Monday, November 12, 2018

I wrote the following five years ago, on the occasion of Stan Lee's 90th birthday. Stan died today at the age of 95.  What I wrote then, holds true today.

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It’s my contention you can tell a lot about people by the choices they make.

Paper or plastic. Crunchy or smooth. Marvel or DC.

As for that last choice, for me, it’s always been Marvel. For years, I possessed a large red button that proclaimed “Make Mine Marvel.”

When I ordered that button, I also sent away for an 8 x 10, black and white autographed photo of Stan Lee. Smilin’ Stan Lee, Marvel’s former writer, editor and publisher, who celebrated his 90th birthday December 28.

Happy Birthday, Stan, and thanks for populating my childhood with an awesome array of heroes and villains.

In a two- to three-year period in the early ‘60s, Lee, teamed with Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and other artists, to create many of our most enduring comic book characters: the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, the X-Men, the Avengers, the Incredible Hulk, Iron Man, Sgt. Fury and – my personal favorite – Daredevil, the Man Without Fear.

(Not too mention the super villains -- Doom and the Goblin and Doc Ock – or secondary characters like J. Jonah Jameson, Gwen Stacey and Rick Jones.)

A guy could earn his seat in the Pop Culture Hall of Fame simply for creating Spider-Man. But Lee’s fertile imagination led to the creation of not one character, but a universe – the Marvel Universe, which caught the imagination of thousands of teens and pre-teens in the sixties and which is still going strong today.

What separated Marvel superheroes from DC was that -- despite the cape and cowl, despite the ability to fly or smash or turn invisible – the Marvel heroes seemed a lot like us.

Marvel was as much about the men and women behind the masks as their costume-clad alter egos. And those men and women had real lives. Hopes. Fears. Dreams. They were vulnerable, physically and emotionally, in a way we’d never witnessed before in a comic character. 

The Fantastic Four had superhero identities, yet they remained Reed, Ben, Johnny and Sue. And they never – not once – wore masks. Tony Stark, the Iron Man, had a bad ticker. Daredevil was blind. Dr. Strange was an arrogant, alcoholic surgeon. Peter Parker had trouble with girls and was absolutely basting in teen-age angst. 

As a writer, editor and publisher, Lee piloted Marvel from a minor publishing house into an empire, while creating some of our most enduring, and inspirational, fictional characters.

Issue #600 of The Fantastic Four rolled off the presses earlier this year. The publication of issue #700 of The Amazing Spider-Man was sandwiched between Christmas and Lee’s birthday. How’s that for cosmic timing?

Fifty years after I first plucked a Marvel comic off the rack at the local grocery, Lee’s creations continue to capture my imagination. 

So thanks, Stan, and, once again, happy 90th.

You’ll be pleased to know that yesterday and today, I still Make Mine Marvel.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Thoughts on 2017 reading

182 books read in 2017. The fewest since 175 in 2014.

I started keeping this list in 1996 and have now exceeded 3,100 books read.

So, what were my favorites? The books I’d recommend? The year started out slowly, but finished strong with some excellent books — both fiction and non-fiction.

Here’s what I liked the most (in no particular order).

Fiction:
Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman
Abide With Me, Elizabeth Strout
The Little Paris Bookshop, Nina George
Camino Island, John Grisham
Birdcage Walk, Helen Dunmore
The Force, Don Winslow
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O, Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
The Ninth Hour, Alice McDermott
A Legacy of Spies, John Le Carrè
Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan
The Last Ballad, Wiley Cash
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
Winter, Ali Smith
Righteous, Joe Ide
IQ, Joe Ide
Going Into Town, A Love Letter to New York, Roz Chast
Women Crime Writers, Suspense Novels of the 1940s
Women Crime Writers, Suspense Novels of the 1950s

I completed a trifecta of sorts with Norse Mythology. I read the book, listened to an audio book (Gaiman is the reader) and attended a reading by Gaiman in Seattle. Thor, Odin, Loki, Frost Giants. What’s not to like?

My great friend, Ralph Yaniz, recommended both The Little Paris Bookshop and Camino Island. Both books were about books; one a love story, the other a mystery.   

I really enjoyed The Force by Don Winslow, but his The Cartel didn’t make the list. 

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland was fun, mixing magic, time travel and a mysterious governmental agency.

Joe Ide’s two books, IQ and Righteous, feature a new and novel detective. Think Sherlock Holmes set in the Hood.  

Women Crime Writers featured eight novels in a two-book set from the Library of America. A fabulous introduction to (for me) little-known women writers from the 1940s and ‘50s.

I highly recommend Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan and The Last Ballad by Wiley Cash.  

