With everything going on in at the end of the summer and beginning of the fall, I didn’t have time for my ever-so-beloved Quarterly Media Update. Never fear! I have about five minutes to do a quick thumbnail version of what went on between June and August. Here we go.
The First Family by Mike Dash
This chronicle of the rise of organized crime is slow at points; it focuses, a bit too strongly in my opinion, on the early lives of key figures, and on intricate descriptions of crimes--both the mundane, like counterfeiting, and the lurid, like murder. This should be more interesting than it sometimes is. Luckily the pace picks up when describing the complicated relationships between rival families, and especially when it delves into the various techniques used by investigators who are, depending on their fortune, either smugly confident or desperate for a win. The character profiles of some of the more prominent figures are good, notably that of pugnacious, obstreperous Inspector Petrosino, the Italian-American who made it his life’s work to destroy Italian crime in the United States. Then, especially, there’s the obscurely terrifying boss Giuseppe Morello, AKA the Clutch Hand. (And what an evocatively apt nickname that is!) With much of his criminal activity shrouded in mystery, the author does a good job of piecing together his early life and connecting him to the dark activities that plagued early twentieth century New York, and tracing him through the boom years and the busts.
What really comes through in this mafia origin story is the sense of selfishness and greed that was bound up with grandiose notions of an old world gentility, a gentility that these beasts wouldn’t truly recognize if it hit them in the face. During Morello’s one lengthy prison stint, it’s clear that reform was never on his mind--indeed, that he probably felt he had no need to reform, that he had a right to his grasping crimes. As soon as he was released he got to work re-establishing his place in the mob. It’s a depressing lesson: crime may not pay in the long run, but it has enough perks to keep at it despite its dangers. And the Morello family’s criminal legacy lingers on in today’s underworld.
I don’t think this book is essential for every library, but if you have a strong True Crime collection, this one belongs in it. It’s a sort of twisted Book of Genesis for all the mob stories of the twentieth century.
Sous Chef by Michael Gibney
A fast-paced look at a day in the hard-drinking, sometimes philosophical life of the eponymous fine dining cook. I blazed through this compact tome, fascinated to take a more authentic look at the industry I know best from "Hell's Kitchen.” The author, himself an experienced sous chef gifted with words as well as knives, spends some time, in the few moments available for reflection, on the nature of service, whether there's really a place for ego in the kitchen, and the care with which truly gifted chefs approach every dish. There's plenty of bravado on display, too, though our unnamed protagonist (undoubtedly an author stand-in) has reached a tipping point in his career, somewhere between the vulgar boy's club of the line and the lofty concerns of the head chef--here depicted as an inscrutable, remote figure, a being who gives the impression of having transcended, somehow, even as he's high-fiving you or cussing out the prep cook.
If you have any cooking-themed programming, this book is a great insider look at an opaque industry for your community members!
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre
This is a dark, grim book of Cold War-era espionage on both sides of the Berlin Wall, filled with analog tradecraft, hard-bitten career spies and the dames who love them, and the lingering specter of German anti-semitism. It's full of exciting twists and turns as well as several important explorations of the morality of the Soviet/socialist system, the empty ethic of the west, and the soul of spying. And it's a darn depressing book, described by one contemporary critic as possessing "an atmosphere of chilly hell." Very apt. But it's also an early appearance of my beloved George Smiley (of Tinker,Tailor, Soldier, Spy fame), so it's got an underlying, distant strength of kindness.
Everyone loves a spy tale, but it’s good to remind your patrons that it’s not all shaken martinis and femmes fatales. Make sure you have this volume in your collection.
Saga vol. 1 and 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
I like everything Brian K. Vaughan has ever written, including this gorgeously-illustrated space opera, love story, and family epic. That said, he has a definite schtick, and for me, it’s starting to wear thin. I’d like to see him write outside his normal register of “contemporary young people slang and humor in an unexpected context.” The contrast of the vulgar sitcom banter with the sci-fi visuals and situations is amusing for a while, but after a time I find that I want the story to take itself more seriously. It certainly deserves it. On the other hand, I have nothing but praise for Fiona Staples’ expressive and fluid artwork.
Saga is an important work by an important creator, so if you have a graphic novel collection of any stature, you need to have the first few volumes, at least. But if, by his next project, Vaughan hasn’t shaken up his style, it may be time to consider thinning the holdings.
Hawkeye, vol. 1: My Life as a Weapon by Matt Fraction, David Aja and Javier Pulido
A great, stripped-down chronicle of what it means to be a superhero--especially for a hero in the “highly skilled” category who is nonetheless surrounded by the “godlike” on a daily basis. Clint Barton, aka Hawkeye--my longtime favorite Avenger, and so much cooler than the movie version you may know--is a wise-cracking, sardonic narrator who forces a smile between constant bruises and contusions. He just never quits. This first volume shows him making a life away from the Avengers, but demonstrates that he never takes a day off from being a hero. It’s a great microcosm that stands for the entire Marvel Universe and its ethos of “normal guy” heroes who will never pass up the opportunity to sacrifice for what’s right.
Hawkeye is critically acclaimed for its sharp, real writing by Matt Fraction and the great geometric artwork by David Aja. This title belongs on every library shelf to demonstrate that heroes can flourish at every level of power and every level of society.
