Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: Goliath, by Tom Gauld

Tom Gauld's Goliath retells the biblical tale of "David and Goliath," as originally recounted in 1 Samuel 17, except that this version is told from the giant's point of view. And a very reluctant giant he is; hardly a warrior ("I mainly do admin"), Goliath of Gath is thrust into his position as the Philistines's representative champion though the machinations of a scheming captain. His confusion is palpable, and understandable, but -- being a good soldier -- he does as he's told, finding a sort of peace in his new lot until the inevitable end. As you'd expect from the title, it's Goliath who has our sympathies in this version of the tale: The Giant as Everyman.

Gauld is a crackerjack cartoonist, and his somewhat geometric art style lends a bit of ancientness and grandeur to his telling, even as his dialogue is often mundane and just-this-side-of-sarcastically humorous. His choice to include biblical narration at various points throughout the tale reminds us that this is an old story, yet it also serves as a foil to his own chosen perspective on events, creating ironic high/low tonal distinctions. He also does amazing things with text, such as chopping off word balloons in unexpected fashions to create mood or utilizing a bizarre "typeface" for an Israelite's speech to highlight the fact that Goliath can't understand a word the other man is saying.

The book is a joy to read, but -- because Gauld is such a master of pacing and the use of silent panels -- it also seemed to be over far too quickly. I find myself in the odd position of wishing that this tale were the anchor story in an anthology of other work by Gauld; Goliath is more of an excellently realized "graphic short story" than a "graphic novel." I know that he has another book in the works, a collection of his Guardian strips, and I'm very much looking forward to that. (You can get a preview of those strips in his excellent Tumblr site, You're All Just Jealous of My Jetpack.) I'm also looking forward to seeing him apply his considerable cartooning chops to a really long-form narrative in the future.

by Tom Gauld
Drawn and Quarterly, 2012
ISBN-10: 1770460659
ISBN-13: 978-1770460652
96 pages, $19.95

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Review: The Evil Garden, by Edward Gorey

A bubbling pond, a malicious rock, an aunt-eating plant: all this and more await within The Evil Garden by Edward Gorey - or rather, by Eduard Blutig, translated by Mrs. Regera Dowdy, with pictures by O. Müde, as the book's preface would have it. Anyone already familiar with Gorey's brand of Edwardian crosshatchings knows what they're in store for here; for those unfamiliar, let's just say that your dictionary's entry for "dark, dry humor" should be illustrated with one of Gorey's images.

Told in rhymed couplets and wry illustrations, The Evil Garden is a pleasant diversion, made moreso by Pomegranate Communications' attention to detail (love the vegetative endpapers!). A quick but satisfying read, and a perfect gift book for that special someone who delights in the macabre.

The Evil Garden
by Edward Gorey
Pomegranate, 2011
ISBN-10: 0764958852
ISBN-13: 978-0764958854
32 pages, $12.95

A version of this review was originally published at LibraryThing.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Review: Fidel: A Graphic Novel Life of Fidel Castro, by Kohan and Scherma

Fidel: A Graphic Novel Life of Fidel Castro, by Néstor Kohan and Nahuel Scherma isn't really a graphic novel; it's a heavily illustrated biography, with many of those illustrations appearing as cartoons (speech balloons and all). It's also more a hagiography than an objective biography, and the USA comes off pretty poorly - sometimes understandably, sometimes less so. Given those parameters, the book accomplishes what it wants to fairly directly, if didactically.

Those seeking a balanced portrait of Fidel Castro should look elsewhere; this one's for True Believers only.

Fidel: A Graphic Novel Life of Fidel Castro
by Néstor Kohan and Nahuel Scherma
Seven Stories Press, 2010
ISBN-10: 1583227822
ISBN-13: 978-1583227824
192 pages, $14.95

A version of this review was originally published at LibraryThing.

Review: I Like You, by Amy Sedaris

This book, a collection of home-entertaining party ideas, decorating tips, and recipes was mostly a whole lot of fun. Amy Sedaris can always make me laugh, even if - indeed, especially because - her humor can be... more than occasionally inappropriate. I was surprised, though, that at times the book actually conveyed some genuine warmth and compassion along with all the kitsch and non-p.c. silliness.

Unfortunately, I read a Kindle version, borrowed from my library. Big mistake. The print book is highly illustrated and designed, but the beauty and the layout-logic of the printed book just get destroyed in the ebook version. So. Ugly.

