Summer Reading 2011

Every fall at the community college where I teach, faculty share with one another the books they’ve read over the summer.  Here’s my list:

Acme Novelty Library Vol. 19, Chris Ware

Each year, cartoonist Chris Ware releases a volume of his groundbreaking and influential comics work.  I finally read the one released in 2008 (eek!).  The volume opens with a fairly complex science fiction story with the unfortunate title “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars” that chronicles an attempt to begin a settlement on Mars that is doomed when the leader of the four person mission—consisting of two married couples—has an affair with one of the others.  Jealousy and murder ensue.  The science fiction story is followed by the painful story of W. K. Brown, the sad and lonely man who wrote “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars,” who is the father of Rusty Brown, the protagonist of a graphic novel that Ware has been developing for the past decade.  The volume closes with another science fiction story by W. K. Brown, “Syzygy,” though this one is in prose instead of comics.  It tells another tale of betrayal and anguish.  Taken together, these stories form a novella centered on loneliness and regret as only Chris Ware can tell it.  I look forward to seeing them more clearly set within the context of Rusty Brown, when the novel is finally released.

Asterios Polyp, David Mazzucchelli

Mazzucchelli is a talented cartoonist, and this is his first graphic novel.  It tells the story of Asterios Polyp, a renowned “paper architect” (which seems to be something akin to a writer of closet dramas) whose life bottoms out after divorcing Hana Sonnenschein, a talented if unconfident sculptor.  Polyp moves to a small town in the southwest to restart his life.  There’s much to admire about the book, especially the complex yet easy to interpret visual scheme with which Mazzucchelli organizes his book.  Still, Mazzucchelli overdoes it with the book’s structure, controlling too much of the reader’s engagement with the text, and his book verges on the too-familiar at times.  I suspect he has a really good graphic novel in him, but for all that’s good in this book, it isn’t quite it.  I discuss it in a bit more length in my blog “chaszak.”  Here’s the link, if you’re interested:

What the Buddha Taught, Walpola Rahula

The difficulty of writing a primer on the teachings of the Buddha is that so many of the great Buddhist teachings aren’t really attributed to him, nor are they studied by all traditions of Buddhism.  Rahula’s book, a classic in English-language books on Buddhism, focuses on explaining the teachings of the most ancient of those texts, which all traditions draw upon and generally acknowledge as the actual teachings of the Buddha.  Rahula intends the book to be for beginner and seasoned practitioner alike.  It’s written in a clear style, and he does a solid job explaining some subtle teachings, but at times I think beginners will be a bit lost or confounded with the enumerated lists that make up such a large portion of Buddhist literature.

Good Poems for Hard Times (ed. Garrison Keillor), Best American Essays 2008 (ed. Adam Gopnik), Best American Comics 2007 (ed. Chris Ware)

I didn’t read any of these books in their entirety but rather sampled from them whenever I was in the mood.  I’ve read other Good Poems collections by Keillor, and they can be fun to read as this volume was.  The Best American series of books may not actually contain the best of the genre they’re representing, but they’re always compiled by thoughtful editors.  They can be a great way to keep abreast of good cartooning and essay writing (or short stories, or whatever other genre you’re reading) if you don’t have time to read many periodicals.  The essay on “toothbrush moustaches”—you know, the kind Hitler had—made me laugh out loud in public, always a good thing.

A Respectable Wedding, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, The Good Person of Szechwan, Drums in the Night, A Man’s a Man, and In the Jungle of Cities, Bertolt Brecht

This is a sampling of Brecht’s plays that bookend his career.  They were a treat to read (or reread, depending on the play) and reaffirmed my admiration of Brecht’s work.  Brecht’s early plays (A Respectable Wedding, Drums in the Night, A Man’s a Man, and In the Jungle of Cities) tend to be rather intense, written in surreal dialogue and discomfiting scenes that look for truths glimpsed in decay, their humor sardonic.  The latter plays are cooler and more aphoristic but no less incisive.  I also write about them in my blog:

The Complete Peanuts: 1971-1972, Charles Schulz

The Peanuts is a prodigious work.  This volume collects strips that are 21-22 years into the strip’s 50 year run and it’s amazing how Schulz was able to keep the strip fresh and funny for so long, as all of the strips were entirely written and drawn by Schulz alone.  That’s rarer than you probably think it is.  Better yet, the comics hold up quite well to this day.  One of my favorite strips features Charlie Brown consulting his “psychiatrist,” the wonderfully evil Lucy Van Pelt.  Charlie beams: “I feel strangely confident today.  For the first time in months I feel that there just might be some hope for me.  What do you think, Lucy?”  Lucy:  “Your blood sugar’s probably up . . . Five cents, please!”

The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe and The Complete Stories of J.G. Ballard

I began the summer reading a handful of Poe stories I’d never even heard of before—let alone read—with titles like: “King Pest,” “The Sphinx,” “Never Bet the Devil Your Head,” and “‘Thou Art the Man.’”  To my surprise, many were comic.  Grotesque, true, but some got downright silly, and I enjoyed them quite a bit.  The rest of the summer, I have sampled from the massive collection of one of my favorite, if not favorite, science fiction writers, J.G. Ballard, moving back and forth between stories I love and others I couldn’t recall.  The stories are obsessive and dreamlike, utterly sober and perverse.  In his introduction to The Complete Stories, Martin Amis declares, “J.G. Ballard will quite possibly be remembered as the most original English writer of the last century. [. . .] He was impregnably sui generis.  No one is or was remotely like him.”  Amen.


