Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation

The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic InnovationThe Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation by Michael Lommen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I would have been a librarian in another life. A little tweak in the timestream wherein I felt the strength of my interests a bit earlier, while I could still afford a switch in my education (or while I was still ignorant of the fiscal consequences) would have nudged me in an entirely different direction. Alas, it’s a bit too late to change all that. Yes, I’ve volunteered at libraries and participated in a couple of “friends of XYZ library” groups, and I’ll likely put in significantly more time once the kids are all grown up and out of the house, but as far as vocation goes, it’s probably too late (unless some generous donor wants to pay off my student loans and pay for me to go back to school).

That doesn’t, of course, preclude me from loving books. And I do. I love the feel of books, the heft, the smell, the sound of pages scraping against each other. Not that I have anything against e-books, obviously. But there’s something enchanting about the artifact itself. This is especially true of old books – not the moldy National Geographics in your grandmother’s basement, but really old, solid books. Maybe this is part of the reason I love Tartarus Press so much – they’re like old books, but they’re new. Strange. But I digress.

If I could go back in time and rearrange the timing of my interests in relation to my available cash, I would study Archival Science and Preservation. That’s one thing I miss the most about not having access to a university library – I don’t get to just hang around those musty old volumes and browse the stacks (while I should have been studying). Other friends partied, hung out at the pizza place, exercised . . . I wandered the labyrinth of books.

The Book of Books: 500 Years of Graphic Innovation, therefore, makes me drool. Not because of the commentary, which is pedestrian (though the parts about the dissemination of type throughout Europe were interesting), but because of the plates therein, especially those facsimiles of really old books.

Mathieu Lommen is careful to point out that, throughout the book, “Special attention is devoted to printers' manuals, illuminating the printing process, and also to type specimens and writing masters' copybooks, placing letterforms in a broader context”. In other words, this is really a book about book printing and the design and evolution of fonts, not about the books themselves. In fact, he points out that “Although the particular copy illustrated may have an interesting or even an important history of its own – its provenance, binding or manuscript annotations – that is not discussed here.” And, again, the style in which the commentary is written is fairly dry and academic. But the presentation of the graphics in chronological order effectively exhibits the love and care with which the old books (and some newer books) were created.

For example, Die Geuerlichkeiten und eins teils der geschichten des loblichen streitbaren und hochberümbten helds und Ritters Tewrdannckhs, commissioned by Emperor Maximilian I, took over five years to produce. The type is beautiful, a gothic font with flourishing “whip-tails” coming off of some of the letters, giving the whole a touch of antiquated elegance that compliments the detailed Dürer-esque illustrations that show various events surrounding a knight (presumably a stand-in for Maximilian himself).

But, as beautiful as Maximilian's book is, if I had to pick a calligrapher to hand-write my own books, I would pick Ludovico degli Arrighi, also known as Vicentino, because he was born near Vicenza. The work illustrated here is Arrighi's La operina di Ludovico Vicentino de imparare di scrivere littera cancellarescha (you can download your own free copy of the original manuscript here). His chancery italic font combines the best of gothic script with the swooping loops of what came to be, 400 years later, Art Nouveau. While the arabesques here are more restrained than in the German work, there is a certain playfulness to the capital letters, an almost carefree whimsy that evokes the romanticized ideal of the Latin temperament, hardly able to control itself, yet holding its chin up high. I, for one, am in love with Arrighi's writing. Or maybe I just have a bad case of Penmanship Envy.

Now, while I’m not likely to be a professional librarian in this life, and it may be some time before I can access the local university’s libraries (I’m hoping they’ll take pity on a crazy old man after I retire), through Lommen’s book, I can have a taste of what was and what is to come. In the meantime, it will tide me over until I can get my manuscript-corrupting fingerprints back on the real deal.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Meetings with Remarkable Trees

Meetings with Remarkable TreesMeetings with Remarkable Trees by Thomas Pakenham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I consider myself a semi-outdoorsman. I’m not as hardcore as many of my friends. I’ve had friends who have kayaked the Aleutian Islands looking for (and finding) mummies. I’ve had others who have hiked the Appalachian Trail in its entirety. Still others friends have spent a Winter (well, their Summer) in Antarctica.

Me? I’ve been on a few week-long canoeing trips. I love to hike the hills and walk up mountains. I’ve done more than my share of camping, whether in the true wilds or in State Parks.

But, in all honesty, while I love to be outdoors, I’m not hardcore. About the most hardcore thing I’ve done is winter paddling in Wisconsin (which can kill you rather easily, I must note), but I just don’t have the time or money for a bunch of wild adventures into the hinterlands.

Still, I’m a nature lover. And one thing I really, truly love is a good tree. Yeah, I’ve hugged a tree or two in my day. But not nearly as many as Thomas Pakenham.

Meetings with Remarkable Trees is a remarkable book. In it, Pakenham explores Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, and England searching for the largest, oldest, and most storied trees in the UK. The book is illustrated throughout with Pakenham's outstanding photographs, each accompanied by anecdotes about the trees themselves, those who loved and cared for them, and those for whom a certain tree stood as a significant landmark or a marker of historical significance. Within the book's pages, you'll meet the Fredville and Bowthorpe oaks (the largest common oaks in Britain and Ireland), the strawberry tree at Kew Gardens, The Martyrs' sycamore at Tolpuddle (under which The Tolpuddle Affair commenced). Here also, one can see The Dead Walk of yews at Murthly, where tradition dictates that the laird of Murthly can only pass from the chapel to the house, never traveling from the house to the chapel . . . in this life. Even murder plots find their way into the book, through a 16th-Century plot to assassinate the husband of Mary Queen of Scots, which was hatched under The Whittinghame Yew.

These are only a few of the 65 trees or groups of trees that Pakenham so lovingly documents. This is the ultimate tree-lover's book. And if you're not a tree lover before you open its (ironically) glossy pages, you will be by the end of the book.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

Dark Property

Dark PropertyDark Property by Brian Evenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Even those brave readers familiar with Brian Evenson's often-macabre work will discover new depths of shadow in the pages of Dark Property. This may well be his most chilling book to date - not in the sense of stock horror, but as a more sophisticated frisson, an existential mix of confusion, anticipation, and stark cruelty.

The narrative follows a cadre of ruthless loners across a post-apocalyptic wasteland as they seek to possess and dominate one another's most cherished properties: their bodies. Evenson takes his notoriously clinical approach to brutality one step further into the experimental realm by employing a Lewis Carroll-esque mutation of the English tongue. He twists adjectives into verbs (and vice-versa), for example, injecting layers of meaning into single, loaded words. The result evokes a Dr. Seuss caught in the grip of some penumbral nightmare.

