A year in reading (2017)

Happy New Year!

From September 2000 to mid-2015, I kept a reading log. I stopped it partly because it felt a little anal-retentive but mostly because it seemed dishonest. I mean, sure, I kept track of all the books I completed. But I left out books I abandoned, all the reading I do online, in magazines, or for my job as a book editor.

Turns out, though, that I missed the log. Scrolling through it, I can see patterns in my reading behavior, and can flash on memories of what I was thinking or doing or feeling at that time. So, around February 2017, I returned to the logging. So, here it is, a sort of reading diary for the year, with new notes, letter grades, and occasional links. Dates on which the books were finished are in red. Grades are in blue. You’ll figure it out.

Enjoy, and see you in 2018.

(If you’re curious, I’ve done this before.)

[02/01/17] Big Clay Pot by Scott Mills (comics, 2000): Mills’s art is so minimal that it approaches calligraphy, which is eminently appropriate for what’s essentially a wispy Japanese folktale. Well, a Japanese folktale as envisioned by an American cartoonist, as a sort of explanation for how an ancient style of pottery came to be. A gentle, sweet story but so slight it could have fit in a minicomic. B

[02/05/17] The Coast of Chicago by Stuart Dybek (stories, 1990): I feel the sheer chill of Chicago winters in this collection, and also the hard, difficult but warm love exhibited by its characters. Dybek brings magical realism to the City of Big Shoulders, and that rough-and-tumble place smudges the magic, infuses it with shoe leather and grit, and scrapes away any trace of sentimentality. A-

[02/15/17] Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin (essay, 2017): At two points, I actually tossed this book across my living room, which means that it’s doing its job. I had muttering arguments with it as I read it, highlighting big sections like I was still in high school, and stabbing marginalia on the pages with my pencil. I still think some of its broad swipes are unfair but, hey, manifestos are supposed to be broad-minded and overly ambitious, and I’m a big boy who can take my lumps. I still think she conflates the feminism of a specific corner of the internet—urban, middle-class, performative on social media—with all of feminism and radical critique (i.e., Jessa, get the fuck out of Brooklyn before it kills you) in ways that diminish her argument. But see? I’m still arguing with the book. Good for her, and good for the book. A

[02/17/17] Turning Japanese by MariNaomi (comics, 2016): A young Japanese-American cartoonist feels thoroughly disconnected from the Japanese part of her, and discovers it begrudgingly and distressingly when she becomes a hostess at Japanese-themed bars. The lines between her ethnic identities are blurred by the job, as are the romantic boundaries—hostessing is a weird form of pseudo-prostitution but no one’s supposed to say that outright—between her and customers. It’s a frank memoir that turns gender politics on their heads, and explodes the idea of what it means, exactly, to be an American. A-

[02/19/17] Tales of Nevèryon by Samuel R. Delany (novellas, 1979, revised 1993): High literary theory meets critical race theory, all infused into sword-and-sandals fantasy. Heady? You bet. Seriously, each story features an epigraph from the likes of Spivak and Foucault, and there are multiple scholarly appendices written by Delany pseudonyms, contextualizing this as if it were actual folklore. Disruptive? Check. Every story is infused by a feminist cocked eye at the shenanigans, and core tropes (muscled men in battle, dragons as mighty god-beings, feudal patriarchal societies, white Nordic peoples as the protagonists) are upended. But propulsive as, you know, stories? Hell yes. The narratives work as vivid, sexy, rambunctious fantasy stories, with an interlocking design and a full universe that isn’t completely apparent until the end. Delany is always ambitious and ornate; here, in the first of his four-volume series, his aims match his talents, and then some. A+