My favorite book, though, was A Gentlemen in Moscow by Amor Towles. It was delightful, full of humor and warmth, and superbly written.   It’s exactly what I look for in a novel. I am grateful for the recommendation from Diane Renzuli.   How I missed Towles until now, I’ll never know. 

Non-Fiction:
White Trash, The 400-year Untold History of Class in America,  Nancy Isenberg
You  Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie
Cover Me, Ray Padgett
Huè 1968, Mark Bowden
Grant, Ron Chernow

I think the titles give you an idea of what you’re getting here. Alexie’s book is a memoir. Bowden writes about a critical battle in Vietnam and Chernow continues to produce highly readable biographies about notable figures from America’s past.  He’s tackled George Washington and  Alexander Hamilton. Grant runs to almost 1,000 pages, but it worth the effort.

The non-fiction book that I enjoyed the most was Cover Me by Ray Padgett.  The book’s sub-title sums it up neatly: The Stories Behind the Great Cover Songs of All Time. A sample: Johnny Cash singing “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, the Fugees recording “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack, Patti Smith riffing on Van Morrison’s “Gloria”.


Finally, I’d like to mention Janet Reno, Doing the Right Thing, a biography of the former attorney general by Paul Anderson. Paul was my supervisor for several years when I worked for AARP in Washington. It’s always a joy to read a work by someone you know. That’s was especially true here.  It’s an excellent book, suggesting a second career for Paul when he retires.   

2017 Reading List


“I’m tired of people saying they don’t have time to read. I don’t have time for anything else.”
                                     — George Whitman, Shakespeare and Company

January
1. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
2. The Fever, Megan Abbott
3. Shakespeare and Company Paris: A History of the Rag & Bone 
Shop of the Heart, ed. Krista Halverson
4. The Ranger, Ace Atkins
5. Sweet Lamb of Heaven, Lydia Millet
6. Talking God, Tony Hillerman
7. American Born Chinese, Gene Luen Yang
8. The Rock Rats, Ben Bova
9. The Singing Bones, Shaun Tan
10. The Holy Grail of Hoops, Josh Swade
11. Collected Stories, Cynthia Ozick
12. The Boat Rocker, Ha Jin
13. Any Other Name, Craig Johnson
14. Hallowe’en Party, Agatha Christie
15. The Portable Veblen, Elizabeth McKenzie
16. In The Company of Liars,  David Ellis
17. Rode, Thomas Fox Averill
18. Rogue Heroes, Ben Macintyre
19. Union Station, Ande Parks & Eduardo Barreto
20. The Terranauts, T. C. Boyle
21. Bill Clinton, Michael Tomasky
22. Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie

February
23. The Lost Witness, Robert Ellis
24. Dry Bones, Craig Johnson
25. History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund
26. The Testament, John Grisham
27. Level Up, Gene Luen Yang & Thien Pham
28. The Silent War, Ben Bova
29. Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman
30. Nanjing Requiem, Ha Jin
31. The Last Days of New Paris, China Miéville
32. Janet Reno, Doing the Right Thing, Paul Anderson
33. The Highwayman, Craig Johnson
34. Drawing Comics With Dick Giordano, Dick Giordano
35. The Red Road, Denise Mina
36. Neverwhere*, Neil Gaiman
37. Universal Harvester, John Darnielle
38. An Obvious Fact, Craig Johnson
39. Exposure, Helen Dunmore
40. Writing With Intent, Margaret Atwood
41. The Last Alibi, David Ellis
42. The Science of Supervillains, Lois H. Gresh & Robert Weinberg

March
43. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
44. Bad Dreams, Tessa Hadley
45. August Snow, Stephen Mack Jones
46. The Aftermath, Ben Bova
47. Phog, Scott Morrow Johnson
48. Ill Will, Dan Chaon
49. Saturn, Ben Bova
50. Jules Feiffer’s America, ed.  Steven Heller
51. The Pigeon Tunnel, John le Carré
52. Winsor McCay, His Life and Art, John Canemaker
53. 4 3 2 1, Paul Auster
54. The Long Drop, Denise Mina

April
55. Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Charles Sheffield
56. Empire Games, Charles Stross
57. Lud-in-the-Mist*, Hope Mirrlees
58. Red Moon and Black Mountain*, Joy Chant
59. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, Hannah Tinti
60. Vicious Circle, C.J. Box 
61. The Sorcerer’s Ship*, Hannes Bok
62. Surrender, Dorothy, Meg Wolitzer
63. The French Chef in America, Alex Prud’Homme
64. Unnatural Creatures, ed. Neil Gaiman
65. Neuromancer*, William Gibson

