Posts from May 2010

May 31st, 2010

Comics! Two new teams!

Comics this week included the start of two new teams from Marvel Comics – a company which has learned that nothing sells like excess and can now be counted upon to give us multiple X-Men teams, multiple Spider-Man teams, about 100 different upcoming graphic novels of the various splinters of “Dark Reign,” and, somewhat belatedly, about half a dozen new post-“Dark Reign” super-teams.

The first of these new teams isn’t a first issue – it’s just business as usual for “Thunderbolts” (issue #144! When did that happen? Can there really be that many virgins out there with disposable income?), a book built on the idea of super-villains forming a super-hero team for one reason or another (to dupe the public, to redeem their souls, etc). In the wake of “Dark Reign” and the downfall of Norman Osborn, a new team of Thunderbolts is formed in this issue under the leadership of good guy Luke Cage, and I was surprised by how much I liked it. Of course, I just-in-general like the way Marvel has been increasing its usage of Cage, but the idea of putting him in charge of a new team – at least as written by Jeff Parker (with surprisingly retro art by Ken Walker)– really works.

Of course, the main draw of any new team book is the team itself, the picks, the potential chemistry. That draw is all the more dramatic when the team in question is composed mostly of villains or quasi-villains, most of whom certainly aren’t trustworthy. This time around there are some characters I barely recognize – Mach V, Ghost, Songbird (I know the last only from the epic “Avengers Forever” – no idea what’s her deal in normal continuity), Moonstone, Crossbones – although the way Parker writes them makes me at least curious to know more. The team has its resident in-house genius (in this case Hank Pym) and at least two surprising additions that I, for one, didn’t see coming: the Juggernaut, here portrayed as physically immense and pretty openly threatening (in the ‘real world,’ there’s simply no way Luke Cage would allow onto his team a grinning schemer with Hulk-level strength, but hey …), and … the Man-Thing, a non-sentient muck-monster who can’t speak, can’t understand speech, and has virtually no powers to speak of. Not exactly a team player (although he’s been on a team before! I may be the only person here old enough to remember that, however).

Add such wrinkles to the mix and throw in a genuinely didn’t-see-it-coming cliffhanger ending, and I’m certainly hooked enough to read the next issue.

The second new team really is new: a freshly not-dead Steve Rogers, given a free hand by the President, forms a “Secret Avengers” team meant for covert operations and strategic pre-emptive strikes at the bad guys, sort of a Black Ops version of the higher-profile Avengers. It’s a great idea (although ironically enough, the premise for it given in this issue – which kicks off Marvel’s new “Heroic Age” – is that the world in the 21st century has grown so rotten and un-heroic that such a team is necessary), and it’s a premise obviously being enjoyed by writer Ed Brubaker and “Dark Avengers” artist Mike Deodato (when “Dark Avengers” came to its end, I really hoped Marvel would find another team-book to put Deodato on … the fact that it goes right on being the Avengers is all the sweeter).

And again, the main point is the roll-call. In this case it’s Steve Rogers – dressed in a kind of generic-superhero suit and not carrying his famous Captain America shield (or even a really, really tough duplicate, which is the least you’d think he’d do, considering that his entire fighting style is built around having the thing on one arm) – and a team of Marvel second-and third-stringers: Moon Knight, a kid in Hank Pym’s old Ant-Man get-up, Jim Rhodes and the Black Widow (from this summer’s “Iron Man 2”), the Beast from the X-Men (doing duty here as the requisite in-house genius), Nova, and … in another surprise move I find fascinating, the Valkyrie, an Asgardian warrior-woman and long-time criminally underused member of the Defenders (the Marvel group the Secret Avengers most closely resembles, naturally) – it’ll be interesting to see how Brubaker develops her character.

It was a little weird, seeing a Marvel team-book with no marquee names at all – I assume these characters were chosen by Brubaker specifically on the condition that he could mess around with them to a greater degree than he could with the usual roster of Avengers, and I’ll be looking forward to that in the next issue. This issue also ends with a heck of a cliffhanger, so I’ll definitely be around next time.

May 30th, 2010

A Tale of Two Echoes in the Penny Press!

It’s become entirely natural to bump into correspondences between Open Letters and the rest of the book-review world. After all, publicists want every critic to read their pet books and rave about them (they want it so badly they’re willing to risk the alternative, when a book hits a critic on the wrong day and gets savaged about the head and neck for 700 words). They send advance copies of those pet works to as many critical journals as possible, hoping for a bite – or, if Santa’s been very good to them this year, a cascade-effect.

