On the Bureau Chiefs’ Nightstand: April 14th 2010

After a long day at work, the Bureau Chiefs like to relax in bed with books and comic books. Since there are 16 of us, our bed is 64 feet wide and our nightstand is the size of a small elephant. Here’s what is stacked up next to it.

Anna – I am probably the only Bureau Chief who is a True Blood fan, so I feel a little awkward for admitting that I read the latest Sookie Stackhouse paperback in a day. On the more literary front, I finished Megan Whalen Turner’s A Conspiracy of Kings. While not quite as strong as the other books in the Queen’s Thief series, this was still a treat to read. I also finished Ink Exchange, the second book in Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely urban fantasy series about fairies.

On the manga front, I’ve been reading a bunch of Ai Morinaga’s My Heavenly Hockey Club, about the adventures of a narcoleptic glutton named Hana who doesn’t seem to care very much that she’s surrounded by a bunch of handsome rich boys in field hockey club. I also read Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture, about an undergrad who can see microorganisms with his naked eye.

Ken – I finally finished the Molly Ivins book, and I come away from it enlightened and somewhat chagrined. Here was an intelligent woman who knew her stuff cold but was completely absent of the pretentious hallmarks of most prestigious political columnists; in one notable entry she simply details the corporate interests that George W.’s cabinet appointees were beholden to, one by one.

Yet the book’s format–a collection of “greatest hits” columns spread over a period of approximately 20 years–is absent historical context. And by the book’s nature, each entry is truncated enough that just when the flow gets going the damn thing ends, and it’s on to the next column, which may be dated months or years later.

One of a few remarkable exceptions is Ivins’ “Is Texas America?,” which attempts to define what makes Texas Texas and thereby explain the psychology of politicians like LBJ, Charlie Wilson, Phil Gramm, Ann Richardson, George W., Rick Perry and other luminaries who thrust themselves onto the national stage. Access to that particular column is worth the book’s price all by itself.

As for the last bit of chagrin? I just wish like hell Ivins was still around; I’d love to see what she’d make of the Tea Party.

I’ve just started journalist Karl Fleming’s Son of the Rough South, a memoir of his time as Newsweek’s chief civil rights reporter throughout the ’60s. My family’s all from Birmingham, Alabama, and my parents remember that time well. It’s a personal subject to me, and one I never tire of finding new perspectives on. (Also good: Carry Me Home, by Diane McWhorter.)

Dorian – I’ve found myself short on free time the last few weeks, so I’ve mostly stuck with keeping up to date on my recent manga purchases and I’ve steered clear of any books. I made it through the first Chobits Omnibus, manga-collective CLAMP’s boy-meets-robot story. Like everything CLAMP does, it’s very pretty, and just sophisticated enough to reward a careful reading. This new collected edition promotes the series as CLAMP’s best selling title in America, and frankly it’s easy to see why. While the book has its charms, it also has a spectacular amount of fan pandering nude and panty shots, and there’s a lot of sexual implications that somehow manage to both criticize the infantilized sexuality of the target audience and exploit it as well. You’ve got a naive robot girl who is put into a variety of creepy sexual situations while at the same time you have a romantic subplot that is complicated by the threat of erasing one partner’s memory if sexual intercourse ever actually occurred, keeping the relationship pure and unsullied by anything icky like a fully adult relationship.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the final volume of Naoki Urasawa’s and Takashi Nagasaki’s rewrite of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, Pluto, which is a fully adult and mature approach to something that was originally an unapologetic comic for children. It’s a life-affirming story about the futility of war and hate, told with fighting robots, and it’s a brilliant realization of the potential of the comics medium. Urasawa, like the best of the American and British comics writers, understands that it is possible to tell an adult story about these childhood icons that doesn’t confuse “maturity” with sex or violence. Pluto is up there with All Star Superman as books that everyone who loves comics really should have read.

I also picked up the first volume of Yuki Midorikawa’s Natsume’s Book of Friends. The “manga hero who can see spirits or ghosts” is pretty cliche-prone territory, but the traditional-style yokai monsters are interestingly drawn, and the art is very soft and appealing. That the “mentor” figure is a demon essentially waiting for a chance to eat the hero, and makes no bones about it makes for an interesting twist on the core concept, as does Natsume’s self-interested mission to free the monsters that his grand-mother enslaved, so that they’ll stop bothering him.

Doctor K

I just finished my annual reading of my favorite novel, The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford. I’ve read this novel about once a year since I was 20, and I’m now about the same age as the novel’s narrator, John Dowell. Dowell is trying to reconstruct the events of his 12-year marriage to Florence, after he had found out that she was carrying on a long-term affair with his best friend for most of that time.

As he goes through these events in a non-linear fashion, he discovers that signs of the affair were rather obvious, as were other betrayals and depravities that were going on right under his nose. The Dowells’ marriage is based on a singular lie: Florence claims to have a heart condition that requires her to avoid any kind of shock, including physical intimacy. Her husband is trained to be a loyal caretaker while she indulges in infidelity. The reader has to decide whether Dowell was simply naive and trusting or willfully obtuse (and even complicit) about the affair.

Like a lot of good modernist novels, it give considerable power to the reader in terms of creating meaning from the text, and the experience of reading it has changed for me as I’ve aged. In my 20s, I was sympathetic with the narrator’s struggles to find some anchor of trust in basic human communication, especially as others seemed to find such connections much easier. Later, I grew less sympathetic for Dowell, wondering how he could have missed all of these obvious signs. Now, I’ve come back around again, seeing Dowell as a tragic figure whose one desire was to order the universe in a particular way to protect himself even more than his wife. I can’t think of another novel that changes in such a fundamental way the more I read it.

Dave Lartigue

I’ve not read a whole lot lately (I’ve been doing Cross Sums before bed instead), but I did read Newave, a collection from Fantagraphics. It wasn’t a bad time, but there’s just not a lot of “there” there. The interviews with the various creators largely just covered the same material over and over, and the comics themselves fell rather flat with me. Many of them are just art noodlings, with not even an attempt at a plot, and those that do have a plot are usually just aping earlier underground material (sex, drugs, sticking it to The Man) without much substance or humor. I suppose if you were part of or even tangentially connected to “the scene” this collection will resonate with you more, but for me it was like looking at the algebra notebooks of people who’d read ZAP Comix and others. There are some strong pieces in it, but they’re somewhat overwhelmed by the rest.

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One thought on “On the Bureau Chiefs’ Nightstand: April 14th 2010”

  1. Oh, how I miss Molly Ivins.

    I still get the “I can’t wait to read what Molly has to say about this” feeling every time I read the news.

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