Trade paperbacks, older editions, and miscellaneous for December 2012

I think this way of reviewing the many trades and older stuff I get is good, so I will continue doing so. I hope it's good for all of you!

Nexus Omnibus volume 1 by Mike Baron (writer), Steve Rude (artist/letterer), Bill Willingham (penciler), Mark Nelson (artist), Eric Shanower (inker/letterer), Rich Rankin (inker), George Freeman (artist/colorist), Les Dorscheid (colorist), Jesse Kaysen (letterer), Jeff Butler (letterer), Mary Pulliam (letterer), Rick Taylor (letterer), John Workman (letterer), and Steve Haynie (letterer). $24.99, 418 pgs, FC/BW, Dark Horse.

I was happy that Dark Horse decided to bring out Nexus in Omnibus format, because I had read scattered Nexus stories over the years and had never really gotten into it, so I figured I could splurge and get them from the beginning and see what was what. This reprints the three-issue black-and-white issues that introduced the character and the first eleven issues of the color ongoing. There's a lot of comics in this here book!

I'm not going to go into it too much - Nexus is 30 years old, after all, so this is all water under the bridge - but for those who don't know, Nexus is a dude who is tormented by dreams that compel him to hunt down evil-doers and execute them. Meanwhile, he lives on a moon that he has opened up to refugees from political oppression. He allows a reporter who's also a spy to visit him, and she falls in love with him and betrays her employers. Nexus - whose real name is Horatio Hellpop - doesn't like having these dreams, but he can't get rid of them, even though he wants to - one of the subplots of this book is his attempt to end his dreams. There's a lot of other strange stuff going on, too.

I have to confess that I didn't like the stories all that much. I've never been a huge fan of Mike Baron - I've read some of his stuff, but I don't seek it out - and his style just doesn't work for me. Nexus is a weird product of the 1980s - it takes place 500 years in the future, but Baron barely tries to imagine any changes to life in that time, and at one point a comedian actually references M*A*S*H, a Wang computer (really, Baron?) and a Bell Telephone satellite. I get that a lot of science fiction is dated, and Baron's references to "soviets" doesn't automatically mean the work is invalid, but it's like he's not even trying. Plus, while the stories are fun on one level, Baron shifts tones so rapidly that it made me dizzy. At one moment, the book is serious, and on the next page, it's a zany comedy. It could be a thriller or a romance. I don't mind if a writer tries to embrace all of these modes of storytelling, but Baron lurches from one to the other so quickly that it's difficult to care about any of them. His characterization isn't great, either - it feels like the characters do stuff just to further the plot, like when Sundra Peale falls in love with Nexus really quickly, without really knowing him at all. The grand plot of Horatio's dreams and the mystery of the moon on which he lives and whether the rulers of Earth will allow him to continue to act as an executioner is pretty good, but the individual stories fall far short.

That's not to say this is not worth a look. Nexus is one of those comics that everyone should at least have a passing familiarity with, and anyway, the Dude's art is something to behold. The Dude was 25 when he started working on Nexus, and it's amazing to see how good he was at so relatively young an age. I can't even find what he was doing before Nexus, so the fact that the art is so gorgeous is even more impressive. The details are wonderful, the action sequences fluid and dynamic, the designs are tremendous, and the shading and coloring is superb. I don't know if this has been retouched at all - the coloring, especially, looks very modern, but maybe it was just ahead of its time. Rude does some nice layouts to keep things zipping along, and he uses different materials occasionally to highlight the shift in tone of the book (when Horatio dreams of Sundra, for instance, Rude goes much sketchier and the colors are far paler, implying that it's not "reality"). It's not surprising that Rude couldn't keep up a decent schedule - the 11 color issues took over two years to come out - but unlike a lot of slow artists, the results are all on the page. The art on this book is incredibly dense and it's a pleasure to pore over it, checking out all the cool stuff the Dude puts in it.

I'm already getting the second volume of this, because I think it's one of those comics I should know more about, even if I don't love this collection. Obviously, I spend a lot of money frivolously on comics, so I can just drop 25 bucks on these things, but if you're not so inclined, I'd say that this is a decent enough comic with spectacular artwork. I imagine you can find it cheaper somewhere, and it's probably worth checking out even if I don't love it. Now that's an endorsement!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Fury MAX: My War Gone By volume 1 by Garth Ennis (writer), Goran Parlov (artist), Lee Loughridge (colorist), and Rob Steen (letterer). $19.99, 132 pgs, FC, Marvel.

