Books Are Pretty

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Free Speech 101

Years ago when I was working as a waitress in a sports bar in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood, I discovered that the new bartender that was killing time rewashing the pilsner glasses was also a native South Carolinian. After we’d found out each other’s hometowns, we moved on to the line of small talk that most inhabitants of small Southern states engage in – finding out if we knew people in common. Once we investigated each other’s college and high school alma maters, we moved on, of course, to churches. The bartender, it turned out, went to St. Michael’s Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. St. Michael’s, back in the day, used to be known as an Anglican church, one that very pointedly remembered its roots as the church created by Henry VIII when he got tired of beheading wives and wanted to move onto divorcing them. Now it’s known mostly as one of the oldest churches in South Carolina, older, I think, than the state itself, and its parishioners are mostly residents of the very tony, very old money South of Broad neighborhood. South of Broad residents, creators of the Charleston Receipts, and if you have to ask, m’dear, then you aren’t one of the Quality, and if you aren’t one of the Quality, then you are no one at all.

“Yep, Anglicans,” mused the bartender, “the first Catholic splinter group.”

I agreed, drawling, “Just like the Catholics, honey, but far better dressed.”

After I made my little South of Broad joke, two things happened: the bartender cracked up, thrilled that somebody in Chicago knew his neighborhood enough to rip on it, and the waitress standing next to us burst into tears.

“I’m Catholic!” she screamed. “How dare you make fun of Catholics that way!”

“I wasn’t making fun of Catholics!” I said, startled.

“Yes, you were! You don’t know anything about my religion! How dare you talk about it!”

“I’m not making fun of your religion, Carrie,” I said, exasperated. “I’m making fun of his.” And with that I jerked my thumb toward the bartender, who was looking at her with a perplexed look on his face.

But she wasn’t having any of it. I was persecuting her, clearly, and she wasn’t going to have her religion impugned by the likes of me. She cried until the manager came in, then she cried to the manager, who also didn’t see the insult and had to have it explained to him, and I had to apologize, even though the bartender backed me up.

“Me!” he said, “she was going after me!”

All this because the South of Broad Charlestonians like their fashion.

My I-Was-Not-Catholic-Bashing experience, while exhausting by dint of sheer frustration, isn’t particularly unique. I think a lot of us have had the experience of some action or comment we made striking us back with a particularly noxious backlash. We could probably spend an evening swapping stories about that one time when our ridiculous friend, coworker, or other mommy in the playgroup totally took something the wrong way when, you know, it’s obvious to anyone who isn’t TOTALLY STUPID that you didn’t mean it that way at all. And then you had to apologize. So you’re sorry. Sorry that your coworker IS AN IDIOT.

If you find stories like these entertaining, and who doesn’t enjoy a story about a good person being plagued by pesky, hypersensitive fools, then you absolutely have to read Joseph Vogel’s Free Speech 101. It is the granddaddy of all Good Person Being Plagued By Pesky, Hypersensitive Fools stories. You may have heard about it. It not only made national news, but was even turned into a critically acclaimed documentary, This Divided State.

For those of you who don’t already know, here’s what happened to Joe in September of 2004: Vogel, then a twenty-three year old college student at Utah Valley State College, had been recently elected Student Body Vice President of Academics. The student government at UVSC had the somewhat unique privilege of being allowed to make relatively important decisions for the college, for the most part without giving any particular faculty member ultimate responsibility or veto power. Vogel was given a budget of 50,000 dollars for the academic year and the task of providing “academic opportunities and events for both the students and the community, which include[d] finding speakers.”

One morning at the beginning of the Fall term, Student Body President Jim Bassi sent an e-mail to Vogel with an attachment from the Greater Talent Network, an organization that was promoting Michael Moore’s Fall ’04 Campus Tour. Bassi’s e-mail read, in part, “Can you imagine the turnout?”

Vogel agreed, and began thinking roughly along these lines: “If we got Michael Moore to come speak, that would be a huge draw. Turnout would be big. And he’s such a controversial speaker. This would get a lot of press for the college. We’ve been wanting to get out of the shadow of BYU. This might do it. It’ll get a lot of people talking about the college, maybe stir up debate and controversy, raise the profile of the college.”

