Weekend Shorts: More Volume Ones

I feel like I read a LOT of Volume Ones these days, and then I just, like, forget to read the rest of the series. And it’s not like I’m reading a lot of terrible series; it’s just that there are so many new ones to try that the good ones still get lost in the shuffle.

But, whatever, here are three more Volume Ones to add to the collection!

Descender, Vol. 1: “Tin Stars”, by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen
Descender, Vol. 1I read the first couple of issues of this series in my catchup binge a couple of months back, and I was like THIS SERIES HAS A ROBOT BOY YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID. Which still stands, really, but I’m a bit less excited about it now.

These six issues lay out some very interesting backstory with the promise of intrigue and subterfuge, which are things I am a big fan of, in the present. But the intrigue is less about strategy and more about brute force, which gets boring pretty quickly. I’m really not clear what is up with all the people trying to find my Robot Boy, and I’m not sure the book is either, what with all the trips into Backstory Land that are much more interesting than the main story.

I do have the second volume on hand, purchased at half price before I had finished the first one, and so probably maybe someday I will continue on with the series. But there will be dozens of other Volume Ones ahead of it, probably.

Paper Girls, Vol. 1, by Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang
Paper Girls, Vol. 1This one, on the other hand, I’m regretting reading only because the next issue JUST came out and therefore a Volume Two is still in the distant future. Which is appropriate to the content of the book, I suppose.

The first issue promised me aliens in Cleveland, so of course I was all over it, but what we get is even stranger — time travelling teenagers in some kind of war with a different set of time travelling people, with dinosaurs, and Apple products, and I don’t even know what’s going on but man Cliff Chiang’s art is the prettiest.

This volume could almost have fallen into the same “too much brute force” category as Descender, but there’s enough subtle intrigue with the time travelers (and such a smart cliffhanger ending) that I am happily looking forward to more.

Preacher, Book 1, by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon
Preacher, Book 1I guess this isn’t technically a “Volume One”, as it collects a few more issues than the official Preacher, Vol. 1, but it’s got a 1 on the cover so it counts!

I read this because the people at my favorite comics podcast did a show on it and while I usually skip the shows about things I haven’t read, the discussion was interesting enough to keep listening. That sounds like a vote for a series in my book! And then it was free on hoopla, so it was clearly fate.

But, well, I definitely won’t be reading more of this. Not because it’s not interesting, which it is, with its concepts of gods and religions and hate and fear-mongering and all sorts of other fun human stuff. And not because the art’s not gorgeous, which it is, with incredibly detailed drawings and lovely colors.

What it is is that the story and the art are both just too gruesome for me. There’s this crazy scene that I had to show my husband, because I couldn’t be the only one to see it, with a guy whose face has been flayed and, like, tacked back on, and it is objectively a fascinating panel and an intriguing bit of story, but the fact that it’s only marginally weirder and grosser than other bits of the story means this book is just not for me. I’m really wondering how this has been turned into a TV show, but I really don’t think I want to watch it to find out!

Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Before We Visit the GoddessThe very seventh post on this lovely blog was about a really super fantastic book that I liked a lot (though you wouldn’t guess it by the miniature posts I used to write) called The Palace of Illusions. I don’t remember how I found that book — I think I probably just saw it at the library and liked the cover — but it was really a perfect book at a perfect time.

So when I saw another book from the same author (who has written probably several other books in the interim), I was hoping lightning might strike twice. It didn’t, exactly, but I did get a lovely read out of the deal, so that’s all right.

Palace was a sweeping epic fairy tale story, but Goddess is a much more straightforward novel telling the stories primarily of a grandmother, mother, and daughter and various points in their lives and across two continents, from India to California to Texas.

The novel starts off like it’s going to have a frame story — the mother calls the grandmother begging her to convince the daughter not to drop out of college. The grandmother, after a few false starts, decides to tell the daughter the story of the grandmother’s youth, with an education in India delayed by illicit love and the vagaries of rich people. But this story ends quickly and sadly and the novel moves on to the stories of the mother, eloping to America with a sometimes wonderful husband, and the daughter, dealing with the fallout of leaving college as well as the weight of a couple of generations of guilt.

