Books Are Pretty

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dead In Desemboque.

If Gilbert Shelton and Jose Guadalupe Posada conceived a baby while the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil" was playing in the background, that baby would be Eddy Arellano's Dead In Desemboque.

I so badly want the above paragraph to be the entire review. In the four years I've been book blogging, the above description is the most accurate I've ever done, and probably will ever do.

Eddy, a drifter who literally has death in his eyes - they're drawn as skulls - and his dogs amble through the desert, looking for love and trouble and finding both. Done in the style of a Mexican pulp comic, Dead in Desemboque is told in three episodes, each drawn by a different artist.

Episode 1, "Dogs Aren't For Trading," Eddy meets the powerful Lupe, who seduces him in order to steal his dog, Argonaut, away. This part, illustrated by William Schaff, is the Posada part. Episode 2, "The Road to Desemboque," is the Gilbert Shelton part, drawn by Richard Schuler. After fleeing from Lupe, Eddy travels to be with his ladyfriend Juanita, who plays the part of the girl who is always home to warmly greet you after you've been out whoring all over the place with women who want to turn your dog into a gladiator, is never busy, and never actually has a boyfriend at the moment and can't really see you right now, but thanks for stopping by. He somehow pisses everybody off, not sure how because a lot of it is in Spanish and I studied French, but he has to flee again to Episode 3, "Dead In Desemboque." This part is drawn by Alec Thibodeau, and I would love to tell you that it's drawn like a Grateful Dead cover, but I've ridden the metaphor as far as it will go and it's fallen apart now. After careful consideration, I have to say it actually looks more like Lynda Barry has taken over.

By this time, our hero's options are narrowing, and he turns to some clever old women to help bail him out.

Dead In Desemboque is published by my favorite publishing house, Soft Skull, which never puts out crap. The artwork, particularly William Schiff's, is gorgeously creepy and would look nice either hanging on a wall or tattooed onto your back, and the storyline ambles along nicely enough to keep you occupied for a little while. Arellano captures the spirit of Mexican comics quite well, and the blends aimless lust and dusty death under the Arizona sky together in a gothy, inky swirl.


Dead In Desemboque
by Eddy Arellano
Illustrated by William Schaff, Richard Schuler, and Alec Thibodeau
June 2008 by Soft Skull Press
Paperback, 108pp
ISBN: 0979663644

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Monday, December 29, 2008

The Betrayal.

"For many of you," warn authors Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear, "this will be a controversial book."

There runs a small but sturdy thread of defensiveness in the introduction, the footnotes, and the afterword in The Betrayal, a novel that seeks to humanize Jesus and to portray his last days on Earth with historical accuracy. Repeatedly, they mention that they use early Christian texts, the etymology of ancient Greek and Hebrew words, Roman records, and Jewish laws to come up with a series of events that best reflect the reality of the life of Jesus and his followers.

What that means, although they don't come right out and say it, is that much of the Gospels of the New Testament is filled with great steaming piles of horseshit.

I can see how that would be controversial.

Back in the day, my college roommate and I went to see The Last Temptation of Christ, which featured a scene where Jesus imagines his life differently, had he chosen a different path. In this imagining, he sees himself marrying Mary Magdalene and living a quiet and peaceful life, happy in its anonymity. He of course turned away from the temptation, but from the way people carried on you'd think he was filmed in a g-string on a Pride parade float. We had our purses searched by police in line to buy tickets, because of the number of bomb threats called in to the theater.

So redonk. Anyway. Given a certain number of reactionaries that want their Jesus white and virginal and their Mary Magdalene a whore, it isn't surprising how careful the Gears are to let the reader know how thoroughly they've done their research. There are four pages of footnotes in what is supposedly a work of fiction.

The novel intertwines two stories, one of the last days of Jesus before the Crucifixion, and the other the story of three monks and a Pagan washerwoman on the lam.

