Monday, January 26, 2009

Sky Coyote by Kage Baker

Sky Coyote is Kage Baker’s second novel about The Company, a series that has brought her wide acclaim. Though I was a bit underwhelmed by the first entry, the overall scenario set up was intriguing enough that I wanted to continue. While some encouraged me to skip this novel since it was the weakest in the series and does not focus on my primary area of interest, I am glad I decided to go ahead and read it. However, I found this novel to be more disappointing than the first.

The Company is a 24th century organization dedicated to preserving works of art, literature, and endangered species through the work of immortal cyborgs. The Company travels back in time and grants immortality to people who then serve the Company’s ends throughout time.

The narrator of Sky Coyote is Facilitator Joseph, an immortal who is over 20,000 years old. He was responsible for the rescue of Mendoza in the first novel, and it is my suspicion that the two characters form the primary lens through which we will view the rest of the series. In this novel, set in 1700, Joseph’s assignment is to prepare a Chumash village to be preserved and taken to work for the Compa
ny. A tribe of Native American’s from the Bay Area of California, the Chumash are not a simple, primitive people but a sophisticated culture with a complex economic program in place. With a series of prosthetics, Joseph is transformed into the Chumash god Sky Coyote. Though the villagers accept his message disguised in mythology, the anthropologists and scientists working for the Company must gather and record samples of each aspect of Chumash culture. Joseph must maintain their interest and morale, as well as fight off the influence of monotheistic zealots from a southern tribe.

At the same time, Joseph must deal with the 24th century mortals who were sent back in time to supervise the project. The mortals possess a limited vocabulary and have a sense of immaturity about them. They are suspicious and fearful of immortals. Though the immortal operatives are told that in the 24th century their services will no longer be needed, there is much suspicion as to what happens at that point.

Throughout the narrative, Joseph flashes back to earlier times and ponders what the Company does with operatives that it considers unsatisfactory. While there had previously been a group of Enforcers who were created from the large Cro-Magnon people, they have all disappeared. Much of the story involves the question as to what happens when an immortal is no longer needed and what will be the reason the operatives are no longer needed in just 650 years. My expectation is that these questions will be answered over the course of the series, but their introduction here made me feel that at least a little answer should be given to a portion of the issues; instead, we just get mystery after mystery without any sense of payoff.

The saga of the Chumash people was quite boring and anticlimactic to me. Though the successful assimilation of their people into the Company is jeopardized at one point, that jeopardy never really seems to have much of an effect on their people and only really served to wrap up what proved to be a boring facet of the story. While the treatment of the Chumash as eloquent and sophisticated is a commendable choice, their population never amounted to anything interesting.

As with most stories involving time travel, Baker made some curious and baffling statements. After the capture of a Native American monotheist which proved that monotheism grew independently of Christianity among indigenous peoples, an operative claims that the opportunity for study would be as valuable as a firsthand account of Jesus’s apostles or Muhammad. Yet given that the Company has access to all of recorded history, why didn’t it have operatives in place to witness things like the crucifixion?

While the reader gets a better overall sense of the Company and its role in collecting history, one feels a dissonance in quality between the ideas and overall plot that Baker is creating and the stories in which she is communicating it. While I am very interested to learn what happens next, I have no faith that the basic plot will be interesting in the least. Perhaps as I have been advised, Sky Coyote is the weakest of the books and the series will skew more towards my interests in the future. I hope that is the case.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Thoughts on Several Comics

In X-Men: First Class, Jeff Parker focuses on the original five members of the team by setting his stories within their first days as classmates and teammates at Charles Xavier’s school. The most endearing quality of this collection of eight issues is the sense of fun one gets when reading. The world doesn’t hang in the balance, and the story is resolved by the end of the issue. It’s just fun. Yet there are touching moments as well, such as a trip into the heart of Africa to save the professor or Xavier’s granting Scott’s wish for time alone with Jean. And unlike the X-Men stories I have read of late, Parker does a great job getting back to the original metaphor of the outcast mutant being a stand-in for the alienated teenager. While the series doesn’t exactly portray teenagers in a realistic light, it is a delightful collection that would be ideal for children as well.

