Friday, April 01, 2016

Read in March

If you're reading this blog through in order, some time in the future -- and if so, I have to say both that I'm sorry that fell on your plate and to please go easy on me in the Truth & Justice Inquisition that is the only plausible reason for such activity -- you should know that the date is a lie.

I'm writing this in mid-June, having fallen that far behind in writing cursory blurbs about the books I've read, that being about the only thing this blog contains in the first place. (Yes, I am ashamed of myself. Please emphasize that point to the Head Inquisitor.) But these are indeed books I read in March, and here's what I thought about them -- it's only "late" if you expected me to be timely, which is a bad assumption these days.

Paul Theroux, Deep South (3/1)

Jiro Kuwata, Batman: The Batmanga, Vol. 2 (3/2)

Frederik Peeters, Aama, Vol. 1: The Smell of Warm Dust (3/3)

This is the first in a science-fictional graphic novel series, from the cartoonist of the semi- autobiographical Blue Pills and illustrator of the I-don't-want-to-genre-type-it Sandcastle. It's set in a big, busy medium-future universe, with medium-strong AI (embodied in roughly humanoform robots, but not godlike), routine interstellar travel, and various kinds of super-science. Our hero is an amnesiac named Verloc, who used to be involved in super-science, and may yet be again. His companions are a robot that looks like an ape, and his estranged brother. I'm not sure where this is going, but it's serious and adult and complex in a good way, so I want to see more of it.

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, Mr. Punch (3/7)

The second major Gaiman-McKean graphic novel, after Violent Cases, has a similar structure and set of concerns: it's another story about a boy who is not quite Gaiman in a world of adults he doesn't understand yet. (That's one of the core Gaiman worlds, of course: the boy who sees more than he knows.) This one is set in a decaying seaside resort, and is about the old British show business tradition of the title. It's gorgeous and atmospheric and allusive and precise and implies vastly more than it ever tells. I think Gaiman's shorter works are his best -- Ocean at the End of the Lane rather than American Gods, or this and Violent Cases rather than Sandman -- so it was good to revisit this book and remind myself of how he's so good at picking just the right words in a short space like this. And McKean seems to have the ability to draw absolutely anything in any style, as long as the story requires it. 

Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba, Two Brothers (3/8)

This is a literary graphic novel of a different kind, based on the novel of the same name by Milton Hatoum, one of the great names in contemporary Brazilian literature. It's literary in a more old-fashioned way -- a family saga mostly about the two brothers of the title, with depth of characterization and a lot of buried secrets but a pre-modern sensibility and a narrative that stays outside of the thoughts of all of its characters.

Moon and Ba are deeply accomplished and thoughtful creators, and they tell this story very well, in both words and pictures. (Some people could give an opinion of who did what; I don't make any claim to that kind of expertise.) But there's something quaint about this kind of 19th century story as we get deeper into the 21st -- I liked this book but couldn't love it, and found myself wishing we could know more about what these two brothers thought and felt.

Frank Miller and Lynn Varley, Ronin: The Deluxe Edition (3/9)

Frank Miller's first big vanity project -- the warm-up for Dark Knight, the follow-up to his first Daredevil run -- was reprinted in a big fancy edition a few years back, for its thirtieth anniversary. And, since I lost my old copy of the '80s trade paperback in my '11 flood, I figured I'd get it and read it again.

It's shakier than it felt at the time, and the art is stronger than the story, which is full of second-hand tropes and ideas. (A ronin battling through time to reclaim his honor! Near-future technological wonders alongside fear cannibalistic underground dwellers! The techo-utopia rotten at its core! The chubby young man who has powers he doesn't understand! The tough-as-nails but super-sexy woman warrior! The new technology that will change everything but is secretly horrible! An evil demon from beyond time trying to destroy everything!) It's gorgeous, and the story moves well, but it's not a story that will bear deep mining or serious analysis. I'm happy to buy and read it again, though -- the adventure-story stuff is great, and it's an important link in Miller's career.

Riad Sattouf, The Arab of the Future (3/11)

This is another comics memoir, "I grew up in an oppressive Middle Eastern regime and escaped to France" subcategory, a la Marjane Satrapi. Sattouf begins his story earlier, since this book is mostly about his youth -- he's three years old for a large chunk of it -- and details his young life in Syria and Algeria. His father is an academic whom Sattouf presents as dangerously stupid about politics and the safety of his family, blinded by unquestioned expectations of his upbringing and some half-digested leftist/Arabist propaganda. (I'm not sure Sattouf meant to make his father look so buffoonish, but the elder Sattouf clearly didn't think for a second about taking his new French wife and young son to politically shaky places with horrible infrastructure or with leaving them to horrible hygiene practices and appalling relatives -- and he did it more than once, on purpose.) Sattouf has an engaging line, and had an interesting life, but this volume only sees him barely get into school -- there's clearly much more to come.

