My 2017 in Books

This year my reading fell into three broad categories: novels and short fiction, mostly in a popular vein; non-fiction; and graphic novels or collections of comics. As usual, this list doesn’t include single issues of comics, magazines, or other non-book reading (although I did read “Cat Person” like everyone else online; it was fine, but woefully short on lycanthropes). I didn’t read much in the way of new books, except for the books on Tupperware and the history of chicken as a dietary staple, both of which I borrowed from the library.

Austen

The best fiction I read this year was Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen has been a blind spot for me for a long time, although I felt as though I knew her work by its film adaptations and by the impact her arch, slyly satiric tone has had in popular culture. The experience of reading her lived up to my expectations and confirmed a tendency to take a similar tack I have noticed in my own writing (not that I am executing anywhere near Austen’s level). I have more to read from her, but two novels in one month seemed like plenty.

Moondust

The best non-fiction I read this year was Moondust, an intriguing book by Andrew Smith detailing his attempts to track down and interview all of the remaining lunar astronauts. The questions these men had to ask themselves–“What do you do after you’ve walked on the moon?”–and the varied answers they came up with (including religion, art, teaching, business, and professional futurism) are vivid portraits of mid-life crisis and (for some of them) reinvention. Further, Smith’s quest has a personal dimension as he weaves his own memories of a space age childhood into his narration, essentially asking the same question for himself and America at large: what now? The notion that the moon race was (at least partly) a work of political theater, a brief flurry of activity that had few lasting effects (satellites and computers aside, there are no lunar colonies, no manned missions to Mars, etc.), is now commonplace, but as someone who grew up in the (relatively conservative) Space Shuttle era, it is still bracing to read these accounts of intense national purpose and the incredible drive it took to accomplish the moon launches. What sticks with me after this book, though, are the personalities (quite varied, even within the hyper-specific psychological and career profiling NASA used to choose its crews), the questions they asked themselves in the wake of their momentous voyages, and the different answers they came up with for themselves.

DCBombshells

In comics, Bombshells was a pleasant discovery: writer Marguerite Bennett and artist Marguerite Sauvage create a compelling alternate World War II, one in which the female heroes and villains of DC Comics (Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Harley Quinn, et al) are the only superhumans (so no Superman, Batman, etc.–male characters like Steve Trevor are involved, but as supporting cast). Visually drawing on pinup art, propaganda posters, and commercial art of the 1940s, Bombshells presents a colorful, almost-familiar world while getting to the essence of these characters and remixing DC lore in inventive ways. It also taps into a spirit of optimism and compassion that suits the characters and the setting. The fact that the series was created as a spinoff from a popular series of pinup-style statues of DC characters isn’t surprising–that’s the biz–but the fact that it is so well executed, as if it had been conceived as a story all along, is. (I’ve only read the first two trade collections; I decided to wait for the whole series to be collected so I can read it in one go, so no spoilers please!)

Here’s the complete list, with some additional commentary:

January
The Dark Half, Stephen King
Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White All in One, Taiyo Matsumoto
Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History, Glen Berger (“Before something can be brilliant, it first has to be competent.”)

February
Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, Matthew Kennedy (This book led me to watch Star!, the biopic in which Julie Andrews played music hall performer Gertrude Lawrence, when it aired on TCM. Star! was one of the worst movies I watched this year.)
The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, Dave Stevens
Mind MGMT Volume One: The Manager, Matt Kindt
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 1, Jiro Kuwata
The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror, Roger Langridge and J Bone

March
Bombshells Volume 1: Enlisted, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Bombshells Volume 2: Allies, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 2, Jiro Kuwata
The Complete Golden Age Airboy & Valkyrie, Fred Kida et al
Gotham City Sirens, Book One, Paul Dini, Guillem March et al
Hit or Myth, Robert Asprin

April
Gotham City Sirens, Book Two, Tony Bedard, Peter Calloway et al
Myth-ing Persons, Robert Asprin
Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records, Amanda Petrusich
Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled, ed. Jon Friedman

May
Nemo Trilogy (Heart of Ice, The Roses of Berlin, River of Ghosts), Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill et al
Wylder’s Hand, J. Sheridan LeFanu
My Life as an Explorer, Sven Anders Hedin

June
Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K. Dick
Murder in Mesopotamia, Agatha Christie
Atomic Bomb Cinema, Jerome F. Shapiro
The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931-1951, Chester Gould

Maybury.cover

July
The Brides of Bellenmore, Anne Maybury
Falcon’s Shadow, Anne Maybury
Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon
Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Party Empire, Bob Kealing
Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird, Emelyn Rude

August
Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, Craig Nelson
Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, Andrew Smith

Vault

In September I didn’t read any complete books at all, but as I mentioned then, I read some Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules cover to cover (more thoroughly than I read all but a few even when I was actively playing the game, I must confess). After a lucky find at my local comic store, I had a complete copy of one of the most famous series of published modules, the “GDQ” series (so called because it links three adventures against Giants, against the “dark elf” Drow, and against Lolth, the “Queen of the Demon-Web Pits”); I had wanted to read through these to see how well they really flowed as a single epic campaign, but I had forgotten just how much work the Dungeon Master had to do to flesh out these printed modules in order for them to work as adventures. Like most old-school modules, the bulk of the text simply describes the characters and items found in various rooms; it’s up to the Dungeon Master and players to provide the narrative sweep. Furthermore, the motivations of many characters are either only hinted at or are contingent upon the players’ actions. As I once read, an adventure (whether published or written by the DM for his own game) is not a story, but the promise of a story: only when it is inhabited by players and their characters is it brought to life. Reading the GDQ series was an interesting exercise, and it brought back memories of playing some of these adventures as a kid, but it wasn’t quite what I remembered. (These and other classic adventure modules inspired novelizations, as I found, but I haven’t read them; maybe I will some day.)

