Archive for the '2009 Books' Category

“Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 8 v. 5: Predators and Prey” by Joss Whedon et al.

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

For Buffy and Joss fans, especially those disappointed in the likely-to-be canceled Dollhouse, the Buffy “Season 8” comic series from Dark Horse is pretty good. The stories, for better and sometimes worse, are true to the series, while the art looks not only like real people but like the original actors. Best of all is the Whedon-esque banter–witty, fast and of the moment.

I originally read the individual issues, until Dark Horse started mixing ads into the the story rather than putting them at the end. I made the switch to reading the graphic-novel collections, as I have with other series like Fables. Predators and Prey collects five stories that can stand alone, but which also interconnect. Harmony, Buffy, insidious but cute kitty-cat toys, Andrew, Faith, Giles and Dawn all feature prominently. There’s finally resolution in Dawn’s shape-shifting curse.

This collection continues to portray a world with armies of slayers, and shifts things as well. As many superhero comics have done, the villains turn the tables and get the public to fear the heroes, the slayers. It sets things up nicely for the ongoing series. The comic is nowhere near as entertaining as the show was at its zenith, but it’s frequently good, which is good enough for me.

“League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier”

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Earlier this year when League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 1910 came out, I realized I’d missed The Black Dossier. After reading it, I can’t discount that I may have skipped it on purpose. Alan Moore’s fore story, illustrated in lavish detail by Kevin O’Neill, is nearly swamped by the profusion of back story. All have merit, and some of this is wildly enjoyable, but still, it was a bumpy read.

Mina Murray (fka Mina Harker, of Dracula) and Allan Quatermain (he of King Solomon’s Mines, not Port Charles), former secret agents of the crown, are back in Britain after a protracted stay in the Americas, in which they avoided the Big Brother regime back home. As before, Moore plays fast (but not loose) with British historical fiction and pop culture, and references in this one include James Bond, The Avengers, Woolf’s Orlando, Orwell’s 1984, Wodehouse’s Jeeves and Wooster series, and more. Murray and Quatermain seek the black dossier of the title, which fills them (and the reader) in on what they and their colleagues like Fanny Hill and Orlando, have been up to for literally ages.

In what I found an unfortunate choice, the dossier is included in its entirety, albeit in chunks that alternate with Murray and her beau getting chased, beat up and shot at all over England and its environs. The dossier material is often in single spaced small type and while illustrated, it’s not really in comic-book format as is the main story. I found the frequent switches in narrative disruptive, distracting, and worse, unnecessary. I didn’t need six pages of the adventures of Fanny Hill, eighteen on Orlando, three by Bertie Wooster, or five by a Kerouac-ian beat poet. I wished many times that Moore and his editors had chosen instead to excerpt the dossier. Small doses of the fictional history would have worked as well, or even better. Then the book could have had a “director’s cut” that included all of Moore’s back matter for those, unlike me, who want it. Shorter excerpts would have gotten the same info across, still been as clever, given the reader more credit, plus not exhausted, annoyed and sometimes bored this one.

Page count total is about even. 98 pages of fore-story, and 93 pages of back. Given the density of the back matter, it felt far longer than what it was purported to support. Plus, much of it had been alluded to or flat out recorded already in the extensive back matter in LoEG v. 2.

As with the other LoEG books, Jess Nevins has done extensive footnoting of Moore’s nigh-endless references. Unfortunately, the notes for Black Dossier are no longerat his site, but at Comic Book Resources, and in a book called Impossible Territories. Trouble is, for me, these are interesting, but like adding insult to injury. Part of the fun of Moore’s work is getting the references I can and knowing I’m missing some but not worrying over it. Really, though, what I’d prefer would be a “Previously on” segment that covers the basics, rather than pages of single spaced small type that makes me hunt for things like why Mina is not aging and Allan is young again (they bathed in the same pool of immortality in Africa that Orlando had done). Some details are listed at Wikipedia. Others are at this review at Comics Bulletin.

If I feel up to it, I might compile my own. I need to rest up a bit before I do so, though. Here are a few notes: Jimmy is James Bond, recently returned from Jamaica where he confronted Dr. No. Emma Night will become Emma Peel. Her godfather, Hugo Drummond, was a character in a series of English noir novels. Familiarity with 1984 and The Tempest would be helpful.

ETA: one of the reviewers remarked that Moore’s use of alternate formats to tell the story/stories is very like what he did in Watchmen. It is, yet I found it much less effective here. That was a masterwork, and one with far reaching implications both in story and in the political context of the time in which it was published. The LoEG series, to me, is supposed to be a lark–adventure stories like the ones it’s drawn from. The at-times ponderous alternate material doesn’t suit the type of story, IMO.

