Dealing With Characters You Hate – Mr Peanut and Gone Girl

How do you deal with characters you just don’t like?  I’m not even talking about ones you hate because of poor writing, or something about them just not clicking with you… I mean when a writer constructs such a despicable person (or personality!) that you just can’t help disliking them.

I’ve recently read two (or, really, one and a half) books that featured characters I came to dislike fiercely.  I spent so much time trying (and failing) to find a likable character in Adam Ross’ Mr Peanut that I simply quit the novel about half-way through… the murder mystery that drove the first sixty or seventy pages just wasn’t enough to keep me reading as I tried to comprehend the extreme dysfunctions that every last character in the novel suffered from.

The worst part about it is that the novel was well written, from a prose perspective.  The dialogue flowed at times like a noir novel, and the general narration was engaging… but I just couldn’t attach to any one person in the book.  The only character I sympathized with was Alice Pepin, who spends a great deal of the novel dead.

And that brings me to Gone Girl.  Oh Gone Girl…  I haven’t read either of Gillian Flynn’s previous novels, but I’m certainly up for them now… at least as soon as I recover from the breakneck whiplash the constant twists and turns that this novel gave me.

This review is going to get HEAVY into spoilers in the coming paragraphs, so please save yourself and leave now if you haven’t finished the book.  There’s some great twists and thrills that you should experience how Flynn writes them!

Gone Girl
Gillian Flynn
Crown Publishing Group
432 Pages
June 5, 2012

Gone Girl tells the story of a relationship, from the courtship, to marriage… and beyond.

Nick and Amy meet at a party in New York City, where both live and work.  Amy has the big city in her blood, but Nick is a transplant from small town Missouri.  Despite this, they hit it off well, and eventually get married.

But all good things must come to an end.

Amy is a great character.  Flynn writes her very well, especially when we finally figure out that her previous diary entries were fake, and that she’s a secret sociopath who has been planning her own disappearance for months.

Her character is at least partially based on Christopher Robin Milne, son of A.A. Milne (writer of the Winnie The Pooh book series) and inspiration for his father’s character (obviously) Christopher Robin.

Amy, much like Son of Milne, found her childhood to often be unbearable because of her parents’ book series Amazing Amy.  Unlike Christopher Milne, who was at least somewhat reasonably well-adjusted, Amy was not.  Whether it was her attempts to live up to the standard set by Amazing Amy, or some other issue, the book doesn’t really explain… but we soon discover that Amy has long been quite a bit crazy.

And then there’s Nick.  Nick is, basically, an asshole.  But he’s a likable asshole through much of the novel… but this might only come from the fact that he’s both victim and victimizer through a large part of the book.

The mid-way point in the novel, where we find that Amy is actually still alive (and on the run, in an attempt to frame her husband), is where the roles are reversed.  We hate Nick for being distant and having an affair… but when we see the lengths to which Amy has gone to ruin her husband’s life (and when she writes about wanting Nick to get the death penalty), it makes it hard not to side with Nick, at least in some way.

So the ending…  I read a few criticisms from reviews on sites like Amazon, B&N, and Good Reads that people didn’t like the ending.  But I did, because it really hammers the point home that Amy always has a back-up plan.  And sometimes even a back-up to her back-up.

Does Nick ever managed to get out from under Amy, and get her tried and jailed after all the havoc she wreaked on his life?  Well… we don’t know.  And I like to think he doesn’t.  Because sometimes, an ending is more fun when the bad guy gets away with it.

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Failure Of The Salesman – Dave Eggers’ A Hologram For The King

Ah Dave Eggers… Is there any greater American author writing now?  I think he’s pretty hard to beat.  He gave us Zeitoun and What Is The What.  He made a fully featured novel out of Where The Wild Things Are, which was not necessary… but excellent.  Then there’s McSweeney’s, the publishing house, and McSweeney’s the literary magazine which had stories from Etgar Keret, Neil Gaiman, and Adam Levin all in one issue!

