Tuesday, April 29, 2014


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 Swamplandia! (Knopf, 2011).

Damn and blast, I wanted to love this book. It just stabbed me in the back, though. It really hurt.

In her debut novel, Karen Russell introduced us to the Bigtree family, the stars of a dingy amusement park called Swamplandia!, somewhere in murky southwest Florida. It's a relic of old tourist traps, a family whose father styles himself as a stereotypical '60s Indian - headdress, "Chief," heap big gift shop for the mainlanders to buy postcards and T-shirts - and whose mother wrestles alligators in a swimming pool twice daily. Then mom dies of cancer and grandpa needs to move to a nursing home and the crowds stop coming and a new attraction with a great big slide and wave pool opens up. The bills are coming due and so the Chief heads to the mainland on a "business trip," leaving his three kids to fend for themselves.

The son, Kiwi, beats a path to the competing theme park to get a job there and help pay the family debt. Unfortunately, with so little interaction with other teens, he's a target for teasing and abuse, and lacks an understanding of how money really works. Middle sister Osceola falls in love with what she explains is the ghost of young man who died while working for a dredge ship about seventy years ago and vanishes, set to marry him. Eleven year-old Ava, the heroine of the story, who narrates alternating chapters, sets out for the Underworld to rescue her. She leaves in the company of a Bird Man, an oddball itinerant who seems to be able to convince buzzards to leave various places and then demands payment.

I've said that I love Flannery O'Connor, and I do, but there was a dark and horrible undercurrent to many of her stories. Somehow, I'm able to skim the eccentric and silly surface of things and overlook what I don't like. Swamplandia! sparked controversy that just won't end, not just for the child rape, but that the rape is unreported and unpunished. Worse still was the growing, sickening feeling, for pages and pages, that you know what's coming and are hoping for some way around it. It genuinely left me nauseated, and I finished the book searching for retribution that never came. All the eccentricity and fun in the world couldn't overcome my compulsion to vomit. Not at all recommended.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Pogo: Prisoner of Love

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 Pogo: Prisoner of Love (Simon & Schuster, 1969).

I've always liked the fact that a comic strip as beautiful as Pogo existed more than I liked reading it. Take a look at the funny pages today. Not one of them is as well-drawn as Pogo. Nobody is able to match Walt Kelly's beautiful linework. Even if newspaper designers were giving strips the space today that they did fifty years ago, you wouldn't see such gorgeous art.

We found a first printing of this 1969 collection for a quarter recently. You haven't bought anything this good for a quarter since you were five years old. I think that it reprints a nearly complete set of daily strips from late January through August, 1968. A few panels were truncated for space reasons, and the Sundays, which I believe told a different continuity, are not included. Fantagraphics has been releasing nice annual hardback archives of the strip, each of which compile about two years of story. So I guess that in 2021 or so, we'll be able to compare the two and see how much was excised.

Having said that, I've honestly never before enjoyed Pogo as much as I did reading this. No matter how much I love Kelly's art, and no matter how much the wordplay and the puns make me chuckle, every time I've tried to read some of this stuff, I've been put off by the characters. I just can't tell any of them apart. There seems to be about fifteen innocent, kindhearted good guys who get a little confused over the modern world's complexities, and about fifteen mischievous ne'er-do-wells who take advantage of them. None are distinctive enough for me to embrace; the alligator and the hound dog could have swapped places in the story and I wouldn't have noticed.

The rambling storyline hangs together on gossamer-thin lines, but it's so darn cute, and punctuated by so much sweet silliness, that I smiled all the way through it. Some of the swamp's residents decide that the Okeefenokee should secede from the country, or at least suppose in innocent agreement to other characters' more rascally suggestions that it's an idea worth considering. The mole, the bobcat, and the muskrat engineer some of this before getting distracted on a search for hidden treasure, leaving the other characters to debate positions in their new government and the tone of a new national anthem. Pogo is propped up as the least objectionable president - and, by the baddies, the easiest to manipulate - which leaves the swamp's ladyfolk in a lengthy tussle as to who will become the First Lady. In the end, the lovely and innocent flirting between Pogo and the skunk, Ma'm'selle Hepzibah, has an incredibly sweet little hands-holding payoff. If you can read it without a big, dumb grin, then something is downright wrong with you.

Despite my own stumbles and bellyaching, Pogo was a terrific strip, and whenever you find one of these books, you should snatch it up. I probably should start getting those Fantagraphics collections of the 1950s stuff, shouldn't I? The one with the Joe McCarthy character is coming out in August. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


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 Steelheart (Delacorte, 2013).

What a dreary book this is. Yet another in the endless line of barely different dystopian fantasy novels for middle and high school students, this one's about a sixteen year-old who has to save the planet from the supervillains, here termed "Epics," who have destroyed America.

