Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Art of Joe Kubert captures the career of a comic book great in word and picture

Book 37: The Art of Joe Kubert edited by Bill Schelly

Sgt. Rock, Tarzan, Tor, Hawkman, the Viking Prince.

These are just a few of the comics and characters drawn by Joe Kubert during his decades-long career as a comic book artist.

Although I was primarily a Marvel guy and Kubert worked mainly for D.C., his characters -- especially Rock -- populated my childhood imagination.  For me, only Jack "King" Kirby, outranks Kubert on my short-list of all-time favorite comic artists.

The Art of Joe Kubert, edited by Bill Schelly, captures the breadth of Kubert's amazing career in both words and illustrations. While still in high school, Kubert began hanging out in Harry Chesler's New York studio.  There he learned how comics were made and the fundamentals of comic art.

It wasn't long before Kubert's first published work appeared, "Volton, the Human Generator," and an extraordinary artistic career was launched. 

The Art of Joe Kubert is a delightful read as it tracks the arc of Kubert's career, but it's more fun, by far, to flip through page after page of Kubert's comic art. 

From his early work on Crime Does Not Pay to Our Army at War featuring Sgt. Frank Rock and the soldiers of Easy Company, the books leads to an obvious conclusion -- Kubert is among the greatest comic artists ever to put pencil to paper.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Behind the Beautiful Forevers among 2012's best books

Book 36:  Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo is the best book yet to appear in 2012.

It's all but certain to make numerous "best of" lists when December arrives.

 It is a non-fiction account of the lives of the residents of Annawadi, a slum near the Mumbai airport.  The airport, with its gleaming luxury hotels, is separated from the slum by a high wall. On the wall, advertisements for Italianate tiles promise floors that will be beautiful forever.

Behind the wall, behind the "beautiful forevers," life is precarious. Families struggle to scratch out a meager existence; toiling for hours for a handful of coins. Many, including children, must resort to theft.  Everyone is surrounded by disease, alcoholism, corruption and -- worst of all -- indifference.

Boo focuses primarily on two families.  

Abdul, a Muslim boy in his late teen, belongs to a family determined to improve their lot.  Each day, Abdul sorts through garbage purchased from other denizens of Annawadi, which he then sells to recyclers.  

Abdul and his family are caught up in a legal nightmare that rivals Jarndyce and Jarndyce when a neighbor, angered by the family's relative prosperity, sets herself on fire.  Abdul, his father and sister are charged with inciting the neighbor to commit suicide.

Asha is also struggling to secure a better life for herself and her children.  From an impoverished childhood in rural India, Asha has become a political fixer in Annawadi.  Cross her palm with sufficient coin and problems have been known to vanish. 

Her daughter, Manju, is about to become the slum's first resident to receive a college degree.

Critical accounts of Behind the Beautiful Forevers note that the book reads like a novel. It does, which is to say that to Boo the story is of primary importance.  The author allows the people of Annawadi to tell their own story, in their voice. Boo is simply a conduit -- an extremely gifted conduit -- who permits the narrative of their lives to unfold with compassion, understanding and absent judgement.

In this way, Behind the Beautiful Forevers shares common ground with Evan Connell's Son of the Morning Star and Laura Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit.  

It is one of those rare works of non-fiction that weave together a powerful and magical narrative. A narrative that takes us into the lives of the residents of a Mumbai and allows us to understand that their hopes and dreams, their faults and failures, are not so different from our own.

Friday, March 09, 2012

Pelecanos at the top of his game in What It Was

Book 35: What It Was by George Pelecanos


George Pelecanos' new novel, What It Was, is just so smooth.

The DC-based writer has always been good. But it's apparent that his work as writer for The Wire, and now Treme, has taught him a great deal about pacing, mood and dialogue.

 Pelecanos seemed to struggle in recent years with books such as The Night Gardener and The Turnaround. They weren't bad books, but they lacked the attitude, the brashness, of his previous works. In striving to produce works of greater social and cultural awareness and sensitivity, books that could be approached as literature, Pelecanos lost his mojo. 