The Americans (FX)
Season 2 was the “parenthood” season, for those of you following along at home, but I had the good fortune of bingeing out on the whole series this summer. What a tense, thrilling show! It delves into a period of our history that hasn’t gotten a ton of pop culture treatment--that is, the late Cold War of the 80’s, with all the attendant craziness of Reaganmania and various wild international developments. But it balances really great spycraft with serious family drama. Both seasons measured arcs that dealt seriously and realistically with deep-cover KGB agents settling into the middle years of their arranged sham marriage and the charged feelings that have inevitably developed between them. Season 2, specifically, juxtaposed the agents’ very normal(-ish) home life with the deadly stakes of their profession, as a complex murder mystery causes them to reassess their relationship with Mother Russia and to take serious steps to protect their clueless, American citizen children.
But none of that matters. This show makes you root for the KGB. Wrap your head around that! When this series becomes available, add it to your collection as a bookend to the aforementioned spymaster Le Carre’s work on the earlier and middle stages of the Cold War.
The Leftovers (HBO)
A series that brings to mind the famous poem by Stephen Crane: “A man said to the universe:/‘Sir, I exist!/”However,” replied the universe,/”The fact has not created in me/a sense of obligation’”--which is actually quoted in the pivotal ninth episode.
Roughly 2% of the world’s population inexplicably vanished 3 years ago. What does it mean? Is it an event of religious ramifications or is it a freak scientific occurrence? Is it of the utmost significance or merely a particularly bizarre blip in the convoluted history of the human race? The show offers few answers to these questions, but it does a better job of answering, “How would you react if the world irrevocably changed before your eyes?” The answer: given enough of us, we’d do almost everything. Cults flourish, relationships splinter, and coping is necessary but hard to come by. This series isn’t very fun, but despite its baroque concept, it feels very real--richly drawn and intensely felt . Sometimes that’s all you need. That, and a great soundtrack, which this show also has.
Rectify (Sundance Channel)
Speaking of not very fun, but very real, here’s season two of the ponderous, philosophical Southern Gothic crime drama. Daniel’s quest to find a place in the world he missed during twenty years on death row continues, as do his loved ones’ various efforts to deal with Daniel’s slanted worldview. Meanwhile, the mystery of the murder that landed him in jail all those years ago continues to unravel. What is guilt and what is innocence? Who has baggage that needs rectifying? Will Amantha last at her Wiggly Piggly job?
Bleak, meandering, thoughtful, difficult, rewarding--Rectify is William Faulkner meets “Masterpiece Theatre.”
Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie
I’m bundling these two films together because they both succeed on the same levels (and not at all because I’m way past my self-imposed deadline and really want to get this post out…). They’re two properties that, on the surface, should not have worked--they’re just too out there. But against all odds, the third-tier comic property and the Scandinavian building block toy made perfect, fun blockbusters. They both have heart, too, in Peter Quill’s barely-concealed vulnerability and in Lego’s live-action metastory about toys unplayed with. Guardians also advances the Marvel Cinematic Universe in crucial ways--the Collector! The Celestials! The Kree!--so I’m very on-board with where it hints we’re heading in that realm. Less serious but equally fun: seeing lego versions of Batman, Gandalf, Han Solo, and Abraham Lincoln all hanging out.
A deceptively simple-looking matching game. Out of a field of cards, you have to find sets of those that exhibit each of the game’s various attributes without repeating--shape, color, outline, and number. Oy, what a headache. It’s fun, though, and good for quiet solo or group play in the library.
Arkham Horror (Fantasy Flight)
Let’s get the bad out of the way first: the best games provide on-board text, or even better, iconography, that almost makes it possible to play out of the box without looking at the rules. Very good games at least use this text or iconography as a “crutch” so that once you have breezed through the rules, the game itself reminds you of its own ins and outs. A highly complex game, Arkham Horror doesn’t really succeed in this regard. Granted, there are so many moving parts here that it would be hard to do so, but I would have really appreciated something on the board to remind me of crucial details like the round sequence, the modus operandi when opening gates, or the process used to close and seal them. For all of these elements and more, my rulebook became rather well-thumbed throughout the evening of my first play--and second, and third…
(And okay, game makers, can we please talk about your rulebooks, particularly the indexes? I know this must be one of the most difficult elements of the design and publication process--meticulously laying out the hows and wherefores--but you’ve gotta make it accessible. That means ‘well-structured’ and ‘well-indexed.’ This marks the second super-complex game I’ve played whose rulebook is neither--the other being, of course, Game of Thrones. I’m starting to think I should moonlight as a volunteer rule indexer.)
Aside from that...what a great cooperative game! If you’re into H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, this game encapsulates it really well. It may seem a little overstuffed at times, but this isn’t an old-timey short story, after all--epic board games have more room for everything, the kitchen sink, and a shoggoth, too. Replayability is a big factor here; there are so many options for characters to play, event cards to draw, items to acquire, and--most of all--cosmic baddies to face that each outing is sure to be a brand new experience. And everything has the flavor of Lovecraft, in the pulpy bios of the playable characters, the headlines of the ‘newsflash’ cards, and in the beautiful artwork all over every square inch of the board and cards.
Word to the wise: though this is playable with as few as two people, try to get as many friends together as you can, and assign each of them an element of the game to keep track of (like that guy from Seinfeld who gives everyone a job at his parties, but better). This would make a great program at your library around this time of year--you can encourage participants to dress up and really get into their roles, play freaky music, and even serve Lovecraft-inspired snacks!