The 22nd Five Books of 2008 (106-110)


110) The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg, finished December 2
    The Plain JanesEverything that I complained about the last Minx book I read is remedied in this beautiful book.

    First of all, every cliché in this book is shattered almost before it hits your eyes. Even the evil popular girl is a fully realized human character. And her humanity reflects well upon her father who is the book's closest thing to cardboard.

    Then the story, although at times it almost tastes like a typical teen empowerment tale, never succumbs to the temptations of lameness. From the first page, we are somewhere new and real and striking.

    Page one: a bomb goes off.
    Page fifteen: a girl rejects popularity for the weird crowd.
    Page twenty-three: boy in coma.
    Page seventeen: math.

    And meanwhile, the art is dropping hints so subtly you don't realize you've caught them until they matter.

    The Plain Janes, MainJaneSo kudos to Jim Rugg whose art this is (and forgive me, but the protagonist's face is the loveliest bit of ink I've seen in some time), and kudos to Cecil Castellucci whose words are the genesis of this terrific terrific book. (Worth mentioning: Cecil is a girl.) This gives me great hope for the Minx imprint. (Or did until Mr Fob sent me here.) Also: want to read the sequel.

    (DC: contact me here if you change your mind)


109) Re-Gifters by Mike Carey et al, finished December 2
    Re-Gifted is published by Minx, DC's "graphic novel imprint designed exclusively for teenage girls." When a (male) student saw me reading it today, he told me how great it was. He's a strikingly literate 15-year-old and so I was surprised. Because the first three quarters of this book pile on cliché after cliché --- this is the work of multiple-Eisner-nominee garnerers? (Then add to that the weirdly off Koreanisms [just off enough that they are wrong, but few so wrong so's to make them obviously not mere editing errors] and you've got something I can barely stomach.) Also, I have a problem with the book's manga-derived drawing mannerisms that prevent me from determining if the protagonist is 12 or 17 --- rather an important distinction. If the words solved this riddle, fine, but they don't. And that's not all! The class the above-mentioned kid is in is currently reading the Scottish play and we talk about the purpose of every single scene. But what purpose the breakfast scene in this book? Answer: none.

    But, redemption!, this book pulls itself out of the morass in the final pages. How? With the unclever application of a couple more clichés. But these clichés replace the expected clichés and somehow the final result is quite charming. So bully for the creators. Way to go, guys. [Note: they are, in fact, guys. As are most of the creators of extant Minx titles.]

    Re-Gifters from Minx

    two days

108) Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, finished November 30
    The Big O got this book for Christmas last year and we started it almost immediately afterward, but even though he himself was a penguin, he never really got into it and we didn't finish it till today. (And only today because he wanted to start Christmas Carol again. I don't know why. It's a classic; it has penguins --- we parents thought we had nailed the book present, but instead, we nearly killed the reading aloud of chapter books in the Thteed household.

    The book hasn't aged that well from my perspective. I like the illustrations a lot, but the book itself is pretty silly. As a cultural snapshot of Depression-era America, good; as literature, lacking.

    My opinion.

    The Big O's: "It was pretty good. I liked the whole thing. All the favorite parts were all of it. Can we read Mr Popper's Penguins next year?"

    So maybe I'm totally off in all I've said before.

    Robert Lawson illustration for Mr Popper's Penguins

    over eleven months

107) Old School by Tobias Wolff, finished November 28
    I've been avoiding this book since it came out five years ago. And then, when Lady Steed read it for her book club and she told me I would like it, I kept avoiding it. Obviously, she finally prevailed upon me, but if the first five pages hadn't been so well written, it wouldn't have happened.

    What did I have against a book I had never even read? Well! It's a book by an english major written for other english majors who need affirmation for being an english major. It's self-stroker, in other words. And although I love reading about writers as much as the next writer, I generally feel like it's a copout. Especially when being a writer is all the story's about. Add to that the fact that this book takes place among dinner-jacketed private school boys in the woods Back East, and why would I deign to read it?

    But the first few pages were fun and delightful and on I read.

