Monday, December 21, 2009

Scorch Atlas

Scorch Atlas

Scorch Atlas / Blake Butler
Chicago : Featherproof Books, 2009
152 p.

Scorch Atlas is a series of maps, or worlds, "tied so tight they couldn't crane their necks." Everything is either destroyed, rotting or festering -- and not only the physical objects, but allegiances, hopes, covenants. The sole glimmer of light comes in recollection, as in: "a bear the size of several men... There in the woods behind our house, when I was still a girl like you." --Jesse Ball, author of Samedi the Deafness

I bought this book knowing nothing about it because of that endorsement by Jesse Ball. About a year ago I read a book Ball coauthored called Vera & Linus, and now I'll pretty much do anything the man says. He definitely didn't steer me wrong with Scorch Atlas.

The book is abstract and doesn't have one coherent plot, ok? Let's just get that out there now. What it is is a series of vignettes or postcards from unnamed characters living in a destroyed, desiccated, and diseased version of our own world. The landscape is grotesque and surreal where children swell to enormous size, men grow mold on their bodies, and gravel falls from the sky. Some of the stories are so disturbing and atmospheric that I had to put the book down and walk away. This is definitely not a pleasant or even entertaining book.

Butler is not consistent, however. Some of the stories as powerful, but others fall short, feeling forced and overstuffed with pain and pathos. The prose style can also get a bit monotonous as the entire book is made up of short, staccato sentences.

But what he nails all the way through is this ominous sense that these people suffering from such pain and disfigurement were until very recently just like us. This isn't an imagined world; it's a United States that's undergone a terrible transformation, and it leaves you believing it could happen at any moment. The elements of our reality still present in this nightmare version are what make his work so effective.

In the end, I'm not sure what Butler was trying to accomplish with this book. He packs a lot in here: loss, family, survival, media. I noticed most of the stories have references to television, but this is much more than a response to media consumerism. So he's ambitious, which is probably what led to some of the shortcomings of the book, but ultimately, Butler is a powerful and unique new voice.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays -- Runaway Horses

Teaser Tuesday time again, hosted by MizB. How it works is you grab the book you're reading, open to a page, and pick a juicy two-sentence teaser. No spoilers, obviously.

I'm in the midst of reading Yukio Mishima's Sea of Fertility tetrology. This is from the second book, Runaway Horses, which I just started. I haven't gotten to the page I just opened to, but I believe this scene depicts a kendo match.

The Lieutenant's eyes glared fiercely. Isao's stave came whistling down, aimed directly at the top of the Lieutenant's close-cropped head. At the same moment, their eyes met, and Isao sensed a communication pass between them too swift for any words.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Female Quixote

The Female Quixote

The Female Quixote / Charlotte Lennox
London : Penguin Books, 2006
Originally published: 1752
liii, 465 p.

Beautiful and independent, Arabella has been brought up in rural seclusion by her widowed father. Devoted to reading French romances, the sheltered young woman imagines all sorts of misadventures that can befall a heroine such as herself. As she makes forays into fashionable society in Bath and London, many scrapes and mortifications ensue -- all men seem like predators wishing to ravish her, she mistakes a cross-dressing prostitute for a distressed gentlewoman, and she risks her life by throwing herself into the Thames to avoid a potential seducer. Can Arabella be cured of her romantic delusions An immediate success when it first appeared in 1752, The Female Quixote is a wonderfully high-spirited parody in the style of Cervantes, and a telling and comic depiction of eighteenth-century English society.

Wow, I read this approximately infinity days ago and totally forgot to say anything about it, which is surprising because it took me over a month to finish because it gets a bit long and slightly repetitive. The plot is outlined above, and it progresses exactly how you'd expect an 18th-century romance about a girl like this would progress.

As I say, it's long and predictable. But honestly, it's excusable because a) there are parts that are genuinely funny, and b) the protagonist Arabella is just so darn likeable! Especially if you've read any French romances or even something like the Heptameron, you can understand how she can take the outdated women's mindset so seriously, and I found myself sympathizing with her despite her tiresome repetition of her strange sensibilities.

The book has problems, though. If you don't know the vast body of literature from which Arabella samples, you may find yourself skimming entire sections of synopsis. It's not so bad, though. Also, the ending feels very rushed. She has one conversation with one new character and VOILA LA SALADE, she is cured of her ridiculousness. They say it's because Lennox had enough material for X number of volumes, but not enough to have X+1 volumes, so she wrapped things up quickly. It's easy to overlook, though. Since the plot itself is so implausible, the ending, in my opinion, doesn't need to be too complex. The ending isn't the point of a book like this anyway, it's more to showcase silly situations that comment on the society at the time.

All in all: cute, but I'd suggest not making it your first foray into the world of 18th-century literature.

Gossip Girl

Gossip Girl

Gossip Girl / Cecily von Ziegesar
New York : Poppy, 2002
Gossip Girl series, bk. 1
199 p.

Enter the scandalous world of Gossip Girl -- a world inhabited by the city's most fabulous crowd; a world of jealousy, betrayal, and naughty pictures on the sides of buses.

Dudes, I read this book and I don't even know why. Wait yes, I know exactly why. What I don't know is why I read it through to the end.

Take Gossip Girl, the TV show. Remove all the characters' personality traits until they are down to one each. Make them somehow shallower. Remove all actual knowledge of fashion and culture and just namedrop major names. Stir, shake, give Jenny Humphrey a huge rack, and you get this book.

An inspiration for the show in name and setting only, these are really not worth bothering with as an adult fan.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Wondrous Word Wednesday: I Am So Tired Right Now Edition

Hosted by Bermuda Onion, the point of this meme is to share all the new words you came across this week. Yay!


Ok I haven't slept in two nights so let's get this over with. I read two or three books in a row that provided no words whatsoever, so I was glad to start a book today that gave me three in the first 30 pages.

These are from Spring Snow by Yukio Mishima.

cenotaph -- a tomb or a monument erected in honor of a person or group of persons whose remains are elsewhere

It had been composed with an artist's eye for structure: it really made it seem as if the thousands of soldiers who were present were arranged deliberately, like figures in a painting, to focus the entire attention of the viewer on the tall cenotaph of unpainted wood in their midst.

pellucid -- two definitions here: reflecting light evenly from all surfaces ; easy to understand

And the drop of ink spread, dull and gray, clouding everything in his heart that had been pellucid only a moment ago.

I think both definitions apply, but one is more metaphor pellucidness.

tonsure -- the practice of some religious sects of cutting the hair from the scalp of clerics, devotees, or holy people as a symbol of their renunciation of worldly fashion

After her ritual tonsuring, she declined to accept one of the benefices reserved for imperial princesses, deciding instead to found a new temple, one whose nuns would devote themselves to study of the scriptures.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays -- Scorch Atlas

Teaser Tuesday time again, hosted by MizB. How it works is you grab the book you're reading, open to a page, and pick a juicy two-sentence teaser. No spoilers, obviously.

Recently I started a book I picked up randomly because it was pretty, and it turned out to be (so far) an impressive work by a talented new author. The book is grotesque and disturbing. It's called Scorch Atlas by Blake Butler.

I'd put a finger to my forehead and say, MOMMY, and my child, taller than me, went: PAWOOO PAWEEEE!
Stubborn, like his father, with the straight white teeth to match.
The things I knew he'd never be.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Summer of the Ubume

The Summer of the Ubume

The Summer of the Ubume / Natsuhiko Kyogoku
Ubume no natsu. English
New York : Vertical, 2009
Originally published: 1994
Translated by Alexander O. Smith with Elye J. Alexander
320 p.

A bizarre set of mysteries have befallen the Kuonji household. Kyoko Kuonji is said to be with child for the last twenty months, and her husband Makio disappeared a few months prior to her pregnancy. The odd circumstances have left the family with no one to turn to for help, until a freelance writer asks his exorcist friends to take on the case. The catch -- the exorcist does not believe in ghosts. To Akihiko "Kyogokudo" Chuzenji, the supernatural is as much metaphysical and mental as it is unearthly.

Initially, I picked up this book because it was a Japanese book marked "Mystery/Horror" on the back, so I thought it'd be a cool ghost story with Japanese spirits. And it was to some extent, but not at all the way I expected. There are a lot of good things to say about the novel, but it also has its faults and a certain first-novel roughness.

