The Attack by Yasmina Khadra
Completed November 2
This is a book I got from iBooks a long time ago. It had been sitting in my iPad waiting to be read for about a year. I read it over the course of a few days during my morning vanpool commute (30 minutes each way).
Amin is an Arab surgeon with Israeli citizenship. He has an enviable upper-middle-class lifestyle in Tel Aviv. A café near his hospital is blown up by a suicide bomber, killing many including a troop of 10 and 11 year-old boy scouts celebrating a birthday. Amin spends an exhausting day operating on the survivors before learning that his wife was the bomber. The Attack deals with his grief and his desire to understand why—questioning both his own place as a privileged minority in a racist society and the varieties of fanaticism.
Yasmina Khedra is a pseudonym for Mohamed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian military officer. He adopted the female pseudonym while he was still in the army, fearing that he would lose his job or worse if the army discovered that he was writing novels in his spare time.
The Arab of the Future by Riad Sattouf
Completed November 13
It was a coincidence that the next book I completed was also by an author of Arab background and also dealt with political issues. This book is a memoir of Sattouf’s very early years living in Libya and Syria. His father, Abdul-Razak, was a Syrian doctoral student when he met his French mother. After getting his degree, the young family moved to Libya (in 1978), which at the time was offering excellent salaries to academics to come teach in Libyan Universities. Gaddafi was engaged in a program of rapid development for Libya, but his eccentric rules and police state enforcement of them made life impossible. For example, houses were not permitted to have exterior locks because of Gaddafi’s bizarre ideas about private property. So when Sattouf’s family leaves the house to go shopping, they return to find it already occupied by someone else! This kind of thing prompted the young family to move to Syria, where Abdul-Razak was originally from.
Sattouf depicts himself as an impossibly cute baby with long blonde locks that Europeans can’t resist. He is skilled at showing us simultaneously a small child’s point of view of the incidents while letting us also perceive them from an adult perspective. This we get his fumbling attempts to make friends at the same time we are seeing the political reality of Libya or the family dynamics at work in Syria. It’s all rather humorous; an ongoing theme is the foolishness and pettiness of Abdul-Razak. (One wonders if Sattouf’s father is still alive, and if so, what he thinks about how was portrayed!)
Eat More Comics: The Best of the Nib edited by Matt Bors, Eleri Harris, and Matt Lubchansky
Completed November 13
Matt Bors is a political cartoonist who for a year and a half edited the Nib, a comics site that was part of Medium. It was an experiment and apparently it didn’t end well. But while it ran, I enjoyed checking it out daily. A lot of the cartoonists were Bors’ fellow alternative political cartoonists, like Tom Tomorrow and Jen Sorenson. But Bors also published longer form work. Mostly non-fiction, it ranged from journalistic work to opinion pieces to memoir. The overall quality was very high. It kind of scares me that a topical comics site this good couldn’t make it. I don’t know why it ended, though.
After the Nib ended, Bors started a Kickstarter campaign which raised over $50,000 to print a hardcover book edition of the best of the Nib. And it contains 300 really great pages of a wide variety of mostly political cartoons and comics. It’s quite meaty. Longer pieces I especially liked were “Lighten Up” by Ron Wimberley, about how he thought the editorial suggestions he received on a comic he was working on might be racist, and “Crossing the Line” by Josh Neufield, about the difficulties American citizens of Arab descent have crossing from Canada to the United States.
The Other Paris by Luc Sante
Completed November 11
I had started Luc Sante’s history of Paris shortly after finishing The Attack. It was a strange irony that those two books, one about a terrorist attack, the other about Paris, preceded the actual Paris terrorist attack by ISIS. That event gave Sante’s book an unexpected poignancy. But even if nothing terrible had happened in Paris on November 13, The Other Paris would have still enthralled me. A beautiful book, it laments the ways that Paris has erased itself over the centuries. By focusing on its workers, tramps, criminals, prostitutes, entertainers, and flâneurs, it tells the story of neighborhoods where even the bravest of slumming aristos never went.
Throughout The Other Paris, Sante is constantly reminding you that this or that neighborhood was plowed under when Baron Haussmann redesigned Paris’s streets between 1854 and 1870. But for Sante, the true erasing of Paris happened in the 1960s, when much of the older buildings were torn down in less fashionable neighborhoods and replaced by sterile public housing. He blames De Gualle, Pompidou, and Andre Malreaux. The other main culprit for erasing the old Paris is the automobile. In short, Sante is a bit of a reactionary, but he marshals immense evidence in support of his thesis that Paris’s best days are behind it, erased by the present. For Sante, walking around Paris must be a haunting experience—he experiences centuries of Paris simultaneously.
Welcome to Marwencol by Mark E. Hogancamp
Completed November 15
Hogancamp was a working class man, and excellent draughtsman, a hard-core alcoholic and a cross-dresser from Long Island when he went to a local bar to get drunk and ended up getting beaten nearly to death by five younger men offended by his admission that he was into cross-dressing. He was in a coma for 9 days, and when he came to, he had lost his memory of a significant portion of his adult life.
