Books I Loved in 2016

I wanted to write something to cap off the year and share with friends, so thought a list of favorite books would work. Not all these books were released in 2016— new comics releases were where my focus was at—but they’re all works that I not only enjoyed but influenced some new way of thinking or being in the world. . I think articulating that for myself was important, and I hope that if you check one out of these, they can move you to being more of yourself too.

The books are listed in no particular order, and the ones at the end that I didn’t write about are equally loved, but not elaborated on because I wanted to do something else with my day than indulge more feelings on books. (Bonus: a short playlist of sounds I find myself in)

Sphinx by Anné Garréta

I found this book on one of those Instagram accounts that posts awesome photos of books. The cover of the Deep Vellum edition drew me immediately and I marked it on my to-read list. A short novel, Sphinx had a profound impact on me for its unique exploration of intimacy as well as the self-imposed craft restraints under which the book was composed, which you should avoid learning about before reading for full effect. This book was also a favorite for its depiction of Parisian danceclub life from the perspective of someone who doesn’t dig the scene, but is in it day after day. I copied out several passages of this that articulated my own feelings on religion, community, love and kindness. In Garréta, I found a kindred spirit, which makes me excited to read Deep Vellum‘s release of her novel Not One Day also translated by Emma Ramadan whose ‘Translator’s Notes’ at the end of Sphinx provide some thoughtful insight to the work required to translate Garréta’s novel. Along with the Star By My Head, this work helped me better recognize the important work done by these translators and the difficult artistic and ethical choices they make to make these texts accessible to an English-reading audience.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty 

This year was really difficult to navigate for a lot of people, including me. However, like others who got to read Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, I got to laugh for good chunks of it. A story of a black man in an Los Angeles county city that no longer exists, Beatty’s novel is one of the most biting satires I’ve read in my short life. However, at no point does this book seem interested in demonizing any particular group and instead takes to tasks all of us for our varying complicities with racism in the United States. Every time I saw someone reading this book around Syracuse, I’d start smiling over a passage I loved like the bus party for a modern-day slave that ends at the beach. Gave a copy of this one to my Dad for Christmas. Here’s hoping he sees what’s so funny about it.

Big Kids by Michael De Forge big-kids

A friend told me earlier this year that she had been finding fewer favorite books recently. That’s when I told her about Big Kids, a book I had recently read and adored and another of Michael De Forge’s comic releases made in an ongoing effort to show the rest of the world how limitless his creativity is (at least in my opinion). I bought my copy in a comics store during my first visit to Boston, MA while checking out potential PhD programs, and had my cousin and his then girlfriend/now wife indulge me in the delightful photo here. Initially set in a reality seemingly like our own, the book soon morphs once its main character becomes a tree and realizes that everyone is actually either a tree or twig with only trees knowing about this dichotomy. I first encountered De Forge in The Believer Magazine’s comic section a few years ago, then read his bizzare work Ant Colony. Big Kids expands my love for De Forge with colors that simultaneously sicken and enrapture, and dialogue that captures much of the callousness of adolescence. A tiny book that taught me a lot about managing the scope of a story, blending form with content, and how trees have sex in a pool.

Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay unabashed

My amazing poet friend and former housemate Alana Folsom was one of my most valued poetry pushers this past year. Sharing bookshelves with her, I read works from Frank Bidart, Franny Choi, Ada Limon, Ocean Vuong, and Richard Silken, but none made me want to write more than Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude. Although like many writers, I entered the medium through poems intended to woo or save me money at Mother’s Day, I left poetry aside for a couple years once I realized I had no idea what I was doing. I still don’t really know what I’m doing now, but reading Gay made me feel better able to be myself on the page. I love life. It’s been very good to me, and Gay showed me how this gratitude for everyday objects and occurrences can be just as vital and authentic a source of inspiration as the tragedy and misery that propels the writing of many others. I read this book on a hike through the Bald Hill area of Corvallis, Oregon on a clear spring afternoon. Alone, I read these poems aloud on trails and got dizzy from the lovesickness I felt for them.

