On Monday, I was excited to see a writer who has been described as “the best on the planet,” George Saunders, presenting in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of the awesome literary magazine, the Rain Taxi Review of Books. Publishing four times a year and offering reviews of independent and obscure works of literature in diverse genres, from poetry to graphic novels, memoir to science fiction, if you see it in the racks at local coffee shops or bookstores around town, don’t forget to grab a copy. They’re free! Always plenty of fodder to pile up on that ever growing reading list!
When Rain Taxi began back in 1995, one of their first issues reviewed a book of short stories by a new writer, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders. To help celebrate this, and the new edition of Saunders' charming and eccentric children’s/adult’s picture book, the Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, Saunders visited the Twin Cities to read a few of his works and talk about his writing style. I don't think you could choose a better introduction to the wit and style of George Saunders than the Gappers of Frip. Read to a rapt audience by George Saunders himself, it was great way discover Saunders’ humorous and surreal, yet true to life writing. I can thank my English major sister for introducing me to his work, though I am still trying to complete my reading of his opus. I would also recommend listening to Saunder's audiobooks, as he has a great, expressive reading voice, which made his live reading even better!
There is nothing cynical in Saunders’ work, but it also does not shy away from depicting the dark injustices faced by every citizen in our imperfect world, poverty, prejudice, greed, apathy, fear. Yet these elements are accompanied by a gentle, bright humanism that really shines through as well, making it a great exploration of the world as it is.
I’ve read that one, along with his latest collection Tenth of December, which I listed as one of my top ten for 2013, and have always been in absolute awe at his writing prowess. More than any other author, I feel, he is able to capture the idiosyncrasies and feelings of everyday life infused with a total oddness that is itself true to life. In both Tenth of December and CivilWarLand, normal, flawed humans deal with absurd and bizarre situations they way we do with all of those inconvenient but normal problems of everyday life. Each story, also, takes a totally different and unique situation and takes it totally unexpected directions. In his discussion of his writing, Saunders mentioned a really interesting thought, that the writer's job is really to bring their subconscious to the table, to make the richest and most resonant writing. Of course, I had to get the next Saunders book I'm going to read, In Persuasion Nation, signed before I left for the night. I'm looking forward to it!
In this new segment of BookLikes, I will be discussing my readings on the state of contemporary North American subcultures, countercultures, and popular culture in general- the advent of the internet has seemed to have had a radical effect on the accessibility, authenticity, and style of how "millennials," 20 and 30 somethings, define themselves. I'll be reading some books to try to discover what is this nebulous attribute known as "cool" in our, at heart, consumerist and conformist society. What better way than by taking a look at some of the ways people make fun of each other? We will be starting with "hipsters." What even are they? What's wrong with them? Am I one? I'm not even going to attempt to define the term, it's impossible and its already all over the internet anyway.
The term "hipster" seems an artificial definition, manufacturing a subculture for a time in which, for multiple reasons, none really seems to exist. The conflicting themes of sincerity and irony appear to be at the heart the millennial condition and thoughts about what a hipster even is. After all, irony is almost as notoriously difficult to define as hipster.
Probably the most standard definition of a hipster is that they refuse to be identified as such, in spite of the fact that, like porn, we know it when we see it. So if someone self-identifies themselves as a hipster, that mean they are not one- after all, if the definition of hipster is that they won't call themselves the term, then that indicates someone gauche enough to do so indicates they can't be one, right? But of course, by definition, if calling oneself a hipster means you can't be one, you really are one because you are, in effect, claiming not to be! It's a paradox!
As a Minnesotan, discussions of “hipsters,” whatever they are, seem topical. Minnesota was declared the most hipster state in the country a few years back and not too long ago, St. Paul was named the most hipster zip code in the nation. What is all this? What are we to make of it? It was for some answers that I went to this collection of books attempting to grapple with the complexities of this millennial trait. Here, I discuss some works that treat the phenomena in their publication order.
When I was younger, growing up not really connected to the “cool” and “fashionable,” whatever those are, and living on the fringes of various suburban subcultures, I wondered about the future and what trends, new fashions, and fads would come into being in the futuristic 2000s. Just after I started college, I heard of new “hipster” thing on NPR, specifically talking about this book, The Hipster Handbook by Robert Lanham. Now, looking back upon the so-called “hipster” subculture ten years later (again after living upon its fringes) as it has begun its decline into stereotype and, well, the mainstream, Lanham's book seems to have an interesting place in the history of today's pop culture landscape.
At more than a decade old, it is still relevant to today's 20 and 30 something “counter” culture, and one that has certainly permeated the fabric of American society since 2002. As a pseudo-academic anthropological study of this exotic subculture, Lanham illustrates the various brands of the movement, from the Loner, introverted obsessives with a love of cataloging (of which I have an affinity) to the "bipster," appropriators of blue collar chic, many of these studies still resonate with the stereotype. In addition, Lanham also chronicles the many indicators of good taste as striven for by hipsters, including a (presumably) apocryphal glossary of slang, and lists of books, music, movies, and artists essential for the culture. Whether one denies vehemently one's hipsterhood or accepts it wholeheartedly (if such a contradiction is possible), much of the evolution of current trends were anticipated here.
The same cannot be said for another early work in the genre, A Field Guide to the Urban Hipster. Like the Hipster Handbook, it affects a scientific style, in this case biological rather than sociological, but unlike Lanham this one has not aged well at all. While both are dated artifacts from an earlier period of pop-culture, the “Field Guide” feels a lot more mean-spirited and has less of an understanding of the topic. Even for it's time, "Field Guide" seems super-dated.
It is the first to illustrate a peril with defining hipsters- any lack of "getting it" by the authors comes off badly. Ostensibly, the book explores the various “species” of young hip urban dwellers, but seems to lack focus as to what exactly this constitutes; I mean, since when have Outlaw Bikers ever been considered hip or urban dwellers, let alone Ex-Frats? Do "Mods" even actually still exist? The author only clumsily effects the language and tropes of true nature guides, (complete with fake Latin scientific names) and relies mostly on stock stereotype in its mocking of such groups as hippies, academics, punks, goths, etcetera. Also, the entries come off condescending and downright misogynistic to boot. This uncomfortable element will return in later accounts.
A much more stylish and humorous take down of hipsterdom, circa 2006, is the collection of tongue in cheek haiku by Siobahn Adcock, which also seems to be among the first hipster books to be published based on a blog, a tradition which seems to be the norm these days. Adcock's casual poems are like a self-deprecating time capsule of pop culture references, name dropping a lot of familiar stuff, websites, bands, authors, shops, all that stuff. Of course, it is all pretty dated, as well, but that seems to be the fate of hipster studies- things barely last a year before being abandoned.
The stereotypes remain, though, and Adcock's work is a nice reflection of this juxtaposition between the sincere and the ironic that exemplifies the culture, with an insider's understanding of the ridiculous nature of the genre. I certainly got a lot more of the references now than when I first read back in '07.
The "Field Guide's" notes of misogyny return here in this next entry, another blog later shoehorned into a book, and one that takes a much more critical stance towards the idea of hipsters.The strong current of "hipster sexism and racism" is well known as the many photos here of young white people dressed in absurd and insulting “Indian” headdresses prove.
Grainy, pixelated, unacknowledged photos of people dressed in weird costumes from the user submitted website are crammed into the pages with some of the least successful jokes I’ve seen in such a product. The limp commentary, with its questionable use of ableist, transphobic, and racist subtext seems to smack of hypocrisy. If it were just the pictures, PBR, huge glasses, and thin mustaches, it might have had a bit more appeal, but the authors’ rather scolding tone comes off as bitter. Griping at people for not “really believing in anything” and “apathy” for attempting to follow interests not shared by the commentator have some rather unfortunate implications, I feel.
Am I wrong in thinking that there is a latent hint of reactionary sentiment to much of this humor? A downplaying of the motives behind "eating local," say, as born only of image rather than any genuine belief is not unlike the blog Stuff White People Like (which, whatever its creator's intentions, has been taken wholesale by white supremacists and myriad conservatives to illustrate everything they perceive as wrong with our "liberal generation.”) I mean, I'm not gonna even touch the insufferable book on the topic by noisome Fox News contributor Greg Gutfeld, in which he appears to do little more than lament that he wasn't popular in high school and now, its popular to like the environment and social justice, blah blah blah.
Fascinating stuff, but also frustratingly vague and obtuse, “What Was the Hipster” is a transcript of a discussion on a sociological approach to subculture and essays responding or attempting to clarify the discussion. The participants only barely scratched the surface focusing on reasons behind various styles, discussions of classicism and racism, and identity but these ideas are hardly given any space to really get to the guts of the debate. The very discussion of the phenomena of the “hipster,” the current counter/sub culture (if it can even be called that) is very complex and difficult to parse and the participants struggle to convey and formulate their ideas, talking around each other and name dropping everything from philosophers, ‘90s bands, and ‘80s TV-shows in but in fact, it seems, they are unable even to come to a consensus on what a hipster actually is.
