Within the time frame of this comic book's mystery plot, Gertrude Stein will meet and fall in love with a feisty ragamuffin named Alice Tolkas, Picasso will paint his famous portrait of Gertrude Stein, and Picasso and Braque will invent cubism. In fact, all of these things did happen in 1907, and Bertozzi clearly knows his stuff. He threads many "art history" lessons into this tale, and correctly describes the way Pablo Picasso profited from Georges Braque's idea for a drawing style that depicted any number of possible perspectives instead of a single perspective. (Picasso, on the other hand, emphasized cubism as a form of zen-like minimalism, and also as a primitivist homage to his beloved African masks). Bertozzi also convincingly depicts the ongoing beef between the Cubists and the Fauvists, though he is probably unfair to the worthy Fauvist Henri Matisse, who comes off as a sourpuss.
The glue that holds this artwork together is a murder plot involving the blue-skinned spirit of a dead Tahitian woman, brought to Paris by Paul Gauguin, who leaps into paintings and dwells inside the canvases (the elderly Gauguin, it turns out, is dwelling sadly inside a canvas too) while she waits for the chance to jump out and kill people. A special kind of blue absinthe from a country called "Lysurgia" allows the cubists and poets at the Paris salon to jump inside canvases too, and eventually they must chase the murderer inside this absinthe-soaked realm. I like the obviously symbolic and heavily metaphysical plot okay, I guess -- it reminds me of Matthew Pearl's The Dante Code, which also posits an aesthetic movement as the catalyst for a misguided serial murderer. But I like this book best for its earthbound scenes, its clever, perceptive depiction of a group of young Modernists working in a creative white heat.
Pablo Picasso is the book's best character, a hilarious irrepressible egotist who paints buck naked and goes around shouting in a mangled Spanish/French: "Are you creetic? You talk sheet of me?"
The Salon by Nick Bertozzi gets a strong "buy" recommendation from LitKicks.
Lately by Sara Pritchard
Sara Pritchard has got to be the most whimsical, least self-important postmodernist on the scene. Her new Lately is a slim, bright story collection with something like a black velvet Lassie painting on the cover. The characters in these stories are very witty and very self-aware, so much so that Pritchard manages to spin off one good story after another with barely a touch of plot, suspense or symbolism. The people just say funny things and think funny things, as in the story about a fabulous "divorce party" with a black cake, a wedding dress dyed black in a laundromat, and a Bob Dylan theme song. Nothing surprising happens in this story; the characters have a great time planning the party, and then they have a great time at the party. Somehow, it works as fiction.
Basically, Pritchard's secret is that she writes characters you want to hang out with. It's a good technique, though I do feel the absence of any visible cutting edge in these stories, and I do find the absolutely languid pace sometimes aggravating. One of her characters daydreams about Raymond Carver -- that's the whole story. Sara Pritchard is sort of a virgin Pina Colada version of Ann Beattie. And somehow the stories work.
Zoli by Colum McCann
Zoli is a historical novel about a young Gypsy (or, Romani) refugee girl in Czechoslovokia who is persecuted by fascists, and then co-opted into a celebrity singer and poet by the Communists who take over after World War II. Her gypsy blood is drained out of her, first by her lovable Marxist grandfather (who hid Das Kapital so nobody would catch him reading it) and then by the Stalinist bureaucrats who manage her career. This is a tough, hard-hitting book about an important small ethnic segment of the world's population that we hear very little about.
My only gripe with Zoli is in the byzantine narrative structure. We hop back and forth between decades and between narrators, and with each hop the story gets slightly more difficult to follow. I think a straight narrative would have served these characters and this plot better. Still, if you like historical fiction you will find this book very satisfying.
Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon
I don't read a lot of comic books (or "graphic novels") but this one was specially recommended to me. It's a beautiful short volume that spells out a simple story. When Baghdad is bombed in 2003, a few talking lions escape captivity (as they'd dreamed of doing their entire lives) and roam the city in a paroxysm of curiosity and anxiety. They are then shot down by American soldiers. This is apparently a true story, and the artistry here is all in the economy of the telling. The illustrations are absolutely gorgeous, and the blunt ending perfectly captures the desolation of the whole tale.
