Two brands of disappointment.


013) Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, finished February 12

It's been, golly, almost ten years since I read (and loved) The Partly Cloudy Patriot, Sarah Vowell's collection of America! essays. I've owned Assassination Vacation (and now The Wordy Shipmates) for years now, but somehow have never read it, despite its thematic similarity to my beloved Patriot. Why not? Because, despite all the praise it received generally, Lady Steed did not much care for this one. And now I understand why.

Lady Steed complained that AV spent too much time preaching current politics. And it does spend A LOT of time preaching current politics. (Or what was current in 2005---amazing how much the book has already aged.) I actually don't mind this in theory; connecting the past to the present is a worthy pursuit. What I mind is her attitude. Basically, that if you don't share my politics you are a fool. And while I mostly do share her opinions (mostly), I still take umbrage at being prevented the capacity to think for myself whilst reading her book. C'mon, Sarah.

Another thing I had issue with in reading AV (and this might be petty) is that I could not hear Vowell's voice. Her voice is so striking---when I read Patriot I heard her intonation all the way through. Now, in one way, not hearing her is good: I can read a lot faster than she talks on the radio. But still. Who doesn't want to hear Violet Parr talk about the McKinley assassination?

So that was a bummer too.

But don't get me wrong. The book is a decent read and full of great facts. But the conceit of her garnering these facts while touristing is sometimes so far in the background as to be meaningless and sometimes so far in the foreground that the book becomes 90% vacation and 8% trivia and only 2% assassinations. Frankly, I would have preferred ditching the alleged "vacation" angle entirely. Instead structured the book more like a Mary Roach book. The attempt to make her research congeal into one "vacation" just never worked. Alas.

Also, as long as I'm complaining, some tangents seemed to be utterly out of her control.

But, for all that, I still will absolutely pick up and read The Wordy Shipmates someday. And probably the new Hawai'i book too.

I'll bet she's figured out booklength essays by now.

about a week


012) Black Hole by Charles Burns, finished February 11

I first read this book in 2006 while visiting friends in Utah. Because I read their copy between Doing Things, I've always thought that maybe I didn't give it a fair shake and maybe it is better than I thought at the time. After all, isn't it constantly getting listed on best-comics-evah lists?

Yes. Yes it is.

Somehow, even though it's filled with normafied drug use and sex and violence, Black Hole ended up in my high school's library, so I checked it out and brought it home and suffered through another read. Because, a second read confirms, it's just not very good.

First, let me rush to say I love Burns's stark graphic style. What you see here is his self portrait that appears on the book's backflap and at the Fantagraphics author page. His portraits are an integral part of The Believer and whenever they appear, I'm glad to see them. I love the way he wields black and white.

He does not, however, have the breadth necessary to tell a story like Black Hole (inasmuch as Black Hole has a story). His faces don't have enough variety or consistency.

Like X'ed Out, Black Hole is a collection of weirdness for weird's sake. Not much under the surface here. Take all the vaginas, for instance. Here are the first three pages of the book:

At this point, please feel free to accuse me of just seeing vaginas everywhere because gee whiz but it takes a bit of imagination to see a vagina here.

Fair enough.

But read this book and if you can still tell me that the constant barrage of vaginal imagery is accidental, fine. But it ain't. I won't care what you say. (Here's some NSFW proof.) The literal and symbolic use of female sex organs pervades the books.

And that makes for a good example of my next complaint with the book.

Vagina? Useful symbol, sure. So are teenagers. So is sex. So are drugs. So is the woods. So is disfigurement. So are STDs. So is the ocean. So are long car rides. So is a pistol. All these things are terrific symbol and Burns has made sure to pack every bleeding page with them. Sometimes he interrupts the "story" to have a dream sequence in order to pile them all up in heaping mounds in case you managed to miss the more "subtle" examples.

My opinion? Big heaping piles of symbols do not great art make. You need a point. And while maybe there's some love and nihilism or something going on, who can tell and who can care?

This book has lovely art, but it's crappy storytelling.

Back to Burns's faces, though the black-and-white is lovely, emotion is important if you, you know, want to tell a stories about humans. And more than one emotion per person, preferably. (One mopey character is genuinely mopey. All the time.)

Check out this character. In the Xth panel, she is suddenly yelling angrily.

Could you tell which panel? Could you even tell which character? If not, feel free to click it now to read the words

These people are hollow automatons. And they might as well be. This world is built for them.

So to sum up?

This book is filled with sex and violence and other great things (I'm not joking: I give a lecture every semester on how all great literature is sex and violence), but to no purpose. It's like taking sugar and cinnamon and cream of tartar, shaking them up together, and calling them snickerdoodles.

Black Hole is not snickerdoodles.

about a week

Previously in 2012 . . . . :

Read the reviews of 6-11.
011) The Complete Peanuts: 1979-1980 by Charles M. Schulz, finished February 4
010) Blankets by Craig Thompson, finished February 4
009) Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, finished February 2
008) The Millstone Necklace (forthcoming) by S.P. Bailey, finished January 31
007) American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang, finished January 27
006) Across a Harvested Field by Robert Goble, finished January 23

Read the reviews of 1-5.
005) Hark! a Vagrant! by Kate Beaton, finished January 21
004) The Death of a Disco Dancer by David Clark, finished January 12
003) Bucketfoot Al: The Baseball Life of Al Simmons by Clifton Blue Parker, finished January 9
002) Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror by Chris Priestly, finished January 9
001) What of the Night? by Stephen Carter, finished January 5


  1. Here's a third brand of disappointment: I thought The Wordy Shipmates was even worse than Assassination Vacations. And I read it twice...because it was so forgettable that I didn't realize I had already read it.

  2. .

    Oh, man.

    Well, I just started Philbrick's Mayflower today and the first dozen pages have been good. Maybe next time try that one?

    Total bummer though. I am sad.