I caught a few minutes of Fresh Air on NPR while I was out running a quick errand today. Terri Gross was interviewing David Denby, the New Yorker film critic who has a new book out. The book is called American Sucker and it is a memoir of the boom years. In 2000 Denby and his wife split, and he decided that he wanted to keep the Upper West Side apartment that had been their home for many years. In order to do this, Denby hatched a plan to buy out his wife’s share of the apartment. Lacking the funds to make the apartment his and cast adrift by the collapse of his marriage, Denby threw himself wholeheartedly into the mania of the stock market boom with the hopes that he, like so many others seemed to be doing, could hit it big. It would be the solution to all of his problems. A sort of addiction to his quest set in and American Sucker was the result. Today, Terri Gross, in her way, was trying to get him to relate his experience to some classic gambling films, Denby being a film critic and all. Denby, however, begged off and mentioned two interesting books that he feels are most analogous to the way he felt during his ordeal. Dostoevsky’s The Gambler and a somewhat forgotten Victorian classic by Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now, to Denby’s mind, best portray a sense of monetary desperation in the midst of a boom. I’m hoping that over the next few years there will be more books that look at the boom of the late nineties through a literary lens. It was a strange and fascinating time. Denby’s colleague at the New Yorker, James Surowiecki has penned a less personal book about business and money called The Wisdom of Crowds which is slated to come out at the end of May. A quick look reveals that Surowiecki has put together a readable tome meant to illustrate a principle that many economists hold dear: the idea that decisions can be made, problems can be solved, and the future can be predicted by the market. Imagine the Nasdaq but replace companies with possible outcomes. At the end of the day the outcome that is trading at the highest level is probably the correct answer to whatever problem was trying to be solved. Using markets you can, as Surowiecki terms it, unlock the “wisdom of crowds.” Last summer there was much public outcry when it was announced that one of our government agencies was considering setting a market that was meant to predict future terrorist attacks. The idea of people profiting off of this sort of speculation was abhorrent to many people and the plans were shelved, but, in The Wisdom of Crowds, Surowiecki will likely argue that the plan would have worked.
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.
It’s a good time for books right now. In my year and half at the book store, I haven’t quite figured out the nuances of the publishing calendar, but it seems like spring is always the best time of year for new books. I suppose the publishers anticipate that people will have plenty of time to read during the summer. There were several interesting new releases this week: Dry is Augusten Burroughs’ follow up to last year’s Running with Scissors a memoir about his growing up in the care of a profoundly disturbed shrink. It is hilarious until you remind yourself that it’s a true story. Not sure if Dry will live up to Running with Scissors but it’s certainly worth reading if you enjoyed that book. Several great books about baseball have come out this spring (including Game Time a collection of essays by one of my favorite baseball writers Roger Angell). This week’s baseball book is Moneyball by Michael Lewis which strives to explain how the Oakland A’s and their general manager, Billy Beane, have managed to become successful while sporting one of the lowest payrolls in the Major Leagues. This has easily been the most interesting story in baseball over the last couple of years so it’s not at all surprising to see a book that focuses on it. The big novel release of the last week or so was Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood author of, most notably The Handmaid’s Tale, Cat’s Eye, The Blind Assassin. I have never read Atwood, but several of my trusted fellow readers are most devoted to her work.Heard on the RadioNPR often broadcasts gushing reviews of the world’s blandest music. In fact, their review of the last Red Hot Chili Peppers album was unequaled in both the reviewer’s unabashed worship of the band and the grinding dullness of the music that accompanied it. Which is saying a lot, since typically I don’t really have a huge problem with the Chili Peppers. On the hand, NPR regularly devotes air time to some very worthy books, and last week was no exception. Morning Edition devoted a long segment to interviewing Adrian Nicole LeBlanc author of Random Family. To write this remarkable book, LeBlanc spent more than ten years spending time with a family in a decaying neighborhood in the Bronx in order to chronicle their lives. She was able to draw a masterful picture of one troubled family among many. In her interview, it was especially interesting to hear how the assignment to write a single article for Rolling Stone blossomed into a ten year odyssey in the writing of her book. I also caught a tidbit of an interview with Mary Roach the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which chronicles, in a light hearted way, the numerous ways in which society has been advanced by putting the dead to