REVIEWING “DEVIL IN A BLUE DRESS”: THE BLACK DETECTIVE STRAIGHT OUT OF THE MEAN STREETS OF L.A.

Book Reviewed: Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

Genre: series mystery

Publisher: Norton in 1990, then Washington Square Press in 2002 ($16.99 for the paperback)

So here’s another book I read in the spirit of Black History Month, and this one took a little bit longer for me to read even though I enjoyed it immensely. I am of course talking about Devil in a Black Dress, the first published novel by Walter Mosley and also the first to feature the hardboiled detective Easy Rawlins.

There is not a lot I can tell you about this book, as it is a mystery and I don’t want to in any way give away the ending for you should you decide to read the thing (and read you should, because this book is a real gem). The story features Ezekiel “Easy Rawlins” a Black man who has just been laid off at the airplane manufacturing plant in Los Angeles. A proud WW2 veteran, Easy nonetheless struggles to combat against the everyday prejudices that face him in 1940’s America, and it is that struggle that weighs over him at his good friend Joppy’s bar, where he drinks away his aggravation until a white man comes in looking for someone to go looking around for a white woman frequenting Black-owned establishments. The picture of the woman shows her to be stunningly beautiful—a real femme fatale if there ever was one. The money’s enough to cover the mortgage, and Easy has nothing else going on, so he takes the job in haste and learns to suffer the consequences in leisure.

There’s a lot to like in this book, from the twists and turns to the weird way that Easy philosophizes over his predicament with a strong narrative voice. That this was Walter Mosley’s first novel is amazing to me, as the strength of this book is the kind that can only come from a more seasoned novelist. Of course now Mosley has been writing and publishing for more than thirty years, so he’s adequately seasoned by now and doesn’t need my approval to defend his honor. But the book is like an object of strong electrical power, towing me off with its current and causing me to stop and gasp at the internal truths it offers.

One of the main drawing points to the book is that of its protagonist. Easy Rawlins isn’t your conventional series detective. His deductive skills rely heavily on a sort of luck of the draw; he’s playing the game of catch-as-catch can, and he is as far removed from the likes of Mike Hammer and Philip Marlowe as he is influenced by him. But he’s smart, and he’s a survivor—Rawlins isn’t the kind of guy to depend totally on his luck because he knows that eventually luck will run out. What we have here is a one of a kind Black hero, one that stands proud in the longstanding tradition of crime noir.

I very much liked this book, and I’ve already ordered several more in this series. The latest installment, entitled Blood Grove, has just been released by Molholland Books. I will be sure to pick this one up as well.

REVIEWING “MARCH: BOOK 1”: THE FIGHT FOR EQUAL RIGHTS

Book Reviewed: March: Book 1 by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin, illustrated by Nate Powell

Genre: Autobiographical comics

Publisher: Top Shelf Productions in 2013 ($14.95 for the paperback)

Here we are in the month of February, day four to be exact, and I felt like I wanted to play a bigger part in educating myself. It is Black History Month after all, and I am admittedly ignorant of a lot of Black history. That is shameful of me, I admit, for Black history is American history, and is also world history—to ignore the stories of countless Black men and women is to ignore a large part of what makes this country, and this world, so inherently great.

It was with that need for learning Black history that I checked out the three-part graphic nonfiction series by John Lewis, entitled March. I’d already read George Takei’s excellent graphic memoir detailing his experience as a minority facing injustice in America, and I sought to explore this issue further with Lewis’ work. I finished reading the first volume of the trilogy today, published by Top Shelf Productions just as Takei’s book was, and I was absolutely floored.

John Lewis was a U.S Representative to Georgia’s 5th district, a lifelong civil rights leader and a champion for political and social issues. He marched with Martin Luther King, and led various sit-ins, protests, and public works in order to better the lives of his fellow African Americans. Book 1 of course tells the first part of his story, from his childhood years on his father’s farm leading up to his time at college and the student protests that led to violence and police action taken upon him and his fellow demonstrators. The scenes of Lewis’ past are juxtaposed with his current life as a U.S. Representative, just before receiving the Medal of Freedom as well as living in the wake of the first Black President being elected into office. These alternating scenes make for a very real, very captivating read, and I honestly look forward to reading the second and third volumes in the trilogy.

I would recommend this graphic novel to everyone. This was a rewarding reading experience, a must-have for the conscious citizen.

REVIEWING “PSYCHO”: PERHAPS MY FAVORITE HORROR NOVEL?

Book Reviewed: Psycho by Robert Bloch

Genre: Horror

Publisher: Simon & Shuster in 1959, republished by The Overlook Press in 2010 ($14.95 for the recent paperback)

Before I go into my current book review, let me first apologize for something. For as many of you may well know, we are into the third day of February, which is of course Black History Month. Now I made a promise to myself that I would read some books by Black authors, and I intend to follow through with that promise. But the book I am about to review here was near the top of my To Be Read pile, and I just couldn’t resist. My next book to read and review is the graphic novel trilogy March, but for now allow me to play the fan-boy to the grand short horror novel Psycho—the novel that inspired the classic Hitchcock picture featuring the eerie Norman Bates!

