Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Best American Comics 2006, edited by Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore (2006)

Following the format of the other "Best American" annual anthologies, The Best American Comics 2006, edited by Harvey Pekar and Anne Elizabeth Moore (2006) was the series' first dip into the world of comics.

I was happy to see that this first volume was edited by the great Harvey Pekar, and his introductory essay is worth the price of admission alone. The collection itself brings together both familiar and unfamiliar (to me) artists, and has a good mix of men and women, and new and more established writers. Some of the entries are selections from larger works that don't have the impact they could as a smaller selection, but others really worked well in the anthology format, particularly David Heatley's "Portrait of my Dad," and Jesse Reklaw's "Thirteen Cats of my Childhood."

The book itself is a well-produced hardcover of nice dimensions with high quality paper and color printing that shows off the detail in many of the submissions. While some of this collection ended up feeling a little breezy or disconnected, overall it holds together and was pretty fun to read. I'll definitely be picking up the other volumes in the series that came to me through the St. Denis graphic novel storage program.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line by Michael Gibney (2014)

My latest selection from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program is Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line by Michael Gibney (2014). As a fan of cooking, eating, and the bad boy cheffery of Anthony Bourdain, this one seemed like it would be right up my alley. And it was. Kind of.

Gibney uses the extremely effective structural conceit of 24 hours in the life of a chef, told in the second person, to organize his behind-the-scenes fine dining kind-of-memoir. In it we become (thanks to that second person perspective) the second-in-command at a fancy (but not too fancy) restaurant in the West Village. We are rising up through the ranks of chefdom and are now one of two sous chefs under the visionary creator/co-owner of our place of work. We wake up, go to work, and start checking off the millions of little things we have to do to get that high quality food on the plates.

While much of that work involves gathering, inventorying, and preparing a slew of ingredients, the really hard part is managing all the personalities and egos that are crammed into the tight kitchen. We do it though, and our camaraderie, skill, and attitude carry the day and result in another successful service. Then we go out and get shitfaced, don't sleep enough, and start all over again the next day.

Parts of this book are fascinating -- learning about how the different roles in the kitchen fit together, the organization and creativity it takes to produce interesting and consistent plates of expensive food, and the interactions between the staff really kept the book moving. Gibney is not as strong when he tries to describe some of the less tangible qualities of being a chef or his (our) lovey feelings for the girlfriend we hardly ever see since we are working so much. When he tries to be poetic, the tone gets a little goofy and the narrative runs briefly off the rails.

Personally, while I have the same shared fascination for professional chefs that seems to grab the rest of the Food Network-loving public, I have a bad attitude about expensive restaurants and food that is fancy for the sake of being fancy. This may be because I'm kind of cheap or because I don't have a lot of experience eating really fancy food, but there is something a little obscene in spending over $50 a plate for some food. This is not true, however, in the world of the fancy New York chef, and that puts a little bit of a disconnect between me and the writer. I also have very little patience for the "we work hard and we play hard" attitude as an excuse for being irresponsible and occasionally a real asshole. Of course, that macho attitude is a huge part of professional chefdom, at least in the popular media, so Gibney is not being false or untrue when he gives us this lifestyle. That still doesn't mean that I need to like it.

Overall I enjoyed this book, but with some reservations. I think the structure was great and I learned a lot, even if the writing style got in my way every once in awhile. If you are a fan of the hot dog professional chef lifestyle, then don't miss this one. If you just like cooking and eating normal food without a lot of French words and machismo, then this might not be the book for you.

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World by Seth (2005)

My next dip in to the St. Denis lending library is the extremely fun to hold Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Book Collector in the World by Seth (2005).

This graphic novel is the story of the mysterious and envied Wimbledon Green, a highly successful comic book collector with an unknown (and apparently endless) source of personal wealth to use in growing his collection. The story is primarily told not by Wimbledon himself but in a series of interviews and remembered vignettes with his friends, enemies, and acquaintances, all of whom happen to be fellow comic nerds.

Woven throughout the story are sets of covers from Green's comic collection, as well as a few vintage comic strips for the reader to enjoy. In fact, Green's own adventures often veer into classic comic book territory with their "right hand gals," rocket cars, and endless races.

Seth includes a letter to the readers at the beginning of the volume emphasizing that this book is something that developed out of his sketch book and because of that the drawings and story aren't as polished as his work usually is. In this case, I think the rough quality of the work adds to the energy of putting together the pieces of the mystery that is Wimbledon Green and Seth's obvious love for the comic book world and it's many eccentric inhabitants is enough glue to make the fragmented story hold together. A fast and very enjoyable read, with a little more meat to it than expected when you peek behind the curtain.

[I read this is a couple weeks ago, but I'm writing about it tonight having just gotten back from Staple, an annual comics/zines/print arts/etc. expo in Austin, where I got to indulge in some comic buying and some people watching. While it wasn't a comic collector type event, it definitely made me feel the love for that subculture. Plus I got some great stuff!]

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Women of Messina by Elio Vittorni (1949, 1964)

My next ride on Harold Bloom's western canon list is the Italian novel, Women of Messina by Elio Vittorini (1949, 1964, English translation 1973). I'm not going to pretend that I get all the allusions and layers of this allegorical post-war novel, but I definitely enjoyed it and understood at least some of the metaphors woven into the story.

It is just after World War II and Italy is waking up and trying to piece together a normal life. A group of men, women, and children traveling to nowhere in particular decide to leave their broken down truck and settle into a bombed out village that had been abandoned during the war. They set about clearing the mines from the fields, making communal housing in the half-standing church, and setting up a central kitchen for everyone to use. Gradually other wandering people join the first group, including some original inhabitants of the village. The villagers are successful, although their communal lifestyle isn't without its conflicts and quarrels.

At the same time, the elderly Uncle Agrippa is spending his days riding back and forth on the nation's trains, searching for his only daughter. He is a constant presence on the railroad and participates in conversations and discussions with the other people who wander the country, searching. One of his favorite travel companions is Carlos the Bald, who often entertains him with stories of the isolated villages and unusual characters he meets during his work.

The simple agrarian life of the village is disrupted when Carlos the Bald, a representative of the authorities in the city, starts coming around to the village and asking questions. He knows one of the chief villagers from partisan activity during the war and while his motivations and actions are always a little unclear, his presence is taken as a threat by the village. What really tears things apart, however, are a group of soldiers who come into the village looking to take away one of the men. While they are there, they scoff at the village's bar that serves warm beer because they don't have any refrigeration or even a regular delivery of ice. They pine for the jukeboxes and restaurants and electricity and lights and dancing of the nearby city. The villagers, living in isolation and working hard to maintain their community, have been overlooked by the technological and economic development of the bigger cities. Soon villagers start to leave and seek out the conveniences and obligations of city life, although some stay and continue to live and work in the village.

Vittorini wrote this novel in 1949, but wasn't happy with it. He pulled it from publication and spent the next 14 years revising it, until it was re-released in 1964 (and then translated into English and published here in 1973, after the author's death). This has the feeling to me of post-war Italian movies, lit by stark sunlight and framed with half-fallen walls and women pushing wheelbarrows. The author shows an obvious love for his country and his Communist ideals here, as well as some harsh criticism of the fallen Facist government and encroaching capitalism. While the themes and the metaphors are pretty dated and temporal, there is also an affection and interest in humanity and the ways we reach out to and interact with each other that gives this novel a freshness and universality that it might not otherwise have. It's also often very funny! A somewhat challenging read, but absolutely worth it.