Bites of Bits: Wild Thing by Josh Bazell

Another brief piece here. So… Wild Thing. The first thing to know is that this is a sequel to last year’s Beat the Reaper. I didn’t know this going in, but the book was fine without this knowledge. But you may want to read it first. Maybe. But I’m not you.

The second thing to know is that this book is a total “turn your brain off” read. Our main character, Pietro Brnwa (on the run from the mafia under the assumed name of Lionel Azimuth) is sent to investigate the possibility of a lake monster with Violet Hurst, a “sexy and self destructive paleontologist” (and yes that is from the back cover).

The most important question… Is it good? A monster hunter book, shelved in general fiction? Well… Yes. Good action, funny characters, ans the mystery that drives the plot is engaging and fun.

Most interesting? The thirty pages of notes and annotations that follow the story. Bazell did his research and is also quite well read. Annotations (mostly asides from Brnwa) litter the novel itself, and they bring a good amount of levity and humor to the text as a whole.

Look for this book in your favorite shop on Feb 8th if you’re hunting for a fun, funny, and surprisingly thoughtful read about modern politics, small town life… Oh, and sea monsters!

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The Training of a Wizard – Neil Gaiman’s Books of Magic

Note of Edit:  Apparently, when this auto-posted, it went with an incomplete draft instead of the full post… how… marvelous.  Apologies… this post is now complete.

What can I say about Neil Gaiman that I haven’t said before?  The man is a towering genius of literature, most especially in the fantasy genre.  His horror\fantasy\mostly uncatagorizable series Sandman is the series that launched an entire sub-section of DC Comics (its Vertigo line, home to those series that appear outside of DC’s regular continuity, including Y The Last Man, Fables, Swamp Thing, and Hellblazer starring erstwhile wizard John Constantine).

I feel that comic writing is generally where Gaiman performs best, which is not to say that I don’t enjoy his novels… or his poetry… or his non-fiction.  I do.  I just really, REALLY enjoy his comic book writing.

The Books of Magic
Writer: Neil Gaiman
Artists: John Bolton (issue 1), Scott Hampton (issue 2), Charles Vess (issue 3), and Paul Johnson (issue 4).
Letterer: Todd Klein
DC Comics

 April 14, 1993
200 pages

Books of Magic preceded the creation of the Vertigo imprint and features DC Comics regulars, such as Constantine and The Phantom Stranger, yet the collected trade paperback is Vertigo.

As if that makes sense.

Yes, yes… Sandman and Swamp Thing were both originally DC Comics published and are now Vertigo… And yes, now Swamp Thing and John Constantine have shown up in standard DC Comics continuity again (oh the humanity and confusion), but… dammit, this is a DC related comic that deals with magic within the DC world… so why is this not a DC comic?  OK, I’m thinking too much again.

Back to the comic at hand!

Books of Magic stars both our main character, the bespectacled Timothy Hunter, and a group known colloquially as The Trenchcoat Brigade, John Constantine, Mister E, The Phantom Stranger, and Doctor Occult.  Guess what fashion item they all sport?

Timothy Hunter is of interest to the DC Universe as a whole because of his potential.  In the future, there will be a great war of magicians and Timothy could well be the reason for a “good guy” victory (though as the book will show us, good and evil aren’t always as black and white as they seem… and wow how trite was that statement?  I do not apologize, I do not backspace).

And… let us get your burning question out of the way.  Yes, this story has similarities to a certain other British wizard coming of age story, but no JK Rowling didn’t take, steal, embezzle, or in any way lift the idea for Harry Potter.  In all likelihood, as Gaiman himself has stated in interviews, they both pulled their influence from authors like TH White, thus the similarities in ideas.

Or, to quote Gaiman, “[I] wasn’t the first writer to create a young wizard with potential, nor was Rowling the first to send one to school.”

Anyway…  The Brigade appear to Timothy and tell him about his possible future.  He agrees to come with the after they turn his yo-yo into a snow white owl (I KNOW! I KNOW!) and each of the four takes him on a journey into magic.

Issue 1, entitled “The Invisible Labyrinth,” is illustrated by John Bolton, whose eldest son was the visual model for Timothy Hunter.  Bolton’s photorealistic style works well as it establishes the main setting (“real world” London in the late 80s\early 90s), but also manages to convey a lot of beauty as The Phantom Stranger takes young Timothy on a trip through the past… from The Creation, to The Fall, and so on, touching on magic users throughout time including Merlin and DC Comics mainstay Jason Blood (a human attached to a demon named Etrigan who has shown up in as diverse titles as Sandman, Swamp Thing, Green Lantern, and Batman).  

