Author on My Radar: Peter Kuper

Peter Kuper’s on my mind today (the visual imagery of that line is crushing-hahaha).  Like I do with many authors, artists, creators, etc, I stumbled upon him a few different times before realizing it was the same person and then proceeded to swallow up as much as I could and find out more about him.

Book cover to Peter Kuper's Sticks and Stones
The first time I encountered him was with the publication of Give It Up and other stories, which was a series of comic adaptations of Kafka’s work.  Later on, I would read his adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (before going on to read that actual book) and that I was reminded of Kuper recently when reading The Jungle while at the same time a friend had recently purchased a comic adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial (not by Kuper, but the overlapping moments converged into one of those universal conflagrations that demand action be done or else the universe will implode:  see Star Trek—any Star Trek—I’m sure it will make sense).


Book cover to Peter Kuper's SpeechlessThus, with my interest sparked in Kuper, I proceeded to check out some of his other works.  Two struck my fancy in particular.  Speechless was a collection of work done over Kuper’s life exhibiting his range of works, overall ability and depth.  What becomes striking from the onset that one might not immediately intuit from his other works (though in hindsight, it makes sense) is that degree to which Kuper’s work is political.  He creates some powerfully singular images as well as sequential work that speaks volumes (and of course, is also “speechless” for certain reasons).  After I was hit by Speechless (or struck speechless, perhaps), I opened up Sticks and Stones; a silent comic (also speechless; a good deal of Kuper’s work does aim for minimal text) about a stone king who directs his people into a resource war and destruction of the stick people.  Of course, the story can work on many levels and be enjoyed by both adult and child with the ideas that it communicates.

In many cases, Kuper’s art with its heavy use of thick lines and angles feels particularly expressionistic and influenced by the wordless novels of Frans Masereel, Lynn Ward and the like.  But he has his unique style to it, rounding out edges, creating squat and stubby characters.  There’s also the color; which is a generally dark motif with a brooding element that can make his work feel (appropriately) oppressive.  It’s through the heavy lines, stout images, and overwhelming images that makes his work successful in bearing the weight of his message on his readers.  It’s not carrying the albatross around the neck nor a chip on the shoulder; it’s carry the weight of the world that Kuper’s pieces seem to impart on the reader.  

What I find amusing within myself with regards to Kuper is he is probably someone I wouldn’t have read some ten years ago.  I don’t want to go into some speel about “refined tastes” and what not to posit that I’m such a better aficionado today than previously.  Too many others have gone that route.  Yet, I can appreciate the growth and development that comes with being an avid reader of material.  I’m happy that I’ve been able to widen—not necessarily “improve”—my tastes so that I can thoroughly enjoy Kuper and follow it up with the latest trade from Robert Kirkman’s Invincible series (which is exactly what I did with Sticks and Stones!).

Check out what Kuper’s up to and where he’s been.  He’s definitely an author I intend to keep reading. 

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Vacation of the Mind Part 5: The Most Stimulating Airplane Ride Ever

As the trip came to a close, I became fixated on my next endeavor: prepping for a class on Love and Erotica.  To get to teach the class was pretty exciting; but I also had to think about solid and interesting material to use for the class that could effectively communicate the complex thought for a younger audience (read: first year students).  Like a variety of courses I teach (like comics and cultural diversity), it has the possibility of going drastically wrong.  So my mind reeled with ideas but being away, I had little material to directly depend upon.

The Delta of Venus by Anais Nin 

So I did what seems to be the best course of action to start the train of thought; I asked for recommendations from friends and colleagues on Facebook.  And got some good ones.  One, in particular, was Anais Nin.  I had heard (vaguely) of her but never explored her much; but then a few people highly recommended her.  I figured I had a good few leads for when I returned home.  But low and behold, on my second to last day, I happened upon a second hand store where The Delta of Venus by Anais Nin (in English—not Dutch) was staring me in the face.  It was a foregone conclusion that it was coming home with.

Fast-forward forty-eight hours.  I had finished The Jungle and decided I would start in on Nin’s book.  It’s a collection of erotic short stories that were largely composed during the 1940s as commissions from a benefactor who was highly desirous of such writing.  I had some idea of this but I don’t think I was quite prepared for the stories that followed.  After all, my literary vacation had taken me from a rural village in Italy to juvenile detention center in New York, to fantastical worlds of Lilluput and Brobdingnag to the early 20th century slums of Chicago; quite the diverse landscape.  But The Delta of Venus led me into more than a dozen bedrooms (and others places) for scintillating (and I love how that’s pronounced “SIN-tulating) sex that often bordered or walked boldly into the perverse.

