Every year at the community college where I teach, faculty and staff share with one another lists of books they read over the summer. Here is mine:
Three Viennese Comedies—Johann Nepomuk Nestroy
It’s hard to imagine that outside of the United States, at least in Germanic countries, Nestroy’s farces, which had been written near the middle of the nineteenth century, are as highly regarded as those of Molière and Shakepeare, but they are. Actually, one of Nestroy’s farces is fairly well known in the States, Einen Jux will er sich machen, which Thorton Wilder adapted for his play The Matchmaker, which was eventually turned into the musical Hello, Dolly! Tom Stoppard also adapted Nestroy’s play into his popular farce On the Razzle. This book collects three other plays: The Talisman, Judith and Holofernes, and The House of Humors. All contain inspired silliness and wordplay that reminded me of the Marx Bros., but I think it says a lot that the most accessible—and I think Nestroy’s most well-known play outside the States—is The Talisman, about a redhead who succeeds in spite of all of the prejudice against him. Something is lost if one doesn’t know that back in Vienna in Nestroy’s day redheads were thought to be conniving and untrustworthy, to say nothing of the fact that they were also suspected to be arsonists, their red hair apparently causing fires. The House of Humors, which simultaneously dramatizes events taking place in four different households—each associated with a particular “humor”—is structurally interesting and is actually a lot of fun once Nestroy finishes establishing his conceit, a task that, for my taste, took just a bit too long.
Ah Pook Is Here, and Other Texts—William S. Burroughs
Burroughs spent eight years collaborating with British illustrator Malcolm Mc Neill on an experimental hybrid of comics and literary text titled Ah Pook Is Here, which recounts the collision between two different but equally doomed conceptions of time—the one that informs contemporary western culture (and so, through colonization and capitalism, the contemporary world) and that of the Mayans. Burroughs and Mc Neill’s collaboration never saw the light of day due to technical limitations and cost of printing the book at the time. Recently, Mc Neill brought 100 pages of his art to the light of day in his book The Lost Art of Ah Pook is Here: Images from the Graphic Novel. Sadly, Burroughs’ text will likely never be joined with the art. The Burroughs Estate refused to give up rights to the “text only” version that was released in 1979, the one that appears in Ah Pook Is Here, and Other Texts, when it became clear that the illustrated version probably would never be published. The book is fairly typical of Burroughs’ other texts in the same era, most notably The Wild Boys and Cities of the Red Night, each at opposite ends of the 1970s, which Ah Pook bridges. The graphic novel sounds like it could have been a masterpiece; the text-only version isn’t.
Stand-Up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America—John Limon
Cultural critic John Limon works through a theory that stand-up comedy is mobilized by and mobilizes abjection as defined by Julia Kristeva in her landmark work of literary theory Powers of Horror. He devotes much of his attention to comedy acts that were key to the development of stand-up comedy—a term that he reveals was first used, roughly, in 1960—such as Lenny Bruce, Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, and Mike Nichols and Elaine May, before looking at some of their progeny, namely Richard Pryor, Ellen DeGeneres, and Paula Poundstone. While Limon’s book doesn’t seem to me to be strictly a work of queer theory, it draws upon a similar intellectual lineage and shares some of its difficulties for casual readers, not least of which is that some of it can be quite abstruse while some of it—like the concepts “excremental vision” and “excremental revision”—can sound rather silly. But Limon looks at the abjection of stand-up from a variety of angles, giving his argument weight and depth, and he offers supple readings of many of the routines that he analyzes.
Sergio Aragonés: Five Decades of His Finest Work—Sergio Aragonés
From the MAD’s Greatest Artists series, this book collects the mostly wordless comics of Sergio Aragonés, the MAD Magazine artist who is responsible for those tiny gag cartoons that proliferate in the margins of the magazine’s pages. Aragonés is gifted at conveying a joke with pictures alone. For example, one of my favorite “margin comics,” and apparently one of Aragonés’ since it appears in three different places in the book, features a masked man and woman sitting on a divan at a costume party. Behind the “man,” his friends are in hysterics because, as is revealed in a wordless speech balloon, the man is really a woman costumed as a man, but behind the woman, her friends, also in hysterics, reveal that she is actually a man disguised as a woman. Aragonés’ jokes have a tendency to trade in stereotypes—perhaps a result of the limitation imposed by not using words—so some of the jokes come across as a bit stale, but the best of them are clever.
Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World—Seth
High atop a hill, in the Temple of Newsprint, Wimbledon Green studies specimens from his vast collection of comics and art prints until he hears rumors of a rare comic book. At once, he and his trusty companion Dozo speed across Canada in their vintage car and then their autogyro, stopping at practically nothing to obtain it. I say practically nothing because when a copy of the legendary, though never before seen, Green Ghost #1 appears, Green has the wisdom to concede defeat after a complicated and harrowing pursuit that involves spies, high speed car chases, trains, lost identity, hidden treasures, and sabotage, declaring, “You can’t win them all.” Clearly Seth’s graphic novel is intended as a trifle, or as he calls it in his introduction, “a lark.” In fact, in his introduction Seth reveals that the book was never supposed to be published—it was a sketchbook exercise allowing him to try out the collage-style storytelling recently employed by Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware, in which a series of ostensibly discrete comics strips, often written and drawn in a variety of styles, tell a larger story. That Seth’s book is silly isn’t really the problem he seems to think it is, and in spite of his claims to the contrary, the book is beautifully drawn and produced. The green, embossed cloth covers are highlighted with copper, and the washes coloring the book—browns, grays, sepias, dark greens—are lovely, as is the linework. It may not rank as his best work, but it’s fun to see him working with material that is less “important” than his usual fare.
Oryx and Crake—Margaret Atwood
Snowman, the narrator of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel Oryx and Crake, may be, for all he knows, the last human on Earth. Through a series of flashbacks that make up the novel’s plot, Snowman recounts his friendships with Oryx and Crake, in turn revealing how Homo sapiens met their demise. If I read the book correctly, the dystopia arises from a world set in the near future that valorizes scientific progress in the name of making even more money while essentially giving up on those things that make us human. Even if it is a bit self-serving, I was amused by Atwood’s depiction of higher education, where those in the sciences go to cutting edge schools that are essentially labs for major corporations, whereas the dilapidated liberal arts colleges are left to the lower classes (the “pleeblands”) and those from the upper classes who don’t seem smart enough to cut it in the sciences. Still, ever neglecting the kinds of knowledge produced in the humanities, even those run-down liberal arts colleges emphasize the practicality of their fields of study. No studying “Rhetoric” here. Instead, it’s “Applied Rhetoric.” Overall, I’m not sure what I thought of the book. While Atwood’s style is quite readable, the novel seemed fairly static in spite of all that takes place in it.
The Drowned World—J. G. Ballard
I read this novel about the end of Homo sapiens due to global warming as a companion to Oryx and Crake, but it ended up being a very different kind of book. Whereas Atwood’s book most resembles Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Ballard’s book is a cross between H. G. Wells and Joseph Conrad. Set in a neighborhood of London submerged under the sea, as are most if not all of the metropolises of the world, The Drowned World centers on Kerans, a scientist who has been studying the effects of the floods that resulted from global warming. But just as the contingent of scientists and soldiers with whom he is traveling are ready to leave for cooler climes, Kerans starts experiencing archetypal dreams of a drumming sun and archaeopsychic jungles that compel him to hide, staying behind to … He’s not sure, nor are Beatrice, his lover, and his colleague Dr. Bodkin, who remain behind with him. The power of the book lies in its evocative, surreal imagery and the entrancing cadences with which Ballard’s prose conveys it.
Book of Blues—Jack Kerouac
After reading this collection, I’m still convinced that poetry is not Jack Kerouac’s forte. Granted, his poetics are so idiosyncratic that it’s hard to evaluate his poems by conventional standards, and within the framework of what he is doing, there are poems in the collection that offer some interesting images or have some evocative wordplay in them. But too often these poems seem to be just so much noodling around. I’ve heard recordings of some of these “blues,” and they sound much better than they scan on the page. Perhaps they’re best left to the realm of performance.
