Those of us who are forever pushing books onto friends harbor few illusions about the practice. We know we may never get the books back and that, if we do, they'll bear scars of their journey — rings of dried coffee on the frontispiece, a spine so badly cracked it cries out for orthopedic surgery.
But that's fine. We inveterate book-lenders are not collectors. And while we value the solitary experience of reading, we relish the act of passing a book along, of becoming a vector for the author's language, characters, imagery and arguments.
Below, a short list of books I've pressed into other people's hands over the past year. On the surface, they've got little in common. Obsession figures largely in several — and meteors, too, weirdly enough. But the thing that truly unites these books is the urge they spark to send them out into the world so that they might sink their hooks into someone else.
Of course, this is the season of giving, not lending, so even if you haven't devoured these books yourself, know that any of them would make a fine gift. But be prepared: In a week or two, the recipient might just show up at your doorstep breathless, eyes blazing: "Man, you gotta read this thing."
Production Diary From The Heart Of Darkness
Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo, by Werner Herzog, hardcover, 306 pages, Ecco Books/Harper Collins Press. List price: $24.99
The hero of the 1982 film Fitzcarraldo becomes obsessed with transporting a steamship to a remote Peruvian village, even if it means having to pull that ship's 320-ton bulk over a mountain. Director Werner Herzog spent three hellish years in the Amazonian jungle making the movie, eschewing special effects to pull an actual steamship over an all-too-real mountain using only enormous pulleys — and the sweat of hundreds of indigenous people. (Read about a woodsman who amputated his own foot with a chainsaw after being bitten by a poisonous snake.) The infamously ill-fated production, beset by delays, disease, death and no small amount of dementia, was detailed in the documentary Burden of Dreams. But where that film offered a faithful chronicle of the chaos that surrounded cast and crew, it could only hint at the mysterious motivations of Herzog. In the pages of Conquest of the Useless, we are privy to his darkest thoughts, his often disquieting waking dreams, his fascination with the natural world, and his complicated, deeply conflicted feelings for the jungle around its people. Herzog captures all of this in lyrical, feverish prose that offers an intimate portrait of an artist whose life's work explores the place where determination shades into madness.
Alchemy: Word + Image = Narrative Gold
Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli, hardcover, 344 pages, Pantheon. List price: $29.95
David Mazzucchelli's boldly ambitious, boundary-pushing graphic novel is remarkable for the way it synthesizes word and image to craft a new kind of storytelling, and for how it makes that synthesis seem so intuitive as to render it invisible. The book, about a pompous middle-aged architect who sets out on a quest that forces him to rethink his worldview — and himself — employs deliberately clashing styles: Take, for example, the way its protagonist is drawn with a crisp, exacting blue line, while his wife is constructed out of rough red shapes; during their courtship, Mazzucchelli allows man and woman to take on shades of each other's color and aspects of each other's form. (See Mazzucchelli's figures in a gallery of pages from the book.) Asterios Polyp is a fast, fun read, but it's also a work that has been carefully wrought to take optimum advantage of comics' hybrid nature — it's a tale that could only be told on the knife-edge where text and art come seamlessly together.
The Short Story, Reduced To Its Essence
The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, hardcover, 733 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. List price: $30
Many of Lydia Davis' short stories never even make it to the bottom of the page. Some consist only of a sentence or two. (Read some of Davis' short short stories.) To read her assembled works — and the bricklike Collected Stories includes some 200 of them — is to turn her crystalline prose over in your mind and allow its flashes of mordant wit to glitter and dazzle. But even at their most spare, Davis' stories never seem slight — like Grace Paley, she has mastered the art of crafting sentences that carry the allusive, stand-alone power of poetry even as they service the demands of narrative.
Despite a long career writing what she calls her "eccentric little stories" (Davis' first collection appeared in 1976), a 2003 MacArthur "genius" grant, being a National Book Award finalist in 2007, and her well-received translations of Foucault, Proust and others, Davis remains one of those writers not enough people know about. Here's hoping this collection — a quiet, witty, thoroughly absorbing read — may finally change that.
Of Satin Tights And Equal Rights
The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy and the History of Comic Book Heroines, by Mike Madrid, paperback, Exterminating Angel Press. List price: $16.95
A thoughtful, comprehensive history of women in comics is long overdue, and if Mike Madrid's Supergirls offered only this and nothing more, it'd still make a welcome addition to the growing canon of works exploring the cultural relevance of that singularly American creation, the superhero. Decade by decade, Madrid offers an encyclopedic overview of the origins and exploits of the few female crime fighters that have graced comic pages, pointedly calling out the reflexively sexist attitudes that have dominated the medium since its inception. (Read about Mike Madrid's first introduction to Supergirl when he was just 6 years old.)
But the book really comes alive in later chapters, when Madrid moves from precis to analysis, arguing that these characters must be understood as products of the times that birthed them, and that they — much more than their comparatively static male counterparts — continue to be shaped by shifting cultural attitudes in fashion, sexuality and, especially, pop music. But even as it delivers its clear-eyed critique of the way mainstream superhero comics have alternately eroticized or deified female characters, The Supergirls gleefully celebrates the medium itself, in all its goofy, glorious excess. One quibble: Given its subject, the book's lack of illustrations is disappointing.
So Good You Forgive The Exclamation Point
Everything Matters! by Ron Currie Jr., hardcover, 302 pages, Viking/Penguin. List price: $25.95
While still in the womb, Junior Thibodeau is informed by a dispassionate and slightly officious voice that the world will end in 36 years, 168 days, 14 hours and 23 seconds. (Find out what else the voice tells Junior while he's in utero.) As the protagonist of Ron Currie's high-wire act of a novel grows to manhood, that fact, and that voice, remain his constant companions. The novel's driving question — can the young genius do anything to forestall or escape doomsday? — is the one that will keep you greedily turning pages. But it's the larger questions Currie poses — about how, or if, to live in a universe without meaning, and the place that love might play in it — that cause this book to linger in the memory.
