Friday, February 26, 2010

The Long Goodbye

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Long Goodbye (Houghton-Mifflin, 1953).

I've said on several occasions that I enjoy reading stories where events spiral out of control. Raymond Chandler's sixth novel, The Long Goodbye, belongs to a school where the events get out of hand, but very slowly and deliberately, and the actions of desperate people are telegraphed with a tone of menace and foreboding. Not very many authors could pull this off. Watching people make the wrong decision is rarely pleasing; as readers, we have the choice to close the book and walk away. Chandler's prose is so beautiful that it remains captivating even when it's relating the stories of foolish people doing dangerous things.

The Long Goodbye is the story of Philip Marlowe's friendship with an alcoholic named Terry Lennox, and how that friendship has consequences beyond the grave. Lennox married into money, but gets along better with his father-in-law than his wife Sylvia does. After several months of camaraderie over gimlets in one LA bar after another, Marlowe tactlessly offends Lennox and they don't see anything of each other anymore, until Lennox shows up looking for a ride to a Mexican airport. That drive is the last Marlowe ever sees of his friend.

Marlowe is one of fiction's greatest creations, a stubborn, judgmental loner who never seems to maintain a friendship, but who values the bond of trust that comes with it above everything else. When Chandler mixes that trait with the character's established belief in always pursuing the truth, no matter what ugliness is exposed, it results in an explosive book. Marlowe's reputation and notoreity for being mixed up with the Lennoxes gets him an unusual job offer from a publisher representing a drunk writer named Roger Wade. The intersecting, disintegrating relationships of the Wades and Sylvia Lennox's sister puts Marlowe in an enthralling web of complex, emotional histories, one that's slowly making its way to an unavoidable conclusion.

This is absolutely one of my favorite novels. The way Chandler slowly brings things to the surface, letting readers catch glimpses of what is soon to be revealed, is one of the most consistently satisfying experiences in fiction, and he does it better here than anywhere else. It's a book which is informed by loneliness, trust and faith in equal measures, and is a novel that everybody should read. It was later adapted into an utterly baffling feature film by Robert Altman, starring Elliot Gould, of all people, as Marlowe. It bears as much relationship to its source as an orange peel to a grizzly bear, but even it has its charms, somehow, because the story is just that captivating. Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010


What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Afrodisiac (AdHouse, 2010)

I don't know that any review of Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca's Afrodisiac could possibly do it justice; it's a book you really need to see to understand. It's less a collection than a scrapbook of faked found objects, a love letter to the 1970s designed as some strange mash-up of blaxploitation cinema and trashy Marvel Comics from that long, headachy period after Stan Lee moved to California.

Even if you don't know the names, you probably recall the work of Steve Englehart, Don MacGregor and Steve Gerber, and you certainly recall the visuals of Super Friends and Big Jim dolls and those dingbat-designed Gold Key funny animal comic covers where some cutout from a model sheet was haphazardly thrown onto a randomly-selected solid color. Now populate these childhood memories with some bad muthafucka out to heist fifty gees of whitey ice or some fool shit, and put that dude in conflict with such villains as Richard Nixon, the Devil and Dracula. That's this book.

I'm completely captivated by what Rugg and Maruca accomplished. It's a 96-page "greatest hits" of a comic book that never existed, one that would have horrified parents in my suburban neighborhood. Stories are represented by a few scattered pages, or a lone cover, or some found "original art," or advertisements for tie-in toys. The jokes linger just long enough to scratch the surface of nostalgia, hit a punch line and move on to the next thing. The pages, yellowed, zip-a-toned and with the color deliberately printed off-register, evoke their time every bit as well as the content of the panels. It's an excellent work that never overstays its welcome or reaches beyond its creators' considerable talents. Highly recommended for older readers.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Death in Holy Orders

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Death in Holy Orders (Faber & Faber, 2001).

P.D. James definitely outfoxed me with this, her eleventh Dalgliesh novel. At first, I started to despair that once again, a murder was committed while Commander Dalgliesh was on leave, but the author, perhaps knowing that she'd done that three times already, subverted expectations by having a local policeman present as a potential suspect, meaning Dalgliesh's team is assigned by the Met to take charge of things.

