Sunday, September 30, 2012

Quick Review

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This would be the first, and to date the only book to have ever made a young, male coworker of mine cry.  So he says, and I believe him.  I can certainly see how it could happen.  As dear Birdie says, "What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end."  (I know it's wrong to quote All About Eve while sober, but I must say, it fits.)

I myself, I didn't cry, but then this little romance, or many like it, may be a bit more familiar to me than to my young friend.  I've read this book before, many times.  True, when I read it last, in the late eighties, or early nineties, it was not about straight teenagers with cancer but gay men with AIDS, but the story and the style I recognized almost immediately.  Call it, for want of a better, the light domestic tragedy.

The lightness has all to do with tone and the quick, conversational structure of the thing.  The romance bubbles along endearingly, chat by chat, though admittedly to its inevitable and much foreshadowed end -- there's twist of sorts, though not so shocking as the novelist's devotion to that reliable old apparatus, the telegraph. Mostly, for simplicity's sake, the conversation keeps to the tête-à-tête, but everybody gets a crack.  (People can't so much as pass by on a barge but they have to kibitz, and even translate -- being a lovely lot of foreigners -- so we shouldn't miss a thing.)   Everyone, or nearly everyone is brave, amusing, conversationally apt.  It's a bit arch, but not bad to read.  I don't even mind ultimately that all the teenagers sound more like gay men at GMHC meeting from the late eighties than as described.

The very nature and mystery of AIDS then lent a nonspecific, perhaps unearned  portent to the gay fiction of the day, even when the subject wasn't or wasn't just the epidemic. There isn't that same urgency here, or dread, but there is a familiar and touching anticipation of loss, after loss, after loss that does create an atmosphere. If neither the older fiction nor the new quite rises to meet the minimum of the Aristotelian rule for tragedy, well, when was the last time a modern novel did?  When, for that matter, was the last time I picked up a novel hoping it might? 

This might be the moment to mention that Mr. Green's novel, indeed, all his widely popular fiction to date, as I understand it, is not written primarily for an adult audience, which is another way of saying that his books are categorized as "YA", or "Young Adult."  May I say, I've never met such a person, never was one myself and can't say I entirely believe in them, despite having sold books in this category for decades now?  Not so oxymoronic as, say, "compassionate conservative," or so blatantly commercial a concept as National Grandparents' Day or the like, YA is none the less a wholly modern invention of educational publishing, a category of thing meant to provide a transition from children's books to adult literature. I suppose there are learned bodies somewhere describing how well or ill this strategy has worked.  I can't pretend to know.  (I will say, based on just how many books the rising generation has had shovelled at it, we might have thought they'd be reading books at roughly the same frenetic pace at which they seem to consume culture generally, but I can't say I've personally seen much evidence of that, have you?)  While it's true that to date I've avoided YA as a category as a result of my scepticism as to both its objective and its means, I confess I wasn't much bothered about reading this one.  Again, I enjoyed it, mostly.  Mr. Green is a thorough professional, neither didactic nor simple-sounding as to his plot or prose.  What he does may not be specially literary -- he seems to have absolutely no interest in form, time or any of the other preoccupations of modern fiction, -- but what he does he generally does with a sure and comforting confidence.

There was however one note so jarring, I thought at first something more interesting might be happening here than just the sad sad story.  There is a novel within the novel, you see, a novel to which our young narrator is devoted, a novel she has read and rereads so often she can quote long passages from memory to her -- for the most part -- ironically named "survivors'" group. The novel within the novel is a novel about a girl with cancer.  Well now.  Our narrator gives her favourite book to her beau and they bond over it.  Eventually the novel within the novel becomes the motivation for the most significant moves the characters will make in the book.  Gave me pause, that did.  I admit, I began to think I might have to think a bit harder here.

But, no.  From just the passages quoted and the action described, the cancer-girl novel within the cancer-girl novel, An Imperial Affliction, is actually rather awful.  Ah ha!  Perhaps that might be the point?  An ironic comment on just this sort of teenaged self-importance and tragic fantasy?  An Emmeline Grangerford to make us laugh a bit at death?  But no. Nearly everyone who matters in John Green's novel reads this other novel and no one seems to think it anything less than a masterpiece.  Sadly it seems, neither are we.  It's not.  It so is not.  In fact, from the bits we have, it doesn't seem like anything that might make a novel, or even a narrative, or anything much at all, but a lot of pompous bunk.  Was that the point then?  That, good or bad, kids can make a fetish out of anything, find philosophy and meaning in everything from comic books to kitsch?  Again, no. I finally had to give up the idea of some kind of satire or spoof, on meeting the character responsible for An Imperial Affliction, the reclusive author of all these fragmentary fortune-cookies, one Peter Van Houten. He was an asshole  But as i've said, he not only behaves badly, but writes very badly indeed.  (I ruin nothing by suggesting his secret hurt.  Nothing however could redeem this character or excuse his style.)  I thought surely someone then would mention that he had no right to behave so badly, specially as his book actually sucked.  I thought there would be some liberating unmasking of the fraud.  Something.  No such luck.

