30 May 2014

Student Review: V for Vendetta by Alan Moore & David Llloyd

Comic trade paperback, 288 pages
Published 2005 (contents: 1982-88)
Acquired December 2013
Read April 2014
V for Vendetta

Written by Alan Moore
Art by David Llloyd
Coloring by David Lloyd, Steve Whitaker, Siobhan Dodds
Lettering by Jeannie O'Connor, Steve Craddock, Elitta Fell
Additional Art by Tony Weare

This was the one novel I assigned this semester despite having never read it before. I think it turned out okay, despite that:
  • "I loved War of the Worlds and V for Vendetta. The stories were really interesting and the ideas and themes too."
  • "V for Vendetta, War of the Worlds, Bloody Chamber- no one ever teaches these and i think they have a lot of cool things going on for them."
  • "I think it's up to you to teach V for Vendetta or War of the Worlds -- since V was taught during the last week of class it was an easy read for us students who have already checked out mentally for finals."
  • "I thoroughly enjoyed 'Frankenstein,' 'War of the Worlds,' and 'V for Vendetta.'"  
  • "I think that V for Vendetta was the most enjoyable."
  • "Keep V for Vendetta on the condition that you cover The Filth as an addition to the theme of Dystopia."
  • "drop V for Vendetta"
  • "Keep V for Vendetta and War of the Worlds, both interesting reads that add a great variety to the course, you don't find many courses here that let you explore more modern works of British Literature."

28 May 2014

Student Review: Adam Bede by George Eliot

Trade paperback, 655 pages
Published 2008 (originally 1859)

Previously read May and November 2009
Acquired December 2013
Reread April 2014
Adam Bede
by George Eliot

If I learned anything this semester, it's don't assign 600-page Victorian novels in the last four weeks of the semester:
  • "Liked all books but Adam Bede"
  • "[...] it's difficult to pay attention to something so long near the end of the semester." 
  • "replace Bede"
  • "I think you should teach Adam Bede, Arthur & George and Frankenstein (which I had already read in high school but didn't get that much out of at the time) again definitely"
  • "Adam bede was a great read!"
  • "I had a little trouble understanding how Adam Bede fit into the themes of the course so maybe that could be dropped [...]"
  • "Adam Bede should definitely be taught again because I think it was a good example of realism."
  • "In my very biased opinion 'Between The Acts' was somewhat painful due to its lack of plot, as was 'Adam Bede' due to its very slow advancement + painful dialect in some parts."
  • "I personally disliked Adam Bede, though I definitely see its importance within the course."

26 May 2014

Student Review: The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

Trade paperback, 240 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1897)
Acquired and previously read February 2009
Reread March 2014
The War of the Worlds
by H. G. Wells

Finally got my chance to teach this book!
  • "I loved War of the Worlds and V for Vendetta. The stories were really interesting and the ideas and themes too."
  • "V for Vendetta, War of the Worlds, Bloody Chamber- no one ever teaches these and i think they have a lot of cool things going on for them."
  • "I think it's up to you to teach V for Vendetta or War of the Worlds [...] I think War of the Worlds is just a classic since it introduces us to the 'first' alien story -- they don't change too much after that, and this was written in the 1800's. So yes, while a bit of a flat book, it's a must read just for the story itself."
  • "I thoroughly enjoyed 'Frankenstein,' 'War of the Worlds,' and 'V for Vendetta.'"  
  • "[...] I thought War of the Worlds was the most boring reading-- sorry! I know it's your favorite [...]"
  • "War of the Worlds was a great one, as many are familiar with Americanized versions of the story and this one highlights many British elements that differ."
  • "Keep War of the Worlds"
  • "Keep V for Vendetta and War of the Worlds, both interesting reads that add a great variety to the course, you don't find many courses here that let you explore more modern works of British Literature."

