Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Stuff I've Been Reading February

I’m faced with an odd case with Swamplandia. If I have a happier reading experience, this year than I did with the first two thirds of the book I doubt I’ll be able to take it. Yet there is no way around the fact that the book loses me in the final stretch.

Swamplandia tells the story of The Bigtree Family, a clan who operate an isolated Gator wrestling amusement park in the Florida swamp, and witnesses their dissolution in the wake of their matriarch’s death, and their reunion at the other end.

Initially Swamplandia is the sort of book that makes the reader want to take to the streets and accost strangers, weeping with the glory thine eyes have seen. A blend of magical realism and working class despair written with imagery, dialect and language all worthy of Flannery O’Conner; Swamplandia is one of the most original and complete stories I’ve read in years. A stunning, deeply felt and moving story of famial love and absurdity that manages to be beautiful and hilarious at the same time.

So what do make of it, when in the home stretch the book decides to switch from Gabriel Garcia Marquez to Cormac McCarthy?

Of course cruel reality intruding on the hermetic world of the Bigtree's is something of a running theme of the book. Yet the way the book brings this crashing in one final time seems wrong. There’s no other way to put it. I like Ava Bigtree tend to give even the most suspect of sources the benefit of the doubt and when I’m told I’m reading a piece of Magical Realism I tend to believe it.

Suffice to say that the book contains the curse Graduate School literature, the shoe horned in rape scene. The tone of which is so boilerplate Creative Writing Program predictable; so completely at odds with the startlingly originality of the rest of the novel and the unique voice of the author, that I nearly wanted to scream in frustration. The spell was broken.

If I can somehow get through the rest of my life without reading another shoe horned scene of child rape or incest in literary fiction I will die a happy man. They have become for the literary novelist what dropping one’s Hs and singing about coal mine disasters are to Alt Country Bands. An unearned, insecure grasp at dubious authenticity.

More problematic even then the emotional whiplash is the way that it makes Russel’s beautifully painted world no longer add up. We cannot take Russel’s embellishments as merely being the result of our unreliable excitable narrator, because she alternates it with third person objective chapters, following Ava’s brother. And if we are to take this world as our own after all, then the more Byzantine aspects of “The World Of Darkness” where Kiwi ends up working need some serious ‘splaining. The idea of an amusement park built in worship of hell, if meant to be taken literally, as Russell forces us to do, breaks even the forgiving bonds of satire.

Despite my problems with Swamplandia, the majority of it is still one of the best reads, and Russell one of the most intriguing new voices that I have read in a long time. Make no mistake, Russell is a writer of tremendous talent (As well as being strikingly pretty. Not that that has anything to do with her work. It just proves once more that life is unfair). As anyone who weaved the spell of the book would have to be. I hope the next time she will have the confidence not to break her own spell.

William Peter Blatty’s book Dimitir is a personal, heartfelt novel that the author considers the most important of his career. Inevitably it is also kind of a mess. Even on this second read through it is a bit as if Blatty overturned a two hundred piece puzzle and then pointed proudly to it. I see that is all meant to fit together, but does it?

There are other problems as well. Blatty is of course a notorious over writer, and does so here with gusto. Much of the story is told in long unbroken interview transcripts. There is also his lamentable sense of humor, which means that every character regardless of age, class or creed has the sense of humor of an eighty year old retired borsch belt comedian.

Yet why does this book linger, when other neater books have faded from memory? Why do I return to it and recommend it, when books I have a much greater affection for sit unrevisited?

There is life in Dimitr, as surely as there is life in the moving portrait it paints of the three Abrahamic religions living in fragile harmony in the streets of Jerusalem, a city Blatty brings to life with the same affection and detail that he brought to 1940s New York in Crazy. It is almost as if Blatty himself didn’t quite manage to capture everything that was in his story.

There is no denying that Dimitir is a somewhat bizarre book, but it is a compelling one. I have no doubt that I will end up reading it again. Still scratching my head trying to figure out exactly what it is.

