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December 2009

Graphic Novel Friday: Peter David's "X-Factor"

There's no shortage of X-Men titles on the shelves. Warren Ellis's Astonishing X-Men explores A-list team dynamics, while X-Men Legacy focuses on the life of Professor X. Uncanny X-Men continues its long run; the new  X-Force is for fans who like their heroics to toe a moral line. I have no idea what Dark X-Men is about and am equally lost when it comes to Wolverine's solo books. Time-traveling X-Man Cable has his own book, and the entire X-Men continuity takes a trip backward in time with Chris Claremont's bubble-universe reboot in X-Men Forever. I'm probably missing about five other titles, but you get the idea: there's something for everyone. Flirting in the periphery of all these books is writer Peter David's X-Factor, the best X-book on the market, and it's hitting its peak this winter with two must-read  collections.

David is no stranger to the title, as he wrote the series to fan acclaim in the early 1990s (collected in an "Essential" series of paperbacks) and returned to relaunch it in 2005 as a distinctively noirish take on the X-Men team book. Led by Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man, X-Factor investigates mutant mysteries and injustices with a dry sense of humor that's missing from most of its brethren (team member Guido's codename is "Strong Guy," for example).

Since its relaunch, David has kept the team's roster filled with strictly B and C-listers (including Longshot, my favorite X-Man), enabling the stories to have actual consequences without fear of upsetting the status quo of, say, the Wolverine franchise. Recently, these consequences have come to a definite head, and there's been a sense of ramping and wrapping up plotlines, beginning with X-Factor: Time and a Half.

The book opens with a recap of past events, most notably team member Siryn's pregnancy by way of Madrox. X-babies are rarely without drama, but David threw a curveball into the birth that left me reeling. In a world of perpetual supervillain wedding crashers and baby-nappings, to bring something as original and terrifying as what happens in the very first chapter of this book is impressive enough. But David keeps the pressure mounting by introducing a new team member in the next chapter--one who's lain dormant for years, mired in 1990s clichés. And then there's the kiss that set the comic book Internet ablaze for a few days (warning: heavy spoilers at the link).

At the book's close, David places several long-dangling plot threads at the cusp of resolution, and it's in the follow-up volume, X-Factor: Overtime, where he rewards longtime readers with shocking revelations intermixed with cackle-inducing dialogue and quiet (and sometimes loud) character moments. Overtime is full of action and gritted teeth, but these are necessary battles, rather than gratuitous splash pages to pad chapters. David also reveals new dimensions to old powers of several characters, including the origin of Layla Miller's--a character whose backstory has been in high demand since Volume 1. And it does not disappoint

David pushes his team forward at the finish of the overarching plot in these two titles, turning well-tread devices (time travel, mind control, surprise character reveals) into the means with which to tell significant X-Men stories. But some of the best moments are when he lets his characters stop being superheroes, as is the case when Madrox visits his wayward "dupe."  It's a welcome chapter, featuring a conversation free of mid-fight quips and exposition-driven chatter.  It's pathos.  

For fans who are new to the series: Time and a Half is a pick-up-and-read book, and it's necessary to read before Overtime, although there will be a few head-scratching moments if you are unfamiliar with the team dynamics. An obvious but good place to start filling in the blanks would be with Volume 1 of the series, while House of M and Messiah Complex will clarify a few other details if you're curious.


P.S. Happy New Year!

Omni Daily News

Overlooked, But Not Forgotten  The Daily Beast offers its list of The 14 Best Books You Missed This Decade. The list features no books containing "a wizard, a vampire, or a code."

Mum's No Longer the Word on MI5: Chris Rutten of the LA Times reviews Defend the Realm, an in-depth look at the British Security Service by insider Christopher Andrew--a Cambridge scholar and MI5's "official historian" for the better part of the last decade. 

