Category Archives: books

And the Goodreads Challenge score is…

31 out of 52! Well, I’ve learned that these things can be very valuable once you let go of self-flagellation if you don’t make it. Because the thing is, you end up achieving more with an ambitious goal, even if you fall short of it, than if you aim low. I’ll keep it brief here, since I haven’t done an update in a while. The final books were:

When The Past Is Present  (David Richo, 2008, 224 pp.)
A friend recommended this to me two years ago or so, and I’m glad I finally got around to it. David Richo uses conventional psychology, Jungian psychology and Buddhist concepts to explore how issues from childhood and past relationships can cloud our present relationships, and how we can learn to recognize and process them so we can be truly present. If I hadn’t already done A LOT of this kind of work in the past few years, this book would have landed on me like a thunderbolt. It strongly affected and challenged me as it was. Recommended for anyone who has had issues with unresolved issues from the past affecting the present. In other words, everyone.     

Sliver  (Dave Morrison, 2008, 108 pp.)
Here’s the deal: If you’re a 40ish former rock musician from New York & Boston who currently lives with your wife in my dreaming-of-living-there state Maine, and I run across your book during a trip to Portland, Maine just as I’m ready for a new volume of poetry, I’m going to get it. As it turns out, in subject matter and sensibility, Morrison is my kind of poet even if the form of his poetry doesn’t always work for me.   

Foundation Trilogy  (Isaac Asimov, 1961, 678 pp.)
We’d read several things by Asimov in my late great Sci-fi Book Club, but we never got around to this, widely considered to be one of his masterworks. About the only thing I can say about it that isn’t superlative is that the dialogue ends up sounding a little dated (1950sish, in fact) at times. Otherwise, you have an epic sweep of future history, political intrigue, twists and surprises, and, as always, Asimov’s shrewd and compassionate understanding of how people are.    

Powers: Roleplay  (Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming, 2001, 110 pp.)
If you have a fondness for superhero comics and you haven’t read Powers yet, I highly recommend it. The series centers upon a pair of cops (one of them with an intriguing secret past) who investigate crimes involving super-powered individuals. In this volume, they’re investigating the murders of a group of college kids who were role-playing superheroes. Bendis is a superb writer, Oeming is a superb (though highly stylized) artist, and the whole thing is just fun. Get on board!      

Ultimate Spider-man Ultimate Collection II  (Brian Michael Bendis & Mark Bagley, 2009, 308 pp.)
And here have Brian Michael Bendis’ second appearance on this list, in a volume that brings together issues 14-27 of Ultimate Spider-man. Marvel’s used-to-be-great “Ultimate” line took characters from Marvel’s mainstream Universe and retold their tales in a setting stripped of the main continuity’s decades of story-line, giving things a chance to be fresh and new again. So here we get Peter Parker back to his roots, a teenager learning the ropes as Spider-man while also dealing with crushes, bullies and high school, and in a more modernized setting. Good clean fun all around, including the most realistic portrayal ever of what would really happen if the totally-human Kraven fought the strongly super-powered Spider-man. My only complaint is that the teen love melodrama got a little needlessly thick at the end. Ah well, kids. What can you do?      

JLA Vol. 1: New World Order  (Grant Morrison, Howard Porter & John Dell, 1997, 93 pp.)
Let’s not dodge the truth: for a lot of the 70s and 80s, DC sucked. Then, starting in the 90s, several creators stepped in, remembered that they were dealing with the world’s greatest heroes, and started to have fun with them again. Grant Morrison’s work with the JLA was one of the signposts of this, and here we have the first volume of his run as writer for the group. The artists, well, let’s just say they haven’t quite caught up yet (that will come later in the series), but the tale is solid good old-fashioned fun.   

Superman/Batman Vol 6: Torment  (Alan Burnett, Dustin Nguyen & Derek Fridolfs, 2009, 160 pp.)
I do love my Superman/Batman. They’re both such icons, and there’s so much that somebody who understands how to bring out the contrast between them can do, purely in terms of characterization, to make a great story. Throw in some cosmic shenanigans and great artists, and you get a grand tale here. It’s marred a little bit by tie-ins to the most recent grand Universe-shaking hullabaloo that DC was doing at the time, but otherwise is a rollicking good time.    

