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Monday, June 6, 2011

Book Round-Up

The Umbrella Academy by Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba: The lead singer of My Chemical Romance is apparently determined to become a modern-day Renaissance man; he developed the concept and original sketches of this comic, in addition to writing the stories. Umbrella Academy is about seven children conceived and born under unusual circumstances, and raised by a cold, eccentric millionaire to fight crime. By the time they are adults, they are fully dysfunctional, as one would expect. This collection, the first six stories, serves as an introduction to the characters as they try to prevent one of their own from destroying the world. The writing is quirky and dark and cute, a good match for Ba's clean, wonderfully expressive artwork.

A Short History of Nearly Everything By Bill Bryson: Bryson wasn't kidding with that title -- he covers everything from the creation of the universe to the extinctions we face every day, the earliest humans to the scientists of the last century, stars to volcanoes to tiny little single-cell organisms. He synthesizes this into a highly organized, compulsively readable, occasionally terrifying narrative -- particularly impressive since I already knew most of the information in this book. People often lament the abysmal lack of scientific knowledge most Americans have; requiring everyone to read this book would remedy that.

Waking Up in the Land of Glitter by Kathy Cano-Murillo: I adore Cano-Murillo's crafty/artistic sensibility, so I was excited to pick up her first novel (plus, I am required to read all craft-themed novels). It is a light book, about three Latinas in Phoenix whose lives intersect around arts and crafts. Everything in the story is resolved exactly as you would expect, in a pretty, glittery bow, but what makes this book stand out from others in its genre* is the unexpected ways the characters got there. There are a lot of left turns and odd little detours that kept me engaged, and I liked that the characters, if not fully dimensional, were nonetheless quirky and interesting. Cano-Murillo's writing style could use a little work -- she had some neat turns of phrase, but she has a tendency to tell instead of show, and some of the transitions were a little abrupt; my copy also had a few typos. Overall, I really enjoyed the book.

*There needs to be a name for this genre; it has its rules and conventions, just like any other. I won't accept "Chick Lit," or even "Chica Lit," because first of all the term at its broadest includes every book ever written by a woman, making it not-at-all helpful. Second, men write books in this genre too. Third, it just serves to ghettoize fiction written by women as being something different from "regular" fiction. Fourth, it facilitates the dismissal of books read primarily by women as being less important that the books men read. See also: the way romance gets less respect than any other genre, including scifi; Franzen's Oprah kerfuffle when he balked at the idea of ordinary women reading his masterpiece; the theory that no woman could write the great American novel because women write about families, not important stuff (never mind all the male writers who write about families and are acclaimed for their insights on the human condition); etc.

Artichoke Tales by Megan Kelso: Ostensibly a fantasy, because it takes place in another world where people have hair like artichoke leaves, this graphic novel follows a few generations of a family as they struggle with a civil war and its aftermath. Kelso's illustrations are cute and deceptively simple, but the subject matter is anything but. Like the real world, everything is messy, loyalties are confusing, and neither side is entirely right or wrong. The story was quite poignant, if a bit thin, and it left me wanting to know more about the characters.

Unlocked by Courtney Milan: My first e-book! (Well, sort of -- I have copies of Flatland and ABC for Book Collectors on my laptop too. So, my third.) I could not resist the Smart Bitches review or the dollar price, and reading a novella on my laptop was no hardship. A common complaint about a certain style of "old-school" romance is that the purported hero is a complete and total ass to the heroine until the very end when he realizes how good and pure she is; a quick apology (if that) later and they are Happily Ever After, while the reader thinks the heroine could have done so much better. Milan inverts this. The bad behavior the hero committed occurs ten years before the start of the book, when he returns to London much more mature and determined to make amends. But the apology is not enough -- he then has to earn her trust and her friendship before he can even begin to earn her love. This was a quick, emotionally satisfying read with thoroughly likeable characters. Special props to Milan for the heroine's mother, a proto-feminist, but not the spitfiery, iconoclastic, totally unrealistic type that shows up in historicals.

Ego and Other Tails by Darwyn Cooke: Cooke is a writer/illustrator of comics who has a wonderful retro style -- no surprise that he worked on Batman: The Animated Series. This collects several of his pieces about Batman and Catwoman. My favorite image by far is the cover to Batman: Gotham Adventures #50, which perfectly captures the personalities of Batman and Catwoman, and their relationship. The main Catwoman story, "Selina's Big Score," I already owned, so I bought this mainly for the Batman story "Ego." A recurrent motif in comics is the struggle between Batman and Bruce Wayne, and which is the real person. Cooke literalizes this by having Wayne confront his dark side, the Batman, who is cold and ruthless in his pursuit of justice. The lesson Wayne learns -- that he must control his dark side, not give in to it or ignore it -- is entirely unsurprising, but it was nonetheless a good crystallization of the Batman mythos.

What caught my eye in "Ego," though, was an argument the Batman figure made: Wayne needed to kill Joker to finally put an end to his crimes; his longstanding moral code of never killing anyone is "cowardly." This is exactly the argument that has been floating around the Catholic blogosphere concerning the morality of torture or weapons of mass destruction. Those of us who argue (correctly) that torture and the indiscriminate killing of civilians are intrinsically evil and never justified are moral cowards, afraid to make the tough choices that real life requires. This reasoning is not confined to conservative Republican types, either; it is related to the view among a certain segment of comic readers that the only authentic, realistic comics are those filled with death and extreme violence and despair (because that's totally the real life these comic book readers experience in suburban America). Although neither group probably realizes it, the core of this viewpoint is nihilism, and a contempt for anything good. Bruce Wayne recognizes this, and understands that he can use his dark side for the strength and edge it gives him while never allowing it to overtake his morality. (He still violates the 4th, 5th, and 6th amendments to a ridiculous extreme, however, and he is totally a state actor.)


  1. Awesome Catwoman review. Just ordered the Cooke series...

  2. Excellent! May I also recommend (if they are still in print) Catwoman: Nine Lives of a Femme Fatale, and The Greatest Batman Stories Ever Told, v. 2? Both are collections of significant Catwoman stories since her creation.