The Taser's Edge

Tuesday Reading Roundup

1. Saga of the Swamp Thing, vol. 1 (issues 20-27)–Alan Moore offers up some of the earliest proof that he is a great writer, although this in particular is nothing when compared to Watchmen or From Hell.   I intended to provide a picture of his version of the Swamp Thing, but Alan Moore is himself much scarier.  Really, this is his picture (the beardy one):

2. Beanworld: Wahoolazuma (i.e., Volume 1) by Larry Marder–I remember in high school that AF managed to get some of our female friends (LV nee P, I’m thinking of you) to read comics by introducing them to the cute Beans of Beanworld.  Many years later, I came across this at Lilly Library at Duke.  Think Middle Earth on the smallest scale possible.  No smaller.  Smaller still.  And probably smaller.  Marder has created an entire new world, but it is incredibly tiny and incredibly simple.  There’s something very ecological about it, with little new parts of how the world works being given out to the reader (and discovered by the Beans) bit by bit, and drama being created by small things creating major imbalances.  Definitely worth reading and worth seeking other volumes.  According to Amazon quoting Publishers Weekly, this contains the first 9 issues (of an according-to-Wikipedia original 21).  Just look at that:

3. The Minister as Crisis Counselor by David K. Switzer–Required for this unit of CPE, there is definitely some good information in this book.  There is also lots of terrible stuff, particularly the chapter on divorce care and any time (read, everywhere) that gender has a possibility of being involved.  I must admit that it is possible that the updated edition (mine is from 1971, but this book is hard to find in any edition) is better, though, and I say that because the chapter on suicide seems to be very good.  (If you are keeping track, I read the entire first edition and am now midway through an additional chapter on suicide provided in the updated edition.)  Check out the cover art (and that’s from the updated 1986 edition!):

4. Matthew (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) by Stanley Hauerwas–Do not trust my tag cloud to tell you how much I have read of Hauerwas (or to tell you anything else).  This is my second full volume, and I am reading it as part of a study of the Gospel According to St. Matthew I am doing just for the heck of it.  Personal edification, further pastoral education, etc., could also be listed as reasons, but the real reason I’m reading it is likely my continued pursuit of the perfection of knowledge.  Ridiculous, aye, but true.  In the next few weeks, you may also see a George Washington biography sneak onto the list, as I have this crazy idea that reading American history through the lives of its presidents might be interesting.  As you can see (and if you’ve ever talked to me about my theology reading plan) I’m starting at the beginnings (Matthew=GW=Apostolic Fathers).  All that said, to read a modern theological commentary alongside technical commentaries is beyond refreshing.

Tuesday Reading Roundup: Sci-Fi Edition

I can’t remember the last time I sat down and read 300 pages of a book (perhaps knocking out the second half of the Harry Potter series last summer), but today became the non-showering, non-dog-walking day to do it.  And I finished Dune by Frank Herbert.  Zack, Ben, Courtney…you would like it.  I need to go back and watch the David Lynch version, although the scenes on YouTube sure make both book and movie look lame.  New movie version (supposedly) to arrive in 2010.  Don’t get your hopes up.  I think Dune is a good example of all those great works that don’t need to be translated into motion picture.

And the other book I finished since last Tuesday: Watchmen by Alan Moore.  As I was already thinking last week, it did outshine the first reading on this second time through.  And I learned something in the process.  I need to stop reading graphic novels as if they were pure text.  Graphic novels are a different medium and must be read differently to be enjoyed and understood on their own terms.  I guess this means I have to go back and read every graphic novel I’ve ever read.  Oh well…what a rough life have I.

Tuesday Reading Roundup

1. American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation’s Drive to End Welfare by Jason DeParle–I checked this book out from Duke in May 2008, read a third of it, and then set it out down…for a year.  As the due date for all my items approached after I graduated this year, I decided that I would skim the rest of this book before returning it.   But then it was just too good, and I read the whole thing, including a lot of the end materials.