When he found that his budget was not big enough to afford Moore, who was asking (and getting) 40,000 dollars for a speaking fee and 10,000 for travel, he decided he could make the money back by selling $5 tickets to the public. If they filled half the auditorium, he calculated, they’d make half the money back and would put him back in budget. Okay! Let’s do it!

So he did. And then the school went nuts. And the town went nuts. And the state went nuts. And I mean nuts. The anti-Christ? Coming to the most conservative campus in the most conservative county in the most conservative state in the country?

“Half the state of Utah believed that UVSC was suddenly taking a sharp plunge into hell – and I was the one responsible for it,” Vogel wrote, and as he begins to detail the reaction of the community: the death threats, the lawsuits, the bribes, the insults, the bulletproof vests he was asked to wear, the yanked donations, the legislation put into place in Salt Lake City to take autonomy away from student governments, the state government punishing the school by refusing to fund a new library, you realize Vogel wasn’t exaggerating. He thought there’d be some controversy, sure, but nothing like this.

The college President, in a desperate effort to reach a compromise, forced Vogel and Bassi to hire conservative blowhard Sean Hannity for “balance,” although as Vogel points out, the conservative speakers the college had booked in the past, such as Alan Keyes and Orrin Hatch, never had a liberal speaker added after them to the schedule for balance.

As the outrages rises to unfathomable levels, Vogel gears up for a battle of wills, because what bothered him the most, as I hope will also bother you, is not that the people in the community did not want to hear Michael Moore speak. It was that they didn’t want anybody else to hear him speak, either. They did not want Moore sharing his liberal views with people who wanted to hear them in their town, and they tried to use their money, their lies, their threats of violence, and the manipulation of state laws to prevent it from happening.

As Vogel relates his narrative, he also delves into the whys of his opponents’ behavior. Was it because it was an election year? Was it because of the perceived red state/blue state divide? Was it because Moore was the “embodied enemy of truth, goodness, and patriotism,” and the thought that the college would pay such a person to speak was too much to bear? Did loathing for Michael Moore blind them to our Constitutionally protected right to free speech? Or worst of all, do conservatives fear free speech?

This is the question posed as a subtitle under the book’s title, and when reading the book, I couldn’t help feeling more sadness on Vogel’s behalf than outrage. Here is a very young adult, charged with making adult decisions for the first time, in the community in which he was raised and whose values he thought he shared. Is he a conservative? Yes. Does he love God and America and Mom and apple pie? Yes. Does he believe in the Constitution? Yes. And as a believer in the rightness and justice of the United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights, he believes that minority speech should be protected. He believes that college is the place to hear all points of view, and to learn to think independently and critically. And to have his community turn on him so viciously for having such an earnest belief in the Constitution is heartbreaking. To watch a community that he'd previously perceived as “educated and enlightened” titter and giggle their way through Sean Hannity’s bullying speech, a lecture that strikes Vogel as a “hate rally,” is disillusioning. To be a kid standing against so many powerful adults shouting at him and threatening him for two months, adults he was raised to believe in and respect, is crushing. One adult in particular, Kay Anderson, gets so carried away with his quest for vengeance that he nearly becomes a cartoon villain, trying every trick in the book short of twirling a pencil-thin mustache while tying Vogel’s fiancée to the railroad tracks.

In the end it takes an outsider to accurately diagnose what ails the community. During an anti-Moore rally in the student center, Ephraim Amou-Berry, a student from Togo, West Africa, takes the microphone and says, “I come from a country where the freedom of speech does not exist. When I came here to study as a foreign student, I’m proud of something you guys have here, and you don’t know the value of it.”

According to Vogel, many in the audience were moved to tears by his impassioned pleas, but I saw Amou-Berry give this speech in the documentary This Divided State. I saw the majority of students letting his minority views fall on deaf ears. What a shame they were unable to simply do the same for Moore.

