Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Before the Masks: Part 1

Book: Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre
Authors/Illustrators: Darwyn Cooke/Amanda Conner
Published: 2013 (DC)

Minutemen
Oh man do I love this faux art deco retro style of pictures. They are so rich of color and round of line, perfect for implying movement and the human form and, like, slipping into shadows and hiding from pools of streetlights and stuff. It was great looking at this thing.

 I wasn't quite as fond of the story until it stopped skimming the roster and settled into its own focused narrative of the Silhouette and the first Nite Owl's quest to continue his friend's justice against a mysterious evil lurking on little children. Hooded Justice was creepy as **** and may or may not have been tied into Silhouette's past at the concentration camps she and her sister escaped in WWII and that was a great hint that MAY OR MAY NOT have anything to do with who they eventually collar for this, I won't tell.

 That specific storyline, not necessarily the main one about Nite Owl trying to get his Minutemen memoir published without any personal compromise, was perfect for the noir-ish lines and beats of this. The Minutemen's history was kind of exactly like I would've thought, if I had given any thought to it, which I didn't because I always figured that wasn't the interesting bit, and turns out I was right. At least according to this, anyway. I'm counting this as cannon, since Watchmen managed to stay self-contained and therefore avoid that argument for so long until the movie (say what you will about the rest of it but that was one of my all-time favorite opening sequences), and even now it's just that, the original graphic novel, and these origin story ones. 



 Silk Spectre
Lori and I have a weird relationship because I feel like I most relate to her while also being fed up to past my eyeballs (but no further) with her mommy issues. And this volume just made it worse, only with a decent story, so...help, someone tell me what I think!
Nah, just kidding. (See? She would totally joke like that.) Despite wanting its origin to be much more of a side note in a much bigger picture of reasons and consequences, I could see where Lori was coming from and how it propelled her into her stint with the Watchmen. Yeah, having a mom famous for being the easiest superhero to get to know, like, ever, would be embarassing and confusing enough to want to run away from but difficult enough to elude entirely, especially when it fights against her own natural talents and instincts. And sure, it's totally understandable that a big part of her would want to give in to that instinct to use it for good, to reshape her mom's legacy into something noble and purely heroic so she can be proud of where she comes from without feeling crippling shame at the same time.
And when Lori runs away, it's with a cute guy and a vanful of hippies who cheerfully practice the commune life before it got overrun with irony and cynicism that froze the moment in grotesque cliches of itself. TL;DR: I LIKED THE COLORS WHEN SHE DROPPED ACID.
Anyway, what turns out to dissolve that happy little nest is her real dad, and for those of you who haven't read Watchmen yet (WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE GO TO THE LIBRARY AND RECTIFY THIS) I won't say who that is but in this story it isn't important except that he knows how to creep through the shadows and intimidate the hell out of whoever is threatening her, which usually tends to cause her more distress than safety.
And it ties in neatly to her formal introduction to crime fighting, with the last two pages showing her walking into her first Watchmen meeting. But dudes, the last line is her thought bubble looking at Dr. Manhattan thinking about how she can get him into bed. "I bet my mom would HATE that..."
VERY LOUD SIGH IN YOUR DIRECTION, LORI.
Also, there is a full-color panel of full-frontal male nudity in the middle of this thing, which - somehow male nudity is always surprising. I've seen more of Walter White's and Roger Sterling's bare asses than I can count comfortably but it strikes me anew every time.
Back to the library for this one.

The troubled history of higher education

Book: Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America's Universities
Author: Craig Steven Wilder
Published: 2013 (Bloombury)
Pages: 288

Unfortunately, the basic premise of this book isn't surprising to anybody who paid attention in history class, and I say unfortunately because it talks about how slavery was entrenched in the founding of this colony, this eventual country, and the institutes of higher learning of both.

 Okay. I knew this going in. It's right there in the subtitle. Lay some hard truth on me here.



Turns out that the colleges and universities were all founded by rich guys, and all the rich guys at the time were slaveholders, so that labor/economy intrinsically became a part of the system. This is driven home by an extensive list of founders, early presidents, magistrates, [insert your favorite title for collegiate Grand High Pooh Bah here], etc. and what humans they owned. It's an exhaustive, depressing, and repetitive list without much insight into the college system itself beyond the "What was WRONG with you people? WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS OKAY?" that can be applied to the whole slavery system.

