Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Book 37 – City of Glass: the Graphic Novel

By Paul Auster
Adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli

I had read Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy a few years ago as separate books (City of Glass, Ghosts, and The Locked Room). My review did not provide any plot summary, so I don’t remember much except the exquisite atmosphere of dreamy dread that permeated each book.  And that I really liked them. This turned out to be advantageous since the 1994 comic adaptation of City of Glass recently fell into my hands thanks to my coworker via Olman (the copy was the 2004 Picador edition). Reading the comic made me remember everything about the original novella as I went along, so it was almost like re-experiencing the story in a new way.

As Art Spiegelman mentioned in his introduction, I was impressed with how Karasik and Mazzucchelli created such an effective comic out of a strange and metaphysical work as City of Glass, which apparently posed a challenge for many to visualize (there have been a number of unsuccessful attempts to adapt it as a screenplay).

City of Glass starts off as a fairly straightforward detective mystery, though with a pervasive feeling that something is a little off. At some point, the narrative becomes unhinged and takes a turn toward po-mo existentialism, but compellingly so. I always wondered what City of Glass would’ve been like had Auster stuck to genre conventions because I think it would’ve made a great detective story. But that’s crazy talk since part of the story’s power lies in its deconstruction of narrative and character. After all, City of Glass is one of many novels where Auster explores his trademark themes: the disintegration of reality and identity.

Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli were able to take those trademark Auster themes and visualize them in comic form. They utilized everything they knew about the art of comics into City of Glass, but each panel is designed in a very controlled and thoughtful way.  It is a wonderful synthesis of two different but complementary mediums.  For anyone interested in a deeper analysis of how Karasik & Mazzuchhelli translate prose to the comic form, take a look at this blog.

If you haven’t read the original novel or the comic adaptation, then I would recommend reading the novel first then waiting a long while before reading the comic. Like long enough to not remember any details of the novel (say a few years!). But if you lack the discipline and cannot wait that long, then I liked what this Guardian review had to say about this little quandary: 

If you haven't read City of Glass, then you have an intriguing dilemma: not which of the two books to read - you should read both - but which to read first. I can't really answer that question, because setting them against one another, trying to decide which is more successful, seems pointless. Both are wonderful works of art. Both are worth reading again and again. And each complements the other, the comic driving you back the novel, and vice versa.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Book 36 - Tokyo On Foot: A Graphic Memoir

By Florent Chavouet

This was one of those rare impulsive purchases when I was at Drawn & Quarterly. Though I didn’t have any luck finding a birthday gift for a friend, I had no trouble spotting something I wanted for myself, as my eye was immediately drawn to the cover of Tokyo On Foot, the last English copy in the store (the original version is in French).

Having visited Japan over a decade ago, leafing through Chavouet’s images evoked warm, fuzzy feelings of that memorable trip, hence the impulsive purchase. This was also the book I sought solace in when I wanted to momentarily escape from exploring the human capacity for war and violence in Three Day Road.

Chavouet is a French graphic artist who moved to Japan with his girlfriend when she landed a one year internship at an unnamed company. The more accurate title would have been "Tokyo By Bike". When Chavouet wasn’t trying to find the odd job as a French waiter, he'd bike to an unexplored area of Tokyo with his portable chair, stopping to sketch something interesting.

His subjects range from random people on the street who’d stop and check out what he’s drawing to a run-down house that stuck out like a sore thumb across the street, or maybe a jumbled view of shops and noodle houses within a city block, or a secluded spot in a park away from the urban hullabaloo.

The hand-drawn maps of each neighbourhood (21 in total) are amazingly intricate, yet useful if you were to use the maps to trace his daily route. Each chapter begins with a map of the district or prefecture with highlights of the various spots where he stops to capture the scenery. Each highlight has a page number so you can find the sketch of what took his fancy and sometimes there are charming little captions or annotations to explain what he observed.

Reading some reviews on Goodreads, there were a few complaints how the book is only an outsider’s superficial interpretation of Tokyo, and Chavouet never learned more than a few Japanese phrases. Well, yeah, the guy did only spend a year there. He’s an illustrator, not a scholar or journalist. I felt that part of the appeal was that his drawings are exactly that, a view from an outsider’s perspective. Chavouet’s art contains a mixture of curiosity, interest, amusement, bemusement and/or mild dislocation. Perhaps his interpretations are not always accurate, but they seem genuine in feeling.

I also really enjoyed his profiles of random people’s fashion styles on the street, such as this cross-section of Shibuya:

Here’s a review which pretty much explains more articulately how I felt about it.

And this blog gives a good idea of what it's like flipping through Tokyo On Foot.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Book 35 – Uglies

By Scott Westerfeld

I’ve officially broken last year’s record with my 35th book. Yay.

Uglies was on my “maybe to read” list since it’s a futuristic dystopian young adult novel that received mixed reviews. When I found a cheap copy at my good ol’ reliable thrift shop, I thought it would make a quick n’ easy read (as I’m still aiming to read 40 books this year). And it turned out to be the case indeed!

