Book Review: The War of Art

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The War of Art

by Steven Pressfield

In retrospect, I should have known from the foreword that this was the wrong book for me: Robert McKee talks about art like it’s a war that Pressfield will help me to win; and while I think art is a struggle, I really don’t think it’s a war; indeed, as I am a pacifist, couching things in warrior’s terms is just going to push me away. He also references golf as evidence that Pressfield is a consummate professional (Pressfield wrote The Legend of Bagger Vance, which I have neither read nor seen; I guess it’s about golf? I guess Pressfield likes the game? But he writes anyway instead of playing, which – I guess is impressive?), and there’s the second best way to alienate me. He talks about tearing up over the Spartans’ death at Thermopylae, which was the subject of Pressfield’s other big book, Gates of Fire, which I did read, and did like quite a lot – but it didn’t make me weepy, and I don’t know what it has to do with inspiration to make art. So I’m really having trouble relating to this foreword author – and then he ends his intro with this:

“When inspiration touches talent, she gives birth to truth and beauty. And when Steven Pressfield was writing The War of Art, she had her hands all over him.”

Creepy sexual metaphors, especially about things that are not remotely sexual – like the act of putting words on a page – that is the number one way to make me say “Nope.” So I should have known.

Let me say this, though: this is a book intended to inspire artists, to help people break through creative blocks and create art they can be proud of. I can’t think of many more noble things to try to do, and I appreciate Pressfield’s earnest and genuine attempt to give people tools to do what they should be doing. So: if you do appreciate sports metaphors, and war metaphors, and you like a good, strong pep talk – or as the cover blurb calls it “A vital gem… a kick in the ass,” (which also should have been a warning sign for me) – then please ignore this review, and go get this book. I hope it helps.

It didn’t help me.

There are moments when I agree with Pressfield. He talks about questioning his writing, and feeling hopeless, and the strength and stamina it requires to push through all that and just keep working. He calls it work, and talks about how important it is to just keep putting in the hours, to keep trying, to keep seeking to hone your craft and do the best you can – but first and foremost, to just put the goddamn letters on the goddamn page, and to never give up. And I agree with that entirely. He talks about how he was in his 40’s before he found success, and how it came from an entirely unlikely source, which was, logical or not, simply the book he had to write at the time; and as a 44-year-old writer who is working on his second novel about a time-traveling Irish pirate, I appreciate everything about that.

But then there are the places where he talks about being a Marine, and how other servicemen in other branches are weaker than Marines because Marines love being miserable (This is a metaphor for how artists should be: willing to suffer and be miserable. I kind of see that. This whole Marines-have-bigger-dicks-than-other-soldiers? Nah.) and the other services are soft. Where he talks about writing and art like it is a war to be fought and won; or an animal to be hunted and then eaten; or a football game where you have to “leave everything on the field.” And I hate all of that. He talks about the urges and habits that get in the way of art as Resistance, and that’s pretty good, but he also talks about how like not cleaning your room is a way to lose to Resistance, and – what? And how golf is an art, and Tiger Woods is the greatest artist of all because he can be interrupted mid-swing, stop his swing, and then refocus and hit a golf ball really hard and – I fail to see the art in that. And he says that mental illness, depression and anxiety, are not real, but only a failure to combat resistance, which can be overcome by determination and the earnest pursuit of one’s true calling, and hey, fuck you, Pressfield.

He’s got a strange (And contradictory) section where he tries to talk about thinking territorially instead of hierarchically, and basically he means you should do what you think is right rather than worry about what other people think is right, and okay, sure – but first, he says elsewhere in the book that he knows he’s written well when his family is pleased and proud of him, which is hierarchical thinking by his own definition and explanation, so either he’s a REALLY bad editor who missed that continuity break, or he’s full of crap in one of these places; and second, his example of someone thinking territorially is Arnold Schwarzenegger going to the gym. Which is both weird and not at all artistically inspiring. It gets really weird in the third section, where the devout Christian Pressfield (Though he also admires the ancient Greeks so damn much that he seems to kinda want to worship Zeus and Apollo. I can’t really disagree with that, though I wouldn’t pick the same gods.) talks about angels who help inspire artists to work, because God wants us to create beautiful things for Him to admire, and how everything an artist is comes from God and we should understand that we contribute nothing, that we are only the vessel through which the divine will is worked. I mean, when we’re not being hardcore fucking Marines. Or hitting 310 yards off the tee. Otherwise, though, we should be all humble before God. It is not quite this Christian – he really does admire and know a lot about the Greeks – but it does read that way, as a repudiation of human accomplishment and a glorification of the eternal Whatever. And as an atheist and a part-time humanist, I am not at all down with that.

