Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Superheroes through one good eye

Book: Marvels

Writer: Kurt Busiek

Artist: Alex Ross

Published 2008 (as collection, Marvel)

Pages: Guys, comics don’t number their pages. Let’s just get over that now.

This is more dreamy watercolors from Alex Ross, this time depicting the rise of the Marvel universe in New York City with a focus (heh) on how it affects the citizen as seen through the photojournalistic lens of Phil Sheldon.

I use the word “dreamy” because Ross’s art is blurred just enough around the edges to give me a sort of warm fuzzy feeling when I’m looking at it even when he’s showing me a massive two-page spread of carnage wrecked by the superheroes who are supposed to be protecting the damn city, not tearing it apart. *shakes cane*

That’s what most of the conflict is about—whether or not the superheroes who emerge are actually good or just another agent of chaos (albeit well-meaning). Public opinion sways with how the big battles go; Phil himself leans more toward the thankful side with an “oh hell no!” streak about mutants, which surprised me considering how obsessed he becomes about documenting all the others so they’ll be better understood.

The writing is good in this one. Phil’s internal monologues sound like things people actually think to themselves, and he’s not overly perfect by any means. This might be a result of him being a normal guy instead of, like, Spiderman or someone, but I don’t really care because it makes for good outside observation on just exactly how these heroes are received. Good call making him a photojournalist too, because that way he can be everywhere the plot needs him to be without any unnatural torturing of his own storyline.

I never did get a full answer out of him, though. He just keeps questioning his and everybody else’s views about the superheroes until he retires, and then he puts it down like he puts down his camera. Maybe the resolution lies deeper in the Marvel canon.

A few influences I noticed in the art:
  • I’m definitely not imagining the Nighthawks panel, where Ross paints a couple of his main characters into that famous cafĂ© for dinner.
  • I’m almost positive I’m not imagining Bea Author being painted as one of the guests who talks about how ugly the Thing is during a sculpture opening.
  • I might be imagining the faces of Paul McCartney, Jimmi Page, and Keith Moon being in a couple of the medium-angle crowd scenes. I do like my classic rock. 

Fangirl time!

Book: A Perfectly Good Family

Author: Lionel Shriver

Published: 1996 (Faber and Faber)

Pages: 277

I’m reviewing this book because it gives me an excuse to fangirl about Lionel Shriver. Ready? Here goes.

AHHHHH She’s such a good author she expresses all the internal intricacies of life so well she’s not afraid to explore and expose the ugly parts either she gets the interplay of duty and selfishness and wanting things both ways and the consequences of that exactly right she articulates the personal war between discipline and what’s “good” for you with the spontaneous joy and equally unexpected heartbreak that comes from living recklessly she’s even got a cool name that she chose herself because she didn’t like her own AHHHHHHHH!
Okay. So, needless to say, I like this book. It’s part of a Shriver buying spree I went on after I read We Need To Talk About Kevin and The Post-Birthday World and loved both and discovered I could buy the whole rest of her output (six or seven other books) for like $3 each on Amazon. They came one by one into my school mailbox in a delightful trickle that almost perfectly matched my reading pace.

A Perfectly Good Family is about three siblings who are warring over what to do with the giant North Carolina mansion they just inherited after their mother dies. The two brothers each want to buy the other out, and they each enlist the sister to go with them; she goes along with both because she can’t make herself choose one over the other.

The characters are fantabulous conflicted mixtures of loyalties to radically different things (parents that they didn’t especially like, the house one of them loves and the other just wants to sell, each other as siblings, an audio tech business that’s hemorrhaging money) and vices (destruction, self-discipline, being wishy-washy). It’s so, so great to read such detailed people—including the parents, who are presented as saints to the outside world but are revealed as both more and less than their children ever needed.

Even the house negotiating plot is so much more interesting than it sounds because it’s presented as the official, legal embodiment of the family’s struggle. The clashing passions with their clothes pressed and their hair combed.