Ennis writes good war stories, and Parlov has a solid, meat-and-potatoes style of storytelling, so there's not much else to say about Ennis' Fury series, is there? It's not quite as outrageously insane as his first Fury MAX series, lo those many years ago, but it does share some similarities with it - Fury's enjoyment of multiple hookers, for instance. It's stories about Fury showing up in various hot spots of the Cold War - the first three issues put Fury in Vietnam just when the French are losing their grip on it, while the second three issues have Fury in Cuba as the Bay of Pigs invasion goes bad. He's in Vietnam because he pissed someone off, but it turns out that the action is right there - he gets caught upcountry just after Dien Bien Phu, and has to fight his way out of a fort that's under siege. Things don't go well. In 1961, he and two others sneak into Cuba to assassinate Castro, but that goes horribly wrong as well.

The Nick Fury that Ennis likes writing is an old soldier, bitter because people aren't straight shooters, far more capable than anyone else around him, wondering where all the "good" wars have gone, and perpetually pissed off because of the lack of nobility in the world. The "villain" in this story is "Pug" McCuskey, a rising politician who's as smarmy as any - so far, he's not really a bad guy, just a typical Ennisian politician, meaning he's unctuous and cowardly and conniving. I imagine that as the series moves on, Pug will become more and more evil until Fury has to kill him by, I don't know, shoving blintzes down his throat until he chokes to death or something. Fury also has the typical Ennis sex with Shirley DeFabio, a member of Pug's staff, meaning he's the greatest lover in creation and she just can't get enough of it. Ennis has always written pretty good female characters, however, and Shirley is tough, smart, and knows how to get what she wants. Ennis also gives Fury a protégé, a dude named Hatherly, who's a bit naïve but manages to earn Fury's respect. There's a lot of bloodshed, plenty of bad language and nudity, and lots of talk about honor among soldiers and what America should really be doing in the Cold War. In other words, it's a very entertaining Garth Ennis comic book. Those are always fun!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

Valen the Outcast volume 2: Death Eternal by Michael Alan Nelson (writer), Matteo Scalera (artist), Archie van Buren (colorist), and Ed Dukeshire (letterer). $14.99, 88 pgs, FC, Boom! Studios.

Valen the Outcast only lasted eight issues, and I'm not sure if Nelson planned it that way or if it got cancelled - I think it was the latter, but Nelson doesn't really shed much light on the matter on his blog. This probably could have lasted longer, but it also feels like it's the right length - Valen, as an undead dude who wants his soul back, doesn't have much else to do, and the quest can only take so long before it becomes boring. So while Nelson probably could have done 10-15 issues of this series, I doubt if he could have stretched it much longer.

Whatever the reasons, Valen the Outcast is, a bit surprisingly, a really good series. I write "surprisingly" because I wasn't sure if Nelson would be able to go much further than "Undead Conan," which is the initial hook of the series, but in eight issues, he manages to pack quite a lot of interesting characterization and exciting plotting into the book. In the first volume, Valen hooked up with Alexio Cordovan, a swindler, thief, and all-around cad, who was acting as his guide, and they were joined by Zjanna, who had marked Valen with a magical sigil so that he could escape the influence of Korrus Null, the sorcerer who is turning all these people into undead warriors. In this volume, the three of them cross the sea and arrive near Korrus Null's stronghold, but of course he lives in a very dangerous area and they have to get past some nasty people and things before they reach it. Nelson shows us what a "skulk" is (there's a reference to it in the first volume) and we learn a bit more about Zjanna and why she lives by herself. Valen remembers why he knows Cordovan, and it ties into the young boy we saw in volume one, who of course returns in this volume. Finally, Valen reaches the court of Korrus Null, where he and the others have to make several hard choices about what they're going to do. Korrus Null can restore people to life, after all, so he not only promises Valen his life, but also Valen's unborn son, which would allow his line to continue. Will Valen be tempted?!?!?!?

Nelson has been writing for Boom! for several years now (five or six, if I remember correctly), and he's always been pretty good with ideas but not always great with execution. With this series, however, he manages to use his good ideas and bring them to fruition very well. He doesn't pull any punches in this series, and while some of it is clichéd, even those parts are brutal. Nelson is fearless in this series - he knows that certain things would happen in certain ways, and he doesn't shy away from it. That means this isn't the cheeriest story in the world, but it's certainly exciting, tense, and harrowing.