According to the text before the novel begins, in Japanese folklore when a pregnant woman dies before giving birth, it might give rise to an ubume, the spirit of a woman drenched in blood from the waist down trying to find someone to take her baby. I'd never heard of this before, but it has a lot of great story potential. Then the novel started, and it was about a man who spends lots of time with a sort of friend/mentor/eccentric and their involvement with the case of a man who disappeared from a locked room and the wife he left behind who is said to be 20 months pregnant and unable to give birth.

The eccentric man I mentioned is the driving force of the plot. He is the one who knows about spirits, psychology, and pretty much anything you could want to know, and he pieces together all the clues and solves the mysteries in very long passages of exposition. This book is very talky, and the conversations mostly consist of this character fielding opinions from other characters and telling them why he's right and they're wrong.

That's where this book kind of falters. The character is very obviously spouting the philosophy of the author, like the author had a lot of ideas he wanted to express, so he built a sort of skeleton story around them and used it to illustrate his points. But he makes no bones about it: the author's name is Kyogoku, and the charater who acts as his voice is named Kyogokudo.

But the mystery is definitely intriguing, especially because the opinions of Kyogokudo are so complex and seemingly contradictory. He talks of spirits and works as an exorcist, but he doesn't believe in ghosts. BUT he'll concede that ghosts and curses exist as far as other people believe in them. It's very confusing at first, and the theory he lays out has many holes, but the contradictions work because they leave the reader wondering the whole time whether the story will end with the mundane or the fantastic coming out ahead. The very flaws in the author's worldview give the book a lot of drive, which I don't think was intended.

Either way, since it's a mystery, I can't say much more about the plot. Some parts of the conclusion are extremely far-fetched, but it still makes for interesting reading. If you can suspend your disbelief and prepare yourself for a bit of talky psychological prosthelytizing, you'll probably find this book intriguing. If anything, the authors extensive knowledge of Japanese folklore is impressive, and you'll learn some neat things along the way.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories

Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories.
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984
Originally published: 1983
235 p.

Who better to investigate the literary spirit world than the supreme connoisseur of the unexpected, Roald Dahl? Of the many permutations of the macabre, Dahl was always especially fascinated by the classic ghost story. For this superbly disquieting collection, he selected fourteen of his favorite tales by such authors as E. F. Benson, Rosemary Timperley, and Edith Wharton.

Let me start out by saying that this is a fantastic collection of ghost stories. I was very impressed with his selections. The story is that Roald Dahl and some other dudes wanted to create a TV miniseries of ghost stories, so he read hundreds upon hundreds of the things, many of which were crap, and selected his very favorites. The miniseries never happened, so years later he compiled this book.

It starts with a really great introduction by Dahl talking about his experience exploring the genre and some of the things he learned. Definitely not one of those introductions you should skip over. Then come the stories.

There are too many for me to go through all of them, and I even have too many favorite for me to list them all without this going on and on, so I'm going to go the opposite route and keep it very short.

Basically what I enjoy about these stories is something that Dahl points out in the introduction, which is that in most of the best ghost stories, you never actually see the ghost. That's definitely true in most (not all) of these. As a result, while the ghosts are very often disturbing and creepy, the most haunting characters are the living, not the dead. One of the shortest and best stories in this is called "The Telephone" in which a man desperately makes phone calls to the ghost of his dead wife. It's told from the his new partner's perspective, so there's still this distance from the spirit, and the story is primarily about the man.

So not all the ghosts in this story are malevolent. A couple are bent on revenge, but there are also the ghosts of friendly children, lost loves, and a couple of Obvious Metaphor ghosts in the mix. The stories are mostly from the turn of the 20th century through the 1950's, so they've all got a sort of classic feel to them. This is definitely a collection worth owning and one I'll come back to.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Other Stories

Murders in the Rue Morgue

The Murders in the Rue Morgue and Other Stories / Edgar Allan Poe.
Köln : Könemann, 1995
310 p.

The portrait painted by an artist robs his sitter of her life. A jester dwarf takes terrible revengo on the king and his court. The Red Death stalks the chambers of Prince Prospero. The razor-edged pendulum swings lower towards a prisoner of the Inquisition. And Montresor takes Fortunato to a dank Roman cellarage, to taste an Amontillado...

Ten of Edgar Allan Poe's great tales of horror, jeopardy and death, and the four classic tales with which he created a new genre, the detective story: 'The Gold-Bug', 'The Murders in the Rue Morgue', 'The Mystery of Marie Rogêt' and 'The Purloined Letter'.

Ok, so everybody knows who Edgar Allan Poe is, everybody thinks of him as that quintessential creepy author, and everybody can recite the opening lines to that poem from the Simpsons Halloween special. So believe me when I say that it is with great trepidation that I make the following statement:

Wow, guys, I really don't care at all for this dude's short stories.

I'll start at the beginning. The desire to read his short stories was first planted when I was in college taking a course called Opera on the U.S. Stage Since 1950. We watched this crappy old VHS copy of a very cool opera called "Ligeia", which was based on Poe's story of the same name. I loved the opera primarily for the story, which I found to be one of the smartest, most creepy and haunting stories I'd ever known.

So when I came across this collection in a used bookstore with "Ligeia" in it, it was a no-brainer. I finally read it this month, and that was definitely my favorite story of the bunch for all the same reasons I liked the opera.

Of the other stories, I also enjoyed "The Pit and the Pendulum" and "Hop-Frog" quite a bit. And to a lesser extent, "The Cask of Amontillado". The other ones just didn't do it for me. I divided them into two camps: "The Creepy" and "Those Mystery Ones".

The Creepy bunch bothered me because, yes, I understand that Poe was touching on some deep psychological ideas, but that's really all he did... touch on them. These are things that have since been taken and expanded upon such that the original ideas presented so tersely here do not really hold up. And people talk about recurring themes in these stories, one of which is the death and rebirth of a beautiful woman. The stories "Morella", "Ligeia", "Berenice", and "Eleonora" all fit this, but it's not just a recurring theme. It's a recurring plot. I felt like he was telling the same story over and over with minor variation. "Really? She was pretty? How pretty? Wow, that's pretty. Oh, she died? Crap. Don't worry, she'll be back. See, here come her teeth now!"

Those Mystery Ones I had a lot less tolerance for, perhaps because they were at the end of the collection. Spoiler alert, by the way, I'm about to give away the ending to one. Basically Poe would set up a murder mystery and then solve it. I understand that these are sort of proto-mystery stories, but they were so dryly presented. First the scene, then the facts quoted from false newspaper articles and then the solution. Here's the spoiler: The murders in the Rue Morgue were committed by an angry monkey. REALLY, Eddy? A monkey? The best part of these mysteries is how they can be solved in mundane ways. It's like reading a 400-page locked-room mystery novel to have the last page say "MAGIC IS REAL IT WAS SNAPE!"

But I get it. I see why these stories have lasted so long and the impact they've had on gothic and detective fiction. Really. I just don't see them as something I'd ever pick up again with the exception of the ones I mentioned liking.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sad Destiny

I know I haven't been around much lately. I haven't been reading much. All very sad.

But even sadder is that I was hoping to make a big comeback today by participating in Dewey's 24-Hour-Read-a-Thon, for which I was super excited. I cleared out my weekend, stocked up on easy-to-prepare food, and bought a bunch of short books to read including the first Gossip Girl novel.

But yesterday I got a message. Somebody is visiting from Germany, but at the last second, his accommodations fell through. The person he was staying with had to go on a surprise business trip.

You may not know this about me, but I have a strict personal rule about not letting anyone including my worst enemy stay in a Brooklyn hostel with ten people sleeping in one room and open showers and probably scabies all over. This German is definitely not my worst enemy, but he is also not somebody I've ever met before. So instead of read-a-thoning, I am playing host and tour guide this weekend to a sort-of stranger. On the plus side, so far it's been absolutely great!

Anyway I hope you guys are having a way lot of fun! If any of you are reading Gossip Girl, maybe you can dedicate an hour to me. If 24 of you are reading Gossip Girl and you all dedicate an hour to me, maybe I'll feel like I participated. Happy Reading!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Wondrous Word Wednesday: Skipped Last Two Months Edition

Hosted by Bermuda Onion, the point of this meme is to share all the new words you came across this week. Yay!


Hi. I'm back.

To start, these are from Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories, which I have finished and will review soon. Specifically, they're from a story called "Afterward" by Edith Wharton.


espalier -- a tree or shrub that is trained to grow in a flat plane against a wall, often in a symmetrical pattern

cote -- a small shed or shelter for sheep or birds

She went first to the kitchen garden, where the espaliered pear trees drew complicated patterns on the walls, and pigeons were fluttering and preening about the silvery-slated roof of their cote.