The Unbinding by Walter Kirn
I like Walter Kirn's articles in the New York Times Book Review very much, so I was disappointed that I couldn't get into his experimental cyber-composed novel about love in the age of satellite personal safety networks. The story is told by multiple overlapping narrators, but most of their prose voices are surprisingly flat and undistinguished.
Kirn regularly composes powerful sentences of acidic perfection for the New York Times Book Review. There's no question that he can write well, so why is this prose so plodding?
Perhaps Kirn is trying to get into the heads of his inarticulate and repressed characters, but if so I'd have to say that the strategy doesn't play to his strengths, and I'd suggest he write a novel from the point of view of an erudite book critic next time, so he can let his style flow.
It's interesting that both Colum McCann and Walter Kirn stumble over their overly complicated narrative structures, which must be a big fad these days. I hope future writers will remember that the phrase "Keep it simple, stupid" works for novelists too.
Beyond that, all four of these books have something to offer. If you're going to read just one, make it Zoli, but you may like them all.
2. John Allen Cassady, the extremely lovable and talented son of Neal Cassady, now has his own website.
3. Anne Fernald says "I really think it's a masterpiece", and, well, I think she's right. Wizard of the Crow is a magical, hilarious and very original new novel, and the Litblog Co-op is trying to get the world's attention about this fact. We'll be discussing Ngugi Wa Thiongo's work (and hearing from the author directly in a podcast) later this week at the LBC blog.
4. I've recently been shouting about the ridiculous practice of hardcover-only book publishing (you may have noticed this). Well, I'm really glad to see developments like this. Yay, MacAdam/Cage! [via EWN].
5. Via Rake's Progress, here's a very good short film featuring James Joyce and Samuel Beckett on a golf course. "Ye think I'm fecking blind? Giving me a five [iron], and I the cock o' the land?" Stuff like that.
6. Via Things, here's Norman Mailer and Rip Torn in a fist fight. Reminds me of the Bears vs. the Colts. If Mailer could have looked ahead to The Larry Sanders Show, he would have known Rip Torn's a tough bastard.
7. And, finally, via Inq., word is out that Franz Kafka's secret diaries are online.
It's the dreaded "Holiday Books" issue, which means we get a lot of summary articles on topics like "Food", and "Travel". The issue feels as thick as a Mineola telephone book, and it's about as exciting as a Mineola telephone book too.
I'll get right to the complaints. Jay McInerney, who is clearly positioning himself for a continuing career as a wine critic, reviews John Hailman's Thomas Jefferson on Wine and delivers this ill-considered observation:
Jefferson is usually assumed to be a Bordeaux man, in part because he wrote about it most and in part because Bordeaux seems like the wine that reflects his character; Bordeaux is an Appolonian wine, a beverage for intellectuals, for men of patience and reason.
First of all, women can enjoy wine too; secondly, I believe "Appolonian wine" is an oxymoron in this context, since McInerney is using "Appolonian" in the Nietzschean sense wherein Apollo and Dionysus represent the opposite poles of the human spirit, and Dionysus is the god of wine. I also completely disagree with McInerney's characterization of Jefferson as an Appolonian. Jefferson was obsessed with the alternative literature of his day (Voltaire, Rousseau), lived on a mountain, preferred Paris to America, played violin and became embroiled in a sex scandal. Jefferson was the most Dionysian of our founding fathers (his love of wine is yet more proof), and I really don't know what McInerney was thinking. The first of many missteps in today's issue.