And no, I’m no prude.  I’ve logged a hundred of hours listening to Susie Bright’s podcast; have several other erotica book (mostly Best American Erotica, also edited by Susie Bright) and other accouterments to illustrate that sexual discussion and expression are not something I shy from.  Yet, there I sat in the airport and on the plane with my ears reddening with the heat of the story.

That was the interesting part.  Nin writes most of these stories with irony that uses caricatures or mocks erotica and those vested in it; and yet, despite knowing and seeing this, her work can still function well as erotica.  Not all stories were equal and some stories were surprising in what occurred (sometimes even offensive to many people), but the overall collection is pretty enjoyable and impressive.

What sticks out most in my mind with it was just the looks from men and women alike, reading a book whose title and author are outstripped in size on the front and back cover with “EROTICA.”  It made for amusing responses, double glances, and curious staring by others in the airport and on plane.

It's interesting that with the overabundance of pornography out there in cyberland that erotica still manages to have be fairly popular enough for some publishers to release a decent amount of books annually.  Cleiss Press is one of the more well-established publishers for erotica and Sounds Publishing also has several lines of stories for aural consumption.  There is something to be said of the mind and it's role in all things sexual.  So much of the research and anecdotal evidence suggests that it is indeed the real "sex organ."  Hence why Viagra and other such drugs only seem to work if the person is aroused. 

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On Borrowed Tales

I should posit that I haven’t actually read Kill Shakespeare yet.  I’ve checked out comic’s website  and read this post in the Globe and Mail.  I will most likely read it in the future and provide an addendum either reiterating my dubiousness or reiterating the fact that I’m an idiot (or both—quite likely).   The series like a mixture of fan fiction, intertexuality, meta-fiction, tempered with perverse comments in iambic pentameter and epic action.  That does actually sound like Shakespeare.

But I’m dubious about a venture that sets out from the beginning to compare itself to the Lord of the Rings and other highly epic and influential material.  I also found the comment that if Shakespeare was alive today, he’s be doing comics.  Those comments seem to undermine the ability to think creatively and perform some amazing linguistic and psychological feats with characters that represented Shakespeare.  I’m not positing that Shakespeare is the end-all be-all, but he did some amazing feats, and his work has left an indelible mark on the modern world, regardless if that’s what he intended (favorite Isaac Asimov story!).  The comments by the creators sound more like bravado before actually providing substance.

The series would not be the first to rework and evolve a previous body of literary works.  There have been numerous efforts within comics to craft intelligent and compelling stories that creatively appropriate textual (and sometimes cinematic works:  consider the range of licensing titles that Dark Horse holds from film, video games, etc).

Mythological Spin-Offs

Probably the three most famous series that playfully manipulate previously established “literature” include Sandman, League of Extraordinary Gentleman, and Fables.  Of the three, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman does it least directly and consistently; but directly invokes many different tales, mythologies, and even has Shakespeare as an reoccurring character.  Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentleman focuses almost solely on novels of the 1800s and early 1900s (including the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, HG Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Bram Stoker, and others).  Additionally, Moore’s series for all intents and purposes seems to be a limited self-contained series.  Fables on the other hand is an every-expanding and evolving narrative from Bill Willingham (Note:  I am totally ga-ga over this series).  Fables does some amazing things as it builds off the characters’ original motivations and plots and weave it into a larger tapestry of world events.  Sandman takes the ideas from other literature and crafts them into an intriguing mythology of the universe while Moore craftily interweaves believable but different manifestations of the characters from more than a dozen worlds.  Willingham uses the stories as a starting point or rather the character origin, but then launches them into new and challenging events.      

Zenescope Entertainment  has been building a series of ongoing narratives based upon fairy tales and children stories that work with them in different ways, but seem to fixate on the sex and violence element to a blatant degree.  It can certainly be enjoyable to some people and yet by comparison to how Willingham deals with such characters, it does feel cheap.  Granted, Moore has gone the route of sex with his Lost Girls series and yet, the approach there seems to be different than the short skirts and bounding cleavage as suggested by the Beyond Wonderland image.

