Sunday, July 31, 2016

Review: Fell, Feral City

Fell, Feral City Fell, Feral City by Warren Ellis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan is the second best collection of periodical comics I’ve ever read. (Eric Powell’s The Goon is better, but that’s it.) So when I found out that Ellis had a series that takes on the hardboiled detective genre, I had to check it out.

There are some definite virtues here. Ben Templesmith’s illustrations have a nice, washed out look to them, and they manage to move the story forward on their own. His fight scenes are blunt and muddied, but they’re surprising effective even without words.

Ellis hasn’t lost his ability to tell a tight, clever story either. Each issue is a self-contained narrative, almost like a classic cop procedural. The approach is fresh in every case, and there are legitimate surprises in the twists he introduces.

And the writing is often strong in its feel for language and dialogue. The first frame, when Police Detective Richard Fell has just signed a lease on a new apartment in the rundown Snowtown area, has this great exchange with his elderly new landlady. “Can I move my stuff in tonight?” “Gimme the money. You can do what you like with it. If you’re going to shoot porno, don’t clog the drains.”

So the details and feel are terrific. The rest, not so much.

Fell himself makes a great detective, but not as great a character. He’s committed to helping the helpless, to looking after the citizens of his adopted city, but, after the eight issues collected here at least, there’s no explanation why. There’s some teasing about why he’s been exiled to this backwater, but it stays as backstory. Bottom line, he’s mostly just a white knight here.

On top of that, the episodic nature of the individual issues gets old. As clever as each separate story is, it starts fresh. There’s little building from one story to the next, and I miss that. It’s definitely worth reading the first couple of these, but the payoff diminishes as you go.

I’m not giving up on Ellis, not at all, but I don’t think this is ultimately his best work.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Review: A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I understand that different genres have different rules. I get it that the noir I enjoy will spend a lot of time establishing context because context reveals character. And I get that fantasy will spend time “world-building” (a term I don’t much like since I see it as shorthand for ‘avoiding the development of character,’ but that’s a rant for another day). So I suppose romance novels have their thing, too. Getting to see the tension between two different people builds up the stakes of their eventually coming together. It makes sense.

But this book? Really?

Diana Bishop more or less accidentally recovers a book seething with magical power. She knows it from the moment she sees it, and she recognizes that its power has drawn a host of supernatural creatures all at once: her own fellow witches, a crew of demons, and a devastatingly handsome vampire. She’s done something that’s clearly overturned the order of things, and, by the conventions of every genre I know, I expect to see the repercussions of that…

Instead, we get her going to yoga with her new vampire/possible boyfriend. (Yes, yoga, where the witches, demons, and vampires all hang out doing downward-facing-dog at the same time as at least some of them are scheming after this powerful book.) And we get her discussing interior decorating of the vampire’s “new” 500-year-old home. And we get her assuring her friends that she’s not falling in love with this charismatic creature.

I confess, I made it only about a quarter of the way through this one. I wouldn’t ordinarily review something I’d read so little of, but I needed closure of some sort, and it was either write this or read the rest, and I just can’t see doing that.

The writing her is stunningly clunky. Most of it’s narrated in the first-person, and it comes littered with what we “in the business” sometimes call ‘information dump.’ That is, we get long digressions that fill us in on what happened earlier. A skillful writer – and I know there must be skillful paranormal romance writers – knows how to break up backstory, how to reveal it slowly as part of the ongoing narrative. This feels like cut and paste.

And then, every so often, we get a clumsy third-person chapter that brings us up to speed on how the vampire sees things differently. He’s drawn to her, of course, but he’s confused in his feelings. Does he love her for her mind? For her link to the powerful book? Or because he wants to eat her?

My wife’s family has a saying “Don’t yuck someone else’s yum.” That is, don’t disparage something others enjoy when you know you can’t enjoy it yourself. But here, with all that simply isn’t working, I can’t help myself. How this is a major release – which should total almost 1500 pages when the whole trilogy comes out – is beyond me.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Review: Dope

Dope Dope by Sara Gran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There’s a lot to admire in this one. Gran sets out to interrogate the tough-guy aura of 1950s crime stories by presenting us with a female protagonist, Josepine Flannigan. And she isn’t simply a “private dick” in a dress. She is genuinely a woman, a woman who’s suffered as a neglected daughter, a put-upon prostitute, and a hard-luck junkie. She sees the world differently than the stereotype because her situation begins from an entirely different point: she isn’t someone suffering existential angst, someone who “coulda been a contender” but for some luck. She’s someone who has always felt the obligation to care for others, someone who has always carried the separate female burden of being the caregiver of last resort for the defenseless in her family.

Beyond that, Gran writes well. Check out this gem, “Two girls were sitting at the mirror, laughing and putting on makeup. They were in their late twenties, with figures that looked younger and eyes that looked older.” Or, later, when Josephine meditates on what would drive someone to spend her or his life doing heroin, she weighs the challenge of making a new life, a new identity, as maybe the greatest challenge to getting clean. “That’s why you start, and that’s why you stick with it, so you can finally be someone: a junkie.”

