February 8-14, 2006

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Book Box


The Best of the Spirit
Will Eisner's name ought to be thought of in quotation marks, as Walt Disney's is. Many of his 22 stories from 1940-50 are the unmistakable yet unsigned work of Wally Wood, Jack Cole and Joe Kubert. Not the least of the innovations that Eisner borrowed from cinema was the blending of talents under one logo. And yet the Will Eisner studio produced some of the most creative work these collected artists did. It was all tied together by the Spirit: Denny Colt, a seemingly dead detective who puts on a turquoise-blue domino mask and baffles Central City. Although he takes a lot of bullets, the Spirit conducts himself like a character who is aware he is in a comic book. He is sometimes a patsy, particularly with women. (Eisner's sirens are modeled on Veronica Lake, Bette Davis or Hedy Lamarr, the last in the person of the French-accented P'Gelle, named, sans doute, after the prostitutes' hangout Place Pigalle.) The seven-page tales are sometimes affable, macabre, breezy or silly. Peter Schjeldahl 's uninformed piece in The New Yorker dismissed Eisner as "melodramatic," but melodrama was only one of the styles Eisner explored. The innovative use of typography and color, the explosive splash-page titles, the negative space and silence—all were borrowed by other cartoonists. It seems like even a Worst of the Spirit collection would be full of the technique that made Eisner who he was. (By Will Eisner; DC Comics; 185 pages; $14.99 paper)
—Richard von Busack


Myself & the Other Fellow: A Life of Robert Louis Stevenson
There is no shortage of RLS biographies, starting with the people who knew, loved and leeched off him. And Stevenson (1850-94) himself left plenty in the way of memoirs, letters and recollections. Still, Claire Harman's stylish chronicle makes for fascinating reading, perhaps because there is no way to deromanticize the life of the reed-thin, consumptive Scottish fable spinner, who jaunted through France on a donkey, transited frontier America by train, dallied in Monterey, San Francisco and Calistoga and then island-hopped through the South Seas—all in 44 years. Between bouts of blood coughing, a stifling upbringing with a neurasthenic nanny and marriage to an older, strong-willed woman (Fanny Stevenson, who rates several biographies of her own), Stevenson somehow managed to churn out an astonishing array of novels, children's classics (Treasure Island, Kidnapped), poetry and polemic. Harman's honest assessment of RLS's literary legacy doesn't overlook the low points—and there are many in a life spent scribbling for dollars on deadline—while highlighting his significant influence on H.G. Wells, Joseph Conrad and even Thomas Mann, whose Magic Mountain is set in the same sanitarium where Stevenson sought a cure for his lung problems. (By Claire Harman; HarperCollins; 503 pages; $29.95 cloth)
—Michael S. Gant


Lincoln's Melancholy
Listening to the state-of-the-union speech, it is hard to imagine that 145 years ago, we had a president who was willing to learn form his own shortcomings. Those who met Abraham Lincoln often commented on his sorrowful aspect; what was then termed "melancholy" is now called depression. Scholar Joshua Wolf Shenk pushes the diagnosis to the limit in Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. While it is known that Lincoln suffered two significant nervous breakdowns, contemplated suicide and even published a poem called "The Suicide's Soliloquy," Shenk indulges in some farfetched retrospective therapy. Lincoln had more than his share of bad days, but he also drew on a deep reserve of intelligence, morality and humor to see him through. Whether he was certifiable or not, Lincoln was, as Shenk writes, "always inclined to look at the full truth of a situation, assessing both what could be known and what remained in doubt." That's sooo 19th century. (By Joshua Wolf Shenk; Houghton Mifflin; 350 pages; $25 cloth)
—Michael S. Gant


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