Moving & Shaking: Just in time for acting on those New Year's resolutions, Dr. David A. Colbert's The High School Reunion Diet  makes its way on to our Movers & Shakers


Omni Daily News

Ode to Joy: Mental Floss takes a look at Joy of Cooking and "the genius" behind the book, Irma Rombauer.

Don't Write Those Obits for the Short Story Just Yet: The Guardian's books blog says that 2009 was the year of the short story.

The Best of the Worst: The Huffington Post presents the Worst Celebrity Books of the Decade.

Moving and Shaking
: Pope Brock's Charlatan: Amercia's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam cons its way past all of the New Year, New You titles onto our Movers & Shakers.


Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers

New York Times

  • Sunday Book Review cover: Christopher Caldwell on Koestler by Michael Scammell: "The biographer Michael Scammell wants to put Koestler’s multifaceted intelligence back on display and to show that something more than frivolity or opportunism lay behind his ever-shifting preoccupations and allegiances. As a source of information, 'Koestler,' the work of two decades, will never be surpassed. As an argument for the man’s importance, however, it must contend with the eccentricity of Koestler’s preoccupations and — although Scammell does not always seem to realize it — his vices."
  • Joanna Smith Rakoff on A Friend of the Family by Lauren Grodstein: "If this sounds tawdry, it’s not. Grodstein ... is a terrific storyteller and an even better ventriloquist. She beautifully captures Pete’s sly self-deceptions: the man-of-the-people persona that masks his deeply rooted elitism, the liberal pose that hides an almost pathological conservatism.... Ultimately, though, this is less a novel about one imperfect citizen than a sharp account of the status-driven suburban culture that turned him into a monster of conformity, a place where the air at parties is rife with 'the vague but persistent smell of striving' and a father can, without irony, deem his son’s dropping out of college a 'tragedy.'”
  • Rick Moody on When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography of Led Zeppelin by Mick Wall: "Maybe the time for arcana is past, the time for the picayune details of dinosaur rock — such that it’s the dirt, not the song, that remains the same. Maybe some publisher was looking over Mick Wall’s shoulder saying, 'Put more about the shark incident in there!' ... Wall is conflicted enough about the facts that he allows this mythologizing title to be appended to his work: 'When Giants Walked the Earth.' But these were no giants, these were just young people, like you, who for a time happened to have more power and influence than was good for them. In the midst of it all, they made extraordinary music."
  • Jonathan Dee on Summertime by J.M. Coetzee: "For all its self-deprecations, there is no contesting that the 'Scenes From Provincial Life' trilogy is a fundamentally narcissistic project. But the vandalism Coetzee commits upon the easily checked facts of his own life ultimately serves to sharpen a question that does seem genuine, and genuinely self-­indicting: Doesn’t being a great artist demand, or at least imply, a certain greatness of spirit as well? ... 'How can you be a great writer,' says Adriana, 'if you are just an ordinary little man?' Coetzee may feel it is too late to amend his legacy in the second regard, but even from beyond the fictional grave he is determined to expand upon the first."
  • Patrick Cockburn on Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco: "The vividness and pace of Sacco’s drawings, combined with a highly informed and intelligent verbal narrative, work extremely well in telling the story. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how any other form of journalism could make these events so interesting. Many newspaper or television reporters understand that the roots of today’s crises lie in obscure, unpublicized events. But they also recognize that their news editors are most interested in what is new and are likely to dismiss diversions into history as journalistic self-indulgence liable to bore and confuse the audience."
  • Larry Rohter on Your Face Tomorrow: Volume Three: Poison, Shadow and Farewell by Javier Marias: "On the surface 'Your Face Tomorrow' is a strange hybrid. It is almost as if Henry James or Marcel Proust decided to write a novel set in John le Carre's world. There are occasional bursts of action and much clandestine skulduggery. But 'Poison, Shadow and Farewell,' like the two previous volumes, 'Fever and Spear' and 'Dance and Dream' is essentially a rumination on several of the Really Big Themes that tend to captivate great writers: love and death, power and violence, and, above all, betrayal, loyalty and deceit, both personal and at the level of the state.... 'Your Face Tomorrow' requires patience, effort and intellectual discipline of the reader. 'Poison, Shadow and Farewell' delivers a payoff at the end, but the real challenge, and pleasure, is in getting there."

