Book Review: The Ten Cent Plague

The 10 Cent Plague

Note: This is Book #25 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

In The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America, author David Hajdu attempts to examine the birth of the comic book in America and trace its childhood and adolecense up to the point where people generally freaked out about how this wicked, perverted, and macabre art form was mauling the morals of this great country and how it had to be stopped. Or at least injured a bit.

We get incredibly detailed discussions of how these funny books started out as Sunday newspaper supplements, then pulpy entertainment for teens, then darker and more meaty fare that included side servings of sex, horror, mystery, intrigue, and weird bondage fantasies (I’m looking at you, Wonder Woman). Hajdu sets a huge cast of characters on parade through the pages, including artists, businessmen, writers, politicians, and crusaders for the moral majority.

The bredth and depth of original research Hajdu dug through is quite impressive. He cites from original interviews, letters, and other sundry documents, and gives us personal and detailed accounts of each player’s story, eccentricities, and contributions. Unfortunately the author seems to be a better researcher than he is entertainer, and the book gets mired down in WAY too many details about WAY too many people. After a while I couldn’t keep them all straight, and what’s worse I really didn’t care to.

To use an apt analogy, the book was like a comic full of dynamic, detailed, and flashy images, full of splash pages and crazy action without much focus. It’s impressive from a technical standpoint, but it wouldn’t compare too favorably to a better crafted book with neat and more easily comprehensible art guided by orderly and appropriate transitions and word baloons that don’t crowd out the subject.

Going along with this idea, the other thing that I found lacking about The 10 Cent Plague was that for a book about comics, it didn’t have nearly enough pictures. Hajdu periodically does an admirable job using words to thoroughly describe the contents of the comics in question, but it seems like it would have been a lot more effective and efficient to simply include a picture of it there on the page. There is a section of photographs and some sample art, but it’s not nearly enough given the subject matter.

All in all, I can’t really recommend this book unless you’re particularly bent on learning about the early history of comic books. Hajdu presents some neat trivia and the occasional vignette or story that stands out from the rest of the noise, but in general it’s way too detailed, too cluttered, and lacking in focus just for the sake of cramming in as much information as possible.

Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week:

Wee226: Fishing, Farm, and Hospitality

Last weekend we spent Memorial Day out at Ger’s family’s place in the country, “The Farm.” This gave the kids a chance to run free, play in the lake, and accumulate an impressive collection of ticks. Samantha also tried her hand at fishing. This rapidly bored her, so she decided to apply a Six Sigma Total Quality Management approach to fishing and streamline the process to realize greater efficiency. In other words, she just started digging the worms out of the bait bucket and tossing them directly into the lake for the fish to eat. I’m so proud.

The Farm is nice, in no small part due to the fact that when Geralyn’s family is all out there it’s a very relaxed atmosphere, with a very mi casa es su casa attitude, but Sam seems to know just how far to push things. I was sitting outside with her and some other folks one morning while we all watched the day get a slow start on things, and one of Ger’s cousins gets up and announces that she’s going inside to get more coffee and would anyone like anything?

Samantha thought for a moment, then announced. “Yes. I want some cereal. With milk. And I want to eat it out here on the yellow table.

Well, I guess you’re not family until you start taking advantage of each other’s hospitality.

Mandy had a lot of fun this trip, too, since she’s old enough now to get out and play around. We took her down to the little beach by the lake, and though she was more than a little dubious about the whole sand concept at first, she quickly got on board and tried to let her sense of fun permeate the various layers of sunblock, swimsuits, aquasocks, hats, and life jackets that we had tried to insulate her with. I have pictures of this, but I keep forgetting to get them off Geralyn’s camera. Will do so later so you can all enjoy, or something.

