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So Many Books ... and So Little Time

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It's been out for a while now, but the timing is perfect to catch up with Ilan Stavans' graphic novel "Mr. Spic Goes to Washington" (Soft Skull Press, 112 pages, $15.95, paperback). Stavans, a professor at Amherst College and the editor of anthologies ranging from the poetry of Pablo Neruda to "The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories," has great fun with the story of Samuel Patricio Inocencio C‡rdenas, aka Mr. Spic, who bears a resemblance to a certain Frank Capra character.

Mr. Spic is a fish out of water in the Senate, a political body that, in Stavans' view, is as moribund as it is venal. Roberto Weil's illustrations nicely propel the story. As for Hollywood, since Jimmy Stewart is not available for his close-up anymore, Jimmy Smits can step right into the role.

Let's stay with the graphic novels for a bit — and with politics. "After 9/11: America's War on Terror (2001-)" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 160 pages, $16.95) should be required reading. Sid Jacobson and Ernie Col—n, who did a great job adapting and illustrating the best-selling graphic novel version of "The 9/11 Report," use the same skills to explain and give context to "an incomplete story of an incomplete war."

Brutal times and a brutal tale are captured in stark neo-realistic style; the characters are real, the material is lifted straight from the headlines — "After 9/11" is strong stuff, and a vital reminder of how we got to this point in time.

"The Shooting War" (Grand Central Publishing, 190 pages, $13.99, paperback), by Anthony Lappˇ and Dan Goldman, is a fierce graphic novel about the Iraq war — circa 2011.

After witnessing a terrorist attack on an NYC Starbucks, video-blogger Jimmy Burns becomes a media star and heads to Iraq, where he's promptly captured and welcomed to "the free Islamic Republic of Mesopotamia" by some rather nasty folks. Jimmy soon finds out war is hell. Lappˇ gets in some vicious chops in this "thought-experiment" at the president (John McCain!), the media and the general looniness of this heart of darkness — all perfectly illustrated by Goldman's dark visions.

No dip into graphic novel waters would be complete without a nod to "Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!" (Pantheon, 36 pages, $27.50) by Art Spiegelman.

In this large-format work, the author of "Maus" and "In the Shadow of No Towers" reprints his obscure first work, and doubles its size with intimate looks at the people and events that helped shape the most prominent artist-writer working today.

The overall package is stunning, as is the Afterword — a compressed autobiography/meditation by Spiegelman, who envies "the wild-eyed, ink-swilling young artist who made the strips ... 30 years ago. ... I admire his ambition, his enthusiasm, his single-mindedness and his skinniness."

He's a card-carrying lefty but you wouldn't know it from reading a list of topics tackled in "Left in Dark Times: A Stand Against the New Barbarism" (Random House, 233 pages, $25). Bernard-Henri Levy, a — dare one say it? — French intellectual and a star in Europe, takes on the hypocrisies of American liberals, charges progressives with pushing ideas that foster danger for the world, and scorches everybody, right and left, for being indifferent, in his eyes a damning moral indictment.

This is a call to arms, as Levy addresses "all those who have been led astray on both sides of the Atlantic ... this is a critique of those who, inspired by the desire to create a heaven on earth, were — and are, more than ever — led to a flirtation with darkness, barbarism and hell."

Gustavo Arellano hit the heights with his great newspaper column and book of the same title, "ĮAsk a Mexican!" For an encore, he's written "Orange County: A Personal History" (Scribner, 269 pages, $24), using the story of his own family's illegal immigration to illustrate the current reality of the O.C., now majority minority.

"Do me a favor, folks fretting over whether Mexicans will ever become Americanized — fume about something else. Worthy choices: Al Qaeda. John McCain as president. The choking ways of the Chicago Cubs."

As far as Arellano is concerned, "Orange County is the Ellis Island of the 21st century. What we've experienced in our century-and-change of official existence is coming to your town, if it's not there already. And the primary lesson Orange County can teach you is my family's four-generation journey — the Mexican invasion."

There's a lot in the book that really ticks me off, but a good fight can also be invigorating, and bantamweight (a guess, from his book jacket picture) Arellano is a stand-up puncher and "Orange County" a stand-up read.

To find out more about Martin Zimmerman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.



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