Friday, March 16, 2007

Reviews: DeNiro, Bertozzi

Well, if you're in New York today you know exactly why a four-hour drive to the NAIBAhood gathering in Rehoboth is out of the question... "wintry mix" being some of the scariest weather imaginable, especially on the roads. Disappointed as I am to miss Steve Crane's workshop on buying non-book inventory, there's something to be said for hunkering down in our own hometown on such a day. Before I meet up with some bookselling buddies for an impromptu brainstorming session, here are some book reviews for this wintry day.

Working through my backlog of read books, in order of reading...

Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead: Stories
By Alan DeNiro
(Small Beer Press, 2006)

This is one of the Litblog Co-Op nominees for spring, and it's one of those happy coincidences where I find myself obliged to read a book I'd been meaning to read anyway. Small Beer Press, the brainchild of indie fantasist Kelly Link and company, is one of the best of the new small presses, in my opinion, and I'd been hearing very good things about this short story collection from my more avant garde reading friends.

And darn right they were, as it turns out. Alan DeNiro is another one of those genre-straddling writers who tackles big emotional/psychological/political issues through stranger and larger than life scenarios. The collection opens with an invasion of a small college town by, apparently, the soldiers of the ancient Byzantine empire, but it's really about the narrator's absent not-quite-lover, and the harsh aesthetics of the Byzantines seep into the attraction of unrequited longing. "Cuttlefish" and "Salting the Map" are standouts, strange worlds that keep tilting just when you think you've got your bearings. The title story is perhaps the best, set in a just-barely-futuristic world where teenagers have more or less seceded into their own towns and regional tribalism rules the day, but FedEx and MasterCard are the sponsors of the insta-bands and scenes that are popping up. The arc of the story is kind of indescribable, and the Lake of the Dead is not what you'd expect, but it rings true with the vibe of adolescent honesty and growing up and all that stuff.

And that's my only sometime problem (or not even problem: observation) with DeNiro's stories: some of them shouldn't really be called by that name. There comes a point where avant garde literature (still, undeniably literature) moves away from narrative into collections of details, impressions, ideas, characters, but no real sense of "and then" that to me defines a story. I don't mean it really as a criticism, but sometimes DeNiro's "stories" (like "A Keeper" or "The Friendly Giants") veered so far into the bizarre and abstract that I couldn't wrap my head around them, much less describe or recount them, which to me is one of the hallmarks of a story (i.e., that it can be retold.) By this definition, perhaps Proust isn't telling a story; that doesn't mean it's not literature.

All in all, I guess it just shows that there's not much avant garde in my readerly makeup; I am a nerd, after all. Nevertheless, my respect for DeNiro grew throughout my reading of this collection, if my enjoyment was perhaps concentrated in one or two of the more comprehensibly strange stories.

The Salon
by Nick Bertozzi
(St. Martin's Griffin, 2007)

This was another "oughta read" -- the author, graphic novelist Nick Bertozzi, is doing an event at our store later this month, and I thought perhaps I should take a look at the book in question. I was delighted that I did: this, too, is a work of fantasy, set in the milieu of the Lost Generation in Paris, but with all the joys of an ensemble murder mystery, with supernatural villains. Someone -- or something! -- is ripping the heads off of minor players in the modernist art scene, and a salon-cum-detective committee chaired by Gertrude and Leo Stein aims to find out who, (or what) is doing it.

The moral center of the book is the painter Braque, recruited by the Steins early on, who speaks most of the book's musings on the project of modernist art. But the show is totally stolen by Picasso, in this tale a young Spaniard full of braggadoccio (and often naked), who pisses off and charms everybody in turn. Bertozzi infuses his tale with a healthy dose of ribald humor (my favorite panel, weirdly, is one where Picasso jerks off into a chicken carcass at a dinner party, and Gertrude Stein leans her head on the table, cracking up and saying "Pablo, gross!" -- it shows the sort of amused, interested tolerance that drew these odd birds together and made them work.)

It's great fun to read Bertozzi's versions of these uber-famous characters -- Alice B. Toklas, Appolinaire, Paul Gaugin -- rendered in well-defined outlines with sketchy details and panels reminiscent of silent movie color screens (i.e. one set of panels will be all in blues, the next page all in reds, depending on the mood of the scene). The discussions of art between Picasso and Braque are almost as much fun as the mystery investigation, especially as Picasso expresses a cheeky preference for the comic strips of the Yellow Kid as an inspiration for a new modern art (much to the dismay of the high-minded Braque). It's my favorite kind of story: the story that both delights and provokes, that provides material for laughter as well as food for thought. Highly recommended for every reader of comics (except the squeamish) -- come to think of it, it would make a great book club pick for those who wanted to discuss depictions of art in literature.

Off to make something to warm up the hands -- stay warm today, and happy reading!