work. There are the obvious medical examples, but some rather strange examples, as well. Apparently, the first crash test dummies were actually dead bodies, strapped into cars and rammed into walls. Pretty bizarre. I also caught an interview with a couple of the guys (I’m not sure which ones) who put together the book Temples of Sound. This is a fun little illustrated encyclopedia of the most storied recording studios of our musical century. Fantastic pictures accompany text filled with the magic-moment-of-creation stories that all music fans love to read about. Temples of Sound, by the way, is put out by Chronicle Books, which accounts for its great look. When perusing the shelves look out for books put out by Chronicle; they are always interesting or funny and they are beautiful visually.Yes, but is it Art?The art book that caught my eye this past week is a monograph on the artist Gordon Matta-Clark who is most famous for slicing the facades off of derelict buildings. In keeping with the style that made Matta-Clark famous, Phaidon, the publisher of many popular art books, put out a book from which a section of the spine has been cut away to reveal the bare structural binding of the book. It is a wonderful tribute to an artist who died very young as well as a triumph of creative book design.What I’m Reading NowIn Nine Innings Daniel Okrent writes about a single baseball game. In the early ’80s he followed the Milwaukee Brewers for well over a year in order that he would know this team more intimately then even their most rabid fan. Then he picked a single baseball game and used the knowledge he had gathered to write about it. The book is both a microscopic look at the elementary unit of America’s pastime and a study of the many individuals involved with the game as a backdrop. A grand book, especially for a baseball fan.
Reuters is reporting that several prominent publishers, currently tethered to larger companies and media conglomerates, could be the target of bids from private equity firms looking for the steady cashflow that their backlists would provide. At the top of the list is Penguin, currently owned by Pearson, but News Corp’s HarperCollins and CBS’s Simon & Schuster could be separated from their parents as well. So far Houghton Mifflin is the only major publisher to have been extracted from its parent (Vivendi in this case) by private equity firms.Is this good news for publishers? Since they’re not very profitable, publishers are often forgotten alongside the other holdings of these large media companies. At the same time, however, private equity firms’ primary motive would likely be getting a return on their investment, so cost cutting could probably be expected.
Remember Karen Russell whose story “Haunting Olivia” appeared in the 2005 Debut Fiction issue of the New Yorker when she was 23? Her first collection of stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is now out. NPR has another of her stories on its Web site, “Ava Wrestles the Alligator.”
I switched gears with Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, which describes the author’s travels through the South upon his return to the United States. Miller was very disgruntled when he returned to New York from Paris. He thought the outlook of the community was narrow, the morals corrupt, and the industrial greed an instrument of spiritual death. Hence, he embarked on a drive that took him down south and west to California, a trip during which he marvels at how the rural, farming South kept its soul and culture and did not succumb to the machines and skyscrapers of the North. It is an interesting account, a praise for the warm, hospitable South, and a big outburst at, and a rejection of, what the North offers. An Air Conditioned Nightmare is entertaining and deep, filled with interesting characters and encounters along the way, and depressing with regards to the industrial monster of a picture Miller paints regarding the United States.At this time, I felt the urge for a break and picked up J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. The genius of Salinger is probably unparalleled and Nine Stories is a good testimony to it. The bizarre stories and intricate web of characters leaves the reader dazzled at the end of the 6 hours in which you fly through the pages. Nine Stories is a great collection that you can keep in your bathroom, on your coffee table or on the bedside table, and pick at any random moment for instant joy. Nine Stories put me in such a good mood that I decided to give Italo Calvino, whose Invisible Cities I read under undesirable circumstances and did not enjoy much, a second try. The novel was The Baron in the Trees. The book is one of Calvino’s earlier novels and is heavily influenced by his studies of Italian folk literature. The rebellion of the heir baron to his family’s strict rules places him on top of a tree, which he refuses to leave. From these circumstances a character is born who is at first considered a lunatic and then a hero, who fights fires and supports Napoleon’s troops, lectures the town on citizenship, falls in love with a duchess, and meets other people who are exiled to tree tops by the Spanish church. A marvelous story, with great wit and imagination, and all the characteristics of love, chivalry, betrayal, family ties, dilemmas and unreal circumstances found in the favorite tales of childhood. A very happy book indeed.