It’s not the most engrossing novel — I spent plenty of time away from the novel without feeling terribly bad about it — but it is, like Palace before it, beautifully written. It is full of emotions, but mostly sad ones, and it lays down depressing truths that earned my husband some very tight bear hugs while I was reading. I’m sure he didn’t mind.

I definitely didn’t love this book as much as I’d hoped I would, but I’m going to chalk that up to my completely incorrect expectations. I was prepared to listen to the grandmother’s story for the book’s two hundred pages, and was greatly disappointed in that, and I was definitely not expecting a book that would leave me in a bit of a depressive funk. (I’m gonna need a happy story and a box of kittens, stat!) But if you’re prepared for an intergenerational story of sadness, you won’t go wrong picking up this particular one. I’ll just be over here choosing my next Divakaruni book a bit more wisely.

Recommendation: For people who like stories about unhappy people of all ages and a little bit for people who like immigrant stories.

Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham

Delicious FoodsI didn’t know much about this book going in, but as soon as I got through the first few pages, in which a seventeen-year-old kid called Eddie uses the bloody stumps where his hands used to be to drive a stolen car from BFE Louisiana to Houston and eventually to Minnesota, well, I was hooked. Why did this kid have no hands? What was he escaping from? Why did he leave his mother behind and why wasn’t he in any hurry to go back and get her?

Luckily this is the kind of book that answers all of the questions it asks, even if it takes its sweet time doing so. After the tense and urgent opening we travel back in time to nicer days, when Eddie’s mother, Darlene, was a young college student sweet on her sorority sister’s boyfriend. As all sorority girls know, this never ends well, but Darlene takes things in stride, doing the best she can until the absolute worst happens and she finds herself broke, crack-addicted, selling herself, and being a terrible mother to her son. When the Delicious Foods minibus rolls up with the offer of a great job with housing, it doesn’t take much for Darlene to say yes, leaving Eddie to fend for himself. But as you can probably guess, the job is not great, and in fact the workers are basically slaves to the family that runs the company.

As the story goes on, the narrative jumps between Eddie and Darlene, or, well, Eddie and “Scotty”, which turns out to be a street name for crack cocaine. Yes indeed, half this book is narrated by a controlled substance. But that’s actually pretty cool — you can see how Darlene’s thoughts are affected and pushed around by Scotty to become the thoughts that eventually win out or turn into speech. Scotty is almost a completely reliable narrator, in that regard, and it is going on my list of favorite book characters for its honesty and sass.

Also pretty cool is the way that Hannaham portrays the farm and the mentality that keeps all the workers working there even when it is obvious even to them that they have the strength of numbers to get out. Why would they leave a place that offers a poorly maintained roof and questionably nutritious food and 98 percent impure crack cocaine? Where would they go? What would they do? At least they know what they have if they stay.

Less cool is the ending, which wraps things up in a saccharine blanket. I would have preferred the book end a bit more ambiguously, but I know a lot of people like that whole closure thing and will appreciate the sappiness as well. I’ll just be over here ignoring the quasi-epilogue, as usual, and appreciating Hannaham’s fascinating story and lovely sentences.

Recommendation: For those who don’t need a strong plot, those intrigued by people who take scam jobs, and anyone who can survive chapters narrated by narcotics.

Rating: 8/10

Weekend Shorts from the New Yorker Fiction Podcast

The New Yorker Fiction PodcastI haven’t been reading too much this week, so I’m glad to have this podcast just waiting for me on my phone when I need a quick escape into fiction. Last week I tracked down print versions for you to follow along in, but that proved to be far more difficult this week so I’m going to have to leave that up to you — but of course the audio is just waiting for you!

“I Bought a Little City”, by Donald Antrim

Oh, my goodness. As soon as I started listening to this, I was like, “I know this is only the third story I’ve listened to on this podcast, but I think it’s going to be hard to top.” And it will be.

In this awfully hilarious little satire, our intrepid narrator buys Galveston, Texas (as you do) and decides not to do anything drastic, except, you know, tear down some houses and build up not-too-imaginative new developments and have the newspaper publish diatribes against him because maybe his city people won’t want to do it themselves? It is very very weird, and Donald Antrim reads it so straight-faced that all I could do was laugh.