“Beat the Reaper” by Josh Bazell

Saturday, October 17th, 2009

Josh Bazell’s Beat the Reaper is the November selection for the Books and Bars book club here in the Twin Cities. It’s a fast, furious read that often left me jaw-dropped at its brazen, hilarious, profane moments, which are many. The book isn’t for the faint of heart, or the sensitive of ears. Here’s the opening:

So I’m on my way to work and I stop to watch a pigeon fight a rat in the snow, and some fuckhead tries to mug me! Naturally there’s a gun. He comes up behind me and sticks it into the base of my skull. It’s cold, and it actually feels sort of good, in an acupressure kind of way. “Take it easy, Doc,” he says.

Which explains that, at least. Even at five in the morning, I’m not the kind of guy you mug. I look like an Easter Island sculpture of a longshoreman. But the fuckhead can see the blue scrub pants under my overcoat, and the ventilated green plastic clogs, so he thinks I’ef got drugs and money on me. And maybe that I’ve taken some kind of oath not to kick his fuckhead ass for trying to mug me…

Peter Brown is a first-year resident in Internal Medicine at low-regarded Manhattan Catholic hospital. He proceeds to kick the mugger’s ass, but leaves him still breathing, “in fact with a bubbly joie de vivre” then plans to deposit him at the ER. But

…before I stand, I take his handgun.

The gun is a real piece of shit…

I should throw it out. Bend the barrel and drop it down a storm drain.

Instead I slip it into the back pocket of my scrub pants.

Old habits die harder than that.

Peter’s smart; he’s funny. And he used to be a mafia hitman, fka Pietro Brnwa aka Bearclaw,.

In alternating chapters we learn Peter’s past, and how it’s continuing to reach out into his present, as always happens in a mafia story. Someone from his past has surfaced, threatening to expose him. Along with an imminent visit by the reaper of the title (whose icon changes appropriately and hilariously midway through the book), Brown’s dealing with a chronic lack of sleep, an absent nursing staff, eager med students, an escaped patient, a mystery infection, and a sultry drug rep.

To say this book is fast paced is an understatement. The story roars ahead with a momentum built on Peter’s med-fueled mania and his attempt to beat the reaper, which culminates in a “no freaking way!” scene that must be read to be believed. In spite of his past, and his bitter present, Peter is a good guy, trying to help those who need it and punish those who deserve it. Whether he falls into the latter category is a running question through the book.

In the end, there are a few loose ends and unanswered questions, but it’s hard to care much about them other than to wish for the speedy appearance of a sequel. Some critic described this as a mix of House and the Sopranos. I’d add: on speed and with no sleep.

“The Sandman Presents: Thessaly, Witch for Hire”

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Another Sandman-related graphic novel, Thessaly, Witch for Hire by Bill Willingham (Fables) and Shawn McManus, revisits a character from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman storyline A Game of You. She’s the last and most powerful of the Thessalian witches, a Greek coven. When an old “friend” turns up, he turns out to be part of the problem. He’s a ghost called Fetch, and he’s called down a series of demons on her that she’s had to dispatch. The problem, though, is that she’s trying to live in peace, after a lifetime of violence. Demon killing is not only NOT peaceful, it’s not low profile, so Thessaly has to keep moving once the neighbors twig to what she’s up to. But the biggest and baddest demon of them all is yet to come, and Thessaly has no idea how, or if, she’s going to survive it. She and Fetch give it a go, though, with predicable results.

This is a good one-off story, entertaining and well-drawn by McManus, who created the character along with Gaiman. There’s funny banter, and some mean people get what’s coming to them. Good, but doesn’t scratch much deeper than the surface, and some graphic sex and violence mean it’s for older teens and adults.

“The Dead Boy Detectives” by Jill Thompson

Tuesday, October 13th, 2009

Jill Thompson’s Dead Boy Detectives is a manga-size digest that plays in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman sandbox. Thompson was one of the best of the many artists who illustrated Gaiman’s 75-issue run on the comic-book series Sandman. Here, she takes two characters from Season of Mists, Charles Rowland and Edwin Paine, two boy ghosts who refused to die when it was their time. They stayed on as ghosts, helping those without power solve mysteries.

Rowland and Paine are summoned from England to Chicago by a group of girls whose friend at their boarding school has disappeared. The teachers act suspicious and won’t answer questions. The girls hide the boys in drag (of course) but it’s the boys masquerading as living, not as girls, that is the most funny and even touching at times. Thompson uses a manga style to illustrate her own story, and it works well here. It’s a cute, sweet pop-culture story told in a cute, sweet art style and format with cameos by Morpheus and Death. A good quick read for fans of Sandman and of manga, it’s suitable for middle-grade students and older.

