30 November 2018

Review: Transformers: Lost Light: Crucible by James Roberts, Jack Lawrence, Brendan Cahill, et al.

The Lost Light might have accomplished the goal of their quest (kind of) in The Everlasting Voices, but that doesn't mean the story was over. There's still the mysterious Grand Architect out there, and what were Drift's visions of, and hey, doesn't Getaway still control the Lost Light? All that and more needs to be reckoned with in Crucible, which at six parts is I think the longest story in the history of More than Meets the Eye/Lost Light.

It's one of those stories that at times becomes too epic for its own good. The best MtMtE storylines turned on the characters: okay, so Overlord was in the basement and wasn't that neat, but what really made his attack noteworthy was the way all the characters reacted to it, and the emotions that engendered in the reader. Crucible is pretty epic, and it has a lot of answers to provide, but the questions weren't ones I was particularly burning to know. Like who is the Grand Architect? It turns out I didn't particularly care; the characters are what carried me through all these issues, not the mythology.

So the best moments of Crucible are those based on character. Rodimus finally getting his showdown with Getaway, but then stepping into the flames to rescue him and being restored to his original paintjob in the process was an awesome moment. Megatron making his comeback from the Functionist universe, having spent centuries trying to redeem himself but still feeling unredeemed was a perfect use of the character, especially when he reconciles with Rodimus and Ultra Magnus (who previously thought Megatron bailed on them).

The second-best moment of the whole story was probably when the crew splits up, and a whole group of different characters each have to open the Matrix of Leadership, which is morality locked. The group of characters selected to do this is great (Swerve, Tailgate, Ratchet, Nautica with Brainstorm, and so on), and the speech Rodimus gives to enable them to make the final pulls is heartwarming. I've grown to love these characters, and this was an excellent way for James Roberts to highlight that.

The best moment is the true revelation of what's the deal with Rung, but I won't spoil that for you here.

So those character moments are great, and there are some epic sequences, but I found the explanations behind the Grand Architect, the Warren, and all that jazz much less compelling than the character stuff it enabled. But compare this to some of the classic MtMtE stories, and I think the ratio of character-to-plot was better in those, probably because Roberts just had to get through so much plot in six issues. (I think Lost Light was originally supposed to last twice as long?)

There's also the final Lost Light story, "How To Say Goodbye and Mean It: Part 2." This is hard to talk about without spoiling, but I thought it was mostly spectacular. The story is set many years after Crucible, with the Lost Light crew reunited for the funeral of a friend. In dialogue and flashbacks, we learn what all the main characters have been up to in the intervening time: Rodimus and Minimus Ambus and Megatron and Brainwave and Nautica and Whirl and so on.

I'm a sucker for this kind of thing, and James Roberts does it very well, giving a mix of happy and tragic afterlives for these characters. This has been, after all, a series about damaged people, and "How To Say Goodbye" doesn't shy away from that. Some of these people never did get over the psychological effects of the war. There are tons of "awwwww....." moments here.

At the same time, I'm a sucker for those kind of endings that don't end, the kind of endings that just tell us "and the adventure continues!" The best part of this issue is that James Roberts comes up with a way to do that too. The story ends, but the story never ends.

On the day Lost Light #25 finally came out, I told my class I couldn't hang around after class because I had to get to the comic book store. "What are you going to do there?" one asked. "Buy comic books!" I answered. "So you don't have to get there," one said. I explained that I did because the final issue of a comic book series I really liked was coming out. They asked what it was, and I replied that it was a Transformers comic... and that I seriously, without sarcasm, believed it was one of the best comic books ever written.

I stand by that. Between them, More than Meets the Eye and Lost Light provided (arguably) one hundred issues of entertainment. In terms of building characters, creating tragedies, and telling jokes, I have never read a comic book series this good. It made me cry more than once, and made me laugh an absurd amount, too. It wasn't perfect, but I loved almost every issue of it. The whole reason I started reading IDW's Transformers comics was to get to More than Meets the Eye, because everything I had read about it told me I would like it. I did like it, and it was work well worth out.

This was a fitting ending, and I look forward to rereading the series at some point; I suspect it will be even better now that I'm better at reading Transformers comics, and now that I can understand all the hints about where it will go.

Next Week: Nothing! Be back whenever I get around to reviewing the digital collection of Unicron, which isn't out until March.

