Filed under: Book Reviews, Comics, Nonfiction | Tags: book review, books, comics, comics journalism, joe sacco, journalism, reading
One of the pleasures of coming back to the States after a three-year absence has been finding how busy the comics journalist Joe Sacco has been. In 2009 he published Footnotes in Gaza, and this year Journalism, a collection of short pieces previously published in magazines.
Journalism is a near-perfect addition to Sacco’s work for those who are already fans, and a perfect introduction for those who are unfamiliar with his work, or with comics journalism, or with comics altogether. For those not ready to make a commitment to one of Sacco’s longer works, like Safe Area Gorazde or Palestine, Journalism acts as a handy introduction to his style and intentions. Sacco includes a short preface and some written background on each of the comics, and although I’m a longtime fan this was my first time reading his thoughts on his work. Sacco raises some pressing questions about the state of journalism and about how comics journalism fits into the idea that journalism should be objective. It is, after all, hard to argue the objectivity of a form which can so readily reveal its maker’s thoughts on the people he deals with. As Sacco writes, “I’ve picked the stories I wanted to tell, and by those selections my own sympathies should be clear. I chiefly concern myself with those who seldom get a hearing, and I don’t feel it is incumbent on me to balance their voices with the well-crafted apologetics of the powerful” (xiv).
On to the comics: Journalism collects pieces published between 2001 and 2011, ranging from just a couple pages to forty. The comics are divided into sections based on theme or location, but what unites most of these comics is their overarching concern with, as Sacco writes in the introduction, those people who are seldom heard. This includes everyone from American soldiers and Iraqi trainees in Iraq to the members of India’s very lowest caste to the overwhelming numbers of unwanted African migrants who land each year in Sacco’s homeland of Malta as they struggle to make their way to Europe.
Sacco’s comics are uniformly excellent, with his notes (describing everything from why he decided to focus on a particular story to problems encountered while reporting to disagreements with the publications that commissioned the comics) adding another layer to the reading. As ever, the only truly cartoonish character in these strips is Sacco himself, with blank eyes behind his glasses, mouth half open, the stylistic differences between his renderings of himself and those he interviews serving to reinforce the fact that he is an interloper here.
Somehow, the risk of taking advantage of a subject seems more acute when they’re represented visually, but by making his relationship with his subjects so clear, Sacco never does so. The moments when he chooses not to represent something are striking, as when a woman shows Sacco a photo of her dead daughter. Having shown so many other aspects of this woman’s life, Sacco leaves the photograph unknown, drawing nothing more than the outlines of the photograph (p. 68):
Sacco records his own impressions of his subjects’ lives along with his images, and it is this that makes his comics so powerful. Sacco never pretends to be an impartial observer, to be recording these stories in some objective way; and he seeks, again and again, to remind us of this. When Sacco draws his subjects speaking directly into the frame, as if to the reader, he occasionally draws a partial view of his own face, listening, to remind us that these stories have been interpreted. He includes panels in which he sits across from a subject, and others in which his notepad is visible, another reminder of how subjective the work of journalism is. (Below, a panel from page 97.)
One of Sacco’s (many) talents lies in giving the reader a sense of just how overwhelming these stories are. Frames overlap one another, and chaotic scenes are often given the bulk of a page, as the narrative unfolds in frames placed at the margins of this central image. Sacco shows, too, a certain claustrophic nature to the journalist’s work, as in the panel below (p. 137). Interviewing detained refugees, Sacco is surrounded by women trying to share their stories, as he drips with sweat. Images like these remind us of the degree to which Sacco curates these stories for us, sharing, as he writes, those that he wants to tell.
Sacco’s Journalism is that rare book that is just as pleasurable for the long-term fan as it is for the first-time reader. Journalism is a wide-ranging collection that manages to feel cohesive even as Sacco shifts continents and tells stories as different as those of American soldiers and female refugees from Chechnya. A fantastic collection, whether or not you’re a comics fan. (Though you probably will be after finishing.)
Filed under: Book Reviews | Tags: book review, books, bossypants, reading, tina fey
New back in the country, suffering from a constant if low-level anxiety about job hunting at a terrible time for job hunting, and trying to catch up on three years of American culture (Bieber to Jersey Shore to…oh god, I know that even these references are out-of-date and passe)? You couldn’t ask for a much better book than Tina Fey’s Bossypants.
