Sunday, June 30, 2013

#CBR5 Review #29: Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk has some pretty interesting and insightful ideas about humans and the world we live in, but they are also pretty grotesque. “Maybe he should lighten up a little?” I think to myself. But then again, there is a demented humor to some of the biting things he writes and shows, which makes me wonder if the perversions experienced in this book aren’t strictly limited to these specific and wildly outlandish situations. Because I mean… they aren’t the crazy situations just heighten them or make them seem all the more dramatic.

Invisible Monsters is a story told by a young woman who is identified by various names throughout the novel. In the opening scene, we see a house burning down on the wedding day of a woman named Evie Cottrell, who has apparently just shot a friend of the narrator named Brandy Alexander. Brandy asks the narrator to tell her her story as she lies dying in the narrator’s arms, and from there the tale of the narrator (as well as Brandy) unfolds in a non-linear fashion, essentially jumping from memory to memory to get back to where the first pages start.

The majority of the novel focuses on the narrator’s life after she becomes disfigured when a gunshot rips the jaw off her face. The narrator has previously been a model, and now has to face life being what she refers to as an “invisible monster” (oh my goodness, she said the thing!), as few people look at her or pay her attention now that she is no longer beautiful. And that is basically what this novel is about when it boils down to it: the attentions we either get or don’t get, for one reason or another, and what we are willing to do to either garner attention or remain invisible.

As she recovers in the hospital, the narrator meets Brandy Alexander, a transgendered woman, who essentially takes the narrator in and gives her new identities and names as they travel around the country with another man with a fleeting identity. As more and more memories are visited, more and more connections between the characters and events are revealed, and shock-value is definitely something that this book is not short on, which makes the ride increasingly interesting and enticing. Though at some times, it almost feels as though all the inner-workings and connections being made are becoming a little too dramatic, or as though the planning was almost overdone to not feel all that organic anymore. In general, however, the jumps in time and realizations made make for both fun and intrigue (I sound like a cheesy back-cover quoted review now, don’t I?).

The complicated mess that is the story (as well as the manner in which it is told) is definitely the strongest selling-point to this novel: there are so many ideas and little things floating around, making it so that anyone can grab onto something from this book, despite the grotesque nature of it. Invisible Monsters really is a good book, but what keeps me from calling it “great” are just a couple of little sticking points. For instance, after such a huge clutter of relationships and actions throughout the whole thing, the ending and all the “acting” that was involved the whole time seemed to be a little bit of a cop-out to me. I’m not sure why, but the end leaves some things open with a sort of feeling that there is hopeful future or eventual conclusion in store, yet this didn’t exactly feel in keeping with the tone of rest of the book to me. In addition, I found all of the main characters of the novel to be absolutely deplorable people. They are given back-stories and circumstances which define who they are and why they do what they do, and yet I don’t find that this is enough to make the people presented feel all that real; they are chaotic and self-destructive caricatures of people, and I just wanted to shake them and tell them to stop and look at themselves more than once (“Look at your life. Look at your choices. What what what are you doing?”). It’s not that I don’t like things with unlikable protagonists, but unlike something like say, “Six Feet Under” where the off-putting characters are understandable and very telling of actual types of people in the world, these characters were a bit too much for me. Some people do like that kind of thing, however, I just didn’t find it to resonate with me all that much.

But to conclude, I did enjoy reading Invisible Monsters quite a bit, and think most people should consider giving it a go at some point or another. I just don’t know if it’s something I will pick up again any time soon.

[Be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read group blog]

Monday, June 24, 2013

#CBR5 Review #28: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

I started out reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men while picturing it as an old-timey travelling farmer story starring Walton Goggins and Hodor (hooray!). Oh, how amusing this was to me at first. And it really was the easiest way to picture the characters (with some slight changes, of course) in my head as it all went along. Until the course of the story started to fill me with worry and doubt, which ended up in just plain old heartbreak. I should have seen it coming; I did see it coming, but just like how you may watch a film even though you know you’re going to end up crying in it, I walked right into this one as well. That’s not to say that it made me intensely emotional or anything, but it kind of weighed a little heavy on my heart at the end. This could definitely be seen as a testament to the author’s abilities as a writer, and it really was a beautiful and brief story, but at the same time, I’m not sure if it was really for me at the end of all things…

It is true, however, that when I read these “classic” novels I can understand why they are so often read and praised, though I myself may not enjoy them as much as I feel I should, simply based on the fact that they are so highly regarded. Of Mice and Men has always been one of those books whose title I’ve heard spouted about and talked about as being typical reading in high school, and yet I’ve never had anyone I know read it (for school or otherwise), and I realized that I never had even the slightest idea what the whole thing was about. What is it about? In it’s simplest sense, I found it to be about the many dreams that humans may have, and how they may act in regards to these dreams. It also seemed to deal a lot with ideas regarding companionship and loneliness, all while following the path of men without homes, as they travel from farm to farm, looking for work.

