Monday, January 4, 2010

Stuff I've Been Reading: December

Well this is a bit late thanks to my end of the decade round up. But I'd say it makes up for it with sheer tonnage. My only defense is I've recently taken a second job at a book store and the resulting employee discount has caused me to go completely mad.

Books Bought

Fantastic Mr. Fox Roald Dahl
The Dude Abides Cathleen Falsani
Nineteen Seventy Four David Peace
Post Office Charles Bukowski
Factotum Charles Bukowski
361 Donald Westlake
Ultimate Spiderman 7 Brian Bendis
Philip Larkin: Collected Poems Phillip Larkin
Pleasures Of The Damned Charles Bukowski
Manhood For Amateurs Michael Chabon
Gotham Central Vol. 1 Ed Brubaker
The Brief And Wonderous Life Of Oscar Wao Junot Diaz
Flappers And Philosphers F. Scott Fitzgerald
Tales Of The Jazz Age F. Scott Fitgerald
This Side Of ParadiseF. Scott Fitzgerald
Supposedly Fun Things I’ll Never Do Again David Foster Wallace
Maps And Legends Michael Chabon
CS. Lewis Collection (Surprised By Joy, Reflections On The Pslams, The Four Loves, The Business Of Heaven) CS Lewis
Book Lust Nancy Pearl
Under The Dome Stephen King
Sunnyside Stephen King

Books Read:
Changing My Mind Zadie Smith
The Goon Vol. 6-9 Eric Powell
Jimmy The Kid Donald Westlake
Fantastic Mr. Fox Roald Dahl
Heart Shaped Box Joe Hill
Nineteen Seventy Four David Peace
Jailbird Kurt Vonnegut
The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao Junot Diaz
Manhood For Amateurs Michael Chabon
The Dude AbidesCathleen Falsani
Post OfficeCharles Bukowksi
The Pleasures Of The DamnedCharles Bukowski
Philip Larkin Collected Poems Philip Larkin

Interesting Mix of books read this month, though I’m worried that the fact that I’ve read not one but two books of essays by well respected but accessible authors, that cheerfully over analyze/intellectualize the mild problems of being upper middle class and too smart for your own good, might have made me so fucking twee and self satisfied that I ought to just go ahead and Euthenize myself on general principle.

Still despite there surface similarities, it’s the telling differences between Chabon and Smith that makes the book so interesting. Zadie Smith who has somehow been able to survive being labeled a prodigy and a literary sex symbol (an should be oxymoron if there ever was one) at the same time, to become a good author. On Beauty was a thoughtful and mature piece of work, and her follow up the book of essays Changing My Mind is an enjoyable read, even if it it probably amounts to nothing more then a bit of knuckle cracking between projects.

Smith on the page is immensely likable. Both for her clean lucid prose that manages to be both elegant and conversational, and the stunning breadth and curiosity of her intellect. The problem is that for Smith for all her charms, still comes off as something of a student. Too intent on being objective (In her Essay On David Foster Wallace you’d hardly know that the two knew each other, or for that matter that DFW killed himself if not for some off hand comments at the end), too concerned about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin academics (ever notice that its only novelists who write about The Death Of the Novel? The novel’s not dying really. I sell them all day. They may not be good novels but novels they are) and on the whole too guarded and earnest by half.

But there are signs she’s growing out of it, and into an all together better writer. When something really and truly gets Smith’s goat, she becomes an immensely better writer. Whether its defending poor old befuddled EM Forester, geeking out hopelessly about V Is For Vendetta (The movie yet!), writing about her family or writing about the situation in Liberia, which I’m ashamed to say I had no idea existed, when Smith is engaged in the work and turns her considerable powers to something that matters to her, there’s hardly anyone who can match up.

Sure Smith’s academics can get to be a little abstract for my taste but as long as her gift for grounding these flights of navel gazing about the nature of the novel, in her humane prose and keen curiousity, one can scaresly think of reading anything else.

Manhood For Amateur’s by Michael Chabon, who underwent a similar transformation from Callow Wunderkid to invaluable author, is exactly the sort of book Smith should be able to deliver in ten years or so. Though Chabon’s intellect is so obvious its nearly intimidating, he’s no longer impressed with it, nor burdened by it, and neither does he expect us to be.

