I’ve been working off and on on this list for the past week or two. Because I spent a good portion of the last month or so either on the road or at home, I had plenty of time to plow through my pile. Here’s my reading for the last month and a half or so. There are, generally, a lot of books recommended to me by other people, and a lot of graphic novels in this list (they make really good palate cleansers for things like Paradise Lost, which I am still only half done with.) Reviews forthcoming for Dark Things and Awayward…
Confessions of a Not It Girl by Melissa Kantor – okay
This is one of the books I read for the YA library group I assist in. It’s what one of my professors would have referred to as “a good beach book”– there’s nothing really outstanding in the characters or plot. It’s basically a girly book. I actually thought there was opportunity to do some interesting social commentary in some of the scenes that Kantor constructs, but she stays very firmly in the realm of romantic comedy.
Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver– fantastic
This book came to me through the recommendation of a librarian in one of the schools I sub in– she had an advance copy laying around, and she gave it to me. I’m so glad. Oliver’s take on what happens after you die is interesting, and conscious of its parallels (the most direct one is Groundhog’s Day, to give you a clue.) It’s a beautifully constructed book, with rich, interesting characters, secrets that have to be teased out slowly, and ultimately a really deep, searching look at morality, fate, and the way that we interact with each other and how it changes if you know you’re going to die. I really loved this.
Dark Things by Novica Tadic, translated by Charles Simic (Serbian)–good
As the title suggests, Tadic is engaging darkness in this skinny little volume. His verses are brief, dense, and textured with allegory, imagery, and personification in particular. Reading is a bit like staring at a haunting photograph. It’s a darkly beautiful portrait of the world Tadic lives in, and Simic likens it, appropriately, to Hieronymus Bosch.
Watchmen by Alan Moore– great
So I went through some of Moore’s most legendary graphic novels this month, this being the first of them. I was impressed with how closely the movie and comic book came together. I don’t really have a lot to say about Watchmen, really. You should read it, because it really is a pretty transformative work, and just don’t be surprised when a squid genetically altered space squid shows up. That’s ultimately the difference between the graphic novel and the movie– the ridiculous squid. Which, upon discussing with comic geek friends, is supposed to be ridiculous. The movie ends up being more hopeful then the original because of its lack of squid. In the graphic novel, you basically know that the end plan isn’t going to work.
The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter – fantastic
Okay, so I’m a completely vain artist, keep in mind. I totally judge books by their covers, and I totally bought this book for its amazing, beautiful cover art. Looooook– better than just being really, really pretty to look at (and it is), it’s also extremely accurate. I’m the worst kind of cover-judger, because I’m always looking back at the cover, trying to figure out where things fit in, and what exactly I’m looking at. The only error I found in my obsessive compulsive looking was that the cat is short one toe on its paw. Yes, I counted. Alright, so now why did I love this book, other than its drool-worthy cover design and detail? I loved it because it was well-written, quirky, and I didn’t see the ending coming. The characters are bad ass, the legends constructed in the story are interesting and feel real (and I love legends and folk lore, folks), and Otto. I love everything about Otto, from his scarf to his temper to his cat to his stubborn refusal to speak. Otto is the shit. AND, in the end, it all makes sense– nothing is pointlessly quirky in this book. All of the quirks have purpose. Yes. Now go read.
V For Vendetta by Alan Moore – great
Another Alan Moore graphic novel. Again, the biggest deviation from the movie is the ending. It’s creepy and dystopian (and we all know I love dystopia) and just feels like an Anthem. Again, I don’t feel much of a need to say much about this one.
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Vol. 1 by Alan Moore – good
Another Moore book made into a movie. The art style in this one was significantly different from V for Vendetta and Watchmen. It’s well-written (this shouldn’t surprise anyone, really), but ultimately the characters didn’t feel settled at the end of the volume. They didn’t feel like they belonged together, which is the challenge of a book like this, that draws literary figures together in an alternate-universe-type setting. I enjoyed it, but ultimately it felt stilted.