Getting back to Shakespeare; it gets harder with something like his plays because they do have specific lines and plot elements.  Granted, some of these have been presented/interpretated differently; and many of Shakespeare’s plays were adapted from previous stories and plays.  One can retool fairy tales since they exist in a nether-region.  Yes, we have them written down, but for most of their existence, they were passed down by word of mouth.  Thus, deviations or creative manipulations from the canon is part of the norm.  Even with Moore’s work deals with more dubious characters since the 19th century seemed to be pushing more towards less clearer villains and heroes (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Mina Harker, and the Invisible Man are great examples here).  By contrast, launching tragic characters (many of whom we know to die within their story) across time and space for a quest for a mighty quill doesn’t seem to live up to the material it is borrowing from.

Creating and interweaving narrative with a previous existing text is certainly fun.  I’ve talked elsewhere here about pieces like Wicked, The Dracula Tape, Grendel, etc.  But some can be a bit too much gimmick and not enough gumption.  This seems to be the case with the new onslaught of titles that insert (even more?) ridiculous events into older stories (mash up stories).  Originally triggered by Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  The more successful ones seem to pay homage to the original while also looking to tell powerful and compelling stories.  In this regard, Sandman, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Fables seem to the more impressive pieces.  It will be interesting to see where Kill Shakespeare fits in.


What’s appeals to readers about mash-up novels, or texts that build off a previous mythology/narrative/collection of works?

Some argue that this is uncreative or lacking substance?  Agree?  Disagree?  Why?

What do these kind of works suggest about the nature of story telling?  Why can we deduce from their ability to leap different media and form?

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The Sequel, Remake, Redux Edition

So often I hear a great many people complain about “Sequel-Mania” or the number of remakes being made of movies that aren’t even old (at least to the person making the statement).  Even the Washington Post wasted ink on the subject ; believing it is detrimental to the creative world.  The elitism can be heard in a great many of these arguments.  People just don’t have fresh ideas and aren’t as creative as they “used to be.”

Bahhh.  I don’t buy it.  In fact, I remember watching the first X-Men movie when it came out and I knew that I only enjoyed it as much as I did because I knew there would be sequels.  If X-Men 1 was all there would be, I would have been deeply disappointed.

As Thomas Foster  reminds us, there is only 1 story it and keeps getting retold time and time again.  So the fact that sequels are abundant is not entirely surprising.  More importantly though, I think the Washington Times and others miss the point.  Yes, studios and even publishers look to launch series and a strong influence is the financial benefits.  Yet, such arguments undermine the fact that the audience wants more.  No matter how much we enjoy a story, we look forward to the next installment.  We want to know what happens next.  We can accept “happily ever after,” but we never seem to want to put it to rest.  And this is nothing new!  This is why L. Frank Baum wrote so many books about Oz; why Sir Conan Arthur Doyle had to bring back Sherlock Holmes; it’s why the Illiad followed the Odyssey which was later followed by the Orestia and then the Aeneid.   We are drawn towards serial storytelling and some films (not nearly all by any means) can offer that.

It’s also why we see so many alternative tales; stories about previously written stories told through the eyes of different characters or retold in new ways.  We get The Dracula Tape as Fred Saberhagen’s attempt to recast Dracula as a good guy.  Gardner’s Grendel providing the contemplative monster due to be killed by Beowulf.  Tad Williams delivered Caliban’s Hour to show us what The Tempest looked like through the monster’s eyes.  Wicked gets to the heart of the Wicked Witch’s dilemma in the Oz books.  That’s the tip of the iceberg.  We also have authors who have written sequels to older books such as Stephen Baxter’s The Time Ships as the sequel for HG Wells' The Time Machine or Dacre Stoker’s sequel, Dracula the Undead to his great grand-uncle’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula.  We love continuum; getting to know characters and finding out where they go from there.  This explains the extensive publishing of Star Wars books, Twilight, Spenser, and Inspector Poirot.

Recapturing the Past

This desire for recapitulating our characters into new settings is also at the cornerstone of the remake industry.  Indeed, remakes are very akin to those twice-told tales through different viewpoints; only it’s the director’s different viewpoint instead of the character’s.  We’re always curious to see what will be the new way the old information is re-presented.  I’ll admit I can be pretty harsh in this regard; I’m still doubtful about seeing the recent remake of Nightmare on Elm Street.  After all, I grew up watching Freddy Krueger (now paging Dr. Freud!), for anyone but Robert Englund to be Freddy is sacrilegious.  But the remake is a solid deal for creators and viewers alike.  Creators work with what is likely to be a guaranteed money-maker (in addition to the film, merchandise will be substantial for most remakes—I’m sure this Halloween, they’ll be more Freddys’ out than there have been in a while).     But also, because of the insular audience, directors/writers have an opportunity to be playful, provocative, think out of the box about what they want to do with it.  It’s kind of like getting a replacement car that is the same make and model but can be customized very differently.