I wasn’t a fan of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City when I read the first collection, but after some recommendations I decided to go ahead and take a look at the second. Entitled Confession, this is a typical coming of age tale in which a young man named Brian travels to the big city with the intention
of becoming a superhero. He quickly becomes the sidekick of the Confessor, a sort of religious superhero. Going by the name Altar Boy (no joke), Brian comes to understand that the simplicity of the good v. evil in theory is not the case when put into practice. Despite the worn storyline, this held together pretty well and was rather effective. However, the depiction of a mayor with as much power as this one seemingly had is ridiculous; the federal government would not cede their authority and voice to a city mayor on issues like detention of superpowers. And I continue to be baffled by the ridiculous creations like a clown who fights crime and cheesy names like ‘Samaritan’ and ‘Honor Guard.’ Yet I am intrigued enough to seek out the next collection and will have thoughts on it in the future.

I had meant to write some thoughts on Brian K. Vaughan’s Ex Machina, especially pertaining to the lack of political savvy by the mayor of New York, but I feel uninspired to do so. The series is heavily flawed but has a hint of promise with the storyline in the sixth volume. However, I could make almost no sense of the dreadful League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier. Violating the rule of ‘show don’t tell,’ the comic went from boring to incomprehensible at the end. Apparently there have been several incarnations of the league, but we get this information through written reports rather than actual storytelling. I’ve found the collections to have interesting ideas with lackluster execution, but that hasn’t stopped thousands of people from drooling over this fanwank.

I’m reading a lot of comics, so I would expect more of these brief reviews in the coming months. Of course that’s assuming I have any time with this new job and school competing for attention.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Neil Gaiman's Marvel 1602

Trying to make my way through Neil Gaiman’s oeuvre, I finally picked up Marvel 1602 this week. The premise here is that events in the Marvel Universe are happening about four hundred years too early, in and near the England of Elizabeth I. It seems like every character from the Silver Age makes an appearance here, from Nick Fury as the queen’s chief spy to Peter Parquagh as an intelligent young man with a fondness for spiders. There is even a race of ‘Witchbreed’ (branded with the letter X) taught at a school by Carlos Javier. Through the eyes of new rescuee/recruit Angel we get to see the Witchbreed, and the depiction of Angel was the most resonating of the novel.

But what do we learn by placing heroes out of their context? Rather than defenders of major metropolises from threats they would otherwise be unequipped to handle, these superpowers are used by nation states in order to attack and/or spy on others. But more interestingly, rather than the struggle with the dual-self, these heroes only have one i
dentity: Matthew Murdock is always himself with a red blindfold; Sue Storm is always invisible; Peter never makes a change into Spiderman. Even Bruce Banner, the poster boy for dual personality in comics, doesn’t change into the Hulk until the last page.

However, superheroes were never meant to be pawns between nation states. In fact, when a superhero does work for the government, like Superman in Frank Miller’s The Dark Night Returns, it is meant as a form of degradation of the archetype. Though we often see villains ties up for the police at the end of a fight, superhero justice subverts the political and legal system in all sorts of ways: from the obvious masked vigilantism to inability to be controlled by society. Whereas the average person would have to worry about the consequences of their actions, most superpowers can carry out whatever agenda they please without fear that society will be able to lock them away, expel them, or even kill them. Gaiman tells us more about the superhero as he is depicted in modern times than he does concerning the rise of superpowers four hundred years hence.

I’ve done a bit of a disservice to the plot here. It is quite complex and complicated, especially by interweaving historical figures with their Marvel equivalents. I was incredulous by the big revelation finding it almost impossible to believe, but perhaps this is due to my relative inexperience with the character in question. I also thought the conclusion served the sales department at Marvel more than the story itself. Gaiman also did not make it all that easy for a novice reader to determine whom certain figures are supposed to represent in the ‘real’ world.

The art team of Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove provide the same breathtaking artwork as they did in Origin. The etchings used as the cover art are exemplary, setting the tome for the series in a way that seldom is the case. In all, it is a fairly well done story with a disappointing and seemingly forced conclusion, something that may have been a result of shifting publishing demands from six 35-page issues to eight 24-page ones. But that is no excuse for what might have been one of the best superhero stories ever.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More on the Changing Media Landscape

As I continue to think more and more about the electronic dissemination of texts, something new occurs to me. I read recently, on a website that has since taken down the story, that Hachette Book Group has taken down their entire stock of ebooks as a result of a territorial dispute. The story was reported as a rumor, and I can't confirm it, but it does bring up an interesting scenario. Books are currently sold here in the US to domestic publishers and then to different publishers in foreign markets. In a world where someone in Austria could download a book from a Canadian publisher, what role would there be for the foreign markets for books?