I have talked before about books and their film adaptations, and I stand by my feeling that the balancing act between book and film is the weirdest thing ever. Regardless of that fact, there are certainly some real gems to be had from this symbiotic relationship; Psycho is one such gem. The book, no doubt partially inspired by the Ed Gein case, brought out not one but four movies, as well as a remake and a television series. It has become a national icon, and for good reason. As morbid as it sounds (considering the subject matter), I loved this book almost as much as Bates loved his mother!

The story deals with a middle-aged man who lives with his mother…well, maybe lives with her doesn’t quite ring true, but in any case they share a sort-of life together at their hotel. It is here where the violence and mental illness run rampant—the suspense is truly killer, and it builds perfectly towards a double-twist ending that left me with nightmares when I tried to go to sleep last night. The film version had the same effect on me when I first saw it. The story is so iconic and well know that I won’t get into it here, but I will tell you that the book is well worth a read, just as the original film is well worth a watch.

One of my film buff friends suggested that the book and movie were extremely similar, and I am inclined to agree. Honestly they are virtually the exact same story, except for the physical description of Norman Bates. In the movie Norman is exceptionally portrayed by Anthony Perkins, and in his performance he is young, lively, charming in a shy schoolboy sort of way. He looks forever young and is thin. But in the book he is overweight and a perpetual turn-off to those who encounter him. His readings in psychology and the occult are the same, but that particular personality quirk reads different in the book given his overall makeup. That eeriness just added to my enjoyment of the book.

Regardless of this difference between book and movie, I can’t help but shout out my love for Bloch’s novel. I would recommend it to any and all.

REVIEWING “THE ROAD TO JONESTOWN”: THE DARK SIDE OF BLIND FAITH

Book Reviewed: The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn

Genre: True Crime, Biography, Religious Studies

Publisher: Simon & Shuster in 2017 ($28 for hardcover; $18 for paperback)

One of my guilty pleasures is an ever developing obsession with cults and madmen. I’ve read extensively on Scientology and its creator, L. Ron Hubbard (the book Going Clear is an excellent resource on the subject), and I’ve read briefly on Charles Manson and his family of oddballs. As a Southern Baptist I’ve listened to my share of stories concerning my own faith; being a religious person in this day and age has its baggage, and that’s coming from my involvement in a mainstream religion.

But what about for those who practice a much more esoteric, and perhaps even a more violent, brand of faith? That’s the question I sought to have answered by Jeff Guinn’s book on the Reverend Jim Jones, the man who led more than 900 of his followers into drinking a poisoned punch-drink in the jungles of South America.

Jim Jones was the son of an injured WW1 veteran and a self-important mother named Lynetta, a woman whose own beliefs in reincarnation and other similar beliefs helped to shape her own son’s theology later in life. Growing up in small town Indiana, Jim became obsessed with the various Protestant denominations near home; this festering obsession led him to memorize much of the Bible, and many of the local townsfolk remarked that the young Jones was destined to become a minister. And a minister he became, though his church didn’t preach the traditional gospel so much as it preached a mix of racial integration, civil rights, socialism and spurious faith healings. The church moved from Indianapolis to California, and from California to Guyana—it was in Guyana where he set up Jonestown, made infamous by the ritual mass suicide in November of 1978.

The book goes into great detail concerning Jones’ many transgressions: the mad thirst for power, money, and control; the sexual liaisons with the female members, and even with some of the men; the rabid egomania and the paranoid verbal screeds against the government. But what’s strange about this cult leader was the fact that at the beginning of his career, Jim Jones was a tireless defender of the African American community. The poor black community at the time remembers a pastor who worked endlessly towards making their collective lives better—this was one white man who practiced the social gospel, not just preached it. What happened to this early religious leader, and what made him turn into such a dangerous man? The book gives a lot of information, and plenty of interesting stories, but it couldn’t answer that one question for me.

In the end I would highly recommend this book. It’s well worth a read.

REVIEWING “DOOMSDAY CLOCK”: CONTINUING THE LEGACY OF THE “WATCHMEN”…IN THE DAWN OF SUPERMAN

Book Reviewed: Doomsday Clock, parts 1 and 2. Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Gary Frank (based on, and continuing the story of Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons).

