Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend

Published in monthly installments over 1864-65, this was the last full-length novel written by Dickens. He hadn't published a monthly since 1857 when he wrote Little Dorrit, so this novel was more difficult to sustain for the aging, ailing writer. Dickens had a tough time getting it started, and few of his contemporary readers found it as engaging as his earlier works. But today it is hailed as the great final flourish of one of the most important Victorian writers.

In typical Dickensian fashion, the plot is too labyrinthian to attempt a coherent summary. Suffice it to say that the novel weaves together three different narrative trajectories that Dickens had been mulling over for several years, one of which being the story of a guy who fakes his own death to circumvent the wishes of a will, another being a couple who wed for each other's money, only to learn that each lied to the other about his/her fortune. With money as the main theme, Dickens explores a wide range of ways in which money is acquired, lost, and used for both good and ill purposes.

Although this was hardly my favorite Dickens novel, it contains a number of cool touches that are reminiscent of his earlier novels. Certain scenes with Silas Wegg remind me of the interactions between David Copperfield and Uriah Heep; chapters with Mr. and Mrs. Veneering echo those with Sir and Lady Dedlock in Bleak House; and so many moments throughout the novel that dwell upon money seem to be cut from the same cloth as Dombey and Son or Little Dorrit, I lost count. One critic has called Our Mutual Friend "the entire Dickens canon redux," and that's actually a pretty good way of describing it.

Thus concludes my reading of Dickens's novels. It's taken me four years, but I've been able to read all sixteen novels during that time (and, with the exceptions of Our Mutual Friend and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, all have been read at least twice). All that remains is the teaching of them as I look into my next personal "project": the complete fictional works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Alan Moore and Brian Bolland, Batman: The Killing Joke

This was a throwaway quickie of a read, done on the heels of having seen The Dark Knight this past Friday. I succumbed to the pre-release buzz surrounding Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker, and having heard that The Killing Joke was one of the sources Ledger drew upon for his portrayal of the arch-villain, I decided to read it.

Batman has always been a superhero close to my heart, especially since I grew up watching the old Adam West Batman TV series (which premiered the year I was born!). Even as a kid, I remember enjoying the playful "Bam!" exclamations and campy dialogue, and noticing how every single villains' lair always had a slanted floor (Did villains' lairs lack solid building foundations? Was Gotham City kinda like San Francisco?). So when the movie franchise began with the 1989 Tim Burton release, I highly anticipated the dark, gothic look Burton would bring to a story I'd always associated with bright colors and well-illuminated interiors.

Heath Ledger's Joker is a fun bad guy, a shimmering combination of criminally insane mastermind and trickster in a weird, nervous junky frame. But I found the Joker in Moore's book a bit of a throwback to the pompadoured Caesar Romero Joker from the TV series ... too giggly and "clownish," if you know what I mean. Of course, Moore's Joker is murderous -- the story centers on how the Joker shoots Barbara Gordon, the commissioner's daughter, in the spine and paralyzes her in an effort to drive Commissioner Gordon insane, thus proving that "All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy" -- and Moore gives the reader some backstory on the Joker to suggest what might have driven him insane.

But, as all Joker's stories are concerned, this may or may not be what really happened ...

Bolland's artwork is superb, and the coloring is one of the most nuanced I've seen. You'll dig the comic from a purely artistic standpoint, if nothing else.

So if you're following the Hollywood hype this weekend surrounding The Dark Knight, this book is a good supplement to your filmgoing experience.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, Watchmen

I've read a few graphic novels over the years, like Matt Wagner's Grendel: War Child, Frank Miller's Sin City, and J. O'Barr's The Crow. I'd hardly call myself a graphic novel enthusiast. Toward the end of last school year, a colleague recommended that I read Watchmen. It looked long, and frankly I wasn't in the mood to read a "comic book." But as the summer got under way, no fewer than three other friends, in completely separate contexts, randomly mentioned Watchmen (and the soon-to-be-released film version) and what a great book it is. It started to sorta seem like karma, so I scored a copy of the book and last week began reading it. Just finished it this morning. And yes ... what a great book it is!

Told from several different perspectives, the story takes place in an alternate 1985, where Richard M. Nixon is President, caped crusaders are not only a reality but have been outlawed since 1977 for their vigilanteeism, and the world is inching toward nuclear Armageddon with Russia (each chapter of the novel, in fact, begins with a Doomsday clock progressing toward and eventually reaching twelve o'clock). The plot itself revolves around the mysterious murder of the Comedian, a one-time superhero who had long since become a government operative, and the efforts of some of his former superhero colleagues -- Nite Owl, Rorschach, and Dr. Manhatten among them -- to piece together the mystery and locate the killer as nations get frighteningly closer to nuclear attack.

Gibbons juxtaposes the vibrantly colored style of superhero comics with black-and-white inner chapters of supplementary "materials," such as autobiography excerpts, handwritten notes, medical files, newspaper clippings, etc., to create a narrative that is visually stimulating. But it's Moore's storyline, told from multiple (and often parallel) perspectives, that forms a narrative not only engaging but eerily relevant given today's headlines. (In this excellent interview with the film's director, he mentions how filmgoers are finally "ready" for Watchmen given the recent proliferation of superhero-based Hollywood films; if handled the right way, this film can also make a powerful statement on today's socio-political milieu.)

What I also like about the novel is its complexity and subtlety. What makes the book so "important" in the graphic novel genre is its attention to detail and its overall seriousness for the time in which it was published (1986-87). Moore wanted to create a work with a literary quality akin to a graphic novel Moby-Dick, and what I found interesting was that upon finishing the book, I immediately wanted to reread sections of it ... and as I leafed through the opening chapter once more, I indeed noticed things that had completely gotten past me on the first read. This is a book that rewards rereadings.

If you enjoy graphic novels and want to read something that's engaging, visually stimulating, and thought provoking, check out Watchmen. The film is due for release in March, 2009.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Joseph Frank, Dostoyevsky: The Years of Ordeal, 1850 - 1859

This is volume two of the five-volume biography, covering the years of Dostoyevsky's imprisonment in a hard labor camp in Siberia, followed by years of mandatory service in the Russian military, and concluding with his marriage, his return to St. Petersburg, and his attempts to revive his literary career with the publications of Uncle's Dream and The Village of Stepanchikovo.

One thing I especially like about Frank's work is his attention to Russian lifestyle and culture of the time period. Having not read much Dostoyevsky, I've always been intimidated by a certain culture gap between 19th century Russia and the much more familiar 19th century England, but Frank narrows that gap nicely through his depictions of life within the Siberian prison, as well as Dostoyevsky's appeals to the Tzar for his military retirement due to his epilepsy. Furthermore, the highlight of this volume for me was the discussion of Dostoyevsky's transformation of world vision as a direct result of his imprisonment, which sets up the remaining volumes as they discuss Dostoyevsky's important novels!

Although I need to take a brief hiatus from Frank so I can turn my attention to other reading obligations at the moment, I look forward to reading Volume Three!