As usual, James doesn't make her murders small. This time around, it's an archdeacon, visiting the remote Anglican theological college of St. Anselm's in Suffolk, who's found beaten to death in the college chapel. Dalgliesh was already visiting on an informal follow-up to an earlier accidental death at the request of the boy's father. Naturally, there's a lot more going on than anybody suspects, and James's usual tropes of very, very old crimes finally coming to light. It's written magnificently well, with passages invoking feelings of shock and revulsion and intensity. It's a taut page-turner, and certainly one of the best in the series.

Interestingly, this novel is one of the few to give readers a clue into the overall continuity. I have often been puzzled as to how to reconcile the ongoing fiction with the publication dates. The fourteen books were published over a 46-year span, but surely they can't all be set in the year they were written, not with Dalgliesh already described, rudely, as "the old man" in 1962. Here, it's stated that the events of the previous novel, A Certain Justice, published four years before, were the team's "last case." Since it's unlikely that the Metropolitan Police only finds work for their top detectives once every four years, there must be an internal clock that James works to. I wonder what it is, and over how many years the series is actually set. Highly recommended.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Silent Speaker

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Silent Speaker (Viking, 1946).

I always enjoy reading books written in the 1940s for the way they depict contemporary life, and routines interrupted by the war. There's a slight, but nevertheless jarring impact when the story suddenly includes, say, armed guards atop a dam in Chandler's Lady in the Lake. Then there's Rex Stout's The Silent Speaker, the first Nero Wolfe novel to be published after the war, when US industry was still "hampered," I suppose they'd say, by the government's strict price controls.

It's actually a neat little mirror of what's going on in Wolfe's brownstone. With the war over and Archie returned to civilian life, there's nothing our heroes would rather do than get back to work and make a little money. So would the captains of American industry, who don't appreciate the government dragging its feet in getting price restrictions lifted. So when a representative of the Bureau of Price Regulation ends up beaten to death with a monkey wrench just before he was to give a major speech to those captains of industry, Wolfe and Archie have dozens of potential killers to consider. Naturally, the narrative quickly reduces the number of suspects to only about nine or ten really interesting characters, particularly Phoebe Gunther, who immediately makes a case for herself in Archie's heart.

After finishing the book, I read that the producers of A&E's A Nero Wolfe Mystery adapted it in two parts. I was already thinking what a terrific two-part teleplay this would make, as right about halfway through the book, Wolfe has made one of his usual assemblages of relevant parties, with Archie diligently taking notes, when Fritz interrupts to get Archie's attention. One invited guest never made it to the brownstone; Fritz has found her body out front, beneath the street level and the entry stairs. It's just a deliciously mean twist to the story, which is never less than enthralling. Certainly, this is a novel which I will delight in rereading once I make it through the canon in a year or so's time. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Starman # 81

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of Starman # 81 (DC, 2010).

Well, here's a comic which completely filled my expectations, and how often can you say that these days? I figured I'd enjoy the book a little bit and still grumble about how unnecessary it was, and darned if that's not exactly what's happened.

For the last six and a half years or so, DC has been publishing this line-wide crossover called "Blackest Night," where all the superheroes in all their comic books have been fighting zombie versions of all their deceased teammates, magically given new costumes and technology. Look, don't ask me to explain further; it's an idea so bankrupt and dumb that I get the giggles whenever I see people taking it too seriously on the internet. Anyway, as part of the crossover, DC decided to publish new issues of six or seven older, canceled titles, as though the comics themselves have been magically brought back from the grave. For about twelve seconds, I thought that was a terrific idea. Unfortunately, I pulled the first new issue of Weird Western Tales since 1980 off the shelf and it was just another part of the crossover, with the Challengers of the Unknown or somebody fighting Jonah Hex and Bat Lash's zombies. It's almost like DC doesn't want to sell comic books anymore or something.

Anyway, as I've said many a time, Starman was one of the two or three best American comics of the 90s, and writer James Robinson came back to script one more zombie comic featuring his old supporting cast. It seems to be set a couple of years since Jack Knight retired and left town, and the Shade has hooked up with the O'Dare sister, and Mason's going to be a dad soon, and the first casualty of the comic series, originally published back in '94, has been resurrected to cause mayhem and lots of luridly-depicted bloodshed.