Yeah, I know. I am the last person in America to read this book, and there’s not even really a point to reviewing it because…everyone beat me to it. But still, I wanted to jump in here and set the stage for forthcoming reviews; thanks to my “review” of Bossypants it should be clear that my brain spends most of the day hovering anxiously about three feet above my head, scanning job boards, and that a solid 50% of what I write in coming weeks will make no sense. (Much like this post.)
So, on to Bossypants! Tina Fey’s style is so conversational and welcoming that even if you are the most distracted person on earth (me) you will find yourself quietly dying (of laughter, or a generalized worry that you are in for a rude awakening re: the American economy) as you read stories about her father, Don Fey, “one boss, bold, bladed motherfucker” (48).
Bossypants covers a lot of ground, and can roughly be divided into sections of family anecdotes, stories about running 30 Rock, and explanations of SNL skits. The first two were my favorites; some of the SNL sections simply felt tacked on for length and way too long, with complete transcripts of skits. I imagine that this book on the iPad could just feature the videos instead of these transcripts (can they do this sort of thing for books on iPads? I am guessing yes, but, let’s face it – as with most new technology, I have no clue), and it would be vastly improved by the substitution. It’s vaguely interesting to read about the birth of some of these sketches, but over thirty pages of such description comes off as an attempt to pad the book.
Bossypants suffers from a lack of focus, but I expect as much when approaching a collection of essays and skits written by a comedian/writer of bits for comedians. The faults in Fey’s book were not enough to keep me from being that weirdo bursting into laughter every few pages, and using my iPhone (yes! I have an iPhone now! I am truly an American again!) to find videos like this one.
Filed under: Commercial Fiction, Fantasy | Tags: book review, books, fantasy, game of thrones, george r.r. martin, literature, reading
Maybe six months ago, I got pulled out of my Macedonia-induced cultural stupor, introduced to this Game of Thrones phenomenon by a billboard for the HBO show near the Peace Corps office in Skopje. (Yeah, there’s HBO in Macedonia! Just not in my house.) My interest in the series was pretty low, though, because (a) I am not a high fantasy kind of person and (b) I hadn’t read much about the first book of the series except for a review taking a critical look at the roles for women.
But in early July, standing in a Barnes & Noble in Florida with my dad, having already picked out copies of A Visit From the Goon Squad and The Blind Assassin and one other title which clearly means a lot to me, given I’ve forgotten what it was, I picked up Game of Thrones from the massive center display, read the first page. Read the second page, put all my other books down on the floor, and read the prologue as my dad did whatever my dad was doing. (He bought Matterhorn that night. See, good taste in literature runs in the family.)
I usually yell at people for starting reviews (or reflections, in this case) by explaining why they aren’t qualified to write the review they’re writing, but…you know, I have nothing to compare Game of Thrones to, there’s no useful commentary I can make regarding its place in the world of high fantasy, so I’m not even going to pretend. I am just going to write about the women, because I come out so far from that post that introduced me to the series. (I can’t remember who wrote about the women of Game of Thrones – if you know, let me know.) There are plenty of spoilers in here.
Martin’s world is so strongly characterized, so fully described, so elaborately peopled; and the women aren’t left out of this. Some of Martin’s characters can be labeled as types (Cersei: manipulative, cold-hearted bitch) but they’re never defined by those labels, they are always able to act in honest and sometimes surprising (but ultimately believable) ways.
Cersei Lannister, the wife of King Robert of the Seven Kingdoms, is a woman who initially appears to be little more than a woman cuckolding her husband and subscribing to some old time views on the value of pure bloodlines, but reveals herself over the course of the novel to have more power than any of the men around her. By the close of Game of Thrones it’s clear that she’s the one really ruling the Seven Kingdoms, despite her son’s unpredictable actions after being crowned. Not just that but that, without anyone’s knowledge, she has for years been manipulating those around her, sometimes acting without the knowledge of any others, to edge her way into greater power.
Catelyn Stark, wife to Robert Stark of Winterfell (who becomes the King’s Hand early in the novel), likewise reveals herself to have more depth than the woman who first appears, furious that her husband’s bastard son (Jon Snow) is living with the rest of her family at Winterfell. Apart from that slip, though, she turns out to be a wise mother and advisor to her husband, and even her tactical error of taking Tyrion Lannister into captivity is admirable for the sheer ballsiness of the move.