Genre: superhero comics (collected into a graphic novel)

Published By: DC, collected in two volumes in 2019 and 2020 ($24.99 for each hardcover volume; $39.99 for the combined paperback edition)

I realize that reviewing another comic immediately after reviewing one might seem like a weird theme given the goals of the Online Book Club. Readers of a certain type might feel put off by this coincidence; they may even complain that I’m snubbing more esteemed literature in favor of the kind of book that would appeal to the common masses. To them I can only say this: kindly take a look at those around you, and then catch up to where the real deal is happening. While I will always try and make a point to read all kinds of books—from nonfiction to sci-fi, from horror to classic literary novels, from comics to books breaking down old school cinema—I do tend to review the books I actually read, and the books I read tend to be the kinds of books I would actually like. I grew up reading comic books, and some of my favorite reads growing up have been comics or graphic novels. I think the comic is the one uniquely American art form, and in reading the comics I would like to think of myself as living out my civic duty.

Those who would have a problem with this…well, they will just have to live on as best they can.

With the formalities out of the way, allow me to bring to your attention a story I have just read, the 2-part graphic novel entitled Doomsday Clock. This was a strange one for me, for a couple of reasons. For one thing this was a sort-of straight sequel to the iconic story Watchmen—you know the one, the book whose author famously disavowed due to the decades-long feud with the publisher due to creator rights. I won’t be getting into that here; I’m not the one to be telling a tale that would be best served being told by the great Alan Moore himself (and he has told it, on more than one occasion). For another thing this book connects the Watchmen universe to that of the main universe that’s seen in the pages of the current DC issues—whatever universe that may be at this current time. Those of you who regularly read monthly superhero comics will understand what I mean; the big comic publishers have these convoluted continuities among their titles, ones that need extensive retconning and retooling just to maintain some kind of order. In recent years we’ve seen over at DC such gems as The New 52 and DC Rebirth; these were attempts at restructuring their stories so as to better capitalize on their narrative and financial opportunities. These very attempts are the kind that have caused me to move away from more traditional superhero comics, in favor of nonfiction graphic works (Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor) and crime dramas (Road to Perdition, A History of Violence). This might make me out to be a lesser-than in the eyes of my fellow comic nerds, but I like my graphic stories to be self-contained, and as straightforward as possible.

But while I am an admitted curmudgeon when it comes to superhero comics, I also admit to being intrigued by what this story was supposed to bring to the proverbial table. I am a big fan of Alan Moore’s writing, and Watchmen was one the first books of his that I read. Dave Gibbons’ art is itself a gem, and even though the book was written and set in the mid-80’s it’s just so remarkably brilliant and forward thinking that it could have been released as recently as last week. There have been prequel comics published, with the intended purpose of exploring the individual characters’ backgrounds. The quality of those individual books was a sort of hit-or-miss affair, so of course I came at reading this new comic with a hint of caution in my bones. The connection to the main DC universe also gave me pause; though I’ve enjoyed particular DC characters in my life, as well as specific stories written by some of my favorite writers (Batman: Knightfall as headed by Dennis O’Neil being a personal favorite), I still feel put off by the whole convoluted mess that is the DC Universe. At least the MCU films don’t take quite so much note-taking in order to enjoy them.

But I digress—the point of this review is to talk about Doomsday Clock, and whether or not I liked it. Honestly, that’s a bit hard for me to decide. The story takes place seven years after the events of Watchmen, and the man known as Ozymandias has been exposed as the orchestrator behind the New York City massacre. The threat of nuclear war comes back, only now it’s far worse on account of Dr. Manhattan being gone.  With a new person taking up the mantle of Rorschach, and a sadistic man-and-woman duo of puppet and mime-themed criminals, a plan is put in place to bring Manhattan back from the DC Universe so that he can save the world. As you can imagine, trouble ensues; much of that trouble stemming from a recently leaked conspiracy involving DC’s metahuman’s and the United States government. Superman, Batman, Black Adam and several others are involved, and Manhattan himself is personally involved in this ever-growing catastrophe.

The more I read, the more I dug into all of this, one question continued to gnaw at me: what exactly was the point of this story? I couldn’t quite figure that one out, and it frustrated me to no end. As a sequel to Watchmen it left a lot to be desired; it didn’t do much more than to undo the whole message behind the original work. As an attempt to further rewrite and fix the DC Universe…well, as I’ve mentioned before I’m not entirely interested in what the DC Universe does. I will admit that the mainline DC elements might have made it so that I’m perhaps not the ideal demographic for this particular book, but the Watchmen fan in me feels like I have been cheated out of something. Maybe some of Alan Moore’s relative surliness concerning continuations and adaptations of his work has rubbed off on me. Whatever the problem here, I just can’t shake the minor disappointment in finishing this story, and if the problem does lie with me then I would like to know where to go in order to rectify the problem. Maybe there are other stories related to this one that could help to fill in some gaps; I’ve been gone from superhero comics for so long that I may need to reset the clock in my brain in order to enjoy them again.

Or, wait…maybe resetting the clock was the point of this story. Hmm, I’m going to have to sit around and think on that one.

Rorschach’s journal, final entry. Signing off.

REVIEWING “DOOMSDAY CLOCK”: CONTINUING THE LEGACY OF THE WATCHMEN…IN THE DAWN OF SUPERMAN

Book Reviewed: Doomsday Clock, parts 1 and 2. Written by Geoff Johns, illustrated by Gary Frank (based on, and continuing the story of Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons).