The ending, though, I really, really must protest. It’s much too happy for Shriver. Everything just magically works out. She doesn’t do happy endings, usually, and I love her for that because it makes her work seem more real.

This fangirl is also worried about how the movie version of We Need To Talk About Kevin is going to bring all that internal conflict which is the vital core of the plot into a primarily visual medium. PLEASE NO VOICEOVERS OH GOD THAT’S WHAT THEY’RE GOING TO DO ISN’T IT.

Sigh. But I’ll end up going to see it anyway, dammit.  

Mashed potato number one

Book: Dream Jungle

Author: Jessica Hagedorn

Published: 2003 (Penguin Books)

Pages: 325

What do I do when I’m eating vegetables on a plate with stuff that’s easier to eat, like mashed potatoes? I smush everything together so the vegetables taste a little more like mashed potatoes, so I can get full tastes of the easy stuff around trying to digest all that fiber. Ta-dah! A metaphor for my reading life: I’ve been chewing on a dense textbook for the past two weeks while swallowing gobs of a few good much faster reads.

Mashed Potato Number one is a novel woven from traditions of conquest and servitude in the Philippines, telling the story of a poor girl who goes to serve with her mother at the house of a rich man who discovered a lost Paleolithic tribe. Or at least that’s what he’s telling everybody.
It’s also about the making of a very Apocalypse Now-sounding movie about Vietnam in the same jungles five years later. The one thread both stories have in common is Lina, the young servant girl who is secretly happy when her father washes overboard and drowns on a ship journey (he made her life shit), which lets her go live with her mother in the rich man’s house. As a servant there, she gets knocked up by the master and runs away to the rough part of Manila where an actor in the movie finds her in a go-go bar and falls in love with her. He brings her onto the set of the movie as a food worker and eventually, after the giant torturous genius work is done (way over budget and time, of course, but almost worth the sanity lost), he takes her back to the States and they live semi-happily ever after.

This plot is full of parallels, mad geniuses bursting through the underbrush, deception, schmoozing, unanswered questions, disappearances, and one hell of a plot that doesn’t sacrifice the full round discontent of its characters.

And the author gets into the head of pretty much every one of her mains, switching viewpoint and headspace without warning but at least neatly divided into chapters. I see the point of jumping characters; I don’t see the point of flitting in and out of the first person seemingly at random. It’s not difficult to keep up with but it does seem unnecessary.

The ending is kind of crap, by which I mean it peters out into mysticism that I think is supposed to lend some final epic weight but really just feels like a cop out that doesn’t answer the biggest question of the narrative: did rich dude make up the tribe he found and made famous or not? I dunno, and I’ve read this thing like six times since I…bought it? Found it? I can’t remember.

It’s worth reading for the descriptions and parallels and contrasts of all the different lives that hinge on its narrative, though. For sure. 

Friday, August 26, 2011

My life between the pages

Bookmarks seem like such inconsequential, almost careless things. They’re never anything I put real thought into when I’m using them. Whenever I stop reading, I cast around for the nearest random slip of paper and use that. Sometimes that puts me in a glass case of emotion before I remember where I left off:

Movie tickets. Oh hey, that’s from the first time I drove my own car, to meet up with my best friend like it was no big deal. But it was, and I couldn’t stop grinning with my secret glee the whole time.

Paper wristbands. The blinding neon pink is from when I drank an Irish car bomb while talking about RPGs and waiting through three or four inconsequential local bands to hear who we really came to see. The one printed with ghosts is from a January 2009 dance party, the one where I learned that I actually like to dance. They’re both from the same bar, although at least three years apart.

Fortune cookie slips. My favorite says, “Forbidden fruit makes the sweetest jam.”

Receipts. This one’s from early 2010, in my university’s bookstore. I have no idea what the first book was; the name has been rubbed off. But the second, New York Stories, I still have on my shelf and read through occasionally because I don’t have a subscription to New York magazine and like pretending I do.

