Archive for the '2009 Books' Category

2009: My Year in Books

Friday, January 1st, 2010

I read 66 books, averaging a book and a half a week, almost 30 fewer than last year. I wasn’t reading less, but had a few doorstops–Infinite Jest and Shadow Country.

A few thoughts:

Best books I read this year: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wrobleski, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Old Filth by Jane Gardam. These were the whole package–well written, moving, and complex. They made me think and feel.

Thumping good reads: Where’s Billie by Judith Yates Borger, Andromeda Klein by Frank Portman, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, Beat the Reaper by Josh Bazell, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer, The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, Peter and Max by Bill Willingham. These books were devourable and flat-out fun to read, even if they had some decidedly not-fun elements.

D’oh: Fahrenheit 451 and Infinite Jest, for books I liked/loved so much I wish I’d read them earlier in life, so could be re-reading instead of reading for the first time.

Best graphic novels: Alan’s War by Emmanuel Guibert, Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe by Bryan Lee O’Malley, T-Minus by Jim Ottaviani, Daredevil: Born Again by Frank Miller and Dave Mazzuchelli.

Changed my life: Curly Girl by Lorraine Massey. I gave away my hair-straightening brushes, iron and products. I stopped using shampoo and a blow-dryer. I’ve fully embraced my curly hair, and am happier with my hair than I’ve been in my life.

Weird numbers that probably only I care about: New purchases I read, 32; Library books read, 24; Shelf sitters, 5; Re-reads, 5.

Hopes for the new year, 2010: as usual, read more from my shelf and less from the library and bookstores. I wanted to do a book-a-day challenge to start off the year, but the holidays got the best of me, plus I’m in the middle of Stieg Larsson’s Girl Who Played with Fire, and I’m NOT putting it down. So I may try for a fortnight of books/blogs in February.

“Ignatius Macfarland: Frequenaut!” by Paul Feig

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Ignatius Macfarland: Frequenaut! by Paul Feig was recommended to me by a fellow Freaks and Geeks fan. Along with Judd Apatow, Feig was one of the show’s creators, and went on to direct episodes of several comedies, like Apatow’s Undeclared, Arrested Development, 30 Rock and The Office, all of which I like a great deal.

I like Feig’s work, so I was disappointed when I didn’t like Feig’s book.

Ignatius is a typically Feig-ian outcast. He’s twelve, has few friends, doesn’t connect with his parents and gets picked on at school. He fantasizes about alien abduction and space travel to get away from it all. When he and his friends build a spaceship, he gets his wish. Sort of. He’s transported to an alternate “frequency” of Earth, one that has a few other former members of his town, who also got caught in explosions. One of them is Karen, a badass goth girl, and another is Chester L. Arthur, a former English teacher with delusions of grandeur who has subjugated many of the strange-creature natives, taken over as “President” and tries to pass off other people from Earth’s best creations as his own. Iggy and Karen meet up with a race of flying intellectuals, then are caught in a race war while being chased by Arthur’s army. Throughout, Iggy provides commentary as well as story. It’s supposed to be funny, but instead I found it tiring.

My name is Ignatius MacFarland, and I am a Frequenaut.

Hmm. I guess it looks sort of weird to see it written down that way. I don’t mean it’s weird to see my name written down. I mean the word Frequenaut. It almost looks like it’s French. It’s not, though. At least not that I know of.

This is a young boy adventure, and it might appeal to young boys and people who were at some point young boys. It failed to connect with me, from its meandering plot to its end that wasn’t an ending, but instead a thin bridge to a sequel I don’t care to seek out. I wanted to like it, but couldn’t.

“Fahrenheit 451″ by Ray Bradbury

Saturday, December 26th, 2009

My one consolation for not having read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in school as a youngster is that I might not have liked it and appreciated it as much as I did when I read it this week. It’s one of the the many classics that somehow got missed in school and I never got around to as an adult until I saw a nice, new copy at a used bookstore, and here we are.

I knew the premise–most do, I think. There’s a dystopic future in which books are outlawed and burned. The title is a reference to the temperature at which paper burns. Guy Montag is a fireman who gradually notices how wrong things are.

“I–I’ve been thinking. About the fire last week. About the man whose library we fixed. What happened to him?”

“They took him screaming off to the asylum.”

“He wasn’t insane.”

Beatty arranged his cards quietly. “Any man’s insane who thinks he can fool the government and us.”

“I’ve tried to imagine,” said Montag, “just how it would feel. I mean, to have firemen burn our houses and our books.

“We haven’t any books.”

“But if we did have some.”

“You got some?”

Beatty blinked slowly.

