I'm reading this again, for IDK like the 10th time. It's always always worth spending some time with the most astonishing, slippery, shivery, fantasti...moreI'm reading this again, for IDK like the 10th time. It's always always worth spending some time with the most astonishing, slippery, shivery, fantastic book of all time ever.
This book is magic, magic, magic; on every page, in every line, shot through every twistedly long and nearly un-parse-able sentence. One day I will meet someone who loves this as much as I do, and we will read it back and forth, bit by bit, over and over every day for the rest our lives.
I also realized that my next tattoo is going to be a little cute basilisk in Cortázar's honor.(less)
Apparently I'm in one of those phases where I don't trust anything new and am only rereading things I know I loved. And if this is 1/8 as good as Bog...moreApparently I'm in one of those phases where I don't trust anything new and am only rereading things I know I loved. And if this is 1/8 as good as Bogeywoman, I will have several more very happy days.
Good, but not as good the second time around. It seemed too short & much less complete. The main girl was awesome awesome, but the main guy was pretty inconsistent and kind of hard to believe. And the writing style started to grate after awhile. But the plot was still super, and the design advice fascinating.(less)
God, this book is so devastating. Vonnegut is so chameleonic, or something, how the lightness of his prose brilliantly belies the darkness of his them...moreGod, this book is so devastating. Vonnegut is so chameleonic, or something, how the lightness of his prose brilliantly belies the darkness of his themes, but oh my god, I can't even think how to express how sad this one made me. Everything is so sharply focused, every word is so perfectly, harrowingly placed. The loops and recursions and double-agents and plots within plots: all perfect. All awful. All honed for maximum pathos and horror without becoming maudlin or overdramatic. I feel punched in the gut. Gah.
(Here is the summary I wrote for myself the last time I read this, two years ago, not for work. I'm leaving it because I cycle through Vonnegut books every few years, and I often forget which was which, and this will help me. Feel free to ignore it; it's slightly spoilery.) It's about a former Nazi radio propagandist, who now sits in jail awaiting trial for war crimes. Campbell claims he was a double agent, using his broadcasts to send coded messages to the Americans, but no one in the United States will come forward to confirm that he was working for them. The whole thing is told in flashback, about Campbell's life as a celebrated Berlin playwright before the war, his importance during it, his flight to New York as it was ending, and several years of living in total anonymity in the U.S., until he is finally discovered by – yup – a crazed White Supremacist. His nextdoor neighbor in New York is a Russian, a chessmaster, and maybe a spy? There's of course a love story, and plenty of hijinx, and on and on. (less)
I am 99% sure this is a mistake. Mercedes was my very first favorite author, when I was about twelve. I must have read Castle of Deception forty times...moreI am 99% sure this is a mistake. Mercedes was my very first favorite author, when I was about twelve. I must have read Castle of Deception forty times; I can still call to mind entire paragraphs from it. But I know I was an idiot at twelve, and I really don't want to learn that Mercedes was never all that good to begin with, but I just want to read something totally unlike all the pomo super-modern lit fic I'm always immersed in, and this certainly fits that bill. So we shall see...
Also, Tor? WTF is up with this hideous cover???
Yeah, so there's not a whole lot to say. All my fears were justified. This book is clumsy and lazy and horribly overdramatic and full of fake buildup and incredibly transparent plotting and beleaguered descriptions &c. It's a book for twelve-year-olds, and I am, thankfully, no longer twelve. I will probably reread Castle of Deception at some point, and I will probably regret it just as much. This is probably a good argument for non-hoarder-ing; if this wasn't just sitting on my shelf peering at me, I'd never have picked it back up and never have known how corny it was. Le sigh!(less)
Bookfriends, it is the one-year anniversary of Jugs & Capes! And so naturally we read the behe...more[adapted from my J&C essay series over at CCLaP]
Bookfriends, it is the one-year anniversary of Jugs & Capes! And so naturally we read the behemoth of behemoths. That's right: Watchmen. Probably the most famous graphic novel of all time, if not altogether one of the most famous books of all time. It’s such a hard book to even talk about, let alone review—I feel like everything I could say must have already been said, louder and smarter, over and over.
Oh but whatever, when has that stopped me?
So okay, let’s start again. In case you’ve missed the movie and the comics and the book and all the scads and scads of hoopla surrounding it all, Watchmen is an alternate history graphic novel that takes place in 1980s New York City. It’s pretty bleak days, on the brink of nuclear war, and for a few generations, people have been stepping out at night in silly getups to play at being superheroes. Many of the “Watchmen” are caricatures of famous comic-book heroes (which everyone knows more about than me, so I’ll just leave it there). The point is, people got mad because what’s really the difference between someone taking justice into their own hands and vigilantism? Not a lot, I guess. And so being a self-appointed superhero has been outlawed, and this is the story of a handful of people who used to be Watchmen and how they’ve adjusted (or not) to civilian life. Oh and also there’s Dr. Manhattan, the only one who actually is a superhero, as in he has real powers, and is not really very human anymore, and so is his own kind of basket case.
That’s enough. Probably everyone already knew all that; even I knew, at least partially, what I was in for when I picked this up. And I will admit that I wasn’t very optimistic going in; after being very disappointed with the totally dated, confusing, and uninspiring Dark Knight Returns, I had assumed that I just wasn’t going to be very excited by more masked crusaders and their moral dilemmas. But—and let’s have a big collective “Duh” here, please—Watchmen is so totally different.
It’s a really difficult book—emotionally, situationally, morally, ethically, graphically, everything-ly. A lot of it is hard to stomach, from the overt gore and horror and despair to the trickier emotional backtracking and ethical ambiguity. I was especially fascinated by the book’s mind-bendingly complex morality, forcing constant second-guessings of flimsy concepts like “good” and “bad.” And the characters, oh my god, these intensely real, consistent, and consistently surprising characters! There’s Rorschach, the only Watchman who refused to retire, whose plaintive morality is so heartbreaking. He is so sure, so rigid, and so right, but so what? That doesn’t matter if you’re dead. And there’s squeaky-clean Adrian, formerly Ozymandias, hero turned villain turned hero again, maybe, sort of, if glorified ends justify despicable means. And then Sally, once the Silk Spectre, the first Watchman to retire, whose entire life is an endless bitter argument with herself, hating the man she loves and hating herself for loving him. The breadth and development of all the characters was breathtaking. The only stereotypical, cardboard, one-dimensional face in the bunch was Laurie—daughter of Sally, girlfriend of Dr. Manhattan, and former dabbler in superherodom—but more on her later.
Getting beyond the intricate plot and multifaceted characters—essential components to any fine work of literature—let’s talk about what makes this not only a phenomenal book, but a phenomenal comic book. Whenever anyone asked me why I was so impressed with it, I started babbling about how jaw-droppingly meticulously constructed it is. This is something that, stupidly, I hadn’t yet considered about graphic novels. As a proofreader, I know a thing or two about line-breaks and the physical components of (prose) book design, like how you always have to start a chapter on a recto page, or how you’re not allowed to have one lone line of text at the top of an otherwise blank page. And with a graphic novel I’d just assumed that you drew the pictures you needed to get the story where you wanted it to go. But no way; there is so much more to think about! What do you do if you only have, say, twelve panels worth of story, but you need to fill eighteen so that you can have a full-page spread next? In prose, if you have a short line, you can squinch the paragraph before it to fit it all in, and I guess you could do that with drawings too, but that seems like a much dicier proposition. What I’m trying to say is that Watchmen made me much much more aware of the mechanics of putting a graphic novel together—not in a bad way, and not in a way that took me out of the story, but in an awestruck way, where every time I noticed two parallel storylines subtly or overtly augmenting each other, I was amazed anew by how much work must have gone into every aspect of the planning and execution of this tome.