Mind MGMT by Matt Kindt

Mind MGMT has gotten a lot of coverage within comics circles ever since its first issue was released 2012, and I wanted to check it out since then. However, with ongoing comics sometimes I feel incapable of taking the chance to jump on even if the story has only just left the dock. Now collected in 6 beautiful hardcover volumes, I checked them out from the Onondogaga county and Syracuse University library systems throughout the first term of my PhD.

Mind bender gets thrown around a lot to describe works of art that are difficult or complicated to parse through, but Mind MGMT is the first of those sorts for me that becomes increasingly complicated while maintaining total clarity. A tale with telepathy, government conspiracy, and global trotting, Mind MGMT is at its core a story of how individuals can change the world in collaboration with others. It sounds corny, I know, but at the end of this book I wept. Not for sadness, but for having felt empowered by a comic to be a better agent of localized change. A story that transfixed me composed in an art form I love inspired me to try harder to be human. Is there anything more you can want from art?

Unpleasant Design edited by Gordan Savičić and Selena Savić 

Unpleasant Design is a book I first heard about on the wonderful 99% Invisible podcast. A book of writings on urban design by a variety of writers of differing expertise (designers, activists, artists, scholars), Unpleasant Design showed me the ways that people shape their material reality (park benches, bus stops, intersections) to make them unpleasant for groups that the public wants to keep at the margins—the homeless, drug users, teenagers, and non-human animals. As a rhetorician interested in aesthetics and environmental sustainability, this book awakened me to the fact that urban design is never neutral, and made me better able to see human intent in the design of cities. I got a new lens to see how persuasion occurs in the world, and to better love a comfortable park bench whose design/designer invites me to sit or lie for hours overlooking a trail and a stream.

Let me Clear My Throat by Elena Passarello 

I tell a story sometimes at parties about singing along to the Arctic Monkeys 505 once when driving home from a night out. Curious, I decided to record myself starting on the chorus and played it back once the song was through. What I heard was a nasal whine so unlike what I thought it would be that I decided there to stop singing out loud around others. Years after, I started singing to myself sans recorder—on walks, washing dishes, in the shower, knowing that I would never impress anyone with my voice. That unexplored curiosity about voice made me excited to read Elena Passarello’s Let Me Clear My Throat after meeting her during my time at Oregon State University. Having listened to a recording of her essay ‘Teach Me Tonight’ on Frank Sinatra’s instructional singing book, I knew that Passarello would be able to articulate for me the pure joy of voice through her obsessions with vocal idols throughout the ages. A hilarious book, Passarello’s essays made me want to scream, warble, groan, and enjoy the sounds of others made in love, pain, and mania.

An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler
The Star By My Head: Poets from Sweden edited by Malena Mörling
Someone Please Have Sex With Me by Gina Wynbrandt
A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid
The Vision  by  Tom King (Writer), Gabriel Hernandez Walta (Illustrator), Jordie Bellaire (Colorist), Mike del Mundo (Cover Artist), Clayton Cowles (Letterer)
Comics, Manga, and Graphic Novels: A History of Graphic Narratives by Robert Petersen

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Impressions of David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed In Flames

(Spoiler Alert: Revelations are made, and things get mushy)

I spent some of today working on my reviews for Comic Bastards, and a lot of it sitting around my new apartment, working as a chair for my roommate’s cat, Bitty while thinking about all the thesis work I haven’t yet done and all the beer that I could be drinking. Having not written one of these in a while, I struggled to muster the energy to find something interesting to say about Sedaris’ work other than that he’s hilarious and makes wonderful stuff from the mundane, which is what 90% of the blurbs on the back of his book state.