So there we are for 2012. And what’s on the docket for 2013? (But first, let’s pause here for a second to say, “Holy crap! It’s going to be 2013! How did that happen? And are there flying cars yet?”) I don’t think I’ll be doing the Goodreads challenge again, instead I’ll be challenging myself to read the collected works of two of my muses, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. To whit, Ginsberg’s collected poems 1947-1997, and all the works Kerouac published in his lifetime, plus two published after. More description to follow…

And Happy New Year! See you in 2013!

Book Reviews: The Gambler, The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects, The Song of Eve, At The Drive-In Volcano

All right, so, on the downside, I haven’t updated my Goodreads 2012 reading challenge progress in a while (currently 26 out of the 52 goal by the way). On the plus side, though, my delay has given this review some range. For a couple of years now I’ve had the practice of rotating my reading between fiction, nonfiction and spiritual. I also am reading at least one poetry collection at any given time. Today’s review will have examples of all four!

The Gambler  (Fyodor Dostoyevsky, 1867, 100 pp.)
Some years ago, I was taking a writing workshop. When it became my turn to present excerpts of a novel I was working on that involved sexual and romantic addiction, one of the other participants commented that she almost stopped reading, because it seemed too prurient. But then she continued, and said it reminded her of The Gambler. That was both one of the most gratifying things I ever heard in a writing workshop, and the source of a mental footnote to check out Dostoyevsky’s- Really long short story? Rather short novel? Novella? -one day. And what a great day it has turned out to be! I always marvel at his ability to write from the point of view of a thoroughly un-admirable character and yet remain sympathetic and compelling. That is in fine display here, and in fact the whole piece seems to be devoid of any admirable characters at all. And yet the descent into obsession (and one could argue that a love addiction precedes any gambling addiction for him) of the young Russian tutor and the tangled fortunes of the Russian aristocrats he works for as they vacation at a German resort is so tenderly and accurately rendered that it works. Nobody presents the darkness of the human heart with as much love and forgiveness as Dostoyevsky. There is obsidian humor and twisted beauty throughout this small masterpiece, and I thoroughly recommend it.        

The Report on Unidentified Flying Objects  (Edward J. Ruppelt, 1956/1960, 260 pp.)
When I saw that I could download this classic of Ufology for a pittance on my Nook, I was very excited. Edward Ruppelt was the head of the Air Force’s UFO investigation, Project Blue Book, from 1951-1953. After leaving that post and retiring from the Air Force, he wrote a book reviewing his tenure. And it makes for very fine reading- I was particularly impressed by his fluid conversational style, it kind of makes we wish he’d written more before his untimely death from heart attack at age 37. Or, you know, lived more. Throughout the book he maintains a great balance between irresponsible credulity and knee-jerk skepticism, and in fact derides both. What one comes away with principally is three things. 1. Because of bureaucracy and miscommunication, the Air Force’s attitude toward the investigation, and the resources devoted toward it would often lurch in different directions. This produced a lot of the behavior that outside observers attributed to “cover-up”. 2. When the investigation was taken seriously and conducted thoroughly, a lot of seeming mysteries could be identified, but a significant portion of unidentifieds remained. 3. These undientifieds never produced the kind of “proof” that could definitively settle the question of what they were (you can sense his frustration with this intangibility growing throughout his tenure with Blue Book), but many unknowns had excellent, multiple witnesses, and were clearly things outside of any conventional explanation. This is where his original analysis in 1956 more or less ends up. The 1960 edition includes an additional three chapters that have always been controversial since they A) are much more skeptical and B) came out just before his death. Reading them here, I have to say, it is notable how they not only strike a totally different tone than his original ending, they actually put forward multiple statements directly contradicting positions he took earlier, with little explanation of the change in his thinking. I’d be curious to see the last three chapters put through some kind of word-choice/sentence structure analysis to see if the same person even wrote them. And on that note, I will leave you with the mystery!      