This was most striking in sections that had two stories being simultaneously told, alternating panel by panel. For example, in one such double scene we have Laurie walking through a back alley with Dan (formerly a Watchman named Night Owl, currently drying Laurie’s adorable tears as she decides whether to break up with Dr. Manhattan) when they are surrounded by a group of muggers. At the same time, Dr. Manhattan is being interviewed live on ABC News. So watch this: A reporter asks Dr. Manhattan, “Doc, if the Reds act up in Afghanistan, will you be prepared to enter hostilities?”—just as the thugs draw their weapons on Laurie and Dan. Then another reporter tells Dr. Manhattan that one of his colleagues recently died of cancer, and he says, “I believe it was quite sudden and quite painful”—just as Laurie and Dan turn on their attackers and start breaking bones. Next Dr. Manhattan starts getting upset, and as his handlers try to rush him out of the auditorium, one tells the crowd, “Sorry about this, folks, but the show’s over”—just as Dan and Laurie look around and see all the would-be muggers laid out on the ground. See what he did there? Incredible.
But you’re not listening to me because I’m an art critic, right? You’re listening to me because I’m a girl reading graphic novels from a non-fanboy perspective, and because I’m purportedly writing these essays from a feminist slant. So let me bring it back to Laurie. Throughout the book, I found her simpering, insipid, self-absorbed. In a work full of complicated, original characters, I felt like she stood alone as a cardboard, clichéd, brainless-but-hot whiny bimbette. I couldn’t believe that everyone was in love with her, that she was the one on whom it fell to save the world, that Dr. Manhattan’s love for her was ultimately the single thing that would bring him back to earth to try to avert war. I don’t think Alan Moore has a very high opinion of women generally (at least how they’re painted in Watchmen), but his portrayal of Laurie as a vacant silly sex symbol bothered me like crazy.
But then a strange thing happened, just now, in fact. I’ve been putting off writing this review for days, and I still just couldn’t do it, so I figured of course I’d think more clearly after a cigarette break’s worth of rereading the book. And the scene I randomly opened to was that one, the pivotal one: Laurie and Dr. Manhattan on Mars, where she tries to convince him to save the world by talking whinily about that one time when she got really drunk and yelled at Blake (the slimy fucker who once raped her mother) and threw a drink in his face. And I read it again, for probably the fifth time this month, and I waited for all the righteous feminist anger about her silliness and stupidity to come back, but then…it just didn’t.
For the first time I kind of got why she would bring up those things; I kind of saw how she’s not actually clichéd, really; she’s very true to the character she’s been given. I don’t like her, but I don’t like Blake or Dan so much either. I think I’d confused myself, wanting so badly for the book to include an intelligent, noble female character that I insisted Laurie was badly written, when really she’s just someone I find distasteful and a bit of a letdown. So what I mean is, yet again Alan Moore did a fantastic job of creating a nuanced, complicated, realistic character, who acted consistently with the way she’d been created to act. She’s messy and selfish and preening, but that’s who she is. Just one more astonishing aspect of this completely astonishing book. Just one more reason why it’s upsetting, disturbing, challenging, and, yeah, brilliant.
(before reading: Well, most of the issues I had with the movie (disregarding the cheesy, over-dramatically delivered lines and bad acting) were plot concerns, so I'm interested to see whether the book does a better job of things. Though I hear that the movie was perhaps too faithful to the book...)(less)
I liked the tone of this book a lot, but I'm not sure I can really say I loved the story. The first half introduces us to this very lonely girl growin...moreI liked the tone of this book a lot, but I'm not sure I can really say I loved the story. The first half introduces us to this very lonely girl growing up isolated with just her dad on a tiny island in Maine. It's really suffused with soft melancholy, and very evocative and lovely. Dad's life's work is doing a new translation of Ovid's Metamorphosis, and there are snippets of some of the myths and personalities from it woven into the narrative in interesting ways. Miranda basically spends her childhood being Dad's stand-in wife or secretary, cooking and cleaning and typing and tiptoeing around him when he's concentrating. But she loves him and is fiercely independent, and also draws and wanders about the island and even makes a friend or two at school (she has to drive a boat there by herself, which is pretty independence-ing for a young girl), so it's not like she's a tragic figure or anything.
The second half takes her to New York City, to live and work in the library her father co-founded and then abandoned like twenty years ago. At this point the story switches to a fairly standard one of small-town girl comes to big city and is overwhelmed and discombobulated, and has to learn to assimilate and find her way. It helps that she's apparently suddenly gorgeous, and immediately has two different people (like the very first two people she meets) courting her hard. And of course, there are a lot of mysteries about her dad and what he did in NY and why he left and the messes he left behind, which Miranda now begins to slowly unravel—or, really, which unravel before her, dropping answers in her lap. Because at this point it turns into one of those stories where everyone knows too much, asks just the right questions at just the right time to make just the right piece of the puzzle fall into place. Which is really annoying.
Miranda also becomes more and more self-centered and unlikeable as the story heads toward its conclusion. The story falls victim to the somewhat common issue of a shy, quiet, observant first-person narration: we see everything happening around her, and she clearly describes things and sometimes comments on them, but we just don't get that clear of an idea of her motivations or reactions. She turns into a real bitch by the end, doing some unbelievably selfish and cruel things, which I guess we're supposed to excuse because she's lonely and fucked up by this new world she's been thrown into, but I never got enough of her thought processes to buy it, beyond OMG this bitch is crazy.
Anyway. The writing is great, I would definitely read more Aoibheann (what a name), but this one didn't really knock my socks off like I'd hoped.(less)
I finished this book ages ago, but alas I have not had time to do up a proper review. It was spectacular, though. More soon, I swear.
Reasons wh...more I finished this book ages ago, but alas I have not had time to do up a proper review. It was spectacular, though. More soon, I swear.
Reasons why I already adore this book, even though I'm less than fifty pages in:
1. As I learned from bookfriend Brian, the other edition has a photo of a man on the cover, which it turns out (unbeknownst even to him) is Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snickett, a.k.a. my boyfriend.
2. The chapter titles are, depending on your preference, either twee and pretentious or quirky and adorable. Example: "How long a heart attack takes over three hundred feet, how much a spider's life weighs, why a sad man writes to the cruel river, and what magic the Comrade in Chief of the unfinished can work."
3. The author in his back-cover photo looks just like that shrieking gay guy from American Idol who should have won but didn't, except a little less manufactured goth and a little more hipster adorable.
4. There is already a character who is in love with a river, another who wants to be Comrade in Chief of unfinished works and things never being over, and another who is called Auntie Typhoon because she moves so fast and with so much energy.(less)
Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation reads like a kind of ur- Trainspotting that was possible while the shadow of the Sex Pisto...morefrom the Powell's review:
Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation reads like a kind of ur- Trainspotting that was possible while the shadow of the Sex Pistols was still fresh. There is no phony nihilism and no political posturing, just the celebration of fleeting opportunities for happiness in the squalor of punk bohemia.
