Pye takes an interesting concept and spins out a fascinating novel. Drowning Room straddles the genres of historical fiction and modernist memory. ItPye takes an interesting concept and spins out a fascinating novel. Drowning Room straddles the genres of historical fiction and modernist memory. It reminds me most of Jean Rhys' wonderful Good Morning Midnight, set in the early days of Dutch colonization of America.
The book is beautifully written, with its factual underpinnings almost invisibly slipped into Gretje's stark narration. The mystery of the corpse laid out in the cold, the lonely woman protecting the body, and the two strange children she has with her are lovingly crafted. And the reveals are both unexpected and satisfying.
Unfortunately, despite all of Pye's historical flourishes, this isn't a book for the historical book club set that has made bestsellers out of English monarchy. The narrative unfolds too haphazardly, skipping with the narrator (Gretje) through memory and story telling. There are questions of deceptive story telling, omission and self-deception that create an intricate web....more
Margaret Atwood's last installment was neither as good as Year of the Flood (the best book of the trilogy, and among the best of the decade), nor as iMargaret Atwood's last installment was neither as good as Year of the Flood (the best book of the trilogy, and among the best of the decade), nor as interesting as Oryx and Crake. MaddAddam wraps up the series with a bow. It doesn't quite answer the long term question of if or how humans might survive the waterless flood, and it features an epilogue worth of a Victorian novel- fast forwarding an undisclosed number of years and telling what ultimately happened to the main characters.
My biggest complaint was how small the world is; in the end, it turns out that everyone crossed paths with everyone, and that over the course of three books we actually met everyone at the top of the food/ information chain....more
A disappointing installment in one of my favorite worlds of swords and sorcery. A being of unimaginable power executes a plan of potentially catastropA disappointing installment in one of my favorite worlds of swords and sorcery. A being of unimaginable power executes a plan of potentially catastrophic proportions. And the heroes get involved because... they were there? because they think with their swords more than their heads?
The consequence to the world is incidental, despite 700 pages of dire predictions.
A trilogy of interesting characters, all wasted....more
When I received an advanced copy of E.L. Doctorow's newest novel, Andrew's Brain from the fine folks at Random House, I was excited.
Although Doctorow's novels have been hit or miss for me (enjoyed Ragtime and The March, loved Book of Daniel, couldn't finished World's Fair), I am always on board with the prospect of unreliable narrators and stories about story-telling. And Andrew's Brain offers us a doozy.
Andrew is a cognitive scientist with a capacity of self-inflicted wounds. He describes himself as a haphazard scholar, an indifferent lover and a compulsive shoot-from-the-hip decision maker. His life work studying the chemical miracle that makes the brain into the mind has left him without the superhuman deductive abilities he thinks such a study should bestow.
One of the things I like most about Andrew's Brain, especially compared to Doctorow's previous work, is the smallness of the cast. No personified masses in this novel; Andrew tells his story to someone he calls "Doc," who might be a psychiatrist or a prison warden or both. Andrew tells us about his two wives, and his two rivals for those women- his first wife's new husband, and his second wife's ex-boyfriend. The story told through dialogue, it has all the self-deprecating humor of Portnoy's Complaint without the sexual sensationalism.
As a small jab at modern literature, my wife and I divide our two bookcases of 20th and 21st century fiction: on the left are the lonely men, on the right are the awesome women. Like Roth's canon, Doctorow's newest work is the interior space of a lonely man, the kaleidoscopic tale he tells himself within the privacy of his head to keep trudging on in the world. Without giving too much away, Andrew's wounds are real, his trauma is rooted in the modern age. Andrew's story is told haphazardly, the punchline sometimes proceeding the joke, the aftermath often shown to us before the decision. It is, I think, about the way we piece our lives together and make sense of ourselves, even when that should be impossible....more
I finished the second book of In Search of Lost Time over Thanksgiving weekend, and I was struck by its deliberate pace.
The Victorians move their books slowly, and I dislike them for that. Dickens in particular is a long jangle of plot twists that never seem to go anywhere, but Austen and the Brontes, too, move at a snail's pace. There are twenty thousand words for every action.
