High-quality reading


051) Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, finished July 18

Similar to We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, I suspect my experience was improved by knowing nothing before opening the first page. This was made easier by the edition I own (linked) which gives nothing away outside the novel's first sentence.

That said, like We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, this is a moving and beautiful book that I've no doubt would hold up to multiple readings. And, thus, knowing about the story before you dig in won't prevent you from having a marvelous experience. It will just take away the one specific experience of having it unfold into your ignorance, which is like a luminescent flowing blooming in darkness.

Anyway, the rest of this, in small text, is spoilery. The only nonspoilery comment I have left is this: a couple times Patchett didn't use the subjunctive and it was jarring. Her writing is so beautiful and I don't understand the choice. But that's the biggest negative I have.

Art overcomes violence, but only if you're listening.

Although time is stretched out, Aristotle's views on place are respected.

The epilogue is a bit haunting because it makes sense and is right yet is utterly wrong.

Lady Steed and I read this book simultaneously, but she missed (or forgot) the early first-chapter telling of how it would end. Her experience, thus, was quite different from mine.

This novel shows that we are all the same but our world will always keep us apart. And that's our tragedy.
maybe three weeks


052) Hostage by Guy Delisle, finished July 21

This is an as-told-to memoir in comics form. It took the artist fifteen years to make this book, and no wonder. It's over 400 pages long, and although the art is reasonably simple and clean and single-color, it's still over 400 pages of drawings. Each of which has to be carefully blocked. When your main character spends most of his time handcuffed in place, you have to be excellent at your craft to keep it interesting and to continue building tension all the way through.

Christophe, the hostage, has to work to keep his sanity, and he makes some good decisions in that regard. I don't know how I would do in that respect---no one does, of course, not until it happens. We watch him live alone with his mind and minimal human contact. Unless you followed the story closely in 1997, you're not apt to know what'll happen next. And, of course, neither does Christophe. We at least know he will live but how is a mystery.

And thus the pages fly by, as we're trapped in the corner of a room.
three or four days


053) The One Hundred Nights of Hero by Isabel Greenberg, finished July 22

So the world was created by Kiddo and she was pleased with her work. But her father saw it was distressed by these human things. For many reasons, but primarily because they did not know of him and his greatness and so he took over the world and took to making things right.

That's the prologue.

Now we are in this fallen world with a violent patriarchal religion. The entire book is, in some respect, simple satire of our world run by men. But its mix of over-the-top grotesquery and silliness makes the book feel less dangerous. But in fact, it's those two elements that make it so very dangerous.

The basic conceit is that of Scheherazade---women telling stories in order to save themselves. The copyright page gives credit to two of the stories as being based on folktales (I only recognized the source of one of these stories---and it wasn't either of those). At first the stories don't seem particularly connected, but as the nights go one, storytellers are found within storytellers and they all start to fit together into a larger tapestry of beauty. The finale is tragic and beautiful and hopeful and fitting and satisfying.

The art, in terms of character design and perspective, is frequently reminiscent of medieval tapestries and illuminated manuscripts, which is appropriate. Greenberg also has the interesting quirk of just smearing ink over her drawings. I don't know why it works, but it does work. The drawings and witty and correct and quite wonderful. Their simplicity of design and color make even the more horribly moments lovely and welcoming. Which is also appropriate as one of the book's messages is we can find our heroism in our tragedies. Tragedy, perhaps, is less something to fear, but a step towards a world we would wish to live in.

I have Greenberg's first book already on hold at the library.
two nights


054) Paper Girls, Vol 4 by Brian K Vaughan and Cliff Chiang, finished July 24

The hits just keep coming! This is my favorite ongoing book. (Not that I'm so well read, or anything.)

two days


055) Chocolate: The Consuming Passion by Sandra Boynton, finished July 25

(The 2015 version, not the 1982 version.)

You'll know Sandra Boynton as the author of children's book although you may, like me, have never read one until you were wellll beyond the intended audience. And it took a few bumpings into her to arrive at the conclusion that I liked her work.

This book is a much clearer view into what makes her wit work. A nonfiction ode to chocolate, it's full of facts, but unfearful to be funny. And not stand-up funny---no, she's much slier than that. Some dumb puns, sure, but the best jokes are buried and easy to overlook. Read the recipes carefully, for instance. She'll reward you for your care.

one day


056) [Aelian's] On the Nature of Animals translated by Gregory McNamee, finished July 27

I found this through a review in The Believer and I got it from the library without intending to read the entire thing. But I did! It was delightful! Short bursts of facts (or "facts") about animals from an old Roman's best research. Sometimes it's dead wrong (lions most certainly do NOT respect their elders), but even then there is something beautiful about the outlook we humans had in our ignorance. It gives me hope.

