Ready to curl up with a great graphic novel? Dive into these three options.
‘Atlas at War!’
Back in the 1950s, the publisher that would someday be Marvel Comics was known as Atlas Comics. One thing that Atlas was known for was volume, in that it had a tendency to jump on various trends and flood the market with a given genre, before canceling all those books to jump on the next trend. When the Korean War began in 1950, the trend Atlas milked was war comics.
Did I mention volume? The foreword to “Atlas at War!” notes the publisher released 125 war stories across 17 titles in 1952 alone, and in 1953 Atlas released as many as 14 war titles a month!
Atlas war titles began to wane when the Korean War ended in July 1953, and the Comics Code of 1954 watered down war comics altogether. A distribution disaster in 1957 further reduced Atlas’ output, not just of war books, but of all titles.
I should note that while all these stories are pretty good, none is great. For one thing, most of these stories might well be classified as propaganda. While allowing that war is hell — the suffering of the troops is a feature, not a bug — Americans are always the good guys, and almost always win. Bad guys, when Japanese or Korean, are ugly caricatures painful to the modern eye. And given that the stories are generally 3 to 5 pages long, you’re not going to find any deep character studies, complicated plots or Shakespearean drama.
So why read this book? Because of the art, man, because of the art. This book is a visual treat, whether you’re a comics fan or not. So ignore the words where they’re dumb, and the racial caricatures where they’re painful, and the obvious patriotic rah-rah. Just look at the purty pictures. They are, the expression goes, worth the price of admission.
‘Basketful of Heads’
DC Comics has launched a horror line called Hill House Comics, starring writer Joe Hill, beginning with “Basketful of Heads” ($24.99). You might wonder why this Hill fella rates his own line of comics, but you can stop wondering when I whisper that he’s the son of Stephen King, which he does not advertise.
Nor should he, as he can clearly stand on his own. “Basketful of Heads” is not only scary, it’s a thrill ride full of memorable characters and plot twists that even this veteran didn’t see coming.
Mainly, it’s a heart-in-mouth gauntlet for the lead character, an ordinary teenage girl named June Branch who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances. Like: a whole lot of people trying to kill her, for reasons she doesn’t understand. It’s her story, and Hill never lets us forget that she isn’t a spy or a stone killer or a superhero or anything else that would help her cope.
And while the story is set on Brody Island in Maine, it could take place in any small, seashore town that’s dependent on tourism. It should also be mentioned that the story takes place in 1983. I’m guessing that’s to rid the story of cell phones and the Internet, in order to keep June isolated throughout. Or maybe Hill has watched “Stranger Things” too many times.
Part of what sells the story is the art by Leomacs, whose realistic, straightforward style can veer effortlessly from quirky humor to outright gore. His heartland-fresh characters are always believable, whether they’re sunning on a bridge or wielding an enchanted Viking axe.
‘Manga Yokai Stories’
Yokai is a Japanese catch-all term for supernatural critters and monsters in the island nation’s folklore. If you didn’t know that, don’t feel bad: I didn’t know it either until I read the book.
Not that I am entirely unfamiliar with cool Japanese mythology. Marvel Comics has introduced numerous Japanese deities over the years. And Dark Horse’s Hellboy stories find inspiration all over the globe, including nukekubi, Japanese creatures who look like humans, but whose heads detach at night and fly around looking for victims to consume. The nukekubi were truly chilling when I ran across them in “Abe Sapien: Drums of the Dead” (1998), and again in the animated “Hellboy: Sword of Storms” (2016). To read about them in their original context is even more exciting.
And that pretty much describes my experience reading “Manga Yokai Stories.” The various myths and folk tales, depicted in semi-realistic manga style, are fascinating both as glimpses into Japanese culture and as an exploration of universal human fears. From the woman who lives in a screen to the man who has to ride his wife’s animated corpse like a horse, it’s an edifying mix of cultural education and outright horror.
For those who thrive on nonfiction, here are six acclaimed paperbacks.
‘Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee’ by Casey Cep (Knopf, $16.95)
Fans of true crime, Harper Lee’s work and/or well-written narrative nonfiction will devour this book.
Casey Cep examines Lee’s attempts, in the later years of her career, to report on and write a book about a notorious Alabama serial killer in 1970s Alabama. “Furious Hours,” taking us into atmospheric courtrooms in the Deep South, reads like a novel, and you leave it thinking that the story of the accused killer, the Reverend Willie Maxwell, would make a hell of a movie.
‘Elements of Fiction’ by Walter Mosley (Grove/Atlantic, $16)
Walter Mosley, author of the excellent Easy Rawlins mystery series, offers this follow-up to his 2007 writer’s guide “This Year You Write Your Novel.”
The new book, wrote Kirkus Reviews, “provides guidance and tough-minded encouragement to writers at any stage of development ... As with other manuals, this one doesn’t shirk from emphasizing the difficulty of writing, but Mosley’s spirited generosity helps make it less daunting.”
