My 2017 in Books

This year my reading fell into three broad categories: novels and short fiction, mostly in a popular vein; non-fiction; and graphic novels or collections of comics. As usual, this list doesn’t include single issues of comics, magazines, or other non-book reading (although I did read “Cat Person” like everyone else online; it was fine, but woefully short on lycanthropes). I didn’t read much in the way of new books, except for the books on Tupperware and the history of chicken as a dietary staple, both of which I borrowed from the library.

Austen

The best fiction I read this year was Pride and Prejudice: Jane Austen has been a blind spot for me for a long time, although I felt as though I knew her work by its film adaptations and by the impact her arch, slyly satiric tone has had in popular culture. The experience of reading her lived up to my expectations and confirmed a tendency to take a similar tack I have noticed in my own writing (not that I am executing anywhere near Austen’s level). I have more to read from her, but two novels in one month seemed like plenty.

Moondust

The best non-fiction I read this year was Moondust, an intriguing book by Andrew Smith detailing his attempts to track down and interview all of the remaining lunar astronauts. The questions these men had to ask themselves–“What do you do after you’ve walked on the moon?”–and the varied answers they came up with (including religion, art, teaching, business, and professional futurism) are vivid portraits of mid-life crisis and (for some of them) reinvention. Further, Smith’s quest has a personal dimension as he weaves his own memories of a space age childhood into his narration, essentially asking the same question for himself and America at large: what now? The notion that the moon race was (at least partly) a work of political theater, a brief flurry of activity that had few lasting effects (satellites and computers aside, there are no lunar colonies, no manned missions to Mars, etc.), is now commonplace, but as someone who grew up in the (relatively conservative) Space Shuttle era, it is still bracing to read these accounts of intense national purpose and the incredible drive it took to accomplish the moon launches. What sticks with me after this book, though, are the personalities (quite varied, even within the hyper-specific psychological and career profiling NASA used to choose its crews), the questions they asked themselves in the wake of their momentous voyages, and the different answers they came up with for themselves.

DCBombshells

In comics, Bombshells was a pleasant discovery: writer Marguerite Bennett and artist Marguerite Sauvage create a compelling alternate World War II, one in which the female heroes and villains of DC Comics (Wonder Woman, Batwoman, Harley Quinn, et al) are the only superhumans (so no Superman, Batman, etc.–male characters like Steve Trevor are involved, but as supporting cast). Visually drawing on pinup art, propaganda posters, and commercial art of the 1940s, Bombshells presents a colorful, almost-familiar world while getting to the essence of these characters and remixing DC lore in inventive ways. It also taps into a spirit of optimism and compassion that suits the characters and the setting. The fact that the series was created as a spinoff from a popular series of pinup-style statues of DC characters isn’t surprising–that’s the biz–but the fact that it is so well executed, as if it had been conceived as a story all along, is. (I’ve only read the first two trade collections; I decided to wait for the whole series to be collected so I can read it in one go, so no spoilers please!)

Here’s the complete list, with some additional commentary:

January
The Dark Half, Stephen King
Tekkon Kinkreet: Black & White All in One, Taiyo Matsumoto
Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History, Glen Berger (“Before something can be brilliant, it first has to be competent.”)

February
Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s, Matthew Kennedy (This book led me to watch Star!, the biopic in which Julie Andrews played music hall performer Gertrude Lawrence, when it aired on TCM. Star! was one of the worst movies I watched this year.)
The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures, Dave Stevens
Mind MGMT Volume One: The Manager, Matt Kindt
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 1, Jiro Kuwata
The Rocketeer: Hollywood Horror, Roger Langridge and J Bone

March
Bombshells Volume 1: Enlisted, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Bombshells Volume 2: Allies, Marguerite Bennett and Marguerite Sauvage et al
Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga Volume 2, Jiro Kuwata
The Complete Golden Age Airboy & Valkyrie, Fred Kida et al
Gotham City Sirens, Book One, Paul Dini, Guillem March et al
Hit or Myth, Robert Asprin

