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On The Bureau Chiefs’ Nightstand: August 4 2010

The Bureau Chiefs' Nightstand

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.

Ken

After a long spell of reading only comics, the wife and I took a trip to nearby bookstore Legacy Books. I’m embarrassed to say I did not know this enormous independent bookstore existed, despite the fact it was about 15 minutes away by car.

I picked up a couple books: My Custom Van, a collection of comedic essays by Michael Ian Black, and The Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier.

My Custom VanI tore into My Custom Van first because I needed exactly what Sarah Silverman’s blurb described: something “fun to read while you’re pooping.” And it is. If you don’t know Black, he’s one of a group of improv/sketch/comedy people who’ve been involved in a multitude of projects from The State to Wet Hot American Summer to Reno 911. I hadn’t put my finger on the guy as that guy until recently, and I’m only now starting to appreciate how greatly influential his brand of comedy has been on me for most of my life.

And My Custom Van is, indeed, fun to read while you’re pooping. (Also when you’re not!) As with any anthology or collection, there’s a few clunkers–”I Have An Indomitable Spirit” just sort of wanders all over the place–but the good essays are so good that they more than compensate for the less-amazing ones. “Taco Party” and especially “Using the Socratic Method to Determine What It Would Take for Me to Voluntarily Eat Dog Shit for the Rest of My Life” are brilliant pieces of comedy that I had to put down because I thought I was going to choke on my laughter. It’s now entered my “compulsively loan out to friends and family” pile.

The Brief History of the Dead is a complete about-face from My Custom Van. It’s a fiction about two worlds: the world of the living, and the limbo “City” that the dead reside in while there are still people alive who remember them. As the living world empties out due to a horrible new plague, the City likewise empties out until only a scant few remain. There are two leads: Luka Sims, the only newspapermen in the City, and Laura Byrd, a still-living woman marooned on an arctic expedition. People who know me know this is basically exactly the kind of thing I go for, and the peculiar choice of the definite article The in the title–as in The Brief History of the Dead, not A Brief History of the Dead–only piqued my interest further.

I’m only a few chapters in, but this is riveting stuff. Brockmeier’s prose is cool yet lush, and his ability to render this fantastical City so effortlessly is a testament to his skill. I’m still too early in the book to guess where exactly he’s going with this (though I have some theories), and definitely too early to tell if he can pull it off, but so far I’m glad I picked it up.

Anna

The Red NecklaceI finished The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest earlier this month, and after being immersed in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy I was having difficulty finding something to read that captured my interest. I settled on Sally Gardner’s swashbuckling historical young adult novel The Red Necklace. Set in the time of the French revolution, the necklace in the title of the book refers to a mysterious piece of jewelry, but it also can stand for the red line that appears when someone’s throat is cut. I’m only around a third of the way into the book so far but I’m finding it very entertaining. Yann Margoza is a Gypsy boy of unknown parentage who makes his living assisting a magician and a dwarf in a magic show that features an intricate automaton. Sido is the daughter of an aristocrat who enjoys looking over his shoe buckle collection while remaining utterly oblivious to the coming revolution. When the villainous Count Kalliovski kills Yann’s magician benefactor and demands Sido’s hand in marriage to settle her father’s debts, the unlikely duo get swept up plenty of historical intrigue against a backdrop of civic unrest. Gardner’s attention to detail makes The Red Necklace entertaining, as the excessive habits of Sido’s father are cataloged while Yann finds a new family in the form of Sido’s long-lost relatives in London.

Benjamin

The Four Fingers of DeathI think it was, hm, two weeks ago?  I was in the bookstore and suddenly saw the new Rick Moody book, The Four Fingers Of Death, which I believe had just come out that day.  I was excited for several reasons immediately, all at once.  First of all, there was a new Rick Moody book that I had had no idea was even coming out.  The last book I’d read of his was The Diviners, which was a great read, and I’ve been a general fan of his for quote a long time.  (Bonus Points for anyone who remembers the comic he wrote with Steve Dillon doing the art that ran in Details.)  Secondly, the cover just knocked my socks onto their asses.  It’s so good that you almost never want to even consider eBooks again.  It’s so good that I actually leave the dust jacket on when I carry it around on my commute.  It’s really really sharp, in other words.

The book itself, right. Well, it starts off a little bumpy for the first few pages.  Long time Moody readers will be instantly surprised by the extraordinarily florid first person narration, a big departure from Moody’s usual prose.  But after a few pages, it clicks, and it eases into a really compelling read.  It’s his take on futurism and sci-fi, but undercut with the usual melancholy and quiet beauty.  So far, a really fantastic read.