The next are from The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox, review also forthcoming.

assiduity -- constant personal attention and often obsequious solicitude

As the Marquis's Indisposition increased, so did her Care and Assiduity: She would not allow any one to give him any thing but herself...

Yeah, they do the German "capitalize every Noun" thing in this Book and it gets sort of distracting. But I like it.

rodomontade -- pretentiously boastful or bragging

I can't but think, cried Sir Charles, laughing, how poor Dolly must be surprised at such a rhodomontade Speech!

Yeah, and they italicize proper names. Helpful. n.b. Rhodomontade is an alternate spelling.

And the last three are from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman by Laurence Sterne. Review NOT forthcoming because I'm only 30 pages in and this one is big.

spavin -- enlargement of the hock of a horse by a bony growth (bony spavin) or fluid accumulation in the joint (bog spavin), usually caused by inflammation or injury, and often resulting in lameness

... the upshot of which was generally this, that his horse was either clapped, or spavined, or greazed; or he was twitter-boned, or broken-winded, or something, in short, or other had befallen him, which would let him carry no flesh...

To find out why this is an upshot, you can buy the book and read the impossibly-long sentence yourself.

rectitude -- moral uprightness; righteousness

But there is a fatality attends the actions of some men. Order them as they will, they pass thro' a certain medium, which so twists and refracts them from their true directions--that, with all the titles to praise which a rectitude of heart can give, the doers of them are nevertheless forced to live and die without it.

lambent -- effortlessly light or brilliant

Yorick's last breath was hanging upon his trembling lips ready to depart as he uttered this: yet still it was uttered with something of a Cervantick tone; and as he spoke it, Eugenius could perceive a stream of lambent fire lighted up for a moment in his eyes; faint picture of those flashes of his spirit, which (as Shakespeare said of his ancestor) were wont to set the table in a roar!

Lovely, yes?

Monday, October 5, 2009



Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things / Lafcadio Hearn
Boston : Tuttle, 2005
Originally published: 1904
xv, 240 p.

In this collection of unforgettably haunting stories, Hearn brings together "the meeting of three ways" -- the austere dreams of India, the subtle beauty of Japan, and the relentless science of the Western world.

Ok I read this like a month ago, so bear with me through a sort of hazy recollection. These aren't the sort of stories that stick out in your memory because of excessive strangeness or creepiness. These also aren't the sort of strange or creepy stories you'd expect to find in a collection that advertises itself as such. The "ghosts" in these ghosts stories are not always spirits of the departed, but nature spirits, memories, or demons of Japanese folklore.

The stories vary in length and level of engagement. Some, like "Mujina", are a little "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" for my taste. In Mujina -- and I'm paraphrasing here -- a guy sees a scary demon woman on the road. He runs away and then he sees a scary demon man. The end. It doesn't really do much.

Other stories, however, bear themes of tradition, trust, revenge, and loss that make them much more powerful and give them that ineffable "Japanese" quality. "The Story of Mimi-nashi Hōichi" is about a blind biwa player summoned by spirits to sing the passage from Tale of the Heike regarding their emperor's downfall. Like ghosts from many cultures, these spirits were mourning the loss of the past, but not in a selfish or vengeful way. When a priest who follows the biwa player on the second night of his recitation realizes he is in the spirits' thrall, he aims to protect the man by painting him with symbols to ward off the spirits. He neglects to write on the man's ears, however, and so they are the only part the spirits can find, so they rip them off to bring them to the emperor. (Don't ask me why; when I'm a Japanese samurai ghost maybe I'll be able to explain it.) Anyway, the suffering of the biwa player in this story comes from the priest's distrust and negligence. Maybe it's because I've read The Tale of the Heike, but the sympathetic characters in this story other than the biwa player are the departed spirits.

My other favorite story in the collection is about a yuki-onna, a snow spirit woman, who spares the life of a beautiful young man after killing his companion on a snowy night. She swears him to secrecy on pain of death and disappears. Years later, the man marries a familiar-looking young woman, they have babies and live happily, but one day he can keep her resemblance out of his mind, so he begins to tell his wife the story of his encounter with the yuki-onna. Wonders behold, his wife IS the yuki-onna, and now she's pissed he broke his promise. She says she can't kill him because he is raising her children, but she melts into a puddle and disappears from his life forever.

The stories are folktales, which is a genre in which we expect to find fantastic creatures and events. That's why it feels awkward to call them "stories and studies of strange things". But the title is a holdover from the Victorian era when this was originally published, and back then, the entire culture of East Asia was strange and fantastical. These stories and the spirits and creatures they describe have a much less alien feel than I imagine they had a century ago.

Oh, I forgot, following the stories, the edition also contains some essays Hearn wrote on bugs: butterflies, mosquitos, and ants. He talks about their role in Japanese culture and literature. I read part of the butterfly one and got bored. So... whatever.

Monday, September 14, 2009


Eek, I've been such a bad blogger lately! Usually I do my blogging at work, but I've been swamped here lately so I can't blog here, and when I get home all I do is sit there. Plus it was my birthday Labor Day weekend, so I was away for that.

Anyway I've got a couple books to review and some other meme-ingful things to say, so I'll try not to work so hard and do some of that.

Monday, August 31, 2009

August 2009 Month in Review

So it's been a pretty good month for me, book-wise. Unlike July where I read one short graphic novel that didn't really impress me, this month I finished a good amount of material and liked a good percentage of it.


Graphic Novels 'n Stuff

I joined up to read some Japanese Literature with Bellezza, some screenplays with Michael, and some creepy stuff with Carl. That's all been going well since I'm now reading a book of Japanese ghost stories and a book of ghost stories that were supposed to be turned into teleplays (but weren't).

So all in all, I'm calling this month a good one. Kudos, me.

The Golem's Eye

The Golem's Eye

The Golem's Eye / Jonathan Stroud
New York : Miramax Books, 2004
562 p.
The Bartimaeus Trilogy, bk. 2

At dusk, the enemy lit their campfires one by one, in greater profusion than on any night before. The lights sparkled like fiery jewels out in the grayness of the plains, so numerous it seemed an enchanted city had sprung up from the earth. By contrast, within our walls the houses had their shutters closed, their lights blacked out.

We need to get something straight before I give you my opinion of this book. I have been reading it a few pages at a time since way back in March. I can't explain why because it's got a pretty exciting plot. I just kept forgetting about it. So my idea of the pacing is off and I forgot who some minor characters were between readings, but I'm fairly certain it all came together in my head when I was finished.

That sort of disclaimer would be more important if I were going to pan the book, but in fact, despite my approach, I quite liked it.

Like the first in the trilogy, The Golem's Eye alternates between the perspectives of three protagonists. Nathaniel is an ambitious and scheming young magician working for the British government (a position he earned after the events of the first novel). Bartimaeus is a sarcastic demon that Nathaniel summons as a slave. (That's the way magic primarily works in this world: the summoning and binding of demons of various degrees of power.) They are both from the first book. The third protagonist that makes an appearance here is Kitty, a spirited young peasant (non-magician) who is part of a resistance movement to take down the magical aristocracy that controls Britain and leaves the commoners as second-class citizens.

A bit of a side note on the magic: The demons in the series are loosely based on the hierarchy of spirits in Arabian mythology. Djinni, marids, and afrits make up the bulk of the more powerful beings. If you're at all familiar with the 1,001 Nights or something like Diana Wynne Jones' The Castle in the Sky, you'll find some familiar elements here.

Getting back to it, I liked this book a lot. The class struggle that was the focus of Kitty's plot line is well-crafted and believable, and the reader can really get behind her and her resistance movement, which involves stealing magical artifacts and using them to cause chaos. (It's not terribly effective, but their spirit is inspiring.) Nathaniel and Bartimaeus, meanwhile, are working with the government to take down a golem, a powerful magical creature made by a magician and used as a powerful weapon of destruction. This is interesting enough, but what I most like about their story is that this is one of few young adult novels that masters the portrayal of Bureaucratic Nonsense.

