Sunday, January 26, 2014

Book Thoughts: "The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart" by Jesse Bullington

In case anyone comes across this blog and wonders why on earth I'm reading books that came out ages ago, it's because I've decided to, before accumulating any new books, to first get through every book currently on my shelves that I've yet to read. Some of them have been sitting around unopened for five years or more, and that's just ridiculous. One such book is The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington, which I bought shortly after it was published back in 2009. Yeah.

The premise here is fairly straightforward: two grave robbing brothers, named Hegal and Manfried Grossbart, journey from their home in Germany to Egypt, or "Gyptland", to track down their grandfather's fortune. Not something I would typically be interested in. I can't remember exactly why I picked it out back in 2009, but I'm guessing it had something to do with the cover art:

Cool, right? Plus, I've seen them on comics before, but this is the first non-illustrated book I've come across that has a content warning. On the back cover, in tiny red print it says "*Contains strong language and scenes of graphic violence*". Considering the people on the front cover come together to form a skull, I could have guessed as much, thank you. So, is Grossbart really the depravity parade the cover makes it out to be?

Basically, yes. It's not that this is the goriest book I've ever read or anything, but the violence is both descriptive and constant. It's also pretty gross. Just about every other page someone is soiling themselves or having a limb chopped off or soiling themselves while getting a limb chopped off or getting crushed by a horse or stabbed or shot or some other means of execution you'd never even thought of before. A ton of people die in this book, and Bullington wants to make sure you know exactly how all of it went down. All the descriptions are very matter of fact and don't linger, but the sheer quantity of them can be overwhelming, so if that type of thing bothers you, I would say to stay away from Grossbart.

I don't usually enjoy books this violent myself, but there was something in this story that endeared me and kept me going. The way it's written is reminiscent of the stories and fairy tales from the medieval period in Europe, and you get the sense that these stories, along with the modern fantasy novels that pull from them, are lovingly derided through Bullington's work. In fact, Bullington says in a short interview in the back of the book that he intended to satirize "dull literary devices and archetypes" and "take the romance out of grave robbing." He does both amazingly.

It was this satire, that you could tell was equal parts celebration and mockery, that drove the story for me. I studied medieval literature as part of my courses in college, so much of Grossbart felt familiar in a sick sort of way. It was just earnest enough to make itself compelling, but tongue-in-cheek enough to carry me through the drudgery of its gore and relatively common story line. In the end I enjoyed myself, though I find myself wondering what that means about me as a person, but I'm sure it's fine. Right?

Title: The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart
Published: 2009, Orbit Books
Pages: 425, 450 including bibliography, interview, and excerpt from another novel
Would Recommend: Yes, to those with strong stomachs and a desire to see old world fantasy turned on its head.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Life Time: Aggressive Poops

Over this past Christmas, my parents got me a hedgehog, a pet I've been wanting since I was in high school. Her name is Nettles, and she looks like this:

This is her second home, and her previous owners did not spend that much time with her. It's for that reason that they decided to find her a new place, but as a result she's currently quite skittish and still getting used to being around people. We've been making progress over the past few weeks, but this is about earlier on, when I first changed her bedding.

Since I was on my own, I figured the best way to keep her from getting lost was to put her in the giant exercise ball her previous owners gave us. Once I was done I noticed she had only moved about four inches the whole time. Specifically, just enough to roll herself out of the puddle of urine spreading across the carpet. I figured she'd gotten scared, but once I got her out of the ball I realized she'd pooed in there as well. So, maybe she'd just eaten or something. Is it possible to be so frightened you pee and poo simultaneously? Either way I had to clean the ball, so I decided to scoop the poo out with a tissue and rinse the thing in the bathtub.

However, cleaning the ball out meant involved getting my face close enough to notice that, whatever all she'd done while she was in there, it smelled vile. Like, impossibly bad for the amount of time it had been there. At that point I wondered if fear or happenstance were the only possible motivations. Because it smelled angry.

