Category Archives: Book Reviews

LET THERE BE LIGHT by Liana Finck review – New Yorker cartoonist tackles The Bible

Let There Be Light: The Real Story of Her Creation. Liana Finck. Random House (April 12, 2022). New York. 352pp. $28.99

Cartoonist Liana Finck (born 1986) is the Millennial generation’s answer to James Thurber (1894 – 1961). It’s not an exact match but close enough for the purposes of this review. The two main points of comparison are first, that Finck is, like Thurber was in his day, a superstar cartoonist at The New Yorker; and second, the fact that she draws in a very spare manner. Thurber’s own artwork is similar in sensibility. He was primarily a writer and it seems he was content with a relatively basic cartooning style. So, these are two very different people but both are equally beloved all-time favorites at The New Yorker, and that says plenty about each cartoonist’s respective zeitgeist. For Thurber, his writing, and cartoons, featuring the battle between the sexes, were reliable sources of amusement, beginning in the 1930s. During a time that saw the  ascendance of the American male, Thurber was well equipped as a writer to question that position; and, as a cartoonist, to poke fun at less than infallible man. Finck does something similar with her cartoons as they confront current societal conflicts. Both Thurber and Finck represent The New Yorker at the highest level. Recently, the magazine devoted numerous pages to promote Finck’s latest book. This is all to say that Finck’s book, on the subject of The Bible no less, is one of those books, a big deal kind of book, set up for heavy scrutiny. As for me, I can see what Finck is doing as following her own quirky creative path. Maybe she’d prefer not be the voice of her generation but, at the same time, I see where she can genuinely embrace that. In the end, it makes sense for her to tackle Adam and Eve and Old Testament dogma and put a whimsical stamp on it, one that gently comments on gender roles.

God making a world.

The biggest comment on gender in Finck’s biblical retelling is having a female God. Of course, that doesn’t have any of the shock value that it might have had in Thurber’s day. In fact, it’s possible that Thurber would have been just the cartoonist who could have gotten away with having a female God. Think of all the god-like women in his cartoons! Today, maybe the shock value might be found, for those looking, in Finck maintaining distinctive male and female roles as opposed to today’s focus on gender fluidity. If Finck had wanted to break new ground, or be a provocative voice of her generation, she could have gone down that route. But she doesn’t do that. Instead, I think she holds true to a more fundamental view of her generation and that is of attempting to be more humble and modest. What you get in this book is a bunch of very gentle low-key humor.

Asking the big questions.

It seems that Finck is taking her cue from a quote she provides at the beginning of her book by Jamaica Kincaid that she found the King James version of the first book of the Bible to be a book for children. That quote sets the tone for what follows. Keep in mind that it has often been pointed out that children can be far more perceptive than adults. In an excellent cartoon or comic, however light, irreverant and spare, you can find some of the deepest meaning. For instance, upon realizing she’s naked and should feel shame, Eve is worried about whether she looks fat. That’s funny and quite poignant. It certainly keeps with Finck’s sense of humor.

Once you’re settled in, this book has the ability to charm you if you let it. Finck’s God is definitely a hoot. We all know about that famous temper but Finck’s God also happens to be rather neurotic, prone to worry. In short, she can be a softie too. When she sees that Adam is having a hard time, she reaches out to him. Indulging the fact that Adam mistakenly sees God as a stern old male authority figure, she tells him he was right to name her, Jehovah. Again, very funny stuff and pure Finck.

Like a grand painting that has been cleaned from numerous layers of restorations, Finck lays bare the main players in this drama. Finck lays out a simple narrative with vulnerable characters, pared down to their most basic forms as cartoons, observed simply and directly. When Lilith offers Eve an apple and Eve resists, Lilith leans in for some sympathy and says, “Listen. God never liked me.” But then she goes one better and reveals to Eve that God doesn’t like her either and confides, “But if you have knowledge, then you don’t need to be liked. Here. Take it.” Funny and with a bit of a subversive touch.

The bigger question is whether or not Finck has a bigger vision to pursue beyond a gentle rapping over the knuckles of King James and his lot of biblical scribes. First off, Finck is compelled to make the Bible relatable to younger readers and does a wonderful job of inserting insights connecting it to the Torah. To be sure, Finck has plenty to say about the patriarchy, beginning with Adam, then Cain, and steadily progressing through a laundry list of male culprits. By midway through the book, Finck makes some big creative leaps, like superimposing biblical scenes onto contemporary settings. The results can be quite moving as when she follows Abraham’s pursuit of an art career in New York City only to discover that his success leaves God utterly unimpressed. Ultimately, Finck is at her best in the quieter moments as when God falls in love with Noah and it leaves Noah pretty stressed out. It’s in these strange little moments that Finck is fully in her groove. And then she’ll take things one step further as in a beautiful passage where she depicts how God created the world only to gradually make herself recede into the background, although not completely. Perhaps a gentle poking fun of less than infallible man is the spark to going further. It is not only in keeping with a long tradition of mellow and subtle New Yorker humor but actually hits just the right notes for a wearily self-conscious and sensitive younger generation. So, let there be light, and it doesn’t have to be overwrought or blinding. In the process, you can end up saying just what you need to say. In the end, Finck knows, and demonstrates in this book, how to reach those high points and make the work transcendent.

