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Chronic Absenteeism

June 23, 2009

Oh, right, I used to have a blog.

Eight months of silence.  That’s not enough time to have someone declared dead in the real world, but online, I’m lucky WordPress didn’t give the name Small Victories to an inspirational LOLcats page or something while I was away.

But the worst part is, I wasn’t actually away.  I was just being really slack on reading.  You know how many books I read in the last eight months?  FOUR.  Two months a book.  And I took that much time, too, so by the time I finished reading them I could barely remember the start of the story and didn’t even feel qualified to write any comments on them here.  But I’m hopefully going to start reading at a reasonable pace again and posting reviews, so let me just get some long overdue, completely insufficient remarks down on these four now, and I’ll ideally return to give them another read later when I have time to give them the attention they deserve.

John Hodgman – More Information Than You Require: Not so much a sequel as a continuation of Hodgman’s brilliant book of fake trivia The Areas of My Expertise.  Just as last time he’s writing with the tweediest academic tone about such bizarre topics that it’s not what he’s writing but the fact that he’s writing anything about them at all that’s so hilarious.  Chapters called “How to Tell the Future Using a Pig’s Spleen”, “How to Buy a Computer from a Street Vendor”, and “Some Who Were Cursed to Become Ralph Macchio” detail exactly what they promise.  Hodgman’s previous comprehensive list of information on hoboes, including 700 hobo names, has been replaced by equivalent information on mole-men, but never feels self-derivative.  If you liked the first book (and you absolutely should), you will also like this one, and ought to be looking forward to his third in the series.

Bob Powers – You Are A Miserable Excuse For A Hero: Bob Powers, former author of Girls Are Pretty, has come up with a pretty amazing concept here: Choose Your Own Adventures books for adults.  Sort of.  First in his “Just Make A Choice!” series, Powers’ hero is a slacker temp who is forced into a really awkward kidnapping plot.  The various plots are surreal and depressing and exciting and pathetic, but always hilarious.  Give the first few branches of the story a shot here and see what you think.

John Sellers – Perfect From Now On: How Indie Rock Saved My Life: I was very excited about this one going into it, but as it went on, found it more and more frustrating.  John Sellers is an indie rock geek, writing his memoir through stories about listening to Guided By Voices and The Smiths and New Order.  Which is highly respectable, it’s probably the exact book I would write if I set out to write a memoir.  In fact, apart from the numerous chapters when Sellers gets to meet Guided By Voices and make an ass of himself, by the time I get to his appendix of lists like top musicians who are eligible for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame but have not been inducted, or hottest female bassists, or the top last tracks from great albums, I feel like any one of my music fan friends could have written it.  And that’s when I started to find the book frustrating, it begins feeling like only the other half of every music conversation I’ve ever had.  I don’t want to just read a guy telling me that he hates Bob Dylan, I want to discuss it with him over beer.  And prove him 100% fucking wrong.

Gabriel García Márquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude: This one definitely suffered most from the slow pace of reading, and it’s one I’m definitely going to go back to at some point.  Dealing with six or seven generations of a family, who only share about six names between them (there’s at least 20 characters named Aureliano) makes this narrative hugely confusing at the best of times.  Also, this is one of the greatest magic realism novels ever, so it seems like anything can happen at any time.  It’s endlessly unpredictable, but all written in a perfect matter-of-fact tone.  I wound up treating this more as a collection of short stories about a family than as one long narrative, but I still loved it.  I can’t wait to get into it again later on.

So, okay!  There’s four tiny reviews after months of inactivity, that’s something.  Hopefully I’ll be back on a somewhat regular schedule here soon.

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#15 – Soon I Will Be Invincible

October 28, 2008

Superheroes are a very easy target for mockery.  The more you know about comics, the more the plotlines start to look like overwrought soap operas.  And the characters themselves are so ridiculous that it doesn’t take much to push them into comedy – look at how many Dark Knight sketches appeared online this summer, or the fact that every geeky stand-up has a joke about how useless Aquaman is.  To say nothing of the godawful Superhero Movie.  On the other hand, there’s a lot of depth to be found in subverting those comic tropes without resorting to mockery – The Incredibles is my favourite non-Christopher Nolan directed superhero movie, and the graphic novel Watchmen is one of my favourite books of any kind.  It’s a thin line to walk – deconstructing comics while still taking them seriously.