Washington Post:

  • Simon Johnson on Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin: "Andrew Ross Sorkin is the Stephen Ambrose for our financial crisis, with the blow-by-blow story of how rich bankers fought to save the Wall Street they knew and loved. The details in 'Too Big To Fail' will turn your stomach. The arrogance, lack of self-awareness, and overweening pride are astonishing.... Sorkin puts you there -- you see events unfold moment by moment, you hear the conversations, you can sense the hubris. The executives of our largest banks ran their firms into the ground, taking excessive risks that even now they fail to understand fully. But, as these individuals saw it, unless they personally were saved on incredibly generous terms, the world's economy would grind to a halt. This is as compelling as it is appalling."
  • Charles on Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler: "If you know 'Jane Eyre' and love it, don't deny yourself the pleasure of this intense little companion book. South African-born Sheila Kohler, who now teaches at Princeton, sinks deep into the details of Brontë's life to re-create the atmosphere of her tragic, cloistered family. Parallels between Charlotte and her famous heroine are an irresistible subject of critical inquiry, and even if those parallels are sometimes drawn too baldly in 'Becoming Jane Eyre,' Kohler's novel remains a stirring exploration of the passions and resentments that inspired this 19th-century classic."

Los Angeles Times:

  • David L. Ulin on Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza: "Built around two forgotten incidents (the 1956 mass killings of Palestinians in Rafah and Khan Younis), it is a book that digs deep, exploring the relationship of past and present, memory and experience -- rigorously reported yet always aware of the elusive nature of testimony, the way that stories solidify and harden over time.... What is the value of history in such a landscape? How do we make sense of where we are? These are the primary questions raised by 'Footnotes in Gaza,' and it is to Sacco's credit as an artist and a journalist that he proposes no easy answers -- nor, indeed, any answers at all."

Continue reading "Old Media Monday: Reviewing the Reviewers" »

Culling the Shelves

The New York Times Room for Debate blog has a post on how to sort your books to keep the wheat and sell the chaff. It's tied to the changeover of the year but, man, this strikes me as the most reliably groovy way to pass a few hours regardless of the season.

Whenever my wife gets into a Mike-should-do-some-organizing phase I offer to take responsibility for the bookshelves, and that means many happy hours of checking dog-eared pages for the good stuff, and testing spines for springiness (a split spine doesn't damn it but does move it closer to the sell pile), and sorting books by subject (Fitzroy Maclean's Eastern Approaches has probably never left the side of Peter Hopkirk's The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia in the ten years since I've read them).

I did a major sell this summer, and it felt good at the time; but I discovered long ago that I have a pretty terrible instinct for what I won't miss. I sell it, and then a few weeks later I go to look something up in it. I'm still grieving for the Historical Atlas of Central Europe I sold then, and even as I stood at the sell counter at Half-Price Books I knew I'd regret the loss of the NYRB edition of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy with the freaky blue-green spine. But it had to go: its blue-greenness was so haunting in its beauty that I could no longer have it in the house.

In any case, the NYT post has some good culling advice from the likes of Francine Prose and Jane Smiley and is worth a read.

Omni Daily News

What's Old Is Jung Again:  One of the pioneers of modern psychology and dream analysis, psychiatrist Carl Jung (1875-1961) is enjoying a renaissance of sorts among readers who want to curl up on the couch with him. The facsimile edition of The Red Book--Jung's illustrated chronicle of his own dreams from 1914 to 1930--has been flying off the shelves of booksellers this holiday season.  [The New York Times]

J.K. Rowling Dominates the Decade:  At least in book sales, that is. Rowling takes the top spot as the bestselling author of the decade with over 29,000,000 copies of her Harry Potter series sold.  [The Guardian]

Moving & Shaking:  This morning's rebroadcast of a Diane Rehm Show interview with Julie Andrews and Emma Walton Hamilton sends the mother and daughter duo's new book, Julie Andrews' Collection of Poems, Songs, and Lullabies soaring to the top of our Movers & Shakers list.