Scalera is superb in this series, but he really gets better in this volume, as he uses some different materials to give some scenes different looks. When Valen is underwater in the first chapter, Scalera uses rougher colored pencils to make the scene more eerie and disturbing, and throughout the book, his artwork is dense, dynamic, and energetic. It looks rushed only because Scalera wants to get across the idea that Valen is on a clock and he needs to complete his mission. Scalera's designs are wonderful - the Furies in the sea are terrifying, for instance. I've liked Scalera's art since I first saw it not too long ago, but he's gotten even better, and I hope he gets more press as he continues. Van Buren does a nice job with the colors, too - there are some nice special effects in this book, and it adds to the strange, mystical world that Nelson has created.

Even if Valen the Outcast was cancelled before Nelson could tell his entire story, he still manages to give us a complete and exciting read in these two volumes. This is a really good comic, and I encourage you to track it down!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

X-O Manowar volume 1: By the Sword by Robert Venditti (writer), Cary Nord (penciler), Stefano Gaudiano (inker), Moose Baumann (colorist), and Dave Lanphear (letterer). $9.99, 95 pgs, FC, Valiant.

This is a pretty good value, as it's 10 bucks for 4 issues, which might not have been a great value 30 years ago but seems really good these days. Valiant is really making a push with their new books, and it's nice that they tried to lure people in with the price on this book.

The idea of this story is that in 402 CE, a Visigoth warrior named Aric is abducted by aliens. Prior to that, he was fighting the Romans - as Visigoths were wont to do - and he has some bad feelings about his enemies, who dragged off his wife when they defeated the Goths in battle. He and other humans spend some years as prisoners of the "Vine," fugly insect-like aliens who force the humans to tend a garden in which, it seems, their offspring are grown (they mention this, but I'm not sure if it's metaphorical), but eventually they escape. The Vine has some mystic armor that their strongest warriors try to wear, but it kills them all. Of course, Aric puts it on, and it doesn't kill him! Yay! Unfortunately, all the humans are killed except Aric, who manages to return to Earth ... in the present day. Dang, that has to suck. And, of course, back in the fifth century, the aliens stole some human babies and substituted their own babies, changed to look human. In the present day, the descendants of these babies (or perhaps the babies themselves?) are notified that Aric is wearing the "manowar" armor, which is no good for them. What will they do?!?!?!?

This is an entertaining comic, but it's a bit frustrating - it feels like a four-issue prologue. I know it's not, because Venditti does quite a bit with Aric and the other characters to develop them, but when the basic premise is that there's a Visigoth warrior wearing super-armor who gets transplanted to modern Earth, it feels like it takes a while to get there. I guess I have a problem with the structure - it's told in linear fashion, and it might have been better beginning with Aric in the present wearing the armor and then his "origin" revealed in flashbacks. As it is, it's a solid read, but it feels a bit "by the book" - this happens, then this happens, then this happens. Venditti decides to make this fairly meat-and-potatoes, and while there's nothing wrong with that, I found myself being a bit impatient because it was taking so long for Aric to put on the confounded armor.

Nord is good, as always, although he too matches Venditti's storytelling by giving us fairly simple yet solid action comics work. The Vine are nice and creepy aliens, and the armor is pretty cool, and everything looks nice. Nord knows what he's doing, as does Venditti, so the book works perfectly well as an action/science fiction comic. I enjoyed X-O Manowar, and will probably buy the next trade (at least), but there's not much too it. There doesn't have to be, true, but that also means I don't have much to write about it!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Daredevil volume 2 by Mark Waid (writer), Paolo Rivera (penciler), Emma Ríos (artist), Kano (artist), Khoi Pham (artist), Joe Rivera (inker), Javier Rodriguez (colorist), and Joe Caramagna (letterer). $15.99, 121 pgs, FC, Marvel.

