Non-Fiction

The Shape of Ideas by Grant Snider

Shape of Ideas

We all need Grant Snider.

Get the book.

Visit his website.

Be wryly inspired.

Have a companion in your quest to create.

 

For example:

Writers Hierarchy of Needs Snider

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Tenements, Towers & Trash by Julia Wertz

Tenements Towers and TrashWertz‘s book is subtitled “An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York.”

That it is.  When I first found this book in Shakespeare and Co, I was looking for a present for a new New Yorker friends that would give them a new perspective on their new home town. Wertz brings to life not the whole city, but many parts as they have changed through time.

The epigraph of the book is from E. B. White: “There are roughly three New Yorks. There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born here, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size and its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second,, there is the New York of the commuter–the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and coame to New York in quest of something. Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last–the city of final destination.”

Wertz brings to life all three New Yorks.  Even if you didn’t grow up there, and haven’t moved there, for several hours poring over Wertz’s evocative drawing, and harsh witty writing you can live there through so many periods of the twentieth century.

Don’t miss the 12 pages of the “Biased Guide to New York’s Independent Bookstores.”

20-bookstores

Threads: From the Refugee Crisis by Kate Evans

Threads - Kate EvansMy current obsession with graphic literature continues and I am continually surprised by new works.  Kate Evans’ extraordinary book is dark and fascinating and draws you in to the world of  The Jungle outside Calais.  The Jungle was a sprawling camp full of desperate people escaping their horrors of their home countries.  Evans’ visual style and fragmentary storytelling shows the dark and desperation, but more importantly she explores the humanity and even the joy of so many of the people who were not welcomed, had nowhere to go.  Their story is here, and it is one of the best antidotes to the xenophobia that drives Brexit and similar forces in France. Read it now.

The Death of Stalin

Death of Stalin coverA true Soviet Story by Fabien Nury et Thierry Robin (Titan Comics, 2017) (Original pub. France: Dargand, 2012) Now a film directed by Armando Iannucci.

Fiction?  Non-fiction? The difficulty of telling the stories of the Soviet Union.

“Although inspired by real events, this book is nonetheless as work of fiction..having said this, the authors would like to make it clear that their imaginations were scarcely stretched in the creation…since it would have been impossible for them to come up with anything half as insane as the real events.”

In this novel as in the authors’ statement and as in the Soviet Union, it is difficult to separate truth from fiction.  By writing “fiction” Nury and Robin avoid the need to decide what is true. There is almost no other way to go, as they pull this “true” story from “historical evidence that was at best patchy, at times partial, and often contradictory.”  As always, it is tough for an outsider to know how convoluted and dangerous life was in both the government of the U.S.S.R. and in the opposition. I have written about The Yidanother fictional and satiric take on the Stalin’s death.

Strong (a derogatory word) leaders always leave a huge hole when they depart, and this version of the story focuses on the jockeying for position as a hole is opening. The shadowy world is drawn in shades of brown and grey, just occasionally punctuated by a red highlights: a dress, a pillow, the fabric around Stalin’s coffin.

The story is framed by a classical radio broadcast of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23, featuring the soloist, Maria Yudina. Stalin calls the radio station asking for a recording of the performance, which had gone out live and was not taped.  Quickly, the orchestra is detained in the studio, and when they are asked to record the piece, Yudina refuses to play for Stalin.  She is bribed with 20,000 rubles, and then the conductor collapses too scared to carry on.  A second conductor is forcibly brought in by the police, in the middle of the night, and when the recording is done, Yudina, forces a note into the package with the record that the NKVD have come to collect. Stalin gets the note, reads it, and it tells him that Yudina will “pray for him” and that she will “donate” the money she was paid “to her parish for restoration work.” Immediately after he reads the note, Stalin has a massive heart attack.

The rest of the story is the negotiations and underhand manipulations that the Central Committee go through to figure out who succeeds the Georgian as Party Secretary.

It’s well written and dramatic and revealing of how decisions are made when there is no centre of power. But the idea of what is true, is central. The final image is a two-page spread of two parallel scenes. Beria is being executed,. He wonders if anyone will believe that he is guilty of the murders he is accused of, while at the same time, Yudina tells a joke about him, where a NKVD officer is crying in front of the mausoleum, and his colleague asks him if he is OK. The crying man asks, “Is it true that they arrested Beria?” The other man replies that it’s true, and the crying man says, “He raped, my daughter.” The other man replies, “Your’s too.” Beria is on the left-hand page, Yudina on the right, and at the bottom, across both pages a brick wall and a cloud of dust, and speech bubbles, presumably from Beria, say, “They’ve washed their hands in my blood…and now…they want to start afresh, to look ahead.”  The final bubble alone in the cloud of dust from the bullets that kill him, “towards a glorious future!”