“Cold Summer” by Jennifer Young

Monday, October 12th, 2009

Cold Summer by Jennifer Young is a graphic novel that’s been sitting on my shelf since I was pregnant with 3.5yo Guppy. My friend Duff of Girl Reaction sent it with a bunch of other goodies, and I never got ’round to it, which is a shame, since it’s pretty good.

India is a 20-something southern belle sent to a camp in rural northern Minnesota by her mom so she can quit smoking. She’s immature and self-centered, but she’s also smart and funny, especially in how she deals with not smoking (she doesn’t not smoke) and her variety of campmates–an Asian lesbian, an African-American woman, a spookily quiet woman from Wisconsin and a Minnesota-nice group leader. Rural Minnesota’s a foreign land to India, who’s like a groomed poodle among lynxes. Her drawl and self-centeredness can be wearing, but they’re offset by glimmers of self-awareness and occasional peeks of insight into others.

At the end, India says her story isn’t over by a long shot. Yet I can’t find evidence of further volumes of the Cold Summer story. Jennifer Young and her book are no longer with Cute Girl Demographics, the publisher of the book. Instead, she’s done collections of her online comic.

In an extremely weird instance of confluence, Michael May reviewed this 2005 book at Comic World News just last week, on the same day I finished it. Apparently it leapt off both our shelves at the same time.

Cold Summer v. 1 is worth looking at and picking up if you see it, but not seeking out, as it seems to be a standalone that stops in the middle.

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” by Stieg Larsson

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

The ostensible protagonist of Stieg Larsson’s posthumously published bestseller, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is journalist Mikael Blomkvist. It’s true center, though, is the girl of the title, Lisbeth Salander, who doesn’t get fully introduced until page 38:

[Lisbeth] was a pale, anorexic young woman who had hair as short as a fuse, and a pierced nose and eyebrows. She had a wasp tattoo about an inch long on her neck, a tattooed loop around the biceps of her left arm and another around her left ankle. On those occasions when she had been wearing a tank top, [her boss] also saw that she had a dragon tattoo on her left shoulder blade. She was a natural redhead, but she dyed her hair raven black. She looked as though she had just emerged from a week-long orgy with a gang of hard rockers.

Larsson’s novel is a complicated one. Blomkvist is sued for libel by a shady businessman, then is asked to investigate a decades-old murder in a wealthy family. Salander, meanwhile, does her own investigations in other areas until her path crosses with Blomkvist’s. Blomkvist is engaging, the mysteries are involving, but it’s the character of Salander that’s truly bewitching. I enjoyed this book up to a point, then I flat-out loved it and begrudged putting it down. It’s in the spirit of Smilla’s Sense of Snow, the books of Henning Mankel, but it reminded me most strongly, in only good ways, of Tana French’s novels, In the Woods and The Likeness. Highly recommended, but not for the squeamish.

“T-Minus” by Jim Ottaviani

Sunday, September 27th, 2009

I’ll admit it; I’m biased. I bought T-Minus: the Race to the Moon because it’s illustrated by a friend of mine, Zander Cannon, and his no-relation co-worker Kevin Cannon, both of Big Time Attic. But I introduced myself to Zander to compliment him on his comic Replacement God, from the mid-90’s, so in a way, I made friends with him based on admiration for his work. It’s a nice bonus, then, that T-Minus is a well-written, strongly told story of the US and Russian space programs as they compete first for space, then for the moon.

Jim Ottaviani has carved a niche for himself writing comic books about true-life science, and he’s an able storyteller, mixing fact with invention to move the book forward. The Cannons’ art skillfully assists. It’s clear and straightforward, with distinct-looking characters, a necessity in a tale that might have had a cast of 400,000, as Ottaviani notes in his afterward. The historical facts of the progressing flights and failures of the program are detailed in the outside of the pages, which allows for a facts-only skimming before, during or after reading the whole book. By turns funny, sad and touching, T-Minus does a good job of balancing story and history. It’s accessible for older kids and adults, and is a good jumping off point to learn more about the history of space travel, which Ottaviani aids by including a list of further things to read and watch along with brief summaries. I’ve already reserved one DVD from the library, and I think I may need to watch The Right Stuff again, soon.

“American Widow”: The Personal is Political

Friday, September 25th, 2009

I bought Alissa Torres’ American Widow after I saw it recommended at Mental Multivitamin and Entertainment Weekly. On 9/11, Torres was in her third trimester of pregnancy, and her husband had just started working in the Twin Towers the day before. This comic-book memoir tells of her relationship with her husband, Eddie, his death on 9/11 and its aftermath. It touches occasionally on the nation and world at large, but focuses mostly on Torres story, which bring the event into painful, individual detail. Most moving to me was the shift from the outpouring of goodwill and rage, to the backlash and pulling away of both friends and institutions. The black, white and blue illustrations by Sungyoon Choi are simple yet evocative. They’re a good complement for Torres’ text, which I appreciated for its honesty, ambivalence, and ultimately, its hope.