Some of what he lost was not so bad—he didn’t crave alcohol anymore, for example. But tremors in his hands meant he could no longer draw, and he suffered PTSD. The men who assaulted him were caught and convicted, and Hogancamp began to look for a way to cope. Using 1/6-scale military miniature posable dolls (think old-school G.I. Joe but for a much more specialist crowd of collectors), he created a miniature WWII-era Belgian town, Marwencol (named after himself and two women he had crushes on, Wendy and Colleen) which provided a haven for war-weary soldiers, including one based on himself named Hogie. Hogancamp would create stories and incidents starring the inhabitants of Marwencol, and with a cheap 35 mm camera, take photos of these scenarios. And the photos are astonishing. Hogancamp plays with depth of field and atmospheric effects, combined with carefully constructed props and clothes for his figures, to create images of almost surreal beauty. Other contemporary photographers have used dolls to produce similar effects where realism and artificiality collide (think Laurie Simmons), but they always have a layer of irony that is absent in Hogancamp’s photos. That’s what makes them so fascinating.
Adventures of a Japanese Businessman by Jose Doming
Read by November 20
I have shelves and shelves of unread books that I slowly read through. It can take years for me to read a book after I buy it. In this case, I had an out of town guest who was browsing my library and he pulled Adventures of a Japanese Businessman off the shelf and asked if it was any good. I had to admit that I hadn’t read it, but looking at it made me move it to the front of the line.
Adventures of a Japanese Businessman is a graphic novel. It’s a formal experiment that ends up being a lot of fun. The nameless protagonist is trying to get home after work and has a series of astonishing adventures on the way. The formal trick is that the character is shown in every panel from the same angle and at about the same distance—it’s always a long shot taken from an angle above the character. It’s as if the character is being followed by his own personal surveillance drone. The resulting book has no particular literary value, but as a visual sequence it is quite brilliant.
Poor Sailor by Sammy Harkham
Read on November 21
Sammy Harkham is a brilliant cartoonist who is probably best known as an editor of the groundbreaking avant garde comics series, Kramer’s Ergot. This book from 2005 was one of his pieces that somehow I hadn’t read. It’s tiny—5 ¾ inches square, and the content is spare. It’s not wordless, but there are long sections where none of the small cast of characters says anything. There is one square panel per page, so the story zips along quickly. Thomas is a young married farmer in the 19th century. His brother Jacob is a whaler and visiting Thomas, he entrances him with tales of life at sea. Thomas leaves his wife behind to sign on to Jacob’s whaling ship. Instead of riches, the voyage is about as bad as can be. The story has a fable-like quality and is beautiful to look at. But I prefer Harkham’s more recent work, self-published in his comics magazine Crickets.
The Eternaut by Hector German Oesterheld and Francisco Solano Lopez
Read on November 22
This graphic novel was originally serialized in Argentina in 1957 and is considered a classic there. Hector Oesterheld went on to write many other comics, including a sequel to The Eternaut and a bio-comic of the life of Che Guevarra. His involvement in left wing politics drew the ire of the ultra-right military regime and he and four of his daughters were murdered in 1977 or 1978 (along with 13,000 of their fellow Argentinians). Solano Lopez (1928-2011) continued working in comics in Argentina, Brazil, Italy, England, and the U.S. In fact, I once wrote a story for him. I had worked for one of his publishers, Fantagraphics Books and then went to work for Dark Horse Comics. He came to the U.S. to visit publishers looking for work, and in an effort to provide him some paying work, I wrote a story for him to draw that appeared in Dark Horse Presents. He stayed a few days in Portland, where Dark Horse was located, with fellow editor Ryder Windham. Solano was a delightful man. We threw a big party for him—I remember Joe Sacco wanting to talk politics with him, but Solano (then in his mid-60s) was more interested in flirting in Italian with a young blonde.
At one point, Solano was shopping El Eternauta to American publishers and he sent me a photocopy. I really liked it, but I knew it would be a tough sell in the U.S. with its weird horizontal format. But what really struck me about it was how much Solano’s art had changed over the years. This was the art of a 29 year-old man. In it, you still see an idealizing tendency, as if he is somewhat influenced by the Alex Raymond school of comics. Subsequently his art would become grittier and darker.
Ironically, the story of The Eternaut is as dark as can be. You didn’t see stories like this in American comics of the era (especially those hobbled by the Comics Code). One of the first things that happens is that most of the people of Earth are killed by a poison “snow” sent by alien invaders. From that point, a small handful of survivors attempt to fight back against aliens who we never see (we only see their slaves). It is almost unrelentingly bleak and because of this feels rather modern. We see this kind of story line in contemporary popular entertainment, and call it “post-apocalyptic.” These kinds of stories appeared in the 60s as well, usually prompted by nuclear fears (On the Beach, for example, or A Canticle for Liebowitz). The Eternaut was an early example of this.