And while I have a couple questions about bolding choices, overall, props to Anne Richmond Boston for her wonderful design of the book. It was a please to hold, to skim, to read, to have around. Well done, Anne!

many weeks


057) Blue Yodel by Ansel Alkins, finished July 27

I picked the book up from the library on the strength of one poem that showed up in my Twitter feed (included at the bottom of this review). I'm a sucker for good Eden poetry and this one is excellent. I don't think she's Mormon, but it definitely scratched my Mormon itches.

The collection is short but quality. Like Claire Ã…kebrand's recent book, I was struck by the repetition of images. Here it's wolves and corpses and a lot of other dark stuff that stick out, but hey---it works. She takes some daring chances, digging into stuff like the historical violence of American race relations, and does well, I think. I'm curious what black critics have said.

Overall, a strong beginning. I hope we keep hearing from her.

about three days



And Monsters Make Fifty
a whole buncha books


036) Bad Kitty Camp Daze by Nick Bruel, finished May 24

Nick Bruel is, for my money, one of the best comic writers now working. He's hilarious! I laugh while I read the Bad Kitty books!

They don't take long at all to read. Pick one up and marvel at their use of narrator or irony or characterization. Just do it.

a brief moment


037) I'm Just No Good at Rhyming: And Other Nonsense for Mischievous Kids and Immature Grown-Ups by Chris Harris, finished May 24

This is another bit of for-kids comedy that I, an adult, loved. Loved. I wouldn't say it's "better" or "worse" than Shel Silverstein, but it's in that tradition without feeling like a beholden knockoff. This is original stuff, excellently executed, with illustrations by Lane Smith. Lane Smith!

The variety of cleverness in this book is vast, so even if you don't like each poem, you will certainly find ones you do. Also watch for an utterly original take on the concrete poem. And some genuinely sweet poems to leaven the comedy, including the beautiful "The World's Best Offer" and "Under My Dragon's Wing."

I do not, however, understand the page-numbering gag. I suspect that is an inside joke.
two days about a week apart


038) The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua, finished May 30

I love this book.

It was exciting and funny---a feast for the eyes and the mind. The most enjoyable foot- and endnotes I've read in many a long year (arguably even better than Cuppy's, who used them more as factual punchlines than chatty firesides).

Padua has written a history book skeleton clothed in the flesh of one of the most rollicking works of steampunk joy I've ever read. She's set up clearly navigable lines between fact and fiction; she introduces fascinating people I've never heard of and only thought I knew.

Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage demonstrate a remarkable and admirable working relationship and a keen friendship---and all while being of different sexes.

In short, I love this book. And any kid, girl or boy, who is (or should be) interested in math or engineering or feats of the mind should have it placed in their hands. Like, now.

To give you a flavor, here's the intro lifted from the book's website:



039) Princess Leia by Mark Waid et al, finished May 30

I asked the library to provide me this on the strength of Vader Down and it's post-story advert for this book.

It's not as good.

But it was an enjoyable enough read.

It takes place right after A New Hope as Leia sets off on a personal mission to collect surviving Alderaanians before the Empire can, as a matter of principle, wipe them out. It's a nice mix of idealism and violence. Leia's final speech is a bit chintzy, but, to my surprise, when it was repeated, I was moved. I'm such a sucker.


040) Chopsticks by Jessica Anthony & Rodrigo Corral, finished June 12

I like the idea of a book told entirely through ephemera. Selfies and IMs, etc. That's fine. Might have been nice if the story itself were less of a cliche. Young prodigy! Boy next door just arrived from abroad! Forbidden love! Disapproving parents! Artists acting out! Mysterious disappearance! Who's really mad?

You know.


041) Everything You Need to Know About a Mission by Ralph Thomas, finished June 13

I heard about this book from Mike Laughead with whom I did our Kickstarter. He had just bought a copy but for him it was a return to something he had loved long ago. I'd never heard of it before.

I mostly liked it. Some stuff feels aged---or at least, seems pre-Raising the Bar, but maybe my experiences were unusual? The only part that really bothered me was the Sister jokes. These are the sorts of stereotypes that irritated me as a missionary too, and thanks to the changing dialogue over sexism, now I know why. It's not just that it's unfair and unkind and stupid. It's that it's men making these jokes. Sisters should have the chance to make jokes about sisters. (Now they do. Too bad you missed the Kickstarter.)

Anyway, gripes about datedness aside, I'll let me kids read this. Anything that normalizes missionary work is positive. But Dendo's still the standard.


042) The Invisibles by Grant Morrison et al, finished June 14

I'm assuming this did not sell well and that's why it ended when it did. The other possibility is that Morrison realized he had no idea where he was going with this. The Invisibles themselves ever quite come together or make sense. The series is at its strongest when it's telling short stories essentially disconnected from the philosophically bloated main throughline.

