Monday, July 01, 2013

Read in June

And here's another month in which I read fewer books than I'd like -- well, that describes all months, basically, but lately it's even more so, due to various reasons that I probably could fix if I cared somewhat more. This time out, it's a combination of a new video game -- the Lego City prequel for the 3DS, which my sons gave me for my birthday at the beginning of the month and Thing 1 graciously let me borrow his device to actually play for long stretches -- and two business trips. (I used to read a lot on business trips, when I didn't have a Wifi-enabled device in the exhibit hall and work wasn't at such a frantic pace -- I could enjoy being in wherever-it-was and get caught back up to office stuff when I was back there. No more.)

Anyway, my life has fallen into a pattern where I have much less time for reading, but I continue to hope that will change at some point. Here's what I did read:

Rob Davis & Woodrow Phoenix, editors, Nelson (6/3)
It's very rare to see such an incredibly ambitious and almost completely successful artistic experiment, but Nelson is dazzling and wide-ranging, a book that exists because two editors led fifty-four UK cartoonists to create the story of one life, with each artist or team taking on a few pages to tell one piece (a day, or a moment) for each year of Nel Baker's life. It starts in 1967, runs through her birth and childhood, all the way to 2011, the year Nelson was published and Nel Baker was 43. Nel doesn't become famous, she doesn't save the world or even live up to her childhood dreams all that much -- like all of the rest of us. She just lives her life, day to day and year to year, finding what happiness she can and becoming a fascinating, real, deep, wonderful character along the way. There's nothing in comics I can compare Nelson to; it has the ordinary every-day-ness of the autobiographical cartoonists without their self-obsession, the visual and artistic variety of a great anthology put in service of a single story, and a depth of human understanding and feeling rare in any medium. What it's most like -- and it's not much like this at all -- is Michael Apted's series of Up films; Nelson similarly look at an ordinary person's life to show that "ordinary" is nowhere near the same thing as "dull." I picked this book up because I'd seen good reviews of it, and it lives up to every bit of praise: Nelson is one of the great comics of this century.

Nate Powell, Sounds of Your Name (6/4)
Powell is the creator of the haunting and magnificent masterpiece Swallow Me Whole and the only slightly less successful Any Empire, but Sounds of Your Name came before either of those books. In fact, much of it came long before -- this collects stories of various lengths from minicomics and anthologies, originally written and drawn between 1998 and 2004, during Powell's art-school days and soon afterward. There's a lot of comics here -- the edition I have (from 2006) is over 300 pages long, and I believe there's a newer, revised version -- but they are definitely more journeyman works than Powell's full graphic novels. His art was darkly atmospheric almost from the beginning, though -- Sounds of Your Name shows an artist honing his stories and allusions and layouts to get them up to the level of his drawing. The stories themselves are mostly in the territory between quiet and understated, more about mood and character than plot, and the significance of many of them, I have to admit, was lost on me.

MariNaomi, Kiss & Tell (6/5)
MariNaomi has had a complicated love life, and Kiss & Tell covers the first 22 years of it -- from her birth in 1973 (well, age 5, really) to 1995, when she was 22. So there's a lot of "I liked this boy" leading into "I kissed this boy" and then "we made out" and then the complications (sex, boys, girls, drinking, drugs) as she became a rebellious teen. MariNaomi was a pretty fast girl -- well, most of us would say that, but, by the standards of San Francisco in the early '90s, she probably was only very slightly ahead of the curve -- so there's a lot to write about. Her art looks Marjane Satrapi-influenced to my eye, with lots of figures floating in black panels and hand-lettered captions. There's not a whole lot of through-line to this story, though -- it ends pretty much as MariNaomi gets to the point of being a semi-responsible adult, and, though her teenage years were turbulent (kicked out of her parents' house at one point), she presents it all on the same level, as an endless string of boys (and, towards the end, some girls) that she had sex with. She doesn't really get into why she did any of this, so it just becomes a series of anecdotes. They are interesting anecdotes, with lots of drama, but that's all.