In this highly acclaimed book, DeParle follows welfare reform from Clinton’s promise to “end welfare as we know it” in his 1992 presidential campaign (a promise which DeParle claims raised an unknown Arkansas governor to national prominence) through about 2003.  To provide both the larger picture of welfare history as well as the smallest stories of individual people being affected by the reforms, he follows three cousins, all of whom have their genealogical roots in sharecropping Mississippi (and apparently lots of welfare research draws a connection between welfare and sharecropping structures), who come to Milwaukee in the early nineties, explicitly in search of higher welfare checks.

Under Governor Tommy Thompson, Wisconsin had become the state for welfare reform in the US, and Milwaukee became the city.  What was most strange to me about the whole idea is that all kinds of highly placed government officials, supposedly experts on welfare reform, were in fact just nursing pet theories and trying them out to see what worked.  The theories always seemed to have equal statistical likelihoods for failure and for success, and what actually happened never matched their models.

You might notice that you never hear about welfare reform in politics today, and that’s because the problem is now small enough that it has been largely considered solved.  Welfare reforms actually did shrink the welfare rolls dramatically, and not just by kicking people off the rolls as they reached the new federal and state time limits.  Wisconsin, for instance, created required work modeled on the public works projects under FDR.  The state created community jobs and paid minimum wage out of welfare funds.  If people didn’t find their own jobs, they could find themselves sorting pogs for 40 hours a week, with their checks docked for every hour missed.  And an unbelievable majority of people decided they could find their own jobs for a dollar or two more than minimum.  (This was actually possible in the late 1990s.)

But the big picture problem which DeParle leaves us with is not America’s welfare problem, but its poverty problem.  Of the three women he follows, one has her life destroyed by addiction to crack cocaine, losing her home, her children, and her lifelong friendship with her two cousins.  The other two women are considered to be “successes” of the system, women who moved from the welfare rolls to the workforce.  And while they miraculously (considering all the barriers) keep their own $7-10/hr. jobs, they also have to deal with violent neighborhoods and abusive lovers, their own addictions, and children whom they have to leave unattended in order to keep food (and there is still never enough) on the table.  And so they end up not receiving cash welfare, but still needing food stamps, having health insurance provided to their children, but lacking it themselves, simply surviving.  According to DeParle’s statistics, until a family reaches double the poverty line (still calculated using long outdated and always flawed formulas), survival is what they will be doing.

Highly recommended, even though heavy on statistics.  This was published in 2004, and I don’t know if there has been a text which has yet replaced it as the definitive voice on late 20th century welfare reform.

2. Reflections on the Psalms by C.S. Lewis–I have been choosing to read this slowly thus far, just a chapter or so each day.  And it’s very good.  One lamentable thing I have noticed are some problematic conceptions of Judaism in relation to Christianity, namely the classic Christian conception of Judaism as a religion devoid of grace.  (In fact, Judaism is grace-filled, although not in every iteration, similar to how Christianity is founded on grace, but grace is lacking in some of its iterations.)

3. Watchmen, written by Alan Moore, illustrated and lettered by Dave Gibbons–After this post I wrote back in March, celebrating the opening of the Watchmen movie with a list of graphic novels which I prefer to it, both of my brothers said they couldn’t understand why I didn’t recognize the greatness of Watchmen.  They have good taste, and so, even though I rarely re-read anything (there are just too many good books out there that I’ll never get to anyway), I decided to re-read it.  And in the midst of chapter 10 of 12, I have definitely been moved a lot more.  The problem before was a lack of emotional connection, not a lack of recognizing the book’s artistic merit.  This time, I am recognizing deeper layers of the art and feeling that I connect with the characters more.  With the emotional connection, Moore and Gibbons have better earned the grislyness and horror that sometimes marks his pages.

Still, for anyone who likes Watchmen, read From Hell, too, also by Alan Moore.  Unbelievable.  And also made into (apparently, as I’ve seen neither it nor Watchmen) a critically hated movie.  I should re-read it again.  It’s like if The Da Vinci code were amazing in conception and near perfectly executed.

