Sunday, July 31, 2011

Painted to save the day

Book: The World’s Greatest Super-Heroes

Text: Paul Dini

Art: Alex Ross

Publication: 2005 (DC Comics) in collection form

Pages: not numbered

The main thing I took away from this collection is probably the least significant aspect of it: Wonder Woman is hot.

But stay with me; my appreciation stems from the gorgeous artwork that Alex Ross hand-drew and painted for these stories, which originally appeared as separate comic tabloids that tell stories of famous superheroes’ human sides. The oversized paper and the entire omnibus collected in a hefty hardback that put a dent in my stomach sucked me right into their worlds. Everything looked fantastic and dynamic and photorealistic at the same time, idealized yet in a way that seems entirely possible to achieve.

And then I read the words. Blunt, heavy-handed, overly quippy and exposition-tastic. I didn’t like them. Is going from reading a novel to reading a comic just something like going from driving a car to riding a bike—both fine modes of transportation that have to be handled with different aspects of awareness to get to the same place? It kinds of feels that way to me.

In this specific collection, Superman, Batman, and Captain Marvel all seem to be playing out personal PSAs by using their powers in very noble efforts they find doomed from the beginning but still worth pursuing. I got conflicted between thinking why don’t they just use their powers to help in ways they know will have more permanent, practical effects and wanting to give them hugs when they didn’t make as much differences as they wanted to.

I also liked the virus storyline of the Justice League American section, plus the character management that it juggled. Although two maybe-trivial questions: 1. Why is Hawkman’s wife called Hawk Girl? They seem pretty equal in all other aspects. 2. I don’t understand the Green Arrow’s concept. I mean I do—Robin Hood, basically. But why arrows?  

But Wonder Woman was pure awesome. I loved her conflict between knowing she could fix these warring countries and her shock at realizing how she came across as arrogant when she just wanted the best for humanity. And I loved how she actually learned how to deal with that, too, in a way that let her use her powers in ways that showed people her true good intentions.

All she wanted to do was save the world. And be a little taller than Superman. She kind of beasted him both ways in this collection.    

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

When bear and chicken part ways

Book: Fuzz and Pluck: Splitsville

Author: Ted Stearn

Published: 2008 (Fantagraphic Books)

Pages: They weren’t numbered and I didn’t count them. A lot. Ish.

I was going to draw a review of this book, then spent the last three days realizing that no, I still can’t draw in any recognizable form. So!

This is a comic about Pluck, a chicken with no feathers, and Fuzz, a stuffed bear, as watched by their guardian angel doppelgangers, as they start off working at Mr. Lardy’s fast food restaurant. They get separated when Fuzz goes to run an errand for Mr. Lardass and gets chased away by a dog and then rescued by an old dude who’s obsessive about making his ferry run right between two (perfectly good but don’t tell him that) bridges, and Pluck gets fired when he beats up an insulting customer and ends up joining a gladiator team that battles for their own jobs on a floating stadium. Pluck is a runaway success and ends up getting chucked overboard by a jealous teammate (a boxing rabbit) and rival team manager (a sentient lemon half) into the very river in which Fuzz floats in the ferry after accidentally killing its owner.

…Actually, I think my drawings made just as much sense as this.

  • Engaging story that didn’t make sense but didn’t act like it had to.
  • Cool pen and ink drawings, especially of Sourpuss (the lemon).
  • Not really funny; not sure if it was supposed to be or not. Not sure how or if this was broken down in another medium (ie, strips or pages posted on a website); seemed designed for a straight through read.

And ye gads and little fishies, another yellow book cover. This is seriously and for real the second-to-last library book I will ever read until I get done with my other books. I SWEAR. *puts hand on copy of White Teeth*   

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Awesome job, ladies.

Book: Fantastic Women: 18 tales of the surreal and the sublime from Tin House

Authors: various (edited by Rob Spillman)

Published: 2011 (Tin House Books)

Pages: 256

I’ve been trying to review this book but the mermaids and werewolves keep getting in the way.

They’re all over these stories, along with nuns who fall in love with lighthouse keepers and people who have two shadows, one of which grows up to be The Troubled One, and people with a surplus of oranges conducting surveys on if you think you’re someone’s most special person (hi, Miranda July!) and a woman who turns into a deer at night but doesn’t know how to tell her husband what it means and a woman bound and gagged and hanging upside down in her own home watching soldiers burn themselves and the neighborhood children on grill funeral pyres in her back yard. And a house with a tourist road running through it.

