American Vampire

American VampireBy Scott Snyder and Stephen King; Artist: Rafael Albuquerque; Colorist: Dave McCaig; Letterer: Steve Wands; @2010, DC Comics.

Like most of my books, this one has a guilty tinge to it. I’ve been interested in the graphic novel form for a few years now, and when I saw the artwork in this book, I had to buy it. It wasn’t in the budget. I didn’t need it, but there I was, buying it. It’s taken me only a month to get around to reading it.

This is actually the first in a series that sets out to examine American culture through the decades. The timespan covered in this first book is 1880 up to 1926. Two stories are developed at the same time with a bit of jumping around in time. The 1880-1909 story takes place in Sidewinder and Lakeview, Colorado, while the 1925-26 story takes place in the Los Angeles area. In Stephen King’s introduction, he complains about the sissification of vampires in our popular culture. He says they are too beautiful, too pale, and too sexy.

King was drawn to this story because it lets the vampires be what they truly are: monsters. Artist Rafael Albuquerque does a beautiful job illustrating this book, but it is gory and gruesome in places. A couple of times I thought: I didn’t know two-dimensional art could do that. The story is OK, but didn’t blow me away. Skinner Sweet, the vampire villain, has been created very nicely with backstory and intrigue. I like the characters of Pearl and Hattie, but I’m a little upset about how their relationship evolved. I didn’t have enough backstory to buy into it. I don’t want to be a spoiler here, so I’ll leave it at that.

As a form, I like the graphic novel because it’s like holding a movie in your hands. I don’t like that my tendency is to read the words fast and flip through the pages fast. I have to try very hard to remember to slow down and enjoy the images. That’s why I’m drawn to the idea of writing a graphic novel with as few words as possible, maybe none.

Anyway, nice work. If you don’t like vampires or horror as a genre, don’t read it.

The Trial

Franz Kafka
Franz Kafka (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Franz Kafka; @ 1925, 1998 by Schocken Books, Inc.; 266 pages.

After finishing The Trial, my first response was to go online for a professional analysis of what this novel was all about. Unsuccessful, I decided to see what I could come up with on my own. I knew when I began reading The Trial that it was unfinished, and normally that would put me off, but since it has been called one of the greatest novels of the 20th century, I was interested to read it anyway.

The story opens as Josef K., (or K.) the CFO of a bank, wakes up without the breakfast that his landlady normally gives him. He opens his door to find strangers waiting for him and is placed under arrest. Thus, his trial begins. From that point forward, he tries unsuccessfully to discover what charges have been brought against him and to defend himself against an impersonal, bureaucratic legal system.

Metaphor for Realization of One’s Own Mortality?

To me, the theme of “the trial” seemed to be a metaphor for life, especially man’s relationship with religion and his quest to enter Heaven. Many symbols supported this view for me. In the beginning, K. was not taking his trial seriously (just as children don’t take their lives seriously; their consciousness of life is a dreamworld of possibility). Later, as the book progresses, K. takes his trial (life) more and more seriously; this seems to escalate as everyone tells him his trial is going badly.

K. was arrested within the boundaries of his everyday life (just as one who has the realization of their own mortality would be arrested, unable to think of anything else for a while). K. isn’t detained in a prison, but instead is allowed to go on living just as he always had, only now with the shame (metaphor for knowledge of original sin) of being on trial (life). He had to report to hearings from time to time (metaphor for going to church on a regular basis), and was promised that no one would know about his trial (shame attributed to life through original sin), however, many found out about it.

He doesn’t know the higher judges, can’t find them, can’t communicate with them directly (God), and is never free again, as he was in his innocent childhood.

There were two ways to avoid conviction (death). One was the “extension option” (extending the trial indefinitely) and the other was “temporary acquittal,” which amounted to working really hard to get acquitted and then forgetting about the trial until the judges found your paperwork again and you were tried again. (This idea seemed to mirror the illnesses we get during life. We get sick and then get well again, until finally one day, we get sick and don’t recover.)

The way K.’s lawyer treated his other client, the merchant, as a dog, and that the man allowed him to do so, served to illuminate K.’s character. The merchant had chosen the “extension option” and in so doing had lost every ounce of self respect he ever had. He was turned into an obedient “dog,” always begging for approval (Kafka’s view of the obedient churchgoer?). The reader could see that this was not something K. was willing to do as his own trial (life) progressed, and K. fired the lawyer.