The two men the story focuses on are named Lennie and George, essentially living from ranch job to ranch job as they travel the country together in the 1920s. People that engaged in this kind of farm-work without any real land or home of their own were known as “bindlestiffs,” and never really made any commitment to stay anywhere too long. George is characterized as a small and intelligent man, despite his lack of education. Lennie, on the other hand, is extremely large, and almost childlike in his demeanor, as he is evidently suffering from some kind of mental disability. Normally bindlestiffs don’t travel together, but because of their links from childhood and a desperate want of companionship in their lonely lives, George essentially acts as caregiver for Lennie and takes him along with him; the men have difficulty staying in places too long, however, as Lennie always gets into some kind of trouble because of his size and mental confusions, causing them to have to run to whatever they can find next; people just see Lennie as “not bright” and often think that he is much more dangerous than he is because of his size, even though he is not a cruel man in the slightest.

Most of the short tale that is told of George and Lennie takes place on a farm where they find work, but soon learn there are all kinds of malicious and lonely people about causing trouble for one another. The men choose to stay, however, as they want to earn enough money to buy a piece of land of their own. At first, it seems like George is simply telling Lennie how they are going to find somewhere one day to make him happy, but as they work and meet an old man named Candy who may help them achieve their dream if they take Candy with them, it appears that George feels they may be within reach of their dream after all. But as it often is, things never work out as simply as they ought to, and Lennie finds himself in trouble yet again, causing George to have to make an ultimate decision regarding their lives and their relationship at the end of the book. But more than anything, dreams are shattered, and people are left wondering if they are even worth having to begin with.

In general, the story is short but striking, and contains characters with real emotions and dimensions. But because of this, and the likeability of both George and Lennie, it makes the whole thing very hard, as you start to feel for them and root for their dream to live off the land together. As soon as they made it to the farm, however, I knew that something would go wrong and that something painful was on it’s way, and that made me worried and nervous while reading: there’s something in the air that just tells you that things are not going to be fine when all is said and done. It made me anxious, to say the least. In addition, a problem I often have when reading older or more “classic” books is that there is so much exposition or description that it slows the whole thing down; that or they are just too boring and sprawling that I can’t make it through. Steinbeck, however, manages to have enough detail to make the world in his book seem vivid and real, but mainly focuses on the relationships and dialogue which moves the action along and makes the biggest impact within the limited length of the book.

But despite the fact that by all measures of quality, Of Mice and Men is a very good book, I still don’t know if I would recommend it to everyone, as it wasn’t really my cup of tea. I mean, I enjoyed it, but not as much as I would have liked. But I’ll chalk that up to personal taste, I think.

[Be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read group blog]

Saturday, June 15, 2013

#CBR5 Review #27: Dear Girls Above Me by Charlie McDowell

Come for the girls, but stay for the Charlie.

I don’t know how I stumbled upon it, but a while back I started following Charlie McDowell’s twitter account (@CharlieMcDowell) which is basically just a series of little “letters” he writes to the two girls who live above him, in response to some of the inconceivably vapid comments they make. After enough time and following, it appears he decided to write a book inspired by his life under these girls, and the result is absolutely hilarious. No seriously, I actually laughed out loud at a number of parts, and kept getting asked (by my mother, yes) what exactly was so funny. What really sold me on this book was not the girls who sparked the story and the things that they say, but McDowell’s writing. I wouldn’t say that his humor is for everyone, but I personally find him to be clever and an absolute riot: a seamless blend of self-depreciation, wit, and absurdity.