Magicians in Nathaniel's world are power-hungry, conniving egomaniacs who will do anything to gain credit for things that will promote them and divorce themselves from blame for things that will hurt them. It's startlingly unjust and real, and Stroud uses it to his advantage when characterizing Nathaniel. See, he is an utterly hateable character. He's greasy and rude and self-serving without a noble or heroic bone in his body. But Stroud puts the reader on his side by making everyone around him even more unpleasant. You think: "Sure he's a jerk, but at least he's young and there's still hope for him. He's the lesser of a thousand evils, a little pathetic, and his demon puts him in his place with his unending sarcasm so.... Go Nathaniel!"

The story, on top of being rather funny, keeps it real. There's no silly naval-gazing or improbable character shifts like one might expect from a character like Nathaniel in a book for the young. It's a straight-up good story. I look forward to taking 5 years to read the third.

Golem's Eye

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Death of Superman

The Death of Superman

The Death of Superman / Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Louise Simonson, Roger Stern
New York : DC Comics, 1993
Pencils by Jon Bogdanove, Tom Grummett, Jackson Guice, Dan Jurgens
Collects Superman: The Man of Steel #17-19, Superman #73-75, The Adventures of Superman #496-497, Action Comics #683-684, and Justice League America #69.
167 p.

Earlier today I reviewed a graphic novel on the death of Batman. Now, in an effort to make the world even more depressing, I review another graphic novel about the death of a hero, this time Superman. It is called -- this may shock you -- The Death of Superman.

The story is simple: This crazy strong evil monster who's REALLY REALLY ANGRY arises from somewhere and beats up the Justice League, beats up America, and then beats up Superman until they both die. The end.

That's it. I'm totally serious. I mean come on! This was the Man of Steel. The Man of Tomorrow! Krypton's ichiban ass-kicking muchacho!! And the best death story they can give him is "a big monster punched him really hard"?!?

And Lex Luthor's like: "Punching him! Of course! Why didn't I think of that!?"

The collected story is 170 pages, but it's essentially one long fight scene. The JLA takes on the monster Doomsday first, but they fail. Superman is next. He kinda keeps the guy in a holding pattern, but he essentially fails. Supergirl shows up for a minute but she gets punched so hard she turns into goo. (I'm not sure what was up with that.) And then Superman fights again.

The monster's origin and motivation are apparently not important because they got left out of the story. All we know is he is very strong and very mean. A big mean evil strong thing with stalagmite acne.

Yes, Superman fights with everything he has to save Metropolis. Yes, he's a big damn hero. It's all very noble, and that's precisely why a story about punching to death really doesn't cut the freaking mustard, dudes. Sorry.

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? / Neil Gaiman
New York : DC Comics, 2009
Pencils by Andy Kubert
Collects Secret Origins #36, Secret Origins Special #1, Batman Black and White #2, Batman #686, and Detective Comics #853
128 p.

He is Gotham City's pretector, its avenging spirit, its Dark Knight. For years he has waged a one-man war to keep its streets safe. But tonight that war has claimed its last and greatest casualty...

Batman himself.

Obviously, I bought this for the name on the cover. I mean Batman is pretty badass, but I'd never read any of his stories, so why would I care about his death? Unsurprisingly, Neil Gaiman makes you care. All that's required going into this short graphic novel is a basic knowledge of Batman characters, which you can get practically anywhere: the animated series, Wikipedia, those good movies, those horrible movies...

The story opens and Batman is dead. :-( Sad face. Everyone -- primarily villains, but not exclusively -- is showing up at a sort of wake. Starting with Selina Kyle, they take it in turns eulogizing the Bat and telling the story of how he died. But all of their stories are different. Completely different, not just variations in perspective. Batman's spirit is watching over this and is pretty confused.

It turns into a moving look at death, deeds, and heroism told with the grace, honesty, and sly wit for which Gaiman is known.

The art is beautiful here as well. It's less cartoony and rushed than the usual comic book style.

After the main work and some sketches, the editors filled out the volume with some other stories Gaiman wrote in the Batman comics. Some are better than others. I liked the Poison Ivy story because I've always liked her. And there's an entertaining sort of pomo one where Batman and the Joker are aware they're actors in a comic book. But the real strength of the collection lies in the title story.

It's a quiet story. There is no action or dark evil here. But it's a must for Batman fans and a probably-will-regardless for fans of Gaiman.


Friday, August 28, 2009

R.I.P. Challenge IV

R.I.P. Challenge IV

Ok, one more because I'd been planning on finally participating in this one this year.

Here I throw in my coin for the fourth annual R.I.P. Challenge: creepy, scary, gothic, supernatural is the theme from now until HalloweEeEeeEEeeen! I'm gonna go for 4 books because that's how many I found on my TBR pile.

And if for some reason I actually get through all that with time to spare, I've got this neat illustrated copy of Dracula I might work through. I tried reading an unillustrated edition about 5 years ago and got like 40 pages from the end and stopped for some reason.

So that's it! Have a spooktacular time making horror-ble Halloween puns, fellow undertakers (of the challenge)!

Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood / Haruki Murakami
Noruwei no mori. English
New York : Vintage International, 2000
Originally published: 1987
Translated by Jay Rubin
296 p.

I was thirty-seven then, strepped in my seat as the huge 747 plunged through dense cloud cover on approach to the Hamburg airport. Cold November rains drenched the earth and lent everything the gloomy air of a Flemish landscape: the ground crew in rain gear, a flag atop a squat airport building, a BMW billboard. So -- Germany again.

This is the story of a boy, Toru, and a girl, Naoko, who share a love colored by the tragedy of death. Kizuki, Naoko's boyfriend and Toru's best friend committed suicide at 17, an event from which Naoko never fully recovered.

As Naoko regresses more and more into her mind at a mental health facility, Toru becomes involved with the outgoing and liberated Midori. Norwegian Wood is the story of his relationships with the two young women told from Toru's perspective as a man in his 30's reminiscing about his college years.

This is a departure from Murakami's usual surrealist style, and many judge it as an exercise or experiment, but I think that promotes a reading that misplaces the strength of the work. It's a lovely and moving book, but I think some of the praise it garners is for the wrong things, taking the focus away from the books true beauty.

The story is framed as a reminiscence, and looking to the past with varying degrees of lucidity is a theme throughout, but I don't get the sense that this is really being narrated by an older man looking back with a supposedly hazy memory. After the beginning of the book, grown-up Toru seems forgotten, and the amount of detail in the novel is typical. Entire conversations and meals are recalled like any other novel not from any particular perspective.

There also seems to be some significance placed on the novel's setting in the 1960's, but this seems to be accomplished more through popular culture name-dropping than a truly atmospheric immersion. The story could easily be taking place in the present. I couldn't help but compare it to Ryu Murakami's novel 69, which paints a much clearer picture of 1960's Japan.

Though presented as a love story, Norwegian Wood is much more a coming-of-age novel. The feelings Toru has for Naoko and Midori are conflicting and move him to ultimately discover himself rather than ultimate happiness. The back of the book calls his love for Naoko "heroic" but I find it the opposite. Toru is lonely and even desperate at times, and though he cares very much for Naoko, it lacks the unique selflessness that I associate with "heroic" love.

What I found most fascinating about the character was his tendency to get wrapped up in the world of whoever he was with. Alone, he is weak and makes nearly no decisions of his own. He gets sucked up in his friend Nagasawa's world of sexual conquest, Midori pulls him along at her whim, and when he's dealing with Naoko, he becomes introspective and trapped in his mind like she is. When he is alone, he is empty, and that is why I believe his character feels so lonely even when surrounded by people who love him.

It is here that the strength and poignancy of the novel lie. The perspective, the time period, and the setting all are secondary to the intense struggle of youth to make connections, find themselves psychologically and sexually through the lens of their relationships, and to ultimately take what they find in themselves and share it. It's not unique to any time, but is a story that's universal.

Eighth Grade Bites

Eighth Grade Bites

Eighth Grade Bites / Heather Brewer
New York : Speak, 2008
The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod, bk. 1
182 p.

A tree branch slapped John Craig across the face, scraping his skin, but he kept on running and ignored the stabbing of pine needles on his bare feet. He could hear the man's footsteps behind him, echoing his own.

Right, so I got this book that weekend I was locked out of my apartment and read it in one day. It's that kind of book: fun, simple, and entertaining... all I want in a book about a teenage vampire, really.

Basically Vlad is a vampire halfling. "Me dad's a muggle; mum's a witch!" Wait, I mean his dad was a vampire and his mom wasn't. So basically he eats blood and undercooked meat, but ages like a person. His parents died in a mysterious fire when he was young, so he's raised by his human aunt. He attends a normal junior high where he deals with typical losery teen boy problems.

