Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
Welcome once again to our recurring MCC feature in which I scribble capsule reviews of everything I’ve read that was published in a physical format over a certain page count with a squarebound spine on it — novels, original graphic novels, trade paperbacks, infrequent nonfiction dalliances, and so on. Due to the way I structure my media-consumption time blocks, the list will always feature more graphic novels than works of prose and pure text, though I do try to diversify my literary diet as time and acquisitions permit.
Occasionally I’ll sneak in a contemporary review if I’ve gone out of my way to buy and read something brand new. Every so often I’ll borrow from my wife Anne or from our local library. But the majority of our spotlighted works are presented years after the rest of the world already finished and moved on from them because I’m drawing from my vast unread pile that presently occupies four oversize shelves comprising thirty-three years of uncontrolled book shopping. I’ve occasionally pruned the pile, but as you can imagine, cut out one unread book and three more take its place.
I’ve previously written why I don’t do eBooks. Perhaps someday I’ll also explain why these capsules are exclusive to MCC and not shared on Amazon, Goodreads, or other sites where their authors might prefer I’d share them. In the meantime, here’s me and my reading results…
9. Kate Mulgrew, Born With Teeth (2015). You’ve known her as Captain Kathryn Janeway, or as “Red” from Orange is the New Black (which I haven’t watched, but you probably have), or possibly as TV’s Mrs. Columbo if you’re older than me and have a far better memory, which perfectly describes my wife. Her first memoir chronicles some of her childhood and her journey into acting, with memories of her numerous Broadway gigs, her rise to stardom in Ryan’s Hope, that short-lived Columbo spinoff, her most prominent exes, her deep love of Ireland, and the chain of events that led to her rightful appointment as Star Trek’s Very First Female Captain to Succeed and Endure Beyond a Single Appearance.
Rather than an anecdotal itemization of every bullet point in her IMDb entry, the book begins with her origin /family history, hits some highs (the roles she earned) and some lowest lows (the men who let her down, all of whose sins pale before the most harrowing trauma recounted here), covers that heartbreaking time the rising starlet gave up her first child for adoption, and ends with her tricky quest to pursue a reunion with that daughter. Mulgrew is an engrossing writer who firmly sets the boundaries for her storytelling, alternating between tidbits that we in the Peanut Gallery think we want to hear, alongside the moments she’s willing to relive and/or in need of exorcising, in her own unique voice and with the emphases of her choosing. It is not a breezy summertime read, but it’s one that took some distance and no small amount of candor and courage to share.
10. Kate Mulgrew, How to Forget (2019) The follow-up rewinds several years for some early stories that didn’t make it into the first one (such as her very first serious relationship, which was with one of her father’s friends, which went even worse than you’d imagine), but focuses more tightly on the complexities of life with her mother. Theirs wasn’t always an easy time together, particularly as her mom’s issues seemed to outweigh hers. The book’s core is her later years, a drawn-out tragedy as her untreated health issues — mental and otherwise — worsened over time and reached a point when she could no longer be left alone. Mulgrew and her siblings had to reckon with her supervisory needs, her living conditions, their own interpersonal awkwardness, and their stubbornly unhelpful father. (The book’s first lines foreshadow much of what we need to know: “He died first, quickly and quietly. It was like my father to outwit my mother, even at the end.”)
The dutiful daughter strained to balance the conflict between her bloodline obligation as the family member with the greatest resources and her professional obligation as a Starfleet Captain while Voyager was still on the air. As is the case with many an elder among us, those conflicts and needs persisted for years and years. And then more years. Mulgrew’s prose has no use for sugar-coating and shows little mercy while reliving the various failings as they come, hers no less than anyone else’s. For me her story was a stark reminder of what we’ve gone through in our own family, and what we’ll continue to go through in the years ahead as all those senior citizens’ turns come one by one. Some relief is offered intermittently in idyllic interludes that do leaven it here and there (we had the pleasure of hearing her read one such chapter when we met her back in July).
It’s absolutely unfair and unseemly to estimate any comparatives between the two books — which of them is better? worse? happier? scarier? the more “entertaining”, a word far out of place here? At least the limited scope of Born With Teeth was curated to lead to a happy denouement. Her mom’s saga can only end like many other humans’ might or eventually will. Mulgrew refuses to let us look away and sees it through, crevasse-sized stress fractures and all, to the inevitable end. Some fates are beyond even a great starship captain’s prerogative to avoid.
11. Olive Gilbert with Sojourner Truth, Narrative of Sojourner Truth (1998 edition). The celebrated activist’s as-told-to autobiography, first published in 1850, begins with her birth into slavery and follows through into her formative years under that harsh yoke, her hard-fought escape to freedom with only one of her five children, the early years in her eventual career on the road as an inspirational abolitionist speaker and self-taught evangelist, and her unwavering faith despite all the hardships that happened along the way. Some of that is filtered through an unreliable narrator who picked and chose which parts should be dwelt upon more than others, but other resources at hand help fill in what’s missing between the lines (e.g. her sometimes questionable choices of religious leaders).
