15 books for 2012

Continuing with the annual summaries of books read this year. The new kindle, as predicted, has meant more reading, hence the list of favourites being expanded to 15. They have generally been longer as well – obviously the weight of physical copies has been a deterrence in the past, though not one I was particularly conscious of. The kindle itself I'm still a little ambivalent about, since there are lots of things books do better. Colour being the most obvious one, but also navigation, footnotes, index pages, highlighting and annotations, all of which need improving if ereaders are to replace paper-based technology. One thing of huge benefit the kindle offers is the integrated Oxford English Dictionary, which makes looking up definitions relatively painless. My vocabulary has expanded as a result, which I suspect has had a less than salubrious effect on my writing. The previous sentence being a case in point.

As for my intention to write more about what I've read: output (crudely measured) has actually declined over the years (80% of favourite books in 2010, 60% in 2011, now 40% in 2012). Not an encouraging trend, and one I am committed to arresting if not reversing in the new year. Still, hopefully the fall in quantity has at least been mitigated by a rise in quality.

Schismatrix Plus - Bruce Sterling
Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë [link]
Shadow & Claw - Gene Wolfe
Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel [link]
Bleak House - Charles Dickens [link]
Rare Earth - Paul Mason
Moby Dick; or, the White Whale - Herman Melville [link]

The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour - Andrew Rawnsley*
Discordia - Laurie Penny, Molly Crabapple
The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It - Paul Collier

Maggie the Mechanic / The Girl from HOPPERS - Jamie Hernandez
Habibi - Craig Thompson [link]
Asterios Polyp - David Mazzucchelli [link]
Sundome vols 1-3 - Kazuto Okada**
Indian Summer - Hugo Pratt, Milo Manara

*More like just the 'fall', really, isn't it? The 'rise' (probably as interesting, I suspect) was covered in a previous book.

**basically Fifty Shades of Grey with the genders reversed.


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

When staging the wizard battle between Gandalf and Saruman in The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson was adamant that flash and fireballs be avoided. Instead, the invisible spells zinged like whips, the actors were flung against the walls. Noses filled with blood, dirty nails cracked against stone. The fight was physical. REAL.

More broadly, when giving the brief for the design of The Lord of the Rings as a whole, Jackson told the staff at Weta Workshop to imagine Middle Earth as a real place, the way J.R.R. Tolkien presented it. The crew had the enviable task of excavating this secret history prior to the “Fourth Age” dominated by the race of men. It would be an effort in alternate archaeology, rather than of uninhibited imagination.

And it worked. The Lord of the Rings films and books were my Star Wars when I was growing up: I had the soundtracks, the screen-savers, the reference guides. My favourite piece of tie-in merch was a book called The Lord of the Rings: Weapons & Warfare, which read like the films narrated by a military historian. The detail was extraordinary. Middle Earth as presented by Jackson and his crew was REAL. You could fucking RESEARCH the place.

Which is why the super mega 48 frames-per-second look of The Hobbit robs the franchise of some of its magic. It reminded me of the disconnect between Northern Lights, which dwelt heavily on the concentration camp atmosphere of Bolvangar, and The Golden Compass, which tried to conjure the tacky wonder of Chris Columbus’s Hogwarts. The Hobbit is less jarring, but the gloss and smoothness subtracts from the immersive grainy tone set by The Lord of the Rings. I saw the film in 2D, thankfully, but I imagine the extra dimension would make the effect even worse. As it stands, The Hobbit in many places looked to me like the fabulously illustrated cutscenes of a Warcraft game. NOT REAL, that is.

The problems don’t end there, though (and you thought this was just about cinematography!) The Hobbit, unfortunately, is a mess. Tolkien’s books are unfairly maligned for being plodding and weighed down with description. Actually, I think even the long first part of The Fellowship of the Ring is carefully and deliberately paced. Jackson just had to speed it up a little to fit it into a three hour film. He kept the fundamental division between the first and second parts intact. And he can do brevity: the second half of Fellowship does the Pass of Caradhras, Moria, Lothlórien and Parth Galen all in an hour and a half. The Hobbit, as a book, is positively zippy. Rather than editing it down, Jackson committed himself to filling it out.

Tolkien’s books supplied the first and third Lord of the Rings films with natural endings which would carry enough dramatic weight to leave an audience satisfied: the death of Boromir and the coronation of Aragorn. For The Two Towers, Jackson and the writing team had to tie-up the sprawling plot-lines on their own. They succeeded, just about, in Sam’s speech at the end (“There is some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for”). Not poetry exactly, but effective precisely because it is simple, coming from an everyman who can only dimly comprehend the huge forces crashing around him. It’s why the story is told through the eyes of hobbits in the first place: Tolkien’s faintly paternalistic faith in the common soul triumphing over the ambitions of the great. That speech was the product of many sleepless nights and countless re-writes. Nerves were shredded over it, and it’s a superior feat of composition as a result. Two Towers will never have the simple through-line of Fellowship or the operatic sweep of Return. It is the worst film of the trilogy, but it is arguably also the most impressive – despite its numerous disadvantages, it nevertheless works as a standalone work.

