Saturday, January 24, 2009

Recent Reading Roundup 20

After last month's frenzy, it's been a little slow on the reading (and posting) front around here recently, but here are a few books I haven't had the chance to talk about yet.
  1. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman - My reading for the last few weeks has been dominated by YA novels, but my very first foray was something of a dud, and not worth saying much about. As its title suggests, Gaiman's latest effort is a play on Kipling's The Jungle Book. In its first chapter, a toddler escapes the massacre of his family by crawling to a nearby graveyard, where the ghost residents vote to extend him their protection, and a long-dead couple adopt him and name him Nobody, Bod for short. Gaiman emulates Kipling in more than his premise--like The Jungle Book, The Graveyard Book is a series of nearly self-contained stories which follow Bod from early childhood to adulthood. In each one he explores different facets of the graveyard, makes ever more adventurous forays into the world outside its walls, and faces off against menaces, some of which bring him back in contact with the people who murdered his family. For all the dangers Bod faces, though, The Graveyard Book is a very mild, understated novel, and many of his adventures end with him being rescued by a kindly guardian. The pastiche is clever and well-done, with a minimum of Gaiman's trademark tweeness, and some scenes are extremely effective--the description of the murder of Bod's family and his narrow escape is chilling, and towards the end of the novel there's a twist that took me completely by surprise--but as a whole I'm just unclear on what the point was. The Graveyard Book is so slight that it is almost hollow, and amounts to nothing more than its witty premise. I chuckled when I read that Gaiman was planning to retell Kipling with ghosts, but the actual experience of reading The Graveyard Book never built on that chuckle, and I never got the feeling that Gaiman was trying to elicit anything more from me than that mild amusement at his clever conceit.

  2. Stoner by John Williams - I've had good experiences with NYRB Classics, including not too long ago with Beware of Pity, and Matt Cheney was positively effusive when he wrote about Stoner last summer, so my expectation were high--too high, as it turned out. Cheney is right that Williams's deceptively short novel is a great deal more engaging than it has any right being. It tells what should be a completely off-putting story, about a farmer's son in the early 20th century American Midwest who goes to college to learn a useful trade, falls in love with literature and stays on to become an academic and a teacher, and instead of making good and achieving fame and fortune, or at least comfort and happiness, as the template of the American dream teaches us to expect, suffers one crushing blow after another. He marries a woman who doesn't love him and devotes herself to making him miserable, including severing his strong bond to his daughter and driving the girl to self-destruction and alcoholism; he earns, through an act no more insidious than sticking to his principles, the enmity of a colleague who becomes the head of his department and relegates him to drudge work for the better part of twenty years; he falls in love with a graduate student, but is forced to give her up when their affair is discovered; then he gets cancer and dies.

    Stoner accepts these repeated blows with a stoic renunciation I'd be tempted to call Buddhist were it no so clearly intended as emblematic of his Midwestern roots and upbringing. Still, what makes Stoner remarkable is that it doesn't depict its protagonist as a hero or a saint, who remains unbowed while weathering the slings and arrows of outragerous fortune. There's much to dislike about William Stoner, mainly the fact that the same strength of character which allows him to tolerate his misfortunes also expresses itself as passivity and an unwillingness to stand up for people who depend on him--his lover, and even more so his daugher, whose life is destroyed while he stands by and watches, sadly comprehending her plight but unwilling to fight for her. The result is as complicated, delicate, and persuasive a portrait of an imaginary human being as I've ever encountered. Still, I can't say I found the experience of reading Stoner as transcendent as Matt Cheney did, mainly because the ambivalence we're encouraged to feel towards Stoner isn't extended to the people around him, and outright denied to his main antagonists, his colleague and his wife. The latter in particular is almost cartoonishly evil, despite the fact that she has good reason to hate her husband, who, oblivious and well-meaning, rapes her repeatedly in the first years of their marriage. This diminishes what should be the source of the novel's power, its stark realism--that Stoner's enemies are unbelievable, or at least not as believably human as he is, takes away from his humanity. Stoner is an impressive exercise in character building, but I couldn't love it as Cheney did.