Genre: superhero comics (collected into a graphic novel)

Published By: DC, collected in two volumes in 2019 and 2020 ($24.99 for each hardcover volume; $39.99 for the combined paperback edition)

I realize that reviewing another comic immediately after reviewing one might seem like a weird theme given the goals of the Online Book Club. Readers of a certain type might feel put off by this coincidence; they may even complain that I’m snubbing more esteemed literature in favor of the kind of book that would appeal to the common masses. To them I can only say this: kindly take a look at those around you, and then catch up to where the real deal is happening. While I will always try and make a point to read all kinds of books—from nonfiction to sci-fi, from horror to classic literary novels, from comics to books breaking down old school cinema—I do tend to review the books I actually read, and the books I read tend to be the kinds of books I would actually like. I grew up reading comic books, and some of my favorite reads growing up have been comics or graphic novels. I think the comic is the one uniquely American art form, and in reading the comics I would like to think of myself as living out my civic duty.

Those who would have a problem with this…well, they will just have to live on as best they can.

With the formalities out of the way, allow me to bring to your attention a story I have just read, the 2-part graphic novel entitled Doomsday Clock. This was a strange one for me, for a couple of reasons. For one thing this was a sort-of straight sequel to the iconic story Watchmen—you know the one, the book whose author famously disavowed due to the decades-long feud with the publisher due to creator rights. I won’t be getting into that here; I’m not the one to be telling a tale that would be best served being told by the great Alan Moore himself (and he has told it, on more than one occasion). For another thing this book connects the Watchmen universe to that of the main universe that’s seen in the pages of the current DC issues—whatever universe that may be at this current time. Those of you who regularly read monthly superhero comics will understand what I mean; the big comic publishers have these convoluted continuities among their titles, ones that need extensive retconning and retooling just to maintain some kind of order. In recent years we’ve seen over at DC such gems as The New 52 and DC Rebirth; these were attempts at restructuring their stories so as to better capitalize on their narrative and financial opportunities. These very attempts are the kind that have caused me to move away from more traditional superhero comics, in favor of nonfiction graphic works (Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home; Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor) and crime dramas (Road to Perdition, A History of Violence). This might make me out to be a lesser-than in the eyes of my fellow comic nerds, but I like my graphic stories to be self-contained, and as straightforward as possible.

But while I am an admitted curmudgeon when it comes to superhero comics, I also admit to being intrigued by what this story was supposed to bring to the proverbial table. I am a big fan of Alan Moore’s writing, and Watchmen was one the first books of his that I read. Dave Gibbons’ art is itself a gem, and even though the book was written and set in the mid-80’s it’s just so remarkably brilliant and forward thinking that it could have been released as recently as last week. There have been prequel comics published, with the intended purpose of exploring the individual characters’ backgrounds. The quality of those individual books was a sort of hit-or-miss affair, so of course I came at reading this new comic with a hint of caution in my bones. The connection to the main DC universe also gave me pause; though I’ve enjoyed particular DC characters in my life, as well as specific stories written by some of my favorite writers (Batman: Knightfall as headed by Dennis O’Neil being a personal favorite), I still feel put off by the whole convoluted mess that is the DC Universe. At least the MCU films don’t take quite so much note-taking in order to enjoy them.

But I digress—the point of this review is to talk about Doomsday Clock, and whether or not I liked it. Honestly, that’s a bit hard for me to decide. The story takes place seven years after the events of Watchmen, and the man known as Ozymandias has been exposed as the orchestrator behind the New York City massacre. The threat of nuclear war comes back, only now it’s far worse on account of Dr. Manhattan being gone.  With a new person taking up the mantle of Rorschach, and a sadistic man-and-woman duo of puppet and mime-themed criminals, a plan is put in place to bring Manhattan back from the DC Universe so that he can save the world. As you can imagine, trouble ensues; much of that trouble stemming from a recently leaked conspiracy involving DC’s metahuman’s and the United States government. Superman, Batman, Black Adam and several others are involved, and Manhattan himself is personally involved in this ever-growing catastrophe.

The more I read, the more I dug into all of this, one question continued to gnaw at me: what exactly was the point of this story? I couldn’t quite figure that one out, and it frustrated me to no end. As a sequel to Watchmen it left a lot to be desired; it didn’t do much more than to undo the whole message behind the original work. As an attempt to further rewrite and fix the DC Universe…well, as I’ve mentioned before I’m not entirely interested in what the DC Universe does. I will admit that the mainline DC elements might have made it so that I’m perhaps not the ideal demographic for this particular book, but the Watchmen fan in me feels like I have been cheated out of something. Maybe some of Alan Moore’s relative surliness concerning continuations and adaptations of his work has rubbed off on me. Whatever the problem here, I just can’t shake the minor disappointment in finishing this story, and if the problem does lie with me then I would like to know where to go in order to rectify the problem. Maybe there are other stories related to this one that could help to fill in some gaps; I’ve been gone from superhero comics for so long that I may need to reset the clock in my brain in order to enjoy them again.