Oh and he did the introduction to Infinite Jest which is what first drew me to the novel in the first place.  Well, his introduction and the, while I’m being perfectly honest, size of the rack on the girl who initially recommended it to me.

But I digress.

A Hologram For The King
Dave Eggers
328 Pages
McSweeney’s
June 19, 2012

I’ve been putting off writing about this novel for about a month.  At first, I wasn’t sure why.  I mean… it was part of a long string of downer reads (The Fault in Our Stars, which I finished just a couple of days before, some Dan Fante short stories, and I’m currently fighting through the last third of Adam Ross’s Mr. Peanut), so I definitely needed some down time away from the subject matter.

I don’t know if that’s it though.  I read dark books fairly often.  I read depressing books fairly often too.  Typically, they don’t get to me that much.  After all, I’ve been reading all kinds of off-kilter stuff for years, since I discovered John Fante and Charles Bukowski in college.  Happy endings?  Not so often.

And not so in A Hologram For The King either.  But considering most of the early part of the novel does it’s best to portray the main character Alan Clay as a sort of 21st century Willy Loman… it isn’t terribly surprising.

At the start, Alan is in Saudi Arabia, attempting to set up a meeting with King Abdullah so he can feature the tech company Reliant’s amazing new hologram communication technology.  The hope is that the King will be impressed and use Reliant for all aspects of the new city’s technological expansion.

The King’s city, known as King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC, for short) is to be a marvel of the highest order.  It will serve as a major economic, educational, and cultural center, with various opportunities for people and businesses… if it is ever completed.  Many of the characters Alan speaks to throughout the novel voice skepticism that the project will ever see the light of day.

Alan has a particularly high stake in this deal because Reliant has made it clear that if he doesn’t come through on this job, it will be his last job for the company.  Combine that pressure with the looming foreclosure on his house, his daughter wanting to go to a prestigious (and expensive) college, and the strange lump that has developed on his neck… well, Alan’s serious about getting things done right.

But there are constant barriers to his success.

For one thing, no one ever knows when the King will be in his shell of a city.  Because of his status, no one can know his movements until they happen, to avoid assassination attempts.  So instead of specific times and days, Alan and his crew are shacked up in a hotel about an hour away, waiting for their moment to perform.

For another thing, Alan can’t seem to get the customs of the country correct.  Though he has a good rapport with his driver, a man named Yousef, Alan doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Saudis he interacts with.

And finally, Alan’s confidence as a salesman has been shot after being majorly responsible for the downfall of Schwinn as a major power in the production and sales of bicycles.  Because of his insistence that Schwinn join the global movement, Alan made himself (and most American workers) irrelevant to the process… from production to sales.

Still, Alan tries his best to fit in, especially as the arrival of King Abdullah seems to be more and more mythological, like spotting Bigfoot in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.  He spends a night overnight with Yousef at Yousef’s childhood home: a fortress miles and miles away from any large city.  But Alan, with all the comedic timing of a fart in church, jokes that he’s taking photos for the CIA while begins to unravel the new friendship.

But Alan, despite his tendency for self-pity, doesn’t let much get him down.  He pursues a relationship with a fellow transplant from Denmark, as well as the doctor who eventually operates on his neck lump (is it serious?).  This comes after many moments when Alan drunkenly recalls the various problems he had with his ex-wife Ruby.

In the end, though, the novel is about failure.  Alan has been failing his entire life and seems to be at rock bottom.  He’s already lost his wife, is losing his home, and will probably lose his daughter if he can’t pay for her college tuition.  He suffers from low self-esteem, erectile dysfunction, and the general ravages of middle-to-old age.

Despite all this, Eggers manages to end the novel on the bit of an uplift.  We’re hopeful for Alan as he continues his negotiations… But where will it all end up for Alan?  Eggers is wise enough to not let us know.  Instead, we have to be satisfied that Alan’s story has ended for us… and that it continues for him, if only briefly.