[02/19/17] Pascin by Joann Sfar (comics, 2016): Because Sfar’s art is so loosy-goosy, and his narrative sense even more so, it takes a while for me to figure out if his comics are intentionally messy or just a mess. I like his messes, generally. Here, he creates a biography of a modernist painter whose life was just as messy as Sfar’s art. A true bohemian, Pascin moved in the bawdiest, most profane and dissolute circles possible, seeming to cynically enjoy every second of it, and Sfar doesn’t shy from the sometimes pornographic nature of Pascin’s escapades. It’s as if the cartoonist was unleashing his id visually, but there’s considerable control behind these thick, sketchy lines and splotchy shading. He knows exactly when to draw a sequence with a thin line that distances us from what we’re seeing, for instance, and when to pour on the ink so broadly that the narrative becomes hallucinatory. It’s a nervy biography but a sober portrait wouldn’t fit this painter—or his Parisian world—at all. B+

[02/27/17] The Mighty Currawongs by Brian Doyle (stories, 2016 ): Exuberant, hilarious, and occasionally tearjerking, Doyle’s not afraid of swinging for the fences or of being sentimental. “Irony” isn’t really in his vocabulary, for better and for worse. B+

[03/05/17] Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang (stories, 2002): Some—the title story (which was adapted into film as Arrival), “Tower or Babel,” “Understand”—are rereads but I realized that I’d never read the master’s story collection in full until now. Beautifully humane but rigorous in its explorations of science and its effects on us. Chiang may be the most empathetic sci-fi writer working; he’s certainly one of the best. A+

[03/17/17] Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (novel, 1978): I read the initial six-volume Tales of the City series every couple of years. Maupin is our Dickens—with a dash of Ernst Lubitsch—and has been chronicling his beloved San Francisco in more-or-less real time, weaving his way in and out of various characters and communities, for over four decades. Now, it’s a nine-novel set, ending in The Days of Anna Madrigal. (See below.) But this is where it starts, and it remains magical, alluring, very sexy, and very, very funny. A+

[03/20/17] More Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (novel, 1980): More soap-opera in feel than the first book, and collapsed in time to a month-long period, instead of portraying a year in the life of San Francisco. But it’s a great soap opera. A-

[03/25/17] Approximate Continuum Comics by Lewis Trondheim (comics, 2001): Trondheim would later do single-page diary comics in full color, a la James Kochalka’s American Elf. But this is the root of it for him—a black & white, loosely drawn narrative of a single eventful year, in which Trondheim transitioned from an underground cartoonist hero to a mainstream success. His portraits of fellow comics geniuses (Joann Sfar, Christophe Blain, Brigitte Findakly, and others) made me giggle, especially when he allowed them all to look at the book and comment (often wryly and angrily) on his portrayals of them. B+

[04/06/17] Summerland by Michael Chabon (novel, 2002): A reread. Every year, around Opening Day, I read a baseball novel. Other than Jerome Charyn’s The Seventh Babe, this is my favorite one. Part fairy tale, part folklore criticism, part portrait of a troubled family, all heart and beauty. A+

[04/07/17] The Thursday Night Men by Tonino Benacquista, translated by Allison Anderson (novel, 2011): Every Thursday, a secret society of Parisian men meet and talk about love in all its foibles, confessing their problems in exchanges that feel like AA meetings. Benacquista weaves in and out of the lives of three different men who become sort of friends. The conversations turn philosophical, and indeed the whole of this novel feels somewhat schematic and theoretical. In theory, I like the idea of exploring why men feel compelled to open up about love only in secret. In actuality, the novel’s a little dull. For all the sordid encounters and challenges to gender dynamics, little of this novel sticks in my mind. C

[04/13/17] Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott (essays, 2017): Say amen, y’all. This is Lamott’s fourth recent book of essays grappling explicitly with her Christian faith, and how to use it as a liberal progressive in a charged American world of despair and fury. The mighty Lisa Rosman does a better job of explaining what this book does, and does so well, than I can in a paragraph. A-

[04/14/17] Late Stories by Stephen Dixon (stories, 2016): A man tries to come to terms with life without his recently deceased wife. Dixon explores that from as many angles as possible, in prose that is as experimental as it is raw. This book made me shiver and crumble. Look, there’s nothing I can add here that I didn’t do in an essay a decade ago. A+