Two new books from Princeton Architectural Press crossed my desk recently. Jason Bitner is one of the guys behind Found Magazine, where bits of discarded ephemera are turned into art or maybe a decontextualized historical record of the present day. Bitner calls it “a show-and-tell project.” When he found over 18,000 studio portraits from the 1950s and 60s in the back of a diner in a small, Midwestern town, they became the star of a new show-and-tell project. La Porte, Indiana is the name of the town where Bitner found the photos and the name of the book he made from them. As Bitner describes it in his introduction to the book, “we rifled through an entire town’s population, as if it were a card catalog, a huge visual archive of Midwestern faces.” As with looking at any of the FOUND crew’s finds, flipping through this book leaves one with odd sensations. We’re not used to seeing stuff like this so lovingly presented, so it makes us look a little harder. As I flip through the book, I enjoy the unintentional artistry of the black and white portraits, but more so I wonder who these people are or were. There’s more about the book at this Web site.A Year in Japan by Kate T. Williamson is an illustrated travelogue. Williamson, an illustrator and filmmaker, spent a year in Japan, filling notebooks with her illustrations and observations. This book is like peering into those notebooks. Williamson’s curly cursive elaborates on her rich, colorful drawings. Most of the illustrations are of details of every day life: foods and clothing, but they are exotic both in being from in Japan and in the care Williamson lavishes upon them, presenting them in close up on the page. But there are also portraits, collages and abstract compositions.
The Loggernaut Reading Series has a truly exceptional interview up with Daniel Alarcon author of the acclaimed collection, War by Candlelight. He touches on many topics: the Iowa Writers Workshop, Peruvian literature, falling out of love with the New York Yankees. There’s also this bit about being on book tour:I like readings. I like meeting people, and generally it works this way: folks that don’t like your book or don’t like you as a person stay at home. The folks who are likely to enjoy it are the ones who show up. So of course it’s very gratifying to have ten or fifteen or however many people buy your book and tell you they think you’re very smart, write well, smell good, etc. Still, I can’t say that I really enjoy traveling, though these days I seem to do a lot of it. When I started the tour I’d been traveling already for three months in Latin America, didn’t really have a place to live in the US, and still had books and clothes scattered in the apartments of various friends, my parents’ place in Oakland, my sister’s house, and elsewhere. I felt incredibly un-tethered to anything, which is exactly the wrong time to be spending nights in hotels, airports, and shopping malls: the trifecta of sad American non-destinations. They bring out the very bleakest in people who are prone to be depressed from time to time.The best readings were in places I’ve lived before – New York, Iowa City, the Bay Area, Birmingham – where friends showed up and brought their friends, or where peruanos showed up just to say they were proud of me and whatnot. Chicago was also excellent, lots of fun. In Boulder I started my reading with two people in the audience. I introduced myself to both of them and shook their hands. The reading was fine, I think they both enjoyed it, and actually a few more people showed up by the time the story had ended. They asked me to read another story and I did. Then afterwards some dude wanted me to sign a galley, an advance reader copy, the one that says very clearly “not for sale, uncorrected proof” on the cover. He told me with an innocent smile that he’d bought it used on Amazon. I was like, Are you fucking kidding me? I think he expected me to congratulate him on having found such a bargain. But he was so earnest and excited to meet me that he even had his two daughters pose for a picture with me. Maybe he’ll buy my next book. Or not. I don’t even know why I was mad; it’s not like I don’t buy used books.