VLS Beach Blanket Books

On Comics, Thrillers, and the Bodily Arts


from Caricature by Daniel Clowes

Summer Blonde
By Adrian Tomine
Drawn and Quarterly, 132 pp., $24.95

Henry James deemed "summer afternoon" the most beautiful phrase in the English language; comic-book artist Adrian Tomine makes a case for Summer Blonde, conjuring an even headier collision of sense and season. The cover sports a pouty babe in tank top; that the story in question is as much about a sociopathic stalker and a ménage-à-trois artiste as the titular fair-haired girl is a buried punchline of sorts. In these four immaculately rendered novellas (from Tomine's "Optic Nerve" series), the frisson lies in the way the airtight style bears the mess and the sadness of sex.

These SoCal characters languish under the sign of the noonday demon, their lives punctuated by purchases of quiet desperation that only make things worse. A developing borderline personality gets a self-help book from her well-meaning sister; a boy receives an unwanted C + C Music Factory album from his mother's suitor ("Look . . . just take the god damn tape, okay?" the man mutters); a sad-sack voyeur buys birthday cards he doesn't need for the proximity it affords to the comely cashier. Emotionally adroit, with expertly detonated Carveresque epiphanies and Pekarian silences, Summer Blonde is compulsive melancholy. —Ed Park


STAY
By Nicola Griffith
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 303 pp., $23.95
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Aud ("rhymes with shroud") Torvingen, the narrator of Nicola Griffith's compelling new thriller, Stay, is one scary, gorgeous creature. A six-foot, ice-eyed former cop and martial artist, the Norwegian-born Aud is in mourning for her lover, Julia, murdered at the end of Griffith's previous novel, The Blue Place. Aud channels her grief by restoring an ancient cabin in the Appalachians. She's living off the grid there when an old friend, Dornan, asks her to find his fiancée, Tammy, a business developer under the spell of charismatic pop psychologist and sociopath Geordie Karp, who "earns seven figures a year telling Nordstrom and Tiffany's and the Gap how wide to make the aisles."

But Geordie is no match for Aud, an avenging angel with the "face of a fox gone mad." Stay is a bracing, stylized thriller, but Griffith's real genius is in her portrayal of the brilliant, though damaged, Aud, who embodies the traits of the mythical Norse berserker; a woman who loses herself in the beauty and balletic control of pure violence yet seeks salvation through finding another of Geordie's victims. A finely nuanced, frightening plunge into the dark heart of an exceptional woman. —Elizabeth Hand

THE HAPPY HOOKER
By Xaviera Hollander
Regan Books, 298 pp., $13.95 paper
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Those of you who didn't sneak a peek at The Happy Hooker with your overly curious friends when you were 13 are in for a second coming-of-age. Xaviera Hollander's soft-porn memoir, first published in 1972, about her ascent from freewheeling Dutch secretary to merry New York City madam, has been re-released just in time to steam things up for summer—and to coincide with her latest offering, a memoir, Child No More. Sure, the anecdote about screwing a German shepherd has been cut, but who cares when there are countless orgies. In the book, Hollander candidly reveals her insatiable love for sex (she can't go without her "daily orgasm") through early tales of seducing hot boys while their moms and dads slept in the next room, recruiting female lovers at gay bars, and being the object of a gang bang by eight horny Italians.

As a "professional," she delves into the tricks of the trade (from bookkeeping to how different ethnicities, johns, and age groups like to fuck) with expertise and humor. She even recalls the many cops, pimps, con artists, blackmailers, and accompanying arrests and close calls that made staying in business tough. But it is Hollander's respect for the oldest profession and her joie de vivre that keep her always on top. —Grace Bastidas

