2004: 1st Quarter [23]

Tardi, Jacques & Leo Malet. The Bloody Streets of Paris. NY: Simon & Schuster/iBooks, 2002.

The time is 1940-41 and the focus of this engaging and engrossing yarn is Nestor Burma, captured and interned by the Germans — along with most of the rest of the French army — following the blitzkrieg and the government’s capitulation. Before the war, Burma ran the Fiat Lux detective agency in Paris and his investigative skills are needed again in finding the origin and identity of an amnesiac fellow prisoner — and also the killer of an old friend and associate murdered before his eyes at a railway station. The cast of characters includes journalists, cops, lawyers, and crooks — both big-time and two-bit. The German occupation is always in the background but it’s not really part of the story. Rather, this is a classic “noir” murder mystery, complete with a wrap-up scene where everyone involved comes together to hear the detective explain the clues and identify the murderer. This is a sort of minimalist approach to the graphic novel form: Straight story-telling in black-and-white, each bit in its own rectangular frame, emphasis on the words rather than artsy effects. And it’s an excellent piece of work. (3/21/04)

Le Carré, John. Absolute Friends. Boston, Little, Brown, 2003.

I’ve been a Le Carré fan for several decades and I was a little concerned, back in the early ‘90s, that the end of the Cold War and the Soviet Union would leave him nothing to write about. As has been obvious to everyone since then, I needn’t have worried. Politics may change but people and their untrustworthy interrelationships don’t. This time, though, there’s a very specific, very contemporary focus to the events the author considers, from the radical student underground in West Germany in the ‘60s to the ill-considered U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 — an event about which the author’s own opinions are in no doubt whatever. Ted Mundy, expatriate Brit in occupied West Berlin in his youth, later recruited by Her Majesty’s Secret Service to spy on the East Germans, is a professional liar, like many of the protagonists of Le Carré’s recent novels. His closest friend, Sasha, is an “expatriate” East German, also in West Berlin, recruited by the Soviets to spy on the West — but also, after he discovered just what his masters were capable of, a double agent for the British, through Mundy. But in all important ways, Sasha is a unflinching truth-teller, and that’s his eventual downfall — and Mundy’s. As always, half the enjoyment of a Le Carré novel is in the convolutions of character development and in his unfailingly impressive use of the English language. In that sense, the plot almost doesn’t matter. But as events roll on toward the present day, you can almost guess — almost — what Mundy’s and Sasha’s joint reaction will be, based on the way their lives have developed. Personally, I think Le Carré probably will never be able to duplicate the absolutely masterful Smiley series, but no book he’s written has ever been less than excellent, and Absolute Friends is proof of that. (3/19/04)

Spiekermann, Erik & E. M. Ginger. Stop Stealing Sheep & Find Out How Type Works. Berkeley, CA: Adobe Press, 2003.

I remember reading the first edition of this excellent book more than a decade ago, when I was just getting into desktop publishing, and learning a great deal from it on the theory (i.e., art) and proper use of typography. I’ve followed the author’s advice (most of it, anyway) ever since and I was pleased to find that a revised edition had been issued. Spiekermann is a type designer as well as a philosopher of art and design, and he’s an excellent teacher as well. He nicely combines witty discursions on the place of type in Western culture and why it’s indirectly important to pay some attention to it, with eminently practical commentary on why certain fonts work best in certain applications, based on what their designers had in mind. Each two-page spread combines a photo on the left, as an object lesson for the point he wants to make, with two sections of text on the right — the main discussion plus a more in-depth sidebar. In fact, the book’s total layout is itself a nice example of what the author is attempting to teach the reader. This is one you’ll want to go back and browse through at regular intervals. Oh, the title? From the old typesetter’s proverb: “A man who would letter-space lowercase would steal sheep.” (3/06/04)

Pratchett, Terry. The Light Fantastic. NY: HarperCollins, 1986.

