Tuesday, July 27, 2010

NORSE STORIES by Hamilton Wright Mabie

Norse Stories, Retold from the Eddas, also known as Norse Mythology: Great Stories from the Eddas, is an 1882 book on Norse mythology by Hamilton Wright Mabie. While never explicitly stated, this book is obviously geared toward a young adult audience.

Norse Stories reads like something of a greatest hits of Norse mythology. There’s so much missing: many of the mythos’s best-known tales are here, but ripped from the context needed to fully understand them. What is here, though, is well done. Mabie tells the stories well, and he provides some wonderfully rich descriptions. But feels like Mabie went through the Eddas and just ripped out whole pages without making the slightest effort to link things together. He was sloppy, too; an example: here we get “Odin’s eyes began to flash” six pages after he trades one for wisdom at Mimir’s Well.

In its degree of violence and pessimism, Norse mythology is unmatched throughout the world. Yet Norse Stories has a distinctly positive tone, perhaps due to the book’s younger audience. Whatever the reason, this book doesn’t really provide the true mood or tone of Norse mythology.

Ultimately, Norse Stories is a collection of well-told stories severely hampered by their lack of context and other limitations. If you’re well-versed in Norse mythology, you may enjoy what Mabie does with the stories here. If not, you aren’t going to get a coherent understanding of it from Norse Stories. But it shouldn’t be difficult to find half a dozen better books on the topic.


Monday, July 26, 2010


Tales of Secret Egypt is a 1918 collection of stories by Sax Rohmer, who is best known as the creator of Dr. Fu Manchu. There are twelve tales here; the first six concern mercenary relic hunter Neville Kernaby and his dealings with the mysterious Egyptian agent Abu Tabah, who always seems to be one step ahead of him. The last six stories are also Cairo-based but otherwise unrelated, and feature repeated themes of native myth and magic and the immediate and complete infatuation of Western men with Egyptian women.

Rohmer’s love of all things Egyptian is obvious, and his depictions of the sights, sounds and smells of Cairo make that city come alive. And Rohmer is a fully competent writer; once in a while he will drop a delightfully clever sentence on the reader. But his problem is the stories themselves. Nearly every story ends with a twist or revelation in the final sentence, but most of these are not surprising or interesting, and some are painfully obvious. He also uses too much Arabic – there are far too many words whose definitions cannot remotely be guessed at from the context.

Tales of Secret Egypt contains throughout a matter-of-fact racism not unlike the racism Rohmer has taken flak for in his Fu Manchu stories. The reader can, without much effort, construct something of a hierarchy of races, according to Rohmer: whites, Arabs, Indians, Chinese, and, at the bottom, blacks (every black in every story in this volume is a massive, stupid goon).

In the end, it’s really just too bad that so many of the stories in Tales of Secret Egypt just sit there, because it would otherwise be a fine collection of exotic crime and mystery stories.


Friday, July 23, 2010


The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) is the first of L. Frank Baum’s fourteen Oz books, and is the inspiration for the 1939 film you almost certainly have seen: a tornado picks up young Dorothy and her dog Toto and carries them to Oz, where they meet numerous fantastical characters, including, of course, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, and the Cowardly Lion, who are all seeking to correct self-perceived character flaws.

One hates to discuss a book in terms of its succeeding film, but here it can scarcely be helped. Suffice it to say that on the whole, the movie follows the book wherever possible, barring omissions that would not have been possible with thirties special effects, and a tidier ending.

Baum’s stated purpose with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was to create “a modernized fairy tale, in which the wonderment and joy are retained and the heartaches and nightmares are left out.” He has largely succeeded, although the book features a distinct flatness, particularly when compared with contemporary works that were purposely more clever, like Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Dorothy is flat – she’s a stubborn and determined girl, but Baum doesn’t dwell on her personality. The story is also flat – it’s imaginative, but it isn’t clever simply because it isn’t trying to be; it has little ambition to be anything more than a regular old fairy tale, with one episode of deus ex machina after another. The film is better because it adds style and personality to the work. But then, Baum was writing for kids, not for us grown folk, and the book’s enduring appeal is a testament to his success with that audience.

Baum’s writing is often inconsistent. An obvious example of this is the “heartless” Tin Woodman, who is inconsolable after inadvertently crushing an insect, but later hacks up wild beasts without a qualm. But none of these incidences are unforgivable (they’re certainly more forgivable than Baum’s many awful puns).

W. W. Denslow’s illustrations are iconic, although perhaps not as iconic as the imagery from the film, which is what most people think of nowadays when they think of the Wizard of Oz. But it’s hard to imagine this book being illustrated by anyone else.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a fast-reading, simplistic fairy tale worth reading for its own sake and for the sake of its remarkable legacy.


Monday, July 19, 2010

THE CALL OF CTHULHU by H. P. Lovecraft

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories is a collection of H. P. Lovecraft works that includes sixteen short stories and the novellas “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Whisperer in Darkness.”

Lovecraft is a master of atmospheric horror. Through suggestion, implication, and vague description (although his faithful “such-and-such” was too terrible to describe shtick gets old after a while), he allows the reader’s imagination to run with his lurking horrors. And yet his descriptions in every other aspect of his stories are so very detailed. This vividness allows him to ground his tales, making them more involving and therefore more moving. In all, Lovecraft is one of the best authors I’ve read when it comes to generating genuine terror.

Lovecraft’s repetition of style and theme begins to wear on the reader toward the end of this volume, but not as badly as in other collections. Structurally, many of the stories are very similar, and it doesn’t help that everything here but “The Haunter of the Dark” is told in the first person. Lovecraft wasn’t a one-trick pony, but he is best consumed in small doses.