April
Gotham City Sirens, Book Two, Tony Bedard, Peter Calloway et al
Myth-ing Persons, Robert Asprin
Do Not Sell at Any Price: The Wild, Obsessive Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78 rpm Records, Amanda Petrusich
Rejected: Tales of the Failed, Dumped, and Canceled, ed. Jon Friedman

May
Nemo Trilogy (Heart of Ice, The Roses of Berlin, River of Ghosts), Alan Moore, Kevin O’Neill et al
Wylder’s Hand, J. Sheridan LeFanu
My Life as an Explorer, Sven Anders Hedin

June
Radio Free Albemuth, Philip K. Dick
Murder in Mesopotamia, Agatha Christie
Atomic Bomb Cinema, Jerome F. Shapiro
The Celebrated Cases of Dick Tracy 1931-1951, Chester Gould

Maybury.cover

July
The Brides of Bellenmore, Anne Maybury
Falcon’s Shadow, Anne Maybury
Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, Glen Weldon
Life of the Party: The Remarkable Story of How Brownie Wise Built, and Lost, a Tupperware Party Empire, Bob Kealing
Tastes Like Chicken: A History of America’s Favorite Bird, Emelyn Rude

August
Rocket Men: The Epic Story of the First Men on the Moon, Craig Nelson
Moondust: In Search of the Men Who Fell to Earth, Andrew Smith

Vault

In September I didn’t read any complete books at all, but as I mentioned then, I read some Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure modules cover to cover (more thoroughly than I read all but a few even when I was actively playing the game, I must confess). After a lucky find at my local comic store, I had a complete copy of one of the most famous series of published modules, the “GDQ” series (so called because it links three adventures against Giants, against the “dark elf” Drow, and against Lolth, the “Queen of the Demon-Web Pits”); I had wanted to read through these to see how well they really flowed as a single epic campaign, but I had forgotten just how much work the Dungeon Master had to do to flesh out these printed modules in order for them to work as adventures. Like most old-school modules, the bulk of the text simply describes the characters and items found in various rooms; it’s up to the Dungeon Master and players to provide the narrative sweep. Furthermore, the motivations of many characters are either only hinted at or are contingent upon the players’ actions. As I once read, an adventure (whether published or written by the DM for his own game) is not a story, but the promise of a story: only when it is inhabited by players and their characters is it brought to life. Reading the GDQ series was an interesting exercise, and it brought back memories of playing some of these adventures as a kid, but it wasn’t quite what I remembered. (These and other classic adventure modules inspired novelizations, as I found, but I haven’t read them; maybe I will some day.)

October
Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Drabble

November
The Pattern in the Carpet: A Personal History with Jigsaws, Margaret Drabble (Like Moondust, this was another book combining historical research with memoir; Drabble’s meditations on the appeal of the mosaic, on the reuniting of fragmented pieces, of the creation of images within images, are relevant to my own writing and composition, and I was astonished to recognize myself in some passages. The book was not exactly a dynamo of forward momentum, however, and like the act of assembling a puzzle itself, reading this book was a ruminative exercise, replete with long pauses for reassessment of the larger whole.)
Trish Trash: Rollergirl of Mars 1, Jessica Abel

Pulps.Goodstone

December
The Pulps, ed. Tony Goodstone (a collection of reprints from the Golden Age, the “real stuff”)
Chilling Tales of Horror: Dark Graphic Short Stories, Pedro Rodríguez
Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism and All That Jazz, Kevin Jackson

In 2008 I read Brian Eno’s A Year with Swollen Appendices, a sort of diary of the year 1995, on a day-by-day basis: since A Year starts with Eno’s decision to start a diary on January 1, I began reading it at the beginning of the year and read each entry on the corresponding date, over the course of that year. Eno didn’t write an entry for every single day, but it was close enough, and with the various appendices I had something to read from him almost every day: the book became a constant companion, almost a devotional, and absorbing it slowly, over the course of that year, made more of an impression than reading it quickly might have done (and frankly even the most interesting diaries are frequently mundane and repetitive enough that I wouldn’t read them straight through anyway).

