Saturday, December 31, 2011

Welcome to the Nerd Farm!

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 Welcome to the Nerd Farm! (Andrews McMeel, 2007).

At last, I have purchased the only outstanding hole in my Doonesbury library. I put it off because I was just completely certain that somebody was going to announce the incredibly long-overdue comprehensive reprint program that I have been hoping to see around the time of the 40th anniversary celebrations this year, but, well, as 2011 comes to a close and we still don't have one...

(We do have two more recent collections than this. I received 2009's Tee Time in Berzerkistan as a gift when it was released. Red Rascal's War, the latest collection, is quite new and on my to-do list to pick up sometime.)

It took me a long time, but I recently reread all of Doonesbury that is in print, which is about 70% of it. I had been keeping a blog which detailed what strips were missing, but man alive, did that ever turn into a chore. It's much more satisfying to just read without letting it turn into work. Around 2002, the books entered their sixth design incarnation - oh, my poor, ugly shelves! - and at least seemed to finally start collecting every strip without skipping any. These are easily picked out as the large format books, about 8x11, with black spines.

The principal storylines in this collection, which is set during George Bush's second term and cover all the empire-crumbling shenanigans around it, include Alex's first hectic year at MIT, BD's PTSD, and Mike attempting to convince his mother to come live in Seattle with him and his wife Kim. As always, the cast grows, and there's plenty of self-aware humor in the reader mail. Creator Garry Trudeau never goes for the easy answer, and keeps complicating things for his characters. It's a terrific, and very funny read. Recommended.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Brideshead Revisited

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, and, in this instance, spoiler-laden review of Brideshead Revisited (Chapman and Hall, 1945).

It is very difficult to embrace a book when you spend pretty much the entirety of the narrative wanting to punch at least one of the major characters in the snoot. Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited came across my radar after an unusual fashion. I had finished reading Jill Paton Walsh's The Attenbury Emeralds and wondered just how big these gigantic aristocratic country houses were meant to be. My take on things, having read a little about them, is that between the wars, Great Britain had better than a hundred of these gigantic Biltmore-sized estates, to use a scale that Southerners like me will recognize, which is an awful lot of great freaking big, ungainly houses in an awfully small area. In the same sized area here, we've got Biltmore and the RJ Reynolds Estate, I think, and that's it.

Anyway, Brideshead came recommended as a book that dealt with the decline of the country estates. I knew of the 1980s TV serial, of course, but mainly how it came to epitomize, in the US, the culture snobbery that informs perceptions of PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, despite the fact that it never actually aired on that anthology program. I checked out the novel and was, initially, taken with things. It starts during World War Two, and an officer named Charles Ryder's unit is billeted at the decrepit and crumbling Brideshead, prompting him to remember how well he remembered his time as a visitor here.

When Ryder was first introduced to Brideshead, it was as a guest of his college chum, Lord Sebastian Flyte, in the 1920s. They met at Oxford, and how Ryder failed to kick the drunk sissy in the tail, I can't guess. I don't know that I can recall a less sufferable character in fiction than Sebastian. Waugh, writing with a discreet and polite edge, masks their friendship in words and code that leave it to readers' interpretation of how close these two are. I understand that the more recent feature adaptation of the novel just goes full bore and depicts them as lovers, which is the most likely reading. Particularly after Lord Sebastian, the younger son of Lord Marchmain, the Marquess of Marchmain, later makes his way, embarrassingly, across Europe and North Africa in the company of other effeminate drunks, usually under the patient, understanding, tutelage of some priest or other, only the determined would insist there's no hanky panky going on here. Even without actually seeing the TV serial, you can still visualize how all these urbane, sensitive, blow-dried dimwits, as played by Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews influenced the New Romantic movement. I don't actually need to watch the TV Brideshead when a single Spandau Ballet video will do.

But Sebastian... well, he carries around a teddy bear named Aloysius. At college. He tells his barber that he needs a brush with extra-thick bristles for when Aloysius misbehaves and needs a jolly good spanking. What a pathetic, humiliating child. Did Morrissey read this book before he went onstage with a pocket full of gladiolas?

Charles ends up being asked by Sebastian's mother to leave Brideshead and never return after he goes well out of his way to enable Sebastian's drinking. So he goes off, continuing his burgeoning art career, marries another classmate's daughter, lovelessly, spends months in South America drawing things and preparing for a show, reacts to the news that his wife had a daughter, conceived the night he left, with all the interest one might give a rubber ball, and, just like that, I was ready to punch his snoot pretty viciously as well. But his wife Celia's not faithful - naturally, it would make things difficult if Charles was seen to be cruel - and Charles takes up with, of all people, Lady Julia, who is Sebastian's younger sister. And she's also in a marriage of convenience for some idiotic reason.