This book features notes by S. T. Joshi. These notes are, frankly, obnoxious, primarily because both the introductions to each story and the mid-story notes are filled with spoilers, for their own stories and for others. For a book that could very well serve as many people’s first exposure to Lovecraft, this is unforgivable. And many of the notes aren’t even worthwhile; Joshi spends a lot of time fussing about the trivial: origins of character names and factual errors Lovecraft has made and the fact that cheese is in the story because Lovecraft loved cheese. And he spends a lot of time pointing out and overanalyzing the most obvious topical and thematic parallels between stories (corrupted bloodlines in “Arthur Jermyn” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” for example).

This is a solid collection – there are too many highlights to name – and I enjoyed every story here except “The Haunter of the Dark,” which was too slow, vague and been-there-done-that. But while this collection contains many of Lovecraft’s best stories, it seems to have been arbitrarily assembled. There is no discernible unifying theme. These stories aren’t from any particular timeframe; they range from the second published story Lovecraft ever wrote (“Dagon”) to the very last (“Haunter”). Many are not remotely connected with the Cthulhu mythos.

All told, The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories is a fine collection of Lovecraft’s better works, if you can ignore Joshi’s obnoxious notes.


Saturday, July 17, 2010

THE NATURAL by Bernard Malamud


The Natural is a 1952 novel by Bernard Malamud; it inspired the eponymous 1984 Robert Redford film, to which it bears only passing similarity. Here, the talented Roy Hobbs, a thirty-five-year-old rookie, tries to make a name for himself in Major League Baseball after a psychopath’s gunshot nearly killed him when he was nineteen.

The story is loosely based on the true story of Phillies first baseman Eddie Waitkus, and also heavily includes elements of baseball myths and legends, most notably that of Shoeless Joe Jackson. These elements give the story a fantastical side – it often feels one step away from  a Márquez-esque magical realism.

Malamud’s writing style is unusual, and not in a good way. He will speed through big chunks of dialogue in narration, often in mid-conversation. Malamud keeps the pages turning (this is a short book), but this feels more like a quick fix for boring conversation than good writing. And The Natural features a jarring non-use of contractions in dialogue, but only half the time, which makes many lines feel stiff and unrealistic.

Most of the supporting characters here are cartoons; only Roy and Pop have any real depth, and Roy isn’t sympathetic because he continually allows himself to be distracted from his goals, makes bad choices, and doesn’t learn from his mistakes.

All the elements of a morality tale are here, but it doesn’t feel like one, mostly because Roy doesn’t learn anything throughout the book. There’s too much death and despair and no redemption. The Natural isn’t a great baseball novel, either, because of the way Malamud handles fantastical myth elements and because he gets carried away with his descriptive epic metaphors and glosses over much of the baseball action itself. Plus Roy Hobbs seems to do nothing besides hit home runs and strike out.

In the end, The Natural is a quick read with some tantalizingly interesting elements that don’t often work well together.


Monday, July 12, 2010

KICK-ASS by Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.

Kick-Ass (2010), written by Mark Millar and illustrated by John Romita, Jr., collects the full initial run, issues 1-8, of the eponymous Marvel comic. Here, Dave Lizewski, a regular, unremarkable teenager, becomes a “real-life” superhero, a job for which he is dangerously ill-equipped.

Millar’s premise is to look at what “real” superheroes might be like, psychologically and in practice. And that’s fine, except that he quickly takes things way over the top and progressively introduces more ludicrous elements, notably Big Daddy (a poor man’s Punisher – if you somehow didn’t get it, Millar makes the connection for you several times) and Hit-Girl (a ten-year-old ninja who single-handedly takes the entire comic and transplants it squarely to the realm of the ridiculous).

If Millar had stuck to answering the question, “What would a ‘real’ superhero look like?” Kick-Ass would have better. But what’s “real” about this except that the “heroes” get beat up all the time, and that they’re all mentally disturbed on some level? Not much. By the end, in too many ways, Kick-Ass is just another comic book.

Millar makes a point to turn as many comic tropes on their ears as he can, particularly the Peter Parker-in-high-school ones. But it all tends to be too self-aware, and Kick-Ass often reads like a hyper-violent version of Brian Michael Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man (if Peter regularly monologued about his sexual frustration). It doesn’t help that Millar’s writing isn’t nearly as clever as he seems to think it is, and a number of his innumerable comic book references feel downright amateurish.

The characters aren’t great – Dave is a generally unsympathetic horny teenager who does stupid things – and nobody else gets much development. The plot is decent, although none of its “twists” is particularly surprising. Millar also tends to gloss over or outright ignore any story elements that would keep things from moving at a brisk pace.

2003’s Wanted told us loudly and clearly that for Millar, there’s really no such thing as bad taste, and he reinforces that understanding here. Under Marvel’s Max label, he’s free to be as vulgar and gratuitous as he wants to be on every page (and usually is). It’s like Millar can’t restrain himself, can’t keep himself from going over the top whenever and however he can, and it really limits what Kick-Ass could have become.

Romita’s art is great as always, with one exception. Hit-Girl never looks right – her proportions are distracting, as she’s basically a gigantic head on a tiny stick body. Romita does a solid job with the degree of violence (this level of gore isn’t something we’re used to seeing from him), although some of Hit-Girl’s dismemberments get pretty out there.  

On the whole, Kick-Ass is readable but mediocre because it’s more interested in being a violence-porn version of mainstream comics than in exploring the more realistic themes that it merely plays at.