I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence
by Amy Sedaris
Warner Books, 2009
ISBN-10: 0446696773
ISBN-13: 978-0446696777
304 pages, $15.99

A version of this review was originally published at Goodreads.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Review: Bruce, by Peter Ames Carlin

Bruce Springsteen is another of my musical heroes. But I don't keep up on the latest music news like I used to, so I wasn't aware that there was a new book about him in the works until I saw a copy of it in a bookstore a few weeks ago. I quickly requested a copy from the library, and once it arrived I dove right in.

Peter Ames Carlin's biography Bruce is advertised on its dust jacket flap as "the first in twenty-five years to be written with the cooperation of Bruce Springsteen himself." That cooperation is apparent throughout: The book can boast original interviews with not just Springsteen himself, but also most of his family; current and former (and, sadly, deceased) members of not only The E Street Band but of pretty much every band Bruce has ever been a part of; management teams; crew members; journalists; childhood and family friends; and more.

However, as Carlin notes in the Acknowledgments section,
This was never an 'authorized' book in the technical sense. (I had no contractual relationship with Bruce, Thrill Hill Productions, or Jon Landau Management; they had no control over what I would eventually write.)
It took until page 472 for him to confirm my suspicions that the book might not be authorized. Beyond the fact that the cover would have proudly announced that fact if it had been, there was simply too much evidence throughout that seemed out of place in an official biography, too many anecdotes where Springsteen, frankly, comes off poorly. These aren't tales of drunken or drug-fueled binges: It seems that Bruce pretty much never did drugs, and his drinking, when it was there, never rose to the level of abuse, or even of public drunkenness. (Quite a change from almost every other rock star biography!) Rather, the book tells tales of Bruce's immaturity (which seemed to last quite a long time, well into adulthood), his anger, and his tendency to manipulate, particularly lovers and bandmates.

Indeed, the line between "lovers and bandmates" is a fuzzy one. Not just in the obvious example of Patti Scialfa, who joined the E Street Band in 1984 for the "Born in the U.S.A." tour (after having first auditioned for one of Bruce's bands back in 1971!) and who later became Bruce's second wife and mother of their three children, but in the example of nearly everyone who's ever played in a band with him. Many of their interviews reveal a similar mixture of fierce dedication to, admiration for, and frustration with Bruce the man (though pretty much everyone can't praise his musicianship and dedication to his craft enough). These relationships are complicated. There is a deep an abiding love between them all, but Bruce also is clearly their employer (their "boss"), as he has occasionally been known to make clear - as when once, on the "Darkness" tour, he discovered two of his band members doing cocaine: he exploded and threaten to fire anyone who would do that again. "'I could replace any of those guys in twenty-four hours.' The he thought for a moment. 'Except for Clarence [Clemons]. Replacing Clarence would take some time'" (262).

And Clemons himself makes a similar point, speaking about the time when Springsteen took a break from / broke up the E Street Band after the "Tunnel of Love" tour:
'It's like being married to someone. You have certain expectations of someone because you love them so much. But the these things happen, and he probably doesn't even notice. So I felt like I put all this out for the situation and didn't get much back.' (433)
Bruce's attitude toward his girlfriends could be equally capricious. As Joyce Hyser reminisced, "'His whole thing in those days was, "When I want to see you, you need to be here, and when I don't, you need to be gone"'" (290). His failed first marriage, to the actress Julianne Phillips, gets a somewhat cursory treatment, apart from generally positive memories for friends; neither Bruce nor Phillips speaks to Carlin on the record about it beyond vaguely complimentary memories of each other, and Carlin does not pry further. Bruce's relationship with Patti is presented as complicated at first (as would be expected), but quite solid once their first child was born. Scialfa did not contribute much of anything to the book (she "stayed out of it for the most part, but was welcoming all the same" [472]).

