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Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

The Ray Bradbury Chronicles: Volume Two (1992)
based on the stories of Ray Bradbury
Bantam Spectra

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The second volume of comic adaptations of Bradbury’s stories. Again I was drawn to the more abstract style of “A Piece of Wood” and another story of two people from different times having an encounter, “Night Meeting”. Also included is “Come into My Cellar”, which I thought was a lot more effective in the original story, “Punishment Without Crime”, “Rocket Summer & The Locusts” and the neat colourized old EC Comics piece, “The Flying Machine”.

"Night Meeting"

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The Ray Bradbury Chronicles: Volume One (1992)
based on the stories of Ray Bradbury
Bantam Spectra

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A collection of Ray Bradbury’s stories that have been adapted into comic-book form by various artists. I believe they put out four of these volumes, I have the first two, and re-read them recently. The different artists bring different styles and feels to the stories, from the sort of generic future world you might expect in Buck Rogers, to the very artistic and idiosyncratic.

"Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed"

The best adaptations here are “Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed” which creates a great atmosphere with its brown hues and cut-up abstract style, and “The Dragon” which in a few short pages tells a very effective story of crossed time streams, one of my favourite Bradbury themes. Also included are “The Golden Apples of the Sun”, “Marionettes, Inc.”, “The Toynbee Convector”, and newly coloured from an old EC Comic, “I, Rocket”.

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Breaking and Entering (1988)
by Joy Williams
278 pages
Vintage Contemporaries

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Liberty and Willie are a Florida couple in their 20’s who spend their time breaking into other people’s vacation homes, living there for a time, and they leave without taking anything but make sure to let the homeowner know someone was there. The novel doesn’t have much of a plot, though as it progresses the two start to drift apart.

This was very much a book of two halves. In the first half or even first two thirds I was quite engaged with the story and enjoying it. But the last part changes the tone considerably, and from there it’s a real chore to get through. It’s even fairly clear where exactly this happens — according to the book, it includes a few parts that were published as short stories earlier, and it’s one of these sections added in, which goes back to the couple’s experiences as adolescents, which really breaks up the feel of the book, and makes it hard to feel for any of the characters, since they come across as being very unpleasant.

I do like the cover though, it matches the book aesthetically. Actually, this book is so modern even the entire text is set in a sans-serif font, something I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered before in a novel.

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The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession (2010)
by David Grann
338 pages
Doubleday

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A collection of 12 magazine pieces by the author of The Lost City of Z. Some of them concern illegal behaviour, like prison gangs and organized crime, while others are just portraits of eccentric persons, like the giant squid hunter from New Zealand, or the sandhogs working beneath New York City.

It’s hard to pick a favourite story. A few of the more amazing ones, in terms of the story they tell, are “The Chameleon”, about a man who likes to impersonate being an abandoned teenager, “True Crime” about a possible murderer who has written his confession into a postmodern novel, and “The Squid Hunter” about the obsessive search for more knowledge about giant squid, and one particular eccentric scientist who isn’t as well funded as some of his colleagues.  “Trial by Fire” is also a pretty important piece, detailing what looks like a definite case of the execution of an innocent man, or at least one that should definitely not have been found guilty.

These are ultimately magazine pieces, mostly from The New Yorker, so they have the strengths and the weaknesses you might expect.  For the most part engaging and somewhat illuminating.

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Homage to Catalonia and Looking Back on the Spanish War (1938 & 1953)
by George Orwell
247 pages
Penguin

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George Orwell was among those foreigners who travelled to Spain to enlist on the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War (1936-9), and in less than a year of experiences he talks about training, fighting on the front line, being involved in the street-fighting that broke out between the various leftist factions in Barcelona, being wounded by a bullet through his neck, and finally barely escaping Spain with his wife when the organization he had fought with, and had already been discharged from, was declared to be sympathizers with the enemy in a cloud impenetrable non-truth that would not be out of place in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Interspersed with Orwell’s personal experiences is commentary on the different political forces at play, and the betrayal of the ideals Orwell felt he was fighting for, up to the point where he realized it was a fight between two possible future forms of dictatorship.

I don’t know a lot about the Spanish war, and I picked this book up as a fan of Orwell’s writing.  There’s a lot of sections that are an alphabet soup of acronyms, and it’s sometimes hard to find your way if you’re not familiar with the history. Even the description of the fighting at the front somehow comes across as a bit dry and dull, and the only really compelling parts for me were when the fighting among leftist factions breaks out in the city, and then the final section where Orwell tries to find a way out of Spain with his wife, while most of the people he has known are thrown into jail without being charged by the very Government side they were fighting for. Also interesting was Orwell’s description of taking a bullet through the neck, his immediate thoughts and feelings as he thought he was going to die, and his recovery afterward.

The thing that probably surprised me the most about this book is that I always thought of Orwell as a sort of ‘disillusioned socialist’, but all throughout this book, no matter how bad the behaviour he sees among the leftist forces and administration, he never gives up his idea of a worker’s revolution, which is in his mind is somehow set apart from communism. Though I wouldn’t agree with his ideal of the overthrow of capitalism (or even the notion that history is moving in a direction of continuous improvement) this book is important in that it gives a good first-hand account of events, and contrasts them with the outright lies that were published in newspapers both in the country and internationally, no matter which side the editorialists sympathized with.

The book-length Homage to Catalonia is appended with an essay written about 15 years later, Looking Back on the Spanish War, which gives a bit of perspective. Maybe the most amusing part of the book is when Orwell visits Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia church and calls it “one of the most hideous buildings in the world” and questioned the tastes of the Anarchists in not blowing it up when they had the chance.