On the Bureau Chiefs’ Nightstand: May 19 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

It is summer, so light and fluffy reading is even more of a priority to me than it usually is. I’ll read a romance novel or three when I want something I can breeze through in a day. Unfortunately my recent fun reading choices were a little disappointing.

I bought a Nora Roberts omnibus, True Betrayals; Montana Sky; Sanctuary: Three Complete Novels but I thought the choices of the novels to include in the collection were a little off. If you read one book about a group of siblings finding romance while being terrorized by a sexually deviant serial killer followed immediately by a different book about a group of siblings finding romance while being terrorized by a sexually deviant serial killer, It does get a little bit repetitive.

I wrote before about my affection for the first two books in Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series so I was disappointed to find the third book in the series, Fragile Eternity, a bit of a slog. Like many YA authors Marr isn’t afraid to pile on the angst but her characters seem to spend more time talking about how miserable they are than doing much about it. I’m around halfway through the book now and I’m hoping the ending will pull everything together.

I’m having better luck finding more entertainment on the manga front. I’ve finished Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku volume 3 about a gender-swapped feudal Japan and am finding it extremely thought-provoking. On the soapier side, I read Miki Aihara’s teenage showbiz trainwreck saga in Honey Hunt volume 4 and wrapped it up with a journey to a Wonderland filled with pathologically violent (but handsome!) men in Alice in the Country of Hearts volume 3.

Ken

I finished Son of the Rough South, and Karl Fleming’s tales of being at or near ground zero for the major events and catastrophes of America’s 1960s (from the civil rights movement’s first stuttering steps to JFK’s assassination to the Watts Riots to Martin Luther King Jr.’s funeral) are so engrossing that I’m beginning to think like a heretic — namely, why bother with the historical fiction of the likes of James Ellroy when I can just read about the real thing, which is often equally as exciting? I am pretty sure words like that might get my ass kicked around here.

But, seriously, if you have even a remote interest in the time and the place, I cannot recommend the book strongly enough. It’s a potent refresher on the sometimes catastrophic violence and unbelievable bravery of the time, and of just how deeply entrenched racism was nationwide. When you wonder why things like affirmative action and hate crimes legislation exist, or why people getting bent out of shape about the Weathermen is silly as hell, this book will remind you.

After ROFLCon ended I had a day to myself in and around the MIT campus, so I got to feel like a smart guy by shopping in the MIT bookstore. That probably explains how I ended up with a book called Concrete Reveries: Consciousness and the City.

Granted, it’s a subject I’m a little nerdy about; like the book’s author, Mark Kingwell, I think cities are the most significant machines humans have ever created. I tend to view cities as organisms, a theory that Kingwell has touched on and has only begun to discuss. I must read more.

It’s a bit scattershot, though I’m still early in the book. Kingwell begins by defending the use of concrete in architecture, and then jumps directly to the competing theories on what a city is: organism, machine, communication network, or other model. But despite that scattershot approach, Kingwell’s bringing enough theory from different disciplines to hold my interest. And the subject matter may as well have been chosen exactly for me.

Dave L

Being a fan of conspiracy books, I had often heard references to G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday but never read it. I picked up the new edition with the snazzy new cover and tore through it in a couple days (I’m a slow reader; most people could probably bang it out in two sittings, tops.) Like all good conspiracy books, the setting and specific enemies (in this case, “Anarchists”) make no difference, because the book isn’t about a specific threat but about the nature of those perceiving it. In this case, an undercover policeman infiltrates a cabal of nefarious plotters only to find out that Things, as you can imagine, are Not What They Seem. This leads to our protagonist pursuing Anarchists across London, England, and Europe, and then returning pursued by Anarchists. There’s a lot of silliness and humor along the way, along with serious discussions of philosophy and then out of nowhere Chesterton hits you with a line that stops you dead in your tracks.

“The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.”

That is something, right there.

Things go a bit surreal towards the end, culminating not in a whodunit so much as a whydunit, and the answer being a bit less than satisfying. It’s also tempting to be disappointed at the very end, but one can’t say Chesterton isn’t playing fair; in an authorial afterword Chesterton reminds the reader the the novel has a subtitle.

On the Bureau Chiefs’ Nightstand: March 24th 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.