It wouldn't be the first time I'd been the victim of aggressive poops. Once while I was hiking I felt something hit me in the side. My first though was it had to be a pebble or some kind of large bug, but I looked down and saw that I'd been blasted with an extremely powerful stream of bird poo. The perpetrator was in the shrubs alongside the trail, staring right at me as if to say, "That's right, and what are you gonna do about it? Nothing." And I didn't.

There were also two instances of attack poops during my time working at a department store, one in the elevator, the other in Lawn & Garden. Of the two the elevator poo is more interesting, since it was a moving target by nature of its location. An elderly couple told me it was there, but before I could get to the elevator to shut it down, someone else got inside. I said "HEY" really loud, but the guy just turned around and pushed the button to go upstairs. Right as the doors were closing I saw him jump a bit, like he'd just been startled by a poo he didn't expect, then he just kind of shrugged and the doors closed.

He saw the poo and accepted it. I don't know if it was apathy, some kind of deep and unshakable inner peace, or if he just genuinely didn't mind human poo. In any case, I felt like I'd learned more about him in those few seconds than some of his closest friends and family would ever know.

It was this guy I channeled while cleaning Nettles' exercise ball. I searched myself for the power to shrug in the face of foul-smelling insanity, but failed. Instead I spent the whole time fighting dry heaves. Then I checked on Nettles again, and she was the happiest she'd ever been since we got her. She was prancing around her newly clean cage, snuffling everywhere like the whole world was a new and exciting place she'd never seen before. I caught her attention and she looked at me with the same smug glint in her beady black eyes that bird had on the hiking trail. "You can do nothing."

Like I said, we've been making progress, and so far this is the only aggressive poo incident we've had. Hopefully the last, but who knows? She's figured out who really has the power now, so until I'm able to accept the poo, I'm basically at her mercy.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Book Thoughts: "The Road Home" by Rose Tremain

This is the book I received for World Book Night 2013:

Sorry it's a bit blurry, it's the sort of problem that could be solved with just the amount of effort I'm not willing exert right now. Shame. You can see the important bits though, namely that the cover is a picture of a cover, with shadow effects and everything. I found this pretty amusing when it was first given to me by one of my creative writing professors in Scotland. As a result, it doesn't have any of the praise blurbs and such that appear on regular books. It does, however, have a poem on the inside of the back cover, which I greatly appreciated. My copy has "Song" by Christina Rossetti, which you can read by clicking here.

It took me a while to get to The Road Home because of a prejudice on my part. I opened it the day I got it, only to close it after reading the second sentence: "Lev wore a leather jacket and jeans and a leather cap pulled low over his eyes and his handsome face was grey-toned from his smoking and in his hands he clutched an old red cotton handkerchief and a dented pack of Russian cigarettes."

That sentence killed me. Not a comma to be had, and "and"s as far as the eye can see. There are several sentences like that in The Road Home and, maybe it's just me, but I find something juvenile about this sentence structure. It's also frustrating as a dyslexic, since I rely on punctuation to break sentences into easier to digest pieces. At the time I was looking for a quick read so The Road Home was set aside. It was only this past week, while attempting to organize my bookshelves, that I came across the book again and decided to give it another try.

The plot is fairly straightforward: Lev has recently emigrated from an unnamed Eastern European country to find work in London. He meets people in this unfamiliar city that help him find his way and, when tragedy strikes back home, he finds a way to combine what he's learned in his new life with what he loves about his old life to save the day. Not groundbreaking stuff. However, there are virtues. Tremain's descriptions, when they aren't "and"ing themselves to death, are so detailed and engrossing you can't help but find yourself knee-deep in Lev's world.

If that were all, I would have said this was an average story told in an above average way and moved on. However, that isn't all. More than once I read things in this otherwise average story that still make my skin crawl just thinking about them. Our main character nearly strangles his romantic interest at a party, and later forces himself on her in a child's bedroom. It's left intentionally unclear whether or not the act was consensual. He laments to his friend that he's pretty sure he raped this woman, but this is met with little more than an "oh, darn", and the book fully expects us to still be sympathetic to his character.

