Thursday, February 20, 2014

What hunts bats?

For generations, the Wayne family has watched over Gotham City. Both figuratively, from the top of the original Wayne Tower, and literally. One would think that Gotham would be grateful of its protector and philanthropist, and most are. But as always, there is always two ways to view history.

In Batman Volume 1: The Court of Owls, we get to learn about the history of the Wayne family in Gotham City. In the 1880s, Alan Wayne built the original Wayne Tower, and designed it in a way that visitors would feel protected by it. Towering over Gotham's Union Station, the gargoyles perched on its upper levels both watch over and welcome the residents of the city.

Bruce's parents were also not the first to die in a tragic way. Alan Wayne's body was found in the sewers after he disappeared. Tragic, but not necessarily unexpected, since he'd been declining mentally for a while. Becoming more and more paranoid about owls, he seemed to be falling farther and farther into his delusions, until one night he fell into a manhole while fleeing from his imaginary tormentors. 

But what if his demons weren't imaginary? What if the owls that he was so sure were stalking him really existed?

What if the owl's nest that a young Bruce Wayne found after the death of his parents wasn't a coincidence?

The speech that Bruce makes near the beginning of the volume encourages Gothamites to look forward; to envision what Gotham City can become, rather than dwell on its past or present. The danger in that, though, is that sometimes the past can come back to haunt you.

Highs: Seeing the entire Batman family come together while Bruce is indisposed shows that Bruce is hardly alone anymore.

Lows: Since I'm not a regular reader of DC superhero comics, it's hard to tell how much of this is new revelations and how much is part of the decades of Batman cannon.

Verdict: A fascinating look into Batman's past, and an ending that demands the next volume be acquired immediately.

Further Reading: Batman Volume 2: The City of Owls, Attack on Titan, The All New Batman: The Brave and the Bold Volume 1

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Is a different view of the world wrong?

One of the fastest-moving areas of science is psychiatry. Therapies performed as recently as the 1970s, such as lobotomies, are considered barbaric by current standards. Medications to treat mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder have allowed patients who would have been institutionalized to be mainstreamed and live relatively normal lives. Advances in cognitive behavioral therapy let people with psychological disorders and traumatic brain injury gain the ability to live independently and even hold down jobs when before they would have been dependent on family or the state.

The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon, is a near-future look at autism. If Lou Arrendale had been born a generation earlier, he would likely be nonverbal, lost in his own mind, amid a world too overwhelming to be a part of. If he were born a generation later, the flaws that cause autism, either in-utero or in the first few years of life, would have been identified and able to be fixed, and he would never have been 'truly' autistic in the first place.

But Lou was born when he was, and nothing can change that. As autism was being understood better and better, psychiatrists were able to create therapies that teach the afflicted how to interpret the world. Computer programs are able to slow down speech sounds to a rate that an autistic child can understand, and then slowly speed them up to normal speech. Because 'autists' have a hard time picking up on social cues, therapists know to teach appropriate responses to common situations, and show the patient how to extrapolate what might be the correct response in new situations as well. The training is hardly perfect; stressful situations such as the security screening areas of an airport can still cause the person to freeze up, but for day-to-day activities, Lou's final generation of autists is now able to enjoy independent lives.

Lou has a very full, fulfilling life. He lives independently, in an apartment near his work. He enjoys weekly fencing lessons at a friend's house, and has feelings for one of the women that attends as well. He works for a pharmaceutical company, in a department staffed completely with autists, discovering patterns in research that neither computers nor neurotypical employees are able to find. He understands that the way he thinks is still different from 'normal' people, but it's the only way he's ever known.

Life never holds still, though, as much as one might want it to. A new member of upper-management wants to remove the special facilities that allow the autistic department to keep their focus and ability to do their work so efficiently. One of the women at the Center, where many of the autists spend their free time, has begun confronting Lou about his 'normal' friends. A jealous would-be suitor at fencing club may be even more unstable than the rest of the people Lou associates with.

And then Lou is faced with a decision: continue on with the only life he's ever known, or volunteer for an experimental treatment that may reverse his autism.

Elizabeth Moon creates a near-future world that is completely believable. All of the technological advancements posited are completely believable, given the current state of science. As the mother of an autistic son, Moon had eighteen years of research into autism to draw from, as well as countless hours of interviews with patients and doctors alike. The result is the most comprehensive, true-to-life work about autism written. With characters that the reader grows more and more emotionally connected to, a corporate conspiracy, and a vandal becoming dangerous, The Speed of Dark is a masterful work of fiction that needs more exposure.

Highs: Lou's direct supervisor is a more sympathetic character than I first expected.

Lows: Rather than trying to wrap up the book in just a chapter and an epilogue, I wish that Moon had ended this book with Chapter 20, and then written a second book that picks up there and more fully develops the 'what happens next.'

Verdict: An amazing, captivating read that, even with a flawed ending is well worth the read.

Further Reading: With the LightThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Machine Man

Monday, February 10, 2014

Manga Monday: The finer points of Japanese cuisine

The Japanese take their food very seriously. Focusing on freshness and quality of ingredients, the key is to showcase the food itself. Anyone who as been to a good Japanese restaurant or sushi bar has seen the minimalist presentation that the chef uses, as well as experienced the flavor of the food without heavy sauces or elaborate preparations that are the hallmark of foods from other countries.