When I started Austin Grossman’s debut novel Soon I Will Be Invincible, I expected to see it fall into one camp or the other, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that it’s somewhere between the two, to great effect.  It’s a pretty standard comic story of superheroes fighting a supervillain, eloquently narrated in turns by the villain, Doctor Impossible, and a member of the book’s version of the Justice League.  Grossman doesn’t try to turn any comic book clichés on their head, or to make fun of them – he embraces each and every one of them, and treats them as straightforwardly and realistically as he can.  The result is kind of like a Director’s Cut of a comic, with all the behind the scenes footage left in.  We would usually see Doctor Impossible restoring his criminal empire after escaping from jail, but not him living in a cheap motel and robbing a Radio Shack until then.  We always see the heroes making plans in the conference room of their headquarters, but not them sitting around the kitchen at 3 AM trying to figure out what the hell to do next.  It’s very refreshing, and really helps to draw the reader in.

While Soon I Will Be Invincible reads like a love letter to comic books, I’d recommend it even if you’re not a fan.  The book is genuinely funny and touching on its own merits, and legitimately exciting when it gets down to action.  Plus, everybody’s familiar with the Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman figures at the head of the superhero team here, and it’s a rare thing to see them humanized this well.  Worth taking a look.

(PS: While the synopsis I heard did sound intriguing, I was sold the instant I heard this book’s title.  Soon I Will Be Invincible.  How awesome is that?  Austin Grossman clearly knows that sometimes clichés are the best for a reason.)

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#14 – Wuthering Heights

October 9, 2008

I would ordinarily say, as I usually do when I read a book that everyone else on the planet has already read, that there’s no point in reviewing Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights – after it’s been in print for 160 years, what more can I really say about it after one cursory read?  However, this one really took me by surprise.  I didn’t know what I was getting into with here.  I’ve had a vague sense of the plot of Wuthering Heights for so long I can’t even remember where I got it from – Heathcliff is some roguish cad, Catherine is forced to choose between her true love and his aristocratic rival, blah de blah firey passion on the moors of England.  And I figured, I already read Pride and Prejudice, and once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.  But I started hearing a lot of really strong and really surprising recommendations for the book.  When a friend compellingly described it as “the greatest hate story ever written”, I basically had to check it out for myself.

And, wow.  Where I was expecting a standard love triangle, I got it for maybe a third of the book.  The rest of the story involves the slow destruction of three generations surrounding Heathcliff, for petty revenge, out of spite, or for no reason at all.  My initial cliché impression, “roguish cad”, does not even come close to doing him justice.  Characters throughout the book constantly refer to him as a monster or the devil.  I would probably have to go with “cartoonish supervillain”, by the time I got to the end.  Standard machination gives way to unimaginable cruelty gives way to him just being a dick for no reason at all.  In one particularly touching passage, Heathcliff plays matchmaker between his son and the neighbour’s daughter:

“Miss Linton, take your seat by him.  I give you what I have; the present is hardly worth accepting; but, I have nothing else to offer.  It is Linton, I mean.  How she does stare!  It’s odd what a savage feeling I have to anything that seems afraid of me!  Had I been born where laws are less strict, and tastes less dainty, I should treat myself to a slow vivisection of those two as an evening’s amusement.”

He drew in his breath, struck the table, and swore to himself.

“By hell!  I hate them.”

And that’s not even mentioning his insane treatement of his wife, who he marries purely out of hatred of her brother, and then proceeds to practically torture.  So shocking that I had to laugh out loud at times.  I would say how impressed I am that, a century and a half later, Heathcliff still manages to be one of the least sympathetic characters I’ve ever read.  But then I think back to the Thurdsday Next series, which refers to Heathcliff as the most tragic romantic hero, and I start to rethink my position.

