Quick hits (December 2007)

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, everywhere you— Stop it, get that song outta my head. I’ve got enough Christmas-card writing, gifts to buy, stocking stuffers to consider, and chirpy salespeople to contend with already; there’s no need to add a song I actively dislike to the roster. And, really, it’s not looking that much like Christmas. The temperature reached 70 degrees today, and that’s been standard for the last week or so. Mississippi’s muted version of fall colors is still in effect; we’ve no snow-laden ground and barren trees here in Jackson. I haven’t been a major mall yet during the post-Thanksgiving bonanza, so I’m not sick of tinsel and green glitter just yet.

Consequently, the mood’s pretty grand around La Casa Quietbubble. I’m still feeling more Bob Cratchit than Ebenezer Scrooge, which is all to the good for me and everyone around me. Tomorrow night, I’ll brave the Fondren neighborhood’s monthly ArtWalk, to sample free wine and cheese, savor the local arts scene, do some outdoors/indoors window-shopping, and mix it up in a crowded scene of like-minded younguns such as myself, scoping out each other and being scoped out in return. My bet’s that I’ll still be cheery after it all.

Enough preamble. Here we go.

Hot toddies: My version involves two ounces of brandy, ½ cup of boiling water, a sliver of butter, a spoonful of honey, and a sprinkle of nutmeg and cinnamon, all mixed together. A wonderfully warm beverage that’s slippery on the tongue, it’s perfect for the holidays and for the cold weather that I keep hoping will hit Jackson eventually.

Floratone (2007) by Matt Chamberlain, Bill Frisell, Tucker Martine, and Lee Townsend: The last two members in the Floratone lineup are producers, which lets you know from the get-go that this is a bells-and-whistles CD. Essentially, guitarist Frisell and drummer Chamberlain laid down mud-swampy, funky tracks, handed them to bassist Viktor Krauss, who then passed them on Martine and Townsend for knob-turning and effects-fiddlin’, who then handed ‘em right back to Frisell and Chamberlain for more tweaking. And so on. On some songs, Frisell’s running buddy Ron Miles (on cornet) lets loose, and then gets filtered through layers of production. Everything here gets looped, cut-and-pasted, and faded until it’s a mutant cross between gutbucket blues, Jamaican dub, and minimalist jazz. There’s too many cooks in the kitchen, and the CD only jells as mildly interesting background music. Perhaps I’d appraise it more kindly if Frisell hadn’t already done this better with the harder-hitting, truly funky and weird Unspeakable (2004), which incorporated samples. The more driving, bluesy numbers—“Mississippi Rising,” “Louisiana Lowboat,” “Swamped”—work, but much of the album lacks clear direction and personality. The gang here attempts to fuse hip-hop electronics and bebop, but end up with mere atmosphere. B-

Returning to Earth (2006) by Jim Harrison: Harrison returns to the northern Michigan family and relatives he portrayed in 2004’s True North, but this new novel is more satisfying than the former. Donald, a 45-year-old Chippewa/Finnish man is dying of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and Harrison painfully and powerfully shows us how the man copes, and the fallout around him that results. As with Harrison’s other longer fictions, the prose rambles, stretches frequently for profound effect, and sentences tumble around, bound together by free associations and loose connections. Here, it works, because the novel is divided into four parts, each devoted to a character: Donald, a young friend who loves both Donald’s daughter and wife, the wife’s brother (the narrator of True North), and finally Donald’s wife. Because of the first-person, diary-like nature of the sections, Harrison’s gorgeous, ramshackle, and pungent prose feels right. People don’t talk to themselves in straight lines, with precise narrative architecture leading everything towards a clear structure. They trail off into thoughts, come back pages later, have recurring visions, and are consumed by desires that they can’t shake. Salon once called Harrison the “poet laureate of appetite,” and the description fits. The pleasures of food and flesh—of the tactile world—are rarely more direct and resonant than in Harrison’s hands, and it’s true in this novel as well. His women are at last beginning to feel like rounded creations rather than men with tits, which is a plus after three decades of writing about them. Still, only the voices of the first and last section feel distinct; the middle two talk too much like each other or, rather, like Harrison trying to graft the same accent onto different characters. (It’s the voice he’s always had.) Harrison’s always been a superb writer of novellas, and he’s one of the few Americans who returns regularly to the form, and his novels sometimes feel padded out. There’s a smidgeon of that here, but in Returning to Earth he’s finally found a subject that sustains his overreaching. A-

