Category Archives: Books

Book Review: ‘Jerzy: A Novel’ by Jerome Charyn

“Jerzy: A Nove” by Jerome Charyn

I have been reading a lot of work by Jerome Charyn lately. Once you start, it is hard to resist more. Charyn has this passion for seeking the truth that is very seductive. In the case of his latest novel, “Jerzy,” published this March by Bellevue Literary Press, he is compelled to better understand Jerzy Kosinski, author of the celebrated 1965 novel, “The Painted Bird.” It is a fascinating, and often funny, journey written by one of our greatest writers about the rise and fall of another great writer.

Actor Peter Sellers looms large over the book that follows the making of 1979’s “Being There,” the film adaptation of Kosinski’s novel, starring Sellers as the blank slate turned celebrity, Chauncey Gardiner. In Charyn’s novel, Sellers is not much more than a lost man-child, a blank slate in his own right. Sellers hires Ian, a former bodyguard with a taste for literature, to be his all-around wingman. If there is anything Sellers needs in the way of protection or advice on dinner conversation, Ian must step in.

It is not long before Sellers enlists Ian in his quest to have Kosinski agree to have Sellers star in the movie version of “Being There.” It is hardly a walk in the park as Kosinski detests Sellers. Sellers perpetually complicates matters. He is convinced that Princess Margaret fancies him and that he will marry her. And Kosinski is equally complicated. At the most random moments, something will trigger a dark mood and a longwinded rant.

As is made clear, the vacuous Sellers is tailor-made for the role of Chauncey. And Kosinski has very little to complain about, despite his tremendous resistance to Sellers. But the conflict in this novel is far more deep-seated and sinister. Charyn suggests that Sellers and Kosinski have paid too high a price for fame, have been reduced to mere shells of their former selves; and in Charyn’s hands, both become compelling tragi-comic figures.

It is Kosinski who stands in for a great deal of unresolved issues, including World War II and its aftermath. In his novel, “The Painted Bird,” Kosinski challenges the reader to confront great suffering and atrocities. For such a compelling testament, Kosinski would, over time, secure fame. For Charyn, Kosinski is that large-than-life enigmatic Citizen Kane. The harder they come, Charyn concludes, the harder they fall. Charyn plays with the mixed bag of rumors of plagiarism that haunted Kosinski. Today, in a different context, the same techniques of borrowing from other sources would not raise eyebrows. “The Painted Bird” was a novel, not a memoir. Truth is stranger than fiction. And, as Kosinski said himself, “I am a truth, not facts.”

Charyn seems to take Kosinski to task at every turn. He seems to make a mockery of tender scenes in “The Painted Bird” and recollections from Kosinski friends and associates. In Charyn’s novel, Kosinski, like the villagers in “The Painted Bird,” is fascinated to utter distraction with turning old tin cans into homemade flying rockets. Kosinski, also in Charyn’s novel, prefers to sleep inside a large dresser drawer. Kosinski explains that he’s made too many enemies and his life is constantly in danger. However, Charyn is sensitive to life’s contradictions, no matter what misinformation Kosinski detractors may spread. Such work as “The Painted Bird” speaks for itself. In the excerpt below from Charyn’s novel, Ian, the narrator, concludes that Kosinski did not have ghostwriters but those who helped him, up to a point, with his English:

No baby-sitter from here to Mars could have scratched out the icicle-covered sentences in “The Painted Bird.” And after rereading the book for the sixth or seventh time, I realized that suicide was built into its very fabric, as if the narrator were locked into some kind of frozen grief, and had survived the war on fierce will alone. His entire life had become a chess move or chapters pasted onto “The Painted Bird.” Perhaps fate itself was a Russian doll. And Jurek’s leap into the darkness was another matryoshka, a doll without end.

It was a great deal of bile and misinformation from Kosinski detractors that contributed to Kosinski’s suicide in 1991 at the age of 57. And perhaps it was also part of fate. Anyone familiar with the work of Jerome Charyn knows that he’s most interested in the underdog, the person trapped in a corner fighting to find a way out. As the novel progresses, we see how the life and times of Jerzy Kosinski, the truth and the legend, all add up to a subject worthy of Charyn’s fiction.

What Charyn’s novel can do, with its brilliant satirical bite, is compel readers to learn more about Jerzy Kosinski, one of the great writers of the 20th century. It’s as easy as surfing the net to learn more. If you watch the documentary below, for example, you get a multifaceted look at Kosinski, his life and his work. It’s not a simple story, as Charyn’s novel attests. Truth is stranger than fiction and fiction seeks a greater truth:

“Jerzy” is a 240-page paperback, published by Bellevue Literary Press. For more information, and how to purchase, go right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Fiction, Hollywood, Holocaust, Jerome Charyn, Jerzy Kosinski, writers, writing

Book Review: ‘The Blood of Emmett Till’ by Timothy Tyson

"The Blood of Emmett Till" by Timothy Tyson

“The Blood of Emmett Till” by Timothy Tyson

April 28, 1955
Emmett Till was tortured and murdered by white men in Money, Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The men were tried for murder, but an all-white, male jury acquitted them.

