Thursday, March 01, 2007

BooksFirst - February 2007

Books Read
Magic Street by Orson Scott Card
Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert
Prisoner of Trebekistan: A Decade in Jeopardy! by Bob Harris
Astro City Vol. 4: The Tarnished Angel by Kurt Busiek
Brainiac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of TriviaBuffs by Ken Jennings

Books Bought
Dog Days by Ana Marie Cox
Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut
The Importance of Being Ernestine by Dorothy Cannell
Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland
The Ernesto "Che" Guevara School for Wayward Girls: A Novel of Politics by William F. Gavin
The CEO of the Sofa by P. J. O'Rourke
Biblioholism: The Literary Addiction by Tom Raabe


I’ve never included graphic novels on my books read list before. Often times I will kill time at BigBoxOfBooks reading the bound comic book collections. I don’t count these as “books” in the serious sense of the word. However, the two this month qualify as novels in the self-contained story sense of the word For one thing, they were hardbound and in the library. Our little local branch library actually has a pretty good selection of comic book collections and manga as well as full DVD sets of popular television shows.

My dad, who is very frugal, hectors me for actually paying for books. He gets all his books and movies from the library. He will ride his bicycle to his local branch and come back loaded up for the week. The great thing about libraries is that the price is right. One downside is that the instant gratification rush is lower. It’s sometimes harder to find exactly what you want. Also, the deadline of a due date adds pressure to finish something that you may not be in the mood to read right then.

I went to the library early in the month with my wife one evening and really loaded up. Four of five books I read this month came from the library and I still have several on the nightstand to get through that I have already renewed once.

I wasn’t going to buy any books at all this month. Really. What made me fall off the wagon was that my dad sent me a $50 gift card to OtherBigBoxOfBooks® for my birthday. I went on a spree one Friday evening and picked up the first five books on the list. In honor of my father’s thrifty ways, three of the books were from the discount table. I passed on several greatly reduced Michael Moore books because I knew my dad wouldn’t approve of his money being spent that way. The total bill with tax came to $46.14, which left me with enough on my card for an over-priced highly-caffeinated milkshake the next time I visit.

Later the same week, I went along with my wife to a used book store she frequents in Timonium. She runs an elementary school book club and collects money from her students and then orders them at deep discount from this store. They give a better rate to educators than the local BigBoxOfBooks. It also gives her an excuse to rummage through the used romance selection. I often pick up a book or two. This time I found a PJ O’Rourke book that I had never read before and the Biblioholism book which is a humorous look at the unhealthy compulsion to read and buy books. I bought it for sheer ironic value.

The owner of the bookstore also gave my wife the news that the store was closing because the mall and her couldn't come to terms on a lease renewal. Another small independent book store is closing and it feels like a little death in the family.

A popular gimmick in comic books is to set familiar characters in a different place or time. I’ve seen ones with Batman in Victorian times or Superman in the Roman era. Marvel 1602 is set in, of course, 1602 England right after the failed (in our world) colonization of Roanoke. Neil Gaiman made his name with his metaphysical re-imagining of Sandman for DC comics. Here, he takes on the Marvel pantheon. Recognizable heroes include Daredevil, Dr. Strange, and a pre-spider Peter Parker. While Marvel has had better luck in the theaters, I don’t like their heroes as much as the ones in DC. Marvel heroes are grittier and more realistic, which suits the relocation to England. A lot of the re-imagining is clever. The history is well integrated and the language and style of the era is effectively evoked. The X-Men are hunted and tortured as “witch-borne”. Doctor Doom is actually less anachronistic as eastern European despot. The story itself eventually devolves into how this sideworld came about and how the heroes have to save it. One of the cool features in the bound edition is the inclusion of several pages of scripts that Gaiman sent to the illustrator. Writing a comic book is an odd combination of narration and dialog and description. I have no idea how these gorgeous illustrations emerge from these brief descriptions.