Let me go back to Walsh. One of the many things that she caught when she took up the characters of Lord Peter Wimsey and his family is that Dorothy L. Sayers made Helen, the Duchess of Denver, a completely awful shrew by virtue of her devotion to duty over love. This book is full of upper-class imbeciles who, like Helen, care more about duty than anything else, forcing them into situations where they excuse their awful, hideous behavior. Waugh puts an interesting twist on things by having the family feel very strongly about their responsibilities as Catholics. It guides their behavior in unexpected ways, particularly as Julia plans to marry the dumb cluck of her life, only to learn quite late in the day that he was divorced some years previously in Canada. It also sets up the climax, when Lord Marchmain comes home to die, taking for-bleeding-ever to do so, and the rules of Julia's faith suddenly throw everything in the air, ruining even the last salvage of something happening in this book that I wanted to see happen. And, just like that, I was ready to take a strong-bristled hairbrush to Lady Julia's rear.

If you can stand any of these idiots, you might be intrigued and interested in how Waugh constructs the novel, and be impressed by his use of language. On the other hand, I found it agonizing and downright exasperating, watching jerks treat each other contemptuously and without connection for years and years. I think most of them got the fates they deserved, but I couldn't even muster any reason to care. Not at all recommended.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011


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 Embroideries (Pantheon, 2005).

About the best that I can say about Embroideries, which I suppose you could label a "graphic novella" by Marjane Satrapi, is that I don't think I've ever read anything laid out in this fashion before. It has elements of being a comic to it, but if the artist's simple and endearing artwork in Persepolis occasionally threatened to dissolve into unconnected lines and polygons, this goes further to the edge. This book doesn't even have panel borders, and while most of the pages have two or more drawings on them, connected by the narration and dialogue, it doesn't look at all like any comic I've ever seen. I like this a lot.

The story is about little kaffeeklatsches that Satrapi and her grandmother enjoyed in Tehran, "ventilations of the heart" where they gossiped behind all the absent friends' backs about sex. It is an occasionally amusing look at the sex lives of Iranian women, from the ones in control to the so hopelessly conservative that they've never seen their husbands naked.

Briefly, then, it is an unusual topic, told with frank candor and in an agreeably unusual format. It's probably not a book that I will return to very often, and not one that really generated much enthusiasm or inspiration, but certainly a book that I enjoyed reading. Recommended with minor reservations.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Penny Century

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 Penny Century (Love & Rockets Maggie Series vol. 4) (Fantagraphics, 2010).

Love & Rockets is the only series that I don't mind purchasing and repurchasing in multiple editions, although a much, much tighter budget of late has left me far behind with this series. I like the way that Jaime Hernandez's stories read in different configurations. Approaching his little slices of life through flashback or in different sequences lets little details, the sort of which most readers probably miss the first time around, take new shapes and new levels of importance. I really love these paperback editions, about seven and a half by nine, and I even like that the books are unnumbered. This is probably the only book series about which I'll ever say such a thing.

Design nerd that I am, Jacob Covey's packaging on these books is so incredibly appealing, and it honestly doesn't matter in which order people read them. The stories certainly move forward, but at the same time making several looks back. When the two-part "Election Day" climaxes with Hopey learning that there has been a big, important development in Maggie's life that she's missed entirely, it's a punch in the gut that gives Hernandez the chance to turn time back and show what happened. He does this better than darn near anybody else in comics.

Although, while I'm on the subject of design, the only failing of these books is not enumerating where these stories originally appeared. I think that these are all the stories from the graphic novel Whoa Nellie!, the one-off comic Maggie and Hopey Color Fun, and the six or seven issues of Penny Century, in which the characters appeared between the two separate volumes of the ongoing Love & Rockets anthology, along with at least one story from a few issues into volume two.

I think that almost all of it was previously reprinted at least twice before, including in the large hardcover Locas II, a celebrated coffee table book which also contained other, later, material. The design nerd in me cares, and I suspect that budget-minded readers who don't wish to duplicate their purchases might want to know. Small, italicized subscript on the table of contents would answer anybody's questions.

You know, Judge Dredd: "Midnight Surfer," originally appeared in progs 424-429. It's not hard.