The Intertextual Existence of Beowulf

One of the more successful and appealing examples reworking a text is the 2007 CGI Beowulf.  Now, while many see this as an abysmal film (which was me at first), I came to appreciate the dynamic influence and development that created this film. There’s this intriguing mixture of influence that produces the film and to lack this knowledge, often means you miss out on its significance.

Background:  Beowulf was an ancient epic poem written sometime in the later half of the 1st millennium.  In modern times, Beowulf was often criticized for its overabundance of monsters in its 3-act poem.  Along comes J.R.R. Tolkien (of Lord of the Rings fame—though before he wrote that) who delivers a speech call  "Beowulf:  The Monsters and the Critics"   The speech revolutionizes how the monsters and the entire text is understood within modern literary circles.

JRR Tolkien - Beowulf, The Monsters and the Critics

Given his extensive knowledge of Beowulf, it becomes clear that Tolkien is indeed influenced by Beowulf, invoking some of the battle with the Dragon into his book, The Hobbit.  Fast forward to the late 20th century.  Neil Gaiman, English creator/writer of fantasy has inevitably been influenced by both Beowulf and Tolkien.  Gaiman is given to write the script for the CGI version of Beowulf and sure enough, he plays around with the plot in different ways, but at key times in the film, actually evokes Tolkien’s influence.  But not his fantasy influence, but his influence on the importance of monsters in Beowulf.

There are two key scenes where this plays out. The first scene is after Beowulf has (to his belief) killed Grendel.  Grendel’s mother attacks Herot Hall and thus, Beowulf is told he must slay the mother.  His response is:  “How many monsters must I slay? Grendels mother, father, Grendes uncle? Must I hack down a whole family tree of demons?”  The second scene occurs in the final third of the film when they flashforward 50 years when Beowulf and his army are fighting the Frisians.  One of them tries to attack him but is subdued.  Beowulf responds with “You want your name in The Song of Beowulf? You think it sould end with me killed by some Frisian raider with no name?.”  These two quotes taken together serve as the lynchpins of Tolkien’s discussion on the nature of Beowulf and its relevance.  The first being that once Beowulf fights a monster, he must continue fighting monsters for the epic to work.  The second, reinforcing the first in that, the “Song of Beowulf” would not be a song if in the final act he is slayed by some no-name warrior.  It needs to be a monster.

The other added influence here is that the presentation of Grendel (and you’ll have to watch this in full to get it) is highly invocative of Smeagol/Gollum from the Lord of the Rings films.

So what does all this mean?  The easy answer:  a whole lot of nothing.  The more relevant answer is that retelling tales is not a simple act of getting more money or people being lazy.  It’s a creative process in itself that can be influenced in a variety of ways that are just are curious and creative; often paying homage or evolving from the original source material but also adjusting and responding to the times in which the newer version is being delivered to.


What are some of the ways sequels, remakes, new-vantage point stories that successfully develop/adapt/retell their story?

What other reasons are there for these reconfigurations/sequels?  What else are we drawn to with regards to sequential storytelling?

What are other some great examples of the mixing influential pieces that have gone in to making a particular sequel/remake?

How do we evaluate the creativity of an author/creator who has utilized a previous text into an different-point of view piece or sequel?  Examples?

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Enlightened Evil...Definitely Maybe

6 Enlightened Ideas Brought to You by Evil Empires is an interesting entry from  It reveals as the title indicates compelling ideas that we generally appreciate in the modern world from some rather unlikely sources.  Thus from Nazis we get anti-smoking campaigns, childhood education from the Aztecs, egalitarian society from the Mongols and the Soviets, cultural diversity from the Akkadians, and essential elements of modern government from the Persians.  

But one paragraph I think is particular striking here:  " We put this on the list at great risk to our future political careers. You really can't say anything good about the Nazis without it getting taken out of context in a campaign ad, and obviously pointing out that, say, Hitler's soldiers were well-groomed doesn't excuse their many, many, many atrocities.”

