Friday, August 31, 2012

Quick Review

My Friend DahmerMy Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There's one image, right around the middle of the book, that will haunt me, I'm pretty sure. The adolescent Jeffrey Dahmer witnesses a classmate's serious injury and laughs. Derf Backderf was there. The artist went to school with Jeffrey Dahmer, the future serial killer. This book is a memoir and a reconstruction of those early days in Dahmer's life, up to and including his first murder -- though obviously Backderf relies on sources other than his own memories for that. Still, this book is all about hindsight, about the habit of human beings who find themselves to have been near an event -- tragedy specially -- or even, as here, evil, to piece together what memory and history can still tell us. That panel of Dahmer laughing at another boy's pain? That is a chilling image of a face without a soul, and Backderf knows it -- now.

Backderf's drawing style owes something to the humorists of the period -- mid to late Seventies -- described so perfectly in the book. There's a comedic heaviness to the characters: a thickness of line, heavy black shadows, and an awkward uniformity to their rectangular heads on their clumsy, elongated bodies. The National Lampoon is acknowledged in the text, and there is more than a suggestion of Gahan Wilson in Backderf's grotesques -- and of Mad Magazine's Don Martin and Basil Wolverton ("Lena the Hyena.") This can be a bit off-putting, at first, in such a straight-forward work of nonfiction; like watching Adam Sandler in a dramatic role. There's an emotional impact though that's not immediately apparent. This is what adolescence feels like. It's certainly what it felt like then; square, ugly, flat. Backderf's Dahmer looks almost nothing like the blandly handsome face from photographs. But then, this isn't really about that person, but an earlier, indeed, even sympathetic iteration of what will become a murderous predator. This younger Dahmer's blankness, his disconnection and his alien confusion and longing for contact, his weird sense of humor, and yes, his growing menace are all perfectly conveyed by the Tiki-faced cypher Backderf draws. Dahmer's eyes, when visible at all behind his big Aviator glasses, look either dead or dreadful. It works. When, as in the sequence mentioned above, Dahmer's cruelty and madness look out at the reader through the mask, the effect is far more chilling and representative of his very real menace than any photograph or more anatomically realistic drawing might have been. Monsters need deep shadows and dark lines.

But then, Backderf is at some pains not to describe the Jeffrey Dahmer he knew as a boy as a monster. While always quick to acknowledge that Dahmer was lost from the moment he murdered, Backderf tries very hard to extend a real sympathy to the earlier Dahmer, still just a social outcast, a disturbed and disturbing weirdo who drinks every day to suppress his own growing demon. The author's sympathy seems perfectly genuine and far from misplaced. Jeffrey Dahmer was a boy that was never helped, as Backderf stresses throughout. Family, teachers, friends, everyone failed Jeffrey. (While that seems perfectly true, I'm not entirely convinced by Backderf that anyone can predict, let alone prevent a Dahmer. Nothing I've ever read on the subject suggests that there's anything much to be done for such people, and little enough to be done about them besides locking them away forever or killing them in their turn.)

The expanded format of this edition allows Backderf to not only tell as much of the story as he'd always intended, but also to provide extensive back-notes, and a very interesting forward detailing the the long history of his Dahmer comics. The finished work is remarkably able telling of a very dark, true story, and from a unique perspective. I've had no more memorable, or disturbing reading experience this year. I can't recommend this book enough.

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Daily Dose

From On Grief and Reason: Essays, by Joseph Brodsky


"He has no company: virtue, like a malady, alienates."

From Homage to Marcus Aurelius, XI

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table, a Collection of Essays from the New York Times, edited by Amanda Hesser


"This time, though, I'd expand their horizons further afield, educate their masala-conditioned palates on the quieter complexities of bouillabaisse and coq au vin. It would be as if Dinesen's heroine were making her Asian debut in Babette Does Bombay."

From A Taste of Home, by Manil Suri

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A Guest Doodle

I'm still not entirely sure who made this one for me, but I'm guessing my coworker, Stuart Bloomfield, father of the prettiest children I know.

