Cornwell, Patricia D. Cruel & Unusual. NY: Scribner, 1993.
This is only the second of the author’s “Kay Scarpetta” novels that I’ve read, and I wasn’t all that impressed with Postmortem, so I approached this fourth book in the series with some scepticism, even though It seems to be one of the best reviewed. After a decade of appeals, Ronnie Joe Waddell is finally being executed and Scarpetta waits to perform the autopsy (though I’m not clear why that should be necessary). But that same evening, a young boy is ritually murdered in a manner very reminiscent of Waddell’s style. That’s followed by another murder — and Waddell’s fingerprints apparently are found on the scene. Was someone else executed in his place? The authorities involved, of course, don’t even want to think about such an appalling possibility. More murders follow, including Scarpetta’s own Morgue Attendant, and suddenly links seem to be turning up to tie the Chief Medical Examiner to the killings, as well as to corruption in her own office. All the action takes place in the few weeks preceding and following the Christmas-New Year’s holidays, and the gray, cold winter adds greatly to the flavor of the narration. There’s no question that this one is an improvement over the first one I read. Cornwell doesn’t bring in a completely new character in the last chapter to be the villain, for one thing. And she has added considerable depth to the personalities of all the repeating characters, especially Lt. Pete Marino of Richmond Homicide and FBI Special Agent Benton Wesley. My favorite, though, is Lucy, Scarpetta’s niece from Miami, who possesses what another character calls a “frightening intellect.” But she’s still seventeen years old, and her home life is, in many ways, not a happy one. Aunt Kay really does try to be the friend and confident to Lucy that she would like to be, but she has her own emotional problems — not least among them the death of her lover in an IRA bombing in London less than a year before — and her naturally reserved and somewhat stony personality is sometimes her own worst liability. There are problems, though. Cornwell has a rather pompous style, especially when she’s describing the latest crime-fighting technological advances, or the ins and outs of UNIX. It’s as if she enjoys saying “I know more about this than you do.” She also indulges in irritating word-choices, such as not knowing the difference between “in” and “inside” (e.g., “I put my revolver inside my purse”), and she seems to be unaware of the use of contractions in ordinary speech. Still, the well thought out plot and the complications in possible motives and interpretations kept me reading. Many fans and reviewers take it as a given that Cornwell is the “best” mystery writer working, which I can’t agree with at all. But she’s not bad. (12/31/03)
Turtledove, Harry. Gunpowder Empire. NY: Tor, 2003.
When Harry is on a roll, he produces some of the best alternate history yarns of recent years. When he’s not paying attention, however, his stuff can be overwritten and under-thought, sloppily edited and thin in the plot line. More than that, this first volume in a series is obviously a Young Adult book but there’s no indication of the target audience anywhere on it. The premise is that sometime in the next few decades, we will stumble across the technology (never explained or even theorized about) to cross into variant timelines: Worlds where Germany won World War II, where the Armada conquered England, where the Vikings stayed in New England and beat off later European settlers, etc. In other words, all the usual alternate history themes. Specifically, this one is set in an alternate Rome where Agrippa survived into old age, conquered Germania for Augustus, and established a 2,000-year empire which is now just beginning to develop cannon and flintlocks. Teenagers Jeremy and Amanda Solters accompany their mercantilist parents every summer to an alternate town in Romania (Dacia in that world), where they carry on a brisk business in pocket watches, glass mirrors, and Swiss Army knives. They have to be careful not to upset things in that world by talking too much — just what effect all this alien technology is supposed to have is lightly passed over — and they take grain in trade rather than silver because the Home Line needs the food. Then their mother develops appendicitis and has to be escorted back through the portal by their father. And then the portal malfunctions and the kids, naturally, have to fend for themselves — possibly forever. And then the Lietuvans (Lithuanians) invade. And then, and then, and then. The author takes every opportunity to impress upon the reader just how dirty and disease-ridden and ignorant and generally unpleasant Agrippan Rome is. (Yeah, so are Ecuador and Bangladesh and the South Bronx in this world. . . .) But he does it by talking down to the reader, using short sentences, and repeating the didactic messages over and over. I got two-thirds of the way through and found I didn’t much care what happened to Jeremy and Amanda, so I tossed aside this not-thick book (288 small-size pages) and went on to something else that wasn’t a waste of my reading time. The notion that this is only the first installment of a new series does not excite me at all. (12/28/03)
Evanovich, Janet. Three to Get Deadly. NY: Scribner, 1997.
