World-building romp through summer, part I

I'm not one to take on summer reading projects. In fact, whenever I try to predetermine what I'll want to read weeks in advance, my brain seems to turn on whatever choice I make and lead me to do the exact opposite. However, when bookseller and author Josh Christie tweeted about Junot Diaz's MIT world-building class syllabus, I couldn't resist dedicating my summer to reading through his class book list.

What was so special about this particular syllabus? After reading The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao earlier this year, I developed mad respect and a bit of a writing crush on Diaz. Couple that with being in the thick of trying to create my own fictional world on paper, and it was game on...well, with a bit of trepidation. Science fiction/fantasy books aren't what I consider my traditional jam, so I wasn't entirely sure how much I would actually enjoy this project.

Spoiler Alert: My fears were unfounded! While, yes, I got a bit tired of alien worlds and yearned for a bit of the modern world I live in, I found the entire endeavor really expansive and energizing. While I'm still not done thinking through what I took away from these titles when considered as a unit, I've got plenty of interim thoughts I'm excited to share!

(Let's see if I can manage even a hint of succinctness here.)

Sunshine by Robin McKinley - Billed as "for people who love Buffy the Vampire Slayer", I thought I'd give this one a whirl first given that vampires are a fantasy world I've dabbled in. The book is set at some point in the future following the Voodoo Wars, a war where we battled Others (demons, weres, zombies, sorcerers) and Vampires. In the post-war town of New Arcadia, we meet our protagonist, Rae Seddon, aka Sunshine, who loves her simple life, getting up every morning at 4am to bake her famous cinnamon rolls and other wicked goodies at the family business, the hometown coffee shop. This bucolic scene lasts all of five minutes before it all goes to crap when she decides to hang out by their old cabin by the lake to clear her head.

Some of my favorite parts of this book were those where Sunshine was embracing the sun and light, channeling her magical power. I've got a thing for trees (no, not that kind of thing), and the tree imagery woven throughout the story was beautifully wrought.

"If my mom is the lightning bolt, I'm the tallest tree on the plain. That's the way it is." Not a perfect example, but one I can put my hands on. It makes it easier for me to forgive Sunshine's lack of confidence. I realize we need that kind of inner conflict to keep it interesting, but I'd have liked to see at least one more notch on the badass belt.

I adored the cast of side characters that populated this world. Though many aren't fully developed, they add a rich layer of community--just enough to remind me of Stars Hollow--and help flesh this world out, a world that (to me) felt incredibly small. Instead of taking us all around the country, McKinley chose to focus on New Arcadia, really developing Charlie's, Sunshine's apartment, lake house, even nowheresville and providing enough detail so that I could build movie sets in my head.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller - This graphic novel really took me by surprise. After dipping my toe into the world of X-Men, I dreaded another traditional superhero and steeled myself for Batman. Seriously, the preconceived notions I brought with me required paying extra for baggage.

Some of my complaints about comics revolve around the fact that the written word tends to leave me unsatisfied, but the Dark Knight left me thoroughly sated. It turned out to be meaty and thought provoking. Let's move beyond how it read like a book and talk about how it turned many of my preconceived notions on the heads. Batman is old, tired and out of shape? I feel you, brother! Honestly, though, a 55-year old hero who wonders what the hell he's doing it for?! To me, that's an interesting story to follow. I liked it even more when I realized that Miller had written Robin as a girl (in 1986).

When thinking of how it was translated to the movies, I can see how Christian Bale tried to channel the pain and conflict of Wayne as depicted by Miller, and while I liked the movies, I now feel like there could have been some interesting casting choices made to play it a bit closer to the source material. Christian Bale doesn't convey tired and conflicted for me in the same way the Miller's Batman did.

A Princess of Mars by ER Burroughs - I'm not going to do this book justice, since I should have taken the time to jot down some notes once I finished it. However, I can tell you that I was surprised that I enjoyed this even a little. A book written in 1916 about a man who gets transported to Mars? Yeah, contrary to whatever you may be thinking, these things are not the kind of things that usually resonate with me. I also soon realized that this was the source text for Disney's tragic disaster known as John Carter.

Given the time period the book was written in, I started off strong, really keeping my eye out for racial stereotypes. I mean the white man does get transported to Mars and finds himself defending himself from a savage race of war-mongering, green martians and trying to teach and "save" them. Green warrior martians weren't the only inhabitants of Mars. The book also describes the more urban red martians who have created a more civilized society. Eventually, however, I ended up getting pulled in by the story and focused less on analyzing what the author was (or was not) trying to say. I'd really need to read it again for all that. The story arc, itself, felt pretty traditional--misunderstood stranger in a foreign land fighting to survive, falls in love with a local, catalytic event, goes home. Definitely not surprising to read, after the fact, that this book is considered a classic example of early 20th century pulp fiction.

Alright, turns out I can't be all that succinct. I'll be back with part II later!