Sunday, August 02, 2009
BooksFirst - June and July 2009
The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey
Driving Like Crazy by P. J. O'Rourke
The Flash Companion by Keith Dallas et. al.
I Love You, Beth Cooper by Larry Doyle
Lamb by Christopher Moore
While reading Carl Hiaasen's latest book aimed at younger readers, Scat (reviewed here), there were multiple allusions to the eco-terrorist classic The Monkey Wrench Gang. I have long had a copy of Edward Abbey's hippie era novel moldering in my to-read pile (which is soon to be larger than my have-read pile) but never quite got around to it. Perhaps I had some sub-conscious fear that it would be some sort of dated screed, but it was nothing of the sort. The book was wildly funny and even more true and appropriate for the modern day than ever.
The 'Gang' is a group of four misfits who take their penny-ante vandalism against the companies despoiling the American Southwest to the next level. In particular, they target a large mining and power plant operation. While on vacation driving through Wyoming we passed an open strip coal mine right next to the highway and they are no pretty sight. While the heroes have a definite agenda, their morals and means are more ambiguous. The characters are well-rounded and become more interesting than the underlying environmental issue.
One scheme of theirs is to blow up a dam so as to restore a river. Since the book has been written many dams, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, have been decommissioned. Perhaps George Hayduke does live on in spirit.
I am a big fan of PJ O'Rourke. I saw him at a book signing at the old Bibelot several years back. He was every bit as acerbic and witty as you would expect. His latest collection is a compilation of some of his automotive related journalism much like Parliment of Whores and Give War A Chance covered politics and third-world wars respectively. Despite starting out with his National Lampoon classic "How To Drive Fast While Having Your Wing Wang Squeezed And Not Spill Your Drink" the quality of the essays quickly sputter downhill from there. Many of the stories seem to deal with either breaking down in Mexico or why SUVs are better than mini-vans (a point I seriously dispute).
Every artist reaches a soak-the-fans stage where every little out-take and alternate track gets released just to squeeze another few bucks out of previously released material. PJ is well into that stage. These leftovers are stale and poorly warmed-over. Some of them have been seriously edited to keep them current with various intros and afterwards added to try to create some continuity. The book never quite makes a statement and is a disjointed mess. At least it was a quick read and there were some glimmers of PJ in his prime.
My prime comic book reading days were in the early and mid-70s during the waning days of the Silver Age. I had latched onto DC comics early on and developed a brand loyalty at the time when Marvel was the market changer with the long multiple issue story lines of X-Men and Spider-Man. Instead I stuck with DC which was still relying on stand-alone episodic comics. One of my favorites heroes was The Flash. Superspeed was always a great power and The Flash was the coolest speedster ever and every issue he faced some new threat from his infamous Rogue's Gallery. In the late seventies and early eighties in an attempt to catch up with the times, the stories got more and more serialized resulting in a long storyline where Dr. Zoom kills Iris and Flash eventually kills Zoom and gets put on trial. The character and the story get so messed up that by the time the Crisis on Infinite Earths comes around and Barry Allen sacrifices himself, it's more of a mercy killing.
The Flash Companion through vignettes and interviews recounts the entire history of the Flash from Jay Garrick to Bart Allen stopping just short of the newly revived Barry Allen. The format of short essays is very personal and give a lot of great first person insights but there is a lot of overlap and repetition. The same anecdotes get repeated several times, sometimes in mutually contradictory versions. The running thread is a reverence for the hero that they claim kicked off the Silver Age, a renaissance in superhero comics. The Flash is iconic. No other speedster hero has the recognizable image of that yellow lightning bolt on red spandex.
The book is big with lots of line art from all the different phases of the history. It's thorough and comprehensive if just a little hagiographic. Definitely for the fanboy only. Of which I am one.
For our vacation we were going to be in the car for long long hours. I loaded up the iPod with audiobooks. The goal was to find some books that were family friendly and everybody could enjoy. This is for a family where Avenue Q counts as quality-time entertainment. The recent movie I Love You, Beth Cooper got universally panned. In one review, the critic contrasted the movie unfavorably with the brilliance of the book. The book is full of tons of interior monologue and narrative asides that just don't translate to film.
Throughout the ride, our whole family was laughing out loud at the different incidents and events. Much of it relies on the conceit that the book is an over-the-top parody of teen flicks. It trots out, bends, and warps every movie cliche since Sixteen Candles. Everytime the action flags, some new twist comes along to drive the story even insaner. I watched the trailer of the movie version online and every scene was identifiable from the book but looked flat. But nothing could match the peals of laughter as my family rolled down the road listening to the most hilarious over-the-top comedy I have heard in a long time. It's a great look at geekdom and high school and life.
Our follow-up book on our roadtrip was Lamb: The Gospel According To Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal. I had loved Island of the Sequined Love Nun (reviewed here) and wanted to hear more Christopher Moore. Lamb is the biography of Jesus's lost years which includes the ages from six to thirty. According to Moore, Jesus, or Joshua in this version, spent fifteen years wandering east Asia studying mystical arts, Zen Buddhism and obscure Hinduism.
The book is alternately a plausible history with cultural, religious and religious insights and a madcap sex comedy. Biff, aka Levi, is crazed horndog that is always using the turn the other cheek virtue of his boyhood buddy to scam some booty. By trying to be two things at once, the two threads tend to undercut each other. Some of the religious commentary is subtle and insightful but the hijinks can be silly and slapstick.
It's a book that reaches to be more than it is, but while it falls short, it does so in a very funny and entertaining way.