Thursday, August 21, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #233: The Underpants by Sternheim & Martin

As far as I can recall or search, I've never reviewed a play here -- neither a production or a script. This is semi-surprising, for a few reasons: I wrote a lot about movies, for a number of years; I've been seeing five or six stage shows a year with my sons for most of the last decade; I've covered books of very varied types; and I've always had a tropism to things that read quickly (particularly when I'm doing something like the current Book-A-Day run). I also started off my publishing career, in part, assisting on The Fireside Theatre, a departed (and I hope lamentedly so) reprinter of playscripts. But that's the truth: this is the first time I'm writing about something with stage directions.

The Underpants is Steve Martin's version of Carl Sternheim's 1910 farce Die Hose: Martin's introduction focuses on the work of adapting Sternheim to the modern day and idiom, and neglects to mention that Sternheim wrote in German. So it's unclear from the beginning who did what: did Martin translate Sternheim into English, along the way of adapting it? Did he work from some "official" translation, from 1910 or later, by Sternheim or someone else? The book doesn't say, so I'm working on the assumption that all of the work post-1910 -- turning Die Hose into The Underpants, from German to English, from then to now -- is Martin's.

Martin didn't move the action of Die Hose, though: like the original, The Underpants takes place in 1910 Dusseldorf, one Sunday after a parade featuring the King and over the few days afterward. It may have a modern sensibility and concerns, but Martin hasn't moved it or changed the essential nature of the characters.

During that parade, one pretty young woman, Louise Maske, rose on tiptoes to see better, and her (old-fashioned, pre-elastic, tied-at-the-side) underwear fell down off her hips to her ankles. (Shades of Art Frahm!) Her husband, the dull, aggressively masculine and utterly rule-abiding Theo, is horrified, mostly at what this may do for his career. (He is something of a German caricature, of the kind only another German would zero in on.)

The Maskes have a spare room that they've been trying to rent, and they quickly have two potential tenants, both of whom witnessed the event at the parade: Frank Versati, a young gentleman who wants to seduce Louise nearly as much as he wants to write poetry about her; and Benjamin Cohen, a barber with less-defined desires who quickly decides what he really wants to do is foil Versati. Thrown into the mix is Gertrude Deuter, the upstairs middle-aged busybody widow, who loves gossip and wants to have an affair vicariously through Louise.

Theo is too unimaginative to see what the renters are about, but also too avaricious not to take advantage of them: he crudely divides the room and rents it to both of them. And Louise has almost realized that she doesn't care for Theo: she wants more out of life, and her brief reality-show-like fame as the underpants-dropper could get her some excitement and affection for once.

What follows is a farce, but it's a German farce: it's more about feelings and desires and thwarted ambitions and changed circumstances than actual sex and love and the flesh. There are no slamming doors, and the underwear on display later in the play are mostly in he hands of Gertrude, showing off pieces she made for Louise. And perhaps it can be more accurately called a satire, since no one quite gets what they want. It's a play about sex, and sexual desire, rather than a sexy play.

As usual with Martin, the language is impeccable and the dialogue sparkling -- there's no sign at all in the words that this was originally in another language. The audience for The Underpants as a book will be inherently limited: it's not a novel, and most people don't like reading raw dialogue and stage directions. But it's a smart and interesting farce, and, having read it, I now hope I can someday see a production.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #232: Special Forces by Kyle Baker

It's entirely possible to be so sarcastic that no one notices. You can craft what to you is obvious satire, so ridiculous that it couldn't possibly be taken seriously -- and then discover that thing really does exist, like the NRA video commentator who recently said it would be a great idea if more blind people had guns. Our world has become a tough place for satire: either you have to go so far that you're silly, or at least half of your audience will believe you mean it -- and write to thank you for saying out loud what they wish they could.