Our Omni editors wish you a wonderful holiday, and hope that you'll give, receive, and devour a good book over the long weekend.  We'll see you back here on Monday, December 28.

Omni Daily News

Candid McMurtry Hits the Airwaves:  In typically self-effacing style, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Larry McMurtry tells NPR's Linda Wertheimer that over the years he's written some "pretty good books."  The author's candid comments set the stage for reading his just released Literary Life: A Second Memoir,  the follow-up to his 2008 bookseller's bio, Books: A Memoir. [NPR]

Different Jacket, Still Numero Uno:  Like the US, Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol is the topselling book in the UK for holiday gifting. Seems fiction is in, while celebrity bios are out among British readers. Check out the  UK edition's very different cover.  [The Guardian]

Tintin Creator Like Charles Schulz?:  Charles McGrath reviews Pierre Assouline's Hergé: The Man Who Created Tintin.  McGrath observes similarities between the life of George Remi (aka Hergé) and Charlie Brown-creator Charles Schulz who's professional life and fictional heros far outpaced a troubled personal life.  [The New York Times]  

Moving & Shaking:  This morning's Today show feaure on Kevin Michael Connolly--a professional photographer and athlete born without legs--puts his memoir Double Take in a top spot on today's Movers & Shakers list.  


How About Some Raw Dog for the Holidays?

Cursed Finale Ddmurphry 
One of the pleasures of visiting Baltimore was getting a chance to meet the editors of Raw Dog Screaming Press, an indie publisher that has been putting out fiction that might otherwise fall through the cracks. RDSP books tend toward the gritty or the surreal, often flirting both with what you might call "literary" and what you might call "pulp." There's a definite hyper-real noir vibe to their books as well--a wonderful energy and visceral quality that helps lift their efforts above the ordinary. Editors Jennifer Barnes and John Lawson have a definite vision for their press and I expect them, over time, to become a major player in the indie press. Here are a few recent titles of interest...

Welcome to Oakland
by Eric Miles Williamson - From the Washington Post's review: "The novel swirls through a series of half-plots, portraits and anecdotes of Murphy's various bar buddies, interspersing diatribes on race, class and literary fiction, among other things. Williamson rails against almost everybody, including readers and critics who live in a fantasy world of justice and resolution. Between its episodic structure -- brilliantly echoing the rhythms of jazz, by the way -- and the blunt-force trauma of the narrator's attitudes, what emerges is no easy read. T-Bird navigates a sea of violent revenge with a cargo of rot-gut booze."

Finale by Paul A. Toth - When Jonathan Thomas receives a threatening letter apparently sent by an ex-girlfriend, he pursues the sender but finds himself unraveling another mystery he would have better left unsolved.

Unintended Consequences by Larry Fondation - The fourt installment in Fondation's "LA Stories" series. This new collection reveals with precision the way life can tangle good intentions and trip up even the most sure-footed among us. Compact city fables for our times.

D.D. Murphy, Secret Policeman by Alan M. Clark and Elizabeth Massie - D.D. Murphy has a way with words-or is it that words have their way with him? Work the clues alongside this unlikely sleuth to reveal an underground cabal of letters, a conspiracy of meaning, right below the surface of the everyday world. Murphry is both hero and villain, an unforgettable personality who will have you cringing while you laugh and rooting for his every misguided plan.

Cursed by Jeremy C. Shipp - "A tightly written story of suspense and occult horror. Nicholas believes that he has been cursed, and he is not alone; his eccentric love interest, Cicely, is convinced that the fate of the world depends on her possession of a tennis ball...Using Nicholas's idiosyncratic voice and fondness for lists, Shipp effectively conveys the claustrophobic world of people caught up in events beyond their control." - From the Publishers Weekly review.