Evanovich is getting better and better at this series. Stephanie Plum, semi-reluctant bounty hunter for five months now for her bail bondsmen cousin, Vinnie, is still trying hard, still learning her trade, still relying on others as necessary. If she didn’t live in Trenton’s blue-collar “burg,” surrounded by supportive family, old school friends, and her ever-reliable gossip network, she probably would never make it. But she can always call on Ranger, a truly bad-ass bounty hunter and her sometime mentor. And she can always go home for meals when the checks are slow in coming. And especially, she can always depend on vice cop Morelli to show up with pizza, park outside her apartment building watching for the bad guys, and keep her lust stoked. This time, the quarry is the burg’s beloved “Uncle Mo” Bedemier, proprietor of the candy store, who has always opposed drugs and bad influences generally and whose store has long been a safe haven for kids. Uncle Mo got tapped by a rookie for carrying concealed and not only has he blown off his court date (which makes him scum as far as Vinnie is concerned, regardless of how the rest of the community feels about him), he’s completely disappeared. More than that, drug dealers begin disappearing, too, including several that Stephanie and her wannabe sidekick, Lula, literally stumble over themselves. As with the first two books, there are plenty of very funny, very cinematic scenes here — especially the great chicken takedown. (12/27/03)
Lodge, David. Home Truths. NY: Penguin Books, 2000.
I’m a great fan of Lodge’s novels, so I was surprised to find a title published in the UK in 1999 with which I was not familiar. Short, too — only 115 pages. It turns out to be a novelization of a stage play, which means it’s about 95 percent dialogue. Which is okay with me, since Lodge is very good at divulging character through dialogue. This one is about Adrian Ludlow, ex-novelist, now living with his wife in a cottage under the flight path from Gatwick, and his long-time friend, Sam Sharp, a financially very successful screenwriter. It’s the early summer of 1997 and Sam has recently been savaged by a London newspaper interviewer called Fanny Tarrant — one of those paparazzi-in-print whose reputations are built on making gleeful mincemeat of the famous. There are any number of editors who would like to see Fanny taken down a peg or three, and Sam has a plan for revenge. Fanny also had approached Adrian about an interview and he, being no fool, had declined. But what if he were to agree, and then write his own scathing counter-interview, turning her own methods back upon her? Adrian agrees, not entirely for Sam’s sake, . . . but, of course, none of it goes quite according to plan. Not for Adrian, not for his wife, Eleanor, not even for Fanny. As Lodge quotes from the OED, a “home truth” is “a wounding mention of a person’s weakness,” and that’s what this piece is about, in spades. This isn’t one of Lodge’s major efforts, but it’s certainly worth reading. (12/24/03)
Evanovich, Janet. Two for the Dough. NY: Scribner, 1996.
I’m getting to like Stephanie Plum, Trenton’s most unlikely bounty-hunter. I especially like Grandma Mazur, Trenton’s answer to Dirty Harry! Stephanie could stick with the small-time bond-jumpers, but they don’t pay enough, so she feels the need to make a comparatively big score by bringing in Kenny Mancuso, charged with shooting his cousin Moogey in the knee. But then Moogey gets dead and the odds go up. And stolen Army weapons enter the picture. And so does Joe Morelli, one of Trenton’s finest and also Kenny’s cousin. It’s a complicated plot but Evanovich handles it very well and with considerable wry humor. She’s also very good at delineating the scarier characters and assorted sociopaths who crop up. What I want to know is, why hasn’t there been a movie made from this series? The scene in the beauty parlor and the last scene in the funeral home basement would make terrific footage. I see someone like Renée Zellweger as Stephanie. . . . (12/22/03)
Evanovich, Janet. One for the Money. NY: Scribner, 1994.