October
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Drabble

November
The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, Margaret Drabble (Like Moondust, this was another book combining historical research with memoir; Drabble’s meditations on the appeal of the mosaic, on the reuniting of fragmented pieces, of the creation of images within images, are relevant to my own writing and composition, and I was astonished to recognize myself in some passages. The book was not exactly a dynamo of forward momentum, however, and like the act of assembling a puzzle itself, reading this book was a ruminative exercise, replete with long pauses for reassessment of the larger whole.)
Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars 1, Jessica Abel

Pulps.Goodstone

December
The Pulps, ed. Tony Goodstone (a collection of reprints from the Golden Age, the “real stuff”)
Chilling Tales of Horror: Dark Graphic Short Stories, Pedro Rodríguez
Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz, Kevin Jackson

In 2008 I read Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices, a sort of diary of the year 1995, on a day-by-day basis: since A Year starts with Eno’s decision to start a diary on January 1, I began reading it at the beginning of the year and read each entry on the corresponding date, over the course of that year. Eno didn’t write an entry for every single day, but it was close enough, and with the various appendices I had something to read from him almost every day: the book became a constant companion, almost a devotional, and absorbing it slowly, over the course of that year, made more of an impression than reading it quickly might have done (and frankly even the most interesting diaries are frequently mundane and repetitive enough that I wouldn’t read them straight through anyway).

Constellation.1922

After keeping an eye out for a similar book that covered a single year in the same way, I came across Constellation of Genius, a day-by-day record of events in 1922 (ranging from the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to the opening of King Tut’s tomb and the founding of the Irish Free State) and saw an opportunity to read it in the same way. So that has been an ongoing project over the past year. During that year, I’ve been looking at the cover and seeing the blurb “Brilliantly erudite and very funny” attributed to reviewer Robert Macfarlane, and I confess myself mystified. The first part I cannot deny: author Kevin Jackson has brought together a wealth of material from diverse sources, and is an excellent guide in unfamiliar territory, briefly explaining what has been forgotten or needs to be translated, choosing illustrative anecdotes to stand in for the whole and providing multiple entryways for further exploration of his subjects. But “very funny”? Jackson is a dry wit, and many of the stories he shares are humorous, but I can’t recall busting a gut while reading this; perhaps it is the haunting similarity of the political perils he describes–acts of terrorism and war, the rise of fascism and Stalinism–to those of the present. The foreboding of the interwar period tends to overshadow the lives of the artists and writers, making their heroic feats seem small in the scale of the world’s events. On the other hand, the diary format shows how life goes on, and how the larger patterns of history are frequently invisible until viewed in the hindsight of years. There are about fifty pages of “aftermath” following the December 31 entry, describing the later lives and fates of the book’s major players; if I don’t get it finished tomorrow, I expect to soon enough, and it seemed silly not to include this in my 2017 reading on a technicality.

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My 2016 in Books

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No, I haven’t read all the books in this pile; that’s my haul from one of several library sales I hit this year (I have read a couple of these, so far, though). I really can’t help it: this year I continued to collect books at a rate faster than I could read them (a common problem, I’m afraid), but I did make an effort to read books that were already on my shelf. Other books I got from the library when I could, including most of the graphic novels listed below. (I debated whether to include trade paperback collections of monthly comics, but in the case of Ryan North and Erica Henderson’s The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, I decided what the heck: they’re some of the books I’ve enjoyed most in the last couple of months, and for the record The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe! is a graphic novel in the traditional, standalone sense.)

squirrelgirl

In addition to filling some gaps in my comics reading, I followed through on my promise from last year to read more of the pulp and genre novels that have been crowding my shelves for years. Most are quick reads, and some of them tied into other projects I was involved in. Reading Armageddon 2419 A.D. was part of my preparation to watch the Buck Rogers serial for a feature in The Solute last spring; novels by William MacLeod Raine and Zane Grey (my first Grey!) continued my exploration of the traditional Western.

buckrogers1

And what about those covers! I love the lush cover paintings Ballantine commissioned for its “Adult Fantasy” line back in the late ’60s, and Ron Walotsky’s cover for Fletcher Pratt’s The Blue Star in particular is a great example, intensely colorful and reminiscent of Weird Tales great Hannes Bok and Dungeons & Dragons icon Erol Otus. (The book itself was less psychedelic than the art might suggest, an early example of “parallel world” fantasy whose only speculative element was the presence of psychic witches. The Blue Star was originally published in 1952, early enough that Pratt included a prologue setting up the events of the novel as a dream, unable as he was to assume that contemporary audiences would automatically understand the concept of a secondary world.)