Proust moves even more slowly, but I enjoy it more. It's not the slowness of action and inaction filling the page, it's that he fills every page with thoughts. What is the narrator thinking, what does he think the person he's talking to is thinking, what is that person actually thinking, and then finally, what do they say to each other?
It's an extraordinary novel, but at times it feels like an exercise. In the same way that Joyce challenges his readers to keep up with him (spattering his pages with references to Greek mythology and the Latin mass), Proust seems to challenge the reader to follow him down the rabbit hole into his own head. His passages on memory and longing for the possible strike me the most.
I'm thankful I have an edition with key plot points summarized, because otherwise I might have become hopelessly lost in the unclear passage of time....more
In Monster on the Hill, Rob Harrell of Top Shelf has put together a story that is begging to be turned into a Pixar film.
The monster Rayburn isn't particularly excited about his job terrorizing the people of Stoker-on-Avon. But terror is big business in this Victorian world, and the town fathers enlist a local inventor to prod Ray into action. With a tag along urchin in tow, the trio set out to visit one of Ray's old school buddies to help restore Ray's self-confidence.
Unfortunately, while out of town, a real monster shows up. Ray and his friends must race back to Stoker-on-Avon to deal with the crisis.
A children's story with the right mix of morals and hijinx, my favorite part of Monster on the Hill was the brilliantly drawn world Ray and his friends inhabit. With bold colors and odd shapes, Harrell builds a Seuss-like world filled with quirks and just enough magic to keep the readers on their toes....more
When I don't know, I turn to Wikipedia: In 2012, Peter Hitchens wrote that The Daughter of Time was "one of the most important books ever written." On its publication Anthony Boucher called the book "one of the permanent classics in the detective field.... one of the best, not of the year, but of all time." Dorothy B. Hughes also praised it, saying it is "not only one of the most important mysteries of the year, but of all years of mystery". This book was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list by the UK Crime Writers' Association in 1990. But why?
I am not a mystery reader, but The Daughter of Time came up in my book club, so I read it.
Most mysteries fall in one of two camps: the transparent mystery, where we know the guilty party by the end of the third chapter and merely mark time until the hero figures it out; or the deus ex machina mystery, where the hero has deduced some vital clue that is withheld from the readers until after the final confrontation (you could also call this The Sherlock).
Daughter of Time is neither of these. Our hero is bedridden, convalescing after being injured while capturing the last baddie. Stuck in his bed, Daughter... breaks one of the cardinals rules of story-telling: almost none of the action happens in front of us. Instead, characters enter the hospital room, tell the hero what's happened and then leave to have more adventures while hero stays home.
In this way, Daughter... has elements of psychological thriller and melodrama. I was far more interested in how the hero handled his incapacitation than I was in the mystery that he was engaged in.
Maybe we live too much in the reality tv era. CSI and Law & Order regularly take their fictional characters into contact with "real world" cases. But I'm sure this must have been a novel approach for a novel in 1951.
Is that what made reviewers hail Daughter... as an instant classic? Or is there something else I'm missing?...more
Would I have made it through The Guermantes Way without the plot synopsis and page reference numbers in the appendix?
More importantly, would the third book of Proust's In Search of Lost Time have scuttled my entire project to read his masterpiece?
The Guermantes Way was a bit like reading Leviticus (which I did in a different phase of self-abuse). It was dull, obsessively detailed, and light on characters. To be sure, Proust fills his book with important people, but they are people who were (I think) more important to the world outside the book or (I can hope) will be more important in later chapters.
The most valuable characters in this volume seem to be the grandmother, who does little but die and whose death doesn't impact the Narrator in quite the way I'd have hoped, and Albertine, who returns but is much less interesting than I found her in Within a Budding Grove.
Maybe my disappointment comes from growing to dislike the Narrator's social climbing and the incumbent attention to heritage. At the conclusion of The Guermantes Way, I certainly feel ready to write a screed against the bourgeois excesses of early 20th century France. These people are society, but they seem to do nothing, contribute nothing, and know nothing more than their own petty social caste.
