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Friday, July 16, 2010

"Imperial Bedrooms," "The Liar's Lullaby," more

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Washington Post Book Reviews
For You
Friday July 16, 2010
Daniel Clowes
Drawn and Quarterly
ISBN 978 1 77046 007 2
77 pages

Reviewed by Michael Dirda. Visit Dirda's online book discussion at
It's not as though I haven't noticed the rise of the graphic novel. Over the years, I've dropped into any number of bookstores and inevitably found -- and envied -- the three or four young people always sprawled on the floor next to the shelves labeled "Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels." No other readers look quite so utterly absorbed in their books.
Back in the 1980s, I even oversaw a special Book World "Close-Up" devoted to comics: We ran pieces about Alan Moore's "Watchmen," Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor," the Hernandez Brothers' "Love and Rockets," Art Spiegelman's "Maus" and the work of Frank Miller. I remember being especially fond of Miller's samurai adventure "Ronin." There might have been something about Howard Chaykin's "American Flagg!" too. Comics, it was clear even then, had darkened since the glory days of Carl Barks' "Uncle Scrooge," and superheroes were no longer as uncomplicated as they were in the heyday of Superman.
In fact, many of the best comics were already addressing themes far more grim and gruesome than anything in EC's old "Tales From the Crypt." Dysfunctional families, genocide, sexual violence, plain old existential despair -- there wasn't much that was comical in their generally noir outlook on life. They made "The Postman Always Rings Twice" look like a happy love story, a fairy-tale romance.
Since then, graphic novels and comics have grown even more aesthetically complex and disturbing. Think of Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" and Alan Moore's and Melinda Gebbie's "Lost Girls" -- or consider "Wilson," the latest from Daniel Clowes, author of "Ghost World" and "David Boring," recipient of all the major awards in the field, and a frequent contributor to the New Yorker.
In this album the hero is a fat, bearded and profane Everyman of some indeterminate middle age. Even more than most of us, Wilson has made a mess of his life. When the book opens, he's unemployed and cares only for his dog. Things go downhill from there: His father dies, he hooks up with his ex-wife (whom he suspects has been a druggie and prostitute), discovers that he has a now-grown (and very alienated) daughter, goes to prison and, after his release, learns that he has become a grandfather. The book ends with Wilson in a bare apartment, staring out the window, as raindrops skate down the panes of glass. "Of course," he murmurs to himself, "that's it! Of course!"
Ever since Scott McCloud's foundational "Understanding Comics," people have come to realize that there's a lot more going on than meets the eye in what Will Eisner calls "sequential art." In "Wilson," the first thing you notice is that the "novel" is divided up into page-long "chapters." Each bears a title, such as "Oakland" or "Taxi Cab" or "Shopping Mall," and most take only six or seven panels to relate an incident from the protagonist's life. Most of them end with an unexpected kicker or reverse, often a kind of joke or comment on the human condition.
In "Pure Bliss," Wilson sits peacefully with his ex-wife, Pippi, and newly discovered daughter on a pier, overlooking a lake. He speaks of "the connection between us. We don't even have to say a word -- it's purely chemical." He keeps on in this vein: "Don't you feel it, Pippi? Don't you feel like we're doing the right thing for once in our stupid lives?" Finally, his ex-wife answers, "I don't know." And an incredulous Wilson responds, in shock, "You don't know?? My God, Pippi!" There's a final panel break, and then we're looking at the little group from the back, as Pippi adds, "I guess maybe this whole kidnapping thing makes me a little uncomfortable, Wilson!"
Because each chapter can stand alone, it takes a while before the reader recognizes that they are moving forward in chronological order, gradually telling a unified story. In "Post Office," for instance, Wilson plans to send a box of dog feces to someone. Only much, much later do we discover -- during a family dinner party -- the identity of the recipient.
Throughout, Wilson periodically accosts various strangers, and these encounters often resemble concise, absurdist dramas. While waiting for a plane, he asks a well-dressed businessman about his job. The man, ill at ease, answers: "I'm in senior management at a small equity firm, and I do some consulting for various -- ." Wilson interrupts, saying he doesn't want "all the mumbo-jumbo. I want to know what you actually do. Like the actual physical tasks of your daily life." The man splutters that a lot of it focuses "on how to best implement managerial strategies in -- ." Wilson suddenly erupts:
"Listen to me, brother -- you're going to be lying on your deathbed in 30 years and thinking 'Where did it all go? What did I do with all those precious days?' Some (expletive)-work for the oligarchs? Is that it?"
The man answers: "Look, I'm proud of what I do, and I work very hard to -- ." At which point, Wilson buries his head in his hands: "Oh God, it's so terrible the way people live!"
While Clowes' art is essentially realistic, he seems to have deliberately emphasized the round-faced dumpiness of Wilson, Pippi and their daughter, Claire. No one in the book is at all physically attractive. At the same time, he varies his drawing styles: In some, Wilson is distinctly gnomish or cartoony; in others, he's thinner and more normal-looking -- even as some chapters are in color, some in black and white, and several in a washed-out monochromatic blue or pink.
Who is the audience for "Wilson"? Certainly not those young people I see sprawled on the floor with Japanese manga. This is a book about life's passages and disappointments, and will be most appreciated by those who know something of quiet desperation. It's not a pretty book, and even its language is so vulgar that it's difficult to quote from. But this descent into a man's soul is certainly a long way from what my mother used to call "your funny books."

