Batman: Year One

Author: Frank Miller
Year: 1986
Genre: Mystery

This is my favorite Batman story. Unlike the frenetic, postmodern future-Batman of The Dark Knight Returns, Year One is the story of a young Bruce Wayne as he learns to be Batman. More Death Wish than Watchmen, it's simple, solid, and as spooky as a good Batman story should be.

Batman is a perfect Frank Miller hero: like Daredevil, Marv, and Martha Washington, he is a victim turned vigilante, seeking both personal redemption and social change through violence. Gotham, like Sin City or the Kingpin's New York, is corrupt from top to bottom; but, Miller tells us, one man can try to change all that with little more than his fists, his friends, and his righteous anger. Of course, the struggle is never-ending, and our hero is doomed to failure, but he will win some battles along the way and leave his city somewhat less disgustingly rotten in the end.

I read the new edition, which includes some really cool David Mazzuchelli sketchbooks as a bonus feature.

Borrowed Time vol. 1 & 2

Author: Neal Shaffer
Year: 2007
Genre: Mystery / Adventure

I wasn't sure whether I should post about this, because it's basically a monthly comic book published in graphic-novel format. In the end, I decided that anything with an ISBN belongs in my LibraryThing catalog, and can merit a review here.

Borrowed Time is the story of a journalist who goes to investigate the Bermuda Triangle and gets sucked into the world of lost things. I feel like this fantasy idea has been used and overused, but the only example I can recall offhand is an episode of Ren & Stimpy that otherwise bears no resemblance to Shaffer's world of bleak desperation. Through the first two issues, our hero has tried to find his place in his new world without giving up hope of returning to the old one; time will tell what happens to him.

The "regular guy walking the line between coping and denial when the world he knew is gone" storyline bears some resemblance to Y: The Last Man, but Vaughan's man-killing science-fiction plague is replaced by a wall of stubbornly unexplained mystery and obfuscation. Like any good serial writer, Shaffer will have to make monthly revelations around the edges of the mystery; the test of the series will come from whether we believe we're getting closer to its center.

Franny and Zooey

Author: J. D. Salinger
Year: 1961
Genre: Literary fiction

Just having finished a volume of Walker Percy's densely technical philosophy, I picked up Salinger because I hoped his conversational prose would provide a change in my reading. As it turned out, the style was certainly different enough - it took me six weeks to finish The Message in the Bottle, whereas Franny and Zooey clocked in at around twenty hours - but once you scratch the surface, you find that the two books share a common theme.

Like The Message in the Bottle, Franny and Zooey is a deeply spiritual book, concerned with the search for transcendence and relevance amid the artifice of modern (particularly academic) life. Ultimately, both arrive at the idea that, since modern man cannot happily be in the world (because it's full of phoneys), we are faced with a choice between cynical alienation and religious detachment; and that, although the two orientations may share some outward similarities, they are fundamentally opposite ways of being. The choices are nothing less than suffering and enlightenment.

Franny Glass is clearly suffering. In the first quarter of the book, the story "Franny," we see her put up with her pretentious Ivy League boyfriend, stop putting up with him, criticize herself for her impatience, and pass out in a restaurant. Much of her frustration seems rooted in the classic Salinger problem of upper-class social conformity, and the near-impossibility of escaping it. But while Holden Caulfield had to be institutionalized, Franny seems to be seeking release through the gentler madness of religious mysticism, specifically the Jesus prayer.

The remainder of the book is called "Zooey" for Franny's next-eldest brother in the Glass clan (see also Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and "A Perfect Day for Bananafish"). In this story -- almost a one-act play, really, since it's all dialogue -- Zooey, an actor, attempts to cure his sister's malaise by playing the roles of Young Groucho Marx, Philosophy Professor, and his late older brother Seymour. In the end, Franny sees through to her brother's authentic self, and this mere touch of authenticity seems to bring her peace, if not satori.

Any reading of "other" Salinger novels requires a comparison to The Catcher in the Rye, so here it comes: I found Franny and Zooey more accessible because it's not as adolescent. Like Holden, Franny is suffering with problems that people with real problems don't have time to worry about; still, her spiritual crisis has more adult, intellectual relevance than Holden's acute affluenza. We can feel bad for Holden, even fall in love with him if we're 15-year-old girls, but from Franny we might learn something.

The Message in the Bottle

Author: Walker Percy
Year: 1975
Genre: Philosophy

When I started reading this book, about six weeks ago, I was really excited. The introductory essay, "The Delta Factor," is written in an engaging style (Percy was primarily a novelist) and draws together provocative questions on modern alienation, the nature of consciousness, the scientific method, the relevance of religion in the technological age, and the fundamental philosophy of language. At its root, he says, a lot of these questions lead back to our complete lack of understanding of the relationship between a word and what that word means, and a Martian coming to Earth to investigate that connection (Percy's metaphor for "non-psychologist" or "novelist") would find no satisfactory answers from philosophy, behaviorist psychology, structural semiotics, or cognitive science. The essay itself is such a wide-ranging, skeptical, incisive feat of language geekery that I felt it was the sort of thing I myself might write, if I were better read in philosophy. The essay awakened my own inquisitive spark.

Unfortunately, the further I read, the more Percy lost me. The book is a collection of essays about the philosophy of language that he wrote over a twenty-year period, so it's bound to be uneven. It also documents his thoughts over a span of years (roughly 1955-1975) during which tremendous changes (not to say "advances") took place in cognitive linguistics, so some of the complaints about the inadequacy of theory that he made in Essay A were no longer valid when he wrote Essay B, not to mention now that another thirty years have passed. Percy was clearly frustrated with the failure of behaviorism to explain language; well, I was frustrated to read his response to behaviorist theories of language now that they have been thoroughly discredited.

Another serious problem with the book - and perhaps Percy's editor is to blame - is that the essays are arranged from most accessible to most technical. The pieces toward the beginning deal with alienation, metaphor, and Percy's way of realizing his Christian belief through his own writing, all interesting topics addressed with curiosity and clarity. Later in the book, though, it's all behaviorist psychology, structural semiotics, and technical philosophy of language. In parts, you have to know the differences between signs and symbols, or between the Vienna school and the Scholastics, to make any sense of it. As a result, I started spending longer and longer times away from the book - hence the six weeks.

I would recommend this book to anyone who is the same kind of nerd that I am; and then, I would only advise them to read the first half.

Homicide: A year on the killing streets

Author: David Simon
Year: 1991
Genre: True Crime, Journalism

The woman who plays Maria on Sesame Street once told a story about a friend of hers who tried to impress a young child by saying "Guess what? I know Maria." The kid felt such familiarity with the TV show that she responded, "So? I know her, too."

After reading Homicide, I get a bit of that feeling every time I see a police officer. David Simon's year-long chronicle follows a shift of eighteen Baltimore City homicide detectives through searches, autopsies, interrogations, arrests, and trials, through sixteen-hour days working high-profile police shootings and child murders, and ghettos where drug murders happen almost daily. By the end, you feel like you've come to know them: their black humor, personality clashes, red-tape frustration, borderline alcoholism, expertise, instinct, and the sheer amount of work that goes into police work. Simon also communicates a deep respect for these men (and pretty much all of them are men) who face acts of absolute evil every day and still somehow maintain their sanity.

I picked up this book because I was a big fan of the TV show, and it was interesting to note the correspondences as I read. A few plot points are lifted from the book (the polygraph by Xerox, for instance), and some of the characters seem to be drawn on real Baltimore detectives. The TV producers used innovative writing and filming techniques to make the show seem up-close and personal, but in book form, the stories have an intimacy that can't be explained by the mere fact that it really happened that way.