I suppose I’m getting used to the fact that this is less a book review blog than it used to be. I’m sorry. Maybe I’ll be more diligent in 2014? Regardless, here’s what I’ve read (for a certain value of) recently.
Phew. I’m leaving out a few that I’ll try and do separate writeups for.
Best Shot in the West is the story of Nat Love, a former slave who became an expert cowboy. The comic is taken from his autobiography, so it’s basically a pile of anecdotes of the cowboy life. It’s good cowboy stuff that isn’t about some kind of criminal life. He talks about the danger of stampedes and the work it is to deal with cattle rustlers. Very nice little introduction to cowboy-dom.
R. Crumb’s Kafka (also known as Introducing Kafka) is an introduction to Franz Kafka’s life and work written by David Zane Mairowitz and illustrated by Robert Crumb. It focuses more on the writer’s Jewishness than I’ve seen in any of the rest of my reading on Kafka, and how life was in the ghetto of Prague where he lived almost all of his days. There were sections on, of course, Kafka’s domineering father, Franz’s love-life (mostly epistolary) and his extreme self-abnegation.
Parts of Kafka’s stories are illustrated and lettered by Crumb (most complete is In the Penal Colony), but more of the book is illustrating the deep neuroses that fuelled the writer. Mairowitz has a bit of the air of an angry crank, with his ALLCAPS EMPHASIS and raging against people who use Kafkaesque as an adjective. It works very well with Crumb’s illustrations, though I wish some of the text that was more integrated with the illustrations could have been lettered by Crumb or used a font that didn’t jar so horribly.
Mairowitz recommends other books on Kafka, including The Nightmare of Reason by Ernst Pawel, Kafka’s Other Trial by Elias Canetti, Kafka by Pietro Citati and Kafka: Judaism, Politics and Literature by Ritchie Robertson.
Rick Geary’s biography of Trotsky isn’t terrible. Trotsky: A Graphic Biography lays out the facts about Trotsky’s life and politics in a mostly coherent way. It just didn’t really need to be a comic. The images tended not to really add anything or show anything that wasn’t going on in the essay dwelling in the captions.
This isn’t to say I didn’t learn anything from it. It was a good Coles Notes kind of document, but it’s nowhere near as good as Logicomix or Suspended in Language which made much better use of the comix form.
I will admit, I love reading biographies in the form of comics. Suspended in Language is Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis’ biography of Niels Bohr, one of the hugely important people for twentieth century physics. (Last year Ottaviani’s book Feynman, another physicist biography was published to great acclaim.)
This book doesn’t have the complicated framing structure of Logicomix, though the whole thing is geared towards explaining his ideas (and revelling in his inability to do public speaking). He was definitely no Richard Feynman who could explain them to us himself.
The arc of these physicists’ lives is so interesting because they don’t end at the height of their discoveries. It’s always a story about the great breakthrough they made at one point and then how later, other scientists point out what’s wrong with what they thought. I enjoy that story of science working the way it’s supposed to. I don’t know the narrative of post-war science well enough to know if there’d be good narratives like that to find in the future. But those quantum physicists, man. Good tales to tell.
Logicomix is an exploration of Bertrand Russell’s lifelong quest for rigorous truth through logic in graphic novel form. There are multiple framing devices to the book: the outermost layer is of the authors in their efforts to write and draw the story accurately, below which is an American lecture by Russell ostensibly about whether the US should enter World War 2, but that lecture is an excuse to have Russell narrating his own interactions with logic and truth, which encompass his life. Oh and then there’s a Greek play at the end.
The multiple layers work quite well, with the authors breaking in to argue about how much of set theory and basic logic needs to be explained, and whether the themes of “logic through madness” actually make any sense. Because Russell is narrating his life himself the realization that he’s kind of a dick to his wives is done half-apologetically and gently.