Scraps from English classes. I’ve marked two passages in my copy of The Sun Also Rises, one about a bullfight (imagine that) and one as my favorite Hemingway line (“It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night it is another thing”). In Ben Greer’s Slammer, I’ve shoved an essay assignment slip that asks, “Is there symbolism in Ben Greer’s Slammer? If so, what is it?” Oh, freshman English.

Cards from my university’s card catalogue. In their library revamp, the main branch on my campus set out a great big Dewy Decimal System bureau full of old cards that had been computerized. They were free. They were the perfect size. They had book things typed on one side. I used huge clumps of these for to-do lists, notes to myself, and bookmarks, overlapping the uses when I finished the lists and acted on the notes. One of them reminded me to look up the song "Start Wearing Purple" after my college radio station got it stuck in my head. (You’re welcome.)

So what do you use for bookmarks? Does anyone use those official, overpriced but so pretty plastic ones I used to buy at school book fairs? Has anyone ever lost important stuff from using paper like I do (I never did get that water bill back...)?  

Friday, August 19, 2011

Why I'll never go to med school

Book: Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures

Author: Vincent Lam

Published: 2007 (Weinstein Books)

Pages: 337 (not counting glossary)

Don’t choke my brain with complicated procedures I have to look up when the whole point is that shit has to get done quickly to save some dude’s life. I WILL skim and I WILL not get a word of your drama.

Whew. Okay. Off my chest, so to speak.

Except for the one or two stories mentioned above, Dr. Lam writes perfectly serviceable literary fiction about his other job as an emergency physician. Reading about the medical profession always scares me while sympathizing with it at the same time because it reminds me how sleep-deprived they all are, from their decision to go to med school onward.

But these stories put human, if somewhat bland, faces on stuff like trying to keep up a relationship with another med school hopeful (that was the first story and my favorite), getting quarantined in the SARS epidemic, and dealing with psychotic patients and the night shift. And dealing with psychotic patients on the night shift. Nothing unexpected, no little inside details that really stuck out as epitomes of anything, but easily written.

Dr. Lam’s real life sounds a lot more exciting, what with the emergency physician thing and being medically trained in Canada and being the youngest writer to win the Giller Prize for fiction (2006) and coming from an expatriate Chinese community of Vietnam. I’d read the shit out of that biography.

The book flap does say that his first novel, a “multigenerational family saga set in Saigon during the Vietnam War” is “forthcoming.” Great! Is four years too soon to start bugging him about that?

Also also also, a word of advice about ensemble medical fiction: DO NOT READ ERIC SEGAL’S DOCTORS. Not if you have my impatience for Bad Things Happen to Saintly People, total black/white value systems, and terrible, terrible dialogue. It’s like a soap opera on a bad week for over 400 pages. …And I totally read it like three times over four or five years but that was only because I could never convince myself that it could be as bad as I remembered. But it was. Always.     

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Under darkest night

Book: Absolute Batman Hush

Writer: Jeph Loeb
Penciller: Jim Lee
Inker: Scott Williams
Letterer: Richard Starkings
Colorist: Alex Sinclair
Original Batman creator: Bob Kane

Published: 2005 (DC Comics)

Pages: not numbered. Lots, again.

I like to tell myself that I’ve started reading comics to study epic, crime-fighting story arcs. You know, for the superhero novel that’s my own current writing project. Research!

But it’s really because I like the big exciting pictures, I have A Source who hand-picks his best series for me to borrow (hi Thomas!), and sometimes I’m tired and my head hurts and I just want to watch Batman kick ass or chase Catwoman for a couple dozen pages before I go to sleep.

And Hush is a great vehicle for that. I think the darker, lined art style really helps reflect Batman’s hero persona; there are rough edges and complex details that go into both to bring to life a regular (well, sort of) guy who hones his own skills and his own motivations to get shit done. That’s why I like Batman.