Read it.  See the film.

It may seem distant in geography and in time, but these are the ways of our species.

In Russia, nobody’s laughing at Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin

Woody Guthrie and the Dust Bowl Ballads

Woody Guthrie Dust Bowl Ballads Graphic

A Graphic Novel by Nick Hayes  (Abrams Comic Arts, 2016)

Woody Guthrie is to some the Walt Whitman of the depression making his way through the America that is perpetually left behind by politicians and business, and if that is the case, his Dust Bowl Ballads  are his Leaves of Grass. Guthrie wrote so fast that his songs are a record of his life and the people he met along the way.  A voice of ordinary people, life and sdturgugle in a way his obvious successors Dylan and Ochs could  never be as they came to their songs, and in Ochs case activism, in full awareness of what Guthrie had already sung and said.

Nick Hayes’ biography of Guthrie and the songs is drawn in the style of woodcuts washed in sepia with the lettering that feels of that time.  Hayes is a succinct and talented storyteller who draws the reader through the life and takes one to the places and brings to life the people that inspired the lyrics.  The sadness and persistence of subsistance seep into your bones–and Woody Guthrie is speaking to our time–so many people struggle to make ends meet, others feel left out and ready to blame others, and those us who are better off feels helpless in the face of the hateful despising espoused by too many in authority.  Government is either trying to make people’s lives worse or seems helpless to make anything better.  Business is using labour to make untold profits while paying as little as possible with no sense of the role of business is part of society. Steve Earle caught this feeling back in 1997 (Here him at Woody’s 100th birthday party in 2012.

So come back Woody Guthrie
Come back to us now.
Tear your eyes from paradise
And rise again somehow.
If you run into Jesus
Maybe he can help us out.
Come back Woody Guthrie
To us now.

Review from The Guardian

Sarah Manguso

MangusoCheck out, Sarah Manguso.  Her website lists her books, and connects to lots of her articles.  Is what she does “prose poetry”? Probably.  But it doesn’t matter. It’s phenomenal. Tightly written short pieces.  Often autobiographical.  She has re-awoken my interest in prose poems.

Prose

300 Arguments (Graywolf, 2017)
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary (Graywolf, 2015)
The Guardians: An Elegy (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012)
The Two Kinds of Decay (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2008)
Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape (McSweeney’s Books, 2007)

Poetry

Siste Viator (Four Way Books, 2006)
The Captain Lands in Paradise (Alice James Books, 2002)

Kaizen Applied to Writing

Sarah Manguso:

“The Japanese term kaizen translates literally to improvement, but it’s a term that has come to mean gradual, continuous improvement of a piece of collaborative work. It’s most commonly associated with manufacturing operations, but I think it has general application to almost everything, including writing. In companies that implement kaizen, workers look continuously for small improvements that can be implemented immediately. The philosophy was developed to adjust the work process from its traditional practices, back when making a new iteration of something was laborious and had to be done all at once.”

Last Things by Marissa Moss

Last Things Marissa Moss Cover (2)

An uncredited reviewer in Publishers Weekly writes: “Deeply affecting and harrowing… This is not a sentimental story of how suffering ennobles people.  Moss’s deliberately naive drawings effectively accompany her painfully direct text…The fact that the family does endure is impressive, and this book demonstrates how art can transmute suffering into literature.”

S/he is right on the mark.  Moss is a successful children’s author best known for the Amelia’s Notebook series has written and drawn the most grown-up of books.  When her husband, Harvey, is diagnosed with ALS, he becomes more and more distant from the family, and there is no easy resolution to their relationship or his illness.  This is not an illness story where everyone becomes a better person, but eventually, as Moss writes in her introduction  it is about the “strong bonds of family and how they can sustain us.”

Everything about the book brings home the situation they find themselves in. Like life, it has to be lived, and like life, there are ups and downs: many, many downs.  Moss is clear-eyed about what the disease is, what it does to Harvey, how she and the kids react.  In a way, this with the clear text and the expressive drawings and varied and inventive design of the pages to suit to the story would be enough.  But what makes this a great book is that alongside the story of the family and the illness,  There is more. Beyond the day to day, there is the life of the mind.  Of connecting to the thoughts and history of humanity. For Harvey, a professor of medieval art, this involves hanging on to his intellectual journey trying ever more desperately to finish his book Picturing Kingship on King Louis IX’s personal prayer book.  He cuts himself off to write his last work.  King Louis is christian, the family are Jews. And for the family it is Judaism and life-cycle events of a bar mitzvah and later on sitting shiva for Harvey when he dies that locate the mundane in a wider world. Human beings live, love, struggle and die, but our minds put this all in the context of humanity.

Book Trailer:

Review from The Forward
Washing Post article about the Jewish aspects of the book
Publishers Weekly review
Kirkus Review