In 325 c.e., under the ruler of the Emperor Constantine, the Council of Nicea met to determine which texts would be the official story of Jesus. These texts became the Biblical New Testament, and all other texts were ordered destroyed. To be caught reading or copying these heretical texts was a capital offense, punishable by death. Constantine sent squads out to the monasteries on a search and destroy mission to burn any existing books with an alternate version of Jesus' life. One of these monasteries was in Egypt, and housed Barnabas, an older monk who valued and believed these now illicit documents. This much is true.

From this launching point, the Gears build an action-adventure story that is somewhat da Vinci Code-ish, with its secret maps and clues and a search for The Pearl, a mysterious treasure of unknown value. Barnabus and his colleagues, sixteen-year-old novice monk Zarathan, who exists only to whine, Cyrus, the 34-year-old former Roman soldier turned Christian monk, who is incidentally incredibly smart, kind, courageous and totally hot, and Kalay, the Pagan who washes the Brothers' clothing. Kalay, just so you know, is a bone thrown to women who are interested in the Bible but find all the woman-hating tough to take. Kalay is also totally hot, skilled with a knife, illiterate but somehow well-versed in Hebrew language and culture to be invaluable at translating Barnabus' secret map. She is also extremely saucy and interrupts a lot, and, with the exception of Zarathan, who ineffectually whines at her to shut up, the men not only don't mind her but enjoy her and treat her as an equal.

In a novel that insists that it is striving for historical accuracy, the character of Kalay is asking quite a lot as far as suspension of disbelief goes, but I appreciated her all the same.

The adventure part of the story is kind of silly and goes on for a bit too long, the obvious storyline of the growing attraction between the two characters you want to see getting it on played out to an unsatisfactory end, and the ending of the novel abruptly dove into an overly dramatic series of events that could have been accompanied by dramatic hamster music. But the plot's not what you want to read it for. The Gears are archaeologists, well versed in ancient languages and the laws and culture of the time in which Jesus lived, and The Betrayal is a way of showcasing that knowledge. For the uninitiated, it's a fascinating ride. The Gears essentially tell you that everything you know about the Jesus narrative is mostly untrue, and they show you the research to back up their assertions.

This hit home with me to a certain extent, and will to anybody who dislikes religion, seriously doubts the existence of God, but loves Jesus. That may be just me, I don't know. We're probably a pretty small group. In contrast with those who believe the Bible is the exact word of God, I find the modern interpretation of Jesus to be cartoonish and grossly disrespectful, shaped mostly by politics and woman-hating, two things Jesus abhorred. I really appreciated the more realistic version of him as portrayed in The Betrayal, and I think, to the uninitiated searching for a deeper understanding of Jesus, the Gears have a lot of knowledge to offer.

The Betrayal
by Kathleen O'Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear
June, 2008 by Forge Books
Hardcover, 400pp
ISBN: 0-7653-1546-7

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

Church of the Dog.

The basic plot of Church of the Dog is solid enough – free spirit Mara O’Shaugnessey dumps a crap boyfriend so cheap he charged her gas money for driving her to the hospital when she became seriously ill, and takes a job as an art teacher in rural Oregon. She rents a little shack on the property of Edith and Earl, ranchers who have been married for 60 years, and fixes up the shack with stained glass windows and crazy artwork, and it is re-christened the Church of the Dog. As Mara gets to know the couple, helping them out in the house and on the ranch, she grows close to them, as well as their drifter grandson Dan, who comes home from his seasonal job as an Alaskan fisherman, and the four of them learn to overcome personal tragedy and redefine happiness and the meaning of family.

What undid it for me was the somewhat syrupy, New Age coating author Kaya McLaren saddled Mara with. Mara is one of those poseur-hippies that see auras and shrink tumors by the power of sending energy beams of pure light at people. Plus, she travels around in her dreams and horns in on other people’s dreams and everybody wakes up and don’t seem particularly thrown by the fact that an entire group of people dreaming the same dream NEVER EVER HAPPENS AND IS THEREFORE ALARMINGLY WEIRD.

If this talent that Mara has is deliberately supernatural, and an interview with the author in the back of the book indicates that it is, why are the rest of the characters treating it like it is no more unusual than being double-jointed or having an extra finger?