May
66. Leviathans of Jupiter, Ben Bova
67. The Legion of Regrettable Super Villains, Jon Morris
68. The Telling, Ursula K. LeGuin
69. Shattered, Jonathan Allen & Amie Parnes
70. Animal Crackers, Hannah Tinti
71. Anything Is Possible, Elizabeth Strout
72. Eye of the Needle, Ken Follett
73. The Science of Superheroes, Lois Gresh & Robert Weinberg
74. The Frumious Bandersnatch, Ed McBain
75. Missile Gap, Charles Stross
76. The Empty Family, Colm Tóibín
77. Long Way From Home, Frederick Busch
78. Titan, Ben Bova
79. Abide With Me, Elizabeth Strout
80. White Trash, The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America,
Nancy Isenberg
81. New Boy, Tracy Chevalier
82. Why Call Them Back From Heaven?*, Clifford Simak
83. Telling Stories: The Comic Art of Frank Frazetta, ed. Edward Mason

June
84. Reservoir 13, Jon McGregor
85. The People of the Mist*, H. Rider Haggard
86. The Muddy Fork & Other Things, James Crumley
87. Symphony in the Flint Hills, Field Journal 2009, ed. Marty White
88. House of Names, Colm Tóibín
89. Tortilla Flat, John Steinbeck
90. Since We Fell, Dennis Lehane
91. The Last Unicorn*, Peter S. Beagle
92. No Middle Name, Lee Child
93. Exit Strategy, Steve Hamilton
94. The Little Paris Bookshop, Nina George
95. The Last Kind Words Saloon, Larry McMurtry
96. Birdcage Walk, Helen Dunmore
97. Trajectory, Richard Russo

July
98. Laura#, Vera Caspary
99. Wilson, Daniel Clowes
100. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
101. The Force, Don Winslow
102. Mercury, Ben Bova
103. Saga, Book One*, Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples
104. Saga, Book Two, Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples
105. Mickey Mantle, The Commerce Comet, Jonah Winter & C.F. Payne
106. The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland
107. A Really Big Lunch, Jim Harrison
108. The Horizontal Man#, Helen Eustis
109. Nashville Chrome, Rick Bass
110. The Cost of Discipleship*, Dietrich Bonhoeffer
111. The Late Show, Michael Connelly

August
112. A House Among the Trees, Julia Glass
113. Phil Gordon’s Little Black Book, Phil Gordon  & Jonathan Grotenstein
114. Do Not Become Alarmed, Maile Meloy
115. Future Home of the Living God, Louise Erdrich
116. You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie
117. Mars Life, Ben Bova
118. Paradise Valley, C.J. Box
119. Phil Gordon’s Little Blue Book, Phil Gordon
120. Camino Island, John Grisham
121. Trout Fishing In America, Richard Brautigan
122. Exit Ghost, Philip Roth
123. In A Lonely Place#, Dorothy B. Hughes

September
124. Cinnamon Skin, John D. MacDonald
125. The Reserve, Russell Banks
126. The Ways of Wolfe, James Carlos Blake
127. Huê 1968, Mark Bowden
128. Sin Killer, Larry McMurtry
129. The Room of White Fire, T. Jefferson Parker
130. Venus, Ben Bova
131. Glass Houses, Louise Penny
132. Superheroes!, Laurence Maslon & Michael Kantor
132. Slip of the Knife, Denise Mina
133. Roughneck, Jeff Lemire
134. Sunburn, Laura  Lippman
135. Page After Page, Tim Page
136. Gods’ Man, Lynd Ward

October
137. Dinner at the Center of the Earth, Nathan Englander
138. The Blank Wall#, Elisabeth Sanxay Holding
139. The Western Star, Craig Johnson
140. The Ninth Hour, Alice McDermott
141. Eisner/Miller, ed. Charles Brownstein
142. Fast Falls The Night, Julia Keller
143. The Lonely Silver Rain, John D. MacDonald
144. A Legacy of Spies, John Le Carré
145. The Same River Twice, Ted Mooney
146. Bringing Up Father, George McManus
147. Dunbar, Edward St Aubyn
148. Cast Iron,  Peter May
149. Dong Xoai, Vietnam 1965, Joe Hubert
150. Do You Want To Talk About It?, Edward Koren

November
151. Mischief, Charlotte Armstrong
152. Manhattan Beach, Jennifer Egan
153. The Last Ballad, Wiley Cash
154. Going Into Town, A Love Letter to New York, Roz Chast
155. The Wandering Hill^, Larry McMurtry
156. The Best American Mystery Stories of the Century,
ed. Tony Hillerman and Otto Penzler
157. Fools and Mortals, Bernard Cornwell
158. A Gentle Madness*, Nicholas Basbane
159. Two Kinds of Truth, Michael Connelly
160. The Blunderer, Patricia Highsmith
161. Fresh Complaint, Jeffrey Eugenides
162. This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff
163. A Gentleman In Moscow, Amor Towles
164. Sleep No More, P.D. James
165. Ten Ever-Lovin’ Blue-Eyed Years With Pogo, Walt Kelly