It's working now.  First in The Cut and now in What It Was, Pelecanos establishes himself as a legitimate successor to the king of cool, Elmore Leonard.

It isn't just due to Pelecanos' mastery of dialogue, although that's there.  He captures the rhythms of how men on the street speak; he captures not only how they talk, but what they say.  

Pelecanos also excels at evoking a time and place through music and movies, cars and clothes.  In What It Was he brings the Washington D.C. of the early 70s to life.  Reading his novel is as close to a time machine as anyone is going to come.

His characters are vivid. The good guys aren't too good; they have their weaknesses. But his bad guys are oh so bad.   

Finally, Pelecanos controls the pace of What It Was with the skill of an accomplished conductor. The novel begins and ends in a D.C. bar.  It could be today or tomorrow. Two men, Derek Strange and Nick Stefanos, recurring characters in Pelecanos' early novels, are having a drink. 

A song, In the Rain by the Dramatics, takes Strange back to the summer of '72 when he was trying to launch his career as a private investigator. A summer that a bad guy known as Red Fury "went off."  

And just that quickly we're off in a stirring, thoroughly entertaining thriller that demonstrates Pelecanos at the top of his game.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

20 Under 40, Lolita and The Solitude of Prime Numbers

A story collection featuring 20 promising young writers, a literary classic, a fine debut novel from Italy and another visit to The Yoop in an Alex McKnight thriller from Steve Hamilton represents my reading in February and March.

Book 31: 20 Under 40, edited by Deborah Treisman

20 Under 40, a collection of 20 stories from The New Yorker, featuring 20 writers under the age of 40, "who we felt were, or soon would be, standouts in the diverse and expansive panorama of contemporary fiction" is more about marketing than literature.

Feature each writers work in the magazine and then collect it all in a paper-bound edition, create a sense of excitement among readers, a sense that here's something -- at its beginning -- that you don't want to miss out on and sales follow.

But for that excitement to sustain itself, the work must be of a high quality. And that's the problem with these 20 writers.

Place the work on a continuum, ranging from "likely to be read in 50 years" to "sucks much" and most of these stories (or excerpts from novels) tend to fall squarely in the middle. Not that there isn't talent here -- Wells Tower, Z.Z. Packer and Dinaw Mengestu -- stand out for me, but Karen Russell and Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum leave much to be desired.

I've read all these stories twice, some three times.  I can't claim any sense that these 20 represent the next great writers of their generation. Odds are someone will emerge, but they're bunched in a pack for now.
Book 32: The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

The protagonists of Paolo Giordano's debut novel, The Solitude of Prime Numbers, are misfits. Alice is an anorexic. Mattia, who carries an enormous load of grief and guilt, punishes himself by cutting and burning his body.

Together they fashion an odd, prickly yet tender friendship. 

"The others were the first to notice what Alice and Mattia would come to understand only years later. They walked into the room holding hands. They weren't smiling and were looking in opposite directions, but it was as if their bodies flowed smoothly into each other's, through their arms and fingers."

The tension in The Solitude of Prime Numbers derives from this almost mystical attraction between Alice and Mattia. Will their friendship blossom into love?  Can each one dispel the pain, loneliness -- the separateness - that the other feels?

Giordano has written a profoundly sad and insightful first novel in a realistic portrait of two young people who are alone even when they are together.

Book 34: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

What can I say about Lolita that thousands haven't already said? Hell, it ranks fourth on Modern Library's list of The 100 Top Novels.

I didn't like it much. It's not a novel that appeals to modern sensibilities.  While reading it, I couldn't help thinking how the digital world today would light up in outrage over this novel of a child's prolonged sexual abuse. Nabokov faced challenges publishing the novel in the 50s. I think those challenges would be greater now.

I had always under that Lolita, the character, was a pre-pubescent seductress; that it was Lolita who ensnared the hapless Humbert Humbert. 

