Sunday, March 27, 2011

Introducing Jerry Robinson and China Miéville

Book 32: Jerry Robinson, Ambassador of Comics by N.C. Christopher Couch

I've spent more than 50 years reading and collecting comics, yet I did not know about the work of Jerry Robinson. 

There are some sound reasons for my ignorance: Robinson's best work in the field took place well before I ever held a comic in my hands. Plus, he worked for D.C. and, well, I've always made mine Marvel.

Still, I should have known. Robinson is the man who created the Joker. That's right, one of the greatest super villains of all time, sprang from the pen and the imagination of Jerry Robinson. He also created Robin, the Boy Wonder; borrowing his name and much of his attire from Robin Hood.  

Those are impressive claims to fame in the world I inhabit. Yet there's so much more to Robinson's story as N.C. Christopher Couch makes clear in Jerry Robinson Ambassador of Comics, a lush book filled with sample after sample of Robinson's work.

After working alongside Bob Kane -- yeah, that Bob Kane, the man who created Batman -- and later for Stan Lee -- yeah, that Stan Lee -- Robinson left the comic book industry to illustrate books and magazines. Still later he launched his own comic strip and, still later, he became a successful editorial cartoonist.

But wait, there's more.  Robinson played a pivotal role in the campaign to give Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel credit for their role in creating Superman.  He became involved in human rights campaigns on behalf of jailed cartoonists overseas and helped international cartoonist find an audience in America. And he also became a historian of the comic book industry.

Robinson's body of work is impressive.  He's impressive.  A talented, creative, compassionate man. Did I say he created the Joker?

Book 33: Kraken by China Miéville

I am given to reading books that won literary awards . . . the Booker, the National Book Award, the Pulitzer, the Hugo.  It gives me a sense of the direction of current literature and introduces me to new writers.

Such was the case with China Miéville who shared the 2010 Hugo Award with Paolo Bacigalupi.  Bacigalupi for The Windup Girl. Miéville for The City, and The City. 

I haven't read that award-winning work by Miéville, but I did snag a copy of Kraken, his newest work.  And now I understand something of what the fuss is about. If The City, and The City is on par with Kraken (and I suspect it is) then Miéville is going to be around for a long time to come, and my consumption of science fiction is going to reach levels not seen in decades.

Kraken is a fast-paced novel that mixes elements of mystery, science fiction and fantasy.  A giant squid, tank and all, has disappeared from London's Natural History Museum.  As one characters says don't focus on the how, but on the why and the who. Because someone is determined to set off the apocalypse.

Our inadvertent hero is Billy Harrow, a curator at the museum.  Billy knows things he doesn't know he knows.  The Krakenists, a small cult that worship the giant squid, believe he is their prophet because he has laid hands on the squid, their god.

Billy and an exile from the squid cult (can't believe I am writing that) set off to find the kraken and forestall the end of the world. Those who come to their aide and those who oppose their efforts are a thrilling array of characters that testify to Miéville's imagination.  One murderous pair of villains and a enchanted gang leader known as The Tattoo rank among literature's creepiest supernatural characters since Dracula.

Miéville exhibits vast talent in Kraken, a tour de force of the fantastical, conjuring Lovecraft and Stross and Fringe and yet quite unlike anything else in the field today.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Hamilton's memoir makes a reader hunger for more

Book 30: Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton

Estranged from her mother for more than 20 years, locked in a marriage that is about convenience rather than love is standard fare for a standard memoir.

But there is nothing standard about Gabrielle Hamilton's memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter.   Despite a personal life that's almost painful to read about, Hamilton has produced a book that is a joyous celebration of life; made joyous, made celebratory by her almost visceral relationship with food and its preparation.

The chef and owner of Prune restaurant in New York City, Hamilton charts her intimate relationship with food from her childhood in rural Pennsylvania to her reckless decision to open Prune.

It is in those moments when she is writing about food -- and Hamilton clearly thinks about food a great deal -- that this book is at its strongest and best.  Hamilton's passion and joy bubble forth.