In terms of a story, Dear Girls Above Me begins with Charlie recounting his recent breakup from a long-term relationship, and how he felt slightly lost after this: enter the girls above him, whose everyday lives and conversations can be heard incredibly clearly in Charlie’s apartment, yet they appear to hear little, if anything, from him. At first, Charlie finds the girls to be an irritating nuisance, but soon he starts to find enjoyment in their conversations, and it almost seems as though he begins to care about them a bit, despite the fact that he pokes fun at their expense all the time. The girls are characterized as twenty-something party-girls, unmotivated and living off their parents’ money. While we may have an immediate, stereotypical valley-girl image in our heads of them, Charlie is sure to give them their distinct personalities and appearances, and basically says that they could be just any girl on the street, and you would likely never know that they say these things and act this way unless you got a real, personal look into their lives (like McDowell now has, living under them). He also makes sure to acknowledge his own faults and privileges in life which may parallel theirs: Charlie’s parents are apparently two very famous actors, who he doesn’t outright name, but it’s not hard to figure out who they are, (and his stories of them are actually all the more hilarious if you have these well-known images in your head. At least I thought so, anyway); In any case, I think it was very valuable for McDowell to add a critical look of himself to the novel, lest the whole “Girls Above Me” thing turn into more of a mock-fest, and less of a learning experience. Because it is through the girls and some of their little outlooks on life that Charlie begins to learn about himself, women, and some new rules of dating that he may not have been up to speed on during his past, long relationship. Other than this, there isn’t an immense amount of action in the novel, but that doesn’t really take away from it at all, as it’s less about what happens, and more about what is said and thought about.

While the tale of Charlie’s post-breakup, under-girl life is apparently “inspired” by true events, some things definitely come across as outlandish or embellished. While certain setups in general seems to be only happening for the sake of story progression, the exaggerations I really didn’t mind, and actually felt added to the humor of the whole thing. In fact, in the acknowledgements after the novel, McDowell makes a point of stating that there were certain exaggerations, and how he learnt how to tell stories from his father who added embellishments along the way to make a good story (basically the plot of Big Fish). And it does make for a good time and a good read. Oh, I’m not saying that there are any great ideas swimming around in here, though the nature of humans and personalities is examined a little bit, which adds a slight weight to the whole thing, despite the ending which seemed to sneak up on me far too quickly, as I just wanted there to be a little bit more to it.

In general, however, Dear Girls Above Me is a fun and easy book to read. While some may find more enjoyment in the schadenfreude of hearing the idiocy of the girls, my favourite aspect of the novel was McDowell’s responses to them. As I said before, it is his quick and amusing writing that made me enjoy the book the most, and if you are looking to laugh, I’d definitely suggest picking it up some time (as well as following the original Twitter account, as well as Charlie’s personal one which is just as hilarious, if not more so, @McDowellCharlie).

[Be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read group blog]

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

#CBR5 Review #26: The Creep by John Arcudi and Jonathan Case

Thus, with this 26th read, I finish my goal of a half-cannonball! And with half the year still to go; why didn’t I think I would make it, again? I guess I have been reading a lot of graphic novels and comic books, which don’t usually take a lot of time, and The Creep was no exception, as I breezed through the entire thing in one sitting. Partially because it is a relatively short graphic novel, and partially because I just really had to find out what happened. Suspense and curiosity is definitely the name of the game with this one, but it’s also a lot darker in what it entails than I thought it would.

What we have with The Creep is what appears to be a seemingly typical detective story, after two young boys kill each other just months after one another. The mother of one of the boys calls an old friend, Oxel, to private investigate, though she is unaware that Oxel has been suffering from a physical ailment known as acromegaly, which causes a general enlargement of many physical features, among other things. Because of this, the story not only touches the issue of young suicide, but also on visual deformities and the treatment of others with them.

Once Oxel really gets into the mystery, however, he finds that things may not be what they seem (which kind of goes without saying, I suppose). And when all is said and done, the true crack to the case comes with another human tragedy. In the end, this gritty detective story is less about devious humans skirting the law, and more about human suffering and guilt. Really, it’s a story that begs the question as to whether or not it’s better to not know things and remain oblivious, as the truth may obscure fond memories or create new pain that is worse than the numbness of being kept in the dark.

Overall, the plot of The Creep just clips along at a rapid pace, and while this makes it easy to read, the conclusion and reveal at the end almost seems rushed and didn’t really leave time for it all to set in. The story itself is surprising and very different, but I almost wish there was more of it, despite the fact that it is a bit hard to take at times. If nothing else, however, Jonathan Case’s artwork throughout is stunning, and only adds to the moods and thematic elements.

Would I recommend it? I’m not really sure, to be honest. While I enjoyed it, there was something that kept me from absolutely loving it, and if you want something light and not too serious, I would stay away from this one. But if you like detective stories and works regarding the all complexities of humanity, both good and bad, then by all means, I’d take a gander at The Creep.

[Be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read group blog]

Monday, June 3, 2013

#CBR5 Reviews #24-25: Hellboy, Volumes 1 and 2 by Mike Mignola

Seeing as I read Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil (the first two volumes of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy series) back to back, I might as well review them as one, especially since they basically just compound on top of one another in following the same paranormal threat and mystery surrounding the beast that is Hellboy.