 That's just the first half, though. The second half gets more interesting as we move further from the founding and the colleges start getting settled into the cultural prestige of the country. Efforts to educate slaves and "civilize" Native Americans are put together by the best intentions of clueless white people but almost always fail, basically. The book doesn't quite get to the Civil War, but it pours the foundations into the growing unease and awareness of inequality.

 I liked this book okay, but it was difficult to get through the apparently obvious first part to get to the real sociology underneath, and a lot of it felt like "well, this is just how they did things back then" without much digging into why that ugly part of humanity seemed so vital that it didn't merit any special mention except as an afterthought effect of being rich back in the day.

 It's already back at the library because someone else has it on hold so I had to actually get something back sans renewal this time. I did learn stuff but not as much as I wanted to.

Let the great plane fly

Book: Transatlantic
Author: Colum McCann
Published: 2013 (Thorndike)

I met Colum McCann in person when he did a reading at the college I live about two spits away from and I hadn't read any of his work then yet but now I have, FINALLY, and I put that all in caps because it turns out well.

 Let the Great World Spin was my first go-round, and after finishing this one a few days ago, I can start to see a common thread he weaves through the human condition that doesn't quite touch his characters' lives on the obvious level but is totally there in the undertow of history - we are all connected through our humanity, y'all, and while that's a hint too broad a theme to draw everything neat and tightly together in this book, it's still a great excuse to explore several connected areas of transatlantic history.

 There's a pair of aviators between the World Wars who want to fly nonstop from New York to Great Britain and the lady reporter and her photographer daughter covering them; there's the granddaughter of the photographer fighting to keep hold of the family ice farm in 2011; backtrack and you'll find Frederick Douglas uncomfortable with his place of refinement yet terrified of getting dragged back to slavery on his Dublin book tour in the late 19th century and the ladies' distant relative, a maid who walked miles of Irish coast to gain her freedom inspired by his teachings.



 The Douglas sections were my favorite. He was drawn as such a human character, fond of the finer things and elevated purposes of life but disgusted at the relief he felt when he was whisked away from Ireland's poverty. Plus he never really fit in, even among all the fervent abolitionist he stayed with, all because of something he couldn't help but fought so hard to break. And he had these dumbbells he would work out with to cure writer's block, and the descriptions of his white sleeves billowing as he wrote made him sound a very grand sight at work. There are all these little touches of unconscious dignity that make him very believable as both a powerhouse presence and a man realizing the extend of the work to come.

 All of the characters were drawn well, tending toward introspection focused outward so they weren't always clear on why they felt what they did but they saw the rest of the world clearly. I liked that McCann resisted going for any of the obvious historical connotations and just painted peripheral events to slide in a slantwise portrait of the times.

 Good stuff. I accidentally got the Large Print edition of this but ain't no thang. It's gotta go back to the library but I will miss it.

Conciousness like an onion (layers that sometimes make you cry)

Book: I Am a Strong Loop
Author: Douglas Hofstadter
Published: 2007 (Basic)
Pages: 363

At a certain point, I thought the nicest thing I'd have to say about this book is that I got a decent poem out of the title. I'm introduced to the abstract concepts of how our metaphysical thought construction looks at itself and tries to force patterns into the endless spiraling reflections it sees when it points at itself by metaphors that are more difficult to understand than what they're trying to illustrate. Cool, right?



 Well, hang on. We're going to pretend there's this world where everybody's born an identical twin and they think in pairs about everything because this makes it easier to grasp the concept of...what? I've forgotten already, because it's stupid and doesn't work as explanation because as well as being a double hurtle of abstraction to leap over now instead of just one, the author also does so much backtracking like "of course, in the real world, this wouldn't work at all, so imagine that it did!" SO WHY ARE YOU USING IT TO EXPLAIN THE REAL WORLD METAPHORS ARE NOT TO BE THROWN ABOUT WILLY-NILLY JUST BECAUSE THEY SOUND COOL SPIT IT OUT AND CLEARLY JESUS CHRIST. He has literally hundreds of examples of this back-tracking confusion-making pseudo-proof all over the friggin' place.

 And in the intro he also talks about how he believes that every living thing has a soul, just, like, stretched to fit depending on its place in the natural hierarchy, and I was all kinds of hating on that until the last part of the book when he ends up explaining it thoroughly. Oh.

 So let me get to that, because a little more than halfway through, he suddenly starts talking about his wife and how he felt like they shared souls in the sense of they knew each other really well so their personality patterns were sort of saved in each other's consciousness, albeit in loose grainy spotty copies of the real things. Yeah. I can dig that. We carry each other around as patterns weaved into our own consciousness because our interactions with each other change our own patterns.

