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Inside a Dog

"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."

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Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures
Mary Ruefle

Dark Passage (Film Ink)

Dark Passage (Film Ink) - David Goodis I love this kind of story where just about everything that can go wrong goes wrong. Luckily for me, ace writer David Goodis keeps the suspense pitched pretty tightly all the while closing down avenues of escape and throwing up roadblocks for the hapless protagonist.

The Girl Who Could Fly

The Girl Who Could Fly - Victoria Forester Halfway through this. Some of it is compelling, but the obviousness of adult character names (and cover art) gives away a lot of the mystery. Also, the author seems unsure of how to write effectively for a younger market with the sentence phrasing being overly complex followed by overly simple, as if she wanted to write for one audience but kept either forgetting or shifting her loyalties as she went along. More thoughts when we've finishes reading.

I am Going to Be Small

I am Going to Be Small - Jeffrey Brown It's not that Jeffery Brown is a master artist, but I've really come to love his little thumbnail slice of life style. This is, as the cover states, a collection of gag comics, meaning they're flippant, weird, profane, and simply hard to categorize. Enjoying this as a little different side of the cartoonist, having read many, if not most, of his more serious titles.

Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics

Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics - Diana Schutz, Ed Brubaker, Alex de Campi, Eduardo Barreto, Rick Geary, Fábio Moon, Gabriel Bá, Stefano Gaudiano, Jeff Lemire Half are great and half are weak with obvious plots, tissue thin characters, and passable artwork. It seemed like a lot of the writers thought it was noir just to write about crime and put in a twist, but noir is really a mood and an evocation, not just shadowy panels and dames with obscure motives. Many feel like snippets of a bigger whole but the few pieces that sing really go to town. Lime I said about six or so on here that really get what noir means.

The Dylan Dog Case Files

The Dylan Dog Case Files - Tizlano Sclavi This volume of seven issues of Italy's best-selling comic started out strong but the selections felt erratically chosen to give storyline variety rather than continuity. Jacket copy seemed as if the writer had only read the first comic and quit. Some great bits and wonderfully fun conceits, but unlikely to create a cult following in America.

The Maakies With the Wrinkled Knees

The Maakies With the Wrinkled Knees - Tony Millionaire One of my favorite things about Fantagraphics as a publisher is just how committed they are to their artists. This comes through with titles like this that don't fit comfortably on the shelf with more regularly formatted titles.

Tony Millionaire likewise continues to impress with his hallucinatorily disturbing comics that are troubling, hilarious, and beautifully, lavishly drawn. You will simply not find a more wonderfully illustrated comic anywhere, nor one more likely to use disgustingly intimate digestive humor for a laugh. It's a combination - my favorite juxtaposition of high art and low - that never fails to satisfy, no matter how frequently Millionaire goes to the well of inebriated Drinky Crow and his monkey sidekick Uncle Gabby and their sadistic, alcoholic exploits.

Stitches

Stitches - David Small Holy mackerel. Just started this, but what a story. Freakin creepy.

Update: This is just an amazing heart wrenching memoir. The adults are all psychotic but drawn so effectively that you see the generational damage as it's passed down. One of the most troubling scenes is the grandmother washing the young narrator's hands. Intense and disturbing and haunting.

The end feels a bit rushed in comparison to the leisurely beginning. That's really my only complaint. The afterword is quietly devastating as well, partly for additional depth added to the story and partly for the author's sympathy for people who treated him so horrifically.

The Nanny Diaries

The Nanny Diaries - Emma McLaughlin, Nicola Kraus The Help Speaks Back, Sort Of
The Nanny Diaries, by Emma McLaughlin & Nicola Kraus, Read by Kathe Mazur, Books on Tape, Inc. 2002


With the urge to exposure becoming such an inherent part of our national (and for that matter, global) character, with talk show confessionals all the rage, it is only surprising that it took so long for a book like this to be written. Certainly the employees of the rich and famous have been a step ahead of the average upper class servants, doling out the secrets of Elvis’ late night drug binges, Prince Charles’ trysts, and Michael Jackson’s entire life. For the same guilty pleasure of watching the high and mighty get skewered without the tabloid sensationalism of fame’s dirty laundry being aired, two former nannies have teamed up to present us with a delicious behind-the-scenes look into the playdates of the soon to be rich and famous.