Or, wait…maybe resetting the clock was the point of this story. Hmm, I’m going to have to sit around and think on that one.

            Rorschach’s journal, final entry. Signing off.

A TALK WITH AARON CROCKER

And here we have the artist formerly known as… Erin. Aaron Crocker is one of my online friends, and he writes poetry and prose as well as works in the film industry. Book credits include Synchronicity and Menoetius, and Forbidden, an experimental dark fiction novella. He’s also an anthologist and editor, as well as an advocate for domestic abuse victims. I am honored to host this bookish conversation with my friend, Aaron.

Why don’t you introduce yourself to the group Aaron? Tell us how you got into writing, filmmaking, and the arts in general. What would you say is your favorite medium in which to create and speak truth to power?

Hi, my name is Aaron, and I am a recovering doughnut addict. In my spare time I enjoy dragging things through the woods at night and construction miniature guillotines out of toothpicks—since my HOA refuses to allow me to own a full-size structure, even if I promise to keep it in the back yard.

On a more serious note, I started writing as an undergrad. at the University of Mary Washington, and it clicked. Growing up an avid reader, I quickly embraced creative writing and it became a mode of healing, survival, and self-discovery as well as a passion. Creative writing acted as a segue into the film industry, another passion of mine.

My favorite artistic medium, currently, is screenwriting and directing. My long-term goal is to write, produce, and direct a full-length feature film based on one of my manuscripts.

You’ve written in various fictional genres, as well as spoken word poetry. You’ve also written scripts and made films. What has made you want to create in so wide a world (as they say?).

I create within a variety of mediums because, I don’t feel ‘claustrophobic’—for lack of a better word. Writing novels is amazing as is speaking poetry, but my spirit needs an extensive form of artistic expression or I begin feeling stagnant, but really, I listen to my intuition and I “go” where I feel comfortable at any given point in time.

Who do you look to for inspiration? Who are some of your favorite authors and filmmakers? If there’s one perfect book or film out there (not made by you), what is that perfect work?

I’m largely into philosophy, whether I agree with it all or not, I appreciate the expressions—Plato, Kant, Emmerson, Aesara of Lucania, Margaret Fuller, Diotima of Mantinea, and the list could go on, but I’m sure most people are already asleep at this point and I won’t further that.

Currently my favorite filmmakers are Ari Aster and Robert Eggers, looking to the classics it would be Tobe Hooper and James Whale.

And as far as a perfect book or film, I am not sure that I have ran into a “perfect” one. 

What do you think of the online writing and filmmaking community? Is there merit to building friendships and connections with artists on the internet? What are the drawbacks to such a community, without a face to face interaction?

Through my years of networking within the online writing community—and I will speak to film and writing as separate entities as the communities are widely different in many ways—I’ve found an interesting mix. I’ve made some amazing friends with numerous writers in a variety of genres. I’ve definitely witnessed a fair share of close-mindedness and judginess, but I am sure that’s any community.

I can’t say that I’ve networked widely in the filmmaking community, but I’ve managed to make some wonderful connections.

Building friendships with other artists online has its ups and downs. It’s beneficial in terms of having a support system if you need some constructive feedback on an idea. In retrospect, it can be a bit distracting at times as well. It’s all about creating a balance with that.

The drawbacks are the same as a lot of online connections, in my opinion. I think that looking to the internet in general, a lot gets lost in written text and taken out of context—we lose nonverbal physical cues as well as vocal inflection, so it’s easy to have ideas and feedback misunderstood. Even though I am an introvert, I prefer face-to-face interactions with readers as well as other artists.

You’re an indie artist of sorts, with many of your works done on your own. Do you see the future of publishing and art moving in a more independent direction? Is there a benefit to this?

I don’t know that I can speak to the future of the publishing industry, but I certainly see my professional future sticking to the independent industry. Having been traditionally published and having had two traditional contract offers on “Synchronicity” and reading over those contracts, I felt as though I would lose quite a bit of creative control along with royalties. The mainstream industry is not right for me, but I am sure there are other authors who love it.

What would you say is your one message you want to get across through your work? What do you want your readers and viewers to learn from your books and films?

My works are not the easiest to read and they’re certainly not for everyone. When I sit down to begin any creative project, the first and most important question I ask is “What is this piece going to say about what it means to be human?”  I don’t judge the “good” or “bad” of that answer. I write what is in the world and do so, mostly, from a realist perspective.

Some of my pieces, “Forbidden” for example, which largely hinges on cult and religious abuse and utilizes this in heavy metaphor where each word has a particular and deep meaning—hence why I left it to novella length–is not for everyone and that’s okay! Not everyone will identify with every piece of art. The relationship between Lila and Wesley through “Synchronicity” and into “Menoetius” upsets readers. “Why would you write such a toxic relationship?” They ask.

