Monday, March 03, 2003

Books Worth a Look XII
These are the books I read in February 2003.

The Blizzard of '78 by Michael Tougias (On Cape, 2003)
Published to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Blizzard of '78, which resulted in 27 inches of snow in Boston proper, as well as 54 deaths, hundreds of destroyed homes, and 125 arrests for looting in the city, this book largely comprised photographs documenting the storms impact. The text accompanying the photos is relatively scant and drawn on news accounts and some first-person interviews, and focuses on the storm's progression, its effects on the coastline, snow removal efforts, and the accompanying destruction. Tougias compares the blizzerd to the Blizzard of 1888, which hit hardest further west and wasn't as intense as the Blizzard of '78, providing a useful interesting context. Even more interesting, I read this on the eve of a heavy snowfall this year, a snowfall in which we almost rivaled the Blizzard of '78, in accumulated snow, if not the gale-force winds and destruction. Shades of the 30 inches that fell April 1, 1997, it was a good time to read this book, safely ensconced on the Big Blue Couch at Church Corner.
Pages: 128. Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

The Bostonians by Henry James (Penguin, 1986)
First published in 1886, this classic novel is awesome on several levels. One, as an analysis of political thinking about the North and South just after the Reconstruction, James' portrayals of Basil Ransom, a Mississippi lawyer now living in Boston and New York, is extremely intriguing. Two, James' primary theme is the state of women's rights and social activism. His characters Verena Tarrant and Olive Chancellor provide wonderful foils and divergent examples of the new woman. And lastly, the novel's setting in Boston offers a lushly detailed snapshot of the city as it was in the late 1870s. James' descriptions of Harvard, the Back Bay, and even Cape Cod make me want to walk around, book in hand, to compare the landmarks as they are today with his imagery. A must read if you live in the Boston area. And the best book I've read in a long time.
Pages: 438. Days to read: 9. Rating: Excellent.

Boston's North End by Anthony Mitchell Sammarco (Arcadia, 1997)
Despite this book's inclusion in Arcadia's Images of America series, Sammarco's visual history of the North End, one of Boston's most historic neighborhoods, doesn't quite hold up the level of excellence established by other volumes in the series. Perhaps because of the range of photographs archived by the North End Branch of the Boston Public Library and Pizzeria Regina (seems they have quite the extensive photography collection!), or perhaps because of the advent of photography, this book is limited primarily to the North End's Italian history. That's fine, but it eclipses the district's African-American and Boston brahmin past to a fault. Most of the pictures and accompanying historical text is of little note, concentrating on churches, businesses, and civic activities organized by the library, but there are a couple of notable aspects here. One, the book ably considers the neighborhood's proximity to the harbor, and there's some good maritime history included. Two, the section of the Great Molasses Flood of 1919 helped me accurately the location of the tank that burst, and impressively documents the flood's wake of destruction, as well as the location of the elevated train line once trailing along Commercial Street. Worth getting for that chapter alone, but disappointing otherwise.
Pages: 128. Days to read: 1. Rating: Fair.

Boston's Red Line: Bridging the Charles from Alewife to Braintree by Frank Cheney (Arcadia, 2002)
I love these Images of America books published by Arcadia Publishing in South Carolina. What a wonderful, wonderful concept. This edition concentrates on one line of the now-MBTA subway and trolley car system. Drawing heavily on photographs, as all of the Arcadia books do, the tome considers the history of transportation from Cambridge to Boston, William Bancroft's role in the construction of the Cambridge Tunnel, the expansion of the subway from Harvard Square to Park Street, rapid transit extension to Mattapan, and the rolling stock used on the Red Line. While many of the photographs aren't that interesting -- I'm not that interested in the cars themselves, much less which civic leaders were present at a dedication ceremony -- the image-driven representation of now-defunct train stations, stations houses, maintenance facilities, and what's replaced them on the urban landscape, offers a nice physical history of public transit in Cambridge and Boston.
Pages: 128. Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Brain Candy: Boost Your Brain Power with Vitamins, Supplements, Drugs, and Other Substances by Theodore Lidsky and Jay Schneider (Fireside, 2001)
Written by a brain researcher and a neurology professor, this is as objective a guide as you can get to smart drugs and related substances. Concentrating on nootropics, amino acids, hormones, vitamins, and other substances that affect mental performance and memory, Lidsky and Schneider consider the research done on each substance, their possible benefits, and their risks. Their relatively strict science is highly appreciated. By lending credence primarily to double-blind studies in which a control group was present -- and by considering whether research has been done using healthy adults, not just the elderly or those suffering from Alzheimer's -- the two are able to weigh in on the hype and hyperbole surrounding many substances no approved by the FDA. I've already decided to stop taking choline and start taking piracetam. Useful if you're interested in smart drugs and vitamins.
Pages: 236. Days to read: 12. Rating: Good.

