Thursday, December 05, 2002

Books Worth a Look IX
These are the books I read in September, October, and November 2002.

After the Quake by Haruki Murakami (Knopf, 2002)
Written as responses to the Kobe earthquake in 1995, these six short stories neither challenge Murakami's longer fiction of recent years nore improves on his previous short story collection. Several of the pieces end on an up note, usually with a main character finding new or true love -- "UFO in Kushiro" and "Honey Pie" -- but for the most part, the overarching tone is one of loss or at least resolution to settle for less -- or what is ("Landscape with Flatiron" and "Thailand"). That resonance borders on remorseful realization, at least in "All God's Children Can Dance," and the stories, while not totally dark, don't dance with the sentiment or humor of Murakami's other work.
Days to read: 2. Rating: Good.

American Flagg!: State of the Union by Howard Chaykin (First, 1989)
Not as lush illustration-wise or as pulp-like in its writing as Chaykin's recent work, American Flagg! still shows his fashion illustration by way of adventure hero style. Flagg works his way through a web of corruption and destruction, wending a path through stupid cyborgs, inept mayors, and talking cats. The story is left up in the air as a mysterious figure claims power and challengs Flagg, but it's clear that Flagg's among the good guys and that the good guys will win.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

The Color of Summer by Reinaldo Arenas (Penguin, 1990)
After watching Before Night Falls with Andrea, I knew that I had to read Arenas -- and soon. This is the fourth of five autobiographical novels Arenas wrote, and it's a good place to begin. As a gay Cuban dissident, Arenas faced multiple oppressions under the Castro regime. This novel -- combining elements of magic realism with the surreal decadence of William Burroughs -- is a comic political commentary, celebration of freedom (sexual and otherwise), and a cry for help. I wish I knew more about Cuban literature, as there are many pseudonymous and not-so-thinly veiled pastiche appreciations woven throughout. Brilliant.
Days to read: 12. Rating: Excellent.

Covering the '60s: George Lois, the Esquire Era (Monacelli, 1996)
An interesting counterpoint to the 25th anniversary collection of Heavy Metal covers, this retrospective of George Lois' absolutely brilliant cover designs from 1962-1972 was done exactly how a book like this should be done. Reproducing the covers with full bleed and including commentary by Lois on the thought and creative process behind each image -- even offering the inside scoop on the political and financial fallout from some of the riskier editorial decisions -- the book is an amazing look back at one of the best decades in magazine design, as well as an appreciative design memoir of -- and manual by -- Lois. A book to be revisited.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Fifty-One Tales by Lord Dunsany (Wildside, 2002)
These 51 short, short stories written by Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, the 18th baron of an ancient line who was born in Ireland in the late 1800s, helped form the basis of inspiration for fantasy writers in the early 20th century such as H.P. Lovecraft. The stories, fantastic fables, criticize urbanization, industrialization, and progress, combining political commentary with moral, mythic narration. Lightly humorous, the stories don't quite astound, but Dunsany's impact and importance is evident.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Ghosts of Boston Town: Three Centuries of True Hauntings by Holly Mascott Nadler (Down East, 2002)
Read shortly after Halloween, this retelling of supernatural activities in the Boston area was a welcome distraction while relaxing on the coast of Maine. I appreciate the occasional geographic specificity -- the ghost in the North End, the origin of Edgar Allen Poe's Cask of Amontillado, spooks in Charlesgate Hall, and the burials in Boston Common -- but for the most part, third-person retellings of ghost stories lack a needed legitimacy and science. Regardless, this book will have me pounding the pavement looking for some landmarks.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Gilmore Girls: I Love You, You Idiot by Cathy East Dubowski (Harper, 2002)
Another media tie-in novel based on six teleplays for the TV series. The adaptation of "That Damn Donna Reed" loses some of the visual punch that was in the episode where Rory cooks dinner for Dean, I'm sure, so I'm slightly thankful there's a center photo section of stills. The sense of humor and near-verbatim dialogue continues to carry the cleverness and care of the show.
Days to read: 9. Rating: Good.

Gilmore Girls: Like Mother, Like Daughter by Catharine Clark (Harper, 2002)
This media tie-in adapted from five television screenplays -- including the pilot -- of this series on the WB is a welcome find before the Sunday reruns and new series begin. While I'm a relative newcomer to the program, I think Clark adapts the series well. While I'm not the biggest fan of Rory's first-person narration, the pacing of the language used in the dialogue and the almost-frantic, rapid-fire humor is awesome and represents the show's scripts well.
Days to read: 2. Rating: Good.