Blood, Bones & Butter is the kind of book that makes you hungry for a thoughtfully prepared meal. It makes you want to dash into the kitchen and create something. It makes you want dinner reservations at Prune.

And, most of all, it makes you hunger for another book by Hamilton. It's that delicious.

Book 31: The Small Boat of Great Sorrows by Dan Fesperman

Fesperman's second book, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, is a fast-paced, engaging thriller that charts the return of Vlado Petric, who first appeared in Fesperman's debut novel, Lie in the Dark.

Petric has been recruited by an American investigator for the war crimes tribunal at The Hague to help with a little matter in the Balkans. It's nothing much, a quick in-out and it could mean a new life for Petric, once a homicide detective, but now a heavy equipment operator at a construction site in Berlin.

Of course, nothing's ever so simple. Petric and the American are quickly ensnared in a complicated plot that involves war criminals from the past and present. Petric also uncovers tantalizing hints of his father's unsavory past. Hints that keep Petric nosing into the case even when he isn't certain he wants to know what he might uncover.

The Small Boat of Great Sorrows is a good a thriller as thrillers get. It's a engrossing, rewarding read.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Auster's Sunset Park a commanding performance that demands an encore

Book 29:  Sunset Park by Paul Auster

Few American authors writing today have as distinctive a voice as Paul Auster.

His writing is strange yet deeply illuminating.  He uses metafiction, exposing the fictional illusion as characters become aware that they are characters or dream of characters that take over the story; absurdism, in one novel his protagonist was a dog; existentialism, magical realism and other creative elements to explore our search for personal meaning and identity.

In Sunset Park, his newest novel, Auster dispenses with many of the techniques that have characterized his earlier works.  Sunset Park is more straightforward in its novelistic approach, making it more accessible to readers unfamiliar with Auster's unusual style and yet it's exploration of the human condition is no less illuminating or insightful than his earlier novels. 

Sunset Park is primarily the story of Miles Heller. Experiencing deep feelings of guilt and grief over his role in the death of his step-brother, Miles has fled his past life. He has dropped out of college and has not had any contact with his mother or father for more than seven years.

Events conspire to force Miles' return to New York. A return that he knows means that his self-imposed exile is at an end.  Miles reunites with an old friend and takes up residence with the friend and two young woman in an abandoned house in Sunset Park.

Auster explores the interior lives of all four inhabitants of the house in Sunset Park as well as Miles' mother and father.  Never interested in just the surface of things, Auster peers deep into each person's life, producing a work of substance and insight. 

If there is a shortcoming to Sunset Park, and this is a quibble only, it is that the story ends with so many questions unanswered. Sunset Park demands an encore, both because it is such a commanding performance by Auster and because there is so much more we, as readers, want to know about the lives of these characters.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Killing of Crazy Horse superb history, superb story telling

Book 28: The Killing of Crazy Horse by Thomas Powers

My daughter noticed the book on my reading table.

"Haven't you read enough books on that subject?" she asked.

Whether that subject is Crazy Horse or Custer or the settling of the West, the answer, which must first be considered against the book itself, Thomas Powers' stunningly vigorous The Killing of Crazy Horse, is "no." Absolutely, completely, a thousand times "no."

The answer might well be different if it were a different book on the table, but Powers has taken a story familiar to so many of us and made it fresh again. The Killing of Crazy Horse is that rare work of non-fiction -- informative, yet entertaining. It is both superb history and superb story telling. 

Impeccably researched, part of the strength of this book is the approach Powers takes. An approach unlike any other author has taken.  The standard riff is to write about Crazy Horse and Custer, these two crazy kids on wildly disparate paths that are destined to intersect on the high plains of Montana. 

Custer's appearance here is little more than a cameo.  While the story, principally, belongs to the Lakota warrior Crazy Horse, Powers spends a great deal of time focusing on the soldiers (George Crook and William Philo Clark) and their Indian scouts (William Garnett and Frank Grouard) who were charged with ending the depredations of the hostile northern Indians by means either fair or foul.

