Sunday, November 30, 2008


Chas Addams Happily Ever After is a collection of one-panel cartoons by Addams Family creator Charles Addams. Many were previously published in The New Yorker. Others were previously unpublished – these are mostly sloppy drafts. With the exception of maybe two cartoons, this book does not feature the characters from The Addams Family.

These cartoons are in the classic Addams vein of morbidity, here applied to marriage and the male-female relationship. Taken as a large group like this, they tend to lose much of whatever fizz they might have had. Few are more than just mildly amusing.

On the whole, Happily Ever After is worth flipping through once, but that’s about it.


Tuesday, November 25, 2008

THE ART OF FICTION by John Gardner

The Art of Fiction is John Gardner's book on how young writers can improve their fiction writing. This book is divided into two sections: the first covers literary theory, and the second deals with technique, errors, and plotting. 

Gardner, who was a teacher as well as an author, is extremely high-minded. He sets very high standards for writing, which is good. But he's one of those people who thinks you need to take college courses in Shakespeare in order to appreciate Shakespeare. His instructions on writing naturally and not trying to write above yourself often come across as pretentious and hypocritical, as he gets pretty pretentious himself from time to time. 

So many talented writers who didn't study literature or fiction in a university may well throw out the first half of the book, and that's fine. The second half, however, can be of benefit to most anyone. Gardner covers frequent errors, technique, and plotting, giving specific examples and explaining things well. 

Gardner is obviously much more concerned with the Hemingways and Faulkners of the world than the Stephen Kings and Michael Crichtons. Fine; take this book for what it is. Separate the wheat from the chaff and The Art of Fiction has something to help most writers improve. 


Friday, November 21, 2008

THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell

The Sparrow is a 1996 philosophically- and spiritually-oriented "literary" science fiction novel by paleoanthropologist Mary Doria Russell. Here, Father Emilio Sandoz is the only survivor of a Jesuit-sponsored expedition to an alien planet to make first contact. When he returns, he is maimed, in emotional shambles, and accused of terrible crimes.
The setting and framework of The Sparrow are a highly conducive environment for Russell to explore some serious theological and moral principles and implications. Unfortunately, the whole thing is poorly executed and Russell more or less punts on any kind of deep analysis.

Russell begins upon Sandoz's return to Earth, and from there goes back and forth between then (2060) and the origins of the expedition (forty years prior). Working from the ends, Russell fills in what happened in between. While this was probably the best way to structure the story, Russell does it poorly. The Sparrow leans heavily on suspense to keep the reader's interest, and Russell manufactures this artificially by waiting as long as possible to tell the reader what he or she really wants to know – What happened to Sandoz? How did he come to be in this situation? How did everyone else die? By the end of the novel, there's entirely too much skipping around, which significantly lessens the novel's suspense and makes it entirely too long. And too many of the payoff events, the dramatic climaxes the reader has been waiting 400 pages for, are told secondhand, neutering the drama. Thusly the payoff is extremely disappointing.

Russell's writing is amateurish in many ways, beyond her mishandling of the narrative. Her physical descriptions of characters are often clumsy. She is prone to using big and uncommon words seemingly just for the sake of using them. The dialogue is another egregious offender. The Sparrow is fifty to a hundred pages too long, and a major reason for this is because Russell spends the first half of the novel trying to endear her characters to the reader, mainly by repeatedly having one of them make a corny joke or an obviously fanboyish movie quote, and then having everyone else crack up. It doesn't particularly work. They die, the reader knows they're going to die, and it really isn't that big of a deal. Her characters' chemistry together is decent enough, but they just aren't fleshed out well enough for it to matter.

What Russell does well is the alien culture. With her anthropological background, this isn't surprising. The aliens' culture is different and interesting, even if she doesn't do a lot with it.

Russell drops the ball with her portrayals of the priests. There are a lot of Jesuits, but there isn't much God anywhere to be found. Russell's priests are, on the whole, a bunch of agnostics and deists. For Russell and her characters, just believing that God exists is a big accomplishment and noteworthy spiritual breakthrough. This is hardly an accurate representation of modern Catholicism. Nowhere in the book does any Catholic say one word about evangelizing the aliens. That's remarkable beyond words.

The long and short of it is The Sparrow is a badly-missed opportunity. It was a good idea, pregnant with potential, but it just doesn't work on too many levels to make it worthwhile reading.


P.S. - "A Spanish-speaking Jesuit priest travels to another planet as part of an expedition to make first contact with an alien race, and subsequently suffers a crisis of faith" - that's right, we're talking about James Blish's 1958 novel A Case of Conscience. This shared premise is so specific that it seems unbelievable that Russell didn't steal it (which she maintains). Indeed, it is curious she would choose a Jesuit as her protagonist given her profound ignorance of Catholicism. In any event, Blish's novel is superior in many ways - the science is better, the concept is better, the understanding is better, and the execution is better.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse is a 2008 post-apocalyptic novel by Victor Gischler, written in a humorous tone. In it, nine years after the end of the world, Mortimer Tate emerges from seclusion, whereupon he has many harrowing adventures.

Gischler has gone for humor and action over character and story. Go-Go Girls certainly is action-packed, as the main character and his associates go through one action scene after another, often without any real flow, rhyme or reason. Any interest this might generate is diminished by the lack of attention to character. Gischler doesn't particularly care about his characters, so why should the reader? And ultimately, Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse just isn't that funny, so it doesn't have that going for it either. On the whole, it feels like a disposable story – action for its own sake, and little else. Gischler has gone heavy on sex and violence by and large for their own sakes, in a way reminiscent of Quentin Tarantino (not a compliment). It's typically pointless and often vile.