Consequently, a week doesn’t go by when I don’t see a long review in The American Scholar or The New Republic or the London Review of Books and think, “Hey, I know that book! Almost had a reviewer for it, but …” and then, usually, one of the following conclusions: a) the freelancer talked the talk but ended up declining to walk the walk, b) the ‘review’ turned out to be written by the book’s author’s pining (or furious) ex-lover – or worse, by one of those ever-hopeful publicists, or c) the editor in question reads the book first and decides against running a review of it before it ever gets considered for a freelancer (if, say, the book is the tenth in a murder-mystery series, or about post-Industrial Revolution finial design, or just plain bad).

If Option C ever applied to the author Andre Aciman, it certainly doesn’t anymore: he proved himself to be noticeably, memorably talented with his previous novel, Call Me By Your Name, and his new novel, Eight White Nights, is a stylistic tour de force plopped right onto the same bookshelves as Vince Flynn and Nora Roberts. It was just barely possible to think of Call Me By Your Name as something of a ‘hidden’ classic, a slim, unhyped novel flying below the radar and yet accomplishing things fiction critics wish a lot more writers would try. That’s not possible with Eight White Nights – this novel clearly marks Aciman’s entrance into the Big Leagues.

I thought it was poetic, irritating, almost disturbingly insightful, and wildly, extravagantly good. Naturally, I kept an eye out for what kind of critical reception it got.

So my proverbial heart was in my proverbial throat when Open Letters’ own Sam Sacks decided to review it. There’s a reason Sacks’ fiction reviews are starting to appear everywhere: he misses nothing that an author does on the page – which is good news because he’s sure to see all the work the author put in, all the subtlety perhaps missed by other critics, but it’s also bad news, because their failures and shortcomings and deceptions will likewise come under that same level of invasive scrutiny. And to make things even worse (or better?), Sacks virtually never simply eviscerates a bad author – instead, he wraps the anvil in layer upon layer of gorgeous, velvety prose before he drops it on their head. They still end up crushed, but they almost feel like thanking him.

So when I read the latest New York Review of Books and saw that Michael Dirda, their foremost critic of contemporary fiction, had a review of Eight White Nights, I was doubly curious. Not only was Dirda reviewing the same book Sacks reviewed back in April, but Dirda himself had been reviewed by Sacks way back in 2007, and not entirely favorably (“Far too often, Dirda writes with propitiating caution, as though he thinks that a single lapse into complexity and his entire audience will start playing cell-phone Tetris,” etc.).

But Dirda’s piece is as safely anodyne as everything else the man writes – and for what it’s worth (at least something, to me: it’s a frustrating thing to like a book nobody else likes), he likes Eight White Nights a great deal. In fact, much of what he wrote about it struck familiar chords. In his initial notes of praise, he of course catches the requisite Russian echoes:

Eight White Nights is a bravura recreation of all the feints and counter-feints, yearnings and frustrations, of modern courtship. It possesses the psychological acuity and intensity one associates not just with Proust but also with Dostoevsky (its title and serial structure pay homage to “White Nights,” his story of overly tentative love).

Back in April, Sacks caught those same notes, in just a slightly different register:

the narrator leaves the Christmas Eve party in the small hours and sits in a nearby park experiencing a euphoria so strong it could melt the snow around him. The novel’s title and premise is evidently borrowed from an early Dostoyevsky story called “White Nights”; but here I thought of Tolstoy. After Levin learns in Anna Karenina that Kitty loves him, he wanders Moscow in dizzy ecstasy, transfiguring all the mundane, even grubby, sights with supernatural radiance: “Two children going to school, some pigeons that flew down from the roof, and a few loaves put outside a baker’s window by an invisible hand touched him particularly. These loaves, the pigeons, and the two boys seemed creatures not of this earth.”

(In fairness to Aciman’s literary acumen, it should be pointed out that almost no effort is required to prompt Sacks to say, “I thought of Tolstoy” … an average trip through the supermarket aisles will elicit it at least once)(writers and their go-to favorite writers! Feh! Glad I don’t do that!)

Dirda paints a picture of a critic trying to resist the intoxicating, saturating enchantment Aciman is trying to weave from his novel’s first paragraph:

By the second or third of the white nights, I could still see all the things that bothered me about Aciman’s writing, but they began to seem increasingly unimportant. I was caught up by the unfolding story.

Back in April, Sacks also found himself falling under that spell:

It seems a bit much. And in truth, in the cold light of day about 95 percent of Eight White Nights seems a bit much. But Aciman’s refusal to allow in any of the emotional ambivalence that is the modern-day hallmark of realism is crucial to the spell he’s trying to cast.

I couldn’t agree more, with both of these critics (although as usual, Sacks’ piece is itself beautifully written, whereas most of Dirda’s reads like deadline prose), and I was hugely relieved at that. No feeling quite as rotten as loving a book and then having heavyweight critics cudgel it into the mud.