bluestar

Then there’s this one, an ironic bit of spy-fi, found in a used bookstore. I only recently found out that The Bamboo Saucer was made into a movie, but I haven’t seen it. The book was okay. (High Road to China, an aviation adventure set in the interwar years, is another one that was made into a movie; the copy I read is even a tie-in edition with a photo insert of star Tom Selleck, but I have absolutely no memory of the film.)

bamboo1

Other Highlights:

It was a good year for non-fiction for me, and the books on Gary Gygax, Nancy Drew, and Amazing Stories editor Ray Palmer were especially fascinating looks into the publishing industry and the creative process. (The Man From Mars also confirmed that the scientist alter ego of superhero The Atom was named after the Ray Palmer, something I had wondered about.) Another fascinating read was A Kim Jong-Il Production, about the kidnapping of South Korean director Shin Sang-Ok and his wife, actress Choi Eun-hee, who were pressed into service making movies for the North Korean dictator, a noted film buff.

I also read quite a few (mostly short) novels, including books by Jack Vance, the last book of Lemony Snicket’s All the Wrong Questions (a series I enjoyed very much), and a pair of contemporary (ca. 1970) gothic romances by Susan Howatch (another library sale find: how could I resist a cover like this?).

howatch

Aside from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, comics and graphic novels that I found rewarding were Planetary (I had read the first few issues several years ago, but the Omnibus edition from the library caught me up on the entire series), All-Star Superman (as good as everyone says), and V for Vendetta (unfortunately timely).

Here’s the complete list:

January
Armageddon 2419 A.D., Philip Francis Nowlan
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
All the Wrong Questions: “Why Is This Night Different from All Other Nights?”, Lemony Snicket
A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power, Paul Fischer
League of Somebodies, Samuel Sattin

February
Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media, ed. David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu
Bulldog Drummond, Sapper
Halting State, Charles Stross

March
Mission to the Head-Hunters, Frank and Marie Drown
All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
The Fighting Tenderfoot, William MacLeod Raine
Cowboys & Aliens, Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, et al
Al Williamson Adventures, Al Williamson et al
The Planetary Omnibus, Warren Ellis and John Cassaday

April
Heroes of Bear Creek, Robert E. Howard
Big Planet, Jack Vance
The Blue World, Jack Vance

May
The Dragon Masters & Other Stories, Jack Vance
The 6 Voyages of Lone Sloane, Philippe Druillet
Forust: A Tale of Magic Gone Wrong, Adam and Dustin Koski
Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, Michael Witwer

June
The Blue Star, Fletcher Pratt
Lone Sloane: Delirius, Jacques Lob and Philippe Druillet
Camelot 3000, Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland
The Flight of the Bamboo Saucer, Fritz Gordon
Tales of the Enchanted Islands of the Atlantic, Thomas Wentworth Higginson

July
High Road to China, Jon Cleary
Three Weeks, Elinor Glyn
Last of the Duanes, Zane Grey
Marvelman Classic Vol. 2, Mick Anglo et al

August
Cowgirls: Women of the American West, Teresa Jordan
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, J. K. Rowling, Jack Thorne

September
Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her, Melanie Rehak
This Business of Bomfog, Madelaine Duke
Critical Mass, Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
The Man From Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey, Fred Nadis
A Field Guide to Kentucky Kaiju, Justin Stewart, Tressina Bowling and Shawn Pryor
The Man Called Brown Condor: The Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot, Thomas E. Simmons

October
Monster, 1959, David Maine
Best “Thinking Machine” Detective Stories, Jacques Futrelle, ed. E. F. Bleiler
The Waiting Sands, Susan Howatch

November
The Devil on Lammas Night, Susan Howatch
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. One: Squirrel Power, Ryan North and Erica Henderson
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl Beats Up the Marvel Universe!, North and Henderson
The Fine Art of Literary Mayhem (2nd ed.), Myrick Land
Howard the Duck Vol. 0: What the Duck, Chip Zdarsky, Joe Quinones et al
The Take Back of Lincoln Junior High, Roseanne Cheng
V for Vendetta, Alan Moore and David Lloyd

December
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. Two: Squirrel, You Know It’s True, North and Henderson
Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant, Tony Cliff
The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Vol. Three: Squirrel, You Really Got Me Now, North and Henderson

Review: Monster, 1959

cover illustration by Owen Richardson

cover illustration by Owen Richardson

K. leaps into existence amid them all, shark-eyed, snake-tongued reality: misery given form, solid and undeniable and taller than Hell itself. Feathers like a bloodsmear across his thorax, claws lashing furrows in the ground. Gangs of teeth glaring at the crowd over his lipless slash. Everybody screams.

It sounds like science fiction, and in strict terms, it is. The plot is the most familiar element of David Maine’s 2008 novel Monster, 1959–explorers discover an extraordinary monster on a remote Pacific island, and after restraining the beast they transport it to America to put it on display, after which eventually everything goes to Hell–but the novelty of the story isn’t really Maine’s concern. Monster, 1959 is the kind of novel that applies probing psychological realism to genre material, finding unexpected complexity beneath the surface of broadly-sketched stock types. What Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love did for Freaks and its body-horror descendants, Monster, 1959 does for King Kong and the monster movies of the 1950s.

