Six Impossible Things

A Blog About Fiction and Reading

The Crying of Lot 49

Lot 49The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

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I expect that I’m not the only person who decided to read this book after hearing about the decoding of the message at the top of the Adobe corporate tower (look here).  I also expect that I’m not the only one who may have missed the whole message of the book, too….

I mean, I get it.  It’s a novel that’s clearly the product of its time, satirizing the California culture that was prevalent during the era that the novel was written, but if the satire is so dependent on its time, how successful is it, then, as a novel?  I never really enjoyed Animal Farm because I didn’t ever fully understand what represented what in the real world, and I think that same barrier kept me from truly understanding this book, as well.  The only things that kept me reading The Crying of Lot 49 was:

a. it’s short; and

b. the controversy kept me interested.

There was a huge undercurrent to the novel, of a conspiracy that may or may not have been true, but it was more like a historical conspiracy, and less a Dan-Brown-let-loose-in-Europe conspiracy.  That central mystery kept me more or less engaged (I never really found myself thinking, “Ooh, I get to return to The Crying of Lot 49!”; it was more a “Aw, man, I really want to read The Last Days, but I suppose I should finish The Crying of Lot 49 first…”), but the rest of it was just too confusing for me.  I found myself reading a few pages, and realizing that I hadn’t really read any of the last few pages, and dreading having to go back and re-read those pages over again.

So, it comes back to function over form, for me.  I want a story that’s interesting, a premise that’s gripping, and characters that are easy to believe in and root for.  If you want to add some thematic or symbolic imagery, fine, go ahead, but make sure that you give me a darn good reason to want to read into all that before you get all high-falutin’, artsy-fartsy on me.  So, forgive me if I don’t go into tremendous detail over the plot, because, really, it’s not the central core of this novel.  It’s more like that piece of parsley that restaurants stick on the edge of your dinner plate — it’s there, but it’s really not that important.

Am I denying myself good literature by thinking this way?  Perhaps.  But I was a literature major in college, and while I liked some of what I read, most of it went right over my head.  I guess I’m just too simplistic of a reader to appreciate fiction that delivers more style than content.  Oh, and poetry?  I never could figure that stuff out.

I’m comfortable with the fact that I will likely never read Joyce’s Ulysses, but I’m always looking forward to the next Stephen King novel.  I wonder what my English professors would think of that?

September 17, 2007 Posted by | Adult Fiction, Reviews | Leave a comment

Thirteen

ThirteenThirteen by Richard K. Morgan

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As if Market Forces weren’t dark enough, Richard K. Morgan returns to his nihilistic look at the future, this time through a race of genetically modified “variant” human beings, who have been bred and raised to be more aggressive, more violent, and more deadly than humans have been in a very long time.  The idea is that we, as a culture, have processed out those tendencies as part of being civilized, and we’re no longer very good as soldiers.  Enter the variant “Thirteens,” who are supposed to be the perfect soldiers in the future.

Note “supposed to be”; it wouldn’t be a nihilistic look at the future without a little mucking up of things along those lines.  Shoot, what reader, looking at that theme, wouldn’t start asking questions?  Morgan doesn’t keep it simplified, either.  He addresses cultural and race wars (the Chinese are viewed as the evil race, and there’s an entire criminal subculture on Mars), the growth of religion in politics (the US South is renamed “Jesusland” in this book), and the effects of a long-term memory in a short-term memory society (the main Thirteen in the book is a black man).  It’s amazing, and thoughtful, but probably best for small doses.  Given that this is a 500+-page book, small doses means that the book may take a while.

On its surface, Thirteen is a mystery thriller, with layers upon layers of mystery and deception.  It succeeds admirably at this, and just may sneak under your radar, given the overall theme and atmosphere of the book.  I was surprised, afterward, at how complex the plot was, and how well-constructed it was.  Morgan managed to take a lot of disparate elements of the story, seemingly planted just to set the tone and atmosphere of the novel, and weave them together into a satisfying conclusion.  But sharp readers are going to notice this only after submerging themselves in this future culture that is, collectively, us.