 And then his wife DIES and he finds himself not as sad (although still devastated) as he expected because he's all, "But I still remember her and have my copy of her saved in my consciousness, and so do all the other people who know her, so the stuff that made her her is still floating around, just not in the flawless and contained detail as when her body was alive." 

 ...I had to get a tissue. That was some profound shit that went straight to where my heart wrings out through my eyes right there.

So and then that leads into him spending the last good chunk arguing against people who think that our self-awareness and sophistication of thought HAVE to, like, mean something deeper than holy shit, look at the by-products of such evolved levels of consciousness! Our mental capabilities come from how complex our mechanics have become, and ISN'T THAT SO COOL? Why do we need a higher meaning when neuroscience is waving its own peculiar magic at us and going, "Look, guys, take this. Just take it, I technically don't need it and you'll have so much fun with it you won't even believe until you try."

 YES. EXACTLY. And note that he doesn't use dumb metaphors here - this part is all laid out pretty straightforwardly, even if too much of it is first detailed in the most unrealistic dialogue (as in the ancient philosophers' kind) ever that needs a whole other chapter to explain what the hell they were arguing about - that's where the clarity came in and yes, I agree.

 Taking that logic, everything does have a level of what we think of as "soul," but since it comes as a result from cognitive ability, the simpler the cognitive ability the smaller the soul. Okay. I still don't like the designation of "small" as opposed to, I dunno, maybe "less aware" or something, but whatever. I get it.

 And, ultimately, for those two points of utter sense, I will keep this book on my bookshelf. I still don't have to like his methods of explanation, though.

Humanizing the animal instinct

Book: The Inner Circle
Author: T.C. Boyle
Published: 2004 (Penguin)
Pages: 418

T.C. Boyle's fictional narrative about what became the Kinsey Institute is like the best kind of sex: propulsive, impulsive but quickly building its own set of interior logic as it goes along, and coupled with a passion for what it stands for. 

 It does two things I usually don't like in fiction, which are A. use the "narrator doesn't know why he's writing this reflection on the coincidentally most interesting bits of his life but, well, here you go" framework and B. exploit the learned emotional flourishes of the narrator's maturity to color his memories of his younger years. That usually feels like cheating to me.

 But while A. is still not 100% necessary in my humble opinion, here it at least sets up a believable situation, that of the narrator avoiding going to his mentor's funeral and choosing to get drunk and remember on paper instead.  And B. works really well. I don't have any better analysis than this time that approach actually matches the emotional timbre and scope of the story.

 And what a story! It's about this college kid who takes Professor Kinsey's "marriage" (sex ed) class to impress a girl who needs a "fiancĂ©" to take it herself, and how he ends up being Kinsey's very first assistant in the undergoing the massive survey of human sexuality that would make him famous, and how he meets a girl and falls in love and tries to keep their conventional coururtship/marriage/parenthood together while working outrageously long hours with a man who thinks sex is a biological urge to be satisfied as regularly and indiscriminately as eating.



 It's great. There's so much conflict between the spouses, the colleagues, society of the time, Kinsey's work ethic and his health - oh man. Four years ago I checked out the movie Kinsey from the library and watched about 2/3 of it before it stopped (disc scratches, y'all - if you can watch a movie all the way through from your public library, go hug their Film and Sound staff for all their hard work to keep it that way) but that was plenty of time to cement Liam Nielsen as the looming force of nature that was Prok (as they combined "Professor Kinsey" here) in my head, complete with his almost-basso profundo voice, and the narrator here is that rare everyman who grows in such believable increments you feel like you're going with him every step of the way, so I enjoyed the hell out of this.

If I had All of the Monies, I would turn my sociology minor into a masters or PhD good for work at the Kinsey Institute to go along with my future MFA and MLIS, but as it is, I have to choose and make "none of the above, have you looked at the loan rates lately?" a prominent option AND IT'S NOT FAIR. But then I calm down because I can keep books like this on my shelf.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The wonderfully normal absuridities of Karen Russell

Book: Vampires in the Lemon Grove
Author: Karen Russell
Published: 2013 (Knopf)
Pages: 243

Where has Karen Russell been all my life? Oh yeah, on New York Times Bestseller lists and on the shortlist for the Pulitzer Prize and also busy putting that Guggenheim fellowship to good use. Ahem.