Oh wait. I just looked it up. It keeps going beyond this collection.

I don't think I'll read on.


043) The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe, finished June 15

This is a beautifully written book. Both Lady Steed and I picked it up and turned to the first page only to be immediately hooked. This is the preview off Amazon (click to enlarge):

It's a terrific story, as good as its writing. And the next two stories are just as enrapturing, though I am embarrassed to admit I did not realize until well into story number three that these stories were all connected, taking place on the same two planets. Embarrassing. But nothing about the format of the book made me think that would be the case!

This edition includes an insightful afterward that points out thematic similarities between the stories and heightening the ambiguity.

In short, this is a nuanced, intelligent, beautiful, challenging, troubling, wonderful novel. It's evidence of science fiction's capacity for excellence. Hand it to any naysaying friends.


044) Material Volume 1 by Ales Kot & Will Tempest & al., finished June 23

Each spread is a piece of one story. One's about a college professor (sometimes in his classroom, sometimes engaging with his computer, sometimes engaging with his daughter); one's about a black kid in Chicago who's spent time at Homan Square. A man recently returned from an in-error stint Guantanamo Bay. An actress looking to make a comeback. The story (if you want to call it that) flips back and forth between these different stories which as just as simple as I've suggested but also much more complicated. There is no satisfactory resolution to any of them, though the fourth chapter, which ends the collection, can pass as a series of ending in the lit-mag sense.

It does say Volume 1 in big bold letters on the cover, so I could assume more volumes were intended. But I can see no evidence that more are forthcoming.

I'm glad it took me a while from finishing the comics to finishing the book. The work has settled into my mind and I find it more satisfying now that when I initially finished it.

My favorite part, however, are the four essays at the end of the volume. (I assume one per original comic book?) These, written by Fiona Duncan, Jarett Kobek, Sarah Nicole Prickett, and Bijan Stephen are jewels of the essay art dealing with topics tangential (or key) to the stories of the comics. Also, shoutout to Spencer Ackerman's introduction with colored the way I read the comics, probably for the better.

In short, thought-provoking. Whether it's as smart as it thinks it is, I'm unsure, but the thoughts were worth having and the company was good.

week or more


045) Love & Misadventure by Lang Leav, finished June 30

So I recently tried to read a Rupi Kaur book. It was ... hard to read. Not so much because its about rape and abuse and people treating women badly but because it just didn't have much to say about such things. So unrelenting awfulness without artistry to give it form? No thanks.

Which I know is easy for me to say. And I'm not knocking people who love Kaur's work. She's clearly saying stuff that needs to be said, but it's just a moderately refined version of what we sometimes sniff and dismiss as high-school poetry. Big emotions and tiny metaphors. You probably know what I mean. (You probably wrote some yourself. In high school.)

This is kind of the problem with Love & Misadventure as well, although---for all the falling in love (almost always paired with an inevitable breakup), Leav's work has some charm. Some prettiness. Some efforts to play with language.

The poetry is much like her paintings---beautiful barely pubescent girls being sexy adult women.

This collection came out five years ago and she hasn't stopped. Her most recent came out just this year. I'm curious is her work has done some growing up in this half decade....
two days


046) The Rain in Portugal by Billy Collins, finished July 7

Moments of Billy Collins brilliance, but also a few moments that seem like they've been sitting in his book of clever ideas for sometime and he just decided he might as well get the poem over with. But I say this as a fan. It's a bit of a parental thing, perhaps, too. When I first started writing poems that weren't terrible, they had a strong Billy Collince influence (obvious example), and he's one of the few writers whose voice I hear when I read their work. And so I come to a Billy Collins book expecting every poem to be a home run. Or at least an amusing bloop single, and that's not fair.

That said, to repeat, this collection does have a few moments of brilliance. And I don't begrudge the man the occasional copout for a joke. That's one of the lines he's been pushing his entire career. Take a classic like "The Lanyard": it's only a couple rewrites away from being damn fine standup. Yet instead it's a beloved poem that makes people cry.

This collection has a couple throughlines that make the poet's age apparent. A lot of stuff about time---it passing, how much is gone, appreciating the now, looking forward. Stuff about family (including two poems about imaginary siblings to fill the hole now that the parents are gone). More than enough ars poetica, including some grumpyoldman pieces.

He's earned it.
about a week


047) Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier Vol. 1: The Man On The Wall by Ales Kos, finished July 7

Having been intrigued by Material (above), I went to the library site and put one of his Kot's mainstream works on hold. "Mainstream" might be a stretch. The panel design, the art, the story---none of this is easy to just step into and understand. It's complex---in part because of how it builds on Marvel lore, but also because it's just trying to do a lot. Multiple dimensions, fighting artistic styles, a character who knows he's a character, you name it.