Constellation.1922

After keeping an eye out for a similar book that covered a single year in the same way, I came across Constellation of Genius, a day-by-day record of events in 1922 (ranging from the publication of James Joyce’s Ulysses and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to the opening of King Tut’s tomb and the founding of the Irish Free State) and saw an opportunity to read it in the same way. So that has been an ongoing project over the past year. During that year, I’ve been looking at the cover and seeing the blurb “Brilliantly erudite and very funny” attributed to reviewer Robert Macfarlane, and I confess myself mystified. The first part I cannot deny: author Kevin Jackson has brought together a wealth of material from diverse sources, and is an excellent guide in unfamiliar territory, briefly explaining what has been forgotten or needs to be translated, choosing illustrative anecdotes to stand in for the whole and providing multiple entryways for further exploration of his subjects. But “very funny”? Jackson is a dry wit, and many of the stories he shares are humorous, but I can’t recall busting a gut while reading this; perhaps it is the haunting similarity of the political perils he describes–acts of terrorism and war, the rise of fascism and Stalinism–to those of the present. The foreboding of the interwar period tends to overshadow the lives of the artists and writers, making their heroic feats seem small in the scale of the world’s events. On the other hand, the diary format shows how life goes on, and how the larger patterns of history are frequently invisible until viewed in the hindsight of years. There are about fifty pages of “aftermath” following the December 31 entry, describing the later lives and fates of the book’s major players; if I don’t get it finished tomorrow, I expect to soon enough, and it seemed silly not to include this in my 2017 reading on a technicality.

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David Bowie, Immortal

bowie.manwhofell

Observing (and sharing in) the outpouring of grief following David Bowie’s untimely death at age 69, it’s striking just how diverse Bowie’s 40-plus-year career was, and how many avenues existed by which young fans might discover him: his appearances as an actor or the use of his songs in movies; as a continually reinventing man-of-a-thousand-faces fashion icon; as recording artist and producer, or as the writer of songs covered by the many artists whom he influenced. There are probably young people who first heard his name through the many references to Bowie on The Venture Bros., whose creators are obviously big fans. A Picasso or Stravinsky of rock music, Bowie was continually taking on new looks, sounds, and personae, always exploring.

bowie.lets.dance

As a kid in the 1980s, I think my first awareness of David Bowie was his “pop” album Let’s Dance, followed within the next couple of years by his duet cover of “Dancing in the Streets” with Mick Jagger and his lead role in Labyrinth. It would be some years later before I was really conscious that Bowie had been a huge star before his dalliances with MTV and Jim Henson, and that Labyrinth wasn’t even his first starring film role. The Man Who Fell to Earth had previously been the perfect vehicle for Bowie, the story of an alien visitor who succumbs to the temptations of life on Earth.

bowie.labyrinth

Bowie’s characters, musical and otherwise, were almost always otherworldly, even when playing down-to-earth self-caricatures like his cameo in Zoolander. What unified his most far-flung performances was his magnetism: he couldn’t help but be the center of whatever scene he was in. This is what I wrote on Facebook just last October, after watching The Hunger:

David Bowie is the man: you can slather him in old man makeup, and cast Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon as vampire lovers, and Bowie’s STILL the most interesting part of the movie!? That is star power.

bowie.hunger

Reading A Year With Swollen Appendices, the 1995 diary by Bowie’s friend and collaborator Brian Eno, I was struck by the many appearances Bowie makes in its pages, just exchanging emails or meeting socially, or appearing at art openings, charity events, et cetera. By the mid-’90s, Bowie had amassed a body of work anyone could be proud of, and it would have been perfectly understandable for him to settle into famous rock star retirement. Yet he continued to produce music and videos up until his last days, releasing his final album, Blackstar, just last week. It’s obvious in retrospect that it was a farewell gesture from a man who knew he was ill, but nonetheless an act of courage and incredible will.