One of the goals of the "investigation" was its hope to express the reality of the hipster to future readers, which is itself a bit ironic, as the book, now five years old, is already showing its age. The hipster meme has already been declared dead and/or dying numerous times. In particular, the descriptions of the Peruvian hipsters from Lima who only embraced their Peruvian chicha musical identity when it was embraced as ironically cool by a French recording studio based in New York. This globalizing presence appears to be part and parcel of the hipster idea, as things become "cool" divorced from their origins only to loose their "authenticity" in the process. Themes of irony, authenticity, sincerity, and nostalgia all seem to be at the heart of the idea and lead to some of the most incisive essays in the collection.
To me, an essential part of hipsterdom, like that of all putative modern “subcultures,” if any such even truly survive, is consumption. With the proliferation of the internet, ideas and styles merge and mutate, leading to conflict among groups about meaning and identity. For my own part, I find subcultural studies like these to be very interesting, exploring the creation of modern social identities; the weird dichotomy of what is “cool” and “uncool.” For instance, the typical pursuits of the geek/nerd stereotype were traditionally the very definition of “uncool,” while the aspects associated with stereotypical hipsters were what “cool” people wanted, but there has been an odd shift; now, self professed geek activities have a social attache that approaches “cool,” while hipsters who ironically wear nerdy glasses and play D&D or whatever are insulted as in-authentically appropriating these things. "What was the Hipster?" only discusses these aspects in passing, and thus, it maybe the starting point for an academic study of modern youth subcultures but it is a flawed beginning.
This issue is noted in the author's notes of the latest "field guide" of hipsters, Hipster Animals acknowledging that this work will, no doubt, be rendered obsolete quickly in coming "cycles of coolness," but will still be good for nostalgia, of course. In a perhaps hopeless attempt to avoid "judgement," the Author’s Note posits "we are all equally repulsive. Everyone is the worse."
A specific collection of vignettes of the "postcollege upwardly mobile" (no dudebros or "mainline geekery," for instance, though that one I'd love to see), creatures we are probably all familiar with at their various dens in urban areas and college towns across North America. Like any good field guide, the various markings, calls, diets, habitats, and other fun facts of the species are detailed to aid identification of common types.
The illustrations are cute and amusing and colorful. I also enjoy the witty, blink and you'll miss them in jokes of a lot of the animals represented as well, like, the Experimental Coffee Gastronomist is a civet. How cute is that? Also, am I wrong, but could the Outdoor Screening Heckler, a loon with a penchant for shouting jokes her "friends find hilarious" at movie screens wearing a Minnesota necklace be a reference to our state movie comedians, MST3K? There seem to be a couple of sly nods to our state, so I am forced to wonder if the author may be a former Minnesotan. Also, I liked the diversity of species included as well; aside from the usual mammals there is also plenty of space for other Classes as well, birds, reptiles, even a few amphibians, fish, and mollusks.
From what I can tell, most hipster hate comes from two camps- those hopelessly square suburban stiffs with way too much of an obsession about "ethics" in video games, who maybe mutter something to the effect of “Uptown? Why would you wanna go to Uptown? Nothing but hipsters there. I never eat anyway fancier than the Olive Garden off of 394!” and the insufferable snobs who seem to take pleasure in looking down on everyone else; “Uptown? Please. Totally corporate, didn’t you know the action’s all in Northeast now? The pizza still blows compared to NYC, though!” Of course, the really cool people all live in St. Paul anyway. I kid, I kid!
Okay, enough of that. Next up, crust punks!
*Theme music for entry: "These Burgers," The Moldy Peaches, 2001
I just read these two, very different books, and found myself fascinated at how similar they are in their ways. One is a genre-defying satirical thriller about the disappearance of the internet, the other an understated diary comic about one woman's attempt to define herself in a world saturated with technology. Each of them, however, question and attempt to come to grips with our contemporary world and its reliance on information technology.
As I read recently online somewhere, and can't for the life of me recall where, because I've lost any ability to differentiate one source from another in the stew of ideas, opinions, and information available, technology has completely changed reading habits. I know that is true for me; before such things as Goodreads, or BookLikes, I just read things that interested me and thought about them. Now, it's like I haven't actually read it at all unless I rate it, review, and share it on social networking.
I've been reading more than ever before, my reading lists are only growing, and sometimes, I feel like I'm being overwhelmed.
Both of these books look at how our society has been transformed, for better or for worse, by the explosion of the internet and other telecommunications technologies. After all, these books each deal with the generations who, like me, have experienced this transition first hand- we didn't have cell phones, or smart phones, or desktops in childhood, but by our teen years they'd become indispensable. However, both Wayne Gladstone and Julie Delporte take quite different attitudes towards this shift.
The sequel to Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, which I wrote about on BookLikes last summer, Agents of the Internet Apocalypse begins where Notes ended, climbing over the fourth wall and continue to wander, aimlessly but with a determination that can’t be broken, towards some very dark and interesting territory. Sharing with its predecessor its quick pace, thoughtfulness, emotion, and dick jokes, things start to really get real in Agents. While still a satire, much of the more strongly satirical elements from Notes have been downplayed as Gladstone finds himself in a world much closer to reality.
With his journal having become "paper viral," Gladstone finds himself in the position of leading a new Internet Reclamation Movement, against his better judgement. At the same time, he rekindles his quixotic quest to return the internet to the masses. In spite of all indications to the contrary, Gladstone still seems important; he is hounded by government agents, wealthy assholes, Anonymous, and a psychic librarian, all convinced he holds the key in away he is clueless to discover. As he reflects upon the connections he found online when the "real" world was so cruel, he evokes a certain sentimentality towards the lost net.
What are the real costs of being so connected? What have we lost to technology? Is it worth what we’ve gained? I find it intriguing that Jeeves, the “psychic” who set Gladstone on his path as the Internet Messiah in the first place is a librarian- in spite of what stereotypes , librarians are often on the cusp of information technology and are the first to grapple with what its implications mean, for good or ill. At the same time the internet is dead, print media is resurging- could that be a coincidence? Ending with such a gut shot, I'm looking forward to see how all of this is resolved.
Julie Delporte's beautifully drawn graphic novel, with its spare language (coming through even through the English translation) takes an entirely different approach. The nameless narrator of the comic (Delporte herself?) finds herself completely cut adrift in this modern world of technology, connections and convenience bringing her no pleasure.
Finding herself unable to read at all anymore, she grows increasing depressed, despondent, and ill, she finds out about (online, of course) the contemporary malady of "electromagnetic hypersensitivity," in which sufferers blame their migraine headaches, aches, and general feeling of unease on the ever present microwave radiation from radio waves, cell phones, satellites, and wifi. Nowhere in France can she escape, either from these technologies and from the stress and buzz of contemporary life. Whether or not this disease is real (must admit I'm skeptical), the physiological cost of this is crippling on the narrator and she escapes to the isolation of a comfortable Quebec farm, where freed from this stimulation and responsibility, she begins to recover. By forcing her own "internet apocalypse," going off the grid, and living a simple, relaxed life on an isolated communal farm, she gets back her ability to concentrate and to read.
Is our reliance on technology making us depressed? Does too much information overwhelm us? I know the phenomena of feeling like you're the only one not doing great on Facebook, for instance, or feeling like you can never catch up with all of your social media feeds, and those are just the tips of the iceberg. Would society truly benefit from an "internet apocalypse," one in which we can concentrate on the "real?" Each of these works seems to have a different answer. All I can say is I'm already committed!
*Theme music for entry: "Utilities," The Weakerthans, Reunion Tour, 2007
Over on my Twin Cities blog, I wrote about attending the recent launch of the Minnesota Historical Society's new publication, Downtown Minneapolis in the 1970s, at the Mill City Museum. Photographer Mike Evangelist, who worked downtown in the '70s and took many pictures on his breaks, and writer Andy Sturdevant put together this awesome book and discussed the background of the photos and the world they came out of. Read more over here!
In spite of never having lived in the decade, I have always found it fascinating, so seeing so clearly what the area I now live in looked like forty years ago, as the old city of Minneapolis was in the transitional stage to the corporate, modern city we know today was really cool. There seems to be some similarities between this uncertain decade and the transitions going on in it, with today.
This was the intriguing argument of historian Andreas Killen's 1973: Nervous Breakdown, which posited that the year 1973 marked the transition between the modern and the postmodern worlds.
As one of the biographies of a certain specific year in the western calendar, it was pretty convincing, connecting threads regarding fears of terrorism, renewable energy in a time of shortage, and political gridlock and distrust after Watergate.
The chapter on fears of cults was particularly interesting, and I also enjoyed Killen's ability to draw in pop culture items of the day to explore the evolution of the American psysche during the time; the first reality TV, the first punk bands, and even the nostalgia for the late fifties current at the time that would presage the later nostalgia for the '70s themselves.
Francis Wheen makes a similar argument in his account of paranoia throughout the world during the 1970s, drawing upon popular culture, cinema, and literature to explore how the 1970s made the world we live in today.
Wheen’s book, which examines this ten year period through the lens of one its, arguably, most defining features; paranoia, paints a vivid and disturbing picture, yet one compelling in the similarities that can be found to the world today. Paranoia, according to Wheen, truly erupted onto the world scene at the time and his anecdotes involving Nixon, Mao, Harold Wilson, and Idi Amin illustrate how a deep fear of the future had haunted the halls of power throughout the world.