Not only is Dark Property a carefully stirred stew of language, but the plot also churns, boiling back in on itself as a series of rough characters chase, capture, abuse, kill, and sometimes resurrect one another in a seemingly endless factory line of violence. the main character, Kline, is an unemotional brute of a man who kills with as much passion as one might feel when doing the laundry or taking out the trash. Only Eckels, who refuses to stay dead for any length of time, effectively acts as Kline's foil. Eckels is a peaceful antagonist (one might argue that he is actually the protagonist, but this would be a moral decision, not a literary edict) whose purpose is to come back from the dead and question the murderer on his lack of conscience. The many deaths and returns of Eckels make the tale a clockwork of brutality, forgiving, fall, and redemption - wheels of words within wheels of character within wheels of plot. Indeed, Evenson may have been influenced by James Joyce in writing this novel; one might, in the tradition of Finnegans Wake, open Dark Property to any page and begin reading until the story loops back in on itself.

Simultaneously confusing, vivid, surreal, and clear, Dark Property is a challenging work - but one that, for readers who can lose themselves in its world and then pay careful attention to the surroundings once therein, yields a melange of beautifully stark, never-ending terror.

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Friday, January 25, 2013

Jenny Finn: Doom Messiah

Jenny Finn: Doom MessiahJenny Finn: Doom Messiah by Mike Mignola
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is definitely not up to par with Mignola's best work. Though Jenny Finn exhibits the usual fascination with Victoriana and lovecraftian strangeness (I can relate), and the illustration is excellent, the story feels rushed and shallow. The characters could have been much deeper - there was ample opportunity to slip in bits of dialogue that would have contributed to the backstory - and the wry social commentary on which the story ends should have had more of a buildup in the beginning. I suspect that Mignola was trying to pull a darkly humorous twist ending, but, if so, the joke fell flat. Though I will say that this graphic novel has put me off seafood for a time. A long time.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus

The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus From the Quarto of 1604The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus From the Quarto of 1604 by Christopher Marlowe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While I tease my daughter incessantly about the true identity of Shakespeare, I have to admit that while a lot of evidence points towards Christopher Marlowe and Shakespeare being the same person, I can't, in all honesty, hold up the play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus as a Shakespeare-worthy text. Yes, the magical element present in so much of Shakespeare's work is here, yes, there is a good dose of humor, and, yes, the writing itself is, well, Shakespearean. But Doctor Faustus' humor is less bawdy than that of Shakespeare's plays, by and large, and the melodrama is overwrought. Also, Doctor Faustus is, by the end, downright pedantic, and while Shakespeare had no fear of moralizing, his sermons were quite a bit more restrained than the typical medieval (or Renaissance) "Everyman" dramas.

Still, if one can recognize the religiously-condescending tone as a product of its age, there is a lot to like here. I'm particularly enamored of Doctor Faustus' dark sense of humor that demeans, rather than destroys, his enemies. With the power granted him through the devil, Mephistopheles, one might expect Faustus to simply run rampant over the earth laying waste to all those who find themselves in his path. Instead, Faustus shows a (twisted) humor by planting stag horns on those that have tried to kill him in order to shame them in front of their fellow man. He could have just snuffed them out of existence, with Mephistopheles' help, but loves to use magic to taunt his enemies rather than eliminate them.

And this may be why Faustus is simultaneously so darned likeable and abhorrent. He has access to infinite power, yet squanders it on such things as making the Pope and his cardinals play the fool. He's like a child with far more power than he knows what to do with. And, like an indecisive child who can hardly help his own bad behavior, he figures out, in the end, through the good grace of Helen of Troy, that he has gone too far for his regret to save him from the price he has agreed to pay for his fun. Rather than feeling that Faustus gets his just desserts, I'm inclined to feel a bit of sympathy for the guy whose blasphemy and denial of God seemed more like a joke than a true refutation of divinity. Then again, I would likely have been burned at the stake for saying so back in Marlowe's, or is it Shakespeare's day?

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The Grand Original Map Contest entry: Torvek's Tower