Guy Delisle, The Owner's Manual to Terrible Parenting (3/14)

Delisle is now firmly into the latest version of his cartooning career: short books of humorous cartoons about his life as a father of two young children. (This one follows A User's Guide to Neglectful Parenting and Even More Bad Parenting Advice.) It's very funny -- maybe particularly so to other fathers, which I'll admit -- and follows the usual stereotype of the corner-cutting, neglectful, distracted, unconcerned father. And his kids get the best lines, as usual. These books are nowhere near as deep or meaningful as his travelogues, but, then, there's no way they would be. And these are a lot of fun for what they are.

Jan Morris, Contact! (3/16)

Morris is apparently one of the great travel writers of the 20th century -- I've never read her before, but I've heard her name a lot -- and this is one of those books that great writers emit when they're quite aged but their publishers still want to get out product on a regular schedule.

Contact! is subtitled "A Book of Encounters," which is one way of referring to a collection of excerpts from Morris's previous travel books. Contact! does not date or source any of the vignettes reprinted here -- it doesn't even have a card page or other listing of Morris's books, so the reader is given no apparatus to even try to figure that out for himself -- and instead just throws one moment after another at the reader, like an organ grinder tossing peanuts to his monkey. They're nice moments, generally -- Morris is a fine writer with a good eye for telling details -- but they're all small, and out of context, and they come at the reader rapid-fire, bouncing around the world and over five decades with no explanation at all. A better version of this book would at least give each vignette a place and time (Port Said, 1956, for example, or San Francisco, 1977), and an exemplary version would say what book each moment appeared in. The latter would be particularly useful if, as I assume, one purpose of Contact! is to induce the reader to buy more books by Morris.

Rick Geary, Louise Brooks, Detective (3/18)

Yes, Louise Brooks, the star of early Hollywood. Yes, detective, after she'd returned home after the flame-out of her career to Wichita, Kansas to teach dance. No, it's not true -- unlike most of Geary's work, this is fictional.

But it's set in a carefully-realized 1942, with the usual Geary attention to clothing and setting and curs and other accouterments of life. (And, yes, there are maps in the front matter -- if I didn't love Geary for a dozen other reasons, I'd love him because he nearly always includes maps.) And there is a murder, which Brooks gets caught up in, and eventually solves. There's physical danger, and mysterious strangers, and chases in the night across darkened farm fields. It's all a bit less sober than Geary's usual non-fiction murder stories, which makes a nice palate cleaner -- it's good to see him revving up his engines higher at least once in a while. And who's to say this all didn't happen?

Adrian Tomine, Killing and Dying (3/21)

Tomine creates low-key comics stories about the small triumphs and (more often) defeats in normal lives, and this is the most recent collection of his work. I got it from the library, and, as you may have figured out from context, read it about three months before I'm typing these words now. Low-key stories often do not linger with great precision in the mind, but that's no reflection on their strength.

So I can't tell you much about this -- the title refers to comedy, by the way; it doesn't see Tomine going all Grand Guignol on us -- but I can tell you he's one of our great short-story writers, one who happens to work in comics. Each story was a lovely gem, and the title story was particularly powerful. But if you don't like literary short stories in prose, there's a fiar chance you won't like them in comics, either, so keep that in mind.

Sarah Vowell, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States (3/25)

Vowell has carved herself out a quirky niche career writing stories of early Americans and (usually) their religious foibles and/or how they decimated the local natives. (This is cheerier than you'd expect; Vowell is really interested in nitpicky details of Puritan schisms and pretty matter-of-fact about the incidental massacres.) Her most recent book -- the first since 2011's Unfamiliar Fishes, I think --  looks at the greatest foreign USA-booster of the years just before and after there actually was a USA, the Marquis de Lafayette.

Lafayette was one of those boy-men that are more fun to read about than to be near -- mildly narcissistic in the way only a French aristocrat could be, obsessed with battle and honor in the manner of a nine-year-old-boy, deeply ambitious without (apparently) a backstabbing bone in his body, and enamored of republican ideals while still being perfectly happy maintaining every aristocratic privilege he could get. Vowell tells his story in her usual overgrown-essay style, wandering through his young, his time during the Revolutionary war, and a later victory-lap tour of the growing USA in the 1820s when he was much older and a bit more settled. I still wish Vowell would find some structure for her books, which are awfully baggy for being so short, but I suppose this is the way she works, so there's no use expecting her to change now. This could be a good first Vowell book, particularly for the Revolution-obsessed crowd.

That was March; I'm going to dive into April now. (Now being mid-June, remember.) I may get caught up this summer...or maybe not.

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