September 30, 2001
Reading this month:
Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast
A giant book about the director of Metropolis and M, among many others.
The Real Inspector Hound and Other Plays
All of Tom Stoppard's plays - at least, those of which I am aware - are great or very good plays for theatrical purposes, but some are significantly better on the page than others. Travesties and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead can be fully embraced in any form; Arcadia and The Real Inspector Hound are very good on the page, but tangibly lack a vital something that they are capable of possessing onstage; and some, like Dirty Linen and Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth, aren't much fun when read and really need the stage to be appreciated. That's not a fault with his writing, by any means; more of a compliment to his trickiness with language patterns and crafty staging, and anyway plays exist to be played, first and foremost. But it should be noted. This collection features two good-on-pagers (Inspector Hound and After Magritte) and a back half that I liked well enough to want to see onstage but which fall into that last category. Of course, maybe I was just scatter minded when I read them and that entire half-assed thesis above is bullshit. I'm completely willing to accept the possibility.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay
Pretty good. I never managed to fully embrace this book, but I did enjoy it. It's quite schizophrenic, quality-wise. Wonderfully bold plot and character choices sit alongside startlingly banal ones, and the feel is alternately lush and brittle. Given that the author comes from the You Should Take Writing Classes In College mob, the narrative voice was surprisingly clumsy and inconsistent (sometimes omniscient, sometimes limiting itself to "sources"). The author certainly has the comic book milieu down, and treats it with the kind of respect for the medium that comic book kids like myself love; he knows the period inside and out, conveys it vividly and weaves his characters into reality extremely well, and the superheroes that his characters create are perfectly suited to the period. (Naming the main hero The Escapist daringly treads a fine line between painfully obvious metaphor and, well, exactly the sort of comic book hero that might have existed then.) I loved that, stricken by grief, the main character winds up precisely where I'd wind up in the same situation. I also loved the use of magic and Houdini, both of which are very central to the book, and I feel rather pleased with myself for having read a Houdini bio by coincidence a few weeks ago. And I'm always up for giving Dr Wertham and Seduction of the Innocent a good kicking. Still, I wasn't satisfied at the end of the book, and I do feel I should be hesitant about recommending a 600+ page book if I wasn't feeling it at the end.
The Human Comedy
Completely pleasant, run through with some beautiful idiosyncracies and observations. This would be a good book for high school English classes: like most of the standard reading list, there are some awkwardly obvious sections that teachers would inevitably seize upon - thereby alienating most of the class - and the parts that make the book worth reading lie between, as ever unmentioned in the syllabus, graceful like an accident.
Staging in Shakespeare's Theaters
Andrew Gurr and Mariko Ichikawa
The topic makes me giggle and clap my hands like a baby monkey with a brand new red balloon, but, sadly, this particular book runs a dead heat with my VCR owner's manual for passion and compelling prose. There is some very interesting and insightful material - most importantly, the very direct effect that the specific stages used had upon Shakespeare's writing - but there are also some lengthy sections wherein narrative head is lodged firmly up textual arse. A shame.
Ah, I don't have the heart to get into it. There is so much here that's truly wonderful, gorgeous, written like no author other than Neil Gaiman could possibly have written, that I felt honestly crushed when it turned into double-crosses, surprise revelations and who tricked who. It genuinely managed to be about belief and gods for a while, in the truest sense of the word "about", and it finished by being about warmed-over Hollywood spy plots. Maybe I'd have liked it more if I hadn't read Sandman (where, incidentally, the main theme of this book was first introduced). There were double-crosses and tricks at the end of that, too, but the marvel was how, revealed as ultimately inconsequential, they described perfectly the inevitability of the series' conclusion and suggested something transcendent; here, they just ring as hollow intrigue and add up to something sadly underwhelming. I love Neil Gaiman's writing so much, but this one broke my heart.