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Review: ‘Camera Man’ by Dana Stevens

Camera Man: Buster Keaton, the Dawn of Cinema, and the Invention of the Twentieth Century. Dana Stevens. Simon & Schuster. New York. 2022. 415pp. $29.99

Buster Keaton (1895-1966), the “Great Stone Face” of silent movies, found himself hurled, figuratively and literally, into the 20th century. And quite an impact he was to make! We often seek a way into a story through an event or a person. Buster Keaton proves to be a perfect guide in an understanding of where we’ve been, in terms of media, these last hundred years or so. Dana Stevens, film critic for Slate since 2006, gives Buster Keaton his due and even credits him with having more than a little to do with defining the last century.

It’s only in hindsight that we can see the big picture. One of the most celebrated anecdotes about the early years of cinema goes back to one of its inventors, Louis Lumiere, who is said to have declared that “the cinema is an invention with no future.” Perhaps that is more legend than true but it was kept alive by Jean-Luc Godard for his screenplay, Contempt. As Stevens points out, time and again, there was nothing certain about this new art form. It was a gamble. It was a game for risk takers. Enter Buster Keaton and his family of daredevil vaudevillians dealing in the most spine-tingling and acrobatic of stunts!

Buster Keaton set upon the stage at the tender age of five, just at the dawn of a new century. As Stevens does throughout, she connects all sorts of disparate dots to focus on a whole, while crafting a sense of the poetic, especially with her favored metaphor of Buster in mid-air. Here is an excerpt where she tightens the frame around Buster’s origins:

By the time Buster was taking his first public falls at the turn of the century, watching talented children onstage was a cultural thrill that came with a built-in moral twinge, even when those children weren’t being flung into scenery or the rib cages of hecklers by their strapping fathers. The awareness that “the cruelty” was liable to shut down the show must have added to the audience’s frisson of mingled guilt, pleasure, and suspense–the precise mix of affects Joe and Buster’s father-son knock-about act also specialized in eliciting. This conflicted cultural, legal, and psychological space, where children were at once fragile treasures to be protected, market commodities to be exploited, and private property to be disposed of at their parents’ will, was the world into which Buster found himself thrown.

Buster Keaton, in his own way, was the ultimate Everyman of the Twentieth Century, a regular fellow thrown into a suddenly faster world. In one film after another, in countless intricately plotted near-death antics, Buster Keaton is the sad sack in over his head, just trying to get by, but forced to contend with a topsy-turvy chain of events whether it was a house frame perfectly timed to fall only inches away from him or a locomotive set to just barely miss from killing him. Stevens, with great gusto, details every step of the way of Keaton’s ongoing good citizen trapped in a new-fangled pursuit of the American Dream.

Sharing similar childhood pathos and artistic achievement in adulthood with Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton is among that elite group of artists that simply transcend any one medium, elevated to the level of an icon. Look to his movies and you will find gems with a distinctive Buster Keaton artistic vision. Beyond his silent movie glory, Keaton remained relevant as a character actor at the dawn of television and in movies well into the sixties. It was Keaton’s special mix of talents and demeanor, a combination of the subversive and the melancholic, that truly spoke to a new generation and remains timeless. Dana Stevens is spot on to celebrate this singular talent and her book is a most fitting tribute.

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Review: ‘A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020’ by Elise Engler

A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020. Elise Engler. Macmillan. New York. 304pp. 2022. $34.

Just as we’re settling into 2022, there remains some of that deja vu all over again. We won’t shake off 2020 that easily and for good reason. Artist Elise Engler captures this monster of a year with her daily paintings of the news in this unique collection. What began as a more modest project, a daily painting routine begun in late 2015, took on a life of its own after Trump was elected president. At that point, Engler was compelled to follow the topsy-turvy trail of events all the way into 2020 and beyond. This book covers the first hint of Covid-19 in the news on January 20, 2020 all the way to January 21, 2021, the day after Joe Biden was sworn in as president.

Indeed, truth can be stranger than fiction. You just can’t make up some of the headlines from 2020. On May 19, 2020: “Despite FDA caution, Trump says he is taking hydroxychloroquine as a preventative, threatens to permanently end WHO funding.” And there you have the material for that day’s painting. Engler kept to a steady diet of WNYC radio, a credible news source with editorial positions that moderately favor the left. What’s interesting is the hybrid of sorts that Engler created with her work whether or not it includes an editorial slant. Part of it can function as an editorial cartoon or seem to. But, more to the point, you can see Engler mostly focused with just keeping up with the steady stream of news: a raging pandemic; racial tensions at a feverish level; and a most unusual presidential race.

At turns poetic, Engler’s dispatches can sometimes read as passages from a very compelling dystopian science fiction novel, albeit they’re all too real. Consider July 23, 2020, at random, but indicative of the whole: “House passes bill removing Confederate statues, other figures from Capitol; California surpasses New York in total COVID cases; Trump will send federal agents to Chicago.” All the elements in place, a perfect storm, a most frightening time to witness on any level. Page after page, Engler brings home the realities of our times in concise fashion.

