Summer Reading 2015, Part 2
Batgirl Vol 1: Batgirl of Burnside
By Cameron Steward and Brenden Fletcher
“We’re COOL, dammit!” That’s the statement DC Comics seems desperate to make with its newly retooled Batgirl, whose first batch of adventures is now available in either hard or softcover. Batgirl of Burnside sees Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter, leave Batman, Robin, and Gotham for the hipster mecca that is Brooklyn—I mean, Burnside.
Gone are any traces of the stiff bleakness that characterized much of DC’s “The New 52” initiative of the last three years, including fan-favorite writer Gail Simone. In her place are Cameron Stewart (Fight Club 2) and Brenden Fletcher, with day-glo art by Babs Tarr and colorist Maris Wicks. To the credit of her fabulously talented creators, the Batgirl most fans know and love is still visible under all of DC’s corporate post-it notes: Remember, Barbara has to CARE that she’s trending on Facebook! She has to make out with strangers and get black-out drunk because she’s YOUNG!
The first issue in the collection does the worst pandering, to an audience you’d think doesn’t actually have time to read comics between judging other shallow people on Tinder. Gradually, however, our faith is restored—starting with the arrival of the older, wiser Dinah Lance, aka Barbara’s crime-stomping partner Black Canary. Batgirl goes on to pummel a skeevy DJ who speaks in hashtags, Mega Man inspired biker chicks, and an impersonator who took lots of notes during Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Between the panels, the creators let fly some amazing commentary on everything from target marketing (“Why does everything cool turn out to be an ad?”) to vacuous reality stars (“To have this kind of platform, this many eyes on you and not say anything of value is ridiculous.”).
Batgirl of Burnside reads with the smarts and infectious giddiness of—surprise—a Marvel title from the last few years (Silver Surfer, Young Avengers, Ms. Marvel). In the end, the Big Bad who’s revealed acknowledges Batgirl’s emotionally-rich history, resulting in a story that we’ll hopefully look back on as the cornerstone of a more vibrant DC Universe. To quote the performance artist Dagger Type, this collection “embodies the existential juxtaposition of the vernacular, mixed with a postmodern manifesto of pathos and glee in a ferrous age of societal consumerism.” Er, scratch all that. It’s pretty darn wonderful.
Robert Minto, Editor
By Penelope Fitzgerald
When you think of books and beaches together you imagine the warm sun and the soft sand. But what is it like to live in a bookshop in a town on the coast? Cold and damp and windy, according to Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop. This short novel tells the story of a middle-aged widow attempting to start anew by selling books in an old, abandoned — and possibly haunted — house. As in every novel Fitzgerald ever wrote, the milieu itself is a kind of character. She based the novel’s town — Hardborough — on Southwold, where she once lived. Her biographer tells us that Southwold was a bleak but beautiful place, a place that felt so separate from the mainland it could almost be a promontory. When Fitzgerald lived there it had recently been the scene of a minor natural disaster. The sea flooded the pinewoods, unfitting them for the habitation of wildlife. In the novel both the people and the place itself seem intent upon coldly rejecting the main character, Florence Green, and her projected bookshop. She is beset by the machinations of a wealthy local woman who wants the bookshop to be an arts center instead. She is equally beset by the damp of the building itself:
The winter had taken a large number of pegged tiles off the roof of the Old House, and a patch of damp was spreading across the bedroom ceiling, inch by inch, just as the sea was eating away the coast. There was more damp in the stock cupboard underneath the staircase. But it was the home of her books and herself, and they would remain together.
Across the flat landscape, a ceaseless wind chills Florence’s bones and infiltrates every fissure in her bookshop. A poltergeist — or is it the wind, the damp? — afflicts her as she tries to make a life for herself. It bangs her pots, groans from floorboards, rushes through distant chambers of the house like a gale. The sea is eating away the coast, cold time and general indifference are eating away the vitality of those who try to warm themselves in life, and no has captured this minor tragedy as well, or rendered it in more tersely poignant writing, than Fitzgerald.
Maureen Thorson, Poetry Editor
By Admiral Richard E. Byrd
Moving from the merely cold to the utterly frigid, we find Alone, Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s account of his solitary months manning Bolling Advance Weather Base on Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf. I first read the book at the age of ten after being reminded that I had a (completely forgotten) book report on any “notable American” due the next day. Confronted with a tear-stained, panicked fourth-grader, my bemused mother plopped the household copy of Alone into my shaking hands, and told me to get cracking. I calmed down right away – Admiral Byrd’s lucid, down-to-earth prose is disarming, and he seemed, oddly, to be a bit of a kindred spirit – admitting that he found the prospect of a stint in a tiny shack in the middle of the endless freezing Antarctic night attractive in part because it would let him finally tackle his mounting reading list. It seems the Admiral, too, had gotten behind on his book reports. But one can have too much of a good thing. The introvert’s fantasy of being by oneself in a small burrow with everything arranged just as you like it is a nice lark for a night, perhaps a week, but after that one would be glad of another human face. Admiral Byrd didn’t get one for four and a half months. And that was another reason for my mounting serenity – as I read along, I could congratulate myself on not being too badly off; I might be on a tight deadline, but at least I wasn’t alone in Antarctica. The history of polar exploration is a tragedy of errors, compounded by blind pride, and Admiral Byrd’s venture was no exception. The most minor of the indignities that plagued him were frostbite, fuel leaks, supply-tunnel cave-ins, untended injuries, and his belatedly-discovered lack of cooking skills. Add to that nearly falling into bottomless crevasses, locking himself outside of his shack in a blizzard, and persistent carbon monoxide poisoning due to faulty ventilation, and one is palpably brought home to the rare treat of being a ten year-old girl in a nice blue bedroom in a Virginian suburb. So be forewarned: reading this book on a beach — so warm, so full of people, so wondrously equipped with nice breathable air! — might well result in fits of ecstatic delirium.