This thing reads exactly like what it is: a privileged Baby Boomer looking down on everyone else who doesn’t have all of his privileges; and by the way, he says some interesting and intelligent things that show me he really is an artist like me. Just way more of a shmuck. Hoo rah.

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This Morning (Book Review: Everything Box)

This morning I don’t know if this is a good idea? I wrote a book review, which I want to post; I don’t want to interrupt this stream of This Morning blogs, so I thought I would use the book review for This Morning. Opinions? Is this a copout? Just the wrong sort of thing for me to do, because This Morning is about my thoughts and feelings? I dunno.

I can make book reviews a part of this streak, or I can make separate posts.

Leave a comment and let me know what you think, if you have thoughts.

 

The Everything Box

by Richard Kadrey

I’ve read three Sandman Slim novels (And if you haven’t, you should – dark horror/fantasy with a punk edge and a great sense of humor), so I had some idea of what to expect with this book; but I didn’t expect this book.

It’s a caper story, a one-off novel with no connection to other Kadrey books (And I just found out this second that there are sequels) about a professional thief who gets hired to steal the wrong thing, and even though he manages to do it, he gets sold out on the job by a fellow thief, who, predictably, has no honor. Coop (Charlie Cooper, though no one calls him that) gets sent to a special prison for the next few years, before he is sprung, by the same guy who put him away, and for the opposite reason: this time the guy, Morty, needs Coop’s help.

He needs Coop’s help specifically for the same reason that Coop was in a special jail: because Coop is not a normal thief. He is a magical thief, who steals mystical and mysterious items for mystical and mysterious people who can pay him in cold, hard cash.

That’s the setup (And forgive me for spoiling the first two chapters), and it’s a good one. The opening scene when Coop is on the job is a lot of fun, and the subsequent caper action is just as good, all the way through. The book does start a little slow, as Kadrey has a pretty broad cast of characters; there’s a madcap element to this, as it ends up with one of those Mad Mad Mad Mad World scenarios, with everyone running around looking for the same thing – the Everything Box of the title – and so getting all of those characters with their disparate personalities and motivations into the reader’s mind is a challenge. Kadrey does it as well as any, I think, but simply because it’s a single book, he has to fall back on some fairly generic tropes and character types. He does at least one wonderful thing, though, which is to completely flip some of those tropes: there are two different demon-worshipping doomsday cults involved, one led by a High Dark Magister (Or is it Dark High Magister?) with a bad back whose throne is a Barcalounger, and the other led by a very traditional suburban family who hold bake sales to raise funds for their dark rituals. (The bake sale scene is one of the funniest things in the book, and one of the funniest scenes I’ve read in a long while.) But there are some confusing moments: there was one character who I actually thought was a different character until they met each other, and I got lost in the earlier chapters and had to slog a bit. But it picks up, and the last 100 pages whiz by; the ending is great.

Apart from the caper action – which takes more than enough twists to keep you guessing; I honestly kept thinking, “That’s it? That can’t be it. Oh wait – that’s not it!” – the book does one other thing remarkably well, which is make you like the characters. Almost all of them are generally likable and amusing, including the ones opposed to our hero Coop, who is an excellent sort of everyman guy who just happens to be a thief. But both because they are a bit one-dimensional, and also because they are pretty goofy, you don’t mind too much when bad things happen to them – and like all of Kadrey’s books in my experience, a lot of bad things happen to a lot of people.

And I liked it.

Book Review: The Unnoticeables

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The Unnoticeables

by Robert Brockway

 

This is a badass book.

First, I mean that quite literally: it’s a punk book, with a punk character, written by a guy who wrote in his dedication that this should show all those people who said he was wasting his time going to all those punk rock shows – so I’m guessing he’s a punk author.