ATONEMENT
By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 351 pp., $26
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On the sweltering day in 1935 when the first part of Ian McEwan's Atonement unfolds, a man remarks of his shoemakers, "They make a wooden thingy of your foot and keep it on a shelf forever." Predicting literary immortality is a fool's game, of course, but McEwan's latest novel has the inexorable logic and absolute tonal control of a classic. At the very least, it's diversion of the highest order, brimming with trysts and purloined letters, mysterious visitors and even more mysterious bruises. As the fateful day draws to a close, and myriad agendas overlap and interlock, McEwan perfects an atmosphere of impeccable menace and a word-enraptured style capable of deconstruction without tears. (The child's-eye breakdown of the word cunt is alone worth the price of admission.) Indeed, the parts that follow (which trace the repercussions of that summer day in surprising, richly imagined fashion) constitute an object lesson in what the novel—and only the novel—is still capable of. The reader closes Atonement feeling much as Briony, the author's stand-in, does upon completing one of her juvenile efforts: "The pages of a recently finished story seemed to vibrate in her hand with all the life they contained." —E.P.

EPILEPTIC, BOOK 1
By David B.
L'association/Fantagraphics Books, 160 pp., $24.95 paper
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In the '60s, French cartoonist David B. was a boy called Pierre-François, with an epileptic older brother, a family desperately exploring the dodgy world of alternative medicine for help, and a hyperactive fantasy life centered on the history of warfare. Epileptic is the extraordinary graphic memoir of his childhood, seen through mirrors and distortions: his own life through his brother Jean-Christophe's, his family's story through the lies of opportunistic "visionaries," his adult understanding through his young imagination.

The co-founder of the experimental cartooning group L'Association, B. narrates the story as he understands it now, but draws it (in an evocative, woodcut-inspired style) from the perspective of a boy who was shuttled through the offices of spiritualists and macrobiotic gurus. He saw the world as a parade of icons, where metaphor and fantasy were barely distinguishable from reality, and diseases could be battled like Mongol hordes. Epileptic rarely uses realistic images when a totemic semi-abstraction will say more. By the end of the book, as Jean-Christophe and his family become lost in his disease, B. traps the frail, simply drawn humans in a riot of mystical diagrams, primitivist animals, and stylized warriors. —Douglas Wolk


from Summer Blonde by adrian tomine

THE SHAPE OF WATER: THE FIRST INSPECTOR MONTALBANO MYSTERY
By Andrea Camilleri
Viking, 224 pp., $19.95
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As Lawrence Block is to New York and Raymond Chandler is to Los Angeles, Andrea Camilleri is to Sicily. The Shape of Water was first published in Italy in 1994, and has been translated into eight languages. This summer marks its debut in America.

Inspector Salvo Montalbano is a winning combination of the laconic and the dogged, leisurely making the rounds and piecing together coincidences and inconsistencies. The mystery begins in the fictional town of Vigata, where a trash collection company called Splendor finds the body of a local politician at the Pasture, a garbage dump teeming with prostitutes and drugs. From this spare and playful opening the reader is suddenly swimming in corruption, cover-ups, and a baby-octopus dinner as delicious as any plot twist.

Camilleri takes the standard detective novel format—gruesome crimes, a personable detective, a cast of curious characters, tough humor—and makes the genre his own by placing it in his home country, where food, wine, and pleasure always come before work. —William Georgiades

JIVAMUKTI YOGA: PRACTICES FOR LIBERATING BODY AND SOUL
By Sharon Gannon and David Life, with a foreword by Sting
Ballantine Books, 300 pp., $16 paper
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Located on Lafayette Street, around the corner from the Voice offices, the Jivamukti studio has become the epicenter of celebrity yoga. The two artists who founded the studio and collaborated on the book are committed to a way of life of which the twisty postures are only one aspect. In their book they lay the whole process out, with photographs, drawings, marginalia drawn from sacred texts, footnotes, a bibliography, a glossary, and an index. They explore the devotional aspects of yoga, which tend to make casual practitioners nervous, and take a clear position: "To serve and get closer to God is the only reason to practice or to teach yoga."

