Monday, November 26, 2007

Out, Long Halloween

I read The Long Halloween over shabbat. I was intrigued, because I saw that it had gotten the "absolute" treatment, and I liked Time Sale's work back when he was an indie artist writing Billi 99.

The good news is, I still like his art. The bad news is that the story was not very good. Loeb, the writer, structures the story in chapters such that each one takes place on a holiday(Halloween, Christmas, 4th of July, etc). Each one also has a cameo by one of Batman's super-foes. Since the story is set early in Batman's career, Loeb seems to be trying to make a point about how Batman's presence draws these villains to Gotham (He even has Gordon and other characters say something to the effect of "none of these freaks were here before Batman came," just so we readers don't miss the point). The only problem is that he never actually bothers making the connection, and most of the villains have no reason for being there at all--they're just there to show up in the cameos for that holiday, then go away again.

Then there's the surprise ending. Lafferty may not have been 100% correct when he said that every book would be better without the last couple of pages, but he was sure right about this book. It's a surprise, but it loses any impact, because it makes no sense in the context of what's come before. You can't even go back to the beginning and look at it in a different light--it just makes no sense.

Also moved along in Natsuo Kirino's Out. I started the 4th chapter feeling very let down by the book--it really hadn't been what I'd been hoping for. But in this chapter, the police investigation into Kenji's murder finally gets under way, and Kirino's talents come to the fore. I think that everything up till this point (Masako's near-rape, Kenji's murder and disposal, the yakuza's crimes) are presented for shock value, and it's just not that interesting. (It probably doesn't help that I'm reading it through the filter of Japanese, which has an automatic distancing effect, lessening the shock value)

Here, though, we see Masako under pressure, and, even though we know what's going to happen, it's still very tense. I think that's one of the marks of a good story-teller -- even though we know how a situation is going to come out, she can still ratchet up the tension. I'm looking forward to finishing up the first book.

I started Meir Shalev's Fontanelle, if you can call 2 paragraphs starting. My dictionary was utterly useless by the time I hit the fourth word, so I've ordered a new one that should help. Sadly, I can't carry the Even Shushan everywhere I go.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Harry Potter, James Kugel, Metamorphoses

I finished the last Harry Potter book on Saturday. Like all the books after 3, it could've used a lot of editing, but ever so much more so. For most of the first half, Harry, Hermione, and Ron are wandering around, going nowhere in their quest for the horcruxes. Rowling wants you to realize how hard it is to figure anything out, and so they make absolutely no progress for 300 pages. In the earlier books, though, while Harry was trying to figure out the evil plot of the moment, there were other distractions around, like quidditch, arguing with Snape, not to mention classes. In this book, we have none of those things, and it ends up feeling very sterile.

I think Rowling's great strength is the way she can toss out neat ideas one after another. Unfortunately, by the time we get to Deathly Hallows, her previous ideas are starting to tie her down a bit. I think that's why she ends up with tons of ad hoc rules to explain the prophecy (Voldemort's soul is split into 7 pieces. No, it's 8 pieces. And one of them's in Harry. And wands give their allegiance to someone who beats their owner. And so on and so on). I'm looking forward to her starting something new where she can wipe the slate clean--I'm hoping she doesn't write another HP book.

I also started Jacob's Ladder, an analysis of midrashim connected with Jacob. The first chapter (all that I've read so far) is about the eponymous ladder. The midrashists were concerned with a few problems about the ladder. Why didn't God speak to Jacob using regular language, instead choosing a vision of a ladder? What does the vision mean? Why does Jacob wake up fearful from what should be a good vision?

The midrashists have a few different answers--the commonality of them all is that the ladder was real, not a dream. This solves the problem of how God spoke to Jacob; it wasn't through the ladder, it was in plain speech. The question then is, what is the symbolism of the ladder? One answer is that it's not symbolic; the angels are going up and down to look at Jacob because he's such a perfect human being. Alternatively, the ladder symbolizes the length of time that the other nations will rule over Israel, with one angel representing the Persians, one the Greeks, and so on. And the message to Jacob (and us, of course) is to take heart--no angel will go up the ladder indefinitely; at some point, they all come down, and then Israel will rise again.

