Sunday, January 29, 2006


I don't talk about my superpowers much, but ever since I was a little kid I've been able to bring characters trapped within the pages of books to life. It's quite simple, really. I just hold the book in front of me and focus my eyes to look through not at the page. After a few moments the words and pictures (if there are any) swirl and spiral around the page, kind of like when you plop a few drops of cream into hot coffee and the clouds of white cream spin within the confined atmosphere of your coffee cup. The page fills up with a mixture of color, light and darkness and out steps Phillip Marlowe. Or Madame Bovary. Or whoever I want. When other kids were outside playing in the dirt I was in my room bouncing around and making lots of noise with Curious George and Babar the elephant.

Of course, as I got older my friends and playmates changed. Dragons crammed into my closet, orcs nestled under my bed. I played catch with Hercules. Played hide-and-seek with the Hardy Boys (both of of them). For a long time I hung out with Valentine Michael Smith from Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land. I never figured out how to levitate but the word "grok" still pops out of my mouth occassionally.

After years of practice I entered grad school for writing. I liked creating my own characters and bringing them to life, but they often lacked a little substance. They were pale in color, almost see through, and I could push my hand through them like jello. I learned how to make them more real, more pronounced and even, on occasion, bigger than life. But still, nothing beats the classics. So I kept buying more and more books to meet, speak and pontificate with more and more characters.

And now I enter phase three of my plan.

I just began a new masters program at Catholic University, this time in library science. My focus here on the blog is likely to change as my reading changes. I'll bring up interesting issues as they come up in my studies, and time between actual book reviews is likely to be longer than it was in 2005. To supplement I'll be adding links to other blogs, both local and non-local, and highlighting some of their posts from time to time for alternate readings.

But back to my plan.

After a couple more years of school I'll should have a job that gives me direct access to more books and more characters than I could ever hope to read in my entire life. With the future job, the characters won't just talk to me; they''ll talk to anyone who asks. And just imagine all the characters I'll have at my disposal.

Friar Tuck. Humpty Dumpty. Albert Einstein. Alfred E. Neuman. Atticus Finch. Copernicus. The Spirit. Sergeant Rock. Yosarrian. The entire pantheon of greek mythology.

And on.

And on.

We'll gather together daily and change the world. One book at a time.


Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Art of Seyeong O

Nearly everyone in publishing these days knows the term manga-an overarching term for Japanese comic books covering everything from little kiddie gotta-catch-em-all plots to wonderfully developed stories and art for sophisticated adults. Now it's time to meet manhwa, manga's lesser known Korean equivalent. Like with Manga, much of the material imported to the U.S. so far is geared towards kids. But ComicsLit, always one to mine the best in comics, brings us the grown up version for the first time. Seyeong O is one of Korea's most acclaimed practitioners of the art form, and the collection Buja's Diary brings together thirteen of his strikingly powerful short stories.

Some tales are set in the countryside in what we might think of as third world conditions (The Little Alley Watcher) while others focus on the hustling, bustling almost chaotic lifestyle of the ultra-modern city of Seol (Escape). Stories like "The Snake Catcher Brothers Dream" are fables with a simple message while others like "The Secret of the Old Leather Pouch" mine very deep feelings of honor, tradition and family history. Despite the serious nature of many of the stories, O is not above using humor. "Observe" takes a comical look at a very vain man on his commute to work, all told through pictures without the assistance of dialogue or narration. At the heart of every story lies O's discerning eye for character and dialogue. But aside from these just being good stories they also work as unique portraits of Korea's present-day culture, giving a broad sense of the history and issues important to its people. O displays equal levels of skill and range in his artwork; all black and white, the styles range from realistic watercolors to cartoony charcoal drawings, each one chosen to accent the individuality of the piece. He's also willing to take risks with experimentation in layout, developing a fresh rhythm and pacing to the panels on the page that make remind me more of techniques in film more than anything I normally see in comics. The volume ends with a short but thorough essay by Han Chang-Wan, helping place O within the context of manhwa and Korean culture as a whole.

With each piece so different, the editors at ComicsLit seemed to choose the material to show the depth and range possible within the media. If this one volume is any indication O and the rest of the practioners of the form still have entire worlds to show us within the universe of mahwa.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Paine of Being Thomas

If his new book The Troubles with Tom is any indication, Paul Collins would make one hell of a tour guide. Part travel narrative, part popular (but well researched) history, Collins takes us on an odd, entertaining and informative tour of gay bars, empty lots, office buildings and farms for one goal: to track down the body of Thomas Paine.

Although often considered one of the founding fathers of the United States, Paine is probably one of the ones most overlooked in history class. While most people are aware of his pamphlet Common Sense it's rare to find other mentions of him. Collins's new book attempts to show Paine's influence by way of his death. Or, to be more specific, by way of his dead body.