“Jennifer Johnson is Sick of Being Single” by Heather McElhatton

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

From Jennifer Johnson is Sick of Being Single by Heather McElhatton:

Don’t think about the impending roundup meeting or my mother or my sister’s wedding or any of the things I was going to do and then I didn’t. Don’t think about the last ten years, which have collapsed in a lightning split-second, and even though I’m not sure what I was doing for ten years, we can be sure I wasn’t getting married or having kids or buying a house, or working on getting out of Minnesota.

We can be sure of that…

I keep thinking it’s not too late; I can still turn everything around. I could meet a guy any days now who would sweep me off my feet, and he would happen to be a millionaire just like Jane Austen planned for all us cheeky, uppity modern girls.

Jennifer is an everywoman: thirty something with a snide boss, a cubicle job writing copy for a Minneapolis department store, a Cinnabon obsession, and smarts she doesn’t quite know what to do with. Online dating is a nightmare, and she doesn’t have a date for her sister’s wedding. She’s Bridget Jones in Minnesota.

Then Jennifer meets someone, and he asks her out. He’s handsome and from a wealthy family. But as they date, her “gay bee” friend Christopher in the Visual department doesn’t like him, and her co-worker Ted is suddenly cold to her.

As I read this book, I thought I knew what was going on and where it was headed. I was puzzled by how unlikable Jennifer often was, but appreciated her sense of humor, her sharp observations, and wanted to see what happened to her. When I finally did, though, I was shocked. McElhatton utterly surprised me. Initially, I thought she was crazy. As the ending and the book melded together, though, I saw the method to the ostensible madness.

Jennifer Johnson, both the book and the character, show what we think we want, and what happens when we try to get it, and IF we get it. But there are no easy answers here, and I shouldn’t have expected any. I read and enjoyed McElhatton’s tart and clever Pretty Little Mistakes: a Do-Over Novel in 2007. What I enjoyed most about it were the unexpected twists and turns of karmic irony that seemed as much to do with fate than free will. Jennifer and her story would fit right into one of the “what happens next” scenarios from that book.

This book looks like chick lit, and much of it reads like that. Lurking beneath the surface and eventually rearing its head, though, is a complex, dark streak that takes this book another place entirely. This is not a sunny beach read, as I thought it would be. It’s something much more interesting and cool. Bravo.

“The Dud Avocado” by Elaine Dundy

Saturday, September 19th, 2009

Elaine Dundy’s Dud Avocado has been on my to-read list since it was re-published in 2007 by the New York Review of Books, and received all sorts of praise in the blogosphere (e.g., Maud Newton.) In his introduction, lit blogger Terry Teachout says,

It is the destiny of some good novels to be perpetually rediscovered, and Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, I fear, is one of them.

Our heroine is an American in Paris, sometime post-Hemingway. A rich uncle funds her adventure abroad, and she’s trying to get his money’s worth. She has a strong, distinct voice, and a great sense of humor, especially at her own expense.

It was around eleven in the morning, I remember, and I was drifting down the boulevard St. Michel, thought rising in my head like little puffs of smoke, when suddenly a voice bellowed into my ear: “Sally Jay Gorce! What the hell?”…

“Why pink?” he asked, studying my new coiffure carefully. “Why not green?”

As a matter of fact I’d had my hair dyed a marvelous shade of pale red so popular with Parisian tarts that season. It was the first direct remark he made about the New Me and it was hardly encouraging.

Slowly his eyes left my hair and traveled downwards. This time he really took in my outfit and then that Look that I’m always encountering; that special one composed in equal parts of amusement, astonishment and horror came over his face.

I am not a moron and I can generally guess what causes this look. The trouble is, it’s always something different.

I squirmed uncomfortably, feeling his eyes bearing down on my bare shoulders and breasts.

“What the hell are you doing in the middle of the morning with an evening dress on?” he asked me finally.

Sally Jay tries to disentangle herself from her Euro lover and entangle herself with an old friend. The book details the dubious results, and becomes utterly engrossing toward the end. Surprising revelations occur, not least of which are the ones Sally Jay has about herself.

This is an odd, funny book with engaging twists at the end and a weird, lovable main character. It’s a little Movable Feast-y, Great Gatsby-ish, and Breakfast at Tiffany’s-esque. I’m glad it’s back in print, and glad to have read it, finally.