Once again we are seeing how the digital revolution is rapidly changing the media landscape. That eventually a vast majority of publishing will be digital rather than print is a fact. What is less certain is when this change will take place. Up until the past year, most people would have said that the shift was a ways off. Yet with the supposed prolif
eration of the Kindle and iPhone, we are already seeing a rapid shift that is frankly shocking.

Writing in The Atlantic, Michael Hirschorn diagnoses the immediate issues facing the future of the New York Times, the one paper in the world one would expect to never go out of business. Some of his treatments mirror what I discussed last week, and none of it seems to be a good thing for consumers of news. Yet what is striking about this article is how Hirschorn's analogy comparing the media landscape to a collection of sand dunes shifting in the winds is so apt. As he asks, what happens when a hurricane wipes out the dunes altogether?

We may very well be at that point for newspapers, but the winds affecting the book publishers seem to be blowing a lot harder than most are giving them credit for. That I had not thought of the overseas book market is not the important thing; what is important is the industry's inability to keep up with the changing landscape and stay profitable. It is becoming all too clear that the change is coming much faster than we thought it was going to be. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out, but I can't help but think that I may just like the landscape we have now a bit better than the one to come.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Newspaper iPod

This week David Carr writing in the New York Times discusses the need for newspapers to generate a new revenue stream since print advertising is declining. Circulation is down and with it goes the ad buyers; of course, it doesn’t help that the two biggest sources of advertising in newspapers, car dealerships and department stores, aren’t having banner years. Since the idea of online subscription services to newspapers hasn’t met with much success, especially with the failed Times Select which I actually subscribed to, the revenue for online advertising has got to grow somehow.

Carr invokes the model of iTunes and the music industry, claiming that newspaper publishers would love for someone like Steve Jobs to show up and convince people to pay for new that they now can read for free. Of course, what do you need for that to happen? A newspaper iPod.

The thing is, Carr doesn’t realize that there already is a newspaper iPod called the Amazon Kindle. Now for a dozen reasons that I’ve been over before, I don’t think that the Kindle in its current form is going to revolutionize the way we read news. The design looks clunky and unimpressive. I have no idea what the interface is like because without shelling out $360 for my own, I don’t know how I could just test it out. Having the ability to demo a Kindle at a consumer electronic store would do wonders for the device, if it’s any good that is.

However, Carr overlooks the most troubling aspect of the newspaper/iPod analogy. The iPod only allows one to download songs from iTunes, which is owned by Apple and from which the computer company takes a cut from each sale. Amazon’s Kindle would essentially be the same model, with low subscription prices from which Amazon would take a healthy cut. Since one can only download content onto the Kindle from Amazon, the choices are limited. I recently read that the monthly take from Kindle sales of a major west coast newspaper was only a few thousand dollars; as of yet, this is not a viable answer.

I think a big issue with this model is the question of what newspapers can offer that a person couldn’t get from other news sources online for free. Imagine that no newspaper sites were free tomorrow. Why couldn’t I just check out Google News or CBS News or any other site that pays for AP stories and disseminates them? There has to be a local/regional appeal for coverage that just isn’t available many other places. Despite the fact that the Austin American-Statesman is a shitty newspaper, it’s the only game in town for local coverage. And by town here I pretty much mean universe. Without being able to persuade readers that local coverage is essential and a commitment to take some or all of their content offline without a subscription, the local newspaper is in a bad place.

The cost of real news gathering is increasing as revenue sources are headed the other way. Though the newspaper iPod is not without promise, I just don’t see the business model to make such a device succeed. The more and more I think about it, the more sure I am that the only good news reporting that will be done in twenty years will involve the support of nonprofit foundations to some extent. It’s just the only viable model I see out there.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

2008 Reading Statistics

I’ve been keeping a list of each book, play, or graphic novel that I read since the start of 2006. My friend Bill Leisner introduced me to the process, and I found that it allowed me to realize when I had been watching too much television. But more importantly, I have been able to retain a lot more of what I read, for when I just glance at a list I usually am able to recall the situation in which I read it and access those memories. I’m not sure if that makes sense to anyone, but it works for me.

Since I post a list at the end of each month detailing the books I finished, I decided not to post a year end wrap up a couple of weeks ago. But as I am seemingly writing more and more about graphic novels because the library has an abundant supply, I decided I would run some statistics for last year so at the end of this year I could make a comparison.