Ben Yagoda is supposedly a journalism professor and an expert on writing style, but his review of Charles Addams: A Cartoonist's Life by Linda H. Davis is bad, bad, bad. He begins by telling us that Charles Addams singularly represents the essence of what is special about America, which means the critic went and used up his entire hyperbole quota in his first paragraph (this is always a bad strategy when reviewing books). He admires Addams because "over the next five and a half decades, he contributed 64 covers and more than 1,300 cartoons [to the New Yorker], and they came steadily -- there were no slowdowns, no blocks, no ruts." Yo, Yagoda, what makes you think you know this? Cartooning is not a real-time profession. Editors hold on to numerous cartoons and run them as they wish; Addams might have suffered from long periods of creative slowdown and readers of the New Yorker need never have known.
That's just the first paragraph, and there's much more banality ahead. "The mirror cartoon exemplifies one of Addams's two main categories, the sight gag," Yagoda tells us. Whoa, whoa, whoa ... a cartoonist using a sight gag? That's downright revolutionary! Addams must be the essense of what's special about America for this reason alone. Yagoda then offers this about Addams's work: "over and above the joke, his drawings are pleasurable to look at, in their detail, composition and scope." Does Yagoda not realize that this could be said about every excellent cartoonist in the world?
This bad article culminates in this observation about an Addams cartoon: "Works of art that can make you laugh and cry in turn are rare. This is one of them." Yeah, and book reviews that can make me snort with derision and fall asleep at the same time are rare too. This is one of them.
More complaints: I'm glad the Book Review called on the interesting new author Marisha Pessl to review Leanne Shapton's graphic novel about love and jealousy, Was She Pretty?, but her energetic effort doesn't scan. She talks only about the book's text and fails to describe the artwork, which can't be the right way to review a graphic novel. She provides many contextual references: "Annie Hall", James Dean, "Star Wars", Marlon Brando, "Eyes Wide Shut", Daphne du Maurier's "Rebecca", "Gone With The Wind", "Where the Wild Things Are", but it's disturbing to realize that these add up to seven movie references (okay, maybe Pessl's referring to du Maurier's novel, but somehow I'm guessing she saw the movie instead) and one kid's book. This is the Book Review, Pessl. Break out the Kafka and Joyce references or get out of the way! Based on her novel, I believe she can do better in the future.
Joseph Dorman's review of Stefan Kanfer's Stardust Lost: The Triumph, Tragedy and Mishugas of the Yiddish Theater in America is a fine work overall, though some copy editor should have prevented this from appearing:
The densely packed Lower East Side provided a hungry audience for the Yiddish theater and its impersarios; and in its infancy Yiddish drama was barely discernible from vaudeville ...
I think the fact that the actors onstage were speaking Yiddish would have been a tip-off.
Praise? I got some. Charles McGrath does a great job reviewing a new edition of John Betjeman's Collected Poems and A. N. Wilson's Betjeman: A Life. His article is informative and engaging from beginning to end. Thomas Mallon also keeps my attention and tells me a few things I don't know about George Sand, the subject of Benita Eisler's biography Naked in the Marketplace. David Hajdu's review of Ivan Brunetti's An Anthology of Graphic Fiction, Cartoons and Stories turns out to be my tipping point: I've now finally decided I want to own this book.
Finally, there's a substantial piece on South Africa's literary scene by NYTBR editor Rachel Donadio in today's New York Times Magazine, and even though this piece is less bad than the other uniformly terrible articles Donadio has written for the Times, I have to point to Ed Champion's deft analysis of why so many of us dislike her work so much. He's absolutely right that Donadio writes as if marketing managers were her audience. She never describes the work she is writing about; instead she always writes about the effect the work has on people. Her analysis is always external. This is a profoundly offensive way to look at literature, and this is why so many of us seem to agree that Donadio lacks the sensibility required to write for a top literary publication.
My first encounter with Rachel Donadio was in August 2005 when, as I wrote then, she turned in a "breathy, overly respectful interview with V. S. Naipaul's aura" (I still think that was one of my funnier lines, and I guess I'm reproducing it here today in the hope that somebody will finally give me props for it). I'm also proud to remind the world that I was the first one in our sub-literate blogosphere to declare Rachel Donadio "the worst writer on the staff of the New York Times Book Review". The date was September 4, 2005, and you were there.