It reads like it. Carey, one of the main characters (There are two, as the book has two settings about 25 years apart) sounds spot on to what I imagine a punk in 70’s New York City to be: angry when he’s not indifferent, violent when he’s not wasted, wasted when he’s not broke. Always going to shows, always spending time with his friends, and criticizing and attacking every single element of his life and world, always trying to peel away the artifice and reveal the truth beneath, even when – especially when – that truth is ugly. As Carey himself often is. But he’s also a hell of a lot of fun to read.

The other main character, Kaitlyn, is also a badass, because she’s a stuntwoman, with the attendant skills, interests, and adrenaline addiction. Her story is set in 2010-ish, in LA, of course. Her story has a strong feel of peeking behind the curtain, as she is not, and does not want to be, an actress: she’s one of those rare people who really wants to be behind the scenes, essentially, at least not with her name in lights. She wants thrills, not celebrity; for the most part she’d be happy with steady work so she can quit waitressing.

The second reason this is a badass book is because Brockway has created a set of supernatural creatures that are thoroughly badass, in more than one way. Mainly, they are absurdly difficult to fight, because they are essentially unbeatable, unbreakable, and entirely deadly; you can win a fight against them, but they’ll just come right back the next day. And since they can make more of themselves, there’s really not much hope for humanity.

They’re also badass because they aren’t anything I’ve ever read before: Brockway created them. He calls them angels, because one of their forms is a geometric shape made of light; but they’re neither heavenly nor beneficent. Another of their forms is a human, but only on the outside; on the inside is –something else. Something deeply disturbing. Their third form is made by these disturbing creatures: it is a human, but one without a soul; at least, that’s the easiest way to describe it. That’s not how Brockway describes it. His way of talking about this group of enemies is interesting: they are forgettable. When you see them, your instinct is to look away, to forget you ever saw that person. These are the namesakes of the book, as there is something about these people that makes them impossible to remember; you can meet one, touch it, talk to it, even think it’s hot – but you can’t describe it. It is Unnoticeable.

Their final form? (Unintentional reference. Also, I have gone down in power, not up. The angels are the most dangerous and the hardest to deal with. But still, these are rough.) A giant man-sized mound of goo, which dissolves anything human it touches, like a walking (Well, oozing) acid bath. Those are the ones that Carey figures out how to kill, actually. The other ones he can’t kill, or at least so it seems. Doesn’t stop him from fighting them, though. And maybe – maybe – he can win. Sometimes. A little.

The absolute best part of this book, for me, was the motivation of the creatures, their reason for doing what they do. It’s just so goddamn clever, and poetic, and beautifully chilling. It’s one of those ideas I wish I had had, but since I didn’t, I will gladly go on reading Brockway’s story about them, and also, anything else of his I can find.

Because this is a badass book.

Highly recommended.

Book Review: Time and Again

(Sorry about this; I know it’s been a month, and this is lame, but I wanted to make sure I posted something in the month of August. I’m teaching now, so therefore not doing enough of what I should be doing, reading and writing. I’ll try to get something better up soon. For now, here’s this.)

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Time and Again

by Jack Finney

I bought this because Jack Finney wrote Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is a science fiction classic, and one of my all-time favorite short stories, Contents of the Dead Man’s Pockets, which is just brilliant. Also, my copy of this is from the Fantasy Masterworks series; and, last but not least, it’s about time travel. I wrote a book – two, now – about time travel. Clearly I need to read this fantasy masterpiece by an excellent author about a theme similar to mine.

Now I’ve read it; I’m not sure I really needed to read it.

The book is the story of a government project to realize time travel. The concept is deceptively simple: based on Einstein’s theories that time is similar to space in that it is a dimension of the space-time continuum, which means it has an axis, and therefore just as you could move in either direction along one axis in space (up-down, right-left, forward-back), you should be able to move in both directions in time. I don’t want to get too far into it, but the government project is, I think, quite well done: they do things the government would do, in the way that government would do them. The main character is a graphic designer and illustrator living in New York City in the 1960’s or so (The actual date of the modern era is left vague), who eventually attempts to travel back in time to 1882. The key is to find a space that can be isolated from the modern era completely: in this case (though there are several different attempts going on at once), the central element is the Dakota, a residential apartment building/hotel in New York City that has remained unchanged from the 1800’s until now. It’s a clever idea, honestly, and Finney does it really well.