Indeed, it’s quite hard to say positive things about a people whom we use as our epitome of “evil.”  You quickly draw the comparison of being a “Nazi” yourself.  However, I think the core of the site’s post is clearly revoking this idea.  To avoid any doubt, let me first say.  Yes, the Nazis and other groups talked about committed horrible acts.  I’m not refuting that in the least.  

Yet, that’s not the point of the post.  Reducing any of those groups into a strict category of “evil” misses what the post has to offer or rather exposes the issue that humans tend to categorize everything into “good” (could also be read in evolutionary terms as “nonthreat”) and “evil” (“threat”).  The Nazis are a great example.  In hindsight, we see them as evil.  In fact, they are the monsters we tout out every so often for our different stories whether it’s Indiana Jones fighting them, Edward Norton aspiring to be one of them, or Nazi Zombies (the movie Dead Snow  and also present in mini-games in the Call of Duty video game series).  

Monstrosity Over Humanity

In doing so, we’ve emphasized their monstrosity and ignore their humanity.  We think of them as a class of monsters that did horrific acts that invalidate their humanity.  When we discuss the Holocaust and other events surrounding World War II, in common talk, we say “Nazis.”  Not Germans; Nazis.  And yet, they didn’t rise up out of nowhere and become a force for the world to reckon with.  They were first humans and gained support from the people they ruled over.  That is, their message (scary as it is to believe) spoke to the people.  And ordinary people were needed to ultimately run the smokestacks of Auschwitz.  Some books have looked at and considered this at some length including Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning and Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

People—not inhuman monsters known as Nazis—were committed to the cause and that’s hard to swallow for many because if “ordinary men” can commit these acts and people consider themselves “ordinary” that means those people are not too far removed from these same evil acts.  Of course, there is truth to this; after all, the Holocaust was supposed to be the last genocide, yet the 20th and now 21st century is speckled with additional genocides.  

But we’re not comfortable equating ourselves with such evil (I already have enough trouble looking at my face in the mirror-hahaha); thus we think of them as a separate category and have trouble finding anything about them redeeming (for it will just remind us of their and our common humanity).  Thus this post reminds gets to the heart of the issue in that, we cannot completely remove all human elements from such groups that we have seen as inhuman.  While it is easier to see Nazi Germany or the Mongol Empire as completely evil, it denies the complex course of events that allowed them to become the power they did or what the ways in which they may have influenced us (beyond serving as a negative role model for much of history).


What are some other examples of deriving positive results from what are seen as negative/evil/malicious groups/societies/civilizations?

Do we have examples of civilizations/groups that were once considered "evil" and now are considered less so (or even "good")?  Or the reverse (civilizations that were considered "good" and now considered either "less good" or "bad/evil"?)?  

What does it mean anyways when we discuss groups/societies/people/cultures/nations in such terms as "good" and "evil"?  What kind of context are we talking about?  Should we be suspect of such contexts?

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The Complex Gooey Muck We Call Culture

Michael Kimmelman offers some rather interesting insights into the every elusive and shape-shifting idea of culture.    Of course, the definition of “culture” is 

the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (as diversions or a way of life} shared by people in a place or time c : the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization d : the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic

the act or process of cultivating living material (as bacteria or viruses) in prepared nutrient media; also : a product of such cultivation.” (Taken from
Merriam Webster).

And Wikipedia has a rather lengthy entry on the subject as well.  

What I find interesting with Kimmelman is that he starts off discussing France and moves into the larger landscape of culture and globalization’s role in cultural development but also emphasizes the fluidity/flexibility of culture.  He’s quick to point out (rightly so) that just because certain cultural products are appropriated by others, it’s wrong to assume they mean the same thing.  

This can be seen in many different places and one of the most curious is the case of 3 Dev Adam, a Turkish film from the 1970s.   The plot is standard melodramatic fare, but the characters are appropriated from US and Mexican culture (Captain America, Spider-Man, and Santo).   With Spider-Man cast as the villain, the creators have taken some other piece of popular culture and reoriented it to their liking which would seems to be standard fare within global cultural exchange.  After all, cultural food appropriation has been a main habit of humans as soon as one culture encountered another.  One of their first questions when encountering a new group most likely being, “What have you got to eat?”

With 3 Dev Adam, the fact that they’ve recreated Spiderman and decided to toss in Santo can seem strange to us; 30+ years removed and also, having no basis for associating the two Marvel superheroes and the wrestler (who happened to be a real living person as opposed to the two fictional characters).  But that matters little at least in Turkey in the 1970s where the film was made.   