Facts are very stubborn things. You can try to avoid them or even provide alternates but they will come back, and with a vengeance. That is certainly the case with historian Timothy Tyson’s new book, “The Blood of Emmett Till,” published by Simon & Schuster.

In 2007, Tyson interviewed Carolyn Bryant, who was at the center of a tragedy that helped to propel the American Civil Rights Movement. It was on a hot summer night in 1955 that 14-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped, bludgeoned, and lynched. All this fury came down upon this young African American for supposedly having flirted with a white woman. That woman was Carolyn Bryant. The interview, where Bryant recanted most of her testimony at the murder trial, was the first step towards the creation of this book, a book that helps us get a fuller picture as to what led to this pivotal moment in history.

Emmett Till

Emmett Till

We may think we know what happened but Tyson brings in a rich tapestry that pieces together a more detailed story. The combination of his firsthand interview with Carolyn Bryant and his measured presentation guide the reader through the dynamics running throughout. With a level of sensitivity, Tyson gives us a balanced depiction as we see events from various perspectives. What comes through are real people and real facts. We get to know the young Emmett Till, a loyal baseball fan, partial to the Brooklyn Dodgers. And we get to know his killers, J.W. Milam and his half-brother Roy Bryant, men full of pride and used to getting their way. We see what kind of world, with its limitations and dangers, that each existed in.

The quick takeaway fact in this book is that Carolyn Bryant confesses to historian Timothy Tyson that she made up the story of being manhandled and threatened by Emmett Till. That never happened. And that is the hook upon which to proceed. A history unfolds: we discover Emmett Till, a child full of life but who also suffered from a lisp and was gentle and vulnerable; and we discover the many layers of Southern culture to unravel. Tyson guides you along, provides side trips as needed, and has the real life goblins show themselves: the Citizens’ Councils, formed in response to school integration and the NAACP, responsible for keeping African Americans away from the polls at any cost; Sherriff H.C. Strider, who was responsible for suppressing evidence in the Till murder trial by hiding key witnesses.

Mamie Till

Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley (Nov 23, 1921 – Jan 6, 2003) was the mother of Emmett Till, whose murder mobilized the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi on August 28, 1955, at the age of 14, after being accused of acting inappropriately with a white woman. Photo: Mamie Till-Mobley (L) speaking to anti-lynching rally after acquittal of men accused of killing her son, Emmett Till. Photographer: Grey Villet for LIFE magazine.

It was the reputation that Timothy Tyson had built with 2005’s “Blood Done Sign My Name,” his own recollections of a murder similar to the Till case that inspired Carolyn Bryant to come forward. Tyson’s goal is to document and ferret out the truth as best as possible. That means bringing out the whole picture. Part of that picture is that Carolyn Bryant tells Tyson that she had a close African American friend when she was a child and her heart went out to Till’s mother.

It was the decision by Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, to bring her son’s body in Mississippi back to Chicago for an open-casket funeral that set in motion a global outcry. This was not lost on Carolyn Bryant. However, with the fear of having her husband go to prison for murdering Emmett Till and leaving her with two boys to raise alone, she took the stand and lied. Mamie did what she had to do. Carolyn did what she had to do.

Tyson presents the facts and continues along his way to provide context and insight. One key distinction he makes is that Emmett Till was not only murdered, he was lynched. With the 20th century charging its way through, some things from the past had to change, like large crowds gathered for a public hanging of an African American. By the 1950s, the process had been updated. The threat of killing an African American was still very much alive and, from time to time, a person could suddenly go missing and later on his body could turn up dumped in a river just like Emmett Till. The community would know who the killers were; that did not need to be a secret since there were no consequences for lynching someone. The deed was done and the message delivered.

White supremacy was not to be undermined.

That we still have a long journey ahead is clear. Tyson does not mince words about that. He offers hope too. As long as we have an understanding of the causes of racism, there is hope. As long as we remember Emmett Till, there is hope. Tyson would be the first person to encourage you to not only read his book but also read other books on Emmett Till and the Civil Rights Movement: “Death of Innocence: The Story of the Hate Crime That Changed America,” by Mamie Till-Mobley and Christopher Benson; “Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement,” by Devery S. Anderson; and “Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File,” by John Edgar Wideman, named a finalist for a 2016 National Book Critics Circle Award. It is Tyson’s book that belongs among these notable titles.