And maybe my disappointment comes from the Narrator's growing dominance of the story arc. My favorite chapter to date has been "Swann in Love" from Swann's Way, and closely following it, the passages from the end of Within a Budding Grove featuring Albertine, Andree and Gisele. The Narrator needs to share the stage....more
While the Pirates rolled over the Reds on Tuesday night, I read Mike Shannon and Scott Hannig's graphic novel biography of Fred Hutchinson, Hutch.
An under-appreciated pitcher in his era, Hutch boasted great command but never racked up enough wins to garner more than a single All-Star appearance. His Tigers teams of baseball's golden age were overshadowed in the American League by the Yankees, who would take the pennant in seven of Hutch's ten seasons. In the only World Series appearance of his career, at age 20, he pitched one inning, gave up a homerun and walked a batter.
Clearly, this is the story of a good man who never stood at the peak of his craft, but who loved the game and worked hard anyway. He'd become a player-manager with the Tigers, and then win Manager of the Year for the Cardinals. Then, he'd lead the Cincinnati Reds to the 1961 pennant. But the Yankees in '61 where the Yankees of Mantle and Maris, and the Reds would lose in five games. That was Hutch's last pennant; in the spring of 1964, he'd share with the world that he was battling lung cancer, and 3 weeks after the end of the season, he died. Baseball would create the Hutch Award in his memory.
Shannon and Hannig have set themself a difficult but admirable task: to bring a second-tier hero of the 50s and 60s to life. They do this in part by establishing (dubiously) Hutches' place in the history of the game: he's born the year of the Black Sox scandal; he makes his MLB debut May 2, 1939 against the Yankees, on the day Lou Gehrig removes himself from the lineup; his managerial career sees the arrival of Frank Robinson and Pete Rose. They try to position him as a bridge across distinct eras of baseball.
The book's big flaw is that neither the writing nor the artwork takes the lead at any point in the story. Rather than a series of scenes, rather than capturing voices and characters, the narrative is expository occasionally punctuated by a press quote. This "reading the box score" approach might be alright with visionary art to accompany it, but the books' 2x3 frames creep along page after page. Individually, Hannig's watercolor inspired frames are lovely, clearly the product of Hannig's search for the "specific, historical detail" Shannon references in the preface.
But because there is so little dialogue and so much of the action occurs on the field, Hannig's art feels like snapshots of ballplayers too cartoonish to be photo-realism, but not childish enough to capture the innocence of cartoons. I compare Hannig's work with the vibrant and evocative watercolor art of a book like Kate Williamson's in At a Crossroads: Caught Between a Rock and My Parents' Place, and I can't help seeing how a more dreamlike quality could have deepened the book's impact. If we're not old enough to remember these players, to bring with us our connections to them, Hutch doesn't bring them to life compellingly enough to make us cheer in the dramatic and heartbreaking moments.
And there are heartrending moments in Hutch; this is a story worth telling. The book is meticulously endnoted, with 20 pages of additional material, a bibliography and a detailed index of its 184 page story. This is a book of research meant for a classroom or for a museum....more
I've never loved The Great Gatsby. I have not yet seen the movie, though I might once it's on Netflix. Unlike one of my friends, I do not have a tattoo of the famous green light.
But Fitzgerald is so often held up as the epitome of his genre, and at a certain point it's hard to consider yourself a fan of 20th century American literature, particularly a fan of the literature that explores the construction of masculinity, if you've never picked up more of Fitzgerald than Gatsby and a few odd short stories.
This Side of Paradise left me cold, which I found charming. We are not supposed to like Amory Blaine, the brilliant but erratic con-man in training who is the novel's anti-hero. Money and power are the central movers of Amory's world, and the two spin around each other like water down a drain. The pursuit of both syphons all kindness from Amory, especially when his focus is power over the women he pursues.
Why would I like this book? It's misogynistic, materialistic, mean spirited. Amory is self-involved and self-aggrandizing. But I found This Side of Paradise funny.
I read it ironically, as a man in the 21st century should. Like Main Street (published the same year) or The Damnation of Theron Ware (written in 1896), Fitzgerald's characters are too much larger than life to be believable in the realist/ naturalist tradition. And, like other great works of satire, it robs the protagonist of any lasting triumphs....more
I spent a long time reading Sheri Booker's Nine Years Under, and now I've spent nearly as long thinking about what to say about it.
