Book Reviews: Pym, Spider-man: Chapter One, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

The latest in our ongoing series on the literary adventures of our hero. Me. In this chapter, we find that our hero, at the halfway point in the year, is at 17 out of 52 in his Goodreads self-challenge for 2012. There are two ways one could see this. 33%, being less than 50%, is well behind pace. On the other hand, 17 books is more than, say, 13. Or 10. Or 0. I’m a firm believer that ambitious goals, even if we don’t meet them, probably get us hitting much higher than we would have if we’d aimed lower.

With that in mind, on to review!

Pym  (Mat Johnson, Random House, 2011, 322 pp.)
Earlier in the year, I read The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, Poe’s only novel. It is a strange and confounding little book involving high seas adventure, cannibalism, and Antarctic exploration. One of its peculiar features is how it seems to have worked on the imaginations of so many people who have read it, inspiring numerous literary responses. I document some of these in my review, where I noted, among others, Mat Johnson’s Pym-inspired novel. It sounded delightful, and I wanted to read it. Having now done so, I can testify- it is delightful! His is the tale of Chris Jaynes, a not tenure-making African-American literature professor who is obsessed with Poe’s novel, believing that it documents the beginnings of the intellectual construction of the American idea of “whiteness”. When he’s fired from an unnamed small liberal arts college for working on Poe rather than actual African-American literature, and for not getting on board with their diversity committee, his obsession only grows. He comes into possession of information indicating that Poe’s tale was lifted from an actual narrative by a survivor of Pym’s voyage, Dirk Peters. Jaynes realizes that Tsalal, the improbably tropical Antarctic island of really, really black natives (even their teeth are black) that Poe describes could be a real place housing a black culture untouched by Europe and colonization, and he becomes determined to find it. I won’t spill the beans on what happens, but I will say that along the way there is romance (sort of), adventure and peril, tips of the hat to Lovecraft and Verne’s Pym-inspired works, and some really skillfully-constructed comedic skewering of topics including ethnic identity, the War on Terror and Thomas Kinkade. All of this could be an unwieldy mix, but Johnson is such a dynamic writer, and has created such an entertaining and well-developed main character, that it works. Poe inspired me to read this, and this has inspired me to read more by Mat Johnson. Stay tuned!     

Spider-man: Chapter One  (John Byrne, Marvel, 2012, 328 pp.)
I’ve been a fan of writer-artist John Byrne since I started reading comics, and I followed pretty much everything he did throughout the 80s and into the mid 90s. At which point I stopped reading comics, writing, being obsessive about music, i.e., basically being me, and instead focused on business, career, “success” et al. Having spent the last 10 years recovering from this detour, I’ve back-filled on a lot of comic milestones I missed along the way, including this, Byrne’s 1999 stab at re-imaging Spider-man’s early years. So how is it? I have to say, my review is mixed. It is always delightful to see Byrne drawing Spider-man, he really evokes the visual-aesthetic that Steve Ditko started the character with. And of course, he’s a great writer (I think actually probably one of the major influences on my prose style, even more so than many “literary” sources), with a knack for re-working classic aspects of characters and making them fresh and new. I think the big problem here is that what he does is somewhere in-between a complete re-boot (like he did with Superman in the 80s) and dropping in on a present-day storyline but reinvigorating it by bringing it back to its roots (like his runs on, say Fantastic Four, or X-Men). As a result, he innovates around the edges of the Spider-man mythos without doing anything novel enough to really garner attention. While undeniable fun, there were also undeniable missed opportunities- the chance to make J. Jonah Jameson something other than a caricature, for instance, or really getting in to the psychology of how it would feel to be a geeky teenage pariah who suddenly has these amazing powers. Not to mention how the hell the whole Betty Brant romance could possible really work!   I think this series showed the way you could refresh Spider-man and set down some leads that Ultimate Spider-man ended up following in the 2000s, but it doesn’t get there itself.   

The Poetry Home Repair Manual  (Ted Kooser, UNP – Bison Books, 2005, 170 pp.)
I actually got this book a few years ago, intending to use it to help me work on and revise a collection of my poems. For various reasons (bottoming out, rehab, recovery, etc.), I wasn’t in a space to follow through at that time, or for some time after. Last year, I once again got motivated to put together a poetry collection, so I dusted off this book and cracked it open. I’m glad I did! Ted Kooser, former Poet Laureate, has written a wise, personable and above all, practical guide to the nuts and bolts of making good poetry. It reads more like a talk with a writer friend who keeps pulling books off the shelf and reading poems to illustrate what he’s talking about, but it contains every bit the good advice and cautions against bad habits that you’d expect a manual to have. Over the last few months it’s really helped me shape the collection of poems that I’m planning on submitting for contests and publishers (target date for completion: July 31st!), and I heartily recommend it.           

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