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December 14, 2012

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / It All Happened So Fast

by Edwin Turner

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As seems to be the case more often than not in this series of write-ups on reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories, I’ve taken the title from the first line of the first panel (below); you can see the scale of this chapter in folded broadside in the pic above (which also reveals the heart of this episode).

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This particular episode focuses again on Lonely Girl/Married Mom/The Amputee, who has slowly emerged as the protagonist of Ware’s novel. Here, she deals with the news of her father’s illness, an event that brings her back to her childhood home repeatedly. The motif of homes and buildings evinces again too, of course—it’s a subtle but omnipresent device in Building Stories:

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And as always, Ware’s genius shows in the way he conveys so much truth in the smallest detail. Below he illustrates Lonely Girl’s disconnected relationship with her architect husband in just a panel:

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“It All Happened So Fast” is a fair name for this chapter—Ware’s panels illustrate the way that our lives (and the narrativizing of those lives) can become radically compressed, how our memories fail us, how seemingly trivial details anchor themselves to the emotional strata of our personalities even as concrete fact slips away. Still, another title could come from this panel:

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I’ll close this out by offering three panels that strike me as so utterly real, so wonderfully truthful, that I won’t bother to comment further:

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December 7, 2012

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / Disconnect

by Edwin Turner

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“Disconnect,” one of the longer episodes in Chris Ware’s novel Building Stories, serves as a reminder of Ware’s strength as a prose writer. Wordiness tends to kill illustrated storytelling, at least in my estimation. Sure, there are exceptions—Joe Sacco and Harvey Pekar come to mind—but in general, I think comics are at their best when thought and word bubbles are uncluttered (or nonexistent).  Ware clearly understands the economy of his medium, and some of Building Stories’ finest moments have been wordless ones where Ware constructs the story in pure imagery. We can see so much of the plot and themes of  “Disconnect” in this full page, for instance:

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But Ware also packs plenty of storytelling into his prose in “Disconnect,” where he continues the story of Lonely Girl, who it’s probably better to now call Married Mom—I still think of her as Lonely Girl though, after first really meeting her in “September 23rd, 2000,” an episode ostensibly narrated by her diary. “Disconnect” is a second diary of sorts, her internal narration guiding us subtly through episodes in her life over a series of years. “Disconnect” focuses on LG/MM raising her young daughter against the backdrop of a strained marriage.

Lonely Girl/Married Mom’s observations ring particularly true. She points out that “When your children aren’t around, you miss them with every fiber of your being—but when they are, you just want to get them to bed so you can go read the news or something,” an observation simultaneously profound, disturbing, and banal. When our heroine recalls how her relationship to her pet cat changed after her child was born, I also saw shades of myself:  “The day we brought Lucy home, almost to the minute, all applied personality to Miss Kitty evaporated, and we saw her for what she was—an animal—and an animal who we were beholden to feed and house, with, suddenly it seemed, little to offer in return.”

Through Lonely Girl/Married Mom, Ware paints a portrait of modern disconnection and alienation, and, even as we sympathize with the heroine, Ware also allows us to see through her—or rather, to see what she can’t see, or to see what she refuses to see. The effect is an irony that tips into small, banal tragedy.

Ware’s prose is usually overshadowed by his gifts as a draftsman, an architect—he’s the builder of Building Stories, a fact that this chapter alludes to, both internally, intertextually, and metatextually. We learn, for example, that Branford the Bee is a story within a story:

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This nesting of stories emerges in the final part of “Disconnect,” wherein our aged narrator—addressing her grown daughter—relates a dream:

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The scene culminates so beautifully that it brought a little tear to my eye. Most postmodern novels contain (often more than once) their own descriptions, and Building Stories is no exception:

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And yet what we see here isn’t postmodern cleverness or empty gimmickry, but the evocation of dream and imagination and desire and creation—the spirit of the book, of what it means to build stories. Reading the final panels of “Disconnect,” I immediately recalled the epigraph to Building Stories (it’s on the interior of the box lid, by the colophon and dedication):

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December 1, 2012

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / Two Short Loops

by Edwin Turner

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These two shorties in Chris Ware’s Building Stories showcase the novel’s thematic recursion, a recursion doubled in both its metastructure (14 pieces that the reader can read in any order) as well as the structure of many of the individual pieces. In the case of the two parts pictured above, we get Möbius strips that become richer with rereading. The strips seem to twin each other not just in their format, but also in their theme.