In addition, he describes the emergence of fears of a doomed economy, terrorism, growth in occult and conspiratorial beliefs, and other interesting themes. I particularly enjoyed Wheen’s citing of various period literature and cinema to illustrate his points, which really help to evoke the thoughts and feelings of the time. On the other hand, the variety of these diverse themes brought together in “Strange Days Indeed” under the overarching theme of paranoia can bury his arguments in these many interesting stories.
Paradox Press' "Factoid Books" Big Book of fill in blank is a series I have fond memories of, though I never bought any of them. I recall spending time flipping through them while hanging out at Barnes and Noble and Borders book stores, back when I was not really that into comics but intrigued by weird historical stories, legends, and mysterious events. This series was one of the sources that, I think, started to get me to change my mind on the idea of graphic novels. Full of "100% true" stories of aliens, gruesome murders, and drugs, it was like Ripley's Believe It Or Not for the nineties.
Over time, I've managed to gather a small collection of my favorites at various library book sales and stops at Half Price Books, and recently I read through a few of them. As products of an earlier period of pop culture, I can't say they really hold up. It was funny to see how rooted to the period they are. The series strikes me as being particularly, inescapably '90s in style, topics, and conception. Anthologies of comic vignettes depicting various topics, stories, and people, the Big Books reflected the pop culture interest in this stuff that was big at the time. Written in a tongue in cheek, overly "irreverent" style, little really sticks. All black and white, the artists included were, in general, pretty standard comic book styles, with some detail lost due to the lack of color in a few of them.
The Big Book of the '70s and the Big Book of the Weird Wild West were the most historical, focusing on the current 1990s nostalgia for all things seventies and all the over the top tall tales of the "Wild West" stoked by recent revisionist westerns. Both of them had some interesting, little known stories included, in particular the Big Book of the '70s, which did a pretty good job painting a picture of what American society was like at the time. The Weird Wild West occasionally got a little bit speculative for it's "100% true" billing, drawing strongly from period penny dreadfuls rather than vetted historical accounts. Still, both of them have some pretty good and comprehensive bibliographies to look into.
The "100% true" descriptor falls on even shakier ground with these two, which felt particularly dated to that period when everyone was watching the X-Files and 9/11 had not yet struck. There's something that just feels so quaint about the Kennedy Assassination and the Hopskinville Goblins after the events of the last twenty years. I have to admit feeling quite bored getting through these two, though perhaps its because I've seen these same stories repeated again and again in all this paranormal conspiratorial literature. Even the addition of comic Charles Fort narrating did not really save them. There were still a few good strips, though, like the entry on Chupacabras (appropriate, since the beast was only a year or so old at the time).
The Big Book of Urban Legends was, of course, my favorite of the lot, simply feature comic adaptations of famed folklorist Jan Harald Brunvand's popular urban legend accounts from his various books. From the funny to the horrifying, they're all here and in probably the best art of the series. On the other hand, this may be the most disturbing of the series as well, with frequent sexualized violence, misogyny, and racism, which of course reflects the fears of such "friend of a friend" tales. Still, the artists did a good job depicting a diverse cast of characters in many of the stories.
In the end, the Factoid Books are pure nostalgia, from a time in which Men in Black (the mysterious figures who show up after paranormal events, not the movie) and a hook handed killer were seen as scary. 100% true, maybe not, but 100% nineties!
*Theme music for entry: "Flagpole Sitta," Harvey Danger, Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone?, 1997
In preparing for my trip to Japan, from which I returned more than a month ago, I began to read a few of the Japanese works of literature that I had been gathering at library book sales over the years. Of course, this type of "theme" reading is something that I'm all about. Basically, I'll put together a theme reading list for just about any activity or event in my life, so absorbing some of the works of prominent Japanese authors throughout the 20th and 21st century was a given!
Reading these works before taking off, during my stay in Japan, and after my return was quite interesting, as my experiences influenced both my response to the culture and changed how I saw the books I was reading as well. Here, I've arranged them in order of publication.
I opened up my reading this summer with Botchan by Natsume Soseki. Often called the Japanese equivalent of Huck Finn, as in a classic work of literature that most people encounter in high school, Botchan was still a pretty funny read, even across the cultural and time divide.
Written in 1906, during the Meiji Period, a time of great change in Japanese society as the nation works to modernize and industrialize itself, Botchan exemplifies this uncertain but exciting time. Following an self-confident, some would say arrogant, young college graduate from Tokyo as he reluctantly starts his first job as a teacher in an out of the way, rural town, I actually found a lot to sympathize with in his situation. In a way, I could see some parallels between this "untrustworthy narrator" and the complaints about Millennials today.
As the headstrong kid butts heads with his fellow teachers and their set ways of doing things, he feels he is being set up to fail. Not sure exactly what he wants, homesick for his cosmopolitan hometown, he does not adapt well to this new environment and soon begins plotting to get back at these insincere phonies to hilarious result. I particularly enjoyed the nicknames he gave all of his coworkers on the first day.
I first read this collection of eerie Japanese stories by Kyoka Izumi some years ago, when I was looking for weird tales from different cultural backgrounds. I found it even more interesting as a companion on the trip as I learned more of the locations and history written about by Izumi.
Japanese Gothic Tales contains four novellas, written during the Meiji and Taisho periods of Japanese history. Eschewing the modernism aimed for by other authors at the time, Izumi's work is nonetheless influenced by this period of great change in Japanese culture. The stories themselves are surreal and eerie, particularly my favorite, "The Holy Man of Mount Koya," which deals with spooky creatures and magic in the mountains.
One of the major themes of all four of the stories is the relationships between men and women, and tragedy that results, along with strong supernatural elements- also, a theme of the story being told second hand via a secondary narrator relating some experience to a nameless viewpoint character gave the tales a folkloric air; there is also much to ponder regarding Buddhist and Shinto beliefs, Japanese philosophies, and the transforming history of the period.
First published in 1956, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion was a gripping and taut psychological novel featuring a fictionalized telling of the infamous 1950 arson of Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple in Kyoto by a mentally unstable young monk.
Yukio Mishima, one of Japan's foremost modern writers and himself a psychologically complex figure, delved into the dark resentments and philosophies of the neurotic Mizoguchi. A Zen acolyte groomed to join the clergy who developed a pathological love and hatred for the beauty of the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, bound in with his misogyny and self-hatred. Self described as ugly, and afflicted by stuttering, he finds his family's dream of him taking over the Temple taken from him, and responds by burning the temple to the ground, justifying it through his Zen beliefs. Not exactly a happy tale, it is nonetheless a riveting account of an unhealthy mind. It does contain much to think about regarding Zen Buddhist teachings as well.
Published in 1961, this collection of stories by Yusanari Kawabata explore some dark and surreal territory. I think that one of the literary terms appropriate here may be "decadence." The title story, "House of the Sleeping Beauties," for instance, is a fairly disturbing tale of an aging man paying to sleep next to drugged, unconscious, naked women, and much of the story is the narrator describing the physical appearance of each of the women and how they remind him of people and places from his past. He also considers strangling them.
"One Arm" also involved a surreal episode of a man paying for a woman's body, in this case her physical arm, which is painlessly detached and he takes away with him, later to swap with his own arm. The last tale, "Of Birds and Beasts," discusses the authors love of animals and how this love translates more into cruelty than kindness towards his favorite pets. Not really sure quite what to make of these ornate, complex stories.
Wow, what to say about this one, this tour de force of pitch black humor and deadpan surrealism, this fevered tour of Japan's deepest id.
Kiku and Hashi, their lives haunted by their newborn hours spent stifling in adjacent train-station coin lockers, abandoned to die by their pitiless mothers attempted to navigate their way through a bizarre and labyrinthine world. Growing up as adopted brothers, most comfortable in the abandoned ruins of Japan’s former industry, they begin to plot revenge against the society that created their mothers. While stoic, pole-vaulting Kiku finds a soulmate in Anemone, a cynical, crocodile loving model who shares his hatred of Japanese society and a desire to destroy it all, the sensitive, neurotic Hashi becomes a male prostitute, a pop-star, and loses his mind. Both share a penchant for murder and rice omelets.
From Tokyo to up to the northern town of Hakodate, all the way down to the Ryukyuan Islands, the trio encounter a host of bizarre characters while struggling with their own inability to get over their maternal abandonment. There is much analysis that can be attempted about what aspects of Japanese culture Murakami was parodying and exploring in this bleak book. Of course, Coin Locker Babies finishes up with no real resolution, or even any real ending, though there is plenty of tension.
The two novellas by Banana Yoshimoto collected in this book, the titular "Kitchen" and "Moonlight Shadow," were both effecting, melancholy, hopeful, and beautiful descriptions of personal loss and everyday pleasures. Evoking both the mundane pleasures and the grief of lost loved ones, Yoshimoto's stories illustrate the complex feelings of life.