Daily Dose

From The Goldfish, by Robert Lynd


"The poets, apart from those who have been clergymen, have consistently been praisers of sleep."

From In Defence of Sleep

Monday, August 27, 2012

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Portraits and Other Short Works, by Gertrude Stein


"Lying in a conundrum, lying so makes the springs restless, lying so is a reduction, not lying so is arrangeable."

From Tender Buttons

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Quick Review

People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo - and the Evil That Swallowed Her UpPeople Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo - and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up by Richard Lloyd Parry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A very good book. And yet, here's a true crime book with all the usual faults of the genre: the investigation of a single crime taking an insupportable time to solve, following dead-end after dead-end, as much about the place and the failures of the police involved as about the murder that made the book necessary, etc., etc. So why do all these otherwise disqualifying factors work so well here? Richard Lloyd Parry, a perfectly respectable journalist and foreign correspondent, turns out to be able to tell a story, and write a good book, anyway. Too often, established newspapermen, let off the chain to write at book-length, specially about crime, and specially about events they reported at the time, tend to forget themselves in tiresome ways; describing the bars they invariably sat in all night, or allowing their admiration of this or that investigator or attorney turn into some embarrassing romance on the page, or in some other way just gassing on, either about themselves, which almost never bodes well, as which of us is as interesting as all that at a keyboard, really? Or the newspaper man, given the chance just over-writes. How many journalists have always wanted to use an atmosphere and been denied? So sad. Having finished this book, I still know almost nothing about Parry. That's about right.

As for the length of the thing, and there's no denying that this is a long book, and not just by the standards of the best true crime reporting, that turns out to be about right too. The first half of Parry's book, usually the worst part of any true murder story, as the investigation goes on, and on, and on, manages to spend what in less disciplined hands would have been an unforgivable length of time in the company not just of the victim, her family and friends, but in the down-market pleasure-district where she worked as a hostess. Parry is smart. He sees a good story in the victim's unbearably sad, but also quite eccentric father. It's a good story. It teaches us something of the power of hope, and grief, and the failure of either to actually sustain something as grindingly awful as the disappearance and murder of someone's child. The victim here is seen as an adult, someone who made some unfortunate choices, with whom Parry takes just as much time as needed -- and blessedly no more -- to tell us who this woman was, and why her death was so sad. What's more, unlike so much true crime writing, Parry's story is told without trying to make this girl's life signify more than it might to those that knew and loved her, or making her less than the person she was. The reason Parry is telling this particular story however has all to do with how this became a story in Japan. That story, of a father's relentless talking at the media for months and months, of polite but incompetent police, of the rather gloomy world of foreign girls pushing drinks in dreary Japanese clubs, of other, unreported victims of the same sick man, that needs some time to tell.

The second half of the book, once the killer's known and caught and brought to trial, goes off at a busy clip, and that's right too. Too often this kind of grotesque, once he's safely clapped up in a cell, becomes the excuse for all manner of amateur psychologizing, existential gas and, frankly, monologuing above a journalist's pay-grade. The temptation to make a mastermind out of a cypher, or a demon out of a pig, must be powerful. Too few can resist the urge to write fiction. (The trouble with writing about nearly all criminals, but murderers and sexual sadists in particular, seems to be the urge to justify our collective curiosity by proving a complexity of either motive or method that simply isn't there. Some men, and a very few women, are violent or cunning in interesting or original ways, most however are just horrible -- and surprisingly uninteresting as people.) Parry can get just the littlest bit windy, but he generally resists the urge to say more than he knows or take longer to say it than he needs.

The result is a genuinely interesting case written up by the right man. He knows Japan in just the right sort of way; in it but not of it, to write about a case and a crime that might never have happened, at least not in just this perversely interesting way, anywhere else. Parry knew a story when he was writing it. He made a good book.

