Secret Historian, a biography by Justin Spring, follows the life Samuel Steward, a sexual in the LGBT community.
The Someday Funnies
Edited by Michel Choquette
Abrams ComicArts, 216 pp., $55
The backstory: Rolling Stone editor and publisher Jann Wenner asks Michel Choquette, an editor at National Lampoon, to put together a 24-page collection of original comic strips that dealt with one subject: the 1960s. To be called The Someday Funnies, the strips would broach that decade from the perspective of different artistic voices. Choquette spent months traveling the world pitching the idea and commissioning work from figures as diverse as Federico Fellini, Frank Zappa, Tom Wolfe and René Goscinny.
But Wenner passed on the book. The year was 1972.
Choquette then secured another publisher and kept stockpiling strips and meeting with people like Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and Charlie Watts. (None of whom, alas, produced.) Then yet another publisher backed out. Self-publishing seemed an option. Financiers circled the project and disappeared. Dejected, Choquette shelved years of work and moved on with his life. The Someday Funnies became an object of myth in the industry. All of those strips were locked away in a trunk and forgotten, like suppressed memories.
Three decades later, a journalist wrote about the failed project, reviving interest and leading to, of all things, publisher interest. Choquette secured the money to publish the book he had started a lifetime before. A third of his contributors had by that time died.
And now at long last, The Someday Funnies is out, and it's about as gob-smackingly impressive as you can imagine: 129 comic strips, by 169 writers and artists from 15 countries, delving into the 1960s, produced in the early and mid-1970s, an unreleased primary source of sorts, presented gorgeously.
Great writers, illustrators, thinkers, and visionaries of Europe and America, all in one place: Will Eisner, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kirby, Harlan Ellison, Moebius, Ralph Steadman, Pete Townshend, Kim Deitch, Walter and Louise Simonson, Archie Goodwin, Art Spiegelman, Harvey Kurtzman, Sergio Aragon√©s, Gahan Wilson, Red Grooms, Dick Giordano, Denny O'Neil.
The Someday Funnies: It's well worth the wait. —Greg Akers
The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food
By Adam Gopnik
Knopf, 320 pp., $25.95
If taking on “the meaning” of food seems a formidable endeavor, then you already accept Adam Gopnik's premise in The Table Comes First : The way we eat occupies our time and energy and yet so few of us truly understand the significance of food in our lives.
In this collection of essays, Gopnik traces the development of our modern eating systems, weaving in the counterbalancing drugs of coffee and alcohol, the symbiotic development of the restaurant scene and the critic and the seductive role of language in creating appetite. Both methodical scholar and impassioned practitioner, Gopnik presents the political, philosophical and cultural underpinnings of the restaurant, the recipe book, the French culinary tradition and the transformation of our animal need for sustenance into an emblem of civilization. —Hannah Sayle
The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories
By Don DeLillo
Scribner, 213 pp., $24
For decades, Don DeLillo has been exploring the American psychological and intellectual landscape in novels that demand full readerly immersion. Whether it's a massive tome like Underworld or a slimmer volume like Cosmopolis, his books construct sprawling worlds that allow his intricate pop-culture mythologies and grand theories about humanity to develop gradually, patiently, even playfully. By contrast, he has published only a handful of short stories, which offer less room to tease out larger ideas. After a 40-year career, he is just now publishing his first collection of short fiction.
The nine stories in The Angel Esmeralda span nearly 30 years of DeLillo's writing, yet a common theme connects them all: DeLillo is, as always, interested in the remove from which we see humanity. Astronauts watch from space as civilization destroys and rebuilds itself; two precociously intellectual college students devise a backstory for a mysterious old man they see on the sidewalk but never confront; a man watches his children on television from a minimum-security prison.
DeLillo's prose mimics that sense of distance, which means he can come across as cold. In particular, his dialogue often reads like the characters are holding two different conversations at once–a self-conscious mannerism. Weaker stories like “The Ivory Acrobat” become emotionally impenetrable and strangely uninhabited, but a few achieve a haunting, spiritual open-endedness. In the gloriously ambiguous title story, the face of a dead girl appears on a billboard, but is it the work of God or just a trick of lights and subway trains? Could it be both?
That story is powerful, but ultimately DeLillo is less interested in individual characters than in humanity in its entirety, as it destroys itself or steels itself against new horrors. —Stephen Deusner
By John Brandon
McSweeney's, 216 pp., $14 (paper)
John Brandon's Citrus County is a different sort of coming-of-age story, one set in Florida's bland middle ground between the Gulf and the ocean. In the novel, Toby has built up a rigidly unforgiving outlook from the loss of his parents and subsequent life with his uncle, an emotionally unstable presence. But by the tender age of 14, Toby finds a kindred spirit in Shelby, a newcomer to town who moved with her father and little sister, Kaley, when their mother died.
One afternoon, Toby encounters Shelby with her 4-year-old sister on the playground and decides to kidnap Kaley. No one discovers Toby's crime, and Shelby treads the tide of reporters and FBI agents and pursues Toby—he who first called out to her as someone with whom she could possibly relate. As Toby slowly gives in to her, he begins to realize the world of promise that he's jeopardized. It’s a troubling, poignant work that dares to examine the intricacies of emotional survival. —Ashley Johnston
Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade
By Justin Spring
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 458 pp., $18 (paper)
Although novelist, English professor and sexual renegade Samuel Steward Steward's name is little known outside cult literary circles, Justin Spring's 2010 biography Secret Historian (now in paperback) serves as a snapshot of how far we've come in the LGBT civil rights struggle.