Everything Matters! is a hugely imaginative novel loaded with narrative tricks and set pieces that let the author proudly show off his clever clockwork, but Currie keeps things thoroughly grounded in the messy, mysterious business of human interaction. A beautiful, sad and haunting book.
Goddesses of Tomorrow
The first comic book that I remember owning is Superman #195, from 1967. The story was entitled "The Fury of the Kryptonian Killer!" Captivating imagery filled its cover. Mighty Superman was on his knees, succumbing to the effects of deadly Green Kryptonite. In the background was a tiny city in a glass bottle, and a flying dog wearing a cape. But the element that grabbed my attention was the pretty blonde girl wearing a costume that matched Superman's. I learned she was called Supergirl.
I was about six at the time, and although I didn't really understand what was going on, I had a vague idea who Superman was. Maybe my older sister or some other kids at school had given me the rundown. I was more fascinated, however, by Supergirl. She could fly and was incredibly strong, and I could tell from the way she was drawn that she was brave and noble. I thought she was great. Although I wasn't sure exactly what her relationship to Superman was, I could tell she was somehow considered inferior. And I didn't understand why.
Back in those days, comic books cost 12 cents, and my mother gave me the choice of selecting two single issues from the comic book rack, or one giant annual for a quarter. As I flipped through the titles on the spinning rack to try and make my weighty decisions, unconsciously a pattern developed. When it came to movies, my mother had once said that if there wasn't a woman in the story, nothing could possibly happen, so I guess I thought the same held true for comic books. I skipped the war comics and westerns, and wound up selecting the superhero titles with cool looking women in them. And as my collection slowly grew, I assembled a cast of these amazing females.
Other boys always thought that the women in the comic books were stupid, because they were portrayed as weak. And, of course, because you weren't supposed to like girls. So there was no thought of buying a Supergirl comic, or one of that other lady named Wonder Woman who all of the other guys seemed to really hate. It didn't much matter anyway, because I never saw her comic books for sale on the racks. Male heroes like Captain America, Cyclops and Green Lantern were the powerhouse stars of superhero teams like the Avengers, the X-Men, or the Justice League. But these groups always had a token female member like the Scarlet Witch, Marvel Girl, or Black Canary to capture my interest.
Male superheroes always seemed consumed by meting out justice through violent means. The female superheroes struck me as being more interested in making the world a better place, and not just beating their foes into submission. I suppose I was drawn to their compassionate natures, just as I had been captivated by the Virgin Mary a few years earlier. To me, the superheroines were as beautiful and alluring as movie stars or the models I saw in my sister's Vogue magazines, but with a bonus — these women were powerful like men. I just didn't understand why they were never allowed to be as powerful as the males.
The superhero is one of those uniquely American concepts. Just as average American children are told they can grow up to become president, superheroes are often ordinary people elevated to levels of benevolent, godlike greatness. Superhero comic books are about maximizing human potential for the betterment of all society. One of the things that I noticed is that female superheroes are often not allowed to reach their potential; they are given powers that are weaker than their male compatriots, and positions of lesser importance. There are a lot of "men" in comic books: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man. Besides Wonder Woman, there are not that many "women," and even fewer "ladies." But there are lots of "girls": Supergirl, Power Girl, Marvel Girl, Invisible Girl.
Any power these women may have is often overshadowed by their overly sexualized images. But at the same time, those very images that objectify these heroines can be seen as a source of power. Recently I took a female friend to see the movie adaptation of the graphic novel Watchmen. When she caught sight of the movie's heroine, Silk Spectre, descending a staircase in slow motion, sheathed in a skintight latex costume and thigh high boots with garters, my friend leaned over and said, "I want to be her." My friend is an educated, successful career woman, so it struck me that she would find this very sexualized female image inspiring and powerful. In this way, as outlandish as comic books may seem, they actually are a reflection of the world that we all live in, which I will refer to in this book as the "real world."
When I mentioned to people that I was working on this book, many asked if it was about Wonder Woman. Most were unable to even name any other comic book heroines that they knew, reflecting on what little exposure these characters get within the industry. Yet the archetype of the powerful and beautiful female is one that has become engrained in the American pop cultural sensibility. Whether it be television heroines like the Bionic Woman or Xena, or movie heroines like Ripley from Alien, or The Bride from the Kill Bill films, the larger-than-life image of the strong and fearless, yet compassionate, woman on a quest for justice is part of our modern day pantheon of deities.
Decades have passed since I stood at that spinning comic book rack trying to find the perfect comic to transport me to a new world of adventure. The years have introduced me to a multitude of other fascinating female superheroes, and they still remain my primary reason for reading comic books. I still plan my week around Wednesdays, when the week's shipment of new comic books arrives at Amazing Fantasy, my local comic book store. My friend Frank is the owner, and I've known him for over 20 years. In that time, he has come to understand my interests and tastes, and as both a good businessman and friend, he will find things for me that he knows I'll like. "Something new came in that I thought you might want," Frank will say, handing me a comic book that's just hit the stands that week. And there on the cover will be some dazzling lady champion, some heroic angel of mercy, some brave and powerful goddess to inspire and delight me with her beauty and strength.
Just like Supergirl did when I first laid eyes on her, over 40 years ago.
From The Supergirls: Fashion, Feminism, Fantasy, and the History of Comic Book Heroines by Mike Madrid. Copyright 2009 by Mike Madrid. Published by Exterminating Angel Press. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.