Month: July 2013

The Sandman vol 1: Preludes & Nocturnes

The Sandman Vol 1 – N. Gaiman; Vertigo

I finished reading Neil Gaiman’s massively-famous The Sandman: Vol 1, Preludes & Nocturnes.  I had found the second volume very cheap at a library book sale. I have been putting off reading this series for a very long time, so when I got volume two practically free, I decided I would bite the bullet and read.  The Sandman is a series that began in 1989 and continued through 75 issue until 1996.  It has won acclaim in both the comics-community and in the general media (e.g. New York Times and Entertainment Weekly).

I have never been interested in this series because, after some review of the matter, I think that I am not on the same wavelength as Gaiman.  That’s a fair way of putting it.   I find Gaiman a bit creepy.  Not that I have ever met him, mind you.  There are female friends in my world who use the word “skeevy.”  No one has ever defined that word for me and I am hardly an expert in its usage.  However, if I had to associate it – yeah, it’s gonna be with Gaiman.  When I was dragging my feet about reading this series, I looked Gaiman up on Wikipedia. I even read an article about his wife.  Yeah, neither one is going to get invited over to a tea party at my house.  Again, nothing against them – we just come from widely divergent universes. Also, “gothic” is usually just creepy.

I actually attempted to read a couple of Gaiman’s novels.  I think I got at least 25 pages in Neverwhere.  And I did watch the DVD of Coraline.  But that’s as far as I was able to get.  Something about his writing or his ideas doesn’t mesh with me.  That is okay. I would rather be honest about it than lie and pretend to be a fanboy over this.

First impressions:  (1.)  the main character, Morpheus, looks like Gaiman.  And it’s not a look I like.  Arrogant of the author?; (2.)  man, I hope this isn’t just a revenge tale; (3.) The art is gritty. Dunno if I like the layouts.

After reading volume one, I can say that some of the contents are very dark and disturbed (depraved?).  But these elements are luckily buried in a story that is tolerable, not great.  The question is:  is the story there to provide a context for the darkness or do the disturbing parts just fill-out an otherwise credible storyline?  Immediately, I think most fans would say the latter.  I am not so sure.  There are some good ideas, don’t get me wrong.  For example, the interactions and juxtapositions in “Imperfect Hosts” is quite original and creative and I can get behind some of this inventiveness.   The same goes for “A Hope in Hell.”  Both of these issues demonstrate the best that is offered in this volume.  Creative and interesting.  But throughout the rest is a very dark and dim view of humanity.

I was never really able to sympathize or enjoy the Morpheus character.  Particularly, with his moping around and stereotypical portrait.  Pale, hairy, moping Gothic creature. And the thing is, while we are led to believe that this character has insight and is cunning, generally, I found him boring and lucky.  I am not familiar with Jack Kirby’s Sandman character, but I cannot say that Gaiman’s characterization is a winner for me.

So here is the thing. . . not all authors have universal audiences.  Many authors are able to reach most audiences.  Some strive to increase their audience.  Some authors have a select, carefully segmented audience and seek only to reach that number.  I suspect a lot of readers really dig Gaiman’s work and he does have a widespread audience.  For better or worse, though, I am not in that number.  I can recognize the quality parts in this volume, but hands-down I am completely more entertained and interested in Locke & Key and Scalped.   I do intend to read volume two of The Sandman, but we will see if I ever get father than that.  I am going to give the first volume three stars – because I do think it is deserving of precisely three.

3 stars

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger AckroydThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd is Agatha Christie’s fourth Hercule Poirot book, third novel.  It was published in 1926 and it is the third Agatha Christie book I have read.  It is actually one of Christie’s most well-known books, particularly because of the twist in the method of telling the story – which, if you have not read the book, do not read about it – but go ahead and read the actual novel.  I would tell you – but it would wreck it.  So, this review will have to seem a bit ambiguous.

I kept myself innocent of knowledge about the novel and therefore, I was duly surprised and impressed by the famous “twist.”  Also, I give it five stars because of the twist and the continuous wit throughout the novel.  I really enjoyed the novel.  It’s almost a “locked room murder.” Hastings is alluded to, but we learn he has gone off to the Argentine.  Taking his place is the narrator of the story, Dr. Sheppard.