And then there is the genuinely solid narrative story here. Someone wants Josephine to track down a discarded college girl, a kid forgotten by everyone except maybe her own parents. She’s being manipulated from the start, and she plausibly believes what she hears until, gradually, she unpeels the layers. There are twists here, and they’re satisfying.

If I have a complaint, it’s that Gran doesn’t seem fully to inhabit the 1950s moment. Making this a historical novel gives it license for a thoughtful revisionism, but – outside of what’s advertised as a William S. Burroughs’s sensibility to the junkie lifestyle of the era – we don’t get much acknowledgement of how the era was different. Details likes a Rocket 88 or the new release of a Billie Holiday single don’t quite give us the grit of, say, a James Ellroy novel. There’s a slight sense of the architecture of the city as midway between its 1910s tenement past and its eventual 1980s/1990s reconstruction, but Gran doesn’t take time to explore that, and much of what happens feels as if it could be taking place in a generic moment.

[SPOILER ALERT] What elevates this for me from flat genre work, though, is its final and unanticipated twist. I was at first troubled by the sense that it’s Shelley, Josephine’s sister, who’s behind all the machinations and murders. It felt at first like a too-convenient twist, the final reveal in an author’s game with the reader.

As I think about it, though, it feels all the more appropriate, all the more a well-founded maneuver in a novel that really is trying to be about something substantial. Shelley has set everything in motion because her past has come back to haunt her; she has a chance to be a T.V. star, but that’s at risk because a sleazy old friend has naked pictures of her. And, to get them back, she acts on her long-simmering hatred of Josephine, one sister taking it all out on another.

And, as I look back, that hatred is there throughout, just thoughtfully marginalized. Part of Shelley’s hatred for Josephine comes from Josephine’s having been a junkie, from her having been someone almost programmed to let others down.

But I think a greater part of it comes from the fact that it was Josephine who took care of Shelley when no one else would. Shelley was her ‘first kid,’ the dependent for whom she sacrificed herself. Josephine might have made something of herself if not for looking after Shelley – something Detective Springer among others tells us. It’s easy to imagine the deep self-loathing that would give Shelley. Here she is, a beauty and a T.V. star, and Josephine is her portrait of Dorian Gray. Josephine has had nothing but trouble in her life, and that’s a perpetual rebuke to Shelley.

There’s something deeply hardboiled and satisfying in the way Shelley lets that darken her beyond humanity. She becomes capable of murder (and the murder of at least two innocents in Jim and Nadine) in her desire to erase her past, a past which includes Josephine most of all.

So, to wrap up this line of thought, if Josephine is one variety of a female protagonist here, a woman whose suffering we see as the price of her being cast in the role of mother-figure too young, then Shelley is the other side of that. She’s a woman resentful of having been ‘sheltered’ by others, a woman resentful of the fact that, unlike a man, she’s asked to pay the price for her indiscretions, indiscretions that were always and only about surviving. She’s been asked to endure too much in her rise, and she’s going to rewrite the history of her childhood and its deprivations.

In giving us Josephine, Gran makes a striking bid to recover a lost feminine history of her period. In giving us Shelley, she creates a force equally bent on erasing it all over again.

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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Review: Already Dead

Already Dead Already Dead by Charlie Huston
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a lot harder to do this than it looks. I know, all too well, because I’ve been working on something in the same vein. (And “vein” isn’t a pun, though it could be.)

Huston’s basic plan here is to marry the hardboiled novel to the vampire story. His hero, Joe Pitt, is a vampire who, true to the Chandler/Hammett code, insists on working alone in a quasi-existential bid to figure out what it all means. In other words, his case(s) turn out to be as much about self-discovery as about their more proximate causes.

And it works. It works pretty well.

Being a vampire (vampyre) means that Pitt is changed from what he was when he was human. He isn’t sure what fulfillment might look like. He balances his girlfriend – who, as someone HIV-positive, refuses to sleep with him – with his uncertain place in the pecking order of the New York vampire world. He takes cases no one else can manage because, precarious and alone as he may be, no one else in this world is as self-possessed, as legitimately his own person.

The story itself is solid. Pitt comes up against the agendas of several different people, and it isn’t clear until the end who’s responsible for what. It’s professional work, entertaining and engaging, and, as I say, I’ve tried my hand at something similar.

Things fall down a little when too much of the story turns on the particulars of what it means to be a vampire, things like how the virus affects its host and how driven particular vampires are to the different clans and gangs, to the politics of the vampyre world. But, from what I can tell, Huston builds on all of that as part of the ongoing series. He’s planting the seeds of a more complex world where each decision here has implications for future novels. So, if it feels a touch too pat here, I can forgive it.

I also can’t help contrasting this with Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books. Where those are clunky and cliché-ridden, with a protagonist in love with his idiosyncrasies, this is someone who approaches a real character – at least as real as a vampire private detective can get.