David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed in Flames

Sedaris first came to my attention thanks to Facebook recommended pages some years back. An acquaintance had liked his page, and thanks to the magic of algorithms, Facebook figured I’d like him too. However, it wasn’t until I gave in to the ‘This American Life’ machine last year that I first heard Sedaris share one of his essays, one about the everyday issues he runs into due to his lack of fluency in French. Like most of those who hear Sedaris, I found him charming, relatable and more articulate than I could ever hope to be. I got pissed off while reading one of his essays where he describes a very specific color that I had no familiarity with, and just feeling like a complete dumbass, contemptuous of his vocabulary. Reading his essays in When You Are Engulfed In Flames, I was shaken by the ease with which he delivered stories of his family, youth and his often dull adult life. Continue reading “Impressions of David Sedaris’ When You Are Engulfed In Flames”

Spring Break Reading Impressions

(Spoiler Alert: Procrastination Rhymes with Gestation)

 

I’ve been a bad, bad boy. In addition to spacing (HONESTLY) on brushing my teeth this morning, I haven’t updated the blog in quite a bit due to a multitude of excuses, primarily the ‘well nobody is reading this anyway’ one that comes up whenever it feels like lounging about doing anything but write seems like the best use of my time. However, in my absence I did get through some fantastic work, and I took a couple minutes to write about each. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be returning to my regular schedule (longer works on Monday, comics on Wednesday and the occasional existential crisis on Friday). Thanks for reading you have, and welcome to the spring session.

 

Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comic: The Invisible Art

 

After reading Scott McCloud’s seminal comic book about comic books, I feel like I’ve grown in my understanding of not only the power of comics, but art in general. One moment that particularly stood out to me was when McCloud defines art as anything that doesn’t concern reproduction or survival. Such a broad definition seems to allow much that does not get accredited as art by posh folks. McCloud makes a brilliant move in using the medium to make an argument for its viability as an art form, going through many different historical styles as well as manipulating his page layouts to achieve diverse effects. When he describes why Japanese manga and their comic art evolved so differently due to the country’s isolationist stance, comics as a field itself up to all new forms of study by historical, literary, and art scholars without not falling neatly into any of those fields. Originally published in the early 90’s, it seems that comics have exploded in the manner that McCloud predicts with the Internet having provided creators with new ways of pushing the form, and comics, or at least graphic fiction, gaining increasing legitimacy in the public eye. Here’s hoping McCloud works up another edition of this wonderful book.

Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing Vol. 2: Love and Death

 

The Alan Moore run of Swamp Thing has been on my to-read list ever since I read Watchmen way back in 2007 when my parents got me the Absolute edition for Christmas. However, for a while there scoring a new copy of this book became pretty difficult, and it went to that place alongside Bram Stoker’s Dracula. I was fortunate then to have a friend get them, and not only recommend it but lend me the volumes as he made his way through them. While I enjoyed the stories from the first volume of Swamp Thing, they felt lacking in the sort of narrative innovations I look to Alan Moore for. It was a relief then that this second volume of his run possessed a restlessness in the manner of stories it told issue by issue, an occurrence that Neil Gaiman in his introduction writes is owed not only to Moore, but to the grueling schedules artists are placed on in the medium that requires fill-in artist to step in for a ‘filler’ between major arc issues. In this volume, Swamp Thing first battles his nemesis Arcane then heads to hell for Arcane’s niece, the beautiful Abigail. In the next issue we’re treated to a visual treat wherein Abigail and Swamp Thing profess their love for each other, and through her consumption of a fruit grown from him they meet in the consciousness of the Green for what is sure to have been mind-blowing sex delivered via lush colors. Somewhere within all the madness, is a playful and dark homage to Pogo that feels jarring when placed alongside the rest of the material, but makes for a fun respite from the grueling trials in Louisiana.

