As the year winds down, I thought it’d be fun to look back at all the stuff I read this past year. And talk about it! Sometimes, at least. Talk about it if I have something to say.
1. And Here’s The Kicker! edited by Mike Sacks
One of my favorite books of the past few years; each chapter is an interview between Sacks and some figure of comedy, talking about the nuts and bolts of being funny. Similar to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, really, but in text form.
2. Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon
I’ve taken several stabs at Gravity’s Rainbow and beeb defeated every time. So it was gratifying to find Inherent Vice such an easy read. It’s not the deepest thing in the world, but it’s fun- following a perpetually stoned private detective around Los Angeles, the book really reminded me of Big Lebowski fan fiction. And even if I’m just making that up, it’s a truth I’m going to cling to, because I love the idea that at this point Pynchon’s just sitting around writing about the Dude.
3. Route 19 Revisited: The Clash and London Calling, Marcus Gray
My wife saw this at the library and grabbed it for me, thinking I’d like it. And at first, I was really apprehensive about reading it; partly because I’ve really come to distrust a lot of music writing (it’s way, way too common for music writing to wind up being all about the writer), and partly because reading Hunter Thompson’s biography made me skittish about learning more about people I admire.
But I wore down and gave Route 19 a shot, and I’m damn glad I did. Not only did it wind up being the best piece of music writing I’ve come across in a while; I think this book actually wound up taking up more space in my head than anything else I read this year (especially if you factor in the orgy of London Calling-listening and general Clash superfandom that it kicked off).
Gray basically leaves no stone unturned in giving you the complete story on London Calling. In order to have the proper background for the abum, you get individual biographies of the band members, and then a history of the band. And then a detailed description of the songwriting and recording process of the album (occasionally too detailed; the only stuff I skipped in this book were Gray’s sections on which mikes the Clash were using). And then an awesome, exhaustive song-by-song analysis of the music and lyrics of each track on the album. And then chapters on the release and reception, and what happened to the Clash afterwards.
There was a lot too it, but Gray puts it together so well that it’s almost always a joy to read. And totally fascinating! I’d always liked London Calling before, but after going through Route 19, I was really appreciative of all sorts of layers, both musical and lyrical, that I’d totally issed before.
4. Superheroes, Strip Artists, & Talking Animals: Minnesota’s Contemporary Cartoonists, Britt Aamodt
I’m human enough that I basically read the subtitle of this book as Fuck You, Keith Pille. Which is ridiculous, but hey, I contain multitudes, and a bunch of those multitudes are pretty ridiculous.
5. Wake Up, Sir!, Jonathan Ames
An alcoholic writer and his imaginary butler invade a writer’s retreat in kind of a weird travesty of Wodehouse. I enjoyed this– Ames is a funny guy, and the conceit’s a good one– but it did suffer from a moment about 3/4 the way through when, seeing that the book was nearly over and the scope wasn’t going to be getting any bigger, I started feeling a letdown on the lines of “that’s all that was st stake?”
Still, worth checking out.
6. Essential X-Men, Volume 1, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
7. Essential X-Men, Volume 2, Chris Claremont and John Byrne
I’m definitely drifting away from superhero comics, but it’s still fun to go back and read the classics from time to time. The thing that really struck me this time through was the really high level of Byrne’s contribution. The book really gets better when he jumps onboard. His art’s so much snappier than Cockrum’s, and his writing tics balance Claremont’s really nicely.
If you’re not down with the Proletarian, I think you and I have a problem.
8. Batman Vs. Robin, Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
9. Milk It! Collected Musings on the Alternative Music Explosion of the 90s, Jim DeRogatis
There was a time when I thought this was a great book, but I guess my sensibility has drifted. I guess here’s what it comes down to: this book asks you to consider Urge Overkill and Courtney Love as decade-defining artists with a lot to say. If that’s an argument you think is worthwhile, this is the book for you.
10. Kill Shakespeare, Conor McCreery, Anthony Del Col and Andy Belanger
This isn’t something I’d normally say, but McCreery, Del Col, and Belanger should be smeared with ground beef and tossed into a shark tank for producing this sad chunk of shit.
Let me put it this way: working on English Majeure, I’m painfully, painfully aware of the risk I’m running of doing a strip that really just showcases how much I missed the point of something. Kill Shakespeare was a harrowing read, because it felt like a giant gallery of Things From Shakespeare They Missed The Point Of. I actually felt embarrassed for McCreery, Del Col, and Belanger, and that’s not a way I like to feel.
11. Macbeth, William Shakespeare
Yeah, I went back to the source to clean the taste of shit out of my mouth. And Macbeth is good stuff.
