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Conquistadors, comics & cigs

Good nonfiction summer reads

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Tony Horwitz's specialty is the historical travelogue. In Confederates in the Attic, he examined America's ongoing obsession with the Civil War by, among other things, becoming pals with a bevy of Civil War re-enactors. In Blue Latitudes, he traveled around the Pacific, retracing the voyages of legendary 18th century explorer Capt. James Cook. In Horwitz's new book, his method of mixing history, travel and social commentary works again, as he delves into the exploits of European explorers who came to the New World during the "lost century" -- the time between Columbus' first voyage and the establishment of Jamestown in 1607. He visits historical sites and talks to anyone who might be able to shed light on the Spanish conquistadors of the era. He's nearly killed by a subarctic sweat lodge ceremony, and makes it funny. He retraces the steps of explorers like Coronado, De Soto and the incredible Cabeza de Vaca, observing and commenting the whole way, while meeting a slew of thoughtful, unpredictable and entertaining characters. Horwitz, as always, has a knack for the weird details that bring things to light, his comedy largely consists of making fun of his own foibles, and his easy, whimsical style makes for a great read. N.C. readers, note that at one point in the book, Horwitz tracks down a FedEx guy who may be a link to the Lost Colony.

Since he gained fame years ago by reading his hilarious "Santaland Diaries" on NPR, David Sedaris has moved on to media stardom, big bucks, and a nation-hopping lifestyle. Luckily for us, he's still dissatisfied, worries too much, and is funny as hell. In his latest essay collection, Sedaris confronts his own mortality, remembers a stinky old baby sitter, feeds insects to spiders and quits smoking. He accidentally spits a lozenge onto the lap of an obnoxious airplane seatmate, he's talked to by a skeleton, and he reminisces about a neighbor who once made him recover her dentures after the choppers fell into a planter. Two more serious pieces -- one about hitchhiking and being picked up by a lascivious trucker, the other vis-à-vis an ex-pedophile in his French village -- are merely creepy and depressing and suggest that Sedaris should stick to comedy. The book's grand finale, "The Smoking Section," is as funny as anything Sedaris has written -- for about 30 pages. The trouble is that it keeps going for another 50 pages, long after the juice has left it. This book is an uneven addition to Sedaris' work, but the author's humanity and decency come across even in the lesser pieces, and the best work here is as fine as any he's written.

It sounds odd to say that a book about cultural repression is fun. David Hajdu, however, pulls off that improbable feat in his story of American prudes' smackdown of the comic book industry in the 1950s. In a nation whose nerves were still shot from WWII, conservative paranoids of the Eisenhower era saw the new, vast popularity of comic books as a threat -- a gateway drug, if you will, to another '50s bogeyman, juvenile delinquency. Sociologists ranted, parents fretted, Congress investigated, and a new "comics code" was devised to squelch the dire threat posed by the likes of The Vault of Horror and Two-Fisted Tales. It all sounds ridiculous now, but that's because, in the end, repressive traditionalists lost the decades-long cultural war that, according to Hajdu, began with the comics battles. One bit of sublime irony: The man whose EC Comics company was destroyed by the comic book scare, Bill Gaines, rebounded (and got appropriate cultural revenge) by founding Mad magazine, which had a more subversive influence on the '50s and '60s generations than Congress could have ever imagined.


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