Things were looking bad for the tiny blue planet a decade ago, and then things got worse. Our hero's father succeeded in wounding one of the most powerful villains, an otherwise indestructible thug called Steelheart, and he retaliated by killing anybody who might have witnessed it before going on to wipe out the government and install himself as the emperor of what used to be Chicago. Steelheart didn't know that the then six year-old son was there and escaped the carnage; he's spent the last ten years learning everything he can about the small army of villains, hoping to meet the guerrilla force of rebels who've had limited success killing the low-powered members of their number.

It's bleak but it's also remarkably boring. More than half could have been carved out with no ill effects on this book, though I concede that publishers really only seem to want these things in threes, at least, and so it's possible that much of the long game leading up to a final confrontation with Steelheart might be setting up events for David and the supporting cast in subsequent stories. What is here, however, is just plain dull, a longwinded take on a premise that was done better in The Ten-Seconders for 2000 AD. To be honest, I got a little fed up with that as well. Not recommended.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

You're Not You

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 You're Not You (Thomas Dunne, 2006).

I was thinking, as I read Michelle Wildgen's debut novel You're Not You, that any movie version simply couldn't quite have the same power as the novel, because one of the principal characters can only speak in a whisper. She's in her late thirties, wheelchair-bound and nearly paralyzed from ALS, and barely able to talk anymore. I bet lots of actors would relish such a challenge, but doubted any production company would want to have a major part in a movie for somebody who couldn't move and who the other characters would have to translate for other players in all her scenes. Then I finished the book and read that a film adaptation has already wrapped, with Hilary Swank, no stranger to really challenging roles, as the doomed Kate. Well, never mind me. Good casting, that.

Emmy Rossum has been cast as the other lead, a junior at the University of Wisconsin who's been drifting through life and beer and an ill-advised affair with a married man, and takes a job as a part-time caretaker for Kate. She sort of knows going in that this job won't last for very long, and even if she's brilliant with her work, it will likely close within a couple of years with Kate's death. But just because Kate hasn't much time left doesn't mean that her life won't be full of upheavals and heartbreak and cooking. Lots of cooking. This book will make you very hungry.

The sensory experience of this book can be overwhelming. Wildgen, whose new novel Bread & Butter is on my to-read list, just packs in the smells and the tastes and the touches of everything. It's very frank and honest about Kate's desire for the flavors of food and for sex and for company and for trips to the farmers' market. It's also frank about Bec's paycheck-to-paycheck existence and her fun with friends. I was left more than a little cold by Bec's parents, who seem too by-the-plot antagonistic to be real people, but the rest of the book was warm and welcoming and every inevitable, telegraphed plot beat, from the theft of Bec's car stereo to Kate's death, still hurt like the devil when they came. Recommended.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Blood Will Out

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 Blood Will Out (Liveright, 2014).

Friends and co-workers are often asking me what I'm reading. This book, everybody, close to a dozen people, replied something like "Oh, THAT! Yes, I've heard about that!" The case was so weird that it has captured lots of people's imaginations.

It's the story of a fellow born Christian Karl Gerhartsreiter in Germany, but who decided he'd rather be The Sociopathic Mister Ripley, basically. When our hero, novelist and crime writer Walter Kern, met him in the late '90s, he was in the early days of his lengthy cover identity of "Clark Rockerfeller," paying what turned out to be a princely $500 for Kern to transport an incontinent, wheelchair-bound dog halfway across the country to him. Kern thought the guy was fascinating and odd enough to stick around, reasoning that inspiration for novels is a good reason for keeping eccentrics in your orbit. But over time, he figured out that there's not a very thick line between "eccentric oddball" and "honkin' great liar."

As the years went on and their friendship deepened, "Clark Rockerfeller" and his story started developing holes, and previously-believed long-dead relations got resurrected for new, casual anecdotes, his phony life of art treasures, social clubs, and celebrity pals started falling apart. In the end, Clark got himself on the news when he attempted to abduct his daughter from his estranged wife and spirit her off to South America, leading a spokesperson for the Rockerfeller family to flatly deny any link between this fellow on the news and any actual Rockerfellers.

Then it turns out he's wanted in connection with a grisly murder in California in the mid-80s...

I hugely enjoyed reading this book. It's a well-crafted, intricate study of lies and identity, of creating illusions and maintaining them. Since I didn't know much about the case and the trial of "Rockerfeller," I was surprised by each new revelation - Hitchcock and Star Trek come into the story more than I was expecting - but even if I had followed it on the tabloid news, there would have been so much here I couldn't have guessed about. It's a really fascinating, weird, and compelling story, and comes highly recommended.