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From The Blessing, by Nancy Mitford


"At this moment a large party of people got up to go. The violinists came forward, still playing, to try to persuade them to stay. They surrounded them, playing with all their souls. But the people, though smiling, were firm, and made a passage through the deeply bowing, still playing Cossacks."

From Part One, Chapter 13

Saturday, August 25, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

Quick Review

Frank O'Hara: Poems from the Tibor De Nagy Editions, 1952-1956Frank O'Hara: Poems from the Tibor De Nagy Editions, 1952-1956 by Frank O'Hara

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Some otherwise unknown -- to me -- O'Hara. A very nice surprise, then. Interesting of itself as well for being contributions made to a long-running art-project, so that herein are poems from the poet's early days in NYC to his premature end, three separate pamphlets worth, and with all the variety of his work in a small and representative space. Here's "The Lover," for instance, from the first set, already delightfully, imperfectly disciplined in its sly, camp and sweaty images -- "He is a man like us, erect / in the cold dark night..." and so on -- completely modern, and still as metered and tightly made as some weird sonnet by Manley Hopkins. The whole enterprise, all three little "books," for want of a better word, are full of pretty, queerish things; little personal puzzles wrapped tight as nuts, some that can be picked out and other that I accept as so many inexplicable grits.

What is it in O'Hara that makes the whole delicious even as the ingredients are not always, or even often, immediately digestible? Wit, most obviously, and exuberance, and fierce kind of honesty, sometimes embarrassing in its earnest, almost naive belief in itself as a value to both poet and reader. Not always true, that. (Has any other American poet of roughly the same age inspired as much mundane, even dull verse from his enthusiasts and imitators? Well, Ginsberg, I suppose, but then Ginsberg was more boring than not, and that is not at all true of O'Hara.) I hesitate to suggest the word as definitive, but had I to pick one word for O'Hara? Charm.

Not that even here there aren't those stretches of shuffling narrative (see Oranges: 12 Pastorals, pretty much anywhere in it) wherein shit happens and is reported, and then interrupted by the kind of nonsense -- "Cease playing harmonicas, you lizards!" -- that must have sounded hilarious when everybody was high, or drunk, either, both.

Interestingly enough though, even anticipating the worst kind of O'Hara, I'll still read anything by him. And when he's good -- see many things here, like "Little Elegy for Antonio Machado" and "A City Winter," -- he's just bracing and wonderful and complex and fun.

That puts him on a very short list of American poets, my dear. A very short list indeed.

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Daily Dose

From Dylan Thomas: The Collected Letters, edited by Paul Ferris


"I'm terribly sorry to hear about the money trouble. I cannot, at this moment, help in any way, and am, this morning, going to try a post-dated cheque at the village grocer's: well post-dated too."

From a letter to John Davenport, dated 26 August '48, Manor House South Leigh Witney Oxon

Friday, August 24, 2012

Quick Review

Ed the Happy ClownEd the Happy Clown by Chester Brown

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Chester Brown has to be the only cartoonist I read for his footnotes. More than just the "DVD extras" that now sometimes come with hardcover publication of comics, Brown's lengthy end-notes, here as in his previous books, constitute something like a counter-narrative; not just the story of the book's creation, but the ongoing autobiography of a major talent and weirdly unpleasant little man. In fact, of all the major personalities of the current comics renaissance, Chester Brown is perhaps the least likable. Based on nothing but his own work, particularly his last book, Paying for It, but also, again, his notes here and elsewhere as well, he would seem to be a rather ghoulish character; a charmless, indeed gormless man of middle everything: age, hair, ugliness, intelligence, and yet with an almost clinically accomplished drawing style; never less than interesting, frame to frame, but also cold and flat as a schematic.