This year I completed 230 books, plays, and graphic novels, blowing away my 2006 total of 178, my previous high. However, Sarah Weinman read 462 books last year, so I am sufficiently humbled. It breaks down like this:

• 67 novels (29.1%)
• 21 short story collections (9.1%)
• 45 works of nonfiction (19.6%)
• 29 plays (12.6%)
• 68 graphic novels or nonfiction comic works (29.6%)

Of those 67 novels, 15 were set in the Star Trek universe, including the six novels in the Myriad Universes collections. I was surprised that I read so many graphic novels, but I did read ten collections of Bill Willingham’s Fables as well as the entire run of Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: the Last Man.

My predictions for this year are that I will likely read less that 200 books, though without school to distract me during the late summer and fall I might make it up there. I would also suspect that I will read more graphic novels this year, and that they will make up a greater percentage of the total. Less plays as well since I am not studying drama this semester.

And if you were to only read one book that I did this past year, I think I would have to recommend Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland a shade above Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Jodi Picoult's Wonder Woman

I’ve never really gotten Wonder Woman. Maybe it is because I am a man, but I think it has more to do with the fact that there isn’t really a part of the character to identify with. For example, take iconic Superman. Clark Kent is an established person, the real identity, and I get that. But Wonder Woman is the real identity, and that just reminds me of all the terrible interpretations of superheroes from the past.

But when DC relaunched Wonder Woman around the time of Infinite Crisis, I picked up the first few issues. They didn’t do a lot for me, and I quit buying individual issues about that time, so I had little idea what was ha
ppening with the character to this point. Just after I left the recruited bestselling novelist Jodi Picoult to do a five issue arc, and I picked it up over the weekend.

A warning: I am going to spoil this book. After the events of Infinite Crisis, somewhere
around the point where WW kills Max Lord and video of the execution gets out, she takes on a role at the Metahuman Affairs Office working for the government. Her partner is Nemesis, a guy I sort of remember from some esoteric comic, but essentially he’s a guy who can change his appearance at will ala Iman in Star Trek VI. He also is an asshole in these comics, making jokes that aren’t so much chauvinistic as sophomoric.

Former villain Circe shows up and starts playing havoc with Wonder Woman, impersonating her in abducting Nemesis. This might have worked great, but I didn’t get any sense of who the hell Circe is in the greater WW mythos, so it didn’t work for me. I’m sure that all the ladies picking up this comic based on Picoult’s name would be a bit aggravated too.

Eventually Nemesis is rescued, and Circe goes back to Paradise Island and brings Wonder Woman’s mother Hippolyta back from the dead. Showing that her daughter is imprisoned by the feds, for the very crime Circe impersonated her to commit, Hippolyta declares war on humans and ends up wrecking a lot of Washington, DC. Superman, Batman, and for some reason Black Canary all show up to try and stave off the attack.

One place Picoult really does do a good job is in the light tone. The Amazonians destroy the Washington Monument because it is a symbol of male prowess; there is commentary about how someone really shouldn’t be able to both fight crime and stay inside a bustier. Bt her overall story arc is where the reader really suffers.

Fighting her mother for control, Wonder Woman finally comes out on top and has a dagger held up to her mother’s throat. She says that all she has to do to end the war is kill Hippolyta and then order the war to cease as the Amazonians new queen. Wonder Woman says that she is willing to die for the humans she protects, but that her mother has been asking the wrong question. It’s not about what Wonder Woman stands to lose, but whether or not her mother would kill her to win. She gives Hippolyta the dagger and holds it up to her own throat. End of book.

I don’t have to read the next issue to know what doesn’t happen. Are we supposed to believe that in the lauded relaunch of the series, DC was going to off her in issue 10? But it fails to work on a more fundamental level. Picoult’s name was always going to be used to heavily market the collection in bookstores, just as has been the case recently with a dozen prominent prose authors. While leaving a cliffhanger might work in a regular monthly issue, it irreparably harms Picoult’s collected work. To attract the readers DC was attempting with the big name, an effort to tell an accessible, complete story should have been imperative. Instead, it’s not really even considered.

I understand that Picoult has done some good work in prose, though I have yet to sample any of it. But skip this collection; a sub par effort makes for a sub par product.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida

Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name is a tense examination of identity and family set in the remote upper reaches of Scandinavia, a place called Lapland. She sets the pace of a thriller, almost demanding you read the book straight through, but manages to provoke some interesting thoughts as well.