Both strips feature Lonely Girl, who perhaps emerges as the dominant protagonist of Building Stories. The one pictured at the top gives a voice to her daughter, a girl who seems to repeat some of her mother’s tendencies toward isolation and depression.

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Ware’s strength here (and always elsewhere) is the economy of storytelling: He packs entire short stories into just a few panels, coloring his narrative:

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The second loop features a solitary Lonely Girl who trudges through the snowy night in a near-suicidal despair:

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Read recursively, the strip dooms Lonely Girl to an endless loop of despair—and it’s at moments like these that I’m happy there are other parts to Building Stories—some kind of existential “out” for our poor heroine.

 

November 16, 2012

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / Big Four Panel Board Book

by Edwin Turner

Continuing reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories; also, continuing the ad hoc naming of its “chapters”: let’s call this one the Big Four Paneled Board Book.

It’s big. Shown here in relation to a local brew (clearly the best way to illustrate scale):

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It’s difficult to describe how each chapter enriches the story of Building Stories. There’s something Borgesian about Ware’s novel—not in the sense that it’s something that Borges would have written—what I mean to suggest is it’s like something out of a Borges story—winding, maze-like, self-referential, but not solipsistic. Building Stories doesn’t come with a set of instructions, so the reader has to interact with it in a random way. What’s really thrilling and emotionally impactful is the way that each piece deepens the story and develops each character a little bit more.

In the forked path I’ve been following, Lonely Girl (this is the building’s name for her; we might also call her the Would-be Writer, The Diarist, or, perhaps, The Amputee) emerges as the central character, and she gets the lead story in the Big Four Panel Board book. She’s looking for a companion, so she places an ad:

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This tiny little square says so much: Ware wastes no space. Lonely Girl’s personal ad is in some ways a metonymy of Building Stories (and Ware’s oeuvre all together): it combines ironic, self-aware humor with a stark and devastating sense of loneliness.

Lonely Girl shows up as a character in the lives of her downstairs neighbors, the Sour Couple. The soda-swilling boyfriend wonders how she might have lost her leg. In some ways he serves as audience surrogate here—I doubt we’ll get the full story. (The boyfriend also entertains other fantasies about Lonely Girl’s body).

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Of course, the Lonely Landlady also gets her panel. We see more of her stunted life, her mother (and the building itself) a proverbial albatross around her neck. Ware uses the size and scope of the Big Book to optimum advantage; he knows that the book is so big (and his panels so small) that the reader simultaneously sees everything and comprehends nothing. Ware employs lines that crisscross from section to section, often running through narrative elements we’ve yet to engage, or sometimes tracing over what we’ve already seen. The effect is not disorienting, though—rather, Ware uses the visual space to show the ways in which his characters and narratives cross, abut, or fail to connect.

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The Big Book’s theme is in fact about cross-pollination, about the ways that different strands intersect, conmingle, blend (or fail to). It’s appropriate then when our old friend Branford the bee arrives:

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More to come.

 

November 9, 2012

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / Untitled Wordless Loop

by Edwin Turner

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Continuing this project:

I’ve thus far titled the pieces I’ve been reading of Chris Ware’s Building Stories in a rather ad hoc fashion, but this entry is a wordless affair.

It continues the story of the “lonely girl,” the “cripple” who is the primary narrator of September 23rd, 2000.

Here, we see her raising her daughter in a series of wordless, precise panels that span roughly a decade.

Building Stories’s brilliance derives in large part from its precision and economy—Ware tells a story on every page, a chapter in every small panel:

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I’m a parent (my daughter is five, my son is two), and so much of this untitled piece struck me as utterly real and authentic—so true in the details.

There’s a moment when our mother looks up to see her daughter reading—silently, to herself—that is bittersweet, a kind of gentle heartbreak:

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There’s a fine line between the precise evocation of emotion and sentimental schlock, but Ware never comes close to treading it here—he’s always firmly on the side of the real.

