Thursday, September 16, 2010

Hillary Frank, Better than Running at Night, 2002.

I love a good künstlerroman. I discovered Frank via This American Life, and a brilliant piece about a conversation overheard on a train ride. (You can stream it from here.) Better than Running at Night is her debut novel, a quick-moving character study of a young woman named Ladybug (Ellie) Yellinsky. Ellie is beginning her studies at the New England College of Art and Design (this is my only quibble: the school name is clever, no? NECAD—said phonetically, as her father does, it reveals both themes and endings just a little too clearly) mid-year, taking a fundamentals class in order to catch up with her fellow students who began the year in September. She struggles with making sense of what art is, both with her oddball teacher Ed Gilloggley and her two fellow class-mates — and then the next oddball non-teacher. At the same time, Ellie is figuring out what it is to live; she’s in a complicated relationship with another student, is trying to make sense of her relationships with her parents, and is trying to understand who she is, post-high school.

Told in short snippets, and illustrated by Frank’s drawings (she holds an MFA in drawing from the New York Academy of Art), the book is engaging. I read it in just a few short hours, drawn into both Ellie’s life and the lucid exposition of what art is and how the artist works and grows.

My summary might make the novel sound overly familiar, solidly placed within a predictable genre. It’s not: Ellie’s travails and woes never feel trite or overdone, but are entirely plausible. There’s a marvellous moment when Gilloggley shows his three students some of his own drawings in charcoal:
The last slide was of a woman lying on her stomach in bed, partially draped by a sheet. It was a side view, and one arm hung limply over the edge of the bed. A single finger grazed the floor. The arm said everything about how she felt.
After seeing Ed’s slides, I knew why I had come to art school. (182)

The book seeks to use Ellie’s life to make sense of art and life in a way much akin to Ed’s work; revealing Ellie’s emotions and response, her yearning to create, and her desire for a fulfilled life. It resists easy endings, and indeed resists offering detail after the dénouement. It’s a well written, lovely novel; I look forward to reading more of Frank’s work.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Christopher Moore,
        Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story, 1995.
        You Suck, 2007.
        Bite Me, 2010.

mmmm… silly fun. The story of Bloodsucking Fiends follows Jody as she becomes a vampire. She finds a minion, Tommy—and wacky misadventures happen as they elude the vampire who turned her. Together with his drug-addled supermarket night crew, Tommy helps Jody deal with the older vampire while also avoiding the long arm of the law (the capable Rivera and Cavuto) and getting some helpful assistance from the Emperor of San Francisco, Protector of Alcatraz, Sausalito, and Treasure Island (and the men, of course!). Hijinks, silly humour, turtles being bronzed, some crazed vampiric sex. All’s well that ends well — thank goodness for the bronizing process — and then... Well, then the story continues the next day in You Suck. Tommy, now a vampire, helps Jody find a new minion: Abby Normal. Wacky misadventures with the old vampire seeking revenge, the night-crew trying to avenge Tommy’s turning while paying off their blue-dyed prostitute, and too many vampires threaten to make San Francisco un-fun. Abby and her science nerd boyfriend save the day in then end... and then the story continues in the newly released Bite Me. While you might think vampire-animals were sufficiently covered by James Howe — well, actually, you’d be right. In this book of the trilogy, the silliness is a bit over the top. A vampire cat is one thing, but vampire parrots, Rastafarian boat pilots, older vampires, and vampire fog viruses is a well-plotted adventure tale that jumps from the viewpoint of one character to another and another, but never really grips the reader the way the first two books do.

All three are fun, silly, light reading. These books are the sort of summer pulp that’s worth using for entertainment. And leave me with a strange craving to find my copy of Bunnicula...

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Christopher Moore, A Dirty Job, 2006.

When I pick up a book by Christopher Moore, I expect to be entertained, and, every other book*, stretched a bit. A Dirty Job does a decent job on both fronts. Its plot revolves around a man who becomes an agent of Death, and who becomes responsible to collect souls and facilitate their transference to their new people (it seems we outgrow and change souls as we ourselves develop, much as we do shoes; I’m not clear if we can wear them out). This being Moore, there’s wackiness &mdash some poignant, some farcical — as beta male Charlie Asher makes sense of his new vocation. He comes to it just after the death of his wife Rachel and the birth of his daughter Sophie. It’s a story populated with weird characters (and with strong links to some of Moore’s other books and characters, most notably an interaction that also appears in You Suck) and ferocious villains working against Charlie. Interwoven are thoughts and reflections on death, ranging from the Lovecraft-esque to a deep fascination with the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

It’s a set-up with promise that ultimately doesn’t live up to the depth of Lamb or the humour of Bloodsucking Fiends. My problem with the novel is that its plotting at some times clearly telegraphs revelations that need to be less-guess-able, and at other times resorts to such exotic (and small and furry) deus ex machinas as to so stretch the suspension of disbelief I was willing to extend to a book about a man who becomes a “death merchant.” There are some brilliant set pieces — both times Charlie is tied up are marvellous, as is the introduction of the hellhounds — but it doesn’t quite maintain the level of humour in the lighter books. It’s worth reading, and offers a noble paean to hospice care workers, but if you’ve read Lamb, you’ll be left wishing for a bit more after reading it. Memorable line: "I like my tea like I like my men [...] Weak and geen."

* I enjoyed listening to Moore speak with Edward Champion on this episode of The Bat Segundo Show. Its inside-baseball talk about what it is to be a popular-fiction writer is riveting and I encourage you to listen to it. In it, Moore reveals that he has made an interesting deal with his publisher: instead of writing a book a year, he’ll write four books in four years — two in six months and two in eighteen months. The result is some novels he considers lighter (You Suck is one example), and some that have the benefit of more thought and research (Lamb, A Dirty Job). It’s interesting to know about this calculated way of writing, and it doesn’t detract one iota from the six-month books.

Monday, September 06, 2010

David Rakoff,
      Fraud 2001
      Don’t Get Too Comfortable 2005.

I reread Don’t Get Too Comfortable, which book I first blogged about in April of 2007, and then read Fraud. Such marvellous vacation reading. I won’t quibble with what I wrote previously about DGTC — it’s a marvellous collection. The distinction I tried to make, three years ago, about acerbity without meanness is well captured in Ira Glass’s blurb for Fraud:
It’s hard to come up with a pithy remark for the back of this book, knowing that the author could — in half the time and a third of words — come up with something funnier, more piercing, and more deeply revealing. Like a whore with a heart of gold, David Rakoff says all the nasty things we want to hear and then reveals, after we’ve paid our money, that actually it’s all about love.

Glass captures it: while bits and pieces that I read aloud variously made my beloved laugh, or frown and say “he’s kind of a jackass”, Rakoff is always striving to show us more about ourselves and our habits. If you read an entire piece, you never leave it feeling he's a jackass — rather, I came to admire an honesty I wish I was better at mustering. I think that his especial skills is revealing and then mocking the habitual ways of perceiving the world that we take for granted, unwilling or unable to see that there are other avenues to experience what is around us. Fraud is less polished, and has more clever ideas that seem clever (I want to visit the Christmas Freud, and tell Rakoff what I want for Christmas only to be told in return the ways my “wishes are unhealthy or wished for in error”) than is DGTC. Both are so readable, so illuminating, that I kept wanting to read just one more essay before bed.

Rakoff's new book, Half Empty, is due out on September 21st: I’m looking forward to it.