Eh, this was fine and fun, but not nearly as crazy or cool as I'd hoped. Very slapsticky, and very funny, in that sarcastic silly British way. Here is my favorite paragraph (which, of course, has nothing to do with the plot or anything):
I hate lettuce. Every time I take some leaves off to wash them I'm terrified I'm going to find something disgusting inside like a dead wasp or a slug or maybe a severed finger or even just a fingernail. And after the trauma of washing it lettuce seems to be more or less impossible to dry, holding grimly on to water like a gigantic vegetable sponge no matter how much you shake and throw it about the kitchen, letting it out only after it squelches onto your plate. What's more it tastes of absolutely nothing and flops around in your mouth so you have to fight to get it down.
Ha! If you don't think that's funny, you will hate the narrator and probably also the book. (less)
I was really excited to read this book. I love learning about the struggles of anyone who grew up "other," and Saïd is "other" like crazy: half Irania...moreI was really excited to read this book. I love learning about the struggles of anyone who grew up "other," and Saïd is "other" like crazy: half Iranian, half Jewish American, and raised a militant Socialist in 1980s Pittsburgh. Saïd's father left when he was a baby, taking his two older siblings, and leaving Saïd to be brought up by his mother, a delusional, neglectful parental figure who spent the majority of her life waiting for her husband to return, and dedicated most of her time to the Socialist Workers Party. The rearing that she did for Saïd was primarily political, teaching him from an early age that he couldn't eat a single grape until the migrant struggle was over, and forcing them to live barely above the poverty line because for her to get a higher-paying job would be giving in to the decadence of capitalism. Saïd and his mother make a strange, emotionlessly codependent pair in this telling, reserving most of their passion for Socialist ideals and politics, and hungrily following Saïd's father's life from a distance, even though he refuses to communicate with them pretty much at all.
Beyond indoctrinating him with strict political beliefs, Saïd's mother doesn't do a lot in the way of parenting. Saïd is left to make things up as he goes along, with the expected result: a childhood spent alienated from his peers, full of awkward missteps and a good deal of loneliness. It doesn't help that he has a very Middle Eastern name during the Iranian hostage crisis, and that his views are not at all in line with the rah-rah-America fervor of the times.
Saïd, understandably, has a lot of anger at both his parents, and at politics. Though the book is primarily about his unhappy childhood, we are given glimpses of his much calmer, easier present: he is now a graphic designer for Martha Stewart, living in a clean, well-decorated apartment in the West Village, and dating a lovely coworker. What's missing, however, is the transition he made from an angry, isolated little Socialist to a well-adjusted corporate artist. And what is even more cavernously lacking are Saïd's actual emotions. He deadpans more or less the entire book, relating anecdotes flatly, narratively, without reacting to them at all. That's one thing when describing an episode when he was eight where he used a racial slur to get back into the good graces of his classmates, but it's another when telling about the time when, at eleven, he received a letter from his father—who has been completely incommunicado for several years—a letter that is itself devoid of emotion, which Saïd calmly reads twice, then buries in his sock drawer. And it's quite another thing when, at seventeen, Saïd discovers that his mother, who he thought had been sleeping for two days straight, is actually near death from an overdose of psych meds. It is not until he is sitting in the hospital with her and her therapist (and may I note that Saïd, despite spending nearly every waking moment with his mother, somehow did not even know that she was in therapy), when his mother starts screaming that she doesn't want to live, that Saïd even mentions that he cried.
A lot of bad shit happened to Saïd, and I'm sure that he needs a certain amount of distance from the memories still. But he tells his whole story at such a remove that it almost feels like fiction, like a construct. His conversations tend to go on far too long, and are both too mundane to hold my interest, and too long for me to believe he actually remembered them as such, adding to the feeling of artifice that permeates the book. It's like he's merely recreating the vague structure of a life, rather than dealing with the fallout. We're missing his reactions, his emotions, his growth—and even, most of the time, his anger. So, for me, the book fell short. It was indeed an interesting look at a crazy childhood, but it was lacking in depth, and left me feeling a little hollow.
PS: If you'd like to hear from the author directly, please see this great interview my brilliant, amazing, overachieving friend Leila did with him for the Tehran Bureau; and if you'd like an intelligent (and quite heated) takedown of his politics and his memory, check out this review on the Socialist website Swans.(less)
I was pleasantly surprised by his last book, Utterly Monkey, so if I find a cheap copy of this someplace, I expect I'd be pleasantly surprised by it t...moreI was pleasantly surprised by his last book, Utterly Monkey, so if I find a cheap copy of this someplace, I expect I'd be pleasantly surprised by it too.
Oh ha, look at what I wrote up there like three years ago! Even though I totally forgot all about that & Nick Laird too, I totally took my own advice & scored this at a book swap for free, and now I will love it.(less)
First line: "In eighth grade, I was suspended for bringing my semen to science class." Hooked!
Well, it kinda went downhill from there, though. Here...moreFirst line: "In eighth grade, I was suspended for bringing my semen to science class." Hooked!
Well, it kinda went downhill from there, though. Here's why I wanted to read this book. From the Powells.com review: Turning the last page of Misconception, you'll be certain that you love Seattle author Ryan Boudinot's style. Oh, you'll like the story fine. It sends readers bouncing into long swoops and back again, the volcano-boarding of this year's literary fiction. In other words, the fun kind of crazy, and vice versa. But the way Boudinot chooses to snap together words into description and dialogue is where he excels.
Other than that weird "volcano-boarding" (wtf?), this was made to sound meta, quirky, and really cool. It kind of wasn't, though. I mean, I guess there was some meta-ness? It's like a book about one character showing the other character the book she wrote about their teenage years together, and it seesaws back and forth from her memoirs (written by her from his point of view) to his actual memories, so that's meta. And there's one part where he Googles her and finds a review of her previous book on Amazon written by (wait for it) Ryan Boudinot. Clever. And the story itself was fine; a more or less typical teenage romance, with fucked up families on each side. Some of the characters were pretty good, him and his family I liked. But she was pretty cliché (in the past and in the present), and the main central aha twist was waaay overdone, especially because it was obvious from almost the beginning of the setup who had made what mistake, and what the fallout was likely to be.
I dunno. I liked it all right while I was reading it, but it's only been a month since I finished, and I remember it hazily at best, and with an unpleasant overlay. Sorry Ryan. You get a big meh.(less)
I finished this book just in the nick of time for it to get on my CCLaP best-of-2011 list!
Here's what I said about it there: I am unabashedly on Team S...moreI finished this book just in the nick of time for it to get on my CCLaP best-of-2011 list!
Here's what I said about it there: I am unabashedly on Team Sloane. This has a lot to do with the fact that we're so demographically aligned --suburban youth, upper-middle-class background, collegiate experimentation and self-finding, living now in the same city, about the same age, working in the same field -- to the point that her essays often feel like a rarefied version of my own life. But when she gets it right, she just nails it; she's so smart, so so wonderful with phrase-turning, so adept at pacing and style and finding the right balance of self-mockery and self-aggrandizement. The essay about how bad cabs smell was kind of awful, but the rest of the collection was just about perfect.
Oh and PS: Why couldn't we have gotten the British cover? This toilet paper nonsense, as well as the stupid corny bear on the cover of the hardback, are both so old fashioned and placid and stupid. We couldn't get something just a wee bit edgier, or at least younger? Fuck, traditional publishing, you are becoming harder and harder to defend.(less)
Elegies for the Brokenhearted begins in a rush and never loses momentum. It's crafted...moreHey check it out, I reviewed this for Gently Read Literature!