This second novel in the Discworld saga is a continuation of the story begun in the first book, The Colour of Magic. Actually, it begins about five minutes after the end of that book, with Rincewind, the incapable wizard falling through space after having tumbled over the edge of the world. But the spell lodged in his head saves him (as well as Twoflower the tourist) in order to save itself, and Rincewind is launched unwillingly in an effort to save the world. Great A’Tuin, the celestial turtle on the back of which the Discworld glides slowly through the universe, is headed toward a distant, very red star which will probably bring all Disc life to an end. But it has its reasons. As always, Pratchett introduces a number of new and quite delightful characters, especially Cohen the Barbarian, the greatest hero in history — as evidenced by his very advanced age. With all that, though, I just couldn’t get as caught up in this one as in Mort or Small Gods. But even a B-minus novel from Pratchett is better than the best many humorists ever produce! (3/5/04)

Gruman, Galen. Adobe InDesign CS Bible. Indianapolis: Wiley, 2004.

Anything having to do with computers, I’m entirely self-taught (having done graduate work in the social sciences at a time when universities owned only mainframes that required punchcards . . .), but I’m also thoroughly autodidactic. So when I get involved with new software of any kind, I immediately go looking for the best big, fat reference book I can find. I’ve been using PageMaker for about eight years to produce the quarterly journal I edit for a learned society, but decided it was time to jump to a newer program. But the series of manual-replacements published by Osborne-McGraw-Hill and Hayden, with which I’ve been very pleased in the past, don’t seem to include a volume for InDesign, so I asked around and Gruman’s work was heavily recommended. They were right, I’m happy to say. The opening chapters provide the clearest description I’ve found yet of the differences between the PageMaker approach and the QuarkXpress kind of approach, the chapter on styles is excellent, and the whole section on prepress and packaging is now filled with Post-It bookmarks. And so is Appendix D, “Switching from PageMaker.” Gruman manages to clearly explain things on several levels at once, so both the muddler-through like me and the experienced graphics designer will be satisfied. And after I’ve taught myself the essential differences between the old and the new, the huge amount of pure reference material will keep this volume close at hand. (3/02/04)

Lavery, Brian. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation, 1793-1815. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989.

I’ve read a number of nonfiction books lately on the Royal Navy during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, and this is far and away the best of them — no comparison, not even Lavery’s own Jack Aubrey Commands (2003), which is in many ways merely a cut-down version of this encyclopedic volume. This is 350 pages of highly detailed, heavily illustrated discussion of every conceivable subject and all its subtopics, from the engineering principles of ship design and the differences among each of the different rates, to the divisional organization of the Royal Marines, to the truth (with statistics) behind the press gang system, to a disquisition on the differences in naval fighting tactics between the British and French and Spanish fleets — and a great deal more. And there are even graphs, flow charts, and organization tables to bring disparate informatiion together. It’s actually a very slow read because there’s so much to absorb, even for the experienced fan of Forester and O’Brian — but that’s certainly not a criticism! I’ll be referring back to this gorgeous, oversized book for many years to come. (2/26/04)

Pratchett, Terry. Small Gods. NY: HarperCollins, 1992.

I doubt that Pratchett is capable of “straight writing” of any length — his ironic wit and off-balance turn of phrase likely infuse his every waking thought! Nevertheless, this novel has a definite dark side and the reader’s laughter is apt to taper off into an uneasy awareness of just how nasty certain kinds of people can be. Especially the coldly fanatical religious types, about whom this is very much a cautionary tale. Om is the very small god of the title, once a great supernatural being with hundreds of thousands of believers keeping him stoked, but now reduced to the form of a two-pound desert tortoise and with only the steadfast belief of Brutha, a mere novice, keeping him alive. (“Alive” in the sense that gods, it seems, can die, just like everyone else.) The Omnian Church is doing well, though, ruling the populace through fear and torture and engendering no belief in the deity whatever. (The Omnians believe that the world is spherical and orbits the sun — which on the Discworld is utter superstitious nonsense.) And at the top of that unpleasant heap is the dreaded Deacon Vorbis. Om can’t read human minds but he can see their shapes, and Vorbis’s mind has the shape of a steel ball. Nothing gets in and nothing gets out. Vorbis needs a new secretary — the previous one having been used up — and he takes Brutha out of his haven in the garden because of the young man’s extraordinary memory. But being in close proximity to the Deacon is going to have an effect on Brutha’s belief, and so is their diplomatic mission across the deep desert to Ephebe, home of happily contending philosophers and inventors. Some of the story’s best characters appear in Ephebe, especially the Platonic-Aristotelian Didactylos and his apprentice, the proto-Archimedian Urn. An excellent book, humane, thoughtful, and not to be taken lightly at all. (2/24/04)

McKean, Erin (ed). The Oxford Essential Dictionary of New Words. NY: Oxford University Press, 2003.

