Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief might now be my favourite book about World War 2. Yes that means it beats Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch 22 and Gravity’s Rainbow (though really, Gravity’s Rainbow was never really a favourite). This story is just as disjointed in time as those, but it feels more connected to the characters.
The story is about Liesel, a German girl who is living with a foster family outside of Munich. The mother is rude and terrifying, always yelling about everything, and the father is a house painter who can’t really find much work in their town. They also hide a Jew in their basement.
The thing that makes this book amazing is how it’s put together. You see, Death narrates the story, and does the narration with this detached wit that’s also surprisingly empathetic. Death keeps on spoiling the story for you, but it doesn’t matter because it’s told so beautifully. The main text gets interrupted by these bold, centred pronouncements and lists about characters or events, but the story circles back and back and around.
Liesel has a friend who painted himself black to be like Jesse Owens. She steals books and learns to read and rereads the only books they have because they’re poor and the book is about the hope that comes from story even if you know how it’s all going to turn out.
It’s an amazing piece of work and one of those things that gets marked as children’s literature just because the protagonist is young. Which is fine, I want young people to read this, but I also want adults to read it.
Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? is Neil Gaiman’s story about the funeral of Batman. It came out at a time when Batman had been “killed,” but this story, because it is a Neil Gaiman story, is full of stories.
Everyone talks about how Batman died, his allies, his enemies, and they’re all different. Batman himself narrates the tale from a confused ghost-like vantage point. “How can all the stories be true?” he asks. And really, this is one of the big meta-questions of superhero comics. So much happens to these characters it seems insane that they could survive them all without going insane.
The other parts included in this volume are some old Neil Gaiman Batman stories, which, well, whatever. I did like Batman and Joker hanging out in the green room before their pages, but they did feel like filler, extraneous to the idea I wanted to think harder on. But you need to feel you got your money’s worth I suppose.
The second volume of Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman has Supes deal with a Bizarro invasion and prepare his last will and testament and otherwise deal with his impending death. Oh and he fights Lex Luthor. It’s good, especially in his desperation to get things done before he dies. I still like the way Frank Quitely draws, and all together I feel like this is a pretty encapsulating Superman story, one I might eventually get in its Absolute format. I don’t know what else to say about it. It’s Superman. (I think that’s why the movie versions are tough to make.)
I read Ed Brubaker’s Captain America: Reborn at the library in Pott’s Point, a fairly seedy red-light and backpacker district of Sydney where I spent my first week. I liked the idea of reading something so patently North American in Australia. I was wearing a baseball hat and spouting of hard Rs the entire time. Sadly, that’s about as much fun as I had with this story.
See, Captain America was killed a few years ago, as happens to superheroes. And of course, he came back. This was the story of how he came back. See, he wasn’t shot with a regular gun. It was a time gun that sent him skipping through his own past (the line “Captain America is unstuck in time” did make me smile in the way you do with the recognition of a meme) so the Red Skull could take over his body. Whatever. I only knew the basics of Captain America (and the fact that he’d been killed a few years ago for defying the superhero registration act) and for me this story was boring and I didn’t care.
Overqualified is a novel told in job application cover letters. It’s by Joey Comeau, who does the comic A Softer World and wrote the zombie novel One Bloody Thing After Another. (I haven’t read his latest, Bible Camp Bloodbath yet, but I will.)
When I told my girlfriend about the concept of this book she thought it sounded neat. Then I read her one of the letters and she said “Oh. It’s not very realistic. It’s just a gimmick. No one would actually write that.” And I was a little thrown off. I must have read it wrong, or prefaced it wrong. I mean, of course no one actually would write about their dead brother and throwing lightbulbs off an apartment building in a job application to GE, but it’s beautiful and sad. Or beautiful and angry like his letter to Gillette about razor-blades and sex. Or beautiful and cynical like his Hallmark greeting card ideas:
Front cover is a picture of a puppy dog with big, sad eyes. A Golden Retriever, maybe. Some breed that everyone loves, something vulnerable. The text on the front reads: “You think love has to last forever for it to be real. You think it isn’t true love unless it lasts until one of us is dead.” Inside text: “That isn’t love. That’s dog fighting.”
In every case there’s this desperation and weirdness that was weird and painful and amazing.
It’s not a clever story, which you might think it would be, with the tagline I gave it above. It’s just a weirdly emotional one about a man who’se trying to hold on to some sort of memory or reality by writing to corporations to the nonhuman beings that have all the power in our world. Reality shifts about him as he talks about all his many qualifications, but his pain remains constant.
So I should revise my original words. Overqualified is a dark, funny story about pain. Told in cover letters.
I read Ursula Hegi’s book about postwar Germany, Floating in My Mother’s Palm, because of the story within it called The Dogs of Fear. This was the story Holly told me about when I was talking about how much I enjoyed the Machine of Death anthology. In the story a man has terrible dreams about dying in a meadow, so he buys a pack of dogs to protect him and then he finds the meadow and stops dreaming about it. Eventually he’s torn apart by his pack of dogs. It almost could have been a Machine of Death story except for its “literariness.”
I like reading a book like this, with its delicacy and narrow focus, especially after reading a lot of science fiction or the like. It’s so focused on recounting “realistic” events and talking about specific details with such minor inflections of plot, it’s a refreshing genre change. And it becomes easier to recognize it as a genre itself, not some pure archetype of fiction that mysteries or romances fail to measure up to, but a genre with its own specific and arbitrary conventions. Not that that’s a bad thing.
Even if I didn’t have a story in Machine of Death I would be a fan of this book. The idea is that each of the writers wrote a story set in a world where the infallible Machine of Death exists. The MoD told people how they were going to die. It was never wrong but was often ironic or vague. Those were the guidelines. The stories that came out were all different, making the book as a whole really good.
The Machine itself is different in every story. In some it’s a gimmick, in some it’s a long-accepted part of life, in some it sparks protests, in some kids are tested in utero, in some no one under 18 is allowed to be tested. I loved that overlappingness of the whole thing. It helped make sure nothing felt too canon. You read a bunch of different origins for the Machine and none of them are “the one true story” which felt right. Right to have the diversity.
I wasn’t sure how funny the stories would be, or how depressing. I mean, there are depressing stories. The one with the guy whose wife had finally become pregnant and then the Machine spit out LABOUR made me want to die a little bit. WHILE TRYING TO SAVE ANOTHER was heart-breaking, but TORN APART AND DEVOURED BY LIONS was funny and optimistic, like NOT WAVING BUT DROWNING.
In any case it was a really good, thought-provoking book about death. I’m really glad to have been a part of it.
You’ll be pleased to know I’ll soon be done with this series, as A Storm of Swords is book three of four that exist so far in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. And things continued apace with war and the politics of kings. This book saw a bit more magic showing up and weddings that went really badly. Martin has no compunction against fucking up best-laid plans. It’s gotten to the point where I hate to read any characters coming up with a plan because you know that nothing good will come of it. Not because the plans are bad but because other people are already making plans. There’s also more religion showing up, and good things happened to a couple of characters, which means I’m kind of scared to read the next book.