If so many of the alien-invasion and monster-rampage stories of the Cold War were metaphors for political anxieties, postwar social displacement, and the catch-all term “future shock,” Maine is concerned with re-literalizing those metaphors, making sure that his fanciful monster mash takes place in a world that includes not only Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the bomb tests on Bikini Atoll, but also the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Study and the eviction of Palestinians from newly-formed Israel. Maine’s omniscient shifts in focus from close-ups on the main characters to the wide shots of world events is reminiscent of the intriguing book Welcome to Mars by Ken Hollings and Erik Davis, which also shares Monster, 1959‘s year-by-year structure in making connections between seemingly disparate strands of history and popular culture.

In Monster, 1959, the main characters are the giant chimerical monster K., for “Kama ka,” the name given to him by the islanders who worship him as a god (but perhaps also standing for Kong, or kaiju, or in reference to the monogrammatic protagonist of Franz Kafka’s The Trial); Betty, the white woman whom K. first abducts and then finds himself strangely bonded to; and Johnny, the square-jawed man of action and Betty’s husband/rescuer. In retelling this age-old but highly specific beauty-and-the-beast tale, the members of the central triangle (and numerous characters who enter their orbit) are given shading and moral ambiguity, and of course relevance beyond the single story.

The novel’s most winning creation is K. himself, and Maine effortlessly relates events from K.’s perspective: animalistic, responsive to direct stimuli, and without much imagination or sense of the past or future. Despite the limitations inherent in writing from this point of view, Maine sketches a believable (and believably mysterious) persona. It’s common for audiences to partially identify with King Kong or Godzilla, but Maine is interested in what it would really feel like to be such a creature. While there is a fair amount of action in the story (“some sci-fi monster violence,” as the MPAA would have it), for all his size and power, K. is not the bloodthirsty predator one might expect; in fact, he’s a vegetarian. K.’s reactions to the humans invading his domain, the strange effect that Betty and her singing have on him, and his confusion at the series of entrapments and enclosures that he endures convey both how alien K.’s mentality is, and how alienating the modern world is when seen anew. Like the greatest movie monsters, K. is fearsome but ultimately sympathetic.

K., chained and transported in a custom box car, drugged and put on display in one roadshow after another, isn’t the only character who is trapped. There’s Doug, the seven-foot-two circus performer whose freakish height has come to be just as much a prison, and to whom the duty of administering K.’s sedatives has devolved. “It would be falsely melodramatic to say,” Maine tells us, “When Doug injects K., he feels as if he is injecting himself.” All the same, he does become disenchanted and disgusted enough to begin passive-aggressively slacking off, a decision that makes K.’s dramatic escape from confinement while performing at Madison Square Garden as inevitable as the failure of Jurassic Park’s electric fences. Life finds a way.

Betty, whom K. abducts all over again in New York, is not just a damsel in distress, but a woman of her generation whose deepest urges tell her to “throw herself into” her marriage and to give Johnny the benefit of the doubt. This extends to playing along with their friend Billy’s scheme to take the monster on tour, reenacting her abduction as a modern Romeo and Juliet story for paying audiences, against her better judgment. Johnny, over the course of the novel, finds that his experience in rescuing Betty has awakened a taste for adrenaline and alpha-male displays of prowess, a search for ever-greater highs that is ultimately his undoing. Ultimately it comes down to sex in forms as polymorphous as K.’s own mismatched body. “By now,” Maine writes after a particularly perverse episode, “you might be forgiven for wondering: Are there any normal people in this movie? It’s a fair question. To which the only possible answer would have to be: Are there any normal people in the world?

Finally, Monster, 1959 is no mere pastiche or stylistic exercise. Like the best environmental horror, it’s a warning, with K., the troubled child of the atomic bomb and master of an island of mutated terrors, returning like a bad dream to the country that created him and had hoped to forget him. Just as in a movie, the monster may be dispatched, but audiences know the fears that created it are still out there, and the monster can always come back.

THE END . . . ?

My 2015 in Books

20151206_144709.jpg

As the year draws to a close, it’s time for another post to summarize my activity in the past twelve months. As I did last year, I kept track of the books I read this year (I’ll look back on films I watched this year tomorrow). As before, I’ve only listed books I read from beginning to end (that’s why only one of the Robert E. Howard collections I wrote about in October is listed, the others having been read before). All were first-time reads (although I know I had read parts of American Humor before, but apparently not the whole thing), and I managed to keep my resolution to read more than I did last year, including some classics (hey, it turns out Moby Dick is a pretty good book!).

How does one summarize a year of reading activity? I don’t read by working through a list: I have books in mind that I want to get to, and I own a lot of books I haven’t read yet, but in general I let the last book I finished help me decide what to read next. Sometimes I continue along a certain track (several threads appeared in my reading this year, including books about the art and craft of writing; Wonder Woman and the fascinating behind-the-scenes story of her creator, psychologist and sex researcher William Moulton Marston; non-fiction on a variety of subjects; and several novels and collections of fiction).