‘Year of the Monkey’ by Patti Smith (Knopf, $15)
Musician/author/poet Patti Smith’s third volume of her memoirs — the first, “Just Kids,” won the National Book Award in 2010 — takes us through her life in her 70th year, in “a hybrid narrative that’s part travel journal, part reflexive essay on our times, and part meditation on existence at the edge of a new decade of life,” wrote an NPR reviewer, describing the book as “a beautifully realized and unique memoir that chronicles a transformative year in the life of one of our most multi-talented creative voices.”
‘Sontag: Her Life and Work’ by Benjamin Moser (HarperCollins, $22)
Winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for biography, this hefty book (800-plus pages) examines the life of one of America’s best-known public intellectuals, Susan Sontag.
“An authoritatively constructed work told with pathos and grace,” wrote the Pulitzer committee, “that captures the writer’s genius and humanity alongside her addictions, sexual ambiguities and volatile enthusiasms.”
‘The New Negro: The Life of Alain Locke’ by Jeffrey C. Stewart (Oxford University Press, $27.95)
Another Pulitzer Prize-winning biography (as well as a National Book Award winner), Stewart’s book examines the life of Locke, the philosopher, writer and trailblazer of the Harlem Renaissance, whose protegees included Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston and Jacob Lawrence.
A New York Times critic called the book — the title of which comes from a seminal 1925 essay by Locke — a “majestic biography” that “gives Locke the attention his life deserves.”
‘One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America’ by Gene Weingarten (Penguin, $17)
Gene Weingarten, a longtime Washington Post journalist and two-time Pulitzer winner, picked a date at random (Dec. 28, 1986) and found a multitude of real-life stories, from all over the country.
A Post reviewer wrote that the author “indulges his uncommon storytelling gifts on behalf of the (mostly) common man and woman. Weingarten takes immense pleasure in sifting through facts for meaning, then selecting the right language to draw readers close.”
Season’s readings: 12 books for your fall list
Readers rejoice: It’s the most wonderful time of the year for book lovers — pandemic notwithstanding.
In fact, this year promises an even deeper bounty than usual, given publishers’ shuffling of release dates due to the novel coronavirus.
“Beautiful Ruins” author Jess Walter will release what appears to be another page-turner with “The Cold Millions.” Marilynne Robinson is back with “Jack,” a new installment in her “Gilead” novels. And Phil Klay, who won the 2014 National Book Award for his story collection “Redeployment,” is publishing his debut novel, “Missionaries.”
Read on for more best bets, presented in order of publication date. We can’t possibly get to them all, but given the strange way time bends these days, we hope you will.
‘Just Us: An American Conversation’ by Claudia Rankine
In “Just Us,” Claudia Rankine continues the urgent conversation about race she started with her National Book Award-winning poetry collection “Citizen: An American Lyric.” By combining poetry, essay, visual elements and other forms, Rankine finds language to excavate this nation’s deepest hurt. (Graywolf, 352 pages, $30, out now)
‘Zorro’s Shadow: How a Mexican Legend Became America’s First Superhero’ by Stephen J.C. Andes
Historian Stephen J.C. Andes argues the mark of Zorro brands even the most modern American superheroes as he traces the character’s sword-slashing roots to 1919 pulp fiction. Andes aims to reclaim the character’s Latinx roots as an avenger in Old Spanish California. (Chicago Review, 304 pages, $18.99, out now)
‘His Very Best: Jimmy Carter, A Life’ by Jonathan Alter
Jonathan Alter offers a sweeping biography of 95-year-old Jimmy Carter, from his farm-boy childhood in the 1920s through his single-term presidency and his innovative post-presidency as a champion for human rights. The biography promises to “change our understanding of perhaps the most misunderstood president in American history” — and one whose decency stands out in today’s political climate. (Simon & Schuster, 800 pages, $37.50, Sept. 29)
‘How to Write One Song: Loving the Things We Create and How They Love Us Back’ by Jeff Tweedy
Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy offers a primer on the creative promise of songwriting. It works to both demystify the process of divining song, lyrics and the process of putting the two together while observing the wonder and joy in human artistic endeavor. (Dutton, 176 pages, $23, Oct. 13)
‘White Fright: The Sexual Panic at the Heart of America’s Racist History’ by Jane Dailey
Jane Dailey asserts that fear of interracial sex drove white supremacists to fight against civil rights for Black Americans. The book explores how anxiety surrounding sexuality influenced racial violence between Reconstruction and the U.S. Supreme Court’s verdict in Loving v. Virginia, which finally struck down bans on interracial marriage. (Basic, 368 pages, $30, Nov. 17)
‘One Life’ by Megan Rapinoe