Equally, intriguing are the series of videos on YouTube featuring a re-dubbed Hitler speech from a film (from what I gathered, it was taken from Der Untergang (2004) ).  Here, too, is something that is mixed and matched with regards to global culture.  The title and the visual cues tell us it’s Hitler at an important meeting during World War II.   As a German film, it’s not immediately accessible to most English-speaking people (and in particular, Americans).  It’s only with the use of subtitles (thereby manipulating the film in some way—adding to it) that it can more clearly communicate its message.  But these films decide to play with the added material.  Indeed, the video is spliced in numerous ways, often using the same clip but adding different subtitles.  In this one, Hitler is devastated about not being cast as The Joker in Nolan’s The Dark Knight but others deal with just as outlandish topics.  Again, people are using cultural products in rather compelling and inventive ways. 

The key here is to realize that this is not new.  For as long as cultures have interacted, they have adapted, appropriated, and re-constructed the cultural products and practices of others.


What are some other modern ways and examples of cultural appropriation and reinvention taking place?

What are some past examples of cultures, societies, groups, etc using the ideas of another to further their own?

What do these incidents (past and present) suggest about our larger conception of “culture,” particularly with regard to the above definition?

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Letter to the Editor in Salem News

Letter: College degree losing value in consumer-dominated economy

June 7, 2010, To the editor:

Neil Barry's June 4 letter to the editor ("Education can be a liability for some job-seekers") hits and misses with regards to the perception of education within our country.

The U.S. has a history of anti-intellectualism. There's some precedence for fearing the intellectual class; after all for most of history the "smartest" were also the "richest" and went hand in hand with the nobility and religious institutions; exploiting and manipulating the masses for millennia.

Fear of intellectuals is also something the Right strongly courts in many of its messages, particularly with leftist leaders (labeling John Kerry as "French" could be read as his being intellectual or non-masculine).

For the full article, click through.

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Vacation of the Mind Part 4: Fearful Insights

The next book for me to enjoy during my vacation is the only nonfiction book in the lot.  I’m a big fan of nonfiction of course, but I think mostly for this trip, I was looking to step into other people’s shoes.  Not “escape” as we so often refer to the act, but more just enjoy the new vision other authors’ worlds gave me.  However, I did happen to listen to one compelling nonfiction audiobook on my mp3 player that has left me with a better critical angle to approach informational sources (or maybe just refreshed my already developed sense?).

The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn't--and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger by Daniel Gardner

The book is a rather interesting look at how our sense of fear is so often misguided.  We get distracted, mixed messages, or not sufficient information to judge something as a legitimate threat while at the same time, rarely take a step back to view the broader context for something we deem a threat.  As Gardner says, our “gut” (or instinct—which in itself is antiquated since it was developed for the world of serious and deadly threats of the wilderness; not what is by far an extremely less threatening modern world) is constantly flummoxed by the information it receives and doesn’t often give “mind” (or abstract thought—the latest developed piece of equipment humankind has been working with and therefore, the least removed from our emergency response question) a chance to impose order before reacting.  We are continually reacting to perceived threats that aren’t real and this happens in large part due to a feedback (and amplifying) loop within society among officials, media, and the public. 

The book in large part brought me back to two of my favorite, influential and thought-provoking books that I read a while back:   Inventing Reality: The Politics of News Media by Michael Parenti and The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things by Barry Glassner.  What Gardner, Parenti, and Glassner do so well is help the reader to deconstruct the numerous messages and pressures directed at a person (usually through mass media, culture/society, or government).  Additionally, they remind the reader that even the most positive-seeming groups (a cancer-research advocacy group, for instance) is still most likely going to manipulate the message (and in doing so, evoke our fear) for the largest effect; to motivate the receiver (the person reading/viewing/listening to the message).  Playing on the emotions can in itself be problematic since there is a continually diluting effect the more a message is used.  The starving child of the 1980s “Feed the Children” campaign   is less effective now than it was then.  A good example is the Plastic Pollution Coalition’s ad campaign of animals suffering the hazards of our plastic pollution.  Human’s extensive pollution of the earth is indeed horrific, but in the video below, by putting it to Queens’ “Who Wants To Live Forever,” it becomes too much.  That is, the languid melody preys on emotions even further than is necessary.  

