Friday, June 22, 2007

Honeymoon Hiatus, Pocket Reviews, and a Romantic Question

Dear readers, those who are about to marry salute you. Next week is going to be a whirlwind of family barbecues, pedicures, flower arranging, and packing for the honeymoon. The ALP and I are getting married in Brooklyn a week from tomorrow, and the next day we're off for our honeymoon in Puerto Rico. I have a feeling I won't find time to blog during the next few weeks, so I'm declaring this a hiatus.

I've got a backlog of books I've read and have set aside to write about here, and since it looks like I'm not going to have time for detailed reviews any time soon, I'm giving them all to you in a pile with brief commentary. Consider it my rundown of recommended summer reading, with bookseller-style pocket commentary to help you decide what's the book for you. I can't remember what order I read them in, so they're just alphabetical, within their genre categories (just so I don't have to work in "graphic novel" to every description).

FICTION

Divisadero
by Michael Ondaatje
(Knopf, May 2007)
Don't read this for the story, which comes to an abrupt and inconclusive end; read it for the sensual,Hemingway-esque textures of Ondaatje's France and California, and the heartaching love stories he tells so subtly and well. Finishing this book is like awaking from your most detailed and intense dream.

The Great Man
by Kate Christiansen
(Doubleday, August 2007)
I've been a fan of Christiansen since In The Drink showed what it's really like to be a girl in New York City (more Lower East Side than Sex in the City), and she gets better and better. This is a book about the art world rich with colorful characters, sexy even though the protagonists are in their eighties, and ultimately feminist in its depictions of the women behind "the great man." This one do read for the plot; it's got that Dickens or late Auster unlikely happy ending thing. Great, smart fun.

Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing
Edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss
(Interstitial Arts Foundation, April 2007)
I'm so glad I started reading this anthology of "liminal", literary/genre works around the time I served on a panel on comics as interstitial art; for one thing, the panel was another project of the IAF, which is a great force for bringing literary attention to writers whose work might otherwise disappear, incorrectly, into the genre ghetto. As with all anthologies, it was a bit hit and miss for me, but there are some stunners: I loved Michael J. DeLuca's "The Utter Proximity of God" about a miracle-haunted Italian town; Mikal Trimm's "Climbing Redemption Mountain," about an odd tradition for disposing of the dead that allows a son to transcend his father's sins; and Christopher Barzak's "What We Know About the Lost Families of ____ House," told in first-person plural about the ambiguous history of a small town's haunted house. If you're a fan of Kelly Link and all that smart, spooky, magical stuff, you're sure to find some new loves in this one.

The Uncertain Hour
by Jesse Browner
(Bloomsbury, June 2007)
I have to admit that it's rare that hosting an author's reading compels me to read their book, but that's what happened with this one. Jesse Browner read a description of the Roman feast at the center of this book, and I was hooked. And then I talked about it incessantly while reading it, always the sign of a book that's gotten to me. Based on a character mentioned briefly in Roman histories, it's the story of Titus Petronius, Nero's Arbiter of Elegance, who responds to his death sentence from the mercurial emperor in the proper Roman way, by committing suicide. First, though, he throws a dinner party to end all dinner parties, and the intense pathos of enjoying a party when you must die in the morning is an irresistible and thought-provoking conceit. Titus' flashbacks on his intense relationship with the cool yet sensual Melissa add a sense of the man's past and inner life. And Browner is also a food writer, so the descriptions of Roman delicacies (dormouse poppers or sow's vulva, anyone?) are delectable. Food and sex and death -- perfect for the heat of summer.

The Weight of Numbers
by Simon Ings
(Atlantic, February 2007)
This was my one disappointment of recent reads. The description made this sound like a darker Cloud Atlas, with characters intersecting through world politics and science and warfare, but I found the intersections ultimately coincidental and unsatisfying, and Ings' cynical take on world affairs wasn't as compelling as David Mitchell's compassionate humanism. I may have been put off first, though, by the intense and graphic violence of the narrative -- much of it takes place in WWII Europe and war-torn contemporary Africa, and Ings is not concerned for the squeamish. This might work for some, but I would have preferred less gore and more numbers.

GRAPHIC NOVELS

The Arrival
by Shaun Tan
(Arthur A. Levine Books, October 2007)
Oh, you're going to want this one. A beautiful, surreal, completely wordless story of a father's flight from a city under attack to the land of opportunity, this is the quintessential American immigrant's tale made new and strange. Tan's sepia-toned, atmospheric artwork is reminiscent of Chris van Allsburg (The Mysteries of Harris Burdick), and his odd and original animals, food, architecture and perils reveal a hugely fertile imagination, and make the experience of starting life in a new place hit home with new impact. I'll add my voice to the praise of Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, Jeff Smith (Bone) and Craig Thompson (Blankets) and trumpet this new work as an important crossover book (children's and adults, graphic novels and literature), as well as the emergence of a great new talent.

The Black Diamond Detective Agency
by Eddie Campbell; based on a screenplay by C. Gaby Mitchell
(First Second Books, May 2007)
Eddie Campbell is the man behind the already cult classic experimental graphic novel The Fate of the Artist (which I admit I only paged through), and he brings a fragmented, bloody sensibility to the Western comics genre in this new one from First Second. The story begins with a horrific train bombing with a single suspect, but complicates in all directions from there. First Second's packaging is brilliant, evoking dime novels or wanted posters, and Campbell certainly does justice to the original screenplay. I admit I couldn't keep track of all the characters and was a bit lost by the end, but it's worth reading as a fresh, nuanced take on the genre.

Daisy Kutter: The Last Train
by Kazu Kibuishi
(Viper Comics, March 2005)
This is one I picked up at BEA in my quest for new comics publishers, and Viper has proved a rewarding discovery. Daisy is a retired train robber in a steam-punk sci-fi Old West populated by both humans and robots, and finds herself torn between the gentle suasion of her former partner (and lover) Tom, now the sheriff, and the offer of "one last job." It's a classic setup, made new by the tough female character and the odd setting, and it makes for some very good storytelling. The artwork is manga-influenced and suggests a more childish story, but the narrative is in fact very grown up. I hope to read more from Kibuishi -- if Westerns are the new zombie comics (i.e. rising to prominence in the medium), he'll be one to watch.

The Professor's Daughter
by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert
(First Second Books, March 2007)
Guibert and Sfar work together often and switch off writing and drawing duties; I like it best when Sfar is writing and Guibert drawing, as in this book. It's kind of a romantic comedy, set in Victorian England, with the eponymous professor's daughter being wooed by a thousand-year-old mummy exhumed by her father, but it gets serious quick and becomes a meditation on the conflicts of freedom and family. And Queen Victoria gets dumped in the Thames, a scene not many books can offer. My favorite of the current crop of First Second offerings, with moments of suspense, humor, and tenderness.

* * *

And now the question to the readership, which I've been pondering for months: what does one take to read on the honeymoon?? Anything depressing, violent or dark is obviously out. Anything requiring heavy mental lifting I suspect will get left in the suitcase. But I'm not much of a reader of the truly fluffy, either. I've had it suggested that something funny is the way to go, and I've got a used copy of a Jeeves & Wooster novel standing by. But I'd also love to read something contemporary during the long, lazy week. The ALP and I plan to do a serious amount of relaxing, as we both seriously need it, and we tend to like to read as we relax. So any suggestions you can offer during the next week will be much appreciated and taken into account in the packing. Paperback only, please -- we're packing light.

Happy reading -- see you after the honeymoon!