Saturday, October 25, 2008

Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem

Omega the Unknown by Jonathan Lethem (with Karl Rusnik) is an enigmatic revisitation of an old Marvel comic that had a brief but impacting run in the ‘70s. I only say this because of the endnote discussion at the end of the book, sort of a contributors commentary like one would find on a dvd. Personally, I’d never heard of Omega the Unknown so I came into this collection of ten comics with a blissful ignorance. The story pulls no punches as the action begins immediately and then cuts to a more domestic scene with Titus Alexander Island and his parents. There are three plots, weaving together, overlaying one another, and ultimately converging and Lethem and Rusnik have done a wonderful job of making a potentially dated comic and making it feel contemporary. I am not sure I fully appreciate the subtext of the comic, however. The graphics are well-suited but not very exciting except for an occasional frame and a few “graphics within graphics” moment that stand out beautifully. I am grateful to Lethem and Rusnik for the contextual information at the end of this book. I have to agree with them that much of the story would probably not been an easy read for comic book audiences at the time. In fact, relating the original comic (and perhaps their own version providing a conclusion for the previous inconclusive original) to such iconic shows as The Prisoner and The Twilight Zone is honest and relevant. Ultimately, while I enjoyed the collection, I strongly suspect that had I stumbled into these comics individually I would not have had the patience nor desire to read all ten books. Having read all ten, I don’t feel compelled to reread them to get a better grasp of whatever subtext I may have overlooked. Ironically, my feelings toward the book are rather unknown. I like what I read. Didn’t love it. Could have lived without reading it. Still intend on reading Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude someday soon.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Saving Elijah by Fran Dorf

Saving Elijah by Fran Dorf is the story of a mother whose five year old son sinks into a coma. At least on the surface anyway. With a basic story premise like that, I was afraid I was about to embark on a journey where I ended up reading a Lifetime movie melodrama in which a poor mother watches her life fall apart as her child struggles to resurrect himself from a deathlike sleep. Instead, what Dorf has done is write a psychological thriller in the purest sense of the term.

Let me explain. I’ve read so-called psychological thrillers which were not the least bit thrilling and whatever psychological relevance the story contained must have been implied in the contextual psychosis (or even psychoses) of the author. Without the thrill or context, I ended up feeling cheated by the promise of both. But in Saving Elijah Dorf has taken a potentially melodramatic (ergo tedious) idea and infused it with something so interesting that the pain of the experience is forced upon the reader with a relentlessness that is undeniable.

When the protagonist, Dinah Rosenberg Galligan, watches the way people avoid looking at her son, Elijah, lying in the coma, the reader understands that urge to look away, to not see something so frightening. I literally sighed tears when Dinah’s friend Becky visits the hospital and places a long and tender kiss on the comatose child’s forehead, aware of the deep compassion such an insignificant gesture suggests.

This is only one layer of the story. Dinah is being haunted by a spirit, an angel or a demon or a ghost. The reader isn’t told clearly and just when you think you know you realize how very wrong you are. Dorf does a brilliant job of shifting the story to meet and yet surprise expectations. Her use of flashbacks is beyond perfection. I don’t know that I’ve ever read an author whose ability to move in and out of past and present is so masterful.

Okay. Perhaps I exaggerate but it’s been a long time. The characters are, for the most part, well developed and realized. My favorites are possibly Ellen Shoenfeld and Dinah. There is something so familiarly tragic about the choices she makes throughout her life. Don’t expect any easy answers. The book begins asking the hard questions about God and the purpose of evil. You know, the questions about which a myriad of books have been and have yet to be written and will never fully realize nor resolve the issues. And that’s okay.

Friday Frivolity

First and foremost, Janice Erlbaum posted a link to this wonderful story and I simply have to share it. Girl Meets Toy. Rob is trying to buy me an armband for my iPod. There's a long story about how technologically challenged I am related to said iPod but now that I almost kinda sorta know how to use it Rob wants to get me an armband so I can go for my walk with it safely strapped to my arm. However, when he went to the store he could only find bands for the iPod nano which is far more slender in design than my iPod mini.

Rob: I'll have to go online to find one, I guess. Me: I don't know why it's so hard to find the right size. After all, the video iPod is bigger than the nano so people still need to carry their iPod around somehow. Rob: Yeah. I don't know. Me: Of course, if the iPod were on your arm it would be hard to watch the video.