Stephanie Plum is a product of the respectable blue-collar section of Trenton, an attitude-filled Jersey girl with balls — but really not as many as she thinks. When her job as a lingerie buyer disappears, she tries to make some money by convincing her cousin Vinnie, a bail bondsman, to let her take on some skips for ten percent of the bond. The top-paying case is Joseph Morelli, who punched her ticket in high school behind the eclairs case at the bakery where she worked. He’s now a cop, charged with killing an apparently unarmed man. Everybody knows everybody else in this town, and Stephanie actually manages to find Morelli several times in short order, . . . if only she had some idea what to do once she’s found him. Coaching by Ranger, a Vietnam vet and hotshot “apprehension agent,” and by her cop brother-in-law finally gets her going in the right direction. Sort of. Only, there’s also a very large, very psychotic boxer with a history of torturing women who wants to teach Stephanie to respect and fear him. Throw in her adventures with an oil-guzzling Chevy Nova, her “commandeering” of the suspect’s own car, her inability to control her hormones where Morelli is concerned, her family (especially Grandma Mazur, who’s a hoot), her strained fashion sense, and the two Stark Street hookers she cultivates, and this yarn will keep you involved to the last page. Evanovich, herself a Jerseyite, has the people, the locations, and the banter down cold, and she also shows great talent in constructing a believable plot. This is the first of what has become a very popular series, and you could do a lot worse. (12/13/03)
Pekar, Harvey & R. Crumb. American Splendor Presents Bob & Harv’s Comics. NY: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996.
I’ve been a fan of Robert Crumb’s grungy style of art since the early 1970s, but I didn’t discover Pekar until about 1990. Having seen the efforts of numerous artists to render his writing into pictures, Crumb gave me the image I carry in my head of what Pekar is really like. I recently heard him interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR, and I could definitely visualize Pekar-out-of-Crumb sitting there in the studio, yup. I’ve heard friends put down American Splendor because most of the stories have no “plot” — which is true, of course. Some of these things are actual narratives (how the author finally escaped his collecting addiction is good) but others are merely vignettes. So, no superheroes here, no headlong action. Just very ordinary people whom Pekar comes across in his daily routine as a government file clerk and jazz record collector, and whom I (usually) find fascinating. Mr. Boats, especially, cracks me up. So does “Hospital Fun.” Good writing + good art = good book. (12/10/03)
Rogers, Jane (ed). Good Fiction Guide. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2001.
As both a very heavy reader of broad tastes and interests, and a librarian (i.e., a professional recommender of books), I’m always on the look-out for new lists of other people’s reading recommendations. This one runs to nearly 500 pages, most of it in the form of brief, individually authored articles (from less than half a column in length to nearly a whole page for people like F. Scott Fitzgerald) on writers who mostly have been originally published in English, ranging from Defoe and Dickens and Henry Fielding to Patricia Cornwell and Neal Stephenson and Bridget Fielding. There are also nearly three dozen topical essays — Canada, Fantasy, Film Adaptations, The Sea, Teen, etc — which I frankly found too idiosyncratic to be of much use. It took me several weeks to work my way slowly through this thing, notepad at hand to jot down authors and titles that were new to me, or which the reviewer convinced me I ought to reconsider. I filled more than a dozen pages, which means I can happily push this volume on other dedicated readers. Not that I don’t have some caveats. No such book can be all-inclusive, of course, so I won’t complain about the (in my opinion) excellent authors who were omitted. Though I’m annoyed that a relatively minor science fiction author from the ‘50s like John Wyndham is discussed, but not the innovative John Varley. On the other hand, can you even begin to talk about Robert Coover without mentioning his most widely-read novel, The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.? Or Stephen King with no mention of The Stand, which is as close as he has yet come to a magnum opus? There seems also to be a heavy emphasis on British writers, with many minor names being included out of proportion to less-known U.S. authors; this bias is not noted in the Introduction, but becomes obvious as you browse. Well, an editor’s lot is never an easy one. But they really should have included a title index. (12/07/03)
Morgan, Richard K. Altered Carbon. NY: Ballantine, 2002.