It's hard to imagine these days, when Springsteen has become something like a national musical treasure, that there was a time, even after fame had begun in earnest after "Born to Run," that the band's fortunes - not to mention its future - were gravely in doubt, due to the lawsuits between Bruce and his manager Mike Appel. Forbidden from recording, the band played gigs to get by - but just barely get by. This ancedote was frighteningly telling:
When [Gary W.] Tallent checked out a Springsteen/E Street tribute band playing in a bar near his apartment in Sea Bright, he learned that the tribute bassist made three times more for playing Tallent's parts than Tallent earned for creating, recording, and then playing them around the country. (230)
What's truly impressive about the book, however, is the insight it gives you into Springsteen's creative process, his dedication to his songwriting, and how hard he and his bands have always worked to get to the sound that he has in his head and that he wishes to create both on record and on stage. You get a good sense of his fanatical dedication in the Thom Zimny-directed documentaries included in the large "Born To Run" and "Darkness On The Edge Of Town" box sets, but the book's career-long span really drives this point home. Which is why this comment from Bruce on the spontaneously recorded "We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions" album seems so shocking:
'It's fascinating to record a song when the musicians don't know it,' he told USA Today's Edna Gundersen. 'If people learn their parts too well, they consciously perform rather than flat-out play.' (424)
That "perform" is telling, I think. When the E Street Band is on stage, it's a performance. There's lots of spontaneity, of course, perhaps moreso than nearly any other band; but that spontaneity has its bedrock in an excruciating amount of rehearsal, not just of the music, but of the stagecraft. And given some of the information we learn about tensions among the band members (well, really, between individuals and Bruce), particularly at the start of tours after there have been (Bruce-induced) breaks, I have to wonder if at times the camaraderie and good humor they demonstrate on stage ("night after night after night," as their bandleader is fond of intoning) isn't occasionally a bit of performance as well.

But then I read this from Clarence, and I wonder again:
'Bruce is so passionate about what he believes, that if you're around him, you have to feel it. It'll become part of your passion.... I believed in him like I believed in God. That kind of feeling. He was always so straight and so dedicated to what he believes, you become a believer simply by being around him. People see him and think, "This is how it's supposed to be, this is how it's supposed to happen." You dedicate your life to something. And Bruce represents that.' (433)
Bruce is a solid read throughout, interested more in biography than in analyzing lyrics (there are plenty of other books for that purpose). You learn about Springsteen the artist as well as Springsteen the man, from an author who, while clearly admiring his subject (and perhaps even idolizing him, a bit), nevertheless isn't averse to pointing out the lows as well as the highs. The last couple of chapters, on the most recent decade, are generally less enlightening than the rest of the book, but I suppose that's to be expected when writing of a subject who's still alive. The bulk of the book enjoys and exploits the benefits of hindsight, from Bruce, from the other interview subjects, from Carlin himself; the last few years are probably still too recent in everyone's memory to allow for much reflective thought yet.

Overall, Bruce is a nuanced, comprehensive portrait of a vital artist, as well as of his circle of friends and fellow artists. I've been a Springsteen fan for thirty years or so, but I still learned a lot from this book.

by Peter Ames Carlin
Touchstone, 2012
ISBN-10: 1439191824
ISBN-13: 978-1439191828
512 pages, $28.00

Review: The Cave and the Cathedral, by Amir D. Aczel

This book contained fascinating information, but the writing itself didn't do much for me; it was often repetitive and less-than-clearly organized. At many times, it read like an early draft of miscellaneous snips of writing instead of like a finished, polished manuscript.

The Cave and the Cathedral:
How a Real-Life Indiana Jones and a Renegade Scholar
Decoded the Ancient Art of Man
by Amir D. Aczel
John Wiley & Sons, 2009
ISBN-10: 0470373539
ISBN-13: 978-0470373538
264 pages, $25.95

A version of this review was originally published at Goodreads.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Review: Scenes from an Impending Marriage, by Adrian Tomine

I was a big fan of Adrian Tomine's Optic Nerve when it was first being published, but eventually I became disenchanted with his work; it just became to seem too sterile, too "same-y" for my tastes. But when I read an excerpt of Scenes from an Impending Marriage in this year's Best American Comics anthology, I was enchanted, and I quickly requested a copy of the book from my library. I wasn't disappointed.

Tomine's cartooning is looser here than I'm used to seeing - he's having fun, and it shows. The book is a collection of short-short stories, vignettes, and even one-panel cartoons concerning the planning of his wedding to his fiancee Sarah. Anyone who's ever gotten married will identify with these mini-horror stories, which are nevertheless told with engaging humor. The influence of Charles Schulz (Peanuts) shows up more than once here, to good effect. This is a slight book (you can read it in a few minutes), but it's a keeper, and it has convinced me to check out some more of Tomine's recent work. If it's half as entertaining as this book, I'll be happy.

Scenes from An Impending Marriage
a prenuptial memoir by Adrian Tomine
Drawn & Quarterly, 2011
ISBN-10: 1770460349
ISBN-13: 978-1770460348
54 pages, $9.95

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Review: Blabber Blabber Blabber (Everything vol. 1), by Lynda Barry

I freely admit it: It's impossible for me to be objective about the work of Lynda Barry. I simply believe her to be one of the very finest cartoonists ever to have lived. I first discovered her work in the pages of RAW (edited by Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly) back in the early 1990s, and I quickly became a devoted follower of her work, both in books and in her syndicated comic strip Ernie Pook's Comeek.

Blabber Blabber Blabber is a collection of her earliest published work, the bulk of which has never before appeared in book form. It also includes her complete 1981 publication Girls and Boys (the whole book - even the endpapers!). These early comics are accompanied by lengthy, contextualizing, collage-based autobiographical/historical sections by Barry [watch for guest stars like Matt Groening and Gary Panter!]. Reading this book is a joyful experience.

I found it quite interesting, after absorbing her two previous "how to be creative" books (What it Is [2008] and Picture This [2010]), to see how evident Barry's thematic preoccupations have been from the earliest days of her career. She mines her early and inner lives not for autobiography, but for verisimilitude: Her work feels solid, feels "real," in ways that are poetic and crystalline, wild and dangerous, careful and carefree. I cannot recommend her work highly enough, and Blabber Blabber Blabber is a great place to start.

Blabber Blabber Blabber
[Everything. Volume 1, Collected and uncollected comics from around 1978-1982]
By Lynda Barry
Drawn and Quarterly, 2011
ISBN-10: 1770460527
ISBN-13: 978-1770460522
176 pages, $24.95

A shorter version of this review was originally published at Goodreads.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Review: Superman: Grounded, vol. 1, by Straczynski and Barrows et al.

I see that this is "Volume 1." I'd be somewhat curious to read volume 2, if only to see if there's any larger point to any of this. Uninspired story, lackluster visuals, unanswered questions, but little suspense. Curious that the "Volume 1" tag only appears in 4-point type in the indicia - there's nothing else about the book that gives a clue that all you're getting is just a part of a larger (?) story.

Superman: Grounded vol 1
by J. Michael Straczynski and Eddy Barrows et al.
DC Comics, 2011
ISBN-10: 1401230768
ISBN-13: 978-1401230760
168 pages, $17.99

This review was originally published in slightly different form at Goodreads.

Review: Who I Am, by Pete Townshend

Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend is one of my musical heroes, but a complicated person: spiritual but self-destructive, innovative but prone to nostalgia. So I was predisposed to like this book, yet knowing full well that parts of it would annoy the hell out of me. And I wasn't far wrong. I came away both admiring him more than I had before, but feeling sad for him and being angry at him in equal measure, as well.

His childhood traumas, hinted at in earlier portraits of him I've read, are spelled out in a bit more detail here, though some things - especially what was most likely molestation at the hands of one of his grandmother's boyfriends - are discussed only nebulously. Which is absolutely within his right: no one needs to know specific details like that, perhaps most especially the young boy who experienced their horrors in the first place. The trauma has haunted him personally, artistically, and, sadly, publicly ever since.

We learn a lot of the thinking behind not just his songs, but behind his career moves: his struggles in developing the band The Who's looks and sounds, his solo albums, his editing career with Faber and Faber, his many charity works, his spiritual quests. What we don't learn as much of as I would have expected is about his Who bandmates Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle, and Keith Moon. It's not that we learn nothing about them, or of Pete's opinions of them; we do, but somehow I expected them to play larger roles here. This is probably my own failing, however, of still thinking of Pete as "a member of The Who" instead of as his own person. Of course we get some crazy Keith stories, and tales of fistfights with Roger, and concerns over John's financial difficulties; but mostly, what comes through is his obvious love for these men, his absolute admiration of them as friends and musicians. Roger in fact comes across as a rock for Pete more often than I would have guessed.

He's generally very forthright about his goals and choices, and he isn't afraid to admit mistakes (which are many). For a man who had it in his mind that he wanted to be a good husband and father, he had a remarkable ability to fall in love with other women at the drop of a hat. Was he confused and conflicted? Yes. Did he reign himself in? Occasionally. Did I want to slap him for his inconsiderate stupidity? Repeatedly.

The same could be said for his use of drink and drugs, which varied over time from abstinence to depravity. Yes, it's "the life of a rock star" - but why, damnit? He gives some reasons, but they're usually excuses. His multiple, non-ironic references to alcohol as "medicinal" in small doses seem myopic for someone who's had a much therapy and treatment as he's had. I'm far from a teetotaler myself, but if someone has an admitted, serious alcohol problem, comments like these seem disingenuous, at least. But again, what he's given us is a portrait not of a perfect or perfected person, but of one who is at least acutely aware of and at peace with himself.

