Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Gothic daddy issues

Book: Heart-Shaped Box
Author: Joe Hill
Published: 2007 (Harper)
Pages: 351

If we’re going on Fiction as a Psyche-Revealer (and it totally is), Joe Hill has daddy issues.
Let’s get the probably-haunted elephant out of the way by mentioning that Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son and writes on the same sort of subjects/themes – more mention of that really soon, I promise. But right now I just want to tell you that none of the father figures in this book are short of psychologically deranged.

Okay. So, Jude’s an aging rock star who buys a dead man’s suit and ends up getting himself and his latest girlfriend haunted until they travel back to the lady who sold them the suit, then back to Jude’s long-fled home in Louisiana, chased the whole time by the stepfather of the girl Jude dated before his current girl.

SPOILER PARAGRAPH: It was the stepfather’s suit, and it looks like at first the former girl committed suicide after Jude dumps her because she’s depressed, but really she was getting ready to write Jude about how the stepdad (a professional hypnotist) hypnotized her and did all sort of ooky abuse to her and her big sister knew and encouraged it and even offered her own daughter up for it. Jude and his current girl basically have to fumble their way into figuring out how to open a portal to the beyond so the abused girl could come back and pull her stepdad back for revenge and destruction in the underworld. END SPOILER PARAGRAPH. Pretty much.

Hill wastes no time getting to the action. Jude was being haunted by seriously page five, and once the stepdad ghost crept on the scene, he took no time at all to keep their lives at a screaming hell until they manage to beat him back like a week and a five-state road trip later. It’s quick but works; the characters flesh out on the move. I like how Jude called his girlfriends nicknames based on where they come from (Florida was the former, Georgia was the current), and I love that he has dogs he’s named after John Bonnom from Led Zeppelin and Angus what’s-his-name (AC/DC) and that the dogs are a big part of their protection but don’t turn into furry mcguffins. Also, I loved that burning the suit does jack shit.

The ending is tied up too neatly in that prologue of generic good quiet life, and none of the story had an extra touch of weird humanity that made me love it, but as mentioned on the AV Club of Hill’s comic series “Lock and Key,” he leaves you with at least one image that will make it a little difficult to go to sleep in a dark, empty, shadow-ridden apartment. This time it was the creepy old guy’s scribbled-out eyes.

Right now, I’m putting it on my bookshelf, but when I run out of room, it will be one to get weeded. 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Not quite Joan of Arc

Book: Joan Books I-III
Author/illustrator: Yoshikazu Yasuhiko
Pages: 579 total
Published: originals in 1995-1996, English translations in 2000 (Comics One)

Joan of Arc’s story is excellent to read when you want to latch on to someone else’s higher purpose and also swords. Although it’s got all the same details, this is not Joan of Arc’s actual story in these three manga volumes, and I spent most of my reading time wondering why.

Emil is a lot like Joan, in that she comes from the same town and grew up with the same stepdad and dresses like a boy and goes in her stepdad’s place to advance the same cause – only this time it’s a more muddled conflict between the King and the Dauphine of France instead of just France vs. England, so not only does Emil have a finer point of ideology to hang her conviction on, she also has a harder time figuring out who’s on her side for the King.

I would’ve enjoyed this so much more if it had either been a straight history of Joan of Arc or Emil finishing Joan’s crusade through her own completely different story. Instead, both stories get watered down and smushed together into a half-assed reincarnation journey that was frustrating mostly because Emil knew exactly how Joan’s worked out but does the same thing anyway hoping for pretty much the same result only not quite so burn-y at the end. My favorite part was when the ghost/spirit of Joan calls this out and is all, “Why’d you come to Orleans, dumbass? I sent you on this mission to get it done, not get you killed like me!”

It’s still exciting and a quest for justice against a Dauphin sporting the worst ‘80s-villian bowl-cut/fringe combo this side of a Very Special Episode, with exacting political intrigue and battles and stuff. But then she gets sentenced to burn at the stake (gee, I wonder who could’ve helped her prevent that…), and right as they’re tying her up, the stake is struck by lightning and the dauphin sees an effigy of Joan (‘s ghost? Spirit?) burning, and that’s it. He gives in to Emil, surrenders his rebellion, waits for his dad to die before trying to be king again (according to the prologue).