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez – good
This book reminded me significantly of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club for a couple of reasons. Some good, some not so good. Both of them have the sort of stained glass, mosaic feel to them– you’re looking at fragments, putting together the whole to understand the culture of the characters and how they fit together into a larger community. Both switched focuses between character with each chapter, and both left me struggling to remember who was who and who had what problems. My favorite scenes were set in the Dominican Republic, when they were girls, and I think this is part of Alvarez’s formula– things were simpler when they were children, and the characters themselves don’t seem to look back on their lives with satisfaction. All four sisters have crippling problems– either with mental health, relationships, or just identity in a basic sense. It’s a bit of a disturbing portrait to paint of what it’s like to be bilingual and caught between two cultures, but I think that, also, is deliberate. Losing one’s accent is not a painless exercise. Assimilation is killing, demonizing, even, a part of yourself. It is to look at a part of your person and understand that it doesn’t belong, can’t belong, and must be cut out like a cancer. If you’re interested in Latin American lit, this is a must-read.
Chicken With Plums by Marjane Satrapi – great
As a sort of loose recollection of her uncle’s last days, this is a strange sort of graphic novel. It’s a beautiful supplement, in a way, to Satrapi’s more famous graphic novels, Persepolis. I wouldn’t read it first, because I think it helps to know who Marjane and her family are before you learn about her uncle. But what really made this work for me was the ending. She has a real gift for powerful, poignant endings. Definitely worth reading.
Night Fisher by R. Kikuo Johnson – okay
I grabbed this one on a whim, and didn’t really enjoy it as much. It’s a story about a boy in Hawaii, having misadventures with drugs. That’s a lousy summary, but I don’t really feel like expanding. It was alright, but it didn’t really grab me. That was really my worst problem with this one. I didn’t connect with the characters or their problems, and for me that’s the kiss of death.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pyncheon – great
I have to be very careful as a lit student that I’m not saying I like certain books because I think I should. I monitor myself very carefully for that. I’m pretty sure I actually liked the book, though. The quirkiness of something like this appeals to me in the same way that Still Life With Woodpecker did. Ultimately, I think, it’s important to accept that the pieces of the conspiracy do not add up– this is not a Nancy Drew mystery novel. The other bread crumbs Pyncheon leaves the reader don’t lead all to the same place, either. What is going on in this book? I think Pyncheon is playing with the reader, and playing with the way we construct meaning out of inductive reasoning. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Pyncheon read some of his early reviews around a Cheshire grin.
Book of My Nights by Li-Young Lee – great
I generally judge how much I liked a book of poetry by the number of times it makes me think of someone or something else. Poetry is like a springboard, from which the poet and reader jump off, and construct meaning. Sometimes it’s the same meaning, sometimes they’re not even in the same end of the pool. I dogeared about half of this book. Lee’s diction is crisp, neat, and feels so wonderfully careful. I’m hoping to read more of his work soon, because it’s lovely.
Sandman: The Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano– fantastic
I feel like I should scream DORKS UNITE! before I tell you about this one. It’s Sandman meets Final Fantasy art. Look!
Kind of entertainingly, Amano says he “does not do comic books”, so this is actually like an illustrated reworking of a traditional Japanese myth. There’s literally nothing in this combination that doesn’t make me really, really happy. It’s just a beautiful combination of talent, creativity, and tradition. And it’s absolutely breath-takingly rendered. It’s shiny, friends. It’s a quick, charming read. I highly recommend it.
Sandman Presents the Furies – great
This is one of those twisty-turny what-happens-next kinds of things. Playing some more with tradition, the Furies, and all sorts of what-ifs. Do not read this one until after you have read through all of the original Sandman— it has some inherent spoilers in it.
Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster – fantastic
Phantom Tollbooth is filed next to The Little Prince in my brain, as one of those kid’s books that isn’t really for kids. It’s secretly philosophy. It’s whimsical, it’s fast, and it’s basically an excellent philosophy for life. If you’re feeling lost, or bored, or unappreciative of the world around you, just visit the tollbooth. Things will be better again afterward.
Fables 11: War and Pieces by Bill Willingham – fantastic
So this is the culmination of the Adversary arc, and it is so well-worth the wait. There are a few issues I have with the ending (I think the Adversary needs a different fate), and I’ve just generally got some trust issues with some of the characters. This isn’t the end of the series, but I have a harder time finding the newer volumes in libraries, and they’re too expensive for me to buy. Anyways, I’m basically just reconfirming my earlier adulation.
Awayward by Jennifer Kronovet – great
Kronovet’s book is an interesting combination of bits and pieces. She mixes short prose poetry with traditional stanza-ed verses, and separates things into sections. I would liken it to organized dreaming. It’s mischievous, coy, and introspective in a universal kind of way. If you’re not a big poetry person, I think Awayward might actually be a nice book to start with.
Lioness Rampant Quartet (The Alanna Series) by Tamora Pierce – fantastic
A friend lent me these four books, with the instructions to read them, and the promise that I would love them. I did. Especially because of George (who in my head is always Geeeooooooooorge for no apparent reason). I could talk about gendering, or world building, or blah blah blah, but really, read it for George. I might have a little bit of a crush on George. Also, I had such strong reactions to some of the things that happened in these four books that I DREW COMICS. Yes. Comics. I shall attach them eventually, once they have been scanned.
The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist (Swedish)– fantastic
Every so often I run across a book that kicks my ass. Less often than that, a book kicks my ass clean off, and then hands it to me. That’s what The Unit did. Dystopic, again, and it does not pull its punches. There’s so much in here about morality and ethics and the concept of worth. Really highly recommended, and very accessible, if you’re afraid those literary books. Just be prepared to cry, and despair over the fact that this is not entirely far-fetched.
Cowboy Bebop – good
If you’ve seen the anime, this manga came after, I understand. It’s basically an episodic encore to the series. So, if you liked the show, you’ll like the book.
Prince of Persia – good
I’ve never played Prince of Persia, or seen the movie. There was a very interesting history of the game in the book, though, which I enjoyed. The timeline of the graphic novel was occasionally confusing, and I occasionally had difficulty connecting the dots in the beginning. Ultimately, however, it feels like very interesting folklore, which is why I liked it. I wasn’t overly thrilled with the quality of the narration, but I did appreciate the effort, and the beautiful circuit the story completed. I recommend it if you’re a fan of Arabian/Middle Eastern folklore and fiction, are particularly interested in how reincarnation manifests (hehe) across cultures, or are a fan of the franchise.
Ghost World by Will Eisner– good
Of the three Will Eisner graphic novels I read, this was my least favorite. It was certainly poignant, and was certainly honest– he does an excellent job getting into the heads of two rather believable teenage girls, and following their relationship. I would argue it could have done more as a bildungsroman, but part of the charm of Eisner’s work is what he doesn’t show, and what he doesn’t say. It’s a fast read, and like Cat’s Eye, it’s very close to reality. It comes a little too close, sometimes, for comfort.
Minor Miracles by Will Eisner – great
I loved one of the stories in Minor Miracles. I want to say it was called the Visitor, but I can’t recall for certain, and I returned the book about a week ago, so I can’t check, unfortunately. The whole book was about these beautiful, tiny things that happen that change the world. Invisible kindnesses, strange coincidences, and more than anything, the kinds of things that construct mood and meaning in a neighborhood. If I was going to teach a class on urban setting in American literature, I would teach this graphic novel, because Eisner’s settings have incredible personality. More than that, though, this collection is just sweet, innocent, and pleasant to read. It has a beautiful sort of magic to it, like the title suggests.