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Bret Easton Ellis
ISBN 978-0307266101
169 pages

Reviewed by Ned Martel, who is an editor of The Washington Post Style section
In the last quarter-century, Bret Easton Ellis has produced less an oeuvre than a franchise, a series of storyboard-simple tales that riff on its origin myth, "Less Than Zero." His plots revel in the narcotized demimonde of celebrity and its wicked forms of sycophancy. His initial effort, written when Ellis was just 20, reads now like a literary growth spurt, a writer's sudden awareness that there's a book in the whole swirl of adult problems as experienced by kids. There was, of course, more than a book -- a Robert Downey Jr. movie and several similar fever-dreamy books and now, inevitably, a sequel.
To a reader anywhere near Ellis' age when "Less Than Zero" appeared in 1985, that first book presented itself as a generational testimony of a sexy subset of Angelenos, but served more widely as a voyeuristic report for those less practiced in bingeing and bisexuality. It was not America's first soft-core young adult novel -- Judy Blume's "Forever" comes to mind, indelibly -- but "Less" was a decidedly ambitious attempt to redo "Fear of Flying" as "Fear of Merging."
In "Imperial Bedrooms," Ellis returns to his crime scenes and finds that his characters have aged but not matured. Clay is again the narrator, and his affinity for Los Angeles' seamy side is as keen as when he was a jaded student returning home from college, cavorting with the melodramatic Blair and the tragic Julian. Now a novelist-turned-screenwriter, Clay continues his higher learning through the new generation of prescription drugs and ingenues. An incoming class of pretty women wants to be discovered, and the big reveal in Clay's own personal reality show pivots on his discovery that young talent is secretly reliant on the oldest profession.
C'mon, the casting couch is old enough to have lost its springiness, and yet Clay, after all these years, is somehow putty in one comely gamine's hands. But when the plot slows toward the third act, Ellis molds him into an antagonist a la "American Psycho," another of the author's novels that sketched out what became another brightly gloomy B-movie. Clay is at the height of his powers, and he manipulates a no-name starlet into something resembling sex slavery. Actually, Rain Turner, with her marquee-ready name, is complicit but not complex. Forced sex reads like just idle rutting, and even as the characters get caught in an escalating volley of pain and vengeance, all the on-demand coupling gets monotonous and, eventually, gross.
I'm not complaining about the libertinism; I don't doubt it's real and worth documenting. Write a clever, circuitous road map to the sexual frontier, and I'll follow. But by now Ellis and his characters should be sufficiently acquainted with the movies -- porn included -- to understand that the best scenes are when the actors make out like they mean it. Late in the game, Ellis warns that there will be payback, but no payoff. "This isn't a script," Julian tells Clay. "It's not going to add up. Not everything's going to come together in the third act."
Just as Clay wastes his talent so, too, has Ellis. After all this time, his characters have squandered and regained and squandered privilege and status, yet they still seem captives of their glamorous trappings: blase at Golden Globe parties, stalked by ominous SUVs, hung over in glass-walled condos. It's all told in truly, madly, deadly prose: "At the casting sessions it was all boys and though I wasn't exactly bored I didn't need to be there, and songs constantly floating in the car keep commenting on everything neutral encased within the windshield's frame ... and the fear builds into a muted fury and then has no choice but to melt away into a simple and addictive sadness."
In places, Ellis' writing veers into a minimalist neo-noir, as if Raymond Carver could be mashed up with Raymond Chandler, but sometimes less is simply less. Describing numbness is as futile as describing boredom -- or worse, describing dreams, and for ridiculous purposes, Ellis relies on a recurring one to haunt Clay's remnant conscience.
To his credit, Ellis proved he was on to something a quarter century ago, and I fear that his new premonitions about technology and torture may come true. He did popularize present-tense narration and song-title book titles, and he's still pledging allegiance to Elvis Costello and Warren Zevon, all the while seeking some allegiance from cool-kid cognoscenti, or anyone slouching in Band of Outsiders suits, slurping Belvedere on the rocks. Ellis' curation of surface is as kitschy and catchy as Andy Warhol's silk-screens and Jeff Koons' sculptures. He bought in early on the mania for L.A.'s modernism and similarly understood, through Julian, the iconic value of Richard Gere's heavy-lidded languor in "American Gigolo." Novelist Bruce Wagner, through his cellphone trilogy, appears to be both an Ellis heir and rival, as do the cinematic yet vacuous TV spectacles like "Gossip Girl" on the CW or MTV's "The Hills."
Midway through "Imperial Bedrooms," the narrator finds out that his transactional relationship with Rain, propelled by breathless texts and lurid jpegs, is actually a bizarre love triangle. Then it's a rectangle. Then it's a metastasizing polygon that accumulates more and more sides, but never any new dimensions.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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Meg Gardiner
ISBN 978-0525951728
353 pages