On a much lesser note of coincidence, this same issue of the NYRB has an ad for the latest title in their stellar reprint series – none other than The Murderess, byAlexandros Papadiamantis! So for once, when I praise an obscure title here at Stevereads, you’ll have easy, push-button access to it!

May 26th, 2010

I am the Mummy Heb-Nefert!

Our book today is Eve Bunting’s superb 1997 childrens title I am the Mummy Heb-Nefert, with rich, glowing artwork by David Christiana. The book is told in a very loose, lovely verse, as a young girl from thousands of years ago relates the remarkable story of her life and afterlife:

I am the mummy Heb-Nefert,
Black as night,
Stretched as tight
As leather on a drum.
My arms are folded
On my hollow chest
Where once my live heart beat.
My ears are holes
That hear no sound.

Bunting unobtrusively weaves many authentic details of ancient Egyptian life into her story, always with the stress on how natural everything was to the people who were living it all. Young Heb-Nefert catches the eye of the Pharaoh’s brother – she dances for him, and they fall in love:

Handmaidens dressed me every day.
They kept my head so sweetly shaved,
Pumiced and polished till it shone.
They painted me with yellow dye,
Darkened the lashes of my eyes with kohl,
Shadowed my lids with blue,
The color of the evening sky.
My nails were hennaed red as jasper beads,
My flaxen wig was jewel woven.
And on the top
A cone of scented fat
Melted to liquid in the summer warmth
And smelled of flowers.

In bright colors, we’re given elegantly chosen scenes from their life together:

We sailed upon the Nile,
My lord and I,
The wildfowl rising from the reeds
Along the bank,
The ripples of the sacred river
Soft against our boat.
Sometimes we saw a hippopotamus,
Great jaws agape,
A crocodile.
But we were ever safe.

We’d wander in the gardens, he and I,
Beside the pleasure lake
Where lotus blossoms grew.
The servant girls would come
On soundless feet
And bring us fruit – grapes, dates, and figs –
The baskets balanced on their heads,
A cloth of linen spread
Beneath a canopy that kept us from the sun.
And we would feast
While harpists played.

Time eventually passes for the pair, and while still young, Heb-Nefert dies. She floats above herself and watches the complex process of her own mummification. And soon enough she watches her loved one approaching the afterlife as well – and their shared journey toward the incomprehensible:

My Noble One grew old
And also left that life
To lie at last beside me
In the night that followed night.
Time passed and time,
Dark time and years,
Till we were found,
Our bodies moved,
Placed in glass coffins
Under lights
In quiet rooms.
I rose above myself and watched
As people came,
They peered into the cases where we lay.

They spoke,
The words unknown to me
But understood as they were said.
“This was a person? This … and this?”

Heb-Nefert was no wise woman in her own time, no prophet or seer. Nevertheless, her words as she becomes aware of these awestruck museum gawkers are suffused with a serene wisdom that utterly, wonderfully preserves the weird, imperative dignity of the ancient Egyptians. The concluding line of I am the Mummy Heb-Nefert never fails to move me in its quiet, knowing way:

How foolish that they do not see
How all things change,
And so will they.
Three thousand years from now
They will be dust and bones.
I am the mummy Heb-Nefert,
Black as night,
Stretched as tight
As leather on a drum.

Once I was beautiful.

May 23rd, 2010

People of Note!

Our book today is People of Note, written (in highly questionable verse) in 1940 by Laurence McKinney and illustrated by the mighty Gluyas Williams, whose sly, understated genius could often be seen in the New Yorker of the time. U.S. classical music concert attendance today is a mere fraction of what it was in the 1940s, when a cute little $2 hardcover like this one could be published by a house like E. P. Dutton & Company with a reasonable hope of people actually buying it even though it’s a quite ephemeral piece of fun.

The major – and some decidedly minor – faces of the typical symphony orchestra are on display here, accompanied by McKinney’s unleashed doggerel. For instance, there’s the Conductor:

This Backward Man, this View Obstructor
Is known to us as the Conductor.
He beats the time with grace and vim
And sometimes they keep up with him.
But though they’re eloquent and snappy
Conductors always seem unhappy.
Their strange grimaces on the podium
Suggest bicarbonate of sodium
May be, perhaps, the proper diet
To keep their inner fires quiet.
They have to think up countless capers
To keep them in the daily papers
Which help them in financial strictures
Or fit them for the motion pictures.
Conductors worry all the while
That’s why they bow, but never smile.

Or the lowly viola player:

Viola, there’s a pretty sound
Suggesting violets, and ground
All blossoming in early spring
But, bless me, it is no such thing.
A head cold – listeners confess
Is what it sounds like more or less
And though this virtue may present
A sort of nasal armament
Violists spend the livelong day
In helping others on their way.
The fiddle’s friend, the cello’s pal –
He helps the English Horn’s morale
With envy eating out his heart
For just a tiny solo part.
No better phrase describes him than
The orchestra’s forgotten man.

