Thursday, July 3, 2008

Upcoming Catalog Entry Schedule

June (belated):
As She Climbed Across the Table (1997) — Jonathan Lethem

American Nerd: The Story of My People (2008) — Benjamin Nugent
Joss Whedon's Serenity comic book series


Revisiting The Stand (1990, revised edition) — Stephen King
Omega the Unknown #1-10 — Jonathan Lethem

So keep an eye on the blog, or just subscribe to the RSS feed so you get it when it's ready.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

TMNT #29 – Peter Laird and Jim Lawson (2008)

This month marks the return of TMNT, the fourth volume in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic book series, with issue #29, after spending nearly two years on indefinite hiatus. This volume, written by original co-creator Peter Laird and illustrated by longtime collaborator Jim Lawson, is considered the official venue of the Turtles’ universe. Whereas the sister publication, Tales of the TMNT, explores their universe in self-contained episodes set in the past and written by a string of different writers, TMNT is the contemporary, farsighted series which allows their story arcs to advance in time and to create and explore new mythologies.

In this series the Turtles are no longer teens, but have grown up into middle-aged adults. The real defining difference is that now the brothers spend more time apart than together. Leonardo has traveled to another dimension where he is fighting in a gladiator-esque arena called the Battle Nexus; Raphael was bitten by a strange group of vampires and has morphed into a semi-rampaging dinosaur/lizard-thing; Donatello is the size of an action figure after mistakenly being shrunk by the alien race of Utroms; and Mikey, well he made some babies with a Protoceraton princess, but then got kidnapped and smuggled into space. And, oh yeah, Master Splinter is dead. These guys have got some issues.

Number 29 opens up with a scene straight out of the Mos Eisley Cantina. The Utroms, who developed the ooze that mutated the Turtles into their current sentient form, have finally revealed themselves to the people of Earth. Now, establishments such as the bar Galaxies, have welcomed all forms of alien life to eat and drink alongside their human counterparts in New York City. Casey Jones, feeling a bit down in the dumps, is joined by Professor Honeycutt/Fugitoid and some Utroms when suddenly a red-blooded ‘merican crashes the party. Addressing a couple of hot political topics here, Laird combines the paranoid and reductive tendencies of anti-immigrationists (insert Lou Dobbs joke here!), and the methods of terrorist suicide bombers, to which Casey and the gang must try to put a stop. While not exactly subtle, Laird adds a dash of humor, and the scene becomes a bit more than a throw-away.

The Turtles don’t make an appearance until page 22 (of 37), reminiscent of 2005’s issue #22, which focused solely on their dear friend April and the mysterious circumstances of her birth. These are just a couple of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed reading the TMNT series. Laird isn’t afraid to experiment with his characters, or his storytelling method, combining equal parts sci-fi, fantasy, romance, history, and world cultures. As you can probably tell from the summary above, a lot has happened in the world of the TMNT in just 29 short issues. In theory, combining dinosaurs, aliens, vampires, and talking ninja turtles seems contrived, excessive, but this ever-evolving mythology is a constant joy to read. Jim Lawson, the only artist to work on this series, has created his own immediately recognizable style, and other artists’ interpretations of the Turtles rarely achieve his level of empathy and “realism.”

In a unique turn of events, all new issues of TMNT will simultaneously be available for purchase and free download. The catch is that each “collector’s” issue will now cost $10 instead of the typical $2.95. Seeing as how new issues are only released every other month, as opposed to your traditional superhero books who can run as high as four per month, I think the ratio of price to entertainment value is still within reason. Mirage, the company that publishes TMNT, embodies the very essence of independent publishing; black and white comics, no advertisements to disrupt the comic’s narrative, and quality to boot.

If you’re still skeptical, at least check out some of the free downloads from, where you can read the entirety of Volume 4, and also catch up on the original 1984 comic series and the Turtles’ origin story. But if you’re expecting the same childish and goofy humor made famous by the 1990s cartoon series and live action films, then don’t bother, this won’t be for you.