Reviewed by Anna Mundow, a literary correspondent for the Boston Globe and a contributor to the Irish Times
"The Liar's Lullaby" is the third novel by Meg Gardiner to feature Jo Beckett, the forensic psychiatrist whose plucky outlook may at times remind readers of Nancy Drew in her prime. She's the kind of woman who finds that "hanging fifty feet off the ground, with nothing but a void between her and a broken neck, always cleared her head." And we would not be surprised to learn that, like Nancy, Beckett drives a nifty roadster.
This sleuth is not, however, a fearless amateur but a renowned professional, the kind of scientist who goes rock-climbing before dawn and is "at her desk by eight," eager to probe the psychological condition of the latest corpse to have landed there. Gardiner's previous Jo Beckett novels, "The Memory Collector" and "The Dirty Secrets Club," established our heroine as an invaluable adviser to the San Francisco Police Department, for whom she performs "psychological autopsies in cases of equivocal death." In other words, "she analyzed victims' lives to discover why they had died. She shrank the souls of the departed."
The deceased in "The Liar's Lullaby" is Tasia McFarland, a once-renowned singer-songwriter who is killed while attempting an acrobatic concert stunt. Poised to fly over her 40,000 fans on a zip line while waving a pistol, Tasia tells her terrified manager, "Fame can't protect me ... Just Samuel Colt." Within minutes she is shot dead in midair, but by whom? Herself? A lunatic fan? A right-wing zealot? The White House may even be involved. For Tasia is not just another washed-up celebrity; she is the ex-wife of the president of the United States.
After this explosive opening, the novel itself becomes something of a high-wire act with suspects and subplots whizzing back and forth between action-packed chapters, defying not so much gravity at times as logic. The main point, it seems, is to keep everything and everyone in motion. If Jo's irrepressible sister, Tina, is "the human version of caffeine," then Meg Gardiner's fiction is perhaps the literary version, jolting rather than coaxing the reader through occasionally frenzied scenes.
The resulting stylistic schizophrenia in Gardiner's writing is particularly apparent in the descriptions, which range from overblown to soft-core with a little New Age philosophizing in between. At one point the crowd is "swept up" in a performance "like wheat pulled forward by a prairie wind." Jo glimpses her boyfriend's "molten core" and "the warrior he had been," but Gabe is also a sensitive soldier who reads Kierkegaard.
Jo and Gabe's love affair is predictably tested and strengthened by the mystery surrounding Tasia's death. As Jo begins to investigate the singer's life and mental state, likely suspects promptly materialize. There is a pathetic loner and obsessed fan who could have stepped out of a Thomas Harris novel. There is that right-wing zealot who calls himself "Tom Paine" and whose "Tree of Liberty" Web site attempts to rally followers against the enemy in the White House. There is Tasia's rock star ex-boyfriend, her ex-husband and her ex-husband's weaselly chief of staff. Each has a secret to protect, and any one of them might have committed murder.
Jo's assignment, however, is to probe the dead, not the living. "Being of Coptic descent, with a basting of Japanese Buddhism and a thick shellac of Irish Catholic education, Jo believed that death didn't equate to annihilation," we learn as she prepares to watch the videotape of Tasia's death, having first "slipped her emotional chain mail into place."
The secrets of Tasia's life lead Jo to the truth of the singer's death, and Gardiner charts that course skillfully. With the eye and ear of a keen reporter, she can capture the speech and manner of a self-important political staffer or a cynical cop, the pretentious ranting of a cyber-patriot or the e-mail venom of a deluded stalker.
The frantic conclusion of "The Liar's Lullaby" is certainly more outlandish than elegant, but perhaps this is fitting. In Jo Beckett's world of tough, passionate women and manly yet sensitive warriors, elegance would seem outdated.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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BREATH: A Lifetime in the Rhythm of an Iron Lung
Martha Mason
ISBN 978 1 60819 119 2
342 pages