I also finished book I of the Metamorphoses. That's the Io story, the Syrinx story, and the beginning of Phaethon. It's an odd place for a book break--Phaethon is introduced, along with the conflict that will lead him to drive the chariot of the sun, but things are left hanging there. Id somehow remembered that the books are more independent than that, but I read it in English so long ago...

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tom Jones concluded

Finished Tom Jones today. There was one bit that reminded me of Wodehouse, of all things, where Tom has to get out of a romantic entanglement. The solution is for him to propose marriage, knowing that the woman will reject it. Of course, in a Wodehouse story this wouldn't have worked; in Tom Jones it sort of does.

We start book 17 at Tom's lowest point, almost. He's in jail for murder, Sophia hates him (and is about to be married against her will), and he's about to find out that he's committed incest. Fielding then has a chapter which essentially says, "Things are really black for our hero, and there's pretty much no way out, since I've promised you not to use a deus ex machina." Of course, we know that things will work out, since this is a comedy, and so we know that Fielding is toying with us when he says that we may as well stop reading now, since he'll probably just have Tom killed off.

Fielding then concludes with about a dozen sudden revelations--Allworthy realizes that Tom always esteemed him, Sophie learns the truth of Tom's engagement, Tom learns that he is not actually on trial for murder, and we the readers finally learn who Tom's parents actually were.
It's easy to mock this style of resolution now--it became a staple of Dickens' fiction, along with other Victorian novelists. But I wonder what Fielding's audience thought at the time. For that matter, I wonder what Fielding intended--he's promised us no deus ex machina (which promise he literally keeps, but certainly not the spirit), but he also says that his last book (with all its resolutions) is very serious, that he doesn't have time in it for the raillery of the previous books. And yet, this is arguably the most comic book of the whole work, in the old-fashioned sense, where comic means a happy ending.

Again and again, Fielding affects to present a history--he calls it a history, he tells us that he can't know certain things, and so on. At the same time, he also subverts the realism of the book with his commentary on the action--when he says that he's now put his hero in an impossible position, and that he (Fielding) can't possibly get him (Jones) out of trouble, he's reminding us that Fielding is the omnipotent author, who can in fact do whatever he wants.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Tom Jones, Girl Genius, Harry Potter, Tintin, Cold Shoulder Road

Whew! That's a lot of titles.

I just finished reading Cold Shoulder Road to the little guys. Joan Aiken writes wonderful dialog--I love the way different characters use different dialects, and you can practically hear their voices. I wasn't so thrilled with the deus ex machina near the end, where it turns out that de la Twite was wearing radioactive stones (or some such thing). Which seems odd to say, considering that just about every book in the series has some sort of deus ex... But I think it's because the others tended to be Dickensian (kids have lockets which just happen to tie them to the Duke, which is exposed at just the right time, that sort of thing), which fit in perfectly with the setting. This just came out of nowhere. Still an excellent book, though.

I just finished reading The Crab with the Golden Claws to the littlest guy. Lots of fun. I think Herge really hit his stride in the book before this one (King Ottokar's Sceptre). There's a lot less herky-jerkiness in the plot, although you can still tell it was written for the newspapers. But Herge was obviously at the point where he could get away with occasional sections that don't have a cliff-hanger or punch-line -- they just move the story along -- and that helps with the pacing. We're now reading The Shooting Star, which isn't one of my favorites; I think it feels like Herge changed his mind about what kind of story it was several times, and it really shows.

Speaking of comics, but for adults, I'm up to book 5 of Girl Genius. Not much to say about it, though, except that the art at the beginning seems sloppy. But halfway through, Foglio seems to have settled down. Fortunately the writing is top-notch all the way through so far.

I was really tired last night, so Tom Jones was a stretch. (Book 13 starts with a long invocation of the muse, which is very funny, but not so easy to read). So I started on the last Harry Potter book. I'm about 100 pages in, and it's feeling a bit stop-and-go. 4 chapters go by where nothing happens, there's a big set-piece where Harry leaves the Dursley's house, and then nothing happens again for a couple of chapters. I'm hoping the pace evens out a bit as the book picks up speed.