I can see where that point of view comes from.  All of Heathcliff’s ridiculous evil can be traced back to those who kept him from his love Catherine, and I’m reminded of a Harvey Danger lyric: “When you base your whole identity on reaction against somebody, it’s the same as being in love.”  But that still doesn’t explain the soulless depths of his evil, or why he persists on harassing everyone around him long past the point where he could hope to help himself by it.  And it’s easy to focus on Heathcliff, as he’s the most mercurial of the characters, but they’re pretty much all horrible people, in one way or another.  I’m sticking with that completely accurate description from the start: “greatest hate story ever written”.  Completely worth reading, if only so you can form your own opinion on the matter.

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#13 – Lost at Sea

September 8, 2008

In addition to slowly, slowly reading a few novels over the past few months, I’ve also been reading a number of graphic novels.  I decided to not include reviews for those books here, because most of the time, the comics I’m reading are ones that people who care about the genre read 20 years ago (Batman: Year One, The Dark Knight Returns) or ongoing series (The Walking Dead) that I’m not enough of a scholar, nor a close enough follower, to critique month by month.  So I think, proceeding from here, I’ll make a note of graphic novels when they’re unique, a bit more obscure, or there’s something really special about them.

And hey, look!  This one is all three.  Lost at Sea is Bryan Lee O’Malley’s first published work, and the only book he put out before his masterwork Scott Pilgrim series.  While the books are in some ways very similar, they kind of exist in two different planes.  If Scott Pilgrim is about how awesome it is to be in your mid-twenties, out of school and living some kind of video game fantasy life in Toronto, Lost at Sea is about how awkward and crappy it is to be eighteen, between high school and university and generally having no idea what you’re doing.  Lost at Sea isn’t as much fun as Scott Pilgrim, and it’s definitely “artsier” however you want to define that, but it never feels fake or pretentious.  In fact, it’s feels completely honest – all the adolescent fantasies from Scott Pilgrim are stripped away, and you’re left with a book that feels more like a journal comic than anything.  I definitely would have believed Bryan Lee O’Malley was an eighteen year old girl after reading this if I wasn’t told otherwise.

I’m realizing as I write this how unfair it is to compare this book to Scott Pilgrim.  Despite a few little touches that carry over, and some familiar drawing and dialogue styles, these books have nothing to do with one another.  And if you’re sitting there asking yourself “Who the hell is Scott Pilgrim?” then I’ve said nothing that will convince you to read this book on its own merits.  So I’ll say this: Lost at Sea is a brief, poetic, gorgeous black-and-white book about being young and feeling uncomfortable and isolated.  To say anything about the plot beyond “a group of kids take a road trip” seems to be missing the point – to be 100% frustrating, it’s more about the journey than the destination.  In fact, there’s really no better way to say it then to take the summary from the back of the book: “Raleigh is eighteen years old, and she has no idea what she’s doing.  If you’ve ever been eighteen, or confused, or both, maybe you should read this book.”  That about says it all.

BONUS EXTRA COMIC REVIEW: I also just finished reading Achewood: The Great Outdoor Fight by Chris Onstad recently, a collection of the pages making up the webcomic Achewood‘s finest story arc ever.  If you’re a fan of the site, then the book is well worth checking out – the individual page titles may be missing, but Onstad adds new history on the Fight, profiles on past Champions, and other little bits of his gifted, mind-blowing prose.  If you don’t read Achewood yet, then it’s your lucky day: you can read the entire Great Outdoor Fight arc for free online starting here!  There are not many better introductions to this comic than this story.

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#12 – Crooked Little Vein

August 26, 2008

While I try to get recommendations from a variety of sources, there’s a few figures in pop culture whose opinions I respect so much that I always take special notice of whatever they’re pushing.  When Kevin Smith says he’s seen the Watchmen adaptation and it’s “fucking astounding”, I lose all doubts over whether the director can pull it off.  I basically watch, read and listen to everything Sarah Slean suggests, like she was Oprah or something.  And when Joss Whedon started his review of Crooked Little Vein with “I think this book ate my soul”, well, I’m kind of obligated to read it.