Dislocation and disorientation are the primary themes as narrator Clarissa struggles with a series of emotional jolts—her father dies and in going through his things she finds out he wasn’t her real father, discovers her fiancĂ© and longtime time friend knew about her parentage the whole time, and then she takes off to Helsinki without a word to anyone in the hopes of meeting her real father, a Sami priest in Lapland. Her mother abandoned the family fourteen years before and has practically disappeared from the face of the earth.

As she embarks on her quest, Clarissa is a severely distraught and stumbles from encounter to encounter on the verge of breaking down. Her mother studied the people of Lapland before meeting the man she thought was her father, so she tracks down the man on her birth certificate. Of course, such journeys have a way of revealing the unexpected, and Clarissa does not find the answers that she anticipates.

I hesitate to give any more of the story, though there are some interesting parallels between Clarissa and her mother, which resonated with me as I often try and discover how my parent’s behavior when I was a child affects my behavior now as an adult. Yet Clarissa fails to ask these questions, and as Vida informs us at the novel’s end of the characters fates in the future, one can’t help but think that she really didn’t learn all that much from her trip at all. In this respect, I feel that Vida fails a bit, but overall this is a beautifully written novel.

While one might suspect the story to be a travelogue, informing the reader about the sights and culture of the Sami people, Vida resists this urge. These native Scandinavians are analogous to American Indians. Her acute descriptions keep the novel focused and allow for a somewhat mystical feel to the whole narrative. Only occasionally does she give any description beyond a snowsuit, but when she does a few words can make all the difference: ‘The sun never rose, but at ten thirty, the sky looked like a dark blue parachute concealing a flame.’

And as I stated at the start, perhaps the greatest accomplishment here is that such a slim volume could contain the fast pace and still raise so many intriguing questions. I tend to resist the McSweeney’s crowd these days (Vida is married to Dave Eggers), but I am glad that I listened to the recommendation by Jenny Davidson and read this novel.

Friday, January 9, 2009

X-Men: God Loves, Man Kills

As a kid I really liked Superman and started reading a bunch of his comics when I was about eight or so. That maintained for many years, and I slowly added on other titles that I was intrigued with, usually after some sort of crossover event (I was a sucker for that marketing ploy). But in those days one almost never mixed comic companies: you were either a DC guy or a Marvel guy. So aside from a brief fling with the Marvel collector cards in sixth grade and the very occasional comic, I knew practically nothing about the greater Marvel universe.

But in high school I watched the X-Men cartoon with regularity and was thus introduced to much of the team’s mythos. For example, I know all about the Days
of Future Past and Dark Phoenix sagas even though I’ve never read the books (being remedied in the near future). And even though I dabbled with the Marvel universe from time to time as an adult, I never have gone back and read the classic story arcs from my childhood I missed the first time around.

Anyway, God Loves, Man Kills is a storyline with which I also had a bit of familiarity for it was the inspiration for a sizable chunk of Bryan Singer’s X2. The novel concerns Minister William Stryker who stirs up religious anti-mutant fervor among the populace while kidnapping Professor X and using him in a diabolical attempt to eradicate all mutants. Stryker believes that Professor X is the antichrist, and writer Chris Claremont did a good job emulating the oratory of fundamentalist rhetoric in Stryker’s sermons.

Though it has been a recurring theme for well over two decades, this novel was apparently the first time that the direct comparison between mutants and persecuted minorities is played out. The opening concerns minions of Stryker chasing down two mutant children, killing them and stringing them up on a swingset. The fact that these two children are depicted as African American only further grinds home Claremont’s point.

Meanwhile, Magneto is out for a violent revolution against the mutant hating sentiments embodied in Stryker, placing the X-Men in a tough position. Do they stay true to Professor X’s vision of a peaceful coexistence between humans and mutants or join Magneto in his quest?

I’m not much of a fan of Chris Claremont’s work, and this novel didn’t really change my mind. In an included interview, he says that he thinks a sense of subtlety was achieved. Well, not so much. But he does do a good job at talking about something most in comics overlook: the appearance of mutants would terrify just about any normal person. Can you imagine seeing a guy across the street turn into the Incredible Hulk? This is presented quite well in an early debate on ABC’s Nightline between Stryker and Professor X when the minister asks Charles how the normal man is supposed to defend himself against the powers that mutants possess. There is no ready answer for the question, and while the general populace might not favor extermination, their sentiments would likely lie more with Stryker.

