Archive for the '2008 Books' Category

“Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Saturday, October 11th, 2008

Pevear and Volokhonsky’s Crime and Punishment is an accessible translation of the original criminal psychology novel, as well as an homage to Hamlet and a social commentary. It has a troubled hero, his kind friend, a hooker with a heart of gold, a savvy detective, a suitably creepy villain and so much more. Loved it; read this book!

About the translation: I read this for book group. Those of us who read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation really enjoyed the book and found it relatively easy to read. The readers of the Norton and Signet editions found the book dense and difficult.

My reading list has of late been lacking in mirth. Time for a comedy or romance, methinks.

“The Black Diamond Detective Agency by Eddie Campbell

Friday, September 19th, 2008

Eddie Campbell’s Black Diamond Detective Agency is an engaging graphic novel, beautifully painted and in a lovely paperback edition typical of publisher First Second. A man with a past is framed in small town America on the verge of the 20th century. Though the story is sometimes hard to follow, mostly because of several characters who aren’t sufficiently visually distinct, the mystery is unraveled in entertaining, CSI-fashion. The ending is pleasingly awry, avoiding the cliches by not tying things up too neatly. DArk and violent, though with an edge of humor and redemption, it’s reminiscent of Clint Eastwood westerns, A History of Violence, Victorian mysteries, and Campbell’s other work like From Hell.

“Undiscovered Country” by Lin Enger

Friday, September 19th, 2008

Lin Enger’s Undiscovered Country, which I received as a reader’s copy from the publisher, transposes Shakespeare’s Hamlet to modern-day Northern Minnesota, an icy analog for Denmark. The narrator, Jesse’s, father died in a supposed suicide, and after he sees what may be a ghost, he wonders what role his uncle and his mother might have played in the father’s death. This update follows Hamlet closely, but not exactly, and it’s in the departures and the nuances that this book shines. Here, Jesse and his 8-year-old brother Magnus, talk about the death of their father:

Did he do it, Jess?

What do you mean, I asked, knowing full well.

I mean, did he do it?

Of course not. It was an accident, like Mom said.

Mom never said that. Mom never said anything.

Well, that’s what it was.

How do you know? Did you see it happen? No.

Then you don’t know.

I know Dad, I said.

Are you sure?

I took his shoulders in my hands, looked as deeply into his eyes as he’d let me, and saw there, in large part, what my role in life was going to be for the next decade or so, until he grew up. I saw it with clarity–and I was not mistaken.

Yes, I said, I’m sure. I’m sure.

My brother stepped forward into my arms then, and his body felt breakable and small. I hung on to him for all I was worth.

Undiscovered Country is in the tradition of young-adult novels, told simply in first person by a teenager having difficulty with the adults in his life. This would work well as a companion novel for high schoolers reading Shakespeare’s play. There are opportunities to compare and contrast, discuss whether the story is universal, and how well it translates to a different time and place.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” a Play by Tom Stoppard

Saturday, September 13th, 2008

Continuing on my Hamlet-related binge, I read Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. I was strongly reminded of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot–lots of existential musings, perhaps too many for my taste. Otherwise, though, Stoppard’s work is a delight. Like Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius, it identifies gaps in Shakespeare’s play and fills them in, with imagination and humor.

Incidents! All we get is incidents! Dear God, is it too much to expect a little sustained action?!

The film is waiting on our Tivo, so I hope to see and review it soon.

“Gertrude and Claudius” by John Updike

Friday, September 12th, 2008

I bought Gertrude and Claudius as a birthday gift for my husband, G. Grod, many years ago. He read it, liked it, said I should read it. We know how that goes. I finally got around to reading it, and it was quite good.