I’m the sort of person who reads style guides and specialized dictionaries for entertainment, and I’m also very interested in the process of neologism, so I was quick to pick up this volume. Unfortunately, it could have been much, much better. The editor claims to have selected about 2,500 of the “newest words” in English and to have “defined them precisely.” Not entirely true. Some included words aren’t new by any reasonable definition, such as “areology” (late 19th century), “funnel cake” (certainly older than that), “feather” (in the sense of delicately blending or smoothing something, which was used of airplane engines at least seventy years ago), “rider” as a legal term in contract negotiation, “contingency fee” (another common legal term), and “Eeyorish,” which I remember my reading teacher using around 1950. Some are merely technical terms, like “protease inhbitor” or “genotype” or “geothermal,” and none of them is new in any case. Others, “like “Segway,” are simply recent trademarks, though they may become common genericisms later on. Or “Disneyland,” a fifty-year-old trademark. And in what way are “undimmed” or “unclothed” or “strife” or “carriage house” new words? Some aren’t actually new words, merely slang formation, such as “ass-backward,” or proper nouns, like “Federal Register.” Others are simply local or regional slang — sunglasses are unlikely to be called “sunnies” anywhere besides Australia — or words of long existence in other languages, like “dhikr” (which has to do with Sufism). Or “crubeen,” a traditonal item in Irish cuisine. They also include “dinkum,” another Aussie-ism which is hardly new. Then there’s “stooshie,” a Scottishism a least a couple of centuries old. Many of the definitions show an unclear grasp of a word’s nuances, like “cold warrior” (defined disingenuously as “a person who promotes a cold war”). Other definitions are simply incomplete. “Sex industry” covers considerably more than prostitution! Others, though, are very much a product of recent cultural changes, like “ecowarrior,” and “emo,” and “mommy track,” and “casual Friday,” and “blog.” And, unfortunately, “date rape.” Some, like “right click” and “digital signature” and “portal” (in the Internet sense) have entered the more general language from origins in jargon. And I’m partial to the very descriptive “elevator talk” and “prairie-dogging” (a familiar practice to office cubical inhabitants). I’ve never heard “manny” (a male nanny), but I like it. As far as I’m aware, though, “bling-bling” is already dead and gone, avoided by the young and hip. But there are also odd omissions. Where’s “Generation X”? Or “undo,” which also has acquired a more general, tongue-in-cheek existence? Or “popup,” from intrusive Web ads? Or “stonewall,” which now has several divergent meanings? Or “Dilbert”? (Not to mention “pointy-haired boss”?) An interesting attempt but badly flawed. (2/14/04)

Pratchett, Terry. Reaper Man. NY: Penguin, 1991.

Death is one of the most interesting recurring characters in the Discworld stories. He’s just a regular guy, dealing with a major mission. But now he seems to have acquired a personality and has therefore been sacked from his job. All the smaller deaths — the Death of Tortoises, the Death of Daffodils, the Death of Rats, and so on — which used to be subsumed in him are on their own. Death finds he now has a Life-Timer of his own, and the sands of the Future are pouring through the bottleneck of the Present and piling up in the Past. (Pratchett has a terrific way with words.) What else is there for him to do but seek work on a Discworld farm, harvesting corn instead of lives? More important, with no Death to keep it under control, life force is piling up, making its vital presence felt in the form of poltergeist activity and a plague of snowglobes and supermarket baskets, which are only the harbingers of the dreaded appearance of Mall Life. Meanwhile, 130-year-old wizard Windle Poons has just died — but Death, who is out of a job and not yet been replaced, hasn’t come for him. Windle is one of the undead, so naturally he is approached by dead-activists. Then he gets caught up in the struggle against too much life being carried on (reluctantly) by the faculty of Unseen University, of which he was lately a member. And I haven’t even mentioned Mrs. Cake and her werewoman daughter, or Lupine, or the grocer vampire, or the bashful banshee who slips notes under doors instead of screaming. Pratchett is a first-rate parodist but he’s also a very talented designer of complex and highly original plots and characters. (2/13/04)

Patrick O’Brian’s Navy: The Illustrated Companion to Jack Aubrey’s World. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2003.