I tend to pick up moods from the books that I read, so I was careful in how much I dove into the book.  I didn’t want to take a marathon approach to reading it, but neither did I want to spend an overly long time in that world, either.  For all the nihilism in Thirteen, Morgan does give the future some redeeming qualities, but these are scattered about, partly to move the plot along, and partly to keep us from leaping off of a tall building midway through the book.  It’s not depressing so much as it is bleak and hopeless, but there are enough hopeful moments to keep us reading and wanting things to get better.

The question we have at the end of the novel is just that: Will things get better?  It’s hard to say.  Morgan doesn’t judge the present through this novel, or offer any solutions.  He just presents a possible future, and shows us where that will take us.  The rest, I suppose, is up to us.

September 10, 2007 Posted by | Adult Fiction, Reviews | Leave a comment

MirrorMask: The Illustrated Script

MirrormaskMirrorMask: The Illustrated Script

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It’s hard to classify this one.  Is it fiction?  Nonfiction?  Graphic novel?  Or a weird blend of all three?  I’m going to go with the third option, just to be on the safe side.  More information is better than less, right?

Being the Neil Gaiman fanboy that I am (see the last few entries if you don’t believe me), it was inevitable that I was going to see this movie.  I wanted to catch it in the theaters, but the small window of time that it was there (I estimate about 20 minutes) prohibited me doing so.  As soon as it was released on DVD, though, I was there.  Two hours later, I was … well, confused.

I hate to come across as anti-intellectual, but I much prefer the story over the form the story takes.  This preference is part of the reason I couldn’t get into Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and why I have such a hard time getting into character-driven fiction.  MirrorMask went way over my head, and there were times when I was struggling to figure out what, exactly was going on.  I love Dave McKean’s style, and it’s all over this movie, but it was like reading Arkham Asylum without the script: As appropriate as the art style was, it seemed to detract from my understanding of the story.  Had I not read the anniversary edition of Arkham Asylum with the script afterward, I would have taken a lot less from that story than I did.

Luckily, the illustrated script of the movie helped clarify some of the questions I had.  It turns out that I did understand most of the story, and I did have a clear idea of Helena’s motivations; it was just buried beneath the idea that I had to be missing something among all that style.  For a Neil Gaiman story, though, it’s a bit shallow, which was slightly disappointing, but the conflict, the transformation, and the ending were all excellent ideas, brilliantly executed.

Another neat aspect of this book is that there is some behind-the-scenes stuff here, including Neil’s original draft of the story, and the back-and-forth discussions between writer and director to make sure the story worked for film.  There were even storyboarded portions of the story that didn’t make it into production, and some of Neil’s insight into how movies are made, and how making this one was different.  It’s like getting the bonus material on a DVD, and if you’re like me, and love those sorts of bits, then you’re going to enjoy the extra stuff in the book, too.

I’m looking forward to seeing the movie again, now that I have a clearer understanding of the story.  Now that I have all that out of the way, I can probably better appreciate the melding of style and story, and bring myself back up to the level of intellectual.

Yeah, right.

August 31, 2007 Posted by | Adult Fiction, Graphic Novels, Nonfiction, Reviews | Leave a comment

A Neil Gaiman Audio Miscellaney

SignalSignal to Noise and Two Plays for Voices by Neil Gaiman

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My roadtrip was round trip, of course, so a three-hour audiobook is only going to last me one direction. Since I was already on a Gaiman kick, I figured it would be a good time to revisit a couple of audio plays that I’ve had for a while now: Signal to Noise, a radio play adapted from Neil’s and Dave McKean’s graphic novel of the same name; and Two Plays for Voices, a collection of two adapted stories for Seeing Ear Theater, “Snow, Glass, Apples” and “Murder Mysteries.” All three stories are among my favorites of Neil’s (have you figured out yet that most of his stories are among my favorites?), so they were good company for the trip back home.

Of all the standalone graphic novels that Neil and Dave have created, Signal to Noise is probably my favorite. I ought to re-read both Violent Cases and Mr. Punch, just to refresh myself with the stories, but Signal to Noise always resonated with me. The story-within-a-story aspect of it appealed to me, as did the idea of a story compelling its author beyond his normal limits. Watching an author come to terms with his own mortality while writing about a group of people coming to terms with their own, at the end of the first millennium, was brilliant to me. When I learned that this production was available, I jumped on it.