And speaking of the English Horn:

The English Horn I must reveal
Has no connection with John Peel;
In fact Old John would find it meaner
To play on than a vacuum cleaner.
Its tone would make his horses skittish
For it is neither horn – nor British.
Some call it – to increase this tangle –
The Cor Anglais – or horn with angle –
Concerning which I’m glad to state
The English Horn is long and straight.
Its misery and constant dwelling
On tragedy has caused a swelling
Just where the doleful note emerges;
Imbued with melancholy surges
This makes an English Horn cadenza
Sound fearfully like influenza.

At least the English Horn player can’t see the audience’s reaction to his melancholy playing – unlike the upright Double Bass player:

The men who have the saddest faces
Are those who play the Double Basses
Though deep in misery their cup
They have to take it standing up,
And sawing on a clothesline string
They grunt and groan like anything.
The orchestra’s last-line defense
They also see the audience
And, spying in the distant offing,
They spot the man who does the coughing –
The school girl in expectant dither –
The wife who dragged her husband with her –
The novice groping in a maze –
The critic whittling out a phrase –
And those who sleep – and those who snore
Which makes them groan and grunt some more.

These and other strange folk are immortalized in verse in this little gem of a book, the perfect bon-bon for anybody you know who’s psychologically damaged enough to like classical music – or worse, to play it recreationally.

May 21st, 2010

The Murderess!

Our book today is a slim, weird masterpiece of 20th century Greek literature, The Murderess by Alexandros Papadiamantis, published in 1903 and translated into English by Peter Levi in 1983.

Translated into English, with the usual apologies. Translator apologies almost always bug me, and Levi’s is no exception; they almost always take as their premise that precise or even cognitively close translation isn’t really possible – that the best even a skilled translator can do is cobble together a series of more or less serviceable approximations … that everything, in other words, is lost in the translation.

Levi is fairly explicit about it all, in his Translator’s Preface to Papadiamantis’ jagged, admittedly idiosyncratic book. The particular twists and turns of Papadiamantis’ prose, Levi tells us, “… the realism and the exoticism, the narrative gift and the excessively romantic lyricism, make it impossible to disentangle his virtues from his vices as a writer. They are also extremely hard to render in modern English.”

Needless to say, I never have any idea what to make of a translator who openly tells his readers that the one thing he wasn’t really able to do with his source text was translate it. Resorting to incomprehensible evasions like maintaining an author’s strengths can be indistinguishable from his weaknesses doesn’t help any, as does imputing blame to the very regionalism that is the reason for translating the work in the first place:

It has been impossible to produce accurately the texture of the original. I had trouble with proverbs and the names of herbs. Certain popular phrases exist in every language that have roots in an entire culture, and Papadiamantis uses more of them than most writers. Then at times he can be painfully slow and repetitive, or he can drag in by the hair some weighty phrase out of a literary journal. Nowadays a publisher’s editor would simply strike it out. It is not the task of a mere translator to underline such phrases.

Fortunately, Levi’s own work in translating this little book bears out a different tale, one in which his skills as a translator positively shine. Papadiamantis’ tale is that of an old woman named Hadoula, sometimes known as Frankojannou, who as the book opens has gone four days and nights without sleep at the side of a newborn granddaughter, a little baby born sick who’s done nothing but cry for days. Drifting in and out of aggravated patches of half-sleep, Frankojannou’s mind more or less snaps; she sticks two fingers in the baby’s mouth and holds them there until the infant is completely still. The child’s mother is asleep in the same room of the poor little hovel, and the tiny village’s doctor is away from town – his temporary substitute rather easily puts the death down to fever, but by that point old Hadoula’s mind has permanently altered. Whether she’s reacting to the grinding poverty and social nullity in which all the women of her world live, or whether she’s simply gone insane, we don’t know. But it isn’t long before she pushes two little girls down a well and cold-heartedly waits while they first struggle then float face-down.

Shortly after that, she’s seen nearby when another girl goes down a well, and the police begin to suspect she’s somehow involved. In the classic tradition of ancient Greek tragedy, Frankojannou has by this point become little more than a beast at bay, tormented by the same memories that exhilarate her, intent on fleeing into the mountains rather than be apprehended and put in prison:

As she went out, the lamenting voice of the infant, the tiny girl unjustly slain, moaned inside her. She stood in the doorway, peering carefully outside, right and let, up and down the road. Not a soul, not a shadow. She put wings to her feet. It was not the first time she had heard that sorrowful infant cry in the cavernous, echoing darkness of her soul. Now she thought she was escaping from danger and disaster, escaping from dungeon and prison, but prison and Hell were within her.

