Another year in reading (2018 edition)

Once more with feeling… my annual reading diary. As always, the usual caveats apply: 1) This includes only books I completed, not stuff I started and abandoned; 2) It leaves out all of the manuscript reading I do for the day job; 3) It also excludes the articles, reviews, and essays I read online, in magazines and litcult journals, and in (gulp!) newspapers; and 4) For the most part, the letter grades were noted as soon as I finished the book but the commentary was written this month, so there’s occasionally some reflective distance/dissonance in my notes.

All the same, here t’is. Dates on which the books were finished are in red. Grades are in blue. If it’s a reread for me, the title will be green. You’ll figure it out. (If you’re curious, see previous entries for 2014 and 2017.)

Enjoy.

* * * * * * * * * * *

[01/03/18] Speak of the Devil (2007) by Gilbert Hernandez (comic): Sexy and then sick and then back to sexy again. As with Sloth (from the year before), Beto is exploring troubled suburbia, drawing it as blankness but narratively filling it with roiling blood and sticky bodily fluids and unsettled emotions. B+

[01/14/18] The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats & Ex-Countries (2015) by Jessa Crispin (memoir/criticism): Some of the “dead ladies” that Crispin follows for clues on living aren’t ladies, just as some of Hilton Als’s “white girls” aren’t girls, either, but somehow embody something in gender, writing, or undefinable force that she wants to emulate. Crispin moves around a lot, is beholden by fellow writers who do the same, and is perhaps too besotted by books and the crazy fucks who write them. This is criticism about the concepts of exile and expatriation but it’s also a structured memoir of an expat perpetually on the go. Sometimes I wanted to shake her and tell her to just fucking stay some place for a while; other times, I admired her willingness to act on her restlessness, no matter how much it hurts. A-

[01/15/18] Monsieur Jean: The Singles Theory (2012) by Dupuy & Berberian (comics): The cartooning duo opts for a restricted color palette this time around—light blue, black, white—and a thicker, cruder, more slapdash line. The stories lash out rather than insinuate, showing that Jean and his crew still have bite even as they are beginning to settle down. B+

[01/17/18] Monsieur Jean: From Bachelor to Father (2014) by Dupuy & Berberian (comics): The Parisian middle-class life, with all its anxieties and antics. Dupuy & Berberian’s singular style—who writes and who draws, and how do they mix the two?—reaches its pinnacle in these long narratives and shorter comics (which add up to longer narratives, anyway). Socially sophisticated but graphically simple (but not simplistic), weaving from the quotidian to the surreal, funny when not deeply melancholic. A

[01/18/18] Monsieur Jean: It Don’t Come Easy (2017) by Dupuy & Berberian (comics): This latest batch of Jean stories returns to the shorter vignettes and slapstick comedy of the earlier Dupuy & Berberian comics, with mixed results, though I’ll continue to follow these characters into old age. B+

[01/20/18] The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World (2017) by Brian Doyle (novel): Robert Louis Stevenson spent some months in a San Francisco hotel, waiting for his lady love to finalize her divorce so that he could marry her. That much is true. What happened in that period, we don’t know, which frees Stevenson fan Brian Doyle to make shit up, to infuse this melancholic, sickly man’s life with ribald adventure and mad wit. And that’s before John Carson even shows up, which happens pretty early on. B+

[01/29/18] The Initiates (2013) by Etienne Davodeau (comics): I reread this every year. It’s one of my favorite European comics of the last 25 years, and it gets richer with every run-through. I wrote about it a while ago. A+

[02/04/18] Black Panther: A Nation under Our Feet—book 1 (2016) by Ta-Nehisi Coates (writer), Brian Stelfreeze (artist), and Laura Martin (colors) [comics]: Because Coates loves comics so dearly and thinks about blackness so cogently, I thought this would be a dream. But it’s clunky, overly expository, too hesitant and confused in its action, and can’t quite express individual ideas visually, in part because the writer overthinks things (but doesn’t quite know yet how to think in comics form) but in part because the writer is beholden to a corporate enterprise with all of its property-safeguarding rules in place. In short, it’s a public intellectual writing a franchise comic, with all the issues that implies. B

[02/04/18] Black Panther: A Nation under Our Feet—book 2 (2016) by Ta-Nehisi Coates (writer), Chris Sprouse and Karl Story (artists), and Laura Martin (colors) [comics]: More Marvel fan service in the second half of this saga. Good for the fanboys who want to see a black super team fight the baddies. But I don’t like fan service, and maybe it’s just that I’m not a fan of superheroes anymore. B-