There's nothing terribly innovative about the basic backdrop of the story, but the direction Brewer takes it keeps it interesting. Vlad's English teacher disappears and is replaced by an off-center man who seems to know something about Vlad. The boy himself discovers old family secrets and gets involved with other vampires he never knew existed. It's a compelling, if throwaway story told with a good amount of intrigue and light humor and the requisite teen angst. I really did enjoy it.

This novel is especially appealing because it stands in contrast with the overwrought, neo-gothic romantic vampire stuff that's been flooding the market lately. (Thanks, Twilight!) This one is fun. It's boyish. Nobody falls in love, nobody cries, nobody SPARKLES. It has more in common with Christopher Moore's vampires than Stephenie Meyers' or Charlaine Harris'. I look forward to reading the next ones.

Eighth Grade Bites

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays -- Norwegian Wood

Teaser Tuesday time again, hosted by MizB. How it works is you grab the book you're reading, open to a page, and pick a juicy two-sentence teaser. No spoilers, obviously.

Last night I finished this lovely book, but I read it so quickly I never teased from it.

Midori and I sat in a corner of the room, talking quietly the whole time. She read my palm and predicted that I would live to a hundred and five, marry three times, and die in a traffic accident. Not a bad life, I said.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Words Behind the Pictures Challenge


I've never read a screenplay before, but after seeing them sold on the street so often, I figure there must be a reason there's such a market for them. And so, I will join Michael's Words Behind the Pictures Challenge in which every month for a year, he makes available a screenplay (free, thanks!) and the goal is to read it, watch the film, and document the experience.

Sounds pretty cool. And it's something different. And I haven't been using my Netflix account very much, so that is all.

You should probably join up too.

Teen Titans Vol. 3: Beast Boys and Girls

Beast Boys and Girls

Teen Titans Vol. 3: Beast Boys and Girls / Ben Raab ; Geoff Johns
New York : DC Comics, 2005
Pencils by Justiniano
Collects Beast Boy #1-4 and Teen Titans #13-15
168 p.

The spotlight is squarely focused on Beast Boy in two complete sagas. First, in the days before the current incarnation of the Teen Titans, Beast Boy tries to reignite his stalled acting career only to find himself implicated in a murder. Then, Beast Boy is seemingly cured of his animal shape-changing powers only to see the children of San Francisco suddenly run riot, assuming green animal shapes with no experience and lots of panic

My latest assignment from my comic book friend, Beast Boys and Girls contains two stories featuring Beast Boy (obviously) from Teen Titans. In the first, Beast Boy is drawn really sexy (although green) and has returned to L.A. to start over and get his acting career back on track. Apparently there are a lot of roles for people with green skin? Anyway, he's framed for a series of murders a look-alike has been committing. So yeah, he figures that out.

In the second, a virus is released that strips Beast Boy of his powers and turns him person-colored again but also infects all the children in the city with his affliction, and they turn into green animals. Ensue: wackiness.

I think I like this Teen Titans edition because the stories are simpler. As opposed to the convoluted plot lines that have been developing for 50 years in some comic book titles, the stories here are bold, colorful, and easy to follow. They stand alone. In the second story, we also get glimpses of Wonder Girl and Robin and the struggles they were dealing with during that time in the run, but it fits together without being distracting.

Basically, these stories are simple and fun. For a latecomer like me, they were highly accessible and entertaining. More, please.

Thousand Cranes

Thousand Cranes

Thousand Cranes / Yasunari Kawabata
Sembazuru. English
New York : Vintage International, 1996
Originally published: 1952
Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker
vi, 147 p.

With a restraint that barely conceals the ferocity of his characters' passions, one of Japan's great postwar novelists tells a luminous story of desire, regret, and the almost sensual nostalgia that binds the living to the dead.

Like Kawabata's other novels, Thousand Cranes is a simple story delicately told through highly self-examining characters. Kikuji, after losing his father, attends a tea ceremony hosted by his father's former mistress, Chikako. She intends to set him up with a young girl with a handkerchief with a thousand cranes on it, but he instead becomes involved with Mrs. Ota, his father's mistress for whom he left Chikako. Their affair brings her shame, for which she commits suicide, and he comes to transfer his feelings to Fumiko, Mrs. Ota's daughter.

I just checked Wikipedia, and my summary is almost identical to theirs, but I swear I didn't copy it. It's just... that's all there is to say about the plot.

It's a lovely, quiet novel, though I'm fairly certain I didn't completely grasp it. Lots of it resonated, especially the themes of loss, grief, and regret. My favorite aspect of the novel was how Kawabata uses objects as vessels for memory with tea bowls and utensils carrying an ownership history that comes alive through interaction with the object, especially the difference between interaction in a tea ritual vs. using the object for non-traditional purposes. The objects and their treatment speak louder than the people often do.

And yet, there was something in the novel that didn't exactly strike me properly. It is most likely the cultural divide, but I didn't always understand the rationale behind some of the characters' behavior. Chikako was the most clear-cut with her leftover bitterness at being dismissed in favor of Mrs. Ota. She is outspoken, gossipy, and openly-conniving. I believe on a personal level, I was so divorced from the experiences of the other characters because I've never experienced anything like they have.

Nonetheless, even without forming a profound personal connection as I did with The Master of Go, the rich artistry of this novel makes it stand out against its contemporaries and distinguishes Kawabata as a master of his craft.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Infinity Gauntlet

Infinity Gauntlet

The Infinity Gauntlet / Jim Starlin
2nd ed.
New York : Marvel Publishing, 2006
Pencils by George Perez & Ron Lim
Collects Infinity Gauntlet #1-6
256 p.

For the dark titan, Thanos, the Infinity Gauntlet was the Holy Grail, the ultimate prize to be coveted above all else.

Yeah, this is another comic book collection my friend had me read, this one being a limited series from 1991. Not knowing a lot about the comic book world, I feel like this may have been a big event. It's got a mess of heroes and characters from the Marvel Universe all coming together against a reality-destroying evil. That's pretty serious, right? Like... not your typical day?

Again, I must disclaim that my status as a comic book neophyte left me rather in the dark about lots of the characters here, and man were there a lot. Dozens of heroes came together, each getting at least a couple frames of glory. It focused on the Silver Surfer a bit but mostly on Adam Warlock, who I guess got resurrected. So good for him.

The evil Thanos somehow got his hands on the Infinity Gems, which basically give him ultimate power, and he wants to impress the mistress of death, who's pretty hot, so he erases half the life in the universe. She's not impressed and won't be by anything he does, but he keeps trying anyway. Meanwhile, the universe is going to shit and earth is careening either towards or away from the sun, I forget, but either way it's pretty sucky. He imprisons some godlike people trying to stop him, eliminates the legion of superheroes who didn't stand a chance, and oh no is there nobody who can save Townsville in this moment of crisis??

It has a good "with great power comes great responsibility" moral, but all in all, I found the story too ambitious. Without spoiling the ending, the events in the beginning are SO EPIC that it pigeon-holes the story into one possible ending involving the loaded gun on the mantle uninventively undoing the mess because if they didn't, Marvel would be out of characters. It was so big that it lacked the heart and humanity that makes more Earthbound stories appealing and the dramatic tension that would accompany a plot in which the "bad" outcome is actually feasible.

Infinity Gauntlet

Teaser Tuesdays -- The Three Musketeers

Teaser Tuesday time again, hosted by MizB. How it works is you grab the book you're reading, open to a page, and pick a juicy two-sentence teaser. No spoilers, obviously.

Since I locked myself out of my house this weekend with no belongings, I outfitted myself with a tote bag and a couple books to pass the time until the guy who had my spare key could meet me on Monday. So I got a good way into this rather long novel, and I'm loving it more than I even expected.

It was the first such note he had ever received; it was the first rendezvous he had ever been granted. His heart, swollen with the drunkenness of joy, felt as though it was about to fail on the threshold of that earthly paradise known as love.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


VilletteVillette / Charlotte Brontë
Hertfordshire : Wordsworth Classics, 1993
Originally published: 1853
513 p.

I recognize that the graphic to the right isn't a book cover. It's because I couldn't find the actual cover to my edition anywhere, but I loved the portrait on it so much that I decided it would do without the title and such. It complements the novel perfectly. The painting is called Lady Dyke by Sir Edwin Landseer, and I suggest you do not do a Google image search for it while at work unless you use the painter's name.