So why let this minor part of an otherwise inoffensively artless book bother me so much?  Well, this Peter Van Houten is really the only adult in John Green's novel not charged, directly or indirectly with caring for the kids.  What's more, this old Dutch dick represents the nearest thing in the book to a character independent of the Young Adult rubric that would seem to keep everyone for the most part, nice and simple. He's certainly neither.  Please don't misunderstand, not only do I not have a problem with this guy being a jerk, and or irrational, I actually welcomed it, frankly, as something of a change, something not quite so entirely safe and sound as the rest. But either John Green thinks this guy and the nonsense he says is meaningful, or John Green failed utterly in making fun of him.  Either way, it is disquieting to think something so unlikeable and unlike is meant to be accepted as suited to the whole.  What on earth are we meant to make of the business?

Meanwhile, the book finally falls back into its expected trajectory and lands in its sad, right and peaceful place.  And there we are.

I can't pretend to judge the value of this sort of thing to its intended readers.  My young friend at work certainly had a satisfying experience, and despite my dislike of that clumsy subplot, I don't begrudge the day I spent reading this book.  I do wonder though that those novels I read back in the day were all quite so good as I thought at the time, though I was hardly alone in thinking so.  Perhaps they were just a transition to better things.  It's certainly possible.  Don't know that I need to know now one way or another.

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From The Poems of William Shakespeare


"Alack, what poverty my Muse brings forth"

From Sonnet 103

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Quick Review

The Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous LiaisonsThe Graphic Canon, Vol. 1: From the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons by Russ Kick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Just a wonderful premise, handsomely realized, in a perfect format.  What more could be wanted in an anthology?  The first volume of a projected trilogy, I suspect that this will be the one I like best, funnily enough, because it largely contains the literature I will know least.  I'm not one for epic anything, multiculturalism as a reading strategy, or Gods of any provenance.  No, I've never encountered "Apu Ollantay: an Incan play" before, nor would I ever think to seek such a thing out, yet here it is, as drawn and adapted Caroline Picard -- again unknown to me -- and I loved every weird, crowded and crackling panel.  Likewise here the gorgeously perverse glimpse into The Tibetan Book of the Dead; a swirling darkness of fire and twisted flesh, all peppered with eyes and a beautiful menace, at least as interpreted by Sanya Glisic.  So many, many more: Isabel Greenberg's beautifully blocked Noh play, Vicki Nerino's hilariously dirty little Arabian Nights tale, by way of a Ralph Steadman & a men's room wall, and supremely, Kent and Kevin Dixon's deliciously funny telling of Gilgamesh as a kind of Max Fleischer cartoon; all loosy limbed characters in gloriously thick lines, rolling through dangerous and witty landscapes.  I want more of all that, much, much more.  That being one of the primary functions of an anthology, I'd say this one succeeded in spades.

Of course, one of the inescapable faults in any such eclectic collection will be the flops, misses and or WTF selections to which not every reader will respond well.  Me, for instance.  Even recognizing which among the many these will be, just like my favorites, is very much a subjective judgement, I will just suggest a couple of simple standards for my reading of all this abundance.  I've come to resent a little any selection I like ending too abruptly or too soon, or frankly proving not to be much of a story.  Matt Wiegle's selection from the Mahabharata is just beautifully made, and amusing, so long as it oh so briefly lasts, but as stories go, specially from such a vast possibility as this, this one feels more like an interrupted episode than a discreet unit of narrative.  Mightn't care so much, had Wiegle not drafted such a wonderful, colorful little, multi-tiered world.  Then there are the pointlessly ugly patches.  Ugly can be good.  Ugly can be fun -- I don't think anyone would describe Vicki Nerino's work here, as mentioned above, as "pretty."  Sometimes though?  Ugly is just ugly.  Without pointing them out -- as what would be the point of that? -- there are more than few selections here that are just visually amateurish, not naive, just numb-knuckled, clumsy, witless and crude.  (Since the days when underground comics were an expression of the counter-culture, there has been a very forgiving standard of craft in the comix world.  Lots of people who can't draw, or even write for shit have still managed to produce published work; justified, way back when, by the sincerity of the work, the good intentions of the artist, etc.  Surely to God we must by now be past the point when all that was required to participate was a pure soul?  How about, at minimum, an eye for even the most fundamental anatomy, or scale, or composition, or an ear for narrative or humor?)  Finally, with some of the more familiar material, the literature I do know or at least know something of. there needs to a reason to draw it or why bother about it at all?  A couple of examples here where this works would be, cheek by jowl, Julian Peters funny little Francois Villon, which gives panache of the gallows poem a literal innocence, and the great Seymour Chwast's Wife of Bath, on a motorcycle.  Both manage to comment on the work in a respectful and funny way as well as illustrate it, and both are visually satisfying as well as cleverly composed.