Crucible originally appeared in issues #19-24 of Transformers: Lost Light (June-Sept. 2018). The story was written by James Roberts; illustrated by E. J. Su (#19), Casey W. Coller (#20), Jack Lawrence (#21, 23), and Brendan Cahill (#22, 24); colored by Joana Lafuente; lettered by Tom B. Long; and edited by David Mariotte.

"How To Say Goodbye and Mean It: Part 2" originally appeared in issue #25 of Transformers: Lost Light (Oct. 2018). The story was written by James Roberts, illustrated by Jack Lawrence, colored by Joana Lafuente, lettered by Tom B. Long, and edited by David Mariotte.

27 November 2018

Review: Doctor Who: Frozen Beauty by Justin Richards

Almost forgot to post this one, but I've reviewed Big Finish's most recent The Avengers audio, Too Many Targets, for Unreality SF.

Hardcover, 37 pages
Published 2016 (originally 2015)

Acquired February 2017
Read December 2017
Doctor Who: Frozen Beauty
by Justin Richards
illustrated by David Wardle

Subtract the reference embedded in the title, and there's nothing remotely fairy tale-ish about this at all; it's just a generic space action story about humans-versus-Wirrn, like The Ark in Space without all the good bits. I've come to the beliefs that 1) hiring the unimaginative Justin Richards to write all of these was a mistake, as maybe he had one or two ideas for good "Time Lord fairy tales" but he sure didn't have sixteen, and 2) releasing them in a fancy box set just like 12 Doctors, 12 Stories gave a misleading impression of their quality and interest. Why didn't BBC Books do a box set for Time Trips or Twelve Doctors of Christmas instead? Oh well, only six of these to go...

Next Week: Hopefully there are at least some good jokes in The Three Little Sontarans!

26 November 2018

Review: The Expanse: Caliban's War by James S.A. Corey

Trade paperback, 611 pages
Published 2012

Acquired October 2016
Read August 2018
Caliban's War: Book Two of The Expanse
by James S.A. Corey

This book's events correspond to the second half of the television show's second season and the first half of the third. At the time I read it, I was one episode into season three, so the first half of the book was a new take on familiar events, while the second was all new to me. As always, I'm fascinated by the process of adaptation: in the show, Prax makes it off Ganymede before he runs into Holden and company, who take him back, while in the book he never leaves. In the show, Bobbie Draper has to make a daring escape from the Martian embassy on Earth to see what the planet is like; in the book, she just walks out the front door. Also I'm sort of fascinated by the number of ethnic characters in the book who become white guys in the tv show... yet maintain their ethnic names.

Anyway, I enjoyed this. Chrisjen Avasarala is a delight on screen as played by Shohreh Aghdashloo, the takes-no-crap grandmotherly Deputy Undersecretary for Executive Administration. On the show, she's there all along, but in the books, she turns up for the first time here, broadening the books' array of point-of-view characters. She's just as much a delight on the page as on the screen, taking no crap and getting all the best lines. The first book had two POV characters, and the shit hit the fan when they met; this one has four, but pulls a similar trick. At first they join into two groups, and then those groups unite as well. It's interesting to see Chrisjen's perspective on Holden and company and vice versa, and I look forward to seeing this play out on screen; I think I must be just one or two episodes away from it.

The plot is pretty standard action-adventure stuff, I think, but it has the occasional dark twist as well as the occasional optimistic one; both liven things up. If you want space opera, The Expanse gives it to you in a way that feels familiar, but also very rooted. I like these characters (Amos and Alex are particularly fun, though I suspect that's partially because I import the tv performances to the page), I like the universe they inhabit, and I like the deepening mystery. I look forward to finishing season three and to reading book three.

23 November 2018

Review: Transformers: Lost Light: The Everlasting Voices by James Roberts and Jack Lawrence

The quest of the Lost Light is at an end! Not because they've finally found what they're looking for... but because they're all dead. In The Everlasting Voices, Team Rodimus wakes up in the Afterspark, having died in compressed space when attempting to find medical assistance for a dying Ratchet. They're in a transitory phase, ready to join the Matrix once they accept their fates.

Or are they?

Of course they're not, but the story explores their different reactions to death. Rodimus is angry because he'll never confront Getaway; Ratchet the atheist doesn't believe they can be dead; Swerve is actually earnest for once in his life; Whirl is bored.