I was so enamored by Banksy’s art in Exit The Gift Shop that I went and purchased his collection Wall And Piece. True to form, it’s a collection of shockingly potent iconography, delivered with just enough self deprecating humor to deflate any accusations of pretentiousness. It’s hard to review art books as they so manifestly speak for themselves. Suffice to say Wall And Piece is an excellent overview of Banksy’s work. As well as an eloquent defense of Street Art.

Disinformation without the bitter tang of self satisfaction, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not with a social conscience. Cracked has brilliantly reinvented themselves as a hive minded assailant of received wisdom as well as a black hole of spare time, as anyone who has had the misfortune to stumble over their site when they had something pressing to do will tell you. You Might Be A Zombie is an excellent introduction to Crack’s work as they assault your preconceptions about history, science, literature, film and just about everything else. All with a light enough touch so you never feel yourself being lectured. The collection could perhaps do with a bit more from the site’s breakout star/resident genius Dave Wong, but well one can’t have everything.

Tremendous Trifles is as the title suggests something a collection of sketches. Like All Things Considered mostly from Newspaper columns that Chesterton wrote. Like All Things Considered it delves a bit more into the minutia of Chesterton’s era and thus is probably best for the committed fan then the casual reader. Unless you are desperate for a take on the politics of England in 1909 (Though the essays it contains on Fairy Tales have been highly influential.)

And yet every time I feel myself ready to underestimate Chesterton. To label him an anachronism and write off the sheer pleasure I take in his work as the pleasure I take in any anachronism I’ll come across a passage like this-

But torture is not a relic of barbarism at all. In actuality it is simply a relic of sin; but in comparative history it may well be called a relic of civilisation. It has always been most artistic and elaborate when everything else was most artistic and elaborate. Thus it was detailed exquisite in the late Roman Empire, in the complex and gorgeous sixteenth century, in the centralised French monarchy a hundred years before the Revolution, and in the great Chinese civilisation to this day. This is, first and last, the frightful thing we must remember.

In so far as we grow instructed and refined we are not (in any sense whatever) naturally moving away from torture. We may be moving towards torture. We must know what we are doing, if we are to avoid the enormous secret cruelty which has crowned every historic civilisation.

Which demonstrates that far from an anachronism Chesterton remains vital. If he is an anachronism today it is because so few bother to express themselves with his eloquence, intellect, wit and general fondness for humanity.

As long as there is some need for those things Chesterton will never be an anachronism, and woe to us if he ever becomes one.

Nextwave is without a doubt the funniest thing I’ve read in the medium of comics. Here’s a sample.

I think the real question is why aren’t you reading Nextwave?

This was my first Warren Ellis book. It shall not be my last.

I’d long heard that Batwoman Elegy, written by Greg Rucka and drawn by J.H Williams III was roughly speaking some next level shit. And while it is true that William’s artwork is staggeringly beautiful. Creating symmetrical painstakingly planned layouts the likes of which I’ve never seen before, and filling it with richly detailed comic art. Rucka’s story unfortunately remains firmly some previous level shit. Not bad per se, but over reliant on continuity and back story, cheap tricks (a character speaks only in Lewis Carrol quotes which is a cool gimmick… for a page) and some trips into the bizarre (Werebeasts seriously?) It’s fine for what it is, but man if it was as much of a pleasure to read as it was to look at, it’d be something really special.

For those curious about Jacques work in the wake of his death, I can harldly think of a better book then Marlfox. A one off that contains all that made Jacque’s work so enjoyable and virtually none of his weaknesses. I already wrote about what gave me such an affection for Jacques work. Suffice to say that Marlfox contains all of those fine qualities.

Part of what I love about Marlfox is the way that it is such an unabashed yarn. The Jacques stories started of as oral ones and they retain much of the warmth of the tradition on the page.

It was a pleasure to revisit Jacques’s world and I intend to do so again in the near future.

If the original title for Homer and Langley was “EL Doctrow has a book left on his contract” I would not be surprised.

Homer and Langley follows two brothers (Based extremely loosely on actual Collyer’s), one blind the other injured in World War I, through the twentieth century as they become eccentric recluses. It is as if Doctrow thought up the central image and metaphor of the story (a house where the deterous of the twentieth century ends up) that he didn’t realize that he had nothing else to say about it. The unforced lyricism of his language only gets him so far.

