Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Stuff I've Been Reading: September

Stuff Read:
Johnathon Strange And Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke
The Hilliker Curse, James Ellroy
Spook Country, William Gibson
Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware
Role Models, John Waters
Batman Gothic, Grant Morrison
Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins
Dead Zone, Stephen King
All Things Considered, GK Chesterton.

Jonathon Strange And Mr. Norrell is a thousand page novel that feels more like a massive intricate prologue then a novel in itself. Its pacing is, well let’s just be polite and say deliberate. And the lone protaginist for the first three hundred pages is an unpleasant old man who looks and acts like Mr. Burns at his most vulnerable.

But it’s still a pretty damn good read.

If Strange and Norrell was a shade more conventional, it would fall completely out of balance. In shirking every opportunity to embrace fantasy clich├ęs, it excuses itself from having to pay lip service to a single one. By being eccentric in every aspect it excuses itself from having to play by any rule.

The thing that makes Johnathon Strange And Mr. Norrell magical (sorry I was momentarily possessed by Gene Shalit and could not resist) is that it doesn’t merely seem like a book about this era, but actually from it. Which is why it’s not only permissible, but commendable for the novel to spend oh say about 90% of it’s time doing nothing in particular but observe the nature of it’s characters, and the rules of their society.

The story follows the decades long struggle between two English Magicians, who bring “Practical” magic back to England after it has lain dormant for centuries. The consequences of this act are further reaching then either could imagine. Around them, Clarke weaves a tapestry of characters of Dickensian (or to be slightly more accurate Austenian) proportions. And supplements the book with countless annotations and footnotes, that make the world about them live and breath like few do.

Strange And Norrell is amazing because there’s just so little like it. While almost all of today’s fantasy fiction derives either from Tolkien, or at least Howard, Collin’s novel draws from something much more primal and darker. It seems like nothing so much as the world’s longest Grimm’s fairy tale. Powerful and mysterious, with undercurrents of something ancient.

It’s not for everyone. But the people who it is for are lucky.

Last Month I wrote a review of Catching Fire, that I now must partially recend. My complaints about the book’s style and structure still seem valid to me, indeed, maybe even more so. But one thing was clear. I was underestimating Suzanne Collins.


Mockingjay is one of those books that isn’t just an entry that is a success in and of itself, but makes everything that preceded it better. Abruptly dragging the moral universe of Black And White that Collin’s presented into staggering shades of grey. With a plot that’s just merciless.

In my review of Catching Fire, I noted that Collins honors the predecessor’s she draws from. Here she does better. She earns them.

I won’t go too far into Mockingjay as all that would accomplish is to make little sense to those who haven’t read the other two books, and spoil things that should not be for those how have.

Suffice to say it’s an unrelentingly bleak and rather perfect capstone to a young adult series with serious teeth and ambition.

It’s so good I think it might single handedly undo the damage Twilight has done to a generation of readers.

Man Grant Morrison sure does like Batman to fight The Devil.

To be fair Batman isn’t facing off against Old Scratch Himself (though he does make a cameo). But rather a damned soul who is pissed at some monsters.

Batman Gothic is a depressingly bland book from Morrison, who despite my misgivings about most of his work knows how to write a damn good Batman.

And yet from the man whose created a run as distinctive as the current one (which I’m a huge fan of) and Batman Arkham Asylum (which I’m really not). Batman Gothic just seems like the work of an average Neil Gaiman wannabe circa the pre Knightfall era.

It’s not bad per se, though the pacing is a bit draggy for a four issue book. It’s just that it lacks both the eccentricity and depth that characterizes Morrison’s work, and which I always respect even if I don’t enjoy.

I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading it, but it’s just kind of taking up space.

Then on the exact opposite side of the comics spectrum there’s Jimmy Corrigan The Smartest Kid On Earth. Called such because the title “Jimmy Corrigan The Most Depressing Thing You’ve Ever Laid Your Eyes Upon” was presumably already taken.

Similarly to The Corrections, I’m going to be kind of Brief, not because there’s too little to say, but because there is far too much to go through in the brief amount of space I’m allotting myself for this. Like The Corrections, Corrigan is a major work of Modern literature and demands to be unpacked all at once or not at all. Half assing it really isn't an option.

Suffice to say, it’s a deeply felt, deeply miserable work, about despair and mediocrity, passed down through the ages, along with the deep hurts and disapointments that are transferred from Father to Son.

It’s kind of beautiful.

Though I have a tough time giving an unqualified recommendation to a book that made me kind of just want to curl up and die (perhaps not helped by the fact that I chose The Shutter Island Version of “This Bitter Earth” on repeat as my reading soundtrack). But alas I must.

Read Jimmy Corrigan.

Just make sure that someone who loves you hides all your razorblades and sleeping pills first.

I’ve always referred (in admittedly questionable taste) to William Gibson as my abusive boyfriend. Because no matter how many times he hit me, I’d always give him another chance.

