Librarian/dork alert: Find in a Library uses Google and WorldCat to find out whether a book is in a library near you. This could make my life a whole lot easier.
On Charles Baxter’s recommendation, I checked out Eric Puchner‘s first book of short stories, MUSIC THROUGH THE FLOOR. The book really knocked me out. The stories are funny and sad and painted with honest details. There’s nothing close to a dud in the batch. From the NYTimes review:
Some of Puchner’s stories are laugh-aloud funny. In “A Fear of Invisible Tribes,” a carful of driver’s ed students is hijacked while their instructor is paying for gas at a minimart. The robber demands they drive him away but of course they can’t; they don’t know how to drive. One student (named Green Boy for his dyed hair) suggests that the robber let them out and drive himself. “I don’t drive stick,” he replies. “It’s an honest mistake,” says Green Boy. “Anyone could make it. How were you supposed to know?” But another student butts in: “Actually, there’s a big sign on the back? Like in yellow? Caution: Student Driver?” What’s wonderful is how this comedic story slowly evolves into a subtle tragedy, with its heroine – a nervous adult in the class – so frightened of the world she ends up squandering the possibility of intimacy offered by the fellow student who ends up saving her life.
Puchner is a former Stegner fellow, lives in San Francisco, and teaches at Stanford. Read exerpts from “Children of God” and “Animals Here Below” from the Zoetrope website, then go out and get his book.
Charles Burns’ BLACK HOLE is a graphic novel set in a Seattle suburb during the 70s. It follows a group of horny teenagers who contract an STD that basically turns them into mutants: they grow tails, they shed skins, some even grow second mouths. I decided to pick it up after listening to a pretty good hour long interview with Burns and Chris Ware. Since 1995, BLACK HOLE has been serialized in 12 installments, but having read none of them, I came to Burns’ work with fresh eyes: I’d only seen a small clip of BLACK HOLE in McSweeney’s 13, and his cover art for THE BELIEVER.
Reading it, I was reminded of John Neborak’s senior project presentation, in which he talked about the unique verbal/visual blend of comics as a narrative. Burns’ artwork is admirable, no doubt about it: his masterly brushwork is intricate and meticulous, and his command of black and white is great. However, when it comes to storyline, BLACK HOLE really falls flat for me. Mostly what you get from reading it is a sustained, creepy mood. Because the sexual metaphors that evoke this mood are purely visual (the vaginal gashes, the hot dogs roasting over an open fire), I’m wondering what BLACK HOLE would read like without any words.
I’d go on, but Meg sent me an e-mail that really summed it all up:
Graphic novels aren’t art and they aren’t a novel – they’re both, and too few graphic novelists (even the so-called “pros”) seem to get that. If either the art or the story aren’t really up to par it ends up detracting from the whole thing. I feel like so many graphic novels are written by men who are emotionally still teenagers in high school who get a big charge out of drawing scantily-clad women. Sometimes I just want to tell the authors to grow up a little. That’s what made a novel like FROM HELL so good, it rose above all that to tell an interesting story.
Couldn’t have said it any better myself. (And didn’t.)
by Paul Hemphill
LOVESICK BLUES is a bare-bones telling of the life of Hank Williams, written with the love of a true fan. Hemphill makes a Southern, blue-collar point to strip away anything unnecessary, (page count: 210) and that’s probably what makes the book such a compulsive read from start to finish. Wiliams used to tell his band, “keep it vanilla,” and LOVESICK BLUES reads like the best of novels: it keeps the prose lean, and the plot mean.
To hear it cold in one sitting, the drama of Williams’ life is Shakespearean. A superstar at 25, dead at 29, the great American poet of lost love grew up essentially fatherless due to his father’s stints in VA hospitals. He would seek affection from two Lady MacBeth-like women: Lilly, his overbearing mother, and Audrey, his tone-deaf stardom-seeking wife. Both would fail him to his demise. But it was only amongst the men of his life–his mentor Tee-Tot, his producer Fred Rose, and his best friend and lap steel player Don Helms–that he would find brief love and acceptance.
While LOVESICK BLUES sticks close to the tale, Hemphill also uses Williams’ life to illuminate three truths of writing:
1. Genius doesn’t come out of nowhere.
Hear the lonesome whippoorwill / He sounds too blue to fly
The midnight train is whining low / I’m so lonesome I could cry
While many wonder how a hillbilly dropout from rural Alabama penned lyrics like these, Hank’s early life roaming the woods of the South and chasing a black blues singer named Tee-Tot around town provided all the observations and inspiration he would need for his poetry. The woman troubles would come later…
2. Every good writer needs an editor.
In the producer’s seat, Nashville music publisher Fred Rose provided the arrangement know-how and polish to turn Hank’s songs into classics.
3. At the end of the day, the work is what counts.
While Hank might’ve spent most of his days drunk and rowdy, he treated the studio as a sanctuary. He poured his soul out into the microphone, so for those of us who never got to see him on the Opry stage, his true vision and lasting legacy–the 66 recorded songs he cut–are with us forever.
LOVESICK BLUES is lean, but it could be leaner. I found Hemphill’s intro and closing chapters about his truck-driving Hank-loving father to be a little sentimental. Does Hank really only belong to the truck drivers and waitresses working that lonesome highway? Doubtful. Hank belongs to all of us who are listening.
Now I’m just waiting for someone to write a novel based solely around Charles Carr: the college kid who found himself in the middle of a New Year’s Eve snowstorm with the father of country music dead in the backseat of his car. There’s a character with a story to tell.