There are some things about this book that are incredible. The level of detail that Finney was able to summon and wield in order to capture the time frames, both the character’s starting point and the destination, is amazing. The world he describes is lovely, but not actually idealized – one of the very best scenes is a conversation the hero has with a wagon driver in 1882 who describes what absolute hell it is to have his job in the New York winters, and it’s a brilliantly dark moment – which just made its loveliness more impressive; reading the book feels like being nostalgic for an era that I never knew, and a city I have visited but never cared too much about. As much as anything else, this book is a love letter to New York City: the comparison between the Big Apple of the past and the modern one makes both cities seem glorious, from Central Park to St. Patrick’s cathedral to Madison Square, from the Museum of Natural History to the Dakota building to the Statue of Liberty. It’s all wonderful. The descriptions are specific and detailed and interesting, and Finney made liberal use of original photographs and drawings from 1882 New York, making his main character into an artist as a means of drawing the actual historical art into the narrative. Some of the reproductions in this paperback edition were a bit sketchy or blurry, but it did certainly bring the setting to life, and I loved that.

You know what I didn’t like, though? The characters. Not a one of them. The main character, Simon Morley, struck me as an arrogant putz, and they went downhill from there. The best people are the cast of characters in the past, but several of them are, as you might expect, a little too alien for me to relate to very well; I suppose I can appreciate gathering with the other roomers in my boarding house to sing songs together in the drawing room, but I can’t help but think it strange, too.

You know what else I didn’t like? The plot. The major conflict is resolved in the first 150 pages (of 400) when – spoiler – time travel works. After that it’s Simon Morley putzing around, making bad decisions and then following them up with worse decisions; it does, I admit, make him realistic, because I think most people would do a lot of the things he did – but they were stupid things to do, so I can’t like him for it. I do like his final decision, which I will not spoil here but which did surprise me; unfortunately, it made reference to an earlier detail that I had forgotten entirely, so the poetic denouement was lost on me. Part of that is because the book took me a long time to read: a slow plot and annoying characters, combined with the start of the new school year, dragged this one out for a couple of weeks, which is a long time for me.

Don’t let me ruin this one, though. The time travel idea is interesting, if in some ways far fetched (Yes, as compared to the far more realistic means of time travel from other books – like mine, where it is, y’know, magic. Reality squared, that’s what that is), the writing and the descriptions really are remarkable, along with the photos and the historical details. It’s a good book. I just wish Finney had written a better hero.

Book Review: 19 Varieties of Gazelle

(In honor of the sad fact that I start teaching next week, here is a book I got from school. Fortunately, it’s a lovely book.)

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19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East

by Naomi Shihab Nye

I don’t read enough poetry; most of what I do, I encounter at school, while teaching literature to my high school students. That’s where I’ve read Naomi Shihab Nye’s poetry before, as she is often collected in literature textbooks (Particularly in the last twenty years, as the call has gone out for diversity among authors, seeking more women and people of color to break up the Great Wall of Dead White Dudes), and it’s where I got this book. Teachers, take note: the teacher who was in your classroom before you probably had some neat stuff, especially books. Check your shelves and cabinets and desk drawers. Trust me.

I’m very glad I found this, and very glad I read it. It’s a beautiful book. Nye has the gift of using few words to say many things, and to create strong and tangible, poignant moods. I feel like I know her father from her poem about him and his fig tree, and what’s more, I feel like I know more about figs, and also about her because she grew up with that father and those figs. She has captured a clear and powerful picture of the Middle East, particularly Lebanon and Israel and the life of Palestinians, as the book’s poems are largely from the 90’s and early 2000’s. She has also shown what it’s like to be Arab-American, and to feel both connected and separated from life in the Middle East: she has this remarkable view, like an outsider with just enough of a connection through culture and heritage and language to see inside more clearly than an outsider normally can; just clearly enough for it to hurt, mostly, though she is also in awe of the people she feels she can almost, but not quite, understand. And then her ability to write poetry allows me to feel the same thing about her, and about her subjects at that additional remove; I feel for her feeling for them.