The Song of Eve: Mythology And Symbols of The Goddess  (Manuela Dunn-Mascetti, Simon & Schuster, 1990, 239 pp.)
As documented in earlier reviews, in the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in exploring the feminine side of the divine.  So when I came across this book at a Friends of the Library used book sale in San Francisco a few years back, I eagerly snatched it up (especially eagerly at the price of $3!). Well worth it-the book itself is lushly beautiful, full of color illustrations drawn from classical and contemporary works of art. These are used to visually highlight the text, which utilizes the structure of Jungian archetypes and examples from throughout world mythology to explore aspects of the feminine, and relate them back to passages and stages in life. While I did feel a little gender excluded from the party at times since it is explicitly written to address women navigating the stages of a woman’s life, I found a lot that was moving and meaningful to anybody leading a human life. And one can hardly begrudge making women the focus here as a counter-point to a few millennia of male-dominated spiritual institutions. A beautiful book, inside and out.              

At The Drive-In Volcano  (Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Tupelo Press, 2007, 85 pp.)
As I said, I’m always reading at least one volume of poetry. Sometimes I have a pipeline built up, but in this case, I was without follow-up when my previous volume wound down. Browsing at a bookstore, I was drawn to this volume by the candy heart on the cover and the poetry of the poet’s name. It also had a plug on the back by Naomi Shihab Nye, who I’ve become a fan of lately. I was not misled- the 57 poems in this volume beguile with their mix of travelogue, journey through a personal past and present, and unashamed mixture of pop culture and more mythic sources into the trip. Aimee Nezhukumatathil has pulled off a mixture that I myself often aim for in my poetry. Which is not just inspiring, but also moving, and really darn pretty to read. 

And there we are! It seems unlikely to me that I’m going to hit 52 books, with only two months to go. But hey, I’m not giving up, and you always get further with an ambitious aim than with no aim at all…


Review: The Typewriter Is Holy

18 0f 52! That’s what Goodreads says my progress is vis-a-vis my 52-book self-challenge so far this year. The latest progress coming courtesy of…

The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete Uncensored History of  the Beat Generation  (Bill Morgan, Free Press, 2010, 352 pp.)
If you’ve read the tagline of this blog, you know I am aficionado of the Beats. As such, I have read a lot of material related to the Beat Generation and its writers- all of Allen Ginsberg’s poems, many of Jack Kerouac’s and William Burroughs’ novels and other writings, The First Third by Neal Cassady, multiple biographies of all four, and poetry by Amiri Baraka, Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, Diane DiPrima, Denise Levertov, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Anne Waldman, and John Wieners. I even have one of Bill Morgan’s other books, a literary walking guide to Beat sites in San Francisco. Given all this, I’m naturally going to be attracted to a history of the Beat Generation. I’m equally naturally going to be skeptical of whether there’s really much new for me in such a history, especially one that clocks in at less than 300 pages before footnotes, bibliography, etc. But, when I found this book for $2 at a music and arts festival at the North Carolina Music Factory during a work trip to my new favorite city, Charlotte, the intersection between subject matter and price was pretty irresistible. So how did it hold up? It was necessarily very broad, almost a historical outline really. And there wasn’t a lot in it that I didn’t know. But it was useful and interesting to see all the players’ (including many of the more “minor” poets, and the often overlooked women) lives laid out in parallel. Bill Morgan, as an excellent archivist, also alerted me to several biographies and critical overviews I’d like to check out, including his own biography of Ginsberg, and forthcoming collection of letters between Ginsberg and Kerouac. I’d certainly recommend this book for anyone just getting in to the Beats and in need of a quick historical overview, and there are still treasures to be had in it even for Beaten-down oldies like me.       

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.           

Book Reviews: Batman: Dark Victory, The Spiral Dance, Why Things Burn

My Goodreads profile is telling me that I’m at 14 on my self-challenge to read 52 books this year. It seems to think this puts me 5 books behind so far. The math is hard to argue with, but I still feel pretty good about my progress! Within the past week or so, I finished three books, which I am looking forward to reviewing for y’all. Y’all? Yes, I am a California native currently living in New England. But half the family is from Arkansas, so I feel justified in engaging in the occasional southernism. Now, back to books…

Batman: Dark Victory  (Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale, DC Comics, 2001, 388 pp.)
I’d been looking forward to this volume ever since finishing the last Batman collection I read by these two guys, The Long Halloween. That tale had been set in the early period of Batman’s career, as many of my favorites are, and depicted the origin of Two Face. It was dark, and excellent, and, also worth mentioning, one of the major inspirations for the storyline of the last Batman film. This one promised to tackle an equally interesting story, even tougher to do well, the origin of Robin. So how did it do? Very well! I won’t get in to spoilers here, but I can say that the Robin storyline is in a way a subplot to the main action, the search for a serial killer who’s targeting Gotham’s police. But that storyline provides us with a development of Batman’s character and mission that makes it utterly sensible how Robin comes to be a part of it. It’s so well done that I can even almost buy in to the red, yellow and green costume. About my only quibble is the way Tim Sale draws the Joker, giving him an inhumanly long face, and teeth that defy all laws of anatomy. I know it was a bad spill he took into that vat of chemicals, but this is just a little too much, especially for a volume that otherwise is firmly grounded in a grim realism.    