23 May 2014

Student Review: Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

Trade paperback, 220 pages
Published 2008 (originally 1941)
Acquired January 2010
Previously read April 2010
Reread March 2014
Between the Acts
by Virginia Woolf

Is is possible for a group of undergraduates to like Virginia Woolf? I sure didn't, but I'd take Between the Acts over Mrs. Dalloway at least. They were frustrated:
  • "Between the Acts was a first draft."
  • "I didn't like virginia woolf a book.."
  • "Arthur & George and Between the Acts were my least favorites as the 'density' of the text and slow pace made it really hard to get through." 
  • "I did not enjoy Between the Acts."
  • "The Virginia Woolf was certainly hardest to get through."
  • "Between the acts needs to go.."
  • "If you had to drop one book, I would recommend dropping Between the Acts and perhaps replacing it with a more popular Virginia Woolf novel. That way, students who enjoy reading 'the classics' would read it with a more open mind, even if it is a challenge."
  • "Between the Acts should be dropped."
  • "In my very biased opinion 'Between The Acts' was somewhat painful due to its lack of plot [...]"
  • "Teach Between the Acts again! Virginia Woolf is an amazing author and despite the fact that nothing much happens in the plot the book is extremely thought provoking and is probably the best example of modernism I have read."
  • "Drop Between the Acts because it was a first draft [...]"
  • "Definitely keep Virginia Woolf in there."
  • "dont teach between the acts (didnt like it)"
  • "I'm all for dropping Between the Acts in favor for excerpts from Virginia Woolf's work, it just feels out of place within the course."

21 May 2014

Student Review: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Trade paperback, 273 pages
Published 2003 (originally 1818)

Previously read January 2011
Acquired December 2013
Reread February 2014
Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus
by Mary Shelley

I think like two-thirds of my class had read Frankenstein before, many of them in high school, many others in the introductory class to the English major (professors in our department usually focus on one text that allows them to demonstrate a wide variety of critical approaches, and one often teaches Frankenstein). By focusing on it as a work of early science fiction, though, I think I hit a new angle for most of them:
  • "[...] I also enjoyed Frankenstein."
  • "I think you should teach Adam Bede, Arthur & George and Frankenstein (which I had already read in high school but didn't get that much out of at the time) again definitely"
  • "I thoroughly enjoyed 'Frankenstein,' 'War of the Worlds,' and 'V for Vendetta.'"
  • "I really liked Frankenstein, The Thing in the Forest, Sherlock Holmes, and Arthur and George."
  • "teach frankenstein (interesting approach)" 
I did realize that I should teach the 1818 text next time, not the 1831 one; the book was less interesting than I remember, and I think that's why.

    19 May 2014

    Student Review: Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

    Trade paperback, 445 pages
    Published 2007 (originally 2005)
    Acquired May 2007
    Previously read December 2009
    Reread February 2014
    Arthur & George
    by Julian Barnes

    I always like to ask my students what they thought of the books we read when the semester is over, though this semester I did not allow for as much time/space as I did in the past, so the comments are consequently less detailed. In any case, my impression of the reception of Arthur & George is vaguely positive: they felt it was slow to start, and were frustrated with the lack of resolution, though I think I got them to at least comprehend why that was the case with our discussion of postmodernism:
    • "Drop Arthur and George"
    • "I think you should teach Adam Bede, Arthur & George and Frankenstein (which I had already read in high school but didn't get that much out of at the time) again definitely"
    • "Arthur & George and Between the Acts were my least favorites as the 'density' of the text and slow pace made it really hard to get through."
    • "I really liked Frankenstein, The Thing in the Forest, Sherlock Holmes, and Arthur and George."

    16 May 2014

    Review: The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould

    Trade paperback, 423 pages
    Published 1996 (originally 1981)
    Acquired November 2011
    Read November 2012
    The Mismeasure of Man
    by Stephen Jay Gould

    Stephen Jay Gould takes on everyone who's ever tried to quantify human intelligence with a simple numerical value, be it measuring skull capacities or the Stanford-Binet "intelligence quotient." It's an illuminating look at how easy it is to blind yourself. It's a nuanced critique of objectivity from someone who (unlike many who critique objectivity) is sympathetic to the overall epistemology of science. As he states it, "I criticize the myth that science itself is an objective enterprise, done properly only when scientists can shuck the constraints of their culture and view the world as it really is" (53). His gist is that science will always be a culturally embedded enterprise, so rather than deny that fact, scientists should work to understand their biases, because, ideally, science can "be a powerful agent for questioning and even overturning the assumptions that nurture it" (55).

    His discussion of Samuel George Morton, who measured over one thousand skulls in order to prove black mental inferiority, is fascinating (see pp. 83-104). Morton was an adherent to polygeny, the theory that the races of man have separate origins, which allows one to ethically endorse all sorts of racist practices. He fudged his analysis to prove his point, but could not have done so consciously, because he published his raw data along with his work, easily allowing anyone to discover the fudging. Whenever he miscalculated in favor of his own theories, he never double-checked, because he "knew" that he was right.