The writing is as sharp as ever, and it's always nice to see the Shade again. He was a character from the 1940s, given new, vibrant life as an immortal dandy by Robinson. The artwork is by Fernando Dagnino, who contributes some excellent layouts, but veteran Bill Sienkiewicz's latest inking style is unbelievably ugly, a fluid, expressive line which is just far too busy for my liking. The pages somehow look both over-fussed and sloppy. Apart from a very nice splash page when the Shade enters the violent action with the zombie, I simply didn't like looking at this book.

In all, it's mildly entertaining, much in the same way the Beatles' "Free as a Bird" was. Much like that song, whatever enjoyment you might have found is kind of eclipsed by the question of whether it was really necessary. Honestly, it's not. I'd recommend reading it if DC remembers to publish it in the sixth Starman Omnibus towards the end of the year, anyway.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Left-Handed Hummingbird

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Left-Handed Hummingbird (Virgin, 1994).

Doctor Who's longest-serving TV producer, the late John Nathan-Turner, used to disparage his predecessors' work with a blanket warning that "the memory cheats," and the past wasn't as good as you remember it. Not the New Adventures, though, surely? Those were really good, right?

I've mentioned in my LiveJournal several times that I remain fascinated by the original TV series' final three years, because it's one of those rare times where everybody involved had far more enthusiasm and excitement than actual experience. It's the reverse of the previous Colin Baker era, where the show was a competent production of bored and lazy scriptwriting; instead, the 1987-89 seasons featured some of the most original and wonderful stories of the program's history, but only an apologist can defend the amateur-hour production that presented them. A 1978 Doctor Who episode was as lavish as anything else made for British television in 1978; a 1988 Doctor Who episode was not.

This is also mostly true of the New Adventures, a series of novels published by Virgin during the property's TV hiatus from 1991-96. Much is notable about them; apart from giving future TV wunderkind and Who savior Russell T. Davies his first professional sale, many of the concepts and continuity established in the New Adventures informed the show's 2005 resurrection. In all honesty, David Tennant's "lonely god" portrayal is just a continuation of how the seventh Doctor was depicted in these books. They were written, mostly, by novices and amateurs, fans with little more than fanfic credits behind them given the opportunity to leave a lasting mark on the Doctor Who canon.

Sadly, the writers' enthusiasm often outstripped their talents, and the books really were informed too much by the tropes of SF / Fantasy novels of the period. There is, tragically, more than one virtual reality prison in this series, and a fascination with "cyberspace" in a half-dozen different iterations that already seems hopelessly naive. Every third book seemed to feature the Doctor and some timelost figure like William Blake landing in what seems to be a Victorian country manor, and those that didn't seemed to pit the Doctor against some nebulous Lovecraftian god/monster/entity with a stupid name from before the dawn of time or something. The Left-Handed Hummingbird, Kate Orman's debut novel, features a villain called the Blue, for pity's sake, which is actually the psychic shockwave left behind when an Aztec warrior with low-level psychic abilities ran afoul of some space alien's radioactive detritus, destroying his body and leaving him adrift as an undying memory that has encouraged mass violence over the last 500 years. Yeah, make an action figure of that, won't you?

I'm actually breaking one of my rules by reading this book at all. I started with the New Adventures pretty late, missing this book by about six months. As I plugged in the gaps in my collection, I encountered this author's later books in the series, which I did not enjoy, and decided this one must be skippable. Some years later, after the BBC reclaimed the publication rights, I read one of hers that was so terrible that I vowed I was done with her fiction for good. The problem seems to stem from Orman's fanfic background.