In the end (or in the beginning if you prefer) it’s a stretch to make this work, but Huston does. I’m not quite in a hurry to read what’s next, but it’s on the list. This is quality pulp fiction, and I’m taking notes on how Huston pulls it off.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t especially enjoy Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and that, to my somewhat surprise, is the only Gaiman I have read so far. I’m not sure where to start with The Sandman stuff, and none of the other novels have struck me as particularly compelling. (But I am open to suggestions…) I’m just not that interested in fiction that seems poised to rewrite metaphysics. If Neverwhere was full of secret doors and an entire separate plane of existence, it suggested too large a canvas, one unsatisfactorily filled.

As it turns out, though, The Ocean at the End of the Lane isn’t a grand urban fantasy, nor is it an Allan-Moore style fantasy-politico invention. Instead, this is a smaller, more personal and more haunted story.

And it’s what I was hoping I’d find in Gaiman even if I didn’t know it until now.

The more I read this, the more it brought to mind the fabulous A Wrinkle in Time, down even to the presence of three mysterious women (one a girl here) who represent a glimpse of powers that we humans can never quite realize. But, as important as those characters are, the real story turns on a child who is only slowly learning that the universe is larger than himself. It’s a slow, difficult and sometimes terrifying business to learn that the adults who protect us are really just grown-up children themselves. That story may be as old as our species, but we have to find ways to tell it in every generation.

Gaiman manages very cleverly (and often movingly) to give a sense of the wonders of childhood – the joy of having a kitten or the freedom of running through a field – so the threats that emerge have something real at stake. I also enjoy the framing device of his returning to the scene of these events as an adult – an adult who cannot entirely remember what it felt like to be a child in these circumstances – since it punctuates the story as a whole.

There are moments here where a nostalgia creeps in, where (as he discusses in his afterword) Gaiman seems too much drawn to the lost world of his own childhood, and that feels like a flaw to me. Others may complain about the many unexplained elements of the magic, but that doesn’t bother me; the whole point of magic is for things to be left unexplained. But we do get hints at it, promises that some things will be revealed, and then those things aren’t. I like mystery, but I have less patience for teasing.

In any case, I did enjoy this. It feels like a small work, but that may be its biggest virtue: a clean shot at recovering a lost and focused innocence.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Review: The Chill

The Chill The Chill by Jason Starr
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To be honest, I haven’t read all that many “graphic novels.” That’s not for lack of trying. I read trade paperback collections of monthly or quarterly series all the time – like Eric Powells’s The Goon or Dave Sim’s Cerebus. And I enjoy any of them, or I wouldn’t keep reading them.

But actual “novels” in graphic form? Stories that sustain themselves over the course of a book and then end? Not so many. There are the legit literary ones – Will Eisner, Art Spiegelman, and Gene Luen Yang – but this is genre, a noir story boiled down to pictures and just a handful of words.

And this really works. It ties bloodied up Celtic myths with a police procedural and a generational love story. It reveals its background mystery quickly where others might make a gimmick out of it, but it keeps up its energy as the climax ramps up.

As much as any graphic novel I can think of, this feels like reading a movie. The illustrations are clean and sharp, and they carry the story in important ways. As just one example, a character has the capacity to appear differently to different people. The illustrations show that before we get the explanation, but not too much before.

I’ve heard good things about Starr, and I read an earlier book that he wrote with Ken Bruen. On the evidence of these two, he’s someone to keep reading. He gets what the genre is about, and he delivers it without nonsense.

Definitely worth checking out.

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Monday, July 18, 2016

Review: Rilke on Black

Rilke on Black Rilke on Black by Ken Bruen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve had a serious jones for Bruen’s work over the last few months. When he’s on, he just gets the hardboiled. He has his own voice and his own powerful sense of humor, and he has a knack for writing stories that favor the jab over the haymaker: quick narratives that take off and wrap up in skilled fashion.

This one, despite sounding great, is my least favorite of his so far. For one thing, I find the voice here more challenging that in other places. Nick talks in a strange fashion, some of it British-street vernacular (which can make it tough) and some of it just idiosyncratic in its rhythms. I expect him to go on about one thing, and he instead chooses another. It isn’t a matter of vocabulary, but of direction; I had too many instances of expecting he’d talk about one thing and finding, instead, that I was supposed to pick it up by innuendo or implication.

For another, Nick is very self-satisfied. He may have ambitions to be more than a tough bouncer, but he likes being a big plug-ugly. He likes the feeling of intimidating most people he sees. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not a perspective I can readily adopt. Unlike the extraordinary Jack Taylor in The Guards, who manages not quite to hate himself as he wrestles with his many failures, Nick risks patting himself on the back at every turn.