Bowie.Blackstar

It’s been heartening to see how much Bowie and his work meant to people, not to mention a reminder that seemingly unstoppable artists, even the otherworldly Bowie–chameleon, alien, vampire, Goblin King, magician–won’t be with us forever. He leaves behind an enormous body of work, much of which I still have yet to discover for myself.

Lego House on the Prairie

I saw The Lego Movie this weekend, and I loved it.  This isn’t a review, and I won’t spoil anything, although I will direct you to Charlie Jane Anders’ review at io9 and its (accurate, in my view) contention that a successful genre spoof must authentically partake of the genre it sends up (in this case, the summer blockbuster and the hackneyed “chosen one” motif).

The_LEGO_Movie_10

Like all the recent movies based on beloved toys, The Lego Movie is at least partly pitched toward the nostalgia center of viewers’ brains.  Sure, I played with Lego bricks as a child, and still enjoy them now that I have my own children to provide cover. If that were all there were to it, however, I doubt I would have reacted so strongly to the film; the other Lego spin-off video games and cartoons I’ve seen are entertaining, but not profound.  No, what I feel compelled to explore is how successful the film is at building an elaborate world out of familiar components, and its connection to the student films and music videos that did the same thing with toys when I was a kid.

The idea of toys (or other inanimate objects) coming to life is hardly new, of course: before the Toy Story movies there was Corduroy and The Velveteen Rabbit and Raggedy Ann, back to the fantasies of E. T. A. Hoffmann and beyond.  In all likelihood we could trace it all the way back to the idea of “household gods” and the pervasive spirits of pantheistic animism, or perhaps the unity of self and environment in earliest infancy.  In any case, that’s not really my point; what connects my memory of playing with Lego bricks to the new movie (and makes it successful at driving its themes home) is the constructive nature of Lego: all imaginative play gives back only what you put into it, but Lego is explicitly open-ended.  Since the first bricks were produced in 1949, every piece is part of a compatible system and can be connected together in some way.  That’s the first prong of the movie: the pleasure of digging up and recombining the different “worlds” Lego has produced over the years (including some “deep cuts” like Fabuland).

The second prong of the movie’s appeal is how this world is set in motion cinematically.  As a kid, I was obsessed with stop motion animation: my first exposure was probably on shows like Sesame Street, which, among its many other virtues, was often a showcase for inventive (and sometimes downright experimental) film.  The Carmen-singing orange was one I remember (although I had forgotten the rubbery ‘70s-era synth soundtrack, another element that connects it to many childhood memories):

Obviously, there’s a lot more where that came from.

What remains captivating about many of these little films is their handmade quality, and their use of everyday objects: toys, food, utensils.  As with furnishing dollhouses, creating dioramas, or assembling Rube Goldberg-like marble slides (think of the game Mousetrap!), there is an obvious pleasure in the handicraft involved in the creation of a tiny world, playing God on a child’s scale.  When given the illusion of movement, it made it easy to imagine the ordinary objects I saw all the time having a secret life when I wasn’t around, both tapping into and feeding that sense of domestic enchantment alluded to above.

It also made it look easy to get into the game: I recently discovered this short Super 8 film, made in 1980, and starring 12-year old Stefano Paganini’s Lego collection:

It’s rough—I know I wouldn’t have been able to do any better at that age—but it has the same sense of play that the makers of The Lego Movie explore on a grand scale.

It’s the limitations of Lego—where they can fit together, the articulation points of the minifigures—that give it character and provide something for the filmmakers—for whom there are practically no limits anymore with the use of computers—to bump against.  As Brian Eno wrote in 1995 (published in A Year with Swollen Appendices),

Whatever you find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature.  CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit—all these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.

Eno was mostly speaking of audio formats, but his prescient words have also proven true for visual styles.