Around 1999, I read Carol Bacon-Smith's Enterprising Women and learned about this subgenre of "hurt / comfort" fiction, terrible amateur fandom novels by daddy-issue-wracked authors wherein Captain Kirk gets impaled by something and Mister Spock comforts him, possibly, though not necessarily, just before they start smooching. Orman's books are awash with this garbage. Her later novels in the series feature alien ganglions growing out of the Doctor's shoulder, and that's before he gets impaled with an arrow, gets hypothermia, has a heart(s) attack and is confined to a wheelchair, and so on, always finding loving comfort from his companions who nurse him. It's not as though she was unaware of the trope; once, looking up a reference to make a point, I realized that the most offensive chapter in her novel Set Piece was, in fact, entitled "Hurt / Comfort." Well, so long as she's okay with it. Her fiction depicts an endless, utterly repulsive series of sadistic, brutal, meaninglessly cruel acts, and I grew tired of wondering what the hell Doctor Who ever did to Orman to make her hate him so much. Better off not wondering, I drew a veil over her fiction.

But this one hole in my New Adventures collection was bothering the heck out of me.

In her considerable defense, Orman brought a lot more to the canon than this loathsome, over-the-top brutality. When I landed a copy of this book from last month, I knew I would get some really interesting material apart from the violence. Orman is actually responsible for one of Doctor Who's very best concepts. In Return of the Living Dad, she established that Benny's father has lived for many years on 20th century Earth helping refugee aliens left behind after the Doctor and UNIT kicked their invading asses, which is just a lovely notion. One of these appears to be an invisible man holding a plastic spatula, but it turns out to actually just be the spatula, floating. It's an Auton spatula, left behind in 1971. That is the greatest idea ever. Her books are peppered with lovably clever bits like this.

There was only one thing I disliked about Steven Moffat's 2008 TV episode "Silence in the Library," and that's the way the Doctor could not seem to wrap his brain around the notion of meeting people, like River Song, out of sequence. Surely this happens to a time traveler with centuries of mileage all the time, right? It certainly happened in the novels far more than once, but I think that Orman did it first in her debut. It starts off wonderfully, with Cristián Alvarez, a troubled man in his fifties, meeting the Doctor, Benny and Ace for the third time, although they have not met him yet. This forces them to confront the Blue at several points throughout history, crossing Alvarez's path twice more.

However, all of the promise in Orman's concepts is overshadowed by the problems that I knew I'd find. The enemy is just a vague, ill-defined threat without any character or understandable motivation, and the gruesome violence is even worse than I feared. At various points, the Doctor bleeds from his eyeballs, bleeds from his nose and bleeds from his ears as the Blue explodes psychic bombs in his head, and he later spends three weeks being captured and tortured by some rogue lieutenant somewhere in some paranormal division of UNIT. None of this cruelty serves the plot in any way. The story would be the same with simple blackouts, and the three weeks of torture literally do not advance the plot at all, and the events are written in the most repulsively lurid manner, as though for an audience of gore fetishists. Orman once wrote a review of the TV serial "Ghost Light," a 1989 example of a tremendously good story ruined by a sloppy, barely coherent production, which suggested that she understood Doctor Who better than most, but the psychological and physical trauma that she delights in ladling out in this novel makes me question whether she ever really did.

Perhaps just as disappointing as the violence and the antagonist, there's the issue of her prose. Dan Brown has written better. You can tell it's the work of a novice, for there are characters introduced some forty pages before their first physical description. In other places, characters enter scenes by way of pronouns, three pages before we're given a name and see that it's a character that both we as readers and the other character in the scene already know. There's that fantasy-fic trope of passages that turn out to be a dream, and sequences more interested in establishing a mood of foreboding and menace without coherently defining what physically occurred. A sequence where the Doctor's old friend Professor Fitzgerald, possessed by the Blue, attacks Benny is the worst offender here, a lengthy passage that simply does not make any sense until characters explain it later, but it happens repeatedly throughout the book.

Orman certainly has her fans, and she was always rightly praised for the insightful, believable depiction of the bond between the Doctor and his companions. It's just a shame that all the good that Orman did for Doctor Who's canon had to be wrapped in these unlovable, hateful, hate-filled books. I should have left that hole in my New Adventures collection alone. Not recommended at all. Avoid.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Black Jack volume 8

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Black Jack volume 8 (Vertical, 2009)

They're coming thick and fast now, aren't they? It really does seem like just a few months ago that I was idly hoping, in the pages of Reprint This!, to one day see Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack collected in English, and here we are almost halfway through the series. Vertical's eighth volume (of a planned seventeen) was released a couple of months ago. The ninth is said to be out there already, but Diamond does not appear to have shipped it to comic stores yet. Then again, well, it is Diamond. It's wrong to expect miracles.