After reading so much about Wonder Woman, the opportunity to pick up a set of reprints of her contemporary Phantom Lady made for a useful comparison. For one thing, it’s interesting to observe how much bondage and role-playing is in the wholesome Wonder Woman as opposed to the supposedly racier Phantom Lady; the difference is largely in that Moulton’s Wonder Woman presents its themes of domination and restraint from a playful perspective, and Harry G. Peter’s simple illustrations don’t draw quite as much as attention as Matt Baker’s famous “good girl” art (although in Classic Phantom Lady Volume Two, Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr. makes a strong case that Baker drew much less Phantom Lady than he is usually credited with).

At other times, after spending time in a particular headspace, I’m ready for a change: I was eager to part company with “Walter,” the narrator of the Victorian sexual diary My Secret Life, after nearly 600 pages (and the original work was published in eleven volumes!). “Walter’s” escapades are by turns titillating, horrifying, and deeply sad, the book itself a mixture of Victorian letters to Penthouse, inadvertent social history, and pre-Freudian psychosexual analysis. Even abridged, it’s “everything you wanted to know about Victorian sex but were afraid to ask.”

That made Edmond Hamilton’s The Valley of Creation, a short and breezy pulp novel, a welcome palate-cleanser. I used to read such short novels frequently; although I enjoyed most of them, I also thought of them as research, fleshing out my picture of the pulp era and stocking up on plot and character formulas for future reference. I still have many on my shelves that I haven’t gotten to (many of them were boxed up until this year, when I got some new book shelves and was able to unpack them), so perhaps 2016 will be a year to renew my acquaintance with the diverse output of the pulps.

ValleyofCreation

January
Danse Macabre, Stephen King
Ghost Story, Peter Straub
On Writing, Stephen King
Don’t Fear the Reaper: Why Every Author Needs an Editor, Blake Atwood
The Juggler, Rachilde (trans. Melanie C. Hawthorne)
Wonder Woman: the Life and Times of the Amazon Princess, Les Daniels

February
American Humor: A Study of the National Character, Constance Rourke
The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore

March
Moby Dick, Herman Melville

April
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume One, William Moulton Marston and Harry G. Peter
A Year with a Whaler, Walter Noble Burns
Wonder Woman: Feminism and Bondage in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948, Noah Berlatsky
Revival, Stephen King
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume Two, Marston and Peter
Cities of Dreams, Stan Gooch

May
Guardian of the Gods, Mark Rodgers

June
The Mammoth Book of Steampunk, ed. Sean Wallace
Tarzan Forever: The Life of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Creator of Tarzan, John Taliaferro
The Wonder Woman Chronicles Volume Three, Marston and Peter

July
Classic Phantom Lady Volume One, various
Classic Phantom Lady Volume Two, various
Classic Phantom Lady Volume Three, various
Ladies in Distress, Kalton C. Lahue

August
The Pentagon: A History, Steve Vogel
The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission, Jim Bell
Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder
Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, David Tripp

September
The Orientalist, Tom Reiss
The Haunter of the Ring & Other Tales, Robert E. Howard

November
The Log of a Cowboy, Andy Adams
All the Wrong Questions: “Shouldn’t You Be in School?”, Lemony Snicket
The Disaster Artist: My Life Inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made, Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell

December
My Secret Life, Anonymous, ed. James Kincaid
The Valley of Creation, Edmond Hamilton

So, readers, I ask you: what did you read this year? Did you meet any reading goals, and what do you look forward to reading in the new year?

My 2014 in Books

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not usually one to keep a list of everything I read or watch, but in 2014 I kept a list of books I had read, in part because I was conscious that I wasn’t reading as much as I used to. Although the number this year is relatively small, I’d say the mixture of non-fiction and genre fiction is fairly typical of my reading in the last few years. The list includes some graphic novels and collections of comics, but not single comic book issues (which I’ve also fallen way behind on). It’s also influenced by subjects I was writing about; however, it only includes books I read from cover to cover, not those I dipped into for reference. Finally, all but one was a first-time read, although I had read parts of some of them in the past.

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January
Batman: Odyssey, Neal Adams
King City, Brandon Graham

February
The Look of the Old West, William Foster-Harris

March
Inventing Kindergarten, Norman Brosterman
Great American Folklore, Kemp P. Battle

April
The Old Patagonian Express, Paul Theroux
The Great Movie Serials: Their Sound and Fury, Jim Harmon and Donald F. Glut

May
Cliffhanger: A Pictorial History of the Motion Picture Serial, Alan G. Barbour
Misery, Stephen King

June
The Lost Worlds of Power Vol. 0, ed. Philip J. Reed

July
Showcase Presents The Great Disaster Featuring the Atomic Knights, various

August
The American Book of the Dead, Stephen Billias (reread)

September
The Bloodhounds of Broadway, Damon Runyon
The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec, Jacques Tardi

October
Showcase Presents Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew, various
All The Wrong Questions: “Who Could That Be at This Hour?”, Lemony Snicket
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett

December
The Lost Worlds of Power, ed. Philip J. Reed
All the Wrong Questions: “When Did You See Her Last?”, Lemony Snicket
Crab Monsters, Teenage Cavemen, and Candy Stripe Nurses: Roger Corman: King of the B Movie, Chris Nashawaty

Much of my thinking on what I read this year has already been included in the articles to which they are linked, and since most of what I read was published before 2014 and is in a diverse range of genres, ranking them seems pointless. I am struck, however, by how long ago some of the books I read in the spring seem to me; I might not have remembered that I read them this year at all without this list, instead consigning them to a hazy, indistinct “past,” even though I enjoyed many of them. To tell the truth, even September seems a long time ago from this vantage point. Such is the telescoping effect of the end-of-year holidays, I guess.