It’s an experience. These are beautiful words, and a good book. And, as always, it’s timely, even fifteen years later, because it seems the Middle East never changes.

Book Review: City of Bones

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City of Bones

by Martha Wells

 

I don’t know why I’ve never heard of Martha Wells.

It’s clearly my problem; she’s written more than a dozen novels since the mid-90s, been nominated for Hugos and won a Nebula, along with several other awards. I mean, I’m not THAT deeply involved in the F/SF world; I don’t go to ComicCons, I don’t really belong to any fandom, I don’t dress up as any characters (Other than my generic pirate costume, which is the only costume I will ever wear for any appropriate occasion), I don’t obsess over Star Wars or Star Trek (And that might have been a way for me to learn about Ms. Wells, as she has written a Star Wars universe novel. But I haven’t read it.), I read things other than genre fiction. There’s a lot I don’t know.

The surprising thing is not so much that I’ve never heard of a fairly well-known and successful SF/fantasy author; the surprising thing is that I’ve never heard of her despite the fact that she’s so damn good. I guess I need more reader friends to recommend books and authors to me. Maybe I should go to some Cons. Get a new costume.

This book surprised me. I got it entirely at random; I found it in a local thrift shop when I was looking for fantasy and sci-fi books I did not know to give to a former student. The former student ended up not wanting the books, so I kept them and have been reading them slowly, and happily, it was this book’s turn. And what do you know: this is a damn good book.

It’s sorta post-apocalyptic in the sense that there were Ancients who might have been us, who destroyed the world but left relics and mysteries behind. Those relics and mysteries are magical more than technological, so it might be an alternate world entirely; it’s left unknown. Reminded me of the Wheel of Time, which of course means I liked it. The society that has managed to survive the cataclysms of the past is essentially city-states on the edge of a giant wasteland that is the result of a supervolcano eruption caused by the Ancients in some way. The book takes place in one of those city-states, and the society that Wells creates, as well as the world she builds, are excellent: detailed and complex, as well as believable and realistic. It’s a sort of a caste city; built in eight tiers, each of which is separated from the others by gates and guards, and mainly by social rules and expectations, the people range from the desperate beggars of the Eighth (bottom) tier to the hereditary monarchs and powerful government officials of the First Tier. The book ranges all the way from top to bottom. It also goes out into the Waste, where the largest relics of the Ancients are: buildings called Remnants, it is unclear what their purpose is, and since they are surrounded by deadly terrain filled with venomous predators and roving bands of cannibal pirates, most people leave them alone.

But not the characters in this book, which was the other great strength here: these are good characters. The main three are two sort of Indiana Jones-type adventurers, dealers in ancient relics, experts in identifying and valuing the objects that have survived since the cataclysm (They are also badasses, though Wells doesn’t go overboard with that, which I liked.), and a young woman from the First Tier, the daughter of a wealthy family who is also a newly trained wizard/guard for the city, called a Warder. She hires the two relics dealers to help her solve a mystery involving three ancient relics, along with a book, written apparently by the ancients, which explains the use of the relics and gives both a tantalizing hint of power, and also a dire warning. Guess which one the power elite of the city pays attention to, and which they ignore.

The book follows the quest of these three to solve the Ancient mystery, while also delving into the daily lives, the trials and tribulations, of the two relics dealers, who live on the Sixth tier – high enough to avoid beggary, but low enough to have to deal with thieves and gangs and organized crime, which touches them because there is a black market for relics, and they have to deal with it. The characters are well-developed, and are both sympathetic and also not, in a proportion that makes them seem very much like genuine people: the main character, the relics dealer Khat, is often sullen and secretive and obnoxious; but of course he is, because he lives a hard life surrounded by people he can’t trust, and he is also a member of a racial minority (A non-human race, that is, because this is a fantasy novel) and so he deals with constant prejudice, as well. His partner, Sagai, is a husband with four children, and so has to take fewer risks and also be assured of making enough money to support his family. The noble Warder, Elen, is somewhat sheltered and therefore naive, but has also put her trust in the wrong people, and suffers for it.

Overall, the book was great. Good characters, good world, good plot. It goes from feeling more like a historical novel, maybe set in Egypt or Baghdad in Biblical times; to feeling like a full fantasy novel with magic users and relics and magical creatures, as well. It’s impressive, and I highly recommend it.

