Monday, March 31, 2008

Kirby: King of Comics by Mark Evanier

When I was six or seven years old – too young to work in my dad's grocery store, but old enough to sit on the lower rim of the magazine rack, annoying customers reaching for copies of Newsweek or Sports Illustrated – I discovered Jack Kirby.

I didn't know who Kirby was, but I loved looking at the artwork in Fantastic Four, Captain America and other Kirby-drawn Marvel Comics titles. In those days (at least where I grew up), DC titles like Batman, Superman and Justice League of America were downright wimpy. Everyone knew that Marvel had the best comics and nobody drew them like Kirby, with cosmic characters leaping off the pages, explosive battle scenes, dazzling energy bolts and a whole showcase of seemingly unbeatable villains born of pure evil. But when you're a kid, you don't think about the men and women behind the comics.

Mark Evanier's new biography/art book Kirby: King of Comics gives Kirby his due, not in a comprehensive biography (only about 50,000 words), but rather a condensed tribute filled with some of Kirby's best work, published and unpublished. Longtime Kirby fans already know most of the story – Jack's Lower East Side upbringing, his slavish devotion to his craft, his awful contracts, his endless battles with editors and publishers would couldn't understand his work and the legions of adoring fans who did.

Perhaps Kirby's major battle was with longtime partner Stan Lee, the creative genius behind Marvel Comics. Just how much of that genius was usurped from Kirby? And what was the real story behind Kirby's leaving Marvel and signing on with competitor DC Comics in the early 70s? It's all here.

The only problem with the Kirby comics was in finishing them: you always wanted more. That's really the only weakness I found with Kirby: King of Comics. I would have liked a more comprehensive Kirby biography along with more of his artwork, especially from his amazingly productive Marvel years in the mid-60s. But with many of Kirby's books seeing reprints in new, affordable editions, Evanier's book doesn't leave much room for complaint.

Oversized art book, 219 pages

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Pictures at a Revolution by Mark Harris

In Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, Mark Harris examines a tumultuous yet pivotal moment in American film: the 1967 Best Picture nominees and how they changed the motion picture landscape.

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night (both starring Sidney Poitier) dealt with race relations, a very hot topic in 1967, yet still stood protected inside the relatively safe walls of the Hollywood studio system. The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde pushed the envelope, challenging the existing views on morality, authority, sexuality and violence. But how in the world did a big-budget musical flop like Dr. Doolittle get nominated?

Pictures is more than a page-turning battle of old-school vs. New Wave filmmaking, it's a look at how our world was changing, the filmmakers who recognized it, those who didn't, and those who tried to ignore it.

It's also a great book for anyone interested in film history or simply how a film is put together. Ever wonder exactly what a film editor does? Speaking of Dede Allen, the editor for Bonnie and Clyde, Harris states,

Allen knew just how long she could hold a shot of Beatty to reveal the insecurity beneath Clyde's preening; she seemed to grasp instinctively that sudden cuts to Dunaway in motion would underscore the jagged, jumpy spirit of Bonnie Parker and that slow shots of Michael J. Pollard's C.W. Moss would mimic his two-steps-behind mental processes. And Allen cut Bonnie and Clyde with an eye and ear for the accelerating pace of the story, making the building of its panicky momentum her priority.

Harris covers every aspect of the five films from pre-production all the way to Oscar night, but the actors' stories are the most telling. We follow Sidney Poitier's struggles to become the most important African-American actor of his time, only to find himself caught in a different struggle which offered no easy answers. We also follow the unknown Dustin Hoffman and his self-doubt all the way through the filming of The Graduate until a woman comes up to him after the film's premiere to tell him "Your life from now on will never be the same." A fascinating book, highly recommended for film lovers.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

New Arrivals

Lots to check out and not enough time. I've been working a good bit at the library lately, which is good - it helps pay for my book/movie habit - but leaves little time for as much reading and writing as I'd like. Of course I could get up at 4:30 instead of 5:30, I suppose...

I couldn't pass up the two-disc edition of Bonnie and Clyde, a release which is long overdue. Maybe I'll get a chance to watch it this weekend. If I play my cards right, I'll finish the Mark Harris book (pictured at left) in time for the movie.

It's always nice to get a copy of Weird Tales in the mail. Looks like a good issue. (And I plan to take it to the library today for my lunch break.)

Finally, I got Jeff VanderMeer's The Situation in the mail a couple of days ago. I didn't order it (at least I don't think I did), so whoever sent it my way, many thanks!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Comfort Levels

Lately I've spent far too much time revising both old stories and my YA novel and far too little time with new stuff. I'm determined to keep both going. Revising is not easy (at least for me it isn't), but it's fairly safe. Writing new stuff often takes you places that have the potential for shaking you up.