Powers also delves into the relationship between Crazy Horse and Red Cloud, Woman Dress, He Dog and Little Big Man. Although Crazy Horse cared little for the power and recognition that followed his legendary exploits, other Indians leaders, including some who had been his friend since childhood, were envious of his reputation and sought to undermine his standing with the soldiers.

Undermining Crazy Horse was all too easy to do. He talked little, often letting others speak for him. He kept himself isolated, not only from the soldiers and settlers, but other Indians too. Finally, it seems clear that many soldiers -- who saw Crazy Horse as the Indian responsible for the slaughter of Custer and his troops -- wanted his death.

To re-tell a story we know so well, a story whose ending can never change, and to make it come alive again is an extraordinary feat.  Powers' prose -- stately, vibrant, colorful -- is a splendid match for this near-mythic tale of the American west.   

A story told in The Killing of Crazy Horse as if for the first time.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Ackroyd's The Death of King Arthur lacks passion, romance

Book 27: The Death of King Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, retelling by Peter Ackroyd

Simon Armitage's 2008 translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a powerful and majestic work. Peter Ackroyd's retelling of Le Morte d'Arthur is a prosaic effort that reduces this legendary tale to banality.

The passion, majesty and romance of Le Morte d'Arthur are missing in The Death of King Arthur.  Yet upon reflection, perhaps the fault lies not with Ackroyd's "retelling," but in the very notion of chilvaric tradition.

In a classic contradiction, knights boast of their honor. These are men filled with overweening pride, contemptuous of women and the lower caste, who do not hesitate to engage in lies and other deceit when it serves their purpose.

The most common deceit is to hide or withhold their identity to achieve some minor end.  And, although they profess to be good Christian men, these knights do not hesitate to engage in adultery or to murder someone who stands in their way.

Lancelot is among the worst.  He professes to serve Arthur and to esteem Guinevere above all other women. Yet he does not hesitate to cuckold Arthur.  Ultimately, Lancelot and Arthur go to war against one another and, although Mordred plays a part, it is Lancelot who so weakens Arthur's army that his kingdom inevitably crumbles.

Here is a representative fight scene between Tristram and Lancelot:

"The knight with the covered shield at last spoke out. "Sir," he said, "you fight better than any knight I have ever known. What is your name?"

"I am reluctant to tell you, sir."

"Really? I will not hesitate to tell you mine."

"Then speak."
"Fair knight, my name is Sir Lancelot du Lake."

Tristram was astounded. "Sir Lancelot? Is it really you? You are the knight I love and admire most in the world."

"Now tell me your name."

"I am Tristram de Liones."

Lancelot fell to his knees. "Jesus, why are we fighting?"
My thoughts exactly. 

Perhaps the fault does not lie with Ackroyd, but with the story itself.  Senseless fighting, betrayal, adultery, cruelty, overweening pride are too much with us today to seem romantic or the stuff of great passion.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Atkinson's Human Croquet is flawed, but entertaining

Book 26: Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

There is promise in Kate Akinson's second book, Human Croquet. Promise that only occasionally manages to escape the black hole of the book's faults.

The major problem is that Kate Atkinson is not Kurt Vonnegut Jr. In Vonnegut's celebrated novel Slaughterhouse Five the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, becomes unstuck in time. Isobel Fairfax, the 16-year-old protagonist of Human Croquet, also appears to have become unstuck in time or, perhaps, she's been teleported to a parallel dimension. Neither Isobel nor the reader are certain at first.

As it happens, neither explanation proves true.  There is another reason that Isobel is jumping from the present to the past and the future. It has to do a with tree in the family garden.  

Whatever the explanation, the literary device that Atkinson uses to tell Isobel's story is distracting and unnecessary. As her in splendid debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Atkinson furnishes the reader with a riveting character who has a compelling life story.  Unlike that novel, Human Croquet goes off the rails. The story is lost due to the confusion brought on by the smoke and mirrors the author conjures to tell Isobel's story.