[04/14/17] Further Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (novel, 1982): And here the soap opera finally gets a little too exaggerated, with multiple kidnappings, flashes of grisly violence, and the specter of Jim Jones permeating everything a little too much to remain believable, even in Maupin’s charmed and supple portrait of San Francisco. Maupin’s not at his best as a pulp writer—he makes us turn pages so fast because of his screwball wit and interlocking relationships, much of which (thank goodness) is still evident here. B

[05/02/17] Babycakes by Armistead Maupin (novel, 1984): Criticism says that this was the first novel from a major publisher but I think Samuel R. Delany’s novella, The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals (part of the Nevèryon series) beat Maupin to the punch. So, let’s say Maupin was the first in a respected genre to do it. No matter. Maupin was brave then, and the novel appears brave now, with Michael Tolliver’s grief over the decimation of his beloved people—friends, lovers, former lovers—taking center stage even amidst all of the soapy potboiling for which I love Maupin. A-

[05/06/17] Significant Others by Armistead Maupin (novel, 1987): From a structural standpoint, this is probably the sturdiest of Maupin’s novels, with two parallel narratives entangling beautifully. Maupin mixes and mingles the all-male Bohemian Grove and an all-female women’s folk retreat (think: Lilith Fair, but waaaayyyy less corporate) so delicately that we as readers see all the convergences but the characters never understand more than half of it. In his note to the reader, Maupin thanks his “friends in both camps,” and I believe it, though I still can’t believe how he pulled this book off. A+

[05/10/17] Sure of You by Armistead Maupin (novel, 1989): The original Tales of the City takes place over the course of a year, while books #2-5 take place in a condensed timeframe, usually of a few weeks at most. This novel, intended to close things out, returns us to the form of volume #1, taking its time leisurely—just as the novels were originally released, as weekly installments in the San Francisco Chronicle and San Francisco Examiner. This one’s bittersweet, with more divorces and departures than marriages and resolutions. The humor hits harder than in previous books, and there’s a beautiful melancholy hanging over everything. A

[05/13/17] Michael Tolliver Lives by Armistead Maupin (novel, 2007): Maupin intended to end the Tales series after Sure of You, but picked it up again almost twenty years later. And a lot has changed—about San Francisco, about gay culture and the mainstream’s engagement with it, about American culture’s relationship to money. Maupin bravely charts the shift with a decisive formal gesture: Michael Tolliver Lives is the first Tales novel told entirely in first-person, from Michael’s POV. There’s no jumping around from storyline to storyline, no omniscient narrator wryly giving us alternate perspectives, and no concessions whatsoever to heteronormative notions of romance, love, and sex. It’s a visceral book, about a lot of crises converging on Michael at once, but it’s somehow ebullient and even chipper about middle age and the slow onward march toward death. A-

[05/15/17] Mary Ann in Autumn by Armistead Maupin (novel, 2010): Well, not quite, because Mary Ann Singleton is more resilient and self-reliant, probably a little too invested in her self-reliance, than even she knows. But she’s going through a divorce, she’s got a cancer scare to deal with, and an unwelcome blast from her past creeps back into her life just as she returns to the Bay Area. As with Michael Tolliver Lives, this is more of a single-character study than a portrait of a roiling community, but the third-person perspective gives us more shades of Maupin’s San Francisco than the 2007 novel. In some ways, this is one of the tenser novels—why does Maupin go into pulp thriller mode when Mary Ann is the focus?—and the bloody climax is a little clumsy. B

[05/20/17] The Days of Anna Madrigal by Armistead Maupin (novel, 2014): A triumphant finale. Really, truly, I think he’s done with Tales of the City. Where else is there to go but death? And there’s plenty of that, or intimations thereof, here. A