Wow. Talk about stating the obvious. Sheesh!

This is a Limited Edition Pumpkin Spice Hershey's Kiss. Anyone who likes pumpkin pie anything will loooooove these. Seriously. I am talking addictively yummy and so very rich you can only eat a few which makes it even better. Because a bag will last a looooong time when you can only eat a few at a time.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Quakeland by Francesca Lia Block

They talked about how corny it sounded to say that writing had saved their lives, but also how completely true it was. They talked about how you could use it to give meaning to the worst things in your life. (167)
Quakeland by Francesca Lia Block is another example of how Block has grown creatively and how her characters have matured along with her story’s themes. Here she returns to the interwoven stories that she did so beautifully in Echo. But this is not a young adult novel and this is as close as it gets to being a disappointment. Block’s young adult novels, with their beautiful imagery, lyrical language, and above all how she touches on the most painful experiences with a delicacy that makes even the most nightmarish realities something that can not only be survived but can be survived with grace. There is a promise at the end of her young adult novels that is not present in Quakeland. Perhaps this is more honest. Perhaps with maturity comes the need to just accept that pain is inevitable. And yet, there is a sense of the human potential to evolve beyond the present reality (a promise hinted at by the perfect and marvelous illustration on the cover). This book is infused with the horrors of terrorist attacks, floods, tsunamis, and the threat of earthquakes. In the pages there is healing, a sort of homeopathic catharsis of words. I wanted to cry most of the time as I was reading. The pain was too familiar. Needless to say, I will return to this book and reread it. I will hold it close as I read the words and sigh. Maybe I will not want to cry. Maybe I will want to cry so much more that I will not be able to stop myself. And no maybe about it, I look forward to Block’s next book. Footnote: Unfortunately, I found a few mistakes in the printing that put me off, as they always seem to do. Mediate for meditate and they for the are obvious but I guess this kind of printing carelessness is becoming de rigueur and I need to lighten up. But when I see a comma in the wrong place—inside a word!—I shut down completely. I closed the book and couldn’t look at it for another hour. At least. I still resist lowering my standards and hold publishers up to a standard that will never include the ability to accept a comma inside a word. (I suspect it will be corrected but if you happen to have a first print edition, lying around, look at page 66 to see what I am talking about and grrrrr along with me.)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

How to (Un)cage a Girl by Francesca Lia Block

How to (Un)cage a Girl by Francesca Lia Block is a collection of poetry full of lush and lavish imagery. It reads almost like a memoir, an open letter to her friends, her children, and her many fans. I don’t know enough about Block’s life or history to know how much of these poems are confessional. It doesn’t matter. The messages, if they are based on her individual experience, have a resonance. Any young girl struggling with body image will understand the narrator’s anorexia even if the reader hasn’t starved herself for beauty’s sake. I can’t imagine any girl growing up in our nation not being compromised by body image issues. If there is any doubt about why Block has a huge cadre of fans, reading this book will settle some of the misgivings to rest. Whether the poetry style appeals or not, the messages are ones that only an oblivious or vicious person would not agree is beneficial to young readers.
pain is like an onion
remove one layer and the next is there keep peeling, my beloved peeling and chopping putting in the pan fry it to translucency and eat it let it digest it's only been a year and a half since he took your heart from your chest peeled it chopped it fried it ate it spit it out eventually a new one will grow back eventually the tears will stop