P.S. – And if you’re not interested in any of that, and you just want the scoop on exactly how big a tool Hannity is, you’re in luck. (Answer: Sean Hannity is a very, very big tool. Huge.)

Free Speech 101
by Joseph Vogel
To be released October 2, 2006
by Windriver Publishing
Paperback, 283 pp.
ISBN: 1-88624-9318

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Sunday, August 20, 2006

The Clouds Above.

Last week my mother sent me a Harlequin Romance novel. Pardon me, a Harlequin Super Romance novel. What elevated this assembly-line bodice ripper above the lesser bargain bin romance novels I’ll never know, because I took it to work the next day, unopened, and tossed it into the blue storage bin the employees use as a library/free book giveaway. It landed with a soft thwack, sliding across dozens of other copies of cheap pulp fiction and layers of last week’s tabloids (same thing.) I don’t think my mother read it, either.

“You probably won’t like it,” she said. “But they delivered it along with the evening paper one day, so I just sent it on.”

My prejudice against these mass-produced little paperbacks was formed when I was six or seven and spending the afternoon at my Aunt Mary’s large white saltbox house. There were two paper grocery bags next to the front door stuffed with dozens of them. My Aunt Mary had driven them over to the Jumble sale at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, but the sale organizers had refused them on grounds that they had too many already. Evidently all the female parishioners at St. Mary’s had at least two garbage bags full of Harlequins they couldn’t give away.

Nobody wants these books, I thought, because they all look alike on the outside, and they all probably are alike on the inside, and nobody really cares about them, and who knows if anybody even really writes them? Robots do, probably.

Conversely, I developed a strong appreciation for writers who genuinely seem to care about how every sentence is crafted, and comic writers who care about every panel. Maybe it’s a matter of respect? I don’t get the feeling that the writers of Harlequin Romance (or Super Romance!) novels respected their readers very much, and don’t care whether the books are well-written or not.

Renee French’s graphic novel The Ticking, I felt, paid the highest compliment to her readers by creating a novel where every word, every page had been carefully crafted and perfected before its release. It makes you feel that if you were to recommend it to someone who did not like it, that you could feel confident that the problem was not you or The Ticking, it was the person who inexplicably could not appreciate such a fine work.

When I read that one of French’s influences in writing this remarkable book was Jordan Crane’s The Clouds Above, I knew I had to read it. French warned that the two books don’t have much in common, and she was right.

I received the “Regular, Just Fine” edition of The Clouds Above (as opposed to the “Extra Fancy Limited Edition” that is also offered) and found it to be a delightful, light-hearted children’s fantasy. Unlike The Ticking, The Clouds Above is in full color, although Crane focuses primarily on soft cotton candy pink and bright canary yellow. Simon and his fat cat Jack, late for school one day, hide up on the rooftop, where they discover a staircase that spirals endlessly up into the sky. As they climb higher and higher, the air gets colder and colder, and the pair abandoned the staircase for a romp in the sugary pink clouds, where they meet a bird-loving cumulus named Perch, battle angry thunderheads, and fail to befriend a flock of rambunctious yellow birds.

It’s nothing like French’s book at all, until you consider that both Crane and French sweated the details in every single panel page. Simon’s hair is dreamy and pink, setting him apart from his other classmates, the cranky teacher has flies circling her, and honestly, what won my heart in the beginning is the inside cover, which features Simon and Jack sleeping on a cloud. In the middle of the cloud, just like in those Little Golden Books I remembered from childhood, are the words “This BOOK belongs to:” and there’s enough space underneath for a child-like scrawl.

The Clouds Above is like getting a Whitman’s Sampler back in the day when you were little enough to think that was some fancy candy. Holding the square, thick pink book is like holding the candy box, and each page inside is like a perfect, individual piece of candy. And, like a Whitman’s Sampler, you shouldn’t rush to finish the entire book at once. Savor each page for its unique flavor.

I can’t wait to read it to my kids. I hope they like it. And if they don’t, well, that’s their fault.