That's what makes the reissue of these early comics in this standard, hardcover edition so fascinating. (True, the single biggest shock in the whole book is the vintage author's photo at the tag-end, in which Chester Brown not only looks uncharacteristically young and attractive, but eerily like Dr. Renée Richards at her... loveliest? For want of a better word.) Here is Brown's line before it had completely set, so that Ed the Happy Clown, when he inexplicably breaks a leg, in the very first issue, wiggles and jiggles like a Beetle Bailey beat-down, his clown-skirt swirling in the middle of the frame like a pinwheel. Really, there's a raggedy-ass quality to a lot of the character drawing in these early cartoons, an almost amateurish hurry to the sometimes spidery lines, proportion, perspective and anatomy bending and bowing and breaking off at unlikely angles that all but completely disappears from Brown's later, rigidly controlled, unemotional frame. I happen to think Brown's cool draftsmanship, when put in service of a realistic narrative, like his earlier memoir and his historical narrative masterpiece, Louis Riel, is a wonder of the age. (I would suggest the influence of Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie, and or Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen's Dondi, etc. on Brown blank-eyed, mature style of character design, but one must never presume with Chester Brown that he's ever heard of anything, read anything, seen anything or been out of his apartment for years, unless he says as much in his entertainingly autistic notes. He confesses to intellectual gaps and gaffs therein that would bring a blush to the cheek of a professional wrestler. But then, much of the fascination of these long, affect-less notes would be the blank naif with a pencil that the artist describes. There is an innocence, and yes, a frustrating denseness to the man-- thus for example his almost casual conversion to the Libertarian Party of Canada -- that adds yet another layer of strange to the already weird story of Chester Brown.) Ed the Happy Clown, despite being now sub-titled "a graphic-novel," by even the loosest definition of that meaningless label, is really more a collected early comics, if not quite juvenilia. As such, it is a welcome addition, if for no other reason, again, the notes.

As art, Ed the Happy Clown is still interesting, if less characteristic -- the best single image is the new cover -- because on his worst day, Brown makes more interesting pictures than most popular cartoonists now working. Still, long, unfunny stretches of this thing could be from almost any cartoon zine of the period. Scatology, how droll. As either wild-eyed, youthful surrealism and or crazy-shakes exploration of a not-terribly-deep subconsciousness... well, it's still good to have, racist little pygmies and all. (Again, can't assume much of Mr. Brown, but these pygmies? Those teeth really can't help but conjure Karen Black's classic camp, Trilogy of Terror nemesis, the Zuni fetish/racist nightmare doll.)

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From A Month of Sundays, by John Updike


"I overreach. Swing easy, I tell myself day after day. The days blend here. The sky at night is lilac. The Milky Way is a dragon. I no longer miss leaves. My indignation ebbs. My characters recede. I know you are praying for me, Ms. Prynne."

From 17

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Science Fiction/Fantasy Calendar!

That's right, there are two this year. I might as easily have done just this Science Fiction/Fantasy edition for 2013, but as I did this project first as a Christmas gift for family and friends, I thought I'd better have the traditional literary caricatures as well. Not everyone will want SF/F, or know who those people are. but then, not everyone getting a calendar for Christmas will know who anyone is in either. I send these things to family as well as friends. 'nough said.

I'm proud of the cover, described elsewhere. Turned out okay.

See, here's Roger Zelazny, dead now some time, but of whom I was passing fond in my fantasy and science fiction reading youth. Is he still read? I note much of what he wrote is still in print, which can be no bad thing. In drawing him, I'm rather counting on some interested parties will be at least as old as I am. We shall see.

Here's another example of my age. When I read Dune, it was a trilogy, and Frank Herbert was the man. To my mind, so it will always be. The work-husband, when he saw this one, said that Mr. Herbert Sr. looked rather "like a pumpkin" here. I can see that. A rather wormy pumpkin. How appropriate for October, no?

And Mervyn Peake, author of the superbly weird Gormenghast! Afraid he's about as close as this calendar comes to beefcake, though I'd certainly put in a word for Kevin Smith, also featured here. Fat can be fun. (So I keep telling the boys, anyway.)

Daily Dose

From The Complete Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge


"And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise."