Booker's prose is fluid and engaging. Her promise as a writer is immense, but her story didn't engage me the way I wanted it to. Maybe because I read A Chance to Win, and it is such a great book about inner city life, that I wished for too much from Booker.
First, she has the disadvantage of being a memoirist and limited to her own story, as opposed to a reporter/ biographer who has multiple story lines to choose from.
Second, perhaps Booker's publicist did her a disservice by promising With AIDS and gang violence threatening to wipe out a generation of black men, Wylie was never short on business. As families came together to bury one of their own, Booker was privy to their most intimate moments of grief and despair. But along with the sadness, Booker encountered moments of dark humor: brawls between mistresses and widows, and car crashes at McDonald’s with dead bodies in tow. While she never got over her terror of the embalming room, Booker learned to expect the unexpected and to never, ever cry. While all those things are evident in Booker's memoir, they never feel like they take center stage; they are scenery, but the play is about a young girl struggling through the process of growing up, through having and leaving a beloved first job.
What was most missing from Nine Years Under was what I thought was its most obvious angle: Booker's parents. Her mother appears as half a character; she is her cancer, appearing only in horrid cycles of remission and recurrence. Her father is a presence but not a character. He's a Baltimore cop who can't watch The Wire because it hits too close to home, who has dedicated his life to make sure his daughter makes it out. But he never speaks, never offers advice or counsel.
Without her family, the characters of her life are limited to the funeral home's major players. But their interactions seem too limited to truly fill the surrogate family roles Booker assigns them. What was perhaps a compelling story in a 10,000 word magazine feature because drawn out and overwrought in a 300 page memoir.
Perhaps, in another few years, we'll see a second installment from Booker. I'd read it....more
Bernard Malamud's first short story collection, The Magic Barrel, won the 1959 National Book Award. Does that make it a great book?
I am drawn to 20th and 21st century male writers, especially to Americans. In part, this must reflect the sexism of the publishing industry, especially early in the century. Partly, it must reflect a prejudice that I have (that most boys must have, or else why would the psuedonyms JK Rowling and SE Hinton and Franklin W. Dixon exist?).
In half-jest, when I last re-organized and pruned my books, I filled an entire bookcase with books about lonely men. Roth and Hemingway and Miller and Coetzee and Faulkner.
But I was disappointed by the lonely men populating Malamud's thirteen stories. Even those who have women in their lives don't know how to allow themselves to be helped. The women are either at home with the children ("Behold the Key"), harping about money ("The Bill"), laying in bed dying ("Angel Levine"), or prizes to be idealize, won or discarded ("The Magic Barrel," "The Lady of the Lake," and "The Girl of My Dreams," respectively).
For fun, let's apply the Bechdel Test to The Magic Barrel. 1) Are there two or more women in it that have names? Yes. 2) Do they talk to each other? No. 3) Do they talk about something other than a man? No.
I think the Bechdel test has plenty of flaws. Primarily, that the development or failure of a relationship between two people is the most ripe topic for art in human history, and for most of human history, characters in stories were limited to one of two genders. Relatedly, given the constrictions of focused story-telling (unless you're going the Ulysses route and throwing in everything), once we establish the development of a relationship as a theme, the audience expects nearly all scenes and conversations to revolve around that theme). So yes, we should expect nearly every love story to fail the test (and, in their fashion, each of Malamud's short stories is a love story).
But all the same, I was surprised by the uniformity of the characters in The Magic Barrel. Too many lonely men, going about their same old lives the same old way....more
It's been nearly 3 weeks since I finished the first book of Marcel Proust's masterpiece, In Search of Lost Time. I enjoyed Swann's Way, but I did not love it. The first 100 pages or so were a slog.
When I rail against the Victorians, I often forget that the early 20th century was still chock full of Victorian values and ideals... and ideas about what makes good writing.
I suppose what separates the great works of the 19th century from those of the 21st century revolves around immediacy. The Victorian ideal was the slow build to the big reveal. Think about Scrooge standing over his own grave, the remorse of Frankenstein's monster, and the mad wife in Mr. Rochester's attic. Proust's novel might be the ultimate in Victorian fiction.