Aside from the usual hiccups (a couple of hokey lines of dialogue, the occasional typo, incorrect grammar, and those “36-24-36” proportioned women) Peter Laird’s narrative direction of the TMNT, and Jim Lawson’s always enjoyable illustration are worthy enough to continue following the series, perhaps even until the Turtles reach old age.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams – Paul Hemphill (2005)

“I’m just gonna go home, lie down, and listen to country music. The music of pain.” – Xander, Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Before Hank Williams, country music resembled a bastardized version of Tin Pan Alley and the blues; it lacked the authenticity of the blues’ hard knocks and retained the lyrical depth of early 20th century show tunes. Billboard had labeled it Hillbilly, followed by Folk, before finally settling on Country, a term still synonymous with rednecks and sentimental, often insipid, lyrics (“We’ll stick a boot in y’r ass / it’s the American way,” anyone?). But, in the short span of Hank Williams’ 29 years, he was one of the few musicians to genuinely turn those presumptions on their head and record some immortal—and damn good—pop songs; “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “Lovesick Blues,” “Cold, Cold Heart,” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” to name just a few.

Lovesick Blues: The Life of Hank Williams is a slick biography from Paul Hemphill, an inspired choice to chronicle the musician’s life. Hemphill, one of Alabama’s native sons, like Hank, has made a career out of transcribing the experience of his southern roots into thirteen novels and books of nonfiction, covering everything from life on the road to the baseball diamond. Hemphill leaves his own personal touch on this biography with two stories from his own life; the first, discovering the music of Hank Williams on a road trip in his father’s tractor-trailer, and an epilogue of personal history that nearly mirrored the musician’s own tragic end. While Hemphill’s bookends are a nice touch, it’s Hank’s life that provides the real thrills.

Born Hiram in 1923, but called Harm by his family, the country legend’s hardships started all too early. His father left the family when Hank, the name he would later take and make famous, was just six years old. At thirteen, he’d already had his first taste of liquor, the beginning of an addiction that would claim his life just 16 short years later. But despite his hardships, the young boy found solace, and a profession, in performing. Under the tutelage of Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne, a troubadour of southern Alabama, Hank proved adept at being a musician, and just as much, a showman. Hank dropped out of school early, and started making his living on the road and in the studio.

Hank caught his first break performing for a local radio station, WSFA, in Montgomery, Alabama. His mother, Lillie, an overbearing woman who would try control as much of his life while she could, took over as his manager and started to book gigs for Hank and The Drifting Cowboys, Hank’s revolving door of supporting musicians. However, in the first of a long string of similar incidents, Hank’s drinking would cost him the local radio show, as it would later his wife, record labels, and eventually his spot in the Grand Ole Opry. As quickly as Hank had something good going for him, (which at times afforded him multiple Cadillacs, a farm house, and an expensive, if gaudy, home in Nashville), his alcoholism would rear its ugly head and bring everything around him crashing down. These details of Hank’s highest highs and lowest lows are the most fascinating aspects of Hemphill’s biography. It’s amazing he even made it for as long as he did.

The timelessness of Hank’s experience in show business (that old cycle of poverty, stardom, and abuse), foreshadowed that of so many talented musicians in the years to come. One could just as easily replace Hank William’s name in this biography with that of Jim Morrison, or Kurt Cobain, despite the fact that his music sounds more Lawrence Welk than Layne Staley. At the height of his popularity, a Hank Williams’ show had the unpredictability of an Axl Rose meltdown; “Will tonight be the night the show goes on?” In one particularly resonant passage, Hemphill recounts a concert where Hank, as loaded as he could be, stumbled on stage in front of packed house incapable of performing. He rhetorically asked the crowd if they traveled real far to see him that night, and then after the crowd cheers, he quips, “Now you’ve seen ol’ Hank,” and walks off the stage.

Hank’s pure authenticity bleeds through the page and by the end leaves one with the overwhelming feeling of regret; regret for what might have been had Hank lived. Whether it’s struggling to survive his overbearing mother, a listless marriage, the pressures of living up to his own fame and fortune, or the combination of whiskey and chloral hydrates, Hank Williams becomes our tragic Everyman. Hemphill's crisp narration reinforces this idea, and when he describes Hank as the poet, the proletarian prophet, of the working classes, of “the waitresses the route salesman and the farmers and the truck drivers of the world,” you can feel the truth in the statement.

At times, Lovesick Blues induces a sense of nostalgia for a time that may never have truly existed. Hemphill probably romanticizes the long, quiet road, the all-night diners, and the rowdy cowboy bars more than they deserve, but this biography is such a quick and entertaining read (novelesque) that the lack of a contextual reality is easy to forgive. I, for one, am longing for my own place in early 20th America with nothing but “three chords and the truth.”

