28 February 2018

Books: Mr. Dixon Disappears By Ian Sansom (2006)

Mr. Dixon a member of the Ulster Association of Magicians, has gone missing—along with one hundred thousand pounds in cash. Israel Armstrong, bighearted and overly inquisitive, should stick to delivering library books to out-of-the-way readers and not get involved in the investigation. But of course, he can't help himself—which costs him his job and earns him a place of dishonor among the police's prime suspects. Can Israel clear his name and get his van back? Will the exhibition of old local photos he's been driving around County Antrim offer clues to Mr. D.'s whereabouts? And is a romance in the offing with winsome barmaid Rosie Hart?

Mr. Dixon Disappears is the second Mobile Library Mystery book and once again, while has some charming humor, the plot is absurd, with Israel quickly accused of the crime -and it’s startling how quickly a small municipality not only wrongly accuses Armstrong of a crime, but is so indifferent to his obvious innocence, it makes the police look like total idiots. But am I missing the point here? Is Sansom spoofing the typical British mysteries of yesteryear, with its eccentric towns folk and with a bumbling hero who stumbles from one ridiculous place to another? Again, what am I missing?

Plus, it’s not even Israel who realizes what happened to Mr. Dixon. Still, there one rather brilliant observation in the book that made me sort of question my reading life:

Israel  “had always believed that reading was good for you, that the more books you read somehow the better you were, the closer to some ideal of human perfection you came, yet if anything his own experience at the library suggested the exact opposite: that reading didn't make you a better person, that it just made you short-sighted, and even less likely than your fellow man or woman to be able to hold a conversation about anything that did not centre around you and your ailments and the state of the weather.  Could all that really be true? Did it matter? That the striving after knowledge, the attempt to understand human minds and human nature, and stories, and narrative shapes and patterns, made you no better a person? That the whole thing was an illusion? That books were not a mirror of nature or a mark of civilisation, but a chimera? That the reading of books was in fact nothing more than a kind of mental knitting, or like the monotonous eating of biscuits, a pleasant way of passing time before you died? All those words about words, and texts about texts, and all nothing more than tiny splashes of ink.”

It’s here, when Sansom ponders this extensional world of reading, that the book becomes interesting. But I still can’t care about anyone of these characters, with the exception of Brian (or Brownie), the only one I can see here that has any real human empathy. Sadly, he is missing from this book and there times as I read this, I wondered what he was up to at university.

23 February 2018

Books: The Case of the Missing Books By Ian Sansom (2005)

Israel Armstrong is a passionate soul, lured to Ireland by the promise of an exciting new career. Alas, the job that awaits him is not quite what he has in mind. Still, Israel is not one to dwell on disappointment, as he prepares to drive a mobile library around a small, damp Irish town. After all, the scenery is lovely, the people are charming--but where are the books? The rolling library's 15,000 volumes have mysteriously gone missing, and it's up to Israel to discover who would steal them...and why. And perhaps, after that, he will tackle other bizarre and perplexing local mysteries--like, where does one go to find a proper cappuccino and a decent newspaper?

The Case of the Missing Books is less the beginning of a mystery series and more a collection of (sometimes) funny tropes about small town life and your typical fish out of water hero. I didn’t particularly like the book (got it at a library for a buck and came across the second book as well, so I’ll read it next), though I don’t hate it as well. The locals are a bit rough, mean, and hellish and Israel could use a spine from time to time dealing with them; and while the “mystery” aspect is not much of a mystery per se, I still felt compelled to think how 15,000 copies of a local library could vanish.

Sansom does try to explore this theme a bit (though the explanation is rather unique), but he clearly rather deal with oddball characters that he creates here. Still, the book does have some funny parts, some clever dialogue, but everyone could use with a bit of softening around the edges. It's not that original, but that did not really bother me. I just wished it was something more than it was -though I would be remiss to put my finger on why exactly I was expecting. Still, these days I'm reading what interests me, and at this moment, this is a fine way to pass what's left of my life.

Then again, I would not mind to be “paid to drive around beautiful, rural, coastal Irish community, with a van full of books.”

18 February 2018

Books: The Learners By Chip Kidd (2008)

“Fresh out of college in the summer of 1961, Happy lands his first job as a graphic designer (okay, art assistant) at a small Connecticut advertising agency populated by a cast of endearing eccentrics. Life for Happy seems to be -- well, happy. But when he's assigned to design a newspaper ad recruiting participants for an experiment in the Yale Psychology Department, Happy can't resist responding to the ad himself. Little does he know that the experience will devastate him, forcing a reexamination of his past, his soul, and the nature of human cruelty -- chiefly, his own.”

The Learners is the follow up to The Cheese Monkeys, world-renowned Graphic Artist Chip Kidd and continues to his semi-autobiographical adventures. And much like his first novel, the follow-up also sheds more light on “great invisible arts of our culture.” Here he combines his artistic eye and how it’s used in advertising along with a second storyline, that of real-life psychologist Stanley Milgram and his 1960s experiment on human response to authority. My assumption is that Milgram’s psychological work and the psychology of advertising are suppose to parallel (or be a metaphor) each other, but the two-plot lines fail to fully converge in anything meaningful, which feels like a real missed opportunity.

While I felt the book moved swiftly for me, more so because of Kidd’s voice, his snappy dialogue and his witty little characters, but the story really goes nowhere –it’s like slice of life entries more than anything. Yes, there is lots of clever stuff in this book, including a great discussion on form vs. content, but story is too jumbled, too choppy for its own good.

Still, as always, I would recommend it for its sharp and witty prose. But I still feel you need to be a fan of modern humorist writers like David Sedaris, Joe Keenan, and, Christopher Moore to appreciate the sly, absurdist jesting.

13 February 2018

Books: The Cheese Monkeys by Chip Kidd (2001)

"It’s the fall of 1957, long before computers have replaced the trained eye and skillful hand. Our narrator is at State U is determined to major in Art, and after several risible false starts, he ends up by accident in a new class called 'Introduction to Graphic Design.' Art 127 is taught by the enigmatic Winter Sorbeck, professor and guru (think Gary Cooper crossed with Darth Vader) -- equal parts genius, seducer, and sadist. Sorbeck is a bitter yet fascinating man whose assignments hurl his charges through a gauntlet of humiliation and heartache, shame and triumph, ego-bashing and enlightenment. Along the way, friendships are made and undone, jealousies simmer, the sexual tango weaves and dips."

Chip Kidd has spent his career designing covers for books at Knolf and in 2001 he released his debut novel that is sometimes laugh out loud funny but very obviously a semi-autobiographical portrait of a brilliant designer as a young man. There is wit galore, often reminding me of the screwball comedies made by director Howard Hawks and stars Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant. It’s off-beat, sometimes animated, but also gives us an awkward look into the tenets of graphic design, an often overlooked art course.

The book often reminded me of David Sedaris, with his dry and absurdist humor, Christopher Moore for the silliness, Richard Russo’s own college bound satire Straight Man, and Joe Keenan, who’s written three novels that would fit very well into the 1940s and 50s movie comedies this book emulates. It does not have the social commentary of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, but The Cheese Monkeys clearly a cousin to that tome. 

The only issue I have with the book is that everything falls apart at the end. The book takes an odd left turn and never recovers. It ends somewhat abruptly and nothing is really resolved. Kidd released a sequel in 2008, so I’ll see how this tale is continued.

But for a good portion of the book, The Cheese Monkeys is a hilarious.