The Krazy Kat Kwest comes to a Klose. I plan to write more about this, but I got the second volume of Fantagraphics’ long-out-of-print hardcover edition of Krazy and Ignatz, spanning 1925-34, around 600 pages, as well as the oversized Taschen reprint of the color Sundays from 1935-44. Both came in the mail via different sources, and many happy hours were spent poring, and giggling over, the antics of Krazy, Ignatz, and Offissa Pup.
Lynda Barry and Ocean Vuong were both among the recipients of the Macarthur Genius Grants for 2019. I am attending a talk between Barry and Chris Ware on October 15, and looking forward to it hugely.
Travellers of the Third Reich was a book that accompanied me nearly all week. Subtitled “The Rise of Fascism through the Eyes of Everyday People”, the book is an excellent example of how people living through historical events misinterpret, misjudge, and are sometimes completely oblivious to it. It is only with the benefit of hindsight and multiple streams of information that we arrive at conclusions, decades in the future, of what really happened. Fascinating and chilling at the same time.
The deluge of terrible Batman stories continues, with Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo’s Batman: Damned just out. Today there was supposed to be a signing by the creators at Vroman’s in Pasadena, and I almost made it there, except I decided to read the book beforehand. The dispassionate part of me tries to say that maybe I am really too old for this shit, while another side ignores all niceties and throws up streams of contempt at the intellectual bankruptcy of it all. This is a sweaty, incoherent mess of a comic-book, and the artwork of course plays the role of putting layers of rouge on a fetid, fly-ridden dung-heap. Not that there aren’t people who lose their minds over the “grittiness” of a story that has the Joker dead, Batman being portrayed as a leather-clad psychopath who is haunted by literal demons from childhood, and guest appearances from the occult corners of the DC Universe. If you bring your nose closer to the pages, you may smell a potent mix of Axe body spray and desperation. Fuck this book, fuck the intellectually bankrupt creators who are raping the Killing Joke corpse, and fuck the market for supporting crap like this.
Watched Booksmart again, now that it is available on digital platforms. $10 4K UHD on Vudu, why not? The karaoke sequence still makes me pee with hysterical laughter, and there has never been a better use of the word ‘Malala’ in popular culture. The soundtrack has been a summer staple, and rewatching the film made me rediscover some tracks even better, with the visual context. ‘Double Rum Cola’, though, man. What a track.
LA Find of the Week: The Inn of the Seventh Ray, a restaurant high up in Topanga Canyon. Excellent place for a morning buffet, and the drive is pure adrenaline, especially in an open-top Jeep Wrangler.
I’ve done it twice so far, each time with a different set of friends, and it has been different both times. A distillery tour that is very different from what you might expect. Lost Spirits is a chemistry experiment occurring in the world of alcohol, one that seeks to recreate flavors of beverages such as whisky, rum, and brandy by aging chemicals in reactors instead of, as distillers do, in barrels. The difference is time — what traditionally takes years, even decades, happens in six days here. The result is a stunning opportunity to experiment with flavors and distillation processes, giving them a startup-y vibe when it comes to their products. It would be one thing if they were just mad scientists trying to keep up with the big boys, but the weird thing about these guys is that their drinks are really. Fucking. Good. They have won multiple awards for their bottles of whiskey-equivalents and rum-equivalents (with names derived from The Island of Dr Moreau), but what really takes it to another level is their distillery tour. Part amusement park ride, part loopy-DIY craziness, all fun, the tour started as a way to entertain friends of friends, and then proceeded to become a little-advertised, word-of-mouth phenomenon with tickets sold out months in advance.
The venue has changed between my last visit and this current one, which happened this Sunday. Among the few differences — a longer boat ride, a more convoluted maze, a brighter look and feel, two bus rides, one with an steampunk underwater theme, and the other with a French cabaret vibe. Turns out that an accidental electrical fire at their older venue got them to dream bigger, and implement better.
But seriously though, both the place and the concept are still incredible, the second time around. The aesthetics of the place combined with the alchemical wizardry these guys bring to their spirits knock my socks off. Their stories are fantastic, including their quest to recreate the original Mai Tai cocktail. You see, the original cocktail was created to highlight the flavor of a J Wray and Nephew Jamaican rum batch that was aged 17 years during the Prohibition years and lost the company a great deal of money. The cocktail, Vic Bergeron’s concoction, deemed “out of the world, the best!” by patrons from Tahiti (translated from ‘Maita’i roa a’e, ergo the name) became super popular, while that particular batch of rum ran out. Tiki fads and the onset of commerce took its toll on the mai tai, and today’s version is considered much, much different from the original.
