Month: March 2015

Reading Log: Asterios Polyp and the Literary Merits of Graphic Novels

I’m a big fan of graphic novels; one the the projects I’m working on right now is a collaborative effort that extends into visual narrative. I enjoy comic books (check out ‘Y: The Last Man’ and ‘Preacher’ if you want some pulp fun but have burned out on superheros). Projects like Watchman and Maus deserve all the critical acclaim they’ve gotten, but there’s a lot more out there.

Asterios Polyp: the tale of an academic “paper” architect (his award-winning designs have never been built) and his struggles with self-identity as he tries to make sense of the failure of duality as an organizing universal principle. It seems like an unlikely story to be told in a medium that has historically favored dense action and external conflict, but there’s plenty of room in the fold. Both the art and the writing are done by David Mazzucchelli, an impressive feat that allows for the most nuanced interplay between visual and semantic expression I’ve ever seen. The interplay here is wonderful, and Mazzucchelli makes use of variations in color and form that communicate massive amounts of relevant information not only with the utmost brevity but completely intuitively.

I don’t want to go too much into the plot here, as the book unfolds wonderfully and I’d hate to spoil the experience. I’ll simply say that David Mazzucchelli has created the best graphic novel of the 21st century (so far, at least). It’s a thinking book that’s beautiful to look at. My Sunday afternoon was completely devoured by this book; I became enthralled about 8 pages in. I find myself thinking about it, remembering both specific lines and specific frames. Once these have soaked in my brain for another 3 or 4 days I will read it again. An immediate second reading is an extreme rarity for me (and no, I won’t count the second reading in my 2015 total). The nature of internet hyperbole is working against me here, but this is such a goddamn amazing piece of work. The medium allows for such a nuanced expression of intricate thought; it’s a damn shame that it’s so often regulated away from slow-moving literary expressions.

Recommendation: Buy it. Buy a copy for a friend. Recommend it to strangers in the road.

Asterios Polyp
by David Mazzucchelli

Bookhounds -Jr. High Edition:

IMG_0605I’m running a Jr. High Language Arts classroom until the end of the school year. Since I’ll be in there a while, I decide to invest in the youth a bit and set up an in-class library, where students can grab a book to read once they’ve finished the assigned work (to my satisfaction). Since I’ve got a bit of a captive audience, I’ve selected more literary and classic works (that are age and school appropriate) as opposed to get-the-kids-reading-at-all-costs Hail Marys like Diary of a Wimpy Kid or *shudder* Divergent.

I know I’m missing a lot of really good books, but since I’m buying these with my own money -and it’s likely they’ll get thrashed- I’m pleased with what I’ve managed to round up. Gonna keep my eyes out at thrift stores for some favorites, (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) some good non-fiction, and some lower-level stuff.

Best New Music Releases of 2015 (So Far)

Music of 2015 (so far):

I’ve been listening to a lot more new albums lately. I’m a bit tired of the driving focus placed on singles in our iTunes era, and everything I’ve loved this year has been part of a strong album that functions well as an album, not just a collection of songs. NPR’s First Listen has been an amazing resource in this regard ( There is no better argument for limited sharing of digital audio -I’m going to be purchasing most of these albums as physical media in the next month or so.

In no particular order:

Matthew E. White, ‘Fresh Blood’: I saw the band open for The Mountain Goats in 2012, and my brother thought they were better than the main act -if I didn’t love John’s band so much, I might have, too. Amazing musicians, amazing arrangements, monster presence. The new album has all of that -and better songs. ‘Holy Moly’ kills.

Lightning Bolt, ‘Fantasy Empire’: Great music to play loud. Noise-rock, proto-metal high-clarity lo-fi… it’s hard to classify. It’s damn good, somewhat intoxicating, and exhausting. Not for the faint of heart. Listen to it all the way through.

Inventions, ‘Maze of Woods’: Explosions in the Sky guitarist Mark Smith teams up solo laptop guy Matthew Cooper and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The guitar arrangements and piano parts sound like they’ve been lifted out of ‘The Earth is not a Cold, Dead Place’. Great minimalistic post-rock with an extravagant electronic twist. Like ‘Fantasy Empire’, listen to it all in one go.

‘Seth Avett & Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith’: The title is rather self-explanatory. heart wrenching, black songs covered with beautiful precision, full of dead-on harmonies and understated acoustic instrumentation. I’m not as familiar as I’d like to be with Elliott Smith’s music, but this album has put my feet upon the path. Don’t listen to this if you’re having a bad day.

Liturgy, “The Art Work’: Another very loud and aggressive album that refuses to fall to our rock-nerd Linnaean taxonomies. On first listen, it seems to be more squarely metal than something like ‘Fantasy Empire’, but that’s just where the train is coming from and Liturgy are going somewhere else entirely. Horns and spoken-word vocal delivery sit right next to driving tremolo-picking and black metal thunder and it all belongs together.

Reading Log: Gabriel García Márquez’s Of Love and Other Demons

Márquez himself needs no introduction, but his short novel Of Love and Other Demons had completely escaped my radar. My experience with Spanish-language magic realism had been limited to short stories until this point, and I probably would have defaulted to one of the more well-known Márquez titles, but my girlfriend finished this one a few weeks ago and found it enthralling, so I took her recommendation and find myself very glad I did. I’m sure I’ll swing back to some of his big titles within a year or so, but Love and Other Demons is one of the best books I’ve read in 2015.