There is nothing terrifically complicated about the book, no grand theory of life discussed, and no revelations that would shock anyone. The book’s strengths lie not in exposing a hidden world or in illuminating dark secrets, but in the mercilessly humorous way in which the easy targets of wealth and self-indulgence are skivered, one layer at a time, an accumulation of egocentricity pricked repeatedly, devilishly.

The Prologue is a charmingly amusing interview that is described as being the same no matter when it's done or who does it. When the narrator mentions the child, the name keeps changing, always one of those pompous upper crust name like Hutchinson, Stanton, Tinford, Jace, or Elspeth. This ends with the observation that to “do [the job:] well is to lose it,” the mother ultimately resenting how close the nanny and the child becomes. This is a bit of foreshadowing and also a bit of a gloss over the myriad motivations and bitter little revenges that lead to the firing of a nanny, but it smacks the main point directly on the snout.

The Nanny Diaries is filled with deliciously vicious portraits of upper class wives and their disconnected businessmen-husbands. One woman sneers with real venom that her maid, Consuela has another visit to her doctor regarding her hip transplant. “The third one this month,” the woman angrily declaims. We also meet the ironically named Darwin, a child of most unevolved behavior, a regular monster of pampered, violent intemperance who repeatedly hits his nanny. His favorite game involves karate chopping other kids or trying to smother them with his bulk.

The story is that of Nan (or Nanny as she is called while working, her name demonstrating that she is in fact her occupation) who takes a job with Mr. and Mrs. X to care for their four year old son, Grayer. Nan takes this job as a means to pay her bills while she finishes up a degree at NYU in child development/education. The two worlds are set up as to be as starkly divided as possible, the poverty of college for a middle class kid against the Delft riches of her employers, the open-minded world of learning and experience against the rigidity of rules, diets, and the over-scheduled lives of the toddler set.

Between the two authors, they demonstrate a perceptive and amusing ability to sketch certain types with deadly precision. And that’s the book’s real strength, not its plotting but its send-up of types. The collective of white boy posses with their PDAs, backward white baseball caps, and their nanny porno fantasies. The various immigrant servants, downtrodden and harried, with advanced degrees but no chance at better jobs. The other nursemaids, British au pairs, and their pretension to the riches they serve. The walking dead of bankers, MBAs, and stock market speculators. The vacuous trophy mistresses who don't grasp that "winning" against the wife means eventually becoming the hated wife. The portrait of FAO Schwartz during the Christmas crush is a Dantean nightmare of whining spoiled children, harried parents, dazed and idiotic part time clerks, and Kansans being Kansans.

As social commentary, there are many pointed scenes in which the writers indite with a poison pen. Then there are moments that read as though this were a novelization of a major Hollywood film starring the immoderately perky Kate Hudson or the vacuous Brittany Murphy. One scene involves a business related costume party in which Nanny and her charge have to dress up in Teletubbies costumes for a party while Mr. and Mrs. X decide at the last minute to ditch their costumes. This, of course, ends up involving a cramped elevator scene with Nan’s crush, the dashing Harvard Hottie.

As a scenario, this seems to happen in every sitcom and romantic comedy ever written or even dreamed of. Right at this very minute, someone is typing up a screenplay in which a variant of this scene is playing out. Then there is the nanny accidentally stumbling on the husband in flagrante delicto with his mistress at an office party. Another cinematic moment you can simply close your eyes and see all too easily. These are the bit trite scenes, amusingly portrayed, yet cliched nonetheless.