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam by Ann Marie Fleming

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam by Ann Marie Fleming is an interesting addition to the graphic memoir list. In the book, she traces the many steps she takes to discover more about her own great-grandfather, a man who was once popular in the old vaudeville circuit at the turn of the century. The details she uncovers make for a fascinating story. It also serves as a sort of cultural history as she includes references not only to political situations but popular films, songs, and more. Fleming made a film about her search, one that actually began with the discovery of a film of her grandmother and her great-grandfather. Seeing these images stirred up a series of questions, ones that she didn’t realize she even carried. How did her forefather learn magic well enough to become a famous magician in the vaudeville community? How did he meet his Austrian wife, Fleming’s own great-grandmother? What brought him to America? So much missing information led Fleming on an intercontinental quest in search of her family’s own history. Filled with quirky images, stills from her own movie, and even snips of imagined golden age comics that tell the amazing story of her great-grandfather. And it is amazing. Everyone from the Marx Brothers to Our Gang had experiences with the family as they toured the country. Avoiding political upheaval, struggling with bureaucracy, the story moves through countries and history while unraveling the ambivalent mystery that is the story of Long Track Sam. I applaud Fleming for creating an exciting and interesting document to compliment her documentary film. Her quirky drawings, especially stick girl, are the perfect compliment to the primary source materials that are also included throughout. There is no clear resolution. This is life which is sometimes messy. Thankfully, the story doesn’t degenerate into a search for salacious skeletons to expose the family’s seamier history. Rather, the story is confusing and complicated and inconclusive. Much like life.

Monday, October 20, 2008

To Paris by Samuel Hazo

To Paris by Samuel Hazo is a lovely collection of poems, beautifully linked by theme or imagery. His choices are clearly made with a consciousness of wanting the pieces to not only stand alone but to weave together to at least give the reader a sense of narrative, an emotional journey that feels as though it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. After reading this book oh-so-s-l-o-w-l-y, I realized that I rarely hear Hazo’s name mentioned when people list favorite poets and I’m not sure why. His talent is evident in every piece. His confidence in his words is clear. However, he doesn’t have the sort of arrogance or pretensions that one often finds in other poets whose names are more immediately listed.
White Silence
You work more slowly now.

It’s not the years.


   how the years insist on being

   kept in mind that tires you.

You sit in death’s lap and know it.

Year’s back, you imitate Georges

   Rouault, painting sundowns

   in the morning.

                    Now you reach

   For noons at midnight, and they’re gone.

But still you reach . . .


   your window you can see a pair

   of helicopters snoop like dragonflies

   for traffic clots.

                   A bird-chalked

   general goes on commanding

   from his rusting saddle.

                         Vapor shimmies

   from the manhole lids like steam

   from old volcanoes.

                     You’d love

   to paint the silence there.


No more impossible than making maps

   or sketching nudes.

                          What else

   are maps but studies in abstraction?

Whoever saw the earth from those


                 Who christened Europe

   green and Asia blue?

        And as

   for nudes, what are they but

   complexities of light and lines?

You catch the light by paining in

   the lines.

                Later you erase the lines.

You feel the silence of the street

   that way.

                You’ve walked those stones

   so many times they talk to you.

You listen with your heels.

                             If you

   could solve—if you could only

   solve that silence with a brush . . .

To see is not enough.

   You’ve seen

   too much already, and you don’t


             You even notice how

   the recto-verso greens of dollars

   reproduce the tails and heads

   of maple leaves.

                         Half your

   life is learning to express

   that kind of trivial amazement.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Cure for Grief by Nellie Hermann

The Cure for Grief by Nellie Hermann is a lovely book that sinks into the skin and simmers. When I read that Hermann has a MFA from Columbia I almost cringed. I’ve read far too many novels by MFA graduates that read like dissertation attempts at brilliance. Full of gorgeous language and overwrought metaphors, the story rarely lives up to the hype and I end up shelving the book wondering why I bothered reading it. How rare is it, therefore, to come across a book that I immediately wanted to reread as soon as I had closed the cover, to read it with a new awareness, explore the foreshadowing and metaphor Hermann uses with true mastery. Her ability to move through narrative time, using flashbacks with a grace and ease that makes the transitions so smooth as to be flawless. This is brilliant writing without being pretentious. As the story of Ruby Bronstein unfolds, as her father’s past overshadows the family’s more immediate anguish, as tragedies, both past and present, smother the ability for Ruby to speak, the danger of silence becomes increasingly evident. In light of my recent conference experience in which the power of words and their healing effect was explored and described by various professionals, I ached to just hold Ruby and listen. There was something cathartic about reading the novel and that there is something artistic happening in how Hermann uses her imagery is so evident as to make this the sort of novel I would easily recommend and encourage others to read. My only complaint is the authorial intrusion that occasionally occurred. It was unfortunate and absolutely unnecessary. Hermann is clearly too talented a writer to fall into lazy habits. I look forward, with eagerness, to reading her next novel.