This review first posted at The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society

The Clouds Above
by Jordan Crane
2005 by Fantagraphics
Hardcover, 216 pp
ISBN: 1-56097-627-6

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Girls Most Likely

God, this really has to stop. I do not want to see any more legs and feet on the covers of books written by women. If an alien culture drew conclusions about us based on our cover art alone, they would unanimously agree that our civilization was ruled by podiatrists.

Look at this. Here’s a book of Christian fiction by Judy Baer:

And here’s the book from blogger Mimi Smartypants:

And here’s the cover of Sheila Williams’ latest novel Girls Most Likely:

What do these three books have in common? Nothing, except they’re books about women that were written by women. I guess we’re lucky they went with the eight inches of a woman’s body that are closest to the ground, but really, why mess around? If you’re going to make every single cover look exactly alike, why not be honest about what you’re really thinking and give all female authors book covers that look like this:

Rise up, women! Say no to the legs-and-feet cliché!

That said, Girls Most Likely *is* kind of a chick lit book. The novel follows the friendship of four Ohio girls as they make their way through thirty years of school bullies, graduation, marriage, children, divorce, and careers. Each section of the book is told from the point of view of each girl: Vaughn, Reenie, Su, and Audrey. The four branch out in their separate ways before touching base every ten years at their high school reunion.

The story begins in the early 60’s with a fifth grade Vaughn being chased down the street by Timmy Early, the school bully. Tiny Reenie comes to her rescue, threatening Timmy with a beating from her big brothers if he didn’t leave Vaughn alone. Adversity is the tie that eventually binds all the girls together, as Reenie and Vaughn befriend Su, whose alcoholic mother often leaves her hungry and locked out of the house, and Audrey, whose glacial perfection is the only weapon she can wield against a punishing military father.

Adversity is not only what brings them together, it is what keeps them together, even when trouble erupts in their small circle of four, as impulsive Reenie makes a very foolish mistake that damages not only herself, but the other three as well, a mistake that causes a rift that takes two decades to mend.

Su, the saddest of the girls, and oddly enough, the one who is the mostly thinly drawn, is hurt the most by this latest betrayal by Reenie, and Reenie is the last in a long series of betrayals starting with her hypocritical, pious absentee father. She, like Audrey, buries herself in work and solitude, taking a long time to heal from her childhood wounds.

Audrey, the strongest voice of the four, bears the emotional scars made by her abusive father, and renders herself invisible by being as perfect and robotic as possible. She is a beautiful, highly intelligent, sophisticated shell.

The contrast between the warm Reenie and Vaughn and the cold Su and Audrey balance nicely enough, but the novel did lack some desperately needed fire, fire provided only by Audrey’s father, the Colonel. The brief section where the girls visit Audrey for the first time and meet her parents is the best, most shocking part of the book by far.

Her description of a menacing, controlling domestic martinet and his terrified Stepford wife was riveting, and the novel, which seemed somewhat forced up to that point, became fluid and golden, like the smoothest of whiskey, and the words dripped effortlessly off the page, hooking me completely. I haven’t seen anything even close to a character like that since Pat Conroy’s Bull Connor in The Great Santini. I have my fingers crossed that Williams writes a novel that fleshes out this excellently-drawn narcissist even further.

Maybe if she does that she won’t be burdened with a book cover featuring legs and feet.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

They Found the Car.

When I was a child, one of my favorite ways to pass the time on long nighttime car trips was to stare out the window at the darkened houses we zipped past. We would drive on and on, the evenly spaced mailboxes ticking off the time in visually rhythmic increments. Depending on the lateness of the hour, most of the houses were dark. In some, a light would burn from behind a closed curtain. Every now and then, a light would be on, and the curtain in the room would still be open. I loved waiting for these flashing glimpses into other people’s lives. Most of the time, the room would be empty. Occasionally, someone would be sitting on a couch, watching TV or talking on the phone. Once, just once, I saw an elderly couple dancing in their living room and laughing. I spent these road trips wondering about these people, how they decorated their houses, what was important to them. It felt both detached and intimate at the same time.

I once mentioned the secret way I passed my time in the car to my tennis coach one evening on our way home from a tournament.

“It’s disappointing sometimes when the curtains are drawn,” I admitted shyly.