  3. Eclipse 2, edited by Jonathan Strahan - After all the fuss and commotion, and despite an apparently strong first volume, the second Eclipse anthology is not much to get worked up over. The number of strong stories is about what you'd expect--I've already mentioned Daryl Gregory's "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" in my year's best short stories roundup, and Ted Chiang's "Exhalation," though a chilly thought exercise of a story, is a chilly thought exercise by Ted Chiang and therefore cooler, more inventive, and more interesting than just about anyone else's chilly thought exercises. I also liked Margo Lanagan's "Night of the Firstlings," a well-done retelling of one of the more gruesome chapters in the story of the Exodus, as well as Dave Moles's "Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom" (not to be confused with the Cory Doctorow novel of the same name) and Jeffrey Ford's "The Seventh Expression of the Robot General." But unlike The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, in which I liked about the same number of pieces but found something to admire in very nearly every one of the stories I didn't like, the remaining stories in Eclipse 2 just left me cold, most of them taking too long to build up a premise or a setting and not doing enough with it. If you read only one of this year's original story anthologies, go for The Del Rey Book (or Fast Forward 2, which I haven't read).

  4. The Middleman: The Trade Paperback Imperative, The Second Volume Inevitability and The Third Volume Inescapability by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine - AtWQ reader Raz lent me these collections as a way of alleviating my grief for the very nearly inevitable cancellation of the series's television incarnation, though mostly what they accomplished was to make me wish even more fervently for a second season. The first and second volumes are, word for word and shot for shot, the shows' pilot (in which starving artist Wendy Watson is recruited as the sidekick of the titular superhero) and its third episode (in which Wendy first bumps heads and then helps the Middleman rescue the notorious martial artist Sensei Ping), and the third plays with characters--such as the supervillain Manservant Neville--who have also appeared on the show, but ends with the sort of upheaval that I sincerely hope isn't on the cards for the second season, if it ever happens. Still, I prefer the television version, not only because of the show's uniformly excellent cast, but because the comic's Middleman is a distant, slightly sinister authority figure, and I much prefer the more layered version of the character in the series (also, the comic is missing Wendy's fantastic, almost certainly doomed to villain-hood boyfriend Tyler, which is an unacceptable loss). Also, how's this for irony: for all the praise heaped on the series for its depiction of women and non-white characters, in the original story Wendy is white, Noser is white, and Wendy's uniform top has a midriff so bare she might as well be wearing a sports bra.

  5. Kindred by Octavia E. Butler - I think it's the combination of having just recently read the second Octavian Nothing volume, which is essentially also a story about a person who is an heir to slavery but has grown up outside of it and who finds themselves suddenly thrust into it, and having heard so many good things about Butler in general and this novel in particular, but I found Kindred somewhat underwhelming. The premise is that Dana, a young black woman living in 1976 California, finds herself repeatedly transported to the ante-bellum South, to a plantation owned by her distant ancestor, whose life she must repeatedly save in order to ensure her own existence. There are aspects of Kindred I liked very much, particularly the relationship which develops between Dana and her ancestor, Rufus, who both loves her and refuses to see her as a person, and the delicate way it examines the impossible choice forced on people who live in slavery between defiance and acquiescence, and the consequences of both not only from their owners but from the community of their fellow slaves. Still, in parts--especially when Dana talks to her husband Kevin, who at one point is transported to the past with her and faces a different set of difficulties and challenges as a white man, or when she talks to the readers through her narrative voice, Kindred feels more like a history lesson than a novel, taking too much time to explain to us the psychological effects of slavery on both owners and slaves rather than allowing us to see those effects for ourselves. Butler's writing is also somewhat on the flat side, and often undercuts her descriptions of horror and degradation. I can't help but feel that Kindred is a groundbreaking novel that has been overtaken by better efforts, such as Octavian Nothing, and perhaps Butler's own later novels.

3 comments:

Eric said...

Interesting that you singled out "Night of the Firstlings"...it was the only entry that did nothing for me. I liked the premise and wanted to like the story, but found the prose quite weak, the pacing confused, and the characters indistinguishable. (All of which might well have been part of Lanagan's method, but to me it only blunted the horror.)

What impressed you about it, if you don't mind my asking?

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think in general I'm a sucker for Biblical pastiche (I also really liked Benjamin Rosenbaum's "The Book of Jashar" from The Ant King and Other Stories), and what made "Night of the Firstlings" stand out for me was the pleasure of figuring out which story Lanagan was referencing and the visceral spin she put on it. But aside from that I don't recall feeling particularly unimpressed with either the prose or the characters - in fact I thought the former did a good job of conveying the characters' fear and urgency.

Foxessa said...

My responses to later readings of Kindred are very different.

The more I understand and live in our nation's history the more admirable an achievement Butler's novel seems to me, and more subtle and more skillfully written.

Love, C.

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