By this point, there is probably no particular reason to include regular reviews of Black Jack here at the Bookshelf beyond the fact that it's my darn blog and I'll write about what I want to. We're almost two years into the run; you've either bought in to one of comics' best treasures, a wonderfully clever mix of inventive stories and eye-poppingly good art, or you're totally out of the loop. But just in case you're still on the fence or haven't quite got around to trying out Black Jack, the series is told with minimal continuity in a collection of 20-odd page stories, so any book is a good starting place.

In the eighth volume, there's a terrific story about a desperate woman who switched babies in the maternity ward, and, years later, is blackmailed by a nurse who caught her in the act. Tezuka does a magnificent job in just a few panels capturing the dismissive cruelty of the blackmailer, leading up to a great courtroom scene that sees Black Jack appearing as a surprise witness to the proceedings and a fabulous twist ending. There's another good tale which puts Black Jack in the background and uses Pinocho, disobeying his orders and following him, as the central character. There are mobsters and yokels and utterly bizarre ailments and illnesses, and a masterfully-told story about a comic artist who, forced by illness to suspend his wildly popular story on a cliffhanger, hopes for just a few more hours to resume the series and satisfy his audience. It's a wonderful collection, and one your bookshelf should have, just like the rest of the series. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Gahan Wilson: Fifty Years of Playboy Cartoons (Fantagraphics, 2009)

Be careful what you wish for department: I've loved Gahan Wilson's work for many years. He's an amazing talent, and while you may never find a consensus as to precisely when Playboy was no longer really worth the effort, it's clear that the cartoons have been the best thing about the magazine for many years, and Wilson's the best of those.

Fantagraphics has pleased me greatly by releasing this fantastic collection of all of Wilson's gleefully surreal and macabre work for Playboy. It is one hell of a presentation. It's three hardback collections in a slipcase with a plexiglass backing. The back cover of each volume features a different hilarious photo of the 79 year-old artist's face and hands pressed up against glass; boxed in the slipcase, it looks like he's been crammed into the box and is praying for release. Each book has a die-cut cover and, while arranged chronologically, is divided into sections by inserted pages repeating the die-cut of the cover.

This can't have been a cheap book to produce, and the price tag confirms it: $125 is a lot to pay at retail. It's worth every penny, as, apart from the bells-n-whistles of the presentation, it does contain every single drawing that Wilson did for Playboy, along with short stories, appreciations by Hugh Hefner and Neil Gaiman, and an interview with the artist by Gary Groth. It's nearly 1000 pages long, the cartoons are printed at their original publication size (that is, mostly one to a page), and it's all done on just about the nicest paper available. It's a book that just oozes quality.

And yet... there's a part of me that wishes there was a little less to it. Don't misunderstand me; Fantagraphics has created an amazing tribute, and I'll treasure my copy, but $125 is a really tall order. The presentation and the supplements are wonderful, but I can't help but wish that Fanta made this material available in a series of inexpensive softcover volumes as well. I feel at least a little strongly that great comics should be available to as wide a range of buyers as possible. Then again, I thought that about the thematically similar complete hardcover editions of Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side and Don Martin's work for Mad and nobody's put out anything resembling mass market editions of those, so I'm not holding my breath. Thanks for realizing one Reprint This! request, Fantagraphics, but could you make sure the next one you fill is just a little more affordable?

(Excerpted from today's Reprint This!)

Monday, February 8, 2010

How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Isn't that a great name for a book? I love the iconoclastic cheek of such a thing. That would be a terrific story, but this book isn't it. Instead, Elijah Wald tells the history of American popular music prior to 1964, arguing that rock 'n' roll was some... nebulous thing or other that no longer existed after Vee-Jay Records licensed the first Beatles LP after Parlophone.

