Monday, June 30, 2008

21. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home pictureMy sister strongly recommended this graphic novel to me and judging by the high-level accolades on the cover, she is not alone. This was the hot comic of the year and I completely missed it. It's the biography of a girl growing up in rural Pennsylvania in the 60sand 70s. Her father is gay and she figures out pretty quickly that she is too. Their relationship is complex and difficult. The book is structured in a very complex way as well, as Bechdel jumps back and forth in time, revealing different things here and there, going back to already revealed incidents and adding layers of understanding to them. It makes for a very fulfilling read because by the time you get to the end of it, you really get the "ah, yes" sensation where everything comes together in a rich and real way. The ending isn't necessarily happy. The family difficulties are not solved or absolved, but you as the reader get a sense of really understanding the situation, even being a part of it. This is why sometimes comics are better than books.

Despite my appreciation of the structure, the subject matter is not the most endearing to me. It's very academic and intellectual, with heavy references to Proust and Joyce. If you had studied them, I imagine the book would have even more depth, but I don't have so much time for that kind of literature of melancholy. The same goes for the struggles of the young lesbian, several of which I experienced first hand in liberal arts school (most whom lasted a few years before the inevitable defection to heterosexual marriage and procreation). In this case, the struggle seems genuine, but it just doesn't interest me all that much (compared to say something interesting and straight like one man trying to shoot or stab another man). But those are my personal preferences and should not detract in any way from what is a really engrossing and satisfying graphic novel.
Fun Home picture

Sunday, June 29, 2008

20. Trunk Music by Michael Connelly

Trunk Music picture
Grabbed this thick paperback for a loonie at the thrift store near our house. Michael Connolly delivers solid procedurals based on a career as a crime journalist in Los Angeles. He knows his stuff and spends most of the time on the crime and the investigation. This leads to lots of good interaction with a range of mostly dark and corrupted characters (in and out of the force) and excellent locales.

Here, Harry Bosch, the LAPD detective who is effective but generally in trouble with the brass investigates the murder of a succesful B-movie producer. He is found in the trunk of his Rolls with a single bullet hole in the back of his head. The trail is long and windy, passing the wife, his stripper girlfriend, the mob, the FBI and a few others. It's mostly solid and enjoyable. There is a section where Bosch hooks up with a past love that I found a bit forced and thus distracting, especially since her presence was used as a minor red herring. But it's a small part and the rest of the book chugs along. Perfect for a train ride to Toronto.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

19. The Prestige by Christopher Priest

The Prestige picture

I am not a big fan of the unreliable narrative or whatever it's called. Christopher Priest writes such enjoyable prose (I might call it modern Victorian, or would that be post-modern?) and his stories so engaging that I excuse him. But it was tough reading this book, because I was constantly weighing my suspicions of the narrative against the very narratively solld (and clever) screenplay of the movie version of The Prestige. It's almost always tough following a movie with the book, but it was especially distracting for me in this case as there are some significant mysteries in the movie that are fully resolved. The story in the book has a lot of differences and I kept wondering whether Priest was going to resolve the mysteries in the book. I had this constant concern in the corner of my vision most of the time I was reading.

All that individual context aside, the story is a really cool one. It's the narrative of a career-long rivalry between two Victorian stage magicians, framed by their modern-day ancestors who stumble upon each other and try to solve the various mysteries their legacies left behind. The world of Victorian stage magic is so richly drawn and the pursuit of the two rivals careers so enjoyable that this part of the book is worth the read alone. The twists, tricks and mysteries Priest perpetrates on the reader (which are not anywhere near as open to interpretation as The Separation thus making The Prestige a much more satisfying read for unsophisticated empiricists like me) are extremely well-crafted (not unlike the stage props the magicians use) and move this book from good to great. Priest is a smart fucking guy and he does his work. I'd love to read about his technique because the structure of his books is so solid, from the whole down to the smallest detail. The Prestige could be annotated (not profusely; maybe a note or two every few pages). It would make for a very interesting read because you know that Priest hides little clues in the tiniest details. Sometimes they are facts in the narrative themselves. Other times, they are textual tricks in the grammar or use of certain words. These "annotables" do not get in the way of the narrative. They just add to the depth of the experience and the feeling that you are in the hands of a real craftsmen. I really enjoyed the movie, but you should definitely read the book first.

Monday, June 23, 2008

18. The Possessors by John Christopher

The Possessors Island picture

That's right, we're all John Christopher, all the time here at Olmansfifty. Actually and sadly, this is the last John Christopher book (at least in english) in the Bibliotheque Nationale. There is a mystery of his written under a pseudonym that is stored off-site and which I have ordered as well. I'll scour the tattered remains of the english library system in Montreal, but my initial searches were fruitless. He also hasn't shown up in used book stores here or Toronto. Even the tripod trilogy is not all that easy to find.

The Possessors is the story of a group of people snowed into a Swiss ski lodge in the early 60s, who are slowly taken over by an alien parasite. It starts off in a very similar way to Sweeney's Island, with a group of mostly British bourgeoisie. It looked like Christopher was going to savage them in a similar way and I was a bit concerned that we were heading into repetitive territory. Both The Possessors and Sweeney's Island were published within a year of each other. Happily, The Possessors veers away from such a similar theme of social critique (which was good in Sweeney's Island, good enough that I didn't need it a second time) and heads towards a straight-up alien invasion thriller. And it was a really good one. A nice balance of character-driven behaviour and general efficiency. People who made mistakes did so because it made sense based on who they were, not just because they were stupid. The stakes are high and the challenges higher, so you are sweating for the protagonists. And they figure out the general outline of the situation quickly enough without spending a lot of useless time not believing. Tight and gripping, The Possessors is a great little novel of alien invasion. Snag it if you find it.