Here’s the thing about the news, it’s hot one moment and then it can either heat up again or suddenly cool off. Bits and pieces, significant by themselves and part of a greater whole, are vulnerable to be trampled upon by the next freight train of even crazier and more explosive news. And heaven help those items of news with any hint of complexity from staying very long on the public’s radar, if at all. Consider November 28, 2020. Another day of news to be processed and lost: “Firing squad, poison gas could be allowed for federal executions under Justice Dept. rules; “Voters, not lawyers, choose the president,” judge writes in repudiation of Trump’s effort to halt PA election process; Iran top nuclear scientist assassinated.” Engler thoughtfully corrals these more elusive bits of data and pins them down in a compelling memorable manner.

Elise Engler proved to be at the right place at the right time having honed a means of production years in advance. To add to the urgency, Engler’s studio is in New York City, what became known as the epicenter of the pandemic, at least in the United States. From her drawing board, she was only a short walk away from a tent hospital set up in Central Park. As the violence and chaos unfolded throughout the year, the paintings became less formal, more open, more expressive. Some moments and images have become embedded in our collective memory. Smaller, more nuanced items, will recede into the background, but find a home in Engler’s book, a record from a seasoned artist who was there at her drawing board when it happened.

A Diary of the Plague Year: An Illustrated Chronicle of 2020 is available as of January 18, 2022 and his published by Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Co., Macmillan Publishing Group.

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Book Review: ‘American Comics: A History’ by Jeremy Dauber

AMERICAN COMICS

American Comics: A History. Jeremy Dauber. W.W. Norton & Co. New York. 2021. 592pp. $35.

Jeremy Dauber’s narrative resembles a rocket ship as it blasts through page after page which is ideal for a book covering the entirety of American comics, from its early days to the present. Arbuably, this is the first survey of its kind and it proves to be compelling stuff. For myself, a Gen X cartoonist based in Seattle, I couldn’t help but begin with Chapter 8: Between Spandex and Seattle. Dauber dutifully recreates the scene leading up to the rise of indie comics in the early ’90s and, in the process, provides a window into the ever-evolving world of alienated youth. If Andy Hardy movies from the ’30s and ’40s helped to invent the American teenager, then comics, specifically indie, played a significant role in a more recent iteration of youth culture, one with a more nuanced argument for perpetual arrested development. Why not remain snarky, callow, self-deprecating, the whole immature shebang, all the way to the grave? The work of leading cartoonists like Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns made nihilism seem cool again, picking up where the sixties underground left off. If these cartoonists never meant for anyone to take them literally, it was besides the point. The impact of comics was never in doubt.

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Book Review: ‘Tenderness’ by Alison MacLeod

Tenderness. Alison MacLeod. Bloomsbury. London. 2021. 640pp. $24.49

Editor’s Note: This book is ready for pre-order purchases. Available in the US as of 11/09/21.

Tenderness is a feast of a novel. This is easily one of the best current reads. And it all has to do with what once was an obscure novel nearly killed in the cradle. Many people have at least heard of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence, originally published privately in 1928 and finally made available in 1960 after an infamous obscenity legal battle in the UK and the US. Oddly enough, even after surviving the courts, this most misunderstood of novels was nearly killed again in a self-imposed academic attempted murder by feminist scholars because of what they deemed as certain less than enlightened depictions of some female characters in the novel. It is a case of cancel culture from another era. Today, the novel has well cleared the hurdle of extinction. At this writing, Netflix is in production for a spectacular new film version starring Emma Corrin (The Crown) as Constance Chatterley. Now, back to the novel in question. Tenderness explores the world of Lady Chatterley primarily from the inner world of the author and the behind the scenes tug-of-war between killing and saving the book. This culture war is led by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover on the side to suppress, and future First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy on the side to save.

1960: Lady C helps usher in the Sexual Revolution! Keystone/Getty Images

The hallmark of any great historical novel is how it juggles many points of view. One of the paths this novel cuts is political. Jackie Kennedy is a classic icon: familiar while shrouded in mystery. There is nothing officially documented about Jackie Kennedy in support of Lady Chatterley but, for the sake of this historical novel, she makes for a perfect advocate. MacLeod places Jackie in attendance at a 1959 public hearing on Lady C which, in turn, results in an FBI surveillance snaphsot of her that sets in motion a whirlwind of clandestine activity by Hoover and his henchmen to bring down JFK’s presidential bid. Anyone who knows anything about Lady C, or has actually read the book, knows that this novel has as much, or more, to do with political power than with sex. Clearly, Jackie is the ultimate symbol of a political bedfellow. In 1960, Jackie was still closer to the limited world of Lady C, trapped in her own sexless marriage. The only power a woman in her position could rely upon was found through marriage. And the only control a man could rely upon over a woman, at that time, was through marriage. It is the institution of holy matrimony that is threatened by Lawrence’s controversial novel. That is actually the most “obscene” thing in the novel any detractor could say against it.