What I like most about these stories is how the peculiar parts of each are taken for granted: Uh, yeah there are pocket universes you can jump around in for fun and for hiding. That’s the way it’s always been. None of these writers club you over the head with the surreal aspects going “Look! I wrote something SURREAL! Isn’t it WEIRD and WACKY and WHIMSICAL and other w-words that mean HOLY SHIT UNIQUE?”

No. They write from places of serene, quiet confidence that you, dear reader, can figure out the weird shit on your own. They’re gonna focus on what’s going wrong over here, or how this lady gets through her day when things are falling apart.

Because they will fall apart, and nobody except the protagonists will notice until it’s too late, if ever. Sometimes the main women manage to right things, sometimes she just lets go. Either way it’s a great collection of ethereal stories that all touch each other’s fancy without being remotely identical. Yay, Tin House.

I might use the rest of this space to blab about how I don’t like when women writers are described as such. Words of all things should be taken equally as seriously from whoever writes them and based on whether the words or plots or characters or styles are stupid or not. Blah blah, done with that because I do also enjoy being able to end on a hypocritical “Awesome, ladies” note. I mean, I am a proud member of their tribe.      

Friday, July 15, 2011

Brilliant minatures

Book: And Yet They Were Happy

Author: Helen Phillips

Published: 2011 (Leapfrog Literature)

Pages: 305

The Reactions

Reaction #1
I don’t know what to make of this book. It’s a collection of two-page vignettes (which, if you’ve never tried it, is an awesome word to taste while you say it) that are, I think, loosely connected to make a bigger picture of one couple’s life. Only they don’t feel cohesive enough to be about just one couple.
They slide too much between points of view and verb tenses to construct an overarching narrative. My brain likes overarching narratives.

Reaction #2
But my brain, like with the Mike Sacks book, couldn’t put Phillips’s down either, for similar reasons. They’re really compelling, and with these, there was an added curiosity of how they were meant to tie together.

Reaction #3
I kept reading to find the hidden meaning that I was sure I was missing and would come to suddenly understand (bing!) if only I read enough of her words. Once I got beyond the flood series, which is the first chunk of the book and not the most reader-friendly part to dive into (pun intended), I started feeling connected to these weird flashes of everyday life as imagined past their ordinary boundaries. The fight series especially hit home because she managed to write exactly how it feels without exaggerating into melodrama but keeping every ounce of miserable meaning and expressing them in weird ways that shed new light on it.

And that is my favorite kind of writing.  

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Outsourcing my love

Book: Your Wildest Dreams, Within Reason

Author: Mike Sacks

Published: 2011 (Tin House Books)

Pages: 264

The page count on this one lies. Two hundred and sixty-four pages sounds like sitting down to a three-course dinner; this reads like eating a family size bag of potato chips, driving that same compulsion to consume just one more to see how it tastes different than the last one until suddenly there are no next ones (and yet your stomach remains convinced there’s more for another ten minutes. Or that might just be mine).

Yeah, I know that metaphor’s been used before. Shut up. I’m saving all my nice ones for my 

My favorite piece was “Saw You on the Q Train,” which set up and deteriorated a whole relationship through imagined Craigslist missed connection ads. It’ll give you a little sense of Sacks’s superior sense of absurdity to know that Q and Purse’s downfall starts with an argument over a theoretical swing one of them didn’t want in their theoretical shared back yard and ends with lawyers putting on their best courtroom threats. On Craigslist.

Also good: “Outsource My Love,” “A Leaflet Dropped Over Amy Weller’s House” (“from the slightly more exciting, grownup, and respectable name of MICHAEL SACKS”), because Sacks is excellent at exposing the more ridiculous aspects of both romance and business jargon when he combines them; and “Short Story Geared to College Students as Written by a Thirty-Something Author,” because he nails exactly how college students act. Right? You kids still do the Limp Bizkits and whatnot, yeah? Ah, who cares. It’s funny! *waves graduated cane*   

And then there were the letters from writer Rhon Penny “(silent H), and I am no longer married,” who writes to famous authors proposing collaborations on things like getting his own fatwa (to Salman Rushdie) and extending John Steinback’s writing estate V.C. Andrews-style (ghostwritten, with poetry slams to keep it relevant to the kids). I almost fell out of my chair reading that last one, and then I righted myself and remembered that not everyone finds classic literature parodies funny. Except I bet you do if you’re reading this blog.

The only thing I didn’t care about were the lists that didn’t elaborate on their items (“Signs Your College Isn’t Very Prestigious,” “Reasons You’re Still Single,” “Things You Must Do Before You Get Too Old,” one or two more) because they went by too fast and didn’t sink in.