This book has it all, really.  Humor, social commentary, a bit of allegory here and there, and an extremely unlikely main character… though for post-modern writing, Alan Clay isn’t terribly atypical.  What really surprised me was how much I liked him by the end.  There’s something to be said for his bulldog tenacity in the face of what seems to be an inevitable ending.

That said… it isn’t Eggers’ best.  I enjoyed What Is The What and Zeitoun much more.  But Alan’s story is compelling, interesting, and well written, as one would expect from Eggers. Plus, the art design by the incomparable Jessica Hische (who has also done a great collection of leather classics for Barnes & Noble) is beautiful… one of the best designed books in my collection!

So what’s next for Books and Bits?  Well… I’m gonna be working from now through the 20th on an entry for a McSweeney’s essay contest, but I’m still going to try to fit in another blog post (or two).

But since I’ll be busy… I bet you can look forward to a Top # list!  How wonderful for you!

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James Rants: An (Un)Important Distinction – Graphic Novels VS Comic Books

I’m doing a bit more of a general post in response to discussions I’ve had with friends and co-workers over the last little bit of time.  Maybe two months.  Since an initial discussion of The Walking Dead comic series with one of The Uninitiated (that is to say, a  middle-aged mother of two who watched and loved the TV series, but wanted more).

I spent a good five minutes discussing the finer points of comic books and graphic novels, attempting to stress the difference between the two.

And then it hit me.  She didn’t give a shit.

Hell, nobody does.  No. Body.

Comic books and graphic novels are very different beasts.  People who write both will tell you this.  People who read them… may not make the distinction.  And this reason is twofold, really.

1) The terms “comic books” and “graphic novels” have become interchangeable since the late 1980s and early 1990s.

2) They’re basically the same thing, and few people care enough to mark the difference.

But dammit… I do.

The difference between the two is very distinct and easy to remember.  And it is this:

Comic books are published in a monthly format.  You read the sequential, serialized story one part at a time.  This can be the superhero stuff put out by DC Comics, or Marvel.  The varying and usually weird stuff published by Vertigo, Image, or Dynamite… Or it could be Japanese manga series like Naruto.  Some wouldn’t consider likening manga to comic books.  I would, especially in light of how they’re published in Japan.

Graphic novels are longer stories that aren’t serialized in any fashion before they’re published in trade paperback form.  These stories aren’t a collection of issues, but instead one large story (or occasionally a large part of a larger story, à la DC Comics’ Superman Earth One which has a sequel coming out some time in the near future) that is published all at once… much like an actual novel… just with pictures!

But comic books and graphic novels have many similarities, which can be confusing to those who don’t make it a habit of reading either.  The most obvious example is that both are examples of the same medium, i.e.: sequential art matched with text to tell a story… but the way they’re published makes the difference.

As much as fans want to puff up and legitimize their comic book reading… even intelligent comics like Sandman, Y The Last Man, or even From Hell (which was serialized in the excellent horror comics anthology Taboo) are comic books.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.  Comic books are just as legitimate as graphic novels… Or not, as the case may be.  For instance, I feel that the aforementioned Superman Earth One, which tread so much old ground, I’m surprised Supes didn’t fall into the Earth’s core… was it bad? well, not really… but it didn’t really bring anything new to the table… but that’s just one idiot’s opinion.

So is that all you get today?  A rant that even I, the writer, will fully admit is a completely nit-picky, sand-in-the-crotch-area-of-the-bathing-suit response to a topic that never asked for one?

Well, no.  Of course I’m going to give you a top 5 list to go out on!

Oh God Another Top Five Graphic Novels List That The Internet Didn’t Need, Want, Or Ask For

5. Joker by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo (DC Comics, 2008)

What?  A superhero graphic novel showing up here?  Well… yeah.  There’s actually been quite a few really good superhero graphic novels.

And, as shitty a writer as Azzarello was for the Superman story arc For Tomorrow and Hellblazer… if there’s something the man knows, its street level crime books.  Like 100 Bullets, which I’ll finish some day.