Oh, look. Here they are:

Book Review: Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian

Note: This is Book #24 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

Since I had enjoyed The Road by Cormac McCarthy so much, I decided to pick up what is supposed to be his most impressive work, Blood Meridian or, The Evening Redness in the West. Yikes. I mean, yikes. Talk about disturbing…

On the surface, this is a Western novel in that it’s got cowboys, Indians, shootouts, deserts in the Southwest, ponchos, and all that stuff. But that’s just the veneer. The story mostly follows the Glanton Gang, a group of marauders who hunted the scalps of Indians and Mexicans along the US/Mexico border. The group is accompanied by the enigmatic Judge Holden, who is as violent as he is intelligent –that is, very on both counts. Imagine Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. Except that he’s not as warm and cuddly. When he’s not murdering people, The Judge often delivers long, drawn out lectures on philosophy, the meaning of life, and other weighty subjects. Actually, I take that back –sometimes he does the murdering and the philosophizing at the same time.

In fact, violence and cruelty infuse the entire book. This was, in parts, a very difficult book to read because of its unflinching examination of the murder, mutilation, sadism, brutality, cruelty, torture, and other atrocities that the Galton Gang revel in as they scrape a bloody wound across the U.S/Mexico border. Really. Think of the most disturbing act of violence you can. Now double it. And that’s a good starting point, but it get a lot worse. Consider yourself well adjusted that you can’t picture the kind of stuff I’m talking about at this point.

But at the same time, Blood Meridian is more than a gorefest. A lot more, in fact. I can hardly claim to have absorbed it all, but I can tell you that there’s plenty going on under the surface about the nature of man, obsession, man vs. nature, freedom, morality, and the like. The text is also rife with allusions and references to other literary works, as well as religious doctrines, philosophical debates, and history. There’s a lot to pick through there, and if you can excuse McCarthy for his frequent and annoying eschewing of proper punctuation and grammar you can tell that the novel is masterfully crafted. Ironically, the prose is often beautiful.

But would I recommend you it? That’s a tough question, but the answer is probably “No” unless you’re really set on it. The book is a powerful work of literature but it’s just too vile in its descriptions of violence and too nihilistic in many of its messages. It’s a testament to McCarthy’s prowess that Blood Meridian is both beautiful and horrible.

Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week:

Week 225: Reunions, Drives, and Sharing

Brief update this week, oddly enough since last week was so eventful and I’m still catching up. Lots of pictures, though. Last Wednesday we loaded up the car and drove down to Sulphur, Oklahoma (yee-haw!) for a family reunion. This involved more hours of driving with two young children than I really want to think about now that it’s behind me, and I think it belies Mandy’s normally sanguine disposition to note that she writhed in her little car seat and yelled at me nonstop for a 40 mile segment of that trip.

Otherwise, though, the trip was great. We got to spend time with my mom, who hadn’t seen the kids since Christmas, and I also got to stand with my various cousins in front of a laughing and squirming pile of children and ask “which ones are yours again?” There was also a LOT of ham, potato salad, and what I can only describe as a vat of delicious banana pudding.

On our last day we also visited the world famous Turner Falls in Davis, Oklahoma. We were disappointed to learn, however, that at some point between our visit and the time when my mom and her childhood friends used to visit this watering hole, the owners had decided it was worth charging a $9.99 per person entry fee. And also Samantha was the only one we had brought a swimsuit for. It was worth it, though, to let the kids play and splash in the shallows before we strapped them into a car for several more hours.

We also conducted a little experiment with sleeping arrangements. The house we had rented in Sulphur had 3 bedrooms, and given that there were five of us there (including my mom) this normally would have meant that Mandy and her portable crib would share a room with Geralyn and me. Instead we decided to see if Sam and Mandy could share a room. At first this did not work well. We would sit in the living room listening to Sam jabbering away to her sister and even occasionally scooting the crib around. After a few minutes Sam would come out of the room and complain to us that “Mandy won’t go to sleep.” Her stance proved impervious to our pointing out that this was on account of Sam’s leaning over the edge of Mandy’s crib and loudly demanding that she go to sleep, but she eventually seemed to catch on and things worked out fine.

