Archive May 2010

Britten and Brülightly 0


by Hannah Berry

Soon to be graduating with a degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Washington’s ISchool, Andrea Gough took time out from her classes (including mine!) to send me this book review.  The book is actually one of my favorites, as well.  I hope you enjoy it as much as the two of us did.

In Britten and Brülightly (Metropolitan Books, 2009), Hannah Berry’s graphic novel mystery, Fernández Britten is a depressed private investigator. It seems as though all he does is deliver the information that ruins lives. He’s considering two options: a career change, or suicide. He’s leaning toward suicide. Before he does, however, he’s approached with a new case: a young woman’s fiancée has been found dead, and the police ruled it suicide. She’s convinced that it was murder. Britten and his partner Brülightly decide to take it as one last case, one that Britten hopes will finally provide him the redemption of a positive outcome. While Britten’s outlook is fairly bleak, sparks of wry British wit come courtesy of Britten’s partner Brülightly, who is—did I mention this?—a teabag. It sounds like a deal-breaker, I know, but Berry carries it off flawlessly. Here’s an example of one such exchange, after the client has first called, and Brülightly asks Britten what she seems like:

Britten:  Mid-twenties; well-bred; either hard-nosed  by nature or as a result of coping  with this murder, it’s difficult to say.

Brülightly:  Was she alright?

Britten:  She seemed quite composed.

Brülightly: That’s not what I meant…

Britten:  I know what you meant. Don’t be lecherous: you’re a teabag.

Brülightly:  I’m a teabag with needs, Fern.

 Flashes of humor aside, Berry has crafted a well-executed, hardboiled mystery. Britten and Brülightly’s search for the truth is labyrinthine and complex enough to satisfy most mystery fans.  At the same time, this noir mystery is matched and enhanced by Berry’s atmospheric, nearly atonal painted illustrations.  She plays with form, moving away from cartoon-inspired boxy drawings to distinctive illustrations that span an entire page, which both build upon and facilitate the flow of dialogue and action. I don’t read a ton of graphic novels, but if more were like this then I absolutely would. So, if you’re a graphic novel novice or enthusiast, or simply a fan of complex noir mysteries in the style of Dashiell Hammett, definitely give Britten and Brülightly a try.

Matterhorn 0


by Karl Marlantes

I think there are two great Vietnam novels out this spring – one is Karl Marlantes’s stunning and visceral first novel, Matterhorn.  (I’ll write about the second in a later post.)

Matterhorn was a book that took me ages to read, because after every few pages I had to put it down in order to try to recover my emotional equilibrium.  I’ve read many of what are generally regarded as the best books—both fiction and nonfiction —about various wars, including Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nathaniel Fick, Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War, Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, and many more; but Matterhorn just knocked the wind out of me and made me wonder how any combat soldiers come home sane.  Even just the experience of reading it makes clear how difficult it must have been for Marlantes to write this book (it was over three decades in the making). One can only hope that it was in some sense cathartic, a way to deal with the memories, the flashbacks, and the whole messy, dangerous, frustrating, and frightening experience. 

Here’s a quote that I think reflects Marlantes’s ability to bring an event to life.  He’s describing a squadron of men making their way through the jungles, alert to any sight or sound of the North Vietnamese Army:

The fourteen-man snake moved in spasms. The point man would suddenly crouch, eyes and ears straining, and those behind him would bunch up, crouch, and wait to move again.  They would get tired, let down their guard.  Then, frightened by a strange sound, they would become alert once again. Their eyes flickered rapidly back and forth as they tried to look in all directions at once. They carried Kool-Aid packages, Tang—anything to kill the chemical taste of the water in their plastic canteens.  Soon the smears of purple and orange Kool-Aid on their lips combined with the fear in their eyes to make them look like children returning from a birthday party at which the hostess had shown horror films.

I think it’s amazing that Marlantes packs so much in this more-or-less throwaway paragraph, which is rendered so carefully that we feel part of that “snake” and know what those men look, feel, and act like. 

It’s an amazing accomplishment.

Scoop 0


by Evelyn Waugh

Although I loved Brideshead Revisited (both the novel and the 1981 BBC television series), I’d never read any other novels by Evelyn Waugh. Then, while I was doing all the reading for Book Lust To Go: Recommended Reading for Travelers, Vagabonds, and Dreamers, I picked up a copy of Waugh’s fifth novel, Scoop, and found myself totally entranced and entertained.  And, not least, I found myself both shocked and uncomfortable.  I want to recommend Scoop highly, because it’s a brilliant and biting satire that exposes the baseness of the news reporting business and, more specifically, tabloid journalism.  I am, in fact, recommending it highly; it’s definitely well worth reading.  Believe me, after you finish this, you’ll never read (or hear) a news story in quite the same way again. Scoop was written in the 1930s and is clearly based on Waugh’s experiences as a reporter covering the war between Italy and Ethiopia. 

But the more I thought about it (and I thought about it a lot because this issue really interests me), the more I questioned how I could praise a novel so highly that is both racist and anti-Semitic?  How can I have so thoroughly enjoyed such a book?  And—just to warn you—the racism and anti-Semitism are not presented at all subtly.  Scoop is filled with epithets and descriptions that made me wince in psychic pain.

It’s true that you can find these same sentiments toward non-Christians and non-whites reflected in the mystery novels of Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie, for example, although they’re not quite as barbed as they are in the hands of Waugh, who is probably the best writer of the three.  Do we excuse the novels because these were the attitudes of the time, and the authors were merely sailing along with the prevailing wind?  Is it right to read the future into these books and see the Holocaust foretold in the anti-Semitism and the messiness of the Middle East in the treatment of the natives in Waugh’s fictional country?  I don’t know the answer to these questions. What do you think?