Soccer star Megan Rapinoe’s book publishes the Tuesday after the 2020 U.S. presidential election, but it’s teased as “a thoughtful and unapologetic discussion of social justice and politics.” Rapinoe, an Olympic gold medalist and two-time World Cup champion, was raised in a conservative Northern California town but has since become an outspoken advocate for equal pay for women, LGBTQ rights and racial equality. (Penguin, 240 pages, $27, Nov. 10)
‘Likes’ by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum
Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, author of the critically acclaimed “Mrs. Hempel Chronicles” and “Madeleine Is Sleeping,” returns with a story collection. Known for her keen observation of human nature as well as her wit and humor, these tales investigate the conundrums of modern American living. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 240 pages, $26, out now)
‘The Lying Life of Adults’ by Elena Ferrante
Perhaps you devoured Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, featuring such beloved titles as “My Brilliant Friend” and “The Story of the Lost Child.” Consider picking up “The Lying Life of Adults,” a new coming-of-age novel that traces another young female protagonist — Giovanna — as she seeks to discover who she is as she navigates the streets of Naples. (Europa, 324 pages, $26, out now)
‘Monogamy’ by Sue Miller
Sue Miller, author of “The Arsonist,” offers a complex portrait of a nearly 30-year marriage. Told from the point of view of the wife after the husband’s sudden death, the book spirals around a revelation of infidelity. (Harper, 352 pages, $28.99, out now)
‘How to Walk on Water’ by Rachel Swearingen
Swearingen will release her debut volume of stories, “How to Walk on Water.” Publishers Weekly called it a “crafty collection,” noting that “Swearingen juxtaposes ... intense story with the darkly comic.” (New American, 182 pages, $14.95, Oct. 1)
‘The Office of Historical Corrections’ by Danielle Evans
“The Office of Historical Corrections,” a novella, is presented here along with other stories that chronicle how history — racial and cultural — continues to reverberate through daily life. Danielle Evans, author of the critically acclaimed “Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self,” continues to write provocative fiction about people of color, raising questions about who gets to dictate our national narrative. (Riverhead, 288 pages, $27, Nov. 10)
‘Remote Control’ by Nnedi Okorafor
This one doesn’t come out until 2021, but who doesn’t need something to look forward to in the new year? Award-winning science-fiction author Nnedi Okorafor will return with a new novel about a girl who’s adopted by Death itself. She’s searching for answers. Aren’t we all? (Tor, $19.99, 160 pages, Jan. 19)
And here are six more paperbacks worth checking out.
‘The Yellow House’ by Sarah Broom (Grove Atlantic, $17)
Winner of the 2019 National Book Award for nonfiction, Sarah Broom’s mesmerizing memoir tells the story of a house, and of the lives that flowed in and out of it like a river. Broom’s family home, a modest shotgun house in east New Orleans that was badly damaged by the floods following Hurricane Katrina, no longer stands. “But it lives in these pages,” I wrote after reading it last summer, “in the jostle of children in its rooms, in the stories of an ever-shifting mosaic of neighbors, in the portrait of a part of New Orleans that’s far from tourists (‘Walkers here did not stroll’), and in the vivid, poetic voice of a woman learning the meaning of home.”
‘Your House Will Pay’ by Steph Cha (HarperCollins, $17.99)
Steph Cha’s book, winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, follows two L.A. families — one Korean American, one Black — in the aftermath of a violent crime.
‘Three Women’ by Lisa Taddeo (Simon & Schuster, $17)
Journalist/author Lisa Taddeo spent years researching this nonfiction book, which examines the sexual lives of three American women. “The book is sexually explicit — you might blush when reading it — but it never feels gratuitous or clinical,” wrote an NPR reviewer. “Its prose is gorgeous, nearly lyrical as it describes the longings and frustrations that propel these ordinary women. Blending the skills of an ethnographer and a poet, Taddeo renders them extraordinary.”
‘A Better Man’ by Louise Penny (St. Martin’s, $9.99)
No. 15 in Louise Penny's beloved series featuring the French-Canadian village of Three Pines and gentleman detective Armand Gamache, “A Better Man” involves a missing woman and a catastrophic flood.
‘Middle England’ by Jonathan Coe (Knopf Doubleday, $17)
Jonathan Coe’s timely novel, winner of the Costa Novel Award, is set in a contemporary Britain torn apart by Brexit debate. “While we want everything we read at the moment to speak with the voice of our own particular echo chamber,” wrote a reviewer in The Guardian, “Coe — a writer of uncommon decency — reminds us that the way out of this mess is through moderation, through compromise, through that age-old English ability to laugh at ourselves.”
‘How We Fight For Our Lives’ by Saeed Jones (Simon & Schuster, $17)
Winner of the Kirkus Prize and the Stonewall Book Award, Saeed Jones’ book describes his own coming of age as a gay Black man in the American South. A New York Times reviewer described it as “a moving and bracingly honest memoir that reads like fevered poetry.”
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