Daenerys Targaryen, a teenager living in exile with her brother Viserys, the only survivors to King Aerys II Targaryen, who was violently replaced on the throne by King Robert. Easily cowed by her brother Viserys early on, forced into a marriage with Khal Drogo of the Dothraki (horseback riders), she gains a sense of self and of leadership after her marriage to Drogo, eventually ordering the execution of Viserys, who has repeatedly offended and threatened her and her husband. Dany is awesome. She is totally the best character in the book. Killing her last family member! Owning dragon eggs! Learning the limits of compassion and killing a woman she earlier rescued, who she blames for the death of her husband! Awesome, Dany, awesome. If Martin kills her off in the next four books I’m going to be so pissed.
Then there’s Arya Stark. Arya, Arya, Arya. Born to be a lady, doesn’t want to be a lady, close with her bastard half-brother Jon Snow, who gives her a sword, “Needle,” allowed by her father to train in dancing, aka the Braavosi method of sword fighting. Arya is like a Tamora Pierce character transplanted into the high fantasy world, running around hearing secrets, finding secret passages, being mistaken for a boy. It’s not clear, when Game of Thrones ends, what’s happened to Arya, but as with Dany…if Martin doesn’t keep her around, I’m going to pitch a fit.
I tend to think of high fantasy as being the realm of dudes. My reluctance to read Game of Thrones was due in large part to this idea (which I’m still not willing to label a misconception, outside of Martin’s world. Tell me if I should). Even the minor female characters in Martin’s world, though, are notable for their strength, like Catelyn Stark’s sister who opts to sequester herself in a mountaintop fortress with her nutty son, threatening to throw prisoners out of doors in the floor. Women may not garner the notice of the men they stand with, but Martin repeatedly points to the ways in which the women of the Seven Kingdoms wield as much, or sometimes more, power than the men surrounding them. I am so psyched to read the rest of this series.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Nonfiction | Tags: book review, books, literature, neal pollack, nonfiction, reading, stretch, yoga
Neal Pollack’s Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude is an at times joyful and refreshing look at yoga culture in the States. The “at times” is the key phrase in that sentence; Pollack’s book, which describes his journey from being an overweight, balding, mean-spirited, struggling writer to a “yoga dude,” is at its best at the start of his journey.
Dealing with stress over a poor review in The New York Times and a six-a-day donut habit, Pollacks’ wife urges hm to attend a yoga class with her at the local gym. Unlike his wife, Pollack ends up hooked on yoga. When they move to L.A. so he can pursue work as a screenwriter he gets more serious about yoga; L.A. Is, after all, described as being to yoga what Paris was to writers in the 1920s.
Even when he’s taking yoga seriously Pollack doesn’t take it too seriously. This isn’t a book you’ll be rolling your eyes at as you read, thinking, “christ, gimme a break about this ‘connection with the universe’ stuff.” But he’s at his best early in the memoir, when his skepticism about yoga is still evident to everyone around him. Pollack never hesitates to take jabs at himself, either, but the best come early on, as when he struggles with bouts of gas during yoga class, effectively deflating the world of yoga (which to us outsiders can too often seem composed of people who have never had to do something so crass as race for a bathroom):
If at all possible, I liked for my farts to get lost in a wave of sound. Therefore, the best time to fart, if I absolutely had to, was during the part of the class where we said “OM.” As a beautiful chorus of human voices (including mine) harmonized as one, my colon expanded and contracted, discharging useless gases. I sent them out to the cosmos as an extra blessing, a karmic bonus.
What makes Pollack’s book so fun and accessible is that, when the book opens, he’s willing (even eager) to reveal these aspects of himself, but also that he is such an asshole. Pollack is a contributor to the first issue of McSweeney’s, and the first book published by McSweeney’s is written by him. He views himself on a path to success, and the self-destructive path he heads down (quickly killing off his best contacts) when the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer and Dave Eggers do make it big, is recognizable to anyone who’s ever felt overwhelmed by the unfairness of not being viewed as remarkable as their (assumed) counterparts. The joy Pollack feels in his transformation from the sort of man who publicly rips into a perceived competitor’s book, to one who tries to do headstands without farting, is evident and makes the first third of the book a pleasure to read.
What ultimately works against Stretch is the same thing that makes Eat, Pray, Love a hard swallow: Pollack got a book deal to write about his yoga journey while still on his yoga journey. With the writing he does on articles he writes for journals like Yoga Today, and the Thailand yoga retreat he pays for with his book advance, the last two-thirds of the book read like a journey that’s been designed for its narrative arc. Pollack covers a yoga conference for Yoga Today, travels across the country and attends classes representative of types of yoga, like Bikram, that have defined yoga in America, goes on his retreat and then covers a yoga conference/indie rock fest. His observations about “yogis” in America (like the number of middle-upper class practitioners who wear their $100 lululemon yoga pants while turning their yoga poses into poses for the gaze of others) do effectively skewer the commercialization of yoga, but even this loses its pleasure after a couple chapters.
