Visions of Mars - Olivier de Goursac
A coffee table book, I suppose, although I don't have a coffee table, and have instead had to squeeze it into my bookcase. It is a pretty big book, as this abbreviated scan of its cover testifies. De Goursac has worked processing images for several of NASA's Mars missions, and here he presents some of the best of the lot, including some computer images generated from Mars Global Surveyor's nifty laser altimeter doodad, and some images that have been lovingly (re-)colourised or corrected.
With the emphasis on large, glossy images, the text takes a back seat. Some of it is either badly written or badly translated (from both French and metric - this being an American version of a French book), and much of it is presented very matter-of-factly, without actually discussing how certain we are about any of this stuff or even what the evidence is. I've always found the whole "We know this because..." way of writing to be the most compelling part of any science book, and finding the 'because' part missing in this book leaves the text feeling strangely empty. Still, the images are the purpose of the thing, and they are plenty, vivid and gorgeous.
A Scanner Darkly - Philip K. Dick
After my positive reception to the film adaption, of course I had to read the book. The film is a very faithful adaption, in terms of plot, dialogue, themes and tone. Obviously, the book is able to cover much more ground, and go into things more deeply, but a few decades of reflection and a couple of world-class actors have enabled the film to have a few snappier lines in places. As with the film, this is great stuff: high-brow and low-brow, funny and tragic, often all at the same time.
Lost at Sea - Bryan Lee O'Malley
Another great Canadian graphic novel, another gorgeous comic from Oni Press. Gorgeous, both in terms of its outstandingly cute, black-and-white artwork, and its sensitive, compassionate soul. It's also frequently very funny, which I think, paradoxical as it may seem, is an important part of any work that hopes for you to take it seriously.
On paper, Lost at Sea's story of a confused and socially awkward 18 year old girl on a road trip with three people she hardly knows, where she will experience the necessary existential discoveries, sounds completely unoriginal. In fact, the entire plot is pretty much given away on the back-cover blurb. But the plot doesn't matter. It's not about what happens, but instead how the characters interact, and how it all feels. On both those counts, this book is right at the top of its game: very touching, and slightly deranged.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman - Haruki Murakami
I love Murakami, and his works have had a not insignificant influence on my own writing. The most important thing I learned from him, is that you can put any crazy shit you want into your stories, as long as you don't make a big fuss about it. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is a collection of short stories, published at various points throughout Murakami's career, some of which later developed into novels. I wasn't that big on Murakami's first such collection, The Elephant Vanishes, while I did quite like some of the stories in the slimmer collection After the Quake. On the whole, I've always felt that Murakami's peculiar, unconventional stories benefit from being longer and having more character development, so that you can actually get a feel for where you have ended up at the end of it all. But Blind Willow has pleasantly surprised me, and I think most of the stories are very good, even if only two or three moved me as much as one of his novels might.
Reading through these stories took me a long time, as each one seemed to demand its own space and rankle if pressed too close up against another. One story might be a light and touching vignette, while the one after might be a disturbing tale of Kafkaesque nightmare. In one story, a cute, quirky tale took a sudden turn for the worst, while in another a character faces up to what seems like a horror story, only to grow to accept things as they are. But, while I found most of the stories 'great but not earth-moving', as with After the Quake, I found the very last story so touching that it brought tears to my eyes. After saying that, I feel I should perhaps elucidate, but I can't. It's impossible to see where the story goes from where it starts, and I think it should remain that way for those yet to read it.