In the epilogue, Hemphill recounts the following interaction with his father:

The last time we spoke was on a day when I visited him, drinking out of lonesomeness, and invited him to check out my new Chevy Blazer. A Chrysler man, he wasn’t impressed. “Probably got a bad transmission,” he said.
“Yeah, but it’s got a real good radio,” I told him.
“Will it pick up country music?”
“Of course it will.”
“Must be a hell of a radio, then,” he said. “Ain’t been no country music since Hank died.”

Hemphill briefly ponders the question of whether Hank was really better off dead than alive, or if at least his legacy was. For all we know, Hank could have been a musical footnote wiped from the charts during Elvis’s reign as King. Like the careers of John Lennon, and Kurt Cobain, we’re left with only question marks about their untapped potential. While it’s not necessary to be a fan of Hank Williams, or even familiar with him, to enjoy this biography, listening to his raw emotion in songs like “Lovesick Blues” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” certainly adds a sense of tangibility for a star who prospered before the golden age of television. In Lovesick Blues, Hemphill proves that we should all at least be grateful for what Hank did leave behind for us.

In the words of Hank himself, “If the good Lord’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise, we’ll see you next time.”

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Reader's Companion

[Ever wonder why the Catalog posts so infrequently? The new reader's companion chronicles many of the distractions that occupy me between posts. Check it: the reader's companion to sidney's catalog. Catch you in a few days with a new post on the Hank Williams biography Lovesick Blues. —Justin]

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Ender's Game (1985) - Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card’s Hugo and Nebula-winning, 1985 science fiction classic is a thrilling relic from Cold War America. For a society reared on the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction, and one clamoring for “Miracles on Ice” and Stallone movie sequels, Card’s novel fits perfectly. Today, Ender’s Game is still an exciting and suspenseful narrative, full of geeky sci-fi fun, but its cavalier attitude toward war and its justifications for violence are more frightening than they are reassuring, especially in the context of current US foreign policy.

Ender’s Game is the story of Ender Wiggin, a six-year old child prodigy whose parents turn him over to the International Fleet (IF), future-Earth’s unifying military body. After monitoring the Wiggins’ first two children and seeing much promise, the IF asked them to have a third child, an uncommon practice on the planet, in a last ditch effort to save the world from insect-like aliens (We’ll get to that, I promise). Ender is taken from his home, contact with his family indefinitely suspended, and sent to Battle School, a prep academy for future spaceship captains. Floating in Earth’s orbit, this station was specifically developed for children to be trained to command and kill in the Battle Room, Card’s most inventive contribution to the genre and the device that propels the majority of the book. In the Battle Room commanders lead their armies, each a specially assigned division of students, in mock skirmishes. Equipped with unique battle suits that freeze when fired upon, these war games are nothing more than a complex round of paintball or laser tag, but nonetheless Card makes them entertaining and the most worthwhile reason to read the novel.

After a remarkably short initiation period, Ender is quickly promoted to Salamander Army, where Bonzo, his arrogant commander, sidelines him in the Battle Room because of his young age and inexperience. Yet, after much individual training with his friends from the initiation class, Ender pulls a clever tactical maneuver during a war game that helps Salamander Army to win, all despite his near inactive role on the sideline. Because of his quick and ingenious thinking Ender is quickly promoted once again and given command of his own unit. On one level, Ender’s Game is a typical bildungsroman; Ender is picked on by a series of antagonists, his older brother Peter, a school bully, his commander Bonzo, etc., and Ender’s humiliation and isolation spur emotional and mental growth. With each hardship, the boy’s mentors promote him for handling adversity so well. By the time he is ten years old, Ender is already the most accomplished commander in Battle School’s history, with an undefeated record in the Battle Room, and a loyal and accomplished army of misfit students. Ender’s Game is a feel good story for the most part, except for the violent circumstances that often lead Ender to his success.

Kicking the shit out of people is Card’s method for allowing the young prodigy to mature. In a later passage of the book, after he has successfully graduated and advanced to Command School, Ender sums up the underlying tone of the novel:

“Peter might be scum, but Peter had been right, always right; the power to cause pain is the only power that matters, the power to kill and destroy, because if you can’t kill then you are always subject to those who can, and nothing and no one will ever save you.”

