The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book
Rudyard Kipling, 1894, 1895
Disney’s The Jungle Book, 2016

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 – Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie. Debate which is better

Okay, I may have done the challenge slightly backward, in that I saw the new live-action movie and then wanted to re-read the book. I have read the book before, but it’s been a few years. Of course, years before I read the books the first time, I saw the Disney animated movie, and the Chuck Jones specials (Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, The White Seal). But I read the Just So Stories before that... does that count? I guess the timeline is sort of a wash.

Anyhow, none of that is the point. The point is that I adore these books, nearly unreservedly.

I say nearly, because a few of the short stories contain slightly awkward, outdated phrasing or attitudes, but VERY few, considering when these were written.

I don’t know what to cover. I guess first we should talk about Mowgli.

Mowgli is the central character of eight of the fifteen stories that make up the two volumes. (I’m not counting the fifteen connected poems at the moment.) Taken over these stories, his arc is complex and intriguing, and very little of it ends up in either Disney movie. The main points of the first three stories are the only aspects touched on: Mowgli’s adoption, his kidnapping by the monkey tribes, and his (first) fight with Sher Khan.

You think you know this story, about the man-cub raised by wolves, but do you know that he grows up to rule? He is the master of the jungle, and one with nearly all the peoples there, but never truly belonging. He himself uses the bat, caught between rodent and bird, as a metaphor for how he is neither animal nor man.

He receives guidance from wise mentors, but none of them can teach him to be human, only help him along the way and tell him that eventually he will leave. The kid in the new movie does a great job with the story he’s given, but it’s not a complicated story.

I should mention – in case you didn’t know, the new live action movie is an adaptation of the Disney animated movie from 1967. The new film is more nuanced than the animated movie, incorporating more elements from the books, but it’s still missing a lot of what I would want out of a true adaptation.

Let’s discuss a few of the other characters who show up in the movie.

Bagheera, the fierce, protective panther, is the closest to the version in the text, although a key point of his character is omitted - he understands Mowgli’s essential internal tension because he was born in captivity but knew he belonged in the jungle.

King Louie, who is a lot of fun in the new movie, was invented for the original Disney animated film. In the book, the Bandar-log (the monkey people) have no leader, and are scorned for their foolish behavior by most of the jungle peoples. They are part of a pattern - in many of the stories the most foolish or destructive animals are described as behaving like humans.

Sher Khan is fierce and frightening in the film, and murders other animals. In the book, he is dangerous to Mowgli, and he’s a predator, but he is more sneaky and nasty than dangerous to most of the larger creatures. I like that most of his villainy is accomplished not through blunt force, but through manipulating others and exploiting convention.

Kaa and Baloo are both entertaining and interesting characters in the new movie. I personally far prefer their original versions.

In the book, Kaa is not an enemy to Mowgli. The great snake’s wisdom and ferocity save Mowgli many times, even as his hypnotic powers make him a dangerous ally.

Baloo is much less funny in the books. He takes his job (teaching the young wolves the ways of life in the jungle) seriously, and tries to take advantage of Mowgli’s intelligence to teach him everything he can absorb, whether the boy wants it or not.

That’s a major thematic difference from the new film: in the movie, most of the animals object to Mowgli using his human intellect or ability to make tools. In the books, this is not an issue. If it helps, great, whatever it is. There are rules around pack behavior, and not spoiling the hunt for other hunters, but there are no rules against using whatever advantages you have. Bagheera even tells Mowgli to use fire, because it is the weapon of Man.

I want to be clear, I liked the movie. I liked it quite a bit, but in emotional impact, violence, environmental commentary, character complexity, and sheer visceral impression, I find the movie a pale shadow of the book.

And I haven’t even touched on Rikki-Tikki-Tavi and how amazing that story is, or many of the other stories. The White Seal could be studied in the same breath with Watership Down. The Miracle of Purun Bhagat is a subtle, beautiful tale. What the stories have in common is a deep respect for the animal world and the diversity of life and a poetry that speaks directly to my soul.

5 Stars – A Personal Favorite

Paper Girls

Monday, July 18, 2016

Paper Girls
Brian K. Vaughan, Cliff Chiang,, 2016

Premise: Erin delivers the paper in the early morning, but the morning after Halloween isn’t a good time to be out on the streets. There’s teenagers causing mischief, cops looking for teens to bust, and… monsters from another time? Four paper girls team up in this comic that’s part horror, part adventure, and totally 80s. Collects Paper Girls #1-5

I was really intrigued by an excerpt from this book, and of course I’ve enjoyed Vaughan’s work before, so I snapped this up in trade.

I really like how firmly set in its time period it is. The fashions, the (offensive) language, the technology, everything is right. The plot is surreal, mysterious, and potentially really screwed up - so basically what I expected. The dialogue of some of the antagonists is very cleverly written.

Erin, KJ, Tiffany, and Mackenzie are an appropriately diverse group for a piece written today and loosely inspired by the boys-adventure movies of the 80s. Their characters are sketched out quickly but well, and the art style is a perfect match for the writing.

I’ve appreciated Chang’s art before, but I loved it here. The color pallette works perfectly to build the tone, and all the little details are right to build the world.