And yet this doesn’t come at the expense of evocations of wonder, as we can see in the panels below:

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As I’ve suggested a few times already, Building Stories is a sort of  Möbius strip; this particular comic nearly literalizes this metaphor.

It begins with our mother drifting from sleep to waking memory, and ends thusly, a strange loop documenting how fast and how slow life changes.

October 22, 2012

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / I just met

by Edwin Turner

Continuing kinda sorta where we left off

Not sure of the name of this episode, but I’ll refer to it as I just met, a phrase that repeats twice in a huge headlinish font that seems to suggest, y’know, title:

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I just met uses a few pages to tell the story of a deteriorating relationship—what happens when two twenty-somethings turn into two mid-to-late-thirtysomethings?

The comic opens with an establishing shot of what I take to be the building in Building Stories; we also get a glimpse of what I assume will be another character, the beehive, and a few other details that surely will attach themselves to these panels in future readings. We also get the general bitter tone of the couple’s relationship:

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He was one of those dudes who was once in a band; she was one of those chicks who thought guys in bands were cool.

The romance of their initial hookup is summed up neatly in the pic below; knowing Ware’s spare, precise style, the trash on the floor seems to scream symbolic detail!

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The hurt and disappointment in I just met unfolds over just a few painful pages—painful mostly in their concrete reality.

We know who these people are, even if we’re lucky enough not to be them.

Just as in  Branford, the Best Bee in the World , which I read earlier (although, to be clear again, there are no reading directions or prescriptions for Building Stories), there’s a theme of eternal recurrence, of mistakes playing out again and again in a painful, recursive loop.

Just when Ware threatens to overstate the mundane repetitions his principals suffer, he pulls off a daring and effective move, transposing his characters into the psychic collective memory of a future that’s in many ways already familiar. The effect is simultaneously jarring and oddly reassuring—the promise that our capacity for human connection and deep empathy will never buckle under the threat of drastic technological change, but also suggesting that the cost of maintaining this emotional constant is deep, ugly pain.

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October 19, 2012

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / Branford, the Best Bee in the World

by Edwin Turner

Chris Ware’s latest collection Building Stories comprises fourteen comics of different shapes, sizes, and formats. I wrote about opening the box a few days ago, and I’ll (try to) write about reading each of the pieces.

I started with Brandford, the Best Bee in the World, the tragicomic existential dilemma of a bee:

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In an opening segment freighted with peril, our hero Branford finds himself “trapped in a box of hard air,” in a predicament that makes “the water run fast out of the holes in the front of his face.” When he does find a way out, he takes at as a sign of redemption from the Almighty:

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Branford, now free to return home to his wife and family, promises God to quit lusting after the queen bee.

Easier said than done—even if his erotic dreams are interrupted with the domestic problems of crooked picture frames, broken vases, and burnt dinners:

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Branford solves his domestic trouble by going out into the world to provide pollen for his family, even if it means suffering an existential breakdown of identity, one that causes him to flashback to his beeblooded past.

The flashback episode introduces heavy alliteration that continues throughout the rest of the narrative. Framed as a 19th century comic strip, it combines zany humor with horrific familial violence and suicidal despair, an unnerving, bizarre combination that carries over throughout the comic:

I won’t spoil anymore of Branford, other than pointing out that its narrative arcs in a strange loop. And even as its narrative doubles back into itself, it also points out, metatextually calling to another volume of Building Stories: here, see Branford to the right (and upside down) to a larger comic with no name.

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I took the visual overlap as a prompt to read the comic on the left next. How did I start with Branford and not one of the other comics? It was on top.

November 2, 2012

Reading Chris Ware’s Building Stories / September 23rd, 2000

by Edwin Turner

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September 23rd, 2000 is one of the longer pieces in Chris Ware’s box set, Building Stories. Part of the joy and frustration of Building Stories is its free form—the possibility of reading one piece before another, of getting one tale or perspective before another. I started with Branford, which seems in retrospective a fairly neutral opening—it introduces many of the themes that develop in Building Stories but none of the major characters. I then read I just met, which introduces a couple suffering a sour relationship.