The commercial is playing on our heart-strings and demanding we act now by using emotional content without much factual content .  It provides no substance for us to contextualize what we’re seeing.  Exactly how many animals of all the animals living in the world right now die by plastic?  What are other devastating means that animals die by human hands (and this question is one of comparison:  After all, if ten times more animals die by human design—say for the purpose of human consumption; then animal death by plastic seems irrelevant)  Their need to manipulate instead of inform also speaks to other issues of humankind with regards to planning, changing, and conscientiousness, but alas, they must compete for our heart-strings as much as others who want our attention (and the potential  revenue that comes with that).  It’s asking us to react; not to think.

Like the others, Gardner’s prose pushes the reader to step back and ask critical questions of the information and challenge the often blatant and underlying assumptions.  It’s worth everyone’s time to take a look at this as it provides compelling insight and means of addressing the things that each one of us fear or just are wary of.

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Vacation of the Mind Part 3: The Not So Stellar Bunch

The next three books to have engaged me during my trip were enjoyable but nearly as profound for me.  I didn’t feel as moved or compelled with these but I could still appreciate the pleasure of slipping into and getting lost in the story; seeing the world as the author created it and the characters were sent careening along. 

What’s interesting about this lot is that two of them were audiobooks and the third was a graphic novel, “readings” that some are still suspect of.  The merits of either form will be addressed at length (and most likely ad naseum) in future.  However, their form shouldn’t be indicative of lesser engagement; after all, some of my favorite narratives are best experienced for me in audio form (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy read by Douglas Adams himself) and my GoodReads library is fill with at least 1/3 of graphic novel titles (and another 1/3 is of course, books that I’ve listened to).

Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers

Lockdown by Walter Dean Myers had its merits for depicting the real-world liminality and faulty-logical approaches to the criminal justice system; particularly as it is applied to minors.  It also balanced simplicity with complexity well.  The story’s shell embodied a simple short course of events that the main character, Reese experiences.  He’s given an option to become part of a work-release program.  He meets a disgruntled and bigoted man, the develop a sincere and deep relationship, and Reese learns about himself and his life by listening to this older man.  Meanwhile, his situation in the detention center (named “Progress” of course) is deteriorating especially after two cops show up to bully him into taking a plea for crimes he had no responsibility for.  Reese’s story in the larger picture is not an intense life or death situations nor the stuff of mainstream drama; after all, by our cultural standards, young black male in cuffs seems standard fair, (Note:  that’s our cultural perception/projection, not my actual view). 

Yet, that’s where Myers slides in some rather interesting complexity.  Through Reese’s eyes we get to glimpse that there are many roads that are closed off to a young man of fourteen.  His most important goal by the story’s end is to work hard so that he can help pay for his young and bright nine-year old sister when she gets to college; believing that his chance is gone.  There are many moments when Reese has to come to terms with his options or lack thereof and while Myers is at times a little to heavy handed with these decrees and condemnations of modern society, they are nonetheless poignant. 

I Thought You Were Dead by Pete Nelson

By contrast, Pete Nelson’s I Thought You Were Dead feels less impressive.  It mixes a bit of Seinfeld with a bit of self-help and a dash of every none-alpha male sweet-loving, smart, insecure guy cliché.  Paul is wishy-washy, whiny, and rather drab all around.  He’s divorced; he engages in deep philosophical debates with his dog; and he enjoys drinking with his friends.  Of course, his life becomes troubling when his father suffers a debilitating stroke and an onslaught of family stresses begin to fracture; including his relationship with his most recent girlfriend.  The issues feel genuine enough, but the final “breakthrough” events just feel flat. 

And yet, there were things I dug about Paul and kept me reading.  I understood (and related) to many of his concerns about his life and the doubt, double-questioning, and resistance he met with certain personal obstacles whether it be family, love relations, or self-image.  Nelson did well with teasing out the issues that many men don’t often sufficiently address or feel inadequate about who use poor coping skills with until some day, they breakdown; either in a mid-life crisis or something more troubling.  

Sweet Tooth Volume 1: Out of the Woods by Jeff Lemire

And of course, the least likely of them all, was Jeff Lemire’s Sweet Tooth Volume 1:  Out of the Woods.  The story focuses on a boy named Gus who has lived in a forest with his parents for his entire life, believing that to go out of the woods would be dangerous (and I did enjoy this irony that the woods is the place of safety and to leave is to invoke horrible events).  Gus is one of the few children who have been born since some apocalyptic event and has been imbued with antlers and other animal hybrid features.  After his father’s death, he finds himself being hunted but quickly rescued by an old gruff man who promises to take him to a place of protection for children like himself.  Scared and uncertain, Gus follows and steps into the rest of the world.