That tension undermines the strong premise of the book: Nick, his new young lover, and his sociopathic neighbor kidnap a local businessman. That might go in a lot of directions – and it does bring some solid payoffs, especially in the way the businessman teases the not-too-bright Nick – but it leads to Nick taking more and more responsibility for the crime as we see him less and less able. (I mean, forgetting to wear the mask that’s in his pocket?) In other words, Nick trusts (and even likes) himself despite increasing evidence that he shouldn’t.

The good news is that, like the other Bruen I’ve read, this is all over in a rush of adrenaline. This isn’t disappointing enough to put me off Bruen, but it’s certainly at the bottom of my list of his.

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Friday, July 15, 2016

Review: Frank Nitti: The True Story of Chicago's Notorious "Enforcer"

Frank Nitti: The True Story of Chicago's Notorious Frank Nitti: The True Story of Chicago's Notorious "Enforcer" by Ronald D. Humble
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I generally know enough to avoid second-rate mob books. If you’ve ever been to my home and seen the floor-to-ceiling collection I have of books on Chicago and Jewish organized crime, you’d know I know the material pretty well, well enough to know what not to read at least.

Humble’s book threw me, though. He makes two big claims and a couple of smaller ones that, if he had evidence for, would really be game-changers.

For starters, he goes for the paradigm-shifting assertion that Frank Nitti was the key man in the Chicago Outfit. The “paradigm,” even after all these years, is that Al Capone led the show in the important years. By the early 1960s, when Bobby Kennedy’s crusade against the mob brought the whole business fully mainstream, there were already claims that the credit (blame?) should have gone to Johnny Torrio. A few years later, when it became clear that the Outfit was still humming along, some people put forward the idea that Tony Accardo was a mover and shaker earlier than the public record suggested. A few years after that, there was a movement for Paul Ricca, with claims that he’d have been “the genuine godfather” (as Bill Roemer called Accardo) but for the accident of getting arrested when he did.

So, Humble goes here for the one remaining big shot no one has really put forward for such honor (dishonor). (To be far, Mars Egheghian has looked hard at Nitti, but he’s made a more thoughtful and less dramatic claim for Nitti’s importance. He isn’t trying to claim that Nitti really overshadowed Capone; he’s trying to tell the history of a key figure who’s generally been overshadowed.)

And the evidence is thin. There are dozens of pages of references, which is good, but few of those references are full or even to substantial sources. There’s a lot of cherry-picking here: a selection of evidence that affirms Nitti’s far-sighted criminal planning, and then a range of unsubstantiated claims. Nitti was the guy behind the Hymie Weiss. Nitti was the real brains behind the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Nitti was the one who saw how to lead the mob out of its Prohibition dependence on illegal booze.

Each of those elements is questionable. Dozens of better-informed historians have tried to solve the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and few have ever put Nitti at the heart of it. But even so, that pillar of evidence would be what deserves attention, not the conclusion Humble tries to draw from it.

Humble’s second big claim is, taking the widely discussed but generally dismissed claim that Giuseppe Zangara deliberately shot Anton Cermak when he seemed to be aiming at FDR, he asserts that future Outfit triggerman Davey Yaras was the brains behind the assassination.

I’m not sure where to start with all that. I’ve been working on a book project involving Yaras (who, weirdly, is buried 20 yards from my grandmother) for several years, so I know what’s out there on him. How Humble can claim that a 21 year old kid, who was, apparently, still working as a boxer, could have been involved in a vast and successful conspiracy, is beyond me. And how, given the thin-ness of that claim, he could then go on to quibble with the Warren Commission’s findings and insist that Yaras was central to the JFK assassination is simply mind-boggling.

It’s conspiracy-theory work of the kind that gives this whole genre a bad name.

Early on, when I suspected problems, I started noting some of the factual errors here. For the sake of posterity, here are some of them:

+ New York’s Paul Kelly, of Five Points Gang fame, was not Irish but rather very much Italian.

+ Tony Accardo was not locked up in the Cook County Prison, as Humble tells on page 11. Rather, as Humble tells us on page 50, Accardo famously never spent a night in jail.

+ North Side gang leaders Bugs Moran (French-Canadian) and Teddy Newberry (Jewish) were not Irish.

+ There is no evidence that policeman Harry Miller (yeah, one of my relatives) was linked to narcotics trafficking. To be sure, I followed Humble’s one reference on the subject to George Murray’s old book. Murray says nothing about narcotics, and Humble gives no other source.

So, yeah, skip this one. With any luck, I’ll have one of my own out in the next four or five years. Without that luck, you can still find a great many much better takes on Chicago and Prohibition. It’s a long list.

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Review: Ubik

Ubik Ubik by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to like this one more than I did. Philip K. Dick’s work seems intriguing at a distance. I gather he had a sense of some of what it would feel like to live in virtual reality before virtual reality existed, and I gather he had a critical eye toward it. Who would we be in a future where we could invent so much of the world we experienced?

And this book really is a virtual reality experience. I don’t want to give away too much, but most of it takes place within a construct that one of the characters discovers himself inside. There is an inside and an outside to the experience, and it’s tantalizingly confusing to tell one from the other. And the very end suggests a wrinkle that serves as a potentially fascinating coda to the whole.