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The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves (2010)
by Andrew Potter
296 pages
McClelland & Stewart

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It’s probably a bad sign when you’re halfway through reading a book, especially a non-fiction book, and you realize that you don’t have any idea of what the book is really about, in which direction the author is going, or what the body of the text has to do with the subject referred to in the title and opening segment.

Andrew Potter co-authored a book a few years ago called The Rebel Sell, which, for all its drawbacks, made a good point about how the ‘anti-mainstream’ counter-culture, in its veiled and overt demands to buy certain products, appear a certain way, and live a certain lifestyle, was actually the driving force behind consumer culture, and perpetuating many of the things it snobbishly pretended to rebel against.

This particular book is much less clear in its position, and the problem begins with failing to really define what it is about. Though Potter says he’s taking aim at all concepts of authenticity, he quickly glosses over the quest to cure some of the alienation modern people tend to feel with regards to friends and family, their work, or their society. His only comment on these ills consists mainly of ‘they’re paying you, so get over it’.

You’re really not going to stun anybody basing a book on the not-exactly-shocking statements that ‘authentic jeans’ are still designed by someone, that an ‘authentic ethnic restaurant’ might be more marketing than actuality, and that touring the cultural artifacts of a former dictatorship isn’t the same as living under one.  But in this book Potter does mostly take aim at what a very small portion of society is looking for in their quest for authenticity – the urban, white, wealthy, over-educated, wasp-y post-moderns with whom the author apparently spends most of his time. If you have any kind of broader experience of what society consists of, you’ll have trouble when he generalizes about what ‘everybody’ is doing these days.

It’s a really scattered, unfocused, poorly argued book, and the fact that the acknowledgments at the end credit several editors for doing a lot of work to make it sound better, and that Potter admits it took far too long to complete, it all just reinforces the impression of undercooked thoughts. Chapters which detail the recent US presidential race, or that consist of highlights of the author’s Eastern European vacation, seem to be just be re-purposed content the author had on hand, rather than tying into the core argument in any strong way.

Put simply, many of the conclusions Potter jumps to are unsupported by the material he presents. Survivalist extremism leads directly into apocalyptic fiction, as if everyone who goes to see an adventure movie wishes for those things to happen to them.  Potter tries to make a seldom-heard argument about the suburbs being a triumph of liberal markets instead of a blight, but no statistics are presented about things that might illuminate the discussion,  like cost of infrastructure, crime rates, or people’s satisfaction.  And I’m pretty sure nobody at the mall is thinking about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, so if you’re going to spend a lot of time on him as central to modern society’s ideas, it’s going to need to be tied in a little better. As an example of the poor reasoning, “In short, the desire for authenticity is the cause of virtually all the major problems with our politics today.” (pg.175) Really? The problem with all of politics? I mean, the more you read and repeat that, the more pulled-out-of-your-ass it sounds.

In the end, Potter’s main viewpoint takes on the incredible hubris and delusion of saying current liberal democracy, with its free-market capitalism, is basically the end of history, and once the rest of the world is absorbed into it, no other political structures will ever threaten it, nor will there be any other kind of life to strive for. He also asserts, without even entertaining any arguments to the contrary, that life is meaningless and nothing can be learned from the world, and someone who thinks differently is a terrorist-in-waiting.

Obviously, I found this a very disappointing read, not only because its conclusions, weak as they are, are completely ludicrous, but because it’s so poorly organized and presented.  I still didn’t find any answer to what I think most people are talking about when they look for authenticity. The alienation from family and friends, work, or society at large, has a real human cost, in terms of psychological distress, substance abuse, violence, and decreased productivity and efficiency. It’s simply not true to say “In the end, authenticity is a positional good, which is valuable precisely because not everyone can have it” (pg.267) unless you’re using a definition of authenticity that is far outside what the general use of the word is. A more authentic relationship to oneself, close relations, and the world at large, precludes no one else from the same. Just because there’s no easy answer to questions about authenticity does not mean it doesn’t exist at all. To say that people should continue living in modes in which they are experiencing psychological, spiritual, or even physical distress because there are no perfect solutions and these people have more material comforts than ever, is not only unsupported by this book’s flimsy arguments but borders on the sociopathic.

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The Incredible Shrinking Man (1956, 1994 collection)
by Richard Matheson
351 pages
Tor

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The concept of this novel is really right there in the title and the cover image, not a lot more to say than that. The story alternates between the protagonist’s days in the cellar when he is smaller than a spider, and flashbacks from earlier days, when he started shrinking from his original six-foot-two height. The novel takes up about 2oo pages, and the rest of the book is filled out with a collection of nine stories, the most notable among them being Nightmare at 20,000 Feet, Duel, and Button, Button.

Richard Matheson is, in my opinion, an excellent second-tier writer. It may be a bit mean to say, but even at his best, it’s like there’s something slightly missing, or perhaps all of his events and plotlines are just a bit too transparent. He’s somehow much more suited for film and television adaptations, maybe because the visual element and the input of others adds flesh on the bone, and ambiguity to the simplistic.

I’ve read a couple of other Matheson novels, Hell House and  I Am Legend, and I think that this one is the best of them. There are some very poignant moments, especially when the protagonist shrinks down to the point where he can be victimized by adults and children alike. My favourite sequence is when he meets a female midget at a circus, and they find a lot in common between them, but of course there’s also the big difference in that she has always been and always will be that size, while he was tall and will continue to shrink.

I thought the stories were of hit-and-miss quality.

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