June 2022 Books …

A short month this time, at least reading-wise … June flew by much quicker than I could imagine. Here’s what I read.

The New York Times Book Review: 125 Years of Literary History

I will confess that I didn’t read all of this fascinating history of the storied (pun definitely intended) New York Times Book Review. It isn’t the kind of book you read cover to cover, to be honest, but it is certainly one to be savored. Wonderfully designed, this treasure trove of essays, reprints, photos, covers, and yes—book reviews—is doled out in bite-size segments arranged in chronological order from the paper’s first tentative stabs at exploring book reviews and reporting on the publishing scene to its current status as the paper of record (at least each Sunday in the Book Review section). I gravitated most to the segments about books I read and authors I’ve loved and you will too, but it’s great to see how the Book Review section grew and evolved over the last century and a quarter. It’s a bit pricey (I got it as a gift … thank god for wishlists), but I guarantee if you sit down with this book in a library or bookstore, time will pass quickly as you page through it and stop and read the segments that grab you. One minor quibble: Ken Tucker’s review of Art Spiegleman’s Maus doesn’t include any illustrations from that ground-breaking graphic novel, even though it seems to be in awe of the fact that the reviewer is talking about comics (“Does it seem odd to speak of comic strips in such serious terms?”), although he does acknowledge the medium’s popularity in Europe and Japan. Since Tucker talks in length about the illustrative style of Spiegelman’s work, it would have been nice to include a panel or two or even a page (this may be a problem in this book only … I’m not sure if the original review—published in 1985—featured any art; the review was based on Spiegelman’s original Maus stories in his self-published comics magazine, RAW).

The Concrete Blonde by Michael Connelly

This is the third in the series of Harry Bosch books by author Connelly, part of my mini-reread of some of the best of his books featuring the character. It’s hard to believe that this book is going on 30 years old, but I know it was around this time—the mid 1990s—that I started to eagerly await the next Michael Connelly book each year or so. The Concrete Blonde features a story that was partly the basis for the first season of Bosch, with many changes and additions (mostly for the good). It features Bosch on trial for the shooting of Norman Church, allegedly “The Dollmaker,” a serial killer whose name comes from his habit of redoing the make-up of his victims. When the trial starts, an additional body pops up which may or may not be a Dollmaker victim, and if it is, it means Bosch killed the wrong person. Church’s family is represented by Honey “Money” Chandler, in her first appearance in the Bosch books, a character who is memorably played by Mimi Rogers in both of the Bosch-based TV series.

I really feel Connelly hit his stride with Bosch in this book. There’s a love interest (which may have carried over from the second Bosch book, The Black Ice, which I’m not going to re-read) who isn’t Eleanor Wish, but she’s a character who humanizes Bosch a bit, as does his daughter Maddie when she finally shows up and grows up. I am going to tackle The Last Coyote next, since I think it was the first one I read after discovering Connery with The Poet, almost 30 years ago. It seems like an appropriate time to celebrate the Bosch Legacy (pun intended).

Movieland by Lee Goldberg

The fourth Eve Ronin book by Goldberg comes less than nine months after the last one (Gated Prey) and is a much better read. Goldberg has written four of these since 2020 and while each is enjoyable in its own right, this fourth one is up to par with the very first, Lost Hills. Ronin, an LA Sheriff’s Department homicide detective working out of the Lost Hills station, gets embroiled in the search for a serial shooter in Malibu State Park who has killed someone in his (or her) latest shooting. Along for the ride is the ever-closer to retirement older detective/mentor/partner Duncan Pavone. Ronin is still having a hard time navigating her meteoric rise in the LASD (she’s only 26) and her fight against the secret organization of deputies who want to see her career—or her—ended. Things are taken up a notch or two in this book, with Ronin finally confronting some of her demons (both physical and mental) and the story itself is an entertaining police procedural. I continue to read—and look forward to—this series because of the characterizations, particularly of Ronin and Pavone, but the supporting characters, like Eve’s mother and sister, and some of the other coppers, are enjoyable, too. Ronin very confidently exclaims that she’ll be back on the very last page of the book, and I’ll be there when she returns.