Elegies for the Brokenhearted begins in a rush and never loses momentum. It's crafted with galloping long sentences, clause within clause within clause, that swerve the reader away and then back and then away again. The characters are so sharp, their scenarios so poignant, their interactions so painful and real… This book is a devastating joy.
It’s a novel in stories—or, more accurately, in elegies—direct addresses by Mary Murphy to five central people in her life, which tell the stories of their lives, or at least those periods where their lives intersected with hers. This nested-story structure is a kind of herky-jerky stop-and-start format that can sometimes be jarring, but Hodgen makes it work beautifully, telling us always the story of Mary while making it look like Mary is telling us the stories of those around her.
Mary herself has lived since childhood in an almost impenetrable halo of silence—silence as rebellion, silence as defensive coping mechanism, silence as sarcastic attack. She always lets others speak for her, or no one at all. And yet the whole book, written in second-person direct address to each person being elegied, seems to be Mary’s attempt to reconcile the silence she’s spent her life ensconced in, to make others see how important they were to her, once it’s too late for it to matter.
Every character herein is consistently striving, reaching out in wrong-headed ways for more, yet secure in the conviction that he is meant for something better, easier, more rarefied. Each person knows that she is infinitely more special than the mundane and bitter circumstances in which she finds herself, time and again. But most of them do nothing to hasten their transfiguration, adding to the general sense of despair and frustration that permeates the novel.
Another marked similarity between the novel’s disparate personalities is how each is obsessed with death. Uncle Mike only gossips about friends who have died. Carson decorates the wall above her bed with a constellation of Polaroids of her deceased relatives. One of Mary’s mother’s dependable morning rituals is reading—and mocking—the obituaries in the local paper. The entire book, of course, stars a cast of characters who have passed away.
One more overarching similarity between everyone is a desperate, suffocating loneliness, coupled with a near-hysterical inability to love. And yet the whole book is a vindication, in a way, of all this sorrow, all this despair. That Mary, who has spent her life silent and resentful, can recollect and reify these small, sad, bitter lives winds up speaking to an inherent beauty in all of us. Her ability to penetrate the layers of meanness, of abuse and anger and petty fury, and to render people real, is a parting gift, a gift to those parted, an indication that, despite everything, for a time they were truly understood.
At one point Mary says, “Even the evocation of loneliness was something undertaken with the purpose of communicating it to someone, who would hear it and perhaps understand it.” This is a beautiful summation of the crux of this sad novel—no matter how alone we are, no matter how we despair, in our private moments, that we will die without ever having made a true connection with another living soul, someone has been watching, someone has been affected. Someone, somewhere, if only for a little while, has understood.(less)
Also: this is my second review for CCLaP, and my first in a year-long series reviewing graphic novels. W00t!
This is the first in an essay series I'll be doing for CCLaP called "Jugs & Capes," where I look at graphic novels from a girl's point of view. I'm not going to say a "feminist" point of view, because I think that's a complicated word, one which any thinking woman has a complicated relationship with. And as I haven't got any kind of background in gender studies or feminist theory, I don't feel comfortable talking about what feminists think of this book or that one. I do, however, feel quite comfortable talking about what I think about something, so in this series I will happily do just that.
Asterios Polyp is a lush, fascinating, complex book. But it's that brilliant kind of complex which can be enjoyed on many levels, like Lolita, say, or The Metamorphosis, where, if you'd like, you can derive great enjoyment from the story on the surface, without doing a whole lot of delving. Or, if you're so inclined, you can peel back layers and study the symbolism and wordplay and big ideas, thus gaining a fuller, more multifaceted understanding of this deeply layered text.
We meet Asterios Polyp in the middle of a lightning storm. He is rumpled and exhausted, lying in bed in his luxurious but extremely messy apartment, watching what we assume to be pornography (we hear what is being said, but do not see the picture). Then a blinding flash of lightning illuminates the entire page, and we see that Asterios's building has caught fire. He makes a desperate search of his rooms, grabbing a few small items--a lighter, a pocketknife, and a watch--and dashes out into the storm. Over two lurid pages, we watch his apartment burn.
After this dramatic introduction, we begin to get to know Asterios. He is an architecture professor, but a "paper architect," meaning that none of his designs have ever been built. He has always been something of an aloof genius. He had a twin brother who died in the womb, and who will be our narrator throughout the book. He was married to a sculptor and fellow professor named Hana.
Asterios stands in the rain for a little while, watching his apartment burn, and then he goes to the Greyhound station and buys a ticket that costs everything he has in his walled. He rides until he gets to a small town, where he takes a job as a mechanic, and rents a room from his boss, a big man who lives with his voluptuous wife and their pudgy son. Asterios settles into small-town life, building a treehouse with his boss, discussing spirituality with his boss's wife, going to see a local band in a local bar. Everything he does is tinged with melancholy, with regret. Asterios is clearly running away from his past, but also trying to make some sense of it. The story opens out and out, in short vignettes, the present interspersed with flashbacks, dreams, and meandering philosophical asides.
Everything about Asterios Polyp is dense, and slow, and meticulously planned and executed. It is easily the most beautiful graphic novel I've ever seen. Each vignette has a specific palate, most using only two or three colors at a time--in fact, it isn't until the book's very last chapter that Mazzucchelli uses full four-color spreads--and there is no black in the book at all. Each character's speech is written in a unique font, one which is clearly representative of that person's personality. The story itself is full and rich, the characters multifaceted and real, and everything is augmented and reified by frequent digressions, both visual and described, on perception, human behavior, physics, philosophy, mythology, spirituality, metaphysics, and on and on.
The whole story is, of course, unraveling the mystery of Hana.
Early on, during an aside, Mazzucchelli presents a random group of people, each drawn in a different style and color, as a visual representation of how unique every person is. In the group (we find out later) is Hana, rendered in swirling, shadowy pink, and Asterios, in stark, angular blue. This turns out to be a running motif, and later, during Asterios and Hana's first meeting, his blue outlines begin to fill with pink haze, and her pink shadows become outlined in blue, until they both have nearly the same appearance. Much later, when they begin to argue, their realistic forms melt back into these elementals, he once again empty and blue, she returning to unbounded pink, demonstrating that, no matter how close two people can become, they are always, at heart, fundamentally strange to one another. This is of course terribly difficult to describe, and is a superb argument for the supremacy of the graphic novel form in this book.
On that subject, I will briefly describe another small section, one of the novel's most famous. It is an eight-page spread, with almost no words. The traditional panel structure is abandoned, in favor of three somewhat parallel rows of small boxes. The rows in the middle tell a consistent, simple story, wherein Hana has lost the puff of a Q-tip inside her ear, and has a mild panic until Asterios removes it with a tweezer. Above and below this throughline are a constellation of tiny instances of Hana's corporeal life: brushing her teeth, clipping her nails, shaving, vomiting, eating, dressing, undressing, masturbating, snoring, drinking, crying, laughing, leaving, smiling. It is one of the most stunning, affecting ways to render the memory of life's unnoticed moments, Asterios recalling Hana in all of her physical glory, beautiful and rumpled, joyful and sick, hungry and dirty. It is so humanizing, so plaintive, so shockingly mundane that it elevates Hana to something of a mythical plane. It's something that could never be done in prose, and to me it is the beating heart of the novel--echoed and augmented later by a pitch-perfect, harrowing, devastating, wordless dream sequence, which is rendered as an intricate dance opera.