The production is a full one, with ambient sounds, a soundtrack, and proper actors. I’ve never sat down with the graphic novel while listening to the play, so I don’t know how much adaptation the audio required to maintain the full story, but I recall distinct images during crucial parts of the story. That it comes to mind so easily is just further indication that the BBC didn’t shirk when it came to making this radio play.

VoicesTwo Plays for Voices has all these same things, but for some reason, Signal to Noise has a more professional sound to it. There’s something extra within the production that gives it more depth, I think, but I couldn’t tell you what that is. It’s like listening to the production from a CD that was originally recorded 20 years ago, versus one that was recorded last year. It’s not a bad criticism for the 20 year-old recording, but it’s that sort of difference that I hear between the productions.

“Snow, Glass, Apples” is a nifty retelling of a classic story, told in such a way that you might not catch how clever Neil’s being with this story until about halfway through. Bebe Neuwirth (Lilith from Cheers) plays the prominent role in this story, and Brian Dennehy plays the one in “Murder Mysteries,” which is about the very first murder on record. No, not Abel. Trust me. You’ll like this clever adaptation of our origin story, I think.

The adaptations here are more straightforward, I think, because the original stories were written in the first person. I don’t think anything was removed or changed from the stories to the adaptations, save for extra noises in the background, for crowds, and other sounds that were appropriate to the stories. They’re great stories in their own right, but hearing them performed this way steps it up to another level, and shows you how versatile Neil is with his fiction.

If you enjoy audio fiction, and want something a little more than just someone reading to you, check out these productions. They’re very enjoyable, thoughtful stories that will keep you engaged on those long drives, leisurely walks, or hardcore exercise regiments. And hey, they’re Neil Gaiman stories, so what else can I tell you?

August 27, 2007 Posted by | Adult Fiction, Reviews | Leave a comment

Coraline

CoralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman

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I had to take a road trip earlier this week, for work, and figured that a good audiobook would help pass the time during the three-hour trip.  Late the previous week, I had been checking the library system for new Neil Gaiman stuff, and I wandered across Coraline, and old favorite, which I’ve read once before, and listened to once before, also.  I figured it would be good to take an old friend along with me to keep me company on the trip.

The coolest thing about the audiobook is that Neil reads his own work.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen Neil perform his own work (and even to meet him, and he’s as kind and generous and gracious a person as you’ve probably heard), and I’m pleased to say that he’s as much a teller of stories as he is an author of stories.  He understands the nuances of a character’s voice, and really gets in to the parts.  He’s funny, spooky, endearing, and charismatic, and I really ought to just invest in a copy of the audiobook, as much as I enjoy listening to it.

Because, really, Coraline isn’t just a great Neil Gaiman story, it’s a fantastic example of what makes good horror fiction good.  There’s no blood, no gore, no offal, but with the easy placement of a few black buttons, some isolation and desperation, and a touch of bravery and courage, the story accomplishes so much more than any in-your-face remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, or what have you.  Reading the story is an incredible experience, and the purist in me will tell you to read the book for yourself before you have Neil read it to you, but the audiobook experience is one worth having, as well.

Whether you read it or listen to it, though, do so.  This is a wonderfully creepy story, suitable for children and adults (and if you have a mix of both in your house, maybe the audiobook is the way to go).

August 26, 2007 Posted by | Juvenile Fiction, Reviews | Leave a comment

Strangers in Paradise

StrangersStrangers in Paradise, Book 5 by Terry Moore

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So, I’m working my way up to the conclusion of the Strangers in Paradise storyline, and I’m glad to say that the author keeps me guessing. I mean, half of the story in this series is the “Will they or won’t they?”, on again, off again sort of relationship that takes place between Francine and Katchoo. Anyone remotely interested in this series is probably rooting for “Will!” and “On!”, but that the author keeps that tension going, and makes it believable, is part of the attraction to this story.

