Thursday, November 29, 2007

I'm going to count another graphic novel as book number 26, mainly because its by Alan Moore and its a dense little piece of work. So yes, number 26 is League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier.

As I said, its a dense thing, full of large blocks of text interspersed throughout the main story. To me, this book felt like Planetary meets Fables filtered through the weirdness of Alan Moore's brain. Of course, he has already introduced us to his world of the League in two previous tomes, but this one attempts to give us more of the world's 'history' I guess, which is why it seems to me to be rather like Planetary. Especially since it seems like its the world's 'hidden' history.

Which I admit, is where I got a little lost.

We pick up the story in 1953, following a still young Wilhelmina Murray and a rejuvenated Allan Quartermaine, setting up a secret agent named Jimmy Bond. Mina gets Bond to take her to an abandoned intelligence base, where she beats him up (and deservedly so) and is able to find the Black Dossier, a dossier on the various members over the years of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and the hidden workings of the world. Mina and Allan it seems broke away from the government intelligence service, for reasons we're never really fully given.

But I was never really able to figure out if the workings were hidden? Is the actual nature of the world something that's hidden from the average folk or is the fact that Faeries were common until 1617 and that vampires do exist, etc. etc. common knowledge? I never really felt it was decided one way or another.

Anyway, the text pieces througthout the book are supposed to be sections of the Black Dossier itself. They are very well done pastiches for the most part, where Moore apes the writings of Shakespeare (not perfectly of course, but not too badly either), HP Lovecraft, Virginia Woolf, John Cleland and Jack Kerouac amongst others. Some of the characters who are also members of the League through the years are pretty obscure, and it really is only by the dint of my English Lit degree that I know who Orlando and Fanny Hill are. Not to make myself sound like a snob or anything, but that sort of thing is going to be right over a lot of reader's heads. Heck, there were some characters I had no idea who they were either. Some of the pastiches make for difficult reading, especially the one written like a 50s beat poem. If you don't know the parlance of the time, its increadibly hard to understand and even I gave up after a bit.

There's also a LOT of sex in this book. Which doesn't bother me, but makes me think Alan Moore's becoming a dirty old man. Which is also fine I guess. The ending though, felt to me kinda Fables-esque, but in reverse. While Willingham's collection of public-domain literary characters have been exiled from their home dimensions and now live amongst us on Earth (unbeknownst to us), Moore's collection of public domain literary characters are leaving their home dimension of Earth and going to live in another dimension, unbeknonst to us.

I'm not entirely sure what exactly I got out of this book. There didn't seem to be much of an actual plot like there were in the previous volumes. There was some action inbetween readings of the dossier, but I just was never sure what anyone was really trying to achieve in this. Yes, Mina and Allan wanted the Dossier because they were in it and they were afriad that the government had figured out that all these beings were leaving the world for this alternate dimension? But I never really understood why the govenment had this dossier in the first place, nor, why once it was stolen, they needed it back again so badly since the thing wasn't in a very secure location in the first place.

Basically, to me, the Black Dossier just felt like Alan Moore playing in his sandbox, but not being entirely sure what he was building.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Number 25 is Making History by Stephen Fry. This is one of G's books that I noticed sitting on the shelf, and I noticed it mainly because G and I were watching Stephen Fry's 'game show', QI, which was a lot of fun, interesting, but also kind of silly. I had no idea who Stephen Fry was previous to watching QI, although I did recognize his name, and afterwards discovered that it was because he was the narrator of the children's show, Pokoyo, which is a terribly sweet little show. I also found out Fry is a good friend of Hugh Laurie's, who is someone I know from watching a couple of season's of House.

So anyway... Making History. I'm not entirely sure why I picked it up, other than because I did enjoy the sense of humour Fry displayed on QI, as you see, Making HIstory is about timetravel, and timetravel is generally a genre I stay far away from. I'm not fond of timetravel tales, in either books, comics, movies or role playing games. Strange thing though, is while I don't really like timetravel stories, I'm quite fond of alternate timeline stories. I LOVE the Elseworlds comics from DC, where they take the known timeline and tweak it just so, and tell a story spun out from the differences in the new timeline. I find that stuff fascinating.

So, while I don't like time travel, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the timetravel stuff was relatively low key and not headache inducing, the story was really more about the alternate timeline that is created.

Michael Young, a young PHD candidate at Cambridge University, England, answers for us, the age old question (well, age old since the late 1930s), what would happen if HItler was never born? Young, whose PHD thesis is all about Hitler's early childhood, runs into a scientist, Leo Zimmerman, whose father was an SS officer at Auschwitz. Consumed by guilt over his father's actions in the second World War, Zimmerman (whose name is actually Axel Braun), invents a machine that lets him 'look' into the past. So he and Michael hatch a plot to introduce a pill into the drinking water of Hitler's hometown that will render his father sterile. The plan works perfectly, but unfortunately, the world doesn't become what Michael (and Leo) invisioned.

"Nature abhors a vaccuum" is the old rule, and in the case of Germany after WWI, this would seem to be true. Another man, one Rudolf Golder, steps into the spot Hitler historically filled and still manages to perpetrate the Holocaust on the Jews of Europe, as well as starting WWII. How is this worse than HItler, well, Golder does what Hitler couldn't manage; he wins WWII. All of Europe, Russia and Great Britian fall before the German war machine. Jews are completely eradicated from Europe, the only Jewish population remaining in the world is that which escaped to the USA and Canada during the War. Germany becomes the other world Super Power and eventually enters the Cold War with the US.

