Monday, October 02, 2006

Book Reviews #35, #36, #37, and #38: Cockroaches and Lions and Parties, Oh My!

One of these days Mondays will again be about Link Madness, but I always seem to have some catching up to do. Here's a rundown of my reading over the last month or so – at least the ones I finished. We're in Week 40 of the calendar year, so I've still got a chance to make my 52 book goal by December 31.

Book Review #35
by Tyler Knox
(William Morrow, January 2007)

I picked this one up with giddy enthusiasm – it is, as the ALP observed, my kind of thing. Here's the first paragraph:

As Kockroach, an arthropod of the genus Blatella and of the species germanica, awakens one morning from a typically dreamless sleep, he finds himself transformed into some large, vile creature.

Obviously, Knox is channeling and reversing Kafka's most famous short story, "The Metamorphosis", in which hapless Gregor Samsa finds himself transformed into a cockroach. Such an allusive and fantastic premise piqued my curiosity, and I was definitely not disappointed. Like Kafka, Knox spends little time speculating on how and why this transformation occurred, but jumps right into the reaction of the transformee. And Kockroach's reaction is pretty much the opposite of Gregor's: rather than succumbing to loneliness and despair, he demonstrates the immortal survival instinct of the cockroach species and learns to thrive in the human world.

After figuring out food, clothes, toilets, and the rudiments of imitative speech, he ventures out of the flophouse where he woke up and meets Mickey, known as Mite, a pint-sized Times Square hustler and man-of-all-work, whose tough-talking account of their relationship makes up half the novel. With Kockroach's insectile strength, total lack of morality, and weird animal allure, combined with Mite's street-kid smarts, the two are soon running the organized crime of the Square. But Mite is a tormented noir antihero, and betrays Kockroach more than once when his conscience gets the better of him; only Kockroach's near-immortal cockroachiness allows him to survive a fiery inferno and eventually rise to even greater political power.

The novel quickly outgrows its premise, and become more Chandler than Kafka: the setting is a smoky 1950s New York, and the dialogue and action are pure noir. It's a heck of a read, with an astonishing cast of characters and constant surprises. One female character, Celia, speculates on Kockroach's weird mesmerizing appeal, and Knox makes that appeal very clear: the main character of this novel is a horrifyingly violent, completely amoral creature, but I found myself thinking about him constantly, even when I wasn't reading. And the character of Mite is possibly even more fascinating: his struggle with his chaste passion for Celia and his attraction to men makes the homosocial undertones of much of noir explicit in a poignant and believable way.

While the ending is a tad abrupt, this is ultimately a hugely effective and entertaining parable about greed, and power, and the nature of humanity, and whether we can ever do the right things for the right reasons. And I loved it. Highly recommended for anyone who likes their crime novels whip-smart, or their fantasy novels thug-tough.

Review #36
by Virginia Woolf; compiled and edited by Stella McNichol
(Harvest edition, 1973)

When we were first dating, the ALP happened to mention that he thought Virginia Woolf was an elitist snob. Since I wrote my undergrad thesis on Woolf, this led to one of the only significant fights of our relationship. We've long since made up, but he occasionally still buys me Virginia Woolf books as an act of good will. This one was a two-dollar purchase from one of the book tables on 7th Avenue in Park Slope, and I played hooky from new book reading to devour it in a couple of days.

The editor, Stella McNichol, writes in her introduction that Woolf wrote several short stories connected to Mrs. Dalloway during and after the writing of the novel, most concerned with what Woolf called the "party consciousness." This is not a political affiliation, but the sort of state of heightened awareness of social interactions that happens in the charged atmosphere of a party – something I have a huge appreciation of, as I love the potential of parties to make things happen and raise everyday life to a kind of lovely performance.

This isn't really a novel-in-stories (one of my favorite genres), so it doesn't particularly hang together, and some of the stories are more appealing than others, of course. The only common thread is that each of the characters attends the party that takes place at the end of the novel Mrs. Dalloway, though no one seems to have quite as much fun as Clarissa. "The Introduction" describes a debutante experiencing a kind of female helplessness and rage at the man she is talking to that seemed extremely dated to me; "The Man Who Loved His Kind" and "Ancestors" are both about the self-righteousness of isolated people, whether through class or age. Far from being elitist, I sometimes find Woolf a bit heavy-handed with the social commentary woven through her characters' thoughts: men oppressive, women forced to act stupid, artistocratic class obtuse and boorish, working class full of suppressed rage, everyone incapable of understanding each other because of their own self-absorption. I love her most when she complicates matters; the poor man's lawyer in "The Man Who Loved His Kind" has a kind of reverse snobbery that rings very true, even though he's right about the rich people he despises.