Basically, the point of this issue is to show Timothy, as well as the reader, the various levels of magic and mysticism from the DC Universe past.  Wizards, angels, demons, monstrous creatures… these all co-exist side by side in DC Comics.

Issue 2, “The Shadow World” gives Timothy his proper introduction to the wizard John Constantine.  Yes, that awful movie starring Keanu Reeves was based on the character, but… he’s much better than that.  Constantine is a relic from a past age.  He was a a punk rocker once, who dabbled in magic, until tragedy struck at Newcastle (read Hellblazer to learn about that mess) and caused him to become fully involved in the world of magic.

This issue introduces us (or reintroduces us, if we’re longtime readers) to many magic users in modern DC Continuity.  Zatanna, Madame Xanadu, Jason Blood (again, as his connection to Etrigan makes him immortal)… many DC Comics mainstays make appearances.  But the best part of the issue is near the end… Zatanna and Timothy are surrounded by those who would do them harm when suddenly Constantine reappears.  One threat later, they’re walking out of the party unharmed.  Was it a bluff?  Or is Constantine really that bad ass?  Both, probably.

Scott Hampton’s artwork is great and shows how well Gaiman works with his collaborators.  The painted style gives the whole issue a softer look, which fits well with all the slight of hand (and real magic) performed by Constantine.  The art is also delightfully creepy and otherworldly once the characters arrive at the party in the penultimate scene.

Issue 3, “The Land of Summer’s Twilight” is by far the best issue in the mini-series.  Illustrated by Charles Vess (the same man who penciled the fantastic 19th issue of The Sandman), this storyline takes us deeper into the adjoining universes connected to the main DC one.  Much of the time is spent in The Faerie, an area Gaiman and Vess revisit in Stardust (also a movie… and an unillustrated novel… but first it was an illustrated novel published by DC Comics).

So what interest does The Faerie have in the DC Universe?  Well… from what I can tell, much of it was introduced by way of Gaiman’s Sandman series.  So Gaiman is being self-referential through much of this issue (as is Vess… many of the character models are remarkably similar to his stellar art in Sandman #19).  Throughout, Timothy and Dr Occult (and the female side of his coin, Rose) meet Titania, Baba Yaga, and various shades of pixies, nixies, and talking animals.  But there’s a very special cameo that is probably the reason I think so highly of this issue.  I won’t spoil it here, but suffice to say fans of Gaiman will be quite happy.

Issue 4, “The Road To Nowhere” completes our journey by (finally) giving us our villain and taking Timothy and Mister E from the present day, all the way to the end of time.  Literally, the end of time.  And what do you find at the end of time?  Another awesome (is somewhat more obvious) cameo.  But a great moment just the same.

I can’t really say too much about this without delving into greater spoilers, but… this issue is what sets up the series that would follow (for an additional 75 issues, no less).  In it, we discover a possible future for Timothy, many possible futures for the DC Universe, and we see what happens when Gaiman gets playful with the  idea of the distant, distant future.

The art in this issue is done by Paul Johnson and is my least favorite in the bunch.  It isn’t bad by any stretch (and Johnson has worked on another fun series The Invisibles which is written by another member of the British Comic Invasion, Grant Morrison), but it doesn’t have the appeal of Charles Vess’ Faerie, or Scott Hampton’s more horror-themed visuals.  But given that he draws one of my favorite DC Characters very well… I won’t complain.

So after all these adventures… what does Timothy discover?  What does he decide?  Does he stay on as a magician?  Does he go back to his boring life of yo-yos and skateboards?  You’ll have to read to find out.

But that said… will you want to?  I first read this approximately… a year ago… I was lost.  I had minor knowledge of some of the characters (The Phantom Stranger, Constantine) and little to no knowledge of most of the side characters (The Deadman, Jason Blood) and so a lot of it was confusing.  If you aren’t a big comic reader, or a big Neil Gaiman fan, I’ll tell you right off… this will not make you either.