I often awake after a really weird dream thinking, "This would make a great story," only to realize after writing a few sentences that it's either a hopeless jumble of incoherent scenes or just plain silly. But the dream I had a couple of nights ago seems different. I think there's something there. The reason? It's making me very uncomfortable. Every time I've read writers speak of what makes them uncomfortable, they usually also say that there's a great story waiting behind all the discomfort. I don't know that there's a great story here (maybe just a good one, which would be fine with me), but it's definitely one worth examining, discomfort and all.


I've noticed I haven't written any entries in my "Playing Favorites" section in several months, so I hope to have something new up soon. Although I have music degrees, I feel very inadequate in writing about music, so hopefully I'll both get past that and improve as I write about my favorite tunes from any and all eras. These aren't necessarily the greatest songs I'm writing about, but my favorites, some of which are probably downright awful. You can find my previous entries here.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Chicago Trip

The Chicago trip was a great one, but how could you go to Chicago and not have a great time? It's all there: the arts, the restaurants (oh, man, the restaurants!), and of course the family. Cindy and I went for her sister's baby shower, but did many other things.

It was fun to see the Chicago River dyed green for St. Patrick's Day, but it was even more fun watching the drunken fool that jumped in, trying to swim to the other side. (He didn't make it very far. The police boat saw to that.)

My good friend Kelly was in town with his wife and it's always a pleasure to spend time with them, especially when the focus is books. Kelly scoped out Myopic Books, a very good used bookstore that kept us busy for a good part of Sunday afternoon. Kelly, it was great to see you guys. Let's do it again soon!

On Monday, Cindy and I visited a couple of museums. The Museum of Comtemporary Photography is small, but quite good (and free). Their current exhibit This Land is Your Land captures both the humor and sadness of the current political landscape, especially in light of 9/11. Watch the video tour of the exhibit here. The first image is my favorite.

And of course, how can you beat The Art Institute of Chicago? I'm not a big fan of Ed Ruscha's photography, but the Impressionist paintings really knocked me out. The modern stuff...not so much. Maybe I'm just ignorant of modern art and should spend some time trying to appreciate it. On the other hand, how many canvases do you have to view with one dark splotch on the edge labeled "Untitled" before you can appreciate them? (My theory: "Untitled" means the artist doesn't know what it is either.)

All in all a great trip, but it's sure good to be home.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Back in Town

Quite a bit to report from my Chicago trip, but right now I have to get ready for work. In the meantime, here are the books that were waiting for me when I got home:

The Man on the Ceiling - Steve Rasnic Tem, Melanie Tem

Pump Six and Other Stories - Paolo Bacigalupi

Opening Day: The Story of Jackie Robinson's First Season (NF) - Jonathan Eig

Tales of Pain and Wonder - Caitlin R. Kiernan

More to come...

Thursday, March 13, 2008


Gone to Chicago for a few days, so no posts for awhile. I'm taking along the books at left - The Search for Joseph Tully and Pictures at a Revolution (as well as several audiobooks on my iPod). Until I report back, tell me what you're reading. (Yes, BOTH of you!)

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Shadow Speaker - Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu's The Shadow Speaker is one of those YA novels that could easily slip through the cracks into obscurity, which would be a real shame. Although Locus Magazine included the novel in its Recommended Reading List for 2007, not enough people seem to know about it, but they should.

Ejii is a 14-year-old girl in 2070 Niger, several years after a catastrophic event called The Great Change, which both brought magic back into existence and destroyed the barriers separating the five worlds. (If this sounds like a sequel, it is, but it's not necessary to have read Zahrah the Wind Seeker to enjoy The Shadow Speaker.)

Ejii is just learning how to use her abilities as a shadow speaker, which include reading minds, seeing long distances, and hearing the voices of shadows. That in itself would be difficult, but she also has to live with half-brothers and half-sisters who despise Ejii and her abilities. And as if that wasn't bad enough, Ejii has been chosen to be groomed as the possible successor to the village leader Jaa ("The Red Queen of Niger"), who brutally executed Ejii's dictatorial father, who ruled in Jaa's absence.

Jaa has the ability to develop Ejii into a young woman who can develop her gifts for the good of her people, to avoid the emergence of future dictators like her father. Yes, Ejii hated him, but she can't avoid the mental images of her father beheaded at the hands of Jaa, the woman she both loathes and admires.