Of course, a career like his is full of great stories, and even having been a fairly obsessive fan, there was a lot here that was new and unfamiliar to me. Phil Collins called to offer his services as drummer after Moon died? Pete was and is a fan of Bruce Springsteen? I knew of Pete's longstanding and fruitful obsession with recording technology, but not with boating. And he does sort of claim to have invented the idea of the Internet, though that one is less of a surprise.

Townshend is a good writer (this is not news), and I've seen enough interviews with him that I could easily hear his voice, his cadence in my head as I read the book; if there was any ghost-writing involved here, I'd be astonished. He does have a tendency to skip back and forth at times chronologically, but that might simply be a symptom of a life pulled in several directions at once. In the Acknowledgments, he admits that he had to cut the book down from 1,000 pages to 500 pages, and you definitely can feel the gaps at times at times; I would love to be able to read the longer version.

Who I Am: A Memoir
by Pete Townshend
Harper, 2012
ISBN-10: 0062127241
ISBN-13: 978-0062127242
544 pages, $32.50

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Review: The Truth About Cousin Ernie's Head, by Matthew McElligott

What a strange little book! Crazy family arguments are "settled" in an unusual way, through the discovery of old home movies, with disastrous results. Some innovative visual storytelling (which I won't give away here) adds to the fun. The library categorizes this children's picturebook as a Holiday book, because the story takes place at Thanksgiving, but it would make a good read for any time.

The Truth About Cousin Ernie's Head
by Matthew McElligott
Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing, 1996
ISBN-10: 0689801793
ISBN-13: 978-0689801792
32 pages, $16.99[?]

This review was originally published in slightly different form at Goodreads.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Review: Unterzakhn, by Leela Corman

Esther and Fanya are twin sisters and first-generation Jewish Americans growing up on the Lower East Side of New York City in the early 20th Century in Leela Corman's graphic novel Unterzakhn ("underthings"). We follow the girls from around age six well into adulthood, tracing their very different but intertwined life paths: Fanya takes a job with a female doctor who specializes in women's health, while Esther works in a burlesque house / bordello before establishing herself in New York's arts scene. With set-ups like that, you might guess that events take dark, adult turns, and you wouldn't be wrong. Some of the story points teeter towards the melodramatic, but they're nevertheless convincing and compelling. Flashbacks to the twins' father's youth in Europe show a different sort of grasping at life's opportunities and viscitudes -- rural, not urban like the girls' -- but together these life portraits bring the past, a specific past, to life.

Corman's art, always accomplished, here takes on an almost velvety texture. The drawing on the first twenty five or so pages is tighter, more delicate and controlled than the rest of the book; but after that things tend to get looser, with ink lines growing bolder, more gestural, lusher. (Hair in particular becomes an occasion for artistic abandon.) The settings are richly defined -- Corman's research doesn't hit you over the head, but it informs every page, every panel. These are lived-in environments, detailed and believable.

Unterzakhn is a book about choices and circumstance, adversity and love. It's not always an easy read, but it's a valuable one. 

by Leela Corman
Schocken Books, 2012
ISBN-10: 0805242597
ISBN-13: 978-0805242591

208 pages, $24.95

Review: The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull

The Art of the Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien is everything it should be. It reproduces every surviving image author J.R.R. Tolkien produced for his children's novel The Hobbit (1937) and provides copious contextualizing essays by editors Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. I'm no Tolkien expert (far from it!), but the text seemed extremely authoritative, based on solid research and textual understanding. Several gatefolds throughout allow easy comparison of Tolkien's various drafts of many illustrations, sometimes evolving from just a few scratched lines to eventual woodcut-like ink drawings or lush watercolor paintings

Some of Tolkien's early drawings seem positively amateurish, but I find many of the finished pieces simply breathtaking in their beauty. This book demonstrates that the painstaking care he put into his writing applied equally well to his artwork. Since maps play a large role in creating the scope of Tolkien's Middle Earth, it's gratifying to see their development here, as his skills improved and his story concepts changed or expanded.

Being a publication design nerd, I especially appreciated the attention paid by the text - and by Tolkien himself - to even the smallest things, like the decorative elements embossed on the hardcover.

This book may have been timed to coincide with the release of the upcoming motion picture, but this is no quickie tie-in product. It's a substantial volume in its own right.

The Art of The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
Edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
ISBN-10: 0547928254
ISBN-13: 978-0547928258
144 pages, $40.00