Dorian

It’s been a light week for me. I picked up the latest volume of Yukiya Sakuragi’s Inubaka, a manga series about a cute girl who moves to Tokyo to work in a pet store. It’s just shy of being an out and out fan service series, but I read it mostly for the cute doggie illustrations and fish-out-of-water workplace comedy routines. I also picked up the latest issue of Fortean Times, which has a cover story about Robin Hood and a possible connection between the myth and the Templars. I’m a soft touch for Robin Hood stuff.

It’s been a slow week for books, though. All I’ve managed to do is get through Feet of Clay, the next book in the “Guards” series by Terry Pratchett. I’ve just not had time for any reading other than right before bed lately, and I still haven’t felt like starting anything other than light comedy.

Mike

You may remember from last week that I was complaining about the fact that I had more books than I knew what to do with. Well, I know what I have to do with them, I have to read them, but between my many writing assignments and my interpretive dance classes, I just never seem to find the time. However, a recent birthday found me with a bookstore gift card and, well, I just can’t say no to a deal, baby, and I picked myself up a copy of MAD’s Greatest Artists: The Completely MAD Don Martin. It’s a massive two-volume slipcased set containing every bit of cartooning Mr. Martin contributed to Mad over his 32-year run with the magazine, and it’s a beautiful thing. Sadly, as you’ll see at that there Amazon link (and elsewhere) it’s being massively discounted, and you can easily find this set, originally priced at $150, for well under $30. Well, okay, it’s good for me in that I can get some swell books for dirt cheap, but in the long run the near-immediate close-out of this set certainly doesn’t seem like it would encourage a Complete Sergio Aragones or a Complete Al Jaffee, would it? At least, not in this format.

Brave and the Bold #32J. Michael Straczynski’s run on DC Comics’ team-up book The Brave and The Bold (accompanied by artist Jesus Saiz) has been mostly dopey so far, with interesting pairings but hilarious heavy-handed moralizing and spectacularly out-of-character portrayals of some of DC’s big guns. But over the last couple of issues, things have improved…an Atom/Joker team-up last issue was effectively creepy and unsettling (and, for continuity nerds, provides a possible “out” for the Atom’s behavior in the recent Cry for Justice mini-series), and the new issue, #32, featuring Aquaman and the Demon versus Lovecraftian critters, was surprisingly…well, I hate to use the word “creepy” again, but there you go. And “creepy” as in “monster/ghost/haunted house” creepy, not the usual superhero comic “hypersexualized women” and “guys in tights punching each other” creepy. Plus, it was nice to see Aquaman treated with a little awe and respect for once, considering the bad rap he usually gets.

Ken

I’ve finished The Road (short version: affecting but not very) and have switched over to non-fiction. Being a Texan and a liberal, I figured it was about time I (finally) dig into Molly Ivins, so I picked up Who Let the Dogs In: Political Animals I Have Known. This is basically a collection of some of her best work, so yes, it’s a Greatest Hits compilation, which is something I tend not to believe in. (Great songs are made that way by their context, and anyway the work that strikes closest to home tends to be off the beaten path.) But hey, it’s what the bookstore had in stock when the urge struck me.

I’m still just a few chapters in, but already I’m just sore as hell that Ivins isn’t around to see this whole tea-bagger thing. I knew I was in good hands when, in the introduction, Ivins hopes there’s a special circle in Hell for people who distort and corrupt the English language for political gain. That’s my top pet peeve of the past 15 years–that so many words have been so loaded with poison that they are now completely unusable. I also value her belief that we must never stop laughing. What better defense mechanism against horror and absurdity is there?

Her aw-shucks style would be bothersome were she not so sharp and so funny, and I predict I’ll eat through this book pretty swiftly.

Anna

I started reading the first couple volumes of Koji Kumeta’s black comedy Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei: The Power of Negative Thinking. I remember when this series was announced some people were commenting that it was going to be almost impossible to translate because it contained so many cultural references even a Japanese person may not be able to catch them all. While more knowledge of Japanese culture might help when reading the book there are still plenty of funny situations that don’t require cultural footnotes. The reader is introduced to Nozomu Itoshiki as he attempts to hang himself from a cherry tree. The Most Optimistic Girl in the world prevents his suicide attempt, and later shows up again in the class he teaches at an unconventional high school. Itoshiki isn’t very good at committing suicide and the innocuous errands of a teacher’s life will inspire him to indulge in soliloquies that express his crushing despair. His students include a stalker girl, a shut-in, and a suspected victim of domestic violence. Kumeta has a simple and elegant art style that contrasts with the truly bizarre situations the suicidal teacher and his band of misfit students find themselves in.