“The Blood of Emmett Till” is a 304-page hardcover, published by Simon & Schuster. For more information, and how to purchase, visit Simon & Schuster right here.

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Filed under American History, Book Reviews, Books, Emmett Till, Race, Race Relations, Racism

Book Review: ‘Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936’ by Edward Sorel

"Mary Astor's Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936" by Edward Sorel

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” by Edward Sorel

If you are a fan of glamorous old Hollywood, then I have a book for you. It is a racy and juicy tale told by a masterful storyteller. I’ve always admired Edward Sorel‘s artwork with its caricatures that seem to pierce into his subject’s soul. Edward Sorel has written, and illustrated, a fresh look at Hollywood legend Mary Astor and interlaced her story with his own in “Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936,” published by Liveright Publishing Company, a division of W.W. Norton & Company. This is mainly a prose book but it is generously filled with Sorel’s illustrations, over sixty original paintings. The prose is as elegant, urbane, and idiosyncratic as his art.

Mary faints during her first talking picture, 1930's "Ladies Love Brutes."

Mary faints during her first talking picture, 1930’s “Ladies Love Brutes.”

As a writer and cartoonist, I am here to tell you that it is the idiosyncratic person who gets a project like this about the elusive Mary Astor off the ground. That is what sets Edward Sorel apart and makes his work so distinctive. Sorel confides in the reader every step of the way. It was 1965 that Sorel first embarked upon his quest. It all began with lifting old rotting kitchen linoleum from his railroad apartment. Buried at the bottom were newspapers from 1936. The big story was the custody trial of Hollywood star Mary Astor, which included her infamous “purple diary.”

Edward meets Mary!

Edward meets Mary!

Sorel runs out of old newspapers before he can find out the end of the story. But he’s hooked. He vows to investigate further. The end result is this book, which moves at a steady clip as it transports us from Mary’s humble origins on the outskirts of Quincy, Illinois, raised by domineering parents, to Hollywood in the 1920s, Mary a rising child star, still saddled with domineering parents. Poor Mary never seems to figure out how to stand up for herself when it comes to finding a mate either. At one point, Mary turns down a contract with RKO strictly for starring roles. Then she follows that up with a hasty marriage. Sorel shakes his head and raises his fists on the page and the reader can’t help but do the same. Mary’s choices will continue to be bad before they get better. Mary’s ultimate bad choice will entangle none other than the most celebrated man on Broadway, George S. Kaufman.

Edward finds Nancy!

Edward finds Nancy!

Life, in all its glorious absurdity and majesty, is on parade in Sorel’s book. With a combination of the whimsical and the world-weary, Sorel weaves a tale that includes a supernatural meeting between Sorel and Mary from beyond the grave. And, the high point for me, Sorel shares with us how he met Nancy, the love of his life. Throughout, what emerges is the story of the artist’s struggle, both of Edward Sorel and Mary Astor. Both could have used another pat on the back and moral support. Both certainly earned it.

While Mary Astor would be the last to claim to be anyone’s role model, she proved to be more than capable to rise to the occasion. That is clear to see for all time in her role as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon.” Mr. Sorel’s book provides his unique and quirky take on Astor’s life and helps us to better appreciate how she blossomed at pivotal times in her life. If you are looking for a definitive tell-all, this is not that kind of book. This is more of an expanded essay, an intelligent conversation. You can be new to the facts discussed or you can be quite familiar with them already. I dare say, it is just the sort of book, with its dry wit and cosmopolitan flavor, that Mary Astor would approve of.

“Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936” is a 176-page hardcover, with full-color illustrations, published by W.W. Norton & Company. For more details, visit W.W. Norton & Company right here.

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Filed under Biography, Book Reviews, Books, Edward Sorel, Hollywood, Humphrey Bogart, Illustration, Mary Astor, Noir, Old Hollywood, Silent Movies, W. W. Norton & Company

Book Review: ‘1956: The World in Revolt’ by Simon Hall

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

Illustration by Henry Chamberlain

As a momentous year comes to a close, we look, inevitably, to the future. However, in order to help us on our way, we must also look to the past. If 2016 was the year of Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, then sixty years ago was the year of the Montgomery bus boycott, the Suez Crisis, and, most significantly, the Hungarian Revolution. A vivid and highly accessible account of the year is provided by Simon Hall in his book, “1956: The World in Revolt,” recently published in the U.S. by Pegasus Books.