Book Review: I am America (And So Can You)

I Am America

Note: This is book #23 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

This book by Stpehen Colbert (of The Colbert Report basic cable fame) is pretty much what you expect: his TV show in book form. For those of you who don’t know, that shtick involves playing a character that parodies ultra-conservative media pundits like Lindbaugh, O’Reilly, and Dobbs. Just about every line is dripping with that old comedic staple irony, so that after a minute or two any reasonable newcomer to the act can discern the implicit comedy and subtexts. Or so you hope. At any rate, Colbert’s character is bombastic, outrageous in his opinions, and jingoistic in his attitude towards the U.S. of A., and completely absorbed in himself and his own perceived infallibility as a self-appointed pundit.

It’s not a unfunny act, aided as it is by the real comedic genius of Colbert and his authors. It’s really funny stuff. This book is much more of the same, except that the current events from the show are replaced with a hodge podge of topics like the elderly, sports, homosexuality, the media, immigrants, and the entertainment industry. This approach seems like it would differentiate the book from the show, but really a lot of the material and style are the same (probably quite deliberately), and all too often the pages look like what you might find most nights if you could see Colbert’s teleprompter.

But that isn’t necessarily bad. It is really funny, and the book does occasionally break out and use the medium in creative ways, with graphs, charts, stickers (yes, stickers), and Colbert’s own little notes and counter-points written in the margins (notably in red ink, not unlike the words of Jesus in some editions of the New Testament, which goes hand-in-hand with the character’s God complex). Honestly, I laughed out loud a LOT while reading this thing, even if by the end the whole shtick was starting to wear thin.

Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week:

Week 224: Cast, Brace, and Math

Mandy finally got her cast off earlier this week, and I’ll let you in on a little secret: small children are terrified by strange men attacking their leg with huge (relatively speaking) buzzsaws. Fortunately the ordeal passed quickly, and we now have the cast sans Mandy for a souvenir. Mandy seems happy to be without it, but she still kind of drags her right foot a little and points it outwards more than she should like some kind of extra in a zombie flick taking place entirely in a nursery. The doctor says that will correct itself, though, so we only have a limited amount of time to finish filming.

That was really the least of our worries upon returning home from the doctor’s office, though. While there, he poked Mandy a few times and pronounced that she had a “shallow hip” and that we should do something about that if we wanted to avoid surgery in the next few years.

Now, if you’re a parent, you may have some idea of the reaction this got from us, especially if your child has ever been diagnosed with anything more than a mild fever. Really, there is absolutely no middle ground on the Continuum of Parental Concern –everything pretty much occupies the extreme poles, as shown in this xkcd style graph:

Continuum of Parental Concern

The doctor assured us (or rather, Ger, since I was blissfully grinding away at work) that the treatment was simple, though: six months of strapping Mandy down into this brace like a slightly inept and very gender confused James Bond every time she goes down for a nap or sleep. The doctor mumbled something about how some babies take to it just fine, while others get “slightly aggravated.” The nurse standing behind the doctor reportedly rolled her eyes at this, presumably because she knew that once again it’s all about the extremes, and toddlers don’t get “slightly” annoyed any more than one could get a slightly gargantuan or a little bit frenzied.

Fortunately Mandy once again proved herself worth of the “World’s Mellowest Baby” award and protests not a bit when we strap her in. In fact, through some kind of Pavlovian conditioning, she has actually started to smile and giggle when we pull out the brace, paired as it is with perusing a few books and lying down for a snooze. She’s so awesome.

Sam is also awesome, but for different reasons. It seems that whatever clock is ticking away insider he has decided that it’s time to really get on board with this whole numbers thing, so that she is constantly counting things. Leaves, people, fork tines, fingers, dogs, cars –whatever. Or sometimes she gives the things a break and just counts to herself. She’s mastered the concept of a base ten number system, because after getting over the stumbling block of the teens she has figured out how to just keep going. The other day while we were driving in the car, for example, she counted aloud from 1 up to 78 before getting bored of it. She has also started to wrap her head around basic subtraction and addition, as evidenced by how I’ve spied her with her head bent over a pile of Cheerios, moving one or two in or out of the pile at a time and muttering to herself as she revised her tallies.