Joker follows The Clown Prince of Crime from the gates of Arkham to a final confrontation with Batman, taking us deeper into both the politics of Gotham City and into the Joker’s mind than we would probably prefer.  Though DC’s Earth One series of graphic novels is getting a lot of attention, this was earlier… and a lot better.

4. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes (Fantagraphics Books, 1997)

I often tell people that the first comic I read was Alan Moore’s brilliant (and long) From Hell. This is true, as long as I don’t lump comics and graphic novels together.  I actually recall reading Ghost World because I was obsessed with Thora Birch in

Wrong, wrong, wrong.  And I know better.  Ghost World was first serialized in Daniel Clowes’ own comic series Eightball.  See, this isn’t easy for the nit-pickers either.

Now I’ve got to find a new 4.

New 4. Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean

I know it says NEW on it, but I promise… it isn’t 52, and I won’t reboot my blog’s continuity into some confusing mess that can still tell decent stories.

I can’t say much new about Arkham Asylum other than the fact that I read it.  It was great. Everyone should read it.  McKean is a master and used the story to draw… pretty much my favorite Joker of all time.  Sorry, Bermejo…  Sorry Bolland…

3. Blankets by Craig Thompson (Top Shelf Productions, 2003)

Jesus, these things really go on, don’t they?

This is the first of two graphic novels that is non-fiction (and I just tipped my number 1 pick, didn’t I?) and Craig Thompson… he’s an all-star.

Blankets is a large book.  A large, large book.  At 592 page, it is by far the biggest book on the list.  It tells Thompson’s auto-biographical tale of his first love, and his drift from his religion.

And it is the saddest, sweetest little slice of life tale you’ll ever read.  Both Thompson’s script and his exquisitely detailed artwork (which took THREE YEARS to make, by the way) convey the various emotions of the characters better than almost any illustrator working today.

And don’t even get me started on Habibi…

2. Pride of Baghdad by Brian K Vaughan and Niko Henrichon (Vertigo Comics, 2006)

My pick for number two is a mix of allegory, fantasy, and political statement.

The best part about the story?  You can read it simply as a fantasy story about captive lions running amok in Baghdad after the US-led coalition invaded in 2003.  But the story has layers upon layers, with different lions representing differing viewpoints on the war, and various other political issues of the day.

And the real joy of Brian K Vaughan’s writing (in this, Y: The Last Man, or Ex Machina) is that you never know what his actual perspective is.  It is often difficult to tell which character (if any) is an analogue for Vaughan himself.  He will regularly present a many-faceted view of a situation… and that makes him one of the strongest writers in comics today.

1. Maus by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon, 1986)

Or rather: Maus would be my number 1 pick, but it was serialized in a magazine titled Raw in the 80s before being collected into two separate trade paperbacks soon after.  So… fuck man.  I’m done.  If I can’t pick Maus as my top graphic novel because of my own annoying technicality… No number 1 this week.

1. Mr. Punch by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean (Vertigo, 1995)

OK, it isn’t as hopeless as it seems!  I’ve remember Neil Gaiman is awesome (as if I forgot!) and find I can accept having him as number one.  Ha.

If you haven’t read Mr. Punch (or The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr. Punch: A Romance if you want to use the full title), you should.  Because it is great.  So, so great.  But… just don’t plan to sleep for about twenty-four hours afterward.
Neil Gaiman has done some truly unsettling and weird works in his life.  Short stories like  “We Can Get It For You Wholesale” or novels like Coraline.  Even parts of Sandman are disturbing.  Mr. Punch is the most unsettling for me.
Maybe because it seems (similar to Violent Cases) like an amalgamation of Gaiman’s own childhood memory and fantasy.  
Which is the point, really.  Gaiman’s text and McKean’s pictures drive home the point that one cannot really know what parts of a memory are true.  Perhaps everything we recall from childhood is true.  Perhaps less.
Of course, I could find is so unsettling just because Punch and Judy has always freaked me out… and the graphic novel does nothing to alleviate all those unnatural childhood fears I had about puppets generally, or Punch specifically.
OK, you didn’t think I’d go through a list about comics and graphic novels without having Neil Gaiman on there at LEAST once, did you?