Late Bloomer (2005) by Carol Tyler: Although Tyler’s been around for decades, Late Bloomer is only her second collection of comics. As the book’s pages attest, she’s been busy—raising children, rearing a sometimes emotionally distant husband (cartoonist Justin Green), dealing with her family’s past and potential future, and substitute-teaching. It’s a hard life, but a fulfilling one. I hope that, now that the children are grown, Tyler will get to the table more often. We need her comics—bracing, refreshing, vividly conceived—like we need water or air. She’s an essential. Her colors are impressionistic in their subtlety—I hate to use the word “painterly” to describe a cartoonist’s work, but their richness is startling; even her character outlines sometimes use colors other than black. Her layouts evoke the natural, wild growth of the gardens and backyards she loves. While her design sense may be flowery and Earth-motherly, her narratives are pure punk—sharply opinionated, precisely jabbing in their humor, and often heartbreaking. For my money, the best story—the five-page “Sub Zero,” about substitute-teaching in various public schools (some primarily black and poor, others primarily white and middle-class)—is perhaps the least representative. In black-and-white art that convey Tyler’s loopy curlicues and lack of straight lines, Tyler portrays kids (and herself) without condescension or sentimentality. All this is offset by the voiceover’s clearly typeset text; the contrast knocked me off my feet. But this anthology brings together over 20 tough and tender tales. Let’s hope there’s more, and that they’ll come more quickly next time around. A

Love Jones (1997), directed by Theodore Witcher: Love Jones paved the ways for the fountain of romantic comedies about the black middle-class, giving rise to Two Can Play That Game, The Brothers, The Best Man, Breakin’ All the Rules, Deliver Us from Eva, This Christmas, and the continuing careers of Morris Chestnut and Blair Underwood. Also, the fact that Tyler Perry is allowed to direct his chitlin-circuit-lite films—instead of remaining stagebound—can be attributed directly to the influence of Witcher’s one and only feature film. In theory, I’m deeply excited that American film acknowledges that there are black folks who care about art, politics, literature, and don’t necessarily live in the ghetto. In reality, few of these movies are as technically accomplished and formally startling as Love Jones. In fact, in retrospect, Witcher’s movie is somewhat pretentious and mannered, and some of the dialogue is as stilted as a dissertation. (A slam-poetry lounge is one of the movie’s focal points—ye gods!) All the same, its cast—Nia Long, Larenz Tate, Isaiah Washington (pre-Grey’s Anatomy), Lisa Nicole Carson (pre-schizophrenic meltdown), Bill Bellamy—is among the sexiest presented in modern cinema, and leads Long and Tate have va-voom chemistry. Tate in particular projects charming nervousness beneath his thin pose of coolness, which makes us like him all the more. Witcher’s lovely photography, rain-glossy and candlelit-looking even in the daytime, is paired with a fluid, mesmerizing editing scheme, and bebop seeps into the film until it feels almost visual. Better still, the movie conveys the variety of rich skin tones among African Americans; they aren’t all shot in the same register, but the film isn’t self-conscious about the tonal diversity in the way that, say, Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever is. By no means perfect, Love Jones is nevertheless an assured, beautiful debut that promised more to come. It’s a shame that the promise wasn’t upheld. B

Stripped (1995) by Peter Kuper: I’m biased towards Kuper’s comics, as his crackpot travelogue ComicsTrips—along with Paul Chadwick’s Concrete—was my gateway from full-color mainstream comics to the black-and-white alternative fold. When I was a high-schooler, I devoured Kuper’s stenciled art, use of collage and occasional splashy airbrush colors, jagged lines, stark contrasts, and his rambling, surprising narrative drive. In Stripped, he collects his best autobiographical strips up to that point, and what’s refreshing is that they don’t feel dated or like relics of the mid-1990s autobio heyday. (By contrast, some of the initially mind-altering work of the Toronto Three—Joe Matt, Seth, and Chester Brown—now feels a bit moldy.) Kuper’s sex-obsessed—here, R. Crumb and Aline Kominsky-Crumb rear their heads, lording over the entire autobio comix realm—but at least he’s funny about it. His verbal wit and visual caricature veers toward the ragged and bellowing, and there’s little that’s subtle about his writing, but it works because his art is so assured. The longer stories, for the most part, work better than the two-pagers or the recording of his dreams, though the inclusion of the one-page (and full-color) classic “Out of Body Experience” (again, about sex) is most welcome. Kuper’s bold, sharp line feels like punk rock put on the page, but somewhat less crude and somewhat better designed. A-

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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