It strikes me, however, that I began and ended my year with two very different books that explored the rush of unbridled creativity in different formats. (Sorry, Batman: Odyssey, I don’t mean you, although you were memorable in many ways.) Brandon Graham’s King City is a graphic novel set in the futuristic metropolis of the title; its central character is a young man returning to his old stomping grounds after training with a mysterious group that uses multi-talented cats as weapons (yes, it is quite strange, but that description doesn’t even scratch the surface). In Graham’s notes (which I am paraphrasing, as I borrowed the book from the library and don’t have it in front of me), he said that King City‘s plot was guided by his desire to only draw things that were exciting to him: to not bore himself. Such an impulse could have led to disaster, but tied to a strong sense of craft, it makes for an immersive, invigorating read, with its weaponized cats, ultra-violent gangs, sexy girls, and graffiti-filled urban vistas that are part Moebius and part Mad magazine.

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At the other end (and just finished today, in fact) was Chris Nashawaty’s pictorial/oral history of influential director/producer Roger Corman’s career, from his days cranking out cheapies for the drive-in market to his nurturing of young (and affordable) talent, to his eventual recognition as a Hollywood elder statesman. The book includes reminiscences from such graduates of “Corman University” as Martin Scorsese, Joe Dante, and James Cameron, to name only a few. I was somewhat familiar with Corman’s career and working methods, and of course many of his films; Corman, and “mavericks” like him, continue to inspire because of their perseverance and determination to create in the face of low budgets, limited time, and (in many cases) lack of prestige. Corman and his crew made a virtue of such limitations, but the many anecdotes about making films show the value of committing to do one’s best work, whether on a pointed political statement like The Intruder or on the many monster, biker, and women-in-prison movies that Corman made on an assembly-line basis.

Tomorrow, I look back on the movies I watched this year.

I Stood in Line for an Hour to Watch Stephen King on Television

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Like something straight out of the hit film The Lawnmower Man, a futuristic digital simulacrum of author Stephen King manifested in one of the “overflow rooms” of the Hughes Metroplex at Wichita State University on Friday. King visited Wichita as part of the tour supporting his newest novel, Revival, and while I arrived early to hear him speak, I didn’t arrive quite early enough. The event (a reading from the new book, some prepared remarks, and a Q&A) was to start at 6 pm; having secured my ticket before they quickly sold out last month, I thought I’d head over to the Metroplex at about 5, giving myself plenty of time for travel and parking. Around 4:30, my wife noticed a Facebook post from a friend who was already there: the line was three quarters of the way around the building already. I hopped in the car and left, just barely finding a place to park. The line was fully around the building by this time (about 5), and many more people got in line after me. It took an hour for the line to wind back around, an hour of standing in near-freezing weather; at least it wasn’t raining or snowing. Quite a few people gave up and left, or didn’t bother queuing up when they saw the size of the crowd.

To make matters worse, the event was oversold: only the first 1700 ticket holders would be seated in the auditorium, and to get in the auditorium you had to have a wristband, which they started issuing at 4 pm. This information was on the event’s website, but not printed on the ticket:

Seating at the event is general admission. Once the Lowe Auditorium is full, the remaining attendees will be seated in overflow rooms with excellent, live audio / visual feed to Mr. King’s presentation.

So perhaps I was naive not to expect something like this, but based on the number of people who gave up, and the backlash mentioned in the Wichita Eagle‘s coverage of the event, I wasn’t the only one unpleasantly surprised. Needless to say, I was in the “overflow.”

But enough bitching. How was the presentation? It was fine: although King protested that he was terrified of large crowds and implied that he was at best a reluctant public speaker (supported by the fact that the Revival tour would only have six stops), he had an easy-going, conversational tone and was engaging and relaxed. A slight cold didn’t noticeably slow him down: he promised us it wasn’t ebola, and on that note observed that every time a new flu strain hit the news, sales of The Stand spiked. He sounded much like he writes, at least his non-fiction: I never once heard him use the word “fuckeroo” (although the sample he read from Revival did include “whoremaster,” another King standby).

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I’m more interested in King’s creative process than his books these days. That’s not to say I won’t read Revival, a copy of which was included with the ticket price. But even King’s diehard fans tend to take his books as they come these days, cherishing the good ones and shrugging off the disappointments as part of the cost of being a fan of this most prolific of authors. King is like a baseball player, grinding out a season’s worth of games, day in and day out, and even the Hall of Famers don’t hit home runs every time they go up to the plate.

