Sunday, February 21, 2010

Cannonball Read Book 11: Peter and Max- A Fables Novel

For those unfamiliar, Bill Willingham is the author of a series of comic books called Fables, which are based on the idea of characters from fairy tales and nursery rhymes crossing over into our world, seeking refuge from the war-torn, cursed, etc. realms of their origin.  Willingham has branched out with this idea, writing novels about these characters as well.  Peter and Max is the story of two brothers, Peter and Max Piper, whose centuries-long enmity comes to a head in our own time and world.

Throughout the novel, Willingham bounces back and forth between the present, human-dominated (called Mundy, short for Mundane) world and the Fabled realm of long ago.  This is highly effective for setting up LOST-esque questions about the characters' personal histories. For example, why these two brothers hate each other so much, or why Peter's wife, Bo Peep (yup, that Bo Peep) is bound to a wheel chair, unable to use the lower half of her body.  Throughout the flashbacks covering the brothers' history, each question or mystery is gradually addressed and answered.  The current, Mundy setting covers Peter's quest to find his brother for what will hopefully be their final confrontation.  While this approach definitely has its perks, I found the disconnects a bit jarring at times.  I found myself having to flip back to previous chapters to refresh my memory regarding small, yet important details. 

Another interesting touch Willingham used was his approach to Max (who turns out to be the Pied Piper of Hamelin in the darkest version of the story).  The Fabled are a race full of characters who live in a moral gray area, which I always find interesting.  I have a thing for characters with questionable motives, or quests for redemption that may or may not be sincere.  However, as the main antagonist, Max is just out and out evil.  He starts off as a selfish, greedy, lazy, spiteful boy, yet you still have a shred of hope for him.  By the end of the book's first quarter, he is driven to full on evil by a combination of loss, trauma, and his own hateful nature.  There's no justifying a single awful thing he does, and even when he tries to do so, his self-serving arguments are just laughable.   Having just come off of Lolita, I did find this a refreshing change on a certain level.  However, I still found myself much more intrigued with the harder-to-pin-down supporting characters, such as a powerful witch of questionable loyalties, or Bigby, the Big Bad Wolf himself, who seems now bound and determined to earn his redemption.

While I dug the story for light, fluffy entertainment, something about it just failed to really grab me.  I guess I would describe the author's overall tone as Gaiman-lite.   Perhaps I would have liked it more if he spent less time describing and mapping out every single character and location in painstaking detail, and more time weaving a more complex narrative, or going a bit deeper with Max's antagonism.  Even when considered as a book for younger readers, I'd have to say that Gaiman's The Graveyard Book packs much more of an ideological and emotional wollop.  But I'm not turning my nose up at this book, either.  It was enjoyable.  I think I was just hoping it would be more.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Cannonball Read Book 10: A Picture of Dorian Gray

Alternate title: Kate writes a book review with a powerful migraine.  Seriously folks, I'm on Day 6 of this sucker (though it was come and go throughout the weekend, to be fair).  Now it's full-on, nonstop pain comparable to a railroad spike through the skull and it's getting to the point where the simplest words are escaping me.  I just had to ask a coworker what it's called when a landlord kicks someone out of their apartment.  I knew it was a word similar to "exhibition" but I couldn't get any further than that.  I'm seriously considering asking my neurologist to give my MRI another look.

So, Dorian Gray.  It didn't move me on a profound level, but I enjoyed it immensely.  Now that I think about it, it's pretty much on par with how I usually feel about most of Wilde's work.  It's full of clever witticisms, about half of which I agree with, and social satire that periodically lightens the horror story's gothic, foreboding tone.

It starts with a benevolent, compassionate painter who has taken on an idolatrous admiration for his latest subject, a stunningly beautiful youth by the name of Dorian Gray.  More than just a pretty face, he also possesses an extremely charming character, being warm, frank, playful, and open-hearted.  The painter reluctantly introduces Gray to an old friend, a cynical dandy with "dangerous ideas," who corrupts the youth over the course of a walk through a garden.  Yes, the biblical reference is hard to ignore.  Afterward, the painter completes Gray's portrait, which is to him, the ultimate labor of love.  As he gazes upon it, Gray is so overwhelmed by his own beauty and muddled with "dangerous ideas" that he declares he would sell his soul to retain such youthful beauty forever.