 

Brian Jay Jones’ Jim Henson: The Biography

The Muppets have long been one of those entities whose work I have always enjoyed even at its weakest, talking to you Muppets From Space. Amidst The Mario Bros. cartoon and not having network television for the first few years of my life it wasn’t until I was about seven or eight that I caught The Muppet Movie on television as a kid and saw Kermit sitting among a swamp singing “Rainbow Connection.” I was hooked. Years after I discovered that Jim Henson was the man behind all those fabulous characters, and I’d been curious since then to read more about him although I was reluctant as I couldn’t bare the thought of the man behind the epitome of whimsy being a douche in one form or another. However, a dear friend bought me a copy of Jones’ beautifully written biography. It’s a book that spans throughout Henson’s life, tracking his Southern origins all the way up to his mysterious and untimely death. What remained clear throughout reading of Jones’ well-researched book is that Jim was an amazing man, not only in his talent and creativity but in his generosity and concern for the well-being of the world. Although Jones does remark on the instances where Jim falls short of that image, a string of affairs during his marriage being the worst of it, those follies never threaten to outweigh all that he left the world with. He was a man that never thought of his work as work, but play and it’s made me feel more inspired than much of anything I’ve read recently to be a creator.

 

George Saunders’ Tenth of December

 

This is only the 2nd collection of Saunders’ book that I’ve read, the first being Civil War Land In Bad Decline (the first book I wrote about on here), and it’s marvelous how Saunders has continued to write stories that experiment with form while also being entirely comprehensible and not the least bit pretentious. Whether he’s writing the journal-form story “The Semplica Girl Diaries” that chronicles the lives of one near-future suburban family from the perspective of its patriarch, or the eponymous story, a 1st person narrative told by an imaginative, but bullied boy, Saunders manages to make each voice unique with all his characters evoking intense empathy even as they engage in activities that I couldn’t always agree with. Saunders, with just a simple change of our current world in several of these stories, is able to show the lunacy that pervades the world and how ordinary it all appears to those involved in it. If I were an artist, I’d get to working on illustrations on all the gizmos present in Saunders’ future worlds. Get to it, Believer illustrators!

 

Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol

Finishing Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol run was a landmark form me as it was the last of the pirated comics I downloaded before my conscience got the better of me. For a time there, I only read it on my laptop whenever I was on the bus going one place or the other, never quite sure what another person would think if they caught a view of my screen and saw the increasingly strange beings that Morrison and his artist’s team conjure up. Infusing a superhero comic with surrealism, pseudo-science, and Dada-like non rationalism, Morrison creates a comic unlike any other one. Rarely is a villain defeated by a punch from the straight man Cliff Steel aka Robotman (a man whose only remaining human organ is his brain). More often the villains of Doom Patrol get their due in the form of blown out candles, flexed muscles, Crazy Jane (a woman diagnosed with Dissociative Personality Disorder-each personality exhibiting a different superpower) shouting key words from giant horses, and one villain throwing a face onto another. This comic could never be accused of predictability and nearly every character presented here, villains included, could easily serve as the basis for a book of their own. As a jump-off point for Morrison’s work with American comic publishers, it’s disorienting how much he was able to achieve early on. So enjoyable was this run that I don’t even cringe at the penance I’ll pay in buying the Omnibus when it drops later this year.

Impression of Vivek J. Tiwary and Andrew C. Robinson’s The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story

(Spoiler Alert: Not really about The Beatles, but sorta about them. No, not really.)

            Sometimes it can be a good idea to make an impulse purchase when you’re drunk. Thankfully the few times I have done this have led to reading some books I’d never consider purchasing like The Fifth Beatle. I was in Portland on MLK day with two friends from my program, and drifted off to a nearby comic book shop right before we were going to head back to Corvallis. I had already purchased Enrique Vila-Matas’ Dublinesque from Powell’s earlier that day, so I did not intend to get any other books. However, in my buzzed state I could not resist the call of Bridge City Comics, and entered uncertain about what I would get because God forbid I enter a store and leave empty-handed (What would the employees and other customers think?). I started mulling about the independent publisher sections, and when an employee offered to help me, and I blurted out The Fifth Beatle. It was unavailable among the stacks, but she made a search in the back and while I was on the phone with my mom, she returned and thrust the oversized graphic novel in my free arm.

