Monday, June 01, 2009

Read in May

Reading slowed down this month -- especially towards the end, as I spent four days straight on different concrete floors in two cities -- and I'm having that recurring feeling that I'm spending too much time on mediocre manga instead of focusing on good books, but, still, it looks like an impressive list of stuff read, doesn't it?
Eiji Nonaka, Cromartie High School, Vol. 1 (5/7)
I've had this on my vague "pick up sometime" list for longer than I care to remember -- I think I first heard about it because Evan Dorkin mentioned it when this volume was published (several years ago), but I finally got around to it. It's the story of yet another one of manga's many "ordinary guys," Kamiyama, who applied to the toughest, worst high school in Tokyo with his best friend to prove that they could study anywhere...and then his friend flunked the entrance exam. The stories are all short, very funny, and they never go where you expect them to. This school is full of tough guys, but there's hardly any fighting in this book -- and what there is, is incidental and usually in the background. The focus is on the variety of very weird characters at this school -- a robot, a gorilla, a shirtless silent grown man they all call "Freddie," the requisite son-of-the-administrative-director who wants to control the school, and so on -- and on the straight-faced but bizarre conversations they have with each other.
  • Mashashi Kishimoto, Naruto, Vol. 35 (5/8)
    The nasty ninjas of the Akatsuki begin their plan to kill all of the other ninja (besides Naruto himself) who house the nasty-but-not-quite-as-bad fox spirits, which shows off how very very powerful they all are. Kishimoto is damn good at this stuff, and I'm sure it will lead to a five-hundred-page fight in another nine volumes or so.
Richard Lederer, The Cunning Linguist (5/8)
Lederer is a language expert who isn't nearly as clever a writer as he thinks he is, and his sentences are at their most discordant when he's trying to be funny. This book is a collection of sex jokes, essentially -- puns and limericks and other dirty wordplay. As long as Lederer is collecting the accumulated dirty jokes of the ages, The Cunning Linguist is wonderful -- but when he tries to write limericks of his own, or fills an entire chapter with his overly-tortured wordplay, then the whole exercise gets very tedious. So this book is very much a curate's egg -- if you like this sort of thing, there's quite a lot in here to like. But there's also quite a lot to quickly flip past, as well.
P. Craig Russell, The Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde, Vol. 4 (5/17)
I think I've seen one of these volumes before, though it must have been several years ago, since I didn't note it here. This is the fourth in the series, as should be clear, and Russell adapts two of Wilde's fairy tales in each album-size (and -length) volume, giving each story about twenty pages. This time, the two stories are "The Devoted Friend" and "The Nightingale and the Rose," both of which begin as fairly traditional-seeming folk tales in style and presentation, but then have their morals and ending twisted in more Wildean, fin de siecle ways. Russell's exquisite and detailed penwork is a great fit for Wilde; there's something in Russell's style that meshes very well with the Mauve Decade. These two stories are pretty minor Wilde, but Russell retells them well, and the whole thing -- like all of these volumes -- is quite entertaining.

Posy Simmonds, Gemma Bovery (5/18)
I read Simmonds' Tamara Drewe a few months ago, as part of my general Eisner frenzy, and liked parts of it without thinking it was entirely successful as comics. So I dug out this previous book of hers -- originally published in the UK a decade ago -- and found it almost exactly the same sort of thing as Tamara. Gemma is a transposition of Flaubert's Emma Bovery to the modern day (and to an almost burlesqued seriocomic mode), as Tamara did the same thing to Hardy's Far from the Madding Crowd. Both books feature rumpled, far, middle-aged male narrators watching an attractive young woman from afar (while each of them not-so-secretly yearn for her). The older men and the young women are even drawn very similarly in the two books. And both stories feature those women's unfettered sexuality, with various affairs and flirtations, which end badly for both young women. (Two books isn't a pattern, though; I'd have to see much more of Simmonds' work to guess whether this is a common theme of hers.) Most complicating, though, is Simmonds's style -- she tells her story mostly in huge blocks of text, illustrated by spot drawings, and only occasionally drops into real comics panels (and even more rarely, pages). These books look much more like a grown-up version of a picture book than like the usual comics page, and Gemma is even less comics than Tamara was. Simmonds tells her story well, but I do wonder if she has any different stories to tell (or any that she didn't adapt from hundred-year-old novels), and if she's moving more towards comics and learning to show with her pen rather than tell with her typeset words.
Bryan Lee O'Malley, Scott Pilgrim, Vol. 1: Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life (5/22)
And here's something else that I got to five years after everyone else; I now have four more volumes to catch up on. Pilgrim is a young slacker -- jobless, playing bass in a band, and dating a high school student as this book opens -- who lives in some Canadian city (probably Toronto, but I didn't catch any specific reference) and who is almost as awesome as his creator thinks he is. He lives the typical life of a young fictional slacker -- hanging out with friends, band practices and gigs, parties, and so on -- without any sign that he needs or wants to earn a living. (O'Malley handles all this lightly, so it doesn't grate even on old grumps like myself who have to earn a living by the sweat of their brows.) But Pilgrim's life is also oddly like a video game, with text boxes popping up with the "ratings" of various characters and a big boss battle at the end (complete with coins appearing when the boss is defeated). Many, many others have talked about this series in the past, but I mostly agree with them: it stakes out its own territory in light adventure, mixing well-observed (if very typical) slice-of-life twentysomething life with a more idiosyncratic view of things.

Neil Gaiman & Michael Zulli, The Last Temptation (5/27)
In the mid-'90s, Gaiman wrote a concept album with Alice Cooper called Lost in America, and then turned that concept -- or perhaps mostly discarded scraps that didn't make it into the album; I'm not quite sure -- into this graphic novel that Zulli illustrated. It's a slight story that owes a massive debt to Ray Bradbury (particularly Something Wicked This Way Comes), with a middle-school boy, Steven, who gets dragged into a mysterious and suddenly-appearing theatre in his hometown by The Showman (who looks just like Cooper), is then tempted by the Showman, but both gets free and breaks some of the Showman's power. It's not top-notch Gaiman, and at this point is most interesting as a warm-up exercise for Coraline, which uses a lot of the same thematic material and makes better use of it. (Coraline, though, doesn't have a role for Alice Cooper, which may be a minus for some readers.)
So that's what I read this month. And I also end May being farther behind on my reviews than ever; I may need to do a blitz, accept that I'm never going to do a long post about some of those books, or just lower my expectations and do a bunch of quick-and-dirty posts to clear them out. One of those things may happen in June...or next month's list might see me saying the very same things all over again. (But I hope not.)

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