Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Reading: Fermor and Spidey

  • Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts
  • Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Essential Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 1

Just a quick entry to catch the rest of my reading from September.

First up was Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time of Gifts. I became interested in Fermor after reading a New Yorker profile of him some months ago. Unfortunately, that profile isn't available online, but here's a quickie bit from the BBC, and the Wikipedia article is pretty good too.

In a nutshell, Fermor is most famous for his exploits as a British agent during World War II. Disguised as a shepherd in Crete, he hatched a successful plan to kidnap a Nazi general. Later he became a travel writer, renowned for his prose. But before all of that, Fermor was a boy, kicked out of school at 18 for a dalliance with a grocer's daughter, who decided to trek by foot across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. A Time of Gifts is the first part of that story.

The prose really is beautiful, the erudition about geography, history, architecture, art, poetry--pretty much anything you've got--envy-inducing. And of course Fermor himself is an amazing cat to learn about. I also enjoyed the set up--learning about pre-war Europe and pre-war Fermor, both soon to be utterly transformed.

I won't lie to you. This book was exhausting. The prose was beautiful, but some work to read. I had to keep the dictionary at hand. (And if anyone knows what a spinney is, I'd be much obliged.) Some of the detail--especially the architecture--was too much for me. But it's a rewarding book. I'm glad the story is split into two volumes. I look forward to reading Between the Woods and the Water when I've sufficiently recovered from this one.

It will perhaps come as no surprise that the next book I read was a comic book. Not a graphic novel. A collection of the earliest Spider-Man comics, Essential Amazing Spider-Man, Vol.1. Bought and abandoned by the Little Lady after the first of the amazing Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies, this book, I hoped, would be a little break from difficult reading after the Fermor book. I was not disappointed. And it's a pretty good read too. It's printed in black and white, which was more of a disappointment than I anticipated, but not a show-stopper. Stan Lee (the writer) and Steve Ditko (artist) don't really hit their stride until the 7th or 8th number, but there are twenty-plus here, so that's not a big deal. Especially early on, the story-telling is shaky, panels where the exposition, thought balloon, and art all indicate pretty much the same thing, for instance. But all the story elements--the characters, the situation--are very good. Peter Parker's relationship with his Aunt, with his super-powers, with J. Jonah Jameson, with Liz, Flash, his girlfriend. All good melodrama. Most striking of all is the--I'm using the term again--voice of these pieces. I don't know if I should credit Stan Lee, or if it's just the Marvel house style, or if there's even a difference, but these stories have a definite, distinct point of view--like Spidey himself, joking, brash, but sincere. It made me re-think the over-seriousness of later comics. It especially made me re-think Watchmen, Alan Moore's po-mo super-hero comic that literalizes all of the subtext of super-hero stories--homosexuality, vigilantism, fascism, all that. Thing is, if you actually read these old comics from the early sixties, it's impossible to believe that Marvel wasn't there way ahead of Moore, and they took themselves not at all seriously. Like cheesy slasher movies, they contain their own critique.

Anyway, that's what I read at the end of last month.

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