The bleakness of this story moves effortlessly from the hardscrabble streets and huts of the poor Greek villages that are its setting to the minds and memories of its characters as they gradually react to this horrific tragedy unfolding amidst them. And of course nobody’s reactions are more intense than the murderess’ own:

In her [Frankojannou’s] sleep she thought she was still young; her father and mother married her off in her dream as they had done in fact, and gave her ‘the blessing of the dear departed’ and the dowry, including her father’s plot, where she had dug and watered cabbages when she was little. And her father rewarded her for her hard work, and gave her ‘four heads’ out of the cabbages. Hadoula took the four plants happily into her hands, but when she looked, Oh horror! she saw they were four little dead human heads.

Despite his protestations, Levi does a wonderful job conveying all this. Papadiamantis is entirely unknown to the world outside Greece, and he represents a large gallery of such regional artists in similar positions. Such artists represent entire worlds, of course, and each one of them is worth exploring. I can recommend Papadiamantis as one of those destinations, and this book – his strongest and bleakest – is his best.

May 20th, 2010

Diary of a Wombat!

Our book today is Jackie French’s 2002 classic kids book Diary of a Wombat, with utterly charming illustrations by Bruce Whatley.
The book tells the story of a fat little wombat somewhere in Australia who’s grown a bit bored with the life she records in her diary. A typical entry runs like this:

Monday

Morning: Slept.

Afternoon: Slept.

Evening: Ate grass. Scratched.

Night: Ate grass.

One day, she discovers he has new neighbors: humans! This delights her as a prospect for change, although there’s an obstacle in the way – the welcome mat:

Discovered flat, hairy creature invading my territory.

Fought major battle with flat, hairy creature.

Won battle. Neighbors should be pleased. Demanded a reward.

The reward in question is carrots, and the little wombat quickly comes to prefer them to boring old grass. She grows demanding, and soon her tastes have broadened to include oats as well. The long-suffering human family is not consulted in any of this; our wombat feels a serene self-confidence.

Eventually, she makes a comfortable hole for herself directly under the home of her new neighbors, so she’ll never be far away from carrots or oats.

We’ll just have to hope the whole thing isn’t an extended parable about the irritation of guests who overstay their welcome. I’m hoping instead it’s about the pleasures of serendipity. Otherwise, things could get pretty uncomfortable for the wombat in question.

May 20th, 2010

Comics! Three Number Ones!

Comics this week included three first issues spanning two thousand years of super-heroics. First issues don’t mean as much these days as they once did, but I can’t help but get a little excited about them even so – they represent such potential to be squandered!

The first issue of DC’s new limited series “Legacies” takes us back to the very beginnings of that company’s super-hero scene: World War Two is about to break open, and gangsters are running the streets of America’s cities. Suddenly, ‘mystery men’ are appearing – The Crimson Avenger, the Atom, the Sandman … swathing themselves in mist, using their fists and guns to bring crime-waves to a halt. The artwork is done by Andy Kubert (with inks by his legendary father Joe), but that’s the only reason to check in with this first issue (apparently, different creative teams will handle different issues). For better or worse, the ‘dawn of superheroes’ story-bar was set incredibly high by “Marvels” – hell, even Marvel’s own “Marvels Project” hasn’t been able to equal that earlier classic, and despite having a much, much grander story to tell, “Legacies” doesn’t even come close. Yet, at least.

The first issues move into the present day with “Avengers” #1, a confused, over-talky jumble of an issue that was probably supposed to compensate for its glaring weaknesses by brandishing the fact that it’s written by fan favorite Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by fan favorite John Romita Jr. (although the JRJR cover is easily the worst he’s ever done in his entire career). It starts with Steve Rogers solemnly telling about thirty super-heroes that he needs them – they all have slightly different reactions, but that’s OK, because we don’t see most of them again in this issue. Instead, we cut to a dinner/reception where Steve Rogers is again christening a new Avengers team, but this one is much smaller, a core team that makes almost no tactical sense at all (there’s Spider-Man, Spider-Woman, Spider-Archer, Spider-Wolverine, Bucky … and, in case the team encounters any, you know, super-villains, Thor and Iron Man). This team is attacked in the middle of their first meeting by Kang the …

…. sorry, I nodded off. Yes, this new Avengers team is attacked in their first issue by Kang the Conqueror, in a gambit that seems insane even for Bendis. To put it mildly, Kang is over-used as a go-to Avengers bad guy (he was even the inaugural villain for the young Avengers, for pete’s sake). He tells our heroes that their ‘children’ will be responsible for unleashing an untold horror on the human race, and he enlists their help to come forward in time and prevent that from happening. This is obviously a job for the aforementioned Young Avengers, but that doesn’t seem to occur to Bendis, so we’re off to the races next issue. Fans of Bendis and JRJR will continue to buy the run – Bendis will be on it for about six issues, and if history is any guide, Romita penciled his last issue before this one even went on sale (this issue has a prose backup feature describing the origin of the Avengers …. It’s violently uninteresting, so we’ll skip it for now).