The Nanny Diaries is one of those stories in which the protagonist takes shit for so long you begin get angry yourself, wondering just how much this person is going to swallow. I include this lengthy scene with Mrs. X’s “consultant” who comes in to evaluate Nanny’s performance as a fine example (and also as an amusing look into the life so expertly pinned and mounted):


“How would you describe your agenda during his scheduled playtime?”
“Right…Grayer really likes to play trains. Oh, and dress up. So I try to do activities that he enjoys. I wasn’t aware that he had an agenda for playtime.”
“Do you engage him in puzzles?”
“He doesn’t like puzzles so much.”
“Math problems?”
“He’s a little young—”
“When was the last time you practiced circles?”
“I’m sure sometime in the last week we had the crayons out—”
“Do you play the Suzuki tapes?”
“Only when he takes a bath.”
“Have you been reading to him from the Wall Street Journal?”
“Well, actually—”
“The Economist?”
“Not really—”
“The Financial Times?”
“Should I be?”
She sighs heavily and scribbles furiously on her pad. She begins again. “How many bilingual meals are you serving him a week?”
“We speak French on Tuesday night, but I usually serve vegieburgers.”
“And you are attending the Guggenheim on what basis?”
“We go to the Museum of Natural History—he loves the rocks.”
“What methodology are you following to dress him?”
“He picks out his clothes or Mrs. X does. As long as he’ll be comfortable—”
“You don’t utilize an Apparel Chart, then?”
“Not really—”
“And I suppose you are not documenting his choices with him on a Closet Diagram.”
“Yeah, no.”
“Nor are you having him translate his color and sizes into the Latin.”



So at the book's end, when Nanny finally does go off, to a Nanny-cam, the effect is a bit underwhelming. You want her to slap Mrs. X's face or shake her, you want Mr. and Mrs. X to grasp the folly of their self-centeredness. Of course, it's probably more realistic that Nanny never does actually go off on her employers, at least to their faces. How many of us have stuck it out in horrible employment circumstances because we had no better options on the horizon, because we needed the money, because we thought circumstances couldn't possibly get any worse — and when they do, we tell ourselves, well it won't get any worse than this?

And so the novel is a bit like telling your friends all the good retorts you came up with after the fact. The authors get their bit of revenge, but does that change anything? Venal, self-absorbed utter refuse posing as human beings will continue to reproduce despite having no interest in their children. The author bios on the back of the book inform us that Ms. McLaughlin and Ms. Kraus are no longer nannies. I doubt they could ever return to the profession, and so with this book they were able to burn all the bridges to that life. I certainly hope the parents left on the other side of those bridges saw themselves in these unflattering portraits and blushed with shame and promised to become better people, but I wouldn't hold my breath.

Kathe Mazur, the reader, inhabits the book as a nice background sound, never intruding, never overstating her case, while all the while giving us a wonderfully nuanced performance.

Fade

Fade - Robert Cormier I read this a long time back when I read much more fantasy than I have over the last few years. Still Robert Cormier is always amazing and I'm enjoying this the second time through.



UPDATED:



Wow, what an ending. Forgot all about how dark this book goes. What did I expect? It is Cormier after all, but the final third is just astonishingly good and bleak. Perhaps this one will get the full review treatment....

Drood

Drood - Dan Simmons I sincerely wanted to like this novel more than I did. The Wife and I were at a bookstore perusing the new releases when I picked up this thick volume with its delightfully evocative cover and read the jacket copy. Get a gander at the kind of teasing this copy gave me:

>>>Drood . . ..


. . . is the name and nightmare that obsesses Charles Dickens for the last five years of his life.

On June 9, 1865, Dickens and his mistress are secretly returning to London when their express train hurtles over a gap in a trestle. All of the first-class carriages except for the one carrying Dickens are smashed to bits in the valley below. When Dickens descends into that valley to confront the dead and dying, his life will be changed forever. And at the core of that ensuing five-year nightmare is . . .

Drood . . . the name that Dickens whispers to his friend Wilkie Collins. A laudanum addict and lesser novelist, Wilkie flouts Victorian sensibilities by living with one mistress while having a child with another, but he may be the only man on Earth with whom Dickens can share the secret of . . .

Drood. Increasingly obsessed with crypts, cemeteries, and the precise length of time it would take for a corpse to dissolve in a lime pit, Dickens ceases writing for four years and wanders the worst slums and catacombs of London at night while staging public readings during the day, gruesome readings that leave his audiences horrified. Finally he begins writing what would have been the world's first great mystery masterpiece, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, only to be interrupted forever by . . .