Here is my entry for The Grand Original Map Contest being put on by master map-makers Dyson's Dodecahedron, Mithril and Mages, and Tenkar's Tavern. I must say I am pretty pleased to be able to squeeze this much insidiousness into such a small map. The idea here is to give a high-level party a challenge with a minimum of monsters and man-made traps. Yes, there are some big nasties, but the real baddies are tiny. After this, you'll either never want to scrub the shower again or you'll take a flamethrower to your bathroom. Maybe both. I loosely use an AD&D 1st edition rubric with a liberal sprinkling of house rules involving saves versus stats (I rather like that method - suddenly, those stats mean something). Below is the map and the key. Now, I must apologize right away for not being very good at working with graphics - I'm not sure if the numbers are going to be all that visible, honestly. If it helps, encounters 1-4 are on the outside of the hill and ruins that comprise Torvek's Tower, while room 5 is the inside of the tower, 6 is the stairway going down to the cavern beneath, and 7-13 go from extreme left to right on the cavern level.
Torvek’s Tower carries the great lich’s name not because he dwelt there (that dubious honor belongs to his keep, Zellendeharr), but because it is the place where the legend met his demise in a suicidal gambit to destroy the temporal form of the Planetar Fenbarruk. The approach to the tower is treacherous, requiring a 12,000 foot climb up the face of a mountain that is part of the narrow range of jagged peaks known as the Dragon’s Spine, followed by a 12 mile long traverse of the spine itself. Of course, wise adventurers will utilize their best means possible to shorten the journey whether by mount or magic, but travel through the air is made difficult by hot gusts of wind that thrust up from the desert valley below, only to slam into the cold air of the mountain top, causing randomly swirling winds that sometimes exceed 70 knots (characters flying on a mount or carpet must save versus Dexterity every 1000 feet of ascension or be thrown from their mount, those flying by spell, ring, potion, or similar self-contained means travel at half speed or, if they fail their save versus Dexterity, ¼ speed for 1-10 turns. Once on the spine, there is a 10% chance per hour that a gust will hit the party, requiring a save versus the average between Dexterity and Strength to remain on one’s feet. Of course, these gusts always seem to come at the most inconvenient times . . .).
  1. The Battlements – It is atop the tower where Torvek and Fenbarruk met their doom. The blast outlines of their shapes, one a large human shape with wings, the other, that of a crowned skeleton wearing a cloak, are burnt into the stone floor of the tower’s upper level. A heavy aura of residual magic saturates the battlements. The forces unleashed in that ancient battle cause wild fluctuations in the effectiveness of magic (whenever a spell is cast and the spell caster is touching the tower, whether on the outside or inside and, yes, standing on the floor counts, a d4 is rolled, randomly determining whether the magic is more or less effective: 1-2 magic is less effective, 3-4 magic is more effective. Range, duration, damage, etc. are either dampened by 1-100% or strengthened by 1-100%. A 0% effective spell fizzles and the caster loses that spell for the day). Rubble is strewn all along the edges of the decaying battlements. Beneath a pile of stones in the southeast corner is hidden a molten lump of gold worth 200 gp. Inside the lump (though not fused to it) is a large black pearl worth 1,000 gp. It will appear as a worthless rock, (though a dwarf or gnome has a 1 in 6 chance of recognizing that something is wrong with the rock, if they pass within 10’ of it. Others may find it by searching and will notice that something is wrong if they pass a Wisdom check).
  2. Along the base of the east side of the tower is a large accumulation of green moss some 50’ wide, which thrusts out about 5’ from the wall itself, then climbs the wall to a height of 5’. This makes for convenient egress to the tower’s battlements, which are about 10’ from ground level. Thieves need make no roll to climb, and others of human size or larger must make a save vs half their dexterity or slip harmlessly to the moss below (Did we say “harmlessly”? Oops. Those who are not wearing gloves of some type will feel sharp pains in their palms and fingers resulting from an aggressive parasitic mold that has grown to cover the entire east face of the tower. Those wearing gloves will feel the stinging in their face as they brush the wall on the way down unless they are covered by a great helm. The bulbous piles of moss are the moss-covered and infiltrated remains of those who succumbed to the parasites. Those injected with the mold must save versus constitution every 10 minutes for four hours. For each failed roll, the character temporarily loses 1-3 points of constitution – thus affecting further rolls – and 1d6 hit points. Characters reduced to 0 constitution irrevocably die and can only be brought back by Resurrection or Reincarnation spells or a wish. This effect can be stopped by a Cure Disease spell, limited wish, or consumption of a Sweetwater potion. If the character survives the four hour ordeal, constitution and HP return at a rate of 1-3 constitution per hour and 1d6 hp per hour, though the character cannot gain more constitution or hps than he or she had at the beginning of the parasitic infection.).
  3. This low depression is filled with knee-deep stagnating water and dead leaves. There is a distinct smell of urine here, also. The top of the water is almost perfectly still, except for the occasional ripple of water as a gust of wind passes through. (Unless characters drink the water without boiling or treating it, there is no danger in just walking right through. It is rather entertaining to see how paranoid players can get around an innocent puddle of water, though).
  4. This corridor smells dank and the floor is riddled with slime. (a 10 HP green slime will drop down on the second character to pass into the tunnel, unless the lead character is carrying a lit torch, in which case the slime will be loosened from the ceiling and drop on the first in line. Note that if characters aren’t explicitly looking up, they won’t see it.).
  5. Two mummified human corpses dressed in rags lie in this room, one in the northeast corner of the room, the other in the southwest corner of the room. As the characters enter the room, the tower rumbles, sending stone blocks tumbling over the west entrance. While not impassable, it will take some time to dig out. A set of stairs leads down on the south side of the room. (The rumbling is caused by a naturally-occurring earthquake shaking the mountains. Close examination of the corpses reveals puncture wounds to the throat of each. The body in the northeast corner is female, the other is male. There is nothing of value on either body. Characters wishing to dig the rubble out of the doorway to allow free egress may do so, but it will take 30 minutes to clear an area big enough for one human-sized body to squeeze through. While digging or simply while exploring the room, there is a 2% cumulative chance per turn that the stirges in the stairwell below are awakened and attack the party.).
  6. This is a high-ceilinged stairway leading down below the foundation of the tower. The whistling of wind can be heard in the distance far below. (17 stirges of 6 hp each hang from the ceiling of the stairway. If they have not already been roused by the party’s activities in room 5, they will awaken and attack the party. Fighting while on the stairs requires a dexterity check with each attack to avoid falling down and sliding down a number of stairs, possibly knocking over other party members).
  7. The corpses of two armored dwarves lay here against a wall, the picks laying by their side and the scored walls witnessing that they were trying to dig a tunnel here before they succumbed to their fate. Both wear dwarven plate mail and have backpacks and pouches hanging from various leather harnesses. Strangely, all leather goods on them, from their straps to their boots, are covered in a half-inch-thick hot pink mold. One of the corpses holds a burned out bullseye lantern. On its belt is a scabbarded short sword and dagger. The other corpse has a large battle axe slung across its back and a dagger at its side. (Characters touching either corpse will immediately be swarmed by a proportion of the 30 rot grubs that inhabit each body, divided up equally among those who touch the corpses. They are hidden under the armor and thus, won’t be seen until they spring out, attracted by the character’s body heat. Survivors of the rot grubs are well-rewarded. The sword-laden dwarf carries 50 PP in his pouch, along with a sweetwater potion in one iron flask and a half-liter of fine whiskey in another. The dagger is magical, +2. The axe laden dwarf carries a small cylindrical rod of lapis lazuli, 6” long and 1” in diameter, worth 500 gp. The axe is also magical, +1. He also wears a Ring of Free Action. The pick axes are of Svirfneblin make, crafted of adamantium and, while not magical, they do get +1 to hit and to damage. Players should not be discouraged from trying to dig to find what it was the dwarves were after, though there really is nothing hidden in the rock.)
  8. The tunnel narrows here and adventurers will immediately note that the floor, walls, and ceiling are covered with a dazzlingly bright hot pink substance that almost seems to glow. Those who touch the mold seem to suffer no ill effects. (But their leather goods, that is another matter entirely! Airborne mold spores in this section will invisibly attach to any exposed leather the characters may be wearing. Within two minutes, all non-magical leather goods will grow a half-inch-thick carpet of hot pink mold. This will affect any leather clothing, straps, wineskins, leather backpacks, pouches, etc. It can be scraped off but grows back within a minute. It cannot be removed from the leather with anything short of a Cure Disease or Remove Curse. Of course, the leather can be abandoned, but must be altogether removed to be of lasting effect. Any leather piece remaining, no matter how small, will contaminate new leather within two minutes.)
  9. A few strange, tall bumps dot the floor here on the already-uneven ground. (A pair of shriekers and four violet fungi of 18 HP each clog this area of the passageway. If the shriekers are approached, whether cautiously or by characters falling down the stairs, they start their noise, alerting the shambling mound at area 10 to the presence of intruders. The shamble will then approach the area, coming up the slopes from its pit to feed).
  10. (If approached from the east) This area is more warm and damp than the surrounding cavern. Some steaming fumaroles release vapor into the chamber from a lava-heated underground river, far below. A great deal of vegetation has grown in this area, with vines hanging from the ceiling and a thick carpet of mixed moss, grass, and small plants on the floor. (The carpet is actually a shambling mound that will wait until stepped on or prodded to attack, *unless* the party approaches from the west, in which case the shrieker alarms will entice the creature to climb the stairs to area 9 and attack directly. The creature has no treasure.)
  11. A curious buzzing can be heard overhead. The black ceiling seems to undulate, drip, then reform in the darkness. (A group of 6 bluebottle flies of 18 HP each crawls along the ceiling here, waiting for the shambling mound or the shriekers to wound a victim. Once they smell blood, they will attack, though they will flee out of the cavern mouth if brought to below 6 HPs. If the party appears unhurt and rested, they will mull about on the ceiling, waiting for an opportunity to attack a wounded party member. If harassed by a healthy party, they will flee out the cavern mouth.)
  12. Adventurers who step into the shadows here will hear voices of warning call out to them. There are two voices, similar, though not exactly the same: “Remove yourselves, mortals, from the unholy monument of Torvek. Turn. Go. Now. You have your warning.” (If characters do not immediately leave, they are attacked by Gruzzek and Cargizzin, twin wraiths and followers, in their mortal life, of the Wizard Torvek, who did them the favor of turning them into wraiths of 33 HP each. They now jealously guard the way into the cavern beneath this unholy memorial. If characters turn away and leave immediately, the wraiths will not follow them. They are, after all, lawful, if evil. Any hesitation at all will result in the wraiths attacking.)
  13. This alcove seems unoccupied. (Careful examination will reveal that there are two patches of earth that are discolored. Dwarves or gnomes will spot this on a 4 in 6 chance. If the party digs into the discolored patches, they discover two coffins with desiccated carcasses therein. Each has a latched with a woodblock print of two brothers, identical twins, richly dressed, smiling at the artist. Each skeletal hand has a gold ring on it – for a total of four rings – each worth 100 GP).