Knowing all that, I’d have been psyched to read this. I like what it’s asking, and I like the way it refuses to take the easy path and explain everything we go through. Much weaker authors could turn this material into something three times as long, and they’d weaken the strangeness at its core.

That said, though, this just didn’t quite grab me. Too many of the rules of the universe get demonstrated and then undermined. Details that matter early end up not mattering at all. There is a showdown in place, but it’s not the one we’ve been led to believe for most of the book. Dick shows his cleverness throughout this, and that cleverness acts as an antidote to the antiseptic sci-fi concepts that undergird it, but I found myself playing catch-up so often that I never quite caught the joy of it.

To be fair, I read this as an audiobook, and I think the narrator was likely ill-suited to the material. There’s an air of cynicism here; if it isn’t quite a noir experience, it certainly isn’t the bright, suburban-toned reader I had.

So, I’ll look for another PKD one of these years, holding out hope that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep or some other of his best-known work will get through to me. For now, though, I don’t quite get the program, and I’m willing to accept that it may be more my shortcomings than Dick himself.

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Monday, July 11, 2016

Review: The Tale of the Heike

The Tale of the Heike The Tale of the Heike by Heike
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Almost 35 years ago, when we were around 15, my friend Alan and I saw the movie “Men Who Tread on Tigers’ Tails.” It’s an early one by the director Akira Kurasowa, and I think it changed my life. I’d never understood before that a movie could be about more than just the story it was telling. I’d liked (even loved) some films before that, and I’d disliked others, but it was always about a sense of whether I was being entertained. That film taught me that, in a skilled director’s hands, everything is part of describing a potential way to look at the world. Whether it was the lighting, costume, inflection (and the actors all speak in Japanese with subtitles) or framing, everything suggested a sense of what I might call the samurai code: restraint, dignity, and a fierce pride. I didn’t have to “enjoy” the experience (although I did.) I just had to accept, and be moved by the fact, that some artists see things differently.

I think it affected Alan, too, who – last I checked – remembered it almost as vividly as I did in his career as an artist and architect.

The film tells the story of a Japanese general, Yoshitsune, who is on the run from his brother, Yoritimo. Yoshitsune was the great hero in the war that established Yoritomo as the shogun, but then Yoshitsune turned on him and wanted to destroy him a potential rival. The Kurasowa film tells the story of a single episode in that long conflict: Yoshitsune, disguised as a woman and accompanied by a handful of his retainers – most importantly the warrior monk, Benkei – has to find a way past a guarded gate. The chief guard suspects who Yoshitsune is, but he eventually gives in – out of a mixture of pity and admiration – and the hunted men get through.

Kurasowa made the film in Japan in 1945. (Think about that, just months after Hiroshima.) He had a budget that, in today’s dollars, would be less than half a million dollars. Yet the movie seemed a haunting chapter in an epic. I once found a book called “Yoshitsune,” but I can’t remember it doing any of the same emotional things the movie did. It told the facts (Yoritomo and Yoshitsune are historical figures, but they’re also the subject of many legends) but lost the poetry.

Well, The Tale of the Heike, is that full story with all the poetry. It’s one of the major epics of Japanese history. I suppose I had heard the title, but I didn’t know what it was. (It’s not as well known in the West as The Tale of Genji, which I have yet to read, but it gets mentioned.) A couple of the characters from Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 really admire it, so I looked it up on Wikipedia for a thumbnail sketch. Somewhere in the summary, I read that it tells the story of Yoshitsune. I bought the book that afternoon, and started in on it nibble by nibble for the next month or so.

This book starts slowly. If you’re still with me in this review, then chances are you’re where I was: trying to decide whether it’s worth investing so much time in a book that looks so strange and intimidating. So understand that perhaps as much as the first two-thirds of this work establish a world that plays by very different rules than anything we know in the West. I almost gave up on it, but I wanted to get to the Yoshitsune parts. If you can hang on that long, it will be worth it. Maybe it will even change your life.

At a simple level, this is the story of a clan of Japanese warriors, the Heike, who come to dominate court politics. (Royall Tyler makes all this clear in his introduction which I foolishly skipped until I’d finished. Bad idea; take 10 minutes to get grounded through that introduction.) Under their leader, Kiyomori, they become arrogant and cruel, and eventually they commit many offenses – some intentionally and some by accident – and eventually give opportunity to a rival clan, the Genji, led by my old friend Yoritomo. (By the way, the Genji of this story are not the same as the individual named Genji of The Tale of Genji – at least that’s what I understand at the moment.)

There are a lot of names here, though, so many that the list of primary characters includes probably only about one in twenty of the characters who get named in the course of the work. If you’re like me, you’ll find it bewildering at times to follow the action. I actually used multiple bookmarks so I could look back at the character list and forward to the extensive family trees. I’d routinely lose a sense of what was going on and get frustrated trying to figure out which clan someone supported or which person was his immediate enemy. And there are plenty of episodes I’m sure I just glossed over.