Kyle Baker's comics series Special Forces fell into that hole back in 2007-2009: it was sarcastic to its core, every word and picture dipped in acid, but that sarcasm was so close to the actual hoo-hah jingo Americanism of the time -- that was the point, of course -- that I'm sure many people thought it was to be taken straight. So perhaps it's not a surprise that the series ended after only six issues -- satire, as they say, is what closes on Saturday night.

The first four issues of Special Forces were collected as Special Forces, Book 1: Hot to Death -- I think the last two just stayed comics. And Baker never gives that nudge to the ribs to reassure his reader than he's just kidding: he tells the whole thing as if he were serious, with his tongue deeply in his cheek and his pens sharpened to razors.

The core "joke" is the one he never says outright: Special Forces is a pun. These soldiers -- fighting in Iraq, in the cartoon version of Iraq familiar from propaganda, Fox News, and Turd Blossom -- aren't special in the sense of being highly trained and skilled. No, they're special like the shortbus: criminals or mentally ill, young men and women with something wrong with them, one step worse than the misfits and losers of prior wars, the actually damaged and incapable.

This book tells the story of one eventful patrol -- of one squad of shouldn't-have-been soldiers and their recruiter sergeant, ambushed on the way to capture the noted terrorist The Desert Wolf. The black guy dies on the first page, and our main character -- a female solder known only as Felony -- tells us so; either because she's that genre-savvy or because Baker wants to start on the right note, to let us know what kind of story we're reading.

Quickly, there are only two soldiers left: Felony, who explains and narrates the whole thing in great detail (and a lot of Bushian turns of phrase). And Zero, blond and handsome and strong and serious...and severely autistic. But they still have to complete their mission: to take down The Desert Wolf, to foil his evil plan, and to save the world from those who (literally) hate our freedom.

Baker varied his style again for this series, moving away from his slicker early-2000s look to a more clearly illustrative look, with crisp Kubert-esque lines and flat traditional-comics color. The only discordant note in that symphony is his lettering, which is set in type. (Parts of Special Forces get so wordy that they look like a Mac document from the early '90s.) The art says: this is a story I'm telling you, a war comics story, like the war comics of the past. But the type says something else -- maybe that Baker wanted the text to be cold and flat, or maybe that he liked the cleanness of type. I don't know. I do know that it doesn't work as well as the art, and that it works against the art, which is organic and heroic and plays that sarcastic line utterly straight as it must.

Special Forces is not entirely successful -- maybe because of that type, maybe because it tried to be sarcastic about something that was already a parody of itself, maybe because war can only really be satirized from the inside (like Catch-22 and Bill Mauldin). But it's a fascinating artifact, and a milestone in just how sarcastic a work of art can be and still look straightforward.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #231: Minimum Wage, Book Two by Bob Fingerman

If you read a lot of books, you buy a lot of books -- and it's even worse if you actually work in the glue factory. I imagine a lot of you out there have this same joy/problem: a set of shelves of books (real or virtual) filled with things that you haven't read, many of which have been there so long that you've forgotten they exist at all or why you ever wanted to read them.

Before my flood in 2011, I had that in spades: one big bookcase of unread stuff, double-shelved, with mass-market paperbacks jammed into three-rows-high pseudo-shelves up top and stacks of newer acquisitions ranged nearby. It was the result of two decades of grabbing books with both hands, and there were at least dozens -- possibly hundreds -- of books I couldn't have told you I owned if you asked me. It was a glorious mess, and I could waste an hour or so just trying to figure out what to read next -- and that's one of the least-recognized joys in life, those minutes spent in front of a shelf, pulling down one book after another and trying to match your exact mood.

That disappeared in one day when Hurricane Irene came through, which shows either how transient physical media is or how dumb it is to keep paper products in a basement: you can choose the lesson you prefer. But that was three years ago, so my to-be-read shelves have been building since then -- still only single-shelved, so I haven't quite forgotten about them yet -- and care packages from comics-world friends soon after that flood added a wonderful element of randomness and surprise to the shelves as well. So I do have books that I don't recognize and am only vaguely aware how I got them on those shelves, which means I can still do what a serious reader always wants: to find something unexpected and pleasing right under my nose.