Hint: Brian’s the one in the bitching matador costume.

Continue reading “Impression of Vivek J. Tiwary and Andrew C. Robinson’s The Fifth Beatle: The Brian Epstein Story”

Impressions of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer

(Cancer sucks, but that’s not much of a spoiler)

For a long time I tried to think of humans as just another animal, albeit one with advanced alien technology that allows it to kill other animals en masse and domesticate the ones it thinks are yummy. This hopefully happens in my brain to cope the heinous acts humans often do since, after all, we’re just selfish animals trying to live. This is also why I sometimes make the claim to be happy for the existence of diseases- they keep our numbers in check and prevent us from overpopulating the world and annihilating it. This does not go over well at parties where most people have lost someone to disease and no one is interested in such morbid and callous ideas.

Unfortunately such callous detachment only works well if you’re capable of maintaining it. Until recently, no relatives or friends of mine had been the victims of a disease. That made it easy for me to make stupid dumb arguments that evoked horrible memories of loss and grief for many people I care about. Then my maternal grandfather was diagnosed with cancer a few years ago and although he lived beyond his diagnosed life expectancy his slow death remained difficult for my mother and sisters, and to a lesser extent, myself. And even then a major part of why his death was difficult for me was because, through my limited knowledge of cancer, I was aware that genetics plays a large role in a person’s susceptibility. Therefore my grandfather’s cancer was just a signal of my potential future cancer.

The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee

This led to my reading of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s Biography of Cancer, thinking that if my fear was based in what I didn’t know about cancer if I learned more about the disease I could quell my fear to a large extent. Thankfully, at the close of four hundred and seventy pages, that and more transpired in me. I developed, at least for the moment, what lots of books would like to provoke- compassion for others. In the case of this book, compassion for patients of cancer and the people who work to limit its detrimental effects (my own mother included) on others. From his astoundingly moving and well-cited text, Mukherjee uses his personal experiences as a clinical oncologist as a through-line in a centuries spanning story about the frustrations, chance revolutions and defeats in the lives of medical researchers, oncological clinicians, patients, pharmaceutical scientists and disease advocates. Continue reading “Impressions of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer”

Impressions of Steve Almond’s Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America

[Disclaimer: I rather not write about music cause I don’t know how to, but I will be embedding links to songs to listen to while reading this post or doing other things in your life. Let me know if this is a crappy idea. I have a lot of crappy ideas].

When I was a kid living in Belize, I worshipped at the altar of the Reese’s Peanut Butter cup. I love the combination of chocolate and peanut and the way the heat forced me to eat it quickly before it melted in its wrapper or resting in my hand. The first would be gone in two bites and then I’d eat the second by nibbling on the ridges, encircling the center like a sadistic predator before gobbling it up. One day Reese’s disappeared from all the stores as a result of a nationwide halt of importation on certain “luxury” items.

Four years ago when I moved to Houston, Texas it took me the entirety of six months to be able to make it out of the store without a packet (often the king-sized version containing four, which my mind couldn’t compute).

Steve Almond’s ‘Candyfreak’

I say all that to let you know that I am somewhat familiar with the neurosis of the candyfreak Steve Almond describes in his non-fiction account of the American candy industry circa early 2000’s. Unlike Almond though, I had to put aside my candyfreak ways due a low metabolism and a fear of contracting hereditary diabetes. For the week I was reading Almond’s book though, I could think of little else but the chocolates of my youth and recent memory, but unlike him I abhor any other candy; most likely as a result of being the progeny of a dentist who’d sometimes describe the deplorably cavity-infected mouths of kids I knew from school that made frequent trips to him.

Continue reading “Impressions of Steve Almond’s Candyfreak: A Journey through the Chocolate Underbelly of America”