Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates

by Tom Robbins

 

“Physical intimacy is only a device for opening the floodgates of what really matters: words.” – Andrei Codrescu

I got into Fierce Invalids because a friend of the family lent it to me last spring. I’m not sure what it is about this strange book that made Cody think I had to read it, but I’m glad he did nonetheless. I think I was too young to “get” Tom Robbins when I first read his work back in high school. It took me a long time to appreciate a simply beautiful phrase… and Fierce Invalids is full of them. I don’t think I’ve ever dog-eared, underlined, or read aloud more sentences in any novel than I did this one. Sorry Cody, I promise I’ll erase all my markings before I return it! I just had to keep track of some of the wonderfully worded witticisms and criticisms so that I could attempt to do them justice in my review.

Fierce Invalids follows a CIA former-operative, Switters, who has a great appreciation for words and speaks many languages. Fierce Invalids Home From Hot ClimatesHe is an independent, self-proclaimed “angel” who listens to none but his grandmother, Maestra. Our first adventure with Mr. Switters begins when he agrees to accompany Maestra’s pet parrot down to Boquichicos, Peru to be released into the wild. The trip goes awry when he meets a peculiar Shaman who places a taboo on Switters, confining him to a wheelchair.

When he returns to Seattle, his work with the CIA is put on hold, permanently. After several failed attempts to court is 16 year-old stepsister, he grows restless and bored, and 100 pages later ends up in Syria at a convent full of excommunicated French nuns. This is the most interesting part of the story, in my opinion. As a bond is formed between Switters and the “nuns”, there is a complexity revealed in the relationship between religion, sex, belief, and freedom. These nuns are chalk full of contradictions – almost as much so as Switters himself.

While the plot of Fierce Invalids is frivolous and absurd, it is the prose that sets Tom Robbins apart. Every sentence is strung together with such wonderful intention that I could (and did on several occasions) open the book up to any page, give 10 seconds of context and then dive in with a friend, reading out loud and basking together in the beauty of the English language. Each line is poetry, and I recommend reading Robbins for that fact alone. The quote that I chose to begin this post is one that Robbins quotes within the novel, and I think it sums up both the character of Switters and the writing of Robbins nicely. In the end, the action-packed plot is irrelevant when it is but a gateway to what lies underneath: the most beautiful verbiage.

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Watchmen

by Alan Moore (illustrated by Dave Gibbons)

Watchmen 1986 - Chapter 1 CoverEvery once in a while, a book or movie or, in this case, comic, comes around and totally changes the game for all future books/movies/comics. In the comic book world, Watchmen (1986) is the best example of that. Watchmen is the wild brainchild of Alan Moore, who built a completely new world around the modern Superhero in this franchise. Ditching the hero vs. villain concept, Moore forces us to see a spectrum of morality in which heroes sometimes look and act like villains and villains sometimes look and act like heroes.

The premise is that superheroes are real – they just don’t have super powers. In the 1940s and 1960s, there forms a band of masked vigilantes known as the Minute Men. The game changes when a research physicist is exposed to a blast of radiation. He uses his immense brain and will power to bring his atoms back together and build himself a human-esque shape. Now able to transport himself through space and time, Jon (now the blue Dr. Manhattan), becomes the first true super human, leaving the rest of the world in a vulnerable state.

The nonlinear story is told with flashbacks and subplots throughout, sometimes in the same panel. The main plot takes place in 1985 New York City: The United States is on the brink of nuclear war with Russia, and vigilante crime-fighting is now illegal. Most of the Minute Men have retired, except for the two government-endorsed heroes, the Comedian and Dr. Manhattan, and one outlaw, Rorschach. The story begins as Rorschach discovers that the Comedian has been murdered. He believes that this, along with allegations against Dr. Manhattan, is evidence that someone is seeking to take down all past and present vigilantes. This becomes the main storyline: Rorschach seeks out the other Minute Men to share his suspicions and track down their shared enemy.

This is paralleled throughout the graphic novel through a kid who reads a comic, “Tales of the Black Freighter”, in which a sailor floats home on the backs of his dead crew to warn his town of approaching pirates. Let us pause and take a second to appreciate Alan Moore’s genius in this: the kid is reading pirate comics. In a world where superheroes are real, almost commonplace, kids read pirate comics instead of superhero comics – How clever! Anyway, as the unnamed kid reads Tales, the comic reflects events going on in the world around him. Meanwhile, there are several flashbacks in each chapter, explaining how and why the masked men (and women) took on their second persona, and how they all came together to fight crime.

In the end, what makes Watchmen so special is the psychology of Moore’s characters. Superheroes are, underneath it all, just human. They make choices, mistakes, sacrifices. They choose to compromise their morals, or not, in the face of dire circumstances. Despite immense power and influence, there are consequences. Ultimately it is unclear which character is morally superior. That is the brilliance of Alan Moore. He doesn’t tell you which character does the right thing. He has the characters ask the question, and allows the reader to decide for herself – what price should we pay to avoid war? Is the preservation of human life worth sacrificing our humanity?