    Gould shows how this kind of thing happens again and again-- but offers the promise that good science, well conducted, will root out this kind of bias, hopefully sooner rather than later. It's easy to laugh at some of the ridiculous judgments made in the name of "science"... until you realize that this kind of science has informed the slavery debate, immigration policy, school reform, and many other things with massively real consequences for real people. Hopefully we can console ourselves with the belief that most of these people probably would have been racists anyway (!); science was just a convenient crutch to lean on.

    14 May 2014

    Review: The Victorian Scientist by Jack Meadows

    Hardcover, 202 pages
    Published 2004

    Borrowed from the library
    Read November 2012
    The Victorian Scientist: The Growth of a Profession
    by Jack Meadows

    This volume functions as a sort of "biography" of the Victorian scientist in general (using anyone who achieved eminence from the 1830s to 1900 as source material), divided up into sections concerning schooling, home life, training, research, jobs, and so on. There is frustratingly little on how the scientist was perceived within society, aside from small mentions of public enthusiasm for popular science texts and such. I also found the book's handling of women scientists (a small section in the final chapter) kind of perplexing. But on the whole it provides as effective a depiction of the career of the "typical" Victorian scientist as you are ever likely to find.

    12 May 2014

    Review: George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science by Sally Shuttleworth

    Trade paperback, 257 pages
    Published 1986 (originally 1984)
    Acquired May 2012
    Read November 2012
    George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Science: The Make-Believe of a Beginning
    by Sally Shuttleworth

    Along with Levine's Darwin and the Novelists and Beer's Darwin's Plots, this is one of the three foundational monographs about Victorian literature and science to be published in the 1980s. While Levine and Beer look at narrow scientific field and a wide literary one, Shuttleworth sticks to Eliot, providing analyses of each of her major novels in the context of Victorian science. Shuttleworth brings out how Eliot does not use literature to simplify science, nor science to simplify literature: science is complex, and so are Eliot's subjects, and she uses the complexity of the one to bring out the complexity of the other. For example, she says that Middlemarch "offers no simple endorsement of theories of organic social harmony. Rather... it explores the complexities and contradictions within organicist social theory" (142). It was her discussion of Middlemarch that I found most illuminating, suggesting that the world and the people in it are perhaps ultimately unknowable... but that doesn't mean we should ever stop trying to know the world or each other.

    09 May 2014

    Review: Public Moralists by Stefan Collini

    Hardcover, 383 pages
    Published 1991

    Borrowed from the library
    Read November 2012
    Public Moralists: Political Thought and Intellectual Life in Britain, 1850-1930
    by Stefan Collini

    I'm sure I picked this book up because something lead me to think it would deal with scientists as moralists, but that didn't really turn out to be true. It did, however, provide some insight into the political thought and actions of John Stuart Mill. Collini does discuss the way science was used by Mill: Alexander Bain called Mill's commitment to equality his greatest error as a scientific thinker, but Mill turned his opponents' belief in inequality into a symptom of bad science. Collini suggests that though we now remember Mill for his Utilitarian justifications, it was his actual, unequivocal morality that made him who he is: Mill's tone suggests dispassionate social fact, but he was actually tendentious and disputable. The insight that I particularly liked (and wished more politicians seemingly followed) was that Mill might compromise his measures, but never his opinions.

    07 May 2014

    Review: Of the Plurality of Worlds by William Whewell

    Hardcover, 510 pages
    Published 2001 (contents: 1853-54)

    Borrowed from the library
    Read November 2012
    Of the Plurality of Worlds: A Facsimile of the First Edition of 1853; Plus Previously Unpublished Material Excised by the Author Just Before the Book Went to Press; and Whewell's Dialogue Rebutting His Critics, Reprinted from the Second Edition
    by William Whewell

    William Whewell was a mid-Victorian scientist-- arguably the Victorian scientist, as he's the one who coined the word in 1833, though it didn't catch on for several decades. Of the Plurality of Worlds is Whewell's attempt to determine if there is life on other planets. He says "no," but it seems to me a somewhat reserved "no," as he admits that it is possible by any number of arguments... it's just that none of these arguments prove anything. You can only trust analogy so far, after all, and that's largely all we have going for us in our "examination" of distant stars.