It’s easy to lose sight of the central conflict, but, in the end, don’t worry about that. There are lots of digressions – descriptions of someone’s armor, accounts of legends from centuries earlier, or even quick descriptions of what constitutes good faith or ethical character – but I think it is okay to miss them. There’s so much here that you don’t have to explore every corner to get a sense of the weight of the whole. Recognize that the first six or seven books set up the Heike as, in general, arrogant and unappreciative of their high standing, and then recognize that the last five or six recount their fall and the Genji’s rise.

And then appreciate the poetry here.

For starters, look at how it starts:

“The Jetavana Temple bells//ring the passing of all things.// Twinned sal trees, white in full flower,// declare the great man’s certain fall. // The arrogant do not long endure:// They are like a dream one night in spring.”

If that doesn’t work for you, if it doesn’t give a light, clear sense of the great weight of the war and politics that overturned a great nation, give it a little longer. This is what strikes me as profound Eastern insight: you have an obligation to be as strong and focused as you can make yourself, but you also have to recognize your smallness before the rest of the world.

And to that end, we get an increasingly moving experience here: one character after another, when wounded, victorious, in love, or contemplating great loss, writes a brief poem. One ideal here is the warrior-poet, and if the language doesn’t always translate outside of the moment of composition, the effort is always moving. They’re wrestling with death and dignity at all times, and they’re refusing to live as beasts.

Another powerful aesthetic here is the sense that no one means very much outside his or her clan. Many of these figures commit suicide rather than give in to the enemy. It’s sometimes about sparing themselves physical pain or ignominy, but it’s also sometimes about the great terror that would follow if they were truly alone. We have a much more developed sense of self in our culture; here’s a glimpse at how war and tumult affect people with a very different outlook on the world. No one asks to be part of the family he or she is born into; no one here can clearly contemplate what it means to have that family disappear.

In that light, Yoshitsune’s story is all the more powerful. After all, it’s his own brother who’s hunting him. It’s his own clan that has turned on him for no clear reason. He’s both the greatest of the Genji and the least. As the Heike rises and then falls, so does he. As the temple bells ring the passing of all things, they ring the passing of even the greatest heroes.

This would all be a lot easier to follow if it had a more consistent political perspective. I assumed at one point that it would be a “hit-piece” on the Heike, making them out to be uniformly bad guys. Instead, there are many Heike to admire and many Genji to question. One clan rises and another falls, but the greater truths endure. It’s all a great puppet show, but underneath it lies the great and unreachable beauty of human experience.

I admired the scene Murakami quotes in 1Q84, but I admire it even more here, in context. When the Genji close in on the child emperor, almost the last key political chip in the Heike’s hands, his nurse takes him out to drown in the sea. She tells him, “This land of ours, a few millet grains scattered in remote areas, is not a nice place. I am taking you to a much happier one.” And before he leaves this world, “he pressed his dear little hands together,// prostrated himself toward the east,// and bade farewell to the Ise shrine,// then turned to the west, calling the Name.” I didn’t quite see the beauty of it when I came upon it in 1Q84, so it may not come through here either, but there’s such a profound emptiness to it, an emptiness that becomes a beauty on the other side. Free of the burdens of living in this world, he sees precisely what he’s being asked to surrender of it. And then, spoiler alert, he drowns.

That same feeling gets echoed in one of my favorite laments, an editorialization by Akashi Kakuichi, who seems to have put this book into its official written form sometime in the 14th century. “In this present world of ours, the throne inspires no awe.// In ancient times an imperial edict, read aloud to a dead tree,// drew from it blossoms and ripening fruit// and commanded obedience from the very birds of the air.”

In case you find yourself drawn to the Yoshitsune sections in the way I am (and be warned that they come late, really only in the last two books), you might note the irony that the incident from The Men Who Tread on Tigers’ Tails is not here. That seems to be from a No play, called Ataka, by way of a kabuki play called Kanjinchō. Kanjincho is now on my list, just ordered. (They were writing fan fiction in medieval Japan, too.)

Don’t worry, though, Yoshitsune emerges as a serious bad-ass here. At one point, he decides to split his army so his main force will engage the enemy and he’ll lead a smaller unit to the rear. The enemy thinks they’re protected by rocky, dangerous mountains behind them. Yoshitsune, though, startles several deer and then rides his horse behind them on the theory that the wild animals will know the surest pathways through the mountains. And it works, surprising one of the last serious Heike generals into defeat.

At another point, when the Heike are making a final stand on an island, Yoshitsune leads a small expeditionary fleet in the middle of a storm. As he says to his frightened troops. “Merely that others refuse to go// makes no excuse for doing the same.// Good weather keeps an enemy watchful.// When howling winds and foaming waves// seem to guarantee perfect safety.// that is when an attack hits hardest.”