“Because they exist in this world.” That’s my answer. I write what is in this world. I’m not saying it’s “good”, just that it exists. And as mad as that might make a reader, I’m okay with that. I want what I produce to elicit feeling, whether that’s anger, fear, happiness, whatever that feeling might be.

One final question: What is your favorite movie of all time?

Haha! NO IDEA! I couldn’t pick a favorite, so let’s go with anything horror/sci-fi based.

Thank you so much for talking with me today Aaron. For those of you who would like to know more about our guest, his Facebook page can be found here.

REVIEWING “THEY CALLED US ENEMY”: BLACK AND WHITE PICTURES SHOW US THE GREY OF OUR OWN EVIL

Book Reviewed: They Called Us Enemy, written by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, and Steven Scott. Illustrated by Harmony Becker.

Genre: autobiographical graphic novel

Published By: Top Shelf Productions in 2019 ($19.99 for the traditional paperback; $25 for the expanded hardcover edition)

Nearly everyone who has been around a television knows who George Takei is—he played the famous character known as Hikaru Sulu, found on the USS Enterprise in the famed hit sci fi classic Star Trek. Even those who might’ve missed the series will undoubtedly have seen the actor online, with millions of followers on Twitter, Facebook and elsewhere. The son of Japanese immigrants and himself a native-born US citizen, Takei has formed himself as a strong role model for younger generations, as well as a loud and beaming voice for political causes. Yet while he’s most well-known for his acting and social media engagements, George Takei has also proven to be an inciteful and subtle comics writer—the book They Called Us Enemy is evidence of that fact.

You’ve no doubt heard Takei give his Ted Talk about his family’s experience with the Japanese internment camps; you probably heard him discuss parts of it in talk show interviews. But here we have the full story as one man could tell it (with the collaborative help of his fellow artists, as listed above), and it is a beautiful, gut-wrenching story indeed. Juxtaposing the events of his years in the camps along with his own career highlights, Takei goes on at length about his own troubled optimism concerning the democratic ideals of a country that has failed his own family. This optimism was in its own way shared by his father, Takekuma Takei, a man whose own ability to speak English and Japanese in equal fluency led him to become the block manager of the camp, thereby using this small position to better help his fellow detainees. These were first, second, and third generation Japanese Americans, many of them born in the United States and who had no allegiance to the country from whom came the attack on Pearl Harbor—and yet here they all were, house in one of several camps across the country by orders of Franklin D. Roosevelt and popularized by politicians such as Fletcher Bownan and Earl Warren. George Takei was only a child when this was going on, hardly able to comprehend the full scope of this horror—how can children such as he be made to pay for the sins of those who came from countless thousands of miles away, whose only connection to him was a shared ethnic background?

No doubt the United States was put in a strange and unique position upon entering World War 2, and our country’s leaders had to make decisions which would seem impossible to us today. In this matter they clearly made the wrong decision, and for several years at least they continued to double-and triple down on that mistake. When the time came to call upon young men for service the US decided that they may need to lessen their racial divide in order to supply more bodies to the frontline, but they had to continue piling on the insult with a loyalty pledge and questionnaire, asking those of Japanese ancestry to revoke their heritage and swear complete allegiance to the country that had imprisoned them without having ever committed a crime. For people like George’s father, a man who had been born in Japan but raised in the US, this posed a far greater insult, for the same country asking him for his service had been the one that had denied him citizenship. Between that and the pressure to swear off his ancestral home, Takekuma Takei was essentially being asked to become a man without a country. What kind of thing is that to ask of someone, especially one who is made to suffer such indignities—along with his own immediate family?

And yet George’s father still upheld the striking ripe-hot optimism in the ideals of American democracy, emphatically passing them along to his son in many frank discussions over the years after their family’s release. Only one other man in history can I think of who placed such strong faith in the institutions of democracy, and George himself walked with that man in one of many demonstrations that were held across the various places in the country. I am of course talking about the Reverend Martine Luther King, Jr.

The comparison between the treatment of the Japanese and African American communities was just one of many eye-opening aspects of this brilliant graphic novel. I myself would like to think I love my country, but that love also comes with a great shame for my country’s sins. We must not forget that while we are a great country we are also an imperfect one; we must forever stand against these atrocities, so that they may never happen again.

George Takei is known for many things, his iconic roles over his decades-long career being one of them. But I would venture to say that this story is perhaps his crowning achievement, if for no other reason than for the fact that he has made me see the need for a better, more unified America. Thank you, Mr. Takei, and may you Live Long and Prosper.

REVIEWING “MEG”: TERROR BEYOND THE HIGH SEAS

Book Reviewed: MEG, Special Anniversary Edition, by Steve Alten

Genre: science fiction thriller; shark terror

Published By: Originally by Doubleday 1997; republished in a revised/expanded edition by Rebel Press ($24.95 in hardcover; $16 in trade paperback)

You hate to say it, but sometimes the movie is much better than the book (even if you did like the book).