Unfortunately, Rachel Donadio is still here as well. How long will the NYTBR stay the course?
You may have noticed a mild obsession with cartoons here on LitKicks, though not so much with the elaborately drawn comix and graphic novels that are the hip thing today. I'm mainly interested in a few classics, which I reference constantly: Charles Schulz's Peanuts, Mad Magazine, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman. I'm sure this is due to the influence of my father, Eli Stein, who has been a professional cartoonist since 1957.
Art Spiegelman's Maus is a Pulitzer Prize winner; comic writer Neal Gaiman is a World Fantasy Award winner. Some of the highest-grossing films of recent memory include the comic book adaptations X-Men, Superman Returns, Spider-Man, and Batman Begins. And some of the most critically acclaimed films of the last few years include the comic adaptations A History Of Violence, Ghost World, Sin City, and American Splendor. But that's cool. Comics are still kid's stuff.
Now, I'm not talking about graphic novels. Literary types insist that they totally respect graphic novels. But what few people know is that those "graphic novels" are pretty much comic books when you get right down to it. In fact, most "graphic novels" are just collections of runs of previously released singular comic books. In Hy Bender's book, The Sandman Companion -- basically a 300-page interview with author Neal Gaiman about his Sandman series -- Gaiman relates a story about a cocktail party at which he introduced himself as a comic book writer to a high-society type. He recounts how when the man realized who Gaiman actually was, he condescendingly informed Gaiman that he is not, in fact, a comic book writer, but a graphic novel writer. It is this thought process that keeps the growth of respect for comic books almost entirely stagnant.
I think Alan Moore, the writer of such acclaimed comics as Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, explained it best. He said that comic books are the only real art form that simultaneously exercises both sides of the brain. You look at the art. You read the words. And somehow you connect the two in your head to form a story. It's beautiful. It's succinct.
Another misconception about comics is that their glory days are already behind them. However, we're only halfway through 2006 at this point, and a number of great new books have already been introduced. Here are five of them:
5. Moon Knight by Charlie Huston and David Finch
Superhero books are the most popular genre in comic books. They have been since 1961, when Marvel introduced their first super-team, the Fantastic Four. It's always been a viable genre, despite the big-muscle, tight-spandex appearance. After all, characters like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, which were created nearly seventy years ago, are, for my money, the closest things America has to true mythology.
Moon Knight is a character that was created in the seventies by writer Doug Moench as Marvel's answer to the DC hero, Batman (funny, considering Moench later wrote a well respected run of Batman books for DC). His origin is pretty average. He was granted his powers by Khonshu, the Egyptian God of the Moon and now fights crime. But in classic Marvel form, the guy had problems. He was the son of an absentee rabbi, and he renounced his Judaism and became a mercenary.
Oh, yeah. And he had split personality disorder. In fact, he may not have been granted powers by the Egyptian God of the Moon. He might just be a nut job.
Charlie Huston's new take on the character has him without powers, horribly depressed, thinking he's paralyzed, and living in an empty apartment with only a statue of Khonshu taunting him. Huston juxtaposes these scenes with an oddly structured parallel story of a group of shadowy figures who appear to be the only people on the planet who haven't completely forgotten about Moon Knight. We don't know who these people are yet, because only four issues of this monthly comic have, thus far, been released. But I'm sticking around to find out.
4. American Virgin by Steven Seagle and Becky Cloonan
American Virgin is the latest ongoing launch from Vertigo, which is DC Comics' Mature Readers imprint. Over the last twenty years Vertigo has launched the classics Preacher and Sandman and, more recently, the acclaimed Y-The Last Man, and Fables.
American Virgin is the story of Christian Youth Group Leader -- and engaged 20-something virgin -- Adam Chamberlain, whose fianc
2. I'm still learning the ropes at the Litblog Co-op, and I'm looking forward to participating in the next Read This! selection. The current selection is Michael Martone by Michael Martone, a metafictional tour de force that evokes M*A*S*H and many other things, and it was selected by Dan Green, who explains his choice.