"1956: The World in Revolt" by Simon Hall

“1956: The World in Revolt” by Simon Hall

Hall’s book is very readable with a novel’s narrative flow. The interconnections Hall makes are quite impressive as he makes a case for brewing unrest across the globe in the pivotal year of 1956. The seeds of unrest are sown everywhere none the least of which is among the youth. Today, you hear the classic, “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley and the Comets, and it might come across as a soothing lullaby. Well, relatively speaking. In fact, there’s an undeniable power to it. And, in 1956, it had the power of a cultural sonic boom. There were teenagers dancing in the streets after viewing the rock ‘n’ roll movie featuring Bill Haley and his band. And, around the globe, the status quo was being confronted at all levels. Enough to give those in power plenty of pause.

Hall tackles 1956 in fairly chronological order. We begin with a young and untested Martin Luther King Jr. as he must confront the firebombing on his own home, with his wife and children still inside. Remarkably, no one was hurt from the blast. And thanks to King’s moving address to the crowds gathered, the rest of that cold January night remained calm.

Among the leading news stories that year, the focus was on Egypt, the Suez Canal Crisis, and Egypt’s charismatic leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The greatest undermining of Soviet expansion after World War II was the Hungarian Revolution.

And the end of 1956 would see one more significant sign of things to come: Fidel Castro and his band of revolutionaries proceeded upon their shaky but steadfast push against the Batista regime.

Simon Hall’s book is the first definitive account of the year 1956. Hall’s account presents 1956 as far more than an eventful year but as a source of much significant change that was still ahead. From Poland to South Africa, the call for freedom was loud and clear. Around the world the responses came from world leaders: Eisenhower in the US. Khrushchev in the USSR. Anthony Eden in what was left of the crumbling British Empire. The nationalization of the Suez Canal by Nasser spurred an Israeli-British-French attack that nearly brought in the Soviets–an attack that would ultimately fail. Hall captures it all in a riveting narrative always mindful of those not in power who were brave enough to shout the loudest.

“1956: The World in Revolt” is a 509-page hardcover, published by Pegasus Books. For more information, and how to purchase, visit Pegasus Books right here.

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Filed under 1950s, Book Reviews, Books, History, Pegasus Books

Review: ‘The Best American Comics 2016,’ Editor, Roz Chast; Series Editor, Bill Kartalopoulos

Reading "Best American Comics 2016" on the train.

Reading “Best American Comics 2016” on the train.

I read this year’s Best American Comics on the train and I loved it all the more for doing so–but more on that later. Bill Kartalopoulos is the series editor and this year’s editor is Roz Chast. Even if you think you don’t know enough about the contemporary American comics scene, you probably know Roz Chast’s work in The New Yorker. So nothing to worry about, even Roz Chast doesn’t think of herself as exceptionally knowledgable about the current comics scene. However, Bill Kartalopoulos knew right away that, no matter how splintered the comics scene may be, here was a legendary cartoonist, with a wealth of experience, insight, and a very special kind of irreverence. This book is a guide through the best of American comics from someone with just the right sensibility to add to the journey. And what a journey it will be kicked off by the artwork of Marc Bell on the cover, as well as within the pages!

From "Stroppy" by Marc Bell

From “Stroppy” by Marc Bell

The path begins with a forward by Kartalopoulos which explains how we got here from there and what sort of comics we are focusing upon. For the most part, the focus is on comics that have come to be known as alternative comics, or alt-comics. These are comics that fall well within comics as an art form. While genre comics occasionally rise to the level of art, that is not their main purpose. So, as I have maintained, it is useful to be able to separate comics within two main groups: genre and the alternative to genre. There is crossover (which is great when it happens and can be quite interesting), but, in general, art comics are on one side and superhero and various other genre comics are on the other side. So, while it is possible, you will usually not see the likes of Batman or Spider-Man in Best American Comics–even if that just doesn’t seem right somehow.

Father and daughter clash in Adrian Tomine's "Killing and Dying."

Father and daughter clash in Adrian Tomine’s “Killing and Dying.”

Roz Chast’s introduction provides some clues as to what comics would appeal to her. Considering what she chose to include in the book, she is mostly intrigued by wry humor and in-depth autobiographical work. She says she’s not a prude but that if work gets misogynistic, that makes her sad. And she’s open to just about anything, even willing to go back to a comic that she wasn’t sure about at first. Chast does not categorize her selections. You just start reading. First up, is an excerpt from Adrian Tomine’s celebrated collection, “Killing and Dying.” In this excerpt from the title story, I can only imagine Chast’s love for zany humor telling her this is the piece to set the tone for the rest of the book: a story about a father struggling with his daughter’s sudden desire to be a stand-up comic.

Misfits band together in Chris Ware's "The Last Saturday."

Misfits band together in Chris Ware’s “The Last Saturday.”