So, point being, I've had no excuse except my own inclination towards distraction to not fall face-face in love with her magical realism that tends to bite reality in the ass and let it sort things out itself. YES. IT IS NOW TIME.

Here there are indeed vampires in a lemon grove, and they got there after the unsettling discovery that they don't really need to drink blood but that they're always thirsty for something. There are also poor Japanese girls who get lured into becoming silk-spinning monsters and use their mutations to escape; kids who fight brothers and seagulls for a chance at young love; tips on how to survive Artic tailgating (my personal favorite, probably because it's the weirdest yet is written as the most matter-of-fact) against those douchebag Whale fans and sub-zero summers; massage therapists who can unwittingly ease their clients' worst nightmares by taking them on themselves; and a scarecrow who looks enough like a bullied former friend who disappeared to insight some major survivor guilt.



They're great. They're all great, and they all have that touch of absurdity that makes them those sorts of escapes from reality reading is best at, yet they're all hung on frames of humanity that make them infinitely more relatable than a lot of the sci fi I've gotten to (yet - yet, I say! I'm sure it's out there). Like, the silkworm ladies became monsters for the very human reason of not having any other resources, and the guys in the Artic are still the same tailing buddies you see crowded into parking lots every fall, trying to make the most convenience work the best for them and giving the best luck to their team, and the message therapist is just as weirded out as we are when her client's back tattoo starts moving and then suddenly she's the one flashing back with PTSD.

I love it, it kept surprising me, and now it has to go back to the library for the next lucky sod on the waiting list. Fuck yeah, short fiction.

The wishing well of old artistic ladies

Book: The Fountain of St. James Court, or, Portrait of the Artist as an Old Woman
Author: Sena Jeter Naslund
Published: 2013 (Harper)
Pages: 431

What do an old lady who's just finished the first draft of her latest novel and the life of a famous lady painter in revolution Paris have in common?

Trick question, my friends, because this book thinks it answers it thoroughly when - yeah. No, it doesn't.

 Ostensibly, they're connected because the old lady's novel is about the lady painter, and she manages to contemplate about her once or twice during her random ramblings around the Kentucky apartment complex she now calls home. But really, the (excruciating) detail of life's aimless release right after a work of art has been completed makes far more overt and explicit allusions to Mrs. Dalloway and makes me leery about reading V. Wolf although based on glimpses of her prose that I've already managed to steal, she mines much deeper into the psyche of everyday and not just wispy contemplation of chairs, wine, Hallmark friendships, and past marriages. (I don't think. To the Lighthouse is on the pile, guys, so stay tuned.)



 The book alternates somewhat randomly between this and a based-on-true-life lady painter as she grows up and works hard at her art and gets into the highest social circles of French aristocracy only to watch them crumble around her. This bit started out much more interestingly, sketching (heh) pieces of her childhood in just enough detail to see her personality start to emerge and mold around her talent, and it's good up until her marriage to an art dealer who she doesn't really love but hey, it's the 18th century and he's got a bangin' collection and connections and space for her to paint. Sweet deal.

 She even enjoys the wedding night; he awakens her desires and they're both all worshipful of each other's forms and each weird cheese off each other's knives (NOT A GROSS METAPHOR, I promise) and it was kind of more like a romance novel than I can fully appreciate but whatever, good for them.

And then it just...stops. Like, we go back to the old lady and her nervousness about a new paramour possibly coming by, and when we get back to Painter Lady all of a sudden she's talking about her husband being a gambler and bum and there is NO mention of transition and there's NO going back to sexytimes, NO "I found out he's a worse person than I thought but I can't quit this man, y'all, I wish I could" and as far as I could tell, NO time in between.

 That marks the decline of anything interesting in this whole bundle. The old lady continues to wander around her court with the stupid fountain in it (serves NO purpose, by the way, except something to be mentioned) and the painter lady starts outlining how awesome her life gets. Yeah. What is it with French revolution people leaving out the most interesting parts in their lives? We get no more details, nothing more except skimmed over summaries of life, work, death, and upheaval escaped early.

 Ugh. I wanted to be able to say that if you put the painter lady parts together you'd get a good novel, but that's not even true, and there's never any thematic connection between the bits even though I know the author wanted that to happen SO HARD.

 Back to the library, crossed off the list. I've decided that reading lists make me happy because they order the overwhelming job of "what to read next??" and it's something I'll be able to complete but not for a really long time. So. Yes to reading list, no to this book.