Reviewed by Carolyn See, who reviews books regularly for The Washington Post
In September 1948, in the North Carolina town of Lattimore -- only a few hundred souls -- an epidemic of polio that had been raging in the region tapered off, then flared up again. A 13-year-old boy named Gaston Mason died; three days later his little sister Martha was stricken. She spent about a year in hospitals, then came home with helpful admonitions to the effect that she had a "horrible heart" and was actually little more than a "talking vegetable," but that it didn't matter much because she'd be dead shortly. She came home in an iron lung and, with only an occasional hour recess, lived in that unhappy circumstance until she died in 2009 -- 60 years.
Something in her responded to this crazy challenge like an irate superwoman; she vowed, over and over, to live life fully, to enjoy herself and never, if possible, to complain.
Someone had told her when she was an active little girl that she lived in what amounted to a magic circle: "What did the preacher tell you? You know about that Babblin' Tower. Stand there where the (train) tracks cross. Now, look around you. In every direction -- north and south, east and west -- for half a mile is where you live. If you went any way from the point where you're standing, you would be in Lattimore till you went half a mile straight. Then you'd be out. You go 'round and 'round in your circle. Maybe that's why you young'uns is so damn silly. 'Cause you stay giddy from going 'round and 'round in the circle you live in."
That circle kept Martha perfectly safe, until it didn't. Before the polio she was willful, smart, pretty, clueless. Her father worked hard to keep them in their snug little house; her mother was a meticulous housekeeper who contributed to the family finances by working in the cafeteria at school. They were devout Baptists. Both sets of grandparents lived nearby. The children grew up on good home cooking; meals came to the kitchen table virtually straight from the fields or barnyard. Gaston got a .22 rifle for his 12th birthday and cherished it. Their dad bought his first new car. Martha performed in a piano recital when she was 10, looking very grown up in a long, silky dress. She was very beautiful in those last photographs taken before she fell ill.
"I knew that I had polio. I didn't want anyone else to know," she writes. "The day before I had heard Mother talking to a friend about the iron lung Gaston had been in. ... I knew I wouldn't have that difficulty because I had excellent lungs." But the illness came down in all its fury. Her temperature soared, she endured horrendous pain, and then she was a quadriplegic.
Her parents seem to have been saints: Without thinking twice, her mother moved into the hospital where Martha stayed, working as a nurse's aide. Her father toiled on at home. Something about her parents' quiet devotion worked in Martha to ensure that when she came home, she graduated first in her high school class, went on to a junior college and then to a four-year institution, with her mother right along with her, feeding and bathing and cleaning and cooking and turning thousands of pages in hundreds of books, so that Martha could graduate summa cum laude.
But life isn't placated so easily. Extreme difficulties challenged her as an adult when she returned to her parents' home in Lattimore, which, by then -- thanks to her good education and introduction to the larger world -- had begun to look shabby in her eyes. But what else could she do? Where else could she go? How could she redeem this life of hers, which started as something so mindlessly joyful, then was hit by catastrophe, even before the tiresome depredations of real life had fairly begun?
Among other things, Mason chose to write this memoir, which was released in 2003 by Down Home Press, a small North Carolina publisher, and is now being republished by Bloomsbury with a foreword by Anne Rivers Siddons. "Breath" reminds us of a time irrevocably gone -- a time when everyone knew a couple of survivors from polio, relatives hidden from visitors in a back bedroom; a society in which gentility wasn't always marked by a university degree and people showed their cultural affiliation by exhibiting ferociously good table manners or dressing in good taste or listening to classical music on the radio during a Sunday afternoon.
That's the way Mason was raised. College was a fluke because of her disability. The community rose up and took care of her because it reflected well on all of them, showed the world who and what they were. Maybe these values still exist in the middle of our country.
So this book, although its prose style can be artless and a little pokey, is well worth reading. It really does sum up a vision of America as absolutely reliable, decent, resourceful and kind -- just as Martha Mason and her wonderful mother managed to be during their difficult but extremely rewarding lives.

Copyright 2010 Washington Post Writers Group

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