Monday, January 21, 2013

Cinema Panopticum

Cinema PanopticumCinema Panopticum by Thomas Ott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the framing story of The Girl wandering the carnival to the vignettes she discovers in the Cinema Panopticum, this wordless graphic novel is a complete "artifact" with no loose ends. The stories are surreal and horrific with a touch of dark humor. Cinema Panopticum reminds me, in many ways, of my favorite TV show of all time, The Twilight Zone. This work might be considered the flip side to the cute, surreal Ojingogo, with one side of the coin (Panopticum) having a drop of humor in a bucket of surreal horror, and the other (Ojingogo) having a drop of darkness to its bucket of lighthearted, surreal humor. But readers need not compare Cinema Panopticum to other works in order to see the work's brilliance. It stands quite well on its own as a book in which the weight of the artwork is commensurate with the gravity of the stories it portrays. The scratchboard technique used throughout is, by its very nature, a little rough-edged, though this grittiness is foiled by the elegance of expression that Ott imparts to his characters. His faces exude the underlying thoughts and feelings of each character: curiosity, laughter, disgust, and, most of all, terror; all in a wonderfully clever and even moving series of wordless stories that one will not soon forget.

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The Manual of Detection

The Manual of DetectionThe Manual of Detection by Jedediah Berry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

All the elements of noir are present here: a dreary setting, half-understood mysteries, double- and even triple-crosses, multiple femme fatales, even a dark carnival filled with surly carnies. The voice of the book is flat and even - a little too flat and even for my tastes. It is well-written but I found the characters lacking in motivation and emotion. The main character is simply pushed along, with little or no internal impetus, toward the inevitable end. He's not really so much a protagonist as a reactionary element. The weaving of the story in and out of the waking world and the world of dream is intriguing and well-executed, allowing some characters to assume one face in one setting and another face in the other. The main character, Charles Unwin, is really the only fully consistent personality throughout but, frankly, this also makes him the most milquetoast character of the bunch. And when your main character is dull, well, it takes an outstanding writer to "lift" the story "up" from the doldrums. Unfortunately the writerly chops aren't quite enough to raise the water-level, as it were, to flood stage.

Still, this is an enjoyable read. The strange mixture of hard-boiled detective and magical realism is a new twist on two old themes, and no one can accuse the author of being unoriginal in this way. Inject a lot more pizzazz into Charles Unwin (both in his voice and in his motivations) and a little more into the others (except for Emily, whom I thought was great) and this would become a four star review very quickly.

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Friday, January 18, 2013

Trench Warfare

Trench WarfareTrench Warfare by Stephen Bull
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An excellent primer on the subject of trench warfare during World War I. Bull does an adequate analysis of the precursors to the use of trench warfare in the Great War, as well as noting the influence of the tactics developed at that time as they affected wars all the way through the First Gulf War. Full of primary source material and liberally illustrated with photographs, maps, posters, and battle diagrams, most of them from the time period, Trench Warfare gives not only a glimpse into the lives of those who fought in the trenches and the equipment and methods they used to do so, but also some intriguing analysis of the effectiveness of trench warfare vis-a-vis the "open ground" fighting on the last three months of the war. Though the emphasis of the book is on the hardware and tactics, Bull is careful to acknowledge the human cost of the war and its effect on those who fought it and those "at home". A critical read for the student of World War I.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Fatale Volume 2: The Devil's Business

Fatale, Volume 2: The Devil's BusinessFatale, Volume 2: The Devil's Business by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another "drop everything else" read by Brubaker and co. This time the noir takes on a '70's theme, but this is no Starsky and Hutch. No, again we are steeped in a criminal underworld that is merely a facade for something far more sinister. The minions want money, to be sure, but the real monsters are . . . well, real monsters.

I'm intrigued at how Brubaker, through story and image, elicits feelings of sympathy for Josephine who hides more than she shows. Is she a demon or an angel? More appropriately, where does she lie on the continuum between the two? Or is she outside of such dualities all together?

And what of Nicolas? Can he avoid the fate of so many of Jo's past loves? Or will he end up being swallowed, like so many others, by forces he cannot hope to comprehend?

Brubaker is at it again. Though the primary setting for this volume has moved from the traditional noir setting of the 1930's and '40's to the 1970's, this volume doesn't lose a step from Volume 1 at all. Compelling characters, a writhing background plot reminiscent of BPRD, and candid glimpses into the Manson-esque Method Church all weave a sticky net for the eager reader. I've not been drawn into a series like this in a very, very long time, and I hope this series lasts a very, very long time.

Addendum: If you really want to immerse yourself in this volume of Fatale, I'd recommend first lighting up some incense. Then before your reading watch this video by Opeth, in order to get in the proper mood. Then, after you're done reading, watch this video as the desert course. Now, please stay away from sharp objects and candles made from baby fat while engaging in this exercise.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

The Turn of the Screw

The Turn Of The ScrewThe Turn Of The Screw by Henry James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was not as impressed as I think I should have been by James' prose, yet I think I was left shaken by the shadows in the interstices between the narrator's words. In fact, James' prose was tedious and sometimes downright irritating. But irritating in the way a fern tickling your nose might be irritating when you're trying to spy on someone from behind some plants. Or tedious in the way that brick dust rubs up against your whiskery half-shaven beard when you are trying to surreptitiously peek around a corner to observe someone caught in a lewd act. The words don't get in the way so much as they serve as a foil to the real action or, more properly, the wisps of phantom air left by real action. Reading this novella is a game of shadows. At times the shadows seem more mysterious because of their vagary, at times they seem like they might come into sharp, dark focus, only to slip away, to the reader's disappointment. Then, there are a few of those moments of perfect frisson, where one shivers and asks "who just touched me?!?" only to turn and see nothing but an empty meadow or the waters of a still lake under a grey sky.

