BY AARON BLOCK
Here’s part 5 of our Literary Beach Books series. Find the other parts here.
Like Eric, I’ve never read at the beach. I am easily distracted by rocks and shells and washed-up jellyfish, so all of my beach visits have found me walking around, swimming, and walking around some more, with precious little time to sit and read. Instead, I prefer a park for my summer retreats. Parks are no less distracting than beaches, I suppose, but I find breeze and grass and trees and fountains and strolling couples more relaxing than the beach’s perpetually crashing waves, and therefore more suitable for a few hours of casual reading. These, then, are my five Literary Park Books, no blanket or swimsuit required.
Born Standing Up, by Steve Martin
Steve Martin’s memoir of his development and eventual success as a stand-up comedian is a tell-all, but with the author’s craft, rather than sex or various other scandals, as its subject. Scandals aren’t ignored, but they’re offered as subplots to the larger story of how Martin grew from quaint vaudeville-esque gigs at Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm to the top-selling comedy act in the world, and why he eventually turned that success into a film career, leaving stand-up behind forever.
And though Martin’s voice is not particularly warm as he recounts living amid his parents’ fraught living dynamic, doomed romances (including Dalton Trumbo’s daughter Mitzi) neither is it bitter or vindictive. Rather, Martin comes across as merely curious about this aspect of his life and career, and seems to share the reader’s surprise when the mélange of magic, absurdist humor, and banjo tunes that made up his act gradually connects with an audience. If you’ve ever wanted to be a comedian, or understand the mechanics behind the five-minute sets you enjoy on late night talk shows, this is essential reading.
Black Postcards, by Dean Wareham
If Born Standing Up is a peaceful nostalgia trip, then Black Postcards is a therapy session made public. Wareham—formerly of slowcore progenitors Galaxie 500 and indie stalwarts Luna, and presently one half of Dean & Britta—offers a more comprehensive memoir, taking the reader from his childhood in New Zealand through his education at Harvard, careers with two iconic bands, failed relationships of all sorts, to the present.
As in Born Standing Up, much of the narrative is spent on the road, recreating the chaos and giddy surreality of being in a band. More so than Martin, though, Wareham wants you to feel the pain and excitement along with him. Consequently, Black Postcards is somewhat penitent, as if Wareham were unburdening an entire discography’s worth of lust, self-loathing, regret, and swagger in one fell swoop.
Despite this, Black Postcards is never heavy. Even at his nadir, Wareham is charming; his sentences are lovingly structured, and the occasional lapse into over-educated artifice is coy, not smug. This is writing that’s meant to be read aloud, preferably in Wareham’s dry, somewhat aristocratic tone.
Black Postcards also presents a perfect multi-media summer reading opportunity; pick up Galaxie 500’s This Is Our Music and Luna’s Penthouse to soundtrack your reading, and check out Matthew Buzzell’s excellent documentary about Luna’s final tour, Tell Me Do You Miss Me.
All-Star Superman, by Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly
A twelve-issue mini-series that stretched over nearly three years, All Star Superman is less Morrison and Quietly’s love letter to the character than a rejoinder to critics, writers, and readers who complain, cynically, that Superman comics can’t be interesting because the character is too powerful or too moral. Superman’s value, they argue, isn’t his power or his compassion, but rather the intersection of the two.
The set-up is something like Superman’s last will and testament; exposed to an overdose of solar radiation by Lex Luthor in the first issue, Superman has one year to live. As ever, he fills this time by balancing the needs of his personal life with his devotion to Earth’s population; he (awkwardly) negotiates his relationship with Lois Lane as both Superman and Clark Kent, loses his powers and becomes trapped on Htrae, the Bizarro world, reflects on the loss of his adoptive father, and battles Solaris, the Tyrant Sun, among others.
While the action, humor, and high-concept adventures are a large part of the appeal, All Star Superman‘s strongest moments are quiet and humane (issue 10, in particular, delivers an emotional gut-check the likes of which rarely come in four-color comics.) And let’s not forget the art; Quietly’s lovingly detailed and expressive pencils mix well with both the whiz-bang pace and emotional core of Morrison’s script.
As of now All Star Superman is available in two hardcover volumes (volume 1 is also available in paperback; volume 2 should follow in February 2010) but the single issues shouldn’t be too hard to find with a little patient scouting at your local comic shop or online.
Tales Designed to Thrizzle, by Michael Kupperman
The comics collected in the five issues of Tales Designed to Thrizzle are the kind Andre Breton might’ve made, had he grown up on a steady diet of EC comics, Saturday morning cartoons, and Monty Python. They mash noir fiction, crime procedurals, melodrama, history, and advertisements for “real” x-ray glasses and subscriptions to Grit into a lost corner of the Eisenhower era where Albert Einstein and Mark Twain are the new Hope and Crosby, and the schism between Sex Holes and Sex Blimps threatened to tear the country apart. The characters in Kupperman’s strips are nearly always yelling, punching each other, crashing through windows, questioning their own motives, and dying; the logic of early comic books taken to its extreme.
Kupperman published the first issue of Tales through Fantagraphics in 2005, and the fifth issue was just released in May, so the schedule isn’t anything to set your watch by. However, Fantagraphics will release a hardcover, collecting the first four issues in full-color instead of the original two-tone, in July. But if you’re seeking a Kupperman fix don’t feel bound to periodicals; his blog Here Comes Madness is regularly updated with bits of strips and the occasional video, and his Twitter feed is like the library of Babel as read by Daffy Duck.
The House that Trane Built: the Story of Impulse Records, by Ashley Kahn
Coming off two successful pop histories of jazz that tackled individual albums (A Love Supreme: the Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album and Kind of Blue: the Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece) Ashley Kahn widened his scope with The House that Trane Built, covering a fifty-two year span and touching on the careers of dozens of musicians, producers, photographers, and executives who contributed to the rise of Impulse Records. Kahn writes for a wider audience as well, introducing every major figure and movement with enough background that non-jazz fans can keep up while offering aficionados the unique criticism and behind-the-scenes anecdotes.
The House that Trane Built is organized into seven chapters that roughly correspond to the tenures of different label heads, most notably Creed Taylor and Bob Thiele who, along with John Coltrane, emerge as the guiding spirits of the label, turning it from a pet project into a significant influence on the course of jazz in the latter half of the 20th century. Each chapter follows the main narrative of the comings and goings of artists and producers, recording sessions, and the overall business plan, interrupted by occasional two-page examinations of particularly notable records from the Impulse catalog.
If that sounds like a book-length summer playlist, then you’ve hit on part of the appeal; immersion in the Impulse story leads naturally to supplementary listening (Impulse even released a soundtrack album and “best of’ compilations of ten of the artists featured in the book). It’s synergy at its most blatant, and most logical.