“The nerve of those people,” he snorted, “how dare they want privacy.”

I sighed, somewhat abashed but not really very sorry.

Italian artist Gipi’s mysteriously tense and dreamy They Found the Car reminds me of those moments in the darkened car, where I get one brief glimpse of someone’s life, and, like the elderly couple I saw who showed so much love in that one flashing glimpse, this brief story, the latest in Fantagraphic’s Ignatz collection, offers a full plate of love, fear, violence, and humor.

The nameless protagonist is awakened late one night by a voice from the past waking him up with a phone call.

“They found the car,” the voice tells him, and with that one sentence the entirety of his past opens up underneath him, forcing him out of his warm bed and into the rain, where he meets up with the man who called him, identified only as “The Calm Man.” Many years have gone by since, for reasons that are never explained, they hid the car, and now the Calm Man pulls in the protagonist into an increasingly tense mission to “tie up loose ends.”

The tension swells in the spaces where trivialities are discussed and as the men discuss subjects such as the qualities of diner food versus Arabic food, the protagonist’s paranoia and grief grow as he begins to wonder if he, too, is a loose end that must be tied. And if true, how will he reconcile the man he was with the religious, gentle pacifist he is now?

They Found the Car is perfectly done, creating as many mysteries as it solves, yet satisfying completely. Setting off the storyline are Gipi’s cloudy grey illustrations, moving from peaceful puffy light ash to a grimmer darker stormcloud wash and back again.

The Ignatz series gets better with each issue. Honestly, if you haven’t started collecting the Ignatz series by now, what are you waiting for?

Review first published at the Journal for the Lincoln Heights Literary Society

Buy the Book!

They Found the Car
by Gipi
2006 by Fantagraphics
32pp 8 ½ x11 softcover
saddle stitching
ISBN: 1-56097-801-5

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Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Early Birds.

Below the title of Jenny Minton's The Early Birds is a tiny sentence fragment, not precisely a blurb and not exactly a subtitle, that reads, "A Mother's Story for Our Times." I wish it hadn't been there, because quite frankly it sets the bar too high. Because the art of mothering is such an intensely personal and unique experience, while simultaneously being boringly commonplace, it's too easy to remark that reading one person's experience speaks for all of us. In reality this can't possibly be true.

As a result, I couldn't stop rewriting the subtitle/blurb as I read the book as "Another Really Rich White Woman's Story For Our Times." If you read it with the idea in mind that it really isn't for moms like us - poor moms, black moms, lesbian moms, disabled moms, single moms, teenage moms, uninsured moms - then you won't feel so badly about not feeling emotionally connected to her struggles, particularly in the second half of the book.

In the beginning, Minton's memoir chronicles her struggle to conceive, her success, and the subsequent premature birth of her twins and the nine weeks they spent in neonatal intensive care unit. In the second half she brings the twins home and "gets into a Zen routine" with them, and we read about her worries that they won't be academically gifted enough to go to Groton, the fancypants private high school she and her husband Dan went to, as well as her decision whether or not to go back to work and her wondering whether her Trinidadian live-in nanny Michelle goes home to Brooklyn and talks about what a spoiled white woman she is. (The answer is: Duh. Yes.)

Ultimately, I'm very happy that IVF worked out so well for her (and so quickly!), that her good insurance from her good job as a book editor covered most of her million dollar infertility treatment, that her twins had top notch professional care both in and out of the hospital, that her subsequent son was born healthy, that she gave up her job and can rely on her husband to shell out a minimum of $120,000 to pay for Groton's tuition. I'm a mother myself. I don't want anybody's babies to suffer.

It's just that the minimal drama (there's a photo of Minton and her healthy, happy boys right there on the back cover, so you know right off the bat that your heart isn't going to get broken) coupled with a detached writing style (I take an empty chair from the isolette in the next room. I sit there all day.) left me feeling emotionally distant and a little bit snarky. The only question I had at the end of the book was, "How did she find time to write a book with toddler twins?"

Me, I woke up at five in the morning, snuck downstairs, made coffee, and crept to the computer only to find my three-year-old sitting in the computer chair.