I don’t mind that it took me years to get to it, because the recent slow and careful reading I did of the Arden Shakespeare’s Hamlet stood me well. I knew why Updike chose three sets of names for the characters in the three sections. I could tell when he was explaining a vagary of Shakespeare’s play, such as why Hamlet didn’t know his best friend Horatio had been in Denmark for two months. And I recognized when he glossed contended words from the text, like eyas and hebona. This is a fascinating take on the play, imagining Gertrude and Claudius (or their differently named antecedents) as complex, human characters in the years before the play takes place. Often in productions and readings, Hamlet is the hero, Claudius is the villain, and Gertrude is rarely sympathetic. These are not the case here, and Updike’s learned, clever tale provides a fresh look at the old play.

As to the world, there is the truth from without, and the truth from within. The truth within is ours. –Geruthe (Gertrude) to Fengon (Claudius)

It’s by turns sad, funny, and provocative. My only criticism is that I didn’t find his Gertrude, the main character, had a sustained, believable female voice. I found her story compelling, nonetheless. And the final two sentences of the novel, as well as the concluding quote of the afterword, were quite chilling; they linger.

Zot! 1987-1991 by Scott McCloud

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

Zot!: The Complete Black-and-White Stories: 1987-1991, by Scott McCloud, is a great collection of a great series. I was happy to reread its 36 issues, and sad all over again when I got to the end of Zot, Jenny, and everyone else’s story. This collection stands alone, but is a follow up to the out-of-print Zot! Book 1. Zot! is a great YA series, with heroes and villains, but also romance and problems for everyday, interesting, engaging characters. It has a hopeful outlook, which stands in pleasant contrast to bleaker views that have predominated in the comics landscape since Moore’s Watchmen and Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, in the 80’s.

McCloud’s brief commentary is enlightening. It places the comics in historical perspective, as well as on the continuum of McCloud’s work. He followed Zot! with the highly regarded, influential Understanding Comics. He also includes entertaining anecdotes, like the one where his wife went into labor with their second child during a dinner party. She gave birth hours later, while Neil Gaiman sang songs from Sweeney Todd to the elder daughter in the waiting room.

Zot! Book 1 by Scott McCloud

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

After I saw the new black-and-white Zot! collection at Big Brain Comics, I went back to my shelf for the out-of-print Zot! Book 1, which collected the first ten issues of Zot! by Scott McCloud. The issues were in color, and published by dear, departed Kitchen Sink. McCloud has gone on from his 80’s series to push the boundaries of comics production, and write books about the history and future of comics: Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and the new Making Comics.

In his introduction, McCloud makes it clear that the first ten issues of Zot! were his training ground. He acknowledges, but doesn’t apologize (much) for the simple story and evolving visual style. Nonetheless, this collection still delights. It came out around the same time as Alan Moore’s Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns, and is a refreshing, hopeful, counterbalance to those dystopic visions–a comic sorbet, if you will. Zot is Zachary Paleozogt, a blond teen superhero from an alternate Earth. When he crashes into ours, literally, he meets Jenny Weaver and her brother Butch, and wacky hijinks ensue in the pursuit of a golden key to the door at the end of the universe.

Butch, to Zot: What do you know about being a superhero, anyway? What’re your powers? A Gun?? Boot jets?? Feh! Y’gotta be mnore aggressive, kid! Get mean. Kill a few people! And stop grinning so much!!

Zot: ?

Butch: All the good heroes act like they big problems all the time…

Zot: But, what if I don’t have any big problems?

Butch: That’s OK, neither do they! They just act like they do! C’mon, get serious! Give it a try!

Zot: Uh, all right. [Glares, then bursts into laughter.] I can’t do it!

Butch: Hopeless…

is a sweet book with substance, great for young adults and jaded older ones, too.

Antics, Before and After “Hamlet”

Friday, August 29th, 2008

One of the source materials for Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a legend recorded by Saxo in Historiae Danicae, published in 1514. The brother of the king killed Prince Amleth’s father, then married the queen. A friend of the uncle planned to hide in the queen’s chamber so he could overhear a conversation between her and Amleth, like Polonius does in Shakespeare’s play. Amleth “in his mad antics (crowing, flapping his arms, and jumping up and down on the bedding) discovered him and killed him.”