I've read criticism of this book that takes the opposite view of the Hana montage, accusing Mazzucchelli as reducing her to a plot device, used merely to represent Asterios's development and emotional journey. But I think that's an unfair claim. Hana is a fully developed character--as is the book's whole supporting cast, most of whom are generally more sympathetically than Asterios himself. Certainly Hana is slightly romanticized, but this is a story told through a man who is desperately longing for the life--and the woman--he once had. I don't believe romanticization is inherently reductive, and I don't believe that Hana's character was secondary or subservient to Asterios's.
There is so much more to say about this dense, gorgeous, intricate book, but I've run out of space and steam. I couldn't recommend it more highly, though; this and Fun Home are the most astonishing graphic novels--and among the most astonishing books of any kind--I've ever come across. (less)
Shit, I had a placeholder review here forever which I rashly deleted and then I realized that there were all these comments that now made no sense.
Ba...moreShit, I had a placeholder review here forever which I rashly deleted and then I realized that there were all these comments that now made no sense.
Basically it said stuff about how suuuuper let down I was by Swamplandia because of all the hype & anticipation, and how I'd never wanted to read Jennifer Egan at all until all of a sudden I wanted to REALLY REALLY bad and I was hoping this wasn't going to be a huge disappointment. Then I got a proof of this, which was so cool, and I was kind of into it, but then in the middle of when I was reading it she won the Pulitzer, which, WTF? I mean, this is pretty good but the goddamn Pulitzer?? No fucking way.
Apparently this is meant for fans of DFW and Ben Marcus, and I am stupid and out of touch for not knowing that already. Shit!
Oh god my I never revi...moreApparently this is meant for fans of DFW and Ben Marcus, and I am stupid and out of touch for not knowing that already. Shit!
Oh god my I never reviewed this?? Shit. Ummm, I dunno about the DFW comparison, and honestly I've never been able to get into Ben Marcus. It's a cool book, though; Sharpe has a super weird writing style that was kind of hard to stay immersed in, but never became overly quirky or annoying. I guess maybe the DFW comparison is like how his characters have these ridiculously long speeches, with really solid, believable, conversational speech, although they kind of also sound like drawn-out thoughts more than actual things that people would say out loud to one another.
I maybe am too tired to be writing this review right now.
But it's a pretty simple story, heavy on the language, and since there's only a few characters, they're all really fleshed out and fascinating. They're also kind of all assholes, but unapologetic, kind of likable assholes? Ugh, this was a bad idea, I'm going to bed. (less)
Hey, it's my latest (and meanest) review for CCLaP! I also put this on my CCLaP best-of-2011 list—for best total disappointment.
Perhaps Swamplandia! i...moreHey, it's my latest (and meanest) review for CCLaP! I also put this on my CCLaP best-of-2011 list—for best total disappointment.
Perhaps Swamplandia! is a case of being careful what you wish for. Perhaps it was a back-handed slap against wish-fulfillment. Perhaps it should force me to reexamine deeply held prejudices, or at least preferences, which would make me grow as a reader and a person, ultimately making me more open-minded, forgiving, and calm.
Or maybe it’s just a bad book.
Let’s start with this: I hate short stories. They’re such a letdown! Why go to the trouble of setting a scene, peopling it with interesting characters, working up momentum, and then… ending it? Just when things were starting to get good? Come on, lazy author, why'd you stop?! This drives me totally crazy. And Karen Russell’s debut collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was a perfect example. The stories were so great! Her spooky ambiance, her weird haunting language, her creepy ideas and wonderful stories… I was so disappointed that they were over so quickly, just when I was getting enmeshed in her strange worlds.
So I hope you see why I was super excited for Swamplandia!. Here was, finally, what I’d always been so sure I wanted: a writer whose stories I’d loved, not only writing a novel, but taking as its kernel one of the very stories I’d wanted expanded! But it turns out that I was totally wrong. Be careful what you wish for; you could wind up with a big sprawling messy novel, filled with inconsistent characters, a terribly paced plot arc, a horribly disappointing ending, and very little reward for the long slog. Even the atmospherics, which had been so taut and engrossing in her short stories, grew so diffuse and lackluster over a few hundred pages that they lost all their power.
Look, the plot? Pretty original. A family who lives in an amusement park in a swamp, wrestling alligators and entertaining fat tourists—that’s fun. Mom, the star of the show, recently passed away. Ossie, the waifish older sister, is having an affair with a ghost. Dad is pretty delusional about the family’s prospects. Which leaves twelve-year-old Ava and sixteen-year-old Kiwi to try to salvage the bankrupt wreck the family park has become. The plot splits when Kiwi runs away from home, following he and Ava on their own adventures, Kiwi into the “real” world on the mainland, and Ava deep into the swamp in search of her runaway sister, with a Birdman as her guide.
That wasn’t too spoilery, I promise; you’d get most of it on the book’s back cover. So the plot’s not the problem, at least not completely. It did feel unwieldy, and overly meandering. It could have used a lot of tightening. And the language, which in St. Lucy’s Home was so consistently stunning, is here only lovely, and only rarely, and the few times when she nails it only serves to highlight how flat and lifeless everything else is. But generally the big picture wasn’t the issue. It was the myriad little things that got me more. Like Ava and Ossie sitting in the kitchen with bare cupboards, complaining about how hungry they are, and then a few pages later they pack for a trip, stuffing backpacks full of the suddenly plentiful food in the house. Lazy. Or like an emphatically described cloudless sky, which two paragraphs later begins to rain. Lazy. Or conversations that have huge gaps, or other ones where a character thinks something but then the other character responds as if the thought had been spoken. Lazy. Important or even trivial plot points revealed in the wrong order, or tossed haphazardly in the middle of the next scene. Lazy. Bizarre and poorly done accents and patois and (shudder) street slang. Lazy. Banging us over the head with overly obvious truths, rather than letting us infer them. Lazy. Terrible character inconsistencies. Lazy.
Lazy, lazy, lazy. I know that as a copyeditor I’ve become a much closer reader than I used to be, and probably most people wouldn’t notice all these piddling little things, but I don’t think that’s a good excuse. And maybe I’m being petty, but so what? Sure I’m a reviewer, but more importantly I’m a reader, and if a book has so many tiny problems that I am constantly taken out of the reading experience to roll my eyes at them, then that’s a poorly done book. I don’t even blame Karen completely for all of this; there’s a huge team of publishing people who could have caught these things. And this book wasn’t put out by some shoestring indie press that’s stretched too thin to afford a second proofreader; this is Knopf! Arguably the most revered literary press in the world! How could they have failed to rein in this mess? In fact, how could they have failed to notice that this book is simply not up to par with the high level of literary prowess that they represent?
And I haven’t even gotten to the worst part. In fact I kind of can’t, because it’s a big reveal and I don’t want to ruin anyone’s reading experience. But I can’t write this review without commenting on it, so apologies if this is cryptic or weird. Suffice it to say that something very awful and very unexpected happens about 260 pages into a 300-page book. Now first of all, that is way too late, especially in such a slow-moving and long book, to deliver that kind of authorial kick in the nuts. Secondly, it is a pretty horrifying thing, which is dealt with barely at all, and mostly in even more horrifying thoughts and ways. It also signals the beginning of the end of the book, where Karen tries frantically to pull everything together, resulting in lots of dropped threads and unanswered questions, and an overly maudlin and utterly unfulfilling closing scene. It’s just all so fucking lazy.