The unevenness of King’s work has a lot to do with his intuitive approach and (reported) two thousand words a day: early on, King observed that he is “not an organized writer,” to which I responded “NO SHIT” in my notes. King said that every story begins with an image, and the process of writing is one of exploring the implications of that image and asking what happens next. He compared it to pulling a thread from a mouse hole: sometimes the thread is as short as a few pages’ worth of story, and sometimes it’s as long as a novel. And since King doesn’t know where it’s leading any more than the reader does, there’s always the possibility that the ending won’t be satisfying, or that it won’t be what he thought it would be when he began. Sometimes characters turn out to be stronger than he expected (he cited ‘Salem’s Lot, saying that his original plan was for the vampires to win), and sometimes they don’t make it. “I love a happy ending as much as anyone,” he said; “it’s just not always possible.”

I was aware of his general approach from his writing already: in addition to his memoir/handbook On Writing, King has often included writing and storytelling (and discussions of same) in his fiction, to the point that stories about writers are a significant subset of King’s work. As I wrote last summer, Misery, in addition to being a gripping story of suspense, is also something of a master class in writing as King surrogate Paul Sheldon thinks his way through the book that will preserve his life as a captive of his “biggest fan,” Annie Wilkes. Much of the imagery King uses to describe his process, such as seeing the story through a hole or window, is present in Misery and was still part of King’s discussion on Friday.

I suspect this is one reason King continues to fascinate long after his ideas are not only no longer shocking, but even familiar: his willingness to allow readers into his thought process, to show his tricks, to let them come along as if he needed their help in telling the story, is endearing. It’s also as much of a pose as that of the author who reveals nothing (such as John Irving, whom King said told him that he doesn’t begin a book until he knows what the last sentence will be, to which King responded, “Jeez Louise”), and I’m not naive enough to believe that King has completely laid it all on the table for his audience. Still, the sense that King’s personality comes through his writing is palpable, and longtime fans accept him as they accept old friends or family members, foibles and all.

One of the more interesting moments came during the Q&A: an audience member asked if King still slept with the light on, as he once claimed in an interview. King appeared to search for a memory of having said that, gave up, and finally said, “I’m a big boy now.” The audience laughed, and King segued into a bit that he had likely delivered before and clearly relished, drawing the audience into one of his stories: he pointed out that of all the people at the Metroplex, some of us had probably forgotten to lock our cars, and “anybody could climb into the back seat. And when you’re driving home and you look in the rear-view mirror”–he mimed a figure rising from the back seat–“‘objects may be closer than they appear.’ . . . But that probably won’t happen.” He continued, “And when you get home, and your house is all dark, you’ll go into the bathroom and see the shower curtain closed, and you’ll tell yourself, ‘I left it like that.’ . . . There probably won’t be anybody there.” We all laughed, and King laughed, too. “We’re all laughing,” he said, “but these things have a time release. Because some time tonight, you’re going to be alone, and it’s going to be dark, and then it won’t seem so funny.”

Stephen Billias’ The American Book of the Dead: An Old Favorite Revisited

Nucleomitophobia is an exaggerated fear of being blown to bits by nuclear weapons. Bertie Rupp has it, and it’s driving him crazy. He’s tried meditation, yoga, vegetarianism, and The Society for the Preservation of Mankind. Nothing works, until he hears about The American Book of the Dead, a Zen guide to surviving the nuclear holocaust. Convinced that he must find The Book and learn its secrets if the human race is to endure, Bertie sets out on a desperate search that will take him to Las Vegas and back . . . and involve him in the lives of an ex-nun from Kansas who truly loves him, an old tailor who survived the Nazi holocaust, and a mysterious representative from The Society for the Preservation of Outer Space. It is an odyssey that will lead him through the darkness of impending nuclear war and beyond . . . to Enlightenment.

That back-cover summary (combined with the cover illustration of a slack-jawed hippie gaping at a tiny “bonsai sequoia” tree, surrounded by approving monks) convinced me that I needed to read Stephen Billias’ 1987 novel The American Book of the Dead when I found it in the bookstore at age fourteen. I’ve written about my own nuclear fears, and while they had peaked a few years earlier, I still felt that I could relate to this Bertie Rupp character. I was similarly intrigued by his spiritual search for peace and Enlightenment with a capital E, as I was in the midst of a comparative study of different religions and sorting out many of life’s questions for myself (if I come up with a definitive answer, I’ll let you know).

Popular Library edition, 1987. Cover illustration by Gary Ruddell.

Popular Library edition, 1987. Cover illustration by Gary Ruddell.

At that age, I was reading science fiction and fantasy paperbacks pretty regularly, and I recognized the publisher, Questar (an imprint of Warner’s Popular Library), having read and enjoyed some of their other genre-stretching offerings already. A front-cover blurb from Harlan Ellison describing TABOTD (as I will henceforth abbreviate it) as “wonderfully bizarre” sealed the deal.

It turned out to be the perfect book for me at the moment; I read it and reread it several times. I thrust it into the hands of friends to read; my dad read it; even some of my teachers read it. Everyone I gave it to seemed to enjoy it. Since then, however, I’ve never met anyone else that read or remembered it. It had only a single printing, as far as I know. Twenty-five years later, I doubted myself: perhaps in my youth I overestimated its quality or originality; perhaps it was too timely, predicated as it was on Cold War nuclear anxiety; maybe it simply wasn’t as good as I remembered.

