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Thursday, January 31, 2013

In the Heart of the Sea. The Epic True Story that Inspired Moby Dick. Nathaniel Philbrick. HarperCollins (2000)

A deeply engaging exploration of an extraordinary episode of American maritime history. On the 20th November 1820 the whaling ship, Essex, was rammed by a sperm whale forcing the crew to take to three small boats and endure an appalling journey of thirst, starvation and endurance. Nathaniel Philbrick places the events prior to the sinking of the ship into context, clearly establishing why they were hunting whales in the first place and then provides a harrowing account of the aftermath.
The Essex was whaling ship that had sailed from Nantucket, a tiny island off the coast of Massachusetts, was for a period the center of a global oil industry. Whale oil was a vital energy source at the time, used in steet lights and as a lubricant in machinery. Nantucket was home to the most important and productive whaling fleet of the time, for reasons that Nathaniel Philbrick makes clear, they sent out fleets of ships to the far reaches of the globe in search of whales, specifically sperm whales. The sailors of Nantucket were extraordinary explorers and hunters, faring deep into the Pacific in search of their prey on multi-year voyages that could be massively profitable.
Those voyages, even if they did not include being shipwrecked, were feats of endurance in their own right and they shaped the society and population of Nantucket in profound and lasting ways. The small population of the island, the near total dominance of a single industry and the tight intertwining of business, social and personal relations and religion all created special context for the crew of any Nantucket whaling ship. The impact of this context on the crew after the disaster is one of the most fascinating threads which is followed with care and thoughtful detail in this book.
The most visible aspect of the survivors journey is the way that they were driven to cannibalism to survive and the impact this had on the final survivors and the relations of the living and the dead in Nantucket. There is a great deal of detail about the physical and mental impact of thirst and starvation on body and mind, the way that the will to survive is altered, eroded and dominated by the need to eat and drink. At the same time the truly astounding feats of navigation complete by the men in tiny boats in the vast Pacific are explained with force and clarity. No prior knowledge of sailing is required to follow and understand the scope and scale of what was accomplished, understand the terrible errors that were made or be amazed at the unrelenting efforts to survive that were needed and made.
By placing the events of the voyage in a wider and longer context, the final survivors are tracked after their rescue and the impact of the story traced on the wider US context, Nathaniel Philbrick has written an absorbing, terrifying and deeply moving history that is a substantial pleasure to read.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Blacksad. A Silent Hell. Juan Diaz Canales (Writer), Juanjo Guarnido (Artist), Katie LaBarbera (Translator), Louis Buhalis, Tom Orzechowski (Letters) Dark Horse Books (2012)

A gripping and deeply engaging period crime dram set in an alternative, (the cast are anthropomorphic),  1950's New Orleans. Private investigator John Blacksad is hired by music producer to find a missing jazz pianist. The simple case starts to become significantly more complicated right away as one of his most important leads is murdered and he finds that there is considerably more to the case than had been revealed. The action is wonderfully staged, the reveals are excellent and the grim unraveling of the plot is true to the black roots of noir crime.
This comic overcomes an inherent problem, making a story about humanized animals work as a serious, grim drama work on its own terms. The takes itself and the reader seriously enough that it is clear from the start that the book is not a joke and the cast have more than enough personality to allow them emerge as individuals regardless of how they look.
The biggest problem that the book has is Juanjo Guarnido's  stunning art, it is so beautiful, so detailed and atmospheric that it could easily overwhelm the story and end up severely diluting the impact of the comic as a whole. Instead the art serves the purpose it should it clothes the words ans ideas of the story with graceful telling detail and gives the extra dimensions to the cast and context that elevate the whole. From the opening in a strip club to the low key and inevitable ending that art is never ahead of the story. This does not limit the impact of the art, it serves to focus it and give it force and depth, the city of New Orleans is brought to lush and shadowed life in a way that words would struggle to do with similar economy and scale.
The cast are everything that a group caught up in a classic noir scenario should be, John Blacksad is tough and ready to fight, competent but not invincible, his sidekick is nicely seedy, the musicians at the heart of the story are bruised from their lives and trying to be true to their music at the same time. The body language and expressions are clear and meaningful, they interact with each other and their context with natural ease.
Noir crime stories are very easy to get wrong, the trappings are so well known and visible that it is easy to miss the real muscle and blood that drives a true noir story. Noir stories are wounded romances, betrayal is expected but always there is hope that it will not happen. The tension comes from the sad surprise that the worst case has been revealed as the true state of affairs while never dropping into defeated cynicism. Juan Diaz Canales writes with exactly that spirit and it fits the time period, the mixed decade of  post-war optimism and disillusion, the plot is sharp and effective, it gives an edge to the art. A superb comic.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Origin, Spirits of the Past. Keiichi Sugiyama (Director) Manga (2006)