“No.” Montag gazed beyond them to the wall with the typed lists of a million forbidden books. Their names leapt in fire, burning down the years under his ax and his hose which sprayed not water but kerosene. “No.” But in his mind, a cool wind started up and blew out of the ventilator grille at home, softly, softly, chilling his face. And again, he saw himself in a green park talking to an old man, a very old man, and the wind from the park was cold, too.

He befriends a former professor, stands up to his fire chief, and fights a truly frightening robotic dog as he tries to get out from beneath the suffocating, normalizing, noisy, inane blanket that society has become.

I found the book hard to put down as Montag began to struggle, then burst from the constraints of a bookless, book-burning society. I found many of Bradbury’s elements chillingly prescient–television panels that took up whole walls, shows that were supposedly real that viewers became personally involved in, and entertainment that’s dumbed down so it offends no one, and challenges no one.

This is a timeless book about censorship, individualism, society, the love of books and the challenge of intellectual pursuits. I wished for more, and more rounded female characters, a lack Bradbury defends (somewhat grumpily) in the Coda of my edition.

What book would I save, were I living in that world? Leaving aside Shakespeare and the Bible as obvious choices, I’d probably choose Possession by A.S. Byatt. It’s one of the richest and most satisfying books I’ve ever read–romance, history, mystery, poetry, religion, science all wrapped up in a good story. More importantly, though, it helped push me out of a rut in my life of a job I didn’t care for and a relationship I couldn’t grow in. Fiction that provokes change and growth is the kind of book that’s held up and celebrated in Fahrenheit 451.

“Peter and Max: a Fables Novel” by Bill Willingham

Saturday, December 19th, 2009

As with The Wild Things, I’m suspicious of novels based on other mediums; I’ve been disappointed too many times. But when I asked C, the second-in-command at Big Brain Comics, what he thought of Peter and Max by Bill Willingham, he replied that he picked it up and a long time later realized he’d been reading one of the best Fables stories in the series, and it wasn’t even the comic book.

Fables is an ongoing monthly comic from DC/Vertigo, written by Bill Willingham and mostly illustrated by Steve Leialoha. It posits a small neighborhood in NYC where storybook characters live in exile, and a farm in upstate New York where the animal and other nonhuman storybook characters live in seclusion. It’s won scads of awards, and is a complex, entertaining series in the tradition of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I recently enjoyed the twelfth graphic novel collection, The Dark Ages.

Peter and Max is a standalone novel about Peter Piper and his brother Max, who live in the land of Hesse:

The caravan belonged to the Piper family who, as their name implied, were traveling musicians., Just as Millers mill and Fletchers fletch, the Pipers piped. At least three out of four of them did. The father, Johannes, and his two sons, Max, the eldest and young Peter, all played the long pipe, which was sometimes called the single pipe, or occasionally even the flute as it was still known back then, before some enterprising soul came along later and decided all true flutes should be turned sideways to play…

The family had no home, except for their wagon. They lived the life of happy vagabonds, traveling here and there, throughout the year, going to festivals and fairs, and every other sort of scheduled celebration, where they’d make their living by letting anyone call the tune, provided they were willing to pay the Pipers. (38-9)

They are staying with their friends the Peeps when Hesse is invaded by the emperor’s goblin troops. The families flee for the town of Hamelin through the black forest, but soon are separated when Max’s jealousy of Peter takes a serious turn.

The novel alternates between modern time and the past as Peter and Max take separate but always intertwined paths. It’s set before the Fables/Empire war in the series’ time line. Both stories have fierce momentum that drive the past and present stories to a satisfying conclusion. The novel is well illustrated by Leialoha in black ink, which adds to the storybook feeling, as does the violent content, consistent with fables of old.

I found this a great addition to the Fables oeuvre, with many takes on legends involving Peter, pipers, and the Peeps. It would also be good for those unfamiliar to the Fables comic-book series, as an introduction to the series, especially for those not yet familiar with the complex literary and visual joys of the comic-book medium. Highly recommended.

“Fables: The Dark Ages” by Bill Willingham

Tuesday, December 15th, 2009

A while back, I switched to buying graphic novel collections of most of my comics rather than buying them monthly. It was hard for me to follow the story with the lags, I was bothered by the intrusive ads, and I usually ended up re-reading them as a group anyway. The latest collection of Bill Willingham’s popular series, Fables, is The Dark Ages. The comic book series posits a secret neighborhood in New York City of storybook characters, or “Fables”–King Cole is the mayor, Beauty runs the office, her husband Beast is the sheriff, and more. They are living in exile, driven out of their homelands by the evil Emperor.