Book Review (Graphic Novel) Mr. Punch by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

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The Comical Tragedy or The Tragical Comedy of Mr. Punch

by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

 

This is the second book I’ve read (Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban was the first) that focused on the traditional Punch and Judy show. That one was disturbing because it’s post-apocalyptic, and written in a language that is not quite English and is very difficult; this one is disturbing because it’s Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Both are disturbing because Punch and Judy? That’s one messed up story.

So the basic plotline, if you can call it that, of the traditional Punch and Judy puppet show follows the story of Punch. Punch is a sinner: a violent, horny, drunken lout who is clever enough and evil enough to get the better of everyone else in the show – if by “get the better” we mean “beat to death with a stick,” which is basically what Punch ends up doing to everyone, including Judy, who attacks Punch after he throws their baby off the stage to its presumed puppety death. Punch also murders a doctor, a police officer, a crocodile, and the Devil himself; I assume there are variations performed by different people, but both novels tell the same basic story about the murderous Mr. Punch.

Both also describe the traditional puppeteers who tell the story. They are strange people, with an unhealthy and almost religious, even zealous, respect and devotion to the show, especially to Mr. Punch himself. In Russell Hoban’s book, the Punch puppeteer is still doing the same story from medieval England, even though the book is set hundreds of years after the nuclear holocaust that wiped out our civilization; all that remains are some broken fragments of language (the book is written in a very strange invented patois), some relics and buildings and such, and the Punch and Judy show, which is retained in exactly the same form.

In this one, the puppeteer seems to be mystical, in that he talks about an old man, one of the other characters, as having been his apprentice long ago, which would make the puppeteer unnaturally long-lived, it seems. Though it’s hard to say, because the story is told from the point of view of a young boy with a strong imagination, and there are other elements of almost magic realism: the main setting is in a carnival at the seashore in England, and the narrator’s grandfather (the one who used to be the puppeteer’s apprentice) has employed a woman to perform as a mermaid, sitting in a costume on a rock in an indoor pond, brushing her hair and singing. The boy takes her as a real mermaid, so maybe the longevity of the puppeteer is imagined, too.

But there’s also the puppets. The puppeteer talks to the boy and tells him about the Punch show, and he seems to imply that once you put the puppets on your hand, then you gain secret knowledge – and lose something, as well, mainly the ability to take the puppets off again, metaphorically, at least. The boy puts on the crocodile puppet and comments on how magical it is that a puppet can come to life once your hand is inside it; the puppeteer offers him the Punch puppet – the one that is the key to the show, and the only puppet that never comes off the hand, as the Punch and Judy show is a one-man act, so there are never more than two puppets on stage at a time (And the narrator points out that this helps to explain all the murders, as the puppeteer has to keep getting rid of the left-hand characters so he can introduce a new one), and one of them is always Mr. Punch. Who, after he kills another puppet, says, “That’s the way you do it!” Freaking weird. And this is a children’s entertainment. I think knowing that he grew up watching Punch shows helps to explain Neil Gaiman, and maybe a lot of other English authors and creatives.

To add to the weirdness, the book is not only about the Punch puppet show; the boy’s grandfather is losing the last vestiges of his sanity, and also about to lose his carnival house, since nobody goes to the seashore to go inside and see a sad mermaid or a weirdass Punch show. The boy is shy and awkward, and not treated well by his maddening grandfather; there is also some tension between the grandfather and his brother, who helps out with the show and who has a hunchback, though the reason for his deformity is a bit of a mystery commented on by the narrator. There is also an unfortunate love affair involving the mermaid girl, though the boy doesn’t understand it and so neither do we, since the story is told from his point of view.

Overall, it is strange and depressing, but also utterly fascinating, like most Neil Gaiman books. And if there were no other reason to read this graphic novel, it would be worth it just for the art: because Dave McKean is a freaking genius, and the way he mixes painting and drawing and collage and photography in the images of this book make the entire experience twice as fascinating as it would be without him; and it’s fascinating enough already.

Highly recommend, though with a warning about the creepiness and the sadness, which is not resolved neatly at the end. Like life.

That’s the way you do it.