Warren Ellis is one of the biggest names in comics today, having written many legendary graphic novels.  However, Crooked Little Vein is his first real novel (less patronizingly distinguished by Wikipedia as a “prose novel”).  Having never read any of his comics before I can’t speak to his previous work, but I can say that this is one auspicious start to his career as a prose novelist.  It’s some kind of bizarre modern noir detective story, which falls somewhere between the funniest parts of 8mm and the most unsettling parts of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.  As narrated by Raymond Chandler and Hunter S. Thompson’s illegitimate child.

The main character here is Mike McGill, a private eye who’s at first appears so textbook he’s almost a cliché, your standard tough-guy detective voiceover.  This lasts for about five pages before the book suddenly goes completely crazy, and never turns back.  You see, at that point McGill’s first client (the President’s Chief of Staff, with Secret Service in tow) arrives, and explains that McGill is what they call a “shit magnet” – even his simplest case manages to take inexplicable, mind-bending, hilarious turns.  And it’s for this reason that they’ve sought him out to tackle this particular case: finding the secret Second Constitution of the United States, a case that’s already insane to begin with.  Bound in the skin of an alien Ben Franklin killed, and constantly vibrating at the resonant frequency of a human eyeball, the loss of this book is apparently responsible for the decline in American morality and decency in the past few decades, and this administration wants it back.

And so we hit the ground running.  McGill embarks on a cross-country trip through America’s twisted underbelly, chasing the book through its variously twisted owners over the years.  Due to the detective’s shit magnet status, and apparently due to the effect the crazy magic alien book has on people around it, McGill stumbles into one group of fetishists after enough, each freakier than the last.  It’d be almost pornographic if McGill wasn’t so disgusted and irritated by the whole thing.  And the scariest part is, I’m sure that all of the subcultures Ellis explores are real.  If “2 Girls, 1 Cup” is mainstream, God only knows what’s hiding in the corners of the Internet.

I’m not going to say this book is M for Mature or anything – it’s all played for laughs, and it doesn’t have the visceral impact of something like American Psycho, thankfully.  But I will say that it’s pretty shocking at times, in a hilarous way.  I learned some new words and phrases, like “macroherpetophile”, that I can’t ever unlearn.  Beyond that, my only complaint is how rushed the story feels sometimes – often you just feel like Ellis is getting into the swing of a section when suddently it’s over and McGill is halfway across the country in some fresh new hell.  It might be too easy to blame that pacing on Ellis being used to comics as a more visual medium.  But it’s a great ride, and a terrific start, and I’ll look forward to seeing what he comes up with for his next novel.

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#11 – King John of Canada

August 17, 2008

In the interest of full disclosure, it’s been over a month since I finished Scott Gardiner’s King John of Canada.  In a fit of patriotism I started reading it on Canada Day, but by the time I got through it I was so preoccupied with other things that I put reviewing it off.  And now that I’ve got a bit of spare time and have started reading again (damn that feels good), I thought that this book was too good and worthy of recommendation to not make some kind of commentary on.  So I’m just going on what I can recall from the book after returning it to the library, so please pardon my vagueness.

King John of Canada is that rarest of genres: the Canadian political satire.  In fact, I can’t recall ever having read another book of the same sort.  The premise here is simple enough: in a Canada in just slightly worse shape than the real one, a national paper publishes a Modest Proposal – Canada should leave the British Commonwealth and establish its own monarchy, in order to unify us.  And all across the country, people read that satirical article and start thinking, “That actually doesn’t sound like a bad idea.”  So the Canadian government does what the Canadian government does best – they put it to a referendum.  Based on the title of the book, I’m sure you can guess what happens next.  And while getting to that point is very interesting, it’s everything that happens after the crowning of the king which really makes this book great.

Gardiner wrote King John of Canada from the perspective of the king’s best friend and chief advisor Blue, writing John’s biography while dying of hypothermia in an isolated cabin in the Canadian wilderness.  It’s a pretty neat little device; it allows Blue to tell John’s “untold” life story while assuming the reader is familiar with most of the major events of his reign as king, as they would be common knowledge to a reader in his Canada.  So some of the passing references he makes to John’s accomplishments become among the most fascinating parts of the book.  Gardiner keeps things vague enough to make you curious, but includes just enough detail to keep you satisfied.