3. I attended a Cynthia Ozick reading at Barnes and Noble on 86th Street last week. She is a charming speaker with a surprisingly sweet and musical voice, and her demeanor was much gentler in person than on the page. She chose an illuminating biographical piece about Helen Keller as a sample from her new book of essays, A Din in the Head. I was not aware that Helen Keller faced great public derision (as well as great acclaim) during her difficult life; some authorities considered her a fraud, and she suffered terribly when a story she allegedly claimed to have written turned out to have been previously published by another author. It's not at all clear that Keller was a plagiarist (it's much more likely that she never intended to represent herself as the story's author), and I'm guessing that Ozick selected this essay partly because it provides interesting historical perspective on the famous plagiarism scandals of 2006. But I believe Cynthia Ozick mainly chose this essay because it expresses a private connection she feels with the legendary deaf dumb and blind girl, who also had to struggle to establish her career as a writer. I enjoyed Cynthia Ozick's subtle and edifying presentation very much, and I recommend that you catch her if she comes to your town.
4. Let's see, what else? Via Rake's Progress, here's a description of an upcoming new Thomas Pynchon novel that leaked out briefly on Amazon. A few interesting obituaries of Indian author Raja Rao can be found here. Finally, Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh has declared himself a political conservative. I don't know enough about the U.K. political scene to say anything intelligent at all about this, so I wish one of these guys would provide some context (Unless I've missed something, neither has mentioned it yet).
I have a lot of respect for Art Spiegelman, a manic-depressive comic strip artist and writer who holds nothing back from his craft. In the great self-effacing tradition of Robert Crumb, a Spiegelman comic is always "too much information", splattering personal urges and anxieties and weird notions around like a loose garden hose. But the best confessional comix artists have the artistry and wit to make the splatter beautiful. Spiegelman's graphical autobiography promises to be a deeply personal document, and it's off to a great start with the first two sections.
One reason I relate to Art Spiegelman is that he grew up about three and a half blocks from where I live now, in sunny Rego Park, Queens. I know this because Spiegelman drew a map of his street as part of the back cover of his signature work, Maus. Maus is the terribly sad and odd true story of Spiegelman's parents (who could have been role models for George Costanza's parents in Seinfeld, except reality beats fiction). Both were holocaust survivors, but Spiegelman's father adopted an infuriatingly contrary, almost cheerful tone about the experience, which apparently taught him important survival skills (but also made him cruel to women, emotionally dense with his son and generally crazy). Spiegelman's mother, on the other hand, never recovered from the shock of the camps. She committed suicide when Spiegelman was a young man. He had been recently released from a mental hospital when he walked home one day to find police cars outside his house. This was how he found out about his mother's suicide.
David Cronenberg is a great choice to direct this compelling tale. He's the filmmaker who turned William S. Burroughs' life story into a panaroma of intimate and creepy visual experiences with Naked Lunch, but my favorite Cronenberg film will always be his remake of The Fly featuring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in performances so good they had to run off and get married immediately after making it (though their marriage apparently lacked that Cronenberg magic, and didn't last).
I haven't seen A History of Violence yet, but I have read the excellent book that inspired it. I know some people are sick of the graphic novel fad, but I like them, and I hope this film will inspire more cinematic treatments of the genre's classics. Who wants to take on Persepolis? How about Ralph Bakshi trying Maus?
On a much gentler front, Nicholson Baker and Margaret Brentano's The World On Sunday is a gorgeous volume of archived newspaper artwork. It's amusing to learn that Baker's wife (who we have read much about in books like Room Temperature) is his co-author here, and one has to wonder if her literary last name (which once designated a great bookstore in midtown Manhattan, before it closed down) helped inspire the bibliophilic Baker to marry her.
The World On Sunday is not a major or definite Baker book, because words are his forte. But it is an overwhelmingly pleasing visual experience, and nobody but Baker would have worked this hard to bring it to you. When is somebody going to give Nicholson Baker a MacArthur genius grant, or a Nobel prize? The guy deserves it.