But if you love Gaiman’s past work (especially Sandman or his attempt at retrofitting all the “vegetable” based DC characters in Black Orchid) you’ll like it.  No doubt.  And if you like the more magical, mystical side of the DC Universe (or if  you’ve read a bunch of Hellblazer) this has a lot of appeal.

But beyond that… You’ll be either lost, bored, or possibly both.  The writing, art, and references are aimed at hardcore comic fans and, despite the excellent story and illustrations, if you don’t have the knowledge you won’t be able to appreciate this as much.

If I were to suggest you start anywhere, I’d say Sandman.  You see Gaiman deftly weave a story over 70+ issues and he’s definitely at the height of his literary prowess.  In fact, for under $50, you can even pick up a copy of The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 that contains the first twenty issues (in black and white) with full annotations.  Does that sound like a segue to a future blog post?

Maybe… maybe…  Stay tuned!

The Inaccuracies And Inadequacies Of Memory – The Sense Of An Ending

In 1984, Julian Barnes was first shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.  He did not win that year.  Nor did he win in 1998, or 2005.  However, after more than thirty years writing various styles of fiction, Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sense of an Ending.

The Man Booker Prize is an award given yearly to the best English Language book written by an author from the British Commonwealth (former winners that I’ve read and enjoyed include Midnight’s Children, Disgrace (by Coetzee), and Life of Pi).  Out of these (and now Barnes’ latest), I would give the edge to Barnes.  Why?  Well, let’s discuss it below!

The Sense of an Ending
Julian Barnes
Alfred A Knopf
August 4, 2011
163 pages 

One of the first things Julian Barnes’ book The Sense of an Ending tells us, through the character of Adrian Finn, that history is, “that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation” and this is a theme throughout the novel.

How much can we rely on memory?  If memory is to be trusted, it must be accurate.  The crux of this novel is that memory, and for that matter history, is what we make of it.  Whether the victor, or the defeated, we all twist the resulting information in our own ways, towards our own advantages.

The first third of the novel (Part I) deals with the two lead characters, Tony Webster (our narrator) and Adrian Finn.  Though Tony is friends with two other boys at his school, when Adrian arrives, he becomes a fourth… but a more serious, thoughtful member of the group.

Throughout the first part, Tony refers to this part or that part not actually being contained within the story he is telling.  Humorously (or humourlously, since we’re dealing with a British author), Tony continually refers to how characters, most especially Adrian, would act and react if they were within a novel.

An example: “What was the point of having a situation worthy of fiction if the protagonist didn’t behave as he would have done in a book?”  The funniest part about this line (ah, irony!) is that Tony clearly doesn’t see himself as the protagonist of his own story.  Funnier still is that, despite the majority of the focus being on Tony, Adrian is the driving force behind the rest of the novel.

In second half of Part I (confused yet?  Fuck it, I’m not changing my language now…), Tony and his friends part and head off to school.  Tony speaks to us about his experiences dating a girl named Veronica… and mostly, it seems terrible.  They never quite seem to get along quite well enough and, naturally break up.

At this point, Adrian re-enters the picture and tragedy strikes.  For whom?  I won’t ruin it for you, but Part I comes to a close and Part II begins nearly forty years later.

From age sixty (I’m approximating because I can’t find my note of the page that may or may not mention Tony’s age), we find Tony looking back at his life.  Divorced, though pleasantly, with a child and grandchildren, Tony is now retired and has much time to sift through memories of his earlier life and he does so.  Until his memories catch up with him and he is forced to see the truth about how he acted when he was younger.

The final two thirds of the book (that is, Part II) is sad… and a bit off putting throughout.  Therefore, the best part of the book.  Tony struggles to adjust to a world with Facebook and e-mail while simultaneously struggling to come to grips with the inaccuracies and inadequacies of his memory and attempting to bridge the gaps in his relationships (or at the very least, understanding why he’s having trouble).

The book, much like Travels in the Scriptorium, is quick and lends itself to being read in a single sitting (or two, if you want to read each part separately).  Like other short books I’ve read this recently (Travels in the Scriptorium, The Longer I Walk The Smaller I Am) The Sense of an Ending gets its literary strength from brevity.

The novel doesn’t traipse around like a squashed cockroach.  It ends when it needs to and doesn’t provide many answers, giving the reader ample opportunity to fill in the blanks.  A large story in a small book and well worth reading (and brief enough to re-read as well!).

