I have discovered these past few days that there are two types of people: those who like daylight saving time, and those who do not. The folks who like daylight saving are like me. They are optimists who look forward to a long summer of sun-drenched evenings, where you can spend the evening hours outside in the warm, lingering dusk. Those who don’t like daylight saving moan about losing a single hour on one weekend of a year of weekends. These people’s lives are mercilessly scheduled, and they apparently find no way to derive joy from the extra daylight, they instead cling to that lost hour as an example of the many ills that befall them. I don’t like those people.
In the Indian newspaper Business Standard, Nilanjana S. Roy declares “There is always a point in the life of the avid reader when you have to make a choice between your books and your sanity.” She is not saying that reading will drive you mad but that the multiplying volumes owned by many book lovers could.I love having books around, and Mrs. Millions and I certainly have a lot. I’ve found that our book collection is quite fluid, expanding to fill the vessel it occupies – the result being that in our large apartment in Chicago the shelves seemed to fill as soon as we put them up, with additional stacks spreading to any available surface like some sort of creeping mold. In our slightly smaller row house in Philadelphia, at least half of our collection has been relegated to the basement. But we like the books we own, and to keep it that way we go through the occasional purge. (See the post Options for Basement Booksellers for ways to conduct your own purges.)Getting back to Roy, her suggestions for keeping the towering book piles at bay are fairly creative: conduct regular “inspections” of your library; follow the “one in, one out” rule; spend more to buy less by sticking with hardbacks; use the library more. I’m sure that if, as I mused yesterday, digitizing personal book collections were feasible, she would suggest that as well. As it stands now, she says she’s “beginning to follow the ‘Google Books’ rule; if a book is available online in sufficiently reasonable form, it will only be bought in book form if the edition is rare enough or beautiful enough to justify this.” Not a bad idea, but I’d likely only follow that rule if the book was for reference rather than reading. And anyway, we’re moving to a bigger place soon, so that means plenty more shelf space to fill.
We’re moving this summer. I’m already dreading the packing, loading, moving, unpacking part, but other than that, I’m pretty excited. In July we’ll be departing for temporary digs in the Washington, DC area as we figure out our final destination. One thing’s for sure, though, our short stint in the Midwest is coming to an end. I never quite fell for Chicago, not the way I did for LA, anyway, but I have come to see why this place has a particular hold on people. I think part of it is the way the city wears its history on its sleeve. The city also has a rich literary history that is still very much being added to.All of this brings me, in a roundabout fashion, to the Riverhead catalog, which is next in the stack that I got from Penguin not too long ago. A couple of books in there – paperbacks of hardcovers that are already out – are worth sharing, one of which is a worthy addition to Chicago’s literature. Adam Langer’s The Washington Story brings readers back to West Rogers Park, a thickly multicultural neighborhood not far from where I live. The book is named after Harold Washington, who was mayor of Chicago during the 1980s, when the book takes place. The Washington Story is the sequel to Crossing California, Langer’s much praised debut (which is in the queue). The hardcover has been out since last August and the paperback comes out in September.Also coming out in September is the hilarious The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman. Hodgeman is now a regular on the Daily Show, where he does a nerdy expert shtick that is pitch-perfect, and he also appears in the new Mac commercials. The book – a compendium of fake facts, essentially – is perhaps most famous for the 700 hobo names contained within. You can hear Hodgman read the hobo names to music, and you can look at illustrations people have done of some of the hobos. Hodgman also has a blog. He ends all posts with “That is all.” The hardcover came out last October.Extras: From Penguin’s New American Library imprint comes The Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right. The book is by Robert Lanham creator/editor of freewilliamsburg.com, and author of the Hipster Handbook. This time, Lanham turns his “anthropological eye” on conservative evangelical culture. The book comes out in September and would go well – or not – with this forthcoming “Compete Idiot’s” title. Finally, as if to prove that we’re all just one silly idea away from a book deal, the International Talk Like A Pirate Day guys have a book (which is already out, but I guess the publisher wants to remind booksellers to stock up each year in preparation for the lucrative Talk Like A Pirate Day shopping season).
My good and old friend Garth, while describing what struck at his most recent visit to a book store, alerted me to an intriguing first novel by a 26 year old writer. According to the Washington Post, “Matthew McIntosh, young and despondent though he may be, is the real thing.” His book is called Well, and every review I’ve found so far is very positive and at times a touch awed. This is definitly in the “yes pile.” You can find an excerpt on the official page.
Given the endless recent discussion of newspapers’ demise—a five percent circulation drop since March was just announced—comparatively little mind has been paid to the death of the comic strip. This may be because the comics have been rotting away for years, as useless as classifieds. With a few exceptions, characters are stale, situations dull, and jokes hopelessly flaccid. Once the playground of McCay, Gross, and Kelly, the funny pages aren’t much fun, or all that interesting. If this form of humor leaves us, conventional wisdom says, it’s been plodding towards the exit for years. And anything that kills The Lockhorns might not be so bad.
Though I love the comics deeply, I’ve come to accept their fate. Or, rather, I did—until I began to follow the work of cartoonist Richard Thompson. If one strip might serve as an argument against the decline, it’s his terrific Cul de Sac—recently collected in Cul de Sac Golden Treasury: A Keepsake Garland of Classics. The comic is vibrant, warm, and beautifully drawn; unlike its staggering peers, it’s outrageously alive. Cul de Sac is proof that the medium has juice, even as it dwindles. This unintended subtext adds a layer of poignancy: this wonderful creation was born at a terrible time.