Drood.<<<

Starting with a nugget of real life tragedy, Dickens' near-death in the Staplehurst train accident, Dan Simmons weaves through this semi-historical thriller the spectral form of London's most notorious serial murderer, Edwin Drood. There at the day of the accident, Drood moves among the bodies of unlucky passengers, doing something to them. He disappears from the scene, only to haunt Dickens for the remainder of his life.

I didn't buy the book that day, though I did get Simmon's previous semi-historical thriller, The Terror, on sale that day. And I devoured that book which tells the story of the doomed Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage and what horrors they experienced out there on the ice.

And it must have been in the researching of that book that Simmons discovered that Charles Dickens and his friend, the novelist Wilkie Collins, wrote a play based on the doomed expedition. Simmons' various researches into Victorian England and America at the time must have led him to Dickens and Collins on more than one occasion, and in this novel, Simmons found a second outlet for the remainder of all his Victoriana trivia.

And that's part of why The Terror is so successful. Simmons is one of those writers who has a tendency toward over-explaining obscure things. In The Terror, while discussing the British Royal Navy and sailors and their vessels of the time, this sort of detail occasionally comes in handy as most of us are unfamiliar with the layout of such a craft. Knowing the size of the captain's quarters relative to the general crew's, understanding the various differing kinds of ice one is likely to run into in Arctic conditions, understanding how ships in those days were heated, these sorts of things help us get a grasp on the world we are visiting.

It is somewhat of a different case in this novel. The habitations of London and the general time period are well trod literary streets to many readers and much of Simmons' research material tugs downward on the novel's flow. Narrated by the ridiculously unreliable Collins, a laudanum addict who in the novel's course becomes further addicted to opium and morphine, a serial liar to his mistress and his other mistress, and a man incredibly riven with envy for the successes of his friend and rival, Charles Dickens, we have to weigh carefully the things he says. Thus when he goes on at great length about his novel's successes, we ask ourselves is this Simmons' trivia or Collins' insecurity coming out.

Insecurity is one thing. Instability, however, another entirely. This is brought home to us rather early in the novel when we discover that on top of all the above addictions, Collins also regularly hallucinates a green-skinned, tusked woman who haunts his house attempting to chuck him down a staircase. He is also visited regularly, as he has since he was a child, by his doppelganger, "the Other Wilkie," who occasionally writes when our narrator is unable -- and writes better. (Simmons had a fine chance to give us more of the sting of that, but he apparently hadn't the time.)

Such ingredients make for a fine novel. And there's one hidden somewhere inside this convoluted tour through opium dens and underground criminal headquarters and mock-Egyptian temples and various 19th century British cities, but Simmons overstocks the book with period detail that is more know-it-all travelogue than setting-the-scene and red herrings that lack the savor of diverting blind alleys. Instead they come off as fanciful ornamenture that don't really do much for the book in terms of plot or atmosphere or necessity. They are, it seems, blind alleys without narrative point.

Also, when I first started the book, I worried. The style of the prose in the opening pages seemed a bit too flip, a bit too modern for a novel of the Dickens era. I let that slide, as accurate mimicry of an earlier style can sometimes become an overly precious (and intrusive) affectation. (And I discovered after finishing the book and reading a novella by Collins that that's his style to a T. For that, Simmons can be applauded, and Collins' more modern style and themes should be revisited by contemporary readers.) And here Collins' narration is puckish and he comes across as a satirical wag in the beginning. But his temper and his sanity soon fray from his exposure to Drood-related horrors and his own rocky domestic scene. By the book's later chapters, his constant, and too obviously sour grapes, griping about Dickens' work has palled. The rivalry between the two men must have been real, but in Simmons' hand, Collins becomes achingly tiresome when he gets on his Dickens bashing hobby horse.

But that's not the novel's greatest crime. No, as a story, there are wonderful moments, truly creepy scenes of real horror, and there is much to admire in its pages. Drood is a shadowy figure, only taking to the stage in rare appearances, most of his treachery and skullduggery behind the scenes, invisible. We get much of it in third- and fourth-hand accounts from those who've dealt with him before. And Collins' hallucinatory scenes (both aided by opium and not) are effective and chilling. At moments like this, reading the book flew in effortless suspension of time and place.