“World Gone Beautiful: Life Along the Rum River” by Linda Buturian

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

World Gone Beautiful by Linda Buturian was this month’s pick for my book group. I was glad to read and support a local writer, but I was even more interested to learn about Buturian’s unique living situation that she and a group of friends and family have created on the Rum River near the small towns of Princeton and Milaca Minnesota:

A commune, a planned neighborhood, an intentional cul-de-sac, the compound. What are we? For eight years now, four families have lived next to each other on a piece of land in rural Minnesota…We are middle-aged friends who bought land together and are living and raising our kids alongside each other. It continues to make good sense. (120)

Through a series of linked, deliberately non-chronological essays, Buturian uses words to sketch impressions of her life in the deliberate community she and her friends created in 1996. It’s a history, a journal of sorts, and an ongoing meditation on the questions of “what have we done/what are we doing?”

The idea came first. Linda and her friend Debbie talked about buying land and living as neighbors when they were theology students in Oregon. Then came the land in Minnesota, the building and renovations, the animals and the children.

This is not a how-to manual, or even necessarily an encouragement to do what they have done. Buturian is refreshingly honest about the ambivalence she often feels, and how the joys and rewards are sometimes fleeting compared to the irritation and hard work of the life they’ve created. Like Anne LaMott, an author she mentions in the book, Buturian has a wry and self-deprecating sense of humor that keeps her observations afloat above depression or self-involvement. She interweaves stories of parenting, relationships, and religion as LaMott has done, with ecology and sociology thrown in for good measure.

This is a thoughtful, provocative book, especially for those who’ve wondered about moving off the grid, or at least away from a city for more land and greater peace. Buturian makes it clear their “cul-de-sac” is no utopia, but it certainly has its idyllic moments, which I found delightful to read about and ponder.

“Andromeda Klein” by Frank Portman

Monday, September 7th, 2009

Headstand w/Andromeda Klein

I barely knew it existed–I’d seen a blurb about it the week before–when C at Big Brain pressed it into my hands. It was Andromeda Klein by Frank Portman, the author of King Dork, which I liked exceedingly a few years back.

Andromeda the book, and Andromeda the main character, are similar to King Dork’s. She’s an outsider with few friends. Those she has aren’t always reliable. Someone close to her has died, and she has difficulty dealing with her parents.

Now that I type that, I realize how many teens that can describe.

Andromeda is a self-taught occult and tarot expert. I’ll offer fair warning here: those uncomfortable with details of the occult and magick with a “k” are not going to like this book and probably shouldn’t read it. I was surprised by how much, and how deep, the details of Andromeda’s occult practices and knowledge went. There are passages about demons, conjuring, body modification, ghosts, and spirit-world communication.

That said, I found this a fascinating book. Portman presents Andromeda’s studies in a fair, informative way. It’s not devil worship, or (intentional) demon conjuring. Rather, it’s an ancient and varied tradition that seeks knowledge and understanding of the self and the universe–rather like religion. If you feel there’s more than one path up the mountain, and are interested in tarot as well as a good young adult mystery novel, I think you’ll really enjoy Andromeda Klein, the book and the character.

Anyone observing Andromeda Klein from a distance at that moment would simply have seen a slender teenage girl on a bicycle splashing through puddles; any who happened to glimpse the face looking out of the black zip sweatshirt’s hood might have noted a tense, rather worried expression. But anyone reading her mind would no doubt have been taken aback by the confused riot of arcane images to be found within. A limitless host of glyphs, sigils, images, and mathematical processes unfolded from the Two of Swords…

Life is complicated enough because Andromeda has something called “disorganized collagen”. It makes her body and especially her hearing out of whack. (It does, though, make for an entertaining lexicon of misheard phrases, such as bacon for pagan, vacuum for bathroom, and spinach U-turn for Finnish Lutheran.) Further, her friend and occult “sister” Daisy recently passed away, and her friend Rosalie is a bundle of bad news: steals a car that can only be driven in reverse, schedules drinking parties for her friends when parents are away, and tries to set up Andromeda with weird guys. Andromeda’s mother is controlling and intrusive; her father is depressive. And she’s recently broken up with someone she calls “St. Steve” and feels really bad about it.

This book was often sad, but also funny and singular. Andromeda has a strong, unique and humorous character voice. It’s easy to feel for Andromeda, and hope things turn out well for her. There’s no neat and tidy happy ending, but there’s a satisfyingly complex one that gives a lot of credit to its readers by leaving some things to the imagination. I was completely involved in this book till I put it down; it’s an involving and engaging character and story.