Despite the extreme popularity of Common Sense and other writings, as well as his close associations with important men like Ben Franklin, Paine was often looked down upon for being a provocateur and a rebel constantly searching for cause. When he died in 1809, no church would bury him in their cemetery, leaving his remains to be interred on his own farm. Shortly thereafter, he was dug up by William Cobbett, an Englishman and revolutionary in his own right, to be buried beneath a monument to be built somewhere in London. But the monument never came together and Paine's remains were passed around for the next several decades, sometimes through inheritance and other times to pay off debts. But the people over the next century who were influenced by his writings and spirit sought his remains and sought to give him a proper burial. Some names, like Ralph Waldo Emerson or Thomas Edison, will be familiar. Others like Dr. E.B. Foote, an early author of self-help and healthy living books, will not be but provide interesting color for the times. Paine's influence reached a wide array of movements: vegetarianism, the age of Enlightenment, Phrenology, and the Thirteen Club (a unique club with the sole function of mocking every superstition under the sun). Collins does a fabulous job in tying all these disparate threads together and leading them all back to Paine's influence.

The travel narrative comes into play as Collins searches for clues to Paine's missing remains. These sections, vibrant, funny and easy to read, not only showcase the unusual turns research can deliver but also bring some levity and a unique sense of pacing to a history book. Highly readable and filled with enough unusual facts and witty anecdotes to entertain people who don’t normally read history, this book is a subtle reminder that history surrounds us and influences us every day of our lives. We just need to take the time to open our eyes, look and learn.


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Happy New Year

Miss L and I kicked off the New Year with a little trip up to New York City. No, we weren't there for New Year's Eve. We hopped on the Double Happiness bus (aka Chinatown bus) in Baltimore and rode up early the morning of the first.

The first day of the year is kind of a surreal time to go to NYC. The sky was gray and overcast, and it was breezy but not too cold. The odd part wast the extreme lack of people. You could easily (and safely) saunter across Broadway Avenue in the middle of the day, against the traffic light, without any fear of a car running you down. Most of the tourists were probably on their way home by then, and New York residents must have been sleeping off their New Year's Eve fun. Probably 3/4 of the businesses---high-end fashion shops all the way down to the seediest, greasiest pizza parlors---were closed for the holiday.

So we spent a lot of time just walking though mid-town Manhattan. Our hotel was in the Murray Hill area, a 15 minute walk from Times Square, so most of our time was spent walking the desolate streets there. We did, finally, hit a museum late in the afternoon. The Museum of Sex.

It was much larger than I was expecting. There were three main exhibits, each one a good size, and a fairly decent gift shop. The first exhibit, Men Without Suits, looked at the image of the male nude across time. Starting with pre-classical greek sculpture and carrying all the way up to photographs for Abercrombie and Fitch magazine ads, it attempted to look at how the male image was perceived and what that meant to the culture of the time. Primarily comprised of photographs of artwork, it also collected some video when you reach the 20th century. Unfortunately, by the time the exhibit reached the 1800's it was solely about homosexuality. While that's certainly a large part of the purpose behind male nude art, it's not the only purpose. Questions like the beauty of the male form (or even lack thereof) were not explored so much as the sexual nature of the form. Robert Mapplethorp, for example, photographed the nude male partly to be controversial, partly to highlight his sexual preference, but primarily because he found the form beautiful and was able to communicate that through his art.

The 2nd exhibit, Stags, Smokers and Blue Movies, was stronger even if it was a bit more uncomfortable to go through. You walk through a darkened room with multiple monitors near the floor showing blue movies from the turn of the century to contemporary times. As an added effect, they ran ambient noise of pre-recorded catcalls and laughter to simulate the environment of seeing a dirty movie with all your guy friends. This seemed the main point of the exhibit, to explore the odd idea of watching movies meant to stimulate your sexual side with a group of people. But some of the changes across time were also interesting, particularly the roles of women. Early on, women were solely the object of desire, and were often passive participants in the sex acts. But as time went on women became more active, and even at times became instigators of sexual laisons. The "progress" oddly mirrors women's more active role in our own society.

The museum ended with a small exhibit appropriately titled Sex Machines. Collecting photographs and working models of machines made by amateur inventors---often built out of spare parts in their own garages or barns---displayed a very odd cultural phenomenon that probably wouldn't be happening without the internet. Motorized sexual devices (trying to keep it clean here) attached to saddels, chairs, metal boxes, or hand-held ones made out of what were once power drills were the norm. Oddly, almost all the devices are designed and built by men but are designed to please women. The only exception to this being the disturbing latex sculptures of the Real Doll company. Considering men in general are pretty selfish about sex, it was interesting to me to think about these men across the country building these industrial strength devices to please women. I don't know if it's a sense of power for them, thinking they will be satisfying women all over the world or something completely different but it was an interesting idea. There may even be a story in it somewhere.

The next day we spent going through the Natural History Musuem, which was wonderful but doesnt' really need a review. It's just a like the one in D.C., or whatever city you are in, but bigger.

Anyway, it was a good start to the New Year for us and I hope everyone was able to celebrate it in their own way.