In 2007, Cul de Sac spread to the dailies from the Washington Post Magazine. I’m not sure how I found it—my city’s paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, reserves its space for Hägar the Horrible and Rex Morgan, M.D.—but I’ve come to read it each day on the Web. The story is simple enough: a group of children plays games, attends preschool, and finds adults confusing. Their parents are baffled and thwarted; a teenager stews in his room. There’s an eccentric teacher and a pompous guinea pig. And that is pretty much it.
Yet like the great kids’ titles—Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, even Little Orphan Annie—Cul de Sac draws strength from realism, facing its characters’ fears. In one early strip, the four-year-old Alice Otterloop spends Thanksgiving at her grandmother’s house. When a friend inquires about it, she describes a gravy spill which led her “to take a bath in Grandma’s scary bathtub. I still smell like her crabapple-lye shampoo.” Her friend’s response as the two walk away: “My grandma smells like the bingo hall.”
It is sad and bewildering and true. And as with Peanuts, such dialogue seems funnier in retrospect—we glean the cuter parts and toss away the rest. It’s only upon reading these strips that we recall their characters’ troubles—and those of our younger selves. This underpinning adds heft, and makes sweeter episodes—Snoopy cavorting with Woodstock; Calvin and Hobbes sipping cocoa; Alice talking to bees—feel earned, not saccharine.
In a more recent Cul de Sac, Alice sits in bed, grumpy as all hell: “Ooh, I can feel it. I’m going to have a major tantrum today. I can feel the pressure building.” Her mother bursts in, oblivious, telling her to come for breakfast—waffles with whipped cream and strawberries! In a lesser comic—Hi and Lois or Blondie—the kicker is obvious: “Maybe today won’t be so rotten after all!” Instead, we get this: Alice, teeth clenched, seething, “Oh, it’s going to be a bad day…”
A friend of mine dismisses Cul de Sac’s humor as deriving from “kids saying grown-up things.” I don’t know that he’s wrong. But when a writer presents his characters in all of their dimensions, such concerns seem secondary. In a 2008 interview with The Comics Reporter, Thompson said, “I didn’t want the strip to be about the zany antics of those little dickens, Alice and Petey. I wanted it to be about the kinda gently surreal parts of childhood, where the kids don’t know what’s going on or how things work, and maybe the adults don’t either. The mom and dad are good parents but not great parents.” Being able to “get it right” this way is rare, regardless of genre or form. That alone makes Cul de Sac worthy. We can only hope that, as there once was for Watterson, Schulz, and the rest, there will be a medium to support Thompson’s gift long into the future.
I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned this: My landlord is the moderately famous French philosopher and Columbia University professor, Sylvere Lotringer. He co-wrote a book with Paul Verilio called Pure War, and gave us each copies when we signed the lease. He is married to Chris Kraus a novelist/filmmaker from New Zealand/Germany. Just now he called to talk about the plumber.
Recommended Collections:The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed with Magellan by Stuart DybekDybek owns a specific part of the literary universe, a several square-block section of the south side of Chicago. He focuses on that, hones it, and reproduces it beautifully. His stories – sentimental (but not sappy), funny, and moving – describe a world where cultures and generations rub against each other, sometimes producing sparks. If you don’t read collections in order, or if you happen upon Dybek’s stories in an anthology, start with “Hot Ice,” “Pet Milk,” or “Orchids.”Sixty Stories, by Donald Barthelme and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. GassBoth of these are challenging collections, or at least they were for me, yet both are also adventurous and mind-altering. Barthelme, who has experienced a renaissance of late, did more with the form of the story than anyone I can think of. His stories – brief, wild, audacious – will cure whatever boredom might have possessed you. Gass’ stories, typically quite long, describe the emotionally bleak and unforgiving Midwest, with its brief moments of untold beauty buried within quotidian horrors. At one moment, a Gass character might be counting the peas in his pot pie; in the next, he’s contemplating freedom in the backyard. The titular story contains what is, at the moment, my favorite sentence: “It’s true there are moments–foolish moments, ecstasy on a tree stump–when I’m all but gone, scattered I like to think like seed, for I’m the sort now in the fool’s position of having love left over which I’d like to lose; what good is it now to me, candy ungiven after Halloween.”Recommended Stories:“The Christian Roommates” from Early Stories by John UpdikeAn ode to the classic freshman double. This story pretty much was my first year of college. I played it pretty straight in high school, and had my mind completely blown open by all the nuts I met in school, including my freshman roommate [God bless you, Glen, you beautiful bastard]. Updike captures that so well that the first time I read this, I couldn’t believe it had been written before I was born.”The Fall of Edward Barnard” from The Collected Stories of W. Somerset MaughamSort of a precursor to The Razor’s Edge, this is the story of a man who goes to Tahiti to find his best friend, Edward Barnard, who’s fallen off the grid and who also happens to be engaged to his best friend. I spent two years of my life trying to adapt this story for the screen to no avail. If I were pressed, I’d say this is my favorite story.