Takeshi Kovacs, a native of Harlan’s World and an ex-member of the thoroughly lethal UN Envoys, has inhabited many bodies in his career, both male and female, both natural and enhanced or even synthetic. That’s the way life is lived in the 25th century. This ability to transfer personality and memories from one “sleeve” to another on demand also means it’s seldom necessary to experience Real Death — if you can afford it. It also means that the need for societal punishment usually results in having your cortical stack put on ice for a few decades, or even centuries — and you might not get your own body back when you’re released. Kovacs, though, is not typical, not even for an Envoy, and when he (or his consciousness) is needlecast across 180 light years to Earth by the excessively wealthy Laurens Bancroft to be offered a job investigating Bancroft’s murder, he finds he can’t refuse. The investigation gets him involved with all levels of Earth’s society and with a wide variety of very artfully drawn characters, and he soon finds himself caught up in a vast conspiracy that he has very little chance of surviving. Woven through the story is Quellist philosophy (“Take it personally”) and Kovacs’s previous history and the ghosts that haunt him. This blend of noir detective thriller and uncommonly inventive cyberpunk is an astonishing piece of work for a first novel, and I expect Morgan to become well known in the sf community in a very short space of time. (11/28/03)
Domesday Book: A Complete Translation. (Alecto Historical Editions) London: Penguin Books, 2002.
It takes a particular sort of reader to rejoice at the prospect of an all-new translation of a 900-year-old government-sponsored economic and agricultural census. I’m well acquainted with the Phillimore 35-volume edition published in the 1970s, and I own Finn’s guide to it, but this new effort is a lovely piece of work — and it’s portable enough to actually carry around with you. The Alecto translation was itself based on the Victoria History of the Counties of England version, but much improved and updated. This volume also omits the marginalia, which is too bad, but it does interpolate a great many bracketed words to fill the original scribe’s frequent elisions. There’s also an extremely thorough Index of Places — but not one of persons, a glaring omission, since so many larger landholders possessed estates throughout a county, or even in numerous counties. Nevertheless, an excellent publication, and at a very reasonable price. (11/21/03)
Lucas, Christopher J. & John W. Murry, Jr. New Faculty: A Practical Guide for Academic Beginners. NY: Palgrave, 2002.
It can be difficult making the transition from graduate student to college professor, and in nearly all colleges and universities — unless you’re one of the fortunate few to be adopted by a talented mentor — you have to do most of it all by yourself, with only the occasional anecdotal assistance from other newbies. Even though all your more senior colleagues made the same journey from chrysalis to butterfly (or moth, in many cases), they quickly forget the tribulations of the process, and so there is little or nothing in the way of meaningful orientation offered at most schools. I had high hopes for this not-thick volume as a useful manual to assist the newly appointed instructor, and indeed it does one the service of bringing a lot of material together in one place, but a reader who has been thinking and reading about the subject for a few years will find nothing original here. All the advice on teaching methods, advising students, why and how to get yourself published, why and how to pursue grant money, and the great and foggy subject of “faculty service” has been cribbed from other (presumably more original) authors. However, the thing I found particularly off-putting about this book is that all of it is couched in a self-conscious vocabulary and phrasing that almost serves as a model of academic-speak. And that’s not a compliment! (11/15/03)
Lambdin, Dewey. The King’s Coat. NY: Donald I. Fine, 1989.
It’s takes nerve to invent a new Napoleonic War-era fictional naval hero when you’re competing with Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey, not to mention a half-dozen lesser lights. Except Alan Lewrie isn’t really “heroic,” though he has nerve when needed. He’s the bastard offspring of a scheming member of the minor London aristocracy, well educated enough and skilled with weapons, but profligate with money and definitely a “user” when it comes to women. After being set up (we don’t know why — yet) and caught in bed with his half-sister, he has the choice of being hauled before a magistrate or being packed off to sea as a midshipman. After a rough few months, he learns his trade well enough to be of some use on a deck and discovers a love of artillery. He makes some friends, loses some, commits some dreadful blunders, and has some unexpected successes. He’s not a villain but neither is he entirely honest. In other words, he’s a very human being and probably better than most of his class by our standards. Lambdin writes with humor and verve, inventing believable characters and painting excellent word pictures of the engagements in which Lewrie takes part — but I wish he hadn’t so casually elided what appear to be substantial portions of his protagonist’s first year at sea. (11/11/03)
Eversz, Robert. Burning Garbo. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003.