The description of Amleth’s mad antics reminded me at least as much of Tom Cruise’s infamous appearance on Oprah as it did of the version of the scene from Shakespeare’s play.

Tom Cruise on Oprah

“Hamlet” Arden Ed. 2nd Series

Thursday, August 28th, 2008

I took 2 1/2 weeks to read the Arden 2nd Series Hamlet, edited by Harold Jenkins. I read the introduction, play, footnotes and long notes at the end, and the effort was well spent. I’m going to follow the reading with at least one dvd production. It’s in print as a book, but was intended to be experienced in a theater.

Is this the second greatest story ever told?

More on Hamlet as I’m able. So many passages to quote–perhaps you should just read it again, too. I highly recommend it!

“Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain

Saturday, August 9th, 2008

Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential received good reviews when it was published in 2000. I thought, “I’d like to read that.” Then I watched a few episodes of his Food Network “A Cook’s Tour“, and was put off by his on-air persona. But my favorite local food writer wrote a positive article about him, and his book was turned into a decent, though canceled, sitcom (now available on DVD). I thought I’d give the book another chance. Then a few years went by. A friend lent me the book. My husband lent it to someone else. I got it back, and finally read it. And I wish I’d read it way back when.

I’m now a fan of Bourdain as a guest star on “Top Chef” or from his Travel Channel show “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” for which he has a blog. From what I’ve read, part of the the unlikeability of Bourdain’s former Food Network show was about its production, not its star. His book is written in the acerbic, funny, and in-your-face provocative way that he comes across in person.

What most people don’t get about professional-level cooking is that it is not at all about the best recipe, the most innovative presentation, the most creative marriage of ingredients, flavors and textures; that, presumably, was all arranged long before you sat down to dinner. Line cooking – the real business of preparing the food you eat – is more about consistency, about mindless, unvarying repetition, the same series of tasks performed over and over and over again in exactly the same way. The last thing a chef wants in a line cook is an innovator …. Chefs require blind, near-fanatical loyalty, a strong back and an automaton-like consistency of execution under battlefield conditions.

The essays that make up the book alternate between personal anecdotes, behind-the-scenes looks at chefs and line cooking, and advice on food–don’t eat fish on Mondays, go to brunch or order meat well done, and own one good chef’s knife rather than a big block of mediocre blades. They are loosely arranged in the order of a multi-course dinner. “Loose” is the key term here, because it wasn’t always clear to me why some essays were in particular “courses,” and they did not flow chronologically.

In the eight years since this book was published, much of what he notes has become common knowledge, so the shock value it must have had has lessened. To be fair, though, some of the explosion of food knowledge and appreciation of fine dining is likely due to this popular book. I was both entertained, and a little disappointed in the book. I enjoyed the anecdotes, but they never delved much below surface level. I learned about food, though a lot in the book I knew already. This book was of its moment, and momentous in the changes it helped inspire. Eight years later it’s still good, but perhaps more culturally significant in retrospect than currently relevant.

Titus Andronicus

Wednesday, August 6th, 2008

I saw a production of Titus Andronicus a few weeks ago. It was an all-female, creatively staged outdoor production. I brought popcorn, a lawn chair, and I loved it. Interestingly, I enjoyed it far more than I did the Guthrie’s recent Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had bells and whistles aplenty. The latter production, full of songs and elaborate stage pieces, distracted me from the play itself. The Titus production, though, made me _think_ about the play, and want to read it to muse on it further: the contrast of casting women in such a violent, patriarchal play; using a circus as background, and the setting of the 1930’s Dustbowl, an era of US history I’d read about recently (The Grapes of Wrath and Out of the Dust), and during which government and family were painfully relevant issues.

