September 2007

The Big Chart | January | February | March | April | May | June | July | August

Books Acquired

The Ruins, by Scott Smith
Why I Write, by George Orwell
The Mist, by Stephen King

Books Read

Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean, by Douglas Wolk
Invincible, Volume Eight: My Favorite Martian, by Robert Kirkman, Cory Walker, and Bill Crabtree
Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel
The Ruins, by Scott Smith
Chuck Klosterman IV, by Chuck Klosterman


Holy shit, did The Ruins scare the hell out of me.

I have to be up front about this: books don’t, in general, scare me. Being a lifelong devotee of Stephen King has hardened me a little, I think. The Shining still freaks me out, Pet Sematary gives me chills, and ’Salem’s Lot can get to me if I read it at the right time ... but that’s about it for King. I go to him more for the characters and the situations they find themselves in, the writing, the humor, the humanity. The horror is secondary. The last book that really got to me was The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum, which had me up until four in the morning, enrapt by the levels of human depravity, and the fact that someone had had the type of mind to not only conjure such story – and sustain it – but also to write it all down. I had nightmares about The Girl Next Door for weeks after. The only other book in recent memory to have that kind of effect on me is a book called A Simple Plan. By Scott Smith.

So I approached The Ruins with some hesitation. Not that I don’t like being scared – after all, that was the reason why I came to Stephen King in the first place – but I wasn’t sure I wanted to be that kind of scared. That kind of crawling, creeping unease that permeates everything, including sleep, until all you can think about is the book, and the people in it, and their helpless, doomed situation, and why you willingly went into this book knowing this would happen, and plunged ahead anyway, and keep plunging, way past any chance for hope or for salvation, way past sanity, until the screaming, horrifying end.

Paradoxically, I was also afraid that that wouldn’t happen. Stephen King had been hyping The Ruins for ages ... but King and I don’t always agree on what makes a good book. (After all, he loved Hannibal, which to me must be the worst American novel since The Old Man and the Sea bizarrely won a Pulitzer.) There was something in all the overwhelmingly positive reviews – not just King’s – that seemed to be almost overhyping it, as if apologizing for the fact that most everyone overlooked A Simple Plan when it came out. It was delightful (if entirely disturbing) to discover that the reviews weren’t overdoing it – The Ruins is as brilliant and captivating as everyone has said, and even though it smacks of the supernatural, it’s every bit a study in human nature that A Simple Plan was.

You’ll notice I’m avoiding the plot. That’s on purpose. Here’s all you need to know: six friends on vacation decide to make an excursion into the Mayan jungle ... and something happens. That’s all you’re going to get out of me, and that’s all you should know going into it. There are blurbs and praise at the front of the paperback and a full-on Cliff’s Notes synopsis on Wikipedia. Please avoid all of these. The treasures and surprises in The Ruins are vast and horrifying, and are best discovered without any spoilers or foreknowledge. Read it cold and it will make you colder, guaranteed. The Ruins is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

You know what isn’t? Reading Comics, by Douglas Wolk. Well, okay, that’s not entirely fair. It hypes itself as “the first serious, readable, provocative, canon-smashing book of comics theory and criticism by the leading critic in the field,” which is a little absurd and which I bought into fully. For one, Scott McCloud’s series of books – Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics – are all just as serious and readable as Wolk’s book (the only real difference being is that they’re presented in comics format instead of prose format), and for someone who professes to be the “leading critic in the field,” well, I’ve never heard of him.

Maybe that doesn’t matter much, though. I’ve never been what you’d call a comic-book expert. I went through a short obsession with horror comics in the early 90’s – all the EC reprints I could stand, plus the entire run of Fright Night comics; there’s a source of pride right there – and only got back into the wide world of comics after seeing the movie Spider-Man in 2002. Since then, I’ve been a comnivore, gobbling up superhero comics and so-called “art” comics in equal measure. And what excited me most about starting Reading Comics was that Douglas Wolk seemed to be the same type of reader, as thrilled about comics as I am and wanting to share his love and knowledge with the same type of exuberance.

What happened instead is the same thing that always seems to happen when people start talking “seriously” about comics: he got over-intellectual about everything. For every interesting point Wolk raises (especially about considering comics a completely separate art form from both visual art and prose), he complicates by doing stuff like evoking Immanuel Kant (twice!). He seems to want us to take his love of Tomb of Dracula seriously, but he’s way too defensive about it. He builds up icons like Will Eisner, seemingly just to tear them down. It’s frustrating at times, because Wolk is a good writer with good ideas. Those ideas just don’t seem as interesting under layers of unnecessary exposition and theory.

It’s not all like that, though. He actually has some completely even-handed stuff to say about Daredevil, which I didn’t expect, and there’s a long essay about Speigelman’s Maus which is both thought-provoking and entertaining. I just wish the rest of the book had been so accessible.

One of the best things to come out of Reading Comics was a hearty plug for Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, which may well be one of the best graphic novels I’ve ever read. (And here’s where Wolk’s intellectualism is sticking with me, because while Fun Home is graphic, it’s not a novel; it calls itself a “Family Tragicomic,” which is the closest one can probably come to categorizing something like this.) Fun Home is a true story, told episodically, mainly about Bechdel’s relationship with her father, but also about Bechdel’s own, tentative realization that she likes girls.

You know, I’ve tried to read gay memoirs before, and I’ve never been able to get through them. This one was different, and I’m not entirely sure why. Whether it’s the graphic format, or that it’s told by a woman, or simply that the main story itself is so interesting Ö I don’t know. Part of it has to do with the fact that it’s so steeped in the literary world, and how Bechdel and her father (and her father and her mother) tended to communicate through other people’s fiction Ö underscoring the fact that much of her father’s life was, in part, fictional, as well.

The fact that Fun Home, as a title, is a shortening of Funeral Home is telling: the story isn’t funny or sad, it’s funny and sad, with a healthy dose of irony, all at the same time. Once in awhile, I read a book that makes me glad I learned how to read, if only for that experience. Fun Home makes me glad that I got back into comics in 2002, and that I didn’t just stick with horror and superheroes, and that the library carries a small but terrific selection of graphic prose.

And to round the month out: Chuck Klosterman IV, the latest collection of essays and et cetera by the eponymous Chuck Klosterman. I literally have no idea how to review this book. Was it funny? God, yes. Was it thought-provoking? Most definitely. Was it a fast, fun, accessible read with a particular slant on pop culture and the creatures and the trends that embody it? Yes, yes, yes. Hell, was the short fictional piece at the end as good, if not better, than the essays that preceded it? Yes to that, too.

I could make a lot of comparisons with qualifications: Bill Bryson without the British bent, Dave Eggers without the pretension, Nick Hornby with a wider scope. In the end, all of these are absolutely right and completely wrong. When I read Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs a few years ago, I suspected Klosterman was unique, but I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about that. After speeding through IV, I know two things: that Chuck Klosterman is unique, and that I couldn’t be happier about it.

Man, was September a terrific month for reading. I can only hope October is half as awesome.

Kev