But let Mike Sacks funny you up, because he’s good at it.    

Saturday, July 9, 2011


This is where I add a thank you note to Liberry Jam for lending me this and the next few books in my to-read pile. Also for painting me a picture with words of Bourbon Street for a short story. And books! Did I mention the books, LJ?

Pretty people with problems

Book: Birds of Paradise

Author: Diana Abu-Jaber

Published: September 2011 (Norton)

Pages: 362

So. It’s official. I’m getting bored with lit fic, and it’s all the fault of books like this.
When my boyfriend handed me this one, I did what I always did with paperbacks: flipped it over and hoped there’d be a decent summary and not just a cover of unhelpful blurbs (although I like trying to figure out what the publisher left out of the ones with ellipses in their middles). So far so good.

As I read the nice full summary, I went down a mental lit fic calculation list: a couple is “still haunted by the disappearance” [check] “of their ineffably beautiful” [check] “daughter” [check] “who ran away when she was thirteen.” [check] The daughter’s a not-quite-street-urchin [check] who somehow survives on infrequent modeling jobs [check]. Her mom’s a pastry chef [check] and her dad’s an attorney [check]. Her brother grows up to own an organic food market [check for that and check for the fact that he really believes in the lifestyle]. They all work too much [check] which is probably the result of the girl’s disappearance [check]. They “must all confront their loss and sense of betrayal” [check] while the girl “must reckon with the guilty secret that drove her away.” [Check. A giant one.]

That, my friends, is a whopping 14 on the Contemporary Literary Fiction Typicalness Scale, which, okay, I totally just made up. But it sounds like the same general scenario that every other lit fic novel has had since like 1999, or at least since Jodi Picoult got so popular. In fact, this sounds exactly like a JP novel, doesn’t it? (The answer is yes).

However. HOWEVER. The writing elevates the subject matter.
Do you realize how exciting that is? The writing is good and treats the setting Miami like the strange wondrous place it is and manages to make most of the characters pretty much human in their shared but separate sufferings.
…until about page 130 or so, when the descriptions suddenly seemed to go bloated and way too detailed. They got heavy, those details, so the second half felt like slogging through the mother’s pastry dough.

Then things just ALMOST happen. Seriously. The brother needs money from his parents to keep his store open; attorney dad has a crush on this chick at the office and almost starts an affair, thinks about putting up $2.3 million for a sketchy condo deal; Hurricane-freakin’-Katrina is bearing down on everyone by the last hundred pages. AND GUESS WHAT HAPPENS. It all makes me angry. Grocery Boy gets the money from his parents, the condo deal turns out to be a scam that cuts and runs BEFORE the attorney puts up ANY money, and the hurricane leaves the grocery store AND the house PERFECTLY SAFE WHILE WRECKING EVERYBODY ELSE’S LIVES. For no good reason.

DAMMIT. Give me something at stake here, people! Why does the author even need to mention any of this if each problem is going to loom large and then just puff away like a cloud in wind? Focus completely on the daughter if that’s what you want to do. She’s more interesting anyway, although she makes me mad, too, because the book keeps saying she could have this awesome modeling career if she would bother to go to more go-sees or whatever, which first of all makes her stupid because it sounds like such little effort to get off the street (yet she still looks like Elizabeth Taylor, y’all, the young one) and have such a glamorous career and secondly this is literally all hearsay. There’s not one scene of her at these places with agents or whatever actually saying, “Hey, wanna come up to New York?” like the book says happens. But it doesn’t show us. It reminded me of that friend you have who’s always bragging about something cool in their life but never has any definite proof so you get suspicious and then tired of them talking about it because you never really believed them anyway.

And I don't know if the typos I spotted were still in the book because it's an advanced copy (I will never get tired of those), but a few were pretty jarring; one or two key words were left out, one looked only half typed, and a few times the dialogue attribution was confusing.

In one word: frustrating.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Think of the children and what they've been through

Book: My Father’s Keeper

Authors: Stephan and Norbert Lebert

Publication: 2000 (Little, Brown and Company)

Pages: 243

I never like to mention my interest in Third Reich Germany. Even just typing that makes me feel creepy. And I feel like it makes things worse when I explain that I’m interested in it because it’s part of my heritage.

But that’s true. My grandma—my Oma—on my mother’s side is German. (Almost fifty years over here and she’s still got a wonderfully thick accent.) She was a teenager over there during World War Two. She never talks about it. I don’t know how she feels or how she felt about any of it.