Gravediggers' Party by Gahan Wilson (IBooks, 2002)
Wilson is a hidden gem, an extremely prolific cartoonist whose ghastly gag panels lurk like lycanthropes within the otherwise harmless pages of magazines such as the New Yorker and Playboy. These 150 cartoons are drawn from several decades of work and run the gamut -- and gantlet -- of Wilson's creative output. Whether the comics are clean line drawings or darkly colored scenes, Wilson's skewed view of the world is full of monsters -- human and otherwise. A disturbing joy to take in all at once.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Heavy Metal: 25 Years of Classic Covers by John Workman (Heavy Metal, 2002)
Despite my general disinterest in the European genre comics that Heavy Metal -- now published by Kevin Eastman -- translates and reprints, I've got to recognize the magazine's flair for cover design. Workman, who served as the magazine's art director for its first seven years, compiles almost 300 covers by fantasy artists such as Moebius, Bernie Wrightson, Howard Chaykin, Boris Vallejo, and others. The anniversary book could have benefited from larger reproduction of most of the images and more historical perspective on the magazine's relationship with National Lampoon, its inclusion of interviews, and its attempts to move into other media. But the artwork, though cliched, is beautiful, and the covers are well worth collecting.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Fair.

John Collier and Fredric Brown Went Quarreling Through My Head by Jessica Amanda Salmonson (Ganley, 1989)
These 27 stories were written between 1966 and 1985 by long-time small press contributor Salmonson, editor of Fantasy Macabre. She described these short pieces as "little horrors," and the influence of the two authors named in the title is clear. In fact, Salmonson dedicates many of the stories collected here to the authors that inspired them, including James Blish, Clifford Simak, Ray Bradbury, H.P. Lovecraft, Rod Serling, and Fritz Leiber. Despite Salmonson's transparent dependence on genre fiction, the collection communicates with the economy of a Twilight Zone episode, sharing several startling visions even if no single story stands out.
Days to read: NA. Rating: Fair.

Little Walks for Sightseers #16: A Walking Tour of the Shambles by Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman (American Fantasy, 2002)
A guidebook to an imaginary neighborhood that survived the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, this pamphlet is a clever portrayal of a place that might have been. Wolfe and Gaiman detail local sites to see -- and to skip entirely, sometimes -- as well as some of the speculative history, lore, and personages that help produce the Shambles. Their descriptions are complete and their advice well-heeded. More people should pen fictional tour guides!
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Mass MoCA: From Mill to Museum by Nicholas Whitman (Mass MoCA, 2000)
Published in conjunction with the opening of the groundbreaking arts and business anchor in North Adams, Massachusetts, this book combines several contextual essays on the redevelopment project with photographs by Nicholas Whitman. Whitman began his photographic work in 1988, before the Sprague Electric Co. began its transformation into Mass MoCA, and the photos, which cover the 12 years between Sprague's closing and the museum's opening, ably capture the decrepit buildings that were rejuvenated, how the architects retained many of the original structural features, and the arts and technology Renaissance that's come to North Adams. One of my favorite places.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Mr. Bounce by Roger Hargreaves (Price Stern Sloan, 1976)
I loved these Mr. Men and Little Miss books when I was in kindergarten, and it's hard not to love them now. With almost 100 different titles, the short and simple stories play off a single quality of the eponymous characters -- often ending with a flat punchline. Take this volume. Mr. Bounce, well, bounces. Into a duck pond, down the stairs, across a tennis net (several times), off of a bus, and into a doctor's cup of coffee. The doctor is able to grant Mr. Bounce a prescription to cure his ills, but in the end, the cure poses a problem of its own. Extremely quick reads, the books are most notable for Hargreave's colorful artwork.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Fair.

Nice Hat. Thanks. by Joshua Beckman and Matthew Rohrer (Verse, 2002)
The shorter poems are better than the longer poems, particularly because the four- and five-line poems often repeat themselves, which leads one to think about padding and promise. The "long" poems, poems of more than five lines, fare slightly better, allowing these New York-based wordsmiths to do more with imagery and illustration. There are many good ideas here -- ideas about art, time, urban life, love, nature, and process -- but there aren't as many good poems.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Organizing Workspace: A to Z by Hope Lafferty ([S]pace, 2000)
Lafferty's a living and workspace organizational consultant, and this slim volume is her alphabetical guide to cutting through the clutter in your life. Lafferty addresses your desk at work, databases, email, fax cover sheets, poverty consciousness, and your wallet, as well as other topics. I'm quite skeptical of the value of simplification guides such as this, but Lafferty makes some suggestions I'll find useful -- such as reading magazines I subscribe to the day they arrive in the mail.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Fair.