Who watches the watchmen?

Timequake

by Kurt Vonnegut

 

Timequake (1997), the last novel that Vonnegut published (so it goes), is what I would classify as semi-autobiographical meta-fiction. The story is presented as if Vonnegut were re-writing a previously published work, dubbed Timequake One, in which on February 13, 2001, everyone is suddenly zapped back to February 17, 1991. The nature of this “timequake” is such that every person must relive each minute of each day exactly as they did the first time. This means that every mistake you made in 1993 the first time, you make again the second time, and though you are aware that it is a rerun, you are unable to alter your personal history. Essentially, free will is completely lost during those ten years.

Much of the novel is told through the mouth of Vonnegut’s alter-ego Kilgore Trout, an eccentric writer that has great ideas for stories, but has never had a successful writing career. TimequakeTrout is a fascinating character. To me, he is the epitome of human bleakness, or what I like to call the existentialist’s burden. He is not so bothered by the timequake, as he spends most of those ten years writing, and “rerun or not, he could tune out the crock of shit being alive was as long as he was scribbling”. Throughout the novel, Trout talks Vonnegut through his unorthodox views on human existence. For an example, read Trout’s explanation of the rapid spread of diseases such as AIDS (found here). My other favorite Trout-ism is his version of the Book of Genesis, but I’ll let you read the book to find that one.

Back to the plot. After the rerun ends (on February 13, 2001, Take 2), Kilgore Trout realizes without a shred of doubt what has happened. But as he begins to execute free will again, he also realizes that nobody else seems to have figured it out. Everyone has grown so accustomed to playing out a script that they do not know how to carry on after the timequake. Ting-a-ling. So he begins spreading the mantra “you’ve been sick, but now you’re well again, and there is work to do” to encourage people to grasp a hold of their lives again.

Trout, however, is not a huge fan of free will. This is exemplified when, at a writer’s clambake post-rerun, Vonnegut asks Trout his opinion on John Wilkes Booth. He responds that the murder of President Lincoln was “the sort of thing which is bound to happen whenever an actor creates his own material”.

There are a few moments in Timequake in which Vonnegut mentions that he is getting old, older than he ever expected to be. There are many side-stories culminating in last words — by characters in history or characters in Vonnegut’s life. My personal favorite is a fictitious account of Hitler’s final moments, in which he considers his options for last words. He ends up saying ” I never asked to be born in the first place”, then shoots himself.

I think Vonnegut knew this was going to be the last novel he published. I think this book is his way of making sure his readers grasp his philosophy on life, as though he wants to get his final two cents in. As he puts it, when thinking about writing, Vonnegut asks himself “why bother?”, to which he responds, “Many people need desperately to receive this message: ‘I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.'” He uses Kilgore Trout as a device through which to describe all of his eccentric and extremist views, to find comfort in determinism. He uses the last words of others to say goodbye to his life as a storyteller. He uses the clambake as a goodbye party, and Trout’s speech as an epitaph for himself, written by himself. Perhaps he is just “much too old and experienced to start playing Russian roulette with free will again.”

For any Vonnegut fan, Timequake is an absolute must-read; it is so unique and special. The premise of the blip in time followed by a ten year rerun is not fully formed, but I was very willing to look past that. Vonnegut’s fictional anecdotes (as well as some autobiographical ones) are enough to make this book well worth a read. His philosophy is presented so hilariously, and parts of this book would make great short stories. As important as this novel was for me, I think it would not appeal to anyone who is not already a fan of Kurt.

If this isn’t nice, what is?

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Volume I and Volume II

by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill

 

Side note/confession session: I love graphic novels. I always feel a little embarrassed when I check out graphic novels at the library. I mean, thank God for self-checkout, right? But really, I think graphic novels and comic books are awesome. Sure, there aren’t as many words to the page, but they provide something special that other books just can’t achieve. Graphic novels provide the reader with context without being boring, emotion without being overly sentimental, and entertainment without losing depth. Plus they’re fun.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, set in 1898, is a steampunk comic about a group of misfits that come together to aid the British government in top-secret missions. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume IThis is the coolest thing: these “misfits” are all characters from famous works of fiction. The main character is Wilhelmina “Mina” Murray (that’s Miss Murray to you thankyouverymuch), an uptight divorcée who refuses to remove the red scarf that she wears around her neck. I won’t give away who she is if you don’t know already, but you could probably figure it out. She is introduced by British Intelligence agent Campion Bond (any guesses as to who his grandson is?) to Captain Nemo, an Indian ex-pat who captains a large submarine known as the Nautilis. They are sent on a mission to assemble this team of misfits — first to Cairo to recruit Allan Quatermain despite his opium addiction, then to Paris to find a scrawny Dr. Jekyll, and finally back to London to extract Hawley Griffin from an all-girl’s boarding school where he wreaks havoc as the Invisible Man.