In all honesty, before starting this series, the only thing I knew about Hellboy was that there was a movie made about him a few years back with Ron Perlman, and master-of-makeup-and-costume-acting Dough Jones as some fishy thing? And Hellboy is super strong and almost like a rock or something? But you go to the odd convention here and there and hear Mike Mignola’s name being spouted around by people, and suddenly stumble upon this book and think, “Hey, why not?” And what a good random read this has turned out to be. Maybe the art is not as detailed as some might like (personally, I like things a little more minimal, and the drawings of Hellboy himself are totally entrancing to me), but the story is multifaceted in its complications and historical implications. In fact, you just scratch the surface with Seed of Destruction, which becomes apparent once you hit Wake the Devil, and the depth of the whole business of who Hellboy is and what he was made for becomes all the more elusive, despite the teases put out there for the reader to grab on to.

What the first two Hellboy’s are basically about are how Hellboy came into being. After an old, thought to be dead historical figure performs a summoning ritual for the Nazi’s in WWII in order to change the course of the war and future of the world, a young, red creature is found on the surface of the earth; he becomes known as “Hellboy,” as it is believed he was raised from the pits of Hell. Hellboy does not, however, end up immediately in the hands of those who summoned him, but is taken in by the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense or BPRD (Saving people, hunting things, maybe not as much a “family” business as you thought, huh Winchesters?). Fifty years later, he is still working for them, hunting down ghosts and other paranormal activity across the globe, with others who have special abilities and mutations that were found by the BPRD, such as a woman named Elizabeth Sherman who has pyrokinetic powers, and an amphibian-like creature known as Abe Sapien.

In both Seed of Destruction and Wake the Devil, those powers which had long before summoned Hellboy are constantly at play, trying to draw him into a trap to unleash his full potential upon the world: in essence, supernatural activity is occurring for Hellboy and his team to investigate, so that Hellboy can be obtained to perform what he was initially summoned to do. But what is this exactly? Well, it’s still unclear at this point, though all the stepping-stones are starting to fall into place as the series goes on (at this point, at least, though it is still early). All I know is that there are multiple Gods and belief systems all competing at this point for ultimate power, though I’m still not sure what the ultimate ends of each really are.

A great thing about this series thus far is the way the story intertwines with already-established history and names. I mean, why can’t Rasputin have something to do with all this stuff going on? The attention to detail and layers within the plot are definitely two of the strongest aspects of these works, as many, more strictly “superhero” type comic books can often become simplistic in their good vs. evil mantras (not all of them, of course). Though at times, I did get a little confused with all the names and history being thrown around, so it took a while to get my head around it at some points while reading: I just had to stop for a minute every now and again to straighten it all out, though that might also have been to do with the distracting settings in which I was reading… who is really to say?

What is also interesting about Hellboy as a character is that he is clearly different from everyone, but at this point in his life, he understands this, and just accepts it. Honestly, he is probably the most chill, gigantic mutant-y thing I’ve ever experienced in any work of fiction before, and it makes him very endearing as far as characters go. In addition, being that he is the main character of the series, it kind of goes without saying that he is likely to remain the “good guy” despite the fact that there is a prophecy or other (demonic?) purpose laid out for him. He resists this within the first two volumes, as you would expect from the protagonist, and yet, while I was reading, there was this little feeling I had that maybe one day he will turn his back on this humanity he has learned from the past fifty years. Would it be bad if he became an anti-hero or villainous character? I honestly don’t think it would. I think Hellboy would continue to work as a character and story regardless of what “side” he is on, which in my mind, is the markings of a very strong character. I mean, maybe others feel differently, and maybe he will inevitably go to the “dark side” for a tiny stint of time before returning back to his usual self, but either way, this seeming potential to be both a “good” and “evil” character leaves a bit of suspense and wonder as to what path Hellboy will eventually take, and that kind of unpredictability is something I like when reading books that could simply fall into the usual heroic plotlines. Though at the same time, being that Hellboy is virtually indestructible (or so it seems), there is never really any worry or doubt that he won’t survive the tale. Then again, this is basically inherent in most series (with the exception of things like Game of Thrones, of course), so it’s not like I can really fault this all that much.

All in all, however, I really enjoyed the first two volumes of Hellboy, and would recommend reading them to anyone who is a fan of the comic genre, or who enjoys things that involve a fictionalized spin on real world history. I myself think I’m going to continue with further volumes of this series at some point, or as soon as I can get my hands on them, more like.

[Be sure to check out more reviews on the Cannonball Read group blog]