Monday, June 15


by Anthony Horowitz
Puffin Books 1994

Really? 1994? Apparently so, though this obvious reprinting is going to benefit from the Alex Rider series in terms of getting marketing and name recognition, there is a side of Horowitz I hadn't expected and rather liked – his inner Roald Dahl.

Joe Warden and his family are on the run. Desperately they rush to the airport and take the first flight they can find that takes them as far away from their comfy British home. What sort of evil could they possibly be escaping? Wizards with designs to take over the world? Genetic mutations that threaten to devour their DNA? Mad scientists? Ghostly apparitions?

Sort of. The unspeakable evil from which they are escaping is Joe's Granny.

From this opening we flash back to the moment when Joe first begins to suspect that his dottering old granny might not exactly be as she appears. She forgets Joe's name, gives him inappropriate gifts, and seems to be losing her marbles. But when Joe's parents take a vacation and leave Joe in Granny's care it becomes clear that it has all been an act, that Granny has been laying the groundwork to extend her life and that of fellow grannies by extracting vital electrolytes... from Joe's cellular structure!

Worse, even when a violent explosion fails to fell Granny she informs that death isn't the worst thing that could happen to her: she promises to come back and haunt Joe for the rest of his days when she dies.

Desperation forces Joe to expose Granny to his parents who come to realize that Granny is, indeed, evil, and thus their frantic escape from their home in the hopes of outwitting Granny and her eventual ghost.

Horowitz runs the story at an appropriately breakneck pace, ratcheting the tension and the horror of Granny at every turn. He has tapped into Dahl's well to extract a world full of uncaring and untrustworthy adults out destroy children one way or another. It's as darkly delicious as it is funny, and exactly the sort of book a middle grade boy would devour.

I understand the appeal of the Alex Rider series for older readers, and his Diamond Brothers mystery series, but I wish he'd write more like this.

Friday, June 12

Black Juice

by Margo Lanagan
HarperCollins 2004

Having been given a number of "warnings" about the intensity of Lanagan's most recent book, Tender Morsels, I decided to get a better sense of her writing through one of her short story collections first.

I wish someone had warned me about this collection as well.

Lanagan is an intense writer of dark, emotional, human fantasy worlds. There are echoes of older cultures and languages buried deep in these worlds, a sense not so much as coming from another planet but as if reading reports from undiscovered country. It is the type of fiction that reads like literary reportage from a past frontier transported through time. Like something forbidden, these stories are a black juice indeed.

The collection opens with "Singing Down My Sister," a strange description of a ritual that involves sending a woman out into the center of a lake of tar. Knowing Lanagan hails from Australia, and having grown up with the tar pits of LA, it wasn't too illogical a step for me to imagine a sort of hybrid Aboriginal culture that appeared to be redressing some sort of wrong through an old, odd cleansing process involving tar. But no, this is clearly something else as the event at hand is actually an execution, a slow death in front of an audience with a wake built in. Equally fascinating and disconcerting, the effect is how I would imagine it to be watching surgery being performed on myself while fully conscious.

Short story collections by their nature must start off strong and bold. They must open with a story full of promise for the rest of the collection yet not be so strong as to let the reader down along the way. Reading "Singing Down My Sister" it almost feels intimidating to continue with the rest of the book. If the rest of the book is anywhere near this intense it might be impossible to finish.

Fortunately, the book wasn't impossible to finish. Unfortunately the rest of the book was equally intense.

Each of the stories contained so completely build their worlds – unique and richly textured worlds at that – this it is possible for each story to sustain its own book. "Red Nose Day" delves into a dark world full of professional clowns and the hitmen who kill them, with more than a hint of allegory aimed at the Catholic church. "The House of Many" posits a clash of parallel worlds that fluidly includes a Middle Ages cult surrounded by a more contemporary society rich with cars and candy. Demonic angels that help children break free of oppressive adults. Queens who prefer the company of dancing gypsies to their own kingdoms. Lanagan plucks the familiar image and icon and from our consciousness and folds them deftly into something new, a magical literary origami.

I think the warning I would have wanted was more in the form of advice. I think these stories should be savored slowly, with a lot of space between them. Perhaps as ways of cleansing the palate between other books. One after another, the power in these stories makes reentry into the world difficult. Better to dip into these waters with some reserve.

Whether this has helped me to better enter the world of Tender Morsels has yet to be determined. As it stands, I feel richer for the diversion.

Wednesday, June 10

The Best American Comics 2008

Lynda Barry, editor
Houghton Mifflin 2008

I'm cross-posting at Guys Lit Wire today.