There are lots of great moments building on the characters James Roberts has established across umpteen previous issues. We have the mixed emotions of a Cyclonus/Tailgate reunion (sure, they're back together... but that means Tailgate died!), we have Whirl increasing signs of a conscience. Probably my favorite part is when Rodimus decides to confront God by whistling and shouting, "YO! Primus! Rodimus here. Long time face, first time caller." As Ultra Magnus moans, "if Rodimus was ever going to engage in a theological conversation, this is exactly how it would play out."

Yet, things have an undercurrent of seriousness; I liked that Rodimus summons Drift, Ratchet, and Ultra Magnus as his counsel before the Guiding Hand to have "[e]very base covered: faith, science, law." And then Rodimus actually grows up a little bit, the Guiding Hand getting him to admit recovering the Lost Light isn't about Getaway at all, but about the fact that it's "where [he's] happiest.... Because that's where everyone is happiest."

Similarly, Nightbeat is initially depressed he's never solved any of the universe's greatest mysteries. But then he does solve one of them, and ascends into the afterlife out of joy. Only once you learn what's really going on-- surprise, it's not the afterlife-- that means was initially was this joyous moment is actually a tragedy in disguise. It's a clever moment, not to mention good foreshadowing for the Crucible to come.

In the final issue, things come together extraordinarily. The Scavengers turn up, finally meeting Team Rodimus. Nautica figures out what's wrong with the afterlife. And then Rodimus figures out what's wrong with Cyberutopia. In a move that probably surprises no one, the quest of the Lost Light can never be accomplished, but the specific reason is pretty clever and unexpected. There's enough time for a few more nice character moments before the shit hits the fan in preparation for Crucible.

Quest stories often end with the realization that the journey itself was what mattered, more than the destination. It's a cliché, but that doesn't make it untrue, and The Everlasting Voices shows how true it is.

Next Week: Meanwhile, in the Benzene Cluster... it all comes to an end in a Crucible!

The Everlasting Voices originally appeared in issues #16-18 of Transformers: Lost Light (Mar.-May 2018). The story was written by James Roberts, illustrated by Jack Lawrence, colored by Joana Lafuente, lettered by Tom B. Long, and edited by David Mariotte.

21 November 2018

Review: Bernice Summerfield: The Weather On Versimmon by Matthew Griffiths

Hardcover, 219 pages
Published 2012
Acquired August 2015
Read November 2018
Bernice Summerfield: The Weather On Versimmon
by Matthew Griffiths

The first Bernice Summerfield novel for five years, this takes place between episodes of the box set Road Trip; in fact, it's the first adventure Benny and new companion Ruth have on their "road trip" from Lyndiaz to Legion. Given that, it's a bit disappointing, but that would be true regardless. The book begins in medias res, with Benny and Ruth split up and on opposite sides, which is fine, I love me a bit of medias res, but the book maintains the sense of confusion for far too long, to the extent that I never really got what was at stake. Mostly it seemed like Benny was just kind of running around in circles, and meanwhile a minster was doing a thing, and also there was an archive. The explanations all seemed to arrive in the last fifteen pages, which was way too late! By that time I had completely checked out of whatever was going on. A disappointing return of Bernice to the medium that originally gave birth to her.

20 November 2018

Review: Doctor Who: The Garden of Statues by Justin Richards

Hardcover, 36 pages
Published 2016 (originally 2015)

Acquired February 2017
Read November 2017
Doctor Who: The Garden of Statues
by Justin Richards
illustrated by David Wardle

This is basically just "Blink" all over again but without the Doctor and without anything remotely approaching atmosphere, suspense, or novelty. I don't get what the point was supposed to be. Is it even riffing on a fairy tale? I didn't notice one.

Next Week: The Wirrrn menace a Frozen Beauty!

19 November 2018

Review: The Expanse: The Butcher of Anderson Station by James S.A. Corey

At Unreality SF, I've started in on the fifth series of Doctor Who: The Early Adventures, which chronicles the adventures of the first Doctor, Steven, and Vicki. First up is The Dalek Occupation of Winter and An Ideal World.