The world Michael finds himself in, where he's an American now, his parents having fled England in the 60s, is not necessarily a better one; fewer Jews, a conquored Europe, a USA where homophobia and racism are tolerated and accepted. There was no black rights movement in the 60s, and the US seems to be stuck in the rather puritanical 50s, never to move to equal rights for African Americans, women or gays. Being a homosexual is tantamount to being an enemy of the state.

So of course, Michael, when he realizes what he has done, immediately sets out to make the world 'right' again, by ensuring that Hitler is born.

Its a very... Marxist idea that if something is meant to be, you can remove one certainty, but another will always take its place. You remove Hitler from history, but there is someone to take his place. But, its also a rather interesting book that way, as most of the 'what would the world be like if there was no Hitler' always seems to take for granted that the world would be a better place, which , as this book demonstrates, may not neccessarily be the case.

Michael Young is a likeable character, if a little flighty, but he means well. He is very endearing this way, and his internal monologues are very funny. The ending of the book, as Michael embarks on his plan to set the world right again, is very well done, with tension actually mounting nicely. Its not that you doubt he'll change things again, but you wonder if he'll be able to change them to what had been, or has he irrevociably broken the timestream?

I think though, that what drew me in, happened a few pages into the book, when Fry basically made fun of my university degree:

You could only write successfully about books and poems and plays if you didn't care, really care about them. Hysterical school boy wank, for sure, an attitude compunded of nothing but egotism, vanity and cowardice. But how deeply felt. I went through all my schooldays convinced of this, that literary studies were no more than a series of autopsies performed by heartless technicians. Worse than autopsies: biopsies. Vivisection.

I had to laugh out loud at this paragraph, because while I could see his point, I also know that I (and most English majors I know), were drawn to literary studies precicesly because we loved literature. We wanted to wrap ourselves in it, immerse ourselves in it, find out how it worked, what made it tick. We wanted to examine it becuase we had a deep love for it. I know that the best papers I wrote in school were on books or poems or plays that I was most passionately interested in. If I attempted to write a paper on a work I didn't really care about, well, it generally showed. You couldn't be dispassionate about literature while studying it so intimately.

So screw you Stephen Fry :)

Monday, November 05, 2007

Numero 23 and 24 have now been completed. Yeah, I'm so not reading 50 books this year... ah well.

Numero 23 is a collection of Cthulhu Tales by the master himself, H.P. Lovecraft. Before I read this collection, lent to me by my friend Troy, who is a HUGE Cthulhu fan, my entire exposure to the Cthulhu mythos was a couple of mentions of things in Stephen King short stories, a Batman Elseworld's mini-series, and quite a few rousing games of Arkham Horror. Heck, it wasn't until we first played Arkham Horror a couple of years ago that I found out that this is the inspiration for the Arkham Asylum that is a permanent fixture in Batman comics.

So, being the English major that I am, when faced with something that I like that has 'source material', I try to read the source material. Plus, I generally like short stories.

Upon reading these, I can see why they stuck with people. They're not striving for out and out 'horror', nor are they going for the gross out, which, especially in this day and age I find terribly refreshing. No, the overwhelming sense and tone I got from Lovecraft was a serious sense of dread. Lovecraft was really big on the whole idea that he cannot possible explain just how terrifing or horrible something is; he'd rather leave it to your imagination, and I think that's great. What I can conjure up in my little ol' brain is going to be more frightening to me than pretty much anything he (or anyone else) can come up with because I am going to frame it in the context of something that definitely scares me. If I'm not told exactly what it is, there's no sense of disappointment, I can never be let down by the reveal.

Of course, Lovecraft does have a distinctive style, and this does become repetative upon a lot of reading; he really does like the twist in the last line sort of reveal, and that's fine, but after awhile, you start to see the twist coming. Kind of like watching to many M Knight Shayalaman movies in a row I imagine.

But his characters are a wonderful combination of the absurd and the absolutely normal, juxtaposed beside one another as two worlds that shouldn't meet invariably do. He does a very, very good job at imposing his monsterous creations on a very normal countryside and making everything seem bizarre and uncomfortable.

My favourites? "The Rats in the Walls", "The Colour Out of Space", "The Dunwitch Horror" and the "Music of Erich Zann".

Number 24 was a... difficult book. Not only for the subject matter, but also for the fact that it would often make me so angry that I would have to put it down for a while. Not angry at the book mind you, but angry at the world it talks about. Number 24 is Naomi Klein's the Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. This book follows the adherents to Milton Friedman's so called Chicago School style of economics, the utlimate in free-market capitalism, through the 30 years of its initial birth at the University of Chicago. She tells us how it was implemented in violence and chaos in countries such as Chile, Argentina, Indonesia, Russia, Iraq, Sri Lanka and in the USA. She tells of harmful economic policies shoved through on nations where the populace is currently 'in shock', whether through a change in government, war, or a natural disaster, the market is thrown open to foreign investors who come in and reap billions of dollars, while the bulk of the population finds itself worse off economically than they were before. Its a frightening, maddening look at globalization and big business and all the dirty things the CIA have done. It makes you think the IMF and the World Bank are nothing more than robber barons, set up to supposedly help countries facing a financial crisis, but setting such hard rules for the countries that they must follow Chicago-style rules to qualify for aid, and once again, no one is seemingly helped except huge multinational corporations. Honestly, reading this book made me want to move away to some remote place in Canada where I wouldn't have to rely on government (much) or deal with any big business. But that's not realistic and I accept that. Klein has scrupulously backed up her argument (there are pages and pages of notes stating exactly what her sources are) and she's going to need them, as her book has already come under fire from such right-wing publications here in Canada as the National Post, and I imagine she's also unpopular in other places too. But there seems to just be too many similarities in what all these countries have faced who have been forced to go to a free-market economy to completely discount her theory. A good disaster is good for business, that's all there is to it.