I don’t want to rob the Lost Ones of their chance to tell the story themselves — it’s a highlight of the tour, after all. Suffice it to say, the adventure involves an endangered species of trees, a fifty-thousand dollar bottle, an antique dresser, smoke damage from a fire, and of course, experiments galore. By the time we arrived at the last quarter of the trip, exit through the gift shop, I had whipped my credit card out to jump on the ‘Cry of the Puma’, my favorite among the whiskeys. And the rhyming birds just added to the fun, one of the few things that hadn’t changed from my previous trip
Keep it kooky, Lost Spirits, and….uh….could I get a refill please?
Possibly one of the most beautiful books I have read this year, this 200-page epistolary novel (novella?) co-written by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone. With chapters that tumble through timelines and settings, called Strands, in a seemingly-eternal war between two factions. One of them a “viney hivey elfworld” and the other a “techy mechy dystopia”, both laying down strategies that span multiple centuries and possibilities. All so that their side may win.
None of that is important.
What matters is the flow of words that mold the shape of the story, an exchange of letters between two agents on the opposing sides, named Red and Blue. These are not the only names the two use for each other, for the messages that begin as a trickle of taunts and challenges soon become missives laced with humor, flirtations, and emotions laid bare. With their words, they slash and thrust and parry, and very soon, they insinuate themselves in the other’s mind and heart. “Words can wound, but they can be bridges, too”, to quote a line.
The book made me lament the fact that over the years, everything we write seems to become terser, to the point. Like we have forgotten to surf through our ideas, to race through our waves of thought and action and slow them down into a dance of spaces and characters, punctuation and pause. We revel in our economy of discourse, images embedded with a sprinkle of words on the side, coated with a side of irony, all erasing the primal weaponry of words. We feel relief, both at saving ourselves the trouble of over-sharing, and of having saved the other person some time by compressing both our words and perhaps our feelings.
Even typing this feels wrong, like yelling into a void from where nothing echoes back. This feels like a predictable yearning for something which never really existed, the kind of weltschmertz that also seems to haunt one’s soul at a particular age. But mostly, it feels like a pity that no one I know ever says, “Tell me something true, or tell me nothing at all.” The small joy that reading a simile like “apophenic as a haruspex” brings.
Behold, the peerless use of language to both evoke emotions, and establish the character. This is Red, she of the technological antecedents.
I bite blueberry pancakes drizzled with maple syrup, extra butter — that expanding fluff, the berry’s pop against my teeth, butter’s bloom in my mouth. I explore sweetnesses and textures. I am never hungry, so I don’t race to the next bite. I eat glass, and as it cuts my gums, I savor minerals, metals, impurities; I see the beach from which some poor bastard skimmed the sand. Small rocks taste of the river, of rubbed fish scale, of glaciers long gone. They crunch, crisp, celery-like.
And this is part of a letter from Blue, she of the forest and the vale.
I love you. If you’ve come this far, that’s all I can say. I love you and I love you and I love you, on battlefields, in shadows, in fading ink, on cold ice splashed with the blood of seals. In the rings of trees. In the wreckage of a planet crumbling to space. In bubbling water. In bee stings and dragonfly wings, in stars. In the depths of lonely woods where I wandered in my outh, staring up — and even then you watched me. You slid back through my life, and I have known you since before I knew you.
I feel like I need to reread this book. Or better still, listen to it. Audio-books no longer put me to sleep, and Time War feels like the perfect candidate for a voice-over at the start of a work-day.
Every now and then, when it comes to buying stuff indulging in collectorial practices, the imaginary line I draw in the imaginary sand is smudged by an imaginary eraser. As a result of which the aforementioned line becomes the kind that would give Cecil Radcliffe a severe case of the runs, followed by the chills.
Case in point: offerings from Subterranean Press. I have whittled down my purchases to the barest necessary, but my resolve was tested earlier this month, when it was announced that Joe Hill’s latest collection of short stories, Full Throttle, would have a SubPress limited/signed release. Seeing as how my waffling over NOS4A2 did my blood pressure no good in the past, I knew I would go for it. But it took about a week of gritting my teeth and wringing my hands before I actually ventured to lay down $175 for the pleasure of owning a copy of the book, sight unseen, numbered and signed by Messrs Hill and McKean, he of Sandman renown. But the limiteds of 20th Century Ghosts and Heart-Shaped Box are biblionicorns of the kind that make hearts and wallets bleed, and I would rather not take a chance with a Hill book.
It also did not hurt that the Suntup Press limited edition of Hill’s Horns just came to Papa about 2 weeks ago, after a wait of about half a year. I confess to owning the PS Publishing signed/limited edition that came out in 2010, but Suntup’s version was too hard to pass on. The line in the sand that I drew for signed limited editions was that I would only buy one if the original author was among the signers, and Horns met the criteria, while Haunting of Hill House and Rosemary’s Baby did not. Not that I did not have severe crises of conscience, but the line held. It did not however hold for Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, one of my favorite works by the man. Suntup’s edition, not out yet, but sold out in pre-orders, has an introduction and an autograph by Joyce Carol Oates. McCarthy is notorious for not signing his books, specifically The Road, which he has apparently signed a few copies for his son alone.