Kindle eBook, n.pag.
Published 2011

Acquired May 2018
Read August 2018
The Butcher of Anderson Station: A Story of The Expanse
by James S.A. Corey

In between each The Expanse novel, I'll be reading a piece of short fiction. This one is very short (it took me about twenty minutes to read), and it provides some backstory on Fred Johnson, the man who used to kill Belter terrorists but ended up leading an Outer Planets Alliance faction himself. Basically we get parallel stories about his last mission for the Earth military and his recruitment by the OPA. I like Fred Johnson in the tv show, and this provides more detail than its flashbacks too; I was surprised to learn that Anderson Dawes recruited him given the two always butt heads philosophically on screen. This won't wow you, but it does what it says on the tin.

16 November 2018

Review: Transformers: Lost Light: The Scavengers In: MacGuffin Quest! by James Roberts, Sara Pitre-Durocher, Brendan Cahill, et al.

Lost Light is back! Well, it never went away in the world, but it did go away from my reading habits; when I hit issue #12, I decided to save the remaining issues for the point where I could read one per day and end with #25, the final issue, on the day it came out. This didn't quite work out, though, because #25 was delayed repeatedly, but I came pretty close. Issues #13-18 make up the third trade paperback, but those six issues contain three stories, so I'll be doing the first half of that set this week, and the second half next week.

After The Plotters' Club showed us what was happening on the Lost Light, "Sardines" brings its attention back to "Team Rodimus." Rodimus and company are chasing down Getaway and the Lost Light, using the corpse of a Decepticon who transforms into a spaceship, which they've enlarged via mass displacement. Only, the effects of that are starting to wear off, and it's not a very big space considering it contains Velocity, Anode, Lug, Swerve, Chromedome, Rewind, Nautica, Brainstorm, Ratchet, Drift, Ten, Ultra Magnus, Cyclonus, Nightbeat, Whirl, and Rung. Wow!

It's a fun story. It's been a while since we've seen the whole Lost Light main cast, and this is a fun return to them, as everyone gets their little moments, funny or tragic or both. Velocity helps Swerve with a prank; Anode and Lug try to outprank the prankster; Ultra Magnus reveals that he thinks utopia will be full of paperwork; Cyclonus wonders if he made a mistake leaving Tailgate behind; Swerve is discovered to have a bomb that counts down with each word he says; Whirl shows some psychological insight; and Rung stays out of the way. There are some good jokes, and the whole thing builds to a climax of chaos and an amazing final panel. We're clearly moving into the endgame of Lost Light, and I look forward to seeing how it all wraps up.

MacGuffin Quest! returns us to the Scavengers, the team of Decepticons who have periodically been focal characters. I never can remember which is which, but I still delight in their adventures, a bunch of losers who just want to stay out of the way, but can't. Here, they get caught up in the plot of Scorponok and the Grand Architect to make use of an ancient Cybertronian artifact, the Magnificence.

Though I got a little lost (not sure why the Decepticon Justice Division backstory was needed), I enjoyed it. It's especially nice to see what happens between Grimlock, the deranged Autobot the Scavengers have been toting around, and the rest of the team. It's also nice to see the Scavengers affirm their own unity-- they were pretty dysfunctional when introduced. Here, though, Scorponok offers them a place in his new Decepticon order, and there's a great bit where they're not even tempted by it:
"Scorponok. Mate. It's like this..."
"If there's one thing we learned over the last few years, it's that--"
"We've glad the war's over."
"Yeah, the war sucked."
"Don't get us wrong, being a Decepticon's great... so long as you don't have to fight anyone."
"Hm. If I'm honest, I thought I'd crafted more of a dilemma. Oh well..."
They save the galaxy through their insistence on still being losers-- and are rewarded for their efforts with another great cliffhanger. If this was their final end, it would be a fitting one, but I already know it's not...

Next Week: Meanwhile, on Mederi... the Lost Light crew hear some Everlasting Voices!

"Sardines" originally appeared in issue #13 of Transformers: Lost Light (Dec. 2017). The story was written by James Roberts, illustrated by Alex Milne, colored by Joana Lafuente, lettered by Tom B. Long, and edited by David Mariotte with Carlos Guzman.

The Scavengers In: MacGuffin Quest! originally appeared in issues #14-15 of Transformers: Lost Light (Jan.-Feb. 2018). The story was written by James Roberts, illustrated by Sara Pitre-Durocher and Brendan Cahill, colored by Joana Lafuente, lettered by Tom B. Long, and edited by David Mariotte.

