Monday, November 30, 2009

The Physicists by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

I read most of this book in the stacks at the Pratt library, while I was supposed to be shelving. Hey, everyone did it--I was still more productive than most student employees.

As for the book, it's a satiric play by Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt, in which the world’s greatest physicist, Johann Wilhelm Möbius, is in a madhouse, surrounded by two other scientists: one who thinks he is Einstein, another who believes he is Newton.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

Yet another book in Penguin's deluxe classics series. This one is designed by Art Spiegelman, and it is one of my favorite books. Period. It's a trio of short novels by Paul Auster, part hardboiled detective fiction, part metafictional postmodernism (how do you like that?), exploring themes of identity and reality. They're referred to as "existential mysteries" in the book.

I love the map with the Tower of Babel inset.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B. White

I was first introduced to The Elements of Style as a college freshman by my writing teacher, who referred to it as "Strunk and White*" (as in, "Refer to your Strunk and White"). At the time I had the plain old small paperback edition, which served its purpose just fine.

Then this beautiful clothbound edition came out, with illustrations by Maira Kalman, and I somehow found myself buying a fancy version of a grammar guide. I'm curious as to how this all came about, as it seems a bit of an unlikely project, or at least unexpected. I certainly would have been surprised to hear of it back when I was being instructed to refer to my Strunk and White.

From the outset you can tell that this time it's going to be a little different.

(the corresponding "and goodbye" comes at the last two pages)

I love the box tied up with string to signify "contents." The juxtaposition of imagery with text is quite poetic--they evoke a feeling that I can't quite pinpoint just now.

I'm not sure if this is supposed to be the Philip Johnson glass house (which I have still not been to--every summer I try to buy tickets only to find that every tour is already sold out), but it is certainly what I think of when I see this.

I love the semi-colon embossed into the back (to match the colon on the front).

*That's White as in E. B. White, as in the author of Charlotte's Web. Just in case you didn't know.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Misery Loves Comedy by Ivan Brunetti

The landscape of contemporary "underground" comics tends to be a dark and disturbing place--and I like it that way. Even so, Ivan Brunetti's work really stands out as especially angry, dark, and violent, in addition to being pretty self-deprecating. This unassuming cloth cover does not do much to hint at what's contained inside...

I cropped this one a bit but if I'd left in the entire page you'd also see a few panels in which Brunetti chops off his own penis and throws it in the trash.

He does tend to get a bit wordy in his self-deprecation. I have to admit I didn't read every word of every panel. It gets a bit tiresome after awhile.

This one really amuses me though,

as does this page in which he attempts to emulate Chris Ware.

I'll leave you with some good advice for avoiding those pesky telemarketers.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov

Pnin was the first novel by Vladimir Nabokov that I read, and it's still my favorite. It made me fall in love with his use of language--I can still remember reading this paragraph over and over again: "Presently all were asleep again. It was a pity nobody saw the display in the street, where the auroral breeze wrinkled a large luminous puddle, making of the telephone wires reflected in it illegible lines of black zigzags."

The story revolves around the character of Timofey Pnin, a Russian professor who comes to America to teach at a respectable university but never quite manages to assimilate. Nabokov adds complexity by using the "unreliable narrator" device, so that you begin to wonder how much of the story is believable, how much you really know about Pnin.

Nearly all of Nabokov's backlist is being repackaged, and I have to say it's long overdue. While the older cover design contains elements that I like (the squirrel photo, the leaf in the background) it just doesn't quite come together. As for the new package, I like the bowtie, and the repetition of p's, n's, and i's. The overarching theme for the series design is the specimen box, an homage to Nabokov's love of collecting butterflies. I love this idea, though I think some of the cover executions are stronger than others. I'm also not sure how I feel about the leathery looking black border on all of them. Here's a sampling of some of my favorites:

And, for the hell of it, here are a few older Pnin covers:

The last one is pretty surreal. Overall I think my favorite is the one of the old man and two sets of buildings. Although the bowtie is pretty nice, the more I look at it. The black border isn't even so bad. I might have to buy a few of these.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Golem: An Old Prague Tale by Jan Krůta and Jiří Votruba

About six years or so ago I spent a week in Prague. After seeing traces of the golem around the city in the form of statues, etc., I decided to pick up this little picture book.

The illustration style strangely reminds me of a Sam McPheeters drawing.

More about the story of the golem here.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Candide by Voltaire

This is the first book in Penguin's deluxe classics line, an ongoing series of classic novels featuring covers drawn by contemporary comic book artists, and it is also one of my favorite deluxe editions. Chris Ware's geometric drawing style somehow seems tailor made for this purpose (I'd like to see an entire book of summaries of classic books drawn by Ware, wouldn't you?), and the witty synopsis of the book in comic form perfectly complements this bitingly satiric novel. The gold embossing is pretty nice too.