[02/12/18] Poppies of Iraq (2017) by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim (comics): Findakly’s got a compelling, cosmopolitan life story and a refreshing wry, whimsical view of it but who uses the words “wry” and “whimsical” in actual conversation and means anything good by it? Too cute art, and the layouts are too distancing and uniform for a memoir that should be anything but. B-

[02/25/18] Pretending Is Lying (2017) by Dominique Goblet (comics): Dreamy, strange, collage-and-charcoal memoirs and recollections, suffused with melancholy but also something sharp, spiky, and savory that I can’t define. B+

[02/27/18] Stinky (2005) by Eleanor Davis (comics): It’s gross, mean, weird, and heart-warming. In short, a perfect kid’s comic. A

[03/12/18] Whiskey & Ribbons (2018) by Leesa Cross-Smith (novel): I loved it, with minor reservations. But when do I not have those? Anyway, I said my piece. A-

[03/15/18] Black Swans (1993) by Eve Babitz (short stories): Well, maybe they’re memoirs. Babitz blurs fact and fiction from her life with a wink and a hip thrust, and by god it’s inviting. She’s a warmer, more forgiving, more headstrong, and less brittle version of the SoCal spirit than, say, Joan Didion (who I’ve tried, and failed, to like). She lacerates pretensions of masculinity, sex, and dating but hilariously. Her previous books were dangerous because of that sharp-knifed eye, and this is no different—but here, because she’s now sober and middle-aged, she stabs at herself, too. Maybe she always did but here it’s clearer. Sly, sexy, deliciously messy, but always on-point. A+

[04/04/18] Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind (1987) by Hayao Miyazaki (comics): Even richer, more beautifully drawn, politically complex, and morally sophisticated than the movie adaptation he directed of this work—and that’s one of the greatest science-fiction films ever made. He manages all this in black-and-white, in a line style that’s at once loose and jazz-like while also densely detailed. One of the essential works of comics, period. A+

[04/11/18] The Miracle Cures of Dr. Aira (2002) by César Aira (novella): I’m always hit-or-miss with this guy, and this one’s more of a miss to my eyes. Even by Aira’s self-referential, meta standards, this one’s too arch. B-

[04/22/18] Eve’s Hollywood (1974) by Eve Babitz (essays): Babitz grew up crazily and lazily in Hollywood, so she takes celebrity and movie madness with several grains of salt. The 1950s and 1960s never seem safe and more inviting than through her gimlet eye. A+

[04/28/18] A Shout in the Ruins (2018) by Kevin Powers (novel): I’d grade it even lower today than I did at the time. I said my piece. C

[05/05/18] Corto Maltese: The Golden House of Samarkand (1974) by Hugo Pratt (comics): This one moves a lot geographically, over a long period of time, employs dream sequences, and is still introducing major characters three-fourths of the way through the book. It’s dizzying—I counted four shadow conspiracies, though there might be more, and one might go under two names. If you’re starting out on Corto Maltese, this long sprawl probably isn’t the place to start. But I loved it so. A

[05/09/18] Inside Moebius: Part 1 (2018) by Moebius (comics): A freeform, improvised comic, drawn straight to page with ink with no sketching beforehand—and boy does it show. Moebius’s head was always an acid-dipped space of delight and terror. Here, he brings all of his key creations together to roam through his now-sober consciousness. I wanted to yell, focus, man, focus. But letting it all hang out is part of the point, if not the pleasure. B

[05/11/18] Martin Marten (2015) by Brian Doyle (novel): In the last 7-8 years of his too-short life, Brian Doyle devoted himself to writing fiction, a beautiful and unexpected turn from his three decades as an essayist and funny memoirist. In love with the lushness of his beloved Pacific Northwest, in just as much love with words and words piled on top of each other without commas, in love with the vagaries of people, and deeply in love with wit both garrulously Irish and taciturnly Spokane, he populated his novels with stories upon stories, but mostly he built rich worlds. I can’t be sure that Martin Marten—which follows a boy named Martin, and the marten who observes him (well, they observe each other)—has a plot, exactly, because it’s more the environment that matters, the region that they inhabit that resonates, the social worlds in which they live. A more kid-friendly version of his masterful Mink River, Martin Marten is an Altmanesque sprawl that weaves through the lives of over a dozen characters, but is grounded—in a Wendell Berry-esque way—so firmly to a particular patch of land (and sea) that I want to visit it. God, I miss Doyle. A+