The Best American Comics 2015 by Jonathan Lethem
This series has been gong on for the past 10 years now, and it’s always a fairly mixed bag. The way it works is that it has a continuous series editor and each volume has a guest editor. I think the series editor acts as kind of first reader. Lethem is, of course, a well-known novelist who clearly has a thing for comics (one of his novels is called Fortress of Solitude and he wrote the brief revival of the obscure 70s Marvel superhero Omega the Unknown.) But despite Lethem’s apparent superheroic roots, his choices are quite idiosyncratic and experimental. For many readers, this is likely to be the most challenging volume of the Best American Comics yet.
Lethem groups his selections more-or-less thematically. There are chapters on biographical/historical comics (including an excerpt from Peter Bagge’s Woman Rebel about Margaret Sanger), comics that double as “wall art” (with Raymond Pettibon and David Sandlin, among others), and détourned superheroes. Lethem really gets into the spirit of things by drawing little comics before each section. His art is minimal—loose and handwriterly—and works very well for its purpose introducing each section.
ArtSpeak: A Guide to Contemporary Ideas, Movements, and Buzzwords, 1945 to the Present by Robert Atkins
Completed November 26
I bought the first edition of this back in the late 80s, and found it moderately useful as a reference book. This one I got because it had been remaindered cheap at Half Price Books. I actually enjoyed reading it more now because my knowledge of contemporary art is so much more complete now than it was when I first read it. Which is paradoxical; a reference book like this should primarily be useful to newbies. But for people like me, the value of it is that it fills in blanks in our otherwise fairly complete knowledge of the subject.
Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot That Avenged the Armenian Genocide by Eric Bogosian
Completed on November 28
I visited my sister in Austin over Thanksgiving weekend. The idea was that we’d cook and eat on Thursday, of course, then maybe do a little window shopping on Friday (we visited two of my favorite Austin stores, Yard Dog and Farewell Books), and then go out and listen to some live music Friday night. But a somewhat nasty cold front rolled in Friday, so instead we stayed home that night. I ended up with a lot of time to read, and I plowed through this compelling book while I was there.
The book starts off describing the Armenian Genocide—how and why it happened, with lots of shocking, gory details. It started before World War I and continued during the war. After the war, the leaders of the Ottoman Empire were tried and sentenced to death in Constantinople (soon to become Istanbul), but all of them escape into exile. (They weren’t tried for the Genocide, but for losing the war.) A group of ultranationalist Armenians, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, decided to get revenge. All the main authors of the Armenian Genocide were to be assassinated. They assassins were largely successful in this mission. They only missed a couple from their list who died in the Soviet Union outside their reach.
This book reads like a thriller or an exceptional spy novel. Often the best spy novels, such as those by Alan Furst, feature a protagonist who is not a professional spy but who gets recruited from civilian life. The assassins in Operation Nemesis are all like this, and are all the more compelling for being so. Soghomon Tehlirian was an Eastern Armenian (a “Tashnag”) who after seeing the devastation of his home and family joined the Russian Army to fight against the Ottomans in World War 1. After the Russian Revolution ended this venue for his fight, he made his way to Constantinople where he quite deliberately and independently murdered a notorious Armenian collaborator. As word of his deed got out in Armenian circles, ARF decided he would be just the person to recruit to assassinate the biggest murderer of all, Talat Pasha, who had been the Interior Minister of the Ottoman Empire and was directly responsible for executing the genocide. Tehlirian travelled to the U.S. to meet his financiers and backers, then to various locations in Europe as they tried to track Pasha down, who was living in Germany under an assumed name.
The telling of the pursuit and assassination of Talat Pasha and the others on the list is thrilling. After he killed Pasha, Tehlirian was to allow himself to be captured and tried. ARF thought a public trial would be a good venue for publicizing the Armenian Genocide. Remarkably, he was found not guilty. During the trial, he never mentioned ARF or the conspiracy, making it seem as if he acted alone out of grief for his slaughtered family. Indeed, the entire assassination scheme was performed under conditions of strict secrecy. No one ever took credit for the assassinations (until many years later) because they didn’t want their other targets to be alerted.
Eventually ARF abandoned the campaign of revenge. It was felt that ARF was not accomplishing anything for the surviving Armenians who continued to suffer as refugees or under the yoke of the Soviets. The last part of the book discusses this quandary and asks whether the secret campaign of assassination did any good whatsoever beyond satisfying an itch for revenge. It’s hard to say, but one argument in its favor was that the Turkish leaders who fled into exile were all thought to be plotting for their eventual return to Turkey to rejoin the government. They tended to believe that after the post-war feelings died down and after the foreign troops (English and French) left Turkey, the new ruler, Attaturk, would welcome their experience. Maybe so, but the ARF made sure they would never get a chance.
It is quite interesting that Eric Bogosian wrote this. He is well-known as a performance artist, actor, and playwright, so writing a book of history must have been a big leap for him. I’ve read some great history this year—the classic Stalingrad by Anthony Breevor, Stephen Kotkin’s overwhelming Stalin volume 1—and Operation Nemesis ranks right up there with them.