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

The Dream Weavers: Tales of Fantasy by the Pre-Raphaelites

The Dream Weavers: Tales of Fantasy by the Pre-RaphaelitesThe Dream Weavers: Tales of Fantasy by the Pre-Raphaelites by John Howard Weeks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Confession: I never did finish this book when it was assigned reading for my senior seminar on Victorian Arts and Culture. I read enough, at that time, to complete the assigned critique of one story that we enjoyed. Thankfully, this came four stories into the anthology, freeing up study time for other projects in a very busy semester.

To say that Victorian art and literature has had an influence on my own fiction is a gross understatement. I've been accused of, and guilty of, the same flamboyant prose that was popular a couple of centuries ago. I've worked hard lately to be free of those tentacles, or at least to have them resting a little more loosely over my throat.

But a series of nostalgic hankerings has been pulling at me lately, and I thought "it's about time I finish that book". After all, the Pre-Raphaelite artists are not only the subject of one of my novels, they produced some of my favorite visual art of all time.

Unfortunately, what pleases the eye visually does not necessarily make for good prose. Oftentimes, the artists-cum-writers are too free in adding embellishments to their words that ought to have been reserved only for their paintings. Some of them were decent poets, but stretching a poem out into a long narrative, rather than watering the words down, as one would expect, only allows more room for treacle to be poured into the ensuing gaps. Many of the stories in this volume are practically drowning in treacle and baroque language, which makes for a sickly-sweet jolt that should be enjoyed only in small servings.

That's not to say that every story is a failure. Far from it. I found aspects of several of these stories rather refreshing and intriguing.

For example, Algernon Charles Swinburne's "Dead Love," in which the Lady Yolande de Craon falls in love with and, through that love, subsequently revives the body of the knight Jacques d'Aspremont (who had previously killed her husband in battle), shows an interesting ambiguity between what is good and what is evil, what is romantic and what is perverse. This is a much more nuanced take on morality than I would have expected from a story of its age.

In Swinburne's "The Portrait," the painter, Peter, after hatching a plot with a wicked woman (you will find this trope throughout) to kill her husband by means of a painting that would kill a man should he look upon it, is described as "a man that rejoiced in all manner of shameful dealing, and was also unclean of his life, as is the fashion of men that paint and men that make songs and verses; for this Peter also made many amorous poems, and played upon stringed instruments marvellously [sic] well. And the lives of such men as are painters, or such as are poets, are most often evil and foolish; therefore it may be well conceived of this Peter that he was a very lewd man."

I'm not sure if this is an attempt by Swinburne at self-effacing humor or if it was meant as a kind of marketing ploy for the shock value of its self-admitted wickedness. One wonders if he and his contemporaries, Huysmans and Verlaine were not all customers of the same marketing agency.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "The Orchard Pit" was the story that, as an undergraduate, I chose to examine in detail. I won't bore you with the amateurish rantings and ravings of a college senior who actually thought he knew what he was talking about. Suffice it to say that this remains one of my favorite stories in this volume, a hallucinogenic prose poem that beats a trance-inducing mental cadence in the reader's mind.

Sprinkled throughout these stories are what I will call "Odes to the Cult of Weakness," passages that seek to heroicize the androgynous as being simultaneously better than their peers and, yet, harboring a critical vulnerability that is, in a strange way, lauded. This is evinced in the description of Charo dell' Erma in Rossetti's story "Hand and Soul":

The extreme longing after a visible embodiment of his thoughts strengthened as his years increased, more even than his sinews or the blood of his life; until he would feel faint in sunsets and at the sight of stately persons.

Thankfully, not all of the characters in this volume are infected with that same ultra-sensitivity (it grows tedious very quickly). And, in fact, I wonder if editor John Weeks intentionally followed up Rossetti's shriveling little daisy with Edward Burne-Jones' tale "The Druid and the Maiden". This is a solid story of love, betrayal, patriotism, double crosses, and ghosts in the shadow of the Roman Empire's invasion of Brittany. It is much less florid than the stories that precede it and a welcome, prosaic relief from the extreme poetic acrobatics that permeate the collection.

Burne-Jones continues to display a spark of modernity in his tale "The Cousins". This story is downright Dickinsonian (thank you, Doris, for providing me with the right word!), yet it is punctuated, in the middle, by a long scream straight from Beckett's Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable that the narrator refers to as "a missing year".

Finally, I quite enjoyed William Falford's "A Night in a Cathedral," not because the hackneyed story about being locked away, alone, for a night in a cathedral had anything to recommend it (it didn't), but because it summoned from the dead caverns of my mind a series of images from childhood: those of Mickey Mouse and Felix the Cat being harangued by cartoon, ghosts and skeletons. I needed the laughs, if nothing else, to counter the grave seriousness with which this author, and several others in the volume, took himself.

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Friday, January 11, 2013

Mars Attacks

Mars AttacksMars Attacks by Len Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

(Wherein I alienate every other Timothy Burton fan on the planet . . .)

Yes, my favorite Tim Burton movie, and I mean my FAVORITE, is, indeed, the much maligned Mars Attacks. No, it's not his funniest movie, nor his most emotionally moving movie, but Mars Attacks holds for me that certain je ne sais quoi that just pushes it past the rest in my eyes.

For some time, I've lusted after the original cards, but at over $1,000/set for the original card, they are definitely out-of-reach for my skinny little pocketbook.

So I was pleased to see that Topps, with Abram's ComicArts, had come out with a 50th Anniversary Collection that included reproductions of all 50 cards (from the original transparencies, no less). No only that, but Len Brown, co-creator of the Mars Attacks cards, and Zina Saunders, whose father, Norm Saunders, colored the original artwork, have each provided a brief historical introduction on the genesis of Mars Attacks and a reminiscence of Norm Saunders, respectively. Furthermore, the book reproduces cards that were introduced as a sort of addendum to the originals decades after the original set of 55, as well as the 32 card subset "Visions: New and Original". Top this off with several other pieces of art from various and sundry independent projects, including two promo cards for the Midwest Non-Sport Trading Card Show and Philly Non-Sports Card Show, and the set is complete, right?

Well, not quite. We are also treated to many of the original sketches, as well as a set of more-or-less censored cards that Topps contemplated releasing when the public outcry over the graphic nature of the originals died down. They never did release them.

Oh, and I forgot to mention the 4 bonus trading cards wrapped in cellophane at the back of the book. Mine will remain, for the foreseeable future, unopened.

Now, this could have been just another art-catalog containing relevant historical notes (the references to 50's monster movies and the unspoken implications about cold-war national angst are intriguing in and of themselves) and cute remembrances. At first, I thought that this is what I bought - and I'm fine with that. Like I said, I'm an unapologetic fanboy, so I knew I'd received my money's worth.

Then I looked a little more carefully. Maybe "looked" isn't the word. I felt something different. Not some soft emotional moving of the heart. Not the force. No, something physically felt different.