13 November 2018

Review: Doctor Who: Sirgwain and the Green Knight by Justin Richards

Hardcover, 36 pages
Published 2016 (originally 2015)

Acquired February 2017
Read October 2017
Doctor Who: Sirgwain and the Green Knight
by Justin Richards
illustrated by David Wardle

I thought this was even worse than the average Time Lord Fairy Tale. This series's best part is turning out to be the paratext, not the text: the conceit, the titles, the cool box set, the illustrations. But this story is miserable: guy turns up, guy builds spaceship, guy leaves. There's not plot or complications at all. I mean I know it's only 36 pages long but there are plenty of writers who could do a lot more in 10 pages than Justin Richards does in 36.

Next Week: Some Weeping Angels are inhabiting a Garden of Statues!

12 November 2018

Review: The Expanse: Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey

The Eighth Doctor is back... always! My review of his most recent adventure, Ravenous 2, is up now at Unreality SF, as is my review of Bernice Summerfield: Epoch.

Trade paperback, 582 pages
Published 2011

Acquired October 2016
Read February 2018
Leviathan Wakes: Book One of The Expanse
by James S.A. Corey

I read this book after seeing the first two seasons of the tv show, so that was a bit of an oddity that influenced my whole way of experiencing the text; I kept imagining the tv actors performing the dialogue. Honestly, that kind of worked to my advantage, because I think at the beginning, especially, it's hard to get a sense of the main characters as people. The book just kind of makes them nice folks who get along. On the other hand, it's especially obvious which one of them is not going to actually become a main character, whereas on tv, I found the same moment really startling.

It's interesting how the show and the books are paced so differently. The events of Leviathan Wakes actually correspond to the first season of the show, plus the first few episodes of season two. In the show, the finale of the first season seems like a climax; in the book it's another point of escalation in the middle, even though it's basically the same events. The tv show adds a main character who's not in the novel (apparently she'll appear in book two), and since she's in politics, this gives a wider context to the adventures of our heroes; however, I was surprised that the book is still able to communicate this context, but maybe I shouldn't have been, since of course a novel can fill in those kind of details in a lot of ways. The politics viewpoint character in the show is on Earth, though, while the book gives us much more of a feeling for how the Belters feel about things, and why they do what they do.

The most striking difference, though, is speed. The show, for all the fact that it's harder sf than 90% of the sf on tv, gives the impression these spaceships get around the solar system at a pretty brisk clip, in a couple of hours when something's on the line. But in the novel, it's all we've got to get there as fast as we can... that'll take a few days. It's different, and I see why tv can't do that, but I like it a lot, it makes the universe feel lived in and real and distant and lonely.

09 November 2018

Green Arrow: Secret Origins

All kinds of things I did a while ago have been coming out this month and last; the most recent issue of the SFRA Review contains my review of the book Moving Target: The History and Evolution of Green Arrow by Richard Gray.

Even though I was kind of overcommitted on reviews, I jumped at writing this one. Green Arrow is, actually, the character who got me into comics! On a forum, someone once linked to a history of Green Arrow on Scott Tipton's Comics 101, and it fascinated me, as detailed accounts of the creation of fictional properties I've never actually seen so often do. As I assert in my review, "Green Arrow is popular enough to have never faded into complete obscurity, but enough of an also-ran that writers, editors, and illustrators are always trying to reinvent him to keep him relevant to the times" (14). So he's had a Batman rip-off period, a goofy sci-fi period, a heavy-handed social commentary period, a sidekick to Green Lantern period, a gritty urban noir period, a killed-off-and-replaced-by-an-ethnic-legacy-character period, a middle-aged crisis period, and so on. The character is constantly transmuting, and I wanted to see it for myself.

So when I got into comics, I ended up reading every Green Arrow trade paperback ever published, borrowing them from the library, and then I ended up buying all the uncollected Green Arrow issues from the 1980s and 1990s. I believe it's a true statement that I've read every Green Arrow comic published 1983 to 2011!