Favorite enemy, based on their linear meet-greet-‘n’-mess-the-streets appearances in this series: the Joker. He’s a little bit too fond of bad puns, but he’s drawn as absolutely maniacal and it’s awesome. Least favorite: oh, Harley Quinn. I wanted to love you, but every time you said something, your written speech pattern made me hear it in the most obnoxious fake Brooklyn accent ever. And again with the not-so-funny one-liners.   

I am glad I was able to borrow an omnibus copy of all the issues because I could plow through the whole storyline and get to the reveal at the end which, for me, as a new reader to the specifics of Batman’s universe and rogue’s gallery, felt much too shallow to hold all the intrigue and misdirection that went into it. Minor spoiler: I was so hoping Thomas Eliot was gonna go evil in a much bigger way.

And I read the extra material, the notes on creating each panel and the IM conversation with DC and the notes on what they had to change. Normally I love peeking behind the curtain. But when the curtain is hiding non-gems such as, “We made this guy Hush because I like him so much as a character” and not, like, a detailed, foot-noted explanation of why said character fits perfectly into the story they wanted to tell, the ending I didn’t like got spoiled just a little bit more.

Also. DC Comics. I am calling you out for letting a series sell out a few times over with AN IMPROPER USE OF ITS/IT’S RIGHT SMACK IN THE MIDDLE OF IT. SHAME.

Ahem. But carry on the good storytelling.     

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Dark tea-time of the soul

Book: Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Author: Douglas Adams

Published: 1987 (Pocket Books)

Pages: 306

Ah, humorous British sci fi. I will always compare you to Dr. Who. But don’t worry, Douglas Adams; I’m pretty sure you taught the Doctor a thing or two about looking adorably incompetent while actually knowing exactly what’s going on.

I found this paperback in my dorm’s “library,” by which I mean one of three bookshelves shoved into our common room along with the old (comfortable) furniture and boxy non-HD TV that nobody wanted out in the open. I went down there a lot of Friday nights last semester to soothe my raging weekend boredom and loneliness and also to watch The Soup.

A friend of mine introduced me to Adams in high school by lending me a giant paperback edition of all four (five?) Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy novels. I loved them. I loved the absurdity-driven adventures and I loved the characters who seemed so human even if they were two-headed aliens and I loved Adam’s apparent delight in playing with logic—really playing, as in having fun with it and writing all this fun down in a way that only seem like random tangents until you get to the end of them.

He brought a lot of this to this book, minus a little bit of the wacky. This is a mystery about who killed a not-so-well-liked computer company CEO; was it his cellist sister, or her forgetful awkward boyfriend who writes music using intervals found in nature, or his old (very, very, old) professor who’s afraid to use his time machine apartment for more than petty magic tricks ever since he accidentally caused the extinction of the dodo, or the stupid magazine editor who loved his work but was pushed out of it when his dad the owner died, or the detective Dirk Gently himself while denying his psychic abilities and trying to tie everything in the world together while eating other people’s pizza? Or possibly the Electric Monk that’s programmed to believe everything?

SPOILER ALERT: It was aliens. In ghost form. Uh huh.

I liked this story, but my favorite part is the author photo, in which Adams is holding a tea cup and saucer and looking like he wants to shove said tea cup and saucer up the bum of whoever suggested it. I like to imagine him thinking, “I’M BRITISH WE GET IT.”    

Friday, August 12, 2011

What a buck (and 7% sales tax) can buy you

Book: This Must Be the Place

Author: Anna Winger

Published: 2008 (Riverhead Books)

Pages: 303

What do you get when you put a fading, discontent actor who now earns all his fame from being the voice of Tom Cruise in the German versions of his films and a fading, discontent wife of a business man who recently lost her baby and managed to convince herself to follow her husband overseas but now barely wants to get out of her bathtub in the same Berlin apartment complex?