For those keeping up, the war between Fabletown and the Empire is over. While the Fables claim victory and their enemy is now living among them, the war had great costs. Heroes were injured or fell, and there’s chaos in the worlds formerly ruled by the Empire. In one of them, an evil is unleashed that has immediate and serious consequences for all the Fables. The first chapter is illustrated by Mike Allred, whose strong distinctive style is well-suited to characters like Snow White and Bigby Wolf. Pinocchio, Boy Blue, Rose Red, and Frau Totenkinder all feature prominently in the following chapters, while Mowgli gets his own back-up story.

Frau Totenkinder: So, if we’ve a special connection to our stories in this world, did we create the stories, and those who’ve written them? Or did the stories create us?…

Badger: Maybe there’s some sort of separate master storyteller. Y’know, one who created both us AND the tales about us.

Two new characters are introduced, Freddy and Mouse. Given their appearance and names, I think they’ve got to be an homage to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser books, which my husband likes.

The Fables series seemed to have reached its climax with the war, but I’m pleased to see that the strength of the stories and the panoply of fascinating storybook characters only seems to be gaining momentum. This is a dark, complex fantasy tale that’s easy to fall into.

“The Wild Things” by Dave Eggers

Monday, December 14th, 2009

I recently saw Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, and appreciated its complex, nuanced takes on the mother/son relationship and how baffling it is to be a child. When C., the second in command at Big Brain Comics, recommended the novelization The Wild Things, I was skeptical. I’m a book snob; we snobs don’t read movie novelizations. Yet this one is by Dave Eggers, editor of McSweeney’s, author of several books, co-founder of a national network of youth writing and tutoring centers, and co-author (with Jonze) of the film’s screenplay. It was part of a sale, so I was easily swayed and decided to give it a go.

The book, like the movie, is an imaginative expansion of the popular, enduring children’s book Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak. Max is the spirited son of a single mother. He doesn’t like his mother’s new boyfriend, and his teenage sister has become distant and unkind. After a particularly violent outburst, he runs away and finds a boat:

Max sailed in and out of days and nights. He endured blustery winds, cruel winds, chattering winds, and warm blanketing breezes. There were waves like dragons and waves like sparrows. There was rain but mostly there was sun, the terribly unimaginative sun, doing the same things day in and day out…

But one day he saw something. A green blot on the horizon, no bigger than a caterpillar…

When he awoke, the caterpillar had become an island…vibrating with color and sound. (p. 95-7)

On the island, Max meets the group of wild things, and becomes their king. As he gets to know the island and its denizens, though, he finds life as a wild thing is more difficult than he’d imagined.

If you liked the movie, you’ll likely appreciate the book. If you didn’t care for the movie, you should probably skip The Wild Things. As with the movie, I enjoyed Max’s sojourn with the wild things more than I did the modern-world scenes at the beginning and end. The prose is simple and straightforward, and would be good for young readers of longer, non-illustrated chapter books. In places it hews closely to the movie but in others it departs. Overall it’s more of a collection of compelling scenes rather than a narrative with forward momentum. In the acks at the back, Eggers states it’s an amalgam of Sendak’s, Jones’ and his own childhood experiences.

As with all McSweeney’s books, it’s a striking edition whether covered in illustrated cloth or fur.

“The People on Privilege Hill” by Jane Gardam

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Immediately on finishing Gardam’s Old Filth, I learned that her story collection The People on Privilege Hill contained a story with Old Filth himself, Edward Feathers. I was thrilled to “meet” him again, and by turns charmed, saddened and teased by the other stories in this collection. Gardam is an impressive writer, conveying much with spare prose. I hope it’s not long before I have the chance to read The Man in the Wooden Hat, a sort of prequel to Old Filth.

“The Graveyard Book” by Neil Gaiman

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

Apparently, Neil Gaiman was surprised when he learned he’d been awarded the Newbery Award, annually give to an author for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children, for his novel The Graveyard Book.

You are on a speakerphone with at least 14 teachers and librarians and suchlike great, wise and good people,
I thought. Do not start swearing like you did when you got the Hugo.

When I started this book, I was surprised, too. Typical of Gaiman, it has a horrific beginning. Atypical of awarded books for older children/teens, this begins with a frightening chapter about the murder of a family. Because this is a fantasy novel, the baby escapes, though, and toddles to a nearby graveyard, where he is taken in, named Nobody Owens (Bod for short), and cared for by its denizens.

As he grows, Bod meets creatures both human and non-, and discovers there is good and evil in all. He’s a typical boy raised by ghosts, though, and thus his childhood is unique and fascinating, featuring fascinating adventures and encounters courtesy of Gaiman’s celebrated imagination. The book is aptly illustrated by frequent Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean, in atmospheric black-and-white ink spread out over three pages.