The premise sounds intriguing enough. A few hundred years after some mysterious catastrophe obliterated the world’s oil supply (thus ending human civilization as we know it), society has rebuilt itself by harnessing renewable energy resources and going vegan. Technology has evolved to sustain and populate the cities again. Isolated and self-sufficient yet also fearful of war and dissent, these eco-friendly cities hit upon the need to create standards for the greater good.

Societal ills largely stem from people having vast differences over things like status and wealth, but obviously, not everyone can be rich and fabulous. And going all communist and making everyone poor wouldn’t be very fun either. But since everyone is born with inherent flaws in their physical appearance, wouldn’t the world be a happier place if everyone were beautiful? And even better, beautiful and blissfully ignorant!  It would be the perfect equalizer!

When children turn 16, the benevolent government bestows upon them a series of extreme surgeries to have their faces and bodies (among other things) molded to fit societal standards of perfect beauty.  Since humans are evolutionarily preconditioned to have positive responses to facial symmetry, clear complexions and proportionate bodies, applying these standards equally for everyone will reduce conflict and create a more harmonious society. By agreeing to go under the knife, you are also rewarded by getting to party every day and every night (at least until it's time to reproduce) with all the fancy clothes and cosmos you could possibly want!

Westerfeld thus takes a page off of Dystopian Fiction 101 where you have a “vision of an orderly world in which suffering is minimized and pleasure maximized”.  But for me, it is only a partially complete world.  As a science fiction novel, the author does not explain how a society (even one with highly advanced technology) can support a whole class of perfectly sculpted hedonists (like who makes their disposable fancy clothes or distills the alcohol that gets them loaded?), nor how it can sustain itself when the majority of its young citizens are partying during their stage of post-educational development instead of working towards being productive members of society (like cosmetic surgeons, for instance). But this pretty little book does not want to bother with such trivial details.

Instead we have a world where everyone is supermodel-gorgeous, so now normal people seem ugly by comparison (one wonders what this world would do with the truly hideous or deformed but, surprise, the book doesn't bother with that either). Children are considered Littlies and therefore exempt from being ugly.  As soon as they turn twelve, they are relegated to official “Ugly” status, spending the next four years loathing themselves and longing to be “Pretty”. Sound familiar?

Westerfeld has put a clever spin on the awkward stage of adolescence, but I still found Uglies rather "meh". There just wasn’t anything particularly original or refreshing in the themes, nor in the execution of those themes. We have some dystopian teen angst embodied in fifteen-year-old protagonist Tally Youngblood, and there is the obvious social commentary about how society perpetuates unrealistic images of beauty to our youth. But it doesn’t go beyond, well, the obvious.

What happens to young naive Tally Youngblood is also pretty rote stuff, so I won’t get into how Tally loses her best friend Peris once he becomes a Pretty, then finds a new BFF in rebellious Shay, who convinces Tally to journey to the Rusty Ruins which leads her to a band of merry Uglies living in a secluded mountain valley (as well as fall for the same boy named David who is -surprise!- actually pretty cute for "ugly" standards). To Tally’s amazement, David and his fellow Uglies don’t see themselves as ugly at all.  They are content to live out their lives without any surgical intervention imposed on their bodies. Imagine that!

It’s no surprise that the "urban dystopia versus utopian wilderness" theme has become somewhat clichéd:   people are unwittingly domesticated by a [enter –ist word, ie. fascist, agist, uglist] society, yet one individual manages to see through the false utopia, escapes to discover an alternate community of [enter synonym for dissenters, counter-culture types, etc.] who eventually overcome the system, and reclaim humanity. I have not read much dystopian fiction, but already Logan’s Run (1967) and John Christopher’s Wild Jack (1974) come to mind. The Hunger Games is another recent example which recycles familiar tropes, but the excellent pacing and tight narrative makes you forgive some inherent flaws.  More importantly, the world that Suzanne Collins depicts feels more complete.  There are no gaping logistical holes that fester in the back of your mind, like it did for me when reading Uglies.

For whatever reason, I didn’t get the same thrill and enjoyment with Uglies. For one thing, I couldn’t get past the cutesy terms for categorizing people:  Littlies, Uglies, New Pretties, Middle Pretties and Late Pretties (or Crumblies). I mean, where are the SILLIES when you need ‘em? Ok, there are the Specials, but they should really be called the SCARIES, since they are government agents surgically enhanced for intelligence, strength and, wait for it, terrifying beauty. Let’s not forget the people of old who used to live in pollution-choked cities and kill animals for food. They were known as the Rusties. Nothing is too complicated that would potentially hurt a reader's pretty little head.

Westerfeld, however, does do a decent job capturing the mentality of a typical teenage girl growing up in a screwed up world. Tally’s guilt for being a potential traitor to the cause is also portrayed quite realistically, as you definitely get the sense that our heroine is a naive character who has a LOT to learn and develops some backbone and principles toward the end. At the end of the day, though, Westerfeld's bland writing style combined with fairly half-baked ideas made Uglies seem like a book aimed at the lowest common denominator.