After the first six issues, which everyone went nuts over, we get the second volume of Daredevil, which is quite a bit less good. It's still pretty good, and I hear tell it's recovered quite nicely, but it's definitely a step down from the first trade paperback. The first issue, #7, continues the good start to the title, as Matt takes a bunch of blind kids for a weekend retreat that turns bad when the bus goes off the road in a snowstorm. It's actually a pretty great single issue, and it makes the fact that Waid then dives into this whole "Omegadrive" mess, which isn't terribly interesting, more annoying. But Waid does, so he crosses over with Amazing Spider-Man #677, which features a far whinier Peter Parker than I remember but does have Ríos drawing it, so it looks nice. (Seriously, Peter - get a grip. In the first panel, he whines about his romantic life finally going great, once again ignoring all the years he spent tapping MJ's fine ass. For a guy who gets so much tail as Peter, he sure whines about it a lot.) Kano does a nice job with issue #8, and Rivera draws a nice two-parter in issues #9 and 10, but those issues form a pretty dull Mole Man story. I mean, Waid explains that Matt still isn't over his father's death, but being stuck in the past is part of Matt's emotional make-up, so it's not like it's telling us anything new. I've liked Pham's art in the past, but his attempt to mimic the art style on the book is misguided, as issue #10.1 looks terrible and is pretty boring, to boot.

So what happened? Waid launched into the "Omegadrive" crossover after this volume, with Spider-Man and the Punisher showing up, but I wonder if Waid created the Omegadrive with the intention of crossing over with the other titles or if Marvel, crass as ever, saw an opportunity and took it and then Waid had to twist his story around to set the whole thing up. The idea of the Omegadrive - "a hypersecure storage drive filled with the data on the world's biggest crime agencies" - isn't the best one, but it might have been a good story for one or two issues. The fact that Waid builds an entire crossover-and-a-half out of it is kind of lame.

There's still a lot to like in this volume - Waid's dialogue is always fun, and he does a really nice job capturing Matt's new/old devil-may-care attitude and Foggy's exasperation with it - and except for the ".1" issue, the art is good. It just lacks the spark of the first volume, and I don't have high hopes for the next volume, which is all crossover. Can't we just move past it and get back to the good superhero comic this was in volume one?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi volume 1: Force Storm by John Ostrander (story/writer), Jan Duursema (story/penciler), Dan Parsons (inker), Wes Dzioba (colorist), and Michael Heisler (letterer). $18.99, 110 pgs, FC, Dark Horse.

Ostrander and Duursema worked on Star Wars: Legacy, and those comics were okay, even though I never got into them too much. but I like to try out stuff that Ostrander writes, because he's such a good writer, and that means I read more Star Wars comics than I normally would - they're really not my bag.

This series focuses on events over 36,000 years before the original Star Wars (the ORIGINAL original - the one from 1977, which I refuse to call anything but Star Wars), when the Jedi (or "Je'daii" as they're called in this trade, although I'll use the more "modern" spelling, if that's all right with you) were just coming together and forming their weird, crypto-fascist-by-way-of-hippiedom religion. Ostrander goes over the "origins" of the Jedi pretty quickly, and then launches into the story. Unfortunately, this is more of an introduction than a story - yes, there's a plot, but it's kind of weak. We find out about the Jedi home world, Tython, and the various species that populate the solar system of which it's a part. There's also some bad guys, the Rakata, who use the Force for nefarious means. They send a "Force hound" - a slave who can use the Force - to Tython, where his ship crash lands. Three young Jedi are drawn to the wreckage, and they begin a cat-and-mouse game with Xesh, the Force hound. Meanwhile, on the dark moon of Tython (it has both a dark and light moon, naturally), a dude who was exiled there long ago keeps abreast of events, obviously planning something.

It's not a terrible trade, but Ostrander does spend most of it setting things up that will surely pay off down the line. The actual plot - the three Jedi chasing Xesh through the worst environment on Tython - is not that compelling, as it's clear that these four characters are going to be the main ones moving forward, so Xesh has to survive and in some way overcome the fact that he's been bred to kill. He's still a "bad guy" at the end, but Ostrander obviously wants to write about whether he can be redeemed or not, so he's begun that process. But there are a lot of plot threads set in motion in this trade, and Ostrander has no intention of clearing them up any time soon. That's fine, but it would have been nicer if, in the moment, the plot had been a bit more interesting.

Duursema is solid as usual - she never does anything too amazing, but she also tells a story well. She's been good at the strange universe of Star Wars, as she designs the various species quite well and thinks about things like the way they would dress and whether that's part of a culture or if the characters are just rebels. That's an odd thing to notice, but that's probably because Duursema actually does it, which means that as fantastical as this world is, Duursema's characters always look like they fit perfectly in it. Duursema is one of those old-school artists (she's 58) who always turns in good, solid work, even if it's never that spectacular. It's always good to see her getting work.