The whole plot to use Professor X in conjunction with a Cerebro-esque machine to amplify his powers to turn them on mutantkind is too clichéd to be really effective. But the true failure here is the inability to explore the real differences between mutants and humans. Are they the next stage in evolution? Are they in fact mutations that will die off given enough time? Even though Nightcrawler is blue, has a tail, and can teleport, he is more human than anything else because that justifies the whole thesis Claremont is asserting and the general thesis taken by the creators of today.

Perhaps that is a more general complaint about the X-Men rather than specific to this particular book. Regardless, God Loves, Man Kills is a decent story and worthy of your time. Claremont manages to write a story with all sorts of comic conventions, yet portray such conventions as shocking to the populace, making the steps the team takes to protect humanity cause them to be feared all the more. I’ll be reading more X-Men and other Marvel comics on the future and discussing them here. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Cover Art for Michael Lewis's Panic

Though I haven’t read Michael Lewis’s new book about the financial crisis, nor do I plan to, I am interested in the way the book is being marketed here in the US v. the UK. Well, to be more specific, the difference in covers between the two countries is always interesting to me. I often wonder why a distributor publishing in both places wouldn’t just use the same cover art, or buy it from their counterpart, but I am sure that there are marketing textbooks addressing this very topic that I have yet to read.

In the instance of Panic, I find the US cover (shown first) to be a little deceptive. Lewis is probably best known for his book Liar’s Poker, which concerns his time at Solomon Brothers and the financial crisis that occurred in the late 1980s. By so prominently placing his name on the cover, the publisher severely downplays the fact that this book is nothing but a collection of previously published pieces on the economy, which were compiled by Lewis. Though the words ‘Edited By’ do appear, their size and placement above the ‘Best-Selling Author’ line downplay the importance given to its meaning. In fact, though I had seen images of the cover several times, I was unaware that t
he book is a compilation until I saw the UK cover.

As is immediately apparent, the ‘Edited By’ line is stressed here in the same way it was downplayed on
the US version. This would help a browser recognize that the book isn’t a sole work by Lewis, but something else that might warrant closer examination. I also like the prominent reference to the similarly themed Liar’s Poker. However, Lewis has had more recent success in the US with Moneyball, an examination of the search for undervalued talent by the Oakland A’s, so the more generic ‘Best-Selling’ author tag on there opens it up to fans of both books. I doubt that Moneyball was much of a hit in foreign markets.

While the shredded dollar bill on the US cover is a nice conceit, the coupling with the red word balloon
that looks like a price sticker doesn’t convey a sense of panic to me. The different shades of red on the UK edition do however serve to illustrate the chaos indicative of a panicky state. The font choice also helps serve this idea, where the conservative font on the US edition does the opposite, at least in my opinion.

This analysis doesn’t address the broader marketing strategy for the book both domestically and in England, but I do feel that cover imagery is first and foremost a marketing tool and should be evaluated that way. Without reading the book but only flipping through it, it seems obvious to me that the UK edition’s cover art more adequately reflects the content than its US counterpart, both in theme and literal content. Your opinions?

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming by Joshilyn Jackson

While Laurel Hawthorne’s life seems to be practically perfect—nice house in suburban Victorianna, beautiful daughter, great marriage—all is thrown into question when one night she is visited by the ghost of her daughter’s friend, who has just drowned in her backyard pool. Thus begins Joshilyn Jackson’s new novel The Girl Who Stopped Swimming. While many of you are thinking that this isn’t the sort of book I would usually read, I must confess that you are right and also that I really liked this book, recommended by Jenny Davidson at Light Reading.

Though the death is ruled accidental, Laurel believes it to be anything but and enlists the help of her estranged older sister to figure out what really happened. Through the novel, she undergoes a life altering journey triggering startling revelations about her family’s past, the true state of her ‘perfect’ marriage, and what really happened that evening.

Though I ultimately enjoyed the novel, I found it quite confusing at the start. Laurel at first seemed more of a collection of traits than an actual person, and her penchant for seeing ghosts and sleepwalking didn’t rea
lly mesh with the naturalistic tone. Yet as I got deeper into the story and began to understand the characters a bit better, I started to warm up to it. Everything leads up to solving the girl’s death, but it’s the characters that are really more of a puzzle.

Laurel’s past is haunted by the memory of DeLop, a former mining community where her mother grew up. That seedy upbringing shaped her mother’s life, which in turn shaped the life of her girls, Laurel and her sister Thalia. Yet Laurel has brought into her home a young teenage cousin named Bet Clemmens, who back in DeLop lives in abject poverty.