The day in 1960 when Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published after a long legal battle. Derek Berwin/Getty Images

MacLeod’s love for literature rings true in this novel which acts as a love letter to Lady C and great fiction. As any masterful writer knows, one of the most appealing aspects of embarking upon a novel is the opportunity to treat it as a vast canvas upon which you can paint your greatest passions. This passion for storytelling is brought out in the character of Dina, an ancestor to friends of the family of D.H. Lawrence, and a budding literary scholar. It’s more than a good chance that Dina stands in as an alter ego for MacLeod. It is through Dina that MacLeod can express her greatest admiration for Lawrence’s landmark work, both erudite and heartfelt. It may have been only a matter of time before just the right author came along and channeled D.H. Lawrence. Tenderness was to be the original title for Lawrence’s novel as it gets to the heart of his theme that we inevitably must give way to the demands of the body. MacLeod honors that theme with her invigorating book.

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Paul Buhle on Comics: A REVOLUTION IN THREE ACTS

A Revolution in Three Acts: The Radical Vaudeville of Bert Williams, Eva Tanguay and Julian Eltinge. By David Hajdu and John Carey. Foreword by Michele Wallace. Columbia University Press, 2021. 166pp, $19.95

Guest Review by Paul Buhle

This is an extremely remarkable comic, at once a historical look at the great and hugely popular genre of vaudeville,  and a treatment of the margins, racial and gender, that pushed closer to the surface than radio or films would reach before the 1950s.  David Hajdu is a distinguished music critic and a professor at Columbia University. His artistic collaborator, John Carey, less well known,  worked at Greater Media Newspapers for decades. Neither has produced a comic until now, but Hajdu wrote an insightful history of comics entitled The Ten Cent Plague, more than touching upon the condemned but lively elements of popular culture.

Bert Williams, “the son of laughter” in contemporary advertising of Vaudeville, was almost certainly the first native of the little island of Antigua, then still in the British West Indies, to make himself a major star in the US. He sang, danced, told jokes, charmed (white) audiences far and wide,  and became himself a producer of shows starring himself. He exhausted himself and died young, just as he reached his apex of success.

Eva Tanguay is remembered for one phrase, “I Don’t Care!” hailed by Andre Breton and the surrealists as capturing the spirit and radical possibilities embedded within popular culture. Flagrantly transgressive, she challenged every limitation of the lingering Victorian culture, dressing outlandishly, for instance, wearing pennies glued to a revealing body suit at the moment when the Lincoln Penny was introduced and fleeing when the police arrived to arrest her. She joined Williams on stage and drove audiences wild.

Cross-dressing Julian Eltinge completes this narrative. By way of Harvard and Hasty Pudding, he starred as a female performer, singing and dancing up a storm. Holding nothing back, he  openly proclaimed his sexual passion for a black man (doublng the provocation), with himsef as “The Sambo Girl,” on stage and in the sheet music of the day. The very idea that Eltinge could publish a magazine under his own name offers a transgressive moment in time and in the rising pulp magazine craze.

The genius of the comic intertwines the stories, sharing the threats of the cops and other thuggish males. Tanguay and Williams were widely rumored to be lovers, but the rumor that she was to marry Eltinge inspired no limit of mean-spirited satire (“who will wear the breeches?”) and some good spirited as well. But movies, even without the severe restrictions to come later, were just too limited for this leap out of propriety. (Bert Williams was also in several film shorts, but these are lost.)

The Art of Revolution in Three Acts finds John Carey perfectly suited with a greyish, sketch-like style, offering a kind of fluidity suitable to the subject. He aspires neither to realism, in the ordinary sense, nor to the altogether imaginative comic-art style adopted or adapted in modern “art” comics. Rather, it is his own.

The high spirits of these three characters, the visions they had of themselves and the crushing reality of a world unsuited for them, comes home collectively as we follow their lives. Eltinge, an entrepreneur in his own mind, bought a large chunk of land in California’s Imperial Valley, with a vision of a resort and a theatrical complex. He was quickly overextended, when a film showed his female impersonation at a disadvantge: society was not ready, although in failure, he inspired other stage female impersonators across the US and Europe. Tanguay, perhaps the luckiest, had a series of prominent affairs, passing before she could complete a tell-all memoir.

Paul Buhle

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Book Review: ‘The Last Mona Lisa’ by Jonathan Santlofer

THE LAST MONA LISA

The Last Mona Lisa. Jonathan Santlofer. Sourcebooks. 2021. $27.99

It was back in 1987 that I made my first visit to Paris, which included viewing the Mona Lisa. My more recent visit was in 2019. I can tell you that the ’87 visit was not like the uber-spectacle it is now. It wasn’t even in the same location. As I recall, it was a huge square of a space and the Mona Lisa was housed in a booth that made me think of a carnival fortune telling machine. The gatherings of people were left to do as they pleased and behaved like instinctively polite starlings. People seemed to know just how to behave! Now, it’s like a cramped and narrow airport terminal with everyone jockeying for position, queued up for a few seconds of viewing, and then directed off by guards. Really, I’m not kidding. Anyway, I had to say that because I figure it will strike a chord with some of you and it’s a perfect opening observation to a book that I believe would satisfy a lot of the curiosity out there for the mega-famous painting. The book is entitled, The Last Mona Lisa, by a truly captivating writer, Jonathan Santlofer. I’ve been intrigued by Santlofer for some time as I’ve observed how well he’s done as both an artist and a writer. I was quite moved by his memoir and that led me to check out some of his crime fiction, which is a lot of fun. His new book takes his skills and passions  and distills them into an urbane thriller that will stay with you just like a memory of your favorite dinner overlooking a beautiful sunset. So, yeah, it’s that kind of book. In fact, if it’s not already, it should be stocked in the Louvre gift shop. And, yes, the museum is now open, albeit with health restrictions. Also, I should add here, this is a book that is ideal for any book club as you may imagine.

