Message in a Bottle
If He Can Make It There, He’ll Make It Anywhere

For almost the past forty years, at least since Pelé came to New York, people have been saying that soccer is about to break through in America, that it’s poised to be the sport of choice for the next generation of fans. While we’re still waiting for a signature event that proves the predictions right, the victory’s already been quietly won. The sport hasn’t transcended football or baseball to become our National Pastime, but it’s firmly established a place for itself in our recreational life. Kids spend summers in soccer camp, Sounders scarves are visible all over town, and the average attendance at Major League Soccer games is actually slightly higher than it is in the NBA or NHL. By any realistic standard, it’s a huge success. 

That trajectory reminds me of the career of a certain adolescent journalist. Tintin was created in the late 1920s by a Belgian cartoonist named Georges Remi, who used the pseudonym Hergé (the French pronunciation of his initials in reverse). His comic strip, featuring the adventures of a cub reporter who travels the world solving mysteries and righting wrongs, was an instant hit that spawned twenty-four books over the next sixty years and an immeasurable mountain of merchandise that continues to grow. In many parts of the world, Tintin is as recognizable as Mickey Mouse, and for years his fans have been wondering when he’ll receive his due here in the States.

Many thought that this was his year, since the button-eyed, blank-faced boy with the irrepressible hair was briefly at the center of a media spotlight, thanks to Steven Spielberg. His action-packed movie version of Tintin has done very well abroad, but seems to have made only a middle-sized splash domestically. A few purists hated the transfer from page to screen, and an equal number of would-be attendees probably skipped it saying, “Who’s he?” Those of us who did give it a try enjoyed a good old-fashioned romp with plenty of derring-do and slapstick, kind of an Indiana Jones for kids. It uses the motion-capture animation style that’s always been uncanny and creepy to me in the past, but I think it works here. If your family likes camel rides, plane crashes, swordplay, shipwrecks, fisticuffs, car chases, pirates, and treasure maps, grab some popcorn and check it out—it’s still in theaters around town. 


Of course, the books themselves are the first place to turn. They’re literally and figuratively as colorful as can be, featuring exotic settings (from Arabian deserts to the arctic tundra to the high seas and even the moon) and sumptuous artwork. The characters are clearly and simply sketched, while the backgrounds are painstakingly drawn and accurately researched—those alone can provide hours of geeky delight to anyone interested in period detail—and the plotting is equally compelling. Like the old-time movie serials, the stories are a real roller coaster ride. They’re available in hardcover versions that pack three tales into each volume, but I recommend the larger format of the individual paperbacks

The uninitiated can get a good idea of the special charm the series has by looking into Tintin: The Complete Companion by Michael Farr, which will also satisfy diehard Tintinologists. For an even more in-depth treatment, there’s the new biography of Georges Remi, Hergé, Son of Tintin by Benoit Peeters. A big part of the comic’s appeal is its childlike directness, but as always, things are messier backstage. Remi’s perspective on racial and colonial issues wasn’t exactly what one would call progressive even for his era, and his early work displayed some repugnant attitudes that had to be whitewashed in later years. As the popularity of his creation grew, some of his own personality was overwhelmed by that of his alter ego, and he was so insulated by fame that he continued to publish throughout the Nazi occupation of his country during World War II, apparently without realizing he was becoming a collaborator. Whatever human flaws Remi had, though, they weren’t shared with his ever-noble hero.

The film might not have been the smash Tintin needed to earn a spot on the Mt. Rushmore of American cartooning alongside Bugs Bunny and Snoopy, but it’s a reminder that, like soccer, he’s a European import who’s already made it in America. 

—James

The Same Thing, Only Different

The 2012 presidential election season, having been unofficially underway since the day after the election of Barack Obama, began formally this week with the Iowa caucuses. If you pay attention to the candidates you hear a good deal about America and what it stands for. Mitt Romney, for example, just gave a speech inspired by the lyrics to the song “America the Beautiful,” although at least one report indicates he doesn’t embrace all of what it has to say. I don’t mean to single him out; he’s not the first politician to creatively misread a song’s message and won’t be the last. He, like everyone else, is entitled to his own interpretation of art and to his own view of what makes our country special. Whatever our differences, I think we can all agree that America is exceptional.