In many ways, this is the oldest story of all, about an orphaned boy growing to his destiny to fight forces of evil. In its particulars, though, it’s unique and quite wonderful, often funny, frequently moving and thought provoking. By the end I could easily see how this alternately simple and complex tale won over the Newbery judges, who have this to say:

“A child named Nobody, an assassin, a graveyard and the dead are the perfect combination in this deliciously creepy tale, which is sometimes humorous, sometimes haunting and sometimes surprising,” said Newbery Committee Chair Rose V. Treviño.

Not just an unconventional, challenging book for older children, it is an impressive book for adults as well.

“Eat, Drink, & Weigh Less” by Mollie Katzen and Walter Willett, M.D.

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

The year after my 40th birthday I was very smug. Life was largely good. 41, however, has not been so kind. Weight gain, blurring of up-close vision, aching knees and joints were among the harbingers of age. As is my wont, I threw a flurry of attention at diet books, got several from the library, then ignored them for weeks. Several I returned. But Katzen and Willett’s Eat, Drink, & Weigh Less I renewed and finally read.

Simply, this book is what most everyone should do about their diet and health. Eat better (not less or more) and move more, and your chances for things like heart disease, diabetes and other age-related maladies are reduced. Throughout, Willett lists the long-term studies that prove what we know already: eat better, exercise more, and we’ll be in better health. The book is structured around 9 pieces of common-sense advice, such as eat more veg and fruit (but fewer white potatoes), choose good fats like olive oil over bad ones like trans fats, choose whole grain rather than simple carbs, and stay hydrated.

Additionally, Katzen, the author most famously of The Moosewood Cookbook (from which I learned to cook), includes a wealth of simple recipes and food advice. I tried several of the recipes, like the vegetable broth with peas, the vinaigrette and the avocado butter; all were easy, healthful and tasty.

For those looking for a diet book, this contains a quiz, a 21-day plan, a portable plan for travel and non cooks and maintenance advice. For everyone, though, is the short, sweet warm-up plan and the advice to practice the advice until it becomes standard practice.

What this book lacks is an emphasis on fresh, seasonal, local foods. For that, though, there are other books like Mark Bittman’s Food Matters. What this book does is make common sense health improvement easy to understand and easy to implement. Whether you’re looking to lose weight, or suffering from the lurking knowledge that your diet and exercise are not what they could be, this is a smart, helpful book to have on the shelf. Worth owning.

“Old Filth” by Jane Gardam

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

Jane Gardam’s books were recommended to me over a decade ago by my dear friend Thalia. I was reminded of this recently when The Man with the Wooden Hat, Gardam’s latest, was reviewed at NPR. Since it is a bookend to a previous novel, Old Filth, I sought that out first, and am quite glad I did.

Filth is an acronym, supposed coined by the main character of the book, Edward Feathers:

His colleagues at the Bar called him Filth, but not out of irony. It was because he was considered to be the source of the old joke, Failed In London Try Hong Kong. It was said that he had fled the London Bar, very young, very poor, on a sudden whim just after the War, and had done magnificently well in Hong Kong from the start. Being a modest man, they said, he had called himself a parvenu, a fraud, a carefree spirit.

Filth in fact was no great maker of jokes, was not at all modest about his work and seldom, except in great extremity, went in for whims. He was loved, however, admired, laughed at kindly and still much discussed many years after retirement. (17)

Filth is indeed easy to love, all the more so as his life story unfolds in fits and starts. It swoops in time and perspective so wildly that in the hands of a less-skilled author, the book would be dizzying instead of dazzling. Filth was one of many “Raj orphans.” Like Rudyard Kipling, these were children of English parents sent East in the name of Empire. The children were often returned at four or five to foster families in England to avoid disease, if they hadn’t succumbed to it already.

From a tragic beginning, Filth’s supposedly golden life is deconstructed for the reader, though not to the people around him. He becomes a sympathetic, almost amazing figure, set largely against the backdrop of WWII. Several times in the book he’s urged to write his memoirs, something he struggles with and finally gives up on. Readers of fiction are well rewarded that Gardam created his fictional one. I look forward to reading more about him in Gardam’s story collecion The People of Privilege Hill and the sequel, his wife Betty’s story, in The Man with the Wooden Hat.

“The Good Thief” by Hannah Tinti

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009

The December selection for the Twin Cities’ Books and Bars reading group is Hannah Tinti’s impressive debut novel, The Good Thief. It had been on my radar since Jennifer Reese, former senior books editor at Entertainment Weekly, reviewed it in 2008

It’s a thumping good read, one I finished in fewer than 24 hours. Tinti gives a New England twist to Dickensian themes of orphans, thieves and poverty. Young Ren was abandoned as a baby at an abbey, with two clues to his identity: a nightshirt with the letters “REN” sewn into the collar, and a missing hand. Years later, a handsome, silver-tongued stranger appears, claiming to be Ren’s brother. Adoption is the highest hope of the orphan boys, whose only other fate is to be conscripted into the army when they come of age. Whether Ren’s being claimed is what he’d hoped for, soon turns out to be much more complicated.