Along with Adrian Tomine there are other clear choices to include: Chris Ware, Lynda Barry, Gabrielle Bell, John Porcellino, among others. But the treat is that they are set within the context of choices that Chast came to make. That fact adds another layer to one’s enjoyment of a story about struggling misfits by Chris Ware. And, it is quite true, there are so many comics out there that you cannot keep up with all of them. It does seem best to find a way to hook in and make some sense of things using different approaches each year. To that end, series editor, Bill Kartalopoulos has settled into taking a long view of things. Ideally, you don’t just read one Best American Comics annual but you keep up with it each year to find out what has made an impression and how it may fit into the current wave. What novelist Johnathan Lethem did as editor last year is different from what comics historian Scott McCloud did the year before.

Discussing time and effort in Lynda Barry's "Syllabus."

Discussing time and effort in Lynda Barry’s “Syllabus.”

By the time I reached Lynda Barry’s story about coming to terms with a cartoonist’s goals and how to impart that wisdom unto students, I had a good sense of what Chast was going for. It provided me with a way to hook into everything else. And it was about that time that the rocking motion of the train added more resonance, especially as I patiently followed along lines of Barry’s handwritten writing reproduced from a notebook page. Both the train and the handwriting asked me to take my time. Earlier in my reading, I had been picking up on the fact that there is so much going on around you while riding in a train and how that is true for comics.

Barry brings up a challenging question: Just how long does it take to draw something? Well, it all depends. In the end, a good cartoonist develops a keen sense for this. It’s a variation of the old saw, When is a painting finished? So many art students have suffered from callous professors who dismiss work as simply unfinished. But, on the other hand, so many art professors have suffered from callow and impatient students who demand a checklist for assignment requirements. You cannot create anything, especially art, from a checklist! Time. It all takes time. So, in “Syllabus,” Barry sums it all up with, “Rushing it is missing it!” It is that standard that is maintained by all the cartoonists included here.

From “Adults Only” by Lance Ward

From “Adults Only” by Lance Ward

Cartoonists of this caliber are meticulous note-takers and obsessive in the best sense of the word. Among these type of cartoonists included in this book is an excerpt from “Adults Only” by Lance Ward. Ward states that he works directly on pre-made panels, without preliminary drawings, so that he can best attack his work. This runs counter to the Barry dictum of measured craftsmanship. However, Ward’s obsessive quality wins out. This is in the same spirit as Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings. Ward has gotten to the point where he has hit enough marks to know, on an intuitive level, where the marks will end up. The work has a spare and energetic look to it. Ward is recounting his misadventures working in a porn shop. That is the point of departure for his delving into struggles with his sexuality. A more free-form style could not have been invented for him. A cartoonist can try to minimize or maximize their style but, usually a certain way of doing things falls into place.

"Bike Fast" by Sophia Zdon

“Bike Fast” by Sophia Zdon

Ward, along with other rising talents included here such as Sophia Zdon, has found what works. Zdon, a graduate of the School of Visual Arts in 2015, provides heartfelt observations as if out of dreams.

From “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie" by Casanova Frankenstein

From “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie” by Casanova Frankenstein

One of the most raw and honest expressions in comics comes from Casanova Frankenstein. In an excerpt from “The Corpse, the Ghost and the Hollow-Weenie,” he confides in the reader about a tumultuous life.

Panel excerpt from "Fatherland" by Nina Bunjevac

Panel excerpt from “Fatherland” by Nina Bunjevac

An excerpt from “Fatherland,” by Nina Bunjevac, published by W.W. Norton, provides insights into a peculiar and dangerous life in Yugoslavia in the aftermath of World War II.

From "Fashion Cats" by Alex Schubert

From “Fashion Cats” by Alex Schubert

Alex Schubert‘s “Fashion Cat” is a hilarious look at the misadventures of a feline hipster, originally published in Blobby Boys 2 by Koyama Press.

From "El Deafo" by Cece Bell

From “El Deafo” by Cece Bell

Cece Bell‘s “El Deafo,” published by Abrams, is quite a captivating story about a little girl coming to terms with being deaf and how to navigate the world. The story is given an added lift by the nicely modulated coloring by David Lasky.

"Don't Leave Me Alone" by GG

“Don’t Leave Me Alone” by GG

“Don’t Leave Me Alone,” by GG, is a dream-like compilation of growing up with fear and uncertainty in an intolerant and hostile world.

From "Blanket Portraits" by Geneviève Castrée Elverum

From “Blanket Portraits” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum

And then there are those comics that are simply transcendent–and can best inform us on the integrity and purpose of the comics medium. “Blanket Portraits,” by Geneviève Castrée Elverum, is a visual essay on a lifetime’s appreciation for blankets, their beauty and comfort, and what they symbolize. Geneviève passed away on July 9, 2016 from pancreatic cancer. As Bill Kartalopoulos states in a postscript, what made her comics unique was that they were “entirely expressive of who she was.”