From Kubla Khan

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

2013 Calendar!

Here then my annual venture into micro-capitalism: the 2013 Usedbuyer 2.0 Calendar of Literary Caricatures! This marks the third year for this little project. Last year, some of you may remember, there was a wonderful newspaper piece by Mary Anne Gwinn for the Seattle Times. She was very kind. Anyway, the piece came out after the 2012 calendars had sold out. I thought about reprinting, but it was too late, really. Here's hoping then that someone remembers.

Christopher Hitchens I drew when his last book to date (there's at least one other still forthcoming) was published. The drawing came from a photograph I saw of Hitch in the midst of his last treatment. I believe in the photo, for some reason, he was showing off his teeth. I for one will miss him, and the snap of those jaws.

I drew Burroughs before his new book came out -- and suddenly he was cleanly shaved and smoothly polished. I think i still prefer him fuzzy.

Finally, here's Dame Agatha, laughing. she's probably my favorite this year. Love that hand; like some thick sea anemone.

So, there we are. On sale soon at University Book Store, Seattle. Check 'em out.Link

Daily Dose

From Brazil, by John Updike


"The sandy earth came up to meet her as the powdery mattress of her childhood bed would float upward to her body when, in the days before her mother died in childbirth and her father became a wounded monster, he would carry her asleep in his arms from some bright exciting place they had all been together, and for just a flicker of wakefulness she would be aware of his strong arms, of the white sheets and fuzzy covers turned back, of her weariness and trust as she felt herself ladled from the deep bucket if one dream into another."

From XIX, The Raid

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Ray Bradbury RIP

When I put the idea about of a Science Fiction/Fantasy edition of my annual calendar of caricatures, the one name that recurred was the late Ray Bradbury. Understandable. Someone like Bradbury passes and the world loses some magic, a corner of the night sky goes dark, there are fewer dragons, and there are stories now that won't be told. I get it. Looking at pictures online when Bradbury died, I decided there were enough caricatures of the grand old man already. There are some spectacular drawings, some very good portraits, actually, amateur and professional, and lots of good cartoons. I don't like to draw anyone about whom it might be hard to show anything new. I need to have something to say, something to add, when I pick up my pencil.

Still, I tried. For whatever reason, I couldn't do it. I could not draw Bradbury in a way that I liked, in a way that said anything like what I wanted to say about him. He had a great face, and a great face for caricature. I don't mean that as a joke, or say it to be cruel. I like a big nose. I appreciate a substantial eyebrow, a sharp tooth. Can't help it. That's how I see us humans, by the sum of our parts: absurd, asymmetrical, funny, touching, exaggerated, endearingly odd, most of us, our faces anyway. I think Bradbury might have appreciated that perspective, maybe shared it himself. There's beauty in all of us, I think, but it isn't flattered by avoiding time or appetite or any of the stuff that shapes us, body and soul. Still, I just didn't like what I'd drawn.

Then, when I announced the calendars coming soon, again, Bradbury. So... this is what I did. The Illustrated Man may have been the first Bradbury book I read, or not. Doesn't matter. I certainly remember that red cover. This is how Ray Bradbury's death still feels to me. So, here's what I did for the SF/F calendar for 2013. I hope everyone approves.

Daily Dose

From The Poetry of Robert Frost

"A baggy figure, equally pathetic
When sedentary and when peripatetic."

From The Bear

Monday, August 20, 2012


I'm contemplating a new calendar this year, and tonight I'm conjuring with the notion of one devoted just to SF/F writers...

Daily Dose

From The Lost Grizzlies, by Rick Bass


"The mountains have always been here, and in them, the bears."

From page 97

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Poems of John Keats


"But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways."

From Ode to a Nightingale

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World, by Simon Callow


"She liked to say that she had been dancing all night the day before Charles was born; diligent research has shown the ball took place four days earlier, which only goes to show what a spoilsport diligent research can be."

From Chapter One, Paradise

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

The Apple by John Burroughs

Daily Dose

From Montaigne: Selected Essays, translated by Charles Cotton, revised by William Hazlitt, et al


"Every day I hear fools say things that are not foolish."