The Spiral Dance: a Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess  (Starhawk, HarperOne, 1999 20th Anniversary Edition, 310 pp.)
Over the last few years, I’ve become very interested in Goddess-centered religion. I found that, for me, thinking of (and talking to) Her as a “She” helped me develop a connection I never quite had with “Him”. This is, of course, because of particular features of my history and makeup, and I don’t claim it as any kind of universal truth. Nevertheless, it did get me interested in other people looking at the feminine side of the divine, and this book kept coming up in the course of my investigations. One of the most meaningful spiritual experiences I’ve had in the last few years was at one of the seasonal rituals hosted by Reclaiming, the group founded by Starhawk, the author of this book. Despite that, I approached reading it with some trepidation. I associate the Neopagan movement in the Bay Area with more than a little flakiness and knee-jerk radical politics. Reading it, though, totally turned my perception around. Especially in this 20th Anniversary edition, where Starhawk has an opportunity to go back and provide additional commentary on each chapter from the 10th and 20th anniversaries, what really impressed me was seeing Neopaganism as a living, evolving spiritual system. The point is not how “factual” the picture of the history of Goddess religion is, or what the sources and authenticity of various rituals are. What I found most impressively in these pages was a low-dogma “try it and see” approach to a spiritual way of being that strives to be open for people of all genders and sexualities and reconnect us to nature and each other. There was lot here that resonated with me, and that will illuminate my thinking as I further pursue my spiritual exploration…            
Why Things Burn  (Daphne Gottlieb, Soft Skull Press, 2001, 125 pp.)
I started reading this collection of poems a few years back, but never got around to finishing it. I guess it just wasn’t the time, but I’m glad I returned. These poems are excellent, searing, and grounded in the inner realities of the heart and the outer realities of urban life, which tends to be some of my favorite poetic (and generally literary) territory. Daphne Gottlieb comes out of the performance poetry scene, but seems to have utterly escaped the often-encountered problem of performance poems not translating well on the page. Much of her poetry is political and feminist as well, but she rarely sacrifices the poetics to the politics. Which, let me tell you, is not an easy trick to pull off. I was especially delighted by how she plays with form- deliberately mutating the shape and breaks of lines, and hybridizing her poems with other texts (such as news stories, or commercial materials). Again not an easy thing to pull off without falling into gimmickry, but in her deft hands it opens up meanings and connections in a startling way. It’s inspired me to once again try some more experimental writing in my own poetry, and that, I hear, is the sincerest form of flattery.    

Book Review: Paranormal State

Paranormal State  (Ryan Buell and Stefan Petrucha, A&E/It Books, 2010, 372 pp.)
I just finished reading the book pictured above, but I have not yet identified the apparition that appears in the photograph. Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed it! As a fan of the show (and the whole 2000s paranormal research TV bumper-crop- Ghosthunters, Destination Truth, Fact or Faked, et al), I was already well-disposed going in. But being as the whole thing could have easily gone in a cheesy or sensationalistic direction, it was a special pleasure to find it both down to earth and balanced. It’s hard to know with a co-written work how much of Ryan’s voice actually comes through, but it certainly feels like the guy that you see on the show- shy, humble, and as interested in helping his clients as he is in exploring the unknown. It’s also nice to see his skepticism in play- being leery of psychics and mediums unless they bring compelling information, talking about the uncertainties of interpreting evidence from the equipment, and pushing himself and his clients to look for alternative explanations instead of just assuming everything that goes bump in the night is genuinely paranormal. It’s also nice to see that, while he’s very up-front about how his Catholic faith informs his interpretation of cases, he’s not at all doctrinaire about what’s behind the phenomenon he encounters, and discusses multiple possibilities of what “the unknown” might be. The book largely consists of the behind-the-scenes story of the series being accepted by A&E and the filming of the episodes from the first season. It’s definitely interesting to see how several days of preparation and 48 hours of investigation get turned in to a half hour episode, and all the complexities that get “smoothed out” in the storyline as aired. As a paranormal geek and a film-production geek, I really enjoyed that perspective. Along the way, there are some nice side articles on the history of paranormal investigation, topics in research (including psychological phenomenon that are often mistaken for being paranormal), and interviews with the team. My favorite parts, though, were the insights into who Ryan is and why he does what he does. If I have anything resembling a “criticism”, it’s that I’d like to have seen even more of that. As it is, if you’d like a book on the paranormal from a believer’s perspective that still makes room for skepticism, with a conversational tone and a great big heart, I’d recommend Paranormal State