I’m starting to read Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia. With the fourth book in the Queen’s Thief series just published, I need to finish the third to get all caught up. Turner has created an evocative world that resembles the ancient Mediterranean, but her focus on the geopolitics and relationships between the characters that rule her city-states sets this series apart from the typical YA fantasy series. It has the feeling of great historical fiction even though the setting is imaginary.

On the Bureau Chiefs’ Nightstand

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’m not ashamed to admit that I took advantage of the crazy Amazon graphic novel sale. Out of my initial order, I wound up with New X-Men 1 and 2. It was a treat to revisit Grant Morrison’s X-Men. I collected the original series when it came out, but it has been years since I’ve been able to sit down and read the whole thing. I’ve been slacking off on following Morrison’s recent work for DC, and now I’m determined to check out his take on Batman.

On the manga front, I said goodbye to one of the most engaging and memorable couples in high school romance manga, Haruna and Yoh in High School Debut Volume 13. Haruna’s enthusiasm and goofy physicality matched up with the laconic Yoh to create a romance that I couldn’t help rooting for. The final volume follows the couple as Yoh prepares to go away to college, and I found myself grinning as I put the volume down. I read Happy Cafe Volume 2, which has a predictable plot about a girl and two guys running a pastry shop. I also read Venus in Love Volume 8, which is one of my favorite romance series when I’m looking for something light to read because it is refreshingly angst-free.

On the prose front, I just started the fantasy novel the The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett, which is set in a world that strongly resembles eighteenth century England. The Austen/fantasy pastiche was amusing for the first third of the book, but the second third grew so overly referential I thought if I were to flip open a copy of Jane Eyre or Turn of the Screw at random I’d easily be able to identify a scene Beckett used for inspiration. This is a shame, because there are elements of world building in the book that I found very entertaining, like the way the characters have to constantly adjust to days with varied amounts of sunlight and darkness. This book still might be a good pick for anyone who enjoys romance novels and fantasy and doesn’t mind reading 100+ pages of a reconfigured Jane Eyre interlude.

Dave L.

I tried to take advantage of the Amazon “sale” with the Weird Science archives vol 2 and 3, but my order got canceled. This week I’ve been rearranging my comic shelves and therefore discovering things I own but don’t remember reading. I went through Dan Clowes’ “20th Century Eightball” with no recollection of any of it. I also found “Love and Rockets: New Stories” vol 2, and recalled that I never read it because I didn’t finish volume one, so I read both of those. And finally, after reading through and really enjoying all the BPRD trades, I decided to go through Hellboy again. I re-read “Seed of Destruction” and “Wake the Devil” and found the latter interesting because it made very little sense to me in the past, but has since then been linked to a bunch of other stories, filling in some gaps. It’s a great world Mignola (and Arcudi) created there.

Ken

JLA/Hitman #1I’ve been sorting through my long boxes, trying to find something of value to hawk on eBay–no luck there, but you could have predicted that–and it’s given me occasion to revisit some comics I forgot I owned. Specifically I re-read the JLA/Hitman two-part miniseries by Garth Ennis and John McCrea, the dudes who created the Hitman character. Anyone who’s ever encountered Ennis’s work knows he does not care for most superheroes, which is why this work is so surprising; the Hitman character, Tommy Monaghan, is indeed a paid assassin with a conscience who happens to be a big fan of Superman, and it seems like Ennis is too. (See also: Hitman #34, which this mini is directly tied to.) Kyle Rayner Green Lantern and, to a degree, Wonder Woman come off as sympathetic. (No such luck for Batman or the Flash, who are both depicted as raging pricks.) It’s Superman’s “there’s always a way” mentality–perhaps his defining characteristic–that takes center stage here, and it’s neat to see Ennis contrast Superman’s idea of what that means with Monaghan’s. (“There’s always a way” means one thing to an invulnerable super strong guy who can fly, and quite another to a regular Joe who can shoot pretty good.) It’s a surprisingly effective work.

On the prose side, I’ve just started Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I have to confess I’m having a bit of an issue with the prose styling; this is my first McCarthy book, and I just don’t know anyone who thinks or talks in these kinds of clipped sentences. I’m intrigued so far, but as a guy who spent a full six months having his imagination eaten by Fallout 3, McCarthy’s going to have to do an awful lot to give me a taste of something new.