September introduces (to me, anyway), two major “new” (again, “new” to me; these characters appear central in other books and pamphlets of the collection and obliquely in others): The “lonely girl,” a would-be artist sporting a prosthetic leg, and the “old lady,” landlord of the building. Most of September takes the form of lonely girl’s diary entries.

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I noted two characters (again, new to me), but the building itself also gets a voice and prominent role in September; its thoughts and memories frame the narrative:

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September frames the repetitions, the loops, the patterns that undoubtedly will resurface throughout Building Stories. We get access to the characters dreams, which seem to overlap and echo each other—and then repeat in real life, albeit in other forms. The landlady, recalling her youth, seems to echo the loneliness and despair of the lonely girl, as well as the pain of the woman in the sour relationship. We see that the building has in fact been a kind of prison for her, preventing her from forming real relationships:

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Other echoes are more subtle—a close up of a bee, for instance, either foreshadows or calls back to (or both, of course) Branford, the Best Bee in the World.

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We can see the Branford episode again, here in the tiny detail of a soda can, a major setting for that episode. I was more fascinated by the newspaper though, particularly the colorful squares of a comics section, a reference Ware’s medium and perhaps a visual suggestion of Building Stories itself. The detail is tiny, but meaningful:

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In a later part of September, we see a direct reference to the end of I just met:

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I imagine that there were other references, call backs, and echoes in September that I won’t get until later.

The story—well, it’s beautiful, a perfect short story, self-contained but thematically resonant with the larger project. The ending is so damn sweet and perfect that it brought a little tear to my eye. And yet: Was that the ending? Of course not. The sense of rhetorical resolution—that is to say the so-called happy ending—will almost surely be punctured, deflated, or otherwise complicated by one of the next texts I read. More to come.

December 19, 2012

A Riff on What I Read (And Didn’t Read) in 2012

by Biblioklept

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I didn’t really read that many new books—by which I mean books published in 2012—this year.

The highlight of the new books I did read was Chris Ware’s Building Stories, the moving story of the lives of several people (and a bee!) who live in the titular building (and other places. And other buildings. Look, it’s difficult to describe). Building Stories is a strange loop, a collection of 14+ elements (the big box it comes in is part of the puzzle) that allows the reader to reconstruct the narratives in different layers.

I also really dug the second installment of Charles Burns’s trilogy, The Hive; Burns and Ware are two of the most talented American writers working right now, suggesting that some of the most exciting stuff happening in American literature is happening in comic books.

Speaking of second installments in ongoing trilogies, I also listened to Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which I liked, and read Lars Iyer’s Dogma and liked it as well—sort of like Beavis & Butthead Do America by way of Samuel Beckett.

I read Dogma at the beach the same week I read Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & The Territory, an uneven but engaging novel about art; the novel eventuually shifts into a strange murder procedural before exploring a fascinating vision of what a post-consumer future might look like. I dig Houellebecq and look forward to whatever he’ll spring on us next.

Another strange book I liked very much was Phi by Giulio Tononi, an exploration of consciousness written as a kind of Dante’s Inferno of the brain. A beautiful and perhaps overlooked book of 2012.

Indie presses in general tend to get overlooked—not in the sense that their books don’t have a community of readers, but in that their books don’t always reach the wider audience they deserve. I liked new books this year by Matt Bell (Cataclysm Baby), Matt Mullins (Three Ways of the Saw), and Jared Yates Sexton (An End to All Things). These books are all very different in style and content, but all marked by precise, unpretentious writing. Good stuff.

Like I said though, I didn’t read that many books published in 2012—even when I intended to. Like George Szirtes’s English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango, for instance. I was right in the middle of something when I got my review copy, and by the time I started it the hype surrounding it was almost unbearable—the sort of palate-clouding noise (to mix and misuse metaphors) that deafens a fair reading. (To be clear: I blame myself. I could easily refrain from Twitter and quit following lit news online). By the time Hari Kunzru documented the hype in a mean-spirited (but hilarious) article forThe Guardian, I knew I’d have to set Satantango aside for a bit. It’s worth noting here that Hari Kunzru’s own novel Gods without Men had been lingering in my to read stack for some time at that point, but his Satantango article managed to get it shelved. Still, I’m interested in reading it—maybe sometime late next year.

