The Illustrated Book Review

We’ve written before about comics as a vehicle for memoir. Now comes Alison Bechdel to show how comics can be applied to memoir criticism. Bechdel’s illustrated review of Jane Vandenburgh’s A Pocket History of Sex In the Twentieth Century: A Memoir in the March 29 New York Times Book Review contains all the components of thoughtful criticism: a decent summary of the book, our relationship to its subject matter, where it suceeds and where it fails. To be sure, Bechdel’s own Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic bares certain resemblances to Vandenburgh’s story, specifically a closeted father. And Bechdel’s skills at telling her own story, applied to her examination of Vandenburgh’s, make her review so rewarding. The pacing and architecture of her panels, the innocence and madenss of her character depictions and her ability to seek out the most appropriate image are all on display here. Who knows? Bechdel may have just launched a new form of illustrated criticism. If so, let’s hope that all its practitioners are as gifted at it as she.–Cabbage Rabbit

UPDATE, March 30: We’ve heard back from Alison Bechdel after alerting her to our post (something akin to getting a smile from Miles Davis after applauding a solo) and she points out that the great Milt Gross did some “wordless” book reviews which can be seen at “The Fabuleous Fifties” blogspot. They were done for the late ’30s magazine (previously unknown to me)  Ken and included illustrated accounts of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Certainly worth the work to view.–CR

No Comparison

Enrico Rava’s New York Days is a warm, impressionistic tribute to the city that has contributed much to the Italian trumpeter’s career. With saxophonist Mark Turner, pianist Stefano Bollani, bassist Larry Grenadier and drummer Paul Motian, Rava paints a moody, intellectual landscape that belies the soaring skyscraper vistas. This is the city at ground level, with little of its bustle and much of its emotional and artistic appeal.

Rava has garnered more than a few comparisons to Miles Davis—what trumpeter hasn’t?—and there’s much here to justify it (Rava has cited Davis as an important influence). But dismissing him as a Davis clone, as some critics have done, is a stretch. While there’s plenty of Miles-isms in Rava’s New York Days, the music’s form and style is anything but Davis like. Saying that one trumpeter is like another because of spareness and melodicism reminds us of how pianist Brad Mehldau was dismissed early in his career as a Bill Evans clone because they were both “lyrical.” You might as well have lumped them together, as Mehldau suggested, because both are white and had dependence problems.

Another generality: New York Days is right out of the ECM-Manfred Eicher mold. What’s described as the ECM sound is usually more reflective of feel—somber, considered, meditative—than any particular sound. For every ECM recording that fits the description, there’s one that doesn’t. Rava, with his spareness and ability to find just the right note, is especially adept striking a contemplative stance. New York Days is full of such moments. There are a few impassioned instances in his play and their infrequency serves to make them all the more passionate.

Rava’s skills as an improviser are free-verse poetic. The similarities to Miles–the way he cuts off a particularly poignant line, squeezes into the upper register or, from a silence, bleeds into a wounded note—all add drama. But listen to his unhinged lines on “Outsider” or his rhythmic punctuation in “Thank You, Come Again” and you’re reminded more of the trumpet’s avant gardists or be-boppers than its lyricists.

Stefano Bollani makes full use of the piano, adding color, rhythmic accents and lyrical highlights. During improvisations, his classical training comes into play, with fugue-like variations and complex figures gracing his solo before he melts into warm, pastel embellishments. Saxophonist Turner plays the perfect companion, serving both as complement and foil. He’s able to extend the contemplative feel with long, somber tones and lyricism of his own. He’s also comfortable racing against the rhythm section, as on the ascending theme of “Outsider.” He’s relaxes into acceleration the way an over-stimulated caffeine consumer settles into a coffee shop couch. His tandem playing with Rava on “Improvisation I” and “II” and “Lady Orlando” is at once responsive and assertive, like a couples dancer who leads and is led.

Grenadier’s own sparse support and his ability to make unlikely notes ring true gives the music’s foundation a certain tension, as if it might give way to silence. The exception, again, is “Outsider,” in which he challenges the soloists with speed and intensity. Motian is currently the drummer of choice for this—and several other—kinds of music. His play brings to mind all sorts of painterly images. He’s more a colorist than rhythmicist, less a timekeeper than a source of propulsion. When the music blossoms in different directions, he’s like a bee, pulling a buzz from his cymbals, delivering each accent as a sting. The pastoral image may be contrary to a recording named for that bastion of glass and concrete. But that’s Rava’s genius. He’s found delicacy and unexpected natural beauty in a place known for its grit.–Cabbage Rabbit