So what’s the lesson I’ve learned from this? I guess sometimes a short story is its own kind of great. There is an art to the short story, and it’s selfish and short-sighted of me to assume that short stories are short because the author is lazy. Sometimes it’s lazier to write a novel.(less)
Saw this at the phenomenal Brooklyn bookseller / publisher powerHouse books, and I couldn't resist. I <3 you, Brooklyn!
Well this is just the fuc...moreSaw this at the phenomenal Brooklyn bookseller / publisher powerHouse books, and I couldn't resist. I <3 you, Brooklyn!
Well this is just the fucking worst. I stuck this book in a tote bag to bring to the laundromat, and when I came home and put all my clothes away, book + bag were gone! WTF? I never lose books, and this is even one I paid full fucking price for. And I was really enjoying it! Fuck.
I should have a lot of good book karma by now, can the universe please magic me another copy or something? And my favorite tote bag would be nice to have back too. Fuck!
Ha, I am some kind of Karen fluffer today, but I have to give her props again -- she totally gave me a replacement copy of this book out of the goodness of her booky little heart. Yay! And I finally did finish it, weeks and weeks and weeks later.
I don't have the energy or time for a real review, but this book was pretty great. Of course it's a bit uneven, as all collections of this nature are, but the good essays were great, and the mediocre ones were still above average. Despite the awesome ridiculous cover, this is not a hipster book at all, it's mostly essays of Brooklyn gone by, when it was dirtier or slummier or posher or community-er or more racist. Lots of nostalgia, lots of evocation of scenery, lots of young hopefuls starting new lives as their parents look on aghast. Since, of course, I lost the first copy of this where I'd marked all sorts of shit in the margins to talk about in this review, I don't remember too much about all the different essays, but I know I liked it all a lot. (less)
post: Well, I did it, I finished the fucking thing. And I continued to hate it, all the way to the end.
I just never got it. It seemed so overblown, s...morepost: Well, I did it, I finished the fucking thing. And I continued to hate it, all the way to the end.
I just never got it. It seemed so overblown, so overdramatic, so so so overwritten! Sure, it's a story about artificial intelligence, which I suppose has to be written about metaphorically. But oh my god, the density of metaphors was just suffocating. Plus the emotions our "hero" developed for his machine? Come on. I never for a second bought it that this guy would develop this depth of feeling for Helen. Come to think of it? I didn't really buy any of his feelings, or his characterizations of people. The "real" love stories, past and present, his fellow professors, even his parents; he just waxed (and waxed and waxed and waxed) orgiastically poetic about every little twinge, every subtle gesture, every passing breeze. He wove this incredibly dense language cocoon around everything, which all it really did for me was utterly stifle any actual emotional reaction I might have had. So much kept being revealed in these Aha! little twists, and they either felt totally obvious or totally invented for effect. And that's not even to mention the extreme out-of-date nerdery. I mean, it's not his fault that a lot has happened with technology since 1995, but it's really hard for me to take it seriously when he's like "OMG there's this like invisible network? That like connects everyone? And you can like talk to people in different countries and stuff!" (Except he says that in about a dozen pages, wrenched out through three times as many overdramatic similes.) Gah, I'm really sorry everyone who loved this book, and I'm really sorry Richard Powers, too, whom I remembered so fondly from Gold Bug Variations, but good grief no. Book, I hate you.
mid: Oh no you guys, I hate this book. I'm like a third of the way in and practically dread having to open it. What's wrong with me??
A few months ago I was on the subway, and a shambling, mumbling young guy came lurching toward me from the other...moreThis made my CCLaP best-of-2011 list.
A few months ago I was on the subway, and a shambling, mumbling young guy came lurching toward me from the other end of the car, swaying and asking for change. I made one of those quick judgements, like you do, and decided that I wasn't going to give him any money. I was all the way at the end of the car, and he made it to my side and sort of came to rest next to me. I kept my face buried in my book. At the next station, a trio of those acrobatic dancing guys got on. I don't know if this is a national phenomenon, but they are all over the NYC subways. It's usually three, usually dudes, usually young and thuggish. These motherfuckers are amazing. They do these crazy flips and falls and balances, right in the middle of the moving, crowded train, swinging from the handrails and leaping over each other and holding themselves parallel to the ground on the poles. It's fucking nuts. Anyway, I always give those kids money, and I wanted to give them money this time too, and but then I remembered that the other guy was still standing next to me. It's not like I really think he believed me that I was so engrossed in my book that I failed to hear him asking for money, and it's not that I was quailing with fear of being judged by this guy, but still, as I put my coins in the upturned ballcap of one of the gymnasts, I felt like a total shithead. Like I've come to a point in my charitable life where I require entertainment for my alms? Or like how living in a big city forces you to all the time make these rankings, stratifying people according to some inner barometer of need or deservingness? Or like why couldn't I be rich enough that I could just give and give and give, coins by the fistful, to every person who ever asks? Why am I such a dick?
None of this has anything to do with Burma, obviously. But here's why I told that story: A little while ago I proofread the previous book in this series, Hope Deferred, and it totally wrecked me. And this one, too, was crushing, and harrowing, and shocking, and depressing. But somehow not quite as much, I guess. It didn't make me weep, certainly. So I again feel like a total douche, like I somehow again am in a position to rank the suffering of the world, and have decided that Zimbabwe has it worse.
They don't. The shit in Burma is awful. The people there are in dire, dire straights. The world is a horrible mess. What is going on? Fuck. Everyone should pay full price for and then read every single book in the Voice of Witness series, and you guys, we should fix the goddamn world somehow. (less)
Oh boy. Oh man, do I have a lot to say about this here book. I can't even begin to tackle it as a whole entity, so I'm going to do a review of each st...moreOh boy. Oh man, do I have a lot to say about this here book. I can't even begin to tackle it as a whole entity, so I'm going to do a review of each story, unless I get tired and have to smoosh.
Also: I am the kind of person who listens to all my music on shuffle, which means I clearly have no respect for the artist's conception of a complete work. Consequently I read these stories totally out of order, and will review them the same way.
"The Suffering Channel" and "Mister Squishy" I think these are examples of DFW at nearly his best. They're certainly typifications of what I think of when I think of him. These long twisty stories with a fairly simple (though unique) plot, constellated with exhaustively depicted characters—to the point, sometimes, that it seems like the sort of pre-writing exercise you're taught to do in a creative writing class, where you jot down every single thing you can think of about your characters, from their appearance to their education to their mannerisms to their innermost fears and desires. Of course, those exercises are typically meant to be reference points only, a tool to help the writer really know his characters, so that they can be rendered more real on the page. But pff, DFW doesn't—didn't, oh god, pain in my heart—follow rules like that. Another rule he doesn't follow? The normal flow and rhythm of a story. Even pomo or trickerish authors tend to do things like group similar ideas or moments into the same paragraph, but not DFW. No, his stories (or his stories of the type exemplified by these two) have dense paragraphs that cover everything at once, with the interior monologue of one character tripping over a physical description of another character which is then pushed up next to the action the first was contemplating making a few pages ago. I want to make a metaphor about balls (ha), like juggling, but it's not like juggling, it's more like shuffling, like each part of the story is one suit in a deck, and he just swishes them all together so that everything is on top of something else, and you have to, um, count fucking cards or something, or anyway work really hard to keep each running narrative in your head so you know whom he means each time he says "she" because, following the logical sentence structure, it does not refer to the person it ought to refer to. Gosh, did I manage to make that sentence as confusing as the thing I'm trying to explain? Maybe I should have said that DFW at his best claws his way into your brain and makes you think and write and sometimes even talk like him, which is amazing and thrilling and a little bit awful.