Mona Lisa Mania!

The Last Mona Lisa is about the greatest museum heist of them all, the theft of the Mona Lisa by a Louvre museum guard in August of 1911. It was a sensation in newspapers all over the world and catapulted the Leonardo Da Vinci painting to world-famous masterpiece status. Santlofer takes that story and weaves a narrative that explores the inner life of the thief, the frustrated artist Vincent Peruggia, and present day attempts by his great-grandson, Luke Perrone, along with a rogue INTERPOL detective among others, to unravel the mystery behind the details of this most unusual museum heist caper. All this investigating leads to the possibility that the real Mona Lisa was never returned to the Louvre and now some people will stop at nothing to get the real thing. Among the various subplots, it’s the story of Luke, the great-grandson of the original thief, that leads the way, neck and neck with following the drama of Vincent, the thief and aspiring celebrated artist.

It’s fun to follow Luke’s progress as an unlikely hero who grows into his role as a sleuth. He stumbled upon the story of his infamous great-grandfather when, as a boy, he’d been tasked with cleaning out the family attic. One look inside a chest reveals the tell-tale mugshot of Vincent Peruggia which triggers a lifelong obsession with finding out the truth about the thief of the Mona Lisa. Fast forward to the present and Luke finagles his way to gaining access to a rare books section in a prominent library in Florence, Italy. It is there that he becomes involved with a mysterious beauty, a striking blonde who just so happens to be pursuing her own scholarly search at the same table that Luke is camped out at. This, of course, sets in motion some of the key elements needed for the romantic thriller that ensues.

Santlofer paints a portrait of Vincent Peruggia as the classic malcontent would-be bad boy artist who just so happens to fall into the company of Pablo Picasso and other notable figures of the Parisian art scene, like Max Jacob. Vincent Peruggia is no Vincent van Gogh! Instead, he’s a somewhat competent artist of the most obvious subject matter like pretty still life paintings. He’s resentful of the avant-garde cubist work by Braque and Picasso which he dimly understands. Vincent is the Lee Harvey Oswald of the art world, destined for infamy.

The Mona Lisa was indeed “stolen” in 1910, a year prior to the famous 1911 heist.

The building blocks to Santlofer’s novel are all true. The Mona Lisa was, in fact, “stolen” a year prior to the celebrated heist by Vincent Peruggia. Santlofer provides a news clipping of the story that sort of just came and went in 1910 but, without a doubt, documented a robbery of some kind. It’s a fine piece of detective work on Santlofer’s part as it doesn’t readily come up on a casual internet search. For whatever reason, that story ended up an odd blip without a follow-up. Nothing was ever officially said again about any theft. Not until the story that would not go away, the celebrated story of 1911. It is this incongruous situation with the ignored “theft” of 1910 that has fed countless rumors and conspiracy theories. It is this stranger-than-fiction phenomena that was just waiting to be plucked and processed into Santlofer’s latest delightful page-turner.

For more information, and how to buy this book, go to Sourcebooks.

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Review: ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF HELL II: The Conquest of Heaven

ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF HELL II

ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF HELL II: The Conquest of Heaven, A Demonic History of the Future Concerning the Celestial Realm and the Angelic Race Which Infests It

Martin Olson. Illustrations: Tony Millionaire & Mahendra Singh. Feral House. 2021. 224pp. $24.99

Martin Olson is one of the best humorists around. Olson is known around Hollywood as one of the nicest and most hard-working of comedy writers. His special brand of satire has made its way to numerous comedy series on HBO, CBS, Showtime, Comedy Central, Disney, and FX. His last book was the critically-acclaimed Encyclopaedia of Hell, which includes a road map for a full-scale demonic invasion of Earth. Now, Olson tops himself with a sequel, The Conquest of Heaven, with Satan leading a coup of Heaven to replace God. Olson’s wry and relentless humor echoes Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce.

Lord Satan dreams the Hell Cosmos.

This much-anticipated sequel picks up where Olson left off, writing again in the voice of Satan, we follow the Dark Lord’s latest scheme. Conquering Earth was mere child’s play when it comes to taking on the Almighty’s digs. And it’s not long before Satan runs into some difficulties.