Poirot is really well-developed in this novel.  Much more so than in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and The Murder on the Links.  Christie gives a more complete picture of Poirot – and he is slightly less frustrating than in the previous two novels.  He is witty, amusing, and solves the mystery with panache.  How can you not love Poirot?

This novel has so much wit in it. Dry humor. Sarcastic humor.  Amusing characters.  I absolutely love the characters of Dr. Sheppard and his sister.  Their interactions are wonderful.  Also, I really think Christie describes Dr. Sheppard’s sister, Caroline, with such insight and perfection that Christie must have known a person in real life such as Caroline.  And don’t we all?  After all, one thing that I do like about these characters in this novel is that I feel I know someone like each of them.  To include the tedious Mrs. Ackroyd.

One of the many amusing lines, from chapter 14:

“The English people, they have a mania for the fresh air,” declared Poirot. “The big air, it is all very well outside, where it belongs.  Why admit it to the house?”

I really chuckled at this because Poirot is such a stubborn and enigmatic character – plus, Christie loves using him to represent stereotypes of the French (Belgian) and English.  She’s poking fun at all of us and it is a real hoot.

I recommend this novel for everyone .  Sure, even if you are more shrewd than I and figure out the twist long before the ending, I think you will still enjoy the wit and setup in the novel.  The characters, for sure, are worthy.  If you are like me, and enjoying being surprised by the twists and turns of detective novels, you’ll like this one – it is a classic one that influenced the detective novel henceforth.

5 stars

The World Jones Made

TheWorldThatJonesMadeThe World Jones Made is the sixth novel authored by Philip K. Dick that I have read.  It is an early work by PKD, written in 1954 and published in 1956.  I read the 1993 Vintage Books edition (in which there were two typos).   It is a short novel, 199 pages total, but it took me two weeks to read it.  Not, really, because I am a bad reader – but because it just was not very interesting and/or gripping.

Usually, I can read a PKD novel in about two days.  I usually stay up far too late clutching the book and burning my eyes out.  Not so with this novel.  It does contain all of the usual PKD items such as characters’ worlds falling apart, political turmoil, weird “science,” and shocking moralities.  Nevertheless, it does lack the fun and potency that I have found in PKD’s other works.  Even a bad PKD novel is worth reading, though.  I will only grant this novel two stars, but will still tell people that this is worth reading.  And that statement, though seemingly contradictory, is why PKD remains a major author.  His “bad” novels are still worth reading.  There are not that many authors who can say the same.

So, the novel takes place in 2002, though that is not quite relevant.  The story is a somewhat dystopian one because it does touch on the fall of governments and societal paradigms.  FedGov is the international governing organization.  They were formed after a major world war which saw the release of a multitude of nuclear weapons.  Obviously, (this was written in 1954) Russia and China are hinted at as culprits.  However Dick does suggest that there is a higher cause other than squabbling nations, viz. the dogmatism of non-relativism.  Thus, the major thrust behind the governmental agenda of FedGov is:  to promote and protect the now official paradigm of relativism.

Without lengthy diatribes or didactic harping, PKD forces the reader to consider a world in which the dominant ethical schema is relativism.  Of course, PKD does not get involved in the picayune aspects of how this all works and he leaves the details up to the reader to puzzle out.  This is good:  it was a “challenge” for me because I am absolutely not a relativist whatsoever.  But imagining relativism – not merely as a possible option – but as a norm for society was vaguely interesting.  Sort of like a “flip” of things.  I say that, but relativism has really caught on in the contemporary era under the guise of “freedom,” so I cannot say the “flip” is as opposite as it was for PKD in the 1950s.

In the most poignant scene in the book (chapters 9 & 10), the main characters go to a bar which presents forms of entertainment to which the characters react in a variety of ways.  Some call it outright depravity and perversity, others recognize some aesthetic value, while others seem ambivalent and disinterested.  On page 82, the main character (Cussick) asks (in a general rhetorical sense): “Did we go too far?”  and ten pages later the same character calls the entertainment “depravity.”