The aesthetic qualities of Lego—abstracting familiar shapes into a grid, designed as “bricks” but able to approximate all kinds of shapes—are something that every child encounters one way or another.  Although Lego has introduced many angled and curved pieces to its arsenal, it’s the jagged sawtooth of the square pieces arranged in stair-step fashion that is still an essential part of Lego’s “look.”

Eno mentions 8-bit sound; I think the abstraction Lego encouraged was a reason I was similarly fascinated with the blocky graphics of the the video games that emerged in the late 1970s; just as with the stop motion videos that appeared to bring Lego bricks or candy to life, Space Invaders and Pong gave movement—controlled by the player!—to simple, even primal, geometric shapes.  I was so fascinated by this level of abstraction that I would practice breaking down pictures into their component pixels using graph paper.  I even briefly took up cross-stitching because it looked to me like video game graphics; the only tangible proof of that brief flirtation that I left behind was a sample sheet with a few segments of the Centipede from the game of the same name, rendered in cross-stitch.

I’m reminded of Norman Brosterman’s book Inventing Kindergarten and its thesis that the first generation of twentieth-century modernists were shaped in early childhood by the highly abstracted geometric play that was a core component of nineteenth-century kindergarten. As developed by founder Friedrich Froebel in the 1830s and ‘40s, the geometric elements of kindergarten were centered around the series of about twenty “gifts,” playthings that were meant to introduce primary forms—the sphere, the cube, the cone, for example—and encourage young children to model aspects of the real world in a progression of graduated complexity.  Architect Frank Lloyd Wright would later credit Froebel’s system for developing his spatial faculties, but he was far from the only one.  According to Brosterman,

During the system’s heyday—roughly the half century before World War I—Frank Lloyd Wright was merely one of millions of people, including most of the so-called “form-givers” of the modern era who were indoctrinated, in effect, programmed, by the spiritual geometry of the early kindergarten.

Brosterman’s book is full of pictures juxtaposing nineteenth-century kindergarten projects made by small children with artwork made by adults of the same generation years later. The comparisons are suggestive, to say the very least.

From Norman Brosterman's Inventing Kindergarten

From Norman Brosterman’s Inventing Kindergarten

In addition to the Froebel gifts, there were also “occupations,” which consisted of paper, string, and clay, media that could be used to create finished projects.  Brosterman quotes American kindergarten leader W. N. Hailmann as describing the distinction between gifts and occupations:

The gift gives the child a new cosmos, the occupation fixes the impressions made by the gift.  The gift invites only arranging activities; the occupation invites also controlling, modifying, transforming, creating activities.  The gift leads to discovery; the occupation, to invention.  The gift gives insight; the occupation, power.

Without wishing to overstate the case, Lego bricks descend from the same progressive concept of early childhood development as a process of discovery and mastery, and lend themselves to a similar kind of abstraction of the real world.

Duplo.house

Interestingly, the debt Wright and other modernists owe to Froebel’s kindergarten, as described by Brosterman, has not been lost on modern educators and toy makers (in this context “toy” may sound dismissive, but it’s relevant: Milton Bradley, for example, was an important U. S. maker of Froebel gifts).  Froebel USA now makes a “Prairie House Block Set” of abstract building blocks, both a tribute to the credit Wright gave to the Froebel system and, in all likelihood, an appeal to parents who might hope for a similar start for their own children.

Wright.Froebel

And while Lego has expanded its original system of interlocking blocks to include very young children with its Duplo blocks, it’s also moved in the other direction with its “Architecture” line aimed at teenage and adult model-builders.  Detailed Lego versions of real-life architectural masterpieces, including some by Frank Lloyd Wright, are available as kits.  (Here’s a more detailed description of the Prairie-style Robie House model shown below.)  With the Architecture line, the emphasis is on faithful recreation, but the pieces are just as compatible with the Lego system as any other.  That’s the beauty of it: whether following the instructions or building freely, it’s all up to you.  That’s a core component of Lego that The Lego Movie gets.

LEGO-Architecture-21010-Robie-House