That's not the case.  Humbert is a pedophile, who violates Lolita when she is only 12 years old and then keeps her a virtual sex slave. Late in the novel, he has, at least, the moral integrity to understand he has destroyed her childhood.

History has already determined that Lolita is a great novel, but I don't have to like it.

Book 30: Ice Run by Steve Hamilton 

Alex McKnight has a love interest in Ice Run.  There should be no surprise that she brings problems -- big problems -- into McKnight's life. 

We also visit Mackinac Island. I've taken the ferry the two times I've been to the island. Alex takes a snowmobile.

It's a lively thriller, with its share of twists and turns -- exactly what we've come to expect from Hamilton.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

More book porn and two entertaining histories

I read non-fiction. I really do. It just tends to be at a slower pace than fiction so there are fewer books to share.

These three books are from my reading in February and March.  All three come recommended.

Book 21:  Midnight Rising by Tony Horwitz

Horwitz, the author of Confederates in the Attic, has a relaxed style of writing that's perfect for popular fiction. His writing is cozy and conversational, avoiding the dense, dull text of many historians.

In Midnight Rising, subtitled John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War, Horwitz distinguishes John Brown the man from his mythic image as an Old Testament prophet, warning of the wages of sin that will be visited upon a nation that permits one man to enslave another. 

That image, aided by the striking beard that Brown grew in mid-life, emerged after his death in art and literature. John Steuart Curry's mural of Brown has been seen by thousands of schoolchildren while touring the Kansas Statehouse. Striking images of Brown also emerged in the poetry of Stephen Vincent Benet and Herman Melville, who described Brown as the "meteor of the war."

But the truth, as is usually the case, is more prosaic. Brown was a poor businessman and inattentive father and husband.  And he wasn't much of a planner as the ill-fated raid on the U.S. armory at Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) painfully illustrates.  

Brown burst upon the national seen in Kansas where he and his sons did there part to add to the reality of "bleeding Kansas" by an unprovoked attack upon pro-slavery settlers along the banks of the Pottawatomie River. He later led free-state fighters in the Battle of Black Jack, which led to the surrender of  pro-slavery forces, and in a spirited defense of the free-state settlement of Osawatomie.

But it was at Harper's Ferry, where a small band led by Brown seized the federal armory, his subsequent capture and execution that firmly established Brown as an enduring figure -- prophet and martyr, who not only foretold the coming war, but instigated it.

This aspect of Horwitz's history is its most interesting.  Whatever muddled plans Brown had -- and Horwitz makes it clear that even old Brown himself was uncertain about exactly what he intended to do after seizing the armory -- Horwitz contends that the beginning of the Civil War can be traced to the events at Harper's Ferry, which took place a full 18 months before South Carolinians shelled Fort Sumter.

Midnight Rising is an intriguing and intelligent exploration of a pivotal moment in American history. 

Book 23: Unpacking My Library: Writers and Their Books, edited by Leah Price

More book porn.  

Price, a professor of English at Harvard, interviews several authors, including Junot Diaz and Lev Grossman, about their personal libraries.  The interviews are brief and mildly interesting.

The real attraction of this book are the many photographs -- especially the close-ups -- of the author's library shelves.  It's an absolute guilty pleasure to slip inside the author's homes and peruse their personal book collections.

Book 33:  At Home by Bill Bryson 

At Home bills itself as A Short History of Private Life.  The springboard for this history is the Victorian parsonage that Bryson and his family call home.

As Bryson takes us from room to room --from the cellar to the attic and all the floors in between . His goal, he writes, is "to consider how each has featured in the evolution of private life. The bathroom would be a history of hygiene, the kitchen of cooking, the bedroom of sex and death and sleeping, and so on. I would write a history of the world without leaving home."

The rambling, discursive nature of At Homes makes it like nothing so much as sitting with Bryson at the local pub, enjoying a pint of the barkeep's best, while Bryson flits from one subject to the next, peppering his conversation with the odd fact, anecdotes either amusing or horrifying and the occasional trenchant observation. 

At Home is, in short, a vastly entertaining history that will provide every reader with ample conversational material for months to come.