The Sunday books post: The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible, Glossolalia and John Updike

August 24, 2013

I started as a book reviewer.

Well, maybe that’s not quite right — I really started as a record reviewer, back in the days when records were vinyl and had sides. But I never got paid for that — the way it worked was that I wrote a paragraph and got to keep the record.

But the first things I regularly reviewed in newspapers were books. I still remember my first assignment, the guy who covered the race track and edited the book page at the newspaper where I was the cop reporter dismissively tossed a copy of the latest Joseph Wambaugh novel on my desk and said something like, “You know. Cops. Write something and if I can use it I’ll pay you $15.”

I believe that novel was The Glitter Dome, but it might have been The Delta Star. Anyway, I read it, wrote about it, and collected my $15. And I haven’t really stopped since.

For the past year or so, I’ve been making a concentrated effort to write more about books in the newspaper, devoting roughly one of my Sunday Critical Mass columns every month to books. (Also Karen — who also has extensive experience writing about books — and I hope to do a quarterly roundup in the section of the newspaper she edits.)

And, with this column, I hope to begin a habit of writing about books in this space. (And to encourage any potential writers of book reviews to send them to me — the email address is — for possible inclusion on this blog. The only catch is I can’t pay you $15. Blood, dirt & angels is an ad-free blog. Which means we have no revenue. And no budget.)

But anyway, here are some books I meant to get around to in today’s (Sunday, August 25, 2013) column but didn’t have the space to address. I’m planning on making this a weekly feature, though if I have to do it all myself it’ll likely be less often.

ConnellyMIDLIFE_finalsketch-3.13650135_stdThe Midlife Crisis of Captain Invincible, by Neil Connelly (LSU Press/Yellow Shoe Fiction, $23) — Neil Connelly is not the first writer to recognize that the more interesting part of the bifurcated self that is the traditional comic book superhero is the half that has to negotiate the mundane channels of everyday life, but The Midlife Crisis of Captain Invincible is in some respects a deeper and more honest treatment than even Alan Moore’s fine graphic novel Watchmen.

This is the story of the once formidable Commander Invincible, a.k.a. Vincent Shepherd, a 40-year-old sentinel against evil decades past his glory days. Now his back aches to the point he’s becoming dependent on painkillers, his powers are waning and office politics are threatening to further marginalize his mission. He’s also sliding toward a second divorce, as he pines for his ex-wife and his estranged older son.

Dipping into a deep reservoir of superhero tropes, Connelly — a precise and quietly funny writer — provides a rich extra dimension to a story that could have been played as farce or a Ben Stiller comedy. The Midlife Crisis of Commander Invincible is a remarkably sweet and moving book, a literary fiction that moves Sten Lee’s notion that Peter Parker was every bit as interesting as Spider-Man.

Glossolalia_CoverGlossolalia: New & Selected Stories, by David Jauss (Press 53, $19.95) — David Jauss teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and in the MFA in Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives in Little Rock and, with the passing of Donald Harington a few years ago, maybe it is time to nominate him as Arkansas’s representative in the nation’s greatest unknown/undiscovered writer sweepstakes.

On second thought, that’s probably not a title he’d seek, and while Jauss may be relatively unknown to Barnes & Noble browsers, he has written stories that have won Pushcart Prizes and O. Henry Awards (and a couple of those are collected here). He’s a regular in the little magazines and his calm dark voice at times puts me in mind of Chekov. He is one of our very best short story writers, master of a compressive, san serif style that plays as plainsong. He has a knack for freighted detail, and apparently a deep and abiding curiosity about the lives of others.

He has a rare empathy that allows him to convincing enter the minds of characters who seem very much unlike the writer who imagined them. While some might pass as gothic grotesques, they are ordinary enough in their concerns and passions and failures, people with modest dreams like owning a limousine (“Torque”) or (in the title story) loving a broken father who can’t make himself understood.

Glossolalia, reprises the nine stories collected in Jauss’s 1996 collection Black Maps (I didn’t re-read the Black Maps versions, but I remember some of them, and it seems to me whatever revisions may have been made are slight), along with eight others. All of them have previously been printed in various literary magazines (two of them, including the title story, were selected for the Best American Short Stories series).

All of them are also works of uncommon excellence and power.

1598532502John Updike: The Collected Stories (boxed set), edited by Christopher Carduff, (The Library of America, two volumes, $75) — First, a confession: For someone who has written extensively about Updike and his works, I’ve never systematically read his short stories. I have, on occasion, encountered them in the New Yorker and I own several collections, but while I’ve reviewed probably 15 or 20 of his novels, I haven’t applied myself to reading his short fiction. This I intend to remedy, with the help of these handsome books, as soon as time allows.

So this isn’t a review, but rather an alert. You can order the volumes here.

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