Also, particularly in "Moonlight Shadow," there is a magic realist theme that I really found interesting as well. Focusing on young people not sure where they are going and trying to cope with the loss of loved ones, I think a lot of people can really identify with them. It is also really interesting to see these common human feelings through the eyes of a different culture as well. Of course, owing to Yoshimoto's lush descriptions of food, I am definitely looking forward to going to some more restaurants in Tokyo.
Along with the more "serious" works I've looked at so far, I also thought it would be relevant to read a couple of manga titles before the trip, as well. The first volume of Yuki Urushibara's Mushishi was an eerie, understated fantasy read I quite enjoyed- it had a supernatural theme that echoed Japanese folklore and belief combined with an interesting naturalistic scientific background as well.
Following the Western costumed "Mushi master" (mushishi) Gingko, as he travels a feudal Japanese countryside helping people deal with mushi- strange, and inexplicable phenomena that may or may not be life as we know it, but which predates plant and animal life by eons. Urushibara's lush, atmospheric art does a lot to cultivate the mysterious feelings explored in her writing. I'm looking forward to seeing where the rest of the series goes.
Shunju Aono's dramedy series "I'll Give It My All... Tomorrow" has been very interesting to me. With it's unusual art style and mundane, slice of life storytelling, it is a realistic, heart felt, and funny glimpse into everyday life in modern Japan. A contrast to the escapist, larger than life style of most manga, Aono's work is low key, touching, and funny.
Following the "exploits" of Shizuo Oguro, a bit of a sad sack who, in the throws of a midlife crisis, quits his soul-sucking job as a salary-man to follow his dream of becoming a manga artist. A man who often changes his identity, Oguro finds himself whiling away his days working on his cliched manga ideas, taking advantage of his father and daughter's generosity before being forced to take a job in fast food to make ends meet. As the series continues, we watch Oguro's pathos evolve, particularly through the lens of his friends and family.
It was very interesting seeing how these accounts of Japanese life were reflected in my own experiences in the country, and how my own responses and mental pictures of them also changed. Now, I have a frame of reference to look at them, and likewise, reading these works also prepared me for what to look for during my journeys. Of course, they we'rent perfect, either. I could only read English translations, which leaves a lot of the original feel of the language out, I feel. In Botchan, for instance, Soseki was fond of using witty puns, puns which would make no sense in English and, for the most part, were left out. Still, even through this imprecise method, reading these books allowed me, in a way, to continue my trip even after I returned home.
Now that my trip to Japan is already quickly fading into the fuzzy pleasantness of nostalgia, these books will allow me to keep my experiences close, at least until my next trip!
*Theme music for entry: "My Magic Glasses," Shonen Knife, Genki Shock, 2005
Halloween, my favorite holiday ever, (mostly due to pure nostalgia) is here! In order to recognize North America's macabre, spooky, and fun-loving ode to laughing at death and commemorating the end of the warm months, here are a few of the creepiest novels I read this year, for adults and children alike.
The best parts about Horrorstör, Grady Hendrix's cunningly designed and plotted horror-comedy set in a cursed Midwestern Ikea-knock off, are the characters and the setting. Each are so well executed, specific enough to be memorable yet open enough to be easily applicable to anyone, from the feel good business platitudes of the manager Cecil, to the quips of the bored employee Amy, to the specs of the various cheap furniture sold by the store. It is this familiarity that really draws you in once the horror, when least expected, begins to creep up out of the walls. I really love Grady's mixture of the banal, everyday, retail environment many of us suffer through at some point in our lives and the bleak, surreal horror of the Beehive and it's ghostly inmates. Maybe they are not so dissimilar after all...
Quite a riveting production, Lauren Beukes' Broken Monsters was a scary yet charming occult mystery. I was impressed with her ability to draw so many distinct themes and threads together so effectively into a suspenseful, gripping story, which worked very nicely in audiobook form with several expressive voice actors bringing the characters to life. Through their viewpoints, the surreal elements of the story meshed well with a very realistic take on how people would react to the approach of the unexplainable. In what boils down to a pretty pulpy police-procedural with supernatural undertones that seem to be quite dujour these days (i.e., True Detective, the Twin Peaks resurgence, etc), there is a lot of food for thought here. As others have noted, this is a truly genre defying novel, which often are the most interesting kind.
A common comment regarding this strange book, regardless of whether the reviewer liked or disliked it in general, is "difficult," "inaccessible." I cannot dispute this, I too found it hard going in spite of its relative slimness but I also found myself drawn in by its strong sense of tone and mood. "The Orange Eats Creeps" is pure, distilled punk style, dark, ragged, angry. Our narrator, who refers to herself as a "vampire hobo slut junkie," travels with a group of runaways riding the rails of the '90s Pacific Northwest, chugging Robitussin, crashing under bridges, and causing trouble in small town convenience stores, but this all makes the story sound too linear.
The description on the book jacket, while certainly weird, does not truly prepare the reader for the surreal, dreamlike, hallucinatory ambiance maintained throughout the novel; the crust punk vampire story, the grimy Twin Peaks setting, even the search for the narrator's lost foster sister are only vague overlays in the narrator's fevered narration. Nothing, except the narrator's pain and rage, is constant; this is not pleasant reading as she recounts distorted, illusory images of her tragic life; she is abused and she abuses others, as she helplessly drifts from one "scene," or "dream" to the next. There's no place for a discernible plot or even such things as a beginning or ending. Characters and themes come and go, are picked up and dropped at random; cat-rats, aprons, bones, small g-gods, the Donner Party, the "Road that Eats People."
Aaah, no! The cliffhanger, why the cliffhanger! I read the first two installments of the Lockwood and Co. series with rapt attention, enjoying the delicious ghostly chills and swashbuckling storytelling offered up by Jonathan Stroud in his spooky follow up to his great fantasy series, the Bartimeaus trilogy. It was with great excitement and anticipation that I checked out the latest in the Lockwood series, the Hollow Boy, after having requested it as soon as it appeared in the library system.
Like the latter, Lockwood and Co. is a great place for fantasy craving tweens (and teens and adults) looking for something to fill that Harry Potter hole. Steeped in chills, thrills, humor, and the spooky traditions of the English ghost story genre, there should be enough here to satisfy any reader interested in something a bit macabre. In the prior books in the series, The Screaming Staircase and the Whispering Skull, the trio of young Agents, Lucy, George, and, of course, Lockwood, delve into haunted locations across London, dealing with the hostile spirits of the dead that have been threatening the living all over England ever since the beginning of "The Problem." Lucy, ever the witty narrator, guides us through this sinister world as she and her colleagues deal with ghosts of various types, improving the standing of their agency, and begin to encounter darker secrets and mysteries. There is definitely more of the same in the Hollow Boy, as Lockwood and Co. continues to use the advice of the chatty, spooky, untrustworthy Skull as Lucy sharpens her ability to not only hear, but communicate, with ghosts, much to the disapproval of Lockwood. Can't wait for the last one! Or, will it be?
For a long time, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of writing a Lovecraftian series for young adults- not only for the incongruity of the idea, but also because, in my experience, this is a period in which weird, spooky, disconcerting fears and stories hold the most sway over our daily lives; the time when we would challenge each other to chant Bloody Mary in front of the bathroom mirror or play around with the Ouija board.
So, when I saw this series popping up, I was curious. Professor Gargyole, The Slither Sisters, and Tales of Lovecraft Middle School: Teacher's Pest all hinted at a typical American school with weird, strange problems, and I was compelled to check them out. Of course, the striking lenticular cover designs, depicting various Lovecraft Middle School Characters in front of a typical yearbook photo gray backdrop dramatically transforming from mundane humans to horned, or scaled, beasts, is to thank for a good deal of that. The addition of Lovecraftian elements to a Goosebump like series fascinated me and the covers were mesmerizing. So, when I saw the audio book version, I thought this autumn would be just the time to check this off my book list and see how deep the hole goes. Just how Lovecraftian could Tales from Lovecraft Middle School be, I wondered?
In the end, not terribly Lovecraftian but still an amusing and spooky horror series for middle schoolers. The “Lovecraftian” influence consists mainly of name drops and a few conceits regarding other dimensions and something indescribable threatening the normal everyday world. For the most part, the series follows fairly well worn tropes of middle grade fiction, with short, concise chapters relying on cliffhangers to keep up a quick pace, commonplace things are foreshadowed to be not what they seem, archetypal, larger than life characters, cute critters, plenty of puns, and a nice helping of comic relief. The reader reads with a gravelly, occasionally sepulchral, occasionally cheery voice that matches the mood of the stories, if not the age of the protagonists.
I must admit the series grew on me as it went on- the author writes with a witty voice that can build both atmosphere, suspense, and humor that I think a lot of kids, looking for a slightly higher end Goosebumps upgrade will appreciate (though they will probably not catch the Cthulhu Mythos references, not that it takes anything from the story). Robert Arthur is, refreshingly, a bit of a milquetoast who nonetheless steps up to defend his hapless, oblivious classmates and teachers from the supernatural threat and his friendship with his former tormentor Glenn Torkle and the ghost girl Korina Ortiz was also touching. While a deus ex machina or two do occur, a refreshing amount of the work of saving the school does actually fall to Robert and his friends. I’m looking forward to finishing up the series with Tales of Lovecraft Middle School: Substitute Creature.
