The CS Monitor gives us some tidy capsule reviews of the finalists for the National Book Award in the fiction category. These should get us all up to speed. And also check out Dan Wickett’s interview with the book bloggers, and not just because I’m one of the interviewees. There’s some good stuff in there. Have a good weekend.
We got back late last night from Los Angeles (where we had attended the wedding of two great friends), and are now wading through stacks of boxes in our still freshly moved into apartment in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, it turns out that when you go on vacation two days after moving, you don’t return to find all of your things miraculously unpacked and where you want them to be.However, after a few days of catch up (and thanks to the resourcefulness of Mrs. Millions) we should eventually approach normalcy. As for the digital realm, I still have many emails to respond to and my Bloglines “unread items” number in the thousands, but regular posting will ramp up again here over the next couple of days.In the meantime, I noticed that Philadelphia announced its 2007 One Book, One City selection this week Carlos Eire’s Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, a National Book Award winning memoir. It tells the tale of Eire’s boyhood uprooting from Cuba and the subsequent “rootlessness” of his life in the United States. The selection puts the focus on our country’s immigration issues, though the question of Cuba has been less “hot button” of late. I, for one, prefer to “One Book” programs select fiction as I think there is something more special about a whole city reading a novel together. And anyway (though I read as much non-fiction as fiction), fiction is more in need of support from our public institutions. However, some consolation can be found in the fact that Waiting for Snow in Havana is literary and not just topical.
This week’s New Yorker gives word of two more new new books that I am excited about. Robert Polidori is an architectural photographer by trade. If you look at his photographs, though, you will see that he is also something more. He is gifted in his ability to draw out the stunning colors that lay dormant within his subjects as an astronomer might reveal fantastical nebulae somehow hidden from the naked eye. His last book, Havana, is an exploration of the wilted beauty of a crumbling city (click here for some photos). His new book, Zones of Exclusion: Pripyat and Chernobyl, is a study in the deadlier decay of one of the twentieth century’s greatest disasters.I’ve often thought to myself that Knopf would do well to put out a comprehensive collection of John Updike’s short stories, and it appears as though this will come to pass this fall in the form of The Early Stories, 1953-1975. There are many who have claim to the mantle of best American Short Story writer, and Updike is incontrovertibly among them.
Time to have some fun with Google. Using the wildcard “*” character I searched Google to see how different famous writers are characterized on random Web pages. I entered searches like “Jonathan Franzen is * writer” to see what would come up for the “*” and pulled the adjectives all into one sentence for each writer. The links go to the sites where the adjectives came from. Arbitrary, but oddly poetic:Jonathan Franzen is… an accomplished, incredibly gifted, curmudgeonly Luddite, talented, serious, rare, amazing, better, American writer.Zadie Smith is… a talented, talented, talented, terribly talented, young, Dickensian, gifted, terrible, very good writer.Jonathan Safran Foer is… a great great, young, great, prehensile, no ordinary, Generation X, very talented, definitely a wunderkind, very talented, uniquely gifted and imaginative writer.Ok, that was fun. How about these guys:James Frey is… an amazing, great, Bestselling, hardly the first, still a great, only, wonderful writer.J.T. Leroy is… a critically acclaimed, fabulous, Incredible, active, the best, truly amazing, fantastic, fiction writer.
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.