The Book of Proverbs (King James Edition); Record of Things Heard [Book One], D­ōgen

One book includes the wisdom of Solomon as rendered by some of the greatest stylists in the history of the English language, the other of the Thirteenth Century Japanese Buddhist master Eihei D­ōgen as related by his pupil Eisai.  Because the teachings it collects were offered to the monk’s under his direction, the Record of Things Heard is among the most accessible of D­ōgen’s writings.  It is an often deep collection, though his most profound teachings are to be found in his masterwork, Shōbōgenzō.

Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, Ivan Brunetti; Making Comics:  Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels, Scott McCloud; Introduction to Cartooning, Richard Taylor

Ivan Brunetti is a talented, funny, and disturbing cartoonist, so it’s sad that he hasn’t put out a volume of his comics anthology Schizo since 2006.  The good news, though, is that he has been teaching cartooning at the University of Chicago and now Columbia College (also in Chicago), the result of which has been the release of Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice, Brunetti’s pithy guide to cartooning that asks students to grasp the fundamentals of cartooning—that is, those skills that develop perception and imaginative thinking through the act of cartooning—before turning to more superficial concerns, like genre or marketing, that too often distract beginning cartoonists.  To put Brunetti’s book into perspective, I read it alongside similar books by other masters of the form who also happen to be good teachers: Scott McCloud, whose Making Comics is the final book of a trilogy of graphic novels that analyze what “comics” are that began with the groundbreaking Understanding Comics and Richard Taylor, a highly regarded New Yorker cartoonist, whose 1947 book influenced Brunetti and still has great lessons to offer cartoonists to this day.  I also read alternative cartoonist Lynda Barry’s phenomenal What It Is with these books, but it was so much more than a how-to book, that I’m giving it its own entry.


The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks

Greg Ketter, bookseller extraordinaire (and proprietor of Dreamhaven Books), thought that Banks was a writer I might appreciate, so I decided to give The Wasp Factory, his first novel, a try.  Narrated by Frank, a precocious teen who seems fixated on ritual and weaponry, The Wasp Factory tells the story of Frank’s distant relationship with his father—a scientist who holds a secret locked in his workshop—that comes to a head when Frank’s sociopathic brother escapes from the asylum where he’s institutionalized, and, leaving a trail of dead dogs in his wake, races back home for some nefarious purpose.  The book is strange and the humor dark, so it’s not for everyone.  Me?  I’m already deciding which of Banks’s other novels to read next.

Flash and Filigree, Terry Southern

There’s no doubt in my mind that Southern’s greatest achievement is his screenplay for Dr. Strangelove, one of the finest comedies ever filmed.  Before turning his attention to film, though, Southern was a prose writer with an eye toward what he half-mockingly called “the Quality Lit game,” and Flash and Filigree is his first novel in that mode.  I’ve read the book before, but it has been a long time.  What immediately struck me this time around was how well-written a lot of it is.  The unfortunately forgotten modernist novelist Henry Green was a favorite of Southern’s, and one can see his influence in Southern’s lyrical descriptions and keen ear for the rhythms of everyday speech.  There are also a number of inspired scenes throughout the book: the often funny, drunken, and hallucinatory scenes in which a dermatologist shadows a young “pederast” in order to discredit him only to reveal the depths to which he would sink to do so, including a visit to the taping of an episode of the popular game show, What’s My Disease?; the thrilling and bizarre race to the death between the doctor and unknown assailants on a deserted road near the doctor’s clinic; and the tender scene in which the head nurse of the clinic suffers from an unspoken, unrequited love for a beautiful young nurse as they speak of trivialities in the nurse’s lounge.  For all its merits, the parts of the novel never quite come together, though overall the book bespeaks a major talent in the making.  Dr. Strangelove is Flash and Filigree’s logical successor, though it’s too bad Southern didn’t stick with novels.  He promised to have been a damned good Quality Lit Man.

What It Is, Lynda Barry

What It Is is probably the best title Barry could have given her remarkable book.  I’m not really sure what it is, but what it gets at is most definitely it.  Part art book (practically every page is an oneiric collage, rich with suggestion), part guide to creative writing, part comics memoir, part spiritual essay, What It Is is a testament to the importance of engaging fully with life and the role that creativity plays in that engagement.  Cartoonist Ivan Brunetti took the class the Barry teaches that was the raw material for this book, and he proclaimed it a life-changing experience.  I know that I’ll be returning to What It Is often.  I’ve already found myself revisiting it.

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, Stanley Fish; Best American Essays 2010 (ed. Christopher Hitchens); They Say, I Say, Gerald Graff, Cathy Berkenstein; How Plays Work, Martin Meisel

These are work-related readings, which I will either be using as textbooks in my classes or will be using to create assignments.  The Hitchens collection has some excellent essays in it, not a few of which are about writers and writing, but my favorite of these books is Meisel’s.  As the title states, his book is a dissection of how plays work and what that means when you read them.  His prose is accessible, his knowledge displays great depth and breadth, and he offers solid analyses of the plays he discusses.  How Plays Work is a great introduction to reading drama for those who are interested in reading plays but feel ill-equipped to do so.  And for those who read plays regularly, it’s like having lunch with a great monologuist who clearly knows and is passionate about the art.

“The Drunken Boat”and  A Season in Hell, Arthur Rimbaud

After reading Brecht, I was hungry to reread Rimbaud’s disorienting poems, to drown in their delirium and surge in the rebellion that Rimbaud refuses his ancestors, about whom he says: “It is very clear to me that I have always belonged to an inferior race.  I am unable to understand revolt.  My race never rose up except to loot: like wolves over the animal they did not kill.”  Rimbaud may not understand revolt, just as I certainly don’t understand his poems, but his poems enact the impulse that drives its infernal machine.

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