[05/11/18] The Museum Vaults: Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert (2007) by Marc-Antoine Mathieu (comics): Cerebral, deep-shadowed, brooding, formally precise in its line and composition. It’s a tribute to the Louvre and its artistic riches but also a warning about the impulse to collect, to archive, to pretend to know all. A

[05/13/18] The New World: Comics from Mauretania (2018) by Chris Reynolds (comics): Reynolds draws with such a thick, black line that his comics evoke woodcuts, like they are folktales set in stone, imprinted on us through centuries of tradition, and thus readily accessible and understandable. But they’re the opposite of that—cryptic, melancholy, mesmerizing, with stories that get stranger and somehow less revealing the more you read them. A

[05/18/18] The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan (1975) by Don Carpenter (novel): Jody McKeegan wants to be a Hollywood star but mostly she just wants out of the sad hand she was dealt. OK, so that’s probably like most Hollywood stars. Carpenter tells her story cleanly, bluntly, with clear eyes looking at the darkness but somehow without cynicism or snide jabs at the “Los Angeles” that New Yorkers and Chicagoans issue about the place. B+

[05/19/18] Awaiting the Collapse: Selected Works, 1974-2014 (2017) by Paul Kirchner (comics): Whoa, heavy, maaaaaaan. Some of the Screw magazine covers are cool, though. B-

[05/25/18] Two by Two: Tango, Two-Step, and the L.A. Night (1999) by Eve Babitz (nonfiction): Babitz’s last book before a self-imposed silence from which I hope she emerges, because I think she’s got more to say to us. This survey of dance styles and instructors in L.A. feels more programmatic, more forced, than she’s used to; her “Tangoland” essay in Black Swans is a better version of this book, which I think she knows. B

[06/04/18] The Unspeakable, and Other Subjects of Discussion (2014) by Meghan Daum (essays): Daum’s weird to me, in that I find her dayjob op-ed pieces almost unreadable in their predictable banality, and her longform essays sharp, multilayered, and usefully ambivalent. This collects the longform but “collects” is an odd word, because everything here was written specifically for this book, and hadn’t appeared anywhere else previously. “Fraught” is a defining word. So is “funny,” and so is “fresh.” B+

[06/11/18] Four Hoboken Stories (2017) by Daniel Pinkwater (stories & a novel): Streetwise Jewish wit, kids-style. I think I’ve read all of these over the years but it’s nice to have these Jersey-centric tales all in one place. A

[06/13/18] The Education of Robert Nifkin (1998) by Daniel Pinkwater (novel): A memoir written in the form of a college-application essay, from a Jewish kid in 1950s Chicago. Why I connect with it so thoroughly, I don’t know. But I read it every damn year. A+

[06/15/18] The Secret Science Alliance and the Copycat Crook (2009) by Eleanor Davis (comics): Davis would get less dense and kid-friendly after this, and more oblique. And that’s fair—but let’s remember how good she is in this mode, too. A-

[06/22/18] My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South (2018) by Issac J. Bailey (memoir/journalism): I said my piece. C

[06/25/18] Why Art? (2018) by Eleanor Davis (comics/illustrated text): I don’t know what this is, only that I read it three times in 2018, and you should do the same this year. A+

[06/27/18] Libby’s Dad (2016) by Eleanor Davis (comics): Davis keeps expanding her palette and emotional range, here using colored pencil and unclean crosshatching to tell a scruffy, messy story about teenage girls—who, come to think of it, are pretty scruffy and messy, so the style fits the characters. B+

[07/09/18] Vox (1992) by Nicholson Baker (novel): Once so shocking that it was noted that Monica Lewinsky gave a copy to Bill Clinton (or was it vice versa?), now Vox seems more notable for how tame and dated its technologies are. Is phone sex still a thing in the age of LiveJournal blogs (themselves dated technologies) and Craigslists ads (ditto)? Does anyone scour the back half of alt-weekly papers looking for love connections by the minute? Who buys Hustler anymore? What sticks, what still connects and maybe is clearer now is the deep isolation and melancholy of the two protagonists on this extended phone call, how fiercely lonely and needy they are, how eager they are to connect, and how it’s unclear that they ever do. Maybe it’s clearer simply because I’m older than I was when I bought this at the late, lamented Shakespeare Books in Dallas, and am wiser/sadder about love and sex than I was then. Maybe the technology was never the issue, and the fact of that is why this novel endures, even though its protagonists probably haven’t even had a landline in a decade. A