After Hell’s army conquers Insignificant Earth and devours the human race in a celebratory feast, Lord Satan reveals that he will now journey deep into the universe to find the throne of the despised Creator. There Satan will depose God and take his rightful place as Emperor of Existence. Now, the secret sauce to making the story work hinges upon the voice of Satan. Again, that’s where the comparisons to literary giants like Mark Twain and Ambrose Bierce come into play. These guys satisfied that career high of nailing it, getting to channel Satan, as it were. And so Olson returns to those dizzying heights with his new book. Let’s dig in and see how he does it.

Lord Zyk battles the ghost of Abra Kadab.

First, you need to establish the character and, in Satan’s case, we’re talking about both a sophisticated creature and an egomaniac at an astronomical level. Satan is supposed to be all-knowing. But he’s also arrogant and pompous. Olson’s Satan maintains an other-worldly tone, full of regal turns of phrase and douchebag observations. In this excerpt, Satan has just set hoof on Heaven:

Yes, it was all Heavenly. All exactly what I hated.

I had come prepared with eye filters to screen out hideous beauty like the fountain. But I was unprepared for the audio component poisoning the air around me. Each festoon of flowers resonated with a different vibratory tone. Together, they emitted a hideously majestic symphony, a loathsome atmosphere of perfect harmony. Its precise overtones made my ears bleed. When I inhaled, the flowers’ sweetness produced cognitive dissonance with the natural filth that composed my lungs. I swooned, heaved deeply, and vomited the remains of a virgin I’d eaten into the azaleas. It was confirmed: perfect harmony was an unbearable toxin to my soul.

Satan is not exactly an easy guy to accomodate, even under ideal conditions, and here he is on arguably his greatest quest. Determined to discover the origin of his own creation, and to murder God, Satan must endure a series of obstacles in God’s Library akin to Alice in Wonderland, as well as match wits with a demented nun. And that’s just part of it, all leading to the shocking secret at the core of Creation. Could it have something to do with Satan? There’s a very good chance of that. To add some extra spice, there’s some other characters thrown into the mix like the equally pompous Lord Zyk and the wayward demon, Abra Kadab. The main thing is the journey which Olson masterfully keeps moving along. In this excerpt, Satan is dueling with a possessed book which has just lopped off his head. He’s later surprised to find out which book he’d been fighting:

Using a combination of my teeth and the vicissitudes of momentum, I climbed up my leg and torso until I reached the bloody stump of my severed neck. Through rapid licking, I then self-cauterized the wound, reconnecting my head to my body, and glared down at the culpable book.

Ironically, or perhaps not, the book that had decapitated me was a novelty edition of my own repugnant masterpiece of evil, Encycolpeadia of Hell, its ancient cover splattered with rose-red, black and purple coagulations of my royal demon blood.

What else might stand a chance against Satan but the very book prior to Olson’s latest misadventure with Satan? This kind of humor will delight readers of any age. Just think of vintage MAD Magazine. Sure, for the youngest readers, there’s the obvious parental discretion to keep in mind. This is, after all, a most unabashed Satan we’re dealing with here. The fangs. The claws. And everything else is all hanging out. But no risk of any exorcism! Honestly, if your kid is reading this, you can thank God that the kid has got good taste.

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Review: FUNDAMENTAL CAMARENA by Christopher Sperandio

FUNDAMENTAL CAMARENA

Fundamental Camarena. Argle Bargle Books. 2021. 144pp, $21.95

The more one digs into the comics medium, the more it rewards you as an immersive world of the mind. You can lose yourself in it as much as any other art form. Christopher Sperandio has taken quite a deep dive into re-working vintage public domain comics just as you would any other kind of “found art.” Check out some of his work on his Instagram. He is genuinely mesmerized by it and respectful of all the souls, many truly unsung heroes, who created the work in the first place. That said, when Sperandio hit upon a cache of original Mexican comic book pages at a public market, he knew right away that this wasn’t just another canvas upon which to recontextualize. This was something special that needed to be called attention to. Sperandio’s long and distinguished career features work that explores the interconnections between mass and museum culture. Sperandio teaches at Rice University where he specializes in working with the comics medium. He recently put together at Rice an arts lab, the Comic Art Teaching and Study Workshop (CATS) and this book is part of that.

A typical copy of Micro Suspenso, #305, circa 1968,  4 1/2 x 3 inches.

A mysterious packet of ink drawings sitting in a stall in a public market in Mexico City. At that point, the fate of these drawings, half a century old, was utterly dependent upon who might take notice of them. So, it’s something of a miracle that this set of drawings would catch the interest of the most ideal buyer. This bundle of originals was created by Julio Camarena for the comic book series, Micro Suspenso. There was no cover but the comic book could be dated to circa, 1970. The story, oddly enough, is entitled, “The Last Buyer.” With Sperandio’s purchase, this little batch of comic book art had fallen into academic hands and, as it turned out, Sperandio was to be the last buyer of this work prior to his immortalizing it in this book. To add a touch of intrigue, the originals were stolen and probably destroyed.

Julio Camarena is plucked from obscurity and joins the world of academia.