Even with the pieces not to my taste, this is still a banquet, so best not gripe.  It's true, I might have done with fewer had it meant having some of these, like Hunt Emerson's Inferno, or Ian Pollock's Lear at greater length, but I'll take what there is, gratefully, and with thanks to the editor, Russ Kick, for creating and organizing such a splendour.

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From Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs, edited by Thomas Vinciguerra


"Physically, he is not majestic, or even especially bizarre, which is probably the next best bet."

From St. George and the Dragnet

Friday, September 28, 2012

Quick Review

PulpheadPulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a fair trade in academic buncombe these days, seeking to define or redefine, resuscitate or wreck the essay.  It all to do with what is or is not nonfiction, and or literature, and it can all be great and utterly useless fun; a kind of intellectual Hacky Sack that looks something like sport but actually is just juggling.  What makes that whole silly business look so very silly is of course that while all these effete darlings are whiffling the essay back and forth in the Groves, the essay meanwhile is in the midst of a roaring new popularity.  I don't know but suspect that this has largely to do with opportunity for essayists on the Internet.  That, and of course the popularity of the form among a new generation of radio personalities on innovative shows like This American Life and the like.  (There's a ridiculous old saw among American booksellers that "essays don't sell" that is only now being abandoned, thanks to the likes of Sedaris, Vowell, and the late and much lamented David Rackoff, etc.)

In addition to the personal and or comic essayists who've done so well recently, there is also a new generation of very exciting practitioners of the essay as journalism, and none better than John Jeremiah Sullivan, whose newest book proved to be among the happiest discoveries I made this year.  Sullivan writes a straight  reportorial style, but without any of the tough-guy-correspondent's swagger that often makes even the best of the old "New Journalism" --Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, even Didion -- a bit gristly going down. Sullivan is not without irony, but attitudinally he's more hipster than hard-boiled.  He does however have great respect for the form, trusting, for instance, to a Christian Rock hootenanny to explain itself without much in the way of nudges or winking from him.  Like the best of that earlier generation, he clearly relishes the telling without insisting he is more interesting than, say, "The Miz"; an all-American hustler from the low, early ranks of reality "stardom."  There's solidity to these pieces that bespeaks an admirable confidence, not only in the writer but his readers. 

Sullivan however is not outside any of the stuff he writes.  He's right in it after Katrina, most obviously, but he does not obtrude, and he trusts what he sees without suggesting that we can't, shouldn't or that it would be crass to ask if he really got his shoes wet.  (And wonderfully, he did all this presumably without entering into a long and twee conversation with a fact-checker, or if he did, bless 'im, he spared us the mixed blessing of publishing that instead of or as a postmodern quilting around his reporting.)

Much as I really enjoyed every line of his journalism here, my favorite stuff was actually Sullivan writing more straight-forwardly as a cultural critic, secure in both his opinion and taste, but without any obvious theoretical or aesthetic agenda.  There is an essay here that is among the few really honest and respectful things, and perhaps the best thing I've ever read about Michael Jackson.

I will now eagerly look for Sullivan's earlier memoir -- another thriving if so supposedly deeply troubling form, interestingly enough -- and anything else he writes hereafter.

Clearly, one of the good guys.

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From The Innocence of Father Brown, by G. K. Chesterton


"'Yes, I'm sorry,' said Father Brown mildly.  'There's been another murder, you know.'"

From The Secret Garden

Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

Pages from the Publishers' Christmas Catalogues

Daily Dose

From The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith, edited by W. H. Auden


"The greater part of human improvements, gentlemen, I am sorry to say, are made after war, tumult, bloodshed, and civil commotion: mankind seem to object to every species of gratuitous happiness, and to consider every advantage as too cheap, which is not purchased by some calamity."

