Friday, January 09, 2009

Part 2 of What I Read On My Christmas Vacation; Or, How Books Make Things Better

Part II: Engage!

I didn't necessarily read all the escapist books first and all the inspiring/engaging books after that (and certainly most of the books I read over the 12 Days of Christmas had elements of both). But as I enjoyed the comforts of fantasy and adventure, I also found myself getting a bit fired up about interesting ideas. Since I had been a little worried that end-of-the-year letdown and disappointments would leave me lethargic and apathetic, I was willing enough to let these next books work their magic.

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Berlin, City of Stones

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Berlin: City of Smoke
by Jason Lutes

Jason Lutes' Berlin series is one of those graphic novels that the ALP has been telling me I should read for ages, while I was more interested in the flashy superhero stuff (Green Arrow, for example). During the cold, quiet days of the year's end, I finally felt inclined to pick up the first volume, and within pages was immersed in a vision of 1929 Berlin, rich with early 20th century details but eerily recognizable: the economy is very bad, violent political factions each proclaim themselves the true voice of the people, the gulf between the haves and the have-nots is impossibly wide, and nightlife, the arts, journalism, and relationships can seem to offer either perspective or an escape. Lutes' story is complexly structured and peopled with dozens of well-drawn (literally and metaphorically) characters; I felt I wanted to read everything slowly and repeatedly to grasp the shape and the details of the world he created, but at the same time I had to read quickly to know what happened next -- the pleasant agony of the best books.

But perhaps the most lasting effect the books have had is an ongoing conversation, first with the ALP and spreading to others, about the responsibilities of artists to engage with politics. One of the main characters is an artist, concerned mainly with art for art's sake and drawn into the decadent nightlife of Weimer urbanity; another, a journalist, is frustrated by the artist's naivete as he struggles to articulate what is happening in his country, yet his rejection of jazz seems of a piece with his detached observer's stance. Is an intense engagement with culture a sufficient stance in itself? Is a refusal to take sides an act of cowardice, or the only honest reaction to a situation of great complexity? The issues are starker because we know that these characters are on the precipice of the Third Reich, but they illuminate (or complicate) contemporary issues as well. Lutes itself, it seems, has found a way to engage deeply while remaining true to his art; his work elevates the comics form to the most cogent cultural history, and the best fiction, which makes demands on the real world.

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Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics
by Rebecca Solnit

This essay collection is yet another work I'd been meaning to read, but picked up with a bit of reluctant crankiness: am I really in the mood to read something this serious? But Solnit, whose writing I loved in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, is on fire here, and set me burning as well, with the gorgeous and horrifying intersections of place and politics that she illuminates. Partly it was because this is the kind of writing I have done and want to do: narrative nonfiction that makes little distinction between the familiar and the formal, that incorporates place and memory and philosophy and ethics and other parts of the human experience into pieces as structured and artful as poetry and as stirring as a great speech. Partly it because she is talking about hugely important issues that I suspect but don't know much about: the poisonous fallout of large-scale corporate mining, especially for gold; the need for (and difficulty of) architecture and urban design that creates human-scale communities; the out-of-fashion but still present problems of land grabs from Native Americans and nuclear testing and waste disposal in the Nevada desert. Here is an artist engaged.

I don't always agree with her assertions -- sometimes I'm arguing with her throughout an essay, sometimes I swallow it whole and only in talking about it afterward discover that I question some of her conclusions or assumptions. (One essay about Silicon Valley, for example, written in the early '90s, is full of interesting metaphorical connections but a little embarrassing in its judgements on the internet.) Most left me with more questions than answers. Why haven't I heard about this before? Who is responsible for this? If this isn't the right way to do things, then how? But each also left me with the satisfaction of a complete work of art: the kind I'd like to make. I'm still reading this one, still wrestling with Solnit as an activist and admiring her as a writer. It's good to get set on fire again.

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Moomin, Book 3
by Tove Jansson

Moomin is a comic strip with talking animals (or creatures of some kind -- the Moomins are more like Jeff Smith's Bone creatures than like the hippos they are occasionally, scandalously mistaken for). It is also not exactly for kids. Jansson's humor is sometimes wicked, her scenes often melancholy, and her worldview rather subversively anarchic. I've been reading this series as its been re-released by Drawn & Quarterly, and feel rather proprietarily fond of the fussy Mrs. Fillyjonk, the always lovesick Mymble, the practical but mean Little My, the outlaw Stinky, and of course Moominpappa (top-hat wearing, high-mindedly silly), Moominmamma (supremely competent but not at all fussy), Moomin himself (a wistful everyman) and Snorkmaiden (his on-and-off girlfriend, moody but loveable). In this volume they encounter an encroaching jungle (the animals are quite nice given a chance), move to a lighthouse (and back) for the sake of Pappa's great novel of the sea (which becomes a great novel of the veranda), deal with the vagaries of love (a leading lady seduces Moomin) and loyalty (Moominmamma finds herself a member of both a law-upholding and a law-breaking club). It seems silly, but this book was the one that made me happy to relax and engage in the comfort and chaos of family life. The ALP and me are a bit like the Moomins, I like to think: a little silly, a little chaotic, prone to wacky ideas that don't always pan out, not quite respectable, but awfully loving, and awfully happy. As a character says in the last panel of the book:

"Indeed you are the most idiotic family I ever saw -- but you are at least living every minute of the day!!"

May the same be said of all of us. Thanks to these books for making the season bright, and here's to a new year full of magic, adventure, art, and engagement with the world.