Corned Beef on Wry

I'm not sure I can stop laughing enough to write this column, or crying enough at the bitter truths behind it. But these are three new books that belong on everybody's must-read list.

He used to be known as Joe Cutrate, Skeeter Grant, and Al Flooglebuckle. We know him better as Art Spiegelman, creator of the two-volume "Maus, A Survivor's Tale" which won the Pulitzer Prize. His newest effort, "In the Shadow of No Towers" gives us his passionate memories of the Twin Towers' fall, with his acerbic wit cushioning the blow. There is nothing like a first-hand account to bring us all to account for this calamity. He castigates the administration: "The government began to move into full dystopian Big Brother mode and hurtle America into a colonialist adventure in Iraq - while doing very little to make Americans genuinely safe beyond confiscating nail clippers at airports". He leaves no doubt as to the toxicity of the air in New York City: "Asbestos, PCB's, lead, dioxins, and body parts - lower Manhattan's air is a witch's brew that makes Love Canal seem like a health spa". He tells us of a neighbor's report: "one man who executed a graceful Olympic dive as his last living act". Miraculously, he continues to live in lower Manhattan, with a barbed view of humanity's inhumanity to itself: "The killer apes learned nothing from the twin towers of Auschwitz and Hiroshima...and nothing changed on 9/11. His 'President' wages his wars and wars on wages - same old deadly business as usual". Along with his always deft drawings, he has included a brief history of the comic strip in American newspapers (remember the Katzenjammer Kids and Krazy Kat?) with reproductions of original plates going back to 1902. Spiegelman concludes by saying, "Damn it! This regime won't even listen to its friends, but maybe if I dress up as God and sneak into the White House............." (Pantheon Books, 2004)

In volume I of "Persepolis", by Marjane Satrapi, we met the narrator as she came of age in Iran. It was translated into 12 languages and named a New York Times notable book. In "Persepolis II, The Story of a Return" (Pantheon Books, 2004) the author/artist guides us through the acutely painful birth and flowering of adolescence, spelled out in black and white comic strip fashion. She takes us into her inner turmoils, as a teenager raised under an oppressive regime and then let loose in a free society. She spares no one, least of all herself, this kid with the soaring hopes and deflated awakenings. Her culture shock on returning to Iran after living in Austria is expressed by comparing billboards: in Iran, "The martyr is the heart of history"; in Austria, "Best sausages for 20 shillings". Upon her return home, she tells us of "a society where they've been made to believe that the martyrs are living in a five-star hotel in Paradise." Ostensibly, in comic-book form, we are witnessing the struggle of each to others - east to west, women to men, repression to freedom. But the beauty of the book lies in its ability to overcome otherness, so that we are left with a sense of common longings. The external trappings matter less than the universal yearnings of us all for love, for self-respect, for dignity, for the right to speak our minds. Satrapi has spoken for people on both sides of the political spectrum. She is a woman of courage.

Big, lusty, sprawling, bodacious, that's America, not the country but the book. Jon Stewart and his cohorts at the Daily Show on Comedy Central have brought us a rollicking and ribald look at ourselves, as we were, as we are and as we might be. Just think of deToqueville on steroids, or All's Fair in Love and Politics. Who else would show nine Supreme Court Justices in the raw, or ask if oral arguments are followed by anal arguments? Thomas Jefferson wrote the introduction, as well as the cigarette slogan, "You need something to do after fucking a slave". If "con" is the opposite of "pro", Stewart asks, then isn't Congress the opposite of progress? Stewart describes the newscast as "a multi-channel, twenty-four hours a day infotastic clusterfuck of factish-like material". And here's Stewart on foreign affairs: "Over the past 25 years Yugoslavia has split into more and more ethnic enclaves. Today, each resident lives in the Independent Republic of Himself". "America - the Book" is presented as the kind of textbook I could only dream of having, with brilliant graphic design by Pentagram. By the time Stewart finishes, America the Nation is a wandering minstrel of shreds and tatters. (Warner Books, New York, 2004)

Two comic books and a group of irreverent comedians: what more could you ask of a cold November day? Enjoy!

c.Corinne Whitaker 2004