Walter Mosley’s Socrates

The hell with Easy Rawlins. We think Socrates Fortlow, despite his unlikely given name, is Walter Mosley’s best series character. After reading Mosley’s recent The Right Mistake: The Further Philosophical Investigations of Socrates Fortlow we went back and read Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, the 1998 collection of stories that introduced the killing hands of Socrates to Mosley’s readers. Always is no mystery, even though Socrates–as implied by the name–is full of questions, even if it’s only, “What you doin’ there, boy?”  Fortlow has spent 27 years behind bars in Indiana for rape and murder and is now in L.A. seeking something he doesn’t call redemption. He lives with the constant fear of what he is capable of.  While his immediate story is of a black man’s struggle to enter society–even at its lowest level–the more personal story is about how one makes good on past acts of evil. Fortlow’s slow-to-develop solution is a sort of self-inflicted karma. There’s no reversing what he’s done, the dead do not come back to life. Instead, his question is what can be done, what acts,  if only peripherally in the name of the dead, will make good. To begin, Socrates engages an at-risk teen who coldly slashes the throat of a pet rooster (the young man plays a central role in the follow-up book). Somewhere in the middle, he wields a death threat to achieve his end. To close, he faces death; not his own but that of a suffering friend. Murder is redeemed through murder, a finality that isn’t as contradictory as it seems. We often separate Mosley’s “thoughtful” books (The Man In My Basement,  Diabliere ) from his Rawlins and other mysteries. That’s the wrong approach. Mosley books frequently deal with redemtption as a sort of justice. Mosley’s Socrates Fortlow is a great American symbol of how evil, once renounced, can be subdued–by acts– if not fogotten. It’s a lesson, even the best of us, should take to heart.–Cabbage Rabbit

See Murakami Run

“Long distance running suits my personality,“ writes Haruki Murkami in What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Murakami’s memoir isn’t a book exclusively for runners, nor does it try to make running a grand metaphor for life or writing, though there’s some of that (Chapter Four: “Most of What I Know About Writing Fiction I Learned By Running Every Day”). Generally, it’s a training journal, a compendium of accomplishment and failure, descriptions of the sights and sounds on Boston’s Charles River, from Athens to Marathon and other locations where the author of Kafka On the Shore has picked them up and put them down. The book speaks of an irresistible relationship with discipline, an obsession with body image and the boredom of going on and on. Novelists: draw your own conclusions.

What seems most important here is the mental process, what thoughts the solitude of running conjures. “What exactly do I think about when I’m running?, “ he writes. The answer? “I haven’t a clue.” Actually, he does have a clue. It’s just that what goes through his mind is mundane, not the kind of lofty thoughts we’d expect of such a remarkable writer. “On cold days, I guess I think a little about how cold it is. And about the heat on hot days.” Sadness when he’s sad, happiness when he’s…well, you get the idea. “…hardly ever I get an idea to use in a novel. But really, as I run, I don’t think much of anything worth mentioning.”

Really, he tells us, he runs to be empty headed, to gain a sort of Zen state, a void. With solitude, he develops a level of comfort. He accepts random thoughts as they come. But it’s that solitude thing that’s important to writing.

This matter-of-fact tone makes the book, like much of Murakami’s work, so readable. It’s all no big deal. Murakami’s a master of stating the obvious, often employing anecdotes to set up the nose on his face. The anecdotes end or are introduced with direct statements to convey their meaning.  Just like that.

This isn’t one of those feel-good Chariots of Fire running tracts. Competition does play a role, both against other runners and himself. But there are more tangible goals. Ultimately, it’s a book of declining performance and failing knees, disappointment despite hard work and discipline. If you keep going in the face of this, he seems to say, you win without winning. Novelists–again–draw your own conclusions.–Cabbage Rabbit