*Theme music for entry: "Come Little Children" from Hocus Pocus, cover by Erutan
Of course, Halloween is my favorite holiday, so it was probably not coincidence that a number of the new comics I picked up were rather spooky, so I squirreled them away until the leaves started turning, it started getting chillier, and you can get more foods with pumpkin in them, like a literary bag of Halloween candy.
Big Baby was one of Charles Burns' first comic creations, and this anthology collects a group of Big Baby stories published between 1983 and 1991. A lot of the same themes that would later be perfected in his opus, Black Hole; childhood whimsy, teenage angst, suburban malaise, mid-20th century noir horror leaking into the mundane world, and other good, weird stuff. Here, things are a bit more surreal, which was definitely fun. You can also see his exquisite, rather deadpan style developing as well.
This was an adorable, spooky, morbid little book, perfect for a Halloween treat. Featuring a collection of "interviews" Sarah Becan, her brother, and a few friends conducted with various dead people via some sessions with a Ouija board on Nantucket Island, it was a great mix of hilarious, touching, and just plain creepy- just how I like my Halloween fun. Becan's cute ghost illustrations are a perfect companion to the amusing, if somewhat disturbing dialog of her ghostly visitors, and their many tragic, untimely deaths, love of getting laid, and advice for the living. A short, easily completed comic, I'd recommend The Complete Ouija Interviews would be really fun to pass around at a Halloween party. It actually makes me want to dig up my parent's old ouija board from the basement and try out my own. Good thing I don't really believe in ghosts!
This Kickstarted anthology of short horror comics from dozens of budding artists really goes into some really dark, interesting places. You can never tell what is going to happen in the next one, with settings ranging from suburban American anytowns to Australia to deep space, making it never get repetitive. While some of the stories end a bit abruptly and seem a bit obtuse, the bleakness and arbitrary nature of fear is always present. The comics are diverse in every sense of the word; a lot of different people are represented, and many different art styles and ideas also show up- mostly, the stories are pure horror, original and effecting, with few cliches, though a few offer up commentaries on human cultures, more or less successfully. If you can locate a copy, snap it up! It will probably show up in your dreams, too.
*Theme music for entry, "Junk Bones," Dark Dark Dark, Snow Magic, 2008
[Cross post with the book segment of my local blog MSP-Adventure Time, MSP Reading Time]
Minnesota Public Radio’s nearly twenty season old program, Talking Volumes, always has some fascinating, inspiring conversations with some of the best authors working today. As the autumn begins, new shows begin to appear, marking the perfect time to grab some new books and listen to the authors expand upon their writing. Hosted by Kerri Miller with the help of the Loft Literary Center, I always like to attend at least one of them a year.
Back in 2013, I attended the thought-provoking conversation with everyone’s favorite Canadian speculative fiction rock star Margaret Atwood, getting a couple of my books signed. It was very interesting to listen to her thoughts on the use of science in literature, and writing about the apocalypse, which seems to have become a bit of a theme for me.
On Sunday, I attended the equally thought-provoking show with Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink, creators of the super popular podcast Welcome to Night Vale and the new tie in novel, at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Perfect for the coming Halloween festivities, I’ve been listening to Cranor and Fink’s creepy, witty, inexplicable stories, utterly mystified by its popularity. The two writers’ voices mesh so seamlessly into one stylish, eerie whole, aided by the pitch perfect announcing of voice actor Cecil and the atmospheric music of Disparition. How did something so weird, so admittedly inaccessible, become such a big thing? It was very informative to listen to Kerri Miller chat with the two writers about their philosophies and craft, especially in the portions where she disagreed with them. These were some of the questions I had with the show too, and I am very curious to see how it all translates into a novel.
It was an intriguingly appropriate venue to discuss the meanings of Night Vale and how the authors create such a memorable, intricate, and bizarre, every myth is true setting. After all, Night Vale is a radio drama in the form of a podcast, detailing the community news, eccentric personalities, tongue in cheek commercials, and musical interludes. Seems familiar, eh? I have a deep interest in fictional towns, so this parallel made for some cool discussions.
In fact, the podcast has often been described to me as Garrison Keillor meets H.P. Lovecraft, or the Prairie Home Companion crossed with the X-files. This is, as Kerri Miller pointed out, we were sitting in “the house that Lake Wobegon built.” The show started off with a trivia contest, asking audience members questions of whether something happened in Night Vale or Lake Wobegon, which again hinted at the parallels between these two imaginary communities and the weird relationships they have with the “real world.”
I am captivated, obsessed with this theme that both radio dramas share, the fictional town or community set in our world, but just a little bit outside of our normal, everyday experiences. In some ways, they are able to express the feelings of place, and of region even better than an actual location. Fink, for instance, spoke about how he sees “the places often pretty clearly, the place is important, I feel, the setting” and mentions using the hometown library he remembered growing up, a weird, inexplicable place” as the real world inspiration for Night Vale’s own “unknowable” library and its dangers.
Throughout my attempts to dabble in fiction, I have always found myself captivated, obsessed with some of the ideas explored in Welcome to Night Vale and found myself drawn into these elements specifically. One thing that Night Vale seems to specialize in is a juxtaposition between the mundane world that we all live in, and the weirder, stranger world that exists just outside our understandings. Things are weird in Night Vale, and the people accept this.
Meanwhile, the music highlighting the show, original songs by Aby Wolf, were a great compliment to the eerie, beautiful atmosphere of Night Vale and is definitely worth checking out by itself. After all, one of my favorite aspects of the Welcome to Night Vale podcast is being exposed to new, local music scenes.
After a month has now passed, I still find myself thinking back about my recent trip, reflecting on the places I went, what I should do next time. Of course, I had to go back to a few of the sources that inspired me to make the trip.
Over the years, I have read multiple accounts of foreigners living and traveling in Japan, and I was often reminded of them during my own trip. I took plenty of notes on interesting and suggested activities and experiences, noted where I noted their anecdotes insightful and where I found they differed from my experiences. There seem to be multiple approaches to these travelogs of outsiders exploring and interacting with Japan, which is probably true of travel to anywhere in the world, and the approaches of the writers to recording their experience.
My own travel is driven largely by curiosity, a desire to see other places, meet other people (eat food, see the sights, experience just what it is like). Of course, this changes you, as well.
One approach is taken by Karin Muller, in her book and documentary Japanland: A Year in Search of Wa. I read this one a few years ago and was impressed by Muller’s witty writing and ability to find ways to get into just about any sort of situation. On the other hand, I wondered about her desire to to completely “understand” Japan, even “become” Japanese even as she feels she is a very confrontational person, not, in her mind, a very Japanese personality trait. Muller travels to Japan originally to perfect her Judo skills, coming to the idea that in order to truly understand this martial art, she would have to totally understand the Japanese culture as well. I find this conceit a little difficult to understand, I mean, I don’t even understand my own culture completely.
Watching the companion PBS documentary after my return, I felt this to be an interesting dichtomy; her direct, combative nature and her desire to “blend in.” In this, she did detail a lot of interesting people and ideas throughout her trip, and it was definitely fun to revisit Japan with her, even as Muller finds herself unsatisfied by her trip.
Tokyo By Foot was an amusing graphic memoir by a French cartoonist, Florent Chavouet, who spent some months living in Tokyo, taking on the city neighborhood by neighborhood and drawing vibrant and detailed depictions of city life. His insights were very cool, and I loved his humorous asides and exhaustive maps. Tokyo is such a massive and complicated city, I really enjoyed seeing it through another visitors eyes and seeing someone else’s impressions of some places I visited, as well as a look at some places I missed. There are some good advice on restaurants and places to visit as well!
Another comic memoir, A Year in Japan, is Kate T. Williamson's visual diary account of her year spent in Kyoto studying sock design is a lush, intricately designed graphic journal that highlights everyday beauty and intricate watercolor renderings of life in Japan. Williamson's interest in Zen seems to have had an effect upon her design of this book, which has a spare simplicity that really makes flipping through this short a lovely experience. Describing interesting facts of Japanese culture such as souvenir stamps, electric carpets for those chilly, unheated winters, and of course the evocative sock culture, each page offers another interesting insight, either expected (karaoke and geisha) or obscure (shiborizome or Japanese bicycle culture). Williamson's depiction of the changing of the seasons is especially wonderful, and includes some really nice watercolor paintings of delicious looking cuisine (a must in any visual travel diary). In any case, A Year in Japan is a great place to look for inspiration for an upcoming trip to Japan
Monday, I attended one of the Twin Cities many author events, listening to the Canadian author Emily St. John Mandel discuss her book Station Eleven at the Stillwater Public Library, in the Washington County Library System. I do not often make it out this far east, sadly, so I had not yet been to this impressive library building before. A beautiful, impressive Carnegie Library building updated to serve the modern world, I would love the chance to explore the stacks and resources at my leisure in the future. Hosted by Club Book, one of the many free literary events hosted by local library systems, courtesy of the Legacy Amendment! Check out those writers coming up in the next few weeks!