From Four Speeches on the Reform Bill

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Daily Dose

From Selected Essays, by William Hazlitt


"We do not see the features of those we love, nor do we clearly distinguish their virtues or their vices.  We take them as they are found in the lump, -- by weight, and not by measure."

From On the Knowledge of Character

Monday, September 24, 2012

Citizen of the World, Letter XCVII

Daily Dose

From Among Friends, by M. F. K. Fisher


"Go into any Gaelic lilt or a Marseillais thump or an Oklahoman drawl and I am out the door, as long as it is on paper."

From 19, The Separation of the Senses, or Not

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pages from the Publishers' Christmas Catalogues

Daily Dose

From The Hand of Ethelberta, a Comedy in Chapters, by Thomas Hardy


"Separate and distinct from overt existence under the sun, this life could hardly be without its distinctive pleasures, all of them being more or less pervaded by thrills and titilations from games of hazard, and the perpetual risk of sensational surprises."

From Chapter XXIX, Ethelberta's Dressing-Room -- Mr. Doncastle's House

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Pages from the Publishers' Christmas Catalogues

Daily Dose

From Essays, by Oliver Goldsmith


"The character of Falstaff, even with all his faults, gives me more consolation than the studied efforts of wisdom."

From Reverie at the Boar's Head

Friday, September 21, 2012

Pages from the Publishers' Christmas Catalogues

Daily Dose

From Essays, by Oliver Goldsmith


"The metaphor is a shorter simile, or rather a kind of magical coat, by which the same idea assumes a thousand different appearances."

From Essay XXI, On the Uses of Metaphors

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Pages fron the Publishers' Christmas Catalogues

Daily Dose

From The Golden Treasury of the Best Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language, selected and arranged with notes by Francis Turner Palgrave


"His very foot has music in 't
As he comes up the stair --"

From The Sailor's Wife, by W. J. Mickle

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Pages from the Publishers' Christmas Catalogues

Daily Dose

From The Bee, by Oliver Goldsmith


"Happy the man who is born excellent in the pursuit in vogue, and whose genius seems adapted to the times in which he lives."

From Upon Unfortunate Merit

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pages from the Publishers' Christmas Catalogues

Daily Dose

From Essays, by Oliver Goldsmith


"In a word, all was farce and form; all was phantasma, and a hideous dream of incoherent absurdities."

From Ennui

Monday, September 17, 2012

Pages from the Publishers' Christmas Catalogues

Daily Dose

From Et Cetera, by Augustine Birrell


"There is no need here to discuss the general achievements of Hawthorne in literature."

From Nathaniel Hawthorne

Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

Found in a Book

Daily Dose

From Glass, Irony and God, by Anne Carson


"When it is not locked the mouth may gape open and let out unspeakable things."

From The Gender of Sound

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Sooner than Not

Daily Dose

From The Poetical Works of Alfred, Lord Tennyson


"Ask me no more: thy fate and mine are seal'd:
    I strove against the stream and all in vain:
    Let the great river take me to the main:
No more, dear love, for at a touch I yield;
    Ask me no more."

From The Princess: A Medley, VI

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe


"Sweet Analytics, 'tis thou hast ravished me."

From I.i Faustus in his study

Thursday, September 13, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

Found in a Book

Daily Dose

From One Writer's Beginnings, by Eudora Welty


"The events in our lives happen in a sequence in time, but in their significance to ourselves they find their own order, a timetable  not necessarily -- perhaps not possibly -- chronological.  The time as we know it subjectively is often the chronology that stories and novels follow: it is the continuous thread of revelation."

From Part II: Learning to See

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Quick Review

American Vampire, Volume 1American Vampire, Volume 1 by Scott Snyder

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Rafael Albuquerque, Dave McCaig, and Steve Wands have all collaborated here to make one of the more visually satisfying horror books of recent memory.  Everything works.  The layout and character design is dynamic and exciting, and thoroughly modern, though it does hark back -- specially in the big splash panels -- to the kind of 70s movie art so beloved of the Tarantino generation.  McCaig's color is specially satisfying and suggestive, often carrying most of the mood so that, for example, when a nest of vampires is revealed everything is suddenly a rich plumb.  It's the perfect balance to Albuerque's elegant, sometimes almost facile line, which might look flip with a less rich or accomplished colorist.  Even the lettering fits the style of the thing perfectly.

As for the collaboration of the two writers, actually it isn't, quite.  What it is are two distinct story-lines that converge and diverge of very slight necessity maybe twice in any meaningful way.  That's just fine, as it turns out.  The switch back and forth between King's western and Snyder's flapper story keeps things lively and doesn't allow for too much time spent with either set of characters  which is frankly just as well.  The premise here is that the American vampires are  something all but wholly new.  Unlike their European progenitor, the American monsters are bigger, stronger, less sensitive to the light of day, etc.  (Get it? USA! USA!)  This may be obvious and more than a little xenophobic and so on, but it works surprisingly well as a point of departure for the biting and the battles and the rest.