Released in 2010, Lint is the most recent chapter of a larger work, Rusty Brown, which is turning into a more sophisticated and experimental work than it had begun. Lint tells the story of Jordan Wellington Lint, from his conception to his death, focusing on how Lint developed into the person that loved ones in his life understandably think of as remote and even cruel. It’s a tour de force of comics narrative—an entire life is convincingly sketched in a mere 72 pages—that provides another piece in the puzzle of helping us see just how the emotionally stunted Rusty Brown came to be the man we know and “love.” If you haven’t read Chris Ware’s work, Lint isn’t a bad place to start. It’s basically self-contained and its length makes it accessible. If you want to dive into the full experience of reading Chris Ware, though, his brilliant graphic novel-as-box-of-junk Building Stories is still new at less than a year old, and then there’s always Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, Ware’s multiple award-winning (including the American Book Award) graphic novel from 2000.
Burning Maiden, Vol. 1—Ed. by Greg Kishbaugh
With the tagline “Where literature meets the supernatural,” it’s clear that editor Kishbaugh wants the stories in this quarterly to be taken seriously. In fact, though nominally an anthology of horror stories, Kishbaugh understandably rejects the label “horror” for the stories and their authors. As he states in his introduction, “A writer is simply … a writer. No modifier needed.” But if, as Kishbaugh posits, “horror” means many things to many people, so does the word “literature,” so it’s with some relief that Kishbaugh’s editorial philosophy is simply that the writers he’d invited to submit a story—all of whom, he concedes, “were known primarily for writing horror or suspense” and who he felt “to be spectacular writers”—simply “ply their craft.” The literature would take care of itself. And there are some very good stories in this collection. I particularly liked those by Mort Castle, an old pro, who tells an unsettling story about a guidance counselor at a high school where there had been a recent suicide; Greg Kishbaugh, whose ghost story centers on the horrors that children can experience just before they go to sleep; and Joe R. Lansdale, who surprisingly told the only zombie story in the collection, and it’s a kicker. Not all the stories work, as should be expected in any anthology, but most do. I hope there will be a volume 2; unfortunately, that’s looking less likely as it approaches a year since the first volume was published.
The Land of Give and Take—Tyler Farrell
This is my friend Tyler Farrell’s second volume of poetry. The poems in this collection are not, as a whole, as delirious as those in his first volume, Tethered to the Earth. Rather, they are more frank in their examination of the ways we live—out of our fears, hopes, and desires. Some of the poems in the collection seem daringly personal to me, forcing me to remind myself that the poetic “I” is a literary device and that all we really know about “I” is what the poem tells us. There is some droll humor in the poems along with the contemplation and lyricism. Still, as he ages, Farrell is turning his attention toward more existential matters. As the narrator of “The Development of History,” one of my favorite poems in the collection states, “Tell me, Rimbaud, about Abyssinia / about words and poetry in the streets […] / Tell me now / Before we grow beyond forty and hold / still with the innocent expression / of an irritable boy.” Tell me, Farrell, about Des Moines, about love and regrets in the sheets … tell me now, before I grow hoary and old and have forgotten it all.
A Raisin in the Sun—Lorraine Hansberry
Hansberry, before succumbing to pancreatic cancer at the age of 34, managed to leave us this masterpiece of American drama, a work that is usually required reading in high school English or college Intro to Theater classes. I reread it this summer mainly to prepare myself for seeing the Pulitizer Prize winning Clybourne Park that the Guthrie produced this summer. A loose sequel/dramatic response to Hansberry’s play, I found Clybourne Park glib and uninteresting, certainly worthy of neither a Pulitzer nor a Guthrie production, but I’m glad it provided a reason for me to look at Raisin again. While we’ll never be able to see Hansberry’s play the way audiences in 1959 saw it—it was one of the first, if not the first, Broadway-bound play to feature what is essentially an all-black cast; its focus on the lives of African Americans was groundbreaking for mainstream American theater at the time; and its celebration of African cultures challenged ideas about Africa that have at least changed, if not necessarily improved, in the past half century—it still has warmly drawn characters and its optimism is not easily won, keeping it from feeling unearned.