The theory of things and the importance of taking 320-some pages to prove, to actually prove that 1+1=2 is kind of intriguing. I tend to think of that sort of academic theoretical stuff as nonsense (and there isn’t much sense of how Russell did the practical things like pay his rent through his life) but with the biographical aspects it made it much more understandable. Which is the aim of this kind of book: to make these sorts of things accessible to laypeople like me.
Not necessarily for everyone, and I’m not sure I’d want to use it for a YA book club or anything, but a really interesting read.
I picked up Matt Wagner’s Grendel: Devil’s Reign from the library having only read Grendel: Black White and Red before. I remembered liking it but not a lot of details. This book might not have been the best place to take up the series again.
It’s the 26th century and the plague of vampires has fractured North America. Orion I, who apparently used to be Grendel is brought in to unify the nation and [SPOILER ALERT] eventually takes over the world by blowing the nefarious Japanese off the planet. And then he’s the king of the world, has a baby boy and dies an old man.
So that’s the main story, and it’s told with the detached air of a biography. The form is very interesting: 8 panels per page and about half of them filled with text and many more as propaganda images. It’s very dense and wordy, but detached detached detached. There’s no sense of urgency to anything. Maybe I would care more if I’d read more of the previous run of the comic, or later ones to see what the aftermath of all this was, but as it was it felt like reading a biased history of a crudely stereotyped alternate world.
The other story is about the vampires who’re banished to the prison of VEGAS for the amount of history covered in the book. Because this is done in a more traditional comicbook style, it’s much less dense and more actiony than the main story. In fact I think they probably take up the same number of pages, but the density of text makes this story feel like a backup. Again, I feel like I would care more if I’d come at this book with more investment in the series.
It wasn’t bad, just not very compelling for someone reading it without previous knowledge. I wish there’d been some indication on the cover to say what volume in the series this was.
I have been neglecting my reviewing duties. But don’t worry, I’ve still been reading. I haven’t given up on the printed word (and image). Just been slow in typing about them. So here is a list of the books I read before coming to Australia.
Over the past couple of days we’ve been getting chocolates from our Print Handicapped patrons. The people who call us and we select boxes full of audiobooks to send to their branches so they have stuff to read. It’s a lot of work, especially for the patrons who’ve read almost the entire collection (you have to check the file of what they’ve read compared with what is available compared with what they hate and will not read, all on software that sucks donkey balls).
My favourite Print Handicapped patron came in on Friday to drop off her “rather dubious card.” She’s so British and subdued deadpan funny. She told me how she’d watched a movie last week that she was surprised to discover she owned. It was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. She didn’t like it very much. But she watched it. We tried to find her a couple of DAISYbooks, and she went off (in a subdued deadpan kind of way) when I suggested she try a Michael Ignatieff biography. Last time I helped her, she’d very conspiratorially borrowed a Trudeau biography, on the condition that I wouldn’t tell anyone. So yeah, good times with the little old ladies.
As a result of this goodwill, I’m eating way too much chocolate at work. One lady sent us a giant bag of those Lindt chocolate balls. I’m pretty sure I’m responsible for at least half of them disappearing.
In my first shift as a reference assistant I spent some time on the desk, answering questions, signing kids up for programs and such. I’m a big fan of the following interaction (my first non-computer related assistance):
12-Year-Old Boy: Do you know about Adolf Hitler?
12yo: What was the book he wrote?
Me: Mein Kampf.
12yo: Do you have that?
Me: Let me check… *rummage through computer* Yes we do. *pause* Would you like me to help you find it?
Me: See, it’s over in the adult section because it’s not really a kid’s book, here in biographies because he wrote it in prison. *find find find* Aha. That’s it.
12yo: *flipping through* It’s really big.
Me: Yep it is.
12yo: It’s translated, right?
Me: Yep. You don’t need to be able to read German.
12yo: Have you read it? Is it good?
Me: I haven’t, so I don’t really know. It’s not exactly a fun adventure story or anything.
12yo: Maybe I’ll wait till I’m older.
Me: Probably a good idea.
Five minutes later he asked for help finding Disney’s Treasure Planet on VHS.