Meanwhile, this same character is shown a manuscript to a text called The Moral Struggle in which the anti-FedGov leader’s plans and ideas are presented.  Cussick’s job is working in Security for FedGov.  His experiencing this sort of environment and being introduced to a variety of anti-FedGov items causes him to really evaluate the situation.  Especially since he really struggles with the anti-FedGov opposition leader, Jones.

Jones is a “precog” and therefore is forced to take a position on free-will/determinism that also informs his position against relativism.  How can be he a relativist when he can see the future and he is correct about what will happen?  Further, how trustworthy is Jones?  Everyone wants to know – and those he impresses with his foresight become loyal followers, moving beyond trusting to fanatical. He is a hero to many and is the invaluable key to the opposition to FedGov.  The “precog” and mutant elements of the novel seem very much like the PKD ideas found in Minority Report.

One idea really struck me.  In chapter 12 a character is explaining the efforts to colonize in space, off-planet.  He says:

Because, in the final analysis, we don’t want to adapt to other planets:  we want them to conform to us.  Even if we found one second Earth it wouldn’t be enough.

I found that quote practically precog on the part of PKD because I read it in light of all the recent news and hullabaloo about finding “habitable planets like Earth” that has been in all of the NASA and Science journals and news services lately. Cp. Gliese

Overall, PKD is working a lot of tough concepts and sometimes the storyline gets lost.  None of the characters are terribly likeable and the main character Cussick seems especially benign and flat.  This really is not a great novel.  But it does provide lots of food for thought outside of the covers of the book – so if you are a reader that just wants to play with ideas on your own, but need a little kickstart – this novel is good for you.  It’s a worthy read:  because reading any PKD is like getting kicked in the head. Other than that, if you do not read this novel, you probably are not missing out on anything amazing.  And there are plenty of better PKD options.

2 stars

The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount

nonexistent knight cloven viscountThis afternoon I finished the book The Nonexistent Knight and The Cloven Viscount by Italo Calvino.  I suppose I should mention, those are two novellas that are contained in the book – not one long title for a single novel.  Anyway, I read this directly after having read Calvino’s very famous If on a winter’s night a traveler. . .  I gave that work a five star rating.  I am going to grade these two novellas as a whole unit – because they are actually  relatively similar and I think I would, separately, give them both three stars anyway.

The Cloven Viscount is a rather early work by Calvino.  I believe it was first published in 1952.  It does have an early-writer feel to it – but probably made more obvious since I just finished reading If on  a winter’s night a traveler. . .  I was entertained by the story and I do feel that Calvino was attempting to make some vague demonstrations of morality, religion, and even war, but it isn’t a great masterpiece.  I enjoyed the work because it was unique and entertaining and Calvino has skill using words.  However, if I step back and consider the novella in terms of all the things I have read, it really only falls in the average category.

The Cloven Viscount is about a Viscount, dopey and naive, who heads to do his duty at war with the Moslems (purposive spelling there).  In his zeal for fighting he gets blasted into two by a cannonball.  Two – vertically; not like an upper and lower half situation.  But a left and right split. Anyway, he returns home (salvaged from the battlefield) and irrationally terrorizes his castle, lands, and people.  Foibles and situations arise as the story is told by the Viscount’s nephew.  Calvino touches on religious groups (and the persecution/sequestering they undergo) as well as some vague ideas regarding a class society.  But it is all very “light” and not fleshed-out and certainly not overbearing.  In the end, the novella has a morality tale feel to it – without a whole lot of the sermonizing found in morality tales.  Overall, it was okay. Somewhat interesting, somewhat flat.

I much more enjoyed The Nonexistent Knight – and it conjured up fantastic combinations in my brain of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, St. Terese d’Avila, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail.   It was first published in 1959 and I found a lot to like in the novella. To be honest, I will probably “forget” The Cloven Viscount soon enough – but The Nonexistent Knight will keep in my head for awhile. Interesting ideas to play with and, like the other novella, quite unique.