The magical elements are more toned-down here than in the only other Márquez I’ve read, (the much-anthologized A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings) but this creates a stronger sense of greater-than-reality -the borders of possibility are so blurred. The book never even feels translated -an impressive feat. Márquez’s prose isn’t the meticulously constructed realism of John Gardner or even Carver, but an easy flowing effortlessness that belies a total mastery of the medium of storytelling. That’s where this book really runs away with you -it’s simply a story that exemplifies the fantastic. It’s not hyperbole or exaggeration, just complete dedication to the fulfillment of a story’s potential as a tale in the most archetypal sense of the idea. It’s a fairy story for grown-ups, but the fairies are understated, lending their magic unseen to the larger-than-life characters here, each of them completely believable and utterly improbable.

Recommendation: Buy it and read it somewhere at least tangentially removed from the realities of everyday life.

by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Reading Log: Marc Maron’s Attempting Normal

After slogging through Amy Poehler’s memoir/funnybook, I must confess I had some concerns going into this particular audiobook. I love Maron’s standup and his interviews, but I’ve always found him a bit narcissistic and self-aggrandizing. I’m pleased to report that his expression of these qualities just makes the book better. Maron’s prose is incredibly personal and conversational, blurring the line between persona and honest confession. His reading sounds like she’s just pulling the words out of the air rather than the book in front of him.

Maron’s self-obsession actually serves the project remarkably well. Told in first person, it has the quality of a long-running personal anecdote spun by a clever storyteller with an excellent blend of insight and humor. I wouldn’t want to be Marc’s friend, but I certainly don’t mind being in his head here. The book is wide-ranging and follows no real arc, with Maron opting to present his life experiences as loosely connected vignettes rather than a structured narrative.

The reason this book works where others of a similar ilk fall flat is the personal authenticity. I don’t know (nor do I care) how much of the “Marc” character is an actual reflection of the author, but the character is interesting and compelling. Rather than being a “this is who I am and this is the tale of my life story,” Maron presents himself as a person talking to you about interesting shit that has happened in his life. I don’t understand why comedians often make such subpar writers, but Maron is a refreshing exception to the rule.

Recommendation: Get it. It’s a short, easy read and -like the best stand-up- the humor and the insight interlock very well.

Attempting Normal
by Marc Maron

Reading Log: The Year of Magical Thinking

This is some of the most powerful nonfiction I have ever read. Didion gets put up on a pedestal in many circles, but it’s hard to argue convincingly that she doesn’t belong there. The Year of Magical Thinking is an incredibly moving piece of work, not only on the level of emotional appeal but on a level of prose -sentence by sentence.

By writing about her husband’s death so close upon the events themselves, she provides a look into the process of coming to terms with such a loss. It’s not that the emotions Didion feels are powerful because they are novel in any way; it’s the strength of her enunciation of emotion that comes through. Watching a first-rate mind observing itself get cloudy and seeing the line between Didion-the-subject and Didion-the-chronicler fade and then seeing how these two realities meet as her own self-perception becomes inconsistent in her grief brings home the realities of the death far more than any kind of external observation. It’s the macabre fulfillment of Gonzo journalism and it’s impossible to read without emotional investment. Didion’s glamorous and charmed life is no protection from the realities of mortality and the terrifying randomness of medical misfortune. Her responses to her husband’s death and her daughter’s illness are elevated to their own level of authenticity.

Didion’s portrayal of her own grief is the greatest account of the nature of the relationship she had with her husband. The process of her grief at John’s death provides both a perspective and a narrative device from which to understand something as common and as powerful as a lifetime partnership of both emotional intimacy and creativity. Didion fears writing, fears the idea of publishing anything that John cannot read over first. The perspective of loss frames that which was lost in such a way as to see the intensity and depth of the thing without sinking into the precious. There is no trite artifice here. Didion presents her life and his life through the most vulnerable period of time imaginable. It makes the reader long for the kind of relationship that lasts so long and so effectively as to warrant such grief.

Recommendation: Buy it and read it. Don’t rush the reading. Laugh bitterly at people who cry while reading The Fault in Our Stars.

Reading Log: February in Review

cartoon me

February was a rather lean month. Between working very long hours at a new school and trying to juggle a few other projects and responsibilities, my reading (and writing) tapered off more than I’m happy with. I also started Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing, a book of Moby-Dick proportions, and Bolano’s The Savage Detectives, a book of Moby-Dick plus half again proportions. I’ve made progress, but both of these books -in addition to their not insubstantial length- are slow reads.

I’m still on track to finish reading 100 books in 2015. I won’t have to work this summer, so even if I do fall a bit behind, I’ve got plenty of time to catch up. As important as reading and writing are to me, I’m not going to sacrifice spending time with the people I love and creating memorable personal experiences with them in pursuit of an artificial goal. Neither will I change my reading focus to short novellas and easy-reading, unchallenging fiction. The purpose of setting out to read 100 books in 2015 was and remains to read widely and thoroughly. That is my primary objective. But I’m still gonna try my best to crack 100, because, you know. It’s a hundred.

Best book finished this February: Kerry Howley’s Thrown.

by Kerry Howley