The options given K. for avoiding a verdict, that of extending the trial (by going to court (church) on a regular basis) or seeking a temporary acquittal (forgetting about the trial (nature of life) for a while), were ultimately rejected by K. The option of “temporary acquittal” seemed like it would buy K. some peace until the next time the court noticed his paperwork, which could be years, or minutes. However, the knowledge that the court would one day discover him and try him again, would keep K. from ever being free (like the looming knowledge of death. Eventually death will catch up with us all, so we are never really free.)

Some people take actions to avoid judgment or to postpone it. This progresses differently for everyone, depending on how predispositioned they are for obedience. This is illustrated by the merchant and how he acted as an obedient dog, giving up the rest of what shreds of freedom existed for him to serve his lawyer in an effort to postpone the inevitable, obediently reading texts he didn’t understand (metaphor for the scriptures/Bible?) in a dark room with very little light.

I found K.’s romantic relationships with women interesting. Other than his landlady, the women were all a little slutty, even the young girls who waited outside the painter’s apartment (women are the tempters of men). So, for a while, I thought K. might be on trial for his boorish treatment of women. All of the women except for Fraulein Brustner were already involved with other men (even the little girls could be said to have been involved with the artist). K. himself was involved with a woman that the novel didn’t say much about, and he cheated on her without thought or apology. He was told not to stop enlisting the help of women, but K. disagreed with this. He believed that women could help him (in the end, they didn’t.) This seemed like a loose end attributable to the novel being unfinished.

Oddities

For a high ranking officer at a bank, Josef K.’s living quarters seemed inconsistent with his status. He was a boarder in a house with a landlady. Wouldn’t a CFO have his own place? This was odd. The writing at the beginning of the novel was much more vivid and engaging than at the end. Of course, this wasn’t a finished novel, and Kafka had left instructions for it to be burned. To further the religious metaphors, K. was sentenced in the cathedral (perhaps symbolic of the courtroom of God), and his execution took place in a quarry.

Parable of the Law

In the parable of the law told to K. by the priest in the cathedral, I figured that the priest was represented by the gatekeeper of the law (priests can be thought of as gatekeepers to God), and K. was represented by the merchant who waited his whole life to enter the gate to the law (the everyman waiting outside the Pearly Gates of Heaven). The merchant (like K.) was afraid and was advised that he could not gain entrance to go through the gate to the law (Heaven) even though we later learn that this gate was made especially for him (Jesus died for our sins). I thought this might be the key to the entire novel. K. never figured out a way to get justice (to get to Heaven).

Free Will

Kafka’s references to freedom (free will) were interesting. How the gatekeeper’s post (the priest) restricted the merchant’s freedom, while the merchant, in fact, restricted his own freedom by seeking what he couldn’t have, or could he have it? (entry into the law (into Heaven)). Inside or outside the law, the man still had a choice to pursue his desires (free will). He could have chosen not to seek (Is Kafka saying that the only free men are those who are not religious? Those who seek nothing?) Yet, I don’t think the merchant was free, since he was enslaved his whole life by his desire to enter the law (Maybe this is Kafka’s point—seeking God one’s whole life is a form of slavery). Or, is it that believing what others tell you can prevent you from having what is easily attainable? Or, is it that the desire itself is enslaving. Or, is it that forgetfulness is good?

This book was much more fun to analyze than it was to read. 🙂

Beloved

By Toni Morrison; Signet, Penguin Books USA @1987; 338 pages.

I had heard of Toni Morrison, but had never read her books. I won’t rehash the story here because I don’t want to spoil it for you, not even the first chapter.

Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Briefly, the story is about Sethe, a woman who escaped from slavery and who continues to be haunted by her past.

Toni Morrison is amazing. She is the most skilled writer I have read in a very long time. I am in awe. The story she tells, the details, her execution, her command of language, suspense, knowledge and understanding of human nature, scene, dialogue, imagination! And while I’m not drawn to sad stories, this one is a must read. This one, that I’m reading so soon after having read Doris Lessing’s Prisons That We Choose to Live Inside, strikes me as another example of the horrific behavior of our species.