It takes nearly 150 pages for the novel's arc to come into view: the unnamed child narrator's adoration for his mother, and his facination with Swann (interesting that the narrator has no interest in his father- this book is a Freudian's fieldday); Swann's failed romance with Odette; the narrator's infatuation with Gilberte, and the revelation that Gilberte is the daughter of Swann and Odette (who is now somehow Mme. Swann).
Although I expected Proust to take his time unfurling his plot, I was still surprised at just how slowly it appeared through the narrator's web of recollections. I was left repeatedly asking, "just how do you know that?," especially about the chapter "Swann in Love." I trust that how certain things came to be known to the narrator will become clear in the later installments.
The thing that surprised me about Swann's Way is just how funny it is. The family soap opera, especially the infirmed aunt was pleasant beach reading. When we say "masterpiece" we often mean old and dry and boring. Finishing Swann's Way left me excited to begin Within a Budding Grove....more
I dragged myself through Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi as part of the Freshman Reading Experience at the school where I work. The students I met with didn't even make it that far.
I wonder a lot about this book. The students Dr. Nafisi spend so much time with are obviously important to her. And, from a sociological standpoint, their struggle to create a personal space in the midst of one of the most oppressive regimes on Earth certainly has value.
But Dr. Nafisi's attempt to bring that struggle to life through the works of Nabokov, Fitzgerald, Austen and James left me cold. Reading Lolita in Tehran struggled to find its own identity- not quite enough about books and their ideas to captivate me, not quite enough a personal memoir to become open and accessible. Perhaps it is the most accessible book of its kind, but that is being damned by faint praise.
The thing RLiT lacked most was a definitive moment of choice. It was, instead, a study in the daily struggle of life in a totalitarian state. Of course, this makes it true in a way literature can rarely afford to be true. I think of Saul Bellow's Dangling Man as the distillation of the Superfluous Man, and in RLiT, Nafisi repeatedly refers to herself as "irrelevant," a superfluous woman in a country violently opposed to her kind of womanhood.
This lack of "moment" christianized into repetition and self-referentialism. Some of her stories are repeated with little variation. Some of her ideas (like her irrelevance) are referenced several times before they are expanded on and explained. While the book mostly flows forwards chronologically, it takes occasional leaps that make it difficult to follow.
It didn't help my experience that I listened to most of the book while taking a trip for work. The audiobook is atrocious; the narrator speaks so slowly that the less than 400 pages of the book take 16 hours to trudge through....more
I have a tall stack of short story collections on the "to-read" shelf of my Bookcase of Unread Books. I've read a number of stunning short story collections in the last couple of years. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt, The Lone Surfer of Montana Kansas, Postcards, Natasha and Other Stories. None of them were as gut-wrenching, as multifaceted, as damn good as Kristiana Kahakuwila's This is Paradise.
Across six short stories (really, a couple of them, "This is Paradise" and "Portrait of a Good Father," could stand as novellas), Kahakuwila tracks the difference between outsider, native and local on the Hawaiian islands. This is a topic that has fascinated me for a number of years, since I read Zamora Linmark's Rolling the R's.
Race/ nativeness is a major force in Kahakuwila's Hawaii, though it can be overcome with proper respect and caution. In the title story, a guitar player moves from outsider to local in the course of one well-played song, buttressed by his reverence for his family and for the traditions he inherited from them. At the same time, a young girl is kept outside because she doesn't understand (really, can't begin to imagine) how "Paradise" looks to people who live there all the time and deal with tourists tromping through their home.
At the same time, Kahakuwila strikes universal notes of growth, assuming responsibilities, taking a role in the family in a number of her stories. Most of her characters are physically young, setting out on their lives: the girl on the prowl for a fling in paradise; another girl, an aspiring cockfighter following in her dead father's footsteps; a young man (Hawaiian heritage but a mainlander) preparing to propose to his local Hawaiian girlfriend; the granddaughter at her grandmother's funeral. The rest are emotionally young: the closeted gay son home to watch his father die; the father and husband and lover who bottles up his emotions so deeply that he fails to be adequate in any role. Her men especially are properly stunted, as befits the hallmark tradition of American literature and film.