All that goes to explaining the question: why on earth do I have and was I reading Bob Fingerman's Minimum Wage, Book Two, anyway? It's the middle part of a '90s comics series that has been better collected twice since then -- Beg the Question was the standard for a good decade (and I mentioned in here, in a "Great graphic novels you might not know about" post that I need to use as a shopping list to replenish my shelves), and there's a recent authoritative version called Maximum Minimum Wage, which is the book I actually recommend you look at.

But this volume was the one I had, out of serendipity and luck, and so I read a collection of five episodes in the life of Rob Hoffman, a struggling mid-twenties mid-'90s cartoonist who we've all always assumed was mostly a stand-in for Fingerman himself, and his girlfriend, the very Noo Yawker Sylvia Fanucci (who I suspect was less based on anyone specific). Fingerman tells stories about them with equal parts broad humor and closely-observed details of life in the just-scraping-by class: Minimum Wage was a lot like a good, smart sitcom in comics form.

It was the kind of sitcom that could never be on TV in those days, though -- and would be edgy for HBO even now -- with frank sex and nudity, a main character whose day-job is drawing cartoon porn for a thinly veiled Screw magazine, lots of geekery about comics and horror and monster movies, and even an abortion in the issues collected here. Minimum Wage was comedic, but it was never lightweight: it was a comedy about these young people's actual lives and struggles. And it stands up, not just as a snapshot of How We Geeks Lived Then, but as an honest account of real lives in a real place and time -- told as comedy, yes, because if you don't laugh at life you'll inevitably cry.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Monday, August 18, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #230: Star Wars: Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan by Jeffrey Brown

Everything popular turns into a genre: all you need are three popular works in the same vein and whatever they have in common will become the assumed tropes of all of the things that follow. It happens in books, in movies -- I wouldn't be surprised if it happens in serious plays and theme-park rides and folksongs. And genres that run to series get caught up even more strongly, because the later works have to reiterate the earlier ones, like a stew cooking down to its essence.

Jeffrey Brown is writing a series in two genres simultaneously: Star Wars and the middle-grade cartoon diary novel. (Yes, the latter is a genre now; ask a middle-school librarian or take a look at the bestseller list.) So far, the requirements of Star Wars have been relatively light -- or maybe I mean so fundamental as to be all-encompassing and so paradoxically invisible. But that means that the cartoon diary standards -- from Dork Diaries and Wimpy Kid and their imitators -- have that much more room to flourish and grow.

In the first book, Star Wars: Jedi Academy, Tattooine pre-teen Roan Novachez headed off to the fabled Jedi Academy on Coruscant for a course of study and social milieu that was remarkably like what most American kids hit in grades six through eight. It was very clearly product -- it could hardly avoid that, being in two genres at once and the product of two media companies dominant in their own spaces, Disney and Scholastic -- but it was a fun product, enlivened by cartoonist Jeffrey Brown's indy-comics sensibilities and his particular mix-up of the woe-is-me requirements of the form and Star Wars furniture.

Roan made it through that first year, and the book was a bestseller, which means Roan has to come back for seventh grade another year at Jedi Academy in Star Wars: Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan. This one is a little less particular, with a lot more generic "the girl I like is unhappy for some reason, so I will refuse to talk to her" and less of what made Brown's work and Roan's story specific the first time out, like Roan's love for drawing.

The plot this time is one part "Roan isn't quite as good at piloting as he first thinks, and so he works hard to get better" and one part "Roan falls in, very mildly, with the Bad Crowd, after he has a misunderstanding with the girl he likes and his best friend" -- both of them quite standard for this genre. Brown sells both of these well, but those of us who aren't twelve have seen this many times before. (And those of us who are twelve have probably seen it very recently in similar books, too.)

