Sunday, July 29, 2012

Girls: The Complete Collection by The Luna Brothers

Girls Complete Collection

I did not grow up reading comic books or graphic novels.  Although I love cartoons and superhero stories, it wasn't a format I ever really explored that much until recently.  Last year when DC Comics started its new 52 campaign, I decided to give comics a try.  I heard about Girls while listening to Aisha Tyler's Girl on Guy podcast (one of my favorite podcasts) where she interviewed Joshua and Jonathan Luna, the guys behind the story and art of Girls.  I was intrigued enough to give graphic novels a try.

I'm not quite sure what to think about Girls.  It is beautifully drawn and the story is interesting and compelling.  Once I started it I could hardly put it down.  It is a science-fiction story involving alien women who invade a small town.  They attack the human woman and seduce the men, and after said seduction lay eggs (yes eggs) that within a matter of hours yield more alien women clones.  The townspeople are trapped.  They work together, turn on each other, attack each each, save each other, and so on. 

I felt like the Luna Brothers were making a statement about women, men, relationships, authority, mob behavior, but I'm not exactly sure what that statement is.  The story begins and ends with a set of panels about the cycle of life, its beauty and ugliness and here some of the beauty and a lot of the ugliness is on full display, but what it all means in the end I couldn't tell you.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Headhunters by Jo Nesbø


The phrase that immediately came to mind after reading Jo Nesbø's Headhunters was comic thriller.  There's lots of thrilling action.  The action is horrifying and yet so absurd that it can only be read as funny. 

The story revolves around Roger Brown a very successful corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief.  The people he steals from are often the people who come to him looking for help finding their next CEO job.  At his wife's art gallery he is introduced to Clas Greve, a seemingly perfect candidate for the CEO job of a technology company that happens to need a CEO.  During his interrogation of Greve (Brown uses police style interrogation techniques to interview clients), Greve reveals that he owns a priceless painting.  He also reveals his past in the military where his job duties seem to have involved hunting down criminals (a different kind of headhunter if you will).  Everything about Greve screams danger (at least it did to me), but Brown cannot pass up the opportunity to steal the aforementioned priceless painting that could mean he would be set up financially for life.  While in the process of relieving Greve of his painting, Brown finds more than he bargained for, and so begins Brown's adventure, an adventure that involves an outhouse filled to the brim, mistaken identity, and duplicitous lovers.  There's a love triangle, or maybe its a quadrangle, or maybe it's corporate espionage - it constantly changes.  Nesbø keeps readers on his toes, with one plot twist after another.  I wish I was able to read Headhunters in the author's native language because I have a feeling it would be even funnier.

This was the first book by Nesbø that I've read and I look forward to reading more.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

An Object of Beauty

In a relatively few number of pages Steve Martin manages to touch on a variety of themes - art, its value, ambition, and a culture and way of life built on a bubble that like all bubbles is destined to burst at some point.  The story centers around a young woman with ambitions to not to only thrive but conquer in the competitive art world.  Not the making of art, mind you, but the selling of art.  The story takes place mostly in New York during the last decade of the 20th century and the first one of the 21st, but as it is a tale of the triumphs and misdeeds of an outsider making her way in and up, it is a timeless story and one readers will be familiar with.

Although it is Lacey Yeager's story, the tale is told by Daniel, a college friend and sometimes fling who is and always will be somewhat in awe of and little in love with her.  Lacey's career begins in the basement at Sotheby's but of course she is destined for better things.  As told by Daniel, the story is a bit cold and distant at times, but then so is Lacey.  While charming she is also calculating, and not always the most likable character, but she doesn't need to be.  Lacey is interesting and it isn't too difficult to understand Daniel's fascination with her.