Overall I enjoyed this quite a bit, I felt it hit the important emotional beats and made me curious to what will happen next. However, there is nothing resolved by the end of Issue 5, just more questions. For all that I did like it, I’ll probably wait for reviews to help me decide whether the story is worth it to keep reading.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Christmas vs. the Fourth of July

Monday, July 11, 2016

Christmas vs. the Fourth of July
Asenath Carver Coolidge, 1908

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a book under 100 pages
Another bonus review on Mainlining Christmas! This week, read about a weird little book from the early 1900s.

Christmas in July Special!

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

No normal review today. Instead, I have a snarky book post up over at Mainlining Christmas, as part of our Christmas in July special event! Enjoy!

The Uplift War (Uplift Series)

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Uplift War
David Brin, 1987

Hugo Winner - 1988

Premise: The inhabitants of the colony on the damaged planet of Garth know they are in danger. They don’t know why Galactic strife is focused on the species of Earth, but humans, chimps, and alien diplomats prepare to defend their colony from a larger societal struggle they barely understand.

This book is technically a sequel to Startide Rising, but this is a completely separate story taking place very far away from the prior book. The events of the prior book have an impact on this one, but there is no need to read this series in order or in its entirety to comprehend the story.

To recap the setting, these books take place in a future in which the sentient species of Earth (humans plus the genetically modified neo-chimps and neo-dolphins) have recently joined a greater galactic civilization. One of the major principles of this civilization is uplift. A recognized species can “uplift” a pre-sentient species into a spacefaring race, which then enters into indentured servitude to the older patron race until they become fully fledged members of galactic society. Humans are a bit of a scandal because they burst onto the scene apparently without a patron race.

The Uplift War has a lot of the same positive elements as Startide Rising, in different proportions. The portrayal of various Galactic races is more nuanced, as there are major characters of non-earthling species. The Gubru who attack the colony have a fascinating theory of government based on a three-part balance, and it affects everything about their lives, even their sexualities. I loved learning about the empathic, playful Tymbrimi who are sympathetic toward the humans even when they don’t understand them.

The neo-chimps play a much larger role in this book, and I really liked getting more about how they struggle with their place as a young race - what do they keep from their more “primitive” days? What would it be like to look at living members of your species who were at a very different level of sapience, and how much say would you want to have in how your species changed in the next generation?

The story is full of adventure and action, but the star of the book is really the world-building and the character growth. It’s an interesting thought experiment mixed with an environmentalist message. The author’s note at the end states the question outright: “Perhaps we are the first to talk and think and build and aspire, but we may not be the last...Some day we may be judged by just how well we served, when alone we were Earth’s caretakers.”

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

World War Z

Monday, June 20, 2016

World War Z
Max Brooks, 2006 (audio edition 2007)

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award

Premise: After the end of the Zombie War, journalist Max Brooks travels around the world to collect the stories of survivors, to keep alive the memory of an unprecedented struggle.

Look, I finished an audiobook! It helps that a) I have a new commute that takes a long time, and b) this book is basically ideal to record as an audiobook. The structure of multiple narrators and interviews is perfect for this full-cast format.

I can also understand both why Hollywood snapped it up for a movie and why the adaptation was reportedly terrible. This would be a fantastic fictional documentary, or a series of short films. It would not work as a single-character adventure vehicle.

I really enjoyed listening to this book, although I went back and forth on how realistic I felt it was. The immediacy and detail of each account was nicely nuanced, and the voices and passion of the narrators suck you into each personal story. I loved how many different cultures and perspectives are represented, although it does occasionally lapse into tropes. (Spoilerish: a blind samurai fighting zombies in the forest... really?)

I did at some point realize how few of the voices were female, which diminished my enjoyment somewhat. This edition was abridged from the book, however, so maybe there is a greater range of voices in the original (or the extended audio!)

The multiple perspectives keep the story from feeling too obvious. As you piece together the narrative, you find a skillful portrayal of global bureaucracy set against individual struggle. I liked the subtle touches, for example, the different slang for zombies used by different characters, and the various terms for different major phases of the war.

I liked each individual story, but by the end of the full book, I barely remembered the beginning. For me, this is one of the main drawbacks of audiobooks - how much longer they take. I might try another one given my commute, but I’m not in a hurry.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book

Inside Out and Back Again

Monday, June 13, 2016

Inside Out and Back Again
Thanhha Lai, 2011

Challenge Book! Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2016 - Read a middle grade novel

Premise: Hà is just a girl when she must leave her home, her country, and seek a new life in America. Follow her family’s journey through a series of poems chronicling the year 1975.

This was recommended by a friend who is studying children’s literature, and I can see why. It’s approachable and an easy read, but emotionally, culturally, and historically complex.

Lai is writing directly from her own experience, as she fled Vietnam with her mother and siblings at the end of the war. I think the author fully succeeds in her aim to convey the emotional reality of being a child going through that experience.

The narrative voice is shaped by the form, and the short, evocative phrases of the poems make tangible Hà’s ambivalence, her anger or sadness or worry, her hesitancy. They give the book immediacy in all the description of small details as well as a formal quality at times. That rhythm puts me in mind of the ceremonies the book opens and closes on, and the sound of some speakers who learned English as a second language.

Hà goes through a seemingly impossible transition, having to abandon everything and go from being a good student in a culture she loved to a refugee who doesn’t speak the language. She can only report what she observes and feels and knows, but it’s enough for an in-depth picture. I imagine that this book is a good way to talk to children of many backgrounds about what it feels like to be different.

It’s a beautiful little book with a lot of sadness in it, but some hope and optimism as well.

4 Stars - A Very Good Book