Ring Tone

Percussionist Bobby Previte’s Set the Alarm For Monday is a three-day weekend’s worth of moods and entanglements. Framed fore and aft in a nod-off theme that ticks at an after-hour’s pace, the center holds a clarion call for weekend warriors, a series of anthems and dance themes that alternately chill and redefine leisure time as hard work. Sleeping in is not an option. You can see the toll hard living takes in the cover art, black-and-white photos of the guys reading and dozing off with meaningful books: Sleep Walkers and Tender Is the Night. The septet set up is cut-loose tenor and deep-thought trumpet (Ellery Eskelin and Steve Bernstein) over a plush vibraphone pillow and assured, top-shelf, cymbal-heavy percussion. Latin rhythms dominate and the tunes vary from party-hardy to reflective. Bernstein’s muted trumpet on “She Has Information” is as seductive and mysterious as a moll in a noir mystery. Eskelin’s tenor flees down dark alleys and cries for mercy on “Were You Followed?” Other titles also hint at intrigue—“There Was Something In My Drink,” “I’m On To Her” and “You’re In Over Your Head”—and the entire program has the feel of pursuit though not necessarily aimless. Previte knows how to mix things up, developing complementary patterns and unusual sound combinations on his kit. Tom-and-cymbal unisons give the tunes a certain toughness and even as he plays simplest rhythms he imparts more punctuation than a high school English teacher. The recording’s defining touch is Bill Ware’s vibraphone: rich, resonant and ringing. Ware knows how to sound a chord and let it hang and his sonorous solo on the sleepy closer, “Wake Up Andrea, We’re Pulling In” is as considered as it gets. Not your usual work-a-day date, Set the Alarm For Monday is the kind of aural escape that, come Tuesday, will tempt you to clock in late.–Cabbage Rabbit

The Drinking Life

Comics are the perfect vehicle for memoir, both fictional and…well, is there any other kind? Ames and Haspiel’s The Alcoholic takes full advantage of illustration’s ability for aggrandizement and visual parody. Cartoonist Haspiel (American Splendor) draws Ames’ sodden narrative with stylistic humor and consitent exaggeration. “A.” has razor-sharp features (that nose!) and the girls he beds possess endless legs. How much of author Jonathan Ames is present in his fictional character Jonathan A. is open to question. But readers of Ames’ previous work—The Extra Man, I Love You More Than You Know–will see a pattern. The story delves into sexual confusion, obsession, addiction of all kinds and the inevitable effects of guilt. Ames frames his narrative in hilarious anecdotes. He’s caught in the backseat of a car with a drunken matron, buries himself at the beach to avoid the police, pursues an elusive love, shares a sausage with Monica Lewinisky and maintains a life-long love for a devoted aunt (which may explain the drunken matron incident). A.’s cycle of binge and purge gives the whole thing a weary inevitability and the book’s last, full-page panel says volumes about the alcoholic’s dilemma. It’s one picture worth more than a thousand words.–Cabbage Rabbit

Gonzo Goes On…and On

When four years ago Hunter S. Thompson put a bullet in the back of his throat and through his brain stem—“he couldn’t have placed it better” said the local coroner— he triggered a slow bleed of tributes, biographies and personal accounts that has yet to be stemmed. Since that exclamation point on a life full of wild declaration, certain neighbors, colleagues and even his widow have tried to do what Thompson did best: tell about his life. As Thompson himself might ask, haven’t we had enough?

Enough, indeed. For what have we learned from all this pen-to-paper in honor of the addled writer and social critic? Not a damn thing, really. Certainly nothing–or at least nothing we’re going to believe–that Thompson hadn’t already told us himself. Oh, sure there are anecdotes that didn’t appear in his work and speculation on his thinking that remains, well, speculation. But if you want to know about Hunter S. Thompson, the dean of Gonzo journalism, the king of fear and loathing, the prince of mayhem and prophet of an ugly and terrible doom, forget about the come-lately books we’re about to discuss here and instead read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72 (especially apt this past political season), read Hell’s Angels and The Rum Diaries, read The Curse of Lono and The Great Shark Hunt and the letters collected in Fear and Loathing in America and Proud Highway and even the later works, Generation of Swine and all the others that seemed so redundant—recycled Gonzo if you will—yes, read them all. And don’t forget Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas. They’ll give you the picture, alright. But whatever you do, avoid all these after-the-fact tomes like a plague of flea-infested rats. Unless, of course, you’re like me; a rabid fan of the Good Doctor who can’t get enough of every drug-and-drink driven moment of his life. Then, by all means, read these books. And marvel at a man who accelerated into all twists and turns.

“Gonzo” is often cited as an actual form of journalism—Tom Wolfe is said to be another of its practitioners—but it was totally invented and practiced by our not-so-humble subject. It’s hardly journalism. Officially defined as reporting in which the reporter becomes a large part of the story, it’s more concisely described as “a variant of fiction…works of art” by Thompson’s long-time friend, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author William Kennedy. Doug Brinkley, the executor of Thompson’s literary estate, explains away the “falsehoods propagated by uniformed English professors and pot-smoking fans” about the origins of the word in the Jann Wenner’s oral biography Gonzo. Brinkley says it comes from a tune recorded by New Orleans jazz pianist James Booker and means “to play unhinged.” Thompson loved the tune and drove Boston Globe columnist Bill Cardoso crazy playing the song over and over when the two shared a room while covering the 1968 presidential primary in New Hampshire. Cardoso later complemented Thompson’s now famous piece on the Kentucky Derby as “pure Gonzo journalism!” Thompson quickly adopted the term as his own and Gonzo became the trademark not only of indulged storytelling but a lifestyle.