For more, Andromeda has her own theme song, as Portman is a punk rock musician. Largehearted Boy has a set list for the book.

“Infinite Jest” by David Foster Wallace

Saturday, September 5th, 2009


I did it! I’m done. I used my stacation last month to push on to the end of Infinite Jest. By the middle of the book, I found the weekly page goals restrictive; I couldn’t wait to read on and see what happened.

A frequent question of readers during Infinite Summer has been, “What’s it about?” I’m not sure it’s possible, or desirable, to capture this complex 981-page book with its 98 pages of endnotes simply. That hasn’t stopped me and others from trying, though.

If I made a list, it would include: junior tennis, addiction, recovery, parent/child relationships, Hamlet, math, philosophy, interpersonal relationships, and home entertainment.

In a sentence, I’d say it’s about trying to find connection in a world geared toward solitary entertainment, loosely based on Hamlet, using drugs and junior tennis as metaphors with two young men, Hal Incandenza and Don Gately, struggling to make sense of it all.

Infinite Jest begins:

I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. My posture is consciously congruent to the shape of my hard chair. This is a cold room in University Administration, wood-walled, Remington-hung, double-windowed again the November heat, insulated from Administrative sounds by the reception area outside, at which Uncle Charles, Mr. deLint and I were lately received.

I am in here.

Wallace begins his novel by answering the opening question of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “Who’s there?”

Hal Incandenza answers, “I am.”

This is a complex, challenging novel. By the end, I still had questions. I also had the urge to re-read it from the beginning, which is congruent with a critical element of the novel, an entertainment so seductive that, once seen, incites viewers only to want to watch it again and again. David Foster Wallace has replicated his own fictive creation. I am impressed and even awed by the skill required for such a thing.

Infinite Jest is also sad, funny and tremendously involving. I loved the time I spent with this novel and these characters. I was sorry when it ended, as evidenced by my urge to go back to the beginning and start all over again. The book is not easy, but it’s well worth the time, effort and weight lifting involved in reading it. I continue to ponder its questions about how we relate to one another, to entertainment, and to things we’re drawn to that hurt us.

I’m very grateful to the folks at Infinite Summer for coming up with this challenge, which gave me the incentive to finally tackle this behemoth, which sat on my shelf for a decade. If you haven’t, I encourage you to do so. If you’ve tried and stopped, I encourage you to try again, and persevere. This is a great book, in both senses of the phrase.

“League of Extraordinary Gentlemen v. 2″ by Alan Moore

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

I’m rereading the graphic novel collections of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series, and just finished the very enjoyable Volume 2. I read it when it came out serially in comic book form, and remember enjoying it less. There were long waits between issues, and they were quite heavy with backmatter that I didn’t enjoy. In the graphic novel collection, I am able to read the entire comic story at once, and the backmatter is collected in the back. That’s where it should stay, IMO. Forty-six pages of single spaced text as Alan Moore does a mock travelogue of every fictional or mythical locale IN THE WORLD. I knew the references to some. I might have enjoyed it more had I known more of them, but I doubt it. Instead, my friend Blogenheimer suggested I visit Jess Nevins’ site, where he breaks down all the references.

Back to the Volume 2 story, though. The team of irregulars–Mina Murray, the Invisible Man, Edward Hyde, Captain Nemo and Allan Quatermain–are under new leadership, after the events in volume 1 and are dispatched to the site of what appears to be a meteor crater. The monsters from Mars soon reveal themselves, and begin traipsing about in distinctive-looking vehicles. It’s up to the team of misfits to save the day, and they’re aided by a reclusive and mysterious doctor.

In addition to the Sherlock Holmes and Quatermain stories, Dracula, The Invisible Man, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, volume 2 references other Victorian literature, including Gulliver’s Travels, Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, War of the Worlds, and The Island of Dr. Moreau.

This is an adventure–sometimes tragic, sometime comic, but always engaging. I found it great fun, once I stopped reading the backmatter.

“The Ayatollah Begs to Differ” by Hooman Majd

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

This month’s selection for my book group is The Ayatollah Begs to Differ by Hooman Majd. It was the pick of one member who is married to a Persian. I look forward to our discussion with her added insights about Iran.

When I look back now, both in my childhood and even as a young adult, I couldn’t have imagined my country as anything more than a second-rate Third World nation subservient to Western powers….Despite the negative connotations of a perceptibly hostile Iran, Iranians of a certain age can be forgiven for feeling a tinge of pride in their nation’s rapid ascent to a position of being taken seriously by the world’s greatest superpower and all in just a little over a quarter of a century. One might argue whether Iran and Iranians would have be better off without the Islamic Revolution of 1979. But it is indisputable that had it not happened, Iran today would likely not have much of a say in global affairs.