I've mentioned before, but I read this along with a group of people at The Valve, though I didn't participate in any of the discussions because I was intimidated and consistently 80 pages behind. But the people there had many insightful things to say that instilled in me a great sense of admiration towards this book.

Without going too far into the plot, Villette is from the perspective of Lucy Snowe, a character whose past we know very little of except that something apparently tragic happened in her childhood. Some readers speculate child abuse, but Lucy never shares it with us. Inspired by the her own tenure as a teacher in Belgium, Brontë has Lucy leave her godmother's to travel to France and become an English teacher at a girls' boarding school.

Two major themes of the novel are secrecy and repression, two traits Lucy herself possesses. What makes the story fascinating is that it's told from her perspective, and she noticeably leaves things out of the narrative, some of which is important, and most of which is never revealed. Contrasts with the characters like the coquettish Ginevra Fanshawe and the charming and intelligent Polly de Bassompierre reveal further Lucy's detachment and inability to become a happy, social woman like her peers. She rejects the playful banter and florid dressings of her contemporaries and lives quietly, keeping at a distance her feelings for her godbrother Graham and her colleague Paul Emmanuel, though she eventually does recognize her love for the latter.

It sounds though it would be difficult to sympathize with a character like Lucy, but I personally found myself identifying with her quite a bit. We've all got a part of ourselves that nobody (we think) will truly understand. And there are times when everyone feels they are observing the world through a disconnected filter, watching people around them embrace experiences they themselves can never understand. Lucy comes across modern in her intelligence and if not understandable, then relatable in her interpersonal constriction.

This novel is incredibly complex and can be interpreted in many ways. With elements of the real, fantastical, psychological, and gothic, is a thought-provoking and beautifully-written piece that can be enjoyed on many levels and through multiple readings.


Wondrous Word Wednesday: OMG It's So Hot Out Edition

Hosted by Bermuda Onion, the point of this meme is to share all the new words you came across this week. Yay!



Ok as usual, we begin with Infinite Jest, which I am still inching my way through:

febrile -- marked or caused by fever

... she is not drunk Joelle now sees but has taken Ecstasy, Joelle can see, from the febrile flush and eyes jacked so wide you can make out brain-meat behind the balls' poles...

afflatus -- inspiration; the blow of a new idea

... just a desire to swallow every last drop of saliva she will ever manufacture and exit this vessel, have fifteen more minutes of Too Much Fun, eliminate her own map with the afflatus of the blind god of all doorless cages...

(I still don't get that one.)

apotropaic -- intended to ward off evil

I suddenly understand the gesundheit-impulse, the salt over the shoulder and apotropaic barn-signs.

synclinal -- sloping downward from opposite directions to meet in a common point or line

A large red meaty character with eyebrows at a demonic-looking synclinal angle and very small nubbly gray teeth.

And again, for the last time, from Villette:

emulous -- desiring to equal or surpass another; characterized by a spirit of rivalry

Above the poplars, the laurels, the cypresses, and the roses, looked up a moon so lovely and so halcyon, the heart trembled under her smile; a star shone subject beside her, with the unemulous ray of pure love.

(Isn't that sentence lovely?)

votary -- a person who is fervently devoted, as to a leader or ideal; a faithful follower

Seeing him draw nigh, burying his broad wheels in the oppressed soil -- I, the prostrate votary -- felt beforehand the annihilating craunch.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays -- The Golem's Eye

Teaser Tuesday time again, hosted by MizB. How it works is you grab the book you're reading, open to a page, and pick a juicy two-sentence teaser. No spoilers, obviously.

I've been reading The Golem's Eye, the second book in Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus Trilogy a couple pages at a time for about 6 months. I'm just about done, so I thought I'd give it a teaser.

Upon the gruesome death of a magician at the hands of a genie he failed to control:

Then the whole place erupted into noise; those magicians who had already suitably bound their slaves, my master among them, stepped from their pentacles and gathered around the scorch mark, stewy-faced and jabbering. We higher beings began a cheery and approving chatter.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Darkly Dreaming Dexter / Jeff Lindsay
New York : Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, 2006
168 p.

Meet Dexter Morgan, a polite wolf in sheep’s clothing. He’s handsome and charming, but something in his past has made him abide by a different set of rules. He’s a serial killer whose one golden rule makes him immensely likeable: he only kills bad people. And his job as a blood splatter expert for the Miami police department puts him in the perfect position to identify his victims. But when a series of brutal murders bearing a striking similarity to his own style start turning up, Dexter is caught between being flattered and being frightened -- of himself or some other fiend.

So obviously I only read this book because I recently watched the first season of Dexter and totally fell in love with it. Considering the character has the potential for astronomical heights of literary complexity that I assumed couldn't be captured in a television show (though it captured a lot), I thought the book would definitely be worth reading: challenging, upsetting, and entertaining, giving the character even more depth for when I watch Season Two.

Yeah um so ok guys, it's not.

Darkly Dreaming Dexter closely follows the plot of the television show.... actually, let me not mislead you: The show follows the book fairly closely until about the last third (of the book.) Basically Dexter is a seriously disturbed, anti-social serial killer who, through the tutelage of his father, has managed to find a way to "fake it" such that he lives a relatively normal life with a job, a girlfriend, and a tendency to bind bad people to a table and chop them into pieces. Y'know, guy stuff. But one day a serial killer enters the scene who leaves no blood in or around his victims, and it eventually comes out that he knows Dexter's secret and is toying with him. The story is largely a mystery, so I'll stop summarizing there. Other key players include his sister, a Miami cop who wants to make detective; the incompetent detective in charge of the case, LaGuerta; and... that's it. There aren't many characters in this book.... oh, unless you count the "Dark Passenger."

Let's talk about the Dark Passenger, because he (it?) is part of what made this book so weak. The DP is something that shares Dexter's mind and makes him want to kill. When Dexter gets the urge, during a full moon, eventually the DP takes over his body and makes him do what he does.... or something. It's very unclear, but the problem is that it cheapens Dexter's character into a lame multiple-personality-disorder patient instead of the rich psychotic he could be. Add to that the unrefined writing style, shallow characters, and a detective story solved not by the clever sprinkling and collection of clues but by Dexter's weird psychic ability that tells him all the answers, and you end up with a great story idea with a poor execution.

I don't want you to think I'm a snob or especially a hypocrite for saying "unrefined language" (because I can't write my way out of a paper bag). I don't expect Pulitzer prose from everyone, but Lindsay has a tendency -- to borrow the old favorite -- to tell instead of showing. Dexter is antisocial because the author says so, not because of any evidence. In fact, he's really rather normal if you believe what you see instead of what you're told. And when we get into his head, it's all questions. He's constantly asking himself questions, and half the time we know the answer to them. It's silly.

And don't get me started on how Dexter constantly thinks he's the one who commits the "bad guy's" murders in his sleep. We have definitive evidence that Dexter is NOT at fault during the first half of the book, not to mention the fact that if Dexter WERE responsible, any decent author would make that a twist ending. So Dexter's agonizing over it, and the reader is busy saying "Don't be such a boob!" It's all very frustrating.

So the book is ultimately forgettable. But do check out the show if you haven't seen it. The author did have some great ideas that made it in there.

Darkly Dreaming Dieter

Microbe Monday -- Pages from Cold Point

We're all very into books here, but Microbe Monday is more about the blurb. The article. The short story. The haiku.

So over the weekend, I'll seek out a new literary magazine or open a collection to a random poem or just pick a story I remember from my past and riff on it. Briefly! I don't expect this to turn into a meme, but feel free to gank my little graphic and do it yourself too!

Microbe Monday

My friend Ty lent me the complete stories of Paul Bowles like 6 months ago or more. Probably more. He read me one and then left the book behind, so every now and then I'll pick it up and read one at random. It isn't the type of collection I can sit and read all the way through because I usually like to sit in the feeling the stories leave behind.

I generally am unable to define what I'm left with, and sometimes I'm not even sure I grasped the major themes, but his atmospheric writing always leaves behind some kind of haunting impression. I approached "Pages from Cold Point" determined to write something about it, but nervous I'd be unable to translate my intuitive reaction into words.

"Pages from Cold Point" is from the perspective of a man who moves with his teenage son, Racky, to the far end of a Caribbean island to get away from "civilization," which is personified in the man's brother as ugly, decadent, and superficially moralistic. The full reason for this exile are never fully disclosed, but the rest of the story may arouse some suspicions.