Everyone remembers the film versions of Psycho, The Godfather, and The Shawshank Redemption; fewer people realize that these stories were initially introduced to us via the printed word. None of these original books were bad—in the case of Psycho I can’t recommend the novel highly enough. But Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates is a national treasure, albeit a dark and disturbed one. In terms of great shark stories, I can bet you on odds 100 to 1 that most people quoting Jaws will be quoting from the grand blockbuster movie as opposed to Peter Benchley’s masterpiece. Which of course brings me to another blockbuster shark story, this one originated from the mind of Steve Alten.

Any of you who’re reading this and remembers August of 2018 will probably remember a certain high-action adrenaline rush down at the cineplex, featuring a chiseled Jason Statham at the helm. I am of course talking about The Meg, the epitome of giant shark movie that put Jaws to shame. Featuring a gigantic Megalodon and tons of bite-sized action, the flick was pure B-movie perfection. I’d watched this movie in the theater with my parents, and from the first scene I was hooked. I just had to have more of the story.

More of the story came at the hands of Steve Alten, who wrote the original novel Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror. The first in a series of novels to feature this prehistoric breed of shark, the version I read was revised and expanded, released in 2015 along with a prequel story that gives the main character Jonas Taylor’s backstory with the shark. These novels, six so far and with another in the works, are Alten’s literary legacy—but they aren’t his only product. The author of novels featuring the Loch Ness Monster, alien conspiracy, and even the Mayan doomsday clock, Steve Alten has been a busy, busy bee.

I’ve read a few of Alten’s books now, including The Loch and Undisclosed (both well worth your attention if you’re looking for a purely entertaining beach read). After indulging in meaty tomes such as Dubliners and Moby Dick, a cheap beach read is a nice change of pace. A nice fun story, not high art but gets the job done. That’s what Meg is.

I do have a few quibbles with the book, sexist depictions of the few leading women characters being one. Maggie Taylor, Jonas Taylor’s soon-to-be ex-wife, is depicted as conniving, cheating, and opportunistic; Terry Tanaka is rash, given easily to emotion, and ultimately given to her festering love for the leading man. When you consider the long history of B-movies and beach reading these sort of casual caricatures of full people are commonplace. I don’t bash a book for following that history, but I do point out that we could have more heroic women characters in our light reading. Alten did a lot better with this in his novel The Loch; as an author he definitely improved as time wore on. But I can’t ignore the fact that his first novel had its faults.

The film version treated its women characters much better. Maggie, Jonas’ ex-wife, was noble and smart, and Terry was a solid mother and a brilliant scientific mind. I for one was thankful for this, and seeing as Alten himself expressed strong approval for the film I would venture to say he was pleased with the character portrayals as well. If you go and read the book, I do recommend that you follow it up with the movie—you may be surprised with the differences you find.

Oh, and while we’re on it, be sure to check out the Adopt-An-Author program. This is Steve Alten’s nonprofit, set up to encourage and inspire a love of reading in high school students. I’m just passing along information, as I do.

A CONVERSATION WITH BOB ON BOOKS

I don’t know about you, but every so often I need to shake things up in my solitary, literary life. The days get a little too long, and the weeks and months go by slower and with more aggravation than the seven-year itch. Sometimes the latest read off the old to-be-read pile leaves you exhausted, and the stack of paperback grows and grows while leaving you evermore intimidated. When those times come it can be best to hit a secondary pleasure to the art of reading: talking with your friends about books and their magic.

It is with that mindset that I decided to reach out to one of my newest friends I made this year, a man who inspired me to take on my own blogging journey through reading. That man is Bob Trube, and he hosts an online community that is simply named “Bob on Books”. Join us as we embark on our bookish conversation.

Why don’t you introduce yourself to the audience Bob? Tell us a little about who you are, and if you care to say so, what was the first book you read?

I’m a lifelong Ohioan (home of many great authors). I grew up in Youngstown and have lived in Toledo and Cleveland before landing in Columbus where my wife and I have lived the last 30 years. I grew up in a home valuing both the love of learning and of God, great preparation for a career in collegiate ministry. First book that I can remember is the Dick and Jane series we used to learn to read. My mom was a reader, and as soon as I could read, I started reading some of the children’s adventures in our shelves like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Black Beauty.

You are the brain-force behind “Bob on Books,” which as of this writing has amassed a following that is right at the tens of thousands. What inspired you to go into writing and blogging about books?

It was a way to remember what I’d read! I began with Goodreads and discovered that friends appreciated the reviews. One colleague said half-jokingly that I read so he didn’t have to. I think what it came down to was that I could describe and give my take on a 100,000-word book in 700 or so words—just enough to help others decide whether they wanted to buy the book. With that discovery, I started the Bob on Books blog back in 2013. Along the way, I’ve discovered the satisfaction of connecting others with a book that they find diverting or enriching. I’ve always enjoyed connecting people with good books, and this is a way to reach a wider audience.