From On the Art of Conversing

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Bookstore Doodle

Daily Dose

From The Complete Works of Michel de Montaigne, translated by Donald M. Frame


"They say that Zeno had to do with a woman only once in his life, and then out of civility, so as not to seem too obstinately to disdain the sex."

From On Some Verses of Virgil

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Charles Lamb by William Hazlitt

A Guest Doodle

Yet another BRILLIANT image from my fabulous coworker, Michael Wallenfels, celebrating the big 100 for the late, great Julia Child.

Daily Dose

From Montaigne's Essays, Volume One, translated by John Florio


"Let us consider through what clouds, and how blind-fold we are led to the knowledge of most things, that passe our hands..."

From Chapter XXVI, It Is Follie to Referre Truth or Falsehood to Our Sufficiencie

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Caricature

Daily Dose

From The Essays of Montaigne, Volume II, translated by E. J. Trenchmann


"Plato says that the man who escapes with clean hands from the management of the world's affairs, escapes by a miracle."

From The Conduct of Public Affairs

Monday, August 13, 2012

Quick Review

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy CityJerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hadn't encountered Delisle before, a deficiency I intend to address immediately. What a delightful talent! He's been at this for some time and here, in his -- what? sixth book, in English translation? -- he has produced one of the most polished little comedies I've encountered for a long time. It's a very clever performance, and well worth examining in more detail than many another graphic of equal length and less seriousness.

Start with his self-portrait. Delisle is, or was, an animator as well as a cartoonist. As such he has what I would assume is the traditional animator's sensitivity to gesture, to posture, to character in the minimum number of necessary drawings. (This isn't as obvious as one might think in contemporary comics. How many cartoonists now, perhaps raised under the dead hand of video games and motion-capture, either can not appreciate a properly cocked eyebrow in one dash or, say, skepticism in just the tilt away from a drawn conversation? How many young artists, grown up on the racial exaggerations of Manga, make every emotion grotesque; obvious, ugly, even vulgar, as if still addressing children or semi-literate new readers? Subtlety, and wit, sometimes would seem to be lost somewhere between the uncanny valley and the Saturday morning cartoons.) As someone who has found his narrative form in the travelogue, Delisle has had the insight to assume an almost perfect deadpan on the page; his face is all but featureless, much of the time, but for that carefully employed Gallic brow. In fact, his head is usually just so much geometry and punctuation. Like Tin Tin, he's often just a shape with a recognizable hairdo. The landscape, real and human, which is very much the point in this kind of book, is handsomely drawn; on site, in the market, at The Wall (the new one,) as seen, and now and then in a helpful map. The cartoonist's simple self moves through this incredibly complex, often confusing and utterly irrational country like some silent comedian with a stroller: Jacques Tati's Monsieur Hulot in the Holy Land. He tilts in to see some historical curiosity, tilts back from something unpleasant, spins away, single-brow-knit, from some ridiculous eighteen-year-old soldier's insistence that he move along.

There's a year's tour here. A year's worth of small-ish discomforts and discombobulations. Nothing truly horrible happens here, or if it does, it happens out of frame or just off-stage (like the housekeeper's house being scheduled for demolition -- after Delisle's wife's tour with Médecins Sans Frontières ends, and they and their two kids are safe away.)

That's what makes this a comedy, and what keeps it, even at it's most serious and disquieting moments -- and there are more than a few moments genuine discomfort here -- from the portentousness and self-importance that has marred more than a few recent efforts to address this region's many issues, political and religious, in comics. Clearly, it's hard enough to deal with all the tangled and terrible complexities of a place like Jerusalem in even the most considered, diplomatic language. Few things are less suited to such a task than gag-panels and speech-balloons. By keeping the scale of his narrative to just a rather hapless gent in the middle-distance, just taking the kids to the zoo and maybe sketching a ruin here and there, Delisle avoids many of the traps planted all over such a difficult place.