If Atkinson had confined herself to telling Isobel's story, Human Croquet would have been a more pleasing book and a more successful one. In her zest to present the reader with a book as accomplished as her first, Atkinson over extends herself.  Inventiveness gives away to invention, creativity to an artificial construct.

If, ultimately, Human Croquet does not succeed it is because we see too much of the writer and not enough of the story, which is -- for that -- a very good story.

Isobel's mother is missing. Her father, who vanished and presumably dead, mysteriously returns after several years, a new wife in tow. Where is her mother? Why did her father vanish with no explanation? 

Human Croquet is worth reading for those answers. Atkinson's talent -- and she is one of the finest novelists writing today -- shines through.  Atkinson is particularly given to astonishing "degrees of separation." Characters are connected in ways that the reader never anticipated; ways that enrich the story and our experience. 

She is also one of only a handful of novelist who can be genuinely funny.

Fans of the lady will want to read Human Croquet, both for the story and to chart her development as a writer. Readers unfamiliar with her work are recommended to pick up Behind the Scenes at the Museum or When Will There Be Good News? Two books in which Atkinson's skill as a writer are on full display.

+ + +
The completion of Human Croquet advances me in a reading challenge that I have taken up in 2011.

The challenge was issued by The Roof Beam Reader. The 2011 TBR (To Be Read) Pile Challenge is to read 12 books from your to-be-read pile in 12 months. I have read three of my 12 since undertaking the challenge. This is where I stand:

1. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
2. Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
3. War and Peace by Mr. Tolstoy
4. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling
5. The Darkness That Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
6. Under the Dome by Stephen King
7. White Noise by Don Delillo
8. Yogi Berra Eternal Yankee by Allen Barra
9. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
10. Winter in the Blood by James Welch
11. Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson
12. Emotionally Weird by Kate Atkinson

Reservation Road by John Burnham Schwartz
Tales of Burning Love by Louise Erdrich

Monday, March 07, 2011

Penny masterful storyteller in Bury Your Dead

Book 25:  Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny

My admiration for the novels of Louise Penny increases with every book that she writes.  

With each novel, there are six now, Penny's mastery of her characters, plot, pacing, setting and the demands of the genre has grown and developed until it is clear that she is one of the finest mystery writers working today.

Her 2010 release, Bury Your Dead, is testament to Penny's mastery of the mystery. Indeed, she doesn't give the reader only one mystery to unravel in her newest work, but three.

As the novel opens, Penny's principal character, Armand Gamache, Chief Inspector of the Sûreté du Québec, is visiting an old friend in Quebec. It soon becomes clear that Gamache is recovering from physical and psychological wounds suffered in a devastating attack in which Gamache's second-in-command Jean Guy Beauvoir was also injured and other Sûreté officers killed.

The story behind the attack, which haunts Gamache, unfolds through the course of the novel.  Naturally, Gamache is also reluctantly caught up in a murder in Quebec.

The third storyline involves Jean Guy who is sent to the village of Three Pines to reopen the murder investigation of the Hermit, who was killed in Penny's preceding novel, The Brutal Telling.

From Quebec to Three Pines, from the present to the past, Penny skillfully interweaves the three story lines into a single compelling story of singular skill and artistry.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Confessions on an infatuation with an 11-year-old girl

Book 24:  A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

I suppose that I should be cautious in admitting my infatuation with an 11-year-old girl. But there it is.

Fortunately, the girl, Flavia de Luce, is the fictional creation of Alan Bradley. A Red Herring Without Mustard is the third novel to feature Flavia, who is something of an amateur sleuth. 

In this book, a vicious attack on a gypsy woman Flavia has befriended is followed by a murder, which revolves around a burglary ring that's stealing antiques, replacing them with knockoffs and selling the originals.

The plot is secondary. In these novels, a delicious twist on the English cozy, the crime -- generally murder -- serves largely as a device to engage young Flavia, who is a piece of work.