The Best American Comics 2016

The Best American Comics 2016

“The Best American Comics 2016” includes the work of 30 cartoonists. It is a full-color hardcover, available as of October 4, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Best American Comics proves to be an essential and inspiring guidebook. As I say, Bill Kartalopoulos has taken the long view. You’ll definitely want to read this year’s edition and make it a habit to keep up with this most distinctive collection.

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Filed under Art, Art books, Bill Kartalopoulos, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Marc Bell, Roz Chast, The Best American Comics, The New Yorker

Interview: Bob Proehl and ‘A Hundred Thousand Worlds’

Bob Proehl

Bob Proehl

A HUNDRED THOUSAND WORLDS, the debut novel by Bob Proehl, is a beautiful and quirky book mixing pop culture satire with a compelling family journey. It is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Read my review here.

“For all its acrobatic wit and outsize charm, at its heart this is the love story of two everyday heroes–a mother and son–who, like their author, possess the superpower of storytelling. A ‘Cavalier & Clay’ for the Comic-Con age, ‘A Hundred Thousand Worlds’ is a bighearted, inventive, exuberant debut.”

–Eleanor Henderson, author of “Ten Thousand Saints”

BOB PROEHL grew up in Buffalo, New York, where his local comics shop was Queen City Bookstore. He has worked as a bookseller and programming director for Buffalo Street Books, a DJ, a record store owner, and a bartender. He has written for the 33⅓ book series and worked as a columnist and reviewer for the arts and culture site PopMatters.com. Proehl currently lives in Ithaca, New York with his wife, stepson, and daughter. It is my pleasure to share with you this interview.

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Filed under Bob Proehl, Book Reviews, Books, Comics, Fiction, Penguin Random House, pop culture, writers, writing

Book Review: ‘A Hundred Thousand Worlds’ by Bob Proehl

"A Hundred Thousand Worlds" by Bob Proehl

“A Hundred Thousand Worlds” by Bob Proehl

Bob Proehl is in touch with the natural, yet complex, details of a mother and son relationship. In Proehl’s debut novel, he has Valerie Torrey face the bittersweet transition of her son, Alex, leaving behind childhood and quite literally having to say goodbye to his mom. It’s complicated but, in this case, inevitable.

Alex Torrey is a nine-year-old boy who hasn’t seen his dad, Andrew, in six years. In Alex’s world, his dad is three things: an actor in Los Angeles; a movie star he can see on TV; and, just for fun, the character he plays, a time traveling secret agent. It was Valerie who made the reckless decision to kidnap her son and raise him in New York. Now, Val seems to want to make things right by reuniting Alex with Andrew. Throw in an assortment of superheroes, monsters, and robots, and you have the engaging debut novel by Bob Proehl, “A Hundred Thousand Worlds,” published by Viking.

This story hangs together very well on the tiny frame of nine-year-old Alex, who is at that magical age of still being very much a child and yet capable of profound observation. He is a character type that has been brilliantly employed in some great fiction from such diverse writers as Günter Grass, John Irving, and Jonathan Safran Foer. So, Proehl has created his very own charming and sad little imp. Alex questions everything. He has certain rituals he follows to help him find answers like reversing the letters to various names hoping to tap into some hidden meaning. It makes no sense to an adult but follows kid logic. From this heartbreaking innocence we can compare our own journey to self-discovery.

Valerie met Andrew while the two were starring in the hit sci-fi series, “Anomaly.” The mystery is what triggered Valerie to run away with Alex to New York. Proehl sets in motion a clever device to get Valerie, Andrew, and Alex reunited. Six years of separation from his father has taken its toll on Alex, a situation crying out for resolution. Valerie leverages her pop culture status and picks up some appearances on the comic book convention circuit, enough to cover her expenses on her odyssey with Alex, from New York back to Los Angeles. Along the way, we get plenty of jokey references to the comic book industry, many which will be appreciated by diehard fans.

Proehl’s work is ambitious as he juggles numerous pop culture references while developing something deeper. He does a wonderful job of straddling the lighthearted accessibility of a young adult novel with the richer field of literary fiction. Valerie, for example, is quite compelling as a flawed character. Andrew has made some obvious bad choices but Valerie has much to work out like her smothering overprotective nature.

Proehl knows how to satirize pop culture quite well. It is remarkable that he also knows how to evoke the qualities that attract us to mass entertainment. Nothing is ever so simple, not a divorce, not a child, not even a comic book.

