My Stack Overflow last week was about changing perspectives, and this week’s column continues on that topic. This week I’ve got a range of books: fiction, comics, and picture books.
I really enjoyed Sanders’ previous book, Lost in Translation, which takes words from other languages that don’t have a perfect analogue in English and pairs them with delightful illustrations (see this Stack Overflow). The Illustrated Book of Sayings is similar, but uses proverbs and idioms and other phrases from around the world. Some of them are unfamiliar but not too hard to understand the origins, like the Mongolian “God bless you and may your mustache grow like brushwood.” But others really got me to look at things from a new perspective, like the Korean “When the crow flies away a pear falls off,” a statement that sort of amounts to “correlation does not imply causation” but in a much more poetic way. If you love wordplay and language, this book is perfect—I just wish there were even more phrases (and maybe an index).
I’ve had this one sitting on my shelf for a while now—it was in my Reading Resolutions list—and finally did get a chance to read it. The Three-Body Problem is a best-selling sci-fi novel in China, and is the first book in a trilogy. (I’ve now started the second volume, The Dark Forest.) The story has a huge scope, starting with the Cultural Revolution in China and moving to the modern day and near-future. It seems that many scientists have been committing suicide, and it’s not clear what is driving the phenomenon other than that all of them had some contact with an organization called the Frontiers of Science. What is going on that is driving these prominent scientists to the edge?
It’s hard to give a full review without spoilers, but Cixin Liu creates a fascinating world, with political intrigue and explorations of science that have some far-reaching consequences. His own perspective, as a Chinese citizen who grew up in a very poor village, informs his story in a way that is quite different from the American (or even European) writers I’m more accustomed to. I also appreciated the work that went into translating the story to make it accessible for non-Chinese readers without turning it into an American sci-fi novel. Ken Liu makes a comment in his note: “The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English.” His goal is to preserve the foreignness of the story, and in that he succeeds. I’m sure I’ll be back with more about this trilogy once I’ve finished, but at nearly 400 pages apiece, it may take me a little while.
While I read a lot of non-superhero comics, my reading history for superheroes is still somewhat limited to the major characters that everyone knows. In recent years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has introduced me (and the rest of the public) to other characters that I’m starting to explore. I was curious about the current run of Black Panther because it is written by Coates, an African-American writer who won a National Book Award for Between the World and Me—but had never written for comics before. I picked up the first collected paperback at the store. His version of the character is pulled in many directions: he is the ruler of his kingdom, but he also wants to be its defender, as well as part of the Avengers, who may not always have Wakanda’s best interests at heart. In this volume, his nation is divided: many of his people have turned against him because they see him as unable or unwilling to protect them and lead them.
While it is still a superhero comic with action-packed fight scenes, there’s also a lot of dialogue about the serious issues tearing Wakanda apart, and even in the midst of the fight scenes, you’re getting a different perspective because of what’s going on internally. It definitely feels a bit more academic than most superhero comics I’ve read, and I think probably merits repeated readings so that I can process both the activity that’s happening on the surface and the thought processes that underlie the action.
The one thing that is a little trickier, though, is that even though this is the beginning of Coates’ writing for the series, even this plot feels like it starts in the middle of the story—it’s not an origin story, and so there’s history there that is hinted at, but I still felt that I could have used a little more of a “previously on Black Panther…” primer.
I’d heard sometime last year that the Hulk was now an Asian kid, so I’ve been watching for the collected paperback for this one as well, and bought it recently. So the story is that Amadeus Cho, kid genius, has always been a fan of the Hulk and felt that he was misunderstood and underappreciated—even by Bruce Banner. So, with a contraption he designed, he takes on the gamma radiation from Bruce and becomes the Hulk himself. But even though he’s not angsty about it like Bruce, he’s still a teenager with—let’s be honest—raging hormones. When he turns into the Hulk, it’s not always clear who’s in the driver’s seat. Amadeus’ sister Maddy acts as his handler, running training exercises and monitoring him.
The plot for this volume focus on the appearance of a bunch of monsters (along with Lady Hellbender, who wants to add Hulk to her collection), and then another plot about Amora, the enchantress of Asgard, who tries to make a deal with the Hulk in a grab for power. And Amadeus’ own origin story is interwoven into the monster plot, so you find out how he wound up as the Hulk.