The art is gorgeous watercolor with colors that can contrast so much better than I ever thought of water colors being able to, all contained within long, ominous inked outlines. But sometimes in quarter profiles a person will blatantly have only one eye – like, the other one wasn’t even sketched in shadow or anything – and the speech bubbles don’t look like they were changed to accommodate the English translations so that makes for odd deciphering once in awhile.

I read this series a LOT quicker than I thought I would, so I can bring them back to the anime club my boyfriend heads on Wednesday nights and put them back on his Free Manga!! cart for The Teenagers to discover and give a good home.   

Friday, January 25, 2013

Look at the autobiographical influences!

Book: Look at the Harlequins!
Author: Vladimir Nabokov
Published: 1974 (McGraw Hill)
Pages: 253

The more I read of this, the more I wondered if Nabokov was just fucking with me. Is it his own memoir, is it a satirical memoir of a writer very much like him only exaggerated, is it a novel in the form of said exaggerated memoir, and if so, what’s the difference between those last two?

I still don’t really have an answer seeing as how the book is called “a new novel by the author of…” on its book jacket, offers all other Library of Congress classification info except novel/memoir distinction on the copyright page, and constantly has the protagonist call himself by Nabokov’s name yet reference only novel titles that I’m almost certain Nabokov didn’t use while referring constantly to this here narrative as a memoir.

Why does any of this matter when the writing is pleasantly zany (it begins “I met the first of my three or four wives…”), witty, and eloquent in the slightly baroque manner that crashes and burns in hands any less delicate than Nabokov’s? His rambles through his love lives and professional progress are entertaining and revealing without much of a central theme but with plenty of self-depreciation disguised as arrogance that gradually lets you realize just exactly how seriously he isn’t taking himself. And he still knows when to reign that in to show quieter, genuine emotions (not a whole lot, but it’s there when it needs to be, like when his first wife died).

I just want to know how or if he writes his fiction differently than his self-examining. The New York Times review from 1974 tells me this was Nabokov’s last novel published before his death in 1977. It’s classified as a fictional autobiography – okay. So that makes total sense, and as far as this Constant Reader is constantly concerned, it’s a bookshelf-worthy success, right between my David Mitchell and Phillip Pullman.

I bought this at last year’s South Caroline Book Festival (three for a dollah, y’all: that’s also where I got A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and that giant-ass hard sci-fi anthology, so I AM MAKING THE OLD BOOK PILE PROGRESS HOO-YAH) because I wanted to read Nabokov. Ideally Lolita, but that wasn’t on sale there.

Yes, I realize I could go to Barnes and Noble or the Books-a-Million across the street from my Barnes and Noble or the stacks on the other side of the wall from my office or not leave my apartment and find this on Amazon, but two things:
  1.   Found books are more fun.
  2.  Lolita sounds creepy. I know it’s literature and I want everybody to write about whatever they want and not get censored. But it’s still creepy and I will have to prepare myself more than when I read about other stuff.  

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Blood and death row in literary nonfiction

Book: In Cold Blood
Author: Truman Capote
Published: 1965 (original; Vintage)

Modern classic turns out to be good read!
I know. I was shocked too.

But let’s take a minute to talk about why. Capote does that nifty thing where he combines novelistic details with an almost invisible journalistic style to present a clear narrative of a gruesome murder case. He starts broad by alternately describing a perfect Kansas family and developing the schemes of a criminal duo until the two groups collide.

A curtain is delicately drawn over the act itself until way down the chronological road, when the murderers are caught and confess. That’s after the initial public outcry has died to a discontented paranoid murmur and after the story has flattened out into tracing the criminal proceedings.

Throughout the story, Capote does a great job of reconstructing the criminals’ thoughts, histories, plans, and conversations. Almost too good a job that draws you out of the narrative a little to wonder exactly how much access he had to all this, and how, and what he’s possibly made up as a result of possibly lacking said access.