It's a perfect beach book. For about the price of one yoga class (which Gannon and Life, being responsible teachers, urge you to take), you can stretch out on your towel, try the poses, experiment with mantras and breathing, contemplate ethical vegetarianism, confront speciesism, plumb the mysteries and wisdom of gurus from far and wide, and study some Sanskrit. And then let it all go. —Elizabeth Zimmer

TO AFGHANISTAN AND BACK
By Ted Rall
NBM Publishing, 112 pp., $15.95
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When American bombs started falling on Afghanistan, Voice contributor Ted Rall flew in and joined a press convoy. What he found was an intractable, lawless, squalid mess, locals who wanted to rip him off or kill him, and the blackly funny realization that the Taliban and the Northern Alliance rank and file are literally the same people. The core of To Afghanistan and Back is Rall's 50-page cartoon journal of his weeks in the war zone, augmented by a dozen short essays (three of which originally appeared in these pages) and a handful of his darkest, most cutting Search and Destroy comic strips ever.

Rall wanted to "cover the human angle . . . the effect of the war on ordinary lives," but ends up documenting his frustrations as an outsider. The acidic observations and snarky cynicism that drive his strip carry the book much more than his rudimentary, goofy artwork—he draws faces exclusively in three-quarter view, and there's an occasional clash between style and content, as with an image of a dismembered suicide bomber drawn with Rall's trademark carrot-shaped nose and X's for eyes. Rall's reflexive distrust of governments, media, and everybody he encounters can be wearying; sadly, it seems justified here. —D.W.

THE DREAM OF SCIPIO
By Iain Pears
Riverhead Books, 398 pp., $25.95
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Historical novels don't usually have surprise endings. The Roman Empire falls. The Avignon papacy returns to Rome. The Allies win World War II. So Iain Pears begins his literary thriller, The Dream of Scipio, by showing how it ends: Julien Barneuve dies. But, surprise, Barneuve need not have died.

Pears expertly braids three life stories and 1500 years in Provence into a philosophical page-turner. Barneuve is a professor forced to collaborate with the Nazis. Olivier de Noyen is a 14th-century poet avoiding the Plague and treachery at the papal court in Avignon. Manlius Hippomanes is a fourth-century landowner fighting to save his estates from barbarians as the Roman Empire crumbles.

Hippomanes writes the eponymous Dream of Scipio, a treatise on civilization, just before the Catholic Church deems such works heretical. De Noyen stumbles across the text. Barneuve, in turn, discovers it through de Noyen's poetry. The Dream guides all three in making choices they believe will kindle civilization through its darkest days.

Both the ancient and modern Dream speak to a world teetering on the brink of conflict: Like Barneuve, we must choose our allegiances wisely, or suffer the consequences. —Danial Adkison

CARICATURE
By Daniel Clowes
Fantagraphics, 101 pp., $16.95 paper
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"I'm an artist, not a doctor!" an arts-fair caricaturist joshes with his homely customers, in the title story of Ghost World creator Daniel Clowes's collection. But whether he's spinning baroque noir yarns or putting the pins to a 1966 fetishist, Clowes remedies the dull thud of reality with his hilariously observant, often disquieting, and brilliantly composed panels. His writing is as supple as his draftsmanship: "The air smelled like a sickening blend of burning hair and oranges"; a closet contains "an unbroken piñata, from which the abdominal bounty had been claimed by hand through a tiny hole."

"Black Nylon" offers a washed-up superhero as analysand (his first costume made from his mother's stockings), while "The Gold Mommy" is a note-perfect stroll through a night town of half-remembered family members and vermin that unfurls like a seven-page distillation of Eyes Wide Shut. But it's the trio of apparently autobiographical pieces that most impresses, especially "Like a Weed, Joe," about an adolescent summer spent longing for a girl named Christ, expressed in pocket pinball and messages in the sand, words that the tide obscures. As Jonathan Richman puts it, "Do you long for her, or the way you were?" —E.P.

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