Friday, March 30, 2007

The Marvel Encyclopedia: The Definitive Guide to the Characters of the Marvel Universe

Comic book characters play a strange role in American culture. As a nation of diverse immigrants, we don’t have a cohesive set of cultural tales as do, say, the Greeks or the Chinese. And many of those characters have been toiling away for decades, time enough to become familiar to generations of Americans.

As one of the two largest comics publishers in America, Marvel has built up a substantial pantheon of heroes and villains. The company earned a reputation in the 1960s and ‘70s for socially aware story arcs, tackling such issues as racism, war, drugs and a host of others. Witness the recent assassination of one of the comics universe’s most venerable characters, Captain America. That event came at the climax of a storyline that was a thinly veiled commentary on post-9/11 America, where those in power so often pit liberty against security. Yes, the image of Captain America’s blood running red in the gutters is perhaps a touch heavy-handed, but then the same could be said of Zeus feasting on his children.

In any event, there’s a huge back story built up over the years of just about any comics character you can think of. This book is a good starting point for those trying to make sense of the ongoing soap opera.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

I'm The Vampire, That's Why

I found this one during a routine survey of the library's romance novel collection, which I'm responsible for updating. I'm not a huge fan of romances, although I do like stories that have romance in them, so I wasn't sure about it at first, but I loved the title. Michele Bardsley's novel is about Jessica Matthews, a single mom who's recently turned undead, and how she copes with her newfound attraction to a sexy vampire. One could say that the main plotline is a romance, but there's also fantasy, horror, and mystery in the book, plus an intriguing, character-driven back story about Jessica's former husband, Rich, the father of her children. This one was a gem hidden in the rough. I'm looking forward to Bardsley's sequel, Don't Talk Back to Your Vampire, which is about an undead librarian! It comes out in July!

You Don't Love Me Yet

Jonathan Lethem is one of those writers who can pull off just about anything. Whether he's writing science fiction, mainstream literary fiction, or mystery, he uses that same unforgettable style--stories that are just barely believable, yet they work. His newest book is about a band that doesn't have a name, its members (namely Lucinda, the bass player), and how they rise to fame. There's also a depth to the story that's difficult to describe in a simple synopsis. The characters do crazy things--Matthew, the singer, kidnaps a kangaroo named Shelf and keeps it in his bathtub. But the way they're drawn, the characters' actions make perfect sense. This is a good read for someone who's looking for a meaningful, unusual title.

The Quest for the Holy Veil

Since my last post about one of Kimberly Llewellyn's books--Tulle Little, Tulle Late--I've actually become pen pals with the author. She saw my review of that book, and the rest was history! In fact, I even did an interview with Kimberly in the April issue of the TPL Magazine, available online at TPL's website, So of course, the anticipation leading up to this book was building, and Kimberly's latest does not disappoint. Written in the same sassy style as TLTL, Quest for the Holy Veil focuses on heroine Lucy Ladelle's journey to become a big star on Broadway. No matter what she tries, she gets into one predicament after another, with hilarious results. And of course, there is a hunky hero: Lance Booker, king of the Australian Outback. You'll cheer for Lucy even as she trips up, and as with TLTL, the ending is great. I highly recommend this one, especially if you like humorous chick lit.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Drawing for the Absolute Beginner, by Mark and Mary Willenbrink

The title pretty much sums up this book. What makes it stand out is that it actually addresses the goal. It goes through basic techniques and tricks pretty well in an easily accessible manner. It also sticks to easily obtainable and cheap tools (pencils and an eraser), where so many other books start piling up extravagant shopping lists.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Simple Courage: True Story of Peril on the Sea

What is it about the sea that seems to turn every story into high drama? In 1952, the freighter S.S. Flying Enterprise was crippled by a ferocious storm. After seeing his crew and passengers rescued, the captain, Kurt Carlsen, dutifully stayed on board in a desperate and danger-fraught struggle to see his ship to port. The stubborn captain became a huge media story at the time. Author Frank Delaney picks up on the story, delving into just what it is about Carlsen and his struggle that resonates with us so strongly.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Art of Comic Book Inking, by Gary Martin

Inking is one of those aspects of graphic novels that goes largely unnoticed – unless it’s done poorly. Pencilers, those artists who do the sketches, tend to get the kudos for a comic’s artwork. Inkers, though, are largely responsible for the artwork’s tone, controlling such things as shading and making elements pop out from the page.
This book offers a good glimpse into that world. It covers myriad inking styles and includes commentary from some of the bigger names in this relatively obscure business.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China

It was probably inevitable that graphic novelists would apply their talents to travel writing, but this is still the first example I’ve run across. Guy Delisle has written a thoroughly enjoyable and insightful book about his experiences in Shenzhen, a large city in China. Far from the seaside vistas of Hong Kong, or the bustling history that colors Beijing, Shenzhen is a utilitarian commercial hub. Delisle, in town as an animation supervisor for one of his employer’s studios sees a China most tourists never will. He approaches the experience with a refreshing enthusiasm mixed with a touching longing for someone he can communicate with. The visual format allows for some unique observations that straight-up written travelogues would be hard-pressed to convey.