But once they’re caught, a lot of it gets repeated or summarized as evidence, and neither guy has much else to think about once they’re isolated on Kansas’s death row for five years. Their joint hanging is covered as an unsettling anti-climax; the story ends a little later on an emotional note that is elegant enough to again make me wonder how much was neatened up.

Those wonderings mattered to me but only as an object of curiosity that went along with the rest of the reading experience. I was also astonished at how different the style was compared to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, my other Capote encounter – the flourishes of fiction were gone, just like surgically removed or shaved down just enough to show the plain frame of good narrative. I’ve no idea how he did that but it works super well.

So in a public service announcement that will knock your fedora into its proper angle, you should read Truman Capote and start with this book in which he demonstrates his skills without ever seeming to. (That’s a good thing!) 

Friday, January 18, 2013

Views from abroad

Book: Granta: What Happened to Us? Britain’s Valedictory Realism
Author: various
Published: 1996
Pages: 254

This is the only literary journal I’ll formally review – er, scribble about here. Mostly because I’m trying to break further into the lucrative scene of contributors’ copies, but also because lit mags are relatively ephemeral more part of a continuous conversation that changes faster than books do. So to talk about a single issue is a little unfair but whatever. It’s all I got.

My college dorm had a row of Grantas on its common room bookshelf, where we could take and leave things as we pleased. You better believe I spent a good chunk of my final packing weekend on stealth raids. (Dudes, that’s where I found White Teeth.) This one issue came home with me because I had no idea how it would read and no room to stuff an entire set of quarterlies of unknown quality into my bed sheets.

How did it finally end up reading, almost two years later? Like a really honest British travelogue.

I’m not entirely sure which selections were fictions, which were histories, which were memoir – it all blended together in various proportions. Like, the first one, about a Parliament clerk and his frank tracing of the exploits he recorded and sometimes initiated – that one could’ve been a droll short story about government folly and how maybe it doesn’t matter as much as we think, or a wry memoir from an insider who’s more nostalgic than bitter about the trouble. The thing about Scotland and how its patriotic semi-rallying for independence is different than Ireland for under-the-surface reasons was definitely social commentary backed by historical facts; while the stuff about a man who meanders into becoming a social worker goes from personal to political over a few pages.

Two depressing bits:
  • ·         A photographer’s text describing the vagabond lives of the people whose pictures he took and published in here described how their cheerful wandering morphed into drug-desperate poverty in less than two years.
  • ·         A short story (autobiographical?) about a film director who keeps going back to his wastrel of a friend and sees how pathetic this friend has grown in his 40s by insisting on staying drunk and irresponsible, yet the matured protagonist still looks to this friend as a source of fun and wisdom.

Both of these pieces made me catch a glimpse of how desperate life can be, just surviving or trying to find meaning. I had to put it down and go watch The Next Great Baker (like that actually helps transcend any kind of soul-crushing banalities – ooh, piping!).

Overall, though, I enjoyed this string of glimpses into the U.K. through its writing samples. It’s different now, seeing as how this journal could get a driver’s license if it were a person, but I’m putting it on my bookshelf for posterity.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Audience participation time!

Big non-book decision time, you guys.

Since I started this blog I’ve been trying to figure out whether I should do that thing where I can sell ad space on it through Blogger. My artistic/commercial instincts don’t war with each other so much as fluctuate in importance according to my level of employment; ever since I settled into a good full-timer I haven’t looked into it like I intended to.   

But I want to start initiating a couple things that will get me a little more money by doing absolutely nothing once I get them settled (finding a better interest rate for my savings account, putting tasteful ads on a blog I’d do anyway…um…), so here’s where you help me by telling me if you’d still read my blog if it had an ad on the bottom of each post:
  • Yes!
  • No!
  • Who cares! Not I!

Also, my 2013 New Year’s resolution is really just “read all the books in the original pile that I started recording 18 months ago before the 2-year mark of this blog.” My progress has been extraordinarily slow on that, but I counted, and on the original pile that doesn’t include any books I’ve since borrowed and haven’t yet read or since bought and haven’t yet read, there are four left.