Here's a couple paragraphs of the review:
Gray’s book argues that, as created, Green Arrow was a “blank slate” (10), beginning as a pastiche that was “[p]art Batman, cowboy, vigilante, Robin Hood and soldier” (9). But as time went on, writers were able to use that blank slate to their advantage: “what makes Green Arrow unique is precisely that he is so malleable in the hands of an assortment of writers, but consistently human in all of them” (6). The book provides a comprehensive overview of the character; Gray divides his history into a number of eras, overviewing and analyzing the character’s development in each one.

The book is at its best when Gray has a strong angle on a particular era and highlights aspects of the character that move beyond fan truisms. For example, many dismiss the character in his early years as a mere Batman rip-off, and there is an element of truth to this—but as the quotation in my previous paragraph shows, Gray identifies other aspects of the character’s early formulation that often go unnoticed, especially Westerns. At some point, “blank slate” transitioned into “everyman” (119), and this became the basis for most interpretations of the character from the 1970s onwards. In writer Denny O’Neil and artist Neal Adams’s 1970-1972 run, the former millionaire became a social crusader, standing up for the oppressed of America alongside Green Lantern. The “Hard Travelling Heroes” era has been much discussed because of O’Neil’s social commentary, but Gray provides a close reading of the underappreciated realistic art style of Neal Adams, who used “photomontage and similar pop-art influences” (83), and provided the character with a sense of movement and humanity that grounded the social commentary.
You can read the rest of the review here.

I think I have just one more thing I've already written that's yet to be published, so this fertile window will soon be over.

06 November 2018

Review: Andiba and the Four Slitheen by Justin Richards

Hardcover, 37 pages
Published 2016 (originally 2015)

Acquired February 2017
Read September 2017
Doctor Who: Andiba and the Four Slitheen
by Justin Richards
illustrated by David Wardle

I didn't get that the title was a riff on "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" until the Slitheen spaceship had the electronic lock code "open six one three." It's pretty meh on the whole, with the Slitheen's weakness to vinegar turning out to be an all too obvious way to take care of them. Maybe I just don't remember the original story very well, but this doesn't seem to make use of it very much, and certainly not interestingly so.

Next Week: A real medieval fairy tale in Sirgwain and the Green King!

05 November 2018

Review: The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M. T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

A couple more audio drama reviews posted at Unreality SF the past couple of days: The Diary of River Song: Series Four, Bernice Summerfield: Escaping the Future, and Bernice Summerfield: Year Zero.

Hardcover, 525 pages
Published 2018

Acquired October 2018
Read November 2018
The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge
by M. T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin

M. T. Anderson-- my favorite working YA writer-- has a new book out, The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge. It gives equal billing to its illustrator, Eugene Yelchin, and this is because it's a story where words and images are of equal importance. Sometimes the images offer a different set of events than the words; at other times, the images convey events not directly indicated in the text at all. It's about two scholars from warring nations, a goblin and an elf. The text gives the goblin's perspective as he accommodates an elfin guest; the images show the spy reports the elf is sending back to HQ. (There's also occasional letters from an elfin spymaster to their king.)

It's clever, though given it's by M. T. Anderson, I kind of wanted it to be cleverer; by the book's end, it's clear that the text is usually accurate and the illustrations not, and I would have appreciated more ambiguity. It's also a bit lightweight. Which isn't a problem, I don't think Anderson was aiming for the kind of depth of character he went for in Feed or Octavian Nothing or even Landscape with Invisible Hand. It's a cute idea, well executed, with some decent jokes, and you do come to like this odd couple by the novel's end. (The way they achieve their joint comeuppance over the military through scholarly debate is quite nice.)

The art and book design are excellent. Yelchin's style makes me think of medieval art, it's all grotesque, and delightful in its grotesqueries. Really unique, and perfectly suited to the project, given it's an elf's understanding of a goblin civilization. Lots of imagination.

For any other write, this would probably be a high watermark; for Anderson, it's just another pretty good book.

02 November 2018

How Much Literature Does a Man Need?

Jim Downie (right) at Gethsemani Abbey
from the summer 2017 St. Xavier alumni magazine
Like a lot of kids, I went through a number of potential adult occupations. My junior year of high school, I figured out what I wanted to do in Mr. Jim Downie's English literature class.

He wasn't one of those teachers who was a wide favorite, but Mr. Downie was without a doubt my favorite teacher from my four years at St. Xavier. A confirmed bachelor, he would spend his summers travelling the world; one time he brought in a tray of relics from the Middle East.