Titus is one of Shakespeare’s earliest, and bloodiest tragedies. The title character returns to Rome triumphant from war against the Goths. Their queen and her sons are his prisoners. He refuses the crown of the deceased emperor, and instead names the emperor’s elder son Saturninus, though the younger might have been better suited. As a token for the twenty-one sons he lost in the war, Titus kills the Queen’s eldest son. An entire play of very bad things ensue as he discovers that family, not the state, are where his loyalties should, and do, lie.

Why, foolish Lucius, dost though not perceive
That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?
Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey
But me and mine…

What fool hath added water to the sea
Or brought a faggot to bright-burning Troy?

The chief villain is the Queen’s lover, Aaron the Moor. Utterly without scruple for most of the play:

what you cannot as you would achieve,
You must perforce accomplish as you may.

Aaron also comes to learn the value of family, when his infant son is threatened repeatedly with death.

The play includes many murders, a brutal rape, and several disfigurements. It is not for the faint, or to read with breakfast. But the tale of an aging military man losing a battle against change is timeless.

I also very much enjoyed Julie Taymor’s spectacular film of Titus, starring Sir Anthony Hopkins in the lead. Filmed at Rome’s famed Cinecitta, the look of the play must be seen to be appreciated. Taymor’s elaborately visual production enhances the extreme events of this difficult work.

Some, including Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, argue that Titus Andronicus is a dark comedy, spoofing popular violent plays of the time. Either way, it’s an interesting play to see and read, though not a masterpiece.

“Runaways: Dead End Kids” by Joss Whedon

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

Runaways 28 cover If you squint and use your imagination, this looks kinda like superhero versions of G. Grod and me.

Dead End Kids is the fourth collection of Runaways, the young adult superhero series created by acclaimed comics writer Brian K. Vaughan (Y the Last Man, Ex Machina, and more.) (Reviews of volumes 1, 2 and 3, here.) Buffy creator Joss Whedon takes over the writing reins for another story about a group of misfit kids from LA whose parents were supervillains. They’re trying, and succeeding about as often as they fail, to do good, unlike their parents.

Their LA hideout was busted, so they seek the help of their parents’ former colleague, the Kingpin. They think they can manipulate him for a place to stay, but soon end up on the wrong side of the Punisher and a LOT of ninjas. They get away, but strand themselves in 1907, surrounded by warring factions of “Wonders,” as the super-powered people of that time were called.

Like much of Whedon’s work, the story has a girl whose power alienates her from others, and both she and others have to make tremendous personal sacrifices. Some endings are happy, but not all. This is a good read, for fans of the ongoing series and for fans of Whedon.

“The White Darkness” by Geraldine McCaughrean

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

I heard about The White Darkness, by Geraldine McCaughrean, at Semicolon. Then I learned that it had won the Printz Award and was set in Antarctica. I was in.

Fourteen year old Symone has hearing aids, a problem fitting in, and an imaginary friend who lives in her head–there may be a connection between the last two. He’s Captain Laurence “Titus” Oates, and died ninety years ago on Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.

Symone’s uncle surprises her with a trip to London, then suggests they go south. He doesn’t mean the Riviera. They join a tourist expedition to Antarctica, and bad things happen. There are many things that don’t make sense, to Sym or the reader. While Sym is slow to catch on, all is revealed in time.

This novel has beautiful prose descriptions of what sounds like a wondrous place, and mixes history, mystery and imagination in a compelling way. This was a tremendous read.

“Too Cool to Be Forgotten” by Alex Robinson

Friday, August 1st, 2008

Alex Robinson’s Too Cool to Be Forgotten is a great graphic novel for young adults and older ones, too. With all the graphic novels out there for teen girls, it was nice to read one about a teen boy. It rather reminded me of Judy Blume’s Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, because it’s a boy book in a girl market. Yet it’s for just about anyone, really. Robinson has a great sense of humor and humanity, and a wonderful way of capturing the indignities of everyday life. He’s got a confident, accessible art style that helps to bring his characters to life.