Out of the Ashes: Help for People Who Have Stopped Smoking by Peter and Peggy Holmes (Fairview, 1992)
Basing this little book of meditations for ex-smokers on a synthesis of Ayn Rand's objectivism, 12-step chemical dependency treatment principles, and the work of addication counselor Joseph Zeitchick, the Holmeses have developed a personal, empowering, choice-driven self-help book. Designed to help ex-smokers realize that they are still free to smoke -- as free as they are to choose not to smoke -- the slightly repetitive book gives the power of freedom and autonomy back to ex-smokers. Not smoking isn't about restrictions, discipline, or guilt. It's about choice. And it feels better to choose not to smoke.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

People's Park by Alan Copeland (Ballantine, 1969)
A catalog of sorts from a photography exhibit held at Phoenix Gallery in Berkeley, California, this book recounts the reclamation, reconstruction, and ultimate destruction of the Bay Area's countercultural landmark. The more than 100 black-and-white images collected show elements of community spirit, hope, cooperation, and creativity, as well as aspects of repression, an emergent police state, protest, violence, and community-wide horror at the reaction of area authorities. Even though the promise of People's Park was in the end thwarted, this book -- and the events of April 20 to June 20, 1969 -- stand as a testament to the catalyzing creativity of community. Let a thousand parks bloom!
Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

The Real Moon of Poetry and Other Poems by Tina Brown Celona (Fence, 2002)
Celona writes poems about poetry sometimes, often giving the words she uses and writes about characteristics and the force of nature. Occasionally presenting snapshots of a scene or, in the longer pieces, delving into the thought process of the poet or poem's subject, Celona writes poetry with a clever edge and a hint of soon-disspelled darkness. I'm not quite sure what making the process so visible in her product achieves, but there are several poems here that I'll read again -- and to friends.
Days to read: 2. Rating: Good.

Sandbox Wisdom: Revolutionize Your Brand with the Genius of Childhood by Tom Asacker (Eastside, 2000)
Presented in the form of a fable, this thinly written quick read suggests that business people need to take more cues from children if they're going to reclaim their creativity, productivity, and work relationships. The granddaughter of a retired executive shares lessons about enthusiasm, empathy, genuineness, attention, chaos, faith, and intimacy. Asacker addresses ground already covered, but it's a short book, and sometimes reminders are needed.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Fair.

The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner (Ballantine, 1972)
Guess who my more recent science-fiction author is? John Brunner. This dystopian ecological cautionary tale is a politically pointed commentary on the decaying state of our environmental, food, sanitation, and water systems. Taking place over the course of a year, the novel weaves several parallel storylines featuring various actors in the situation -- from an absentee president and the importer of infected water filters to a mediagenic opinion leader and Austin Train, the man who could save the world.
Days to read: 6. Rating: Excellent.

Shutterbug Follies: A Graphic Novel by Jason Little (Doubleday, 2002)
I ran into Little at a bookstore reading the day his book hit the shelves -- he'd biked into Manhattan from Brooklyn to see if stores were stocking it. The book's worth a bike ride. Well-designed and lavishly colored, Follies is an action-packed mystery story starring Bee, an avid photography. Previously serialized online, Follies reads better in print, as the pacing of parts requires immediate reading. It was occasionally frustrating to read the strip on the Web, but this book is far from a frustration.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

The Ten Demandments: Rules to Live by in the Age of the Demanding Customer by Kelly Mooney with Laura Bergheim (McGraw-Hill, 2002)
A conversational, constructively critical book, the Ten Demandments outlines a new approach to customer service, as well as sales and marketing. Mooney's 10 ideas, which range from "earn my trust" to "stay with me," are equal parts common sense and bright ideas. The book is peppered with sidebar examples from companies such as Netflix and Procter & Gamble, and the Voice of the Customer segments offer a good reality check straight from consumers. A breezy, well-reasoned book that, while not overly tactical, is worth considering.
Days to read: 73. Rating: Good.

Time-Jump by John Brunner (Dell, 1973)
Previously, I've only read Brunner's novel Shockwave Rider, a wonderful book that presaged much of the cyberpunk science-fiction subgenre. This collection of 10 short stories brings Fredric Brown to mind and encapsulates many dark, thoughtful themes. Of special note are the Galactic Consumer Report pieces, which, while touching on aspects of time travel, wish fulfillment, and consumer research, build to an impressive crescendo. Brunner doesn't shy away from sex, either, and caps the anthology with a better approach to the "Running Man" concept.
Days to read: 3. Rating: Excellent.

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman (Avon, 1964)
I first read this comedic commentary on the sad state of public education in New York City when I was in junior high forensics. I reread it in one sitting during a recent Anchormen mixing session, and it's aged well. Kaufman's story is told through school circulars, memos between teachers, rules and regulations, a suggestion box, and other school-centric ephemera. Over the course of the novel, the first-time teacher matures as an instructor and makes a sizable impact on the teenagers in her classes. Touching.
Days to read: 1. Rating: Excellent.

Up the Organization: How to Stop the Corporation from Stifling People and Strangling Profits by Robert Townsend (Fawcett Crest, 1970)
Purchased in a used book store in Manchester, NH, while on a scooter tour with Tom Asacker, this book proves that the new economy was not so new. The former executive of American Express and Avis offers cheeky, creative, and critical insights on the role and state of advertising, assistants, boards of directors, budgets, expense accounts, the Harvard Business School, investors, meetings, office parties, and policy manuals to present a "survival manual for successful corporate guerrillas" that's as valid now as it was then.
Days to read: 3. Rating: Excellent.

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