Monday, June 30, 2008

THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP by John Irving


John Irving’s The World According to Garp is a literary novel originally published in 1978. It follows the life of T. S. Garp, a writer, as well as his mother, an asexual and unwitting feminist icon.

The World According to Garp is an extraordinarily complex book. There’s a lot going on, a lot of interesting and bizarre characters, and many key themes, including infidelity and sexual identity. There is also a very welcome commentary on people (the literati) who read way too much into novels, particularly concerning the author’s intent and autobiographical bleed-through. Irving is a very entertaining writer. His prose keeps things interesting, for the most part, even when there’s not a lot going on in the story. His characters are fascinating. The situations he puts them in are thought-provoking. Irony abounds.

There are issues with the story, however. The World According to Garp is so full of sex that quite a large section of it reads like Garp’s sexual biography. In the first half of the novel, there is scarcely a female character that Garp does not pursue sexually. Infidelity is a key theme of the novel, but even so, the sex is unnecessarily focused upon, and the book suffers as a result. There are other problems with the storytelling. The book’s climax, which comes in the middle of the book, is dramatic, but contrived. The ending is somewhat poignant, but it is also predictable.

There’s a lot of death in The World According to Garp, but according to Irving, it’s okay, because the book is about life. This is well and good, but ultimately comes across as hollow given that there’s no mention of eternity. Shortsighted at best.

The World According to Garp is recommended, but not to the squeamish or narrow-minded.

RECOMMENDED

Saturday, June 21, 2008

BATMAN: FORTUNATE SON by Gerard Jones and Gene Ha


Batman: Fortunate Son, written by Gerard Jones and illustrated by Gene Ha, was originally published as a one-shot in 1999. The story concerns a rock and roll superstar who gets visited by quasi-Elvis, then goes across the country committing crimes and fomenting rebellion.

Jones plays on the generation gap between Batman and Robin – Batman hates rock music, Robin is a brainless fanboy. Both characters come across as thoroughly one-dimensional. The dialogue throughout is terrible. It's unbelievably bad. Corny, too.

Ha's art is decent, although he runs into trouble communicating what's actually going on during some action scenes.

Batman: Fortunate Son is a silly, ridiculous hodge-podge of a story, riddled with clich├ęs and puns. It cannot be taken seriously on any level, and it must rank with the worst Batman stories ever written.

RECOMMENDED AGAINST

Friday, June 13, 2008

WATCHMEN by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Watchmen, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Dave Gibbons, was originally published as a 12-issue series in 1986 and 1987. It is set in a parallel 1980s America: the U.S. won the Vietnam War and Nixon is still President. The story is almost indescribably complex. It begins with the murder of a former superhero, and the suggestion that perhaps someone is killing them off.

There are seemingly dozens of characters here, all original to this work, but Moore does an excellent job of developing almost all of them, and of balancing their exposure levels. Indeed, half of Watchmen is character development, but it's well done, and almost never boring. There's plenty of action, too, including a suitably epic and very satisfying conclusion.

The characters are what make Watchmen great. There are so many fascinating and deep characters here, and Moore uses them to explore morality on virtually every level. For this is what Watchmen is on its basic level: a morality tale, albeit a fairly bleak one. 

Dave Gibbons's drawing style is realistic, and on the whole it's quite good (although his overweight figures look a little stiff). It fits the story perfectly. As with Moore's V for Vendetta, Watchmen features no illustrated sound effects, and they are not particularly missed. 

Watchmen is one of the greatest and most complex comics ever written, and it's held up well over time. There's so much going on here that it virtually demands (and benefits from) multiple readings. It's definitely worth reading before the movie comes out in 2009. 

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Sunday, June 8, 2008

LIFE WITH FATHER by Clarence Day


Life with Father is a collection of anecdotes by Clarence Day, Jr., mostly having to do with his childhood and primarily involving his father. The primary reason Life with Father is so fascinating is because Clarence Day, Sr. is larger than life. The man is domineering, meticulous, and tyrannical, yet is also, in his own way, loving and good-natured. His interactions with his wife are particularly entertaining.

Many incidents reported here occur in the 1880s and 1890s, and this book provides great insights into nineteenth-century American life. The chapter on how the family first came to own a telephone particularly shows how very far America has come.

Day’s writing style is typically matter-of-fact, excepting a few occasions, particularly when he writes about himself. This style serves to highlight his family’s absurdities, which is where much of the humor comes from.

Worth mentioning here is the marvelous 1947 film starring William Powell, which is based on the play, which is in turn based on Life with Father and several other of Day’s books. Neither the book nor the movie draw a large audience in the twenty-first century, but a number of people do come to the book after seeing the film, and filtering the book through the lens of the movie’s cast does help accentuate its humor.

Life with Father is an excellent and humorous book, perhaps best read in small doses so as not to dilute the effect. It is also a very interesting window into nineteenth century America.

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Monday, June 2, 2008

THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER by Mark Twain


The Prince and the Pauper is Mark Twain’s historical novel of mistaken identity. In it, Prince Edward and a filthy, destitute urchin who looks exactly like him inadvertently switch places. The majority of the book is spent following the boys, particularly Edward, as they attempt (or not) to regain their rightful places.

This book features numerous historical characters, and Twain researched them and the time period well. There is a great deal of social commentary here, as Twain has quite a lot to say about some of the more ruthless laws that England has had. He also delivers a rather ironic commentary on the social classes of the day.

The Prince and the Pauper is entertaining, although it suffers from slow pacing. There’s entirely too much time spent with people carrying on about how each imposter has gone mad, and how he must be humored, and how this will put him to rights again. It grows tiresome, as does Edward’s continual attempts to assert his kingly rights while dressed in rags. His learning curve is a straight line.

All in all, The Prince and the Pauper is an entertaining enough book, and certainly it inspired innumerable inferior derivatives like few works have, but it doesn’t quite measure up to Twain’s later work of historical fiction, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

RECOMMENDED