    Whewell wrote works on the philosophy of science, and hints of his perspective from those texts bleed through here: he warns that astronomers must "be upon their guard against the tricks which fancy plays upon their senses" (168). I particularly enjoyed reading some of his utopian thoughts from the excised chapters: Whewell claims that "[i]f the nations of the earth were to employ, for the promotion of human knowledge, a small fraction only of the means, the wealth, the ingenuity, the energy, the combination, which they have employed in every age, for the destruction of human life and of human means of enjoyment; we might soon find that what we hitherto knew, is little compared with what man has the power of knowing" (344). Even better, though, would be to form a Divine Society based on sympathy towards others-- what a George Eliotian thought, so perfectly of its time.

    05 May 2014

    The Best Science Fiction of 1989?

    Hardcover, 254 pages
    Published 1990 (contents: 1989)

    Acquired March 2008
    Reread April 2014
    The 1990 Annual World's Best SF
    edited by Donald A. Wollheim with Arthur W. Saha

    Like last time, I'll be evaluating the stories in this book on the basis of their seeming worthiness of being in a "year's best" anthology: thumbs up means the story feels like it belongs in a "year's best" book, thumbs down means it most definitely does not, and thumbs sideways means I'm essentially neutral on the issue.

    "Alphas" by Gregory Benford
    Aliens come to Venus, and I don't even know what they do because it was so ridiculously boring. There are multiple charts and diagrams. Thumbs down.

    "The Magic Bullet" by Brian Stableford
    Something about mice that live forever-- long-winded and dull. Brian Stableford, I liked  Scientific Romance in Britain, 1880-1950, and based on this, please stick to criticism. Thumbs down.

    "North of the Abyss" by Brian W. Aldiss
    Some guy discovers the Egyptian gods are real or something? Third story in a row where I struggled to even care about the basic elements of the story. Second story in a row where the author would be better off writing more criticism. Thumbs down.

    "Chiprunner" by Robert Silverberg
    Just when you're starting to think that 1989 was a completely awful year for science fiction, this story-- about a psychiatrist trying to stop a kid from losing himself in computers-- comes along. Not amazing, but interesting enough. Thumbs sideways.

    "Abe Lincoln in McDonald's" by James Morrow
    Abraham Lincoln travels to the future to see what it will be like if he compromises with the Confederacy. This was fun, but somewhat disturbing at times. The title scene alone would be enough, but Morrow balances the comedy with some nightmares. Thumbs up.

    "Death Ship" by Barrington J. Bayley
    Some kinda dystopian regime invents a train that goes to the future, kinda. I didn't entirely get it, but it was disturbing and evocative and the ending felt real. Thumbs up.

    "In Translation" by Lisa Tuttle
    In the future, aliens live in camps around the Earth, and they employ translators an go-betweens. A lonely guy tries to find sexual solace with them, only to discover that nothing is not that straightforward, but especially not sex. Ambiguous but powerful, and the best story in the book. Thumbs up.

    "A Sleep and a Forgetting" by Robert Silverberg (again)
    Scientists build a machine that can communicate with people in the past, and our hero makes contact with Genghis Khan... kinda. An interesting premise, but I dislike invention stories that spend most of their time establishing the invention, rather than getting on with the implications. Give me the transformed society, not the transforming. Thumbs sideways.

    "Not Without Honor" by Judith Moffett
    Aliens make contact with a Mars base, trying to find the host of The Mickey Mouse Club because there's a crisis with the kids on their home planet. Kinda goofy, but delightful and sometimes even heart-warming without being too saccharine. Thumbs up.

    "Dogwalker" by Orson Scott Card
    A fun tale of an adult trapped in a kid's body who can figure out your password by learning enough about you. Entertaining, but not quite "year's best" material, I don't think. Thumbs sideways.

    "Surrender" by Lucius Shepard
    I wanted to like this story, given how interesting Shepard's story in the 1988 volume was, but this one never really grabbed me, though it has its moments (particularly the sex scene and the ending). Thumbs sideways.

    "War Fever" by J. G. Ballard
    A clever story of war in the Middle East, where U.N. peacekeepers intervene and a smart protagonist figures out how to stop it all... only for there to be a twist... and then another twist. Good stuff. Thumbs up.