If there are complaints about the cartoonist's occasional cultural insensitivity ("Jewish Easter" for Passover seems particularly egregious,) these have been if not answered then largely excused, quite cleverly, by this Québécois (I hope I've got that right,) making himself, if anything less worldly, shall we say, than even his least traveled reader.

Meanwhile, this is a very rich and quite fascinating stay in a strange place, and well worth a second visit. I've read through the book twice now myself, just for the pleasure of the trip.

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Pyongyang: A Journey in North KoreaPyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Soon as I'd finished Delisle's new Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City, I had to stop at my local Comics shop and hunt up one of his earlier travelogues. I want them all but, paying retail, I limited myself to just one more, for now. Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea proved irresistible. (What, I ask you, are the odds of "Pyongyang" and "irresistible" in the same sentence in any other context?) If anything, I enjoyed my stay in Hermit Kingdom almost more than my earlier time spent in the Capital of Conflicting Faiths.

Here is the perfect marriage of subject, style and flat-out stupid fun. How's that? Well, it's true. The only thing likely to be less fun than visiting Pyongyang would be either living there or anywhere else in the Orwellian waste that is the world's only hereditary Communist monarchy. No fun to be had, from the look of it, anywhere in that terrible place. That said, seeing a rather dispirited French Canadian animator interacting for a few weeks or months with his own little cadre of North Korean minders, translators, animators, subordinates, drivers and such, is just fraught with inherently funny miscommunications of all sorts, intentional and otherwise. What constitutes a "day off" in North Korea is alone worth the price of the book. Ah, the International Friendship Exhibition!

Delisle takes Orwell's 1984 with him on this trip. He quotes from the novel, appropriately enough, more than once. (At one point he gives his copy to his translator/minder, who returns it thereafter with great relief, by the way.) It may seem a little too on-the-nose, but Orwell's sense of tragic absurdity does rise off these pages from nearly every frame, and Delisle's comics are, if anything more right than almost any more elaborate narrative when it comes to capturing the blank ridiculousness of the place.

Pyongyang deserves cartoons. Cartoons are the North Korean reality. Delisle could not do better.

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Daily Dose

From The Collected Poems of James Agee, edited by Robert Fitzgerald


"Once more we strain our poor skull-bounded wits"

From Two Sonnets

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Quick Review

Not the Israel My Parents Promised MeNot the Israel My Parents Promised Me by Harvey Pekar

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Here's one last conversation with Harvey Pekar, one last chance to spend the afternoon again with one of the unlikeliest literary figures of recent times. I was glad of the chance. Pekar's last collaborator, J. T. Waldman would seem to have gotten a little grief for having made this book out of what appears to have been but one day tooling around Cleveland with Harvey, talking about Israel. What of it? None of Pekar's collaborations ever struck me as being specially artful or editorially strict; if anything, the weird fascination of Pekar has always been the careful avoidance, in both his person and his art, of seemingly any affect at all. What is it he's kept from his readers heretofore, or spared us? How many days considerably less crowded have his readers not already spent listening to Pekar talk, or think, or just sit? As for the suggestion that this last conversation is somehow uncharacteristic of the man, that's just nonsense. Pekar is a child of Montaigne; nothing he did did he not find interesting enough to consider, and at length, in public, with friends. Why not? Harvey Pekar was an interesting man. Harvey Pekar, I feel perfectly safe in saying was also a bit of a bore.

Here we have a rather gentle, even fragile Harvey; avoiding the stairs, glad of a ride. He's still irascible, he still snaps now and then, but the bark is more a low growl and there's frankly not much harm left in him. What there was, evidently was still a good deal of unresolved affectation for and or resentment of his long dead parents. Yes, it would have been nice to have had a bit more of them and perhaps less of the the Khazars and less of Suez, but the book we have is now the only book we're going to get, and that means Harvey telling the whole history of the Jews, and by extension the Middle East, in an afternoon, over sandwiches and Cokes in Cleveland. Not my idea of a good time, honestly, so I can't say that I envy the day Waldman got to spend with Pekar, but I'm glad, as I say, of the record Waldman made. Why?