Well with Spook Country it seems like he’s actually reformed. I don’t know if it’s just the fact that listening to it on Audiobook, narrated by Robert Dean’s lucid voice, just gave shape to Gibson’s prose. Making the jargon that so often obfuscates his books actually seem like part of a plan of some sort. Playing down the density of his prose, and emphasizing Gibson’s knack for vivid metaphor, well drawn characters, and subtle wit. Or if he’s just finally written a book I like. Either way it’s nice not to be locked out of the club anymore.

Gibson has traded his knack for sharply detailed (too sharply detailed) futures, for a keener sense of the chaos of the present. He uses the concept of locative art (art virtually imposed on the real world only seeable to those who have the frequency) to explore how the realm of the digital has created a simultaneous parallel universe, as our own world fractures ever more into what Gibson terms “secret histories”.

The book follows Hollis Henry; Cult musician cum journalist hailing from the oddly specific Pixies stand in The Curfew. Milgrim, an unflappable pill addict whose addled, dry under reactions to the various dire circumstances he finds himself in, draw some of the book’s biggest laughs. And a Cuban Chinese member of “the world’s smallest crime family” as they vie for a mysterious shipping container, the key to which is held in the unstable mind of the facilitator of Locative Art.

It might sound overly complex, but unlike virtually everything else he’s written the plotting is smooth. Gliding seamlessly from one protagonist to the other. Leaving plenty of time for Gibson’s trademark digressions on the merging of technology and Philosphy.

Behind them all, to one degree or another, is Gibson’s great late period creation, Huebertos Bigend (an obvious Swift reference, of whose meaning I have no idea. He seems if anything vaguely Vonnegutian). The “Radically Agnostic” Belgium Bajillionaire, whose voracious curiosity, and non existent regard for the consequences there of. Seems to make him a personification of the digital era.

The book isn’t perfect, The third act collapses as Gibson’s Third Acts are want to do. But only a little. It’s really his own fault as the question “What’s in the box?” will always be more interesting then the answer.

But as a whole Spook Country is an intriguing step forward from Gibson. And I’m very happy to be forced to reassess my opinion of him.

John Water’s is a charming personality, a great filmmaker, and a surprisingly graceful writer (his early autobiography Shock Value, is a favorite of mine, even if he does deride it as glib in this volume). Role Model’s finds him at his best and worst.

At his best, when he gives an endearingly humbled interview to Johnny Mathis, describes his fans as “People who feel uncomfortable in their own minority” (raises hand) and muses about the shocked expressions that people have when they see him on Public Transportation. Assuming that Water’s tools around in his own Filthmobile (an image once articulated that will never leave me).

Unfortunately things start to drag a little at then end of the book. I love Water’s for his energy and inclusiveness, and have long considered his polite nature and delighted humbleness to be his secret weapons. All four elements are in short supply in the closing two chapters, where he is in turn petulant and self aggrandizing, in away that’s just plain unnecessary. Not to mention more genuinely distasteful then Divine getting raped by Lobsterella.

It’s not all Water’s fault, over three hundred pages is a long time to spend with any one personality, and I suspect that If I broke it up more I would have hated it less.

Still most of the essays are entertaining and droll in the best Water’s style. Who else would we have to ask the immortal question was Tennessee Williams crazy or high when he wrote his autobiography?

Water’s God love him, writes like he’s both.

And while we’re in the realm of “For Fan’s only.” I also read Chesterton’s All Things Considered. Things are a bit more thin on the ground here. Chesterton is upfront about it being a minor work, and it contains both essays dependant upon turn of the century English Political Figures that will merely be mystifying to the modern reader such as, “The Third Duke Of Trensick Is Acting Like The Fourth Viscount Of Norwick”. And those such as, “Women Voters. Why This Is Hilarious.” (Note approximations) That will seem merely offensive.

Still, a good half the essays are as good as anything he’s ever written, and for those new to the blog, that means they are very very good indeed.

Rounding out The For Fan’s Only Trilogy, is another work from a controversial author with a beloved cult following.

In The Hilliker Curse James Ellroy, The Demon Dog of American Fiction, momentarily stops examining the thugs and perverts who’ve written American History, to examine the biggest Thug and Pervert he knows. Himself.

This is well traveled ground for Ellroy, who has rehashed his mother’s murder and perverted past, not merely in his fiction but in various essays and memoirs. Luckily that’s exactly what Hilliker is about. The ways in which her death was both the catalyzing moment of his life, and something he has used, sometimes even exploited, to excuse every fuck up in it.

The difference between the prose style of say Killer On The Road, and Ellroy’s documentation of his own life, is negligible. And there are scenes, including one where he documents a two year long cancer obsessed nervous breakdown, that made me wonder, both in and of itself and in the way Ellroy chooses to depict it now, if he isn’t crazy. Like literally, not figuratively. It’s intense, self aggrandizing stuff. And if you hate Ellroy’s Beats on steroids and scotch prose style, The Hilliker Curse might seem a trip to your own personal hell.