Only...only...only...at 800 pages, it's an overly long book. I say this as someone with an affection for voluminous doorstop-sized novels crammed with whole worlds. And it's clear that Simmons has made great efforts to do just that. Only instead of rich and deep atmosphere and local color, Simmons shoehorns in the facts, driving this reader to distraction, dolloping out little bits of trivia and putting into character's mouths stage-setting bits of leaden dialogue. Imagine a novel with frequent scenes like those that start many a badly written TV show: We open in a room. Mr. A says to Mr. B, "Okay, let's go over the plan again." And then the two characters begin hashing out all the information we, the viewers, need to get up to speed on the plot.

Only, we're getting up to speed on the 19th century. Ostensibly written with a plan "to delay the publication of this document for at least a century and a quarter beyond the date of my demise," Collins' narration feels the need to address we 21st century readers with little asides about London back in the day. We are nudged with trivia like learning that the so-called "ash heaps" you may have frequently read about in books of the time were really just euphemistically named mounds of horse dung. In this same vein, we are treated to an overview of the London sewage system and just how much effluvia gets dumped into the Thames. It's given to us in "just in case such things are different in your day, Dear Reader" asides, but these never come off as Collins' asides. Rather they felt all too much like Simmons addressing those of us who haven't, like him, spent months and months poring over all the historical books that are listed in the acknowledgments at the novel's end. You take copious notes on all this material you read, then you have to work it into the book, only it seems where in The Terror Simmons handled this gracefully, here it all just sits on the page, bagging down the better writing.

Consider when one character confronts Collins with his belief that Dickens will support a new social order not based on class or race. Here is Collins' rebuttal to this:

>>>Again, I was forced to laugh and again my laughter was sincere. Four years earlier, in autumn of 1865, a mob of Jamaican blacks had attacked the Court House in Morant Bay. Our governor there, Eyre, had overseen 439 of those blacks being shot or hanged and another 600 flogged. Some of our more deluded liberals had opposed Governor Eyre’s behaviour, but Dickens had told me that he’d wished the retaliation and punishment could have gone further. “I am totally opposed,” he’d said at the time, “with that platform-sympathy with the black—or the Native or the Devil—and believe it is morally and totally wrong to deal with Hottentots as if they were identical with men in clean shirts at Camberwell.…

During the Mutiny in India long before I had met him, Dickens had cheered on the British general whose answer to the rebellion had been to tie captured mutinous Indians across the muzzles of cannon and to blast them “homeward” in pieces. Dickens’s wrath and contempt, in Bleak House and a dozen other of his novels, had long been aimed more at the idiotic missionaries who were more concerned with the plight of native brown and black people abroad than with the problems of good Englishmen and Englishwomen and white children here at home.<<<


This comes across less a character dishing the goods on someone than as an author who found a salacious tidbit about Dickens' racist attitudes and felt the need to work it into the novel somewhere. It's over the topness isn't necessarily Collins-esque but feels rather more nudge-in-the-ribs-like from an author overstuffed with Victoriana.

Perhaps though that is something of an homage to Collins. A trip through Collins' fiction will find the reader faced with one story of a double after another, and as Collins' drug use grows ever greater throughout the novel and his hallucinations worse and worse, perhaps Simmons meant for the writer's narrative to be a battle between his good writing and his bad. Perhaps the theme of doubles is carried out even unto the very sentences on the page, the wonderful rubbing right next to the plain awful.

Just as no one ever says such sentences as: "I am deeply honoured to have such a famous writer visit me! I so greatly enjoyed your The Woman in White that was serialised in All the Year Round immediately after Mr. Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities ended," you also can not beat such passages as those that make up the novel's first chapter where the train accident's aftermath is described. Dickens helps the wounded here, such as a man with half his head ripped off, "the grey-and-pink pulp glistening within the concave bowl of splintered skull," the woman who smothers her baby under her rather than let Drood get him, and the lady whose arm dangles from a crushed carriage while Dickens comforts her until help arrives. All of these scenes and more shine out so wonderfully in the book that it's a shame the more turgid passages are so distracting.