I like Ostrander's other Star Wars series, Agent of the Empire, more than this, perhaps because he doesn't need to do as much world-building. I'm not sure if I'll get the next trade - Ostrander obviously has a big plan with regard to this series, so maybe I will, even though this wasn't anything to write home about. We'll see.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (translated by Richard Dixon). 444 pgs, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010.

As you might recall, I read my books in alphabetical order by author, and over the past several months, I've been catching up on my Umberto Eco novels, and this is the final one I have to read. It's better than the last one - The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana - and I think it's probably my favorite of his since Foucault's Pendulum, so there's that. Like that book, Eco deals with texts helping shape reality (all of his books deal with this theme in one way or another, but not to the degree of these two), but unlike that book, Eco sets this in the late 19th century and the major text he's concerned with is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He imagines a world where one man - an Italian named Simonini - creates the Protocols over the course of some 30 years, shaping and changing them to fit whatever he thinks will do the most damage. Simonini is a forger, who works for various governments in his life - he begins in Turin and ends up in Paris - creating documents that they can use to frame people or confound enemies. Simonini makes his case early on - he creates documents that ought to exist, he thinks, so it's okay. The governments he works for want him to create things that they believe should exist, as well, so he justifies his trade in this way. The first pages of the book establish that Simonini is a complete misanthrope, and he doesn't bear any particular animus toward the Jews, but by the end of the book, the desires of certain governments - Russia's, most notably - dictate that the Jews, more than the Freemasons (another of Simonini's hated groups) are the main focus of the Protocols. Eco's narrative is chilling, because we know that several people used the Protocols to justify, among other things, the Holocaust even though everyone was pretty sure they were fake. It makes Simonini's claim that he creates documents that should exist more horrific, tragic, and sadly ironic - governments wanted to blame Jews for certain problems, but they didn't have "proof," so forgers - one, or many - created the Protocols to "justify" pogroms. In much the same way, Simonini is the forger who gets Alfred Dreyfus in trouble, even though he and the men who set Dreyfus up know he's innocent and even know that no one is selling secrets to the Germans. They just want to play espionage games, and someone has to take the fall.

Eco frames this with a twisted story of Simonini himself, as he writes in a journal to remember certain events in his life after he discovers, at the beginning of the book, that he shares a building with a different man, Abbé Dalla Piccola. Simonini doesn't know who Dalla Piccola is at first, and he wonders if he himself is Dalla Piccola, as he often disguises himself while he collects information for his work. Then Dalla Piccola begins writing back to him in the journal, and the book is about Simonini's attempts to figure out who this person is and why they live in separate apartments that are connected by a long hallway. He does this by writing in the journal, but Dalla Piccola is there to explain to him where he's wrong. It's an interesting device that never becomes annoying. Eco, obviously, is linking Simonini's choice of profession with his personal life, as he has no idea who the "real" Simonini is or even if one exists, but it's also a puzzle, so his metaphor never becomes too blatant. A book about forgeries becomes a book about identities, and a book about spies becomes a book where no one is what they seem. It's never confusing - Eco is too good a writer for that - but it is complex, and it makes the book feel even more sinister. It's already quite sinister, as Simonini is creating a document that will be used to justify genocide, but the fact that Simonini, while ranting about how the Jews are infiltrating society and "fooling" everyone, is himself fooling everyone and unsure of his identity makes the book more disturbing. Which, of course, is the point.

Like all of Eco's books, the writing is excellent - the man knows how to craft a story very well. And for a book that deals with something that seems dry - forging documents - it's surprisingly thrilling, with plenty of violence and weird descriptions of clandestine meetings and double-crossing. The Prague Cemetery probably isn't for everyone - like all Eco's novels, they're very interested in history, and if you're not into that, you might not like them - but it is pretty fascinating. Everyone in the book except for Simonini existed, even the most outlandish characters, which adds an interesting twist to the narrative. It's a horrifying subject matter, but Eco makes it a gripping read even as we're aware what it's leading to and the terrible consequences of the Protocols.