Nina Zero, on parole after imprisonment for a (justified) manslaughter — for the details of which you need to read the previous two novels — is trying hard to stay straight and make a living as a paparazza for a Los Angeles tabloid, but by now there’s virtually none of the original good-girl Mary Alice Baker left. Deep down, she’s a good person, but she’s also quite capable of dealing with the county slammer when she gets picked up “on suspicion” (which happens to parolees on a regular basis). The first novel, Shooting Elvis, was very, very good as a character study; the second one, Killing Paparazzi, was okay but more of a straight detective story. This third installment sports the brand label “A Nino Zero Novel” on the front cover, which is not a good sign. The plot revolves around the death by arson of a reclusive movie star in the Malibu hills, which the cops like Nina for, since she was conveniently present. The deceased actress’s estranged niece and sort-of stepfather (himself a crusty retired cop who takes a shine to Nina) want to find out whodunit and Nina, with the help of her equally crusty editor boss, needs to clear herself in order to stay on the outside. The action is complicated by additional deaths, but the real interest here is in the way Eversz draws his characters — not only Nina but all the supporting cast. I had my doubts before whether this could survive as a series, and I still have them, but Nina is a fascinating portrait and I’ll keep reading. (11/07/03)
László, Veres & Richard Woodman. The Story of Sail. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999.
This is one of those collections of extraordinarily detailed and extremely exact drawings that will keep you poring over it with an enlarging lens for weeks. More than 1,000 technical line drawings by a very skilled illustrator takes you from prehistoric bladder-floats and Assyrian reed boats, through Roman grain carriers and Columbus’s little Pinta (a caravela redonda) and West Indiamen of the 18th century, right up to a modern Japanese motor junk and even the Kon-Tiki, not to mention every rigged warship and clipper you ever heard of. And scores of variations on the common fishing boat. And Antarctic exploration vessels. And modern pleasure yachts. And on and on and on! Woodman’s equally clear and detailed explanatory text is icing on the cake. The whole thing is printed on heavy coated paper, which greatly enhances the detail. This is not at all a cheap book, but if this subject fascinates you (as it does me), it’s definitely the best thing out there. (11/05/03)
Pope, Steve. Hornblower’s Navy: Life at Sea in the Age of Nelson. NY: Welcome Rain, 1998.
I’ve been a fan of Hornblower and Aubrey and their ilk for many, many years — but I’m not a sailor, so I sometimes have had to do some research to understand just what I’m reading. Pope is a well-known naval historian and he does an excellent job in this heavily illustrated volume, explaining the role of the highly successful Royal Navy in the late 18th century, describing the jobs and relative stations of officers, ratings and warrant officers (and also of the various rates of warships), and describing the sailor-man’s life and his daily routine. He makes it clear that, however horrendous life at sea might have been compared to our own time, the Brits were far better at it and generally much more humane than the French and their allies. (11/02/03)
Troiani, Don. Don Troiani’s Regiments & Uniforms of the Civil War. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002.
Because I’m a working historian with a strong interest in material culture and artifacts, combined with a tourist’s interest in Civil War battlefields, I’ve long been a fan of Troiani’s amazingly detailed, extremely accurate, almost photographic art. This gorgeous volume combines large-scale reproductions of 130 of his paintings with some 250 color photos of surviving uniforms and equipment from museums and collections around the country (including Troiani’s own). After a couple hours of page-turning, I went back and spent much more time studying the depictions of units of special interest to me, such as the Washington Artillery of New Orleans and Terry’s Texas Rangers. The variety in uniforms and insignia is staggering, especially compared to the “uniformity” of modern military uniforms. As usual, he includes extensive technical notes and specs, as well as an annotated guide to artifact collections. It’s not a cheap book, but it’s worth every penny. (10/19/03)
Hosler, Jay. Clan Apis. Columbus, OH: Active Synapse, 2000.
The first duty of a graphic novel, obviously, is to entertain. Hosler, who has a Ph.D. and specializes in neuroscience and bees, not only tells a really good story about life and personalities in the hive, and is a very talented artist besides, he also manages to cram in a great deal of educational information. Icing on the cake. He starts with the birth and transformation from larva to pupa to adult of Nyuki (Japanese for “bee”), a worker who often annoys her colleague, even her older sister, Dvorah (Hebrew for “bee,” etc.). She gets lost, is almost eaten, befriends a flower named Bloomington and a dung beetle named Sisyphus, finally gets her act together (though she has to be coaxed to leave the hive again for the dangers of the outside world), and goes on to better things — as well as a rather poetic end. The anthropomorphization is actually pretty minor, all things considered. And there’s an interesting postscript about what happened when the author turned out to be allergic to bee stings. I don’t know if Hosler has another insect adventure in him, but I’ll be on the look-out. (10/18/03)
Ottaviani, Jim. Dignifying Science. Ann Arbor, MI: G.T. Labs, 1999.
