Friday, December 30, 2005

2005, A Year in Books: Special Awards

The following books aren't exceptionally good or demonstrably terrible, but they are all, in some way, noteworthy. To my great surprise, the Cold Mountain "We Can't Have a Happy Ending! This is Literary Fiction!" Award will not be given this year, which I suspect is an indication that I've become more adept at avoiding turgid tragic romances, rather than a sign of positive change in the attitudes of literary fiction writers.
  • The "Gee, I Wish I'd Read This Back in 1985" Award
    Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

    Well, obviously not really, seeing as I was four in 1985, but I do envy the people who read Moore's masterpiece when it was first published. In the mid-80s, reading Moore's reassessment of the superhero mythos must have felt like having the top of one's head screwed off. Twenty years later, the questions that were so trailblazing when Moore first raised them--do superheroes really make the world safer? What gives a superhero the right to use violence against members of society, and even to kill? How can we be certain that superheroes are using their powers responsibly? And is there anything truly admirable about people who have special powers simply because of a quirk of genetics or fate?--have become standard in any halfway decent superhero story--several months before I read Watchmen, I watched a Disney film with roughly the same premise. Although I enjoyed Watchmen, I can't say that I loved it, or that, without the newness of its premise, the book deserves to be loved.

  • The "I Know Neil Gaiman and You, Sir, Are No Neil Gaiman" Award for Textureless, Knee-Deep Fantasy
    Fables, vols. 1,2, & 3 by Bill Willingham

    The concept is seductive: after being driven out from their own universe by the mysterious Adversary, the heroes and heroines of fairy tales and fables found themselves refugees in our world. Those of them who can pass for humans live in New York, policed by the Big Bad Wolf and ruled over by the iron fist of an embittered Snow White. Unfortunately, Willingham somehow manages to wring every shred of magic, playfulness, and romance out of his idea. Fables reads like a longer, only slightly better-drawn installment of Apartment 3-G: beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes in beautiful Manhattan settings complaining about their inane problems, with not a hint of believable dialogue or characterization in sight. Worst of all, Fables, with a central conceit that begs a self-aware, slightly knowing tone, isn't even remotely clever. It really is quite impressive, in a horrifying way, that Willingham manages to make even his most original juxtapositions of legend and modernity--Sleeping Beauty sending half of Macy's to sleep when she accidentally pricks herself with a brooch, a Beast whose looks begin to fade when his marriage to Beauty goes through a rough patch--seem plodding and obvious. I can't help but wonder what a half-way decent fantasist would have done with this concept, but I'm done with Willingham's attempt at it.

  • The Children of God Award for Completely Unnecessary Sequel
    Shared Award: The Sandman: Endless Nights by Neil Gaiman and Castle in the Air by Diana Wynne Jones

    I rushed out to buy Endless Nights after finally coming to the end of my three-year trek through the original Sandman serial. I was eager for yet another peek into Gaiman's invented universe, and maybe a look at how the new Sandman was managing his existence. Sadly, none of the seven tales in Endless Nights--one each for the Sandman and his six siblings--were worth my time or money. Despite occasionally stunning artwork (and some that was less stunning) I didn't find the kind of depth I'd gotten used to expecting from Sandman, and I can't help but wish that I'd allowed my experience of the series to end on a less sour note.

    Diana Wynne Jones' Howl's Moving Castle was an unexpected delight, a book that I had picked up on a lark and ended up staying up until 4 AM to finish. I naturally grabbed the sequel, Castle in the Air, the first time I saw it in a bookstore. I did know that the main characters from Howl wouldn't appear until late in the book, but I hadn't been prepared for a story that lacked even a fraction of Howl's charm and romance. The problem, I suspect, is in the main character, who lacks Sophie Hatter's spunk, and in the equally spunk-less romance that drives the plot.

  • The Margaret Atwood "Thank You For Gracing Our Humble Genre, O Great Literary Fiction Author" Award
    Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

    I liked Case Histories, actually. It's a good book. The mystery is clever, the characters are well drawn, the writing is good. Out of the six mysteries I've read this year, I'd place it somewhere near the middle, quality-wise. Which is where I start having trouble with it, or, more accurately, with the way it's been presented in the media (which may have nothing to do with Atkinson herself). Whatever you may have heard, Atkinson is not 'transcending genre'. She's written a good mystery with some decent character development and a slightly experimental narrative style, but it doesn't follow that she's revolutionized the genre, or established a new standard to which mystery writers should aspire. It's true that a lot of mystery is formulaic, not overly concerned with characterization or literary quality, but Atkinson's novel simply isn't good enough to be hailed as the second coming of the genre, as far too many reviewers have done.

  • The From a Buick 8 Award for Lousy Novel Which Might Have Made a Decent Short Story
    The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer

    The curse of bloat, it seems, afflicts mid-length and short novels as well. One hundred pages into The Confessions of Max Tivoli, I found the book charming and clever. A further fifty pages in, it was still charming and clever, but beginning to wear thin, and by the time I reached the end I had ceased to care about the characters. Between the central conceit of a man who ages backward and the love triangle that drives the story, there should have been enough meat to sustain Tivoli through a mere 250 pages, but Greer can't quite manage it. When it comes down to it, Tivoli is a surprisingly conventional novel, and the longer Greer takes to get to the end of his story, the easier it is for his readers to spot just how little he has to say.

  • The God of Small Things "Please Get to the Incest Already" Award
    The Cement Garden by Ian McEwan

    The Cement Garden is obviously McEwan's attempt to shock with a capital S--four unpleasant, unsympathetic children, the scions of unpleasant, unsympathetic parents, are left to care for themselves after their mother's death. Cue the attendant breakdown of social niceties, and 30 pages into the book it's painfully clear what moral outrage will provide its climax. What's left is a waiting game, and the suspicion that McEwan is writing for the sole purpose of getting the readers' gorge rising. The characters are lost in the shuffle (the younger sister loses her function in the story halfway through the book), and the result is cheap sensationalism rather than McEwan's usual piercing character study.

6 comments:

The Rock Robot said...

Clever award titles! Though I actually liked From a Buick 8 (and I hear it is being made into a movie...by Romero I think?).

I thought I'd leave a post since I've been checking this site out for a while now...but never posted.

Happy New Years!

Andrew Ducker said...

Have you read Lucifer? Definitely the best Sandman spinoff, and a masterpiece in its own right.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I haven't read Lucifer, Andrew, although what I've seen of the character in Sandman is intriguing. I'll have to keep an eye out.

Anonymous said...

Since when do you spend money on comics? I thought the idea was I spend MY money, and then give them to you!:)

Unlike you I enjoyed "fables" and the desire episode at "Endless Nights" wasn't half bad.

Happy New Year!:)

Hagay

ca said...

I loved Watchmen :) Although I did read it about five years ago now, so even then it was a little newer than it is now... Really, it knocked me out because I had never thought of graphic novels as, well, worth reading, before reading it. Also, I found the level of detail astounding. I must've read it at least five times now, and I keep finding new things in it.

Jenny D said...

Very funny... I agree with you about CASTLE IN THE AIR, btw, though DWJ is one of my particular favorites. Fortunately I hadn't realized it was the sequel to HMC, which minimized my dismay. You might try FIRE AND HEMLOCK if you haven't already, it's my very favorite of hers (along with DEEP SECRET, I think).

I like CEMENT GARDEN more than any of McEwan's other books, but don't understand why he is so overwhelmingly anointed--he seems to me a middling-good middlebrow-y English writer of a very familiar kind...

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