Though Jackson constantly alludes to Thalia throughout the story, she doesn’t actually show up until about the halfway point. She is a natural born actor who thrives on conflict and married a gay man, making her pretty much the opposite of Laurel. Their relationship is fragmented and complicated; Thalia at times is so inconsiderate of her sister’s feelings that it makes one wonder why she hasn’t broken off all contact before this point. But their common upbringing binds them, and their shared childhood trauma gives each a unique insight into the young girl’s accidental death. On top of this, Thalia peels away the anesthetized cover of Laurel’s marriage and forces her to look at her life in a different light, though the outcome of this examination is not what either of them would have suspected.

While Jackson’s prose is adequate, her real strength lies in her ability to build complex and fascinating characters. No matter how minor, each character she creates is evocative, even if they are only referenced and never seen. However, the memory sections dealing with Laurel’s uncle did fall a bit short; without giving anything away, I don’t really understand exactly why he did what he did.

And perhaps the most important aspect of such a story, the mystery of why the girl drowned, is maintained throughout the novel with an expert touch. Even when the end is revealed, one realizes how it makes perfect sense yet also was so well hidden. We discover things as Laurel herself discovers them; when she is misled, we are as well.

This was the first book by Jackson that I have read, yet I doubt it will be the last. This isn’t the sort of book one can dismiss as ChickLit, but a talented Southern author who has great skill with characterization. The Girl Who Stopped Swimming is an entertaining and quick read that you should very well take a look at.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse

At some point in the last few months I stumbled across a list of the best graphic novels of all time. Most of the listed were works with which I had some familiarity, but one near the top, Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby, was completely unknown to me. So when I came across it recently, I picked it up to see what I had been missing.

Stuck Rubber Baby is an extraordinarily rich and complex tapestry of characters deftly woven into the fabr
ic of a specific time and place: a mid-sized community in the Deep South during the Civil Rights era of the mid 1960s. The story primarily unfolds in the fictional town of Clayfield. Its downtown, suburbs, and small college serve to place it in any number of Southern towns, though Cruse being from Birmingham would imply that as an appropriate stand in. The main characters are far from what we would call typical Southerners, yet they are every bit a part of the South. It is refreshing to see the community of a Southern town painted in shades of grey rather than the usual formula of citizens being either bigots or those who fight against bigotry. The real world is a lot more complicated than that, and Cruse brings that complexity through into his characters.

The novel is narrated by and centers on Toland Polk, a young man who can’t seem to make up his mind. The narration is told from the future, probably around the time of publication (1995). Toland appears at the outset and then throughout, mimicking in many ways the narrative style of Harvey Pekar. I wasn’t surprised to see Cruse refer to Pekar as a major supporter and influence in the book’s acknowledgments. The story itself begins with a fragmented look at Toland's childhood, which comes to a dramatic close when his parents die suddenly in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. While he seems to authentically mourn their loss, he does not appear to be traumatized by it. He is shown to be close to his older sister, Melanie, who marries a fairly typical conservative and religious southern man.

Following this brief introduction, the story shifts to the time frame within which it stays for the remainder of the novel. His closest friends at that time are Riley Wheeler and his girl, Mavis, who together form a modern, liberal couple that is just shy of being too-good-to-be-true. After Riley returns from his stint in the armed forces, Toland moves in with them. But, before this happens, he meets Sammy Noone, a gay man fresh out of the Navy, and Ginger Raines, a free thinking coed from Ohio. While newly enlightened Toland struggles to overcome the inherent racism in his upbringing, he also must deal with the homosexual feelings that he hopes are just a phase.

Cruse uses the struggles of the Civil Rights movement to explain the struggles of being a gay man in a homophobic society quite well. The novel is full of entertaining secondary characters drawn from both communities. While Toland’s own struggles can seem trivial compared to the lynchings happening elsewhere, the very real danger that is present for many in the gay community in this place and time are quite real and the comparison in apt.

Toland’s story is not all that different from any coming of age tale, where a young man finds out who he is. Yet his path is full of mistakes and his inability to be truthful with himself over much more than just his sexuality. Through these flaws and failures, Cruse never loses empathy for him, and as a result we do not either.

This is not to say that Cruse’s novel is without flaws. Through much of the book, the town of Clayfield seems to fluctuate in size, seeming to be a small town where everyone knows everyone to a large enough town that it can support a very large yet semi-closeted gay community. With this, issues arise as to how Toland becomes so quickly a part of the Civil Rights world, able to call at any time on the leader of the movement for advice. There also seems to be a shocking lack of national media on the scenes of some of this violence; I am no expert, but it seems that even in the mid 1960s, if a black children’s chorus were bombed it would be national news. The art can also be a little distracting, with Cruse’s overuse of crosshatching making it initially difficult to determine the race of certain characters, quite important in a novel with such themes.