Anyway, the "Whoa Nellie!" story lets a couple of the series' minor supporting characters take center stage as Hernandez indulges in his fetish of women's wrestling. It's astonishingly well-drawn, and I love the way he chooses to let pages and pages of combat go on without any dialogue or sound effects, focusing exclusively on the fighting. "Maggie and Hopey Color Fun," presented here in black and white, returns to the main characters, apparently several months after the stories at the end of the previous volume in this series, Perla la Loca. There's a brief allusion to Maggie being missed at home, something revealed in greater detail later in the book, but otherwise, things are back to what passes for normal with our heroines. Hopey waits impatienly, but understandingly, for her flighty soulmate to get her shit together, and tempers her hormones in the meantime by trying to break up her brother and his current squeeze.

They remain on the periphery of Penny Century's life, as they attend a pool party thrown by one of billionaire HR Costigan's other ex-wives, Norma. As ever, the cast grows and swells with new additions. Norma and her daughter with Costigan end up on the lam at one point, trying to avoid an army of attorneys and policemen as Costigan hovers near death. Penny drives Maggie's former lover Ray crazy, does Hopey's hair, sends Maggie down a "horror highway," which is precisely where the flighty Maggie doesn't need to drive, and, either to hide out or to help Izzy with her anxieties, she moves in and mandates that they won't wear clothes anymore. We might accuse Hernandez of giving into another fetish in stories like "Inquiritis!," but, with art this nice, who'd be so churlish?

Actually, though, despite the prurient fun of stories like that, my favorite part of the book is the surreal "The Race," in which Maggie finally meets the little beast inside her "that makes ya fuck up every day of yer shit life," and finds herself woefully unable to cope. As ever, there's just a tiny hint of extra-normal fantasy at work in the stories, just enough for readers to accept that there's something very strange over the horizon or in Izzy's psyche, but never enough to overwhelm the wonderful, human reality of these beloved characters. Highly recommended for older readers.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Rumpole and the Reign of Terror

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 Rumpole and the Reign of Terror (Viking, 2006).

I didn't actually intend to read this book. I felt that after suffering the disappointments of three volumes of John Mortimer's lackluster short stories about Rumpole, none of them a patch on the television scripts, I was pleased to end on the very high note of his terrific novel Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders. So I had to bite my lip a little when my friend David offered to lend me this 2006 novel, worried that it might spoil the very happy memory of the very good book that I'd finished. Since I'm certainly not quite so tacky as to reward a friend's generous thought that I should enjoy it with a negative review - it's not like this is some infernal Harry Potter book here, and the lender a fangirl blind to its faults - you dear readers have probably guessed that I did enjoy this novel a good deal in the end.

This time out, Rumpole is again defending one of the members of the extended Timson family when a niece of the present accused asks for his help. Her husband, a doctor born in Pakistan, has been arrested as a terrorist and, because the security of the nation is at stake, not told what the evidence against him is; indeed, not even told specifically what he's meant to have done. Attempting a defense is one of Rumpole's greatest challenges to date; because of the classified nature of the intelligence, even he can't find out where he's supposed to begin.

Britain's draconian laws meant to protect its citizens from terror attacks had clearly got under Mortimer's skin. There was actually a lot of outrage from very good writers about just how oppressive things were getting at this time. A 2005 John Wagner-scripted episode of Judge Dredd, illustrated by Phil Winslade, was written from a similar perspective of disgust and distrust. Poor Rumpole is finding the evolving basics of courtroom behavior enough of a struggle - judges with word processors? - and to have the laws amended so that hearsay can be entered into evidence is almost too much to bear. And now this.

Things are also as bad as ever on the home front. She Who Must Be Obeyed and her eternal ally Dodo are not at all pleased with Rumpole sinking so low as to defend a terrorist, despite Rumpole's insistence that, in the first place, the government hasn't even started to make a formal case proving that he's anything of the sort, and in the second, he's just "an old taxi," obliged to represent anybody who asks for him. But his intransigence costs him his standing with his best-paying clients, the Timsons, who want nothing to do with either their errant niece or anybody who defends terrorists, and, now that his wife is writing her own memoirs to set straight the record about their tumultuous marriage, it will probably give him a blacker eye there than he thought possible. Then when "the Mad Bull," Lord Justice Bullingham, starts calling around after his wife, you start to wonder just how much an Old Bailey Hack is meant to bear.

This is certainly not a good entry point to the series, as there are quite a few subplots and supporting characters and tightly-drawn continuity by this point, but I would certainly recommend it first to anybody familiar with the character from TV, and secondly to readers not necessarily interested in how it reads as one book in a series, but how well the angry Mortimer handles the controversial subject matter. Not as air-punchingly awesome as The Penge Bungalow Murders, but definitely worth a look.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Cardboard Gods

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 Cardboard Gods (Algonquin, 2010).