We jump forward thousands of years for our third first issue, a new #1 for the venerable Legion of Super-Heroes. The draw here isn’t the fairly good artwork by Yildiray Cinar (which certainly sounds like a Legion name – it’s not revealed in this issue what U.P. planet he’s from – my bet is Bismoll) but rather the return to Legion-scribing duties of Paul Levitz, who wrote some of the team’s greatest adventures about fifty years ago and is therefore presumed to have a solid grasp of what makes the Legion tick. There are two drawbacks to this theory: first, this Legion is composed of ragged-looking adults rather than the sexy teenagers Levitz last wrote about, and second, this series springs directly from a story-arc over in “Superman” a couple of years ago, which makes this issue feel just about as heavily c0ntinued as “Avengers” #1 did. Needless to say, good first issues shouldn’t feel heavily continued from something else – their whole point is to clear the clutter from the stage and start things fresh. Instead, the plot of this issue mostly revolves around the potential rehabilitation of the villain of that Superman mini-series, a xenophobic bigot code-named Earth-Man.

The issue was largely uninteresting despite two distinctly high-octane surprises, but DC’s background strategy here is certainly working on this long-time Legion fan: I’m perfectly willing to stick around and give Levitz the benefit of the doubt.

Still, for not one, not two, but three first issues to have this little oomph between them …

May 18th, 2010

The Ink Drinker!

Our book today is Eric Sanvoisin’s 1996 The Ink-Drinker, a mini-hymn to the ultimate seductive power of reading. The young boy who narrates the story of one remarkable hot summer day dislikes books ; his father can’t get enough of them, calls them his little ‘bookies’ and has filled the family’s home with them (even in the bathroom).

The boy hates books, or so he thinks. He loves the sound of tearing paper, and he’s only helping out at his father’s bookshop to give himself something to do. He doesn’t browse the books – he’s mainly looking for shoplifters (even though his father tends to spot the real thieves as soon as they walk in the door).

It’s while he’s thus occupied that he spots a mysterious new customer with weird pale skin and an odd manner. The customer makes his way to a secluded corner of the shop, waits until he thinks nobody’s watching, then takes a straw out of his coat and proceeds to drink the ink from one of the books!

The boy is astonished and follows the strange man when he leaves the store, eventually ending up in a crypt in the cemetery, only to discover that the man is, of course, a vampire. The vampire brusquely tells the boy that he has liver problems and can’t drink blood anymore, but he’s found a surprisingly nutritious substitute in ink. When the boy asks why he doesn’t just by bottles of ink to satisfy his craving, the vampire somewhat testily responds that only ‘aged’ ink on pages provides true satisfaction, and he darkly hints that the boy will soon understand.

The next day, the boy wakes up with a new craving. He takes out a straw and proceeds to devour a book, finding himself totally absorbing the adventures of a ferocious pirate captain. In the perfect metaphorical world of this wonderfully whimsical kids book (with fittingly odd illustrations by Martin Matje), the boy has become an ink-drinker. Readers everywhere will understand.

May 16th, 2010

Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age!

Our book today is Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age, a 1964 novel by Bohumil Hrabal translated into English in 1995 by Michael Henry Heim. Hrabal is of course a great master of wry comic prose, and Heim must be doing justice to the original Czech, because several lines and passages in Dancing Lessons are laugh-out-loud funny.

The setting – at least, as much of it as Hrabal troubles to create – is fairly nebulous: an old man, something of a dandy in his younger days, tells an endless stream of stories to a group of sunbathing young ladies. We never hear the ladies speak – the entire book is a monologue – and the stories are a luminous mush of memory, anecdote, and history. Their presentation is never anything less than engaging, but they emphatically make no sense. And to emphasize the style of geriatric storytelling that Hrabal means to both venerate and satirize, Dancing Lessons is one extremely long sentence, with one stunningly inappropriate vista opening directly onto another. More so than in most of Hrabal’s previous novels, sex is present here – our old narrator likes recalling his pleasures:

… one day I was walking along minding my own business when I noticed a Jewish beauty with a nose like train hook sitting on the border between two fields, waiting for the first Saturday star to come out, and because she had no panties on I had one eye glued to the spot where Goethe liked to look before he sat down to write his poems, and I went over and introduced myself and we immediately struck up an intimate conversation …

In addition to having a very digressive mind, the narrator has a very literary one – the little text abounds in references and allusions, all delivered with the author’s knowing, playful wink:

… and she said, Oh you young men with your one-track minds! the world is a beautiful place, don’t you think? not because it is but because I see it that way, the way Pushkin saw it in that movie, poor Pushkin, to die in a duel, and so young, his last poems gushing from the bullet hole in his head, I could tell from the picture that HE admired the European Renaissance too, he had fantastic muttonchops, you know, the whiskers our own Franz Joseph wore, and Strauss the composer …

This is a very short book, rendered all the shorter by the headlong rush of the prose, and although it can be pressed into service as some kind of lesson on the garrulity of unreliable narrators, what it really wants to do is entertain you for an hour by simulating the experience of listening to a charming old man who’s full of sheep-dip. Hrabal’s novelistic aims are often far simpler than he’s given credit, and nowhere is that more in evidence than this brisk little entertainment of a book.