[05/21/17] Chimo by David Collier (comics, 2011): As with his Just the Facts (1998), Chimo is a (mixed) grab bag of Collier’s essays over the course of a decade. The reported-essay genre, uncommon for comics, could be why he’s not better known. But it’s probably his aesthetic, more than anything, that’s off-putting. Because, man, David Collier’s comics are dense, packed with crosshatching, overstuffed speech and thought balloons, shadows and gesturing. The panels are crowded. There’s hardly any white space, any visual silence, any place for the reader to pause. And there’s a crudeness to his line and sense of scale that’s sometimes charmingly clunky (like the best folk art) but just as often amateurish (like the worst folk art). B

[05/22/17] Corto Maltese: In Siberia by Hugo Pratt (comics, 1974, reissued 2017 ): Pratt’s always been a convoluted plotter, with historically accurate machinations of politics between nations taking center stage in Maltese’s world. Not that our hero wants anything to do with it but he can’t help but getting between post-Russian Revolution communists mixing it with a Chinese secret society, all enfolding in the complicated power chess that occurred just after World War I. Then, he has the audacity to bring back characters long thought to be dead, and callbacks to previous volumes. Did I mention that this is the first Corto Maltese longform comic since Ballad of the Salt Sea? So, there’s that, too. The ambition makes this one unwieldy but it’s always entertaining, and the final pages of romantic melancholy will make you swoon. B+

[05/28/17] Demon, vols. 1 and 2, by Jason Shiga (comics, 2016, 2017): Given its near-constant perversity, violence, and nihilism, I can’t recommend this in good conscience. But I love it so. A man discovers that, when his body dies, his soul jumps to the living person closest to him. Government agents know it, and are after him. The attempts to capture him alive (and how would you know?) are increasingly convoluted, with logic gaming, and structural insanity, along with a spectacularly high body count. Shiga couldn’t get away with this if his drawing style weren’t so endearingly clunky, and his sci-fi mechanics weren’t so artfully worked through. He almost doesn’t, anyway. Mileage may vary. A / A

[06/02/17] Northline by Willy Vlautin (novel, 2008): I love Willy Vlautin’s novels but I can’t read more than one a year, because they’re as bleak as Johnny Cash’s voice on a rainy day. Alison, this poor girl, can’t stop fucking herself over, with bad boyfriends (one’s a charismatic white supremacist), booze, and bitchy behavior. She’s damaged but Vlautin shows the glistening heart, the shimmering glow, within her. She moves tentatively toward a life worthy of herself. I hope she pulls through. A-

[06/04/17] The Grail: A year ambling & shambling through an Oregon vineyard in pursuit of the best pinot noir wine in the whole wild world by Brian Doyle (nonfiction, 2006): Look, I don’t even care about wine that much, and rarely drink it, but I loooove wine culture. Here, Doyle chronicles a year in the life of an Oregon winery, talking at length with everyone who works the fields, bottles the sacred juice, picks the grapes, worries over the weather, and ruminates on the soil. As is Doyle’s way, it’s less a single long narrative than a series of short essays and vivid linguistic snapshots of life. As is Doyle’s way, it’s hilarious and open-hearted. A-

[06/18/17] The Sellout by Paul Beatty (novel, 2015): Yes, it’s the triumph that everyone says it is, and it’s wonderful to have this African American satirist finally have a hit. A+

[06/28/17] Phish: The Biography by Parke Puterbaugh (biography, 2009): Good info about America’s best working band, especially on the early years. Pedestrian, clunky writing, and Puterbaugh’s only attempts to be a critic—as opposed to a just-the-facts-ma’am reporter—reveals him to be too enamored of the group before it got big, and too dismissive of it post-2000. Ah well. B-

[07/01/17] The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit (essays, 2017): Hard-edged hope and vivid light by the master, just when we need it, which is always. Feminism’s the focus here, and there’s maybe a smidge too much retreading of territory explored in Men Explain Things to Me. But essential reading, in large part because it’s way less memoir-like than most collections of its sort (by women and men) and instead reaching out to broader systemic concerns of politics, society, and grace. A-