Rightly or wrongly, the revolution and the path the nation took after its success have led to Iran’s prominence and repute (2-3)

Majd uses Iranian myths, tales and phrases to structure his presentation of modern-day Iran and the many paradoxes of its people. Majd grew up in the West, and his in-between status as someone familiar with both cultures helps him explain things like the Iranian practice of ta-arouf, or extreme politeness, without belittling those he’s describing. His biggest challenge, though, and the focus of the book, is to illuminate why Ahmadinejad was overwhelmingly elected President by the popular vote in 2005. As Majd is careful to note, many liberal and wealthy Iranians think freedom means women can go without the veil, while for many Iranians, freedom means a full belly, and the ability to live.

This is a timely book that examines Ahmadinejad’s 2005 election just as his one this year has caused such uproar. The book was tremendously helpful in breaking down many of the media’s reductive portrayals (such as Ahmadinejad as villain) and showing how complex and intriguing the realities are.

“Shadow Country” by Peter Matthiessen

Friday, July 24th, 2009

I started Shadow Country this past April, soon after the Morning New Tournament of Books. Cited by many of the judges as one of the books they skipped, I can now see why. At just under 900 pages, it’s not only long, but it’s dense. The number and sprawl of an enormous cast of characters was beyond my ability to hold in my head; at about page sixty I went back to the beginning to make a character list since I could not find one online.

Shadow Country the story is historical fiction based on the life and death of Florida pioneer and supposed desperado Edgar Watson. Shadow Country the book has an interesting history as well. Matthiessen originally envisioned and submitted it as one work with three sections, each told from a different point of view. Deemed too long, it was roughly edited into three separate books and released over a period of years. Decades later, Matthiessen decided to have another go at the story, and rewrote it, editing and trimming it down from about 1,300 combined pages to its relatively svelte 892.

I might have preferred it, though, as three separate volumes. It’s so dense with characters, events, locations and history that I had a hard time following it and often had to refer to my notes. Having more literary “cushion” might have made it easier to digest, and a faster read even if it were technically longer.

Though it wasn’t easy to read, I found it worthwhile. So worth it, in fact, that I had to return it to the library with 120ish pages unread when my three rounds of renewal were done, wait several months for it to be available again, then finish it while in the midst of reading Infinite Jest.

There aren’t many books I would do that for. Edgar Watson is a fascinating character. His story is interwoven with that of the state of Florida and a history of racism at the turn of the last century. The first section of the book is told from revolving viewpoints of people and relatives who knew Edgar Watson. The second segment is told by his son Lucius, a historian. The third is told by Edgar himself.

With so many stories growed up around that feller, who is to say which ones was true? What I seen were a able-bodied man, mostly quiet, easy in his ways, who acted according to our ideas of a gentleman.

Few writers could handle these acrobatics of Point of View, yet Matthiessen manages it skillfully, turning the tapestry of the tales into one story, though it’s always shifting. It’s fascinating, compelling stuff. It won the National Book Award last year.

And yet. This would not be a book I would press on a stranger, or even someone I didn’t know very well. It’s clearly a life’s work for Matthiessen. While rewarding, it’s definitely not a book for general audiences. But if you’re interested in U.S. and Florida history, like thick books that you can sink into for weeks or months at a time, or love historical novels with complex characters, then this is certainly worth checking out. Just give yourself plenty of time to devote to it.

“Where’s Billie?” by Judith Yates Borger

Wednesday, July 22nd, 2009

My friend and erstwhile-writing-group member Judith Yates Borger kindly sent me a copy of her first novel, Where’s Billie, a mystery set in the Twin Cities, Minnesota. Full disclaimer: I’m not going to have anything like objectivity on this book. I saw it through several drafts, and have a great deal of affection for it.

That said, this is a very good book. At the center of the mystery is newspaper reporter Marguerite “Skeeter” Hughes. As a running joke through the novel, she routinely deflects people’s questions about her nickname. Skeeter is given the dud assignment of responding to an anxious mother’s report of a missing teenage girl named Billie. She soon finds there’s a great deal more than a sullen teen run away from an unhappy home. As she puts together her story, Skeeter fills us in on both newspaper and Minnesota cultures. This was a hoot to read–as a non-native, I sometimes laughed, sometimes felt abashed at the spot-on characterizations. In pursuit of Billie, Skeeter also struggles to care for her two daughters, play phone-tag with her husband, and maintain some kind of objectivity as the story hits closer and closer to home. She is shot at, her car is bombed, young girls are being lured into danger, and there’s meth and a connection to the mayor thrown in for good measure.