And, come to think of it, she seems to be hitting the same milestone with letters and words. She expresses lots of curiosity about what words say, and the other day when she was on the floor playing with some toy letters she commanded me to “look LOOK” at something she had done. There on the floor were the letters “S-A-M-M-Y.” So she had either spelled her first word all by herself or just thrown the the whole alphabet of letters up into the air and gotten VERY lucky.

Book Review: Gardens of the Moon

Gardens of the Moon

Note: This is book #22 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

Gardens of the Moon is the first in Steven Erikson’s gargantuan and oddly named fantasy series, Malazan Book of the Fallen. What’s odd about it is that it took me THREE tries to get through this first volume. The first two times I tried, I got one or two hundred pages in and just lost interest, mainly because I was confused and didn’t know what was going on. But the third time I tried it just clicked and I enjoyed it. Figuring out why this is the case took some thought, and I believe it boils down to two basic and interconnected reasons.

First, Erikson has an extreme “show, don’t tell” kind of style. The very first chapter dumps you head over heels into the middle of an epic storyline full of action, with hardly any exposition at all. There’s no narrator saying “Okay, there’s this nation called the Malazan Empire, and they’ve been engaging in a protracted military campaign against a group of allied Free Cities. We’re going to enter the story as the Malazan forces prepare to attack one of these cities, which has formed an alliance with this one badass dude who controls a flying fortress. Now, let’s talk about the structure of the Malazan military…”

No, none of that. Instead, after a brief prologue where you eavesdrop on a few characters, you get action action action and you’re left to yourself to figure it all out by paying close attention and making your own inferences based on what’s said and done. This is mainly what put me way off balance on my first two attempts at reading this tome.

The offsetting effects of show-don’t-tell style are exacerbated by something else Erikson does: he eschews many of the typical fantasy staples that usually act as guideposts to new readers. There’s a reason why not many books stray from the formula of a hapless youngster being apprenticed to an elder wizard or military veteran or adventurer or whatever who guides him through the world that has been opened up to both him and the reader. It allows the author to slyly provide exposition about the world by having the master explain things to the apprentice while the reader just sort of listens in. And going along with all that, other fantasy staples act as familiar sign posts and landmarks so that you don’t get lost.

Not so much with Erikson. Sure, his books have wizards and dragons and dudes on horseback slinging swords around, but in general Erikson’s world is different enough that you don’t necessarily know what’s going on, and his staunch adherence to the show-don’t-tell method means you gotta figure things out on your own. What’s a “warren” and what does it mean when a wizard “enters” one to perform his hocus pocus? That’s not explained. Figure it out. Or don’t. It’s all on you, hapless reader.

But eventually I did figure enough of it out, and in time I began to see both Erikson’s style and his kicking of conventions to the curb as good things. I enjoyed the story and the richness of the world that he was building. If I’ve got one complaint it’s that at least in this book Erikson can’t seem to help upping the ante with how powerful each character or threat gets. Okay, here’s these really frightening and legendarily powerful Hound things and –oh, okay, this even tougher dude with a big black sword just killed three of them. Guess they weren’t that tough. But this wizard is really powerful oh, no he just got stabbed in the neck by an assassin chick who’s apparently even further to the right on the badassedness curve. Now here’s a demon king fighting a dragon while a pissed off demigod is kicking over mountains like they were sandcastles RRRAAAWWWWOOOOEERRAAHH PEW! PEW! PEW!

After a point it borders on ridiculous, but fortunately there are a number of more mundane (and more interesting) characters to tether things down a bit. I look forward to seeing where he goes with it all in the subsequent books.

Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week:

Week 223: Cancel, Lil’ Ahab, and Vocab

One thing I’ve noticed about Sam lately is that she has gotten very talkative. I mean more so. The other day when I called Geralyn at home to ask her something, Sam demanded that she hand over the phone and then proceeded to spend the next several minutes telling me all about her day in an uninterrupted stream of consciousness that was broken only by her pausing to ask, “You still there? Daddy?” to make sure I hadn’t set the phone down and gotten back to work.