This well-meant companion volume to the author’s Two Fisted Science is, unfortunately, not nearly as successful as graphic fiction. This time, five women artists tell the stories of five women scientists. While trying to focus on lesser-known people, Ottaviani finally broke down and included a fore-and-aft pair of shorts on Marie Curie. If you’ve read Watson’s The Double Helix, you may already have heard of Rosalind Franklin, who came very close to discovering the essential shape of DNA before Crick and Watson — had she only not moved in the wrong direction on a couple of minor points (and possessed a less abrasive personality). Barbara McClintock picked up a Nobel for her work on the corn genome, you’d really never know what her field was from the badly written story (though the art is okay). Biruté Galdikas has become the world’s leading authority on orangutans (yes, she’s still out there in the jungles of Borneo) and you’ll learn a lot about them — and her — from Anne Timmons’s nicely done piece. But the story of mathematician Lise Meitner is also pretty indistinct. The best of the collection, actually, is Carl Speed McNeil’s very well told and drawn story of the scientific side of Hedy Lamarr, of all people. Hedy (not Heddy) actually held some wartime patents in electronics (which became a crucial part of cell phone technology), but still was treated like a bimbo both by her first husband and by Louis B. Mayer after she escaped to the U.S. This book could have been much, much better. (10/17/03)
Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. 1853.
A couple of decades ago, I went through a period of reading many of the “standard” Dickens novels, but I passed over this one at the time because of the depressing sounding title. Of course, I know now that “Bleak House,” home of John Jarndyce, is anything but bleak, especially after he takes in his young cousin, Ada, and her companion, Esther Summerson — now his ward and eventually much more. Mr. Jarndyce and Ada are parties to an interminable, multigenerational equity law case, Jarndyce & Jarndyce, which has beggared hundreds of innocent people and made the fortunes of scores of lawyers. A major theme running through this very long and very complex novel is, in fact, a detailed condemnation, through satire, of the inhumanity of the English legal system generally and of the Chancery Court in particular. Dickens is a master of literate ridicule; one wishes he were around today to pen an essay or two about our own increasingly litigious society. He’s also a master of characterization, and with some fifty named and described persons in this book, he has plenty of opportunity to demonstrate his skills. Some of the characters are introduced, do their turn on the stage, and disappear, never to be seen again. Others, like Jo, the doomed young crossing-sweeper who “don’t know nothink” and is always being made to “move on” by those in authority, start as apparently minor figures but become major dramatic portraits. The Smallweeds, grandfather and grandson, are well depicted as a dangerously grasping pair, by both genetics and upbringing. But they’re nothing compared to the cold, calculating villainy of Mr. Tulkinghorn, the society lawyer (who gets his in the end). On the other hand, Sgt. George, now a civilian and operating a shooting gallery, is one of the more sympathetic supporting players in the book, as are his friends, the Bagnets. But Sir Leicester Dedlock and his wife are perhaps the most fascinating couple in the story. Both are tragic, for very different reasons, and after Lady Dedlock’s death, the depth of Sir Leicester’s personality increases. Inspector Bucket of the Detectives is another player who starts out almost as a caricature but who eventually gets one of the best detective-explaining-the-case scenes I’ve ever read. And then there’s Esther, the orphaned “little woman,” with her ring of household keys and her willingness to do whatever is necessary for the happiness of others. She’s almost too good, and Dickens is certainly guilty of saccharine melodrama in her case, but still, he makes us care about her. All the author’s well-known narrative tricks are on display, too, including switching from Esther’s thoughtful, often lighthearted first person narrative to a rather darker third-person omniscient, through which we see the real state of things. It’s a long, long book, but after the first chapter I never for a minute considered abandoning it. (10/16/03)
Kliban, B. CatDreams. San Francisco: Pomegranate, 1997.