In Oishinbo A La Carte: Japanese Cuisine, the reader is treated to the finest that Japan has to offer. When simplicity is the key, every detail matters. 

In Basic Knife Skills, an American named Jeff Larson has traveled to Japan to train as a chef. He's taken to a restaurant that mimics the Rodeo Drive aesthetic of California, and the chef there has an amazingly flamboyant presentation style. Unfortunately, the flavor leaves something to be desired. Will Jeff find a new place to train, and discover what went wrong at that first restaurant?

In The Right to Be a Chef, we meet the younger brother of a restaurateur called Ryozo. He had been apprenticed at one of the most prestigious gourmet clubs in Tokyo, but was ejected without any reason being given. Heartbroken, he's returned to his brother's restaurant to continue to train. Will he figure out what his fatal flaw is, and be able to return to the gourmet club?

The Ultimate Etiquette focuses on a part of a meal that many people overlook. While the taste of the food is important, the presentation of the food can be just as critical. Unlike in Western cuisine, the Japanese take great pains in choosing the best shape, color, and material of dishes in which to present their food. Even the chopsticks being used is a decision that a chef has to make.

The overarching plot of this is fairly thin. Yamaoka Shiro, a journalist working in Tokyo, is tasked with the mission of developing the Ultimate Menu as part of his newspaper's 100th anniversary celebration. As the son of one of Japan's most renown chefs, he seems the perfect choice for the task. What his bosses may not realize, however, is that he's badly estranged from his father, and this assignment causes their paths to cross much more often then either would like. Often accompanied by a female journalist, Shiro ends up in some of the best restaurants, and often has a lesson to teach either a dining partner or a chef. 

When Viz published this title, rather than simply publishing the chapters in order, they pulled chapters with thematic and culinary similarities into volumes based on topics like 'Sake' and 'Ramen and Gyoza.' While this 'best-of' format may have been the only way to publish a series that has been in print for 30 years, it makes the continuity of the main characters very hard to follow. Rather, the reader should simply focus on the situation in from of him, and not worry about the rest of it. Nevertheless, Oishinbo is an in-depth look into the world of fine dining guaranteed to make the reader hungry.

Highs: As amazing as Shiro's skills are, it's fun to see him one-upped every so often.

Lows: Having the chapters presented out of order, with very little background into the lives of our protagonists, takes a bit of getting used to.

Verdict: One of the best ways to experience a culture is through its food, and Oishinbo is a welcome peek into Japan that most manga doesn't cover.

Further Reading: Oishinbo A La Carte: Sake, The Drops of God, Neko Ramen

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Do you believe in love before first sight?

As the internet took off, and more and more offices started letting their employees access it for their work, the more controlling of managers started to worry. How would they ever be able to keep their employees from going to 'illicit websites,' or spending all their time monitoring their Fantasy Football leagues? Especially in a workplace like a newsroom, where they can't effectively implement a web filter. So what is a company to do?

In Rainbow Rowell's Attachments, Lincoln O'Neill is the first line of defense against internet abuse for the newspaper he works for. Working overnights, he goes through a folder of all the emails that their security system flags as 'inappropriate' and decides whether to send a warning letter to the offender. Hardly what he expected when he signed up for a job in IT Security, but it pays well and isn't exactly a demanding job.

In between raunchy forwarded jokes and gossip about peoples' weekend plans, he stumbles upon the conversation chains between Beth Fremont and Jennifer Scribner-Snyder. Best friends and coworkers, Beth and Jennifer spend their afternoons at work gossiping about their lives via email. Beth is in a relationship that is stagnating with a guy who refuses to grow up, while Jennifer's husband keeps hinting about how cool babies are. Their personal lives play out via email, and every night Lincoln finds the latest installment in his flagged email folder.

By the time he remembers that he really ought to warn them about using the company email for personal use, it's far too late to send them a warning. He doesn't really want to anyway; these emails are the highlight of his night. He hasn't exactly been getting out much; he's moved back in with his mother after his latest round of university classes and his love life, as it were, stalled out the first year after high school. His sister means well, trying to get him to move out, join a gym, meet new people, but that's made even harder when you work nights.

And he just might be falling for Beth.

Whether she's writing about teens or adults, current day or the long-ago 1980s, Rainbow Rowell shows her understanding of people in a way that is hard to find. Through their highs and lows, Beth and Jennifer have a friendship that is special, and yet exactly what one would expect. They get wrapped up in their own lives and feel terrible when they forget to check in on the other. Lincoln loves his mother, and doesn't want to leave her in the house by herself, but part of him still wants to go off on his own. And everyone clings to the status quo, even when stepping out into the unknown might pay off in spades.

Highs: Seeing a chick-lit style book with a male main character is a rather interesting twist.

Lows: A few parts dragged, and perhaps Lincoln should have listened to his sister sooner, but that's minor.

Verdict: A must-read, especially for the older fans of her YA books.

Further Reading: Eleanor and Park, 'My Sister's Song', Landline

Monday, February 3, 2014

Manga Monday: When an Abnormal isn't Abnormal after all.

Armin has a stunning revelation, and Eren continues to learn to work as part of a group in Attack on Titan Volume 6.

Note: Attack on Titan Volume 6 is part of an ongoing series. Check out the review for Volume 1 here, and Volume 5 here.  Otherwise, read on!