Pat Mills & Kevin O'Neill, Marshal Law: The Deluxe Edition (6/7)
Marshal Law is one of the best piss-take comics of all time, and an essential document about just how extreme and nutty the superhero world was in the late '80s and early '90s. This new collection brings all of those comics -- originally published from 1987 through 1993, as a miniseries and then basically-yearly 50-ish-page one-shots -- into one shiny, spiffy package, to make the bile and spleen that much clearer and more obvious. It is darkly amusing that DC Comics -- which has brought back superhero torture porn over the past decade and invented ever greater heights for it -- is the publisher this time out, but I suppose they know what their audience wants. It's possible to read Marshal Law on the surface, without irony, but you might have to be really dim and oblivious to do so.

Carrie Vaughn, Kitty Goes to War (6/17)
The eighth book in the contemporary fantasy series and the first to be published by Tor (back in 2010) is another good outing, but I find I don't have a lot to say about the series at this point -- I read the prior book (Kitty's House of Horrors) last month, and haven't managed to put any words together about that. So let me point you to my reviews of books four and five and six -- I did the first three as an omnibus back in my SFBC days, so my recommendation then was based on actually spending my employer's money and my own time to promote a book -- instead. Besides, who starts a series with book 8? This one is worth reading, though, especially if you're interested in the question of how supernatural creatures could and would interact with real laws and governments in our world, and not about magical wish-fulfillment of any flavor.

Kevin C. Pyle, Take What You Can Carry (6/19)
I remember seeing good things about this graphic novel somewhere, so perhaps it only disappointed me because I was expecting too much of it. But it's one of those books with two stories that are related but greatly separated in time -- one set during WWII, about a young Japanese man and his life in a relocation camp, the other in the mid-70s with a disaffected young man who meets that now-adult ex-internee in what I'm afraid is a vaguely autobiographical tale -- and it just didn't come together for me. The WWII sections are wordless, which just distanced me from Ken as a boy (and Ken comes across as a grumpy man -- well, he would, since the ne'er-do-well protagonist of the '70s section, Kyle, meets him while trying to shoplift from Ken's store) without giving them much power. And the lessons Kyle learns in the '70s section are facile and obvious. Pyle's art does have a loose energy, and he varies his style (and color washes) to cleanly distinguish the two stories. But it just didn't turn into a single story for me.

Tom Gauld, Goliath (6/20)
Gauld's cartoons appear regularly in the Guardian and New York Times, but this is something larger (ha ha): a single graphic narrative, somewhat along the lines of the Norwegian/French cartoonist Jason, focusing on the famous Biblical Philistine named Goliath. In Gauld's version, Goliath is a gentle giant, happiest when doing paperwork for his regiment, but he's dragged into a sneaky scheme to frighten off the Israelites by an ambitious captain. We all know how it will end, of course, so the point is how Gauld shows us Goliath's "real" inner life, and fits his narrative into the holes and interstices of the Biblical story.

John Le Carre, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (6/21)
If you need me to tell you about the book that basically single-handedly launched the modern spy novel genre, then I hope you're quite young and/or were raised by some kind of jungle animals. (And, yes, Fleming was there before Le Carre, and Fleming's books do have more spycraft and tension and seriousness than the movies made from them usually do, but the spy novel really does descend from Came In From the Cold the same way the detective genre flourished out of "Murder in the Rue Morgue.") It's taut and smart and cold and ruthless, the way a novel like this should be, and fifty years have not turned it into a curiosity or an artifact. The technological trappings of spycraft, and the details of enemies and allies, may change, but the essential nature of the business -- obtaining information and channels for information, disseminating disinformation, and the darker operations to remove individuals -- doesn't change. Came In from the Cold is a nearly perfect spy novel: short, pointed, perfectly shaped, and driven forward with great force.

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