    I've spent sometime finding old interviews with Wolff about this book and they all discuss things he has in common with this book's protagonist, but never did an interviewer ask where real life and fiction diverged. So I'm left wondering: is this 100%/95%/75%/50% true? How much? (This is something else that irritates me: when the memoir/novel divide is indistinguishable.)

    But still: I enjoyed the book quite a lot. Clear till the end. At the end (spoiler alert), the protagonist retells a story he heard in a bar in a manner that requires us to believe his retelling can only reflect the as-heard version in the most surface of ways. And at the end it is revealed that this bar story is a metaphor for the entire book and, instead of the book ending properly, the metaphor's ending does double duty.

    Although not an inherently evil technique, I didn't like this ending much. But the book is good. Just feel free to set it down when the Hemingway portion ends.

    (Incidentally, the depictions of Hemingway and even more Rand and most of all Frost in this book are marvelous. Kudos, Mr Wolff, on those resurrections.)

    over a week

106) Madman Atomic Comics Volume 1 by Mike Allred et al, finished November 23
    The cover of this book, in big letters, screams "EXISTENTIAL EXISTS!" I'm not exactly sure what that means, but I think it's accurate.

    This is one weird book.

    For instance, my favorite part (artwise) is the section where Madman and his guide travel through dozens of artistic styles in the search for truth. One minute their in a Peanuts strip, then they look drawn by Herriman. Or Kirby! Or Tex Avery! Look, they're straight out of Popeye! No, Tintin! Lil Abner/Lulu/Nemo! Archie! Dr Seuss! Sendak! That one New Yorker guy! Prince Valiant! Groening! Crumb! And so on. It's a tour de force of comic history, but (on first read at least) distracting from the story at hand. Perhaps when I read this again it will mean more. Hard to say.

    Madman through Comics History

    If you've been following my relationship with Madman since I first wrote about him, you may well know that I've been anxiously awaiting his LDS-templesque marriage for some time. It arrived on the final page of this volume but in such a perplexing manner, I don't know how I feel about it. As Allred says himself in some afterwordy notes, I just don't know if it "is a happy ending, or a numbing tragedy". Curse you, Allred. I've a long ways to go before volume two arrives and I have a strict not-paying-for-single-issues policy. (Which, I might add, may well be vital to the health of my marriage.)

    Madman's Wedding

    One problem I met in this volume is the sudden appearance of the Atomics superhero team. Their backstories were not part of the Gargantuan and so their appearance here didn't fly. In part because they didn't behave like developed characters and I didn't know them from before (ie, they are not my friends). In fact, some of their lines are ludicrous, as if the author merely needed to give them all a speaking role as per union regulations, or he just had more characters on stage than he could handle at once. Perhaps this is part of the Atomics' manner of interaction, but I don't know them so I can't say.

    Madman and the Atomics need better lines

    I will say this: I appreciate ambition (of which plenty is on display here) and I trust Allred enough to keep reading. I trust that he will arrive somewhere after a full book with little but upheaval. I'm still willing to be impressed, my mind blown, but that experience is on pause until the next volume of Madman Atomic Comics comes out.

    I will strive to be patient.

    a few weeks



  1. I really liked reading Mr. Popper's Penguins when I was young. I am finding now though that many of the (already old) books I enjoyed while I was young would make little sense to a modern young reader, and probably would not be as enjoyable for them. And so I'm left grateful for Paperback Swap, where I can get the books, enjoy them again myself, and then send them on to someone else. I could do the same thing at the library, I guess.

  2. .

    I have heard of people using the library for that sort of thing.

  3. The problem with the library is that it is not within walking distance of my house.

    The batch of comics you read this time around look really interesting.

  4. .

    Definitely worth your time, particularly the Plain Janes.

  5. I loved Mr. Popper's Penguins when I was young, too. I don't remember a blasted thing about it now, but waxed quite sentimental reading the title on your list. Will have to order from some cheap book site and see how I feel about it now. You do write about the coolest things. Even penguins.