July 14, 2015

Book 35: The Sculptor

The Sculptor
Scott McCloud

I'm always on the lookout for good graphic novels to read, and I was sold on this one as soon as I heard that it was a Faust story; that Scott McCloud is not only acclaimed for his knowledge of comics but is also the author of Zot! (which I loved) seemed especially serendipitous. While my personal reaction to this book isn't quite as rapturous as others' seem to be, I enjoyed McCloud's take on the typical Faustian bargain and his explorations of the meanings of (in no particular order) love, art, and life. He deserves significant credit for his successful efforts to refresh the old trope; though the basic architecture of the typical life-for-art trade is sturdy, as expected, the story often veers in unexpected directions, to say nothing of a painful pair of final twists that had me in tears as I returned to the office from a lunch break. Though The Sculptor represents, in many ways, an artist's meditation on the meaning, purpose, and effects of artistic creation, McCloud never becomes aggressively sentimental or philosophical; rather, he slyly works his way into the reader's consciousness, posing questions without stating them outright and, in the process, offering a refreshingly non-pedantic take on an ancient theme.

McCloud also puts his knowledge of graphic storytelling to good use, as the artwork consistently reinforces the story's themes. The dull color palette, which relies heavily on grays and washed-out blue hues, effortlessly establishes the novel's mournful tone while subtly reinforcing the notion that nothing about its many themes is black and white. Occupying the dual roles of writer and illustrator, McCloud utilizes innovative layouts that help guide the reader without overburdening the book with unnecessary words. That one character, for example, often finds herself outside of thick panel boundaries effortlessly illustrates something profound about her personality and her impact on the other characters. Though some of the art can revert to the simplistic side of the spectrum, particularly in large-scale set pieces, The Sculptor contains the most powerful image I have encountered in a graphic novel, splayed clay perfectly capturing the dynamic moment where the artist, having made a pact with personified Death, first fully embraces his newfound ability to mold the physical world exactly to his wishes.

The temptation may be great to treat all Faust stories with the same moralistic touch, but McCloud uses the main architecture of his plot as a springboard, eschewing the usual questions for philosophical explorations of the meaning of art and creation. The book carries with it a certain inherent poignancy, enjoyable on many different levels of intellectual and emotional engagement; I even enjoyed the somewhat ambiguous ending, which lingered far beyond the final page and still haunts me. The book works on its literary and artistic levels, embodying McCloud's esteem for the graphic novel on every single page; here is an artist devoted to his craft, his passion evident in the book's story, art, and themes. The Sculptor provides a compelling vision of the power of graphic storytelling and should appeal to longtime fans and newcomers who are intrigued by the genre's many possibilities.

Grade: A

July 12, 2015

Book 34: The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train
Paula Hawkins

For what are probably decent reasons, given some of the recent prospects, I often find myself hesitant to read the it book of any particular moment. When The Girl on the Train kept relentlessly popping upon my radar, however, I finally checked out a summary; this convinced me to cast aside my doubts and read the book as a thriller, if not exactly as a blockbuster publishing sensation. I was surprised (but no less impressed) by Hawkins's mastery of the form, from her succession of compelling narrators- each less reliable than the last- to the consistent suspense that kept me eagerly reading from start to finish. Despite choosing a fairly predictable crime and criminal, she entangles her characters and readers alike in a dense thicket of red herrings and false leads, to the point where one feels that almost any character, however minor, could convincingly turn out to be the culprit (or, at the very least, complicit). The numerous false leads and partial clues would be maddening in less skilled hands, but Hawkins possesses an uncanny ability to become utterly absorbed in her characters' minds, to the point where the book is as much a series of complex character studies as it is a mystery or a thriller.

Though I am always a bit skeptical of books that rely on unreliable narrators (casting aside the obvious postmodern counterclaim that no narrative viewpoint is ever truly objective, either from the author or within the context of the story), I think it's reasonable to claim that The Girl on the Train provides a classic case study for the creation and effective deployment of these types of narrators. Main protagonist Rachel's instability and penchant for lying to herself (and readers alike) contribute to the novel's permeating air of suspicion and suspense, while driving and interfering with the plot. Her growing panic is often palpable to the point of being transferred to the reader, no matter how irrational, frustrating, and utterly realistic her alcohol-addled inferences and decisions become; its ever-present effect on her judgment, even in absentia, provides a compelling portrait of the destructive power of alcoholism, trading heavily on a brand of dramatic irony that heightens the suspense.