In addition to telling us Lacey's story, Daniel/Martin gives readers a lesson in art and the business of art.  The book even includes twenty-two art reproductions.  Including reproductions of the art could have been gimmicky but here it worked.  In fact, I enjoyed learning about art and the art business as much as I enjoyed reading about Lacey's ups and downs.  Martin also did a great job of tying the story to real life events like 9/11, downturns in the stock market, and the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008, which had the effect of putting Lacey's story in perspective.

Aside from the story and the art, the main reason to pick of An Object of Beauty is the writing.  I adore Martin's writing.  It is conversational and soothing, as if someone were reading it aloud to me.  The words flowed and my attention never flagged.  I finished the book in two days and would finished sooner if not for having to go to work.  I would highly recommend this book. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Gambit by Rex Stout

Gambit (Nero Wolfe Series) Nero Wolfe - The Complete First Season

In the early 2000s there was a show on A&E called A Nero Wolfe Mystery (or sometimes just, Nero Wolfe) starring Maury Chaykin and Timothy Hutton. I was a loyal watcher of the show, not only for the acting and writing, but also because of the general look of the show.  The costumes and sets were amazing.  The show also had an usual set up in that while the main characters and the actors playing them stayed the same from week to week, the rest of the cast played a different character each week depending on the particular story.  Although I was born long after the days when there was no tv and everyone listened to the radio, but watching the show often made me imagine what it would have been like to sit around the living room listening to a radio play.  Somehow the show seemed nostalgic and old-fashioned (in a good way) but sleek and modern at the same time.  In any case, it was through the tv show that I was introduced to Rex Stout, who wrote something like thirty-three novels and numerous short stories and novellas starring his famous private detectives, Nero Wolfe (played by Chaykin in the series) and Archie Goodwin (played by Hutton).  

Admittedly, the books in the series vary in quality.  The real attraction of the series are the characters.  The two main characters are in some ways a study of opposites.  There’s the cerebral, eccentric, Sherlock Holmes-like Nero Wolfe who is remembered as much for his intellect as his rotund size, the four hours a day he spends tending to his orchids (from 9 to 11 am and again from 4 to 6 pm), his gourmet appetites, his general preference not to be around women, and his even greater preference not to have to leave the confines of his home to the extent possible.  Playing opposite Wolfe is his assistant, Archie Goodwin, the younger, fitter, street smart detective who does most of the legwork (since Wolfe rarely leaves the house) and who in is his free time often find himself in the company of one young woman or another.  He is the narrator in the Wolfe stories but make no mistake, Goodwin is no Watson.  He is a man of action, with a near perfect memory, and a sixth-sense about people.  Together and operating out of their (or really Wolfe’s) New York brownstone on West 35th Street, they solve mysteries of all sorts.  Rounding out the cast of characters are Fritz, the live-in Swiss born chef who prepares Wolfe and Goodwin’s gourmet meals; Theodore Horstmann, Wolfe’s orchid expert; and Saul Panzer, Fred Durkin and Orrie Cather, three detectives ready to assist when called upon.  There’s also Inspector Cramer who has a fondness for chewing the ends of cigars but rarely smokes them, and his assistant, Sergeant Purley Stebbins.

I often pick up one of Rex Stout’s mysteries when I need something quick, light and entertaining.  This time I chose Gambit.  The novel takes its title from a chess move in which a player sacrifices a pawn or other chess piece in hopes of gaining an advantage.  Here, the victim is murdered while playing chess.  There is a bet that he can win while playing multiple games against multiple opponents without even seeing the chessboards.  He is kept in one room and his opponents in another, while messengers travel between rooms telling the soon-to-be-victim what moves his opponents have made and awaiting instructions as to how to respond.  Before he is able to prove his supposed chess superiority, the chess player is poisoned. Thus, the mystery begins with Wolfe and Goodwin on the case.