But if you have some affection for the old demon dog, The Hilliker Curse is moving stuff. It’s as close to a look behind the curtain that we’ll ever get from Ellroy. Though that doomed LA persona never comes down completely. We may have heard these stories before, but not like this.

Capping things off I revisited The Dead Zone in preperation for my review of the same film.

The Dead Zone is a book that I will always have a huge amount of affection for, given that it was the first “adult” book I can remember reading. Picked up at the library on a fourth grade field trip when I snuck away from the children’s section, and having heard, that King wrote “scary stories” I made my way to his shelf and hastily trying to pick a book before the teachers noticed my absence I became transfixed by the image on the cover (there’s a saying there I know.) The sight of a man’s face cast deep in shadow, half of it blotted out by a monstrous wheel.

So fucking sold.

Dead Zone is still one of King’s best, and makes an ideal entry point as it contains all of his good points as a writer and virtually none of his bad ones.

I wrote more or less all one can say about The Zone in my previous review. So I’ll just reiterate that The Dead Zone is a showcase for King’s genius with both people and plot. Spinning with Johnny Smith one of his most fully likable and decent heroes, with Stillson one of his most believable monsters, and with their combination one of his most terrifying nightmares.

It’s simply a great piece of pulp fiction.


Gideon Strumpet said...

I also thoroughly enjoyed Strange & Norrell, and while the book itself doesn't remind me, your description of it put me in mind of one of my favorite books of all time, The Gormenghast Trilogy by Mervyn Peake. If you've never read it I can't recommend it highly enough.

I'm currently about two reads away from Spook Country, and looking forward to it.

Good stuff, thanks

Alex Scott said...

Looking back, I think Strange & Norrell may have been what killed me for SF since then. You're right; it does things so well that aside from Gaiman and Pratchett and a few others, everything else just seems stale in comparison.

I keep meaning to read more Chesterton, but I just haven't gotten around to it yet.

Marcus said...

Add me to the Strange & Norrell fanclub. Absolutely loved the book. And Dead Zone is indeed one of King's best

Samuel Wilson said...

I'm also on the Strange & Norrell bandwagon, and I get a slightly similar period vibe from Naomi Novik's Temeraire novels. As for Morrison on Batman I've never read Gothic but I give him credit on the monthly title for trying to do new (albeit sometimes retro) things to take the character out of a gritty urban rut with which most readers are, admittedly, quite happy.

Budd said...

Jonathan Strange and Spook County are on my shelf to be read, but I am plowing through Mists of avalon right now with a break to read Something wicked this way comes.

I would suggest All you need is kill as great quick read.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Gid: I'll check those out. Looking forward to reading what you think of Spook Country.

@ Alex: The Man Who Was Thursday is a pretty great starter book, if you haven't read it already.

@ Marcus: It just keeps things on such a human scale.

@ Sam: I've been meaning to pick up the Temeraire novels for awhile now.

I'm a big fan of Morrison's current Batman run, particularly Batman and Robin, which might be the best thing I've read in continuity in comics, since I started reading comics again.

@Budd: I'll check it out. Something Wicked This Way Comes is perfect Halloween reading. I'm thinking of making It my big Halloween Book.

Matt Keeley said...

Agreed with you on Clarke. Her short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu is also very good, and surprisingly dark at times.

I really like Batman: Gothic, though I can see why others might not be so taken with it. Whatever else you might say about it, at least it lives up to the title. I also like some of the little details, like Mr. Whisper's string. When you compare Gothic to Gaiman, are you thinking of Whisper's poetic M.O. in particular? That does seem the sort of thing Gaiman would include, though Morrison's current run does have lots of literary references too. Consider the punning in Prof. Pyg's name or the Yeats quotation in #666.

I see some Bradbury discussion in the comments thread. I'm planning on reading The Halloween Tree for the holiday. Published as YA, but I imagine anything of Bradbury is worth reading. Of course Something Wicked is a great choice too. Or The October Country.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Matt: I'm looking forward to Lady's, but I think I'm going to take a bit of a breather as a thousand pages is alot of anyone.

I honestly didn't mean to suggest anything Specific with my Gaiman reference, just more the generic "Spooky" tone so many comics tried to replicate in his wake.

I'm probably being too hard on it, like I said, it wasn't bad. I've just been such a fan of Morrison's later work on the character that I was expecting it to be really good (the fact that I was immersed in Batman Arkham Asylum (the game) at the same time probably didn't help matters either.

And I'm now stealing your Halloween Tree idea.

Biba Pickles said...

I think everything John Waters does is magic. I really wanted to see him while he was in town. I heard he wore this really nice tux but there were plaid tattered patches all over the whole thing. God love John Waters!