Or try this one, my favorite of his hardboiled lines. “The warriors muttered among themselves, ‘But it’s so dark! How will we find our way?’ ¶ ‘What about the usual torches – the great, big ones?’ Yoshitsune asked. ¶ ‘By all means!’ Sanehira replied. He set fire to the houses of Onabara.”

I’ve gone on way too long (and self-indulgently) but the bottom line is that I found myself intrigued but almost bored for nearly two-thirds of this. And then, suddenly, I was as moved by this story as I was when I first glimpsed it 35 years ago.

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Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Review: Jaka's Story

Jaka's Story Jaka's Story by Dave Sim
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

After 2500 or so pages of Cerebus the Aardvark (this is the fifth compendium of the strip), most of which I have read in the fifteen minutes before falling asleep, a lot of this still feels like a dream. I’m not entirely sure how to make sense of it, and I’m not always sure why I’m still reading, but there is something that does pull me back.

It seems strange when I pull myself out of the book and reflect on it – though it hardly seems strange when I’m reading so many other strange things inside the covers – but Cerebus is only a minor character here. After he turns over the expectations of what it means to be a great warrior in volume one, after he mocks “High Society” in volume two, and after he ascends to a kind of pope with both religious and political power in volumes three and four, he kind of chills out here as the love of his life, Jaka, processes her childhood disappointments and deals with her marriage to a likeable slacker husband. And as she dances, dances like no one else in this whole vast kingdom.

So I can’t even classify this as a love story or a political allegory or even a parody of what comics are supposed to be. Maybe Cerebus started out as that, but Sim follows so many tangents along the way that it isn’t possible to know what he’s intending once things go along. How do you make sense of the fact that Jaka’s uncle, Emperor Julius, is modeled directly on Groucho Marx (down to extraordinarily Groucho-like banter)? Or that the older man who tries to entice Jaka’s husband away from her is Oscar Wilde? Or what about the tavern owner who employs Jaka and, while saying almost nothing, keeps an extensive journal of his sexual fantasies about her? As I say, it all seems dream-like, but in the middle of it you don’t quite stop for questions.

I’m not even sure you can classify this as a story of any sort. Things happen, but Sim has a strange way of setting conflicts up – the tavern owner’s fixation on Jaka, Oscar’s plans for Jaka’s husband, Jaka’s childhood antagonism with her nursemaid – and then seeming to tire of them. If we get the end to a thread of story, it comes quickly, sometimes with someone dispatched by an arrow virtually out of the blue, and then we’re onto something else. I don’t say that as complaint, just observation. Whatever Sim is doing here, he’s writing brand new rules.

Underlying all of this are the often haunting illustrations. Because he originally self-published these books – and because Gerhard come along somewhere in there to draw beautiful backgrounds – the canvas is huge. This volume, like the others, is 500 pages, and some of them are wordless, cinematic repetition of pictures. At times it feels almost like a film, with Sim like a director taking us where he wants for as long as he wants us there.

The one complaint I do have is that this volume in particular has too much text, and it’s often rendered in almost unreadable letters. Large parts of this are in 8-point font; it feels like an artistic choice that I might respect, but it’s also a pain. With my aging eyes, I had to skip parts, and I never knew how relevant some of it was. I got the impression I was supposed to skip a great deal of it – to note it was there and then move on – but I couldn’t help getting frustrated as well. Why not make it easier to read? Why not excerpt these long prose pieces with at least some of the skilled economy of the graphic novel parts?

If you’re thinking of getting on the Cerebus train, I urge you to start with the first volume, which is more coherent and more clearly a conventional story. If you make it all the way to this station, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’ve declared myself finished with Cerebus before this, but something in its weird and idiosyncratic view of the world has brought me back. I have no immediate plans for the next one, but I can’t help wondering where Sim takes his strange little hero next.

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Review: Down There

Down There Down There by David Goodis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When you read something in a Library of America edition, you expect it to be pretty good. It’s like expecting to find good paintings at the Chicago Art Institute. What’s the place for if not for hanging the best of the best?

So that’s the virtue and the deficit of reading this “pulp fiction/classic” an oxymoron of categories. If something’s pulp (or “crime fiction” as the volume’s title calls it) then it’s supposed to be temporary. It’s not supposed to last, and that’s not just part of how it’s made. It’s part of the aesthetic, too. I once knew a guy who liked to play classical music in a noisy bar. He may have been pretty good (I didn’t know enough about classical music to know) but part of what made it memorable was that he knew whatever art he had wouldn’t echo long enough for any but a handful of proximate few to hear it.

Goodis was a pulp writer, and his hero here is a gifted classical pianist who finds himself “Down There” in a run-down bar among people with almost nothing going for them. Goodis is also a pretty good writer, so this not only moves from the very beginning, but it covers a lot of ground. In the best of ways, I got to the final pages far more quickly than I realized, and then I had to savor the few remaining ones as I wrapped it all up.