Omni Daily News

When You Wish Upon a Chef: British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver was awarded the $100,000 TED grant for his work fighting obesity and promoting healthy eating in the UK.The prize money will be used "to enact a wish" that will be revealed at the 2010 TED conference in February.

First Fiction: Granta editor John Freeman picks the Best Debuts of 2009 for NPR.

When "Untitled" Would've Done the Trick: Knitting with Dog Hair (yes, it's real) leads the lineup of EW's ridiculous book titles.

Moving and Shaking: We haven't even made it through the Christmas Eve (let alone New Year's Eve) but early resolutions bring Flat Belly Diet! for Men to the No. 2 spot on our Movers & Shakers.


Reporting from the Road: Richmond, the Poe Museum, and Fountain Bookstore

Photo_120709_024 Photo_120709_003 
(The kind folks at Fountain Bookstore, including owner Kelly Justice, created a wonderful display for Finch; meanwhile, a flagging author stands next to a bust of a dead one; more on Poe below...)

I was on the road from October 28 through December 12 traveling up and down both coasts promoting my books Finch and Booklife with a series of gigs at indie and chain bookstores, universities like MIT, the Library of Congress, comic shops, and even a bar. This is the latest in a series of reports from events like the National Book Awards. You can read the others on my Omnivoracious contributor page.
Weird Southern Juxtapositions

Richmond's one of those studies in contrasts that makes your head spin. You can drive into the city through a semi-battered industrial section and see a weathered, pollution-blackened pseudo-doric column with "Entering Richmond" chisled into it against a backdrop of a burnt-out car and yellow grass struggling up through cracked asphalt. If you stand in one of the more famous cemeteries, you can see not just the roiling river and its insane rapids, but also the 1970s-style concrete of the university buildings surrounded by old-style Victorian and Southern Gothic statuary, beyond which loom factory smokestacks. Standing amid a bunch of dead confederate war heroes, looking out on a multi-cultural college, and then later wandering through some cool bohemian shops only minutes away from huge stone stallions rearing up with folks like Stonewall Jackson atop them...well, that's parts of the South for you, I guess. (Another statue depicts Arthur Ashe, but the way he wields his racquet, it truly looks like he's beating the crap out of the adoring marble children looking up at him.)

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(Wait. What's that there pyramid doing in the cemetery?)
Fountain Bookstore

Richmond also has a fabulous institution, the Fountain Bookstore, now run by Kelly Justice and ably assisted by, among others, Doc, Heather, Tess, and Steve. Not only did they have the cool display for Finch when I came in, they also were playing the Murder by Death soundtrack for the novel. Tess actually is a third-generation indie bookseller, and when I mentioned the movie Santa Sangre, Doc immediately came back with the name of the director, "Alejandro Jodorowsky." Which is when I knew I was in good hands--and I was right. The Fountain folks were among the most knowledgeable and friendly of any bookstore I read at during the tour. As the holiday party special guest, I thought I ought to entertain, so rather than a straight reading I told the Romanian "professional cockroach" story (direct link to podcast here), which pertains to part of Finch, then read the part of Finch that was inspired by the incident, followed by the somewhat tongue-in-cheek Evil Monkey Guide to Creative Writing published as an appendix in Booklife. It was a good event, and I was in an excellent mood, with Finch having made the year's best lists of the Washington Post and the Barnes & Noble Review, among others, and been on the Wall Street Journal's holiday gift book guide.

I even shot my first promo in the bookstore basement, which is undergoing a makeover. "We thought it looked a lot like your fantasy city of Ambergris," Kelly told me, before positioning me, teetering on boards, in front of some messed-up bricks. It's a measure of how comfortable I became on the tour doing things on the fly that it was all one take, reproduced below for your amusement (note the blooper at the end).

Continue reading "Reporting from the Road: Richmond, the Poe Museum, and Fountain Bookstore" »