After [that] Ren couldn’t think anymore. Instead he felt the air on his damp skin, the smell of fish in his clothes. The lamppost disappeared behind them, and the boy realized that he was sharing a seat with a murderer. There would be no more bargaining with God. He was into hell now for sure. (177)

Villains, grave robbers, illicit surgery, and overall skulduggery abound as Ren encounters an embittered former teacher, a dead man, a kind but deaf housewife, and a sarcastic dwarf. It is a skillful and entertaining adventure novel with suspense and mystery to spare. Good stuff.

“Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

I can’t figure out why last year’s Pulitzer winner for fiction, Olive Kitteridge, wasn’t a contender earlier this year in the Morning News Tournament of Books. I read seven of those sixteen books, including the winner, A Mercy, and the runner up, City of Refuge, and this easily bested them both.

Olive Kitteridge is a good book, well written. Its reach is impressive, yet its grasp is perfectly firm. This is a series of related short stories, all of which refer, overtly or no, to the character Olive Kitteridge. Olive is one of the most arresting and memorable literary figures I’ve “met” recently, but she is surrounded by a dazzling panoply of others. Strout is masterful with characterization, and does much with little in each story. We see Olive most often through the eyes of others–her husband, neighbors, and son.

Olive…knows that loneliness can kill people–in different ways can actually make you die. Olive’s private view is that life depends on what she thinks of as “big bursts” and “little bursts.” Big bursts are things like marriage or children, intimacies that keep you afloat, but these big bursts hold dangerous, unseen currents. Which is why you need the little bursts as well: a friendly clerk at Bradlee’s, let’s say, or the waitress at Dunkin’ Donuts who knows how you like your coffee. Tricky business, really.

Yet we also see them through her eyes, and its a dizzying feat of perspective, pulled off so well I didn’t think to wonder how Strout managed to create umpteen authentic voices.

The stories progress in linear time, though with flashes to the past. Each can stand on its own, yet together they form a complex whole. Olive is a woman of strong opinions, and she often irritates those around her, including the reader. Yet I found her by the end irresistible. Olive’s honesty, her pain, and any hard-earned joy she’d won were a pleasure for me to read about.

“Othello” Arden Shakespeare 3rd

Monday, November 30th, 2009

This fall the Twin Cities was host to TWO major stagings of Othello, both with some of our best local actors. When I pulled our Arden 2nd series copy off the shelf, I was repulsed by the cover, and annoyed, as it portrayed Othello as a boy, which he’s not. The copy, which was used, was filled with someone else’s notes and underlining, so I hied myself off to the bookstore, in flagrant dereliction of my latest book vow (WHY do I make those?) and picked up a lovely new copy of the 3rd edition of Arden Shakespeare’s Othello, edited by E. A. J. Honigmann and published by Methuen. (My dear friend Thalia introduced me to the Arden editions in 1995, and I’ve been with them ever since, even as they’ve gone through multiple editions and publishers. I can barely understand who publishes it now.)

About the text of the play: Othello, a successful military man, marries Desdemona, a young gentlewoman of Venice. He is dark, (whether African or Middle Eastern is a point of scholarly contention) and she is fair. Iago, Othello’s ancient (or ensign), is upset because he’s been passed over for promotion, and seeks revenge, or at least that’s what he says to begin. He persuades Othello that Desdemona and the new lieutenant, Cassio, are having an affair. Othello sinks quickly into jealousy, and bad things happen. Then worse things happen. It is a tragedy, after all, one whose themes of racism, jealousy, loyalty, deception and murder continue to play out in the world’s headlines today.

Iago: O beware, my lord, of jealousy!
It is the green-eyed monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. (3.3.165-7)

About this edition: Honigmann’s editing is clear and helpful. Useful glosses are provided for difficult or archaic usage as well as helpful notes on understanding some of the repeated themes and phrases of the text. As with most introductions, I think it should be read after, not before, as it refers to minutely to the play that it is more helpful when the play details are fresh. I particularly like the section on the history of the play’s performance, and how actors have played the major roles.

Additionally, Honigmann lays out the evidence for some of the major questions about the play: was Iago in love with Othello, how does the play deal with the passage of time, what is the right tone for Iago, and most important to the editor: is Othello Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy? Honigmann says yes. While the text of Hamlet may excel in poetry and Lear in pathos, both are often criticized as too long in performance. In performance, Othello’s “extraordinary momentum and the audience response it generates place it, in these respects, ahead of its nearest rivals, Hamlet and King Lear.”