Answer: a good peek into the workings of dubbing Hollywood movies into native languages, a small roundabout way on how porn can save a local economy, a radically optimistic plan to go back to L.A. on Tom Cruise’s approval, a slowly discovered neighborhood, a lopsided crush, a midlife crisis that doesn’t know where to go when it’s already got a sports car and younger girlfriend, layers of wallpaper, another pregnancy, a post-war German who transcends the clichĂ© of discovering his Jewish roots, and a very good reason why the Dollar Tree should advertise its book section more.


Monday, August 8, 2011

Pretty but not much else

Book: Come Together, Fall Apart
Author: Cristina Henriquez
Published: 2006 (Riverhead Books)
Pages: 306
It’s nice.
I wish I had more to say about this book. But really, “nice” is the only word that fits. These short stories and novellas are about relationships between lovers, families and, occasionally, a little bit, about the political upheavals going on around them. They’re all set in Panama, which is the most interesting thing about them and saves them from collapsing under all the symbolic weight placed on such light words. These are the kind of stories that are meant to Mean Something.
I’m talking like I didn’t like them. I did. I thought they were…nice. There’s that word again. They’re floaty and dreamy and don’t leave much behind but they’re nice to read.

A note on the tag “old books:” When I use that, I’m not necessarily talking about books written twenty or more years ago (although there are a fair number of those in my reading pile); I’m talking about books I’ve personally owned (one way or another) for at least nine months and have yet to read because of everything else that distracts me. This book is one of those, a small hardback priced at $2.99 from a warehouse sort of store in my college town that was labeled with a giant banner that just said BOOKS and contained massive amounts of discounted, well, books. I went into that store once or twice, went into spasms of glee, but now they’re closed, so no more from them.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A brilliant scattered mind

Book: Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

Author: David Foster Wallace

Published: 2005 (Little, Brown and Company

Pages: 343

David Foster Wallace’s “Host” (about talk radio and how it got to be such a broadcasting juggernaut) is the only essay to use these box-and-arrow digressions instead of footnotes. But it illustrates perfectly what it’s like to read his writings.

“Did you know that US lexicography even had a seamy underbelly?”

No. No, I did not, but now I do, and it’s this ability to deeply mine such subjects with such a fiercely churning analysis and absurdity detector that makes David Foster Wallace one of my new favorite authors.

Yeah, this book was dense as hell, but it was worth the work and the headache I nursed after gorging on it.

(A bookstore clerk from a Charleston trip I took told me that Consider the Lobster is the best gateway into DFW’s writing. That was a couple years ago; cut to last weekend when I went with my boyfriend to the Boarder’s out here. It’s closing, which means everything’s on sale, which means you better believe we combed that entire place of half-empty shelves, which meant I found this book and decided it was time. When I run out of books from my old pile, my been-waiting-patiently-for-who-knows-how-many-months-slash-years pile, I’m going to find Infinite Jest and the three bookmarks it requires.)

His literature and language essays are the most…straightforward isn’t the right word. The most linear, I think is better. He talks about the Great Male Narcissists in a review of John Updike’s Toward the End of Time; he talks about Kafka’s humor (did you know Kafka even had any humor? I sure didn’t) in written speech; he talks at very long, interesting but also long, lengths about authority and usage of American English; he gets right to the heart of why sports memoirs are so disappointing but why he keeps buying them anyway: he keeps looking for the transcendence he sees in the great athletes when they’re playing their game, convinced their physical eloquence will translate to the written word.

YES. That. *nodsnods* I kept doing that while I was reading.

I’ve wanted to read DFW since I read an article in Rolling Stone about his suicide. He just seemed so passionate and talented and like he was actually doing something to combine those two strengths. And then in a reporting writing class I took, our first assignment was to read a commencement speech he had given; it was about trying to find the transcendent in every day, and, frankly, it’s the best advice I’ve gotten about how to deal with the real world.

