgot factors such as ‘herd instinct’, scotomas or other practical and cultural factors. One such example given is the reason for all cabs in New York being painted yellow (reasoning being visibility for hailing) however, this just doesn’t explain why all cabs in London are black (or even carry full body cover advertisements)!

Of course the reason for sticking plainly to economic explanations can be understood because as the author, Robert Frank explains, these are adapted economic student essays. In fact early on Frank issues a disclaimer as such in that the answers provided are “hypotheses suitable for further refinement and testing”. So I shouldn’t be too harsh on the answers which seem to miss vital points of consideration.

As I said I did learn some things, including the meaning and application of opportunity cost, rational choice theory and pricing hurdles. The book does get much better after the first few chapters and there are some explanations that have caused me to see things in a different light. Good answers are found for the differences between worker salaries and contractors, why tobacco CEO’s (and probably Bank CEOs too) are willing to endure public humiliation and why workers usually vote for safety regulations but ignore them given the choice. The book also helps you to frame things in a different light, did you know for example, that women who wear high heals are competing in an arms race?

The Economic Naturalist is a worthwhile read and it will help you to think, however I think the reader should bear in mind the answers given are not always the end of the story.

Bookshelf: The Men Who Stare at Goats

The Men Who Stare at Goats I was a little curious when I saw the title of the movie come out and when I spotted this book on sale I decided to pick it up and satisfy my curiosity.

As it is, I’ve now read the novel before the movie, in fact I’ve only watched half the movie so far. For what it’s worth I don’t think the movie does this book justice at all! In fact the movie is less an adaption of the novel and more of a poor tribute to it.

There’s just so much detail left out and from what I’ve watched so far, it’s really treated entirely as a comedy with little care or attention paid towards the serious, more saddening side. Of course I’ve only seen half so all that may change towards the end of the film, but where I left it just seemed to be getting nowhere near the darker side of the novel.

As for the book, the book is fascinating, immersing, funny and tragic all at the same time. The author carefully leads us through interviews and historical events, offering background and explanation to the occasional bizarre moments that leaked into mainstream press and public consciousness. It also shows a darker, sinister side to the lighter, much joked about moments such as the leaking of torture using Barney the Purple Dinosaur.

Linking all of these events and bizarre military strategies is something that sounds like the plot of a badly concieved B-movie. The First Earth Battalion, brain-child of and army man gone native hippy taking inspiration from the peace movement of the 70’s. The author, Jon Ronson carefully lays out how something that started out as a thought experiment in creating a US army of peaceful warrior monks – bringing love and peace to the conflict zones – became so twisted and corrupted, ending with something a bit like Saw franchise meets X-Files.

Of course, it’s hard to touch on so much material and cover-ups without eventually succumbing to a conspiratorial tone, and towards the end of the book, as the author runs out of leads, there is a slight leaning towards speculation. It doesn’t detract from the novel in any way and after everything else that’s been presented, it doesn’t feel that far reaching. However, it does leave an small opening for sceptics to question the research and sources.

Nevertheless, I felt enlightened after reading the book, since there are so many references to real and tangible historical events, it really makes sense of it all from an inside perspective. It certainly makes you more media aware when looking out for those occasional blunders that make it into the spotlight.

The Men Who Stare at Goats totally belongs on your must-read list, click on the link to buy it now at Amazon.co.uk!

Book Review: World War Z by Max Brooks

World War ZI recently finished reading this book so I thought I’d share my opinion.

Now I must declare my bias, I really like zombie stories, but I tend to go for the movie/graphic novel kind so this was a first to read a zombie story in book format. I also haven’t read the Zombie Survival Guide (the other book by Max Brooks) but it’s had good reviews. That said, I have mixed opinions of this book on the whole so I’ll start with the good.

The fictional story is set sometime in the near future (from what I can tell) after a worldwide apocalyptic war against the undead. There are only hints of how the infection came about, but this is not essential to the plot, which is more a collection of survivors tales than a conventional story.