Once the pins start falling, and the new Canadian monarchy starts making some decisions, the book is a crazy fun ride.  John’s Canada, in short time, becomes an economic superstar, a military powerhouse and a cultural landmark.  And it’s hugely uplifting to read, total wish-fulfillment stuff.  In a sequence so cool  I wish I still had the book so I could quote it for you verbatim, John appears on a Bill O’Reilly-esque talk show while on a tour of the States.  The O’Reilly stand-in has naturally been blustering on since the show began, making fun of Canada’s military and John’s strict new gun control laws.  He calls Canadians weak and cowardly, telling a story about bumping into a guy on the street in Ottawa and having the other guy apologize to him as evidence.  Suddenly, John shuts O’Reilly up by grabbing his arm with an iron grip.  Leaning in close, he says quietly and intensely (from rough memory):

Let me explain something to you.  If I say ‘I’m sorry’ when I bump into you, I’m not assuming the blame.  I’m merely saying that I regret the mutual inconvenience.  It is a common courtesy.  You would have to be a fool to take that as some sort of sign of weakness, wouldn’t you?  Wouldn’t you?

And he then proceeds to completely destroy O’Reilly’s criticisms of his gun control plan, and makes him look like a jackass.  And all the Canadians watching in bars (and very nearly me, reading the book in my office at work) start cheering.  And it’s completely awesome.  That kind of thing happens a lot in here.

If you haven’t picked this up already, this is a thoroughly Canadian book.  Like, citizenship is basically mandatory in order to enjoy this read.  There’s so many elements to the story that demand familiarity with the Canadian political landscape – the bitterness in the East, the sense of entitlement in the West, the opportunism of Quebec separatists, the universal disdain for Toronto.  (I’m assuming Mr. Gardiner is from Ontario himself – King John of Canada is incredibly sympathetic towards Toronto, and pins basically all of Canada’s problems on Quebec.)  But if you do know a thing or two about Canadian politics, and you’d like to watch Canada finally step up and prove to the rest of the world that we actually are the greatest country on Earth, then I definitely recommend checking this one out.

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#10 – The Sorcitor’s Test

July 7, 2008

First off, a bit of housekeeping: it’s becoming clear I’m not going to be keeping up near the pace of my reading from last summer.  Funny how full-time employment will do that to a person.  Additionally, since my last post I also got my first study manual for the Bar Exam (which should be occupying all my time, but isn’t) and an Xbox 360 (which I can’t let occupy all of my time, but do).  Until I fall into a more solid pattern, updates are probably going to be sporadic and infrequent.  Bear with us.

Now then: The Sorcitor’s Test by Chris Samuel is not an ordinary novel for this blog.  I’m not going to recommend it, because it’s not available to read even if you wanted to.  I’m mostly talking about it because I’m so impressed by the fact that it exists.  My friend Chris wrote this book as part of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, which is usually in November but his school does in May instead.  If you’re not familiar with it, the idea is to challenge yourself to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days.  That’s about 1670 words a day (or if you prefer, 70 words an hour) for a month.  Chris said that he’d tried before to pull it off, but always lacked motivation, so he decided to create a stronger incentive this time.  He started a Facebook group, promising to pay every member $10 if he failed to finish $50,000 words in May.  Word got out, and people started signing up by the hundreds.

One month later, and with thousands of dollars on the line, Chris finished The Sorcitor’s Test, clocking in at something like 50,004 words.  Which does sound a bit suspicious, true, but the bible of NaNoWriMo is the book No Plot? No Problem!, which says that the important thing in a project like this is to just get words on the page at first – it doesn’t matter how good they are, that’s what the editing stage is for.  So when I offered my services as a makeshift editor, Chris warned me up and down about his book going off the rails at the end, as the deadline grew near.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see that the expected drop in quality never came.  It’s a solid effort the whole way through, made all the more impressive by the conditions it was written under.  It’s a fantasy novel, which is not my forte at all, but with a wizard school as law school theme, it was easy to relate to and enjoyable.  I’ve already given Chris my praise and criticism, so I won’t go into all that again here, but I hope he continues to work on drafts of The Sorcitor’s Test, or other works, and someday I’ll be recommending a wide release by him to you here.