I can’t say Gambit was my favorite entry in the Nero Wolfe series, but I did enjoy it.  Much of the time the detectives find themselves with a theory that proves to be half-right, no evidence, and few leads to get them going.  Around the last thirty pages or so there’s a big hint as to the identity of the murder and then everything gets wrapped up pretty quickly.  There was a lot of Goodwin and Wolfe, but not much of the other regular cast of characters which made the story a little less exciting.  But then again, I wanted something quick and light and this served that purpose and I would still recommend giving Stout’s Nero Wolfe series a try, and would also recommend the excellent A&E television series.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto

Over the years I have heard great things about Bel Canto from friends and strangers alike, so I had high expectations.  In the end, although I enjoyed the book, I did not love it as much as others seem to.  The plot revolves around a hostage situation in an unnamed South American country.  Leaders of the South American country hope to entice a Japanese company into building a factory in their country and so they invite the company's CEO to visit their country by throwing him a birthday party where his favorite opera singer will perform.  Other international guests also attend the dinner hoping to get in on the ground floor should a factory indeed be built.  Just after Ross finishes her last song, the lights go out and terrorists break in.  This all happens in the first few pages.  Over the next four-and-a-half months and the next three hundred plus pages, hostages and kidnappers live together in the house as the kidnappers make demands no government would ever meet.  Luckily there is one man who is fluent in multiple languages and therefore hostages (who come from around the world) and kidnappers are able to communicate.

Patchett's writing is beautiful.  As I read her words I kept wondering she ever wrote poetry because the writing in Bel Canto was so lyrical and melodic.  However, although I enjoyed the sentences about fifty pages in I was anxious to get to the end.  It felt like things were dragging on, that time was moving too slow, but then maybe that's how real hostages in a situation like this might feel.  Over time the hostages and kidnappers form relationships.  Everyone relaxes into a sort of routine, and again, maybe that's what it takes to survive in a situation like this.  Still it felt too romanticized.  There seemed to be to little fear on the part of the hostages.  Although Patchett did not paint the kidnappers as pure evil and was fairly non-judgmental and evenhanded in painting portraits of the hostages and kidnappers as a whole, I never once forget that the kidnappers, even though some were mere teenagers, were terrorists holding a house full of people hostage, and found it somewhat incredible that any of the hostages could ever forget that.  The parts that seemed most real was when various  hostages questioned their lives and decisions as evaluating one's life does seem like a realistic thing a person might do when faced with death. 

The ending seemed fitting (and early on it is more or less made clear how things will end, how these situations usually end).  And then came an epilogue which came out of nowhere and made little sense to me.  Overall, I liked the writing (except the epilogue) even if I didn't fully buy into the story.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

What I Talk about When I Talk about Running

Haruki Murakami is a runner and a writer.  I am also a runner, like to write, and love to read about (among other things) running, so this book was pretty much perfect for me.  In this slim volume Murakami writes about running, writing, and getting older  He writes about the pain and beauty, the satisfaction and triumph, and the workmanlike dedication to train and achieve a goal, whether the goal is running a marathon, completing a triathlon or writing a novel.  He also writes about the undeniably affect of growing older, but still continuing to move forward even if it means moving a bit slower than before.

As a runner, I totally got where Murakami was coming from.  When I run I think about everything and nothing.  Sometimes I am working out a solution to a problem or planning the rest of my day.  Sometimes I imagine myself in some sort of adventure where I have to save the day.  And sometimes I just concentrate on each footfall and each breath.  At times I've experienced the runner's blues, as Murakami calls it, and found it hard to put on my sneakers and get out the door.  But like Murakami, I keep going, because that's what you do.  You keep going.  You run through it.  Soon you find yourself on the other side of the runner's blues, and full of energy and enthusiasm once again.  Reading Murakami was reminder of this and has inspired me to recommit not only to running, but to a few other projects I've been working on halfheartedly.