Then it dawned on me: The dust cover is made out of the same material used to wrap up collectors' cards with a stick of already-stale-in-the-package bubblegum, the gum that turned into a powdered avalanche once you bit into it, only saved from dessication by the saliva that coursed out from under your tongue. Ah, the memories! Yum, yum, bubblegum!

So I wondered what every self-respecting book lover wonders once they've played with the dust jacket: "What's under the hood?" I carefully removed the front of the dust cover and found, printed on the hardbound cover, you guessed it, a rectangular piece of that detestable delectable sugar slab. Then I flipped to the back cover and found, printed on the back, that same piece of gum shattered into 7 mummified pieces, just the way it always seemed to come out of the wrapper. I would have given extra credit if they could have somehow scented the book with that bubblegum odor, but despite that, I say: "Nostalgia Score = Perfect!"

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Magic Prague

Magic PragueMagic Prague by Angelo Maria Ripellino
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

There's no doubt that Prague, the Prague that I imagine, anyway, has had a strong influence on my writing. I count Kafka, Meyrink, and Rilke, all of whom had differing strength of association with the ancient city, among my favorite writers. Twelve years ago, another writer friend of mine did a review of this book, Magic Prague, in which he praised the book to the point of hyperbole. I had looked for a used copy of this book for some time, but the book's price precluded me from buying a copy. Then, in a moment of lucidity, I thought to check the local library system (ours is very, very good, incidentally) and found the book available.

Boy, am I glad I didn't buy this book without having read it first! Granted, my expectations were high, given the effusive praise heaped on it by some people whose opinions I really value. Perhaps this, combined with the long time I have anticipated reading it, is why I feel so disappointed in it.

At least Ripellino acknowledges that the book is a mess:

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a Baedeker, although many vdute of the city on the Vltava appear with it, clicking into place like the colour slides of a ViewMaster or a Guckkasten. I will not play the know-all companion who disgorges half-baked words like the pedant dottore in the commedia dell'arte.

This compendium of Prague-related obiter dicta is incoherent and confused, written in uncertainty and poor health, with despair and constant second thoughts, with the infinite regret of not knowing everything, of not embracing everything, because a city, even if only the setting for a fond flanerie, is a terrible, elusive, highly complex entity. This is why my narrative will lurch along like the old films they used to show at the Bio Ponrepo, Prague's first cinema, located in The Blue Pike santan. It will be flawed with breaks and jolts and gaps and attacks of heartache, like the music of Charlie Parker's alto sax. On the other hand, as Holan states, "Have you no contradictions? You have no possibilities."

I would like to say "thus begins" Ripellino's stupendous and stupefying work, but this quote is from Chapter 7! The preceding six chapters (thankfully, only 17 pages) is a running stream of consciousness narrative meant to show the reader just how smart and cool Ripellino is for having spent time in Prague with his academic friends. While I appreciate Ripellino's candor, I would have preferred the book open with his disclaimer rather than burying it behind an almost impossible-to-follow stew of pompous, self-indulgent reminisces.

Worse yet is Ripellino's lack of academic rigor, which he skillfully hides behind a literary sleight of hand by failing to document key suppositions. For example, in his flippant analysis of Capek's pilgrim, he claims not only that "The fact that the Capek brothers, inclined as they were to see a great mystery in every green plant, substitute nature for the city makes no substantial difference," but he goes on to ascertain that "This character (the pilgrim Tulak) is not merely a variant of the pilgrim; it belongs to the type of wanderer and "evil loner" patterned after the bosyak of Jack London and Maxim Gorky . . ."

Really? Proof please? At least a bibliographic reference, Mister Ripellino?

Nothing. No footnotes, no well-developed thesis, no justification.

This is the sort of thing that, frankly, pissed me off in graduate school - high-falutin' generalities couched in obtuse language with no support. Argh!

When Ripellino does actually propose something akin to a thesis, his scholarship is often sloppy, at best. For instance, this sentence makes me want to rip my hair out: "Although primarily a variation on the wayfarer figure so dear to the Romantics, the pilgrim wandering through the nocturnal landscapes of the Poet Karel Hynek Macha also manifests a Prague-like ambivalence and imperfection."

Prague-like? As if no other city can manifest ambivalence and imperfection. For that matter, what, outside of the Christian ideal of God, can not manifest ambivalence and imperfection? Playing loose and free with these words in regards to one's thesis is lazy, even neglectful. And we wonder why serious studies of the humanities are mocked by the uneducated. "Of course," those in the ivory tower will argue, "the uninitiated don't understand." Well, perhaps this is because the arguments presented are not understandable! Pile it higher and Deeper, indeed!

That's not to say that Magic Prague is without worth. Ripellino is at his best when he avoids unfounded supposition and sticks to verifiable fact, as in the excellent segment on the borderline mass insanity of the Rudolfine era, replete with sorcerers, political paranoids, and a dark pall that lingers over Prague's environs and people.

Even in his section on Rudolf, however, Ripellino engages in the exact chicanery, the "nonsense" of which he accuses the charlatans of Rudolf's age, by shamelessly imposing his embellishments on historical fact. Referring to Rudolf's bizarre collection of bric-a-brac, Ripellino states:

Yet the immobility, the immutability was only apparent. The dead objects were relentlessly sinister. They glowered at him from their cages like animals in ambush, and the ones he looked at too often took on his features, mirrored his hypochondria.

A change of climate does wonders for hypochondriacs: it fortifies the brain, cleanses the nerve fluid and rectifies the enzymes as well as the bodily fluids. Yet Rudolf is unable to escape the objects holding him captive. He returns to them at night in the dark glow of large candelabra. And behold, he turns into one of the men-objects of Bracelli's bizzarrie, whose bodies are made of sections of boxes for concealing goblets, gems and necklaces. The frog-like creak of the cabinets, the gleam of the crystal and amulets, the sanctimonious idiocy of the abinzoar, the fearful eyes of the portraits, the oily sheen of the fabrics, the whisper of the stones interest him far more than affairs of state. In that huaca storeroom, in that Traumland of fetishes he deciphers the mysteries of the universe as from cucurbits and horoscopes.

Where, oh where, is the academic integrity? A book with 42 pages of endnotes should show some academic integrity, should it not? The sinister deed here is not perpetrated by Rudolf's possesions, it is Ripellino's alone.

One bright spot, the section on Golems and other automata, though punctuated, as always, by Ripellino's seemingly insatiable ego, is fascinating. It convincingly connects Rabbi Loew's Golem to Capek's Robot. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that any serious student of the history of speculative fiction should read this section of the book. Were I to teach such a class, this would be required reading.

The rest of the book, while loaded with good information, leaves the reader empty. Maybe this is what Ripellino wanted, to have the reader feel as forlorn as the city he characterizes as ambivalent and imperfect, full of ghosts and charlatans.