The Penguin re-release bundles that seminal text with “Book of Life”, de facto extended appendices compiled by another author from a third-person perspective. The preserved items include a Further Adventures sequel catching up from her autobio’s ending to her death; an epistolary fanzine of sorts (lots of letters to her, as well as newspaper commentaries from various contemporaneous sources); an essential transcript of her famous “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech; and a thorough reprint/scan of Truth’s own collection of yearbook autographs and notes that she carried around in her travels and collected from everyone she met, including high-ranking historical figures all the way up to Presidential status. After a certain number of pages the “Book of Life” material goes from exhaustive to exhausting, and not all her life choices aligned perfectly with today’s feminist standards, but the sum of it is essential civil-rights history reading.
(To my own annoyance, I failed to take the requisite cover photo before Anne had to return it to the library. Anne strongly recommended I read this for myself before she did so, as this was among her own favorite reads this year.)
12. Frank “Big Black” Smith, Jared Reinmuth, and Améziane, Big Black: Stand at Attica (2020). As previously admitted to my own annoyed embarrassment, they never taught us about Attica in school and I never knew what the common, reductive, shamefully trivializing pop-culture reference of “ATTICA! ATTICA!” even referred to (beyond a superficial nod to Dog Day Afternoon) until I watched Showtime’s eponymous, Oscar-nominated documentary earlier this year and my large, sheltered white head exploded. The film’s audaciously unflinching candor and uncensored archival footage of the criminally authorized tortures that ensued in the bloody conclusion and its vengefully prolonged aftermath (with many an agony intensified by inarguably racist overtones) was…frankly, I had no words, and was all the more infuriated by elders and peers who’ve avoided mentioning that calamity altogether ever since and studiously refused to hold it up for annual “never forget” examinations.
Being who I am, the moment I found out there was an absolutely relevant graphic novel memoir, I ordered it one minute later. The documentary’s numerous persons of interest included Frank “Big Black” Smith, the more muscular but peaceful convict who during the takeover acted as their head of security — not just to keep inmates from squabbling but also to supervise the safety of their hostages and of outside negotiators as officials entered and exited the prison, some in better faith than others. Drawn and published sixteen years after Smith’s death, the book tells his side of the events, from the crimes that put him there to his role and memories during the ordeal. Exactly as the documentarians did, the storytellers here refuse to shy away from the inhuman torture that he endured after authorities took back control and decided that everyone who survived the initial gunfire waves should be “taught a lesson” by any gleefully reprehensible and illegal means necessary. Smith’s story here continues beyond the film and adds some redemptive moments in his life, none of them thanks to his captors or torturers. A lot of the little details fell outside the film’s broader scope, but the portrayal of those beyond-R-rated acts is likewise not for the faint of heart yet something that needs to be known and reckoned with.
13. Kurt Busiek, Carlos Pacheco, Jesus Merino and Alex Sinclair, Arrowsmith, Vol. 1: So Smart in Their Fine Uniforms (2022). When the DC/Wildstorm series began back in 2003, somehow it didn’t click for me at the time, possibly because its World War I setting wasn’t exactly a draw for me. When the creators reunited for the sequel Behind Enemy Lines, which finally began 19 years later this past January, I’d come a long way since then, very much found it my jam, and committed the extremely rare act of pre-ordering the recent hardcover reissue of that first tale. Eighteen years of marriage with a history aficionado have perhaps helped modify my outlook and sensibilities since then, not to mention my casual consumption of related works in the intervening ages. (I will fight anyone who says preposterously negative things about Kubrick’s Paths of Glory.)
The premise is far from simple: in an alternate timeline where magic and magical creatures existed and never went away, over the course of centuries all origins of every European country took radically different turns from the ones we know and have complicated feelings about today. But all those changes led nevertheless to the Great War, in which our hero Fletcher Arrowsmith — forged in the hallowed tradition of fantasy characters with impossibly on-the-nose names — is a young man who’s signed up for the war effort on behalf of his homeland of Columbia (that’s basically us!) against his parents’ wishes because something ought to be done. His altruistic patriotism is admirable but repeatedly tested as he’s soon embroiled in overseas combat involving magic spells, wizards lurking behind the scenes in high positions, nonhuman races with a variety of viewpoints on the war, and the tiny, winged dragonet who becomes his sidekick and source of flying powers. The astounding adventures yield heart-stopping tragedies in contrast to Our Hero’s prized little triumphs and the hard lessons learned on the front lines and in the sorcerous equivalent of high-altitude dogfights.
The series has been cagey about nailing down the exact turns of events that caused Arrowsmith’s world to diverge from ours, but readers of this collection are treated to a thorough breakdown of those details by a special guest, longtime SF author and onetime comics writer Lawrence Watt-Evans. At Busiek’s invitation he added his world-building skills to help reimagine and redefine the worldwide consequences of the magical realm’s persistence as it came to affect every lineage and progression of rulers over the long haul. Fans definitely need to check that out, amid our lamentation at the recent news of Pacheco’s retirement from comics effective immediately following his diagnosis of ALS. It remains to be seen or announced what’ll come of this world next, and whether Behind Enemy Lines will retroactively serve as the unexpected final chapter. In the meantime, we can treasure the fascinating, beautifully illustrated glimpses into this world that we’ve been thankfully afforded so far.
More to come!