In the latest collection, there’s less of a focus on that relationship, on the surface, but much of what’s happening now is a furthering of their characters. The whole Parker Girls understory takes an interesting twist (and — MAYBE — is concluded? Who the hell knows?), and there are a couple of moments within the collection that are handled with the same sort of tact and panache that Katchoo is known for (which, of course, means a total lack of), but for the most part, this is a transitional volume.

All of this isn’t to say that this is a poor collection. It maintains the sort of artwork, story, and comedy that fans would expect, even if the “Molly and Poo” stories threw me for a loop. I understand that the entire series is about the end in a couple of months, and that the final pocket book will follow, and I only hope that the story will end the way that I hope it does. But if it did, then the author wouldn’t be surprising me, now would he?

August 26, 2007 Posted by | Graphic Novels, Reviews | Leave a comment

Eternals

eternalsEternals by Neil Gaiman and John Romita, Jr.

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I so want to give this a good review.  Hell, it’s Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite authors, whom I’ve defended time and again against the people who think that graphic novels have little redeeming value.  But Eternals falls far short of what could have been such a great story.  I mean, I know what Neil’s capable of writing, and even when he’s mediocre, he’s at least far more interesting than the average writer.

Now, I’ll admit that I’m more a DC fan than I am a Marvel fan.  1602 was a great Gaiman-Marvel mesh, because the major players in that story were … well, the major players for Marvel.  It’s hard not to recognize Robert Reed and the X-Men, when they’re some of the biggest characters in the franchise.  But a bunch of obscure Jack Kirby characters?  Shoot, I had a hard enough time understanding the back continuity of the original Sandman character.

This should have been a great story, because Neil is so good at taking older, obscure characters and giving them a new, interesting life.  He and Alan Moore have always been great at this sort of thing, but with Eternals, I found much of the reinventing boring and uninteresting.  At times, it reminded me so much of Moore’s work on Miracleman (the group-induced amnesia, and the all-too-brutal solution to a childish problem) that I wonder if Alan even knows what Neil’s done with the story.  Maybe if I had a better understanding of the original eternals, I would feel differently, but as a stand-alone story, it’s disappointing.

And speaking of stand-alone stories, Eternals isn’t.  It’s a set-up, it’s exposition, so much so that I went online to discover if this was a graphic novel, a mini-series, or an ongoing series for Gaiman again.  Despite the lack of any clear resolution, Eternals was a mini-series, a self-contained story that’s supposed to have a start, a middle, and an ending.  It has the first two elements, but that last, crucial part of the story is missing.  Ah, but I also find out that Marvel has decided to continue the series, with a new writer-artist combo.  Really?  I’m shocked.  I mean, considering that the greatest threat to humankind is left standing, with less than 14 hours to go before a possible annihilation, with all the main characters dispersing to find more heroes, I’m amazed that there’s anything left to tell.

It seems like Marvel tapped Neil to come up with a new series, to create the genesis of a revamped mythology, for other people to write.  While this is fine in its own right, I can’t help but recall Lady Justice, World of Wheels, and Teknophage, some of the other series Neil created for other writers, but which all failed miserably when all the Gaiman fanboys realized that it took more than an idea to be a Neil Gaiman story.  I can’t fault Neil for the opportunity (the included interviews and behind-the-scenes bonuses in the collection reveal a genuine enthusiasm for what he did), but it’s a shame that he won’t be the writer to continue the series.

If you’re a Gaiman fan, it’s worth reading, but please, save yourself some money and check it out from the library, or borrow it from a friend.  It would be a shame to pay full price for the book, given how little story it actually contains.  I’m certainly disappointed that I did so, and I’m one of the biggest Gaiman fanboys out there.  Just ask my Death tattoo.

August 19, 2007 Posted by | Graphic Novels, Reviews | Leave a comment

Mainspring

MainspringMainspring by Jay Lake

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I discovered Jay Lake last summer, through Rocket Science, which had a slow start, but ultimately caught the pace of a good story, and satisfied me to no end.  Mainspring fell along those same lines, but there was a part of me that struggled to keep up with the story until I reached the last hundred pages or so.  After that, I felt that the story caught its groove, and I raced to see what was going to happen to the main characters.  I don’t know if this is typical of Lake and his stories (Trial of Flowers is on my list, so I’ll find out), but so far, Lake is worth the effort that it takes me to stick with his books.