As mentioned, Flavia is an amateur sleuth. She's also a talented amateur chemist with her own laboratory in a wing of the family home.  In a passage that captures Flavia perfectly, she's made nauseous by the odors emanating from a hospital cafeteria, but finds the smells wafting from the hospital morgue quite enchanting.

Flavia is also 11 years old to the core. She gets around on her trusty bicycle and is given to skinned knees and soiled dresses. She also delights in annoying her two older sisters, generally with some clever chemical concoction, but she's not above stealing the chocolates left on the doorstep by a besotted suitor.

Bradley's series is delightful. The three books -- a fourth has been announced -- have each been a thoroughly delicious read.  

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Faulks on Fiction is lively, accessible and informed

Book 23: Faulks on Fiction by Sebastian Faulks

Faulks on Fiction is like nothing so much as auditing a college class taught by your favorite professor about your favorite books.

It is a lively, accessible and informed survey of some of the best known characters in British literature.  My one disappointment in reading it is that I'm not aware of a similar work on behalf of American writers and their creations.

Faulks wrote this series of essays, which he wanted to call Novel People, as a companion to a BBC television series. The book (and presumably the TV series) is divided into four parts -- heroes, lovers, snobs and villains.  The structure isn't altogether necessary and a less obsessive-compulsive reader than I should feel free to read as their interest or whimsy leads them.  

The essays range from long-established characters -- Mr. Darcy, Tom Jones, Pip, Fagin and Emma -- to more current creations such as Chanu Ahmed from Monica Ali's Brick Lane and Barbara Covett from Zoe Heller's Notes on a Scandal.  

Popular literature is also explored.  There's a fascinating essay on James Bond, who is found among the snobs. In 2008, at the behest of the Fleming estate, Faulks wrote a new James Bond novel. His insights on his research into the character and Fleming's style of writing are fascinating.

Any lover of literature is bound to enjoy Faulks on Fiction.  And, like me, they're going to be eager for the TV show.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Prince of Nothing trilogy is two books too many

Books 21 & 22:  The Warrior Prophet and The Thousandfold Thought by R. Scott Bakker. 

My sons will be disappointed, but I did not much care for R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing trilogy.

The trilogy begins with The Darkness That Comes Before, continues in The Warrior Prophet and concludes in The Thousandfold Thought. Although it doesn't really conclude after three books and 1,600 pages.  Bakker has already completed the first book in a second trilogy, and one can only assume a third trilogy will follow that.

Which is part of the reason that I'm not a fan of the current crop of fantasy series. These authors don't know when to stop.  Tolkien gave us The Hobbit and then three books in The Lord of the Rings series, and that was that.  Today's it's a lifetime enterprise.

But that's a minor quibble.  Let me quickly list a few of the reasons I cannot fully embrace Bakker's work:

It's murky, especially in the second and third books.  It feels to me that Bakker loses control of his material. The result is that it's often difficult to understand exactly what's taken place or why.

Bakker's philosophical musings kill the narrative.  What I want most is a story, a rollicking narrative that's totally absorbing. I found that at times in The Darkness That Comes Before where the pace and action were crisp and absorbing.  But in the books that followed, the quasi-religious, mystical components weighed down the narrative.  Hell, there were times that the story came to complete halt.

I am troubled by the Consult.  1) They appear to be an alien race, and, for me, that intrudes upon a story of sword of sorcery. 2) Their sexual deviancy is a disturbing and unnecessary storyline.

Kellhus, the Warrior-Prophet, the Prince of Nothing, etc., etc., is a sociopath. In an epic such as this, Kellhus needs to be a hero, someone larger than life. I understand that Achamian is the true hero of this story, but Kellhus' role when placed against the overall context of the story demands that he be something more than a manipulative "other."

The bottom line is that there is too much that I don't like compared to parts I admire. I will say that Achamian's story line is intriguing and his growth as a character is the best part of the entire series. I'd like to see what Bakker will do with Akka going forward, but I don't believe I care enough to read another book, certainly not another three books.