Tuesday Reading Roundup 10: Madeleine L’Engle Edition

1. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle–Already read it way back when.  Read it again, and it is fabulous.  Far better than Philip Pullman’s Golden Compass/His Dark Materials series.  I think I’m going to have some kids just so I can read it with/to them.  I have mixed feelings about the fact that it seems unfilmable (despite the existence of at least one cinematic attempt).  Disappointed, because more people would get to know L’Engle’s creation.  Kind of glad, though, because I can pretend it’s my little secret, despite the fact that it won the Newbery Medal, sold millions of copies, and is read in classrooms across America.  Also, check out this 3-d image of a 5-d tesseract (those of you in the know know):

2. A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle–So I’m hooked and also already read this one, too.  Three cheers for kything and farondalae!  But I have to wonder at the lack of tesseraction.

3. A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle–Third in the series, it is in my sights this week.  For some reason, while the first two books are shelved in the children’s section at Durham Downtown Library, this one is in the Young Adult section.  I assume it must have frank, sexual discussion or a teenage angst-filled Charles Wallace.  (Holden Caulfield plus telepathy: a deadly cocktail.)  Maybe after I read all the Madeleine L’Engle that exists, I’ll return to Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain as well.

4. Great Lent by Alexander Schmemann–I think you’ve heard of it by now.  I couldn’t swear to having read a single page last week.

5. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank MillerIn my three years as a graduate student at Duke, I have only requested that Duke buy two books.  (You know Duke has some serious money, since this is an option, despite the fact that most books people want are at least available through Inter-Library Loan.)  And the two books are…<drum pum pum pum roll>…this one and Batman: The Killing Joke by Alan Moore, the two comics most responsible for the Heath Ledger version of the Joker in The Dark Knight.  At least I know that a collections librarian is one person on this earth who has no room to judge me for my nerdiness.  Then there’s the fact that I only thought about requesting that Duke buy it after my friend Dave successfully requested that Duke buy the second half of the third season of Entourage (which, I will admit, is a darn good show by that point in its run).

6. Helping People Forgive by David W. Augsburger–Haven’t started it yet, but the title sounds descriptive.  The readings for Acolatse’s Marriage and Family class are amazing this week.  Christian healing and forgiveness, non-violent communication of anger, getting the local church to start talking/dealing with sexual abuse.  Terrific articles.

7. Random stuff from Kant, specifically his discussion of virtue.

Truly I’m back from Spring Break.  And truly I am checked out even more than ever.  Addicted to graphic novels, children’s novels, and computer games from my childhood.  My friend Samara told me today that we have 5 weeks of classes left.  Let’s see, on my schedule that makes…15 days of classes left.  Not going to help me stay involved.  I just need to divert my energy toward constructivity around the house instead of toward my ancient English civilization (which is now building railroads in 400AD, while destroying the Aztec and American civilizations simultaneously).

And then there’s my Application for Holy Orders.  It’s less fun than it sounds.

Sure, watch the Watchmen, but then do some reading, too

So it’s coming out this Friday.  After long years of waiting for not a few die-hard fans:

To begin with, I have probably read a lot of comics/graphic novels, but I do not consider myself at all well read in the format.  To end with, in honor of the release of the Watchmen movie, I provide you with this list of nine comics/graphic novels (and one graphic children’s book) which are better than Watchmen, the book, in no particular order:

1. The Sandman by Neil Gaiman–Hopefully you realize by now that Gaiman is a genius writer.  Check out this series for proof.  If you go to Duke, check out the Absolute Sandman, Vol. 1 from Lilly.

2. From Hell by Alan Moore–See, I don’t hate Moore.  I just don’t understand why everybody’s crazy for The Watchmen.  I think it might be that it was about the first graphic novel that literary critics noticed.  Returning to From Hell, you might recall that a movie of the same name was made of this book, starring Johnny Depp.  I’ve heard that it’s awful.  This book, however, is amazing: Jack the Ripper, Freemasonry and occult stuff, meticulously researched Victorian England, tons of sex and gore.  For all I know all those things make a great synopsis of the movie, but they actually do all click on the page.  Watch out if you think illustrated sex and gore might bother you, because there’s a lot of it.  Furthermore, Eddie Campbell did the art here, and that deserves mentioning.  Huge parts of the book could have been done with no dialogue whatsoever, and you would not miss a thing.