I saw both the recent Twin Cities’ productions, and hope to view the Lawrence Fishburne/Ken Branagh film soon. The Park Square Theater production (reviews from Twin Cities Daily Planet, Examiner, and Star Tribune) was very good and traditionally staged. But even though I sat in the second row, it had nowhere near the power of the intimate setting of the Ten Thousand Things production (reviews from TC Daily Planet, Star Tribune, and MinnPost), after which ending the room leapt to their feet in an outpouring of spontaneous admiration and applause. I was extremely fortunate (if financially poorer) for being able to see two professional productions in one week so I could compare and contrast them.

Among many points, I was interested to note that in both, Iago was portrayed as a villain for villainy’s sake, with little query or complexity given to his shifting reasons for destroying so many. One Desdemona went to her death meek, while the other fought fiercely. I continue to find I prefer the more simply staged, evocative performances to the traditionally staged ones. To my sensibilities, there is a creativity that shines on the smaller stage that highlights the play more than fancy backdrops and sound effects do.

“Odd and the Frost Giants” by Neil Gaiman

Sunday, November 29th, 2009

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil GaimanI consumed a lot of books and food over Thanksgiving; Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants was the beginning of my book binge. It’s a sweet fable set in Norway of a crippled boy named Odd, who helps out a few Norse gods in distress. It’s a short tale, told briskly. Odd is a good foil for the strong-willed gods, and an easy hero to cheer for.

There was a boy called Odd, and there was nothing strange or unusual about that, not in that time or place. ‘Odd meant the tip of a blade, and it was a lucky name.

He was odd, though. At least the other villagers thought so. But if there was one thing that he wasn’t, it was lucky.

While $14.99 seems a steep pricetag for this slim volume, it is beautifully bound in blue cloth, and contains lovely pencil illustrations by Brett Helquist. Overall, this runs a big lighter than much of Gaiman’s work, and would be a great readaloud for children who can manage to listen when there aren’t pictures on every page, and for young readers to read on their own. Gaiman wrote it for World Book Day in the UK, an event that seeks to inspire children to read.

And for Sandman fans, I think the cover illo is an homage to one of Shawn McManus’ from “A Game of You” of Barbie riding atop Martin Tenbones. But I can’t find an online image to back that up.

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Friday, November 27th, 2009

I know I’m having a good holiday when I race through three books, and am set to embark on a fourth. One of these, The Guernsey Literary and Potato-Peel Pie Society begun by Mary Ann Shaffer and edited by her niece Annie Barrows, was recommended by my mother-in-law.

I’d heard of the book before, but hadn’t read a review, and was wary of it for two reasons. One, because I thought it had been on a worst-of-the-year list I’d read for last year. (I think I had it confused with The Lace Reader.) Two, the title sounded precious to me. But when my MIL said it was one of the best books she’d read recently, and after I perused the many blurbs of praise, most from reputable sources, I decided to dive in. Fewer than 24 hours later, I came up for air, well pleased.

TGLaPPPS is pleasantly reminiscent of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road, which was clearly an influence. It’s an epistolary novel, with author Juliet Ashton as its fulcrum. Juliet has recently had a collection of her WWII humor columns published. While she in on the exhausting book tour, she meets up with a handsome American suitor, Markham V. Reynolds, Jr. and receives an odd letter from a man who lives on the isle of Guernsey, which had been recently occupied by the Germans. Dawsey Adams writes Juliet that he’s come into a copy of a book she used to own, Selected Essays of Elia by Charles Lamb, and wonders if she can help him find more by its author.

So begins Juliet’s correspondence with the members of the eponymous literary society of the title.

I wonder how the book got to Guernsey? Perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers. How delightful if that were true.

Her fascination with the islanders and with the history of the German occupation grows so she eventuallly goes to visit the island, in an attempt to find a new topic to write on.

The book borders on twee, sometimes precariously so, but manages, I thought, to stay on the side of emotional truth. There are things that are sweet and wonderful, but they are balanced by as many of cruelty and hardship. In the end, the authors have created a group of people I was happy to spend time with, and would be glad to be in conversation about books with. And the details of Guernsey’s occupation were a new window into many familiar facts of WWII.

In the end, this is a cheering, uplifting book, easy to read, but with enough emotional and historical heft to make it more than a mere confection.

“Hamlet: A Novel” by James Marsden

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Hamlet, Hamlet. Why are you always reading Hamlet?” asked 6yo Drake when I asked if he’d seen my book, James Marsden’s Hamlet: A Novel.

“Because it’s one of the greatest stories, ever,” I replied, wondering how long until I can introduce him to the Dane.