The plotting from both Snyder and King is clever enough, and the dialogue whips right along, but the historical detail is often lazily stupid.  Louise Brooks wasn't a movie star in 1925.  The Elephant Man was not someone anyone in either story was likely to have heard of.  Nobody ever got rich off one dime novel, ever, and so on. Even some of the slang and cursing sounds less than authentic.  And there is the traditional vampire nonsense of having the means to destroy a vampire utterly, and instead trapping them "forever" under either water or rock.  You know, the inexplicable decent into dumbass.

Still, frustrating as it is that no one evidently checks a word King writes even when all he's writing is a comic, this was a fun, fast little bloodbath.

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From From the Diary of a Snail, by Gunter Grass


"Sentences that lie around, run after me, torment me and demand to be cast in lead."

From Chapter 23

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Quick Review

New York DrawingsNew York Drawings by Adrian Tomine

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I draw a little.  Nothing all that expert or polished, just doodles mostly, and some caricatures; pencil stuff.  The point of most if not quite all of it, for me, is to amuse: first myself, obviously, then my friends and finally the few other people who might ever actually see something I've drawn.  I've never studied either drawing or art, though I shouldn't mind taking a life-study class someday.  Something I've always meant to do.

Doesn't mean I haven't poured over other people's stuff with something like an appraising eye, looking to understand what they do, often as not, so much better than I ever might.  I've been losing myself in other people's drawings since I got hold of my first OZ book and disappeared into the world created as much for me by the illustrations of the great John R. Neill as by L. Frank Baum.  I sat copying those pictures of Jack Pumpkinhead and the Patchwork Girl by the hour. Now that I've settled heavily into middle age, I'm comfortable within my limitations, but there is still a very particular style of witty realism, something I've come to identify specifically with the New Yorker magazine, and even more specifically with Adrian Tomine, that I can not help but envy.  Is there anyone alive with a better eye and ear for a subway passenger or a telling moment on the platform?  Anyone with this economy of frame, anyone who can so effortlessly delineate character in five, three, two thick black brush-lines, use such perfectly true, perfectly tasteful and spare watercoloring to create both life and depth in even the simplest drawing?

Adrian Tomine is at pains at various points in this glorious new book to remind the viewer that he is still, first and foremost a cartoonist.  There are a few traditional, multi-panelled strips here -- all with distinctly New York gags, and all good.  I have to say though, I'd almost rather they weren't.  I admire Tomine's Optic Nerve enormously, but it's really just here, in his article illustrations, his witty covers, his spot illustrations for Talk of the Town, and most of all in his notebook sketches that I stand in complete awe of his incomparable taste and talent.

Taste seems a strange thing to admire in a contemporary cartoonist, but there it is.  For me, this has little or nothing to do with subject -- though there must be some influence admitted there as well -- and nearly all to do with the kind of discrimination that respects the weight of the frame, placement, necessity, color, wit.  Look at even one of the artist's more obvious covers: the owner of the little bookshop stepping out just in time to see his neighbor accepting her order from the UPS man.  Nothing is extraneous, nothing overdone, and yet there is such a beautifully controlled, and apt use of color, such clean and expressive use of the space, the street, the reactions.  Subtlety doesn't cover this kind of thing.  The joke isn't all that subtle -- likewise another favorite cover, the beautiful ice cream truck in the snow.  Either might as easily be a classic New Yorker cartoon from any number of other, cruder artists.  But Tomine isn't that guy.  Everything about his covers suggest an artist at the top of his form, masterfully aware of what does and does not matter pictorially and editorially, what will be both right and beautiful.

I really do wish I could do even a few of the things Adrian Tomine seems to do now all but automatically.  I don't think I ever could.  All i can do is be grateful for this beautifully made book which gathers up so much of the stuff of his that I love best.  I'm lost in Adrian Tomine's New York, a place every bit as beautiful and magical to me as OZ.

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From Austerlitz, by W. G. Sebald


"I feel more and more as if time did not exist at all, only various spaces interlocking according to the rules of a higher form of stereometry, between which the living and the dead can move back and forth as they like, and the longer I think about it the more it seems to me that we who are still alive are unreal in the eyes of the dead, that only ocassionally, in certain lights and atmospheric conditions, do we appear in their field of vision."

From page 185, this edition.