Non-Fiction

See Colours Again

There is so much talk at the moment about taking time away from our phones and paying attention to the real world unfiltered.

In 2000, John Berger and John Christie published their correspondance that began with an exchange of letters about Cadmium Red. After reading this book, you will see colours anew. Two men committed to art and to expressing their ideas about it.

The book is made up of facsimiles of some hand written letters, some one-off books made by Christie and samples of the art they are discussing.

Take time. Look at the book. Reflect on the text. When your eyes leave the page. The world has changed.

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Weegee: Serial Photographer

Another review of a book by Max de Radiguès. This time with art by Wauter Mannaert and originally published in Paris, but with a full on Jewish–New -York-American subject: Arthur (Ascher) Fellig (also known as Weegee.)

Weegee obsessively photographs murders in the seamier streets of the city. He’s often there before the police and notoriously rearranges bodies to get a better shot. He knew the police. He knew the underworld and the prostitutes. Much of Weegee’s time is spent on the Lower East Side, where he has a marriage-like friendship with Rita a cafe owner, and has sex with Irma a local prostitute. But despite his notoriety, and the fact that the newspapers are buying his photos, he wants to be accepted in the art world and Hollywood, and he gets to try both. Just as in Bastard, the main character is unsympathetic , but Radiguès surprises and make him endearing. Check this book out. Check out the original photos. Weegee is also the inspiration for characters in films such as A Public Eye, Nightcrawler and Watchmen. And it’s Fellig photo which is the cover and inspiration for the name of Naked City’s (the John Zorn group) first album.

Is the term “Graphic Novel” Pretentious?

Daniel Raeburn: “I snicker at the neologism first for its insecure pretension—the literary equivalent of calling a garbage man a ‘sanitation engineer’—and second because a ‘graphic novel’ is in fact the very thing it is ashamed to admit: a comic book, rather than a comic pamphlet or comic magazine.”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphic_novel

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I have discovered so many extraordinary novels, memoirs and non-fiction books that use cartooning to tell the story. My problem with the term “graphic novel” is not that it is pretentious–I suppose it is, but it describes what I am looking for–nor is it that it is a marketing term–all names for products that are sold are marketing terms: comics just as much as graphic novels. IT’s that not all graphic novels are novels. There is not a good term for the non-fiction, full length comics. Maybe it’s just “graphic non-fiction,” and in the end, graphic novels will be shelved with novels and non-ficiton shelved with its subjects. Graphic novels are another way of communicating, where a great deal of innovation is happening in how stories are told.

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.”

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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.”