Soon after, Gray's character changes for the worse.  It comes on gradually, but he becomes increasingly cruel, selfish, petty, remorseless, and hedonistic.  For every sin he commits, and for every year that goes by, his portrait grows not only older, but much uglier as his soul corrupts and degrades.  At the same time, Gray himself retains his spotless, youthful physical beauty, not aging a day over the next twenty years or so.  He is quick to hide the picture away (apparently not realizing that the whole eternal youth thing might be suspicious by itself), but retains a fearful paranoia throughout the story that it will be discovered.  His attitude toward the portrait changes frequently, from disgust to fear to delight to pity to loathing.  It can be confusing at times, but mirrors well the changing attitudes each of us carries toward our own wrongdoings and shortcomings.

What I found particularly interesting is how Wilde assaults and satirizes the very cynicism that many of his admirers seem to appreciate him for.  One character in particular reminded me of Hamlet's Polonius, who is often quoted by people who wish to seem erudite...despite the fact that Polonius is the play's chief idiot.  The cynic who fills Gray's head with "dangerous ideas" is plainly stated to be an egotistical, callow, solipsistic jerkface; yet he says the most delightfully clever things.  Wise, right or true?  No.  But clever and amusing, yes.  In fact, I'm sure many of his sayings are included in a friend of mine's much-referenced book of Oscar Wilde quotes.  I wonder how Wilde would feel about that, when I feel certain this character was meant as a target for much of his vitriol.  Or I could be wrong.  If I've horribly misinterpreted the book, please blame the migraine.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Cannonball Read Book 9: Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

This is me officially starting to get lazy.  I've found in CBR that it usually isn't the reading that holds me up so much as the sweating over how I'm going to approach my review.  Add to that me being burnt out from work and a slew of unfortunate luck, plus needing to memorize 14 lines of iambic pentameter for this weekend, plus having a headache the size of Cleveland from yesterday's Super Bowl related festivities.  And I really, really, want to start on my new book, but don't feel comfortable doing that until the review for the previous book is done and over with.

I also gave up sweating over this one because it is notoriously challenging and often misinterpreted.  In fact, my copy includes an essay by Nabakov pretty much slamming everyone who's ever offered an opinion or interpretation of this book.  Which made me think, "Hell.  No matter what I write about this book, I'm bound to piss someone off."  At which point I promptly stopped worrying.

The first time I heard about this book, a schoolmate in a local coffee house (ain't that always the way?) raved about it as her favorite book of all time.  Her interpretation was, "This man falls in love with a little girl, but he's not the bad guy!  The little girl totally manipulates him, and society punishes him wrongly!  It's like, all about how unfair society is!!!"

Now that I've read the book myself, I'm pretty certain she was dead wrong.  Of course when we read this, we get the sense that he's the victim, that he's treated unfairly, etc.  But that's because the book is told solely from his point of view.  Throughout the book, he wrestles with feelings of guilt, but he almost always manages to assuage them by rationalization or laying the blame elsewhere or playing the victim.  In that sense, Nabakov pulls off an effective satire or parody (head hurts too much to decide which) of your prototypical despicable human being.  Or, putting it this way, throughout the book a thought kept popping into my head: Whether he likes it or not, we have Nabakov to thank for the Colbert Report.

There are of course loads and loads of literary devices he employs throughout the book to fill out the character.  Repeated refrains, running gags, invented words, personality ticks (Turns out Palahniuk owes Nabakov a debt of gratitude as well) so meticulously used that they come to communicate volumes with each turn of phrase.  In many ways, it was as if e.e. cummings had written narrative prose.

There are two passages near the end I found particularly moving.  Where the satiric veneer was rubbed away to reveal a raw, sensitive, tender matter beneath, and they broke my heart.   But since this is also a Pajiba book club selection, I don't want to go spoiling the ending.  Sure, its a classic, and its been around for decades, but I was still pretty peeved when the introduction in my copy gave away pretty much every major plotpoint.  I don't want to be responsible for that happening to anyone else. 

With all of it's richness, and all the possibilities for interpretation, I do think this makes an excellent choice for a book club read.  I was dreading writing a review for it, but I'm actually really looking forward to discussing it with several other people and comparing notes, ideas, favorite passages, etc.  All in all, I'll admit the read was a challenge, but a highly enjoyable one that surprised me in many ways.