“You Must Know Everything”, by Isaac Babel

This was a weird story in a much different way. It’s got a pretty slow start, with a young narrator just sort of talking about his life and his day hanging out with his grandmother, but then toward the end it gets very serious, with the grandmother making the titular pronouncement and some other pronouncements that are maybe not quite what you would expect. I definitely appreciated this story more after the discussion with George Saunders (whose work I have checked out from the library right now!) about the cultural and societal implications of the story, which are actually pretty interesting.

“Somewhere Else”, by Grace Paley

More culture! It’s almost like these segues are planned, though I doubt that they are. As Nell Freudenberger, who discusses the story, says, this is a story about pictures. At first, it’s a story about a Western tour group in China in the 70s, when people weren’t really going to China, and the big event is an argument about taking photographs of Chinese citizens without their permission. Then the story shifts perspective to another picture-taking event in a completely different place with completely different people. The politics and privilege inherent in this photographic objectification (and the objectification of travel in general) are something that I’ve been thinking about lately, so listening to this story talking about the same thing from so many years ago was kind of cool!

“The Gospel According to Mark”, by Jorge Luis Borges

Aaaaaaaaaaaah. This is another story that starts off slow and then takes a turn for the exciting at the end, though on a second listen you can almost feel the buildup and where things start going very wrong. As Paul Theroux discusses, there’s a bit of a horror element to it, and it is definitely that type of horror that is my favorite, the kind you’d find in Shirley Jackson‘s work or certain darker Flannery O’Connor pieces. You should definitely track this down and give it a read or a listen and then another and then possibly another, because it will give you new things to think about every time.

How about you guys? Any short stories to share?

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkOh, Billy Lynn, with your title that I can never remember correctly or in full. You are a strange little book, and I’m still not sure if I really like you, but I can definitely see why you keep getting nominated for awards.

This was a tough book to get into, and to start discussing when it was time for my book club meeting. On the surface, it is a straightforward tale of a group of soldiers who did some heroic things in Iraq and have therefore been recruited by the George W. Bush-era government to go on a victory tour culminating in an appearance at a Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys game. We hang out with the nineteen-year-old Billy and our other soldier friends in the stadium and environs (the ride there, the seats, the owner’s box, the field, the concession area — there is a lot of stadium in this novel!) as they try to figure out what they’re even supposed to be doing as part of the halftime show and also try to get a movie deal made before they ship back out in two days.

It starts off slowly, but somewhere in there it starts to pick up steam and I found myself really wanting to know what was going to happen with these guys, so plot-wise it’s a pretty good read. But even more important than the actual story is the underlying satire that is almost difficult to see. Where its spiritual predecessor, Catch-22 (which I love and which it references and which, apparently, is big in the advertising push for Billy Lynn) is a flamboyantly ridiculous sendup of the military and the bureaucracy of war, Billy Lynn is a quiet but pointed jab at our pro-war, pro-soldier, pro-patriotism, pro-America society.

Billy & Co. spend a lot of time throughout the novel answering the same questions from different people — How is the war going? Is there an end in sight? Are we helping those poor souls? — and being told how wonderful and brave and patriotic they are for going out and fighting for the American way and all that, even though there’s not one soldier present that these mostly upper-class conversationalists would likely give the time of day to otherwise. At the same time, they are hearing half of several phone calls between their putative Hollywood producer and the rest of Hollywood that say that the Iraq War is not a seat-filler and maybe could it be a World War II movie instead? With Hilary Swank playing one or more of the all-male soldiers?

And then the actual halftime show, goodness. Face, meet palm.

I will say that I didn’t connect with everything in this story; there’s an extended sequence with Billy visiting home and being a little gross about it and also interacting with his intensely dysfunctional family, and a very strange bit with Billy and a cheerleader in an alcove, and the ending is a bit out of nowhere. But after some time away from the book, I think less about the weird stuff and more about how weird it is to send teenagers off to fight wars so that I can sit in this comfy chair and write about books I read. I am made uncomfortable, in a very good way.

I’m glad that Billy Lynn did not suffer the same fate as the movie within it, and I may actually go read some of the other recent Iraq War novels that are coming out now because I, for one, am World War II-ed out.