The problem is that the two brothers are simply not very good company. One’s a curmudgeon the other a nebbish, and we don’t delve all that much more deeper into them then that. Events are related without much enthusiasm and then things sputter to a halt in a ghoulish ending right out of EC Comics.

I rarely say this about books, but Homer and Langley is a waste of time.

Two books and forty percent of the way through Charles Portis’s canon (life = unfair) I continue to be incredibly pleased by this author. The Coen’s adaptation of Grit was so faithful that I feel like I’m just running over the same ground as I did here. Suffice to say it’s a wonderful book with a texture to it’s language that once more demonstrates why the cult of Portis (of which I now consider myself a full Koolaid drinking accolade) is so richly deserved.

I find it hard to imagine that anyone is more tired of the “Public Domain Literary Figure + Random Anachronistic Sci Fi/Horror Trope = Comic Gold.” Then I. I must admit that when I was sent a copy of Chris Wood’s Sherlock Holmes And The Flying Zombie Death Monkey’s I had to stifle a little groan of fear.

A wave of copycats was inevitable when Seth Grahmn Smith’s Pride And Prejudice And Zombies made approximately “All Da Money.” But these other publishers and authors made a grave mistake. Pride And Prejudice And Zombies was not a success because the idea of mashing up anachronistic Sci Fi and Horror Tropes with Literary Characters is inherently funny, it was a success because Seth Grahame Smith is inherently funny.

Chris Wood’s Sherlock Holmes is written with the timing, non stop asides, enthusiastically crude jokes and fourth wall breaking of a Mel Brooks movie… A latter day Mel Brooks movie.

The problem with the book is that it rarely makes use of the Holmes mythology at all . Much of it could be entitled “Random Victorian Gentlemen And Their Understatements In The Face Of Chaos!” and one would hardly notice the difference. This improves in the second half of the book but it never utilizes Doyle’s mythology as it could have. And it’s a pity because the best gags use that material, such as the dry one liners that accompany the Holmes illustrations, usually running perpendicular to what’s actually happening to the book are the best gags.

As I said, this really isn’t my subgenre or my sense of humor, but if you’re still getting a kick out of this gag then I suspect you could do worse and I certainly give Woods credit for his enthusiasm.


Neil Fulwood said...

I've just done a Google image search on Karen Russell. Not only as strikingly pretty as you described, but she has the temerity to be ten years younger than me. With her published novel. And her willowy prettiness. Bitch!

le0pard13 said...

Excellent summary of some fine reading material, Bryce. And I agree that Blatty can be a bit of puzzle, but an intriguing one at times. Did you ever read his ELSEWHERE novel? I still have fondness for his THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, but that's just me. I'll be taking a gander at these. Thanks, my friend.

p.s., did you happen to see what QT is bringing to his New Beverly Cinema this month?

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Neil: My thought's exactly.

It was almost as bad when I realized that half the cast of Jersey Shore are published "authors" and I am not.

@ le0pard13: Thank you sir. I haven't had a chance to read Elsewhere, it's a bit tough to find. I'm hoping they'll put out an Ebook version. I did just buy the reprint of Legion though and I'm excited to read it.

I saw the New Bev announcement. I just might have to make a trip down to LA for that. I'll let you know.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks for your thoughts on that Blatty book. He is one of my favorites but I still haven't dived into that one.

Neil Fulwood said...

Take comfort in the fact that the 'Jersey Shore' crowd are published in the sense of lending their names to the front covers of ghost-written fare. Unless there's a series of badly completed colouring books out there which the orange-tanned gang have claimed authorship of.

Emily said...

I love your book recaps! And the Blatty humor comment cracked me up. Really I just wish the dude would make more films, but I accept that will probably never happen.

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Jeremy: It's well worth checking out. Interesting to see how it reflects on his other work.

But I'd wait for paperback.

@ Neil: Too true, and I honestly can't imagine a job description more soul crushing then "Jersey Shore Ghost Writer"

@ Emily: Many thanks. Yeah it's a shame he never really had a chance to make as many films as he should have. Although the rumor is that Friedkin is trying to get this one made.