December
166. The Midnight Line, Lee Child
167. Cover Me, Ray Padgett
168. The Blues In Black & White, Kirk West
169. Winter, Ali Smith
170. The Art of Spider-Man Classic, ed. John Rhett Thomas
171. IQ, Joe Ide
172. Madman’s Drug, Lynd Ward
173. Righteous, Joe Ide
174. First Person, Richard Flanagan
175. Sleeping in the Ground, Peter Robinson
176. The Locals, Jonathan Dee
177. A Patient Fury, Sarah Ward
178. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
179. Beast In View, Margaret Millar
180. Fools’ Gold, Dolores Hitchens
181. Grant,  Ron Chernow
182. The Cartel, Don Winslow

* indicates books I re-read

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

February reading -- Gaiman, Craig Johnson, Atwood and Dunmore

Here’s my February reading. The books I liked were: 

Dry Bones, The Highwayman and An Obvious Fact, all a part of Craig Johnson’s Longmire series. As with any series that features recurring characters, I like to read the books in chronological order. I was late starting on the Longmire books, but I’m caught up now. Johnson’s is a skilled writer, who gives us finely drawn characters and a dash of magical realism. 

Level Up, a graphic novel by Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham, no spoilers, but the ending made me laugh.

Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman’s newest book. The stories in Norse Mythology will be familiar to readers. It’s that special Gaiman touch that makes this book enjoyable. I also re-read his fantasy classic Neverwhere.  Like The Graveyard Book, Neverwhere merits re-reading every few years.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore is the story of a family caught up in a web of deceit when the husband is thought to be a Russian spy. I’m wondering why this book didn’t attract more attention when it was published last year.

The Red Road by Denise Mina. The fourth book in Mina’s Alex Morrow series. 

The Last Witness by Robert Ellis. This was my introduction to Ellis. I’ll be reading more of his books in the future. 

Margaret Atwoood’s Writing With Intent is an enjoyable collection of essays, reviews and miscellaneous writing.  Atwood’s intelligence permeates the book as it does all her writing.

Paul Anderson’s Janet Reno, Doing the Right Thing. Published in 1994, Anderson’s book provides a biography of Reno along with a summation of her first year in office as Attorney General. Anderson combines solid reporting and an ear for the telling anecdote to fashion a highly readable account of our first female AG.   (In the interest of disclosure, I worked for Paul for many years. I like him quite a bit. That doesn’t alter the fact this is a good read.)

Drawing Comics With Dick Giordano, Dick Giordano. I can’t draw a crooked line, but I admire Giordano’s work, and I learned a lot about how an artist approaches his work as well as tips of the trade.

The Science of Supervillains, Lois H. Gresh & Robert Weinberg. This was fun, but the science is dated. 

The book I didn’t like:

The Last Alibi by David Ellis.  Normally, I’m a fan of books in the Jason Kolarich series. This one wasn’t up to par. 

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle. This is the second book by Darnielle that’s I’ve read. We’ll be parting ways. 

History of Wolves is attracting a great deal of critical attention and is an early entry in the “best book of 2017” category. I didn’t like it.

On the fence:

I’m still digesting China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris. I’m going to need to read it more than once to make sense of things.

The Testament by John Grisham.  Smoothly written, but its Christian message is heavy handed.

The Silent War by Ben Bova.  I’m reading Bova’s entire Grand Tour series. He’s good with the science, but his characters are clunky i.e. the villian in this book repeatedly calls the woman who thwarts his efforts to seize absolute control of the asteroid belt a “guttersnipe.” Yep, I hear that one all the time. 

Nanjing Requiem by Ha Jin. I like Jin’s work — normally. This account of the Japanese invasion of Nanking lacked punch.

23. The Lost Witness, Robert Ellis
24. Dry Bones, Craig Johnson
25. History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund
26. The Testament, John Grisham
27. Level Up, Gene Luen Yang & Thien Pham
28. The Silent War, Ben Bova
29. Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman
30. Nanjing Requiem, Ha Jin
31. The Last Days of New Paris, China Miéville
32. Janet Reno, Doing the Right Thing, Paul Anderson
33. The Highwayman, Craig Johnson
34. Drawing Comics With Dick Giordano, Dick Giordano
35. The Red Road, Denise Mina
36. Neverwhere*, Neil Gaiman
37. Universal Harvester, John Darnielle
38. An Obvious Fact, Craig Johnson
39. Exposure, Helen Dunmore
40. Writing With Intent, Margaret Atwood
41. The Last Alibi, David Ellis
42. The Science of Supervillains, Lois H. Gresh & Robert Weinberg