This Is Paradise goes on sale in July, and it deserves to be in your must-read pile....more
When I wrote the other day that it took me a long time to warm up to Neil Gaiman, I neglected to mention one important book: Good Omens, Gaiman's hilarious collaboration with Terry Pratchett. Seriously, Good Omens is one of the funniest books I've ever read.
Pratchett is another of those writers whose fans have scared me away from his work. They talk about the number of books in his Discworld series (40!) with such fervent admiration that I just lose interest. But, there comes a time when you have to try a thing to be sure you won't like it, and when you comes across a book in a used book shop (actually, in the archetypical used book shop), well then you know it's time.
I read Eric, which you know is a retelling of Faust because it has Faust written on the cover.
It wasn't terrible.
Sure, the character Rincewind is obviously a recurring character (subsequent research reveals that Eric is 4th of eleven appearances throughout the series), and Prachett doesn't do much to fill first-timers in on what's going on. It's all bright and flashy and funny and running. I get the jokes, I guess; the Discworld version of the Mayans and the siege of Troy and a journey to meet the Creator of the World (it's the fellow's job title).
Maybe Eric was the wrong book in the series to pick up, or maybe fantasy slapstick doesn't do it for me. If Eric had been much longer than its 200 pages, I might not have finished.
Or maybe it's because my introduction to Pratchett came through Good Omens (seriously, why aren't you reading it yet?). It's a little like watching Empire Strikes Back or Raiders of the Lost Ark, and then being disappointed with Harrison Ford's performance in Air Force One.
I'll read another Terry Pratchett book someday, but you'll have to recommend it....more
Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman It took me a long time to warm up to Neil Gaiman. He was one of those writers some of the guys I knew in college idolized. "Oh my god, you have to read American Gods, it's just great. It's sort of like Hercules meets Superman. I can't really describe it, you just have to read it."
I'll pass on anything that inspires that level of fanboyism. I'm never as impressed by the clever concepts and the inevitable deus ex machina plot twists.
But I finally couldn't avoid The Sandman, and I loved it. As a (stupendously long) graphic novel, it builds its own sturdy little universe. The way Sandman tucks itself into the comic book world you already know is a real joy to watch. And having a book (or movie or tv series) be self-supporting is important to me.
And that opened a door.
I had seen (and enjoyed) Coraline the movie, so for a recent road trip, Carol brought along the audiobook. We've found we really enjoy children's books in the car. Children's books are meant to be read aloud, so with a good narrator, they can really come to life.
The plot is largely the same: Coraline finds a door in her new house, and bored by her inattentive parents, she slips down the rabbit hole, where she meets the doting but domineering Other Mother. Coraline wants to leave, but the Other Mother has kidnapped Coraline's parents. To free them, Coraline must beat the Other Mother at a game of hide and seek.
What surprised me about the book was the how many fairytale tropes and childhood insecurities it really plays with. The fear of being ignored and forgotten. The challenge of making the wrong choice, of not knowing how to go on. The danger of being dissatisfied with life, and the danger of wishing for something different. How things are rarely what they appear to be.
Most of all, what I liked about Coraline was that it wasn't shy about being complicated. It's a big world, after all, and our decisions have consequences. Coraline made choices early on that she didn't really understand were choices, and then she had to deal with the ramifications. And life is like that, though I don't usually expect to see that kind of sentiment in a children's book. So maybe I liked Coraline because it wasn't really a children's book....more
When I was first discovering that there were graphic novels out there that dealt with real life, not superheroes and spandex, but everyday life, one of the best books I came across was Jeffrey Brown's Clumsy. That Clumsy was about the difficulties and awkwardness of long distance relationships a topic I know a little about, only made it feel more true.
So I was thrilled when the folks over at Top Shelf gave me to the chance to review Jeffrey Brown's A Matter of Life, which comes out next month.
A Matter of Life is about Brown's struggle with religion, his parent's faith and their refusal to reject him despite his rejection of faith. Where Craig Thompson's Blankets is about the breaking of relationships over faith (and, in that way, echoes Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man's bildungsroman), Brown's life never seems particularly ruffled by his decision. Of course, there is some tension and there are awkward moments. But on the whole, Brown's life is happy, good, normal. A normal life isn't usually best-seller material, but when the story is told as honestly as Brown tells it, normal life becomes compelling.