[07/05/17] Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s by Charles Taylor (film criticism, 2017): To me, the mark of great criticism is that it can both piss me off and make me cheer in triumph that someone’s put into words exactly how I feel about a subject, all in the same essay, because that seesaw effect means I’ve been forced to think and come to terms with the art, critic, or both. So, Taylor wins. He’s one of my favorite critics, even if he’s too enamored with the 1970s as cultural film apex—rock critics do the same thing with the ’60s, man—and too dismissive of some of my heroes. Still, the idea here—to uncover the decade’s cinema that isn’t canonical—is sound, and there are discoveries galore, some of which are as punchy as Taylor’s prose. B+

[07/11/17] So Much Blue by Percival Everett (novel, 2017): Maybe I love this novel so much because it engages so strongly with another novel I love (see next entry). They share a whole lot. Protagonist is an abstract expressionist painter? Check. Said painter is working on a masterpiece that he won’t let anyone else see? Check. A thorough enchantment with the color blue in all its visual and emotional ramifications? Check. A meditation on the purpose of art? Check. A narrative that jumps between several different periods in the protagonist’s life? Check. American intervention in war as a grisly backdrop, which moves more to the foreground as the novel progresses? Check. A blunt prose style that’s unsentimental and that’s more concerned with dialogue and interactions between characters than in physical description? Check. A story told in first-person? Check. So why have I not seen a single review—and, unfortunately, there’s not been many—of Everett’s new masterpiece that makes reference to its surface similarities to Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard? It’s not that Everett is aping Vonnegut but he is using it, though Bluebeard isn’t mentioned at all. Could it be that, in 2017, we still pretend that black writers are only influenced by black culture? Or is it that Vonnegut continues to be underrated as a stylist and thinker? Whatever. Please read this book. A

[07/18/17] Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (novel, 1987): A masterpiece that begat another one. (See above entry.) A+

[07/25/17] The Education of Robert Nifkin by Daniel Pinkwater (novel, 1998): A perennial reread, and probably my favorite YA novel—whatever that means. Told in the form of a (long) college application essay, our hero portrays 1950s Chicago with verve, bite, and oddball kooky wit. An affectionate portrait of Cold War America but not a sentimental one, not one bit. A+

[08/04/17] The Weight of Sound by Peter McDade (novel, 2017): Full disclosure: I know McDade casually, though that didn’t happen until after I’d filed my review. Speaking of which, see here, but note that I loved the novel more than my review conveys, and that it’s lingered on in my mind. I have my misgivings about how it portrays rock artists and music-making, which comes across in the review, but I’m beginning to think those are misgivings I have about myself, not the book. A-

[08/09/17] The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper (criticism, 2015): Not quite, as Hopper acknowledges, but so close as to be shameful. Hopper is sharp on pop, even sharper on pop politics, and is (wisely) as interested in the scenes and communities from which artists emerge as she is in the artists and their art. A

[08/09/17] The Twilight Children by Gilbert Hernandez [writer], Darwyn Cooke [artist], and Dave Stewart [colors] (comics, 2016): When Hernandez does sci-fi, he leans hard on the unexplainable and the sexual tension, like luscious waking dreams, and here it’s no different. His key tropes are present: missing children, va-va-voom women with secrets, aliens possessing people, mysterious but eerily interchangable government agents, a small town in societal turmoil. This time, he finds artists—Cooke and Stewart—who are simpatico with his weirdness, and can evoke the nostalgia for 1960s Archie comics and Silver Age expressionism. I’ve read The Twilight Children, and I’m still not sure it makes sense but it operates on a dream logic that works for me. B+

[08/21/17] Demon, vol. 3 by Jason Shiga (comics, 2017): We’re nearing the denouement—this is a four-volume series—and our antihero may have met his match in someone even more dissolute and monstrous than he is. A-

[08/28/17] In Search of the Lost Chord: 1967 and the Hippie Idea by Danny Goldberg (popular history, 2017): Yet another pontification of the Most Important Year in the History of American Culture Ever®, told by yet another person who lived through it. B-