My husband G. Grod and I have many text and DVD editions of the play. I hadn’t heard of Marsden’s, though, until M, who blogs at Mental Multivitamin, mentioned that our mutual virtual penpal (MVP! heh) S, who blogs at Pages Turned, was enjoying it. S doesn’t recommend lightly, and both M and I picked up Marsden’s novelization of Hamlet right away.

Whether foolhardy or hubristic, Marsden’s novel take on Shakespeare’s play is a success. He updates the prose, keeps much of the poetry, and lets us into the hearts and minds of Hamlet, Horatio and Ophelia, as a production of the play would do. The end result is an eminently readable, widely accessible tale, especially geared to young adults. The humor, sexuality, romance, tragedy and horror is all there, but told in a different style suited to the medium of the novel.

“Do you believe in ghosts?” Horatio asked him.

He was lying on Hamlet’s bed.

Hamlet was sitting on the stone floor, in a corner, the corner farthest from the door. The prince was eating strawberries. He smiled. It was the first time Horatio had seen him smile since the funeral.

This novel is a wonderful addition to the ever-expanding Hamlet oeuvre (like The Tale of Edgar Sawtelle and Undiscovered Country from last year) as well as a good introduction to the play for potentially reluctant readers.

“Hell is Other Parents and Other Tales of Maternal Combustion” by Deborah Copaken Kogan

Wednesday, November 4th, 2009

Recommended briefly at Entertainment Weekly and by M, who blogs at Mental Multivitamin, Hell is Other Parents by Deborah Copaken Kogan seemed like it would be a good, quick, funny read. For the most part, it is. Kogan’s essays detail some of her clashes with other parents, who at least behave very badly, if not perhaps hellaciously. One father tells her to watch her daughter more carefully. Kogan’s teenage postpartum hospital roommate won’t turn down the TV, get rid of her guests, or throw away the McDonald’s bags that are stinking up the room. A mother spreads gossip about Kogan’s daughter to other parents at school. At other times, Kogan imagines other parents are judging and disparaging her parenting choices, as when her toddler son Leo disrupts the play her older son is in:

The other parents in the room now clearly hate me. They glare at me and roll their collective eyes. What business does she have bringing a two-year-old to a performance? their pursed mouths ask. Does she realize how long it took us to get here? For that matter, what business does she have having one in diapers while the other two are going through adolescence? What’s wrong with her? What was she thinking? Okay, so maybe I’m just projecting those last three thoughts.

Maybe? I think she’s projecting not just those three, but most of the paragraph, and highlighting some tenets of parenting (and really, life in general): it’s really hard; choices are fraught; some people are jerks; others offer needed help.

Kogan is witty and her observations are sharp. She writes clearly and sympathetically of the challenges of parenting and being a working mom. She doesn’t hide her insecurities about things like her parenting decisions, the less than thorough decision making that went into conceiving her third child, and her constant worries about money as a mother of three living in NYC who makes her living as a freelance writer. But she doesn’t seem to have much insight about these, either. For example, I found it interesting that a woman who was upset when chided by her college roommates as being too concerned with money (and specifically, its lack) chose a freelance career, and wrote a book in which she frequently refers to her fears and difficulties around money.

Few will argue with the real-life examples Kogan offers of mean other parents, and I bet many could respond with stories in kind; I know I could. But this book shines when it’s relating the events of a interesting woman (Kogan was a photographer and war correspondent in years past) as she tackles motherhood and challenges like a son who really wants to act and daughter who really wants a dog, both against their parents’ wishes. As for the hellish other parents of the title, I think they’re minor when compared to the complex, fascinating mess that is the whole of parenting, and of life.

“Daredevil: Born Again” by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli

Friday, October 30th, 2009

Prompted by a recent article at The Comics Reporter (link from The Morning News) on the collaboration between comic book writer and artist, I pulled my copy of Daredevil: Born Again off the shelf. It’s written by Frank Miller and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli. Even at twenty plus years old with garish colors, it remains undiminished as a classic of the superhero genre.

It opens on a skinny, defeated-looking woman hunched over a cigarette in a smoky room with a smug-looking man:

It’s a hot day. Like all the rest. All two years of them. Two years… and the motion picture epic that turned into just another come-on isn’t even a memory…like all the rest except this one has a special glow to it. It’s not every day you sell your soul. That’s not way to think. Grow up. It’s the eighties. You do what you have to. And you have to do it…

“Daredevil. Okay? I said it. I said the name. And he’s got another name. And it’s written down right here. You want it or not?

Matt Murdock’s ex-girlfriend, Karen Page, is a junkie now, and she sells his name for a fix. It gets back to his nemesis, the Kingpin, who systematically breaks down and takes away all support in Murdock’s life until he’s not only on the edge, he’s gone so far beyond it that no one knows if he’s coming back. While the title kind of gives the ending away, it’s the marriage of words and pictures, and how they detail Murdock’s fall and resurrection (in all its Catholic imagery) that compelled this reader through the book.