And so Julio Camarena, an obscure Mexican cartoonist, finds his work the subject of an academic study. Well, that’s just the beginning. As I mentioned, Sperandio has a working method that involves linking popular media to museum culture. And that is precisely what this purchase of drawings set into motion. We come back to the idea of a playground for the mind. When you stop and think about it, comic books (particularly strange and offbeat comic books) and museums, are both prime venues for some deep thinking, the stuff that dreams are made of! Sperandio developed his project step by step, bringing together the people and resources he needed under the CATS arts lab. In time, he had what was needed for an installation as well as a book.

From the pages of a comic book…

…to the gallery walls of a museum.

As a work of comics, “The Last Buyer” is more than just competent; it’s a guilty pleasure in the best sense. Right away, I was intrigued by the characters and their hint of Mod style sense. And who doesn’t like a good horror story about a possessed car? I’m Mexican-American, and I do read Spanish but not without some effort. I mean, the words don’t just jump out at me as they do in a work of comics in English. That sense of words jumping out is magical and it’s not happening when I’ve got a work of comics in Spanish. For the Camarena stash to fully function as a work of comics for a now predominantly English-speaking audience, the darn thing would need to be properly translated within the comic itself with the Spanish text replaced by English. There are notes at the back of the book with an English translation but that’s just not the same. That said, it’s a fun read. It is masterfully worked out, especially considering the tiny format that was common for these “micro-comics,” pocket-sized comics meant to be read on the way to work or in some less than rarefied environment. That said, of course, this set of drawings has totally become a creature of rarefied environments.

Page excerpt from “The Last Buyer.”

So, what’s so special about this stash of original comic book art that has been taken out of its natural habitat, as it were, and placed under a microscope? First, it’s a learning opportunity, right? Sperandio gets to share some of the history of Mexican comics and he even, early on, gets a chance to demonstrate how unfairly maligned the comics medium has been. His quote from 1999 by noted art critic Rosalind Krauss is priceless. When asked at a public lecture at Princeton University for her opinion on the comics medium, Krauss said the form was “unredeemable.” Ouch! Well, that was over twenty years ago and, I dare say, the general sentiment has changed. As for this stash of Mexican comics in particular, Sperandio is making the case that, yes, this little bundle of obscure comics is a historic and artistic artifact. And, while the originals are now gone forever, the originals had been properly digitized and so can now live on in print, as they were always intended to do. Sperandio, “the last buyer,” managed to pass on a little treasure to all sorts of future buyers, those who buy into the comic medium’s hard-won fight for credibility.

Where all this gets most interesting is in tracking down the one and only Julio Camarena, the cartoonist behind these mysterious comics. Camarena is given his due. He is not presented as some exotic but as the creative professional he was, part of a tradition, part of history. This is the moment when, if you were binge-watching on Netflix, the payoff is finally delivered. Sperandio has gotten to comment on Camarena. A contemporary cartoonist has provided his observations. And a professor of Spanish and Latin American Literature has held court– and even quoted a scholarly report that concludes Mexico and Japan are the world’s only true comic book cultures. All very interesting but now Camarena speaks about Camarena! And, like any long-awaited moment, it’s a little poignant and also a little anticlimactic. Camarena loved his work, has no regrets, and has little patience with looking back. He was interviewed a couple of years ago by Mexican cartoonist Augusto Mora. It’s a wonderful exchange between the two creatives. Camarena sounds to be very savvy about the comics market. He simply doesn’t take himself too seriously or put his work upon a pedestal. He makes a comment towards the end that he regrets that Mexican publishers began to dabble in cheesecake pin-up comics in an attempt to boost sales. That went against their core family audience and so it was no surprise to Camarena when that phase of comics tanked. Ironically, the only photos of Camarena have him showing some of his pin-up work. It’s actually rendered quite well, in a classic tradition but, apparently, he didn’t have his heart in it. No, his heart was in the work he was a part of for most of his life, stories that enthralled readers across a wide spectrum. It was a magical time, a time for all kinds of stories whether historic, romantic, adventurous, or even supernatural.

Cartoonist Julio Camarena

So, did Sperandio’s examination of the Camarena stash of drawings stretch and pull it well past anyone’s intended purpose? Okay, sure, but it was all worth it! Indeed, this book is a ticket to play in the playground of the mind. Seriously, this is a most welcome addition to comics scholarship in general–and Mexican comics in particular. We can already find a number of books that gravitate to pretty familiar subjects like Los Bros Hernandez. Sperandio goes further and provides us with some much needed insight into the roots of Mexican comics and culture. This quirky book is a wonderful exploration of many things, not the least of which is the playground of the mind.

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Filed under Argle Bargle Books, Book Reviews, Comics, Mexican comics

Book Review: SERGEANT SALINGER by Jerome Charyn

Sergeant Salinger by Jerome Charyn

Sergeant Salinger. by Jerome Charyn. Bellevue Literary Press. 2021, 286 pp. $28.99

Early in this latest Jerome Charyn novel there’s quite an evocative scene of a bohemian living room which includes a framed print of Paul Robeson. It is a telling detail that gives a taste of how a character lives and breathes in their world. In this case, we’re being made privy to the inner world of the estranged wife of playwright Eugene O’Neill. As a creature of the theater, and as a free thinker, it makes sense that she’d enjoy a portrait of a trailblazer of racial equality. All the more so given this was one of her husband’s greatest plays! It’s just a quick little reference but a tick of information that the reader makes note of. It is these ticks of information that accumulate and bring a picture into focus. It is these ticks of information that add up in this novel to give us an in depth look at one of our most celebrated of writers, J.D. Salinger, one who preferred not to be looked at in any close measure.