I found the book interesting, but I also found it unbelievably dense and very easy to get lost. He makes a good point, starting chapter seven, that "old records bear the same relationship to vanished bands that fossils and skeletons bear to extinct animals," and I can get behind that conceptually, but what this means to readers is an impenetrable fortress of text, detailing everything from player pianos through Scott Joplin, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, country, Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin, and how the fashion of the music business evolved over sixty years. Paul Whiteman is a major figure in this accounting, as are dozens of artists not readily given their due by what Wald argues is revisionist history, written by rock critics uninterested in pre-1960 music.

If I understand correctly, Wald is arguing that the backbone of music over this time was sheet music, and that songs, as performed by dozens of artists, became hits by virtue of readily-available sheet music making its way to all the regional labels that once thrived. By the time Lennon and McCartney show up, about thirty pages from the end of the text, there's a new desire for what we might term "authenticity" from performers, and a "definitive" recording from one artist. Apparently, that no longer counts as rock 'n' roll. Albums of covers, such as A Bit of Liverpool by the Supremes, were throwbacks to this era.

It's never clear whether Wald views the evolution towards "definitive" recorded performances as a bad thing, despite the book's ostentatious title. He talks a good deal about the importance of live music being played at dances, and the interplay of white and black performers, but the suggestion of an "alternative" history of popular music never rings true. It's just a history of what was popular, even if it was not necessarily cool or praiseworthy. I think I was just fine knowing what little I knew of Lawrence Welk and player pianos before I bothered with this book. Not recommended.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Joe the Barbarian # 1

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Joe the Barbarian #1 (Vertigo, 2010)

The release of a new Grant Morrison comic should always be cause for curiosity. The release of a new Grant Morrison comic with competent artwork should be cause for celebration. After a few years of mainstream superhero features that look like the end of the world, Morrison has teamed with Sean Murphy for a new eight-issue series from Vertigo, Joe the Barbarian, and it looks completely terrific. I'm not familiar with Murphy, who apparently has drawn very few comics prior to this, but if somebody could get him to go back and redraw all those godawful issues of Batman and Final Crisis and the last Seven Soldiers that I couldn't follow and made my eyeballs bleed, I will gladly buy them again. This guy's great.

The story's nothing too spectacular yet, and that's probably for the best. The most disagreeable element of Morrison's recent comics is that there's far too much happening in far too short a time. We're never given an opportunity to get to know characters, and his artists never have a chance to establish a mood. Happily, the first issue of Joe the Barbarian is nothing but the establishment of the mood, a relaxed, slow burn about a kid living with his mom, dealing with bullies in graveyards, missing his late father and retreating to the sort of attic super-room that you wish you had when you were a kid.

What happens next seems to have elements of Kingdom of the Wicked, a very good book by Ian Edginton and D'Israeli from a few years back in which childhood fantasies, acted out with toys, seem to be reflected in a parallel reality. It looks promising if derivative, as Joe looks to be the savior of a kingdom made up of his action figures and dolls, but there's a last-page cliffhanger twist to that setup which had me grinning from ear to ear. Absolutely nobody in comics writes cliffhangers as well as Morrison. I can't wait to see what will happen next. Recommended.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Tummy Trilogy

Here's how this works. I read a book or two and tell you about them and try not to get too long-winded, and maybe you'd like to think about reading them as well. This time, a review of The Tummy Trilogy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994).

In the 1970s, Calvin Trillin had my dream job. He wrote a column for The New Yorker called "U.S. Journal," in which he talked about people and food around the country. Actually, that's not strictly accurate. He wrote about eating around the country, about the joy of driving anywhere and everywhere and finding something to eat.

Just this past Saturday night, Marie and the girlchild and I were having supper with our friend David at a little Southern place called Sweet Tea's, sort of between Austell and Powder Springs. Their specialties include pork tamales and fried turkey. I said then that the true value of the development of time travel will be the ability to go back and have one more meal or two at beloved restaurants no longer with us. When the technology arrives, I think I'll take The Tummy Trilogy with me on my trip back in time. It was a birthday gift from my friend Neal, who knew intuitively that I would love it. It's an omnibus edition of three books that Trillin released between 1974 and 1983, collecting and expanding his New Yorker essays.