When I was an R.A. and T.A. in the early ’70s, I had on the wall of my tiny office Kliban’s “Love to eat them mousies” poster, which frequently caused passersby to stop in for a closer look. Some laughed while others just shook their heads — which is pretty much how people have always reacted to what I regard as one of the slyest, most consistently funny cartoon artists around. While he did a lot of terrific non-cat drawings, it’s for those chunky, funky cats that he’s best known, and this collection should please his many fans. They’re all here, too: Cats in red basketball shoes and cowboy boots, cats walking their dogs, cats pursuing mice on cross-country skis, cats feeding wieners to the birds in the park, sumo cats, cats enjoying sushi, disorganized cats competing with mice in outrigger canoes, cats playing Dixieland, cats trying on fashionable tail covers in a cat clothing store, cats painting murals, cats lounging around the campfire, and (of course) cats playing mousie-eating folk songs on the guitar. To put it simply, this is great stuff from a very talented man who died much before his time. (10/15/03)
Little, Jason. Shutterbug Follies. NY: Doubleday, 2002.
One frequent failing of graphic novels is that even the best and most creative artists often fall down when it comes to a coherent plot. I’m happy to say that Little is both a skilled storyteller and a talented artist. (It might be fair to note, though, that he’s married to novelist Myla Goldberg.) Dee is an eighteen-year-old employee of a New York City photo shop with responsibility for running the film processing machine. A pretty dull job, but she enjoys her semi-innocent hobby of making her own copies of the customers’ weirder pictures, which she shares over lunch with her student friend, Lyla. Then a customer named Khatchatourian, who claims to be a crime scene photographer, brings her a roll of film featuring dead bodies, and she becomes suspicious. Dee, whose personality and style Little fleshes out very nicely, is basically a nosy person. Naturally, she embarks on a bit of amateur detective work but quickly finds herself in serious danger. Also naturally, nothing is what it seems. The supporting characters are well done, too, especially Rodney, the cabbie who also has a rock band and becomes Dee’s friend as well as chauffeur, and Huey, who works for Khatchatourian and has personality problems of his own. The background and the minor figures and “extras” who populate it are also given some individuality. I don’t know if Little is planning further adventures for Dee, but I’ll be watching for them. (10/14/03)
Eisner, Will. The Name of the Game. NY: DC Comics, 2001.
What “A Contract with God” was to the New York Jewish short story, this is to the multigenerational family saga. The 19th century was a time of heavy immigration by Ashkenazic German Jewish tradesmen and merchants from Western Europe, successors to the semi-aristocratic Sephardim of the previous century and predecessors to the poor Eastern European Jews of the 20th century. The Arnheims were part of that influx and they made their fortune and entered the ranks of the elite. Conrad, in the third generation, grows up used to the good things and not happy to find he’s expected to take his father’s place in the business world, nor to marry and produce heirs for the sake of the family name. And he lets his wife die in childbirth rather than lose that heir. The glamorous but frigid girl he marries second turns out to be no prize, either. His mother is a cold, calculating woman (who pressured him in the matter of his first wife), his homely eldest daughter isn’t really wanted, and his younger daughter (a rebel in the 1950s) certainly doesn’t get what she thinks she wants in life. The characterization and the family relationships are complex and true-to-life and it’s interesting to watch as people age. This may be Eisner’s masterpiece. (10/12/03)
Eisner, Will. A Contract with God, and Other Tenement Stories. NY: DC Comics, 2000.
Most of us think of Will Eisner as the creator of a terrific comic of the 1940s called The Spirit — which he is. But we forget that in this book, first published in 1978, he also practically invented the modern “graphic novel.” No superheroes here, just ordinary Jewish immigrant families in a tenement building in the Bronx. There actually are four stories here. “A Contract with God” is the story of Frimme Hersh, who made a deal with the Almighty when he was a boy in Poland, that he would do his best in life and God should look out for him in return. He comes to America, becomes quietly successful, is respected by his neighbors and his synagogue, and things are going okay. Then his adored adopted daughter dies suddenly. God has broken the contract, and Frimme is no longer bound by it, either. It’s a very satisfying, Sholom Aleichem sort of story. “The Street Singer” tells of an out-of-work bookkeeper during the Depression who finds he can earn a few thrown pennies singing in the allies of tenement buildings. An ex-diva decides to promote him (for her own purposes), but the money she gives him goes for booze instead. This one is interesting — there really were street singers in New York — but I found it much less readable. “The Super,” about an authoritarian German building superintendent, is a cautionary tale, sort of, about not messing with Lolitas when they come a-calling, and it’s rather a lightweight piece. “Cookalein,” however, is a superior work, about the escape of young city-dwellers to the Adirondacks in the summer, searching for social and financial advancement through marriage. There’s some delicious irony here. Eisner is generally a very good storyteller of this milieu, and he does it all in black-and-white pen work. He’s a master of characterization through facial expression and other detail, and there’s a reason this volume has been reprinted so many times in the past quarter century. (10/10/03)
Duchscherer, Paul & Douglas Keister. Victorian Glory in San Francisco and the Bay Area. NY: Viking, 2001.