[08/30/17] The Adventures of Dieter Lumpen by Jorge Zentner [writer] and Rubén Pellejero [artist & colors] (comics, 1985-1994, reissued 2016): The shadow of Hugo Pratt’s Corto Maltese looms large here but, hey, it looms large on all European adventure comics, just as Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon basically sculpted the genre’s form here in America. From the start, though, Pellejero had a stronger control of line, shadow, and composition than Pratt—it took Pratt a few stories to hit his speed—and Zentner’s storytelling is more streamlined and less convoluted. The 1930s and 1940s never looked so lush as they do in Pellejero’s drawings. These multicultural noir tales dazzle, in no small part, because of the painterly colors. A+

[09/06/17] What’s the Worst that Can Happen? by Donald E. Westlake (novel, 1996): For Westlake fans, and I guess I’m one now, the question is: Are you Team Parker or Team Dortmunder? I’m with Dortmunder because I prefer comedy and stumblebums over darkness and tough guys. And this might be the funniest novel I’ve read in a decade, so funny that I almost missed the clockwork plot mechanics, the perfectly built architecture, and Westlake’s sneaky, ever-persistent commentary on class and politics. Pretty good for a crime novel, eh? A+

[09/07/17] You & A Bike & A Road by Eleanor Davis (comics, 2017): In the midst of an existential crisis, Davis decides to go cross-country on her bicycle, meeting diverse swaths of the country in the process. Her comics journal of the experience vacillates between density (in art, and in the variety of her emotions) and breathy openness. B+

[09/13/17] The Chairs Are Where the People Go by Misha Glouberman with Sheila Heti (philosophy, 2011): A perennial reread of one of my favorite books ever. A+

[09/14/17] A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation by John Corbett (criticism/guide, 2016): Why does anyone like free jazz? Why do I? I don’t know but I do, increasingly so, in fact. But I can’t read music, or necessarily pick out the key in a song, much less when the key shifts—though I can feel it—so a supposedly “difficult” music should be even more so to me. Somehow, though, it feels natural, like actual fluid sexy conversation instead of scripted dialogue. And, yes, that’s even true for my experience with late Coltrane shrieks and skronkityskronk. Corbett’s plainspoken, nervy, and smart prose articulates what to listen for, listen to, and why, in this music. I don’t think he mentions a single note or chord in this short, well-organized book, but he gets across the listening experience perfectly, and exposed me to a lot of new music. A

[09/15/17] The Customer Is Always Wrong by Mimi Pond (comics, 2017): Restaurant life from the POV of its cooks and waiters. The restaurant life is decadent and depraved, and Pond captures the boho life with verve, quick wit, and an almost-cutesy life that belies the sordid (and often hilarious) contents. A

[09/18/17] Songy of Paradise by Gary Panter (comics, 2017): Milton’s Paradise Regained re-imagined in the Appalachia of popular culture, with a hillbilly Jesus smarter than he looks. Ornate, dense, oversize in both size and rhetorical content, weirdly hilarious, and (I think) pretty faithful to the Biblical and Miltonian sources. A corrective of-sorts to R. Crumb’s Genesis. A+

[09/24/17] Drowned Hopes by Donald E. Westlake (novel, 1990): What happens to buried treasure if the place you buried it was flooded over? How do you get $700,000 from under a ghost town immersed in a lake? What a kooky idea. Only Dortmunder would find himself pondering this, and then planning, mostly unsuccessfully, to get it out. Oh, he doesn’t wanna—even in 1990, $700,000 isn’t worth the risk for a career criminal—but the person who buried the treasure is just nihilistic enough to blow up the dam that contained the lake, just to get at his ill-gotten loot. So, because Dortmunder has a moral compass beneath the slapstick antics and illegal lifestyle, he ponders. Every turn of this novel is hilarious, as are its well-defined and well-rounded characters. Sharp, succinct, witty, mordant. A