If anyone where to ask me to name my favorite authors, Chabon would be right near the top of the list (or at least firmly in the top twenty) which is odd when you think about it, because I probably only like about half the novels he’s produced.

Chabon’s has always been a virtuoso, but before when his Achilles Heel was his occasional (or not so occasional) pretensions, these days its that he apparently chooses what project he will write by writing down a bunch of crazy shit on a board, then closing his eyes and throwing a dart at it. Sometimes this pays off, such as his mix of Philip K. Dick, Watchmen, and Fargo that ended up as The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and sometimes we end up with The Final Solution instead (Though in the interest of Truth In Criticism I must admit that the use of Sherlock Holmes as a metaphor for the old world’s inability to comprehend the holocaust was an elegant one).

Still like Smith, when Chabon becomes engaged there are few that can touch him, and as in Manhood For Amateurs, Chabon is writing about the things he cares about most, his family, his writing, comics, and himself (badumba!) He’s more or less on fire through out the whole thing. There are inevitably ups and downs, and once again we are visited by the specter of David Foster Wallace (who is rapidly in danger of becoming the Kurt Cobain of the literary sect, so famous for dying that his worth as an author is being forgotten) though in this case the revelation that even an intellect as intimidating as Chabon’s has been unable to finish Infinite Jest (Twice!) fills me with cheer.

Still it’s the first and last essays that detail the art of fandom that really get to me. Even though the fact that Chabon has written the essay on the word Amateur I’ve wanted to write for years pisses me off. I’ll leave it to you to discover Chabon’s choice words, but suffice to say they’re quite rewarding.

To the exact opposite side of the literary spectrum we have Eric Powell’s The Goon, whose last three volumes I devoured in the course of a month. I’ve always loved The Goon, but Powell’s changed the game here, creating something dark deep, out of what was once a pure joke.

For those unlucky souls who have not yet encountered The Goon, imagine Frank Capra given a hearty dose of yellow sunshine acid by HP Lovecraft as they collaborate on a new project. About midway through their wrap session, Groucho Marx pops his head to inject some anarchy and the bluest humor imaginable. And the entire thing is being storyboarded furiously by Will Eisner.

That almost captures how good The Goon is. And that’s the fucked up thing its gotten better. The Goon was always fun, a dark fairytale told in the language of pulp, and monster mags, and Robert Howard, and the other things I love, but it’s matured into something different. And it’s too Powell’s credit it feels less like a change of direction then a fulfillment of it. Because as funny and as crazy as The Goon has been the promise of darkness has always been there as well. Powell’s like a baker nodding and smiling as you enjoy his delicious cake, all the while patiently waiting for you to get to the razorblade he’s slipped inside.

Volumes six through nine are all about The Goon facing his dark past and the consequences there in. Things start in Vol. 6 (AKA Chinatown) with the statement “This Ain’t Funny.” And Powell’s right. And though the later volumes regain The Goon’s somewhere beyond irreverent sense of humor, its darkened by the knowledge that the game has changed.

Powell’s art, always beautiful, has risen to the occasion and pole vaulted to out right gorgeous, composing his frames like nightmare pinups, filled with exquisite and occasionally excruciating detail.

Elsewhere on the comics beat, I used my handy dandy employee discount to pick up the first volume of Gotham Central. I had picked up the second one when it was released earlier this year, there are certain combinations of words that I’m helpless against no matter my budgetary restrictions, and “Ed Brubaker” and “Arguably the greatest Joker Story Of All Time” happens to be one of them (and trust me Soft Bullets, which I took the opportunity to revisit, lives up to the hype. Reading it while blasting “Why So Serious” is about as close to getting a sequel to The Dark Knight as you’re going to get).

Brubaker is arguably my favorite person in comics right now. And the concept of Gotham Central is pretty unbeatable. Showing the way average beat cops might deal with the fact that there’s a blue mad scientist who freezes people.