A novel of great ambition, Drood not only finds a wonderful conceit in Dickens' last years and in his relationship with such a flake as Collins, but also manages to seduce us a long ways under the direction of a narrator who is clearly quite raving mad. This is all fine and good. Now find me an editor who can trim 20% of the novel's excesses and your end result would be an ambitiously great novel.

Bone

Bone - Jeff Smith I haven't read all of this yet, I'm working my way through, but I can't believe I waited as long as I have for something this damned enjoyable. What an awesome find.

The Fountainhead

The Fountainhead - Leonard Peikoff, Ayn Rand Is there a way to give negative stars? Overly long with repetitious scenes, characters who speak in long prepared speeches, an unpleasant black and white moral scheme, psychological tone deafness, and an ending that beggars belief.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps

The Black Lizard Big Book of Pulps - Otto Penzler I can't give this a star rating because I'm working my way through it as little tasty treats between other books, but this is definitely a great volume, mostly hits, but some stories that don't quite come up to snuff.

Just to update, when you have a book well over 1000 pages of just straight up hard-hittin crime, you: a.) don't rush it, and b.) essentially never stop reading it since there's just so much good stuff here.

The God Delusion

The God Delusion - Richard Dawkins Currently listening to this on audiobook while I do home improvement.

As an atheist, I rarely read explicitly books about being an atheist or preaching the atheist line. But I saw this as an audiobook and thought I'd give it a whirl.

Dawkins is brilliant and the book is less by the numbers than I would have suspected at the time.

Wonderful, witty, wise.

Hunger

Hunger - Knut Hamsun, Isaac Bashevis Singer I'm considering writing a much longer review at some stage, so consider this a placeholder, but this is one of my all-time favorite books, from once upon a time my all-time favorite author.

I went through a period in the latter years of college reading a lot of Scandinavian bigs (Ibsen, Strindberg, etc.), and my heart was all chomped up by Hamsun. I went through every single one of his works in English (most have been translated), and even to this day look for books that hadn't been translated fifteen years ago to reach the shelves. Look in vain.

At any rate, Hunger is the story of a writer who is essentially starving as he tries to make a living, and how he drives himself mad in the process. It's a harrowing book and it was just what I needed even many years later.

A couple weeks back I started getting into one of those reading funks. I looked at all my shelves and nothing appealed. I looked at new titles at the library and book stores and nothing compelled. I tried reading old crime stories on my iPhone or in a few collections (hardboiled crime of the first half of the 20thC usually satisfies me, but not this time). Everything read flatly and nothing was reaching down inside me and I so desperately needed that jolt you get from a book, that crackling electricity.

I think as we get older, as we grow away from our college aged selves, often we forget that palpable sense of almost having your head sliced open, your brains scooped out and given a charge of something new before being placed back into you. At that age, you're opening like a flower and every day almost brings new discoveries. "Holy shit, Kafka is amazing" or "Damn, this Bukowski guy is tearing up the poetry page" or what have you.

Well, Hamsun did that for me, and after I'd read everything, I put him back on the shelf and every so often I'd notice him and smile and remember, but never actually get around to picking him back up. After all, the man wrote something like forty novels and I read them straight through with nothing else in between over the course of several months. I'd sort of exhausted myself on Hamsun.

So, there I am, growing grim around the mouth, hitting that November in my reading soul, and nothing appeals.

I pick up "Hunger" after a good fifteen years since the last time I read it, and --bam!-- the book socks me right in the stomach. I can't put it down. I read the whole thing in almost one day before I forced myself to slow down, to take my time, not get so swept away. I'm almost finished, I'm nearing the end of the book, and I have another Hamsun "Mysteries" queued up to read next. If there's a book I love more than "Hunger" it's "Mysteries."

So I've blathered on and not really said much here, but if you really want to read an under-appreciated genius, you really need to get your hands on some Knut Hamsun. You won't be sorry.

The Areas of My Expertise

The Areas of My Expertise - John Hodgman Hilarious bathroom read. Snippets of real actual factoids (hint: "factoid" does not mean what you think). Even the Hobo Name list, though long and a little exhausting sneaks in unexpected chuckles.