It’s pretty standard post-apocalyptic fair thus far with at least one good (albeit somewhat predictable twist), but as I’ve said before, Lemire still has the power to tell a good comic story through drawing.  He does extremely well with subtle panels that often need re-viewing and facial experiences that convey a surprising range of emotion despite often being fully detailed.  In large part because of these tools, it makes reading his piece rather delightful because it draws out the story in ways that many artists/authors can’t always do.  The facial expressions are ones you can set your eyes to and slowly study for meaning.

As said, I wasn’t in love with this stack, but it did provide enjoyable fodder for my vacation.  None of them left me feeling moved, but not every book will.  But any book worth its paper will do what these books do; connect with me; flesh out some piece of the world or myself (although, divorcing those two probably is a mistake in some sense).  

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Access Unprecedented

The term “awesome” comes to mind (in its original use; not the TMNT/surfer lingo) when I think about the Internet Archive.  In fact, I often have to set a time limit for myself when I visit this site.  Like Wikipedia, one can get lost following the hyperlinks from one source to another or just doing search after search to see what the site has to offer.  

The premise of the site is twofold.  The first is to catalogue the entire internet, day after day, month after month and take a snapshot of all the sites (or as many as possible).  They turn this into a virtual archive of the world wide web.  That in itself is an immense project, and one that is a boon for people curious to look at the history of the Internet or just doing research of one sort another.  At current count, it has some 150 billion (that is 150,000,000,000) sites catalogued.  For instance, one can look at’s site and see how it looked back in October 20, 1996:

Or what it looked like on September 11, 2001:

There’ also August 25, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans:

That is pretty useful, but the other major premise the site works on is an extension of Project Guttenberg, a site that looked to provide all public domain writing available online (and continues to do so).  Public domain works are created works (art, books, film, etc) that are no longer held in copyright by the owner/creator.  Depending on the product and the different laws (and loopholes), copyrights may eventually dissolve and the works are then open to free use by the public at large without paying cost to anyone.  For instance, if I started a publishing company of “classics,” I could publish a great deal of old material and never pay anyone for it, since they are public domain works.  In fact, a reasonable amount of publishers at one time or another (including audiobook publishers and even comic publishers) have used public domain works to help establish and legitimize themselves before being financially secure enough to acquire copyrighted material.

The Internet Archive has built upon this model but has gone even further as it now includes in addition to text, moving images (film, TV shows, news, commercials, home video, and other moving images), to sound (live music,  radio programs, old time radio, audiobooks, podcasts, etc) and even programs.  It’s a an unprecendented resource of material.  One could scour it for years and continue to find interesting material (especially since it is continually updated).  They have been highly active over the last few years and extended their projects and goals in interesting directions.  

It’s worth noting that there are some remarkable finds here including George R. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and the original 1910 version of Frankenstein by Thomas Edison.  But one can also find Abbott and Costello’s famous and hilarious radio broadcast of “Who’s on First”.  And for the more literary, there are The Complete Letters of Mark Twain.  Cliché as it is, the site does offer something of interest to everybody.  Do a few searches with keywords of interest and you’ll be quickly sucked in.    

The newest offshoot of this project has been Librivox.  This site has created a massive library of audio material read by volunteers to create a free online database of audiobooks in the public domain.  The way the site works is that volunteers find public domain works and record their reading of them.  Obviously, some are not on par with the audiobooks from publishers or radio drama, but it’s impressive how good a great deal of them are and how, regardless of amazing recording tools, these members have helped contribute to such a massive project.  People can perform simple searches of the site to find relevant material and all of it is available for download in MP3s at 128KBS (CD quality roughly).  Of course you can just wander aimlessly through the catalogue as well.  They have a variety of selections including a series of lumped-together science fiction short stories    But there’s quite the range including the 911 Commission Report, Rinkitink of Oz by L. Frank Baum, Zadig by Voltaire, The Fall and Decline of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, and The Prince by Nicolo Machiabelli.  


Take a look around, what are some of the interesting things you dug up on  In looking over something, what did you find that was interesting or useful about it?  What was problematic in terms of using the site or the material found there?  

Did you enjoy this read? Let me know your thoughts down below or feel free to browse around and check out some of my other posts!. You might also want to keep up to date with my blog by signing up for them via email. 

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