May 14th, 2010

Comics: Dark Reign Ends!

Comics this week feature the culmination of Marvel’s “Dark Reign” saga, and the issues we’ll be examining – Siege #4, Dark Avengers #16, and the double-sized Finale of New Avengers – gave me immense satisfaction not only in the usual ways, with interesting writing and some great artwork, but also in the sweetest of all possible ways: by playing right into my ‘I told you so’ factor.

As those of you who’ve been following four-color superhero comics (or merely those of you who’ve been following their highlights here at Stevereads) already know, the premise of “Dark Reign” is alluringly simple: what if evil won? Not just ‘won’ in terms of successfully robbing a bank, but ‘won’ in the sense of ‘set up shop and ran things’ – that was the idea behind installing ‘Green Goblin’ psychopathic killer Norman Osborn as head of the super-police force known as H.A.M.M.E.R. and having him create his own team of Avengers consisting of fellow super-villains in disguise. The real avengers were either dead or fugitives in hiding from Osborn and his troops, and the government had passed a Super-Hero Registration Act compelling all super-heroes to register with the government and play by federal rules.

Although of course initially I wasn’t a fan of this whole concept, I quickly came around. It produced some really good stories, and Marvel put some top-notch creative people in charge of keeping the whole thing going. I was so entertained I wasn’t sure I wanted to see the eventual heroes-return storyline I knew was coming.

The four-part mini-series Siege is that storyline, and I’d have read it no matter what, since it’s drawn by the great, the mighty Oliver Coipel. And it’s been thrilling – and notoriously violent. Osborn, apparently drunk with power (and egged on by Loki, the evil Norse god of mischief), decided to muster all his super villains and all his troops and invade the fabled city of Asgard, which at the time was floating about twenty feet above Braxton, Oklahoma. The invasion was led by Osborn’s leashed superman, the mentally unbalanced superhero Sentry, and in Siege’s most widely discussed panel, Coipel draws the Sentry ripping apart Ares, the Greek god of war, like an old T-shirt. The end of the previous issue had Norman Osborn flying into a Green Goblin-style spittle-flecking rant – on national TV – about how he was the only thing stopping the Sentry from going completely bonkers and annihilating all life on Earth. Osborn no sooner finishes saying this than we lay eyes on the Sentry floating above our heroes, only he’s swapped his heroic blue cape for a bunch of muscular red tentacles.

So this issue opens with a fight even our assembled heroes can’t really win – as Osborn puts it, the Sentry has become the ‘Angel of Death,’ and the life-sucking Void he has at his command quickly paralyzes his enemies. Help comes from the most unlikely source: Loki, who’s apparently sorry things have gone so far and tries to make them right again, by using his mystical abilities to infuse the fallen heroes with new vitality.

The Sentry senses this, attacks Loki, and proves that he hasn’t exactly got all the god-shredding out of his system.


Coipel gives us some great action panels – pride of place go to Thor and Iron Man – and eventually our heroes are victorious. The Void is vanquished, and its poor slob of a human host is killed (in a neat touch, Thor gives his body a suitably epic Viking incineration – in the sun, no less), and with any luck, that’ll be the last anybody ever hears of the Sentry, one of the dumbest ideas to come out of Marvel Comics since the Spider-clone.

The issue ends with Steve Rogers refusing to take up the mantle of Captain America but agreeing to fulfill some kind of leadership role in the upcoming ‘Heroic Age.’ There’s celebration in the air: the Registration Act has been ‘thrown out,’ the fugitive heroes can come out of hiding, and the villains who were running the show are either captured or in hiding themselves.

This ties into the double-sized finale of New Avengers, which shows our fugitive team – Luke Cage, Hawkeye as Ronin, Mockingbird, Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel, Bucky as Captain America – in one last covert adventure together, with Brian Michael Bendis putting in plenty of his snarky, chatty dialogue and Brian Hitch doing the artwork with the increasingly incoherent sloppiness that is coming to mark his current work. At the end of that issue, we’re told again that the good guys win- the Registration Act is dismissed, Osborn and his cronies are going to jail, the sun is shining again.