I attended college in the Bay Area in the early ‘60s and have been nostalgically in love with San Francisco and Marin ever since. I spent many, many hours hiking around the city with a couple of friends, climbing the hills, exploring narrow passages between buildings, and generally gawking at the 19th century architecture. I also knew a girl whose grandmother (or aunt, or something) lived in one of the “Painted Ladies” on Alamo Square, the strip now known as “Postcard Row,” so I actually got to see the inside of one of the gorgeous homes detailed and depicted in this book. If you’re not from there, you likely lump together all of San Francisco’s historic domestic architecture as “Victorian” — but you would be wrong. There’s Gothic Revival, Italianate, Second Empire, Stick Style, Shingle Style, Queen Anne, and Colonial Revival, plus various hybrids among and later additions to all of those. Duchscherer is a longtime resident of the city and a highly regarded architectural historian and he leads the reader through the art and business behind these homes, while Keister’s lush photography of busy (and occasionally overdone) Victorian interiors will have you drooling on the page. One of my personal favorites is the Westerfeld House in the Western Addition, built in 1889, which includes a fifth floor (!) tower room with an amazing view. Another is Falkirk (originally the Robert Dollar Mansion), built in San Rafael in 1888, a much more rambling Tudor extravaganza filled with a king’s ransom in paneling and wainscotting; it was saved from demolition and entirely renovated (thank God) after I left the area, and I shall have to go and visit it the next time I get out there. What a book! (10/09/03)
Turtledove, Harry (ed). Alternate Generals II. NY: Baen Books, 2002.
In the past decade or so, a small group of science fiction authors and editors have made a sort of cottage industry of original anthologies of alternate history stories. Some are quite good, some are exceedingly mediocre. Several in this latest collection feature both an excellent grasp of historical cause and effect and writing of high quality, including “American Mandate,” by Jim Fiscus, in which Gens. Smedley Butler and John Pershing find themselves trying to carry out the League of Nations mandate in the old Ottoman empire against the revolutionary forces of Mustapha Kemal. Another is Joel Richards’s “In the Prison of His Days,” which tells of the 1916 Easter Uprising in Dublin and William Butler Yeats’s part in it. “George Patton Slept Here,” by Roland S. Green, shows a close grasp of the details of the Italian campaign in 1943, this time led by a Patton who kept his job by managing not to slap around battle-fatigued soldiers. Chris Bunch’s “Tarnished Glory,” on the other hand, is the sort of quasi-alternate history that just irritates the hell out of me. He has George Armstrong Custer being born in 1885 so as to take part in WWII in the Patton role — except that Custer’s buddy Patton died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and Custer screws up in the Battle of the Bulge instead of Sicily. The thing is, you can’t just snatch a historical personage out of his proper time and plunk him down otherwhen, and pretend that his personality will still be what it was! Nurture matters at least as much as nature, and context counts! Anyway. There are a couple of other stories here of particular interest, especially Michael Flynn’s “Southern Strategy,” about a League of Nations incursion into the American South, and “Devil’s Bargain,” in which Judith Tarr allows Richard the Lion-Hearted to succeed in his quest for Jerusalem. “Horizon,” by Noreen Doyle, though, is a confused and not very readable story of Akhenaten as a military conqueror, written in a style presumably meant to be reminiscent of the Book of the Dead. Susan Schwartz’s “And the Glory of Them,” about Behemond’s conquest of Antioch, portrays the 11th century king as having almost 20th century attitudes. As much as I enjoy this particular sf theme — when it’s well done — maybe it’s time we gave it a rest. (10/04/03)