gonzoGonzo:The Life of Hunter S. Thompson is a narrative collection of memories from over 100 of the Good Doctor’s friends, lovers and associates. Assembled by Rolling Stone founder and publisher Wenner and editor Corey Seymour, it’s crowded with celebrities. Jack Nicholson, Angelica Huston, Norman Mailer, Jimmy Buffett and Sean Penn all make contributions; the introduction is written by Johnny Depp. It focuses on Thompson’s relationship to the long-in-the-tooth, once counter-culture RS. Thompson’s deadline and expense account battles with Wenner are well-known and Thompson claimed a falling out with Wenner who he accused of squirreling away thousands of first–edition copies of Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas for later, more profitable sales. But Wenner glosses over all that here as if it were a joke. It may have been. Thompson had accused the publishers of Hell’s Angels of the same thing.

Thompson’s long-time illustrator Ralph Steadman—who declared “It’s about time” when he learned of HST’s suicide—calls his tribute The Joke’s Over. Despite the title there are still plenty of laughs: Thompson giving Steadman some psilocybin for sea sickness during their coverage of the America’s Cup (surprisingly the illustrator’s only experience with hallucinogens); the Good Doctor’s reaction upon first meeting Steadman: ““Ye Gods, Ralph! A matted-haired geek with string-warts! They told me you were weird, but not that weird.” Thompson urged Steadman not to write—“You’ll bring shame on your family,” he counseled. Steadman should have listened.

Steadman’s illustrations are splattered through Anita Thompson’s The Gonzo Way. As Thompson’s widow, you would guess Mrs. Thompson (nee Bejmuk) would have fresh insight. We almost threw away the thin little text when we read, “If you are one of those who loved the Hunter S. Thompson Show for its decadence, its crazy debauchery on ever level, mixed with Wild Turkey, Dunhills, and multitudes of uppers and downers and screamers and laughers…this book is not for you.” Well, of course we loved the Good Doctor for those very things, and his ability to function albeit crazily. Bejmuk’s attempt to recreate Thompson as some sort of Zen master, embodied by seven lessons of Gonzo (Lesson 2: “It’s wrong when it stops being fun”) somehow seems false despite the truth of these maxims. Rumors that Thompson and his wife were at odds just before his suicide, as confirmed by son Juan Thompson in Wenner’s Gonzo, make this book something of a guilty pleasure.

The most disturbing of these texts is the most recent. Friends Michael Cleverly and Bob Braudis (Braudis is the look-the-other way sheriff of Thompson’s Colorado county) spend a lot of time telling us insider stories in The Kitchen Readings. Fair enough, but they spend too much time gloating on their insider status and the subtitle claim of “Untold Stories” is a lie. Some of this stuff’s been told before. Maybe our criticism springs from jealousy at not being an insider ourselves. Still the stories, even if a number of them are second hand, are entertaining. We especially like the ones about Thompson’s pea fowls. And there’s a good accounting of the blasting of Thompson ashes over his beloved Woody Creek from a 150 foot tall cannon topped with the Gonzo fist. Read it and weep.

Thompson was a pack rat all the way back to his high school days and aren’t we Gonzo nuts glad he saved every letter, photo and rough draft. Gonzo, which bears his name as author, is an oversized scrapbook of photos and documents that highlight various periods of Thompson’s life. There’s little to read here—an occasional quote in large type breaks up the pages of photo collage and another introduction by Depp—but it’s a joy to see this handsome youth from Kentucky become the balding and ribald pessimist we all love. This book will make a great coffee table coaster for those sweating tumblers of Wild Turkey. As Hunter said, a phrase often repeated in all these books, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” Indeed.

Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, an oral biography by Jann S. Wenner & Corey Seymour; Little Brown, hardback, 467 pages, $28.99

The Joke’s Over: Bruised Memories: Gonzo, Hunter S. Thompson and Me by Ralph Steadman; Harvest Books, paperback, $15

The Gonzo Way by Anita Thompson; Fulcrum Press, hardback, 112 pages, $14.95

The Kitchen Readings: Untold Stories of Hunter S. Thompson by Michael Cleverly and Bob Braudis; Harper Perennial, paperback274 pages $13.95

Gonzo by Hunter S. Thompson; AMMO Books, hardback, 289 pages, $39.95