The Death Of The Father – Dan Fante’s Chump Change

Dan Fante… I wrote about him recently.  His excellent memoir Fante was a highlight of last year for me.  So what do I do know that I’m waiting for his next book?  Re-read his older titles, of course… starting with his debut novel Chump Change.

Chump Change
Dan Fante
Sun Dog Press
1 June 1998
198 Pages

Chump Change is my favorite Dan Fante novel.  At first, I attributed this to the fact that it was both his first novel and the first one that I read (though I read it about five years after it was released).

And this is, at least partially, it.  I often find first novels to be my favorite (see Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, or Knut Hamsun’s Hunger), but not always (see John Fante’s Ask the Dust, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and Hubert Selby Jr’s Requiem For A Dream).  And yes, I can’t decide between American Gods and Neverwhere.  Maybe some day…

So… Dan Fante.  Chump Change.  For me, a great deal of this novel’s appeal is how strongly John Fante appears.  I suppose I could argue that Mooch‘s steady tributes to John Fante’s brilliant Ask the Dust (both in plot and character) could make it a contender, but… Chump Change is still a better novel (though this may change when I re-read Mooch in a few weeks).

At the start of the novel, Bruno Dante is down on his luck.  Of course.  he’s just been released from a NYC rehab hospital after going on a massive drunk, blacking out after having sex with men in a porno theater, and taking a knife to his gut.  All in all, a rough start.

And of course… it gets worse.

His wife, Agnes, picks him up and tells him his father is dying.  The rest of the novel is Bruno traveling to Los Angeles, dealing with his family, and coming to terms with his relationship with his father.

The book, much like the memoir I posted about a week or so ago, is full of depravity, cursing, alcohol consumption, and depictions of a life lived in the grip of madness.  So beware, gentle reader, if this sort of thing wouldn’t appeal to you.

 

Bites of Bits

Today, I start adding little bits and updates, thanks to my new Android app.

I plan on trying to do one or two a week to supplement my normal postings. Mostly relating to short stories, or poems.

I’m starting this off with a personal favorite, “Coney Island: The Fun Is Over” by Joseph Heller. Collected in Catch As Catch Can, an excellent group of shorter fictions, interviews, and essays.

This particular piece exemplifies the type of memoir I love best. Morose, longing for days long since past.

In it, Heller thinks back on his childhood. He complains about tourists, recalls the rough life of growing up poor in a rich place, and sends up the idea of Coney Island with equal parts humor and sadness.

The collection is worth checking out for that piece alone, but it also houses great short fictions (also, some great bits on Catch-22) and I recommend you track the book down yourself.

Lost in Auster – Paul Auster’s Surreal, Unnerving Fiction

I’m going to start out here by saying that I don’t actually know anything about Paul Auster, so my post here about his brief, wonderful novella Travels in the Scriptorium is going to be pretty much free from any introductory information.

Yeah… sorry about that.

Travels in the Scriptorium
Paul Auster
Henry Holt & Co
January 23, 2007
145 Pages

Before I get this train a-rollin’ I’m going to let you know that this post is going to contain SPOILERS for the book in question.  It has to.  If it didn’t, my entire post would be this paragraph:

Paul Auster’s 2007 novel is a weird book.  Strange, mysterious in an almost Twilight Zone-like fashion, the novella deals with an unknown man (nicknamed Mr Blank for the purposes of the novel) who spends the entire novel sitting in a room with only a bed and a desk.  The desk has a strange story sitting upon it, accompanied by several photographs that Mr Blank reads through at various points of the novel.

Well actually… that’s pretty good.

Essentially, that paragraph tells you what you need to know about the book.  Mr Blank is an older man, semi-incontinent and semi-immobile.  His every move is recorded on video, his every noise caught on a high-definition audio tape.  He suffers in the room, confused and uncertain of who he is, why he is there and we observe him through the novel.

People come and go.  Their names aren’t terribly important

The most interesting part of the novel is the narration.  There is very little dialogue, even internal monologues, and what little there is has no separation by quotation marks.  The narrator is very prevalent and occasionally apologizes to the reader for making assumptions (mostly because of presuming to know what Mr Blank is thinking).  Beyond these narrational asides, the unknown narrator is most interesting because he seems to be observing both Mr Blank via the recording systems, but also through the pages of the novella itself.

I’d recommend reading this all in one sitting.  Like any great novella, every word is important and powering through the thing all at once gives you the opportunity to really let it hit you.  The language is great.