The survivors accounts are told through a series of interviews by a reporter that travels the world originally on a mission of collecting “facts and figures” from locations across the globe.

I found the whole of the book to be well researched, from the locations down to the weapons, occupations and science. I also found the tales themselves to be fascinating, gut-wrenching and full of imagination.

Some times it felt I was reading a mini-story within a story – some of the tales you could literally see a whole book or movie being extracted from. There are things happening with zombies that have never been tried on film or in any media I’ve read or seen – underwater ghouls, a blind Japanese warrior, astronauts in space. I particularly enjoyed the neo-references to LaMOEs, lobos and quislings. Brooks seems to have thought of things that no-one would have thought of were this a real event.

Now for some tiny annoyances. I felt through a large part of the book that the writing style was the same, for people who would be culturally, linguistically and phonetically miles apart. It got better towards the end of the book but at times it was a bit jarring. Particularly since I like to read accents in my head.

The other thing, minor detail, was that Brooks fell into the typical American trap of misapplying a British turn of phrase. “Taking the piss out” is not some kind of tribal psyching up that Brits do before a battle. It’s something we occasionally do to people who don’t get our humour or customs. Take note!

Other than that, great stories, great read. Well worth picking up if you are into zombies and you want to see a different kind of survival.

Buy World War Z at Amazon.co.uk

Book Review: Charles Mackay’s Extrodinary Popular Delusions & The Madness of Crowds

“A modern-day interpretation of a finance classic”

That was a long title for a short book. It’s not the actual Charles Mackay work, it’s a modernised version written by journalist Tim Phillips that basically summarises the important details and lessons that apply today, as much as (if not more than) they did back then.

“Here’s the catch: we rarely spot bubbles as they occur. We can identify them with hindsight, but that’s not a lot of use if you’re investing. It takes a strong stomach, when a price keeps rising, to hold fast to your belief that it was fairly priced at half its current price.” Ch. 22 p. 45

Charles Mackay's Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds: A Modern-day Interpretation of a Finance ClassicEach chapter is broken down in to two concise pages and covers everything from the crusades to witchcraft and the dutch tulipomania to the recent economic meltdown. It makes for an extremely easy read, allowing anyone with even a basic education and knowledge to access the wisdom contained within.

The lessons are clear and sober, there is a soundbite for every topic – a quote called a “defining idea” and a footnote with ideas about how to apply the lesson to your business.

This is a must-read book for pretty much anyone who either invests money, uses money, is interested in the economy or finds their lives affected by it – which pretty much covers everyone. In fact I’d go as far as saying it should be made into a school textbook. This is required reading for life.

Buy Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds: A Modern-day Interpretation of a Finance Classic (Infinite Success Series) today on Amazon.co.uk

Graphic Novel Review: Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection

Zot! The Complete Black & White CollectionZot! is another one of those classics that I missed at the time when it wasn’t a classic, it was new. Thankfully, a couple of years ago Scott McCloud brought out the complete black and white collection so that guys like me could become new fans and get completely engrossed.

When I first spotted this book on the shelves of Borders (aah Borders, remember them?) I knew it was one I wanted to pick up at some point and read. It went on my mental wishlist. I had flicked through it a couple of times, inspired by Manga and a popular Japanese superhero, but not quite all Manga, just enough of Americana and Manga to make it a perfect blend.

It just so happened that I was browsing through Borders during their final sale, that I spotted the one and only copy left on one of the mobile trays of unsorted books and immediately I snapped it up for a good reduced price. This has to be one of my best graphic novel purchases of recent, if not all time!

Zot! is not your average teen astroboy superhero yarn, there are themes covered more suited to older teens. It’s also not an average superhero yarn in the sense that it centers largely around the relationship and growing love between ordinary earth-girl Jenny and boy from another dimension Zot. In fact, it’s more of a love story that occasionally features hell bent supervillians and save the world scenarios. If you don’t mind a love story in your dose of action adventure then this is an epic story you should not miss.

