The City by the Bay


Study in red and gold. Photographed 22 May 2008.


The Ferry Building: morning, twilight, and night. Photographed 24 May 2008.

Photographs taken in San Francisco, California, by Quiet Bubble. (Click on pictures for larger views.) This month’s edition of “Quick Hits” is below.

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Quick hits (June 2008)

Foreskin’s Lament (2007), by Shalom Auslander: David Lee Roth once quipped that “all critics like Elvis Costello because he looks like they do,” and I thought of this while reading Foreskin’s Lament. Like a number of books championed profusely by the literary blogosphere—think of Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan (2006) and Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land (2004)—Auslander’s prose is long on the acerbic, bitter wit and short on narrative follow-through. I suspect that’s why lit-bloggers swooned for him. As with many lit blogs (and the aforementioned novels), Auslander’s autobiography of growing up ultra-Orthodox Jewish and leaving it behind is colloquial, episodic, vituperative, jumps around chronologically all willy-nilly, is intermittently hilarious, is fascinated/repulsed by porn, and is ultimately unsatisfying. His caustic remembrances make for guffaws a few times—a “blessing bee” contest at yeshiva school, a long walk on the Sabbath to a New York Rangers game, assistance with building an ark for three Torahs—but it’s not moving nor does the laughter feel cathartic. These episodes, honed and polished, are stellar journal articles and magazine pieces but, taken together, Foreskin’s Lament feels as flimsy as a bound transcription of a stand-up comic’s routine. And a mediocre comedian’s at that—around page 45, I wanted Auslander to suck it up and shut the fuck up. I still had 250 pages to go. B-

Vampire Loves (2001-2003), by Joann Sfar: Finally, a Joann Sfar comic that I love. I’ve complained before about his scratchy line, inconsistent figures and shaky sense of perspective, but there’s no question that he’s full of ideas, both aesthetic and emotional. Vampire Loves, which collects three graphic novels starring Ferdinand the Vampire, fulfills Sfar’s intentions. Though the line is shaky as ever, it’s confident and no longer half-assed; the characters have vivacity, depth, and warmth. In particular, Ferdinand is a whopper—romantic, charismatic, a little bit meek unless enthralled by the many beautiful women (mortal and otherworldly) in the collection’s universe, in love with vintage records and clothing, with old-world charm and a reluctance to kill. His searches for love are wistful and hilarious, and Sfar’s madcap plunges into different genres, shades of folklore, and comics idioms means that the stories have the customary Sfar shifts in tone. Even better than the character is the Vampire Loves world, which is fully rendered and richly detailed; it feels lived-in, even though it’s a miasma of pulp fiction, Gothic tropes, Jewish mythology, vaudeville, and Sfar’s previous comics. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good description of the whole interconnected universe that Sfar’s spent his career making. Vampire Loves is his most representative and most accomplished work. A+

The Professor’s Daughter (1997), by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert: Then again, Sfar’s still like Bob Dylan: His stuff seems better when other people are rendering it. The Professor’s Daughter, written by Sfar but drawn and painted by Guibert, is a case in point. This lovely, funny novella sends up Victorian culture’s chief obsessions and tropes—decorum, Egyptology, foreign adventure, romance—with a bravura that borders on arrogance. The story of a reanimated 3000-year-old mummy and the proper (but sexy) aristocrat who loves him careens—sometimes from panel to panel—from slapstick to tragedy, but never wavers from its high-spirited tone. Sfar’s writing is full of quips and sly asides to English literature, but it’s Guibert’s lush artwork that mesmerizes. His line is assured and solid in a way that opposes Sfar’s ever-changing tone—and that seems, in part, a rebuke to Sfar’s own chaotic drawing style—and the muter, subtle colors give the story a firmness that it might otherwise lack. The novella is, of all things, a grounded flight of fancy. A-

Of Walking in Ice (1978), by Werner Herzog: In November 1974, filmmaker Werner Herzog (Rescue Dawn, Grizzly Man) learned that German film critic and historian Lotte Eisner was on the verge of death. As she was a great friend of Herzog’s and a champion of the New German cinema of which Herzog was a member, the director did what anyone might do: walk from his home to hers to visit her. The trouble: Herzog lived in Munich; Eisner was convalescing in Paris. Herzog, convinced that traveling by foot would restore Eisner, grabbed a knapsack and new boots, and launched himself into the icy German winter. Of Walking in Ice is his diary of his mad journey. Like Patrick Leigh Fermor’s similarly themed travel memoirs of walks, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water, Herzog infuses the tale with dense, rich imagery, gorgeous and overstuffed prose, and a sense of ecstatic wonder that’s occasionally unnerving. Herzog’s a filmmaker through and through, and throughout the book there are startling visual motifs and counterpoints. What resonates most, though, is the sense of emotional urgency to the undertaking. Herzog’s melancholia (and sometimes desolation) seeps through the novella-like book, and his intense recording of his walk strikes me as a meditation on his psyche and an opportunity to exorcise his demons and move forward creatively. Of Walking in Ice is a leap of faith—every step is a prayer to Eisner’s good health, even if Herzog’s never sentimental enough to say such a thing. By the way, Eisner lived on another decade. A

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
This entry was posted in Me, Quick Hits, Travel. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The City by the Bay

  1. Elizabeth says:

    I am wildly jealous. Just FYI.

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