One criticism I’ve read is that the book is so reliant on Auster’s previous works that it makes enjoyment of this particular novel difficult… if not impossible, but… I didn’t find that to be the case.

The story is weird, the characters are half-formed (by design, as you’ll see by the end), and Auster’s prose explodes off the page, at various times funny, disturbing, and intriguing.  A great, quick read for those looking to dig a bit for their enjoyment.

And that does it for books that I read in 2012.  Maybe.  There’s a bunch more that I either read or re-read that I may touch on at some point… And I’m going to go over a few of my favorite books from the year in my next post, briefly, and then jump into Neil Gaiman’s comic opus The Sandman to celebrate the release of The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 on January 4th.

The Drinking Life of a Family – John and Dan Fante

Fante by Dan Fante is a book that has been on my radar for about two years.  I had a brief correspondence with the author in November of 2011 while attempting to track down the copyright on a piece of his father’s work.

For those of you who don’t yet know, John Fante is my favorite novelist.  He wrote for a brief time in the late 30s and then spent the rest of his life toiling away in Hollywood.   During his time in Hollywood, John Fante wrote a couple more novels and fell into obscurity.

Until Charles Bukowski.  Bukowski is often referred to as the Poet Laureate of Skid Row… which is an awful nickname, but… he was a writer who focused primarily on the downtrodden and the edges of society, so… whatever.

Bukowski was a huge fan of Fante’s and, so the legend goes, spent hours combing the LA City Library on the bum in the 40s and 50s.  One day, he pulled down John Fante’s novel Ask The Dust and read it through quickly.  Two decades later, in his novel Women, Bukowski made a passing reference to Fante.  From there, Bukowski’s publisher John Martin (of the Black Sparrow Press) worked to get Fante’s work back in print.

With Black Sparrow Press reprinting Fante’s older works (as well as a brand new novel titled Dreams From Bunker Hill) and a spectacular interview piece by Ben Pleasants in the LA Times, John Fante’s stock was back on the rise.  But his years of whoring himself out to the Hollywood machine had left him bitter and members of his family felt the backlash of his anger, including his son, Dan.

Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking, and Surviving
Dan Fante
Harper Collins
Aug 30, 2011
416 pages

The first thing to know about this memoir is that Dan Fante doesn’t pull any punches.  Through most of the book, he comes across as a maniac, pervert, and all around asshole.  If you’ve read his novels (and if you haven’t, you really should) you can definitely see just how closely he matches his Bruno Dante character.

Before writing this memoir, Fante wrote semi-autobiographical novels and short stories (much like his father) as well as poetry and plays.  His novels Chump Change (1998), Mooch (2001), Spitting Off Of Tall Buildings (2002), and 86’d (2009) all star Bruno Dante, Fante’s literary alter-ego.  Bruno Dante is a notorious alcoholic, continual con-man, and well… pretty much a massive dick.  But he also has moments of tenderness and brilliance, especially when talking about his father.

This is also true of Dan Fante in his memoir.  Growing up in the Fante household was not easy and not fun for Dan… an angry, regretful father… a jealous, near-homicidal brother…  Dan Fante grew up learning harsh lessons and became a harsh person, living a harsh life.

The memoir continues, alternating between stories of father and son.  While John Fante is aging and growing blind in Los Angeles, Dan Fante was drinking his life away, slogging his way between jobs, and doing his best to remove himself from life… permanently.

The memoir seemed familiar to me at many points because I’ve read just about everything I could about John Fante (including Stephen Cooper’s excellent biography Full of Life), as well as Dan Fante’s novels and short stories.  Despite this, the memoir remained an occasionally humorous, mostly dark journey into the depths of a mad psyche.

So why would you want to read this memoir?  Like his novels, the memoir is about survival.  A man can slog though years and years of shit, but can survive.  The memoir is often disturbing because of how out of control Fante can be become, but is then all the more uplifting when he finally navigates his way out of it.

To me, it always seemed strange the way Dan Fante obviously admired his father in his writing (for instance Chump Change is all about the death of Dante’s father and his attempt to reconnect to him through his writing) and yet had such a turbulent childhood.  This book gives a great perspective, not just on the life of Dan Fante, but also on the difficult father-son relationship between to writers\alcoholics.  Even if you’ve never read a novel by the Fantes… I think you’ll enjoy this book.