Return of the Padawan is amusing and positive and full of strong life-lessons -- listen to your friends, do what's right, work hard, don't cheat, tell the truth -- and will be loved by probably hundreds of thousands of kids. And it's giving Jeffrey Brown a very high-profile and hopefully well-paying gig. As long as you don't expect too much from it, it's entirely swell.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/16

These are the books that appeared without warning on my doorstep this week. All of them are just published or publishing soon; I haven't read any of them yet. But I haven't let that stop me from doing these weekly posts for the past few years, so it won't stop me today. So here's what looks interesting about this week's four books:

Grudgebearer is the first book in a trilogy by J.F. Lewis, who you might remember from the four-book urban fantasy "Void City" series a few years back. (If not, don't feel down: he's got a new book, and you've got a new chance to try him out.) This is secondary-world epic fantasy, focused on the vengeance-driven nearly immortal firstborn of a sorcerously engineered race of warrior-slaves, who in this book finally has a chance to live up to his vow to destroy the race that created and enslaved his people for thousands of years -- or to keep his world from falling into a horrible war. It's a Pyr trade paperback, hitting stores September 2nd.

Resurrection is the third book in a trilogy by Mandy Hager -- called Blood of the Lamb -- and I deduce that it's dystopian YA from the price point ($17.99 hardcover) and the tone of the flap copy ("religious stranglehold," "ruling elite," "orchestrated ritual before a hysterical and brainwashed crowd," "listen to her plea that they start thinking for themselves"). The first book in the series is The Crossing, which is probably the place to start. But, if you have been following the trilogy, you're probably very happy to know that Resurrection is available right now as a Pyr hardcover.

Patricia Briggs has a new book in her "Mercy Thompson" urban fantasy series: Shifting Shadows, a collection of short stories (four new, six reprinted from anthologies). It's an Ace hardcover, available September 2nd.

And last for this week is the big new book in the Richard and Kahlan series by Terry Goodkind, Severed Souls. I'm not entirely clear on how the rejuvenated series connects to the original twelve-book Sword of Truth series -- I believe it's a continuation, but it could easily be more complicated than that -- mostly because I only read the first few Sword of Truth books, probably. Severed Souls doesn't give away any of the plot of the book -- the flap copy is an excerpt from the very beginning -- but it does claim to be the "unforgettable story of Richard Rahl's final battle," which I expect a huge number of Goodkind readers will want to know more about. It's a Tor hardcover, available right now.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #229: My American Revolution by Robert Sullivan

Sometimes authors get off on a wild hair: they love a subject so much that they want to throw in everything they learned about it, even if that overwhelms their structure and leaves them writing three-page-long footnotes on something that isn't actually anywhere near their ostensible topic.

Robert Sullivan's My American Revolution is -- and I say this with love and a certain admiration -- entirely a wild-hair book, supposedly on the subject of the Revolutionary War in the middle colonies (New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania) but really a brain-dump of Sullivan's reading and thinking and walking over a period of several years, during which he was obsessed with the local history of the Revolutionary War.

Sullivan is a seasoned author of nonfiction, with a definite tropism for the New York area -- he's previously written books about Rats and The Meadowlands (and, not unrelated to go-go finance hub NYC, How Not to Get Rich). He's a former reporter, and his instinct is to get out there and do things: the great joys of his prior books were from reading about him crouching in alleyways watching rats, or boating through the swamps of Jersey in search of Jimmy Hoffa's corpse. In My American Revolution, Sullivan is trying to combine a run through the history of the Revolution in his area with various shoe-leather excursions to the places where that history happened -- in practice, this means mostly Greater New York, with an side excursion to the site of the Crossing of the Delaware.