So, this past week I reread it, and while I can’t deny the possibility that my judgment is compromised by nostalgia, I still found it an imaginative, compassionate, and frequently beautiful book. At the same time, it’s now easier for me to put it into a literary context and make some useful comparisons to other books that are likely to be more familiar to readers.

The first thing that might not be clear from the summary above is that, while Bertie’s experiences are framed as a contemporary version of the Buddha’s journey, TABOTD is an often funny book. The Zen koan, or joke which startles and leads to wisdom, is built into the text of The Book within the book, a mixture of spiritual teaching and modern commercial jargon (“CHANGELESS CHANGE, PRIMORDIAL ESSENCE OF THE GREAT PRIMAL BEGINNING: NEW, IMPROVED, LONGER LASTING” reads one aphorism). The story takes detours which are absurd on the surface but feed into the main plot. Billias makes wry observations on the foibles of humanity, both through his characters and as an omniscient narrator. The tone—whimsical, digressive, drily aware of mortal folly—is strongly indebted to Douglas Adams.

However, whereas The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy begins with the end of the world, TABOTD builds toward it (it’s not a spoiler to reveal that Bertie’s worst fears come true—they are foreshadowed from the beginning). Adams’ protagonist, Arthur Dent, spends about one page grieving after the earth is blown up by aliens, but it’s clear he didn’t leave much behind and the focus is squarely on his adventures. Bertie Rupp, by contrast, is intensely aware of the suffering of the world, human and non-human alike: it is not only for his own sake that he fears the coming war. It’s somewhat more like Adams’ later work, as enamored with the wonders that can be found on earth as with the spaced-out products of his imagination.

If I had to assign a genre to TABOTD, I’d call it magical realism rather than any kind of science fiction: animals talk, there are signs and premonitions, and eventually the gods of mythology are brought into the mix. (One of the main characters is Monkey—the Monkey from the classic novel Journey to the West—an immortal, talking primate whose goals and prankish sense of humor are often at odds with the seriousness of Bertie’s spiritual undertaking.) There’s some pseudo-scientific rationalization (think Chariots of the Gods), but the result is a narrative world where anything can happen, and as society, racing toward Armageddon, unravels, things get increasingly freaky.

There’s also a strain of hidden history and conspiracy which, combined with the novel’s antic tone, owes something to Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus! Trilogy. The main antagonist is a corporate mogul described as “a government employee, at the Cabinet level, who had returned to private business after a change of administration.” His name is redacted throughout the book, so he appears as “_______ _______.” Does he represent a real person? I don’t know, but it’s not hard to think of possibilities; such figures are always timely. A grasping, scheming super-capitalist, ______ ______ is one of the few elements of the book that seems even more contemporary now than it did then; he and his fellow businessmen personify what Matt Taibbi memorably described as “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.”

Early in TABOTD, _______ _______ chooses Bertie, a temp worker, to drive him to “Big Boys Camp,” a top-secret gathering of powerful CEOs and politicians in the manner of a Boy Scout jamboree. Invited to participate, Bertie joins the “campers” for a weekend of canoeing, three-legged races, and weenie roasts under the watchful eye of a camp director. It is at Big Boys Camp that Bertie first encounters Monkey, held captive by _______ _______ and his fellow businessmen and brought out in a cage to terrify them with scary stories.

Bertie let out his breath with a gasp. A monkey was telling the creation story to American capitalists in the fantasy camp of their lost childhoods. Bertie was in dire danger of losing his perspective.

(As sometimes happens, I thought of Big Boys Camp as a surreal invention, of a piece with the talking animals and spacecraft in the rest of the book; it wasn’t until several years later that I heard about the high-powered gatherings at Bohemian Grove and experienced the weird feeling that comes from imagined fiction crashing into reality.)

For a fairly short novel, TABOTD is quite shaggy, with dozens of characters and an episodic form; some elements of it are dated, and not in a good way (Rufus, a black security guard who befriends and protects Bertie, speaks in an exaggerated “sho ‘nuff” dialect that probably wouldn’t get past an editor today). It gets a lot of mileage, however, from the steadily increasing tension of the situation, as Bertie’s travails are intercut with examples of the Strangelove-like madness that leads to war and the mania of a collapsing society. It helps, too, that Billias generates empathy for all the characters, even the villains: _______ _______ isn’t exactly redeemed, but he is a compelling presence, and honest readers will be able to see something of themselves in his self-interested calculations even if they wouldn’t take his actions. (______ ______ is also pretty dynamic: as a character defined by his fear, his will to power, and his aggressive avarice, he balances out the more passive Bertie, who is gradually letting go of all those things.)

According to what little biographical information I’ve found, Billias was in his late 30s when The American Book of the Dead was published; the melancholy tone, the sorrow for the challenges awaiting coming generations, and the sense of how precarious life is speak to me now where they went over my head as a teenager. I don’t doubt that it’s more than a little autobiographical.

If this write-up sounds vague, that’s deliberate: while I usually try to provide some analysis, in this case I’m straight-up promoting, and I don’t want to give too much away. I hope you’ll seek out this book and form your own opinion. After all these years, this is a book that I still believe deserves to be read, to be part of the conversation.