Harvey Pekar is such a rare bird in the last American century as to sometimes seem unique, though he was hardly that. Autodidacts aren't usual to our literature after, say the turn of the last century. (Before that it seems it was the professors who were rare.) Working class intellectuals, unless and until they achieve some kind of celebrity unrelated to their reading and writing -- as "Nixon's favorite philosopher," to name just one unfortunate example in poor Eric Hoffer -- hardly figured otherwise in our discourse. And nowadays? I would be willing to bet, based if nothing else on his occasional guest-spots on the old Letterman show, were a Harvey to happen again, he would probably be swallowed up immediately in some reality TV... mess that would exploit his mental difficulties, his eccentricities and his mood, just as Letterman once did, for laughs, without actually paying much mind to anything he might have had to say. The most remarkable thing about Pekar is that his one truly important idea -- comics written seriously about real life, namely his, happened at exactly the right moment to come true. The result of that good fortune is a remarkable record of a very individual life, otherwise largely unrecorded in our literature, which was exactly Harvey's point.

When, as here, what Harvey had to say was what one may both already know and already have come to a similar conclusion about, is not to diminish both Pekar's right, and need to say it, and the satisfaction to be had from seeing so much plain sense between covers. True, Pekar's is not always a subtle reading of either history or politics, but it is honest, which is a rare thing indeed when it come to not just this subject, but the record of our civic life in general, as lived by those of us with, shall we say, day jobs?

I miss Harvey Pekar.

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Daily Dose

From Montaigne Selected Essays, edited by Blanchard Bates, translated by Charles Cotton and revised by William Hazlitt, et al.


"Aesop relates that a man who had bought a Moorish slave, believing that his color had been acquired through chance and the bad treatment of his former master, caused him to be carefully treated with many baths and potions. It turned out that the Moor did not improve at all in his tawny complexion, but he wholly lost his former health."

From Resemblance of Children to Fathers

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Quick Review

Green River Killer: A True Detective StoryGreen River Killer: A True Detective Story by Jeff Jensen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm increasingly convinced that some of the best of the graphics renaissance we're now experiencing may well be in exactly the kind of imaginative nonfiction, and collaboration, best represented by books very much like this one. I am a real fan of the great stylists like Daniel Clowes and Charles Burns, with their innovative manipulations of form and narrative -- and their capacity for flat weirdness. Such artists however are by their very uniqueness outside the mainstream of cartooning. Doesn't make what isn't new bad. What to my mind is best in that mainstream of more traditional cartooning is banked by the kind of concrete details and straight-up storytelling that often as not may be best served by writers rather than, in some cases, the artist him or herself. (True for a lot of comic books back in the day, just as true now.) To each his or her strength, no?

Here the text is by Jeff Jensen, writing the true story of his dad, a Washington state cop who spent a good part of his long career trying to catch the Green River Killer. Jensen's memoir for his dad is a surprisingly tasteful and sensitive treatment of that horror, as well as what feels like a faithful recreation of his own and his family's contentment in the vicinity of a very real evil. Jonathan Case's art is as sharp, dynamic, and traditional as the protagonist. It works.

The book avoids the two most predictable traps in true crime writing: explaining, and so explaining away, the inexplicable, and giving more credit than is due. Cops are people. Mistakes were made, a lot of mistakes over a very long time. A lot of women died. They died at the hands of a truly barbarous, violent man, otherwise utterly unremarkable in any way; a not very bright, not very interesting, not very noticeable nobody. That is the fascination of the thing, not the gruesome details of just what the stupid sadist did, but how such a zero could destroy so many lives and take so long to be caught. That is the balance that this book keeps, between the commonplace and the awful, and it all works because of the balance between the almost reassuring familiarity of language and art, and the strangeness of the story being told.

The final result then is a remarkably restrained and realistic police procedural/memoir, beautifully rendered, and exactly, so far as I can see, where the form is accomplishing some of it's best results.

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