There are some indications that My American Revolution is a book Sullivan worked on for a number of years -- or maybe it's just that he long had an interest in the Revolution, and only organized that into a book proposal after a decade or two of research. So there's a lot of thinking and living and writing that went into it: that may help explain why it hares off in so many directions. And My American Revolution sprawls quite impressively for something relatively short -- it's only about two hundred and fifty pages long -- and it also manages to sprawl fractally, digressing from the Revolution to Sullivan's life, to historians of the Revolution, to their other works, and on and on and on. It's divided into four loosely-defined sections of very different lengths, each of which is broken into smaller, semi-related sub-sections with short headers -- the effect is close to a stream of consciousness, though with more footnotes and with a clear depth of research behind it.

I found it a difficult book to get into: I nearly gave up on it several times in the first fifty pages. To really enjoy My American Revolution, you have to treat it like Gertrude Stein's Oakland: there's no there there, just a swarm of loosely related thoughts that bounce off each other as they collectively circle the idea of the Revolution in New York. The closest Sullivan comes to a chronology is in the third and longest section of the book, which is organized by the seasons of the year -- and, even there, he's more likely to be writing about the history of a ceremony at the monument for POWs from prison ships as he is to cover Washington's first inauguration, or about the career of a minor poet of the early 1800s, and even more likely to be writing about a long walk in the Watchung Mountains and his subsequent back trouble.

This is not a conventional history, and I didn't find it as easy and relaxing a read as Sullivan's wonderful Cross Country -- if anyone out there wants to check him out, I'd suggest that or Rats. But for fans of New Yorkiana, or Revolutionary buffs, it could be just the thing -- as long as you don't expect a traditional straight-line narrative, or a book that moves only in one direction.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #228: Ray and Joe: The Story of a Man and His Dead Friend by Charles Rodrigues

Bad taste doesn't get into the history books very often. It get cleaned up and tidied away, pushed aside in favor of the stuff that makes us feel better about ourselves, the uplifting or serious or just more acceptable in mixed company. But bad taste can be great and liberating and, even more importantly, show exactly what people of that time cared about and laughed at. Bad taste should never be forgotten.

In comics, the great forgotten repository of bad taste was the National Lampoon: it was a major, well-paying market for more than a decade, and the home of essential works like Gahan Wilson's Nuts and Sharry Flenniken's Trots and Bonnie (still scandalously uncollected, decades later). And it's basically forgotten -- even though it was the real link between the undergrounds of the 1960s and the indy-comics scene of the '80s.

One of the masters of bad taste at NatLamp was Charles Rodrigues, who had a regular page in their comics section. His absurd, bizarre stories -- inevitably based on a tasteless premise, and run through strange permutations before they each ran aground in turn and were replaced by the next concept -- were odd even in that context; while the other cartoonists were gleefully pulling down idols and rampaging through treasured beliefs, Rogrigues had an almost matter-of-fact delivery, as if he was just providing a window into this demented world, and didn't want to be seen as endorsing any of the behavior there.

Ray and Joe: The Story Of A Man And His Dead Friend And Other Classic Comics reprints a lot of those NatLamp pages -- possibly even all of them; the book doesn't explain itself in any depth. (Possibly due to corporate copyrights, it doesn't even say these strips all came from NatLamp, and that magazine is only mentioned in passing in Bob Fingerman's appreciative introduction. Fingerman also provides a biography at the end, which includes such eye-opening facts as that Rodrigues's previous book, Total Harmonic Distortion, was a collection of three decades of work for Stereo Review. Actually, I'm assuming this is all NatLamp material: there's a chance that some of it appeared elsewhere.) It's organized by strip continuity rather than by strict chronology, leading off with the 1982 continuity in the title: the story of a guy who can't stand to lose his best friend, so he has him embalmed and drags him around everywhere.

The other major continuities are "Deirdre Callahan: a Biography" (about the ugliest girl on earth, pitched as a mixture of Victorian sob-story and a piss-take on Little Orphan Annie), "The Aesop Brothers" (Siamese twins, Alex and George -- Rodrigues occasionally switches which one is which, either inadvertently or intentionally -- whose adventures start in a traveling circus and only get more random from there), and "Sam DeGroot, the Free World's Only Private Detective in an Iron Lung Machine" (my favorite when I read NatLamp originally). Each follows the same pattern: strange beginning, unusual meanderings through unexpected plot byways, and, eventually, complete metafictional collapse and an apology from Rodrigues.