The Astro City series is a different twist on the superhero mythos. In these comics, the emphasis is on the normal people that live in a superhero filled world. The Tarnished Angel delves into the underworld of the super villains and tries to see how that works within the real world. The story is part Goodfellas and part 50s noir paperback original as a newly released villain tries to go straight, but gets dragged into trying to figure out who is killing the old criminal masterminds. One of the fun of these meta-comics is figuring out the influences of the characters. Some of these throwaway hero and villain concepts are as imaginative and detailed as the “real” superheroes. The conventions of the superhero genre are stripped bare and revealed in intriguing ways and then goes on to answer even deeper questions. What is a hero and what is a villain? The answers aren't as clear as the comic books would have you think.

Books often get published in clusters as publishers try to cash in on a trend. Ken Jennings record run on Jeopardy! a few years ago has caused a resurgence of interest in this television gameshow. Bob Harris is a comedian and writer that compulsively tried out for the show for years before making the cut. A few lucky breaks later, he is a retired five-time champion that gets invited back to the various tournaments the show runs. The tone of Prisoner of Trebekistan is light and self-deprecating bordering on OCD as he bounces from topic to topic. The narrative is very personal as he describes the way he studies and prepares for his appearances. What looks so easy to us easy-chair trivia show watchers requires an incredible amount of preparation to excel at. In question by question breakdowns of his appearances he recreates the trains of thought that get him the answers and also tells of his massive mind melts.

Ken Jennings is much more of the uber-nerd expected to excel at Jeopardy! He passes the entry test on the first try. Part of his edge is that he played College Bowl and stayed active in the hobby as an adult. His book, Brainiac, delves into much more detail about the history, psychology, and philosophy of trivia and trivia players. While not a professional comedian and writer like Harris, Jennings book has more laugh out-loud funny lines. He interviews other contestants as well as behind the scenes people like question writers and game show producers. Everybody that has ever won a game of Trival Pursuit® thinks they can wipe up the dummies that actually make the show. Both of these books will disabuse you of that notion. The winners, and probably all of the losers, spend weeks brushing up on obscure vice-presidents, operas, and potent potables in an effort to gain an edge. I have a newfound respect for the peoplt that come away from these games a winner. If you have to read just one book about Jeopardy, read Jennings’, but a true trivia buff won’t be able to stop there.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: What is your favorite comic book deconstruction? Or, how well do you think you would do at Jeopardy!?

Update: I’ve discussed the Orson Scott Card book in a separate post here.


flasshe said...

The ultimate comic book deconstruction is of course Watchmen, especially seeing as how it is loosely based on the Charleston heroes. I'm also quite fond of James Robinson's The Golden Age (DC). I've heard Darwyn Cooke's DCU: New Frontier is very good (they are even making a direct-to-video animated feature of it). I have yet to read it, though it's been sitting on my shelf for awhile. (FYI, I also prefer DC to Marvel, though I do read both.) And there's always Kingdom Come and Marvels, though I'm not sure how deconstructive those are. But I enjoyed them. I also need to read DC's Justice, though it's not complete yet.

I've also got the 1602 books... *sigh*... still unread. Detect a pattern?

ugzooc! ugzooc!

Anonymous said...

Bluebeard is one of my very favorite later Vonneguts -- heck, one of my favorite Vonneguts, period. Don't know if you've already read it (I know you're a KV fan) but it's quite good.

I took the Jeopardy online test last month. I thought I did pretty well, but I haven't heard anything back from them (sigh).


yellojkt said...

I concur completely that Bluebeard is one of Vonnegut's better works. This is actually my fourth copy of it. Why I need four versions is a post for another day.

yellojkt said...

I read Watchman at least a year ago. It is the best of the genre. I really don't like the whole pirate comic sub-theme even though I know what they are trying to get at.

flasshe said...

I really don't like the whole pirate comic sub-theme even though I know what they are trying to get at.

Totally agree. I know a lot of the critics jizz over that, but it does nothing for me and I glaze over it. I guess Moore needed some filler to pad the thing out to 12 issues.

sfqlue! sfqlue!

Anonymous said...

"the Biblioholism book which is a humorous look at the unhealthy compulsion to read and buy books" brings to mind several questions.

1. You mean this is not perfectly normal behaviour?
2. Does the book disscuss cures?
3. Where can I find a copy?


2fs said...

Yeah, I've got six or seven unread but purchased books sitting here...and I nearly bought a few more the other day. Too bad I can't read books as quickly as I can listen to CDs...but the problem is that I rarely have time to read them. I wander what it is I do instead? Surely it's not this?