I’m a longtime fan of C. S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, and other authors of Napoleonic-era naval fiction, but I’ve only recently gotten on a jag of reading all the “companion” books I can find — perhaps because the recent release of the Master & Commander film has encouraged the writing and release of a new bunch of them. When you read several of these volumes in rapid succession, a couple of things become apparent: There’s a limited number of illustrations available and the books use pretty much the same ones; and there’s only so many ways you can explain the function of the Admiralty or of a frigate, the job of a ship’s master, and the difference between French and British naval tactics. This is one of the better efforts, and at a reasonable price, too. There are well-written chapters on the sociopolitical background of the wars between England and France, the historical development of the Royal Navy, the life of the ordinary seaman, the Navy’s command and administrative structure, and the nature of a sea battle (and why there weren’t many big ones). A pretty good brief glossary is included. Departing from the concentration on factual background, there’s also an overview of the principal repeating characters in the Jack Aubrey novels. (2/09/04)

Spectre, Peter H. & David Larkin. Wooden Ship: The Art, History, and Revival of Wooden Boatbuilding. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.

Except for the first few and last few pages, the water-going vessels depicted and analyzed in this fascinating book aren’t “boats” — they’re definitely ships. Ships made of wood, developed by tradition and experiment, hand-shaped, pegged together, and amazingly seaworthy. Moreover, what you see here is not merely technical drawings or models — though those are lovely — but recreations and reconstructions of the real thing, from a Viking longship and the Susan Constant (which made the 1607 voyage to Jamestown) to the Batavia and the Amsterdam, both Dutch East Indiamen. Also included in the analysis are several musuem ships, like the Charles W. Morgan, and purpose-built modern wooden vessels, like the Pride of Baltimore. This is a book all those intrigued by the history of sail power will want to own. (2/01/04)

Ellis, Warren & Colleen Doran. Orbiter. NY: DC Comics, 2003.

It’s the near future, a decade after the end of manned U.S. Space Shuttle flights, which was the result of the disappearance of the shuttle Venture from its orbit. But now Venture is back, landing at Kennedy (and taking out a few score squatters in the process) with only John Cost, the pilot-commander, aboard. The quickly cobbled-together team of experts are driving themselves nuts trying to figure out where the shuttle has been, and how, and why. Ellis’s story beautifully captures the excitement of weird physics and makes an emotional case for the continuation of manned space flight, and Doran’s strightforward drawing style is a perfect match for the prose. The irony, of course, is that between the completion of the book and its publication, we lost Columbia on its landing approach — an event which especially chills the heart of every proponent of manned space exploration because the cry has again been raised for robots to take the place of humans in space. Ellis and Doran know we must never allow that to happen. (1/31/04)

McDermid, Val. A Place of Execution. NY: St. Martin, 1999.

It’s December 1964 in a remote, almost feudal Derbyshire village and thirteen-year-old Alison Carter has gone missing while taking her dog for a walk after school. When she hasn’t returned after five hours in freezing weather, her panicked mother calls the cops, and so begins the first major case in the career of newly-promoted Detective Inspector George Bennett, a university graduate on the fast track. Alison can’t be found, nor is there a body, but enough evidence gradually accumulates to convince Bennett and his principal helper, Detective Sgt. Tommy Clough, that a murder has indeed been committed — but whodunnit? Hang on, though — it’s not as simple as all that. Not even close. Because thirty-five years after the crime has apparently been solved, after the case has come to a firm legal conclusion, journalist Catherine Heathcote, who grew up nearby, becomes interested in the case and George agrees to help her in writing a book. And then things begin to unravel. McDermid is very good at developing and delineating character and in leading the reader (especially American readers) through the complexities of British police and judicial procedure, and while she tends to over-write on occasion, she certainly makes you care what happens to the insular inhabitants of Scardale. Properly cast, this book would make an excellent film. (1/29/04)

Lavery, Brian. Jack Aubrey Commands: An Historical Companion to the Naval World of Patrick O’Brian. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.