Slavery is a topic so painful that we still can’t talk about it. There is so much I didn’t know. So much I need to find out. How terribly awful our past is. But Morrison has created art here. She has brought beauty, humanity, and strength to a situation so horrible, so shameful, so intense that it is just unimaginable to me that it really happened. Of course, this story is fiction, but the details here revive the real-life actions of the past. We know that people, other than the characters of this story, real people, lived through a lot more. Morrison tells a story that must be told, must be read, and must be acknowledged.

Here is an example of Toni Morrison’s writing:

Anybody Baby Suggs knew, let along loved, who hadn’t run off or been hanged, got rented out, loaned out, bought up, brought back, stored up, mortgaged, won, stolen or seized. So Baby’s eight children had six fathers. What she called the nastiness of life was the shock she received upon learning that nobody stopped playing checkers just because the pieces included her children. Halle she was able to keep the longest. Twenty years. A lifetime. Given to her, no doubt, to make up for hearing that her two girls, neither of whom had their adult teeth, were sold and gone and she had not been able to wave goodbye. To make up for coupling with a straw boss for four months in exchange for keeping her third child, a boy, with her—only to have him traded for lumber in the spring of the next year and to find herself pregnant by the man who promised not to and did. That child she could not love and the rest she would not.

I find Baby Suggs’ strategy for getting though the final chapter of her life compelling. She decided that she wanted to think about something that didn’t have any pain involved, no hurt, no evil. She went to bed and contemplated color. She started with blue, then went on to yellow and then pink.

Was Morrison meaning to be ironic? Because it seems that color does have a lot of pain associated with it.

On the front of my copy, there is a quote from Newsweek:

“A masterpiece … magnificent … astounding … overpowering!”

Yes—All of the above.

——–The BBC World Book Club interviewed Toni Morrison. You can listen to that interview here: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/worldservice/wbc/wbc_20120407-2006a.mp3

Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus

By Mary Shelley; Pocket Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.; @ 1818; my edition is 2004; 284 pages.

Believe it or not, Frankenstein shows up on many of the “to read” book lists.

I picked up Frankenstein because I’m tired of love stories. The story begins in Russia as our first narrator tells of his ambition to explore the North Pole. While in Archangel, he has a bit of boat and ice trouble and runs into Victor Frankenstein, a man who has a tragic story to tell. The rest of the story takes place in Switzerland.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was only 21.

And it appears she was quite scandalous for her time. She and Percy Shelley had an affair while he was still married. His wife, Harriet, not too long afterwards, committed suicide by drowning herself in a lake. Mary and Percy Shelley married soon thereafter. A few years later Percy Shelley also drowned in a boating accident. Quite a lot going on for a young female author of the early 1800s.

Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein as the result of a bet to see who out of Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and she could write the scariest story. Byron and Shelley never finished a book-length story, and Percy urged Mary to complete what she had started.

At its core, Frankenstein is a story about unchecked ambition and the consequences of disturbing the order of nature. In explanation of the subtitle, in Greek mythology, Prometheus stole fire from the gods to enable human progress and civilization. He is credited with the creation of man from clay. He was punished for his theft by Zeus, who sentenced Prometheus to eternal torment. Prometheus was bound to a rock, where every day an eagle was sent to feed on his liver. His liver would grow back every day, and every day the ordeal would be repeated. Nice, eh?

And while I didn’t want to think about love, the story shows the consequences of the deprivation of love. The monster turns evil because there is no one on Earth who can love his hideous form, not even his creator.

I found the structure of the story interesting. We have the first narrator, who has his goal of visiting the North Pole. He meets Victor Frankenstein, who then begins telling his tale in the first person. Then the monster Frankenstein’s story is told through Victor and also is portrayed in the first person. Then we come back out as Victor begins speaking again, and finally the first narrator takes over. The monster Frankenstein was very well spoken. That didn’t seem to ring true to me, even though it is explained in the story.

I have not seen the Frankenstein movies, so I have nothing to compare this to other than Young Frankenstein with Gene Wilder. So this book is nothing like that. It’s a pretty good read. I wasn’t scared, but I was intrigued.