The novella is twelve chapters in all, but I feel like at chapter nine, Calvino got restless with his story and just wanted to wrap it up. There is a change that takes place in the writing and storyline – as if it was to be a novel and then just became a novella because Calvino was “done with it.”  And this is why it gets three stars from me and not more.

The first four chapters really satirize and mock the human fascination with war and chivalry and nobility.  Calvino presents an image of medieval war that ignores all of the high-moral standards that are presented in dreamy romances about the Middle Ages.  But it is not an in-depth criticism that Calvino presents.  Rather, it seems like he pretends to explain the perspective that the actual participants have towards battle.  For example on page 62:

War anyway is made up of a bit of slaughter and a bit of routine and doesn’t bear being looked into too closely.

The female character, Bradamante, is fascinating and I would have liked to have seen this character developed in a full-length novel.  She is so incongruous and yet significant to the story!  But, of course, the story is nothing without Agilulf Bertrandin of the Guildivern.  Here is the concept of the ideal made real.  And yet, as nonexistent as the real gets. (Which is so much fun to type.)  And I just love this character.  He’s so ridiculous and awesome and fun to explore.  His interactions with the others are so cool and confident and yet, he carries this massive sorrow of the distance of non-existence around.  I loved him as a character – and I think Bradamante was a great balance to his character.

Another character (Raimbaut) speaks of him:

I see the virtue and value, but it’s all so cold . . . but a knight who doesn’t exist, that does rather frighten me, I must confess. . . Yet I admire him, he’s so perfect in all he does, he makes one more confident than if he did exist. . .

So this is a wonderful concept to continue thinking on:  why does the ideal existing cause fear? (It’s obvious it causes admiration.) And in this novella, does the ideal actually exist or not? Fascinating.

3 stars

If on a winter’s night a traveler

IfonawintersnightatravelerIf on a winter’s night a traveler was published in 1979 in Italian by Italo Calvino.  Many consider this to be his major work.  It is the first item I have read by Calvino, though I think I have owned two other novels by him for over a decade.  I felt like reading something heady and in tradeback and not over 300 pages.  So this novel fit the bill. I bought my copy used in Charleston, SC for $3.

This is a brilliant piece of metafiction structured like an ouroboros and a matryoshka doll.  In many ways, the author presents the classic One Thousand and One Nights – Arabian Nights as a similar work.  I do see the comparison as valid, but I honestly prefer the matryoshka doll and the ouroboros as more accurate.  Not that it matters – sometimes with metafiction, there is no one, true conclusion.  I do not read a lot of metafiction because I feel that authors who set out to purposely write metafiction force the matter.  They bludgeon the reader with the fact that they are writing metafiction and desperately attempt to get the literary critics to call it metafiction.  And furthermore, I actually think the word “metafiction” is itself overused and ill-applied in many cases.

Calvino had me at the first chapter, though.  I mean, it was so witty and engaging and interesting, I knew I would finish the novel, no matter what. Generally, the whole work is about books, reading, and writing.  Wikipedia provides a decent general summation of the novel:  “The narrative is about a reader trying to read a book called If on a winter’s night a traveler. Every odd-numbered chapter is in the second person, and tells the reader what he is doing in preparation for reading the next chapter. The even-numbered chapters are all single chapters from whichever book the reader is trying to read.”   I suppose this summary is true, but it does not really give the full depth or essence to this work.  And it gets confusing trying to talk about or explain this work to someone who has not read it or is not familiar with it.

The first chapter is marvelous because it describes the Reader in a bookstore.  I love books and bookstores and well, this was a fun chapter. I thoroughly love the “list” of categories of books that the Reader encounters while moving through the bookstore. I actually returned to these pages and re-read them twice because I was so tickled by this list.  Even if you do not intend to read this novel, if you love books and buying books – you should read this first chapter.

Now, I was not too keen on the concept of the book. I am no fan of metafiction and I am not really wild about non-linear storytelling which uses chapters as breaking points between points of view, narratives, etc.  But I figured, what the heck, let’s read this thing. I mention this to point out that I sympathize with those readers who do not like the author addressing them directly.  The second chapter is actually the “novel” that I really do want to read. I really do – and it is so fitting that that is the novel that starts off the entire ouroboros of this work.  I totally understand the main character’s desire to find this novel. I want to read it, too.