I have this problem with Summer Reading lists that are doled out by schools. Basically, they suck. They suck the joy of reading right down to the marrow and attempt to equate vacation time with extended education. Either schools should go year-round and quit the pretense or Summer Reading lists need to lighten up. Spend the Summer returning fun the the reading quotient, there'll be plenty of time starting in September for reading the Serious, the Dry, the Meaningful to be analyzed within inches of their pulpy lives.

I've got plenty of suggestions for alternate Summer Reading but today I want to talk about comics, and specifically The Best American Comics of 2008. I've actually wanted to talk about this for months but teetered on the edge of deciding whether or not the collection is appropriate. It's that whole chicken v. egg thing of whether or not some graphic imagery and story elements are appropriate for teens or if they're already seeing them in other places (like movies and TV) and there's little harm involved in comics that do the same thing.

Murder, sex, and drugs are involved, but these are topics often touched on in Young Adult literature. The difference is that when they appear in comics there's this feeling that somehow minors are being corrupted, that "comics" equals "funny" or "humorous" and that anything more is some grand betrayal of morals.

Editor Lynda Berry mentions in her introduction that "If this book had been in my house when I was a kid, I would have found a way to read it in secret." This is exactly what I would have done as a kid, and it got me wondering if that still isn't the best way to discover a world of comics beyond superheroes and other ridiculous over-muscled, tights-wearing vigilantes. On the other hand, shouldn't we have evolved in our thinking that kids shouldn't have to discover these things in secret? Sure, the thrill of doing something forbidden is lost, as is the wonderment that comes with discovery, but comics already have a hard enough time (though it's getting better) with acceptance that maybe that secret reading should be secret no longer.

For anyone who grew up, as I did, looking forward to the comics in the alternative weekly papers, and those who have kept tabs with small press and alternative comics, there are few surprises here. Matt Groening, Nick Bertozzi, Kaz, Jaime Hernandez, Seth, Alison Bechdel, Rick Geary, Chris Ware, Derf... the line-up reads like a brief history of 80s and 90s comics history, and the fact that these folks are still around (and perhaps to some extent largely unknown) may make a larger point about comics history in America. The fact that one "mainstream" comic was chosen - a Batman: Year 100 excerpt was chosen and pulled at the last minute by its publisher makes another point about this collection: there's still a Wild West frontier in comics.

With a wide range of styles and subject matter, the comics Barry has chosen are incredibly strong. Usually with collections like this the pieces I like are outweighed by the number I don't, but here I found only two duds and a couple of marginal pieces and the rest were solid. Subjects cover everything from the opening comic where fratricide is played as a casual punchline to the horrors of the war in Iraq from a journalist to kids playing war and discovering girlie magazines while "invading" a homeless encampment. The four panel strip format flips it's wig with surreality, the Tortoise and the Hare becomes a battle between a rock-steady drummer on the one hand and a party-hearty type on the other, a pair of nocturnal ragamuffins spending the night building a tower of boxes to play hopscotch on, young woman tries to help a drug addict, a man is sanguine about losing his love to a suicidal cult, Cupid's assistant takes over for a day and has cats mating with dogs (literally) in no time... there's something for (and possibly to offend) every sensibility, though that isn't it's purpose.

To those who have felt the short story is dead, I propose that the short story is alive and well in the form of comics. Even as stand-alone excepts from larger works, these stories deliver – not so much a punchline but a promise of a satisfying resolution.

There is always that danger that one person's "best" is another person's worst, but omnibus collections like The Best American Comics series (previous editions edited by Harvey Pekar and Chris Ware) and Flight (now in it's fifth volume, edited by Kazu Kibuishi) are a great ways to sample what's out there and explore the possibilities of storytelling that don't involve nefarious villains plotting to take over the world.

Lynda Barry's advice for how to approach the book is one I wish more adults would encourage in collections. She suggests opening the book to find something of interest – as a kid she would have tried to zoom in on swear words or crazy pictures – and start reading from there. Jump around, find what interests, read in pieces, not all at once. Linear is highly overrated and constricting, not unlike a lot of educational thinking about Summer Reading.

Lighten up and enjoy the experience.

Books mentioned:

The Best American Comics 2008
edited by Lynda Barry
Houghton Mifflin

The Best American Comics 2007
edited by Chris Ware
Houghton Mifflin

The Best American Comics 2006
edited by Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore
Houghton Mifflin

Flight, volumes 1 through 5
edited by Kazu Kibuishi
Villard Books

Batman: Year 100
Paul Pope
DC Comics