[09/25/17] Venice by Jiro Taniguchi (comics, 2017): Astonishing, painterly, and slowly paced with mounting, quiet tension. A lonely artist explores Venice, drinking it in voluptuously and with a mysterious absence of the crowds that teem in the city’s streets. Gradually, a narrative emerges, and we realize that the artist is tracing his grandparents’ ambivalent journey into Western civilization. A+

[09/26/17] Spaniel Rage by Vanessa Davis (comics, 2004, new edition 2017): Davis was new to drawing comics here, and it shows in these diary pieces, in ways both good and bad. We see her line become more expressive and confident as the year progresses, and narrative threads of romance, fashion, and friendship emerge slowly. Sometimes, the layouts and designs are too messy but overall it’s a compelling portrait of a young cartoonist’s coming-of-age. B

[09/30/17] The Complete Strange Growths, 1991-1997 by Jenny Zervakis (comics, 1991-1997, collected 2017): The DIY cartoonist as punk-rock Thoreau. Sometimes the art is so raw that I think she’s mainlining the ink from a cut vein; other times, it’s controlled and playful. Always, it’s a rough-hewn pleasure. A

[10/10/17] Bombingham by Anthony Grooms (novel, 2001): Our protagonist, now a soldier in the Vietnam War, remembers living through the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham as a young child activist, writing it all for the parents of a deceased soldier. During the Movement, our hero’s family was falling apart in slow motion due to cancer (mom) and drunkenness (dad). Grooms tries, I think, to do a little too much here—the book’s nothing if not ambitious—but the bitter evocative mournful tone of the novel rings true and solid. B

[10/16/17] Waiting for the Punch: Words to Live By from the WTF Podcast by Marc Maron & Brendan McDonald (conversations, 2017): The tonic I needed during a difficult year. I keep dipping into this for insight and strength; I suspect I will for a long time. A

[10/20/17] Iceland by Yuichi Yokoyama (comics, 2017): A group of quite stylish friends venture into the far North, looking for someone. As with Yokoyama’s previous work, this is about form and the mechanics of motion in comics more than narrative, so this is expressionist and noisy to the core, with lettering so bold and big that you can sense the sound. A

[10/21/17] Corto Maltese: Fable of Venice by Hugo Pratt (comics, 1977, reissued 2017): A woozy fever dream set in Pratt’s hometown. As always, there are dueling political factions—Freemasons, occultists, Italian fascists—seeking out a treasure that’s initially unclear to Corto Maltese. There’s the mysterious, beautiful woman who knows more than she’s telling, and two steps ahead of our hero. There are noirish chase scenes, gunshots from the shadows, deep blacks and high-contrast panels. And, as usual, there’s a world-weary, politically savvy cynicism to the comic that is Pratt’s forte, giving it a mark of sophistication beyond most adventure comics. B+

[10/26/17] Hicksville and Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen by Dylan Horrocks (comics, 1998 and 2014, respectively): The first is a black-and-white fantasy of how comics could and should be treated in the world (as an essential part of the culture), and the second is a full-color tale about the limits of fantasy and the responsibilities involved in having them. It took Horrocks nearly two decades to pull these two masterworks together, with a few short stories and false starts in-between, which means he thinks through fantasy much more and with greater difficulty than most of us do. Here’s hoping he doesn’t take another decade to draw his next longform comic but here’s also understanding that it’ll be worth whatever wait we have to endure. A+ / A+

[10/26/17] Don’t Ask by Donald E. Westlake (novel, 1993): Pompous bureaucrats get theirs, and Dortmunder (for once) gets a semi-major payday. The denouement made me laugh so hard I doubled over. Actually, that’s true for most of the novel, which is an astonishing thing about a book in which international intrigue among diplomats and the provenance of a holy relic are central plot points. But there you are. A-

[10/31/17] Over Easy by Mimi Pond (comics, 2014): The precursor to The Customer Is Always Wrong (see above) and almost as good. A-

[12/10/17] March: Book 1 by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin [writing], and Nate Powell [art] (comics, 2013): I’ve said my piece. A