The first half of the book is largely an introspective look at Ejii, her culture and her conflicting emotions. Okorafor-Mbachu does a great job of getting inside the head of a 14-year-old with complex thoughts and emotions, never stooping to the levels of simplicity that fill far too many YA novels. Yet it is the second half of the book where the author's imagination really takes off as Ejii meets and rescues a boy named Dikeogu from a sort of demonic sandstorm. It soon becomes clear that Dikeogu is withholding important information about himself, but that's the least of Ejii's worries as her journey to find Jaa becomes filled with strangeness and danger.

I won't even begin to describe the adventures you'll encounter with Ejii, but they are refreshingly original, exciting and full of wonder. At some point, imagination becomes slightly more important than plot, but rest assured, the level of imagination found in The Shadow Speaker is far beyond that of most YA (or for that matter, adult) novels. Large concepts of ecology, family, trust, authority, justice, life and death are dealt with, mostly in subtle ways. This would be the perfect book for teens looking for a challenging read that goes past the boundaries of typical YA fantasy while still telling a great story.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Would You Like an Atlas with That Novel?

Google never ceases to amaze me. I often check out Google Book Search to find pictures of book covers, since they usually don't have those little white borders on the left and right sides of the photo that drive me up the wall (like the ones at left that I pulled from Amazon).

So a few minutes ago I was looking for the cover of the book I'm reading now, The Search for Joseph Tully, a Christmas present from my good friend Kelly. Unfortunately I didn't find the photo, but I did find this. Scroll down to "Places mentioned in this book." Not only does GBS mark the places mentioned, it lists the page(s) where that city is mentioned! Is that not the coolest? Or am I the only one excited about this?

Yeah, I thought so.

Anyway, I think it's cool. (If I typed in The Fellowship of the Ring, would I get a map of Middle Earth? How about VanderMeer's Ambergris?)

Friday, March 07, 2008

Baseball Fever

For reasons I can’t explain, I was never interested in baseball until the 2001 World Series, and even after the Diamondbacks won, I soon slipped back into indifference. But the 2004 post-season changed all that. (C’mon, how could you not be interested in baseball after that season?)

Since then, I’ve enjoyed many games on TV and in person, but the more I watched, the more I realized I knew next to nothing about the game. I believe the best way to learn baseball is by watching it played, preferably with someone who knows it well. Without such a person available, I recommend two valuable baseball resources: George Vecsey’s Baseball: The History of America’s Favorite Game (2006) and Zach Hample’s Watching Baseball Smarter (2007).

Vecsey provides a basic history of the game, starting with the game’s origins, founder(s) and early days, leading right up to the present. The book makes no claims to be comprehensive, yet the historical highlights and key players are all there: the first teams, the icons (Cobb, Ruth, Young, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Robinson, Mayes, Rose, etc.) how war affected the game, the Negro Leagues, minor leagues, broadcasting, ballparks, traditions, the World Series, commissioners, owners, rivalries, scandals and controversies including, yes, steroids. Longtime baseball fans will find little they don’t already know, but for those new to the game, Vecsey provides a good crash course.

Watching Baseball Smarter is a fun, irreverent breakdown of the mechanics of the game including chapters titled The Basics, Pitchers and Catchers, Hitting, Baserunning, Fielding, Stadiums, Umpires, Statistics, Random Stuff to Know, Random Stuff to Notice. Hample explains the hows and whys of just about every conceivable play in baseball, often using baseball slang. But don’t worry: there’s a glossary included so you can look up what it means when a batter hits one up the elevator shaft. A fun, informative read for newbies, but seasoned veterans might also learn a thing or two.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

February Books Read

Sorry it's a no frills, no photos, no links post. Too tired tonight. So here's the stripped-down version of


20th Century Ghosts (2005) – Joe Hill

The Shadow Year (2008) – Jeffrey Ford

Like You'd Understand, Anyway: Stories (2007) – Jim Shepard

In the Night Room (2004) – Peter Straub

So Yesterday (YA 2004) – Scott Westerfeld

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007) – Michael Chabon

Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural (2007) – Ellen
Datlow, ed.

Duma Key (2008) – Stephen King

That's it! Where's my pillow?

Sunday, March 02, 2008

New Story in Print!

My short story "Your Picture with Satan" will appear in the fourth issue of the UK magazine Ballista on sale tomorrow. Sorry, it's only in stores and on newstands in the UK, not in America, but if you'd like to order a copy online, you can do that here.

It's great that the magazine is having a launch party and authors' reading. I'm just sorry that my schedule (to say nothing of my wallet) will not allow me to be in Manchester, England on April 9. (Yes, the story sold, but the profits don't quite pay for a transcontinental flight.) But my contributor's copy should be arriving soon.