Dormia by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski – goodish
There’s actually a video out there of me, somewhere on the interwebs, talking about this book. In said review (whose location will never be disclosed) I liken it to an RPG game. You’ve got your hero, who has “magic” powers or somehow enhanced abilities, who goes on a quest, picking up friends along the way, and eventually going to fight a great big bad guy and save the world. I could actually write a very clear Campbellian hero’s journey for this book. It’s pretty by the book, plot wise. What I did like about it, however, was the number of times you question characters’ loyalties. It does manage to be a good guessing game that way. If you dig the story format I just described, and/or fantasy in general, give it a try. The one thing I will say is that it is long– and it feels long. Though it moves quickly, there are still a lot of pages to move through.
To the Heart of the Storm by Will Eisner – fantastic
This was my favorite of the Eisner graphic novels I read. I loved it. Eisner himself admits that it is a thinly-veiled autobiographical sketch. He does very successfully navigate back and forth between “present” and “past” in the story, and the portrait he paints of America is honest, and the examination of prejudice is biting, but not wholly focused on Antisemitism. I actually think he does an admirable job showing the contradictory, blind, equal-opportunity-hatred of racism and ethnic-stereotyping throughout this novel. I highly recommend it, especially if you are interested in Jewish literature, WWII, urban setting in American literature, or Transnationalism.
Sang Spell by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor – great
This was a book recommended to me by one of my undergraduate overlords. I love fringe groups, and ethnic subsets that no one’s ever heard of. In this book, we’re dealing with the Melungeons. As a background note on the Melungeons, no one is really a hundred percent sure where they came from– they claim Portuguese heritage, mixed with African and Native American, mostly. They live in Appalacia, and are really a little bit gorgeous– frequently with dark skin and blue eyes. Cool. Anyways, the thing I really enjoyed about this book (other than the utilization of an American subset that I had never heard of before) was the focus on choice versus destiny, and the emphasis on time. Time, in this book, is almost omnipresent, and is at the same time elusive. It goes almost without saying that time and choice end up being intertwined in this book. It’s also a story of personal healing, and in a way it has a bit of a Christmas Carol feel to it. I had a few issues with inclusion and some unresolved thematic points, but over all it’s an interesting, weird little book, and there’s a lot packed in there.
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen – greatish
Let me tell you a story about how cheap I am– I buy most of my books at library book sales. Sometimes, as with my copy of Milton’s Poetic Works anthology, this means that my books come with fabulous, useful marginalia. Sometimes it means I buy an edition of the book despite misgivings (the exception being translations– I don’t mess around there); sometimes, therefore, you end up with a Jane Austen novel published by Tor. Now, when it comes to Jane Austen, you might be expecting a cover like the one on the left. With Tor, you get the one on the right. I actually bought this copy because of the horrendous cover. (By the way, it also says “Two sister, Two romances, A tragic tale of love and deceit…” on the cover, like it is a Danielle Steel novel that just happens to have scored the sweet 80s-tastic talents of the artist who did the covers) As mentioned when I was talking about The Kneebone Boy, I love to take the covers and figure out where they fit in to the story. I can picture it with the Oxford cover (left). The closest I can come with the the Tor cover is Elinor learning about Edward from Lucy, and, oh, I would have liked Elinor SO MUCH MORE if she had reacted like this. As it was, this was a story of extremes– Elinor on one side (a very, very English heroine), and her sister on the other. I spent the entire time wanting to smack them both. Also, both of the leading men sucked. Col. Brandon was the only character that was likeable on a basic personality level, and even then, I think I only liked him because he reminded me of Mr. Darcy– an aging, lonely, polite Mr. Darcy. Of this and Pride and Prejudice, I prefer the latter, by the way. Austen is very funny, here, as always, and inevitably her prose is charming, satirical, and does an excellent job criticizing the ridiculousness of her world. I have to question, in general, what the point of the third, forgotten sister was at all. Also, as one last jab at Tor’s edition– the person who wrote the introduction/afterword either (1) didn’t ever read the book, (2) read it so long ago that they’ve forgotten the names (I was waiting the entire book for someone named Halloway to show up), or (3) has zero reading retention. In short, not my favorite Austen, but still better than Emma.