Book Review: Born In The Year Of The Butterfly Knife, Codependent No More, Julius Caesar

I’ve finished three books within the past week, which puts me at 10/52 of my self-challenge on Goodreads to read 52 books this year. That’s one a week, I hear! Their pace-counter informs me that I’m one book behind, but I feel pretty encouraged myself! And now, on to reviews…

Born In The Year Of The Butterfly Knife  (Derrick Brown, Write Bloody Publishing, 2004, 203 pp.)
A few years ago, I saw “The Drums Inside Your Chest” a concert film of performances by independent poets. I was initially drawn to the film (besides the inherent attraction of poetry to me) because it was produced by and featured Amber Tamblyn. She talks to God, after all. But the poet in the film I ended up being most impressed by was Derrick Brown, and I went out afterwards to find this volume collecting his poems from 1993-2004. While I’m a fan of Slam poetry and performance poetry in general, I’ve found before that many poets who are compelling on stage don’t read nearly as well in print. Brown, though, has such a visceral quality in his words, and such sharp images, that he escapes this trap. Check out his poem “Kick in the Chest” some time, for example. It pretty much says everything about what I think writing should do. If you like things that burn with truth and are unafraid to look ugly in the process, Brown’s poetry might be for you.    

Codependent No More (Melody Beattie, Harper/Hazelden, 1987, 229 pp.)
Speaking of things that burn with truth and are unafraid of illuminating ugliness in the process… I’ve known of this book, the foundational work on recovery from codependence, for some time, but hadn’t gotten around to reading it yet. In the meantime, I absorbed a lot of the concepts in it from wise friends in the halls of recovery, and from Beattie’s daily meditation reader The Language of Letting Go. If I hadn’t, I think this book would have landed like a thunderclap. As it was, even as familiar with the ideas in it as I was, it was quite discomfiting at times. In the best sort of way. Highly recommended for anyone who has suffered from codependence in any of its varieties, and still needs to learn that fundamental truth that taking care of ourselves is not only okay, it’s necessary.         

Julius Caesar (William Shakespeare, 1599)
I’m probably not going to deliver anything here that’s been substantially missed by others in the last 400 years or so. I will talk a little bit about why I wanted to read it. After going through a classics kick last year that included reading the the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad and Paradise Lost, as well as re-reading (well, 50%, anyway) the Bible, I developed a taste for epic works of mythical power. Pound for pound, you pretty much don’t get more of that anywhere in English literature than you do with Shakespeare. I left a very happy reader, not least of all because the pages spoke so much more to me now than they did during my previous reading. Apparently, my world has grown since the 8th Grade!

Review: Ultimatum, Superman/Batman: Enemies Among Us

As I believe I have mentioned in this blog once or twice, in my old age I’ve found myself becoming more than a little Bi. No, no, no, no! What I mean is: while in my youth I was a Marvel purist, I’ve developed quite a fondness for DC over the last few years. These days, I can swing either way. So, appropriately, here are reviews for trade paperbacks from both publishers that I recently finished. 

