Author: Craig Thompson
Year: 2004
Genre: Autobiographical

Everything seems bigger and more important to a teenager. A bad grade feels like a personal insult, and one bad day can make them think their life is over. As for the things that by any measure carry serious weight - consider romance, or family, or religious faith - adolescents often experience them with an intensity that makes adult life seem a pale imitation. In Blankets, Craig Thompson's art and storytelling somehow transport you back to that phase of life. He reminds us of the 17-year-old's persistent emotional rawness caused by the mere fact of living, the immediacy of the world seen through adolescent eyes.

The story focuses primarily on young Craig's first serious romance, during his senior year of high school. His relationship with Raina begins as a bible-camp flirtation, but when he stays for two weeks at her house, the time they spend together develops an almost religious importance. They offer each other an escape from the constant frustrations of teenage life: school responsibilities, lack of privacy, his family's rigid fundamentalism, her parents' impending divorce. The two are the "blankets" of the title (represented by a quilt that Raina makes for Craig, as well as the constant snowfall of the Midwestern winter); they shelter each other from the harshness of life that teenagers are often so ill-equipped to face alone.

During their two-week idyll, Raina leans on Craig and Craig literally idolizes Raina, as his love for her forces him to question his Christian faith. At first, he worries over literal-minded questions of lust and temptation, but eventually he finds a more profound spirituality, recognizing immanence in her earthly beauty. This brush with the divine is symbolized in the artwork, where a motif of radiance takes on the forms of a snowflake, a pattern in the quilt's fabric, and a halo for the deified Raina.

Their love is a small and fragile thing. After Craig returns home, their connection is quickly broken by long distance and everyday responsibilities. The next ten years of his life are told in a space of some five pages, showing that he has gotten over Raina without allowing the reader to move on as well. On the contrary, we look back with a deep nostalgia for his adolescent romance, and forward to her influence on the adult he will become: an artist, a thinking Christian with more questions than fundamentalism, a man who forms a fully adult relationship with his younger brother.

Perhaps comics, as a combination of images and words, is uniquely able to convey the unmediated emotion of adolescence, the sense of unbearable significance. Thompson makes a strong case: the experience of reading Blankets is like being surrounded by ghosts of your own teenage years. I certainly wouldn't want to return there, but I feel I have a different appreciation of it now.

The Sportswriter

Author: Richard Ford
Year: 1986
Genre: Literary fiction

I recently realized two things: I've lately been splitting my reading attention between serious nonfiction and escapist fiction, and I need more things to do after work. I picked up The Sportswriter because it's the next book club pick for a bookstore in my neighborhood, and thereby supplies me with both a serious novel and a Wednesday-night outing. The club hasn't met yet, so if I gain any new insights on the book, I'll post an update.

This story of a man drifting through life as he tries to find meaning in his comfortable existence struck me as a Fight Club for the '80s (and, I'll admit, I'm talking about the movie because I've never read the book). Ford's Frank Bascombe, like the nameless narrator played by Edward Norton, begins his downward spiral with a feeling that his hard-won materialistic cocoon no longer provides him any solace, acts odd around his girlfriend, breaks off connections with old friends, and ultimately attempts to abandon life-as-he-knew-it altogether.

Where Fight Club's Tyler Durden & Co. take "hitting bottom" as something of a mission statement, though, Bascombe drifts downward slowly, gently, and in a state of complete denial. He doesn't blow up his fellow suburbanites; on the contrary, he swears that suburbia is wonderful, the perfect life for him, all the while failing to find anything fulfilling or meaningful in it. Having been rejected from law school and failed at serious writing, he works half-heartedly at his third-choice job, but tells us over and over that he couldn't imagine anything better. His friends, his girlfriend (Vicki, short for "Victory," whom he can flirt with but never really win), his relationship with his ex-wife: it's the same story over and over, of low expectations masking a crushing disappointment just out of sight.