My favorite story is "The New Dress," where a slightly lonely, slightly dowdy woman named Mabel is radiant with happiness at her party invitation and new dress, until she arrives and realizes she's entirely out of fashion, and spends the entire evening in agonizing self-recrimination and speculation on the elusiveness of happiness. Mrs. Dalloway breezes through the stories, lovely and benevolent and self-possessed, but Mabel is universally sympathetic – her London drawing room put me right back in junior high math class in Bakersfield, California.

Reading these stories was a rich but subtle feast. I just wish there were more of them – floating between isolated consciousnesses, drawn into stark relief by the party, which is less a festive occasion than a ritual or archetypal one. You never know what might happen at a party, and Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Woolf have made the space to find out.

Review #37
by Brian K. Vaughan; art by Niko Henrichon

(Vertigo, September 2006)

I keep up with a couple of comic/graphic novel series (EX MACHINA, RUNAWAYS, FABLES), but while I honestly believe they have literary merit, it's hard to count even the trade paperbacks as actual books. Some graphic lit projects however, like this one, are conceived originally as a book, and it makes sense to count those in the total. Vaughan is actually the guy behind EX MACHINA and a number of other critically acclaimed works (including Y: THE LAST MAN), and I think he's one of the most original writers out there at the moment.

This novel is based on a true incident: four lions escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during the 2003 bombing, and wandered the city until they were gunned down by American soldiers. Vaughan makes the lions – a full-grown male and female, an older female, and a cub – into a dysfunctional family trying to navigate a terrifying freedom, and his talking animal story is as adult as only grown-up comics can be. The metaphors run deep and painful – the older lioness associates freedom with the rapes she suffered in the wild; a captive bear spouts Saddam-esque rhetoric; an ancient tortoise remembers the previous invasion of the city, and all the ones before that, with bitter apathy. The story is both action-packed and meditative, and the ending stunningly tragic.

Niko Henrichon's drawings do a great deal to make the animal characters both fully animal and believably sentient, and his smoking, ruined city is an eye-opener. I read the book with relish, and only broke down in tears on the final page. After describing the true incident on which the story is based and the lions' deaths, the following page simply shows a nighttime Baghdad and the words "There were other casualties as well." Nothing like making it small and personal to bring home the magnitude of a country's tragedy. Vaughan's novel is fairly apolitical, but his lion pride tells a story that is extremely humanistic.

Review #38
by Selim Nassib; translated by Alison Anderson
(Europa Editions, February 2007)

It's been a month of Middle Eastern reading for me – not usually a great interest of mine, but I was grateful that a review assignment forced me to finally read one of the beautiful trade paperback originals from Europa Editions, which brings under-represented European literature to the U.S. market. This one has an irresistible premise as well: legend has it that Golda Meir, future prime minister of Israel, had an affair in the 1920s with a wealthy Palestinian. Seems unlikely for a Zionist of such conviction and zeal, and it seems to have never been proved irrefutably, but as Nassib wisely notes in the introduction,

An impossible story? Almost impossible, obliged to unfold in the tiny space of this almost, where things that should not happen do happen, the narrow patch of earth where forbidden flowers grow, instinctive impulses, life itself.

The book itself is a tiny space; at a brief 192 pages (including intro and timeline), it barely touches on the complex political developments in pre-statehood Israel. But as Golda and Albert, her lover, play out their doomed romance, the land of Palestine/Israel, with its Jewish, Palestinian, and British forces all struggling for its future, becomes as much of a character as they, and my appetite was whetted for more information on this strange and fateful period. The diction, as my excerpt suggests, can be a tad portentious, but it was a time and place of all-or-nothing rhetoric, and a little high-faluting language is probably appropriate.

The other surprising thing about Nassib's story is that it's subtly very sexy. Who would equate the powerhouse Meir with sensuality? – but as the story makes clear, the physical is the only place that an apolitical Lebanese aristocrat and a fiery Zionist could really meet. It's a bittersweet sensuality, with compromises on all sides, but entirely believable, whether or not it's true. Add A LOVER IN PALESTINE to the wealth of literature from the Middle East that describes the human aspect of the political turmoil that seems ever-present; it's worth reading.