I don’t want to disagree with this sentiment, it is perfectly acceptable logic, but it does frighten me. Six-year-olds beating other six-year-olds to death doesn’t make for the most inspiring coming of age tale. It’s not the war games that are despicable, I can accept the military academy as an institution, but Card’s theme of preemptive violence seems gratuitous; kill ‘em first, let God sort ‘em out. The theme is paralleled throughout the book, starting first with the school bully that picks on Ender. Threatened and surrounded, the six-year-old Ender knocks the boy out, and then with a swift kick to the face, kills him. This scenario happens again at the Battle School, but the ultimate parallel is found in the novel’s climax. All of Ender’s training has led to this event, leading the IF in battle against the “buggers,” an insect-like race with the ability to communicate telepathically, on their home planet. Previously the buggers had waged war against Earth twice, and were only narrowly defeated. This time the IF has decided to strike first and traveled the 80 year distance through space to destroy the buggers’ home planet once and for all.

Yet all of these wars, from the very beginning, were the result of just a misunderstanding; first on the part of the buggers, and later on the humans. An inability to communicate, to understand each other’s cultural differences caused the destruction of an entire race; where have we seen this before, I wonder? I can’t decide if Card’s revelation in the final chapter is meant to justify the preceding 300 pages of turmoil and vengeful righteousness. If he’s arguing for diplomacy, it seems too little too late.

Twenty years removed from the writing of this novel, though, and I can start to understand its perspective. Threatened by the superpower that was the USSR, and the need to be physically prepared to destroy an entire civilization in order to save your own seems justifiable. That’s why the U.S. elected tough-guy Ronnie Ray-gun. I can’t argue that it was the wrong thing to do either, just as I can’t argue that it was wrong for Ender to do what he did to survive.

But I want to.

What is it that keeps us from understanding each other? Why is the need to exert one’s power over another so prevalent in all the world’s foreign policy throughout history? The same military philosophy of the 1980’s has clearly not worked today; selected air-strikes, and no-troop battles didn’t work in Iraq the second time around. I can only hope we’ve come to realize that diplomacy is the key to solving our problems, but what’s keeping us all from reaching that peace, on both sides of the divide? The inability to communicate, to understand our cultural differences? I think so. But, how can we resolve this disjunction? In an effort to clean his conscience after the Bugger War, Ender writes a book about the bugger’s civilization called Speaker for the Dead, and many on Earth eventually come to understand the miscommunication between the two races. I hope that our current differences, in this world, can be resolved before someone has to speak for any more of our dead.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1999)

Occasionally the need for language emersion takes over. Whether that be listening to the French radio broadcasts from Medgar Evers College, watching Telemundo's Sadabo de Futbol, or reading Japanese manga based on my favorite childhood video games, I enjoy trying to find the familiar in the unknown. Don't get me wrong, it doesn't really work. After an hour my head starts spinning and pounding simultaneously. The French makes the most sense to my Anglophiled ears, mainly because of 6 years of course work, to little avail. It's just enough to read short sentences, with a dictionary in hand, and ask a waiter for a beer. Je voudrais un biere s'il vous plait. Useful, no?

Regardless, a few weeks ago I picked up The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the manga-ized version of one of my all time favorite video games, at Kinokinuya, New York's premiere Japanese language bookstore. Even if I couldn't read the dialogue, or descriptions, or anything apart from its title, I thought I knew the plot well enough to comprehend what I was getting into. It was cheap too, $6.75 for almost 200 hundred pages of black and white illustrations. Not exactly from the bargain bin, but cheaper than most mass market paperbacks today.

The first challenge I faced was reading in reverse, actually, just holding the book backwards was an awkward enough challenge. Intuitively, I knew the story should flow from right to left, top to bottom, but for about 10 pages I still had difficulty following one panel to the next, especially when larger "open" panels obscured this flow. This confusion passed quickly, in part due to the nature of manga illustration. It uses a combination of stark, serious drawings for monsters, caves, and fight scenes, and then jokey, "Sunday funnies" illustrations for the pratfalls, sight gags, and love scenes. Often the characters' illustration in one style will differ so intensely from the other that they will be nearly unidentifiable. This manga-zation of Ocarina of Time is basically a melodrama of illustration. The changes in visual style cue the reader to laugh, cry, feel anxious or be frightened, or at least make that attempt. Normally, I'd take offense to such a heavy handed narrative, but when you can't read the words, that melodrama sure is helpful.