It isn’t difficult to see why Stuck Rubber Baby is considered one of the best graphic novels. It does something different with the form than is the norm, and some of Cruse’s layouts are better than typical. The novel works on several levels as well, something that many graphic novels fail to do. In presenting the human cost both on Toland and those around him as he searches for an identity he can live with, Cruse has crafted a tale that shows the real value of the individual, whether black or white, gay or straight.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

In the Woods by Tana French

This past year was really the first in which I began to read mysteries, and in writing about them here, I have felt a bit frustrated that I am unable to discuss them to the depths I would like in order to avoid giving the whole thing away. Tana French’s Edgar Award winning In the Woods is such a book, but fear not, I won’t spoil you.

As a group, homicide detectives stand among the most jaded, most alcoholic, most emotionally dama
ged groups that exist in literature. Yet even Rob Ryan stands out among them. As a boy growing up in a small town in Dublin, he and two friends go missing in the woods. Ryan is the only one found, with no memory of the event, his shoes soaked in blood not his own. The incident enters the town lore, a famous case that is referenced in the media again and again throughout Ryan’s life.

Ryan changes his name after spending his adolescence in boarding school, returning to Dublin where he makes a career as a homicide detective. The past is brought back full force when he is a
ssigned to the murder of a twelve-year-old murdered near the very same woods, which currently are the sight of an archaeological dig. There is the possibility that the two cases may be connected in some way, and Ryan hopes to defeat his own demons by solving the current case.

French’s prose is fantastic. The situations and characters are drawn with a vividness that imprints them upon the reader’s mind; the feel of dreary Dublin and the life of a homicide detective is presented so well that at times the imagery makes you feel you are watching a movie. Like most novels, the narrative is in past tense, yet French is able to tantalize the reader with future events because of Ryan’s later perspective as he tells the story. This may not seem groundbreaking, but I find it more rare in fiction than one might initially think.

Ryan is a mess, making idiotic decisions throughout, yet French is able to make the reader sympathize with him even as they want to reach into the book and shake some sense into him. Supporting characters, especially Ryan’s partner Cassie, are also well written, coming across as believable well-rounded characters. There are also depictions of psychopathic behavior that are not over the top, which is both refreshing and more chilling than the usual.

I was a bit unsatisfied with the way the two mysteries interconnected, at least at the end of the story, yet this is something that would give too much away. In her next novel The Likeness, Cassie is the main character and French uses the denouement here to set up that situation. I suppose there isn’t anything wrong with this, and as a new reader to the mystery genre it may be the norm, but it struck me as a bit of a marketing ploy. That said, all the information we get is from Ryan, and I would say that most of it is pertinent for the resolution of his story.

In the Woods is a fantastic mystery, both in concept and execution. Rarely do I spend an entire day reading one book straight through, yet I couldn’t put this down. It gets my highest recommendation.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Reading List: December 2008

Before I begin, let me just say Happy New Year to each of you. I am unsure why I use this space each month to talk about progress on my thesis. It doesn't really fit with the post's theme, nor does it seem to be of any great interest to you readers. Yet it does serve as a place to hold myself accountable to progress I've made (or haven't made), thus it will continue.

This past month I completed my thesis proposal and began the process of getting it approved by my committee members. I also used my seminar paper in my research methods class to work out a literature review that
with only slight tweaking should serve as a good fourth of the final project. Unfortunately, the economic troubles felt by the country have also been felt here at my house, so with the new acquisition of a full time job, I have decided to graduate not this Spring but instead this Summer. Relaxing the demands of school should help me maintain my sanity as I get the household back in black ink.

I also was accepted to a conference in April where I will present an overview of my thesis and hopefully receive some valuable feedback from other scholars. This will help make sure that I actually get some work done during the Spring.

This past month I finished 28 books, play, and graphic novels, and here is what they were:
Not too difficult to see how the numbers can get inflated when one counts a graphic novel the same as a six hundred page book. I want to highly recommend Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas, easily one of the best books I read this past year. I'll also have thoughts in the next week on Brian K. Vaughan's Ex Machina comics.

As always, questions, comments, and recommendations are strongly encouraged. This month saw comments by two new readers, bringing the readership here up to almost double digits!