Do you have any specific genres you tend to stick to when reading and reviewing, or do you prefer to keep things open and cast a wide net? Is there any particular topic or genre that you haven’t explored yet but are aching to jump into in the near future?

If you look at my blog, it will be apparent that I read deeply in the area of religion and theology. That connects with my work. The organization I work in is a delightful learning community, and if nothing else, I enjoy sharing the stuff I’m reading with them. Turns out that while that’s a narrow interest, there is a wide audience when you are on the web. But I also enjoy reading widely—biography, history, science and environmental writing, and a variety of genres in fiction—science fiction and fantasy, mystery and crime fiction, literary classics, espionage. My son has introduced me to graphic fiction and I hope to read more in that area. I’d like to work more poetry into my reading. You have been encouraging me in the area of horror and suspense fiction and that might be an area I explore this year.

What is it about the online book community that appeals to you? Do you think that online communities make for a better platform than the in-person meeting? Or are there an even number of pros and cons to online and in person?

I launched the Facebook version of Bob on Books a couple years ago. At first I thought of it as another channel to promote the blog. The delightful surprise for me has been to watch the interaction among people around their reading interests. People talk about books that I’ve never heard of that others love learning about. That’s allowed for a much bigger conversation. It’s been a place where very different people have been able to meet around their love of reading and delight in books, particularly around our “Question of the Day.”

The downside is that is tougher to talk online about controversial questions (or even books) around our contemporary political issues and we’ve had to limit that. Too quickly, these discussions can degenerate into cliched responses, and sometimes stray from discussions of ideas to attacking persons or each other. I shut that down, particularly because others get notifications on posts with a lot of traffic and may not want to hear it. Sadly, people forget that they don’t have to say everything they think or respond to every post! The same things can happen in person, but with friends who have established a level of trust and mutual esteem, who can separate their ideas from their identities, it’s possible to go hammer and tongs at an idea, and enjoy a beer together afterwards.

Besides writing regular book reviews you also write a regular column entitled “Growing Up In Working Class Youngstown.” Would you like to share what inspired you to write this particular column?

It came out of one of those icebreakers in a meeting. The question was “what question would tell me something about you that I might not think to ask?” My response was, “what was it like to grow up in working class Youngstown?” This was long before J.D. Vance and my wife and I (we both grew up in working class neighborhoods in Youngstown) had talked about how rich our growing up experiences were—the values, the food, the things we did, the steel mills and labor jobs, the ethnic communities, as well as the love of the arts and beauty that people who worked under harsh conditions sustained. I followed up that post with a blog post about the question and then a colleague asked how I would answer. I wrote another about Youngstown, and then a second about food (a big part of working-class life) and posted it in several Youngstown Facebook groups and it just took off from there. The Youngstown I grew up in was a great good place before it became a struggling Rust Belt city. I hope in some ways the memories of what we were, which came through a lot of hard work, might be inspiration for what the city might become.

What would you say has been the biggest drawback to our current situation as it relates to book-buying and reading (I’m talking about the COVID health scare, as well as the ongoing shutdown)? Would you say there is an upside to our current situation?

I am concerned about what will happen to the small, indie booksellers. Many people don’t feel safe with in-person shopping and are limited to online ordering. What you miss is the serendipity of browsing and spotting something you weren’t looking for. I don’t think online browsing can ever quite duplicate that. But I’ve tried to support my favorite brick and mortar booksellers during this time, and I’ve been impressed with the service I’ve received. In every instance the books have been better packaged, arrived promptly and did not cost much more than that big online seller. I grew up in a neighborhood of small businesses in walking distance of my home. Nearly all are gone now. Supporting local bookstores and other good small businesses makes the places we live good places. I want them to be there after the pandemic.

As far as reading, for many of us, it has been a good time to whittle down that TBR pile. Others are struggling and beating themselves up for not reading more. I think it has to do with the emotions of this COVID thing—anxiety, exasperation, and for some, depression. It’s real. It’s not something to be ashamed of. Finding a good counselor to talk with could be a real step of growth that brings something positive out of this hard time. Upsides? The chance to binge a new series. All kinds of creative podcasts and video with authors who can’t do book tours. Time to organize our books, and in some cases to weed some out.

One final question: What is your favorite book of all time?

Hands down, for me it is Lord of the Rings. Tolkien creates a world, a mythology, languages. I also think so many of us identify as hobbits—small fry beside the great heroes, happy to lead a quiet life, and yet longing for more. Tolkien suggests that adventure, and risk are at the heart of a life well lived, and that it is not only the quest but who is with you on the quest that makes it all worth it.

Thank you so much for talking with me today Bob. For those of you who would like to know more about our guest, his website can be found here.

Thank you, James. It has been a rich time thinking about your questions!