It’s too bad I don’t feel inclined to read the rest of the series, as it would help get me closer to 40 books!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book 34 – Three Day Road

By Joseph Boyden

It’s hard to imagine that Three Day Road is Boyden’s first novel. Not only is it ambitious in scope, it’s remarkably cohesive for its unusual narrative structure and quite gracefully written too (as Kate also noted in her review). However the ambitiousness of the novel is not meant to impress (like Cloud Atlas, for instance), but instead bring to life voices not commonly heard and stories often overlooked by history.

The heart of the novel is centred on thre friendship between Xavier Bird and Elijah Whiskeyjack, young Cree men who voluntarily enlist and become legendary snipers in Europe during the Great War. They leave behind Xavier’s aunt Niska, a medicine woman who, having avoided assimilation, raised both boys in the Oji-Cree tradition in the wilds of Northern Ontario. The story begins after the war is over when Xavier returns home to Niska, physically and emotionally damaged, and addicted to morphine. As aunt and nephew journey back to their camp by canoe, the narrative weaves between the voices of the three characters: Xavier reliving the nightmare of his war experiences in a morphine-induced fever, Elijah obsessively confessing to Xavier about his war exploits, and Niska reaching out to Xavier by telling him about her past. Within this cyclical structure, Boyden also attempts to evoke the Cree and Ojibwe tradition of storytelling.

As a more conventional narrative, Three Day Road has the potential to appeal to a range of readers in the way it taps into multiple experiences.   If you’re interested in war history, the novel is a harrowing account of trench warfare yet on a smaller scale presents an intimate portrait of the modern sniper, whose skill is taken to a new level of specialty during WWI.  If First Nations history is more your thing, the little known WWI hero, Francis "Peggy" Pegahmagabow, served as inspiration for the characters of Elijah and Xavier. This in itself is a great story premise because you have the combination of Native game hunters making the transition to deadly snipers, utilizing their skills on the battlefield to "devastating effect” with the narrative freedom of having them leave the confines of mud-filled trenches into more varied geography (from the Penguin Readers Guide).

To make it even more historically realistic, Boyden places Elijah and Xavier as infantry in the real-life Second Canadian Division, tracing their route throughout their three-year involvement in the war. The 2nd Division also participated in the Western Front’s most atrocious battles (like Passchendale), their victories having (ironically) helped put Canada on the international map. The novel is further enriched by the importance the role Native Canadian soldiers played in the conflict yet only to return home without any official recognition.

Three Day Road portrays the period of upheaval when Aboriginal Canadians were forced to assimilate into early 20th century European-Canadian society by separating children from their families and placing them in residential schools. Niska and Xavier managed to escape assimilation and live out in the bush, but Elijah was a product of a residential upbringing.  Even though Elijah experienced some abuse at the hands of a nun, Boyden does not dwell on him as a victim, but rather, as a survivor making use of his Western education and English skills to gain favour with his division when he and Xavier are stationed in Europe.

Though much of the novel is grounded in historical reality, there are also elements of the supernatural woven into the tale. This is mostly due to Niska being the last of a lineage of shamans and windigo-killers. Some readers may be wary of this potential for cliché, but her character is nevertheless realistically portrayed as a strong, proud woman who maintains her independence and way of life while her people live in towns as second-class citizens and/or have succumbed to alcoholism.

This was the first time I’ve read about WW1 in a fictional work, and frankly, it's not a subject matter I would voluntarily read about. I remembered enough from my history classes to know how horrifying both World Wars were. Part of the reason why this book took a while for me to finish was because it was so very, very dark.  There were many violent depictions of death yet each death was not treated lightly.  As Kate mentioned in her review, “the strength and spirit of the characters really overpowered the dark stuff in a good way so that the book felt really balanced in its depiction of events”. But I still had to take the occasional break from the novel to read something else (which is too bad, as it would've been so fitting had I finished it for Remembrance Day on 11/11/11).

I was nevertheless impressed by Boyden’s meticulous research and skill as a writer. He brought to life all the gruesome details of trench warfare and the cultural genocide of aboriginals while at the same time avoided almost all the clichés associated with writing about those subjects in the “native voice”. Combined with the occasional magic realist touches, I admit Boyden did at times verge dangerously close to cliché, but overall he was able to pull it off without being too hokey. What was amazing was that he was able to make a believable symbolic connection between Niska’s background as a windigo-killer and the disintegrating friendship of Xavier and Elijah as the continuing war took its toll on their sanity. Hopefully I’m not revealing too much, but Boyden ties this all together quite effectively.

Overall There Day Road succeeds as a novel because it was a very personal work for the author. Having a grandfather who served in WWI and a father as a decorated medical officer in WWII, Boyden obviously has a vested personal interest in the history of war. Being of mixed Scottish, Irish and Metis heritage also gives Boyden a measure of legitimacy in writing from a First Nations perspective.  I would definitely recommend Three Day Road for anyone interested in contemporary Canadian literature.  Despite its moments of terrible darkness, it proved in the end to be a very rewarding and enlightening reading experience.

(p.s. was very siked to find a copy of this at my local thrift shop too)