The beautiful animation compensates a great deal for a thin story. 300 years previously a disaster struck Earth from the Moon and a humanity is isolated, divided and vastly outnumbered by the great encroaching forest that has taken over the planet. In the outpost of Neutral City which acts the buffer between the forest and the militaristic human nation of Ragna, the people survive by scavenging in the ruins of the human past. Agito accidentally finds a cryogenic chamber and releases Toola who had been frozen inside. Toola crease intense interest in the forest and in Ragna as well as disrupting lives in Neutral city. Ragna has plan to launch a military assault on the forest to reclaim the Earth and Toola's knowledge from the past is vital to their plans. Agito bonds with the forest to gain the power to rescue Toola and the struggle for the future of the Earth is set in motion.
The story is slight and does not have a great deal of force or originality, the plot mechanics are genre staples and the conclusion is unsurprising. Happily the story is by far the least part of the film, it really is a structure on which to hang stunning animation. The cast are a step or two above genre stereotypes, they come have wandered in from a lot of other films without any alternation needed. They serve their purpose well and that is all they have to do, they provide a reason to explore the mind boggling detail and astonishing lushness of the world itself.
Neutral city with is layers of skyscrapers being scoured for salvage, the broken bones of the building poking up from the encroaching greenery joined by a hair raising network of wires, ropes and horizontal ladders is the most exciting adventure playground imaginable. Ragna is a bit more muted, the military machine city is sleek, metallic and futuristic. When the astonishing war machines are unleashed, gleaming with the love and attention to detail lavished on their construction they are a thrill and a delight. There is an unabashed joy in the mechanical and technological possibilities that radiates from each glorious creation.
The forest is the hands down winner for beauty, depth and atmosphere, there is a forceful naturalness to the forest that grounds the whole project. The forest breaths with a life that sits easily within it, the shadows and texture give it force and depth so that the breakout to a mystical expression of the forest mind is not whimsical or cloying. It is delicate and ethereal, a contrast to the solid force of the physical presence of the forest.
There are many aspect to hugely enjoy in this film, great ideas are well used, the mechanics of the scheme to reset the world to defeat the forest have a wild James Bond super-villain grandeur and scope. The story does the minimal task it has to providing an excuse for the joyous art.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Killer's Art. Mari Jungstedt (Writer). Tiina Nunnally (Translator). Corgi Books (2010)

An enjoyable crime story that never quite engages. The body of a well known art dealer is found hanging from a gate in the old city wall in the Swedish city of Visby. Superintendent Knutas leads the investigation which does not find any quick or obvious motives or suspects. A theft from a Stockholm museum that clearly has a link with the murder opens up new lines on inquiry while adding to the confusion. The final unraveling is nicely murky and unpleasant. The plot mechanics are well developed, the reveals are well staged and the nasty business at the heart of the story is well thought out. Mari Jungstedt uses genre structures and expectations well, playing with some and against others effectively keeping the reader a little off balance.
The significant problem that the story has is the cast, they do not lift sufficiently off the page and emerge into independent life. There s a somewhat flat note in the writing which renders the cast more functional than engaging. They are varied and individual, care is given to make then clear and more that just puppets of the plot mechanics. While the cast combine nicely with the plot threads to keep the general level of interest high enough, I always had the sensation of reading the book. I never quite fell into it the way I normally do. The flatness was most noticeable at the climax when the reasons for the actions became clear. There is a welcome and nasty brew at the heart of the story, the impact is muted and it does not quite have the bite it should.
On the other hand the frantic efforts to find a missing person are delivered in a gripping fashion, the pressure of time gave it a genuine urgency and lifty that is missing elsewhere.
The context , geographical and cultural for the story are among the strongest features of the book. The city of Visby and the surrounding country emerge quietly and effectively as a real landscape that gives the cast a much need lift by providing a credible physical context for the action. The cultural landscape, the art market in Sweden is unobtrusively developed and filled, the details are included in a natural and supportive way. While it does not catch fire it remains an enjoyable read.