And what makes me even happier is I’ve still got a bajillion and seven lined up after these, so I can totally feel accomplished while still having plenty left to read. There really is no such thing as too many books. 

What's for dinner?

Book: The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

Author: Michael Pollan

Published: 2006 (Penguin)

Pages: 411 (plus end notes)

Everything I try to write about this book makes it sound dull and over-obvious.

  • “Hey! Did you guys know that we Americans eat a shit ton of corn in our diets and that it isn’t even as, like, real corn?”
  • “We’re totally doing farming wrong but the people with the biggest stakes (heh) are too invested in the current system to change without losing a shit ton of money that shouldn’t even be there in the first place!”
  • “Organic farming’s grown into enough of an industry itself that it’s possible to buy organic TV dinners and the organic industry has this huge riff over whether that’s a good thing or not!”

Well duh. I’m not going to break any surprising ground (sorry, the farming puns will probably come of their own volition in this post) by telling you what I learned, nor will I pretend that I hadn’t heard most of it before. (Except for that organic TV dinner part. That sounds like the worst of both worlds.) But I swear this was a good book.

I almost feel like food writers are cheating a wee little bit because everybody eats, so everybody has at least a baseline interest in the topic. That doesn’t mean the good stuff isn’t compelling.

Pollan follows the production line of three different food gathering methods: industrial, organic, and gathering. He’s clear about his methods and reasoning and changes in plan as he goes along, which takes us with him on the journey as he watches corn get mashed up into the sugar for his McDonald’s soda and sees/smells/hears the difference between a feed-cow and a grass-cow and learns how to triangulate his vision to find mushrooms in their natural habitats. 
He explains everything clearly like a PBS narration, adding historical and business-y and national conversation-y bits about a topic after he’s seen it for himself and can add a personal perspective. He sounds like the normal-guy protagonist in a sci fi film who’s been taking along for the ride and gets to ask all the stupid/weird questions we want answered but that everybody else in the situation already knows.

The best bit (by a narrow margin because none of it’s bad) was when he talked about the ethics of eating animals. He outlines points made by animal rights people that if we think animals don’t have feelings and we don’t protect those feelings from the agony of slaughterhouses, we’re being speciest. He then points out a bunch of people on the other side that are all, “Hey, killing animals in quick slices and stretching them for food is a lot kinder than what would happen to them in the natural food chain.” Which – okay, that falls apart when you get to industrial farms that don’t let the animals live in the space and freedom they would otherwise, but if you go to small farms that let the animals do their natural grazing thing (which, by the way, perpetuates and stimulates farm growth cycles all by itself, like a self-winding clock) and manage to kill them in sanitary conditions that really do knock them out the first time, sounds like a good reason to keep eating local chicken.

So there was that, but I wasn’t overly fond of how he wrote the section where he went hunting for the first time. I don’t have strong feelings about hunting; but it irritated me to read his overly romantic description of the actual hunt juxtaposed with his overly horrified reaction afterwards. It’s by far the most personal-opinion and –experience-driven part of the book, and it’s like he wants to get the same exact approval from the two extreme kinds of people who will be most riled up by it.

And when he was done gathering and started reflecting on the meal he made almost entirely from things he had foraged himself, he got sappy about the circle of life, but he also revealed that you can gather natural yeast by filling a bowl with flour and water and waving it around outside your window. Seriously. That junk’s just floating around, apparently. I wonder what Columbia-yeast bread tastes like – humidity and mosquitoes and river water and ambulances and college kid beer? Anyway, that was sufficiently interesting enough to keep me distracted while he thanked all his friends and crap.

Going back to the library’s bookshelf! If it were my own copy, I would definitely keep in on my shelf, although I don’t know what sort of re-readability it has.   

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Chasing the dream

Book: Humbolt's Gift

Author: Saul Bellow

Published: 1975 Viking first edition, 1995 this Penguin Paperback edition

So you're lifelong friends with a crazy poet and his lovely verses that have dried up and his violent temper that's only gotten worse, right, and you don't see him once they lock him away in a mental home, and then he dies, and you try to go figure out what this legacy he left you is all about, but you're interrupted by a wife who's divorcing you for everything you've got, a minor but noisy gangster trying to collect on a gambling check that bounced from the one and only poker game you've ever played with him, and your gorgeous mistress wants to get married for depressingly practical reasons, and none of them know exactly how broke you're going.