The man loves his son quite a bit, praising his intelligent, yet carefree nature. It's a little creepy maybe how he goes on and on. He gives the kid a lot of freedom and even though he made the decision to live far from any of the major towns on the island, he lets his son travel to them as much as he wants so Racky doesn't feel suffocated.

But it turns out Racky is enjoying the fresh air a little too much when some of the townspeople start complaining to the man about Racky's tendency to, um.... seduce the impressionable local boys. Oops, ok, so the man is forced to come to terms with his son's real persona, and then Racky is effectively exiled again when he goes to live in Mexico. ¡Olé!

People say there is an incestuous relationship implied between Racky and his father, and perhaps that is why they went to the island in the first place. I don't really see it. There's one part where the man contemplates his son's body when he sleeps naked on the bed, but I don't take that as enough evidence. Either way, though, there's definitely some degree of extrafilial admiration, though it seems somewhat one-sided.

This is only the fourth or fifth Bowles story I've read, so I'm hardly an expert, but this is probably my favorite one. The language is understated, suggesting rather than flat out telling, so I've probably got the whole thing wrong. I read a passage from a book mentioning something about Racky blackmailing his father, and evidently that went right over my head. So I'm going to read it again when I get home today.

Nevertheless, Bowles' suggestive style and the lurking themes of exile and solitude make this an intriguing and challenging story I very much recommend.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Japanese Literature Challenge III


Ok I'm in. I wasn't going to do anything like this for a while -- at least until Infinite Jest was over -- but I noticed the timeframe was so big and the requirements to liberal that I thought "Ok!" And so: Bellezza's 3rd annual Japanese Literature Challenge.

My own self-imposed rule is that I'm only reading stuff off my TBR pile because it's not even a pile, it's a mountain so big I'd freeze to death before I got to the top. Brrr.

The goal is 1 book of Japanese origin by January 2010. I'm gonna go with three and see where it goes. To begin:

  • The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter / retold my Yasunari Kawabata -- This is a really neat edition of an old folktale with gorgeous illustrations. It's got the Japanese and the English translation in parallel, and even though I can't read a word of Japanese, it's still cool that it's there.
  • Norwegian Wood / Haruki Murakami -- This has been sitting there for like 2 years so ok.
  • Thousand Cranes / Yasunari Kawabata again -- I read Snow Country and The Master of Go in like 2 days each, so I'm sure all this needs is a good Saturday.

Ok bye.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Gambit Classic, Vol. 1

Gambit Classic, Vol. 1

Gambit Classic, Vol. 1 / Chris Claremont & Howard Mackie
New York : Marvel Publishing, 2009
Pencils by Bill Jaaska, Mike Collins Jim Lee, and Lee Weeks
Collects Uncanny X-Men #265-267 and Gambit #1-4
168 p.

When Storm is reverted to a teenage mutant thief, she's rescued by fellow felon Gambit in his first appearance! But befriending even one X-Man means making enemies like the Shadow King, Orphan-Maker and the Hounds! After joining the X-Men himself, Gambit romances fellow southern-born super hero Rogue, but how can a thief steal a power-taker's heart when his assassin bride is back from the dead? Plus: Wolverine, Mystique and more! L'aventure est a l'interieur, mon ami!

Yeah, so a collection of comic books. It's not a book... it's not even a graphic novel in the strictest sense, but when it comes to my blog, you take what you can get. And when it comes to Gambit Classic, what you get is pretty damn good.

I don't know anything about comic books. Outside of Buffy/Angel stuff and the Sandman, I'm pretty much lost, but I've been drawn to it more lately, mostly through my friend Ryan who talks about X-Men a lot and is compiling me an annotated bibliography (as we librarians love to do in our spare time) of all the best stuff to read to kind of catch up. I am promised X-Men and Batman with a sprinkling of Superman. I asked for some about Danger Girl and her breasts, but he doesn't know much about her.

So he handed me this Monday and said "by Thursday." It's basically two story arcs from the beginning of Gambit's... tenure? The first involves Storm who after some purportedly complex string of events, reverted to a teenage version of herself who knows nothing of the X-Men and kinda just goes around stealing things Robin Hood-style until she gets in a bind and Gambit appears for the first time ever and helps her out. Basically this entire story (by Chris Claremont, incidentally, who is credited with some golden X-Men years and some of the best characters like Gambit, obvs) was really confusing to me because it was like coming in during the middle of a soap opera. The Nanny, Orphan-Maker, and the Dark Somethingorother were all over the place, and I had no idea who or what they were, so basically you have to just blow through it saying "Ok, things are bad, Storm is less cool than usual, and Gambit will fix it all!" And then you realize it's a pretty good story except for Orphan Maker, who's pretty lame and the Nanny who looks like a giant robotic Humpty Dumpty.

The second arc in the book is a stand-alone so it makes a lot more sense. All you need to know is that sometime between the Storm story and now, Gambit and Rogue have done a good bit of flirting and are kinda lovey now. There are a couple paragraphs summing it all up. Anyway, Gambit's brother shows up at the mansion and is killed, so Gambit returns to New Orleans to deal with this sort of guild war between the thieves (his family) and the assassins. His wife, who he thought was dead, is dying, there's this other sexy mean woman who he has neat chemistry with, and Rogue ends up following him and taking care of his wife, so there's a lot of boy/girl stuff going on that paints the cavalier, rough, cowboyish-with-a-heart portrait that makes him so generally well-liked by fans. The whole idea of the guilds themselves is kinda lame and doesn't always make sense, but Gambit and Rogue's emotional issues fuel the story.

Aside from the general artistic and story-telling qualities that are always evaluated in book reviews, I feel like comic books have a third dimension among nerds: a sort of Awesomeness Factor. A story can be bad and the art kinda average, yet you still walk away going "OMG COOL!" The art in this book is nice. The stories are pretty ok... but I'm going to posit that any story involving Gambit will have a higher-than-normal Awesomeness Factor and is therefore worth checking out.

In conclusion.... I like the X-Men? Gambit is sexy in the Wolverine movie? Maybe sometimes you're gonna hear more about comic books? The end.

Gambit Classic, vol. 1

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Wondrous Word Wednesday: Skipped Last Week Edition

Hosted by Bermuda Onion, the point of this meme is to share all the new words you came across this week. Yay!


Yeah I didn't do it last week. Oops. It's good, though, because I didn't really find anything this week, so... ok from three different books.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace as usual:

scrofulous -- morally degenerate; corrupt

As Tiny Ewell comes to see it, people with tattoos fall under two broad headings. First there are the younger scrofulous boneheaded black-T-shirt-and-spiked-bracelet types who do not have the sense to regret the impulsive permanency of their tatts...

gonfalon -- a banner suspended from a crosspiece, especially as a standard in an ecclesiastical procession or as the ensign of a medieval Italian republic

On Skull's back a half-m.-crag with THE DEAD in maroon on a vertical gonfalonish banner unfurling below...

frustum -- the portion of a solid — normally a cone or pyramid — which lies between two parallel planes cutting it

Hal puts one foot up on Pemulis's little frustum-shaped bedside stool and leans farther in.

glabrous -- smooth; having a surface without hairs or projections

...and for much of the glabrous part of his childhood Hal'd been classified as somewhere between 'Borderline Gifted' and 'Gifted'...

tumescence -- readiness for sexual activity marked especially by vascular congestion of the sex organs erotically circumscribed G. W. Pabst scholar at New York University tortured by the neurotic conviction that there are only a finite number of erections possible in the world at any one time and that his tumescence means e.g. the detumescence of some perhaps more deserving or tortured Third World sorghum farmer or something...

scopophobic -- fearful of being looked at or seen

asperity -- rigor; severity

Unwittingly all but authoring the Union designed to afford the scopophobic empathic fellowship and the genesis of sturdy inner resources through shame-free and unconstrained concealment, W. Churchill -- when the lady, no person's doormat, informed him with prim asperity that he appeared to be woefully inebriated -- made the anecdotally famous reply that while, yes, yea verily, he was indeed inebriated, he would the following A.M. be once again sober, while she, dear lady, would tomorrow still be hideously and improbably deformed.

Ok the next four are from Villette by Charlotte Brontë.

hebdomadal -- weekly

The classes were undergoing sweeping and purification by candlelight, according to hebdomadal custom...

phthisis -- any disease causing a wasting away of part or all of the body, especially tuberculosis; consumption

catarrh -- inflammation of a mucous membrane, esp. of the respiratory tract, accompanied by excessive secretions

...that dungeon under the leads, smelling of damp and mould, rank with phthisis and catarrh: a place you never ought to enter...

oppugnant -- opposing; antagonistic; contrary

He was much taken up with scientific interests; keen, intent, and somewhat oppugnant in what concerned his favourite pursuits...