Ultimatum (Jeph Loeb/David Finch, Marvel, 2010, originally Ultimatum #1-5)

What a sad, ignoble end to one of the most noble creative ventures Marvel had launched since the early 80s. When I got back into comics again following separation and divorce in the early 00s, I discovered the “Ultimate” line that Marvel had launched, and it was a beautiful thing- They basically took their flagship characters and started a whole new Universe around them. One where powers were more limited, the world was more realistic, and decades of twisted storyline were erased, bringing the characters back to their essence. I wasn’t the only one who loved it, so much so that there was talk for a while of the Ultimate line replacing the “regular” Marvel Universe. Then sales for the “Ultimate” line of titles started falling toward the end of the decade, and Marvel decided, along with cancelling the series involved, to more or less destroy the whole damn world they were set in. And man does this series do that! Now, one could imagine an interesting, perhaps even revelatory, take on that. What you’ll get here, though, is just a ham-fisted bloodbath that seems keen on delivering shock, and totally uninterested in substance. As a result, all your favorite characters, and everything new and fresh that the Ultimate line delivered is lost, and nothing is gained. What a waste! I could go on about other defects of this series, but instead I’d like to point you to something more worth your time: read the first 6 Ultimate X-Men trade paperbacks, the first few Ultimate Spider-man ones, Ultimates Volume I and II and the Ultimate Galactus trilogy. This will remind you what a great thing they had going before they decided to take a dump all over it, and how disappointing it is that they couldn’t give it a more fitting swan song.           

Superman/Batman: Enemies Among US (Mark Verheiden/Ethan Van Sciver/Matthew Clark/Joe Benitez, DC, 2007, originally Superman/Batman #28-33)

I’m glad I was reading both of these at the same time, as this helped wash the bad taste of Ultimatum out of my mouth. I’ll go spoiler light and just note a few things that fancied my fancy about Enemies Among Us. Since Superman/Batman spent the first twenty-five some-odd issues on what was essentially one through storyline (collected in Public Enemies, Supergirl, Absolute Power & Vengeance), this volume had to be about something new. And it was! The storyline deals with aliens (and the irony that Earth’s greatest defender, Superman, is himself an alien), and in the process rolls out some of the great aliens of DC past and present. The entire story is also narrated by Alfred the Butler, Batman/Bruce Wayne’s ubiquitous manservant, which proves to be a nifty framing device. Beyond that, it’s just fun! Writer Mark Verheiden explains in the afterword how he deliberately sought to evoke the spontaneity and unselfconcious “anything goes” spirit of Silver Age DC. He succeeds beautifully in a way that nevertheless works with the more darkly nuanced storytelling of current comics. About my only complaint would be that having four artists in six issues does undermine the unity of your storytelling a little. But two of those four (Ethan Van Sciver and Joe Benitez) are excellent, one (Matthew Clark) is extraordinary, and the fourth, well, they only subject us to 8 pages of him. All in all, this trade paperback takes you on a ride I can heartily recommend.   

Book Review: The Field Guide to Bigfoot and The Romminghouse Madrigals

Goals, I hear, help give life direction and purpose. And while I have to tone down my own relentless goal-orientation at times to rediscover the joy of just being, I do find goal-setting to be a useful tool.

One goal that I’ve taken up for this year is a self-challenge to read 52 books. I’m being fairly liberal in my definition of “book”, including comic trade paperbacks, for example. I’m also being fairly liberal in my definition of “read in this year”, including books I began in 2011 but am finishing in 2012. All appropriate disclaimers now aside, you can track my progress on my Goodreads profile, and so far I’m doing pretty well. With these two that I’ve just finished, I’m at 5 out of 52! And now, for the reviews…

The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates (Loren Coleman and Patrick Huyghe, Anomalist Books, 2006, 205 pp.)

I’ve had my eye on this book for a while, but after recently visiting the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine headed by the book’s author Loren Coleman, it became even more of a priority. I’m glad I got around to it, because it’s loads of fun. Originally written in 1999, and with two forwards now bringing it into the 2000s, the front section, in fine field guide fashion, aggregates worldwide reports of different kinds of mystery hominids to produce profiles (with track outlines and range maps) of nine “types” of possible undiscovered primate. This actually is very useful in that it clarifies how some dissimilar sightings that are lumped together as “Bigfoot” or “the Yeti” for example, may actually result from more than one species or variant. The bulk of the book then has two page descriptions of over 50 sightings, arranged by continent, one page being a full-page line drawing, and the other describing the details of the sighting, which subtype it corresponds to, and a general setting of related sightings, legends and fossil finds that resemble the case in question. The final section goes over the science of proving or disproving unknown primates, and makes some best guesses about which might soon be discovered. While one could certainly have a quibble or two (I, for example, would have liked range maps for the individual sightings, and was also left wondering why semi-legendary material about giants and mermaids was fair game, but equally widespread fairy lore was not) the book is fun and well-done. As with most books on the unexplained, it’s worth further research on what you read, as some things mentioned turn out to be less than meets the eye after further reading. The authors have generally been careful with their facts, though, and there are loads of things here that even an aficionado of cryptozoology like me had never heard of before.           