The evening was a grey and chilly one, the historic town nestled into the St. Croix river valley under hazy clouds and quickly changing autumn leaves. Perfect for the approach of Halloween and a discussion of the end of the world. As I wrote recently in my book blog, I have been reading a lot of post-apocalyptic literature lately and Station Eleven was by far my favorite, and one which generates a lot of discussion, as I discussed here. When I heard that Emily St. John Mandel herself would be in Stillwater to talk about it, I was there! Listening to her discuss her writing process and reasons behind writing about this topic was inspiring. Why are people so interested in stories of the end of the world? Some of the theories Mandel has heard include the continued reality of economic inequality, divorce, or a longing for redemption. For us impermament beings, perhaps, it just feels like this “fraught world we lie in always seems like its ending.”
She chose to write of the world after the Georgian Flu and the end of the modern world in order to reflect upon her sense of awe at this world we live in, one in which we can talk to people on the other side of the globe instantaneously and travel there in a matter of hours. For a lot of people, myself included, much of this world seems so precarious, yet of course we always take it for granted the internet will still be working in the morning. As Mandel said, “every season brings a new wave of absolutely disastrous narrative.” It appears that, just last week, some weirdoes were predicting that last Thursday would be, for real, judgement day. I just saw a new article discussing which American cities would be totally underwater in a century or so. Whatever your background or belief system, it seems that the end of the world is a perennial interest of many of us; I know that I find myself pondering what the coming years will bring.
In Station Eleven, the cause of the collapse of the age of electricity is the Georgian Flu, a virulent epidemic that kills an estimated 99% of the population. Mendel said she chose an epidemic due to the apolitical, timeless nature of the threat- unlike a nuclear war, the political climate will not become dated. Plagues and epidemics are among the scariest threats, like earthquakes, it is not a matter of if, but when. People might dress themselves as the walking dead and drink a lot, as in the upcoming Zombie Pub Crawl this weekend, but the fear remains- not of zombies, but of germs.
One of the things that I liked most about Station Eleven is its realism, but also its hope, whatever comes, humans will survive, and more than survive. The novel’s arc words, “Survival is insufficient,” reflect this, as the members of the Traveling Symphony continue to travel the Great Lakes region performing Shakespeare. As a librarian, this is always the crux of my thoughts; how will we keep up, preserve, the cultural, artistic, and scientific achievements of this and earlier ages? Throughout Station Eleven, aside from the works of Shakespeare, one of the leading remains of our world that reminded was the small press graphic novel of Miranda, which was read and absorbed by surviving generations in very different ways. I am sure that, in coming centuries, this confluence of the St. Croix, Minnesota, and Mississippi Rivers will continue to remain a hub of human activity, and I hope that we can make it better and continue, not just to survive, but to thrive.
Before I left, of course, I had to purchase another of Emily St. John Mandel’s novels, which I look forward to reading soon!
Here are a novels that depict a post-apocalyptic world in the former Twin Cities; check them out at any of our local libraries! Let me know if you discover any others!
River Rats, Caroline Stevermer, 1992– a young adult novel set after a nuclear war, following a group of young traveling musicians as they travel up and down the Mississippi. The silent and empty ruins of Minneapolis and St. Paul are among the most haunting portions of the novel.
Bone Dance, Emma Bull, 1991 – An interesting cyber punk, post-apocalyptic urban fantasy (how often do you see one of those, especially in Minnesota?), Bone Dance doesn’t go right out a say it is set about a century after a nuclear war devastated North America, but there are plenty of hints to show where it is, including a climatic scene in the remains of the IDS Tower.
Minnesota Cold, Cynthia Kraack, 2009– This interesting novel depicts Minnesota after an another nuclear event, as an orderly but tyrannical rogue state, which I can describe only as North Korea as run by Target. It is interesting that I can still recognize aspects of the state in the author’s descriptions.
Cifiscape Vol. 1, The Twin Cities– This intriguing anthology of local speculative fiction has a post-apocalyptic bent. Most of the short stories and comics collected here depict the Twin Cities after some kind of collapse or dystopia. The cover image, from Ken Avidor’s Bicyclopolis is one of the most atmospheric images of an apocalyptic Twin Cities I’ve seen.
So, it has been more than a week since my and I'm Reading Comeek's triumphant, if exhausted, return from Japan, and I have been slowly recovering, both from the awesome time I had, and from the jetlag. To prepare for the trip, I read and consulted with a variety of other foreigner’s experiences in Japan, as well as a few useful and detailed travel guides. Of course, I scrambled to finish a few of them before the trip, downloaded a few ebooks to read on that long flight and on the train, but my book eyes are always bigger than my ability to finish them so I find myself continuing my travels through my reading over these last weeks. It's like a little bit of the trip has stayed with me!
I also wrote up a long reading list of Japanese literature I’m trying to get through as well, so keep watching for my follow up entry on some of the various pieces of fiction from Japanese authors I also read, and in fact, am trying to finish up!
Hitching Rides With Buddha (Also published under Hokkaido Highway Blues, definitely the cooler title)
This one was quite an interesting, humorous, and thought-provoking account that I was glad I read. Back in the late ‘90s, curmudgeonly Canadian Will Ferguson came up with a wild and crazy idea for a journey; he would follow the Sakura Zensen, the Cherry Blossom Front, as it burgeoned from the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago at Kagoshima all the way to the northernmost tip of Hokkaido, and he would do it all by hitchhiking. Warned by his Japanese colleagues that the Japanese do not pick up hitchhikers, he soon was bumming rides from people from all walks of life across the length of the islands, leading to some deep insights into Japanese culture. Not one to shy away from debate, Ferguson was definitely a fun guide and the minor scrapes he got himself into were quite amusing, but there is a definite melancholy feeling to the story as well as Ferguson comes to question his reason for going on this adventure.
Traveling through some of the same areas we visited, Tohoku and Hokkaido to be specific , it was particularly interesting to see both the differences and the similarities to Ferguson’s experiences with our own. For instance, the Canadian Ferguson was constantly mistaken as an American, whereas people mistook us for Canadians! In his descriptions of Sapporo, the capital of Hokkaido and Japan’s fourth largest city, he compared its style and layout to a North American city. This definitely echoed our own experiences in Sapporo, as the layout and architecture of the city was much more familiar to us, and in fact, the culture of the place seemed familiar as well; both Hokkaido and Minnesota are agricultural regions, known for cold, only colonized by their current culture in the last hundred and fifty years. All in all, I would say that Ferguson’s account was a funny, exciting, and informative read that I’d recommend to anyone interested in learning more about Japan, or even those who are just looking for a fun trip.
Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey
A transplanted Australian living in New York, Peter Carey and his son Charley visit Tokyo to learn more about his son’s newfound obsession, manga and anime, and allow Peter a chance to rekindle his studies of Japanese culture. In fact, it seems he used his son’s interest as an excuse to write a book wholesale. While it was interesting to follow the pair as they argued about the “real Japan,” modern youth culture versus shrines and temples, it seemed pretty obvious that Carey was using his son’s interest as excuse to go on this trip and indulge in his own facile theories about Japanese culture. In the end, he basically comes to the conclusion that it is impossible for any Westerner to understand the Japanese.
This seemed much different than the experience described by Will Ferguson. However, I enjoyed reading this short book for some of its insights into Japanese pop culture (at least in the late '90s, early '00s) and seeing Carey and his son visit some of the same places I did on my recent trip, such as Asakusa and Akihabara. On the other hand, in rushing around from interviewing a sword-maker and various anime directors up to Hayao Miyazaki himself, he seems to neglect the simple pleasures of being in a different country.
In Ghostly Japan by Lafcadio Hearn
I read this a few years ago, but decided to reread it prior to heading off on my first visit to Japan and I'm glad I did. There is a lot of food for thought and interesting facts in this short collection of vignettes and folktales. Lafcadio Hearn is a fascinating figure and a very evocative writer as well, with an almost modern style, despite writing the end of the nineteenth century. Hearn was born in Greece to a Greek mother and an Irish doctor father, educated in England, and became a journalist and writer in the United States before spending the last decade of his life or so in Japan, becoming a Japanese citizen. To this day, his work is more well known in Japan.
In this short collection of essays, Hearn muses on Japanese topics, in particular Buddhist traditions and folklore which reflect Japanese ways of thinking in a time of great change in Japanese society. For the most part, Hearn manages to avoid "exotifying" or patronizing his subjects, though he also is pretty obviously infatuated with their ways of life. For instance, the collection of Japanese proverbs, with footnotes and annotations, was very interesting, though of course, my favorites were the ghostly stories, particularly the tales of the Bon, the festival of the dead held in late summer. For anyone interested in accessible obscure and arcane lore about Japanese folklore, Lafcadio Hearn's work is a good place to start.