If you’re a fan of nautical adventure, this is definitely a book you want to own. Lavery, a greatly respected naval historian, has written several earlier volumes on the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic period (including the highly regarded Nelson’s Navy), and he was also one of the principal technical advisors on Peter Weir’s film, MASTER AND COMMANDER. (Weir, in fact, provides a glowing Foreword.) This heavily illustrated volume tries to cover all the bases, organizing its topics into chapters like “The World of the Seaman,” “The Ships,” “Officers,” “The Lower Deck,” “Techniques,” and so on. Technical information is provided but is kept under control so as not to frighten the novice, and he quotes heavily from early Victorian memoires, biographies, and histories — and also from the works of Marryat, Forester, O’Brian, and even Jane Austen’s Persuasion. On the other hand, Lavery, unfortunately, was not well served by his editor, copyeditor, or proofreader. (Having worked for them myself in the past, as a freelance editor, I know Naval Institute Press is capable of far better support work.) There often are several typos, omitted words, and confusing references on a single page. There also are a number of incorrect or incomplete source citations and at least one mislabeled diagram (on page 104). Lavery also is prone to frequent and unnecessary repetition in his discourse, especially in explaining points of shiphandling and other technical matters. Finally, the index and the bibliography are rather amateurishly organized. But on the other other hand, I finally understand catharpins! (1/25/04)

Eisner, Will. Fagin the Jew. NY: Doubleday, 2003.

I really like Eisner’s straightforward graphic novels. He’s much more concerned with telling the story than with inventive layouts, cinematic artwork, and impenetrable plot-lines, as so many of his younger contemporaries are. That said, I’m afraid I’m not as impressed with this effort as with, say, A Contract with God. This is a retelling of Dickens’s Oliver Twist from the point of view of the much-loathed Fagin, mentor of street urchins in the ways of London ghetto survival, with emphasis on his early life and character development. The thing is, even knowing how he developed into the creep he became, even sympathizing to some extent with his lousy home life and bad breaks, there’s still not much to like about Fagin. Although there’s not much to like about most of his contemporaries, either. For that matter, Oliver himself, revealed in adulthood as a rather smugly successful barrister, also comes across as less than admirable. If this is the point Eisner wanted to make, he has succeeded, but I had hoped for something psychologically a bit deeper. (1/21/04)

Trevor, William. Felicia’s Journey. NY: Viking, 1994.

There are only two real characters in this drama, narrated in Trevor’s usual spare, sparse style that puts you into the heart of things. There’s Felicia, a somewhat plain teenage girl from a depressed industrial town in the Irish Republic. She’s the product of a convent school, but only on suffrance because her father tends the convent’s gardens. She’s inexperienced and naive and when Johnny Lysaght comes along and turns her head, her subsequent pregnancy is no surprise. And there’s Mr. Hilditch, a fifty-something catering manager at a factory in the English Midlands, who lives by himself and fancies young girls, though he’s very careful “not to shop near home,” as he thinks of it. Felicia runs away from home in search of the absent Johnny, but she finds it’s not easy even to survive, much less to locate an errant Irishman in England. She’s a bit suspicious of Hilditch when he tries to help her out, but he arranges things to reduce her options, and Felicia is suddenly in very great danger indeed. Trevor does a terrific job getting inside the head of a pleasant, mild-mannered psychopath, allowing the reader to gradually understand what makes him tick. He won the Whitbread Prize (again) for this novel and he deserved it. (1/18/04)

Winspear, Jacqueline. Maisie Dobbs. NY: Soho Press, 2003.