At another point we're introduced to two gay Chinese men, who are portrayed as incredibly feminine and childish. The childish part is what bothered me. They seduce Lev while he's drunk, insisting that they're providing a service, just helping him out, giving sexual favors to make Lev feel better. Their touch is described as "like a girls", and when Lev leaves them, he cuddles them "like children" and thanks them for their services. The whole thing just felt very predatory and creepy.

By the time the happy ending rolled around, I wasn't rooting for the main character anymore. It would be one thing if we were meant to feel conflicted by Lev's behavior, but the book makes it pretty clear that Lev is supposed to be the hero. Flawed, maybe, but in an "aren't we all" sort of way. Unfortunately, I lost all empathy the minute he described the woman he potentially assaulted as "his animal" with "irresistible greed for the male..."

It was hard not to put the book down for a second time, and truthfully, I wouldn't have been missing much if I had.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Thoughts: "Fluke" by Christopher Moore

I hate being told when to laugh. I hate when a story grabs me by the elbow and drags me towards the joke, pointing at it the whole way, shouting, "See?" With that in mind, here's my copy of Fluke by Christopher Moore:

Incidentally, how can someone be as well hidden as that New York Times blurb suggests Moore is and still be a "national bestseller"? I've always been interested in the presentation of books: the blurbs, cover designs, review snippets, etc. Fluke isn't the prettiest book I've seen, but I do like that Moore's books have a unity in their presentation, and this volume looks like it's meant to sit alongside the copy of Lamb I picked up a few years back. Lamb, though flawed, was an enjoyable read, and I expected the same of Fluke.

Fluke: Or, I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings starts with marine biologist Nate Quinn studying humpback whales when, all of a sudden, he sees one with "Bite me" written across its tail. Crazy, right? Don't you want to slap you knee just thinking about it? Good thing, because this irreverent whale jump starts a whole series of increasingly odd events until things take a turn for the science fictional.

It's this turn that seems to bother people in other reviews I've read, but I thought it was intriguing, and Moore deserves credit for describing these otherworldly elements as quickly and effectively as he does. Worldbuilding can easily weigh a novel down, especially when it begins over one hundred pages in. Instead I felt that, after wandering around giggling at itself for fifteen chapters, Fluke was finally going somewhere.

However, the vast majority of the story goes by with little to no real conflict and, once the danger finally presents itself, it disappears shortly afterwards doing almost no damage whatsoever. It feels like something really cool could have happened here, but we wound up with an otherwise decent yarn truncated by a clunky, poorly-tied knot. Everything is fine. Everything always was, for the most part, fine.

If the characters had been better developed, I think I could have forgiven the plot, but even the protagonist's personality doesn't go anywhere beyond "horny scientist", so the others never stood a chance. There's the "loyal friend", the "sexy assistant", and the "comedic relief" who, admittedly, does make me laugh at one point when they pay someone in marijuana and he offers to list this in the expense report as "Nugs, dank". Even towards the end when the sexy assistant has so many things revealed about her at once that, collectively, they cease to be shocking, her personality is resolutely one-dimensional.

What's worse is we never find out why "Bite me" was written on that whale's tail in the first place. We find out how it got there, but never why, and its whole existence is pretty much a red herring. Even so, in the end it was lines like "Shoes off in the whale!"and "In the big picture there be madness" that I could practically feel waggling their eyebrows at me that really left me disappointed.

There were also some jokes about feminism and homosexuality I felt were dismissive (one character becomes a lesbian because she literally gets her fill of dick, then refuses to say anything too nice at her ex-husbands funeral because it may upset her current lover). Overall, I had expected better. Fluke is the worst I've seen from Christopher Moore, and hopefully it stays that way, because I do intend to give him another try. If you're reading this, do you have any recommendations? What, in your opinion, is Moore's best work? What's his worst?