3. Epileptic by David B–David B is a French writer, and this book is a memoir of growing up with his epileptic brother over decades of their lives, in which the two boys’ parents try absolutely everything (from dabbling in various occult groups, to visiting Catholic shrines, to brain surgery, to joining macrobiotic communes) to help their epileptic son, only to see him become more and more distant from them, unable to live a normal life.  If I had to choose one on this list which I think would appeal to ‘serious’ readers of all stripes, I would pick this one.

4. The Complete Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman–You know how I mentioned that Watchmen was one of the first graphic novels to be noticed by literary critics?  Well, this is the other big one.  So popular now that you might have had to read it in eighth grade or high school.  Please, film industry, if you absolutely have to make this into a movie sometime, do it right.  Oh yeah, the plot.  A very personal story of the Holocaust in which the Jews are mice and the Nazis are cats.  That might sound dumb or cheesy, but Maus is about as far from those two adjectives as you can imagine.  And if you’ve already read this, then check out Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers about 9/11.

5. Bone by Jeff Smith–The complete one-volume version of Bone was a wedding present to Holly and I from Aaron F., a high school friend.  Holly and I read it together over the first several weeks of our marriage.  Then we started Le Petite Prince but never finished it.  Bone is visually fairly cute, but then the plot becomes epic-er and epic-er.  Evil and good battling.  Dragons.  A princess, as I recall.  The outward cuteness makes this a good gateway book for those interested, which is I think why Aaron recommended it to people in high school.

6. The Push Man and Other Stories by Yoshihiro Tatsumi–Only a couple of the books on this list are anything less than incredibly well known, and this is at least halfway obscure.  Tatsumi is apparently a pioneer of serious graphic storytelling, and this is a book of graphic short short stories.  Incredibly dark stuff.  Perhaps mix Sartre,  Raymond Carver, and some dinginess together to do a graphic short story collection and you would get this.  Like From Hell, not for the faint of heart, although in this book’s case, that’s because of the intensely emotional subject matter rather than the visuals.

7. Get a Life by Phillipe Dupuy and Charles Berberian–Although all of the other books on this list are stories about very real and well-developed characters, this is the only one that can be described as celebrating the mundane.  Wonderful, gentle humor about day-to-day living in France.  As far as I know, this volume collects almost everything that these French comic creators have had translated into English.  I still don’t understand why the suits above haven’t made everything these guys do available.

8. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel–Bechdel’s memoir is about growing up with a mentally ill, closeted-and-raging-because-of-it gay father who lavishly decorates the family’s Victorian home and carries on gay affairs throughout his very much hurting marriage.  That’s a rather blunt and inartistic way of describing it, so I apologize.  But if you are a memoir fan (David Sedaris, anyone?), you would like this.

9. The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick–Yes, this might be a cheating entry, because it is a childrens’ book, not a graphic novel or comic.  Except that the story is told graphically, the book is over 500 pages long, and it is so good that I couldn’t help pausing from time to time to clasp it to my chest and just breathe in its wondrousness.  (I literally do that from time to time with certain books; it’s how I know how much I like them).  I very much doubt anyone has ever had that experience with Watchmen.  Now they should make this into a movie, and it should be with the book’s black-and-white drawings mixed in with live action scenes and starring Freddie Highmore (Peter in Finding Neverland) or Alex Etel (Damian in Millions).  I never notice child actors, but those two are great.

Honorable mention (better in my opinion, but not incontestably better, than Watchmen):  Blankets by Craig Thompson; Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine; David Boring by Daniel Clowes; Road to Perdition by Max Allan Collins

Notably missing from my list: Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware; The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  This is due to lack of personal emotional connection, not lack of artistry on the books’ part.  The same critique might also be made of Watchmen itself.  But I have to admit, that trailer does look amazing.