[07/12/18] After the Winter (2018) by Guadalupe Nettel (novel): I loved it; I love Nettel’s work; I hope she gets more attention in this country. In this review, I tried to get across the novel’s wildness and dark wit. A

[07/13/18] Dungeon: Zenith vol. 1 – Duck Heart (1998) by Joann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim (comics): Fantasy as it should be done—multicultural, self-deprecating, puncturing grandiosity at every turn. Each character is layered enough to have a tale devoted solely to him or her, and indeed that happens later in the series. A

[07/16/18] Dungeon: Zenith vol. 2 – The Barbarian Princess (2002) by Joann Sfar & Lewis Trondheim (comics): Who knew funny-animal comics could be so sexy, and so dry? A

[07/17/18] Dungeon: Zenith vol. 3 – Back in Style (2006) by Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim, and Boulet (comics): The series careens beautifully on, this time with a new artist (Boulet) to add detail to the mix. A

[07/18/18] Dungeon: Parade vol. 1 – A Dungeon Too Many (2001) by Joann Sfar, Lewis Trondheim, and Manu Larcenet (comics): More of the same (see previous three entries), which is just fine by me. B+

[07/22/18] Horse of a Different Color (2013) by Howard Waldrop (short stories): Since the mid-1970s, Mississippi-born and Texas-bred Howard Waldrop has been creating speculative fiction that mashes together the flotsam and jetsam of mass-produced American popular culture—jazz, pulp, comics, “B” movies, old TV shows—with the country’s worst impulses and traditions (slavery, institutionalized racism). He mixes up cultural allusions and historical oddities, stretching them out to their breaking points or smudging them until they’re barely recognizable. If you squint your eyes hard enough, you can see the original sources somewhere in there but his weird fictions become wholly Waldropian. Here, there’s more of the same wild mashups, some succeeding wildly, others misfires—but not as many of those as you’d think, given his methods. B+

[07/23/18] South Beloit Journal (2017) by John Porcellino (comics): It’s a journal of a difficult year (2011) for Porcellino, and so the art and narrative are even rawer and rougher than usual, which is saying something. B

[08/07/18] Smoke (2018) by John Berger (words) & Selçuk Demirel (illustrations) [essay]: An ode to smoking and the conviviality it brings, while also a lucid, quick meditation on why we’re so down on individuals smoking these days and so blasé about corporations effectively smoking/polluting on a mass scale. More of a poem than a straight essay, more of an illustrated parable than either. B+

[08/24/18] Praise Song for the Butterflies (2018) by Bernice L. McFadden (novel): I wish McFadden had had the bravery to set this tale of African woe in a real country with real politics and social customs, instead of an Every African Country (named Ukemby here), because its issue of child sexual slavery are real, troubling, visceral, scalding. The issue raised, and the girls suffering under it, deserve the precision that the novel doesn’t quite give them, despite all the physical detail. B-

[08/27/18] Let’s No One Get Hurt (2018) by Jon Pineda (novel): A young, homeless woman is in trouble, or living adjacent to it, anyway—near enough to the rich suburbs to smell the caviar but not taste it but also on the trash-strewn river near it that all the rich kids make fun of. She’s in trouble but she’s just learning to know it. She knows what her class Spidey-sense is but hasn’t quite honed in. Voluptuous prose, radiating the dense fog of a good fairytale. B+

[09/18/18] Heavy: An American Memoir (2018) by Kiese Laymon (memoir): Probably my favorite nonfiction work of this year. Troubled, quivering, vibrant, dangerous in all the best ways. I said so. A

[09/22/18] Beach Girls (2014) by Box Brown (comics): His name fits his drawing/design sense. Surfing and the ocean have never looked less lyrical and soaring, which is a success of sorts. B

[09/24/18] My Prizes (2009) by Thomas Bernhard (essays & lectures): The essays he writes about receiving literary prizes are scabrously funny comedies of social errors; the actual lectures he gave at these events are obtuse and uninteresting. B

[09/29/18] Amulet (2008) by Roberto Bolaño (novel): The self-proclaimed “mother of Mexican literature” (even though she’s Uruguayan) doesn’t write at all, except for this memoir, in which she’s revealed to be a stunning and mesmerizing stylist, and possibly insane. Auxilio Lacouture leads a very strange, eventful life; Bolaño based her on a real, strange woman who’s a hero in Mexican revolutionary politics; and she’s an oddball hero here. B+