I think I’d like this even if I were reading it out of historical context. As a book it holds up even alongside the good stuff being written today. I’m not sure it’s as hard-hitting or nuanced as what Dennis Lehane does, but to turn it around, I don’t know that Lehane could do what he does without a foundation that includes Goodis and what he showed was possible in noir. In any case, even as a book you just pick up, this works pretty well. Maybe some of it seems a bit clichéd, but then that’s probably because Goodis invented some of those clichés.

Reading it in that historical context, it’s all the more impressive. Eddie is a musician, but his being an artist seems (in my still limited reading) a break-through. He’s a tough guy, hardboiled through a backstory that comes to us a bit more clumsily than the good ones do it today, but he’s also consumed by what it means to create something more than just the stuff of everyday life. He goes beyond the Hammett tough guy, beyond the Chandler wannabe knight, beyond the Cain hero caught in a web he can’t see until too late. He is, as ever, a wish-fulfillment stand-in for the author, but, as an artist, he is even moreso; he’s making art, or trying to, even as the world around him barely gives a damn.

Yeah, that’s one more way for a writer to show he’s sorry for himself, but that doesn’t make it less interesting. All these techniques, all the noir moves, constitute a technology for telling stories. Goodis helped create that technology and, along the way, he told some pretty good stories. How strange that this one, presumably his best, now sits in what passes for a museum, something disposable that we’ve decided has a place on the most solid of shelves.

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Sunday, July 3, 2016

Review: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought I’d read this when I was a kid, but coming back to it, it seemed brand new. Maybe I conflated it with something else, but it wasn’t a trip down memory lane. Instead, it was a whole new experience. Claudia and Jamie run away to live at the Met in New York, and spend much of their time living on an early 1960s budget.

More importantly, my ten-year-old son liked it. He’s the one who assigned it four stars out of five, and that sounds about right to me. He says it’s “interesting,” and he enjoyed the balance between the adventure in the city and the details about art and negotiating their hiding places.

Me, I admired the voice. I certainly didn’t remember that Mrs. Frankweiler is our narrator, and I like the way that gives Konigsberg the opportunity to explain some otherwise inaccessible information to her fictional audience, her long-time attorney to whom she is writing the entire story. There’s a sophistication to the narrative that, along with forgiving some of the social and economic changes of the last fifty years, makes this a cut above most of the usual tweener books I know.

Still, this one doesn’t quite have the magic of, say, Holes or A Wrinkle in Time. I’m willing to suspend disbelief for a book, but it’s hard here to forget that these are two kids along in the big city with parents who are worried sick about them. Instead, I’m supposed to sympathize with their quest to learn about a new piece of art. My son’s experience suggests there are still kids who can do that, but I don’t think it quite works for a parent.

So, in the end, I’m glad it worked for a ten-year-old. Maybe it worked for me when I was the target age, but apparently I’ve forgotten (or I never tried it).

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Friday, July 1, 2016

Review: The Guards

The Guards The Guards by Ken Bruen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I believe that Hemingway is the grandfather of all real hardboiled work. It’s not just a matter of his creating the hardboiled hero, the guy who soldiers on despite his sense that the world no longer matches the order he was promised. It’s also about his inventing the prosody, the poetry really, of the hardboiled language. He taught us how to boil away the excess, how to cut away everything but the bone from a story.

Bruen’s novel is so close to the bone, so taut, that it’s as much poetry as prose. Sure it’s hardboiled in its characterization of Jack Taylor and his Galway world, but, as much as accomplishment as that is, it’s the least of what’s going on. I could characterize the story, but why bother? The real joy here is in the language. Throughout, Bruen seems to be asking how many words you can cut away and still let the heartbeat underneath ring clear.

There’s nothing sentimental in Jack Taylor. He battles nostalgia for the father he loved and admired, and he’s unapologetic about admiring books and good writing, but he never thinks of the past as better than what he sees now, and he never thinks of himself as better than others. He knows he’s a fallen, bitter man. He doesn’t think he deserves much and, given that he has so little, his world seems about right.

And then, somehow, the book is deeply funny as well. I’ve seen Bruen praised elsewhere for his humor, but I get it here better than anywhere else. You can laugh at the world, but that laughter is not ultimately reassuring. Instead, it’s all you have left when the comforting truths die: the world may not play fair, but the compensation for that God-is-dead condition is a lot of absurd contradictions.

One of my favorite of those is his claim that “Fuckit” is “the short version of the Serenity Prayer.”

Another comes when Jack recounts his childhood discovery that he’d learned to read. When a bus drove past, he read the word “Paddy” on an ad on the side. “[My father] was delighted. Not only because it was the first word I spelt but it was his name. A more cynical view is my first word happened to be the Irish whiskey.”

Bruen really nails this one; it’s my favorite of his so far. I’m disappointed (as I often am) that this is the first in a series because I doubt he can catch such lightning in the next bottle. That said, this one is so well done, it sings in such a low, laconic tone, that I’ve already ordered the next one up.

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