I told my favorite high school teacher this one time, and he asked the exact right question: “Does that make you more interested in it or less?” More. I want to know what it was like to be in such an explosive time of history.

That’s why I pick up books like My Father’s Keeper for prices like $2 at places like the Augusta/Richmond County Library friends of the library used book store. I can’t check any books out there because I can’t get a library card there because technically, I don’t live in that county. But that is beside the point.

Which brings me to the storytelling aspects of this. I really liked the concept: the author’s dad was a journalist who interviewed the offspring of high-ranking Nazis in 1959 about what it was like growing up in the very middle of the Third Reich. The author followed up his dad’s interviews in the late 1990s to see how the last forty years have affected these same people.

But I never got the human aspects I wanted to see. It sounded like there was a set list of questions the author went down asking in order, and then wrote the answers in a list-in-paragraph form instead of teasing out the unique bits of each person’s story. The thing is, he tried to do that, I could tell, but the stories started sounding the same anyway. Wives and sons and daughters detained for questioning, Hitler as a smiling godfather, either extreme guilt and attempted distancing or fierce protection of their fathers’ ideals—I would want to see these shared characteristics analyzed in one chapter, at the beginning, then a focus on individuals and their own details.

Also, this book was translated to English from its original German. I’m automatically wary of translations because language is a tricky bastard when you’re jumping from one to another.   

This book jacket makes me uncomfortable.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Nerdboy's epic adventure for love

Book: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Author: Junot Diaz

Published: 2007 (Riverhead Books)

Pages: 335

I had no chance against this Pulitzer Prize winner.

It’s centered around a desperate geek who can’t get any girls (and he wants them so badly), who is half planted in his Dominican Republic family’s ancient curse set off by a snubbed dictator sixty years before, who is lonely and over literate and big and convinced he’s going to die a virgin.

At one point Oscar dresses up like Dr. Who for Halloween when he’s in college, and from the dates he’s there he must’ve made himself an awful Colin Baker patchwork coat complete with kitty pin on lapel because he’s teased so much for looking like Oscar Wilde that the nickname sticks, slightly bastardized and full of contempt: Oscar Wao. He answers to it.

There’s a musical sprinkling of Spanish, love enduring beatings in a cane field, and a magical mongoose across several generations, echoing each other in a life cycle that none can seem to pull themselves from despite knowing what happens next.

It culminates in a sacrifice that’s made me cry every time I’ve read the ending. It’s not a sacrifice for love, either; although that’s what it looks like and what Oscar was going for, I read it as more a sacrifice for what that love meant, for the life potential it let him glimpse.

And before it starts sounding all deep and shit—I mean, it is, but it’s written in the easy seriousness of Oscar’s college roommate that doesn’t drag all that epic down into melodramatics.

So, this is one of my favorite books, and Junot Diaz, I will find and read your short story collection Drown. It will be done

Goodbye, blue Monday.

Book: Breakfast of Champions

Author: Kurt Vonnegut

Published: 1973 (Delacorte Press)

Pages: 302

Let’s see if I can sum this book up in one sentence:

Breakfast of Champions is the sometimes obscene, mostly absurd story of how science fiction author Kilgore Trout accidentally proves how dangerous ideas are when one of his novels mixes with Pontiac dealer Dwayne Hoover’s askew brain chemistry, bringing out Dwayne’s rampaging crazy and ruining lives in oddly specific ways that have unexpected universal impacts.

Yeah, well, that’s a nice plot write-up but you can probably find better on the book jacket.

The main thing I got from this book is how utterly fun reading Something With a Message can be. Vonnegut does that nifty little writing trick of putting ordinary words together to spell out absurd truths. I really liked how his narrative shifted almost randomly from microscopic to telescopic and back like he was playing with a hand-adjusted camera lens.

I have read the same sort of cynical, disillusioned with America, slightly meta and not completely linear kind of story before, so none of this shocked or imprinted me like it would’ve if I’d read it five or six years ago (except for his doodle of an asshole. I never knew something that’s just a big inked asterisk could make me blush while reading)—but Vonnegut is unique and has been for the past forty years, so I better shut my whippersnapping mouth about that.

He is a blast to read and almost as much fun to analyze.

Favorite quotes time!

“I can’t tell if you’re serious or not,” said the driver.
“I won’t know myself until I find out whether life is serious or not,” said Trout. “It’s dangerous, I know, and it can hurt a lot. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s serious, too.”

“And at the core of the writing meat machine is something sacred, which is an unwavering band of light.”