[10/03/18] Berlin (2018) by Jason Lutes (comics): I’ve been following this saga for two decades, as Lutes eked issues ever more slowly—at first two or three 24-page issues a year, then two a year, then annually, then it became a pleasant surprise to see a new one in the comic store. I never forgot, exactly, that he was doing it, because each issue felt like an event of chiaroscuro history and tense longing, but it threatened to become one of those lost comics masterpieces that are only completed in Hicksville, for Hicksville residents. But he finished his Altmanesque saga of Weimar Germany, and it’s fucking marvelous. I hope it wins all the awards there are in comics. A+

[10/14/18] Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs (2017) by Beth Ann Fennelly (essays): Pratfall-funny, slick and sweaty with sexiness, occasionally heartbreaking. Are these prose poems, tiny essays, half-fictions, of what? Not knowing is thrilling, precisely because I think Fennelly does know, but she ain’t tellin’. A

[10/30/18] Family Matters (2002) by Rohinton Mistry (novel): At this point, I think Indian and Indian-immigrant writers do the double-decker Victorian family saga better than their former colonial oppressors. Good for them. Take back from the British every chance you get. A

[11/02/18] Coyote Doggirl (2018) by Lisa Hanawalt (comics): I once overhead someone ask a friend to describe the Grateful Dead to him, and the guy responding simply said that they were a “San Francisco country band.” The first guy nodded. I think I get what he meant. The Dead were deeply steeped in country music—well, what country music meant in 1968, anyway—from the black Delta blues to the white Appalachian bluegrass, and all points in-between. But the Dead was also just as deeply a product of its particular locale, and all of the popular-culture nodes of San Francisco at the time. They wrote about outlaws, brakemen, wharf rats, and down-and-outers, but they were cosmic and acid-laced about it. You can’t extract “San Francisco” from “country” with them—note that the guy didn’t say they were “a country band from San Francisco”—for each inflects the others. Anyway, Coyote Doggirl is a San Francisco western, in the best way possible, with a dose of feminist punk poured in to spike the punch even further. A

[11/16/18] Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South (2018) by Pam Kelley (journalism): Ambitious but flawed, Kelley’s heart is in the right place. So is her prose, sometimes. I wrote about it here. B

[11/27/18] The Studs Terkel Interviews: Film and Theater (1999) by Studs Terkel (nonfiction): More theater than film, to be honest, as befitting a guy besotted by the stage but not conned by it; his Hollywood is one of Broadway immigrants who found themselves in the strange new land of cinema and made do. A good reminder of how much the movies owes to vaudeville conventions and production ideas, but I do wish he would’ve spent more time with technicians—sound guys, lighting specialists, cinematographers, editors, or even stage managers and script girls. B+

[12/09/18] Castle Waiting: Vol. 1 (2006) by Linda Medley (comics): See below. A+

[12/18/18] Castle Waiting: Vol. 2 (2013) by Linda Medley (comics): Long enough ago that I seem like a different writer, I reviewed this as it was an ongoing series. I stand by my sentiment, if not my prose. I’m glad she finished the second story arc. I wish she’d come back. A+

[12/20/18] Corto Maltese: Tango (1977) by Hugo Pratt (comics): As with The Golden House of Samarkand, also released in English-language translation this year, Tango features Pratt’s moody compositions, slightly off-kilter pacing (we seem to realize that something’s happened a half-beat late), deep shadows, endearingly clunky line work, loads of characters, ever-convoluted plotting, and the most lyrically attractive use of smoke in comics. But Tango’s half as long as Samarkand, takes place entirely on the night streets of Buenos Aires, is committed to a sort of realism, and there are only two shadowy conspiracies here. A-

[12/27/18] Night Moves (2018) by Jessica Hopper (journals): In 1997, Hopper moved back to her beloved, beleaguered Chicago after a stint in Los Angeles. In 2004 or so, she began writing about her punk-rock adventures in the city in journals, around the time she was settling into a role as a preeminent music critic. Bluntly funny but weirdly mysterious and jumpy, these diaries show what the lived versions of a punk life looks like. I wish the book’s organizing principle were a bit less restless—as in, I wish I could figure out what the principle was at all. But scattershot seems to be the idea. B

[12/29/18] Inside Moebius: Part 2 (2018) by Moebius (comics): More of the same, but the art’s more rigorously detailed this time. B

[12/31/18] The Cowboy Wally Show (1988) by Kyle Baker (comics): One of the few laugh-out comics for adults. Puns galore, heavy on media satire, thoroughly puerile. 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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