The thing is, so is every place else. Take the small nation of Belgium, which springs to mind only because I have relatives who live there. At first glance there’s not much to distinguish it from its neighbors, though it’s often recognized as having a chocolate center, figuratively speaking. It’s also arguably the greatest beer-brewing nation on earth. Digging deeper, did you know Belgium is steeped in the culture of comics? Steven Spielberg’s latest movie action hero, Tintin, who has sold over 200 million books, is a Belgian native, as are the Smurfs. That’s just one thread in a grander tapestry—Belgium turns out to have a distinctively off-kilter creative tradition that also manifests itself in literature and the visual arts. Rene Magritte’s surrealist paintings are familiar, even if his nationality isn’t. This outlook of smirking strangeness may stem from the country’s bifurcated status. It’s really two countries in one, Wallonia and Flanders. They’re joined by a common national border, but separated within it by language (French and Dutch, respectively) and government. In some places, Walloonian-administered regions encircle parts of Flanders which in turn encompass tinier Walloon outposts. Laws change from block to block, and there are even homes and businesses that are divided in half. When it’s closing time one one side of the bar, you can pick up your drink, cross the room and carry on. Everywhere you look you find another unique facet, and the same is true of every other nation on the globe.

I guess that’s why I’m such a fan of a yearly anthology series that’s being produced by Dalkey Archive Press. The latest installment, Best European Fiction 2012, has just come out, and it introduces the American audience to stories from 34 different regions on the continent, selected and edited by someone who’s the perfect choice for such a project. Aleksandar Hemon grew up in the former Yugoslavia, visited the US as a young man, and found himself unable to return to his home when war broke out there in the 1990s. He not only became a speaker of English, but an award-winning writer of the language. He’s an active participant in the literary communities on both sides of the Atlantic, and there’s no one better equipped to recognize excellent prose, whatever its origin.

Mind you, I’m not suggesting you should pick up a copy of BEF 2012 out of anthropological interest. It’s a rich collection of fiction that does exactly what storytelling is supposed to do, entertain, enlighten, and establish a connection to those around us, however flawed they may be. As the introduction puts it, each piece provides “a sense of kinship in the belief that human lives, thoughts, and feelings always matter.” It’s always hard to comment on an anthology like this without checking off every story one by one and giving it a rating, and even that approach isn’t very useful since every reader will find an individual favorite anyway, so apologies for the very general review I’m giving here: This book is really, really good. What puts it above even the admirable Best American Short Stories series for me is that it offers a bit extra—the quality is the same (as it should be when you skim the cream from an entire continent) and the topics are familiar, but it stretches your boundaries in every direction. The perspectives are a little fresher, the forms are a touch more innovative, and the results surprise you just a little more. 

A recent non-fiction collection offers satisfaction along the same lines. Dubravka Ugresic’s book of essays, Karaoke Culture, takes on the vapid world of pop artifice that all of us in the developed world share in the 21st century, but with an outsider’s twist. She too is a former Yugoslav who no longer has a homeland and considers herself a kind of vague European ghost, currently residing in the Netherlands. She’s always smart and usually quite funny, almost an intellectual Dave Barry. For a taste of her style, sample this assault on the ubiquitous hotel minibar, “a dollhouse for grown men.” Hers is an inimitable voice, and her writing will have you nodding and saying, “I know exactly what she means,” right up till she makes you realize, “I’ve never thought of that before.” 

It’s that mental transition that makes reading fun for me, and when I’ve gone too long without finding a book that makes it happen, that’s when I feel I’m in a rut. If you find yourself in that situation, try one of the titles I’ve mentioned here, or something else from somewhere exceptional.

—James

B is for Book, Among Other Things

It’s probably the imminent end of summer that’s got me thinking about travel and all the places I didn’t go this year. To put a positive spin on it, I’m getting a head start on planning for a fantastic vacation next year, if only in fantasy. As I was nodding off last night, imagining the thousand places to see before I die and wondering how to restrict myself to a reasonable number, I had the goofy idea of visiting only those cities that started with a particular letter of the alphabet. But which? Maybe I wasn’t exhaustive enough, but I pretty quickly decided on the letter that gave me the best options and began assembling my reading list. All aboard for …

Barcelona: Castles, cathedrals, and culture abound in this Catalan capital, but the food and weather alone would make it worth a visit. Richard Hughes’s Barcelona is a fantastic history and guidebook to the riches it offers, and any number of novelists and storytellers have beautifully painted the city’s portrait. Mercè Rodoreda is one of its most noted native authors, but for sheer fun, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, a tale of intrigue and romance along shadowy streets and dusty libraries, can’t be beat. It’s the kind of intellectual conspiracy mystery that Dan Brown can only aspire to.