This sensitively written first novel is being marketed as a mystery, but that’s only part of it — and the lesser part, in my opinion. It’s 1929 and 33-year-old Maisie Dobbs, daughter of a London costermonger, is hanging out her shingle as what amounts to a “consulting detective” somewhat in the Holmesian style. She’s certainly not a gumshoe. Though she started out as a maid-of-all-work in a big townhouse, her natural intelligence and intuitive talents, combined with her mistress’s desire to do some good in the Edwardian era, result in her private education by Maurice Blanche, an old friend of Lady Rowan who becomes her mentor. Then she goes off to a women’s college at Cambridge, until the Great War interferes. And that, in fact, is the center of this novel: The War. What it did to an entire generation of young English men and women and to their families, and the effects it had on English society even a dozen years later. Both Winspear’s own grandfathers served and she has a strong feeling for the subject, but that may actually prove to be a problem for later books in the series of which this is the first. If you remove all the backstory about Maisie’s upbringing and experiences as a nurse at the front, the actual “mystery” — which involves skullduggery at a Kentish retreat for wounded and disfigured soldiers — is a little thin. And Maisie is sometimes a bit too good, as are her friends and the love of her life, Capt. Simon Lynch of the Royal Army Medical Corps. But it’s a compelling piece of work, and I’ll be very interested to see if the author can keep it up. (1/15/04)

Dickinson, Charles. A Shortcut in Time. NY: Forge Books, 2003.

There are basically two kinds of time travel stories. There’s the Sprague DeCamp/Robert Silverberg kind of story, full of large, historymaking events, and the Time Patrol to protect the continuum, and knowledgeable time travelers making things happen. And there’s the Jack Finney kind of story, about ordinary people dealing with small-scale events in out-of-the-way towns and trying hard simply to cope with things that happen to them willy-nilly. Dickinson has written a warm, funny, affecting example of the second kind of story. Josh Winkler is a somewhat feckless artist living in Euclid Heights, Illinois, where crosswise shortcut paths known as “perp walks” disturb the town’s gridded layout. He’s married to a doctor, the sister of his brother Kurt’s best friend when they were kids, before her brother drowned in the town pool and Kurt suffered permanent brain damage. Their fifteen-year-old daughter, Penny — the best-drawn character in the book, I think — is about all that’s still keeping them together. Then Josh gets caught riding his bike in a storm on one of the perp walks and is tossed fifteen minutes into the past. But young Constance, who appears soon after, has a worse time of it, dragged into our own era from 1908. Can she get back? Can she adapt to our world? And what happens if someone else becomes an unintentional time traveler? Dickinson’s style is quiet and thoughtful; he almost lets the story tell itself. An excellent piece of work. (1/12/04)

Browner, Jesse. The Duchess Who Wouldn’t Sit Down: An Informal History of Hospitality. NY: Bloomsbury, 2003.

If asked to define the essential duty of a host, most of us probably would agree with the ancient Akkadians: “Give food to eat, beer to drink, grant what is requested, provide for and treat with honor.” Well, the author shows that it’s much more complex than that. Who’s in charge? The guest or the host? (Well, who decides the dinner menu, who sits where, etc?) Do you invite only friends to a party? Or do you go with the original Greek meeting of “hospitality” and welcome strangers to your home? Browner also makes a convincingly case that for a ruler, like Hitler or Louis XIV, hospitality is a manipulative tool of state policy. He claims not to be an historian, but his grasp of the past is quite solid, and his witty, felicitous style makes for a pleasureable and entertaining read. The chapter comparing Lady Ottoline Morell and Gertrude Stein — the former a nearly complete failure as a hostess, the latter a considerable success — is especially good, as is his discussion of what he describes as the historical antithesis of hospitality: the German takeover of the Roman Empire. (1/11/04)

Pratchett, Terry. Mort. NY: New American Library, 1987.

There are, I believe, a couple dozen titles now in the Discworld series, but this one — the fourth — is still one of the best. Death, who SPEAKS IN ALL CAPITALS, and takes his job seriously, decides nevertheless that he’s in need of a break. So he takes on an apprentice, a young farm lad named Mortimer — Mort for short. On his first solo soul-collecting assignment, Mort discovers he can’t allow the teenaged Princess Keli to be assassinated by her uncle the Duke, tries to prevent what is supposed to happen — what *must* happen — and, of course, messes thing up. Reality tends to heal itself in the long run, though, and there’s no way the kid can stop history from getting back on its proper track. But he’s certainly going to try. As one might expect in a Pratchett yarn, things get a bit out of hand after that, especially when Death goes AWOL for a time, trying out human experiences and vices, and when Mort begins taking on more and more of his boss’s characteristics. After all, as Mort explains to Death’s adopted daughter, Ysabell, DEATH IS WHOEVER DOES DEATH’S JOB. The final confrontation between Mort and Death is a marvelous set-piece. Can Mort win? Can Death lose? Is it even fair? THERE IS NO JUSTICE, as Death is fond of remarking. THERE’S ONLY ME. (1/08/04)

Pratchett, Terry. The Colour of Magic. NY: St. Martin, 1983.