Berlin: City of Stones by Jason Lutes – great
Lutes is coming from a tradition of European comics, and I would liken him to Marjane Satrapi a little bit, as well. One thing that he manages astoundingly well is character differentiation– I never have trouble remembering who is who, and I never have trouble keeping track of the various, deeply and loosely connected storylines. I believe this is the first in a series of three, and I do intend to read the others. There’s a beautiful, unassuming honesty in Lutes’ stories. He’s discussing Germany right before WWII, in the last days of the Weimar Republic, which is something I’ve never really read about before. I was really taken with the political and social complexities, and how human the whole system of stories felt. By the end of the book I really cared about the characters, so where they ended broke my heart a little. There’s this haunting sense of responsibility and making the best of limited circumstances which I think has some real echoes in America today. Recommended.
Wizard’s Tale by Kurt Busiek and David Wenzel – great
This one was a very quick read, and has a sort of whimsical nature. The art in this short graphic novel is astoundingly detailed and beautiful. I actually picked it up for the art. It’s a pretty straightforward hero’s journey, Campbellian almost to a T, and it plays with belonging and the sense of self throughout its length. Gorgeous character design– this one’s just a visual feast.
Identity by Milan Kundera (French)– good
Recommended to me by a friend. While I’m not really in love with Kundera’s spare prose, the ideas he’s playing with are interesting. There’s a very strange separation of self, as you would expect from the title, and the perceived self. Ultimately, I wasn’t really pleased with the psychology of the book. They just felt stilted, and as far as structure goes, I’m not sure anything is attained other than self-awareness. Perhaps, as far as extended metaphors go, that is the ultimate prize, though. The changes don’t feel like they’ll last in this text– which might also be part of the equation– because people, if we’re going to be honest, now, rarely change for good. At best, it’s a temporary state until they change into something else– a link in the chain of identity. Really, if I had to explain this book, I would explain it like that– adding a new link to the chain. My lack of enthusiasm might be stemming from the fact that I think Noa Weber does what this book does, too, and does it more beautifully.
Sandman Mystery Theatre: The Tarantula– okay
So, most Sandman dorks will be able to tell you that Neil Gaiman’s Sandman is a very loose revival of an older comic book character. The Tarantula is kind of going back to that older character. I guess you could think of it as a more direct reincarnation. It’s short, it’s very noir, and I think would actually make an interesting television show. I liked the female lead, was vaguely creeped out by the male lead, and remained unconvinced by the storytelling. There were too many nice, neat fits, and ultimately the Sandman felt like Batman with a gas gun. Also, I had a hard time shaking off the nagging question “Are you my mummy?” every time I looked at the gas mask he wore. Basically, if you’re into the franchise, check it out. If film noir is your bag of potato chips, check it out. Otherwise, move on, soldier.
Joss Whedon’s Fray– greatish
So, somehow, despite being surrounded by Buffy fanatics and having a pretty involved romance with Firefly, I’ve never been exposed to the Slayer Universe. Fray is in this universe, just way, way in the future. One of the things I liked most about Whedon’s introductory note was the fact that he demanded tiny boobs on his lead. He wanted a strong, legitimate heroine, not cheesecake. Because it is Whedon, it’s funny, twisty, strange, and populated by quirky characters who somehow function excellently together. Also, there’s a merman crimeboss. There, now you HAVE to read, just to know. If you love yourself some Buffy, read. If you’re over vampires, and I’m a little over vampires right now, it’s still a decent read because Whedon’s vampires (1) don’t sparkle, (2) actually do evil things, (3) spend most of their time getting dead in this graphic novel and (4) looking grimy, not sexy.