Con and Cthulu: Uberdub by Matt Howarth (Aeon, 1996)
Matt Howarth is one of my favorite comic book artists, and while I've missed most of his single-issue work, I'm always jazzed to come across collections of his miniseries. Featuring a real-life electronic musician, Conrad Schnitzler, and the old one Cthulhu, who's disguised himself as a shoggoth and changed the spelling of his name to hide from the Elder Gods. It's an interesting mix of Savage Henry adventure story, electronic music fandom, and Lovecraftiana. But beyond the story, what I simply adore about Howarth is his artwork. Bridging the styles of the underground comics from the '60s, the first wave of minicomics makers, and the independent comics of today, Howarth's work astounds. Extremely clean yet detailed, his work incorporates some of the best shading and hash-mark drawing I've ever seen. An unsung comics hero.
Pages: 80. Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Deathlands: Skydark Spawn by James Axler (Gold Eagle, 2003)
Another of the men's adventure series published monthly by Gold Eagle, a division of Harlequin, this is one of the few series not ghostwritten by mulitple authors. As such, it's relatively true to the original vision of the series, which I first read while a teenager. Set in a post-apocalyptic America, the book details the adventures of a team of survivors. The team comprises stereotypical foils like most adventure team books (including Gold Eagle's former Able Team and Phoenix Force series), a neanderthalic albino, a time-traveling professor sort, and two romantically involved couples. There's also a father-son pairing, shades of Jonny Quest. Not as well-written as the Mack Bolan books, but better penned than the disappointing Destroyer series, this volume involves a factory farm for breeding children that ensnares our adventures -- and is eventually destroyed by them. Sexual festishism, the dangers of inbreeding, and an oddly comic band of mutants that follow a human female as their savior, are all worked into the story, which ends well, if not extremely quickly. I almost thought the book would be continued, but then Axler wrapped everything up in the last 20 pages. These are the Saltines of the book world, a real palette cleanser.
Pages: 349. Days to read: 22. Rating: Fair.

The Destroyer #131: Unnatural Selection by James Mullaney (Gold Eagle, 2003)
Originally created by Warren Murphy and Sapir, this men's adventure series is a counterpoint to Gold Eagle's Mack Bolan series, originally created by Don Pendleton. But it's nowhere near as interesting. The story of Remo Williams and Chiun, two comically paired masters of Sinanju, an uber-martial art, isn't quite in line with what I remember about Williams. Despite the dissatisfying lack of realism in the action scenes, the book has two redeeming features. One, the plot centers on genetics and nanotechnology -- interesting to see how that's rippling through popular culture. Two, there's an extremely silly and stereotypical celebrity cameo including Winona Ryder, Martha Stewart, Jimmy Buffet, and Mike Tyson. Ghost writer Mullaney caricatures them mercilessly. I appreciate the Mack Bolan books much, much more.
Page: 347. Days to read: 3. Rating: Poor.

Hellblazer: Haunted by Warren Ellis and John Higgins (DC, 2003)
Collecting Hellblazer #134-139 from 1999, this is one of the better Hellblazer story arcs, ably written by Ellis. The plot centers on John Constantine's haunting by an old friend, Isabel Bracknell, who was ritually murdered by an Aleister Crowley wannabe. By tracking down and defeating the ambitious dark magician, Constantine is able to release the spirit of Bracknell in the end. Ellis works in several innovative elements to the book. Constantine's magician friend Map wanders the tube tunnels beneath London to keep tabs on the city and its populace. I also enjoyed the recurring characters Sanjay, who sells Constantine his cigarettes; his undead advisors; Haine; and the bad cop Watford. Iconic characters -- and ideas -- might be what Ellis writes best.
Pages: 144. Days to read: 1. Rating: Good.

Hopping Mad edited by Albert Feldstein (Signet, 1969)
Collecting material originally published in Mad magazine in 1964 and 1968, this is one of many anthology paperbacks published by Signet. Despite occasionally awkward layouts given the dimensions of the paperback pages, it's a good look at the magazine's better days. While the Mad books are rarely thematic or cohesive in their content, there are several threads running through the pieces collected here. Two of the most obvious involve comic strips -- Bob Clarke and Frank Jacobs' "Insecurity Is a Pair of Loose Swim Trunks" and "Comics for Publications That Don't Have Comics" -- and marketing -- "The Mad Plan for Fighting the War Against Junk Mail," "Watch That Price with the Asterisk," "The Great Filter Tip Cigarette War," "Fake-Out Record Jackets, and "The Long Range Effects of Products on People." The book also includes some classic artwork from Dave Berg and Don Martin.
Pages: 192. Days to read: 2. Rating: Good.

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