It's tempting to give the story of our lives structure. When you meet a person for the first time, try not to ask them who they are, what they do, or how they got here. But not all of life fits together so nicely. Harvey Pekar was the master of laying out what happened, and letting the readers fill in the structural blanks (though he told his story so many times that in some ways the telling was its own structure). Jeffrey Brown is as good as Pekar at showing the readers events and allowing us the space to enjoy life's unpredictability.
Actually, more about the awkward moments: Brown is the king of them. Tongue-tied around girls, oblivious to social cues and lost in his day-dreams, no one writes awkward like Jeffrey Brown. Where Thompson is moody and Pekar is relentlessly driven, Brown is comic. Throughout his books, there's a sense that no real person could be so bumbling. But mercifully, as the story cuts between his childhood and his blooming fatherhood, we get the sense that Brown understands just how normal he is....more
Steven Johnson's Ghost Map was brilliant while it focused on the heart of its story: the unlikely collaboration between Dr. John Snow and the Reverend Henry Whitehead in combating London's recurring cholera outbreaks in the mid-nineteenth century.
Johnson steps deftly between the science and the sociology of the era; he explores the prejudices of the city's leaders, the moralistic and pseudo-religious views undermining theories about the spread of disease, and the technological advances accompanying London's transformation from an Elizabethan city to a modern metropolis.
Snow and Whitehead are fascinating men. A little bit Sherlock Holmes and a little bit Tetrius Lydgate, each provides the elbow grease that spurs a revolution in how we think about disease that can look, in retrospect, like the nexus of progress and good luck. Johnson shows us the hard work Snow and Whitehead put into their search for the cause and cure for cholera, which was for each of them, a consuming and noble hobby.
I recommend that story whole-heartedly.
What I don't recommend, however, is Johnson's epilogue. Technical and repetitive, the epilogue lacks all of the grace of the main text. Worst, it's long. I listened to Ghost Map in the car on a recent trip, and the epilogue starts on the 6th disc and lasts the entire 7th disc. It's almost as though Johnson wrote Ghost Map for public consumption, to be read by laymen and students, like so many successful recent works of non-fiction (The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks springs to mind). And then, knowing that more serious academics were likely to quote from his work, Johnson reitterated his thesis in every paragraph of his epilogue....more
Is it despite or because of Archeologists of Shadows: The Resistance's slick graphics that it reminds me of a video game?
RPGs are one of my favorite forms, but they (almost) all follow the same trope: we, the heroes, dive into the world and are slowly introduced to its key elements. We are Neo, and we need a Morpheus to walk us slowly through the game mechanics. We are Frodo, lost if not for Strider's explanations It's a trope underscoring one of the great weaknesses of science fiction- as the world becomes more unrecognizable, the author's impulse is to explain. And Archeologists is, at times, unrecognizable from the modern world, a cyberpunk alternative to The Matrix, where humanity has become the machines.
The really great works of science fiction simply pull us headfirst into the world, knowing we'll pick it up as we go along. For all of the (just) criticism leveled against George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire (sorry to have brought it up in successive posts), one thing it does well is trusting the reader to swim along in a cascade of information. This is why the story is so much more illuminating upon re-reading. Habibi, Ender's Game, Slaughterhouse Five; these books never really worry that the reader won't get it, they just plow on through.
Fuentes and Clarey strike a middle path. That the main characters of Archeologists of Shadows stumble through their world, finding just the right combination of wary but helpful strangers, nearly made me set the first volume aside. That their success appears to have been part of a more elaborate scheme by the hegemonic enemy sets up quite the Chekov's Gun. Either Fuentes and Clarey have a masterpiece or a dud; if there is a payoff waiting worthy of the immense cliffhangers provided by this first volume, this will be a series worth digging into.
Adding to mystery, quite a few characters make reference to "the gods" and "The Book of References." This speaks to a shared culture which the readers have only been given a second-hand glimpse. This is what I want, and at the same time, it fills me with dread. For that payoff to come, it has to come out of the culture that's been built at the beginning. For Archeologists to be a masterpiece, the payoff can't be like Harry Potter's horcruxes, a deus ex machina solution that appeared only at the end of the tale.