I hope this offers you insight into how difficult it can be to tell the difference between a comic book and a graphic novel.  You can’t tell by the cover, or the content, or even the author.  And that I’m notoriously annoying and nitpicky.

But the most important thing to take away from this is… it doesn’t matter what you call them.  If you enjoy reading comic books, graphic novels, sequential picture stories with words… whatever you refer to them as… enjoy them.  Be as unashamed as those idiots parading Fifty Shades of Grey as the best thing since missionary sex.

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The Dark, Twisted Other… For Kids! Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Mirrormask

Ok, so longest title ever, right?

And longest time ever for not actually making a post!

I know, I know, I said I was getting better.  And I am…  Probably.  Got this one ready to go with three more lined up that I hope to spread out over the next week… until I get too suspicious of the spell-checker doing a piss-poor job and just give up entirely.

Anyhow, if you haven’t been here before, you may not know that Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors.  I like reading him, listening to him, and even recommending him at the book store where I work.

More than anything, I like to recommend him at the book store where I work.

Why?

A lot of it comes down to knowing I’ll be giving some lucky person their first Neil Gaiman experience.

Mine… was Neverwhere about four years ago.  After being badgered by friends for close to a decade, I finally decided to try him out and fell in booklust.  After four years, several novels, almost countless short stories, and seriously crazy amounts of comics… I still am.

And if you team Gaiman’s writing skill with the illustrious illustrations of Dave McKean… My head might well explode.  And MirrorMask is no exception.

MirrorMask
Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

Harper Collins
80 Pages
September 27, 2005

MirrorMask is one of several of Gaiman’s collaborations with McKean that is meant for children, joining Coraline and The Graveyard Book as one of my favorite children’s books from the last decade.

I will also come right out and say that if you’ve read any of Gaiman’s post-Sandman books, you really know what to expect up front… A child feels that he\she (in this case, a she named Helena) doesn’t fit in and wants to go on an adventure to some place else (in this case, the Real World, instead of the circus she works in), but eventually discovers that she was happier where she started out.

I think we’ve been over this before.  Hero’s journey, monomyth… ringing any bells?  Heck, we could even go German and add in the bildungsroman (and I will someday not transpose the “i” and the “u” in that word).

This is, basically, all Neil Gaiman does.  And he does such a damn good job that if you don’t like it, you can just get right the hell out of my blog right now.

All ten of you.

Anyway… Our story presents us with plucky heroine Helena, who wants to run away from the circus and, “join the Real World.”  Which is monstrously funny.  Don’t try to admit it isn’t.  I laughed.  Heartily, even!

The plot is everything you’d expect from a collaboration between this pairing.  It starts out sweet, adds some drama, lightens the mood ever so slightly before bringing. The. Hammer. Down.  And then we’re off to a magical dream land where everyone wears masks and the Prime Minister of this City of Light thinks Helena is evil.

But of course, it isn’t Helena.  It was her doppelgänger from the Shadow of Shadows known only as The Princess.  While searching for a special mask known as the MirrorMask, Helena and her erstwhile companion Valentine get into the normal scrapes…

They ride insulted library books to their destination.  They’re almost eaten by strange animals.  At which point, they’re saved by the pages of a Really Useful Book.  And, when things are at their darkest, the pair is saved by a flying tower (of course!).

All in all… I loved this book!  I will readily admit to being biased… Gaiman and McKean could collaborate on a project about the lesser known turds of the Amazon Basin and I would find it fascinating.

But for all the familiarity to the characters and the various tropes that Gaiman is so incredibly willing to fall back on… There’s a sweet little story about a girl growing up… paired with frightening illustrations of giant floating elephants, evil queens, and an entire world made up of people with masks who don’t look quite right…

If you’ve read the book… see the movie!  If you’ve seen the movie… read the book!  I read the children’s version (and loved it), but I’m also away of a twice-as-expensive adult version that contains a crapload of extra stuff, so… it is always good to have a dream to chase.

Or a nightmare…

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