Borger is a retired journalist, and this background stands her in good stead. The story unfolds easily and quickly in straightforward prose. Skeeter has a dry sense of humor, as well as good insight into her struggles to balance work and home. In the end, the main mystery wraps up satisfactorily, if not neatly–read it and you’ll see what I mean. For Skeeter, though, things aren’t so Minnesota nice; there were a few things, one of them major, that I didn’t see coming.

Where’s Billie has a lot to offer–a solidly plotted mystery, an engaging main character who could easily helm her own series, ethnographic insights into journalism and Minnesota, a nefarious bad guy and a complex yet satisfying ending. It’s good stuff. I recommend it and look forward to a sequel.

“The Ten-Cent Plague” by David Hajdu

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

After reading, and being transported by, Michael Chabon’s Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, I added David Hajdu’s Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, to my reading list. Even though it was the last of my K & C related reading (and thus a likely candidate to be pushed off the TBR list), I not only read it, but enjoyed it immensely.

Churches and community groups raged and organized campaigns against comic books. Young people acted out mock trials of comics characters. Schools held public burnings of comics, and students threw thousands of the books into the bonfires; at more than one conflagration, children marched around the flames reciting incantations denouncing comics. Headlines in newspapers and magazines around the country warned readers: “Depravity for Children–Ten Cents a Copy!”…The offices of one of the most adventurous and scandalous publishers, EC Comics, were raided by the New York City police. More than a hundred acts of legislation were introduced on the state and municipal levels to ban or limit the sale of comic books…Soon, Congress took action with a set of sensational, televised hearings that nearly destroyed the comic-book business…

Page-one news as it occurred, the story of the comics controversy is a largely forgotten chapter in the history of the culture wars (7)

Hajdu’s coverage of comic-book fear and censorship to the 1940 and 1950’s is well-researched, filled with compelling personal accounts and anecdotes, and eminently readable. For readers who want to explore the history embedded in Chabon’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book, for pop-culture history buffs, for those interested in youth culture and censorship, or just anyone who likes a well-written account of a little-known phenomenon, I highly recommend this book.

“Love and Other Impossible Pursuits” by Ayelet Waldman

Monday, June 22nd, 2009

I wanted to read Ayelet Waldman’s Love and Other Impossible Pursuits for several reasons. One, she’s been the subject of a few online kerfuffles, like saying she liked her husband (author Michael Chabon) to change light bulbs so she didn’t have to, and saying she loved him more than her kids. Two, she’s married to Chabon, and I wondered how their writing styles and subjects would differ. Three, I liked the premise: a young NYC stepmother struggles with a difficult stepson, and her grief over her infant’s death of SIDS.

Like Waldman’s online writing, the book veers between too much information and a refreshingly brutal honesty about things like being mad at children. It’s sometimes irritating, sometimes engaging.

My belief was often strained. Emilia eschewed group therapy in the wake of her daughter’s death, but this didn’t adequately explain why she, her doctor, or others didn’t railroad her into individual therapy, which she clearly needed. Her husband Jack’s ex-wife was too cruel to be believable; I would have welcomed some complexity. Her stepson William is presented as a precocious five-year old, but more than once it notes Phillip Pullman’s Amber Spyglass as his favorite book. Amber Spyglass is a YA book for 12 and up. I’ll allow that a real-life adult MIGHT read this violent, complex, sexual book to a 5yo, but for a fictional preschooler, however precocious, to claim it? No way.

And yet, I enjoyed parts of this book, too. Waldman’s crisp writing kept me reading at a quick clip. Emilia is immature and narcissistic, but she’s also smart and interesting. William, the stepson, was a great character, though I was horrified by many of the things he was subjected to, not just the ones his mother complained that Emilia put him through. The details of Central Park were lovingly drawn, and her ethnography of the NYC mommy/kid/nanny culture was fascinating.

I was reminded strongly of some of Jennifer Weiner’s books. Weiner’s Good in Bed also featured a young Jewish lawyer protagonist who goes through difficulties related to pregnancy. Both books are better written, and tackle darker issues, than the average beach-y chicklit novels they’re often lumped together with.

I wished, though, that Waldman dared venture further into darker territory. As a reader, I felt sorry for Emilia because of her grief, and because the ex-wife was vindictive and the stepson so challenging. But what about the all-too-real possibility of struggling with stepchildren without grief as an excuse for behaving badly? Or, even more transgressive, writing about a parent who dislikes her own biological or adoptive child, as Lionel Shriver did in We Have to Talk about Kevin?

The book had a tidy ending, one I saw far in advance. I think it flinched from some deeper truths. Because of this, I will probably skip Waldman’s latest, the nonfiction Bad Mother, in which she tackles some of the criticisms she’s endured in her volleys with the online public.