Zot and Jenny
Image from newsarama.com

That said, the villains themselves are no push-over. As the story goes on we are introduced to ever more dangerous characters who bring death and the threat of total annihilation. Perhaps it’s the casual way Zot approaches them, or the way the story unfolds that makes them seem less so, but there’s no monologuing when it comes to bad guys like 9-Jack-9, if he wants someone dead he’ll just do it, quickly, efficiently and without warning.

Zot! is the kind of comic that people like me wish they had read the first time it came around, before it got “discovered”. It’s the kind of story that when you’ve finished it, in less than 2 weeks, you wish there was more out there in the pipeline, but have to come to terms with the fact that this is a series that finished years ago.

Despite McClouds self-abasement over his amateur artwork, I though the artwork was absolutely fantastic. I say this as someone who often spots annoying oddities and inconsistencies in many comic books I read. A few colour pages would have been a nice inclusion (or even a section in the middle somewhere with a sample of colour artwork), but by no means is the art lacking in anyway. The panels are easy to follow, the black ink used extremely well in many places.

The only criticism I can give it is negligible, the way the story diverges on political issues of the day towards the end. It feels unnecessary reading something like this in 2010 rather than 1991.

The other quibble I have is with the inclusion of the special feature ‘Getting to 99’. Yes, I know it’s draft copies and that’s cool and everything, but I did read the story through and some of the storyboards of Zot basically zipping through endless corridors felt like a bad video game to book conversion and was slightly tedious. But this I can forgive in the face of such an epic novel.

If you’re into a slightly off beat superheroics, with a good story and character development, this is one not to miss.

Get Zot!: The Complete Black-and-white Stories: 1987-1991 at Amazon.co.uk

Graphic Novel Review: Maus

Last year I read Watchmen for the first time. I read it before watching the movie because I didn’t want my perception of the novel to be influenced by the movie, I wanted to compare the movie to the graphic novel.

I’ve read edgy graphic novels before, but I was primarily brought up on a diet of 2000 AD and Batman. After reading Watchmen however, I made a pledge to broaden my reading spectrum and seek out more edgy, interesting and unusual graphic novels that don’t feature super heroes – particularly ones that have not yet been made into movies. I picked up a copy of 500 Essential Graphic Novels: The Ultimate Guide and one of the first novels I decided to purchase was The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman.

Maus is the true story of the survival of Spiegalman’s father and mother through the Nazi holocaust with Jews depicted as mice and Germans depicted as cats as well as Polish pigs, French frogs and others which go to form visual metaphors for the range of nationalities featured and their attitude towards events at the time.

Despite its animal theme and comic format, Spiegelman pulled no punches in depicting the realities of life at the time, including the violence and death that encircled his immediate family. At the same time, the novel does not attempt to paint Vladek (Speigelman’s father) as a wholly innocent and guilt-free victim. Not only do we see Vladeks resourcefulness and caring side, we see prejudice, paranoia, stinginess and even racism. In fact this is part of what makes the story so powerful – the fact that his father, despite all he has been through, is human just like the rest of us.

The story recalls to my mind both Watership Down and Animal Farm. Both of which use animals as metaphors to convey certain characteristics, and both of which deal with violence, persecution and other mature themes. The story is both intense and immersing. I didn’t want to put it down, but had no choice due to it being so weighty in words. I do not think it is intended to be a tragedy, nevertheless this is the feeling you get when you come away from it, yet there are moments of humour and hope punctuated throughout the story, including towards the end where Art and Vladek seem to become reconciled towards one another, as well as Art’s revelations through meeting with his shrink. I particularly like the way Spiegelman has drawn himself ‘shrinking’ to the size of a little boy whilst sitting on the couch!

Rich in details and character driven, I highly recommend Maus, it’s a story I think that will appeal even to people who don’t usually read graphic novels.

I hope you liked my first review of a graphic novel, actually my first review of anything really. I just hope my next one is a little shorter and less work!