I should also have said that "The Suffering Channel" is a brilliant excuse to have a whole slew of different characters have long, involved conversations about shit and shitting and playing with shit and caring for shit and preserving shit and making art out of shit—all while maintaining his aura of brilliance and scholarly aplomb. And I know there's nothing new under the sun etc etc, but I would bet a large amount of money that no one ever, in the history of the world, has used the phrase "intracunnilingual flatus vignette" before. These two stories each get high B+, and for a lesser author would be the top of his achievements. (See "The Soul Is Not a Smithy" and "Good Old Neon" for why DFW, of course, can do even better.)
"Incarnations of Burned Children" As MJ promised in the comments below, this story is fist-chewingly great. And devastating. In fact, this might be DFW at his best, but that's hard to claim, since it's so unlike what he usually does. It's short, it's too the point, it's sharply poetic, it's emotionally raw, it's essentially free of character description or background or intellectualizing. It's a short sharp stunning burst of beautiful horror.
"Another Pioneer" This story was too much on the over-intellectualization. It's kind of what you'd expect from DFW telling you a fable, I guess, reinterpreted through his ridiculous brain and spat out by a weird narrator, shot through with obtuse Latin phrases and rendered much less moving by being made so so writerly. Stories like this are why the haters hate DFW.
"Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature" and "Oblivion" These stories can suck a dick. Lest you think I am just a mindless DFW fluffer, I want to stress that he can absolutely be just insufferable at times, which is why I always give his books the "too smart for their own good" tag. "Oblivion" in particular just made me furious, written as it is in this incredibly stilted style, with all kinds of "words" put in unnecessarily "quotation marks," as if the narrator were some kind of alien or moron who had never been in polite society. Which he wasn't. It was just a story about a dude who was having weird trouble with his wife, a story that should, in fact, have been a really interesting and engaging, involving sleep studies and intra-familial weirdness and strange manifestations of psychological trouble between long-married people after their kids leave home and the many, many layers of thought and self-doubt and self-assurance we use to fool ourselves and those we love. But he just fucking buried it all under this stupid conceit where everything was overexplained and mummified by weird constructions and stilted language and it was just awful. Ditto for "Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature." Fail.
"The Soul Is Not a Smithy" Spectacular. Hands down the best story in the book, and the reason why DFW is a consummate motherfucking genius.
***I'm still not done with this review, dammit. I have obvs a lot more to say about that one, and I haven't even gotten to the utterly wrecking "Good Old Neon." Why can't I just spend my entire life writing book reviews? Can someone pay me a million dollars for that please??(less)
Found (but couldn't afford) this at a great indie bookshop, and I left empty-handed and sad. But then a few days later the book gods smiled on me, and...moreFound (but couldn't afford) this at a great indie bookshop, and I left empty-handed and sad. But then a few days later the book gods smiled on me, and I found a $1 proof at the Strand!
And oh la, what a lovely little read.
I guess you'd call these fairy tales, although they could as easily be considered prose poems. Some topics: A lonely, stunted tulip bulb and the girl who kills her. A woman with a secret petting zoo in her basement. A woman who turns herself into a beautiful caged bird. A girl in secret love with a white shift and a cheesemonger.
Stories to read while listening to Joanna Newsom or Feist. Strange and beautiful. Haunting and elegant. Soft and sad.(less)
"Nineteen eighty-seven is the year I did nothing. The year I fought in no war, contributed to no cause, didn't get shot, jailed, or inured. We didn't starve, didn't die, didn't save anyone either. Didn't change anyone's mind for the better, or the worse. We had absolutely no effect on anything that happened. The only thing that changed as a result of our presence was us."
A quick synopsis: Deb and her boyfriend George leave college in 1987, when she is eighteen and he is twenty, to spend a year traveling through Central America--Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama--in search of revolutions to foment, or at least "revolution jobs" to procure. Along the way, they work in an orphanage in teaching the children reading and sports, until they are asked to leave. They build bicycles in Nicaragua for a few days before being fired for incompetence. They trade off bouts of diarrhea and fevers and scabies, get robbed over and over, have animated political and philosophical discussions with other Internacionalistas (called Sandalistas by the locals), conduct and record interviews with anyone who will speak with them (though they later lose all the tapes), keep meticulous journals, bicker and make up and fight again, and generally botch everything they set out to do meaningfully.
There is plenty of firsthand history here, as she moves from country to country, revolution to revolution. She teaches us about guerillas who have been successful, soldiers and how they interrogate, spies and their disguises, priests who renounced religion in favor of politics, the way that the things she experienced, in retrospect, wound up playing out on the international stage. But the book is also suffused with the unreliability of memory. Unferth is constantly cancelling out her stories by questioning whether they really happened just then, or there, or in that way. She describes a family trip to El Salvador many years earlier, listing all the awful things that happened, and what a terrible memory it was. Then she says that her mother remembers it as a wonderful time. She tells us that she and George were in Managua when the radical newspaper La Prensa reopened, detailing the crowds, the paperboys, the cheering. But then she backtracks--were they really in Managua that day? Were there really such crowds? Was that the same day they saw the Russian ballet, or the day she cut the soldier's hair? Was La Prensa really even closed? This honesty and confusion is, to me, a welcome and unique stance in our current over-saturated memoir world, to admit that we are fallible, that memory is a trap and a lie. Memoirists always seem so sure of themselves, so certain of who said what to whom and where and when, and it is refreshing to see Unferth questioning and questioning. It makes the rest of her story less iron-clad, true, but also more human, more relatable.
And her language! Beautiful and strange, like everything she writes. "She had the face of captive royalty, the voice of something gentle in a cage." "I hated him with the freshness of wet cement, a new imprint, a hand coming down on my mind and marking it." "The sun was like another language. The sun was like a shout in the sky." Her prose is generally straightforward and sparse, getting out of the way of the story, but sprinkled with moments of beauty, with profound realizations, with sharp and acute characterizations. It makes for extremely engaging, propelling reading.
Starting even with its subtitle, "The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War," Revolution is told in a particular tone, one of amused disbelief in one's former self. It's easy to picture Unferth tapping this out, shaking her head and rolling her eyes--was that really me doing all those ridiculous things? Though there are a few times when this façade is cracked, and she lets real emotions come through, the bulk of the book is extremely self-conscious. She keeps askance of the narrative, condescending to it, to her former naïve self and her bizarre genius boyfriend and all the self-important buffoons they met along the way. "Imagine. We were walking across their war, juggling. We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats. The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor. We wanted a nice sing-a-long and a ballet. We weren't a revolution. We were an armed circus." This tone choice is clearly a defense mechanism, forestalling criticism via self-mockery, and it is a successful technique, to a point. It grounds the narrative, saving it from corny idealism and keeping it from spinning off into maudlin recollection or inflated self-importance. But ultimately there is such a bemused, disapproving distance that the reader too is forced most of the time into their own jaded head-shaking disbelief, rather than finding a way to embrace the person she was, living the life she chose. Nonetheless, Revolution still manages to be a powerful book. It's ultimately an incredible journey she took, full of insane things she did, and Unferth's language and narration is more than up to the task.(less)
I couldn't tell you when and how this book wound up on my shelf, but since it's a proof by Doubleday, I'm going to guess that I grabbed it blind off t...moreI couldn't tell you when and how this book wound up on my shelf, but since it's a proof by Doubleday, I'm going to guess that I grabbed it blind off the free shelf back when I worked at Random House. In any case, I've known it was there for awhile, and, after an argument, I pulled it out to show my bf that I was prepared to make an effort. That's because I thought it was a self-help book for ladies whose partners wanted more. I was wrong. It is a memoir, one of those memoirs which never ever deserved to be written or published. Because this book is really bad.