As he puts it:

Prague was invaded by hordes of swindlers, quacks and ointment makers, all mumbo jumbo and magic mirrors. A sizable number of adventurers struck it rich, boasting expertise in making mercury fly and sulphur gleam, and then bolted - that is, if ill fortune did not first hurl them into the "Caucasion depths" of the White Tower or hang them in their gold sequins from a gilt noose. And just as the clown's grin can turn into an outcast's grimace, so the other side of the alchemist's vulgar mask is mourning and grief.

This paragraph reflects my thoughts on Ripellino's work, exactly. And thus, I pronounce sentence on the charlatan Rippelino: 2 stars, saved from 1 star only by the subject itself.

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The Complete Marvel Conan the Barbarian, Vol. 1

The Complete Marvel Conan the Barbarian, Vol. 1The Complete Marvel Conan the Barbarian, Vol. 1 by Roy Thomas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not a classic, by any means. If you want better storytelling and much better art, turn to The Savage Sword of Conan. Still, this is classic Marvel Conan, the sort of stuff a nine-year old swooned over at the local Stars and Stripes Bookstore. Still, this book helped me to become the nerd I am today, and for that, it should be commended. I still have my torn and worn copy on the bookshelf and used it as a tool for introducing my own children to nerd-dom. It seems to have worked.

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Prophet Volume 1: Remission

Prophet Volume 1: RemissionProphet Volume 1: Remission by Brandon Graham
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Prophet is the multi-layered, possibly even multi-dimensional, story of the awakening of John Prophet in a variety of guises. Each John Prophet may or may not be a unique entity, which begs the question of who, or what, exactly is John Prophet?

The strange tone of the story echos the sort of disassociated congnizance of Donnie Darko, but it is never clear whether or not John Prophet is insane, dreaming, or a real, cloned entity sent on the quest (or quests) to ascend the towers of Thauilu Vah and awaken the Earth Empire.

The many settings in which the John Prophets find themselves (or is it only one man finding himself?) are unified by organic, almost mystical artwork reminiscent of the old Heavy Metal magazine . . . minus the naked women. In fact, the five artists who contribute to various sections of the book, Simon Roy, Farel Dalrymple, Brandon Graham, Giannis Milonogiannis, and Marian Churchland, have created worlds and creatures that are more Moebius than Moebius. And though each artist has stamped his or her mark on the story(ies), all seem to be giving each other a knowing head nod and grin indicated "we did this together". This is, in a strange way, comforting. Sometimes artist try too hard to differentiate "their" hero from another artist's hero, even when it's the same character. While that might work well in different series, I like the team-play exhibited here. The Emma Rios short story at the end might be the most stylistically out-of-place, but it is a separate entity and doesn't distract from the overall unity of the graphic novel proper.

Some have complained about Prophet's elusive plot, but I think that the muddling of the narrative actually adds to the ambiance and gives readers a taste of what it must be like to be John Prophet waking from who-knows-how-long of a hyber-pod sleep into a strange world. Pre-programming or intuition or even a ghostly guide compel him to undertake his quest through landscapes and among creatures that he may or may not understand, depending on which John Prophet we follow. Each of them is equipped with an impressive array of survival equipment, some of it manufactured, some organic, some combining aspects of both. This aspect I thoroughly enjoyed - the technology, the weapons, modes of transportation - have a thoroughly biotic feel to them and many are explicitly biological in nature. Given recent advances in organic computers, I suspect that these sorts of bio-mechanical tools are the way of the future. And yet, the ultra-high-tech organic machinery seemed, somehow, ancient, which adds further folds to the mystique of the story itself.

In essence, I loved everything about Prophet. I bought this book sight unseen, based on the several reviews I had read and seeing a snippet or two of the art. I'm glad I took a chance and found this treasure. This is one of the best graphic novels I have read in recent memory, up there with Ojingogo (but for different reasons). Consider me an addict. Cannot wait for my next fix!

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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Nobrow 6: The Double

Nobrow 6: The DoubleNobrow 6: The Double by Alex Spiro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was my latest purchase in the Lowbrow vein and, while this volume leans more toward the illustrative Juxtapoz aesthetic than the more fine-art-influenced Hi Fructose (which is, frankly, my preference), it is still a good example of those who are carrying on in the tradition of lowbrow art. The schtick of a double-issue that features (on one side) cartoons about doppelgangers and other doubles and (on the other) illustrations about the same is well played throughout. Again, while these pieces and stories owe more to Underground Comix influences and graphic design than they do to the work of the Pop Surrealists, whom I tend to favor (such as Mark Ryden, Kathie Olivas, and Yosuke Ueno), there are exceptional illustrations by Tom Gauld, Roman Muradov, and Niv Bavarsky, as well as a very clever comic by Luke Pearson and other standouts by John Martz and Kevin Huizenga. With this issue, it looks like Nobrow is flying a rising balloon. Their press is putting out some pretty impressive graphic ditties, so pay attention! This issue of Nobrow is giving notice that there is more remarkable work to come.

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The Monsters of Templeton

The Monsters Of TempletonThe Monsters Of Templeton by Lauren Groff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

About my relationship with The Monsters of Templeton . . . it's complicated.

Before we met, I had heard a wide range of opinions about the book. Now, my tastes lean toward the obscure. I don't tend to read the popular ones and I have a bit of prejudice toward them. "If it's that popular, it can't be that good," I will sometimes (mistakenly) reason. And this book, well, this book had gotten around. The town of Goodreads had been gossiping about this one for a while, with opinions ranging from "it's amazing" to "it's a rank pretender". But I saw something as I looked across the room at that pretty, complex cover. And as the voices babbled on around me about the book, I was intrigued. "This is not my normal cup of tea," I told myself. "Heck, this might even be chic-lit. Still . . ."

So we made the acquaintance. I was smitten by the first paragraph:

The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass. It was one of those strange purple dawns that color July there, when the bowl made by the hills fills with a thick fog and even the songbirds sing timorously, unsure of day or night.

"This relationship has promise," I said to myself.

But as I read the rest of the chapter, I became confused and disconcerted. The author seemed in too much of a rush, too eager to get information out. Frankly, she talked too much. I sat back, disappointed, but I had gotten myself into this mess, so I decided to play it through until I could find an easy exit from this uncomfortable situation.

Then I read the last couple pages of the chapter and I became, again, intrigued. The last paragraph affected me deeply:

That morning, before I drew my hand away from the monster, I felt an overwhelming sadness, a sudden memory of one time in high school when I slipped to the country club docks at midnight with my friends, and, giggling, naked, we went into the dark star-stippled water, and swam to the middle of the lake. We treaded water there in the blackness, all of us fallen silent in the feeling of swimming in such perfect space. I looked up and began to spin. The stars streaked circular above me, my body was wrapped in the warm black, my hands had disappeared, my stomach was no longer, I was only a head, a pair of eyes. As I touched the beast I remembered how, even on that long-ago night, I could feel a tremendous thing moving in the depths below me, something vast and white and singing.

