#tobyreads: The Plot & The Echoes of Life


It’s been kind of a weird week, as reading goes. There’ve been a few terrific books that I’ve read in the past few days that I’m probably not going to talk about quite yet, but that you will see me writing about in the coming weeks and months. (The authors of those? Jen Doll, Norman Lock, and Scott Cheshire.) But this week has also seen plenty of other reading, some of which has been very plot-heavy; others of which has opted against that in favor of echoing the rhythms of life.

Alternately, this is probably the one literary column this week where you’ll see discussion of moving, self-reflexive works from Marie Chaix and Joseph Riippi alongside books about apocalyptic horrors and secret societies of magicians. So there’s that, I suppose.

Maybe it’s most appropriate to begin with James Brubaker‘s Pilot Season, a collection of very short stories, each of which describes the plot of a fake television show, conceived in desperation by a network executive who may himself be a character in someone else’s television show. Some of the stories here are more overly satirical, brutally riffing on tropes of the medium; others take a more meta approach, positing a near future in which echoes of what came before are the only new options for us to consider. It’s a quick, punchy head-twister of a book. (I should probably mention here that I’ve published writing from both Brubaker and Riippi as Sunday Stories, so I may not be entirely objective here.)

I read Marie Chaix’s The Summer of the Elder Tree and Joseph Riippi’s Because in relatively close proximity, and they make a good pair. Chaix’s book blends memoir, journal entries, and musings on her own past work to create something constantly shifting. Here, she’s musing on a decade-long period in which she was unable to write much of anything, owing to anxieties due to the death of her editor. Generations of her family appear: she deals with the divorce of one of her daughters, muses on her marriages, and considers the lives of both of her parents, each of whom has inspired books of hers. Chaix’s father was imprisoned after the Second World War for collaborating with the Nazis, and her grappling with his horrific legacy is something that resounds throughout her work. And it’s also prompted me to revisit Sarah Gerard’s excellent interview with Chaix, which is how I was first pointed in the direction of her work.

Because is a similarly introspective work, sometimes painfully so: Riippi returns to certain aspects of his life, including his grandfather’s declining health, the death of a childhood friend, and his own battles with depression, slowly revealing more and more facets to them over time. Structurally, his approach echoes Joe Brainard’s I Remember: short passages, each with a similar structure, grouped thematically. And the cumulative effect is, indeed, effective–at times, the level of intimacy can be (intentionally) discomfiting. This is a challenging, deeply rewarding book.

On to the more overtly plotted side of the equation. A few weeks ago, I read Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch, and this week, it came time for me to check out Day Watch, which focuses on an ongoing conflict between two sides of a long-simmering supernatural conflict. By stetting this book on the opposite side of said conflict from Night Watch, Lukyaneko continues the notion of relativity that gives his central concept more depth. That said, this one takes its time getting started: the first section focuses on a character who is intentionally removed from the action, and it takes a little time to figure out where things are going. When they finally do click into place, things work like proverbial gangbusters. It’s a bleak spy novel with magicians and vampires, and as enjoyable as that might sound.

I also picked up the final collection of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s Locke & Key, titled Alpha & Omega. And, I think right about now would be the right time to be in awe of how well Hill has plotted this series out: there are moments very early on that turn out to have set up major developments; there’s misdirection aplenty, and there are some fantastic payoffs that take place as the series nears its end. As for the series: the very quick version is that it’s about a family that returns to their ancestral New England home following a tragedy, and slowly become embroiled in a conflict that turns out to have been playing itself out for much longer. It’s terrific horror with a very human core; Hill writes solid dialogue, and Rodriguez’s use of body language becomes beatifically precise fairly early in the series. It’s a hell of a run, and the ending clicks neatly; for those of you who like your comics with more than a little horror, this comes highly recommended.

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