“A Hundred Thousand Worlds Hardcover” is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, available as of June 28, 2016. For more details, visit Penguin Random House right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Comic-Con, Comics, pop culture, Superheroes

Book Review: ‘Disappearance at Devil’s Rock: A Novel’ by Paul Tremblay

"Disappearance at Devil's Rock" by Paul Tremblay

“Disappearance at Devil’s Rock” by Paul Tremblay

Paul Tremblay’s latest novel, “Disappearance at Devil’s Rock,” rings true with elements of a boy’s adventure tale mixed with a crime mystery that takes one devilish turn after another. Gradually, the heat is turned up and, like any good work of horror, you get hooked. Taking a different approach from Tremblay’s 2015 novel, “A Head Full of Ghosts,” this new novel does not go in spooky right away.

This is a tale of a boy gone missing. Tommy is a well-liked teenager, with swagger and good looks, but he normally keeps a low profile. He has two best friends in all the world, Josh and Luis, and he treats them rather shabbily. Boys will be boys. What becomes apparent is that Tommy is a complicated kid. There is something strange and sad about him.

The dynamic between the three boys shifts when Arnold, a young man of indeterminate age, ingratiates himself into the trio. Arnold reveals he has psychic powers. This leads Tommy to open up about his struggle with dealing with his father’s death. Luis senses something not quite right about Arnold. Our story begins with the disappearance of Tommy at Split Rock, known to the locals as “Devil’s Rock.” From there, the narrative alternates between the search for Tommy and moments in the past that indicate Tommy was not as strong as he thought and quite vulnerable to the Devil’s charms.

Favoring an enigmatic route, Tremblay invests a good amount of time in developing the characters closest to Tommy like his mother and sister. Some of the strongest scenes involve them trying to make sense of what’s happened. It’s like the foreboding flashbacks belong to the males and the present problem-solving belongs to the females. In both cases, the Devil is not far behind. As is made clear in a folktale that Arnold recites, the Devil has a funny way of making his presence known. You will sense him but not exactly see him, only for a glimmer in the corner of your eye.

“Disappearance at Devil’s Rock,” is a 336-page hardcover published by William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins and available as of June 21st. For more details, visit Harper Collins right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Harper Collins, Horror, Paul Tremblay, Satan

Preview: MACK STUCKEY’S GUIDE TO THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

MACK STUCKEY’S GUIDE TO THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

MACK STUCKEY’S GUIDE TO THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE

MACK STUCKEY’S GUIDE TO THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE is a new project that I want to share with you. It is an illustrated novel by Jennifer Daydreamer and Henry Chamberlain. This is a dark comedy about Seattle that will be coming out later this year. More details to follow. Here is a synopsis along with an excerpt.

What It’s About:

Seattle, 2014. Mack Stuckey is stuck in a rut. He’s twenty-three-years-old, still lives at home, hates his job and has no girlfriend.

Mack is a blue collar type with a penchant for books. He’s from a family of fishermen and lives in a neighborhood called Ballard. He has to work in Fremont, a tech hub, where he’s a lowly security guard at the giant game conglomerate, Game Needle.

Mack stumbles into a friendship with the suave Devon Rush, one of the high-powered suits at Game Needle. Things are looking up in his life until he realizes Devon’s new romantic conquest is the girl he’s falling for, none other than the beautiful Jupiter Fellows.

Jupiter is one of Fremont’s most alluring hippies. As the two guys compete for her, Mack’s life becomes a roller coaster. Before they know it, Jupiter cajoles Mack and Devon to partake in a threesome.

Mack Stuckey’s Guide to the Center of the Universe is a dark comedy exploring the new realities in our economic times. There’s plenty of sex and foul language, therefore, FOR MATURE READERS ONLY.

Mack Stuckey stuck in a rut.

Mack Stuckey stuck in a rut.

Excerpt:

The siren sounds. I stare at the bridge. The skies, the mountains, the waters, are all a thick painted grey. I run, head down, as if the clouds are pressing against me. Shadows descend. My vision darkens. I know a storm will hit.

Washington State is a tease. The truth is it does not rain much here; we are just taunted with pregnant skies for months on end. And, yes, you will hear this fact about the weather in every Tom and Dick book out there about Seattle. But most of you don’t read, so I’m filling you in.

It’s grey most of the year and when the rain decides to happen it happens in annoying spurts as its usually polite fucking rain. Like it will start to rain in the evening when most people are lucky enough to be home from work. Or it will rain like hell in the middle of the night, where you are warm and dry and can hear the motherfucker lighting and all, from the safety of your home.

If you’re lucky and your roof doesn’t leak, you can enjoy thinking of all the greenery and how the rain is, you know, a supernatural phenomenon, because the pounding on your rooftop and on the ground, is FUCK YEAH UNBELIVABLE.