Forty-ish Andy Wicks tries hypnosis to kick his smoking habit. But things don’t go as he expected–instead he’s transported back to 1985, his sophomore year in high school. The adult-in-a-teenage-body story has been done many times, but rarely with so much skill and sympathy. Yes, Andy asks out the girl he was too afraid to the first time around, but as the story progresses, we see more and more how things are connected from Andy’s past to his present.

The book itself is a lovely little hardcover; publisher Top Shelf delivers a typically high-quality production again. Funny, sad and sweet, Too Cool to Be Forgotten is great for anyone (all of us?) who have ever wondered what we would do if we could do things over again.

“Hellboy v. 6: Strange Places” by Mike Mignola

Friday, August 1st, 2008

I highly recommend the Hellboy graphic novel collections. They’re high quality, with author commentary, passionate introductions by famous fans, and generous extra stories and material. Hellboy: Strange Places, though, was darker and more murky than the previous volumes. Creator Mike Mignola writes that he was influenced by 9/11, and that there were several stops and starts to the main story. Certainly it’s much less humorous than the preceding books, but it still has its moments, like a pig-demon intent on revenge, and Hellboy’s commentary on the odd and scary creatures he has to deal with:

Hey, giant fish-lady! Let’s get this show on the road!

If you’re new to the Hellboy graphic novels, Strange Places is not a good place to start–for that I recommend the beginning, Seed of Destruction. But the art is stunning, and the hints about Hellboy’s past and future continue to tantalize.

FYI, if you have seen the movie(s), there are some differences from the books, which have no romance with Liz, and a smarter, more sympathetic and nuanced Hellboy. But the books and movies are each great on their own merits.

“Chiggers” and “Salamander Dream” by Hope Larson

Monday, July 28th, 2008

Now, THESE are what young-adult graphic novels for girls should be. I have been disappointed again and again by DC’s Minx books, but I highly recommend Salamander Dream and Chiggers by Hope Larson, author/artist of Gray Horses, which I also enjoyed. Larson’s books are beautifully illustrated stories about young girls coming of age. They have elements of nature and magical realism that called to mind the films of Hayao Miyazaki. Like those, Larson’s books are about and for pre- and early adolescent girls, but able to be appreciated by adults as well, which is what characterized really good YA fiction, to my mind.

Salamander Dream begins with 8yo Hailey, who explores the woods and hopes to meet her friend Salamander and hear a story. As Hailey grows older, she sees Salamander less frequently. The story, of growing up and away from the magical friends of childhood, has been told many times. But Larson’s art style and combination of words and pictures make it new and vibrant.

In Chiggers, Abby returns to summer camp, but it’s not a completely happy experience. She struggles with insecurities about her friends, annoyances with her bunkmate(s), and shyness around a boy she likes. Her old friends feel distant, and she’s not sure how she feels about the new girl. In straightforward black and white, Larson recalls the emotional ebbs and flows of early adolescence, and depicts a summer camp experience (complete with instructions for card games and campfire activities) both bitter and sweet, as in real life. Chiggers is something more, though, because some of Abby’s flights of imagination are beautifully drawn and lend an element of magic to the mundane.

Geekiana: Larson is married to Bryan Lee O’Malley, writer/artist of the very funny Scott Pilgrim series, which I love.

“New York Four” by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly

Saturday, July 26th, 2008

I’m one of the few people who don’t seem to like the Minx line of graphic novels from DC Comics (see positive reviews here, here, and here, for example.) But I read New York Four because my friend the Big Brain assured me it was good. I read it; when I told him I didn’t agree, he said I must hate everything. Not true, but I clearly am not the target audience for the Minx books, though I appreciate well-done YA books.

Riley is a first year student at NYU who is overly attached to her Blackberry. In spite of her antisocial ways, she manages to make friends with three girls: a non-brilliant beauty from a wealthy family, a socially inept jock, and a tightly wound academic. (They didn’t dig very deep into the YA cliched character closet.) She has an older sister who she hasn’t seen for years, who was kicked out by their parents for an unknown reason. The four girls all get jobs that require psyche interviews, which are used to convey the girls’ thoughts and feelings.