As everyone knows, the “color of magic” is octarine — the eighth color in the spectrum, visible only to wizards, like Rincewind of Ankh-Morpork, who’s pretty much a failure at his profession (having been mentally invaded at school by one of the Eight Great Spells, which chased all the others out of his head), but who does show a talent for survival. Good thing, too, because the Discworld (which is supported by four great elephants standing on the back of a gigantic sea turtle) is not an easy place to survive in. Then there’s Twoflower, a tourist from the Counterweight Continent, possessed of more gold than is good for him (or for anyone else) and a rather vicious piece of ambulatory luggage, whose chances of survival appear rather slim until Rincewind takes on a job as his guide. Pratchett is smack in the best tradition of britcom and any fan of Monty Python and Douglas Adams will be right at home with the author’s droll style and witty turns of classic characters. But Pratchett is not only a master of literate parody but a very inventive and original creator of comic fantasy. You probably won’t want to read a whole bunch of the books in this series one right after another, though. Rather, treat these tales as you would a box of expensive chocolates, parceling them out gradually and chewing slowly. (1/05/04)

Morris, Dave & Leo Hartas. Game Art: The Graphic Art of Computer Games. NY: Watson-Guptil, 2003.

I’ve never been an avid computer games player (wrong generation, mostly), but their progressive development, and especially the continuing quest for verisimilitude, fascinate me. I remember when Asteroids and Pac-Man and Space Invaders first appeared (in the lobbies of movie theaters, when “arcade” still meant pinball), and how addicted my adolescent kids quickly became. But that level of 2-D was nothing, of course, compared to the MYST series and to god/simulations like SimCity 3 — not to mention keyframe animation and real-time interaction and detailed storyboarding that wouldn’t be out of place in Hollywood. This is the first book I’ve seen that really gets into all aspects of video game art and design (there wouldn’t have been enough to say even a few years ago), and it succeeds nicely both in its glossy-paper graphics and in the discursive text, which includes numerous interviews with designers. (1/03/04)

Eisner, Will. A Life Force. NY: DC Comics, 2001.

It’s the early 1930s and times are tough at 55 Dropsie Avenue in the Bronx. There’s not enough work to go around, most of the powers that be don’t want to admit how bad things are, and people have to hang together to get by. And for the most part, they do. Jacob Shtarkah, a carpenter, after completing a five-year building project for the synagogue, finds they don’t need his labor any longer. He also has a bad heart, and his wife isn’t in such great shape either. Then there’s Elton Shaftsbury, who manages to lose his inheritance, his position as a broker on Wall Street, and much of his self-respect. He ends up in the Bronx, where the living is cheaper, trying to find work and contemplating suicide — and becoming acquainted with Jacob’s daughter, Rebecca. The Black Hand is trying to get by, too, by pressuring illegal immigrants whom they helped to enter the country. Angelo, also a carpenter, is one of those — but he and Jacob may be able to help each other. Willie, Jacob’s teenaged son, is flirting with Red revolution, . . . but he’ll choose his mother’s cooking any day. And there’s Frieda Gold, trapped in Nazi Germany, who turns to her old boyfriend — Jacob, of course — for help in escaping. But you know they’ll all survive because they all share the life force, as exemplified by the cockroaches in the alley. Eisner practically invented the graphic novel form singlehanded, and the more of his stories I read, the more he takes me into his world. But this volume isn’t just a “story.” It’s literature, a saga of immigrant striving, of muddling through against the odds. Great stuff. (1/1/04)

Published on 22 November 2009 at 1:02 am  Leave a Comment  

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