I have known many, many people who describe themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” and this talk of auras and surrounding yourself with protective colors is stuff I have heard from them practically verbatim, so Mara struck me more as typical than supernatural, and those who don't buy into the New Age lifestyle quickly tune those who do, at least when they begin going on and on about curing cancer with healing vibes.

Granted, Mara is likeable, and McLaren wisely gives her a youthful playfulness and loyalty that are appealing to the aging Earl and Edith, who never fully recovered from the loss of their son in a car accident, leaving behind a baby they had to raise. However, I could have done without the myriad discussions between the characters about The Meaning of Womanhood, which focused largely around the opinion that women were happier when their choices were fewer, and the Ethics of Vegetarian Ranching.

The ranching aspect of the book, which is grounded firmly in reality and no calves were medically assisted by angels or healing light of any kind, still troubled me in spots. For example, rancher Earl mentions that his cows “get good feed…corn and barley silage supplemented with vitamins, minerals, and protein.”

Er. That’s not good feed. Corn is an economically sound decision, but eventually it throws off the balance in the cows’ rumen, making it more acidic and burning a hole in their stomach lining. The corn fed cows that go to slaughter are going to die from the corn ingestion if they aren’t slaughtered first. What's best for cows is actually grass, although I wouldn't expect the cows to be fed grass on Earl's farm or any other.

The author interviewed a rancher to get the details of life on a ranch, and I have no doubt this is the information she was given, and that it is accurate information about what cattle are fed. Virtually all beef in the United States is corn fed. Corn is good in that it makes the cows get fatter faster and it’s cheaper, but bad in that it sickens the cow, causing it to need all those controversial antibiotics. (Aha? I’m a flaky, hippie vegetarian, too! Now you know too much about me, and I have no choice but to smite you with my angry aura.)

It's little tidbits like this, and in another spot where she mentions that dreadlocks grow mold if you live in a wet climate. I asked one of my dread-wearing work colleagues about this, and was told this is not true. If dreads are always damp, then yes, but most Americans live indoors, even those in wet climates, and even wet climate dreads dry out.

This sort of thing was slightly confusing, because I couldn't tell whether I was supposed to take this information as fact, or if the narrator was unreliable and I should assume the characters had their own specific agenda in relating this information that didn't fit with truth.

By the end of the book, I was left with the impression that what was supposed to be supernatural was actually not so supernatural, but a fairly accurate portrayal of a real person, and what was supposed to be down to earth and factual seemed to be untrue.

Picky, picky, picky, okay. All pickiness aside, there are things McLaren writes about incredibly well, such as love and loss. You would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by her deft, tender handling of the last days of the elderly Edith and Earl’s lifelong love story, and during this part of the book the pages flew by. So if New Age mysticism is okay by you, Church of the Dog will be a good way to spend a rainy afternoon. Burn some sage and get on with it. If it isn’t, you may be better off looking elsewhere.


Church of the Dog
by Kaya McLaren
May, 2008 by Penguin
Paperback, 240pp
ISBN: 0143113429

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Monday, December 15, 2008


"You're still reading that book?"

I heard this a lot over the past six weeks. I was reading Rick Perlstein's 881 page analysis of the political climate in the United States that lead to the election, and re-election, of Richard Nixon immediately after a liberal Johnson landslide and the apparent disintegration of the Republican party.

I don't have a lot of free time for reading anymore. When I'm not at work or taking care of the kids, I have 2 hours twice a week, and Sunday afternoons. That's it. And much of that "free time" is spent doing laundry, grocery shopping, repainting the dining room, cleaning the house, and blogging about my six-year-old farting on my hand. So mostly, I read this book in the car on my way to work, while stopped at traffic lights. So yes, I'm still reading it. I could have given up on it for the time being, and maybe I should have, but I really didn't want to, because Nixonland was fascinating.

After Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson was overwhelmingly elected over the ultra conservative Barry Goldwater, winning 44 out of 50 states. Goldwater's nomination split the Republican party. His supporters happily subscribed to the ideology that "calamitous Liberal nonsense - ready acceptance of federal interference in the economy; Negro "civil disobedience;' the doctrine of 'containing' the mortal enemy Communism when conservatives insisted it must be beaten ... was symbol and substance of America's moral rot." The other half of the Republican party, the progressive party of Lincoln, thought they were nuts, that this sort of ideological, anti-intellectual, reactionary politics had no place in the Republican party.

A few well-placed ads later, and Johnson was ready to lead a Liberal America toward a bright, shining future.

Armed with a Liberal Congress, Johnson enacted sweeping progressive legislation - The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the "war on poverty," the "Great Society" of prosperity - and it seemed as though Liberalism had a lock on things.

"These are the most hopeful days since Bethlehem," said Johnson while lighting the White House Christmas tree.

And the media loved it, printing stories of the Great Society and often omitting certain details such as our dubious, then disastrous entry into Vietnam, and a small problem with the Civil Rights Act, which was that nobody enforced it, or had any intention of enforcing it. Segregation was now officially illegal, but since there wasn't an Open Housing law, barring homeowners from refusing to sell their homes to families whose skin color rendered them untrustworthy, it didn't matter whether the Civil Rights bill was passed or not. People of color couldn't leave Watts, couldn't leave Cabrini Green. In fact, claims Perlstein, if you took a map of Chicago and put an X on each spot where an African-American was attacked by Whites, when you were done you'd have rings of Xs, and inside those rings would be the housing projects. And yet the Great Society mythology chugged along for over a year, until 1965, when Watts exploded in fiery riots.

The White middle class freaked out, as the White middle class is wont to do, a backlash ensued, and Richard Nixon sailed in on the crest of it, successfully exploiting white fears and anchoring himself firmly into the White House by 1968. In four short years, the United States had gone from being overwhelmingly Democratic to being overwhelmingly Republican.

How could this have happened so quickly? Could it really have been just White panic? Nixonland is a massive investigation into the fracturing of America into two deeply divided camps, and the answer Perlstein comes up with is: Not really. In actuality, it was dozens of incidents striking terror into the heart of middle America, and Nixon juggled them all expertly. The narrative of Richard Nixon, his dogged determination to win out over the fancy, slick pretty boys who always won everything, is in fact a metaphor for the remaking of the Republican party from being viewed as dispassionate intellectuals into a group of people that voted for George W. Bush. Twice.

A crop of politicians sprung up alongside Nixon, touting a call for Law and Order, which, after the destruction of Watts and other projects in American cities that were inexplicable to White people (we gave them the Civil Rights Act, why are they still complaining?) and promising a return to a time when the streets were safe. California Governor Ronald Reagan, who somehow took Goldwater's fringe extremism and made it look jolly, and George Wallace, the psychotic Alabama governor who, along with Southern Senators Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms, and Georgia governor Lester Maddox, a restaurateur elected solely because he refused to serve African-Americans, chasing them out of his restaurant with a pick axe handle, were among the most prominent and popular Law and Order backlashers. Nixon gingerly handled Reagan, the largest threat, simultaneously applauding and undermining him, and with the Southerners, he put his head together with Strom Thurmond's and created what is known as the Southern Strategy. Essentially, Nixon promised that he would not press the South to integrate if they would support his presidency against Johnson, who obviously they had some issues with.

The South switched sides, Dixiecrats became Republicans, and the party that was once racially progressive ceased to be so.

As the yearning for law and order became stronger, the opposition to the war and Jim Crow ramped up. Black kids were turning into Panthers, and white kids were turning into Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Girls were cursing and having sex while turning their backs on marriage and motherhood, and God was dead. The police began systematically brutalizing the opposition, from the horrible riots in Newark to the slaying of students at Kent State to the cold-blooded murder by the police of Black Panther Fred Hampton, and the silent majority finally spoke up - in approval of these acts.

This, as Nixon carefully pointed out, was the Democrats' fault, and it kind of was. Their conventions were disasters. Where once the Republicans had been divided, now it was the Democrats. Torn between old school racists and young progressives, the party spiraled down into incessant bickering and really just looked awful. The Republicans, led by square Nixon, were in control. (The scheming done by Nixon to ensure that said bickering occurred is cataloged in detail as well.)

