Tuesday, February 17, 2009

January's Book +1

I started out this year reading a book about one of my newer passions: Bowling!

Bowling Across America: 50 States in Rented Shoes by Mike Walsh.

Since starting my bowling obsession about 3.5 years ago, I began to get a wild notion of bowling in every state in America. I'm not sure where I got this idea from, it just seemed to be a great life goal; something to chase.

So I was surprised to see that Mike Walsh had written a book about doing precisely just that! When his father suddenly dies from a heart attack while playing handball, Walsh decides to quit his job and bowl across America as a tribute to him. His father had always wanted to play handball in all 50 states so Walsh adapts the dream to fit his activity albeit one that he hasn't really followed much.

The book is divided into those 50 states and follows Walsh's journey chronologically as he bowls his way across America. As he does so, he meets a number of interesting, unique individuals and finds a way of life, of community, that is rapidly vanishing in this country. Bowling was once incredibly popular in the US with league memberships in the hundreds of thousands. At one time, pro bowlers were among the highest earning sports players. Since then, participation in leagues has shrunk dramatically and pro bowling struggles to find a viewership. What Walsh discovers is that, with this decline, America has also lost one of the most successful community building organizations it has known. This mirrors the decline in membership in such groups as the Masons, Rotary, Grange and others.

But this book is more about the people Walsh meets and the history of the places he visits. It's a tender glimpse at a part of our national heritage that is slowly fading away. Walsh's writing is crisp and moves along at a good pace. Strangely, despite his making this such a personal trip, Walsh rarely lets the reader inside enough, always keeping himself separated. It's that aspect that also colors his depictions of the people and places. We see the surface of them because that's all that Walsh has time to know before he pulls up and heads to another state. The book is part personal diary and part travelogue without enough of either. In particular, photos of the people and places would have helped greatly in bringing a more intimate touch to the story. We hear about them in the same way one hears about a person or place during a 2 minute snippet on the news. They're there and gone without leaving much of a final impression.

By the time you get to the 50th state (Hawaii), you feel that Walsh is rushing both himself and the reader through the experience. It's become a marathon that he is compelled to complete despite the fact that he seems to have lost interest several states earlier.

Bowling Across America: 50 States in Rented Shoes is a good and fast read, much like a literary equivalent of a fast food hamburger. And, much like that hamburger, you may forget you read it in an hour or two.

From Hell: The Scripts by Alan Moore

I consider From Hell by Alan Moore to be the masterpiece of any fiction involving Jack the Ripper. Moore took his time to do an astounding amount of research and it shows in the story he weaves. Since it's initial publication and then later collection as a graphic novel, From Hell by Alan Moore and artist Eddie Campbell is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

So I was naturally thrilled to find a reprinting of Moore's scripts for the first 5 installments of the story! Moore is infamous for his tightly packed scripts that sometimes can reach near novel length. What else could I learn from this? Would Moore's thought process shine through?

Alas, no. The scripts are dense, that is sure, but lacking in anything revelatory. Much of the same information was included in the "Notes" section that followed every chapter. We don't learn anything further about what Moore thought about the case or the characters that isn't in the work itself.

What IS interesting is the amount of descriptive detail Moore gives for each panel. Moore often goes on for paragraphs describing the scene he is trying to convey. He has it all in his mind's eye and carves out on the paper how it should look... then he tells Campbell to just draw it "whichever way seems best to you". It's an astonishing amount of information to give an artist just to then turn around and tell them that they can discard it if they like. Moore shows complete confidence in Campbell's art and design by allowing him the freedom to reinterpret the directions.

This leads to the book's only real fault and that is by not including reprints from the graphic novel. I am not sure if it was for legal or space reasons but I found myself often wishing I could see how Campbell interpreted a panel or page design that Moore had detailed.

In the end, From Hell: The Scripts only awards the major fans of Moore's work or those devotees to the Ripper case. As I belong to both groups, it was a way of looking at a familiar work through Moore's eyes. For others, though, it may prove too difficult and unrewarding to slough through.

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