Oona O’Neill

But Charyn dares to make “Sonny” Salinger the prime focus. To start with, Charyn brings the reader front and center into Salinger’s relationship with Oona O’Neill, the infamous daughter of Eugene O’Neil. Oona was only 18 years-old when she married Charlie Chaplin, who was 53. Truth being stranger than fiction, Salinger and Oona did actually date for a while. Charyn gives us a charming look into what that might have been like: more a frenzied exchange of hormonal excess than raw passion but, something to write home about, nonetheless. The whole affair is capped off by a masterful scene which involves Sonny and Oona obligingly having dinner with Walter Winchell as he holds court at his reserved table at the Stork Club. There’s much talk about Winchell’s chicken burgers. Mostly, there’s much talk about what’s the talk of the town, given Winchell’s prized roost as the leading gossip monger and media kingmaker. Winchell has everyone eating practically right out of his hand, except for the most stubborn like Ernest Hemingway, who makes a delicious cameo at Winchell’s table.

Utah Beach, D-Day Normandy Landings, June 6, 1944.

In keeping with the novel’s title, much of the action sees young J.D. Salinger doing his duty as an American WWII draftee assigned to the Counter Intelligence Corps, a band of secret soldiers who trained with the British. If that sounds complex and full of intrigue, well, it is. We find Salinger is witness to the whole Slapton Sands debacle where American soldiers, training for the D-Day Normandy invasion, become human targets, shot by British “friendly fire.” While that is being covered up, nearly lost to history in every real sense, Salinger moves on to the real thing and lands with a second wave on Utah Beach on D-Day all the way to Paris. There, he meets Ernest Hemingway who encouraged his writing. All the while, Salinger goes from one incident after another interrogating Nazis and collaborators. Ultimately, Sonny Salinger witnesses firsthand the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps, where corpses are piled high one upon the other.

J.D. Salinger

No one can blame J.D. Salinger for going through one existential crisis after another. Talk about someone too close to a subject to be able to get some perspective and see the full picture! Here is a man who made his wildest dreams come true and then went on to live a life of the deepest regret. What if Sonny Salinger had managed to convince Oona O’Neill to run off with him and somehow he’d also found a way to avoid the draft? That was never going to happen! Each of them had stars in their eyes and were in mad pursuit of something greater than themselves. And Salinger would never have avoided the draft, it just wasn’t an option. It was definitely not a foregone conclusion that The Catcher in the Rye would ever be published either. But so it was. J.D. Salinger did not invent the contemporary teenager but his book caught on like wildfire as an emblematic work about quirky, neurotic, youthful rebellion. There it was–and still is. The great American novel at its most popular! Since it publication in 1951, it remains a bestseller at astronomically high numbers for book sales. Since it was first published in 1951, more than 65 million copies of The Catcher in the Rye have been sold. Around 250,000 copies of the book are sold each year, almost 685 per day. This is not what Salinger wanted. And yet it was profits from just this one book alone that allowed him to brood in seclusion for decades. The book that should never have been published–but was. To this, Charyn has an answer.

The Catcher in the Rye

If there is one thing that makes a case for the inevitable nature of Salinger’s celebrated novel it is his war experiences. This makes up the bulk of Charyn’s novel which places Salinger in numerous trials and challenges. Charyn is a master at creating haunting moments. He lays one upon the other and deftly makes his case. In so doing here, Charyn answers the question of how it was meant to be for Salinger to write that novel that unwittingly summoned the world. One such moment finds Sonny confronting a special Nazi bicycle brigade. One night, he spots one of these killers, in his rain cape and in his hunter’s cap. The reader can’t help but picture that strange image of a young man wandering the city in a hunter’s cap in Salinger’s novel. That same image is on the original paperback version of The Catcher in the Rye. Sonny witnesses the killer in his hunter’s cap shoot two of his friends at close range, execution style. Sonny, more an interrogator than a marksman, immediately responds and shoots the killer dead.

Back on Park Avenue…

Ultimately, Sonny Salinger must return to civilian life, to where he left off before going off to war in the first place. It means creating some distance to all things related to war, except for the greater truths that make sense for his version of the great American novel. At least that seemed to be what mattered most for a time and he would see it through. Sonny would pick himself up. He was back on Park Avenue, back on track to pursue his literary dreams, at least for a while. And so Charyn brings the reader up to this point. Sonny now has time to observe something other than horror. Sonny now can ponder, with his sister, Doris, the mysteries of a basement floor walker at Bloomingdale’s. Sonny now can ponder the mysteries of bananafish. And, in time, as if inevitable in more ways than one, Sonny can preside upon the unleashing of a literary and pop culture phenomenon, the story of a troubled teenager in a hunter’s cap.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Jerome Charyn