Greg Rucka does the art duties, and fufils them more then admirably. The current style with Batman is to take the villains to an almost expressionistic level. Rucka fitting the stories aggressive milieu aggressively deglams them. Turning even gaudy characters like Two Face and Mr. Freeze into somewhat realistic looking people. It’s the first time in a pretty long damn time that the Joker just looks like some dude in a suit and makeup, it’s a great effect.

The story becomes even more interesting when it ignores the goings on of The Bat and his freaks all together. Following the stories that slip below his radar. Sure someone has to keep the Penguin from detonating his Umbrella Bomb, but there are kidnappings, rapists, and other assorted assholes to deal with too (And on a completely unrelated note, the fact that he never forgets this is what makes Miller’s potrayl of Batman one of my favorites).

When I picked up The Dude Abides, I was excited. After all two of my favorite things to talk about are Coen Brothers films, and theology. So I figured that a great book could be written about the two, and it can! Unfortunately it remains to be written. It took me awhile to acknowledge it but The Dude Abides is a frankly terrible book, shallow about both The Coen’s technique and its relationship to faith.

The book is almost nothing but summary. Each chapter is basically a description of the film’s plot followed up by a trite paragraph on the film’s “moral”. And it’s unforgivably sloppy (there’s a reference to Mad Maxx, Preston Sturges did not direct the fucking Lady Killers, A Serious Man is reviewed by its script and I just kind of ended up getting depressed and stopped counting there) I mean did an editor even see this fucking thing?

When it does rouse itself enough to write on the supposed subject, it reaches way too far for its parallels (The motif of light and shadow is apparently a reference to Luke 8:17).

The Dude Abides, is that it makes you long for a better book on the subject, one that can be seen clearly just below the surface of this one. The blind squirrel does occasionally find a nut, and Falsani does occasionally write an essay that’s better than dismal, including one on The Ladykiller’s that’s improbably, gulp, good. I can’t help but feel, Falsani could have written a good book on the subject, had she had an editor courageous enough to make her do drafts until she wrote something that resembled the topic she was writing about. Though I’d like to make a special note of Eric Rose’s illustrations though, which are completely fucking awesome. There’s one for each film and God I want huge poster sized versions that I can wallpaper my house with.

I’m a bit late to the party on Oscar Wao. So I won’t bother with another rehash of the book. I feel as though Diaz’s book is pretty indescribable. Though Oscar Wao’s material is often dark as material gets the book feels like the furthest possible thing from Dour. With Diaz mixing vernaculars, time frames, and tenses the way with the joyous verve and intensity of a Girl Talk mash up. It doesn’t just stalk Tom Wolfe’s fabled Billion footed Beast. It kills and eats the fucker.

Wao’s a dazzling high wire feet. And even if it’s ultimately something of a shaggy dog story just the fact that Diaz was able to keep on from one side of the wire to the other is a feat in itself. I eagerly await what comes next.

In speaking of masters of vernacular I read Vonnegut’s Jailbird and was pleasantly surprised to find it a little gem. I’ve never heard it discussed much, if at all, and assumed it was third tier Vonnegut (which still makes it better then just about anyone else). Jailbird is almost a purposefully minor story, following a hapless bureaucrat and former socialist, through most of the major events of the first 3/4s of the twentieth century, a lot of it spent in Prison.

Its one of the gentlest books that Vonnegut ever wrote, in which the grand idea ends in simple failure rather then with the dooming of mankind. And while it might not be as genius as Vonnegut’s best, it’s the work of a master in full command of his gifts doing what he does the best, dissecting society unmercifully while never losing his humanistic forgiveness.

The same of which can be said, of Donald Westlake’s Jimmy The Kid, in a keen bit of metafiction Westlake has his hapless thief Dortmunder attempt to use a novel featuring Westlake’s other muse the brutal Parker as a blueprint for his own crime. Things go predictably awry. Dortmunder books always seem to feature fate standing behind him, Louiseville Slugger cocked from Page One. Its only a matter of time before fate smashes him, and it doesn’t usually bother to check his swing.

Dortmunder and his crew end up being outwitted by the twelve year old they kidnapped. Which ends up being too much insult to injury then even the stoic Dortmunder can bear. It’s the amount of affection that Westlake, (and by extension us) have for the old hangdog that make The Dortmunder books such worthwhile reads.