One thing I did learn, on a positive note, is that, despite what my bf thinks, I am nowhere near the low end of the sex-drive continuum. To be delicate-ish: our sex lives could be measured in times per week, whereas Joan's is measured in times per year. Yikes. Not that I am judging her for that, of course; some people have low libidos, and if she and her partner were able to find ways to work around that and come to compromises that satisfied them both, that'd be just fine. But hoo boy, Joan is not willing to budge on anything, and I am indeed judging her for that. She is self-righteous, often cruel, totally self-involved, and really really unfeeling about her husband's desires. And this is her memoir! How could she have not noticed how awful a picture she was painting of herself?? Boggles the mind.
I wish this was a self-help book, for both Joan's sake and mine. She's actually a very good researcher, and she has interesting and complex reactions to a wide variety of sex theorists, and sex therapists, and sex writers. If she'd just done a study of sex theory, this could have been a really interesting book. But when she writes about herself and her life, everything goes downhill. Her writing is clunky and boring. She spends several paragraphs describing the head of lettuce that she is moving from the shopping bag to the fridge. She waxes poetic clichéd about various topics, often food, which are essentially unrelated to anything that is going on. She vacillates between odd, overly casual direct-address to the reader and a somewhat stilted, pedantic tone. She seriously needed a better editor.
And then there's the story itself, where she browbeats her husband into accepting all and only her terms on everything, in, like I said, an extremely self-righteous and cruel way. They don't have sex hardly ever, but she won't stand for having pornography in her home, for example. She makes a few feeble attempts at being sexier, but everything's just too much of a chore. She botches dirty talking. The sexy clothes are uncomfortable. She thinks he has a thing for their sex therapist, so they have to stop going. She attempts to slather him in chocolate—which is the only thing she seems to actually love—but before things even get going, she realizes to her dismay that the chocolate is getting warm, and goodness knows she hates warm chocolate. Good grief.
It is a truly astonishing author who can write her own memoir and—seemingly unintentionally—make herself come across as the villain. Joan, your husband deserves a medal (and quite a few blowjobs) for putting up with you.(less)
book #10 for Jugs & Capes! And essay #3 for CCLaP! In fact, someone from Will Eisner Studios actually contacted me to say they enjoyed the review....morebook #10 for Jugs & Capes! And essay #3 for CCLaP! In fact, someone from Will Eisner Studios actually contacted me to say they enjoyed the review. Neat!
Ah, Will Eisner. Undoubtedly the father or the modern graphic novel, his influence has been huge and sweeping. I mean, that's what they tell me; I'm sure that 90 percent of the people reading this review know a hell of a lot more about Will Eisner than I do. But I do know that 1978's A Contract With God is an incredibly important work in a way that many pieces of art struggle with—it has remained fresh and relevant for all these decades, and even I, as chick and a lit buff and a graphic novel neophyte, could relate to it, and be made devastated and furious by it, and appreciate it wholly.
A few months ago, my book club read Frank Miller's Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. I didn't like it, hardly at all. The book just didn't jive at all with the image I'd been handed about its game-changing-ness. I mean, it's supposed to be this pinnacle and groundbreaker of its form, and I kind of understand how that might have been true when it was first published. But now? In 2010, for me to come to Dark Knight with no knowledge of comic-book history and tropes, living in a CGI world, an indie-fabulous world, a YouTube world, a world where everything Miller ever did has been exponentially permutated and shifted and reconsidered from every possible angle...well, his efforts just weren't that impressive.
But in the case of A Contract With God, I felt just the opposite. Despite—because of?—how uncomfortable and upset this book made me, it was an absolutely riveting read. It didn't feel remotely out of date. It didn't even feel old. I mean, the stories take place in the twenties and thirties, of course, but it felt like could have been written last year. There was nothing stilted in the language, nothing clunky in the design, nothing old-fashioned in the pictures. Maybe this is because Eisner really did set the standard, and everyone in the last forty years has just been working off of his template? If so: man. A genius, indeed.
I'm going to go ahead and admit that I was not intending to be very moved by this book. I guess I was kind of expecting saccharine, Disney-type feel-good stories, or superhero-inspired tales of beautiful people doing wonderful things. Surely everyone in the world knows how totally wrong I was. There's a shocking amount of meanness and ugliness in these stories—cruelty and misanthropy and anti-Semitism and adultery and spousal abuse and rape—and very little of it is remotely punished, which I found totally unnerving. So even though I was expecting to be disappointed by this being a sappy morality tale, I have to admit that a part of me really does want to see the good guys rewarded and the bad guys get what's comin' to 'em.
Let me give an example. In a subplot in the story "Cookalein," we have a little case of mistaken identity. Benny and Goldie, who have both gone to a summer resort explicitly to bag a wealthy mate, each think the other is loaded. After courting for a few days, they steal away into the woods in the middle of the night to cement their union, but then—surprise!—they find out they're both poor. After she cries, "Benny, if you love me, nothing else matters!," he drops his pants and growls, "It's a whole new ballgame now, baby," then lunges at her, ripping her clothes and taking her by force. So how does the story end? Goldie winds up with a doctor (whom she had previously scorned because she thought he was poor), and Benny seduces an heiress. Neither is punished. Everybody wins.
And that wasn't even the most upsetting example! But I don't want to get bogged down in summary; the real point is that these stories are extremely lifelike, and real life doesn't come with just desserts, or punishments that fit crimes. Real life is messy, and cruel, and mean, and ugly. And, for me, even worse than when things are ugly is when they're just totally unfair. While it would have annoyed me if these were bland stories about good people being happy and bad people shaking their fists, I was far more upset by the moral ambiguity, the idea that—even in fiction, even in art, where the creator has the power of choice—some people are just awful, and sometimes they get ahead anyway. Eisner has left everything unvarnished, unglossed, and unmended. I get that, and I have great respect for his evocative realism. But I'd be lying if I said I liked it.(less)
You should probably just go read Karen's review, or Eh's, because I have a head like a sieve, and it's been over a month since I read this, and I forg...moreYou should probably just go read Karen's review, or Eh's, because I have a head like a sieve, and it's been over a month since I read this, and I forgot all the things I'd wanted to say about it.
But I will say this: It's good. I liked it a bunch. I like when people do the interlocking-stories thing (although no one does it better than Daniel Handler in the unbelievably spectacular Adverbs). I mean, the reason I don't love short stories is because they're so damn short, but then if you put a bunch of stories together—not novelishly, but uh, buildingly I guess?—then that makes me feel like it's more worth my time and mental energy.
Also: Unsurprisingly, I liked the teenage parts the most, because in my head I am kind of still sixteen, and that rawness and hysteria of being a teenager just always makes me shiver. Like this line, way at the beginning of the book on page 4: "She thought he was going to leave, but then he stepped to the side and waited, and her heart fucking flung at her chest, hard and fast and repeatedly, because oh my god, this guy is going to like me." Grrrrrrrr omg I am such a sucker for that shit.
I should probably say some other stuff about loneliness and desperation, about solitary clawing want, about love and its opposites, about characters and settings and big dogs and sorrow—but like I said, I forgot all the smart things I had in my head while I was reading.
It's good though, and you should probably read it. Jami rules.(less)