"Why you awake?" he demanded.

"I....I...wanted a glass of water. Now let's go back to bed."

I got back in bed and curled up next to him for another hour before I could tiptoe downstairs and try again to write this review before my family woke up.

How did she do it?

From the acknowledgements, Minton writes, "Only because Michelle loves our boys so much and so well was I able to leave them in her care for hours at a time in order to write."

Oh, yeah. That helps.

The Early Birds
by Jenny Minton
2006, Knopf
Hardcover, 272pp
ISBN: 1-4000-4383-2

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Thursday, August 03, 2006


In the introduction to Daniel Clowes’ latest graphic novel, Pussey! (That’s “poo-SAY,” you barbarians!), Clowes writes about the inspiration for his eponymous character: “I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but from the vantage of middle age, I can say that the initial spark for many of the Pussey stories came from some misplaced, low-grade desire for ‘revenge.’ Spending years in a room working on stuff that nobody likes in a debased medium for no money can take its toll on your self-esteem.”

It may have taken a toll on his self-esteem, but it didn’t seem to do much damage to his creativity or knack for introspection. Pussey is an incredibly harsh satire, eviscerating both the comic artists and the people who abuse and exploit them.

Young Dan Pussey, who not coincidentally shares a first name with Clowes, struggles through his childhood as a social misfit, ignored by girls and mocked by his more popular male peers. Finding refuge where many boys in similar situations do, in the comic book world, Pussey starts off as a talented fan and then, at the cusp of adulthood, is plucked out of obscurity by the nefarious “Dr. Infinity,” who –

Okay, look. I’m not suggesting that the Dr. Infinity character is supposed to be Stan Lee or anything, and I haven’t seen Clowes suggesting it anywhere, either, but I have to point out that Dr. Infinity sure does look like Stan Lee. But I’m sure any resemblances between Lee and the Dr. Infinity character are purely coincidental. The Dr. is portrayed as a chauvinistic, patronizing megalomaniac whose life’s main ambition seems to be a toss up between making as much money as possible by taking credit for the hard work of others and simply crushing the already low self-esteem of those he makes “great.” And there’s definitely no rumors floating around about Stan Lee that sound anything like that, so….

Anyway: Pussey. As cruelly as Clowes mocks the stereotype of the comic book nerd as a hopeless fool that is unable to stand up for himself and can’t see past the end of his nose, he also manages to make you feel somewhat sorry for the guy as he plods his way through the all-too-familiar humiliating story of his life. Particularly moving is Pussey’s reaction to the trap he finds himself in, helplessly snared due to his love for that “debased medium working on stuff nobody likes.” Pussey believes, and rightly so, that cartooning is a highly creative medium worthy of the respect given to other artists. (Artists with gallery shows and questionable hygiene that Clowes also skewers). It’s crushing to watch Pussey’s formative years, where his attempts to branch out toward more mainstream approval are repeatedly betrayed and rejected, causing him to slink, disgraced, back to the nefarious clutches of Dr. Infinity, Pussey’s very own supervillain.

Like Pussey, Daniel Clowes managed to claw his way to the top outside the mainstream of both society in general and the insular worlds of both art school and comics. Unlike Pussey, he’s managed to gain the creative independence Pussey craved. Perhaps Clowes’ Pussey! is as much a voice of solidarity with the comic book nerd as much as it is a brutal beatdown. In a 2000 Salon interview, Clowes says, “It's hard to have any self-image when you do something like this, because I get no feedback for what I do until it's long finished. And then I don't really care. I'll work on something for six months just in this room, and I don't even let my wife read it. She has to read it when I'm not around and not talk about it or I get really angry…. So I don't have any feeling of my place in the world; it's just like I'm living with this blank slate. Of course, I grew up thinking of myself as an outsider because I wasn't in the in crowd in high school like everybody else, but now I don't know what I'm in."

first published at Journal for the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Buy the Book!

by Daniel Clowes
2006 Fantagraphics Books
Softcover, 54 pp
ISBN: 1-56097-183-5

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