Speaking of awful, Nixonland really solidified my dislike of Yippies. Their extreme obnoxiousness, from Jerry Rubin telling students the first step in the revolution would be to kill their parents, to Abbie Hoffman just never shutting up, did way more good for the opposition than for their own team, and the idea that they managed to change anyone's mind is difficult to believe.

As long as people like Spiro Agnew didn't look like the Yippies, they were in. Which is how we got people like Spiro Agnew in government in the first place; a man who publicly called a Hawaiian reporter a "fat Jap," and, when asked why he didn't campaign among the poor, said, "if you've seen one slum, you've seen them all."

Americans would vote for anyone, as long as he bathed and promised to quell the Negro problem. In reality, none of the politicians had any principals at all. Even crazy Wallace referred to his own constituents as "nuts."

As long as you pretended to be reasonable, it didn't matter that you weren't, an appeal, says Perlstein, that continues today. After Nixon's election, America was divided into two camps, each passionately believing that the other would destroy the very foundation of America. Instead of today's "Guns, God, and Gays," it was "Bombs, Blacks, and Bohemians," and then, as now, only the Republicans can keep you safe.

Nixonland satisfies any cravings you may have for detailed political history. One of the reasons history and politics has started to have such appeal for me as I grow older, is finally getting all the old pop culture references that used to go over my head.

While I was in the middle of the book, I watched the Katherine Hepburn/Sidney Poitier classic Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? In the beginning of the movie, Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy's daughter announces her upcoming marriage to Dr. John Prentiss (Poitier). She's going to marry him, and she would do it even if, she says, looking at Spencer Tracy, "you were the Governor of Alabama."

"I mean," she then says, catching herself, "if Mom were."

Had I not been reading Nixonland, I would not have known that after George Wallace was no longer allowed to run for Governor, he forced his cancer-riddled wife Lurleen to run in his place, openly announcing that she would just be a figurehead and he would actually be running the state. She won, so Katherine Hepburn gets to be the racist Alabama governor.

I love stuff like that, and if you do, too, then you'll be happy to know that Nixonland is full of all kinds of anecdotes that loop you in on 40 year old jokes, as well as cutting-edge celebrity gossip about Dr. Spock, Tom Hayden, and "Hanoi" Jane Fonda. I began Googling everything: Spiro Agnew wristwatches, his hilarious, William Safire-written speeches - wouldn't you love to hear a politician use the phrases "pusillanimous pussyfooting" or "nattering nabobs of negativism" again? Sure you would. And by the way, did Jerry Rubin have kids? Did they kill him? If not, why not?

Although Perlstein is obviously left-leaning, he does not shy away from the flaws of the Democrats, showcasing how out of touch they had become with examples such as actress Shirley McClaine, while campaigning for George McGovern, telling a room full of poor Black women that they knew better than anyone that money wasn't important, that America valued the wrong things. She was met with "a stony silence," and, baffled, had to be told by a young black man that being lectured by a rich White woman about the meaninglessness of money was a bit too much, particularly when money was what these women needed more than anything else. When he shows how Nixon appealed to what later became known as "values voters," not Hollywood elites, the idea of the "silent majority" clicks into place and you can clearly see how a generation of working class began to identify with Pat Nixon and her "Republican cloth coat," a phrase delivered by Nixon in his famous "Checkers" speech, as he fought to keep his place on the 1960 Presidential ticket by downplaying his wealth, and mistakenly viewed the Republicans as being the party for the everyday Joe, kicked around and laughed at by the snobs.

Was Nixon the central feature in the split of modern America? Maybe, maybe not, but the idea of such a deeply paranoid, ruthless man managing to unite the majority of America by tapping into our own paranoia and ruthlessness is both fascinating and unnerving, and well worth six weeks of sitting at the traffic light.


by Rick Perlstein
May, 2008 by Scribner
Hardcover, 881pp
ISBN: 0-7432-4302-1

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