Monday, January 09, 2006

Reviews: Holiday Reading Roundup

As tends to happen when one is first surrounded by family, then laid low by illness, I've done, I feel, woefully little reading over the Christmas / New Year's holiday. But there are a couple of winners in there, and I want to gush over them before moving on, in future posts, to this year's book world business. (I've realized in reading over this that my stuffy nose may still be making me a little bit cranky, even about books I love, so take my snarkiness with a grain of salt, or a vitamin C.)

The New York / Cincinnatti / Denver plane read turned out to be THE WINSHAW LEGACY, OR, WHAT A CARVE UP! by Jonathan Coe (Vintage, originally published 1994). What was I doing reading this? -- it's not even something new, and certainly nothing like JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR NORRELL by Susanna Clarke, which was last year's plane read and which was what I held up to the staff at Partners and Crime as an exemplar of what I wanted to read. It's the story of Michael Owen, a sad-sack little-known fiction writer who gets a commission to write a history of a prominent British family, and the history itself is told mixed up with the writer's life and a weird comedy/horror movie he can't get out of his head. Weirdly structured, parody one minute and deadly serious the next, it's hardly the high historical fantasy of JS&MN. Nevertheless, I quickly realized the commonality the true bookseller at P&S had recognized in the two novels: both Coe's and Clarke's books have a narrative that compels on a scale both intimate and vast. Michael Owen's slow emergence from his cocoon of solitude, his discovery of his own family history, the minutiae of his life, begins to dovetail with the story of the Winshaws, whose story is that of every behind-the-scenes crime committed in the latter half of the 20th century. One Winshaw is a pandering and irresponsible journalist; one is a thoroughly corrupt MP; one is a soulless merchant banker; one is a mass food-production monster; and one is an equal-opportunity arms dealer. As Owen discovers, their crimes may go back as far as WWII, and their reach manages to ruin even his little life. Coe's research and merciless descriptions about these huge, unnoticed forces behind the horrors of our age is both fascinating and galvanizing. And the story is as satisfying as a locked-room mystery. I admit I snuck moments away from the family to read about inhumane chicken farms and semi-legal corporate buyouts, and when I finished it I was exhilarated and exhausted. What a read.

Once home and confined to the couch with the bug from heck, I managed to finish the humongous anniversary edition of THE WATCHMEN by Alan Moore (DC Universe) that the ALP got for Christmas. The story of a semi-alternate 1980s where superheros (or "costumed vigilantes," few of whom have actual powers) have been outlawed and disgraced, but their legacy is lasting and a few are still active when some murdered former heros draw attention to a larger plot, triggering memories and new adventures. I'd had it talked down a bit before I started it – the friend who gave the gift is more of a fan of Alan Moore than is the ALP, who is of the opinion that what's touted as edgy, gritty, and groundbreaking in comics is often just more violent and nihilistic without much in the way of storytelling brilliance. And it is true I found myself annoyed rather than shocked and challenged at some of Moore's writerly moves. The multiple rapist and murderer The Comedian "sees life how it really is?" The psychopathic Rorschach is the story's diarist and perhaps moral center? A fake alien kills three million people and causes all the world's governments to decide to call off war? Please. The thing that bugged me the most was that the primary female character, Silk Spectre, while all for saving humanity from apathy and misguided "higher plans", is given only the most inane dialogue to defend her view, and mostly weeps and screams. There's nothing worse in a story than a stupid chick, unless it's a stupid chick who's right. On the other hand… there is a reason why this book – series, really – is considered a classic. Moore understands how to use the medium of sequential art to tell a story like maybe no one else does, and the resonances he builds through visual and verbal motifs that wouldn't work in a novel or a movie are deeply satisfying. My favorite section involves Dr. Manhattan, a man who due to exposure to nuclear radiation has become superhuman (bear with me, it is a comic book after all), and ponders his life while taking a time out on Mars. For Manhattan, removed from time by his powers, all things seem to happen at the same time, or can be perceived outside of their linear order, and Moore beautifully limns the man's life in a cut-and-splice, minute-by-minute nonlinear narrative that could only work with words and pictures. And the character development of Nite Owl, Rorschach, the nameless newsstand owner, and other characters is nuanced and revealing. So the tome is definitely worth reading, especially if (like me) you're just beginning to explore the world of graphic lit and are curious about some of its birth pangs. Moore's sensibility may smack of early '80s nihilism, but his storytelling skills manage to transcend it.

Right now I'm reading another winner that had two strikes against it to begin with: it was reviewed by Michiko Kakutani, and it's by David Foster Wallace. If you've ever been in a bookstore with me, you may have heard my rants against Michiko (though she's the New York Times' top book reviewer we like to refer to her by her first name), whom I suspect has been reading books for so long that nothing will satisfy her, and should give up her touchy throne to a less jaded reviewer. (I also suspect she sometimes writes otherwise fair-minded negative reviews, then throws in a few spicy degrading adjectives just for the spectacle. And her weird "character voice" reviews (Holden Caulfield, Holly Golightly) prove that she's undeniably a good writer, but she may have gone over the edge.) But Michi must have been in a good mood last week, because she gave not one but TWO positive fiction reviews – one to UTTERLY MONKEY by Nick Laird (aka Mr. Zadie Smith), and one to Wallace's new essay collection, CONSIDER THE LOBSTER (Little, Brown). I admit to being one of those people who got about 50 pages into INFINITE JEST, then tossed it aside with a roll of the eyes and a "maybe I'm stupid or unhip, but this just doesn't feel worth it to me." I think Wallace may be another person whose genius has a tendency to run away with him. But I am a fan of the well-done essay, and Michi's review was so juicy and appealing, that I picked up the book, and I'm thoroughly, thoroughly enjoying it. Wallace brings a super intelligent but not overly serious mind to such topics as the Adult Video Awards (Oscars for porn), the release of a new English usage guide (he reveals the deep politics of linguistics and his own inner snoot), riding in the McCain media entourage during the fascinating 2000 Republican primary, and yet another book from John Updike (which he pans, much to my delight; unverified quote: "It never seems to occur to [Updike's character] that maybe the reason he's so unhappy is because he's an asshole."). Confined by the length of an article (most of these pieces were written for magazines) and the need to stick to the subject at hand (with some amusing digressions), Wallace is more writer than one could possibly hope for, and every bit the genius he's rumored to be. I'm tearing through his pieces on these (potentially dry) subjects like a cheap thriller, and I'll have to pick up more of his nonfiction now that I've discovered its addicting virtuosity.

There are a couple of duds in the batch, too – I was underwhelmed by A.M. Homes' THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE (Viking, coming out in April), which I felt couldn't decide if it was a satire on L.A. or an earnest redemption story; and I can't even get through the promising QUIXOTE (Image Press), a novel / graphic novel hybrid by a great comic book writer (Micahel Oeming, co-creator of POWERS) who doesn't seem to do so well when it's mostly just words. But that's all the snarking I've got, and I feel lucky to have had several such great books to mark the turning of the year. (And I've just started the new galley by my favorite and idol, David Mitchell…!) I welcome your thoughts if you've read these, or if you've read other great (or ungreat) books since last we met.

Or, if you want something more scandalous to talk about, check out this story unmasking a mysterious writer I've mentioned previously, or this one questioning the veracity of another. Next time, more about the Writer vs. the writing?...