And the last from Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay:

remora -- a suckerfish!

He was out there, feeding his Dark Passenger, and it was talking to mine. And in my sleep I had been riding with him, a phantom remora in his great slow circles.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Professor's Daughter

The Professor's Daughter

The Professor's Daughter / Joann Sfar & Emmanuel Guibert
La fille du professeur. English
New York : First Second, 2007
Originally published: 1997
Translated by Alexis Siegel
64 p.

Three-thousand years may separate them, still... they love each other.

19th-century London. She is the lovely daughter of renowned Egyptologist Professor Bowell, he the dashing mummy Imhotep IV, owned by the professor and awake for the first time in thirty centuries. They stroll through London arm-in-arm and find their way into an abiding love, but everything seems to be getting in the way of it.

Murder, adventure, mystery, kidnapping, Queen Victoria tossed in the Thames -- what more could you ask for?

And yes, love conquers all in this rare gem from two of the most inspires graphic creators of our time.

I've whined about this before, but with the big move and my new TV, I haven't been doing much reading. And with my two group read-alongs, one of which is a monstrous 1,300-page behemoth of a novel, I haven't had anything to review. So over the weekend I went to the bookstore and stormed the graphic novel section determined to find something amusing and more importantly short so I could claim to finish at least ONE BOOK during the month of July. ONE!

I came out with The Professor's Daughter, an amusing graphic novel about love in Victorian England.

And by "love" I mean creepy necro love. The girl is Lillian, the daughter of an archaeology professor and Egyptologist. (She's drawn with like a 9" waist.) The boy is a 3,200 year-old mummy: Imhotep IV, Prince of Egypt. (He has a thin waist too... because mummies don't eat?) Call me gross, but when I'm reading stories like this, I can't help but imagine the.... physics of their intimacy. When people date demons or creatures or... y'know blobs of goo or whatever, my mind always goes to a wrong place like "How in the world do they do it?"

But I digress.

I'd first like to mention that I love the artwork in this book. The panels are uniform -- 6 to a page -- and done in expressive watercolors. The colors are vivid, but with a subdued overall palette, the style is stimulating and appropriate. The story could tell itself through the artwork alone without the dialogue.

On the topic of the story, it takes less than an hour to read, and the story flies by so quickly that I often had to go back a couple of panels because I had missed something.

And it definitely didn't go the direction I anticipated. I expected it to be very tongue-in-cheek, light-hearted, and silly. The Imhotep IV I imagined before I read it (based on the artwork mostly) resembled Ben Templesmith's ghoulish dandy Wormwood (from Wormwood: Gentleman Corpse): prim, charming, and grotesquely human. Instead, the character and the book were much more sedate and... European. To a fault.

There is nothing inherently wrong about understated mood and characterizations, but there is a difference between 'slight' and 'nuanced', and this book falls into the earlier category, the consequence of which is that it doesn't ever commit to a humorous, ironic, or dramatic style. It just sort of floats there, an entertaining story that leaves the reader cold but is definitely enjoyable to read once. The ending would have left a stronger impression had the inflections of style been more acute and the pace more relaxed, both of which would have allowed for more relatable characters.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Teaser Tuesdays -- Villette (II)

Teaser Tuesday time again, hosted by MizB. How it works is you grab the book you're reading, open to a page, and pick a juicy two-sentence teaser. No spoilers, obviously.

So I'm still working on Villette by Charlotte Brontë with the people at The Valve. I'm really starting to get into it, though it took me a little bit.

He left me soothed, yet full of solicitude, breathing a wish, as strong as prayer, that if I were wrong, Heaven would lead me right. I heard, poured forth on the threshold, some fervid murmurings, to "Marie, Reine du Ciel," some deep aspiration that his hope might yet be mine.

I have no idea what this means. I haven't gotten to this part yet. I just like the way it sounds.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Microbe Monday -- The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

We're all very into books here, but Microbe Monday is more about the blurb. The article. The short story. The haiku.

So over the weekend, I'll seek out a new literary magazine or open a collection to a random poem or just pick a story I remember from my past and riff on it. Briefly! I don't expect this to turn into a meme, but feel free to gank my little graphic and do it yourself too!

Microbe Monday

The name of the game this week is "What can you read at work to write up a little bit?" The answer is "something public domain on the internet, thx." And so, this week we discuss "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", the narrative poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

I'm not entirely sure what drove me to this poem. Maybe because it's famous? We did a Romantic poetry unit in AP British Literature in high school, and I hated it. I had to focus on Wordsworth, and my good friend Emily did Percy Bysshe Shelley, and basically she loved it and the whole thing was a huge disaster on my part because I neither identified with nor felt drawn to any of the work we studied. Then I got mono and missed the final project. So I come at this poem from a solid history of NOT GOOD.

"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is about an... ancient... mariner. And he's on his boat and I guess some storm gets them all lost near Antarctica until some GPS-endowed albatross comes with the mist and gets them back on course. For some reason not detailed to my neophyte satisfaction, the Mariner decides to take his bow and arrow and shoot the albatross that is helping them. Everyone's all "Boo, that bird was awesome!" until the mist clears and then they're all "Yay, that bird sucked!"

So they end up lost again and start to suffer from intense hunger and thirst when another boat comes carrying Death, who we know, and Life-in-Death, who we don't. She is a creepy blonde woman. They play dice for the souls of the Mariner and his crew. Death wins the crew, and Life-in-Death wins the Mariner. This is part of their penance for killing the albatross. The entire crew dies, which is gross, and the Mariner suffers this fate worse than death, drifting along with his dead crew. Then some angels (I guess) take pity and possess the bodies of his fallen comrades to steer the boat back to England. Then there's a hermit. And basically the remainder of the Mariner's punishment is his requirement to tell the story to as many people as possible along with its "but for the grace of God" moral. The poem itself is basically meta since it's him telling the story to a guy trying to get to a wedding (and pretty much ruining his day in the process.)

There ends the glib synopsis. So I suppose this poem embodies all you could ask for in English Romantic poetry: passion and the sublime. (Those are my buzzwords.) The poem is hard to follow with the language, but the version I read includes a gloss Coleridge added for clarification. Without it, I'd have been lost. But it reads like a legend... an epic without much humanity to it. Other than the range of emotions the wedding guest displays in reaction to certain parts of the story, there's not much to relate to. In fact, it feels as though the wedding guest is just there to tell us how we should be feeling... like there's a gloss, right, but the poem itself feels like a gloss of the actual tale. I suppose it's an important piece to know considering how oft-quoted it is (see a Wikipedia staple, the ever-relevant popular culture) but I can't imagine it's something you'll need to share with your friends like "You've GOT to see this poem." Though I imagine it would make a spooky short film... or novella.

Oh and I read it online, so... here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Wondrous Word Wednesday: Halvsies Edition

Hosted by Bermuda Onion, the point of this meme is to share all the new words you came across this week. Yay!


I said before that I've done like no reading lately, and I still haven't. So this week's not a mammoth Jest onslaught like last time. But still... from Infinite Jest:

trochaically -- consisting of a trochee, a trochee being a foot of two syllables, a long followed by a short in quantitative meter, or a stressed followed by an unstressed in accentual meter

By repeating this term over and over, perhaps in the same rhythm at which you squeeze a ball, you can reduce it to an empty series of phonemes, just formants and fricatives, trochaically stressed, signifying zip.

formication -- a medical term referring to the sensation of insects crawling on or under the skin

Did I experience some formication in detox? I did.

chiasmae -- the closest I can find is that this is related to chiasmus, a term in rhetoric referring to two or more clauses relating to one another through a reversal of structures, but it also refers generally to any "criss-cross structure"

...though the vitreally inflated balloon-eyes, deorbited and hung by twined blue cords from the second floo9r's optic chiasmae to flank the wheelchair-accessible front ramp, take a bit of getting used to...

And the next few are nicer words from Villette:

tisane -- herbal tea

Goton could do nothing for me but bring me a little tisane and a crust of bread...

provender -- dry food, as hay or oats, for livestock or other domestic animals; fodder

...his delight was to feed that ravenous sentiment, without thought of the price of provender, or care for the cost of keeping it sleek and high-pampered.
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