Thursday, April 17, 2008

Review of Books (Fiction)

One relatively positive aspect of our endlessly rainy winter is that I've had lots of time to read over the past few months. I recommend all of the titles below, and will try to list a few more recent finds before the sun comes out. I should have a few months.

Geoffrey Household describes his book “Rogue Male” as “a bastard offspring of Stevenson and Conrad." The tale, written in 1932, is a surprisingly contemporary exploration of the lure of violence and the psychology of survivalism. At the beginning of the story, our narrator, an enthusiastic amateur hunter, finds himself wondering whether he might be able to infiltrate a political leader’s compound and take him down. He has his target in his sites when he is seized by security, imprisoned, tortured, and condemned to death. He manages to escape, and the book becomes a thrill ride of near-captures and ingenious escapes. Rogue Male is both endlessly suspenseful and relentlessly paranoid, predating by 40 years the genre of political thrillers like “Day of the Jackal” or John LeCarre’s novels which seized the public’s imagination in the 1970’s.

Albanian writer Ismail Kidare won the inaugural International Booker Prize in 2005. I’ve read several books by Kidare, which can vary wildly in style, but recently read and enjoyed the political parable The Three-Arched Bridge.

The story is set in 1377, and our narrator is an Albanian monk, who watches as the Turkish armies gather over the Balkan Peninsula. With a few deft strokes Kidare conveys the great extent of political and economic shifts occurring in Europe in the late Middle Ages: the collapse of Byzantium, the spread of an international currency and the formation of large financial conglomerates, some of them complicit with the emerging Turkish imperial expansion.

A picture is created of a community in the grip of forces it cannot control and can barely comprehend. A medieval community tries to make sense of rapid historical change, against a bleak landscape of fogs, freezing rains, a great river and a stone bridge. This is a profoundly atmospheric book.

Shortly after winning the International Booker in ‘05, Kidare wrote a very interesting and personal history of the Albanian Writer’s Union for The New Yorker magazine.

After hearing the raves at Wondercon about the recent repackaging of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World comics, I managed to score a copy of the first volume from the Seattle Public Library. According to many breathless comics fans, Kirby’s saga is one of the most prominent and influential comic book series ever.

The short story is that Kirby, one of the pioneers of superhero comics, and the creator of such landmark Marvel Comics characters as Fantastic Four, the Hulk and X-Men, left Marvel in 1969 over a bitter contract dispute, and went to work for main rival DC comics. Given free reign at DC, Kirby created a sprawling universe populated by hundreds of characters and colored by massive explosions of cosmic energy. Over the course of some 80 issues, we meet Darkseid the God of Apokolips, the tortured savior Orion, the apostate escape artist Mr. Miracle and all manner of false gods, preachers, crooks and heroes with names like Granny Goodness, Kalibek, Kanto, Virmin Vundabar and Desaad. To be honest, the story is so grand as to be basically incomprehensible. Having read the 20 or so individual comics that make up Volume 1, I am completely baffled by Fourth World cosmology. However, Kirby’s drawings are so exciting, his collage effects so unexpected and his shifting perspective so utterly unpredictable, that the comics take on a propulsive force. Not for everyone, but a real treat for comics fans who retain a taste for spandex-clad grandeur.

There’s a comprehensive study of the religious elements of the Fourth World over at Al and Andrew’s Super Review.

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