Switch scenes to Dark Avengers #16, written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Mike Deodato (with more – a lot more – of that weird computerized inking and coloring he’s been fooling around with lately), which brings to an end the main storyline of a comic I never thought I’d like and ended up eagerly awaiting every month (and not only for Deodato’s beautiful artwork). This was the central book of “Dark Reign” – this was the fake Avengers team Osborn assembled and held together through force of will, and it made for compelling reading, month after month.

In this issue, it’s all over: the team is beaten and disbanded, war criminals, and Osborn himself is going to the prison to which he sent so many heroes during his quasi-legal reign of terror. And in his typically mind-gaming way, Bendis puts in Osborn’s mouth the perfectly-articulated rationale for everything he did, and you got to have it in its entirety:

I was right.

The world is a mess, and the world needed me to fix it. And I would have. I could have.

This world is a madhouse of mutants, terrorists, psychotics, aliens, and monsters. All of them chasing and crashing into each other every second of every day. People put on costumes and just decide, all by themselves, that they are the savior of the world. That it’s okay for them to go and do whatever the hell they want to whoever they want because they have a costume.

Well, I am telling you the world is going to end. One day soon, it’s going to actually explode. The wrong creature is going to slam into the wrong mutant and boom. That will be it. All of this – all of it will have been for nothing. All I wanted to do was stop it. All I wanted to do was fix the problems before they happened.

I KNOW the mutants of this world will rise up and kill us.

I KNOW that the Hulk will one day decide to destroy everything he sees.

I KNOW the Punisher will one day kill the wrong person and set off a chain of events that will lead to nuclear holocaust.

I know that these heroes will dive head first into something they do not understand and end up doing such insane damage to the world that humans can no longer live on it. Victor Von Doom will crush us under his foot in his last mad gasp of air. I know this is true. I know it.

And I could have stopped it. If not for the fact that you kept standing in my @#$@# way.

All of which sounds convincingly psychotic and creepy, and you’re ready to cheer the fact that the Green Goblin, the speaker of such creepy sentiments, is safely locked up.

The only problem is that Osborn isn’t the Marvel character who originated all those creepy sentiments, nor is he the Marvel character who organized them into a repressive, fascistic governmental policy.

That Marvel character would be Iron Man, the current darling of American movie theaters. The same Iron Man who helped to defeat the evil Sentry and who appears to be a founding member of whatever new Avengers team Steve Rogers is founding with the full blessing of the U.S. government. And that’s where the ‘I told you so’ factor comes in.

Because years ago, when this whole storyline started, when Iron Man and Reed Richards, responding to a super-hero accident in which many innocent lives were lost, decided to enunciate and then support the whole idea behind the Registration Act, I said this was one of those comic book ideas that sound great but probably shouldn’t be done because there’s literally no satisfying way to un-do them. Iron Man himself began hunting down his former allies among the superheroes. Iron Man beat up Captain America, and Reed Richards designed the massive gulag in which dissenters – good guys and bad guys – were locked up. And they both did it because they sincerely believed exactly those creepy sentiments Bendis puts in the mouth of the bad guy, Norman Osborn. Reading these comics this week, you’d assume the whole arc of “Dark Reign” was Osborn’s idea from the start – but the only reason Bendis would want you to assume that is because you have to forget the real causes of the whole story, because if you remember them, no Marvel ‘reset’ is ever possible, and no ‘Heroic Age’ can dawn.

The irony of quintessential ‘I told you so’ scenarios, of course, is that they bring no satisfaction. I knew that if Marvel ever wanted to bring their comics back to ‘normal,’ they’d have to do some major fudging with what had gone before, and I was right: that’s exactly what they did. This week, Iron Man and the others were victims of Norman Osborn’s mad paranoia about the dangers posed by unregulated super-powered beings. The good guys beat him, and now everything can go back to normal.

But normal in the Marvel Universe is still a place where whole city blocks in midtown Manhattan are blown up by warring super-folk, where somebody with powers really can put on a costume and decide who lives and who dies. In other words, we’re right back where we started two or three years ago.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you – at least, not much. The lineup of this new Avengers team strikes me as ridiculously opportunistic … there’s simply no reason to have Wolverine and Spider-Man on the Avengers other than to make Marvel money (kind of amazing that Deadpool didn’t get an invite), and that’s a little sad: one of the things I’ve always liked about the Avengers was that in addition to the headliners who had their own comics, we also got to see in action heroes like the Black Knight or the Vision who didn’t have books of their own. And I admit I’ll miss the subversive fun of Bendis’ Dark Avengers.

So: now we try out “The Heroic Age” and see what comes of it. All in all, Marvel pulled off quite an accomplishment in “Dark Reign” … they ought to commemorate it with a big hardcover slipcased volume of its best stories: the entire run of Dark Avengers, plus all the best related issues – most certainly including the death of the Punisher – and of course all four chapters of Siege. I’d buy it.