I took the opportunity of the film to revisit Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. If there are such things as Saints in Literature, then surely Dahl is one of them. His books remain infinitely charming, rewarding, and most importantly utterly skewed. Everyone is entitled to their opinion but if you don’t like Dahl, then I probably won’t trust yours.

Fantastic Mr. Fox remains charming, quick, and impressively nasty (and incidentally not quite as far from the film as I thought it was). Its probably Dahl’s most English book. It can almost be read as a fable of the blitz, with the characters defiantly preserving their civilized way of life against the onslaught of a grotesque trio of enemies.

At least that’s one view on the English. The other comes in 1974 by David Peace. To my English readers, of whom I’m gratified to have, kindly explain what the fuck is wrong with you people (tongue firmly in cheek incase this is not clear). Peace’s nightmare of novel makes the most frenzied gothic horrors of James Ellroy seem like an adventure from Ms. Marple.

This is a book that starts with the rape/murder mutilation of a preteen girl and somehow gets worse. And then it keeps getting worse, by the time our hero analy rapes the grieving mother of one of the victims, I assumed we had hit rock bottom. But no. I read it on my way back from Austin, various substances making their way out of my body, and I swear the experience scarred me for life. Where before my images of England where more in tune to the Kink’s Village Green Preservation Society, I am now convinced that you’re a country of gypsy smashing, child murdering, sickos.

Peace’s book is utterly merciless, even if it answer’s the how I’m not sure it ever quite reaches the why. It hints that it’s merely stuck its hand into a hornet’s nest of horror, and despite the way It traumatized me, Peace’s ferocious fever dream of a novel was far too rewarding for me to do anything other then get the rest of his quartet as soon as I have sufficiently recovered.

I’ve written quite a bit about how Awesome Joe Hill is on this site (for those who’ve missed it, He’s very awesome). I revisited his first novel Heart Shaped Box, and was struck anew by what a self assured and moving debut Hill crafted. It’s the best American ghost story since “The Shining” (But more on that next month heheheh!). A frightening, elegant, surprisingly moving book about how we’re all haunted by something (“Haunted Minds not houses”)

Its Neil Gaiman like, in the way it locks stories within stories like a puzzle box. He draws a horrible and truly frightening villain in the old man Craddock, a black suited wraith with scribbles for eyes. And a compelling character in Judas Coyne, a man forced to face his past and almost reluctantly become better because of it.

Hill’s imagination is an admirable creature, and he draws some unforgettable images and sequences from it, but its his ear for character that truly makes him one of my favorite authors working today. Hill is one of the greatest storytellers working today.

I picked up Bukowski’s first novel Post Office. Its filled with Bukowski’s first hand rueful knowledge and detail. Its also filled with enough fuel for his detractors to roast him on a spit.

I also picked up a compilation of Bukowski’s poetry, The Pleasure’s Of The Damned, as well as one of my other favorite modern poet Phillip Larken and have been dipping into both. I’m a prose man first and Foremost but I do love these two. Though on the surface their quite different both share that rare quality among modern poets that knowing what the fuck their talking about in their poems isn’t just possible, its actively encouraged.


Elwood Jones said...

Some good titles there especially Joe Hill, whose first two books were great and I egerly await his third. It's also good how effortlessly he made a name for himself in the same genre as his dad (Stephen King) though you can't blame him, for taking on a pen name.
Still have to read anything by Diaz, though with your recommendation I will be definatly picking some up, soon as I get through the pile of books in my reading pile.

Bukowski is an author that I'm still getting into, as I've so far only read "Women"

Evil Dead Junkie said...

Have you read any of his poetry?

Google "The Great Escape" Its one of his best.

Victoria Fell said...

Bukowski's poetry is his masterpiece. The compilation called Love is a Dog from Hell is fantastic, especially the eponymous first poem.
I'm gonna stop blogstalking now sorry, I just like books and films.

Bryce Wilson said...

I agree. I already mentioned Great Escape but Japanese Wife, Finger, Ice Cream People. Masterpieces all.

And please, Blog stalk all you want. Its a pleasure having a "blog stalker" as incisive as you. Everything you've written has been spot on. Hope you stick around. : )