Friday, March 09, 2007

American Pastoral by Philip Roth

I have never read a Roth novel and have always meant to try him. American Pastoral is the first in the Zuckerman trilogy. Nathan Zuckerman is a character/narrator that appears in a number of Roth novels besides the books in the trilogy. Zuckerman plays only a small part in this novel. He is really a plot device to introduce the main character and get the story moving.
This is the story of Swede Levov, a Jewish-American man from Newark, New Jersey (Roth's home town.) He is a tall, handsome man who was the star athlete of his High School. He joined the service, married a beauty queen, had a daughter, took over the family business and always tried to do the right thing. However, life is not kind to him. Something devastating happens in his family and breaks his heart. This is not an easy read. This is a dense, complicated, sometimes very verbose book and the story is gut-wrenching. However, it is brilliant. I can't wait to discuss it tonight at my bookgroup. It won the Pulitzer.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Steel Drivin’ Man: John Henry, the Untold Story of an American Legend

Scott Nelson, an associate professor of history at the College of William and Mary, believes he’s unraveled the story behind one of America’s cultural icons. We all know the story of John Henry; the man who outpaced a steam engine, then died from exhaustion. Historians, both reputable and otherwise, have been looking for the source of this story for years. Now Nelson thinks he’s got it. Frankly, the case he puts forth in this book, that the John Henry buried outside a Virginia prison is in fact the John Henry, isn’t exactly airtight.
But it is an intriguing story. Nelson offers thorough background on the Reconstruction-era South, when the moral boundaries of slavery had yet to catch up to their freshly altered legal counterparts. Black prisoners by the thousands toiled to blast railway tunnels through the Appalachians, in the process dying at an appalling rate. Nelson thinks there was indeed a John Henry, and he did, in fact, beat the steam drill then die.And maybe he’s right.
In the end, what’s more interesting is the road the story has taken over the years. Henry has been adopted by workers of all stripes, and embedded in the American psyche to such a degree that the actual man is merely a footnote to the story.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The No Time to Lose Diet

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, so I can't give you medical advice. Every diet works differently for everyone else. That said, I recommend this book to those who are looking for a different diet book. This book, by Dr. Melina B. Jampolis, is not going to tell you what to eat --it tells you how to eat. Jampolis is no-nonsense--she's not going to let you get away with eating pizzas and hamburgers every night--but she's also not going to make you feel bad if you cheat a little. She's not going to make you cook anything complicated--in fact, she herself doesn't cook, so most of the "recipes" in this book involve canned chicken and prepackaged foods. Also, the book is incredibly well-written, with fascinating case studies of how different people lost weight and managed to keep it off. As someone who lost twenty pounds last year and is trying to keep that weight off, I appreciated her new ideas and her fresh approach to weight loss.

An Abundance of Katherines

This audiobook was recommended to me, ironically, by a Katherine. Even though I'm not blessed with that name, I still loved this book. It's by John Green, the award-winning author of the young adult novel Looking for Alaska. This is also a young adult novel, but from what I've heard, it's very different in tone from Green's first. The story follows Colin Singleton, a teenager who was once a child prodigy. Colin's heartbroken over his latest relationship having ended, with Katherine the Nineteenth--yes, every girl he's ever dated has been named Katherine. So, to help Colin feel better, his best friend Hassan takes him on a road trip. They end up in the tiny town of Gutshot, Tennessee, where Colin and Hassan figure out a lot of things about life. I laughed out loud at Hassan's antics and empathized with Colin's philosophical musings, and the reading by Jeff Woodman was perfect. If you loved Looking for Alaska, you'll be surprised at this one, but it's still well worth it.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Famous Writers School

Since I run the writers' group at the library (along with fellow writer Beth) I was curious about this one by Steven Carter. It's set up in the format of class correspondence, between the head of a "writers' school" and his students. I put that in quotes because the teacher is not exactly trustworthy. The plot unfolds curiously, recounting "true" tales from both the teacher and the students, as well as the metafictional story within a story from one of the students. It's a little difficult to follow, but well-written all around, with a satisfying yet open-ended resolution.

Shopaholic and Baby

Sophie Kinsella's popular Shopaholic series has entranced many a chick-lit reader. I started reading them on a summer afternoon when I was house-sitting. My friend, whose house I was watching, knew had similar reading tastes, and suggested I borrow a few of her books. I picked up the first one, Confessions of a Shopaholic, and I was hooked. I've been eagerly awaiting this newest title in the series. Like the other Shopaholic books, it was a fun romp, light and funny. I feel that the earlier titles were stronger, so if you're new to the series, you should start with the first one. But if you're a dedicated fan, this latest entry should not disappoint.