This is, of course, great. The only issue is that while I have no trouble understanding 99% of her adolescent enunciation, that last 1% still trips me up sometimes. The other day Sam wandered over to me and asked, casually, “Daddy, what does cancer mean?”

I looked at her askance for a moment, but generally I try to answer all her questions honestly and straight forwardly, unless they have to do with sex or Republicans. “Well,” I began, “it’s like a disease. It’s when part of your body forgets how it’s supposed to be, and kind of starts growing wrong. It’s usually pretty bad news.”

I prepared to go on about free radicals and cigarettes when I noticed that this explanation had rather stricken Samantha. She had a slightly paniced look on her face as she tried to absorb what I had said. “Honey, don’t worry about it, though. Where did you hear about cancer?”

Her eyes snapped up to mine. “No, not cancer. Cancer.


Sam tucked her right elbow in against her side and stuck her index finger up in the air parallel to the ground, which is the pose she strikes whenever she tries to explain something. “Like,” she said, “When Mommy cancered my play date with Mia.”

I blinked for a second. “Sam, do you mean ‘cancel?’ When Mommy canceled your play date?”

She gave me one of her “Yes, you idiot” looks and said, “Yes, that’s what I said, Daddy. Cancer.”

Of course, the fact that this confusion was born of my daughter’s habit of replacing her “L” sounds with “OR” sounds would have been a lot more amusing if I hadn’t just practically told her that her mother had given her a deadly disease. But it was still kinda funny anyway.

Mandy is doing fine. She has actually started to walk with her leg cast on, and she’s getting pretty darn good at it as long as she stays away from the slippery hardwood floor. She just clomps around in it, awkwardly but effectively, like a pint-sized Captain Ahab. I’ve even taught her to go “Yaaarrr!” while she does it.

And it’s not just that one. She knows a lot of other words, too. Her favorites seem to be baby, bird, please, peas, cat, car, meow, doggie, ball, cast, cup, and the incredibly versatile NNNNYYEEEAAAAAHHHHHYAAAA! The latter is pretty much used when none of the former seem appropriate. And sometimes when they are.

Book Review: Childhood’s End

Childhood's End

Note: This is book #21 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks challenge for 2008.

When science fiction great Arthur C. Clark died a few weeks ago I was moved to pick up something by him to mark the passage. Since I’ve read his Space Odyssey books already, I grabbed a small, lesser known work by the name of Childhood’s End. Stuffed with themes like humanity’s place in the universe, the nature of utopia, the impact of first contact on society, and the potential for human achievement, it’s definitely classic sci-fi. I just wish Clark had expanded a lot of these themes and built out a complete story instead of something that seems like it can’t decide if it should be a short story or a novel.

The basic gist is this: one day Earth is visited by inconceivably powerful aliens, who dub themselves our benevolent overlords and supervisors. These aliens refuse to show their faces or communicate directly with most of humanity, but besides enforcing a few strict rules designed to make us play nice with each other, they mostly leave us alone and stick to their massive hovering spaceships. After a generation has passed, humans grow used to the overlords, but thanks to the utopia that their presence fosters and some of the technology that they share, the human race has gotten compliant and lax in the drive for achievement that had characterized it in the time preceding the arrival of its interstellar houseguests. Then the overlords decide to reveal themselves and it’s really impossible to discuss anything beyond that without spoilers.

There are some interesting ideas here, but as I hinted at earlier it feels like Clarke isn’t exploring them very deeply. The whole idea of how humanity reacts and adapts to the overlords rule is largely glossed over, even though that kind of thing would probably tell us a lot about ourselves. So too is the aftermath of the massively important events at the end of the book largely ignored, even though it was ripe for the writing. In general, I feel like Clarke had some cool ideas here, but didn’t really follow them through. Too bad, because there was a lot of potential.

Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week: