Sunday, April 07, 2013

Quick takes on recent reading

Book 45:  The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists from Granta

Compliments to Granta, a British literary journal, for its Winter, 2012, issue featuring The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists.

Wish I could recommend the issue, I can't. Maybe its cultural. Maybe its the translations. Perhaps its me.  Whatever the reason, few of the stories featured here left much an impression.

Among the best of the short stories was Still Life by Vinicius Jatoba.

Book 46: Interventions by Richard Russo

Interventions, three stories and a novella, by Richard Russo is notable for form and content.

Russo and his daughter, the artist Kate Russo, designed the this book, which is actually four small paperbacks in a slipcase, as a tribute to the printed book. A color print of a Kate Russo painting is bound into each volume.

This is the first publication for the novella, Interventions.  Both short stories have been previously published; Horseman in The Atlantic and The Whore's Child in Russo's short story collection of the same name. High and Dry, which sees first publication here, later appeared again in Russo's memoir, Elsewhere

The short stories and novella are well-written pieces and Interventions is a lovely addition to any collector's bookshelves.

Book 49: The Antagonist by Lynn Coady

I disliked this novel from Lynn Coady, which is meant to represent a series of angry emails from one college chum to another.  

Because the text doesn't read like an email or resemble an email, the reader never accepts the author's initial premise. Combine that with a thoroughly unlikeable narrator and this book is a massive dud.

Book 50: Paris Review Winter 2012

If you can still find a copy of this literary journal at your local newsstand pick it up. From the interviews to the short stories, it is a rich and rewarding read.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Eisner and Simon: giants of the comic book business

A biography and autobiography of two giants of the comic book business.

Book 43: Will Eisner, A Dreamer’s Life in Comics by Michael Shumacher
Book 48:  Joe Simon, My Life In Comics by Joe Simon

It's was once said that only two men in the comic book business could read a contract -- Will Eisner and Joe Simon.

That's significant for two reasons. Both men retained control over their creations, while so many others signed over their rights for a mess of pottage. And both men had lucrative careers, receiving full value for their artistry and their imagination.

While still in his 20s, Eisner launched his own studio. Such respected artists as Lou Fine, Reed Crandall and Jack Kirby worked in the bullpen Eisner assembled.

Eisner had a hand in creating Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, Blackhawk, Doll Man, Uncle Sam, The Ray and Black Condor. Yet he didn't especially care for superheroes, which led to the creation of his most famous character, The Spirit.

The Spirit was Denny Colt, who was something of anti-superhero. Denny, a former cop, lived in a graveyard. He wore a mask, but also a suit, tie and fedora.  The Spirit was notable for its mood-setting splash pages, femme fatales and inventive storylines. 

Eisner always believed the comic book format of text and sequential art could be written to appeal to adults.  It simply required more mature subject matter. That belief led Eisner to write and illustrate A Contract With God, which explored a man's loss of faith after the death of his adopted daughter. It was among the earliest graphic novels. Others followed.

Simon started his career drawing illustrations for newspapers.  Harlan Crandall, art editor for Macfadden Publications, which published slick publications like Photoplay, True Romances and True Detectives, saw something in Simon's work and steered him into comic books.

Simon soon teamed with Jacob Kurtzberg, who later changed his name to Jack Kirby.  Together, they created one of comics best known, best loved and most enduring characters -- Captain America.

Later, just because they could, Simon and Kirby created Young Romance, the first romance comic. Their prolific partnership also led to the Newsboy Legion, Manhunter and Boy Commandos. 

Michael Schumacher's biography of Eisner is superbly done.  A clear sense of Eisner as a man and an artist emerges. Schumacher also ably explains Eisner's importance to the industry, especially his influence on a generation of artist.

Simon's autobiography is breezy, fresh. The man's love for his work bursts from the pages.  

Eisner and Simon influenced generations of artists, as well as writers and readers.  It's not an exaggeration to say that the comics and graphic novels we read today, the movies and TV shows we watch, have their roots in the pencilings and fertile imaginations of these two men.

Will Eisner, A Dreamer's Life in Comics and Joe Simon My Life in Comics are foundational works for anyone wanting to understand the nascent comic book business and how we arrived at where we are today.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Haruf and Shipstead: authors in command of their craft

Two wise and insightful novels that explore the interaction of families within closely knit communities.

Book 42: Benediction by Kent Haruf

As in two earlier novels, Plainsong and Eventide, Kent Haruf's Benediction is set in the small town of Holt on the high plains of eastern Colorado.

As the novel opens, Dad Lewis, owner of the local hardware store, learns he is dying of cancer.

Against the backdrop of Dad's rapidly approaching death, Haruf examines the rhythms of life in a small town with its closely observed -- but unspoken -- rituals.

Among those rituals are visits to the dying.  It is in those visits that we meet most of the book's characters.

There is Dad's wife of many years; his daughter, who has made the drive from Denver to provide care and comfort in her father's final days; and, off-stage, Dad's long-absent son, alienated from his father because of his homosexuality.

A neighbor provides food, support for Dad's wife and keeps unwanted visitors at bay. Her young granddaughter, Alice, who recently lost her own mother to cancer, is a counterpoint to Dad. She is a little frightened of him. He is drawn to her innocence and fullness of life.

Other visitors include an elderly farm woman and her daughter, recently retired from teaching; a disaffected pastor; and two employees of the hardware store.

No matter how briefly each character appears they are finely drawn, distinct individuals. It is one of Haruf's strengths as a writer to draw accurate portrayals with only a few well-chosen words.

He also handles this material wisely, deftly, with great respect, warmth and affection for his characters and for the town of Holt.

This tender, warm-hearted novel is a bittersweet benediction and a celebration of a small town and its people.

Book 44: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

The characters in Maggie Shipstead's comedy of manners, Seating Arrangements, do not fare as well as Haruf's.

They are self-centered, small-minded, petty snobs who would be eminently unlikable if Shipstead did not handle her material with such humor and skill.

As one character observes she "had almost forgotten how these families worked, how they were set up to accommodate feigned ignorance, unspoken resentment, and repressed passion the way their houses had back stairways and rooms tucked away behind the kitchen for the feudal ghosts of their ancestors' servants."

The family in question belongs to Winn Van Meter. Winn, his wife and two daughters have gathered at their ancient family retreat on the New England island of Waskeke.  There, Winn's eldest daughter is to be married.

Winn's is less focused on the wedding than he is the public knowledge of his youngest daughter's abortion, the sexual advances of a bridesmaid less than half his age and his inability to be admitted to a private golf course on Waskeke.

The knowledge that he may have been blackballed from the golf club truly rankles Winn.

Seating Arrangements is one of those novels that invites readers to quote passages to hapless bystanders.

Here's one:

"You ought to go to law school," Oatsie said decisively. "You'd make a wonderful lawyer. You have beautiful hair." 
"Thank you," Livia said. When she was old, she wanted to be like Oatsie: imperious, brusque, and given to non sequitur.

And another:

"It's so cold in this restaurant. I don't know why you chose it." 
"I didn't choose it," Winn said. "Dicky and Maude did." 
"They wouldn't have. They know I don't care for the cold." 
"Maybe," Winn offered, "you're feeling the chill of approaching death." 
She gave him a long, gloomy squint. "This family is falling into the middle class," she said.
The humor -- and there's lots of it -- arises naturally from the material, although Shipstead doesn't play it all for laughs. She's an insightful writer and her close observations of the manners and mores of the upper class are reminiscent of the work of Edith Wharton.

The characters in Seating Arrangements and Benediction come from vastly different worlds, but they have in common authors who employ an eye for detail, a keen understanding of human behavior and a command of their craft.