[12/11/17] Bank Shot by Donald E. Westlake (novel, 1972): Only one novel into the Dortmunder universe, and the key characters and locales appear set in place, and set well. The plot—involving the literal stealing of a bank; why bother with just the safe?—appears foolproof until things inevitably go wrong. Westlake conveys character depth with stray asides and half-whispered dialogue; we have to largely imagine what they look like, and that’s just fine. From the start, these are very New York novels, and a cockeyed love of the city is baked into each page. B+

[12/15/17] March: Book 2 by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin [writing], and Nate Powell [art] (comics, 2015): Part two of a three-volume nonfiction opus. (See two entries above.) Worth all the attention you can give it. A

[12/21/17] Baking with Kafka by Tom Gauld (comics and cartoons, 2017): Deadpan minimalism from a Scottish cartoonist who knows how to milk absurdity from banal material, and how to mash high-concept literary allusions together with the quotidian stuff of life. Some jokes are groan-inducing but most surprised me pleasantly. His drawings are so blocky that they evoke woodcuts, which makes them appear incredibly serious even at their absolute silliest. B+

[12/29/17] Eight Whopping Lies, and Other Stories of Bruised Grace by Brian Doyle (essays, 2017): Since Doyle published three books in his final year on this planet, it’s hard to tell whether this is the last one. (Full disclosure: I am the acquiring editor of Doyle’s Hoop: A Basketball Life in Ninety-five Essays, which came out in October.) If so, what a way to go out. The openhearted, jubilant, gutbusting prose is here, as usual, in these brief pieces. But there’s a raw flash of anger that’s rare in Doyle, as when he vents at gun-rights crazies, the hypocrisies of the Catholic Church’s patriarchy, religious extremists of all stripes, and anyone who claims to know the full truth of God. But Doyle is both Catholic and catholic, a guy who goes to Mass regularly but draws from a wealth of religious, literary, and intellectual traditions. Eight Whopping Lies walk us through the joys and pains of abiding by faith while also being generous enough in spirit—another term for this is “humility,” which comes up a lot here—to understand that life and love are mysteries, never to be solved, and that God is the biggest mystery of all. A+

[12/31/17] March: Book 3 by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin [writing], and Nate Powell [art] (comics, 2016): Good trouble don’t come easy, and neither do the solutions that it inspires. A fitting end to a comic about the Civil Rights Movement, which is to say that the end’s not in sight. Maybe it never will be. 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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2 Responses to A year in reading (2017)

  1. Laura Moore Pruett says:

    I love that so many of your reads are A+es. I think that says a lot about what you’re choosing to fill your brain and life with. Also that we’re grown-up enough (?) to choose well. As for me, I read a bunch of crap last year. But some good stuff. My dad keeps track; when I get the list back from him I’ll let you know if there was anything that stood out. Miss you. Happy New Year!xoxoL

    From: Quiet Bubble To: lmpruett@bellsouth.net Sent: Monday, January 1, 2018 10:33 AM Subject: [New post] A year in reading (2017) #yiv7374244834 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv7374244834 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv7374244834 a.yiv7374244834primaryactionlink:link, #yiv7374244834 a.yiv7374244834primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv7374244834 a.yiv7374244834primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv7374244834 a.yiv7374244834primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv7374244834 WordPress.com | Walter Biggins posted: “Happy New Year!From September 2000 to mid-2015, I kept a reading log. I stopped it partly because it felt a little anal-retentive but mostly because it seemed dishonest. I mean, sure, I kept track of all the books I completed. But I left out books I a” | |

  2. Thanks! Part of it is choosing well but a bigger part is that I’m now comfortable in giving up on books (and movies) that bore me, or that I otherwise don’t like. Even a decade ago, I would have stuck it out with books that I wasn’t enjoying, b/c I felt a responsibility to finish what I started. That’s no longer a part of my psyche. I guess that comes with getting older, and facing the fact that my time on this planet is not limitless.

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