Graphic Novels in LA TIMES

STYLE & CULTURE; summer books

Los Angeles Times    |    David L. Ulin    |    June 5, 2005

When I was a kid, I considered it the height of luxury to lie on the couch in the living room with a stack of comic books and while away a summer afternoon. It's not that I was a comics geek; I just loved the idea of reading that wasn't, somehow, authorized. Back in the early 1970s, the term "graphic novel" hadn't been invented yet, and one of the appeals of comics was that they stood outside accepted culture.

Thirty years later, comics have become part of the mainstream, a quintessentially American popular art. This summer brings some particularly vivid examples of the genre, beginning with Will Eisner's "The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a work of "graphic history" completed not long before the artist's death in January, which takes apart the anti-Semitic hoax "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" in a direct and accessible way.

"Ghost World" creator Daniel Clowes is back with "Ice Haven," a graphic novel inspired, alternately, by Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" and the murder case of Leopold and Loeb. Then, there's Joe Sacco's "War's End: Profiles From Bosnia 1995-1996," a bit of unorthodox war reportage that uses comics to explore both sides of the Balkan conflict. Sacco may not be as well known as Eisner or Clowes but, like them, he consistently pushes the boundaries of the form.

So much good fiction is due out between now and Labor Day that it's hard to know where to start. Let's look, then, to a local favorite: In August, Aimee Bender will publish "Willful Creatures," her first book of short stories since "The Girl in the Flammable Skirt." Bender is something of a ubiquitous presence this summer, with work in both "The Modern Jewish Girl's Guide to Guilt" -- a collection of essays edited by Los Angeles writer Ruth Andrew Ellenson and featuring Daphne Merkin, Gina Nahai and Rebecca Goldstein -- and "The Secret Society of Demolition Writers," an anthology in which none of the contributors, who include Alice Sebold, Michael Connelly and the book's editor, Marc Parent, have put bylines on their stories, in an experiment to test the freedom anonymity brings.

Speaking of local writers, Lisa Glatt has her own volume of short fiction, "The Apple's Bruise"; Lisa See's fourth novel, "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan," looks at female friendship and devotion in 19th century China; and in "God Jr.," Dennis Cooper takes us inside the head of a man trying to cope with a car crash in which his teenage son has died.

Of all the summer's novels, perhaps none arrives as eagerly anticipated as "No Country for Old Men," Cormac McCarthy's long-awaited follow-up to "The Border Trilogy." Christopher Sorrentino's "Trance" takes the Patty Hearst story and reinvents it, using the saga of the heiress' final months with the Symbionese Liberation Army to expose the mythic underbelly of 1970s America.

In "Until I Find You," John Irving tells the story of an actor desperate to reconnect with his elusive childhood, while Nick Hornby's "A Long Way Down" offers a black comic take on suicide, on what happens when you hit the point of no return.

Death also transfigures John Berger's "Here Is Where We Meet," a lapidary work that blends fiction and memoir, past and present, to explore the intricacies of memory and time. "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana," by Umberto Eco, addresses similar issues, but with a different affect: Here, a sixtysomething book dealer finds himself with a case of selective amnesia, in which he can recall every word he's ever read but nothing of his life.

Jill Ciment's "The Tattoo Artist" traffics in its own sense of loss and reclamation, portraying an American painter who is discovered on a South Pacific island 30 years after she was thought to have disappeared. And with "Specimen Days," Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Cunningham takes a look at art's power to redeem us, creating a multilayered novel built around lines from Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and unfolding across three centuries.

The transformative qualities of art mark this summer's nonfiction as well. Steven G. Kellman's "Redemption" is the first full-scale biography of Henry Roth, whose 1934 novel "Call It Sleep" was followed by nearly 60 years of writer's block until, late in life, he reappeared with the epic "Mercy of a Rude Stream." In "The Accidental Masterpiece: On the Art of Life and Vice Versa," New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman cites artists from Pierre Bonnard to Yoko Ono, arguing that art is not just stimulating but necessary to understand our place in the world.

Speaking of our place in the world, William Brittain-Catlin's "Offshore: The Dark Side of the Global Economy" presents a potent critique of globalization, exposing how corporations hide money in foreign tax shelters, leaving the citizenry holding the bag. This is hardly what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they espoused American independence; in fact, it's exactly the type of thing they were rebelling against. In "1776," David McCullough traces the first year of the rebellion, reminding us that history is never inevitable, while highlighting the role of personality and circumstance in the development of the American nation-state.

Closer to home, Andrew C. Isenberg's "Mining California: An Ecological History" looks at the environmental effects of the Gold Rush, in which literally tons of mercury were washed into California's rivers, while Samantha Dunn's "Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex, and Salvation" recounts the author's unexpected infatuation with salsa culture, in the fluid landscape of contemporary Los Angeles.

For Dunn, salsa is a vehicle of discovery, a way to reimagine herself. The same idea inspires Michael Ogden and Chris Day's "2DO Before I Die: The Do-It-Yourself Guide to the Rest of Your Life," which gathers 100 accounts of life-altering events, with tips on how to make our desires real. Of course, no book evokes the tension between desire and experience as deftly as Thomas Mann's "The Magic Mountain," published in 1924, and newly reissued to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the author's death.

"The Magic Mountain" is one of the great novels of the 20th century, a stunning mix of realism and allegory in which an alpine sanatorium becomes a metaphor for Europe in the years before World War I. For Mann, humanity can't help existing between substance and spirit, but if that's the cause of our troubles, it's a source of hope as well. Or, as he writes: "And out of the worldwide festival of death, this ugly rutting fever that inflames the rainy evening sky all around -- will love someday rise up out of this, too?"

Whether you're looking to break a sweat with some heavy lifting of the nonfiction kind or lie back with breezier beach-worthy prose, the 'endless' season promises a seemingly infinite array of options.

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