First two paragraphs:

A passerby on that gray morning in March 1897, crossing, at his own risk and peril, place Maubert, or the Maub, as it was known in criminal circles (formerly a center of university life in the Middle Ages, when students flocked there from the Faculty of Arts in Vicus Stramineus, or rue du Fouarre, and later a place of execution for apostles of free thought such as Ètienne Dolet), would have found himself in one of the few spots in Paris spared from Baron Haussmann's devastations, amid a tangle of malodorous alleys, sliced in two by the course of the Bièvre, which still emerged here, flowing out from the bowels of the metropolis, where it had long been confined, before emptying feverish, gasping and verminous into the nearby Seine. From place Maubert, already scarred by boulevard Saint-Germain, a wbe of narrow lanes still branched off, such as rue Maître-Albert, rue Saint-Séverin, rue Galande, rue de la Bûcherie, rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, as far as rue de la Huchette, littered with filthy hotels generally run by Auvergnat hoteliers of legendary cupidity, who demanded one franc for the first night and forty centimes thereafter (plus twenty sous if you wanted a sheet).

If he were to turn into what was later to become rue Sauton but was then still rue d'Amboise, about halfway along the street, between a brothel masquerading as a brasserie and a tavern that served dinner with foul wine for two sous (cheap even then, but all that was affordable to students from the nearby Sorbonne), he would have found an impasse, or blind alley, which by that time was called impasse Maubert, but up to 1865 had been called cul-de-sac d'Amboise, and years earlier had housed a tapis-franc (in underworld slang, a tavern, a hostelry of ill fame, usually run by an ex-convict, and the haunt of felons just released from jail), and was also notorious because in the eighteenth century there had stood here the laboratory of three celebrated women poisoners, found one day asphyxiated by the deadly substances they were distilling on their stoves.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why by Bart D. Ehrman. 242 pgs, HarperCollins, 2005.

Ehrman is a Biblical scholar who writes a lot of books about said Bible, and I've been wanting to read this since it came out, because Bibilical history - that is, the history of how the Bible came to be - has interested me for years. I'm not sure it's that much of a bombshell to reveal that the Bible as we know it is not close to what people in centuries past thought of as the Bible. I mean, there are millions of people who believe that the Bible is the actual word of God, but as Ehrman points out, if we don't know what those words are, does it really matter?

Without delving too much into how the Bible was formed, I will say that it wasn't until Constantine converted to Christianity early in the fourth century CE that people began seriously trying to figure out what belonged in the Bible and what was "heretical." Ehrman makes the point that Christianity, like Judaism but unlike almost every other religion in the world at that time, was a book-based religion, so preserving the texts was very important. However, no original copies of the Gospels exist. Heck, no copies of the originals exist. The earliest copies of the Gospels are from about 200 CE, which means they're from 100-150 years after the originals were written. The people who copied them were probably illiterate, so they were just copying letters without knowing what the words meant, so mistakes were common. As Christianity spread further, the texts were translated into different languages, which is always tricky even in the best of times. As different sects grew up, certain scribes inserted lines that they felt buttressed their own beliefs and made others "heretical." We have very little idea what the original Gospels say. The same holds true for Paul's letters, which have been edited less but still in crucial places.

Ehrman goes over several of the changes, including the different ways the Gospels portray Jesus and why that might have been annoying to later Christians. Mark, for instance, shows an anguished Jesus in his final hours of life, while Luke's Jesus is fairly imperturbable. Mark's Jesus asks why God has forsaken him, while Luke's commends his spirit into God's hands. Scribes altered Luke's Gospel slightly to align more with Mark's - Mark is accepted as the earliest Gospel, while Matthew and Luke use Mark as a source - and while some of these things might not make much of a difference, some of the changes are fairly important when discussing theology. Similarly, Ehrman points out that the social attitudes of the time influenced scribes when they were writing. The Bible is remarkably pro-woman, and prominent women were common in the early Church. In later centuries, of course, men began to dominate the Church and resent all those uppity women, so scribes changed the texts. I had to tell my wife, who has long thought that Paul was a pretty big douchebag when it came to women, that the worst anti-women stuff in Paul's letters were almost certainly inserted centuries later. 1 Timothy, one of "Paul's" letters, was almost certainly written by a second-century writer, and the passage in 1 Corinthians 14 about women keeping silent in church is very likely a later addition. So Paul, while not what we would call "progressive," wrote that women should have a prominent and equal (to a degree) role in the Church.

Ehrman also goes over the ways scholars reconstruct texts and the history of how the Bible was translated and how it came down to us today. This is crucial, because it's so clear that even one copy can contain mistakes, while continual copying will lead us even further astray. It's a fascinating study, because so many people today claim we need to take literally the words in the Bible. That can be a bit of a problem, of course.