It's the art work of Archeologists that really steals the show. The mechanization of the world shows in the way every panel gleams- too much metal reflecting light. And even the frames have been bolted into place. The only downside is that, with fewer than 50 pages to get to know the heroes, I'm left feeling very little connection to the characters, and I often find them difficult to tell apart, especially in the shadowy profiles that abound. Of course, how well did we know Dream after one volume of Sandman?
The story is "To be continued..." and Fuentes and Clarey have set a high bar for their next installment....more
Of course, if you made it to the Open Mic, you already know what I've been re-reading.
I read a lot of memoirs in graphic novel form, and that is not what Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira is.
For all that made it groundbreaking in the 1980s (one of the first manga to be translated into English), volume one of Akira is also a throwback. The sound effects leap off the page like the old Batman live action tv show. The set-up is classic comic: young men, apparently still in school but independently resourceful enough to operate a drug dealing motorcycle gang, stumble their way into an adventure that unfolds slowly enough for them to figure out most of what's going on without any of main characters coming to serious harm.
Fandom has given a lot of attention to how numbing the violence becomes in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire (and especially the novels after Game of Thrones). And while it's true (for me, at least) that I find it annoyingly disengaging to see Martin kill off major characters just as the readers have gotten to know them well enough to become attached, I also find it ridiculous to see multiple characters survive a dozen close calls within the span of a few hundred panels.
Because of this disinterest in the plot, I've never gotten around to buying volume two of Akira. But on re-reading, I found enough to like that I'm reconsidering my position. Especially in Otomo's framing and shading, and most especially in his speed lines, I find a lot to hold my attention on each page....more
All of us who have suffered from, or who have loved someone who suffered from a mood disorder can related to Ellen Forney's struggle to cope with bipolar disorder. With brutal honesty and just as much humor and grace, Marbles documents Forney's entire two steps forward, one step back history.
Forney's pages have a rich variety. When framed, her pages are regularly three row, usually two column but occasionally mixing in a page-width row. When unframed, her images and words spill over each other. The more manic the scene, the more disordered the framing. My favorite image comes at the end of the third chapter- a sideview of a black drain, with an image sliding down one side. Is it water, or is it a three part liquified stick figure melting away? On one side of the drain is a long list of the negative side effects and risks of lithium use. On the other side is the sober reality that lithium wasn't the best drug for her at that moment. As a story teller, Forney balances her text-heavy tale with great, often brilliant black and white art.
But her story telling so long on expository and rabbit holes that the entire book can feel a little like watching a flashback. We're rarely there with Forney living a scene; instead, the scene has happened, and much like Forney's psychiatrist, all we can do is let her recount the tale.
Where Alison Bechdel has built a career on illuminating the supporting cast (first in Dykes to Watch Out For, and then in her two pieces of memoir, Fun Home and Are You My Mother?), Forney keeps the focus squarely on herself. Her few friends offer little more than cameos, accessories to the action Forney pursues rather than characters inhabiting a shared space in her world. And Forney's mother! She helped cover Forney's rent and other expenses, provides constant emotional support, and carries some level of guilt since mood disorders run through Forney's mother's family. That's the character I want to hear more from.
What is most disappointing about this sprawling novel is its conclusion. Forney keeps trying to refocus her struggle with bipolar disorder as a struggle not to allow the illness to sap her creativity. She frequently makes reference to famous "crazy" artists: Plath, Van Gogh, O'Keefe and more.
But the real story, the story that goes largely untold her, is how a pot addict kicked her habit. After years of smoking daily or nearly every day, Forney finally confesses the extent of her addiction to her psychiatrist. I'm not clear that she sees the possibility that her "self-medication" might have actually prolonged her struggle to find a balance of life and meds that (once she found it) allows her to live a more productive life. On page 194, at what is otherwise the climax of Forney's struggle, the story literally stops beside a sketch of a heeled, knee-high boot (she's putting her foot down) to say that people can smoke pot "wisely & beneficially."...more