It does hit me as funny how cliched the back half of Macbeth would come off now, with two separate instances of characters pulling the old “here’s a loophole in the prophecy that you think is protecting you” trick. I’m not sure if this is a case of Shakespeare being cut a break because he’s Shakespeare, or, more likely, something that was fresh at the time but has become cliched in the 400 years since the play was written.
Either way, it doesn’t matter. it’s still a great fucking play.
12. Essential X-Men, Vol. 3, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum
Cockrum comes back and the quality slips a little, but it’s still good X-stuff. A showdown between Magneto and Ronald Reagan? That shit’s gold.
13. My Year of Flops, Nathan Rabin
Rabin’s my favorite writer at the AV Club, and I’ve loved his My Year of Flops feature from the get-go. The book collection is good, and includes some writeups that aren’t on the AV Club’s site; but it suffered a little bit from the fact that I’d already read most of the pieces before, and from the fact that a book can’t include Youtube clips to demonstrate points.
14. The Pregnant Widow, Martin Amis
If I remember right, this story of a bunch of horny 20somethings hanging out in an Italian villa in the 70s is supposed to be partly autobiographical. Whether or not that’s true, I thought this was Amis’ most enjoyable book in a long time. It’s not as biting as London Fields or Money (although the narrator’s still a very funny bastard), but it feels a little more human.
15. Essential X-Men, Vol. 4, Chris Claremont and Paul Smith
I never liked Paul Smith’s art until I learned to draw; then I abruptly started loving it. So this is a fun collection. At this point, Claremont’s really starting to repeat himself and develop some annoying tics, but they’re not fatal yet (especially with the crisp Smith artwork popping all over the place). For my money, Vol. 4 is the last of the Essential X-Men collections to be worth reading.
16. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
And here we get to the part of the year when I was getting ready to do English Majeure. Actually, my original idea was to do an ongoing strip satirizing Atlas Shrugged from the point of view of Francisco d’Anconia’s college roommate, pointing out what horrible dicks these people would be if you actually had to deal with them. So I reread this horrible fucking book for research (and I think this was my 4th or 5th go through it… for whatever reason, Atlas Shrugged is like a very irritating piece of sand stuck in the oyster of my mind).
As I developed the script for the ongoing strip, it became really obvious that it wasn’t a good-enough idea to maintain. But I thought I could get a few jokes out of it still. And thus English Majeure was born. Actually, a bunch of the early strips are me using up ideas that were originally intended for bigger projects, but weren’t really substantial enough to carry them.
And as for Atlas Shrugged as a book: I just don’t think Rand thought anything through very hard, nor is she really arguing in good faith (note how melodramatically eeeevil her bad guys are), nor does she know a damn thing about human nature. People who think this is a serious book with serious ideas baffle me.
17. Rework, Jason Fried, David Hansson
Meh. Short book about what a great place 37 Signals is to work.
18. Lincoln, Gore Vidal
Holy shit, did I love this book. Loved the portrayal of politics. Loved the background of the civil war. Loved Vidal’s version of Lincoln, who comes across as funny and tragic and heroic at the same time. I’d been hit or miss on Gore Vidal before this (especially since the time I got Duluth from the library thinking it’d be about Duluth, Minnesota), but Lincoln was one of my favorite books of the year.
And I got a strip out of it!
19. What’s Not to Love, Jonathan Ames
Read this after enjoying Wake Up, Sir so much. Sadly, the hot streak didn’t continue. While Wake Up, Sir was a novel, What’s Not to Love is a collection of Ames’ columns, generally about sex but often really about the pain of being Jonathan Ames. Individual columns are funny- Ames does have really great, witty prose- but the levels of self-involvement re toxic. My reaction after reading this (and I spent months trying to figure out a good way to make this into an English Majeure strip) was that Ames is at great risk of crawling up his own asshole and dying, but that he’d probably get a lot of kinky fun out of doing so.
20. New X-Men, Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, et al
Did another run through Morrison’s run on X-Men, which is somewhere between comics done right and a beautiful mess. There are a lot of missteps, and some heinous fucking art in spots (I think Igor Kordey basically killed his career with the issues he drew), but this is still a stretch of comics that I love very much. Morrison’s great with characters and big metaphors, and those are pretty rich veins in the X-Men franchise.
21. When the Killing’s Done, T.C. Boyle
In between masterpieces, Boyle just churns out very good novels like clockwork. When the Killing’s Done is more in the latter mode, but hey, that does mean that it’s very good. A bunch of broken people project their problems onto an environmental dispute on some islands off of California. It’s no Drop City or Road to Wellville, but When the Killing’s Done is worth checking out.
That’s it for part 1. Part 2 to come soon!