At the end, Ray and Joe has a section of shorter continuities -- "Doctor Colon's Monster," a series of single-page biographies of famous people that mostly avoid anything that made them famous -- and a bunch of one-off strips. All are as idiosyncratic and uniquely Rodriguesian as the longer continuities; reading a book like this, it's difficult to imagine what kind of work Rodrigues did for staider, more traditional markets.

Rodrigues's art is equally specific: a loopy '70s style full of caricatures and long, discursive hand-drawn captions (often in white-on-black). Fingerman's notes at fore and aft explain that Rodrigues was a frustrated writer, and that is clear -- his cartoons are full of words, in dialogue and captions and their immense, ever-proliferating titles. It's also clear that there was no one else like Charles Rodrigues, and that his bad taste was incredibly entertaining for a long time. It's wonderful to see that bad taste -- cannibals, farts, sexual deviancy, a man who speaks through an enema tube -- brought back out and presented to the world all these years later. And it's better still to see that's it's all still as funny, as strange, and as utterly Rodriguesian as it ever was.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

Friday, August 15, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #227: Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest by Mignola & co.

And we finish A Week in Hell with a book about the other notably inhuman-looking agent of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense:

Mike Mignola is not one for angst -- even when his characters are the rightful heir to the throne of Hell (and destined trigger of the apocalypse to boot), an accidentally mass-murdering pyrokinetic, or a supernaturally gene-engineered fish-man, they mostly just get on with their lives, sometimes with guilt over the things they've done but without the pouting and emoting that, for example, the X-Men have raised to a high art. Mignola's world is too dangerous and full of surprises for wallowing; no one who isn't focused on the job at hand will last long.

And so Abe Sapien -- that fish-man, the result of a Victorian spell/experiment gone wrong and only dug out, amnesiac, in the mid-1970s -- has no time to mope; he's too busy fending off supernatural beasties and things that go bump in the night. The second collection of his adventures -- Abe Sapien: The Devil Does Not Jest and Other Stories -- continues soon after the first, The Drowning, with each discrete Abe story taking place one year later, filling in to stories of his early days as a B.P.R.D. agent in the early 1980s.

Devil Does Not Jest contains three stories -- all written by Mignola with John Arcudi and colored by Dave Stewart, but each with a different artist, which makes for a jumble of names on the cover. "The Haunted Boy," a single-issue story, was drawn by Patric Reynolds; the two-part "The Abyssal Plain" by Peter Snejbjerg; and the two-part "The Devil Does Not Jest" has art by James Harren.

Each one is a moody supernatural tale, though they vary in tone and style: the title story is the most violent and Hellboy-ish, with a creature that knocks Abe around quite violently. "The Abyssal Plain" is the quietest, telling the story of an expedition to retrieve a medieval helmet from a drowned Russian sub. And "Haunted Boy" is in the middle, and runs more quickly with only half the number of pages to work with.

Reynolds's style is closest to the dark and shadowy look of the main artists of the Hellboy universe -- Mignola himself, Duncan Fegredo, Guy Davis -- with Snejbjerg the cleanest and most mainstream-comics looking. Harren has a grit to his art, but his action scenes take place in clear view, unlike a Miignola scene.

The Devil Does Not Jest is a bit miscellaneous: three missions over three years, all one-offs without connections to the larger storylines and themes of the Hellboy world. And Abe mostly just gets to be quiet and competent here; he doesn't have a demonstrative personality like Hellboy, so he can come off as a bit colorless when he's the main character. But Devil Does Not Jest does provide three helpings of monster-hunting and creepy menace in the dependable Mignola manner: it's not top-tier Hellboy mythos stuff, but it's still a strong collection of supernatural tales.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index