The Dark is Rising
By Susan Cooper
Margaret K. McElderry Books
If you’re going to read cold, read cold that stays with you. I first read Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising close to its publication in 1973, and that kernel of frozen fantasy has stuck with me like a sliver of dry ice in my literary DNA. It’s a classic good vs. evil story; in this case the Dark vs. the Light, or rather the Deep Cold of Endless Winter vs.—well, it’s England, so let’s say the Merely Dreary. On his 11th birthday, young Will Stanton discovers he’s the last of the Old Ones, a race of ancient magical beings engaged in battle with the forces of the Dark for the fate of the mankind, and must prove himself through a series of quests. Pretty archetypal stuff, and in fact Cooper’s book doesn’t break any radical ground when it comes to action, plot, or characters. But her imagery, drawn heavily from the natural world and English mythology, is marvelous, and has remained etched in my brain for more than 40 years. Maybe if I’d grown up in 1970’s Britain with a storytelling grandparent, I might not have found Cooper’s visuals so striking—but for a little New Jersey kid, images of Herne the Hunter with his stag’s head bounding through the skies with his ghostly hound pack was irresistible.
And the deep winter called up by the Dark is perfectly scaled to inspire awe in a smallish person: the snow falls and falls, and Will’s delight in it turns to horror. As the roads become impassible and supplies are cut off the residents of his small town gather in the local manor house, all stone walls, tapestries, and enormous fireplaces. The snow shrieks outside, battering the windows, the Dark Rider circles the manor on his huge foam-snorting black horse, and young Will fights the forces of evil with all his 11-year-old pluck and ingenuity… you get the idea. The snow is, in fact, by far the better villain. But it’s a compelling one, and you’ll want a good hand-warming cup of tea after you’re done reading, triple digits outside or not.
By David Nevin
We’ve all experienced that melancholy feeling that the days of summer are slipping away too fast, and it’s never more keenly felt than when we’re leading a ragtag band of adventurers across the Rocky Mountains in a desperate bid to open the West. Such is the takeaway lesson of Dream West, David Nevin’s 1983 historical epic about 19th century explorer, Mexican-fighter, presidential candidate, and all-around dunderhead John Charles Fremont. Nevin’s book is the best kind of summer fiction: a huge, sweeping narrative in the potboiling-est 1980’s style. But its dramatic high point comes when Fremont attempts to lead a winter expedition across the Sangre de Crisco Range in search of southwestern pass for the transcontinental railroad. The group becomes hopelessly lost and runs short of food. And when Fremont’s friend Henry King goes missing, the shamed faces and suspiciously full bellies of his companions suggest an alarming turn of events. Fremont’s moment of revelation is shocking, grotesque, and inadvertently funny in roughly equal measure (all ellipses are courtesy of the original text):
Fremont gazed at them in silence — a moment of great confusion through which a horror-filled awareness slowly burned…Henry King: that smiling, willing lad with his bright eager face, his bride awaiting him in Georgetown, younger than any of them, stronger — he had collapsed, and not the others? He’d been driving them, he understood the desperate nature of the situation, of course he’d pushed them; and finally they’d turned on him, and struck him down…and then taken their knives and — My God, they had — had —
Williams smiled, his lips red and obscene in his beard, a terrible glitter in his eye.
Morbid? No doubt. But a perfect seasonal companion nonetheless. After all, nothing says summertime like a good, old-fashioned cookout.
Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel
By Anya Ulinich
Throughout her life, Lena Finkle, the protagonist of Anya Ulinich’s graphic novel Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, has been what Joan Didion called a “cool customer”: as a young girl in the Soviet Union and a young immigrant navigating American life, she’s someone who, by necessity and temperament, keeps her wits about her. This book details what happens when, as a recently divorced late thirty-something, she decides to try her hand at the resolutely irrational and uncool world of online dating. The book is moving and funny throughout, but goes to a wholly unexpected and remarkable place when Lena encounters a man she calls “the orphan.” He’s a figure many women will recognize – the charismatic man whose ability to seem completely present and adoring is matched only by his ability to disappear when it suits him. But Ulinich treats him with genuine curiosity –there’s a particularly moving panel where Lena tries to imagine where such a “tourist” goes after he leaves one great love and before he finds another, and what he finds there.
As you read, you’ll want to grab the greatest short stories anthology that’s lying around your bedroom and read Bernard Malamud’s classic story, “The Magic Barrel,” about a shy rabbinical student’s adventures with a matchmaker who brags he needs a “magic barrel” to carry around the photos of the beautiful women he has to offer. It’s a perfect metaphor for online dating but also for the promise and risks of a world that promises endless options. Like Alison Bechtel, Ulinich weaves her literary influences into the story, moving through time, exploring how memories and books fold together to create lived experience. Hers is a deep barrel we are happy to dive into because she and Lena are such compelling guides.