It gets your mind spinning at night, a rain to meet head on with in a forest, like you’re Indiana Jones. But you’re not Indiana Jones. You’re a fat lazy twenty-three-year-old fuck, a bear, lying in bed, in your mom’s old faded blue home, fantasizing about Indiana fucking Jones, running and slipping and jumping in the jungle and the rain and all. You’re wide awake from drinking too much coffee that day and therefore you’re an irresponsible lazy ass northern bear not getting enough sleep for the job you gotta go to tomorrow.

But, right here, right now, on top of the Aurora Bridge while I frantically blow my whistle as uncaring cars drive by puffing exhaust into my face, the rain turns the oil on the road into nasty slick circles which makes me slip.

I go down.

The cops descend on me, lift me up off the ground, chide me that I’m not one of them and then nudge me along back to my job. I’m not one of them alright.

I’m a lousy security guard. Deflated, I walk back to work in a downpour.

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Filed under Books, Henry Chamberlain, Humor, Jennifer Daydreamer, Satire, Seattle

Book Review: WEED: THE USER’S GUIDE by David Schmader

"Weed: The User's Guide: A 21st Century Handbook for Enjoying Marijuana" by David Schmader

“Weed: The User’s Guide: A 21st Century Handbook for Enjoying Marijuana” by David Schmader

With cannabis, you have a loaded subject, so to speak. Bringing up marijuana can often elicit nervous giggles. And people usually don’t know what they are giggling about. It’s time for all of us, especially government, to grow up. As cannabis continues to go mainstream, all of us, users and nonusers, need to get better educated on a very misunderstood plant. Over time, the general public will come to accept the many medical benefits derived from cannabis. What is more challenging is for everyone to enter a parallel universe where cannabis is accepted, integrated into our lives, and its use is common knowledge. To that end, one of the very best cannabis books as of late is “Weed: The User’s Guide: A 21st Century Handbook for Enjoying Marijuana” by David Schmader, published by Sasquatch Books.

The good news is that, for responsible folks, easy accessibility to weed should be a relatively easy transition. Retail sales of cannabis in Washington state, for example, are already geared to an older, and supposedly wiser, demographic. These are going to be, by and large, people who have a stake in the community and are basically going to do the right thing, so to speak. They will buy some weed and treat it in the way they would having a glass of wine on the weekend. Well, that is one ideal scenario. Schmader’s book covers not only this neat and tidy group but all of us. People can overdo it. People can go blindly into something. You know, all of us.

What I really love about this book is that, along with being entertaining, it is so honest in its approach. Hey, if weed it not for you, well then, that’s totally valid. Here is a great example of Mr. Schmader’s accessible and natural tone running throughout this essential book:

“Weed’s pleasurable effects are brought on by cannabinoids’s disruption of the brain’s neural messaging–but “disrupting neural messaging” is an imprecise art, and different strains in different brains can create effects that cross the line from pleasant and fascinating to itchy and weird. For example, the neuron-disruption that some users experience as expanded consciousness can trap others in a cul-de-sac of hypercritical introspection, and one person’s THC-driven explosion of creative ideas can be another person’s panic attack. The truth is that a good number of people who try weed experience predominately unpleasant effects, from intense anxiety to racing heart rates to crippling self-consciousness, and if you are one of these people, it is your right to never try weed again, no matter how persuasively it’s pitched to you. Think of it like coffee: Some love it and can’t imagine life without it, while others drink it and become insomniacs with diarrhea.”

The above quote is part of the sensible approach that is much needed as the discussion on cannabis moves forward. It is insightful to use the coffee analogy. If a person picks that apart, it might prove to be a useful reference point. The consumption of cannabis can be a challenge to compare to something else or describe in an objective way. Supporters will cite that no one has died from overusing it. However, misuse of it will mess you up just like beer, wine, or even coffee, can trash you in their own unique ways.

As a connoisseur, Schmader is good at not mincing words and getting to the point. Among numerous insightful factoids, you’ll learn one of the best weed hacks is to eat a mango before getting high. Both cannabis and mangoes have the chemical compound, myrcene, which speeds the delivery of THC to the brain. Schmader provides straightforward instruction on everything from how to use a bong to how to turn an apple into a pipe. You’ll get acquainted with a “green hit,” the first draw from a freshly packed bowl. You’ll get helpful suggestions on dose levels. And you’ll get cut-above recipes like his instructions on how to make your own tinctures.

Given the chance, some people would eat a whole chocolate cake. Thanks to David Schmader’s book, you can see how you can avoid eating the whole cake and still have a fun party.

“Weed: The User’s Guide: A 21st Century Handbook for Enjoying Marijuana” is a 208-page paperback. For more details, visit Sasquatch Books right here.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Books, Cannabis, David Schmader, Marijuana, Sasquatch Books