Recommendation: Not a must-read, but definitely an interesting read for anyone who experienced the USA of the last ten or so years.

Rating: 8/10

11/22/63, by Stephen King

So, as I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I was not terribly excited for this book club pick. I’ve read and liked a few Stephen King books lately, but I’ve also been stuck halfway through The Stand since I got back from vacation at the beginning of August. I just can’t find time to read the other 500 pages when I could spend that time reading a whole book, you know? 11/22/63 is nearly as hefty, at 850 pages, and I was just not sure I could make it, especially since I started reading the book three days before book club.

However. It seems that King turned his “compulsively readable” dial up to eleven while writing this book, and so I found myself up into the wee hours of Sunday morning finishing it because I just had to know what happened! Excellent! Less excellent: the what that happened.

But let’s back up here. So the plot of the story, as you may already know, is that there’s a fella who gets himself recruited to go back in time and prevent the assassination of JFK. This I was leery of, as I know approximately squat about said assassination and I have a mostly-hate relationship with historical-type novels. But the lead-up to the time travelling is actually really well done, as the protagonist must be convinced to do it and so therefore I found myself convinced that this was totally a fantastic idea. Well, kind of a fantastic idea. The idea seems less fantastic the farther you go in the book.

Anyway, part of the convincing consists of proving that our fella, Jake, can change the past, and those chapters are probably the most compelling of the whole novel, because Jake actually cares about the people whose lives he is attempting to change and because it is interesting to see how the “obdurate” (this is a recurring word) past will try to trip him up.

Then the JFK part starts and it is unfortunately less exciting, largely because Jake has to hang out in the past for five years before he can actually, you know, stop the assassination. It’s interesting, because I now know slightly more than squat about JFK and Oswald and Dallas and all the events that wove these people together, and about the awesome conspiracy theories that exist, but it is also very long. There’s also a love story bit in here that is okay as far as unnecessary love stories go, but seriously, five years, yawwwn. Luckily King uses one of my favorite storytelling techniques, the “here’s what’s going to happen a few pages from now but hang on while I get us there” technique, to keep me turning those pages.

So I liked the story, overall, from beginning to whatever might happen when Jake finally meets up with Oswald, but then instead of, like, ending the story King goes off in a different direction entirely and (spoilers?) tries to explain how the time travel works and how it affects the future and it gets a bit post-apocalyptic but then manages to end on a really sappy note. I guess it was the right ending for the book as written, but I was over here expecting a different kind of book. Darn you, expectations!

Recommendation: For those who need an arm workout, or like history, or who are planning their own visit to November 1963?

Rating: 7/10

Black Water Rising, by Attica Locke (18 July — 20 July)

I think I liked this book. I’m not sure, though. Has this ever happened to you? At first I wasn’t sure I’d keep reading it, then it got interesting and I devoured it, and then the ending was sort of okay. Hmm.

Well, let’s stick to the facts. The novel opens with our protagonist, Jay Porter, taking his pregnant wife out for a birthday “cruise” on Buffalo Bayou in Houston. That gets quotation marks because the boat is kinda crappy and so is the captain. But Jay makes the most of it, at least until the shooting starts. When it’s done, Jay fishes a woman out of the bayou and takes her to the police station, figuring to have done a good turn. But when he later finds out that there was a dead man left behind, he gets a little nervous. And when he starts getting followed? More nervous. And when he starts getting threatened? Well, you know. Meanwhile there’s a dockworkers strike that Jay’s father-in-law wants Jay, as a lawyer, to get involved with, which means he will have to go talk to the his ex-girlfriend from back in his civil rights heyday (this takes place in 1981). Also there is Jay’s current case involving a prostitute and also some sneaky oil tycoons (shocker?). All in all, it’s an adventure of a novel.

I just felt like the ending was a real cop-out [spoiler alert?]. Locke spends several hundred pages getting me interested in this whole conspiracy thing, and then the conspirators get away with it but then Jay is like, “I’ma take them down!” and then the book ends. And I would certainly have rather seen them either taken down in the novel or just left to get away with it, or even to have ended the novel before they got away with it if ambiguity was the word here. Meh.

Rating: 6/10
(Countdown Challenge: 2009)