I’ll admit: the main reason I was curious initially was because, hey, I want to see how this Asian superhero (written and illustrated by Asians) was going to turn out. (I’m also looking forward to reading New Super-Man by Gene Luen Yang, but that’s for another time.) I also liked the idea of a Hulk who was happy being the Hulk, and that was an interesting spin on the character. Though, as I discovered, Amadeus also has some of the same fears about losing control, and part of this book was digging into those fears that he tries to hide behind his (over)confident exterior.
Can I just say again how much I’m enjoying Ms. Marvel? Talk about a different perspective. Kamala Khan does remind me a little of Peter Parker, in that she’s still a kid, dealing with high school and teenage angst at the same time as she’s fighting bad guys with superpowers. But she also lives in Jersey City, so although she’s now part of the Avengers, they’re usually not in her neighborhood much so she ends up dealing with all of that herself. Her family is Pakistani and Muslim, so we get a window into that world as well—and speaking of different perspectives, even her Kamala’s own family has to confront some of their own prejudices when Kamala’s big brother brings home the woman he wants to marry—an African-American who converted to Islam.
In the latest volume, Kamala has to deal with her own fame: a new development has cropped up in her neighborhood and they’re using her face on a billboard without her permission. Suddenly, she finds that people are angry at Ms. Marvel for selling out, even though she didn’t actually do anything—and that’s before she confirms that there’s something fishy about the whole thing. It doesn’t help that she’s a bit distracted—turns out her best friend Bruno has started dating somebody, and somehow she missed it while it was happening.
The second story arc in the volume is more about Kamala’s divided attentions: she’s missing school, her brother’s getting married and she’s expected to attend a lot of parties, and she really wants to prove that she’s a real Avenger and not just a sidekick who needs to be bailed out by the real heroes. She hits upon the perfect plan—a plan that, I might add, seems inspired by Calvin & Hobbes—and of course everything goes a little sideways.
Part of what I love so much about Ms. Marvel is that it doesn’t take itself entirely seriously, despite the fact that it does touch on serious issues. The drawing style can switch to being goofy, and there are a lot of fun visual gags scattered throughout. It’s fun to read, and something that I can share with my daughters, too.
In 2014, Gross and Lee ran a Kickstarter campaign for Aerial Bold, a typeface based on satellite images of the Earth. This book goes through the alphabet with images from America—each one is a two-page spread, and you have to spot the letters hidden among photos of subdivisions, rivers, streets, and fields. Each spread is labeled so you know the coordinates of the location, and at the back of the book are a couple more pages of letters. It’s a fun way to look at the ABCs, and can inspire your own Google Earth alphabet hunts.
This alphabet book may have you scratching your head a little. Messenger takes various objects and turns them into uppercase and lowercase letters—but the objects don’t usually start with the letter they display. There are some that sort of make sense: H is for “house,” and T could be for “twist.” But “waves” and “ocean” don’t start with C, and “cat” doesn’t start with D … The illustrations are really lovely, but I’d say this might be for kids who already know the alphabet, because otherwise it can get a little confusing.
This little picture book illustrates the idea that our concept of time can be fluid: a minute can be short—like when we’re riding a carousel. Or a minute can be long—like if we’re having a tooth pulled. Lots of different things can happen in a minute; sometimes a minute is important, and sometimes it isn’t. The book shows a little girl, with various pictures demonstrating her different perceptions of one minute. The one sequence that sort of bothered me, though, was the one showing the little girl running into the street after her dog: “In one minute, something can happen. Or something can be saved.” The illustration shows a car screeching to a halt. I don’t know if I would encourage kids to run out into the street in an attempt to save something or somebody. Overall, though, I really like the way the book shows how even something we think of as precise and exact—one minute—can feel very different depending on the situation.
Bob is a bird who has become a bit self-conscious about his skinny legs because of all the teasing, so he tries several things to address the problem. He tries to eat a bit more, or work out, or hide them with clothes. In the end, though, he’s inspired at an art gallery, and decides to paint … his beak! His fanciful beak gets all the attention and earns him some compliments, and Bob is even back to liking his skinny legs again.
This book is pretty short and there’s not a long, drawn-out story, but it still manages to cover several different subjects. First: Bob likes himself, but only becomes ashamed of his legs because of all the comments he gets from others. What’s interesting is that the solution does not involve his legs at all, but finding confidence gives him the ability to be happy about his whole self. And in fact, some of the characters who mock his legs at the beginning of the book are admiring them at the end. Is Bob looking their way or rolling his eyes? Maybe a little bit of both.
Disclosure: I received review copies of these books except the Marvel Comics, which I purchased myself.