Once assembled, this League of Extraordinary Gentlepersons goes on to track down a villain on behalf of Mr. Bond’s unnamed employer. They find themselves caught in a rivalry between two famed villains: Fu Manchu and Professor Moriarty. Putting their lives at risk, they have to make their strange group work together to save London. And that’s all just volume I.

Volume II takes a completely different turn. Now that the League is established and the British Intelligence organization restored, they have to win what seems like an impossible war: the War of the Worlds. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Volume IILoosely based on the novel by H. G. Wells, this Volume begins on Mars and takes the reader through an alien invasion of the London suburbs. Pretty dope if you’re into some serious science fiction. There’s also some heavy material in this volume, from violent rape scenes to animal hybridization to martyrdom, so make sure you’re ready for that.

I have yet to read The Black Dossier, which from my understanding is more of a framing reference-book for The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen than a third volume. It is set in 1958 after the fall of Big Brother in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. I’m not sure how the chronology works out, but I’ll find out because I am definitely going to check out The Black Dossier when I get the chance. I’ll keep you updated.

If you are heavy into science fiction or steampunk and appreciate comics, you must read this series. It is especially fun to read if you are familiar with famous british fictional characters and story lines. For the sake of my feminist street-cred, I have to mention that it is absolutely awesome to read a graphic novel with a strong, smart, powerful (though somewhat sexualized) female protagonist. She even talks about how they treat her poorly and make judgements about her intelligence because she’s a woman! Groundbreaking. Read it.

The Blood of Flowers

by Anita Amirrezvani

 

First there wasn’t and then there was. Before God, no one was.

So begins Anita Amirrezvani’s debut novel, which, set in 17th century Persia, follows a few years in the life of an unnamed girl of newly marriageable age. The simple statement is invoked each time a story, usually a fable, is introduced. These fables are used as framing devices throughout the novel, as each chapter closes with a story about love, temptation, or unyielding kindness.

The story is told from the point of view of the young protagonist, a spirited teenage girl who is her parents’ only child. The first chapter centers on her happy relationship with her father and her unparalleled skills as a rug-maker. Everything goes awry, however, when a comet appears over the village and signals bad omens for the year. The Blood of FlowersThough she is anxious to marry, she fears that a marriage forged in the year of the comet will be doomed. Before she has much time to get a modest dowry together, her father dies suddenly while working in the fields. She and her mother are almost immediately forced into poverty. The women are thereby forced to move to the capital, Isfahan, and live with their only blood relation, an uncle named Gostaham. Gostaham, a wealthy craftsman, and his wife Gordiyeh live in a mansion, with food and clothes to spare.

Despite the riches of the household, the two women are treated as servants rather than family, and are under constant fear of getting thrown out. After a few months of adjustment, however, the girl finds ways to be very happy with her life in Isfahan. She is inspired by the beauty of the city, and begins to cultivate her craft of rug making under the mentorship of her talented uncle. She makes friends with women in the city, both very rich and very poor, and dreams of one day running a rug-making workshop for women.

I mentioned that the girl is “spirited,” but perhaps a better word for it would be “rash,” because she constantly makes choices out of passion without thinking of the consequences.  A few rash decisions put an end to her dreams, and she and her mother are kicked out of their home.  The mother falls very ill, and the girl resorts to begging on the street.  I’ll try not to include too many spoilers, but in the end, she uses her womanhood to her advantage and her luck turns around, but not in the way I expected.

Despite the high level of drama maintained throughout the novel, I very much enjoyed this book. The writing is captivating, the characters are dynamic, and the story has so much depth that it is easy to forget it is fiction. Through all her poor decisions, it is hard to fault the main character too much because she is so morally pure. She makes the best of the hard hand she is dealt, and she a strong, powerful female character. I do believe this is a feminist novel, the kind of feminism that I fully support. That is, not all of the female characters are strong or good, and not all of the male characters are evil. There are strong, amazing, resilient women and there are sensitive, charitable men. There are also selfish and vain women and chauvinistic, unintelligent men.

The life of a Persian woman in the 1620s was not easy. It was nearly impossible to be either financially independent or respected by society, but the girl in this novel accomplishes both. As she matures, she learns that beauty, riches and social status do not create happiness. Her community, her faith, and her art are the source of happiness for her, and, though it is not much, she considers herself lucky. She works tirelessly to bring her mother and friends out of poverty, but she never loses her moral center.

If you are at all like me, and are interested in Middle Eastern feminism and social class dynamics, I recommend this book. You’ll have to forgive some of the dramatics as well as a few gratuitous sex scenes, but it is a quick and entertaining read, so prepare to be engrossed in this book for a few days. At the very least, you will never look at Persian rugs the same way again.