I really do love the 1970s more than that decade deserves. Heaven knows why, but I get a real thrill from anything that captures the era as well as this book does.

I contend that the very best sources for understanding the decade are all comics: Doonesbury, Howard the Duck and Oh! Wicked Wanda. The first is, bafflingly, still not available in a complete edition, and the last of the three is, criminally, unlikely to ever be available in any kind of legal reprint. But Josh Wilker's Cardboard Gods belongs to a solid, large and respectable second tier of sources that includes Ellen Forney's Monkey Food, Spike Lee's film Summer of Sam, that documentary about Patty Hearst from a few years ago, and the terrific Big Book of the '70s from Paradox Press.

So this is a memoir about a sensitive, night-terror-troubled kid who spent the seventies on the broken end of one of those unsuccessful experiments in marriage that people attempted in those days, and, with his older brother, moved with his mom and her boyfriend, whom she met on a bus to go protest something in DC, to rural Vermont, near the town of East Randolph. Hoping to live off the land and barter blacksmithing services with the locals, young Josh found comfort and solace in a passion for the Boston Red Sox and in his growing treasure box of Topps baseball cards. Each short chapter begins with a reproduction of an old card, which launches a memory, either about the player and his stats, or what might have been happening in his life when he obtained the card.

There are some great stories here, but a lot of them are pretty painful. Until Josh ends up in one of those oddball schools where kids "learn" at their own pace, it's a constant stream of bullying about his hippie home. Things get a little better when he and his brother try to spend some quality time with their hapless, in-over-his-head father, and, at one point, attempt to see a Ted Nugent concert from nosebleed seats in New York, only to realize shortly afterward that they left after the opening act.

Honestly, the book started to lose me as Wilker left the 1970s about two-thirds of the way into it. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but even his pained memories of the decade seem so vibrant that I wanted it to continue. Talking about how they couldn't pick up NBC programming in this area struck a specific "yes! the seventies were like that!" chord with me, even though I never had that experience myself in suburban Atlanta, and in the end, I selfishly wanted the memoir to be more about the decade than about its author.

The only flaws, in the end, are the ones that the reader projected onto the text. Recommended, but, owing to some pretty explicit details about how The Big Book of Teenage Answers impacted his fantasies of Cheryl Tiegs, not for younger readers.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Persepolis 2

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 Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return (Pantheon, 2005).

The second of three Satrapi books that I have read this year, Persepolis 2 was originally published in France as two separate 92-page albums and a dividing line between the two couldn't be more clearly shown without a big flagging caption reading "CONTINUED NEXT ISH!!" underneath the climactic splash page of teenage Marjane donning her veil again, her four years in Europe coming to an ignoble end and preparing to return home.

I'm not sure why I had trouble relating to the material in the first collection, but I really enjoyed this a good deal more. I like Satrapi's artwork a lot, and I like the occasional off-model breakdown into completely wonky anatomy to indicate anger or frustration, such as at the bottom of page 78. I like how she occasionally uses solid black panels, with faces pasted in and outlines of bodies drawn with white-out. As a frustrated, deeply mediocre artist myself, I see in Satrapi the same solutions to artistic problems that I had tried, only with greater success here, and I'm pleased to see that in my own failed comic-world past, I was on the right avenue.

The first half of the book follows Marjane's European misadventure, starting out with high hopes but ending up homeless and spending all day riding trams and getting incredibly sick. She grows up a lot in Austria - addressing a comment left in my article on the previous book, I don't believe that her nihilist punk friend Momo turns into a jerk so much as Marjane, maturing, becomes able to see through his crap.

It all ends in tears, but even back in Iran, Marjane still has a lot of growing up to do. I enjoyed this segment, and the look at how women's lives in public were nothing like the lives they led away from the prying eyes of their police "brothers" who enforced public dress and conduct. An incident where Marjane, needing a distraction, fingers some innocent dude to get away with some lipstick, and initially finds it hilarious, thanks to some enabling by her boyfriend, is really horrifying, considering what that poor guy probably suffered at the hands of armed thugs. The stark black and white silhouettes of a later section with simple shapes of guards chasing students from rooftop to rooftop is over in a flash, but it packs a punch.

Her story comes to an end that's every bit as inevitable as her time in Vienna, and I was caught up the whole time. It's a very good story, and one told well. Recommended.