The Roominghouse Madrigals (Early Selected Poems 1946-1966) (Charles Bukowski, Black Sparrow Press, 1988, 256 pp.)

Speaking of goals for the year, one of mine is to finish putting together a collection of what I like to think is my best poetry from 2001-2010 and finding a publisher for it. As with many different kinds of writing and editing, one of the best things to do for inspiration is to read in the same genre, and I usually have a volume of poetry that I’m currently reading. Like this one that I just finished, which I LOVED. I’ve long been a fan of Bukowski, who is in the happy position of being an equally good poet, novelist and essayist. Interestingly, given the picture of him as a grizzled barfly, he’s like a classic 19th century man (or woman) of letters in that respect. And the fact that he focuses his powers on the gritty facts of urban life and the inner blight of wrestling with bitterness and failure makes it all the more glorious. This volume features his early poems, from before his success and wider fame of the late 60s/early 70s. Anybody who has ever spent time in the roominghouses of rough streets and/or their own soul will find things here that they recognize in their beauty, ugliness and honesty. And isn’t that what poetry, at it’s best, can do for us?    

Book Review: The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (Edgar Allen Poe, 1838, 146 pp.)

When I got the Nook for Christmas and set about using my Barnes & Noble gift cards to download things to it, one of the first things I discovered was the joy of works that are beyond copyright protection. 99 cents can get you a lot, and if (as I would recommend) you spring for the extra few dollars to get to the $2.99-$4.99 category to get collections that have proper indexing for E-readers, you can find yourself with the entire works of William Shakespeare, Dostoyevsky or H.P. Lovecraft for under five dollars each. And, in this case, Edgar Allen Poe as well.

When I downloaded a collection of his stories, I discovered that it also included The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, the only novel he ever wrote. Having just finished it, I can testify that it is a gem, albeit a somewhat baffling one. What starts off as an adventure at sea story, and then takes a decidedly Poeian turn to cannibalism, becomes a fantasy of Antarctic exploration that then ends without an ending. Poe didn’t die in the middle. Publishers didn’t pressure him to finish it. He quite deliberately ends with a mysterious final scene, and then writes an afterword explaining how the last few chapters (since it’s written as a memoir that has been “discovered” by Poe) have been lost.

While this is consternating, it does produce a curious effect of mystery and wonder that I, and apparently many other readers, ended up appreciating. The language is a delight, as is the always self-obsessed narration of the main character as he stumbles through fantastical scenes of stowing away, mutiny, shipwreck, starvation and sailing ever southward through increasingly strange realms.

One of the things that I found most interesting in reading about it after reading it, is the profound effect this strange little unfinished book has had on other writers. I’d known that H.P. Lovecraft was influenced by it and makes repeated references to it in his Antarctic novel At The Mountains of Madness. In addition to that, though, it appears to have been a major, uncredited, influence on Herman Melville in writing Moby Dick, was admired and translated by Baudelaire, and also inspired loosely-related sequels by Jules Verne and another 19th century writer, Charles Romyn Dake. More recently the book inspired critiques of its racial depictions by Toni Morrison, which themselves became the jumping-off point of Mat Johnson’s satirical 2011 novel Pym, in which an African-American literature professor becomes obsessed with finding the inhabitants of the islands described toward the end of Poe’s novel.

I myself found the depictions of the “savages” in the book to be troubling in their early-19th century way. Perhaps it’s my own post-modernity talking, but I wondered along the way if Poe wasn’t slightly tongue in cheek about it. The narrator believes they’re guilty of a brutal massacre, but there are subtle indications throughout the work that the narrator himself is somewhat incompetent and not entirely reliable in his recollections. Are the signs that he sees of what he believes is a deliberately set-up ambush actually totally misinterpreted? One of several interesting questions to consider while reading…