I marked a number of pages/quotations down in this work.  The first was on page 93 where Reader meets Other Reader and she encourages him to go to the publisher to sort the matter out. She won’t go and explains it this way:

There’s a boundary line: on one side are those who make books, on the other those who read them. . . . Of course, readers are also growing more numerous, but it would seem that those who use books to produce other books are increasing more than those who just like to read books and nothing else.  I know that if I cross that boundary, even as an exception, by change, I risk being mixed up in this advancing tide; that’s why I refuse to set foot inside a publishing house, even for a few minutes.

There are lots of things in this quote to pull out and babble about. Briefly, I love the concept of the boundary. I totally agree with the assessment of there being an increase in making books to make more books. And I am interested in the concept of the pure reader – reading as its own telos.

Further on in the novel is a marvelous chapter. As happened several times in my reading of this book, I would start a chapter and feel it was not very good and then Calvino would do something brilliant and I would be wow-ed by what he did with what seemed to be a mundane and distracted chapter. One such chapter is “Chapter 8” wherein we hang out with Silas Flannery.  I could not help but adore the distinctions being made between tormented writer and productive writer.

The greatest desire of the tormented writer is to be read the way that young woman is reading.  He starts writing a novel as he thinks the productive writer would write it.  Meanwhile the greatest desire of the productive writer is to be read the way that young woman is reading; he starts writing a novel as he thinks the tormented writer would write it.

This is a fantastic concept and distinction Calvino is playing with here. I feel like I encounter this a lot – with would-be writers and people trying to get published, et al.   To some readers, this chapter will seem repetitive and tedious – but astute readers will “get it” and love it, I think.  Also, this chapter really exemplifies what reading this book is like.  It can be hard work.  Calvino drags you up a metaphorical mountain of concepts and ideas and narrative, and it is really tiring at points and it seems to be boring and uninteresting and then the whole thing explodes atmospherically.  At least, this is what I experienced reading this novel.  That sounds a bit strange, I am sure.  I guess, in more stoic terms:  Calvino explores the concepts of reading and writing in a relentless and almost over-complexifying way. And he does not cease until the reader is actually ruminating on the same concepts as well.  Brilliant tactician? Or maybe obnoxious intellectual. I think the former.

Therefore on page 181, is Calvino writing of himself through Silas Flannery’s thoughts?

Why not admit that my dissatisfaction reveals an excessive ambition, perhaps a megalomaniac delirium? For the writer who wants to annul himself in order to give voice to what is outside him, two paths open:  either write a book that could be the unique book, that exhausts the whole in its pages; or write all books, to pursue the whole through its partial images.  The unique book, which contains the whole, could only be the sacred text, the total word revealed.  But I do not believe totality can be contained in language; my problem is what remains outside, the unwritten, the unwritable. The only way left me is that of writing all books, writing the books of all possible authors.

Finally, in the last chapter, the Reader is at the library where at least five other “readers” are sharing their thoughts on reading.  The one that I liked is the first.  Maybe because I most identify with them – though not universally at all times with all books, of course.  It just resonated with me:

“Don’t be amazed if you see my eyes always wandering. In fact, this is my way of reading, and it is only in this way that reading proves fruitful for me.  If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue ot the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it.  The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, and of meaty reading, even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages.  But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust.”

Mainly, I feel like this reader does only when I am reading a good book. A great book. An excellent book. In my case, Oblomov and The Violent Bear it Away. And a few other novels affect me in this manner. And I consider them massive and important and excellent. And I only need to read a few pages to know that I will be sent off on musings and contemplations. And maybe, most days, this Calvino book, too.

As a final aside, I did not like the chapter “On the Carpet of leaves illuminated by the Moon” or “Around an Empty Grave.”  These two chapters are slightly less vital and really somewhat unappealing.  However, the rest of the book is quite worthy of reading.

5 stars