Halfway Home: Drawing My Way Through Japan by Christine Mari Inzer
I’ve been prepping for a trip to Japan later this summer with my sister, and even more than thick ol’ travel guides, I’ve taken to checking out personal accounts of other people’s trips and experiences in Japan for inspiration. Teenager Christine Inzer’s account of her last trip to Tokyo to visit her relatives, was a particularly interesting look at Japan from the perspective of a person from a multicultural background. Born in Japan, but growing up in the US, Inzer writes with a self deprecating and stylish wit and with a skill and insight belying her age. Inzer's crisp, clear art and reflections of her experiences makes Halfway Home a very approachable comic travelog for someone looking to learn more about visiting Japan, especially with family. I certainly enjoyed her suggestion to try some of those Tokyo crepes!
Cool Japan Guide by Abby Denson
In “Cool Japan Guide,” a cute (or, as maybe more appropriate here, kawaii) and accessible illustrated travel guide, cartoonist Abby Denson offers a lot of fun and useful tips for your first trip to Japan. Some of the advice may be a little common sense, but the book provides a lot of helpful basic information for planning for your trip, from getting ready to leave, to logistics, to leaving. In particular, it is geared to all of the standard Japanese activities tourists (especially tourists from a specific, slightly nerdy background) would be interested in and thus focuses mostly on Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka, and the temples, Onsen, and museums you can explore. The author, also, devotes a particular detail to food and shopping you can check out.
While not the most exhaustive treatise, this slim comic gave me plenty of ideas and I definitely made use of a lot of her advice, such as making sure to grab some ekibento at the train stations, stopping by the post office whenever I needed some cash from the ATM, among others. In any case, a good place to start without being overwhelmed.
Cool Japan by Sumiko Kajiyama
Of all the more formal “travel guides” I perused prior to and during the trip, your Fodor’s, Lonely Planets, and Frommers, Sumiko Kajiyama’s Cool Japan was my favorite. While not the most detailed, it was one that was written in engaging enough of a style to be just an interesting read by itself. Discussing three regions, the area around Kyoto, Tokyo, and Tohoku, the chapters were themed around historical and literary figures, including Murasaki Shikabu, author the thousand year old novel, The Tale of Genji, and the great haiku poet Basho as he traveled the north of Japan. Both of these focuses were very inspiring as we visited the suggested spots.
While I did not make it Kyoto on this trip, the sections on Tokyo and Tohuku were very useful for me, and I got some great advice on some places to go; in particular Kura Zushi Shinagawa in Tokyo, a great conveyor belt sushi place for extremely affordable sushi for 100 yen a plate. My mouth waters just thinking about it!
Leading up to my coming trip to Japan for the first time (leaving this morning! can’t believe it came so quick), I decided to read some of the work of cartoonist Lars Martinson, a fellow Minnesotan who taught English in Japan for several years. It’s been some time since I read his intriguing, melancholy, and beautiful comic series Tonoharu, and this work was a good way not only to prepare for the exploration of Japan, but also to hold me over until he releases the third installment of the Tonoharu series, slated for next October.
Martinson’s ebook journal comics, The Kameoka Diaries, record his personal reflections and experiences teaching Japanese schoolchildren, from kindergarten to junior high, in 2011 and 2012. I found these collections of autobiographical comics to be equal parts humorous and touching, expressing not only insights into Japanese culture but also our own as he interacts with both his Japanese and fellow Western colleagues. Including a lot of interesting tidbits into daily life in Japan and Japanese culture, there are also some fascinating asides regarding our own culture. For instance, as a Minnesotan I too find myself mystified and confused at the Oklahomans’ belief that their state is part of the Midwest. I mean, what? They are totally the south! I guess this just goes to show how meaningless the term Midwest really is. Interesting that Martinson discovers this weird little regional quirk while living in Japan! In any case, I would highly recommend the Kameoka Diaries for anyone interested in a Westerner living in Japan.
Regarding Martin’s first comic, Young Men of a Certain Mind, which follows a recently graduated layabout as he gets a dead end job working as a hotel concierge, struggles to become a writer, and mopes about, I found it a fascinating and thought provoking work.
This little comic felt very real to me, how “autobiographical” it really is notwithstanding. The main character acts like a jerk, has a rather poor attitude towards women and people in general, and is rather self-deluded, in spite of his typical Minnesotan self-deprecating jokes. Finishing college and being cut adrift in a just a few years after the main character myself, I sympathize if not justify his plight of being educated, but unable to find a job that complements this background. There is a definite privilege here; in spite of his moping, griping, and feeling miserable, he still managed to get that coveted teaching position in Japan.
I feel that it provides some key background to the hapless, disaffected characters of Martinson’s later, more realized, work in Tonoharu. The main character here remarks that he alienated in his everyday life, and it is true, his spiritual successor Dan Wells in Tonoharu fares little better in an actual foreign environment. It is not just that Dan is “out of his element” in Japan, it’s that he can not interact with people no matter his environment and his attempt to change up his world with a job in Japan did not end up changing his personality. I am definitely curious about how Dan’s story will turn out, and what was the crisis that ended his time in Japan, as set up by Martinson’s stand in character in the beginning of Tonoharu’s first volume. We’ll just have to wait a year to find out!
In the meantime, feel free to check out my sister, I’m Reading Comeeks, and my Instagram account, AdventureSibs, as we chronicle our own exploration of Japan in the coming weeks!
*Theme Music for entry: "Alone in Kyoto," Air, Talkie Walkie, 2004
Like many Minnesotans, as a kid I spent a week or so in early August attending a summer camp, doing all of the typical things; swimming, sitting around a campfire, hiking, learning about nature, playing capture the flag, and waiting until nobody else was in the showers so I can sneak in alone. In my case, it was a Boy Scout camp in the woods of western Wisconsin, tucked away on the shores of a large lake. I recall having a lot of fun on these adventures, but of course, there were also some less fun things as well. Still, I would not mind being able to take a week off for camping more often these days. Recently, I checked out a few comics that really brought back this time, bringing with it both nostalgia and recognition.
Taken together, Troop 142: A Graphic Novel by Mike Dawson and Chiggers by Hope Larson offer some interesting parallels in spite of looking through the summer camp experience through the eyes of different genders. Both explore changes in friendships and personalities in this alien environment of camp, bullying, and a feeling of not fitting into a current situation, and I definitely found much to recall in each of them. Troop 142, though, is the more “adult” of the two, with some pretty rough, realistic language and rather bleak message, while Chiggers takes a more laid back, even magic realist look at camp life, and is a bit more appropriate for younger readers. I do enjoy the fact that for both of them, there is no real closure, no cut and dry “ending,” as befits a single week in a kid's’ life.
In Troop 142, a ragtag group of boys and their fathers head out to summer camp in the woods, circa 1995. Loosely following the viewpoint of the rather ineffectual father of two of the boys, we witness tensions rise among in the troop, as petty arguments, bullying, “troublemaking,” and other minor disasters reduce morale to an all time low.
I, too, was a Boy Scout attending summer camp in 1995 and so much of the world as painted by Dawson seemed very, very familiar. While nothing as extreme as the miserable group making up Troop 142, the elements were all there; the ludicrously gross conversations, the titles of the books everyone was reading, the merit badge breakdowns. I was a casual scout, for sure, only there for camping and hanging out with friends, tolerating (barely) the tempests in a teapot of adult disagreements, the uniforms, the piddling rules, the casual dropping of racial epithets by scout leaders. The dichotomies between the Scout Laws and the actions of the scouts and scout leaders alike, and the hypocrisy often evident among the authorities, especially as based on sexual orientation and religion seem written into the rules themselves. Things are changing, definitely, but it has been awhile since I’ve been involved.
Chiggers, unlike Troop 142, features a mixed gender summer camp unaffiliated with scouting and focuses on a group of girls, rather than the whole sausage fest of Boy Scout camping. Still, the parallels between the two books as friends go at each other in the confines of a tent or a cabin during a week of living together. When Abby returns to camp, her best camp friend Rose is too busy for her, she finds herself crushing majorly on Rose’ geeky cousin Teal, and her annoying bunkmate is sent home after a case of chiggers in a particularly uncomfortable area (reminds me of my own eternal hatred of ticks). The mysterious, elegant Shasta, who has been struck by lightning, has an 18 year old boyfriend, is part Cherokee, among other tales, takes her place. Shasta and Abby become friends, even as Abby’s other friends find Shasta intolerable. Minor betrayals and jealousies threaten these relationships, Larson’s work is a bit more hopeful, though, as Shasta and Abby make up, and Abby hopes to hang out with Teal more. There is also a strange, semi-magical element as Shasta is continually haunted by strange, ball-lightning like phenomena, which seems only she and Abby can see. Weird things do happen while camping, of course.
Finally, it’s always fun to read found and submitted material, and Diane Falanga’s P.S. I Hate it Here is one of the funniest, and most interesting entries in the genre. This one really brought back some memories as well, and is definitely a fun thing to flip through in late summer, as the buzzing of cicadas begin turning into the chirping of crickets as the season comes to a close. Along with this episode of This American Life, you have everything you need to revisit those heady, kind of stinky times.
*Theme music for entry: "Knowledge" by Operation Ivy, covered by The Aquabats!