Will she find out her sister’s secret? Will she regret her attachment to virtual friends instead of real ones? In spite of one part of the ending that was unexpected, most other plot points were by the book. Ryan Kelly’s art is great, though, and elevates NY4 beyond its mostly pedestrian story.

The Minx line may be better for fans of manga than for fans of YA fiction. It seems that DC is going for an older reader with stories like NY4 about 18 year olds, and Plain Janes, about older high-school girls. Yet the mostly chaste romances, and the unsurprising stories, make them feel as if they’re more appropriate for much younger girls, say 9 to 12 instead of 12 to 16. Here’s an interesting post on the audience for Minx.

“Three Junes” by Julia Glass

Thursday, July 24th, 2008

Three Junes was recommended to me by a writer friend, and I can see why. Though the title and the cheesy cover suggest breezy chicklit, there’s a lot more of substance between these covers. The book is actually three novellas, narrated by interlocking characters. Within each novella, the action shifts back and forth in time. It takes a great deal of authorial control to make shifts like these clear rather than confusing. Glass pulls this off with apparent ease.

The first part is narrated by Paul McLeod, a Scotsman whose wife has recently died. He’s on holiday to Greece, while he quietly assesses his life past and present. The next, and longest, segment is narrated by his eldest son, Fenno, a semi-closeted homosexual who now lives in the United States. The final segment is narrated by a minor character from the first section. It ties things together, and progress the novel’s themes of love, commitment, risk, relationship and family to a satisfying conclusion that didn’t feel forced or saccharine.

“Beginner’s Greek” by James Collins

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

Already, the departing tide of his day had taken him far from his betrothed and any thoughts of her. As usual, though, from time to time throughout the day’s voyage he saw in the distance the most beautiful mermaid, sunning herself on a rock, plashing into the sea and rising up again. Against the sun her smoothed head looked like a paper silhouette. It must be said that the creature did not resemble [his betrothed], nor, however, was she mythical in her appearance. Even at a distance, Peter recognized her. He would be seeing her that evening, along with his despicable best friend, the writer Jonathan Speedwell.

Beginner’s Greek, the first novel by James Collins, was recommended by Entertainment Weekly, New York Times and the National Book Critics’ Circle blog (here and here.) It’s an odd book at first, because of its mannered prose and mix of characters and situations both believable and un-. Yet it quickly won me over as I realized it was an old-fashioned novel mixing social satire, romance, concerns about money and social status, heroes, villains, fate, and free will. I was reminded strongly of the novels of Jane Austen. It’s funny and sweet without being saccharine, with some dark shadows for contrast. I enjoyed it a great deal.

“Burnout” by Rebecca Donner

Friday, July 4th, 2008

My friend The Big Brain lent me an advance copy of Burnout, the newest graphic novel from the DC Minx line, for young adults. The Minx books have gotten a lot of praise, and I’m in the minority (for example, praise at Boing Boing); I hate them. I think they’re full of young-adult novel cliches that were tired at least a decade ago. I could do a plot summary, but I think a cliche summary will function just as well:

Teenage protagonist was abandoned by father
Mother is in relationship with abusive, alcoholic jerk
Jerk has a hottie son whom protagonist has crush on
Hottie has a secret, which protagonist learns
Minimum of other characters (dog, best friend, and best friend’s uncle)
Hottie comes to bad end; protagonist and mother escape to new life

Perhaps the only difference between this story and the typical teenage problem novels of the 80s and 90s (which I quoted Michael Cart about, here) is that there is an ambiguous, not-happy ending. To me, this was a by the numbers YA book with OK art.

Better choices? Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Yes, they’re more serious. But they’re also really good. Gray Horses by Hope Larson, and Runaways by Brian K. Vaughan have good, believable female protagonists. And for good YA novels, check out the Printz award winners.