The recent runs of Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker got a lot of kudos from the critics. But their artistic collaborators (Alex Maleev, who largely made the Bendis run, IMO, and Michael Lark with Brubaker) are hardly mentioned, and often not named on the covers of the collections. Ng Suat Tong’s collaboration article makes a good point. If a writer writes a decent script, and an illustrator draws well, you get a good story, sometimes even a very good one, as when Bendis and Maleev worked together. But only when there’s a true collaboration, and the writer and artist are working together, and both bringing more to it than each could individually, do you get a great work, a classic, like this one. And to give a collaborating artist second billing, or no billing, as noted by Tong, “should be cause for consternation if not disgust.”

This was not the case with Born Again, on which Mazzucchelli receives equal billing with the much-more-famous Miller. Mazzucchelli is receiving his own share of praise this year for his first solo work, the graphic novel Asterios Polyp.

“The Wordy Shipmates” by Sarah Vowell

Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

NPR regular and essayist Sarah Vowell delves into Americana and American history with an empathy and sense of humor, then relates what she’s learned in her odd, compelling books. In The Wordy Shipmates, she makes Puritans and colonial life real, close and relate-able. The book and its subjects are funny, interesting, sad and historical, yet none of these things outweighs or imbalances another.

The Wordy Shipmates concerns the Puritan migration to America, and the settlement of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. These are not the Pilgrims of 1620, Vowell is quick to remind the reader. They sailed to Plymouth in the Mayflower, and were Separatists–they wanted to leave England and its church behind. The Puritans of 1630 sailed to Massachusetts, and were not Separatists. They wanted, or at least wanted to appear, to remain citizens of England and members of its church. They just wanted to do so far away.

I’m always disappointed when I see the word “Puritan” tossed around as a shorthand for a bunch of generic, boring, stupid, judgmental killjoys. Because to me, they are very specific, fascinating, sometimes brilliant, judgmental killjoys who rarely agreed on anything except that Catholics are going to hell. (22)

Vowell introduces us to the Massachusetts Bay Colony governor, John Winthrop, a man who strove for unity, not just for its own sake, but because it let them live and worship as they chose without (much) English interference. There are a few flies in the ointment, though. Roger Williams, a man so devout that he won’t even worship with his wife and children, as they’re not part of the “Elect”. And Anne Hutchinson, a mother of fifteen, whose drawing room becomes as crowded as the local church when she begins to preach such audacious ideas as that the Holy Ghost dwells within people, not just near them.

Williams and Hutchinson are separately forced to depart the Bay Colony, then found Rhode Island, where people might have true freedom of worship, and not have to worry about a meddlesome state poking around in their spiritual affairs.

Along the way to the creation of Rhode Island, kings die, wars are fought, allegiances switch, and letters abound. Vowell dusts off the trappings of people’s conception of history, and breathes not only life into it, but infuses it with humor and pathos as well. Beware this book: not only might you learn something, you might also enjoy it while you do.

“Daredevil: Return of the King” by Ed Brubaker

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

I’d nearly given up on the Daredevil series a while back, thoroughly fed up with many things, but especially the character of Milla, who the creators seemed to think was an interesting, compelling story element, rather than a whiny, clingy, bore. I was tempted back, though, by the latest collection Return of the King as it’s the last that the creative team of Brubaker, Lark and Aja are doing.

I always enjoy Lark’s art, and Brubaker is one of my favorite writers in comics these days with his work on Criminal. Still, there were a lot of elements I felt I’d been through too many times before: the Kingpin is back! Is he good or bad? Evil ninjas! Foggy and Daredevil’s girl in danger! And finally, something that’s become kind of an unfortunate hallmark of Brubaker’s run on the series: Matt Murdoch acts like a complete and utter a-hole!

The familiar story elements made me appreciate how DC has turned the Batman franchise on its head, with Bruce Wayne out of the picture, Richard Grayson in the batsuit and Wayne’s illegitimate son as Robin. These series are so old, that everything HAD been done before, and the only way to really take a new direction is to do it radically and not by halves. Brubaker’s run did have some solid elements, like Murdoch’s stay in Ryker’s. But the obsessive focus on the drippy Milla along with Murdoch’s nasty side made it hard for me to like.

Return of the King, though, was pretty good. It has the familiar elements, but it nicely ties up a lot of characters and themes from Brubaker’s run, like the Owl and Milla. And it leaves Murdoch in a very interesting place for the next team to start from. It’s not a good place to start the series (for that go back to Frank Miller’s Born Again) but for any fans who’d left during the run, it’s a good reminder that series ebb and flow, and that Daredevil, the character or the series, isn’t a lost cause.