So here I was, left to process my feelings about the chapter, on the cusp of a decision: Should I continue, or not? Most of the chapter felt truly shoved in-between those two exquisite paragraphs. The author was "trying" too hard. It was like a Dagwood Bumstead sandwich bookended by the most expensive artisan bread.

I decided to give the benefit of the doubt. Yes, this book already showed some flaws, but I wanted to see the beauty in it, which might have been accentuated by the opening and closing paragraphs' foil against the muddled middle. There is no such thing as a flawless book, I reasoned, and the good parts were so good that the thought of potentially missing more gems made me throw caution to the wind and dive in, head over heels.

I became fascinated by the complexity of the book. As I said in the beginning, my relationship with this book is complicated. There are several distinct voices in this work, many of them speaking from historical documents and journals dug up by the narrator, Willie Upton, in her quest to discover the identity of her biological father.

One of my favorite voices is that of Sarah Franklin Temple Upton, a progenitor of Willie's who struggles with hallucinogenic schizophrenic episodes like this one:

. . . days pass, days pass, dark then light, Templeton glowing in the fog, the brilliance of noon . . . the little shrill girl is back, makes me want to bludgeon my head with a carpet beater until she's out . . . so many ghosts in the water I see now, every day I go down, press my ear close to the water until I drench the small hairs on the lobe . . . beseeching, mournful. The men have bloated skin, and the women's hair has come loose and floats cloudlike behind them, sunnies and pumpkinseed-fish scattered in it . . . a man with my father's face, wrists blooming roses of blood . . . two brothers with frosted lashes and lips, ice skates on their feet, pounding at the surface as if it were glass . . . small Indian girl who looks at me with serene and unforgiving eyes as she floats, naked, bruises like plums on her thighs . . . soldier in olive drab, the stumps of his legs looking tender as a baby's skin . . . young men in boater-hats, young women in tight waists and bellish skirts from before the Civil War . . . summer-camp children with crude leather bracelets on their wrists . . . fat old ice fisherman . . . parachutist from my childhood, the man who leapt from the plane at the County Fair, but his water, not land, whose chute settled on the lake like a flower, filled with the water, dragged him under before the boats could reach him. Yes: every day I see more of them, the drowned ones. It is perhaps not madness: they are so clear, and I am not terrified by them. Is it? I don't know . . .

Of course, I always seem to like the crazies in literature. And there are plenty of crazies in this book. Notice that the title is plural: Monsters. The beast of the opening paragraph is not the only monster in this book. Though the lake-monster trope (along with the ongoing presence of a quiet, seemingly beneficial ghost) gives the work a feel that hints of magic realism, most of the truly inimical monsters are of the human variety. That's not to say that the book is laden with sadness and madness. There are a lot of bright spots, too, a balance of naive optimism and critical pessimism, with characters, situations, and reactions running the gamut in-between. Like I've said, it's complicated.

I was taken in by the variety of voices presented throughout. My biggest concern, the area where I needed to apply the most forgiveness to our relationship, had to do with documentation. The book jumps back and forth between Willie Upton's narration and the documents she discovers in here research. This is fine. But interpolated in the book are several accounts told from different POVs that belong neither to Willie or to those who wrote the documents I've mentioned. Granted, these narratives are told in the voice of the illiterate: Hetty Averell, a slave girl who integrates herself into the family tree, Chief Chingachgook, a native American who figures prominently in the history of Willie's ancestors and who has a profound influence on her research. So one could look past their undocumented stories. But these tales, so "out of the blue," caused me to step back in alarm. It was only after convincing myself that I needed to be a little forgiving of these quirks that I could settle back into the flow of things. Several times throughout the book, I asked myself "where is this coming from"? Sometimes, my reaction bordered on "I don't know you!" but I was, ultimately, able to reconcile things. Still, these episodes left a bit of a taint on my relationship with the book.

Despite these shortcomings, I continued to find some sparkling gems, particularly in the book's strangest passages. Maybe it's the fantasist in me, the lover of magic realism and speculative fiction. Near the end the author fully embraces the speculative (though the speculative elements are NOT the primary driver in this work) by having the main character fully embraced by the supernatural:

My legs moved without me, and I watched them climb the stairs in horror. Foot above foot, so clumsy, as if whatever was in me had forgotten what it was to walk. I felt the eyes of my ancestors, all those pictures, fall on me. As I moved past the guest bathroom I managed a glimpse of myself, and saw my features were dark and veiled. I knew then it was my good ghost, the indirect watcher over my life, that had for now slipped around me. I'd become the yolk in the egg; I'd become one human bone, my body at the marrow and the ghost surrounding it, tense as flesh.

I was impressed, proud even, of the way The Monsters of Templeton allayed my fears that this would be, in any way, dumb chic-lit. It is not. But it is not full-fledged fantasy, either, not by a long shot. It is a mystery, a novel about relationships and fear and friendships and love and redemption and discovery and the search for who we are. Structurally, it is a historical memoir, a fictional autobiography punctuated with biographies. Atmospherically, it is smart chic-lit, a touch funny, magically real, with a narrator as complex as her family history, as complex as the history of the town in which the book is set. It is strange, quirky, at turns brooding dark and blindingly bright, it is an enigma, a puzzle. And I, yes, I'll say it, I love puzzles.

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Friday, January 4, 2013

The Arrival

The ArrivalThe Arrival by Shaun Tan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A surprisingly moving story about hope and yearning in the context of immigration. The lack of words really forces the "reader" to try to apprehend what is happening without any understanding of the full intent or meaning behind the characters' body language. Of course, this puts the "reader" in the position of the main character, an immigrant who cannot understand the language of his new homeland and is unfamiliar with its customs. This creates a funny kind of reverse-metafiction that effectively puts the audience right in the middle of the story's emotional "space". Tan's customary baroque weirdness is on display as we "hear" the stories of several immigrants who encounter each other and tell their tales of how they arrived in this strange land, but Tan shows a greater restraint here than he does in Lost and Found. I prefer the outrageously imaginative art of Lost and Found to the sepia tone nostalgia of The Arrival, though the latter book does carry more emotional impact.

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Moebius Arzach PB

Moebius Arzach PBMoebius Arzach PB by Jean-Marc Lofficier
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Very, very disappointed with this. I am a big fan of Moebius and have been since the early '80s heyday of Heavy Metal Magazine. Lofficier's story is tried and trite, banal. Some art is better left un-worded, if I can invent a word (or is that an "unword")? The prose in this book is as bad as Moebius' art is good, which is saying something. I found the storytelling formulaic and just plain unoriginal. Anyone capable of putting one word in front of another could have written this overwrought, yet flat story (stories, really, to be fair). Only Moebius amazing art lifts this from one to two stars. Even then, don't bother. The black-and-white illustrations in this volume are available elsewhere in vivid color. I see that this book is rather expensive on the used book market. Better to save it up and buy a full fledged Moebius graphic novel than this one-picture-per-chapter cheapening of his amazing art.

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