Following the lead of I’m Reading Comeeks, I’ve been checking out a lot of comics from the library lately. Really, they’re a great way to supplement my reading list on stay on top of the gruelling GoodReads reading challenge, 250 books, I set myself these year as a joke (kind of…). Why should I keep on tilting after this digital windmill, though, when sometimes I feel that reading at this volume can cause some of the relaxed, simple pleasures of reading to dissipate? Does an online list have that much importance? Well, really, I just need to knock down as many as possible off of my reading list, but also, I do enjoy seeing how the digital and the physical coexist.
As the panelists discussed at Autoptic, the internet allows artists and writers to have connections a much larger audience than ever before, allowing their work to reach much farther than they would without it. I know that I’ve discovered a lot of stuff I really love first online before coming across it in the physical realm. Here are a few that I’ve read recently I first read on the internet, both as webcomics and other media.
Probably the first "viral video" I ever encountered back in the early '00s, Monkey vs. Robot was also my introduction to both the music and the art of James Kochalka. His comic version, which I read for the first time recently, was a great introduction to his style, both comic and sad. Expressing so much emotion through a very minimal use of dialog, the conflict between "nature" and "technology" has rarely been so amusing. A quick read, Monkey vs. Robot is a fun comic for kids and adults alike.
Nicholas Gurewitch's Perry Bible Fellowship and David Malki's Wondermark are both revered webcomics, in some ways illustrating how they have replaced the old standby newspaper comics for many people. While both PBF and Wondermark have appeared in print periodicals, I think most people encountered them first online
PBF is not unlike the Far Side with all restraints removed. Wondermark, on the other hand, is a baroque exercise; morbid, surreal, raunchy, gags efficiently told in three or so panels, often without even the use of dialog. Gurewitch's skill with watercolor and his goofy, round-headed characters are an effective combination. After a hiatus, it looks like the site is updating again.
Quite different, but equally funny, is David Malki's series Wondermark (here, I've read the 2nd book in the series). Drawing art from public domain nineteenth century publications, Malki's work is almost all dialog, witty conversations dealing the banalities and tropes of modern society, with a steampunkish twist. The webcomic stays pretty regular.
How could we be talking about stuff on the internet without mention of cats!? Yasmine Surovec's webcomic Cat vs. Human is probably a good start. Generally one or two panel gags, they offer a good window into life with cats. While I have never lived with cats myself, Surovec's witty insights into the feline condition are probably enough for now! In book form, Cat vs. Human is a simple, hilarious coffee table book to flip through to get your kitty antics fix.
I have really enjoyed the work of cartoonist Julia Wertz online and in print, and having seen some of these comics posted on her blog, this is, I feel, her strongest work yet. Wertz’s self deprecating, detail orientated reflections on 20 something life is one of the best and most accurate depictions I have seen. I love her meticulous maps of her various cramped apartments, and I’ve not found many other comics that can express amusing anecdotes of daily life so well, or one so adept at funny insults!
Discussing, in unsparing and hilarious detail, her various employments over the years, her struggle with the chronic disease Lupus, and the influence her local public library had on her life, Wertz shows how memoir comics can elevate the human condition. Or something. Really, it’s just a lot of fun, even as she writes on the more difficult aspects of her life. As someone born in the same year, sharing a certain bookish mentality, anti-social tendencies, and a close relationship with my sibling, there was a lot here that really resonated with me, but Wertz’s sarcastic and acerbic wit expresses it far better than I could.
Philippa Rice's Soppy is a pretty adorable little book, based on material focusing on her relationship with her husband, previously posted on her blog, making it a nice little piece to read when you want something a little sweet. Her simple, cartoonish drawings using only white, black, and red, make it an easy one to flip through, especially for those looking for romance and something a little British.
Bee and Puppycat debuted as one of Youtube Channel Frederator's original series, created by Adventure Time alumnus Natasha Allegri. The comic follows the cute, surreal, gentle adventures of the series, with the likable slacker Bee and the grumpy Puppycat going on temp jobs throughout the cosmos for a little extra food money. The endearing mix of quarter life crisis malaise, absurd humor, and magical fantasy really appeals to me. While not quite as vibrant as the animation, the use of QR codes to bring in ethereal music of the show into the story was a really awesome touch.
Supermutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki, which I have mentioned before, is one of my favorite recent discoveries. The simple comics here take many of the old tropes of fantasy, superheroic comics, especially the sort that have a school, and exploit them to hilarious ends. This is one that would reward numerous reads throughs, I think.
[This is written in conjunction with my local Twin Cities activies blog's book segment, MSP Reading Time]
Last weekend, I attended Autoptic Festival here in Minneapolis, a two day expo of independent cartoonists, zines, and other graphic art culture for the first time, along with I’m Reading Comeeks!. Started in 2013 to celebrate independent artists in a variety of formats, especially comics and graphic novels, I will most definitely return next year.
The DIY ethos of the artists, writers, musicians, and others who packed the old warehouse of Aria in the North Loop was inspiring to me and really resparked my desire to try my hand at some comics of my own (in spite of my own lack of drawing background). It was almost overwhelming how many awesome people and creations were being shared. Held in conjunction with MCAD’s week long comic residency program Pierre/Feuille/Ciseaux, an experimental comics workshop which invited cartoonists from across North American and Francophone countries to collaborate in cartooning, the event celebrates the possibilities of comic art. The Minnesota comics scene has been really interesting and Autoptic is a perfect celebration of this dynamic and wonderful artform, and its great that our city plays host.
The event was free to the public, and full of really interesting programs, exhibitions, special guests, and art. Two of my favorite cartoonists, Gabrielle Bell and Jillian Tamaki discussed their comics, and independent comics in general. Listening to this conversation was the highlight of the day for me.
Bell’s work has been a favorite of mine for five or so years, with her self-deprecating memoir and semi-autobiographical comics, especially The Voyeurs and Truth is Fragmentary. I find her both her ability to express everyday thoughts with such elegance and her use of magic realist elements to illustrate these feelings to be fascinating and her use of travelog to be a major influence.
Jillian Tamaki’s work has really impressed me as well, and I recently read, and loved, her webcomic Super Mutant Magic Academy, with fandom parodies and absurdist comedy. Of course, I also was wowed by her Caldecott winning graphic novel, This One Summer, written with her cousin Mariko Tamaki, finding it to be a very evocative and thought-provoking look back at the confusion, joy, and fear of childhood.
In their conversation, I was particularly struck by Tamaki’s comment regarding how it doesn’t really matter what the comics look like, but how effective the message is. Of course, her art is beautiful, but it is still inspiring to those of us who are still working on their art, as it were. Bell’s comments on how the internet greatly expanded her ability to share her work were also very interesting, as I toy with the idea of getting more of my own work out there.
Of course, I really identified with both of their statements on how they first were introduced into the comics scene; through newspaper comics, Archie, and Mad Magazine. For a long time, I never really considered myself a fan of comics, having never gotten into the superhero type that seems to be what people think about when the word comes up, but then I thought, too, how big an influence Calvin and Hobbes and the Far Side were upon me growing up, and how much I enjoyed those comic versions of classic literature. There are so many different ways comics can express the human condition.
Later, I listened to the idiosyncratic cartoonist Charles Burns talk about his artistic style, seen in his most well known work, Black Hole and, most recently, his X’ed Out trilogy; his work has always been a little hard to approach for me, but fascinating, and I love his art style and his melding of everyday suburban banality with grotesque, monstrous horrors; interesting how well they pair…
There were some interesting parallels brought up by an audience member too between Burns’ work, which reimagines mid-century kitsch and pop culture (romance comics, Tintin, etc.) with that of Mark Mothersbaugh, a child of same generation who also refurbishes pop culture into new, and bizarre, configurations.
In addition to picking up a nice selection of rare, limited edition comics and art, I was extremely lucky to get my portrait done by the fabulous Gabrielle Bell herself! I always feel so awkward chatting with authors, but I now have an awesome new picture for my social media accounts.
Spending some time in the dealers area, I could not help picking up a few comics I’d never seen before, along with some wonderful and elaborate postcards and prints. I picked Sarah Becan’s Ouija Interviews and Shut Eye: Six Tales of Dreams and Dreamers; both of these are right up my ally, with their mix of spooky ghost lore, humor, and "found" information. Of course, I am also definitely a person who enjoys talking about the weird dreams I have.
I also picked up a really cool looking anthology of horror comics, The Sleep of Reason, which includes a pieces from many comic artists, including representing quite a few Minnesotans! There looks to be a lot of frightening, eerie, and bone chilling work contained here, with lush and diverse art styles. I think I'll read it closer to Halloween!
I also grabbed a few zines as well, including "Mungo the Skugg," a collection of Minnesota comic author Chris Monroe’s Violet Days comics, which I reviewed on Goodreads a few months ago. I've followed her comic in local papers for years and it's great to have them collected. Tyler Page's full draft of "Raised On Ritalin," a memoir comic, looks very interesting as well. I picked up a beautiful zine by Monica R. Howell, "Short Poems on Working in a College Library," from awesome local bookstore Boneshaker Books and, finally, Kyle Harbadian's "The Occult Library" (of course, I have to get everything that has the word "library" on it!)
I can't wait to peruse them at my leisure, along with my sister's choices!