Ehrman is a Christian, so he doesn't go to what I would think is the logical extreme - if we don't know what the originals said, there's no reason to believe that anything in the Bible is based on fact. Paul never met Jesus, after all, and he's the earliest person writing about Jesus. Ehrman still believes in finding the earliest texts possible, and he never speculates that the small changes in verbiage that scribes made over the centuries could mask bigger mistakes that puts the entire Bible into doubt. But that's okay. Misquoting Jesus is a fascinating book that could have easily been twice as long - Ehrman skims over some of the mistakes and gives us a survey of Bible translation, which could have been much deeper. This isn't a book for a serious scholar, it's popular history, and there's nothing wrong with that. It gives us a good taste of the way the Bible has mutated over the years, and provides handy ammunition to anyone who wants to "get back to the basics of the New Testament." Good luck with that!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

The Shroud of the Thwacker by Chris Elliott. 359 pgs, Hyperion, 2005.

I bought this book because I thought it might be funny - Chris Elliott can be funny in small doses, and I figured his brand of humor wouldn't be annoying if it was channeled into a novel. This book is about a serial killer called Jack the Jolly Thwacker, who kills prostitutes in 1882 New York. Caleb Spencer, the chief of police, Liz Smith, his old flame, and Mayor Teddy Roosevelt are trying to catch the killer, while in the present, Chris Elliott is researching the case for his book. Yes, it's all very meta. Unfortunately, it's not all that good.

Oh, it's not a terrible book. It's readable and mildly enjoyable, but Elliott thinks that mixing up history - Roosevelt, after all, was never the mayor of New York - and adding anachronisms to New York is funny, when it's really not. The Thwacker case is all right - it involves the Mummers (which kind of offended me, because the Mummers are a Philadelphia tradition and have nothing to do with New York) and Boss Tweed (who was already dead in 1882) and the city's plutocrats and a big scheme. Meanwhile, in the present, Chris Elliott is having trouble with Yoko Ono, his next-door neighbor at the Dakota, and he can't find his best friend, Wendell. He's also being stalked by a mysterious figure who seems to have an interest in stopping him from solving the Thwacker case. It's all very strange! And then there's the time travel. Of course there is!

I don't really have much to say about this book. It's mediocre, but it's somewhat fun to zip through it and see what kind of odd plotting Elliott has up his sleeve. He tries his best to be funny, but humor is even more subjective than most things in entertainment, and I just didn't find this all that funny. It's too bad.

First two paragraphs:

It started innocently enough. What could have been the harm, I thought, in investigating an obscure crime that took place over a century ago? It was the year 1882, and New York City was caught in the grip of a serial murderer. His nightly forays into the shadowy streets had claimed the lives of four prostitutes, two women who looked like prostitutes, and, oddly enough, one cow (Bessie LeBlanc, who gave good milk in dark doorways for five bucks a cup). The city's top investigative team was mystified, baffled, and stymied all at the same time. The murder spree lasted one month, driving the innocent citizens of the day into an unprecedented state of mass hysteria - and then it ended, as mysteriously as it began. The killer vanished, presumably, and his crimes were eventually attributed to a mysterious fiend whose moniker has become synonymous with the most heinous and unholy of crimes: "Jack the Jolly Thwacker."

Trying to solve the mystery ought to have been fun. The story did not want for colorful characters, adventure, and derring-do. The investigative team was headed up by Caleb Spencer, then the city's top cop. (At thirty-three, Caleb was the youngest police chief ever to be appointed by Tammany Hall. He was smart, fit, handsome, and only slightly incontinent.) His partner, and also the recipient of his unbridled infatuation, was the beguiling Liz Smith, columnist for the Evening Post, and the person to whom the Thwacker sent his infamous love poems. The third member of the team was their friend the bombastic and thick-headed mayor of New York City, Teddy Roosevelt, who, by all accounts, was fond of bellowing out "Bully!" at the top of his lungs, perhaps even to excess. (But history has forgotten that the well-educated and world-traveled man also coined a number of other popular phrases, such as, "Don't go there," "I'm a happy camper," and "Why don't you just apply it directly to your thighs?" In addition, he was famous for exclaiming "Weehoo!" in falsetto whenever an embarrassing wind escaped his trousers.)

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Phew! Well, that's it for this month's post. I hope you found some of it interesting! I'll be back at the end of January with more fun trades and those weird books that have a lot of words but no furshlugginer pictures! What's up with that?

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