Mainspring has a wonderful premise, and a wonderful setting.  The great thing is that the premise and the setting are the one and the same.  I’ve heard the book described as “clockpunk,” which really means that it’s a steampunk science fiction novel, centered around clocks.  The Earth is a giant clockwork mechanism, complete with tracks in the sky to carry it in its orbit, and tracks for the Moon and the other planets.  The main religion of the northern hemisphere is centered on this clockwork, enough so that the characters pray to their Brass Christ.  The main character, Hethor, receives a visitation by Gabriel, the brass archangel, to find the Key Perilous, to wind the mainspring of the world, because it’s slowing down.  Hethor is a clockmaker’s apprentice, and is strongly in tune with time.  He is so in tune with time and the Earth that he can tell the midnight is slipping; instead of falling truly at midnight, he notices as it falls seconds past the correct time.  Along with the slippage of time, he notices terrible earthquakes following these errors, and realizes that he must pursue his quest to save the world.

And what a quest it is!  This is a story that involves air pirates, dungeons, winged savages, a wild world in the southern half of the planet, and a quest that is half adventure, half spiritual.  Where Rocket Science was a fairly traditional science fiction story, Mainspring launches itself into a fantastical world full of high imagination and daring ideas.  This coming-of-age adventure may seem familiar in its structure, but that’s the only thing familiar about this story.

Lake has a knack for capturing his characters very well.  I could overlook some of the secondary characters, to the point of not really caring about what happened to some of the important ones, but with Hethor and his closest companions, I was very much concerned about what happened to them.  In fact, there were portions of the story near the end that nearly had me in tears, he captured them so well.

For devout readers of fantasy and science fiction, the book may be easier to digest.  I’m not accustomed to having the setting of the book be so much a part of the story, and I found myself having to pay more attention than usual to a lot of the descriptions.  But, as I mentioned above, I think it was definitely worth the effort to stick with it.  I would recommend Mainspring to anyone who enjoys daring stories of adventure and imagination, though it’s not really intended for younger readers, despite the age of the protagonist.

August 16, 2007 Posted by | Adult Fiction, Reviews | 1 Comment

Plastic Man: Rubber Bandits

BanditsPlastic Man: Rubber Bandits by Kyle Baker

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One of the cool things about the previous Plastic Man collection by Kyle Baker is that the cover is made of a stylish plastic/rubber designed to look like Plas’ outfit.  It really grabs your attention, and if you know anything about Plastic Man, then it’s a great illusion that Plas is actually the book, since he can take the form of anything he likes.   This collection is your standard graphic novel fare — glossy pages in a trade paperback format — so it doesn’t quite have the same shelf appeal.  When you open it, though … whoo, nelly!

I like Looney Tunes and the Animaniacs, so it’s really no surprise that I like what Kyle Baker has done with Plastic Man.  I mean, just look at that cover!  There’s Plas, Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, and even Abraham Lincoln in there!  And they’re drawn like your favorite cartoons you watched as a kid!  Plastic Man begs to be lampooned, and Baker does so with a fine finesse.  Shoot, who else could lampoon Busiek’s Marvels, George W. Bush, and the whole superhero genre in one book and get away with it so successfully?

There’s a lot of zaniness in here, and to be honest, that’s about all there is here.  On the Lam had an overarching story, but Rubber Bandits is just a collection of funny stories.  They’re funny and all, with some great moments, but a lot of story is sacrificed for the funny.  This isn’t a bad thing, but I feel like I should forewarn any potential readers that this is not going to be like Moore, or Miller, or Gaiman.  Shoot, if I were going to compare this to another writer/comic, it would have to be Keith Giffen and Ambush Bug.

This collection probably isn’t for the “serious” reader of graphic novels, but if you like a little bit of comic relief in your comics, then this is for you.

August 10, 2007 Posted by | Graphic Novels, Reviews | 1 Comment

Education

“Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one”

–Malcolm Forbes

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“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence”

–Robert Frost

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“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

–William Butler Yeats

August 10, 2007 Posted by | Quotes | Leave a comment