There were plenty of top listed writers who put out books this year that I probably would’ve been excited to read six or seven years ago or at least feel obligated to read and write about two or three years ago. But by 2012 I just don’t care anymore. At the risk of sounding overly dismissive (not my intention), I just can’t make time for another middling Michael Chabon novel, or another bloated tome from Zadie Smith, or another empty exercise in style from Junot Diaz, or another whatever from Dave Eggers.

Most of the great new stuff I read in 2012 was really just playing catch up to 2011—I loved Teju Cole’s Open City, found Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes to be an amusing diversion, and declared Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a perfect novella. I also read Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, and used it, along with Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot as a kind of springboard to discuss lit criticism (which everyone in my particular echo chamber wanted to spar about this year) and what I want from books these days.

Two books I pretty much hated: Joshua Cody’s clever but empty memoir [sic] and Alain de Botton’s facile self-help book Religion for Atheists.

On the whole though, most of what I read in 2012 was fantastic and most of what I read in 2012 was published before 2012.

The major highlight of the year was finally reading William Gaddis’s novels The Recognitions and J R. I also read Gaddis’s posthumous novella AgapēAgape, an erudite rant that purposefully echoes the work of Thomas Bernhard, another cult writer I finally got to in 2012. His novels Correction and The Loser challenged me, made me laugh, and occasionally disturbed me.

And while I’m on Bernhard, perhaps I should squeeze in the collection I read by one of his predecessors, Robert Walser, and the poetry collection (After Nature) I read by one of his followers, W.G. Sebald. Both were excellent. And while I’m squeezing stuff in—or perhaps showing how writers lead me to read other writers—I’ll admit that I hadn’t read Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (referenced heavily in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn) until this year.

Another book that I finally got to this year that blew me away was John Williams’s lucid and sad novel Stoner. Reading Stoner, produced one of those can’t-believe-I-haven’t-read-it-before moments, which I experienced again even more intensely with Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, a surreal comic masterpiece which may be the best book I read in 2012. I also finally read—and was blown away by—Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (why had I not read it yet? Maybe I read it before. Not sure. In any case, if I did read it before it’s clear to me that I didn’t really read it). I took another shot at Marcel Proust but it didn’t take. Again.

Clarice Lispector received some much-deserved attention from the English-speaking world this year when New Directions released four new translations of her work. I found her novella The Hour of the Star sad, funny, and captivating. Also on the novellas-by-South-Americans: I’m working my ways through Alvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas and they are fantastic.

I also finally got to David Markson’s so-called “note card novels,” devouring them in a quick stretch. I reviewed the last one, The Last Novel.Markson’s novels are often called “experimental,” a term I kind of hate, but perhaps serves as easy tag for many of the novels I enjoyed best this year, including Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String and Barry Hannah’s hilarious tragedy Hey Jack!

Hey, did you know David Foster Wallace wrote an essay on David Markson? The previous sentence is an extremely weak attempt to transition to Both Flesh and Not, a spotty collection from the late great writer; it showcases some brilliant moments along with undercooked material and a few throwaways probably better left uncollected. I fretted about the book on Election Night.

The posthumous book mill also kept pumping out stuff from Roberto Bolaño, including an unfinished novel called The Woes of the True Policeman that seems like a practice sketch for 2666 (I haven’t read Woes and don’t feel particularly compelled to). I did read and enjoy The Secret of Evil, a book that might not be exactly essential but nevertheless contains some pieces that further expand (and darken and complicate) the Bolañoverse. Going back to that Bolañoverse was a highlight of the year for me—rereading 2666proved to be tremendously rewarding, yielding all kinds of new grotesque insights. I also reread The Savage Detectives, and while it’s hardly my favorite by RB, I got more out of it this time.

I also revisited The Hobbit this year and somehow decided it’s a picaresque novel. Definitely a picaresque: Blood Meridian, which I reread as well. In fact, I’ve reread it at least once a year since the first time I read it, and it gets funnier and richer and more devastating with each turn. I also reread Herman Melville’s “Bartleby” and tried to make sense out of it. I will reread Moby-Dick next year, although it’s not “Bartleby” that sparked the desire—chalk it up to Charles Olson’s amazing study Call Me Ishmael.