Self-described as an “invert,” a Freudian term once used to describe gay men, Steward chronicled his thousands of sexual escapades with fellow educators, sailors, and curious straight men in his “stud file,” a library card catalog filled with erotic details. One such card even described him having oral sex with silent-film actor Rudolph Valentino.
But despite Steward's seeming openness about his sexuality, he wrestled in the closet for part of his teaching career, especially after the State College of Washington fired him for his portrayal of straight prostitution in his first novel, Angels on the Bough.
In 1949, Steward began collaborating with acclaimed sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who encouraged the writer to keep more detailed records of his sex life. Around that same time, he abandoned his teaching career to become, unlikely as it sounds, a tattoo artist, and shortly after, he produced gay erotica pulp fiction.
Written under the pen name Phil Andros, the works were risque even in the more liberal 1960s.
Spring's book comprehensively details Steward's life, using photographs, papers, drawings, manuscripts, and more, which had been collecting dust in a San Francisco attic. But at times, the book indulges in excessive name-dropping of writers and Steward associates who've likely been forgotten outside academia. Thankfully, there are plenty of erotic tales woven throughout (as well as some kinky photographs) to keep readers of this secret history interested. —Bianca Phillips
The Last Sultan: The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun
By Robert Greenfield
Simon & Schuster, 417 pp., $30
The Last Sultan is a cleanly written biography of the founder and guiding spirit of Atlantic Records.
Ahmet Ertegun was born to be a historical figure. When his father, an adviser to Kemal Ataturk at the founding of modern-day Turkey, was appointed ambassador to the United States, Ahmet and his older brother Nesuhi followed. By the time the two boys arrived in the U.S., they had an air of sophistication—and none of the prejudices typically found in postwar America. When 13-year-old Ahmet breaks away from a babysitter and goes to 1930s Harlem, where he meets piano titan James P. Johnson, it’s enough to turn a jazz lover the deepest shade of green.
Reading The Last Sultan is a history lesson on postwar America, race, and civil rights. The image of the bald, preppy Ertegun and his jug-headed genius business partner Jerry Wexler shouting the chorus to “Shake, Rattle and Roll” behind Big Joe Turner in 1954 is a welcome counterpoint to the typically black vs. white take on the period.
But it was a rough business and the sale of Atlantic in the late 1960s was as much about running from some dirty accounting as any motive for profit. Good thing, as the sale is considered one of the worst business deals in history. The tensions between the aristocratic Ertegun and his working-class hit machine Wexler make for the raciest case study in business history. —Joe Boone
What It Is Like To Go to War
By Karl Marlantes
Atlantic Monthly Press, 288 pp., $25
For those who have no direct experience in war but have learned about it mainly from books, the number of texts available is virtually inexhaustible, ranging from novels like Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead to journalism like Sebastian Junger's succinctly titled War. But few of these approaches have the impact of Karl Marlantes' relatively thin volume on the subject, What It Is Like To Go to War—of all things, an essay, but one richly infused with examples of combat particulars taken from the author's own direct experience as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam.
Marlantes is well equipped with humanist insights, as any former Rhodes scholar might be expected to be. And the power of his language is as luminous here as it was in his prize-winning novel Matterhorn, which also treated the war in Vietnam. But do not expect knee-jerk anti-war attitudes. This is a book that contains such confessional passages as: “We all shot anybody we saw, never giving anybody a chance for surrender …. I was no longer thinking how to accomplish my objective with the lowest loss of life to my side. I just wanted to keep killing gooks.”
Marlantes has a proper distance on revelations like this. “We all have shit on our shoes,” Marlantes observes. “We've just got to realize it so we don't track it into the house.”
The trick, Marlantes suggests, is to honor one's enemy to the degree actual combat permits, even to include him, along with remorse for one's own, in prayers for the dead (a sample of which is included in the book). And it is only by doing duty to one's full nature, with eyes wide open, that one can also tap the law-abiding citizen and loving spouse and parent within. —Jackson Baker
Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens
Twelve; 816 pp; $30
Christopher Hitchens is the H.L. Mencken of our time—an atheist, journalist, man of letters, and prodigious reader and thinker who is always clear, forceful, and interesting.
His latest book, a collection of previously published essays titled Arguably, puts his talents and wide range of interests on display in a big volume reminiscent of Mencken's A Mencken Chrestomathy, right down to the chapter headings such as “Amusements, Annoyances, and Disappointments.”
Hitchens, who has been battling esophageal cancer since 2010, sounds off on men and women of letters (most of them Englishmen like himself), American immortals, dirty words, wine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Harry Potter. Many of the essays originally appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The Guardian, and Slate, but Hitchens is so prolific that even his ardent fans will probably find something new.
This is the perfect book for the bedside table so that it can be delved into for a half-hour or so every night until the thing is finished. It made me wonder why I didn't read him more often and why I wasted so much time reading lesser essayists. —John Branston