Bucharest: Romania’s years behind the Iron Curtain kept its unique charms hidden for many years, but its capital is now easily accessible. Filip Florian’s The Days of the King provides an amusing, imaginative look at how the country carved itself a place between larger empires such as the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian. Speaking of the latter …

Budapest: Widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, the city is divided by the Danube River, and served for centuries as the crossroad between Western and Eastern cultures. Peter Esterhazy’s Celestial Harmonies attempts to sum up much of Hungary’s history through the story of one aristocratic family, while Gyula Krudy and Ferenc Karinthy evoke different kinds of dreamy strangeness in their shorter works.

Bruges and Brussels: Two delightful stops in one delightful country. The gorgeous canals of the former gave it the title “Venice of the North,” and Georges Rodenbach captured its melancholy quality in Bruges-la-Morte, a book that inspired innumerable pilgrimages by gloomy young people—the Goths of their day—in the early part of the 20th century. Brussels is the capital of the European Union, but it’s also the capital of the art of comics. The leading name here is Tintin, whose adventures are fun for all ages. Steven Spielberg’s epic movie should prove that all over again when it’s released in late December. And we can’t forget that B also stands for beer—Belgium is certainly the greatest brewing nation on earth. Don’t believe me? Here’s proof: All Belgian Beers.

Bath: This English resort town deserves a visit for many reasons, but the main one is to pay homage to the memory of the inestimable Jane Austen, one of the most tough-minded and technically perfect novelists who ever lived. How she put those skills in the service of such superficially humorous and entertaining romances is one of the wonders of the world. Her Persuasion is my favorite of her works and conveniently, the most Bath-centric as well.

Bordeaux: This gives us a jumping-off point for the entire wine region of France, and I don’t suppose I have to convince anyone to spend some valuable vacation time there. Robert Parker’s guide is known as “The Bible” by oenophiles everywhere.

Bombay: OK, so I suppose we really should be calling it Mumbai, but I’m leaving it on the itinerary anyway. You could spend a lifetime here and not see it all, but Salman Rushdie came as close as anyone to describing it in Midnight’s Children, a novel that won the Booker Prize in 1981. Not only that, it won the so-called Booker of Bookers as the best of all such winners in 1993, and capped things off by doing it again for the 40th anniversary of the prize in 2008. It’s like the Meryl Streep of fiction.

Bangkok: John Burdett’s sexy, razor-edged, often darkly hilarious series of mysteries set in one of the most exotic cities in the world kicks off with Bangkok 8, a perfect book to pull out of your pocket when you’re stuck in an elephant traffic jam.

Buenos Aires: At least two monumentally important authors have called this city home, Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortázar. I’m sure both of them enjoyed a glass of wine, a hearty steak, and a tango when they weren’t writing their signature works, Ficciones and Hopscotch.

Boston: Back on home shores, we can explore one of our oldest cities with all its Revolutionary history, while savoring its recent sports success (or rooting against it, as I would). Dennis Lehane has become something of a local laureate, mostly by writing contemporary mysteries and thrillers set in the seedier parts of town, but his The Given Day takes on the sprawling, brawling Boston of the period just after the first world war, depicting two families, one black, one white, swept up in a maelstrom of revolutionaries and anarchists, immigrants and ward bosses, Brahmins and ordinary citizens, all engaged in a battle for survival and power.

Brooklyn: Now it’s just one borough among five, but it was once one of the largest cities in America in its own right. Too many writers have made Brooklyn their home to choose one emblematic figure, but we don’t have to—Evan Hughes recently covered them all in Literary Brooklyn, a survey of a place that’s becoming to this decade what Paris was to the ’20s.

Whew. I haven’t even mentioned Berlin, Beirut, Bogota, Beijing, Bergen, Brisbane, Bern, Bologna, Berkeley, Belfast, Belmopan, or Blubber Bay, British Columbia yet, but the jet lag might kill us if I do. I’m pretty sure my chosen letter is unbeatable, but I’m throwing down the gauntlet in case anyone thinks it can be topped.

James