Today though, I jumped back into Tom Jones. I love how consistently surprising Fielding can be. The invocation of the muse of avarice came out of nowhere, and was very funny. Then we get the story of Nightingale and Miss Miller. I first expected Nightingale to abandon Miss Miller completely, but Tom convinces him to come back, while he (Tom) talks to Nightingale, Sr. Then I was expecting Tom to be a persuasive orator, but that didn't happen either--Nightingale Sr insists that his son break off the marriage to Miller. But his brother interrupts, and says that a good marriage is more important than money, and I'm thinking the brother will help Nightingale marry Miss Miller. Then it turns out that the brother decides to dissuade Nightingale from the marriage as well--he had been under the misapprehension that they were already married, and was trying to make the best of a bad situation.

None of these developments are surprising in a bad way--they're all consistent with the characters, and each seems logical in retrospect, which makes for some fun reading, and leaves the reader up in the air what'll happen; although this is a broadly funny book, not every character comes out well. In fact, Fielding points out in one of his introductory chapters that the idea that virtuous characters end up well is an absurdly naive idea; since he intends to write a true-to-life novel, he can't have that happen in his novel either.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Io's transformation, inu yasha 1

I got part-way through the Io story today, up to the story of Syrinx. I guess it's been a long time since I read the story (or maybe my translation wasn't so good), but I didn't remember how cold Io's rape is. Zeus woos her for something like 2 lines, notices that she's fled, and in the next line brings down the cloud of darkness and "rapuit pudorem". As bad as Apollo is in the preceding story, he comes off way better than Zeus does.

I've also decided to read more of "Inu Yasha" (I've got a bunch of unread volumes sitting around). But first I decided to refresh my memory of the details by starting over from the beginning (it's a good excuse to read a wonderful comic, anyway). I've always wondered how much she had planned out--inu yasha seems much worse at the beginning than he does later when we learn his motivation. But did Takahashi actually write him with that in mind?

Monday, November 5, 2007

Gentleman's Game, Metamorphoses

Finished Gentleman's Game today. I'm now sure that he made the assassinations anti-climactic on purpose, since he did the same thing a second time. This really focuses the reader's attention on the internal maneuvering going on back home. Overall, I think the book suffers from starting out as a comic--you can sort of tell that as a comic he would've cut the story by about 1/3, and the strain starts to show by the last 80 pages. Too bad, since what came before was really good--about as good as the Queen and Country comics it's based on.

I've also started on Io's story in the Metamorphoses, but I haven't read enough yet to say anything about it.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Ave Q, Cyrano, Gentleman's Game

Jenna and I were in New York this weekend, and took the opportunity to catch a couple of plays.

First up was Avenue Q, the one with the puppets. Very funny, and played well off the Sesame Street tropes. Before the play started, I had wondered how they would get the puppets up and about without your seeing the puppeteers--they just put the puppeteers out there in full view. I'd have thought it would be distracting, but it actually worked really well; mostly you end up watching the puppet anyway, but the puppeteer's face can express emotions that the puppet can't.

We also saw Cyrano, with Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner. Jenna and I both went into it thinking it was going to be a comedy, and were taken aback by acts 4 and 5... I think the ending grabs you that much more since the beginning is so light--the play gets darker and darker as it progresses.

While in the city, I started reading A Gentleman's Game. It's a thriller about an agent sent in to avenge a bombing on the London Underground. Not too much to say about it yet (about 2/3 through), except that Rucka is obviously much less interested in the actual "thriller" parts than in the people around the action. Our agent is sent in to assassinate the mastermind behind the attack, and then we're told that it succeeded a few paragraphs later. Only then, when it's a bit anti-climactic, do we get a (fairly short) run-through of what actually happened. It's a gutsy move, but I think it works well--it keeps us focused on the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in London and Saudi Arabia.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

More Tom Jones

This is just an insanely long book, I suppose. I finished Book 12, and I'm going to take a break with some lighter fare while I'm in New York, then finish the whole shebang.

Thanks to all the political set pieces, I think I know more about the Jacobites than I wanted to know. It's certainly a different point-of-view than what you find in, say, the Willoughby Chase books, which are very anti-Hanoverian. It's just a bit bizarre--the plot's moving along at a good clip, and then everything stops dead while Fielding talks about what idiots the Jacobites are. Then it moves along again.

Of course, as we see in the intro to this book, Fielding kinda-sorta condones jumping around anyway--he writes that he knows it happens, and his goal is to write a book that's entertaining enough that people don't skip around in it.