What do you do? 

If you're Charlie Citrine, you roll with it. Your late-life rich-boy crisis is peppered with metaphysical jibberjabber, but thankfully interrupted by the more straightforwardly lunatical things in life, like how to take care of your lover's kid when she dumps him on you and leaves to elope to an undertaker during your trip to Europe.

If you're Charlie Citrine, you talk and worry an awful lot about money in a way that makes me think maybe "broke" to you who's earned a couple million in your lifetime (through a Broadway play and being a famous history expert, which--could that ever happen past 1965?) means something different than it does to most people. But don't even worry too much about that, because if you're Charlie, that crazy-ass movie script that you knocked out with your poet friend for a joke in Princeton is going to become the smash movie hit the poet always said it would be, only you won't know or believe that until  your goon tells you and takes you to see it and pesters you to sue for copyright infringement so he can get a commission. 

The philosophy and Chicago-flavored wackiness are mixed so they balance each other out perfectly and reflect the scattered thought process of a man who thinks too much. Charlie is too humble for this to turn into Rich Old Man with Problems, but this also makes it a little hard to believe that he's as famous as everyone else reminds him he is, which is supposed to be part of what makes his problems as abstract as they seem sometimes. 

But it's a good, spirited mediation on death and what we really need from each other and our cities and our bank accounts to get settled, and the happy ending is drawn out long enough to dismantle it as a deux ex machina. Still enough of one for me to be able to use the phrase "deux ex machina," though, which I don't count as a bad thing. Bookshelf!

By the way, my bookshelves are getting full, so I'm going to go ahead and open this can of worms: Any cheap AND interesting AND sturdy solutions to that? 

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

The book is always better

Book: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
Author: Frank Miller
Published: 1986 (DC)
Pages: 188

A couple Saturdays ago, I convinced my boyfriend it would be a good idea for us to watch the DC animated version of The Dark Knight comic run DVD he had checked out of the library. He groaned, said the DC animations were all terrible, and then we watched it anyway so we could practice for our Riff Trax auditions.

It was, indeed, not good. Better than the Green Lantern promo (which apparently used The Incredibles’ nonunion knockoff imitator for their CGI), though – and every time the paper comic came up, my boyfriend said it was one of the best. Cognitive dissonance and an empty afternoon got me to borrow it from him.

With only a couple hours and lunch between the animation and the comic, I couldn’t separate the two. I was reading all the cheesy ticks (lame trying-to-be-hip dialogue, lines of talking heads from TV giving too-pointed commentary, a bright sterile Arkham) straight from an illustrated script. So I put it down.

But about a week and a half later, I picked it up again, backtracked a few pages, and fell in. I got over the little hump where the animation had ended and discovered a better backstory for the ridiculous villains, the new Robin rapidly gaining her feet, and the newscasts getting more useful juxtaposed against the action they were talking about. Plus the Joker woke up and started releasing doll bombs that insulted people and cold fly. I KNOW.

And then Superman showed up, not quite randomly but definitely as a counterpoint to Batman. Superman’s introduction, in a row of panels where a waving American flag gradually morphs in his cape while he and the President are discussing duty off-panel, was my favorite bit of storytelling here. It did so much with beautiful simplicity.

The rest of the art was sort of ‘80s-tastic in a good way, with geometric shapes and non-neutral colors that stayed muted enough to keep focus on the whole picture. I liked that Robin was completely gender neutral and so distinctive at the same time, and I liked that the mayor was shaped a lot like the Joker’s bomb maker. I was waiting for them to be the same person (they’re not).

The story climax and ending suddenly jolted me into remembering that hey, this series is called the same thing as Nolan’s last two movies. But it’s just one (really crucial) detail; the rest is totally original and just as dark. The ending does make better and more interesting sense here because of what Batman does with it.

So – a keeper. My boyfriend has been long convinced, and now so am I.