Josh

I read four volumes of DC Comics’s 2003 OUTSIDERS relaunch. Some, including my fellow Bureau Chiefs, may ask why. Well, I’ve always had a soft spot for third- (and fourth-, and tenth-)rank superheroes. I like Batman as much as the next guy (well, maybe not this guy), but there’s only so much you can do with him before you have to reset the status quo. With Z-listers, you can tell stories with consequences. And for awhile, these Outsiders stories seem to be doing that very thing–one major character gets shot, for example, and several issues deal with the repercussions in occasionally interesting ways. These aren’t Great Art by any means, and the whole enterprise starts to rattle apart around the middle of volume three, but the first 12 or so issues constitute some fun, baseline superhero comics.

Dorian

I’ve finished up the third volume of The Indiana Jones Omnibus: The Further Adventures, mostly out of sheer fanboyism, because boy howdy there’s some pretty dire stuff in there, including some Ditko art that justifies his reclusive nature. By the time you get to the stories where Indy is basically fighting a Dr. Strange cosplayer, it’s obvious just how little Marvel cared about the license. I also read High Soft Lisp, the collection of Fritz stories by Gilbert Hernandez from the second volume of Love and Rockets and Luba’s Comics. It’s good, but not very satisfying. Possibly because Fritz isn’t a character I find particularly compelling, but also because the Palomar characters have such complicated back-stories at this point that unless you’ve devoted a good chunk of time to keeping it all fresh in your mind, it’s easy to become lost.

I also picked up the sixth volume of “In Their Own Words,” the Doctor Who Magazine sub-series that takes quotes from interviews that have appeared in the magazine and fashions them into a chronological history of the show. This volume covers 1997 to 2009 and it’s good as a “greatest hits” collection of quotes from the people involved in the show, but of limited appeal to anyone but nerds. “Book”-book wise, I read the N.J. Dawood translation of The Voyages of Sindbad, a 100 page micro-book that Penguin put out several years back that I hadn’t gotten around to previously. It’s written in that dry, academic style you too often find in translations of folk and fairy tales, but the central message, that Sindbad is spoiled rich boy who acts like a dick and gets rewarded for it, comes through clearly. I also started another rereading of Terry Pratchett’s Men At Arms, as I’m a habitual bed-reader and didn’t feel like starting anything new just now.

Benjamin

Purely on the strength of its heavily Comicraft Font subsidized Mass Market Paperback cover, I picked up A. Lee Martinez’ Monster as a blind buy, and I’m quite glad I did.  As a fan and occasional purveyor of fiction that ends up being classified as something vague like “Urban Fantasy” but really is just a collection of any cool thing or character or circumstance that may have popped into the author’s head, I’m finding the book to be quite entertaining in the opening chapters.  Martinez has the kind of crazy ideas I love to read and has no interest in holding them back for the sake of any kind of boring consistency or attempt to cohere to any kind of “realism”.  Luckily, it all fits together quite well, and still actually retains a strong sense of believability.

Comics-wise, it’s probably bad that nothing really jumps out at me.  PunisherMax (seriously, change that title) was typically great, as was Batman & Robin, but nothing really caved my head in.

Mike

I’m so terribly behind on all my reading. Mostly I’ve been reading stuff I’ve been writing for various projects, and the occasional blog post by some of my online buddies. I used to read a lot more when I didn’t have internet access.

BOOKS: Stephen King’s Under the Dome stays in the Gentleman’s Lounge, where I get through a few pages per sitting. …I said “sitting,” you dirty birds. And a recent reorganization of the Unread Pile of Terror revealed that I have several books awaiting my perusal, including the third Wild Cards book Suicide Kings (edited by George R.R. Martin) and the latest Star Wars hardcover by Aaron Allston, Fate of the Jedi: Backlash, for which I can offer no excuse. I also turned up Hitler: A Biography by Ian Kershaw, a titanic tome I was annexing a chapter at a time until I began a second front in my attack on my reading pile. …What?

FUNNYBOOKS: Finally started on Volume 22 of Dark Horse Comics’ ongoing Little Lulu reprint volumes (featuring classic work by John Stanley and Irving Tripp). Wonderful and unaffected by the decades that have passed since the stories’ original publication. And like my pal Dorian elsewhere in this article, I started on High Soft Lisp, collecting together several of Gilbert Hernandez’s comics. I’d read these all in their original form, but it’s nice having these stories under one cover. As far as regular ol’ staplebound comics go, Marvel’s Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers Unleashed #1 is bit of a hidden gem, starring the pets of Marvel superheroes. Yeah, I know how it sounds, but it’s not afraid to be funny and silly and manages to be so without also being cloying.