*** August 2011 Newsletter Pick ***
While creating art out of typographic characters is nothing new -- Sufi scribes sidestepped a ban on pictures by creating images out of scripture, and concrete poetry helped usher in early 20th century Modernism -- its popularity has increased exponentially in the past few decades. Word processing programs have made amateur typographers of us all; every computer-literate person can talk fonts to some degree, and nearly everyone has a favorite font (or, at the very least, a serif-versus-sans preference). Type Image is a gorgeous survey, presenting historical examples of typographic art alongside ultra-modern takes on the form, with a range from the comic to the profoundly moving. The book approaches the subject with enough gravity to make it a worthy addition to any study of typography, but is attractive enough to make it a stand-alone collection of art, placing the reader in the beautiful gray area between text and art.
In its subject matter, cartoonist Chris Ware's Building Stories falls somewhere in the tradition of epic universe-of-small-stories books such as The Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, or Ulysses.
In its form and structure, however, it's a relentlessly modern work --
in fact, from the double meaning of the title to the foldout building
diagram that serves as the book's centerpiece, the word "structure" has
rarely been given such a workout. A decade in the making, the book is a
boxed collection of 14 pamphlets, map-style foldouts, cloth-bound
hardcovers, and other book structures, each of which provides some small
window into the lives of residents of a single apartment building. As
with much of Ware's past work, the tone is (to put it lightly) downbeat,
focusing on the strung-together failures and small domestic tragedies
that always sum to something short of a fulfilling life. Taken as a
whole, though, the book has a slow-burn radiance that permeates even its
dreariest corners. Unpacking this gorgeous meta-book is reminiscent of
unboxing and setting up an unfamiliar board game: it's clear that each
piece plays some part, but what that part is may not be immediately
clear. All told, this is a milestone in graphic fiction, and makes for
an unnerving and transformative reading experience. -- John Peck
***May 2010 Newsletter Pick***
Novelist, essayist, and poet Gilbert Sorrentino, who died in 2006, was one of the great under-appreciated American writers of the last century. His work has a consistently pitch-black humor that is particularly Irish in pedigree, placing him in the tradition of writers like James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Flann O'Brien. Many of his books, including this one, combine meticulously experimental prose structures with vivid, all-too-real narratives of the mundanities and small horrors of working-class American life. Sorrentino achieved most of his notoriety from novels he wrote in the 70s (among them Mulligan Stew and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things), but his later books - such as Gold Fools, a novel written entirely in questions - are my personal favorites, and are, if anything, even more dark and uncompromising than his earlier work.
This amazing book, previously only available in extremely limited hand-assembled versions, is finally out in a beautiful hardcover edition. While the original "Choose Your Own Adventure" books from decades past provide some context for Shiga's masterwork, this book goes leaps and bounds past those source texts, in both subject matter and format. Multicolored tubes travel three-dimensionally through the book, via tabs at the outer edges of each page. The result is beautiful, brilliant, confounding, and utterly unique - and, despite its generally whimsical artwork, probably not suitable for children.
It's not just this book's 900 page heft that makes it a modern epic - it's Bolano's use of multiple perspectives, each of which contains a fully realized narrative arc, and which together fill out a dense, tragic, and incredibly captivating story. Dense and challenging, but very worthwhile.
Collections of essays need not be the reading equivalent of broccoli. In his essays, as in his fiction, George Saunders seems incapable of writing an uninteresting sentence. Highly recommended.
Charles Burns has always had an obsession with biological anomaly, but this book is his masterpiece. It's not for the squeamish (the films of David Cronenberg are a good comparison), but it's an amazing read, with moments of real beauty.
Although Brautigan is inextricably linked to the counterculture of the 1960's, I've always found his books to be surprisingly modern in tone and language. While TFIA is brisk and often funny, its absurdist approach, like all great absurdist art, hints at the sadness beneath the surface. A great novel of the American West.