What really rubbed the line this week was the announcement that Tamsyn Muir’s first book Gideon The Ninth would have a limited release via Subterranean, and copies would go on sale on Tuesday morning. Now here was the situation:
The only thing I knew about the book was the phrase “lesbian necromancers in space”
It wasn’t out yet, so I could not read it
Reviews had come in from a coterie of distinguished authors, including Warren Ellis, VE Schwab, Charles Stross, Robin Sloan, and Max Gladstone (whose This is How You Lose the Time War is what I am reading Right. Now)
I probably would have never encountered Ocean Vuong had it not been for James Ellroy. Not in the way you think, though. Ellroy is the furthest one can place from Vuong when it comes to writing style or genre. But it was while attending an Ellroy signing one Saturday at Skylight books that the MC mentioned it may be prudent to buy a copy of writer Ocean Vuong’s book in advance, because it looked like the event would have to be capped.
If there is a single thing one picks up on in independent bookstores, much like in libraries, is that if a recommendation comes from a staff member or from a librarian, it’s best to not reason why, but jump right in. I bought a copy of “On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous”, spent the weekend reading it, and then came back on Tuesday to listen to Vuong reading from and talking about the book, his first published novel.
It was, believe it or not, a very emotional experience. The crowd was packed, very diverse, the book obviously had a lot of fans even before its official release. I stood in the back of the store, barely able to see Vuong as he whisper-sang words from the book and from his heart. There were people crying during the question-and-answer session.
I don’t want to write about the book, or about Vuong and his life and work, since other people have already done it way better than I ever could have. What I do want to mention is that very obvious sentence. You must read this book. Because it is, true to the writer’s name, filled with joy and mystery and heartbreak and pulls you into its depths with a fierce, unrelenting tug, from the very first page. I have been reading a lot of immigrant fiction lately, tales of travelers to the shores of this country of contradictions. “On Earth We are Briefly Gorgeous” establishes itself as one of the best books about belonging and unbelonging that I have read in recent times.
Migration can be triggered by the angle of sunlight, indicating a change in season, temperature, plant life, and food supply. Female monarchs lay eggs along the route. Every history has more than one thread, each thread a story of division. The journey takes four thousand eight hundred and thirty miles, more than the length of this country. The monarchs that fly south will not make it back north. Each departure, then, is final. Only their children return; only the future revisits the past. What is a country but a borderless sentence, a life?
I won’t stay here long, we might say. I’ll get a real job soon. But more often than not, sometimes within months, even weeks, we will walk back into the shop, heads lowered, our manicure drills inside paper bags tucked under our arms, and ask for our jobs back. And often the owner, out of pity or understanding or both, will simply nod at an empty desk—for there is always an empty desk. Because no one stays long enough and someone is always just-gone. Because there are no salaries, health care, or contracts, the body being the only material to work with and work from. Having nothing, it becomes its own contract, a testimony of presence. We will do this for decades—until our lungs can no longer breathe without swelling, our livers hardening with chemicals—our joints brittle and inflamed from arthritis—stringing together a kind of life. A new immigrant, within two years, will come to know that the salon is, in the end, a place where dreams become the calcified knowledge of what it means to be awake in American bones—with or without citizenship—aching, toxic, and underpaid.
The weight of the average placenta is roughly one and a half pounds. A disposable organ where nutrients, hormones, and waste are passed between mother and fetus. In this way, the placenta is a kind of language—perhaps our first one, our true mother tongue.
One of the most powerful paragraphs of the book involves the presence of metaphors for conflict and violence in discussing art, and Vuong commented on the same during his question-and-answer session:
You killed that poem, we say. You’re a killer. You came in to that novel guns blazing. I am hammering this paragraph, I am banging them out, we say. I owned that workshop. I shut it down. I crushed them. We smashed the competition. I’m wrestling with the muse. The state, where people live, is a battleground state. The audience a target audience. “Good for you, man,” a man once said to me at a party, “you’re making a killing with poetry. You’re knockin’ ’em dead.”
So yeah, read it.
Also, if you are ever in Los Angeles, make sure to look at the Skylight Books events page beforehand, and try to visit one of their signings. The bookshop is in a beautiful LA neighborhood called Los Feliz, and you will feel like you have been there before and walked the streets. You won’t be wrong, because it is a favorite shooting location for TV shows and films alike; two I remember off the top of my head are Ruby Sparks and Atypical, and I am sure there are many more. The bookstore is named for its naturally-lit interior, and there is a tree in the center of shop that makes it even more spectacular.
Oh, and before I forget, James Ellroy’s signing was a hoot. He’s an incredible…character, someone who plays a version of himself in a crowd. Foul-mouthed, rambunctious, funny, and very very kind in person. A reread of the LA Quartet is on the backlog. Watch this space.