In fact, most of the beloved restaurants mentioned in this book are no longer with us, although I recognize a few, such as Arthur Bryant's in Kansas City, long regarded the best barbecue restaurant in the nation, and the Skyline Chili chain of Cincinnati. The Anchor Bar's still around, but when we were briefly in Buffalo last summer, it was too early on a Sunday for lunch. Indeed, many of the cast of supporting players are no longer with us either. Fats Goldberg, Trillin's friend who was a legend among New York City pizzerias, has gone, as has Trillin's devoted wife Alice.

For a moment, I thought about describing her as "long-suffering," because I couldn't think of a better adjective to describe somebody who was looking forward to some architectural treasure on a family vacation, only to have her husband see whether they could incorporate a sidetrip investigation into a decades-long feud over local fried chicken recipes. Then I remembered I'm that husband. I'm the guy who plotted a trip to visit my wife's Aunt Bertie in Philadelphia around a local sandwich shop of many years' standing, recommended to us by our friend Chris in Florida as making the best cheesesteaks in Ridley Park. And I certainly wouldn't call my wife "long-suffering." That was, after all, a remarkably good cheesesteak. Nobody who stops by the Little Hut can in any way be described as suffering.

Just as lovely as all the stories of crawfish festivals in New Orleans and crabcakes in Baltimore is the way that Trillin's cast and storylines intersect and weave through his narratives. I actually found it difficult to read favorite passages to Marie, because the little character pieces that shine so brightly keep leaving lingering shadows on future stories. There's a beautiful little sequence about his daydream assignment to show Chairman Mao around the dozen best restaurants in New York which must be carefully plotted around his daughter's insistence on eating nothing but bagels. Even the daydream job rang true; practically every new dining experience I have is accompanied by my wish that I could get my father to come try it, even if my mother, who also eats nothing but bagels, would make some embarrassing crack. Eleven years ago, I took them to Paul's in Lexington, Georgia, which serves up either the best or the second-best barbecue in the state, depending on what mood I'm in, and she asked whether their cole slaw was like Chic-Fil-A's.

It's a magnificent book. I laughed all the way through it. I was left so ravenously hungry on occasion that I had to put it down. I am also left so envious that I could weep. I want this job. I only sort of know restaurants in North Georgia and around Nashville. I want to travel the country and learn everything and spread the word about how imperative it is that we avoid those La Maison de la Casa House places that exist only for dimwitted adult children to take their parents on their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary, and how we should instead eat only at those places we wanted to go after fourteen months in the army. Somebody give me this job. I'll write every single day, I won't call in sick, I'll eat enormous amounts of chili, and I don't require an exorbitant salary. Marie, let's eat!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Parker: The Hunter

What I try to do with reviews at this Bookshelf blog is keep it simple and spoiler-free, and let you know whether I'd recommend you pick up a copy of what I just read. Seems to work okay. This time, a brief review of Parker: The Hunter (IDW, 2009)

Here's a book that fulfills its promise just perfectly. It's 144 pages of beautifully-drawn, evocative artwork - detailed linework shaded with a blue wash - illustrating a seminal crime story about a career thug out for revenge. The original novel, written by Donald E. Westlake in 1962 under the pseudonym Richard Stark, has been filmed twice, starring Lee Marvin and Mel Gibson in the lead role, and influenced authors as disparate as Robert B. Parker and Don Pendleton, but Darwyn Cooke makes it seem very fresh and vibrant.

As an adaptation, it's so good that readers will probably forget that the tone and the plot have been such an influence on the genre for so long and appreciate it on its own merits. If this makes sense, it feels like Cooke has captured 1962 so well that readers can become immersed in a period long before the storyline of a vengeful criminal became cliched through overuse.

It's a very cold and cruel book, and certainly not for everyone. There's no character development to speak of - there almost never is in the genre - and the joy comes from watching the plot unfold. But much in the same way that readers will return again to the genre's best writers for the joy of reading their prose, this is definitely a book I'll enjoy coming back to, just looking over how masterfully Cooke stages certain scenes. The most memorable of these will be a climactic sequence at a subway station, and the thunderous scene of Parker tracking down his wife and, finding no sympathy for her tale of pity and woe, telling her to do him the favor of killing herself. It's an excellent start to the series - Cooke plans three further adaptations - and one I recommend gladly.