There are a number of narrative details that Gischler loses track of. For example, the main character loses his pinky at the very beginning of the novel. He suffers no ill effects from this whatsoever, and Gischler only mentions it two or three times over the rest of the novel. Things like this add to the reader's feeling that Gischler just dashed this thing off. If he's not invested in it, why should the reader be?

In the manner of a bad action movie, Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse is an unfunny novel of dubious entertainment value. Mindless entertainment is well and good, unless it forgets to be entertaining.


Sunday, November 16, 2008

PERSEPOLIS by Marjane Satrapi

Persepolis, originally published in two volumes, is an autobiographical graphic novel by Iranian expatriate Marjane Satrapi. It chronicles her childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution, her coming of age in Austria, her return to Iran and her second departure, to France, after her failed marriage.

Satrapi’s black and white art is thick-lined, simple and spare, and it fits the book well. The vignettes of everyday life she presents are fascinating, because of Western unfamiliarity and because of her tremendous openness and honesty.

Ultimately, Persepolis is an engaging, many-layered work that gives an honest, revealing view of a way of life that most Westerners are extremely unfamiliar with.


Tuesday, November 11, 2008


With a title like Supernatural Childbirth, you'd probably expect Jackie Mize's book to be about the Virgin Mary. Instead, it's about her own experience carrying and delivering babies after she was told that she was unable to have children. This is a very short book, 120 pages, and includes an introduction and epilogue by Terry Mize, "confessions", a salvation prayer, and the pièce de résistance, a foreword by the inimitable Lindsay Roberts.

Supernatural Childbirth is Word of Faith to the extreme. Mize is of a very charismatic bent, and her target audience includes some of the flakiest people in Christendom. Wow. She uses the King James Version of the Bible exclusively, which in this day and age is kind of ridiculous. She treats the Word of God like it's magic. 

Nevertheless, this book is not completely without merit. What Mize has going for her is a good, not-pushy tone. She writes with a "this is what worked for me, feel free to try it" attitude. Mize is tremendously, egregiously off on some points. Most of these, however, are secondary to the point she's trying to make. But on her larger points, she mostly does all right. Anyone who is worried or fearful about their pregnancy can find encouragement here. Mize is right that faith must be built over time. And an attitude of faith is obviously better than an attitude of worry. As Mize herself says, a cow eats the hay and spits out the sticks. Well, there are plenty of sticks here. A discerning, analytical Christian can sort through this, take the good and leave the bad.

If you can avoid throwing out the baby with the deep, dark bathwater, Supernatural Childbirth might well be worth your time. Otherwise, don't bother; it'll just make you angry. 

RECOMMENDED - but take it with a lot of salt

Wednesday, November 5, 2008


The Whisper of Glocken, by Carol Kendall, is a children’s fantasy novel, and the sequel to The Gammage Cup. Five years after the events of The Gammage Cup, when a flood of biblical proportions strikes their valley, the Minnipins must send forth a group to find a solution. For no good reason at all, other than that Kendall wanted to write some new, more annoying characters, the original team from The Gammage Cup voluntarily sits this one out.

The land they journey to is apparently the land of convenient happenings. Everything that needs to happen more or less happens on its own (Help! We’re being attacked by relatively unthreatening creatures that conveniently drop the most valuable substance that we just ran out of when you kill them!), and to a large extent the Minnipins just go with the flow (although they do each conveniently get their own opportunities for heroism). Story elements intended to be suspenseful are obvious, even to small children. Worst, the deus ex machina at the end is unforgivable.

While The Gammage Cup was all about individuality, The Whisper of Glocken is without such an overbearing moral (although “people who stink are people too” comes close). The real moral here is that a hero is as a hero does.

Kendall’s writing keeps the book moving most of the time in spite of its many flaws. There is a certain charm to her characters, even if this batch is distinctly unlikable. As she did in The Gammage Cup, Kendall has trouble writing above the very personal level. There are narrative problems in scenes involving multiple characters, and she doesn’t always connect scenes together well.

Ultimately, there’s just too much going on here that’s happening for no other reason than that Kendall wanted it to. About the only thing The Whisper of Glocken has going for it is that certain charm with which Kendall writes. And it just isn’t enough.


Sunday, November 2, 2008

THE GAMMAGE CUP by Carol Kendall

The Gammage Cup, originally published in 1959, is a children’s fantasy novel by Carol Kendall. It centers on the Minnipins, an isolated race of stuck-up traditionalists, who eject the nonconformist elements from their midst. These exiles (one of whom is named Muggles – take that, J.K. Rowling!), to no one’s surprise, become responsible for saving the day, and in doing so win the battle for individuality.

The Gammage Cup is, at its heart, a morality tale about nonconformity and individuality. This cannot be missed, nor can it be disputed, as Kendall always goes the extra mile to hammer the reader with that. The story remains engaging, though, because Kendall’s characters are interesting and the book moves at a fairly brisk pace. The interaction between the characters is also well done. Her little world is well-created, and she fits in a surprising amount of its history without ever becoming tedious.

The book falls a little flat at the end, though, as Kendall seems to rush through the mysterious (and ridiculous-looking) invaders, the magic swords, the battle, and so forth. She writes well on the individual, personal level; less so on that larger scale.

On the whole, The Gammage Cup is a heavy-handed but decent children’s fantasy novel.