As for the story, this manga-zation stays fairly true to the original plot of the N64 console game. Link, our greenjerkin-clad, pointy-eared, ageless boy-wonder and hero is summoned by the Great Deku tree to rescue some magical pendants from dungeon monsters, find the pieces of the mythical Triforce, and save Princess Zelda from the evil Gannondorf, all while traveling back and forth in time. Unfortunately, whoever wrote the book limited all these exciting events to just a few pages, and beefed up the roles of trifling supporting characters for superfluous comic relief. A bully who serves an inconsequential role in the video game is given new life and expanded to serve as Link's sidekick in one of the dungeons. While any good adaptation builds on its source material, this particular choice is puzzling, especially when there are so many other interesting characters left behind, or set aside. Perhaps if I could understand the dialogue between the two I'd be a little more sympathetic to the author's descision, but the sheer fact that the majority of the game's plot, that is Link's individual exploration of Hyrule Kingdom and conquering its many enemy dungeons, is often reduced to simple, 2-page spreads. He never solves any puzzles, simply waltzes into the dungeons and defeats their Big Baddies unharmed, and then disappointingly moves on to the next plot point, with annoying sidekicks.

Yet after 200 pages, I could still follow along and was rather enjoying Ocarina of Time, only to find out the book is a two-parter. Ah, the barriers of language! I was caught completely by surprise because the book store had only one copy of this title, compared to other Zelda manga (i.e., Oracle of Seasons, Majora's Mask), which each had multiple books under the same title. I mistakenly assumed that if there was just one set of Ocarina of Time, then the whole story was in that one book. I also have the feeling that the second part of Ocarina of Time, where Link is transformed into an adult by the powers of the magic Master Sword, would have been darker, and less jokey, and more up my alley. Alas, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a fun read, even in another language, but not nearly as emotionally rewarding as the 20+ hours it takes to complete the video game's complexly layered puzzles. Yes, the plot is the same, but their methods of narrative are entirely different, and the manga-zation is, without a doubt, inferior. But then again, maybe they're just apples and oranges.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Barry Yourgrau @ Kinokuniya

Tonight I had the chance to see Barry Yourgrau, author of the dreamlike short story collections A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane and Wearing Dad's Head, speak at the Kinokuniya bookstore in Bryant Park. Kinokuniya is a Japanese interest shop with thousands and thousands of imported DVDs, CDs, Manga, English and Japanese books, Japanese language magazines, and a nice little cafe and tea bar. So you might ask yourself why was the South African-born, NYC dwelling Yourgrau speaking here?

Well, for the last few years, Yourgrau has been writing what the Japanese call keitai novels. These are essentially short, short stories, flash fiction if you will, that are read on cellphones. Combine your iPhone with the new Amazon reader-thingy, and you know, much cooler Japanese technology and you should get the idea. Yourgrau explained that in Japan the youth culture accesses their internet almost exclusively through their cellphones. In Japan, most teenagers don't have their own bedrooms, or their own personal computers, so cellphones are their key to the web. During a visit to Tokyo, Yourgrau noticed this trend and came up with a new pitch for his publishers; because he was already known for writing short pieces, and because his books did reasonably well in Japan, he decided to write short stories specifically for the Japanese cellphone market. Little did he know this was already a burgeoning trend.

Yourgrau's particular keitai is rare in that it was written in English, only to be translated and sold in Japanese. The original keitai are not yet available in English, however several revised stories have been released as a part of a series of children's books. Yourgrau's particular blend of dark comedy and surrealism works hand in hand with the themes his translator suggested would be popular in Japan, shame and humiliation. Yourgrau spoke about the unusual process writing for a foreign audience demanded, and how he tried to stay connected by following Japanese trends online. He wrote things such as manga, the subway, and Japanese society's fixation on all things "cute." What resulted are 70+ wonderful, episodic, and easy to digest pieces. In a story about "trendy" teenage depression (a real phenomenon), a boy's parents become so sick of their son's laziness and failure that they begin to imagine a different life for him. By the time the boy gets into real trouble, his parents have forgotten that their imaginary son is just that, and the real one is locked away in his room. Yourgrau's twisted little tales are always easy to read, but infinitely more enjoyable when the author has the chance to read them to you. He reads with the delivery of a delightful, hammish actor, and his voice inflections bring the keitai to a new level. I hope that the next incarnation for the English language edition will be a Yourgrau-read podcast.

Check out Barry's blog, Brain Flakes. And if you haven't already, read A Man Jumps Out of an Airplane (Note the Ad Rock quote on the cover...And yes, that is the reason I bought this book back in 2000.)

See you in a week or two with some new book reviews....hopefully.