The style of narration completes the portrait. As a storyteller, Bascombe is continually distracted from his narrative to fill in backstory (though he claims that the past isn't important to him), to protest that his life really is glorious, or simply to make excuses for himself. It's no wonder that, the more serious he gets, the less seriously Vicki takes him.

As a stand-in for modern masculinity, Frank Bascombe is not extreme like Tyler Durden, but perhaps more realistic for that. Many of us might entertain fantasies of mayhem, but in the end, most settle for what Arthur Miller called "quiet desperation" -- and perhaps, like Bascombe, they only survive because they don't realize how desperate they are.

King Solomon's Mines

Author: H. Rider Haggard
Year: 2002 (1885)
Genre: Adventure

This is it: the grand-daddy of adventure stories. It's the story that inspired the pulps that inspired Indiana Jones; its hero is a founding member of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; it's the original source of more cliches than Citizen Kane. There's a lot of expectation built up around such a classic, and Haggard's wild ride does not disappoint. The story features a deadly desert, a long-lost brother, an ancient map, treasure from Biblical times, an evil witch, a king in exile, and an all-out civil war. It's said that Haggard completed the novel on a bet in a whirlwind six weeks of writing, and the reader's experience is similarly breathless.

For modern readers, the "classic" European view of Africa and Africans is always likely to be politically troublesome, and you might worry that King Solomon's Mines would fall on the racist spectrum somewhere between Heart of Darkness and Little Black Sambo. The introduction by Alexandra Fuller deals with just this question, and comes to the surprising conclusion that Haggard (through Quatermain), in his 19th-century way, shows great respect both for Africans as individuals and for the diversity of African culture and geography. Haggard lived in Africa for many years, and his setting is based on a real place, not just a savagely exotic "other." (Lest we get too smug in our own political correctness, Fuller contrasts Haggard's Africa with the pastiche of stereotypes in the most recent film adaptation.)

Squids Will Be Squids: Fresh morals, beastly fables

Author: Jon Scieszka
Year: 1998
Genre: Children's

Another delightfully offbeat Scieszka-Smith collaboration. These guys have got to be the They Might Be Giants of picture books. (Sadly, They Might Be Giants have released a picture book, and shown that they are not, in fact, the They Might Be Giants of picture books.)

Meaghan showed me this book ages ago, but I forgot about it until the other day, when I was reading an article about books with simple language and sophisticated concepts, suitable for use in teaching English and/or literacy to teenagers. Squids Will Be Squids is such a book -- its fables satirize a lot of common foibles in such a way that my students would recognize themselves and their friends -- but it succeeds because it's not designed to be this kind of book. Textbooks read like textbooks; no matter how "fun" they are, they're never really fun. Squids can be funny for kids and parents, something like Sesame Street. It can make you laugh, it can make you think, and it won't make you worry too much about vocabulary.

Y: The Last Man Vol. 7: Paper Dolls

Author: Brian K. Vaughan
Year: 2007
Genre: Action/Adventure

I was an avid Y reader through the sixth collection, but I put off buying #7 because I had heard a lot of disappointed reviews. Specifically, I heard complaints that nothing happened in Paper Dolls, that the story had lost its way.

Now, it's true that the plot doesn't advance a great deal in this story arc. There's a lot of backstory and a few subplots are updated, but we're no closer to any answers to the Great Central Questions. Readers who were once burned by The X-Files may now be feeling a little shy.

That said, I don't count myself among them. I felt that Paper Dolls was putting the pieces in order for an upcoming Big Event (our heroes' arrival in Japan). I have faith in Vaughan, at least for the time being, that he does know where the story is going.

Most important, I'm still enjoying the story. Vaughan, much like my other favorite comics writer of the moment, Joss Whedon, writes characters who feel like individuals. The writer/artist John Byrne once wrote that characters need to look different from one another, targeting comics where you can only distinguish them by the color of their hair or the logo on their costume. Characters in Vaughan (and Whedon) not only look different -- they talk different. That sort of writing can keep my interest through a serial's inevitable lulls.