    So: twelve stories, five thumbs up-- marginally a better hit rate than the 1988 volume (4/10). There were also more thumbs downs than last time, and they were unfortunately clustered at the book's beginning. I think we have to conclude, thanks to this highly scientific methodology, that 1989's science fiction was slightly not as good as 1987's.

    This was the last volume of Wollheim's Annual World's Best SF series, but at some point I'll be looping back to the 1984 volume, and I also have a few volumes of the Dozois's Year's Best Science Fiction to look at.

    02 May 2014

    Faster than a DC Bullet: Project Crisis!, Part XXI: Seven Soldiers of Victory, Volume Two

    Comic hardcover, n.pag.
    Published 2011 (contents: 2005-06)
    Borrowed from the library
    Read April 2014
    Seven Soldiers of Victory, Volume Two

    Writer: Grant Morrison
    Art: Frazer Irving, Pasqual Ferry, Ryan Sook & Mick Gray, Yanick Paquette & Serge Lapointe, Doug Mahnke, Billy Dallas Patton & Michael Bair, Freddie Williams II, J. H. Williams III
    Colorists: Frazer Irving, J. H. Williams III, Dave McCaig, Nathan Eyring, Alex Sinclair, John Kalisz, Dave Stewart
    Letterers: Pat Brosseau, Jared K. Fletcher, Phil Balsman, Nick J. Napolitano, Travis Lanham, Todd Klein

    Seven Soldiers of Victory draws to a conclusion with the stories of three more of the soldiers: Mister Miracle, despite being even more bound up in Kirby's DC mythos than the Guardian, is less successful; I don't think Morrison was going for Kirby pastiche as much here, but then it's difficult for me to say what this story does accomplish.

    Frankenstein is an odd one: a series of done-in-one adventures, basically, of a man too monstrous to live in society, but still trying to do good. Like the Hulk, I guess? It's Doug Mahnke's creepy, distorted art that really make these work, it makes the tone come across perfectly. His journey to the Sheeda homeworld is amazing; probably the best single issue in this volume.

    The tales of the Bulletteer were probably my favorite, an examination of sex, power, and superheroics, but on the whole, I found the characters in this volume less involving than those in the first.

    The whole thing is tied up in "The Miser's Coat". I don't pretend to understand it very much, but it has all the Soldiers lining up and accidentally-on-purpose defeating the Sheeda. No matter what happens, it looks gorgeous, moving through a range of artistic styles as it is revealed the story of the Sheeda goes all the way back to the first superhero-- the first man to wield fire. The narratives that had crossed and intersected before all jumble up here, and it is amazing, as comics meet newspaper reportage meet children's picture book meet crossword puzzle.

    I like a lot of these characters and concepts, I hope I will see more of them going forward.

    01 May 2014

    Reading Roundup Wrapup: April 2014

    Pick of the month: Seven Soldiers of Victory, Volume One by Grant Morrison. Kind of a weak month, to be honest. I mean, Adam Bede is great, but I've picked it before, and that was the main standout. But I did really enjoy the Guardian stories of the Seven Soldiers maxiseries, and the Zatanna ones were mostly good, too, and most of those are contained in the first volume, so here it is.

    All books read:
    1. Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Dark Tide: Ruin by Michael A. Stackpole
    2. Seven Soldiers of Victory, Volume One by Grant Morrison
    3. Star Wars: The New Jedi Order: Agents of Chaos: Hero’s Trial by James Luceno
    4. Superman: Sacrifice by Greg Rucka and Mark Verheiden with Gail Simone
    5. Seven Soldiers of Victory, Volume Two by Grant Morrison
    6. Adam Bede by George Eliot
    7. Villains United by Gail Simone
    8. The 1990 Annual World’s Best SF edited by Donald A. Wollheim with Arthur W. Saha
    9. V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

    All books acquired:
    1. Star Wars: Dark Times, Volume Five: Out of the Wilderness by Randy Stradley
    2. Star Wars: Agent of the Empire, Volume One: Iron Eclipse by John Ostrander
    3. Star Wars: Agent of the Empire, Volume Two: Hard Targets by John Ostrander
    4. The Pirates! In An Adventure With Scientists by Gideon Defoe

    Books remaining on "To be read" list: 533