It was fine.
one evening


048) Monster Verse: Poems Human and Inhuman edited by Tony Barnstone & Michelle Mitchell-Foust, finished July 10 (twelve days)

049) Poems Dead and Undead edited by Tony Barnstone & Michelle Mitchell-Foust, finished July 10(twelve days)

First, props to the Everyman Pocket Library for having such great-looking, little, carryable, delightful books.

Here's a nice set of sonnets that are on facing pages in the Monster book:

I like both of these very much.

You'll note that one of these sonneteers is also one of the volumes' editors. Only one from him per book, which is true, if I'm not mistaken, of every included poet excepting Shakespeare who was doubled up both times.

Both books are arranged sensibly into three sections. The first two sections are clearly defined, and the third is kind of a hodgepodge of poems that often could have been included in either book. The final poems in both books is a fun send off (respectively, Seuss and Silverstein).

I'm curious what their editorial process was like. For instance, how did they find the poets in their early twenties, some of whose included work is apparently showing up here for the first time? My assumption is that they're friends of the editors (matching my assumption that the other Barnstone is a brother to an editor), but I don't know.

That said, I delighted in the range of poems---all over the world and back thousands of years (the oldest poem, a 4000+ Egyptian work, was excellent in translation), with some perfect poppings up of classics ("Second Coming"), unexected but in retrospect obvious choices from classic authors ("The Conqueror Worm") and some excellent work I've never seen anthologized before by well known writers ("The Witch of Coos").

All in all, much enjoyed.


050) Mary's Monster by Lita Judge, finished July 11

This is a biography in verse of Mary Shelley. Much of the "verse" is actually just prose with linebreaks, but the poems do occasionally rise to the name. The images are striking and often excellent, even if all the characters have the same face. That negative positivity aside, it's a terrific book. The prologue made we worry we were in for another YAy blehfest, but it didn't take long for the book to rise above that opener. And yes, sure, sometimes I couldn't tell a new character apart from the old characters, but overall, this is lovely---and it helped me finetune some of the detail's of Mary's life I sort of knew, made some astute observations (the book was published anonymously, drawing a nice line between author and creature), and taught me some things I did not know (it was Mary's stewardship that assured Percy's place in the firmament). Here's one of my favorite spreads:

At times Judge borrows from classic works of art. My favorite was Mary holding the creature ala another Mary holding her Son, but here's another:

Mary is a fascinating person, from her high ideals and stupid adolescence and impossibilities (don't worry---losing her virginity on her mother's grave is here although none of the sex is at all graphic) to her groundedness and grief and survival. Maybe her wild life is why she's starting to get to much attention (not so many gothic castles in Jane Austen's life story), but no question she deserves it.

But maybe we should all try reading another of her books? Y'think?



Unfinished book: Vivian Maier: A Photographer's Life and Afterlife by Pamela Bannos, professor of photography at Northwestern University


[I'm not returning this book to the library yet, so it's feasible I'll go back and read the first three chapters and the chunks I skipped.]


Let's start with a quotation from the author's note:

As I carefully tried to reconstruct Maier's scattered archive, my goal was always to recognize and give Maier agency within her own story. Here, as in my previous work, I sought to locate and reveal "hidden truths," in the process showing how changing stories and masked intentions can obscure history. In an age where truthfulness seems increasingly under attack, this objective seems all the more critical to me.

Essentially, since her discovery and death (which happened in that order, although almost simultaneously) this deliberately private woman has had her work, life, and legacy explained by a bunch of men with sufficient free time and funds to recreate her as a cultural phenomenon. Which she deserves, but this book took the time to really try to see her. The level of detectiving that went into this is impressive. THIS is the real first draft of history. (My complaints about the movie, which I liked, were valid and in fact not complainy enough. My enjoyment of the book holds steady.)

If you have any interest in Maier or her work, this is the right book to read. The story's gotten much more full, rich, and complicated since last you checked in on it.


Jean-Claude Van Johnson


I've never seen a Van Damme film so I have no idea but maybe this is typical of his work. But I doubt it.

The first thing to know is that old Van Damme has the face of old Buster Keaton. And this show makes use of that stoneface to terrific effect. This is a hilarious show shot like a serious drama at times and like a top-shelf action films at other times. I don't know if Van Damme ever had the chance to act like this film lets him, but here he is dramatic and comedic in rapid succession and simultaneously.

Who knew?

[I was going to go into more detail, but I'm not sure I care enough after all. Just watch it for yourself. But before you start, what's the only reason to own a weather-control device?]

Oh: And JCVJ the most brilliantly deadpan solution to a time paradox of all time.