Mighty Marvel Masterworks Captain America Vol. 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

This volume reprints the first 19 Captain America stories by Lee and mostly Kirby, although there are some by John Romita, George Tuska and Dick Ayers stories, over Kirby layouts, from Tales of Suspense 59 through 77. This, to me, is the best Marvel Age, when the former “monster” books had two superhero features in them: Suspense had Iron Man and Captain America, Tales to Astonish had Sub-Mariner and Hulk, and Strange Tales had Nick Fury and Dr. Strange. I also really loved the “split” covers, although most of them went to alternating character covers, one month Iron Man, next month Cap. It’s really apparent re-reading these that Lee & Kirby had absolutely no idea what to do with Cap in the beginning. The first four issues have basically the same plot, rehashed again and again: Cap comes up against a group of bad guys and it’s all-out action for 10 pages. With the fifth issue, Lee & Kirby go back to telling tales from World War II and it’s not until the eighth issue that they do a multi-part story with the Red Skull. I’ve always loved the Sleeper stories from this era, even though Tuska’s art leaves me absolutely cold, and that particular three-parter (with two great Kirby Cap covers) is included in this volume. Another great Michael Cho cover on this collection, too!

Captain America: Penguin Classics Marvel Collection by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Joe Simon, John Romita, and Jim Steranko

Everyone seems to be getting into the vintage Marvel game these days. There’s Taschen, who started the Marvel bandwagon with their illustrated Marvel history books by Roy Thomas; they’re now back in play with their ultra-deluxe, large-size, pricey reprints (Spider-Man is out and Avengers is coming). The UK’s Folio Society got into the game early with a set of high-end, slipcased reprints, including The Golden Age, The Silver Age, The Bronze Age, and Captain America and Spider-Man volumes, all curated by Thomas. Abrams ComicArts is starting a separate imprint called MarvelArts with the upcoming Alex Ross Fantastic Four graphic novel.

And now Penguin has joined the fray with their own select reprints, in two formats—deluxe hardbound and trade paperback—in a series titled “Penguin Classics Marvel Collection.” The conceit of this series, edited by noted comics historian Ben Saunders, is to “(serve) as a testament to Marvel’s transformative and timeless influence on an entire genre of fantasy.” So far, they’ve published volumes featuring Spider-Man (early Ditko issues), Black Panther (mainly the almost-unreadable—in my opinion—Don McGregor issues), and the one I opted for, Captain America, which features the Golden Age Cap #1 (by Simon & Kirby), a collection of Tales of Suspense issues with art by Kirby and Romita, and the Steranko trilogy from the late 1960s in Cap’s regular title. This deluxe hardcover is pretty spiffy, with great endpapers and gold foil art on a bright blue background on the covers and clearly a lot of thought has gone into it. It’s a very high-end product with great reproduction and added bonus content. Two minor design points: The interior pages reproducing covers need a thin black outline around the art so the white areas don’t blend into the paper (incidentally, the paper choice for this series is excellent), and the font used on the covers is a non-comics person’s idea of a comic book font and really, really ugly.

While I welcome any scholarly look at comics, eventually you have to face the fact that what you’re talking about is just a comic book. Not to denigrate the medium I’ve loved all my life or Ben Saunders’s fine work on this series, but while I’m sure Stan and Jack would be excited that people are regarding their work in such a lofty way, in the end, this work was designed to cheaply entertain young people. The attempts to dress up comics sow’s ear into a silk purse are a bit highfalutin to me at times. Saunders’s introductions to both this series of books and the Cap volume in particular are very well written (despite getting the title of Cap’s original solo adventures comic series wrong—TWICE—by calling it Tales to Astonish and not the correct Tales of Suspense … proof-reading is an art, too), but jeez, Louise … just read the comics and enjoy them in the spirit in which they were created. I hope the series continues, but I don’t know how many times I can keep buying reprints of the same stories, no matter how beautiful they are. I’d be a sucker for a Fantastic Four volume, even though I plan to skip the Spidey and Black Panther volumes and most subsequent ones.

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