Pollack writes about finding his “best self.” It’s hard to take that effort seriously, in part because of his habit of smoking a bowl before heading in for yoga practice, but more so because his attempts to craft a redemptive narrative are so apparent. Pollack’s book is at times an entertaining read, but it never quite lives up to its potential.
Filed under: Book Reviews, Classic Fiction, Literary Fiction | Tags: beloved, book review, books, literature, nobel prize, reading, toni morrison
Look, Toni Morrison’s Beloved is one of those books that’s so good there are only a few ways of writing about it, one being “awesome awesome awesome” and another being “go read it right now, this second.” The novel deals with memory, with personal and cultural history, as though they are real and tangible things that can walk into someone’s life or move objects in a house; and it does not only this, but looks at the way the perceptions of outsiders can “create” or change what they are perceiving; and looks at slavery and the power a name has and what impact not owning oneself or the world one looks at can have on a person’s life and their ability to view and create themselves.
The novel centers on the former slave Sethe and her daughter Denver and their house at 124 Bluestone Road. The house is haunted and avoided by everyone in the neighborhood, and in some way holds both Sethe and Denver to its confines. Morrison gradually reveals an image of the house from years before, when it was a hub for the neighborhood and recently freed or escaped slaves. Not until Paul D, an escaped slave from Sweet Home (where Sethe, her husband Halle, and his mother-in-law Baby Suggs were also slaves) enters the home and throws out the ghost, returning it in its physical form of a grown woman, does the history of the house and its family begin to reveal itself.
There is too much here to fairly address in a short review, so I’ll focus my attentions on Paul D and specifically on the way he recognizes perception as forming the world. At one point near novel’s end some of Morrison’s characters begin to question their lives at Sweet Home and after Sweet Home, how the way they were addressed (as “men” at Sweet Home and as “children” elsewhere) affected how they viewed themselves. Did being called “men” make them, really, men, or was it simply another way of controlling them? Although they felt at the time of their enslavement somehow, slightly, empowered by the word “men,” was that title any better than being called children – as they were treated, regardless of the relative kindness of their owner? And how, after they escaped slavery, did the reclaiming of the word change their lives and their way of viewing themselves? Once Morrison’s characters were capable of perceiving the world through their own eyes, through the eyes they did, for the first time in their lives, own, could they think of themselves as men? At one point one of the slaves at Sweet Home, Sixo, is beaten by “schoolteacher” to “show him that definitions belonged to the definers – not the defined” (190). It is only those who are free and have the power to label their world who can truly own it.
Paul D, though, recognizes too the way the perceptions of others can influence or change what a person is. He repeatedly notes the way women “glow” when they’re around the man they’re attracted to; it’s why he is able to seduce (though that seems the wrong word) Sethe when he walks into the home that is controlled by the ghost of her daughter. One of the other slaves from Sweet Home, Sixo, arranges with the 30-Mile Woman (so called because of the distance he traveled to meet her) to escape slavery with the Sweet Home slaves; for a time, Paul D waits alone with the 30-Mile Woman. After Sixo arrives:
She is lit now with some glowing, some shining that comes from inside her. Before when she knelt on creek pebbles with Paul D, she was nothing, a shape in the dark breathing lightly. (225)
Paul D isn’t just noting the mechanics of sexual attraction, but rather the way perceptions change reality. More than that, there seems to be almost a sort of ownership in the relations Paul D sees between people, in the understandings he sees between them. By envisioning Sixo and the 30-Mile-Woman’s relationship as a visible thing – not as a public display of affection, say, but something that cannot be controlled – Paul D suggests a sort of inevitable and permanent relationship not dissimilar, in its shape though not in the details or the affections, from the sort of ownership the two are escaping. It’s not that there’s a slavery to the visibility of their relationship, but that even after gaining freedom and the ability to view the world through eyes they own, they cannot decide how they are viewed.
Morrison’s novel? Extraordinary. Amid all the hubbub about the insularity of the Nobel Prize Committee (who will seemingly never award another Nobel to an American writer because they are “too insular”), I have to note that this is one time when they got it right. Read Beloved this second, or go see Jeff O’Neal’s post at Book Riot about the two Morrison novels you should read before hitting Beloved. And then read Beloved.