Hawkins provides clues only haphazardly, revealing background information at a deliberate pace that suits the characters and the story. As contrived as the narration may seem, in practice it is essential to the book's tone and, indeed, its success. Alternate narrators jump in at appropriate points, providing necessary alternate perspectives that enhance and confuse the reader's understanding, as necessary; most importantly, each stands out as distinct, playing against the others and forcing the reader to confront and challenge all previous assumptions. When combined with the chilling immediacy of the present tense, the effect is, at times, stunning.

While Hawkins may not surprise seasoned genre veterans with the book's resolution and, indeed, some of its more crucial plot points along the way, the premise is remarkably original, rife with opportunities that the author does not hesitate to take advantage of. That she manages to pose and explore deep philosophical questions about our relationships to others, and our propensity for erecting little fictions as our own personal scaffolding (who, after all, has not wondered, in passing, about the lives of those we encounter only at a glance?). Her authorial sensibilities and disposition are remarkably literary, and the novel is as well-written as its voice is well-conceived and well-executed, with a structure that not only fits but also enhances its story, a complete project and in sum, a remarkable achievement. I finished the book eager to read it again, feeling that foreknowledge would only enhance my experience of the book in future encounters. Surprisingly ambitious for a book of its kind and for its sudden ubiquity, The Girl on the Train proves itself to be a specimen of that all-too-rare species, a literary blockbuster that ultimately deserves all of the positive attention that it has garnered.

Grade: A

July 8, 2015

Book 33: The Best American Mystery Stories 2014

The Best American Mystery Stories 2014
Edited by Laura Lippman

Given its consistent high quality, it's almost easy to forget just how good the stories in the annual Best American volumes actually are, even when their relative quality dips for a year or two. Though the 2014 iteration of The Best American Mystery Stories has its fair share of disappointments, including a general sense of unevenness and a potentially poignant absence of actual mystery stories, it does offer a solid selection of excellent crime-centric fiction. The collection's most striking feature, perhaps, is its aforementioned lack of procedurals and, with them, tales that rely on the procurement and decoding of clues, red herrings, and tidy solutions. Even the closest example, Nancy Pauline Simpson's "Festered Wounds", is more of a period piece with a gotcha ending than a proper narrative of detection. Like the other stories in this volume, it is concerned more with philosophical explorations of the myriad causes and effects of crime and criminality than with the particulars of a given event.

This is not, however, to say that these stories do not traffic in suspense, twists, or other traditional genre staples. Joseph Heller's "Almost Like Christmas" and Patricia Engel's "Aida" effectively establish and exquisitely exploit dramatic tension with nearly every word; similarly, Jim Allyn's "Princess Anne" provides a twist ending that is surprising and inevitable in equal measure. Charlaine Harris's "Small Kingdoms", a fun thriller with a wicked sense of ironic, dry humor, may be the collection's most pleasant surprise, coming as it does from an author associated heavily with quite another topic indeed. Most of the contributors do pay tribute, however subtle or unspoken, to the tropes and tricks of more traditional mysteries; these allusions are rendered in different shades of subtlety to varying degrees of success. Likewise, the lofty literary ambitions that are on full display in nearly every story are about as hit-and-miss as they are in less genre-inclined environments. While some authors are able to harness the raw power and indescribable beauty of a perfectly selected turn of phrase, others spend too much time mired in a search for meaning and theme and thus pay too little attention to the intricate details of characterization and plot that ultimately determine the success or failure of any given story- mystery or not. I often found myself craving more action- a criticism that would absolutely apply if I were merely expecting good stories without any preconceived expectations of content.

As refreshing as it is to see an anthology that rewards authors for exploring the literary possibilities of genre fiction, it may be a bit of a stretch to present this collection as a group of excellent mystery stories; rather, it collects excellent stories that deal, however tangentially, with crime. The distinction may seem trivial, but as this series comes ever closer to its parent it may prove to be a distinction well worth considering. Nonetheless, it is encouraging to note that, though they may not be the types of tales expected of such a volume, many of these stories could easily go toe-to-toe with other fiction, in any genre, for sheer quality; despite my qualms about the title's (in)accuracy, the fact that the distinction between the best short fiction and the best short mystery fiction grows increasingly ambiguous every year is, to my mind, a positive development that I hope to see resonate across other oft-maligned literary niches. Insofar as it does contain a selection of stories that revolve around crime and criminality, The Best American Mystery Stories 2014 is a satisfying book, though it may not quite deliver on the promise of its title in conventional ways.

Grade: B+