There are so many wonderful details on the flaps, especially this rundown of major characters.

The "Dr. Pangloss Activity Corner" is a nice touch.

And the back cover copy for this edition is kind of amazing:

"With Candide, Voltaire bumptiously skewered the fashionable misinterpretation of the doctrine of philosophical optimism, unerringly offending kings, scientists, fanaticals, publishers, journalists, and even priests; composed in a mere three days, Voltaire's capacity to amuse, disgust, and surprise endures today, roughly ninety-thousand days later. Theo Cuffe's new translation is invaluable for those English-speaking readers who cannot understand French, and the Introduction by Michael Wood should prove indispensable to all schoolchildren who haven't read the book and are cramming in homeroom before the test."

If that doesn't make you want to go back and read it again, I don't know what will. I also need to find a way to use the word "bumptious" in a sentence, stat.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

This account of the origin and spread of a severe cholera epidemic in London in the 1850s, as well as the efforts to stop it, is pretty fascinating. It really makes you appreciate modern science, and even moreso modern plumbing.

The front cover is awesome as it is (I have a thing for old maps), but when you turn it over and see the back and the spine it really kind of adds another level.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style by Matt Madden

Awhile back I attended a reading that included a slide show from comic artist Matt Madden. He was showing some pages of a book he was working on at the time that basically took Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style and translated it into comic form—that is, taking a very short, basic, and kind of boring story, and drawing it 99 different ways. It's a bit of a primer on storytelling through comics, with, like Queneau's work, some of the versions getting a bit insane and inadvisable to actually implement seriously. Years later I found the book on a shelf at work (it seems like if I wait long enough I'll find just about anything on the shelf at work—it's great!).

Here's the basic story.




"Underground Comix"—a nice little nod to R. Crumb here.

"Exorcises in Style"—pretty amusing.

It's a great concept, and I of course can get behind the homage to Queneau, though I wouldn't call it a masterpiece. I mean, he didn't even come up with the idea first (well, except to do it in comic form). It is, however a great tool for those wanting to become comic book artists, a nice supplement to Will Eisner's Comics & Sequential Art.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Angels by Denis Johnson

This is Denis Johnson's debut novel, and next to Jesus' Son, it's his best (at least of what I've read). A young mother fleeing her cheating husband meets Bill Houston (who later appears in Johnson's 2007 Vietnam War novel Tree of Smoke) on a Greyhound bus. As the cover copy says, "Together, they make an aimless tour of bus stations and cheap hotels from Pittsburgh to Phoenix, their momentum fueled by booze, rage, and corrosive need, their journey a trajectory that leads inexorably to a moment of shattering violence." Aimless, booze-fueled, violent--these are the words that describe my kind of read. (No, seriously.) It's dark and desperate, and powerfully written. Pretty excellent for a debut novel--or any novel, for that matter.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Screaming Life by Charles Peterson

I got this book of photographs by Charles Peterson, best known for his shots of the late 80s/early 90s Seattle music scene, when I was in eighth or ninth grade and my favorite band was Nirvana. The book, which I'm shocked appears to be out of print, came with a CD featuring tracks by Nirvana, Mudhoney, Green River, Soundgarden, Tad, Beat Happening, The Fastbacks, and possibly a couple others. (For some annoying reason it was all one track, which made it really hard to skip over the Tad song.) The inclusion of the last two bands I mention would eventually lead me to track down their albums (though it admittedly did take awhile--I'm a little slow to do stuff like that). But I'm much more of a Beat Happening fan now than I am of any of the more "grungy" bands, so one might say that this CD influenced my tastes just a bit.

Much of Peterson's work takes place in the crowd at shows--he ventured into the sweaty craziness with all of his equipment, shaping many people's views of the Seattle "scene". Most of the classic, instantly recognizable photographs of that era were shot by him. (Photo above is an early one of Green River.)

And here's the inimitable Calvin Johnson of Beat Happening.

While Peterson largely chronicled local bands, he also photographed some of the touring bands coming through town. Hence the above photo of Billy Childish.

The book includes several contact sheets. This one features shots of the Supersuckers playing in Japan.

Peterson's most memorable photos were in the crowds but he also took some portrait photos of bands--like this great one of Tad. Chainsaws and beer=a winning combination. (I also love the generic "beer" label on the can.)

The last page of the book is this great drawing by Seattle comic artist Peter Bagge, which I couldn't resist including.