If the much shorter Hobbit is divided into three, it’s difficult to see where the natural endings of the first two parts will fall, or what will provide the thematic unity for each installment. For An Unexpected Journey, Jackson set himself the same challenge as in The Two Towers, and here he doesn’t quite pull it off. Bilbo’s arc – from small-minded, comfort-seeking obscurity to self-sacrificing hero – strains credibility. Martin Freeman isn’t to blame, I think. He is very well cast in the role. Rather, the accumulating series of set-pieces (in which Gandalf repeatedly serves as resolution deus ex machina) distract away from the developing relationship between the dwarves and their burglar. Too much time was wasted on ancient battles and giants throwing rocks at each other: indulgences Jackson can scarce afford when there is a company of more than a dozen to introduce. When Bilbo’s heroic last stand finally takes place, I didn’t quite understand why he did it, even though he explained himself very clearly afterwards.

The film as a whole feels like a guilty treat for the filmmakers and the fans. Much of the overlong framing sequence with Frodo would be puzzling for those who don't have every second of the extended DVD edition of Fellowship committed to memory. The inclusion of Saruman and Galadriel in Rivendell was needless: they were cameos serving only to trigger fond memories of their star turns in the previous films. We know how this story will end anyway. It was already succinctly told in the prologue of the first Lord of the Rings film. I’m left wondering if the hefty new Hobbit series will have anything new to add.


The Bird with the Crystal Plumage

It's a testament to Dario Argento's skill that 40 years on, the final sequence manages to rustle up some thrills and surprises. Although then again, I'm hardly a dab hand at puzzling out murder mysteries. Unfortunately, the need to keep the audience guessing means that the perpetrator's motives are left to be filled in at the very end, in the most risible manner. The detective wheels in a psychiatrist to spin out a tired (even then, surely?) rape-revenge narrative. There are no clues to be added up which point to such an explanation, it's tacked on in the worst possible way. The only interesting part of the diagnosis is the notion that these repressed psychotic tendencies are activated through exposure to a piece of art – something which links in to Argento's description of the 'cruel' and 'perverse' ideas that surface from deep within and provide the subject matter for his work. His film is about films, their power to invoke our most secret and dangerous desires. Horror blatantly uses sex and violence to titillate, but it's surprising how often this is allied to a strong moralistic tone: the violent psychos are collared, regular 'healthy' sexuality triumphs, passion is curbed by reason, women are once again brought to heel. Taboos are broached, only to be reinforced again. It's like these horror masters unfurl their fantasies, then desperately try to claw them back before they can shake our confidence in the order of things. Ironic, given the paranoia such 'video nasties' managed to whip up.


Asterios Polyp

Mystified by the opinion that this 'is by no means an easy read' – I powered through it in a couple of days. The book's heft is misleading, rarely are there more than 6 panels a page. But Mazzucchelli uses those pages like an expert: style seamlessly folded into the storytelling. My favourite sections are two largely caption-less chapters near the end summing up the best and worst aspects of the protagonist's relationship with his wife. Mazzucchelli's interrogation of the idea of duality permeates the narrative, but ultimately it succeeds because the title character is so likable, before and after his transfiguration.


Fear Itself

Event comics need a theme big enough to be relevant for all the characters tied into it. Siege didn't really have that, which may have been where my patience with these superhero titles ran out. Secret Invasion was inexplicable to those not already well versed in years worth of Avengers backstory, but at least it used alien shape-shifters to try and work in a comment on the 'War on Terror', suicide bombers and the dangers of imperialism (the latter in one page, after all the punching is over – this is superhero comics after all).

Fear Itself is in line with this noble tradition, while thankfully foregoing the requirement to be up to date with the latest developments. The book starts with a protest in New York: a subtle nod to the debate around the plan to build a mosque near Ground Zero, but also perhaps casting a rueful glance at the fate of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Avengers gather on the roof of their tower to take stock, and listen to Iron Man give a State of the Marvelverse address on the way people have been 'lied to and ripped off', the threat of chaos created, and the need for a new New Deal to 'make people feel safe again'. Crazy coming from a guy in golden metal armour, but this is superhero comics after all.

In fact, Stark's admission that 'we can't punch a recession' sounds awfully like the writer's admission that the genre he's working in is not fit for the purpose of capturing a sense of today's anxieties. Ostensibly, the book's project is to show the way angry people get violent when they get really really scared. But actually, it's the fear that's the important motor for the story. And in looking for an existential threat with a sufficient apocalyptic payload, the victims of imperialism are once again drafted into service. The Serpent is Odin's brother, deprived of the throne and bent on assuming it. Odin is an indifferent God, accepting the slaughter of humankind in order to protect his near and dear. Our heroes are caught between a destructive intentions of those at the wrong end of empire, and the rejection of the 1% at the top of it.