So I respect DFW, a lot, as a writer and as a thinker. His writings make me feel justified and hungry about finding pathos in the deep meanings of things. No, it’s probably not a good idea to take comfort from a suicidal artist of any sort. But I do.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The story of a beastlet

Book: Marley and Me

Author: John Grogan

Published: 2005 (HarperCollins)

Pages: 289

Anytime an author writes about a pet, I go “Awwwwwwww…” without thinking, okay? And then I reach down to scratch my own furry bundle of neuroses behind her ears, maybe feed her a piece of sandwich because that’s really all she wants in life.

So I didn’t go into this book objectively at all. But I still wasn’t impressed.

It’s a good portrait of life with a dog. Grogan knows how to place the right amount of importance on ordinary things to make them important details in the story he’s telling. But it’s really obvious that he used wry jokes to gloss over some of the tougher details that might’ve made this less generic. He and his wife seem to lead a fairly (but far from completely) charmed life in which Marley the overzealous lab wrecked playful havoc, which sounds adorable on the page but probably was a pain in the ass to deal with in real life.

The biggest example that jumped out at me was their professional lives. They were both newspaper reporters in Florida, and he does wax nostalgic about it, but he never gave me any sort of picture of the office or work he loved so much except near the end when he confessed to using his work gathering column ideas as an excuse to wander around the state while getting paid.

That DOES sound like an awesome job. Tell me more about it, and tell me anything—anything at all!—about how you dealt with such a time-consuming bundle of puppy while both of you were working full time. I got none of that, except about how his wife Jenny would come home for lunch and play with the dog then, prompting me to wonder what their hours were. And there is one sentence—ONE—that talks about how Jenny struggled to balance raising two young children and a dog while downshifting her work to part-time and home-based.

I just spent more words on their careers than Grogan did.

Anyway, it was cute and read like the wind after my two weeks of struggling with cardiovascular biomechanics, but it wasn’t original. That’s a bit of a cardinal sin around here.  

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Matters of the heart

Book: Vital Circuits: On Pumps, Pipes, and the Workings of Circulatory Systems

Author: Steven Vogel

Published: 1992 (Oxford University Press)

Pages: 269 (not including glossary or index)

This is the first hard science book I’ve tried reading in a long while, and I liked it, but I won’t pretend I absorbed all of it and now have a perfect understanding of how circulatory systems work. But that’s not Dr. Vogel’s fault.

He’s good at explaining and keeping interest through metaphors, personal opinions (which are blatantly labeled as such so as not to slip into the undisputed facts), and antidotes gained through his own teaching career and biomechanical experience. Those parts read easily, until I smacked up against walls of scientific text that I had to work through at about half speed. Most of that was about the pure biomechanics of circulatory systems, so I retained more of the sideline stuff than the main subject.

Here are the peripherals of what I learned:   

  • Squid and octopuses have three hearts, a central one and one for each set of gills. 
  • Biology is essentially a feminist, putting way more care into the structure of females and using males as sort-of useful afterthoughts. 
  • Narrowing a pipe increases the speed of flow of liquids going through it and that widening a pipe decreases the same thing, an effect you can also achieve by making a branching system from your original pipe. 
  • Speed is distance over time, area is distance squared, and so volume flow rate must be distance cubed over time. 
  • Chickens have white-meat breasts and wings because those muscles are only used for brief movement and don’t need the oxygen supply that the breasts and wings of real fliers like ducks need.      

Not really science!
  • Collagen is too fibrous in a ropey way to roast or grill but makes a heart good eating meat if you soak it in cool water, then hot (he includes a recipe). 
  • Don’t make your pet iguana dive.
  • There’s such thing as the Antiacrimonious Acronymical Accreditation Association. 
  • I’m never using swizzle sticks again because some are made from the os penis bone of raccoons.

I’m also proud of myself for getting through an entire book about blood and veins without going squeamish. Onward!