The Linguistics Wars

Author: Randy Allen Harris
Year: 1993
Genre: Linguistics

I came to this book hoping that Harris would be the Stephen Jay Gould of linguistics: someone who understands the field well, and can explain major ideas in their historical context. Upon reading, though, The Linguistics Wars strikes me more as an academic Homicide: an intimate portrait showing that science is a dirty business done by real, flawed human beings.

Our story begins with Noam Chomsky as a rising star of linguistics and philosophy in the 1950s, and then focuses primarily on the well-established Chomsky c. 1970 and his conflict with a group of former students who broke off to follow a research program called "generative semantics." While the substance of generative semantics and its differences from Chomsky's "interpretive semantics" program do receive some attention, Harris spends far more time on the personal antipathy between Chomsky and the generative semanticists, most notably George Lakoff. I was left with an impression that, whatever the respective merits of the generative and interpretive theories may have been, the actual unfolding of the debate had more to do with personality than with science.

Not that there's anything wrong with that -- necessarily. An early stage of the debate, it seems, was scientifically productive. The dislike that grew between the two camps did inspire its share of nasty ad hominem and polemic, but also caught linguists by their competitive instinct, resulting in some of the field's most original and influential research. With time, though, scientific debate gave way to personal sniping, and eventually, the generative program fizzled and the "wars" faded away.

The moral of the story is that scientific "progress" is largely a product of the culture that the scientists inhabit. (Maybe the comparison of Harris to Gould is not so far wrong, then; see my review of The Mismeasure of Man.) In the case of Chomsky et al. vs. Lakoff et al., that means the culture of research in modern theoretical syntax; and as Harris points out, it's not inaccurate to say that Chomsky, the ultimate victor in the Linguistics Wars, had founded that culture. In a larger sense, though, it also means the culture of the United States in the 1960s and '70s. While Chomsky was (and remains) an outspoken political ultra-liberal, Chomsky-the-academic is deadly serious and strictly authoritarian. (Perhaps he inspired the discussion in Lakoff's Moral Politics of people who are both politically progressive and academically conservative.) Harris contrasts this with a picture of the generative semanticists as academic hippies, bringing the "sex-drugs-rock & roll" counterculture and its collectivist ethos to their way of doing linguistics. Their hypotheses were grand and their failures public; they promised a map of the human mind that, in the end, they could not deliver.

The Hungry Coat

Author: Demi
Year: 2004
Genre: Folklore

I was already familiar with this story, one of the better-known of the Turkish stories of Nasreddin Hodja. (It's also one of the more moralistic, reading almost like an Aesop fable where other Hodja stories are whimsical fantasies or even jokes.) What was new to me, though, was Demi's beautiful artwork. Her illustrations are a tribute to the decorative arts of Turkey, from miniature painting to Anatolian rugs and Iznik tiles.

The incorporation of real Turkish art into the illustration shows Demi's respect for the culture that she takes her story from. Unfortunately, the text itself isn't quite so authentic; this version of the story is more moralistic than any other I've encountered. Whether she felt it was necessary for American audiences, for her own aesthetic, or to fill out pages 31-32 of the picture-book format, Demi concludes the story with a two-page spread that restates the moral about three more times. Without the last two pages, it's a beautiful book; with them, it's a beautiful book that teaches you a lesson.

Salt: A World History

Author: Mark Kurlansky
Year: 2002
Genre: History

I'm not sure what to say about this book. Does salt, as a basic need of human societies past the hunter-gatherer stage, open the door to a uniquely global world history? Kurlansky does connect it to historical figures from Marco Polo to Humphry Davy to Gandhi. Also, as salt is so intimately connected to the home life of ordinary people, there are recipes and other social-historical morsels that provide a sense of common humanity across times and places; after all, how different can "they" be from "us" if everyone makes pickles?

On the other hand, the book as a whole seems somewhat trivial and forgettable. Kurlansky suffers from the same popular-history syndrome as some of the other history books I've reviewed here: it reads like a list of random facts without much narrative force or broader significance. "Salt" is too small a topic, and "world history" too large, for the book to make much of a statement about anything.