He was very dry but sometimes slyly funny. Every now and then he would drop a witticism into his lectures. (He was the kind of teacher, though, where one suspected he had penned the joke into the margins of his lecture notes years ago, and told the same joke at the same point every year.) He was good-- for this sixteen-year-old at least-- at bringing the themes and potentials of literature to life. I had him for British literature, where we made it from Beowulf up to the middle of the twentieth century; it was in his class that I first read Nevil Shute's On the Beach, a novel I went on to teach myself.

We used to chat about NPR, as both of us listened to WGUC, Cincinnati's classical music station, on our drive into school in the morning. For a while, there was this surreal thing going where one day in class he would mention a classical piece (like Khachaturian's "Sabre Dance," during a lecture on And Quiet Flows the Don) and then the next morning I would hear it on WGUC, like he was tied directly into the classical music zeitgeist.

As seniors, we had lots of options for English; you needed a full year of it, but could pick between a number of one-semester courses. I actually took a full year of AP Lit, a semester of creative writing, and a semester of European literature, the latter with Mr. Downie. Mr. Downie had an appreciation of the dark and the depressing; we read Candide and Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and Kafka and Joyce in that class, and he was good at bringing out the despair in these stories cued to the end of class. "And so human life is meaningless: all you have at the end of it is the grave," he would say, and the bell would ring.

It was in one of those moment, I think, where it flashed across my mind, This is what I want to be doing.

I don't think I'm quite him as a teacher, but I often think about him. He was a good teacher, not just in his ability to explicate the literature, but also in his ability to apply the literature to life. Perhaps naïvely (one of my colleagues just gave a lecture where he called this middlebrow populism or something), I think literature can teach us how to live our lives, and I think at least partially this derives from how Jim Downie taught.

One of my favorite assignments during European literature is that he had all of us look up the etymology of our names to verify our origins. It was from this that I learned möll was a German root related to "mill," and thus that one of my ancestors must have been a mill-man, i.e., a miller. After we did this, he met with each of us individually to help us pick a book from our country of origin that he thought we would like. It was thanks to this that I read Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks, which for some time I went around trumpeting as my favorite book. Perhaps it still would be, but I haven't read it in thirteen years!

I began my academic career as a language arts education major, though I ended up teaching college, not high school. It was thanks to his example that I wanted to. Probably many teachers have such a story, but Mr. Downie is mine.

It's been a long time since I've seen him. At least twice during my college years; I remember stopping by St. X and telling him I was taking or had taken a Victorian literature class, and he asked if I had read any Thomas Hardy. All I'd read was some short fiction (it had been a summer class, so we'd hardly done any novels), and he bemoaned that I hadn't read The Mayor of Casterbridge. I picked it up next time I went to the used bookstore, and thus began a lifelong love.

Searching my old LiveJournal reveals that I bumped into him once after that, a week into my relationship with Hayley, when we went to the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. (He was a big fan, and my parents would bump into him a lot.) All I recorded in my LJ was that seeing him "was nice"; I wonder if he was disappointed that I'd decided to not be a high school English teacher after all.

This whole post was spurred by a question about role models, and it's perhaps odd, I've ended up writing not about a model for living, but a model for work, and there's so much of life that's not work. But it's not about work, it's about literature, and for me, literature is a wellspring for both work and for living. And a large part of how I view literature goes back to Jim Downie, and I hope I live up to his example in some small way.

#71: Who is your role model?

01 November 2018

Reading Roundup Wrapup: October 2018

Pick of the month: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens. Kind of by default, I guess, though I did enjoy it. Hopefully now that I've finished this door-stopper, next month goes better!

All books read:
1. Bernice Summerfield XIV: Present Danger edited by Eddie Robson
2. The Brotherhood of the Seven Kings by L. T. Meade and Robert Eustace
3. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
4. Gods of Risk: An Expanse Novella by James S.A. Corey

All books acquired:
1. The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M. T. Anderson
2. Single White Who Fan: The Life & Times of Jackie Jenkins by Jackie Jenkins
3. The War of the Wheels: H. G. Wells and the Bicycle by Jeremy Withers
4. The Monster Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson

Still, at least I'm not over-acquiring. Well, sort of.

Books remaining on "To be read" list: 656 (no change)
Books remaining on "To review" list: 10 (up 2)