I haven't yet read any of Murakami's fiction (though I plan to) so I cannot compare this to his other work.  I can say that you don't need to be a runner to read this.  If you enjoy good writing, if you know what it is to like to slog through good and bad days as you work to achieve a goal, whatever that goal is, give this book a try.  It is well worth the read.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Sleepwalk With Me by Mike Birbiglia

Sleepwalk with Me: And Other Painfully True Stories

I first heard Mike Birbiglia while listening to This American Life in my car and have been a fan ever since.  He describes himself as a comedian, but I just think of him as a storyteller and I love a good story.  Sleepwalk With Me did not disappoint.  I literally laughed out loud while reading this book.  Many of the stories in this book will be familiar to those who have heard Birbiglia on This American Life, The Moth or any of the other shows he’s been on.  Despite being familiar with the stories I still laughed the second time around. Even when he is describing an awkward, dangerous or emotionally difficult situation, Birbiglia manages to make it funny.  So if you’re in the mood for a good laugh, pick this up.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Talking About Detective Fiction by P. D. James

Talking about Detective Fiction

P. D. James is one of my favorite authors.  I was introduced to her work by Masterpiece Theater on PBS, which many years ago broadcast the film version of An Unsuitable Job for a Woman.  I loved the film and when I found it was based on book, ran out and got the book.  (I don't mind reading book even I already know the ending.  For me it's more about the journey, and how the author gets me from the beginning to the end.)  After reading that first book, I was hooked and made a point to read all of James's fiction.

This is the first of James's nonfiction works that I've read.  It is not a definitive book on the subject of detective fiction, but is rather like a love letter to the genre.  She introduces some of the key writers in the field and the detectives they created, and also provides a bit of insight into her own writing process.  For anyone who is a fan of James's work or of detective fiction, this short read is definitely worthwhile.

P. D. James has written several novels.  Her most famous detective is Adam Dalgliesh who finds time to write poetry in between solving murder cases.  Although I love the Dalgliesh books, I am more partial to Cordelia Gray, an amateur private detective.  Unfortunately Gray is featured in only two of James's work: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and The Skull Beneath the Skin.  Other favorites include Original Sin, The Children of Men and The Private Patient

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

A Discovery of Witches (All Souls Trilogy #1)

A Discovery of Witches centers around Diana Bishop, a reluctant witch.  Following the death of her parents, Diana, the last in a long line of powerful witches, has avoided using her powers, preferring to live a solely human life devoid of magic.  She has made a career as a science historian, with a particular interest in alchemy and seems to spend much of her time researching old books in beautiful libraries, like the Bodleian Library at Oxford.  In the course of her research she comes across a mysterious book that attracts witches, vampires and demons (or daemons as they are referred to in the book).  For some reason they all want this book, a book that no one has seen for centuries until Diana came along and unintentionally unlocked the magic that had kept it hidden for centuries.  It as the Bodleian that Diana meets the vampire Matthew Clairmont.  At first wary of him, Diana quickly falls under his spell or maybe it's the other way around.

I enjoyed the beginning of the book when Diana is at the Bodleian the most.  (As a librarian and book lover I hope to visit this amazing library someday.)  I also liked reading about the differences between the vampires, witches and demons.  Where the book lost me was the romance between Diana and Matthew.  The last two-thirds of A Discovery of Witches reminded me of the Twilight series only with adults but oddly just as chaste.  I means there's a girl/woman and the vampire she falls in love with about five seconds after he walks into her life.  Before she and Matthew became a serious item, Diana seemed to be a strong and independent woman with interests and hobbies of her own.  With Matthew she quickly becomes the damsel in distress in need of constant rescue.  She is a powerful of witch but denies who and what she is, and it is only with Matthew's help (or one might say at his command) that she begins to explore her own power.  My irritation with the central characters grew and their romance blossomed.

This book has a lot going on, in addition to the romance.  Diana it seems is a very special witch, but it isn't clear why.  Nor is is clear why the mysterious book Diana found is so important or why witch, vampire and demon are all so desperate to get their hands on it.  A Discovery of Witches is the first in a planned trilogy.  I'm not quite sure yet if I'm intrigued enough by the other plot threads to get past the romance and continue the trilogy.