Olson’s study reminds me to bring up some of the nonfiction I enjoyed this year: Stephen Bronner’s Modernism at the Barricades, Robert Hughes’s Goya biography, the parts of William T. Vollmann’s Imperial that I read, Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids,and big chunks of William Gass’s collection Finding a Form.

Perhaps the most significant change in my reading habits this year was embracing an e-reader. I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas last year and wound up reading from it—a lot. About half the books I read this year I read on the Kindle. I also read lots of comics on it with my daughter, including all of Jeff Smith’s Bone, much of Tintin, and all of Carl Barks’s Donald Duck stuff. (I also read several hard to find volumes from Moebius via the Kindle).

And while I love my Kindle and it’s become my go-to for night reading (it’s lightweight and self-illuminating), I can’t see it replacing physical books. To return to where I started: Chris Ware’s Building Stories, an innovative, sprawling delight simply would not be reproducible in electronic form. Ware’s book (if it is a book (which it is)) reminds us that the aesthetics of reading—of the actual physical process of reading—can be tremendously rewarding as a tactile, messy, sprawling experience.

Perhaps because I’ve freed myself from the anxiety of trying to write on this blog about everything that I read, and perhaps because I’ve freed myself from trying to write traditional reviews on this blog, and perhaps because I’ve freed myself from trying to cover contemporary literary fiction on this blog—perhaps because of all of this, I’ve enjoyed reading more this year than I can remember ever having enjoyed it before.

December 16, 2012

Book Shelves #51, 12.16.2012

by Biblioklept

 

 

Book shelves series #51, fifty-first Sunday of 2012

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I am very ready for this project to be over. Two more weeks.

At this point, I’ve photographed all book shelves (and other bookbearing surfaces) in the house, but clearly the book shelves aren’t stable.

I mean, structurally, sure, they’re stable.

But their content shifts.

So this week (having three weeks left to fill), I go back to a sitting room in the front of the house where I like to read.

Above, resting on this cabinet, some current reading, including the latest DFW collection and Chris Ware’s Building Stories.

Below, a coffee table (first photographed in #7 of this series):

 

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As usual, a few coffee table books, plus several review copies that I need to look at sometime next week:

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One of the coffee table books is by Thomas Bernhard:

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To the right of the case, a bin of books—mostly review copies that come in that I plan to write more about:

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October 31, 2012

Charles Burns’s The Hive (Book Acquired 10.15.2012)

by Biblioklept

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For some reason—some reason founded on no reason at all but rather superstitious suspicion—I didn’t believe Charles Burns would follow up X’ed Out, the first chapter of a proposed trilogy. I suppose X’ed Out had unresolved cult classic written all over it (written metaphorically, of course).

X’ed Out was one of my favorite books of 2010. From my review:

In Black Hole, Burns established himself as a master illustrator and a gifted storyteller, using severe black and white contrast to evoke that tale’s terrible pain and pathos. X’ed Out appropriately brings rich, complex color to Burns’s method, and the book’s oversized dimensions showcase the art beautifully. This is a gorgeous book, both attractive and repulsive (much like Freud’s concept of “the uncanny,” which is very much at work in Burns’s plot). Like I said at the top, fans of Burns’s comix likely already know they want to read X’ed Out; weirdos who love Burroughs and Ballard and other great ghastly fiction will also wish to take note. Highly recommended.

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So, of course I was stoked when Burns’s sequel The Hive showed up a few weeks ago—in fact, the only thing that got in the way of me reading it immediately was that it showed up in a package along with Chris Ware’s Building Stories (this is, without question, the best package I’ve received in six years of doing the blog).

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Anyway, I’ll be revisiting X’ed Out and then reviewing The Hive in the next week or so. For now, a few pics. Two from the interior above. And our hero Doug, in his alter-ego/costume Nitnit (inverse Tintin):

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I dig this panel in particular: A take on Roy Lichtenstein via Raymond Pettibon via the romance comics those pop artists were riffing on:

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