A relatively unknown play in Priestley’s oeuvre, Cornelius is his 1935 comedy/drama about a small business foundering during the Depression. Priestley writes the kind of plays I usually don’t read or see: well-written and rather familiar. They’re commercial drama from a time when drama could be commercial. But Cornelius has recently been revived because of the way darkness seeps through conventions like the quirky, likeable boss with the dowdy secretary who secretly loves him or the beautiful new secretary who is really more than just a pretty face and with whom the boss becomes infatuated. Rather, the end of the play is colored with madness and suicide that its dramaturgical tidiness can’t quite shake. I would rather read Pinter, but the Guthrie should have chosen this play over recent choices The Sunshine Boys or even the “of the moment” play Clybourne Park.
City of Glass, Ghosts, The Locked Room—Paul Auster
This trilogy of books—known as The New York Trilogy—was published in the mid ‘80s, and I first read City of Glass shortly after it was published. Telling the story of a crime novelist accidentally hired as a private investigator to protect a strange and damaged young man from his father, who had grossly abused his infant son and was being released from a mental institution, City of Glass is kind of like reading Dashiell Hammett filtered through Franz Kafka. Auster’s prose is cool and clear, and what appear to be conventions of the crime novel are often subverted or, in the case of some intense—almost surreal—moments, derailed. It is a strange, compelling book, and from time-to-time over the years, I revisited it, as well as the expertly crafted graphic novel adaptation of it that appeared in the mid 90s. For some reason, I read Ghosts only once in all those years and never got around to The Locked Room. This summer, I decided to read all three, and while I still like City of Glass, I was especially taken by Ghosts, about a man, Mr. White, who hires detective Mr. Blue to watch the mysterious Mr. Black who appears to spend his life sitting in a room, writing. In many ways, The Locked Room is my least favorite of the three books, but it brings together, even if somewhat obliquely, themes and motifs from the other books, making a more coherent whole of them than I would have guessed possible. Based on how much I enjoyed reading these books, I should make sure to read more of Auster’s work.
Text and Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Beats and Rock Culture—Simon Warner
Lecturer of Popular Music Studies at the University of Leeds, UK, Warner noticed that rock musicians—from rock music’s initial maturation as an art form in the mid-60s through the appearance of punk in the mid-70s into the postpunk and hip hop years that followed—often cite Beat literature as a source of inspiration. What particularly caught his attention was how Beat literature appealed to such a diverse group of “rock cultures,” some of which, like punk’s attitude toward the hippies, were antagonistic toward one another. What was it about Beat literature, Warner wondered, that made it such a consistent touchstone? This book contains some answers to his question. Clocking in at over 450 pages, Warner’s book is as exhausting as it is exhaustive. Some editing could have pruned the book of repetition and clarified who its audience was intended to be. I also could have used more about hip hop, which is usually only mentioned in passing, and less about the obvious Allen Ginsberg/Bob Dylan connection, which is given ample space in the book, circling back on it, as if were the primal scene from which all other connections spring. Still, the book has some wonderful insights, especially when addressing lesser known figures in the Beat and rock landscapes, like poet David Meltzer, the figures of the British “Beat” scene, Steven Taylor (longtime guitarist for Allen Ginsberg and latter day member of the Fugs), and Genesis P-Orridge, the conceptual/performance artist whose band Throbbing Gristle was the progenitor of industrial music. If you read it, feel free to skip around to the sections that interest you, but don’t forget to check out the refreshingly prickly interview with poet Michael McClure.
Four Quartets—T. S. Eliot
I first read these poems almost twenty years ago. I occasionally revisit them because there is so much in them, so much that I don’t see and so much that I do. Reflecting as they do on time and mortality, as well as what we do, or can do, in this world, especially as artists, poets, and writers, I find the poems resonate with me now more than ever. On the regrets of paths not taken, the poem “Burnt Norton” offers this:
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
I may not be as skilled a reader of poetry as Eliot had hoped would read the poems—I’m not sure many from my generation and younger are, the act of reading poetry has become so marginalized—but I glean what insights I can at this point in my life, and isn’t that what reading is all about?